A-B-A

I.

Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra rolled into town during the driest weeks of August, the dog days, when even children stayed indoors because it was too hot to play outside. He had traveled for weeks across the desert, stopping at whatever villages he encountered, but no place had given him reason to stay. Most of his life had transpired that way. His horse, Prudence, who had carried him faithfully for some time, was a breath away from the glue factory. The evening before he arrived, as he sat on a hilltop overlooking the town, the old mare knelt down and refused to get up. The next morning he left her carcass lying beneath the juniper tree and walked into town, hat pulled high away from his face to show he didn’t mean any trouble.

The streets were empty; the morning sun baked everything into a hard-packed crust. A barber sat in the shade outside his shop, one leg crossed over the other. “Well,” he said as the stranger walked by, “you look like you could use a shave and a haircut. What’s your name, traveler?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “You can call me Rodolfo.” His family had a tradition of long names, and he felt a duty to uphold the custom. One of his names had been his grandfather’s, another his father’s, but since he’d never met either of them, he didn’t know which ones were theirs. Manuel, he suspected, was some kind of religious label, given to him as a small child. In fact he guessed that his first four names were all tributes of one kind or another, and that only “Rodolfo” belonged to him and him alone. The barber eyed him as he stood in the street.

“Well, Rodolfo, a shave might cool you off.”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

‟I’ve no need of a shave,” Rodolfo said. “What I need is help with my horse. She died last night, and I want to dispose of her properly. I can’t bear the thought of her rotting in the sun.”

“Normally you would talk to the sheriff about it,” the barber said. “But he’s away chasing some outlaw. I doubt anyone would help you in this heat. You might as well come inside and let me trim that mop.”

Rodolfo smiled, tipped his hat, and continued.

He found a shopkeeper willing to loan him a shovel and spent most of the afternoon digging a grave for poor old Prudence. Finally, with the sun low in the sky, he found himself trudging back through town, the shovel hung over his shoulder like a bindle. Dogs emerged from under the porches where they slept all day, and now slunk around Rodolfo’s feet.

“They recognize one of their own,” the barber called as Rodolfo passed. The man sat in the same spot as before. He pinched a cigar between thumb and forefinger.

Rodolfo narrowed his eyes. “Are you calling me a dog?”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

Rodolfo had to admit that, after weeks of travel, he gave off a rather unpleasant smell. He climbed the steps, leaned his shovel against the porch railing, and went inside. The shop had only one chair, and a shelf with several pairs of scissors, straight razors, and tonic bottles of all sizes. The barber led Rodolfo straight to the backyard. He filled a tub with water and tossed Rodolfo a bar of soap and a scrub brush.

“That water is cold, but it will do the job. I have an old smock you can wear, instead of those filthy clothes.”

“I have no money,” Rodolfo said.

“You can sweep hair in my shop to make up for it. That way I can relax on the porch and watch the chickens peck the dust.”

Rodolfo saw how things would go. He would enjoy the cool of the barber’s shop for a few days, push a broom around the floor, maybe even earn more than what he owed for the bath. By the end of the week he could get an old horse, or maybe a mule if no one had anything else, and be on his way. He missed Prudence, but it seemed her death wouldn’t actually slow him down.

The barber had three customers the next day, ranch hands who eyed Rodolfo warily but didn’t ask any questions. He was used to such treatment. Men who led settled lives, who had jobs and wives and children, held no faith in the itinerant. Rodolfo swept their shorn hair while the barber sat on the porch smoking his cigars.

Late in the afternoon, a beautiful girl entered the shop. Rodolfo had never seen anyone like her. Black hair shimmered over her shoulders; her skin was brown and smooth, her eyes large and intelligent. The barber grinned as though he knew her—Rodolfo could do nothing but stare.

“Dulzura, what brings you into my shop? Surely you don’t want me to cut off that lovely hair.”

“A message from my father,” the girl said. “To remind you of the card game tonight. You wiped him out last week, and he wants to make sure you’re there so he can get revenge.”

The barber cackled. “Tell that old blowhard I plan on wiping him out again!”

Rodolfo stepped forward. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

The girl looked down quickly—but he had seen something in her eyes. A faint blush colored her face.

A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock.

The barber looked back and forth between them. “Tell your old man I’ll be there. Now you better leave my shop before I take the scissors to your hair and make a wig out of it!” The girl ran out into the street, leaving Rodolfo feeling as though he’d seen a miracle.

The barber didn’t waste any time. He pointed his shears at Rodolfo and said, “You’d better watch yourself. That’s the sheriff’s sister, and neither he nor anyone else in this town would take kindly to you bothering her.”

“It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Rodolfo said.

“Not for a wayfarer like you,” the barber said. “Besides, don’t you meet lots of women on your travels?”

“Not like her,” Rodolfo said.

That evening he carried the shovel over to the shopkeeper’s in hopes of returning it, but the store had closed for the night. The dogs came out again and followed Rodolfo through the town. A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock. He would do well to head for the coast as soon as possible.

Rounding a corner, he saw the girl walking ahead of him. She carried a bucket of water and her hips twitched from side to side. Pink and purple clouds stretched overhead as Rodolfo ran to catch up with her. The girl stiffened as she heard his footsteps, as though she already knew who it was, and when he reached her, she smiled up at him with the same blush she’d had earlier that day.

“I never got your name,” Rodolfo panted, though he had heard the barber say it.

“Dulzura.” The word was like music on her tongue.

“Dulzura,” Rodolfo said. “Meet me tonight.”

“I can’t,” the girl said. “Tonight is my father’s card game. I serve the men their whiskey.”

“Surely you can find some way,” Rodolfo said.

The girl scrunched up her face, thinking. Rodolfo fought the urge to wrap her in his arms, smother her with kisses.

“All right,” she said finally. “By the fifth or sixth hand, the men are drunk enough to forget about me. They start joking and arguing. I’ll slip away then. Meet me by the riverbank, beneath the willow.”

Rodolfo nodded and, still toting the shovel, went straight to the river, even though Dulzura wouldn’t arrive for hours. He sat on the hard clay banks and watched the water roll slowly past. Cracks split the earth high on both sides where the river used to flow. Rodolfo imagined it as it once was: a crisp, rushing torrent. It hadn’t rained in the desert in a long time.

A sliver of moon, thin as a hangnail, rose in the east and Rodolfo lay back to watch the stars—but a group of low-hanging clouds rolled in to obscure them. The moon shimmered in and out of sight. Rodolfo chewed on a stalk of grass and waited.

The first ominous rumbles had begun when Dulzura crept beside him, silent as a cat, in her white shift. Rodolfo felt a hand on his arm and there she was, her face wide and brown before his. Moonlight rendered her hair a dark shade of blue. “We can’t stay here,” Rodolfo said. “We’ll get wet.”

“I don’t care,” she breathed, and covered his mouth with hers. A throb shot through him, stronger than anything he’d ever felt. He crushed her to his chest, tore the white cloth away to reveal her young breasts, while her lips pulled and sucked at his own, her breath redolent of whiskey. He realized she was drunk but he didn’t care.

He was clutching her backside, moving her into position, when something kicked him in the head. Dulzura screamed. At first Rodolfo thought something had fallen from the tree, a branch or maybe a rock—but then he saw it again, coming at him, and he reached out and grabbed the thing: a boot.

Dulzura scrambled to her feet. “Father, no!” she cried, and Rodolfo knew exactly what had happened. He twisted the boot to one side, hoping to trip the old man, but it came off in his hand and the bare foot smashed into his face. Rodolfo tasted blood. Then a set of wiry fingers closed around his throat. He heard Dulzura screaming faintly, as though from far away, and wondered why her father hadn’t just shot him. He pried the fingers loose but they came back again. He clawed desperately at the old man’s eyes. The man made a guttural noise like an animal, and in the moonlight something flashed at his waist: a knife. Rodolfo looked around for something to fight with: the shovel.

He swung the broad end as hard as he could. The old man ran right into it, was lifted off his feet, and landed on the cracked earth. He did not move. In the distance, thunder rumbled.

Rodolfo stood wheezing. Blood dripped down his chin. Dulzura knelt beside her father and shook his shoulders. Then she turned to Rodolfo and said, “He’s dead, you bastard, you son of a bitch, he’s dead!”

Rodolfo looked into the man’s face. A red hole had replaced his left eye: Rodolfo had scratched his eye out. The shovel hadn’t left any marks, but the old man lay at an awkward angle and his one good eye did not blink. “How could that have killed him?” he said. “Just one hit….”

Dulzura covered herself with the white shift. “Murderer! I’ll see you pay for this!” She ran up the bank, away from the river, wailing “Murderer!” over and over.

“What was I supposed to do?” Rodolfo said. “Let him kill me?”

“He’s an old man!” Dulzura called over her shoulder. “You could have subdued him….” And then she was gone.

Rodolfo turned in circles. He didn’t have much time. Dulzura would sprint into town, gather all the men—the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands—and they would hang poor Rodolfo before the sun rose. Well, he wouldn’t just give up. He had gotten out of scrapes before. He slid down the embankment, into the slow-moving water, and waded across. By the time he climbed up the other side, the heavens had opened up. The river became a churning, frothing monster, unrecognizable and uncrossable. He ran blindly through the rain. Lightning blasted the ground around him. The storm moved forward, washing away his tracks, and Rodolfo didn’t look back.

II.

From the precipice, the valley resembled a long green knife wedged into the earth. Broad leaves waved from stalks. Flowering plants abounded. Such a place could not be uninhabited. Rodolfo descended without knowing what to expect.

As he made his way down the path, he eyed clumps of bananas, nectarines, and other, unrecognizable fruits—but resisted the urge to pluck them. He didn’t yet know whose land he was on.

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

A naked boy, dark as a plum, appeared in front of him. Rodolfo stopped. The boy was about ten years old, and quite unashamed of his nudity—so much so that Rodolfo’s own clothes felt onerous and cumbersome upon him. He looked Rodolfo up and down. “Who are you?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“What a name!”

“Well,” Rodolfo said, “what is your name?”

“Patch,” the boy said.

“And how did you earn this name? You’re not wearing any patch that I can see.”

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

“Listen, Patch,” Rodolfo said. “I’ve traveled a long way and I’m hungry. Whose bananas are these? I don’t want to be accused of theft if I take one.”

“You’re a strange one! The bananas are nobody’s.” With that, the boy ran away down the path. But his answer made Rodolfo uneasy and, despite his hunger, he left the fruit untouched.

As he walked he became aware of a steady noise, like a faraway train, that had been there the whole time. It grew louder and louder, until Rodolfo turned a corner and saw, a hundred feet below, a waterfall cascading into a clear pool, and people everywhere—naked, swimming, basking on the flat rocks. The little boy had already scampered down the path and dived into the water. He splashed around with some other children and seemed to have no intention, as Rodolfo had feared, of alerting the others to his presence.

By the time Rodolfo climbed down, the people had seen him and gathered around to ask questions. Their eyes were bright and quick. No one, from the infants to the elderly, wore a stitch of clothing. Rodolfo addressed them all: “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra. You may call me Rodolfo. I am a traveler, without money—without anything.”

A man clasped his hand. “You must be hungry. Take whatever fruit you like. It grows faster than we can pluck it.”

“Where do you come from?” a woman asked.

“I don’t come from anywhere.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Everyone comes from somewhere.”

“Not me,” Rodolfo said.

The little boy, Patch, reappeared. “Why do you wear those old clothes? Aren’t you hot?”

Rodolfo ignored him, turning to the fellow who had taken his hand. “How is it that such a place exists in the desert? Have I stumbled into the realm of fairies?”

The man laughed. “We are men and women, I assure you. Come rest in the shade. And young Patch is right—unburden yourself of those useless clothes. There is no modesty here.”

The people began turning away, bored already by the newcomer. Rodolfo reluctantly stripped off his pants and smock, but wasn’t sure where to put them. Their mere presence seemed to sully this green place. Finally he placed them under a palm tree and walked to the water’s edge. The pool was frightfully deep but clear all the way to the bottom: children sat down there, blowing bubbles. Rodolfo hadn’t bathed in weeks, since the barber’s tub in that dusty town, and found the water exhilarating. He swam for nearly an hour before climbing out and sunning himself on a grassy spot. He ate fruit until his belly hurt. Then he watched the people as they frolicked like birds.

One of the females approached him. Like Patch, she was plum-dark; her wet hair fell over her breasts; her limbs were long and lean, her eyes almond-shaped and unknowable. Rodolfo tried to hide his body’s reaction by rolling onto his side. But such a thing, in these circumstances, couldn’t be hidden.

“Why are you hiding over here?” the girl said. “You’re the new stranger, aren’t you?”

“I’m not hiding. I’m tired from my travels, that’s all.”

The girl squatted before him. “I know what you need.” Grabbing his hips, she rolled him onto his back and, with the help of a guiding hand, lowered herself onto him. Rodolfo gasped. Every encounter he’d ever had with a woman had been clandestine: rolling around in a hayloft somewhere, meeting by night, whispering in an absent husband’s bed. And they always clung to him, closed their eyes, cried out as though they were being taken away to another planet. But this woman kept her eyes open. “Do you like this?” she asked, as Rodolfo blinked up at her.

Towards the end, the girl gasped and said, “Mmmm,” but otherwise showed no reaction. She sat on Rodolfo until he slid out of her on his own. Then she lay beside him, reached for a branch overhead, and pulled down some engorged purple fruit Rodolfo had never seen before. She tore it in half and offered him a slice, which he devoured whole.

He knew that he could wake up at any moment, back in the desert, belly grumbling, dawn cracking its glaring eye over the horizon to start a new day of sweat and thirst and wondering if he’d find shelter before the vultures began circling. He fell asleep with those thoughts. But when he woke, he was still on the cool grass. Stars twinkled overhead. Someone was beating a drum.

“Come on,” the girl said. She took his hands and led him to a clearing, where everyone sat around a fire. An old man with a long beard pounded a drum. They were holding some kind of ceremony. The girl whispered, “We almost missed Lurid.”

“Lurid?”

“The storyteller,” the girl said.

The old man let one final drumbeat hang in the air before he started to talk. His voice was sonorous, mesmerizing. His hands moved as he spoke. “Once upon a time,” he said. “Once upon a time, there was a man….”

…a wanderer who roamed from town to town, village to village, forever seeking something he couldn’t name. He ate what he could find and slept where he fell. And then one day, in a desert town, he happened upon a girl named Sweetness. When the traveler saw her, something inside him changed. He knew it was time to stop—time to settle down. But the girl’s father was a jealous old hound, and didn’t want anyone to possess his daughter—least of all some wayfarer whom no one knew and no one trusted. The traveler burned for her badly—and you know how such feelings can drive a person crazy, how awful it is to have to suppress them. That’s why we live in freedom here in the valley: so things like this won’t happen. For what happened to our traveling hero can be blamed neither on him nor on his beloved Sweetness, but only on the trickeries of the universe—only on that unjust and capricious arbiter, Fate. One summer night, these two lovers, unable to contain their passions any longer, met by the riverbank. But the girl’s father lay in wait. What were his motives? How did he know of his daughter’s secret rendezvous? That is not for us to know. What matters, dear friends, is that the father attacked, and our hero fought back, and in his passion he killed the old man. The girl, poor Sweetness, ran terrified from the scene, leaving our hero to flee once more into the desert. His troubles, sadly, had only just begun….

The old man pounded the drum once, a signal that the story was over, and people began rustling. The girl yawned and stretched, ready to bed down for the night. But Rodolfo was terrified.

He approached the old man. “Where did you learn that story?”

The man’s shrugged. “From nowhere. From the sky. From my heart.”

“Tell me the end of it,” Rodolfo said. “I have to know what happens.”

“I don’t know, myself,” the old man said. “When I sit down tomorrow, the rest of it will arrive. You’ll have to wait until then. You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m leaving soon,” Rodolfo said.

A woman tugged on his arm and asked if he would stay with her for the night. His body gave a sharp, visceral response, but the old man’s story had spooked him. He couldn’t stay here. He had to move on.

III.

When Rodolfo emerged from the valley into the red desert dawn, they were already waiting for him. A dozen men on horses, with shotguns. He recognized the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands. In front sat a man with slits for eyes and shiny black hair, worn proud like an Indian’s. A sheriff’s star glittered over his breast. Rodolfo knew he was cornered.

He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic.

As the horses circled him, he considered his options. He could run back down the valley and try to hide. But that would only delay the inevitable—and it would bring these gun-toting manhunters into direct contact with the paradise below. The people down there had no weapons. If they tried to defend Rodolfo, the posse would wipe them out. His conscience wouldn’t allow it.

Running across the open desert would be futile. He’d be shot down before he ran ten paces. As for fighting his way out—well, he’d never been a fighter. And he was unarmed.

He considered lying, insisting the sheriff had tracked the wrong man—but then the barber spoke up: “Yes, that’s him. He’s wearing my old smock.” At this, a sort of pride spiked up in Rodolfo. If asked, he could never deny his own name.

He stood with raised arms in the ring of horses. An air of authority pulsated from Dulzura’s brother, the sheriff. Rodolfo knew him immediately as a man of action. The ranch hands, on the contrary, were ignorant, uncomplicated men. Rodolfo had seen their type countless times. They held jobs and wives and they did not ask questions. But this sheriff was a different sort. He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic. He used the town as his base, and he defended it with his life, but those very acts of defense led him to journey far from it, and learn about the world, and contemplate things during his lonely hours on horseback, just as Rodolfo had done all these years. Rodolfo saw all of this in a moment. They were alike in many ways, and Rodolfo clung desperately to this idea of solidarity—perhaps it could save his life.

“It is you, then?” the sheriff said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper, the noise of an eagle’s wings flapping far above the cracked earth. “Make your last action honorable, and own up to your name.”

Rodolfo lowered his arms and raised his chin. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“You raped my sister,” the sheriff said. “You murdered my father.”

“No, sir,” Rodolfo said. “I have never taken a woman by force. Your sister came to me, breathless, in the night. Your father I killed in self-defense.”

The sheriff held his shotgun loosely across his saddle. His face was windswept, inscrutable. For the briefest of moments, Rodolfo felt a connection. He knew the man believed him.

“He was an old man,” the sheriff said finally. “You might have subdued him.”

“It was an accident,” Rodolfo said. “I swung with the shovel—I didn’t mean to kill him.”

“With my stolen shovel,” the shopkeeper said.

Rodolfo didn’t bother to reply. The time for arguments had passed.

The sheriff sighed. “The problem with you wayfarers is you have no responsibility. You drift through life seeking only pleasure. Life is not pleasure. Life is task.” He leveled his shotgun with one hand.

The barber looked uneasy. “Wait,” he said. “Is it right to just execute him here? We should bind him, carry him until we find a tree, do things the proper way. He swept hair in my shop for a day, after all.”

“They say unburied souls are doomed to drift through eternity,” the sheriff said. “But this man craves such a fate. To give him a proper execution, a proper burial, would be the worst kind of punishment. He rejected domesticity at every turn. He abandoned it, decidedly, in favor of a wandering existence. If we bury him, we confine him.” The sheriff spat. “I sympathize with you, stranger. Which rules the universe—order or caprice? Your death here may represent both. May you wander forever, without consequence.”

A loud bang roared forth from the shotgun, and at the same moment Rodolfo found himself lifted off his feet, hurled onto his back, just as Dulzura’s father had been. He tried to sit up but couldn’t. He spat blood into the sand. The horses clopped away, and Rodolfo looked up at the rising sun, the clear white sky, as the life drained out of him. He felt on the verge of something, some revelation, but his thoughts mingled, bled into one another, so that he couldn’t distinguish anything. And then he was walking, walking steadily across the desert, across the plains, away from this valley, away from any place, walking forever.

N. T. Brown lives in Orlando, FL, with his dog, Seven, and his cat, Mrs. Mia Wallace.

 

A Murmuring

When all we have is song
to fill the space between us,

the feather of each note,
frail flight of melody, a flock

murmuring from my chest,
I let go, sing distance and space

into shapes you might hold
in your mind, birds that form,

fragment, coalesce and flee.
This moment of rest, a dream,

to be unburdened, a wish,
briefly. Out of my mouth,

they glide around the room,
your breath, soft as moth wings

on night air, what memory sings
in places we no longer can.

Cameron AvesonCameron Aveson is originally from Southern California but moved to the Central Valley almost twenty years ago when he started working for Kings Canyon National Park as a trail worker. He lives in the foothills east of Fresno with his wife and 18 month-old daughter. His work has appeared in journals and magazines such as Crab Creek Review, Blood Orange Review and Foothill: a journal of poetry.

Legs

The first thing that anyone would notice was the sign. It was supposed to be a tourist trap, but nobody seemed to have put much effort into attracting visitors. The sign was just a rotted out piece of wood lying flat in the grass, a broken off stump planted in the ground next to it. The only way to tell where you were was the mailbox, which was strangely large and a bit rusted. It said “Leg Farm” on the side of it, which was the name of the place. There was no address that I could see.

I like farms. There’s something nice about places that are dirty, but where you’re totally unafraid of germs. I parked my car outside the front of the house. I got out, stumbled a little, and stretched vainly at a knot in my shoulder.

The house was a log cabin style place, the tractor shed was right next door but I couldn’t see the field. The friend who’d told me about this place said you could just go up to the door and ask the farmer if you could see the hay bale legs, and he would take you out back and show you, say something about them or not. So, I went up to the door; the knocker was shaped like a woman’s leg, rounded and smooth, even the toes were detailed. I pulled back the leg and let it kick the door. After a few seconds the farmer came out, he was wearing a wool shirt with no pattern on it and jeans. He had a deep tan and he was very thin and a little bit shorter than me.

“You must have come to see the legs.”

“Yes, I have… is that ok?”

He angled his head to the side, considered all of his words: “Oh yes you may, not too many people come to see those legs anymore.” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, towards the inside of his house, and then he put the hand into a pocket. “In the realm of agri-tourism, I am a bit of a one-hit wonder.”

He drank from his mug, looked at me, and said we should get to looking at the legs. He walked me out the back of his house.

The house had cavernous ceilings, a big open kitchen, and a giant window facing the road.

He walked towards the kitchen and asked me if I wanted coffee; I said no.

“Myself, I go through, seven, eight, nine cups a day, thirty years of farming and you start waking up at three in the morning all the time, and I never could get myself to bed at eight p.m.”

“This is a really nice house.”

“Thank you. My favourite part is how the upstairs is only half a floor, leaves you the living room ceiling way high, a bit like you’re in a cathedral.”

He looked up at the ceiling, and then used his French press to make a pot of coffee, poured some into a mug that didn’t have a picture or writing on it. He took a deep gulp, and didn’t make any of the various sounds people tend to make when they finish drinking.

“One thing about these wooden houses is they catch dust like you would never believe. Once when my wife was still around, we had this dog died, so I buried it in the yard over there. It was winter and the ground was really hard, so I only got the dog buried a little ways in. Well, come spring, I’m up early, I’m taking a leak and out the window I see a god damned bear digging up my dog. So, I go get my gun and I just lean out the bathroom window, because I have a clear shot there, I shoot the bear. The noise of that shot, the vibrations shook about… I’d say ten odd years of dust off every surface in the house. So, it’s a fucking sandstorm. My wife she was sleeping, she explodes out the bedroom, bursts through this dust storm in her own house, she takes a running leap right into my chest, knees out, kicked my ass good.”

We both laughed, he continued: “I got the bear though, perfect shooting. Mind you, Kathleen was not exactly impressed by that portion of it.” He moved his mouth around the word “portion” like it was a piece of wood.

He drank from his mug, looked at me, and said we should get to looking at the legs. He walked me out the back of his house. Outside he had a white plastic table on his porch and dirty white plastic chairs all around it.

I just had to lift my eyes a little bit to see the field. It was littered with hay bales. The rounded hay bale parts were smaller because he’d used the rest of the hay to make legs coming out the top. They weren’t at all what you’d expect a leg coming out of a hay bale to look like. They were all rounded and somehow almost looked smooth, more like rock than hay. The only thing that was inaccurate about them was that the toes were farther apart than a person’s toes. The feet maybe a bit wider, but still feminine, volleyball center feet. You could tell it was supposed to be a tall woman’s feet, and through their strange and painstaking details you could tell that they were all supposed to be one specific tall woman’s left leg.

All the way to the back of the field, these bales with perfect women’s legs coming out of the top. I couldn’t count how many there were and I didn’t really want to. All of a sudden it felt like something was crowding into my eyeball and it was hard to see. I kept trying to look at the field but all I kept catching were fractured, blackening pictures, disappearing. My legs were weak, and there wasn’t a cloud within miles, and sometimes unadulterated sky crept into my vision. The leg farmer eased me into one of the chairs asked if he could bring me a water. He came back with two mugs, his full of coffee, mine water.  He put the cup down next to me. I said thanks.

He sat in a chair across from me, leaned his chair onto its back two legs. I didn’t know what was going on with me. Nothing unexpected had happened, I knew about the legs in advance, but they’d still managed to overwhelm me somehow, just the visual fact of them had. I decided to try to at least be social. I pointed at the space under his chair.

“My grade five teacher told me I’d crack my head open if I did that.”

He nodded. “You were probably sitting near a bookcase, and in case you haven’t noticed there isn’t an edge for miles.”

I remember thinking that he was right, and trying to look at the legs, losing them even as I did it. He said: “I got another gun story for you. Kind of funny that I’d tell you both because they really are my only gun stories. My kid, he dances ballet now, out in Europe. When he was about twelve I took him to the skeet shooting tournament some of my friends hold every year. Well, my kid he’d never touched a gun in his life, I just took him because his Mom was out of the house and I wanted to go. So, anyways he starts shooting, and the kid is a prodigy. They fire one up and he nails it. They fire two up, he hits ‘em both. They fire three and bang, bang, bang. He ends up winning the whole tournament, first time he ever touched a gun. Afterwards we’re all walking up to the house and my buddy Dale. I’ll say that if you think I’m a redneck farmer… well you get the idea. He’s lived around here his whole life. And he sort of hates kids, so, when we’re all walking back he kind of starts walking with my boy and tells him he shoots well, and my kid says thanks. Then Dale asks: ‘So how often do you shoot?’ My kid says never, this was my first time. Dale is pretty stunned, so he asks what does the kid do? My boy he looks right up at him and says ‘I dance ballet.’ We just left Dale standing there looking after us, mouth all hung open.”

And I sat there quietly with him, as he chewed on what was either his lip or just air for a while. Then he rocked forward in his chair and said one perfect piece of nothing.

Andrew BattershillAndrew Battershill recently completed his M.A in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto under the mentorship of Pasha Malla. He is the Fiction Editor of Dragnet Magazine.  

Smith Hill

Gabrielle had never noticed how loud Friday mornings were. Now that she slept on the couch, she felt the trash truck barreling through the walls, destroying her home. Bolting upright, she’d hear men laugh, cans tossed, the truck move on. After a few weeks of fearing she might wake to the front bumper of the trash truck hanging over her head, she wrote a note, then taped it to the half-filled can.

Dear Sirs, 

                                    Please be more considerate when you pick up the garbage.                                                The noise is enough to wake the dead.

                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                    Mrs. Stephanos Pappas


The next morning, Gabrielle held still when the truck clanged to a stop, waiting for it to start up again, to move on. But there was a quick rap at the side entrance. She pulled her robe closed and opened the door.

“Yes?”

The man who stood before her was flushed and greasy. He had combed what remained of his hair over his shining head and held it in place with something equally shiny. He was short, not much taller than herself, and beefy: strong, with a solid stomach. His fingers were thick and pink. He looked like he could yell if he wanted to. Give me a break, lady. Don’t give me no grief. That was how people behaved in the neighborhood these days. You honked, and they stuck up their middle finger. You said, “I believe I was here first,” and they said, “Well, I’m here now,” then put their pack of cigarettes on the counter as if you didn’t exist.

“Morning,” the man said. “Mrs. Pappas?”

Gabrielle nodded, tensing.

“I’m Leon Federman, head of this crew. Got your note, and I’m real sorry we caused you any trouble. Me and the boys forget the rest of the world’s not up when we are. This is like ten a.m. to us. We’ll do better by you. Promise.” He dipped his head as if doffing a hat and trotted off.

The following Friday the truck eased up so quietly that Gabrielle, sipping coffee at 6:00 a.m., wondered if they had cut the engine. She lifted one of the slats on the front blinds to see a thin man raise her trash can, then tip it into the back of the truck like a dancer in slow motion. Leon Federman lowered his gloved hands in the air, directing the other man to set down the can without a sound. Then he turned to her house and waved. Gabrielle dropped the slat and sank back on the couch. Once the truck moved on, she chuckled about her small victory, how she had gotten what she wanted for once and found in the trash man the grace of a gentleman. She only wished she could repay his kindness.

Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers.

Gabrielle stepped onto her stoop the Friday after that and signaled to Leon. He wiped his brow, then hurried towards her.

“Mrs. Pappas, I hope we didn’t wake you.”

“The weatherman says it’ll be a hundred by noon, Mr. Federman,” she said. “Maybe you’d like some ice tea?”

“Please?”

It dawned on her that Mr. Federman couldn’t just step inside for a half hour while his men drummed their fingers, and she resisted inviting all of them into her home. She’d only thought of him. “Some ice tea is what I’m saying. Now or . . . later?”

Leon adjusted a piece of gum in his mouth. Then he said, “You’ll be able to fry eggs on the sidewalk by eleven. That’s when we knock off. A glass of tea would hit the spot about then.”

“Eleven,” Gabrielle nodded.

She put away her knitting, made a lemon cheesecake with a graham cracker crust, and slid a cloth over the wooden trim of her sofa and loveseat. Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers. She felt safely wrapped within her husband’s name. Mrs. Stephanos Pappas. As far as Mr. Federman knew, Stephanos still hammered away in the basement at his workbench. He was alive to the trash man.

Instead of tapping at the side entrance, Leon knocked at the front door, his gloves off and shirt buttoned to the collar. Once inside, he again had the air of someone taking off his hat.

“Awful out there, isn’t it?” Gabrielle said.

“Sure is,” he agreed.

“I’ll get you that tea.”

Leon followed her into the kitchen.

“Can I help with anything?”

“For heaven’s sake, it’s just ice tea!” she said, her voice unusually high. “Please take a seat.”

As if he did so every day, Leon pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.

Gabrielle had expected her awkwardness to evaporate, but it persisted, fumbling her fingers. She sloshed a glass before him and struggled through twenty minutes on the weather before he thanked her and saw himself out. As she ran water over the thin coating on the plate Leon had tried to scrape clean, Gabrielle’s shoulders relaxed and she hummed. She had returned the trash man’s courtesy and gotten him out of her house, which he somehow managed to fill with himself in the short time he was her guest.

“You know who I had a nice conversation with?” she said to Connie that afternoon. Connie had come to fetch the tiny knitted outfits Gabrielle had made for the hospital. Her friend pronounced each one darling as she lowered it into a box.

“No, who?”

“Mr. Federman. Leon Federman?”

Connie looked up. “Leon who?”

“The . . . our . . .” Gabrielle couldn’t think of the right word. She knew there must be another name, something better than “trash man.” That couldn’t be what he put down on his taxes. “Garbage personnel” was all she came up with.

“You mean, one of those fellows who picks up the trash?”

“The head of his crew,” Gabrielle told her.

“You had a nice conversation when he got the trash?”

“Later,” she said. “He came back later.”

Connie put down the baby clothes and looked at her. “That’s nice, honey,” she said, then patted her hand. “Listen, you’re coming over tonight for spaghet. Nothing special. Family style. I’ll send Frank to get you.” Connie kissed her cheek and picked up the box.

“He’s very nice,” Gabrielle said. “Mr. Federman.”

“I’m sure he is,” Connie said. “Six o’clock, okay. You be ready.”

Gabrielle let Connie’s husband pick her up and let Connie joke over dinner about her “gentleman friend.” Apparently, Connie thought it was hysterical. Widows in Smith Hill did not have gentleman friends. They didn’t cloak themselves in black for the rest of their days anymore, but they didn’t go on dates either. They knitted booties for poor infants and worked the white elephant booth for St. Augustine. They were mothers, grandmothers. That was it.

But the next time Leon and his men drove up to her house, Gabrielle crooked a finger at him. He hurried up her walk. When he stood before her, she asked if he would like to come for dinner on Sunday. He said he’d like that fine, which she found reassuring: his easy acceptance made it seem less strange to invite a man to dinner.

“Can’t I show a person some common courtesy?” Gabrielle snapped at Dominique, who called her after talking to Grace, who’d run into Connie. “So what if he collects trash? It’s an honorable job.”

“I’m not talking honorable or dishonorable,” Dominique told her. “I’m not saying anything. I just wondered if you wanted me and Vick to help keep you company. We could barbecue. Let the men talk while we catch up.”

“I think we’re caught up,” Gabrielle said, which was the meanest thing she had said to Dominique since they were seniors in high school and she’d suggested that a silver anklet made her look cheap.

Gabrielle stuck two tapers in their star-shaped holders, then put them back in the drawer of the creaking breakfront. She turned on the radio, then turned it off. She put on lipstick and looked at herself. Her hair was too black for her age, she knew. Stephano had called her “a raven-haired beauty,” so she’d kept using “Midnight Blue” although a border of silver along her hairline strengthened after every tint. And now her lips looked too red for her face. But she thought her eyes, still the color of almonds, were pretty.

When she opened the door, Leon nodded at someone, who quickly drove off. Then he bustled inside, bearing gifts: a box of See’s chocolates, roses in plastic wrap, and a small bottle of gin. Gabrielle looked past him at the receding sedan. She had worried that Mr. Federman might show up in the trash truck and the whole neighborhood would know her business. Of course, Connie, Grace, and Dominique already knew she was making dinner for the trash man, so everyone would know soon enough anyway.

“I had my cousin drop me,” Leon said. “Damn car’s in the shop again.” Then he laughed as if it were New Year’s Eve and thrust his gifts into her hands.

“Oh, Mr. Federman, you shouldn’t have,” she said, meaning it. The chocolates and roses were too much, embarrassing. And the gin was just wrong. You didn’t bring a grandmother gin.

“Leon, Leon,” he said. “Mrs. Pappas.”

“Gabrielle,” she said softly, wishing they didn’t have to be on a first-name basis. Everyone was these days. Even the dental assistant, ten years younger than her Pamela, told her, “Gabrielle, a little wider, please. Gabrielle, turn your head to the left.” “Gabrielle” didn’t have the same significance as “Mrs. Stephanos Pappas.” She couldn’t hear her husband in it at all.

Leon smacked his lips. “Gabrielle,” he said, drawing out each sound. “Now that’s a name. I see Italian fountains and violins and moonlight in a name like that. Not like Esther. Or Ruth.”

“Those are nice names,” Gabrielle said. Leon Federman, she repeated in her head. A Jew? What was it they didn’t eat? Pigs’ feet?

He made a show of grimacing. “With them I picture chopped liver and whining. Ru-u-uth,” he said as if it were a sound a dog might make.

Gabrielle couldn’t help laughing at that. She walked into the kitchen, and Leon followed her, talking the whole time she unwrapped the roses, already dark at the tips, and stuck them one by one into the crystal vase Marcus had gotten his parents for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

“Some kids on Douglas Ave had kicked on the hydrant, and I felt like jumping in the water myself, I got to tell you,” Leon was saying. “Can’t wait for the heat to break, you know what I mean?”

“I made hors d’oeuvres,” Gabrielle said, gesturing towards a tray of small sausages wrapped in pastry. “But I don’t know if you . . .” She almost added “people,” but stopped herself.

“I eat appetizers, don’t you worry.” Leon patted his stomach. “Believe me, I’ll eat whatever’s put before me!”

He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“There’s wine.” Gabrielle grabbed the bottle’s neck, but she had no idea how to use the new opener that Marcus had said was the best.

“I’ll begin with some gin, if it’s all right with you,” Leon said and opened a cupboard, which made Gabrielle flinch. She felt as if he were looking in her medicine cabinet or under her bed. “Helps me to unwind,” he said. “Hope you’ll join me.” He got out two juice glasses and held one in front of her.

Gabrielle shook her head. She sipped water as Leon drank his gin “neat.” The alcohol didn’t change his mood. Already festive when he came through the door, Leon lavished praise on what he called her “piggies in blankies.” “Finger-licking good,” he laughed, then licked his finger and thumb as if to demonstrate his point.

They ate in the kitchen: kreatopica argostoli and tzatiki, both favorites with her husband, whose parents had come over from Greece. Gabrielle picked at the veal but drained a glass of wine—Leon tangled with the opener for her—and he had wine as well. He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“From our son,” Gabrielle said of the tiles. “From our daughter” about the mitts.

Leon asked their ages, if they were married, had any kids, saying “Ah” at each piece of information as if her children had grown up to be missionaries and brain surgeons. “And your husband . . .”

Gabrielle gripped the edge of the table. “He’s passed on,” she said, alone with Leon for the first time.

“I know,” Leon said, covering one of her hands with his own. “Terrible thing. Heart attack shoveling, right? These winters, I’ll tell you.”

She frowned. Like everyone else, the trash man knew what went on in the neighborhood. Probably more: who drank too much, who didn’t cook for her husband.

“What was he like, your husband?”

For several minutes, Gabrielle couldn’t speak. She cut her veal into pieces small enough to feed a baby, then slowly poured herself a second glass of wine. She was to tell Leon Federman about her husband at his own dinner table? What would Stephano want her to say? “Mr. Pappas had a gift,” she said, surprising herself. “This talent for handling birds. He made a splint out of a popsicle stick for a swallow that broke its wing and the bird healed in a week, good as new. Then he caught a sparrow that flew into Maria Bugatti’s kitchen. When he whistled for Connie’s parakeet, Figarello flew onto his finger like he was St. Francis himself.”

Leon looked both saddened and amused by this story as he finished his wine. “My wife isn’t part of the picture any longer either,” he told her.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Gabrielle murmured.

“She moved to Atlantic City fifteen years ago. Fell in love with a blackjack dealer and ran off with him.” Leon shook his head as if he admired her nerve. “I should have known better. A skinny shiksa. No offense.”

Gabrielle had heard the word shiksa but didn’t know if it was vulgar like putz. Her face puffed up, ready to register indignation. “I don’t really think—” she said.

“Not one of the ‘chosen people’ is all,” Leon smiled.

“I see,” Gabrielle said, though she had assumed Catholics were the chosen people, and she knew by then that Leon wasn’t Catholic.

“No children?”

“No, no,” Leon said, waving the possibility of them away. “Just me and the missus. Until it was her and the blackjack dealer. She sends me a card every year. ‘Merry Christmas,’ she says. Not even ‘Happy Holidays.’ Hope you’re keeping your hands clean,’ she says. That’s her little joke because of what I do for a living.” He laughed, then pressed a napkin to his glistening lips.

Gabrielle shook her head in wonder. How did Leon Federman live? Did he rent an apartment? Eat frozen dinners? He might be a few years younger than she was, but not many. Surely, a man his age should have a wife, a home, some dignity.

“But it’s not a bad job,” he said, arching his back in a stretch. “Decent pay. Keeps you in shape. And you’re through by noon, so you have the whole day ahead of you.”

Gabrielle wondered how many times he’d said the same words, and to how many ladies. His line of work must have been something he’d need to account for in the dark bars men of his sort frequented. Otherwise, he’d have to go home alone to his awful apartment and heat his frozen peas and wash his trash man’s jumpsuit down in the basement in the same machine everyone else in the building used.

She poured two small cups of coffee and laid out two diamonds of baklava, waiting for Leon to finish both and leave. The wine and the cooking had heated her uncomfortably. She thought of a cool bath, of lying alone in her bed for a change and remembering Stephano, an image of perfection in contrast with Leon, who sweated when he laughed and laughed too much, laughed at nothing.

When Gabrielle stood from the table, reaching for the plates and cups, Leon stood too. He took them out of her hands and ran them under the faucet, then looked at her proudly, as if he had cleaned the entire kitchen.

“Thank you,” she said, lifting her leaden feet.

“My pleasure,” he told her.

Gabrielle walked to the middle of the living room, waiting for Leon to follow. “Do you want to call someone? Or I could give you a lift,” she added although she rarely drove at night. But there was the new Le Sabre, Stephano’s last indulgence, the black beast, squeezed into the garage. “My husband—”

Leon stepped forward and gathered Gabrielle in his arms, tipped her back, then pressed his lips against hers. He drew back and descended again as if he were breathing life into a drowning victim. Kiss, breath, kiss, breath.

Panting, she let him lead her to the master bedroom, where he sat her on the bed, then fell to his knees. He pressed his red face into the V of her knit blouse and sighed. While his hands and mouth moved over her body, he groaned as if she were the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten. He slobbered and smacked as he tore at her clothes, tore away his own.

Her own hands were like dead birds by her side. She felt mesmerized by the black hairs that blossomed on Leon’s chest, the wings of black hairs on his back. He had hair everywhere except the pink scalp that shone through the long black strands he’d combed over it. Finally, she placed her palms on his shoulders, and he stopped gobbling her body. But instead of pushing him off, she cradled him against her chest. Making love to the trash man, this sweating, red-faced man, she thought of Stephano. Somehow, in touching this living skin, she was loving her husband, that each pleasure was a prayer to him, Leon Federman a conduit to heaven, a place he probably didn’t even believe existed.

“I love you,” she whispered as he collapsed on top of her. “I miss you so much.”

“I missed this too, honey,” Leon told her, pulling himself up. “It’s been a while on my side also, I don’t mind telling you.” He padded out to the kitchen and brought another inch of gin to the bed.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, smelling the bite of alcohol, then slept like the dead. When she woke, it was dawn. She heard the sound of the garage door opening, the Le Sabre turning over. Maybe Leon was going to get bagels. That’s what Jews on Broad Street did on Sunday mornings: bought fresh bagels and thin slices of salmon. She’d brew some coffee, maybe make a coffeecake for after they ate his fish-covered bread.

She had poured the batter into a pan and sprinkled on a mixture of cinnamon, sugar, and pecans when she realized he’d been gone forty-five minutes. She understood that no bagels would be coming, no thin fish, no Leon. Well, he could have the car if he wanted, she thought. It didn’t matter. The man was a saint, no matter what. He had breathed life back into her and let her make love to her husband once more.

She offered up a thousand blessings on his shining head before she heard an engine turn off, the glad jangle of keys.

Cathleen CalbertCathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of three books of poetry: Lessons in Space (University of Florida Press), Bad Judgment (Sarabande Books), and Sleeping with a Famous Poet (C.W. Books). She has been awarded The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College, where she professes.

 

A Brief Suspension of All History #2

I have plans
on the thick part
of my hands

& when they flush
with un-tender
flesh, build

like a mountain
risen to escape
my own bones,

you will see
the structures
behind me. All

of them speaking
of my shoulders.
All of them whole

& personal
& held fast
to my own Ohio.

Darren C. DemareeDarren C. Demaree is living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. He is the author of As We Refer to Our Bodies (Spring 2013) and Not For Art Nor Prayer (2014), both are forthcoming from 8th House Publishing. He is the recipient of two Pushcart Prize nominations.

Yard Sale

Standing with my friend in his garage,
We look at things left over:
Hose connections, extension cords,
Kitchen utensils, power tools,
Twenty years of memorabilia.

His house has sold,
Not for a high price;
He’s glad to be out from under it.
Another friend, Richard, will take his dog.
Somehow, I say, I always thought
You and the dog would go together.

It’s a bad joke and I tighten my lip.
He hands me a snow shovel
And points to the reels of garden hose.
Kay, he says, wants the leaf blower.

Dread drifts like fog around my heart.
He’s got enough now what with the house,
His father’s inheritance,
For a couple of years, maybe four.

The lids of my eyes close with his.
Guilt, I want to say, belongs to time.

Daniel_Sundahl_photo-1

Daniel Sundahl is a professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he has taught for thirty years. He’s the author of three books and, over the years, has been published in a variety of periodicals. He’s married to Ellen; they have one well-behaved German Shepherd and three less well-behaved mackerel cats. He occasionally cooks.

Pockets, Long Enough

Pockets

My mother used to say
if she ran out of money,
she would walk into the sea.
Just drive to the beach
and walk into the water,
keep walking until the ocean
swallowed her up. She made it
sound easy, like she wouldn’t
fight the waves to suck in
one more mouthful of air.
Maybe she thought she’d be
like Virginia Woolf and fill
her pockets with stones,
give herself no choice
but to be dragged under.
In the end, she found another
way to plummet, drowning
in mid-air, her pockets filled
with the money she had been
so afraid to lose.

 

Long Enough

My mom had been hanging
for fourteen hours when
the sanitation worker arrived
to gather the trash and found her
by the dumpster. Long enough
for the clothes the coroner returned
to us to smell like the raccoon who died
beneath my house, permeating each room
with a sick sweet stench long after
we finally found its body. Long enough,
but not as long as Virginia, whose body
bumped along the Ouse for three weeks,
pores soaking up river water, flesh billowing
and blue, each cell pregnant with her death.

Gayle BrandeisGayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University, LA and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is serving a two-year appointment as Inlandia Literary Laureate.

The Postcards

On a chilly Saturday morning in October, Donald Shieffer found a mysterious postcard in the mailbox at his townhouse in Cincinnati. It pictured a swan in flight, white wings a blur, taking off from the surface of a gray pond edged with snow. The message read, “Poetry is made in the mouth.” The card had been sent four days earlier and was postmarked New York. His name, address and the message were written in careful block letters in blue ballpoint pen.

He read it out loud, tasting the words. Pondered the message. He couldn’t think of anyone he knew in New York.

As the week wore on, he found himself unaccountably irritated, sure the postcard was a comment on his reduced productivity as a poet. Lapsed productivity, to be honest. There had been a recent conference at NYU, hadn’t there, something to do with meta-poetry and alternative expression. He’d seen a short spoof about it in The New Yorker. Maybe this was someone’s alternative poem, an enigmatic message for him to decipher. Some rival from the past was snickering at his incomprehension.

The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?

Mona perhaps, the tall girl with the stringy red hair in his MFA program at Cornell. “Poetry is made in the mouth” sounded like her. He thought he half-remembered it from some poem of hers. “In the mouth/thought is/made in the south as the birds/fly/nought is/a cumulus cloud, whispered aloud.” Skeins of words tangled and knotted as he searched his memory. He hadn’t thought of Mona in years and it was unlikely she’d thought of him either. Surely she had published even less than he had. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her name in print.

He’d asked her out once. The night had been clear and cold, millions of stars twinkling overhead, more than he’d ever seen back home. They’d left the workshop and were walking down the broad steps of Goldwin Smith Hall when he said impulsively, “So are you busy Saturday night, Mona?” She looked him up and down and said, “Sorry, Donny. It just wouldn’t work.”

He’d completely forgotten the incident, and how he’d smarted at her reply. It still stung. She wasn’t his type: too tall, too theatrical. He’d asked her out on a whim. He was sure she thought he had a crush on her, and he went out of his way to appear neutral and indifferent after that. He was after all indifferent, but also incensed by her pitying glances. Bitch. A memory tugged at him. Yeats. Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats, read aloud in class by Mona in a breathy quaver. “For poetry makes nothing happen … it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth.”

The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?

He thought about the postcard as he went through his daily routine after work—picked up his dry cleaning, worked out at 24/7 Fitness around the corner, showered off his sweat, stopped for takeout at Chef Lau’s to eat in the kitchen at home, drank a beer as he watched the ten o’clock news before bed. He thought about it when the alarm went off in the morning. Soaping himself under the hot shower, he looked at the water running down the gold-flecked brown and yellow glass tiles and brooded, “Who even knows that I’m a poet? Who would send an anonymous postcard? Am I still a poet?”

He knew at this point in his life, in his mid-30s, he should have found other sources of meaning. Divorced, with no children, and a mid-level job at a mid-sized bank in a mid-sized Midwestern city selling mortgages, he hadn’t. His job was dull. He’d returned to Cincinnati for lack of something better to do, and his life in Cincinnati was dull. His parents had retired to Florida. His college friends had scattered. He’d bought a condo—a new two-story townhouse with a patio and small yard—but didn’t feel settled. He dated, but didn’t connect. He blamed it on the MFA experience, the expectations that came with the degree, without being clear about who or what was at fault. It was ten years since he’d dreamed of being a famous poet. Now he knew that even famous poets weren’t famous. “Yeats?” one of his blind dates had said.  “Isn’t he a mystery writer or something?” She was perfectly nice, college educated, with a good job at a software company. She didn’t read. Most people didn’t read. Not even fiction, much less poetry. He didn’t read much himself any more. He read The New Yorker, but some weeks he just looked at the cartoons and skimmed the poems. The New York Times, mostly for political news. Novels on the bestseller list if they won awards. He streamed Netflix more often than he read books.

A few weeks after receiving the postcard, he opened the Times at the breakfast table and read that Philip Roth, aged 79, author of thirty-one books, had announced the end of his writing career. He’d stuck a Post-it note to his computer screen, he said, on which he’d written, “The struggle with writing is over.” Each time he saw it he felt reinforced in his decision.

Donald spread jam on his toast and gulped down his coffee. He wished he had made a decision five years ago, instead of drifting into this state of paralysis. A Post-it announcing the end of his struggle might have brought him some peace. He thought about posting a note on his computer now, but the gesture felt false. He whispered it to himself, though, as if testing a new mantra, “The struggle with writing is over.” He rinsed his dishes and left them in the sink as he hurried off to work.

The second postcard arrived in late November. Also postmarked New York, written in the same block letters. The glossy picture was of a toad, spotted and brown, blending into a background of dry grass. The message on the other side read, “Poetry is the real toad in the imaginary garden.” This time Donald was sure of the literary reference, to Marianne Moore’s poem on poetry, but just as baffled by the postcard’s meaning. Was the grass another dig at his dried-up creativity? Or were his surroundings the sterile, imaginary garden that had killed his art? He wondered if he was being asked to re-evaluate the choices he’d made, consider what was real, what was imaginary, and what he’d given up along the way. But who would be interested enough in his fate to send two postcards? If not Mona, then another MFA student?

If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive.

He hadn’t kept up with any of them. Only one poet in the program had made a name for himself, an egotistical suck-up who always trailed after visiting poets, praising their work and asking them questions. Peter LeBlanc. No one had liked him. They should have known he’d be the one to make it, with all the ambitious networking he’d done. After graduation, Peter’s poems kept popping up in little magazines with editors he’d cultivated, and then bigger magazines. Some were dedicated to well-known poets. Then he started showing up in the back pages of Poets & Writers as a judge for contests. His adjunct position became tenure-track. Where was that? Somewhere in the Northwest where it rained a lot. Peter had never shown any interest in Donald, not even when his poems were praised in workshop. His sights were always set on bigger game. No, it wouldn’t be Peter.

The question of the mystery sender gnawed at Donald as he filled out forms and checked credit reports and thick mortgage packets and met with clients at the bank. The phone rang and he fleetingly wondered if it might be her. A name on an e-mail in his in-box looked unfamiliar and he wondered if it might be him. He sorted and stapled, put tiny blue stickers with arrows where clients had to sign documents, ran his index finger down checklists to verify that everything was complete. If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive. London would have helped, and a circle of famous writers and artists that he saw daily. Even just one friend like Ezra Pound, ready to transform the heap of poetic fragments Eliot handed over to him into a masterpiece.

Rifling through a box of old papers at home, Donald pulled out a folder of poems he’d accumulated in the first few years after the MFA. The file, marked MISC., contained a jumble of rejection letters for poems from his thesis, drafts of new poems he’d never revised, beginnings of new poems he’d never completed, ideas jotted on scraps of paper he’d never followed up on. He sat down on his heels in front of the hall closet, absent-mindedly waving away the dust motes in the air. There was no incipient masterpiece here that he could see, waste but no “Waste Land.” The MFA thesis was better, an assemblage of some thirty narrative poems, divided into thematic sections and bound in red hardcover, but he’d been dissatisfied with it at the time, sure he could do better. He hadn’t. He returned the thesis and folder to the box and stowed it on the closet shelf again, pushing over a carton of old yearbooks and a pile of winter gloves and scarves.

He’d been checking his mailbox with growing anxiety each day, not sure whether he was relieved or sorry to find no postcard, when the third arrived in January. This one was postmarked in Austin, Texas. Was the sender traveling? Who?

Donald thought about frozen beginnings and his own blighted growth as he studied the picture of green grass glittering with frost crystals, but this time the image was clearly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the author of the quotation: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Donald had always liked Frost’s dictum, which seemed to express the effortless grace of the great poem. How its unfolding felt inevitable and carried the reader along with it, leaving him changed. The quotation sent him to his crowded bookcase and spurred him to leaf through Frost’s Collected Poems for a few hours. He read some of the poems aloud in the impersonal privacy of his townhouse. He savored the closing lines of “Directive,” and recited them twice. “Here are your waters and your watering place./Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Uplifted, he paced the carpeted living room, looking out the picture window from time to time at the lights in the complex across the street. So many lives. Surely they weren’t all as barren as his. He wished he had someone to talk to.

On Saturday morning he ran into the mailman on the snow-dusted sidewalk outside and asked him if there was any way to trace the sender of a postcard.

The mailman was polite. “No sir, not really. Has someone been harassing you?”

“Kind of,” Donald mumbled. “Not really.”

“There’s a USPS form you can fill out. You can also refuse mail.” The mailman brushed snow off his gray coat with gloved fingers.

“Thanks. I was just asking.”

In fact Donald was beginning to think that the postcards were intended as inspiration rather than indictment. He’d started to read poetry again, and was browsing literary magazines online and considering subscriptions to one or two. For a long time the prospect of running across Peter LeBlanc’s name, or another fellow MFAer’s, had soured him on contemporary literary magazines. He saw he’d been needlessly depriving himself of something that nourished him.

He waited eagerly for the next postcard, afraid that January’s might be the last.

His boredom at work increased. How many more years could he do this? He was good at his job—friendly, orderly, precise. He’d once taken pride in that. But he was beginning to think that a competent sixth-grader could do as well. What was it all about, these contracts for colossal sums, insurance policies against catastrophe, title insurance underwriting claims to plots of land? Why commit to thirty years of monthly payments for the privilege of residing in a fragile structure that a tornado could reduce to rubble in a matter of minutes? He began to pity the bright-faced young couples that sat across from him at his desk, so eager to own their first homes. And the middle-aged couples refinancing their mortgages, ready to spend thousands to remodel kitchens and bathrooms that were perfectly serviceable the way they were. “We’ve been just dying to do this so long,” one suburban matron confided. Her double chin quivered as she nodded. “I’ve been looking at colors and tiles for years.” Donald bit his tongue, tempted to answer, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Didn’t they all, himself included, have something better to do?

It was shortly after Easter when the fourth postcard arrived, a pale pink sunrise over gray waves and a sandy beach strewn with seaweed and glittering shells. There was no indication of the location of the beach on the reverse side of the card, which was postmarked Atlanta.

“Ridiculous the waste sad time/stretching before and after.” He recognized the lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets, about mystical moments that transcended ordinary reality. He’d found them in poetic creation, and in the poems he loved best. Moments, as Emily Dickinson said, when the reader felt like the top of his head was coming off. There was nothing like it, at least nothing so far in his life. Some people might say sex, he supposed, but he’d never had sex that mind blowing. Maybe he’d never actually loved his wife Dorothy, who was beautiful but critical, impatient with his literary aspirations. “It’s just great that you got the MFA and all,” she said after a couple of years of financial struggle. “But don’t you think it’s time to grow up? Write poems if you want, but it’s not really a job, is it?”

So he’d tried grown-up life. He’d probably taken it out on her, the boredom of grown-up life and his sense of failure. It was just as well that they’d postponed kids. But if his life went on like this, the most he could hope for was a series of promotions at the bank, a heavily mortgaged house to replace the condo, and marriage to another Dorothy—blonde, beautiful, athletic, boring. He couldn’t recall what he’d thought they had in common. He’d written poems about the curve of her neck, her rosy knees, her enigmatic smile, and she seemed to enjoy them. He liked to look at her and write about her but couldn’t summon a single memorable conversation they’d had.

Dating since his divorce had been more of the same. Nice women. Pretty women. Competent women. Interchangeable women. He’d offended some of them with his inattention, but he found it hard to keep track of their names and the particulars of their lives—where this one worked and that one had gone to college. Who had the brother who was divorced, or the friend who was having trouble with her husband, or the mother getting chemotherapy. Who was allergic to shellfish.

A married colleague had fixed him up with the latest, an outgoing paralegal named Judy. She was cute, with an upturned nose and freckles. She liked to play tennis. She was a lot more interested in his job than he was. “I would just love working with people taking that wonderful big step, buying a house. Half of our firm’s work is with divorces, so I see couples falling apart, not building their lives.” Judy had a lot to say about local real estate, and her inability to find a townhouse in a complex with the right kind of tenants. “Rentals just don’t attract the sort of people you’d want as your neighbors.”

They were in bed when it came to him. The dark blue sheets were tangled; light from the street lamps outside filtered in through the partially closed vertical blinds. The slats looked like bars.

Judy had been impressed by the stack of poetry books by his bed. “Isn’t that just wonderful! I really admire someone who reads like that. I mean, how do you find the time?”

It was clear she’d never read a poem in her life.

“And all those bookcases. If only I could find a nice place, I’d like to get bookcases and books too, and settle down and read more. Maybe I’d do up a cozy reading nook, in chintz, with a standing lamp. I just love your condo, Donald. It’s one of the nicest I’ve seen. So spacious. Great for entertaining.”

“Do you want to rent it?” He was idly stroking the soft skin inside her arm, wondering if she’d go to sleep soon so he could go downstairs and read. He hadn’t planned on saying it. The words formed in his mouth as if his unconscious had suggested them.

“Do you mean it?” Judy almost squealed with glee, then seemed to remember she was supposed to be unhappy about his departure. “I’ll miss you of course. Are you being transferred?”

“I’m thinking of going away. I’ll give you a good deal.”

“Done! I’m so excited! How soon are you leaving? I’ll need to take some measurements. Get some curtains if you don’t mind, maybe with a swag for the picture window in the living room. Nothing you couldn’t take down if you came back. Do you know whether you’re coming back, by the way?”

“Probably not. We could write up a lease for a year, and then see. Maybe a rent-to-own lease, if you’re interested. You’d get the money accumulating toward your down payment back if I return, but I doubt I will.”

The next day Donald quit his job. A colleague was just back from maternity leave, so the bank was satisfied with two weeks’ notice. “We’re sorry to see you go, son,” his boss Stan said. “I guess you’ll be earning more in a bigger city, though.”

Donald wanted to quote Wordsworth, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” but instead he shook Stan’s hand and said, “Something unexpected came up,” leaving Stan to surmise whatever he wanted to.

Judy took over the sale of his car and furniture on Craigslist, and had a real estate friend draw up the lease-option documents. He put the rest of his belongings in storage, including his business suits. Less than a month had passed when he arrived in Manhattan with a laptop and a suitcase full of old poems and weekend clothes. He had some money in the bank. He’d calculated his rent and living expenses, and if he was careful, it could last six months. The housing market, still not great, was picking up. There might be as much as another year in the profit from the condo when Judy was ready to buy. He didn’t know how he was going to make a living when his money ran out, but he didn’t plan to wear a coat and tie again, whatever he ended up doing.

The room Donald rented in a single-room occupancy hotel in Brooklyn was dingy and small, not much bigger than his kitchen in Cincinnati, but it was cheap, and he liked it. Divested of the weight of unnecessary obligations and possessions, he felt buoyant, ready to begin a new life. He bought a set of sheets, a warm blanket, one plate, one bowl, cup, knife, fork, and spoon, and two glasses, in case he had company. He was in no hurry to find other poets and artists. Just knowing they were there was enough. He planned to scout out some readings, though, on the off chance he’d spot the mystery sender. The first two postcards had come from New York.

Donald’s neighbors in Brooklyn Manor struck him as battered survivors—rheumy-eyed alcoholics, ex-addicts, gamblers down on their luck, hopeful refugees from far-off countries. The walls were thin and he could hear them coughing, swearing, fighting, making love, singing in different languages to music on the radio. At night when he lay in bed, light from the streetlamp seeped in through the crooked venetian blinds, and he heard glass breaking in the street, revelers leaving the bar down the block, snatches of conversation. He didn’t have an alarm clock. Every morning he rose to the sound of garbage cans banging on the sidewalk below his window and the whoosh of traffic. He made coffee and ate a bowl of cereal, listening to NPR on his laptop. Taxis honked. Fire engines wailed. He began a sequence of poems he called “City Music.”

He was rusty. At first he just made lists of sounds, and transcribed overheard dialogue. He gazed intently at the computer screen, willing himself into a trance, and finally the music began. His fingers flew over the keys, lines shaped themselves and flowed. Stopped. Started again. Stopped. The poems entered his dreams, and often he switched on his bedside lamp in the middle of the night to jot something down, or to spend time at his computer, sometimes until gray light and the stir outside signaled the dawning day. He’d forgotten what it felt like. There was nothing comparable to the sheer exhilaration of this struggle.

Being alone in his room felt completely different than being alone in the hushed sterility of his white-carpeted condo. Alive to the sounds and smells of the city, he tasted them in his mouth as he translated them into words. He began to take long walks into unfamiliar neighborhoods, invigorated by the contact of his feet on the pavement, the stream of humanity around him. Lines of poetry unrolled as he strode the sidewalks. He kept a small notebook in his pocket and wrote them down. One day he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, reveling in the sun and wind on his face, the infinite blue sky above, the choppy gray water below, the cries of the circling gulls, the faces in the cars that sped by. He thought of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried …

In July an oversized postcard arrived, buried in a batch of mail forwarded from his old address. The picture was a collection of thumbnail-sized photos of well-known poets. Donald’s address was handwritten, but this time the message was pre-printed in small italics.

“We hope you have been enjoying the Postcard Project, created by poets Lynn Bollinger and Alex Nightingale. We are two recent MFA graduates from Cornell and Columbia, living in the Big Apple, trying to get a new poetry zine up and running online. As a former MFA graduate of one of those programs, you were selected, along with over two hundred poets like you, to receive our postcards. We are proud to announce that the first issue of Posted Poetry is now ready to be unveiled! Check us out at www.postedpoetry.com. We urge you to read us online, submit your work, and join our nationwide crew of volunteers posting poetry postcards. Keep poetry alive!”

Donald stared in disbelief.

He lowered himself onto the stool at the kitchenette counter and read the message again. He looked at the pictures of poets, noting the faces he could identify. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Bishop, Lowell. Sharon Olds? W.S. Merwin? The poets on the bottom row, probably newer, didn’t look familiar at all.

His face had become hot. For a moment he felt queasy.

There was no mystery sender. It had never been about him. He’d been a fool, duped by a marketing ploy.

He watched a cockroach crawl across the counter in search of crumbs and shook his head. He sat for a while until his stomach settled and then stood up and washed his coffee cup and cereal dish, annoyed by the lukewarm trickle of water in the sink. Another cockroach climbed up the wall behind the faucet. Donald dried the dishes carefully and returned them to the small cupboard, taking out a roach motel. He tore off the cellophane packaging and set it on the counter. He could call Judy and try to persuade her to break off the sublet. He could reapply to Wachovia, even take a job somewhere else if there was no opening in Cincinnati. But he knew he wouldn’t.

Instead he sat down at his laptop in front of the window and looked at the buildings across the street. A middle-aged man in an undershirt was smoking on his fire escape. A housewife watered a red geranium. A couple at a kitchen table gestured, miming an animated conversation he couldn’t hear. He tried to guess what they were saying. A slender girl opened her curtains and leaned out the open window, greeting the day with a joyous smile. Donald began to type. After an hour he stopped and stretched, a good long stretch, and decided to go out for a cup of coffee, maybe stop by the library to borrow a copy of Leaves of Grass. It almost felt like old Walt was right in the room with him (“Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”), about to accompany him on his walk through the neighborhood. Donald locked the door behind them and put the key in his pocket.

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her work has recently appeared in South Dakota Review, Front Porch Journal, CRATE, Ninth Letter online, Thin Air, and Frontiers. She has creative nonfiction forthcoming in Birkensnake, New Plains Review, and South Loop Review. Visit her here: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

The Recluse

Minny Glorious was well aware that many fervent readers of her client, Billy Benson, would probably apply the term “recluse” to the author’s public persona. While the term wasn’t used explicitly (perhaps out of politeness) in the letter that currently sat on the edge of her dark mahogany desk, she nevertheless read the official fan club’s letter as a sign of growing frustration among the author’s most dedicated admirers. The letter nearly pleaded with the PR woman to convince the reclusive Billy into eschewing his ways and making an appearance at one of their official readings of his work.  Though Minny imagined the small club to be a sad group of bored housewives, all in their early forties, who used the nausea-inducing erotica of Mr. Benson to get their kicks, she also recognized that such opinions should not and could not interfere with her reputation as a smart, talented businesswoman.

Minny didn’t understand recluses. She had come to believe through the forging of her own career that showing strength of character and forming a respected reputation was how one succeeded in life. She prided herself in her job as a PR woman, a determined, persuasive person who could use her talent to promote others and deliver the product that people wanted to see. Billy, however, was on a different wavelength. He never made public appearances, refused to have a Twitter account, Facebook, or personal website. There wasn’t even a photograph on the back of any of his books. Billy had made it increasingly more frustrating for Minny to do her job, the thing that she felt probably most defined her.

And there was a new wrench being thrown by Billy into the otherwise smoothly-running machine of Minny’s career. The author had recently shocked his agent, editors, and the rest of the staff at Snodgrass Press by presenting his next work as a children’s book. But what Minny found even more shocking than the bizarre twist of a lowly author of erotica writing a book for children was that it was good. The editors in the office were thrilled, already proclaiming Billy as the next Robert Munsch. It was that good. The marketing staff were caught up in the hype too, floating around some crazy idea of selling Billy’s books as a two-for-one deal for mothers—the erotic fiction novel for the mom and a picture book she could give her kid.

The book, titled Salmon Ella, was a cautionary tale for children about properly preparing food, and due to the protagonist being a young salmon named Ella, was garnering comparisons to the movie Finding Nemo. If it really was going to be as big as everyone was saying, Minny was going to have the problem of denying even more requests for appearances by the recluse behind the tale, not to mention the problems she’d have controlling the wildfire of rumours that would start about a man that released no information about his life. No doubt, the little fan club had heard about the new release and their frantic letter was reflecting anxiousness to meet the author before he became even bigger in the eyes of the public.

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny crossed one high-heeled foot gracefully over the other as she sat at her desk in the office building on Clancy Street that consisted of the headquarters for Snodgrass Press. She wore bright red lipstick and her dark brown hair was pulled up elegantly. She puffed thoughtfully on a menthol cigarette. Like all the other office buildings in the city, this was a non-smoking one, but Minny guessed correctly that none of the male editors who had desks in the nearby vicinity were of the kind bold enough to challenge the confident PR woman. So she sat there puffing idly, musing to herself about the Billy Benson problem. She slid a thumb over Billy’s fan club letter, feeling the paper as she thought. Then suddenly in one quick jerk, she crumpled it under her fingers. She’d had an idea.

Quickly, she stalked over to Bruce Therrien’s desk, surprising the stocky man.

“H-hey, Minny. What’s up?” he said putting down a sandwich of peanut butter and pickle.

Minny looked disgustedly down at his lunch. “I need to contact Billy Benson,” she said. Having tried to reach Billy in the past, Minny knew the phone number the publishers had for him would no longer be in service. He had no email. Friends who might know where he was? Forget it. She knew he mostly communicated by letter, but that would take too long this time. However, she assumed that one of those letters would have an address at which he could be found, and if anyone had a copy of one, it would be Billy’s editor of six years, Bruce Therrien.

From behind thick glasses, Bruce looked her up and down curiously. “Good luck with that… You know we only hear from him when he wants to talk to us.”

“Well, I need to talk to him now. I can’t wait around.”

“Okay, I’ve got the address where you can send your letter.” He started to dig around in his desk but Minny cut him off.

“Thanks. I’m not sending him a letter, but I’ll need the address to find him anyways.”

“Oh, you won’t find him at that address. Sure, he writes his letters from there,” said Bruce, scratching his goatee. “But it’s just a cover. I think one of his relatives lives there. A little old lady answered the door last time I tried it. Probably his grandmother or something.”

“So where does he live, Bruce?” She was getting impatient. Who did Billy think he was?

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny was aware of this too. For a moment she remembered the last time he’d come into the office. He was always wearing some dopey clothing, probably as a disguise. He was afraid of being recognized by “the masses,” and when asked why would mumble something like “Look at the way John Lennon went.” It was like he was a bad undercover cop, one who was completely oblivious to the fact that his camouflage just made him look more conspicuous. She remembered once he’d come into the office to see Bruce and had been wearing a hat with the largest brim she’d ever seen. The thing flopped messily in every direction. It looked like he’d bought it in a costume store, and he’d kept batting it around and shifting it this way and that on his head so that he could see. On top of that, Bruce had once told her that Billy mentioned he often did his shopping dressed as a woman.

Shaking her head at the ridiculous memory, Minny suddenly snatched the letter, which Bruce had produced from one of his desk drawers. She was going to find Billy, and at the very least this letter would provide a start.

Forty-five minutes later, Minny found herself in the dark, musty hallway of an old apartment building on Park Street. The door to 734 was faded, patches of dark green paint peeling off onto the grimy orange carpeting beneath. She could see Billy being here after all. Wouldn’t a reclusive author like to stay in a place like this where normal people would think twice about stepping inside? Well, whether he lived here or not, as Bruce believed he didn’t, this place had some connection to Billy if he was sending and receiving his mail here.

Minny straightened herself up, wishing, as always, to appear as professional as possible, and knocked firmly on the door.

Sounds arose from within, like that of a small dog or maybe mice scurrying around on laminate floors. She heard fumbling with a chain and suddenly the door swung open in one swift motion. There stood a very short elderly woman. Her eyes were slits and she was stooped in a way that craned her head towards the floor. Minny wasn’t even sure that the woman had looked at her.

“Come in, come in,” she mumbled.

“Uh… Alright.” Surprised, Minny took a cautious step into the doorway.

“Can I make you some tea?” the dry voice crowed at her. The face rose now to meet hers, but it was covered in such thick layers of wrinkles, Minny was apt to think there was no face there at all.

“Actually, I’m just here on a quick bit of business, you see.” The apartment inside was sparse; a green sofa with that plastic covering that old people kept on, scratched floors, no T.V., the smell of boiled vegetables.

Some of the wrinkles seemed to drop and widen. “Business?”

Minny suddenly realized how strange this meeting was. “I’m so sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Minny Glorious.” She wondered why she’d been let in without even being asked that. Maybe the old woman was senile and thought she was someone else, or maybe just lonely and overanxious to have some form of company. “I work for Snodgrass Press, a publishing company. Do you happen to know Billy Benson?”

The old woman stood perfectly still for a moment, long enough that the fear she had had some sort of stroke began to fill Minny until she finally spoke.

“Billy? Are-are you his wife?”

“Oh-uh. No, no,” Minny stuttered, trying to stay clear of the mental picture that would conjure up. Minny wasn’t inclined to ever try to marry, though she could find men easily enough. Any husband would threaten her focus on her career, let alone Billy Benson. “Not his wife. I’m … just on business, like I said. So you know Billy?”

“Humph … He wouldn’t tell me if he was married anyway,” her voice came out low, like a strange growl. “I’m his grandmother and he won’t tell me anything.”

Taken a little off guard by the dawning accuracy of Bruce’s hunch, Minny pressed on.

“Well! You must be very proud of your grandson’s successes as a writer.”

“Humph … successes. Dirty … dirty. Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, that kinda trash wouldn’t get published,” mumbled the old woman.

“Do you see him often?”

“Comes here now and then,” she picked up a broom and began sweeping idly, though it was in a haphazard way that merely resulted in pushing a few existing piles of dust back and forth aimlessly.

“Picks up some mail. Never has any groceries for his old grandmother though. Won’t come and sit with me. Not an old bat like me. Doesn’t want to hear old Granny’s stories, just wants to write his dirty porn stories. Don’t know what’s wrong with the young people these days …” she lifted her face again, and Minny felt as though she were being stared at accusingly. She fought off the urge to appease the old woman and take a cup of tea. She wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.

Then suddenly Billy’s grandmother said, “Don’t know why he can’t pick up his damn mail at the hotel …”

Minny leaned forward anxiously. “Sorry, where’s that?”

The old woman’s small peepers seemed to close more tightly now as she scrutinized her guest. “Well … he don’t want visitors you see …”

“Oh, ma’am, I assure you Billy’s privacy will be respected. But I am on urgent business from his publishers and need to see him immediately. Would you mind telling me where I can find him?”

“Hmm … well what do I care, after all? No good grandson,” she mumbled again, continuing her sweeping. “Billy lives in a hotel on Solitaire Boulevard. Only child. Inherited some good money when his dad passed, see. His father was a tycoon in the board game business. He was such a schmuck …”

She continued to babble some inaudible nonsense about the father when Minny interrupted. “A hotel? What room? Can you tell me?”

“Huh? Oh, don’t know honey, don’t know. You’ll have to ask the manager. Billy says he’s the only one who’s in the know.”

The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses.

In another twenty minutes, Minny was outside Hotel Solitaire. She had haggled only for a moment with the manager, who initially pretended not to know who Billy was. But once Minny flashed her business card, explaining that the situation was of dire importance, and using her God-given charisma on him, the manager decided promptly that it was his duty to help this damsel in distress and show her to Mr. Benson’s quarters.

Minny was led down the brightly lit hallway of the eleventh floor, passing a few identical heavy-looking blue doors with gold trim until they reached another emblazoned with the number 1103. The manager seemed to hesitate for a moment with the key in his hand. Was he questioning his loyalty to the author that resided inside? But what respect did he owe to a man who wouldn’t even share his life with his grandmother? He was probably just afraid of losing business, Minny decided.

“Maybe we should knock first?” Minny suggested.

“No,” said the manager, seemingly distracted by thought. “He won’t answer if you knock.”

Finally, the manager sighed, seemingly resigned to the action he was about to take and plunged the key into the lock, turning the handle at the same time. The door opened just a crack, but no light was emitted from the room behind.

“I almost forgot,” said the manager quietly, casting a nervous eye towards the crack. “You’ll need this.”

Out of the pocket of his jacket he pulled a small flashlight and placed it in Minny’s hands. Then quickly, he withdrew the key again, winked to Minny and skipped off down the hall.

Minny watched him go and then took a breath. With one hand, she slowly pushed the door further in. What emerged was only more blackness, and Minny began to understand the manager’s insistence on the flashlight. But no, wasn’t this nonsense? Billy was probably taking a nap and would turn on a light when he realized he had company.

“Mr. Benson!” she called. “Billy!”

Not wishing to intrude by venturing further, she knocked on the doorframe.

“What’s going on here?” a voice suddenly bellowed. “I thought we had an agreement, Kostopolous? Kostopolous?”

A great crash sounded next and Minny hastily fumbled for the switch on the flashlight. The sound of bare feet slapping and something being kicked accompanied the sudden appearance of light.

There were heaps upon the floor. Heaps and heaps. The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses. She realized this was the home of someone who rarely left. A terrible smell assaulted Minny’s nose and she now found herself running her hands up and down the walls, frantically looking for a light switch.

She found one, finally, and the great mess of the room suddenly became altogether more real. She stumbled back a pace towards the door, which she’d let close behind her. There stood, among the mounds of rubbish, like the ruler of some decrepit kingdom, Billy Benson holding a blanket in front of what was his otherwise naked body, his skin white as a ghost against the black curtains that kept out any intrusion of daylight.

Minny screamed, throwing her hands over her mouth.

Billy looked at her, eyes bugged out. A long, mangy beard shot out tufts in wild directions, and his hair appeared to function by the same code.

“Who are you? Where’s Kostopolous?”

“Wh-who?”

“The manager. He’s the only one who could have let you in!”

“I-I told him I had to speak to you. I’m Minny Glorious, I do PR for authors with the company who publishes your work, Snodgrass Press. We’ve met before, once or twice maybe.”

Billy narrowed his eyes. “We’ve never met. I’m going to have to have a good chat with Kostopolous …”

“Right, uh… okay,” Minny shook her head clear and straightened up. What way was this to conduct business? “Mr. Benson, would you put some clothes on please? We need to discuss your career.”

“I told them I only discuss business by letter.”

“This needs to be taken care of now.”

Minny’s tone made Billy freeze, look at her, bushy eyebrows raised. There was silence for a moment and then he said, “Fine,” and took a seat on the couch behind him, indicating for her to find a piece of furniture to do the same.

Minny moved further into the room now, stepping carefully around the rubbish that lay around. She went through a stack of old chairs which were piled close to Billy’s couch, looking for one that had all four legs fully functional. Finally she found one and pulled it out, seating herself across from Billy, who looked particularly ridiculous, watching her with his hands folded over his lap, which was in turn covered by the raggedy yellow blanket he held.

Minny tried to smile but the ridiculousness of the situation, her incredulousness at the person who sat across from her, not to mention the smell, made it impossible to do so.

“So,” Minny began, taking a breath, trying to focus. “Mr. Benson, you’ve delivered us a new book. A children’s book… They say it’s going to be big.” She gestured with her hands. Every word, every movement felt silly right now. She couldn’t take it.

“How,” she tried to stop herself. “How can you live like this?” she suddenly blurted. “How do you expect this new book to be a success when you live like a disgusting, filthy—do you not care what they think about you? What anyone thinks about you? This new book is going to garner you a whole new fan base, there are fans already who are nearly pleading with me to meet you. But I can’t—” she gestured towards him. “I can’t show them this. Hell, they don’t even need to meet you. They just need something. Give them something. Give me something.”

A slight smile was forming in the corners of Billy’s mouth. It was hard to tell under the beard, but it was there.

“Let me explain something to you,” his voice was quiet, low. He looked deep into Minny’s big dark eyes, heavy with eyeliner and shadow. His own eyes were puffy, red around the edges, crusted with sleep in the pockets that were carved close to the bridge of his nose. “We all exist in the world as two people: the person who we know ourselves to be and the person who others think we are. It is my belief,” and he held up a finger scientifically, “that if you let the latter dictate who you are, ‘you’ actually cease to exist.”

“Now,” he continued calmly, and Minny stared at his grimy blanket disgustedly. “There are those who spend a lot of time wishing to have their identity validated by others, who feel the need to live the way others do…” He gestured around him at the dilapidated den, indicating that he was the opposite of such people. “Who feel the need to share everything about themselves ‘out there,’ as if their thoughts and feelings aren’t real unless somebody notices them. These are the people that want a Facebook page, or a Twitter account. What those people really need,” he leaned forward and his grin became broader, more apparent beneath the scruff, “is a fucking diary.”

He settled back, satisfied it seemed, crossing a leg across the other one and opening the blanket just a tad too much for Minny’s comfort. “So the answer to what you’ve come here to ask me, to plead with me to do some sort of publicity for my latest work, is no. I’m quite satisfied to remain an anomaly. People can think what they want about me. But I have no need to feed them facts about my life. For what purpose? For them to distort those facts? For them to dig so deep into their conception of my life, that I end up heeding them and losing my own conception of myself? Absolutely not. It’s not worth it.”

There was a stack of ratty-looking books amid a tower of old take-out containers next to Minny, and she picked one of the books out with two fingers, trying not to touch it too much.

“Well Mr. Benson, if that’s your choice, then all right. I have another idea that perhaps you’ll be okay with. The other choice is that you publish this new book, Salmon Ella, under a pen name. Then you let me control that name. I’ll create the person behind it, make up their likes and dislikes, make them a website, offer some fan trivia. Of course, that man won’t make any appearances either, but at least this way there’ll be some control to what I can do with their public image and it won’t be your life being put out there. It’ll be some imaginary figure. You don’t have to be involved. Just give me your consent, and you’ll have your book published and get your royalties without having to deal with any fame, since that’s not what you want. Right?”

Billy looked at her for a moment. “If that’ll make your life easy, ma’am, then do it. I couldn’t care less.”

Minny got up, anxious to leave the stench and filth of the room. She held the book in her hands still, a copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She had one more thing to say before she left this cuckoo’s nest.

“Thank you for accepting, Mr. Benson. I’d like to say, also, that your philosophy is very interesting, but don’t you too feel the need to live like others? I mean all this,” she gestured around the room, “All this is just to look the part so to speak isn’t it? To look like the mad artist, the reclusive author? Like Salinger, or Proust, or Pynchon? I think you do care about what people think. I think that you want them to think of your reclusiveness as some romantic mystery, as some sign of genius.” She threw the book down onto the pile she had pulled it from, and the whole thing toppled over.

“Goodbye, Billy.”

*     *     *

The pseudonym plan began well at first. Billy had written to the publishers that he wished for Salmon Ella to be published under the name “Eric Yahtzee,” and Minny went to work creating a website and short biography for the “new” author. No one in the office suspected Minny had anything to do with Billy’s choice to publish the story under a different name. It made sense considering the marked contrast between the nature of this new work and his previous books.

After some time, however, Minny found herself exhausted at trying to form the character of Eric Yahtzee. She had Twitter accounts, social networking pages, and she was finding it difficult to come up with new things for Yahtzee to say. She became aware of inconsistencies with the types of attitudes he displayed. She began to liken herself to an author writing a character sketch and finding it impossible to make the person rounded, interesting, or real. It was more work than she’d bargained for. She tried to get into the history of her author, thinking of what kind of family he might have grown up with, when she suddenly began thinking about Billy’s poor old grandmother. And she had a new idea.

It was then that she began visiting the old lady at her cramped little apartment in downtown, pretending to be paying friendly visits, saying how she felt bad for her that Billy never visited and that she was so lonesome. And while she was there, she would ask about Billy, what his life was like growing up. From these visits, she built the biography, the character of Eric Yahtzee. Granny was feeding her the material the whole time, and Eric Yahtzee truly did start to become Billy Benson.

Minny was feeling good, the promotion for the new book was doing well and her pride in her cunningness and in her career was refreshed. She smoked happily at her desk on Friday afternoon, congratulating herself on a job well done. Stretching her shoulders and neck satisfactorily, she settled back in her chair, planning to take it easy until 5’o clock, a gift to herself.

Suddenly there was the sound of frantic feet rushing behind her, and, springing up to fix her posture, Minny quickly swiveled around on her chair. It was Bruce Therrien, sweaty, mouth quivering. “You’ve got to fix this!”

“What? What?”

He looked at her, eyes big. He began pacing. “No, no … This was supposed to be a big one. A big seller. You haven’t heard?” He stared.

A knot formed in Minny’s stomach. “Heard what?”

“Billy tried to publish a short story with a men’s magazine…”

“Right. So? He’s writes erotic fiction.”

Bruce started pacing again, glanced at her nervously now and then. “You didn’t hear? Well, it looks like Billy sort of combined his talents for erotica and children’s tales into one story … the magazine was outraged. Called it a monstrosity of nonsense and pedophilia. And the worst part … he tried to publish it under Eric Yahtzee …”

Whatever had formed itself in Minny’s stomach now plummeted to the bottom.

“They recognized him as the author of the much-hyped Salmon Ella, and they’re badmouthing him in the press. For a children’s author, this is devastating.”

Minny stared. She felt defeated.

“Billy wrote. Probably trying to explain. It’s for you.” Bruce handed over a thin piece of lined paper filled with Billy’s spidery handwriting.

She read it over. Billy had a reason for his blunder, but Minny was sure it wasn’t the ridiculous one she saw in front of her now. Billy claimed to have mixed two stories he was working on, sending them to the magazine one late night after ingesting LSD because “that’s something Ken Kesey would have done.”

The book she’d thrown at him. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a clue. She’d been sabotaged. He probably didn’t like her using the bits about his own life for Eric Yahtzee’s character. And how had he known? Paid poor Granny a visit finally? Or had he been keeping tabs on what she was writing?

It didn’t matter. She had damage control to do.

Matt FournierTristen Matthew Fournier grew up in the frigid environment of Yellowknife in Canada’s far North. Finding that typing warmed his numb and frost bitten fingers, Fournier set out to be a writer of prose fiction and poetry, exploring human nature while blending humour and philosophy. This led him to study at Concordia University in Montreal where he has completed a degree in creative writing. He has previously published with Buttontapper Press.

 

What the Atheists Speak Of

The nitrous cloud goes berserk
In the nineteenth century, when the toads
Were writers thinking up Horror—she wounds me
With her pale skin and liquid midsection,
Scarcity is scarce, and I take it from there, holding gripes,
The papers tell it, how the Pope goes pop
Into a new old castle and the people go people.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, going pee
Nothing happens and nothing again
Happens, and I think this is the emptiness
The atheists speak of, the mirror on the wall
Has no power to come alive and the oranges
Sitting on the kitchen table are black objects
With no goal but to rot.

Alejandro EscudeAlejandro Escudé is the winner of the 2012 Sacramento Center Poetry Award; his first collection, My Earthbound Eye, is due out in late 2013. His poetry has also appeared in Rattle, Phoebe and Poet Lore. Originally from Argentina, Alejandro is an English teacher and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids. When he’s not grading papers or writing poems, Alejandro enjoys birding in the Ballona Wetlands, Bolsa Chica and other beautiful Southern California locales.

Grapefruit

My father held a grapefruit –
the yellow-orange rind
blending with the skin
of his palm. Two knives
on the cloth – one small,
a bent edge of serrated teeth
to dissect the flesh, the other
long, broad, with a smooth blade.
He held the larger, rested it on top
of the fruit before a clean split
perfumed the air with citrus,
two ruby halves falling
to a gentle wobble on the counter.
For you, the biggest, he said,
placing mine face-up in a bowl
as he lifted the precision knife.
I watched as he outlined glistening triangles
with careful cuts, rotating the bowl
as he worked. He finished mine,
then began his own, the same motion,
like a saw turned downward,
until we could dip
into the shallow crevasses, lifting
wedges out like spoonfuls of soup,
hands cupped underneath
to catch falling drops. We ate together,
juice dribbling down our chins.
When we finished, we took the hollowed husks
and squeezed, remnants of tangy nectar
streaming out to pool pink in our bowls.

Bryn HomuthBryn Homuth’s poems have been published (or are forthcoming) in Red Earth Review, The Round and Mosaic, among others. He currently serves as poetry editor for the online publication Touchstone at Kansas State University, where he teaches composition courses while working to complete an MA in creative writing. Following master’s study, he plans to continue writing and teaching, with aims to one day publish multiple collections of poetry.

The Yin-Yang Market

I sip my black coffee, peering up at her. I have offered her a cup of café phin―slow-drip coffee. She palms the cup with both hands. Head lowered. The cup raised to her lips. First sip. Gingerly. Her brow furrowed.

It’s so peaceful around here, she says, her partially-tilted face leaning into the morning light which glints on the fine downy hair at the base of her neck.

We live a slow life here, I say. I’m sure you’ll forget everything here by the time you go back to America.

I keep things I learn―things I select to remember.

Like what?

Like the drip coffee, she finally says, chuckling. But I’m fascinated with those rivers and canals around here. And the lives that depend on them.

I catch her gaze over the cup’s rim, serene eyes, elongated and pretty, the brow not creased this time, perhaps she is now getting used to the bitter taste of the café phin, this orphan child having been displaced to grow up into a comely girl, always exuding liveliness and consideration.

She came to my inn in the Mekong Delta with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s eighteen now.

The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone.

She keeps the cup uptilted, partially covering her face, as she tells me about the place she came from. Her words now paint images from her photographic memory, and I begin to see the one-story L-shaped tin-roofed, mango-wood walled house that sheltered nine orphans, four to ten in ages. Behind the orphanage was a fish pond, then a plot overgrown with banana trees whose fronds the nuns would cut and wash and later wrap foods in. In that banana grove, caught by a sudden late-afternoon thunderstorm, the head nun held her tight against her bosom, both crouching to hide from the lashing rain. The nun broke the fronds at the stems to screen themselves, then took off her headscarf and wrapped it around the little girl’s head. A streak of lightning at ground level, like a sudden flash out of a mirror, then an ear-splitting thunderclap rending the air. She plugged her ears just as another crash shook the ground, the earth rumbling in the soles of her feet, the air now thick, acrid smelling, and the sky wrinkling and pulsing with far-off lightning. Out in the open the hummingbird trees bent and snapped back and leaves flew fluttering like birds. The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone. Then a blinding white flash across the pond. It seared a hummingbird tree in midsection. The tree snapped, loud. The girl could smell the burned smoke on the wind. She said, sobbing now into the nun’s chest, I don’t want to be here, and the nun cradling her in her arms drew her against her own chest and said cooing, We’d better stay for a little while and I promise nothing shall hurt you my dear. She held still, smelling a warm, sweaty smell on the nun’s blouse just as the nun squirmed, her hand touching her blouse here and there and her voice sounding panic, I’ve got something under my blouse. The nun eased herself out and her hands came up unbuttoning her blouse. The little girl stared, saw a black thing snatched away from the nun’s chest. A caterpillar. Across the air suddenly flashed a jagged line. Then an explosion so loud her ears rang. She mashed her face in the nun’s bosom, the nun shielding her now with the open fronts of her blouse. Eyes shut, she heard the nun cooing in the manic sound of the rain. She felt the flesh warm and abundantly soft, smelling like wet leaves, and she felt raindrops trickling down her scarf-covered head to her lips, her neck and the nun was humming a lullaby. The thunder came less and less now and soon rolled into the distance and then just the rain clattered on the leaves, the smoky smell now gone from the air, and it felt dank in the susurrus of the wind. The nun gently pushed her away from her chest. It’s safe to go now, child, she said. The girl wiped rain from her cheeks, following the nun’s fingers trying to match a button against its buttonhole. She kept gazing at the ample flesh of the nun’s bosom, then at a pink ridge of a scar astride her breasts. She didn’t ask. But it had stayed with her.

*     *     *

Dawns she would rise to help the nun in the rear kitchen, sitting on her heels on the packed-earth floor, stacking up coconut leaves, brown and dry, then stripping the leaves of the stiff midribs, then tearing each leaf from its stem, and the nun would light the leaves and feed them into the hearth and then when the flames spurted quivering she poured a bowlful of rice husks into the fire. The hearth crackled, the husks exhaling acrid smokes, and the flames rose in blue tongues. She would save the midribs and the stems for the nun. The children would tie the stems together into a multilayered fan-shaped bundle into which they would fit a midriff for a handle. And that was how they made brooms. The nun would let her pour rice flour evenly onto a white gauze that screened a wide-bottomed pot, the square cloth stretched and held down drum-tight by the weight of four bricks strung from four corners of the cloth, the pot steaming with boiling water and the rice flour―a creamy white mixture of sugar and coconut extract and sesame seeds―was spread out in a round layer and the nun then lidded it with a cane cover. Like a wonder, she would stare at the rice crepe after the lid was removed shortly after, the crepe so thin now it was no longer cloud-white but opaque-white hazing from the steam. She watched the nun slide a wide wooden blade under the crepe, lifting it gently so it hung flapping, round-shaped and wet and paper-thin, and dropping it on a palm-woven sieve. As the nun bent to scoop up rice husks with a bowl to add to the fire, the girl could see the nun’s breasts through her collarless blouse, the long scar, braidlike, across her chest. They had to use up the flour just before the sun had burned off the morning mist so they could put out the sieves for the crepes to dry in the sun. By noon the crepes would dry. The children took the sieves back in and they stacked the crepes by tens, tied them down and wrapped them in brow papers and a nun would later carry them to the local market and sell them on consignment. By then the girl had forgotten about the scar.

*     *     *

A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation.

Then the flood season came. It came one morning after a three-day rain when she woke and saw floodwaters rising to the doorsteps. By noon rain had slackened and the water was coming into the house. She could no longer see the long table where they would sit eating, only the tops of  the straight-backed chairs that told where each chair was. The nuns put the children in three canoes, the long, slender canoes always tied to the trunks of the hummingbird trees behind the house, and now with the children safely together, all bunched up in their clear-plastic raincoats, the nuns began paddling away. The plain behind the house was a steely white sheet of water brimming to the horizon. Markers of boundaries between landowners’ paddy fields were the yellow-flowering riverhemp bushes, their crowns mirroring themselves, yellow on yellow, in the gray water. She could tell where they were by the familiar sights of things―clumps of half-submerged flatsedge fringing a pond―the pond now rising with cloudy water and on it floating white waterlily and blue waterlily. The head nun handed her the short paddle and reached out for a blue waterlily. She gave the girl the flower and took the paddle back. The girl asked if the nun’s arms were tired from rowing, for the nun had taught her how to row, how to paddle with the cây dầm, much shorter than an oar, made of thingan wood, polished and always light. The nun shook her head, rowed on. They would stop when they spotted small crabs taking shelter on a floating quilt of water hyacinths so the children could pick them up and play with the mottled-brown crabs that always camouflaged themselves with the color patterns of their surroundings. Sometimes late in the afternoon when the water had stopped rising, the nuns rested, the canoes now leaning against the crown of a young bushwillow with its trunk, at least two meters tall, submerged in water. Neighbored by nothing but gray sky and white water, the nuns began setting the fishing poles, fitting their butts into a bored hole in the upper side of the canoe, the poles arching over the water watching the lines plumb the water’s depth. The children ate rice balls out of their banana leaves. The girl, too, chewed a rice ball, long-grained and sticky with ground, salted sesame seeds. She could smell its bursting roasted aroma in her mouth. Eating, she touched a bushwillow’s leaf, still damp, feeling its downy hairs. Her mind grew dreamy. A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation. They caught several perches. One hand holding the line, the head nun held up a perch, its dusky-green body quaking in her hand, and as the children gawked told them this fish could walk. The children giggled and asked how. It used its tail and fins, the nun said, to move over land. The girl remembered that. The walking perch. They rowed on, the nuns stopping at times to untangle feathery roots of water lettuce from their paddles. Passing an earthen dike with only its top above the water, gapped in several spots, the head nun pointed toward a paling of cajeput stakes, closely joined, and asked if anyone knew what the barrier was for. The girl said it was to catch fish. The nun said, You’re very smart, child, but this isn’t fish weir. Then as the canoes came alongside the wet, battered-looking paling, the nun told them to look down into the water. Fish weir, she said, has stakes with a fair distance between them, and with horizontal wattling between stakes to trap fish. Do you see any wattling down there? The children said no. The nun said, This paling is to protect the dike from further water damage. You as my children live your protected lives in the house, but out here people’s lives depend much on the waterways and sometimes water encroaches their habitats and so their work never ends, the year-round mending of things in the delta. Then beyond the fence, the dike, they came around a hummock rising above the water like an elephant back. The nuns shipped the paddles, docked the canoes, and led the children up the knoll. Twilight was falling, spreading a fan-shaped glow across the water, luminous water swelling to the sagging sky. They walked under cajeput trees, between their thin pale trunks into a gloom harbored by their damp leaves, green now turned black and still dripping rainwater, then out in a clearing. A stilt hut sat three feet above the ground. Flanking the steps were clay vats, lidded and waist-high. Beneath the stairs sat a skiff covered in a moss-green plastic sheet. Outside the hut sat an old man on the bottom step. The girl recognized him. Leathery, sun-spotted face. Gap-toothed grin. He was the janitor who helped fix things around the orphanage. He built all the furniture―tables, chairs―and one time made a pen nib for her. She remembered one morning seeing him on the doorsteps pounding a leaf of gray metal cut out from a milk can. She sat by him. Making you a new pen nib as she told me to, he said, referring to the head nun, as he cut the metal into a sliver. So you can write again, he said. You write, eh? How old are you? She said, Four. He looked at her, head to toe. I don’t even know my age, he said, but I can count good with my fingers. Then, with the tip of his tongue protruding between his lips, he began hammering the metal sliver. Now he raised his hand to greet the nuns. So this is where he lives, she thought. In the ash-blue twilight beyond the clearing where bushes grew wild, she saw humps of graves plagued by needle grass and false daisy. The white, small flowers glimmered. She saw them around the orphanage. When they followed the old man up the steps and into the hut, she could hear from behind the hut the hens clucking and the throaty gargles the ducks made in their pens. The old man lit the kerosene lamp hung from a hook on a cockroach-maroon post. The hut glowed eerily in the trembling light, the corners full of shadows. The floor, lined with shorn boles of cajeput, glowed with a bone-shine. She could see a lute hung next to the lamp. Odd-looking lute, its body round as a coconut. The hearth crackled now with a fire going strong, the old man feeding the fire with cajeput wood, then dropping dry cajeput leaves onto the flames that smelled foul. Keep out them mosquitos, he said to the children sitting around the hearth. She followed a nun outside to get away from the smelly smoke. The nun knelt on a flagstone by a vat and with a knife began gutting a perch. Watching the nun prepare the fish, the girl heard heavy wings up in the dark tangles of cajeput trees. Then she saw white storks and white egrets coming home to roost for the night. The twilight stillness broke by the incessant, raw beating of wings. Someone was coming out of the hut. It was the head nun who said to her, Are you hungry, child? She nodded, Yes. How long are we staying here? The nun said, Till the water goes down, then we go back home and start cleaning up. I’ll be back shortly. The girl asked, Where’re you going? The nun pointed toward the gloom beyond the clearing. The girl saw the humps of graves now just blurred swells. What’s there? she asked. The nun looked down at the ground, then lifted her gaze again toward the graves. My daughter’s grave, she said. The girl said nothing. A sense of separation between two people came to her like a fleeting thought. Can I go with you? she asked the nun. The nun patted her head. Yes, child. And they walked in the rustles of wings to the graveyard. The small grave sat on the rim of the knoll before it sloped and disappeared into an overflowing canal now lambent with the twilight glimmers. The ground felt soft around the grave, matted with toothache plant. Aren’t they pretty? the nun said, bending to pluck a handful of the plant’s flowers. The girl asked, What’s this plant? The nun gathered the long-stemmed flowers, each shaped like a yellow-colored eyeball with a red dot in its center. Cỏ the, the nun said. Like its name says. It tastes like mint, strong enough to numb your gum. The nun placed the small bouquet on the grave. The girl gazed down at the restless water rushing headlong as though the earth was tipped, a dank smell rising from the turgid canal three meters below. Then a sudden wing rush. A pond heron shot up, coming over them so low she could see its brown-streaked plumage as it sailed into the dark vault of trees. She looked at the nun who was standing, head bowed, forming words with her lips in her prayer. Then she crossed herself. The girl imagined a presence in the grave. Forever out here. Heat. Rain. Why she died? she finally asked the nun who now took a sharp breath and then slowly exhaled. She drowned in the flood, the nun said. Something seized the girl’s mind so suddenly she found no words to say. She remembered stories about drowned people who would always float back up, bloated and blue-cold looking, after three days in the deep. So she just gazed up at the nun whose face was shadowed now by dusk with only tiny glints in her eyes. The nun said softly, Since then I’ve been always prepared for the flood, so you children shall always be safe with me. Then she patted the girl’s head, said, She was only your age. The girl couldn’t help but notice the small grave, small enough to be overlooked had it not sat alone on the tip of the knoll. She imagined the nun’s daughter then said, But this grave is so small. The nun nodded, the corners of her mouth wrinkled as if she tried to smile, then she said, It is small, my child. Just a grave. Nothing in it. I could not recover her body. But I want to remember her, that’s my wish. The girl felt the nun’s hand squeeze hers. The vegetation-damp smell coming up from the water below then reminded her that she would always be safe on a high, dry ground like this. Then the nun still holding her hand turned and led her back toward the hut. Walking the nun said, She had eyes like you. The girl looked up, met the nun’s gaze when the nun said, You have the Virgin Mary’s eyes, my child. The girl kept pace with the nun until they came to the water vats where the nun sat down and took a washcloth she kept in her blouse’s pocket, soaked it in the vat and started washing herself. From inside the hut drifted a thick smell of smoked fish. The fire in the hearth made shadows in the doorway. Leaning against a broken vat, the girl stood watching the nun clean her neck. Then unbuttoning her blouse, the nun began washing her chest. In the yellow glimmer, the girl gazed at the abundant flesh, the hand that rubbed it that went with the shadows so the flesh went from dark to alabaster. Then the hand went away, the flesh bare, milky, and across the ample flesh was the long ridgelike scar.

*     *     *

Now she hovers her hand over the cup, then closes her hand trapping the steam in it. Long, tapered fingers. Unpainted fingernails. I try to picture her as a child. I imagine hearing her gentle voice spoken in Vietnamese by a little girl. I try in vain to conjure up the child. I say to her, Maybe someday you’ll find the nun.

I think so, she says. I will come back here.

That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam.

This morning she wears a scarlet, collarless blouse. The top of the round neckline, held by a button,  opens out in a small V. A lock of raven-black hair curls over her clavicle. Something comes back to my mind.

The nun, I finally say to her, how did she have such a scar?

From a rape, the girl says.

I draw back. The chair creaks. During the war? I say.

Yes. She fought him and he cut her with a Bowie knife.

Who did?

An American Marine―when they raided her village.

What village?

One in The Plain of Reeds, where she ran her orphanage.

Where you were raised.

Yes.

Her daughter was the result of the rape?

She nods.

I raise my cup, bring it to my lips. When was the last time you were with her?

It was after she agreed to have my American mother adopt me. I cried when she told me the news. She held me a long time and when I stopped crying she told me it was the right thing to do. For me. That I shall have a future. That such a future will allow me to grow as a free spirit. That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam. I said, What is it that you want me to see? She said, A marketplace. I said, But it’s night now. She said, Yes, child, it’s the hour that matters with the event. I said, But why a marketplace? She said, You’ll see, child, it’s called ‘The Yin-Yang Market.’

I interrupt her. Do you mean Chợ Âm Dương?

Yes. Then she flicks a smile. I had the words translated in my head before I told you, because I didn’t want to say it wrong.

I know what it is.

Do you? What is it then?

We had it in the North. It’s hard to explain to the outsiders what it is.

I want to know if we’re talking about the same thing.

In the North, in this particular village in Bắc Ninh Province in the Red River Delta, there was this marketplace called ‘Chợ Âm Dương.’ It opened only once a year on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year.

Chú . . . She cuts in. Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle.

I pause, peering at her, and take another sip of coffee.

The nun, she says, perking up now, was born in the North and came to the South in nineteen-fifty-four when Vietnam was separated into North and South by the Geneva Accords. She said the people who started this yin-yang market in the South were Northerners, the anti-communist Catholics. She stops, smiles at me. Now you can go on.

It makes sense, I say, drawn by her riveting gaze. And so they said the location of this marketplace used to be a battlefield back in the feudal time, centuries ago. So many had died their tragic deaths there they said the yin force just shrouds the place. So on that day, just past midnight, the market opened. Nobody carried a lamp. In the dark people then came to buy things. It was for the dead to come back and buy things from the living. Then the market closed before first light.

Yes, chú, she says as she palms her cup in her lap. The market she took me to was outside our district. It was near a river. An empty tract of land with stilts standing but no houses atop them. The nun said, There used to be a village here ten years ago. In just one day it was gone. She said the Viet Cong took cover in the village to ambush the Allies and the Allies counterattacked and shelled it to ashes. Nobody survived. The Viet Cong and the innocents.

Now she pauses, sips, her lips puckered as she sets the cup down in her lap. It was past midnight, she says, when we got there. A new hour that began a new day on the fifth of the Lunar New Year. There were no lights. I asked the nun, Why it’s so dark? She said, Just follow me, child. So she held my hand and we found our way in the dark, walking on the bare ground, stepping between people who sat with baskets and bins in front. I could hear my footfalls in the dead stillness. And wisps of murmurous voices. I could smell the steam of rice porridge, the rich odor of beef broth they used to brew porridge with. Then white steamed buns, rice balls, bánh lá—the leaf-wrapped dumplings―laid out on the sieves. Then the familiar odor of beef noodles. Finally the nun found someone. A turbaned woman who sat with a tray at her feet. The nun made me sit between her and the old woman. I bent to see better what the old woman had on the tray. What are those? I pointed at the tray and whispered to the nun. She said into my ear, Betel leaves and areca nuts. Then she picked up a betel leaf, tore it halfway and held it at my nose. I wrinkled my nose at a dark, spicy smell. That old man, the janitor, always chewed this sort of leaves with a sliver of areca nut. We the children were fascinated at how he prepared his chew as he dropped the slice of areca nut in the center of the betel leaf and brushed the leaf with wet white lime. Then he rolled the leaf into a tight quid and eased it into his mouth. He spat a lot after he chewed. I flinched the first time I saw him spit. I thought he spat blood. His spit was red. His lips too. When he grinned―he had no front teeth―you could see his tongue, his gums like they were bleeding badly. Now I thought this was some strange market but I didn’t know what to ask. It was chilly. The nun held me against her side and I rested my head on her shoulder. Blurred shapes in dark and light garments sitting all over the ground in an eerie stillness. I could smell the river in the breeze, its old muddy smell. The sky was low and moonless, so dark you could see neither stars nor lights. I didn’t know how long I had fallen asleep on the nun’s shoulder. Then someone spoke, someone answered and I woke. A woman wearing a conical hat was standing before me. She was folding a betel leaf into a quid and then worked it into a pouch in her mouth. The oyster-gray skin of her palm-leaf hat glimmered, it covering most of her face, her bà ba blouse so white she seemed to glow. She handed the turbaned woman a coin, then turned and walked away. The whiteness of her blouse sank into the blackness. Like stepping into a dark doorway. There were more people now, shuffling about, indistinct, shapeless, their attire dark-colored, the bà ba blouses, the wide-legged pantaloons. They sat down, eating from the vendors’ bowls. I could hear the slurping noise they made. The air felt cold. It felt damp on the skin, a shivering dampness not there before. I snuggled against the nun and she put her arms around me. Who’re these people? Where’d they come from? I wondered, as I rested my head on the nun’s shoulder. Around here there were no habitations. But I didn’t ask the nun. Nobody spoke. It was like seeing things in a dream, black-and-white, soundless. Someone came for a betel chew, then another. Older women. When they came the air would feel colder, like when you open the door and the rain-damp air came in after it had rained all night. I fell asleep on the nun’s shoulder and when I woke the market vendors were packing up. Now some vendors had lit their kerosene lamps, the glows painting amber lights and shadows on their faces. The turbaned woman had sold out her betel-chew condiments. The nun said something to her and she began emptying her blouse pockets onto her tray. Wrinkled arrowroot leaves, dried-up banana leaves, holed seashells, pebbles round and square. Like child’s things. Why d’you carry them in your pockets? I asked the woman. And she looked down into my eyes, about to say something when the nun said, These aren’t hers, child. They came from the people who came here to buy things from her. I glanced at them again and said, Are they worth anything to give to somebody? The nun shook her head, said, No, child. Themselves they aren’t worth anything. But they were money when those who came here paid her and other vendors. I said, They are not money. The nun said, They were money when those people were here. Then picking up a round pebble, the nun put it in my hand, said, This was a money coin when they paid her. Now she picked up a dried arrowroot leaf, said, This was paper money when they gave it to her. You see, child, those people aren’t living people, like us. They had been dead for many years now. They came back from their yin world into our yang world, this marketplace, so they could enjoy again our worldly pleasures even just for one brief moment. There was no bargaining, no asking about the prices of things in this market. They came, bought things, paid for them. It was real money when they paid. The coin money, the paper money. Only after they have left to go back to their yin world did the money then turn back to its true origins. The nun then patted my head. Now, do you understand why I said that you shall never see anything like this again after you leave Vietnam? I stood looking at the pebble in my hand. A child’s thing, like when children play buy-and-sell. We’d use seashells, pebbles, cutout papers for money.

Khanh HaKhanh Ha’s debut novel is Flesh (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.  He is at work on a new novel. His short stories have appeared in Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, and forthcoming in Glint Literary Journal (2013 Summer issue), Zymbol (2013 September issue), DUCTS (2013 Summer issue), and The Long Story (2014 March anthology).  www.authorkhanhha.com

Christ v.

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

DISTRICT OF SAN FRANCISCO

JESUS CHRIST,

Plaintiffv.

JOHN DOEs, JANE DOEs, and

THE HOLY SEE, THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION, THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH OF AMERICA, THE EASTERN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF AMERICA, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, LAUGHING PANDA INDUSTRIES, et al
Defendants

 

Civil Action No.

COMPLAINT

Preliminary Statement

1. This is a suit for defamation, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, unlicensed use of likeness and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Summary of Plaintiff’s Claims

2. In or about September, in the year 5 B.C.E., Plaintiff Jesus Christ was born.

3. Subsequently, in or about November, 29 A.D., Mr. Christ was crucified by order of the Romans.

4. He suffered, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures.

5. Subsequently, in late November or early December 29 A.D., Mr. Christ ascended into heaven, where he was, among other things, seated at the right hand of his father.

6. Since that date, numerous individuals, groups, organized religions and nations have used the unauthorized likeness and endorsements of Mr. Christ without his express permission and without just compensation.

7. Mr. Christ seeks damages for the continued and rampant use of his likeness and name without his permission. Pursuant to federal and local statutes, it is also explicitly clear that related causes of action may be pursued under the federal Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125 (a), for example, for unauthorized use of a person’s identity in order to create a false endorsement. Mr. Christ is entitled to damages and pain and suffering after the continued use of his name in such a manner that it creates an implied and sometimes explicit endorsement which has been continually and intentionally used to recruit, retain and financially benefit the above-named organized religions and nations.

8. The California Civil Code – Section 3344 – 3344.1 [Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act] permits the use of a person’s likeness once 70 years has passed since the time of death provided that heirs do not obtain a claim to continued exclusive use of that likeness (Mr. Christ has no heirs). However, we submit as evidence proof of Mr. Christ’s resurrection on Sunday, March 31, 2013. Because of this holy resurrection (“The Second Coming”), Mr. Christ is once again a living human being and as such entitled to all rights as they relate to his name and likeness. These rights revert immediately back to Mr. Christ upon his resurrection and he is entitled to just compensation for proceeds and licensing fees related to the use of his likeness in the intervening 1,984 years.

9. Mr. Christ is also seeking an injunction against the municipality of Corpus Christi, Texas for using his name without permission for financial gain. This has affected Mr. Christ financially, as this was the name of a proposed resort community on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that Mr. Christ was an investor in.

10. Mr. Christ would like back royalties and licensing fees from Laughing Panda Industries, the American importer of Chinese-made “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)” wristbands and the “Jesus Bobblehead” and “Holy Action Figure” toy lines as well as other items fully catalogued in the addendum including but not limited to votive candles, prayer beads, rosaries, velvet paintings, crucifixes, breath mints, playing cards, poker chips, statues, garden gnomes, coloring books, flags, scarves, communion wafers and leather sandals.

11. Additionally, Mr. Christ is seeking an injunction against the Roman Catholic Church, the Pentecostal Church, New Life Urban Ministries, et al, for defamation and libel against his good name in portraying him and his beliefs as racist, nationalist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic (Mr. Christ is a practicing member of the Jewish faith), Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, prudish and intolerant.

Count I

Unfair Competition

12. Plaintiff incorporates herein by reference all of the averments of paragraphs 1 through 7 with like force and effect as though set forth in full herein.

13. The defendants intentionally infringed on the plaintiff’s rights to protect, defend and establish his likeness, endorsements and other trademarks in order to pursue monetary and other considerations and compensations for such endorsements.

14. The conduct of the defendants has been sufficiently outrageous as to entitle plaintiff an award of punitive damages.

Count II

Misappropriation of Name or Likeness

15. Plaintiff incorporates herein by reference all of the averments of paragraphs 1 through 9 with like force and effect as though set forth in full herein.

16. Defendants did knowingly and without remorse misappropriate the name and likeness of the defendant for their own material gain and without any consideration for compensation or redress of the plaintiff.

17. The aforementioned misappropriation was so rampant and unmitigated that the plaintiff’s likeness is now considered the 14th most recognizable brand on Earth, following such other noted marks and likenesses as the Nike “swoosh”, the McDonald’s arches and the name, voice and likeness of Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana.

Count III

Defamation

18. Plaintiff incorporates herein by reference all of the averments of paragraphs 1 through 10 with like force and effect as though set forth in full herein.

19. The defendants made outrageous, indefensible and untrue claims about the plaintiff including their continued insistence that he “hated homosexuals,” “hated Jews,” “damned fornicators,” and “wanted a Republican in the White House.”

20. The defendants’ conduct, as described above, was intentional and reckless.

21. The defendants’ conduct was extreme and outrageous. The defendants intended to harm plaintiff Jesus Christ and besmirch his personal beliefs.

22. The defendants’ conduct has caused severe emotional and physical distress to the plaintiff.

23. The conduct of the defendants has been sufficiently outrageous as to entitle plaintiff to an award of punitive damages. In addition, the plaintiff would like a notarized letter of apology, on official letterhead, from each of the parties named in the above complaints.

YAWEH, NINEVAH AND GREEN LLP

                                                            By: ________________________________

Harvey J. Green, Esq.
14 Temple Square
Suite 7777
San Francisco, CA 94102

Tiny Town: Mixed Media

Peter Riva, Literary Agent

Peter Riva

Peter Riva

Riva’s agency, International Transactions, Inc., specializes in a holistic approach—one that both nourishes its connections to the publishing and entertainment worlds and closely shepherds its authors through the world of publishing.

Riva brought decades of experience in the publishing industry to Antioch in December with his lecture on the business of writing. Lunch Ticket Editor in Chief Lise Quintana spoke to Riva about his views on the publishing industry, where it’s heading, and how new authors can become part of it.

Lise Quintana: The writing community has been given mixed signals lately. We’ve heard both that there’s no market for short stories and that e-readers mean that short stories are selling better than ever. We’ve heard that publishers are struggling—independent publishers are going out of business, larger publishers merging—and that more books are being published than ever before. From your perspective, what’s the truth?

Peter Riva: All of the above. The truth is, there are more books being published than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that there are more books being carried by the booksellers than ever before. In fact, that number is dwindling. There is a large number of backlist titles being sold as e-books now. All the publishers are rushing to digitize and sell their backlist in electronic book formats, and bear in mind that there are at least eight formats that they have to comply with. That’s taking up the publisher’s time, and that’s why the number of books published is growing. On top of that you have the independents, writers who are publishing their own books. Those are still books with ISBN numbers, and they are still “on sale” because the larger platforms do carry those books, even if they’re independently published. Insofar as short stories are concerned, there are short stories and then there are novellas. Novellas have a window of opportunity given to them by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. They have a novella section published electronically that is doing exceptionally well and garners first-step reviews for many authors who wish to be published by a mid-stream publisher. It gives them an opportunity to air their wares and also generate revenue.

LQ: You’ve mentioned that because you work differently from other agents, you do not belong to any associations of literary agents. What experiences led you to that decision?

PR: I’ve been doing this since 1972, licensing in one form or another, and in my experience, the creative process is an involved one that requires the agents to advise, consult with, sometimes manage, but at all times act as a viable partner for the person who’s doing the creation. That includes editing, and it also includes offering advice. One of the things that the literary agents’ association does not want agents to do is manage the authors’ affairs. That’s all well and fine, but some of our authors didn’t even know what a taxpayer’s identification number was, had no idea how to structure their own affairs, let alone the editing and rearranging of text within their manuscripts. We’ve found that, in order to be a constructive partner, we’ve had to do things that were outside of the guidelines of the literary agents’ associations. Now, on the other hand, I do draw the line at some of the new conditions being laid down by the larger agencies whereby they say “If we are going to take on this book, we own a share of it, ad infinitum, forever and a day.” We don’t take that position. We are the representatives of the author until the day the author decides that they want to go elsewhere. If we’ve concluded a licensing agreement with a publisher, obviously we are the agents of record in that negotiation and that will continue, but if, for instance, the publisher releases the book after five years and we’re no longer the agent and the author takes that book to another publisher and we’re not the agent, we wouldn’t share in that.

LQ: From initial manuscript onward, how much interaction do you typically have with an author? (Daily emails? Weekly? Phone calls? In-person meetings?)

The need to see the author and press the flesh, that’s always nice but it doesn’t have to happen anymore. We live in a digital world and a telephone world, a videoconferencing world and really, you don’t have to [be there in person].

PR: It comes in spurts, and each author is different. We have an author who’s in Seattle, Washington. I’ve never met him, I’ve talked with him for quite a few hours on the phone, helped him restructure some of his proposals. The need to see the author and press the flesh, that’s always nice but it doesn’t have to happen anymore. We live in a digital world and a telephone world, a videoconferencing world and really, you don’t have to [be there in person]. There’s the old concept of the “agents’ lunch”. That really is over except for some backslapping that’s done at various conferences, either London or Frankfurt or New York or wherever. As far as we’re concerned, contact with the author is on a needs-must basis. My time’s much better spent placing the author’s work with editors and having that conversation with publishers and publicity people and so on, than hand-holding the authors. Some authors require more hand-holding, others don’t. To give you an example: John Enright, whose series has been taken up by Amazon Publishing. We handled his books and helped him reconstruct and re-edit and re-work those books over a period of five years and, as he was living in American Samoa at the time, our conversation was entirely either on the phone or by email. There were a couple of years when we only exchanged emails once a month or once every two months.

LQ: Most agents and editors, etc., still adhere to the thought that you have to live in New York if you want to be successful in publishing. How do you feel about that?

PR: I moved back from London to New York in 1981 and I was in New York from 1981 to 2007. There is an advantage to seeing people in that you can discuss their needs and desires better. Once you’ve developed a relationship with publishing houses and with editors, you don’t have to be there face to face all the time, once or twice a year is sufficient. As far as the principals are concerned, I spend a fair amount of time with them in Frankfurt, so I don’t have to go into New York. Although it’s always nice to see friends and colleagues after all these years.

Large advances are, quite often, detrimental to author’s careers. First of all, it sets them up for a bigger fall. Secondly, the advance doesn’t reflect what the publisher’s going to do with the book when they have it under contract.

In the larger literary agencies, when you work as a literary agency with a larger agency, your base salary is fairly low and you’re waiting for that bonus payment based on the revenue you’ve generated. That does cause people to hustle, to push and move and get as large an advance as possible. Large advances are, quite often, detrimental to author’s careers. First of all, it sets them up for a bigger fall. Secondly, the advance doesn’t reflect what the publisher’s going to do with the book when they have it under contract. I’ve seen many multi-hundred thousand and million-dollar advances where the book has never been promoted properly and it just languishes on the shelf and dies, and the author’s career has died with it. Let’s remember back in the 80s when publishers were writing huge checks and were dependent upon Ronald Reagan’s allowance of writing off all stock in a warehouse at the end of a year. So, there were these “accidental” warehouse fires.

The truth is that each author needs to be dealt with differently. There are authors who are entirely dependent upon any revenue that can be generated, and sometimes an advance will tide them over until the point when their book is going to sell. There are other authors who have other means of support, and in their case, handing them a hundred thousand dollar advance just means they’re giving the IRS fifty thousand dollars. It’s a whole lot better for them if, instead of giving them a hundred thousand dollar advance, we get a twenty-five thousand dollar advance and get a publicity and promotion clause that’s worth fifty thousand dollars, which actually means the book is going to sell for five or six years and spread the revenue out.

LQ: In your experience, in today’s market, what is the typical advance for a first-time author?

PR: It’s dropped. It’s plummeted. It’s in a horrible state. Anything from $5,000 to $15,000. There are exceptions you read about because somebody has a platform, and they’re doing the New York circuit and they do the sort of glitterati thing and they manage to keroger (that’s the Kenyan term for “stirring the pot”) things up to the point where they can get a really healthy advance of $65,000 or $70,000,  and that’s fine. But those are absolutely less than 1% of the debut authors sold.

Debut authors are hurting because publishers, and we’re now talking the Big Five (since it’s no longer the Big Six), are heavily engaged in profit-taking based on turning their back-end list into e-books. Their resources are being directed in that way. There’s a second thing that’s happened in publishing in the last five years that I predicted 10 years ago and was laughed at by several publishers. It is that the brand is no longer the publisher; the brand is the author. As publishers have come to realize that the way to maximize profits is to build out those brands, it has, very much like a tornado, drawn everything to it as far as resources within the company is concerned. So you’ll get Patterson, who has tremendous marketing and sales support, to the detriment of any newcomer, who obviously doesn’t have the branding profile as an author. In the old days, if you got published by Knopf or you got published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux or whoever, you were pretty much guaranteed that you had your same foot in the same pool, and that you were going to benefit because Knopf’s name was on the spine. Amazon changed that whole game plan. In today’s market the publisher’s logo on the spine may help reviewers, but it doesn’t really help the buyer.

LQ: What are the biggest mistakes a writer looking for representation can make?

PR: Writers have to realize that, with the exception of maybe ten editors, there are no editors left in publishing in the old-fashioned sense. Editors used to see the quality of the story and the ability of the writer to construct a book, and then aid and enhance that process. There’s a famous story that Maya Angelou tells about Bob Loomis in which she says that she got her first manuscript back from him with these little squiggles in the margin. She said “What does that mean?” He said “Well, in that paragraph, there’s something that broke my mental flow or there’s something that bothered me there.” She said “What?” He said “No, that’s for you to discover.” That kind of editing minutiae no longer exists. You’ll get people who will correct spelling and all the rest, but they won’t help you realize where your manuscript is less than perfect. You can talk with Martin Cruz Smith who was also first discovered by Bob Loomis—same thing. His work was impeccable while Bob Loomis was his editor, and when he moved elsewhere hasn’t been quite to the same standard.  Now that’s not to say it’s not wonderful, it is, and I’m one of his great fans, but it’s just an indication that that level of care and attention from an editor doesn’t really exist anymore, by and large.

Take it one step at a time. Be patient. I’ve had authors write to me and say “I need a response within a week.” That’s a very simple response for me.

If I was an author writing a book, I would complete it, and I would put it aside for a period of time to clear my mind. Then I would edit it again, read it again, edit it again, read it again. Then I would have people read it. Not friends and neighbors—I’d hire people who are paid to read it to rip it apart and tell me where it’s wrong. If necessary and if I had the funds, I would either hire a professional editor, one of the people who’s no longer working at a publishing house who’s set up independent shop, or I would go to a university and find an English or literature teacher who’s willing to help me rip it apart and tell me what’s wrong with it. And I’d fix it. Then I would edit it again, and then and only then, when I felt that it was presentable, would I then seek to find an agency. Now, finding the right agent is a tricky thing. My advice to authors is always the same: go to your local bookstore (by definition this means that you should actually go look at books and read them) and find the author that you most respect in the same genre that you’re working in. Then phone up the publishing house and find out who the editor of that book is. Write a respectful letter to that editor saying “Would you please put me in touch with an agent who you feel would best represent my efforts. My work is similar to [name the author that the editor worked with].” And they would probably give you the name of an agent, because publishing houses want agents to act as the gatekeepers. They’re often generous enough to supply the names of agents. Write a letter to that agent, bearing in mind that the agent has 200 emails a day coming in, and you’ve got to fit into that. Say “I am a debut author. I have written a [novel, biography, whatever it may be], and I have contacted the editor at this publishing house who published the work of So-and-so, whose work I respect and which resembles my own. They have suggested that I contact you. I would like the opportunity to submit my work to you for consideration.”  You submit it to an agent while following the guidelines of that particular agency (each agency has different guidelines). Take it one step at a time. Be patient. I’ve had authors write to me and say “I need a response within a week.” That’s a very simple response for me.

LQ: How much of a manuscript do you typically have to read before you know whether or not it’s saleable?

PR: There are two parts to that question. First of all, I need to read twenty pages and a biography of the author and a short synopsis (by “short synopsis,” I mean two or three paragraphs) in order to find out whether or not I want to read the manuscript.  Carving out that much time to read a manuscript is an investment for our company. We’ll read that twenty pages and a short synopsis and a bio—we do that 40-50 times a month. But to call for the manuscript is rare. Then we’re asking the author to bear with us and give us 6 weeks to read the manuscript to come back with our decision or suggestions, as the case may be. We do read a whole manuscript before we take on an author. It’s expensive for us to make this a guessing game. We have to be reasonably certain.

LQ: Why is the bio important?

PR: The bio shows us where the author is in their life, what their capabilities are, whether this is a one-off or whether they’ll write a few more books. It can show me why I should spend time and effort on this person. If the author is talented and they’re going to write more books, that enhances the profile of the author vis-à-vis business. There are some times we get bios where we say “Hang on a sec, an author with that level of commitment and background and education, can’t be a 16-year-old. I doubt it.”  There are things that sometimes raise red flags and we have to probe a little bit further. We don’t want to get caught in a situation where there might be plagiarism involved or a nom de plume that causes conflicts within the industry. We have to be careful, not only for ourselves, but for the industry as well.

LQ: In 2000, your company added an associate editor, JoAnn Collins, to represent women’s voices and issues. What does that mean, and why did you feel that was necessary?

PR: Given that 65% of all books are being bought by women, there were many titles I was not qualified to judge, particularly women’s issues and stories (both novels and nonfiction) that involved part of the women’s movement and sometimes abortion and other things like that. Since they were coming across the transom with fair regularity, we felt it would be wise to have someone with a degree in that subject matter. In addition, there were medical books we were being given that I was frankly not educated enough to judge. JoAnn Collins is also a registered nurse, so she was better able to evaluate these books.

LQ: With the advent of e-books and print-on-demand services that make self-publishing easier and less expensive, do you feel that the role the agent plays has changed? Do most authors still need an agent?

PR: Yes and yes. The role of the agent in the general marketplace has changed. The role of our agency hasn’t changed, since we’ve always been a hand-holding agency. Our agency works differently in that we help mold and refine the product before it’s taken to a publishing house. In fact, we’ve found that the demand for our agency has grown, since a lot of authors have published books by themselves and thought that makes them a “published author,” and therefore they can get their next book picked up automatically by a publishing house. Sometimes, having published a book by yourself, even if you’ve sold reasonable quantities (7,000-10,000 copies), red flags you at the publishing house, who think that you’re not going to play the game the way they want it played. Of course, people publish their own book and sell a hundred thousand copies suddenly become the flavor of the day in New York and they’re snapped up with big contracts and I hope that works out for them. I suspect that, given their ability in social media, and anybody who’s published themselves and been successful will know how to handle social media, they are more likely to do the job for the publisher. But they’re happy enough to have the publisher haggle the dead tree issue, which a lot of self-published authors don’t get into. They go straight for electronic. Electronic books and publishing by yourself is a viable way to make your voice heard, especially if you have your own platform. It is interesting to note that almost everybody who has a solid platform, whether it be in the religious arena or in the cooking arena or whatever else, seeks a traditional publisher rather than publishing themselves because the onslaught of work would stop them from doing their primary function. People who’ve been successful self-published authors have found that they’re running a business, and their second book gets delayed and delayed and delayed because the workload on the first book is overwhelming.

LQ: What are your thoughts about authors and social media? Some authors like Chuck Palahniuk use it to market their books and to offer advice to other authors, while others like Christopher Moore use it the way most people do—to communicate their everyday thoughts to their friends. Should authors build a platform with social media?

… readers don’t want to connect with the book, they want to connect with the author. If the author realizes that, they will build out social media to allow the reader to connect with the author always in a way that isn’t off target.

PR: Yes. Without exception. The English have an expression “horses for courses.” You have to have the right social media for the right project. The brand is now the author. The author is in charge of that brand in social media, or, if you’re with a good publisher like Open Road Media, they’ll handle the social media for you and give you a list of things that you have to comply with every week. “Don’t forget to post here, respond to that one there,” and it makes their job very simple. No one other than Open Road does that properly, by the way. If you look at the videos Open Road Media makes, they’re always about the author because readers don’t want to connect with the book, they want to connect with the author. If the author realizes that, they will build out social media to allow the reader to connect with the author always in a way that isn’t off target. If you’re writing a biography of Lincoln, you want to make sure that your comments are professorial and factual enough that the reader will have and gain confidence in your ability to be the purveyor of factual information on Lincoln or anything else. If, on the other hand, you’re the author of zany humor, you want to make sure that you constantly blog, tweet, maybe post funny photographs on Pinterest, in order to have people recognize that you’re a person with great humor. It’s all about author identification. It’s not about book identification.

LQ:  How does any agent justify the payment they receive?

PR: First of all, you should never pay an agent. An agent should only earn money if the book is successful. If the agent takes on a book, they are taking on an equal risk. As agents, we never earn a dime unless our authors are making their money. The notion that agents are “paid” also creates this falsehood that the agent is an employee of the author. That is never the case. Where author relations have soured with their agents, it’s because the authors have this misconception that they were hiring an agent. They’re not. They’re appointing an agent to act as their representative and junior partner in the business they’re working on together. The agent is an intelligent (hopefully), experienced (hopefully), honest (definitely hopefully) person, and the fact that they’re only making 15% on a book project doesn’t mean the author gets to order them around. What agents know takes too long to explain to authors. There’s got to be a level of blind trust at a certain point. You can always ask your agent questions. But there are authors who say “Before we sign up with you, we really want to have a wide-ranging conversation about publishing” and I say “Now hang on a second, if you don’t even understand what publishing is, or what the word “royalty” means, or what quarterly payments, half-yearly payments, yearly payments, advances, all that is, we’ll explain it to you, but don’t question us as to whether that is fair or not fair. That’s the way the business is run.” The difficulty for authors is that they may wish the business were run differently, but it’s not. Agents aren’t able to re-educate publishers on behalf of authors. We’ve tried that in the past and it doesn’t work.

LQ: How do you feel about publishers as the gatekeeper? There are a lot of people publishing now. Do you feel that’s making it harder for readers to find good books? Are there fundamental changes that the publishing system might make to make itself more relevant?

PR: There are models that have gone before. Take television, for example. There was a time when there were three channels in the United States. I produced a television show in 1988 that had a 14 share and 22 million viewers. If I had a show on television today that had those kind of numbers, I’d be the richest guy in Hollywood. When you have a lack of competition, you garner a greater share of people partaking in whatever you’re offering. Today, there is so much competition out there. There are great authors, great titles getting lost amongst this myriad of publications. We’ve gone from 120,000 books published a year in the mid-1990s to 500,000 or more, and that causes a great scatter on your radar and you don’t know what book to choose. That’s why people find Amazon useful, because they have a system whereby if you bought this, you’d like that.

In the 80s, I used to spend a lot of time on the train going from home to the city. In the lower level of Grand Central, there was a bookstore that was 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep, and there was one man who owned and ran the bookstore. It was only science fiction, and it was only paperbacks, and he had maybe a 1,000 or 1,500 titles. The thing was, he had either read every one of them or had read enough of each one to know what each book was about and what it was similar to and what genre it was in, whether it was fantasy or science fiction, and so on. I could go in there from each train trip and say “I finished So-and-so,” And he’d say “Oh, then you’ll like this.” And he knew immediately what book to sell me. I found about 50 authors over ten years that I otherwise wouldn’t have read, and I enjoyed all of them. This man was the gate keeper of taste and linking authors and titles.

That’s what Amazon seeks to do. By and large, Amazon allows even the self-published authors to get within that pipeline, particularly if the self-published author takes the time in a business sense to find out how to dot the I’s and cross the T’s of Amazon’s system. For example, if you write a book that has railway stories in it, you should identify on Amazon those other titles that are selling well that have railway connections. When you’re asked to put tags in about the book you’re putting up on Amazon for sale, you put tags that link you to those other books. It’s as simple as that. Somebody reads a book by a published author that’s selling well, it says “People who bought this also might be interested in that,” and there you get the independent author’s book. Goodreads, weRead, Book Glutton, Wattpad, Readernaut, and Bookish are other great platforms. Getting friends and relatives to read your book and post honest reviews, good and bad, get them to post on various websites. That’s all part of the business game that the author has to engage in.

Lise Quintana is Editor in Chief of Lunch Ticket and is currently pursuing her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in journals including The Weekenders; Children, Churches and Daddies and The Willow Review. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area.

The Sand Dollar

“There are mermaids in the water,” Pa always began. This was the preface to my brother’s favorite story.

Pa would tell us how, if you were still and silent long enough at the edge of the dock, you could spy the shimmering green-gray of their fish tails as they flashed and disappeared. He said this mysterious disturbance near the water’s surface was the mermaids satisfying their curiosity about us, the air creatures. The reason no one ever saw them, he said, was that they could swim faster than the fastest horse could run. All they had to do was flick their tails and they could dart out of sight as quick as you please.

“Where do they go?” My brother would ask.

Pa would lower his voice and hunch forward in his chair, as if he was telling us a secret. “Back across the sandy plain, through the fields of kelp, down the tumbled rock mountain to their sunken palace, made from a grand ship that foundered hundreds of years ago.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine. The sea near our small fishing village had a mystic quality born of the sea shanties and folktales that circulated endlessly. The stories were mostly about mermaids, but there were also some about selkies, sea serpents, and the lady in white who walked the sands of the bay at low tide, keening for her love long lost at sea.

My little brother believed in these tales implicitly. He would sit at my father’s knee, wide-eyed, as Pa wove magic with his voice. I would join them by the fireside on chilly autumn nights when my mother and I had finished washing dishes. The warm firelight bathed the small front room of our cottage in a flickering glow. Pa would sit in his favorite chair, his figure made mythic in stature by the gigantic shadow silhouetted on the wall behind him. The rising and falling cadence of his words entranced me, but I wasn’t as gullible as my brother. I interrupted with impertinent questions, or loudly made noises of disbelief when he came to a part that tried my patience. My brother, meanwhile, would glare at me with his sea-gray eyes and wave his hands for silence so he could properly listen. He loved those stories. To him they weren’t make-believe.

If my father was a born storyteller, my brother was a born dreamer. I, on the other hand, was a skeptic. “Maggie would not see a mermaid even if one slapped her in the face with its tail,” my brother would say. “She has no magic.”

My pa would laugh, big and booming, and ruffle my curls. “She needs evidence, my Maggie. She don’t trust her eyes alone. As willful as the sea, this one!”

The damp air clung to my skirt and made my skin clammy. My brother, who always led the way, darted in and out of the haze like a ghost.

On misty mornings when my father was fishing, my mother would send my brother and me to take him an early lunch. The docks would be wet, and on calm days, the sea beyond the bobbing boats would be as smooth as glass. The waves would make a gentle lapping sound, like a dog drinking water. We would race to where my father anchored his small wooden boat, weaving our way through the mist. The damp air clung to my skirt and made my skin clammy. My brother, who always led the way, darted in and out of the haze like a ghost. We would eat with my father on the dock, our legs swinging a few feet above the water, my brother’s face smeared with the gravy from our mother’s best meat pasties. Afterward Pa would row back out to sea, the mist closing around him like a giant’s hand. “Look after Moony,” he would call to me. “And mind you’re home in time to help with chores.”

We had an hour or two, then, before the mists evaporated and it was time to return to our cottage on the cliff. I would troll the beach for pretty stones for my mother or, better yet, sea glass for my collection. Meanwhile, my brother would sit motionless at the edge of the dock, staring into the depths and waiting for his mermaid. I was often hard-pressed to tear him away when it was time to go home.

“C’mon, Ma’s going to be angry if we’re late again.”

“But Maggie…” He never gave me a good enough reason to risk the anger of our mother, and my impatience made me bossy.

“Hush, you. Come!”

He would drag his feet all the way back. No matter how much I chided or yanked on his arm, he would always pause, over and over, to stare longingly at the sea.

“That boy is somewhere else,” my ma would say. “Sometimes I think he would fly out the window if I let him.”

“Moony’s always mooning,” Pa would reply. Ma would never have anything to say in return. Instead, she would look at my brother — his hazy blond halo of hair, his small grubby hands — and a wondering would be in her eyes.

On a day when the mists were almost opaque, when the sea was blue-green one minute, roiling charcoal the next, I was longer than usual on the beach. My father had given me a sand dollar, and it so fascinated me I became determined to add to its number. My eyes scoured the shore, but I made sure to lift my head every now and then to look for the tiny speck that was my brother at the end of the dock, unidentifiable but for the red of his favorite sweater my mother had knitted. He was a bright dot against the gray of the shifting water beyond, which was getting choppier as the wind intensified. The crests of the waves were as white as bone.

I recalled our conversation from earlier that morning. It had been Moony and I standing at the crossroads of our two separate, well-trodden paths. “Come to the dock today,” he had said, his eyes shining. His voice still held onto the sweet notes of babyhood. “I want to show you something.”

I brushed him off. “What? And watch you mope and daydream all afternoon? No thanks. Besides, I have something important to do.”

“Please, Maggie, I have something to show you—” his small hand reached for my own.

Annoyed, I had shrugged out of his grasp. “Get off! I told you, I don’t have time for your nonsense. I’ll come for you when it’s time to go home.” As I turned and trotted off toward the beach, the wind carried away his shrill protests and tossed them out to sea.

I crouched in a scientist’s pose to unearth a perfect sand dollar. The bleached white skeleton was smooth and cool in my palm.

Soon enough, I forgot all about him. My search up and down the beach was the only thought in my head. The shore was a kaleidoscope of hues: the bigger rocks that were all shades of cloudy gray, watercolor blue and wispy lavender, leading to the thin strip of fine sediment just out of reach of the white foam of the receding tide. This was where I might find my sand dollar.

It was a long time before I spied treasure, a white edge protruding from the sand. I descended upon my bounty with zeal, stumbling over the rocks in my sturdy boots. I crouched in a scientist’s pose to unearth a perfect sand dollar. The bleached white skeleton was smooth and cool in my palm. I held it close to my eyes, poring over every angle.

When the wind started tossing my curls wildly about my head, I realized the mist had gone. We were going to be home late. Worse, I looked up the beach and saw I had gone too far—my point of orientation, my brother’s red sweater, wasn’t visible. Clouds were building themselves into monsters on the horizon, and the waves thundered onto the beach and ravaged the stone and sand. With these portents warning me, I started back, walking quickly.

As I neared the docks, my stomach dropped. Distance hadn’t obscured my brother from my sight; rather, he wasn’t there at all.

I began to run. The slippery rocks tripped me up, making my steps slow and floundering. The gale blowing in from the ocean slammed into me, as if it wanted to stop me. I ran against it and panted, tasting the briny salt in the air from the churning sea. All the while, my eyes were scanning the harbor for that dot of red.

I reached the last dock and ran full speed down its length, my pace finally able to match my urgency. I skidded straight to the edge, eyes wild, blood roaring through my veins. The sea crashed below me. White spray misted my arms and face. I screamed his name, but the wind ripped it from my throat and snatched it away. My eyes darted to the sea, to the swells coming in so high that they lapped over the dock and soaked my boots. Like the dock, the sea was empty. No small shape floated in its icy grasp, but I was not comforted.

My legs carried me away before I knew what I was about. Fueled by panic, I ran back down the dock, my footsteps pounding on the rotting wood. I flew up the hill to the cottage cliffs. The harbor and the village were merely a blur as I passed; they might as well have not existed. The wind pinched my face and dried the tracks of tears on my cheeks. I sprinted into our yard, warm all over. The muscles of my legs felt spongy and insubstantial. I could still hear the sea roaring like a caged animal, a wild thing no one could ever tame.

She was about to bend over to retrieve the wash basket, but I saw something register with her, something automatic. Only one child safe home — not two.

My mother was ripping the wash from the line. She saw me out of the corner or her eye and yelled, “Maggie, get inside, a storm’s coming!” She was about to bend over to retrieve the wash basket, but I saw something register with her, something automatic. Only one child safe home — not two. In a second, she turned toward me, her eyes skimming the road behind me as if she expected him to come loping along. He was always late, always falling behind.

“Where’s your brother?” she shouted, a frown pulling down the corners of her mouth.

I did not answer, not immediately. Her gaze latched onto my face; she had interpreted my pause instantly. Something was wrong. In another beat she took in my appearance — wild hair, bright red cheeks, tear-stained face.

She rushed at me and grabbed my shoulders. “Maggie, you’re scaring me. Where is he? Did something happen?”

The wind whipped around us. Ma’s words were lost to its howling, even though she was shouting in my face. Cold drops of rain started to pelt us, gaining in intensity with every second, though I could not even feel the chill of it. When I remained silent, Ma shook my shoulders. “Maggie!”

The litany in my head was screaming at me. It had kept up a constant refrain ever since my race up the beach: My fault. My fault. The truth exploded out of me. “He’s gone!” I sobbed. I felt myself reeling, becoming hysterical. My fault. My fault. My baby brother, barely old enough to read.

As my mother’s panicked gaze turned to the ocean, the world around me closed in on itself until darkness enfolded me.

Days came and went, then weeks, in a slow agony of unfurling time. Pa and men from the village searched every crevasse of the bay and the shallows of the water. The women organized search parties to explore inland—a waste of time, but I kept such thoughts to myself. Ma cried herself to sleep most nights, and I sat a long vigil, staring out the window for a dot of red that never materialized.

The sorrow wouldn’t end. My little brother was gone. I blinked and he vanished, just as a character in the stories he loved. The only problem was, as he himself had once said, I had no magic in me. My father’s tales were no more than words. My brother had disappeared, and there was nothing to believe but that he had drowned in the angry sea.

* * *

It was a long time before I could return to the harbor. I became a stranger to the docks and the beach. I did not even go back to look for my beloved specimens. The sea had betrayed me. I hated its changeable nature, its willfulness. I hated the folktales of the village and their superstitions. I buried my head in science books and waited for the day when I could escape everything, including my guilt. I grew older, but my brother’s shadow haunted me. My parents did not blame me, but an old refrain niggled in a tiny place in the back of my mind: My fault. My fault.

The time finally came when I was set to leave for the city. My devotion to my studies had secured me a scholarship at the university. I would study marine biology from a safe distance, through books and papers and lectures. I couldn’t wait to leave the seaside behind. Every crash of the ocean, every whisper of the tide coming in, reminded me of my brother, and I wanted nothing more than to forget.

I brought my father lunch for the last time when he rowed in from fishing—my mother’s famous meat pasties tucked in a basket. The day was calm. We sat together at the edge of the dock and ate, just like old times. Memories swarmed around us, the past edging its way in. Where our two sets of legs dangled over the dock, there had once been three. I couldn’t help thinking: he would have been taller than a post, our mooning Moony, with awkward hands and gigantic feet like Pa. Instead, the past froze him; he would never be taller than the height of my shoulder when I was ten years old, a little boy with dream-dust in his eyes.

Pa was different now. His booming laughs had long since quieted, and his stories had all but dried up. We were mostly silent as we sat eating our lunch. Still, when he rowed back out over the water, there was a faint glimmer of a twinkle in his eye. Grief had not completely put out his fire. He had one last thing to say to me before his boat disappeared into the fog, one final nudge before I surrendered myself to an inland life.

“The sea is a willful thing,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t go just because you can’t forgive it. Your brother wouldn’t want it.”

I didn’t answer. I waved until he was lost to my sight, then stood looking out to sea for a long, long time.

It wasn’t a cold day, but the wind was chilly. I was just turning to leave, my mind on hot tea, when I saw it: a shimmer beneath the undulation of the waves—a flash quicker than a blink. I gaped, stared, and dropped to my knees, my hands braced on the rough, rotting wood of the dock. My eyes searched the sea, doubt coloring my heart. The stories—the stories I had never believed in—was it possible?

As if to answer my question, I saw something floating a few feet out, something I was sure hadn’t been there before. I strained my arm, reaching, my muscles tensed all the way down to my fingertips. I barely snagged the thing. As I pulled it from the icy water, I realized it was some sort of clothing.

A sweater—faded and soggy beyond recognition, but not to me.

My heart pounded in my ears as I stared at the impossible thing in my hands. The wool was heavy with dampness, and the fibers were coming apart. Once it had been red, like the freshest cherries of spring. There was a hole under the armpit, the one Ma had patched hundreds of times, once just big enough for a tiny finger to wiggle through, now stretched out long and thin. I turned the cloth over, automatically searching for the tiny breast pocket. My mother added this detail to all his shirts, because he had loved to stow miniature treasures.

There it was. My two trembling fingers just fit inside.

It wasn’t empty. Out of the pocket, I plucked a tiny sand dollar.

Tears wet my eyelashes as I sat riveted on the edge of the dock, the very place where my life had split in two. I turned my face toward the ocean and felt the salt breeze kiss my face and tangle my hair. I let my gaze move out to sea, clutching the soaking sweater in my lap. I held the sand dollar in my fist so tightly I could feel it leaving an imprint on my palm.

My grief ebbed like the tide. It was there that I finally believed.

Alyssa Erichsen earned her B.A. in English literature, and is currently a graduate student of library and information science at San Jose State University’s SLIS. Beyond writing, she loves hoarding books, befriending wayward cats, and exploring the great outdoors. As a lifelong, land-locked Midwesterner, she has always been fascinated by the coast and its folklore. The Sand Dollar is a result of that.

The Viewing

My car speeds north along the nearly deserted two-lane stretch of Highway 101 towards Waldport. My muscles are stiff from my hike up Cape Perpetua, and I’m anxious to get back to the house where I am staying for a hot shower. The sky is grey with pending rain and the ocean crashes against the rocks, occasionally spraying the road.

As I round a curve, a flower cart is suddenly flung high into the air only two hundred yards or so before me, spilling flowers onto the road. How bizarre, I think, there’s nothing like flower carts around here. This small Oregon town caters more to loggers than to tourists. Then I see a white car sideways across my lane. A motorcycle splayed on its side. That was no flower cart in the air at all; it was the motorcycle.

I slam on my brakes and swerve to the side of the road up against the cliff. I grab my raincoat and run to the accident, my open car door ding-ding-dinging behind me.

The motorcycle is green. A sidecar is attached. A man in black leather is sprawled out in front of the white Ford. All this I see in a blur as I race to the middle of the deserted highway. I shove my arms into my raincoat as I search up and down the road for an approaching vehicle. For the first time in my life I wish I had a cellphone. The ocean sprays high across the road; the rain mists my face. I hop from one foot to the other, turning my head to the north, the south.

It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Finally, a pickup lumbers into view from around the curve. I stand smack in the middle of the lane and wave my arms, my raincoat flapping crazily. The pickup screeches to a halt just a few feet from me.

Do you have a cellphone? I shout at the driver, a big man, a logger maybe. I run to his window.

He nods quickly.

Call 911! I yell, pointing my finger at him.  It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Call 911! I yell. I’m up on the truck’s step, gripping his car door, just inches from his face.

He looks like he’s afraid of me. But I see his cellphone in his big hand. His grimy fingers press the buttons.

* * *

Usually when I head over to the coast for my annual personal retreat in Waldport, I leave at first light the Sunday morning at the start of my stay. That way I can get a beach walk in before 11, when my week officially begins. I’d been coming here for years: spending a week in late October by myself in a small blue house right on the ocean.

This time though, I went to Abe’s viewing first.

I would have read of his death in the newspaper along with everyone else, had the wife of one of his friends not called me at work.

“Abe died last night,” she had said. “I told Hank that no one would think to call you, and I didn’t want you to see it in the paper before you knew.”

I thanked her kindly; I knew it had taken a lot for her to call. Most of the wives had been wary of me, as though my love for Abe were somehow a threat to their own marriages. Rumors that we were having an affair had circulated for the ten years we had been together. Now, fifteen years after Abe and I had finally given up on it, apparently people still wondered about us.

His wife, Ellie, never uttered a single hint to either him or me that she knew. Maybe she was grateful for our discretion and thought if she didn’t acknowledge our relationship, she wouldn’t have to do anything about it. She was distant towards me, but never unkind.

Abe was not the sort to have an affair. Neither was I. We met not long after I left my violent husband in Colorado and moved to Oregon. I had no trust left for men. Abe was safe, easy to talk to. When I saw him with his wife, they were obviously happy; they had that laid-back, teasing way of being together. He was the kind of dad who worried over his daughter’s middle-school problems.

Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior.

Yet we let our friendship cross the line and then did nothing to try and bring it back to the right side again. Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior. I’ll not give myself that.

I’m not proud that we had an affair.  And I would never again do that to another woman. Or to myself. Because you never come first when you’re in a relationship with a married man. Face it, a daughter’s volleyball game will always trump your birthday.

In fact, I guess you could say the years Abe and I were together were really nothing more than ten years’ worth of one-night stands. Because if one of you can’t commit, it comes down to the same thing. When I said that to Abe during an argument once, he cried.  I never said it again.

*     *     *

I run back to the man splayed on the asphalt. The man and the woman from the white Ford stand next to the car. The woman is crying, the man has his arms around her. The ding-ding-dinging from my car door pierces the pounding of the ocean.

I drop to my knees. The man’s body is encased in black leather as though the skin of a dead animal could have protected him from a white Ford. His head is not even two feet from the car’s left front tire.

I unfasten his helmet and then remember that I’m probably not supposed to move his neck, so I don’t take it off. Instead, I lift his goggles to his helmet. His eyes are almond shaped. Ice blue.

I try to remember how far we are from a hospital. Newport is at least twenty minutes away, even at ambulance speed. I can’t remember if Newport has a hospital or not.

The woman’s crying sounds far off even though she is standing right there. The asphalt digs into my knees. I take off the man’s gloves. Rough, square hands with wide short fingers. Broken blunt nails. I rub his hands. Once, when I was a child growing up in Miami, my mother took us to the Sea Aquarium. There was a manatee in a pool and I got to pet it. I think of that leathery crackled skin now as I rub the man’s hands. My car ding-ding-dings.

The man makes a moaning sound.

Shhh, you’re going to be fine, I tell him. His eyes are ice blue. Shhh, everything’s going to be just fine.

The ocean pounds against the rocks, spraying the road. The rain mists all around us.

The man moves his head. I can tell he wants his helmet off. I shake my head no, and knead his manatee-skin hands. It’s going to be okay, I say. You’re going to be okay.

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

He squints his ice blue eyes at me as though he is trying to remember where he knows me from.

I hear other cars stopping. A man, maybe even the man who called 911, yells. Help me with the bike! The fuel is running all over the place!

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

I rub the man’s square manatee-skin hands and stare into his ice blue eyes. He wants his helmet off. Shhh, I say, shhh. Everything’s going to be all right. The man’s face is damp with ocean spray and rain mist.

From far away I can hear the ambulance screaming. The man darts his ice blue eyes back and forth, back and forth. Shhhh, I say, shhhh. I rub his hands.

*     *     *

I used to wonder if I would love Abe as much if he were available. Back then I was still afraid I would turn back into my old self if a man tried to manage my life. I didn’t trust that my new confidence would stick. That if I got battered again I wouldn’t be too scared to leave and start my life all over.

Abe didn’t know about the violence, though he could have guessed. One night early on in our relationship, when we were playfully wrestling with our lovemaking, he held me down by my wrists. He weighed over a hundred pounds more than me, and I squirmed, trying to get out from beneath him. We had been laughing, but I became afraid. A dark voice from somewhere deep inside me growled, “Get. Off.” In my sudden fury, I could have sunk my teeth into his cheek and ripped his face off.

Abe rolled off immediately. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” I should have told him then, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to put my past life behind me, pretend it hadn’t happened. He never brought it up, not even after I started working at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence.

We stopped seeing each other so many times I lost count. When it was Abe who ended it, it was because of a poem he had read about a man and a woman who had an affair. When he died, she could only watch the funeral from behind a tree, while his wife received all of the town’s sympathy. He didn’t want me to be that woman. When I was the one who broke up with Abe, it was because it was too late. I already was that woman.

It was me who finally ended our affair for good. I couldn’t sneak around anymore; I no longer cared whether anyone knew or not. Even then, I didn’t expect him to leave Ellie; I would have lost respect for him if he had. But I wanted to be the woman who came first. I wanted to be the woman he planned on sailing around the world with after his retirement.

 *     *     *

A woman kneels next to me. She leans into me. Our shoulders touch. I can tell she’s a strong woman, capable.

Her voice is husky. I’m a registered nurse, she says quietly at my ear. I almost don’t hear her over the crashing of the ocean.

I’m not, I tell her, not taking my eyes away from the man’s.

She removes the man’s helmet. Ah, I think, so I could have taken it off after all. The man’s hair is grey and matted.

I can take over now, she says. She takes the man’s rough manatee-skin hands from me.

I knee myself out of her way, still looking in the man’s ice blue eyes. It’s going to be all right, I tell him. Everything is going to be okay.

My legs tremble as I stand. My car has stopped ding-ding-dinging; it must have finally run down, like an alarm clock. Or killed the battery. I wobble past the man with the ice blue eyes, to the other side of the white Ford.

Then I see her. Laying face down, arms and legs bent in impossible angles, face into the asphalt. As though some pissed-off god had snatched her out of that sidecar and slammed her down on the asphalt in a fury.

Even I can see she is dead.

 *     *     *

I ran into Ellie at the grocery store a month or two before Abe died. I hadn’t seen her for years. She looked so happy to see me and I was surprised that I was glad to see her too. We chatted in the produce aisle, occasionally stepping aside while an irritated shopper reached around us for an onion. As she told me about the grandkids and what Abe was up to, I realized that there was a real affection between us. Maybe, because we had loved and been loved by the same man, in some curious way we were bonded. Abe had loved us differently, neither of us ever a real threat to the other. Or maybe it was simply a matter of enough time having gone by that we could appreciate each other as individuals rather than as extensions of Abe.

During the fifteen years we were no longer having an affair, Abe and I talked often on the phone. Sometimes in the middle of the day, he’d call me at work. “Do you remember the time …” he’d start to say and I’d finish his sentence and we’d both start laughing. We’d always seemed to know what the other was thinking.

Occasionally he’d drive over to the town where I worked and take me out to a nice place for lunch. We’d talk about our days with the easiness of two people who had known each other at both their worst and their best, or lapse into comforting silences. On the way back from the restaurant, Abe would drop his hand, as big as a baseball mitt, palm open, onto the console between us. I’d place my hand in the middle and he’d fold his fingers around mine. We’d drive back to my work like that, my hand in his.

At Abe’s viewing, I waited in the lobby as the man in a black suit instructed me to do. The family was still with Abe; momentarily they would be leaving and then other mourners could go in. But Abe’s daughter saw me through the glass door and waved. She turned to her mother and Ellie came out to embrace me.  She cried and we rocked each other back and forth.

 *     *     *

Two paramedics leap out of the ambulance as it coasts to a stop. One turns the woman lying face down on the asphalt over and takes off her helmet. Her grey hair spills over the wet black asphalt. The other paramedic slits her black leather casing open, exposing her plump white middle-aged chest and belly. He snips her brassiere at the center and her breasts, large and round, spring free.

The woman’s nipples stand hard and erect.

The paramedics attach the pads for a defibrillator and shout things like Clear! at each other. But I know she’s dead. Even the registered nurse had walked right past her, instead coming to the man with the ice blue eyes.

My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The woman’s body jerks with each shock. I think of the frog I dissected all those years ago in high school. If you poked your scalpel in just the right place on the frog’s spine, you could make the legs move.

The woman’s skin is white against the black leather flayed open at her sides, the wet black asphalt. Her body looks like it has been carved in marble. Only her nipples strain for life.

The sheriff’s deputy is here now, scribbling in his notebook. He asks for my name and address. My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The nurse is kneeling by the man with the ice blue eyes. The driver of the white Ford and the woman who is crying talk to the deputy. A group of men stand around the motorcycle doing whatever it is that men do to motorcycles.

The motorcycle looks like a bike you would expect to see in a movie about World War II. A Russian-made bike I hear one of the men say. It has Arizona license plates and is covered with little travel stickers: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Rushmore, Oregon Sea Lion Caves.

Someone has made a pile of the belongings of the man with the ice blue eyes and the woman. Things that I mistook for flowers when I first saw the white Ford flip the motorcycle into the air: a little notebook with a rubber band around it, maps, several small canvas bags.

I bet it was the woman who packed everything in those little bags, I think, as I walk towards my car. I do the same thing when I travel; everything has its own canvas bag: my hiking clothes, my books, my art supplies. They had probably planned this trip around the country in their green Russian-made motorcycle for years. I imagine him smiling down at her cocooned in the sidecar with all her canvas bags, his ice blue eyes crinkling at the corners behind his goggles.

Someone has closed my car door. That’s why the ding-ding-dinging stopped. The inside of the door and driver’s seat are wet from where the rain misted in. I take my raincoat off and reach in to drape it over the passenger seat. Then I get inside and shut the door. I sit in the sudden silence a minute with my eyes closed.  Then I slip back onto Highway 101.

 *     *     *

The viewing room was empty when I entered. Lights dimmed, soft non-committal elevator music playing. Abe would have much preferred strings of sparkly blinking lights, and some jazzy piano music, Scott Joplin maybe. I peered into his coffin. He wore the same little boy smile he always got when he saw a puppy. I placed my palm on top of his folded hands. Other than the cold hardness, they felt the same. Coarse and kind. “Peasant hands,” he called them. “Artist hands,” I’d always reply.

My chest tightened and my throat went hot. I had been so relieved when our breakup dance was finally over that I never once thought about how much I missed him.

*     *     *

It’s raining for real now, not just misting, as I back into the driveway of my little rented house. I sit there watching the greyness of it. Then I bend down and wriggle my jean leg up over my right knee. Little bloody pits from kneeling on the asphalt dot my leg. I push my jean leg back down and press my head into the steering wheel. I think of the hot shower I had been looking forward to after my hike. But I’d have to walk up the steps, unlock the door, take off my boots, get undressed, step into the shower.

After a minute, I get out of the car and walk towards the roar of the ocean. I have forgotten to put my raincoat back on and the rain soaks through my turtleneck, my jeans. My skin shivers alive with it. I stand as close to the edge of the ocean as I can, the waves shlushing just short of my feet.

You can barely see where the horizon lies—the ocean and the sky are so nearly the same shade of grey.  After a while I can’t tell if I am wet from rain, ocean spray, or tears.

Mary ZelinkaMary Zelinka lives in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over 22 years. Her work has previously appeared in Pilgrimage, The Sun, Open Spaces, and CALYX, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Dover, Delaware

This is the day her brother has a relapse and shoots heroin. It’s
worse than the days when they were young and he would run with
scissors on purpose. It’s worse than the days he would chase the
neighbor’s fat cat, chucking clods of dirt. It’s worse than when he
would come home with cuts and bruises that were the result of him
“falling down.”

She feeds her pet Clownfish with a shaky hand—catastrophe is rarely
beautiful. The fish rises, struggling in the pump’s current, and eats as
many flakes as it possibly can. She promises herself that she will not
compare her brother to a fish.

Adam_Crittenden_photo-1

Adam Crittenden holds an MFA in poetry from New Mexico State University and serves as an editor for Lingerpost, Puerto del Sol and Apostrophe Books. His work has appeared or will appear in Whiskey Island, Metazen, Matter Press, > kill author, and several other journals. He currently teaches writing in Albuquerque.

Heimlich

The thing about Danny MacIsaac was that he was average. Average weight,  average height, average brown hair. He played hockey and baseball but he was never captain of the team or Most Valuable Player or anything. At school he half-slumped in the middle of the middle row, as if to mirror the position of his grades on the bell curve: most teachers (hell, most people) forgot about him as soon as he left their field of vision.

Danny’s family was also considered average. He had a younger brother named Ian. His father Billy D. was lazy and he liked his beer, but not more than most men, and his mother Willena was a regular mom: she worked, cleaned the house, cooked dinner and played bingo.

Danny liked being average. Some people wanted to stand out but not him. When you stood out, people talked about you and gave you stupid nicknames. He knew. It had happened to him once.

 * * *

A spring evening just like summer near the end of Lent. Danny and his mom were walking home from his grandmother’s place at the units, where he had tried to sell some tickets for a cellophane dinner for his hockey team. They stopped in at Footsie’s for a loaf of bread and a treat. Danny looked longingly at a bag of ketchup chips (he’d given them up for Lent) until he spotted the pink plastic ice-cream cone leaning behind the counter. But as Footsie’s didn’t have any ice-cream yet he settled for one of the two root beer popsicles left over from last summer.

They walked in the just-like-summer evening, he and his mom, past houses whose windows were still propped open with bottles and sticks and whatever else was handy. Which is why they heard this as they arrived at the door of their company duplex:

“I made the friggin’ thing; you eat it.”

“You know I hate fuckin’ onions.”

“I’m not askin you to fuck ’em, just to eat ’em.”

She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids.

Donnie Pepsi and his wife, Joleen. Now there was a pair. Donnie was a liar and a crook but Joleen was the real entertainment. She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids. In the summer, people knew exactly how many times a week the Pepsis did it because you could hear Joleen clear across the street. They were as good as Days of our Lives. And Danny’s mother could not get enough of them.  She watched all their comings and goings and analyzed every twisty turn of their complicated existence.

‟There was a woman over there today with a briefcase” she’d say to Billy D. over the shake and bake chicken. ‟Looked like Tony Cameron’s sister, the one works for the welfare. Three o’clock in the afternoon and Herself  still in her nightgown. Josephine is staying with them again. The old man must be on a toot.”

After dark Willena often took her knitting upstairs and sat on a chair beside her bedroom window. With the lights in the room turned off she could see right into the Pepsis’ kitchen and living room (they never closed the curtains or washed them that she could tell) and during the warm months she could sometimes even hear what they were saying. So when Danny came home with his root beer popsicle that night, he gave its twin to Ian, dropped the bread on the counter and went straight upstairs.

“Don’t be drippin’ that all over the couch,” Billy D. said to Danny, not taking his eyes from the television screen. And after a few minutes‚ “Where’s your mother at?”

“I dunno.” Danny said.

When the next commercial came on, Billy D. pushed down the lever on the La-Z-Boy, hoisted his big belly out of the chair and made his way up the stairs. Danny heard the toilet flushing, the creak of footsteps in the hallway and down the carpeted treads, the refrigerator door opening and closing.

“Tell you what, Bud,” his father said when he returned to the living room. He was twisting the cap off a bottle of Keith’s. “How would you like to make a loonie?”

By suppertime the next day it was all over town how Danny had gone up the stairs quiet like, pushed open his parents’ bedroom door, stuck in his hand and flicked on the light switch. Hard to say who was more surprised Joleen or Willena or the kid himself. He must be some stupid, I guess. Willena’s mad. Don’t think Billy D’ll be getting any for a while, ha ha ha.

The name Danny Lightswitch was floated for a day or two but then someone set fire to the canteen at the arena and both the incident and the nickname were forgotten. Since that time, Danny did everything he could to stay under the radar.

So here he was, eight uneventful years later, so normal, so unremarkable, so friggin’ average that he was practically invisible as he stood on the crumbling sidewalk  in front of Cornell’s Insurance after school. He was with Jonathan MacDonnell and Corey Deveau, smoking, hawking gobs of spit and talking about the semi-finals and horses and stuff. It was bright and sunny and warm and the whole town was outside. Cars and pick-ups and the same two motorcycles went up and down Central Avenue and parked in front of the liquor store and the Co-op. Pairs of girls paraded by in sandals and shorts and summer tops.

Danny was coming down with a cold, so in between Export A’s he sucked on some cherry cough drops. He had just popped one in his mouth when three things happened: Collie MacMaster stopped to bum a smoke, a pulp truck went by in a blast of dust and flying bark, and Joleen Pepsi appeared at the end of the street.

Even from a distance Danny could tell it was Joleen. Years of hanging out on the corner had taught him that everyone in town had a gait and posture that were as recognizable as the features on their faces. With Joleen there was also her distinctive shape. Today her round middle was packed into tight white jeans and her stiff bleached hair was pouffed high on her head. Joleen and Danny were no longer neighbours. She had  moved into a low-rental after Donnie was sent to Dorchester for bank machine fraud. Now that he was back, they maintained what was known as a back-door relationship; living apart so they could both get welfare. So nothing linked Danny and Joleen anymore except that long-ago incident, now a blip in the collective memory of the town.

“I can get John L. to get the booze, but it’ll cost,” Corey was saying. Danny was about to answer, had just opened his mouth in fact, when, slick as a smelt in your hand, the cherry cough drop slid down his windpipe.

Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster.

At first he didn’t understand why he couldn’t breathe. And when he did, he realized that, having also been rendered mute, he was alone with the awful knowledge. His friends just kept laughing and horsing around: he could croak right there in front of friggin’ Cornell’s and none of the bastards would notice. Gasping, he gave Corey a shove and  pointed to his throat. Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster. But still he did nothing, just stood there like the dense friggin’ idiot he was until Danny pulled the package of Vicks from the pocket of his hoodie and grabbed his throat.

“Holy fuck!”Corey said. “He’s chokin’ on a candy.”

Behind Corey, like something slow-motion on TV, Joleen’s potent white thighs pumped against the cindery duff of the sidewalk. The turquoise globes of her breasts bobbed up and down like lobster boats on their way back to the wharf. She drew up beside them, took one look at  Danny (Elsie Rankin was just walking out of Cornell’s, she saw everything with her own eyes) stuck her big jugs up against his back, put her meaty arms around his middle and lifted him clear off the sidewalk. The candy blasted out of Danny’s mouth like a slapshot across the ice.

His life was ruined.

* * *

At first the focus of the story was on the Heimlich manoeuver. That it actually worked was judged to be remarkable. That Joleen Pepsi knew how to perform it was nothing short of astonishing.

“Where in hell did she learn that?”

“Beats me.”

“Must have been at one of them job-finding clubs.”

Then people began to dwell on how lucky young Danny had been. On what a tragedy this could have been for the family. For the whole town, in fact. (The latter not being entirely true because nothing bonded the townspeople as much as the untimely demise of one of their own. But anyway.) On how you never knew when your time was up.  Imagine, just sucking on a candy.

The next day, the teachers and students and janitors all seemed to be looking at Danny for one or two more seconds than necessary. There was interest and curiosity in their eyes. But most of all there was amusement.

So instead of chilling with the guys as he usually did after school, he went home, ate three hot dogs with ketchup and plugged in the Nintendo. He was after beating the second level of Golden Eye when he became aware of his mother’s presence in the doorway.

“Phone, Danny,” she said. ‟It’s a woman.”

Now this was unusual. But as James Bond was 110% occupied freeing hostages just then, Danny just said:

“I’ll call ‘em back.”

Returning a few seconds later, his mother leaned in the doorway and said:

“It was Joleen Dennison.” Danny had never heard her use Joleen’s real name before. “She said she just wanted to know how you were.”

He looked at his mother’s face and she looked at his and then they both looked away. On the television screen a curtain of blood signalled that he had lost the game.

* * *

He had to stop hanging out on the corner with the guys because if anyone spotted Joleen they said:

“Hey, it’s Danny’s lifesaver.”

“I’ll bet she wouldn’t choke on nuttin’.”

“It would have to be a lot bigger’n Danny’s little candy anyway.” Or something like that. And then one night he was pissed at his brother for eating all the Rocky Road ice-cream and putting the empty container back in the freezer and he had him pinned to the floor good, he was really owning him when Ian said:

“Let me go, Heimlich.”

“Wha?” Danny said.

“That’s what they call you now. Know what that makes me, fucker? Know what that makes me? Thanks a fucking lot.”

He was thinking about this the next day as he stood at the kitchen sink shovelling milk and Fruit Loops into his mouth. Rotten fucking luck he’d had choking on that cough drop. And now the name. He’d be stuck with it for the rest of his life.

The telephone rang.

“Danny?”

It was a woman. The voice was smoker-rough, sexy.

“Yipper,” he said.

“It’s me, Joleen.”

He remembered her breath on his nape, the softness of her big breasts against his back, the sweet release in her arms. His heart began to knock against his chest.

* * *

Late on a Sunday night. Danny is slowly pedalling his bicycle on the dark quiet streets of the town. He is smoking a cigarette. The bike makes long lazy arcs on the damp pavement. He almost feels like a character in a movie. Older. Mysterious. Someone who has his own apartment.

It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”

He turns onto Campbell Street. Joleen had told him her house was yellow with a white door. He sees it. The light is on in one of the windows. Frilly yellow curtains, must be the kitchen. Rosie said all she had to was call the welfare and she got all new curtains. Maybe she is putting the kettle on, making herself a cup of tea. (But Joleen never drinks tea, she drinks Pepsi, what else? With ketchup chips.)

It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”

* * *

Danny was not a virgin when he leaned his bicycle against the back of Joleen’s house. But only technically. The girl was completely wasted, it had lasted maybe three and a half minutes, and the next time he saw her she had looked at him as blandly as she ever had.

But Joleen.

In her silky embrace—he had watched her from the bathtub, floating a pink lotion, then a scented powder over her breasts and belly and arms—or next to the fragrant satiny insides of her thighs, he felt as he did when he left his friends on the beach and swam out into the ocean alone, far far out, the deep water holding him up like the hand of God.

He’d been after swimming like this for almost a month when a car drew up beside him on the highway as he walked home from Corey’s place late one night. The front doors opened and Donnie Pepsi and Mild Bill MacInnis got out. Danny began to run.

“Come here you little cocksucker,” Donnie said.

Danny ran up and up the bridge hill he was huffing and puffing it was the smoking he had to quit smoking and those Colt 45’s he just had didn’t help that Mild Bill was way too fat to run this fast he was one scary fuck as big as a truck he wished someone would drive up just now even the Mounties that would give those dicks a scare they sure must look funny all three of them running to beat the band—

They broke his nose and one of his ribs.

“I hope you learned your lesson,” his mother said as she drove him home from Outpatients. His father said:

“Time to move on, Buddy. Lots of good-lookin’ girls in town.” He winked: “If I was twenty years younger …”

His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off.

But Danny didn’t listen. He didn’t even hear. He was living in a kind of dream, where things he had once thought important, like taking Lila Murray to the Grand March and maybe getting into her pants afterwards; or seeing a Habs game on home ice; or riding a motorcycle up and down Central Avenue with Lila Murray’s boobs against his back, well, they meant little or nothing now. His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off. Lots of people were taking a year off because everyone knew that if you got your stamps the unemployment would pay you to take a trade.

In June, his uncle Lauchie got him on a grant at the nursery. All he had to do was drive a ride-on mower so he still had tons of energy when he came home. The grade-twelve parties were still going strong, in rec rooms and garages and on the beach. On the way home he’d stop in at Joleen’s. He was getting laid almost every night.

* * *

And then one damp evening at the end of August. Danny was sitting in a booth at the Grill with Corey and his cousin Kayla. They had just smoked a couple of fat ones at the bandstand and everything around him was coming into sweet sharp focus: the clink of a fork on a plate, the bass line of a song on the radio above the pie cabinet;  the smell of frying meat and hot salty gravy and ketchup, of cigarette smoke and wet sneakers. He noticed things. The way Corey looked at Kayla’s boobs when she got up to get the ketchup. A sad expression on a woman’s face. He felt  insightful and wise.

He was after wrapping his hands around a double-cheeseburger-with-the-works when the door opened and Joleen walked in. Alone.

There was a ripple in the air. A kind of disturbance in the Force. People seemed to sit up a little, pay attention. This could be good.

Joleen didn’t stand at the entrance and look around the way most people did when they entered the restaurant. She marched up to the cash and started talking with Lynn Ann. This meant she was getting take-out. She leaned on the counter as she waited for her order. She was wearing a baby-blue sweatshirt on account of the rain and a pair of tight cut-offs that dug into her butt crack. A gold chain twinkled on her ankle as she shifted her weight from one tanned, shapely leg to another.

Danny felt the eyes of the room. Going from him to Joleen and back. As if they were waiting for something to happen. He realized that he was holding his breath. That he was waiting, too. He looked at his burger. A mustardy slice of onion had slithered out between the meat patties. (He had specifically asked Lynn-Ann for no onions.) He raised it to his mouth anyway.

Joleen spotted him just as the first mouthful of soggy bread and meat went down his throat.

“Hey Danny,” she said. Looking surprised and pleased.

All over the room, chicken fingers and slices of pepperoni pizza and forkfuls of poutine paused on their way to open mouths. The waitress and the cashier stood still. The only sound in the place was the spit and sizzle of a basket of frozen french fries sinking into the deep-fryer in the kitchen. And, from the pie cabinet, Don Henley singing ‟… swear I’m gonna find you / one of these nights …

A bark exploded into the stillness. With a shock, Danny realized that it had erupted from his mouth. He tried to stop the second one but he couldn’t. It tore through his body like it had to make way for all the others coming right behind it. He coughed and coughed and coughed. And coughed some more. Finally, in a daze of pain and embarrassment, he swung his legs over the side of the bench, gripped the edge of the table with his ketchupy hands, stood up and walked to the can. There he put both hands on the washbasin and leaned in. He was probably going to die.

Corey came in then, closing the door behind him quick like some bad guys were about to bust in and said: “Hey man, you okay?” Danny nodded to him in the mirror above the basin. He caught a scary glimpse of his own face: purplish red, his nose running, his eyes pissing water.

“Did you choke on something?” Corey said.

“No!” Danny coughed, and Corey left as fast as he had entered.

When it was over he felt weak but grateful. Like that moment at the end of a stomach flu when you realize that you’re done throwing up. He blew his nose, splashed water over his face and bloodshot eyes. Had a piss. Held his hands under the tap again. When they stopped shaking, he pulled hard on the bathroom door (the hinges were loose and it dragged on the sill) stepped onto the mudwet floor of the Grill and walked out. He didn’t pay for his double-cheeseburger-with-the-works and his Pepsi.

And no one said a goddamn thing.

“Well, thanks for the memories.” Joleen smiled.

She was sitting cross-legged on her bed in a red-and-black slip, lighting a cigarette. Danny had to laugh. He had known she’d be all right. There would be others. And Donnie Pepsi still wanted her.

His parents drove him to the bus depot in Hawkesbury. His father offered to take him all the way to Halifax but Danny refused.

“Make sure you do the dishes at Wendell and Joann’s,” his mother said for the third time. “And pick up after yourself.”

But when she came back from the counter with his bus ticket she began to cry.

“Come on, Ma.” he said. He squeezed her in his arms. It was something he had not wanted to do for years. But today it felt good.

It made him feel like a man.

Anne LevesqueAnne Lévesque’s fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have been published in Canadian and international journals. She lives on Cape Breton Island.

Driving with Fire Sauce

[flash fiction]

The color red possesses terrific power. Take a pair of scissors and cut something open: a pillow. Even though pillow stuffing is usually white, if you cut with a certain style and vigor, you will see red. Put this into a political context. Assuming you’re dealing with people who aren’t color blind, senile, or impotent, you can make quite a statement simply by donning a ruby red tie. If you speak with the right amount of zest, any tie you like can turn red right before their eyes. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, everything is slightly tinged red during passionate moments, even in the dark.

Nicodemus K. Bhatt bought his first red car when he turned 18. This purchase was altogether innocent. It involved his parents’ money and he didn’t even want a red car. He just wanted a convertible. When he found a used Volkswagen Cabrio, it fit the bill: it was cheap. It was also dazzlingly, brilliantly, bloodily red. His mom was suspicious but his dad conceded approval, vaguely laying the matter to rest in stating that Volkswagens have good engines.

One day, while waiting at a red light, Nicodemus caught the eye of the driver in front of him when she glanced into her rear view mirror. Over the next fifteen seconds, he caught her eye three more times. At first, he wondered uncomfortably if he had instigated this little exchange. Thinking for a moment, he realized that, in fact, she had started it. Still, was he the perpetuator?—Again, no! Every time, her eyes jumped up first!

And so he decided to follow her. Why the hell not? Maybe that’s what she wanted. Alternatively, maybe it’s what he wanted. Even better!

For the rest of the afternoon, he dedicated himself to following anyone who looked at him funny. This turned out to be quite an extraordinary number of people. They weren’t just women, either. Queer looks came from everyone: men, children, whole families, police officers, dogs … and he followed all of them, one after the other until the chase became boring or unbearably awkward.

Calling it quits after a few hours, he was sitting in the drive-thru line at Taco Bell when the driver behind him caught his eye. This time, the role was reversed: he was the clear instigator. It took him three glances into his rear view mirror to realize and appreciate: the car behind him, a newer model Honda Civic … was red.

“Any sauce?” asked the girl at the fast-food window.

“Yes, please.”

“Mild, Hot, or Fire?”

“Fire, thank you.”

During his drive home, he couldn’t help checking his mirrors frequently and with unusual concern. Red cars kept appearing out of nowhere. He spilled hot sauce all over his jeans and wiped it up and down the steering wheel. Fully aware of the irony of the situation, and totally against his better judgment, he swore he was being followed at every turn.

Peter ClarkePeter Clarke studied psychology and philosophy at Western Washington University and recently completed his law degree at the University of the Pacific. He currently plays in rock bands and writes while trying to not be a lawyer. His short fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Curbside Splendor, Western Press Books, Hobart, Elimae, The Legendary, Zygote in My Coffee, and elsewhere. Native to Port Angeles, Washington, he presently resides in Sacramento, California.

The Arf Thing

The counselor’s room is never still. It is churning pipes and an hour-off ticking clock and Friends Care! posters flapping on paint-thick walls and a heat of stories pushing themselves forward, tangling around each other. The students wiggle, fidget, shake in the armchair, as if fighting off their own words.

*     *     *

Mary Beth

Are you mad at me? Please don’t get mad at me because this is totally a tiny thing gone really, really wrong. It’s so stupid how it started, like dumb in a way that I’m embarrassed to even talk about it’s so dumb. It’s not even my fault—it’s all my stupid dog’s fault. My dog GC. I know—it’s a weird name, but his real name is weirder. George Clooney? Yeah, my mom’s cra-zy. Anyway, GC is dog-friends with my neighbor’s dog Lucky—like, they chase each other and stuff. And sometimes Lucky stays at our house because his owner works and my mom doesn’t.

So remember the snow day back in January? Really close to the end of the month? I was home that day, and at one point I went into the kitchen to get a Pop Tart, and there was GC and Lucky, just … um. I don’t even know how to say this. They were, you know … having dog sex. It was so weird! And they’re both boy dogs, so on top of all that weirdness I was like “Oh my god! My dog is gay!”

I was telling my friends about it in math the next day. And they were laughing because it was funny. I mean, a gay dog is funny. So Nico Papadimos, he overheard us, and he’s the kind of guy who even makes the teachers laugh. And did this thing where he made his hand all limp and said “arf” in this way, I can’t even do it, but we couldn’t stop laughing.

It was about a dog, though. I didn’t even know they were doing the “arf” thing to Adam Mavis. Not for a while, at least. And when I finally saw them doing it, I was really confused. Because I thought the whole thing was just about my dog.

*     *     *

Katie

You might not believe this, but Adam Mavis was always so happy. Like, too happy. With a roadrunner smile that’s stupid and too wide. And he didn’t have any reason to be. No one liked him.

Even though people were sticking out their feet to trip him and stuff. He always smiled at the worst times, when no one else ever would.

He sat behind me in a bunch of classes, all the ones with alphabet seating. In the back of the row, the very last seat. So I’d get the lucky view of him marching back to his seat with that smile. Even though people were sticking out their feet to trip him and stuff. He always smiled at the worst times, when no one else ever would.

And his laugh! His laugh drove us crazy. Everyone in my class. It was too loud and too long, like it came straight from a kids cartoon. Every time a teacher called on me and I got the wrong answer, he’d burst out with it. That stupid laugh. All the teacher would have to do is say, “Not quite, Katie,” and he’d be gone.

My friends stuck up for me. They’d say, “Shut up, Adam!” and “He’s so stupid” but he’d just laugh louder, to piss us all off. And I wanted to die because even the biggest loser in the school made fun of me. Even he noticed that I’m stupid.

So you get it, right? How it felt kind of good to turn around and say, “Hey Adam,” and do the hand thing and say “arf” all gay? How it made me smile to hear the sound of everyone else laughing at him, to see that stupid smile wiped off his face.

*     *     *

Nico

You ever seen a Ben Stiller movie? That guy is the man. Really—he’s the man! He’s shrimpy and ugly but he still gets all the girls. And you know how he gets them? With his jokes.

I’m kind of like the Ben Stiller of middle school. Now, I’m not saying I’m ugly. But I am just a little bit short. So how do I still have girlfriends? Think about it.

It’s a Papadimos thing. My brothers and I—we give each other crap all the time. My brother calls me a faggot like fifty times a day. Everyone around me, my whole life, jokes like that. People don’t stop me ‘cause they know it’s for fun. It’s just for fun.

So here’s this fat dude, who even teachers don’t like because he blurts out the answers before they can call on people—I’m serious. Sometimes Adam would try to, like, control himself, and he’d stretch his fat face in all these weird ways like he was constipated and stick his hand in the air and go “Oooooh! Oooooh!” You expect me not to say anything? That’s like gold, you know? I’m a Papadimos man. I see a basket, I gotta take a shot.

So I did—I mean, I took shots. And once I started doing the “arf” thing, it was like everyone was doing it. Everyone wants to be like me. But something else happened that … it’s kind of hard to explain … it was like … how everyone has to wait outside until first bell rings, and when the doors finally open it’s like the stampede in The Lion King, you know? Everyone tries to rush in all at once. The “arf” thing was like that.

Kids started throwing stuff at his head. Spitballs and stuff, then it got crazier, like soda cans and shoes in classes where they could get away with it. People did the gay cough whenever he shouted out answers. You know, where you pretend to cough but you actually say “gay” under your breath? Charlie Wiltham especially did that—every chance he got. And someone wrote “arf” on Adam’s locker in permanent marker or something. Took him forever to clean it off, and then whoever it was just wrote it again. People think it was me, but I still don’t know who did it. Whoever did was; he’s the man. I don’t know how he snuck around everyone like that.

Really, I didn’t do anything. All I did was say “arf” until the locker thing happened. Then I needed to up my game, you know? But mostly, it was everyone else. I guess they all really hated Adam Mavis.

*     *     *

Sara

Adam wasn’t always like this. He wasn’t. When we were little, he was a totally normal kid. He’s my neighbor, and back then, we were friends. We used to bike together in my driveway and hold races in my backyard with all these crazy rules. You see? We did normal kid stuff.

He was better than normal to play pretend with, though. Better than all of my other friends. We used to play this game where … well, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but we pretended my backyard was a secret land called … please don’t tell anyone I said this … Adsaria.

Like Narnia, but with our names worked in—A-D for Adam, and “sar” for Sara.

Weird, right? But it was so much fun. In Adsaria, we were knights who fought beasts, and we imagined that the beasts were gold and had wings like statues in a museum. One day Adam said, “You know what their faces look like? Like those Halloween mask faces, the white ones with hole-eyes and mouths pulled down into a scream.” And picturing that, those scream faces on top of gold, winged beast bodies—it gave me nightmares.

That was Adam, though. He could just come up with things like that. With whole entire worlds.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess I wanted you to know that Adam had a friend. That not everyone hated him.

I was in the classroom when he went up to Charlie Wiltham. I was making up a quiz—I’d missed science because of band rehearsal. So did Charlie. I think there were around eight of us there.

But Adam wasn’t in band. He hadn’t missed the test, but he was in the classroom anyway, opening his lunch bag. Watching him, I realized that this was his place to eat. He didn’t eat in the cafeteria. And I mean it wasn’t my fault that people were mean to him, but knowing that he couldn’t even eat with anyone made me really sad. It made me think about Adsaria.

Charlie was bent over his quiz. He didn’t see Adam standing behind him with that open cup of yogurt in his hand.

That’s when I noticed Adam standing behind Charlie’s desk. I hadn’t even seen him walk over there, he’d been so sneaky. Charlie was bent over his quiz. He didn’t see Adam standing behind him with that open cup of yogurt in his hand.

It was amazing. Adam had this grin on his face when he dumped the yogurt on Charlie—not his usual weird grin, but an actual real one, a mean one, like he knew Charlie totally deserved it. But it was a crazy thing to do. Charlie’s a jerk, but there’s a reason why people don’t dump things on his head all the time. He’s on the wrestling team. And Adam had to know that. He wasn’t stupid. But maybe he didn’t care? Maybe he thought he’d risk anything to get a shot at Charlie, that it would be worth what he got in return? I don’t know. Maybe he just wanted to get hurt.

Because Charlie hurt him. I mean, at first he just sat there with his mouth hanging open and yogurt pouring down his head like volcano lava. And then I guess he got mad at us laughing, and he stood up and started yelling things to Charlie. Words I … I don’t even like to say them. He said “faggot” a lot.

And Adam just stood there. He didn’t step back. It even took awhile for his smile to shrink. He just stared at Charlie, like he was in fighting position but he’d forgotten what to do next.

*     *     *

Miss Spitzer

I don’t know why I’m even here. The administration has already reamed me out for this, and they’ve gotten what they wanted. I lock my classroom door during lunch period now.

No one is allowed inside.

All I wanted to do was provide a safe space. I opened my classroom up to students who didn’t feel safe in the lunchroom. And yes, I realize that they could have reported their issues to the principal instead, but the kids don’t always feel comfortable admitting that sort of thing. And yes, technically, make-up tests are supposed to be held after school, but a lot of the kids have after school activities, hence the lunch period make-up.

What was I supposed to do? I have five classes a day, and I’m involved in extra help sessions during my free period. Lunch is, frankly, the only time I have to use the bathroom and retrieve my food from the teacher’s lounge. I’d only left the room for ten minutes. Ten minutes max. And I trusted the students that stayed to respect the environment I’d created for them. I really did.

When I walked in and saw Charlie punching Adam, naturally, the first thing I did was pull them apart and call security. I was on automatic. But once they were taken from the classroom, I almost cried. I’m telling you, I have never cried in front of my students.

In that moment, though, all I could think was: you spend so much time with these kids, and you don’t really know them at all.

*     *     *

Charlie

He was always looking at me. Adam Mavis. I could feel his eyes on me sometimes in class even though we usually sat across the room. I think he had a gay crush on me.

So I had to give him crap, you know? So he wouldn’t think I liked it or I was gay too or anything. The last thing I need is for people to think I’m gay when I’m not. My parents—you don’t know them. It wouldn’t even matter that I’m not. If they even heard a rumor, they’d go crazy. Crazy.

I never meant to hurt him, but then, I never expected him to pour yogurt on my head. I mean, what was I supposed to do? He just stood there with that creepy, demented smile. I didn’t even punch him hard. A soft one-two. He didn’t even go down.

We got him back. I mean, I was in detention, but Nico Papadimos took care of it. He brought in this big thing of yogurt, like one of those tubs. And I was suspended for the fight so I didn’t see, but I heard that this girl Katie distracted Adam, called him a name so he was looking her way, while Nico snuck up behind him and dumped that whole tub all over his gay haircut.

The only reason we’re the ones getting blamed is because we’re kids. You don’t know what was happening in Adam Mavis’s brain.

But he deserved that. I mean, he did it to me first. People blame me for the fistfight, but really? He deserved that too. He dumped yogurt on me while I was taking a test.

The only reason we’re the ones getting blamed is because we’re kids. You don’t know what was happening in Adam Mavis’s brain. Or what his parents were like. But you can’t do anything about the parents. So you hear that Adam got into a fight, something that could’ve happened to any kid, and that’s all the proof you need to blame the kid he fought with. It was just a punch in the face. A punch in the face and half a food fight. Nobody would kill himself over something that small.

*     *     *

Bill

Look, I didn’t know Adam Mavis. Sure, he sat at my lunch table for the one week he spent in the cafeteria before he attempted suicide. But people at my table don’t talk to each other. Most of them are tools, stuck together ‘cause they like to eat alone. So aside from watching yogurt get dumped on him and having the whole cafeteria look at our table and laugh, I barely noticed Adam.

The only thing I remember was that he always got the cafeteria lunch. And ate it. He didn’t even seem grossed out. I mean, people drop our hot dogs to see how far they bounce, but no one in his right mind actually eats them.

When we first heard he attempted suicide, no one knew if he would make it. All we knew was that he was found around 3:00 in the afternoon in his bathroom. And that he’d taken a lot of pills. I remember thinking: I saw him eat his last meal. And then I thought: his last meal was a cafeteria hot dog.

You think I’m making fun of him? I’m not. But I don’t feel sorry for him. It’s not like no one makes fun of me. You know what everyone calls me? The Creeper. Just because of my coat, and I guess because I don’t smile. Those same people give me crap, Charlie and Nico and those idiots. You don’t see me trying to kill myself.

All week I’ve had to listen to those Friends Care people talk about bullying. You want to talk about creepers? They stand in front of our classes with those huge toothpaste smiles, saying things like, “Hey, kids! How do YOU think you can make your school bully-free?”

What a stupid question. When have you ever heard someone in middle school use the word “bully”? That’s because it’s a gay word. It’s too simple. A bully is like some cartoon character that takes little kids’ lunch money.

What happened with Adam Mavis—it was nothing like that. There were a bunch of kids flicking their hands and saying arf and laughing wherever he went. And there were even more kids who didn’t do it, but laughed when other people did. And then there were kids like me who tried to just ignore it, but didn’t say anything because it would’ve gotten us made fun of, too. No one was “The Bully.” Everyone was just an asshole.

*     *     *

Sara

Sorry to bug you again. I guess I’m here a lot these days. But I really wanted to tell you something—I visited Adam.

It was … well, it was awkward at first. He looked so different. Like smaller in that long bed and skinnier and, well, he wasn’t smiling. It was like seeing him when we were little, when we were friends, except this time he was attached to tubes, and all I could do was look back and forth from his skinniness to those tubes. I just kept thinking, this is Adam, and he wanted to die.

And I couldn’t believe it, even though I was there.

I said, “How are you?” because I needed to say something. It was awful. I mean, that’s normally an okay question but it’s a really stupid question if you’re in the hospital for attempted suicide.

He didn’t say anything back.

I just wanted to ask him why. Like, I know he was being made fun of, but if he had only laid low for a while and not called out answers or laughed at people, everyone probably would’ve forgotten all about the “arf” thing. Or even if they didn’t, there’s stuff he could’ve done. He could’ve transferred or something. There had to be something he could’ve done.

I had to keep talking, and once I started, I couldn’t really stop, but soon the things I said weren’t so bad. I just told him what he missed at school. Like how Miss Spitzer kicked Bill out of class the other day for cracking his knuckles because she’s scared of the noise. And how that eighth grader broke into the vending machine. I don’t know if Adam wanted to hear about school, but he seemed all right with it. I think he almost smiled when I told him the Spitzer story.

But he still didn’t say anything.

I’ve never known anyone who died and I hope Adam’s not the first. If he would only get better and come back to school, I swear I’d be his best friend. I’d hold his books and clean his locker and I wouldn’t care if people left me out or called me his girlfriend. I swear. And if Nico or Charlie or anyone else called him gay, I’d yell at them so much, it’d be like my words were the swords we pretended that we had in the Adsaria game. Really. I think. I think I’d do all of it.

My mom knocked on the door when it was time to go, and he was still quiet. I looked back at Mom in the little door window, then at Adam again. What could I say? How could I even say goodbye when he hadn’t said hello? What if it was the last time I was going to see him?

What if he never gets better?

“You know,” I finally said, because I had to say something real, “I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.”

I wish I could tell you that brought him back to life. Or that it got a smile out of him, one of his old weird ones. But it didn’t. He just turned away from me, toward the little TV on the top of the wall. He stared at it with fixed attention, like he thought if he kept his eyes there for long enough, it would turn on and drown everything out.

Val HowlettVal Howlett recently earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won a short story competition for this piece. She is also a proud member of the literary community The Secret Gardeners. She is currently working on a YA novel.

http://valhowlett.com/

Kazim Ali, Poet

Kazim Ali

Photo: Brett Hall Jones

Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Canada and the United States. He received a BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. He is the author of several collections of both poetry and prose, the most recent being Sky Ward, which was published by Wesleyan University Press this year.

In addition to his writing, Ali is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College in Ohio as well as a professor of the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. He was a guest speaker at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2012, and he recently spoke with Kolleen Carney about his lecture, spirituality, and the writing process.

Kolleen Carney/Michael Passafiume: I wholly enjoyed your lecture at Antioch this past December, “Seminar in Sound and Silence.” One detail that stuck out to me was the idea that our voices are heard through our bones—that our body hears the words before our mouths do. Does your new book, Sky Ward, focus on this idea?

Kazim Ali: Much in Sky Ward surrenders meaning to sound. Library Journal said it was “gorgeous, if finally perplexing.” That’s high praise to me. The body has knowledges. We call it instinct sometimes. But it’s something intelligent in the tissues and muscle and bone of the body, meaning in its physical matter, rather than the normal places thoughts reside: in the chemical and electrical reactions of the brain, that is to say in the body’s “energy.”

KC/MP: You said that silences have a relationship with one another. How do you feel about the idea of silence, in a world where, due to social networking, we as a society keep nothing to ourselves?

KA: But we keep everything to ourselves. Social networking is a performance of identity, a trick. The worst part is that it is a trick we play even on ourselves. Because now we keep everything from ourselves. When told of the lunar landing Anaïs Nin reportedly commented, “But we have so much farther to go within ourselves.”

The new commercial I saw on TV (I participate as much in this electronic network of information as anyone else) was about a hand-held device that moved a person from scenario to scenario. In the beginning of the ad I thought it was for a gaming device but it was for a phone that would help you to constantly experience, constantly “Keep Moving,” as their ad slogan went.

Ultimately, the fear of death—the fear of what’s after the mortal body dissipates back into the air—is what drives us (literally, in this case) to distraction.

We’re turning into batteries for the Matrix. The film The Matrix used an ancient yogic sloka over their closing credits. It’s translation is roughly like this: “Lead us from the unreal to the real. Lead us from dimness into clear sight. Lead us from the fear of death to knowledge of immortality.” Ultimately, the fear of death—the fear of what’s after the mortal body dissipates back into the air—is what drives us (literally, in this case) to distraction.

But we need to find a place to be grounded in the moment, in the world, in our bodies. I find that poetry leads me to that practice of present, which means to actually be alive.

KC/MP: You also said that “the silence of God is God.” How do your religious beliefs influence your writing?

KA: When I said this I was quoting Lucille Clifton who was quoting Carolyn Forché who was quoting Elie Weisel. What I think about when I think about spirituality or religion is: what is this body? Who is inside it? What does it mean to be an aware person, a sensing person, a conscious person. The texts of yoga teach that the mind is a sense-making apparatus, like the eye, or the inner ear—so who is it I mean when I say “I”? It matters, of course, because you have to live in the world.

The rituals of religion were perhaps meant to help to organize the inquiry into this anarchy of matter. If there’s no inquiry (read: doubt) there’s no “religion” (which means “joining”) like “yoga.” Both “religion” and “yoga” come from the same ancient Sanskrit syllable which traveled forward also to “yoke” and “yolk.” Which do you choose, the “yolk” of essential origination or the “yoke” of subservience and surrender?

There is always some of both, I suppose. But for me, poetry and yoga become the most important form “inquiry,” one with the mind, the body and the breath and the other—look at that—with all three as well.

KC/MP: I especially was drawn to your work, Bright Felon. Do you think that a person’s geography shapes who they are? Do you think we can be different people when we move from place to place?

KA: Yes, I do think place determines personhood. Historically, people have had a connection to their place in the earth as it helps to determine the rhythm of their annual lives by its climates and ecosystem, it can determine the kinds of profession and trade and crafts they had as well as the food they would prepare. This diet and climate (sunlight, temperature, etc.) also determines the physical shape of the people who come to live in a certain place in the world.

Though in the modern world we migrate from place to place much more often, we still become attached and determined by the places we live in. It’s why, for example, the Palestinians still advocate for their right to return to their ancestral lands, why the Lakota still organize for the return of the Black Hills.

Bright Felon is primarily concerned with urban (and exurban) spaces since that is where I mostly found myself living in that time. The pieces are still essentially pastoral in nature in that they seek to explore the ways a person’s life (mine) plays out among these different spaces, layered with history.

KC/MP: From my understanding, you not only practice yoga, but you also teach it. Do you find that the practice helps connect you to your writing?

KA: I practice Jivamukti Yoga. I have taught various forms of yoga for nearly ten years. But I am still at the very beginning of a yoga practice, trying to learn to understand my body and breath, understand the nature of the self and the body. Jivamukti Yoga teaches also that sound has vibrational properties within and without the body and that these spaces in the body can be exercised and channeled in order to unlock awareness.

Jivamukti Yoga teaches also that sound has vibrational properties within and without the body and that these spaces in the body can be exercised and channeled in order to unlock awareness.

In order to do the least amount harm to the planet and its natural environments, we are also taught that a vegan diet has the maximum amount of benefit in helping us in our yoga practice. I can’t say directly how these practices have affected my writing but it is important for me to have this level of empathy for the many other living spirits in the earth and of course for the living matter of the planet itself.

KC/MP: In the spirit of “were all in this together”—it being life—what do you strive to accomplish with your writing? Do you feel any sort of responsibility to your reader beyond “entertainment”?

KA: It’s changed for me throughout the course of publishing. In my first book of poetry, The Far Mosque, I explored a lot of different wide ranging subjects and themes, including spiritual inquiry which became a main theme in my next book of poetry The Fortieth Day. Bright Felon was a turning point for me, not just because it was a cross-genre work of poetic prose, but because it was very autobiographical and engaged directly with my own life and experiences.

After that book I felt freer to go deeper both internally and into the shapes and spaces of language and breath. Recently, I encountered the work (and the persons) of two writers, Zubair Ahmed and Matthew Dickman, who feel fearless to me in both engaging their lives and utilizing all the mysteries poetry has to offer. So it makes me feel a little braver in the face of a lot of darkness.

I still feel new at poetry, like I don’t know what it is or how to write it. Or who I am. So thank God for all of that.

Kolleen Carney lives in the Boston area with her husband, son, cat, and several hundred Pez dispensers. She received a bachelor’s degree from Salem State University after twelve harrowing, non- consecutive years. She is currently working on her MFA in Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. In her spare time, she sleeps.

 

CancerLand

Fact: My hands are too short to reach mom’s cancer.

How Cancer Changed Me: My logic is the safest thing I have. I write lists about logic. I make everything neat and ordered. There is a careful, measured safety in lists. I can see how far they stretch. Nothing sneaks up on me. I love a good list.

I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me.

What the Doctors Said: The doctors tell me that my mother’s cancer cannot be erased by how big or small my hands are. They don’t tell me that my hands can make a difference. They tell us to have hope. They tell us she’ll die. When I ask what we should do now, a doctor tells me to take her on a cruise, medical code for we really have nothing left for you. He calls me after she dies and screams at me. He tells me that I should have known what he was saying. I curse at him. I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me. It’s all over his demeanor: It’s not my job to tell you or to fix what breaks. His parents are alive. He’ll hang up and get lunch. I sit still for hours and finally there is nothing to do.

What It Is (From Back Then): It is 2005, I am 27, and my father has just died. In the twisted, are-you-seriously-fucking-kidding-me-God way of dark stories heard around the office, my only remaining parent—my mother—has cancer. A year before, it was in her lungs. She went through chemo (she was a cheerful patient, the kind that everyone wants to be, and I suppose that’s why she was the kind that wears hats for holidays and brings in cake for everybody). Then my 75-year-old dad fell down the stairs and spent four days yelling at me and pissing himself. Then he went into the hospital and died. It is two months later and her headaches have turned out to be stage four. I don’t know it then, but my mother’s clock is already ticking. It runs out in 2007.

What I Wished: I wished I could hear this dark story around the office and then shake my head. It would be so nice to walk over to someone else, listen tenderly to her shit story, and then leave after an hour, feeling grateful that the life lived around that story is someone else’s.

Books I Read: I read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I read The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Women. I read books that should tell me what a roadmap looks like and how to recognize it. Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe survive without parents. In Little Women, Beth dies. American literature never quite recovers from the blow of losing the sweetest March sister.

Fact: My mother is not a story or Beth March. All the reading I do does not matter, and does not save.

What My Mother Was: 5’6”. Brown/brown. Vaccine scar on upper arm. Pink painted toenails. The place between her eyebrows sometimes raw when she tweezed too much. Happy. Secretly scared of her entire life, even before the cancer, a fact that I pretend I don’t know. Never went out after dark. Vivacious laugh. Caught between her parents (my alcoholic grandpa and my lovely, hurt, spoiled grandmother) when they violently and brutally divorced because he was fucking grandma’s best friend at a time when most of America couldn’t spell divorce. Scorpio with a Taurus moon. All my friends want to come over and read tarot cards with her.

What My Mother Does Before Cancer: Goes shopping when she has enough money. Tells my dad to fuck himself when he yells at her. Wants me to be more girly, and secretly wants me to think tall, Jewish boys are my soul mates, instead of tall, boyish girls. Reads Walden. Reads The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Calls Lady the beagle her soul mate because Lady has large brown eyes and is a Pisces and mom is a Scorpio. Avoids calls from her sister, who seems to always be angry with my mother for not protecting her or my uncle when they were children, but from what, I don’t know. Tells me stories when I am a child about getting very small, and climbing on the back of a leaf, and flying to China, and to Heaven, and inside tree trunks.

What My Mother Does After Cancer: Paints random words all over the backyard: love, laugh, brave, sex, hide (on the underside of a chair), seek (on the fence next to the chair), daughter, mother, father, dog, happy, live. Loses long, curly hair and cries. Then, shaves off what is left. Talks about suing the doctor who misdiagnosed her and never said it was cancer until cells became cells and the thing started to eat her from within. Slowly dies but pretends she isn’t. Slowly dies but tries not to.

Who Saves Me (During and After): Friends, the kind that show up in books, show up here. My home—the one that I throw at the sun as hard as I can—is filled to bursting. Friends make quilts, curry, cookies, cd mixes. They hug me, some kiss me, and I sleep with one of them the night after the funeral, because I can’t tell where my grief ends and another body starts, but somewhere in the middle is something I can’t quite call joy.

I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me.

What It Is (Now): My childhood house is mine and I fight with it daily. It has taken years of grief therapy and slow growth. I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me. I have trashed old pictures, smelly couches. I wrestle with the house as though I am trying to kill what happened to the family that lived here. It is easier to write it like that, instead of “my family that lived here” because two out of three—my mother and father—wound up dying, and I, the one that was left, grew, because there was nothing else to kill me at hand. I, too, have been flung at the light, and forced to grow.

What We Cannot Do: With cancer, my mother and I cannot get very, very small. We cannot shrink to leaf-traveling-size. There is no flying away on this one, and nothing big enough to carry us away. We are here, and rooted, and trying. Now, I am here. She is not. I am rooted and trying.

Marissa CohenThe late poet laureate of Florida called Marissa Cohen’s (www.marissacohen.com) work “powerful.” Her writing has appeared in countless publications, including The Cancer Poetry Project 2 (as featured in The New York Times), Gather Kindling, and Wilde Magazine. She’s twice been interviewed on CBS Radio and also works in higher education and publishing.

Vignettes: Collages

Take It From Me, Kid, I’m a Clown

Listen kid, I know it’s your birthday and all, that you only turn ten once, and that this is your special day, but, come on, you’re crying over your balloon animal because you wanted a giraffe and you got an Irish Wolfhound, which you say looks retarded, and that I’m retarded; please, give me some respect here—even though I go by Bozo the Clown, I’m no bozo, just part of the franchise—this is my career, my profession; sure, I studied English literature in college, discovering a love for Dante and Milton, and upon graduation I couldn’t find a job anywhere, even in my local strip mall Barnes and Noble or in any of the dozen coffee shops run by the evil empire, Starbucks, and yes, I went a little crazy snorting coke in dive bar restrooms and drinking rail whiskey in the mornings, and my mom kicked me out of the house and I lived with this hooker, kind of acting as her john until she overdosed on Methadone and her dad took her away, placing her in some upscale treatment center, and yes, I continued to squat in that shit-box apartment for a little longer, waking up in my own vomit and just existing for the hit, for the adrenalin pop of making a score, but I cleaned myself up, kid, and my mom eventually agreed to take me back in, though in the basement this time and I had a curfew and I had to promise to stop the drinking and the drugs, and so you have to believe me when I tell you I’ve been to that dark void, that negative space where rock bottom fights back, slaps you over the head, and tells you to get a grip, and kid, really, you should take my advice and stop bugging your mom about wanting a giraffe because she was the one who hired me and I only charge seventy-five bucks for the entire afternoon, which includes entertaining you and your little snot-nosed friends with magic tricks, miming man-trapped-in-a-box, and singing the entire Justin Bieber back catalogue; I have a feeling you don’t know what it takes to make it in this industry: it’s competitive as hell, and I have rivals who undercut on price (but also quality) and sport junk-ass names like Melvin the Magnificent and Chachi the Womanizer and one of these jerks I even mentored for a while, teaching the punk things like the necessary clown poise to juggle flaming torches and how to throw custard pies without blinding the victim, but I didn’t teach him everything—I had to keep something in reserve, like that unusual balloon animal (I mean who else can make a recognizable Irish Wolfhound?), which is one of my specialties, my calling card, if you will, but actually I have to give credit to this street performer, Gregor the Great, or something alliterative like that, who was a world-class twister, and seeing him model that air-filled rubber into all those wondrous taxonomies led to an epiphany that I could shape my own future, and, in fact, Gregor’s the one, even more so than my mom, who helped me pull through the DTs and the projectile vomiting, who called me when I was low—close to breaking—and told me it would be hard and I tell you it was hard for a couple of weeks, but I got my shit together and enrolled in night classes—method acting, circus skills, and contemporary dance—to reinvent myself, to give me a shot at something new, perhaps even take the clichéd route and be an artist and emigrate to Paris, and yes, kid, it took a while and I financed school with a part-time job stacking shelves at Walmart and also a life model gig at the nearby community college, letting those old folks sketch my thin wretched body for $8.50 an hour, and then later on stare at me oddly when they see me stacking incontinence pads in the aisle, but I found a girl, a real blue-eyed blonde named Val, who was a cashier and had a pierced conch, and we dated, the way I always saw couples do in movies: romantic encounters brimming with candle-lit dinners, French waiters, and fancy red wine, which I could never pronounce and never drink (for fear of reverting to my old habits), but would tell her to finish her glass, and then, by midnight, after we kissed and I left her by the bus stop, I could smell only her cherry-red lip gloss, and I went out of my mind and proposed and we got married at the town hall the next year and my mom even came and cried all the way through the ceremony, and though the marriage was annulled, as Val hooked up with Randy in Electronics, I carried on, eventually met someone else … what I’m trying to say, kid, is that it’s all right things didn’t turn out the way I hoped, or expected, as, in many ways, my life’s better and I have a son of my own now, around your age, and he’s nerdy, into board games, particularly he enjoys thrashing me at Hungry Hungry Hippos, but I still love him, apart from the crying, that’s why you should stop, celebrate life, because you have it all in front of you, even though I know you’ve been through some shit, like your mom told me on the phone she was worried about you, that your dad left a year ago, that he moved in with a slut redhead named Babs, and this is your first birthday without him, and I know that’s tough—I never met my father: he ran off after mom told him she was pregnant with me, which led to zero alimony or child support, no visiting me on Sundays, or him in the stands watching my Little League games—but you’ll survive and attend college, like I did, snag a job where you can make ends meet and make good with your mom, maybe even move across town to the suburbs, which, by the way, aren’t that bad, but are a great place to think, even read some of those college books you’re going to skip; so, come on kid—what’s your name anyhow: Tom? Bill? Phil?—your mom’s here with the cake and it looks kind of tasty, chocolate sponge, I bet, smothered in white vanilla frosting; you should get closer, yeah and I’ll sing “Happy Birthday” and cheer you on; there you go you’re almost there, the big ten-o and now, for God’s sake, blow out those fucking candles.

Christopher LinforthChristopher Linforth has fiction published in Southern Humanities Review, Gargoyle, Denver Quarterly, and other magazines.  christopherlinforth.wordpress.com

Letter of Resignation

[flash fiction]

To:
Doctor Galen Alber
Dean of the Occupational Sciences Department
Ledford University

Doctor Alber—

I do not regret to inform you that I refuse to work with you any longer on your repulsive project. No need to lecture me about the consequences of this decision; I’m happy to withdraw from my research appointment in addition to the University. While my career prospects would be much better with a degree earned under your tutelage, you’ve crossed the line.

Doctor Alber, you have no conscience, so you won’t care about the reasons I’m quitting. I include them because I have a conscience.

  • It’s one thing to pump small quantities of mint aroma into an office building’s air supply. The research has concluded that it’s harmless. However, I can no longer fudge the numbers to justify our work on the development of airborne amphetamine.
  • Mass-producing a melanine-activated memory blocker to make people forget their children during daytime hours? That’s just evil.
  • I agree: computer solitaire is a time-drain. Shame on you, however, for using aversion therapy to force people to break the habit. The Taser-equipped laser mouse used to deliver the charge is a yoke that no worker should be forced to bear.

You’ve said so many times that the Project will change the world by increasing worker productivity, but I have my morals. I won’t take another dime of your dirty money. The worst part is that you think you’re such a good employer. Just because you make coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice every morning doesn’t make you our friend. You brag about your recipes, touting the benefits of the “secret ingredient,” but everyone agrees that they taste just like anything you can get at a Starbucks or a grocery store. None of us would even be able to tell the difference!

I QUIT.

Right after I spend the next few weeks finishing up the double-blind Loyaltrex® human trials.

Well, then I need to figure out what’s wrong with that bladder-strengthening enzyme that eliminates the need for employer-subsidized bathroom breaks. (After all, those mice really shouldn’t be dying; and the look of horror that distorts their faces as they expire could be a PR problem.)

Oh, and I’ll have to clean the laboratory bathrooms properly before I leave; I think I left a spot in the rightmost sink last time.

With anything but respect,

Jessica Rademacher

Kenneth Nichols earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University.  He teaches writing at two colleges in Central New York and is the creator of the writing craft web site Great Writers Steal, accessible at www.greatwriterssteal.com.

No One Ever Told Me

that an MRI sounds a bit like
avant-garde dance music, or one of those
key chains I had as a kid,

where I’d press a button
and it would shriek out some
distorted beeps and static to mimic

a machine gun, or a bomb falling
from far away. No one told me
that I should use those sounds,

to distract myself
from how long I’ll have to hold
my breath. No one told me that nothing else

is as satisfying as the radiologist’s
voice over the speaker system saying
OK, you can breathe now.

I felt like pork: driven into a dark tube,
ready to be made into sausage.
I did not expect the radiologist

to be so kind when I writhed
on the first try. She patted me
with her cool hand and said I’ll give you

a few minutes alone. How strange:
she, of all people, would be someone
I would want to call after with Please don’t

leave me here alone. But after
I learned to keep my eyes shut,
as five years earlier, when he held

my shoulders down from above me, it became
somehow easier: I remind myself that I asked
to be here, planned it, calmly undressed

and left my clothes heaped
in another room. No one ever told
me that it would be an MRI – the strange

linens and the breathlessness – that would spin
me back to the memory of a blind date,
his empty house in the noiseless woods,

Will I exit this exam the same as I did that night:
gather my things casually, so stunned
that I smile politely and wave before saying goodbye,

relieved that it’s over? But here,
in this office, it is not over yet:
when the long platform I’m sprawled on

surprises me with its quick jolt, like a stutter
forward and back, I clutch the sheet
beneath me, and focus on the noise:

discotheque, video game, fax machine,
the sound of an old ink jet printer
grinding the cartridge across

the page. No one ever told me
I would feel outside myself, as if I were standing
with my nose just above the paper, watching

the bands of color overlap one
thin strip at a time to form the whole
picture, waiting for it to finish.

Lisa ManginiLisa Mangini earned her MFA at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the recipient of the 2011 Connecticut Poetry Prize and a recent semifinalist of the Codhill Press Chapbook Award. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Stone Highway Review, Louisiana Literature, Knockout, 2 Bridges Review and others. She is the founding editor of Paper Nautilus, and teaches English composition and creative writing part-time at several colleges and universities across Connecticut.

 

“No One Ever Told Me” is a Best of the Net 2013 finalist, selected by A.E. Stallings. Congratulations to Lisa Mangini!

The Beetle and the Wind

On the morning of June 26, 2000, I awake with a weird pain in my right side. I stretch, take a deep breath, and assess the situation. No other symptoms. “I must have slept funny,” I think, as I take my dog Lancelot out to pee.

It’s a Friday. A glorious Vermont summer day. My girlfriend Jess and I have been dating for about 6 months, and this is the first time we’ve arranged to have a few days off of work together.

My truck is loaded with our trash. The plan is that I will drop the garbage off at the dump before meeting Jess and her kids, Sam and Tessa, and heading to Lake Shaftsbury for the day.

I don my sunglasses, roll down the windows, and blast Bob Marley. If this had been a recycling trip, Jess would’ve joined me. I would have sorted the paper, plastics, and metal. And, though we both love the thrill of shattering glass in the huge metal bins, I would’ve let Jess do that part.

I used to have rules about who I wouldn’t date: Don’t date anyone who’s married. Don’t date a coworker. Don’t date anyone who’s more than seven years older than you. Don’t date anyone with an addiction problem. And don’t date anyone who’s in the closet.

Jess pursued me and, because dating her would involve breaking every single one of my rules, I resisted for several months. Until the day she cornered me behind the register at work—in the area where employees gift wrap items for customers. I’d kneeled down to pick up a piece of ribbon. She slipped into the closet-sized room, put her foot on the stool beside me, and pretended to be adjusting the strap of her high heeled Mary Jane. She was wearing a short black skirt and knee-high stockings.

“You need some help in here?” she asked.

“No, I think I’m fine,” I said, but the desire to softly slide my hand up the back of her calf as I stood was irresistible.

Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?

Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?

Jess had worked at the bookstore for over ten years. She was the manager of, and book buyer for, the children’s department. Later, she would confess that she knew she wanted me from the moment we met. She could even provide a detailed description of what I’d been wearing on my first day of work.

When I arrive at Jess’s house after the dump, she says I look pale. I confess to having a weird pain in my side but insist I’m okay.

On the way to the lake, we stop to get some cash. I feel woozy as I cross the street to the ATM. When I reach the entry to the bank, I have to kneel over and put my head between my legs for a moment to keep from passing out. I wonder if maybe I’m lightheaded because I didn’t eat any breakfast.

Jess and I find a spot on the lake’s beach, and Sam and Tessa charge off into the water. In addition to a book, Jess has also brought a journal. Periodically, she pauses from her reading, writes secret notes in the journal, and slides it over to me. Though she’s left her husband, she isn’t ready to be open about our relationship.

Later that afternoon, I almost pass out again. Finally, I confess that I really don’t feel well. A guy whose kids attend the same school as Sam and Tessa is at the lake, and Jess asks if he’ll keep an eye on them while she runs me home. When she drops me off, she promises to call and check on me in a couple of hours.

As soon as I’m alone, I start to panic. Lancelot looks at me with extreme distress. Something is really wrong. I get an intense stabbing pain in my right side when I take a deep breath.

Jess calls, and I tell her I’m worse and I don’t know what to do. When she arrives at my apartment, she says, “Melba, you look like the gray E.T.” Because this was one of my favorite childhood films, I know exactly what color she means—and how dire this situation might be. The way she looks at me also makes me think that she and I share the same kind of love, the same kind of symbiotic relationship that Elliott and E.T. did. It’s like Jess and I can feel each other’s feelings, and this feels like the truest thing I’ve ever known.

On the way to Mary McClellan Hospital in Cambridge, New York, I try to act like I’m fine because the kids are with us and I don’t want to scare them. But by the time we arrive, twenty minutes later, I can hardly breathe.

Jess drops me off at the emergency room door. I stagger up to the nurse’s station and am immediately whisked into an exam room.

A nurse takes my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. She listens to my lungs and whispers something to another nurse.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“We need to get some x-rays,” she says.

She offers a wheelchair, and I insist on walking.

I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.

The x-ray technician takes a couple shots of me standing with my hands at my side. Then she asks me to put my hands over my head. When I do this, everything goes black and my legs buckle. As my arms fall, there’s light again, and I manage to catch myself against the wall. I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.

They hook me up to all sorts of wires and give me oxygen. The thing that clips onto my finger and measures my oxygen level reads 78. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

“What is going on?” I ask for what feels like the millionth time.

“Your lung has collapsed. We’ve called a thoracic surgeon. He’ll be here as soon as he can.”

The word “surgeon” sends me into total panic.

Jess insists on calling my mother, but the only way I’ll tell her the phone number is if she promises to tell my mother not to come. “My family is not comprised of the kind of people you want to be around in a vulnerable state,” I say.

The surgeon describes my collapsed lung as a spontaneous pneumothorax and shows me a diagram. “This is the lining of the lung. And this is the chest wall. The area in-between is called pleural space. The pleural space has negative pressure. Some people are born with a congenital defect called blebs. Blebs are like blisters on your lung. And if they pop, then air gets into the pleural space, and it causes the lung to collapse. We most often see this in tall, thin people in their twenties. And it often happens while they sleep.”

“Blebs?” I think, “Seriously?”

In an attempt to figure out why this has happened, I confess that I used to smoke and ask if that could have caused this. “Well, smoking is bad for everybody,” he says, “You shouldn’t smoke. But, no, there’s nothing you could have done to cause this. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. In fact, once a person has a spontaneous pneumothorax, there’s a 50% chance it’ll happen again. After two collapses, the likelihood increases to 75%. So, if you have another pneumothorax in the future, I’d recommend surgery to staple the lung. But that is serious surgery that can sometimes be avoided.”

For now, he explains that he needs to insert a chest tube, which he will attach to a vacuum to suck out any air and fluid and restore negative pressure in the pleural space, in order to help my lung re-expand. I will have to be hooked up like this for several days to enable my lung to heal. He will do the chest tube here, but I’ll have to be transferred to a larger hospital in Albany for the recovery period.

I ask if I can be knocked out for this procedure. “No,” he says. “Your blood pressure is too low. We can’t put you under general anesthesia.”

I feel really cold. I hear a nurse yell, “I think she’s going into shock!” And I think, “Well, this whole thing is rather shocking.”

It’s a tiny hospital, and I’m the main attraction. The entire ER staff is watching as the surgeon injects me with local anesthetic a couple of inches below my right collarbone. He says, “Let me know if you feel anything, okay?” I turn my head away and look as hard as I can in the opposite direction—staring at a blank spot on the wall. He explains every little thing he’s doing. “I’m going to make a small incision and then…”

“Dude,” I say, “can’t you tell I’m trying my best not to be aware of what you’re doing?” A giggle ripples through the onlookers.

The procedure doesn’t really hurt. It’s just gross to think about having a plastic tube hooked to a vacuum inserted into my chest. But as soon as it’s in, I feel immensely better. I can breathe again.

The surgeon examines the froth that is being extracted from my chest. “Hmm,” he says, “I expected the fluid, but you’ve got blood, too. When there’s blood, we call this a spontaneous hemo-pneumothorax. ‘Hemo’ means blood. This is more common when there’s been trauma. Are you sure you’ve only had symptoms for one day?”

“Yeah,” I say, “I’m pretty sure.”

Actually, maybe this is when I go into shock.

I wake up and don’t know where I am. A woman’s voice says, “It’s okay. You’re in an ambulance. Your lung collapsed, and you went into shock. We’re taking you to a hospital in Albany.”

I’m jostled about on a gurney. The fluorescent lights are too bright. I close my eyes.

My hospital room is at the end of the hall. It’s long and narrow, and there are several empty beds to my left. My bed is closest to the door and the bathroom. Plate glass windows run the length of the room, offering a nice view of the city.

There’s an intercom over my bed. When I ring the call bell, a nurse’s voice asks what I need, and I explain that I need help to get to the restroom. My chest tube remains connected to a vacuum, which is attached to the foot of my bed. No one comes. An hour later, I ring again. Same thing. Three hours later, someone finally appears.

The next day a new doctor says that he would’ve put the chest tube in my side instead of near my collarbone. He says we’ll give it a couple of days, but that he’ll probably want to do it over again.

I have to pee frequently, because they still have me on IV fluids even though I’m eating and drinking normally. After repeating the infuriating intercom scenario numerous times, I watch how the nurse unhooks and re-hooks the chest tube and decide I can do this.

“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.”

“Move over,” Jess says, as she slips into bed beside me that evening. She pulls Michelle Tea’s Valencia out of her purse and begins reading to me. A few pages in, she starts skimming and skipping ahead.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.” As she says this, she slides her hand up my thigh.

And it hurts horribly when I laugh.

That night there’s a lightning storm. We turn out the lights and watch the city strobe elaborately before us.

“I’m sorry my stupid lung ruined our weekend,” I say.

“Shhh…” she says, “This is amazing.”

I do just fine managing my chest tube…until day three when I get tangled in the bathroom…and as I stand up from the toilet, the tube goes flying out of my body and blood splatters…and I yell, “Oh, holy fuck!” And Jess goes running…

The doctor returns and says he’d been planning to do another chest tube anyway. “I’ll do local anesthesia, but this is going to hurt. You need a bigger tube, and you are small, so there’s not much room. We’ll have to spread your ribs.”

They bring a gurney into my room and tell Jess to wait outside.

How many nurses does it take to hold down a 95-pound, 23-year-old woman who is screaming and kicking wildly while being stabbed between the ribs? Six.

When I’m discharged a few days later, a nurse tells me not to lift anything or drive for a couple of weeks so that my lung has time to fully heal.

During this “healing” time my mind begins processing, trying to figure out what this near-death experience means. Instead of feeling lucky to be alive, I begin to wonder if maybe I should have died.

I started smoking when I was sixteen. I once read an article that said each cigarette I smoked would subtract about 11 minutes from my lifespan. Instead of being a deterrent, I relished this bit of trivia. I’d exhale and think, “Awesome, 11 minutes less of this bullshit.

I think maybe, by smoking all those cigarettes with such a death-wish attitude, I’d brought this on myself. Yet, somehow I’d dodged fate. I also find it especially ironic that death would come for me in the first moment I’d ever felt truly happy. I was wildly in love. And this is the price I would pay for breaking all my rules.

Kurt Vonnegut espoused smoking as the only legal, classy way to commit suicide. I first encountered his novels when I was in high school, and I loved Vonnegut so much that I adopted him as my imaginary grandfather.

See, my own family—riddled with mental illness, substance abuse, and religious fundamentalism—left much to be desired in the realm of role models. So, in my teens, the concept of an imaginary surrogate family evolved.

Here are things I told myself: When I’m in need of comfort, all I ever need to do is allow Grandmother Maya Angelou’s deep molasses voice of God to hum through me. When I’m in doubt, Mother June Jordan will hand me her torch of outspoken resistance and hope. When I’m overcome by cynicism, Aunt Dorothy Allison will blow me to bits, then put me back together again—better and different and filled with revolutionary zeal. When I’m stuck in a rut, I should commune with Uncle Tom Robbins, who is sure to zing me with a zany metaphor. When absurdity has me reeling, I can turn to my twin brother, Augusten Burroughs, who will remind me that he, too, often experiences things that are most hilarious and most heartbreaking as one in the same. And, when the darkness looms, all I ever need to do is borrow sizzlingly sinister Sister Sylvia Plath’s lyrical stun gun.

But my collapsed lung has triggered a crisis of faith. I begin to wonder if having non-reciprocal relationships with imaginary people is enough.

There are unsettling complications as my lung heals: sharp, random, shooting pains. My doctor explains that there’s scar tissue in the area where the second chest tube was inserted, connecting the lining of my lung to the chest wall. Part of the healing process involves this tissue tearing, so that the lining of my lung can once again slide against the chest wall.

But since there’s a 50% chance that my lung may collapse again, and this healing pain is virtually indistinguishable from the original collapsing pain, I don’t know how to interpret these signals.

Years earlier, I’d suffered a bad case of pink eye. Long after I’d recovered from this ailment, when I’d begin to fatigue, I’d first feel it in my eyes. Even though the rest of my body would feel fine, my vision would weaken, and it would become impossible to keep my eyes open. It was a strange new litmus for exhaustion that I had no choice but to recognize.

A similar thing happens with my lungs. But instead of being triggered by fatigue, shortness of breath results when I become anxious. Seemingly out of nowhere, I feel like I can’t breathe. I become aware of stressors that hadn’t even been on my radar before. Some reactions make sense: It’s stressful to go to work when Jess and I are fighting. Other reactions seem irrational: I can no longer breathe in the grocery store.

Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually.

Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually. It’s another thing entirely to experience such a reality in one’s body. My anxiety rapidly becomes irrational and debilitating, but it’s grounded in a very real and legitimate fear. There’s a 50% chance that my lung could collapse at any moment—and there is nothing I can do to prevent this.

My therapist tells me I should learn to meditate. She writes a mantra on a slip of paper for me, but I think it’s stupid. So, she suggests I create my own.

I ask myself what words feel expansive and think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Flare.” The final section of this lengthy poem is particularly inspiring:

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

I try to memorize this but find I can never get the sections in the right order. Plus, it’s way too long to be a mantra. I think hard about what this poem means to me and decide that it’s all about reconciling the opposing forces of the beetle, which in my mind is a diligent dung beetle, and the wind, which is totally unpredictable.

Neither of these forces is bad or good. The dung beetle’s responsibilities on any given day could become a surprising pleasure—like taking trash to the dump for the woman you love. The wind could knock a limb in your path, or it could suddenly be at your back—making the rolling of the dung ball feel effortless. A collapsed lung. A stunning lightning storm.

It’s not about control. It’s not even about balance. The challenge is acceptance.

I begin listening to a relaxation cd given to me by my yoga instructor, who tells me to focus on my breathing. “You don’t understand,” I argue. “If I focus on, or even think about lungs and breathing—my own or anyone else’s—my chest tightens and I can’t breathe.” She tells me it takes practice, and I decide to fake it by replacing any thoughts of breathing with my mantra: “the beetle and the wind.”

Breath in: the beetle.

Breathe out: the wind.

With these words, Mary Oliver earns a place opposite Maya Angelou as an esteemed matriarch in my family tree. Over the years I find myself returning to these words again and again. They become a practice, a foothold. Though my lungs would remain intact, there would be times when my life would collapse as spontaneously as my lung had.

During a particularly bad week in 2006, my Jeep would break down. Lancelot would die. And I would find out that Jess, who I’d thought was my soul mate, had flown cross-country to cheat on me.

Grief will be my sister. I will know the stump of sorrow. I will scatter flowers over the graves and walk away.

But learning to rise like the green leaves will take quite a long time.

It has now been thirteen years since my lung collapsed. A ferocious looking reddish brown horned beetle, preserved in clear acrylic, sits on my desk. An emerald beetle dangles from my keychain. A scarab carved from onyx, which was a gift from Jess, still holds a prominent place in my meditation area.

They are constant reminders of a single aspiration:

to live with the beetle and the wind.

Melba MajorMelba Major holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she currently teaches writing. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review and the Southern Women’s Review.

 

 

Portfolio: Mixed Media

MANDEM (Maize Arendsee and Moco Steinman-Arendsee), Collaborative Artists

MANDEMIn its last issue, Lunch Ticket featured an image by MANDEM—a collaborative team that includes Maize Arendsee and Moco Steinman-Arendsee. Intrigued by their work and process, Visual Arts Editor Ashley Perez decided to run an interview with the pair in the current issue. MANDEM describes itself as “Mythpunk,” a moniker that combines “Steampunk” (a retro-futurist arts subculture) with “myth,” in reference to MANDEM’s unorthodox and imaginative incorporation of classical mythology into its imagery.

Our interview with MANDEM features several works from their Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal series. More MANDEM art can be viewed at www.mythpunk.com.

MANDEM won first place in the Nationwide Spooky Art Contest; “Best in Show-Expression” at the 2012 DigiTech Showcase, and won Fine Art America’s “Digital Goddess” Art Contest, among other awards. Recent exhibits include the Southern Humanities Council Conference (2013); Westcott Gallery at Florida State University (2012-13); CoCA/City Hall Art Gallery, Tallahassee, FL (2012), and the Fountain Art Fair (2012).

The two collaborators of MANDEM were interviewed by Audrey Mandelbaum and Ashley Perez via email in March, 2013.

Audrey Mandelbaum/Ashley Perez: Who and what is MANDEM?

MANDEM: MANDEM is the artist name for Maize Arendsee and Moco Steinman-Arendsee. Our working process is highly symbiotic and as the artist MANDEM, we achieve more than the sum of our parts. Our work has appeared in literary and art journals; on book, magazine, and album covers; in roleplaying and board games; and in many dozens of art galleries. MANDEM’s work is a transdigital exploration of metamorphoses, multivalency, and anachronism. We have an interest in destabilizing genre — both in terms of content and medium — drawing heavily from our personal identities as queer feminists. Our subject matter is liminal, featuring characters of uncertain biological identity, blurring the lines between genders and between humans, animals, and machines.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention that our long-time duo is now a trio. We have a two-year-old daughter, Kitsuko, who has been dubbed “The Littlest MANDEM” by some of our Internet followers, and she’s increasingly becoming an integral part of our artist experience.

AM/AP: We love the “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal” project. What were you thinking with this work?

Neverbird. The Rhacid birds frequently follow after Neobedouin caravans, picking through the waste left behind by our intrepid heros.

Neverbird, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

M: We began the first images in this series as part of working on Abney Park’s Airship Pirates universe. (Editor’s note: Abney Park is a Steampunk band based in Seattle. Abney Park’s Airship Pirates Universe is a RPG and Board Game based on the band’s songs.) However the series itself quickly expanded beyond that. The addition of textual elements turned a collection of disparate images into a cohesive set of “notes” from an apocryphal journal. Our concept was to create fragments of a non-reconstructable narrative that invited the viewer to imagine a complete narrative and try to piece it together. But ultimately they can’t be put into a definitive narrative; each person will have their own version of the story.

This mirrors real history — we all think that we have a complete narrative of history, but the closer we look at individual experiences, the more the meta-narrative of history loses cohesion. We are all time traveling from a past that will never be the same as we left it — if we were even able to go back, we would find that it never existed as we remember it now. And we are all transgressing into a future that is not what we thought it would be. And even this present moment in time may or may not be as we perceive it.

When this series goes to art shows, we “age” the paper by hand and catch them on fire, so each one looks like it was torn out of a burning book. We mount them on archival board – ashy tatters and all – and put them into shadowbox frames, so there’s an illusion of a preserved document, barely saved from some great disaster. It’s a nod to archivists, without whom we wouldn’t even have the illusion of knowing about the past.

Cowboy. Indricotheriinae have many uses.

Cowboy, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

AM/AP: These pieces remind me of the work of Goya’s, the 18th century Spanish romantic painter and social critic—in particular, the style reminds me of his series of prints, “The Disasters of War.” What aspects of your work do you consider to be a form of social criticism?

M: Oh, wow, that’s a huge compliment.

Well… The “Time Traveler” series alternates between levity, gallows humor, and social criticism. Take “Neverbird”: On the one hand, it’s a black joke about storks delivering babies, but more seriously …taking the text into account… it’s a criticism of the horrors to which we intentionally subject our children. Parents so often terrorize or harm their children in the name of creating social compliance. On another level, though, it’s also an expression of natural parental fears about the vulnerability of one’s children to the terror of the world.

Centurion. It is a little recognized fact that a super soldier with gun arms is incapable of reloading by himself.

Centurion, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

There are a variety of ways that our wider body of work is intentionally a social criticism. We often work with imagery that would be considered fantasy/sci-fi (though we prefer “fantastic realism” as a descriptor of our work), but this genre of art has a history of being both very sexist and exclusionary of minorities. (Think of the sexual and racial dynamics of Frank Frazetta’s work, for example.) This is particularly problematic because fantasy and sci-fi, as literary genres and conceptual realms, have been very important to a number of minority groups, including the LGBT community. This makes sense because people who grow up feeling alienated in the world are often drawn to these fantastical stories of the ultimate Other, the magical Other, and to the idea of different types of worlds and societies in which they might not be so radically alone. Some of the earliest feminist writings were science fiction, ranging from Mary Shelly to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. So we’re intentionally working to create queer, feminist art in an area that’s resistant to this approach, but at the same time a very natural home for it.

AM/AP: Another piece from the “Time Traveler” series, “Beware the Innocents,” depicts a nun and a young girl in tattered clothing that dates back to the 40s and 50s. Both figures wield weapons. It is perhaps an image of the disenfranchised taking revenge. But, there is also the sense of the two figures representing religious authority, or normative ideas about charity and innocence, which is then turned on its head by the violent aspect. One is not sure whether to root for these characters! Are they good? Are they evil? Were they good once, but using violent means to defend themselves? Can you tell us more about this piece?

Beware the Innocents. One ought never make hasty conclusions regarding the difficulty of a mission based entirely on its description. Nuns and orphans are not always as harmless as one might expect.

Beware the Innocents, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2011-2012.

This was one of the first of the series, actually, so it’s the most strongly related to the Airship Pirates universe in its original inspiration. The titular song (“Airship Pirate” by Abney Park) from which the story expands outwards, tells the story of a mercenary band attacking what they believe to be a merchant ship, but when they actually take it down they are horrified to discover that the ship is in tatters and “a look below deck shows a crew of nuns and orphans!” The story functions as part of the entire larger narrative (which involves struggling to re-write history–or re-right it, I suppose) about the unintended consequences of heroism. But this piece was a slight tongue-in-cheek response, which by all reports had the original author of the song in stitches.

Done Run Out. When preparing for long journeys, be sure to bring sufficient fuel. (Credit goes to the crew of the Neverwas Haul for imagining and building the prototype of this vehicle!)

Done Run Out, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

Of course, on the one hand you’re also correct that its inception stems from a more serious concern that’s in line with our larger critical approach with feminism and also with the reliability of narrative. The song uses “nuns and orphans” as a one-liner to suggest that it turns out that the ship is peopled with helpless non-combatants… and this asked “well, does their age and gender really imply that they’re helpless? Why shouldn’t women and children be able to fight back?” I like to turn expectations on their heads, and question assumed roles. It’s all part of the way that illustration—at its best—can contribute to the complexity of a story, creating questions about the reliability of the narrative, the nature of its reality, and so forth. MANDEM shouldn’t be trusted with a straight-up illustration in most cases; we end up queering things.

AM/AP: Steampunk culture is a big influence on your work. Can you describe what it is, and what about it appeals to you? How about classical mythology?

M: Steampunk is one of the manifestations of retrofuturism in our work. More specifically, Steampunk is retrofuturism based on the steam era of technology, i.e., the Victorian era.

Lion Hunt. Local fauna may vary dramatically in size and ferocity over the millenia.

Lion Hunt, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

Retrofuturism is any vision of the past that includes futuristic elements or ideas of the future that picture it recreating the modes of the past. So, for example, if a modern person writes about Victorian space travel, they’re doing retrofuturism. We’re fans of retrofuturism because it allows people to use what they know about the past to make commentary on the future in a way that’s more accessible, and likewise to use what we know about the present to make a new kind of commentary about the past. Because retrofuturism is fantastic and “not real” it can slyly bypass some of the political defenses that people have in place when it comes to talking about issues. You can see this in action with the massive impact that a retrofuturistic movie like V for Vendetta (The 2005 film based on the 1982 graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd) had on the Occupy Wallstreet movement. People who might not have been able to notice problems in our society could recognize the parallels in a fantastical universe and became motivated to adopt the emblem of the fantastic struggle into their real struggles.

Truant. Resistance to dominant trends appears in most times and cultures.

Truant, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

Regarding mythology, that’s actually the focus of Maize’s undergraduate work—classical civilizations. Her undergraduate honors thesis was on the Minotaur myths, and she’s still engaged academically on working with comparative mythology. It is extremely common for our pieces to have subtle (or blatant) references to mythology, though not exclusively Greek mythology.  We actually characterize the majority of our work not as Steampunk but as Mythpunk. When we say mythpunk, we mean a sort of retrofuturism that, instead of drawing from a specific era (like the Victorian era), takes place in diachronic time. Diachronic time is a sort of nonlinear/cyclical, archetypal time that exists in myths and in universal stories. It can take elements from everywhere, and what’s important isn’t so much the time stamp on the elements, but the way that they all participate in the same relationships.

AM/AP: What are your other influences: from art, but also film, literature, or other genres?

Lady in the Black Hat.  Dystopia is easier to achieve than one might think, and seems to be the natural order of human affairs.

Lady in the Black Hat, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

M: We’re very interested in the visual aesthetic of Film Noir and German Expressionist film. We enjoy magical realism (e.g., Joge Luis Borges). We’ve been influenced by continental writers of the early- to mid-20th century, like Brecht and Herman Hesse. Various subcultural musical movements are also a big influence, and anywhere we might find compelling stories about the Other.

AM/AP: Walk us through your artistic process from idea to finished product. 

M: This would be a good time to mention our overarching philosophy for art projects, which is something that we call a transdigital aesthetic. We feel that there isn’t a value differential to be placed on digital or traditional artistic techniques, so we use whichever has the effect we’re going for in a specific piece. We’re very willing to switch between physical and digital media, so for example, we’ll print something out if we want to add physical media, and then scan it back in if we want to do more digital editing. The workflow for any individual piece is going to vary depending on the end goals and how it’s going to be published. For example, the Time Traveler series is almost entirely digital in the versions that go to print in books or magazines, but when they hang in a gallery only the outlines are done digitally, then they’re hand-painted to add color, and the lines are enhanced by hand with ink, then they’re distressed and burned.

Maize from MANDEM working on "Medusa in Her Sunday Best."

Maize working on “Medusa in Her Sunday Best”

The painting we’re working on right now (“Medusa, in Her Sunday Best”) is very photorealistic in sections, so we actually started with costume design, then a photo shoot for reference photos. We then did a photo-manipulation of the source images to make a rough collage to work from, then did some digital painting, then printed that on colored paper and painted directly onto the paper with oil paints. We then scanned that back in and did digital painting for several of the sections, and did some digital editing on the parts that were physically painted, which created a complete, ready-to-publish digital version of this painting. But we still needed to create the version that could show in galleries, so we actually digitally removed large sections from the image we’d just finished, then printed out what remained on a large format canvas.

But this is just the process for one specific painting. Other pieces are entirely digital or (more rarely) entirely physical media.

AM/AP:  You describe yourself as a collaborative team to some extent, and you’re also a couple, and now parents. What in a nutshell do each of you do, and how did that collaborative relationship evolve?

M: We’ve known each other forever. We’ve been a couple for over 15 years, and neither of us can remember a time before we were artistically collaborating. We were introducing our imaginary friends to one another and writing stories together from the beginning. As we evolved into visual artists, our working method remained much the same, brainstorming and birthing ideas together, but Maize is the one who does the “brush on canvas” (or “stylus on graphics tablet”) work. Moco manages the printer and stretches canvases, and often models if we need photo references. While Maize paints, Moco will stand by to help make color, material, and composition choices (and to refill Maize’s coffee). The relationship is a little as if Botticelli’s muse Simonetta had stripped off her fancy dresses, put on a smock, and come into the workshop to mix his paints and make composition choices. As for Kitsuko, she tells us if our work is “hot!” or not. If she doesn’t call it “hot,” it’s missing something.

AM/AP: In contemporary art galleries and museums, you don’t see a lot of figurative art these days, especially work that incorporates elements of fantasy and myth. We want to know more about your take on the role of figurative and myth-based art today.

M: I think it’s making a resurgence, slowly but surely. Figurative and myth-based art has never gone away, it just went underground.

The thing is that museum art is very political. Museums are political. They reflect the interests and tastes of “the powers that be” in a way that is often not recognized by academia or the general public.

There’s a widely accepted meta-narrative of art history where abstract art rose very naturally and fluidly out of the European art scene that existed before it. You had the impressionists, and then the cubists, and then abstract art… and just one thing lead to another in the natural genealogy of art. And the implication is that these changes reflected changes in common taste, but this isn’t the entire picture. Abstractism’s total conquest of the museum system was not so much a matter of changes in public taste as it was a matter of changes in politics.

This is very well documented, by the way—I’m not speaking of a personal paranoid theory! When the Cold War began, the Soviets were championing and funding realist art; they were very strict realists. And so “our side” of the Cold War generated and publicized an idea of the free capitalist artist as a non-representational artist, and this idea of abstract art as capitalist art, essentially. They developed this alternative, and funded it heavily. You literally had money from the CIA going into funding art shows, along with the old money Americans who were funding museums to show abstract art.

But at the same time that the government was investing heavily in abstract art, the most popular artists in America—the ones that were appearing in every home—were people like Maxfield Parrish… who of course was doing figurative fantastical art. At the same time the “high art” bloc was condemning figurative artists, and especially fantastic artists like Parrish, as “just illustrators.”  So you have the Norman Rockwells and the Andrew Wyeths being hugely popular among the people of the time, and roundly dismissed by the formal art world. And it wasn’t just the realists of their own time that this new academic art rejected.

But now, at this very moment in art history, people are going back and discovering “illustrators” like Rockwell and Parrish and working to restore their legacy, reevaluating them as artists, and curating them in museums. Part of this may be a conservative backlash coming from individuals who don’t realize that abstract art was conservative in the first place, but I also think that part of this re-evaluation of figurative art and mythic art is very much a meta-modern return to complicated sincerity, narrative, and beauty. This is a return that doesn’t denounce abstractism, but just has a bigger art umbrella—takes it all in.

And of course there have been a few recent high profile shows of classical fantasy artists and of comic book artists, so I also think we’re starting to enter a time where the postmodern ideal of a collapse between high and low art is not just theoretical. We’re starting to admit that a theoretical position like that necessitates an embrace of both “high modern” painting and also the figurative art that the majority of the population has always loved.

AM/AP: Maize, you entered a Master of Fine Arts program recently, is that correct? What’s that like for you, as a working artist, to be a student again?

M: Brutal.

For many years, Maize was a self-taught artist, and it was an important part of her identity that she was a self-taught artist. She also identified as an academic. She went to graduate school for something other than art; she got her Master’s degree in interdisciplinary humanities with a focus in critical theory.

We naively expected that art school would be similar to her past studies, except with painting instead of essays, but it’s turned out to be a totally different world socially and in terms of a meeting of aesthetic minds that aren’t always in synch with one another. The good news is that going to art school is giving her the opportunity to work with some absolutely amazing professors with whom she does have a strong aesthetic connection, and she has definitely learned a lot about physical media, which she had not previously been as comfortable with as the digital media. In particular, Maize has been working with Carrie Ann Baade, who is an incredible Visionary Artist who tends to show with pop surrealist artists, and Lilian Garcia-Roig, who does very textural landscapes with such thick paint that we really don’t understand how it adheres to the canvas.

In the meantime, our actual art career is going swimmingly — we have more publication opportunities than we can keep up with. It’s an odd dichotomy to try to balance a professional career, in which self-confidence is key, and a student career in which it can be a liability.

AM/AP: Thank you for your time.

Ashley Perez lives and writes in Los Angeles, California. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. She is currently working on her first novel as well as continuing her second collection of short stories. You can see her thoughts on art and writing inspiration at http://artscollide.blogspot.com.

In addition to serving as Co-Editor of Visual Arts for Lunch Ticket, Audrey Mandelbaum is an artist whose work has been exhibited most recently at The Front Gallery in New Orleans. She coordinates the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and teaches art classes in the bachelor’s program there.