It was a hot muggy Monday evening in my studio on the North shore of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchatrain, just about an hour’s drive from Gulfport, Mississippi, Natasha Trethewey’s birthplace. Ms. Trethewey had just finished a hard day’s work in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson when I phoned her.
Daniel Reinhold: Why don’t we start with the obvious? What are you doing with the archives?
Natasha Trethaway: Well, I’m just beginning to gather some information for a particular history I’ve become interested in recently. I was looking for records of all of the men executed in Mississippi’s traveling electric chair for a 15-year period from 1940 to about 1955. I’m trying to find out not only their names, but also the locations that the chair traveled to around the state.
DR: Are you able to find any photographs of these men?
NT: I did. I found just today a photograph of the first man executed in the chair, three photographs of him being strapped into the chair, his bare feet, the executioner leaning over before giving him another jolt of electricity. It was pretty harrowing to look at. I didn’t expect to see those today.
DR: In Bellocq’s’s Ophelia and Domestic Work you also work with photographs. I was curious what you might say about how that called you, or if it just happened.
NT: I think that photographs always called to me. I’m always drawn to what Roland Barthes called “punctums” in photographs, those things that are little sparks, drawing your attention. In a particular photograph I was looking at today, it was a dog, someone was holding a small dog in his arms while looking at the electric chair, and the dog was looking at the electric chair. I was struck by that. It’s seeing that kind of thing that draws me toward writing a poem even more than some of the other things that might have been going on in the photograph. I’ve always been drawn to photographs because I’m such a visual person. Having an image to begin with when I’m writing a poem always seems to lead me in some interesting direction.
DR: When you work with images, do you tend to seek out images like with Bellocq, or do you find random images moving you?
NT: Both. I think now, today, I was seeking out some of those images, but there have been times when I haven’t been looking for them that I’ve come across them and felt compelled to write.
DR: I was fascinated by a detail in Bellocq’s Ophelia, which was that the subject that was being photographed, the photographer’s model, also eventually took up photography herself and there’s sort of a recursion, or a sort of circle: she was becoming the photographer after being photographed.
I’m drawn to form in that way because of the possibilities that the poems suggest that I might follow—not the other way around.
NT: Right. Well, I think it was necessary for her to find a way to take some kind of agency and to reverse the lens in a sense, not to always be the one on the end of the lens being looked at, but someone instead who had the kind of subjectivity to look outward at the world. I think, perhaps, that some of the idea for handing her the camera and making her an apprentice came from my reading about Victorine Meurent who was the model for Manet’s Olympia—a painter herself who even exhibited a painting at a salon in Paris. But then the trail that might lead us to her, show us more about who she was and where else she went, goes cold. I liked the idea of her also being an artist and trying to forge her way as an artist while working as an artist’s model.
DR: In Native Guard, you’re writing about your mother and the racial climate of the Deep South. How did that process work, what kind of struggle was there or what kind of a release? And in correlation with that, there are a lot of forms in your work (the sonnets, etc.) so while writing Native Guard how did those two things work together and affect you?
NT: Well, in Native Guard in particular, I learned early on (while working on that unrhymed crown of sonnets in the voice of the soldier) that repetition was an important element of what I was trying to do. That is, in trying to inscribe or re-inscribe those narratives and stories—histories that had been erased or forgotten or not recorded fully—it was important not to just say a thing, but to say it again. And so repetition became the formal element that I turned to most, which is why there’s the crown of sonnets. There’s the blues sonnet which requires repetition, there’s a ghazal which has a refrain, there’s a pantoum, a villanelle with repetition, as well as the repetition of certain words and motifs throughout the entire collection. To me that was the main scaffolding of form – the idea of repetition. It underscores my handling of those difficulties you mentioned.
DR: Are there any forms that you’d like to still tackle? The canzone, or something farfetched…
NT: You know, I don’t think of it like that. I don’t think of tackling a form just because it’s there. I think of using form only when something formal suggests itself in a poem I’m beginning to work on. I’m drawn to form in that way because of the possibilities that the poems suggest that I might follow—not the other way around.
DR: Are there any people – name the top three that come to your head, who have influenced or informed your work.
NT: The top three? [laughing]
DR: Or five or as many as you want.
NT: Well, I should name my father because he’s a poet and my first poetry teacher – that’s Eric Trethewey. Toni Morrison is always a big influence for me—her elegant language but also her themes and the fierce way that she approaches the work she has to do. Working on Native Guard I turned to some Irish poets: Seamus Heaney, Yeats, Eavan Boland, to help make sense of my South, my history, my sense of psychological exile. When I was first starting out I loved two books, and carried them around with me in graduate school. One, by Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah, and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City because they took me both to my material and to my landscapes. You know, his Bogalusa landscape is similar to my Mississippi landscape.
DR: As this is an Antioch journal and we’re focused on social justice, do you see poetry and politics as…well, exactly how do you see them?
NT: You know I’m really impressed with Antioch’s focus on social justice and I’d like to model what we’re doing on an undergraduate level at Emory on Antioch’s graduate social justice component because I’m interested in that, in poetry—beyond aesthetics—for what it can do and show us about our lives and the history that we’re wrapped up in, the ongoing challenges that we face. I gave a lecture called (borrowing from George Orwell’s title) “’Why I write’: Poetry, History, and Social Justice.” It is my argument that those things that compel me to write—the idea that poetry might not just be beautiful, but that it also might do something is very important to effect what Seamus Heaney calls “the redress of poetry.” It might help change the way we think about the world we live in, or the world that we’d like to live in. That is, it might help us make it better.
DR: That leads me to think of Beyond Katrina, obviously a lot happened to a lot of people and you spoke in your lecture about the difference between the New Orleans disaster and the Gulf Coast disaster, but also your sense of coming home and your sense of being distanced from that. And do you want to say anything about Katrina or the book or that whole thing?
NT: [Laughs] That whole big thing…well, I saw this on the side of the road: it was a politician’s political campaign slogan, and the sign read “Katrina isn’t over.” And I think that’s true – it isn’t over. I think it will be awhile before we’re distanced enough from it to really understand its impact on the region and people.
DR: Thank you. And now, the final question: I asked this of Kevin Young when he was at Antioch and I’ll ask it of you: How do you like your grits?
NT: [Laughs] That’s pretty good. I happen to really like cheese, so some good cheese mixed into my grits and salt and pepper is good. As a child, they gave me grits and sugar, but I grew out of that, so either plain or with a lot of cheese.
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Father Greg worked with Christian Base Communities in Bolivia, was chaplain of the Islas Marias Penal Colony in Mexico and at Folsom Prison in California. He was appointed pastor of the Dolores Mission in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986. In 1988, he worked with the parish to create Jobs for a Future (JFF), a program to help meet the needs of young people involved with area gangs. JFF has already established a school, a daycare center, and an office to help young people find meaningful employment.
In 1992, Father Greg began his first community business, Homeboy Bakery. The company provided training and work experience for gang members. In 2001, the ministry was transformed into an independent, non-profit organization called Homeboy Industries. Today, Homeboy includes a number of different business enterprises. 2010 saw the release of Father Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, recounting twenty years of experience working with young people growing up in a world of poverty and violence.
John Paulett spoke to Father Boyle by phone. During the conversation, Boyle spoke about some of the influences on his work, including Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement), Cesar Chavez (co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association), and Father Pedro Arrupe (a major figure in the growth of the social gospel in Latin America). He also reacted to the Vatican’s recent criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its emphasis on social justice over doctrinal issues such as contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage.
John Paulett: I was struck by the subtitle of your book Tattoos on the Heart, which is “The Power of Boundless Compassion.” Why do you think compassion is the power we need in order to address problems of violence and poverty?
If Jesus were to compile his top ten grave moral concerns in the United States, most assuredly on that list would be the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
Fr. Gregory Boyle: First, I need to make a full disclosure. That was not the subtitle I had originally planned. My editor added that because she didn’t like my first suggestion. She came up with “The Power of Boundless Compassion.” I remember I was in New York City when she told me this, and then I couldn’t sleep that night. I emailed her in the middle of the night and said, “Please don’t do this.” Because I thought it sounded like I embodied this power of compassion—that, in some way, I knew how to pull this off on my own. So all she wrote me back was “Relax!” Hence was born the subtitle so I don’t want to take too much credit for it. Having said that, I think it’s good. In the end, it’s about a certain kind of compassion that is not just about our service of those on the margins but rather about our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. So it is more connective than distant and it stands in awe of what the poor have to carry rather than in judgment of how they carry it. It is a whole kind of sense, even though there is only one chapter on compassion. The whole book tries to lead us to a different place of connection and to bridge the distance that separates others.
JP: You mention early in the book that you watched eight young people be buried in just three weeks. What ideas have you developed about how we might address the problem of violence in our cities?
GB: Gang violence is a language. It is not about anything. It points beyond itself. It is not about conflict. That is important. Gang violence in particular, but I suspect all violence is a language. It is not about behavior. It is about the lethal absence of hope and hope that cannot be imagined tomorrow. It is about folks who are so traumatized that they cannot see their way clear to transform their pain so they continue to transmit it. And the big elephant in the room is that it is about mental illness. We never think it is about that. So a seventeen-year-old can gun down eight students. Or, in Afghanistan, a soldier can just wipe out men, women and children and yet no one talks about mental illness. They try to find a motive because everybody wants violence to be rational action, perpetrated by rational actors. I would say it never is—never. So it is a little bit like in the gospel when Jesus would heal somebody possessed by a devil. That is how anachronistic this is when we bring the moral overlay into the area of violence. I think we need to understand what language violence is speaking before we can begin to figure out what to do about it.
JP: Who were some of the people who were important to you in forming your ideas about justice and social activism?
GB: Well, definitely Dorothy Day is a hero of mine. I have read everything and I am, right now, reading, with great care, her whole unedited diary, which is pretty mundane but there are certain gems that leap out. So Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, who was a friend, Martin Luther King, Pedro Arrupe, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus. I was privileged to meet him.
JP: As you have observed the Occupy Movement and the protests of The 99 Percent who feel more and more excluded from the economic life of the nation, what reactions have you had?
GB: I was sort of alarmed to hear Cardinal Dolan talk about the grave moral concern of Obamacare and the hubbub about that. I thought that if Jesus were to compile his top ten list of things that were of grave moral concern in the United States, most assuredly on that list would be the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots and the huge disparity that grows all the time. That would be on there as well as the death penalty and the fact that we still sentence children to die in prison. The list is long but it wouldn’t include the things that some people get excited about. Certainly, high up on the list would be this distance between the rich and the poor. It seems to me as bad as it has ever been.
JP: The United States Bishops and the Vatican have recently criticized the leadership of American Catholic religious sisters for their emphasis on social justice instead of issues such as contraception, abortion and gay marriage. Have the Sisters been involved with your work at Homeboy Industries?
GB: Over the years, we have had a couple [of religious nuns] teach in our schools and, right now, we have a Sister working as an intern with us [at Homeboy Industries]. That move [by the Vatican] is an alarming development. I was at a talk yesterday and some very old woman said, “I felt hopeful for the Church for one very brief, fleeting moment when the bishops said that a budget is a moral document and spoke against the cuts for the poor.” And I agree with her. It was a fleeting moment. Those are moments that you wish there were more of, as opposed to attacking the religious women in this country. You would be hard-pressed to find an entity or a body of Catholics who have lived the gospel with more integrity than religious women.
JP: I heard you speak in December [at Antioch] and wrote down this line from your talk: “We are all so much more than the stupidest things we ever did.”
GB: I am stealing [that line] from Sister Helen Prejean. “Everyone is a whole lot more than the worst thing we ever did.” That is her line. I put in “stupid,” but the line is really due to her. No one would want to be defined by the worst thing he has ever done. You wouldn’t want to say that one moment, that split-second, when you did that one thing…that somehow defines the entirety of who you are. Which is what we do in our society. You can’t do anything wrong, and you can’t make a mistake, and you can’t have anything wrong with you. It is one of the rules of society.
JP: The title of your book is Tattoos on the Heart. Does that refer to the way people are sometimes defined by things such as tattoos, or as we saw in the Trayvon Martin case, by clothing such as hoodies?
GB: Tattoos on the Heart came from a story about a kid. I had praised him, rather unexpectedly. He got all choked up and said, “I am going to tattoo that on my heart.” I remember, when he said it, in my head I said, “That would be a good title for a book.” The title really preceded the book’s arrival by about ten years. Homies often tattoo their kids’ names or sometimes even, quite elaborately, a baby picture of their kid and I’ve always said, “No, no, no. Your kid wants you to tattoo him on your heart—not on your skin.” That should convey how deep the love goes.
I want to see Trayvon Martin alive and well. I want to see Trayvon Martin do an interview on The Today Show and reveal this whole thing is a reality-TV-show hoax. I want to see Trayvon Martin cutting class and making B’s and C’s and getting the lecture about applying himself and the lecture about setting goals and the one about potential and the other one about priorities. I want to see Trayvon Martin blow off his parents because old people don’t know anything. I want to see Trayvon Martin make cradle-robbing jokes about the girl he asks to the Krop Senior High School prom, maybe a girl like my daughter, just four months older than Trayvon but old enough to make jokes. I want to see Trayvon Martin show up at my door in a rented tux and a pencil mustache that just barely made it with the help of his mom’s mascara brush. I want to see Trayvon Martin light up when he sees his dolled-up date—maybe not my daughter but maybe—appear in her dress. I want to see Trayvon Martin put a corsage on her arm, and watch her put a boutonnière in his lapel, knowing they only do the flower ceremony for the photos and they’ll ditch the greenery as soon as they walk out the door. I want to see Trayvon Martin bringing my daughter home in the wee hours and want to see my own face in the mirror, resisting the urge to knock his lights out, but she’s fine and he’s fine and I’ve been up all night pacing the floors, afraid their car has landed in a ditch but afraid to call the cops because cops mistake black children for paper targets. I want to see Trayvon Martin recognize that I’m proud of him. I want to see Trayvon Martin fall a little in love with his prom date and her fall a little in love with him, except 18-year-olds don’t fall a little in love, they fall hard and fast and gloriously and there will never be anyone like you and I’ll never love anyone else and where were you and whose number is that and how could you and the whole relationship over in six hot weeks. I want to see Trayvon Martin rematched with his prom date at the Class of 2013 reunion for before-and-after pictures and a second dance more awkward than the first. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.
I want to see Trayvon Martin completely ignore the 2012 elections since he can’t vote until 2013. I want to see Trayvon Martin register for Selective Service. I want to see Trayvon Martin buy his first car. I want to see Trayvon Martin take the SAT and the ACT and fill out college applications. I want to see Trayvon Martin on the roster for my literature section. I want to see Trayvon Martin take off his headphones and stop texting in class. I want to see Trayvon Martin in my office so I can ask What grade do you want in my class and hear him say I’ll settle for a C but I want a B+ or an A so I can say Let’s figure out what you need to do because you have potential, you have so much potential but you’ve probably heard that before. I want to see Trayvon Martin get turned on by Zora Neale Hurston, by Ralph Ellison, by Kurt Vonnegut, by Emerson, Hughes, Eliot, O’Connor, Faulkner, by a Sonia Sanchez reading required because these kids may never have another chance to see Sonia Sanchez. I want to see Trayvon Martin paint his face in school colors. I want to see Trayvon Martin working out at the gym because he’s still so skinny. I want to see Trayvon Martin pledge a fraternity and dance in a step show. I want to see Trayvon Martin get pissed off in class and speak his mind. I want to see Trayvon Martin major in engineering or music or psychology or whatever he wants, have a career, make money, buy a house, survive a health scare, switch jobs, retire, un-retire, but still have a soft spot for Sonia Sanchez. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.
I want to see Trayvon Martin at his 65th birthday dinner tell the story about the Skittles for the millionth time. I want to see Trayvon Martin and his wife, probably not my daughter but who knows, who knows you know but there’s potential there, I saw it on Prom Night. I want to see Mrs. Martin smile wistfully at Mr. Martin and see their kids roll their eyes. I want to see Trayvon Martin describe how a nutcase chased him when he was 17, how the dude shot at him but the bag of Skittles deflected the bullet harmlessly and before then he was kinda headed down the wrong path, hanging out with guys that never amounted to much, but he got a second chance at life and had to make the most of it so he ran all the way to his girlfriend’s house and apologized and declared he would ask her to marry him after they both graduated from college. I want to see Trayvon Martin’s grandkids videotape the story and post it online, because granddad Martin is the shiznit, for the video to go viral, for pundits to start arguing about the physics of Skittles and claim this is all just a socialist hoax to take away our guns. I want to see Trayvon Martin buy stock in Mars, Inc. after they change the Skittles slogan from “Taste the Rainbow” to “Makes You Bulletproof.” I want to see Trayvon Martin get his 15 minutes of fame as the old man marketing a line of hoodies with his face on the front and stylized Skittles on the back. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.
Not George Zimmerman’s arrest. Not George Zimmerman’s trial. Not Black Panther posers collecting a bounty, not wannabe Nazis patrolling the streets, not grainy footage of a jailhouse beatdown. Not a made-for-TV reenactment of a 140-pound boy approaching a man my size and shoving his head into the pavement, although that would be some cool ninja-ass shit. Not the pundits, protests, petitions, press conferences or presidential candidates. Not Spike Lee making an ass of himself on Twitter. Not congressmen getting kicked off the House floor. Not the resignation of the Sanford police chief and an investigation into witness tampering. Not an elegant essay comparing Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till on The Huffington Post and reposted on TheGrio. I want to see Trayvon Martin reflected in George Zimmerman. I want to see a sharp shard of that boy inescapably lodged in the eyes of his killer. I want to see George Zimmerman wince every time he blinks. I want to see the lens of George Zimmerman’s soul permanently skewed towards what could have been. I want to see that sharp shard close up. I want to see Trayvon’s last moment, when his short life flashed before George’s eyes and revealed everything Trayvon ever meant to see and do and love. If I can find that small reflection of humanity in George Zimmerman, if anything of Trayvon landed in George, I will settle for what’s left. Because I’ll have to.
Twenty minutes after I picked up my mother at the El Plumerillo airport in Mendoza, Argentina, we heard a popping sound near the back of our rental car. When the Chevy Corsica began to drag, I slowed down. A man of about thirty, with curly black hair, a pale face, and wide, excited eyes jogged next to the passenger door, saying, in Spanish, “You have a flat tire!”
I pulled to the side of the road, one of Mendoza’s major thoroughfares. The man said he would help me fix the flat tire, the right rear. After I opened the trunk, we removed my mother’s bags—she had brought presents for my two daughters and my wife and a new computer for me—and put them in the back seat so we had access to the spare tire. I had changed tires in my life, but I was driving a rental car (a Budget sticker was plastered on the back windshield) and I wasn’t sure if the South American-made Corsica or its tire-changing equipment had any peculiarities. So I accepted the man’s help, expecting to pay him for his trouble. On every corner within sight, lavavidrios (squeegee pests) waited to make a few centavos. I figured he was one of them and had seen an opportunity to reap a greater windfall.
But I wasn’t convinced money was his sole aim, so I kept an eye on him as the two of us removed the lug nuts from the wheel and jacked up the Corsica. My mother, meanwhile, sat in the shade of a nearby elm tree. When the lug nuts were off and the car was raised, the man, his eyes still dancing—I thought he might be mentally ill or on drugs—said he needed another tool for the job. “I’ll grab it from my house,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Before he left, he patted me on the back.
I removed the flat tire and put on the spare. I put on the lug nuts. I lowered the jack. I began to tighten the lug nuts. Where was our Good Samaritan? What tool did he think we needed? Although traffic streamed by and horns honked, the noise faded as the blood in my temples throbbed. Something was wrong, and I knew what it was even before I opened the rear door to discover my mother’s bags, as well as my backpack, which contained my and my daughters’ passports, gone. But even as my mother and I sat in the local police department and recited what we had lost to an indifferent officer, we didn’t understand how the man could have taken our stuff. Hadn’t we been watching him the entire time?
Later the same evening, however, we came up with a plausible theory: The man must have had accomplices in a car who at some point during the tire change had driven up next to our Corsica. I recalled the man ushering me away from the car’s back door before I could lock it. His accomplices had simply opened the back door, removed the bags and knapsack, and driven down the street, where our Good Samaritan met them for his getaway.
But how did they know we had anything in the trunk? Because they had followed us from the airport, of course. Perhaps they had targeted us from the moment my mother, gray-haired and in her sixties, had exited customs.
And who had popped our tire? They had, of course, with a knife or other sharp instrument as we waited in traffic. Their plan had worked masterfully. My mother and I had played the roles of gullible tourists exactly as they had wanted.
For days afterward, I replayed our encounter with the Good Samaritan, wondering why I hadn’t been savvier, more suspicious. Why hadn’t I read the intention on his face? Why hadn’t I seen nervousness, rather than mental illness or drug use, in his jittery expression?
My mother and I weren’t the Good Samaritan’s only marks. In subsequent weeks, the Mendoza newspapers reported on half a dozen incidents in which the tire of a vehicle rented at the airport was popped and, as the tire was being changed, computers, cameras, iPods, cell phones, passports, and money were stolen. I found guilty comfort in this. I wasn’t alone in my gullibility.
My wife, our two young daughters, and I had moved to Argentina in January of 2009, when my semester-long sabbatical from my university teaching job began. During our four-month stay, the country was experiencing a crisis of inseguridad, and the newspapers were filled with stories of violent robberies, rapes, and murders. In comparison, the Good Samaritan’s crimes appeared gentlemanly. One newspaper, Los Andes, wrote, with what bordered on admiration, “He commits his robberies in full daylight, without pointing a gun or even speaking a single malicious word!”
Eventually, the rental companies caught on to the Good Samaritan’s scam and began warning their customers. When a German couple had their tire popped near the airport, they drove on the damaged wheel until they were out of danger. After this, I read of no more Good Samaritan crimes.
What, I wondered, did he and his accomplices do next? Did they immediately concoct another scam? Did they turn to violent robberies? Or did they give up their lives of crime and find jobs?
I suspect it wasn’t the latter. Argentina’s unemployment rate, which had soared past 20 percent as recently as 2003, was in the mid-teens at the beginning of 2009. And even though the province of Mendoza, Argentina’s wine region, was the wealthiest in the country, one-third of Mendocinos were receiving some form of public assistance. Jobs for uneducated Argentines paid poorly. On the vineyard outside of the city where we were living, workers received two pesos (about 60 cents) to fill a plastic box with thirty pounds of grapes. If they worked quickly, they could fill four boxes in an hour. The country’s minimum wage had recently risen to 1,240 pesos ($350) a month, but two million Argentines (in a country of forty million) were employed in jobs exempt from minimum wage laws. It was no wonder crime seemed an attractive alternative.
The land my family and I were staying on belonged to my wife’s cousins, who lived in England and owned a chain of Argentine steakhouses in Europe. In addition to the small vineyard with a guesthouse, the property included a swimming pool and a pine tree with a resident white-faced owl. The four of us indulged in long, lazy dinners at the table under the guesthouse portico.
The property’s caretakers, a Peruvian couple named Pasqual and Maria, lived in a smaller house in front of ours. Pasqual did everything from trimming the hedges on the property’s perimeter to cleaning the swimming pool to handling the six bull mastiffs who patrolled the grounds at night. Every year, he made his own wine with grapes leftover after the harvest. Maria made jellies from damaged peaches she collected from a neighbor’s orchard. As with the Good Samaritan thief, Pasqual and Maria confronted their tough economic circumstances with creativity. Unlike the Good Samaritan, they did so legally.
In the United States, the economy was also struggling, its bleakness symbolized by bankrupt auto companies and white-collar hucksters. At the same time my mother and I met our Good Samaritan, stories about investor Bernard Madoff, who had run a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, pervaded the Internet. To most of his marks, Madoff was far from a stranger on the side of a road. Indeed, to them he was “Uncle Bernie.” Madoff even stole millions from his best friend, someone he had known for thirty years.
Madoff came across as the ultimate Good Samaritan, someone to whom one could entrust one’s fortune and whose investment acumen ensured it would grow in both good times and bad. If greed motivated some of Madoff’s clients to sign over their entire life savings to him, so, too, did security. With guaranteed double-digit returns, Madoff’s investors could anticipate escalating levels of economic comfort. Madoff’s marks included some of the most successful people and institutions in the world such as Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, and New York University. They also included men and women of more modest means—a physical therapist, a corrections officer, a real-estate broker—who had given Madoff every penny they had.
Suckers all. As I had proven to be.
A confession: I was once a con man. Or a con boy, since I was fourteen at the time. It was the summer of 1982, and my best friend, Eddie, and I owned and operated a carnival game called Jacob’s Ladder on the pier in Ocean City, Maryland. We’d seen the game at a Renaissance Festival the previous fall, and, with a loan from our parents, we bought a three-ladder model.
The object of the game was to climb two dozen rungs up a rotating rope ladder and ring a bell at the top. Winners received an enormous stuffed animal. But climbing the ladder was impossible without practice. It was simply too difficult to keep one’s balance. Time after time, climbers spun off the ladder and fell onto the inflated air mattress below.
Eddie and I had practiced climbing our ladder all spring, and once we set it up on the pier, we made the task look simple. We used our youth as part of our con. We would approach men who had their arms wrapped around their wives’ or girlfriends’ shoulders and say, “Don’t you want to win her a prize? Look—I’ll show you how easy it is. If I can do it, so can you.” And we would dash up the ladder like monkeys.
The men would hand over a dollar, step onto the ladder, and spin onto the mattress without having ascended a single rung. We would encourage them to try again. We would even give them a little instruction. They would hand over another dollar. And another.
If Eddie and I saw that a customer was becoming even modestly proficient at climbing the ladder—usually after he or she had spent twenty dollars or more—we would go behind the ladder’s net screen at the back and tighten the steel cords connecting the ladder to the base below the air mattress. A tighter ladder was even more difficult to climb. Sometimes Eddie and I tightened a ladder so much even we couldn’t make it to the top.
Another way we thwarted would-be prizewinners: As a customer ascended, one of us would hop on a free ladder, climb it quickly, then leap off, jarring the mattress and therefore the entire structure. At this point, the customer would usually lose his or her balance and tumble off. But they never complained. No doubt our youth shielded us from their suspicion.
In our eyes, the cost of our stuffed-animal prizes—twenty-two dollars wholesale—justified anything we did to keep them. During the entire summer, we surrendered only three stuffed animals. While we never popped anyone’s tires or stole property, we did deflate hundreds of egos and leave people’s wallets lighter. Eddie and I delighted in our craftiness and trickery. We called ourselves “carnies” and were happy to fulfill the stereotype. We were the heirs of P.T. Barnum.
The true carnies we worked with were mostly men in their twenties and thirties who hadn’t graduated from high school and spent eight months of the year on the road. When the summer was over, they would work in the pier owner’s traveling company, which ran the Maryland State Fair as well as smaller fairs across the Midwest and South. The men were amused by us; they were also impressed that we had the gumption—and the resources—to own our own concession.
On one occasion, Don, one of the men who ran the Super Himalaya, a high-speed backwards carousel, asked Eddie if he could borrow $50. Don was tall and blond, with a golden mustache and a ready smile. He had a girlfriend with long brown hair who wore tight-fitting jeans and looked, to my teenage eyes, like a movie star. At the time, I envied Don’s life. But now I wonder how he must have felt asking a fifteen-year-old for money. If Eddie was his best option for a loan, Don obviously moved in a far from affluent crowd. He did repay the loan, although much later than promised.
On the pier in Ocean City, Eddie and I grossed as much as $600 in a single day. Even after we gave forty percent of our earnings to the pier owner, we had a small fortune. I was thirty-four years old before I made as much money per hour in any other job I held.
Eddie and I imagined running our Jacob’s Ladder every summer until we graduated from college—hell, maybe every summer of our lives. But the following summer, the pier owner told us he had bought his own rope ladder. He would be happy, he said, if we would run it for him. He offered us fifteen percent of the gross—a pay cut, we quickly calculated, of seventy-five percent.
Eddie and I turned down his offer; we could have made the same amount of money bussing tables.
We’d been out-carnied by the boss. Our careers as conmen were over.
At the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, where my family and I applied for new passports, we were told about other scams perpetuated on Americans in the country. The most memorable: An American tourist walked into a bookstore, where a man in a pinstriped suit asked if he could check the tourist’s bag. The tourist handed it over. When the tourist finished shopping and returned for the bag, he discovered the bookstore had no bag check. Money, camera, iPod, passport—gone.
Throughout history, tourists have been easy targets for scams and worse. The experience my mother and I had in Argentina had a violent precursor in the United States. In April of 1993, a German tourist was robbed and murdered after leaving the Miami Airport when her rental car was bumped from behind and she stepped outside to inspect the damage. Five months later, another German tourist was killed in Miami in similar fashion. These weren’t isolated events. The previous year, 3000 “bump-and-rob” incidents occurred throughout the United States.
My mother and I had been fortunate our Good-Samaritan thief had relied on deception rather than guns. We were lucky in another respect: My mother’s insurance company covered all of our losses. She even received an extra thousand dollars from her credit-card company because she had bought the new computer on her card, which covered items lost or stolen within thirty days of purchase.
“I think I made out like…well…like a bandit,” she said.
Pasqual and Maria, the couple from Peru who looked after the property where we were staying, didn’t make enough money to own a car or pay for cable TV. For transportation, they relied on public buses. For health care, they depended on Argentina’s public hospitals. When the doctors in the public hospitals went on strike and Maria had terrible stomach pains, she couldn’t afford a private hospital. She had to wait until the strike was over. The strike lasted weeks.
When Maria was feeling better, we employed her to clean the guesthouse where we were living, paying her ten pesos an hour, as an Argentine friend had recommended.
The first time she cleaned the house, it took four hours.
The second time, it took five.
The third time, it took six and a half.
“Is the house growing?” my wife asked me, joking.
The vineyard manager had told us that Maria was “slow” and “simple.” But her ever-more-leisurely house-cleaning pace proved she’d mastered the art of working by the hour.
If Maria had reached a new record-high time with her next cleaning, I was prepared to suggest to her a flat fee. But six and a half hours proved the standard.
My daughters became close to Maria, joining her in harvesting peaches from the orchard next door and helping her hang laundry on the line behind our houses. One morning, when Maria invited them to her house, they noticed familiar objects on her tables and bureaus—broken crayons, old magazines from the States, a mate gourd with a faint odor of vinegar. All items we had thrown away.
At dinner the same evening, my daughters asked my wife and me why Maria was using things from our trash. I tried to put an environmental spin on it: “Because she likes to recycle.” But even my six-year-old wasn’t satisfied with my answer, so I added, “And because she’s poor.”
Afterwards, whenever we met someone new, my youngest daughter would ask, “Is he poor? Is she poor?”
“Are we poor?”
I had been poor only by association and proximity. My maternal grandfather often talked about how his ancestors had fled a potato famine in Ireland to come to the States. When my father was growing up, he lived with his mother and his grandmother in a one-bedroom house in Cleveland. His father, an alcoholic, had left the house when my father was eight and contributed nothing to my father’s rearing. If my father hadn’t earned a basketball scholarship to college, he never would have gone.
I had also seen poverty up close. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1990s, I visited the Guatemala City dump, where families lived in tents made of plastic bags and competed with wild dogs for food. For days afterwards, my shoes smelled of decay and something worse. Eventually I had to throw them away.
I hadn’t visited any Argentine garbage dumps, but on a trip to Buenos Aires, my family and I drove on a highway overlooking vast neighborhoods of shacks made of cardboard, rusted metal, and crooked sticks. I expected my youngest daughter to ask if the shack’s inhabitants were poor. But the answer was obvious, and she said nothing.
The economic inequality between rich and poor is most striking in countries such as Argentina and Guatemala because poverty in these countries is so dramatic. As heartbreaking as poverty is in the United States, poor families haven’t yet colonized our landfills. But while Argentina and Guatemala made a recent Gini Index list of the twenty countries with the most inequitable distribution of wealth (Namibia was first), the United States did not make the list of the top twenty—or even top thirty—countries with the fairest distribution of wealth. Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Ukraine, Croatia, and South Korea all distributed their wealth more equitably than the United States.
Certainly the American Dream has historically been nothing but a mirage for a certain segment of the U.S. population—African-Americans, for example—but it’s questionable whether it has become any more accessible over the years. From 1998 to 2008, according to the Gini Index, wealth inequality in the U.S. grew more disproportionate. Men and women, native or immigrant, who start with nothing are far more likely to remain with nothing rather than move up even to the next rung of the economic ladder. During the previous decade, only three percent of the country’s bottom twenty percent of income earners moved to the top twenty percent. The majority of the country’s poor have remained exactly where their parents were.
American Dream or American Scheme?
One hundred and forty-odd years after Karl Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital, the economic system his masterwork examined—and his more polemical works decried—is still functioning in most countries around the world, in one form or another. It isn’t, therefore, surprising that in countries such as Argentina, with its long- entrenched Peronist government, Marx’s ideas remain tantalizing alternatives to capitalism. No such Marxist enchantment exists in the U.S., whose economic inequalities would put a smile on the face of any Latin American oligarch. Decades of “Better Dead than Red” Cold War rhetoric have distorted and demonized his ideas, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has made them seem, at best, quaint. Besides, it’s difficult for U.S. workers to heed Marx’s call to unite when their unions have been dissolved and their jobs have vanished.
If Marx’s ideas have enjoyed a renaissance in Latin America, as evinced by recent leftist or left-leaning governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, they have yet to prove panaceas for long-standing economic ills. One of my Argentine friends told me he was stunned by the poverty he saw when he visited Venezuela in 2009 to play in a series of rugby matches. One of the fields he played on was surrounded by hills full of wooden shacks and cardboard houses. It seemed there were slums, he said, all the way to the sky. If this was the best face Venezuela could show the world, he said, imagine what it was hiding. Despite Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s belief that “socialism builds and capitalism destroys,” more than thirty-five percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line.
Utopias flourish only in rhetoric.
My maternal grandfather—he of the potato famine stories—was the most practical of men. He always knew where he could find the least expensive gallon of gas, and always brought a bag lunch to work—even when he was earning a high five-figure income. After he realized he couldn’t send his three children to college on a high-school football coach’s salary, he became an optometrist. He began setting aside money for my college education the day I was born.
But when my grandfather turned seventy, he dispensed with caution and astute calculation and began gambling like a madman. Perhaps he felt Time’s winged chariot at his back. Perhaps for him the nearness of death became a disinhibitor, the way poverty can push the otherwise law-abiding man or woman into crime. He lost $100,000 by investing with a “friend” who promised him a quick, handsome return and instead spent all my grandfather’s money on wine, women, and a luxury boat. And he began mailing off check after check to whatever sweepstakes offer came in the mail. Eventually, the sweepstakes scammers learned his phone number and called at all hours, promising easy millions and soliciting his credit card number. As dementia claimed him, my grandfather became convinced Ed McMahon was going to show up at his door any minute, bearing a check bigger than a birthday cake. “I don’t hear as well as I used to,” he told me one morning. “Please listen for the doorbell.”
We suckers keep waiting for the doorbell because we want to believe that good things will come our way. We want to believe in our fellow humans and the gifts they promise. We want to believe in the possibility of miracles and in the inviolability of even the most casual of covenants. We want to be rich—the faster the fortune, the better—because, darn it, we deserve it.
This makes us vulnerable and all too human.
Being a sucker is optimism with bad consequences.
Or perhaps it’s merely naïveté—or delusion—with predictable consequences.
The morning after my mother and I had had our bags stolen, I called the car rental agency to ask what I should do about the popped tire. I was told I should have it repaired at any convenient garage—and, per the rental agreement, at my expense. There was a gas station five minutes from our house. Attached to the gas station was a gomería, or tire repair facility, in a large, dark, concrete room. In Spanish, goma means rubber or glue, and the place had the sticky feel and smell of rubber and glue.
There was a single worker in the place, a dark-skinned man with oil, grease, and dirt on his uniform and on his arms and chin. The room was unventilated and unairconditioned. Sweat dampened his forehead and neck. He was working over a machine to pull a truck’s tire from its rim. The work looked dangerous; his fingers, I thought, could easily wind up being crushed between hard rubber and metal. He turned the machine off to come talk to me, and after I explained the problem, he said he would repair my tire next.
I sat on a bench in a corner of the room, alternately glancing at a magazine and watching him work. On a few occasions, boiling, I stepped outside to wait on a breeze. In twenty minutes, he was done with the truck tire. He spent the next twenty minutes on my job—separating tire from rim and patching the damaged tube. I’d indicated the two-and-a-half-inch knife slash in the tire, the debilitating blow struck by the Good Samaritan or one of his accomplices.
As the man finished fixing my tire, using the machine to restore the rim, I prepared myself to be ripped off. By my accented Spanish, if not from my appearance, he could tell I was an extranjero, someone who wasn’t at home in his country. We hadn’t agreed on a price—something I had meant to do—and now I wondered if he would ask for 100 pesos or more. At the same time, I wondered, as my youngest daughter might have, if he was poor or, rather, how poor he was. What his house looked like. What he ate for dinner.
He clicked his machine off and strode toward me with the repaired tire. He held it up to show me his work before leaning it against a wall.
“Okay?” he asked.
The tire looked fine. “Okay,” I said. Then, nervously, I asked, “How much?”
“Cinco,” he said.
“Cincuenta?” I asked. “Fifty?”
He shook his head. “Cinco,” he said.
I pulled a five-peso bill from my wallet and handed it to him. He thanked me and turned back to his machine and his work in the hot, rubber-smelling room.
I rolled my tire back out into the bright morning.
Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them…They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
— Jeremiah 10:5
The resort guard, who protects whites and other rich people on the island, leans against the beach access gate and pulls his cap low over his face to watch me with eyes I can’t see. If I was really in prison and if I did have the choice, my last meal would be a glass of Sancerre and a soupe de poissons with the little garlicky-Gruyère and rouille dipping toasts sinking slowly as they absorb the spicy orange broth. But I have three weeks left of vacation in the DR and the air conditioning doesn’t work anywhere on the island. It’s too hot for soup. Hortense, the nude sunbather with wrinkly breasts who sits near me, tells a story about a chica who beat a guy with a crow bar because he put a dent in her new white truck with gold rims. When the police got there, chica beat the cops even harder.
Olivier, my French husband, whose body is covered with red, swollen bumps, lies beside me slapping away mosquitoes. He’s been waiting six hours to see a doctor who makes house calls on the beach. My sweat sends me sliding off the plastic chair every time I move and I’m afraid to fall on him. But I can’t go anywhere. I can’t get out. Sketching palm trees does keep my mind off Trujillo sometimes. But this Dominican dictator had been short with a puffed chest and the palm trees are tall and slender.
I draw the trees like every tourist who has drawn them here before. At first I believed they were different from the paintings sold in the village market by Haitian refugees. And indeed, Hortense took them for pot leaves with scraggly stems and asked where to buy some for her bad, sagging knees. The last time I smoked pot was in the middle of a busy Parisian street with a self-exiled Bosnian Serb artist in a tracksuit, who claimed he only guarded a door for Milosevic during the war and never saw any Muslims. I was trying to impress him so I could get an interview and make him see. The gendarmes arrested me and finally let me go because I convinced them that I was conducting university-funded research.
I am trying to forget the dissertation I just finished on dictators, a prison of sorts where I still feel at home.
The doctor may never come. Mosquitoes hovering and humming above Olivier’s eyelids lull him asleep. Here, I don’t let myself nap or sleep because I don’t like thinking about my insomnia. This dictator haunts me in life but kills me in my dreams. The guard smokes and writes a text on a phone with a cat-whistle ringtone.
No one looks as I take out the forbidden books I’ve rolled into my only towel that smells of dirty, salty socks. It’s how, at age twelve, I snuck Lady Chatterley’s Lover down to the pool and devoured it right in front of my aunts, who were reading the latest Reader’s Digest Condensed volume. Each time I got to a part where Connie ran to the gamekeeper’s cottage for sex, I dove in and did front and back flips in the water until that foreign, hot itchy feeling between my crossed legs went away. But I didn’t need to hide much of anything. Raised by my grandparents, no one noticed me at all unless I got sick, and it only counted if I had a fever. I could be a victim of something beyond their control, nature’s inflictions on my body as a sore throat for example, but they were too old and tired to deal with the rage adolescence played against those corporeal parts my grandparents didn’t want to know about. Hypochondria, how I had contracted various deadly illnesses was my obsession until I started to learn about dictators.
I read the first lines by this forbidden writer, taking comfort in feeling like the self I am not supposed to be here in Las Terrenas. A few pages in, I get to the part about Trujillo’s assassination and my throat, my chest tighten. I close the book and cover it with the towel over my lap. I sketch, I sketch a palm tree for my life.
It wasn’t my fault that the unsuspecting bookseller back in Atlanta happened to be from the DR. I went in looking for tourist guides. After he had shown me a few, I couldn’t help it. I confessed my dissertation because it was what I had always done with booksellers when I wanted the latest work on some dictator to feed a chapter. To this short, fat man whose cell phone lit up blue as it rang silently in his breast pocket, I tearfully admitted that I was bored without my diss. I missed things like the adventures of Gaddafi’s traveling tent. Happy to feel useful in a bookstore where he was usually asked about self-help books, he led me to fiction.
“These are very, very interesting and very, very beautiful tales,” he said with one hand on his cell phone-covered heart, the other clasping a book by Alvarez, “on the DR’s very, very bad pain, on Trujillo, the dictator, so, so much suffering. Dios mio!” He began each sentence as if singing and ended them with whispers.
On the way out to the car that already glimmered with Atlanta’s parking lot heat before noon, I remembered the tourist guides I’d abandoned as I clutched my forbidden purchases. My second time at the cash register, I tried not to be annoyed by the bemused smile lurking in the bookseller’s crinkling eyes. My new companion’s name was Trujillo.
Olivier wakes and looks up and me, rattled by the violence of a snore interrupted and lies back down. He stretches his hand out to me and massages my foot. I give a little groan to tell him it feels good and he smiles.
“Nolia, if I could to kill mosquitos and sand fleas, I am in the heaven,” Olivier murmurs, shading his eyes with his other hand, “cannot we stay here and to be happy forever?” And he could. Like all French, he is obsessed with having the real five-week French experience of les vacances. Since living with me in the US for two years, he’s suffered through one-week sprints to the beach and back. The rule that nothing gets accomplished during August is so sacred in France that my father-in-law put his sick mother in the hospital with the hopes she wouldn’t die before la rentrée in September. While not on vacances, everyone talks about les vacances at every coffee break, dinner party, or play date. The average Voltaire-spouting Parisian’s head fills with air en vacances. Les vacances, les vacances, les vacances. Olivier, triumphant, is finally en vacances.
This is why he tolerates his sand flea and mosquito bites. But I don’t. From head to toe, I apply the aloe and other creams that relieve his itching three times a day, a ritual that takes an hour. I say this to him because I have to: “Oui mon amour, let’s forget everything and live here. And be happy.” He kisses my hand. The faint odor of calamine makes my stomach turn.
While Olivier marvels at his ever-deepening tan, chaotic scenes from CNN International I saw on my wedding day compel me to live like the dark tropical rain that falls unannounced in the middle of afternoon sun here in Las Terrenas. Six months ago, I got married on the same day of the great Haitian earthquake, which I blame on dictators. Trujillo’s grandmother was, after all, Haitian. A French husband and a Bordeaux village wedding made me the envy of the few friends I had left. As they sprayed my hair and polished my toes, I watched the news and tried to seem interested in bridesmaid chatter of blue garters and champagne. The day after we got married, I told Olivier the honeymoon would have to wait. I needed the time to develop a chapter on weather patterns and their influence on dictators. When I published this as an article in a prestigious journal, I carved out my place as an expert in the field.
And here I am now, on the other side of Hispaniola in the DR, just to the right of six months ago. Papa and Baby Doc play over and over in my mind like memories of my first kiss.
A blue pick-up truck blasting Bachata from speakers rigged to its roof pulls up to the terra cotta columns of Bonita Resort’s entrance gate. A group of guards wearing white polo shirts and navy blue caps descend from the bed carrying steaming Styrofoam containers. The guard watching us takes one and they all sit on the beach to eat their lunch of rice, pasta, and chicken neck, the same meal they’ve been eating all week. A new guard takes his place. His ringtone sings Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
I can’t stop sweating and I can’t go in the water to cool off because my husband must not see the books. They start sliding off my lap, but I catch them.
“Mental and emotional rest,” my doctor prescribed each time I went to him with one of my chronic bellyaches, secretly hoping for a chance pregnancy to save me from finishing my dissertation on dictators. Perhaps I would be like one of Ceausescu’s heroine mothers with ten children. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Tito, Mao (at a certain point my advisor told me I needed to shift my focus away from Europe), Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Papa and Baby Doc, Mugabe, Gaddafi, Castro, Al-Bashir, Pinochet, Jiang Qing, and along with their victims, had become perverse but loyal companions. I did try to make real friends when I went to archives in Berlin, Rome, and Belgrade. But as soon as they began inviting me to parties, out shopping, or to their parents’ country house, I would disappear. It was too hard picking out mini-shorts at H&M or hunting for truffles with Gerlinde, Francesca, or Miljana while trying to guess whether or not their grandparents collaborated with Hitler, Mussolini, or Tito. The real problem with getting close was not that I wanted to find out more about dictators; it was that I, for no reason that any therapist could make me understand, wanted to get close enough to feel like a victim. I dreamed about drinking Mateus Rose from Hussein’s secret wine cellar stockpile while he wasn’t looking. There was nothing Stockholm about my condition, protested I.
Olivier was going to take me back to Paris as a graduation present, but the last time I spent my time alone there drinking Sancerre with soupe de poissons at the Hotel Lutetia, 45 Boulevard Raspail, watching the little toasts sink to the bottom. One thing I do love about France is that it’s a country where talking about dictators is an everyday sport, encouraged by the consequential intellectual public. In America, I’ve discovered, people who talk about dictators do big things like make movies or build museums. At the Lutetia, Hitler’s Parisian abode, for example, I interview a long-retired waitress who served champagne to Picasso, Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel, the Gestapo, and Jewish refugees as they all made this hotel their home sometime in the 1940s. It’s in that sandless rainy city where I sometimes think I have a chance at being happy.
Olivier changed his mind about Paris when we last went to the doctor. “Sunshine, clean air, and reading for pleasure only. Try women magazines,” the doctor wrote as a joke on his prescription pad that he gave, chuckling, to Olivier when I finished. Like my grandfather, another doctor, this one didn’t think antidepressants could help anyone who willed herself into darkness. Olivier’s graduation present to me was this trip to Las Terrenas, a book about palm trees, and a sketchpad.
Michael Jackson sings out of the guard’s cell. The doctor’s arrived and he takes Olivier’s temperature.
Still on the beach, the doctor finishes his examination of Olivier by checking for bumps between his toes and cleans his hands with Purell. “Mon amour, I must to go to the village because my bumps are very, very bad,” Olivier says, rubbing my neck, “I must to do cortisone injection.” His eyes rest on my face, suspecting nothing.
Almost forgetting the books, I start getting up to go with him, but he insists that I stay on the beach and go swimming because he sees the sweat dripping on the sand under my chair. Ever thoughtful Olivier.
“Oui, mon chéri. I’ll be here relaxing and drawing.” I show him my sketchbook and he smiles.
“Très bien, mon amour.” He presses some pesos in my palm for the bar. I’ve taken a liking to Ron Barcelo caipirinhas.
“Mon cheri!” I call out to him, remembering not to get up as he walks with the doctor to his jeep.
He turns around and nods because he knows what I am going to say. “Oui, mon amour. I get it for tonight for our freedom night.” I’ve been asking Olivier to rent a four-wheeler for a couple of days so we can get away from the resort restaurant to eat beans, rice, and fried plantains with the locals, who probably don’t use white linen napkins with each meal. We were going to, as my grandmother, a belle from rural Georgia, would say went I went on a research trip, “get down and dirty with the natives.” By natives, she meant black people and she wondered why I traveled around the world to talk to them. I don’t think she quite understood that the black help, who still had to ring at her back door instead of the front well after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, weren’t exactly “natives.”
Olivier can’t wait to drink cheap beer. I can’t wait to interview “native” Dominicans about Trujillo when Olivier goes out for a piss, too drunk to notice me.
In between these sketching sessions and exorcising dictators, I’ve been drinking in the Dominican cure of sun and rum and now I am bored with the balmy air and French tourists who can’t get over that I speak their language perfectly. Americans only speak English, Hortense instructs me. Hortense’s last business trip to Atlanta had been a disaster. “J’ai rien compris du tout, du tout!”
I look to make sure Olivier is gone with the doctor, grateful to be alone and free of his sensitive skin. I don’t feel like waiting for our four-wheeler and Olivier may not drink as much beer as I hope. I wrap the books in a towel and walk away from the resort’s clean lines of green lounge chairs and umbrellas towards the dilapidated pinks and blues of the village.
I come upon children in nothing but dusty underpants shrieking in Spanish as waves lap their feet. Some older boys have swum out to the sandbar with shotguns to impale fish, pesos that will feed them for days. As I follow women with plastic totes tied to their heads, weaving in and out of the motorcycles and four-wheelers parked by the beach vendors selling T-shirts with American labels, the antiseptic of the resort dissolves into color and life. Two shirtless girls gnawing on bits of sugarcane, twins maybe, look at me with expressionless eyes while their legs dangle in the fresh water of the rio that slices across the sand from the ocean to the main road of the village to a music I can’t hear. A man cracks open a stack of stale coconuts, swiping off the tops to sell their water, which I can see has dried and turned Styrofoam-like as he walks to tourists sun-bathing at the resort I left behind. Once the water has dried like that, no one would buy the coconuts.
I swear to learn Spanish so I can ask them all about el Corte of 1937, Trujillo’s greatest and most secret accomplishment. They don’t understand my Italian the way I understand their Spanish. I was more interested by Mussolini than Franco. I, in fact, understand everything, but my tongue won’t form the questions. I’m a mime, trapped by my gestures that reduce me to a clown. I may as well be my grandmother.
Dizzy from hunger and heat, I sit down at a restaurant hiding behind fishing boats, whose names painted red have almost peeled away, their identity now illegible. I unroll my towel and put the books on the table, happy to see them released from their damp terry cloth prison.
But Olivier could be here any minute. I have to do something to stop myself. I take out A Guide for Palm Tree Lovers, but all the words lead back to Trujillo.
“Qu’est-ce que vous désirez Mademoiselle?” asks Paco, twirling a dirty dishtowel over his shoulder. He’s the French owner, one of those that had inhabited the island for years and whose face was wrinkled and yellowed like the rest of the Gringoes, who had forgotten, in spite of themselves, that their skin was different from the Dominicans. He, like all the others, had stopped using sun cream long ago, as all the red left in his body was the blood in his veins and in spider-web capillaries on his nose and legs. I order a pulpo guisado and a Presidente beer listed on the chalkboard mottled with eraser marks.
Without much trouble, Olivier could indeed find me here. I don’t really know how long I’ve been gone. In this place of few clouds and scarce shade, with no street names and clear water, clocks seem to tick without hands or numbers.
Beer and steaming octopus s
téed in tomatoes, cilantro, and spices from the little yellow Maggi packets sold in every mini-market on the island arrives. A pile of rice browned in onions and red peppers fills the second plate. A chubby adolescent, my dissertation years have whittled me into a breastless stick in spite of all the take out I ordered. I must eat and eat, the doctor says. I also must drink and drink. I take a swig of the Presidente as my eyes sweep the beach like nervous crabs. Except for the kite surfers, the lingering late afternoon heat empties the beaches. Paco relights the stub of his cigar. My beer’s gone, the green glass stops sweating. Paco, without asking, brings me another.
I try to forget, but the beer softens my will. I stare, I stare at the palm trees, which cut up my view of twilight’s orange beginnings like jail cell bars. I’m behind them.
Several rounds of beer and the blurring colors of twilight make it hard to read, hard to think and my body wants to move. The words are silly, hollow, fleshless. Some fishermen, after selling their catch to Paco, stay to drink Presidente and dance the Bachata, coming from a cell phone. I leave my flip- flops in the sand and accept the drunken trance that pulls me to them. No real words from them, but holas and broad smiles. No, I didn’t want to buy any pescados. I just want to say it, to find if they can help me understand the T word regime. The boys who had been spear fishing from the afternoon joined our dance, their small feet gently pummeling the sand in time with the music. I pronounce the word, I hear it pour from my mouth. It comes again and again, but I don’t hear it anymore.
When I was eight, I locked myself in my grandparents’ upstairs bathroom when they were throwing a party for a senator. I didn’t know at the time that he was the one who closed public schools for seven years because the state refused to integrate. So no one heard me above the music and chatter as I screamed for help. I finally lost my voice and crumbled into the quiet a child cannot stand unless already asleep. It is the tear-dried despair of these moments that forces only a child’s genius to take hold. An adult finds a solution or gathers herself. A child makes a game. I was a pirate lost at sea and like a message in a bottle, I unrolled toilet paper under the door. I discovered many years later that I had been released when the senator’s drunk mistress tripped on it looking for the tryst-appointed bedroom.
Now I’m yelling silence and I’m no longer a child. I say it again with a French accent to the Haitian man who passes without looking at me. He sells rolled up paintings and blow-up parrots. I wonder if he’s related to Trujillo’s grandmother or to someone who was macheted to death in 1937. I watch him make his way down the beach, his head hung low to avoid the off-season absence of clientele.
I return to my table, not because I look ridiculous mouthing a dictator’s name that no one seems to recognize, but because I know this is what I should feel. I know because I feel my grandmother watching. My beer has been refreshed again. I decide I am just warming up to test my broken Spanish for interviews about Trujillo with the dancers. I want to go in deeper.
Smoking another cigar, Paco’s been watching me. In the way that only French men can do, he’s permitted himself to study me without once averting his beady, alcohol-swollen eyes. Purple splotches cover his yellowed skin that glistens with abundant sweat. Something about Paco reminds me of my grandfather as he used to drink his evening cocktails with a handful of salty peanuts. Paco’s conversation with me had already begun in his head and it is only a matter of minutes before he finds the chance to spring upon me with his loneliness.
He doesn’t bother with pardon as he sidles his chair up to mine and says in English, nodding towards the dancers “The Dominicans, they learn to do dance before they can to walk.” A Haitian waitress in tight white shorts and high heels brings him a grande Presidente in a bottle holder made of bamboo. He doesn’t say her name, he doesn’t say merci.
Because I can’t shake the good manners that have been instilled by my southern upbringing in Georgia, I condemn myself to give Paco a minimum of what my grandmother calls, emphasizing the vowels, “human decency.” A little polite conversation never hurt anybody, she said in her debutante drawl. “What history do you mean?” I pause and stammer. “You mean, you mean…Trujillo?”
White bits of spittle cake the rims of his lips except for the place where he held his stubbing cigar. “Précisement. Trujillo.” A pedantic gleam crossed his face. Radiant, he finally has my attention. He clears his throat, preparing for his lesson. I see my grandfather in his rocking chair on the porch staring at humid sunset, his fingers tightening around his Jim Beam with one tiny ice cube. I sit beside him, young, my hair in pigtails, made to listen all summer long out of human decency.
Paco talks. He runs a newspaper about French expat life in Las Terrenas, the cabaret parties, the French school end-of-year carnival, the businesses of real estate and aestheticians, the ins, and the outs of island living. He travels back to Haiti and brings cancer patients to Santo Domingo for chemo. He hunches over me, his shoulders losing their form, his white belly covered with gray hair spilling out of the plaid shirt he’s forgotten to button at the bottom.
He chuckles at me with recognition and nods towards the dancers. “Quelle belle histoire, celle-là. Yes…that was, just that – how do you say – history.” History. Yes, that was what my grandfather called the stories he told me. Lest we forget, doomed to repeat.
Or has Olivier perhaps embedded spies all over the island whose job it is to keep me from discovering Trujillo? I shouldn’t have been so careless. In addition to the Palm Tree Lover’s Guide, Olivier had bought me a snorkel and mask for graduation. Each night, I have been so meticulous about rubbing sand and salt water into them so he would believe that I spent my days admiring coral. I hung it to dry every night along with the bathing suit I soaked in salt water and sand in the sink. There must be cameras in the room.
But, no, poor man, my husband trusts me. And this journalist, Paco, poor man, is too withered to follow anything but the doings of other withered expats in the village and the tourists that cross his drunken path. My grandfather too, he was harmless although I tried to hide from him each evening as he went through it all again. The Battle of the Bulge, holding the brains of his best friend on a snow covered, blood covered field in France, holding out a cigarette to the emaciated Jew at Buchenwald, who was killed by another cigarette-hungry prisoner right before my grandfather’s eyes, holding on to the silver spoon he found in the Eagle’s Nest, holding out when he could have shot the German deserter right between the eyes. Then there was letter he wrote me once a week when I was in college, outlining how he would have systematically killed Hitler, torturing him cell by cell. My grandmother thought it was sweet that her husband liked to have me, one of fourteen grandchildren, as his cocktail companion and never really asked what we talked about. She told me to make sure and save his letters so that my children could read them someday.
Paco shakes so hard I worry that he may be getting sick. But it’s just the prelude to an eruption of a deep, raspy laughter. He waves his splotchy tobacco-stained hand at the dancing fishermen and boys. “Regard them. The Dominicans are people of the present. They have no memory at all. Look at that boy there.” He points his finger to the small child who stops dancing to eat a slice of coconut that a plump woman has been pounding a rock. “He sells a plastic toy to a tourist. He takes the money home to his parents. They buy food with it. He eats this food and isn’t hungry. Then he can to dance again because there is nothing in the future but the plastic toy he must to sell tomorrow. The past is the one he sold earlier today.”
Paco hadn’t finished.
“And they dance and dance. History is just that, history. It doesn’t to exist. They are people of the present. They don’t want to make history. Only money.” He settles back into his chair, shaking off his laughter. As if just now recalling the point of his own joke, he sits forward again and asks, “Why do you interest yourself in Trujillo? There is nothing here. Nothing. Take horse to the El Salto del Limon and regard the waterfall. It will be to you pleasing.” I say nothing.
He raises an eye and leans in closer. “Why, mademoiselle, why?”
I am shaking too with an unprecedented cooling of my ambition and, for the first time, a relief I feel in knowing precisely pourquoi. I now so want to believe that all has really been forgotten here. I want to believe that I too, can forget. Paco is perhaps a denier, a colonialist, a collaborator, a perpetrator, and every other vocabulary word I’ve used in my dissertation. Or perhaps a stinkin’ Kraut, as my grandfather would say. But the fishermen smile and dance without hearing the name that spells their tragic history. I’ve come to some kind of end. I, I cannot, for the life of me, say or ever again, write a word.
Paco gets up to leave. He sways, but he doesn’t seem as drunk as I thought. “Au revoir Mademoiselle.” His eyes rest on my breasts. “Passez un bon sejour a Las Terrenas.” He puts on a cap and disappears behind the restaurant’s tin walls. I was sure to have been the first to leave. I run back to the hotel in the sand pinkened by the sunset. I don’t take the books.
When I got back, Olivier told me that we would have the four-wheeler the next day. I tell him, for the first time of our marriage, about my grandfather and the plan for cell-by- cell destruction of Hitler. Olivier never knew his grandfather, who was executed in 1944 against a wall in Paris that now bears a sign with his name, along with other French Resistance fighters. We have a chip of that wall in a frame at home in his office. “Do you think you grandfather would have been saving mine?” he asks, half joking, half crying. I tell him I hoped that it would have been the other way around. My grandfather needed saving.
During dinner that night at the resort, a less-swollen Olivier grabs my hand under the table as he talks about differences in his life in the US and in France to a new French group of dining partners. They change every night. He has perfected these stories he’s told many times, each one has become a performance. The laughs, the gasps, and nods always come at the same places, as they if they have a rhythm to which even the Dominican fishermen on the beach could dance and clap. I usually try not to doze during this show. But this clasp of tenderness, this sign of his own boredom with the rhetoric that seems to sustain, and imprison, him among his friends, moves and stifles me as it must have moved and stifled me to listen to my grandfather for years. I am sustained, and imprisoned, by dictators and the humid sunsets, salty peanuts, and the Jim Beam cocktails of my youth. For Olivier, it’s the ups and downs of a French guy in America. I decide I love him for this and promise myself to love him enough tomorrow and the next day so I will not go back to Paco’s for the books.
We make love for the first time in months, and afterward we make whispered plans to spend the afternoon tomorrow on a rented boat away from the sand with a picnic of fried shrimp sandwiches and a chilled thermos of Cuba libras. Sunburned and still-drunk, our lovemaking in the boat is without abandon because I am now a tourist in a country with a history that doesn’t concern me for once. For now.
Olivier’s doctor has told him to not let any sand touch his skin for several days. On the way to dinner the next evening, I wrap my arms tightly around him on the four-wheeler and rest my head on his shoulder. It’s hot, but he wears jeans, socks, a long-sleeve button-down shirt, a scarf around his neck, and a hat to protect him from sand fleas. The perspiration coming from his back leaves marks on the front of my dress. I say to him, teasing, that he looks like freshly-arrived colonialist and I thank Paco for my lightheardtedness. We laugh tonight and drink cheap rum cocktails. Dominicans who smell of sweat and lime juice dance to the Bachata. We order appetizers of fresh calamari and pulpo carpaccio. The rum lets Olivier stop scratching. We realize we’ve forgotten about beans and rice as we stumble out of the Mosquito bar kissing.
The four-wheeler is gone. In its place stands a group of Haitians leaning against a fence. They smile at us under the fluorescent street lamp as they deny the theft. We give them a few pesos. They tell us where the police took it. For a few more pesos, we hail a motoconcho, the island’s taxi service, to bring us to the station. In my head, I begin to turn the pages of my forbidden books and see a sunset, humid with words of war and bourbon.
Three men dressed in khaki uniforms lounge in the parking lot and stroke their rifles. I can tell Oliver is scared, itching himself madly. With a force that I had never seen in him, he pulls me off the motorcycle and tells me to sit in a plastic chair. I wait as he disappears into the dingy building.
Olivier comes out of the office and places a stiff hand on my shoulder. “If we give them a thousand pesos and keep them our passports, we could to get the freedom four-wheeler back tonight.”
In fact, there was nothing illegal about where we had parked. It was how the police supplemented their meager salary and calmed their boredom. It was how only a few Haitians survived El Corte, by paying off the more charitable of Trujillo’s soldiers. But we had spent all our money on cocktails and the passports are locked in the hotel safe. The men stroke their rifles. I am, at long last, a real victim, the object of attention about something other than my hypochondriac daydreams.
I approach the guard and stand on my tiptoes so I can reach his face as I slap it. I move in slow motion, but the slap itself is quick and loud.
The lounging men in uniform stand up and run toward me. Olivier holds his face as if I had struck him. The men shine their flashlights in my face, which I feel streaked with mascara and sweat. They move closer.
“Trujillo!” I scream it and I scream it again.
“Trujillo!” I pronounce it slowly and hear it echo off the walls of the parking lot.
The people in the street, who had been dancing and talking stopped. The police freeze. It’s the first time I hear complete silence on the island. I can make out the sound of the waves crashing on the beach across the street.
Then, they all laugh. Only Olivier glares at me in disapproving disbelief. The sound of the laughter, the uproarious choir of men and women, the sopranos, the baritones, the sweet melody of the children all have a rhythm to it like all things here that have silenced me.
As I run and run, the laughter never diminishes. I kick off my shoes and run on the beach. Olivier, who stays on the sidewalk for fear of sand fleas is probably calling after me, but I hear nothing but the laughter and my heart pounding in my temples. Without the four-wheeler, he can’t keep up. In this flight over darkened sand and water, I, for the first time, know and fear that I might be able to forget everything as long as I keep running from my own capture. A resistance fighter and a face-slapper of corrupt police, I will live a secret, underground life with or without a four-wheeler, without dictators, and without my grandfather. This frees my body to move lightly without tiring. I get away as the palm trees lining the sidewalk whisk past me, their soft rustle urging me on.
— for Brent Williamson
Every night the train rattles along the West 4 Street platform
like some futuristic bull pushing archaeological trash
through the catacombs of the city.
I walk out mid-station past the many times I’ve died,
looking back years later, with the edge of a knife scratching my cheek,
to the rooms where it happened, inches away,
on the other side of a dusty window
where I am sitting, crumbs on my shirt,
watching it all unfold and thinking
how easy it is to get tired of new places and new people—
I mean how everything gets old as a nine-to-five
and the more people talk about it the older it gets
and it doesn’t get any younger than the glass in your hand,
just the same drinks and the same meat on fire,
some Phil from accounting and his woman
or some Mrs. saying “Oh, sweetie, you’re just too much”.
It’s not even a lie anymore when we enumerate
everything that’s been done.
And the stupid grin of some accomplishment
makes everyone else catch the same stupid grin like a disease
because we’ve accomplished nothing,
we’ve done nothing out of the ordinary,
we’ve tied our shoelaces twice and flushed the toilet
on our way out as the room fills with the stink of our own shit.
Some even set their alarm clock forward
just to have more time
I watch from the same dusty window
as I tell myself that I need to get away from myself.
I cannot stand how alone everything feels
when I don’t even look up anymore as they pass me,
the regular bums on the line whose lines I’ve memorized,
the painted eyes of a would-be lover
each downward-looking face
going home to some kind of crime against love,
hating myself for doing the same—
how all of us alone are dreaming of different parts.
Our poverty in the hundreds.
The sense of despair crawls into even the most intimate places.
Into the dense fabric of it.
In the dark I imagine how the whole world
tonight is fucking on a really tight schedule.
How the plates and forks are in the sink to soak until morning.
A good rain climbs through the window when you least deserve it.
When a ten-minute friend asked me once how I do it,
what he really meant was how can I do this,
night after night,
chipping away at the world
like some deranged animal who knows nothing else
but the perimeter and its soiled corners.
I’d always said I was much better suited for something else,
anything where a cinder block on top of another
means an end in itself.
I’d be damn good at it,
slapping on the cement, staggering the lines,
wiping my hands on a stained pair of jeans,
standing back and charmed to death by the stonework,
throwing the lunch pail in the corner s
oon as I walked through the front door.
The percentages were all in my favor.
But that never happened, I told him.
Instead I told him that I’m terrified by the ordinary.
Fucking terrified by failure.
Coming home too tired to grab your lady’s ass
because you’ve poured out all of your blood
and all you can think about
is the home team and yesterday’s leftovers.
I told that friend, who I imagine
is now lying in bed with a magazine, and she with a magazine,
the lights, out of mercy, an arm’s length away,
that unless you’re going to go all in into this
you might as well do nothing at all.
Unless being honest means that you might fail
but at least you haven’t failed life,
then, I said, you’ll make love only if it fits into the program,
you’ll put it down on the calendar and you’ll get through it,
Which is probably better for people like you anyway.
And the forest will go on in the skulls of dumb birds.
The insane will arrange their shadows in ascending order.
As the good rain begins to come in. As I turn my back to this.
Which is a word that means ghost, as it wanders, so much
blown trash, soulful only as you make something of it, interrupting its
leanings, a physical event and vulnerabilities, of buildings and populations.
Budgetary allocations are patterns, they originate in the popular will and the dirt
pressed back, or down, it’s so much work, or did they count, or
did they use materials to distinguish speech from bricks, trusting bricks a little
more? Which are of course passage making devices, where your
dead friends exchange notes with the rest of the dead world.
As you hear about what went wrong you think what you want
are ghosts that have to stick around, complimenting you and your presidency.
As I was walking through the Springdale Mall
somewhere outside Pittsburgh
down into the belly of the world,
I made a word my friend
with my breathless mouth.
No one knows why
it all turned upside down
to keep both of us amused,
and capable of saying anything —
as to make us seem magnificent.
Galloping through bubbles
of any brave new world–
and everybody passes
with his practical black eyes .
This was our marvelous punishment:
to learn something about loneliness
Tell her goodbye when you see her
because sometimes it’s best to start
with the ending & work in reverse.
I know a thing or two about phases
said the moon after no one asked it
anything at all. I feel bad about
the things that I said but also whatever
I didn’t. Tell her there are better days
ahead. Tell her sleep mostly eludes me.
Tell her you’re not looking for sympathy
on my behalf. Don’t forget to bring a map
when you set out on your journey.
Try to write a series of declarative sentences.
Afterwards you can worry about whether
the tone is a drone. You can freely add
more details, clauses that help the reader
understand you are ambivalent
about the emotional state depicted. The sun
I heard over the phone is a sun I’d like
to share in. Inexplicably, there are lots of cars
driving by. I have to look back to see where
I started. I don’t really remember what I was
trying to do. I have to close one window
in order to open another & check if you’re
trying to talk to me. We don’t like to make things
easy for ourselves. Everything I need
is in plain sight. It’s so sunny in the park.
It’s dangerous when it’s like that so late in the day.
Their pilot Mulligan was only crazy for golf, practicing his swing whenever he could:
on the tarmac, in the air, and even while fleeing North Korean groundskeeper cells.
Otherwise, plenty of rest and fluids made his world go round, granting the energy
and mental acuity to tackle each day’s tasks, like diversifying his retirement holdings.
Their conman “Hands” was an artist in the fluidity with which he communicated
with his arms and fingers, mesmerizing men and women in security uniforms
to give up their goods, which is how they obtained the ancient Dodge Ram
van, HQ for the group’s epic, scandalous and sometimes illegal adventures.
Their driver, strongman, and mathematician A. B. Abacus could bench four hundred
pounds and recite pi to the thousandth digit, often simultaneously, sometimes while
also filling out the team’s expense reports. Forger of iron catchphrases, he inspired
millions of boys to recite, “I offer my deepest sympathy to the intellectually benighted.”
Their leader John “Patton” Doe ran an Army Navy surplus store and pawn emporium
that spawned many of their adventures on long runs through the night to pick up
howitzers for customers with erectile dysfunction and military grade glow sticks
for the tweaker ravers on the boulevard. Clenching a peppermint stick in his teeth
and spouting, “I love it when a gambit reaches fruition,” he organized the most
raging underground chess tournament in the Southland, one marked by the rescue
of a eighteenth-century antique ceramic set and the seizure of twenty kilograms
of bootleg Adderall peddled by Geert Van Wafel, that evil Belgian grandmastermind.
That was nothing compared to the recovery of gold medallions crafted for the KKK,
hidden in bunkers at Masonic lodges, where former athletes from East Germany
guarded the bootleg coins along with a super-soldier formula rumored to endow
the user with the verve of a hundred teenage men. The B Team dared not guzzle
much because half of them were taking blood thinners, but enough sipping occurred
for a great midnight cow-tipping escapade to coalesce, one which could have ended
in tragedy or, worse, capture if Mulligan’s remote-control helicopter had not masterfully
distracted both a shotgun-toting farmer and A.B., tonic-drunk, dancing with phantom
scarecrows that turned out to be Jack Mormons posing as corn-belt Amish outlaws.
The closest scrape came on a fishing trip in Appalachia, when Hands got caught
holding a pair of supple rattlesnakes as he taught a preacher’s daughter to speak
in tongues, the caterwauling from tent flaps an alarm for Patton, facing impossible
truths about aging and reaction time, coming a little too late, two punctures in an arm,
ministerial father on the prowl, sprinkling consecrated water from the sulfurous nearby
hot spring on all parties, the B-Team’s leader fumbling for antivenin, razor blades and
whiskey, Mulligan and A.B. out of earshot at the rushing river, three trout from the limit.
The close calls brought them to a relationship counselor who suggested that the Army
might not really be after them, but ex-wives might be, that the gun and knife shows
were not havens for smugglers and assassins, and the man bouts and whiskey shots
created a dance for them to lock fists and horns, a solitary animal bleeding its love.
Even if I did not dare invite anyone, I still wanted
a party—the fountain downtown to change
times, a saxophone to start noodling out of nowhere
as I crossed the street past mine or simply
a friend to sit me down at the table of pressed-tin under
the striped awnings where chestnut trees bloom,
a girl reciting from a book of dead poems:
holiness, danger, and the smell of lime.
The waiter bringing me coffee the way I like it—
scalding but not too strong, the tiny metal pitcher
of chilled milk. I would eat pie—hot with a small
dab of ice cream, the crust shattering as it should,
the fruit beneath sour enough to pucker my lips,
and I would remember what you stay alive for–
the days like merry-go-round horses— pretty,
painted, circling. I would know better than to wish
any fairground tricks, no jolting ascents or
swooping falls. Only a long dullish novel to read,
a train ride where I might stare out at fields—
hayricks and children playing in mud, a town
confettied for some minor regional festival which
would be my party, the one I throw myself, in
which I whisper to a stranger one true thing–—that
I know how far I have gone, that I am glad to be
returned, pulled from that blue edge—knife-flat
or turning wheel— what it is to be torn, paper-light.
And I would tell this person—this stranger,
yes, this world is glory, but always the
dust-bunnies under the bureau, the parts of yourself you
long to wrap up in old t-shirts and hide under
the bed, a book you are afraid to read, why I
need this small private celebration—still me, still
here—the mornings and middle–of-nights when
I am the cricket sawing its legs to sing.
She was three, maybe four years old, ages away from maps
and schedules, timers set to govern how late or lost she’d become,
how partially found among hours that went by dark and undiscovered.
However, her touch mechanism was already fully formed, activated
at birth—the rest of her life would be fine tuning the handicap of pulling
back, withholding, finally touching only the part that was once hidden in
the overcast of a newborn’s brain. Oh, they could’ve been anything—
guides to something historic like a birthplace, battlefield or prison, maybe
brochures of a theme park. The reach was toward many of the same,
what she’d later call a sense of security, no memory of this early impulse,
that primitive version of truth we don’t have to think about but do now.
I set my alarm for that moment some nights, some nights negotiating
an uneasy peace with what I’ve touched too long, too much. Arrivals.
Departures. I miss their quick kiss. I wish for that rural strip of air where
my eyes first took off, their hands full of time and place. I want them
circling my bedroom with all the colors, to watch while they invent
themselves, approach the black and white of my parent’s radar like
a balloon held up to the sun by its own fire.
Through autumn leaves that lift
and drop like birdless wings,
the Public Garden, my daughter
cartwheels and sings.
Tourists and policemen on horses
tap their feet, clap, toss coins that tumble
through the brisk air like brass and copper
buttons popping off a worn coat.
The attention makes her sing louder.
In this place ablaze with bare shoulders
and midriffs at the first sum of sun
and warmth, will she forget Chinese
operas, their coy heroines? Will she
forget the high-pitched Cantonese,
the hurried drums and gongs
marching warrior and dynastic lore?
What about the two-stringed
ehru’s hungry melody?
Already, my girl blends English
with hand gestures, using puppetry for words
she has no vocabulary for. One day, maybe
we won’t be able to talk at all.
And those rotting teeth, they grow
when she laughs or holds a note, but
what some call cavity, others may call
sweet tooth. But I won’t stop
buying candy that sticks,
disintegrates bone, the way
new language eats the old.
I’ll buy her records
of patriotic songs
performed by the Mickey Mouse Club,
and that Strawberry Shortcake album
on pink vinyl with pictures
of houses made of cupcakes.
By the bagful she digests
berries and Pez, a pill-shaped candy
proffered from another’s mouth.
Donning paper crowns,
she licks tartar sauce
from fish sandwiches,
and like royalty, sure
of another meal, and another,
she tosses both bread and fish.
Sometimes, I think
she’s a burgeoning emperor,
but is she conqueror, or the conquered?
All I know is this: Leaves fall,
and new ones will appear.
She’ll have no trouble
My little chanteuse
will sing and forget
dialogue and dialect,
with new, delectable melodies,
enough to feed the most roaring
appetite, so much there will be
leftovers enough for three
pet lions, three lions answering to the name
of Genghis Khan.
Acting on the belief that anachronisms are talismen, he rode Helvetie’s
old elevator (3 people max) up and down at least three times
Once he got off on the wrong floor
Another time he got off to ask the night porter to uncork a local bottle
(bought down the street at Mosca Vins)
Anachronisms don’t always work
Of course chance plays a part
The following day he visited the Château de Chillon and there was a temporary
exhibit on witch-hunting in the Pays de Vaud
Passing through a forest of names and dates, he scratched his shoulder on an angling
Apparently that was enough
“Welcome to the Vaud,” said the man
Though he was bleeding on his right shoulder, the man ignored it and stuck a needle
into a dry patch of skin just below his navel. Unfortunately it didn’t bleed
“Found it,” said the man
After putting him through some calisthenics on a contraption with a pulley and a noose,
the man and his fellow-thugs decided to forgo the usual wood and straw
and use a guillotine
“Brand spanking new,” said the man
Anachronisms sometimes work when you’d rather they didn’t
“The so-called pseudo-problem of mind/body is still bugging me,” said the man.
“Let me illustrate.”
Before he knew it his head (eyes lolling) disappeared behind the clouds, and his body
(legs like slogging clay) was flopping in the parking lot
[CHATEAU DE CHILLON: 9.00 – 19.00]
Take myself. To know coeur. As us. Tonight. The thorn of to have—
What was done before the knife’s plunge. Without breaking the I am for you. That is no pain.
Before the sting of flesh, imagine—
To be played in the round. Plosion into fragile am, nor along the slightest edge: forsake our collaring debt, our lovers, our apologies. Never the spill after making.
If you are disinterested. Guess—
You is there as place. So, knife my I. Then my bowels. But continue the stitch. And come: palais of your Godliness.
As we are—knife edge sharp, as of yet untested. That is my foolishness: to call for my mother, my father; for you, my lover; my holiest God.
All worse than anything you might imagine—this, the making of a family: footing alongside the grave, first spill of earth.
We will ourselves. Already c’est inévitable. So, be tonight, sharp against the knife’s failed sting—
Blade plunged in lavender, bevel edged with honey.
Then, everything calls to you alongside the spill of clear desire.
I am becomes cold, unbearable. We is shaken out over a pit of hungry earth.
C’est inévitable. The moment before the sting, before our undoing—garland of palm fronds
Twined around our throats
My own death at the margin’s edge—years’ scattering of debt a wrongful apologia: voices Of lovers and of the closest of friends, last letters never sent
Afterward, you remain, reveling in God’s godliness, while I am cast out to weep
To shake, to spill my bowels over the ground’s sweet song
Take the knife, mon coeur. Always, the inévitable surrounding us. Here is the edge—sharp, as of yet untested.
Then, our foolishness caught in my throat, chambered with hesitation.
Grandma didn’t always
hang with a football team,
sometimes she played hockey or
ice-skated with Chinese waiters.
It was rumored she went
skating on a date
twenty years after her
She was a tall, peculiar
bride to Louis
who strolled near
who came to her house
to perform miracles.
Ida lived with Mrs. Grossman,
who wore makeup over skin cancer.
Ida worried if Julia, Mrs. Grossman,
stole her cottage cheese.
Grandma—pale, thin and hunch-backed at 80—
was no Leon Trotsky,
nor was she Michelangelo’s David;
and never wore pants.
In all her years,
“I will never wear pants,”
didn’t stick her hand
in the daughter’s closet, hoping
for polyester inspiration to
enter the 20th Century.
while her children went to England,
her children’s children, that is,
the burnout Jimmy Hendrix fans
who did acid and smoked pot,
drank a few beers and made
fun of the queers,
the incarnates of New Jersey,
sophisticated and aesthetic culture,
decided to have a party.
But they did not
they locked her with
a hook in the lock
Ida in her nighties
while the boys in the band
and the girls in the boys
went rollicking through the
kitchen where Ida,
twenty minutes before,
ate gefilte fish.
She took off her stockings,
letting the long toes rip,
when in came Lakewood, New Jersey’s finest
like a herd of erect penises
to celebrate with a woman whose heart valves
were rustier than old bicycles.
the dog Shrimpy got high
goyisha weight lifters
made love to Brooklyn Zionists.
The skinny woman
with a full head of grey hair
and bumps on her head
in her flowered nightgown,
where you could see her
flabby breasts bouncing,
yelled, “Eleanor! What’s going on?
Eleanor—I have a heart condition!”
“We’re having a party Grandma,
would you like to join?”
“Vey’s mir!” she whined, screaming in Yiddish
to the Polish, Irish and German quarterbacks.
Smoking a joint, one went up to Ida,
“Would you like a hit?”
Ida’s grandson, in a veil of pot,
led her to bed,
where she snuggled under a
while the pot shone through
like a vapor against the window.
So many substitutions in this story:
stepmother for mother, brother for father,
morsels of muffin for little white stones,
and once the oven is hot, witch for boy,
and in earlier locations, Gretel for pearl,
girl for teeth, take my thumbs for chicken bones,
grandma, take my babies for wolf meat.
I’d give you my incisors, my mother said
when I knocked out my own, carrion for crow,
cave for castle, ogre for goat who suddenly regrets
he didn’t eat the damn kid when he could have.
It’s a wonder any of us get back home.
In the dusk of cool November that signals the winter to come, two boys and their mama stand at the tracks and ponder the ghost of a train. The younger brother catches a sudden chill, but instead of pressing up to one of the other two for warmth, he stands there, teeth chattering a little. The mama, whose big idea it was to return here in the first place, now feels shame that she thought her firstborn son might be a little off, so she says a silent prayer to the God she knows saved him. And the boy that they’re here for, Lendall, limps along the wooden ties of the tracks where people say the train hit him, and he thinks about a non-existent friend and the Jews and what he pretends he’s forgotten.
Lendall sat at the kitchen table reading his book while his mama fixed supper for him and his brother. He finished a chapter and laid it down with a sigh.
Mama pulled a fryer chicken from the fridge and carried it over to the sink to run it under the water. “What’re you reading?” she asked her son while she waited for the water to run clean with no blood.
“A book on the Holocaust.”
“Another one,” she said and shut off the faucet. “It for school?”
“Naw. Just because.”
His mama squinted at him. “All that death,” she said. “And violence.” She wrenched the legs off of the chicken, and Lendall could hear the bones cracking. “Now the King James,” she went on, pointing the chicken leg his direction, “you should read it. Nothing wrong with the Baptists at all.”
Lendall tried not to giggle and nodded his head in agreement.
Just then, his younger brother came through the door from where he’d been playing outside, making the most of the nice October evening. Sweating and smelling like a boy, Lendall thought.
“Guess what,” he demanded.
“What?” Lendall asked, like he didn’t really care to know at all.
His brother lunged at him and said, “I wasn’t talking to you, fart face.”
“Uh uh, Jerin,” their mama cautioned.
Jerin was clearly too excited to care about getting in trouble. He wasn’t the type of kid to mind such things. “The black people are moving in down the road,” he blurted out.
“Well, that’s something,” their mama said and went back to her chicken.
Lendall perked up. It’d been the talk of school ever since word got out that a black family was coming to town. Black people didn’t live in Polk County, and if they did, they didn’t stay long. It wasn’t so much that the locals drove them out, as they didn’t feel comfortable surrounded by all that whiteness. Supposed to be a girl around Jerin’s age and a boy in Lendall’s eighth grade class. For a kid who didn’t keep too many friends, Lendall was interested in somebody who might be treated different.
“Want to go check it out?” Jerin asked his brother, who was surprised by the invite. Sensing he’d manage to be left out as usual, Lendall quickly grabbed his book to take with him.
“Y’all stay out the way,” their mama called to them. “And be back in time for supper.”
They were both already out the screen door and running across the yard.
Four blocks later, the boys crouched behind a yellow-leafed mulberry tree in the yard of 2314 Crenshaw Road. Lendall was heaving, and it took him a minute to catch his breath. He stood hunched over with hands on knobby knees. “I thought,” he sputtered, “you said … was … just down the … road.” He coughed a little, and Jerin glared at him to keep quiet.
“Jeez,” his brother whispered, returning his gaze to a Ryder truck that sat in the driveway like it was cemented there, “you’re such a wuss.”
Lendall didn’t feel the need to comment.
Jerin reached over and grabbed the book out of Lendall’s hand and chunked it behind the mulberry tree. “What’d you bring that stupid thing for?” he asked, but before Lendall could protest or even ask what his problem was, Jerin had made a dash for the house and had disappeared behind the back of the moving van.
“Crap,” Lendall muttered and waited a second to see if his brother would reappear. He didn’t. There was no telling what Jerin was doing; one thing Lendall knew for sure was that it was something that would get them both in trouble. He took a deep breath, glanced at his book laying open on the grass, and stepped out from behind the mulberry tree. A few yellow leaves floated to the ground in delayed motion. Like a butterfly trying to find a place to light, Lendall thought as he walked toward the house.
The house was nicer than theirs, but it wasn’t anything too special. Red brick. Small garden beneath the front window. Garage. Lendall stopped and nearly fell over. Jerin wasn’t digging through the back of the Ryder truck like Lendall feared he would be; the kid was standing in the carport, chatting up a storm with some man.
“Hey,” Jerin called to his brother, and Lendall stepped cautiously forward. The man was tall and black and wearing a baseball cap with an ‘A’ on it. He somehow looked different than Lendall thought he would.
“Mr. Darvin, this is my brother, Lendall. Lendall, Mr. Darvin,” Jerin said, making the introductions as Lendall stepped into the garage. It was cooler in there, and boxes lined the walls. Jerin was being so fake, Lendall thought, but he couldn’t exactly call him out on it in front of Mr. Darvin.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Lendall said, sticking out a hand. Mr. Darvin’s was large and warm and he had a firm shake, one of the things Lendall’s mama was always preaching to him about.
“Likewise,” said Mr. Darvin. “I’m sorry you boys can’t meet my children today. They went with my wife to get enrolled for school.”
Jerin nodded as if he knew all about that.
“Do you play baseball?” Mr. Darvin asked, looking at Lendall.
Jerin laughed too loudly. “He reads a lot.”
Mr. Darvin smiled. “Well, that’s great. World needs more readers. My son, Anthony, he’s your age, and he really likes baseball.” The man paused like he was trying to find something more to say about it. “Course, if he read as much as he thought about ball, maybe he’d be a little better student. You’ll have to help him out with that, Lendall.”
Lendall brightened. “Yessir.” He was getting the feeling like they were in Mr. Darvin’s way and was about to suggest heading home, when a maroon mini van pulled into the driveway behind the moving truck.
“Speak of the devil. There they are now,” Mr. Darvin said and took off his cap to rub his shaved head.
The three of them walked out to meet the minivan. A young girl stepped out first, looked to be smaller than Jerin and not nearly so dark as her dad. She seemed shy to see the strange kids in her new driveway, so she held back a little. Lendall wondered if she’d been adopted, then felt embarrassed when he saw her mother.
“Hello,” the woman said as she walked up to their little group. A couple of full Wal-Mart sacks dangled from her hands. She looked Mexican. “Have you made friends already, Johnny?” she asked her husband.
“We’re the neighbors,” Jerin blurted out. “I’m Jerin, and this here’s my older brother, Lendall.”
“I see,” she said as she looked over her shoulder to locate her kids. “Danielle, say hello. And Anthony’s back there somewhere.” Mrs. Darvin shifted the bags in her hands. “I’m going to run in and put these groceries away.” She started for the house but swung back around to the boys. Lendall thought she was the most graceful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. “You boys are welcome to stay for dinner. We’re grilling burgers.”
Lendall caught his brother’s eye to remind him their mom had a chicken on.
“Raincheck, ma’am,” Jerin said. “Our mom wants us back for dinner.”
She nodded. “Another time, then.”
Mr. Darvin tipped his cap at them and said he’d better help his wife. “You keep clear of trouble, now,” he told the kids.
Jerin turned to Danielle. “How old are you?”
“Ten,” she replied in a tiny voice that somehow sounded very confident. “I advanced from fourth to sixth this year, so I’m a year ahead.”
Jerin rolled his eyes a little. “I’m in sixth, too.”
“What grade are you in?” the girl asked Lendall as she squinted at him.
“Eighth,” he said, though it sounded shaky.
Jerin picked at a scab on his arm. “Does your mom work for Tyson?” he asked Danielle.
“Excuse me?” she said, placing a small hand on her hip. “Who’s Tyson?”
The scab started bleeding some, and Jerin put his mouth to it to suck the blood. He looked over at Lendall and gave him the nod like Danielle was slow or something. He dropped his arm at his side. “You know, the chicken plant over in Grannis.”
“Why would she work there?” Danielle asked.
Lendall hurried to stop Jerin from saying anymore. “My brother’s just confused is all,” he explained. “This is chicken country. He probably thinks everybody works at Tyson.”
Fortunately, the van door slammed shut right about that moment, and Anthony sauntered toward them. He had his father’s height and his mother’s looks, and once Lendall got over the initial disappointment of him not being very black, he knew he and Anthony had to be friends.
“Hey,” Anthony said to them, nice enough. His eyes were brown with flecks of gold.
Jerin made the introductions again, and when Anthony found out he and Lendall were in the same grade, he asked, “You like video games?”
“I do!” Jerin practically shouted, and Anthony looked to size him up.
“Y’all come over sometime when I get my game cube hooked up,” Anthony said halfheartedly.
Danielle shook her head. “Great,” she muttered. “We’d better get in and help put things away.” It sounded more like an excuse.
Anthony shrugged, and they started in to the house. “Catch you at school, Lendall,” he called without looking back. Lendall stared after him, his own name said aloud echoing in his head. His heart swelled like it might burst through his rib cage.
When the boys got home, their mama ordered them to wash up because it was almost dinnertime. In the bathroom, Lendall took his time lathering the soap and thoroughly cleaning down to the spaces between his fingers. Fastidious, a teacher had called him once when she’d found him sweeping pencil shavings from his desk, one by one, onto a coarse brown paper towel to neatly wrap up and throw away. Lendall looked the word up later. He didn’t like what he found.
Jerin just ran his fingers under the water real fast and stood there watching. “He don’t want to be your friend, you know,” he said, looking at his brother’s reflection in the mirror.
Lendall rinsed the suds down the drain. “We’ll see.”
At the dinner table, their mama said grace then went through her usual dinnertime conversation routine. “So, how was school today?” she asked as she folded her napkin neatly into her lap and commenced to cutting pieces off her chicken leg.
“Fine,” said Lendall.
“What are you learning about?”
Jerin stabbed at a carrot with his fork. “Same old stuff,” he said, shoving orange into his mouth.
“Mmm hmm,” said mama. “What about you, Lendall?” Her knife poised in mid air.
“Short stories in English. Osmosis in science. The Civil War in history.”
Mama shook her knife at him. “Now there’s a war to learn something from. You learn all about General Lee and what he did for the South, baby?”
Lendall sucked in his breath. “Sure. I guess.” He took a bite of mashed potatoes and let their warmth slide down his throat.
Finally, their mama got around to asking. “So, how are the new neighbors?”
“They’s two kids. The dad’s black, and the mom’s a wetback,” Jerin announced as he heaped some more mashed potatoes on his plate.
“Mama!” Lendall said. “Do something about him.”
Mama laughed then covered her mouth with her napkin. Lendall couldn’t believe it.
Jerin tried to look all innocent, like he didn’t know what ‘wetback’ meant. “Now son, don’t be using that word. You know they like to be called Hispanics.”
Lendall pinched at the tip of his nose and closed his eyes.
“That’s something that might be hard for her these days,” mama said, looking sympathetic as she started in on a lecture, “being married to a black man. It’s hard on children being mixed.”
“So’s divorce,” said Lendall. Jerin’s eyes widened.
Mama quietly placed her napkin beside her plate. “You’re done with your supper,” she said.
Lendall got up and left the table.
Once he’d had a bath, pulled on pajama pants, and settled down to do some reading, Lendall realized his book was still laying there on the ground in front of Anthony’s house. He slid out of bed and slipped down the hall, tiptoeing past mama’s room, where he could hear her T.V. going. When he made it out the back door, he saw there weren’t any shoes out on the stoop, but instead of going back in and risking his mama discovering him, he decided to make the walk barefoot.
The houses were spaced pretty far apart because not many people wanted to live near the tracks. It was too noisy. Lendall knew this was true because as long as he could remember, the midnight train would come through and jar him awake. As he walked in the dark, he thought of Gerda, the Jewish teenager he’d been reading about who was saved by a pair of snow shoes that her daddy had made her wear when she was sent to the work camp. The dried out grass crunched under his feet, and Lendall took some pride in thinking that not even bare feet could keep him from his mission.
The book was still there beneath the mulberry tree at Anthony’s house. Lendall bent to pick it up, then slid all the way to the ground and leaned against the tree trunk. He watched the house. The faint glow of a light from somewhere deep within showed through the front window. Lendall wondered if it was Anthony’s room, and he stayed there with the bark of the tree jabbing into his back and waited to see if something might happen, holding his book against him.
At school, Lendall anxiously awaited each class period to see if he shared it with
Anthony. By lunchtime, they’d had no classes together, and Lendall knew the boy he’d pegged for a new friend played sports, so he doubted they’d share any in the afternoon.
In the cafeteria, Lendall stood in the shortest line, something with some sort of meat patty
shaped like a teddy bear. He held the tray in front of him as he walked around in search of
Anthony. The heat and noise of restless children made Lendall slightly nauseated. And the smell of fatty meat mixed with dirty mop water odors didn’t help. The same old fear of having to be around so many people he sensed cared nothing for him crept up, but Lendall kept looking for Anthony. He figured he’d be at a table by himself, so Lendall was surprised to finally find him sitting with a group of eighth graders, talking and laughing. Lendall waved at him, but Anthony just gave him a head nod. Someone said, “Who’s that?” and Lendall, who’d long ago realized his mark as an outsider, took off, afraid of the response of someone who knew him.
All week was the same, Lendall on the lookout for Anthony, only to find out Anthony didn’t need looking after. He seemed fine in the popularity department. People accepted the new boy, and it made Lendall want to scream because he’d found him first. They should stick together, no one else. He was so worried about Anthony that he’d abandoned the book about Gerda and her boots and moved on to one called Inside the Vicious Heart, about when the Americans came and liberated the war camps. It had pictures.
Halloween night, Lendall was curled up under an afghan on the couch, reading. Like most Halloweens, it’d come the first cold snap of fall, and like most Halloweens, Lendall was inside, alone. Jerin had gone out trick-or-treating with buddies, and their mama was off at Wal-Mart. She’d left the porch light on so Lendall could hand out goodies, but he wasn’t surprised that no one had come by. He was reading the section of the book where Curtis Mitchell, a photographer, visited Bergen Belsen for the first time since British control. When Mitchell saw the mass graves, he grew sick, then came to think those dead Jews weren’t people anymore. “You had to keep saying to yourself, these are human beings,” Lendall read aloud. He flipped back a page to look at one of the photographs and tightened the afghan around himself. It was a picture of a mass grave, bodies piled on top of each other so you could hardly tell what was what. But one man reclined gape-mouthed in the middle of the pile, the only body fully facing the camera. He was naked, where most had on clothes to hide their thinness. And there was something about the way he stared out that Lendall couldn’t shake, like the skeleton of a man was trying to stand up and say something.
When the doorbell rang, Lendall was almost relieved to take a break from those pictures. He bookmarked the page, unwrapped himself from the afghan, and went to the door with a plastic dish of the orange and black wrapped peanut butter candies mama had left for him. To his shock, he opened the door to Anthony and his sister. Danielle was wearing a number on a card around her neck and carrying a trophy. Anthony looked normal in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“Hey,” Anthony said, peering around Lendall. “Whatcha doing? Why aren’t you out trick-or-treating?”
“I’m a little old for that, don’t you think?” Lendall asked nervously.
“I hear ya,” said Anthony. “I’m just taking Danielle around because my dad said I had to.”
“I’m the Scripps spelling bee champion,” the girl explained.
“Surprised you’re not out with all your new friends,” said Lendall.
“The ninth grade guys on the team are throwing a party at the old mill. Mom would shit a brick if I went.”
Lendall laughed, and Danielle glared up at her brother. “I’ll ignore that if we can just go,” she whined.
Anthony made a noise through his teeth. “Anyhow, my mom told me to see if you and
Jerin wanted to go trick-or-treating with us, but if you’re busy, that’s okay.”
“No,” Lendall said hurriedly. He tossed a few of the peanut butter candies into Danielle’s sack, and she made a face. “I mean, I was only reading. The Jews just got liberated.”
Anthony raised an eyebrow. “So, where’s your kid brother?”
“He’s already out. We’ll probably run into him.” Lendall held up a finger and started walking off. “Let me get my coat.”
“Hurry up,” Danielle called after him.
In his bedroom, Lendall grabbed his only coat, a too-small leather jacket lined with sheep’s wool. He glanced at himself in the mirror, tall and gangly, his white wrists showing before the short sleeves. Then he ran out to meet his friend.
The threesome walked along in silence for a while, Danielle’s pace quickening to urge them to nicer neighborhoods. Lendall kept his hands shoved in his pants pockets. When they got to the first home with a porch light on, Lendall and Anthony hung back while Danielle went to the door.
“So,” Anthony said, breaking the night’s silence. “How come you’re reading about WWI? It for class?”
Lendall looked at him and grinned. Nobody’d ever noticed what he was reading, even if Anthony did have the subject matter wrong. Mama was the only person who ever said anything, and that was just because she didn’t understand. “Actually, it’s WWII, the Holocaust,” Lendall explained.
“Oh, right,” said Anthony. Danielle walked toward them with her loot.
“And it’s not for class. It’s because it was the greatest atrocity ever committed against people.”
Anthony turned away from Lendall. “Hey, Dan, what’d you get?”
“Snickers,” she said, sighing. “Want it?”
“Hand it over.” Anthony unwrapped the bar and broke it in half. Caramel strands connected the pieces, and he had to stretch his arms out so the gooey yarn curled around the ends. He handed a piece to Lendall. “Here you go, man. Don’t know why I have to take her trick-or-treating. She doesn’t like much candy, anyway. Weird kid.”
Danielle was already making her way up the drive of the next house. A witch and a princess walked by to join her. After letting the weight of the candy rest in his hand for a moment, Lendall raised it to his mouth and bit into the bar. The sweet chocolate and caramel glued to his gums as he chewed.
Anthony looked thoughtful. “History’s cool,” he said with his mouth full. “But I don’t see why you’d read about it for fun.”
Lendall swallowed. “It’s not exactly for fun. It’s so it doesn’t happen again, I guess.”
As they chewed their chocolate and waited on Danielle, a truck full of boys, some hanging off the tailgate and whooping it up, drove by. One of them hollered, “Nice girlfriend, Anthony.”
Lendall felt something smack his back and slide down his jacket. He looked at Anthony while he reached behind him, and as his fingers hit what had to be yolk, his friend just stood there, not saying a word.
The next day was Saturday, and Lendall was shoving stuff in a bag for his monthly visit to his dad’s. He’d had to throw in a couple of old sweatshirts, since the egg-stained jacket lay in a useless heap, stinking like sulfur on his bedroom floor. He put Inside the Vicious Heart on top of everything and was zipping the bag up when mama called, “Lendall, that neighbor boy’s here to talk to you.”
She poked her head in the door. “He finds out who threw that egg and ruined your coat, you tell me. They’ll pay money for it, I guarantee.”
When Lendall got to the door, Anthony was picking at the leaves of a plant on the porch. “Hey,” he said, letting green fall to the ground.
“Hi,” said Lendall as he stepped out, pulling the door to behind him. He worried that his mama was going to come up and say something embarrassing. “What do you want?”
“Uh, well, I didn’t say much last night, but I figured I should tell you I was sorry about what happened to your jacket. I didn’t have any part in it.”
Lendall stayed quiet, the weight of his bag pulling his arm at the socket.
“You going somewhere?” asked Anthony.
“Yeah, to my dad’s in a while.” Lendall dumped the bag on the concrete porch.
“Your parents divorced?”
Lendall looked over to his shoulder and stepped off the porch. “My dad won’t be here for another hour, so I could go on up to Texaco for a Coke or something. Want to come?”
Anthony hesitated. “Alright. I mean, I guess.”
It was pretty nice out, the sun warming the air from the night before. The boys walked along the tracks, skipping gravel against the rails and watching the crows gather ahead of them then fly off when they got close.
“How long your parents been split up?” Anthony asked.
“Must be cool to go to two different houses.”
Lendall sighed. “I guess. We don’t really see my dad all that much. He lives outside of Little Rock.”
Anthony walked astride of him, just slighty ahead, and Lendall could smell the boy’s deodorant.
“Do you ever think about being somebody else?” Lendall asked.
Anthony kicked at the gravel. “What do you mean?”
“You know. Ever wish you could be somebody that other people won’t let you be?”
Anthony shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess. I mean, like, my dad wants me to read more and shit.”
Lendall flinched, and Anthony saw.
“Hey man, not like you’re not cool cause you read.” He playfully punched Lendall’s arm, and the contact surprised and delighted the boy. “It’s just not for me. You feel?” He bent to pick up some small stones.
Lendall did. He looked in Anthony’s soft eyes, and he thought he finally saw what he wanted. His mouth opened before he could stop the words from coming out. “Are we friends?” he asked.
Anthony stayed quiet for a few seconds. He tossed the handful of gravel at the tracks, and they made sharp pings when they hit the rails. “Sure, man. Course we are.”
In that moment, Lendall didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to show Anthony how much he cared and how good it felt to finally fit somewhere. Without totally realizing what he was doing, he reached down and grabbed Anthony’s hand, lacing his fingers through the boy’s.
“Faggot,” Anthony said, quickly and lightly—as if it meant nothing to him—then he
wrenched free and ran away.
Lendall sat down slowly on the tracks, where the cool of the steel rail seeped through his pants and ran up his spine. He was aware of the cold, but seemed to not know how to move. Chalky gravel dust coated his hands, and he didn’t attempt to wipe it off. Anthony was long gone, out of sight. Finally, Lendall stood from the rail. He felt numb as he walked the tracks. Then he grew embarrassed, and finally scared. He knew Anthony would go home and tell his dad what had happened. Everyone would know. Surely mama and daddy would be ashamed. Jerin would probably find some kid to beat him up. Worst of all, Anthony would hate him.
When the noon train came blasting through, Lendall didn’t move from the tracks. A big old crow lit on the rail ahead of him and opened its beak to holler “Caw.” Still, Lendall kept on his path. That train was calling his name. And suddenly, in the middle of that hurt in his brain, all he could think of was the Jews. The last sound he heard before the world went dark was the squawking of the crow over the squeal of the brakes.
A miracle, they say, two weeks later. Doctors pat each other on the back. Mama tells the newspaper about all the cards and letters Lendall got while he was in the hospital, some from kids who didn’t even like him. Anthony had signed the card from the seventh grade class, and under his name had simply written, “Nice knowing you.” Daddy bought him a used Playstation and a war game at a pawn shop, let him keep it at their mama’s house, though Jerin was the only one who’d actually played it. Back at the tracks for the first time since what folks call the accident, Lendall’s mama and brother wait to see how he’ll react. A stranger drives by and rolls down his window to holler out, “Y’all get off them tracks. It’s dangerous. People get killed that way.” Mama looks at Lendall then waves off the man and smiles nervously. Jerin wraps his arms around himself and walks twenty feet away to a couple of indentations in the ground, roped off by police tape. “Guess this is where your shoes hit,” he says, lightly tapping the earth. In fact, it’s not. It’s where Lendall’s body smacked the ground, bounced, and hit again, leaving two small craters. But Lendall doesn’t care to look because he’s busy walking along the tracks with his arms outstretched, softly calling “Choo, choo.”
Originally from Arkansas, Jessica Pitchford holds an MFA from McNeese State University and a PhD from Florida State University, where she was awarded a University Fellowship to support the completion of her dissertation, a novel titled Can’t Walk Out. Recent fiction appears or is forthcoming in Extract(s), Gris-Gris, storySouth, New Delta Review, and the Arkansas Review. She teaches creative writing at Wayne State College.
Begin with the equation: wood = bone. If bone,
a rib splintered, branch in fragments. Fabricate
from these pieces, the parts for a miniature ship
—delicately assemble her through the narrow neck
of an oblong bottle (if glass, then skin) to be corked
and kept. From bone, bone; skin, skin.
This is the beginning, so it goes in certain versions.
Others have a different first. The one forgotten
abandons the expected narrative, replaces, yes, yes,
with southern storms and thunder claps,
holds the desire to determine the fate of all things
in fingers closed to palm. In the earth beneath
a willow tree, she plants the handle of a broom.
In a decade’s span, attempts to harvest—
finds a serpent in the crop and… forgive us
our trespasses, those who trespass against us, lead us…
All those s’es. The sound of the snake with second sight
and the skill to see through reflections. A convicted spy,
seductive. Amsterdam, Shanghai—follow her
from a kiss in the aquarium to a climatic shootout
in the Magic Mirror Maze, take images in shards
—“With these mirrors, it’s difficult to tell…”—
replace with even more deceptive ones
—“You are aiming at me…”—
on to the next and on—“…aren’t you?”
Does he need to ask? He’s her target; she’s his.
The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection
(Ɵi =Ɵr) an infinite loop: looking glass inside looking glass,
repeated from this point to the next morning.
“Put on some lipstick and dumb yourself down,”
he says. The sound of gunpowder exploding in the chamber
of a small room: her deafening response.
A spider web of glass, shattering. The impact of bullet
on his reflection, on hers. Killing me is killing you.
Me killing you is the reason the sun will rise, my love.
We made fun of him when he was young
and we made fun of him when he was old
It’s because he was so beautiful when he was young
interestingly enough, beautiful when he was old, too
I am not talking about an inanimate object.
For example, this candlestick here.
The wick is fresh.
No, but I cannot tell you of whom I speak
for if I did you would say to me
But he was beautiful when he was young
and interestingly enough, beautiful when he was old
You would believe me
I don’t want you to believe me
because then you would believe
That we made fun of him when we were young and beautiful
and fun of him when he was old, and beautiful, like in this photo
that is so difficult to really see
in the candlelight
Now that I have turned off the lights
and cannot find the candle
It was that minute in the elevator,
that moment when we
careened through floors
with only a gap of words between us.
It was then that I knew
the way we watched each other
would have to end.
It would have to be untangled,
like a skein,
a section at a time
until we could stretch out in parallels,
the space growing wider and wider
until we become only dots.
You decide to walk home from work. Make it a habit. Maybe a good habit will replace a bad habit. Karma. Karma. Karma. Why do people enjoy warning everyone about karma? Attribute everything to karma. Perhaps it’s better than blaming everything on god.
What is feng shui? Maybe that’ll replace karma. Maybe Asian traditions will replace American routines. But, what is feng shui? When you first heard it mentioned, you thought it was something you ate, and said, “Yeah, it’s good.” You had no idea if it was a noodle or a slipper.
You notice a truck pulled over on the side of the road. A man leans on the truck door. He seems to be in trouble. You walk over and notice he’s covered with blood. Your first thought is that he’s been shot.
He tells you he just left the kidney dialysis clinic. “Something’s wrong,” he moans.
You walk him to the passenger side of his truck and ask him how to get to the clinic.
The front seat is covered in blood. You are covered in blood. The blood keeps gushing out of the man’s arm.
The people at the clinic hardly react when you walk the bloody man into the building. You wonder if everyone returns with this much blood after something goes wrong with a treatment. The man is whisked away and you are left standing there, wondering what you are supposed to do next.
You explain how you just met the man, and then ask if he has family that can be notified.
“Oh, yeah. We’ll call his house. Don’t worry, you can leave.”
They want you out of there.
They see you looking at the man. It’s hard leaving him in the hands of these people. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. You go on,” the receptionist says, walking you to the door.
You step outside. The air rejuvenates you. The walk home will be much longer now. No one asks why you are covered with blood. They just step aside when you approach them on the sidewalk.
When you return to your apartment, a neighbor runs over. She sees the blood and shrieks. You explain that you weren’t attacked. She looks momentarily relieved. Until you tell her about the man. “You may have AIDS. That was careless.”
That thought has never crossed your mind.
She takes you by surprise when she grabs the garden hose and sprays you down. You stand there covering your head. “I hope this works!” she yells. “What were you thinking? “
You were thinking about feng shui, wondering what in the world is feng shui?
Diane teaches creative writing at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals. Her most recent publications include: Marco Polo Arts, The Newer York, New Verse News, and Oklahoma Review.
Momoko has turned into a giant crab balancing the world on her back. The world, in turn, has shrunk to an ellipse the size of a fish bowl. Behind the glass are people as islands who once pretended they were important as continents. “Don’t drop us,” screams a girl, scrunched-face and toothy, nose pressed to glass, “it’s a shitty deal, but the only world I have.” The Harajuku Girls, the Goth Lolitas, the Hung Diffidents, and the wind-up drummer clowns sing slow-burning love songs or make faces at me. I imagine that Momoko means nothing to them even though its their weight on her back. Some don’t even bother to shrug.
“Jimihen,” Momoko says, (her way of nicknaming me Jimi Hendrix), “my back is breaking. Never again will I lie face up for the Salarymen, the muff-dealers in rocking-horse Mary Janes. In my dreams, I am stripped by their invisible webs. I always wake with a taste of metal. I want to spit out my blue heart.”
For a moment, Momoko looks away, distracted by a jumping spider. The world rolls off her, crashes. Everything is the color of post-earthquake, of falling between. With eyes open and her darkness within me, I cry her name. Night sleeping next to night, history turning to nitrogen and inorganic trace, screams swirl between my ears then fade. But I can still hear her voice. So tiny, like a firefly.
In a locked ward, an old nurse with grainy voice, feeds her warm oatmeal cookies, weans her from IV liquid dreams. In her hazy malaise, she thinks her breath is fetid, the inside of a dead woman. She tells the psychiatrist with Chevron mustache and stripe taupe tie that five Chinese stock brokers will commit suicide by choking on junk bonds. She’s misdiagnosed and returned to her apartment on 10th street with a generic brand of Yellow Forgetfulness, 300 mg. B.I.D. At the new club in Noho, a man with Alice and looking glass obsession speaks in over-inflated balloons. Later, he pins her against the mattress. She pops and becomes another liquid dream. After he leaves, taking his hollow needles with him, she discovers her bloodstones and white sapphires are gone. Her spine is missing too. The cell phone sings an old Depeche Mode. A man in garbled voice keeps saying something about the safest investment is in herself. She shuts him off. On the long and crowded city blocks, she thinks about the man last night, about shrinking him to a plug in her throat, about swallowing hard.
In a room three flights up from dense summer she shows the boy she names Baby-Face her mother’s collection of antique lamps & lanterns. Some have pictures of fat Buddhas or cats with wide sloppy smiles. Her nickname is Misfit Girl, given spotty love by the mother who sometimes melts away, who is herself a child of parents whose faces she cannot see. Misfit Girl says to Baby-Face, Do you want to see how we can make a god? He says that there are only demons. She makes strange shadow plays across the wall. The same shadow stays with each after they have left. One night, following another of her mother’s breakdowns, Misfit Girl imagines being sucked in by a gigantic vacuum cleaner, of living in a dust bag forever, breathing in her own exhaust. She calls Baby-Face & tells him that she is suffocating along with the mother who can’t love her own shape & that he must be strong for her, that he is her god. He says he has purged his demons, released them into a hand-drawn darkness, that he can see her shadow everywhere he goes. He says the shadow expands, has strange ways of working. No one will die of suffocation, he says. The shadow agrees. The night they sneak out & sleep together, Tokyo has a black-out.
For weeks I carried the contorted whines, the amplified soarings into space, the machine-gun like feedback, the image of Jimi Hendrix yanking a whammy bar. In the Saigon hospital, the nurse gave me instructions with pursed lips and a set of vacant eyes, “Take these blues twice a day, and the white ones only after breakfast, but the doctor is quite certain that the humming in your head will remain.” In New York, I was greeted by Her Royal Modal Majesty-Queen Cacophony herself–the sirens and the blat of fire trucks, the screeching of black and yellow cabs, the wails of food vendors near the park where pigeons could get a free meal and some crumbs of camouflaged love. I was to take the next bus to Dover, New Jersey. There, I would meet my sister, whom I surmised had grown into a flower of poisonous beauty over the last year. I had not written her, or anyone for that matter, often. On the street, crickets chirped underfoot, helicopters fell from rooftops, crashed in mid-air, women offered tinsel smiles with one or two missing teeth, and I made the mistake of stepping into a yellow puddle. Someone threw the egg at the stripes of my uniform. Perhaps it was because everyone had longer hair than I. That old feeling of being ambushed returned and I ran for blocks, into the doors of Port Authority, past the cops and the needle-eyed beggars, into the stall of a public bathroom upstairs. I crouched low, must have been there for hours, meditating on the scrawled code written diagonally on the inside of the door–Call Sami for a good hand job. I knew that in her hands I would explode.
Kyle Hemmings is the author of several chapbooks of poetry/prose: Avenue C, Cat People, Tokyo Girls in Science Fiction (NAP), and Anime Junkie (Scars Publications). His latest ebook is You Never Die in Wholes from Good Story Press. He is a big fan of 60s garage bands. He lives and writes in New Jersey.
Rick Moody is a counterculture writer who once got to throw a pie in the face of his biggest critic. A New York City native, Rick Moody studied under Angela Carter and John Hawkes at Brown University and received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 1986. His first novel, Garden State, received the Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award in 1991. His latest work, On Celestial Music, is a collection of essays that delves deeply into music. The title essay was included in Best American Essays, 2008. In the time span between these two works, Moody has been prolific as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist while still finding the time to play in The Wingdale Community Singers band. He also co-founded the Young Lions Book Award at New York Public library, which recognizes young authors.
His memoir The Black Veil won the PEN/Martha Albrand award as well as the NAMI/Ken Book award. Moody’s novel The Ice Storm has been published in 20 countries, introducing more readers to his dark comedy and lyrical, evolving prose. His works, with their artful digressions and playful vocabulary, explore themes of addiction, family tensions, the inexorable pull of history, the limitations of language, and love’s failures. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his career is his willingness to engage wholeheartedly in literary experimentation; having already enjoyed success, Moody does not grow stagnant; each of his works are distinct and speak to a writer not content to remain in familiar territory.
In his interview with Lunch Ticket, Rick Moody tells us about taking risks and his adaptive approach to storytelling. He also gives details about his forthcoming novel and talks about surviving and growing as a writer.
Robert Egan: How do you take risks as a writer? It’s as if, in addition to writing what you know, you’re writing to know. Would you elaborate on this exploration?
Rick Moody: I do, I guess, write to know, or to find out what I know. Or out of intellectual curiosity. It’s hard for me to imagine doing otherwise these days.
The reductive, conservative, story-heavy version of the novel, the English 19thcentury model, would seem hard for me to do now. I don’t believe in it. There’s no risk at all for me there. If I’m not discovering something in the process of writing, I get a little bored. So my recent tendencies are also somewhat about trying to avoid boredom. I don’t want to repeat myself. Even if that might mean a little bit more in the department of accessibility. I don’t know if that involves reinvention of self so much as a recognition that there is no one self there in the first place. That’s a loaded issue: self. I think we are probably more a society of tendencies than we are society of selves.
RE: Are there any rules or traditions that you won’t break? Or do you have a rule about breaking rules?
I haven’t met a rule yet that I didn’t want to break. Rules get their value from people breaking them.
RM: I haven’t met a rule yet that I didn’t want to break. Rules get their value from people breaking them. Without a certain amount of scofflaw activity, the rules wouldn’t exist in the first place. So go ahead: break them all. That’s how you learn which are valuable. However, here are two I like: stick to a minimum number of tenses, and avoid sentimentality.
RE: The notion that rules get their value from breaking them is intriguing, since we have to recognize these rules to be consciously subversive. There also seems to be a subtler subset of rules, camouflaged as habits. How do you uncover habits that you wish to break or redirect?
RM: I think what you say about habits is very interesting. At least in my case habits arise out of a tendency to want to avoid improvising new responses and solutions to the world on a daily basis: it would just take too long. Responding to the world as though new (I guess the Buddhists would refer to it as Beginner’s Mind) would just take too long. However, there is no art without Beginner’s Mind, without trying to create new pathways, new neural connections, each with its improvised narrative structure, all of them without or apart from routine. So: a habit is a logical and pragmatic way to approach life and literature, and probably essential in part, but also totally deadening. In a writing sense, I therefore try to root them out, these habits, and kill them. I want to be educable, no matter that I am rapidly becoming and old dog, a mid-career artist, a survivor. I want to be willing to grow despite this.
RE: How does your heightened sense of setting shape your stories. Also, for aspiring writers, do you have any suggestion on how they can let setting shape their work?
RM: I love landscapes, and they are important to me. The work shouldn’t only be about the people. It should be about their landscape as well. (And maybe ideas, too.) And to do so, to make use of landscape: just pay closer attention. Be a person, as I believe others have said, on whom nothing is lost. What does the city of Los Angeles feel like? I guarantee you it has real impact on the characters of the stories written there. Why not try to describe that fully? Car culture, and tanning salons, and breast implants, and hispanic people, and beaches, and mud slides, and water wars, and The Business.
RE: Your landscapes, from American Suburbia to Mars, are as diverse as your subject matter. What does traveling to new places do for people, their thought patterns and tendencies?
RM: I think travel broadens. There is a wealth of literature to support the idea. America is a straitjacket. When the opportunity arises, go elsewhere.
RE: If the place exists, is it essential to visit it or live there before writing about it?
RM: No, but it can help. I believe in imagination, so I believe some of the places to which we might travel are imaginary (see, e.g., Calvino’s Invisible Cities), but when they are not it sometimes helps to visit them.
RE: What’s next for Rick Moody?
RM: A new novel!
RE: Any hint as to what type of landscape we might encounter in this new novel?
RM: The new novel is in its infancy, but it concerns a radio producer who is badly injured in a roadside bombing in a certain Middle Eastern city, and who comes home to attempt to put the pieces back together. It is mostly realistic, though his memory is full of holes. It is, I hope, a bit dramatic. It is unfilmable. It is about the clashing of certain points of view. It has fewer jokes than the other books I have written recently.
RE: When you speak of trying to create new pathways and neural connections, the premise of your new novel sounds like it’s geared wonderfully to do just that. Does music play a role in trying to navigate a memory that is full of holes?
RM: I don’t know that music is going to play much of a role in the new novel. In fact, the character, Joshua Burns, has sort of bad taste in music. He’s from the Midwest, and has kind of a Farm-Aid sensibility with regard to music: John Cougar Mellencamp, and contemporary country, etc. But there is a music in radio, to radio, which is why he works there. The novel, in a way, is meant to be mostly aural. He doesn’t describe visual things, after a while just the way things sound. Or that is the idea. I don’t know if it will work or not. And a novel is what happens after you give up on all your original ideas.
RE: How has your long love affair with music shaped your writing career?
RM: Music gets me out of the house sometimes, into the world, and it also makes me a better listener, and that is good for my language, my craft. Music makes me think more carefully about language, about melody and rhythm. So it has shaped me a great deal, probably as much as literature has.
RE: How intentional is the use of brand names in your work? Are they used to subvert or evoke rather than directly advertise – is it branding used in an ironic sense?
RM: Right: the product placement is parodistic, spasmodic. And intentional. Literature is not supposed to have such things in it. But that rarified version of literature is something worth thumbing your nose at occasionally. If only because it makes you feel alive to do so. I bet there aren’t too many brand names in Thomas Mann. But I like them, and they feel as though they refer to a world I know well, and that is reason enough. Brands, though they are post-modern and dreadful are also, in the run-amok capitalism of now, totally realistic.
RE: During your visit to Antioch Los Angeles in December, you discussed imagination and revision and mentioned a scientific approach to writing. How do you view the relationship between this scientific approach to writing and the art of it?
RM: I don’t really think my approach is scientific so much as it is about boiling down the ineffable part of writing into some steps that may prove useful to anyone. I would use the word pragmatic. There are certain pragmatic steps you can take today to improve. I think that doesn’t de-romanticize craft entirely. There’s still a lot of room for creativity, as long as you agree to revise as well. So there are these two steps, the ineffable part (which involves imagination), and the pragmatic part, which involves rewriting. You should try to make use of each.
RE: Do you see your work as affecting any type of social change? What is your greatest hope for your readers? What’s your greatest hope as a writer?
RM: I believe in social change, and I believe that literature can serve that function, but I also think that social change, as an aesthetic agenda, can sometimes slow down the work, make it a bit sludgy, because social change, if you lean on it too much, can be a bit preachy in a novelistic context. For me, therefore, the goal is to find a way to get to that material without being heavy handed about it. One way to do that is: formal innovation. If you can change how people think, maybe you can change how they act.
To answer your other two enormous questions: a) I have no hope for my readers except that they are quixotic types who are willing to go to a new place with me, b) I am somewhat hopeless as a writer now, at least as regards my own fortunes. I guess I still want to save lives and change the world, but I would be satisfied with avoiding total obscurity.
RE: How does formal innovation play a part in not being too heavy-handed when it comes to presenting material related to social change?
RM: What I mean is a variation on the George Clinton line: “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” New ways of thinking about story change the way people think. And changing the way they think changes the way they act. In my view, then, Ulysses, by James Joyce, is a revolutionary novel, because it brings humanity to marginalized peoples, particularly a Jewish-Irish protagonist, for whom Anti-Semitism is a daily part of his life. It doesn’t bring about this revolution by saying “Leopold Bloom was going to have to deal with Anti-Semites again that day.” It brings about the revolution by making him a completely verifiable and true character, one with whom anyone could sympathize, even an Anti-Semite. And he is made true by all the experimenting with point of view and permeability of consciousness that is essential to Joyce’s project. You don’t need to free your mind with propaganda, you need to free your mind by casting off all the shackles, of which a rigid naturalist formula for storytelling is one.
RE: If we can change the way we think to change the way we act, can this find its roots in memory? If we can change the way we remember, then can we change the way we think and so on?
RM: Ideally, memory is accurate, but in a practical setting, not so much. So it may be that you can re-imagine your relationship with memory. You can understand memory as a faulty system. And you can plan for your future that way. You can “remember” that your memories are more wish fulfillment than accurate depiction of what happened.
RE: I see wishing to avoid total obscurity as wanting to connect with readers and be remembered. Say your new novel will connect so fully with one reader’s mind and soul that his or her way of thinking will be irrevocably changed. Whose mind do you change?
RM: It doesn’t matter who the reader is. It only matters that they get it, that they care. It could be anyone.
I recently attended the Third International Conference on Genocide, where I presented a paper on the rights and responsibilities of cultural appropriation. I wrote the paper because, having penned a novel from the point of view of a young Tutsi boy coming of age in the time surrounding the Rwandan genocide, it is a topic with which I frequently wrestle. During the Q&A, a Rwandan man raised his hand. “Don’t you feel silly,” he asked, “writing fiction about the Rwandan Genocide?”
After my initial shock and a few clarifying words, I realized that the question was not, as I had first thought, flippant but rather a query into the nature of fiction itself and into its ability to engage an event so vast and unspeakable as genocide. I realized, too, that for me, it was actually a conflation of the two central questions that define my writing. Why do I write about social justice? And, given that I am driven to address these issues, why indeed do I use fiction to address them?
Perhaps the answer to both these questions is that in my case, neither of them is a choice. I have written fiction since I was a young child; fiction is in large part the way I organize the confusion of this world in order to make sense of it. I was also raised in an environment that cultivated concern for issues of social responsibility. For me to conflate the two was therefore instinctive and reflexive. I cut my novelistic eyeteeth on the literature of social responsibility—it was much of what my parents gave me to read—so when I began to write as an adult, I naturally gravitated toward similar subjects. Until the gentleman from Rwanda called this conflation into question, I had never given it much thought.
One cannot talk about about the literature of social justice without speaking of social responsibility. The term “social responsibility” means that the awareness of social injustice, from the local to the global, necessitates specific actions to combat those injustices. In other words, social responsibility and social activism are inextricably intertwined; once aware of the injustice, one is morally obliged to act. Taking the logic one step further, fiction, in my case, becomes a form of social activism; it is one of the primary weapons I have chosen as a means to fight injustice.
The relationship between fiction writers and social responsibility is a long one. It began with Don Quixote when he became a knight-errant and set off on his quest to “right all manner of wrongs.” It continued with Dickens and Jane Austen, with Elie Wiesel, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Isabel Allende, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. It continues today with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Shahriar Mandanipour, Shahrnush Parsipur and Orhan Pamuk. Social responsibility fuels passion, and passion fuels great writing. What would this world have lost if the great writers of social justice had not chosen to change the world through the written word and specifically through the art of fiction? Many of those writers live or lived in a place where speaking out in public is forbidden. By couching their message in allegory, they could slip their protests into the world.
Writers, to be sure, are not safe from imprisonment, torture and death. Oppressive governments are well aware of the power of the book. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist and writer, was hanged for his social activism against the government’s environmental policies. A book burning campaign was one of the first coordinated actions when the Third Reich came to power in 1933.
I am a social activist. I am also a fiction writer. Both are part of my identity as a human being, as a teacher, and as a writer. To take either one away would be like cutting off a limb, and to have one without the other would not be possible. I chose Antioch University for my MFA in large part because it is a school devoted to “a social justice perspective.”
Social justice infuses nearly all my fiction, whether directly or indirectly, and I cannot imagine what shape my stories would take if they did not in some manner address this. Issues concerning social justice are most often what first move me to put pen to paper, even if the threads of the injustice are woven into a seemingly unrelated arc. Conversely, my fiction also drives my awareness of social justice. It was the extensive research I undertook to understand the Rwandan genocide that led me to a commitment to the work of ending genocide on a global scale. It was one of the most important decisions I have made in my life, both as a writer and as a human being.
The awareness of social justice causes and the propensity to dwell inside a world of my own fictive creation have been with me since I can remember. I have been a storyteller since I knew how to speak. I was an extremely active child, and inventing stories was how my parents kept me calm and entertained. In the car, my mother and I concocted lives past, present and future for the occupants of every house we passed. At home, my father wrote illustrated stories for all my stuffed animals, and I had quite a few.
One of the first role models my mother gave me was Joan of Arc, and what I loved about her was that she was willing to give up her life to defend her beliefs. Despite my young age, it was a message that went straight to my heart and burrowed in, and it has stuck with me all these years. My mother’s choice of heroines was not accidental, even if unconscious. A refugee from the Bukovina region of Eastern Europe, she was born in a horse-drawn wagon while her parents fled WWI. Her great-grandmother, who refused to flee, was murdered with her own Shabbas candlestick. My mother and her parents settled in Zurich, and she came of age during Hitler’s rise to power. As was the case with many Jews at that time, she was active in communist youth groups and in anti-Nazi activities. When the German ambassador visited Zurich, my mother climbed on his car and ripped off the Nazi flag. Her actions did not go unnoticed—my mother had flaming red hair—and her family was threatened with deportation. My grandfather, understanding what returning to the Bukovina meant, booked immediate passage on a ship bound for Australia. They never made it beyond Canada, but that is another long tale, the result of which was my birth.
I tell my mother’s story for two reasons. The first is because I firmly believe that my own relationship with social activism was passed down to me through her DNA. She fought her way into medical school in Canada when there was a strict quota both for women and for Jews. When she married my father in 1944, she fought to retain her identity by hyphenating her last name. When my parents came to the United States, she fought her way into a professorship in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and fought for the creation of a special department in women’s studies at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Later, after I was born, she fought for civil rights and to end the war in Vietnam. I only hope that I have become half the fighter she was.
But I also tell my mother’s story because nested in that same sequence of DNA is the need to tell stories. As I have said, the two are paired inside the double helix and cannot be unpaired. The story of Joan of Arc and the issues of justice for which she fought could not be divided in my mind, and so, when I came to understand that I had to tell the story of the Rwandan genocide, fiction was the only way I knew to tell it.
This brings us to the second part of the question, the part the gentleman from Rwanda directly addressed. Is fiction indeed an appropriate modality when dealing with atrocity and injustice on the scale of genocide, or does it somehow demean the topic? In the case of the Holocaust, this question has long been settled. During the symposia to honor the centennial celebration of the Nobel Prize, the literary symposium concentrated on the genre of “Witness Literature.” As Michael Bachmann states in his paper, “Life, Writing, and the Problems of Genre in Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertész,” the literature of witness is “the formative genre of the 20th century.” Today’s literary canon is replete with examples that extend witness literature to apartheid in South Africa, slavery and racism in the US, and dystopian societies that symbolize governmental injustices, to name a few.
What is it specifically about fiction that justifies its use as a weapon against social injustice on a massive scale? I believe it has to do with the empathy that the world of a novel creates. In her recent New York Times op-ed, “And the Winner Isn’t,” which addresses the failure of the fiction judges to pick a winner for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, Ann Patchett states,
“Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”
I believe there is a second reason that is related to the specific craft of fiction. Although one is certainly constrained by the holistic sense of facts when writing a novel meant to represent historical events—surely one does not have the freedom to reinvent that history—as a fictional accounting, the writer does have the liberty to shape those truths into a broader “story truth,” as Tim O’Brien puts it. In painting “story truth,” the writer can add a little lightness here, cast a shadow there, in order to heighten emotion and empathy, to guide the reader toward one certain picture of the world and away from another.
That I would tell the story of the Rwandan genocide through fiction was never a question for me. I returned to writing fiction, after a long hiatus, at the same time that I became involved with the local African refugee community. I returned to writing because after my father’s death, I knew it would make me feel alive again. I decided to work with the local refugee community because the Lost Boys of Sudan were much in the news, and there was a large community of refugees from Darfur in Tucson, where I live. I knew I had to do something more than wear a green wristband and send thirty dollars to the Save Darfur Coalition, as worthy as those actions might be. Through a series of serendipitous events, I ended up working with the Somali Bantu community in Tucson as a volunteer with Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Their personal stories broke my heart and took my breath, but what stayed with me was the spirit and determination of the people. Soon, fictional stories started to grow in my mind, seeded by the experiences of these quietly courageous human beings.
I decided to focus on the Rwandan genocide when I visited Rawanda in 2002. While walking on the beach at Lake Kivu, I discovered human bones in the sand. I got down on my hands and knees and gathered some of the bones together and held them in my palms. It was a seminal moment. I realized that what I cradled were not just bones but stories. I realized, too, that if someone did not tell the stories of the bones, those stories would be lost forever. That was the moment I decided to write a novel about Rwanda.
As much as I fought that decision (who was I to tell the stories?), it would not leave my mind or my heart. Before going to Rwanda, I knew a little bit about the genocide, but not much beyond the fact that it had happened, and that a lot of people were killed. The story resonated with me because I grew up with the ghosts of the Holocaust wandering around my house. Hardly anyone in my mother’s extended family survived; her side of the family is a black hole around which a few old photographs orbit. The words never again formed the core of my mother’s being; they lit the flame of her social activism, and she passed the flame on to me.
When I came back from Rwanda and began to talk about my experiences, I realized how little people in the West knew about what had happened there. I had made friends during that first trip, and their stories had become important to me. I wanted those stories to become important to others as well. I began the long process of researching the genocide. I read every book on Rwanda I could get my hands on. I went back to Rwanda for three more extended visits, staying with Rwandans who had become my friends, interviewing survivors, standing in the sites where genocide had occurred, and listening to testimonies given during the memorial services that mark the annual April commemoration of the onset of the event. I wanted Westerners to understand that the genocide was more than a few seconds of news footage to turn away from during dinner; it was an unspeakable event that changed the lives of everyone in the country forever. Its ripples spread out across the continent, and its effects are still felt today, far beyond the borders of Rwanda.
I also wanted Westerners to understand that the genocide was not just a fight that spontaneously erupted between two tribes. It was meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated, and in the case of Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi are not really two separate tribes; they are one people whose imposed permanent division was largely the result of colonial intervention. I wanted Westerners to understand that genocide could happen anywhere. It could happen here, in the United States. It could happen to us.
The only way I knew to tell this story was through fiction. I needed to create characters that lived and breathed as they moved through a world in which the noose of genocide slowly tightened around their necks. I needed human beings whom the reader would come not only to believe in but also to love. I needed the reader to come to understand the insidious beast of genocide by letting those human beings I created, partly from my own imagination and partly from the melting pot of my friends and their stories, into their hearts.
As a teenager, I chose to change the world by marching and sleeping on the steps of the Pentagon, but those days for me—at least for the moment—are over. Now I fight with the word. Just as I believed then that I could reach a wide audience by adding my voice and my footsteps to the crowd, I believe now that the power of the written word will effect change. I believe that someone can read a novel and be moved to say, “There must be something I can do,” and beyond that, to do it.
The literature of social justice changes the world one reader at a time. Sometimes, the enormity of injustice can seem overwhelming. Rather than demean its scope, I believe fiction has the power to shape events so that the reader can grasp them rather than turn away. It has the power to shine a focused beam by actually deflecting it. I understood this when as a child I recreated the story of Joan of Arc in my head. My mother understood it when she first told it to me. At the time, I had no idea that the story that lay beneath the surface of this telling was of the near-annihilation of a people. Our people. But so it is with fiction. We fall in love with a world and the characters that populate it, and so, despite the unspoken horror, we keep reading.
Clip clop clip clop.
That’s the sound
you hear in the afternoon.
Horseshoes on asphalt.
Kids whooping it up.
Pop! Crack! Pop! Crack!
That’s the sound you hear
of gunshot in the air.
in the distance.
the sky overhead.
This my neighborhood.
Only this ain’t no palace.
This the place you hear about
on the news every night.
The place no one goes to
unless you have to.
The place where
every day you wake up
might be your last.
When Daddy and his friends
Ride their horses down the street,
people stop in their tracks
and gawk like they can’t believe
what they seeing.
Folks shake they head like,
We got cowboys in Philly!
Sometimes I pretend
I don’t know him
and just let him ride on
But some of the guys
don’t let it go.
They always digging on me:
where your pony at?
why ain’t you out riding
in a rodeo?!
I just shut my mouth
and look at the ground.
Count to ten.
Don’t call me Cowboy.
I hate all them names.
I’m just plain Coltrane,
like my moms call me.
he the one runnin’ the stable
on Fletcher Street,
the one keeping
I don’t care about
I’m just trying to
and make it
through the day.
that’s a hard thing to do
when your daddy
is a cowboy.
who ever heard
in the ‘hood?
horses in my blood and
that I got ta protect
the old ways.
How’m I gon’ be
the next Kobe
if everyone thinks
I’m some fool
Most them kids
look at me
like I’m some
But I ain’t no
I just happen
to be the son of one.
The old heads
in the neighborhood
is even worse.
boots, hat an’ all.
of the oldheads
I should be proud
to call myself
He say cowboy
is a black word,
like from back
in the civil war days
houseboys and such,
and the ones
that herded the cows
was called cowboys.
they was so good
that the white dudes
took that word over
and made it a good thing
He say black cowboys
from coast to coast
and up and down
the Chisolm Trail.
is all that’s left.
in north Philly,
where there ain’t
a cow in sight
‘cept for the one
in my Big Mac.
People like my daddy
take that cowboying
When you walk in
the front door
of his house,
we was in a stable.
Saddles and riding blankets,
brushes and horse feed
is what you’ll see.
He even had to move
into the bedroom
’cause they wasn’t
no more room
to sit down
with all that stuff!
But it’s not as bad as
He actually keep
in his house.
I’m not kidding.
That horse got a room
just like Petey do.
My moms went over there once
and knocked on the door
just as the horse
was making his way out
and down the front steps!
My mom says
if that ever happens
And I’ll be
right behind her.
I wouldn’t be caught
in one of them
I got my uniform:
my Sixers jersey,
my Kobe shoes,
my Phillies cap
slanted just right.
That’s what I’m
I’m a baller,
just like Kobe.
He from around here too,
so it ain’t so far fetched
that I could follow
in his footsteps
he don’t wear
like them oldheads.
He a working man,
got his white T, jeans,
and work boots.
He keeps his cowboy boots
for special events,
at the Speedway.
is a strip a emptiness
over at Fairmont Park
to race their horse.
The horses all got names
things that’s fast.
His horse is called Boo.
’cause when he scared,
he run faster
than the eyes
poppin’ outta his head.
When he race,
my cousin Smush
sneak up on him
and when they lower the flag,
he yell Boo!
that horse will fly.
Daddy say he like seeing
speed by in a blur.
It’s like flying.
The only sounds
is the horse’s hoofs
on the dead leaves and dirt,
gruntin’ and sweatin’
with every gallop,
an’ the wind
whistling in his ears.
When it’s like that,
all a his problems
his head he say.
I can kinda see that.
Maybe one day
I’d be into that kinda thing.
It’s the rest of the time,
when we’re not at
that I don’t like
the Cowboy Life.
the horses get scared.
I get up
in my pajamas
’cause daddy’s too dang old
(he almost 35!).
I go out back
in the horse’s ears
to calm ’em
from all the city noises—
and thumping bass
of cars passing by.
‘Specially ol’ Boo.
The first time
I ever laid eyes on that horse,
I knew he was trouble.
He had a crazy look
in his eyes,
and his hair stood up
every which way—
like he just woke up
from a nightmare
or something terrible.
He was spooked
from the start,
which is why
we named him Boo,
just dropped a spider
on his back.
Daddy got him
at the meat auction
before they was gonna
put him down.
like a country horse,
’cause when daddy rode him
around the neighborhood,
he was all on edge.
I don’t think
he was used to seeing
so many black folk,
even though he
was black too.
When Boo’s spooked
I give him some carrots
and tell him the stories
I heard the old heads
’cause I figure
horses like stories
Stories about roaming
the Chisholm Trail,
where there was no fences
and the open road
headed to nowhere
at the same time.
Not that I believe that stuff.
It’s just fairy tales and
I don’t got room
in my head
for things that ain’t real…
‘cept if helps
to get Boo
“He’s a wild one.
Just like you.”
I guess that’s how
my old man see me,
a bit wild and
That’s why he got Boo,
to keep me company
or busy in the stables.
He figures Boo’ll
keep me outta trouble.
if I’m into horses,
I’m not gonna be
roaming the streets
looking for trouble
like my cousin Smush.
Streets got him
and they ain’t lettin’ go.
He used to a nice boy,
my pops say,
but now he hooked
on the thug life
and won’t even look
at a horse no more.
He say horses is fer girls
and white dudes.
I can’t say I disagree.
Still, I don’t wanna be
like Smush neither.
So I stick to the stables.
And every once and a while,
when I know my friends
and everyone’s away
I put on my cowboy boots,
my daddy gave me,
and give ol’ Boo a ride
around the corral
in the vacant lot
across the street.
I be ditchin’ school
to do it.
I don’t know why.
I think ol’ Boo need me
so don’t make nuthin’
The rest of the time,
I got my uniform on,
my game face ready
to take on the world.
Don’t call me Tex
I’m just Cole
from Strawberry Mansion,
the last frontier
of the ghetto cowboy.
And I play pretty mean ball too.
G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author of Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty. For his first book of verse, Chess Rumble, he was named the recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award. His latest novel Ghetto Cowboy is the 2012 winner of the Horace Mann Upstanders Award. The above unpublished verse was inspired by a real neighborhood in North Philly, which in turn, inspired the novel. To read more about the real black urban horsemen of Fletcher Street, visit www.gregneri.com/cowboy.html.
Today I stood in the kitchen and watched my father spoon cold, congealed oatmeal into a plastic bag. It can be very quiet, the moment you choose to forgive someone. The intention doesn’t always announce itself. It creeps in, there’s little calculation. You didn’t think it would be so small, so heartbreaking.
Standing in a room with my father watching him pack gruel for lunch—feeling sorry that this is what it has come to, wondering why he’s never learned to properly feed himself, realizing this is maybe where I get it from—throws certain things into relief. I am a grown woman (sort of—a twentysomething) living in an apartment where my father keeps the last three decades of his life. It’s amazing how strange we still are to each other. How even just this morning I noticed something in him that had gone unrecognized until now; those you should be closest to, so often the furthest away.
I was born in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and brought back to this apartment on West 123rd Street. I don’t remember it, but my dad had an old rocking chair where he’d sit holding me late at night. He was finishing medical school; my mom told me that most evenings it appeared I put him to sleep rather than the other way around.
I only see snapshots of what this early life was like—the steep hill down to the corner bodega where I’d buy a long plastic tube of pink gumballs, the tall co-op buildings across the street, the fence in front of them—but there are no moving pictures of my baby New York. When I was four, my mother packed up her kids and moved us to North Carolina for the sunshine and good schools and pretty ladies we wouldn’t have to watch my father try to seduce.
But now I am back. Yes, after childhood and college I returned to West 123rd Street where my father used to rock me to sleep. We have one of those odd living situations that often mark true New York families. A large percentage of college graduates return home to live with their parents at some point. Only, I don’t live with him exactly and I hardly consider it a return as “dad” and “home” are words that never meaningfully connected for me.
He doesn’t sleep here. I don’t know where he sleeps—he won’t answer direct questions. A shrug, a shake of the head, silence; these are powerful tools in the arsenal of evasion. What began as a temporary site to crash while I got my footing in the big city became permanent as my dad slowly started spending less time here; it became clear I wouldn’t have to actually live with him in any significant way. I’d be amongst his things, near his work, a phone call away (though wasn’t I always that?). But mostly, the apartment is mine. I write in the front room, I’ve had sex on the couch, I pace up and down the long hallway during insomniac nights: all freedoms conditioned on the fact that I am the primary tenant.
But he’s here in the mornings before heading to work, deeper in Harlem; fixing what passes for breakfast, brewing his coffee in that coffeemaker that I swear he’s never washed, looking like the day should be ending for him, not beginning. Sometimes it seems mere inconvenience to wake and find him here. I would rather not have to make small talk. Hell, I don’t like talking to anyone in the morning, but my dad? We don’t even know how to talk in general. But I can’t complain. Stilted communication in exchange for a rent-stabilized apartment is a good deal.
On a typical weekday I hear the front door unlock a little after seven a.m., his brown Rockports on the uneven wood floor, eleven beeps as he dials area code 919. My mother. Yes, they’re divorced. Yes, there are secrets. Yes, she is the love of his life. I don’t question these things anymore, though other people seem to need theories. My parents separated because of my father’s affairs. When one day it was announced that I had a half-sister, too—one he hadn’t told us about for years—then it was my turn to feel personally betrayed, as well.
Somehow my parents found a form of acceptance, though, and they still speak every day. The morning shuffle, my dad’s voice muffled in the back of the apartment; I can’t usually make out the words, but I know he is steeling himself for another long day. My mother calms him. She has that effect on many.
This morning was different, though; the murmurings unsteady, the air heavy.
“I told you, I told you, I told you what-what-what was going to happen. No listen, no listen, I, I, I…”
I didn’t know my father stuttered when angry, wondered if it was the pure intensity of his emotion or whether the person on the other end was just talking so much, the points of entry back into the conversation so small, that my father couldn’t slip the words in, had to keep repeating them. Or was he not listening? How could one hear when trying to talk over someone like that?
I knew he couldn’t be talking to my mother; she is the one he turns to for comfort and could never elicit such unpleasantness. It had to do with his new office, I figured. The one we’ve all been nervous about, its opening a year past schedule, a hundred grand sunk deep into its abyss. My father is a doctor and most of his patients are poor. He never turns them away for lack of pay; it’s one of the reasons he himself is always in financial straits.
I had to be up earlier than usual. As I tumbled out of bed, I saw the light on in the bathroom and realized this was why I could hear him so clearly: he was next to my room. I walked past, deploying one of our passive-aggressive tactics. The door to the bathroom doesn’t close. We don’t turn our heads to look, but you can’t help the peripheral vision, the glimpse of a compromised form.
He was in a very heated conversation—money can do that —and there seemed no good time to tell him to get off the toilet. He was doing his business. I walked past again, to reinforce my presence. Finally, I said from the hall, “Sorry Dad, but I’m going to have to get in there soon.” He told the person on the line to hold the phone and flushed the toilet, zipped up his pants.
Later, in the kitchen, he said to me, “Sion the Be-on, that’s your nickname.” He seemed aimless in his tasks, almost stymied by the hot water now cooling, the bowl still wet from washing. Though “Sion the Be-on” is most certainly not one of my nicknames, I felt it would be petty to correct him, he so fragile right then. I think my dad gets nostalgic for things that are hardly real, invents shared connections. Pretends like he’s been more a part of my life than he ever has been.
But maybe he has been, and that’s the rub. Maybe my father has spent hours of his life holding me in his thoughts. Spent years, those silent years when I refused to talk to him, playing conversations in his head that we might have had if only I would share my voice.
“Because your middle name is Sabreen. So, the B…you always seem to “be on” to something…” He stopped and shook his head. “You’ll have to forgive me today,” he said, choking on the last word. His eyes grew watery; they were already red. They’re often red. I don’t think he sleeps much, even as where he does sleep remains a mystery. This would account for my memories of him when I was a young child: the man who came to visit us one weekend a month in North Carolina and passed out for egregious amounts of time to catch up on all the missed slumber, snoring so loud that two closed doors did little to suppress the thunderous noise. I resented those snores. And I wondered what kind of man comes to see his family (one of them?) only to spend so long lying flat on a bed.
“I know, Dad,” was all I could say. I’d have to forgive him today, as he said, and I would. I did. I have. He was only asking for that one moment, I think, for this anomalous morning and his inarticulateness, but maybe it was for everything, too.
We stood looking at each other, and I finally walked over, awkwardly wrapped my arms around him, the process almost mechanical. A hug would be appropriate now, I told myself. Try to provide comfort. It would be right to do this. Whereas it was the bustling city that might have scared me when I moved back to New York, it was actually the proposition of having to forge a relationship with my father I found most terrifying.
Back when I did share the same space with my dad, phone calls came late at night, in the middle of it, even, and I would listen as he asked careful questions, suggested explanations and remedies, ordered prescription refills. His patients are devoted to him and he gives his time generously. It’s as if office hours don’t exist; he answers whenever they need him. Witnessing this side of him, I could understand how to some he is a healer.
Only, there are many things left unhealed.
“If you ever get into anything like this, get it all on paper. If things seem too good…Just make sure you know the people you’re involved with.” Dad was standing in the doorway, holding his cup of cold coffee, still filled to the top.
“Of course, you know that, it’s just…”
“I know,” I said. The fatherly advice—this, too, always seemed awkward, out of place. When I was younger, I told him he had no right to tell me anything.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, it’s ok.”
“I was always so proud of you,” he said, his voice breaking again. That was new to me, too. He turned around as he was saying this, walked heavily down the hall. I stood staring blankly at the coffeemaker still dripping black liquid intermittently. My bowl of cereal was now completely mush.
* * *
So few words I give to him—staccato sentences, short utterances—and still he intuits something to be proud of. Though I would not say I desire it, I also wouldn’t say I deserve it.
“You have such a silent way of viewing the world,” he said, another time, halfway down the hall again, his back turned. “I have no idea what you’re thinking.”
If he only knew all the words that are inside me. But how do I expect him to? With most people, I am empathetic and sensitive: a toucher, a feeler. With my father, these impulses morph to the robotic, the remote—I hear a cold voice offer monosyllables, my arms hang limp around his back, my mien as unappealing as his porridge. I recognize the worst in myself—for this I am not proud.
It frustrates me how much there is underneath it all, and the inexplicable force compelling me to remain so closed. I guess you could call it a defense mechanism, but a defense against what at this point, I’m unsure. I wonder why I must act as though I’m enduring something. The residue of a perceived insult, the detritus of past misunderstanding.
But we’ve come a long way. It’s better. Getting to know my father as an adult illuminates certain things I had never admitted before. I realize I am not the only one affected. I look at him and I see he is affected, too; no one escapes unscathed. At twenty-seven, an adolescent’s self-absorption has receded. I acknowledge his pain, which I never allowed before. I replaced my youthful rage with a certain measure of indifference, a coating of stoicism, at least. It is my parents’ affair, I say, (literally) theirs, and not mine. Perhaps I’ve swung too far towards detachment.
But I’m not detached, really, which is why I care that it continues to be so complex to stand in a room and love my father. But I do. There are certain facts that history cannot change—infidelity, distance—but facts now seem different from emotional truth.
There is mythology in most families. I can tell you of the woman named Day, the color of cocoa butter, her lover Night, dark as the country sky with no stars, and the strong boys they brought into the world during slavery times—Day’s sons.
But in this case, we are not surnames or genealogy or ancestry. In my brief twentysomething life, my father and I, the daughter, have created our own mythology. Like the rocking chair as artifact. The affectionate nicknames we do not use. The sentiments believed known to the other that were not.
In a way, I guess I am following my father’s advice: I’m getting to know the people I’m involved with, putting it down on paper. Investigating just why I haven’t wanted to admit that having a father is an involvement. Attempts at conversation still hard with his monologues and non sequiturs, me with a flowing pen, but tight lips—but I think we are both learning about give and take. Longings and shortcomings; we all have them.
I imagine my dad coming in one Sunday morning so we can go for brunch; we do every once in awhile. One of us might say, “We should fix the light in the hallway—it’s gone out.” Then we’ll walk down the hill to the corner diner; my dad will order the lumberjack’s breakfast, and me, anything but oatmeal.
-New York, 2005
Mount Shasta, California,
at 8400 feet
Hours before the spaceship burst from the mountain, the four of us broke camp in snow just below tree line. Right away I fell behind, panting, leaning into the slope and a wind so warm you’d think it had cooked all night in Shasta’s summit crater before streaming down on us. By mid-morning I was drenched, my jacket flung open, the others glancing back at me, trying to hide their disappointment. Squinting behind glacier goggles, I grew furious at myself for misjudging the hard but simple science of altitude, for turning into a drag chute on friends who’d counted on me to show up in condition. I’d been misjudging so many things lately.
Chinook, Snow Eater, the locals called this wind. But it wasn’t eating anything fast enough for me, just softening the mountain so that with each step I sank to my calves, then knees, though at least the others had started post-holing, too. No need for the ice ax and crampons in my pack. Now the three of them had stopped above me, leaning over their poles, gulping air and water. I think they were also giving me a chance to catch up. But part of me was already drifting off, looking for a doorway buried in snow, a portal to one of the New Age dream vaults Shasta was famous for.
Lemuria with its white-robed Ascended Masters. The Sunken Continent of Atlantis, lifted somehow from the blue murk of the Mediterranean. A hangar for the spaceships that were said to hover at the summit in the form of lenticular clouds. All of them beating in the stone heart of the mountain. Who could believe such soft science?
But yesterday, in a bookshop in town, a clear-eyed woman had smiled at me and said a world of my choice was waiting inside Shasta, its curving gold walls spackled with whatever jewels my life needed. I loved her for saying that, though what I needed now, I thought, stranded in slush, was milder wind and a much fitter body. A gem or two of my old lost grace wouldn’t hurt, either.
Then someone yelled “Hey!” and I looked up into the roaring and saw something break from the high snow–a luminous orange ship in the form of a nylon tent, billowing, blown from its moorings. It took a giant bounce down slope, pole-like antennae sticking out. It bounced again, swerved in the air. When it flew over my crouching friends and grew larger, I thought of jumping to the side, but my legs felt locked in snow.
That’s when everything turned orange.
Before the endless cups of black coffee, you dreamed one night of a plump man the shape of a pear hanging above your bed screwing on a golden penis. “It wasn’t the fact that it was gold that made me wake up in tears it was the fact he was turning it to the left and it was getting tighter.” She told me she hated things involving force penetration, but loved watching Law & Order. The montage of banana rapes and the most famous person who done it kept it real enough with a tinge of fairytale, like she likes her coffee: dark & sweet. After black rings paste together cup and table we exit in front the cha-ching of a register then through doors chiming with golden bells, “wait, can you smell that?” She had often stopped me to smell things: fresh cut cold cuts, smoked fish, all reminding her of a place she barely knew. The night carried more than honking cabs wrestling for uppity travelers. “That’s Poland, right there, breathe in deep.” Pacing over Queens Village’s empty nine dollar Georgi Vodka bottles, our feet crunched on broken glass, onto the lawn of an abandoned house, it came: firewood burning. “That’s the Poland I know, but New York strips people like a butcher skinning a pig, all that’s left are bones.”
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