Word from the Editor

We are driven by the compulsion to tell stories; everyone.

For two years, I have studied poetry in an MFA program dedicated to educating literary artists to advance social, economic, and environmental justice, and I have worked on Lunch Ticket for three issues.

The 47 student volunteers on staff work hard to make this literary journal a safe and sacred space, from the manner in which we discuss submissions, to how we collaborate with one another. As we work toward our goal to foster equity in publishing, it became even more evident to me that material cannot be divorced from the process; that as editors, we must align our editorial conventions with this vision. During the making of this issue, it was not uncommon for eight or more editors and assistant editors of different genres to engage in a thoughtful discussion of any given piece. We leaned into each other’s experiences to inform editorial decisions. One such decision was refusing to provide a platform for those who work against or trivialize the pursuit of justice.

At Lunch Ticket, we take our mission extremely seriously. We do not tell stories to be a voice for the voiceless. Instead, I believe we strive toward what 13th century Persian poet Rumi calls “the deep listening.” “What is the deep listening? Sama is / a greeting from the secret ones inside … your intelligence grows new leaves in / the wind of this listening,” the poet defines the enlightenment that takes place within when we truly hear the other.

But we must recognize our separation before we can appreciate hearing them: “Listen, and feel the beauty of your/ separation, the unsayable absence.” Without the ability to sense the beauty of our separation, the absence of being a person in this world, Rumi says we might as well be dead. Yet, he gives us hope for justice: “The dead / rise with / the pleasure of listening.” If I had to name a theme for this issue, that would be it. The voices of Lunch Ticket 13 revel in the justice of listening.

We tell stories to honor our ancestors. Telling their stories makes us come alive. In “Babiy Yar” (Fiction), the speaker promises, “I’ll write about our secret war, the war after the war.” Their mother answers, “Start tonight.” In her essay “Souvenirs,” poet and writer Lena Khalaf Tuffaha says “To remember is to resist the transformative powers of violence. If occupation tries to reduce a homeland to collapsing camps and ominous military checkpoints, resistance is remembering its beauty, is seeking out the stones and red anemones and wild thyme of the hillsides.”

We tell stories to speak up and take action. “If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news. He’d be one of those hashtags on Twitter,” Arriel Vinston writes in “Following Joey” (Fiction).

We are thankful for the words of our past poetry contributors Lena Khalaf Tuffaha and Cortney Lamar Charleston, who generously obliged when I was seeking essays by poets, on any topic of their choosing, for Lunch Ticket 13. A 2017 Ruth Lily Fellow, Charleston writes about his decision to study business when he was in college, “What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.” Published alongside Tuffaha and Charleston’s essays is Akhila Kolisetty’s “Experiencing Whiteness.” Kolisetty unflinchingly examines her privilege as an Indian American traveling in Sierra Leone.

Numerous pieces examine parent-child relationships: Carolyn Oliver’s poem “Elementary,” MJ Lemire’s essay “Losing Faith,” and in flash fiction, “How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services” and “Picking Out Bananas.” There is also a theme of exploring mental health and confronting stigmas of mental illness: in fiction, Cannonball and Phone Voice, Brandon Melendez’s poem S/c/h/i/z/o/p/h/r/e/n/i/a/, and Elliot Gavin Keenan’s essay Notes to Self.

As Lunch Ticket is working toward our initiative to mentor and publish more young people, I’m reminded that some young people are ready to be heard alongside published writers. A rising high school senior, Michael Wang (“Fleeing Syria”) is our youngest contributor. “Michael cares deeply about issues of social justice,” his bio says. “After reading about Syrian refugees and the ensuing U.S. ban on immigrants, he imagined how a young boy might feel fleeing a war-torn country.” We’re honored to publish Wang’s self-translated YA fiction in both English and French, along with numerous new voices who are being published for the first time in Lunch Ticket 13.

Lunch Ticket is excited to announce our contest winners and finalists. Gabo Prize winner Caroline Wilcox Reul translates selected poems from Carl Christian-Elze’s Our Ghosts and How We Talk To Them. Guest judge Tiffany Higgins says, “I love that the poet and translator have brought into English this concept of a selfie-dream … Reul keeps us in this quirky, ghostly world.” Reul’s prize-winning translations appear alongside other literary works translated from German, French, Chinese, Bengali, Hindi, Yiddish, and Dutch, in our Gabo Prize and translation sections. Diana Woods Memorial Award winner “Arabian Night” by Diane G. Martin “takes us by the hand, invites us deeply into the writer’s lost world,” said guest judge Gayle Brandeis. “A stunning, necessary, gut punch of an essay.”

As we work toward our social justice mission, we are grateful for Juan Felipe Herrera‘s reminder that unity, while sweet, is challenging to achieve. We stand with writers and editors everywhere who have lead by example: recently, the decision of Timothy Donnelly, BK Fisher, and Stefania Heim to step down as poetry editors of Boston Review due to the executive editors’ decision to retain Junot Diaz as fiction editor.

As I reflect upon the chorus of voices that came together to produce this issue, I return to Herrera’s statement about writing as a communal art: “We really are nourished by being in a pact of artists and people.” Being a part of the Lunch Ticket community has nourished and humbled me. I am grateful for the contributions of my peers and appreciate the work and patience required to build a future with equity in publishing.

The right to tell stories belongs to everyone. It is challenging and necessary work. In the words of Jordan Faber’s “Babiy Yar,” start tonight.

 

Jessica Abughattas

 

Jessica Abughattas is the editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket Issue 13. She formerly edited Lunch Ticket’s poetry section and was a reader for Frontier Poetry. Her essays and interviews have appeared at Palette, Lunch Ticket, and other places. You can find her poems in Thrush Poetry Journal, BOAAT, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Her latest work is forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, OSU The Journal, and Tinderbox. You can find her on Twitter (@jessicamelia22) or visit her site (jessicaabughattas.com). She lives in Los Angeles.

Mardi Gras Beads

[creative nonfiction]

Greg and I stroll the picnic grounds, slowly because it is my first post-surgical outing. His annual company picnics are always themed: Wild West with pony rides and barbeque and lasso contests; Summer Camp with canoeing and hot dogs; Carnival with actual fairway rides and cotton candy. This year, it’s Renaissance Faire, so we’ve gnawed on turkey legs, watched a mock joust, cheered on sack-racing and ring-tossing children, and tried a few games of chance.

I’m winded, but glad to be out of the house. Since my surgery six weeks ago, I have been going progressively stir-crazy. My hysterectomy at thirty-five ended our quest to conceive a child, but my gynecological issues were so severe that from the moment I woke from anesthesia, I have wanted to kiss my surgeon.

We make our way toward the petting zoo (I love goats), dodging the professional insulter, who already made fun of my hunched posture. I resisted the urge to show him my scar and flip him off, but don’t want to test my still-erratic hormones with a second encounter.

The Mardi Gras bead man steps into our path. Earlier, Greg agreed he didn’t know what Mardi Gras beads had to do with the Renaissance, or if I flashed the man for a set, he would get fired or promoted.

I say, “No, thanks,” but the tights-clad purveyor slips a few strings over my head and says, “Give ‘em to your kids.”

Greg looks stricken, but I shrug. I’d already noticed few adults wearing beads, which is why I tried to refuse. I could leave them on a picnic table or pass them to any of the hundreds of sugared-up kids. There are hordes of them, so many, more everywhere I look. Blonde like Greg, loud like me, running and yelling and tugging at their parents.

If I explain, Greg will say I have nothing to be ashamed of, that he loves me, it’s not my fault, that he is happy to focus on adoption. He would say all the things I told myself when each fertility test brought bad news and every treatment failed.

“I’m tired,” I say. We make sure the big shots see us and head home.

I drop the beads on the kitchen table and head to the shower. As I peel off my tank top and shorts, I glance at the mirror. Painted on my chest and neck by sweat and cheap dye are faint dabs and smears of red and green and purple.

Greg finds me there, staring into the mirror at my naked body and the marks it carries. Smudges from the beads; my new pinched navel framed by small incisions where the surgeon inserted her instruments; a long pale speedbump the length of my abdomen from childhood cancer treatments we now know ended my fertility.

Before he can ask if I am all right, without thinking, I say, “I’m sorry.”

“No,” he says and tentatively touches my shoulder. I am pale and shaking, knocked breathless with shame.

If I explain, Greg will say I have nothing to be ashamed of, that he loves me, it’s not my fault, that he is happy to focus on adoption. He would say all the things I told myself when each fertility test brought bad news and every treatment failed, everything I stopped having to tell myself six weeks ago when I woke from surgery stunned by the absence of pain, without the fear of deluges of blood or expensive, painful attempts ending in failure. He would say everything I thought I believed but we can both see in my eyes that I don’t. Everything I don’t want to hear right now, he will tell me again when I let him.

“I just need a shower.” I step into the scalding water to wash off the marks I can.

 

Janice Dvorak has an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in literary journals including Willow SpringsThe Grief Diaries, and Florida Review, and is included in the anthology, I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out. She lives outside Boston with her husband.

Following Joey

We weren’t supposed to be out after the streetlight came on. But here we were, my older brother and I, walking down the street to the corner store. Joey was supposed to walk me back home after getting me from my best friend Kayla’s house, but he had other plans.

“I just have to meet with Rob real quick,” he told me. “The streetlight only been on for a second. Mama won’t trip.”

Mama was old school. We had phones but she still went by the streetlight to give us a curfew because that’s how she grew up. I thought I was old enough to walk home by myself. It was the first time Mama let me hang out at Kayla’s—after I begged her for a million months—and she made Joey walk me there and back. She had two jobs and was always at work so she couldn’t take me. But as hard as Mama worked, she couldn’t afford to get Joey a car.

“She’s gonna kill us, Joey,” I said. Mama was as mean as a bull when we ignored her rules, and Joey knew it, but he always chose to do whatever he wanted. Since he claimed to be the “man of the house,” I decided it wasn’t worth the fuss. We’d be home soon and he’d explain the situation to Mama.

Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it.

Joey walked me by my wrist, his head whipping left and right to check his surroundings. Screen doors hung off hinges and bricks were missing from fronts of houses. Residents sat on their porches, smoking a joint or enjoying a beer. Their children played curb ball in the middle of the narrow street until a car came, or until their parents cussed them out and told them to come play in the yard—what little yard they did have. A small tree in front of the neighborhood church was surrounded by teddy bears, flowers, and balloons to mourn a black male in the neighborhood who was murdered by an officer a week ago. I remembered the story from the news.

“Why you gotta meet him right this minute?” I asked, wiping sweat from the summer’s heat off my forehead.

Guys older than me in tank tops and sagging jeans stood at the end of the block on the corner, yelling about sports or betting money in dice games. Everyone seemed to know each other, laughing as they leaned over the dice, picking up cash from the sidewalk as quickly as it was thrown down. This neighborhood was only two blocks away from our house, but it was different. I was used to greener yards that were mowed and neighbors who were too busy to hang out on the porch. But this place was beautiful in its own way, because our neighborhood didn’t have this type of community. Mama wouldn’t see it that way if she knew we were staying around here though, especially after dark.

“Just stay close to me,” Joey said, gripping my wrist and pulling me. I rolled my eyes. Joey thought because I was only fourteen I didn’t have the right to demand answers. I wasn’t “grown enough,” he always said. But he was only four years older than me.

Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it. Our dad left us when I was twelve. Mama wouldn’t tell us why and neither did he. I came home from school one day to see Mama sitting at the dining table crying, Joey rubbing her back. Her soft, plump hands covered her face.

What’s wrong? I mouthed to Joey.

Dad left, he mouthed back.

I squinted and cocked my head at him. Why? I didn’t want to ask Mama, so I kissed her hands and went upstairs to my room, throwing myself on the bed. I stared at the ceiling and cried for hours, wondering what we did for Dad to leave us. Joey came in my room that evening and said Dad packed his clothes, took the rent money, and left while Mama was at work. He told me it wasn’t our fault. I didn’t believe him. Joey said we had to make Mama’s life easier from then on. Because we were all she had.

Since then, Joey did everything to provide for us. If Mama was short on rent, Joey came up with it. If I needed school supplies or new clothes, Joey figured it out. If I needed to talk about the annoying boys at school or the girls who didn’t do anything but gossip, I could go to him for advice and laughs. And of course, he also gave me fake big brother threats like: “You better not be worried about these lil’ knucklehead boys or I’ll rough ‘em up.” Aside from Kayla, he was my best friend. I owed him a lot. But I owed Mama just as much.

We walked past that group of guys and they sized me up. Their eyes were glued to my chest like they were watching a Superbowl. Mama said I developed quicker than other girls my age. Boys at school called me “thick” because of my large thighs and wide hips. I hated it.

“Hey lil’ mama,” one of them said as his coarse hands reached for mine. I snatched my hand away. Joey pulled me closer. He stared at them with a clenched jaw, eyebrows meeting in anger, and mumbled, “Hurry up, JaCie.” I could tell they were much older than him, and we both knew his chances of winning a fight with them were slim. Joey had the build of a boy my age. We blamed it on my skinny dad.

“If you didn’t have me out past the street light, I bet you no one would be grabbing for me,” I challenged, rolling my neck. The older men were out of earshot.

“Now you and I both know that’s a lie,” he chuckled. “This neighborhood is bad in broad daylight.”

“So why the heck you got me out here after the streetlight?” I punched him lightly in his arm. He rubbed the cursive tattoo on his bicep, which read: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

“JaCie, chill out man. I got business to handle.”

I was ready to go home. I had been ready since I left Kayla’s. But Mama would have a fit if I went home without Joey. And I wasn’t trying to get him in trouble.

After walking up another block, we arrived at the corner store. It sat in front of a Popeye’s, with only an alley separating them. The red Mini Mart sign atop the store glowed in the darkness. The store was small with “WE ACCEPT EBT” signs plastered on its glass walls, along with other taped-on flyers. People leaned on the store’s glass or chatted in a circle. A cop car slowed down as it approached the store, then turned the corner to check out another street. I figured the cop was just doing his rounds.

“Shit, the police out tonight,” Joey said under his breath.

“Can I at least tell Mama we’ll be late?”

“What? No. Do this for me, just this once.”

“I got that New Drake,” a man announced as we approached the door, walking toward us. He opened his large, black CD case and pointed to the disc.

“I’m alright,” I said and waved him off. I didn’t know people still listened to CDs anyways.

“There go Rob right there.” Joey spotted him leaning on the glass further away from the entrance. Joey never told me what he did when he met with his “friends” but I wasn’t dumb. No matter how young he thought I was.

“Wassup, boy,” Rob said, shaking up with Joey.

“Wassup,” Joey replied with an upward head nod.

“Who’s this? Your girl?” Rob looked me up and down. He smoked a Black & Mild Cigar. I waved the grape-scented smoke out of my face and crossed my arms over my chest.

“Oh. This is just my little sis, JaCie,” Joey said. I didn’t know whether to wave, so I opted for silence.

Rob nodded and let out more smoke from his cigar. He had the darkest skin I’d ever seen and a silky goatee. He looked older than Joey. He wore a permanent frown and his eyes were hard, like he didn’t have a smile left to give.

“So, what’s up? Let’s talk without your sister around.” Rob gestured toward the alley.

Joey glanced back at me, forehead wrinkled and eyebrows raised.

“She’s only 14. I can’t leave her out—,” he started.

“I said let’s go talk in private.”

Rob walked away and put out his cigar. He slipped his hands in his pockets. Joey combed his dreads with his fingers and his light brown skin turned rosy.

“Stay right here. Do not move, JaCie. I mean it,” Joey stressed. He followed Rob into the alley. I joined the others against the glass and pulled my iPhone 5 out of my back pocket. Three texts and eight missed calls from Mama.

8:59 p.m. I’m worried about y’all. Answer the phone

9:01 p.m. You two should have been home by now

9:05 p.m. CALL ME ASAP! I MEAN IT JACIE

I didn’t click on the text thread so she wouldn’t know I read them.

“Mama” came across my screen again. I let it ring until she hung up. Knowing her, she’d call again. But what would I say if I answered? Guilt rushed through my body. I hated ignoring her just for Joey to do dumb stuff. Mama had been through enough with us.

And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.

There was the time when I told Mama I was spending the night at my old best friend’s house when really, we had snuck to a party thrown by high schoolers. Our ride wouldn’t answer the phone once the party got shut down, so we had to call Mama instead. There was the time Joey got suspended from school for fighting—actually, there were a bunch of times that happened. And there were plenty of times Mama had to leave work midday or leave her bed at night because of us. We were supposed to be making her life easier.

“Come on, Joey,” I mumbled. I tapped my foot and my eyes darted around as I waited.

Men were gathered outside as if hanging at the corner store was a rite of passage to live here. And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.

“Man, chill out!” Joey yelled. His voice squeaked like one of the boys at my school. That’s how Joey got when he was nervous.

I walked toward the alley, heart thumping in my chest loud enough to bury the rest of the noise on the street. I stood at the corner of the store and strained to hear their conversation. Mama started calling and against my better judgement, I ignored her.

“Rob, why you acting like I don’t keep my word?” Joey’s voice shook.

“Shut up,” Rob said through clenched teeth. “You supposed to have my money. You know who you playin’ with?”

“I told you I’ll have it. Just give me a few days.”

“I already gave you a few days!”

Mama called again. I put the phone in my pocket and let it vibrate. What looked like the same cop approached the corner store and slowed down near the alley. He rolled down his passenger window to look at Joey and Rob, then pulled into the parking lot. Men who previously stood against the store window scattered as if they had plans to leave anyways. I didn’t budge but white cops always made me nervous.

The officer got out and adjusted his hat. He walked past the store entrance, walking by the men who were leaving, and headed in my direction. He nodded at me, but I stared back with furrowed brows. The officer gripped the gun in his holster so tight his hands were red like blood. My stomach felt hollow as I realized the danger Joey could be in if the officer approached them.

“What’s going on?” the officer asked as he approached Rob and Joey. I inched closer to the edge of the building to see what the cop would do next. His hand was still on his gun.

“Nothing, just chatting,” said Rob.

“Chatting, huh? Let me see your IDs.”

“Don’t you have to have a reason to ask for our IDs?” Rob asked.

“You two standing in the alley arguing is reason enough. IDs,” the officer reinforced.

If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news.

Rob and Joey dug in their pockets and handed the officer their IDs. The officer examined Rob’s then handed it back to him. He brought Joey’s ID to eye level and peered over the edge to look at him.

“You’re only eighteen. What are you doing out here?”

“I’m grown.”

Wrong answer, Joey. Wrong freakin’ answer.

“Grown,” the officer scoffed, shoving the ID back in Joey’s hand. “I asked what you were doing out here. I didn’t want a smart aleck remark.”

Joey glanced at Rob, hoping he’d offer the officer an explanation. Rob looked in the other direction.

“I told you, we were just chatting.”

“Well if you were just chatting, smart ass, empty your pockets for me.”

Joey stood still.

“I said empty your pockets. Both of you!”

Rob emptied his pockets, setting a 2-pack of Strawberry Swisher Sweets, a lighter, a wad of cash, and his Galaxy S5 on the ground. The officer turned to Joey.

“Your turn, boy,” the officer urged.

Joey stuffed his hands in his pockets but didn’t move afterward and didn’t say a word.

“Joey, just do it!” I yelled, walking to the front of the alley. The lights from Popeye’s drive-through shone into the alley. A dumpster sat against the wall of the corner store, with broken-down boxes leaning against it.

“JaCie, back up. Okay? I don’t want you to get hurt,” Joey turned and said. He turned his body back to the officer and the officer had his gun aimed at Joey’s chest. Joey put his trembling hands up in surrender. I had never seen a gun, in person at least. It was small but the metal gleamed in the dark. Sweat glistened on the back of Joey’s neck and his upper body heaved with every quick breath he took.

“Little girl, listen to him. Get back,” the officer demanded. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what move to make. So, I stood there, feet planted to the cracked sidewalk like they were cemented in.

“Empty your damn pockets,” the officer said, gun still trained on Joey. Rob watched. If Joey emptied his pockets, he’d probably go to jail. If Joey didn’t empty his pockets, he’d probably get shot. And from the looks of it, he was too scared to move. I knew the officer was ready to shoot Joey. He was black. He was in an alley. And he seemed to be up to no good.

If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news. He’d be one of those hashtags on Twitter but instead the tweets would say #JoeyGreene #BlackLivesMatter. It would be my fault for not protecting my big brother after the countless times he’d protected me and made sure I didn’t need for anything. Maybe if I just directed the officer’s attention toward me, Joey could get rid of whatever was in his pockets and we could go home.

I bolted toward them. My crossbody bag smacked against my hip and my kinky hair blew away from my face. The olive oil from my curls leaked down my face and neck. A bead of sweat crept to my eyebrow. My sandals slapped the ground and my mouth was wide open but I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t know if it was because I was running or because I was scared but I kept going and my chest heaved and my heart pounded and tears stung my eyes. Even when I tried to blink my tears away and my wet eyelashes brushed against my skin, I kept my eyes on Joey. Even when I took the back of my hand and wiped underneath my eye, I kept my eyes on Joey. His body jerked like he wanted to stop me. I couldn’t let him out of my sight. I knew I wasn’t as quick as a bullet could be but I had to distract the officer before he decided that Joey’s life wasn’t valuable. Because it was. To me and to Mama.

I ignored the constant vibrating of my phone from Mama’s call. I ignored the many eyes that begged me to stop running toward the officer. I tuned out Joey’s yells to get back. I didn’t hear the officer shout “Freeze!” I didn’t see him turn the gun toward me instead. I didn’t hear the click clack of the officer cocking his gun. And I didn’t hear the bang the gun released when the officer pulled the trigger. Then, I collapsed, one foot from Joey.

 

Arriel Vinson is an Indiana native who writes about being young, black, and in search of freedom. She is an MFA fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and received a BA in journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry has been published in [PANK] Magazine and also won third place prize in LUMINA Journal, judged by Donika Kelly. She has had essays/articles published in Blavity,HuffPost, and elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Reece T Williams

Claws

[fiction]

Crusted half moons smeared down my thigh, bled through my tights in long, whispery scratches. Thigh skin bulged through tears in the fabric. When I ripped the tights off, blood pulled with them and the wounds were scab-less, fresh again. I wrestled on old jeans, jerked up one side, then the other, inched them up with one claw of a hand. Then I paced from my living room to my bedroom, tried to calm myself. The ghost wrenched. I slowed my steps, slowed my breathing, hoped he’d calm.

Fingernail clippers sparkled from my dresser. I palmed them casually, careful not to tip him off. Then I sat on the edge of my bed and breathed. The invisible arm floated, like a feather, to land on the living one, open across my knees, as relaxed as I could make it. The ghost of my left arm slithered against my palm. I closed my fingers, gently, around the invisible wrist. He bucked, jolted, squirmed. “Hey there. Settle down.” I whispered as if lulling a baby. “It’s okay.”

The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

His fingers tapered softly, then splintered into rough edges. I wrapped my hand around one ghost finger, held it with middle, ring, and pinky. My hand twisted to work the clippers with just index finger and thumb. My palm clamped against the ghost.

It was like watching a spider—half-squished and legs still squirming—how my fingers were squirming, squirming. It was like the scars that crackled on my shoulder—

—Calm! A deep breath. I could let my heart race, but not for long. This was my life. I had to handle it.

The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

The clippers rattled to the floor. When I scooped them up, the hand escaped. It swatted for my face—I ducked.

Again, I lulled him to my lap. I found the wrist, gripped tighter, used my scraped, stinging thigh as a piece of the clamp this time. And again the clippers slipped away, edged by a flick from the ghost. Again he thrashed from my shoulder, frantic.

“You have to let me do this!” It was like strangling an animal to keep my voice soft. There was fear in it, panic. It pulsed from the ghost. It wasn’t mine.

“How about a file, buddy?” I stroked the inside of his elbow. “Can we file down those claws?” I dug out an emery board. The ghost wriggled fiercely and, again, got loose.

We needed a break, so I sat. The emery board dropped to my lap. My right nails were jagged, too. I pressed a point into my palm, studied the pinprick indentation. Then I ran my hand over the file—the jeans gave it traction—ground the nails smooth to the ends of my fingers.

But what would make the ghost arm still?

While I was thinking, he was investigating. He must have been. There was a frizzle in that left thumb. He pressed too hard—emery board hopped—but with the next swipe, he figured it out. My right hand held the board to give him leverage and, one finger at time, the ghost filed. When he finished, he ran the nails along the soft inside of my right elbow. The edges were like silk.

I hadn’t mastered the ghost, just tricked him.

Before the accident, I never noticed how it took two hands to squash a spider. One to lean against the table, the other to strike. I never noticed that it took two hands to zip, two hands to button. It took two hands, somehow, to put on lipstick. This ghost, he could help me—if he felt like it—or he could make it harder.

I knew about phantom limbs, then. I could have handled that. I knew about the clenching, the aching, invisible muscles, and physical pain that wouldn’t stop. I knew about hands that jutted from shoulders and itches that couldn’t be scratched. The doctors, the therapists, the pamphlets all told me. But the ghost was something else. Drugs and shrinks and mirrored boxes—they couldn’t cure me.

It wasn’t natural, this thing that clawed into me. He should have clung to the dead arm. He should have shriveled like the muscle and bone and stringy nerves. He should have died with the snarl of raw meat that they cut from me.

 

Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Booth, Juked, Jellyfish ReviewPANK, and elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft Literary Center, where she also teaches classes. And she tweets—mostly about toddlers, writing, and resistance—as @AllisonWyss.

 

Twelve Stories of Aleppo

12.

Two boys barely in their teens who want to be untethered, to fire a gun and become men in place of their missing fathers, climb the stairs to the apartment tower’s rooftop where lies hidden under a scorched plate of sheet metal is an old rifle, abandoned by a man now gone—dead, jailed, or married and fat. They place it on the crumbled concrete ledge overlooking the half of Aleppo that lies flat and empty, an ancient neighborhood seemingly eroded like sand castles on the shores of Lake Assad. The boys take turns shooting at targets on the desolate street below. They start with the inanimate: a defiant traffic sign standing among the remains of what was once a busy street corner, the black skeletons of bombed out cars thrown about as if heaved by giants, a faded face on an old election poster hanging on a pockmarked wall.

A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn.

 Inevitably the prosaic builds toward bloodshed as the boys graduate to moving bodies, hopelessly firing at the white dot of a plane crossing the pale blue sky, then placing crosshairs on a frail stray dog crossing the street below and blowing up dust in its wake as it races to the sanctuary behind the booted feet of a group of men. The boy with his finger on the trigger fires a stray bullet and motivates them to dance. The men answer back with a fireball that shrieks through the air toward the boys and those under their feet, feet still growing into the footsteps of their fathers.

11.

A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn. Every night at six on the dot she used to assume this position with friends in a nearby studio but clothed under the eyes of a merciless instructor. Now she is alone in the city, where the heat is only slightly less suffocating than the fog of loneliness. Even the vantage points from which to spy her nakedness through the open windows are gone, reduced to dust and hollowed shells. But she wishes the entire city, the entire country, could see her now, for she is going to break the record. She closes her eyes and lets her imagination take her to a new theater, not of war but of performing arts. She stands on the polished stage of the Damascus Opera House under a spotlight of sunbeams shining through cracked glass. The battered living room walls unfurl into an audience of well-dressed men and women reclining in cushioned chairs. She takes a deep breath of stagnant air then begins to spin on one pointed foot. Though malnourished and weak, she dances; in the face of death, she fouettes. Sweat begins to sparkle on her wispy frame. She spins and spins, faster and faster, the pain rising with every turn—eighty, ninety, one hundred! The audience explodes in thunderous applause; she exhales. The applause turns deafening; she gasps.

10.

She is woken by crackling gunfire and a bittersweet thought: Mother will die today. It was in a vivid dream, the feelings of which freshly reverberate through her body. She was crossing a deserted street when something drew her attention to an open window above. Standing at the window was a painted glass woman with the thick brows of her mother. Suddenly she fell like a glass pushed off a counter top and shattered into a million pieces. The impact was so heavy, the glass shards blew into her face and tickled her skin with the gentle caress of a lover saying goodbye. She pushes herself up and looks over at her mother, who lies on the other side of the bed still sleeping. Perhaps it was not a vision, but a dreamy enactment of a subconscious wish. Her mother tosses and turns and moans as gun blasts echo outside. “Idiots,” she softly hisses. “Don’t they know some of us are trying to sleep.” Though she wanted to say “grieve.” She strokes her mother’s face to soothe her, her fingers gliding around hollowed eyes and cheeks on caramel-colored skin fading to a dull gray. Her mother’s breath cackles like television static. She will die, if not today, soon. The silent monitor next to the bed stringed with dry IV bags is a testament to that. She can prepare to leave now, to flee north, to wake on a hard metal bed with strangers traversing a bumpy road under quiet stars. She sits and swings her legs over the bed, but as soon as she places a toe on the floor her mother sighs in the same mellifluous pitch as she did to catch her breath after a fit of laughter. It sends a wave of guilt crashing into her, and she falls back upon the bed as if plunging into a pool of water, drowning in solitude. Then a shadow fills the room and they both sink deeper into the mattress.

9.

“The floor is hot lava,” the boy shouts as he jumps atop the end table while his sister runs across the sofa to the armrest. The room transforms into a volcanic wasteland. The furniture turns an oily black and hard. From their obsidian perches, the siblings survey the oozing, orange fiery river that moments before had been a worn hardwood floor. They laugh at their tormentor, for once they can see it and evade its reach. The girl crouches as she gathers the courage, drawing on the repressed energy from forever being told what not to do, to take the biggest leap, a five-foot gap to the solitary armchair-shaped island rising in the open lake of fire. Before she can jump, her brother springs to her side and places his hand firmly on her right shoulder. He’s been told to protect her, to keep her from treacherous situations. But to her surprise, he reaches down and locks his hand with hers and then crouches down, too. They launch themselves into the thick, gaseous air and release heartful, excited cries. Halfway across, above a neatly carved rectangular stone sprouting ash trays, the sky opens and thrusts them down into a sudden cascade of lava.

8.

The man on the floor curses his toes. He begs forgiveness, then starts over. The verses of the Quran roll off his white, chapped lips. It’s a marvel he can still feel his toes at all, lying in prostration all day on the floor of his dilapidated apartment, cutting off the circulation in his legs. Pale and thin, his bones protrude through the skin, resembling a desert carcass. His friends and family refer to him as a pile of grief decorated in soiled clothes. The first few days after the tragedy, they brought food, but the parade of well-wishers stopped as the dishes collected on the kitchen counter, cold, spoiled, and untouched. Food could not be wasted on a man who chooses not to partake in the ritual of survival. They thought his grief was so heavy he couldn’t even rise to his feet, unaware that it is he who is applying the pressure, interrupting his perpetual prayer only for the all-powerful thirst for water and the need to use the toilet. Now, after fourteen days of fasting and prayer, he’s betrayed by twitching terminal digits. He tries to swallow but his mouth is as dry as the wind blowing through the shattered windows. He feels a sharp pain in his stomach and yet a euphoric dizziness. Rising from the floor, the figures of his wife and five children appear in a gentle white glow. Reality itself seems to be tearing at the seams. It’s finally happening, he thinks, his devotion is being rewarded. His family is coming home. Every fiber left in his withered body twitches with the desire to stand and embrace their ghostly bodies, but he does not want to lose them again. He forces himself to remain still, to pray faster, his lips moving in a fervid pitch. Even as his mind violently spins. Even as he stumbles over the verses. Even as the fire in his joints flare. Even as the children above pound on the floor. Even as they tumble down atop him in a crash.

7.

Seven stories above an idling windowless van, a family scrambles to pack their belongings. The children finish first and obediently stand by the door, each clutching small backpacks stuffed with clothes and toys. All they’ve been told is that they are going on a journey to a place with quiet skies and endless sweets. Their mother and father shuffle from room to room, hastily chanting “no” back and forth. They step into the spare bedroom that serves as the father’s prized library, shelf after shelf of books on epistemology and ethics, thick and worn, the ones that taught him and the ones he used to teach his pupils. He begins to weep. “All of them,” he says. “No! How could we carry them?” their mother says. “Come, we need only you,” she pleads as she pulls at his sleeve. “But, they are me,” he says. The driver of the waiting van honks wildly, ending the debate. “Hurry!” the father says. He plucks one weighty tome off a shelf and drops it into the small unsuspecting hands of the youngest child, who nearly topples over. In panicked movements, their mother and father grab anything in sight and put as much of it as they can into large canvas bags and their outstretched arms. The family lurches toward the door, burdened by their life’s possessions and the building pressure of their surroundings and of vanishing time. “It’s all so heavy,” one child says. So heavy they do not leave Aleppo.

6.

Apartment 6A tells a dark mystery. You push open the door hanging off a hinge and enter. The first thing you notice is the smell. In the tiny kitchen to your left, the refrigerator is wide open, stocked with rotten food. The apartment is silent, not even the low hum of electricity is present. You walk around the counter into the hallway and find the apartment turned upside down. The furniture is smashed, and the floor is riddled with clothes and broken glass. Now you follow the dark trail on the floor leading into the master bedroom.

Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation.

It’s difficult to see in here. The only light in the room is that which outlines the edges of the window shades. Yet, you make out five black blots with thick clumps descending in height along the far wall—six feet, five feet, four feet, three feet, three feet. You peel back the shades to let the light in. Then you look again and realize the colorful splashes are dried blood and brain matter. There are no bodies, except for the nameless faces in picture frames on the dresser against the opposite wall. You can search for clues of who died and why, but you won’t find a satisfying answer. You can stand in any place in history and ask for eternity, “What happened here?” You stay too long in 6A, and the mystery consumes you.

5.

Newlyweds embrace on the floor behind pinned sheets secluding their corner of the bedroom. Though privacy for the two young lovers is only a thin plane of cloth, it does not stop them. Wedded in ceasefire, they now consummate as the sounds of war ring out again. They gently roll and grasp and thrust and the echo of gunfire does not stop them. The coarse carpet is rough on their skin, leaving cherry red marks, but that does not stop them. His overgrown beard chaffs her mouth, but she does not stop kissing him. She thinks of the boy he once was, hesitant to ask girls at parties to dance. On the dance floor, his delicate touch made her feel as if she was dancing with a ghost. But that shyness does not stop him now. Pain for once feels good. Lost in the excitement and nervousness of the first time and the hope for a child, the grim world beyond the sheets does not stop them. Their heavy breathing aligns like a sweet asthmatic duet. They reach climax and shake in ecstasy and the whole world shakes with them. Then everything stops.

4.

In apartment 4B, an elegy populates on a green-lit screen:

Brother I don’t think we’ll make it

I can’t speak if they hear me they will take my phone or my life

I wanted to hear your voice one last time to say good bye to thank you for trying

            What is the matter brother, where are you now?

Huddled on the beach, tired and cold waiting for the sun to set so we may flee in the night

I don’t think the sea will hold us

I thought we paid dearly for better

            Brother, don’t despair, don’t lose hope

            For now, the road to freedom will just have to be crossed on anything that can float

I’m sorry if you’ve wasted our fortune on me

            The price is worth it for the hope of us all

            I will follow you soon, brother

Stay home

We are treated like animals

            You are brave and strong, you can make it

They are beating people for more money now, women and children

Send the last payment now in case they come for me

            I will

Here they come send the money now and save me

            Hold on I hear gunfire

Send help now brother

Brother

???!

3.

Two sisters turned widows drink hibiscus tea. After days of forced conversation, they share a comfortable silence. The first since they were teens. Before the oldest sister ran away with a bad man. Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation. Before she unexpectedly appeared at her younger sister’s door, both now old and alone. They catch each other stealing glances, then exchange smiles and divert their eyes, wanting to preserve the moment, to keep it like a framed photo in their minds. The younger sister opens her mouth to speak but quickly closes it. The ember of ire still burning inside impels her to lunge for the paring knife on the table. She reaches for it and lets her hand hesitate above the plastic hilt, but then eagerly grasps for her sister’s chaffed, worn fingers. They lock hands and reassuringly shake them for a few, long exaggerated seconds, as if actors on the soap operas they religiously watched after school, waiting for the credits to roll and the director to call “cut.” The sisters lean into each other and embrace. The tea cups rattle on saucers like the jubilant applause of a porcelain studio audience. Then they fall into each other’s arms forever.

2.

When the body is worked to bone, it forgets. The body of a man coated in dust forgets to shower. The heavy, bearded man forgets to remove his soiled clothes and battered white helmet. He submissively topples onto his bed as if executed. The sounds of silence long forgotten, phantom phone calls and ambulance sirens ring in his ears. He has forgotten he lives alone, because the dead won’t let him forget them. He pulls the bedsheet over his head to hide. Exhaustion finally overcomes him. He drifts away to sleep, but he’s forgotten how to dream. He only has nightmares where he forgets to stop working. In this one, a shadowy figure trapped atop a mound of rubble cries for help. It calls out in a voice he’ll never forget, the voice of his daughter. He scrambles up the broken concrete blocks toward her. But the mound starts to rise higher and higher, taking her away like an unforgiving manmade swell. He loses his footing and tumbles down to the ground. When he picks himself up, bombs start to fall around him like raindrops. He tries to flee but he’s forgotten how to run. His legs just move in place. The circle of a shadow over him grows bigger and a howl from above comes nearer. He is hit and the real cellphone rings and sirens can’t wake the body.

1.

Class is in session in the confines of a bunker-like room in the basement. The yellow glow of bare light bulbs illuminates a young music teacher trying to save the world. She claps at a swift tempo. CLAP. Small young boys and girls sit on the cold, bare floor and clap along. CLAP. CLAP. Mothers and guardians loom behind them CLAP. They sing songs in Arabic CLAP and Kurdish CLAP and Circassian CLAP. Songs from Damascus CLAP and Hama CLAP and Homs CLAP. The teacher strikes with the cleaver of music CLAP to open a crevice CLAP in their minds CLAP, so they may understand one another CLAP. On the strike of hands CLAP the lights cut out, casting them in darkness. A thunderous ROAR fills the room, as if a train is approaching ROAR. The children start to SCREAM. SCREAM. ROAR. The ground and walls tremble, then crumble. ROAR. The screams of children die SCREAM in the wave of thunder ROAR. CRASH. SILENCE. A moment passes, then the survivors wake, and sounds begin to register in their conscious. The clink of concrete shards bouncing CLINK CLINK down the tower’s remains. Moans and cries OHH arise from somewhere in this dark cavern created by someone above. The young music teacher opens her eyes to find all is black. She cannot move OHH. Suddenly, a sliver of light appears in the darkness, flickering like a star. SCRATCH. SCRATCH. As her vision refocuses, she realizes it’s not a celestial object SCRATCH. She is looking up, toward the surface SCRATCH. What she sees are hands, tiny hands digging through a crack SCRATCH. The light of the sun breaks through, and the tiny hands shine as if they are the source emanating the light, a light that leads the way out SCRATCH. The future is in tiny hands of light SCRATCH. The teacher feels the lightness of hope and a cool breeze on her face as if she were standing before an open window. SCRATCH. SCRATH. The breeze grows heavier now, as if she is a bird in flight. She hears the wind rush in WHOOSH.

 

Jacob Schroeder is a writer living in a town close enough to Detroit to tell people while traveling that he’s from Detroit. A graduate of Michigan State University, he funds his nightly writing habit as a communications executive. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, FLASH magazine, The Rumpus, Maudlin House, and Across the Margin, among other publications. His story, “In the Land in Between,” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize by Rum Punch Press.

Бабий Яр [Babiy Yar]

March 21st, 1982:

Cardboard televisions. My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions. He flips one right side up, slips two thick square tabs into the hollow slots they’re meant to go inside.

Flanigan’s Family Furniture in Jamaica, Queens, has started using these, and that’s where she got the idea. My mother. Except now, our store has more than theirs. We place the TVs on low tables anchoring pastel chintz sofa sets and blue and white striped loveseats in square formations around them.

Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.

We’re creating more of a home atmosphere, my father says. I fold the cardboard along its dotted lines, keep slipping the tabs inside the right slots, which turn them into boxes. My father flips one right side up and starts to tell me about how my uncle Anatoly once trained himself to swim for fifteen hours underwater, trying to leave Russia for Turkey during WWII.

“Lots of people tried,” he tells me, “but they all got caught.”

I ask what happened when he swam the ocean, but my father clarifies that uncle Anatoly trained; he did not try.

“But he did once receive a posted letter from the only man to have made it.” My father sits at his desk now, a desk which is for sale.

We are Vaserman’s in Brighton Beach, edging up along the technicolored Coney Island peninsula, the only store which carries oak in four different shades. I’m only five inches shorter than my father who, at six foot three, ducks under the doorway leading to the back office then up the stairs to the second-floor apartment of our two-story flat— the same stairs where he descends from to work each day.

My mother stands behind the cash register with a bottle of lemon Pledge, spraying the Formica countertop in kinetic circles and telling me I should join the boys’ swim team at my school, and that I, like uncle Anatoly, have the build to swim an ocean.

“Swimming is in your blood,” she tells me.

“Uncle Anatoly is just a story you tell me when you want me to do something,” I say.

My mother throws her arms up, breathes in just as the doorbell chimes and a customer opens the door.

I finish the last television on my own and place it inside a black-lacquered media center, returning to sit in our storefront window at a white, tulip-based table I’ve covered with People magazines, going back to my homework. It’s supposed to be a report on a current event, one we’ve chosen on our own.

Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.

I think that this gives me one year to figure out something, something revolutionary to do, but time feels like it’s pressing down on me and I don’t even know how to play guitar.

The customer moves methodically around the store, runs her hands along the tops of sectional sofas, the edges of overstuffed chairs but doesn’t stop to sit on a single one.

My mother asks if there is anything in particular the woman is looking for, but the woman only sighs and says no, not really.

“Анатолий просто история. Я не плавание.”

[“Anatoly is just a story. I’m not swimming,”] I tell them, and the woman looks up at me.

I know she wants to know what I’ve said, but my mother takes her attention by telling her that the sofa the woman is standing in front of folds out to become a sofa bed.

I see the woman nods her head as though she likes this but she does not smile; this woman does not seem to smile much. I notice where I would expect there to be lines on her face from years of smiling that there aren’t many. It’s the same thing I’ve thought about my mother, how she could have more smile lines. I believe that the two of them could probably be great friends. They could meet up, neither smile at each other’s stories, taking solemn sips of chamomile tea. But maybe the lady drinks coffee, and my mother wouldn’t approve. Caffeine is a drug. It’s a real drug, she’s told me. In which case if the lady drank coffee, they’d have a falling out, and their friendship would be over before it started.

Hannah. She drinks coffee and smiles a lot, long red hair almost down to her waist. Sometimes it’s braided and other times it’s wild, spinning around with her as she does, and she’s always turning around to someone, some friend calling her name. I’ve heard she smokes marijuana. She’s my age, but she already has lines around her mouth. I smile when I see her, when I think she’s looking my way— she probably thinks I smile too much.

The woman leaves without buying anything.

*    *     *

At dinner, after saying the Bracha Rishona, my mother waits a second before she begins to tear off a piece of bread then stops, “Your uncle Anatoly, he wrote about a secret war, a war before the war in Babiy Yar, before the United States became involved.”

“We’ve not told you everything,” my father says, looking down at his white wine.

But this night, they do. My father tells me the number at the Nuremberg trials was 100,000, but in some accounts, this fluctuates up to 150,000. Then he says it wasn’t just my mother’s ancestors, but his also, who were not Jewish. They were there also.

“They were taken to that same ravine with its twisted trees growing up through all that erosion,” he tells me, “under the same gray sky.”

“стоп.”

[“Stop,”] I say, getting up to leave the table but my father holds my wrist gently, and I sit back down.

He tells me what he says is true.

“We’ll never know,” he tells me, “everything.”

My mother gets up and returns with two Aspirin. I suppose she is trying to help how it aches as my understanding slips away. Or, at least, the order of what I had understood becoming more distant and the pain of no longer being able to organize the force of it all with any sense of clarity. But, if maybe my blood was thinner tonight, it could help in some way, or is it the idea that I could take something to ease this that helps her? I swallow two, as I take a flower from the faux-marble vase on the table. It’s a white rose my mother bought from a woman who sells flowers, pacing up and down Avenue X, her cart piled with bouquets. As I listen, I start to pluck petals off, one by one, letting them fall to the floor. My mother asks me to stop. I pull another petal. It falls to the carpet. They send me with my plate to my room.

*    *     *

But I can’t eat.

I put on my headphones, slipping in the tape where I’ve recorded “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” off of the radio to my boombox. I listen to it, and when it’s over, I rewind the tape, and I listen to it again, each time turning the volume up half a notch until I can’t stand it any louder. I write about the Runaways and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts until 3 a.m.

*     *    *

March 22nd, 1982:

On top of the stack of everyone else’s, I set my report down on Mrs. Morrow’s desk in the morning. By noon she’s called my parents and scheduled a conference at 8 p.m. this evening after the shop closes. She gives me a pink slip that allows me to stay in the library until the meeting.

After school I fall asleep at a library table with my head down on a book someone has left out about wild horses, hoping to dream about one but instead, in my sleep, I’m walking down the long hallway to Algebra 2. I see Hannah. She holds what I think is a joint loosely between two fingers, smoke wrapping around her in coiled twists of gray until she seems to fade inside the plumes of her own making. I walk closer to her, reach out into her mist but the hall turns a corner then, and she is gone. Under my feet, the gold-flecked tile falls away to dirt, and I am standing in a ravine, looking down at the earth eroding beneath my feet.

I look up at trees that seem to grow at impossible angles, root systems showing through earth that hasn’t been there for them, not in the way it was supposed to be. I look up to watch tree branches spreading out towards a dark sky, building, sparked with violet.

Wind pours through this valley aqueously, bringing down the trees’ red autumn leaves. They float up instead of falling down. I reach up to touch them. But each time I do, I only feel the veins of each leaf slip through against my fingers, and I can’t sense anything but the unbelievable softness of the air encapsulating me under a sky that now presses down on this place with a holding storm that will not break.

I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.

I don’t wake up until a cafeteria woman, who has been sent to deliver me dinner, sets a tray down on the table. She takes everything off of it and lines it all up in front of me because she says the kitchen is clean, closing, and she has to bring the tray back.

It’s a sub sandwich and chips with my choice of milk. She’s brought me two, whole and two percent.

She leaves, and I take a drink of whole and then the two percent, trying to tell the difference but I can’t. I shut my eyes and picture wild horses running through the ravine, a black and white spotted and an Arabian, pure white.

*     *    *

I sit in front of my teacher in silence. I watch the clock tick from 7:57 to 7:58 p.m. until I hear the hinges of the classroom door grate against each other and look back to see my parents walking towards us.

“Mr. Vaserman, Mrs. Vaserman,” she stands, gesturing for them to have a seat. My mother greets her, but my father says nothing.

Mrs. Morrow unclips one of her pearl earrings and then clips it back on, adjusts her shoulder pads, brushes lint away from the black and white houndstooth fabric of her jacket, smooths a pleat of her matching-print, ruched, knee-length skirt. I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.

“The assignment was to write 500 words on a current event. Your son wrote 3,500— I haven’t even been able to count it all yet— maybe 4,000 words on Joan Jett and her song “I Love Rock N’ Roll” running as the top hit for seven weeks. Alexei is not following instructions. This essay is a completely inappropriate length.”

“He is Russian, and he has an electric typewriter,” my mother replies. “What do you expect?”

Mrs. Morrow shakes her head and says she understands that my mother is referring to a Russian tradition involving the long form novel, laughs lightly and in a way that I know as fake, then begins to warn my mother about ethnic stereotyping before interrupting herself—

“And do you believe it is at all an appropriate current event for an academic setting such as this?”

She seems to look at me, and so I answer yes. My mother shrugs. My father looks out the window to his left at a seagull which has landed on the ledge of the windowsill with a crust of bread between its beak. It stares in at us.

“Come on, Chekhov,” my father says to me then, and my mother stands, taking my hand.

We leave the room, and my teacher says nothing, only the sound of her shuffling papers back into her drawer playing on behind us.

*     *    *

My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.

The BMT Brighton Line is crowded and halts to a stop on the way home. They announce there’s been a signal switching issue and they are working as quickly as they can to fix this. A chorus of complaints fills the train, and I see a glisten of sweat building across my mother’s forehead. A man offers her his seat, but she refuses to take it. I watch her grip the subway pole, her red nails stacked against each other so that they begin to chip along their sides. My father takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and dabs her forehead.

It is midnight before we arrive back on our street and I see it before they do. The broken glass, shattered, littering the street, catching the orange streetlight and spinning it so it refracts in fragments. It’s our storefront, smashed-in.

All my father says is that he would have dropped the bars down had he known we would we would be returning so late, that the subway would break down. My mother sighs and nearly pretends not to notice until she sees the television sets.

*     *    *

The police dust for fingerprints, but don’t find any and say whoever it was must have been wearing gloves. They say it’s retribution. The vandals thought the TVs were real and that’s why they broke-in.

“When they weren’t,” the older of the two officers shrugs, drawing a swastika in the air with his gloved finger. The other looks down at our floor, waxed hardwood, and complements the grain.

The swastikas are in red marker, one that came from behind the front counter, across the cardboard face of each television where an imagined scene from Family Ties or Soul Train should be. There they are, more than symbols. We can’t even say. Maybe the officer can’t even say. That’s why he’s taken to the air. That’s why he has to use space to say it because he can’t. He can’t say anything.

When she sees they used her marker, this is when my mother begins to cry.

I trace the symbol the with my finger, but my father pushes my hand away.

“Что делаешь?”

[“What are you doing?”] he asks me.

“Ничего.”

[“Nothing,”] I tell him.

“Ничего.”

[“Nothing,”] I say, beginning to unfold the box, pulling out the tabs to make it into a sheet of cardboard again, like it was before.

My father picks one up, steps on it, crushing the cardboard in on itself. I do the same, and soon all we have is flattened cardboard that we carry to the dumpster in the alley behind our building.

The lid slams.

My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.

An officer comes down from upstairs, announcing the door to our apartment is still locked and remains undamaged.

I ask the officer what makes him sure whoever broke-in thought the TVs were real, how is he sure that they didn’t know the TVs were fake? He tells me, “Logic.”

I say that hate isn’t logical and he says that’s not what he’s saying. I notice his cheeks turning pink, sweat building on his brow. He’s young, maybe twenty-five. He doesn’t wear gloves and now presses his hands together, as if to pray. He says he’s not saying that hate is logical. I tell him OK, as long as on that, we agree.

“We agree, Alexei,” he tells me, his hands fall limply to his sides, as though he’s been lifting something heavy.

The drawer of the cash register was pried open, but the day’s take had been moved to a safe in our apartment, upstairs.

When the officers have finished what they have come to do, my father drops the bars over where the glass is supposed to be and says, “In the morning—” but stops his sentence there.

We know what he means. In the morning he’ll call the insurance, the claims adjustor, the glass shop. They’ll be out.

My mother retreats to the back of the shop, walking more slowly, I can tell, her steps more cautious on the stairs as though the glass blew through the room and shards could still be circling, eddying in the air.

A light rain has started, and now my father is lifting up a tarp to nail behind the bars, refusing my help.

“Идти в кровать. Пойте себе колыбельную.”

[“Go to bed. Sing yourself a lullaby,”] he tells me.

I don’t say anything, knowing he’s angry, but not at me. I walk toward the stairs singing, softly: “тили тили бом.”

[“Tili-tili-bom.”]

“тили тили бом.”

[“Tili-tili-bom,”] my father sings back, his voice beginning to lift.

He strikes a nail, pinning the tarp to the window frame.

*     *    *

Now I’m standing on the green-shag carpeting of our upstairs hallway, in front of my bedroom door as I see her there down the hall— looking at herself in the bathroom mirror though she has not turned on the light.

She uses a Q-tip to remove her mascara, gently wiping away its stain. She unclasps her necklace from around the starched collar of her shirt, presses it between her fingers and hangs its sterling chain on the knob of her medicine cabinet.

“Mom,” I say, walking down the hallway, stepping into the half-open door.

“Yes,” she says, running the cold water. She splashes her face, now less flushed from crying. She pats her skin with a white washcloth.

She looks up at me. Behind her, through the bathroom window, I can see the moon over our city, a million lights going on and off at every hour in the distance, like an ocean without a pattern, without a current, each wave under a different force of wind.

I reach out and touch her necklace, David’s star hanging from a sterling silver chain. I look out the window at the sky for a star or constellation, even though I know that we can’t see them, not here, not in this city.

“I’ll write about our secret war, the war after the war,” I tell her.

She is silent, hanging up the washcloth; she turns toward me.

“Начните сегодня.”

[“Start tonight,”] she tells me.

I can see by the edge of streetlight coming in through the window, just barely eclipsing her face with soft orange in this incredible darkness, that she is smiling.

“я буду.”

[“I will,”] I say.

And I do, retreating back down the hallways, shutting the door to my room, pulling a stack of plain, white paper up from my unlined drawer.

I roll the dial on my Smith Corona, setting it to on, motor humming:

March 21st, 1982:

Cardboard televisions.

I pause, feeling the beat of electric current reverberating against my fingertips; I begin again:

My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions.

Jordan Faber is a writer based out of Chicago, IL. Her fiction has most recently appeared in TIMBER, and her playwriting on Manneqüin Haüs. Her work in theater has been produced at The Greenhouse and Victory Gardens theaters in Chicago. Growing up, Jordan attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio several times. Jordan received a BA in creative writing from Knox College and an MFA from Northwestern University, where she earned a Princess Grace Award nomination. She has worked as a fiction editor for Black Spring Press in London and in development for the Sundance Channel.

How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services

[fiction]

Til has just fallen asleep when an elderly woman bends down to the stroller and gushes, “What a putty baby. Dat a putty baby.” He’s asleep, I whisper, and could she please just fucking move along, too low for her to hear the violence in me I guess, because she’s just getting started. “Putty putty baby. Putty, putty putty baby.” I need Steve, but he’s in the haircutter’s a few shops down, getting trimmed for our appointment with child services in twenty-seven minutes. Some neighbor reported “inappropriate sexual behavior from homosexual dad” when she saw me do a raspberry on Til’s belly—his favorite thing in the world. The guy at child services laughed about it but also said he followed up on all calls. “It’s more common than you think,” he said.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

“Putty putty baby. What a wittle worm. What a ittle bittle worm.” If Steve would get out here, he could remove Grandma kindly. As she’s reaching into the stroller to put her hands all over my child, this quiet corner screams to life. A load of scrap roars down a chute from a construction site, Cannibal Corpse blasts from a second-story window, Til wakes and wails, and Grandma walks away in a huff.

My one job was to produce a baby content as a tick for our interview. And I’ve blown it. There’s a stack of unread baby books on my bedside table—So You’ve Adopted an Ulcer! Two Million Factoids You Wish You’d Read Before Becoming a Dad! How Not to Kill Your Baby in Fifty Incomprehensible Lessons! How to Love a Little Boy! The titles all end in exclamation points to prove love is frantic. When I ask Steve what parents did before baby books, Freud and Melanie Klein, he reminds me that Victorian children were treated like bugbears and doorstops. Infant mortality, he says, was like 110%, which seems unlikely.

Death metal, construction workers, and Til are full-throttle now, so I scream too. Which feels great. Passersby grin like I’m a savvy, well-read parent who knows what to do when their child won’t stop screaming.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

Passersby frown now, eyeing me like Do something! Do that thing on page twenty-seven of Seven Billion Ways to Love Your Child without a Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services! Advice darts holes in me. “Hold him. She’s hungry. Don’t you have a pacifier? You have to rock her. He’s bored. He wants his mother.”

I bury my face in the stroller because I’m crying, which means I’m broken, no good at this and never will be. They’ll tell me this at our appointment in thirteen minutes. Less now. I need to get Steve, but it’s soft and heady down here. Til has shit his diaper. Stinker, I say and laugh—it’s Steve’s turn—as a puff of little hand pats my cheek. “Hey,” I say. My son is all screamed out and grinning like Where’ve ya been? Do that thing you do with my belly. That loud, silly thing.

 

Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press) and Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). His fiction has appeared in PANKIndiana ReviewJellyfish Review and others. He is a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018 and the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe with his husband and the potential of family.

Picking Out Bananas

[creative nonfiction]

Now I’m able to just state the facts: My daughter goes to a school in the city, my son goes to the public high school. I try to leave it at that. I no longer feel compelled to go into all the rest.

Before my daughter started coming home for visits, when she was still unsafe, they had to interrogate me to get at the truth. When you meet someone new in the suburbs, the questions about kids always come, usually just after where do you live, and right before where do you work. Two kids, I would say, a boy and a girl, how ‘bout you? And this was often enough because most people don’t really want to know about your home or your kids or your job—they are just seeking that toe-hold, that point of purchase that allows them to talk about their own home, their own kids, their own job. But some persisted.

My daughter was curious before we arrived, although my wife and I felt gutted. We were relinquishing our most sacred responsibility, even as we knew that we had no choice.

My son’s a freshman, I would say, and I named the high school, and sometimes, if the person I just met had a child at the same school, this offered an escape from the grilling. But sometimes not. My daughter’s in eighth grade, I’d then allow. You’ve probably never heard of her school, I’d say when they continued to dig; it’s a residential treatment center (although I still preferred to think of it as a therapeutic boarding school). I would let those three terrifying words hang in the air, waiting to see if they provided a passage back to drinking a beer or to watching my son play soccer or to picking out bananas at the Jewel in peace.

In those first months, right after my wife and I dropped our daughter off at the residential treatment center (back when I could still sometimes convince myself that it was a therapeutic boarding school), when I met new people and they asked about my kids, because in the suburbs the questions about kids always come, usually just after where do you live, and right before where do you work, I would say way too much.

My daughter was curious before we arrived, although my wife and I felt gutted. We were relinquishing our most sacred responsibility, even as we knew that we had no choice.

The staff took our daughter upstairs to show her where she would live, to introduce her to her dorm-mates, while the dorm manager met with my wife and me in the well-appointed first-floor living room, saying words like Unusual Incident Reports and Restraint Protocols and Crisis Intervention Staff and other more positive words that I didn’t hear and still can’t remember.

When they brought my daughter back down to say goodbye, her curiosity was replaced by tears and she wouldn’t look at us or hug us. She didn’t say goodbye; she shouted don’t leave me here! In the weeks and months after we dropped her off (abandoned was the word that rattled around inside of my head), the mask of terror she wore when we left her proved impossible to forget.

In those early months I would buckle immediately, admit from the start that I’d locked my daughter in a residential treatment center (although to cope, I had to think of it as a therapeutic boarding school) because the tumor of pain and guilt was so large and pulsated just below the thin membrane of my skin, and because a single question about my kids was enough to lance it open and let everything out. So I’d offer evidence of the autism and the mood disorders and the violence and the suicide attempts, and I felt like I needed to tell them everything so that the person I just met could understand, could forgive me for what I’d done to my daughter, even if she could not forgive me, even if I could not forgive myself. And the person I just met would manage a few awkward words of sympathy or worse before they put some distance between us, returning with relief to drinking a beer or to watching their own son play soccer or to picking out bananas at the Jewel.

 

Jeff Hoffmann’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, The Madison ReviewNew Madrid, and Sanskrit among others. He was awarded the 2018 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction, and he’s currently pursuing his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.

Chile, Wood Smoke, Masa

What I miss most is the smell of my hometown. The mix of chile guaco, wood smoke, and masa seared into every cell of my body. On hot August days I miss the torrential afternoon storms of the wet season. Sometimes in my dreams I hear the click-click of beetle wings and see the steep hills covered in ten different shades of green banana leaves. Other recollections are this immersing but not ones I want to remember, however. Not very often now, but I still have pesadillas of my country that wake me drenched in fear. And it is this mixta, of yearning and that which I long to forget, that holds me captive to the place of my birth.

There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles.

I know I will never visit again. There is nothing left for me there and I am forever tied to this place, the city of the angels. It is true that no matter how long I am here, part of me always feels alien. I have no papers. They call me illegal. A name that makes one afraid to live here, work here, have a family here. Except it’s better than what we left behind. I’ve been through worse. Much worse. I had no choice then. I don’t really have a choice now.

I won’t leave because of the woman beside me, and because of my son who lies here at Calvary Cemetery. Today is the anniversary of his death. His two best friends, his mother, and I journey here for a small reunion. Perhaps the last.

These two boys have grown into young men. Chris in a lean, athletic body, short brown hair and wide smiling eyes; Raul with black curly hair, studious look, so tall and broad he towers over the rest of us. Seeing them is painful. What would my son look like, what would he be doing with his life at this age? It is a small consolation that they too remember him. I hope not a once-in-a-while memory but the carry-with-you kind; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.

Angela wears her Sunday best: a black cotton skirt that flows around her ankles and a white top she embroidered with traditional Salvadoran flowers. She clutches my hand, startled at the rustle of birds in the bougainvillea that adorn the entrance. I don’t think she’ll ever get used to coming here, though the way is familiar. Straight to the second left, then up the hill to the first marker and across the grass to the fourth grave.

Benjamin Javier Castillo Sanchez, 1999- 2014.

The boys started the annual tradition that one of them brings tequila. We don’t question how they get it. Raul pulls a small bottle out of his jean jacket and opens it. Standing in a semi-circle, we toast Benjamin, each taking a drink and passing it on.

One shot gives my wife a jolt. Her eyes brighten and her shoulders straighten. There I glimpse the woman I fell in love with, who mothered my son. The past years without him have worn her down so I don’t even know who I sleep next to every night. We sit on the grass, Angela watching the boys intently. She is starved for her son and for this short time they become the one she lost.

There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles. Reminds me of the one in the hospital chapel. The light wood pews, rose-colored walls, and slender stained windows were a silent sanctuary against the busy, clinical world we lived in once Ben was diagnosed.

We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love.

First there is silence, but only seconds. Then the boys tell the stories we’ve all heard a dozen times before. The day they met at the playground when they were six or seven, each racing to be the first up the jungle gym. They don’t really remember but have heard the story so many times from their mothers it is as if they do. Chris laughs over the suits they hated wearing for their First Communion and Raul reminds us of the school performances they had to do. Of course Angela and I were so proud to see Ben up on stage, but he was tímido. Smart, but shy. He loved the science fair projects they had to do. I never understood much what they were about, but I loved the light on Ben’s face when he got the prize. The boys argue over who won the mission project contest in fourth grade, and so on.

These stories are like the song of the Motmot bird, sweet to the ear but quick to fade as it flies away.

Raul gives us a play by play of the goals Ben made, each pass or kick that saved the championship game. I tease them about the girls mentioned over the years, Blanca, Iris, Jenny, though we met not one.

We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love. To own a house is called the American dream. But my 10-hour workdays as a gardener and my wife’s sewing job will never get us there. It was all for Ben, anyway. So now, what would it be for?

Chris and Raul are ready to say good-bye.

“I found this. I want you to have it.” Chris pulls his wallet from his back pocket. He hands over a photograph of three laughing boys looking at the camera, their chests bare, their cut-offs ragged, a garden hose at their feet. “I printed it for you. I know you don’t have many pictures, so…” he shrugs, handing it to me.

“We, ah, won’t be able to come next year.” There is apology in Raul’s voice. “Chris is going to Cal Poly and I’m moving with my family to San Jose.”

I’ve heard of Cal Poly, la Universidad, from one of my nieces, and San Jose is far north, so I was right. This is the last time we will see these boys. My wife nods, tries to smile, but can’t. She hugs one, then the other, “Dios te bendiga,” she whispers. I shake their hands. Say nothing.

Little by little, the rest of my wife’s family shows up with tamales, arroz, frijoles, plantanos fritos, horchata and cold cerveza in a big plastic tub. We sit in folding chairs in the courtyard and everyone eats with gusto. Someone puts on Celia Cruz but pretty soon Selena is coming out of one of the kid’s Galaxy phones. There is teasing and laughter, children running in and out of the apartment yelling, playing hide and seek and tag.

This is the time I miss him most, when I can barely swallow food or take part in conversation. Two beers in, I just watch and listen. Most of my nieces and nephews will never know their cousin Benjamin. He was the first-born, so only the older teenagers, busy with texting and tossing good-natured insults back and forth, have memories of him.

My wife is surrounded by her sisters and sisters-in-law, who’ve kept up a steady stream of gossip and news about cousins, aunts, and uncles, even the latest on J. Lo. They’ve all made a life here because of Angela. She is their center.

I imagine Benjamin standing next to me. Fuerte y guapo like he was on his fourteenth birthday. An ordinary kid, but to us full of promise. Angela and I kept him close, sheltered him from hardships as much as possible. The kind we’d grown up with. We wanted a different life for him.

We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat.

I was six when la policia took my father one Sunday on the way to church. Gun shots that night had us shaking in nauseating fear. A few days later we found his body in a ditch near our house. It broke my mother. At fourteen, I hid daily from Barrio 18 gang members knowing if I was caught, I’d end up either like my father or worse, being one of them. At fifteen, with my mother’s blessing, I walked the 1800 kilometers from my home in San Salvador to Mexico City. By the time I arrived, the soles of my shoes had worn to nothing and I was skin and bones. Small jobs took me months to earn my way from there to Tijuana. Finally, the day came when I climbed into the trunk of el coyote’s old blue Chevy and waited, boxes and blankets piled on top of me, to cross la frontera.

Angela came at an even younger age with four younger sisters and brothers, sneaking under barbed wire, trudging thirsty, starving, across el desierto. They had nada when they finally made it to Los Angeles, taken in by an aunt.

I was nineteen, learning the language, picking up work wherever I could, when we met at the bus stop at Soto and Wabash. I looked into her deep brown eyes, at her shy smile and that was that. It was a struggle to start a new life together in this country, with little money and only floor space for our wedding bed. I got lucky and found full-time work. Then Ben came along. We were so happy to have him that we didn’t realize Angela’s hemorrhaging and other complications at his birth meant she couldn’t have any more children. So we consoled ourselves with him. He was all we needed.

As inevitably happens, this day ends in a storm of images from those last five months with him that I cannot stop. I returned home from work one evening and found nobody home. No music playing, no simmering pot on the stove, just silence and an emptiness that shouted bad news. Benjamin’s persistent cough and headaches, and unbeknownst to us, his increasingly frequent weak spells had come to the attention of one of his teachers. A trip to the nurse’s office, una llamada, and Angela and Ben found themselves at County Hospital.

We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat. But it was tested as we watched Benjamin’s body transform from athletic to gaunt to swollen in a matter of weeks. We never gave up hope, right to the very end. But as I looked at Ben’s body the morning he slipped away, I saw my father’s again, bloody and torn, and my wife’s cries were as my mother’s. My faith fled that day too, never to return.

Twilight has come. I have been lost in my thoughts too long. The music ends abruptly and clean up begins. The women clear the remaining dishes, the adults direct the kids to pick up the trash and the men take down the tables and fold the chairs. Everyone comes to say goodbye. We are engulfed in the warm embraces only family can give.

We watch Angela’s favorite telenovela. When it is over, I check that we are locked up for the night. I pause in the hallway outside the small room that was Ben’s. The light casts a sliver of illumination across the bed, desk, and bookcase. We left a few of his things on the top shelf. A soccer ball, a couple of awards from school, a framed picture of Ben, Angela, and me when he was nine or ten. I step in and close my eyes. Listen. The darkness holds the boys’ laughter, Mario Brothers’ game music, creaking floors, the clanking of the furnace on rare cold days, and bits of conversations. All of them, Angela and Ben.

Mijo, it’s time for school!
All right, I’m coming!

Did you finish your homework?
Yeah. Well… almost.

Try some caldo; it’ll make you feel better.
Just sit with me, Mami, okay?

Buenos Noches, papito. Sleep well.
Te amo, Mami.

The words of his life are mezclado in my head. With the muted voice of the TV and the dark of night moving onward, I try to think of advice or comfort I gave him but cannot. Sadness and anger lie sleeping, but always there. Denial, guilt. These I know well.

I reach for the picture on the top shelf and look down only to discover I am still holding the one Raul gave us hours ago, completely crumpled. I smooth it out, set the two photographs side by side.

Angela calls for me. But it is Ben’s voice in my ear.

Papi, tell me again how you met mami.

Aren’t you tired of hearing it?

Nunca papi, nunca.

The bus stop story was Ben’s favorite. At the end, he would always say,

You loved her the way you loved me, from the first moment, right?

And I would say,

Papito, you were squinting, stretching, making little noises, but you settled right down when the nurse put you in my arms.

This once-in-a-while memory closes my throat.

Then I can breathe again, his words gone.

I am here. He is not.

Except he is.

He is my carry-with-you; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.

I lay the photograph on the desk for Angela to find. I close the door and head to bed.

 

Michele Wolfe calls Echo Park in Los Angeles, California, home. The city and people, art and culture, are her inspiration for writing. Her debut novel, The Three Graces, published in 2014, is a contemporary fantasy that blends the history of the statue of the goddesses at Hearst Castle with a modern-day coming of age story. Her memoir piece “View from a Park Bench” was published in “LA Affairs” in the LA Times in 2016. Her short stories include “The Wednesday Student” and “72 hours.” Michele is currently working on her next novel.

The Payphone

A man wearing a navy paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses pedaled his bike to the corner, stepped over his seat, and coasted on one foot to the bike rack at the side of the liquor store. He slotted his front wheel in the rack, strode four steps over to the unsheltered public payphone, lifted the handset, inserted a quarter, dialed the number to his daughter on the east end of town, and waited. He needed to call her Tuesday, today, to see if his cheque had arrived. His watch said 4:42 p.m.

No dial tone started, nothing, until he heard an automated woman’s voice say in her cold, impersonal way, “Credit twenty-five cents. Please deposit twenty-five cents.”

Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper.

The man forgot that the phone company raised the price by one-hundred percent, to fifty cents. He patted his pants pockets, checked his jacket, checked the sidewalk, even checked the pouch attached to his bicycle, and couldn’t find a quarter. He couldn’t find two dimes and a nickel. He couldn’t find anything. There was no one around for several blocks to ask for change.

“Fuck sakes!” the man cursed. He slammed the phone against the liquor store’s brick wall, breaking the earpiece off. He dropped the receiver and biked away.

*    *     *

A person in a black hoodie emerged from the alley, hood up, carrying a plastic grocery bag and wearing scuffed up sneakers. Their shadow was cast across the sidewalk by the amber light of the streetlamp. They walked with purpose, more purpose than most people tend to walk with in midday, and this was midnight. The person stayed close to the building, did a double-take of the cross traffic, pulled a can of aerosol out of the grocery bag, and spray-painted a stencil of the mayor’s face with Spock ears on the east side, west side, bottom side, and top side of the payphone that sat next to the liquor store. Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper. Before the last of the particles of paint had settled like dew, the person was around the corner and halfway up the block.

*    *     *

A young professional in a pantsuit walked towards a downtown traffic light. For the first time in many passes by on her way to work, she noticed a payphone near the crosswalk and wondered if it had always been there. It must’ve always been there, she thought, they don’t put new ones in. She then wondered when the last time she used a payphone was. High school, maybe. Traffic whirred past, a bus mirror nearly hit a waiting pedestrian. She felt her phone buzz in her purse, pulled it out, texted, omg, prolly gonna barf at work today, lol??to someone named Sheri, and put her phone back in her purse. A man sitting on a walker next to the liquor store entrance was asking for spare change. Sheri’s friend turned her head and the WALK signal appeared.

*    *     *

A young mom parked her baby’s stroller against the brick wall of the building, picked up the receiver, dropped in two quarters, took a deep breath, and dialed the number to her mother. She took the dirty diaper from the back of the stroller, looked for a garbage can, and when there was none around, set it on top of the phone box. The dial tone hummed four separate tones. Each sound was a breath where she hoped that her own mother would answer the phone, and not Gene. Please, not Gene.

A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet.

“Hello,” her mom answered the phone.

“Mom, it’s Kyla.”

“You should know better than to call here, girl. Are you in town? When’d you get here?”

“Mom, I need to get my stuff,” Kyla sobbed.

“Well you should’ve thought’ve that before you stole my $500 and skipped town!”

“Mom, I can explain. It’s Gene, he—”

“Ha! Yeah sure, Gene took it. Heard that before. I’ma send him down there to get my grandbaby back. Treena should be with me. You’re downtown aren’t you? You’re downtown. Hell, he’ll find you in ten minutes, and you can bet your skinny little—” Kyla pressed the phone’s lever with her free hand, righted baby Treena’s bottle in her tiny mouth, let go of the lever, inserted more change, pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket, and dialed the number on it.

“Hello?” an irritable woman’s voice answered, TV loud in the background.

“Hi, I’m calling about the basement suite.”

“Are you working? This apartment is for people who are working only,” the woman said, and then coughed.

“I’m a mom, my baby is only six months. But I’ll be looking for a job soon.”

“Oh, I’ve rented to your kind before. And you know what I got for it? A trashed basement, a buncha visits from the police, and a trip to the rentalsman. Never again.” And the woman hung up.

Kyla pressed the phone’s lever one last time, inserted her last two quarters, and dialed another number.

“Can I get a cab to the mall downtown. Coachman Motel. For Kyla.” She grabbed the stroller, left the receiver dangling from its metal cord, and got her baby as far away as possible from where Gene was going to be.

*    *     *

A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet. They hadn’t skipped social studies all year; it was boring, all about the history of the RCMP and how they helped an inspired Sir John A. Macdonald found the nation. Today was a good day to skip; the class was going to the library, so the teacher wouldn’t even notice.

“Hey Tim, check this out!” the tubby boy said to his friend. He picked up the receiver and dialed 9-1-1 on the payphone next to the liquor store in the shadows of the tall downtown buildings. He immediately hung up the phone with his finger and continued to talk to no one.

“I need a firetruck to the downtown area because Tim here’s a firecrotch!” He hung up the phone and the boys laughed and felt invincible until the payphone rang. The tubby kid froze and almost shit. Tim answered the phone.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

 “Uh, sorry, wrong number,” he said in the most adult voice he could muster.

“If this is not an emergency, we’d like to remind you that fraudulently calling Emergency Response is a chargeable offence in section—” Tim hung up the phone as slowly and quietly as he possibly could and they sprinted through the red-light intersection to take cover in the mall food court.

*    *     *

“Hey sis, it’s Lester!” Lester wheezed, putting his calling card back in his wallet, and taking a seat on his walker. “No, no, I’m not drinking. Just calling to say hello. How’s everything going down there? Oh yeah. Haha. That sounds about right. Did you find a man yet? Haha, I know, I know, you gave up on men twenty years ago. Me? No, I haven’t found a man neither, haha. No. No. I’m good. I’m great. I just got a place to live and a few workers come around to help me clean up. Just last week! Yeah, it’s a nice place, real beautiful, you should see it. Got a bathroom, stove, TV. Joey said he’ll visit once a week. He’s a good brother. Brought me a pizza yesterday. You know, I remember in 1972, Joey said, ‘Brother, come eat with me’ and I said, ‘What the hell is that thing?’—It was the first time I saw pizza.

“What’s that? Kyla? No, haven’t seen her ‘round the city. When’d she leave town? Oh ok. I’ll tell her to call if I see ‘er.

“Can you drink the water down there yet? Still gotta boil, eh? Well if you ever need water, they don’t charge me for it in my new apartment. Come fill up your truck.

“Ok, sis. Alright. Ok. I’ll be going here for supper. I should be getting a phone in my place soon. Love you too. Say hi to John and his boys. Bye.” Lester hung up the receiver, got up from his walker, and rolled his way eastwards for supper.

*    *     *

The payphone rang as a woman in a sari walked past. She waited at the traffic light and the phone continued to ring. It rang and rang and the traffic light stayed red. Eventually, thinking it might be an emergency, she walked over to pick it up.

“Hello?” she answered.

“Is Kyla there? Kyla, is that you?” The woman in the sari didn’t move and didn’t breathe.

“Kyla, your auntie just called and they’re looking for you too. Gene’s coming to find you. He’s the one who told me you took the money, so don’t even—” The woman in the sari silently hung up the phone and scanned the block nervously. She tip-toed across the street with her bus pass clenched in her right hand.

*    *     *

A jazzy-looking man walked by in a pair of cowboy boots, crisp rodeo-cut jeans, button-up shirt, and slicked-back hair. He noticed the phone was broken, but he pushed the lever down and released it. The phone read Tues Apr 07 17:13.

*    *     *

A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm.

A balding man younger than thirty parked a bullet-silver car on the street. He looked up in the direction of a new establishment on the corner. It was a previously dilapidated building that had sat empty for a decade, now refurbished and turned into one of those new olde style pubs. It was located across the street from the liquor store and next to that old Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai/Szechwan restaurant called Steve’s Saigon. The pub attracted a downtown business crowd by advertising a Happy Hour with cheap draught on Tuesdays. The balding man was meeting a friend for a cheap draught. It was Tuesday. Crossing the street, the balding man locked the car with a remote and it beeped. He pushed the button again and the car beeped again. He didn’t usually drink on what he thought was an up-and-coming side of downtown.

He looked across the street as he pocketed his keys and saw an old man he didn’t know, Lester, sitting on his walker in the middle of an empty lot. On the lot was a sign that said CITY PROPERTY NO PARKING. The balding man thought Lester might get a ticket, and then laughed. He saw Lester tip over in his walker and fall straight to the ground. The balding man stood still, watched for a while to see if Lester would right himself. There was no movement. The balding man went to his pocket to grab his phone and realized it was at home next to the toilet. He looked around, saw a payphone and walked to it. He went to grab the receiver to call an ambulance, but the area around the phone smelled something like urine, there was a dirty diaper on top of the unit, spray paint on the receiver, and the earpiece was shattered. He looked around, saw a couple holding hands walking towards the empty lot, and figured they would make the necessary call. He crossed the street and headed to the new establishment. His friend, outside smoking a cigarette, greeted him, “Hey Blaine!” Blaine and his friend entered the establishment and ordered a cheap draught.

*    *     *

A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm. He checked the payphone. The earpiece was busted so she couldn’t have called from here, he thought, and he headed towards her ex-boyfriend’s place a few blocks east where she probably called from. There was a police cruiser pulled up to the empty lot just east of the liquor store, with two cops heaving Lester into the back, so the man hid his pasty-face behind the collar of his denim jacket and skulked away in the other direction, towards the mall.

*    *     *

The sun rose on a quiet downtown, edging over the buildings to shine light on the corner of the liquor store and the payphone on its south side. A white service van pulled up next to the curb and put on its hazard lights. A man opened the back doors, rooted around in a few tool kits, and made his way to the damaged payphone, number IA-5291. The man dismantled the outer casing with a socket set and flathead screwdriver. He used a power drill to unbolt it from the concrete sidewalk.

The man in the paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses came up on his bicycle again.

“You finally fixing this damn thing?” he asked.

“Nope. Taking it down,” the serviceman said. “It’s been severely damaged six times this year already, so I was told to remove it. They just don’t get used enough to justify repairs.” The man in the bandana cursed audibly, got on his bike and pedaled to the mall where the next closest payphone was. He had found his dime and three nickels.

The serviceman unhooked the phone line at the bottom of the stand and capped the hole in the concrete with an iron cap stamped with the company’s logo. He lifted the phone box into the back of his service van, grabbed his phone from his pocket, marked the job as complete on the company’s work-order phone application, got in the van, and drove to the mall to collect quarters.

 

Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at ballsofrice.com. He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.

The Earth From Afar

[fiction]

You are in the car hurtling through real darkness—not in-the-city darkness—with your friend who has been dead and not on this earth for some time now. Your hands on the wheel, your dog in back, your friend beside you, hands folded neatly in her lap. She’s wearing the same white sneakers as always, faded red hearts on the sides. You speed down winding roads, along a coast, stars endless against the black, layered sky. Heat radiates from the pulses in your necks, though your hands are cold, your toes aching. A silvery thread connects the two of you—your neck to hers and back again. An inverted 8, an infinity. She always loved the number eight, her boyfriend said, when she killed herself on the eighth of November.

Eight: it fastens to you. Infinity: adheres to her.

Infinity is a spiral, a siphon, and where it deposits you seems, at first, like a blanket on the beach under the night sky. An empty stage, scuffed wooden floors.

Do you think this is just a regular trip? Flatness and grime, the humdrum everyday? Are you afraid of glittering, stubborn infinity?

You are. It is like a wooden hammer on the top of your head.

You look quickly at your friend. In life, she was the biggest lover of sky you knew. Not you. You cowered beneath it.

Sky, she’d breathe, her neck thrown back.

Each of us terminates unto ourselves, you’d say. This blunting off, this mute-feeler world.

You were giddy with dissent. Still: you loved it safely, secretly, through the filter of her. You felt endlessly surrounded—until you weren’t.

But none of that matters now. Your hands fly off the wheel. The car races forward on its own, your friend beside you. And it is in this acceleration that some quick pluck happens, pinched fingers darting in to snatch some stuck stitch from your chest. And something larger zooms in again, so vast you can’t even see it—but you feel the shadow and the rip. And now you can see the earth from afar, all lit up from some unknown other place. Its familiar blues and tans, its dark shadows. It happens so quickly as you race by and by in your car—and you have never felt such awe, and you have never felt such joy.

Infinity is a spiral, a siphon, and where it deposits you seems, at first, like a blanket on the beach under the night sky. An empty stage, scuffed wooden floors. A deserted house, wind gusting through. Sand and dust under your fingernails, under your feet, blowing in your eyes and mouths, no ceiling, no doors. You are bared before the sky, absolutely. Unbounded, surrounded. Your dog sits quietly, looking out over the inky sea, breeze gentle in his soft fur. Your friend’s grubby white sneakers with red hearts on the sides shine dully under the starlight.

And the red is dull, and the red is dull, and wouldn’t you break this whole story open and run from it if the red were any brighter, if the red were any other way?

 

Alyssa Proujansky has studied fiction in Ithaca, London and New York. She was recently a runner-up in contests held by Atticus Review and Psychopomp Magazine, and a finalist in Third Coast‘s 2018 Fiction Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Passages NorthThird CoastColumbia JournalHobartMoon City ReviewAtticus ReviewPsychopomp MagazineFlock and elsewhere. Her website is www.alyssaproujansky.com.

 

A Reckoning

[fiction]

Bill Withers pours through her window, a melody that sways with the breeze. Lovely Day. Bill knows that her gold-flecked curtains will emit the heavy sun shining against her walls. She stretches her body like a cat. Hell yeah, she is flexible these days. Certain things don’t matter anymore, the size of her ass, what her roommates think if she re-reminds them to rinse their dishes, if a man sees her before she’s had enough time to stretch her hair into a tight bun, or a carefully crafted pineapple, or curls with big enough coils to twirl along her finger. She can stand nude with a teeny tiny Afro, send them shoulders forward like her body can only take so much of itself. Feeling herself in the most proverbial of proverbial ways.

It started when she turned thirty. Like the first spark of a riot’s fire, some see her sexiness as a destructive thing, undignified even. Compare it to the Rodney King Riots or Rihanna’s Work, your choice. For her, and likewise Mario, it is a reckoning.

Mario is not her man, but a fine one nonetheless. Hard enough to come by, but too unsure to live under. Something of an abnormal attraction, a man who likes James Baldwin and John Coltrane but cannot grow a mustache. Not a sprinkling of fuzz above his lip. She wouldn’t have dated him in her twenties, not a man without a beard let alone a man without a mustache. Her ex-boyfriend had a beard, a beard and a chest, a chest that felt like it was made of satin, skin so smooth it could make your head spin. She has learned that a chest like that should be revered but not overrated, a beard even less so, a mustache merely minutia.

Today, she feels like dancing. She dances in her seat on the train, when walking to work on the rigid streets of the Upper West Side, while at the desk that her manager walks by every so often to peak over her shoulder, these same shoulders that pull her sexy forward and send it into the faces of imprudent men. She dances for herself, inside of herself. They want to dance inside her, too, but of course, this is impossible. So they tell her she has a nice smile, nice legs, and she’s so smart, damn, she’s so smart. Let me touch that, they wish aloud, and she laughs at them in her sultry staccato way.

Today, she walks into a Harlem sun that is fighting gentrification with the goal to give her heart away. Today, she will hand it to someone, Get a feel of this weight. Do not hand it back yet. Just hold it, fool, and hold it tight. Horns and curses careen off of cars coming to a slow stop, allowing passengers with voices as loud as their bodies to lean out of the window. She dances as she passes them by.

It started when she turned thirty. Like the first spark of a riot’s fire, some see her sexiness as a destructive thing, undignified even. Compare it to the Rodney King Riots or Rihanna’s Work, your choice. For her, and likewise Mario, it is a reckoning.

When she gets to the bar, he is not Mario. He is wearing hunter green pants, slim fit. Brown boots that make him look taller, 5’10”, maybe 11” with an ego. His sweater reminds her of the Cosby Show and her grandmother’s hands. When he smiles, he looks like he is also thinking. In the past she has sworn that men cannot smile and think at the same time.

He says he wants to dance with her, because of course, he can see the way she points her toes and bends her knees and rolls her hips from side to side.

Does he know the cabbage patch or the butterfly? No, she stops herself, what do the young kids call it? “Can you break your legs?”

He raises an eyebrow and questions why he would ever intentionally break his legs, but his smirk shows that he knows what she meant.

“Do you salsa?” She shimmies in her seat, an implication.

No. He eats it though.

“Do you ballroom,” And immediately she knows she needs to clarify. “The Detroit Ballroom? It’s a black thing.”

He doesn’t ballroom, at least not the black way.

“Do you step? Chicago style step?” she asks him, thinking of Darius Lovehall.

Step? No, he’s from Texas.

“Holy Ghost dancing? Do you clap on the two and four?”

He laughs. He’s not as sure about Jesus as he used to be.

Still she gives him her heart, but without him knowing Jesus and all, she will request it back in the morning.

 

Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and her work has appeared in KweliAuburn AvenueThe Feminist Wire, and Writopia Speaks. She tweets @Janelleonrecord.

Photo credit: Kelauni Cook

Hunter and Pray

I don’t know why I’m here with Emery, other than I am drunkish and sad. She’s ignoring my questions, hiding behind a screen. I ask her, “What are we?” She looks at me and says, “I’d tell you if I knew.”

She’s tumbled in bed sheets, hair reaching over the plateau of pillow. The tendrils look like little fingers, grabbing rock instead of falling to their deaths. Her eyes shift from her phone to me. “What are you staring at?”

Nothing, I tell her, which is mostly the truth, because there is nothing to be found between us now. Nothing but sweltering heat, the sad tuft of air coming from her fan.

I sat on the lip of her mattress, my feet not quite reaching the floor. Her arm fell to her side, the wrist skin brushing against my hip. “So… are we back together or not?”

She groaned. “It’s eight in the goddamn morning.” Her chest puffed like a pillow. “I don’t want to talk about this now.”

“Why not?”

Her warmth slips down like a carcass sliding to the ground. She tosses her body from the bed—stretches, reveals her tummy—and lumbers into the bathroom to wipe me from her lips.

She has nothing to say to that. We sit in silence for a while, the only noise coming from the wild birds in the backyard who I wished to god would pull me away on their wings. When Emery called me yesterday, I thought it was to talk after our public breakup in the upper school courtyard. We’d had the whole night together but didn’t do more than kiss. Well, kiss and drink since her aunt was working overnight and wasn’t a big fan of liquor locks.

I reach for the bottle now, whose bottom only offered me a small bit of liquid with backwash. More booze could cure a hangover, so I’d been told, probably by Emery. I slosh the last of it down, my back hunching into the burn as it slid down my throat.

Emery reaches her hand upright, presses it into the line of my spine. “You shouldn’t be drinking.”

“I shouldn’t do lots of things.”

Her warmth slips down like a carcass sliding to the ground. She tosses her body from the bed—stretches, reveals her tummy—and lumbers into the bathroom to wipe me from her lips. It takes a while before I can stand up, stomach the sight of the toothbrush in her mouth. When I walk to the bathroom, she’s changed out of her…nothing, and into comfortable clothes, angling her hair, taking a selfie in the mirror. I imagine the view from inside the fish eye, getting to see her with a closeness not fueled by booze—in her father’s Marines t-shirt, flanked by curling irons and hair brushes, the bedroom revealing itself like a blue thigh between the doorway’s slit. At the center, she is still there. Behind the picture, there is a girl. She glitters and she glows, whether or not she knows.

She snaps the picture and turns around. “Goddamn it, stop staring at me!”

I avert my eyes and stare at the carpet and, damn the booze, I know I’m about to cry. Her feet stomp across the carpet, hands aggressively cup my cheeks. She stares but says nothing, even when the tears start to slip. She kisses them into place, like I’m a target and her spit is the bullseye.

Her hand slides up my ribs, handling my torso like a sack of flour. She marinates me in affection and damn it, I give in. Of course I do. I love this girl.

I wait for her to say it back. She does not.

The front door opens and shuts across the house, a loud pair of keys makes contact with a table. “Emery,” a voice calls. “Emery Meroche, I brought breakfast.”

She walks out of the room. I follow before she tells me to stop.

I take inventory of her house like a prey would its hunter, taking in the familiar scenes of Emery: the school portraits hastily hung up; two folded American flags by pictures of her parents; the couch, an ugly plaid, where she sits to watch TV or get yelled at. My shoes by the door next to her knapsack and flip flops.

As we round to the kitchen, I know her aunt knows I’m there because the first thing she does is chide me for not leaving my sneakers on the porch.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Meroche.”

She lets me off with a disinterested, “Hm.” Handing Emery a bag dripping in grease, they share a look. The kind that says “what is that girl doing in my house,” and is met with a regretful, “I don’t know.”

I linger by the front door while Emery fixes her plate and Ms. Meroche stares. Eventually, she asks, “Tell me, how is your mother doing?”

I know what she’s really asking, but don’t take the bait. “My mother’s fine.”

She raises a brow. “Really?”

“Would she have any reason not to be?”

Emery tenses in the corner, neck stiff like teeth biting into gum. I’ve laid a trap of my own, one that won’t be taken, and I’ll be chewed out for. It’s worth it, just a little, to see such a grown woman squirm.

Ms. Meroche eventually lets me off with a wave. “I just don’t want you bringing all that in my house.”

I know she knows, somehow. She’s talking about me like I’m drugs or murder, but the hate in her voice is dismissive because she can’t decide what matters more, love for her niece or hate for people like me.

With a crooked finger, Emery leads me away before I can prod. She leads me to the back porch, past their broken barbecue grill and towards the woods.

“What the fuck was that?” she asks.

I sit beside her. “What was what?”

“Cut it out, you know exactly what I mean.”

“She started it.”

Emery grunts, takes an aggressive bite out of an egg sandwich. “She doesn’t understand these things. I barely do and—”

I picked at a half blown out dandelion. “Why do you always defend her?”

“Not everyone’s family is like yours.” Her face was red now, from the heat or her frustration, maybe both. “She’s all I have left now. I don’t want you to do anything to make her mad.”

I gnaw on the stem, let the fuzz consume my tongue. “How would she feel if she knew you were the one who kissed me first?”

Ms. Meroche looks at me and sees the bad stuff, but I notice that she won’t look back at Emery, even when she’s loading a gun and letting testing shots loose in the woods.

Emery doesn’t talk to me after that, and I take in her backyard with its endless grass leading into trees, the skeleton of a wooden play set, and the shed that I know is full of guns. Emery hunts for sport sometimes. I hate it, taking innocent lives. She says it’s her cooldown activity and besides, it’s not hurting anybody.

She hastily hands me her plate when she’s done, tells me to take it back into the house. As we stand up, I try to tell her I love her again.

“Alright,” she says. “I know.”

She shoos me away.

When I go back inside, her aunt is leaning on the sink. She was watching us out the window, while we were sitting and talking. I’m heard before I’m seen, and I’m told, “I’m not stupid, you know.”

I set the plate on the counter. “I never said you were, ma’am.”

Her words were curt and short. “This isn’t a game.”

I couldn’t tell her I felt like game, another carcass in their stupid little shed.

Ms. Meroche looks at me and sees the bad stuff, but I notice that she won’t look back at Emery, even when she’s loading a gun and letting testing shots loose in the woods.

Suddenly, I feel brave. “I love Emery, you know.”

Her brows raise together. “I’m sure you do.”

She doesn’t mean it. She thinks this is a joke, but to be fair, I know Emery thinks so too.

I leave the kitchen and the house, follow Emery into the woods, trying not to tremble at the weight of the rifle in her hands. Placing my hand on her shoulder, I try to give her cheek a kiss.

She shoves me away. “My aunt’s watching us, you know.”

“Yeah, so.”

“Cecily, if you think she’ll take kindly to two girls kissing, you’ve got another thing coming.”

I stumbled backwards again as she cocks the gun at a bird, taking more steps away from me until I can barely see her. She weaponized my intimacy, loaded its barrel with bullets—thick, fat tubes of metal-like little lipstick bottles. But we both know, there was nothing red on the inside. On the outside, maybe, when she was done with the likes of me.

It takes three shots for the bird to fall, and another to be sure it’s dead. My thighs quiver as I walk to help her, but she doesn’t know if she wants to eat the bird or leave it. My lips have nothing else to say to her as she hands me the gun.

I hold it, catch my breath, and pray.

She decides to leave the bird and walks away.

 

Anastasia Jill (Anna Keeler) is a queer poet and fiction writer living in the Southern United States. She is a current editor for the Smaeralit Anthology. Her work has been published or is upcoming with Poets.org, FIVE:2:ONE, Ambit Magazine, apt, Into the Void Magazine, 2River, and more.

Mean Streets

[fiction]

Lynette told me to drive her to Tompkins Square on Friday night so she could score some pot. This was during the early nineties, the very last days when New York was Scorsese City. You could buy almost anything you wanted off the street as long as you had the money and the connections.

“Stay in the car,” Lynette said as I pulled up alongside the curb next to the park. “I don’t want you screwing this up.”

It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool. The dealer snapped open a switchblade and I burst into the gutter, chasing after a taxi that was cruising down the block.

With this incident fresh on my mind, I agreed to remain in the car and watch Lynette through the rearview mirror. As a twenty-year-old bumpkin from Bensonhurst, I couldn’t help but admire how she swaggered along the sidewalk, strutting towards the dreadlocked guy slouching next to the park gate. As she passed him a roll of bills, I wondered if I would ever learn to handle myself the way she did, maneuvering through a world that I only knew through Velvet Underground albums and edgy films from the seventies.

With her leather jacket and dark frizzy hair, Lynette seemed to be the pissed-off love-child of a dispirited hippie and an undersized punk. It was an image she played-up in her photography. She had built a sizable collection—and a budding career—by capturing those final moments of a decadent world that was withering away in the light of imminent gentrification.

She was chatting with the drug dealer when his partner emerged from the park with a plastic bag. After she inspected the merchandise, Lynette began gesturing with both hands and shaking her head. Finally, she tossed the bag back to the dreadlocked man and retreated to the car.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said.

Lynette’s hands were balled-up into fists as we passed a series of low rise brick buildings with boarded-up windows. When we stopped at the light, she reached into her pocket for a cigarette.

It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool.

“What happened?”

“I asked for smoke,” Lynette said. “They gave me a bag of crack.”

“Really?”

“I told him I want pot not crack,” Lynette said. “So the guy tells me I should have asked for weed.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle as the light changed.

“Your slang is out of date,” I said.

“It’s not funny,” Lynette told me. “I’ve always asked for smoke.”

Lynette took a deep drag of the cigarette.

“I can’t believe they didn’t give me my money back,” she said.

“You asked a drug dealer for a refund?”

“I don’t see why not,” she said. “He didn’t have what I wanted.”

I laughed again and Lynette smacked me on the shoulder as I pulled into a space across from her building. The force of the slap was not terribly hard but it was strong enough to convince me not to ask if she wanted company that night.

“Even I know not to ask a drug dealer for money,” I said.

Lynette flicked her cigarette into the ashtray.

“So you’re a fucking expert now?”

I could have pointed out my sudden doubts about her own street credentials, but I held my tongue. I said nothing as she got out of the car and started towards her building. Iron gates covered most of the windows and there were traces of graffiti on the brick façade.

As Lynette sidled around a homeless guy sleeping on the front steps, I wondered how she would react if I leaned out the window and shouted that maybe neither one of us was such a fucking expert at anything. She might have laughed at her own bullshit or she might have never talked to me again. For now, it wasn’t worth the risk to find out.

With her stark silhouette of leather and denim framed by a doorway of rusting metal and cracked glass, Lynette still looked to me like a character in a Scorsese movie, a supporting actress from Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. All I could do was stare like a star-struck film student, watching her move from scene to scene, letting her show me how it was done.

 

Craig Fishbane is the author of On the Proper Role of Desire (Big Table Publishing). His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Quarterly, Gravel, The Good Men Project, the MacGuffin, New World Writing, The Manhattanville Review, the Penmen Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. His website is: https://craigfishbane.wordpress.com/

Phone Voice

You will oversleep, wake up disoriented in a too-quiet house. At first, you will only remember the dream, that scraping feeling of trying to scream but not making any sound. You will try to drag the details into your conscious brain, but they will evaporate as you become aware of the mattress springs pressing into your back, your cold toes where you kicked off the comforter, your stiff left knee. You will slip your feet into your green fuzzy slippers, wrap yourself in the thick fleece robe you found marked down at TJ Maxx last spring. You will draw a few long breaths, tell yourself to calm down, it was only a dream. But you won’t be able to shake that feeling.

Before you have your coffee or wash your face, you will pause at the closed door to your nephew’s room. You will rap your knuckles on the wood door; the sound will jackhammer through the house until the silence swallows it. There will be no answer.

You will turn the doorknob, push the door open an inch, two inches. You will peer bit by bit into the empty room. You will hope he’s at school but know that it’s just as likely he’s skipping again. His room will be a mess, as usual, and you will take comfort in the piles of dirty t-shirts and socks, the empty bag of Doritos, the Mountain Dew bottles, the comic books strewn across the floor.

You will almost close his door. You will almost keep moving, but you won’t. You will hover in the doorway, one hand still on the doorknob. Your dream will return in physical sensations—chest tightening, breath quickening, palms growing damp—and nudge you into his room.

The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”

You will spot the corner of a slim black notebook poking from beneath his pillow. It may as well be a black hole the way it pulls you into it. You will sink onto his rumpled bed and hold the notebook in your hands, which will tremble a little, the way they did nearly seventeen years ago when your sister let you hold him for the first time and you had no idea what to do, how to protect him. When you thought she had figured things out, that the tiny bundled creature you held had changed her.

You will open it to a dog-eared page in the middle. Once you know he’s safe, you will stop reading, put it back where you found it, move on with your day. This is your job now, you’ll tell yourself. You need to know what he’s up to, where he goes when he’s not at school. His handwriting will stretch across the page in spider webs of black ink. You will read. And read.

You will wonder if you are back in the dream.

Eventually, you will close the journal and place it carefully on his pillow. You will walk around his room, stepping carefully over the teenage debris. Once. Twice. You will search for Bunny Bear, the stuffed teddy bear with inexplicable bunny ears you sewed back on years ago when he accidentally cut them off. The one stuffed animal left over from his mother’s. Your sister was never much of a seamstress. You will not find Bunny Bear.

You will read the journal a second time. You will decide you owe him that much. You will not sit on his bed this time; you will read standing, one hand clamped over your mouth. After the second time, your stomach will twist and your throat will burn, but you will not vomit. Not yet.

You will open his closet and stare at the hard black guitar case. You have never heard him play guitar. The gold metal clasps will chill your fingertips, but your hands will not shake. When you see the gun, you will know what you must do.

You will walk to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea with lemon so your voice won’t crack when you call 911. You will use the old land line, because your cheek sometimes hits buttons on your iPhone and this is not the time to accidentally start playing YouTube videos. You will dial 911. You will sip your tea and it will turn to acid in your throat.

The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”

You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control. You’re not someone they can mess with. You will imagine the operator sipping cold coffee from a lipstick-stained styrofoam cup, sick of fielding calls from toddlers with distracted parents and senile old people who can’t remember that their caregivers aren’t murderers. Your phone voice will wake her up. It’s a teacher voice, a go-ahead-and-try-me voice, a tough-love-chocolate-covered-firecracker voice. Your phone voice will make her pay attention.

With this voice, you will tell her about your nephew’s notebook. You will not hesitate to claim him as your nephew, although you will ache somewhere deep inside when you say his name. You will tell her that he is planning a school shooting, that he has a large black gun hidden in a guitar case in his closet. Your phone voice will begin to splinter and you will have to pause, close your eyes, think of Bunny Bear, take a gulp of tea and let it burn your throat. The 911 operator will ask for your address. She will tell you she is sending an officer to your house.

You will thank her, hang up the phone, and vomit into the sink. Then you will brush your teeth, wash your face, tie your hair back into a neat ponytail at the base of your skull. You will not want to relinquish the comfort of your robe, but you will make yourself hang it in your bedroom closet. You will pull on your black wool sweater, the one your sister hated because she thought it made you look pale and too serious, and some sensible slacks, ones with no wrinkles or missing buttons.

You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control.

You will not just sit and wait. You will walk through the kitchen, living room, bathroom. You will open linen closets and cupboards, peek under couches and chairs. You will wonder where else he has hidden weapons. You will make your bed, put away the folded laundry in the plastic white basket in the corner. You will pause in the doorway to your nephew’s room, but you won’t go back in. Not until the police arrive. You will pace the short, dark hallway until you can’t stand it anymore, then you will open all the curtains in the house, let daylight come screaming in. You will not hide from the old man next door or that nosy woman across the street. Let them gossip. Let them see the police. Let them say what they will. Let them see you do the right thing for once.

When the doorbell rings, you will invite the police in. You will thank them for coming, in your phone voice, even though you are not on the phone. You will not smile. You will not stare at the guns in their holsters or the ice in their eyes. You will keep your hands and voice steady as you lead them to his room. You will offer them tea, coffee, water, but they will say no, thank you. They will only be interested in the evidence.

They will take the journal. The younger one will whistle, long and low, when he sees the gun, which they will also take. They will take your nephew, too, later, straight from school. They will question you, and you will do your best to answer, until finally your voice will fail. They will shake your hand and call you a hero, tell the newspapers that you saved a school full of children. Without your voice, you won’t tell anyone that you didn’t do it for those children. You won’t tell anyone that since you couldn’t save your sister, you had to save her son. To save him, at least, from becoming a murderer.

 

Lindsay Rutherford lives and writes in Edmonds, WA. She is a student at the Writers Studio, has an MA in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Doctorate of physical therapy from Temple University. When she is not writing or chasing after her two children, she works as a physical therapist at a local hospital. Her work has appeared in Medical Literary Messenger, Poplorish, and WA129+.

Cannonball

I was twenty-three and working as a caregiver to three autistic women in a house on Decatur Street. Jackie, Hazel, and Marcella had lived in institutions their whole lives, before the agency I worked for helped them get out and set up a life. None of them were verbal and they needed round-the-clock support. I did the early shift, which started at seven and left me with most of the heavy lifting: bath routines, meals, doctors’ appointments. I had two days of training and the pay was six-fifty an hour.

My first day, I walked in to find Marcella smearing the walls of her bedroom with shit. I thought I might puke, but the woman orienting me didn’t flinch. She went and got a bucket of soapy water and some rags and told me to get busy. Marcella was forty-three but had the skinny body of a twelve-year-old. She spent most of her time walking around the house naked on tiptoe. She made low groaning sounds in the back of her throat as she walked and slapped her thigh bloody when she was agitated. A large part of my work with Marcella was helping her keep clothes on. When we had to go to the doctor, I draped a robe around her to walk out to my truck, but she was always nude by the time I got around to the driver’s side. I had to carry a special letter from the doctor in case we got pulled over.

 

This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks.

Jackie was sweet. In addition to being autistic, she had a rare degenerative disease, which meant she was dying, but slowly. Her muscles were so constricted that she couldn’t put her arms down or move her legs when she wanted to. She couldn’t get out of bed on her own and I was afraid of dropping her when I moved her. She had enormous, brown saucer eyes with long lashes that blinked slowly. The hardest thing about working with Jackie was knowing she was suffering and not being able to do anything about it. She liked to paint. On nice days I’d roll her wheelchair out onto the back porch and set up her easel facing the garden. She didn’t have a lot of fine motor control, but her paintings were abstract and whimsical and filled with yellow.

Hazel was fifty-eight and healthy, as far as we knew. She had wiry grey hair that curled around her ears and ruddy cheeks. She loved stuffed animals; her favorite was a lamb with brown felt hooves. She sat in an armchair by the window, mumbling to it and kissing it, rubbing her head rhythmically side-to-side on the flowery fabric. The staff had already patched up the chair several times in that spot. When she wanted something to eat or drink, she’d come into the kitchen and pull any random bag out of the freezer—peas, strawberries, a turkey burger. I knew the thing she pulled out wasn’t what she really wanted, but it was the closest thing to communication we had. She shook her head and made a cave with her mouth like she was yelling and swatted my arm with her flat, paddle hand. It looked violent but it was more like affection.

This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks. None of us had any money, so we ate and drank communally and spent the weekends crammed into tiny clubs, sweaty and braless, listening to Alison Wolfe scream “Bat Girl” and “Are you a Lady?”

Max and Katie were a few years older than me and had been a couple forever. They had the kind of relationship we all wanted but thought we’d never find: happy and like they were each other’s family. Katie had fine blond hair cropped short and wore thick square glasses that magnified her blue eyes. She worked in a daycare center and loved to bake. She’d grown up Mormon and was disowned by her family when she came out. Max was an aspiring mechanic, working days in a parts store and nights in our garage. She was teaching herself to take apart old Subarus and put them back together. She rolled her own cigarettes and had dark circles around her eyes that made her look tougher than she was.

I’d never had a girlfriend. My junior year of high school there was a girl who sat in front of me in homeroom and sometimes she asked me for a ride. When I dropped her off, we’d sit in my car smoking cigarettes and touching each other’s hands and arms, like the way you put a baby to sleep. One time she kissed me on the mouth as she was getting out of the car. After that she didn’t ask me for a ride anymore.

Six months into working at Decatur Street, I came in to find the woman I was relieving doing CPR on Hazel. We called 911, passing the phone back and forth while we pumped and breathed into her, but she was gone. We called her family but only the paramedics came. After they pronounced her dead, we showed them her power of attorney documents so they’d let us keep her. They said we had twenty-four hours. We laid her out in bed wearing a blue nightgown with her stuffed animals lying around her. For the rest of the day former staffers and people from the agency came to pay respects. Someone brought a big white candle and lit it. I made a pot of soup.

The night of the funeral I got drunk on margaritas at the Spar Bar and tried to drive home without my headlights on. The officer who pulled me over offered me a choice: let him drive me home or pass a Breathalyzer. When we arrived Max and Katie and Dom were on the porch drinking cans of beer under the light buzzing with moths. When they saw me get out of the patrol car they bolted down the steps and were on the sidewalk next to me.

“Anna, are you okay?” Max said, her slicked hair falling into her eye. We had a rudimentary mistrust of cops.

“We tried to bring her back,” I said, slurring. “Fuck. I’m so drunk.” I started to cry.

“Your friend got lucky,” said the officer. “Anybody else would’ve taken her in.”

They helped me inside and Katie ran me a bath. I’d had a crush on Dom for months and was ashamed for her to see me that way. She was a short, stout butch who worked on a mussel farm and drove a red Jeep. She had kind brown eyes and a lady tattoo on her left bicep.

“Do I look gross?” I asked Katie in the bathroom, remembering the ancient Goodwill dress I was wearing for the funeral.

The next morning I woke up with a gnarly hangover and called in sick. I never wanted to go back to Decatur Street. The shock of Hazel’s death, Jackie’s looming death, was too much. What did it mean that two of them would die on my watch? I was so young—it felt like a tragedy. Around noon my boss called to check on me. I told her it was the flu. Katie left coffee and banana bread for me on the counter with a note, “Have a sweet day sweet pea!”

On Saturday we got up early and went to the farmer’s market, all of us sleepy from a show the night before. The guitarist’s name was Radio Sloane and I spent the whole show obsessing about how cute she was. I’d been hoping to see Dom there, but she never came. When I saw her standing in front of the apple stand at the farmer’s market, my stomach flipped.

“Hey you,” I said, tapping her on the shoulder, wanting to sound casual.

“Anna!” she said. “Hey, how’s things?”

“The other night. I’m sorry you had to see that.” I felt my neck get hot. “I’m all right.” We were standing too close but I didn’t want to back up and risk her taking it wrong.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about that woman you helped.”

“Good apples here,” I said, gesturing. I needed something to do with my hands.

“Best Winesaps,” she said. “They’re my favorite.”

“For sure, crisp and not too sweet. Braeburn too.” I was talking too loudly.

“I wonder if Katie’s been here,” she said. “Her pies.”

“They’re amazing, right? She should start a pie store.”

We talked about our jobs. I didn’t know what a person did on a mussel farm.

“Do you like it?” I said.

“It’s a job. I like spending the whole day out on the water.” Her voice cracked a couple of times. I was glad to not be the only nervous one. “Most of the time it’s fine. Sometimes it’s fucking cold.” She told me about her rubber pants and how she spent most of her time on her knees hanging off the side of the boat. “My back’s pretty messed up.”

The sun was starting to push through the morning grey and all the colors were getting sharper. A bluegrass musician was setting up on a little stage. Max came toward us with something steaming on a paper plate.

“Tamale?” She looked behind her. “I lost Katie. I think she’s buying all the rhubarb in Washington.” We each took one and the three of us stood there, unraveling cornhusks, shoving the warm mealy things into our mouths.

In the car on the way home I decided to be brave and ask about Dom’s love life. She and Max used to work at the mussel farm together before Max started working on cars.

“Do you know if Dom has a girlfriend?” I said.

“Last girl she had was Maddy, but that ended six months ago,” Max said.

“Who’s Maddy?” I said. “I mean…what was she like?”

“She’s not dead,” she laughed. “Do you mean was she femme? Like you?”

“I don’t know, I guess. Does she have a type?” My neck was hot again.

“You’re not not her type, if that’s what you’re asking.” She turned to look at Katie, to figure out if she should go on. “Dom’s good people,” she said. “But she’s been funny lately—quiet or something. Don’t get your feelings hurt if she’s being distant.”  The next few weeks at work were depressing. I’d gotten used to seeing Hazel through the picture window when I pulled up in the morning, kissing her lamb. It always had crumbs from whatever she was eating on its muzzle. It seemed like the thing that had been balancing out the dread of my days at work was gone. Marcella’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Jackie’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Clean-up. Laundry. Make and change doctor’s appointments. Fill-out staff updates about each woman’s day. Help Marcella relax on the couch with TV or music. Support Jackie to paint, or just be comfortable in her room.

My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them.

I started smoking again. I spent all my free time on the porch thinking about how hard Marcella and Jackie’s lives were. I knew their circumstances were better than they could have been, but still it didn’t seem like enough. I was angry with their families for never coming to see them. My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them. I thought about how much I wanted a girlfriend.

During Marcella’s sloppy, frustrated bath routine I tried to talk to her about Hazel—how much I missed her—but it just made her extra agitated. I was naïve. I had no idea how Marcella felt about Hazel. Working with people who couldn’t tell me anything was hard—I knew they could understand me, but I wanted to know what they were thinking and feeling. My time with Jackie felt extra loaded; she’d been sick for a long time and knew she was dying, but now it seemed like death was in the house, waiting for her. I kept Hazel’s door closed and walked quickly by it. I started lighting incense and candles in Jackie’s room and hung a few of her paintings on the wall.

A few weeks later I went to the Spar for happy hour. The bartender was the same guy who’d been there the night of Hazel’s funeral. When he asked me how I was, I welled up and bent over to fake tie my shoe.

“Bloody Marys are on special tonight,” he said, recovering for both of us. “Two for one.”

I recognized a few of the faces at the bar. The regulars were low-maintenance and loyal: loggers after work, Evergreen students counting out change for dollar shots. One guy spent his days hunting rare mushrooms in the state forest. He was smelly and damp and had dirt circles on the knees of his jeans. He claimed the mushrooms were chanterelles, but they looked like napalmed ears.

“Who’s playing?” I said to the man sitting next to me. He was old and had on a worn-out flannel shirt. He was looking at the TV mounted in the corner of the wood-paneled room.

“Broncos and Seahawks,” he said. “I don’t care too much about it, but when it’s on…”

“It’s hard not to look.” He reminded me of my grandfather. “Seattle any good this year?” I knew nothing of football other than what I’d overheard Max and Dom say when they were drinking beer.

“They’re not too bad.” He was taking small sips of a light beer that looked already warm. His hands were leathery and brown, the tips of his fingers rough. “That linebacker. Kennedy. He’s fun to watch.”

I ordered another drink. He was nursing his and eating thin pretzels out of a wicker bowl the bartender had set in front of us.

“You driving?” he asked, after I ordered my third.

“No sir,” I said. He turned and looked me in the eye for the first and only time. “I learned my lesson.”

I’d parked my truck in the camera store’s parking lot across the street so I could leave it overnight if I needed to. Outside, I turned left and headed up the hill on foot. It was only twelve blocks home but steep. About halfway, I felt headlights on my back. Someone was slowing down and flashing. I turned around and saw Dom’s Jeep. She drove past me and pulled over onto the shoulder. When I reached the passenger side, I saw Max was in the front seat. I got in the back; a woman I didn’t know slid over to make room for me.

Max turned around, “Anna!” she screamed—the music was loud, “You wanna come on an adventure with us?” I felt disoriented but a little more sober after the walk.

“Wood chip pile,” Dom said, turning down the radio. “They just dumped it on the east side of the inlet out by Priest Point Park.”

“It’s supposed to be three stories high!” Max was yelling, moving to the music.

“Should be pretty awesome,” Dom said. “This is Tristan.” She threw a thumb back to indicate the woman sitting next to me.

Tristan put a hand out for me to shake. “We’re gonna climb it.” She was lanky and had a bleached buzz-cut and wore a blue bandana tied around her neck western style.

“And then jump and let it catch us,” said Max, “And then do that over and over until we can’t do it anymore.” They were high.

Dom drove on up the hill passing our street and then across the bridge that connected one side of town to the other. Someone lit cigarettes and passed them around. The air coming in the windows was fresh against my face. We passed houses on the north side of town that butted right up against the cold, clear waters of the inlet. In late summer you could sit in people’s backyards and watch the salmon run.

“Now where?” Dom asked. We were at a four-way stop just before the park.

“Keep going straight,” Max said.

“Is this legal?” said Tristan. “Not that I care.” The narrow dirt road off East Bay Drive looked like it was for service trucks. At the end were gigantic mounds of rock and other stuff I couldn’t make out.

“Right here,” Max said. “Cut the lights.” Dom parked parallel to the fence. It was really dark, but once we got out we could see better. The moon was nearly full. Two hundred yards on the other side of a tall chain link fence we saw the wood chip pile. The wind smelled like fresh-cut pine.

“Damn,” said Max. “It’s at least three stories.”

“Yee-haw!” Tristan grabbed the fence and started to climb.

“I don’t like heights, you guys.” We all busted out laughing but I was having second thoughts. “What if there’s dogs?”

The fence was pretty easy to get over, although when I dropped to the other side I twisted my ankle. No dogs came after us and no alarms went off.

“Lookey what I’ve got,” Max said, pulling a flask out of her inside jacket pocket. We each took a pull of the whiskey. “Now we’re ready,” she said.

The three of them took off, hiking to the top of the mountain of wood chips in about thirty seconds, whooping and hollering like children, digging their boots into the shifting surface beneath them, falling forward, using their hands to help them climb up. It looked like they were mountain climbing on quicksand.

“Come on Anna, what’s the hold-up?” Max turned around and saw that I was still standing at the bottom.

“CANNONBALL!” Dom yelled, jumping as far as she could from the top of the pile and letting it catch her and sliding the rest of the way down like she was on a water slide. “Woo-hoo!” She came over to where I was standing. “Come on, we’ll go together.” I put my hands down and started to climb. The wood was damp and soft like moss, but I didn’t like the movement under my feet. It was like the earth falling away. Dom was climbing slower to stay beside me. “Keep your weight in front of your body,” she said, “And try to get some speed up. If you stay still it’ll pull you down.” I tried to focus on what she was telling me, but I couldn’t go any faster. Max and Tristan were synchronizing their first jump together.

“On the count of three,” Tristan shouted. “One…Two…” They were on the other side but I could feel the pile shift when they landed. At the bottom they turned around and ran right back up. I wasn’t getting anywhere.

“Go ahead,” I said to Dom. “I’m gonna take my time.” She didn’t want to embarrass me, so she went on, joining the others who were now starting to one-up each other, adding extravagant moves to their jumps.

“Do a flip,” Max screamed as Dom revved up for her next go.

I watched them tumble, fall, laugh and climb. Their bodies knew how to do something mine couldn’t figure out. Maybe it was their boyishness. I wasn’t very girly, but I wasn’t like them. I missed Katie’s softness. She would have stayed at the bottom with me. I stood still for so long I’d sunk nearly all the way back down, so I decided to smoke and watch. The way the wood chips stayed in constant motion was mesmerizing. I couldn’t figure out how the whole thing was still as tall as it was, considering all the commotion.

“All right,” I yelled, loud enough to get their attention. “All three of you, Pete Rose, on my count.” They snapped to and dove on three, gliding on their bellies all the way down. They laughed and looked up at me, mewling and crawling like babies toward my feet.

“Very cute,” I said.

Max stood and caught her breath. “Just come up with us. You don’t have to jump.” She took one of my hands and Dom took the other. Tristan got behind.

I fluttered my lips and threw the butt away. In just a few seconds we were up higher than I’d been able to get on my own. We were leaning so far forward I thought I’d fall on my face. My boots sank deeper with every step. It seemed like we’d stopped making progress, but I could feel Tristan behind me, her hands on my legs, bracing them. We were all huffing and puffing. Suddenly I was scared.

“No, don’t stop,” said Dom, “You can do it.” She and Max were pulling me now, my arms stretched out and up toward the sky.

“I feel sick,” I said, still climbing.

“It’s all right,” said Max. “We got you.” I didn’t want to keep going, but I didn’t want to look weak either. I felt them all around me. A few feet from the top the wind hit my face.

“Just a little more,” Tristan said.

I took three more giant steps, my legs shaking, and then someone patted my back and I felt my eyes welling up.

“Fuck yeah,” Max cried. They high-fived each other and me but I was stopped by the view. We could see the whole of Olympia in shades of darkness and twinkling lights. The moon was shining off the river below us like a spotlight; Mount Rainier stood in silhouette to the south.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was so beautiful?” I said.

“We were too busy being jackasses,” said Tristan.

“Now you can smoke,” said Max.

We sat and passed the flask, listening to the quiet. My heart felt full with love for Max, and that extended to Dom, in spite of my crush, and even to Tristan, who I didn’t really know. I wanted the feeling to last. We called each other chosen family. It was our way of taking power back from our birth families and giving it to the people who loved us for who we were.

“What’s that?” Tristan said, pointing to the shore across the river. It was a small dark mass lying on the sand a few feet from the water.

“Seal pup,” Max said. “Looks like it’s been dead a while.”

“Oh man, I love seals,” Tristan said, taking a swig and passing me the whiskey.

“Their moms abandon them sometimes,” Max went on. “Nobody knows why. They just stop feeding them and they starve.” We were quiet for what felt like a long time.

Suddenly, Dom stood up. “Guys. I need to say something.” She ran her hands through the sides of her hair and tried to catch her breath. The warm feeling I had in my belly tightened. Max and Tristan nodded. I tipped up the flask. I felt like I was getting ready to hear something that wasn’t meant for me.

“I think I’m going to transition.” She took a deep breath and pushed the words out, leaving her mouth open to exhale. “I’ve decided.”

I swallowed hard. I knew what she was talking about, but the reality of it didn’t sink in.

“Um—that’s amazing,” said Max, breaking the silence. “I mean I’m really happy for you.”

“Jesus, I think I’m gonna puke,” said Dom, wiping tears off with her shoulder.

“No, you’re not,” said Max, hugging her. “Come here. You’re all right.”

“You know I got your back,” said Tristan, giving Dom a fist bump and a loud pat on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you.”

It was my turn to say something. I wanted to sound authentic and I knew if I opened my mouth it would sound stupid. So instead I just turned and threw my arms around Dom’s neck. We’d never hugged before. I couldn’t tell if the trembling was coming from her or me.

“Thank you,” she said. Our eyes met for a split second and I saw how relieved she was.

The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.

“Log roll ya’ll to the bottom,” Tristan said, finally. Max followed her down but Dom stayed behind. When she offered me the crook of her arm I took it. We stepped down slowly and together, one foot at a time, and I wasn’t scared anymore.

 

The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.

The next day at work was the hardest since Hazel’s death. Marcella seemed especially upset through her bath routine. I was hung-over and clumsy. After minutes of frantic splashing and slapping her face, Marcella jumped up and got out of the tub. I knew to let her walk it off: down the hall, through the kitchen, a right at the living room, repeat—even though she was dripping wet and the kitchen floor was linoleum.

Then, when I was giving Jackie her bath, the thing I’d been most afraid of for months happened. As I was transferring her to the bathtub chair from her wheelchair she slipped from my grip. Her stiff, emaciated body fell sideways away from me, toward the handicap bar and the hard, beige tile. Everything in my body responded. I threw myself under her torso to stop the distance she could fall, but her shoulder banged hard into the tile and her feet and legs got twisted and shoved against the opposite side of the tub. I had one knee on the floor of the wet tub with my head and shoulder smashed into Jackie’s belly and chest, holding her up. Her long, wet hair clung to my face. My breath shook. After a few seconds, after the motion stopped and I gathered my courage, I moved my hands to her waist so I could pull my face back and look at hers. She had her, “it’s all the same to me” expression. A wry smile that meant, “I’m still here.” I knew she had to be scared and really uncomfortable—she hit the wall pretty hard—but at least we weren’t on the floor and she wasn’t bleeding or knocked out.

“God Jackie, I’m so sorry.” I was out of breath. “I’m such a klutz. Please forgive me.” I needed her to respond, to tell me it was okay. I got her back into the wheelchair and back to her room, talking to her the whole way, stopping every few steps to make sure her eyes and mannerisms looked normal. I transferred her back into bed, dressed her in a fresh nightgown and tucked her under the covers.

“Maybe a nap?” I said, changing the blinds to make the light in the room more pleasing for her. I lit some incense. Before I left the room, I went over to check her one last time. I squatted down and looked into her big eyes. “I’m so sorry Jackie,” I said. I’d never felt sorrier. She took her hand out from under the covers and laid it gently on my cheek.

The rest of the day felt like a deep exhale. I had to fill out a report about the fall. Marcella had a big lunch and let me put the classical station on in her room. I made coffee and smoked cigarettes on the porch. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. I felt grateful for Jackie—like she was teaching me something I understood but couldn’t put into language. I felt a confidence solidify in my body that made me feel strong. My recent confusions seemed frivolous and far away, even though I knew they’d be back. I thought about how I got to the top of the wood chip pile the night before. I thought about Dom. I tried to plant the understanding I was having deep in my mind so that I could refer back to it.

An hour before my shift ended I got a call from my boss. She said the agency was helping a new client transition and that she might be a good fit for Decatur Street.

“You mean Hazel’s room?” I said.

“That’s right,” she said. She asked me to prepare the space, discard whatever made sense, keep things we might need.

“What’s her name?” I said.

Hazel’s room was just the way we left it after the burial people came to get her. The dark blue sheets on her bed were rumpled and the blinds were drawn, letting only a small amount of light in. The wallpaper and the carpet looked dingy and it smelled stale. I stood in the middle of the room, remembering the morning we tried to revive her. It seemed like a lot had changed since then. A small prayer fell out of my mouth. “Rest in peace, Hazel.”

I threw open the windows and the blinds, letting in as much fresh air and sunlight as I could. I went through the dresser and put most of what was in it into a bag for Goodwill. I sprinkled lavender smelling powder on the carpet and vacuumed. I stripped the bed and put the sheets in the garbage bin outside, then beat the dust out of the small mattress. Hazel’s stuffed animals were the hardest to deal with. They seemed to know her better than the rest of us. If I’d had a holy bonfire I would have sent them off that way. The shaggy brown bear I posted on top of the refrigerator for the staff—a sentinel—and a reminder of Hazel’s zeal and humor. The lamb with the dirty muzzle I slipped into my backpack.

 

Joliange Wright is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has previously appeared in Consequence Magazine and will soon appear in Midwestern Gothic. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a PhD student at the University of Southern California in creative writing and literature.

Experiencing Whiteness

Author’s Note: Names have been changed throughout this piece

The dawn emerges, and, as if straight out of a movie, a rooster begins to crow. The rooster in question belongs to my neighbor, who is lucky enough to own several chickens. I’m in Gondama, a small town twenty kilometers from Bo, the second largest city in Sierra Leone. It’s 2013, before the Ebola crisis plunges the country into further devastation.

As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person! I greet them in Krio (How de morning?) or Mende (Be-ay-ee, asking how they slept). In turn, the kids insist that I pump my water first, even though there is a long line of energetic children and exhausted mothers waiting their turn. After some protesting, I eventually give in. The gesture is too sweet to ignore. As I apply the maximum strength available in my puny arms, they giggle at the White Woman attempting to pump water. The children giggle as I struggle to carry my bucket a few meters back to my home, water splashing out the sides, going to waste. Even the smallest kids in Salone are experts in balancing heavy buckets of water precariously on their heads, somehow not spilling a drop on the longest walk home. Their laughing eyes follow me as I wrap myself in a towel and walk to the outhouse to take a shower.

“Turn around! That’s not nice!” I yell at them, annoyed, but also secretly overjoyed at the sound of their chortles behind my back.

As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person!

Later that day, I step into my office, a legal assistance center next door to the small room I sleep in. There, we spend the day meeting with clients, hearing their stories, and addressing their legal problems and disputes. Many of the community members who come in are young, unwed teenage mothers who are seeking child support. Survival itself is a chore in Sierra Leone, where well-paying and safe jobs are scarce. Ironically, having a child at least means that the child’s father might give the mother food, money, clothing, shelter, or even school fees. Prostitution is rampant too, especially with young girls going to the nearby military barracks. Often we meet young women who are victims of horrific domestic violence. Rarely do the abusers face any sort of accountability, despite our best efforts. There are few resources to prosecute someone in such a poor region; the police tell us they have no fuel for their motorbikes, no money to investigate crimes or arrest the criminals.

Between client meetings, the day is interspersed with conversations with friends, neighbors, children passing by, and anyone curious or bored. A military officer, friends with one of my co-workers, comes by to chat. “You must take a Sierra Leonean husband,” he insists, taking a seat. When I tell him that I’m taken, he guffaws loudly as he slaps his palm down on his knee. “Your husband can marry a Sierra Leonean wife. You can both live here. I know many beautiful girls,” he chuckles.

At the end of the workday, I inevitably find Kadiatou and her younger siblings waiting for me outside my small room. She works nearby selling snacks at the junction, but she comes by almost every day. Sometimes she brings me delicious jollof rice, since she knows that as a lifelong vegetarian, I’m having great difficulty adjusting to the meat-heavy food. She’s a friend, yes, but the relationship is complicated. The line is unclear: is she friends with me because she wants to be, or because she knows I’m from America? She, too, asks me if I have any cousins who want a wife. She tells me to take a photo of her so I can show it to my male friends and relatives when I get back to the States. Everyone seems desperate to go to America. Everyone views me as White.

But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too.

In a development aid cliché, the neighborhood kids beg me to take photos of them and with them, using my camera. I ponder the ethics, but succumb to their persistent requests, their childish excitement. They pose for what turns into a photoshoot. In one image, a young girl holds a flower in her right hand and stands with one arm on her hip. In another, two young girls hug each other and smile, standing in front of a bush. I take videos of the girls gyrating to music played on their cell phones, using my hairbrush as a pretend microphone as they belt out their favorite tune. When I show them the shots, they laugh, thrilled to see their face on camera.

That evening, the girls put me on the spot. “Dance,” they command me joyfully. They want to see if I can move my body to the music like them. I’m stiff, lacking their natural fluidity, but I make an attempt. A small crowd forms around me. I guess I’m the village entertainment for the evening. After a minute, everyone claps, cheers, laughs, and joins in, from the three-year-old toddler to the sixty-year-old grandmother. Every night in Sierra Leone somehow turns into a village-wide dance party.

The kids are also fascinated by something else that points to my foreignness: my hair. They want to touch my hair, feel its texture against their skin. They’re surprised at the novelty of it all: it doesn’t need to be braided? You just leave your hair like this? They insist on plaiting it to see how it looks and how long it lasts. They braid my hair rapidly, with hands that are clearly expert, fingers that are nimble and comfortable intertwined with hair. They insist on taking a photo with me and my new hairstyle, my single braid glossy and thick, framing my face and tucked behind my ear.

It is briefly beautiful, but begins to unravel only a few minutes later.

*     *     *

But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too. My family hails from Andhra Pradesh, a state in Southern India, and we immigrated to the US when I was starting elementary school. There’s no getting around it: I’m a brown girl, through and through.

Landing in Freetown, I expect confusion about my origin and doubt that I’m truly American. I am fully prepared for endless questions about my skin color and ethnicity, questions like—Where are you from? But where are you really from? Where is your family from? These are the kinds of interrogations I experience regularly back home where I’m not seen as fully American and certainly never considered White. I’m not the type of American historically represented in pop culture or media, nor in the most popular movies or television shows exported to Sierra Leone.

For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing.

Somehow, this interrogation never comes. Throughout my two-month stay in Gondama, Bo, and Freetown, I’m treated with the adoration that the White Man usually garners in these communities. I’m the center of attention in almost every village I pass through. The chiefs come to talk to me, plying me with generators that can play movies and light up the dark, and with palm wine to taste in the evenings. Young women freely give me food and even lend me their clothes when I get caught in a sudden downpour. Okada (motorbike) drivers crack jokes with me, knowing they can charge me a higher rate. Everyone is willing to help me out, no matter how destitute they themselves are. I’m asked to give out graduation certificates to children at a local school. Everyone wants me to dance, sing, eat, and drink with them. Everyone wants photos with me. Everyone wants to be my friend.

Yet, I’m also treated like any other White person, which is to say, the site of deep-seated hopes, desires, and anxieties of communities affected by conflict, poverty, and the influx of development aid despite a struggling local economy. Every day I’m asked for money, food, water, clothing, pens and paper, and electronics. People start staking a claim to my belongings. You’ll give me your mattress when you leave town, right? Promise? Men are constantly flirting with me, asking me if I can marry them, take them to America, or if I can introduce them to someone, if I have cousins or friends who need a man.

For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing. In fact, the experience of Whiteness is more than that—it is intoxicating. There is a certain benefit of the doubt my “Whiteness” confers on me in the village. I am immediately loved, appreciated, and valued. My motives are not questioned. It’s assumed that I’m here to help. I’m automatically welcomed. To be White, I finally understand, is to have consistent privilege, to be looked up to, to be almost universally admired. But this love is mixed in with anger, jealousy, revulsion, and in the community I live in—dependence. The people I meet are trapped between submitting to the poo-mui and being realistic about their needs. At the end of the day, survival wins out.

Sierra Leone struggles with a complex relationship with the White Man. In 1787, British abolitionists and philanthropists settled about 450 former slaves in Freetown. Under the guise of empowerment, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, a charitable organization, played a crucial role in signing up indigent Black people in London to form a colony in Sierra Leone. But the project’s aim was mixed in with a heavy dose of racism: there was also a desire to remove the Black poor from the streets of London. Exporting them off to West Africa seemed a way to kill two birds with one stone. Sierra Leone earned its nickname, the “White man’s grave,” for the high mortality rate of colonists and missionaries due to infectious disease and lack of sanitation. The new Black settlers, unfortunately, were not immune, and many died from exposure to malaria and yellow fever. In 1807, the slave trade was outlawed. The British established a naval base in Freetown primarily to intercept slave ships and rescue and resettle the freed people at the base. In 1808, Freetown became a British Colony and a stronghold in efforts to end the slave trade. Over time, more than 50,000 former slaves were eventually resettled in Sierra Leone. The descendants of these liberated slaves became known as Krios. They lived alongside members of various tribes and ethnic groups, such as the Temne, Mende, and Fula. In 1961, Sierra Leone finally gained its independence from the United Kingdom.

Though the country was colonized, its citizens also take pride in the role Freetown played in ending the slave trade. Sierra Leoneans began their relationship with the White Man as purported philanthropist, and today continue to be dependent on the White Man. The White Man enslaved them, deported them, liberated them, colonized them, and yet, created them. Today, too, the communities I work with know that as much as they seek liberation, the poo-mui is a vital source of development aid and financial support. Without aid from the poo-mui, even more children might die before the age of five from malnourishment and easily treatable diseases. Even more young women may drop out of school because they can’t pay school fees, buy uniforms, or because they don’t have pads when they start their periods. Perhaps even more women will die in childbirth without foreign-funded hospitals. It’s a fraught relationship, but one that ultimately succumbs to the harsh reality of poverty and development in this country. Survival wins over emancipation. So today, many Sierra Leoneans equate Whiteness with foreignness, which means the potential influx of development aid, wealth, support, and opportunity.

Though I am the “Other” back home, I am still rich enough to take a flight to Sierra Leone, which is enough to make me a poo-mui here in Mende land.

*     *     *

The summer is ending, and it is time for me to leave Sierra Leone. I give away as many of my belongings as I can. My mattress goes to Kadiatou, who fed me many delicious dinners; the mosquito net to Fatmata, who is caring for three young children, one with a disability; a few clothes to Mariama, who took me on walking tours around town.

I hug everyone I know in the town, and I’m broken in two, racked with guilt, knowing that I can never repay the acts of kindness I have received over the past few months. I don’t mean to, but I feel like I’ve stolen too much—their images, and now, their stories. There’s very little I was able to give them in return. Continuing the legacy of the White Man, I think to myself bitterly.

This summer, I’ve been forced to dwell in the uncomfortable space between confronting my own privilege and reconciling it with my identity back home. I always knew I was privileged, but in America this somehow felt mitigated by a pervasive undercurrent of Otherness. Here in Sierra Leone, I confront my privilege multiple times a day. Here, as a poo-mui, I’m never allowed to separate myself from my privilege. Instead, I tried to make the most of it. I tried to capitalize upon it when speaking to the police, when advocating for our clients who are victims of domestic violence, in making presentations in Freetown about the problems people are encountering in this community, in campaigning for greater financial support to grassroots organizations in Sierra Leone. My privilege is not just in a vacuum; it’s a political tool. And yet, I’m no savior. As much as I want to believe I am different, the reality is that I parachuted in and out like any other aid worker. With my limited knowledge of the context, the politics, the actors, and the language, and my short time in the country, there was only so much influence I could have. All the privilege in the world doesn’t mean that change comes easy.

My friends and colleagues hold one last dance party in my honor. The radio is on, the palm wine is flowing, and we are all dancing as the sun descends beneath the horizon. For a moment, one sweet moment, I no longer feel like a White Man. Instead, I’m a Brown Woman, shaking my hips to the music, letting myself slip into the song, together with the whole town, rapt in ecstasy under the moonlight.

 

Akhila Kolisetty is an Indian-American lawyer and advocate in Brooklyn, NY, where she provides free legal representation to survivors of domestic violence in family law. Previously, she worked with human rights organizations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone. Her poetry has been published in Rigorous Magazine, Lily Lit Review, and Sky Island Journal. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Arabian Night

Call me Ismail, not Ishmael, which rhymes with wish fail, or Tom, Dick, or Harry, which rhyme with nothing that rings true to me, just because you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name. It goes like this, three separate syllables: Is—like the prolonged break of a wave; ma—half of Mama; il—like a sea snake, or the French word for island. IS-MA-IL, stress on the island.

Now that you have been properly introduced to Ismail, and know how to pronounce his name properly, allow him to tell you a short fairy tale.

Once upon a time, there was a sunny country whose long coast was bathed by a turquoise sea, where a barefoot boy had an important job, of which he was proud, and which he performed with both pleasure and ceremony. Every morning except one, the one designated as a rest day, he was entrusted with a gleaming tray dotted with soft, doughy, fragrant pastries and bread protected by dust and dirt by a tea towel, which he balanced on other clean towels coiled atop his dark, curly head, as it was heavy and his walk to the village bakery some distance.

 

This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune.

 

His step was joyous and his eyes bright as he glanced at his ample, color-wrapped grandmother seated on their kitchen step and humming her habitual, unrecognizable tune, sifting dried grain rhythmically through the round, wood-bound sieve resembling a large tambourine. The busy, cheerful, chatter of his mother and sisters wafted up on wisps of smoke, while he stepped lithe and sure from one orange grove through the next, inhaling the perfume of spring as his birthright while receiving casual smiles and nods of approving recognition from his neighbors in passing.

Turning toward the village, he glanced up the hill, whence had vanished the baby Rhim gazelle he had thought he’d domesticated until it grew old enough to object, impaling his forearm with a perfectly spiraled, long, slender horn. He rubbed the scar; to the hill where his father sometimes took him to buy honey and Geminus mint for their tea from the old German lady who kept bees. While the bread was being baked, he would drop by his uncle Saleh’s house, where sometimes men gathered to smoke, drink tea or whiskey, and recite the formal Italian poetry they had learned while in school, educated by convent nuns, some of whom had stayed on after the Italian colonization gave way to the British occupation. Soon, his grandfather would gather them together for an annual feast, the high point of which was Grandfather’s recitation of the Al-Hilali epic, the 1,000 year-old oral poem recounting the heroic feats of Bedouin ancestors during their migration from Arabia to North Africa. If they were lucky, and harvests prosperous that year, they would find musicians to accompany the performance with rababa, tampura, or tabla. Not many men were left who could perform the epic. It was an honor to attend.

The boy thought that growing up in this, his land, was as sweet as halwa.

 *     *    *

Then came hard times, the trials and tribulations that must be surmounted in every fairy tale, when his family and neighbors, the people he loved and trusted, were suddenly and inexplicably crushed like sesame seeds. First came the earthquake on his part of the eastern coast, which flattened his village and damaged much of the nearby city of Benghazi. The boy’s mother and sisters had run quickly out of the house as soon as pictures began to fall off the walls, calling for him to get out. He had been reading in his room that evening and slow to shift consciousness, was trapped in the corridor when the ceiling began to crumble. Recalling a story his mother had told about sheltering under tables during World War II bombing raids, the still slight boy recovered his wits enough to dive under a nearby table. When the world ceased roaring and trembling, the women’s wails slipped into cries of relief and gratitude upon sight of the boy’s dusty apparition emerging from the rubble that had been their home only minutes before. Witnesses said that the tower clock in town stopped at 9:20 p.m., just as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The family moved to Tripoli.

The capital city was daunting at first, though, by degrees, the boy became accustomed to their greater prosperity, two-story house, and American television reception. This marvel was accessible because of the American military bases nearby. Once, after watching I Love Lucy, the teenaged boy impudently chided his parents for their primitive custom of sleeping in one large bed together. Lucy and Desi, if they had observed, slept in twin beds, both in primly buttoned pajamas, which must be the way civilized people behaved. Dad and Mom were less than amused.

That was already after Nestlé baby formula exports and Italian tomato paste had inundated their shops and brains and habits, causing the Underdeveloped local population to stop breast-feeding, and throw their bumper crops of tomatoes into the sea, prefiguring its transformation from turquoise to iron red. Though, still before the dictator paved the seaside promenade, painted rocks green, imprisoned the boy’s father, uncles, cousins, and hanged his friends from lampposts.

Before the boy had grown into a man, before the American buffoon actor-president issued a decree forbidding the man to rejoin his American wife and child in relative safety. You think the anti-Muslim travel ban is new? You think there is anything new under the scorching sun? But that is another story.

No, this was still when the boy was enamored of Rembrandt’s etchings, Impressionist painters, Brecht plays, and bell-bottomed jeans. When he tried to practice his English with American girls on the fashionable, white Tripoli shopping streets. Tapping a blonde one on her shoulder, and politely asking if he might help her translate, she had brushed off her skin where his finger had touched it, saying “Ooh, cooties!” The teenaged boy had mistaken the word for “cuties” at first, and had smiled shyly, pleased at what he thought was flirtation. Then she had flicked him away with her pale-pink painted nails, giggling derisively with her light brown-haired girlfriend. He made it his business to learn what cooties were.

 

The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables.

When the pockmarked, square-headed young Demon seized power in a military coup, the usual suspects were rounded up and imprisoned, among them the boy’s father. The only son, the boy left high school in order to devote all his time to waiting in the lines of bureaucrats who might be able to pull strings, if the bribe and connections were sufficient, or waiting at the prison gates to try to gain visitor’s access or news about his father, or deliver the man’s much needed Insulin. When the heat pushed the overdressed soldiers over the edge, or their appetite for brutal sport hadn’t been satisfied, the boy endured their taunts and “roughing up” in prudent silence. It was a full time job for about a year and a half, until his father’s remand to house arrest, whereupon the boy returned to his formal studies.

Five years of channeled engineering study, in which the boy had scant interest, might have earned the young man a degree and marketable profession had he completed the final semester and taken the required exams. However, when his father saw members of his son’s university circle, his friends, brutally murdered and hung up to dry like prosciutto in the sun along the city’s straight, modern boulevards, unmistakable warnings to all who opposed the Demon’s oppressive regime, he shipped the young man off to study in the United States of America, where the young man tasted some elusive freedom and license, as well as some more discrimination and insult. There, he studied art instead of engineering, painting pictures, taking pictures, making love among pictures, memorizing pictures.

Some years later, those men who had remained in other countries, with jobs, with new families, with new habits, were publicly and privately recalled home to the no longer sweet, fertile Mediterranean land become awash with oil and grimy oil money, threatened with assassination on foreign soil if their duty was ignored. And the family arrests had begun again in earnest. A cousin appeared as an emissary one day, and shortly thereafter, another, on the beautiful hill in San Francisco, to shatter the crystal idyll where the young man had been amassing pictures. These pictures, too, trembled and fell off the wall when the cousin told him with firsthand knowledge and frank description of torture, show trials, the condition of his own now blind father in his cell, as he awaited, without his Insulin, his military trial. For what? For being a journalist. A dangerous profession to be avoided, truth telling.

The emotional blackmail practiced with a twilit, lilac view of repetitive ocean spray proved far more hypnotic, and eventually, effective than dictatorial edicts and threats had done. The image of the young man’s pleading mother was invoked. He took a leave of absence from his pregnant American wife, with the promise that he would return in three weeks, after his uncle’s trial. Her pleas had been more easily set aside, as his guilt toward her had not yet sought its spirit level. The young man was, of course, arrested upon arrival in the land no longer cleansed by the turquoise sea, transforming his odyssey into absence without leave.

Months turned into years, during which a few attempts had been made to reknit the rent in life’s rich fabric, including appealing to the steely American powers that be. Rather like trying to give a hollow, tin man a heart. In the end, our hero, no longer so young, acquiesced to his stronger, more numerous, more powerful, more present family, settling into decades of dreary, unartistic routine, where he scarcely noticed the iron red, or then the battleship gray of the sea. We could speak of bombings, when his small apartment windows rattled, were dislodged, and splintered on the floor of a blacked-out kitchen, while his present children and current wife pretended to sleep in the next room. Of more bombings, when they were able to borrow enough money to flee the worst for a time. Of the torching of his sister’s house by black clad criminals, who succeeded in killing her husband and son, and severely burning her and her other children. Of the rape of certain of his nieces, and shooting of his nephews. Of the crucifixion of… But why prolong the trials and tribulations? This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune. Let the tale end there, hanging by a tail. Now old, and too defeated to flee anymore, our prince will not live happily ever after.

 *     *    *

The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables. In the darkened house, she may not know what time it is, that it is only evening. As soon as the terrifying commotion, the barking shouts and hammering on doors began down the street some minutes ago, all of the buildings in our neighborhood went instantly dark, as if on cue. As if we could hide from evil, like children, by turning off the lights or closing our eyes and holding our breath. There is nowhere to hide, no place to escape. Some time ago, I read some jokes about human smugglers posted on the Net. There were even cartoons showing hijabbed women clutching swaddled infants, crammed in leaky boats. Even if I could raise the money to get into one, would I rather spend it entertaining the Developed nations, watching my family drown in sham lifejackets, or wait here at home for my head to be chopped off? At least the Worldwide Web has been disconnected. That’s some consolation. I sit in my immovable chair facing a black, rectangular picture window like a darkened screen, waiting soundlessly, and smoking, dragging the nicotine poison deep into my scarred lungs. Anyway, what would we do with the ancient one?

“Ismail,” she repeats, she who suckled and protected me, once upon a time before Nestlé. I can do nothing for her now except guard her bed.

“Don’t worry, Mama. Everyone will be back soon. They’ve just gone out.” I lie soothingly, softly, adding, “There’s been a power cut.”

My stalwart, intrepid wife has gone to the city center looking for the kids, no longer kids, who failed to come home as expected, putting on a headscarf in hope of anonymity, or slight protection. About as useful as a white flag in our present situation. I must not leave the house. “Mama, if strangers come to the door, don’t say anything. I’ll take care of it, all right? Be patient.” Don’t give yourself away.

Someone from another house entreats Allah. Then I hear a shout. “Libya!” Libya. Long ago, I used to feel the word on my cheek, as if it were a warm kiss blown from the desert, a promise. Later, it resounded like a slap, or a wail, down the blood stained lanes, where a young boy’s spirit had been sensed, wafting aimlessly, humming a bygone tune, blowing soothingly on sweaty, fearful foreheads. I wish I could remember at least one stanza from the Al Hilali epic. Not a line. I am not the man my grandfather was, and this debacle is not his heritage.

Staring blankly past the balcony, through the black window, I try to conjure a slideshow: the low fog rolling across the mauve Golden Gate like a fluffy bolster; my first ever snowflakes cloaking in white feathers, the wings of the storks in a fountain on a square in Copenhagen, golden Prosecco bubbles flickering like fireflies on Lake Como. I see nothing. Blackness. All that is left is a distant, beckoning whiff of Geminus mint and the eternal aroma of freshly baked bread.

 

Special Guest Judge, Gayle Brandeis:

“Arabian Night” implicates the reader from the very first sentence—“you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name”—yet also takes us by the hand, invites us deeply into the writer’s lost world. This essay-meets-fairy-tale holds so much pain—the anguish of atrocity, of displacement, of layer upon layer of injustice—yet it also leaves space for tenderness, for remembrance of how the word “Libya” had once felt like “a warm kiss blown from the desert” before it became “a slap, or a wail.” A stunning, necessary, gut punch of an essay.

—Gayle Brandeis is the author of the poetry collections The Selfless Bliss of the Body and Dictionary Poems, novels The Book of Dead Birds, Delta Girls: A Novel, Self Storage, and My Life with the Lincolns, and a recent memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.

 

Diane G. Martin, Russian literature specialist, Willamette University graduate, has published work in numerous literary journals including New London WritersVine Leaves Literary ReviewPoetry CircleOpen:JALBreath and Shadow, the Willamette ReviewPortland Review of ArtPentimentoTwisted Vine LeavesThe Examined LifeWordgatheringDodging the RainAntiphonDark InkGyroscope, Poor YorickRhinoConclaveSlipstreamStonecoast ReviewSteam TicketPigeonholesShantihZingara, and The Grief Diaries.

Long-time resident of San Francisco, CA; Maine, USA; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Sansepolcro, Italy; Diane has traveled throughout much of the world. The themes of exile, disability, and displacement pervade her work.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Mendez Pastrana

black boy calls shotgun

without permission or probation. if you can judge the pedigree
of a windy day in April you may just get this.

the same boy endless and radiant and doing
exactly what a title as smooth as shea butter would suggest.

sprinting across what little grass the west side has
to brandish the opening of the passenger-side door like any velvet would.

both undead chivalry and coefficient of liberty. without a shadow of doubt,
the sky was made to play the auxiliary role of paparazzi and what a luxury

we have from this angle. spectators to baptisms. if it weren’t so obvious,
we would only have ourselves to thank, impressed by our own attendance.

i’m unaware of where this custom began, the one without canary-colored caution
tape, perhaps it was a window ledge or a fire escape, dark as a cloud

of exhaust, it could have just as well been as mute as a subpoena,
making quick work of the questions. in fact, i don’t have any.

for all i know i have no use for the ls in collateral, for all i know
this is why you should support black business–

because there is a kid down the street arrogant as a swift prayer
thinking their chores to be done, basking in the glint of permanence.

if the cops were to come tomorrow could you blame them? All of us children,
daring and brilliant with the certain kind of charm every baton envies.

 

Olatunde Osinaike is a Nigerian-American poet originally from the West Side of Chicago. He is Black, still learning and eager nevertheless. An alumnus of Vanderbilt University, his most recent work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Apogee, HEArt Online, Hobart, Glass, Anomaly Literary Journal, Puerto del Sol, and Columbia Poetry Review, among other publications. He is currently on the poetry staff of The Adroit Journal and can be found online at www.olatundeosinaike.com.

The Threshold of the Sun

In cowhide suspenders, nine-year-old Xavier was running toward the village. A copy of the Reverend’s abridged bible bobbed in his hands like a fish struggling to return to the sea. He had forgotten to read the assigned chapter in the bible. Last night, captivated by the stars in the dark purple clouds around the moon, he had fallen asleep on the roof of his family’s two-story farmhouse. He always wanted to be an explorer, though the Reverend would never allow it. Farmers’ kids become farmers, he’d say. To leave the village would bring dishonor to your family. Dishonor was disrespect, and disrespect was sin, seldom forgiven by the Maker or the Reverend or your own parents. Xavier feared the village would no longer love him if he left. He didn’t want to live with the dishonor.

Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed.

 On his way to town, Xavier leapt around a boulder along the path. Pooling around the edges of his green eyes, sunlight danced on every strand of his long blonde hair. He inhaled the air, smelling of dirt and wharf. He climbed over the picket fence surrounding his family’s cornfield and ascended another hill. Last night, as he dreamt of finding strange, new lands with a bindle and a bible, his head lay on his bible. When he woke up a half hour ago, the bible was gone. It had fallen off the roof and landed in a thorny rose bush. He wanted to leave the bible behind, but he remembered the wrath of the Reverend. Last week, the Reverend had spanked a girl for allowing a crow to fly off unharmed. Xavier stood at the corner with the drunkards, watching the girl flail and scream under the Reverend. “Forgive this child, our Maker!” the Reverend shouted. He spanked her until she lay motionless. The boy walked home, his bible heavy in his arms like the cross the Virgin Father carried to his own crucifixion.

*     *     *

The villagers thought the sun was the threshold to Hell, the Dark One’s domain.

Last week crows descended from the sun to eat scraps of bread on their porches. A gaunt man with bright gray eyes, the Reverend ordered the villagers to kill the birds. Women beat the birds with rolling pins, while their husbands shot at the crows with muskets. When the crows left or lay dead on the road, the villagers followed the Reverend to the church to pray. Xavier knew the story well; his parents had ordered him to erect scarecrows all around their farmhouse in order to ward off the birds. He did as he was told, and the birds never touched the house, just the surrounding cornfields which his parents grew. The cornstalks grew to nearly eight feet, their stems implacable like ironweeds. Now the stalks weathered the salty wind coming from the west, where the ocean writhed. Xavier could almost hear ocean as he continued to rush toward the village. Meanwhile, on Main Street, bakers carried warm rye loafs to the old women outside the church. Children played hopscotch and horseshoes near rosebushes. Drunkards in wrinkled flannel shirts stumbled out of pubs and grimaced at the younger ladies, who strolled past, their large petticoats swaying behind them. The respectable men wore ties; the lazy men, overalls. But they tried not to discriminate, especially not today. Saturday. The day of Mass.

*     *     *

The Reverend once said, “Any child late for Saturday school shall be beaten or flogged.” Xavier remembered the Reverend saying this to the kids in church. For a moment Xavier thought the Reverend was speaking solely to him and vowed never to arrive late to Saturday school, so now he ran faster toward the village. The sun continued to rise, the horizon dressed in pink and orange clouds. While Xavier climbed down another hill, the Reverend’s gray eyes appeared in his mind like a flashback. He’d never forget the way the Reverend spanked that girl. It could’ve easily been him.

Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed. He tumbled halfway down the hill. A stone cut his forehead as he rolled over a thorny thicket of weeds and white roses, and he winced and moaned, fearing that might’ve broken a bone or two in his arms. He’d never felt so much pain. He cried out to the Maker for help, his supplication echoing across the cornfield below. Quickly though, the wind, a yelp over the cornfields, drowned out his voice. On the hill, he got to his feet and cried out again, but stopped. He looked out toward the horizon in disbelief.

Sailing on top of the cornstalks, a sloop lurched, light as a gondola, its pink sails bulging in the wind. The ship’s mainmast towered over Xavier, the bowsprit pointing at him. The wind died down. An anchor was thrown overboard. The ship stopped but still levitated. An old woman with bright violet eyes stepped onto the ship’s capstan. As he prayed to the Maker for mercy, the wind carried the woman to his side. He looked up, dumbstruck. Brandishing a staff, she wore a purple tricorn hat with a peacock feather. Her tawny hair flowed in another breeze, this one quieter, smelling of ambrosia. She wore a yellow velvet dress coat. Tied around her waist, a leather bandolier held a pistol and a leather holster carried a golden naval short sword. The silver buckles on her black shoes glinted, and white stockings and brown breeches hugged her legs. She helped the boy to his feet. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating.

“What are you?” he asked, awestruck. “A worshipper of the Dark One?”

“Dark One?” she said. “Not quite, darling. Just an explorer.”

The crystal on her staff shimmered, and his cuts and bruises vanished. Though he no longer felt any pain, he stepped back, clutching his bible. “Witchcraft?”

“Explorer,” she repeated. “There’s no need to be afraid.” She knelt once more, eyes sparkling. “I’ve come for supplies for my trip back to the sun.”

“The sun?” His voice was a muffled whisper. He was frightened. “What do you know about the crows?”

“The crows?”

“What’s beyond the sun? Hell?”

“Hell?” she exclaimed suddenly. He shuddered with surprise, so she answered softly, “No, sweetie. The sun’s not the threshold to Hell.”

He found it within himself to believe her. Then he looked at her clothes and weapons with wonder. She returned his gaze with an amiable chuckle. “I’ve been on many adventures beyond the sun,” she said. “I can share one with you.”

He looked at her outstretched hand. He’d never seen another explorer before. Hesitantly, he grabbed her hand. Her fingers were delicate, airy as her voice. Standing with her as they walked down the hill, he breathed in the smell of lemon on her coat. His arms felt lighter; he’d accidentally dropped his copy of the Reverend’s bible on the hill.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

He thought of the Reverend’s glare and the crumpled girl on his lap. He shook his head. “Nothing. I have everything I need.” He touched the hilt of her sword and the butt of her pistol with his free hand. He’d never touched a sword or gun before.

She told him the time she hunted a unicorn in the moors of a faraway land. He gripped her hand tighter, wanting more details. “After I killed the creature,” she said, “it turned into this.” She raised her staff. For the first time he marveled at the crystal on the staff. “You see,” she continued, “every person has a destiny. To fulfill your destiny, you must decide to live with excitement and danger.”

“Is that why you’re an explorer? For the excitement and danger?”

“In a way, yes.” They stopped at the edge of the village. “Exploring is my life.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said, “explorers like me feel most alive when we’re exploring.”

“Is every day an adventure for you?”

“Every day should be an adventure,” she said. “In essence, I live to explore and I explore to live.” She glanced at him. “Make sense?”

He nodded without hesitation, picturing yesterday’s starlit sky. She wrapped an arm around him, and they continued on.

*     *     *

Xavier and the woman walked down the center of Main Street, then stopped outside the church. On the corner, drunkards sat on wooden chairs, looking at the mysterious woman.

She tipped her hat in greeting, but the drunkards said nothing. She turned to Xavier. “Where’s the store?” The boy glanced at the drunkards as they shared cold looks, then scrambled to the church.

Xavier turned to the woman and pointed to the building across the street. “There,” he answered. He felt strange, a growing sense of unease in his stomach. He couldn’t stop thinking about the drunkards. “Want me to come along?”

“Thank you, but I can handle it from here,” she said. “If you stay though, I might come back with a sweet for you.” He smiled with gratitude and took the drunkards’ seats on the corner as she strolled across the road.

Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils.

Suddenly, voices erupted from inside the church. The clamoring sounds of men and women too afraid to walk outside. The unease grew even more feverishly inside Xavier, who dashed to the front door of the church and peered inside from the wooden stoop. Women were pacing down the center aisle with bewilderment; men were stomping down the pews. There were a hoard of screams and wild hand gestures. A boy no older than Xavier, the Reverend’s assistant, splashed his face with Holy Essence in front of a statue of the Virgin Father, as if to atone for a crime. The Reverend stood on a table at the end of the room, watching his flock go mad. Xavier trembled. He hadn’t seen such panic since the incident with the crows.

Within the din, several drunkards described the woman with the staff. “A witch,” one spat, chuckling at a flabbergasted older woman in gray petticoats. “She’s come to kill us!” Laughing, the drunkard opened his flask.

The Reverend raised his arms and his flock fell silent. He shook his head. “I expected more from you,” he said. “The woman these men are describing has come from the sun.”

“The kindling!” a woman shrieked. “What about the kindling?”

The Reverend gestured to a couple men in the corner of the room. “Retrieve the wood.” The Reverend added, “Just in case.”

Xavier turned around. The woman started across the street with a sack in her left hand. A group of children in white dress shirts and black dress pants trailed behind, keeping their distance. He returned to the corner and sat. The woman took a seat next to him and glanced at the church. “Is the church typically this loud?” she asked.

“They’re talking about you,” Xavier said, glancing at the church. “They fear you.”

“They wouldn’t fear me if they got to know me.” She gave the boy a piece of caramel from her sack.

A girl from the group grabbed his wrist. “She must’ve come from the sun!” she whispered. The woman returned Xavier’s incredulous look with another benign smile. Before any of the other kids could speak up, he threw the caramel into his mouth and sucked on the sweet. The kids looked on as he chewed and swallowed the candy.

“See?” Xavier said. “Nothing to fear.”

The kids stepped forward. The woman rummaged the sack for more sweets.

But the church door burst open and out stormed the Reverend, followed by the drunkards. They pointed at the woman with dirty fingers. “Children, back away from this demon!” the Reverend said, striding to the corner. The boy looked at the woman with alarm. The other children stood still in terror. “I shall draw out my whip!” the Reverend threatened.

The other children complied, running behind the Reverend. Their parents came out of the church. The mothers kissed their children, and the fathers scolded them for not being at Saturday school. Xavier’s father and mother glared at their son from the top of the stoop.

“Come here, son,” his father called. “Don’t disrespect the Reverend.”

Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils. “Do as you’re told,” the Reverend said. “The Eleventh Commandment states: ‘The young must obey the elders, for they know the way to salvation.’”

He extended a calloused hand, the same hand he used to spank that girl. Xavier stepped behind the woman and squeezed her hand tighter. “It’s all right,” she told Xavier. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.” She turned to the Reverend. “This is a misunderstanding. I came only for supplies.”

“That’s of no consequence,” the Reverend said. “My bible says—”

“I’ve never read your bible,” she said. “I don’t want to insult your way of life. If you promise to take good care of the boy, I’ll be much obliged.”

“I don’t oblige witches,” the Reverend said, and turned to Xavier. “Come or be flogged!”

“That’s not necessary,” the woman said. She looked into Xavier’s eyes. “Start living, child,” she whispered and kissed his cheek.

The adults gasped. The Reverend seized the boy. He twisted in pain.

“Don’t!” the woman said.

The Reverend’s assistant drenched the boy’s face with Holy Essence. The blessed seawater jetted up his nose and down his throat, leaving a salty taste in his mouth. He twisted against them and rubbed the water from his eyes. Then the Reverend slapped Xavier’s rear, and the boy whimpered. He looked at his mother and father, who were returning to the church, heads turned away in disappointment. The Reverend swung again. Cringing, Xavier wondered if the pain would ever go away.

The woman stepped forward. “Let him go!” she said. “I’ll leave.”

The Reverend spanked him again. Another whimper. Tears across his face. All strength in his legs gone. He wanted to crawl to the woman and beg her to take him away. He no longer cared about sin. He cared about her, about exploring, about life. The woman reached out, but the Reverend slapped her hand and she stumbled back.

“Pray for forgiveness,” the Reverend said to Xavier. He grasped the boy’s arms with both hands. Xavier thought about kicking the Reverend back, but his legs were still weak and his rear still stung. He didn’t know what to say. His underarms sweated, the tips of his fingers tingled, snot lolled from his nostrils, his heartbeat boomed as he shook his head again. Then he rested his eyes on the Reverend. “Let go,” he muttered. He regained some strength in his calves. “Let go.”

“Beg the Maker for forgiveness,” the Reverend said.

“No.” The boy stood up straight. “I want to leave. You can’t treat me like this.”

The Reverend bit his lower lip, clearly vexed.

“Let. Go. Now!”

The Reverend yanked Xavier to the ground. His forehead dug into the gravel and blood looped around his right eyebrow. He cringed underneath the Reverend, coughing and shaking with fatigue. He turned toward the woman. She stepped forward again, but the Reverend shoved her back. “Demons from the sun deserve to die!” he declared. “Did you send the crows upon us? Have you come to corrupt our souls, as you have done with this boy?” Forced to his feet, the boy tottered.

“I mean no harm,” the woman cried. “Let me heal him.” She raised her staff. The crowd shuddered. A drunkard threw a bottle into the air, and it crashed a foot away from the woman. She stumbled back in surprise.

“The boy must be purified!” the Reverend said and threw the boy into the hands of several men. “The sea must cleanse him of his sins. Strip him!”

Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge.

Xavier tried to swat the men away, but they restrained him and pulled off his clothes. As the boy wept, the mothers covered their children’s eyes. A man lifted the boy into his arms. The boy kicked and screamed and panted as though he were drowning. Suddenly, the Reverend and several men rushed at the woman, but she drew out her sword and swung, cutting the tip of a man’s thumb. The mob stumbled back and the man holding Xavier started to run toward the sea, so the woman raised her staff and its crystal glimmered. The wind raged. It shoved men, women, and children to the ground. The Reverend and several men lumbered through the wind. The boy watched the woman scamper after him, and so he cried out for help. The woman placed her sword back into its holster and drew out the pistol while the man with the boy ran to a promontory overlooking gushing waters, the salty wind stampeding up the rock wall to the grassy edge. She pointed the pistol at the man’s head.

The Reverend, along with six men, ran to the cliff.

“He did nothing wrong!” the woman said.

The Reverend pointed to the man holding Xavier. “Toss him in—or be damned!”

The man stepped to the edge.

“No!” the woman said and fired the pistol.

Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge. He spiraled in the air, arms flailing, air caught in his throat, the world a blur of sensations and colors—the prickling of his skin, blood converging with snot and sweat on his bottom lip, the dark brown cliff merging with the aquamarine sea. Then he plunged into a whirlpool of seaweed. The surf pummeled into his chest and jetties whirled him near rocky spires. He clamored toward the surface of the sea, but the waves dragged him back down. Hoping his new friend would find him, he slapped and kicked the current to stay afloat. But soon he started to black out. Short of breath. Under the sun he drifted and bobbed. Drifted and bobbed relentlessly.

*     *     *

Xavier rolled his head in delirium and coughed up water on the sand and polished stones along the coastline. The setting sun touched the horizon, spreading the violet twilight across the cornfields and the sea. Slowly he remembered what happened, but in blurs: the ship, the woman, the drunkards, the Reverend, the cliff. After several minutes, he crept toward the village, and along the way he put on a pair of pants hanging on a clothesline and walked on, avoiding a group of men and women beating crows with brooms. He wanted to laugh at them, but he kept moving forward. His nose twitched at the smell of dying smoke. Soon he reached the church. Outside the building, kindling smoldered. The woman’s coat, now burnt, lay before him. A drunkard, the only other person outside the church, turned to him. The boy peered at the kindling, then dropped to his knees. He felt like vomiting, the woman’s blackened body smelled so acrid.

“Serves her right, coming here.” The drunkard took a sip from his flask. “Boy, you should tell the others you survived. I bet my brother a gold coin that you’d live.” He snickered.

Xavier stared at the drunkard. “I did die,” he said, rising. “Then I chose to live.”

The drunkard looked bemused. In the pile of char, a light flickered. The boy reached into the pile. A breeze blew away a collection of embers, revealing the woman’s staff, unmarred by the fire. The drunkard staggered forward.

“That’s impossible!” the drunkard said.

“I guess it chose to live too,” the boy said.

“Witchcraft,” the drunkard murmured. “You’re a witch!”

“No,” the boy said. “I’m an explorer.”

The man reached out to take the staff, but Xavier was quicker. He started down the street with the staff. On his way to the cornfields, he encountered several other villagers who called out his name in shock, but he walked on by without saying a word. He wasn’t followed. The woman’s ship still floated above the cornstalks. Staff in hand, Xavier climbed the anchor’s chain, and when he reached the deck, the crystal on the staff sparkled. The anchor rose by itself. The wind guided the ship west. He thought about the woman and began to cry. He’d never forget her.

The wind was strong. The ship flew westward, the stars blinking in the violet clouds. He closed his eyes with fear and exhilaration, and minutes later, the wind gave another shove against the sails and sent him closer toward the threshold of the sun.

 

Jacob Butlett holds a BA in creative writing from Loras College. His current work has been published or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Into the Void, Fterota Logia, Street Light Press, Gone Lawn, The Limestone Review, Outrageous Fortune, Wilderness House Literary Review, Picaroon Poetry, Free Lit Magazine, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Oratoria, Varnish: A Journal of Arts and Letters, The Phoenix, Tilde: A Literary Journal, Panoplyzine, Clarion, Cold Creek Review, The Shallows, and plain china. In 2017 he won the Bauerly-Roseliep Scholarship for excellence in literary studies and creative writing.

Photo Credit: Jessica Heim

 

 

 

Given in Measurement

[translated poetry]

I

Given in measurement. Play seasons.
Beneath bushes of fog, face blades,

get knotty, all the while be back, pelvis,
exchange of oxygen and photosynthesis.

Lust as shears. Slight air supply, then:
Breathe, raise arms shoulder-high,

a beelined shoot axis. Put up
defense with leaves (thorns, bugs, spiderwebs),

evaporation of the slightest.
The measurements knot in detail:

prune yourself.

II

Breed petals above petals
eye-angering colors.

Feed compound eyes.
Let snouts suck,

an agreement between sugar and scent.
How bees grapple with knotnotes.

Mechanisms of pressure and tilt, slight
explosions, here and there.

Dust on invisible hooks
seduces legs and chest.

III

Waver, carry. New fruits
spin, thin seeds

ringed with pollen dust.
Fruit flesh, fine white china.

The swarm closes in,
swirls, trembles, holds out, humming.

Spills, swept sunlight asunder
the queen’s decree.

Another cilia-haired,
self-whelped people

settling in the next knothole.
A restless black eye.

IV

A thicket spanned by hunter bees.
The world of petals falls in autumn.

When work is finished: a battle
of drones against the swarm.

Small, truncated bodies, dethorned,
enfeebled by their own power,

starved under dews, the hole of flight
only a pinch away.

V

Dance circles seek the utmost distance
between the people and feeding grounds.

The swarm prunes itself, dabs
when juice seeps in honeycombs.

Hardly self-sufficient—as if it were all
for geometrical perfection.

Freely, the stacks quiet
by worker bees’ to-and-fro.

Scooting closer in ever-shifting
positions. Warm by trembling.

To care for progeny:
exchange of secretions.

Carry, dry-out, blanket
the future with wax.

Glue the smallest gaps with resin:
dream of an equally skittering winter.

 

 

Vorhanden in Vermessung

I

In Vermessung vorhanden. Jahreszeiten spielen.
Unter Nebelbüschen sich Klingen stellen,

verästelt warden, dabei Rücken sein, Becken,
Austausch von Sauerstoff und Fotosynthese.

Lust als Schere. Leichte Luftzufuhr, dann
atmend die Arme bis zur Schulter heben,

schnurstracks Sprossachse warden. Mit Blättern
Gegenwehr leisten (Dornen, Käfern, Spinnweben),

der Verflüchtigun noch von Geringstem.
Die Vermessung binden an ein Detail,

sich beschneiden.

II

Blüten über Blüten ausbilden,
Die Augen empörende Farben.

Futterquelle warden unterm Gitterblick.
Rüssel an sich asaugen lassen,

Verständigung über Zucker und Duft.
Wie die Biene sich über Fruchtknoten hermachen.

Druck- und Klappmechanismen,
hier und da kleine Explosionen.

Staub an unsichtbaren Haken
verführt Beine und Brust.

III

Schwingen, tragen. Neue Früchte
warden gezirkelt, hauchdünne Samen,

darum Ringe aus Pollenstaub.
Fruchtfleisch, weißes und feines Porzellan.

Der Schwarm schließt dichter,
wirbelt, vibriert, verharrt summend.

Fällt, von Sonne durchweht,
ein Entscheid der Königin.

Ein weiteres, filmmerhaariges
von sich selbst verjüngtes Volk,

das die nächste Baumachsel besidelt.
Ruheloses schwarzes Auge.

IV

Dickicht, durquert von Spurbienen.
Die Welt der Blätter fällt in den Herbst.

Nach getaner Arbeit: Schlacht
der Drohnen gegen den Schwarm.

Kleine, verkürzte Körper, entstachelt,
geschwächt von der eigenen Macht,

verhungert unter Tau,
Zentimeter vor dem Flugloch.

V

Tanzkreise auf der Suche nach dem größten Abstand
zwischen Futterplatz und Volk.

Der Schwarm beschneidet sich selbst,
schabt sich aus, wenn Saft sickert in Waben.

Kaum Eigenversorgung, als geschähe all dies
zur Vervollkommnung von Geometrie.

Freiwillig stiller im Magazin
die Gänge der Arbeitsbienen.

Näherrücken in standing wechselnden
Positionen. Wärme durch Zittern.

Fürsorge für den Nachwuchs:
Austausch von Sekreten.

Umtragen, Trocknen, Zukunft
verdeckeln mit Wachs.

Verkleben kleinster Öffnungen mit Harz:
Traum von einem gleichgültig dahinjagenden Winter.

 

Patty Nash is a poet and translator from Germany and Oregon. Her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The CollagistInter | rupturePreludethe Offing, and elsewhere. She is currently completing her MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and tweets at @pattynashdj.

Karla Reimert is a German poet. Her first book, Picknick mit Schwarzen Bienen (Picknick with Black Bees), was published in 2014 and won the Berlin Literaturwerkstatt’s Prize for Best Debut. Reimert has won the Würth Poetry Prize, the Rheinsberg Author Forum Prize, and the Essay Prize for the Japanese Consulate.

Selected Poems from Our Ghosts and How We Talk to Them

Gabo Winner Summer/Fall 2018

[translated poetry]

I drank coffee with your devastated parents
or something we called coffee:
were you already different
when we sat across from each other in my kitchen
and you didn’t want to eat anything
except a piece of chocolate,
did you already have an eye on the reeds?
I can’t tell .. was that your way
of saying goodbye, impossible to know
if it was more than this exhaustion
I came to recognize
over the years .. the thing in your head
that breaks your bones
whenever it feels a hankering
like you for a piece of chocolate
I don’t know .. I only know
I was much calmer with you at the table
than I am now .. with your parents
who are devastated
where I can hardly breathe
where every sip
from my water glass
makes me cough, so that I, unlike you,
won’t disappear
in the water—

 


you shocked me more than dr. benn
and dr. benn really shocked me
with words that carved through corpses
like small blades until all flesh
hung from the bone
and nothing remained
except a poem

now you are stranded at dr. benn’s
in the middle of a poem, on a table
where they open you methodically
because you lay in the reeds
for two days in your favorite lake
with your clothes on,
and I ..

I stand next to you, to your lungs
which have grown too big for your body
and dr. benn, my analytical demon,
tries to find something
with his mind dull as lead
maybe you wanted to breathe in
your favorite lake

or your favorite lake you

and even when
we pull the skin down a little
from your brow to your nose
and dare to peek into your skull
and the summer sunlight cascades in,
we are in the end—dr. benn and me
and us—my friend

a piece of paper
that is left over—
nothing more.

 


we read the newspaper for five days
and sensed nothing, you spent five days
in the newspaper as “the drowning victim
the unidentified body in the sommersee
5’7”–5’9,” male, thin, a set of keys
in the pants pocket, or jacket
it said: you had your clothes on, even shoes
and your face: olive toned.
as if you were from southern climes!
the ice was your homeland, an iceberg
of crystal and loneliness … you were
not even reported as missing—
we didn’t miss you for almost a week
blissful monsters; you were too distant
for us to miss you after seven days ..
we were afraid for you too often
and became tired
like you did, and we fell asleep
like you—whole on the outside,
you lay in the reeds for two days, nights
stars over you, your shell
three pictures can be found online:
a boat that brings you ashore
two ambulances, a fire engine
as if you were only sick or injured
or alight .. in one picture
they are bent over you, two men
smoking, looking at you calmly
as if you were a rare fish—

 


twenty photo albums all of you
your bare bottom all over the place
a stack of pain on a table
in an apartment house, 11th floor
only child.

august first, eleven thirty
almost all birds quiet in the heat
while you were being buried
three buckets of dirt into a small hole
and a luncheon still to get through.

old friends of your parents
who order steak
and beer and begin to enjoy
and talk about vacation
on another plane than you ..

and your parents who order steak
without knowing what to do with it—
as if they themselves had been forked up
by you .. and were now staring at you,
into your open mouth—

 


you’d been dead three weeks
I was camping in the woods, asleep
when you stopped by, cheerful
in the night, to tell me
you may appear three more times
don’t worry anymore
it’s really
really good here ..
and you had to laugh
because you sounded like
the brothers grimm on valium.

I didn’t wake up,
your words were simply in my head
like diamonds the next day, then for weeks
for months, a year .. but now
they’re tin, with the hollow ring
of a selfie-dream .. a visit from you?
that can’t be: don’t be a fool
you stopped by dressed like him
to visit yourself, I’ve too often
 
thought and thought and thought ..

I tore the dream up myself
don’t wor
it’s rea
rea ood
 

 

ich hab mit deinen verwüsteten eltern kaffee getrunken
oder irgendwas, was kaffee heißt
ob du schon anders warst vielleicht
als wir uns gegenüber saßen, in meiner küche
wo du nichts essen wolltest
außer einem stückchen schokolade
ob du schon schilf im auge hattest?
kann’s nicht sagen .. ob das schon deine art
von abschied war, fast unbemerkbar
ob da schon mehr als diese müdigkeit
gewesen ist, die ich schon kannte
all die jahre .. das ding in deinem kopf
dass dir die knochen bricht
wann immer es die lust verspürt
wie du auf schokolade
ich weiß es nicht .. ich weiß nur noch
ich war viel ruhiger dort, mit dir am tisch
als jetzt .. mit deinen eltern
die verwüstet sind
wo ich kaum atmen kann
wo jeder schluck
aus meinem wasserglas
mich husten lässt, um nicht wie du
in diesem wasser
zu verschwinden—

 


du hast mich mehr erschreckt als dr. benn
und dr. benn hat mich mal sehr erschreckt
mit worten, die wie kleine messer
durch leichen fuhren, bis alles fleisch
vom knochen hing
und nichts mehr übrig blieb
nur ein gedicht

jetzt bist auch du bei dr. benn gestrandet
mitten im gedicht, auf einem tisch
wo man dich öffnet, schritt für schritt
weil du im schilf gelegen hast
zwei tage, in deinem lieblingssee
noch alle sachen an
und ich

ich steh jetzt neben dir, vor deiner lunge
die viel zu groß geworden ist für dich
und dr. benn, mein analyse-wicht
versucht noch irgendwas zu finden
mit seinem verstand stumpf wie’n kamm
ob du deinen lieblingssee
einatmen wolltest

oder dein lieblingssee
ganz plötzlich dich

und selbst
wenn wir die haut von deiner stirn
ein wenig runterziehen, bis zur nase
und einen blick in deinen schädel wagen
und alles sommerlicht reinfällt
sind wir am ende, dr. benn und ich
und wir, mein freund

ein stück papier
das übrig bleibt—
sonst nichts.

 


wir haben zeitungen gelesen, fünf tage lang
und nichts gespürt, du warst fünf tage lang
in allen zeitungen „die wasserleiche“
„der unbekannte körper aus dem sommersee“
1.70 – 1.75, männlich, schlank, mit einem schlüssel
in der hosentasche, oder jackentasche
dort stand: du hattest alles an, auch schuhe
und dein gesicht: südländisch.
als ob du aus dem süden wärst!
du kamst vom eis, vom eisberg
aus kristall und einsamkeit .. du warst
nicht mal vermisst gemeldet—
fast eine woche haben wir dich nicht vermisst
glückliche monster; du warst zu fern von uns
um dich nach sieben tagen zu vermissen ..
wir hatten angst um dich, zu oft
und wurden müd dabei
so müd wie du, und schliefen ein
wie du—von außen unversehrt
hast du im schilf gelegen, zwei tage, nächte
sterne über dir, der hülle
drei bilder, die jetzt online weiterleben:
ein boot, das dich ans ufer bringt
zwei krankenwagen, eine feuerwehr
als ob du immer noch ein kranker wärst
und brennst .. auf einem bild
beugt man sich über dich, zwei männer
rauchend, die dich ruhig betrachten
wie einen seltenen fisch—

 


zwanzig fotoalben nur für dich
dein nackter kinderpo in allen posen
ein stapel schmerz auf einem tisch
in einem hochhaus, 11. stock
einziges kind.

erster august, halb zwölf
fast alle vögel still vor hitze
als man dich eingegraben hat
drei eimer erde in ein kleines loch
und noch ein mittagessen in der nähe.

die alten freunde deiner eltern
die sich steaks bestellen
und bier, und langsam lustig werden
und von urlaub sprechen
ganz parallel zu dir ..

und deine eltern, die sich steaks bestellen
ohne zu wissen, was man damit tut—
als wär’n sie selber aufgespießt
von dir .. starr’n sie dich an
in deinen mund—

 


du warst drei wochen tot
ich schlief im wald, auf einem campingplatz
als du vorbeikamst, nachts
fast gut gelaunt, um mir zu sagen
du könntest dreimal noch erscheinen
hab keine sorgen mehr
hier ist es wirklich
wirklich gut ..
und musstest selber dabei lachen
weil das wie grimm auf valium klingt.

ich bin nicht aufgewacht
hab nur deinen satz am nächsten tag
wie diamant im kopf gehabt, noch wochenlang
noch monate, ein jahr .. doch jetzt:
wie blech ist er geworden, hohler klang
von einem selfie-traum .. besuch von dir?
wohl kaum. mach dich nicht lächerlich
du hast dich selbst besucht
geschminkt als er
 
hab ich zu oft gedacht gedacht gedacht ..

ich hab mir selbst den traum zerhackt
hab kein sor
hier ist es wirk
wirk ut

 

Translator’s Note:

Carl-Christian Elze began writing poems as a way to deal with bouts of anxiety that began unexpectedly in college and often prevented him from going to class. He discovered that forming his thoughts into musical, poetic structures was both soothing and empowering. In a sense, he sang songs with the ghostly voices in his imagination so they’d become harmonious. As we grow older, we gather more and more specters: parents and friends die, we start families, past selves emerge as experience changes us. When Elze’s childhood best friend committed suicide by drowning, he sat down to write his fifth book, diese kleinen, in der luft hängenden, bergpredigenden gebilde (Berlin: Verlagshaus Berlin, 2016), an exploration of what it means to live in the face of death. Who are we in relation to the ones we love? In relation to the universe? How should we live? Where do we go wrong in our attempt? In the book these poems come from, Elze talks it out with a good number of his ghosts as conversation partners.

A sense of openness, and even more so, the ability to marvel are the keys to Elze’s world—I aspire to make them mine also. Perhaps this is why I was attracted to this book and these poems to begin with. The voice shifts from chapter to chapter, much as the style and content of our conversation changes depending on who we are talking to. When speaking with the deceased friend, the poems mimic the disjunction in their relationship. Other poems in the book sound like a Sunday afternoon phone call with a parent. Elze speaks anxiously to himself at times, and at other times, the poems seem to come from the universe itself to remind us of our sense of wonder. Throughout the work, however, Elze’s poet voice presses through, and I have worked carefully to listen, convey, and respond.

I have my own accumulation of ghosts that I speak with often, and now I can add Elze to their numbers as one who rises up through the page. What translator hasn’t tried out a phrase and then thought, Oh, they would never say that, and deleted it? Falling into each of Elze’s modalities as his translator has been like finding new ones in myself, new ways of speaking where it’s not distinguishable anymore who is doing the talking. Me? Elze? Or perhaps, only a collective conversation on a universal piece of paper and “nothing more—”


Special Guest Judge, Tiffany Higgins:

In “you’ve been dead three weeks,” Caroline Wilcox Reul maintains the speaker’s consistently casual, sometimes humorous tone when addressing the person who’s come back from the dead to speak: “you sound like / the brothers grimm on valium.” A succession of metaphors is rendered rhythmically: “your words were… / like diamonds…but now / they’re tin, with the hollow ring / of a selfie-dream.” I love that the poet and translator have brought into English this concept of a selfie-dream. Throughout [her] translations of Carl-Christian Elze’s poems, Reul keeps us in this quirky, ghostly world. There’s comedy in the last stanza, when the speaker has to “tear up” this intrusive visitation; the first stanza’s reassuring statement gets slurred and shredded: “don’t wor/ it’s rea/ rea ood.” 

 

–Tiffany Higgins is the author of And Aeneas Stares into Her Helmet, selected by Evie Shockley for the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Prize; The Apparition at Fort Bragg, selected by Camille Dungy for the Iron Horse Literary Review contest; and Tail of the Whale (Toad Press, 2016), translations from the Portuguese of Rio poet Alice Sant’Anna. Her poems appear in Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She’s translating the work of Brazilian writers, including Itamar Vieira Junior and Lívia Natália. Her article of narrative journalism, “Brazil’s Munduruku Mark out Their Territory When the Government Won’t,” is forthcoming in Granta’s May 2018 online issue.

 

Caroline Wilcox Reul is a freelance lexicographer and translator. She has a MA in computational linguistics and German language and literature from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. She is the translator of Wer lebt / Who Lives by Elisabeth Borchers (Tavern Books, 2017) and co-editor of the poetry anthology, Over Land and Rising (9 Bridges, 2017). She is currently the poetry editor for the Timberline Review. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in the PEN Poetry Series, the Broadsided PressLyriklineTupelo Quarterly, and Poetry International.

Photo Credit: Nina Johnson Photography

Carl-Christian Elze lives in Leipzig and writes poems, short stories, plays, and libretti. Recent awards for his work include residencies at the Künstlerhaus Edenkoben (2017) and the Deutsche Studienzentrum in Venice (2016), as well as the Joachim-Ringelnatz Prize (2015). His most recent books include langsames ermatten im labyrinth: poems (Verlagshaus Berlin, forthcoming in 2018), diese kleinen, in der luft hängenden, bergpredigenden gebilde: poems (Verlagshaus Berlin, 2016), and Oda und der ausgestopfte Vater (kreuzerbooks, 2018), a book of short stories about growing up with the animals at the Leipzig Zoo where his father was head veterinarian.

Photo Credit: Sascha Kokot

Dope

The first time that I ever saw a crack pipe, I must have been five or six years old. My mother was still raw from my father’s suffering and eventual death. He had been only forty-four years old when he passed away. Still young and beautiful by human standards. My mother had dubbed him the “black Tom Selleck.” He stood 6’3 and weighed 220 pounds and his bare chest boasted a shock of silky, jet-black hair against his copper skin. She would joke that near the end of his illness, she’d spend the night at the hospital to guard him from the single nurses. She had been just thirty-four at the time. Seeing my mother winded and widowed too soon, a close friend named Liz had offered something to “take the edge off”—to dull the sting of her loss, to loosen the grip of despair and depression that had begun to suffocate her, to lighten the weight of having to raise her daughter alone. It was cocaine. Eighteen months later my mother had a full-blown crack addiction. And crack addictions require a pipe.

For twenty-two years, she would do battle with this faceless devil. It rumbled gray and heavy like an endless storm tearing roofs from their houses, uprooting trees older than God, sending furniture and cars airborne, leaving lives frayed and unfurled.

It wasn’t just one pipe. There were hundreds of pipes. Literally. Purple ones that seemed to be as tall as me. Short ones that were no longer than a cigarette. Ancient wooden ones that I imagined were so-called peace pipes of the Natives. They were all behind the glass case in what the old folks called a “head shop.” These were small stores owned by tattooed, bald white guys that catered to vice. The merchandise included glass crack pipes, TOPS rolling papers, a wide variety of lighters decorated with dirty words or bare-chested women, heady sticks of incense, brightly colored incense holders, roach clips, guns of what seemed to my five or six-year-old self to be of every size and shape possible. Dazed as children are often rendered when the curtain concealing adult secrets has been pulled back, I squeezed my mother’s hand tighter so I wouldn’t pass out. By the time that I found myself awed in that head shop, Liz had been dead more than a year.

As time passed, I grew to understand that Liz had been the lucky one—succumbing to her illness (her addiction) swiftly. Before it could mangle her youth, beauty, home, job, happiness, family, relationships, and reputation into an unrecognizable heap. Liz’s exit was brutal but quick. My mother’s would be a destructive, dreadful, achingly slow departure. For twenty-two years, she would do battle with this faceless devil. It rumbled gray and heavy like an endless storm tearing roofs from their houses, uprooting trees older than God, sending furniture and cars airborne, leaving lives frayed and unfurled.

*     *     *

I often overheard other grown-ups—grandmas, uncles, aunts, cousins, play cousins, teachers, preachers—refer to my mother as a “functioning addict.” It meant that because she could hold down a job in between the first and fifteenth of each month and had not yet lost her home, car, or me and had not yet sold her body in exchange for crack that she belonged to the highest rung of junkies in the addict hierarchy. It meant that things could’ve been worse. Much worse.

Because my mother had been employed as a substitute teacher for most of my childhood, the mask of normalcy was easy to maintain. She could choose which days she wanted to work and which days she wanted to use. Paydays and the day or two following a payday were always set aside for using. Even when family and friends could readily recognize the pattern, she denied it vehemently. From the time that I was five, the first seventy-two hours of any given month my mother was a ghost. Quick trips to get a pack of cigarettes, brief dashes to go cash checks, and short rides to a friend’s house almost always swelled into two or three-day long crack binges. She always returned in the dead of night, silent, smelling of musk, stale beer, Newport’s, and the faint odor of Paloma Picasso perfume (her signature scent when sober).

Despite my mother’s struggle I was an honor roll student and she feigned sobriety so well that she was appointed secretary of the Parent Teacher Association at my school. I wore my hair in long plaits, was painfully shy and often labeled a nerd.

Another fringe benefit of being a substitute teacher/addict was that your weekends were always free. Some weekends our house would seem to overflow with “partiers”—fellow users, dealers, enabling friends who smoked marijuana but didn’t do blow or smoke crack. While the men’s faces seemed to switch with great regularity, like people sifting through a busy revolving door, The Women were static, beautiful constants. LP, TM, CS, and my mother were all in their early to mid-thirties and stunning. They shined with the kind of beauty and confidence that comes with maturity. Knowing exactly what shade of foundation blended best with their tone. Clothes that accentuated their curvy legs and hid the stretchmarks on their bellies. Brilliant smiles and large, hearty laughs that echoed self-awareness, self-assuredness. LP was the tallest. She had watery, bright eyes and flawless skin the color of peanut butter. She was a nurse and the single mother of two teenagers. CS was the youngest of The Women, high-yellow and heavy-chested. She spoke with a near-staccato cadence. Her words tumbling over one another. My mother said she was “tie tongued.” TM was thin and waif-figured with African features. She had a daughter my age and we often found ourselves exiled to my room to play while they “partied” deep into the night. My mother was the shortest of The Women, but the toughest by far. Just a shade lighter than a Hershey’s Kiss, she wore raisin colored lipstick and grew her nails long and painted them a deep hue that resembled red wine. The Women were sophisticated and strong and might have gathered at book club meetings or swank happy hour affairs had they not befriended cocaine. They would huddle in the den—a room one door down the hall from mine that Mama had repurposed after my father’s funeral; it had been my half-brother’s room when he lived with us before Daddy died—their heads collectively bowed over a small glass-top coffee table. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were chemists in a lab, intensely focused on precise measurements and portions. Their tools were typical: razor blades, foil, lighters, a ceramic plate, sometimes a spoon and Pyrex bowl. They made frequent trips from the den to the kitchen and back. When I got older, I would get a kick out of watching the eyes of men widen to saucers as I told them that I knew how to cook crack before my eighth birthday. I became instantly dark and dangerous and intriguing with the candid revelation. Over time I learned to use it to shock and entice. Like a card trick at dinner parties. Small gifts I suppose.

The parties usually crawled from one day into the next and the adults rarely seemed to notice or mind that they hadn’t eaten or showered in nearly twenty-four hours. The Women never looked the same as they had the night before. Hair tousled and out of place. Mouths dry. Skin dulled and ashen. Pupils dilated. Eyes red with fatigue. Laughter reduced to effortless groans. Luster lost to the reverie of inebriation. Regrets slowly filled in the slight lines on their faces as they filed out one by one to return to reality, daylight, and the other things they had been desperately trying to escape.

From kindergarten right up until the last day of high school, this was my version of “functional.”

*     *     *

In 1991, “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” had to have been the most popular song on the radio, certainly the most popular song blasting from boom boxes and thumping from car stereos on my block. At least it felt like it. For fifth-grade bullies, the punchlines wrote themselves. And I had a bright, blinking target affixed squarely between my eyes.

Despite my mother’s struggle I was an honor roll student and she feigned sobriety so well that she was appointed secretary of the Parent Teacher Association at my school. I wore my hair in long plaits, was painfully shy and often labeled a nerd. And while Mama had been able to successfully deceive the teachers and parents from surrounding neighborhoods, there was no fooling the kids who lived on my block. They knew our secret. Their fathers, uncles, and cousins were often my mother’s suppliers. Sometimes they showed up at our house on the weekends. This knowledge was more than enough ammunition for girls who built their reputations and esteem by tearing down girls like me who were quiet, timid, spineless mounds of flesh. Shenita was one of those soul-eating, fire breathing girls. Her uncle was a dark-skinned guy known to everyone as Spencer. He was as notorious as a neighborhood dope boy could be. He drove a black Mustang GT and had a gold tooth that could blind you if the sun hit his broad smile just right. He was buoyant and funny and a frequent visitor to the weekend parties. One day Shenita cornered me at lunch. She asked me if my mama was a crackhead. I froze. She said that Spencer was her uncle and that everyone knew my mama was a crackhead. Feeling the curious and bloodthirsty stares of the other kids at the table, I just shook my head “no” and stared down into the institutional-looking mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables on my lunch tray and prayed for her to just walk away. When I summoned enough courage to raise my eyes from the food, Shenita was still hovering, now with a spoonful of mashed potatoes fashioned as a catapult pointed directly at my face. “Admit it,” she demanded. The “or else” was unspoken, but evident in her bulging bug-eyes. I felt my own eyes start to fill with tears as a teacher approached the group. Shenita put her spoon down but her eyes lingered on my shame. I don’t recall her ever really bothering me again. I guess her mission had been accomplished.

*     *     *

By the time I entered my teen years, Mama had lost the house (so much for functional) and we’d moved in with my grandmother shortly after Mama’s first stint in rehab. My grandmother’s house was situated in the back of a subdivision called Apple Valley. It had once been a beautiful slice of suburbia when Granny first purchased her house but was soon bastardized by white-flight and Section 8. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was my favorite album, and Snoop Dog’s “Gin and Juice” was my favorite song. My mother had finally let me get a fashion-forward haircut, boys had begun to show interest in me, and I was discovering ways to cope with my mother’s demons by creating some of my own.

Jesus was my first drug of choice. I discovered Him when I started going to church with my grandmother. She was a freshly-converted zealot. She had just been “saved” and wanted to make sure that everyone that she encountered from that day forward would be “saved” as well. Me and Mama had been first on her spirit-filled hit list. My mother, having been both an adult and addict at the time, was hard to turn. But I was easier pickings. Logging in what felt like thousands of hours at Wednesday night Bible study, Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, first and third Thursday young adult meetings, choir practices, annual revivals, vacation Bible school, Mother’s Board meetings, choir anniversaries, Usher Board anniversaries, and a handful of Youth Ministry lock-in’s, I became hooked. Entranced by the prevailing sense of community. Rapt by the notion that all of the answers to life’s most perplexing queries could be found in King James’ version of the Bible. Completely swept by the choir’s sway and melody and Pastor’s guttural, ardent invocation. Like most dependencies, I would leave and return and leave and return again, never quite able to achieve that first miraculous high. Sweet Jesus, indeed.

To outsiders, it must have seemed like torture. My grandmother’s siblings repeatedly admonished her as an enabler.

The only thing that seemed as intoxicating as the holy ghost was the gaze of men and teenaged boys—full of primitive longing, carnality, desire. For me, men and boys were peripheral and taboo. They had always lurked around the margins of my life. A dead daddy. A shipped-off half-brother. Mama’s married, on-again-off-again boyfriend. Drug dealers. Grown men who stared too long at my budding figure. Bumbling, anxiety-ridden, sex obsessed boys. It wasn’t until I became the mother of two sons that I understood the opposite sex to be vulnerable, complex human beings and not beasts that only existed to be tamed, conquered, or feared. When I was fifteen I fell in love with one of those unreachable “beasts.” His name was Charles and he was a low-level dope peddler (marijuana by ounces, not pounds; small quantities of cocaine and crack). He was nineteen, lean, muscular, the color of an old penny, and tall enough that my head lay comfortably on his shoulder in embrace. His eyes were perpetual slits underneath long black lashes, always half-closed. His lips had the shiny brown sheen of someone who smoked blunts all day. His gait was weighed down with disappointment and rage, not unlike most of the other guys in our hood. His mother was an addict like mine, and he let me wear his gold herringbone chain to make it “official.” I wasn’t a virgin the first time I had sex with Charles, but it was still magical in a way. It was more emotional than physical. We were two kids escaping the same pain. Together. We were making love. As with most teenage love affairs, the relationship quickly fizzled. I remember returning his chain by way of his younger brother who was a high school classmate. But I never forgot Charles, his torment, or the sound of his beating heart as we laid naked and pressed together under the cheap plaid sheets on his twin bed, both our mamas too high to care where we were or what we were doing. I was supposed to hate boys like Charles, the black-hearted pushers whose main goal in life was to keep my mother hooked and going back for more. But I couldn’t. I had seen too much of my own anguish in their eyes. Left despondent and bewildered by underperforming schools, half-assed teachers, overworked or absent parents, an ever-present overzealous police state, and dwindling job opportunities, selling dope was just another expected chore for guys like Charles (along with dropping out of school and going to jail). This fate was an inescapable destiny for kids like us. So, I wasn’t surprised when, five years later, I found myself giving to birth to a son while his father—a dealer like Charles—paced back and forth in a 6X8 cage in an Alabama county lock-up.

*     *     *

Life has a way of becoming less and less black and white as we grow older. The world becomes grayer. Uncrossable lines get crossed. Unthinkable thoughts begin to inhabit the mind. Never becomes maybe and suddenly we find ourselves changing in frightening, unexpected ways.

After my mother’s second failed attempt at rehab, I began to accept the idea that she was always going to be an addict and would always need some kind of vice—somewhere to hide the hurt when life’s relentless foot was too heavy upon her neck. I was also beginning to realize that I was my mother’s daughter. I, too, was an escape artist, constantly in search of a door marked EXIT. And when neither sex nor salvation were at my fingertips, other substances would have to suffice.

Weed became our Switzerland—a neutral, peaceful stomping ground far less damaging than crack, not nearly as risky as alcohol-fueled hook-ups with questionable men, and less manipulative than religion. Even though it was illegal, it was tolerable and soothing. Weed mended a great deal of the fractures that existed in our relationships. Me and Mama. Mama and Granny.

When me and my one-year-old son moved out of my grandmother’s house and into our own apartment, Mama and I celebrated the move at the end of the day by plopping down on my futon, putting our feet up on the coffee table that we’d just assembled, and rolling a joint. I remember her mocking my technique calling my joints “guppies” because they were often fat in the middle. I hadn’t yet perfected the art. We laughed and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the tough, sassy leader of The Women. Radiant.

While Granny still loved Jesus vigorously, her holy-roller streak had subsided. Sometimes I think that she may have even viewed Mama’s penchant for marijuana as a twisted answer to a fervent prayer. Granny had always had a green thumb and loved to watch things grow. So, on a whim, she planted some stray marijuana seeds alongside her squash, zucchini, tomato, and collard plants. Then she loved it, watered it, tended to it, talked to it, doted on it. And it grew into an ample plant, so big that she eventually had to uproot it for fear police might see the small tree from the street. My mother affectionately called the green, leafy, 5-feet-tall bush Bappy.

Marijuana never did what we had wanted it to do. It hadn’t cured Mama. It hadn’t been strong enough to silence the Siren song of cocaine. At best, it’d given us brief periods of reprieve and respite from the tumult and chaos of loving an addict, a temporary break from the arguments, accusations, and tears. It’d offered us a few days out of each month when me nor my grandmother had to worry whether Mama would return when she asked to borrow the car; it’d gifted us with a handful of serene nights spent sleeping and not wondering if she’s dead or alive. Granny and I had learned to be thankful for the good days and prepared for the bad.

To outsiders, it must have seemed like torture. My grandmother’s siblings repeatedly admonished her as an enabler. Don’t lend Pat any money. You know what she gonna do with it. Most of the time Granny heeded their advice. But Pat was her only child. And there are times when one just must believe in their child. How does one just discard their only daughter? The pressure was no lighter on me. As a teen, on more than one occasion, teachers, counselors, and friends’ parents had blatantly suggested that I pursue legal emancipation from my mother. But I’d never seriously considered it. My godmother once asserted, Your mother has never let you finish anything. But that was only half true. Sure, a violin or two had been pawned for drug money and gymnastics and piano lessons and cheerleading had taken a backseat to my mother’s habit. She had disappeared on the night of my first debutante ball and the day after my son was born. But my mother was my mother. And I had learned early in life that death was certain and quick footed and in inexorable pursuit of my mama. She needed me. And I needed her more than I needed sanity or stability.

*     *     *

The eerie fact—the thought that syphons sleep from my nights—is that Pat would’ve been the perfect mother minus the disease of addiction. Sober Pat was the ideal matriarch. Sober Pat sacrificed her light and life and energy to watch my father die. She aided home health workers in lifting his 200-plus pound frame to wipe his bottom and change his adult diapers and risked arrest yelling at the police officer who had pulled them over on the muted drive home from the doctor’s appointment where they’d learned that Daddy only had six months to a year to live. Sober Pat allowed my six-year-old hands to part her texturized hair into small square sections with a giant neon blue Goody comb and practice plaiting and French braiding when my Barbie dolls no longer sufficed. Sober Pat and I often took naps together on the couch in the den—she laid on her belly, face pressed into the cushion, and my small frame snuggled on her back, soothed by the warmth emanating from her slumbering body. We performed this ritual until I was about eight-years-old (too big to sleep on my Mama’s back). Sober Pat baked cupcakes and brought them to my classroom on my birthday. And when I was in middle school, she let me have a sleepover with three of my friends and spent forty dollars on a tub of Superman-flavored ice cream (it was vanilla with hot pink and blue food coloring) from a fancy ice cream parlor in the mall. When Sober Pat had money, she spared no expense. We vacationed in Disney World and Myrtle Beach. Sober Pat purchased every edition of World Book Encyclopedias from 1980 until 1990, and whenever I asked her a question that was academic in nature, she fired back without raising an eyebrow, Look it up. In doing this, she taught me to love learning and to take charge of my own education. And often, when Sober Pat wasn’t sober, it was those volumes in which I took refuge until Sober Pat returned. Indeed, it was Sober Pat who envisioned me as a writer decades before I could see myself as an essayist and poet. It was she who encouraged me (her shy, self-doubting, eighth-grader) to submit a poem for publication in the Sego Middle School anthology. Once published, a sixth-grader chose my piece to perform in a school talent show. I was flabbergasted. Sober Pat wasn’t surprised at all. It was Sober Pat who believed the doctor when my son was diagnosed with autism and helped me shuttle him back and forth to daily speech and occupational therapy appointments and held my hand in those first IEP meetings while I wept. As selfless as she was, Sober Pat tried to nurse her own fading dreams as well. She’d always confessed a lifelong desire to be a prison warden and, at fifty-three years old, Sober Pat became a POST trained and certified corrections officer with Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

Almost perfect.

*     *     *

On June 6, 2006—twenty days before her fifty-sixth birthday—Mama went to sleep and never woke up, apparently claimed by a massive stroke according the Columbia County coroner. TM was the only one of The Women who called and offered her condolences.

*     *     *

And even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama

That’s the line that always breaks me. It picks me up and then drops me from a hundred-story skyscraper. Tupac’s Dear Mama plays on a loop as I scoot my patio chair closer to the sun. I want to feel the heat on my toes. I wash an ill-gotten Adderall down with a lukewarm Corona. It’s my second drink today. I balance my laptop on my thighs and stare into a blank Word document. These are my Mother’s Days now—motherless and teeming with memories too vivid to relive, dreams too distant to imagine. I wish that Mama were still here. I wish that Granny could’ve held her daughter one last time confident in her complete sobriety. I wish that Mama had started using in 2004 instead of 1984. Then, perhaps, a better educated society would have looked at her and saw a person with an illness in need of help and not a lost cause from which to flee. I wish that Mama had been born white and preferred painkillers, then she would’ve been at the center of the Republicans’ “heartfelt” plea to “address America’s opioid epidemic” and not the target of disproportionate and oppressive sentencing laws. I wish Mama were sitting in the chair next to me, round-faced and glowing and laughing, holding an impeccably rolled joint between her thumb and index finger, legs crossed at the ankles, shoeless toes swinging just a hair above the concrete ground beneath. I wish she’d bring the joint to her ebony puckered lips, inhale, and blow small white clouds above her head in the shape of halos. I wish…

 

Kristie Robin Johnson is an educator, essayist, and poet. The native of Augusta, GA, is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Free Speech, HEArt Online Journal, Rigorous, Split Lip, Dear Esme, Under the Gum Tree, and riverSedge.

 

 

Journal Drawings Early 1500s: Pen and Ink

Alistair McCartney, Author

Photo Credit: Tim Miller

Alistair McCartney is more apt to graciously smile and walk by, than stay and chat. Amiable and courteous, he’s an unassuming type who stays out of the spotlight. Author of The Disintegrations: A Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), he recently won the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. The Seattle Times and ENTROPY named it one of the best works of fiction for 2017. His first novel, The End of The World Book (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) was a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award in 2009 and for the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award in 2009, as well as landing a spot in The Seattle Times Best Ten Books of 2008. His writing has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Fence, Animal Shelter (Issue 2, Semiotexte), BloomLies/IslesGertrude, CRUSH Fanzine1913James White Review, Scott Heim’s The First Time I Heard series, and Karen Finley’s Aroused.

The Disintegrations cobbles together nightmares, legends, haunts, and tender recall into a larger story that allows for deep reflection and interpretation.

Born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, Alistair McCartney resides in Venice, California. He is on staff at Antioch University Los Angeles teaching fiction for the MFA in creative writing program, and oversees AULA’s undergraduate creative writing concentration. Included in the list of institutions where he has presented are CUNY Grad Center, PEN Center USA, AWP, Teacher’s and Writer’s Collaborative New York, and UW Madison. Usually dressed in a slim tee and slacks, his longish hair waving over one eye, Alistair brings cups of tea and total focus to his workshops.

I had the opportunity to work with Alistair during a creative writing residency at Antioch University’s MFA program. When my packet arrived stamped with his name, I wanted to bellow a loud huzzah, but whispered, yes, to my napping hubs, I’m workshopping with Alistair McCartney. At the workshop, I felt awed by Alistair’s humor and unshakable calm; the way he doesn’t trip on words. His latest novel, The Disintegrations was nearly finished, he told our group. He raked through his hair and described the task. Nine years of work, building, disassembling, paging through text, and here I was witness to the last phase of its completion. It only takes nine months to birth a baby. Holding the new novel and reading it through winter break, I could hear Alistair’s gentle Australian-accented prosody narrating in my head.

The Disintegrations cobbles together nightmares, legends, haunts, and tender recall into a larger story that allows for deep reflection and interpretation. Also named “Alistair,” the novel’s narrator is unapologetic, sometimes seedy, and never predictable. McCartney presents briefly penned inquiries, snooping for small answers to the big question: What does the exploration of death reveal about life?

I interviewed Alistair McCartney by email in February, 2018.

Andrea Auten: Your recently published novel, The Disintegrations, packs thick and richly worded text exploring death’s parlous hold on its narrator, and though the piece is small, it contains profound discoveries. In intimate partnership, I walked through death’s shadowy valley in what felt like an epic thousand-page novel and never felt cheated or unquenched. What methods helped manage the size and scope of death and in paring down the text, how did large cuts affect your writing and serve this story?

Alistair McCartney: That makes me so happy to hear that your reading experience was one of intimacy, and that the book felt epic in scope, within the limits of its 213 pages. If I learnt anything from the process of writing this novel, it was how to compress, how to be ruthless in cutting. Earlier drafts were three times as long.

What guided me through this process was an ethos that I address directly in the book, that in trying to write about death, the temptation is to go on and on, to write a novel of Moby Dick proportions, but instead I followed an instinct that the writer should be more modest in his aims.

In The Disintegrations I use the analogy of wanting to write a book like a grand cathedral of Gothic dimensions, but instead aiming to create a structure that has the strictly controlled dimensions of a grave, a book whose space is contained, but full of hidden things.

I think, or I hope that this method served the voice, brought forth a terse quality in the narrator, and served the story in terms of avoiding grandiosity or portentousness. It also helped speed things up in terms of pacing; some readers have told me they read the book in one sitting, which also makes me happy.

AA: I enjoy your form of archival writing; this collective sourcing. When all is available can it become a flood and how do you navigate and know what to keep?

AM: I love that you pick up on the archival nature of The Disintegrations. Just as with The End of the World Book, I played the role of an encyclopedist; in this new book I’m essentially an archivist, responsible for maintaining the archives of the dead, though one who is not averse to tampering with the documents, falsifying them. And it gets me wondering if all writing is archival by nature, to some degree.

The specter of Catholicism was unavoidable in this book especially given the setting at a Catholic cemetery, given the narrator’s (and my own) Catholic upbringing.

Your notion of the flood is definitely apt, it’s exactly what I was confronted with as I researched and wrote successive drafts: a deluge of documents, records, facts, information. As for how to deal with it, I think you have to drown for a while in all of it, but after the deluge, you begin to intuitively keep and take only what draws you with a kind of magnetic pull, what sparks your imagination.

AA: I have a vivid childhood memory of losing myself in the worn-out album cover of Elton John’s Captain Fantastic, an older brother’s hand-me-down classic, while listening to songs like “Someone Save My Life Tonight” and staring at the Bosch-inspired cover art. Bosch’s real painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” both frightens and fascinates, with Adam and Eve, all of the people on earth, and the darkening end times depiction. As you wrote The End of the World Book and The Disintegrations, how might Catholic iconography have attached to your themes?

AM: Your childhood memory sounds very similar to my own—I was obsessed with music and visual images, including Bosch’s art, especially that right panel of The Garden, his depiction of Hell. Your choice of words as to the effect of his images, both frightening and fascinating, is spot-on. Weirdly enough in an earlier draft of The Disintegrations I wrote about Bosch; I ended up cutting it, but will go back to it in another book that is part of the cycle I’m working on.

The specter of Catholicism was unavoidable in this book especially given the setting at a Catholic cemetery, given the narrator’s (and my own) Catholic upbringing. I think I should leave it up to readers and reviewers as to how it specifically impacts the book’s set of icons, but I will say that the theme of resurrection versus disintegration is obviously central to The Disintegrations. The narrator draws on religious motifs throughout, not just of the Catholic variety, but always through a non-systematic lens. As I wrote I was thinking a lot about writers and artists who draw on religious imagery in a reverent yet deeply idiosyncratic way, like Flannery O’Connor, Dostoevsky, and my fellow Australian Nick Cave.

AA: Your work, nonlinear, archival, the spaces in between, evokes visual art movements—beyond surrealism, somewhere less Dadaistic—where interpretation and interaction meet. What are your visual art interests and how do they help you paint words?

AM: Yeah, I’m definitely a writer who’s profoundly influenced by other art forms—music, dance, film, and as you mention, visual art. In a very general sense, I’m drawn to the immediate power of the image, the sensual materiality of visual art; my writing is very image based—images are more important than plot or narrative.

There were several artists whose work really informed The Disintegrations, images I kept on my desk as I wrote: Alice Neel’s portraits guided the fictional eulogies, El Greco’s painting of The View of Toledo served as sort of talisman for the setting, Marlene Dumas’ stark portraits in her Measuring your Own Grave exhibit were invaluable, as were the disintegrated photographs of Costica Ascinte (one of his photos ended up on the cover), and Banks Violette’s abstract Black Metal inspired installations. All these works shared a beauty and intensity that helped me figure out how to write around death, through death.

Because all my writing begins with fragments, I’m deeply drawn to the visual art method of collage, it teaches me so much —I’m fixated on that now as I work on my next book. Also, installation artists like Danh Vo, who works with the accumulation of disparate objects into a non-linear narrative. And I have a future book planned for my cycle that will, God willing, address my passion for visual art directly.

AA: How does performance art and its world weave into your writing and inspire you?

AM: Well, I do have a background in performance art and live art. I spent a good chunk of the 90’s in London and in LA experimenting in that zone, doing both text based work and movement focused, body centered work without text. And I used to teach a class on the history of performance art, Vibrant Bodies, to the undergrads at Antioch, focusing on extreme performance, like Chris Burden, Ron Athey, Kira O’Reilly, Franko B, Marina Abramovich, William Pope, L. Regina Galindo, and others.

When I was a practitioner, I was kind of trying to avoid being a writer, though I had to go back to it, it’s just who I am and what I do. But that trace of performance lingers in my writing; a review of The End of the World Book said that the voice and prose was like that of a performance artist, or an avant-garde stand up comic. For that book I did some directly performative readings, using a slideshow, and playing with volumes of the actual World Book during the reading.

And I think The Disintegrations is also very oral in nature, it’s a book to be read aloud, which is how I write, reading every sentence over and over again aloud until it sounds right. Essentially I approach writing in a very performative manner; for me that “I” who narrates my books, who bears my name, is a persona, a performative gesture. It’s interesting you bring up performance because I suspect I may be exploring it more actively in the third book, both in terms of the writing on the page but off the page as well.

AA: What sparked your love for French auto-fiction and how did great minds such as Bataille, Rimbaud, Genet, Guibert, and Blanchot influence your work? 

When I teach fiction, truth is not a word I reach for, but I use other words or concepts that perhaps are variants of the term. For instance, when I’m reading my student’s novels and short stories, I’m drawn to identifying the singularity of a writer, and encouraging them to pursue that uniqueness.

AM: Well, all those writers you mention are ones I love and have informed me at different stages of my life. Genet, Bataille, and Rimbaud are writers I discovered as a teenager; Guibert in my mid-twenties, Blanchot more recently. And to that list I’d add Duras, who I first read as an undergrad. Specifically in terms of those writers whose work falls under the category of auto-fiction—Duras, Guibert, Blanchot—I’d say it was an immediate resonance with the work, their “choice” to write explicitly from life, but refuse the category of fiction, and in Blanchot’s case, to question the very grounds of representation. I’m making this attraction sound very cerebral, but it was much more instinctive. All of my work begins in the autobiographical, but I just don’t feel comfortable telling it in the realm of creative non-fiction. Blanchot’s Death Sentence was a novella that had a major influence on The Disintegrations in helping me find the right voice and register to tell my fictional eulogies.

As for the other writers you mention who don’t fall so neatly into auto-fiction, with Bataille, his exploration of the erotics of transgression and the interface between sex and death is definitely there in The Disintegrations. In many ways I think of the shorter sections of my book that read like prose poems as direct descendants of Rimbaud’s The Illuminations, like negative mirror images of those poems. Even the title of Rimbaud’s book influenced my title. I’m not sure Genet’s influence is directly in the current book, but interestingly enough he’s someone I’ve been thinking about lately, and who is definitely influencing the world of the new book I’m working on.

AA: All this clanging about fake news, truth v. fact, grappling with the nature of truth is not a new social construct. Ancient Greco-Roman rights and illusions of free speech, Foucault’s “games of truth” thinking, the splashy recrimination hurled at not so nonfiction writing; truth has pliancy. As a teaching artist how do you assist writers to search for their own relationship to truth?

AM: That’s a really interesting question, because the word truth is one that’s not really in my vocabulary, at least as it applies to art. I think I’m still very much a child of post-modernity; Nietzsche’s assertion that “truth is a mobile army of metaphors” is one I’ve been very aware of lately. I’m fine with Plato labeling us as liars—he can keep his Truth.

So when I teach fiction, truth is not a word I reach for, but I use other words or concepts that perhaps are variants of the term. For instance, when I’m reading my student’s novels and short stories, I’m drawn to identifying the singularity of a writer, and encouraging them to pursue that uniqueness. I’m really excited by my students doing work that’s provocative, that’s pushing at a limit, that’s fearless. All of this is my way of encouraging the writer to follow their aesthetic vision, which is perhaps, a sort of truth, or more essential than truth. Encouraging the writer to counter that “clanging” in the social sphere you mention, with the—to take Nietzsche’s words—“sensuous vigor” of their language.

Perhaps the closest I get to applying the concept of truth to fiction is when a student is doing work with a basis in history, and their work is intent on revealing historic truth, especially through defamiliarization. That’s where I have to separate my own aesthetic or philosophical discomfort with using the term, particularly when I write, my sense that language is not a medium that has access to truth, from the importance of my student’s vision and from the strategic importance, in our age, the necessity of asserting the value of historical truth to counter the dissembling forces of fascism here and globally.

AA: What role do writers have in influencing culture and do you see that increasing or decreasing?

Helen Cixous says that children read with extreme violence, in that they erase the rest of the world when they read. I think if we can write books that intuitively tap into that obsessive focus, that childish curiosity, that textual hunger, that free zone where no limits were placed on the imagination, where narratives were unpredictable and we were more than happy to go along for the ride, maybe then we’ll keep our readers eager to turn the page, longing to finish their daily obligations and get back to the book.

AM: Wow, “culture” is such a big concept, I’m not sure what it means anymore. I think we did see in the 20th century the splintering of the notions of high culture versus low culture, the de-centering of the writer as influencing cultural trends in a grand way. Sure, some big names have a platform in their books and op-eds and speeches where they are able to reach an audience large enough to have some broader influence, but I think most of us, if we have any influence, it’s in the literary communities we find ourselves in, whether those reside in an institution or outside an institution. It’s also in that intimate relationship between individual writers and individual readers, those readers we touch and who reach out, so we can communicate with them. That sphere of influence is very significant.

AA: Our two rows of The World Book Encyclopedia shelved behind the family couch frequently called me to lie on my belly and consume information. While I read your novels The End of the World Book, drinking its humor and interiority, and The Disintegrations, marveling at the depth and uniqueness of its characters, I considered how you crafted the works to make me crave and hungrily keep reading. What makes readers want to continue reading?

AM: I love hearing how other readers shared the same passion as mine for The World Book when they were kids. The other day I was telling someone how in the last few years, and even more recently, in the last year since The Disintegrations came out, I’ve learned to read like a kid again, with the same intensity and joy. Helen Cixous says that children read with extreme violence, in that they erase the rest of the world when they read. I think if we can write books that intuitively tap into that obsessive focus, that childish curiosity, that textual hunger, that free zone where no limits were placed on the imagination, where narratives were unpredictable and we were more than happy to go along for the ride, maybe then we’ll keep our readers eager to turn the page, longing to finish their daily obligations and get back to the book.

AA: How might writers adhere to current publishing standards, while tooling the piece they’re compelled to write, honoring their own voice and truth?

AM: Well, we all want to get published, which means having to meet “a publishing standard” established by a house, an editor or agent, a system. But I think it’s really important as writers we write the books we’re meant to write, in all their singularity, ignoring all publishing conventions. So I guess it’s a question of simultaneously pushing the limits of standardization, writing what we need to write while finding those editors, publishers, especially the small independent houses, and locating those journals that welcome singularity and idiosyncrasy.

AA: Flashbacks seem to be on a downturn yet The Disintegrations utilizes recall, reverie, and rumination to successfully invoke a storyteller’s voice. How do you keep your narratives active and where do you think the industry trend is headed?

AM: Yeah, reverie is an important aspect of The Disintegrations and The End of the World Book. I’ve been plugging away at Proust again—I’m only up to book three, The Guermantes Way—and I realized how much his fetishization of recall has influenced me, albeit gathering memories in a far more fragmentary method than his. I’d say the active element of my narratives comes by way of image and motif, the accumulation of memories and images, the reverb of motifs that the reader recognizes and hopefully takes pleasure in.

As a teacher of MFA fiction writers, I am aware that the use of flashback in conventional narratives can drag the narrative down, but, as with the previous question, I do think writers should be wary of any fixed rules and write against such a convention. I’m afraid I don’t pay much attention to “industries” or “trends” so I can’t tell you where any of that is going, but my hope would be that we keep letting in more of those voices that don’t meet market expectations, those voices that don’t fit any trends.

 

Andrea Auten is the Amuse-Bouche editor for Lunch Ticket’s thirteenth issue. A masters candidate in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and an arts teacher and performer from Dayton, OH, she lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her work can be found in The Antioch Voice. She is currently finishing her second novel.

 

Percival Everett, Author

Percival Everett is one smart dude, much smarter than me. I worried that my interview questions wouldn’t measure up, that he would find my level of inquiry so ordinary that they would fall short of rousing his interest. Instead, I found an open, amiable, attentive individual who paused to consider each of my questions before giving me thoughtful, albeit concise, responses. His love of language is obvious. The words he speaks are as exacting as the words he writes.

Over his prolific career, Everett has averaged a new work of fiction about every eighteen months. As an older aspiring writer, I find this to be as depressing as it is inspiring. Of his over fifteen novels, Erasure, his most lauded, and So Much Blue, his latest, may be the markers by which we can trace his trajectory as a writer. Both explore some of the most daunting philosophical questions of our time—the role of the artist in society, identity, race, and relationships. Everett admits he prefers reading books that challenge him. It stands to reason that his work would do the same for his readers. His thought provoking novels reveal a refreshing, imaginative freedom that reflects his philosophy when it comes to fiction.

Everett says much of his writing is prompted by life questions he wants to examine. In each of his works the question differs, making the nature of his novels distinct in subject and structure, often mixing humor with the absurd.

In Erasure (2001), Everett explores how perceived cultural and racial bias can dictate what gets published and what doesn’t, what is valued and what isn’t. One wonders how close it comes to Everett’s own relationship with the publishing industry. The novel also seeks to erase the notion that the black American experience differs from the American experience. He makes the point with all the subtlety of a bullet train hitting a brick wall, forcing us to consider the question from a larger perspective—especially when the narrator, speaking about the dense, intellectually challenging book he’s written and had repeatedly declined by publishers, says, “I was a victim of racism by virtue of my failing to acknowledge racial difference and by failing to have my art be defined as an exercise in racial expression.”

So Much Blue (2017), examines relationships—specifically marriage, secrets, and trauma. The novel weaves three different narratives that culminate when all secrets are revealed and the narrator’s life comes into focus. Here, Everett draws from his talent as a visual artist—his artistic endeavors go well beyond writing—to accurately express the nuances of color and time. His visual imagery establishes mood, and a level of mystery that tends to provoke certain questions:What does it take to sustain a marriage? What is the difference between what may be construed as a lie versus a secret?

Everett says much of his writing is prompted by life questions he wants to examine. In each of his works the question differs, making the nature of his novels distinct in subject and structure, often mixing humor with the absurd. This is not entirely unexpected given that his initial undergraduate and graduate studies were in philosophy, namely logic, which I found fascinating and encouraging, given my own background as an engineer. It is our gain that he decided to write instead; otherwise contemporary literary fiction would be missing an important voice.

It is difficult to capture Everett’s work within a single category. In a seminar at Antioch University he said, “In fiction, there are no rules.” As a fiction writer I found this statement liberating. It was as if I’d been granted permission to let my writing unapologetically move to my own music, my own voice. Everett’s novels, poetry, and short stories all reflect his dismissal of those rules that might otherwise restrain his work. His eloquence, intellect, and style remain constant. His voice and point of view is always firm, confident, and reflective. According to Everett, “Writing is always political.”

Everett’s own trajectory as a writer has managed to avoid the issues that he tries to illuminate in Erasure. Unlike the novel’s main character, Everett is, in fact, a widely respected and accomplished author of literary fiction. His novels offer a broader, more complex view of the African-American experience rather than the narrow, ghettoized version too often considered by the mostly white publishing establishment as the only authentic black experience.

Despite his aversion to social media and self-promotion, his work has been often recognized by a number of awards. Everett is the recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Academy Award in Literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction (Erasure and I Am Not Sidney Poitier:A Novel), the New American Writing Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Winner of the 2010 Believer Book Award for I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Winner of the 29th Dos Passos Prize in 2010, awarded the Phi Kappa Phi Presidential Medallion from the University of Southern California in 2015, and the Creative Capital Award in 2016. In addition, his stories have been included in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Short Stories.

I met Percival Everett on a blustery February morning at a small neighborhood café in South Pasadena. As we shook hands he apologized, and true to his directness, told me that he had only thirty minutes and warned me that he was a tough interview. I suppose it was his way of letting me know he might not be too forthcoming. I’d done enough research that his warnings did not surprise me. In fact, it was that self-effacing quality that interested me in the first place. Modesty would be unbecoming to a man who’d authored so many successful novels, short stories, children’s books, and poetry collections in the span of his thirty-five-year career. I came to this interview as interested in the man as I was in his work.

The following interview is excerpted from our conversation.

Jesus Sierra: You studied Philosophy and minored in Biochemistry. I’m curious about that.

Percival Everett: Well, the philosophy I studied was mathematical logic.

JS: What did you have in mind for a career?

PE: I didn’t. I was just studying. It seems back then, you just went to college and it was what you did.

JS: Why University of Miami?

PE: I wanted to study with a guy named Howas Pospesel, a logician.

JS: And you knew of him before.

PE: Yeah. I have a love-hate relationship with Miami.

JS: Why do you say that?

PE: Because it’s a great city, full of life, with everything that’s wrong with America, right there. The exploitation of people, the disparity of wealth.

JS: How did you end up writing fiction? Were you writing fiction before?

PE: I continued to do philosophy. I graduated from college way too young, so I went on to a PhD Program in Philosophy at the University of Oregon, because I started reading a guy named Wittgenstein. The logic became the philosophy of language, and I just realized that I hated doing philosophy.

JS: Is that much like J.L. Austin? Is that the same kind of thing?

PE: Yeah, well not quite the same but he’s my favorite philosopher.

JS: I love philosophy and have a library of philosophy books of which I’ve read only a few. I’ve got too many books that I’m never going to read.

PE: Hey, that’s the way we will all go.

JS: At what point did you start writing?

PE: It was called ordinary language philosophy. It consisted of creating scenes in which people spoke about philosophical concepts in ordinary discourse as a way to understand what we mean by those philosophical problems. So I was writing scenes and since I was really disenchanted with scholastic philosophy and I was a reader, I just started enjoying writing scenes.

JS: You were asked to write fictional scenes?

PE: Well, you write dialogue. People are talking and it’s supposed to be the way we normally talk. The idea is that philosophers create their own problems by the ability to acknowledge what we already know and by speaking in weird ways instead of using ordinary language.

JS: So you took a liking to that. Is that when you decided to go to Brown University?

PE: Yeah.

JS: At what point did you start training mules? Was that before all this?

PE: Living in Oregon I ended up with some jobs working ranches. Sheep ranches.

JS: Did you work in ranches before?

PE: I’d ridden but I hadn’t work in ranches. As you know, working ranches very seldom involves any riding. But when I ended up at auctions, I met some cattle guys who said they’d give me a summer job. So that’s how I started working ranches.

JS: But how do you train a mule? Is it any harder than training a horse?

PE: In some ways it’s easier because they’re smarter. But because they’re smarter it can be more difficult. You have to be completely consistent because a mule is always thinking. With a mule, if you don’t follow through one time, the mule will remember that one time and say, “do I have to do that?” (laughs)

JS: In Spanish we use the word mule to talk about someone that’s stubborn, because they have that reputation.

PE: They’re stubborn because they think they know better and they won’t get hurt. You can work a horse until he has a heart attack. The mule feels something bad and says:“That’s it, you can hit me with that two by four but the two by four won’t kill me.” (Laughs)

JS: That’s amazing. Now you teach writing. Is there anything from training mules that translates to teaching writers?

PE: It’s a good question.

JS: Well, you train mules. Do you consider teaching as “training” writers?

PE: First of all, mules are much smarter than writers (laughter) so there is that. And you’re working with the whole animal, instead of just the back end (laughs). It’s the consistency. You can do anything with a mule that you can do with a horse, except race. Because no one has figured out a way to explain to the mule why it’s worth doing. It just seems like a way to get hurt so they’re not going to do it.

JS: I see.

PE: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I want to be more like a mule or more like a horse when I go to work. Whether I just want to do whatever the story tells me, or whether I want to think about it first and be a little bit in charge.

JS: I just finished my MFA and frankly I always had my reservations about it just because of the idea of setting boundaries or rules and really wondering what it would do for me. How do you view MFA programs? Are writers born? 

I’ve gotten older. I’m not a thrill seeker the way I might have been at one point. But I don’t feel any fewer thrills. I understand that those exciting moments in life are closer to home.

PE: Well, like any art, you can teach anyone to play all the notes in the saxophone but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be a saxophonist. And you can teach someone how to use language in effective ways but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to have any real talent. But I don’t know that I believe in innate talent. There’d have to be circumstances in place. I mean if you are six feet eight inches tall, you have a better chance of being a basketball player.

JS: Man, I wish I were that tall! I’d have definitely played ball.

PE: Yeah, but then you would have been a liability I combat. (Laughter)

JS: What makes a good writer?

PE: Loving language and story. Caring more about the story than seeing one’s name attached to it.

JS: Are you able to discern that when you read someone else’s writing?

PE: If I start reading a story and I forget the writer, then the writer has achieved something. The idea that when somebody is reading my work they’re thinking about me, would make me feel like a failure. It means that the work is not arresting enough to take them out of this world.

JS: There’s a passage in So Much Blue that I must have read several times. There is a moment when the narrator reflects on his relationship with his wife. It is something that I felt deeply because it helped me better understand a long ago chapter in my life. Sometimes I find that the right language can really help me navigate my own emotions. And it is your language in this case that helped me do so. Thank you.

PE: No, thank you.

JS: I read a lot of Hemingway when I was younger. In fact, he was also an inspiration for me to write. I think, particularly in a Cuban society that I grew up in, what was most admired of him was the whole macho aspect of his persona. Do you think that level of adventure is required of a writer in order to write about a particular place or experience? It seems to me you’ve done a number of things in life. For example in So Much Blue, part of it takes place in Paris, part of it in El Salvador. I have several questions here but do you think that’s necessary, in terms of experiencing life that way in order to have material to write about?

PE: I think it’s a good thing. But it’s certainly not necessary. I’ve gotten older. I’m not a thrill seeker the way I might have been at one point. But I don’t feel any fewer thrills. I understand that those exciting moments in life are closer to home. You don’t have to go very far to find them. There is nothing more exciting to me than things my kids say (laughs). So no, but it does depend on what you want to write. I always encourage undergraduates to take time off before they go to graduate school, because you do have to write about something. And I encourage them to major in something other than creative writing because it’s a non-information major. It’s great for a lot of people but you need to know something about the world. You’re an engineer.

JS: I don’t know about the world there but I do know about buildings.

PE: (laughs) Hey, you were asking about mules and writers. The construction of anything works as a great metaphor for the understanding of story knowledge.

JS: I did my twenty-minute talk on that.

PE: (laughs) There you go.

JS: When you spoke at Antioch University you mentioned that a lot of your work is research. Part of So Much Blue takes place in El Salvador just before the war. Did you actually go there?

PE: A long time ago, yes.

JS: You did? Were you there about that same time?

PE: Yeah.

JS: In the novel the main character actually returns after the war.

PE: I’d gone there several times, but I’ve never gone back. But I’d love to go back.

JS: It’s probably one of the most dangerous countries in the world right now.

PE: Yeah, it is. It got better for a while.

JS: A good friend of mine is writing about El Salvador. His father is one of the last living witnesses to the 1932 massacre there. He’s documenting it all.

PE: That’s fantastic. I’d love to see that.

JS:  You also set the story in Paris. You’ve been there.

PE: I can’t write about places I don’t know.

JS: So if I want to write about Pasadena, I’ll need to live here for a while and experience it?

First of all, it’s kind of sad that so few people read literary fiction. We don’t teach our people to find challenge entertaining.

PE: If you want to be true, yes. Because you’re messing with people’s stuff. And that’s why I can’t write about anything I don’t know something about. Even then, I try to do it without the appearance that I think I actually know anything. I’m a tourist in this world. Everybody wants to not look like a tourist, but I am a tourist.

JS: It’s what I like about those scenes in El Salvador, it’s two guys that didn’t know where they were and were very much tourists in a way. The point of view truly lent itself to that.

PE: I think the only thing that I’ll cop to being autobiographical is that bus scene trying to get the car past the bus on that little narrow road.

JS: In a book I read recently there is a scene that takes place in the Bay Area, where I live. In that scene the character is trying to find his way back to San Francisco from Palo Alto and he laments that he can’t take BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit], because he has no money but…

PE: BART doesn’t go to Palo Alto (laughs)

JS: Right, it doesn’t. Curiously, this book has gotten some overwhelmingly positive reviews. This leads me to the question, where do you see the state of literary fiction today?

PE: There is a lot of crap. And it’s always been that way. First of all, it’s kind of sad that so few people read literary fiction. We don’t teach our people to find challenge entertaining. I think mostly if we train people in school to find a difficult novel as much fun as watching a movie. Movies are passively received. There is not much time to put into consuming it. It’s an hour and a half. You don’t have to remember to go back to it. And as you’re saying, you don’t have to think hard. I’d love to live in a culture where thinking hard is considered fun.

JS: Well, that’s the idea of television. The idea of ‘I don’t want to think, I just want you to entertain me.’

PE: Even radio must have been better, because then you have to make the images yourself.

JS: Absolutely. When I was going to college I worked as a truck driver for the electric company and I used to listen to “Mystery Radio” every night on the radio while I drove.

PE: Oh you used those tapes?

JS: Yes.

PE: (laughs) Yeah, that stuff was great.

JS: You conjure the whole thing in your own imagination.

PE: That’s why I didn’t like it when they started making music videos. I refused to watch them, but I like the idea of music making me come up with stuff. They’d come up with all these weird things that music was about. It took all the fun out of it.

JS: I’d like to ask you about the book collaboration you did with Chris Abani, No More Red, a book of poetry around your paintings. How did that collaboration come about?

PE: Oh, oh. They just took pictures of my painting. We didn’t have much to do together.

JS: So he wrote the poems to your paintings. You didn’t do the painting to his poems.

PE: Yeah.

JS: My current mentor is a visual artist as well. I asked him whether he thought his visual work informed his writing or the other way around. If he thought there was any real connection. How to you feel about that?

PE: There is some connection that I can’t articulate. The difference is why I like it. I was a musician before I was either.

JS: What did you play?

PE: Jazz guitar.

JS: Wes Montgomery?

PE: Yeah, I love Wes Montgomery. For me, any kind of art is stimulating. I always think students in our program should have to take a studio art course of some kind.

JS: Visual?

PE: Yeah. Even music, or sculpture. Anything. One of the reasons I love painting is because it’s physical. Typically, though it’s not a necessary truth. The length of the relationship with the work is shorter.

JS: Painting.

PE: Yes. In some ways more intense. And there is this element of destruction. If I put blue on a canvas, it’s there. There is no removing it. But if I write in a character I don’t like, I just take it out.

JS: What do you recommend your students to read?

PE: I just ask them to read what they’re interested in. I think they should read stuff that they naturally gravitate to and stuff that they never imagined. There are a bunch of novels that I read every year, or every couple of years. The Life and Opinions of Tristram ShandyGentleman by Laurence Sterne. Again because it’s so difficult and I just want to get used to the having fun doing it. Samuel Butler’s The Way of all Flesh, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And there, people stall because of the dialect, but then they miss out on all the fun.

JS: That’s interesting you say that. We read The Color Purple, and not being from that time or that part of the country I couldn’t discern the accuracy of the language used in that novel. Whether it was appropriate to that time and place. As a somewhat uninformed reader, I didn’t know.

PE: I grew up where the Civil War started, and I never heard anyone talk like that (laughs).

JS: I’m just skeptical sometimes.

PE: I get it.

JS: You don’t have a lot social media presence. You’re there only because other people comment. When you started writing the Internet wasn’t even around.

PE: I know. In fact I used the Word word processor and a typewriter. I wrote my first five books on a manual typewriter.

JS: Do you still have it?

PE: No. I gave it to a student a long time ago. It was just heavy. I didn’t want it. I said, do you want this? He said yes.

JS: At the Hemingway House in Key West they have his typewriter on display. I imagine writing on that took a lot of perseverance, and alcohol, I guess. I have come to writing later in life. I’ve had a whole other career—

PE: I published my first book when I was twenty-four. My friend Harriett Doerr who’s dead now, published her first book[Stones for Ibarra)] when she was seventy-two. Her first book was a much better book than my first book. So you still have plenty of time.

I think it’s a bad neighborhood, the social media thing. It’s one of the problems with the stuff that gets published.

JS: I’m going to aim for that. (Laughter)

PE: Because you just have stuff. You have the luxury of reflection, and we’re smarter.

JS: And we’ve lived a little.

PE: Yeah.

JS: It’s interesting, you talk about experiences, and I haven’t really taken the time to think about it until I started to write again. I’ve written my whole life, but I was just going along, writing in journals, and more personal reflection stuff to sort things out. When I went back to fiction, I realized that I do in fact have a lot of material to draw from. Going back to the Internet question. Knowing what you know now, if you were starting today, would you consider [creating an online presence]? I mean, we’re being told that’s a necessity these days, to have an online presence.

PE: I hate the whole thing. I think it’s a bad neighborhood, the social media thing. It’s one of the problems with the stuff that gets published. People get published because they might have a following on Twitter or whatever. They pitch themselves to a publisher saying, I’ve got twenty thousand followers and that’s a lot of books in literary fiction. Somebody will publish it. They’ve always been around—Vanity Presses—but I’ve heard them advertising on the radio now. Have you heard this?

JS: Yes, I have.

PE: And one of the lines I heard, either a TV ad late at night or on the radio was, it’s not about the quality of the work. It’s about getting published. I even told my son. I can’t remember what it was. Something like, why edit? Or something ridiculous like that.

JS: Your work got published because it was good work and it was worthy of publication. Nowadays, I feel a lot of pressure to get out there on Twitter, Facebook.

PE: It’s like pimping yourself out.

JS: It’s all the self-promotion you have to do.

PE: And it’s so distasteful. I think I just don’t like the idea of it.

JS: What’s a question you hate when you meet people and tell them you’re a writer?

PE: I don’t confess to it a lot. “Are you published?” is one. The thing is, I know great writers who have not been published. And they’re no less writers than I am. And I know some really awful writers who have been.

JS: I know you’re running out of time, so I’ll skip to some key questions I have for you. Who were your mentors?

PE: I have always been completely solitary in my work. Even now I don’t have any readers. It goes from me, to my agent.

JS: Is that a conscious choice?

PE: I think it’s just constitutional. I had a, he wasn’t my professor, but there was a guy named Harvey Castle. He used to be the editor of the Norton Anthology. I never much liked his work and he was a crazy person. And I mean that literally, he’d call me at three in the morning. But there was something about his approach to the world of art. He was a smart guy. Things got crazy when he was around. So maybe Castle was one. And then later, there are friends who are writers, I wouldn’t call them mentors but they do make me more comfortable with my profession. John Wideman and Richard Bausch. But we hardly ever talk about writing.

JS: Whom do you read today? As far as contemporary writers.

PE: I read so many. It’s not fair to say because I hate leaving anybody out. But there are a lot of really great writers. Then there are a lot of others that write okay, but why bother? It’s come to me that if I don’t want to finish something, I won’t finish it because life is too short. If I’m reading something and I like the writing but I don’t want to finish it, then it’s because it’s a weak story. There are a lot of people who can write but they really don’t have much to explore and say. And I’m not terribly interested in that.

JS: I’m the opposite. As an engineer, no matter how much I don’t like something, I grind through it.

PE: And you’re also at a different stage in your career. For you, the construction of the thing is important. I’m stale and cranky by now. And I feel guilty about being that way. I should go back to the way I used to be.

JS: Lastly, you mentioned something in your interview with Bomb Magazine. In it you said you wanted to be compared to Sterne…

PE: Pretty good company.

JS: How do you feel about your writing now? Are you getting there?

PE: Oh no. I’m really flattered that someone might suggest that but no. For one thing, I don’t read my work once I let it go.

JS: But you did say that what prompts you to write is when you are struggling through a philosophical question and you want to explore it through your writing.

PE: Yeah.

JS: So how do you know when it’s done? Is the question answered?

PE: Oh no. No good philosophical question ever gets answered. But it’s fun to play with.

JS: But there has to be a point when you feel the process is complete.

PE: Not complete.

JS: But reaching a conclusion.

PE: I don’t know. Find me on my deathbed and ask me then. Maybe then I’ll know. Yeah, just asking the question is fun.

Jesus Francisco Sierra emigrated from Cuba in 1969 and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. He is fascinated by how transitions, both sought and imposed, have the power to either awaken or suppress the spirit. Sierra holds an MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. His personal essays “How Baseball Saved My Life”and “Soul Music,” which initially appeared in Lunch Ticket, have been anthologized in the recently published Endangered Species, Enduring ValuesAn Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers of Color. His short stories have been published in the Marathon Literary Review and The Acentos Review. Working out of the San Francisco Writers Grotto, he is working towards completing of a collection of short stories.

 

Juan Felipe Herrera, Author

Juan Felipe Unity Poem Fiesta

Juan Felipe Herrera is the author of several poetry collections, short stories, young adult literature, and children’s books. Among many of his works are the recent Notes on the Assemblage, Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems, and The Upside Down Boy. He became the US poet laureate in 2015 for two years. His poems advocate for harmony and freedom in today’s ever diversifying world. His poetry particularly speaks to the working class, migrant workers, and the civil rights activists.

Among his many interests are photography, theatre, and performance poetry. He is also a performance poet and teaches performance within the community. He has created several performance ensembles.

He has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has worked as chair of CSU Fresno’s Chicano and Latin American studies department. In the past, he has also served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

I interviewed Juan Felipe Herrera via phone on March 4, 2018.

Jennifer Mahoney: During your seminar at Antioch University in December 2017, you mentioned that a poem is “a mobile, a hanging architectural structure.” Will you tell me more about this?

Juan Felipe Herrera: The reader, all those things give the poem a new look, a motion in a way—how it moves and what it is for each reader, for each culture and place and time. If you look at it objectively, it’s a little structure. For me, I highly enjoy assembling the poem, building lines, moving words, creating spaces and pauses. It’s a structure, definitely. And I enjoy that quite a bit. The more mobile and the more fluid a poem is for me, the better, even though there is an architectural layer to it. 

 It’s connected to the notion of freedom of thought. And that’s a big thing right now, having freedom of thought. One group’s version of what is going on with another group’s version of what is going on, and if you don’t agree with the extreme right way of thinking then you are a free thinker.

JM: You’ve spoken about new coalitions, new symbols, refreshing symbols to nourish and expand the new Civil Rights movement. In what ways do you think writers, specifically, should rethink this movement?

JFH: We are going through such tremendous and intense changes. New symbol—the male symbol and the female symbol—those have been around for quite a while. It’s like art. Each new movement comes up with a whole new description of what is going on, for itself and what art is. So I think that’s something that is very high on the priority list, people interested in social change. We really do need to come up with a new sort of idea agreement—where we’re going and what we want and how we want it to be done, in what shape it’s going to be in. And how do we come together as diverse people and groups? And even if that is important at all. So we really have to kind of loosen our thoughts quite a bit and our historical narrative of thinking. Give ourselves a number of moments to imagine what is going on now and how we want to present ourselves. That’s where symbols come in. How we want to present ourselves globally and locally.

JM: In your piece, “Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings,” the speaker mentions that a poem “is a way to attain a life without boundaries.” What ways does the poem break boundaries.

JFH: It’s kind of connected to the haiku in a way. The haiku, one of its great possibilities is that there is something literally and also something very deep in a haiku where you have to spring out of it and find something boundless. So that’s what I’m thinking about. That poem is boundlessness. Kind of like a number of days in your life where a particular day you have a very large expansive insight that you have never had before. It kind of comes out of nowhere, and it’s very big. And that’s what I’m kind of looking at…One day you actually crawl into this thing that you talked about whether it was freedom or love or unity. You really imagine it and you really feel it and you walk up to it as opposed to just saying it.

JM: You’ve spoken about Frederick Douglass at previous lectures. He is one of the many figures who inspire your work. He wanted to promote a new society. How might Frederick Douglass’s idea of freedom apply to the current situation in this country?

JFH: It’s connected to the notion of freedom of thought. And that’s a big thing right now, having freedom of thought.

One group’s version of what is going on with another group’s version of what is going on, and if you don’t agree with the extreme right way of thinking then you are a free thinker.

One of the worst things that can happen to us is be disconnected from each other. And to top it off, to be comfortable being disconnected—that’s even worse. So unity. It’s kind of intimate unity.

At large, I keep on thinking of the old school term that Milosz also used in the 40s when he speaks of Hitlerism and Stalinism. He mentioned very appropriately the term mass hypnosis. And people were being forced to learn a particular way of thinking…and if you didn’t follow, you were shot, banished, exiled. And Milosz was also interested in freedom of thought. So he mentioned the term mass hypnosis…from early psychoanalytic narratives of the early 20th century. And I think that’s what’s kind of going on all of a sudden too. Douglass was also concerned about freedom of thought because as a slave, with slavery, they were not allowed to read, not allowed to have books or mentors or teachers, not to talk about the world of writing or thinking or reading or speeches. So that was highly sanctioned. They were brutally punished because they wanted to read or follow the book. I found that to be alarming, of course, but I also found it to be alarming related to today. We’re kind of surface thinkers many a time. We just kind of read a little bit about this, a little bit about that. Or we’re just interested in the general news or we’re just interested in the movies—a cultural surface layer. We all have a good time. We go to Starbucks, we go to the movies, we come home, we talk, have a nice conversation. But it’s hard to take time out to really deepen our thinking of what on earth is going on right now. So freedom of thought, freedom of thinking is very critical.

JM: Speaking of media, because we are at a time where we need to be thoughtful, how can we practice thoughtfulness in today’s busy society with our everyday technology holding our attention?

Unity is a sweet word, but it’s quite a challenge. That’s my number one issue, how to have a new kind of unity, not this kind of unity where everybody is separate, cut off from each other. That’s not unity.

JFH: We have to stop. Corporate media has become highly, highly developed. I think about the Disney cartoons back in the 50s. They were like rudimentary compared to Disney cartoons today. The same is true to the advertisements today versus ten years ago. But corporate systems have built up a pretty deep and wide global reach and with extremely sophisticated material. They’re like short films. A commercial is a short film. It’s not just a commercial. It’s actually a dramatic film. So where does that leave you and me. Where do we have time to really think it over? So we have to be aware of that power as overtaking. It’s overtaking our way of being and our way of thinking. So we have to notice it and turn it off or find another path.

JM: You mentioned that what most brings you happiness is unity, to be one with everything and everyone. How can poetry bring readers and writers this fulfillment?

JFH: Poetry, art, meditative people, people who have discussions, teachers, classrooms. It’s going on all over the place. But it’s hard to notice once again, and we’re not in those classrooms. I remember seeing an experiment with animals, they show things here and there on tv. And this was a cat, abandoned. And all it had was a social relationship with a small piece of wood with a rug attached to it. What the cat ended up doing was rubbing itself against that carpet because it felt like it had a partner. Self-intimacy. One of the worst things that can happen to us is be disconnected from each other. And to top it off, to be comfortable being disconnected—that’s even worse. So unity. It’s kind of intimate unity. Not just kind of mechanical unity where we’re all in a theatre. I don’t know if there is unity there. We have to find out what unity is. We have to rediscover it. Groups being banned. Groups being deported. Sexual assault being ignored. Women’s experiences being ignored. High school students being massacred. And two or three days later, it’s off the agenda.

So unity is a sweet word, but it’s quite a challenge. That’s my number one issue, how to have a new kind of unity, not this kind of unity where everybody is separate, cut off from each other. That’s not unity. So that’s a good thing. And that does bring me happiness when I come together with friends and family.

JM: Do you think it is important for writers to listen to and have conversations with many people? If so, how has this idea contributed to your own writing?

JFH: We really are nourished by being in a pact of artists and people. At the heart of writing, for particularly poets, it’s going to be hard to notice your poetry if you just go at it by yourself. You select your own book that you want to read, and you write your own way, and you think it all out yourself in your bright poetry head. But poetry is a communal art…Being in a group of writers and poets and doing things together, and talking and going out, walking down the street and organizing events, going across country, and going to another nation together, and traveling around—one is more on the wilder traveling, anything goes world, meeting people. And the other side is kind of the writing world where you write. You may be on your own, mostly, but you will have heard people so you think differently than you do. You will have discovered new words that you know but you never thought of using them in that particular way. And you’ve just been inspired by having someone right next to you, and that itself gave you a whole lot of new energy or you work with a group of writers, and you say, ‘Hey, let’s do a poetry reading called the green elephants.’ And it’s completely amazing to you and you see people come. People applaud you or they give you feedback. You pass out your free poems. And that keeps you going as a writer, and it keeps you expanding as a writer, instead of just being the same way week after week. So, for a poet, poetry is a communal art, mostly.

 

Jennifer Mahoney is a Filipino writer in Houston. She is a graduate student at Antioch University where she studies poetry and fiction. She currently serves as an editor for Lunch Ticket. She has upcoming poetry in The Machinery.

The Haiku Muse

[fiction]

—For my godson and his brother

Tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he went, Ben created an obstacle course behind him. Ashen-colored snow flew up from under his feet as he ran through the alley at an all-out sprint. Dirty snow crunching, he thought. Flight of the muse underway, Urban brick canyon. His pursuer, Trent Waller, a known bully, was easily a hundred pounds heavier and stood a good ten inches taller than Ben. Trent shouted after him, red face puffing.

Murder is my gift!
Escape shall not release you
Winter on your soul!

Ben stifled a chuckle. “That’s pretty good, Trent,” he called back over his shoulder. “Can you try it again with a little more local color?” At that, Trent let out an animalistic scream and Ben, for his part, ran that much faster.

*    *     *

Ben didn’t see his gift as a superpower, at first. It was anything but practical and not the least bit heroic. But, Ben admitted to himself, he could still use it to help create beauty and new ways of seeing, new ways of expressing. Still, he found himself wishing he could do more with it. As with many endowed with super abilities, his power first manifest itself in early adolescence, about the same time his voice took a deep turn.

Tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he went, Ben created an obstacle course behind him. Ashen-colored snow flew up from under his feet as he ran through the alley at an all-out sprint. Dirty snow crunching, he thought. Flight of the muse underway, Urban brick canyon.

His world literature class had just spent a two-week lesson on Japan, and when they read the haiku of the great and timeless poet, Matsuo Bashō, the beauty of it surprised young Ben. The presentation of the everyday in simple elegance, the subtle reference to seasonality, they captivated him. Infected him. He stayed up late nights reading haiku with a flashlight in one hand, under the covers of his bed, hoping to go unnoticed by his parents. He began to see haiku moments, as he would later call them, everywhere. He wrote haiku to his family, leaving them posted on the refrigerator or microwave oven. A simple note meant to tell his parents that he was across the street at his friend’s house itself was rendered in the age-old syllabic formula: five, seven, five.

Crossing still black ice
Warm Victorian refuge
Dinner returns me.

The problem, of course, is that any poem, by its very nature, is subject to a myriad of meanings and interpretations. Would dinner return Ben home, or had dinner been what returned Ben to his friend’s house? After a few such mix-ups, and to the relief of everyone involved, Ben restrained his love of the poetic form, deploying it more tactfully.

Haiku had imprinted upon him. It filled him up and changed him. The peculiar poetic power revealed itself to Ben at home when, one Saturday morning, he was trying to explain his deep affection for the art form to his older brother Anthony.

“Anthony, you’re going to love this one,” Ben said, preparing to read the eleventh (twelfth?) haiku since breakfast. Anthony shrugged. He was focused on upgrading the apps on his phone.

“In a minute, Ben,” he said. Anthony’s nonchalance triggered Ben’s frustration. He had such lackluster admiration for something so important.

“You just don’t get it!” Ben shouted and waved his hands in exasperation. In that instant, a certain transference occurred. Anthony caught a variation of the infection (or spell, whatever it was) that had imprinted upon Ben. But it was different, a thing done to him and not born of his own appetite or aesthetic.

Anthony’s confusion mounted as he tried to respond to Ben. He couldn’t form a coherent sentence.

Such a change in view.
What trickery visits me?
Poetic prison.

Anthony realized that he could only speak, only think, in haiku. Every word and idea structured and expressed poetically, in syllabic precision. His very vision, transformed. Whereas for Ben the infection left his freedom of expression intact, the constraining spell only frustrated Anthony.

This must stop brother
As sunbeams melt winter snow
Unfetter my speech,” Anthony said.

Ben jumped half out of his seat, excited at Anthony’s spontaneous haiku. But as he took in its meaning, he knew what was wrong. The poem that Anthony spoke connected to Ben’s very spirit, conveying Anthony’s angst.

“Anthony?” Ben asked. But when Anthony only repeated the same verse it confirmed to Ben what had happened. “I release you,” Ben said, not entirely sure what else to do. Anthony let out a gasp, as if he had been holding his breath and had just come up from under water.

“What happened?” Anthony demanded.

“I… I made you a haiku poet,” Ben answered.

“But how? Why?”

“I don’t know,” Ben answered, shaking his head.

The boys agreed not to speak of this, at least for now, until they could better understand what had happened. But, as it turns out, neither were very good at keeping this secret.

*    *     *

Anthony handed Ben his tablet. “Read this,” he said. The browser showed an article titled “What every Parent should know about Superpowers,” on a parenting web page. Anthony had highlighted a paragraph.

“Competing origin theories about superpowers abound: exposure to a special type of radiation or the awakening of a long dormant strand of DNA, magic, extraterrestrial lineage, ancient gods from the pantheons of old brought out of hiding into the modern world. Among the superpowers there exists a hierarchy. Omnipotence, usually with an Achille’s Heel, anchors one end of the spectrum but the other end, though diverse and difficult to explain, is no less critical to understand, and no less important in the lives of the people who have them. Whatever the origin, parents should understand the challenges of raising a child with superpowers.”

Ben set the tablet down. “We should talk to Iris,” he said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Anthony said. “Nobody knows more about superpowers than Iris.”

*    *     *

Iris lit a slender reed of incense in the art studio in the back room of her basement apartment. She flipped her locks of chestnut brown curls out of her face, only to see them flop right back where they were. Her rosy cheeks contrasted with the milky white of her complexion. The incense she selected was a lemon aromatic to counter the winter bluster outside. Though she looked vibrant in her early middle-age, Iris was an old soul, and, indeed, an ancient being. Ben and Anthony lived in the house upstairs and were frequent visitors to her art studio. The two of them sat on stools that were stippled with flicks of color, the painted byproduct of the art that was created there.

Twelve students in all paid for the haiku services. None of it was cheating, they told each other, because the words weren’t Ben’s, but came from each person, and the images and connections conveyed were truly those of the author. Ben’s power was to restructure their thought and speech, but he took no credit for their poems.

Iris placed her sketch pad, colored pencils, and markers on an old, worn wooden table. She took a deep breath, appreciating the aroma from the lemon-scented incense.

“Have you come here to watch me?” she asked.

“Not really. Not this time,” Ben said.

“Well, then?” Iris asked.

“You’re the goddess of color,” Ben said. Iris smiled.

“But, listen,” Anthony interrupted. “Something happened. Maybe something you’ve seen before.”

“To me,” Ben said. “It happened to me. We’re hoping maybe you could explain it.” Ben paused, waiting for Iris to say something. When she didn’t, he continued. “I have a sort of spell I can cast, but it’s weird.”

“Magic, by its very nature, is weird,” Iris said. “Have you cast it?”

“By accident,” Ben said.

“On me,” Anthony interjected. Iris looked Anthony up and down.

“You seem fine now. Is everything okay?”

“Yes. I’m okay,” Anthony said.

“Tell me what happened,” Iris said.

Anthony started in at the point in the story where the spell—if that’s what it was—had been cast on him.

“But that’s not where it started,” Ben interrupted. “It started in my world lit class, when we studied the writings of Matsuo Bashō.”

“Ah, yes, Bashō,” Iris said with a nod.

“Then, you’ve heard of him,” Ben said.

“Heard of him? He was my friend,” Iris said, smiling at an age-old memory. Both Ben and Anthony looked at her with wonder in their eyes. “And I will tell you that story another time,” she said. “Tell me more, Ben, about your magic.” Ben spoke of his first time reading the poetry from Japan, of his love and then infatuation with it. He spoke of haiku moments, and how virtually everything either seen or done could be presented in its elegant format. He told of his voracious appetite for the form of poetry. Finally, he told her about Anthony, and his casual appreciation for haiku and of Ben’s frustration with it, and of Ben’s casting of the spell.

“It’s like everything changed,” Anthony said. “It was more than me just thinking up poems. It was like, I thought in haiku and only haiku.”

Iris nodded, intrigued though not alarmed by what the boys told her. “You’re not the first to have this kind of power, but you may be the first in over a thousand years.” She walked over to a book shelf and pulled off a dusty, faded volume. Blowing the dust from it, she handed it to Ben.

The Muses Through the Ages,” Ben read aloud.

“You can borrow it, if you’d like,” Iris said. “But all you really need to know is that for thousands of years there have been those entrusted with special powers such as yours.”

Ben nodded. “It’s just… When I imagine all the superpowers in the universe, I never would have put haiku on that list. It’s not like the ability to fly or walk through walls or turn invisible. I never knew this one was even an option. It’s not even really a superpower,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” Iris asked.

“I can’t fight crime with it,” Ben said.

“Can’t you?”

“I can’t stop a bad guy.”

“You can’t?”

“I can’t even make people like it!”

Iris walked to a cabinet in the far corner of her basement apartment. She pulled a framed picture off the shelf which the boys immediately recognized as one of her creations. The frame was a simple, unstained wood, and inside of it appeared a Gaelic wreath concentric circles. At the center of the circles was a white sphere, the reflection of the sun or moon on water. Forming a perimeter around the white center was the still water of an aqua-blue pond. The next circle was a band of vibrant green, the stems and leaves of lotus lilies growing out of the water. Little green frogs rested on leaves. The final, outer-most band of the concentric circles was a wreath of rich, blue lotus blossoms, perched atop the green stems.

“Tell me,” she said, showing Ben the print. “Does this print lie to you?”

“Lie?” Ben asked.

“Does it attempt to deceive you? Or, has it told you the truth of the matter?”

“It’s art. You made it with colored pencils and markers,” Ben protested.

“Answer my question, does the print lie to you or has it spoken the truth?”

“I don’t know. It’s beautiful, Iris. I like it a lot. But I don’t know what it says,” Ben said, her questions flustering him.

“Can you write a poem about it?” Iris asked. Ben’s eyes lit up, like this was the first thing she said that made any sense. He inhaled a deep breath and fixed his eyes on the print.

Citrus smoke curls ’round
Blue blossoms on still water
Tiny frog’s delight.

“Matsuo would love that one,” she said. Anthony set his hand on Ben’s shoulder and winked his approval. Iris continued. “What if your poem is like the picture, neither true or false? What if this image that I made with markers and pencils rests someplace outside of those types of questions? And what if that is your power, your gift, Benjamin? What if the poet stands apart from matters of truth and falsehood, creating in the realm of meaning, and irony, and allegory. Beauty and despair. Hope and longing. Fulfillment and unrequited everything. And the poet, who does not seek to tell the truth, also cannot lie.”

Ben was quiet, contemplating what Iris had to say.

“Continue your path,” Iris said. “In time, more will be revealed.”

*    *     *

To Ben’s mind, nothing more was revealed. Nothing except for Anthony’s plans. Anthony saw a market opportunity in his younger brother’s power. He organized a group of older kids as they were preparing their applications for college, a ritual Anthony would soon enough perform for himself.

“We can give you that extra edge,” he said. ” We can make your application stand out.” And the students, vying for whatever advantage to increase the chances that they might gain acceptance into their colleges of choice, were all too eager to pay.

A boy named Jared Bishop submitted one of his three essays for admission to different, exclusive universities as a series of gorgeous haiku.

A girl named Melody Armstrong explained her experiences as a daughter in a working-class, single-parent family and peppered the essay with the poignant three-line stanzas, enriching her story and moving it from one of stark, indifferent, hardship to one of hardship layered with the deeper beauties of resistance and resilience.

Twelve students in all paid for the haiku services. None of it was cheating, they told each other, because the words weren’t Ben’s, but came from each person, and the images and connections conveyed were truly those of the author. Ben’s power was to restructure their thought and speech, but he took no credit for their poems.

Ben looked at his newfound wealth. What was supposed to be fun and exciting seemed petty and even a little embarrassing.

“We’ve got six hundred dollars, Anthony, but it doesn’t feel right,” Ben said.

“I know what you mean. It feels like maybe we’re cheapening it,” Anthony said. The boys put the project on hold.

*    *     *

Ben remained infatuated with his new art form. He read books about and by the master, Matsuo Bashō. When he wasn’t reading or writing haiku, he would read about the muses in the book he borrowed from Iris.

One night, as the boys were preparing for bed, they sat together, leafing through super hero comics, sorting them according to powers and abilities. Anthony looked at Ben, a small dollop of mint-scented toothpaste still in the corner of his mouth.

“Ben, I’ve been thinking about your superpower. I think there’s more to it than making money turning people into poets, but I don’t know what that is yet,” Anthony said. “I think maybe you should drop your Spanish class and take Japanese. That’s where haiku started, right? In Japan? I mean, all the Bashō you read is translated from Japanese.” Ben nodded. “You could read it in its original language. And I’ve been thinking about the muses, too,” Anthony continued.

“I just can’t find examples of how they helped anything,” Ben said. “They helped people be creative, write poems and history. But they were just minor gods. A superhero needs to do something more. Look at Morgan Carter,” he said, referring to a Canadian soldier who was all over the news for leaping three stories into a burning building and rescuing a family. “Or Leticia Del Villar,” he said, referring to a famous woman whose premonitions predicted with eerie accuracy deadly, but avoidable accidents. She worked with a tech startup to develop an app to warn people days in advance, saving scores of lives each year.

“Don’t compare yourself with them, or the muses, even. Stop thinking about them, like at all,” Anthony said. “The muses’ spells didn’t work exactly like yours does, anyway. They inspired creativity but didn’t force it. And they lived like, five thousand years ago. What would they know about life today?”

“But Iris gave me the book,” Ben said.

“She gave you the book so that you’d know you’re not alone. But what you do with it, that’s on you, not on Iris or the muses or anything in that book.”

“But Anthony, what am I supposed to do?”

“Try being yourself. That’s always the best place to start,” Anthony said. “I know. Easier said than done sometimes.”

*    *     *

Ben’s phone chirped. He pulled it from his pocket to see that he had just received a text from Jared Bishop, the kid from Anthony’s school who paid to have himself haikued.

“Gotta talk.”

“All done haikuing for money,” Ben replied.

“Still gotta talk.”

Ben forwarded the text to Anthony. “You’re the one who knows him.”

“I’ll see what he wants,” Anthony replied.

*    *     *

Ben walked down the rickety steps to Iris’s basement apartment. He smelled the scent of peachy incense even before he reached the door. Faint sounds of music escaped into the hallway. He knocked.

“Come in,” said a voice from inside the apartment. Ben opened the door and saw a wiry, dark skinned woman with a black, neatly coifed afro—like a halo—working on a sketch with colored pencils.

“Iris?” Ben asked.

“Yes?”

“I’ve never seen you in this form before,” Ben said.

“I needed inspiration,” she said. “So, I spent the day down at the boardwalk, selling paintings,” she said. Ben nodded.

“Does changing your physical appearance give you inspiration?” Ben asked.

“Usually. My appearance changes how others see me, how they interact with me, how they treat me. And that can help me see things in a new light.”

“Which one of them is the real you?”

Iris smiled and leaned in. “I’m the goddess of color, a creature of light, and an artist,” she said. “This form is as much the real me as any of the others you’ve seen. Tell me, Ben. How’s the haiku business?”

“We’re taking a break,” he said.

“Is that what you came here to talk about?”

“Sort of. I’m just tired of not knowing what to do,” Ben confided.

Iris gestured at the walls of her studio. Every inch displayed her artwork.

“Just write. See where it leads you,” she said. Ben pulled out his notepad, focused on a watercolor print, and began to write.

Pier rests on water
Steel blue ocean, virgin sand
Deserted beach.

*    *     *

“Ben, Jared’s being bullied,” Anthony explained. “Some guy named Trent Waller saw a copy of the college entrance essay that you helped him with and won’t let it go. I guess it was too artsy for him.” Anthony wasn’t sure who Trent was when Jared first texted him. He had to look him up on social media and in his year books. When he saw his pictures, he recognized him immediately as a twelfth-grade trouble-maker.

“What does he want us to do about it?”

“Jared thinks if you can convince Trent that you cast a spell on him, maybe he’ll stop bullying.”

“But a bully won’t care about my spell. He’s bullying Jared because he can,” Ben said.

“I know. I told him that I didn’t know what we could do, that he should talk to his parents and teachers.”

“What did he say to that?”

“He said he tried that already. Nothing changed and he’s scared to go to school now.”

“What do you think, Anthony? Do you think showing Trent my power would help Jared? It might just make me his next target.”

“That’s true,” Anthony said. “But we have to try something.”

*    *     *

“You said you once met Matsuo Bashō,” Ben said. “That he was your friend.”

“Indeed, we were friends,” Iris said. “I had heard of charming poetry being created on an island on the other side of the world and I went to see for myself.”

“What was he like?” Ben asked.

“Let me show you,” Iris said. “Let me show you using the technique I learned when I met Matsuo.” Iris waived her hands and colors flew from her fingers in puffs of mist. In the air between she and Ben a story began to unfold. She created an animated Japanese water-ink painting right before Ben’s eyes, floating in mid-air. The colors were gentle, shaded, subdued. A middle-aged man, Matsuo, walked along a wooded path. He was joined by a Japanese woman whose features told Ben that she was none other than Iris herself. Iris narrated her images.

“He was a restless spirit. Not always the refined poet that people today like to imagine. He could have been a samurai, but chose the life of a poet and teacher, instead.” The water-ink image of Matsuo was then transported into a home, where he set down a samurai sword, bowed, and exited, leaving the sword at the feet of a feudal lord.

“A samurai,” Ben said, and his mind conjured thoughts of the fierce Japanese knights, defenders of the Shogunate.

“It wasn’t as you might think,” Iris said. “Before Matsuo, Japan had been at war, with itself and with its neighbors.” The scene she inked showed legions of samurai training with focus and discipline before it all erupted into raging battles. “But by the time of Matsuo, samurai had no more wars to fight. Many of them became scholars and studied the arts.” The explosive scenes emanating from her fingertips—scenes of massive battles and hand-to-hand combat—faded and the colors ran as if the inks were diluted with too much water. Iris dangled her fingers up high, as a puppeteer controlling an invisible marionette might, mystical ink dripping from her fingertips. The next scene that came forth was of samurai reading, writing, and trading in their swords for other professions.

His own words stopped him cold. He looked at his hands and scanned the faces of the students. All eyes were on him.

Ben never knew that samurai could be anything but steely warriors. “Perhaps for Matsuo,” Iris continued, “the best way to use his talents would not arise from the life of a warrior, but from his poetry.” The next image she conjured in the air was of an incomplete bamboo bridge, reaching halfway across a rushing stream, abandoned by workers as the first snow of the season began to fall. “Japan may have lost an anonymous samurai, but they, and the world, gained one of our greatest creative minds.”

“Thank you, Iris,” Ben said, giving her a hug. He turned and started back up the stairs.

“I’m glad I could help,” Iris said. Ben reached the top of the stairs and paused. He turned to face Iris.

“I guess not all samurai fought battles,” he said as Iris’s story sank in.

“More to the point, not all fights are won with swords,” Iris said.

*    *     *

Ben’s middle school was about a mile from Lakewood High, the school Anthony attended. He would have to walk there after school to see what could be done about Trent. They agreed to try to reason with Trent, explain to him that poetry is more than whatever he might think. As Ben walked there, light wisps of snow fell lazily from the grey sky.

Snow dampening sounds
Enchantments cleansing the air
Raven’s muffled caw

When Ben arrived at the school, he saw a small crowd of students gathering in the back parking lot. Anthony waved to him.

“What’s going on?” Ben asked.

“I just got here. But see for yourself,” Anthony answered. At the center of the crowd sat a cowering Jared Bishop, shoulders slumped. His backpack was empty on the ground next to him, his books and papers strewn about. Trent Waller paced back and forth over his victim. Some students tried and failed to persuade him to leave Jared alone. Ben swallowed deep.

“Look at this,” Trent yelled to the crowd of witnesses, holding up a copy of Jared’s haiku college entrance essay that he fished from his backpack. “These poems don’t even rhyme!” He tore the sheet into small pieces and released the scraps like a snow flurry over Jared’s head. Jared sat motionless. “What’s the matter, pixie, didn’t you know poems are supposed to rhyme?”

That’s when Ben stepped forward. “Actually, haiku poems don’t have to rhyme.”

“Who are you?” Trent demanded, his voice tinted with disdain.

“My name’s Ben. I helped Jared with his poetry.” Trent wrinkled his face in a look of befuddlement. “What he did was really intricate,” Ben continued.

“What?”

“Jared wrote a series of poems that alternated between the two forms of haiku,” Ben explained.

“What?”

“Don’t you see? Each poem alternated between seventeen and eleven syllables. In each one, he told something about himself and how he prepared for college and the other things he needed in his essay.”

“Who are you?” Trent repeated.

“I’m Ben.” Trent looked at Ben and then down at Jared, who was using the distraction to collect his things and shove them back into his backpack. “I helped Jared write his haiku.”

Trent took a step toward Ben. “You’re the one helping him be a pixie? What’s that make you? Queen pixie herself?” Trent said, taking another menacing step toward Ben.

“No,” Ben said, exasperation evident in his tone. “Pixies aren’t just female and they don’t have anything to do with haiku. Or any poetry at all, even.” Trent’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Get up, Jared,” Ben said. “Go home.”

“Oh, you think you’re in charge here, pixie boy?” Trent said.

“I’m not a pixie. More of a muse, if anything. Can I at least explain to you what’s so special about haiku?” Trent, muscles tensed, stormed up to Ben, who, with only a second to spare, waived his hands at Trent and said “Haiku!”

Enough with poems!

Day fades, so too my patience

I will pummel you!” Trent said.

His own words stopped him cold. He looked at his hands and scanned the faces of the students. All eyes were on him.

“You see: haiku! Not the best, but still,” Ben said with a smile, walking backwards. “Try to think, Trent! Don’t you see the beauty?”

Devious pixie!

Thoughts all twisted, transforming

Mayhem unleashed,” Trent said, his expression a mixture of wonder and frustration.

“Yes, Trent! Yes!” Ben said, excitement brimming. “Now, just stop, please! Can’t you see it? Can’t you see what you’ve created?” Ben quickened his pace, walking backwards.

Jared had collected his belongings and was running for the other side of the parking lot.

Trent let out a deep, angry howl and charged at Ben. Ben turned and ran toward an alley at the very back of the parking lot. Just as Trent hit his stride, someone’s foot jutted out, catching Trent’s ankle, sending him tumbling and then skidding across the icy pavement just before he could catch Ben. It was Anthony. But in the crowd and commotion, Trent didn’t know who tripped him.

Erupting!
Go, scattering stones!
Angry flames!” Trent yelled, rage and bewilderment pronounced on his face.

“A three, five, three alternative haiku!” Ben yelled, though he was fleeing at a sprint by then. “Impressive!”

Anthony, who had driven to school that day, ran to his family’s trusty blue SUV and drove through the center of the parking lot, away from the crowd. He stopped and picked up Jared who was still running at a decent clip. He knew he had to get Ben, but the alley he was running through was too narrow and cluttered for a car. He’d have to drive the long way around the block and pick him up on the other side.

Ben ran through the alley at an all-out sprint, tipping over trash cans and stacks of empty crates as he passed, creating an obstacle course behind him. Trent had recovered from his tumble and was gaining on him.

Murder is my gift!
Escape shall not release you
Winter on your soul!

Up ahead, Ben saw Anthony round the corner in the family car. “That’s pretty good, Trent,” he yelled, looking back over his shoulder. “Can you try it again with a little more local color?” At that, Trent bellowed guttural sounds as Anthony brought the car to a stop at the end of the alley. Jared swung the door open and Ben dove like a swimmer off a starting block into the open door. Jared swung the door closed and they sped away. The three boys laughed as they left the screaming, hapless, haiku bully behind them.

“I have an idea,” Anthony said. “Text Trent that he can never bully anyone again, or he’ll live his life in haiku!”

“Perfect,” Ben said. Jared nodded his agreement. “That would be a prison sentence for Trent. Let’s do it.”

*    *     *

Jared texted the terms of a truce to Trent, telling him that he must never bully another soul or he could spend the rest of his life in haiku. Trent didn’t respond at first. His pride wouldn’t let him. Three days passed before he begrudgingly texted Jared a note:

A truce I will seek
The terms, abundantly clear
Longest night must end.

“Any funny business,” Jared texted him, “and you can spend the rest of your life a poet.”

Trent was a depleted, defeated boy when they met him in the parking lot at Lakewood High that Saturday. Shoulders hunched, eyes downcast.

“I wish I could make you see what’s so special about haiku,” Ben said to him. Trent nodded. “I release you.”

Trent looked up, afraid to talk, fearful that he wasn’t yet released. But then the structure of his thinking reverted to normal. The world around him could finally be described any way he wanted. He turned to walk away, but Ben had to ask him one last question.

“Trent, did you see it? Did you finally see what you created? What Jared created? What poetry can do?”

“More than you know,” he mumbled.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

“Nothing,” Trent said, shaking his head. After a long moment, Trent looked at the boys as they waited for him to say something more. Another moment passed.

Barren parking lot,” Trent said.
“Sunbeams falling on the snow
Four boys planting seeds.

 

Jaime Balboa earned his BA in English from Adrian College. His stories have appeared in The Timberline Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Chaleur Magazine. An open water swimmer, many of his writing ideas come to him in the waters of the Pacific. He and his partner live in Los Angeles where they are raising a son. Follow him on twitter @jaimerb.

HOME VISIT WITH A WORKING WOMAN IN CUBA

She wishes she could beat the dust mites out of the rug
of this world. But she’s a woman, and her body is the inherited

fabric men wipe their boots on, woven and patched by generations
of furious women. Her hands are an ancestral tree, she names

each branch of herself on her fingers: wife, mother, grandmother,
student, professional worker, housewife, cook, maid, nurse.

She says poverty is not unusual, but a woman bears it like an anchor
in her uterus, cooking during blackouts, working all day in an office

while recipes to last the week bloom in their heads like math equations.
“Am I a good mother?” settles like dust, flies up under a nest of feathers,

settles again. I promise you, her fist attacks the air, the revolution worked!
She watched her husband sail off on a shoddy raft, her three children

at her side, growing steadily like vines along her hip, despite him.
He could leave, and good riddance, because now she had school,

the antidote to the poison of patriarchy injected in men since birth.
Women have always been a revolution within a revolution.

Still, the blockade cast its wide sticky net, and when she didn’t have
water to bathe, she daydreamed of pools in Miami, her pores drunk

on chlorine and her fingers wrinkling into a soft gauze.
She shakes her head, the gluttonous fantasy falls away, her steel eyes

polished with tears: she asks if we’re upset by her stories, if we realize
what she’s endured for five decades, if we understand

that solidarity must always stretch its reach towards women
until its socket pops. Pick up the broom and begin.

 

Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013), The Good Girl is Always a Ghost (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), and The Dark Length Home (Noctuary Press, 2017). Her work appears in Crab Orchard Review, Verse Daily, Tupelo Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Epiphany Magazine, Salamander, New South, Redivider, PANK Magazine, and elsewhere. She was a 2009 Academy of American Poets Prize recipient, a 2016 Best of the Net winner, and a Barbara Deming Memorial Grant recipient. She currently teaches writing and literature in Boston, MA.

Economic Anxiety

My college decision was a compromise of impulses. These were my most important criteria: not close to home (so I would grow more and have more independence); located in or in immediate proximity of a large city (where there’d be a decent amount of Black people who existed who were not me); top-notch academics (since my mind deserved a challenge and I’m a competitive person deep down); prestige (translation: respect). My father didn’t really care what I did, but not in a lazy way we expect of men—he just trusted I was already thinking of the right things, as he’d always done. My mother was all about practicality: “make sure you can go out there and get a job when you graduate.”

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.

She had a point, a point that would be repeated hundreds of thousands of times by the time I actually graduated, though I understood it even as a high school senior, and I understood it years before, in fact. I was always a practical kid, I’m a practical adult now, and I hate that about me. Being practical is a way to survive, but it’s probably no way to live.

In any event, I ended up enrolling at Wharton where so many of the big financiers went (the ones who tanked the economy back in 2008). I don’t regret it, really; I’m still here after all. I have a job that provides for a fairly comfortable life. A lot of folks like me can’t say that. A lot of folks like me can’t say anything anymore.

*     *    *

A list of people to hold the most powerful job in the world, April 2008:

  1. George Washington (White guy, slave owner)
  2. John Adams (White guy)
  3. Thomas Jefferson (White guy, slave owner, Black baby mama)
  4. James Madison (White guy, slave owner)
  5. James Monroe (White guy, slave owner, Liberia dude)
  6. John Quincy Adams (White guy)
  7. Andrew Jackson (White guy, slave owner, slave trader)
  8. Martin Van Buren (White guy, slave owner)
  9. William Henry Harrison (White guy, slave owner)
  10. John Tyler (White guy, slave owner)
  11. James K. Polk (White guy, slave owner)
  12. Zachary Taylor (White guy, slave owner)
  13. Millard Fillmore (White guy)
  14. Franklin Pierce (White guy)
  15. James Buchanan (White guy)
  16. Abraham Lincoln (White guy, Illinois, Civil War, Emancipation, shot)
  17. Andrew Johnson (White guy, slave owner)
  18. Ulysses S. Grant (White guy, slave owner)
  19. Rutherford B. Hayes (White guy)
  20. James A. Garfield (White guy, shot)
  21. Chester A. Arthur (White guy)
  22. Grover Cleveland (White guy)
  23. Benjamin Harrison (White guy)
  24. Grover Cleveland (wait, again?)
  25. William McKinley (White guy, shot)
  26. Theodore Roosevelt (White guy)
  27. William Howard Taft (White guy)
  28. Woodrow Wilson (White guy, super-duper racist)
  29. Warren G. Harding (White guy)
  30. Calvin Coolidge (White guy)
  31. Herbert Hoover (White guy)
  32. Franklin D. Roosevelt (White guy, Depression, WWII)
  33. Harry S. Truman (White guy)
  34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (White guy)
  35. John F. Kennedy (Irish Catholic White guy, shot)
  36. Lyndon B. Johnson (White guy, Vietnam, Civil Rights)
  37. Richard Nixon (White guy, crook)
  38. Gerald Ford (White guy)
  39. Jimmy Carter (White guy, Mr. Nice Guy)
  40. Ronald Reagan (White guy…)
  41. George H.W. Bush (White guy)
  42. Bill Clinton (White guy. First Black President?)
  43. George W. Bush (White guy)

*     *    *

What do you want to be when you grow up?

That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.

*     *    *

In business school, I gravitated away from more quantitative subjects like finance and accounting, and toward topics like management and marketing. It wasn’t a loathing of math that steered me in this direction, but an appreciation for the more human elements of things. This had always been true for me.

I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here.

Kindergarten through twelfth grade, my favorite subject in school was history: I loved ancient history, loved European history, loved world history. Above all else, though, I loved American history, how it read like a fairy tale, how I’d snicker to myself at just about everything the teacher would say. See, I knew a whole lot of Black historians, enough to understand the jokes that flew over other kids’ heads (first Thanksgiving, ha!), though they weren’t recognized as such by anybody in academia. They had no doctorates. They had no master’s degrees. They had no college at all, actually. But their eyes had seen it all. Their eyes had seen all they could handle. My parents, my grandparents—they never wanted that for me. Instead, they wanted me to be secure. Physically secure. Financially secure.

The day after Trayvon Martin went out for Skittles and the day after Michael Brown was left laying in the street for hours and the day after Tamir Rice held a toy gun for the last time and the day after Walter Scott was left lying in the dirt and the day after Sandra Bland got pulled over and the day after Clementa Pinckney oversaw his last Bible study and the day after Eric Garner’s daughter was crying on the news and the day after Jordan Davis didn’t turn down the music fast enough and the day after Dajerria Becton went to the pool party and the day after Korryn Gaines last saw her child and the day after Freddie Gray was snapped in half and the day after they lit up Laquan McDonald and the day after Philando Castile served students lunch for the last time, I went to work.

And the day after.

And the day after.

And the day after.

And because I did, I got paid.

*     *     *

The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I went to work as if nothing had happened. And it hadn’t, at least in the sense that what occurred was not out of the ordinary or impossible to have predicted, but perspective is a funny thing. A lot of folks around the office were visibly concerned, hanging their heads solemnly, talking with a decided lack of energy that stood in sharp contrast to what they demonstrated less than twenty-four hours before when so many felt they would be voting for the first woman to ever hold the presidency in this nation’s history. I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out in high enough numbers to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here. Around America, all areas thereof. Where have these people been? Why are they crying today if I never have? What do they have to lose except something I’ll never attain to begin with? Why can’t they just put on a good face about this?

*     *     *

I have a vivid memory of when I’d learned a cousin of mine had been killed. I had school, and my mother was dropping me off at my granny’s house, where the bus would come collect me, before she headed to work. The room was dim with only a single strand of light that fell through the gap between the curtains providing any sort of warmth. My granny was sitting down in that green, patterned chair pressed up against the wall on the left side of the room, my mom standing just past the doorway and me, floating in the vicinity like a thought bubble ultimately left unfilled. There was nothing to be said, but there were things to be done by each of us. And we did them. Even as a child, I had a job to do.

*     *     *

“Also among the slightly odd findings of the poll, 18% of respondents who felt that Mr. Trump was not qualified to be president nonetheless voted for him, as did 20% of those who felt he did not have the necessary temperament.”

Edison Research

*     *     *

From the very beginning, what they always expressed to my parents was how nice and well mannered I am. Teachers. Neighbors. Complete strangers.

 

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRYThe American Poetry ReviewNew England Review, AGNITriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.