Writers Read: Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm

Claire Wahmanholm’s debut poetry collection Wilder at times feels like a bedtime story, full of ghostlike beings, ash-blanketed landscapes, corpse-flowers, and Cassandran prophecies echoing through it all. That might sound enchanting and more than a little spooky, but quickly things feel uncomfortably familiar. Isn’t this our world? Are those our voices? Or worse, those of the children we claim to love? In other words, Wilder is the kind of story that will keep you up at night, with the creeping notion that it isn’t just a story.

Wilder takes its title from the archaic root word of bewilderment (pronounced as it sounds at the end of “bewilder”) and Walhmanholm opens the book with the word’s definition: “1. To cause to lose one’s way, as in a wild or unknown place; to lead or
drive astray; 2. To render, or become, wild or uncivilized.”

Despite the title, the reader is set up to be quite oriented. The stage is set by introducing us to the speakers, who are described first in an epigraph by Auden: “children afraid of the night” who’ve become “lost in a haunted wood.” Wahmanholm continues: “whose eyes have never really opened” and “whose sockets grow tall bitter stalks/ that sprout small bitter buds/ that crawl with aphids.” (1).

These “children” retell the saga of the world’s end. In “Advent” some lines appear on page seven that already feel uncomfortably close to home:

When our ears began to ache from the pressure,
we sent out our augurs.
 
A great fire, they said,
is blowing from the east.”

I read those lines in the abnormal light of Sun choking through wildfire smoke: a curtain thrown across California by the most destructive fire in the state’s history (this due primarily to uncharacteristically severe temperatures and drought.) The fact is, whether literally or metaphorically, every reader of this book will do so in the light of the fires of climate change. “Advent” turns its attention away from the “we” and toward other beings affected, such as plants and animals:

We were out of songs to hum. Our throats were boxes
            Of soot. In our orchards, no more insect thrum,
            no swallow quaver.” (8)

The children here sound a bit like the voices the artist Anohni inhabits in her song “4 Degrees,” where she begs through an eerily bombastic stadium-ready anthem, to burn the earth and see its animals die. Only, the children’s reflections in Wilder take place long after those consequences have struck. They regret. They are stunned by their own selfishness. And they confess to a common theme in the book—Denial:

How did we dare have children we couldn’t save?

If we closed our eyes, the falling apples
            sounded like heavy rain.” (8)

The forms Wahmanholm employs throughout the book are expressive and differ greatly from each other. In one of several prose poems titled “Relaxation Tape” the children recount their attempts to ward off the disaster they helped to wreak upon their world.

We listened to relaxation tapes to help us sleep. The purple sky was too bright…”

“We would not panic. Clench your fists, said the voice. I clenched my fists. Focus on where it hurts. I did. Then I relaxed and let the tension float away like smoke on the wind.” (61)

On one hand, the story recounts life on the planet as it decays, but interspersed throughout the book are unnamed poems which look like drifting murmurs: words strewn widely across pages of mostly blank space in near disarray after pyrrhic return from the grave or disaster. These poems vaguely recall M. NourbeSe Philip’s radical scattering and tearing of the found text in her brilliant project Zong! Wahmanholm’s language foregoes the disintegration of words, instead they float like pieces of space debris.

Many of the poems address outer space and planets directly. One ends with the words, “brave sailors in/ an/ unexplored/ sky.// we/ strayed from home// and/ failed utterly/ on/ the shores of space.” This is a recurring theme which flies in the face of how space exploration gets fetishized as some salvation for humanity.

This indictment seems to continue in more subtle forms. “Red Rover,” one in a number of poems named after popular children’s games, recounts with a stark coldness the proceedings of the game mechanics:

We are placed in a field

We are told to wield our bodies
                                                       against each other
like wrecking balls or rockets,
                                                   to target the weakest links
in the chain
                    of other children’s bodies—” (35)

Claire Wahmanholm

The earthly damage of a wrecking ball proceeds to rockets, almost a direct progression from destruction to fleeing the scene of the crime. We know marginalized and poorer communities will be the first and most severely affected by ecological harm, and it’s all but sure only the very rich will be able to board any kind of escape pod from Earth, but the poem stays rooted in the language of the game, as if it was all once just a harmless bit of (slightly violent) fun. The title itself suggests a planetary Rover.

But the whole scene, heartbreakingly, begins in a field—a landscape all too easily assumed to be eternally green, with air blowing above it. But on a second reading, the reader may see this poem not as narrative at all, but an elliptical journal, detailing another listless activity for ghosts above a lifeless plain.

In another series of prose poems, each titled a single letter of the alphabet and serving as a kind of hyper-alliterative microcosm
of the book’s narrative, “B” starts with a lush pastoral scene:

B is for Brown Bear, for berries and beehives, buds and blossoms,/ a babbling brook.” (37)

Yet, things quickly turn slightly harsh:

Brown Bear lumbering through the balsam firs/ toward the baton and bludgeon.”

Eventually the surroundings deteriorate to an emerging hellscape:

B for the blood and badge and bullet. B as in behave, beware. As in bereft… B is for barren and the burning den. For how bulletins are bursting with the bodies of brown bears and the alphabet is just beginning.

Even more than a dystopic vision like Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, which at least still finds Earth alive (albeit beneath pustulating and charred plagues), Wilder feels hopeless at times. But this serves as solidarity with those who rightly know their pessimism is informed by reality.

In any case, Wahmonholm’s chorus here exists in a tradition of environmentalist art that is completely varied. When the urgent deployment of every strategy and timbre of warning over years by every expert and lay-witness feels at last entirely futile, here is a vision of internalized terror turned lyric, doom become song.

But making itself is an act of faith. Perhaps in the hope that, like music, the poem of all things can break past defenses to turn the ear and the mind toward meaningful change. In Fanny Howe’s famous essay, “Bewilderment,” she practices the ethics of obliquity detailed in her earlier paragraphs by ending the piece with this confounding statement:

“After all, the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.”

Wilder’s many registers can’t boil down to a single point, but perhaps a central one is this: to show people that the Earth is worth living on, by showing when it isn’t.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet and serves as the graphic design lead as well as co-lead editor for poetry and visual art for Lunch Ticket. He was born and raised in Hawaii and lives in Los Angeles.

Writers Read: Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm

Claire Wahmanholm’s debut poetry collection Wilder at times feels like a bedtime story, full of ghostlike beings, ash-blanketed landscapes, corpse-flowers, and Cassandran prophecies echoing through it all. That might sound enchanting and more than a little spooky, but quickly things feel uncomfortably familiar. Isn’t this our world? Are those our voices? Or worse, those of the children we claim to love? In other words, Wilder is the kind of story that will keep you up at night, with the creeping notion that it isn’t just a story.

Wilder takes its title from the archaic root word of bewilderment (pronounced as it sounds at the end of “bewilder”) and Walhmanholm opens the book with the word’s definition: “1. To cause to lose one’s way, as in a wild or unknown place; to lead or
drive astray; 2. To render, or become, wild or uncivilized.”

Despite the title, the reader is set up to be quite oriented. The stage is set by introducing us to the speakers, who are described first in an epigraph by Auden: “children afraid of the night” who’ve become “lost in a haunted wood.” Wahmanholm continues: “whose eyes have never really opened” and “whose sockets grow tall bitter stalks/ that sprout small bitter buds/ that crawl with aphids.” (1).

These “children” retell the saga of the world’s end. In “Advent” some lines appear on page seven that already feel uncomfortably close to home:

When our ears began to ache from the pressure,
we sent out our augurs.
 
A great fire, they said,
is blowing from the east.”

I read those lines in the abnormal light of Sun choking through wildfire smoke: a curtain thrown across California by the most destructive fire in the state’s history (this due primarily to uncharacteristically severe temperatures and drought.) The fact is, whether literally or metaphorically, every reader of this book will do so in the light of the fires of climate change. “Advent” turns its attention away from the “we” and toward other beings affected, such as plants and animals:

We were out of songs to hum. Our throats were boxes
            Of soot. In our orchards, no more insect thrum,
            no swallow quaver.” (8)

The children here sound a bit like the voices the artist Anohni inhabits in her song “4 Degrees,” where she begs through an eerily bombastic stadium-ready anthem, to burn the earth and see its animals die. Only, the children’s reflections in Wilder take place long after those consequences have struck. They regret. They are stunned by their own selfishness. And they confess to a common theme in the book—Denial:

How did we dare have children we couldn’t save?

If we closed our eyes, the falling apples
            sounded like heavy rain.” (8)

The forms Wahmanholm employs throughout the book are expressive and differ greatly from each other. In one of several prose poems titled “Relaxation Tape” the children recount their attempts to ward off the disaster they helped to wreak upon their world.

We listened to relaxation tapes to help us sleep. The purple sky was too bright…”

“We would not panic. Clench your fists, said the voice. I clenched my fists. Focus on where it hurts. I did. Then I relaxed and let the tension float away like smoke on the wind.” (61)

On one hand, the story recounts life on the planet as it decays, but interspersed throughout the book are unnamed poems which look like drifting murmurs: words strewn widely across pages of mostly blank space in near disarray after pyrrhic return from the grave or disaster. These poems vaguely recall M. NourbeSe Philip’s radical scattering and tearing of the found text in her brilliant project Zong! Wahmanholm’s language foregoes the disintegration of words, instead they float like pieces of space debris.

Many of the poems address outer space and planets directly. One ends with the words, “brave sailors in/ an/ unexplored/ sky.// we/ strayed from home// and/ failed utterly/ on/ the shores of space.” This is a recurring theme which flies in the face of how space exploration gets fetishized as some salvation for humanity.

This indictment seems to continue in more subtle forms. “Red Rover,” one in a number of poems named after popular children’s games, recounts with a stark coldness the proceedings of the game mechanics:

We are placed in a field

We are told to wield our bodies
                                                       against each other
like wrecking balls or rockets,
                                                   to target the weakest links
in the chain
                    of other children’s bodies—” (35)

Claire Wahmanholm

The earthly damage of a wrecking ball proceeds to rockets, almost a direct progression from destruction to fleeing the scene of the crime. We know marginalized and poorer communities will be the first and most severely affected by ecological harm, and it’s all but sure only the very rich will be able to board any kind of escape pod from Earth, but the poem stays rooted in the language of the game, as if it was all once just a harmless bit of (slightly violent) fun. The title itself suggests a planetary Rover.

But the whole scene, heartbreakingly, begins in a field—a landscape all too easily assumed to be eternally green, with air blowing above it. But on a second reading, the reader may see this poem not as narrative at all, but an elliptical journal, detailing another listless activity for ghosts above a lifeless plain.

In another series of prose poems, each titled a single letter of the alphabet and serving as a kind of hyper-alliterative microcosm
of the book’s narrative, “B” starts with a lush pastoral scene:

B is for Brown Bear, for berries and beehives, buds and blossoms,/ a babbling brook.” (37)

Yet, things quickly turn slightly harsh:

Brown Bear lumbering through the balsam firs/ toward the baton and bludgeon.”

Eventually the surroundings deteriorate to an emerging hellscape:

B for the blood and badge and bullet. B as in behave, beware. As in bereft… B is for barren and the burning den. For how bulletins are bursting with the bodies of brown bears and the alphabet is just beginning.

Even more than a dystopic vision like Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, which at least still finds Earth alive (albeit beneath pustulating and charred plagues), Wilder feels hopeless at times. But this serves as solidarity with those who rightly know their pessimism is informed by reality.

In any case, Wahmonholm’s chorus here exists in a tradition of environmentalist art that is completely varied. When the urgent deployment of every strategy and timbre of warning over years by every expert and lay-witness feels at last entirely futile, here is a vision of internalized terror turned lyric, doom become song.

But making itself is an act of faith. Perhaps in the hope that, like music, the poem of all things can break past defenses to turn the ear and the mind toward meaningful change. In Fanny Howe’s famous essay, “Bewilderment,” she practices the ethics of obliquity detailed in her earlier paragraphs by ending the piece with this confounding statement:

“After all, the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.”

Wilder’s many registers can’t boil down to a single point, but perhaps a central one is this: to show people that the Earth is worth living on, by showing when it isn’t.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet and serves as the graphic design lead as well as co-lead editor for poetry and visual art for Lunch Ticket. He was born and raised in Hawaii and lives in Los Angeles.

Spotlight: Pranam

[fiction]

It smells the same, even after all these years—the smell of tens of thousands of prayers exhaled above palms pressed to the heart, thousands of bare feet padding into the prayer room, thousands upon thousands of incense sticks lit in front of the same statues, day in and day out.

How could this building have the bones to help me mourn my mother? It had not even existed during those years when she was one of the temple’s most loyal visitors.

I begin removing my shoes. I balance on one foot to slip off one sandal. The scratchy straps of the sandals have bitten away at the polish. My mother had always insisted that unpainted nails with sandals were an affront to humanity. She had a lot of opinions on such things; I had only listened with half an ear.

Putting the sandal into one of the cubbies lining the wall, I switch to the other foot, the cold tile prickling at the newly unshod foot as I struggle to take off my second sandal.

A sign above the shoe cubbies, in crooked lettering, admonishes all “patrens to Pleeze remove ALL shoes before entering the TEMPLE.” The corners of my mouth start to lift into their customary sneer at this blithe disregard of how the English language should look, but the sneer dies, half-formed.

My mother’s spelling had been the same. “Ma, when are you going to learn how to spell in English?” I don’t know how many times I must have asked that question.

“If you learned to read Bengali, Hindi, Burmese or one of the other six languages I can spell perfectly in, perhaps I would not have to use your ugly language,” she would retort in Bengali, hands on her hips, shaking that crooked index finger at me until we both started to laugh. Despite my teasing, she never stopped putting notes in my lunches, notes that said that I should listen well, be respectful to my teachers, learn everything. I tossed all those notes away with the rest of the meal scraps, never suspecting that there would come a day when I would wish beyond wishing to have the chance to look at her handwriting just once more.

I shuffle into the main room of the temple. The cheap carpeting should be supporting cubicles in some corporate building rather than clumps of barefooted individuals milling around to find a place on the floor to wait for the prayers to begin.

I follow my father and brother toward the front of the room to make the obligatory offering to the deities. My father stuffs money through the opening in an ornate wooden box, one bill for each of us.

Any depiction of the Hindu pantheon will invariably be festooned, garlanded and overrun with flowers, and these icons are no different. When a deity presides within the four corners of a frame, that frame will in turn support twice its own weight in flowers. And the statues…from the minute one of these clay beings is carved, no millimeter of his or her holy personage remains pollen free—from the tip of Shiva’s head to the arch of Durga’s foot, pink, red, yellow, and orange petals mingle and mutter into each other, quarreling for space.

Before we were shunned from the Bengali community, my mother was one of the volunteers who would go to the temple early on the day of any puja (a festival celebrating one god or goddess or another) to help the priest prepare the pictures and statues. I call it a temple, but it was always just a rented space in the same strip mall as a McDonald’s. And I call him a priest, but he was really just Mr. Chatterjee, who always smelled like faintly moldering leaves, or laundry that has been closed up in an idle dryer too long.

Sometimes I would accompany my mother on these early morning trips. I would carry the extra flowers, but she always carried the garland she would have made that morning, special for the statue of Durga. She would have woken before the sun, bathed, and then spent hours picking the roses she had managed to wrestle from the Georgia clay, stringing them with the chrysanthemums that lined the front walkway. The chrysanthemums always grew much more exuberantly than any other flower, spilling over each other, eager to disprove their last-place status in the flower world.

Bengali pujas were really the only part of Hinduism I ever liked. The people of Bengal are too filled with their own self-importance to ever be truly humble to their gods. As a result, they are able to throw a pretty decent puja with more food than the stupidities of religious dogma. At least, that was the way it once was.

An usher-type individual places a hand on my shoulder and tries to move me away from my father and brother, “Women to one side, please, please women to that side, men on this side.” She gives me a slight push.

“What do you mean?” I blink at her, uncertain I have heard correctly.

“Women to one side, men to this side,” she repeats, her singsong accent triggering the anger that accompanies me everywhere these days.

“This is a Hindu temple,” I say, the words oozing past my clenched jaw. “Since when do we make men and women sit separately?”

“This is how it has been for a long time.”

“Tell me where it says anywhere that we are supposed to separate by sex?” I say, allowing my voice to increase in volume on the word sex, watching its effect ripple through the room as an ocean of heads turn towards me. My father and brother do not notice—they are too busy looking for a place to sit. I watch them shy away from the crowded regions of the floor to find a relatively unoccupied corner toward the side.

Another woman walks up and whispers in the usher-woman’s ear; the usher shrugs and turns away to find someone else to herd. I recognize the whispering woman. It is Lena-mashi. She had once been one of my mother’s closest friends. She turns away without meeting my eyes.

This separation by gender must have been put into practice during the years my family was ostracized from the community. Apparently, Hindu self-awareness had spilled over to even the Bengalis, and they had responded in their typically anti-climactic way by messing with seating arrangements.

It had started even before 9-11, this swing to conservative practices—more time on prayers and chanting, strictly vegetarian meals at the pujas.

“This is not how Hinduism is supposed to be practiced,” my father would intone at the various puja-committee meetings. “Where is it written that vegetarianism is holy? Where is it written that we must have this chant before that one? These are ignorant practices we have brought from the villages. They have no place here.”

Eventually, my father’s indulgence in the sound of his own voice went from being tolerated to becoming a point of contention, and then from being a point of contention to being the last straw. Three planes were taken off course, the Towers fell, and we were no longer welcome at the Bengali society’s functions. Dissent during wartime isn’t tolerated, particularly in the confines of a middle-class immigrant community.

And yet, a decade later, here we are, once again.

My father and brother are sitting on the floor, an island amongst a crowd of people. They both sit with straight backs, staring ahead without speaking. I settle down next to them, becoming tangled in the lengths of the sari as I lower myself to the floor.

I had chosen the sari from my mother’s stash that morning, randomly picking it amongst all the ones neatly ironed and stacked in the almira. When I opened the almira’s doors, her scent had rolled toward me—spicy curry with a dash of the sweet powder she would rub into her skin after every shower.

I stood there in front of that brutish piece of furniture for a few minutes, breathing in the scent of my mother. I reached out to touch the brightly colored silk, but a jagged edge of my bitten nails snagged on the cloth, causing a few threads to pull tight and pucker the fabric. My hands trembled as I tried to smooth it out, hide what I had done.

The process of attempting to put on that sari became a glowering testament of all that I had never bothered to learn. I wrapped and unwrapped the silk, unable to get the pleats right, looking at the clock every few seconds, nervous at how much time was passing in my ineptitude. My father hated to be late.

At one point, I sat down on the floor, the silk of the sari rippling around me.

My brother came into the room and stood for a moment to look at me in the glory of my inability. He went over to the almira and picked out a sari of raw silk, a coarser fabric than the slippy-shiny stuff I had been grappling with all morning.

“I heard her teaching one of the neighbors how to put one of these on once. She said that it was easier to do with the raw silk. Something about the fabric.” I took the cloth from him. We stared at each other for a moment, and then he walked away.

Now in the temple and finally safely on the floor, I look around the room, recognizing more faces. Many of these people had been such claustrophobic influences over my childhood. My memory of them all is betrayed as I see what ten years does to the physical self. As I stare, some stare back. Others whisper behind their hands as they look from me to my father to my brother back to me. Others turn away, trying not to see our three orphaned souls huddled together.

Our ouster from the community had not happened all at once. It had been gradual. My mother had noticed the signs early on.

“Chatterjee-da had a barbecue last week for his son’s graduation. He invited so many people, but not us,” she commented one day over dinner.

“Oh, that old man is angry over what I said at the last committee meeting. It does not matter,” my father responded, turning back to watching Jeopardy, his fingers suspended over his plate, a few stray pieces of turmeric-stained rice dotting his fingers. My mother looked worried, but said nothing.

Then, invitations from members of my parents’ own favorite circle—the so-called “younger set”—began to come further and further apart. My mother would spend dinnertime wondering why everyone was always too busy to come by for a quick meal of dal and rooti. My father laughed it off, saying that everyone would come to their senses eventually.

After a few months, my father was not quite so sanguine, and my mother was despondent.

Lena-mashi came over one day to tell my mother in whispered tones: “Sujo-da should stop talking so wrongly, stop starting so many arguments, otherwise, no one will want you to come to their houses, Boudi.”

“He is just saying what he thinks. Why is that so wrong?” I recognized that note in my mother’s voice—it is not for nothing that the tiger is Bengali. I half suspect the tiger learned its fierce trade from a Bengali wife.

“Boudi, I am sorry. I just wanted to tell you. They are going to ask Sujo-da to leave the puja committee.” My mother did not say another word and simply showed Lena-mashi the door.

As a founding member of the puja committee, my father had expected to be part of it until the day he died. When he was no longer welcome at the meetings, it was clear we had been dismissed from the community.

An institution that had played such a large role in our lives was gone, just like that. True to form, we simply pretended it had never existed. We discovered other things to occupy our time and attention.

My father joined a group of meditation devotees who formed an investment club. Meditation and making money seemed to my father to be the very best blend of East and West. When the club started making money, the group felt that it was the reward of a higher power.

“Mila! We made over $200 in one day! Can you imagine how rich our meditation investing will make us?” I was away at college, and his voice reminded me of everything I missed and was running from at the same time.

The group’s belief in its destiny made them reckless, and they responded to losses by investing even more “daringly”, until eventually, there was nothing left. My father had a crisis of faith. My mother said nothing.

My brother had many friends in the Bengali community, childhood friends who had been born within months of each other, had taken baths together, had started toward adolescence as a unit. After our ouster, their parents would no longer allow them to spend time with him. These lost friends were replaced by soccer team friends, tennis team friends, and then eventually by legions of girlfriends. He was able to ignore all of the house rules my parents had put into place during my own teen years, partly because he was a boy and partly because my father was simply too distracted with his meditation-investing, and then his meditation-losing, to care. My mother said nothing.

I had gone away to college soon after the ouster. Freedom, friends, and classes all helped relegate our loss of community into the “not such a big deal” column in the tabulation of my life.

It was really only my mother who suffered. Despite her facility with languages of the Asian continent, she had never learned the language of her adopted country to any level of fluency. Her social circle was comprised of other Bengali matrons. Without them, she was left to her own limited devices. The rest of us did not notice. My mother played her role as the self-sacrificing Bengali mother a little too well. We did not even take her for granted. We simply forgot she existed outside her role as supporting actress in the drama of our own lives.

While we were busy not noticing, my mother’s existence turned inward, much like a dying star that increases its density and mass around a central point until there is nowhere left to go. The thing about dying stars is that, eventually, something in space and time must be ripped apart to release the pressure.

Spring break my freshman year, I walked into the house with a bag of laundry and dumped it in a corner of the kitchen.

“It is the right of every American college student to bring home her dirty clothes for her mother to clean,” I explained to my mother. My mother always seemed to enjoy my soliloquies on axioms of American life, particularly enjoying ripping the axioms apart with ferocity. This time, she simply smiled at me and then turned back to her cooking. I was a little surprised, but quickly lost sight of that thought as my father and brother followed me into the kitchen and my father’s inevitable questions began.

“How are your classes?”

“Fine.”

“How many math classes are you taking?”

“Just the one, Dad.”

“But you could take more if you wanted to?”

“Yes, but why would I want to?”

“Because math is important.”

“Maybe, but there are other subjects out there.”

“Like physics?”

“No Dad, like literature, languages, history, those kinds of things.”

“What? Those subjects are hobbies. I am not paying so much for your schooling to have you waste your time taking useless subjects.”

And from there went the usual clichéd argument. It lasted through dinner and almost to the time we all went to bed, with a break for the evening showing of Jeopardy. None of us noticed that my mother had not participated in the conversation.

It was not until toward the end of my visit that I almost realized something was wrong. I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking the tea+milk that magically appeared in front of me every day, no matter when I dragged myself out of bed.

“Ma,” I said, “why are you letting me sleep in every day? You hate people sleeping late.” My mother shrugged and smiled, turning back to cleaning the inside of the microwave. I took a few more sips of my tea, wondering how I was going to get some money out of my father for the jacket I had seen on sale at the mall.

“Ma, in psych class we learned that the transition from adolescence to adulthood can be made more traumatic if parents try to keep children heading into their twenties to the same habits and likes and dislikes they had as teenagers. Is that what you’re doing here? Letting me sleep late to break a habit from my childhood? How did you know to do that?”

My mother just shook her head. Puzzled, I looked at her back, which was still turned to me.

“Are you mad at me, Mom? What did I do?”

She smiled and put a plate of food down in front of me, placed her hand on my cheek and then walked back to the microwave. I began to eat, putting her strangeness off to her being old. All adults over the age of thirty were strange and old.

Somehow successful in parting my father from some money, I made it to the mall that day. The route home took me past the site where the new Hindu temple was being built. The community was graduating from a strip-mall existence to a free standing building complete with its own parking lot.

As I waited for the car ahead of me to disgorge a mildly alarming number of bespectacled older women in cotton saris, I looked over to see my mother standing in front of the half-constructed shell of the temple with a group of Indians. Even to my purposefully unknowledgeable eyes it was apparent that these people were not Bengalis. It surprised me to see my mother out of the house among people that I did not know. They were all listening to one woman, whose arms were gesturing in that hyper excitable way that all beings from the South Asian subcontinent seem to practice, as if the most important ideas require exertion of physical energy to make sense. I wondered what they could possibly be discussing. I lost track of that thought as my favorite song came on the radio. I continued driving along home, my mother forgotten in the storm of whatever inane thoughts were rattling around in my head that day.

A year later, it became clear that I was one of the few people who had ever seen my mother amongst those who were now referred to as her “associates.”

“Miss,” said the agent from the Department of Homeland Security, “this is important. Can you give me any details about any of the people around your mother that day?” I could almost see what was going through his mind. Was I protecting someone? Was my family part of a larger conspiracy to bring down apple pie and the American Way? How to explain that I was so self-centered that I could not recall a single detail about any of the people who would eventually be the architects of my mother’s death?

“The woman doing all the talking was dressed all in black,” I said, looking down at the table and picking at an invisible splinter.

“Dressed all in black, that’s all you remember, that this woman was dressed all in black?”

“That was unusual for an Indian woman, even a non-Bengali,” I answered. The agent sighed.

They eventually let me go, finally convinced that I truly was just stupid and not part of some huge South Asian conspiracy.

As it turned out, my mother had made friends with the kinds of people she would once have warned me against. Radical. Non-Bengali. Some not even Indian. They spoke of revenge for murders of Hindus in Bangladesh and Kashmir, of needing the world to understand the dangers posed by fundamentalist Muslims, of the American government and its ineptitude in ridding the world of danger. They spoke of these things, and my mother listened. As she listened, she formed a plan. As was her way, my mother’s plan was one in which she was the only one who got hurt.

My mother is dead, and here I am again in our local Hindu temple.

For the past year, I have been unable to stop myself from imagining her last moments. Was she scared? Did she figure out that there would be children at that prayer service in the mosque? Is that why she never went inside, is that why she stayed in the parking lot? How much pain was there? What did those friends say to convince her that self-immolation was the answer?

“We will go to the puja tomorrow,” my father announced one year and twenty-eight days after her death. My brother and I looked up from our uneaten dinners in surprise.

“Baba,” my brother said slowly, gently. “We can’t go. They don’t want us there.” I nodded.

“Your Lena-mashi was here yesterday. She said they were going to say a special blessing. We will go.” My father nodded, as if the matter were decided. But then, looking at us, he became unsure. “I just think we should go…” he began, in an uncharacteristically pleading tone. He did not have to finish the thought. We would go, because she would have wanted it.

And so here we are. The room begins to hush, and I hear the priest shuffling behind the stage, readying the bells and other accoutrements of a Hindu prayer. I can’t remember the protocol…Do they blow a conch shell at the beginning? Is the shanti water going to be used today, that holy water that is supposed to bring peace to anyone who receives it? There had always been a joking moment in previous years, when the priest would pour a handful or two over my outspoken father’s head. He would always make the same joke, asking whether it would turn the gray hairs back to black.

My mother is dead, and I am using all my strength to not run screaming from this room. We had been summarily dismissed from the community these walls represent, and, as we now know, one of us spent years looking for a way to get back. The only one of us who would be happy to be here today, within these walls, is the one who was sacrificed.

There was once a demon so powerful it could be killed by no god, and a woman was brought in to solve the problem. Durga, the mother goddess. My mother offered a prayer to her whenever we left the house, saying “Durga, Durga” to remind the goddess to take care of our home in our absence, one mother to another.

I never noticed the clues to the end of my mother’s story. Now, it is all I think about. Her story’s end is what has brought the three remaining members of the family back together, what has allowed us to see each other again. I reach out and place my fingertips on my father’s and my brother’s arms. I hope that somehow my mother knows what she has accomplished.

Durga, Durga.

 

Image by Ana Talukder

Gargi Talukder seeks to explore the ideas of multiculturalism and diversity, and how relationships are developed and deepened under the umbrella of ethnic and cultural heritage. With a background in neuroscience, Gargi is the author of numerous articles on subjects related to medical and biological research that have been published in a wide variety of general interest newspapers and periodicals. Her short stories have appeared in Open Spaces Magazine and Lake Anthologies, among others.

Reimagining My City: Mixed Media

Sex Matters

“Are you a slut, or are you just plain thoughtless?” I heard Mother shout from the top of the stairs. I was in bed. On the landing, just on the other side of my bedroom door, Mother was not visible to me, but I could see her clearly in my mind’s eye, clad in a nightgown, hands on hips, glaring into the dark below as the creaky front door inched open. Mother was a light sleeper, and, until all five of her children were accounted for, she roamed the house like a ghost. She had taken her post on the stairs in order to intercept my sister, Charlene, who had now missed curfew by several hours.

My sister, I knew, had spent the better part of the night with her boyfriend. Recently, sitting cross-legged, knee-to-knee, in the middle of her canopied bed, Charlene had confided to me the story of her first sexual experience. This being my sister, I did and didn’t want to hear. Five years her junior, I knew little about sex, but I was curious. I wanted to know about sex, just not her sex. But I’d have to take what I could get. “Mark,” she whispered conspiratorially, “when I saw that thing pointin’ at me, Lord, I thought something was wrong with it.”

Erections, it seemed, had escaped my sister. Growing up with four brothers, how had she missed this basic physiology, I wondered. I tried to picture the scene, even as I tried not to picture the scene. This was the late 1970s, and toe socks with brightly colored horizontal stripes were in fashion among teenage girls like my sister. I could see Charlene’s toe socks spread eagle above her, her boyfriend, his dick at attention, striding across the room in her direction. Her socks, my sister explained, had played a key role in the encounter. “I’m keeping them on until I get married,” she assured me.

* * *

For Boys Only is the sex-ed guide Mother gave me when I turned thirteen. Written by Dr. Frank Richardson and published in 1952, this yellowed volume must have been a book my grandmother had given my uncle Allen, when he had become a teen around the time of its publication. As the tattered dust jacket explained, “It is written by a doctor in easy, plain everyday language that doesn’t try to ramble around or moralize over the facts that are a perfectly natural and necessary part of this startling but fascinating process of growing into manhood.”

And it was startling and fascinating. Framed as talks delivered in a high school chapel to a group of boys, with names like Jack and Harry and Tom, Dr. Richardson’s book explained the facts of life. As his narrator, the “Doc,” put it, “I talk to the fellows for a while, and then they pop any questions at me they want to, and I try my best to answer them. Some of them are really humdingers with no holds barred.” Jack and Harry and Tom were boy’s boys. They weren’t timid, sissy boys like me. With words like “gee,” and “golly,” they spoke with easy candor to each other and to the Doc. I’d never witnessed such openness, least of all among other boys.

But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.

My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?” My immediate thought was, “Yeah, can I have twenty dollars?” It took me several minutes to realize that he was asking me to ask him about sex.

It was different with Doc Richardson. He was direct. “You remember I told you that the testicles make these sperms and store them in the body, floating about in a thick whitish fluid called semen,” he explained. “Whenever the storage tanks get too full, they empty themselves. Sometimes they do this at night, when a boy is dreaming about sex matters. Sometimes they do it without any sign at all except that the night clothing or bed clothes may be wet or discolored. This may happen several nights in succession, or as seldom as several weeks apart, or, in some boys, hardly ever.”

Huh? What can happen when you dream about “sex matters?” I was certain that if I had not read about nocturnal emissions, I never would have learned about them. With growing curiosity, I read on and waited in hopeful anticipation for my first wet dream.

I wondered, too, if my older brother John knew about this yet. He wasn’t much of a reader. When I asked if he had received the same book from Mother, he confirmed that he had, but he didn’t seem to have found it as startling or fascinating as I had. “I read the chapter about girls,” he grunted. That was all he would say on the subject.

About being gay, Dr. Richardson had nothing to say. There was no mention in For Boys Only of men having consensual sex with other men. There was only an opaque caution about illegal “monkey business,” of adult men corrupting young boys. When Tom said, “What I can’t understand is what makes older fellows, and sometimes even men that you’d think were decent people, try to get boys to let them do things to them that they know they ought not to,” Doc didn’t use the word pedophilia, but that’s what he seemed to be talking about. “It would take too long to tell you,” he demurred, “why some men get their satisfaction out of ruining young boys, and getting them started doing the same sort of thing with other youngsters. They are mentally ‘off,’ of course, and they really ought to be taken away for treatment.”

* * *

That one might be taken away for treatment was a genuine threat in the house where I grew up. We were unruly children, who often frayed our mother’s patience. “I’d pay to have you sent away,” she fumed whenever we misbehaved. Then she would pile us in the back of her Country Squire Wagon to visit a terrifying place in town called “The Last Stop.” This was a crumbling Gothic mansion, painted garish shades of purple, turned home for wayward children. Presumably, it was “the last stop” before one was sent to the Regional Youth Detention Center. When Mother was really angry, with no other reason to travel to the remotest outskirts of town, she would drive us to the YDC. Gripping the steering wheel in a trembling rage, she’d slow, just long enough for us to get a good look at its menacing razor-wire. As we took in the scene, Mother would glare at us in the rearview mirror. “Some day, you’re going to end up there,” she’d threaten.

Eventually, Mother made good on her promise, sending my oldest brother, Joe, to the YDC after he was caught stealing a neighbor’s mail. Afterwards, he made a tour of residential treatment homes, hospital psychiatric wards, and state mental institutions, before being housed at the Anneewakee Treatment Center near Atlanta. “Annewakee,” we were told, is a Native American name meaning “land of the friendly people.” But Annewakee was anything but friendly. Years later, long after Joe’s release, news reports detailed how its director, a one-legged pedophile named Dr. Poetter, encouraged sex between staff and patients because he believed it was “good for the boys.”

While stealing mail may have been the catalyst for Joe’s detention, Mom was motivated by a darker fear. She worried that Joe might be gay, and worse still, that he might turn her other sons gay too. One afternoon after Joe was sent away, she took me aside for a solemn chat. “Has he ever touched your . . . privates?” she asked. I didn’t understand what she meant. Did she mean my “private possessions,” like the miniature Swiss Army knife I hid deep in the pocket of my Billy the Kid jeans? Like Granddaddy, who was never without his pocket knife, with its beautifully iridescent mother-of-pearl handle, I guarded this tiny red treasure. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded if Joe touched it. He and I shared everything. As far as I was concerned, he could borrow anything of mine. Just as his privates were mine, so my privates were his, just for the asking. I considered Mom’s query, but I could not remember a time when Joe had borrowed my knife. “No,” I told her, I didn’t think Joe had touched my privates. But he could if he wanted to, I added, anytime he liked.

* * *

Like Mother, my father was vocal in his opposition to homosexuality. Not long after returning home from Annewakee, Joe was thrown out of the house for good. Then my father sat me down and gave me a good talking to about the fiery torments of Hell that awaited a “known homosexual.” He instructed me to call the cops if Joe stepped foot in the yard. My father’s homosexual anxiety, however, had deeper roots.

Roaming the yard in search of something to do one August afternoon, I was knocked unconscious when the better part of a Loblolly Pine fell on my head. After a visit to the emergency room, Mother offered a stop at Toys “R” Us. There she bought me my first doll, a handsome Boy Scout named Steve. Now I was not a Boy Scout, nor did I wish to become one. I didn’t even know any Boy Scouts. All I knew was that they liked to go camping, something else I did not wish to do. Sleeping under the stars, in the woods, with bugs, snakes, and who-knows-what other creatures held no interest for me.

What captivated me about the Boy Scouts were their accessories: The ubiquitous Swiss Army knife and the endless assortment of colorful patches, insignia, and emblems. The tooled leather belt with the antique finish. The animal tracks bandana, with illustrations of common woodland footprints. The felt Campaign Hat with leather hatband and chinstrap and Universal Boy Scout Emblem Hat Pin.

My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?”

At eight years old, I could not have understood Scouting founder Robert S.S. Baden-Powell’s ideal of “muscular Christianity” that joined physical fitness with moral rectitude at the end of the nineteenth century. But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.

Sporting a swath the size of a dollar bill shaved from my scalp, and a dozen fresh prickly-black stitches, I held Steve Scout in my arms for the first time. Along with Steve, came several accessories: A Scouting Booklet, badges, an Official Scout Uniform, shoes, a jaunty red neckerchief. But this would be only the beginning. Steve would need a tent, a sleeping bag, the Steve Scout First-Aid Backpack, the Steve Scout Campfire, and, come winter, Steve Scout Snowshoes.

When my lesbian Buddhist aunt arrived from LA on Christmas Eve, I was certain that Aunt Jean would bring an exciting new Steve Scout Adventure Set from the West Coast. It would be one we could not find at our local Midtown Mall, where the anchor establishments were a Post Office at one end and a Laundromat at the other. Aunt Jean’s Christmas gift would be as exotic as she was. And she was. That she was from California would have been enough, but, to a boy growing up in the rural Deep South, that she was both lesbian and Buddhist was intoxicating.

What’s more, Aunt Jean worked as a DJ, announcing song titles on the in-flight radio station for a major airline. Her voice was smooth, with a hint of smoke, washed clean of the Southern accent of her Georgia kin. Her dark hair and eyes, her sharp, square chin, these could have been my father’s. But there the resemblance ended. Unlike her country relations, whose fashion sense was dictated by the Sears catalogue, Jean was sophisticated, glamorous. In her rich, ginger-colored Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress and black knee-high boots, to me, she was like one of Charlie’s Angels.

Not only, according to Mother, had Aunt Jean burned her bra, but she and her girlfriend, Barbara, also burned incense, much to Mother’s dismay, in Grandmama’s Wedgwood egg-cups, while they chanted before a makeshift altar in the guest bedroom: “Nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo.”

My father embraced his little sister with jaw-clenching Christian duty. He was visibly unnerved by Aunt Jean, grinding his teeth and clearing nothing from his throat whenever she spoke. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uuuhn.” At the same time, he welcomed his sister’s return home as a chance to coax her to Christmas Eve services at the First Baptist Church. If he could just get her in the door, then maybe the Holy Spirit would lay a hand on Jean. Maybe she would give up girls and The Eightfold Path. Maybe she would cancel her return flight to Sodom.

Just as she feared my brother Joe’s corrupting influence, Mother was certain that Aunt Jean would poison us all. When Barbara leaned in to receive a chaste peck on the cheek from Aunt Jean after the Christmas dinner blessing, I watched beneath the table as Mother’s nails dug deep into my father’s thigh. Later, I heard angry whispers in the kitchen: “I won’t have my boys exposed to her and that Barbara making out at my dinner table.” Whenever Aunt Jean came to visit, the air in our house was charged, and I eagerly drank in her electricity.

My heart sank on Christmas morning when all Aunt Jean pulled from her tiny carry-on, her only piece of luggage, was a small, shrink-wrapped basket of dried apricots, with a gift tag addressed to “The Hall Family.” Seeing my disappointment, Aunt Jean explained that Buddhists don’t give Christmas presents. Then she added quickly, “It won’t be a Christmas gift, but you and I could go to the mall tomorrow.”

The next morning, Aunt Jean borrowed my father’s red VW Bug, and we raced to beat the crowds of post-holiday shoppers. When she offered, “You can choose one toy, anything—anything you want,” I made a beeline for Bob Scout. But when I laid his box on the counter, Aunt Jean hesitated. She seemed to be doing a quick calculation in her head. I thought of the paltry dried apricots. Maybe I had overshot. I could feel Steve Scout’s emptiness in my own stomach.

“It’s only $12.99,” I pointed out. “You said anything.” But Aunt Jean was not searching her wallet. She was making a different sort of reckoning. Aunt Jean recognized that toys like GI Joe were “action figures.” Steve and Bob Scout were not. They were dolls, just like Barbie dolls and Ken dolls. Aunt Jean could also plainly see that Steve Scout was white and Bob Scout was black. Not only was her Deep South, white, sissy-boy nephew playing with dolls, but now he wanted a black doll.

“Are you sure that’s the one you want, Sweetie?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve already got Steve. I just need Bob so he’ll have someone to camp with. I’ve got the forest fire observation tower all set up.” Aunt Jean looked uncertain. She tugged at her crocheted vest.

“Well, you get Bob, then,” she said, “and let’s put out some fires.”

The house was quiet that afternoon as Steve toured Bob around the campsite, artfully staged under the Christmas tree. The only voices in the house were theirs, from a backpack filled with prerecorded camp-talk, activated by a pull-string. “Let’s make camp, here,” Steve and Bob Scout repeated again and again. “I’ll roll out the tent, and sleeping bags. You cook the fish.”

Later that evening, I overheard more angry whispers in the kitchen. Afterwards, Aunt Jean told us, as she and Barbara quickly gathered their things, that their visit would have to be cut short.

Soon after Christmas, Aunt Jean sent me a note. She inquired about Steve and Bob. In San Francisco, in a neighborhood called the Castro, she explained, there were lots of nice guys like Steve and Bob. When I was older, maybe I could visit her and Aunt Barbara to see for myself.

* * *

In my early teens, I had no notion of “gay,” and so I wasn’t looking for Doc Richardson to discuss the subject in For Boys Only. In retrospect, I understand that long before then I had had feelings for other boys, but I didn’t think of those feelings as romantic. Rather, I thought I just wanted to be like the cute, confident boys I admired at school. They were not my friends, only distant, mysterious objects. What I thought I felt for other boys was envy, not attraction.

I had much the same feeling for the boys who appeared one month in National Geographic World magazine. This was National Geographic for children, so the articles were about kid stuff. For a long time, I was captured by one story in particular, “An American Gymnast in the U.S.S.R.” “Few Americans have had the chance to train with Soviet athletes,” the story explained. “But thirteen-year-old Caleb Daniloff, of Washington, DC did.” In the article, Daniloff is pictured with classmates in a Moscow gymnastics school. Photos depict the young gymnasts in various poses. There is nothing sexual about the pictures. But there is a physical intimacy among boys that was foreign and strange to me, wholly unknown, and deeply captivating. One photo showed a boy in a perfect bridge pose. His hands and feet flat on the floor, his head and neck curving behind him, he thrusts his waist toward the ceiling. Another boy, his fingers spread wide and pressed firmly into the first boy’s abdomen and chest, is doing a handstand, his legs a rigid V in the air above his partner’s bridge. Their bodies are lean and taut, exposed in tiny shorts and tank tops. Pictured behind this pair is the American, Daniloff. He stands side-by-side with a Soviet boy. Each balances on one foot, the other foot, leg stretching up, up, held tightly in an outstretched hand. Their arms reach toward the ceiling. The two boys maintain their balance by holding hands with each other. I’d never touched another boy with such familiarity. At the time, I had no idea why I was so drawn to this image. But I could not take my eyes off it.

* * *

At the end of the winter break of my first year of college, I drove to Florida to pick up my friend Marcia. She needed a ride back to school. Our plan was to travel to my home in Georgia, stay the night, then return to campus near Atlanta the following day. In the car together, we did what we always did: We got high and sang along to Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls.

I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric.

The private college we attended was filled with well-to-do prep-school kids. They were high achievers, accustomed to excellence, entitled to it. They had credit cards and drove flashy cars. They had drugs of every description. These students, I was surprised to learn, studied as hard as they partied. The unofficial center of our small campus social life was a notorious club whose members were required to maintain a 4.0 GPA, even as they binge-drank and Hoovered up great piles of cocaine. At their parties, they doled out ecstasy like Skittles. In my small-town public-school experience, one could either be a top student or a drug fiend, but not both. It had never occured to me that the two aspirations might be successfully combined. I was intrigued. And so I studied diligently, and, to fit in, I bought a bong and a coke spoon.

Like me, Marcia didn’t belong. She was a scholarship kid, as unpolished as I. But she was smart and driven and always available to get high. Together, we studied and wrote papers late into the night, then drove the miles of deserted country roads that surrounded the tiny college town, smoking weed and singing “What’s Going On” and “Love is a Hurting Thing.” Marcia was unlike the genteel Southern women of modest, understated grace I’d grown up with. She was loud, brash, and direct, with a raucous laugh that filled a room. I was enthralled. But when she arrived at our house after Christmas, one look from Mother told me that she didn’t care for Marcia. The next morning, as soon as I made my way down to the kitchen, Mother looked over my shoulder and asked, “Where’s Marcia?”

I glanced back too, toward the stairs. “In bed, still asleep.”

Mother’s eyes narrowed. “That will not go on in a Christian home!” she shouted.

It took me an instant, as I shook off sleep, to understand her flash of rage. Mother had arranged for Marcia to take my sister’s now-vacant downstairs bedroom. My room was upstairs on the opposite side of the house. Mother imagined that we’d shared a room so that we could have sex. This was strictly forbidden. But I had no way of explaining why she was mistaken. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Yes, we had slept together in my bedroom, Marcia in one twin bed, I in the other. After a late-night ride around town, we were high as usual, and forgetful of the house rules regarding the sleeping arrangements of unmarried couples. Our infraction was, at any rate, less intimate than Marcia and I were accustomed to at college. There we often bedded down in my dorm room in a single twin bed. But it wasn’t what Mother assumed. Sex between Marcia and me was inconceivable. After all, she was dating my friend Steve, and they couldn’t get enough sex with each other. I was the friend to study with, get high with, and then fall asleep with. But not sleep with. Besides, Marcia had been telling me, almost since we met, that I was gay. I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Just because I like Patti LaBelle, that doesn’t make me gay,” I insisted.

“Since when did this become a Christian home?” I shot back to Mother. Marcia and I loaded the car in silence and made a quick exit. Mother didn’t speak to me again until sometime after Easter, when my father phoned and begged me to apologize. “Apologize for what?” I insisted. I wanted him to say what he thought I’d done, that I’d had sex under his roof—with a woman.

* * *

I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric. Men and women alike pursued him. Everyone who met him seemed smitten. But Ethan was aloof, unavailable to all. Whether he was gay or straight was uncertain. Some days I would observe him sunbathing in the courtyard of our dormitory. I longed to stroke the angry purple scar, which marked the exit of his appendix. One evening, I surprised him at the sink in the communal bath on our hall. He was applying mascara. I wanted nothing more than to become that brush.

Just beginning to take my first tentative steps out to gay bars, I was elated one night to see Ethan in the same Midtown dive, Burkharts. He was leaning against a wall, drinking a seventy-five-cent draft beer, observing the scene, just as I was. Afterward, we began to talk and to acknowledge one another on campus.

As summer approached, I learned that Ethan had gotten a job at Cafe Intermezzo, an upscale coffee shop and bar, but he did not plan to start until after he returned from visiting family at the close of the term. Ethan didn’t know I knew about his new job. To be near him all summer long, while he was away, I too applied for a job at Cafe Intermezzo. I’d get hired and begin right away, while Ethan was gone. Then, when he started at the cafe, I planned, it would appear that he was following me, rather than the other way around. By then, I’d already know the ropes, and Ethan would depend on me to help him get acquainted in his new position.

In the meantime, I moved out of the dorm and into my first apartment. It was a tiny two-room basement flat in the home of blue-haired widow from Derbyshire, England. She had a vicious German Shepherd who pursued me every time I stepped foot out the door. But I chose this particular apartment because it had a fireplace. Whatever its drawbacks, come winter, I could imagine how romantic it would be, my first boyfriend on the futon in front of a blazing fire.

Cafe Intermezzo was opened late at night, in the heart of Buckhead. It was the last stop for posh crowds concluding a night at the theatre or out on the town, with fancy desserts and cocktails. Wait staff began early in the evening and worked until 2:00 a.m. After unwinding at the bar over drinks of our own, Ethan and I would go out to nearby dance clubs until dawn. If I was lucky, Ethan might suggest sleeping over at my place. As we spent more and more time together, my crush deepened. But so did my shyness. Whenever Ethan stayed over, I kept to my twin bed, while he slept alone on the futon, just feet away, by the empty fireplace. In the dark, I felt a deep ache as I listened to his slow, even breathing.

* * *

Thanks to Doc Richardson, I understood the mechanics of sex, but I could not imagine how it all got started, exactly. In my teens, I sometimes overheard conversations among peers about having sex. Some couples in high school behaved like old married folks, they’d been fucking for so long and with such regularity. But how did they get together initially? I couldn’t guess.

When I finally did find myself in bed with a woman for the first time, I was as surprised as she was. Sarah had visited the college writing center where I worked as a tutor and confided in me about a boy she had a terrible crush on. She was invisible to him, she lamented. His name was Ethan. While I did not reveal my own love-sickness for the same Ethan, I shared her palpable ache. Somehow we ended up at the newly-built Ecolodge near campus. While the encounter was fumbling and awkward, I was relieved. I was having sex with a woman. In spite of the insistence of friends like Marcia, this was clear evidence that I was not gay.

Not long after that, at a sprawling dance complex called Backstreet, I met a boy visiting Atlanta from Minneapolis. I watched while other men stalked him around the club. They shared my opinion of his handsome good looks. I would have to act if I was to be the one to capture his attention. Too shy to introduce myself, I sidled up next to him at the bar, making sure my bare arm lightly brushed his. My knees nearly buckled at the spark. Without turning toward me, he flashed a wry smile at the mirrored wall behind the bar, his eyes mischievous behind long, thick lashes. When Daniel introduced himself, I fell in love with his voice. Unlike my Southern drawl, Daniel had the polished Midwestern dialect of a television news anchor. I could have listened to him talk all night long. As he unspooled the contours of his life, I learned that Daniel had been a child gymnast, and later, an Eagle Scout. I’d never kissed a man before, but that night on the dance floor with him, I seized the opportunity. His lips remain vivid in my memory. They were full and insistent, his tongue curious. We kissed for hours. As the music thumped in our chests, we were so involved that other patrons gathered round several deep to watch. I’d never been kissed like that. This, I understood crucially, was what Doc Richardson had left out of his sex-ed guide, For Boys Only.

Daniel was slight, a few inches shorter than I. Looking down into his dark eyes made me feel tall, confident. I was delighted by this new sensation. Holding his face between my hands, I kissed his eyelids, gently plucking them up with my lips. In the early hours before dawn, after he’d stepped away for a moment, Daniel slipped up behind me, wrapping his arms around me in a fierce embrace. He was small, but powerful. I felt an opening inside me, like a taut spring had been released. The feelings of comfort and security were overwhelming. I was on the verge of something, which was a great mystery to me, even as I was about to enter into it. Although I never saw Daniel again after that night, for the first time, the romantic touch of another—a man—felt right and natural to me. With certainty, his lips, his embrace told me who I was.

 

Mark Hall is a professor of rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies at the University of Central Florida, where he directs the University Writing Center. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Flashquake, JMWW: A Quarterly Journal of Writing, Chelsea Station, and The Timberline Review.

Photo Credit: Nkosi Shanga

We Were the New Era

[translated fiction]

Right at the beginning, at that very first meeting in the park, there were twelve of us, half of which I didn’t even know.

There, upon that gentle slope behind the house, you could hear the fountains splashing and the trams squealing down Kastanienallee. It was the end of June and rather hot. I’d already decided I was going to keep a low profile. If it had been up to me, we would have semi-legally occupied a couple of flats dotted around several blocks in Prenzlauer Berg in the former Soviet sector. I already had the key to one of them: the flat next door to Frank Wohlgemut, who everyone just called “Pebbles” because he came from a coastal town in East Germany. He’d been in two of my courses since the start of the semester. The Wall had fallen, Pebbles was able to study in the West and we were on the verge of becoming friends. One day, he brought me the key. His neighbours had fled via Hungary in mid ’89, less than nine months ago. “You just put your name on the door and transfer three months rent, three times 46 marks. Then you go to the housing authority with the bank receipt and they’ll give you the lease.” I’d already been out drinking with Pebbles in his neighbourhood a couple of nights and he’d shown me the best bars, not just the ones on Kollwitzplatz that everyone knew, but also the ones beyond Dimtroffstraße that the Wessis never found.

The flat that Pebbles had sorted for me was huge; two large rooms separated by the kitchen with the loo on the lower landing. And anyway, the remaining neighbours would be glad if someone moved in. Just as I was telling the others in the park about this flat with the high ceilings and describing the sound the floorboards made when you trod on them, Rachel butted in and said, “Well, I was thinking of something a bit different. Just two rooms separated by the kitchen. You couldn’t even put up a long table.”

Rachel always cut a fine figure when she spoke at meetings and I reckon that all the boys secretly fancied her. Anyway, nobody contradicted her. And strangely enough, the women generally agreed on certain points. My suggestion of several inconspicuous quasi-legal flats in Pebbles’s artists’ district was off the table immediately. Kerstin grumbled a bit but remained seated.

Then a guy wearing large, garish glasses got up and told us of a complete house in Friedrichshain, just behind Mainzer Straße where nine houses had been occupied for months. There was so much space for making music: in the basement, in the attic or in the yard. For years, he had been forced to stagger from sub-let to sub-sub-let in West-Berlin and until now he’d only ever been able to dream of practice space for his band, a band that admittedly was yet to be formed. However, we would have to be quick; the building was in a good location, not too far from Frankfurter Tor. The whole rear house was empty with space for ten to twenty people, maybe even more.

I thought that sounded good, even if I wasn’t exactly sure where it was. But then Nele got up, “No way! Everyone will think we’re in league with the Mainzer Straße lot. And we need to get along with our neighbours, right from the beginning.”

Kerstin agreed with her. “We just need to be as far away as possible from Mainzer Straße.” And so, that was also no longer an option.

“We’ll just have to see what we can find around here,” Rachel was now saying, “From Rosenthaler Platz it’s just a fifteen-minute underground ride to Kreuzberg 36.”

The two autonomists from Kreuzberg thought that was way too far and that we might as well just move to Wedding. They muttered something about the “arse end of nowhere” and left without saying goodbye. The wannabe musician with the garish glasses ran after them, and the group would have broken up if Rachel hadn’t spoken up again. “As it happens, we saw a house that would actually be quite good for us. Pretty close to here, and there’s really enough space for everyone.”

It was only later that I understood later how big our house actually was. At first, we only wanted one of the rear houses. To enter, we passed through two hallways. On the right-hand side of the first courtyard there was an abandoned cinema. A remnant from when people still went out on Rosenthaler Platz, but now empty, vacant and dismal.

“People still live in the front house,” said Nele as we crept in, and that still doesn’t appear the least bit strange to me. The second house was dark and empty while the second courtyard revealed a shed where carriages had once been kept and whose external walls were still adorned with iron rings used to tether cows and horses.

It was a strange feeling going up the stairs for the first time. Wenzel had brought a box of tools with him so he drilled out the lock and inserted a new cylinder before we even looked to see if the rooms were suitable. Then we wandered wide-eyed through the rooms, which looked as if their occupants has only popped out. The gas ovens in the kitchen still had bits of food burnt on them and towels had been placed in front of draughty windows. The doors bore the names of people who were now living elsewhere but were maybe still here in their old homes in their dreams. The floorboards were painted a dark blood red and earth-coloured paper covered the walls. We could feel where its edges had been pasted over each other and ancient newspapers with out-dated advertisements had been used as underlay. Wenzel went through the rooms holding a voltage tester to the exposed cables and the plugs beside the doors. It flashed briefly, just for a second, and then extinguished again. “That’s residual current. Leakage current,” he said knowledgeably and headed into the next room.

Now, it was important that no one else got in ahead of us. So the same afternoon, we submitted an official letter to the porter of Berlin’s municipal authority and got a stamp to confirm its receipt.

“…we hereby inform you that we, the Collective for Renewal, have actively taken the rear house building of No. 5 Badstübnerstraße into our care. We have begun establishing a centre for communication and culture, and have begun remedying the worst damage using our own means…Respectfully yours.”

Johnny, who handled our correspondence from the very first day, wanted to sign off with, with socialist greetings. However, Kerstin, the only one of us from East Germany and who’d only come to West Berlin with her mother in the early eighties, thought it was pure nonsense that only a clueless West German could think up. “The pretentious language gives you guys away as Wessis straight away,” she said and added that in East Germany only the authorities sent socialist greetings and then only in printed letters, and since the Wall had come down, they no longer sent any such greetings at all.

Someone had to sign it with their real name and give an address in East Germany. As none of us were able to, Johnny did it. His grandparents had a house in Buckow, Brandenburg. Although his part of the family were no longer on speaking terms with the branch who’d defected in the sixties and Johnny had never seen the house before, not even a photo, the surname at least could be checked: Johannes Elder, Buckow/Mark.

It didn’t worry us, not even for a second, that on paper our house belonged to someone else. Not just our house, but the whole of East Germany, lay before us as if someone had just discarded it. Ownerless belongings were strewn everywhere. At the border crossing on Chausseestraße, a full building had been abandoned and in the following weeks, we and the other squatters plundered the sinks, the windows, the water pipes, the plugs, the door handles and even the doors, all under the noses of the border guards who waved the cars through on Chauseestraße. Checks were only carried out for the sake of appearance and the guards pretended they didn’t see us. There was something defiant in their disregard: the cold anger that they were no longer feared and that all efforts to put up this border and to keep it closed amounted to nothing. The old rules were obsolete and the new ones were not yet in force.

On the first night, we all slept in sleeping bags on our camping mats in flat at the top of the house on the fourth floor. When it eventually got dark, we lit candles, drew in even closer together and told stories of our many travels. Rachel had been to Portugal where she had eaten cod in oily tomato sauce every day, Kerstin had been in the South of France during the grape harvest and Wenzel had even been to Indonesia. In El Salvador I had watched rats balance over me on wooden beams and Nele had found meteorites on a long desert walk through Algeria. After darkness fell, we could see the stars between the neighbouring houses, and even though we had secretly already chosen our rooms, on this first night we all stayed together in one room. Some of us had brought camping stoves with us. We couldn’t have guessed that the ovens in the kitchens would work and all you had to do was to turn on the gas tap. We made powdered soup from a packet, softened white bread in it and ate it all from tinware and enamel plates, washing it down with some East German beer out of green bottles, which Wenzel had brought with him.

We spoke in hushed voices, watched the bats flying round the corners of the yard at breakneck speed and stayed up until four in the morning, when the trams could be heard creaking over Rosenthaler Platz, always stalling in the same spot and then continuing with a loud whirr. As we were eventually dropping off to sleep, Rachel lay noticeably close to me and ensured that there was enough distance to Kerstin’s sleeping bag that she’d positioned across the door to the staircase.

 

 

Wir waren die neue Zeit

Ganz am Anfang, beim ersten Treffen im Park, waren wir zwölf, und ich kannte nicht mal die Hälfte der Leute.
Da war der sanfte Hügel hinterm Haus, die Wasserspiele rauschten, auf der Kastanienallee quietschten die Straßenbahnen, es war Ende Juni und ziemlich heiß. Ich war ganz entschieden dafür, unauffällig zu bleiben. Wenn es nach mir gegangen wäre, hätten wir im Prenzlauer Berg ein paar Schwarzwohnungen besetzt, verteilt auf mehrere Häuser. Zu einer hatte ich den Schlüssel, die Nachbarwohnung von Frank Wohlgemut, den alle nur Küste nannten, weil er aus Rostock war, und der seit dem Semesteranfang in zweien meiner Kurse saß. Die Mauer war weg, Küste konnte im Westen studieren, und wir waren gerade dabei, Freunde zu werden. Eines Tages hatte er mir den Schlüssel mitgebracht, seine Nachbarn waren Mitte 89 über Ungarn raus, keine neun Monate war das her. «Du klebst deinen Namen an die Tür und überweist drei Monatsmieten, drei mal 46 Mark. Mit dem Beleg gehst du zum Amt, die geben dir den Vertrag.» Ich hatte ein paar Abende mit Küste in seinem Viertel gesoffen, und er hatte mir die wichtigen Kneipen gezeigt, nicht nur die eine am Kollwitzplatz, die alle kannten, sondern auch die in den Straßen jenseits der Dimitroff, die die Wessis niemals fanden.
Die Wohnung, die Küste mir klargemacht hatte, war riesig. Zwei große Zimmer, die Küche dazwischen, das Klo eine halbe Treppe tiefer, und die übrig gebliebenen Nachbarn waren froh, wenn einer reinging. Gerade als ich dabei war, den anderen im Park den Stuck unter den hohen Decken zu beschreiben und das Geräusch, das entstand, wenn man auf den Dielen hin und her lief, fiel Rachel mir ins Wort und sagte: «Also das habe ich mir anders vorgestellt. Zwei Zimmer nur, und die Küche dazwischen, da kann man ja nicht mal einen langen Tisch aufstellen.»
Rachel machte eine ziemlich gute Figur, wenn sie vor Versammlungen sprach, und ich vermute, dass die Jungs alle heimlich in sie verknallt waren, es hat ihr jedenfalls keiner widersprochen. Und die Frauen schienen sich über bestimmte Punkte rätselhaft einig zu sein. Mein Vorschlag mit den vielen unauffälligen Schwarzwohnungen im Künstlerkiez hatte sich sofort erledigt. Kerstin maulte noch ein bisschen rum, blieb aber sitzen.
Dann stand ein Typ mit großer bunter Brille auf und erzählte von einem ganzen Haus im Friedrichshain, gleich hinter der Mainzer Straße, in der seit Monaten neun Häuser besetzt waren, und wie viel Platz dort sei, um Musik zu machen, in den Kellern, auf dem Dachboden oder im Hof. Seit Jahren sei er gezwungen, in Westberlin von Untermietvertrag zu Unter-Untermietvertrag zu hopsen, und von einem Proberaum für seine Band könne er bisher nur träumen, für eine Band, die freilich noch zu gründen sei; und wir müssten schnell sein, das Haus sei gut gelegen, nicht allzu weit entfernt vom Frankfurter Tor. Das ganze Hinterhaus sei frei, Platz für zehn bis zwanzig Leute, vielleicht mehr.
Für mich klang das gut, auch wenn ich nicht wusste, wo genau das sein sollte, dann aber stand Nele auf und sagte: «Auf keinen Fall. Da geraten wir gleich in Verdacht, mit den Leuten aus der Mainzer Straße unter einer Decke zu stecken. Und wir sollten uns von Anfang an mit den Nachbarn gutstellen.»
Kerstin stimmte ihr zu. «Bloß möglichst weit weg von der Mainzer Straße.» Und damit war auch das keine Option mehr.
«Wir müssen hier in der Gegend suchen», sagte nun Rachel, «vom U-Bahnhof Rosenthaler Platz aus sind wir in fünfzehn Minuten in 36.»
Zwei Autonome vom Heinrichplatz fanden das entschieden zu weit, moserten irgendwas von «Arsch der Welt» und dass man dann ja gleich in den Wedding ziehen könne, und gingen, ohne sich zu verabschieden. Der Musiker mit der bunten Brille lief ihnen hinterher, und die Versammlung hätte sich fast aufgelöst, als Rachel noch einmal laut wurde. «Wir haben ganz zufällig ein Haus gesehen, das gar nicht so schlecht wäre für uns», rief sie. «Ziemlich nah von hier, und es gibt wirklich Platz für alle.»
Wie groß unser Haus wirklich war, habe ich erst viel später verstanden. Zuerst ging es ja nur um eins der Hinterhäuser. Wir mussten durch zwei Toreinfahrten laufen. Im ersten Hof auf der rechten Seite war ein verlassenes Kino aus der Zeit, als man am Rosenthaler Platz noch ausging, jetzt leer und hohl und düster.

«Das Vorderhaus ist noch bewohnt», sagte Nele, als wir uns reinschlichen, und mir ist das noch nicht im Geringsten komisch vorgekommen, das Querhaus dunkel und leer, im zweiten Hof die Remise, in der früher die Fuhrwerke abgestellt wurden, mit Eisenringen an den Außenwänden, um Kühe und Pferde anzubinden.
Es war ein komisches Gefühl, zum ersten Mal die Treppe raufzugehen. Wenzel hatte den Werkzeugkasten mitgebracht und bohrte das Schloss auf, er setzte gleich einen neuen Zylinder ein, bevor wir überhaupt schauten, ob die Zimmer zu gebrauchen waren. Dann liefen wir staunend durch die Räume, die aussahen, als seien sie gerade erst verlassen worden. Da waren angebrannte Ränder an den Gasherden in den Küchen, und zugige Fenster, vor die Frottéhandtücher gelegt worden waren. An den Türen standen die Namen von Menschen, die jetzt an anderen Orten wohnten und die in ihren Träumen vielleicht noch hier waren, in ihrem alten Zuhause. Auf den Dielen der stierblutrote Lack, erdfarbene Tapeten an den Wänden, wir konnten fühlen, wo die Kanten übereinandergeklebt worden waren, unter der untersten Schicht Zeitungspapier mit Anzeigen in Fraktur. Wenzel lief durch die Räume und hielt einen Phasenprüfer an die offenen Leitungen und in die Steckdosen neben den Türen, der kurz, für eine Sekunde nur, aufflackerte und dann wieder erlosch. «Das sind Restströme», sagte er fachkundig, «Kriechströme», und ging in den nächsten Raum.
Jetzt war es wichtig, dass uns keiner mehr zuvorkam. Deshalb gaben wir noch am selben Nachmittag die offizielle Inobhutnahme, so hieß das, beim Pförtner des Magistrats von Berlin ab und ließen uns den Empfang per Stempel bestätigen.
… teilen wir Ihnen mit, dass wir, das Kollektiv zur Erneuerung, die Gebäude im Hinterhaus der Badstübnerstraße 5 aktiv in Obhut genommen haben. Wir haben begonnen, ein Kommunikations- und Kulturzentrum aufzubauen und die ersten groben Schäden mit Eigenmitteln zu beseitigen … Hochachtungsvoll!
Johnny, der vom ersten Tag an die Schreibarbeiten übernahm, wollte erst mit sozialistischem Gruß unterzeichnen, Kerstin aber, die als Einzige aus der DDR kam und erst seit den frühen Achtzigern mit ihrer Mutter in Westberlin lebte, hielt das für blanken Unsinn und für eine Idee, auf die nur ahnungslose Wessis kommen konnten. «Dass ihr aus dem Westen seid, das merkt man sofort an der gekünstelten Sprache», sagte sie. Und in der DDR hätten nur die Behörden den sozialistischen Gruß verwendet, und auch nur in Vordrucken, und seit der Wende gar nicht mehr.
Eine Person musste unterzeichnen, mit Klarnamen und Adresse in der DDR. Weil das keiner von uns konnte, tat es Johnny, dessen Großeltern noch ein Haus in Buckow hatten. Sie waren zwar tief zerstritten und sprachen nicht mehr mit dem Teil der Familie, der in den Sechzigern die Seiten gewechselt hatte, aber zumindest der Nachname war überprüfbar, Johannes Elder, Buckow/Mark, auch wenn Johnny das Haus seiner Großeltern nicht mal von Fotos kannte.
Dass unser Haus auf dem Papier andere Besitzer hatte, hat uns nicht eine Sekunde lang beschäftigt. Nicht nur das Haus, der ganze Osten lag ja da, als hätte ihn jemand einfach so liegengelassen. Überall Sachen, die keinem gehörten, am Grenzübergang an der Chausseestraße stand ein ganzes Haus leer, das wir und die anderen Besetzer in den Wochen darauf plünderten, die Waschbecken, die Fenster, die Wasserrohre, die Steckdosen, die Türklinken, ganze Türen, alles unter den Augen der Grenztruppen, die auf der Chausseestraße die Autos durchwinkten, es wurde ja pro forma noch kontrolliert. Sie taten so, als sähen sie uns nicht, und in ihrer Nichtbeachtung lag etwas Trotziges, die kalte Wut darüber, dass sie nicht mehr gefürchtet wurden und dass alle Anstrengungen, diese Grenze aufzurichten und dichtzuhalten, umsonst gewesen waren. Die alten Spielregeln galten nicht mehr, und die neuen waren noch nicht in Kraft.
In der ersten Nacht legten wir uns alle in die oberste Wohnung im Vierten, auf mitgebrachte Isomatten und in Schlafsäcke, und als es endlich dunkel war, stellten wir Kerzen auf und rückten noch näher zusammen und erzählten von den vielen Reisen, die wir gemacht hatten. Rachel war in Portugal gewesen, wo sie jeden Tag Kabeljau in öliger Tomatensoße gegessen hatte, und Kerstin war zur Weinlese in Südfrankreich, Wenzel sogar in Indonesien gewesen. Ich hatte in El Salvador zugesehen, wie Ratten auf den Holzbalken über mir balancierten, und Nele hatte auf einer langen Wüstentour durch Algerien Meteoriten im Sand gefunden. Als es dunkel geworden war, konnten wir zwischen den Nachbarhäusern die Sterne sehen, und obwohl wir uns insgeheim schon Zimmer ausgesucht hatten, blieben wir in dieser ersten Nacht zusammen in einem
Raum. Einige hatten Campingkocher mitgebracht, wir konnten ja nicht ahnen, dass die Herde in den Küchen funktionierten, man musste nur den Gashahn aufdrehen, und wir kochten Tütensuppen und weichten Weißbrot darin ein und aßen das Ganze aus Blechgeschirren und emaillierten Tellern, dazu tranken wir Ostbier aus grünen Flaschen, das Wenzel mitgebracht hatte.
Und wir redeten leise, wir beobachteten die Fledermäuse, die halsbrecherische Kurven durch den Hof flogen, blieben auf, bis morgens um vier die Straßenbahn zu hören war, wie sie über den Rosenthaler Platz quietschte, immer an der gleichen Stelle stotterte und dann laut surrend weiterfuhr. Als wir so langsam endlich einschliefen, legte sich Rachel auffällig nah zu mir und achtete darauf, dass genügend Abstand blieb zu Kerstins Schlafsack, den die quer vor die Eingangstür zum Treppenhaus gelegt hatte.

 

Translator’s Statement:

Berlin, summer 1990: the Wall has fallen, thousands of East Germans have fled to the West leaving complete apartment blocks and sometimes even whole streets abandoned while new inhabitants start to arrive in East Berlin; they are the squatters. Primarily from West Germany, the squatters set up their own communities to pursue their own political ideals, be that veganism or feminism. They reject the city council, which is struggling to form a government for reunified Berlin; they dispute the authority of the police and have established their own assembly to administer the occupied houses of East Berlin. The squatters themselves follow left-leaning ideologies and dispense self-administered justice should a Neo-Nazi, or even worse, an informant, cross their path.

This is the setting of Andreas Baum’s semi-autobiographic novel, “Wir waren die neue Zeit” (We were the new era). In this excerpt, we see the group, mainly consisting of students, take the decision to become squatters and go exploring in what appears to be the endless possibilities of empty East Berlin.

The topic and characters are slightly different to the majority of German books dealing with the post-Wall period for it does not examine how former citizens of the GDR came to terms with life in the capitalist society, but rather concentrates on a group of people who moved into the power-vacuum in order to create their own society. However, this group is no less important for the German squatters of this time were politically motivated and were not simply interested in living rent free. Some of their legacy is still present today.

 

Catherine Venner studied German and European studies at the University of Durham (England) and the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder (Germany). She has worked as a translator, primarily in the legal and commercial sector, for over eight years. She lived, studied, and worked in Berlin for seven years and has now returned to her hometown of Durham. Her translations have appeared in World Literature Today, No Man’s Land, and Brixton Review of Books.

Andreas Baum, born in 1967, grew up in Nairobi and Hesse, in Germany. He studied journalism and Latin-American Studies in Berlin and has written as a journalist for German newspapers, such as taz, Freitag, Lettre International, Deutschlandfunk, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and Frankfurter Rundschau. Since 2013, he is the culture editor and an author at Deutschlandradio Kultur. Wir waren die neue Zeit (We were the new era) is his first novel. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and another novel. He has received writing grants from two German cultural organisations.

Live, Work, Skate

You’re ten years old and your father says you’re handsome. The most handsome boy in the whole world, he says. In the same breath, he tells you no white girl will ever date you, let alone marry you. He knows this from experience, from his time at a New Jersey college before meeting your mother. Most women don’t find Asian men attractive, he says before opining that the opposite is true for your three sisters.

You stare blankly back at him…you don’t even like girls, you think to yourself. You say nothing.

A decade later, you learn it’s more complicated.

*     *     *

No fems, fats, or Asians. You read this headline in dozens of gay dating and hook-up profiles, until it is deemed socially unacceptable. You see it less and less until one day, you don’t see it anymore. You miss it. In a sea of headless torsos, the headline is a filter that expedites the process of elimination. You are efficient.

You stop initiating contact with men on websites and apps. You fear one would write the headline, if allowed. You are risk-averse.

You learn that white men will date you, maybe even marry you, but they’re a somewhat uncommon type of gay – a rare, exotic species. You also learn that the white men who desire you are often only into Asian men. You later find out these men are called “rice queens.” To this day, the term makes your skin crawl. You prefer the Latin translation, Reginae Oryza (plural) and Regina Oryza (singular). You are pretentious.

“I only find Asian boys attractive,” says the Regina Oryza, “I love that all of you have such smooth, hairless bodies.”

Once the Regina Oryza says or writes some variation on this theme, he is dead to you. You don’t return his messages or calls. You don’t even feel guilty about it. You rationalize that of the two billion Asian men on earth there is probably at least one who is stupid or desperate enough to date the Regina Oryza. In fact, you are surprised to learn there are many.

You continue to sleep with white men, but refuse to date them. When marriage equality passes, you vow not to marry one, even though you occasionally cross paths with nice white men. Smart white men. Good white men. Woke white men. If you lived in Texas, you would have certainly voted for the one with the bunny face and Mexican nickname who ran for Senate and lost. However, none of these white men are a member of the rare species, Reginae Oryza. And even if one of them was, you wouldn’t want him.

You date other Asian men and learn many do not prefer you and would rather compete for the attention of the Regina Oryza.

You date brown and black men, exclusively. Dating improves, temporarily. You learn brown and black men can be Reginae Oryza, as well.

And you remain single.

Then you do not date or sleep with anyone anymore.

*     *     *

You focus on your work since it is something you can control and you’re good at it. You take on consulting projects in areas with no discernible solution: the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change in China, racial disparities in public education. You are awarded a highly-competitive, one-year fellowship to reform healthcare in the local jails.

Source: Wikipedia

You conduct research, talk to experts, make PowerPoint slides. You present recommendations to executives with MBAs and MDs and big-wigs who wear guns on their hips, even in the Board room. You learn that the ones with the guns make all of the important decisions. Everyone smiles and says they’re impressed though nothing changes.

Later, you learn no one else wanted the highly-competitive, one-year fellowship.

You continue to collect your fellowship stipend. You use this money to buy pot, which was recently legalized in your state, and smoke it, while watching the Winter Olympics. You are jealous of all of the athletes’ talent. You are even more jealous of their youth. You stumble upon the Men’s Figure Skating event, and you are mesmerized by the men’s strength and grace, a respite from the jails you’ve failed.

You root for the American gold-medal favorite who is Asian. He can do four types of quad jumps. He falters in the Short Program and places fifth. You notice he’s cute, but only eighteen, which in your rulebook is too young to incite dirty thoughts. You then notice another skater who’s Asian, a Canadian, also cute, but twenty-seven, and hence more acceptable to incite dirty thoughts. He can only do one kind of quad jump. However, you think he is a far better skater than the young one. The commentators say the Asian-Canadian’s artistry is unmatched, something about his deep edges, speed, and how he positions his head and arms as he whizzes and spins across the rink.

Soon after the Olympics, the Asian-Canadian retires.

Still, you watch the Olympic replays of the Asian-Canadian late into the night and into the weekend. You wince when he falls, which is often, but you forgive him since everything else he does on the ice is so sensual. When you grow tired of the replays, you watch his old performances on YouTube. You sob during his Free Program at the 2015 Skate Canada International competition. You watch old interviews of him and he sounds like a dopey teenager, yet you swoon at his aw shucks smile and girlish giggles that sometimes bookend his phrases. You plan a trip to visit a close friend in Vancouver, where the Asian-Canadian lives. You plan on using his Instagram feed to track his location so you can casually run into him and ask for an autograph. You realize this is very creepy. You ask your friend in Vancouver not to allow you to do this.

You read the news.

You learn the Asian-Canadian skater has a white girlfriend.

You stop smoking pot.

You sign-up for figure skating lessons. You are the only male in the Adult Beginners class and the only student over forty. You are bothered by this, which also bothers you, but not enough to keep you from showing up every week. You fall on your knees. You fall on your face. You land on your ass. You eventually skate around the rink without falling. You learn to skate backwards. You glide backwards on your skates at full-speed, the wind blowing through what’s left of your salt and pepper hair. Finally, you feel beautiful.

 

Tom Pyun is an essayist and novelist living in Los Angeles. He was a fellow with Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, Tin House, and VONA. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, Blue Mesa Review, Eleven Eleven, and Reed and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. He holds degrees from Vassar and Columbia and is an MFA candidate at Antioch.

 

 

Sasha Fierce asks ‘Why Don’t You Love Me?’

Today I find comfort in the thunder’s holy growl.
Hunger sometimes smells like petrichor: dead
bacteria awakening our most primal sense to the promise of replenishment.

All this while, I’ve been singing along: Honey, please try to understand
it’s time to love
your woman. Maybe it is time to make me your woman,
to let the soft animal of your prayers become mine for devotion.

Today I mourn the way you corner my gaze in your eye,
waiting for me to reach deep into you and fish out some requital.
My love is leaking like Dali’s time and I deserve to be loved back
Into myself. I wonder if this giving is a loss or an echo
and what I am to do with
Your lips breaking a harmattan open and pronouncing black boy joy
The bottom of my heel cracking at the joke
Your tongue grazing down my spine
and my breasts sagging to meet yours…
Knowing I should be held not as meteors are discovered:
long after their time, funneled by obsolescence
but fondled as ribbons in the sky do each other:
stretching a graze to an entanglement, whatever which way the wind blows.

 

Immaculata Abba is a Nigerian writer and photographer studying history and comparative literature at Queen Mary University of London. She was selected for the 2017 Writivism Creative Writing Mentoring Scheme and has been published in Brittle Paper, Saraba, Popula, and others.

Hombrecito

[fiction]

I am a little man. That’s what Papi always says. Mijo, you are un hombrecito. That means that I must be strong, never ask for help and—very important—never cry. But my teacher doesn’t understand this and wants to know why I punched Manuel during recess. She says that I need to use my words and not my fists and that talking about the problem might help. I don’t want to tell her anything. My dad says that it’s embarrassing to talk about our problems.

Nothing’s wrong, I say, I’m fine, I won’t do it again.

It doesn’t work. They ask my parents to come to school and they both look upset. Mami brings me to the principal’s office and Papi arrives ten minutes later. He sits across from us. What happened, mijo? I stare at my shoes and tell him that the other kid started it. I close my fists—so tight that my thumbs hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to how I feel about my parents being at school—like being squeezed and pushed out. They don’t need any more problems, they have plenty. I keep looking at my shoes wishing that I could be anywhere but here.

Inside the principal’s office, I sit on the small couch with my mom. My teacher, Mrs. Miller, takes the armchair. The principal tells my dad that there are chairs outside, that if he wouldn’t mind bringing one inside so that he can sit. No, no, I’m okay like this. But before the principal can insist, the school counselor, Mr. Gomez appears at the door, Oh, we need two chairs, I will take care of that. My dad wants to say no again but it’s too late. Mr. Gomez offers him a chair with a big smile on his face. Papi just slurs a quick thank you. The principal starts talking but after a few words, she makes a strange face like the one I make when I have forgotten to do my homework. She looks at my dad. Mr. Suarez, I was told that you speak English, is that correct? My dad nods without looking at her. Then she turns to my mom. Mrs. Suarez, what about you? Mami does not respond, her big eyes distant stars sending distressed signals. Okay, I will speak slowly then. Mr. Suarez and Mr. Gomez, could you please fill her in later? Mr. Gomez is happy to oblige, all teeth and cheerfulness. Papi barely shrugs.

I close my fists—so tight that my thumbs hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to how I feel about my parents being at school—like being squeezed and pushed out. They don’t need any more problems, they have plenty.

I get tired of looking at my shoes so I grab a pen I find on the desk next to me. I play with it and concentrate on the click-click it makes when I push the tiny button. I know they are talking about me but I don’t look up. Everyone’s upset at me right now but in a couple of weeks, some other kid will screw up even worse than I did and then everyone will forget about me. I can’t wait for that to happen—I don’t like people looking at me and bombarding me with questions. Speaking of which, I think Mr. Gomez is asking me something. I just shrug.

That’s not going to work, we need an answer. Why did you punch Manuel?

I keep staring at the pen and just say I don’t know, that I was upset, that it isn’t that big of a deal. They go back to talking to each other and I just stay in silence for the rest of the meeting.

*     *     *

Two weeks later, I am at a counselor’s office all the way across town. While we wait, Papi keeps looking at his watch. He’s missing work because of me. Mami moves around in her chair and gives me a tired smile. We go inside and they ask her to sign a bunch of papers. Some lady is translating the information for her. Mami just nods and signs wherever they point. We then talk to another lady who has huge, thick glasses. She is sitting at her computer and talks to the translator lady who then asks my parents tons of questions. Words and tears spill out of Mami, little diamonds falling down her face. I look at Papi. Arms crossed, he moves his head side to side and stares at the floor. What is Mami doing? We don’t tell our problems to other people. She keeps crying. I don’t want to look anymore. I look out the window—at the trees—the leaves rustling in the wind. But Mami’s crying is still there. It always is.

*     *     *

I start meeting with a counselor once a week. Mami has Wednesdays off so that is when we go. Papi cannot ask for more time off work. I meet Rick by myself and sometimes, he speaks to my mom afterwards with the help of the translator lady who always looks like she has a stomachache. I thought the counselor was going to be mean and tell me what a bad kid I am but it turns out that counselors are very much like art teachers. One day he asks me to draw my house, another day, my family, and another one, my classroom. After I’m done with the drawings, Rick asks me to explain them to him and he also asks about the people in them. I like talking about my drawings. I like that this guy does not ask what is wrong with me. He asks easy questions. I now look forward to talking to him so that I can tell him all about my drawings.

One day, Rick asks what made me draw my father far away from Mami, my brother, and me. I tell him that I don’t know. He asks if I am upset with Papi, if I don’t want him at home anymore. I answer no. I tell him he got it backwards. Papi is the one who’s upset. He is the one who doesn’t want to live with us anymore. Rick asks why. I answer that I’m not sure, that maybe he is tired of my mom always yelling at him. Rick asks if I know why she yells at Papi. I tell him no, that I don’t ask because my dad says is rude to ask people about their problems. When they fight, I just go to my room, put my headphones on and play video games. I tell Rick that I can still hear the yelling through the earphones. He asks me how does that make me feel and I say that I don’t know—I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Rick says okay and asks about my upcoming soccer game.

Rick shows me a video. A boy that looks like he could be my age is playing outside his house, shooting some hoops, smiling. Suddenly, yelling comes from inside the house and the boy starts singing to himself. The ball dribbles faster and faster but the yelling keeps getting louder and louder. Then his dad comes out, slams the door, gets into his car and does not even look at him. At the end of the video, the boy throws the ball over the fence and just sits on the porch with his head down, looking at his shoes.

How do you think the boy feels? Rick asks, like he knew a secret I had yet to discover.

I think he is sad, I say, but then change my mind. No, I think he is angry. I can’t make up my mind and I tell him that I think he is both sad and angry.

What makes him sad and angry?

That his parents are fighting, I guess.

The boy’s sad because his parents are fighting?

No, that makes him angry!

Why is he sad then?

I say that the boy is sad because he thinks that it is his fault that his parents fight all the time. He thinks he’s a bad boy and that’s why his parents yell at each other.

What do you think the boy should do?

I say that I don’t know.

Maybe he could talk to someone? Rick insists.

No, I say, that would be embarrassing for the boy.

But if he’s sad, don’t you think it would be a good idea to ask for help?

No! Men don’t ask for help.

Rick says the boy is not a man. I say that he’s a little man and little men don’t cry and they don’t ask for help. I tell Rick that I have a ton of homework and that I need to leave early. He nods and says that’s fine, that he will see me next week.

*     *     *

For a week I can’t stop thinking about the boy, sitting at that porch while the world around him keeps getting smaller—the sky above him slashed with gray clouds. I want to hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay. Rick says that it’s very nice of me to want to comfort the boy. He asks me what else I would say to him.

I’m not sure, I answer.

What if the boy told you he thinks it’s his fault that his mom and dad are fighting?

I say that I would tell him I don’t think that’s true. Adults fight all the time about old people problems and it has nothing to do with the kids. Rick asks if I’m sure about that. I say that yes, I think so.

You are right! It is not the boy’s fault. As a matter of fact, children are never to blame when parents fight.

I nod, suspicious. I’m usually never right.

What about you?

What about me?

Do you think your parents fight because of you?

I look down, shrug and say that sometimes I do.

But you just said that it wasn’t the boy’s fault that their parents were fighting. Why should it be your fault, then?

I don’t know. I start lowering my head so that I can look at the floor but Rick stops me.

Look at me! You need to look at people when they are talking to you. Now listen. Your parents are going through a hard time, and they may fight sometimes because that’s how adults think they can solve their problems. But I want you to understand, it is never your fault. You cannot control what adults do or say. That’s not your job. Do you understand?

I nod slowly. I feel strange, like my chest is about to burst. I’m not sure what’s happening.

You can ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less of a man. It makes you human.

And something else, Rick continues, I want you to pay close attention to what I am about to say because it is very important. Always remember, no matter how much they fight, your parents love you very much. That will never change. Your brother and you are the most important people in the world to them. They may not always act like it, because parents are human and they can make mistakes. But they love you with all their hearts and they want what’s best for you.

Something breaks inside me. I try to stop the tears with my hands. Rick says that it is okay, that I can cry. I say no, that’s not true and I tell him what Papi says.

I’m sure your dad means well, but like I said before, parents don’t know everything and they can make mistakes just like everyone else. Crying does not make you less of a man. For example, what does your mom do when you fall from your bicycle and scrape your knee?

She cleans the wound with warm water.

Does it feel better?

Yes, it calms the pain.

Exactly! It works just the same with the wounds we have inside. Our warm tears help wash the sadness and anger away. If we hold our tears and words for too long, the wound gets infected and it will only hurt more and more. I bet your parents have told you that if your brother or you hurt yourselves when playing, you should ask an adult for help. It isn’t any different when we hurt inside. You can ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less of a man. It makes you human.

I nod. I take a deep breath. And then I cry.

I cry for Mami and Papi. I cry for my little brother and for me. I cry for my family. I cry because it hurts that my parents can’t be friends and I don’t want Papi to leave and I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. I tell all of this to Rick and he says that it’ll be okay. That now that I can talk about what hurts, the pain will get better. He says that I cannot control what my parents decide to do but that I can talk to them about my fears and tell them how I feel when they fight. He says to keep in mind that even though my mom and my dad are older than me, they are still learning how to deal with their problems. But that no matter what happens, I have to remember that they love me, that they will always be there for me, and that I should hold on to that.

*     *     *

A few weeks have passed and things have started to get better. My parents talked to Rick a few times and now they don’t fight as much. When they do, they make sure to come look for me, give me a hug and ask me if I’m okay. This isn’t something easy for Papi. At the beginning he didn’t want to meet with Rick but little by little, he’s becoming less uncomfortable when talking about things. He’s learning just like me and he now understands that it’s okay for a man to be sad sometimes and to want to talk about his problems with other people. I am stronger now because I can help my mom and my dad and give them hugs when I see that they’re sad. I don’t look at my shoes or the floor anymore when people ask me questions. I try to look straight into their eyes, answer their questions, and apologize if I have done something wrong.

That makes me brave, not weak.

That makes me un hombrecito.

 

Melanie Márquez Adams is an MFA candidate in Spanish creative writing and a recipient of the Iowa Arts Fellowship at the University of Iowa. Her short story collection, Mariposas Negras, won Third Place in the 2018 North Texas Book Festival Spanish Fiction Awards. Melanie’s work has appeared in storySouth, Dash, Whale Road Review, Asterix Journal, The Acentos Review, and elsewhere.

Laundry Lessons

We were the only Latinos on the wet side of town and the only power-washed house on the block. Ma reminded Pops to rent the machine every year. While Pops blasted strips of filth off our vinyl siding, Ma was inside spraying our dog with Febreze. She fixated on scorching everything clean. Ma was self-conscious around white women in department stores, generally avoided my school events. She’d send Pops, light-skinned and affable, in her place.

What I knew about our history, I’d learned while doing laundry. In Puerto Rico, Pops had been in and out of jail, on and off the streets. A charitable old man let Ma stay rent-free in an isolated shack near the Isabela coast until he could sell the property.

“That’s where I went into labor with Steven,” she’d said.  Alone that night, Ma had to climb the narrow and unkempt path into town, that’s how she got the scars on her feet, her thin chanclas catching broken glass. All I could imagine were hungry predators, man and animal, watching my mother as she groped in blind search of safety. Ma’s only worry had been to keep Steven from being born on the ground and left there to be found screaming and covered in ants, as she had been.

Steven ended up with his own problems, but Ma and Pops were doing it right this time, with me. “God gave us a second chance,” she’d said.

They came to Newark, where I was born. Pops got clean and saved enough money to buy a narrow bungalow on the wet side, densely-populated and so named for its vulnerability to the Sandy Hook Bay.

When I got mad at Pops, she’d say, “You got it good, Miriam. Your father used to be a different man.” Meaning, things were not bad now, even with Steven dropping out of high school when I was eleven and disappearing for days, weeks at a time. That’s the way it was with Steven, in and out, occasional paranormal visits.

White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business.

When we were younger, he’d race me to wherever Ma was in the house. “Whoever gets to her first,” he’d say, “is loved the most.” We’d hold hands and go scouting the town’s debris for plastic soda bottles, the labels of which we’d pull off for reward points toward branded fanny-packs, boom-boxes, mountain bikes. We never won anything, but it felt productive to keep searching, imagining potential in our streets.

Just a few weeks back, I’d sat with him on the couch. “What are you watching?” I asked. He stared at the blank TV; an earlier storm had knocked out the cable. The screen reflected the sunlight behind us and cast our silhouettes like witnesses who didn’t want to be identified.

We sat close. I knew Steven heard me, but he didn’t reply, and the next day Steven was gone, along with our TV.

*     *     *

I’d been helping Ma with laundry and was about to toss a white tee in with my darks when she snatched the shirt out of my hands, nearly shrieking. “You don’t want Leann’s family thinking you’re like the white trash around here. All their whites looking dirty.”

White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business. I did not tell her Leann Pacholski’s white training bra was mop-water gray.

“Go ask your father what he wants for dinner,” Ma said. They weren’t speaking—they’d been fighting about kicking Steven out for good—but Ma’s work ethic endured and our meals were always prepared, resentment expressed with overcooked rice. The problem was, Pops wasn’t speaking to me either. I’d misplaced his favorite hairbrush, failed to put it back exactly as I found it, to the right of the kitchen sink.

I found him rooting through the backyard shed, a glossy new structure out of place in our cramped backyard. Pops wasn’t a man with hobbies—only emotions as forbidden to me as his personal belongings—but for a homeowner, the shed was a necessary upgrade.

“Ma wants to know what you want for dinner. I’m going to a barbecue at the Pacholskis today.”

“Who?”

“My friend, Leann. There’s gonna be a lot of people. Ma said I could go.”

Pops considered it without looking at me. Maybe Ma was wrong when she told me in secret that Pops’s love had conditions. Maybe his love was constant but withheld until we were good again.

“Tell Ma to take you,” he said. “And she can pick something up on the way back. I’m changing the locks today.” He’d never met the Pacholskis, didn’t even ask me for their number, but changing the locks had to do with Steven. I took advantage of that and ran back to Ma.

*     *     *

Leann also lived on the wet side, and we attended the same day camp for middle schoolers at a park down the road. I sat at the arts and crafts table most of the time, where I wouldn’t be expected to imitate everyone’s enthusiasm for life, disappoint myself and God when I couldn’t. An older boy once teased Leann for latch-hooking with me instead of playing kickball, and she shot back, “Why don’t you suck my dick?”

Leann’s father, Roy, was popular for his Hulk Hogan impressions—he tied back his thick blonde hair and had a stocky build. He was always first to pick his kid up from day camp. The crunching of the gravel as his faded blue sedan pulled in signaled to the rest of us that we’d finally be home again—our energy and optimism revived, fights were forgiven, amends made. Usually, Roy would grab a juice box or soda from the backseat and toss it through his window while Leann headed toward his car. She caught it each time with both hands, as casual as if she’d been tossed a beer from a cooler, this routine like a commercial for Hawaiian Punch.

At the barbecue, Leann and I role-played fantastic scenarios, taking turns as witches or maiden victims. I’d met Leann’s mother, Sheryl, first thing, an unexpectedly bubbly woman in tight acid-wash shorts. “We have soda, do you want one? Let me get you one,” she’d said to me, but then got distracted by arriving guests. Now she was on the patio, having a drink for every drink she served and raising the volume on Bon Jovi, yelling about being ready to party.

“Looks like you’re already partying,” Roy yelled over her.

Once Leann’s cousins came around, she and her younger sister, Kat, kicked up dust tearing off for other games. I walked the edges of their yard looking for bottles, mostly finding half-buried Newports.

In chase, Leann leapt over a muddy Barbie jeep like a track hurdle. Her foot, bare and suspended, reminded me of when Ma’s crashed through the stoop of my own dollhouse, a wooden toy Victorian I’d been painting on the sidewalk path leading to our front door. She’d been chasing Steven around the house and he’d come out the front door before her, tripping and smacking the ground before me. He looked at me, the first in a long time, an acknowledgement that felt like apology. Then he was off and down the street before I could tell him he was loved, which maybe would have made him stay.

Ma came after him and the stoop of my dollhouse shattered with a croak I heard over her yelling “Coño carajo!” and falling to her already scarred-feet. One of many times I sat in my closet, tight and dark as a womb, solace when our house sometimes offered none.

He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left.

There was one bottle. Lying face up and waiting in the sun. Without noticing it uncapped and a quarter full, I grabbed it, tore the label off, a rare 4-points, a clover. Only then did I feel the warm liquid seeping through my white Keds, a soda stain more unforgivable than grass or soil.

I’d never crossed a yard so expansive on the wet side—enough distance for an oak tree, a tire swing even. But the inside of the Palchoski house seemed unprepared for company; the floors were cloudy with grime. Upstairs, black mold lined their bathroom sink, where I’d taken off my shoe to run a low, cold stream over the toe. Something about their home, I thought, might lead to a deeper, inaccessible truth that would explain what made me so uncomfortable around my peers—that people could be this dirty and poor and still have more than we did.

A crash downstairs, Roy shouting: “Get the fuck up, Sheryl!”

Halfway down the kitchen stairs, I saw Sheryl on the kitchen floor next to an upturned folding table of snacks, laughing and sticking out her tongue to lick potato chips off her face with as much delight as a kid in snow.

“Nice, Sher. In front of the girls,” Roy said, softer, cleaning up around her. At the back door, Leann and Kat watched on with the spooked bewilderment of feral children.

People outside began to leave, and I followed the girls upstairs. In their room, Leann slumped on the edge of her bed. “Mom and Dad are gonna get a divorce.”

“No they aren’t,” Kat whined, kneeling down at a pile of dolls tangled up and maimed. She separated them until she came up with one that was whole.

“They told you that?” I asked.

“Yup,” Leann said. “They’re just waiting for us to graduate.”

Kat began to cry, wiping pale streaks through the dirt on her face. Leann looked out the window with a troubled squint, as if she’d seen everything.

I sat next to her, my chance to show I was a good friend. “Doesn’t that make you sad?”

“No,” she said. “They hate each other.”

Still, I couldn’t relate, though I’d only seen my parents kiss once, quickly. A cozy Friday night when I playfully asked if they loved each other and begged them to prove it.

Leann’s dad stood awkwardly at the door, portable phone in hand. “You wanna give your parents a call, Miriam?”

“Sure,” I said, taking the phone and dialing, but no one answered.

“No problem,” Roy said, nodding toward the girls. “We’ll take you home.”

*     *     *

Leann and I sat in the backseat of Roy’s car and Kat took the front. Kat kept crying and asking what happened. “Is Mommy okay?”

Roy ignored her as he grappled with his seatbelt, growing irritated.

“Are you guys gonna get a divorce?”

Roy stopped. “Who told you that?” he asked.

“Shut up, idiot,” Leann said, reaching up to pinch her sister, hard enough to make her squeal.

Roy twisted around as if going for a juice box. Instead, his hand clamped over Leann’s skinny upper thigh so tightly she buckled over, shrieking.

“What, you don’t like that?” Roy shouted. His fingertips and her skin went bloodless as he tightened his grip, emitting a low, satisfied growl. Leann lost her voice, all agony, but her mouth still hung open as a line of drool dipped down, touched his hairy knuckles.

Kat screamed at Roy to stop, batting his arm with the futility of a child’s fist until he finally released Leann and started his engine.

The ride back was silent. We kept our faces to the windows, all ashamed in our own ways.

Once I told my parents about the Pacholskis, they’d never let me back. In fact, I looked forward to the conversation, asking them innocent questions about what I’d seen, like when I asked about Steven, where he went, what he was doing. They were always quick to soothe, so I stopped wanting honest answers, only comfort, something Leann clearly didn’t have with a drunk mother, cruel father, divorce.

We reached my block and Roy stopped short. I was about to tell him I lived further when I saw the disturbance up ahead—two cop cars in front of my house, an officer trying to calm Ma, who was frantic, crying. Another talked to Pops, who stood calm and justified.

Steven was being pushed up against a car, hands behind his back, skinnier than I’d ever seen him. But he still looked like Pops, and Pops saw himself in Steven, too. He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left. Pops couldn’t see, as I saw now, that what was left was catastrophe in the past tense, wreckage that still needed cleaning.

Neighbors formed clusters on the broken sidewalks, eager to know more. My vision blurred as I realized I didn’t want to leave their car, that I was scared.

“Someone’s getting arrested!” Kat said, leaning over the dashboard.

“What’s going on?” Leann asked, straining to look. A bruise was already forming on her thigh, but it could have been from any childish accident.

Roy put the car in park and twisted around again with an opportunity to be gentle, concerned.

“I’d better let you out here, hon,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you and Leann to see each other again.”

 

Jerilynn Aquino received her MFA from Temple University, where she was fiction editor for TINGE Magazine. She now works with Philadelphia Futures to provide low-income teens with resources for college success.

Photo Credit: Michael DeLeon

Chicken

[fiction]

I was putting on my uniform when I first got the news, my red polo that won’t stop smelling like chicken grease no matter how many times I wash it, and the lingering stink of waffle fries. I told Rosie she was on speaker ‘cause I was getting ready for work, and she said, “Baby, that’s why I’m calling, and I’m telling you right now, you’re not gonna like it.” Can’t pretend I wasn’t shocked. Hurt. Felt dirtier in that uniform than I did after a shift. Felt used. Friends said, “They close on Sundays, of course they hate gay people.” But Mama preached behind the pulpit with her baritone voice my whole life, saying things like, “You can’t say God is perfect and God makes no mistakes and God created everything, then turn around and tell a person they were born wrong.” So I never assumed they had hate in their heart, is all I’m saying. I don’t like assuming anything about anyone I don’t know.

Ever since I can remember, at least twice a year, waking up on a Sunday and walking to church from our little parsonage, only to find “Faggots” or “Fag Lover” or “Fags Go to Hell” spray-painted on the doors.

They say ignorance is bliss and I guess they’re right, but Mama didn’t raise me like that. She wasn’t a preacher who wanted your brain left at the door. She wanted questions and research and asking, asking, asking until you got an honest answer, even if that answer was a truthful I don’t know. So when I heard they were donating to all those hate groups, my queer heart just had to see. Just had to look it up.

The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and the National Christian Foundation and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Family Research Council and Exodus International and Focus on the Family and Jesus Lord Almighty, no. What are they doing in your name?

The Right got really eager online. “Tomorrow we get up and go, we go to our nearest location and show our support; we thank them for supporting true family values!” And I will never forget walking into work that day, the line so big it moved past the food court and snaked around the corner. Not sure why I was so surprised, what with where Mama and I live. Ever since I can remember, at least twice a year, waking up on a Sunday and walking to church from our little parsonage, only to find “Faggots” or “Fag Lover” or “Fags Go to Hell” spray-painted on the doors. Mama and I and whoever came that morning, our small congregation having church outside that day, painting those doors rainbow and singing hymns. The deacons and deaconesses passing out lemonade and Mama preaching her sermon while applying a second coat of yellow, amen.

But that was a terrible day, that never ending line, me slapping chicken between greasy buns, bagging and handing them off to people who’d smile and give me their “God bless” bull. Those same people who’d hate me had they known the truth, looking in my eyes and smiling like we were best friends or something, or even worse, the ones that said, “Thank you for doing God’s work.” And even my Republican friends behind the counter, laughing behind their backs like, “‘Doing God’s work?’ Didn’t even know about that marriage stuff until yesterday, good Lord.”

But the worst was when someone from our own church turned up, saw me and got all pink at the ears. “Sarah baby, I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Sure do,” I said, and made certain not to look him in the eye.

He got real close then, all whisper like, and to this day I’m not sure who he was protecting, his own reputation or mine. “Hun, I’m not here for any kind of political statement. You know how much I love you and your mama and even your Rosie. It’s just cheap and good and our favorite quick and easy, you know? It really don’t mean anything.”

“I know,” I said, but when I still didn’t look at him, he took the bag from my hand harder than he had to and leaned in even closer. “Not like you’re any better, working here and everything,” and stormed away. Mama and I haven’t seen him in church since.

All my life I’ve been so grateful for her, watching and fearing my friends with their fire and brimstone daddies, so grateful for my mama and her big heart. That’s the heart I don’t want hurting.

I was mad when it happened because I’d only just found out, too. Didn’t apply for the job knowing where all that money was going, but weeks have passed and I still haven’t quit. You see those mega churches on TV with those six-bedroom mansions to one married couple? Don’t let them fool you. Pastors don’t make that kind of money, only TV evangelicals who prey on the poor and vulnerable. Pastors in the real world are busy cutting coupons and dipping into their savings to pay a car bill, knowing deep down they won’t ever get to retire, not really, and see . . . it’s just me and Mama, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself. I don’t eat there on my breaks anymore, but you know who still does? Rosie. We fought over it just last week. And I know she’s not the only one of us who thinks the whole thing’s silly, likes to tell me boycotting’s no good anyway, and c’mon, Sarah, what’s the big deal?

I’ve been looking for another job, but it’s damn near impossible around here. Mama says to quit and protect my heart from hurting, but last week I saw her filling out applications for the gas station around the corner, and I will not let her do that, no ma’am. All my life I’ve been so grateful for her, watching and fearing my friends with their fire and brimstone daddies, so grateful for my mama and her big heart. That’s the heart I don’t want hurting. So I’m still here, still smiling and ringing up the same people that probably spray-painted our church’s doors, still pouring lemonade and ignoring Rosie’s calls, still serving up food that’s just as chicken as me.

 

Diana Clark is an elephant enthusiast and an MFA fiction candidate at UNCW, with special love for LGBTQIA+ literature, magical realism, and sci-fi. Her work has appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Peach Mag, The Passed Note, Heavy Feather Review, Okay Donkey, Longleaf Review, and more. In 2015, her piece “Singed” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her reading about pirates in Wilmington, North Carolina with her cat, Emily D.

Q & A

—Do you have a fear of losing people?

I once rustled moonlight underneath the blanket
and threatened to keep it. I unwrapped it slowly
like sand loosed by waves, a child with one present
come Christmas morning.

—Do you feel that being black makes you a target?

If shooting holes into darkness was not a sport,
then each glow, each bend and arc, each reach
and fiery flicker of stellar assortment would be a lie—

—Who did you vote for?

All I wanted were bodies back.

—Why do black people run from police?

The concrete is hot. These are new shoes.
As sons and daughters of Mercury, we are partial
to wind sprints, Julys and Junes.

—Slavery was such a long time ago. Why can’t you just get over it?

(Sisyphuses. Gluttons for punishment,
you’d joke.) Because some of us swam
to the sea’s depth, told us this secret:
(                                               )

—Michael Brown is in so many of your poems. Did you know him?

I often viewed the Arch’s bend over a small piece of St. Louis
like it owned the city. I, in my school bus, passed—never able
to connect both ends.

—Who is Icarus to you?

A canary on the heels of antelope. A Pegasus without wings.

—What have you learned from protest?

I’m in love with the sound of freedom, the way the top teeth
sink into the bottom lip, the way the tongue hovers in suspense,
before bouncing suddenly to the roof of a mouth
like a mallet striking a lever; the puck rising to toll the bell,
the last consonant ending in a kiss.
 
—What do you hope to accomplish by writing this poem?

I hope to release a hummingbird from the palm of my hand,
watch it fly off on little wings.

 

Raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Bernardino, California, Chaun Ballard is an affiliate editor for Alaska Quarterly Review, a Callaloo fellow, and a graduate of the MFA Program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Chaun Ballard’s chapbook, Flight, is the winner of the 2018 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize and is published by Tupelo Press. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ANMLY (FKA Drunken Boat), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Chiron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Frontier Poetry, International Poetry Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Rattle, and other literary magazines. His work has received nominations for both Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize.

How to Brew Tea for a Funeral

[creative nonfiction]

Send one of your five sons out into the night to turn on the generator. Wait for its whir to wake the village.

Strike a match and light the largest burner on the gas stove. Fill the gallon teapot to the brim. While the water simmers, reach for the canister of herbs. It is autumn, so select the za’atar, not the mint. Add the loose-leaf tea. Stir in sugar until it stops dissolving.

Enter your living room, filled with all the women of the village. Sit next to your oldest son’s wife, the mother of your granddaughter whose body is now stiff and cold. Sip your tea and murmur that she was so young. Rock her mother back and forth. Weep.

In the morning, listen as your youngest son describes how he performed CPR, how he did his best to breathe out life and beat back death. Watch your oldest son press to his chest his infant daughter, your remaining granddaughter and bearer of your name. Think what everyone is thinking: if there were no Israeli military roadblock between your house and the hospital, she might still be alive.

In two days, make tea for the entire village again, but first serve lamb. Prepare the meat so it is tender and the rice salty. Your guests will eat with efficiency, in silence. They will leave after you serve the third cup of tea.

Ensure your remaining granddaughter sees everything. She will prepare the tea when you are gone.

 

J.M. Ellison is a writer, scholar, and grassroots activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Story Club Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Columbus Alive, and other publications. They are currently finishing their first graphic novel, a timely nonfiction account of the power of community in a small Palestinian village. J.M. believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net and on Twitter at @joymellison.

Photo Credit: J.M. Ellison

Portrait of a Slave-Owner’s Wife

Light folds around her       yellow-silk

like a pillar-candle

Shadows round her cheek             curve

between lips

press below her nose

On her left

a thickened impasto

of fading paint

and varnish layers obscure shapes and

it’s hard to see a dark boy

in blue

livery bending

brown skin      black hair   without a stroke

of light

to wash over him                 so he remains

vague as a         footnote

in a language

that I barely know

Is he the slave-boy beaten

by her husband?

Brutal is the imagination

seeping through generations

like a sweep of paint      that could

be       a smooth yellow

gown or a puddle

of piss

or  yellow light

from  torches waving       in the night

 

Aileen Bassis is a visual artist in New York City working in book arts, printmaking, photography, and installation. Her artwork can be viewed at www.aileenbassis.com. Her use of text in art led her to explore another creative life as a poet. Her poems have appeared in B o d y Literature, Spillway, Grey Sparrow Journal, Canary, Amoskeag, Stone Canoe, The Pinch Journal, and Pittsburgh Poetry Review. She was awarded an artist residency in poetry to the Atlantic Center for the Arts.

Laura, Keeper of the Red Pandas

[creative nonfiction]

Before I talk about Halloween and Corey Fisher and the two of us in the coat closet dressed as toilet paper mummies, let me start with Mom. Mom grew up in Chicago. As a teenager, she worked summers at Brookfield zoo. Head zookeeper of the petting zoo.

All her stories from that time start with “Once we had.”

“Once we had a baby elephant that stole a woman’s purse.”

“Once we had a baby kangaroo that jumped into a woman’s arms”

Once Mom bought me a pop-up book named Mammals of the World. I was five, earning a reputation as the “kissy girl” because I kissed Alfonso five times on the cheek. I asked another friend if I could see his underwear. Big deal. If my curiosity about Alfonso or the underwear had been a zoo, it would be that dinky fifteen acre “zoological park” in Amarillo with the boring Longhorns and Monkey Island.

When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses. It grew and grew until it became the size of the National Zoo. One hundred and sixty-three acres. An enclosure of pandas and Lemur Island. My life’s mission revealed itself. Become a zoo keeper. Live among the red pandas.

Now, I’m ten. Behind my belly button the call of the red pandas still purrs. And I hear it loudest when I steal glances at my friends’ bras and touch the logos on their chests.

The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.

So what has me pulling at my fingernails tonight is whether or not I feel the purring with Corey Fisher. Corey Fisher who apparently forgets how to knock on a bedroom door before entering. Corey Fisher who said we should TP ourselves, hide in the coat closet, jump out, and scare the trick-or-treaters. He said that could be our act in the haunted house his mom and my mom have put together. Which is why his mom is standing at the front door, ready to greet the trick-or-treaters, while my mom waits down the hallway. And Corey and I are in the coat closet, ribs cage to cage, among my parents’ forgotten winter coats, rain slickers, and church jackets. One of Mom’s shoulder-padded jacket butts against my face. I punch it away. The jacket rebounds from the closet wall, hits my neck.

“Back! Stay back,” Corey says, elbowing a ski jacket. He’s eleven. He’s tall enough to reach the closet’s top shelf, where Mom keeps her animal hats. Flamingos, ducks, and crabs.

Once my family had a dog who liked to raid the guinea pig burial site. When we returned home, she gave herself away by hiding in the bedroom.

Not Corey.

Since the incident, he hasn’t blushed, avoided, or apologized. I huff. Cross my arms and think about the autobiography Mom and I wrote for English homework last night. The paper started with Mammals of the World and ended with me becoming head keeper for the red pandas at the National Zoo.

Once, Corey told me that when he’s an adult, he’s going to own five chinchillas. I raise both my eyebrows at him. A house of chinchillas compared to a life spent among the red pandas—

“Do you hear that?” He says, interrupting my thoughts.

I shake the dust out of my head. “No, I don’t hear anything.”

“I think I hear someone coming up the breezeway!”

The doorbell rings.

“They’re here!” Corey sings, squeezing further back behind the ski jacket. I sigh and let the shoulder pad win the fight for my face. Mrs. Fisher opens the front door. There’s a chorus of kid-voices shouting, “Trick-or-Treat!”

She chimes, “Welcome to our haunted house.” She’s dressed as a pumpkin. She’s wearing a blimp, orange pillowcase with black triangle eyes and a mouth that would not get A+ stickers at the dentist.

Last year, Mrs. Fisher was my fourth-grade teacher. I met Corey when his family popped into our house for dinner. Surprise! My mom isn’t any regular PTA mom. Not only did she start up an animal program at my elementary school and organize ferrets, bearded dragons, even a chinchilla into the classrooms, but, then at the end of the school year, she invited my teacher over for dinner.

Mom and Mrs. Fisher became BFFs. Corey’s younger sister and my younger sister Kristin became BFFs. Corey and I are as close to BFFs as I can be with a boy that has cooties.

In the closet, we hear the shuffle of the trick-or-treaters coming inside. “I will be your tour guide for your stay here,” Mrs. Fisher says and lets out a throaty high-pitched cackle. One of the trick-or-treaters proclaims they’re not scared. I think just wait. Last year, Mrs. Fisher caught me pinching my friend Crystal’s butt, and I saw exactly how scary she could be.

“What do we have here?” Mrs. Fisher says. “A T-Rex and… a jackrabbit?”

“I’m a Jackalope,” the kid squeaks.

“Only in Texas.”

Corey starts jiggling his leg. “It’s almost time,” he whispers, even though it’s not. Mom still has her bit of the routine to do. I slump into the jacket’s shoulder pad. Rotate my head and gaze through my left eye at Corey. My belly starts to chatter and trill.

Once we had matching BFF rope bracelets, but now I don’t know what’s going on. I furrow my eyebrows and glare. You listen here, Corey Fisher, I think, I don’t know what zoo this curiosity with you is building, but this kissy girl only wants the National Zoo. I want to feed red pandas their daily 200,000 bamboo leaves. Pet their red fur. Feel my curiosity pop out from the imaginary of books and into the real.

In the entryway, Mrs. Fisher says, “And now, I want you to meet my sister.”

On cue, Mom goes “whoooo” from the hallway. She’s abandoned her baggy khakis and animal shirts and gone rogue, borrowing a red belly dance costume, which she threw over a white turtle neck and leggings. I picture all five feet ten inches of her dancing down the hallway, her long legs like stilts. Permed duck fluff crowns her head.

“Hellooooo,” Mom moans to the trick-or-treaters. “I’m the older sister, Genie.” No one lectured Mom to be scary. We figured the turtleneck was frightening enough. “I want to introduce you to another member of our family.”

Well-rehearsed, Corey and I know now is when Mom pulls a picture frame from behind her back. She slowly rotates the frame to show the trick-or-treaters my dead grandfather.

The audience gasps.

“This is our Dad!” Mom howls.

“Oh, how we miss him!” shrieks Mrs. Fisher.

“He died seven years ago!” Mom wails.

Corey pokes my ribs. “It’s almost time,” he whispers. Excitement runs like static electricity from his squirming arms to the ski jacket to the shoulder pad to my face. My belly starts to chatter and bellow. The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.

When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses.

For a second, I was lock-limbed. When I snapped awake, I laughed and told Corey to get out. I dove headfirst into a long-sleeved shirt. The door shut. Against the itchy fabric, I heard the bellowing of whatever was caught in my stomach.

And now, with those same sounds whirring in my belly, clarity comes to me as a zoo park map spread behind my eyes.

The chattering—Monkey Island. The bellowing—the long horn cows. My eyes fly open. I see Corey with his hand on the door handle. I step away from him, back into the shoulder pad. No, I think. This kissy girl isn’t going anywhere.

“Now,” Mrs. Fisher says. “There’s one more member of our family we want you to meet. You’ve met my sister Genie…”

“Ooooooooo,” sings Mom.

“Our father…”

Mrs. Fisher inhales. In that pause I imagine all the mummy toilet paper falling away. I imagine stepping instead into a zoo keeper costume. Khaki pants. Green shirt with white National Zoo lettering.

Laura, Keeper of Red Pandas. Kissy girl no longer.

“Now, we want you to meet the last member of our family. Meet our mummy!”

The red panda keeper leaps ahead of Corey. She jumps out of the closet, raises her arms, and screams, “BOO.”

All the zoo sounds from my belly stampeded into the entryway. The shrieks from the children. The high-pitched peals of Mrs. Fisher’s laughter. Corey wheezing as he doubles over on the floor. My mother’s throaty wailing.

In my autobiography, I became a zoo keeper like my mom. I got married. My husband and I moved together to Nepal so I could study red pandas in the wild.

What if your husband just died, Mom had asked while we were writing. Wouldn’t that be so weird and funny? Yes, yes, yes, I’d said, howling. That would be hilarious.

We wrote the scene like this: one day, my husband and I were in the forest, scouting for red pandas. Then soldiers appeared. They shot him.

I spent my life living among the red pandas.

Mrs. Fisher hands the trick-or-treaters their Kit-Kats and Reese’s. Corey snatches a handful of candy for himself and dashes into the coat closet. “C’mon Laura,” he calls. “I think I hear the next batch.”

Instead, I step toward Mom. I take her hand. Mom twirls me under her puffy, red belly-dancer sleeve. I spin in the orange light and know that at the next sleepover, I’ll ask my friends to show me their bras. I’ll ask them to show me their arm pit hair.

The next wave of trick-or-treaters comes up the breezeway. Mrs. Fisher says, “Quick, quick, get in your places,” so I skip over to the coat closet as Mom dances back up the hallway. Corey perches next to the shoulder pad. I stand by the door. I put my hand on the handle. Hear the wild red panda purr of my stomach. “Welcome to our haunted house,” cackles Mrs. Fisher. Laura, Keeper of the Red Pandas, grins.

 

Laura is a queer writer from the Texas Panhandle. She is currently residing in the Idaho Panhandle, and in addition to cooking with pans with handles, enjoys teaching theater to elementary students and co-hosting Moscow’s first queer reading series: POP-UP PROSE. To read more of her work, check out the NonBinary Review or The Manifest-Station and her Patreon page: patreon.com/lauragould and sign up if you’d like to receive her monthly stories in the mail.

Again Undine

The house sat alone in a patch of swamp in a world her husband called Louisiana. When her son finally came to her there it wasn’t as she had expected. On the screened porch that looked out over the water, frogs called like poorly suited sirens under the midnight moon, and she crouched beside the camp bed like something hunted. A profound loosening, and the baby slid into her waiting hands. She leaned against the bed and clutched him to her, lay him, wet and wriggling, across her swollen middle. She watched, mesmerized, as he dragged himself toward her breasts like a fish out of water. She gathered him up and brought him to rest on her shoulder.

I know just how you feel, she told him.

Her husband clamped and cut the cord, snatched the baby up and held him high, whooping and hollering like he did when she led him to a spot of ocean where the shrimp exploded from the sea beds like confetti. The baby’s legs kicked, one two, they curled like parentheses. He swallowed a lungful of air like it was the most natural thing in the world.

A new pain ripped through her body and something else slid from her while her husband paraded the baby—squalling now, and red—around the empty house. This was her husband’s concession, to let her labor at home. No hospitals, no certificates—on this she’d been firm.

For you, he said smiling, and handed her the baby to nurse.

It had been eighteen months since her husband caught her in his net. She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins. Her legs revealed themselves, came unstuck from one another with a sick squelching sound and a smell like fresh-killed fish.

Shock, her husband told her later. Shock was what got you, and it was me that saved you; brought you straight home and warmed you up.

The next thing she remembered after being hauled from the sea was this house on the swamp, a slender band on her newly un-webbed finger. Her gill slits closed up, just faint pink scars beneath ropes of hair. Her mind and mouth crammed full of words.

Even before her belly swelled, her husband took her out on the water only when he needed to: at times when he had taken the boat out and dropped his test trawl in ten, twenty, thirty spots only to find nowhere worth unfurling his nets. Shrimping was bad, he told her, and getting worse; she saw guilt in his eyes when he said this, oceans of it. Still, at those times he decided it was necessary, he slathered her with sunscreen, sat her in the bow, and followed her directions.

Again and again, she led him straight to a patch of water where his test trawl came up overflowing; he came to trust her, even as she led him deeper and deeper out, even as she struggled to trust herself. Perched at the fore of his rusted boat, she imagined wrestling him over the edge, holding him as his body shuddered and stilled. She tasted salt and her mouth wetted. The longer they were out there—waves smacking the boat, ropes groaning, their own shallow breath whistling through their chests—the more her husband tensed, watched her from the corners of his eyes. She gazed loosely at the horizon and pretended not to see. Always, he filled a couple bags at the place she led him to, then marked the spot on a map and ferried her home. He took his crew back out to finish the job. This was a waste of fuel, but he didn’t like her out on the water, he didn’t like it at all.

She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins.

In that way, she lived with the man who called himself her husband. When he left on his boat for days or weeks at a time, she walked the mile each day to the public library. She sat in a cool dim room before one of the computers. The glow of the screen like underwater. Her varied names spelled out before her: Atargatis, Thetis, Sirena, Thessalonike, Merrow, Selkie, Rusalka, Ariel, Undine. Each got it wrong but the wrongness failed to matter; each tugged a bit of her to the surface and toward the sea. She read the stories, and before came to her in a flush of blue and fractal light. It came to her in an undifferentiated swell that broke across her skin in goosebumps and hummed deep in her chest, something those stories and their thin words couldn’t touch, but in their proximity, wakened. By the time she reached the driveway to her husband’s house, the feeling faded. She turned, invariably, and went inside, nameless, powerless against the tides that moved her.

When she learned that she carried an infant in her new and awkward body, she ate hamburgers and milkshakes and swelled to a shape that she had to remind herself was acceptable—there was no need to be streamlined here; there was nowhere she was trying to go. She felt the child flip and flutter and paddle around in her belly, and she ate while her husband worried over money, over the state of the shrimp. He was too scared to take her on the water with him, scared for the baby. He admitted to her, his face twisted with guilt and regret, that he thought it was nearly over for them, his whole family’s livelihood for generations: Would there be anything left for their boy? He looked her in the eye as though she could absolve him. He told her the truth for once: He’d poisoned the water and stripped it bare.

*     *     *

The night their child was born she swaddled him and placed him in a basket beside the marriage bed. She had fed and settled him and cleaned herself up, had drifted almost to sleep, exhausted, when her husband whispered, his breath hot on her neck:

Tell me about before.

Her eyes snapped open.

She reached behind her and picked up her husband’s hand to buy time, rubbing her thumb across his palm in a way she knew soothed him. What could she afford to give him? She’d lost so much in the first invasion, the onslaught of language that came to her whole cloth, chafing her memory.

Since then, she’d only lost more.

She could never afford to give him, for instance, the seam in the water where it’s weight overcame you, the depth at which you begin to fall rather than float and, in so doing, take flight. She would never give him the midnight zone, where she used to spend days at a time, drifting, listening, holding out her tongue to catch whatever floated past, unseen. The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved. Even diluted by naming, these things were among the most precious.

She had been quiet for too long but lay there still, frozen.

I heard stories about you, he said, breathing heavily now. When I was a boy. I heard stories I figured weren’t half true, but then—

The baby squawked and quieted, and they both flinched at the sound.

She took a deep breath and began to speak. She painted a picture of grottos, colonies of merpeople, chaste interludes with fisherman lost at sea, bits of the stories she’d read and now braided into a rope for her husband to follow, sated, into sleep.

She waited a long while, then nudged him gently to quiet his snoring. He grunted and rolled away from her. She gnawed her fingernails and spit them on the floor beside the bed.

In the days after his birth, she checked the baby, with neither forethought or expectation, for signs of gill slits in his neck. She turned his face on his weak and spindly neck this way and that. She cradled him in the crook of her arm so that with her free hand she could stroke the smooth skin below his seashell ears: had ridges or rifts emerged there? But there was no sign, nothing except the webbing between the big toe and its neighbor on his left foot. Inconclusive at best. And here again was the unexpected, because her love for him was untouched by his deficit; it blossomed in her chest like a wound; it grew.

Weeks passed. She tried once to go back to the library, but the baby cried; he wouldn’t settle. She sensed he didn’t like the cold and sterile air, acclimated as he was to their swamp. People looked coldly at her until she took him outside.

On the long walk home the baby grew hot and red and squalled like an abandoned bird. With all the strength he had, he produced a sound at once meager and overwhelming. She walked faster, breasts and eyes leaking. The skin on his soft skull burned to a livid red and in the days that followed, it blistered.

So she spent her days in the house, sandwiched between a wooded yard and a swamp that spread to the horizon, teasing her. The swamp was briny, and alligators basked with their eyes and pebbly skin showing above the surface. Herons stood on stalk legs or took off, lumbering over the cypress trees and out of sight. Tadpoles swarmed the shallows, and none of it moved her.

She slept when the baby slept, curled at her breast; together they dreamed of the sea. She dreamed the two of them alone, the baby contracting his body, propelling himself through the water, clutching handfuls of her hair, clasping himself to her to nurse then flitting away again. In the dream, she broke the surface of the water. The baby in the waves beside her, and when she looked around there was nothing else in sight: no land, no boats, no men.

On those past occasions that her husband took her out on the water, he blindfolded her for the drive to the docks. When he seated her at the bow of the fishing boat, he tied her to the railing, ever so loosely, ever so gently, with soft strips of cotton he tore from old towels. He was afraid she’d drown, he told her. So overcome was she by the sight of the ocean, she might dive back in and forget her new body: she’d take a deep breath and never emerge. She knew better. She knew that was not the shape of his fear.

Sometimes when the water was low and the salinity high in the swamp behind their home, she’d wade in up to her knees and feel the pull of the tide. The baby clasped tight to her chest, his heart fluttering against her own. She’d stay until the sun sank down and the moon shone overhead like a wishing coin. In its trick light she saw the shine of scales at her ankles, where the bones protruded and the skin stretched tight. She’d step out of the water slowly, walking backwards with high steps like the marsh birds. But invariably the scales fell and stayed behind, glinting in the moonlight as they sank to the muddy bottom, vanishing, maybe never there at all.

When the baby was a month old her husband left for what would be a three-week trip. He kissed her on the mouth—My undine, he murmured—and kissed the baby on the crown of its head—My boy. He climbed into his truck and disappeared around a bend in the long dirt drive.

The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved.

Of course, she said to herself for comfort, she could find the marina if she truly tried. She could smell the sea from here, pungent as camellia blooming in their yard. Sometimes she wandered down the driveway beyond the bend; she stood at the side of the road and stared in the direction where she sensed the marina. But always she turned back to the house, herded by an unnamed force.

With the baby in her arms, she stood in the yard until she could no longer hear the rumble of the truck in the distance. Back inside, she lay the baby on a blanket on the wood floor. There was no library for her anymore, no cool click of plastic under her nails, the eerie glow of the screen and the letters arranging themselves into story after story with versions of herself at their core.

It had rained for a week straight and the water outside their back door was weak as winter twilight, practically potable. The baby kicked its legs and made a mewling sound, searching her out with its voice. She went to him and lay down, curled around him on the blanket and watched his hands clench and unclench reflexively. His eyes were still muddy and half-blind, rarely open. When he fussed she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled him to her breast and they fell asleep like that.

Days passed.

One morning as she poured a bowl of cornflakes a bolt went through her heart: It jolted her to the floor where she shook in a rictus of electric pain: She made noises she couldn’t control and drooled over the front her shirt. When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.

She pulled herself to her feet and breathed deeply, filling her lungs to ease the ache in her chest. The sea was three miles south and she could get there easily on foot; she knew this now, knew exactly where it was and how to make the journey. It was as though an invisible net had vanished from around her, and she moved quickly in terror of its reappearance. She lifted the baby from the playpen and lay him, still sleeping, over her shoulder.

Outside it was sticky and hot, and the bugs cried like they did all day. She ran down the steps off the screened porch to where the water mixed itself with marsh grass and mud. Here was a pool of sorts in the shallows, smaller than a bathtub and about as deep, filled with cool clean water from the recent rain.

She peeled the clothes off the baby and he opened his eyes to watch. His breath hitched in his chest like it sometimes did on either side of sleep. She whispered to him, begging, and cradled his head, rubbed her thumb over the smooth skin of his neck. She lay him in the shallow water and held him there, felt his small body float, his gaze almost meeting hers but sliding off and away, diffusing like a puff, a cloud.

When she let go, crossed her arms across her chest, held her breath, the water covered him, shimmering. A bird called in the distance and another answered and together they took flight. Ripples broke the surface, a stream of bubbles.

Her pulse throbbed in her temples and the heat pressed her feet into the mud. She scooped him up. Flipped him onto his belly and thudded him between the shoulder blades with the heel of her palm. A long moment passed, stretched itself thin as fishline—snapped when his cry came, red and angry. She held him like that, letting the water drain from him, patting his back while he wailed in protest.

Inside the house she swabbed him clean, fed and dressed and comforted him. She put on shoes and shouldered a bag of his belongings and made her way to the county road. For the first time, she turned left, toward the water. Their nearest neighbor was a half hour walk, and when she reached the mailbox she turned down the drive. She ignored the pain in her joints and her chest. She breathed heavily: from the heat, and from the slight weight of her child, and the weight of all the things she knew he’d need. On her shoulder, he slackened into sleep. She imagined him growing, unfolding in a proliferation of cells that shaped themselves into a man, a man on a boat, a man with muscle that roped his arms and clenched his fingers around a net. A groan caught in her chest.

There was a car in the neighbor’s driveway, and when she reached the front stoop she heard noises from inside the house. She spread a blanket on the concrete slab and lay the baby on it. It was shaded and cooler here. She stroked the fuzz on the baby’s head, fingered the webbed skin between his toes and he flinched; his face screwed up and he smacked his lips before sinking back into still sleep.

She rang the doorbell and left him, hurrying back up the drive. She broke into a jog, sweat coursing down her back.

She ran all the way to the marina, down the stairs to the pier; she sprinted to the end and leapt, swan dived into the oily water and swam with all her strength into the deeps.

When the water grew cold and the flavor of engine oil faded, she allowed herself to slow, drifting on the waves and staring warily back toward the marina. There were boats coming in and out of the docks, and though the closest to her now was at least a hundred feet off, it was likely she had been seen. She undressed, fumbling with buttons and wet jeans.

She went under and relished the saltwater filling her eyes; she stared at her blurred limbs, at her long legs scissoring under the water, painted with light, her pointed toes, her delicate fingers. Then, an exquisite pain clenched her middle, and she curled around it. She felt her face stretch into a terrible grin; had she been able, she’d have drawn a lungful of seawater, but the pain sucked the air from her lungs along with the will to replace it.

When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.

The worst of it passed, leaving a fresh throbbing in her body. She took off through the water, propelling herself with her newly fused legs, a tail again, a lobed fin that sped her toward the open ocean, away from the marina and the sounds of engines that assaulted her. She breathed deep and true. The world beneath the waves was crisp and clear in her new eyes, and nearly empty, nearly all open space.

Soon she had arrived. She was some miles out. Her husband’s fishing boat, some small distance off, muscled through the waves and back toward the marina with all the haste its engine could manage. She saw the men on the deck, her husband’s crew; they scanned the horizon for help that was already too late.

She dove beneath the waves and swam alongside the vessel, listening to the conversations that reached her through the metal hull of the boat. Her husband’s heart had stopped over an hour ago. His body grew chill and grey. And what had that been? the men wondered. When the pain first struck and he struggled to draw breath, what was the bucket he hauled from below deck, full of dull scales, flakes of something dead that he dumped into the sea before collapsing, closing his eyes, his face twisted against the end?

They spoke of these events over and over, repeating them like a spell against the passing of time, the steady death of cells, and as they spoke, she trembled, with rage, with unexpected grief.

How many stories had she read, and never discovered this most important bit of lore? The bucket of her scales, returned to the water, that was all it took to gain her freedom. How many times had she contemplated leading him to dangerous waters, sending him to fish where she smelled a storm on the brink? How many times had she found herself unable? In the end it was this: a simple accident of the body, an inadequate twist and flicker of guilt. She stroked the side of the boat with her webbed hand and then she swam away.

In all the old stories, mermaids are horrible people to have as family. Their only loyalty is to themselves, their whims, the sea; their loyalty is to no body. They kill the men who yearn for them, bring storms upon their villages; they tangle unwary swimmers in their hair and drag them to the depths; they bring destruction; they are destroyed; they bring empty promises hidden in their bodies like half-formed pearls; they bring nothing at all. The myths were wrong and they weren’t; they weren’t to do with her anymore anyway and they were all she had left. They weighed her down from the inside, those alloys of knowing.

Days passed, then months. The pain in her body never lessened or left; she was poorly outfitted in her new skin, and her misery formed verses in her mind that played on a loop. She checked her torso for evidence of the sucking wound she felt there. She swam slow circles just above the ocean floor, around the vent that was her favorite space, the water here a kind of dark that carried weight, syrupy and cloying. The water so hot it soothed the pain in her joints and her core; so hot it would scald her son’s sweet skin off in an instant. She thought of him as he would be now, of the hair that might have grown and the sunlight that might play through it, of a new brightness behind the eyes, shining through the accordion folds of his iris. She swam slow circles around the vent and wondered who held him at night, what they whispered in his seashell ears; she swam and waited for his coming.

 

Devan Collins Del Conte is a queer femme writer living in Memphis, Tennessee. She received her MFA from University of Memphis and now works for a food justice non-profit and as a nanny. Devan’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart Online, Jellyfish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. Find her at  devandelconte.com

Architectural Integrity & Aretha Franklin Has Died

Architectural Integrity

My floor could possibly be coming apart
but I’m hanging on for now
& for good reason

Catastrophe should only be used
as the name for a fragrance
that only exists in a fictional universe

One where a person starts every day
with a montage full of clues

I’ve spent the past week
trying to remember any particular moment
from my middle school existence

I’ve got nothing

except a general feeling
that my t-shirts were too big

& the thought that
I should’ve taken every opportunity
to garden with my grandma

Why would you say this is sad

Without anything to look forward to
the world isn’t affected much
It says right here this is blesséd

 


Aretha Franklin Has Died

Seems impossible
that anybody is able to think about anything else

But I’m being unreasonable
even about myself (eye-roll upon eye-roll)

That’s what the edges of memory are for
Covered in foam
Hoping to be jumped in
though prepared for the inevitable slip & fall

Glory be what makes us love the ground
as much as what floats above it

When I think of dying I think
about where I’d like to be forever

I’ll forgive you for guessing incorrectly

I’m dancing in the kitchen I’m making a meal
for a person I love a song is playing & what a song it is
Oh I wouldn’t mind being here for a long time

 

Dalton Day is the author of Exit, Pursued (Plays Inverse) and a preschool teacher. He lives in Atlanta, and can be found at tinyghosthands.com.

Plastic

[fiction]

The dead body of a sunfish lies on the sands of Monomoy Wildlife Refuge. More than any other ocean dweller, sunfish are mistaken for sea monsters. It’s why two dozen tourists ring its pulpy white body, nearly a perfect circle with twin fins on top and bottom, stomach pecked crimson by hungry gulls. The sunfish looks nonsensical, comical, its mouth too small for anything other than jellyfish. Its small black eyes are positioned on either side of its head, unable to see the world directly before it. A plastic bag trails out between its lips. The moment could double as an anti-plastic ad, but I still have to collect the body and perform an autopsy, just to give a cause of death I can clearly see. I shoo the onlookers away. They regroup twenty feet back, camera phones out, hushed murmurs of what is it? drifting between them. The incoming tide washes over their sandals. I could inform them, tell them that I work for the National Seashore, but I prefer to be confused for a government agent covering up alien landings, or some nuclear waste monstrosity floundering out of the sea. If I tell them most “shark fins” seen offshore actually belong to sunfish, the magical dead thing before us becomes a normal dead thing, and they’ll lose interest and forget. Leaving it this way, there will be talk, discussion, possibly the start of a dialogue. Even sea monsters choke to death on plastic. When Godzilla’s body washes ashore, strangled by a weave of soda bottles, fishing nets, and grocery bags, maybe they’ll understand. But for now they have this sunfish, and me, and the possibility that they are witnessing something rare and fantastic, despite how common place it actually is.

 

Corey Farrenkopf is a Cape Cod based writer and librarian. His work has appeared in Catapult, JMWW, Blue Earth Review, Gravel, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. He is represented by Marie Lamba of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. To read more visit his website at CoreyFarrenkopf.com or follow on twitter at @CoreyFarrenkopf.

Playing House

There was an abandoned house a few miles from where I grew up. It was out on Mt. Mica Mine Road, past the egg farm, past the little cemetery that held just a few toothlike stones, up a big hill and then down the other side. If you did it right, if you let the earth take you, giving yourself and your bike over to gravity, you could plunge down that hill and coast about halfway up the next one. And halfway up the next one was where the abandoned house stood.

My brother found it. He was always finding things in the woods: quartz crystals, cow skeletons, birds’ nests. A long sandy drive clogged with birch and poplar trees stretched from the road to the house. For some reason, we always walked our bikes down the drive, as if we didn’t want to approach too quickly. As if we needed to listen keenly, muffling our steps as our sneakers squeaked against the sand.

The house had once been painted white, but the paint had faded and chipped so that now the gray of the wood beneath formed the dominant color. A few black shutters clung on, looking like a drag queen’s false eyelashes after a long night.

Here’s the thing: this was and was not a house. It didn’t have to behave—we didn’t have to behave—by the rules of “what it means to be a house.”

We’d prop our bikes against the big trunk of a mostly-dead maple tree and then we’d hop up onto the porch—the front steps had long since disappeared. I can remember being little enough that I had to push myself up onto that porch, like you’d lever yourself out of the deep end of the swimming pool, shimmying on my belly, getting a splinter through my shirt. The front door still stood in its frame, and so we would walk around the porch to where a window had been broken, and we’d step through—one leg, then the other—into what had once been the dining room.

We certainly could have gone through the front door. But it was more fun to go through the window. Here’s the thing: this was and was not a house. It didn’t have to behave—we didn’t have to behave—by the rules of “what it means to be a house.” We could go in through the window.

Inside, wallpaper hung in loose scrolls or had been torn off in rough patches. On a few walls, someone had spray-painted pentagrams in drippy black. The chandelier dangled askew. Across the front hall, through a double door surmounted by a graceful arch, stood the living room. I liked this room best. The floor had rotted away in the middle. But the edges of the wood floor were still intact, forming a rim maybe three feet wide all around. In the center, nothing. A hole. The dirt floor of the basement was visible below. I liked to walk around the outer edge of this room and imagine how it had happened. How the floor had sagged slowly, drooping and drooping, until it just gave way. It looked to me like a volcano. This hole was not one of emptiness but of latent power.

Along one wall of the living room, there was a built-in bookshelf. The volumes had long ago been pulled from the shelves, but many of them still lay strewn across the floor, mostly paperbacks with big, water-swollen pages. They looked like ticks that had enjoyed a nice long feed. I liked to kick them; I liked how I knew books—real books—were solid, but these books—which weren’t quite real books—were squishy.

There were no tales of the house being haunted. My brother never tried to scare me with ghost noises. But, even so, the house terrified me. My brother would climb the stairs up to the second floor; only once did I have the guts to follow him. Actually, I didn’t have the guts, but that day I was more scared to stay downstairs alone than I was to see the upstairs.

I don’t know what scared me more, the emptiness or the not-quite of the emptiness. The fact that some rooms still had curtains in the windows. A few carpets, threadbare and rotten, still covered the bedroom floors. It was enough that it felt like someone not only had lived there, but, in a sense, lived there still. They weren’t quite gone.

Moreover, I just didn’t understand it. Why would you let a house decay? Why wouldn’t you take everything with you when you went?

I loved that house. Well, love is a strong word. You know how when you lose a tooth, you kind of can’t help your tongue from just going right to that gap and feeling around and around, even though it hurts a bit and is kind of gross? That’s what I felt towards that old, abandoned house.

    *     *     *

As a kid, as a little girl, I spent a lot of time “playing house.” I would go to my friends’ houses and we would drape a sheet or blanket over a table and then huddle underneath. As the tomboy of the group, I was always cast as the father, Amanda or Ann would be the mother, our Cabbage Patch Kids or teddy bears would be our children. We played other games, too. We spent sunny days climbing trees and chasing each other in endless games of tag or hide-and-seek. But on rainy days, we played house.

That house was beautiful and horrifying. It had the logic of dreams. It contained those beautiful little things that as a five-year-old I would have desperately wanted in a house.

In the semi-dark, under the sheet-draped table, we would overturn a cardboard box and settle our stuffed offspring around it. Amanda would set plates and teacups on the table. She’d shoo me out and tell me, “You have to come home.” And I would crawl outside of the sheet and sit for a moment on the living room rug, blinking, back out in the boring real-world, the larger house in which we had no interest, which we only wanted to recreate on our own terms. “Okay,” she’d say, “Come home now.” And I would crawl through the sheet and into the dark, orderly place we’d created. This was house.

But this abandoned place, this gaping wounded thing, was also house. House was future. House was hope. But house was also past. House was history. House was memory and decline and decay towards nothing.

No one could play house in this place my brother had found. But someone had. This was a possible outcome of the game. House with hole in the floor. House with squirrel poop in the kitchen. House with pentagram on dining room walls.

I remember walking around and around that thin parapet of living room floor, circling the hole in the middle, trying to be tomboy bold, unafraid of falling in. Unafraid of this place, the mystery of it, its seeming inevitability.

    *     *     *

Years later, I ended up (as one does) working for the Forest Service in Wyoming, in the Shoshone Forest, just outside the eastern gate to Yellowstone National Park. I turned nineteen while I worked that job—my title, wilderness interpreter, implying much more romance than it deserved: I explained the campground regulations to visitors, especially how to store food in grizzly bear country.

That summer, that nineteenth birthday, marked two years of my living as a guy. Two years of being out as transgender. When I had come out to my parents—sitting them down at the kitchen table, telling them I wanted to be Alex, not Alice—they had been upset, confused, sad. Again and again, that day and in the weeks and months that followed, they worried that I had thrown my future away. That I would never be happy, never be loved, never be successful.

I hadn’t been kicked out of anything, not formally, not except for one grandmother who said she didn’t want to see me again. But it felt as if my world had slipped away. It was a strange feeling, a mixture of both elation and fear. After I came out to my parents, I went up to my room and gathered an armful of skirts, dresses, blouses, stuffing them into a garbage bag and setting them aside to donate. I took the jewelry box my aunt had given me and brought it to my mother’s room, returning to her the ring and necklace she had presented me on my sixteenth birthday. It was like handing my future back to her. If I wasn’t going to be this girl, this daughter… What was I going to be?

It was my brother who brought me bits of conversation, who relayed what it was my parents were struggling with. They spoke to him when they couldn’t speak to me. “They’re worried that you won’t fit in. That no one will hire you, that you’ll never get married or whatever.” I worried about this, too. I tried to embrace the queer community, the idea of radical queerness, of turning my back on social expectations: Who needed marriage? Who wanted a conventional job? But some part of me, rooted and formed in that sheet-over-the-table place, wanted, needed that house.

    *     *     *

The Shoshone National Forest contains over 1.75 million acres designated wilderness: rhyolite cliffs, towering buttes, foaming rivers with hot springs in their midst. When I arrived out there, I may as well have been dropped on another planet: the place bore no resemblance to rural New England where I’d grown up. And beyond the landscape, I was preoccupied with trying to be a boy, with trying to convince the dozen other rangers and firefighters at the station that I was just plain old Alex, just another guy. But in the midst of all this, there was one thing I noticed in particular, one thing I couldn’t ignore.

On the highway that led from Wapiti, Wyoming, to Yellowstone, maybe six or eight miles away from the ranger station, stood a large and strange house. It was set back from the road and up a slope so that it was readily visible. No big trees grew to mask it in that high desert.

I noticed it the first time I drove by. It was clear that the house wasn’t really done. The wood was still raw—no shingles, no paint, just bare wood and, in places, only the frame of two-by-fours. At first, I thought the house had some sort of scaffolding on it as it was being finished. But what I thought was scaffolding turned out to be part of the house: a succession of staircases and ladders and platforms and outgrowths that the builder had begun but never finished.

I took to watching the house—it was untouched. No workmen ever swarmed it. No cars were ever in the drive. No lights were ever on. And so, I waited for a full moon and a clear night, and then I went to that house.

I stepped over the chain that dangled across the driveway, with its sign in the middle: no trespassing. I walked right up to the base of the structure. From the bottom, it started off normal enough. A few steps up to a wrap-around porch. Two bow windows. A front door, firmly closed, but with the lock torn out—just a big hole where the bolt had been.

How to describe this house? I walked all over it that night, and it is the strangest place I have ever been. Moonlight makes anything eerie, with its unforgiving shadows. But this place would have been eerie even in full sun.

There were doors in the rooms that opened onto solid walls. There were other doors in the rooms that opened onto thin air. There were staircases that led up from hallways and ended abruptly against a wall or a ceiling. And there were stairways that went up and up, through a roof, and kept going, ending with a step with nothing beyond it.

On the first floor, there were rooms of normal proportions and then, in the middle of the house, one room of precisely half scale. When I walked around the porch, I noticed a tiny window of thick plexiglass and, when I peered through, I could barely make out a cozy little room—the only spot in the house that was furnished—a couch, a fireplace, a little side table, a book. Perfect. But when I went inside, I couldn’t find the room. I walked around and around, before realizing that the room had been built without a door, just a hermetically sealed-off space.

I walked all over that house. It was so strange, so inexplicable, that—in the years since—I have often wondered if I dreamed it all up.

The next day, I asked my boss at the ranger station if he knew anything about the house. “Oh, sure,” he said. Two brothers had bought the land and were going to open a cattle ranch together. They started building the house, but one day during construction, one of the brothers had fallen and died. The other one tried to carry on building on his own, but the grief must have unhinged him because that’s when the house went all crazy.

There are parts of ourselves we can escape, defy, or reinvent. There are parts of ourselves that are unavoidable, hard-wired.

I asked the clerk at the store nearest the house—what’s the story? She told me that a man had come out and bought a bunch of land to open a ranch and was building a big house for him and his new wife. But then his wife left him and he went crazy. Wouldn’t leave the house, even though it wasn’t done. Had his groceries delivered, even, right from this store, and just went on building and building. Loads of lumber would come in and he’d cobble on another room or another staircase. Take potshots with his rifle if any strangers came up his drive. Then just disappeared.

That summer, I heard various tales of what had happened, but the basic contours were the same: man begins building, man suffers loss, man continues building.

That house was beautiful and horrifying. It had the logic of dreams. It contained those beautiful little things that as a five-year-old I would have desperately wanted in a house—a ship’s mast with a crow’s nest growing from the roof!—but that made no sense in the world of actual houses that served actual functions. Trapdoors to secret chambers: such notions had delighted me as a child, but in this house, the secret chambers were stuffy and claustrophobic, prisons as much as safe zones. It was hard to tell whether this was a dream house, spun from fantasy and desire, or something much darker.

Yet, this was house, too.

    *     *     *

That summer, as I lived in an old coal cabin, built by the Work Progress Administration during the depths of the Great Depression, I thought a lot about that house. I thought a lot about the abandoned house of my childhood, the destruction and decay there. I thought even more about the draped sheets over the dining room tables. Odd, that these should seem to be the most real of all. These make-pretend places, where I was the dad, where my friends recognized something in me that I couldn’t see, couldn’t put words to.

I wondered, what place did I have now?

I suppose it is a question that many almost-nineteen-year-olds ponder. At that age, many are confronting the idea that the next house they have will be one they will build themselves. Perhaps not in the sense of build it with hammer and nails, but construct it of their own will, their own selves.

Every time I drove past the crazy house—that’s what I took to calling it—I would slow down and stare, at its spires and ladders and jutting platforms. Who could have dreamed what shape it would take when it was begun? Who had thought, as they set the rugs on the floor, as they hung curtains on the windows of that house in Maine, that someday the living room would collapse in on itself? And who is to say that these fates aren’t beautiful? Who is to say that the original intention is the correct one?

There are parts of ourselves we can escape, defy, or reinvent. There are parts of ourselves that are unavoidable, hard-wired. I had always known I was a boy, and my earliest houses, those sheet-draped tables, had welcomed me home as a make-believe dad. My parents, understandably, set a different table for me. Their daughter, who would one day marry and who would wear necklaces and earrings and dresses. To them, I had abandoned this self, abandoned the idea of house and home that they had constructed for me.

Transgender felt like a crazy word. A wild idea. A renunciation of all that they had intended for me. Queer people went off to the margins, lived at the teetering edges of society, in artists’ colonies and hippie style cooperatives, crazy cobbled-together chaotic places. Abandoned or forsaken by others, we queer folk were meant to gather together in some sort of outcast solace.

House as past, house as future. House as self. I learned that summer in Wyoming, that though I liked living as a guy, I was transgender, and hiding that part of myself did me no good. I could do it, but only at a cost. I came back to the East Coast. I told almost no one about the crazy house I’d seen. I’d taken pictures of the rhyolite cliffs, the snow-capped mountains, the rushing rivers. The house remained only in my mind.

A year or so after that, when my parents were preparing to sell the house I’d grown up in, I took my bike out for a ride on the Mt. Mica Road. Past the egg farm, now closed, and the cemetery, unchanged, up the big hill and down the backside. I kept my hands off the brakes, though the speed seemed unsafe. I let myself coast, slowing mid-way up the next hill. I hopped off. I couldn’t find the driveway. I propped the bike against a tree and walked higher up the hill, then lower. The brush and saplings grew thick and even along the road. I found a stone wall and followed it into the woods, pacing back to where I thought would be even with the house, and walked around. Nothing.

Perhaps it had been torn down. Perhaps I mis-remembered its location. I should have brought my brother with me. But he had already graduated college, had no more summer vacations to spend idly. I picked up my bike and began to pedal back. There were boxes to pack and rugs to roll up and another family waiting to move in.

 

 

Special Guest Judge, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich:

“Playing House” drew me in with its unexpected, evocative metaphors and descriptions—its language just slightly off-kilter, as alluring and evocative as the abandoned houses that drew in the narrator and their brother. As I read, I found myself underlining line after line. From its almost haunted opening, to a moving reflection on the houses we find and the homes we make for ourselves, this is an essay that stayed with me.

—Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named one of the best books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Audible.com, Bustle, Book Riot, The Times of London, and The Guardian. A finalist for a New England Book Award, a Goodreads Choice Award, and a Lambda Literary Award, it will be translated into eight languages. Marzano-Lesnevich’s essays and reviews appear in The New York Times, The Mail on Sunday (UK), Oxford American, and many other publications. They have received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award. They have taught at Harvard and in the fall will become an assistant professor at Bowdoin College, teaching creative nonfiction.

 

Alex Myers’s essays have been published in Hobart, Salon, Good Housekeeping, and River Styx. He also writes fiction, and his debut novel, Revolutionary, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. Find more at alexmyerswriting.com.

Making Reubens

In the tiny pop-up trailer we have two toaster ovens, a roaster full of meat, and a cooler with the rest of the sandwich fixings. It’s just enough to keep up with the line of customers. Mama has been wanting to make Reubens for the rodeo and powwow for three years, offering something different than the usual Indian tacos, so I said I’d come up from Omaha for the weekend to help assemble sandwiches with sauerkraut and Russian dressing.

“Two more,” Mama calls, then coughs into her elbow. Her asthma and allergies have been acting up worse than usual; then she had chest pains and was diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus. She won’t tell me about medical bills. I’ve avoided poking through the piles of papers stacked around the kitchen and living room in her trailer.

Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.

Mama moved to the reservation when I started university, after years of summer trips to visit an old college friend who lived here. Mama was in love with the space, the wide hills, and over ten years found a job and a husband who was more committed than my dad. She and Papa have been married for fourteen years, and I’ve visited often enough to make their trailer home-ish. Papa took me as a daughter minus a formal adoption. He’s eleven years older than Mama and can be persnickety, but they joke together at breakfast and worry over each other’s health. Papa calls me with her new lists of medications, asking if I can look up the side effects on the Internet.

“I don’t do computers,” he reminds me.

Mama starts another coughing fit, which makes my chest hurt.

“You need to sit down,” I say. I feel like I’m always reminding her to take care of herself. She tries to shake her head and say she’ll be fine, but starts another coughing fit.

Papa has been sitting outside on his lawn chair and chatting with friends, but he pokes his head in the door. “Everything okay in here, Daughter?” His brown eyes hold the same concern as mine. I say Mama needs to take a break, eat a Reuben.

Mama says, “Well, maybe a half.”

I say Papa can handle the money for a bit.

Mama converted to vegetarianism when she was in her mid-twenties, so she raised me on a meatless diet. After moving to the reservation and moving in with Papa, she started eating steak.

“I could only stomach so many salads and baked potatoes,” she says, but Papa likes macaroni with cheese melted on top and the eggplant parmesan that Mama makes. Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.

I make a half Reuben for Mama, then Papa takes over her post at the cash box. Mama slumps on a red camp chair in the corner. Papa and I exchange a glance. Mama has been working as a secretary in the humanities department at the tribal college for ten years, but Papa says that a couple weeks ago her boss called him to say she’s forgetting things—to send e-mails and letters and make copies.

“She said maybe your mama should make a doctor’s appointment,” Papa told me on the phone. “She was nice about it, but she sounded worried. She doesn’t want to let your mama go.”

I understand that could happen. I haven’t told Mama about my own dilemmas at the grocery store where I manage the front end, how I’ll have to give Nikki her walking papers for tardiness next week. I know her story—she has two kids and a second job and not the most reliable sitter, but I’ve made all the excuses I can to my boss, who is sympathetic but has corporate over her head. Corporate doesn’t have to give Nikki the news on Monday, kindly allowing me to fire a sweet and agreeable if harried person, but I went up for the promotion to front end manager last year and knew I’d have to hire people and train them and let some go when they ran out of chances. Mama would have never taken a job like that, or she’d quit in protest, but she’s good at sacrificing herself.

When I was twelve and we were walking downtown, we saw this black-and-white beagle mix run out into the middle of the street. Mama didn’t hesitate to sprint after it because a car was coming. She left me screeching at her from the sidewalk, afraid of being orphaned. The car stopped and a guy cussed at her and drove on. Mama picked up the dog and we took it to the shelter and Mama told them to call her if they couldn’t find the owner, but they did two days later.

On the drive home Mama realized I was being quiet and apologized, saying she really hadn’t seen the car since she was so focused on the dog. I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked. But as I slather Russian dressing on another slice of bread, I worry what will happen if the asthma gets worse, if the arthritis gets worse, if she could go on disability or if it would be better to have Mama and Papa move closer to me, though neither of them would want to leave here, but what if something happens and she winds up in the hospital—

I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked.

Still, I need to get to the dentist because I know I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep, and I should get to the OB/GYN for my yearly checkup, and monitor my blood pressure on those machines at the pharmacy, and figure out why I have the three-day migraine every month, but I think that’s job stress.

“Good sandwich,” Mama says. “I’m going to use the port-a-potties.”

I nod and watch her ease down the steps, but then she walks more quickly and trips a little but doesn’t fall, and I think Mama, why do you have to move so fast? I turn back to the toaster oven to make sure the bread doesn’t burn, then I hear a woman scream outside and run to the door and see Mama and another lady on the ground and oh God, she fainted, but no, she’s leaning over the woman, rolling her to her back, and I wonder if it’s heat stroke or diabetic shock and if I have hard candy in my purse, which I grab from under the camp chair along with a bottle of water.

By the time I get there, Mama has the lady sitting up, blinking, breathing. She coughs to one side. I hand her the bottled water, and Mama asks if she’s hurting, if she feels dizzy, if she might need insulin. The lady says she hasn’t been drinking enough, it was a dizzy spell, give her a moment. She sips the water and in a second they’re talking about the fair and parade and I remember the bread and go back to the trailer to find it on the cusp of burning, but I pop the lever up in time.

When the sandwiches are finished, I return to Mama outside who lets me offer a hand to help her and the lady off the ground.

“Oh-ho-ho, my knees,” Mama says, smiling to let me know that sometimes she can admit her own frailties. I yell to Papa we are going to the restroom together.

“Don’t you ladies fall in,” he calls as Mama and I walk with my arm around her shoulders.

“She needed to hydrate, I think that was it,” Mama says as we wait outside the big blue boxes. She rubs one hand over the other to soothe her arthritis. “You make a good Reuben.”

“We’ll have to do this again next year,” I say, wanting to think about that more than I want to think about tomorrow, projecting us surely forward in time when there will be more scorching summer days in that tiny trailer making sandwiches, aware that we’re standing on the cusp of fates, but knowing the secret is not to look down.

 

Teresa Milbrodt received her MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University. She is the author of two short story collections, Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), and Work Opportunities: Stories (Portage Press), a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Booth Books). Her stories, essays, and poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. Read more of her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/

Photo Credit: Jeff Wasserboer

Katie’s Songs

[fiction]

Katie turned up her music and pressed her headphones against her ears. It didn’t help; she still heard her brother yelling in the hallway, pacing, slamming his fists into the bannister. He stomped up the hall, slammed twice, stomped back, slammed three times. Repeat, repeat. Until he stopped panicking. Until he exhausted himself.

Her mother murmured down the hall and her brother roared in response. Ben never hurt anyone else. He was a yeller and a smasher, and sometimes hurt himself, punching his fist into his forehead over and over. But he had never hurt her or their mom. Still, Katie felt sick every time.

Her mom spoke again, this time closer to the door, loud enough that Katie could hear actual words now. Her mom apologized to Ben, explained in soft words. He groaned but slowed down. Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.

All of a sudden a sharp rebuke: “Do not go into Katie’s room, Ben!”

That would set him off all over again, so Katie bolted to the door and opened it, pretending to be surprised to see him.

“Hey! I need your help with something. Are you busy?” She grabbed her laptop off her bed and handed it to him.

 

Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.

“What? Okay.” He was confused but distracted. Good. Her mom stuck her head in and Katie motioned her away. She held out her hand to her brother.

“Can I touch your arm?”

He nodded, his shoulders lowering and his fists unclenching. She pressed her hand firmly into the top of his forearm. “Come over and look at my running mix? I’m stuck and you always pick the best songs.”

Ben walked straight to her desk and sat down. He opened her laptop and examined her incomplete playlist for Saturday’s race.

“Katie, this has no flow. This is terrible.” His blunt assessment was classic Ben, but she heard a hint of eagerness underneath his words. The hour-long meltdown was over. This was a job, a puzzle to solve, and her brother lived for this stuff.

“I’ll fix it for you.” He picked up the laptop and started walking out.

“Wait!”

He froze.

“You’re supposed to ask me. We need to be on the same page, remember?”

“Ah, right. Sorry, Katie.” Ben peeked at her face, observing, evaluating, and she knew he was trying to figure out if she was mad. “You wanted me to fix this, right? It’s okay that I take it and fix it?”

“Yes, big brother. I want you to fix it. Make the songs really good. I need ten miles of inspiration.” She opened her arms wide and he grimaced and laughed at the same time. “Oh, come on. Please?”

“Katie, gross, no.” But he kept laughing.

“I’m totally going in for a hug!” She made snuggly arms in his direction, and he yelped and took off out the door and down the hall. Six foot three inches of skinny, anxious brother fleeing her embrace.

And now the night was okay. Her mom stood in the hall, watching Katie with a tired expression.

“You’re so good with him.”

“He’s mad about camp, huh?” Katie asked, ignoring the resentment in her mom’s voice.

“Yes. Dr. Kelly says he needs it, though.” Her mom sank onto her bed and put her head on Katie’s shoulder.

“I’ll talk to him later,” Katie said.

“Thank you. You’re the best.”

Katie patted her mom’s back awkwardly. She wished she would do something mom-ish instead of needing to be soothed.

“You finished your homework?” That felt a little better.

“Yeah, Ava and I did it after school.”

“Great. I’ll leave you be, then.”

“Okay,” Katie said.

She pulled her headphones back on as her mom left. Ben was right. The music was uninspiring. Each song sounded the same.

“KATIE!”

She jumped up from her bed, her heart racing all over again. She tore off her headphones and glared at her brother, who stood in the doorway, waving his arms.

“What is your problem, Ben?? You gave me a heart attack!”

“Well you’re alive, so I seriously doubt I gave you a heart attack. Also, I called you ten times. I need to ask you some questions about your race.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay. Questions. Try to talk quietly. You’re freaking me out tonight.”

“I’m sorry.” He sat down next to her, his eyes wide. “Are you really freaking out? Was it my yelling? When I was mad at Mom?” His anxiety bubbled out in fluttering, clutching fingers.

“It’s okay. Don’t stress.” Katie could not soothe one more person tonight.

 

“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”

Ben took a deep breath and put her laptop on the floor.

“What are you doing?” she asked, reaching for it, when all of a sudden, his arms engulfed her. “AHHHH! BEN!”

“You’re freaking out, so I’m hugging you to make you feel better!” He squeezed so hard she could barely breathe, and she grabbed his arms to loosen his hold.

She looked up at his earnest, solemn face and burst out laughing. He frowned. She laughed harder and couldn’t stop, even as he grew annoyed.

“You shouldn’t laugh at a person who is choosing your happiness over their own comfort,” he informed her haughtily, dropping his arms.

“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”

“Oh,” he said, then smiled and picked up her laptop. “See, I’m good for something!”

“Ben, you’re good for almost everything.” Katie gave him one last squeeze and let go. “So what did you want to ask me?”

“I’m going through songs mile by mile. Two or three songs per mile based on your pace. And I want to know which miles you expect to be harder than others, so I know when to use longer ones.”

Oh, Ben. He was quite literally the only person on this planet who consistently cared about what was best for her. Her heart thumped.

She gave him her race plan and he worked quietly next to her. Searching and typing, finding the songs he knew would be just right. His unyielding focus was his superpower in tasks like this, so Katie knew better than to interrupt. She curled up behind him on her bed, listening to her underwhelming music, and zoned out as she watched him work.

She felt cozy and safe for the first time all day. And when she drifted to sleep, it was an easy, mellow repose, with dreams of her and Ben as little kids.

 

Hannah Grieco is a writer and education and disability advocate in Arlington, VA. Her work can be read in Washington Post’s “On Parenting,” Huffington Post, Motherly, Arlington MagazineHobart Pulp, and Scout Media’s 2019 anthology A Flash of Words.

Mayhem—Arrival and Departure

Rally (n.) 1650s, originally in the military sense of ‘a regrouping of renewed
            action after a repulse’

I confuse the armored buses for deliverance                a line of colored
steel     some tarnished            some spit—
shined  My surprise at this release of white
bodies              Their flocking together

Their delivery of          renewed action
the guns hanging         from their waists
so many           baseball bats even,
one wrapped in                        rusted barbed wire

I imagine their knuckles          exhausted        from tight-gripping
all that power                           Their revival from this
banding together—      one moving mass
of enthusiasm              I am standing:

a body radiating           in the stilled heat
no clouds to encase     a sliver             of the sun
Sweat trailed    my thighs        my jawline
I wished to be rinsed               washed away

I wished for a different kind    of fragmenting

I never recognized the buses’ departure
The fade of roused bodies       I was left
in still silence               The city ate up by the quiet

 

Kiyanna Hill has roots in Petersburg, Richmond, and Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a MFA candidate at the University of Maryland.

Magic

[fiction]

Estoy corriendo on a dirt road feeling the right side of my face swelling up. Brittle and stiff mesquite se rodearon el camino. Trailers float on the mesquite milas aparte, solos, escuchando los vultures crowing as they circle. And montaña morenas stand silent squatting el cielo azul on their jagged backs.

Oigo un grito and a door slamming open. I look back at my dad standing at the doorway of our tan trailer, sin camisa, su estomago redondo bright in the sun. A belt is wrapped around his fist. He is shouting at me a regresar.

I keep running. Mi corazon pegando mi pecho, cracking a few ribs, my blood veins being squeezed by my muscles, my bones being chipped away con cada piso. I turn away, and the road ends in a patch of small Barrel Cacti.

I slip and fall before I get to the patch. Un hoyo de conejo caught my foot. Dust swirls around me, coating me and lifting into el cielo azul. Me quedo echado en mi espalda mirando el polvo y cielo. The dust drifts away and leaves yellow specks flickering around me. They flutter gently, a few calmly land on me. Son mariposas amarillas, a flutter of them. Mi ojo derecho esta cerrado, and I want to cry but I don’t. Instead I look at those little bits of yellow sun and wind flicker about in the blue forever above me and let that swell into my right eye.

 

Iraq war vet viviendo en la frontera de los Estados Unidos y Mexico, Jose Francisco Fonseca reads, writes, y trabajos con motors and tends to have aventuras en Juarez y El Paso. He is published in numerous online journals and a few lit mags, most recently published in The Iowa Review. Orgullo mi gente Americanos! You can find him on Twitter @jose_f_fonseca

Drought

[fiction]

Since coming here, the bright red-orange of my skin has begun to fade into a washed out but stubborn stain. The gold of my eyes, too, has dulled to a yellowish brown.

This place—they call it a school. We’ve been here almost a year now, and on my first day of class, as we sat in the rows of desks facing a woman with colorless skin and yellow hair, I raised my hand and asked, “Why is it spelled with an h?”

She blinked at me. Those strangely colored eyes—blue, they call it. “What, honey?”

I wanted to ask what honey was too, but I knew it was better to go one question at a time. “Why does school have an h in it if we don’t pronounce it?”

She smiled at me as though I’d finally discovered some far-flung moon that she’d known about for ages now. “That’s because it’s a silent letter, honey.”

A silent letter. Who had ever heard of such a ridiculous thing? That’s what I thought then, except now I am beginning to think differently. I like silent letters, how they hide within words and within sounds, the way you cannot see them in speech but you know they’re there. If you don’t know the silent letters in a word, then you don’t really know the word at all.

I have silent letters in me, too, I think. Things I have tucked away in my mind that the teachers and doctors can’t see. I can do nothing about the loss of my red-orange coloring or the golden glow of my eyes, but my memories—I can hold on to them, as best I can, for as long as I can. I clutch at them in desperation, as though my sheer force of will can keep them alive in my mind.

*     *     *

In the dark of our dormitory, everyone is stirring restlessly. The low rumble of thunder drives the fearful youngest girls to me, and I am sitting up in my bed with children in my lap. They are too young to remember that this thunder heralds the coming of the red rains. Too young to recall the time before they came—the colonists from Earth. 

I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth.

“Mar…Mar…” someone whimpers as thunder rattles the building. I hear pattering feet running down the aisle, and a little girl crawls up into my bed beside me. Emily.

Mar. They mean Margaret, which is and is not my name. The school assigned us names when we arrived, sullen-faced, teary-eyed. Fearful, wary. I am Margaret, my brother Harry, and some days I almost forget I was ever called anything else, in a language utterly different from English. But living at school, constantly hearing and reading and speaking and writing in English, I have begun to lose my mother tongue. But I suppose Margaret is not too terrible of a name—mostly because it contains within it Mar. Almost like Mars, which is the name the colonists call this planet. My home. I would like to think that even in unnaming and renaming me, the colonists have failed to erase who I am, where I come from.

A loud crack of thunder startles someone into crying. Lightning illuminates the dormitory in stark, harsh whiteness. In the flash, I see that all the older girls, like me, are sitting up in bed. Their faces are turned towards the window, their faces hungry. Waiting. We remember what the red rains are like.

“Shh,” I whisper to the crying girl, smoothing her hair. The littlest ones don’t speak anything but English now, but when they first came they hardly spoke it at all. I, having the best grasp on English out of all of us, helped them along, and since then they have always clung to me. “Shh. It’s the red rains coming.”

“Red rains?”

I lean forwards and begin to tell the little girls congregated around me about what it was like before the Earth colonists came. In all honesty, even my own memories of that long-gone era are limited and fading into fantastical glimmers, but I do my best. I whisper into the dark about the canals, how they filled to the brim once a year when the red rains came in wonderful torrents, how we all went swimming. This, I do remember. How could I not? The cool water, the splashing and laughing, all of us washing reddish dust from our skin and faces. My mother’s hair fanning out around her head as she floated. My brother spewing a stream of water from his mouth at me, his eyes bright and glimmering with excitement.

I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth. My father and I would stand on the red rocks or climb the crimson dunes to marvel at the stars. They all had names and stories, but I’ve forgotten.

“Mar?” A thin, high voice.

“Yes?” I say.

“Will we get to go and play in the canals too?”

I close my eyes. Thunder calls out again in its booming, commanding voice, summoning me to come outside and dance in the red rains, to soak the color back into my fading skin, and I ache with the longing.

The answer is, of course, no. The time of playing in canals and standing on the dunes is over now. I take the little girl’s hand and stay silent. I don’t have the heart to tell the truth. I don’t have the heart to tell a lie that will only disappoint.

*     *     *

The colonists came without warning, one day, simply dropping out of the sky. I was inside, chattering to my mother about what my friend and I were planning to do for her birthday, when a deafening roaring exploded into the air and there was a crash so loud and strong it swallowed up every other sound. A wave of force, a ripple coursing through the ground beneath our feet, threw us down roughly. Dazed, I watched a great cloud of red-orange dust engulf the world. I remember coughing so hard that tears came to my eyes, the feel of the gentle weight of my mother’s trembling hand resting on my back. I remember the moment I finally drew in a breath and could breathe, remember thinking I’m alive, not knowing…not knowing, not knowing what was coming.

We ventured outside, hand-in-hand, my mother gripping me so hard I thought all the bones in my fingers would splinter and shatter. She had lovely skin, my mother—a deep scarlet, with an undercurrent of bright copper.

The cloud of dust thinned. All our neighbors were there too, gathered around nervous and dusty before a strange thing of metal and wire and who knew what else. A spaceship, later, is what I learned it was called. But I didn’t know that then, and English was strange and foreign, that day when the spaceship came and the hatch opened slowly with a hiss. I wanted to laugh when I saw them, climbing out in bulky white suits, their heads encased in what looked like bubbles.

After a moment, one of the beings lifted a hand in greeting and spoke, a crackly transmitted voice breaking the silence.

*     *     *

From Earth, with peace. That was the first line the Earth colonists spoke, though of course we didn’t understand it then. That is the line now written on our dormitory doors, painted on our classroom walls, and blinking on the screens in the doctors’ offices. But those words were not supposed to be the first ones spoken on Mars, I learned. The first words were supposed to be the same words uttered by some other space traveler from Earth, Neil something-or-other, who had either strong arms or legs. I can never remember which. I asked a doctor about it once when I went for my check-up, and he only laughed at me. The doctors like me, because they like the fading color of my skin and eyes. They like that they have successfully corrected my gait.

Corrected. They don’t know that I only walk the way they want me to so I can avoid having to go back to the physical therapist. But in the dormitory, at night, when the matron has turned the light out and left the room, I loop around the beds to comfort the littlest girls and walk in our usual loping, sloping gait. I refuse to lose that, too.

From Earth, with peace—an improvised line, because the colonists had no idea we already lived on Mars. I, too, improvise, as I tell the girls stories about the stars and give them silly names. I say when the stars cry from laughing so hard, their tears fall down to Mars as the red rains.

“Only once a year,” I whisper. “Stars are so serious that it’s hard to get them to laugh that hard.”

The first rain drops, fat and ruby colored, splatter against the window. My mother’s face swims before my eyes. My brother, howling into the sky with glee, pointing at the churning clouds as the rain pours down.

Someone gets up. I hear her feet hit the floor, and as she passes by my bed, I recognize her. Veronica. We were best friends once, before we were turned into Veronica and Margaret, before she stopped speaking altogether when we came to the school. She won’t walk the way they want her to. They send her back, over and over again, to the therapist.

Much of her extended family has managed to avoid the fate which has befallen the rest of us. In the days after the colonists first arrived, the leaders and councils met to discuss and debate, so heatedly it’s a surprise they didn’t spark a wildfire. Some, wary and mistrustful of the newcomers from Earth, wanted us to all disappear, migrating to the mountains or going underground into the ancient tunnels. Some, including my parents, argued that it would be best to coexist with the colonists, who seemed peaceful and harmless enough. My mother pitied them, those poor weak-lunged souls who struggled to breathe our air properly. We ought to help them, and maybe they can help us too.

With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.

My family stayed. So did Veronica’s, but most of her relatives left to go underground, where cities now unfold beneath the unsuspecting colonists’ feet. We should have gone too, but it was too late by the time we realized that the kind of help the colonists wanted to offer us was not the kind we wanted or needed. They had censuses, registration, numbers to keep track, charts about population growth. We could no longer merely disappear without attracting attention and search parties and investigations.

I watch Veronica make her way to the far end of the room. She stands on tiptoes and unlatches the window as the pane rattles from the rumbling thunder. Her hands are shaking as she opens the window and reaches out to let droplets fall on her palm. A gust of wind blasts in and I draw in a deep breath, desperately trying to fill my lungs with cold, rain-scented air, so different from the sterilized thin oxygen we breathe in here. The wind smells of the dunes, and I think I can even feel some of the dust on my skin.

When the rains come, the underground rivers will swell and overflow, and perhaps there will be dancing and swimming and singing in the tunnels.

Not so for us.

*     *     *

They came to take us away a year ago. Before that, for a while already, we had been going to English classes the colonists facilitated, and although I knew vaguely that ours was an uneasy peace, I was blissfully unconcerned. The teachers were kind and friendly, the new language enthralling, and as one of the fastest learners, I took home spelling and grammar tests decorated with gold stars.

But then something happened, something which knocked every gold star out of the sky of my imagination and slapped the smiles off my teachers’ faces. A doctor happened to test a child for a disease and found, instead, high levels of a chemical in his skin and hair. From lab results, the colonists argued that the chemical was in our water, in our red rain—a chemical that discolored, disfigured, and disabled.

With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.

There were rumors of children being seized and taken away in the name of sanitation and schooling, a secular sort of salvation intended to ensure that following generations might be whole and healthy. I watched my parents worry and whisper night after night. They kept my brother and me from going to our English classes, and as fear wrapped its noose around my neck, my brother and I took to sleeping huddled up so that if we were taken in the night, we would at least be taken together.

But it was morning when they came, announcing themselves by way of a raucous knocking on the door. My father froze and shouted, “Coming! Coming!” in accented English while my mother herded my brother and me into a cupboard. My hands were sweating and trembling, and I held my breath. I remember my brother pressing a crumbling rock into my palm as though somehow he had known we would be torn from the land we knew and loved, and I brought it to my nose, breathing in the familiar smell of Mars while unfamiliar, unfriendly footsteps stomped around outside. Loud voices. Slamming. Where are the children? The question punched me right in the gut; it slammed its fist into the table, and then the cupboard doors were wrenched open and light poured in. I was screaming, thrashing, as rough hands descended on me in an iron grip. The world blurred through my tears. My mother’s hands, reaching for mine, knocked away. My brother shrieking my name. My father, asking, “Where? Where?” Where are you taking them? I bit my tongue on accident, pain exploding in my mouth, the taste of salt and blood as I choked on a scream.

*     *     *

The rock my brother gave me—I dropped it, somehow, in the scuffle, but it would have been confiscated anyway. At the school, I stood in a line with other girls in the cold inspection hall, shivering. My hands were coated in red dust from the rock.

It took three teachers and a doctor to make me wash my hands.

*     *     *

The rain falls harder, singing a humming song that intensifies. Veronica puts her wet hands to her cheeks.

The dormitory stirs as thunder bellows triumphantly and lightning cracks the world in two. Wind blows rain into the room, and dozens of feet hit the floor all at once as we all run towards the open window. The older girls hold the younger ones, helping them reach the window and cup their hands to catch the rainwater, before they themselves lean dangerously far out to let the rain run down their faces like tears after a long and weary day. Someone is singing, though the rain carries the words away, and from where I stand, I can only hear the ghost of a melody.

I tremble with anticipation as the crowd shifts and I move forward. The silent letters in me stir like desert flowers waking up from the dry season, unfurling shriveled leaves towards a sky heavy with rain. I am so parched. I didn’t know it till now, how much of a desert this place is—I’ve kept my focus on surviving, on holding on to what I can, for so long that I didn’t realize I was clutching dry bones. Everything in me is crying out now, begging for the red rains to pour over them and make them like new, pleading that I sing them out into the storm.

At the window at last, the wind blasts my hair back and kisses my face with rain, welcoming me into its embrace. I cling to the windowsill. I want the storm to tuck me into the crook of its elbow and cradle me, rock me. Is it tears or rain that runs down my face?

I uncurl my fingers from the sill. A door opens, slams. I reach out a shaking hand towards the rain. Footsteps. Cold, lovely drops fall hard and fast into my open palm like gems and I open my mouth to laugh or to weep, I don’t know which, and then someone yanks me back by the shoulders, shouting, “Margaret!” and I am knocked aside onto the floor.

The matron screams, “Don’t you know how dangerous this rain is?” She slams the window shut. The force of it is enough to jolt silent letters out of their places. To rattle them. To cast them on frigid tile and dash them into pieces.

Outside, the rain knocks on the window pane, asking to come in.

 

Chihye Naomi Kim is currently a sophomore at Brown University studying English. Her writing appears in Post- and Cornerstone, both publications at Brown University. Two of her short stories have been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with a National Silver medal and a National Gold medal.

 

In Champaign, Illinois

Up the stairs coiled around the hotel
my new friend Frank and I are
lamenting that there is no
gym after all—he lamenting—
I going along—at my door I half
stick the key in, he asks again about how
to iron his pants, I have these pants with
a crease—he uses his hand
to saw the air between us
So I’m kind of tired flash a smile, nod
jetlag ha-ha- but I can just tell you how
it’s really self-explanatory or youtube
is the best teacher on and on, until
ok good night and I go in
and make the curtains meet. 

Tomorrow he tells me he is on 9 p.m.
curfew for his first special-approved trip
from home, six weeks out from being
locked up, and when he first ate
strawberries after twenty years he cried.

In the night, beyond the curtains, he touches
all the things in his hotel room, cold
sink, coated hangers, blade of the blinds,
grabs his keys and hops in his rental, pulls
into the gas station. The moon wide-faced
in the sun-damaged sky, the smell of gas, vibrations
through his palms, his black footsteps inking the black
night, many directions pointing from him like arrows.

I wish I had been out there with him, and the night
opening, the taste of the strawberry, the feel of the mouth,
I could have offered more of what coming home had
to offer, I should have taken what the night
swallowed, cupped his heels in his inky footsteps.
Take the freedom, I’m here, look
around, night all around, for the taking.

 

You Li is a law student and poet who lives in New York. Her work has appeared in the Nassau Literary Review and Two Cities Review. She has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

Bandar

A beautiful man with a rich beard and a nose sharp enough to slice a tomato stood ahead of Viju at the Falafel cart. He looked a lot like the man he’d seen Gita with at the cinema house last week, his Gita, at least she used to be. Viju grunted before he could catch himself. The man turned but looked away, scrunching his nose as if he were near a heap of garbage.

Viju knew everyone was looking at him now: the hurrying locals, the dawdling tourists, taxi drivers, haggard-faced passengers in the bus nearby, everyone. It seemed to him as though they were pointing at the rust-red lumps on his face and laughing at the way they covered half of his left eye, most of his mouth. Such that when he spoke, he had to speak slowly to make himself clear, especially to the customers at the shop where he ran the photocopiers.

He shrank further into his t-shirt and left the queue. He started for home, choosing not to take the bus. He didn’t want to give people another opportunity to stare. He was used to it though, from when he was ten, the kids in his lane wouldn’t play with him, instead they teased him, called him names.

He was twenty-six now and the teasing hadn’t stopped. They chased him, called him bandar, because of the redness of his face: “Aiee, bandar, here’s a rupee, dance for us;” “Want a banana?” They laughed, aping the walk, the mannerisms of a monkey. When it bothered him too much he raised a hand and lunged at them as if to slap them. They scattered away, giggling.

He crossed the road, into the barking traffic boiling with the heat of those heading home to fuck, to die, to sleep, to lick, to live, the thick of their wrists shoving the horn. The pedestrians snaked on the pavement, stepping around vendors and beggars. But when they saw Viju approaching, they leapt out of the way willing to give their lives to a passing lorry or a car than grazing against him, not wanting any part of his on them. Even the raggedy girl begging for bread, for a rupee, didn’t look at him, digging her back into the electric pole on the side of the pavement. But the second his shadow hissed past her, she started again, Sir-sir, Madam-madam, one rupee pliss. Gita leaving him was no surprise, he always knew she was going to.

When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges. 

He walked on the edges of the road where the street-light wouldn’t fall directly on him, driving his chin deep into his chest, a headless man. He walked past the railway tracks, the tiny paan stalls, grocery store, the cemetery until he got to Wadi, the slums, alleys after alleys of small, identical tin shacks on either side, so close to each other no one had any secrets: Baloo’s daughter had run away with the sweeper; Bimala died in her sleep; Amir the truck driver had AIDS.

One of those homes was Viju’s. The door was open—it always was—and just as he entered, bottom-exposed children chased a shrivelled chicken into the street across the alley. The kerosene lamp in the corner licked long black lines into the wall and shed wavy shadows. Coughing on the cot was his father, his body half raised. He rushed to comfort him, patting gently on his back, but the dry, wheezing cough persisted. Some nights it was so intense he spat blood. Viju gave him some cough syrup and when the coughing subsided, he turned the radio on to listen to old Hindi songs. His father’s yellow lifeless eyes were on him, awake yet lost.

He leaned against the wall waiting for his mother to return from the market and make dinner. She came back with two plastic bags of vegetables, a weary smile and held the door frame to catch a breath. They are used to seeing me like this. Viju wondered if he went away for a long-long time and returned one day, will his parents shriek in horror or embrace him; will they ask him where he had been, if he had had something to eat?

The adjoining room where he slept doubled up as the kitchen—a kerosene stove, a small wooden cabinet with a handful of vessels was next to his head. The holes in the corroded metal sheet ceiling threw sharp lines of moonlight on him. Lying on the thin straw mat, he could hear his parents snore in the next room. He traced his face with his fingers counting the number of ridges and Gita’s beautiful face appeared before him, like it had every night for the past year.

*     *     *

When he turned twenty-five, life had almost been kind to him. A customer at the shop said he knew of this miracle baba near his village who could definitely treat him. Up until then no doctor, no priest or swami had been able to help with his condition. The customer said baba had divine powers to bring the dead back to life, cure cancer. In his presence the blind saw and the lame walked.

Thrilled and full of hope Viju made all the arrangements, booked his train tickets, borrowed money from neighbours for the treatment. But days before he was to leave, his father fell from the sixth floor at the construction site he was working in and broke most of the bones in his body. Viju cancelled his trip to take care of him. To him it was a sign: nothing good will ever happen to him.

It was during that time that Gita, a nurse at the local government hospital, started coming to their locality once every week. She had long, black hair and smelled always of coconut oil.

There were rumours that she’d been fired from the hospital a month ago as a patient had died under her care. But she continued to wear her nurse’s outfit: her cap, apron, the dress tight at the chest, going from home to home asking if anyone was sick in their family. And since she didn’t charge, no one thought too much of it.

Viju liked it when she came, the gentle way in which she spoke to his father. When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.

Up until then he’d only been in love with cinema actresses: Katrina, Deepika, enjoying the goings-on in his pants each time their songs came on the colour TV at the shop, when they moved seductively in the rain or a strong breeze exposed their low blouses. But he fell in love with Gita immediately, imagining dancing with her like those heroes, holding her close, his lips grazing her smooth neck, her face, his fingers passing through her long, soft hair.

Friday evenings when she visited, Viju returned early from work, showered, lathered himself with talcum powder and put on a clean shirt and trousers. And when Gita looked at him or asked him a question, those brief moments he even thought himself as attractive. He’d stand close to her, bring her things she asked for: cotton balls, dettol, bandages, medicines, thermometer. He’d listen to her instructions, nod along: “You will have to change the dosage of this medicine; you should often ask your father what he wants, check if he’s thirsty or hungry, or needs to go to the bathroom. O.K.?”

He noticed also the way his mother was around her—shoulders curved, always smiling, always agreeing—poor woman wanting for her son a bride; she wanted to see him married, have a family. And to have such an educated woman as her daughter-in-law would make her so happy. His mother’s desire, too, made him look at Gita differently.

There was really no need for her to visit. His mother took his father to the government hospital for check-ups, pushing him in the wheelchair Viju had managed to buy from a thrift store. But because Gita continued to, Viju started to believe that she liked him too. The way she smiled at him, or when their fingers touched when he brought her a glass of water or handed her his father’s medical reports. He even started believing that his father’s accident was a blessing; that if his father hadn’t fallen, Viju would’ve left to see the village baba and not met Gita.

“Take care.” She’d smile before leaving, her smile, he thought, was a secret shared just between the two of them.

One day she came home in a yellow salwar kameez and looked so different it took a moment for Viju to realise it was Gita. He felt that maybe she’d dressed this way to do away with the formality a nurse’s uniform created between them. Maybe this was her way of saying, Let’s be more.

“Ma has gone for the Vat Poornima puja,” Viju said when she asked about his mother.

A stream of women in red saris and glass bangles walked past their door carrying fruits, coloured threads, brass pots with water, pieces of red cloth and clay idols. A current of joy passed though his body as he thought that after becoming his wife, Gita too would observe fasts and pray for his well being like other married women. But in the very next moment, he felt a wave of grief knowing that this was just a hollow dream, that if she learned what was on his mind she’d hit his face.

“How’s uncle?” she asked.

“He sleeps through the night now. His pain has gone down.”

“Good, good.”

He made her his special tea with crushed ginger and cardamom. When she took the tumbler from him, their fingers touched as usual. He stood in the semi-dark room, watching her quietly have her tea.

That night he pictured Gita naked.

*     *     *

In the morning, a customer with a chin carved out of butter: big, shiny, ample stared at him as Viju repeated his order: three copies, front and back?

“Yes-yes,” he said, trying not to gape.

“Page won’t photocopy well because it is worn. The copy will be darker, O.K.?”

The fat man had a French beard, a toilet-brush sticking out of soft dough.

“Dark page is alright?” Viju asked again.

“Okay-okay.”

The page was illegible, but the man only blinked twice and left with the blackened sheets of paper.

Chutiya. The idiot didn’t even ask for his change.” The owner laughed and scratched the webbing between his toes.

Viju noticed the owner’s daughter; she was parking her two-wheeler. The afternoon light illuminated the bleached blond hair along the edges of her jaw. Every Monday, after her computer classes, she came to the shop to collect her pocket money. Five hundred rupees for the week. Viju’s blood turned black just watching the owner hand her the money and the girl taking it mechanically, as if she deserved it, when Viju had to work the entire month for much less.

“Be right back,” he said, wishing to be away.

“Again? Didn’t you just go to shake your dick minutes ago?”

“Before I went to get your gutkha, now I want to go to the toilet.”

Acha. Bring two more packets on your way back.”

He went to the washroom on the lower level of the two-story building, ahead of the row of shops: mobile repair, compute spare parts, ATMs, stationery. The weak tube-light hummed a few seconds before flashing to life. He used the commode and washed his hands at the basin. He looked in the mirror with dark spots around its edges. What’s the point? But still he splashed cold water on his face and dabbed gently with his handkerchief. And hoped like he always did to have a regular face when he looked in the mirror again.

He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided.

“Hi, handsome,” he said aloud and laughed bitterly. He thought of Gita and how he must appear to her. Surely she saw something in him he couldn’t. How much he had enjoyed her touch, and soon had a bulge in his pants again. He imagined caressing her and was about to pull his pants down but there was an urgent knock on the door. Quickly fastening his buckle, he opened the latch and pushed the door open. The man waiting outside, desperate for a piss, jumped back as though afraid. Viju could tell he was reconsidering using the toilet now knowing Viju had been in there. The man decided against it and walked away.

*     *     *

Week after week, Viju waited desperately for Gita, wishing secretly, guiltily, for his father to remain sick. Each time his mother reported back wearily what the absent-minded doctor at the hospital told her—bones are still weak, not healing fast enough, maybe six more months—Viju tried to mirror her emotions. But when the temperatures peaked in the summer and his father grunted in pain or in frustration from the incessant itching on his toes or calves, places he couldn’t reach because of his casts, Viju’s selfishness pricked him.

The next time Gita came, she left her sandals with their silver straps in the corner and walked to his father’s cot by the only window in the house.

“Eat chicken soup to strengthen your bones, Uncle,” she said and his father nodded with half-closed eyes. Viju sat on his haunches beside them, and wondered where the money for the chicken soup would come from. He watched Gita take his father’s pulse. His mother was in the kitchen cooking and from inside asked how her day had been. Gita said, “Busy as usual, Aunty,” and smiled. The sight of her white, uniformed teeth titillated Viju.

She rested her hand on the railing of the cot, a dainty golden-dial watch on her wrist. It took all of Viju’s self-control to not grab her hand and rub it all over his face, kissing it till her palms turned red.

“Viju, do you want to learn how to take his pulse? Here, let me show you,” she said, taking his quivering hand in hers. “You place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery — I mean on the thumb side of your wrist. When you feel the pulse, count the number of beats in fifteen seconds. Then multiply this number by four to calculate the beats a minute. Got it?”

*     *    *

Viju tossed in bed, staring at the rays of silvery light streaming in through the ceiling, wishing for the week to pass quickly so that he could see her again. This was all new, these feelings he was experiencing, his dreams wet and sticky, a swelling desire to dip his tongue into the taste of tomorrow.

The week after, Gita came home on a Wednesday, just after Viju’s mother had left with his father for his check-up. As if she knew. This was the first time they had been alone and a fear gripped him; what will people say? Will they wonder what an eligible woman was doing with a man like him when there was no one else at home? Will they complain to his mother? But Gita entered without care, asked him how his father was. He offered to make her chai, she accepted. After finishing her drink, she reached out and touched his face. Viju took a sharp intake of air, which made her giggle. His mind went blank, the pulsating beat of his heart knocking behind his eyes. She blew gently and a rush of her cold, sweet-smelling breath brushed his lips, his cheeks.

This went on for days. She’d come home when his parents left and stayed till just before they returned. He’d weave his fingers through hers and relish the wetness in his pants, the world forgotten; for once someone just for himself; the weight and heat of another body pressed against his. He latched on to her like a child to its favourite blanket, cautious, worried someone was after it.

She allowed him only to play with her fingers; he sucked on them, kissing them one by one. If he tried to do anything else, like touching other parts of her body, she’d leave. He was afraid if he said something, if he protested, she’d put an end to it. Why was she like this with him? He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided. A bone, a soggy biscuit, he’ll take it.

*     *     *

At work, finding him unusually talkative, the owner snickered. “Wah-wah today your voice is coming loud and clear. What’s the matter? Someone blow you?”

Viju whistled as he photocopied an entire grade 12th physics book for a student. Two girls who passed by eyed him. He smiled then waved at them. He held his head high and proud, feeling O.K. with the way he looked, even a little love for himself, returning in his mind again and again to his encounter with Gita.

He wanted to be with Gita, like the couples he’d seen outside his shop sharing golgappas out of the same leaf bowl, laughing, looking with love at each other, sharing a joke; or like the ones he’d seen kissing in parks behind thick bushes, the girl’s dupatta over both their heads, a delicious intimacy between them. He wanted to tell Gita how he felt about her, but each time he said aloud things he planned on telling her, his throat closed and he found it hard to breathe. What if she slapped me? What if she told everyone what I said to her and they all mocked me? What a chutiya, they will say.

That night in bed, he recalled the goose pimples on her smooth skin, her scent. But that feeling didn’t last long as unease wrung his innards; made him sit up and wonder what she was doing with someone like him? This was just a phase, this affection was temporary. Any day now she was going to realise how hideous he was and tell him, “Stop touching me, bandar.” Once when he asked her if she wanted to go to the park with him, she said, “What’s wrong with spending time here?”

*     *     *

These days it surprised him, the insistent, pressing urge to masturbate—there was no other way of satisfying this creature—that came upon him often and at the most unlikeliest of times: on the bus to work, or while the photocopy machine whirred under his hands; when eating dinner—one flash of Gita and blood thrummed in his groin.

These impulses soon started interfering with his life, his work. Unable to focus, he was frequently messing up the instructions customers gave him, half-listening, worried his erection was showing. He’d make too many copies or forget to start the photocopier. Once the owner’s daughter caught him rubbing himself against the machine, and the owner who would’ve usually laughed off something like this, fired Viju.

*     *     *

Back in his lane, children trailed him, snickering: Bandar, oi bandar, where’s your bandariya today?” He kept walking, not engaging them. His mother met him at the door.

“Everyone knows,” she said and gave him a surprised laugh.

“Why are you yelling?” Viju said. “Go inside.”

“So it’s true? You and Gita….”

“Yes.” Although it seemed like a lie to him; what were they, Gita and him?

“She likes you?” she stared at him. “She’ll marry you?” but immediately she lowered her eyes as though ashamed by her question. He could sense her relief but also her scepticism that a woman was interested in him. She cupped his face between her hands.

“I already have bangles and earrings for my bahu,” she said proudly.

Now he just had to find another job, as a man about to get married rightfully should.

*     *     *

On the bus, going from shops to offices, looking for work, any kind of work, his lower abdomen purred. If he ignored it, it will go away, not bother him, not today, not now, but when had it ever listened to him?

He found an empty seat at the back and because it was crowded, he had to be discreet, quick. He slowly slid his hand inside his pants, keeping one leg over the other and spread his handkerchief over his lap. He was nearly done, eyes closed in concentration when a woman shouted. “See-see what he’s doing? Stop him, stop him,” she yelled and Viju realized his kerchief was on the floor. The passengers and the conductor got hold of him, dragged him out of the bus and kicked and punched him till he blacked out. When he woke up he was in jail.

The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape.

He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but he saw his mother kneeling at the inspector’s feet, begging him to release Viju, her face weak and crumbling. Finally, after calling Viju and his mother names and laying a fresh, loud slap on his cheek, the inspector let him go. She was silent on the way, her hands fists.

Viju and his mother got out of the rickshaw. The sky was bruise-purple. As soon as they entered the alley they heard stray dogs howling. He smelled it even before he heard the neighbourhood women wailing at the mouth of the lane, pallus drawn over their faces, beating their chests. They were standing outside Amir’s house. Viju saw the truck driver’s ammi by the doorstep, her expression frozen, hair frazzled, sari falling off her chest exposing sagging breasts. Viju’s mother pulled him roughly by his sleeve, demanding he come home with her.

“Please, son, please,” Amir’s mother cried suddenly on seeing Viju, collapsing at his feet. “Please take him to the graveyard, no one else will. They refuse to touch him.”

Viju’s heart thumped. The neighbourhood men stood at a distance and their women, the edge of their saris between their teeth, stood next to them.

The old woman was caressing Viju’s face, taking his hands and pressing them into her bosom. He looked at Amir, most of him eaten away by the disease, pale, a white ghost.

Viju went home with his mother, ate the food she served. But he couldn’t sleep, not because Gita kept him awake, it was the sight of Amir, his neglected body, the old woman’s tears.

He walked back to Amir’s house, the woman was still at the doorstep.

Viju bent, picked up the corpse and followed the curved narrow street. The woman didn’t follow him, just kissed her son’s toes and wept. A few dogs walked after him, some growling, some curious. The air was muggy with the smell of sewage, the lane lightless and quiet.

He remembered how once when he was young, he was playing on the road when a scooter had knocked him down. Bleeding from his head, he laid there alone and hurt. The kids playing with him had run away. People stood and stared, or walked away. It was a long time before someone finally took him to the hospital.

The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape. The man in his undershirt stepped back and put a hand on Viju’s shoulder. The skin on his face was dark and dirty, alcohol on his breath. He spoke slowly in a gravelly voice, “I have buried hundreds here but I don’t have anyone to lower me into the ground.” The man was crying slowly, lost in sadness.

Viju made up his mind; he wanted to be happy, why shouldn’t he be? He deserved it and would fight for it if he had to. The sun was starting to light the sky; he knew what he had to do. He was going to ask Gita to marry him. He’d joke that his mother already loved her bahu more than her own son. He was thrilled by these thoughts.

He enquired of shop owners, people in her neighbourhood walking down the street with their families; rickshaw drivers. “Know where Nurse Gita lives? Do you? Do you? Do you?” After hours of seeking, a man finally pointed him toward her building.

Gita wasn’t home. But he was happy to be there, to walk the same floor her feet too had touched. In the dank, cold corridor, sitting by her door, he could almost taste her: coconut oil and rose-scented perfume. Someone had spilled milk in a corner and a swarm of red ants were gathered around it, drinking with their small mouths.

He imagined her house, what it may look like from the inside: neat, clean, nothing out of place; white walls, small colour TV, white curtains with red flowers on them. She’d call him into her bedroom and pull her kameez over her head, remove her pyjamas, take off her bra and underwear. She’d lie down on the bed and beckon him. He felt excited by the thought of being naked with her, she opening her legs at his touch.

He heard footsteps and before he could react or duck, a heavy wooden staff whacked him on the side of his thigh. His flesh stung, burned. He cried with pain. It was the watchman.

“For one second I leave and scum like you get in. Get out before I break your head,” he said. “Go, go,” the guard shoved him, digging the stick deep into Viju’s back. “Bloody cattle-class.”

As Viju limped out, stroking his femur, he saw a woman in yellow salwar kameez, the fabric shimmering, her backside swaying left-right-left-right. It was Gita he was certain. He started following her, yelling her name, waving, jumping. “It’s me, it’s me, I love you,” he shouted. But she didn’t turn. He followed her until he lost her in the crowd.

 

Kailash Srinivasan was born and raised in India. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and currently resides in Vancouver, BC. His writing has appeared in a number of journals including OxMag, Santa Ana River Review, Going Down Swinging, Regime, Tincture, Bluslate, and Them Pretentious Basterds. He is currently working on his first novel.

Ben Loory, Author

Photo Credit: Jennie Hettrick

Ben Loory is a good guy who writes great short stories. The end.

If it were only that easy.

Behind his smoothly carved stories, Loory revises and refines drafts sometimes for years before they’re finished. A few, he writes in one afternoon. His characters are compelling; nameless, often faceless, possibly mirrors of ourselves—even if ducks or birds. Loory sets them loose to chase and overcome whatever awaits until they suddenly surprise themselves, sometimes horrifically.

I met Ben earlier this year during Antioch University Los Angeles’s creative writing MFA residency. He read two stories, one inciting laughter, the other tearful contemplation. When the second story ended he looked out at us then smiled, and all was restored.

I got to thinking, what makes these small stories have such an effect on us? So, I went a little Loory-nutty reading every story I could find. He’s authored two collections published by Penguin Books: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (2011) and Tales of Falling and Flying (2017). I read both. I heard him read on This American Life. They’re found on Selected Shorts too. He’s had fables and tales appear in The New Yorker and in Tin House, Electric Literature, and Fairy Tale Review. Kickstarter generated an animated version of “The Duck.” I read Loory’s stories aloud to people and occasionally to the family cat. (The cat really loved those stories, by the way.)

What emerged was a series of questions.

Loory is sharp and committed to his writing. This can be taxing, but he stays until the story tells him it’s done. With that same commitment, he patiently worked through these interview questions. I’m grateful for it, too, because he taught me in the process how one word can change the meaning of a question and how humor bolsters much of what he says. Loory’s wonderful humor permeates through his stories. So does terror, and intrigue, despair and delight.

He shared serious insight into his practices and now I’m Loory-nuttier.

I still plan to pick up his children’s picture book, The Baseball Player and Walrus (Dial Book for Young Readers, 2015) and gift to the many kids in my circle. At times, this interview looks at children. What it is to be a deeply imaginative child or to raise one. What we run to and what we’ve run from as readers and writers. I admire this author’s candid perspective.

Ben Loory lives in Los Angeles. When he’s not teaching short story writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, he’s probably writing. You can find him at www.benloory.com. If he’s not writing, he could be somewhere around his favorite bookstore, getting coffee, possibly examining light, shadowplay, and the shape of things. The corners of his mouth might lift into a smile like he’s stumbled onto hilarity or peculiarity. Either way, he’ll look as though he treasures what he’s found.

Andrea Auten: Growing up in Dover, NJ, how did your hometown setting foster your imagination?

Ben Loory: I don’t think it did, really—if there was any fostering of my imagination going on, it was being done by my parents and family. The town we lived in was a pretty conventional place; the only thing I learned from it was that I wanted to leave. On the other hand, I guess every story I write does take place in a small town—there’s always a bowling alley, a park, a movie theater, a grocery store (and a torch-bearing mob who eventually shows up).

I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic.

But other than serving as a backdrop for my stories, I don’t think the town really influenced me. Mostly, it was the non-town things that made a big impression on me as a kid—the animals in the park across the street and in the forest; the Great Swamp nearby where my parents would take us bird watching; the movies and plays we would go see in New York City, and that weird old faux-colonial village that was situated in the hills not far away. The town itself I remember more like a negative space. But this is all just consciously; who knows the secret truth…

AA: With English professor parents turned small business owners, reading was prime entertainment at home. As a child without television—except for sneak peeks when visiting friends—books and comics occupied your mind, and you found particular fascination in fables after reading all of Aesop. What caused your hunger for myths this young? In your story subjects, how important is it to seek a lesson? What makes conquering our most terrible fears primary?

BL: I don’t believe in lessons (though I always learn from my stories as I write them). What I’m looking to create is emotional impact plus resonance. I’m looking to shake people up and then leave them thinking. But I don’t want readers to be able to condense the story to a simple lesson. Otherwise, why even tell the story? Just give ’em the lesson.

I also don’t think that conquering fears—or conquering anything, really—is primary. To me, it’s really more about learning to give up. It’s about forcing characters to accept themselves, even the parts they don’t want to accept. To allow themselves to let down the walls and become the person they are.

As for the taste for myths: As a kid, I think I was just trying to get away, to escape. And the bigger, wilder, crazier the story was, the better. I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic. Nowadays these kinds of stories appeal to me because they use the vocabulary I know. I’m not going to write about wine-drinking lawyers in Manhattan; I don’t know anything about them. What I know are myths and fables, absurdist plays, detective and horror novels, old movies… That’s where the stuff in my brain comes from, so that’s what my stories are about.

AA: I heard it said once, our characters are waiting for us to tell their stories. Once there was a dodo… comes to mind—how that Dodo pushes its way to the front. What force drives the letters on the page? What are your thoughts on this?

BL: I don’t know. I don’t really question it. My rule is, I sit down with no ideas and make my mind a blank, and then I take the first line or image that pops into my head and write a story about that. When that first draft is done, maybe it sucks, maybe I never even look at it again, but I’m not allowed to NOT write a draft about whatever that first thing is. That’s the rule.

I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional.

So, as a result of that rule, I write a lot of weird, sometimes ill-advised stories. I mean, I write a lot of stories, period! And it’s only later that some of those stories begin to step forward and sort of reassert themselves and ask me to come back and work on them. Meanwhile, others just linger forever in some forgotten hole on my computer. I’m not sure why some haunt me and some don’t—I don’t question it. I just follow my rules and do what I do and somehow the stories get written.

AA: From hometown to Harvard, then film direction to screenplay-writing, you discovered a love of storytelling by writing quick descriptions or 2 to 3-page treatments. Your books expand these little summaries into short fables, fantasies, and tales (sometimes nightmarish). A reader can fill in images, assign place, time, even names if desired, because your stories are written to the bones. Boiling words down to their most salient combinations can be difficult crafting. Were you ever wordier? When are details worth it in writing? Your work is also stripped down and exposed. How do you experience coexisting with such open work?

BL: No, I was never wordier. I don’t intentionally strip anything down, or think about what details to put in or leave out. I just tell the stories the way I tell stories, the way that seems natural. I describe the people and things that are in motion and that seem to matter in the scene. I mostly leave the internal out, unless I absolutely can’t point to it through behavior. (And if you’re looking to write short, that right there is half the battle. Not that I’m ever looking to write short.)

Co-existing with my stories is easy: I just act like they’re not about me.

AA: I find that I love reading your stories out loud and, indulging, I set up a few parentapproved sessions and read your stories to chosen children—not that I’d catalog your books in the children’s section—these are deep thinker kids, and I wanted to evaluate their responses. Ben, each child ranging from ages 7-9 was rapt, consuming the words, and gazed until the stories ended. ‘That was great!’ each said. They seemed sustained by the mystery or maybe it was magic, but the fast-paced world they live in stilled and they listened intently. In this high-stress information age, where do you place value on storytelling? What gives your work its universality?

BL: As a reader, the value of storytelling to me is that it stills and focuses my mind. Everything goes away, all my cycling repetitive horrible thoughts, and suddenly I feel much better! (At least, unless the book is bad—then it gets even worse (and then I need another book really bad.) So basically, it’s a drug.

As a writer, it’s a little different—I’m aiming for something specific. I want to carry a reader, almost physically, through a fluid and unbreakably shaped experience. I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional. And mostly what I want is to move a reader deeply, really stir things up inside, make them think and feel and live a little more fully when they’re done.

If my work has universality, I think it’s because my characters are pure doers. They want something and they act; they fear something and they act. It’s easy to connect to them because their hearts are front and center.

AA: I call this question: Just the Facts. Earlier we talked about cutting out the details. Reading your work, there’s a perspective that brings humor and zest, with keen observation, quirk, absurd joy and despair, and then again times of complete bafflement, but there’s more going on under your stark text. How do you build these worlds that buzz and teem underneath their clean architecture?

BL: Well, again, I don’t think it’s really that I build them, so much as that I just believe they’re there, which somehow makes them real. It’s like, you can write seven paragraphs about how landspeeders work, or you can just have one character say, “Hey, can I borrow your landspeeder?” And the second will always be more convincing. What makes things feel real is when readers subconsciously fill in the blanks, when they figure out themselves how the world works without even knowing they’re doing it. They believe it because they’ve actually built the foundation.

The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right??

Besides that, for me at least, the most important thing is to always focus on balance. When something sticks up, you look for something to hang down. When a character does something nice, you look for their mean side. Reality is a perfect sphere; things seem unreal when you see a lot of angles. So a lot of my process is going through the stories and looking for things without shadows, things that spike up and look out of place. I then fill in those shadows, provide stalactites for the stalagmites, and the world slowly comes into being in all its richness.

AA: Back in June, outside the AULA building-monolith where we hang at the squirrel table, I asked you, what you were afraid of as a child. You answered, Everything. It got me wondering about the deep and wondrous level of imagination many writers have and how in childhood this presents itself—even to parents—as obstacles. How did you cope with this level of fear? What correlation exists between imagination and fear and how might the stronger one suggest the other become?

BL: I don’t know that I was really afraid of everything, but I was certainly afraid of a lot! But at the same time, I always had a pretty high opinion of my own abilities; I always thought I could handle whatever came along—even if the world was full of ghosts and Nazis and demons and monsters, I always felt like I would be okay, like I could outsmart them. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. So it wasn’t like I was crippled with fear, I was just, y’know, hypervigilant and terrified. Not sure if that makes sense but I feel like that’s how it was.

Somewhere along the way, sadly, I lost that sense of invulnerability. Though at the same time, I’m also not as afraid as I used to be. Guess the world just ground me down from both ends. Which I suppose is probably for the best. I do find that when I’m writing, I’m always better when I’m upset. The stories are always deeper and richer when there’s something really bad going on in my life. When everything is just peachy keen, the stories get light and fun—which, whatever, is fine (I like having both kinds)—but it is something I sometimes worry about. Not that there’s ever going to be a lack of upsetting things in anyone’s life. But I don’t want to actually want them.

AA: You wrote a story called “The Well” about a boy who jumps back into the well he’s fallen into to prove himself. What was your writing process like when you created this story? I ask because when reading it to my husband, he stopped mid task to listen. I finished the story and fumbled a bit for my bookmark before noticing he hadn’t spoken. When I looked up, I found Tom braced against the doorframe weeping. How does it affect you when you hear the impact your stories have on people?

BL: Oh, I love it! There’s nothing like making people cry—it makes me feel like I’m not alone. The way I write, I never have any intentions—I’m basically just living through a sequence of events through a character—and the end of that story really messed me up. I never saw it coming and it sorta felt like I was dying, or had always been dead and just hadn’t noticed yet. There was a bit of hyperventilation involved. It was one of those rare “one-take” stories, too, where it pretty much all comes out right in the first draft. So please tell your husband I know how he feels! And I’m glad we went through it together.

AA: For a bit of fun: Cinema trivia who wrote and directed the 90’s everyman Hero’s journey with the first line, Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job… (Don’t use Google, Ben.)

BL: Well, it’s Joe vs. the Volcano, which I love and used to own on LASERDISC, and which was written and directed by the guy who wrote Moonstruck. But I can’t remember his name. It’s three words. It’s not Bruce Joel Rubin, though—he’s the guy who did Jacob’s Ladder (which I also love and used to own on laserdisc). And it’s not Phil Alden Robinson, because he did Field of Dreams (which I did not love and never owned on laserdisc). So, I don’t remember his name! I’ve been laughing about that Brain Cloud thing for 30 years now, though.

AA: You’ve read your story “The Duck” on This American Life and now Australian animator, director Simon Cottee has mounted his short film adaptation version through a Kickstarter project. What was that like to have “The Duck” come full circle?

BL: Is that full circle? It was certainly nice, whatever it was! I really loved the short film. It especially made me laugh how all the ducks spoke with Australian accents! And the animation and the music were beautiful—I cried when they threw the rock off the cliff. I’d love to see all my stories done as cartoons.

The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right?? Which they found kind of funny. But the reach of that show is really tremendous, and I loved being allowed to read the story myself. They’ve used a few of my other stories over the years, but it’s hard to top that first thrill.

I think full circle would be if one of the stories got made into a live action feature, maybe? Which would certainly be nice, from a money angle. And also then people would probably go and buy my books, and that, of course, would be amazing. But I don’t really care about the movies anymore. I mean, I like watching them! But I made peace a long time ago with the fact that the stories I write are short stories. They don’t want to be long; they don’t want to be features. They are what they are, and that’s okay.

AA: Thanks Ben.

BL: Thank you!

 

Andrea Auten is a Masters of Fine Arts graduate in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. At Lunch Ticket, she is an interviewer and blogger, co-lead editor for visual art and graphics, and she works with community outreach and the social media team. She lives with her husband, two sons, and her writing helpers, the family cats. andreaauten.com

Our First Market Day

[fiction]

Dad and I move wicker baskets from our van to the tent. Dad’s jerking baskets too hard. Apples fall out and roll across pavement.

“Strawberries go on the short table,” I say. He’d placed them on the higher table, where we put the jam display.

“Move them then,” he grunts. He pulls out another basket. He isn’t talking much. He had to drink a pot of coffee just to drive here.

I switch the strawberry flats and jam, making sure the jam labels face toward customers. Puddles spot the brick path that circles the farmers’ tents, but the sky has some blue spots. Maybe customers will stick their necks out from under their logs. Mom used to say that, last summer, and every summer I can remember, when she led market day. She died in March from breast cancer.

“We need the tent flaps,” I tell Dad. The green flaps, which attach to the tent sides, hang down so rain won’t get on the produce or us.

“Left them at home,” Dad says. He heaves out the final basket. “We’ll be fine.”

You’ll be fine. I’ll get wet.”

Dad drops the basket, hard. He probably bruised the apples. He stretches out a hand. “It’s not raining. And it’s not forecasted to rain.”

“And forecasts are always right.” I want him to tell me to stop being sarcastic. He hasn’t corrected me in months.

A black-haired girl and her lip-pierced boyfriend squat to smell strawberries. My dad turns, yanks his jacket off the back door of the van, and puts it on. Like me, he hates talking to customers. We both like farm work—tilling, weeding, picking apples, pruning. But he told me this year I was in charge at the market. “This is all I’m asking you to do,” he said.

“I’m going to rest,” he says. “Don’t leave the stand.”

“Where else would I go?” I ask.

Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.

The driver’s side door slams. Inside the car, Tug, our small black mutt, whines. We got him a year ago, when Mom said she needed some happy thing around when Dad and I weren’t home. I wish Tug could hang out outside with me, but he can’t be near the food.

Across the way, at the McCulla stand, Cody, a kid my age, unloads baskets of lettuce. He doesn’t have to stay. Soon he’ll be skateboarding, eating at a food cart, or hanging out by the river. Last year, I went with him. I learned to skate a bit. We poked around a bookstore. This morning he hasn’t looked at me.

Some older lady approaches. Her beady eyes seem familiar. She looks me over like she’s here to buy me.

“How are you, Hayley?” she asks. “It’s Cecilia, remember? Our daughter had a baby, so we’re visiting.” She purses her lips. “You look so much older, dear.”

“Hi.” Is it a compliment that I look older? I don’t think she meant it as one.

“How are your parents?”

I throw a thumb over my shoulder. “My dad’s in the van. Can I help you?”

“And you’re manning the stand. You’ll be just like your mom soon.”

She’s wrong. I’ll never be like my mom. And this lady only knows my name because my mom had never met a stranger.

“I’ll take this bag of apples and this,” Cecilia says. Her vein-ridden hands cover a quart of strawberries.

I charge her three dollars for the strawberries and weigh the apples. “First of the season,” I say, meaning the strawberries, not the apples. The apples are from last fall.

“You sound like your mother,” she says.

That is something my mom would have said. I don’t want to repeat her. I already hear her sayings every day, like song lyrics I can’t get out of my head.

Cecilia takes the paper bag full of produce. “Tell your mom I said hello. Next time, we’ll bring our grandson with us.”

If I give her encouragement, she’ll pull out the kid’s picture. I step under the tent and check Dad’s cell phone. “Sure. Have a good day.”

It’s only 9:30. Still over two hours. And I’m already hungry. I chew hard on my gum.

Cody’s gone from the McCulla stand. He’s probably getting food.

Some tall lady with manicured nails steps under our tent. “Is your produce organic?” she asks.

A USDA organic sign hangs on our tent pole. “Yeah,” I say, pointing.

She punctures an apple with a nail. “You sure? These apples seem small.”

I cross my arms. Organic doesn’t mean large and without blemishes. My mom explained this so many times, always patient, but on the way home, she’d laugh. “When will they understand that natural doesn’t mean perfect?”

“If you want your produce to look good get it at the grocery store. Organic produce tastes better and is better for you, but it goes bad faster and is smaller and weirdly shaped and has more bruises.” I use my rudest tone of voice, hoping she’ll go away

“Is one of your parents here?” she asks. “I have questions about organic farming.”

I sigh. Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.

“Excuse me? Can I speak with one of your parents?”

“I’ll get my dad.” I don’t care if I wake him.

I open the driver’s side door. The seat’s tilted back. His shirt, hiked up, reveals black, matted stomach hair.

“Dad,” I shake his shoulder. “Dad. Some lady has questions.”

He opens his eyes but wakes slowly. I’m used to this. On Friday nights he sits in his recliner and drinks himself silly. “Only on Fridays,” he tells me when he brings home a case of beer. “They can’t worry if it’s only on Fridays.”

“A lady has questions,” I say again.

“Can’t you answer them?” He’s bothered, but not mad. I wonder if punching him would do it.

“Come on.”

He shakes his head, hard. As Dad steps outside, Tug jumps into Dad’s warm seat and rolls over. Before I shut the door, I give him a scratch on the belly.

The lady yells Dad a question before he reaches the stand. He answers it, and she shoots him another. I bet she’s one of those customers who want to know organic farming so she can brag at some book club. For me, the conversation’s an opportunity to escape. I slip away, hoping to find Cody.

I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out.

I walk downhill, jump over puddles, zigzag in and out of one-way streets. It’s started misting. I pull my beanie lower, over my eyebrows. Soon, I’m among a block of food carts. I circle them, looking for Cody. I finally find him skulking around some bike racks. I cross my arms and stand on a nearby greenway, pushing raindrops off blades of grass with my tennis shoe.

Bikes pack the racks. A few dogs are tied on it, too. Rubber bands hang off Cody’s wrist. A beagle paws at his mouth, trying to get something off. Cody kneels next to a miniature poodle and begins to cinch its mouth shut with a rubber band. I can’t believe it.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

His shoulders jerk around, his face calm. “Leave me alone.”

“They can’t breathe very well. And they can’t bark.” I start to walk around Cody to the beagle, but he blocks me with his body.

“How many dogs have you done this to?” I ask. Cody doesn’t answer. I pull off my beanie and smack him in the eyes. I’ve heard people have gone blind this way. I hope I can blind him.

“Jesus,” Cody says. He doubles over, hands over face. I pull the rubber band off the beagle’s month and scratch behind its ears. Cody stands and turns. I flick the rubber band toward his head. He blocks it with his hand.

“Stop hurting the dogs.”

“They’re not your dogs.”

“They’re someone’s dogs.”

“I’m not hurting you.” He smirks. “Didn’t your dad tell you not to leave the stand?”

“Shut up.” I reach for the rubber bands on his wrist. He smacks my arm away.

A man, unleashing his dog, looks over. Cody and I both glance his way. “This kid—” I say.

“Shut up,” Cody says.

He takes off running in one direction, I in another. I jog through the market, passing tents selling jewelry and incense and jackets. Once I hit the streets, I head uphill, jaywalking back and forth. I want to hold Tug and bury my face in his fur. He’s the only thing that’s comforted me since Mom died.

Back at our stand four people are waiting. Dad’s nowhere to be seen.

I weigh produce and say what people owe. If I talk too much I’ll cry. Before too long customers are wandering away. Vendors punch out water from their sagging canvas tent tops. One quart of our strawberries, jam, and a dozen apples remain. Cody hasn’t returned.

I take a few strawberries and squash them until it looks like my hands are covered in blood. “Look Mom I’m bleeding,” I used to say, holding out strawberry-covered hands. She knew me too well; I could never trick her. I grab more strawberries, throw them on the pavement, and smash them with my shoe. I drag my foot underneath the tent. Red streaks start strong and fade, like wet bike tire tracks. I toss down another handful and make more lines across the pavement.

A white-haired vendor, packaging up goat cheese, stares.

“Leftovers,” I tell her.

“They were perfectly fine,” she says. “I hope you’ll clean up.”

I squat and squeeze a few bruised apples. These weren’t perfectly fine; Dad had ruined them by not being gentle. I remember when I helped pick apples for the first time. I dropped them on top of one another into the barrels. “Set them down gently,” Dad had said.

I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out. His black hair sticks up. He glances at the red streaks on the pavement and the chunks of apples. I aim another apple at the window. It bounces against it, then off Dad’s head.

“What the hell?”

“Oh, hi. I thought you were asleep.”

“You’re ruining good produce.”

“You ruined it first. Throwing the baskets around.”

Dad steps toward me and grabs a shoulder. I shrug away.

“You’re making a scene,” he says. “There’s no need to make a scene here.”

“You don’t want me to make a scene anywhere.” I cross my arms and glance at the goat-cheese lady, then at my strawberry-stained tennis shoes. Dad’s staring at me.

I look up. “We’re gonna lose money this summer because Mom’s not here.”

Dad looks down and touches his shoe against the red.

We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with Mom so many times.

I walk to the van, open the passenger’s side, and climb in. Tug’s curled on the driver’s seat, and I pet him. I close my eyes and don’t open them when the driver’s side door opens and shuts or when Tug jumps onto the floor. Dad’s breath is labored, like he just picked barrels of apples. I’m also breathing hard. I take my beanie from my back pocket, put it on, and pull it low over my eyes.

His breath slows. I peek at him. He’s clenching the bottom of the steering wheel and staring at rain streaks on the windshield. I pet Tug with my shoe.

Three years ago I had an outburst like this. Dad spanked me with a spatula. I was a bratty kid sick of chores who had uprooted unripe carrots. He must know I’m older now, that this is such a different thing.

“It’s been a hard year,” he says. “It’s amazing that we have a crop.” He runs his hands up and down the steering wheel.

I move into the center seat, where I used to sit between him and Mom. Tug jumps into the passenger’s seat. Dad’s hands drop off the wheel. I want to lean against him, and for him to put his arm around me. Instead, I place a hand on Tug’s head.

We’re all sitting like this when some market monitor knocks on the driver’s side window. My dad cracks his door. “We’ll pick it up and be gone by one, like every week,” he says. The market monitor leaves.

My dad says he’ll pick up the strawberry pieces if I get the apples. I tell him I can handle that. We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with mom so many times.

After everything is stowed, we get in the car. Dad drives a few yards, and stops. We both look back, like we do every week, to make sure we didn’t leave anything.

“Strawberry juice,” I say.

“Don’t worry. The rain will wash it off.”

I don’t know if I believe him. Mom could never get strawberry stains off my shirts. But maybe pavement is different. I hope so.

On our hour drive home Tug sits in my lap. I stare out my window. Dad keeps glancing over. Maybe he’s thinking about me. That would make me happy. I pull down the visor and open its mirror to see if there’s any happiness in my eyes.

 

Rachel King is a writer and editor who lives in her hometown, Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Flyway, the Concho River Review, Farallon Review, Ashland Creek Press’s Among Animals 2 anthology, and the Museum of Americana. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press. Find out more at booksrachelking.com.

Do You Wanna Dance?

Dolores stood beside Ruth in the two-car garage, their polarized trifocals not yet adjusted to the darkness. Dolores wore a sun visor from the 2010 New Mexico Bowl game where the Lobos had lost miserably. Ruth had on her fishing hat with numerous fishing flies dangling from it. She was so tall and skinny she looked like a floor lamp. Above the buzz of the flickering fluorescent shop light that hung from the ceiling there was another buzzing sound.

“What’s that smell?” Dolores said, crinkling her nose, but she already had a feeling she knew. Ruth had caught something.

Ruth pointed to the Hefty trash bag lying on the concrete floor. A few large horseflies were buzzing around it and the smell of wet mud, algae, and a wound that needed a dressing change rose from the green bag.

“Is this why you called me?” Dolores asked. She made the common Navajo “tsk” between tongue and teeth and shook her head. “I knew you were up to something,” she added in their native tongue.

She said this because normally Ruth didn’t call for Dolores to come over to her house. Usually they went somewhere together, basketball games, the casino. Once in a while Ruth, who had retired several years earlier, would meet Dolores for lunch at the university hospital cafeteria. She was fond of the liver smothered in greasy onions and the peach cobbler.

Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.

So, when Ruth had called her around lunchtime that day and asked her to stop by, even though Dolores lived nowhere near Ruth, she knew something was up. When she arrived, Ruth was standing in the doorway to her large ranch style house. She waved her long thin arm above her head and left the door open for Dolores to enter. The teakettle whistled and steam filled the yellow sponge-painted kitchen. Ruth had already placed two coffee cups on the orange Formica countertop.

Ruth smiled at her friend and said, “How are you?”

“Fine,” Dolores said, as she placed a Safeway shopping bag on the counter and pulled out Little Debbie sweet rolls. Ruth got out two plates and Dolores cut them each a generous portion.

“How was your trip to Bloomfield?”

Dolores’s granddaughter played in a summer softball league. Her team had made it once again to the state tournament played near her granddaughter’s home in the Four Corners, near Shiprock. Ruth poured water into each cup and held up a box of Christmas Spice tea, even though it was August, and a red container of Folgers instant coffee. Dolores pointed with her lips towards the coffee and Ruth set it down on the counter beside two spoons.

“We came in second.”

Dolores’s grandkids always came in second. Second in the girl’s 2-AA District basketball tournament, second in the elementary school spelling bee, second in the fancy dance contest, even Dolores had come in second in the quilt show at the county fair. “We got beat by the Bloomfield Sunflowers,” a team of freckled faced farm girls whose team was sponsored by The Future Farmers of America. The Shiprock Screaming Eagles were sponsored by Mo’s Transmission Shop and the Chat n’ Chew.

Dolores picked up a spoon and a plate with a frosted sweet roll and followed Ruth to the kitchen table. The sun streamed in the window that faced south and their trifocals became lightly polarized. The window, wide and low, looked out across what used to be a back lawn, a dirt alley that used to be an irrigation ditch, into Sophie Martinez’s yard, and quite nearly into her house. But they could stare into Sophie’s house all they wanted, because she was blind. She’d been going blind when Ruth and her family moved into their newly constructed home nearly forty years ago. Now it was Ruth who was going blind. She had been told a couple months ago she had the beginnings of glaucoma. She was keeping it a secret from everyone including her nosy daughter.

“Is that Junior?” Dolores said, then took a big bite of sweet roll as she looked out the window at a thin man hoeing two rows of corn. Bent over, his shoulder blades seemed to be pointing at them from across the barbed wire fence.

Ruth didn’t even look up from her cup where she was bobbing her teabag. The doctor had told her to stop eating so much chocolate and drinking so much coffee due to her ulcer. “That’s Junior.”

“He’s getting too skinny,” Dolores said and looked over her glasses at Ruth, meaning she, Ruth, was getting too skinny, too. “Here eat one of these.” She pushed a plate towards her friend and continued to stare at Junior. “He’s no future farmer,” she said and took another bite as he continued to hoe and Ruth continued to bob.

Ruth pointed to a centerpiece display on her cluttered kitchen table. It was colored Indian corn, four pieces tied together with a string so that if she wanted, she could hang it on her front door. “He made me that.”

Dolores held it up. Each cob was hardly larger than the size of the corn in Chinese food. She said something in Navajo about him not planting the seeds deep enough and then put it back on the table amidst newspaper clippings, crossword puzzles, a horoscope book, a doll’s dress Ruth had begun mending two years ago, and a racing form.

Ruth opened a pack of Sweet and Low, stirred it into her tea, and said something that wasn’t discernible above the rattle of the swamp cooler.

Dolores began to mix some instant coffee. “What?”

Ruth slid a newspaper toward Dolores and pointed at the headline with one long brown arthritic finger. She then held her hands tightly together in front of her as if she were a child saying a desperate prayer. Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.

Dolores picked up the paper that was dated several weeks past and read, “Prosthetic Leg Found in Corrales Ditch.” This was not news to Dolores. Ruth had come by her house early last week. In fact, she had driven all the way into town just to tell her about the leg that had been found in the ditch near her home. But, more importantly to tell her that she thought she knew who it belonged to.

“Who?” Dolores had asked.

“You know. He was in the hospital. The one that was in the rodeo.”

Dolores closed her eyes and saw him, a good-looking, tall, young man who rode bulls. He’d been thrown, not from his bull, but from the back of a Ford pick-up truck. The x-ray of his femur looked like bone that had been broken into new galaxies. He had cried like a child when they dressed his wound following the amputation. “I can’t ride bulls anymore,” he’d told the two nurses that saw their sons, both born and unborn, in him. “I can’t dance.”

Dolores looked up from the paper and back out at Junior. He was working on the next row. She briefly wondered if Ruth had forgotten that she already had shown her this, but she knew better as Ruth’s fingers began to tap the table, the vein on the back of her hand moving side to side like a snake. She took another bite of sweet roll, chewed slowly, sipped loudly, and trying to sound uninterested said, “Did they find the rest of him?”

Ruth slid another paper towards Dolores and tapped a column on the left-hand side of Page B-6 next to an advertisement for Discount Tire. The prosthetic leg had indeed been identified and indeed did belong to a Navajo male who lived in the Albuquerque area. However, local law officials were unable to locate the owner.

That’s when Ruth had stood and without asking Dolores followed her through the laundry room with the sweet smell of dryer sheets and Tide to the garage, and there they stood now, looking at the Hefty trash bag. “It’s his other leg.”

“How did it get in here?”

“I caught it in the ditch last night—with a Zwiggler.”

The Zwiggler was a fishing fly named for a friend Ruth had met at the casino, Alfred Zwiggler. After losing most of their money, she and Alfred would sit in the coffee shop at the casino and talk about fishing. He showed her how to make a lure that could catch anything. It had the iridescent colors of a fly’s eyes, aqua blues and greens. “Nothing can resist it,” he’d told her as he held it up in the light of the coffee shop at two o’clock in the morning.

“When did you catch it?”

“Last night,” Ruth said. She’d made the fly with feathers and copper wire. And even though she’d heard coyotes barking on the mesa, she went out into the cool summer night with her dog and cat following behind her.

“Where did you catch it?”

“You know the place.” Where the ditch gurgles around that slight bend. Where the brown water feeds the roots of the oldest cottonwood tree. “It gave quite a fight.” It had nearly dragged her and her dog, who held to the back of her pants, into the ditch.

“Does it have a shoe on?”

“A boot. A Tony Lama. Size 13.

Dolores saw the young man the day he was leaving the hospital. He had lost weight and his once tight Wrangler’s were baggy. He pulled on one cowboy boot. It was still dusty from being a rodeo star and a projectile. The other boot was in the corner holding up his prosthetic leg.

“What about the rest of him?” Even though neither one of them said anything more, they both knew that Ruth had barely been able to retrieve his leg from this world that wanted to devour everything. “What are you planning on doing with it? Are you expecting some type of reward?”

A smile briefly crossed Ruth’s face, then disappeared like a hawk diving behind that same cottonwood tree where she’d caught the leg. “I’m taking it to the family. If this was your son, wouldn’t you want his leg?”

“You know where they live?”

Ruth took a piece of paper out of the front pocket of her loose jeans and handed it to Dolores.

It was in an older neighborhood in Albuquerque. Houses constructed of cinderblock in the 1960’s, near where Ruth and her family had lived before they had moved next to the blind Martinez’s. The place she had wanted to leave to try and keep them safe from this sort of thing.

“Will you just leave it? What if a dog carries it off?”

“I’ve already called them. They’re expecting us.”

“Us?” Dolores said, along with something else in Navajo followed by a headshake and a “tsk.”

Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.

Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.

The house was on a street named after the home of another lost son and one of Ruth and Dolores’s favorite recording artists, Graceland. They pulled up and both got out. The mother and father must have heard the car doors slam, because as Ruth and Dolores approached the house, they could see a big bear of a man standing behind the thin screen door. He towered over the two older women dressed identically in navy blue windbreakers with the IHS/PHS logo, elastic waist jeans, and New Balance athletic shoes. Without speaking the two women led him to the car and what was left of his son.

His son who had taken first place in every roping competition he’d been in since the age of seven and had been the champion bull rider for four years straight at the Navajo Nation Fair. He’d worn a huge belt buckle stating he was a champ over his thin hips and was about to start a career in the PBR rodeo circuit.

Ruth pushed the button of the trunk as the mother still behind the veil of the screen door began to wail like only a mother who has lost a child can. The leg, that was triple bagged, still had the odor of a wound. Ruth took the Zwiggler lure off her fishing cap and placed it on the bag. The Zwiggler she’d made from the feathered earrings her daughter had left behind when she moved out, earrings made of peacock feathers, which are supposed to be good luck.

The man picked up the trash bag as if he were lifting a newborn out of a crib. He carried the leg like that same delicate newborn toward the cinderblock house painted the color of sand in the wash in Canyon de Chelly. The mother opened the door and let her husband and what was left of her beautiful son into the house.

Dolores and Ruth returned to the Ford Taurus, closing the heavy doors. Ruth sat behind the big steering wheel and Dolores held to the door handle as they both looked towards the mesa where the volcanoes called The Seven Sleeping Sisters laid under a darkening sky.

The Sleeping Sisters who that night dreamed of a boy who became a man, a bull rider and a fancy dancer, who won all the powwows and the heart of a woman who became his wife. Together they had a hundred children, formed a dancing troupe, and traveled the country, the world, the universe, dancing and laughing and dancing and laughing.

 

Cynthia Sylvester is a native of Albuquerque, NM. In her work she explores the visible and invisible lines and borders between “worlds.” She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and currently a student in The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She was the recipient of the Native Writer Award at the 2012 Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. Her fiction and flash fiction has been published in As Us Journal, bosque—the magazine, and The Best of Dimestories.

Photo Credit: Annabella Johnson

O’er the Fields

[creative nonfiction]

It was true it was Christmas. It was my first day in Phnom Penh. My boyfriend bought our tickets for Cheong Ek, a genocide memorial site. Yes, perhaps I was an artist when I agreed. My boyfriend adjusted the headphones, his best friend took a Klonopin.

The tour began with facts. A curator’s voice told us that in four years, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians died under Pol Pot’s regime, many of them in “killing fields.” I listened to this section twice. My stomach tensed up as if a ball were being thrown at me, again and again.

Tourists gravitated toward a monkey pod tree (the “Killing Tree”), which executioners used to beat children to death in front of their mothers. The sun suspended from its pendulum rod. The air was a taut sheet. Before we left for Cambodia, my boyfriend suggested we unpack the Christmas tree. What for? I asked.

Beneath the Killing Tree, fragments of bone and red cloth had surfaced on the dirt paths. In another killing field 100 miles south of Phnom Penh, local villagers have raided bones looking for gold jewelry to sell for food. Days later, we won’t think twice when ordering Tomb Raider cocktails in Siem Reap. A mediocre drink made of Cointreau, lime juice and tonic water, it was invented for Angelina Jolie, a refreshment after a long day on set raiding the tombs of Angkor Wat. We slurp them down and buy Christmas gifts in the open-air market of Psar Chaa: embroidered flats, earrings, and sundry baubles.

The truth is, I heard my boyfriend and his friend laugh about the red fabric materializing on the path’s surface. He mentioned how his mother used to plant red fabric in the chimney flue to simulate Santa’s tattered ass. I always thought she got the fabric from JoAnn’s, he said. I told them to shut up and finished the audio tour on my own, falling purposely behind. My boyfriend’s best friend said to me, laughing, I’ve been here too many times.

The tour led me to another monkey pod tree known as the Magic Tree. It was used to hang a loudspeaker. Khmer Rouge had blasted music from the speaker to drown out the sounds of victims being executed at night. The pock-marked fields behind the Magic Tree were mass graves. There were signs telling us how many victims were buried without heads, that many were naked. I was asked how I felt by another woman tourist. The graves were surrounded by wooden fences with friendship bracelets knotted to them. From the bushes, a boy asked me for money, his feet resting on a lower rung of the fence that guarded the mass graves. I did.

As I stood at these landmarks, I no longer wanted to go out for Christmas. Still, we ate lemongrass curry with rice noodles and Angkor beer at a Cambodian restaurant in a French colonial building. We visited a bar where the DJ, who had an impressive record collection, agreed to play our obvious request: “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. We took a picture next to a Santa mannequin. At another bar, we were meant to lose games of Connect Four to bar hostesses. And we did. Every time we lost, we owed a “ladies drink” to our competitor. Turns out, they pocketed a dollar off the top. I had no idea what I was doing there. When we arrived back at our hotel bar, they played different versions of “Jingle Bells” on repeat. I wanted to hear “o’er the fields we go” without the “ha-ha-ha.”

In the memorial stupa, there were 9,000 skulls stacked one on top of the other. Signs told us which heads were injured by which tool: hoe, axe, hook knife. Red and blue stickers told us male or female, under twenty years old. The tour ended with a roomful of portraits. The Khmer Rouge took a photograph of each prisoner both alive and dead. There was an image of a woman prisoner with her baby. I wanted to have something to say when I met my boyfriend and his best friend outside. Something smart, careful. It could have been any one of us, and yet I knew that wasn’t true. The faces from the photographs were once the faces on those skulls. Instead, I said nothing. It was just me and the pendulum sun, finding a slight way to disappear, a way back to the hotel.

 

Andie Francis is the author of the chapbook I Am Trying to Show You My Matchbook Collection (CutBank Books 2015). She holds an MFA from The University of Arizona, and is an assistant poetry editor for DIAGRAM. Her work appears in Berkeley Poetry ReviewCimarron ReviewColumbia Poetry ReviewGreensboro ReviewPortland ReviewTAMMY, and elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Lenhart