Writers Read: Refuge: A Memoir by Ming Holden

Ming Holden’s essay collection is an experiment. Equal parts essay, memoir, and poetry, with a dash of fiction, Refuge: A Memoir bends genre to immerse readers into the lives of the refugees and political exiles Holden has worked with throughout her life. From Syria to Kenya to China, Holden explores the circular, repetitive trauma that refugees and political exiles experience, even after their journey to “freedom” is over. Holden splices images and stories of her own life throughout her memoir. Through a series of her own heartbreaks, betrayals, and narrowly escaped tragedies, Holden begins to question the moral ambiguity of storytelling. Whose stories are these to tell? She writes: “There is no telling. So I tell it slant”(103).

Refuge lacks a traditional structure and it works. Holden’s demands that the reader confronts the reality of the violence. Instead of following her experiences in chronological order, the narrative weaves in and out of past and present, timelines blur, traditional structures are lost—there are gaps. “I fundamentally believe,” Holden writes, “there is no thesis statement for rape”(117). That is to say, there is no thesis statement for trauma. With violence, after all, traditional structures crumble. Logic is lost.

One of the collection’s most compelling pieces, “Jaqueline and the Negative Imagination,” centers around The Survival Girls, a theater group in Nairobi, Kenya. Jaqueline, the troupe’s newest member, portrays her own rapist on stage—an act that ripples through the women in the audience and exposes the depth of the community’s wounds. Like all the stories in Holden’s collection, it’s a story about survival. Like all the stories in the collection, there’s no end. For Jacqueline and The Survival Girls the process of trauma is ongoing. Survival continues into tomorrow. “Jaqueline and the Negative Imagination” explores the process of trauma: its effect on the body and the healing capabilities of creativity. It’s also a piece where Holden allows herself a certain amount of theoretical and philosophical exploration. She questions discourse on violence which assuming confine trauma to a period in time: “Violence and its aftermath disrupt the very systems of the mind and body that structure and order experience”(104). Holden suggests that trauma is malleable, fluid, and always changing.

Ming Holden

After reading stories about Jacqueline and the Survival Girls some readers might find themselves asking valid questions: are these stories filtered through the author’s own cultural experience? Does the benefit of writing about these people outweigh the risk of possibly exploiting them? These are questions which followed Holden throughout her journey: “There are vestiges of colonialism all over this work, and certainly they crop up anytime I speak ‘on behalf of’ or even about these women. Especially to a privileged audience”(108). It’s a careful balancing act: writing about pain but making sure not to reduce suffering to shock value. It’s an act which Holden performs well.

In the end, Holden decides the benefit of storytelling is greater than the risk. These are stories that need to be told, and she has the platform to do so. The moral lines are blurred, but she’s not wrong. At a time when the US government is constructing border walls and turning refugees away, stories like the ones in Refuge are powerful and relevant. Holden stripes away the shock value news sound-bites that surround us every day and reminds us that these voices belong to people.

Holden, Ming. Refuge: A Memoir. Tucson: Kore Press. 2018.

 

Kori Kessler has a degree in literary theory. She just got done traveling Europe and currently attends Antioch University Los Angeles. She is co-associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket and has work published in Tiferet Journal. One of these days she plans on settling down in LA with her dog, Ginsberg.

Spotlight: Summer of Sola

[fiction] 

Your lips taste of dust and salt. Your baby hairs glisten, limp commas and parentheses. In the mirror, you examine your freckles. You avoid looking at your chest.

You dip your foot in the water (too hot), force yourself to keep it in, smothering it with one hand.

You sink deeper into the bath, stopping only when the nape of your neck touches the surface.

Twice a week, you pay older men to burn your scalp. When, inevitably, the blow dryer gets too close to your ear, you don’t jump or flinch, not once. You wouldn’t dare. It would take so much effort, to tell them they’re hurting you, and you don’t want to be mean or bother them. Their hands are confident and assured as they tug on your curls and push your head down towards your chest. You let them, taking in the delicious smell of hairspray on a small brush with metal bristles. They move fast.

In the water, you remember various versions of your body. As a child of no more than seven: at one with yourself. Age ten to twelve: lanky, fast becoming a source of shame. At thirteen, a strange widening of the hips, prompting cryptic comments from your mother

(a figure fit for childbearing)

(you definitely didn’t get this from me)

but no chest still, and the legs and arms, same as always, only stretched out. And now, fifteen—with brand new stretch marks, caused by a never-ending growth spurt and treated nightly by rubbing expensive lotion on both sides of your ass, something you cannot remember whether you or your parents suggested.

In the bath, you observe the slow-rising arrival of asphyxiation with scientific interest. You pop your legs out and let them hang down the side of the tub.

School is out, and your days keep getting longer and deeper. In the afternoons, you spend hours in your room, straightened hair floating softly under the air conditioning. You squint to find patterns in the ceiling.

You stare outside at the beige roofs and the naked sides of buildings like the bare bodies of strangers and think: This one’s going to be a scorcher.

*     *     *

It’s the shoes you first notice: tattered, mournful, and brown, manifestly subject to many aggressions. Not once does it come to mind that this might be the desired effect. He has thick, curly black hair and what you assume, from a distance, to be brown eyes. You take one look at his outfit and conclude he is a beggar. You do not stop to think what a beggar might be doing at the Embassy on the 14th of July. You watch him lurk around the buffet, among throngs of people conversing in French, in Arabic, sizing each other up. He looks around, affects focus. Somewhere in this crowd, your parents are sipping wine.

You’re going to meet.

You won’t go over, you won’t do it, but you’ll let it happen, let him come over and say something as though neither of you has seen it coming. He can tell you’ll allow him, and circles the table a few more times, pretending to be lost in thought under the softly-swinging branches.

With the first word he speaks, when he finally approaches you after what has felt like hours of tiptoeing and ritual dance, you know you were wrong. He is not a beggar, but the least likable of varieties: an expatriate.

*     *     *

In the future you will remember nothing of this conversation. All your memories will be buried below the static of the words he wrote you later, in the letters.

You talk all night.

This is what you learn: He is a doctor. He is in his twenties. Works at the hospital near your school. Has only just arrived. Is only just getting used to life here.

In the future you chastise yourself for having wanted to look pretty. You must have known what you were doing. In the future, you will think: A fifteen-year-old isn’t a child. Look at me: I looked the same then as I do now. All grown up already. Same height, same weight. Just a slightly younger face.

But you sleep with braces in your mouth and a teddy bear wedged between the pillow and the headboard, and you’ve had your period for all of two years. When you watch Smallville, you think that your future life will be like Clark’s. You have never been kissed. You have never held hands.

That night you tell him about your plans for the future. What you want above else is to learn the electric guitar. Your dad told you he would buy you one if you got a good grade on your final exam. Then you can play Nirvana all the time, because you are totally Kurt Cobain’s biggest fan in the entire country, you even have a school bag with his face on it. And a poster. And the deluxe double CD. No one in the country owns as much Nirvana paraphernalia as you do.

What is it about you then? It could be your long hair, your sweet, fragile ankles. It could be your mouth, which an unknown kid at school once described as “big and good for blowjobs.” It must be something you are. Something you do without noticing.

Over the next hours, you reject him with all the polite despair of someone who has not been taught how to say no, someone for whom the desire of others trumps all else, starting with your own, which lies below unexcavated ground.

He asks to know what you are doing the following day. You have just recently learned that questions like these are not literal. They have a hidden agenda, a shrill ringing behind the soft deep voice. A year earlier and you would have given him the hourly schedule of your day, thinking he truly wished to be informed, questioning nothing. But you are wiser now. And you want nothing of tomorrow but for the sun to shine hard on your pink knees. Nothing but to be surrounded by blue skies, pool water, and the cold shade below the parasol. You want aloneness in the godly summer heat. You do not want a man, half-naked in the sunlight with all of his skin and all of his hair, too close to you. You don’t want him to come to the pool where you will be.

So why’d you tell him about it, then, Sola?

*     *     *

Sola says: You must understand. My parents loved him the second I introduced them later that night and he walked up to them carrying a crate of cherries from the hospital. You should have seen the spark in my mom’s eye: a doctor! Good going. Even my father approved. My father! The man who cuts my steak before he hands me the plate and won’t let me venture out alone. Yes, I wanted something. Wouldn’t you have?

Were there fireworks? I don’t remember. Did he drink? I didn’t. I must have flirted with him. I don’t remember. I think I flirted with him.

I told him my age a thousand times.

I was what you would call a tease. I teased him like an animal. I was nice. I was so nice. I was the nicest.

I wasn’t even home by the time I got his first text. I sat in the car with the crate on my knees.

It said he wanted to see me again. It said he wanted to rent a room in a palace. It said: “ah, did you want a room there too? Yalla!”

The next morning he’d written me a letter. How? I gave him my email address, that’s how. I would have given him my social security number if I’d known I had one.

*     *     *

15 July 2005, 1:15 a.m.

I don’t know when you’ll get this mail…We haven’t been apart for long but the need to see you again is eating away at my heart…

I guess I’ll try that Ashrafieh club, but something tells me this whole 900-dollar-club deal won’t be easy…But I’m starting to know people, I might be able to come in…Everything can be bought here…Laughs.

So why the desire to see you again…? That’s what’s so beautiful about life: its unfathomable mystery…You sail to the other side of the sea, to a country full of wealthy, curly-haired doctors and there you run into a princess in a black dress who immediately breaks the myth by saying that: One: she never wears dresses or heels; Two: she’s fifteen years old; Three: she’s fifteen years old; Four: her parents are never far, ever.

And curiously, no matter how many times she repeats those pretty reasons to turn around and hope for nothing, the more she talks, the more I want to stay and stay with her…

You are coming back to Europe in a number of seconds that is decreasing at the same time as I write you and in a sense that reassures me…Logically, the more I write the fewer the seconds between us, not a bad principle…

I’m worried about how little I care about this age thing…Can you imagine if I’d met a seventy-five year old instead, and she’d seduced me…I am a lucky guy. From now on I’ll watch out for the age thing…Friends from zero to 145 years old, lovers from eighteen to thirty-five…But…we could make an exception…You’re outside the norm anyway, right?

I’m happy with how fast you responded to my texts about the Pines…We’ll split the rooms one of these days…As soon as you get this mail, borrow your parents’ car and we’ll go for a ride.

Write me at ; yes, it’s a new address!

*     *     *

Sola says: I must have read the letter a dozen times. Sometimes my heart beat so fast I felt like I might become nauseated. I read it in two selves: the one that thought this was too much, too close, too soon; the one that wanted more.

*     *     *

Years later, you exit the metro station and walk along the cinemas of Montparnasse, speeding past the kiosks and strollers. When you arrive at the restaurant he is waiting on the terrace. He hasn’t changed. He looks down at the polished table, then up, nervously, and all around. You know that in a few seconds his eyes will be on you. You wait, and then there he is, and there you are.

*     *     *

Sola says: Of course, I wrote back. I wrote back again and again. I answered each of his texts. Sometimes I imagined my parents standing over my shoulder. When I turned around, they weren’t there.

*     *     *

By the next morning, he has asked you out. We can go somewhere not far from home, he says. He offers the name of a restaurant in your neighborhood and you hate him for knowing this place you have never heard of, even though this is your home and he has only been here for weeks. Already like the other Frenchmen he thinks he owns the place. He thinks he knows the good spots. He thinks he’s gotten the hang of Beirut. You don’t like him.

You can’t wait to see him.

You wear a strapless striped tank top and a short skirt. On your way to the restaurant, you focus hard to conjure his face. To see if this is a face you could like, a face you could find beautiful. Out of habit, after a while, it just might. Kind of like when you repeat your own name a hundred times and it starts making no sense at all and sounding foreign. Kind of like that but in reverse.

You eat nothing at the restaurant because of course you are allergic to everything. He knows this because you have told him, and because he is a doctor. He eats.

He asks if you’ll go see a movie after lunch. He has picked a movie, a comedy you don’t want to see. You don’t say anything. You think about how much you will have to tell your best friend when she gets back from Brazil in September.

You give him the sarcastic tour of the mall. You can do this, yeah, you can make this man laugh. You are smart enough. You are on home turf here. He knows no one, but you know every inch and corner of this place. It’s all good.

All the time you are thinking about sex, prodding yourself, handling the idea cautiously like something explosive. It’s a thought as foreign as the pictures of the universe in your astronomy book.

By the time the lights die in the theater you are worried he’ll try something. You no longer dare move your legs or arms. You practice perfect stillness.

His hair gleams under the blue sheen of the screen when he puts his head in your lap. You think: Is this when I am supposed to want him? You ask yourself, with growing despair: Are you sure you don’t like this? Are you sure?

After a while, though you cannot tell how long it has been, he sits back up. He grabs your hand. You hold his back. This, you can do. He moves his fingers across your hand and caresses it. You hate that word so much: caress. You don’t want to caress anything. You want to leave your body behind to rot in this stupid theater. You have no use left for it. Let anyone do with it as they will. All you want is to get your mind out of here safely. Back above the buildings, in the orange light of late afternoon outside, walls drenched in sun, the sky bleeding blue.

You tell yourself to pet his hand too but nothing moves.

At dinner later you tell your parents about the date like you are reading off a menu. They think it sounds lovely. You are satisfied.

*     *     *

The text comes at 11 p.m., a time by which you’ve been lying in bed in the dark for a time indefinite, weighing thoughts, examining them by the light of a tired brain.

Come outside.

Outside is seven floors below, in the small impasse where your father’s car is parked, between your building and the one opposite, decrepit and yellow, where white underwear hangs on a wire.

Outside in the dark is a plastic chair where a man sits waiting for you.

I’ve been here a while, he texts.

How can it be that your eyes meet as clearly, seven floors apart, as if he was standing a yard from you?

You wave at him. He blows you kisses. You blow one back.

*     *     *

17 July 2005, 12:55 a.m.

Subject: Here you are now, on the balcony, just like in my dream

Here you are, stepping forward onto the balcony…And I see you from down here, happy to be close to you, saddened by how unattainable you are.

Tomorrow I will come to the pool. If you get this mail, remember to tell the front desk you’re inviting me. There, I know the watchdogs are reassured when things are planned, organized, and smooth.

My darling…I upset you with my game of “yes or no.” You know, I spoke to you as if you’d grown up in our country, with that idea of “let’s go out together and see if, just as we believe and hope, love is born of this union” …Three weeks…That can be enough to make us really, really want to see each other again…and to do so. Life changes from one instant to the next. I don’t know what the next moment will hold. It could take away all the joy for life I had a second ago, but it’s no reason not to live that joy fully still. That, in a few words, is how I see things. But it’s not exclusive, and I also see the beauty there could be in being truly friends with you.

Here, you only date someone where you’re completely sure it’s the right person, at least for a long while. That’s not a bad thing—you can avoid the sadness that comes with mistakes, complicated moments when you say “it’s over…” But you also miss out on magical, unexpected moments that are so much more beautiful than you would have imagined…

The first girl who really mattered lived in French Polynesia and it lasted ten days…We never really left each other…But we both knew we wouldn’t see each other again for years…Now she has a child, how funny…If I’d stayed there it might be mine too. And you see, she’s still a part of me. And I’m happy to go with that. So is it stupid to want to spend these three weeks with you? As you can see, everything tells me it would be a really, really good idea. And I remain convinced that neither of us can know what would come out. But enough, I won’t say another word. I’m going to enjoy moments in your presence, with all the happiness inside me. Let’s play, talk, swim, walk, sing, dance…If you want to take my hand, take my hand; if you want to kiss me, kiss me. If you want to, shyness won’t stop you from making me understand, I know for sure.

*     *     *

The following night his text only says, “I’m here,” and you know exactly where to look this time.

Outside the humidity is stifling. You never replied to his second letter. Will he be mad?

You are cold.

Inside the pocket of your cutoff shorts, your finger curves around your phone’s power button until the screen goes dark. You kneel and crawl back under the half-opened rolling shutters.

*     *     *

The ones after, you don’t answer.

What has changed? Nothing. You are still eons from understanding. But somewhere in you there has been a spark.

*     *     *

Sola says: you should see the way he still looks at me at the restaurant, even after all these years. Why me? Why so much? Halfway through lunch his girlfriend calls from abroad. It turns out he chose a life on distant islands, where no one knows him. Have there been others like me? When he hangs up he tells me that his girlfriend is jealous, that she screamed at him. She knows about you, he says.

So does he.

What is there to know?

*     *     *

You count down the days until his departure. Sometimes you wonder if you made the right choice. At times you look behind your shoulder at the pool, on the street. In your emails to your best friend, you make it sound like something else, something to be excited about.

But every second spent alone tastes like sugar.

*     *     *

On the day he leaves, you go on the balcony around sunset. You can feel he is gone. You can feel the dust under the soles of your feet, the dirty tiles warmed by the sun. When you get to the ledge, you bend over and look down upon the empty street, at the plastic chair, at your parents’ green car with the two white stripes on its hood. And you laugh. You laugh until your head hurts, until your thoughts burst, until they spring out of you and melt into the air above, into the space between the buildings where you can see the sea. Your perfect blue line, flat colored like a trompe l’oeil. It is always there. It is the future. Nothing, no one can take you. Now your mind drifts to places above the words, places where no one can touch you, with no face in sight. Only light.

 

Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award in 2017 and has appeared or is forthcoming in Yemassee, Tahoma Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, Chiron Review, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. She is the Travel Flash Editor of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Marie grew up in Norway and Lebanon and received a BA from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA from Sciences Po in Paris.

À La Carte: Barack & Michelle Obama Gone Ghetto #1 and #2

1.

The City on the Hill haunted by all manner of gunshots & protest signs &
constricted throats of umbrage. Pundit wolves gnawing at the ballet-
slippered sheath of flesh-glazed bones: Poverty is a state of mind.
The cloy of fear a cheap perfume-scented cover for panic wafting from
corporate person-hoods of deceit & profit at-all-cost collateral damage
mass-graved beneath a porcelain hunter’s moon. The jagged hook of
rock & blood clotted hank of hair. Something cunning is always bloom-
ing. A flowering of friction & conflicts & the imperfections of a nation
just bordering on comeuppance. The hunger stealing from its lair toward
its prey that somehow manages to be simultaneously anxiety inducing &
exciting. The negative duality of metaphor that loophole the elementary
laws that never apologise. A sporadic light between freight cars—
the distance between index finger & thumb—like the mantis of axiomatic
peril that implies a reckoning oncoming from the distance &
it is there between guest-expert opinion & magic long as train smoke
that you will find the truth of it all. The road-to-nowhere been-
marginalized anxiety of deferred beginnings & the seething deranged.
The sick & the scared to death. The small-voiced solely afflicted with
powerlessness. Nervously toeing the tide but ever vigilant of failure. The
status mandated boundaries & what can be taken away.

2.

An international optimism
that dazzled from the executive distance. The wannabe
messianic vision askance, but talkshow familiar
to the ear. There was just so much shit
that we didn’t want to see, or hear, that colored
the monotone rise & passing of our days. The peripheral odor
of recycled bullshit, pulse pounding a hyena capitalism,
that prodded our be patient
infinitesimal waiting. The repetition that accumulated, &
instead of dissipating, stacked up against us

(as in next to, alongside),

anxiously clinging, if not insisting that,
we prepare ourselves,
though we have no sound idea for what.

 

henry 7. reneau, jr. writes words in fire to awaken the world ablaze: free verse that breaks a rule every day, illuminated by his affinity for disobedience, a phoenix-flux of red and gold immolation that blazes from his heart, like a chambered bullet exploded through change is gonna come to implement the fire next time. He is the author of the poetry collection, freedomland blues (Transcendent Zero Press) and the e-book, physiography of the fittest (Kind of a Hurricane Press), now available from their respective publishers. Additionally, he has self-published a chapbook entitled 13hirteen Levels of Resistance and is currently working on a book of connected short stories. His work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by LAROLA.

Spotlight: The End of Cursive / City With Two Exits / Downstream, My Older Brother Holds My Hand

The End of Cursive

One day, fog rolls up from the pond’s
dull mouth, skims our face, dissipates.

The songbirds appear misplaced, greedy.
How quickly the sparrows drop

pathside to scratch for winged seeds
lying golden among the goose turds.

The fog’s unraveling strands are cursive,
you say, scrawled in a vanishing ink.

I recall those times we were apart, your fine hand.
Remember the piney ink scenting the fibers?

The birdlike curves of the vowels,
our new words flying headlong forward—

later, exploding off the page
like blackbirds from their twigs and jagged glass.

When you drift away, a startling whiteness
fills the space after you, blurs the gesture:

your shoulders widening,
your face turning to mine,

lifting—

wait: so much appears left out,

as when dear marks the beginning
and always, the end.

 


 

City With Two Exits

A sunny day, this bus barrels
down the city’s gorges
a sudden gust thrusts us across the bridge
rips off the bus roof—
my suitcase unhinged
underwear wanton in the branches
my lumpy cap the acrobat
it dreamed of becoming
twisting down to the whitecaps
my jacket spiraling down too
spastic in its goodbye throes
chest fat with fish breeze
cuffs flashing their brass buttons
and, back and forthing
the inexhaustible leopard sharks
their tender snouts rending the arms—
from the gill slits, a blort of stars

 


 

Downstream, My Older Brother Holds My Hand

Stars burn on summer’s black canal,
the adults are slashing the water
with heavy flashlights, hunting bullfrogs.
Eyes blink from the tangled banks.

Sudden plunks, a flurry of sploshes.
We spot our father, whiskey bottle
glimmering through thick rushes, with Ann
in the mud-soaked moccasins.

Opposite, on the bank, Ann’s husband
stalks his quarry. They are all boon friends.
He holds his pillowcase, empty
and a sharp beam to stun them.

Midnight drums with muscular cries,
the chorus resounds, desire
pulses every throat. Our father’s light falters,
dies behind tall reeds. Ann follows.

My brother stops. Tosses off my hand.
Ann’s husband drags his torch down the bank.
All eyes tilt up at him, tensed. Nobody
knows what’s coming.

Stars are drumming the black canal.
The adults are burning and slashing.
Eyes blink on tangled banks. My brother’s
hands are sobbing, Shut up. Shut up.

 

Lis Sanchez has writing appearing or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Harvard Review Online, Salamander, New Orleans Review, Spillway, The Bark, Puerto Del Sol, The Boiler, Baltimore Review, Journal of Wild Culture, and elsewhere.  She is the recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Writer’s Fellowship; Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing; Nimrod’s Editors’ Choice Award; The Greensboro Review Award for Fiction, and others.

Photo Credit: Paul Gussler

À La Carte: Mukti (Freedom)

[fiction]

Kamla has been through labor five times before in the past thirteen years, but the pain is still unforgiving, shaking and splitting her body.

The village lady-doctor, Doctorni, fans Kamla’s face with a tattered punkah in the tiny two-room hospital in Bihar, India, and asks the tall nurse to boil some water. The nurse sets an aluminum pot on the kerosene stove in the corner of the room. The heat of the stove adds degrees to the oven-hot June afternoon. The nurse wipes her brow, fans herself with her dupatta, and sits on the floor watching the pot. The floor feels cool after the phenyl-water mop.

Doctorni makes sure that the floor of the hospital is always swept and mopped clean. She dresses up in clean, starched cotton saris every day, wearing her hair in a neat bun. The women of the village love and respect her. She knocks on each door in the village to vaccinate the children and to teach them to wash their hands and brush their teeth.

“Hey Bhagwan, listen to me this time,” Kamla prays between contractions, digging her nails into her wrists. The pain feels more than what she has experienced before. Has her body forgotten? But she doesn’t let her screams out because her daughters are lined up outside, waiting.

The sweaty strings of many amulets from fakeers and pundits bite into her neck. The bitter taste of the guaranteed baby-boy potion that she drank every morning lingers on her tongue. The sacred ashes from the temple smeared on her forehead make it itch.

The angry and accusatory faces of her husband and mother-in-law after each delivery swim before her eyes. They had not even looked at any of her lovely girls after their birth but had later warmed up. She could not disappoint them again. They needed a male heir for their family’s name; there were no other valuables to be passed on.

Some faith, some charm, some prayer, something, please work.

*     *     *

Doctorni had delivered all of her five daughters. She warned Kamla against carrying another baby and begged her to stop. Her depleted body had no more material or strength to form more babies.

Kamla had fainted twice in the last month while cooking a pile of rotis on the choolah under the tin roof of her tiny hut. Her first-born daughter, aged thirteen years, had sprinkled water on her face and fanned her to consciousness, while other girls ran for the Doctorni. They loved their mother so much and she loved them.

“You have to live for your daughters,” Doctorni told Kamla.

She even made Kamla promise on the heads of her daughters that she would get the family-planning surgery done in the town hospital after this delivery. She would go to town with her and also pay for the surgery. It only took a few hours. They could work it out. Her husband did not need to know.

*     *     *

“Push hard, you are strong,” Doctorni says, “for the last time, Kamla.”

She pushes and prays. The nurse massages her feet and says soothing words.

Finally, the piercing cries of an infant who seems shocked to be out in the open.

“It’s a boy,” Doctorni shouts. She has never been this loud.

Kamla’s lips whisper thanks to Bhagwan as her eyes spill.

The nurse shouts her congratulations and holds the baby up for Kamla to see.

“Wait, there’s more. Push again. Harder.” Doctorni says.

“What?”

“Yes. Another baby.”

More pushes.

Another infant cry.

“It’s a girl,” the nurse says softly with her head hung low. Doctorni is silent.

“Mukti!” Kamla smiles and says. “That’s her name. This daughter has brought me freedom.”

 

Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American. She was born in a middle-class family in India and will forever be indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She now lives in the United States. She is a Pushcart nominee for 2017 and her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The Same, MUTHA Magazine, Star 82 Review, The Sidereal, and also among others. She blogs at saraspunyfingers.com and can be reached at twitter @PunyFingers.

Spotlight: That Sweet Son of Mine

[fiction]

My father is home. I find his jacket and his cane and his wool hat piled at the door. There is a melted snow path that leads into the house. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen him, but I feel a sense of happiness that he was able to take his morning walk. I feel encouraged that he might be feeling a bit better. And then I figure that he must have heard me come in the door, because before I can reach the kitchen, I hear him say, “I think that sweet son of mine is finally home.”

This is a message. This means my father wants me to go find my mother and talk with her. I find him there, in his chair, in the kitchen, leaned on back and watching the History Channel. His notebook is open. He’s doodling. He’s drawing tanks and helmets and rifles. There is an elaborate circle doodle around a military base. He says without looking up, “I think it’s best that you fall on your sword.” He says, “Sometimes, losses are the real victories.”

Last semester, my history teacher explained to us that the History Channel has nothing to do with actual History. What he’d said to us made sense to me. What he’d taught us, he backed up with news articles and films and insightful essays. The information was collected by people who study the subject. It was presented by people who travel and talk and learn from those who witness the world change. We were introduced to people who are normally left absent from the conversation. What he’d said, my teacher, I took to heart.

But it was after that class that I learned an important lesson. I learned that conversations with my father that centered around certain things, say for example television channels that he believes to be imbued with facts and authenticity, didn’t stand a chance at civility, would go nowhere, and now I like to think that there are some things that children and parents shouldn’t share. Factuality being one of those important things.

My father starts to rattle in his chair. He puts on his sunglasses. He says, “One more for the road.” His glass is nothing but ice. I take it. I set down my bag and unlatch the liquor cabinet. I pour him three fingers instead of two like he likes, like he instructs. When you are in the midst of a full-scale insurrection, it’s best to fight back with whatever weapon you can find. Dull your adversary. Kill him with kindness. But win at any cost.

“Your mother found something,” he says.

I hand him his drink. He studies it but shrugs off the obvious excess of the thing.

He says, “If you admit to it, then you might avoid the talking portion of your punishment.”

I pat him on the shoulder. I say, “I admit to nothing.”

He grins and then takes a long pull. He lowers his sunglasses. There is scotch in his moustache. He says, “You probably don’t remember, but when you were in the seventh grade, you pinned Robbie Mauler.”

“I remember. It was a big deal.”

“For me, it was.”

“It was for the both of us. Robbie was a prick even then.”

My father tilts his sunglasses back over his eyes. He says, “He’s headed to Iowa State with a full ride and two State Titles under his belt.”

I say, “I read the paper. I live here. I know about it.”

I shoulder my bag and start the long process of approaching my mother.

As I leave the room, I hear the ice rattle in his glass. I hear him sigh. I hear him say to himself, “Robbie fucking Mauler.”

*     *     *

There are three options. Three things I might be questioned about. Three things I may or may not have had in my possession. The first is easy: it’s a small bong. I say it’s easy because I know for a fact that my father smokes marijuana from time to time. He listens to Pink Floyd regularly and he thinks the Rolling Stones are the greatest of humans. My mother will not like that I bring this up but it’s a slam-dunk in the world of rebuttal. The second thing might be a bit more complicated but can be remedied. I did not use it, but I have a term paper that I borrowed from my friend, Eva. It’s stamped with an A+ and while I did not extract her perfect prose word for word, I did use it as a reference for my own work. I do not feel good about this; in fact, I promised myself that I would never again borrow someone else’s work in order to help write something. Especially because I enjoyed creating my own paper and I was annoyed that her writing kept creeping into what I was trying to say, what I wanted to convey so desperately.

That brings us to the third thing. This is hard to admit to, so I don’t think I will, because, honestly, whose business is it anyway. Certainly not my mother’s and certainly not my father’s. I am not a child. I am eighteen and on the way to community college. My father is a functioning alcoholic, devastated that he had to have his knee replaced and angry that he isn’t able to coach what he loves so dearly, wrestling. My mother is kind but judgmental like her mother and her mother and her mother. That old strand of guilted German-Irish. She can’t help it. It is who she is. Stern. Religious. Unquestioning. She implies your guilt in her questions, in her silence, in her support of you. And so, I find her in their bathroom. She is in scrub mode. She is furiously scrubbing the tub. She is literally in the tub. In her bleached jeans and my father’s wrestling shirt. Her blonde hair held high and tight. Her makeup missing. She is smiling in a way that frightens me.

I say, “Hi, Mom”

It takes a moment for her to register that I am standing in the doorway.

I say, “I don’t think you missed a spot.” I grin. I tell myself to take a breath.

She stops smiling and clenches the green scrub pad. She is squatting. Squatting in her tub.

In that moment, I feel that I may have mischaracterized her. I feel suddenly sad for her. I feel that I may not be a good son to her. This woman who has trapped herself in her own tub.

This woman who I must share a world with. This woman who I must appease until she passes on from it. I can see that she is not in control of herself. I can see that there is a real, raging fire inside of her, and in that moment, I can’t help but feeling, well, busted.

“Did you speak with your father?”

“He told me to talk to you.”

“Ok, so talk then.”

I know this road. I tell myself to surrender to the moment, so that I might fight another day. There are bigger battles to win, bigger struggles than pot, and borrowed papers, and…

I say, “I looked over the course catalogue. I think I’m ready to pick my classes.”

My mother relents a bit. She sits in the tub. She puts her hands on her knees and then drops the green pad. She says, “That’s good.”

She says, “This is the start of something for you.”

She can no longer look up at me. The tub is reflective and white beyond anything I’ve ever seen in there.

I ask, “What is it then?”

There is a small mirror. It’s suction-cupped to the wall. My mother struggles at first but un-cups it from the tile. She looks in the mirror. She says, “I need you to tell me the truth.”

I watch her as she touches her cheek and then taps under her tired eyes. I watch her as she rubs a finger across her lips.

She says, “There is only the truth between us.” She says, “We have to trust one another in this house. Or, we will be forced to change our course. To deal with each other in unpleasant ways.”

I feel like her son in that moment. I feel like I could be her friend. I feel like we could share so many things, and then it occurs to me. I remember what I’d read and learned in that History class, how the French authorities in Algeria relied on informants and friends to give up the opposition for assassination. How they’d relied on family members to turn each other in because some of them couldn’t hold out against the crippling poverty any longer. For some it was far worse, the fear of what freedom might bring to their country. I found myself thinking about how the Americans fighting in Vietnam were hurt by well-placed booby-traps, how when you think those in power are your friends, are interested in your well-being, that you’re very much risking your freedom, your independence, your acquired agency.

My mother hands me the mirror.

She asks, “Do you steal my makeup?”

I look into the mirror.

I hear her ask, “Do you wear it?”

I don’t want to answer her. I don’t like how I look in that mirror. I don’t want her to tell me I’m bad, or irresponsible, or worst of all, that I’m silly. I think to myself that it’s hard enough not knowing who I am, yet, that I might be more than she will ever understand or even know. More than I understand or know.

In that moment, I feel like I’m losing, that I’m finished there, ready to throw it all in and leave them behind. And then, I tell myself this: I say, we stand when we need to stand, we become who we are when it’s time. That is why we fight for ourselves.

And so I fortify myself. I decide to try and grow up in that moment. I decide to take a chance at trusting her. Trusting in what we have. I decide to trust that if we come to the table. If we sit to talk as equals. If we speak of who we are and what we need, then maybe this thing between us works in a way that was otherwise impossible. We become something different. Something important for the both of us.

And then I look into my mother’s eyes. I try to become her mirror. I try to remind her that I am a reflection of her. I try to convey that I’m not her but we still share so much. But I can see that she is flashed with her fears, and concerns, and her hurt. I don’t want to but I can’t help but understand what I see boiling over there in front of me and then I think to myself: maybe we don’t change all at once, maybe it’s harder than history tells us, even though we’re taught that it’s possible, inevitable. But how long must we wait? How much should we endure? How long until we live as we want to live?

I think about that, and then I say to her, “Mom, I wouldn’t steal from you, but I’ve borrowed your things before.”

I smile and I smile and I smile and then I say to her, “I buy my own makeup now and it’s important that you understand who I am.”

 

Calder G. Lorenz is the author of One Way Down (Or Another), his debut novel from Civil Coping Mechanisms (http://copingmechanisms.net/portfolio/one-way-down-or-another-by-calder-lorenz/). His writing can be found in sPARKLE & bLINK 2.4, Switchback, Curly Red StoriesFictionDaily, New Noise, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Black Heart Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Birds We Piled Loosely, New Pop Lit, Devil’s Lake, Bad Pony, Chicago Literati, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine​, and Gravel.

À La Carte: On Buying My Mother a Mirror

it is three o’clock in the afternoon
i am asleep when your principal calls
the day has eaten its way through my eyelids
you cannot know the little things

when you call me i am asleep
it is the only thing that stops the crying
you cannot know the little things
how easily i come undone like a shoelace

you are inconsolable and crying
never before have i met a child
so frantic at the un-coming of a shoelace
i am so worried you will end up like me

never before have i wanted a child
but here is your small pink skin
in delivery i pray you do not end up like me
you come out covered in blood anyways

once i opened the small pink skin of me
to let you peek out not to open yours
look at you, covered in blood again
once i tried to ice skate on my skin, too

you are peeking out from the opening
between the plus-sized curtains in my closet
we are leaving for ice skating lessons
i am envying how your young body is barely there

i am between plus-sized curtains in my bed
it is three o’clock in the afternoon
you are bloody, everything i worried you would be
the day eats its way through my eyelids

once, your small pink body was inside me
raveled up like a shoelace and i wondered
what if you came undone?

 

Jess Nieberg (they/them) is a queer Jewish poet living in Boulder, CO. They were a semifinalist at the national poetry slam and are a current member of the Denver Mercury Team. They are an editor for two journals, Walkabout and Timber. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Permafrost, Western Humanities Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Bottlecap Press, and The Hunger, among others.

Spotlight: Who is Auntie Jill?

[creative nonfiction]

“I ain’t got no food in the refrigerator,” Auntie Jill’s voice barks from my phone.

As a kid, she terrified me—and still does, at forty-three. I reduce the volume to one bar. We are planning my stay with her in Detroit over Memorial Day. To friends, I’ve dubbed this sojourn a Guilt Trip, which makes me wonder if I’m as mean as I sound.

“You got any plans to visit Detroit?” Auntie Jill asks each time we talk. What she means is, how do I find time to fly to Denmark, Venice, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Basel, Cabo, London—but never Detroit? I haven’t traveled back home since my uncle’s funeral six years ago. She is the last of my family living there, and the last of her family still alive. We’ve been halfheartedly struggling via telephone for six years to nurse a bond between us that never existed.

“That’s alright, we can go grocery shopping when I get there.”

“I don’t eat nothing anyway,” she says.

“I can cook,” I offer.

“Nah,” she says. “I hate cleaning up the mess. You drink coffee?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ve got that.”

“Great!” I say, mustering cheer. The line falls silent. I sputter, “Hey, maybe we could go downtown. The New York Times did one of those Thirty-Six-Hours-in-Detroit—”

“You can, but I ain’t getting shot!”

“What about Detroit Institute for the Arts? I hear—”

“Nah. I hate art.”

“—Or Corktown? There’s supposed to be a bunch of cool shops and restaurants—”

“I AIN’T DOING THAT!” she says. “Not interested!”

I sigh, knowing there’s one activity we’ll do together—my sole escape from watching television with her all day.

“Can I go with you to bingo?” I ask.

*     *     *

Uncle Buddy and Auntie Jill moved from a charming old cottage in Dearborn to Brownstown Township in the early 2000’s. Their house is tucked into a curve of a Del Webb community, one of those eerie master-planned Edens where every home is essentially the same. Owners can select sunrooms or covered porches, garages on the right versus the left, and adornments like copper cornices or Doric columns. Everything is new, the insides and outsides painted white.

After a three-hour flight from Seattle, GPS guides my rental car into the subdivision passed a man-made lake, whose central fountain jets forty feet into the air. I putt-putt past rolling bluegrass lawns and an unending ribbon of concrete sidewalks, pulling into Auntie Jill’s driveway. Six years ago, grief held us together and gave us purpose. This time, it was just her and me.

Why was I burning my vacation on this?

Because I am a dutiful niece. Auntie Jill is alone. Because she won’t stop asking when I plan to visit Detroit—though she’s technically never invited me to stay.

A woman power-walking by waves hello as I step out of the car and buckle under the humidity. I wave back, surprised. In Seattle, people pretend that they don’t see you on the street. I wheel my suitcase to the front door and ring the bell; the television blares inside. A minute later, the deadbolt clanks and the screen door opens with a metallic wheeze.

“It’s about time!” Auntie Jill says, squinting against the light.

“Hi!” I say, feigning brightness. “Sorry, I had to pick up my rental car.”

I follow her inside to find every shade pulled. There are no framed photos or art on the eggshell-white walls. It looks like she just moved in; there’s hardly any furniture.

“I wondered what took you so long,” she snorts, eying me.

*     *     *

My first morning, Auntie Jill shuffles into the kitchen, plugs in Mister Coffee and settles into her La-Z-Boy with a groan. She flips on the television at 8:11 a.m. each morning, a minute after her alarm sounds. With the exception of bingo and bathroom breaks, she remains in front of the TV until bedtime at 11:30 p.m.

Her puffy hazel eyes blink at the blue-white TV light as Dick Clark narrates the categories on $25,000 Pyramid. From his banter with the contestants, a housewife and a mechanic, I discern that the episode was originally broadcast circa 1982.

Waiting for the coffee to brew, I wander into an alcove that contains a card table topped with moldering plants: an organ pipe cactus, a violet, a lily. My uncle used to paint pictures in this space, given the good light from windows on three sides.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with ‘em,’” Auntie Jill says, padding up behind me. She reaches past me to turn each of the pots counterclockwise a few times. I poke a finger into their too-wet soil and wince.

“What’re you doing?” she snaps as I pull the cord to open the blinds. She falls back to the dim kitchen. She hasn’t drawn the shades since I arrived, though it’s sunny. I sense that it’s been dark inside the sunroom, and the rest of her house, for years.

*     *     *

Now that Uncle Buddy is dead, Auntie Jill doesn’t stock the refrigerator. She wasn’t kidding about that. Her kitchen counter is flecked with errant coffee grounds that would have driven Uncle Buddy crazy. A white coffee mug lays mouth-down on a wrinkled paper towel where she leaves it to dry each day.

“Why use a new towel if the old one’s still good?” she says to the room. Her coffee—decaf—is thin, brown water splashed with fat free milk and a teaspoon of refined sugar. The teaspoon she uses to stir it leaves a tawny halo at one corner of the wrinkled towel.

This is breakfast. I’ll soon discover that getting Auntie Jill out of the house to play bingo is not merely a means of escaping the unending parade of television shows but my one daily opportunity for caffeine and a meal.

*     *     *

Normally, it wouldn’t be my first choice to spend a sunny summer afternoon inside the Democratic Club of Taylor, Michigan: a squat, windowless brick building on Wick Road outside of Detroit. A strip of thick, unmowed bluestem grass flanks the faded black-topped parking lot. The marquee out front reads, “BINGO! Monday nite 6:30 p.m.,” as if the locals don’t know. No one plays bingo here except people from neighborhood who have come for years, a cohort thinning with time.

The Democratic Club looks the same today as it did in 1945, the year it was built, the same year my parents were born. A dented brass ashcan lingers at the main entrance, a battle-worn sentry brimming with red-lipped cigarette butts. Everyone we pass tosses greetings at my aunt’s feet, like roses to a matador. “Hi there, Jill—Hey, Jill—Nice to see ya, Jill—Ya gonna win big today?”

The cracked glass doors swing open to reveal a wall clock with a yellowed cataracted lens, rows of mismatched card tables, and stiff, high-backed chairs whose pilled maroon fabric speaks of a ring-a-ding age. Strips of faux-wood veneer peel back from the ceiling fan blades.

At the front of the hall, the old, square bingo-ball monitors hail from an era when TV sets were furniture. The low-pile industrial brown carpeting seethes a funky potpourri of cleaning fluid, ozone and decades-old cigarette ash ground in by the soles of worn loafers.

This is where Auntie Jill plays bingo on Monday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. She arrives early for the fish fry on Fridays; people around here are still Catholic, somehow. The other days, she plays at American Legion Auxiliary #200 or the Knights of Columbus #4872 on Brest Road. On Sundays, she plays a double-header between the two.

The only day she skips is Tuesdays. “I figure I shouldn’t play bingo every day of the week,” she says.

Bingo has always been Auntie Jill’s sacred space, but after Uncle Buddy died, it became her life. Most players are women, many of them widows—and it doesn’t hurt that she wins. Auntie Jill has always been lucky, the type who finds four-leaf clovers in vast green fields. These days, she scores enough at bingo that she doesn’t touch her monthly retirement check.

*     *     *

The first game gets going when an ancient, bird-boned woman belts out, “BALLS!” from the row behind us. I peep backwards, waiting for a hand to tap the back of my head, like in church. She’s barely five feet tall, topped with a tight mop of snowy Jheri curls.

“She’s got BALLS!” shouts the pudgy proctor who verifies her winning pull-tab.

I’ve made the mistake of looking away from my twelve boards. Now I’m behind on I-25 and B-10. Dab. Dab-dab. Dab-dab-dab. I can’t hit them all with hot pink ink before the emcee mouths, “B-3.”

No one yells, “Bingo!” but several tabletop machines chime Ziiiiiing! in unison, meaning that a few people are close. The emcee announces new balls—G-57… O-70—and I hold my breath in anticipation of someone claiming victory. Sixty-odd bodies in the cavernous space vibrate with the same restlessness.

My machine is playing twelve electronic games and I’ve got twelve paper boards in front of me on the card table; I am not close to bingo on any. Auntie Jill stabs her bright orange dauber—dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab—across her twenty-four paper boards. She glances over at mine and reaches across without asking permission—dab-dab-dab—hitting a G-45 and two O-70’s that I missed. Her orange ink doesn’t match the pink I’ve been using.

*     *     *

The gridded acoustic ceiling is missing tiles like the few old men amongst us are missing teeth. Auntie Jill doesn’t seem affected by the surroundings: the burnt-out reader-board lights, the scuffed beige walls, the drooping American flag. She doesn’t cringe at the squink of white Styrofoam cups filled with scorching black coffee and dusty non-dairy creamer. On break, she buys a jelly donut from the service counter whose faded handwritten menu of hot dogs, french fries, chips, and soda curls at the edges.

Two rows up, a golden chihuahua named Charley gives an exhausted sniff from inside his owner’s giant blue purse, channeling my ennui.

Auntie Jill remains focused on her boards and the ritual of changing out her primary-colored daubers by round: blue for pink, pink for green, green for orange. She pays no mind to the crooked French Manicure Press-On nails that appear a foot tall on the monitor when the emcee holds bingo balls in front of the camera. Instead, she growls at her glass good luck charms—a red ladybug and a pink pig—each time she loses a round.

“Come on, you guys! What are you, asleep?!”

Eventually, a hoarse belch of, “Bin-Go!” rises from the back of the hall to put us out of our misery.

Auntie Jill and I tear off sheets of newsprint, rip-rip-rip, and throw thirty-six losing bingo boards into the wastebasket as green games give way to yellow. I’m stung by pangs of Left Coast guilt at the voluminous paper I know will not be recycled but left to rot in a landfill for future generations. None of this bothers my aunt.

“What do I care if they don’t recycle? I’ll be dead anyway!” she snorts.

*     *     *

It’s ridiculous that I’m cowed by this short, apple-shaped woman. Barely five-foot-two, Auntie Jill can turn me into a quivering six-year-old by unloading rapid-fire questions: You still working for that architecture firm? How long has it been? What’s your job, again? Didn’t you go to school for graphics or English or something? What does marketing have to do with that?

She neither ponders nor reflects on my stuttered, convoluted answers to these simple questions; my world sounds unnecessarily complicated, even to me, when I explain it. She grunts and chambers the next and the next. At home, I always phone her in the late afternoon so that, after thirty minutes, I can say it’s time for dinner. In person, there’s nowhere to run.

You still with that same guy? You ever think of getting married? How come you ain’t never had no kids—don’t you want ‘em?

After we get home from bingo, I scuttle into my uncle’s La-Z-Boy where she fires more inquiries—You ever gonna talk to your dad again?—drowning out Alex Trebek on TV. Alex corrects a contestant—“Not quite. The question is, Who is Grover Cleveland?”—and I realize that talking with Auntie Jill is like being a contestant on an aggressive game show where my answers are never quite right.

*     *     *

I was shocked when my aunt first invited me to bingo in 2011. She never asked anyone to join her.

Uncle Buddy was fighting lung and liver cancer at the time. He scuffed out after us onto the driveway in his navy robe, pajamas and slippers, waving while Auntie Jill backed her powder blue Chrysler Pacifica into the street. She rolled down the passenger window and leaned over me to yell, “Get back inside, Frankie! It’s too cold to be standing out here!”

It was early March. The yard was covered in patchy snow.

I waved to my uncle, lingering in the driveway. He adjusted the black newsboy cap over his bald head with one hand and waggled the other at me. “Goodbye, Sweet Pea,” he called. He looked frail, his thin olive skin faded to yellow-white.

“Get inside!” she shouted.

He flapped a dismissive wave, Bah!

She idled until Uncle Buddy shuffled back into the open garage and lowered the door.

My sing-song farewells faded into an uncomfortable silence. I wondered, with not a little panic, how soon she would turn on the radio.

Instead, she pointed at me. “Look, Kid, there’s a couple of rules. First, your Uncle Buddy thinks I spend $35 on bingo, but I spend $50, and you ain’t gonna tell him that. Second, if I’m in the mood, I have a donut even though I’m supposed to be on a diet, and you ain’t gonna tell him that, either. We clear?”

I swallowed and nodded solemnly, hoping that I’d make it back to Uncle Buddy alive.

*     *     *

Uncle Buddy was eight years older than Auntie Jill when they met. He was a dashing dark-haired naval officer, recently returned from a tour in Naples; she was eighteen, freshly graduated. They spent every moment of their uneventful lives together—he worked on the Chrysler assembly line and she was a primary school lunch lady—until he died in April 2011, a month after my visit. Auntie Jill was in her early 60s then, the threshold of her Golden Years. Her parents had both passed a few winters before that, her mother of illness, her father of heartbreak two months later. Her brother, Jack, was dead. She and Uncle Buddy had no children. Their beloved shepherd mix, Sam, had died long ago.

After we buried my uncle, Auntie Jill’s immediate family shrank to a disowned nephew who had stolen money from her—and me.

*     *     *

On Memorial Day, Auntie Jill and I met her best friend, Tina, at the Big Bear Lodge for dinner at 3:30 p.m. in between bingo games. Every night, Tina and Auntie Jill call each other at 9 p.m. to make sure the other one isn’t dead or injured and immobile on the floor. They’ve been friends since working together in the public schools for thirty years.

Tina, whose husband died decades ago, has already taken a spill—she fell and was unable to get up, like in the commercial. She lay on the floor for hours, her three cats licking her, until her son found her the next morning. Unfortunately, she fell after my aunt’s call at 9 p.m.

We talked about Tina’s school—she can’t afford to retire from her work in the kitchen—and how one of her cats died this year. I felt so grateful for the social lubrication and Tina’s positive demeanor, that I didn’t mind looking at blurry photos of her remaining cats, or pictures of the plastic baby dolls that she crochets clothes for.

Auntie Jill half-heartedly swiped through the photos, handed back the phone and pursed her lips. “Where’s the damned waitress?” she said, turning in her seat. The lights over our booth betrayed white-gray roots lingering beneath the line of strawberry blond dye in Auntie Jill’s pixie cut, her one cosmetic indulgence.

“Look at this one,” Tina said, holding out her phone to show a black baby doll with a purple crocheted cape and jumpsuit. I struggled to suppress my percolating judgment. What was wrong with me? Tina, who was incredibly sweet, donated the dolls in their handmade outfits to charity each Christmas. Could she be more thoughtful—or could I be less? Why was this trip bringing out the worst in me?

Auntie Jill griped about our ponytailed server, probably still in high school, until she materialized. “Hi! I’m Kaleigh, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Are you ready—”

”Yeah, I’ll have a green salad, a petite filet and a side of fries,” Auntie Jill said, tossing her plastic-coated menu to the center of the table. “And a glass of milk.”

Tina and I fumbled with our orders. Although she had lost fifty pounds in the previous year, she needed to lose twenty-five more before the doctor would perform corrective surgery on her other knee. She finally decided on a small steak with a side salad for take-out. I ordered a steak and salad while inhaling a piece of garlic bread with my second refill of Diet Coke, my body shuddering from caffeine withdrawals.

When our food arrived, I was reminded that, in Michigan, a salad means iceberg lettuce smothered in dressing, shredded cheddar cheese and croutons with an occasional slice of cucumber and, if you’re lucky, a cherry tomato. I slid the cukes, the tomato and the lettuce leaves from their dressing bath while Auntie Jill picked at the cheese and the croutons, leaving her greens behind. Auntie Jill sped through the meal, our bingo double-header in mind, dashing my hopes that we’d linger so that I could soak up more of Tina’s warmth.

“Talk with you tonight,” Auntie Jill called to Tina across the parking lot, ambling to the car with only a wave. Tina, accustomed to my aunt’s abruptness, opened her arms to hug me goodbye. It was surprisingly easy to fall into her embrace, though I’ve met her twice. I was surprised by how much I needed the hug and wondered if I deserved it.

*     *     *

Unlike Auntie Jill, I’ve never been lucky. We are polar opposites. I write; she watches TV. I love books; she’s plays bingo and cards. She craves home and routine while I hunger for travel and change. Since my uncle died, the one adventurous thing she’s done is cruise the Carribbean and Alaska. She seems to hate everything about cruises, if her complaints are an indication, yet she keeps signing up.

“I’m spending all your money, Kid,” she laughed.

I held up my hands. “It’s not my money! Do what you want to do!”

In between commercials, I asked about her next cruise.

“England or Europe,” she said, changing channels without looking at me. “They do these river cruises where you stop in port for a couple of hours. On the boat there’s entertainment; you can see a show or play bingo or cards.”

“Is the food good?”

“Yeah. But, you know, I don’t really eat.”

I nodded. I was out of topics. I tried tiptoeing away as the TV blared.

“Good night, Kid,” she hollered. Her eagle eyes missed nothing.

“G’night,” I squeaked, skirting the edge of the room.

I closed the door to my bedroom—alone at last—two more nights to go. The TV was so loud I couldn’t sleep but I didn’t have the guts to ask her to turn it down. Jesus, I was pathetic. I grabbed a crossword puzzle, pulled up the covers and put in my ear buds, falling into my old remedy for noisy neighbors. I chuckled to think Auntie Jill and I both had coping mechanisms, albeit opposite ones, for living alone. Maybe what bothered me wasn’t how different we were but how similar.

*     *     *

I was thirty-two the first time I rented an apartment without a boyfriend or a husband. After my divorce, I felt on edge, worrying that the bottom would suddenly fall out: What if I never find someone? What if I lose my job? What if I get sick or someone attacks me?

To distract myself from the possibility of assault, disease, and dying lonely and destitute, I filled my apartment with a revolving door of friends and parties. Mine was the sole name on the lease; however I was rarely, if ever, alone.

Two years in, nursing a bad breakup, my feelings about solitary life changed. Suddenly, I appreciated having a private space where no one could judge me if I drank too much or overslept or played the same sad song ten times.

The state of Auntie Jill’s house suggested that she was still in that early phase of grief, despite the fact that Uncle Buddy died six years ago. She didn’t want neighbors to see her lax housekeeping or judge her for watching television fifteen hours a day. She didn’t draw the shades to deflect the summer heat as much as the awareness and contempt of outsiders. Like me.

*     *     *

By day three, my ass began to resemble the shape of Uncle Buddy’s La-Z-Boy. The sunny skies tempted me, so I announced that I was going for a walk. “Want to come? It’s nice outside,” I said to Auntie Jill as I laced up my shoes.

She was watching a trivia show called “The Beast,” in which a portly English fellow is pitted against C-list celebrity contestants playing for charity. I figured the offer of company was her missing enticement to exercise. She wrinkled her nose like I passed gas.

“No, thank you! It’s too damned hot. Have at it!”

She refused to give me a key, so I had to ask her to disarm the alarm and unlock the deadbolt and unhasp the screen to let me outside. Later, I would have to ring the doorbell for her to let me in, and she’d be similarly irritated that I interrupted her show. I mused, unwisely, about the necessity of keeping the doors dead-bolted and the alarm on, even though we were home.

“They kick the front door in!” she said. “I seen it on the news!”

I opted not to point out the community’s twenty-four-hour roving security staff.

Once outside, I walked the pseudo-utopia of perfectly trimmed lawns and pristine sidewalks for an hour, wondering if I’d ever end up in a place like this. The same three women power-walkers, wearing ball caps and “Life is Good” T-shirts, waved at me in passing, loop by loop. It was like being trapped in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

The scariest part was, I could see my future in them. I had the same ball caps and sunny-sloganed T-shirts at home. And really, forty-three is merely twelve years away from fifty-five.

*     *     *

The afternoon I left Detroit, I couldn’t gather my luggage fast enough. “Thanks for having me,” I said, because it was the polite thing to do.

Auntie Jill shuffled to the front door to disarm the alarm and unlock the deadbolt and unhasp the screen door as she did when I went out for that morning’s walk. I bent down to hug her; she gave me a gruff sort-of embrace wholly different from a Tina hug. Still, it was her way of showing affection in exchange for me watching Ghost Hunters and Fixer Upper for the last six hours together. I had watched more television in four days than I had in four years.

I leaped over the threshold and out to my rental car, delirious with impending freedom. Over my shoulder I shouted promises to text her when I landed, then corrected myself. “I’ll call you,” I said, diving into my janky Toyota Yaris. Her flip phone, for emergencies, was always turned off.

On the flight home, it sank in that Auntie Jill still wore her gold wedding band. On my first night, she kept asking whether I was going to get married again; in retaliation, I mused about the chance of her doing the same.

“Men my age want one of two things: a purse or a nurse. I ain’t neither,” she said.

It was true: Uncle Buddy was impossible to replace. There was no man to call her, “Wifey,” no man to smooch at bedtime and call, “Hubby.” No Sunday bike rides, no one to tend the garden, no garden anymore. No one to occupy the La-Z-Boy opposite hers, no one to eat meals with. I understand why she doesn’t buy groceries: she’s still aching for the man who wore the plaid flannel shirts, trucker’s caps, and baggy Levi’s that, until this spring, hung on the other side of her closet.

Maybe she’s right: once you’ve lost the love of your life, there’s little reason to raise the blinds, even on sunny afternoons, because his plants are near death, his paints are dried, the canvases useless, and because she’s usually off at bingo.

Paul Coelho once said that love can only be found through the act of loving. An awesome and terrifying quest that everyone is guaranteed to lose, whether by death, estrangement, or divorce. I wondered if either of us had the fortitude to wedge ourselves again in the messy, uncertain crevasse between love and loss. Not with men, but each other.

*     *     *

Back in Seattle, I grab a taxi at Sea-Tac Airport and dial my aunt. I use the ride as an excuse for a quick call, a tactic that makes me feel like a selfish shit after the past four days.

“Hell-o.”

“Hi Auntie Jill, I wanted to let you know I made it home okay,” I say. The TV volume drops. It’s 11 o’clock there.

“Where are you calling from?” she asks.

“A taxi. I’m on my way home.”

“Oh,” she says.

The applause track clatters.

“Well, thanks for coming, Kid. Maybe next time we can do one of those things you wanted to do, like a museum or something.”

“That would be fun,” I say, stunned. Leave it to her to surprise me. I instantly regret the picky details I stored away to tell my friends about Mean Old Auntie Jill.

The line falls quiet except for the echo of canned laughter. Neither of us knows where this goes.

“Well, I better run,” I say because that’s my line. “Thanks for having me.”

“Okay, Kid. I love you,” she says slowly, as if it’s hard to admit.

Maybe it’s not guilt that made me travel to see Auntie Jill—maybe it’s how much I’ve always loved my Uncle Buddy, and still miss him. Growing up, he stood in for the caring father I didn’t get, and he loved Auntie Jill more than anyone. Maybe this is my way of honoring him.

Maybe I don’t have to understand Auntie Jill to love her. Does she have to be like me before I can open my heart to her?

Maybe what terrifies me about Auntie Jill is that I’m already walking in her footsteps: I’ve fallen in love with an older man, and we are about to get married, although I didn’t confide this to her. It’ll be me and Michael—no kids, no pets—in a house too big for one person when one of us dies. I overlook statistics that say he will likely pass in the next twenty years, and it will be only me. Auntie Jill and I are, shockingly, on the same side of the battered old card table it seems. Maybe in her loneliness I see my own future solitude, with no one to tether me to that inconvenient hold we call family. Unlike her, I don’t even have a reluctant niece who won’t visit often when I’m older.

“Well, I’ll let you go,” she says finally. Because it’s easier, I let her.

After we hang up, I question what I think I know about Auntie Jill. If I quit prosecuting her flaws, I might discover the courage to learn more about her: what she wanted to be, what she hopes for the future, how she’d like to be in each other’s lives. I’ve been on my own for so long, I fear I’ve lost compassion for others in a similar place. This isn’t about being nice, it’s about being a thoughtful human being, which I had convinced myself I was.

Auntie Jill, facing the declining years of her life, not only portrays the plight of all humanity, but my plight. After losing parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, I foolishly considered myself immune to loss, but there’s more to go. Auntie Jill reminds me that, for those who remain, death never gets easier. It’s tempting to disappear inside. Maybe that’s why I stay away. If she and I aren’t close, I can’t catch what she’s got.

As the taxi turns on Thistle, I promise to ask her more questions next time. Not out of spite, but with the aim of learning. Every love story starts with the same probing queries that help us know each other—if we find the courage to ask.

 

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. A writer of essays and fiction, Gabriela’s work contemplates identity, sexuality, gender, aging, and the built environment. Her work has appeared in True Story, Duende, Stoneboat, The RumpusFront Porch Journal and the blogs of Brevity and Submittable. An alumna of Artist Trust’s EDGE Development program for literary artists, her writing is supported by residencies, grants, and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Mineral School, the Civita Institute, Invoking the Pause, 4Culture. and Jack Straw. You can learn more at her website: www.gabrieladenisefrank.com

À La Carte: Pinson Valley

Summer of the three-cylindered engine,
weeks spent thumping the wheel to tinny songs
with a revolver stashed in my trunk.

Johnnie on Snake Hill, pouring gas
on the armrests of an old recliner, setting it on fire,
watching the polyester open like a sore.

Off 280, river scum lapping over rocks,
their gray faces stained long after the water unbroke
its sidle. Crawdads halving minnows like loaves.

Some days, us boys would go before work,
strip down to our underwear below the chugging
overpass and its spray-painted columns:

Kevin loves Trina. POW MIA. Life in exile.
We’d ease past the rusty cot, its legs sunk into the bank,
and wade in. Popsicle sticks and mosquito eggs

charming the surface. The water paid no mind.
Only haloed our shoulders with algae thick as tar.
Suspended us in its mouthful of secrets,

idling until we dragged ourselves out.
We crawled up to the mildewed boots of double-wides,
delivered pizzas to the Harley shop and Batteries Plus.

We pushed into black-walled rooms to scream
at cracked cymbals and guitars. Kickflipped over hell
in the Church of Christ parking lot at midnight.

We took another class at Jeff State. We pissed on anthills.
Sat quiet in the living room when another father died.
We tied off the hose while the whole field was eat up with flames.

We spit dreams in ditches. Lit firecrackers
and felt the sparks greet our fingers like rain.
We aimed at our shadows and waited for them to drop.

 

Brandon Jordan Brown is a former PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, winner of the 2016 Orison Anthology Poetry Prize, a scholarship recipient from The Sun, and a former PEN in the Community poetry instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grist, Winter Tangerine Review, Scalawag, Forklift, Ohio, Radar Poetry and elsewhere. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon. Find Brandon online at brandonjordanbrown.com or tweet him @brownbrandonj.

Photo Credit: Zachary Glassmith

 

Spotlight: Incantation for the God Gene

Cast away the coins
closing your lids.

Roll off the stones
weighing your limbs.

This is what we know:
Every Good Book

when in doubt
is named again.

We inherit the sins
of our glossolalia,

secreting the Divine like sex.
The seat of the soul

is in the genitals,
the road to Mecca,

Jerusalem, Damascus
a network of nerves

like so many places
to get lost, a corn maze

with only one true center.
Fire the pathways

of hymns and prayers.
It is not the hand

that inscribes that turns
the snake to serpent.

 

Jen Karetnick is the author of seven collections of poetry, including The Treasures That Prevail (Whitepoint Press, 2016), finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia Book Prize. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Cutthroat, Measure Press, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, New Millennium Writings, One (Jacar Press), Painted Bride Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Prime Number Magazine, Spillway, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and Waxwing. She is co-founder/co-curator of the not-for-profit organization, SWWIM (Supporting Women Writers in Miami), and co-editor of the daily online literary journal, SWWIM Every Day.

torrin a. greathouse

Litdish: torrin a. greathouse, Poet

torrin a. greathousetorrin a. greathouse (she/her or they/them pronouns) is a genderqueer trans woman & cripple-punk from Southern California. Her work is published or forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry, Muzzle, Redivider, BOAAT, Waxwing, The Offing, Frontier, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is the author of two chapbooks, Therǝ is a Case That I Ɐm(Damaged Goods, 2017) and boy/girl/ghost (TAR Chapbook Series, 2018). When they are not writing their hobbies include pursuing a bachelors degree, awkwardly drinking coffee at parties, and trying to find some goddamn size thirteen heels. They were featured in Lunch Ticket 11 and nominated for a Pushcart Award and The Best of the Net award.

 

10 Questions for torrin a. greathouse:

1. Where are you writing us from?

I’m writing from Orange County, California, where I’m currently living in an overcrowded apartment while working on finishing up my undergraduate degree. While I wish I had more room and no upstairs neighbors, I live with only other trans folx, and that has made for a really important sanctuary in the last year.

2. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?

The most recent poem I have written is a work-in-progress analyzing the relationship between the prison and mental hospital as carceral institutions, and the influence these exert over queer bodies. Recently, I have been interested in discussing and dissecting institutions of power and violence—particularly American gun culture, and the ways in which it intersects with white culture.

Not too long ago a poem of mine, “Somewhere in america, a gun,” was published in Waxwing. While this poem responded abstractly to gun violence in America and the difference between hearing a gunshot growing up in a rural setting and in the city, it was published—by chance—the day after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. People’s response to that poem was incredible, and as with many poems published in the wake of tragedies, I think it helped deliver some sense of catharsis for what many of us were feeling.

Despite this, I spent the majority of the day physically ill over the timing of things. It served as a reminder that as long as we are complicit in a culture that is more interested in the rights of the weapon owner than the lives those weapons continue to be used to take, poems like mine or Kathy Fish’s “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” will never cease becoming relevant again and again.

3. What’s your writing practice like?

A lot of writing for me is gestational. By the time I open a word processor, most of the poem is already in my head or spread across a dozen notes and documents of spare lines. I draw a lot of inspiration from language itself, definitions, etymology. I think that language (and particularly English as a colonial language) is embedded with such a complex history of appropriation and violence that it can bear a high level of interrogation. A lot of my recent writing has also focused on traumatic experiences and the fungibility of memory. There’s a beautiful quote from Paisley Rekdal’s “Nightingale: a Gloss” where she says “In life, time’s passage allows us to see change, but a poem’s chronology forces us to see repetition: lyric time is not progressive but fragmentary and recursive. Traumatic time works like lyric time: the now of terror repeatedly breaking back through the crust of one’s consciousness.” Lately, my writing practice has involved the constant consideration of my experiences as they are reenacted in my mind, the recursive experience of trauma. I am interested in writing into this modality, seeing how this understanding of time shapes and reshapes the narratives my work reproduces.

4. How does your day job inform your writing?

It keeps me fed and housed. I think that, culturally, we put a lot of stake in the starving artist trope, often glorifying even self-imposed poverty. In my experience, it has always been easiest to write when I have a bed and my stomach is full. Even if I don’t particularly enjoy my work, it gives me enough separation from the day-to-day, minute-to-minute of survival and grants me space to reflect. Without that, I think it would be just about impossible for me to write.

5. What should we be reading?

This has always struck me as the impossible interview question that’s always pitched. I try to keep up on about three dozen different lit mags, and I could list literally hundreds of poets who are doing incredible and vital work. There are of course the big names, Kaveh Akbar, Maggie Smith, sam sax, Layli Long Soldier, Max Ritvo, Rachel McKibbens, Christopher Soto, and Danez Smith, who I adore, but once again, there are too many to name.

At the moment, I am (re)reading I am Made to Leave I am Made to Return by Marwa Helal, Nature Poem by Tommy Pico, al youm by George Abraham, agon by Judith Goldman, and White Papers by Martha Collins. I am in a space of trying to read what teaches me. So many of these authors have shown me routes to addressing systematic violence and oppression, or how culture conditions us. Collins’ book (which sam sax recommended to me) has been helping me consider how to write into, about, and against whiteness, while addressing my complicity in the oppressive structure that is white America.

If I had to pick out a few poets that I think more people should be reading if they aren’t, here are my picks: George Abraham, because their work on Palestinian identity and political erasure is so uniquely vital. Liv Mammone, who’s a brilliant poet and activist writing complex pieces around disability (if I could force every able-bodied person sit down and read their poem “I Can’t be a Confessional Poet Because Basically All I Want to Say is This,” I would). Khaya Osborne, Logan February, and Jasmine Cui are all young poets absolutely bursting with talent that people should keep their eyes out for. But if there’s one poet that I think the whole scene is sleeping on, it’s Nicole Connolly. Just read “Eve Knows How to Make the Asp’s Mouth an Entrance” or “No Credible Physicist Believes in a Bio-Centric Universe Anymore” and tell me they aren’t doing work like no one else is right now.

I also think that the side-by-side of “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Jeanann Verlee’s response “The Violence Question, Answered by a Goat, Or, Notes Toward a Discourse on Haunting through Poetry” should somehow be required reading.

6. What’s your favorite album?

I really wracked my brain for this one. There are so many albums that are deeply formational for me, as well as concept albums that have affected the way I think. The last three albums by The Wonder Years have all inflected the way I put together my chapbooks, Therǝ is a Case That I m and boy/girl/ghost (which is coming out later this year), as well as a full-length collection I am currently working on shopping out to publishers. I’m also a gigantic Springsteen fan, but my favorite songs are spread across five or six different albums. So, I think just in terms of emotional resonance, I’d have to pick Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! All the songs on this album were so fundamental to the process of me coming out as trans that I don’t think any album can even come close. It’s still the first thing I put on every day as I put on my makeup and get ready to go out into the world.

7. What are some of your non-literary interests?

Honestly, I’m so boring if you remove writing from my life. I clean my apartment, I cook with my partners, I go to class. Lately, I’ve been trying to pick up old hobbies, sketching and playing guitar. Both of these are much much harder now that I have arthritis in my hands, but the slow progress is rewarding. I also try to stay engaged in queer activist spaces around my campus, educating and doing the work that I can.

8. What’s a piece of advice you’d like to pass on to young/emerging writers?

I largely conceptualize myself as a young emerging writer, which often places me in a weird position of feeling under-qualified to give advice. There are a few pieces of advice that I think have deeply inflected the way I interact with the world as a poet. The first comes from Kaveh Akbar. When you lose confidence in your writing, throw yourself into reading, and let the voices of your forebears carry you until you find your own voice again. And the second, from Luther Hughes, sometimes in a poem you need to just fucking say what you mean. There’s a danger in making things too beautiful to be understood, and sometimes sounding “like a poem” is the worst thing for a given piece.

9. Why do you write?

A lot of writing for me is processing and meditating on a topic, whether it be gun violence, trauma, or quantum mechanics. In Colleen Abel’s recent Ploughshares blog “Learning to Love the Long Poem,” she discusses the “argument that all poems are essentially persuasive—that all poems are rhetorical devices,” which I find useful to understanding my own work. Even my shortest pieces often have an implicit argument, this often being “look, people like me are being killed and you should care.” So I think there’s a sense in which I write to be seen, to make myself real, to reclaim my humanity (because as a disabled trans woman, it is so often stripped from me). Though, at the same time, I don’t want to say my work seeks to humanize me—and by extension other trans people. I am human, I always have been, and will be. Christopher Soto discusses the problematics of the idea that poetry “humanizes” far more in depth than I will here in a fantastic essay for Poetry Magazine. They question whether “It [is] possible to fight against otherness/dehumanization without being called towards assimilation?” Lately, I’ve been questioning what it means to write toward my own humanization. What does it mean to write poetry for a primarily cis and able-bodied audience? How can I write against assimilation?

10. What question do you wish we would’ve asked you and what’s the answer?

One of my heart spots is when I am asked to discuss the way that my disability affects my work, as I often feel that my existence as a disabled poet is overshadowed by my transness. The full-length manuscript that I finished up recently is devoted to discussing the intersection of my disability, trauma, mental illness, and transness, as well as specifically working on poems which confront the multiple models which are used to understand disability in our society. I have also been working on a long essay intended to confront the problematic way in which the feminist text The Cyborg Manifesto leaves trans and disabled bodies behind in the future it imagines, as well as the struggle to imagine a trans and disabled futurism outside of the cultural paradigm of correction.

 

Adrian Ibarra is poet and weirdo living in beautiful Oakland, CA. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles where he is a co-managing editor for their literary magazine, Lunch Ticket. His work, which focuses on poetry as an object that exerts the will of the poet as a force into the physical world, has appeared at The John Lion New Plays Festival, in Burningword, Metaphor Magazine, as well as other journals and magazines that don’t exist anymore.

Eloisa Guanlao, Noli Me Tangere (Stills), 2017-In Production , Digital Documentary Video

Spotlight: Noli Me Tangere

As an artist and ecologically-minded humanist, I am interested in performing history and historiography through visual means, giving careful consideration to the materials I use. I am currently working on Talk Story, a multifaceted long-term project, spanning four continents and five centuries of territorial expansion and human movement […]

À La Carte: A People’s History

[fiction]

An overcast day in early November: wolf-gray sky, scraps of cloud pasted above the ragged skyline of the city. Here, half-reclined on a worn green corduroy couch, furred belly bare beneath a struggling hem and a thick braid of drool making a moat of his shirt collar, is Sam, freshly awakened in the living room of his small house by a strange and menacing sound. Outside, at the edge of a threadbare lawn, the Flint River sweeps past, its mottled surface bearing leaves that twirl in the current and catch on the grasping fingers of drowned trees. Farther downriver shuttered buildings line the banks, their windows smashed, rust-colored doors scrawled with graffiti.

Sam has been having a pleasant if peculiar dream, one in which he finds himself exploring a series of unfamiliar homes: seaside saltboxes; a rambling neoclassical manse; dim, low-slung ranches not unlike his own. Doors flung open, each house seems to beckon, to promise him something mysterious and profound, but as he wanders through the unlit rooms, he cannot for the life of him figure out what it could be. The last house he visits is the mansion: white, with rows of sparkling windows and a broad columned porch. Inside, its chambers seem to go on forever. Hallways lead to more hallways, rooms to other rooms. Sam drifts along as if in a maze, rheumy eyes aimed at the distance, his fingers brushing the curved white walls. He passes golden candelabras and mahogany desks with the hoofed feet of fauns. Oriental rugs cover the floors, and the mantels are hung with stately portraits in gilt frames. He has just entered what appears to be a grand bedroom when he is awakened by the sound.

He hoists himself upright and waits, silent, still. A minute passes. Another. He hears it again: a scratching noise, followed this time by a distinct bang, like the backfiring of his old Dodge truck. Wordlessly he rises, the couch springs wheezing beneath him, and lumbers to the window, where he can see the full expanse of his backyard, clear down to the river. He unclasps the lock and throws open the sash; the crisp air stirs his thinning hair. His eyes pass over his property—the rotting porch, a beached canoe, his collapsing ramshackle shed—but nothing seems amiss. He hears only the wind and the chirp of a fat robin poking hungrily at a patch of yellow-headed weeds.

As he closes the window, Sam catches a glimpse of his face in the glass: furrowed eyes, waggling chin. A bulbous nose crosshatched with red veins. He sighs and sinks back to the couch. It seems impossible that he has become the pale old man he sees in the window, and yet here he is: sixty-seven, with a bad back and a face like splintered stone, unmarried and childless and living off a small income from Social Security checks. He glances back at the window and feels a hot jet of fear rise into his chest. Ever since losing his auto job five years ago, replaced by a robotic cart that delivers parts to assembly lines, Sam has lived in terror of strange sounds. Many nights he’s lain awake listening for the jangle of a doorjamb, shattering glass, the thump of booted feet. He’s heard stories, unconfirmed but frightening nonetheless, of neighbors torn from their beds and beaten with bats, friends slashed by knives over a handful of crumpled bills. Cars stolen, homes ransacked, old ladies lying bloodied on the floor. Outside his thin doors, it seems the city itself—hell, the country—is being ravaged by a dark, unknowable force. Queers getting married, Muslims carrying bombs, illegal immigrants hightailing it across the border in search of American jobs. He’s started seeing danger everywhere he goes: in the kitchen at Mel’s Diner, where brown faces, glimpsed through an opening behind the register, bend darkly over his food; at the supermarket, where the black bag boys seem to leer at him from beneath drawn, malevolent grins; even outside his favorite convenience store, its stoop scattered with the fragrant homeless, their cups thrust angrily at his knees. He has visions sometimes of a river of dark skin spilling the banks of the Flint and rushing toward his house, flipping cars, engulfing streetlamps, blasting through shop windows in town. Finally, it reaches his street, his yard, his door, and as he trembles behind the couch, a pile of chairs stacked in the entryway, the mad river seethes through his mail slot, splinters his door, topples his walls, and, with a last hysterical roar, swallows his soft body whole.

It is this he imagines now, this river of dark skin at his doorstep, as he lies back on the couch and commences to listen again for the sound. Outside, the day is growing dark, the yard webbed with twilit shadow. Across the room the television is muted, and on the screen two men engage in a frenzied debate, their silent mouths twisted and strained. Sam settles himself against a cushion and crosses his legs at the ankle. The downy tongues of his slippers are torn, and as he props his feet on the couch arm a patch of matted fur comes loose and floats to the floor.

He has just closed his eyes when again he hears it: scratch, scratch, bang. The sound is louder this time, insistent. He rises to an elbow, eyes trained on the window. There: a flicker, a shadow flashing past the glass. For a minute he holds his breath. In the stillness his heartbeat seems deafening, unaccountably loud. The sound comes again, and with it another vague fluttering at the window. He drops heavily to his knees and crawls toward the sill. His legs ache; the carpeted floor is coarse on the skin of his forearms. The fear is in his throat now, a thickening that halts his breath. A wave of self-pity washes over him, supplanted quickly by rage. “Show yourself!” he shouts into the half-light. “I ain’t afraid of no spook!” He pounds his palm on the rug. He can hardly see; his eyes are wild with fright, his mind dancing with menacing visions: a hulking black man with an automatic pistol; Mexicans brandishing knives, bandanas covering their faces; a turbaned Muslim igniting homemade bombs.

With a grunt he wriggles back to the couch and begins Army-crawling down the narrow hallway to his bedroom. There, in a closet, propped against the wall, is a rifle, a Remington 721 thirty-ought-six that had belonged to his grandfather. The gun has a slim black barrel and a scope shaped like a flashlight, and it can shatter the skull of a deer at 500 yards. Still prostrate on the floor, Sam jiggles open the closet door and yanks the gun down to his side. Taking it into his hands, he is struck by a memory so vivid it seems almost to have manifested physically before him, like the flickering reel of an old family film. In the vision he is standing beside his grandfather in a field. The day is clear and damply warm. In the distance, soup cans line an old split-rail fence. Beyond it, at the tree line, enormous oaks burst with fat green leaves. Sitting cross-legged on the grass, Sam watches his grandfather lift the rifle to his shoulder and peer through the scope. Expertly, the old man swings the barrel into place and then pauses, his right eye closed, left still pressed to the lens. “Never trust anyone who don’t look like you,” he says then, his lean frame motionless below the gun. The words themselves, which carry a hint of the southern accent inherited from his own sharecropper father, are like small salvoes in the otherwise silent field. Eyes wide, Sam stares up at his grandfather, too scared to reply. “You listening to me, boy?” the old man barks, then slowly he draws the barrel from where it’s aimed at the fence and swings it toward the child, bringing it to rest on the top of his small head. The gun’s black steel is warm on the soft fuzz of his crew cut. Back by the tree line, a hawk luffs its wings and lifts effortlessly into the sky. “Those people,” he continues, the gun still balanced on Sam’s head, “every last one of ‘em will rob you, and then they’ll shoot you where you stand. Don’t forget that, boy.” Without another word, the old man swings the gun back toward the fence and pulls the trigger, sending the middlemost can pinwheeling from its perch, then he kneels down and hands the gun to the boy.

It feels so much lighter, Sam thinks now, sighting the rifle in the darkened bedroom—far less unwieldy than it seemed that day in the field. He shakes a handful of bullets from a box and loads them one-by-one into the magazine; each enters the steel chamber with a satisfying click. With each bullet he tries to visualize the face of the intruder: black, red, brown, teeth bared, eyes blazing with menace. He imagines raising the rifle, sees a shadowy figure framed by the scope. Silently then, the gun at his side, he tiptoes back down the hallway and makes for the front door, then slips out into the night.

It is full dark now. From where he crouches by the side of the house he can barely make out the river. The tall oaks lining the bank rustle darkly in the breeze; their rounded forms seem to merge with the black water itself. The grass is cold and damp, and Sam can feel wetness seeping through the thin cloth of his jeans. His fear, so frenzied earlier, has narrowed into a kind of crystalline focus, and he is vaguely aware of having surrendered to its control. He lets it guide him now, rising into a squat and hurrying across the backyard toward the river, where he settles onto one knee in the hollow of a thick trunk. From here he can see the length of the tree line, and as he stills himself to look for movement, he feels his breathing growing shallow and quick.

A moment passes, then he sees it: a figure darting along the riverbank, a long, thin object hanging at its side. It is a ghostly sight, spectral and strange. Sam hoists the gun and takes off toward the bank, the barrel wobbling as he hurdles roots and weaves between darkened trees. Up ahead he can hear leaves being crushed by scampering feet. Suddenly the sound stops, and Sam sees the figure dip behind a tree and vanish. He raises the scope to his eye and focuses it on the tree: at the base of the trunk, he can just make out the black sole of a shoe. Whoever—whatever—it is, he’s got him now.

Rifle fixed to his shoulder, he advances across the leaf-covered grass toward the tree. In his belly he feels a kind of fizzy elation, the manic ecstasy of a conqueror. Suddenly he sees himself on a movie screen, framed by towering cliffs. He’s wearing a loose buckskin vest with a sheriff’s star fastened to one side, and on his head is a massive ten-gallon hat. Nearby, his bounty cowers beside a creek, limbs quaking with fear. Its face, Sam notices on the screen of his mind, is not a single visage but rather a kaleidoscope of the faces of all the world’s undesirables—Muslims and Mexicans, queers and tattooed blacks—scrolling by like jukebox sleeves atop a thin brown neck. He sees the goateed man who used to tease him in rapid-fire Spanish in the break room at the plant. He sees the grinning Ivy League techie who invented the robot that stole his job. He sees the slim, dark face of the president, his lips pursed, eyebrows arched with disdain.

As if a match has been struck and held to a wick, these visions set off a kind of detonation in Sam’s brain, and with a whooping war cry, he bolts for the tree, punctuating each stride with a different shouted slur: “Gook! Guinea! Spic! Spook!” Birds flee from branches; sticks snap beneath his boots. “I’ll send you back to your own country!” he roars. “There’s no place for you in mine!” Saliva spurts from his lips, ticking like rain on the leaf-covered ground below. A puddle of black sweat has spread across the back of his shirt. With a shaking hand he raises his grandfather’s gun and presses the bolt into the chamber, then cranks it locked. The trigger feels expectant under the soft pad of his index finger. “Old Sam’s got you now!” he screams to the cloud-streaked night sky, then, hands tingling, eyes shining with rapture, he takes a deep, exultant breath and springs to the far side of the towering trunk.

There, at the tapered end of his long black barrel, Sam is stunned to find not some hoodlum or knife-waving thief, but rather the small, bright eyes of a child—a little girl of indeterminate race, peering up at him from beneath a curtain of trembling bangs. She shrinks in the shadow of the huge tree, her cheeks wet, one tiny hand clamped around a stick. Sam staggers back, his boots catching on the tree’s gnarled roots. All at once his fantasy, his enchanting, energizing fear, goes out of him like the hiss of stale air from a punctured balloon. The child’s face—so innocent, so full of startling beauty—seems to have blinded him, and he whirls and flees from the sight, his feet skidding, the gun clattering heavily at his side as he scrambles for the lighted windows of his house, wet leaves like ice beneath his boots and in his ears a kind of noiseless roar, the roar of his breath and the blood shooting through his veins, his heart sending small blasts into the cage of his chest, and then he is stumbling, falling, the sky in his eyes now and the gun slipping from his grip and his free hand clawing for purchase in the stars, the air, the onrushing grass, and just as he topples to the earth, he hears the shot—a pure, clean sound that hangs in the crisp air like the unexpected call of his own name.

Sam lies back then, feeling a warm wetness spread over his belly, and as his breathing slows and his vision begins to go black, the last thing he sees, like an apparition outlined against the vaulted night sky, is the approach of two small feet bounding toward him across the grass.

 

Tom Lakin is a graduate of Emerson College’s MFA program, where he was a full-tuition fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Noble / Gas QuarterlyPleiadesPembroke Magazine, and The Adroit Journal. He is the recipient of the 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2014 Story Contest. He lives with his wife, daughter, and Boston terrier in Boston’s South End.

 

Spotlight: Education for Bastards / Congregations for Bastards / Auctions for Bastards

Education for Bastards

Listen—you could be anyone.
Other kids say they know
their fathers, but marriage? That’s a knot
made for plot twists.
What’s better than Imagination? And her pedigree’s as full
of holes as yours. She stretches across the unknown,
she makes new stories, she flies through the galaxies and back.
Her best friend is Uncertainty.

 


 

Congregations for Bastards

“A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth
generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.” Deuteronomy 23:2,
KJV

On this we agree—
children aren’t blank pages.
God writes their flesh
and bone codes.

But why etch them with clarity
if they’re meant to be spurned?
Or form them at all
if they’re burdens?

Or give them
brothers and sisters?
Who made your sun
so bright, it blisters?

 


 

Auctions for Bastards

“Porcelain bisque,” sang the auctioneer, “spring
mechanism still in place.” The dolls with silks
of human hair smirked when carried off
to homes where Frozen Charlottes and Flanders Babies
already smiled from polished shelves,

but we—dismembered torsos, unrelated limbs,
and wrong-sized heads—jostled in darkness
under a lid. Someone bought us
for a workshop, where crafters tried
to putty up our cracks and match us

up with other parts, re-member us,
all in service of another sale, but still we loved
the ones who tried to make us whole
(as only the dismembered can)
for what light they had to work in.

 

Michele Leavitt, a poet and essayist, is also an adoptee, high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney. She’s written essays for venues including Guernica MagCatapultSycamore Review, The Rumpus, and Grist and is the author of the Kindle singles memoir Walk Away. Poems appear recently in North American Review, concis, Gravel, Baltimore Review, and Poet Lore. More at www.michelejleavitt.com.

À La Carte: Daddy’s Girl

[creative nonfiction]

Her father dies three times. The first time, in ‘69, she’s six, and her mother tells her, “They lost him; he’s missing.” But she knows they’ll find him, and he’ll find her, even after her mother packs a folded-over mattress and her three daughters in the back seat of her white VW bug and drives them from their mobile home near the air force base in Corpus Christi to a cold apartment in Vermont. She knows her father will find her, even after she stops believing in Santa, even after she understands that her parents divorced before her father left for the war in Vietnam, even after she gets a new stepfather and moves again, this time to New York. She holds on inside, even after his photos vanish and no one ever speaks his name.

The second time her father dies, she is sixteen. The Air Force declares him dead, not based on new information, but because a missing pilot has to be paid and a dead one doesn’t. She and her two sisters each get their own set of medals in velvety black boxes and a folded American flag in the mail. Her stepfather asks to adopt her, but she says no. She has a father, and though she doesn’t say it, she isn’t about to let him go.

Another fifteen years pass before she realizes that her father is not the only one missing in action. On the outside, she’s done well, graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth, won a Dean’s Fellowship to graduate school at Penn. But on the inside, she is grey, half-dead and disconnected, uncommitted to anything or anyone besides her aging half-lab, Molly. When she hits thirty—the age her father was when his O-2A Skymaster disappeared over Laos—she can’t pretend anymore, not even to herself. Her friends are graduating, getting married, having kids. She is still in school but not sure why, in a relationship she knows is going nowhere, without a future she can’t begin to imagine.

She is afraid, like Rilke, that therapy will kill off her angels as well as her devils, but she doesn’t know what else to do. Luckily, she finds a therapist wise in the ways of grief. Having lost his own mother as a child, he assures her that being fully alive doesn’t have to mean forgetting. He helps her see that part of her is stuck at six, still certain she’s done something terrible to make her father leave, still sure her hope is the only thing holding his plane in the air.

It takes a lot of going backwards before she can move on. She drives around Texas visiting places she lived as a child. Back in Philly, she spends evenings cross-legged on the worn wooden floor of her grad school rental, flipping through folders of dental records and personnel evaluations. The answers to her questions aren’t there, not even in the one-page Facts and Circumstances summary of what the Air Force calls “the incident,” and she calls “the day my Daddy disappeared.” Her questions aren’t so black and white. Why did her father leave her? Why didn’t he come back? How can she go forward in a world without him in it?

The third time her father dies, it’s 1996, and she kills him herself. She puts his dog tags around her neck for the last time and stands between her sisters in the tiny family cemetery in Mahomet, Texas. She shivers in the hot April wind as her older sister sings The Beatles’s “Let it Be,” as her younger sister recites John Magee’s poem, “High Flight.” And finally, she steps forward to explain herself to her family and her father, borrowing words from Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods.” “In order to live in this world…” she begins, but then inside she stumbles. How can she do it—choose to let her father go?

He never said goodbye, but in the sudden cemetery silence, she hears her father’s voice. She’s six again, at the Marina RV and Mobile Home Park in Corpus, and her father is home on leave, his long legs loping beside her hand-me-down two-wheeler, steadying her seat until suddenly he’s not. “You’re doing it,” he calls after her as she pedals fiercely, her wobbly progress leaving him behind. “That’s right, Kitten” —his voice is fading— “You’re doing it! Now just keep going!”

 

Cathy Luna is a writer and writing coach who lives in Western Massachusetts with her computer scientist spouse, three teenagers, and far too many pets. A late bloomer in every way, Cathy’s long journey to becoming a memoirist included stints as a veterinarian’s assistant (too tender-hearted), a carpenter (dangerous with a hammer), a film editor (great, but no pay), an English teacher and a professor. When not working, writing, or driving someone somewhere, she enjoys reading, hiking, and going to the movies.

Doren Damico

Spotlight: Inheriting Post-it Notes

[poetry]

I

June 25, 2013

i’m in Mom’s office
helping her pack
for her new home
the last home
where she’s going home
to die

I want you to have this
she says
handing me a yellow post-it
it’s a quote that she wrote

“In the end it’s not
the years in your life
that counts.
It’s the life
in your years.”
—Abe Lincoln

(my mother
was assassinated
by cancer)

II

we discover post-its
on books and in piles
post-its obsolete
crumpled and tossed
some post-its i learn
shouldn’t be lost
she bequeaths them
to her eldest daughter

“The love you leave behind
is the measure of your life.”

blue ink on hot pink
—Fred Small
i think

III

i take them in two hands
each delicate, sticky
colored leaf
reverently pondering
the adages and proverbs
mottos and maxims
like gold-filled cracks
of ceramic tea cups
in a tea ceremony
she’s teaching me
to celebrate everything
even old post-its

“If I’d followed all the rules
I’d never have gotten anywhere.”
—Marilyn Monroe

“u only live once
but if u do it right
once is enough”
—Mae West

but Mom, i say
you’re a Buddhist

IV

the last is sky-blue
and i read it aloud

“I have slipped
surly bonds of earth
and followed the birds
into the sun
with joy”

who wrote this? i ask
that’s my epitaph
says Mom

 

Doren Damico

Doren Damico is an artist, educator, and writer based in Los Angeles, California. Her first book, When You Can’t Scream… Or 10 Reasons Why I Smoke, includes poetry, photography, and an intimate narrative that explores her journey of trauma, acceptance, and healing. Doren’s poetry can also be found in: Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles, Nuclear Impact: Broken Atoms in Our Hands, and 2016 In The Words of Women International Anthology.

Photo by Alfredo Hidalgo

Writers Read: The Torturer’s Wife by Thomas Glave

This collection of short stories never shies away from the human potential for life-destroying darkness. Stories such as “Between,” “The Torturer’s Wife,” “Invasion: Evening: Two,” “Woman Impossible Task,” “He Who Would have Become ‘Joshua’ 1791,” and “Out There” confront the evils of war, political torture, slavery, and violence perpetrated against the gay community. Glave insists that the reader confront the violence, the death that results when people are excluded from the community or are not recognized as fully human, whether in a situation of war or the banality of gender conformity.

Glave disposes of traditional narrative technique in order to fully enter the consciousness of his characters. In the story “Between,” the narrative is non-linear, moving quickly between past, present, and future tense so that the reader is beside, or inside, the characters’ embodied experience before, during, and after a horrific act of violence. Glave breaks the narrative here, as in other stories, with italics, parentheses, and em-dashes, forcing the reader to enter more completely into the frequently disoriented perspective of his characters. In “The Torturer’s Wife,” the bodies of the tortured become reanimated, haunting the story’s titular character. In “He Who Would Have Become ‘Joshua’ 1791,” two young boys who would be enslaved fly away.

Thomas Glave

This is not, by any means, an easy read. Over and again, Glave demands that the reader confront humanity’s most horrific capacities by fully inhabiting the internal experience of his characters—often the devastated survivors of personal and/or political violence. This is an exhausting, yet necessary, confrontation. The last story in the collection, “Out There,” explores the aftermath of a lynching from the perspective of a man who is mourning the victim, his best friend. The situation is horrifying, to say the least, but the love between the two men, the central character and his murdered friend, is present beyond death.

“Now unsure as to whether it is in fact Carlton’s or the archangel’s—and in that moment, to his astonishment and sudden quiet joy, not caring either way—he closes his eyes once more and squeezes that caressing hand…” (262).

In this particular story, Glave presents the reader with a portrait of a man who has been murdered at the hands of a community that insists upon seeing him as “other,” as less than human, due to his gender expression. We see the victim’s friend, the central character, surviving by passing. We also see how their friendship, their human connection, exists in a space beyond violence, beyond death. So often violence seems to be written gratuitously, for shock value. But every painful instance is necessary to these stories. Glave offers no simplistic solutions, he never ties the story up neatly. But in between the lines, there is the insistence that if, as readers, we look closely at evil, if we participate in the dismantling of denial, we might come an inch closer to shining light against darkness.

Glave, Thomas. The Torturer’s Wife. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. 2008.

 

Melissa Benton Barker is a recent graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work appears on Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Five on the Fifth, and elsewhere. She is currently the Managing Editor of Lunch Ticket.

Nneka Osueke, Speak Softly, But Carry A Big Stick, 2017, acrylic, activated charcoal paint, homemade activated charcoal, genuine 24k gold on canvas, 30x26in / 76.2x66.04 cm

Spotlight: Into the Fifth

Into The Fifth speaks to the force of a paradigm shift, as I experience the world transitioning from one dimension to the next. During the creative process, I experimented with sculpture, photography, homemade activated charcoal paint, ceramics, 24k gold, and collage, allowing my creative process to flow through me, without or without thought. In each painting […]

Litdish: Gayle Brandeis, Author

Welcome to our new Amuse-Bouche occasional series, Litdish. This is a solicited series of interviews with writers and artists in conversation with our staff about literature, art, social justice, and community activism. Please enjoy. ~The Editors

 

Gayle Brandeis is a poet, writer, and activist. She is the author of the poetry collections The Selfless Bliss of the Body and Dictionary Poems, as well as a craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write.  Her novels include Delta Girls: A Novel, Self Storage, and My Life with the Lincolns. Her first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, won The Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social EngagementBrandeis’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Salon and The Nation. Her recent essay “My Shadow Son: A stranger insisted he was my son for over a decade” has been featured in The Washington PostIndependent, and The Chicago Tribune. Her new memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, is a raw and poetic exploration of trauma and healing. Currently, Brandeis teaches writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College. She is the editor of Tiferet Journal and Lady/Liberty/Lit, as well as the 2018 judge for Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial award for nonfiction writing. In December 2017, I had the opportunity to meet up with Brandeis in Los Angeles to talk about the intersections of life and writing. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.

Interviewed by Kori Kessler and edited for clarity.

 

Kori Kessler: You’re the next judge for Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial award for nonfiction writing and a lot of the submissions explore trauma. I was wondering how creative nonfiction, as a genre, helps in the healing process when it comes to going through trauma?

Gayle Brandeis: It helps in so many ways. For me, it allowed me to dive as deeply as possible into my own story. I have a tendency to shy away from hard stuff and I told myself I really need to go there and just swim around and explore this as thoroughly as I can so I can try to come to some sort of understanding about what happened. So it allowed me to immerse myself in my pain as a way of moving through my pain. But at the same time, it gave me some detachment from my own story which was really helpful because I had to see it clearly from within and without, and stepping back from it gave me more compassion for myself in a way and allowed me to see things more clearly.

The writing does help me get closer to my own story and step back from my own story, so there was this kind of double consciousness that allowed me to see things in a fresh way, it was so deeply cathartic. The first draft especially was deeply cathartic and then the revision was when I was able to gain the detachment. I started seeing my story as art and not just catharsis. So it became both catharsis and art.

KK: Is that [artful presentation] what you look for in other creative nonfiction?

GB: I think so; I certainly want to see someone approach their story in an artful way so it’s not just like reading someone’s journal. Like seeing someone grappling with their story and transforming it into art.

KK: Do you feel that creative nonfiction can help in the healing process that we are going to have to go through as a nation to help us navigate the current political situations and powers?

GB: I think it can be a very important part of the healing process. I know that reading think pieces by other people, especially if they are very rooted in the writer’s own experience, it helps me understand what’s going on. And I think there is so much we as a nation need to confront right now and process, and I think our voices can help pull each other forward. I know that for myself, I often don’t really know what I know and understand until I write it down. And I’ve heard other writers say something very similar. So writing can definitely help us to grapple with the confusion and chaos of this ridiculous world. And our voices can really be hands reaching out to each other saying you are not alone. Let’s join in solidarity.

Our individuality is so important, but when we each raise our voices we can create this collective chorus that I think will help change the cultural story. When we change the story, we change the culture.

We see that happening with the #metoo movement, with not just women, with people giving voice to things that have been kept silent. When we start telling these stories, things change. I think writing will be vitally crucial during this time.

KK: Do you think that creative nonfiction as a genre is going to help bridge gaps in polar ideals?

GB: I hope so. I feel like it has to help eventually, but our culture is divided into such polar camps. I don’t really know what it’s going to take to build that bridge. I do have faith in deeply human stories, that beneath all this ideology we all have heart beats, we all can enjoy a ripe plum. There are these simple basic human experiences, giving birth, breathing, our loved ones. If we can meet on that basic human level, which we can do through our stories, I think that provides the greatest opportunity for a bridge. But it’s scary when we come to our stories with such different ideologies and people have a different idea of what truth is. It can be tricky, but I still have faith in the deeply human story.

KK: How has your writing process changed throughout the years and has this current memoir changed your writing process at all?

GB: Yeah. I’ve been writing since I was four, so writing has always been a huge part of my life. So my process has definitely changed over the years. I feel like writing this book has been liberating in so many ways because I think that in writing fiction, without realizing it, I was kind of trying to work some stuff out subconsciously of my own life. And being able to face my own story head on through this memoir was really important to me. I’m someone who has not been very forthcoming with my own story. I’ve kept a lot hidden and so to be able to be honest about my own life has made me feel just so much freer as a human being. I feel like I can speak more freely; I can move more freely through the world because I’m hiding less. And that make me feel braver as a writer across all genres. I feel like I can just kind of bust forth with whatever I need to write on.

KK: Which non-writing related aspect of your life influences your writing?

GB: I would have to say that dance and writing are really interwoven for me; those have been my two main modes of expression my whole life. And I don’t dance as often as I’d like these days but when I do, it feels so good and I just like to cut as loose as possible and I definitely dance as if no one is watching. The freedom that I feel when I am dancing is something that I like to capture every day. So just feeling completely at home in my skin when I dance, which I don’t always do as much in my life as I want to, I definitely want to translate that into my writing as well. Feeling fully my body, fully alive, fully open to the moment and a little bit wild.

KK: Do you have any advice for writers of creative nonfiction?

GB: I go back to this TED talk by Brené Brown on vulnerability. She talks about how she discovered that the original definition of the word courage is to tell one’s story with all one’s heart and I think that is the courage we need when we tell our own stories, to jump into it with our whole heart, our body, don’t forget your body as you are writing. And our experiences are all right there inside our skin so tap into that. Be as brave as you can be.

Finding that radar that tells us whether we need space or a kick in the pants can be tricky to find, but just keep coming back to that sense of courage. I think that is what readers are looking for.

I know there are times when we are not quite ready to tell certain things. We have to develop some sort of inner radar that tells us when we need to listen and give ourselves that time and space so we can be ready later when we need to give ourselves a bit of a nudge.

KK: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received, and what has been the worst?

GB: I always go back to Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” I think that was so liberating and that has been something reiterated by a lot of writing teachers. Just the importance of giving ourselves permission to write the most horrible stuff. I’ve been a perfectionist when I was younger. I did some child modeling as a kid, which was not well-suited for my temperament. I was so shy. I was given this job where I had to be at trade shows where I was modeling this very rudimentary early classroom computer called the System 80, and someone asked me to push the wrong answer to see what it would do. I couldn’t do it. I started crying and I had to be carried away from the demonstration by my mom because I was sobbing because I could not push the wrong answer. I was this awful perfectionist.

Luckily I’ve let go of a lot of that and some of that has been through this advice of just writing shitty first drafts; just giving yourself permission to play, to explore, to be messy, to not worry if it’s right or okay, that you can make it better through revision. That has been advice that has been deeply, deeply helpful.

As for the worst advice, I can’t think of anything specific but anytime advice is really prescriptive, and says that you always have to do this or never have to do that, I bristle against that. I bristle against absolutes in terms of writing advice because I think that we each have to find our own best pathways which can be very different from someone else. My feeling is when someone says to never do something, I want to do it.

KK: What are you currently reading?

GB: I am kind of dipping in and out of a few different books right now, and I’m loving all of them. I’m reading Lydia Yuknavitch’s The Misfits Manifesto, which is based on her TED talk, and it’s just this inspiring book about the power of being a misfit. I have felt like a misfit in many ways in my life and I just love her book. I am also reading this really interesting book of essays called Circadian by Chelsey Clammer which was recommended to by a Laraine Herring, a dear friend whom I graduated with. There’s a really interesting form in this book. It’s very free in terms of possibility for the essay. And I also started reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado a short story collection which is super freeing as well.

KK: Do you have a favorite TED Talk?

GB: I love Lydia Yuknavitch’s TED Talk. I love so many. They are a great source of inspiration.

 

Kori Kessler has work published in Tiferet Journal. Currently, she attends Antioch University Los Angeles and is co-associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket. She lives with her three dogs Ginsberg, Elliot, and Stella.

À La Carte: Colors for the Diaspora

Blue-green watery globe
tugging to a red core
we are a distant comet,
white cloud of unburnished rocks,
frisking the heavens
for an arc
to earth, sea, home.

Green-brown Palestine,
cactus fruit and wild thyme,
olive orchards, cypress trees…
we travel on your mountain tops
tethered by voices from suitcases
and the yaw of blackened keys.

Blue-black night
silver stars of ancestors
traveling a displaced orbit
around a lost sun, repeating:
when will we see the colors of our land,
when will we land….

 

Zeina Azzam is a Palestinian American writer, editor, and community activist. She works as an editor for a Washington, DC think tank. Her articles have appeared in The Hill, Middle East Eye, Al Jazeera English, and Common Dreams. Her poems have been published in Mizna, Sukoon magazine, Split This Rock, Heartwood literary magazine, and the anthologies Gaza Unsilenced (Alareer and El-Haddad, eds.), Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves (Fowler, ed.), The Poeming Pigeon: Love Poems (The Poetry Box), and Write Like You’re Alive (Zoetic Press). She holds an MA in Arabic literature from Georgetown University.

Photo Credit: Jeff Norman

 

Spotlight: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

[translated fiction]

It’s my weekend with my daughter.

Vilhelmína is standing between us wearing a Batman T-shirt and a wool jacket, a red tulle skirt and new rubber boots. She’s also wearing a backpack that’s much too big for her scrawny back with a decorative little umbrella hanging off it, and I feel a tug at my heartstrings when I notice a scrape on the cheek that’s facing me.

Her mother is standing impatiently in the doorway, trying to hold down her blonde hair, which is being pawed at by the wind. Her wide pajama pants flap around her legs and I know her old T-shirt well. It’s one I’ve often touched. In the darkness behind her, I can just make out a bearded man in a button-down shirt. How can she find that guy attractive?

“You two are going to do something fun, aren’t you?” Her voice is far too peppy and the question’s followed by a look that speaks volumes. She’s in a hurry to get rid of us.

Vilhelmína and I look at each other quickly and that scrape nudges at the dread that has hunkered down in some indeterminate place behind my ribs, in a fitful embrace with my guilty conscience. All the things that can happen when I’m not there to keep an eye on her. And who exactly is this man hiding in the shadows behind the woman whom I once called my own? I’ll question Vilhelmína—gently, cunningly—and figure out what happened. How things are with her, whether there’s anything amiss. Careful not to scare her, not to put words in her mouth. Didn’t her mother say once that this guy was a teacher, her coworker?

It pleases me to see that she’s looking at the new Volvo that’s waiting for us by the gate. “You always land on your feet,” my former wife says sarcastically.

I just smile and shake the car keys in front of her face.

Vilhelmína looks at me expectantly and for the umpteenth time, I wonder why our father-daughter weekends always have to revolve around something fun. Why can’t I just take my daughter’s hand and bring her along on my daily comings and goings? Let her see what my reality is like? There’s always got to be something happening. Sometimes, it’s even been decided beforehand, down to the smallest details—where we’ll go and what we’ll do—without me having any say in the matter. I don’t know how it got like this, but, now, I’m saying stop. From here on out, I’m in charge of the agenda. I’m not letting people get away with pushing me around anymore.

Our last weekend adventure is still painfully clear in my memory when we drive off. On that occasion, my Ex had gotten the idea that it would be a good idea for us to give bread to the ducks on Tjörnin pond. This weekend pastime, beloved of the nation, has never appealed to me. Not even when I was a kid. But I decided to do my best, was going, in fact, to buy old bread at the bakery on Lækjargata. They were all out, though—some senior citizens had gotten it on the cheap—so in the end, we splurged on fresh parmesan bread.

Then, per our instructions, we stood there on the banks of the pond and shivered in the cold, inhaling the faint scent of decay, tossing out little morsels of bread and, in the intervening breaths, had a couple ourselves. The ducks took a long time perking up—I’ve got my doubts about the intellect of the Tjörnin waterfowl—but the seagulls were on the ball and snapped the morsels up before they’d landed in the water. One of them also snapped up the cigarette butt that I flicked away, but didn’t seem any worse off for it. I’d started to get cold and decided to make the morsels bigger. Vilhelmína thought this was brilliant (she thinks everything I do is brilliant) and we were making quick work of the bread.

Then, out of nowhere, a furious swan appeared. It was like a prehistoric creature in a horror film, its wings and beak beating, biting, and chopping in all directions. Truth be told, I’d never figured out just what kind of creature a swan is, that its wings should be so big and strong. Vilhelmína, who is about the same height as the average swan, didn’t have the sense to be afraid of the bird and defended herself with great courage, but I had a bad feeling about where this was going and so chucked the rest of the bread into the pond as I carried my daughter, kicking and screaming, off the battlefield and into the safe haven of the car. We were both silent afterwards, all the way to the Laugardalur neighborhood on the east side of town, where we’d been invited for dinner at my mother’s house. Vilhelmína won’t mention giving the ducks bread again. That’s one of her innumerable good qualities: she never asks to do anything more than once.

*     *     *

Today, a trip to the carnival next to the harbor has been planned for us. I’m upset with myself for not having anticipated this beforehand, and I drive faster than I mean to in the direction of the harborside grounds, with my daughter fastened securely in her car seat. But it’s also Saturday—so-called “candy day” when shops nationwide sell sweets at half-price—so we pay a quick visit to the corner store on the way and the girl at the counter is remarkably patient while Vilhelmína picks out candy for her bag. She tends to be a bit finicky.

The girl at the counter looks familiar, although I’m sure I’ve never seen her before. She has a prosthetic hand and I wouldn’t forget a thing like that. A chill goes through me when I look at those stiff fingers—there’s something obscene about that pink, artificial flesh—but I try to hide my feelings.

“And then I’ll get that big, green lollipop there,” says Vilhelmína finally. “It’s Kryptonite,” she tells me confidentially, when we walk out. “Kryptonite is the only thing that can defeat Superman. Otherwise, he can do anything. And he’s always saving people.”

I nod my head, say that I’ve heard as much and am glad to have him around, but at the same time, I wonder whether it’s normal for girls to play superheroes.

“Mama says there’s a roller coaster at the carnival,” Vilhelmína adds excitedly, when we’re back in the car.

“She didn’t want to have a go herself?” I can’t stop myself from asking ironically.

But Vilhelmína is impervious to irony.

“Nah, she doesn’t have time. And also, she gets sick on roller coasters.”

I know for a fact that Vilhelmína’s mother is neither particularly busy nor prone to queasiness, but I keep this to myself.

When I try to worm out of my daughter how she hurt herself, she just quietly says that she’d been fighting with a boy and refuses to comment any further on it.

It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that there’s constantly more and more that I don’t know about the child whom I thought I knew as well as I know myself, but we keep driving in companionable silence.

“Tell me a story,” she says, all of a sudden.

“About what?” I ask, somewhat distractedly.

“Superman and Batman.” She looks at me exuberantly.

“One weekend, Superman and Batman decided to take a vacation,” I start, trying to come up with something. “They were bored to death with villains and rescue missions and thought it was high time to do something fun, so they decided to go to the carnival.”

I’m a little distracted because there aren’t many places to park, but finally, I find a spot and a half a few blocks away on Hafnarstræti and have the presence of mind to snag it ahead of a mournful-looking Lada.

“Just like us!” She claps her palms together and looks at me adoringly.

“Yep, just like us. And now we’re here and what we do, they’ll do, too,” I say as I open the car door, release my daughter from the prison of her car seat, and hand her umbrella to her.

“That’s a good idea!” Vilhelmína springs out, pops open the umbrella, and smooths her skirt.

“You can be Superman and I’m Batman. I think you look like Superman. He’s really strong and nothing can defeat him except Kryptonite!”

Touched, Superman looks into Batman’s sky-blue eyes and nods.

*     *     *

Down by the harbor, there’s a smattering of frozen parents wandering around with ruddy-cheeked and excited children. Chimes that sound like they’re coming from an overgrown music box manage, just barely, to rise above the noise of the wind and I button our jackets. I’m going to be firm today. It’s too chilly out to be lingering around, and anyway, I’m looking forward to showing Vilhelmína the new computer game that’s waiting for her at home on Tjarnargata. It’s called The Sims and it pretty much lets you arrange people and the universe however you want.

I start by putting a somewhat offended Vilhelmína on a merry-go-round that’s revolving slowly and venerably at the edge of the harbor, while I settle myself in the shelter of a wall in the meantime. Then I see she’s the only rider, and realize I have to do better on the next one.

“You can pick three rides, then we’ll get you some cotton candy, and then we’re going home,” I say, ready to strike a bargain.

“I want you to come on the rides with me.” Batman slips her little hand into Superman’s.

“Yes, of course. It would hardly do to make you ride by yourself.”

Then we start making our way over to the roller coaster. My daughter’s an opportunist.

“Aw, Villa, honey. I think you’re too young. Look! There are some fun wagons shaped like all kinds of animals over there. Why don’t we try those?” Even I can hear how cloying my voice sounds.

“That’s just for babies. You only want to let me go on something like that.” Vilhelmína’s disappointed.

“OK. How about the electric cars, then? What if you took me for a drive?”

Vilhelmína agrees and we join the short line.

“Ew—there’s hair on your lollipop,” a boy in front of us says, giving a shudder.

“It isn’t a lollipop.” Vilhelmína’s voice takes on a pedantic tone. “It’s Kryptonite, and I’m Batman.”

“Batman doesn’t wear a dress.” The boy’s disdain is boundless.

“Yeah-huh, he wears a dress when he feels like it. And this isn’t a dress—it’s a skirt. Don’t you know anything?!” Then she folds up her umbrella and lifts her skirt as she steps daintily into the driver’s seat.

Glowing with pride, I glance at the boy who looks after us with a dumb expression on his face, and I enjoy the warmth of Vilhelmína’s skinny shoulders when she steers between the other cars with remarkable skill.

Maybe I should buy a house out in the country. Land, even. The two of us could have a horse. I don’t know anything about horses, but we could learn together and girls like grooming horses and braiding their tails. I don’t know where the idea comes from, but it’s exciting and the idea sends a current of warmth through me. It could be our special place and I’d demand to have Vilhelmína every other week. Then I’d just work from home on my computer while she pottered about with the animals. Of course, we’d have a dog, too… When I look at those little hands that are getting bigger so quickly, that are holding the steering wheel so knowledgably, I’m hell-bent on making this day special, creating a beautiful memory for the both of us.

Next, Vilhelmína wants to test our sharpshooting skills, which yields depressing results—I’m half-distracted because my thoughts are still wrapped up in the land idea. And then there’s just one ride left.

“The roller coaster,” says Vilhelmína. The one here is soo small. She emphasizes just how small by pointing the sticky, poison-green lollipop that doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller to her knee.

“No,” I answer, with all the authority I have. “Let’s find something else.”

Hungry and cold, we wander around the harborside grounds and don’t feel like arguing anymore. I’ve forgotten my watch at home and don’t know what time it is, although I suspect it’s getting late, so we settle on checking out the Hall of Mirrors. I have good memories of the Hall of Mirrors, whose thin and fat reflections were a source of perennial amusement. What could go wrong? I think, pleased with myself as I pay a toothless man an absurdly high entrance fee.

There’s a thick, black curtain over the entryway. The man pulls it back and lets us in. When it falls, heavy and silent behind us, we’re suddenly alone in a dim hall and the dust-thickened air coats my tongue with a moldy flavor. Curious, Vilhelmína walks further in and I follow hesitantly behind her. This isn’t like I remembered. Where are the old funhouse mirrors? It’s a maze dressed in mirrors, and our own faces, pale and distorted, peek out from countless dark niches. This isn’t funny.

I’m gripped with claustrophobia, but Vilhelmína thinks this is great fun and to my horror, she runs ahead, cheerful and curious. In the blink of an eye, my child has disappeared. I try to follow, head uncertainly into the maze’s interior, but quickly realize that I’m completely lost. At first, when I call out to Vilhelmína, I get a distant reply, but before long, there’s nothing except silence and my reflections.

I stop and listen, but no matter how I try, all I can only hear is my own heartbeat and the ringing in my ears, which is only getting worse.

Take a deep breath, I say to myself and try to keep my cool, but the air is getting denser and more humid the further in I go. It fills my throat and nostrils and I feel like I’m drowning. I start to sweat—the back of my shirt is soaking wet and my heart thumps in my chest. I’m gripped by an intense and sudden terror.

Frantic, I take off running until my shaking knees give out under me and I collapse. The noise in my ears is now deafening and my fingers go numb and stiffen as if in a spasm. Am I having a heart attack here, all alone in the dark? I rip open the collar of my shirt.

Countless reflections stare at me reproachfully, white as sheets.

Eyes clenched, I finally start to crawl. The silence beyond the buzzing in my ears is terrifying and in order to keep myself from going crazy with fear, I begin to hum: Don’t worry, be happy. I’ve never liked the song and I only know the chorus, which I repeat over and over. An off-key voice reverberates around the maze, quiet and shaky, and I can hardly believe it belongs to me. Every so often, I run into a wall, but anything is better than opening my eyes, seeing the endless hallways, and looking into the eyes of my reflections.

A whole eternity passes until I feel a faint breeze and warily open my eyes, just a sliver.

*     *     *

There’s daylight at the end of the hall. A small group of people has gathered and standing in front of them is Vilhelmína, who’s staring at me, frightened. Her umbrella is closed and she’s still holding the sticky lollipop. There’s a strange green glow emanating from it in the pale sunlight.

I quit humming, stand shakily up, and try to smile at Vilhelmína.

 

 

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” an excerpt from Raddir úr húsi loftskeytamannsins

Það er pabbahelgi.

Vilhelmína stendur á milli okkar í Batman­bol innanundir ullarjakkanum, rauðu tjullpilsi og nýjum gúmmí­stígvélum. Hún er líka með allt of stóran bakpoka á mjóu bakinu sem í hangir lítil, skrautleg regnhlíf og ég finn hvernig hjartað tekur kipp þegar ég tek eftir skrámu á kinninni sem snýr að mér.

Móðir hennar stendur óþolinmóð í dyragættinni og reynir að hemja ljóst hárið sem gusturinn rótar upp. Víðar náttbuxur blakta um leggina og gamli bolurinn er kunnuglegur. Ég hef oft snert hann. Í myrkrinu á bak við hana grillir í skeggjaðan náunga í bómullarskyrtu. Hvernig getur henni fundist þessi maður aðlaðandi?

En þið feðgin ætlið að gera eitthvað skemmtilegt, er það ekki? Röddin er allt of glaðleg og spurningunni fylgir talandi augnaráð. Henni liggur á að losna við okk­ur.

Við Vilhelmína horfumst snöggvast í augu og skráman hnippir í óttann sem hefur hreiðrað um sig í krampakenndu faðmlagi við samviskubitið á óljósum stað innan við rifbeinin. Allt sem getur komið fyrir þegar ég er ekki til að passa hana. Og hver er eiginlega þessi maður sem felur sig í skugganum á bak við konuna sem ég kallaði einu sinni mína? Ég ætla að yfirheyra Vilhelmínu, varlega, lymskulega, og komast að því hvað gerðist. Hvernig hún hefur það, hvort eitthvað sé að. Passa að hræða hana ekki, gera hana ekki leiða. Sagði mamma hennar ekki einhvern tíma að þessi maður væri kenn ari, samstarfsmaður hennar?

Það gleður mig þegar ég sé að hún horfir á nýja Volvóinn sem bíður okkar við hliðið. Þú lendir alltaf ofan á, segir fyrrverandi konan mín hæðnislega.

Ég brosi bara og hristi framan í hana bíllyklana. Vilhelmína lítur eftirvæntingarfull á mig og ég velti því rétt einu sinni fyrir mér hvers vegna pabbahelgar eiga alltaf að snúast um eitthvað skemmtilegt. Af hverju má ég ekki bara taka í höndina á dóttur minni og hafa hana með í þessu daglega stússi? Leyfa henni að sjá hvernig minn veruleiki er? Alltaf verður eitthvað að gerast. Stundum er meira að segja búið að ákveða fyrirfram, og það í smáatriðum, hvert verður farið og hvað verður gert að mér forspurðum. Ég veit ekki hvernig þetta varð svona en nú segi ég stopp. Héðan í frá ætla ég að stjórna atburðarásinni, ég læt ekki fólk komast upp með að ráðskast með mig lengur.

Ævintýri síðustu pabbahelgar eru enn óþægilega skýr í minningunni þegar við feðginin keyrum af stað. Þá hafði konunni dottið í hug að það væri snjallræði láta okkur gefa öndunum á Tjörninni brauð. Þessi þjóðlega helgarskemmtun hefur aldrei höfðað til mín. Ekki heldur þegar ég var barn. En ég ákvað að gera mitt besta, ætlaði meira að segja að kaupa gamalt brauð í bakaríinu í Lækjargötu. Það var þó búið, einhverjir eldri borgarar höfðu fengið það ódýrt, svo að lokum splæstum við í glænýtt parmesanbrauð.

Þarna norpuðum við samkvæmt fyrirmælum og önduðum að okkur daufri rotnunarlyktinni á tjarnarbakkanum, kastandi smámolum fyrir og í endurnar á milli þess sem við fengum okkur sjálf nokkra bita. End­urnar voru lengi að taka við sér, ég hef mínar efasemdir um gáfnafar andastofnsins við Tjörnina en mávarnir voru með á nótunum og gripu bitana áður en þeir lentu í vatninu. Einn þeirra greip líka sígarettustubbinn sem ég henti frá mér og virtist ekki verða meint af. Mér var farið að verða kalt og ákvað að stækka bitana. Vilhelm­ínu fannst þetta sniðugt (henni þykir allt sniðugt sem ég geri) og það gekk hratt á brauðið.

Þá kom óður svanur aðvífandi. Hann var eins og forsöguleg skepna úr hryllingsmynd, barði, beit og hjó með vængjum og gogg í allar áttir. Ég hafði satt að segja aldrei áttað mig á því hverskonar skepna svanurinn er, að vængir hans væru svona stórir og sterkir. Vilhelmína, sem er svipuð á hæð og meðalsvanur, hafði ekki vit á að óttast fuglinn og varðist af miklu hugrekki en mér leist ekki á blikuna og henti restinni af brauðinu út í Tjörnina um leið og ég bar dóttur mína æpandi og spark andi burt af vígvellinum, inn í öruggt skjól bílsins. Við þögðum bæði á eftir, alla leiðina í Laugardal­ inn, þang að sem við vorum boðin í mat til mömmu. Vilhelmína mun ekki tala aftur um að gefa öndunum brauð. Það er einn af óteljandi kostum Vilhelmínu; hún biður aldrei um að gera neitt aftur.

Í dag er búið að skipuleggja ferð í tívolíið við höfnina. Ég er sjálfum mér reiður fyrir að hafa ekki séð þetta fyrir og ek hraðar en ég hafði hugsað mér í áttina að hafnarsvæðinu með dóttur mína kirfilega bundna í barna stólinn. En það er líka nammidagur svo við stöldrum við í sjoppu á leiðinni og afgreiðslustúlkan er afskaplega þolinmóð á meðan Vilhelmína velur sælgæti í poka. Hún á það til að vera svolítið smámunasöm.

Afgreiðslustúlkan er kunnugleg, þótt ég sé viss um að hafa aldrei séð hana áður. Hún er með gervihönd og ég gleymi ekki svoleiðis. Það fer hrollur um mig þegar ég horfi á þessa stífu fingur, það er eitthvað klúrt við þetta bleika gervihold, en ég reyni að leyna því hvernig mér líður.

Og svo ætla ég að fá stóra græna sleikibrjóstsykurinn þarna, segir Vilhelmína að lokum. Þetta er kryptonít, segir hún mér í trúnaði þegar við göngum út, kryptonít er það eina sem getur sigrað Súperman. Annars getur hann gert allt. Og hann er alltaf að bjarga fólki.

Ég kinka kolli, segist hafa frétt þetta og vera feginn að eiga hann að en velti því jafnframt fyrir mér hvort það sé algengt að stelpur séu að leika ofurhetjur.

Mamma segir að það sé rússíbani í tívolíinu, bætir Vilhelmína spennt við þegar við erum aftur komin í bílinn.

Hún hefur ekki bara viljað skella sér sjálf? get ég ekki stillt mig um að spyrja kaldhæðnislega. En kaldhæðni bítur ekki á Vilhelmínu. Æ, hún hefur ekki tíma. Og svo verður henni óglatt í rússíbönum.

Ég veit fyrir víst að mamma Vilhelmínu er hvorki önn um kafin né klígjugjörn en ákveð að halda því fyrir mig.

Þegar ég reyni að veiða upp úr dóttur minni hvernig hún hafi meitt sig svarar hún bara lágt að hún hafi verið að rífast við strák og neitar að tjá sig meira um það.

Það er erfitt að sætta sig við að það verður sífellt meira sem ég veit ekki um þetta barn sem ég hélt að ég gjörþekkti en við keyrum áfram í vinsamlegri þögn.

Segðu mér sögu, segir hún svo allt í einu. Um hvað? spyr ég, svolítið utan við mig. Súperman og Batman. Hún horfir upprifin á mig. Súperman og Batman ákváðu eina helgina að taka sér frí, byrja ég og reyni að láta mér detta eitthvað í hug. Þeir voru orðnir hundleiðir á glæpahyski og björgunarleiðöngrum og fannst kominn tími til að gera eitthvað skemmtilegt svo þeir ákváðu að fara í tívolí.

Ég er svolítið utan við mig því það er ekki mikið um laus stæði en að lokum finn ég eitt og hálft í Hafnarstræti og tekst með snarræði að ná því á undan þunglyndislegri Lödu.

Alveg eins og við! Hún klappar saman lófunum og horfir hrifin á mig.

Já, alveg eins og við. Og nú erum við komin og það sem við gerum gera þeir líka, segi ég um leið og ég opna bíldyrnar, losa dóttur mína úr prísund barnabílstólsins og rétti henni regnhlífina.

Það er góð hugmynd! Vilhelmína stekkur út, spennir upp regnhlífina og sléttir úr pilsinu.

Þú mátt vera Súperman og ég er Batman. Mér finnst þú líkur Súperman. Hann er alveg rosalega sterkur og ekkert getur sigrað hann nema kryptonít!

Súperman horfir snortinn í heiðblá augu Batmans og kinkar kolli.

Við höfnina er slæðingur af kuldalegum foreldrum á ráfi með rjóð og spennt börn. Tónar sem hljóma eins og úr ofvaxinni spiladós yfirgnæfa vindgnauðið með herkj um og ég hneppi jökkunum að okkur. Ég ætla að vera fastur fyrir í dag. Veðrið er of hryssingslegt til að vera að drolla þarna og svo hlakka ég líka til að sýna Vilhelmínu nýja tölvuleikinn sem bíður eftir henni heima á Tjarnargötunni. Hann heitir Sims og gengur út á að ráðstafa fólki og tilverunni nokkurn veginn að vild.

Ég byrja á að setja Vilhelmínu, nokkuð móðgaða, í hringekju sem snýst hægt og virðulega á hafnarbakkanum og kem mér fyrir í skjóli undir húsvegg á meðan.

Svo sé ég að hún er eini farþeginn og skil að ég verð að vanda mig betur næst.

Þú mátt velja þrjú tæki, síðan færðu kandífloss og svo förum við heim, segi ég samningsfús.

Ég vil að þú komir með mér í tækin. Batman laumar lítilli hendi í lófa Súpermans.

Já, ætli það sé ekki vissara. Það er varla forsvaranlegt að hleypa þér einni.

Þá byrjum við á að fara í rússíbanann. Dóttir mín er tækifærissinni.

Æ, Villa mín, ég held að þú sért of ung. Sjáðu! Þarna eru skemmtilegir vagnar dregnir af allskonar dýrum. Eigum við ekki að prófa þá? Ég heyri sjálfur hvað röddin er smeðjuleg.

Þetta er bara fyrir smábörn, þú vilt bara leyfa mér að fara í eitthvað svoleiðis. Vilhelmína er svekkt.

Ókei. En rafmagnsbílarnir? Hvernig væri að þú færir með mig í bíltúr?

Vilhelmína samþykkir það og við stillum okkur upp í stuttri röð.

Oj bara, það er hár á sleikjónum þínum, segir strákur sem stendur fyrir aftan okkur og hryllir sig.

Þetta er ekki sleikjó. Það er fyrirlestrartónn í rödd Vilhelmínu. Þetta er kryptonít og ég er Batman.

Batman er ekki í kjól. Fyrirlitning stráksins er takmarkalaus.

Jú, hann fer í kjól þegar honum sýnist. Og þetta er ekki kjóll, þetta er pils, veistu ekki neitt?! Svo leggur hún regnhlífina saman og lyftir pilsinu um leið og hún stekkur fimlega í bílstjórasætið.

Heitur af stolti gjóa ég augunum á strákinn sem horfir á eftir okkur með aulasvip og ég nýt þess að finna ylinn af mjórri öxlinni þegar Vilhelmína stýrir á milli hinna bílanna af ótrúlegri leikni.

Kannski ætti ég að kaupa hús uppi í sveit. Jafnvel jörð. Við feðgin gætum verið með hross. Ég veit ekkert um hesta en við getum lært á þá saman og stelpur hafa gaman af að kemba hesta og flétta á þeim taglið. Ég veit ekki hvaðan hugmyndin kemur en hún er spennandi og það fer hlýr straumur um mig við tilhugsunina. Þetta getur orðið samastaðurinn okkar og ég fer fram á að hafa Vilhelmínu aðra hverja viku. Ég vinn þá bara heima í tölvunni á meðan hún stússast með dýrin. Auð­ vitað yrðum við líka að vera með hund … Þegar ég horfi á þessar litlu hendur sem stækka svo hratt og halda svo kunnáttusamlega um stýrið er ég staðráðinn í að gera þennan dag sérstakan, búa til fallega minningu fyrir okkur bæði.

Næst vill Vilhelmína reyna skotfimi okkar með niðurdrepandi árangri, ég er hálfutan við mig því hugurinn er enn bundinn við jarðarkaupin, og þá er bara eitt tæki eftir.

Rússíbaninn, segir Vilhelmína. Hann er pínulítill hér. Hún leggur áherslu á hve lítill hann er með því að bera klístraðan, eiturgrænan sleikibrjóstsykurinn sem virð­ ist ekkert minnka við hnén á sér.

Nei, svara ég með öllum þeim myndugleika sem ég á til. Finnum eitthvað annað.

Við ráfum um hafnarsvæðið svöng og köld og nennum ekki að þrasa meira. Ég hef gleymt úrinu heima og veit ekki hvað klukkan er en mig grunar að það sé að verða áliðið svo við semjum um að kíkja inn í speglasalinn. Ég á góðar minningar úr speglasölum þar sem mjóar og feitar spegilmyndir voru sígilt skemmtiefni. Þetta getur ekki klikkað, hugsa ég feginn um leið og ég borga tannlausum manni fáránlega háan aðgangseyri.

Svart, þykkt tjald er fyrir innganginum. Maðurinn dregur það frá og hleypir okkur inn. Þegar það fellur þungt og þögult á eftir okkur erum við allt í einu ein í dimmum göngum og rykmettað loft leggst með myglubragði á tunguna. Vilhelmína gengur forvitin lengra inn og ég fylgi hikandi á eftir. Þetta er ekki eins og mig minnti. Hvar eru gömlu spéspeglarnir? Þetta er völundarhús, klætt speglum og okkar eigin andlit gægjast fram föl og afmynduð úr ótal myrkum kimum. Þetta er ekkert fyndið.

Innilokunarkenndin grípur mig en Vilhelmínu finnst þetta stórskemmtilegt og mér til skelfingar hleypur hún á undan, kát og forvitin. Á augabragði er barnið mitt horfið. Sjálfur reyni ég að elta, held hikandi af stað inn í innviði völundarhússins en kemst fljótlega að því að ég er rammvilltur. Þegar ég kalla á Vilhelmínu fæ ég í fyrstu fjarlæg svör en fljótlega er ekkert þarna nema þögnin og spegilmyndirnar.

Ég nem staðar og hlusta en hvernig sem ég sperri eyrun finna þau aðeins minn eigin hjartslátt og suðið í höfðinu á mér sem ágerist.

Anda rólega, segi ég við sjálfan mig og reyni að halda ró minni en loftið verður rakara og þéttara eftir því sem ég fer lengra, það fyllir hálsinn og nasirnar og mér finnst ég vera að kafna. Svitinn sprettur fram, skyrtubakið er rennandi blautt og hjartað hamast í brjóst inu. Ég er gripinn ofsalegri og fyrirvaralausri skelfingu.

Trylltur hleyp ég af stað þar til skjálfandi hnén gefa sig undir mér og ég hníg niður. Hávaðinn í höfðinu á mér er nú ærandi og fingurnir dofna og stirðna eins og í krampa. Er ég að fá hjartaáfall einn hér í myrkrinu? Ég ríf upp hálsmálið á skyrtunni.

Ótal spegilmyndir stara náhvítar og ásakandi á mig. Með samanklemmd augnlokin skríð ég loksins af stað. Þögnin handan við suðið í eyrunum er lamandi og til að sturlast ekki úr skelfingu byrja ég að söngla, Don’t worry, be happy. Lagið hefur aldrei höfðað til mín og ég kann bara viðlagið sem ég endurtek í sífellu. Hjáröddin endurómar lág og skjálfandi í völundarhúsinu og ég á bágt með að trúa að hún tilheyri mér. Stundum rek ég mig utan í veggina en allt er betra en að opna augun, sjá endalausa gangana og horfast í augu við spegilmyndirnar.

Það líður heil eilífð áður en ég finn örlítinn andvara og rifa augun varlega.

Við endann á göngunum er dagsbirtan. Þar hefur safnast lítill hópur fólks og fremst stendur Vilhelmína sem starir hrædd á mig. Regnhlífin er lokuð og í hendinni er hún enn með klístraðan sleikibrjóstsykurinn. Frá honum stafar framandi grænni birtu í fölum sólargeislunum. Ég hætti að raula, stend skjálfandi upp, og reyni að brosa til Vilhelmínu.

 

Larissa Kyzer is a writer and translator who was a 2012 Fulbright recipient to Iceland, where she has lived and studied for five years. Her translations include works by Andri Snær Magnason, Auður Jónsdóttir, Kári Tulinius, and Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, as well as a collection of horror stories by Icelandic children. She will earn her MA in translation studies from the University of Iceland in October 2017.

 

Steinunn G. Helgadóttir Steinunn G. Helgadóttir is an Icelandic visual artist, poet, and prose writer, who has previously published two volumes of poetry. Her collection Kafbátakórinn (The Submarine Choir) was awarded the Jón úr Vör Poetry Award in 2011. In 2017, she was named one of Literature Across Frontiers’ “New Voices from Europe.” The story “Don’t Worry” is a standalone excerpt from Raddir úr húsi loftskeytamannsins (Voices from the Radio Operator’s House), a novel-in-stories or short-story cycle, which earned the author the 2016 Fjöruverðlaunin, an annual award for women writers.

Alysse Kathleen McCanna

Spotlight: Husband Ghazal / Reckoning

[poetry]

Husband Ghazal

He who cuts the head from the chicken gets the heaping plate; he breaks a wing
with a quick snap, slurps marrow, gravy dripping. He falls asleep without swinging. We sing.

I am wrist-bound to static eternity—like Daphne, but a plastic houseplant. Don’t
put your hair up he says as he slinks to the bedroom, eyes red, puffed like bee stings.

If a neck is honey, pour hot tea until I dissolve, singed red like scars, like cut kisses, like the moon
sliced into slivers; soon I will turn night-animal: bat, fox, owl, wolf; hungry, screeching.

Husband, will you pass the cherry pie and the knife, the one I like? Let me have it, let me touch
its Damascus, its topographic skin. Why must you hide it? I cling to your ankles, beseeching.

His first wife is late, yet arrives everywhere. We share the same feet, dog, hair, skin, and bear
of a man. I will her forgotten, but she remains. And now the hallway needs sweeping.

The children grow tall as my belly extends, spine bending—if ever Time sat on my lap,
he would laugh at my heart’s leaping. I don’t want to be the mother who jumped, reaching.

In my dream that night he says Wife, I sell you to yourself and I reply I purchase. My purse is thick
with petals. I push them in his mouth until full, but he never quiets, still, always, preaching.

 


Reckoning

I have washed the scarf,
the last thing that smelled like him.
I have cried into

The washing machine,
cruel arms twisting, the red sock
leaking. I have been

To the lake, crunched leaves.
I have gotten wet in cold
water, I forgave

My heart for breaking
him, but my hands, I cannot
stand to see them so

Full of nothing, light.
The scarf of him, the last I
had, pure now and warm

Around my neck, his
words a shawl, not dying
after all.

 

Alysse Kathleen McCanna Alysse Kathleen McCanna is a PhD student in English at Oklahoma State University. She received her MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College in 2015. She is the associate editor of Pilgrimage Magazine; her work has appeared in several poetry journals and won a 2017 Academy of American Poets prize (Poets.org), and is forthcoming in Barrow Street, and Four Chambers.

Writers Read: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

If the title of his childhood memoir needs clarification, before launching into his story of what it was like to grow up at the end of apartheid in South Africa, Trevor Noah includes conditions of the Immorality Act, 1927: The act of “illicit carnal intercourse” between a [white] European with a [black] native “shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years” for males or four years for females. In the eponymous second chapter, we learn more about his parentage: a black mother and a white father whose “crime” took living form when Noah was born. Unwilling to let government rule dictate her life, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, at 24-years-old wanted a child of her own that she could love, and sought the sperm donation of an older Swiss neighbor with whom she had a caring relationship but was not necessarily interested in being a family with him.

Headstrong with a healthy sense of humor and the grace of God on her side, Patricia raised her son to never feel held back by racial discrimination, even when he would have to walk on the opposite side of the street of his father when they spent an afternoon together; even when a colored neighbor would tag along to the playground so she could act as his mother while his mom would pretend to be a domestic. In his own family, he even benefitted from it; though he didn’t realize it when he was younger, being the light-skinned member of his African family he experienced privilege above his cousins in the form of more lenient punishments for worse offenses and special treatment just for showing up. “Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks,” Noah admits.

Among many traits he inherits from his mother is “her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new.” Noah’s emotional amnesia allows him to get into trouble and work his way around systems that weren’t meant to work for him while reliving the often uncomfortable experiences through writing them.

A strength of a memoir is to be both unique and universal. With his rare position, Noah shares lighthearted accounts of dark moments in the recent history of racial inequalities. As he recounts being on the playground and having to pick whether he hangs out with the black or white or Indian or colored kids, up until he faces a similar choice when he finds himself in jail for taking his stepfather’s car, he relates his circumstances in South Africa to what has happened in other countries. “In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

While Noah makes his experiences more accessible to American readers, he also acknowledges the deficits in educating about civil injustices. At the beginning of Part III which covers his later teens and early twenties, Noah addresses how German students learn about the gravity of the Holocaust and British schools teach colonialism with a disclaimer of shame, while South Africa follows American philosophies of handling race. “In America, the history of racism is taught like this: ‘There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.’ It was the same for us. ‘Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.’ Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. ‘Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.’” This preamble leads into a chapter called “Go Hitler!”

Trevor Noah

Throughout Noah’s story, he discusses how his culture assigns names to children based on what traits their parents wish for them to possess. His mom chose Trevor because it had no prior associations so he could be whomever he wanted. On the other hand, for parents that wanted a tough kid, they would call him Hitler. The shortcoming of the education systems in Noah’s townships didn’t sufficiently teach the atrocities of Adolf Hitler, but rather merely presented him as a figure so powerful that the white people needed black people to help fight him. This goes without saying, but while Hitler and the Holocaust are off limits for jokes, the irony is both too rich and terrifying to omit the scene of township teens cheering on their top dancer, Hitler, at a cultural exhibition held at King David School. When a teacher reprimands Noah’s dance crew for being horrible and vile, which, with his ignorance about what terrors befell the ancestors of the Jewish students of the school, he assumes is about the sexually suggestive gyrations that were a part of the dance that represents his culture, he reciprocates outrage that she would dare disrespect their African moves during an inter-cultural celebration.

It may be hard to believe that none of Noah’s peers would understand how inappropriate it might be to cheer for Hitler at a Jewish school, but he reminds us: “The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.” Without diminishing the experiences of Holocaust victims or playing “Who suffered worse?”, Noah shows us some of the other big names in the recent history of racism—names that might be as reviled as they are respected.

We keep hoping that racial divides and racism are matters of the past, but too often reminded how prevalent they are in our present. Just as contemporary black South Africans may continue to feel the impact of Rhodes’ contributions to apartheid, we cannot allow ourselves to feel complacent about persistent oppression at home and on a global scale.

 

Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. First edition. Spiegel & Grau, 2016.

 

Nikki San Pedro is a Los Angeles based editor who recently worked on Kevin Hart’s memoir I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons, as well as a couple of essay anthologies published by 826LA. You can read about her experiences in the August blog post for Embark Editorial Agency. She is completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice at Antioch University.