Ayesha’s Dream

Listen. . .

On a velvety night in a desert land, a cool wind moved among dunes and glided into a small village. The curious wind lifted the long limbs of the date palm trees, touched the donkey’s fur in the stable, and poked through the open window of Ayesha’s room in her family’s house. The wind circled the room quietly, then with a rustle and a sigh slipped out the window.

In her bed, Ayesha dreamed. What was she dreaming of? The ocean, although the most water Ayesha had ever seen was in the small buckets drawn glistening from the village’s deep black well. Earlier that day her father had told her stories of the great sea—giant waves, and whales as big as dunes, and strange fish, and sailors on boats riding the sea’s broad back.

So, while the wind whispered through the dark village, Ayesha dreamed of traveling to the water beyond the desert. She picked up a flat loaf of bread, in case she got hungry on her trip, and slipped from her house. Everything was quiet outside and glowed in silvery light.

“Where are you going?” A kangaroo rat sat up on her legs, sniffing the air.

“I am going to see the Ocean,” Ayesha replied.

“Do you know which way to go?”

“Well, no, I don’t.” Ayesha stopped, realizing she had not thought about which direction to walk.

The rat hopped into the air, then her bright eyes spied the brown loaf Ayesha carried.

“I’m amazed, simply amazed, I can see that you will need help. It’s quite a walk.  Is that bread for your journey?”

“Yes.”

“Not just any bread will do, you know? Let me have a piece to see if it’s the right bread. Yes, bread for long trips must be special.”

Ayesha was puzzled. “Why?”

The rat blinked twice, sputtering, “Why, you ask, why? Oh, my word, it has to be. . .very white, because if it were not, it would be. . .dark.  And my oh my, dark bread, you”―the rat stopped, then leaped into the air―”you would lose it in the sand, yes, unless it is white it will blend in with the sand. Give me a piece so I can examine it properly. Please.”

Ayesha tore a small piece and placed it before the rat, who lifted it in her tiny pink claws to peer at it closely with one eye.

“Hmm,” the rat muttered, “yes,” taking a bite, “I think this bread is sufficiently white.”  In a flash, she had eaten the small piece.

“Do you know where the Ocean is?” Ayesha asked, as the rat stroked her whiskers and combed the fur on her cheeks.

“Well, I just might. I can see that you will need some pointers regarding the Ocean.” The rat eyed the moist bread Ayesha was tucking into a fold of her djellaba.  “Maybe I should travel with you for a bit, to make sure you get off on the right path. I think I shall, because, after all, I am a mother and must help you, child of another mother.”

“Thank you, that would be kind. May I know your name? What should I call you?”

“Well, Bibi is my name. I am Bibi.”

Ayesha introduced herself, then said, “Which way do we travel to reach the great Ocean?”

Bibi stood on her hind legs, took a sniff, and spoke solemnly.

“We must go that way to reach the Ocean most quickly,” pointing with her sharp pink nose to the end of the path, past the last house. The rat scuttled over and stopped at Ayesha’s side, looking up. “Let’s go, for we have a long walk. . .”

“Wake up, my flower, it is morning. Time to get out of bed, my sleepy dove.”  Ayesha’s mother bent down, smiling, her cool hand touching Ayesha’s cheek.

*     *     *

The bucket banged against Ayesha’s leg as she shuffled to the well. However, before she could even see the well she heard voices.

“What will I do for my meals, with the husband’s brother visiting today?”

“Why, I could barely get half a bucket yesterday!”

“My sister dreamed this would happen, two nights ago.”

The well was surrounded by women talking, their dark djellabas flapping as their hands flew like excited birds, bracelets ringing. Ayesha stopped and listened more, then ran all the way home, her bucket banging against her legs.

“The well has run dry! There is no more water!”

*  *  *

In the shade of a date palm the village council addressed the villagers, saying the well diggers had been sent for. “We did not watch carefully for the signs, and our well has left us dry. We must guard each drop left as if it were a jewel, until our new well gives us water.”

Words flew deep into the night as the villagers talked and talked. Lying in bed, Ayesha drifted as if on water, the voices like waves that kept coming and coming. After her house and the village turned quiet and slept, Ayesha rose up, gathered a half loaf of bread and slipped out to sit under the moon, as she had the night before in her dream.  Her parents would scold her if they knew, asleep behind their striped curtain. But things were serious, and she wanted to think.

As Ayesha sat at the top of a dune, eating and wishing she knew how to help the village, a kangaroo rat appeared, hopping up the dune. Ayesha watched, and then, it spoke to her.

“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”

It was Bibi, the rat from her dream! Ayesha was excited, but then remembered.

“No, I can’t, the village well is dry, and we must find new water. Mother worries that the well diggers will have cloudy eyes and see no place to dig.  What will we do?”

The rat laughed a little and chittered, but did not stop her hopping, enjoying the circle she made in the sand. “Humans are so helpless. I know there is water, and I know where it lives. How else could we ever drink in such a dry place? We don’t have nice wells and big buckets to drink our fill from. I can’t dig any more than you can balance on your tail. We have to know where the water is easiest to reach, or we’re in the hands of trouble.”

“How do you know where the water is?”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Can’t you hear it? Sometimes it’s loud enough to wake a sleeping donkey.”

“Hear what?”

“The water. It talks constantly. Water usually just moves somewhere else. We can listen and find the place where it went. But we’ll need some help, some more sharp ears, to save time.”

The rat stopped her hopping, sat straight up, and passed her paws through her fur a few times. Then she closed her eyes and began beating her tail on the sand rapidly, her eyes shut tight and her whiskers twitching with the effort.  After thumping for a while, she stopped. “There. That will do. Whew, drumming is lots of work, I think I need a morsel of bread to keep my strength up.”

“What were you doing?” Ayesha asked, handing a small piece of bread to Bibi, who hopped once then ate the bread in one gulp.

“Just asking for help. It should be here by now.” Indeed, small shadows were hopping toward Ayesha and Bibi; more kangaroo rats. Nine had answered Bibi’s call, and squatted in a half circle before her, whiskers twitching and eyes gleaming under the moon.

“What took you so long? What if I had been in trouble? It certainly seems that I better learn to fend for myself and not count on you lazytails.” Bibi held her sharp nose in the air.

One rat, whose tail had a kink just before its tip, spoke up in a weary voice. “It is the middle of the night, Bibi, this is our busiest time, and we have many chores to do. I was getting ready to catch a juicy cricket when you called. What do you want this time?”

“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the humans scurrying around fussing because the water got tired of the old well and moved. This little girl will give us bread if we will find where the water went. Yes, Ayesha?” Bibi looked up at Ayesha.

“Certainly,” Ayesha said brightly and pulled the bread from her sleeve, waving it.  Immediately there was twitching and chittering and a few somersaults. The rat with the bent tail spoke.

“We will happily help, but may we have a taste first? We have hard work to do, after all.”

“Certainly,” Ayesha again responded. She sat, and the rats gathered politely in a circle, balancing on their tails. As Ayesha placed a small piece of bread in each set of pink paws, she heard a quiet Shokran. “You’re welcome,” she replied to each.

Bibi called, “Good, let’s go to the old well and start from there.”

*     *    *

At the old well, Bibi told the other rats, “Now, form a line, and grab the tail of your brother or sister on your right. Good, now spread apart until―”

“Ouch, that’s attached, you know.”

“Mahmoud, stop it. Good. This way we make sure we don’t miss any ground and stay close together. Listen closely for the water’s voice, and we’ll start walking from the well.  First, let’s go…that way.”

Ayesha sat on the well’s lip, watching as the line of rats walked under the moon, each holding a neighbor’s tail.

Date palms rustled as the wind returned, and a dog barked somewhere on the village’s far side―at this the line of rats hopped in the air, but then kept walking.

Ayesha climbed down from the well and followed the rats, and soon an excited voice said, “I hear the water, right here.”

The others dropped tails and gathered, on empty sand just beyond the village edge, then all began hopping and chattering.

“Yes, I hear it.”

“Me, too.”

“My, the water sighs loudly.”

But when Ayesha knelt she could not hear a thing except the whisper of sand. “Are you sure?” Ayesha peered at Bibi, who was grooming the fur on her right rear leg.

“Oh yes, it is here, and not that far underground, the new well will not need to be very deep. We promised to find water, and we take promises very seriously. So, let’s mark the spot so it can be found in the daylight.”

Ayesha piled stones where the rats told her. Then, Bibi spoke again.

“We have kept our part of our agreement, now it is your turn. May we have our bread, please? It will be good for us to return to our homes with something tasty for our families.”

Ayesha divided her bread among the rats, each politely saying Shokran then hopping off into the darkness. Last came Bibi.

“Shokran, Ayesha. The water will be sweet and cool. Goodbye.”

*     *     *

When Ayesha awoke the next morning, she ran to her mother and told her of the kangaroo rats and the place for the new well.

“Hush, child, this is not the time for dreams. Today is baking day, and we have much to do.”

Her father said, “Not now, my daughter, tell me your stories later. I must go out before the sun gets too high. Until the new well is dug, I must take extra care of our garden.”

No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night. Ayesha thought hard about how to convince her parents that she knew where the new well could be dug.

And she had an idea.

Excited but tired, she lay in her bed that night, and when the fat round moon rolled out to sit on the soft dunes, Ayesha again slipped from her house. First, she walked to a place in the village where she knew date palm trees had been planted. She carefully dug up one of the young trees, almost as tall as she, and covered up the hole.  Then, she carried the small tree to the spot beyond the village where the rats had heard water. There was the stone pile, and she planted the tree. Wind stirred everything in a gust when she finished, scattered sand, and helped erase her traces.

Then she giggled.

*     *     *

Next morning, she said nothing about the tree, although she felt as if she might burst with excitement.  But, after chores, when Ayesha played chase with her friends Fatima, Habibi, and Melila, she ran down a village path to the desert’s edge, to where, wonder of wonders, a new tree grew! The other girls ran to their houses to tell their families, and soon grownups stood around the tree that had appeared overnight. “Go get the well diggers!”

The well diggers had come to the village to begin their work, and when they were shown the tree they sniffed the air, put their ears to the ground, and looked at each other.

“Yes, we will begin digging here.” They found moisture in the earth after only an hour of digging. And the very next day, cool water began flowing into the bottom of the deep new well.

*     *     *

Ayesha lay—happy and tired—in bed the evening of the day water came back to the village and wanted to thank Bibi and her friends for finding the water. But there was something else she wanted to do, too. In the quiet part of the night she again walked under the moon, holding a fresh loaf in both hands, letting the breeze carry the delicious smell. And, before Ayesha had walked very far, a familiar voice from near her feet spoke.

“It is good to see you, Ayesha, my child.”

“I am glad to see you, Bibi. Thank you very much for finding the water for us.”

“Oh, glad to help. If you really want to thank me you could let me have a taste of that loaf.”

“Sure, you may have some, but only when you keep your promise.”

The rat rose up on her hind legs. “Whatever do you mean? Of course, I kept my promise, silly child, your village has a new well.”

“True, but you forgot your other promise. We have not gone to see the Ocean.”

Somersaulting and chittering, Bibi said, “Well, we’re wasting a beautiful cool night. Follow me.”

Bibi began hopping away. Her long skinny tail stuck straight up, the dark tuft at its tip like a flag in the air. After a little hop of her own, Ayesha followed, walking along the path leading to the end of the village and, beyond the horizon, to the great Ocean.

*     *     *

Was this a dream? All I know is that the next day Ayesha’s mother gathered up Ayesha’s djellaba to wash it in the village’s new water, and she felt dampness at its hem and a delicious tangy salty sea smell rose faintly from it. One tiny shell fell from the cloth. And Ayesha’s mother stared at the garment and shook her head, as if to wake herself.

Ed Taylor

Ed Taylor is the author of the novel Theo (Old Street), the poetry collection Idiogest (BlazeVox) and the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat (BlazeVox). His fiction, poetry, and essays have most recently appeared in New World Writing, Louisville Review, Great Lakes Review, and Gargoyle. He received a fiction writing MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles.

Nature Lessons

Grandmother’s house nestled at the edge of a wild wood. In the summer, my parents left me with her while they traveled north for my father’s job. He worked part-time for logging companies, clear-cutting forests, harvesting pulp and timber near Grand Marais and Stonington in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Those were summers of tanned bare legs scratched by blackberry brambles, bee stings I hardly felt, and staying up late on the back porch with Grandma Kate watching moths, sometimes as large as my hand, cluster around the light cast from the oil lamp.

Grandmother, in her late sixties, lived like a pioneer. She had neither electricity nor running water and heated her home with a wood stove. She cooked her meals on its heavy, cast-iron burners. Every morning, she cleared ash from the stove’s belly and hauled it in a bucket to the ash pile beyond her house. She stocked her cupboards with homemade blackberry jam, apple butter, jars of thick, spicy pickles, and green beans from her garden.

She taught me the names of flowers, trees, birds, and the habits of animals. On those long summer days, we sat for hours on the porch in the shade of the oak that grew bent, twisted, and cast long shadows to cool us. Grandmother sprinkled seeds across her palm and held her hand out carefully. I leaned into her bulky frame as I watched the sparrows creep closer, until a brave one finally snatched a kernel. It was difficult for me to stay still for too long and sometimes my jerky movements sent them wheeling into the blue sky and back under the eaves of the barn roof where they nested.

A large field stretched out into a wooded area beyond her cabin and sloped into old growth forest, where a pond slept in partial sun and shadows. On early June mornings, we walked through drifts of orange hawkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and patches of goatsbeard and daisies to the pond where cattails grew in abundance. I bounded ahead of her on my long, gangly legs, scattering field crickets and meadow katydids before me. The grass filled with clacking as grasshoppers rubbed their legs together and their singing echoed inside my head. Clouded sulphur and copper butterflies, delicate cabbage moths and swallowtails darted from blossom to blossom.

“Slow down,” Grandmother often scolded me. “Look, even the downy woodpecker is leaving now.” A small woodpecker with black and white checkered wings abandoned his perch in the nearby oak, and all I could see was the flash of red from the patch at the back of his head as he flew away.

Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience.

As a young woman, I used to think my grandmother’s lessons were about nature and learning how to appreciate the stillness found in the natural world. Now that I am older, I know my grandmother’s most important lessons were about patience. As a child, this required stepping carefully without flattening the grass and crunching dried leaves beneath the soles of my blue plaid Keds. It meant lowering my voice to a whisper, like that of morning wind slipping through needles of a Norway spruce. And when we sat on the back porch under the afternoon sun, it meant keeping my body still, holding my arm out, fingers open so I, too, could coax the shy sparrows to take seed from my hand. For a child who was constantly hopping on one foot, twirling to imaginary music and talking loudly, stillness was not an easy state for me to obtain.

“Someday, you’ll understand about quiet,” Grandmother said. “How restful it can be to just sit in the sun and contemplate nothing.”

“Is that what you do, Grandma?” I asked.

“Often,” she said. “There’s so much to think about.”

Grandmother knew the names of many birds, and recognized their songs in all seasons. During the winter months, when my family moved back to Wisconsin, she often sent me pictures of birds clipped from magazines, and once she sent me a perfectly woven robin’s nest abandoned by its family. Birds were plentiful those summers. I recall the killdeers circling overhead in early evening calling out their distinct kill-dee, kill-dee, cedar waxwings preening in the juniper bush, and yellow warblers singing dee-diddly-dee! Dee-dee-dee-diddly-dee! Several purple martins nested in the tall wooden birdhouse near the porch.

“The Martin is viewed in the Christian faith as serving God, being God’s ‘bow and arrow,’” my grandmother told me. “The Martin brings good luck to any home where it nests and rears its young.”

“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage”

She quoted whenever a robin landed nearby. Later, when I studied English literature in college, I learned those lines came from the poet William Blake. She was delighted if a blackbird built a nest on her roof. “This is a sign of good luck,” she said. If we walked down to the pond and encountered a hissing duck, Grandmother would say, “Rain is on the way.” In the evening as we lit the oil lamps, sometimes we heard an owl at the edge of the woods. “If an owl flies around the house at night, it means that death is near.” She lowered the pitch of her voice. “If you see an owl during the day, it’s bad luck.”

I shivered and stood closer to Grandmother, listening to the distant cry of a screech owl as it echoed through the night.

One morning we walked to the pond, Grandmother moving slowly as always, quietly pushing branches out of her way. I walked behind her, trying not to trample twigs and rustle leaves, proud because I was not running wildly ahead in a hurry to arrive as I usually did. I was practicing patience and the way to walk through nature like my grandmother often showed me. When we reached the pond, she lifted a hand to stop me, and then I saw the bird. It stood regally at the edge of a cluster of cattails on its long, slim legs.

“I think it’s a sandhill crane,” she whispered. She lifted her binoculars and let me look through the lenses. The bird was a soft gray color with a plume-less head.

After a second look, she bent down close to my ear.

“No, it’s not. It’s a Little Blue Heron.”

We watched the heron for a long time then furtively turned back and retraced our footsteps.

When I was about nine, I decided I wanted to study butterflies, moths and other insects when I grew up. The name I discovered for this type of scientist was a lepidopterist. My parents bought me a butterfly net and my father made a spreading board out of cork and balsa wood. All that summer, I used the patience my grandmother taught me to sit in the field waiting for the perfect Tiger Swallowtail to land on an orange hawkweed blossom or a Painted Lady to stop and take nectar from a milkweed, then I would catch one in my net, gently find the butterfly’s thorax and hold it between my thumb and index finger to still the fluttering of its wings before I carefully placed it in the killing jar. My collection grew all summer, but my grandmother was disappointed.  She shook her head when I left in the morning carrying my net.

“I didn’t teach you patience to kill such treasures,” she said. “It disturbs the fragile balance Mother Nature intended. Someday, the butterflies that are so abundant now will become scarce.”

“But I want to be a scientist. I want to study butterflies. I’m keeping them beautiful forever,” I told her. I collected butterflies for only one summer. Then I quit. I realized I hated watching them struggle to breathe in their glass prison, until finally they grew too weak and died.  I decided to become a geologist and began collecting rocks instead.

 *     *     *

I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage.

Many years later, I sit on the back porch of my own home in the small town where we live at the edge of a larger city. My daughter is playing with our dog in the yard, and her laughter echoes as she tosses him a ball and he catches it in mid-air. It’s August, and bumblebees buzz around the bee balm in my butterfly garden. I realize I have not seen one butterfly all summer like any that flocked to the fields behind my grandmother’s cottage. Back then, there were red admirals with distinct bands of red wrapping their wings, tawny crescents, and mysterious dark purple mourning cloaks. Brown elfins fluttered over blueberries and willow catkins, and the Great Spangled Fritillary perched jauntily on clusters of black-eyed Susan. I recall Grandmother’s words, and I realize she was right. Although she did not know what it would be called, global warming is slowly killing all the butterflies, and it is a privilege now to encounter their ethereal beauty.

The patience my grandmother taught me has served me well through the years. While my daughter was growing up, I took her for long walks through the wooded area behind our home in Northern Michigan, naming the fields of spring flowers, or sitting on a rock by Lake Superior explaining how the great glaciers shaped and carved our land. We pressed wildflower sprigs between pages of her picture books and glued bright autumn leaves into a scrapbook. I consulted my Trees of Michigan guide, and we sat cross-legged on the floor matching the leaves to their names.

Senara is seventeen now and living with her father up north. As she entered her teenage years, her interests centered more on clothes, television shows, and spending time with her friends.  When she comes home for visits in the summer, she sits for hours in front of a computer screen chatting online, or curls up on her bed with her cell phone, texting messages back and forth to her boyfriend. I worry she is forgetting my teachings about nature and no longer noticing or finding harmony in the beauty surrounding her: spring rain, a full moon sailing above the trees at night, the first red-winged blackbird swooping down when there is still a trace of snow on the ground.

She attends high school where we used to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The other evening she called me as she was driving home. It was late at night and dark along her road, so she kept the speakerphone on until she reached her dad’s house safely. When she got out of the car, she was suddenly silent.

“Are you still there?” I ask. I could hear the soft rustle of her clothes and crunch of her boots in the snow.

“Yes,” she says. “I was just looking up at the sky. Mom, it’s so beautiful. The stars are so brilliant tonight. It’s amazing!”

I turn off my kitchen light and go out on the back deck in the chill air. The constellations are not as clear as up north due to the nearby lights of the city, but she is right – the sky is filled with stars.

“If you wait a while, you might see a shooting star,” I tell her.

“Maybe, you will see the same one,” she says.

As we stand waiting patiently, separated by distance, in different latitudes, I feel my grandmother’s presence. I remember her sending me sky charts during the winter months and naming the constellations when we sat on her porch in the summer dark.

I visualize Senara, hair tucked under her Stormy Kromer hat, one hand covered by a wooly mitten shading her eyes as she tilts her head back. I wonder—if I were with her, would I see her the same way my grandmother saw me? Does my daughter hear me the way I heard my grandmother? There is, however, one thing I do know: Grandmother’s teachings are alive tonight as we gaze up at the stars.

Petrouske headshot

Rosalie Sanara Petrouske lives near the Grand River, the longest river in Michigan. A writing instructor at Lansing Community College, she has published essays and two chapbooks of poetry, the most recent with Finishing Line Press. Last November, she received a first honorable mention in the Abbie M. Copps Poetry Competition.

MANDEM: Mixed Media

“Project Hippolytus” is inspired by a Greek myth: Asclepius, the patron of medicine, raises the boy Hippolytus from the dead. Zeus is angered by this, and he strikes Asclepius down with a thunder bolt. Our century seems to think…

Jillian Lauren, Author and Memoirist

Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Jillian Lauren was born in New Jersey and found herself working in theater in New York by her late teens. Her work in theater led to a career in sex work, which became the subject of her memoir Some Girls, covering the time Lauren spent in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, youngest brother of the sultan of Brunei.

After leaving Brunei, Lauren struggled with drug and alcohol addiction before getting her life back on track, finishing her education and beginning her writing career. Her first novel, Pretty, explores the experiences of a woman whose choices land her in a halfway house in Los Angeles while she struggles to finish her last two weeks of cosmetology school without derailing her life.

Today, Lauren is an author, blogger, playwright, performer, wife and mother. Her one-woman show Mother Tongue, dealing with Lauren’s struggles to get pregnant and her decision to adopt, premiered this summer.

Lauren spoke with Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana.

Lise Quintana: There are several levels of “coming out” with sensitive personal information about your life: coming out to friends, coming out to family, coming out to community, coming out to the world at large. Which was the hardest for you?

Jillian Lauren: They all have distinct challenges. I would say that the hardest for me was probably the community that I live in right now, because there were levels of revelation to my family and my close friends—but they sort of knew what I had done. They knew my history. But my neighbors, the moms in the “Mommy and Me” group, they don’t get that kind of information from me. They don’t know the stuff that I discuss in my memoir. Now they do, but they didn’t before. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, it just doesn’t come up at Gymboree that I used to be in a harem. So that was a little hard for me. Overall, the whole coming out has been a wonderful experience, and it’s allowed me to be myself in the world and allowed people to love me for who I am.

I wasn’t trying to hide anything, it just doesn’t come up at Gymboree that I used to be in a harem.

LQ: What gave you the courage to publish your memoir?

JL: I think that the only reason to write a book like this is that you can’t not write it. It was announcing itself to me and demanding to be written, and when I wrote the book, I did it in such a way that I thought that no one would ever read it. That’s how you have to write. Now it’s a little bit different for me. I know that’s probably not true, but at the time it was feasible to think that no one would ever read it. Every step of the way has been a revelation to me. I hope to approach all my work in the same way: you do the work because the work needs to be done, and then you worry about who’s going to publish it and read it later.

LQ: That brings up an interesting point. Once you’ve written your story and it’s ready to go, most writers have to start advocating for their work to get the attention of publishers. Did you have that problem?

JL: I did. I tried to sell my novel for a very long time – I actually have two novels, one of which was never published and the other one was written while I was at Antioch before I wrote my memoir. I was trying to sell that for a very long time, and it wasn’t until I packaged it with the book proposal for the memoir that I was able to sell them both. I think you do have to advocate for yourself, you do have to sell yourself. You have to act as if you’re the best writer there is and you have a voice that needs to be heard even on the days when you don’t believe it.

LQ: In “Some Girls,” you mentioned discovering that you had been writing all along, even though your first passion was theater. Given your earlier academic challenge [leaving New York University after only a few days], what motivated you to pursue your M.F.A.?

I just had a feeling that it was going to be a way for me to apply myself and to give some structure to my writing process and to get behind myself and say “This is what I’m doing now. I’m a writer. This is who I am.”

JL: I had to go back and get my B.A. I had cobbled together different classes from different colleges over the years, and so many times I decided I was going to go back to school and then quit. I had gotten more disciplined and was settled and in a supportive, stable relationship, I was sober from drugs and alcohol, and I was ready to complete something. I went back and got my B.A. because I knew I wanted to get my M.F.A. in creative writing. It’s not because I felt so comfortable in academic settings, but I just had a feeling that it was going to be a way for me to apply myself and to give some structure to my writing process and to get behind myself and say “This is what I’m doing now. I’m a writer. This is who I am.”

LQ: Although “Pretty” is a novel, much of it was lifted from your own experience. Your main character Bebe has a visceral negative attitude toward the authority figures in her life (whom she and Jake refer to as “zombies”). Before you got sober, was that your view of people who lived a more conventional life than your own?

JL: (laughs) It still sometimes is! I’m from a fringe perspective. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always felt like I was on the margins of culture. That’s the perspective I try to speak from and those are the voices that I’m interested in representing. Those are the voices of the people around me on the margins. I’ve never called anyone a zombie: that was the language of the book. But it does represent my perspective in some ways. One with the volume turned up: a more immature version of my perspective.

LQ: You’ve just said that you’ve always felt at the margins. Do you feel that you’re claiming that as your territory—people in the minority: sex workers, adoptees, the tattooed, non-whites, addicts, etc.?

JL: Yeah! I don’t really have a choice. It is my space. It became very clear to me at a young age that it’s kind of a great space. It’s an electric and a creative place. It’s not always comfortable and it’s often more visible than I want to be. Right now I have a transracial family with multiple adoptions, I’m tattooed to my eyeballs. I’m very visible in society. Sometimes I wish I could blend into the woodwork a little more, but I’ve learned to really embrace it as who I am. It’s always going to be what my work is about.

LQ: There’s no doubt that you carry a lot of legitimacy about issues concerning addiction and sex work, but do you feel it was hard for you to be heard on issues of body image, class or race, since in those areas you can be seen as culturally normative?

JL: I think that I have a commitment to authenticity, and I hope that is apparent in the work. I don’t feel that it’s ever been questioned that I have the right or the place to talk about body image. It’s true, I’m just a kind of normal attractive person, but that has not been my internal experience and I’m interested in writing from the gut. I think that the work that I’ve done around these issues has resonated with readers more than anything that I’ve written, judging by the response I’ve gotten. But it’s all one big thing. Sex work and body image—these two things go hand-in-hand to me.

LQ: It was evident in both Pretty and Some Girls, which, by the way, I got my mother to read and she loves.

I hear all the time “I gave Some Girls to my mother and she loved it.” That means a lot to me. It’s become an intergenerational kind of dialogue.

JL: Thank you! Do you know how many times that I hear that? I’m not sure why, but I hear all the time “I gave Some Girls to my mother and she loved it.” That means a lot to me. It’s become an intergenerational kind of dialogue. It seems like there’s a real through-line, even though I didn’t necessarily intend one.

LQ: You mentioned in a 2011 interview that your character Bebe was “struggling with who she is and what is her real value.” Is that at the heart of your own need to write?

JL: I think that my need to write is not a conscious thing. It is inborn, and I could ascribe a lot of reasons to it. It gives me a reason to experience the world around me. I’ve always been a compulsive documenter. It’s my inborn impulse: to look at the world around me and arrange it into narrative. I don’t know if it’s my search for my value, but maybe it’s a piece of that. I mean, I get my sense of value more from my relationships with people. I hope that comes out in my book, but that’s definitely in the mix, for sure.

LQ: You use the phrase “being present” a lot. What does that mean for you when you’re writing?

JL: I think that’s a real struggle when I’m writing because our attention is so split and our brains are these incredibly fast multi-tasking machines right now. I’m a mother and I’m a blogger and I have eight million bazillion things that I’m constantly juggling, but when I have to sit down and do the hard work—when I have to write a book—I have to be present in my emotions, present in my body, I have to be not multi-tasking. It’s a real challenge. It takes a moment to get into that space and it takes a big moment to get out of it. It takes real commitment to carve out time in the day when you are just dedicated to being present with whatever you’re working on.

LQ: You’ve adopted a boy from Ethiopia and you blog about that choice and the challenges it has presented you. Given the investment of time that any preschooler takes, where do you find the time to write daily?

JL: I prioritize it. I have had this discipline in place for so long. There are times when I stray from it, when I’m publicizing a new book or something, and I’m not able to write every day. Right now I’m in a creative groove and I’m writing by 9:30 or 10:30, and I write for four hours. I’m extremely regimented about it and that’s how I find the time. My house is a disaster and I let a lot of things go. My garden looks like Morticia Addams is our gardener. I just keep thinking that at the end of my life I’ll wish I wrote more books and I spent more time with my child. I don’t think I’ll say I wish my crap drawer was more organized.

LQ: You describe yourself in your book as a “feminist sex activist.” Now that you’re a parent, how has your view of sex and society changed?

It’s become more urgent to me that my son learns to love and respect his body and the bodies of other people around him.

JL: And being the mother of a boy—not just being a parent, but being the mother of a boy after all that I’ve been through. It’s a real lesson. It’s a challenge to root out any of the last resentments I have about men. As a parent, my views of sex and society haven’t changed that much. They’ve become more urgent. It’s become more urgent to me that my son learns to love and respect his body and the bodies of other people around him. That women are able to maintain reproductive freedom of choice. That stuff has become more important.

LQ: You say that as the mother of a son, it’s particularly urgent. In both your books you talk about how being viewed as attractive or unattractive affects women at every stage of life, practically from infancy. Have you thought about how you’ll address that issue as the mother of a son?

JL:  My son’s still four and a half. I think that there are a lot of issues that I don’t have right up in my face because I don’t have a daughter. That’s a whole other ball of wax that’s present for me, but it’s not right in my living room. But believe me, I don’t care if my son is gay, straight, transgender, he is going to treat everyone kindly and with respect.

LQ: What are you working on now?

JL: I’m working on another memoir about trying to get pregnant and trying to have a family and what that journey was like for me and coming to the decision to adopt my son and how that made me confront my own feelings about being adopted.

LQ: Does it have a name yet?

JL: Nope. It is the as-yet-untitled memoir. If anyone has any great ideas, you should let me know.

Circus Series: Mixed Media

Undone

When I grabbed at her hand to keep her from going again, a tiny tip of her pointer finger came off. I clasped it tightly as she ran in velvet high heels down 42nd Street, almost tripping over her hair. It was still warm against my palm, and I could almost feel a rhythm, like a tiny fleshy drum—a hint of heartbeat. I pocketed it and forgot it was there until I picked up the slacks from the cleaners two weeks later. I discovered it when I slipped my wallet inside the neatly pressed pocket on my way out the door to work. I pulled it out, studied it. It was a bit gray in color but it was odorless and the fingernail polish was still a bright orange. I threw it into the cheap china dish on the small round table by my front door where I kept the neighbor from 4A’s spare keys. I forgot about it there, crooked edged and solitary, until I managed to get the rest of the finger.

She didn’t even notice the sound of her hair anymore, but I heard it. The clattering of lost change in it, bits of lint and dust balling at the ends.

I wasn’t expecting to run into her again, not since the way she split the last time I called out her name from across 42nd, standing outside a small doughnut shop, a bit of powdered sugar speckling my chin. Her hair was dragging on the floor then, sweeping the streets, grabbing up old newspapers and empty water bottles with its tentacle-like ends. She didn’t even notice the sound of her hair anymore, but I heard it. The clattering of lost change in it, bits of lint and dust balling at the ends. Her eyes were so white that I lifted my hand to block the light of them. That’s when I yelled out her name, dropping my doughnut and falling into a sprint to catch up to her, just to speak to her one more time.

But then there I was, just a few weeks later, at the DMV when I heard a familiar clattering, a clinkering, a jingling, and I knew it was her hair. This time, I didn’t call out her name. I didn’t even breathe. I stayed as invisible as possible until she slowly clambered past me, a bit of her hair sweeping across my face, locking itself into a trembling eye lash. That’s when I grabbed her hand. She recoiled, immediately recognizing the touch of my skin, but I held on to it fast. She didn’t say a word, just yanked her hand backwards, and that’s when the entire finger came right off. This time, we both noticed immediately. She stared at her finger, alive and pulsating in my hand and held her four fingered hand to her chest. I didn’t mean to, I started, but she turned, wounded and afraid, her hair running after her.

When I got home, I tried to glue the tip back to the finger, but they no longer fit together as one whole piece. They were two parts now, and I had to accept that. So I kept them together in the cheap china dish and checked on them each day before and after work to be sure they were both still there. Until once, in middle of the night, when I was tossing and turning, imagining her hair rolling me up into a blonde cocoon; I heard the finger tapping, but it was a blunted sound without the tip of the finger. It tapped out a tune on the edge of the china bowl, and I found myself waking hours later from a dreamless sleep. After that night, I moved the bowl to my night stand.

I hugged the end of that braid like a life saver and she felt me on her. She started to run through the streets, her braid trailing, dragging me against the pavement, over the potholes and the sewers.

A year went by before I saw her again, and this time her hair was in a braid: one very giant and lengthy braid. It was a whip of fine hair that slapped any innocent passerby in the face if she turned her head too excitedly to get a glimpse of a store front or quickly-moving advertisement on the side of a bus. When it hit me, the wind from my chest blew off the leaves of the tree next to us. It knocked me to the ground, and I saw stars in the sky, but I grabbed on fast. I hugged the end of that braid like a lifesaver and she felt me on her. She started to run through the streets, her braid trailing, dragging me against the pavement, over the potholes and the sewers. I felt myself bleeding, felt scrapes gaping and widening, but I climbed up that braid and grabbed on to her shoulder, resting my lips close to her ears. Please. I was losing breath and holding on too tightly. The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of an intersection, trucks screeching to a halt, engines burning, horns blaring, with the length of her arm from the socket of her shoulder to the tips of her four remaining fingers, tightly clasped against my chest.

The fingers on the arm twitched the whole walk home. At one point, I thought, they were trying to pick-pocket me, but then I realized that was someone else. I came home and used the third arm to slam the door shut. I tossed the arm on the couch and went to address the cuts and bruises in the bathroom. By the time I was done with the shower and ordered and devoured a whole pile of Thai food from up the block, I noticed that the fingers were no longer twitching, but had managed to ball themselves up into a fist. I took out the other finger and tried to glue it back on, but it stubbornly refused to curl like the other so now I had three parts of her: the tip of her index finger, the whole of her index finger and the entirety of her left arm. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted her.

My luck was running dry. Two years passed since I secured her left arm. Since then I have stored it beneath my kitchen sink, right behind the water pipe. Sometimes weeks go by and I forget it’s there and when I open the cabinet to pull out another sponge or some Windex, I jump back as it falls forward to shake my hand. But then I laugh, remembering it was only her arm and tuck it back behind the pipe and continue on with the dishes.

It was my thirty-third birthday when I saw her next. I almost didn’t recognize her with one arm less and her hair now gathered up and balancing on her head like a magnificent golden beehive. It was a karaoke bar and I was already four drinks in. The Led Zeppelin song I was singing with my friend was milky and sweet and drifting when I spotted her in the crowd, holding her glass of purple wine with her right hand. Two eyes peered out from the center of her hair and I noticed a baby bird had gotten itself trapped in her locks.

I stepped down from the stage, beer still in hand, and walked towards her. She must have forgotten me momentarily because she spread those licorice lips of hers, thin and ropey and red, and smiled. I’ve been waiting a long time for you, I smiled back, and blushed because I forgot what it felt like not to be chasing her. But then her smile dropped and her eyes sunk and she remembered. Please don’t go. She tried to run but the bar was thick with the breath of alcohol and sticky with the sweat of swaying bodies. I fell to my knees to beg. I grabbed hold of her leg, and she tried to shake me like a disease, and I clung, from so much practice, from so much want, I clung to her. She pulled at the bodies next to her, trying to swim her way out, but I wouldn’t let go. At first she moved slowly, stretching forward like taffy, but then she began to rush like water, and I was left with her silver boot and her entire right leg with it.

I didn’t know what to do with the leg. There was no way I could attach a right leg to a left arm. So I hung it up in the coat closet next to the ski jacket I never wear. For a few nights, the leg kicked at the door. The noise was louder than the tapping finger, so by the end of the week I had to remove the closet door completely and was forced to look at a gaping closet stuffed with winter wear, broken umbrellas, beach chairs and lopsided cardboard boxes filled with forgotten junk. I didn’t like the naked closet, but I disliked the kicking more. It didn’t take long to realize the leg was lonely, and so was I.

The day after I got engaged to a sweet girl who sat at the front desk at work, I saw her again, feeding the birds at Central Park. This time, I watched her a little while. Her hair was loose and in the breeze it would lift upwards and ripple like water. I had an intense urge to sit and brush it with nothing but a plastic comb. Instead I ran my hands through my own short hair and bit nervously at my fingernails. A gentleman passed her and the birds, commented on the weather, and she stood up to embrace him. That was enough to get me to move from my hiding place behind a tree. I ran to her and tackled her. My shoelaces got tangled with some of her hair and we rolled over the leaves making a pulpy mess of fall. This time I didn’t say anything. I wanted to hear her speak. It was time for an explanation.

I grabbed at her mouth, and with barely a scratch of my nail, her lips came off. If she wouldn’t speak, I’d have her listen. I clawed at her ears, and they slipped off like clip-on earrings. No, I yelled. We rocked and rolled and tumbled, and the earth was melting beneath us. The dirt turning sodden and runny, like a child’s nose, and her right arm draped across me. I wasn’t sure if she was embracing me or choking me, but with one swipe of my hand the arm rolled off into the distance, the birds fluttering towards the palm, hoping for more food. Now I didn’t know what to grab at, she was coming undone. Her leg was kicking at me and I remembered those kicks, remembered the sound against my coat closet door those nights, and I was driven mad by the memory of that lonely sound, and I grabbed at the leg to reunite it with the other. By the time we were through, there was nothing left whole except those long weeds of hair.

Talya Jankovits, a Los Angeles native, holds her MFA from Antioch University. She has been published in The Citron Review, Recovering the Self, 52/250 and other literary magzines. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters, where she balances motherhood, a full-time job and writing. Currently she is seeking representation for her novel.

The Memoirist

I like to think I have it all figured out.

Take the rifle.

As long as I can remember, the gun was there, resting next to the exercise bike in our house in New York. My father probably assumed he’d hid it well, draping it under several terry cloth robes. But I knew.

Perhaps my older sister pointed it out to me, gently lifting up the robes with one hand while twirling her dirty blonde hair into knots with the other.  “That’s a gun,” she may have said.

Or maybe my mother told me.

“That’s a gun. Don’t touch it.”

I actually held a rifle once, at sleepaway camp. I remember laying my body on the grass and pulling cold, shiny bullets out of a cardboard box. I remember carefully placing those bullets in what our instructor called the chamber, then snapping it closed. I remember the slight jerk of my arm when I fired and the powerful feeling when my bullet actually hit the target. What a strange thing, come to think of it; little girls shooting guns.  If I had grown up in Israel, it may have seemed completely normal.  But my father, mother and eldest sister left there for America in 1960, eight years before my birth, and life took a different course.

I’ve often wondered where my father’s gun came from and, with no clear answer, as an adult, I create one.

He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

It came from Israel.

It was the gun he’d carried as a teenager fighting in the war of 1948. The gun he’d killed people with. He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

 

I saw my father about a month ago, in what’s now become our annual weekend reunion. We met at the hotel in New York where we meet every year. He and Terri, his second wife, flew up from North Carolina; I drove down from Boston with my husband and two boys.

When we arrived, I found my dad sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby. He wore the usual – a leisure shirt with plenty of pockets. Khaki slacks. Clip-on sunglasses. For the first time however, he no longer looked well preserved, but his actual age: 82. His eyebrows were the most unkempt I’d ever seen them, like two plump, hairy centipedes nestling across his lower forehead. His face was drawn in around the mouth, as though the recent loss of his original teeth had caused the flesh in his cheeks to slump in mourning.

“Hi Dad,” I said, leaning over to give him a hug. He returned the gesture with his style of hug – no real embrace, just a light tap on the back and a quick retreat.

“You look good,” I said.

He nodded and almost smiled.

Later that afternoon, my father and I sat snugly on a small outdoor wicker couch by the pool. He lit his pipe.

I told him how I had driven by our old house and how almost nothing had changed. The odd collection of signs my father had created announcing “196” (our address) for his psychiatric patients still bordered the driveway. Even Buddy’s run remained, including the dilapidated doghouse, all of it looking like an ancient doggie graveyard.

“Really?” he said. He was looking ahead and not at me. He was always uncomfortable looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “And there was a man outside. Right near the dog run. Must have been the father. He was gardening or something.”

My dad sucked on his pipe, then laughed. “I wonder if he found the bullets yet.”

He was referring to the bullets he’d buried in the front yard right before the move—shortly after Terri had sold my father’s rifle in a garage sale.

“Did you really bury them there?” I asked. When he originally told me this, I was horrified. As though they were live grenades. I suppose buried bullets could do little harm, but I wasn’t sure.

“Yeah,” he said. “The guy was such a pain in the ass when we were selling him the house. One problem, one complaint after another. First he wanted the house, then he didn’t. So I left him the bullets as a little present.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. Then I nonchalantly asked him: “So where did you get that rifle anyway?”

Here it comes, I thought. All those horrible stories of death and destruction and the people he’d killed, tumbling out like items from a closet finally opened after six long decades.

 “It came from one of my patients,” he said. “A woman whose husband had threatened her with it.”

Damn.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” he said. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I said. I changed the subject.  “Is it even legal to sell a gun in a yard sale?”

He shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

We sat in silence for a moment. I tried a technique I’d learned years ago in a counseling psychology class in graduate school.

Keep quiet and eventually they will talk. The truth, the really meaty stuff, will come out.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” my father said, then walked away.

I waved at the cloud of pipe smoke hovering in front of my face until I could see clearly again.

Such is the sorrow of the memoirist, I suppose. Discovering not everything is loaded.

Amy Yelin’s essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Literary Mama, The Drum and the anthologies Mamas and Papas and Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost. “Torn” (originally in The Baltimore Review), received a notable essay recognition in the Best American Essays 2007. She holds an MFA from Lesley University.

Green Vase

Up at five. I rise before she does. I begin cleaning by six. It takes seven hours. It never ceases to humiliate: cleaning another woman’s home.

Take a break to wake Mrs. Pattershall, serve her tea, and provide a hand to help her out of bed. After dressing, she gets under my feet. I think of her as in my way, as out of place, as imposing. It is her apartment. I just clean it. But I am the one taking care of it. She is in the way. In her own home. How humiliating.

She’s poking around, looking for the green vase with the gold filigree. “It’s the only thing I have left of my mother.”

Trying to be helpful, I say, “I know I’ve seen it recently, but can’t place where or when.”

She says, “Now, who could have taken my green vase? If you were to come across it, you will give it back, won’t you?”

I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews.

I aim my eyes and my energy, with the focus of an intercontinental ballistic missile, on polishing her credenza. I want to say that I would never steal from her, and not just because of my Catholic morality. I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews. Although I’ll never forget this particular Pattershall-ism: “I can distinguish between New York Jews and California Jews by their facial features alone.” I’ve never heard Mrs. Pattershall utter a word against blacks. Her prejudices, like her, are antique. They calcified long before the Civil Rights Movement; even before the Holocaust, in the early days of the twentieth century, when she was a young schoolteacher, in white gloves, and scary Jews and Catholics from Eastern Europe clogged urban ports. I would never steal from her, I would say, not just because of my Catholic morality, thank you very much, but because of my good taste. It’s raining outside, heavily. I reconsider. I do not say anything. Eventually I will say the thing that will make her kick me out, but it will not be this thing, not on this day of heavy rain. I view my reflection in the fiercely polished surface of Mrs. Pattershall’s credenza.

She finds a different green vase, the one with the white enamel. She insists, “This is the only thing I have left of my mother.” She retires to the living room to watch her big-screen color TV. I don’t want to steal her vase. I want to steal time in front of that TV, which I never get to watch. I go out every day, see the sky, the world, people. I envy a shut-in’s big-screen color TV. Feh.

While cleaning, not seeking for the long-lost, gold-tricked, green vase, I toss the white enameled one about roughly. If – accidentally – I were to drop it, she’d have to throw me out, now, wouldn’t she? “It slipped,” I think. “I couldn’t help it!” I mentally practice pleading, as I mentally pack my bags. “How could you do this to me?” I accuse, as I mentally slam her door for the very last time. The vase does not drop. I am, for another term, a live-in domestic.

I fix her lunch, though that is not part of my contract, as are the morning tea and evening dinner, which nail my every day to her. Take a thorough shower. Hike to campus through a driving rain that renders my shower redundant.

Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts.

In Stephen’s Lounge, I dive into Preface to Plato, a tremendously exciting book. Today read two hundred pages of it; learn oral cultures are fundamentally different from literate ones. Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts. This sound is unpracticed, more dolphin-like than human – has this man ever spoken? “Is there a Nancy Hobart in the room?” asks the Stephen’s Lounge caretaker, a tall and rugged Daniel Boone of academia.

I look up and see a dripping delivery boy in a yellow slicker holding high a dozen red roses, reminding us that it is Valentine’s Day. A blushing and giggling Nancy Hobart, freshly wrenched from her version of Preface to Plato, rises from her study, reaches out over a couch, over the heads of three studying students, and takes her the roses, which drip, subtly, on the students. Daniel Boone hands her an emptied-out milk carton to serve as vase for her bouquet. We all laugh. After an initial pause, one person begins to clap. We all applaud.

I am surprised at how quickly, after I have clapped a few claps, my head drops back to my book; at how quickly I have changed from a working class Jersey girl who would have, with her buddies, milked this moment for a good thirty-five minutes of boisterous camaraderie, to a Berkeley scholar for whom silence and isolation are paramount, for whom they are gems wrenched from the pinching claws of life as Mrs. Pattershall’s live-in domestic.

I wonder if Glamorous Biker is here. I saw his bike downstairs. Even his bike is sexier than I, and pricier. I fell in love with him the day I came upon him as he rode his bike to the foot of the stone stairs leading up to Stephen’s Lounge. He stopped, dismounted, took the heavy bike in his right hand, held it away from his body, and sprinted with it, up the flight of stairs.

Have I been imagining it all? This is a silent study lounge. I’ve been in the same room with Daniel Boone for the last ninety days and all I know about him is that he looks like his name ought to be Daniel Boone, and that he keeps the coffee percolating, and the Pepperidge Farm cookies splayed on a tray, for a small fee, which we drop into a coffee can, a fee whose accuracy he calibrates by the thud our coins make as they collide with the mound of mixed coins at the bottom of the can.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me. One day last week, I lifted my head from my book and gazed directly at him. He struck a pose of affront, as if I had started it, so I stopped noticing him. At all. After three days of my refusal to notice him, he dropped a piece of paper into my lap. There was a phone number on that piece of paper. Alone on that piece of paper. No name. No proposed plan.

I didn’t want to phone from Mrs. Pattershall’s. Last night I walked to Oakland, to Rick’s.

For whom would I ask? Glamorous Biker? Offering my name wouldn’t help; Glamorous Biker doesn’t know my name any more than I know his. But I’d recognize his voice – I’ve never heard his voice.

“Hi, this is Danusha from Stephen’s Lounge,” I ventured.

“Oh, yeah, right. He said you’d call. I’m Nate, the housemate.”

Nate’s knowledge was either a very good sign, or a very bad one. Nate took a message.

“Well, how did it go?” Rick asked gently.

I told him.

“Omigod. He lives with Nate?” Rick exclaimed.

“Nate?” I asked.

“All the girls I meet…all the girls I’ve rented houses with…all the girls in Slavic…they’ve all been with Nate in Political Science.”

I felt so crushed. Whenever Glamorous Biker enters Stephen’s Lounge, I, I alone, recognize him, and – and just, just, appreciate his light and loveliness and, and … okay, so we haven’t spoken, but I can just tell…

If Glamorous Biker and I ever do go out for a beer, I’ll have to ask, “Why do you flirt with me? And, come to think of it, not just with me, but also with that German student with the flea-bitten ankles and the chocolate addiction? She’s never met a Pepperidge Farm cookie she didn’t like. How does she stay so slim?”

Nancy Hobart has folded her roses unobtrusively into the studious gloom of Stephen’s Lounge; she is once again, an anonymous scholar in reading glasses, fighting, like the rest of us, to rein in her focus, her enthusiasm, and her farts. Daniel Boone is deep in his book, keeping the most disinterested of eyes and ears on the cookie change clunking into the coffee can. My fingers tighten around Preface to Plato. Glamorous Biker has just entered the room.

He doesn’t look my way; doesn’t greet me with a silent nod or a mouthed “Hi.” Displays no awareness that I’m here. But he must know I’m here. He must be able to tell I’m looking at him. Everyone here, whether they are looking at their books or not, knows I’m looking at him. It’s a spontaneously combusted wildfire of silent awareness. He swings past, slices right through my eyes’ importunate appeal, stretches his blond and lean and limber body on a couch, places The New York Times over his eyes, and, perhaps, sleeps.

What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

Then why did he give me his number, then? Was it just bait? Did I fall for a trap? Do I exist to make the German chick jealous? I’ve told you she has flea-bitten ankles; did I tell you that she has breasts like grapes, melons, bowling balls? What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

I walk back – I do not say “home” never “home” but “back” – in a streaming rain and prepare a perfect soufflé for Mrs. Patershall’s dinner; she delays coming to the table; it partially deflates. I do not care. I dine on a care package of Rick’s hummus; hummus does not deflate.

After I have the dishes all cleaned up, and the floor swept and washed – I do not do that on my knees, no matter how hard Mrs. Patershall insists – I return to my room, to quiet and solitude and Preface to Plato. I hear some small commotion: the doorbell ringing; Mrs. Pattershall finally answering it; some chirping, some arranging of something. And then: CRASH! Followed by tears.

I just know. I walk into the kitchen and across water and sea-foam green, gold-flecked shards. Mrs. Pattershall found the long-sought vase. Trying to fill it with water for the red roses her dutiful daughter has sent her, late, on this day (Mr. Pattershall died more than half her life ago), she dropped it. She is now seated on a chair, crying. I begin rubbing her back. I say nothing. I’ve come to conclude that she can’t accept others’ words; hers must be contrary and superior. I want to avoid frustration. So, I say nothing, while rubbing her back.

“That was the only thing I have left of my mother.”

I nod.

“She died when I was four.” That buzz-saw Yankee accent. “Four” comes out as “foah.” “As she was dying, she said to Aunt Lucy, ‘Take care of my husband and the farmhands. Don’t worry about her, though. She can take care of herself.’ I was only four! I’ve kept that vase for almost one hundred years. I’m so stupid. All I do is drop things.”

I squat, pick up the splinters of green glass, which nest readily in the palm of my hand, as if to make ready for a family of glass bluebirds. “I drop things too,” I say.

“Not as many as I!” she announces.

“It was a mistake,” I say calmly, “everyone makes mistakes. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I think I risk saying this because I’ve never heard her speak of her mother, or anyone, for that matter, with any warmth. She spoke of the vase – as a connection to her mother – with warmth, and now it is broken, and it was she who broke it. “Do you want me to keep the pieces?”

“No! Take them from my sight!”

I descend to my knees. My fingers venture gingerly under the cupboards.

“I feel so guilty,” she says, softly, “for suspecting people of taking things. But people have taken things.”

I remembered. Mommy had been promised, before she left, that in America the streets were paved with gold; she was informed, upon arrival at Ellis Island, that she had been invited to America in order to clean those streets. I remember one day that Mommy had gone to a new job, and her new boss had placed large wads of dollar bills on top of a dresser and in the refrigerator. Mommy could see what was going on. These greenbacks were the bait of a trap. He was testing her. She walked out, never to return. She didn’t linger long enough, even, to get paid for the work she had done there. That was her victory. That bastard. I don’t know his name, but he lives on in this family story.

“We had more than the others,” Mrs. Pattershall announces.

“The others.” She knew I was an “other” because I was poor; that’s why Professor Dundes sent me to her, so I could pay tuition and have a roof over my head at the same time. She rejoiced when she discovered that I am Catholic. “Catholics have too many children! That’s why you have to live with me.” How did she know who “the others” were in her New England village, where everyone was a WASP whose family had been in North America for the previous three hundred years? Incidents like this: “My mother left me a truly beautiful hat. A true chapeau. I wore it in front of the other children, who envied me because I was smart, and envied my father, because he was intelligent, and rich. They made fun of my hat and called it ‘an old piss pot.’ ‘I wouldn’t put that old piss pot on my head!'”

She waves her arms around the apartment, around the things that make a four-room, two-bath apartment a seven-hour job to clean. “Why don’t I just throw out this old junk?” she asks.

Foolishly, I take the bait. “Why don’t you donate it?”

“Are you serious?” she looks down at me. “Why just that little cracked toy there, do you realize how much it’s worth? Take a guess. You’d be wrong. I’ve had it appraised. Five hundred dollars! It’s been passed down in my family for one hundred and fifty years. Be careful when you dust it. Probably you’re not used to handling things like that.”

My not stealing must be such a disappointment to Mrs. Pattershall. She lacks the aesthetic sense to appreciate her things. My stealing them would solidify for her their real value: to arouse others’ envy.

I rise and place the glass splinters into a bag. I knot the bag. I’ll take it downstairs immediately after saying goodnight to her. She need not be tormented by having the remains in the apartment. I put the bag down on the countertop. I rinse my hands of quills. With clean hands, I stroke Mrs. P’s narrow shoulders under her velveteen robe.

Mommy couldn’t afford a babysitter for us when we were sick home from school. After third grade, we fended for ourselves. Before that, before she felt safe leaving us home alone, she would take us with her while she worked. If I hadn’t already known that cleaning houses is dirty, the way the rich treated my mother was enough to let me know.

I was five years old, and too sick to attend kindergarten. Mommy transported me to a neighborhood confected of clouds. I gazed at tiny glass swans afloat on a mirror pool in the forgotten corner of one rich woman’s vast home. I knew that these swans belonged with me, not with the shits in that house. It was a question of justice.

The phone call came that night. I was in bed. Mommy looked at me. “They want to know if you stole their swans.” There was no anger in her.

How could I spirit away large waterfowl in my little kid coat? That was really the first confused image that staggered into my mind. I learned to disassociate from my crimes early. And it was already night. In little-kid time, what had had happened that morning was eons ago.

I breathed out an exaggerated, “Noooo!”

Nothing more was ever said. The swans, the elegant glass miracles, were inviolable in the most remote place I knew, a place never entered by others: my sock drawer. It had never occurred to me to question how socks entered that drawer. One day I realized that the swans were no longer there. At that moment I felt much older than I had felt before it; I felt much older on that day of awareness, followed by awareness, followed by awareness. In that domino cascade of awarenesses, including, “Oh, so that’s where socks come from,” was this one: That I had stolen, not liberated, the swans. That they were not my long-lost family, and that my placing them in my pocket was not an act of reunion. That they were objects, and that they were best classified, not as something loved and appreciated, but as something owned. Their ownership was decided by something I did not have: money. I realized that I was ashamed. In another awareness, I realized that I was ashamed for a different reason.

After dredging up this story, a fresh awareness suddenly arises. That was probably the classiest way that my mother had ever behaved toward me. I can no longer continue to say that my mother never showed me any tenderness. And I realize why she was so kind to me on this occasion, rather than, say after I’d gotten a good report card. I feel a fresh compassion for Mommy. Thank you, Mrs. Pattershall.

Sometimes I worry about myself. I fear that I’ve lost who I am; I fear that when I have a dog to pet again, a boy to kiss, and my own place, will I, the me I’ve lost, return? I tell myself, “Trzmaj sie. Hold on.” But then I realize that in this place, I am meeting new aspects of my most prized self that I never would have encountered, had I not come here.

I put Mrs. Pattershall to bed. My hand is on the light as she volunteers something that surprises me. “You know, dear, Professor Dundes has high hopes for you. He says you have it. Of all the students he has this year, he says that you have it. Never forget that, dear.”

I blush. I smile. I put out the light. “Good night, Mrs. Pattershall.” I still have some time to read Preface to Plato before I go to sleep.

Danusha Goska is a New Jersey teacher and writer. Her work has appeared in anthologies including The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Her new book, Save Send Delete, tells the true story of a debate about God and a love affair she shared with a celebrity atheist.

Aimee Bender, Author

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is the author of two short story collections, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), two novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) and a novella, The Third Elevator (2009). She contributed to The Secret Society of Demolition Writers and The Writer’s Notebook.

She received her undergraduate degree in Literature/Writing at the University of California at San Diego and, her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.

Ms. Bender is the recipient of two Pushcarts, the SCIBA award for best fiction, a Los Angeles Times Pick of the Year, and an Alex Award. She has been published in Tin House (“Lemonade”), The Paris Review (“Faces”), Electric Literature (“The Red Ribbon”), Ploughshares (“The Fake Nazi”), and other journals.

She was interviewed by Kathleen Whitney Rohr, Fiction Editor of Lunch Ticket.

KWR: Thank you for supporting Antioch University Los Angeles’ new literary journal Lunch Ticket. We are publishing our second issue.

In the prologue to your novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, about people living forever, the narrator says “That’s the story my father told me at bedtime on my tenth birthday.” Did your parents tell you made-up stories as you were growing up?

AB: We did a lot of reading aloud, and my parents encouraged reading a lot. My mom talks about a memory of reading poetry by A.A. Milne together. Occasionally when we were playing my dad would make up a story, but it was rare. My mom would tell me extensive made-up stories. An example: I had very long hair as a kid. Washing it was kind of an ordeal. When we would dry it—and it was this knotted mess—she would talk about me as a witch, because I had witchy hair. It was a fairy tale where I got to be all the characters. I started out as the witch and then as she combed my hair, slowly I became the princess.  It was so effective.  I ate it up.

KWR: I thought about how my great-nieces would respond to your novella The Third Elevator, because they are young children. Do you think The Third Elevator is a children’s or adults’ fairy tale or something else completely?

AB: A couple people have thought it is maybe for kids, but I wrote it with adults in mind because the questions or the troubles the characters encountered felt to me more like adult troubles. There are certain lines that need not to be crossed to make a story for children, but I don’t think it crosses those lines specifically. Do you think your nieces would be able to read it? I’m curious.

KWR: My eldest great-niece is six, and I think that she would enjoy the entire story, except for the part where the turtles are cooked.

AB: Yes, that moment was not for children as much.

KWR: I read that you have been giving the proceeds from The Third Elevator to insideOUT Writers.

In my mind, if a writer is writing something that has value to the writer, then hopefully the writing itself will have value in some way to the community, but what that value is will of course hugely vary.

AB: Sumanth Prabhaker from Madras Press has this wonderful approach where he asks what nonprofit the writer would like to pick for the proceeds to go to after he has made the money from publication. I had read about insideOUT in the memoir True Notebooks by Mark Salzman, where he talks about his experience in the very beginning of the organization going into juvenile hall, how profound an experience it was for him. It’s a very honest memoir because he really talks about crime and juvenile hall and his own reservations about being there at all. The organization has bloomed a lot since then. I knew about it in Los Angeles, and I got more involved and went to one of the readings in juvenile hall near downtown and found the work there very moving. Just the idea of giving kids, some of whom may go to prison and some of whom may get out, a chance to actually write.  I think that’s hugely valuable. I now have a mentee who is an alumnus of the program, so I’ve gotten a little bit more involved.

KWR: In what way do you think that writers have an obligation to the community?

AB: I don’t think writers more than anyone else. In my mind, if a writer is writing something that has value to the writer, then hopefully the writing itself will have value in some way to the community, but what that value is will of course hugely vary. If a writer happens to enjoy a helpful role in reaching out to the community, then great!  But it’s a separate action, a different impulse. A lot of writers aren’t interested in that kind of participatory act, and that’s fine—the actual writing is what makes a writer a writer.

KWR: In your short story, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” the rabbi talks about not living small. In conjunction with the idea of writers as people having an obligation to the community and then how a person’s life develops, tell me what a person would look like who is living big.

AB: Do I think every person has an obligation to the community? In some way, yes. I think it’s important to help. How a person tries to help is completely up to them, it can be in a small way or more. I think we all can try to give back in some way a little bit. The idea of living small–the Hasidic story is about when you die you’re supposed to go and apologize to God or whoever for all the ways you did not live big, every way you did not live life fully. What would it look like for a person living big? There would be some kind of investment in her world in many levels, a connection to people in some way, or nature, close to some kind of project or work or hobby or something that has meaning and value to that person. It’s so individual what that looks like, but I think the connection to oneself and the world around is how I interpret that Hasidic piece.  Of course this isn’t easy!  But it seems like a pretty good goal to me.

KWR: I found that story to be different from your other short stories that I have read, and I liked the Hasidic story within it. It seems to me that you are giving a lesson without lecturing.

AB: That’s good to hear. It’s more of a conversation, a long conversation between two characters that are batting around an idea as opposed to a lot of action.  I wasn’t sure what to do with it and then it found its way into Tablet, and it got into the world.

KWR: I’m glad it got into the world. In your short story “Job’s Jobs” [Willful Creatures], God tells a writer he cannot write anymore or he will be killed. If God held a gun to your head, would you give up writing? And if yes, what would you do instead?

A part of me would die if I couldn’t write, but there is a certain pressured way of talking about writing that I think is not so helpful. If I really felt like I was going to be killed if I wrote, then I would stop writing. Absolutely. If I was in a totalitarian regime, if I was in the U.S.S.R., and I was told you can’t write anymore or we will kill you, I would have done something else or try to say things through metaphor, in another way. Could it be another art form?

AB: A couple of answers. One is that when I went to writing talks when I was starting out sometimes a published writer or agent or editor would say something like, “if you don’t need to write, if you don’t have to write, then you’re not a writer.” I used to always listen to that and I took it extremely literally. I won’t die if I don’t write. It’s not air or water. A part of me would die if I couldn’t write, but there is a certain pressured way of talking about writing that I think is not so helpful. If I really felt like I was going to be killed if I wrote, then I would stop writing. Absolutely. If I was in a totalitarian regime, if I was in the U.S.S.R., and I was told you can’t write anymore or we will kill you, I would have done something else or try to say things through metaphor, in another way. Could it be another art form?

KWR: In the story, Job tries different art forms and God doesn’t like that, either. If writing was eliminated, but you could do anything else, what would that be?

AB: Maybe music. But also I’m not that good at music, so I don’t know if I’d actually be able to do it. Open a nonprofit. I don’t know if I’d be good at that, either! That’s hard stuff.  I do really like teaching.

KWR: When you have something that is your life and to think of doing something else, that is quite difficult.

AB: Language is everywhere, so if I do give up writing of all kinds, that eliminates a lot. It’s not like I could say, “It would be fun to try to write a movie,” because that’s still writing. I wouldn’t like to direct a movie or act in a movie.

KWR: Can you tell us about the Imagination Workshop?

AB: Before I was getting interested in insideOUT, there was the Imagination Workshop. It’s a theater group, also a nonprofit, and the idea is to use improv to imagine oneself in metaphor. It’s a way to reach out to those people who have a fixed notion in their minds about who they are and what they can think and what their imagination can do. The improvs were very safe, playful and fun, and allowed exploration for veterans, or psych patients, or geriatric Alzheimer’s patients or youth at risk. They played being a table or a famous architect or whatever.  I worked with the psych patients, and twice a year we put on a show, a musical. It was really fun and very meaningful. It was all about play and imaginative expression.

KWR: Did you find that participating affected your writing?

AB: I don’t think it did directly, but it was a very creative environment to be in. It was very meaningful to see someone who was schizophrenic and had a very hard time communicating suddenly be in the moment. It wasn’t a curative activity, but it had incredible power. Someone very caught up in voices in his head would be able to step aside and be a character and have a very clear authority and confidence. That’s incredible to be around. It affected my sense of human dignity and belief and the deep value of the imagination.  Here were people who are not usually given these tools thriving inside new freedom.

KWR: What is The Secret Society of Demolition Writers [The Secret Society of Demolition Writers, www.Amazon.com]?

AB: The editor, Marc Parent, his idea was that there are certain demolition derbies where the drivers drive incognito and so the drivers feel very free to drive in a new way.  He asked some writers if we would be willing to put in a story without our names on it. It would be something different and free us up.

KWR: I tried to guess which story was yours, but in the beginning of the book the editor says that the writers may have written differently than you would expect them to write. Did you find that writing anonymously allowed you to write differently?

AB: I think ultimately with all writing I’m trying and trying to capture that feeling.  I don’t have to show anyone, so I want to try to let myself write anything.

KWR: It was fun not knowing who wrote the stories. Do your story ideas come to you fully formed, where you are basically just transcribing your brain, or do you develop ideas as you are writing?

AB: Definitely the second, I’d say, ninety-five percent of the time. I would say the primary delight I find in writing is the discovery, the unknown aspect.

KWR: I consider writing to include sitting with my eyes closed, staring at the wall opposite my computer, listening to music, or some combination. What does your writing include?

AB: I’ll block out a couple of hours so within that time I can just sit there, I don’t have to write, so sitting with my eyes closed would be fine, lots of staring at the wall. Absolutely. I don’t listen to music but not for any particular reason. Fidgeting and wanting not to be writing is as much a part of writing as the actual act of it.

KWR: Are you still writing in a closet?

AB: No, I moved out of that place and moved out of the closet. It was kind of cramped.

KWR: I workshopped a story once in which a woman kills her husband and kills her dog and possibly kills herself, and I left that part ambiguous. The workshop instructor asked me if she killed herself, and I said I didn’t know, and she was outraged. In your essay “Character Motivation” [The Writer’s Notebook], you say that writers should choose an action for a character that they can’t explain to give readers the opportunity to form their own interpretations. Are writers ultimately required to know everything their characters do and think?

AB: Ultimately, no I don’t think writers are required or even can know everything. I don’t think because a writer conjures up a character he has total access. He has access that he has: the sentences that are good about that character tell you things, and the sentences that are bad about that character, in my mind, don’t tell you much and should be cut. You can make up a million things that are just made-up facts; it doesn’t mean they have any resonance. The only clarification I would need is if it feels like a game a little bit to the reader or an ambiguity.  Are you, the writer, stepping away from an emotional place?  Then I think it’s a problem. Is it an easy out or does it add resonance, does it add complexity, does it add something real to not know? As a writer, I think the question is: am I skirting something or does this feel emotionally right and true as it is?

KWR: What is the significance, the value, to you of the title of a story, such as “The Fake Nazi”?

AB:  The title is the first entry point and then when you finish you go back and think about it again.  It has meaning, but some titles are much more dominant than others in terms of how they interact in the story.

KWR: Same question for the first sentence of a story, such as An Invisible Sign of My Own, and I love this one: “On my twentieth birthday I bought myself an ax”?

AB: It’s really helpful for me to have a first sentence that will bring me to the second sentence. I don’t think a first sentence has to be a certain way, but for me it’s helpful if I get pulled in and am eager to find out what’s next.

KWR: In what way are last sentences significant to your story, such as in “The Neighborhood,” “Even though he never plays with them again, they are now fixed to his body for years,” referring to blocks? In what way are last sentences significant to your stories?

AB: Last sentences in general tend to be important to the story. You do not know until you reach the end where the story lands. And you get to the end and you think about the whole thing again.

KWR: Your writing has what I call in my own writing “throwaway phrases”—those phrases that are tangential to the story. Yours are so rich in description. One example is your story, “On a Saturday Afternoon,” “a man’s t-shirt has a stain from peach cobbler at lunch left over from a potluck at Janet’s,” and we never know who Janet is, and we never know about the potluck. What is your goal with that type of phrasing?

AB: There is a lot I can say about that, about exploring the world of the story. I encourage students to let those tangents develop because often if you’re really exploring it may seem off topic but that’s really where the goods are.  Or how you’ll get to the end that we were talking about. Indulging the associative mind a little bit; Charles Baxter talks about this well in his book of essays, particularly the one on “Rhyming Action.” For the story Janet never comes back and the peace cobbler never comes back, but I think it felt important to me to talk about a certain kind of man and it helps me to picture him through that detail.

KWR: In a similar vein, your writing has a facility for similes, such as in “The Ring” [The Girl in the Flammable Skirt], “The ring caught the light like an opened wound,” which to me was some combination of a perceived beautiful piece of jewelry along with blood and tissue. Can you tell me what the significance of similes is to your stories?

AB: It’s similar to what I talked about in my last answer. I like similes. I enjoy reading them. I enjoy writing them! Similes that are overthought tend not to work. It’s allowing the impulse to flower on the page. In rewriting, it’s interesting to see which ones don’t quite work. I know for myself whenever I’ve slowed down and I’ve thought “now it’s time for a simile,”—well, those are the similes that tend to tank.

KWR: It has to flow from your writing. Is that correct?

AB: Yes.  Writing from a less conscious state; some of it is just the letting go of the thinking and planning process. Some are going to work, and you don’t know if they are going to work until a few days later.

KWR: What is the least helpful writing advice you have ever been given?

AB: Probably for me it’s “what does the character want” that has troubled me a lot, because I think it is a reasonable piece of writing advice, but it’s not the way I think. And so I have often felt it is a failing in me that I have been unable to answer that question. People who give writing advice give advice that speaks to the way they think. And everyone thinks differently. I don’t know what the character motivations are until I’m well into the story.

KWR: When I went to law school, I discovered I should have taken acting classes and should have perfected my poker game. As a writer, are there particular skills you wish you had that you don’t have?

AB: I have a terrible memory for research, so it would be nice if I could retain more!

KWR: It’s almost November and time for the NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month, www.nanowrimo.org], and I have read suggestions that you have offered to those writers. Do you participate yourself?

AB: I’ve never done it. I think it’s a great idea, and I think it promotes less self-consciousness, and I imagine these writers will write lots of pages that they cut and a few key ones to keep.

KWR: Assume you can only say one sentence in your keynote address to the Writers’ Digest conference in October. What will you say?

AB: My guess is the writing advice that I tend to repeat that I find very helpful myself is to write what you feel like writing, because it’ll keep the prose active.  Follow the language and the interest of the writer, as opposed to something more obligatory.

KWR: Thank you, Aimee.

Art History

When Grandmother Gasse passed, Art got access to the trust account. The very next morning, he quit the radio station by calling his boss and suggesting he shove it. Dropping the phone, he tossed his head back, flung his arms high, and howled. The boy would devote himself to painting, hereafter, as he had dreamt of doing since a teenager. With his first draw on the account Art bought easels, brushes, palette boards, knives, a rainbow selection of mid-quality oils, two gallons of turpentine, a bolt of linen and a bucket of gesso. He tried his first painting in the living area of his apartment and ruined the coral shag carpet in under an hour. Besides, the light was wrong; the apartment was nothing like a garret; and his upstairs neighbor Gary, who worked the graveyard, whined about Art’s music blasting through midday. That busted it: Art needed a studio.

Art Gets a Studio

No one could see him here. No one would hear his music. The place was flooded with flickering green light, perfect for painting. And he could get it for a song.

Three buildings, deeply derelict, on half an acre of waist-high grass, inhabited by several species of urban wildlife, against a backdrop of towering firs, implacably black and busy with bird cry. “For Sale.” Art was smitten. He swerved the truck into the potholed dirt parking area, staggered out into the brush and sat, hidden from the street, in the shade of an overgrown black pine. No one could see him here. No one would hear his music. The place was flooded with flickering green light, perfect for painting. And he could get it for a song.

The house in back was charred by a latter-day fire and was sinking in a sea of blackberry; raccoons had made a palace of the pink shack on the property line, but up front, there was promise. The green-shingled garage, still sound, had operated variously in the service of auto repair, rock and roll, marijuana cultivation and, more lately, the manufacture of meth. Art hauled away three truckloads of accumulated dreck, repaired the roof, ran off a family of pit bull squatters, and moved in his easels.

So he painted, in feckless bliss. And he got fairly good, or, at any rate, better. His style would have to be characterized as dark: heavy impasto brushwork of olive nudes emerging out of a circumambient miasma of burnt sienna; distorted grey-green bottles on a brown table against a black wall. But Art felt a kind of bliss, deep down, notwithstanding. He was free of wage slavery, free of supervisors, transcendent even of the judgment to which he would otherwise have been subject by Grandma Gasse, as she was dead and safely buried in Connecticut.

He was a painter, by God. The painter rose each morning from his greasy sheets, never later than 11:00 am, took a shower under advisement, stopped at Kroger’s for a 1.5 liter bargain Chardonnay, and beat it to the beloved studio. At the door, possibly seven feral cats greeted him with hungry petulance; he called each its name and fed them with dry food and a dollop of wet Friskies. He pulled the filthy curtains from the limed windows, poured himself a beaker of wine, lit his first cigarette; cranked up flamenco on the obsolete stereo, grabbed a brush, and got to work. And, for the first time in forty-four years of onerous living, he felt upon his ass the whispery kiss of promise and spiritual fulfillment. Art, the artist.

But, as we know, into each Paradise there is likely to slither a viper.

Enter Lou

Art’s neighbor across the broken-down fence in the southeast corner, in a jerry-built pre-fab in a patch of vegetation only slightly better groomed, lived Lou. An ex-Marine, Lou had issues: with authority, with his mother, with cats.

Each winter, he shipped out into the Alaska fishery to catch king crab, king salmon and ling cod, risking his neck on the slippery deck to make his annual bankroll. He spent the rest of the year on his porch, sucking Jack Daniels out a mug of ice cubes and shooting cats in the grass with his pellet gun.

“Hey, hippy, I got a bone to pick with you.”

“Yeah, Lou, so what’s new?”

“I’ll tell you what’s new: Your fuckin’ cats are killin’ the birds at my feeder. What do you think you’re doing, spawning all these wild cats; they’re killin’ everything that moves around here.”

“No, Lou, that’s why I feed them. They aren’t hungry; I’m sure they aren’t killing the birds…”

“I’ll tell you what, you bleeding heart queer hippy motherfucker, you lay off the wild cats or I’ll shoot all of them! And then I’m comin’ for you!” Lou rose unsteadily from his vinyl chair, raising both thick arms in threat, and lurched off the porch.

Retreating, Art protested: “I’m not a violent asshole like you, Lou, but you better not hurt my cats…I’ll get the law on your ass, as much as I hate to involve the Gestapo, you fucking Nazi!”

Lou Gets a Woman

There were other encounters, but Lou seemed to mellow. Truth is the honest fisherman determined that he wanted a woman. At the age of fifty, the indelicacy of prostitutes had begun to weigh upon his virility. He wanted a real woman. With the help of a library computer and several thousand dollars, he sent for and received a lovely Ukrainian girl. And she was more than he could have prayed for: blond and zaftig, like a porcelain vase, thirty-three years old, short but strong as a heifer, stink with sex drive, and gifted in the braising of organ meats. She had simply gotten asphyxiated by Christian Socialist servitude. She wanted opportunity, fun, money, pretty clothes, a car…America. She got Lou.

…she was more than he could have prayed for: blond and zaftig, like a porcelain vase, thirty-three years old, short but strong as a heifer, stink with sex drive, and gifted in the braising of organ meats.

And, into the bargain, Lou got a son. In his frenzy over the arrival of Oksana, he had more or less forgotten that, in the immigration contract, she had quite explicitly required that her benefactor accept her fourteen-year-old son into his home, as well. And this was Fedir.

Fedir’s father had been an intellectual, in a sense only Europe understands. He had talked about the failure of socialism and the senescence of art, smoked black market cigarettes, impregnated luscious Oksana, and promptly died of cancer.

“Mama, was my father an educated man?”

“Yes, my Fedchuk, he was educated in idleness and the seduction of innocent farm girls. His education left me with a pretty baby and a bag on the street.”

The early going with Lou was not pretty. It was a honeymoon, nonetheless. At the airport, Lou’s unrelenting leering attention to Oksana embarrassed the entire facility, while Fedir was baggage. At their new home, frozen pizza got microwaved and served, standing; Fedir was shown his room; and the adults, dizzy for different reasons, staggered upstairs to Lou’s perfumed lair.

America

Within two weeks, unlicensed, Oksana was driving Lou’s ’98 Camaro. His brief tutelage had featured inarticulate pointing, panicky shouting, long sullen silences punctuated with slaps to her head or thighs, when he wasn’t grabbing the wheel to avert one kind of death to veer toward another. Like all immigrants, the Slavic girl was absolutely innocent of the American genetic mapping of car and driver instincts. But she was determined to pilot a car in the New World; let the more skilled natives take to the road at their own risk. In September, Mama drove Fedir to Eastside High School, dropped him off with a wet kiss and persistent misgivings about scholarly pursuits, and disappeared down 122nd Avenue to find another Ross’s Dress for Less.

Fedir got accustomed with English learned from TV, and was dispatched to home room with the other new arrivals under the guidance of Mr. Repin, the Russian Antichrist. Early on, it became clear that Fedir would do well in school, despite his language deficit: teachers liked his European manners and sensed his intelligence; he made instant friends of several Slavic immigrants like himself; and the cafeteria food suited him just fine, particularly the meatloaf.

Back in his new home, Fedir was witnessing altogether too much marital bliss. Between bouts of screaming and virtual fistfights, the newlyweds were upstairs banging away at several sessions of quotidian intimacy. For Lou it was a god-sent sexual renaissance in mid-life, with an honest-to-goodness centerfold straight out of the Kiev Playboy; for Oksana, it was a healthy outlet undeterred by her repugnant respondent, while all around her the new world percolated with near-future possibilities. For Fedir, it was torture. Jesus, he even had to smell their smells when they came downstairs to prepare and consume dinner in their dumb animal contentment between intercourse and the next imbroglio.

Fedir gets to know Art

One rainy summer Saturday, Fedir simply had to escape the house of horny people. Out on the porch, he heard familiar music pulsing out of the shack across the overgrown adjacent lot. He felt strangely compelled to investigate, stepped over the collapsed fence and stalked cautiously toward the percussive guitar and plaintive singing. Art startled up from his canvas when Fedir appeared in silhouette at the open door.

“Uh, yeah…Can I help you?”

“Oh, uh…sorry, Mister. I live at the next door. I am called Fedir.”

“OK. So what can I do for you?”

“No, you are not to do for me. Sorry, I am going.”

“No, wait, kid. Come on in. Do you live with those crazy people across the way? Pull up a chair.”

There, in Art’s studio, Fedir found refuge. With elaborate juvenile courtesy, he audited Art’s lectures on aesthetics, the profligate habits of the Surrealists, the evils of capitalism and its instrumental military-industrial hegemony. He was equally careful of Art’s long, sullen silences. He began to do his homework at a spare table most afternoons, as Art labored on his dark canvases. He texted friends on his newly acquired cell phone till late in the evening, as the gypsies of Art’s flamenco CD collection wailed away. He helped Art feed the cats, who adopted the boy instantly, slept in his lap or across his shoulder as he consummated the elegance of an algebraic equation or spun out English rhetoric with accelerating facility across the pages of his spiral notebook. At times, he would gaze across the studio in wonder at his pony-tailed, fortyish friend, a cigarette dangling from his lips, singing in corrupted Spanish as he slathered paint on his latest caliginous masterpiece.

So much had happened in such a short time in this new place, after the eternal tedium of Dnepropetrovsk. This was not the America he had imagined; it was fascinating and repellent at the same time; dynamic, electric with possibility, but always seeming to teeter at the edge of some unpredictable disaster. His high school colleagues were black, Asian, Hispanic, East Indian and European of every stripe: the boys were capable of capricious violence, they drove fast cars and experimented with drugs; the girls were bold, tough-minded, their beauty was exotic, wildly diverse—so unlike the insipid similitude of Ukrainian beauty, though he had no argument with the girls of his race. Fedir still felt vulnerable, but America was beginning to grow on him.

Lou threatens to strike Fedir, and nearly dies in the attempt

One sweltering afternoon at the tail end of summer, Lou stormed into the kitchen, where Fedir sat at the little breakfast table as Mama sang an old song over dinner preparations.

“What was my pellet gun doing in your room, boy? I’ve been looking for this goddam gun for weeks. What the hell you think you’re doin’, taking my personal shit and hiding it?”

“I was not hiding it, Mr. Lou…I wanted to shoot it.”

“Don’t you lie to me, you little fucker! You were hiding it so I couldn’t shoot those feral cats you and your queer hippy boyfriend are rounding up over there in that godforsaken shack! I’m gonna’ wrap this thing around your head, you little scheming liar!”

Before Lou could raise the gun fully overhead, Oksana flew at him from across the kitchen, berserk, got way up in his face with an eight-inch kitchen knife, pointing it sideways inches from his left eye. Her little red fist clamped his t-shirt and a harvest of chest hair in a death grip at his throat. His right hand braced against her shoulder, his left clutching her blouse beneath the upraised death-dealing arm, he held his breath and froze. He knew that in her rage she was capable of skewering his brain. Oksana hooted hoarse Slavic imprecations, her eyes round with hate as she jabbed the knife tip nearer, drawing blood at his temple. Her tirade dropped into a slightly lower arc as she saw a kind of animal admiration rising in his little pig eyes. She flipped the knife, slapped him hard with the flat of the blade above the eye, once, twice, and once more twice as hard with a final oath that he would die if it ever happened again.

Feeling safe enough to draw breath, Lou protested, “Alright, OK, you crazy bitch. I won’t touch the little bastard.”

Oksana released her grip, flung the knife onto the floor, and turned to the stove to do further violence upon her stew, still muttering in the Old Language.

Fedir stared at the erstwhile combatants from the hall doorway, stupefied by their monumental strength and commitment to impulse, the raw carnality of their engagement. His mother was magnificent, and absolutely alien. How could he be her son? Even Lou was inert for a while, still leaning against the cabinets across the kitchen, sweat and blood down his hairy thick neck, gazing at his wife’s furious backside. After a while, he stepped cautiously to the fridge, pulled out a cold beer, and, as he tossed the bottle cap at the trash and crossed the room to leave, clapped Oksana on her bountiful ass with his cupped right hand. She shook her head, continued muttering. Lou strutted across the living room to his recliner and the Blazers on TV, psychosis pretty much intact, horny and even boyishly hopeful about his prospects for later that evening.

Fedir wobbled out the back and down the stairs; the screen door slammed with a final violent punctuation.

Fedir tries his hand at painting

Leaning at the open door of the studio, the kid was clearly shaken, sobbing quietly. Art rose from his easel at the back of the room. “Hey, Fed, what sorry shit has happened over there, now?” He dragged an old back-up easel from the corner, stood it near the table strewn with paint tubes, and shooed a cat off a stool to pull it up to the makeshift painting station.

“Grab one of those smaller boards with that wretched still life and bring it over here. I want to see what you can do with oil paint.”

Fedir hesitated, heaved an emptying sigh, crossed queasy to the easel.

Art turned back to his corner of the studio, then stopped abruptly: “Oh, wait. What are you gonna’ paint?”

“I don’t know…what is there?”

“OK, we got black and white in these big tubes, every color ever imagined in these little ones… go easy, they’re expensive. No, I’m kidding…use lots of paint, throw paint on the board. Work with the big brushes. Fuck those little pointy ones. Work fast. Don’t be thinking. Use your eyes and your gut and your hands…leave your brain in the classroom. Now, get to work.”

Art turned back to his corner of the studio, then stopped abruptly: “Oh, wait. What are you gonna’ paint?”

“I don’t know…what is there?”

Art checked up, his bushy eyebrows arched high in amazement, then busted his best laugh, wrapping his arms around his broad shoulders, almost choking with existential glee, partly in honest amusement …“What is there?”…but also in full catharsis, fairly convulsed with laughter, emptying his soul of anguish and anger and abiding sadness. Fedir observed, shell-shocked.

Yet another psychotic adult…

“What IS there? What is there NOT? Oh, my friend, that question has stumped even the great ones, despite the argument otherwise of this teeming world. Tell you what: When a subject is hard to come by, you know what we all do?”

Fedir shrugged.

“Self-portrait, baby! Sadly, there is always You. Grab that mirror by the sink and go for it!” Still laughing, his heart lighter by tons, tears all down his bearded cheeks.

They worked in silence on their projects for nearly two hours, with the gypsies keening remorselessly through the big cheap speakers, alternated with Sam Cooke and Tom Waits and Baroque Italian theorbos. Art was strangely happy. He drank a great deal more white wine than usual, and that was a great deal, indeed. He glanced occasionally at Fedir; the kid was working assiduously. It was clearly a therapeutic exercise. Art was happy that he had been able to help the boy, at least momentarily. He was happy that the studio was a refuge for the child now as it had been for him for several years. Yes, while life was generally a bitter stew of disappointment, betrayal and failed revolution, it had its moments, after all.

Outside, the heat rose from the rotting pavement into the dusty pines. The cats retreated to the shadows, catatonic; the birds had long been silent, as the air dropped motionless among the weeds. Art stumbled to the short couch, draped with oddments of towels and torn linen, and fell into a sweaty sleep like death, troubled with dreams of childhood at the lake with his sister.

Fedir set aside his brush; shook his head. His mind gradually clambered up and out of the frenzied business of painting: brushing, wiping, scraping, arching back to see and understand, leaning in again to paint. He was tired of the subject, tired of the medium, its spastic gestures, tired of the ancillary vision. The act had become obsessive, distasteful. He was reminded of his Mama and the dirty base man across the lot. He turned to regard Art, snoring enormous on the little filthy couch in the punishing heat beneath the sliding glass doors that constituted the greater part of the east side of the studio. Trickles of sweat decorated Art; he twitched grotesquely.

“Adults are gross,” he could not help thinking.

Fedir rose, walked to the end of the studio, and pulled the stained curtain across the glass doors to shade his master.

Hours later, Art awoke with a painful snort. Fedir was gone. The artist stood over his protégé’s little paint-saturated board in astonished silence for the longest time.

“Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”

The kid was good. He had a natural gift, no doubt about it.

So they painted, between homework and cat chores and gypsy caterwauling, all through that fall, as the light declined with the temperatures, and the rain came long and steady, and Fedir’s artistic attention turned from an early fascination with light-filled landscape to dim still-life and imaginary female figure studies, stylized and generally innocent of anatomically explicit details, while Art’s repertoire remained relentlessly dark.

Lou goes fishing

Meanwhile, Lou prepared to fly north to his brief annual interlude in the Alaska fishery. The king crab season could hardly be called that; it was really just a matter of days of mad scrambling in the mountainous Aleutian seas to harvest several tons of the brute crustaceans, the big muscular boats awash with surf and hail raking sideways and gales that could lift a man off the deck, line bights that could snap him in half, and prostitutes ashore that could really do some damage. If you survived the crabbing, and found a place in Kenai to stash your profits, you were off to the king salmon season in Yakutat Bay, where the catches were equally munificent over long dark hours of gut-wrenching labor and punishing weather that descended precipitously into Arctic winter. Then, if all had gone reasonably well, you were back on the plane, pockets stuffed with cash as more than adequate compensation for a few months of misery and mortal peril.

As Lou threw his duffel bag into the trunk of the Camaro, he took a long hard look across the fence into the neighboring lot. Not sure what to think of what he was thinking. He drew a deep breath, farted robustly, turned to the door and bellowed for his bride. Oksana bounced out and down the step to the car. She kissed Lou square on the mouth and slapped him soundly on his demined butt, customary preliminaries to lifting her own white butt with a waggle and a moan; but this time, instead, she slid behind the wheel, fired up the 350, and hit reverse. Down I-5 to the airport, Lou drew a 9mm semi-automatic from the glove box, cradled half naked in its blue velour bag, and instructed her in its use with intruders.

“And, by the way, you sexy little Russky, if some asshole manages to get the jump on you, just go ahead and use this tool on yourself, afterwards. You understand me?”

Oksana comes knocking

Before Lou’s plane touched down on the runway in Anchorage, Oksana made a guest appearance at the door of Art’s studio. Precisely why she was wearing a raggedy little bathrobe over nothing but 130 pounds of alabaster pulchritude will never be known – ostensibly, she was seeking the whereabouts of her son, when she knew damn well he was starting his school day several miles across town. At any rate, the robe promptly got lost in the shuffle, as Art and Oksana got to know each other in a profoundly Biblical sense.

October marked the beginning of the artist’s Slavic Period. His palette was never so exuberant, just verging on joy. In the ensuing weeks, Art produced dozens of extravagant full nudes, busts, focused figure studies, and portraits. They all featured the same blowsy blond, arching across a scatter of pillows with a suggestion of silken hair beneath upraised arms, serenely aware of her feminine power and smirking in nicotine light. Despite their frequent breaks from posing and painting, for yet more fornication, Art was never so prolific.

The exercise, perhaps, was salubrious. He even had less time for cigarettes and wine.

One day the rain hammered so relentlessly on the corrugated steel roof that the lovers hunkered for hours, lights out, by the little electric heater under quilts and towels and lengths of linen. Art’s little man could not be roused, and Oksana, approaching her period, might have confessed, if pressed, her gratitude. They drowsed in each other’s arms; the music droned low, until the CDs finished their cycle and the only sound was the rain. At some vague hour in the afternoon, one of the cats cried to be let out, and Oksana rose to oblige him. She flung open the door, watched the cat flash along the floor and out, and then raised her eyes, to Fedir.

He had come because he was hungry; he was always hungry. And he knew where she would be, and he would be certain to knock, discreetly, and loud. And his knuckles were still raised to do just that. But suddenly, there, before him, in all her glory, was his Mama.

Workers’ Compensation

Lou limped from the cab, in a mood that was foul even by his standards. Beneath his overalls, his destroyed left knee was tightly wrapped to keep it rigid. Midway through the Chinook season on Yakutat Bay, our boy had slipped on some salmon guts and executed the splits that Olga Korbut might have envied. The orthopedic doc in Juneau said he suspected a ruptured ACL, whatever that was, and serious damage to the collateral ligaments. He wrapped the knee, told Lou to take the next flight home, and to ask the stewardess for ice –not for Scotch, but for his knee. He should arrange for surgical repair as soon as the swelling was more or less under control. Meanwhile, he signed off on a workers’ compensation claim that would pay Lou a small portion of his expected seasonal earnings, and cover the costs of surgery and rehab. On the flight home, Lou ruminated on his bad fortune. The crab catch had been a disappointment, too, so the cheated fisherman figured he was out over $50,000 for the season.

Lou needed a drink, bad. But nobody answered when he pounded on the door. He had not called ahead—why should he have to call ahead? How much shopping did that little broad need, anyway; she looked best without clothes. Well, all that was going to end right now. There was going to be a tight budget around here, the rest of this sorry-ass year. Furious, he shuffled to the bottom of the duffel bag, finally dug up his cell phone, pressed the only speed dial he had ever messed with and distinctly heard Oksana’s quirky ringtone –on the other side of the door! The little bitch had left without her phone. Where was she?

Lou knew there was wine over there. He could probably tap into that with the sad story of his destroyed knee and the fishing debacle. That would hold him till the good stuff wandered back home.

Across the lot, Art’s eternal music was yowling away. Maybe the hippie had seen her leave, and when. At any rate, Lou knew there was wine over there. He could probably tap into that with the sad story of his destroyed knee and the fishing debacle. That would hold him till the good stuff wandered back home. As he approached the studio, it began to dawn upon him that the music was not Art’s usual plaintive racket. In fact, it was somehow familiar, a woman’s low seductive voice accompanied by some kind of stringed instrument. He reached the door, stopped, and tilted his head to make out more clearly the tender crooning:

“Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка

Прилетіла ластівочка

Стала собі щебетати

Господаря…“

With a bellow of wrath, the doubly injured fisherman blasted open the door to reveal his bride in the arms of the artist. All across his peripheral vision, Lou witnessed the walls plastered with tributes to her beauty, surrounding the central image of her actual nakedness. Her innocent concupiscent form had once again betrayed her, and this time things were going to get truly ugly.

Lou pulled her by her dangled ankle from the mattress on the floor. She jumped up to implore him for mercy, or to fight, we will never know. He clubbed her to the slab with a massive right cross over her ear. Oksana was down for the count. He turned his attention to his rival.

“You’re gonna die, now, hippie. Then, I’m gonna take care of your whore.”

“No, listen, Lou…she doesn’t like you. Let’s discuss this like grownups.”

Lou swung with all his hefty might. Art took several howitzer shots to the head without raising his hands. He was no fighter. Still, his genes instructed his big vulnerable body to advance under assault. Lou retreated before Art’s greater stumbling mass—still firing hay-makers from the hip that bounced off Art’s bony head, his thick shoulders and chest—as they backed out the door and into the weeds. Finally, weeping frantically in pain and humiliation, Art reached out, grabbed Lou by his shoulders, and twisted his smaller assailant with relative ease into the rain-drenched grass. As Lou went down, his deconstructed knee went sideways, and he howled in agony.

“Stop, now, stop, you crazy asshole…stop, Lou! Let’s talk this out!”

But Lou had somehow laid his calloused hand on a broken steel fence post, wrested from its tangle of grass and blackberry. Eyes clouded with pain and fury, he rotated his shoulders to raise high his rusty weapon, set himself, and charged. From out of nowhere a pint-sized Brunhilde, buck naked, descended across his broad back, and with tits flopping and both chubby hands braced, blew “Bang, bang, bang” three rounds of 9mm copper-point projectiles through his skull and spine. Just as instructed.

Epilogue

The police and district attorney found it was self-defense. Oksana took a fancy to the real estate agent who helped her to dispose of Lou’s house and furniture and the old Camaro. She and Fedir moved into his spacious McMansion across town, and Fedir had to change schools. The cats recovered their composure and Art returned to his…well, art.

One fine Saturday morning in early spring, as the sun chased among the clouds and the blackbirds cheeped in the fir trees, Art filled the cats’ outdoor bowls with food and fresh water. Gypsy voices lamented through the open door of the little green studio. A fresh uncorked bottle of Pinot Grigio breathed on the counter. Art straightened up in time to watch a kid on a brand new bike pedaling tentatively toward him from across the road.

“Fed Ex! How the hell have you been?”

“Good, Art, good. Things are going well. Mama is going to have a new baby.”

“Whoa, that dude works fast! So, have you been painting?”

“No, no painting.”

“Well, what do you say, do you want to paint?”

“Uh, sure, yes, I would like that.”

“Well, get off that goddam bike and get in here, Picasso. We got work to do!”

This Girl with Feathers

On the same road, there lived a girl with feathers for hair and a boy poet who had to use a wheelchair. The boy lived in a small rented house, and he’d always had to use a wheelchair. But the girl, she lived in the large stripe-painted house at the end of the road, in the cul-de-sac, and she didn’t always have feathers.

Teary-eyed, she dropped the feather into the sink, where it caught fire and turned to ash before washing down the drain.

The first feather grew in her teens. She woke one day and found a feather growing from her head. It was fiery red, with orange and black stripes, and tinged at the tip with gold. At first, she thought one of her friends had woven it into her hair while she slept because all the girls were doing this then. But when she looked for the end, she saw the nib went straight into her head. This frightened her, and sucking in her breath, she pulled hard and cried out in pain as the feather was plucked. Teary-eyed, she dropped the feather into the sink, where it caught fire and turned to ash before washing down the drain.

She told no one. Who would believe her anyway?

Down the road, the boy woke up in his driveway. He had parked in the direction of the rising sun, falling asleep before it had risen. He often stayed up late, sometimes through the night, writing the girl love poems on single sheets of elegant cotton fiber. Every night, he folded them into paper airplanes and launched them in the direction of her house under the light of the moon and street lamps. Most twirled a few feet before entering death spirals or flat spins and crashing nose down in the grass. He left them there, hoping the girl would jog by and stop to pick one up.

“The yard’s the Bermuda Grass Triangle, Jack,” his mother said one morning over dinner. They had dinner in the morning and breakfast at night because his mother worked late hours and slept during the day. His house always smelled like a warm crock-pot dinner.

After waking, he went inside, and while he ate a breakfast of pot roast, potatoes, and rolls, he waited for the girl to jog by his house. But on this day, the girl did not come.

Later that summer, the girl was putting on a fresh coat of sunscreen lotion when she noticed a baby feather amongst the fair hairs of her arm. The feather glistened in the sun like gold dust. Shocked that another feather was growing from her, she pulled it out before anyone could see it, and it flared up into a ball of fire just like the first one had, then ashes.

One of her friends saw the smoke and teased her about playing with matches.

When she became angry or frustrated, she could feel the heat radiate from within her and into the feathers. She always smelled slightly of smoke.

She kept things under wraps for a while, but it soon became difficult to hide her feathers. They budded everywhere on her body. When she became angry or frustrated, she could feel the heat radiate from within her and into the feathers. She always smelled slightly of smoke. Her mother took her to a doctor, and the doctor made a lot of “hums” and “ums” before referring her to a veterinarian who specialized in cross-species disorders. The vet, who made small jokes about Dr. Moreau, did nothing more than give her some medications that may or may not have been tested on animals and may or may not have been safe for use on humans.

She even tried laser hair removal, but the laser only caused her feathers to bud up.

She spent endless hours combing the Internet for an article or image or something about someone with a similar condition. All she could find were bizarre and often pornographic images of witches and shamans performing ritual sex acts. One black ink illustration portrayed a cartoonish political ad about the coming of the end of times, and then there were the mutant superheroes all brightly illustrated in their action poses saving a humanity that wanted nothing to do with their mutant sideshow-ness.

The girl even searched for herself, but she only found that one .gif file of her and her friends goofing off on a school trip.

At school, people teased her because her clothes always had burn holes in them, as if someone had questioned her repeatedly with a cigarette, Why don’t you fly away from here?

The boy in the wheelchair thought that although she had many friends, she always looked sad. Frequently, he followed her, writing over and over again in his head all the things he wanted to say but never did.

Once, he followed her to the second floor balcony between classes and watched as she dropped bird eggs, one after another, over the side of the balcony. He thought that maybe she was performing a science experiment, though they were on the formation of cells in biology. When the girl turned to leave, she looked right at him, and she was crying.

He said, “Hey,” and she pushed past him and was down the hall before he could turn in the cramped space and follow.

It was soon after that, though it had nothing to do with the boy, that the guidance counselor called her into his office and said in his one-sad-sitcom-rerun-too-many voice, “Phoebe, if you’re on drugs, it’s okay to tell me. We can talk our way through this.”

She showed him the feathers that began at her knees and crept up her thighs.

“Some drugs, huh?” she said.
The look on his face gave her a slight thrill. He was astonished. Curious. Disgusted. Maybe even aroused. This one instance of seeing his face contorted into a mix-match of emotions made her feel more powerful than she ever had before.

She began to proudly show her feathers. Long legs of reds and golds. Smooth midsection of yellows and oranges. Wild hair designs that always had a stripe of black.

She began to proudly show her feathers. Long legs of reds and golds. Smooth midsection of yellows and oranges. Wild hair designs that always had a stripe of black. She gained friends amongst the artsy crowd and she had a series of fast-burning relationships. They all had their reasons for leaving—her temper, she made them sweat, or the feathers were soft but noisy. Most likely, she knew, they all became bored. The shock that showing her off to friends and parents wore off after a while, and when it did, Phoebe, the girl who could quote Shakespeare and Poe, remained. None of the boys wanted a real relationship. They would claim later on that her lips glowed ever so slightly in the darkened rooms full of couples testing rebellion. She gave them burn marks, left them thirsty, made them sing. They never found that anywhere else, with anyone else.

She started skipping classes, and the teachers didn’t say anything. They all drew their blinds closed when they saw her there on the school lawn, basking in the sun. “She was a distraction,” they said, and, “Have you seen the way she dresses?” It was really the cold that she left behind her that disturbed them. Her body temperature, the school nurse would later say, was “ten degrees higher than normal.” And though the teachers and staff complained to the principal, there was nothing he could do. The girl made A’s in school and never caused physical problems.

 

One day, the boy in the wheelchair visited the girl at her large striped house.

“Wanna come up?” she asked, seeing him pacing back and forth at the end of her driveway.

She was on the roof outside her bedroom window. She spent a lot of time there these days, and the boy knew why when he saw her hold her head back and let the breeze blow through her head feathers.

He motioned to his wheelchair. How was he supposed to get up the stairs?

“Oh, right,” she said.

She went inside and opened the front door a moment later to let him inside. She helped him out of the chair, and he climbed up the stairs after her. He could see her tail feathers underneath her dress, and she didn’t care.

Her bedroom was just like any other girl, except this one corner. All of the mean girls had sent her bird gifts at Christmas—seeds, bird baths, tiny mirrors—and they were stacked in this corner, except a red plastic bird that she had placed on her windowsill, where it dipped its head constantly into water. The boy pulled himself up beside it before rolling out onto the roof beside her.

They sat there for a moment, and the boy said something like, “It’s nice up here.” The girl agreed.

“You live down the street, right?” she asked.

He did.

“You throw all those airplanes in the yard, don’t you?”

Reluctantly, he did.

“I want to fly,” she said, to the boy’s relief. “It’s all I think about. It’s like the onset of a fever. Like wanting to kiss someone. Like watching one hundred eggs falling all at once and waiting, knowing what will happen when they land.”

She shook all over, and the boy could hear her feathers underneath her dress, as though someone had fluffed a pillow.

She stretched out on the roof, and the boy could see the feathers on her legs. Soft. She closed her eyes, and he closed his until she began speaking again.

“Are your parents divorced?”

“They were never married,” he said.

“Well, my parents are divorcing. My father is leaving my mother. You know how kids always think it’s their fault their parents are divorcing?”

His father had left when he was born. Because he couldn’t walk? Because of everything that being a father meant? He didn’t know. It didn’t really matter now, except the lack of cash, which meant that his mother had to work a lot. He didn’t like his father because of that more than anything else.

“I’m not sure if it’s my fault,” she said after waiting the appropriate amount of time for the boy’s pause to be an answer. “My mom dated this circus freak about the same time she met my dad. I guess he’s my biological father, but my dad is my dad, you know. He raised me thinking I was his all along. My mom tried to hide it when I hit puberty and started growing all the feathers. She drove me from one witch doctor to another before confessing. My dad just sort of left the nest after that. I still think I’m his, but the feathers…they don’t lie.”

He believed she was a phoenix. A living phoenix, and she would one day save the world.

The girl outlined a few of her feathers as she said this last bit, and the boy couldn’t take his eyes off of them. He believed she was a phoenix. A living phoenix, and she would one day save the world.

“They’re beautiful,” he said.

She stared at him a moment. No one other than her mother had ever called the feathers beautiful and meant it. Not even her boyfriends. The girl herself once thought of them as zits.

“One of these days, I’m going to fly, just like one of your paper planes.”

The boy laughed, the planes didn’t fly as much as crash and burn.

“What’s up with those planes?” she asked.

He squinted as he looked towards his house, wondering how well he could see the planes from her house. It had rained recently, so most of the planes now looked as if they had been melted down for scrap.

“I write,” he said. “I—” he made the motion of throwing the planes, as if he was trying to make sense of it himself.

“Oh, I get it.”

“Well, it’s more than the flight. It’s what’s on the planes that—”

“What are you doing for Christmas?” she asked, interrupting him. The decorative lights on the house opposite had come on, and Santa Claus was waving at them. “I might try flying.”

The boy thought real hard before he thought of something pessimistically funny to say. He held his hands together, like a diver: “Maybe I’ll try the high-board at the pool.”

She laughed.

It was the final time the boy saw her during Christmas break. At the last minute, his mother announced that they were going to Florida to visit his grandparents. The boy didn’t want to leave because he had some poetry to write, but what was he to do? In between packing his bags, he scribbled some lines of poetry down. He knew he couldn’t go outside because his mother would have a cow or a brick or something: “You should be sleeping!” He could sleep in the driveway, he thought, and, opening the window, he threw what he thought was not only his best poem but his best plane. It went in a straight line for a few meters before dropping off steadily, landing right beside his mailbox. In the morning, he drove away with his mother and didn’t return until the day before school began again.

 

After Christmas break, the boy was shooting hoops in P.E. class when the girl walked into the gymnasium holding one of his unfolded paper airplanes. She just sauntered right over to the boy in the middle of class for everyone to see and sat on his lap and began crying. She cried all over him: his hair, ears, neck, shoulders, legs, toes, and eyes until she began kissing him ravenously. And as he kissed her back, her tears fizzed on his skin. She began glowing, and then, she broke the kiss.

“I saw the sun,” the boy told her, wiping her tears from his eyes.

“I know,” she said.

She fell onto her knees and bent in pain until she was the shape of an egg. Her skin was flushed and her feathers smoked, dripping gold from their tips.

“Oh my god,” someone said.

The boy was out of the wheelchair now, and no one noticed, not even him, that he was able to walk. He stood near her, his arm outstretched, trying to touch her as she said repeatedly, “My insides are burning!” He couldn’t get close enough to help her because of the unbearable heat. The wax on the floor had begun to melt as she cried, and she sank into it.

A teacher ran into the gymnasium with a fire extinguisher, but it was too late.

The girl screamed, and she stood upright on the tips of her toes, her arms spread wide. The feathers covered her from her head to her knees. Her clothes burned off as she became ever hotter, and then she flew, streaking to the ceiling as one large flame that rolled across the rafters until she burned out. A contrail of ashes fell to the ground.

She was gone. The boy was healed.

The students gathered round the center of the gym as the ashes fell on them. One of the students picked up the blackened piece of paper and handed it to Jack.

He could still see the title of the poem: “This Girl with Feathers.”

 

Near the end of the semester, the boy was jogging one afternoon when he saw the girl’s mother on the roof ledge.

“I…I loved her,” he said.

The girl’s mother nodded.

“Will she be reborn?” he asked. “She was a phoenix, right?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” the girl’s mother said. “Her father told me that human phoenixes only get one flight. Once they burn, they’re gone forever.”

She dropped an egg off the ledge. “It’s a new habit,” she said. “I’m just trying to understand how she felt. Sometimes, I sit and watch candles for hours, holding my hand over the flame until I can’t stand it any longer. I want to think it was like that for her.”

“I’m sorry,” the boy said.

She looked at his legs.

“Don’t be, it was her choice.” She threw a paper airplane off the roof. “You’re quite good,” she said. “Never stop.”

The plane landed at the boy’s feet. It was the poem he had written the night before. He still wrote her poetry every night. Sometimes, he burned them, pretending she could read them from wherever she was.

M.W. Fowler is from Myrtle Beach, S.C. His works have appeared in numerous journals, including Jelly Bucket, Little Fiction, and A cappella Zoo. He is the author of the young adult novel, Ezra Sound: How I Became a Giant, and the collection, Wayward: scifi stories & poems.

Greg Neri, Young Adult Author and Poet

Photo: Debrah Lemattre

Greg Neri writes poetry, prose, and graphic novels for young adults under the pen name G. Neri. He’s said, “I write provocative, edgy stories for reluctant readers, especially urban boys, in hopes that these kinds of books—immediate, compelling and told through the eyes of young males—will open minds to reading.” They’re not the only ones taking note of his work. He was a 2011 Coretta Scott King honoree for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a middle-grade graphic novel, and Ghetto Cowboy, his latest middle-grade novel, received the 2012 Horace Mann Upstanders Children’s Book Award. He’s also a two-time American Library Association Notable Book Honoree.

Neri, who lives on the Gulf coast of Florida with his wife and daughter, recently spoke with Lunch Ticket about his writing process, his upcoming projects, and where he finds inspiration.

Kristen Schroer: Your books address an incredibly wide range of themes— surfer mules, chess, urban cowboys, the short life of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, Johnny Cash. Can you tell me about your research process and what it involves?

…it was filled with these amazing photographs of these kids in basically what is the worst neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and there’s this whole subculture of black urban horseman. It was almost like discovering some sort of modern-day Western was going on.

Greg Neri: All my fiction books are inspired by real life. It’s not that I sit down and say, Oh I’d like to write a book about black cowboys. It’s that I come across a real world situation or subculture that I’ve never heard of, and it stops me in my tracks.. For instance, with Ghetto Cowboy, somebody had sent me an article in Life magazine about this neighborhood in Philadelphia, and it was filled with these amazing photographs of these kids in basically what is the worst neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and there’s this whole subculture of black urban horseman. It was almost like discovering some sort of modern-day Western was going on. I’d never seen or heard about it. In fact a lot of people who live in Philadelphia have never heard about it either. It just floored me.

I immediately dive in once that thing grabs me and won’t let me go. Of course the first thing I do is start Googling. I’m just throwing phrases up and seeing what comes back at me. I’m not interested so much yet in the nitty-gritty little details, but I’m trying to capture the emotional truth of the place and the time. As soon as I have the essence of the place and its people, the characters kind of present themselves—the story presents itself—then I immediately start writing. I don’t even plot it out necessarily. I’m following the characters and seeing where they take me.

After I’ve done a draft or two, I will do a second round of research in which I’m verifying the things that I’ve written. I start with reality, and it takes me off on a fictional spin, and then I have to come back and verify that that fictional spin could exist in this world as I’ve portrayed it. Oftentimes I will end up going to the place near the end [of the writing process] as a reality check. With Ghetto Cowboy, I didn’t go to that specific neighborhood until after I’d already written a couple of drafts. I had talked to a lot people, I had done a lot of research, but when I actually went there, I had the strange sensation of walking into my book. These people had become my characters and the place had become a fictional thing, but here was a reminder that no—this is reality, this is a real world. And you have a responsibility to portray the poetic truth, even if it’s fiction. That’s happened on several books, where I go there at the end, and then I know it’s good and it’s right and it’s true.

KS: So for your upcoming picture book about Johnny Cash’s childhood, was that your experience when you went to Arkansas for what would have been his 80th birthday?

Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind.

GN: I heard that the Cash family was going to celebrate what would have been Johnny’s 80th birthday in this tiny, tiny hometown of his in Arkansas. The whole family was going to be there. So I just decided, well, I have to go.

It was like driving back in time. You left the city, and within 40 minutes of Memphis you’re in this total outback where you can stop on this dirt road and see horizon 360 degrees around you, and not a single person in sight. And that was his home. I would stand in what was his backyard, where they grew the crops, and just to feel the wind howling off those empty plains…and the mud. It’s this thick mud that your feet got stuck in. They called it gumbo and you could see why. You could feel it. I knew, this is where he found out his brother had just died, and this is where he first learned to swim and this is where he first learned to play guitar. Just to walk in those footsteps really makes it real for you as a writer. It’s like a full circle. You read about things, they’re kind of abstract. Then you write about them, they become part of your mind. Then you go there and it’s a real thing. And then the next thing you know, you’re talking to Rosanne Cash.

KS: Speaking of the worlds of your stories, have you had feedback from the cowboys in North Philly since the publication of Ghetto Cowboy?

GN: Yeah, and I’ve found all these other pockets of black urban horsemen around the United States. New York—in Queens, Brooklyn; in DC; Philadelphia; down in Louisiana. And in California where I’m from, South Central and in Oakland. I travel a lot around the United States and almost everywhere I go it seems someone comes out to me and says, “Oh, we have these guys.” When I was in LA for the Upstanders Award, a group of kids came from South Central. They were all young black horseman and girls. And I’m going to a school in Houston in a couple weeks and there’s a whole crew there and they’re actually going to come to my talk with their horses (laughs). They’re totally into it.

KS: To be able to find that book, where you see yourself in it, must be a really incredible experience for someone that age.

GN: Yeah. And it was kind of like this dying world and I wanted to capture it before it disappeared. It is worth remembering and worth valuing—it had value to it. And no one else was writing about it. I thought, This has to be told.

KS: Speaking of your travels, it does seem like you spend a lot of time on the road and doing school visits. Me, I love just being by myself in my house at my desk and I know a lot of writers feel similarly. But how does travel feed your process? What’s the significance for you of that community engagement?

GN: Well, I certainly have that side where I would rather not go anywhere (laughs) and just sit here. But I know that once I’m out there it’ll be great and I’m going to get a lot out of spending time with my readers or spark new readers. One, you are reminded that your books have made an impact on people. You see it, you feel it, they tell you things. My books kind of cater to this underground audience. They won’t be on the New York Times bestseller list, because they sell directly to schools and libraries for the most part, and a lot of my readers can’t necessarily afford to buy these books. They need the teachers and librarians to get these books so that they can have access to them. One book will be read by hundreds of kids. And that doesn’t show up in the stats. Then the other scenario is that a lot of schools I go to will actually buy the books for the kids. I don’t know where the money comes from. I’m going to this school in Houston, they bought 1500 copies of Ghetto Cowboy, one for every single kid in the school, plus the staff. That happens a lot with my books. The library might buy 400, 500 copies, and then give them out. They know these kids have one, never bought a book, and two, maybe never even read or finished a book.

One of the things I hear back is that my books are amongst the most stolen books from the library, which means that it means something to someone—so much so that they have to hold on to it. That’s a cool thing to know that somebody so desperately wants it. I met this kid in St Louis recently—he had never read a book and then he read my book Yummy. Ever since then, the only book he’ll read is Yummy. Every time they assign a book or he has to go to the library, he’ll read Yummy. So he’s read it like 15 times.

Then they [the kids] ask, When’s your next book coming? So you know there are people waiting for your next book and that these books mean something to them in a real way. It’s not just casual entertainment but it has real meaning and it affects their life, sometimes even changes their life, especially with a book like Yummy. I hear from a lot of kids who kind of recognize themselves in Yummy, and it’s like a wake up call. That feeds you and keeps you going. Plus, if you’re writing about this age group or these kinds of kids, the more contact you have, the more real they are. If you haven’t been around kids for a long time, then you lose that reality. The way they speak, the way they handle themselves, what they’re into and all of that. It’s good from a writer’s perspective on voice and place and how characters handle themselves, but also to know that your books are worth doing.

KS: Did you have a similarly transformative experience with an author or a book when you were younger?

GN: I wasn’t a huge reader in my early days. I was a very visual person and if I looked at a book it just looked like a big block of text. It didn’t hold my interest. Then a teacher gave me a copy of the Phantom Tollbooth. Just scanning the pictures it was apparent this was a crazy book. I had a pretty crazy imagination but here—like, someone printed this crazy thing! It opened my eyes to what a book could be, what a book could do. It could be kind of this wildly imaginative crazy experience that totally surprised you. Shortly after that I started reading a lot, so I went from reading not very much to reading The Lord of the Rings. I see that a lot. All it takes is that one book to open the door.

KS: Let’s talk about your book trailers, because you’ve developed some gorgeous book trailers for your works.

GN: I grew up in Los Angeles around the film world, and my first real job was working for a trailer company, a post-production house, that made previews for upcoming movies. That was a great training ground: how to tell a whole story in a minute twenty seconds, or sixty seconds, or thirty seconds. That’s a whole art in itself, capturing that tension—to show them and hook them in that amount of time. It’s a powerful tool to learn early on. I just love trailers and watching them for the movies, so when I started writing books it was a natural for me, because when I write I see it in my head like a movie. And the kids who read them, I think, see them like movies too. That’s the first question they always ask: When is this going to be a movie? The kids love the trailers. I don’t need to pitch the book, I just show them [the trailer] and they’re like, “Ohhhh.”

KS: It’s a nice element and different way for people to hear about the books if they’re not browsing at the bookstore or on Amazon.

GN: Right. And some kids are just more visual. Once they see it like a movie, they get it.

 KS: You have three short stories coming up in anthologies and your Johnny Cash project. Anything else you’re working on?

GN: Yes, I’m about to turn in the second draft of a novel in the next couple of days, and I have a couple of graphic novels that I’m kind of working on, on the side. As soon as I finish this novel I’ll jump on those too. Knockout Games is the one I’m doing right now. I’d been working on another book for about a year and a half, kind of struggling with it. Then I went to St Louis in April, and my contact took me to certain places and told me about this thing that was going on there that I had never heard about. It was kind of like Oliver Twist and Fight Club and Lord of the Flies all rolled into one and it was real. Very quickly it became apparent that it was a book. As soon as I got to the hotel that night and started Googling it, a ton of stuff started coming out. I just started writing it and it wrote itself very quickly, in like two and a half weeks.

As opposed to having spent the previous year and a half struggling with this other novel. Stories know which one you’re supposed to be writing. I have no control over it. It becomes apparent because one hits so deep and the other’s like a battle. You have to give into the muse and let her take you where she will, even if it’s not logical. You can’t fight it. If you fight it, you’ll lose.

KS: You sound prolific, with all these active ideas just fermenting in your mind. Is there stuff that you do outside of your writing that contributes to this?

There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do.

GN: I’m always reading, I’m always watching, I’m always looking. I’m just interested in real life stories in general, without the purpose of looking for something to write about. I’m just interested in and of itself. I think that fills your head with all kinds of unexpected possibilities, of things that can happen in real life or the way that people behave that is totally outside of your own life. There’s the saying you should write what you know about, but I’m always like, you should write what you don’t know about. You already know what you know about, and your world is pretty limited, but what you don’t know can literally fill a book. So that’s what I do. What I don’t know, that thing I never heard of, like Oh my god, that’s real? It just takes over me and it fills a book.

KS: And it’s more freeing in a way, relying on your imagination rather than being an expert.

GN: Yeah, to immerse yourself in a whole other world. What connects me to that world, even if the characters you’re writing about are completely different than me, living in a totally different existence than I ever lived in is that we’re all human. We all know what it means to feel loss or anger or happiness or sadness or frustration. We have all that to different degrees, depending on our situation, but we all know what that feels like. You just have to put yourself in their shoes in that situation, and the story becomes you. You are in the story, not physically in the story, but you’re in the story, the story comes from you, comes through you, so when other readers who have no connection to that world read it, they can relate to it. I get asked all the time how come I don’t write about my own life, and I say, I do. Not literally about my life, but I am in every character, in every scene. We all are.

For more information, visit Greg Neri’s home on the web at www.gregneri.com

 

Shadowboxing

My shadow seemed down when I was boxing it the other day. I’m not sure if that was the first time or what, I never paid much attention to my shadow unless we were boxing, and we only boxed when I was pissed so I probably wouldn’t have noticed even if it was.

But this time was different, it looked down, I mean real down, I don’t know how but I could definitely tell. I asked it what’s up. I guess I must have said it a little too hard like, I was already pissed, that’s why I was boxing it, and because the shadow didn’t say nothing. It just stood there trying to act like everything was okay but I could see something was up, I’m not stupid.

What, I said. I was getting annoyed, the way it was fronting like that with its dumb blank look without features. If something was up why didn’t it say so but whatever, I let it slide and put up my hands to go again.

I might have been crying a bit, too. I don’t know, maybe I was feeling sorry for it. I mean, this old sparring partner who never did anything but take my punches, walk my walk, remind me always that I am. How could there ever be a better friend.

And damn it, the shadow began giving me more of the same crap. I don’t know, something about how it responded, just a fraction too slow. What the hell is up with you, staring at me with that empty expression that I can’t figure out what it’s thinking. I couldn’t be sure if something was the matter or if it was hating on me or what.

So I went up closer to check it out, and wouldn’t you know right when I did the damn thing jumped straight at me, getting up into my face all threatening like.

That did it.

I started swinging and screaming and cursing, cursing at that damn shadow cursing at damn God cursing at damn everybody. I kept swinging and screaming and swinging and cursing. I don’t know why but I just couldn’t stop.

And then…strangest thing. The shadow wasn’t hitting back any more. Its head was hanging, shoulders slumped. It was sobbing. I might have been crying a bit, too. I don’t know, maybe I was feeling sorry for it. I mean, this old sparring partner who never did anything but take my punches, walk my walk, remind me always that I am. How could there ever be a better friend.

We sat there sucking wind for a while, not looking at each other. It was getting to be kind of awkward, to tell you the truth.

Finally, neither of us could take it any longer. I stood the thing straight up, brushed off its shoulders, tipped its chin with a light uppercut.

Everything’s cool, right? I said.

And I guess I knew it was when my shadow moved with me step by step, side by side, out into the light.

Jesse Cheng is a lawyer and cultural anthropologist from Southern California. His website is jesse-cheng.com.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Woman

I.
Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, I saw them. Oiled, buttered up, ready for consumption. And though black writers hate to describe skin color in terms of food, it’s true: their bodies were all the shades of brown you’d see on a Thanksgiving dinner table.

That’s not the important thing.

This is. Heads tucked down, asses pushed out, they’d mastered the Kim Kardashian pose, though they hadn’t quite figured out how to achieve her money or status.

It’s interesting how the kiosk owner had set it up. These black women dominated the magazine rack. The rows of glossy brown bodies tumbling out of bikinis seemed to have been placed almost strategically in front of The New Yorker. New York Magazine. The New York Times. Psychology Today. An old issue or two of Wired.

And I always wondered, who at the 116th Street station was buying these magazines?

I was taking a seminar at Columbia, and was the only black person in it. That could have been an anomaly, but I don’t think so. The first time I ran into a brother who was also in my graduate program, we almost hugged each other.

So who was buying these magazines? And why had the kiosk owner put them there, smack in the middle of the station?

Was it to give people something brown to look at as they came and went? Or was it for his own enjoyment? Did he, a forty-something Indian man, get tired of the similarity of the people walking by? Was positioning a video vixen’s defiantly arched backside in front of the Times his version of an STFU to the world?

I never had adequate time to ponder these questions. The train would come, leaving fifty minutes to get to Long Island City, Queens, where I taught.

In any case, it didn’t matter. The moment I exchanged the 1 train for the 7 train, I relaxed.  Rather than look away, people looked me in the eye, or at least, in the vague direction of my voice. I felt like an invisible object suddenly gaining form. It’s funny how the more you move away from certain sections of Manhattan, the more you notice the darker and more varied faces, and the intricate-almost-magical way a potpourri of accents blossoms.

 

II.
My very first sex dream was about a puppet.  That may sound odd, but it’s probably because you don’t hear much about girls and their wet dreams. But I woke up, wet and scared and excited. I could feel my vagina vibrating, and though at thirteen I didn’t know what an orgasm was, I knew I’d had one; I knew I had experienced something. To this day, I can’t figure out what it was about this image that did it for me. If I had to guess, maybe it was the way the puppet moved its genderless, boxy form. The little brown puppet pushed itself up and down, out and in, in all kinds of crazy, jerky ways.  The oddest part of the dream?  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tell who held the puppet’s strings.

 

My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

III.
Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham brought us the most useful term ever: “the politics of respectability.”  In Righteous Discontent, Higginbotham describes how black women in the post-Reconstruction era adapted a politics of respectability in order to combat the “widespread assumptions of the black woman’s innate promiscuity.”

The politics of respectability was, in many ways, a visual fight. Black leaders cautioned black women to keep immaculate homes, dress modestly, and appear clean and neat at all times.

And yet, the politics of respectability always had a vocal undertone.

Most people are familiar with the photograph of a bespectacled Rosa Parks sitting calmly on a bus, but in At The Dark End of the Street, author Danielle McGuire describes how Parks seldom sat; she traveled across the country, investigating cases of violence, including sexual violence. Long before the boycott, Parks was noted for her campaign of justice for Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by six white men. Parks, McGuire explains, was tireless in making sure her voice was heard. She “wrote letters, signed petitions, sent postcards” in support of Taylor.

It’s impossible to hear battle cries in a silent image. Still, the Rosa Parks photograph, which has seeped into our consciousness, is not entirely without noise.

 

IV.
When I Google “black women and rape,” the first website that pops up is www.womenagainstrape.net. The second is from a man claiming that black women were never raped during slavery. Black female slaves, he writes, willingly had sex with the slave master because that was “moving up in the world big time.” The fact that black women were property and thus could not legally give their consent either does not enter the man’s consciousness or is something he does not wish to discuss.

 

V.
Before I taught at a community college, I taught at a historically black women’s college. My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

One year, I brought pictures of women – black, white and Latina, dressed similarly, in bathing suits and biking shorts – to a couple of my composition classes.  I held a stopwatch and asked students to write their immediate reaction to each picture.  We’d been reading personal essays from both ordinary women and prominent feminist scholars. Because the pictures were from women’s and men’s magazines, I expected to have a conversation on the male gaze. But that’s not what happened.

“She looks alright,’” one student said, and pointed to a white swimsuit model. “But we can’t wear things like that. It looks different on us.”

“Black women can’t wear bathing suits?” I wondered.

“We can’t have all our meat hanging out,” the student answered. “It looks disgusting.”

Other students nodded, though their bodies were similar to the ones they were critiquing.

I went home, tired. How do you get to a place in life where you are disgusted by the images that resemble you most?

 

VI.
Black women: Steve Harvey says you can’t get a man.

 

VII.
Black women: The New York Times says you can’t get a man.

 

VIII.
Black women: Fox News says you can’t get a man. And yet, ironically enough, you’re still a whore.

 

IX.
I spent my teen years wrapped in a cocoon of ugliness. Other than my butt, my body was on the slim side, and in the South, in the 1990s, you didn’t want to be shaped this way. You wanted to look like one of the models from Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison video; you wanted a round butt and thick thighs, attached to a tiny waist.

But my shape (or lack thereof) and other aspects of my ugliness – frizzy hair, acne, braces – de-sexualized and freed me. I played with dolls longer than I should have. I read novels and became immersed in my own little world. I had a long, extended childhood, which ended abruptly when I spent a summer in California.

The aesthetic was different there. For the first time, because of my body, people overlooked the braces, the frizzy hair.

That summer, I dated a guy a few years older than me. He grabbed me in public, no matter where we were. When I protested, he said, “Look at how you’re dressed. You wouldn’t wear shorts if you didn’t want attention.”

This escalated. A few weeks later, I was in bed clawing my way from him.

“Don’t act like you don’t want it,” he told me. “Look at how you’re built. Like a ho.”

The meanness of the comment made me want to scream. In fact, I did scream, so loudly he jumped away from me.

Who can blame him?

That evening, the force of my voice scared me too.

 

X.
In the Columbia seminar, I was aware of my body from the moment I walked into the classroom. If a reading alluded to a concept outside of black American culture, it was assumed I was unfamiliar with it, but if it mentioned race, the class assumed I was an expert – and then I faced eleven sets of eyes staring at me.

I tried to ignore my body, but over the course of the semester, I grew more aware of it, and less confident, less sure of my abilities. The assumptions about what I had or hadn’t read, what I did or did not know, didn’t just make me want to escape my body, they made me want to crush it up and fold it.

 

XI.
For months after the attempted rape, I couldn’t use tampons. When I was in bed with cramps, my mother would come from the drugstore with a box of Playtex and I’d beg her to go back and get pads.

When I decided to have sex, I found that I couldn’t. My body tightened and prevented anyone from getting close. To others, I seemed normal, outgoing, even flirtatious. But intimacy scared me. I didn’t seriously date.

My body had, without my being fully conscious of it, adopted a politics of respectability. If the world had looked at my body and rejected it, decided it was dirty and tainted, then I – my body – would reject those assumptions, rebel against them.

But the problem with adapting a politics of respectability is that by doing so, you decide that someone else’s version of you is powerful or factual enough to resist.

Still, there has to be a way of resisting that doesn’t destroy you, a way of making yourself visible in a world that doesn’t see you. Or maybe we can never really be seen, though there are moments when we can be heard.

The man who would later become my husband is a patient person. Because we lived in different cities, we’d been distant friends for years. One night he came into town, and I decided to sleep with him (I made this decision only because, if the sex were bad – or, more likely, impossible – then I’d never have to face him again).

That night, my apartment was so quiet you could hear our breathing, the sound of Atlanta’s traffic, even footsteps from someone outside plodding around the building. But the one thing you didn’t hear was the sound of human voices. I was too nervous to speak.

“Talk to me,” he said after a few minutes. “I don’t care what you say, but say something.”

I didn’t speak, but I did finally relax, knowing I was in a place where I could be heard.

 

XII.
The spring after my first semester at Columbia, I was tired of the isolation, so I registered for a literature class in the African-American Studies Department.

The young, black woman who taught the class was an academic rarity: a brilliant intellectual who was also a good listener.

I loved the class. In my excitement, I talked way too much. One student in the class was as quiet as I was talkative. Like me, he was an older student, but unlike me, he was white – and I assumed Jewish because he wore a yarmulke. He was one of three white students in the class of nine; the other students were multi-racial, Asian, or black. Though he didn’t speak, he looked like he was listening, absorbing everything. I wondered if his silence was because he thought an opinionated student like me would jump all over him simply because he was white. Perhaps my professor wondered the same thing because she nodded in his direction, offered him smiles of encouragement.

We discussed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was my third time reading the novel, but the first time I felt I had actually understood it. It seemed more applicable to my life – and where I was at that moment in time – than anything I had ever read.

“The protagonist isn’t an Uncle Tom,” I said. “He’s subversive. Even when he doesn’t realize it, he’s taking his grandfather’s advice and undermining a society that constantly sees him through this veil.”

“But that’s true for everyone. Everyone is seen through a veil,” my quiet classmate said, and everyone looked at him in surprise. “People see this beanie on my head and think they know everything about me. They don’t. They know nothing about me, or what I’m thinking.”

It was the most he had said the entire semester.

 

XIII.
In the weeks since the class ended, I have been thinking of Jack, my shy classmate, of what I would say if I were to see him now, and whether I would even recognize him.

I know now that he’s right. No one is ever really seen. We can only be understood by the traces our images leave behind. We are all mysterious blackbirds.

And yet, even knowing this to be true, even as I write these words, I long for sound.  I remain less interested in the way a blackbird appears in a green light than the sound it makes when it takes off and flies.

Rochelle Spencer has an MFA from New York University, and her work has appeared in African American Review, Calyx, Poets and Writers, Cake Train, The New York Times and other places. A recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, she’ll complete a doctorate in 2013.

Audvantgardener: Acrylic & Watercolor

Living under Wraps

What housewarming gift is best for someone moving into a townhouse that will be under scaffolding and tarps for a year? I hope to get Evelyn Lau’s Living under Plastic. She writes poetry inside quiet places and reading her is an absorption of solitary wonderment. Her poems will serve as substitutes for covered over views of mountains and the city.

On the subway, in the crush of the hurried and harried, I have a minor vision: a small shelf for her book in our entranceway! Time to read a little everyday. More people squeeze in at the next station, pressure-cooking my thoughts into a fantasy of time and space. Time to move every item from the old house on Kitchener to our new home on Fraser. Every morning my job would be to select some book, painting, cooking implement, some etcetera and then walk the half hour distance under the giant blue or grey dome of the outdoors. Can this fantasy be condensed into a poem? Or for that matter how about lines composed on the couch yesterday afternoon? I’d been reading Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and then I wrote:

innermost mountains
climbed in crampons

inverse cathedrals stalactite
secrets buried since childhood

clouds crumple back to reveal
birthday presents of the sky

Only my anima knows what that means but maybe this will emerge from abstraction to become a poem. Maybe it will take on a patterning of abstraction to become a poem.

Most moments in life are a cityscape of question marks, bent over buildings checking for lost keys at their feet. Sometimes even getting away from it all – into the darkest of jungle metaphors – still leaves me machete-ing through doubt. I sweat away at forging a path through the page, hoping to hack away a home. Sometimes this leads to a choppy labyrinth of False Starts. Around and Around We Stumble. Mistakes Making Majuscules. Titles Lost in the Cushions of the Couch.

Where does the poem start? In love, in hate, in grandiosity, in odd flourishes, in dust mote moments, in the middle, in javelined joy, in rolled over grief, in a rubik’s cube hour, in a tickle of the throat. In eye-contact between you and a character who’s crossing the street with a lamp in his hands and a book in his back pocket. His dry lips are moving; he seems to be repeating the same phrase. He looks sane. You’d like to slow down to see the title of the book but someone is madly honking behind you. And he (or maybe she) is gone.

Kevin Spenst’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Fire, Contemporary Verse 2, Rhubarb Magazine, Capilano Review, Dandelion, Filling Station, Poetry is Dead, Moonshot Magazine, The Maynard, The Enpipe Line, V6A and Ditch Poetry. In 2011, he won the Lush Triumphant Literary Award for Poetry.

Arthur Sze, Poet

Photo: Gloria Graham

Arthur Sze was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012. He was born in New York City and educated at the University of California, Berkeley. Sze is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Ginkgo Light (2009), Quipu (2005), The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (1998), and Archipelago (1995).  He is also renowned as a translator of Chinese poetry, and released The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (2001). Most recently, Sze edited the highly acclaimed anthology Chinese Writers on Writing (2010). Among his many awards are a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, and a Western States Book Award for Translation. From 1984 to 2006, Sze taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he is Professor Emeritus. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, the poet Carol Moldaw, and their daughter.

Our two Poetry Editors spoke with Sze by phone.

Janice Ko Luo/José Hernandez Diaz: Can you describe a typical day in the life of Arthur Sze? In particular, what is your writing process? 

Arthur Sze: I’m not sure that I have a typical day, but it really works around my daughter who just started seventh grade. Ideally, if I can get up really early and write for an hour, sometimes on the weekends it’s longer, but during the school week if I can get an hour, then I can go back to work in my study for an hour, hour and a half, so basically I piece my writing time together. Then in the afternoon, if I can get an hour, that’s pretty great too. In terms of the actual writing process, my best work is first thing in the morning, and I basically do best when I don’t know where I’m going. If I make a mess of things, if I lose my way in order to find it, that’s better. If I think I know where the writing is heading, that’s usually a bad sign because I’m too much in control or there isn’t room for discovery.

JKL/JHD: What are you working on now?

AS:  I just completed a new manuscript of poems called Compass Rose and Copper Canyon is going to publish it in May or June of 2014. I’m excited about that manuscript. It’s five years of writing and the whole book ends on a colon, and there’s a blank page at the end. I’m excited about that. There’s a lot of directionality and searching through the manuscript, through the poems, of orienting in the world. There’s a lot of travel. And there’s a poem that has thirty one-line stanzas that is its own poem, but I broke it into unnamed sections, so there’s one line and two lines and then three and four, five and seven and nine…and so that poem is a through-line that runs through the book. The last poem in that manuscript is called “The Unfolding Center” and incidentally that just appeared in the latest issue of Kenyon Review. That’s the poem that ends on a colon, but I wrote that long poem in collaboration with Susan York, a visual artist here in Santa Fe.

Susan has created twenty-two large abstract drawings that go with my eleven poems and we’re in the process of looking for exhibits. We want to travel the show and have a book published that would include the poems with high-resolution images of the drawings. The drawings are about two feet wide by two and a half feet high, and the Santa Fe Art Institute wants to first exhibit the collaboration.  That will be in the fall of 2013. That’s something I’m working on, and then I’m also working on some new poems. I don’t know where those are going, but I’m just glad that some short new poems are coming to me.

JKL/JHD: And when you say that you don’t know where these poems are going, do you have these images for the poems in your head, or do you base them on life experiences that you jot down? How do you go about coming up with images and juxtapositions? 

…it’s a mystery where poems come from. Sometimes it’s a musical phrase…Sometimes it’s something I overhear, or something I see.  It could be images.

AS: I would say both suggestions that you mention – that there are images or things from daily life. I mean it’s a mystery where poems come from. Sometimes it’s a musical phrase…Just to give you examples from the past, I overheard something at the post office and I thought someday that is going to enter a poem, and it took many years to happen, but it did. Sometimes it’s something I overhear, or something I see.  It could be images. It could be almost like a dream state where phrases come to me, so it’s hard to predict. I don’t have one particular source. I like to use the metaphor of seeds. You can have lots of ideas and some of them, if you nurture them, grow and evolve and develop into really interesting poems and others don’t. And it’s hard to know when it’s going to happen.

JKL/JHD: What is your editing process? 

AS: My editing process tends toward growing the poem and letting it reveal itself, to not, again, know too soon where the poem is going or what it’s about. I often have a lot of non-narrative fragments, suspended images and phrases on a page and they grow. It’s kind of a big mess, but eventually I start to sift them down and start to go through and think about how one may connect to another. A lot of it is very instinctive. I want to feel that on the one hand there is a kind of spontaneity and excitement of discovery, but I also want to feel that there is a kind of underlying rigor, that the images or sequencing isn’t arbitrary, that each word needs to be where it is and that each line and image needs to be where it is. There’s an underlying rigor that is making things happen in their particular way.  In terms of editing, I will frequently play with ends and beginnings and subvert them or I’ll try to open up spaces between lines that I have written. If I have fragments, I will sometimes cut out sections and remove them so that they’re not just on a computer screen but I’m tactilely moving them around on a desktop, or if I have sections in a sequence I might lay them out on the floor and put white pages, blank pages, in between and ask myself–can something go between these? Or what would happen if I wrote something in between? So it’s an organic process.

JKL/JHD: You mention that in your poetry you try to capture spontaneity and discipline at the same time. Can you tell us if you are trying to mimic something in nature, or the reasoning behind those aesthetic choices? 

If I know the structure too soon, then I’m imposing it, and that’s usually a disaster for me, because there isn’t enough creative room.

AS: I’m not sure if it’s something in nature–it might be. I think a lot of it has to do with figuring out some kind of structure that’s growing organically and in that sense it follows the laws of nature. If I know the structure too soon, then I’m imposing it, and that’s usually a disaster for me, because there isn’t enough creative room. There is a kind of natural order to how things progress in a poem, particularly in longer sequences. I’m looking for some kind of structural through-line. It could be from astronomy. It could be, as an example from nature, how a persimmon ripens.

JKL/JHD: Would you say that your poetry transcends the different schools of thought in poetry?  We think you are accessible both to academic poets and the poets who are outside academia, because of the two elements you speak of–spontaneity and rigor.

AS: I personally dislike poetic labels. Calling someone a Beat poet or someone a language poet, I find that unhelpful. At this point, I think of what Adrienne Rich said “you can’t think of it as American poetry, but American poetries,” because there are so many different styles that are all part of American poetry, and I like that. I also have poems that have lots of layers, so on the one hand, I think the immediacy of my images and my surprising juxtapositions can appeal to a wide audience, but for someone who is a college student or a working poet, there are lots of layers in my work. So those can be appreciated in a way that maybe a high school student might not immediately see or recognize or respond to, but I do hope ultimately all poetry engages viscerally. I think it was Eliot who said that “a poem communicates before it is understood,” and I like that idea that you might not get all of the poem at once, but if the poem is good, you’re going to get some kind of gut response quickly.

JKL/JHD: As you know, Antioch University is a school geared towards social justice. Can you give us some advice on how to write about social or political issues effectively in poetry?  Maybe not overtly, but can you give us your take on this?

AS: My own opinion is to follow Emily Dickinson and think, “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  I think sometimes if one is trying to make an overtly political poem, it boomerangs. It comes back at you, because ultimately I think poetry is about liberation. It’s about imaginative freedom, deep emotional experience, and it’s a liberating force. As such, it needs to resist all forms of coercion. If one has a political agenda to address inside of a poem, it’s not that it’s a bad thing, but I think for that to be effective as a poem, you oftentimes have to approach the truth from an oblique or unexpected angle. You don’t want the poem to become propagandistic or a piece of political indoctrination. You want people to be moved by the true spirit of what’s at stake and then say–oh, this is a terrible injustice.

In my own experience, I rarely write prose poems, but I have a prose poem called “The Los Alamos Museum” in The Redshifting Web. It was written in prose after visiting the museum in Los Alamos that displays replicas of the atom bombs. Lots of high school students, junior high school students, Ph.D.s and adults go through this museum. They see in high-tech format how you can design a nuclear warhead, and it looks like a really interesting, exciting scientific challenge to figure it out.  But what it really denies is the cost of humanity. You don’t see the photographs of devastation from those two atom bombs. You don’t see that in designing this nuclear warhead. Instead you have a computer module that makes it resemble a computer game. It removes the impact of how powerful and charged nuclear weapons are part of the problems of our nuclear age. In the museum, they even had lights on the floor and if you pressed a button, the whole floor lit up in a fast arc of light to show you how quickly the light would zoom out from point zero, from where the atom bomb was detonated. And of course, I’m looking at my son and he’s fascinated by the lights and I’m thinking–well, you know, everything would be obliterated.

I went home and thought that if I wrote something didactic, it wasn’t going to be very interesting or moving, so I decided to make the poem very clinical, to use lots of specific details from that museum and because I have a science background and scientific vocabulary at my disposal, I could write it clinically but I could also show how dehumanizing it is too. I thought, I never write in prose but this should be a prose poem. The poem needed an objective presentation, although the subtext is of course, extremely emotional.

JKL/JHD: It seems like you’re saying that form plays a big role in presenting political issues. We also read an interview about how you list and catalogue things as a way of preserving the names of Native American tribes that are disappearing. Can you talk a little more about form?

AS: Let me just back up to the issue of catalogues and tie it into politics.  In a sequence called “The String Diamond” [in The Redshifting Web], I think it’s section three, there’s a list of thirty endangered species, and there’s no commentary before or after, so it’s just a list and it starts “Deltoid spurge,/red wolf,/ocelot,/green-blossom pearly mussel…” I found that list on a National Geographic map where they had one of these foldouts listing 500 endangered species; and I loved the sounds to the plants and the creatures. I started to play with them and orchestrate them. So there’s no commentary about why are these things, items, being listed. But if you see or begin to see that there’s a through-line running through this list of the many, then the list can be read as intensely political. These are all species vanishing off the face of the earth, but I never say that overtly. I’m just articulating pure sound and naming and to carry that over to the Institute of American Indian Arts, I taught there for twenty-two years, and when I left, I wanted to write a poem that in some way reflected on my experience there, but also honored the many students that I had the privilege and honor of working with.

I worked with students from over 200 tribes, so I listed the names of students who after twenty-two years stood out in my memory. I first had their names and then I thought, that’s too literal. I replaced the personal names with the names of tribes.

I worked with students from over 200 tribes, so I listed the names of students who after twenty-two years stood out in my memory. I first had their names and then I thought, that’s too literal. I replaced the personal names with the names of tribes. When I did that, I got really excited. I thought, this is like a roll call of Native tribes coming forward, and I remembered they used to do that at graduation. When a student got up and received their diploma, they would also name the tribe, so that centerpiece, that bare list is in the center of “Spectral Line” [in The Ginkgo Light]. It’s a poem in nine sections and section five lists the catalogue. That’s the beginning of the poem, though it is formally located at the center. As I developed the sequence, I frequently considered how, in astronomy, spectral lines form a unique signature of bands of light. With the Institute as my source of energy, I braided narrative sections with non-narrative sections to try to enact an experience of its unique signature, from the profane to the sacred, which was exemplified in its formal diversity.

JKL/JHD: Can you tell us some of the students you worked with at the Institute of American Indian Arts?

AS: As an aside, I want to say that sometimes when I was teaching I would ask myself what a successful day or successful event would be. I often thought there would be a student who wouldn’t say a word for months and then suddenly would start speaking. I felt like that was a huge success that that student got to the point where he or she trusted me or trusted the environment, where they would start sharing and articulating their thoughts and experiences with literature. That was a huge success. In terms of particular former students, I would name Sherwin Bitsui, Orlando White, DG Okpik, Allison Hedge Coke, James Stevens, Eddie Chuculate, Layli Long Soldier, Santee Frazier and Jennifer Foerster. I recently went back to the Institute for a residency, and they said that my former students have now published twenty books, which is pretty great for an undergraduate BFA program.

There are two more writers I would like to add to a list of emerging Native writers, Joan Kane and Natalie Diaz. I’ve never met Joan, and I didn’t know her work before judging the AWP Donald Hall Poetry Prize, but I picked her manuscript, Hyperboreal, and the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish it next year. She’s Inupiaq from Alaska and I thought her work was very very wonderful.

JKL/JHD: You recently edited the book Chinese Writers on Writing. Can you recommend some contemporary or emerging Chinese poets to read?

AS: Among the contemporary or emerging Chinese poets, and I’m thinking of China right now, and not say – Taiwan, two poets that people will probably know, who were part of the Misty School are Bei Dao and Yang Lian. I think they’re both doing good work. I think some of the post-Misty poets that interest me include Xi Chuan, Zhai Yongming who wrote an important feminist manifesto back in 1985 that’s included in Chinese Writers on Writing for the first time, Zang Di, Wang Xiaoni, Yu Jian, and Yi Sha.  I want to mention that Zephyr Press and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have a new series of bilingual poetry books. The poems are printed in Chinese and then English translation. There’s a set of ten in the works. Four have come out. I think Ron Padgett and Wang Ping translated the Yu Jian book, and Andrea Lingenfelter translated the Zhai Yongming book. Two other really good poets that are in that series are Ouyang Jianghe and Han Dong. There’s also another translation series that Jonathan Stalling at the University of Oklahoma Press is initiating and that first book just came out. It’s Winter Sun by Shi Zhi, translated by Jonathan.

JKL/JHD: How do Chinese poets feel about the American influence on their poetry? Has American poetry influenced Chinese poetry?

AS: Yes, not just American poetry, but Western poetry has been a gigantic influence on modern Chinese poetry. For the Misty School Poets, I personally knew Gu Cheng who died tragically in New Zealand, and he told me that when he was growing up, his generation just could not wait to read the latest waves of translations of American poetry. It included Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Snyder, Ginsberg…They just were soaking up American and European poetry. It was just tidal wave after tidal wave. That’s where they drew their inspiration.

The post Misty poet I mentioned, Xi Chuan, is a pen name and most of these poets use pen names. Xi Chuan means Western River and he said for his formative years, he did nothing but read Western poetry, American poetry, European poetry, and it was only in the last decade or so that he said to himself, I need to learn Chinese poetry. I need to learn the Chinese tradition. He teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and as a way to learn that classical tradition, he started, instead of Western poetry, teaching classical Chinese poetry to his students. I mention this because there’s now a big movement for contemporary Chinese poets to reclaim their heritage and tradition. Years ago, they were so clearly wanting to rupture and break from the past, but it’s now a time when they feel confident that they can absorb from the tradition and not be trapped by it. It’s a very exciting situation.

JKL/JHD: Do you feel the next generation of Chinese students have knowledge of Classical Chinese poetry? It seems like the younger generation is living in such a capitalistic Internet culture there now.

AS: That’s a really interesting question. Poetry in China has moved to the margin in the way that American poets would say is the case in America. Because of this marginalization, and because classical Chinese poetry is written in old-style characters and has such a spare syntax, whereas contemporary Chinese is written in simplified characters and has a radically different syntax, I believe the emerging generation of Chinese students feels that classical Chinese poetry is at a great remove from them and that their knowledge of it is limited.

In 1985, I remember having tea with the Chinese Writer’s Association, and the head of Poetry Monthly was lamenting that their readership had dropped to 1.5 million, and I was like 1.5 million–Chinese numbers are always huge–but still, that’s a lot of people reading poetry. For those Misty School poets, their manuscripts had a circulation of maybe 10,000, but the reading audience for poetry today is small. Poetry doesn’t sell in the way that it used to. It doesn’t have the large audience that it used to and, as you say, there’s such a capitalistic Internet culture there now. Nevertheless, poetry is still taken extremely seriously by the party, by the government, but it clearly does not have the clout in readership that it once had.

JKL/JHD: Do you think it is partly because of the government’s censorship and people being scared of writing, of the consequences of writing, say, political poetry?

Chinese poets have told me that the most difficult thing is not government censorship, it’s self-censorship, what happens when you start writing a phrase and you think–oh, that’s not going to be allowed in the publication. Once you start self-censoring, then that’s a disaster.

AS: It’s a really interesting issue. Chinese poets have told me that the most difficult thing is not government censorship, it’s self-censorship, what happens when you start writing a phrase and you think–oh, that’s not going to be allowed in the publication. Once you start self-censoring, then that’s a disaster. But there are all sorts of ways that those Chinese poets have figured out different kinds of solutions. I know one poet, for instance, who lives in Shanghai part of the year and in New York City part of the year. In New York City he’s writing whatever he wants and then he takes it back to China to see what he can get published there. What he can’t get published, he might publish in New York City, Hong Kong or Taipei. A lot of poetry websites come and go quickly on the Internet, so poems get posted and then they quickly disappear. It’s a complicated but really interesting situation, and I can’t give you an easy answer here.

JKL/JHD: How has Eastern poetry influenced your poetry?  We are assuming that you travel a lot to China, and Asia in general – has that influenced your poetry?

AS: It has. When I was a student at Berkeley, I created my own major in poetry. I wasn’t a formal English major and one of the things I wanted to do was to be able to read Li Bai, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Li Shang-yin, the great Tang Dynasty poets in the original. Then I tried my hand at translating them for several reasons – one was I thought I could learn my own craft that way, but I did also experience the poems at a much deeper level in translation by thinking about how those poems were put together. And how could I, even though I knew it was an impossible task, how could I make some kind of attempt to translate them into English? In terms of my own evolution as a poet, the ancient Chinese poetry came first, and then it’s interested me that over time I’ve reached out to poets from other time periods. When I edited Chinese Writers on Writing, it was really a reading of modern Chinese literature (poetry and fiction), and so I had moved from the very ancient all the way up to the contemporary.

In terms of my travel to Asia, I’ve read at international poetry festivals in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival in China asked English language poets to translate poems by contemporary Chinese poets into English, and vice versa. So there was a lot of cultural exchange. In traveling to these festivals, I’ve had important conversations with many poets—I’ve translated poems by Yang Lian, Xi Chuan, Yan Li, Chen Li, and Yang Mu into English—and these experiences have influenced my poetry in oblique ways.

JKL/JHD: Do you do a lot of research, because we know you write a lot about nature and science? Do these things just stick in your head, because you have a science background? 

AS: I think I probably do less research than many people would guess. A lot of the information comes from first-hand personal conversations. Santa Fe is a very small town, but there are lots of really interesting people here. In the 1990’s, I used to have dinner with two amazing physicists, Murray Gell-Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for the quark and George Zweig, who also discovered that particle. I would come to dinner-the wife was an arts administrator, and her husband was a physicist—and  I would converse with the physicists. Murray would talk about Complexity Theory, while George Zweig would talk about fundamental particles, so a lot of that information that found itself into my poetry was not from researching on the Internet. It was from actual conversation with people here in town, who were working on those endeavors.

To give another example, I learned my mycology by mushroom hunting with my son for five summers with a renowned expert, Bill Isaacs. In July and August, we would go up into the mountains above Santa Fe, as part of Bill’s class; we would collect every mushroom we could find and lay them out on picnic tables. Bill would go through and identify all of them. I tried but couldn’t really learn the mushrooms by looking in a field guide. So again, the images of mushrooms that are in my poetry came from intimate hands-on experience.

JKL/JHD: Can you give us an example of one of your recent poems?

AS: Yes. This is a poem from my new manuscript Compass Rose that appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day Series.

Comet Hyakutake

Comet Hyakutake’s tail stretches for 360 million miles—

in 1996, we saw Hyakutake through binoculars—

the ion tail contains the time we saw bats emerge out of a cavern at dusk—

in the cavern, we first heard stalactites dripping—

first silence, then reverberating sound—

our touch reverberates and makes a blossoming track—

a comet’s nucleus emits X-rays and leaves tracks—

two thousand miles away, you box up books and, in two days, will step through the
invisible rays of an airport scanner—

we write on invisible pages in an invisible book with invisible ink—

in nature’s infinite book, we read a few pages—

in the sky, we read the ion tracks from the orchard—

the apple orchard where blossoms unfold, where we unfold—

budding, the child who writes, “the puzzle comes to life”—

elated, puzzled, shocked, dismayed, confident, loving: minutes to an hour—

a minute, a pinhole lens through which light passes—

Comet Hyakutake will not pass earth for another 100,000 years—

no matter, ardor is here—

and to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole—

Driving Back We Pass My Parents’ Home

This never means the same thing twice.
Tonight our children sleep in the backseat.

Their heads yield left and right through the country,
the moon a cantaloupe slice crowding

Cygnus from the sky. Under that pinoak I crept,
kissed a boy in porchlight pallor,

picked grass from between my toes.
By the juniper I snuck my first cigarette

lit from a burner on the stove. The day has been
put away, a groundhog tamps the mud

walls of his burrow, rabbits tucked safely in warrens –
it is too late, too late for a visit, for the slow

driveway sound, the pop of rocks under the tires.
I scan the drawn curtains for whatever it is

I am missing or might have missed. I imagine my mother
beyond the grey brick, busy with her worry.

My father asleep in the cold bedroom, the raspy hook
and pull of his snore. An empty dog dish in the garage.

My hand reaches across the front seat for my husband’s.
Fingers memorize knuckles as wind drawls

lonesome through the cracked window. I focus on the familiar
darkness ahead. I give a name to the newest ache.

Leigh Anne Hornfeldt lives in Kentucky with her husband and three young sons. This poem is included in her just-published chapbook East Main Aviary. Her poems have appeared in Foundling Review, Literary Mama, The Meadowland Review, among others. She is the recipient of the 2012 Kudzu Prize in Poetry.

Leah Givens: Photography

Stalemate

Monday

My fingertips hurt again.

The quad is too noisy to be distracting; a chaos of first trimester stress. No internet for the loop of email, Hulu, Twitter. No service for texts from Mom. Just me and the music, pen trembling on the page. Focus abandons my brain, collecting instead like wax under my nails. The flesh is raw there, flaking from exposure. I always cut my nails behind the flesh. It makes it hard to play the cello. It makes it hard to do anything, really.

I suck my smarting thumb, the pen growing warm where my breath condenses. I wonder how long I’ve been on this bench, staring at this empty page of bars. I think of updating my status—writing a song is hard, sad face.

How do they do it? Not just Puccini and Vivaldi and Brahms. Everyone but me just sits down and—does stuff. For no reason at all. That’s the problem, I realize: no one’s told me to do it.

But Mom will be happy. I click my pen twice, motivated. A vision materializes of me knocking on my mother’s office door, dragging in my cello case after the melodic Come in. Mom will sit back, closing the laptop with her special smile, the one that says, “What will I do with you?”

Mom’s always laughing at me. I’m not sure why—I’m never joking.

Mom’s always laughing at me. I’m not sure why—I’m never joking. When I was five, I learned the knock-knock joke about the orange, only I’d always forget and say apple, not realizing until it was too late and the punch line was ruined. But Mom just laughed, just like she did when I peed my dress in kindergarten, or broke my sixth grade science fair volcano, or spilled punch on my prom date. After awhile I laughed with her, surprised by the tears threatening to fall every time she grinned.

I give up my thoughts to the quad, half-made melodies fading to mute. Students dot the lawn. A dingy white Frisbee turns in the grass, near a ditch, over and over in the autumn wind. Then two voices stand out. A girl who I can see, and a guy who I can’t. My breath catches when I see her, and I fall into the routine. It’s not normal, I tell myself. It’s weird, stupid. I do it anyway.

A dark brown jaw. A curved, glossy lip. A white tennis dress stopping crisply at her knees, where strong calves end in platform running shoes, purple laces. I stow each item away in my head for later, like circling must-haves in Vogue, compiling a recipe. It’s a survival thing. There’s something I was born without; the secret organ that tells you what blow stands for, or where to get tattoos, or how to play That’s What She Said. I’m like a laptop without spell check—I have to look up the rules. I edit myself.

So this doesn’t count as eavesdropping, I think, as the guy and girl grow louder. This is homework. And I’m not a creeper, right? It’s okay for me to listen.

Profanity pours from his mouth. I imagine a hard, flat chest and a sneer, the only possible container for that low voice.

“Am I making you uncomfortable, Anna?” he says now. “Well, maybe next time you’ll think twice before screwing with my life. Because there’s sure as hell more where this came from.”

The girl laughs. It’s a familiar sound, one I’ve heard ringing out from a crowded table, or passing in a gang of body spritz and acronyms. I try to describe it, to remember, to imitate later, but adjectives fade in my mind, and absently I touch my throat, wondering.

“Babe,” says Anna. “That the best you can do?”

“You should know it isn’t.”

“Good,” Anna replies. “I was about to be disappointed.” She leans to kiss the man’s cheek. He calls her an inhuman name; she laughs again. The branches rustle as he emerges from the tree’s shadow. Anna transfixes me, a deadly smile splitting her smooth dark face.

Anna takes out a cigarette, lighting up. She gazes across the quad, spewing like a feline dragon. I notice her hands are shaking. A gust of autumn rushes into my eyes, drying my contacts. When I’ve blinked the pain away, Anna’s eyes rest on mine.

“Li Hua, are you hiding from me?”

I jump. Jun Leong stands above me. Sheets of music flutter to the grass as I stand. “Of course not,” I stammer. “I was waiting for you.”

Actually, I was doing both. I hated the idea of being in Jun’s line of sight, even though I knew he was coming.

Jun bends down to collect the pages. I tumble off the bench. “Oh—it’s okay; I got it,” I say. The collar of my polka-dot sweater droops, revealing a bra strap. I hug the papers, covering up. “Oops,” I say. “My bad. Oh, god. I’m like, all red now. Sorry.”

“No,” says Jun, staring at my shoulder. “I like that you blushed.”

I blink at the grass. “Okay.” I replace my collar and return to the bench. “So—you wanna start?” I ask.

I smell rubbing alcohol as he leans over me, thumbing through the concertos. His collar is starched, grazing his protruding jaw. He dresses, I think, like he’s forty instead of twenty.

“Sure.” Jun’s black comb-over glistens at the side part; I smell rubbing alcohol as he leans over me, thumbing through the concertos. His collar is starched, grazing his protruding jaw. He dresses, I think, like he’s forty instead of twenty. Maybe that’s why Mom likes him so much.

“I brought Bach,” I say. “And some theory. We could start with that.”

“Before I’ve heard you play?”

“We could do that. I can…I’ll just go grab my cello and—”

“You didn’t bring it?”

“Um, no. I thought—”

He snorts, wagging his lacquered head. “You thought you would have a cello lesson without a cello?”

“Stupid, right?” I laugh. “It’s just…you said to meet outside, and I thought, ‘Sun’s not good for cellos so I’ll just bring theory.’ I know; so dumb. But I’ll just…go grab my…” I begin stuffing the sheets into my backpack.

His tongue clicks. He places a hand on my shoulder, another smile setting like a chink in his jaw. “It’s clear you’re having an off day, Li Hua. Maybe we should wait until you’re more prepared.”

“No, I’m fine! My apartment’s like, right over there; I’ll just”—

“Li Hua.” That smile hasn’t budged. “Next time. Okay?”

I blink. “Okay. Um. You’re probably right.” I giggle. “Sorry again. It was really stupid.”

“Guess it’s just not your day.” He snorts again.

I chortle at myself.  “Nope. Nope, guess not.” Unbidden my eyes slip over to Anna. I imagine how me and Jun look, laughing together. Inside joke. Bench. Guy friend. I’ve stepped into someone else’s Facebook page, a teen flick, a Hollister ad. I laugh harder. I will play this part.

To my equal delight and horror, Jun brushes off the bench and sits down. “So, I’m acing your mom’s class.”

“Cool. I suck at economics.”

“It’s not for everyone,” Jun agrees. “Your mom’s obsessed with me.”

“I know.”

“Really?” He grins down at me. “She talks about me?”

“Yes.“

“What does she say?”

“Um—”Lie, says a small voice, buried somewhere beneath the music. “It’s actually really funny…” Lie. Li Hua. For god’s sake, lie. “She wants you to be my boyfriend.” The words spew out, revolting, and absolutely true.

He says, “So I gathered.” Jun picks at the lint on his pleated pants. “Professor Cheng’s been dropping hints forever. She practically begged me to tutor you.” He reaches over and begins on my sweater, pulling at balls on the sleeve until the material runs.

I squirm. “Jun—”

Anna rests a hand on the cedar, watching.

I grin at him, leaning closer. “Moms. Whadya do with them?”

“Hey, you should listen to Professor Cheng,” he says. “She wants what’s best for you.”

God, he sounds like my dad. And as a smirk crinkles his left eye, for a moment, he looks like him too. “I know,” I say.

“Have you ever dated anyone, Li Hua?”

“Yes.”

He frowns for the first time. “Your mom said you hadn’t.”

“She didn’t know.”

“You lied?”

“She never asked,” I say. “Have you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know. Ever had a girlfriend.” His frown deepens. “Sorry,” I say. “Awkward. Guess that just slipped out.”

“Guess it did,” he says shortly.

“I’m always saying dumb things.”

“I have standards,” he says.

“Yeah,” I agree. “Yeah, totally. I didn’t”—

“It’s not like I’d just go and date anybody. Maybe I’m saving my self for the right girl.”

“Totally,” I say again.

By degrees, his brow melts back against his solid hairline, and the smile resumes its niche. He looks at me and says, “Maybe Professor Cheng knew what she was talking about.”

I wish for the slightest space between us. Wish I could move my arm without my collar dropping again, without the music falling, without grazing his jacket. I wish he would leave. Wish I would tell him to.

Instead I say, “Mom’s never wrong.”

The wind seems to have lost ten degrees. Jun wears nothing but a crisp button-down. “Gosh. You must be freezing,” I say.

Jun snorts again, though I swear his teeth are chattering when he says, “I’m fine.”

Another gust steals a sheet of music, twirling it across the way and depositing it where Anna has just crushed another cigarette with her heel. I wonder if she’s ever stopped staring at us. She certainly doesn’t stop now, not when she kneels to retrieve the crinkled Bach or even when she crosses, laying it on my lap with two slender brown fingers.

“Thanks,” I say.

“No worries,” she says.

“Actually,” says Jun, “I should go.”

“Already?” Anna croons, not looking at him once. She winks at me. “Bye then.”

“Bye,” Jun muttered.

Anna’s eyes slide to his retreating back. Mechanically, she draws a lighter from her jacket and flicks it. It sputters. She swears, then laughs so suddenly that I jump.

“Got a light?”

“No,” I say. “Sorry.”

“Just ran out of juice.”

“That’s the worst.”

“You smoke?”

“No,” I admit.

“I don’t either. I mean—I don’t need to.” She pockets the lighter and rocks on her tennis shoes. “So. Leong. You guys dating?”

“What? Ha, no.”

“But he likes you.”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Hey, give yourself some credit,” says Anna, gently kicking my toe. She pauses. “Aren’t you in my history class? We should hang out. Study after class.”

“Yeah. That’d be great.”

“Facebook you.”

“Great,” I repeat. “Only, we’re not friends.” Anna works in my mother’s office. I’ve seen her, in parts, everyday for two years—a springy bun, a corner of stiletto, a pair of eyes peeking around the doorframe, glazing over me to ask Mom something.

“You’re kidding,” gasps Anna.

I blink. I don’t know how to kid.

“Well,” Anna says, producing a pearly white smart phone. “We’ll fix that right now.”

With a sigh the wind settles, leaves tumbling over the grass to stop at last, branches creaking to a halt. The moment is primed, a held breath. The battered disk sits in its ditch, fate sealed; imprisonment in a gust of wind; friendship with the click of a button.

Tuesday

Before I had a roommate the walls were bare. Now there are posters, clippings of things I knew Katrina liked, carefully pinned where I knew she’d see them.

My room is the color of baby powder and Dentyne. All my stuff is hidden away in drawers, so nothing weakens the effect of pale light on cinderblock. Before I had a roommate the walls were bare. Now there are posters, clippings of things I knew Katrina liked, carefully pinned where I knew she’d see them. A peace offering.

“Ohmigosh,” she said when she first moved in. “We are so soul sibs.”

I nodded, asking questions I already knew the answer to: Did she like Katy Perry; Was she Team Jacob; I hoped she liked How I Met Your Mother? Every affirmative was a green light, a major pitch ding, stacking until my score soared from rainbow to platinum and I’d won. For now.

Sometimes when she’s gone to class I take down the posters and press them in a pile, laying the big terry rug on top of them. I strip—underwear, everything—and stuff it in the closet. Then I stand in the echoing space, light and lines, unmasked, undressed, nothing and nobody. Happy.

Then I think, I must be crazy. And the posters go back up.

Now I’m sitting on my bed, MacBook sticking to my thighs. I click, and my name vanishes and reappears under the “Attending” column. The screen glare is terrible, so I can see my face reflected on the Facebook page, eyebrows sky high, lips sucked in like they always are when I’m excited. I fall with a pouf onto my fort of pillows.

“Okay,” I say. “So. Party. That’s cool.” The wind shakes the cedar at my window; branches rain catcalls on the casement.

“Ohmigosh,” I try again, giggling into the sheets, “I’m going to a party.”

The air conditioner groans at my lameness.

I scoot off my bed and sidle up to the door mirror, rocking non-existent hips and twirling my straight jet hair. “S’up bee-otch. Guess who’s invited to the hottest party on campus?” This time even I believe myself. I grin, ruining it.

The door bursts open, and I leap out of the way as Katrina bursts in, chattering on her cell.

“S’up b-babe,” I stutter, the rehearsed word dying on my lips. “Um, guess what?”

Once, in third grade, I waited for two hours for Mom to finish an email before telling her I’d skinned my knee on the play set.

She holds up a finger. I sit on her bed and fold my hands, an instinct. Once, in third grade, I waited for two hours for Mom to finish an email before telling her I’d skinned my knee on the play set. I’m still proud of that, no matter how angry she was to see blood pooling around her waiting room chair.

So I wait for Katrina.

She purrs goodbye and smacks kisses into the phone, one two three.  “Kay doll. Bye-ee.” She hangs up and flops down at last. “Alright, sweetie. Whatcha need?”

“Oh—well I don’t need anything, I just—”

The finger returns. She taps her lips. “Not another word. I got you covered.” She disembowels her backpack and produces a thin folder, headed with “Li Hua” in sparkly lettering. “I took double-notes in all the courses we have together. I’m sure you’re doing great and everything, but I thought you could use a teeny bit of help—don’t argue, sweetie! I didn’t mind at all. Really.”

I take the folder and try to look surprised. “Thanks Katrina.” I don’t take my own notes anymore. Katrina took that over so long ago, I’ve almost forgotten how. I’m not good enough of a liar to hide that. Katrina brightens a bit when she realizes my dependence. I guess she’s just an amazing friend.

She beams, pauses, and leans in to sniff my hair. For an absurd moment I am reminded of Jun, closing the space between us to pick at my sweater. “You’re using the shampoo I gave you,” she says, adding coyly, “I thought your hair looked shinier than usual.”

I give it a flip to demonstrate; she applauds and sits back. Mom has a special smile, but with Katrina it’s definitely a sigh. The kind of breath you take after spring cleaning a closet, or petting a dog, or donating to World Vision—that’s Katrina’s sigh for me. With a hazy, happy air she begins to sort her things.

“Kat?” I say.

“Mm.”

“I got invited to a party.”

She laughs—I’m not sure what’s funny—and smiles warmly down at me. “Whose?”

“Anna Albin’s. It’s on Friday.”

Katrina’s smile freezes. “What?”

“It was totally random. We were just talking, and the she added me on Facebook, and then—”I shrug.

Katrina resumes packing her things, then takes out her laptop, muttering, “Must be a public event.” She pulls up her home page and scrolls. “It’s not showing up.” Her voice is flat.

“I think it’s invite only.”

She shuts her laptop. “Anna Albin is throwing her Month Marker this Friday,” she says.

“Marker?” I echo.

“Yes, Ewok, that’s what they’re called,” she snaps, using that name. She and the other girls came up with it long ago. I don’t get it. It doesn’t sound anything like Li Hua, not really, and they’re not into Star Wars. But they laughed, and it stuck. Friends can do that.

Katrina knows I hate it.

“It’s the most exclusive event on campus, first Friday of every month. Royalty only.” She pauses. “And she invited you.”

I blink. “Yeah.”

It seems to sink in for her. “And that’s super,” she adds, voice bobbing like a buoy. She takes my hand in hers. “So. Who all is going?”

“Um…” I try to roll off the “Attending” column from memory. “Well, Anna, of course. And Scott Chevy, Parvati Brahmin. A bunch of other people. Jun Leong—”

“Really?”

“I know. Anna seemed to know him, though.”

“Weird. Who else?”

“Um—”Another name popped out from the list. “William Black.”

“What?” I stop. Katrina’s voice screeches in my ear. “He’s invited? I mean, he always goes, but I thought—I wonder—”Her eyes widen with epiphany.

I wait. As usual, Katrina remembers to catch me up, filling me in on whatever is obvious to the world. “Anna and Will hate each other,” she explains. “No one knows why. Some say they dated forever ago, but I think that’s crap. They’re at each other’s eyeballs every chance they get. The first Friday of every month, one of them throws a party. Then the other one crashes it with his or her crew. It’s like, tradition or something. But if he’s been invited all this time…” Katrina pauses. “This changes things,” she finishes. I nod gravely, matching her look.

“Maybe I’ll ask her about it tomorrow,” I say.

“What? No? You can’t just mention one to the other; that’s like starting World War 3.”

“You’ve tried?”

“No. I mean, I haven’t really talked to either of them before, I just know. Everyone does,” she adds, then pauses. “What do you mean, ‘tomorrow?’”

“Oh. Anna and I are studying at the yogurt place,” I say. “Can I bring you anything?”

She looks away. “So whatchya wearing to the party, Ewok?”

“I don’t know. Ha, I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Oh honey,” she says, the words dripping off her lips. “Sweetie, the chicks at this thing don’t own socks without a designer label. You know I love you,” she says, and I nod. “But if you show up looking like you usually do…”

My heart sinks. “What?”

She squeezes my knee, with a pout that says I’m on your side. “They’ll laugh. I mean, unless you have a hot date.” Her eyes slide to mine. “Do you?”

I stare at her, incredulous. The closest guy friend I have is my cat on Petville. Katrina knows that more than anyone.

She squeezes again. I wilt. She’s right. I’ll show up and look like crap and Anna will regret inviting me. Or maybe it was all a joke in the first place. I’d show up and she’d laugh, then ignore me, shocked I dared showed my face.

Katrina’s well-trained ears hear all of this cross my mind. I can tell by the way she nods, affirming each silent fear. “Sweetie,” she says at last. “I could help you, you know.”

I look up, and see another folder with my name on it twinkling in her eye.

“Really?” I flute.

She smiles, the sigh, the one reserved for me, waiting on her lips. “Of course. I always do, don’t I?” she says.

I nod, and sigh with her. As she fills my ears with potential dresses and hairstyles, I silently thank the stars for Katrina: a friend who saves me from the unforgivable embarrassment of being myself.

Wednesday

The yogurt shop has marble floors and armless chairs, with just a scoop for your back. Glass whirligigs twinkle from the two-story ceiling, and Europop pumps from high-def flat screens set in every other wall. I’ve been here before with Katrina, but we never stayed. It’s a place you go in a group. Anna is comfortable with just me, though, and her type makes up the rules.

I’m nervous. The walk over from campus was okay. Mostly she asked random questions—how long had I known Jun, was I super close to my mother? She kept telling me to relax. So I apologized, but she then told me not to do that, either.

I half-wish she’d ditch me, just to get it over with.

I follow her to the back where the machines furl out along the walls, flocked with college students. I copy Anna when she gets a monster cup and fills it to the brim, only to be mortified when she offers to pay for me.

“No worries,” she insists when I protest. She hands her card to the cashier and winks at me. “It’s a date.” She asked me here on Facebook chat. It was just as random as everything else—the friending, the invite. I almost asked Katrina if it was weird. But I got the feeling Anna knew even more than Kat about rules like that, the pieces of my missing organ. I’d follow her lead.

We find a lime green table near a high-def screen, an empty area except for an older couple in the corner, bravely enduring the stimulation, and some guy a distance away, hunched over a black MacBook. As we sit, I realize I have nothing to say—nothing at all. She takes out her laptop; I produce Kat’s folder. We eat in silence at first, Anna distracted by something on her screen, typing, pausing to smile at me now and then. I look over Kat’s notes, marveling at my study partner. I haven’t forgotten to take inventory, to store my survival tools. Today Anna wears waxed skinny jeans and a billowing top, slipping to reveal a smooth brown collarbone. Her sandaled toes are painted deep purple. I scrunch my own toes inside my muggy Toms, wondering if my t-shirt has sprouted pit stains.

She’s stopped typing. “You okay, Li Hua?”

“Yeah, totally. How’s the history?”

“Dull as hell.” She grins, and I mirror her. The screen near flashes a series of women in tight chrome suits, climbing ladders in time to the music. The camera lingers on their features, a curved lip, an immaculate cheekbone. My eyes widen with envy.

Anna snorts. “Oh god, look at me,” she says. “Look how sexily I climb this ladder, guys.” She gives the model a lisp. I giggle. She continues, narrating everything the models do.

“Look how hot I am riding this car.”

“I am, like, so steamy shutting this door,” I join in.

“Running in place. Ohmigoshguys so sexy.”

Anna takes a big, slow bite of her yogurt. “Mmmm,” she groans, crossing her eyes.

I laugh, then straighten my face to copy her. “Mmm,” I say, snorting with my mouth full.

“Bet I can eat mine sexier than you.”

“Bet you can’t,” I say.

“You’re on.”

The next five minutes are wild and wrong and awkward, and my cheeks hurt from laughing at the end of them. I win, weirdly enough; right when I finish my largest, slowest bite, Anna’s eyes slip past me to something I can’t see. “Oh, you win, Li Hua,” she says then, light dancing in her black eyes. “Hands down.”

She returns to her typing. A little later a fresh gaggle of students bursts into the shop; I recognize some of Anna’s crew; beautiful faces from the “Attending” list. One of them flags Anna down, waving a smart phone. “Come see the new Ryan Gosling trailer. We’ve all seen it, like, eight times. So hot.”

Anna rolls her eyes, but gets up anyway. “Be right back?”

“Yeah, sure,” I say. An inside joke. I’d just spent the last five minutes making a private, quirky memory with Anna Albin. Nothing could dampen this high. Instinctively, I move to update my status. Chillin with @Anna Albin at fro-yo—best afternoon evar, I compose in my head, slipping over to sit at her laptop. I don’t have a smart phone, and I’m sure she won’t mind. I mean to bring up her browser, but her Skype comes up instead. I freeze. Before me, dotted with time stamps from the last twenty minutes, is a chat with William Black.

I shouldn’t be seeing this. None. Of. My. Business. But before I have the chance to register any of these thoughts, my eyes are scanning, devouring. A chat between Anna and William. This is the ultimate research, the mother transfusion to my missing organ.

2:36 PM W. Black: That. You want me to hook up with that.

2:37 PM A. Albin: Oh, come on. She’s adorable.

2:38 PM W. Black: She’s green. Revoltingly so.

2:39 PM A. Albin: You don’t know that.

2:41 PM W. Black: She’s here.

2:41 PM A. Albin: Yeah.

2:42 PM W. Black: What did you have to do to get that?

2:42 PM A. Albin: Ask.

2:44 PM W. Black: Exactly. I don’t want some googly-eyed kid making out with me just because I say please.

2:47 PM A. Albin: But you say it like no one else…

2:49 PM W. Black: You would know.

2:49 PM A. Albin: Don’t remind me.

2:51 PM W. Black: Didn’t hear any complaints back then.

2:53 PM A. Albin: Then you were deaf and stupid. And you haven’t distracted me. How do you know it wouldn’t be fun?

2:55 PM W. Black: For the millionth time: Too damn easy. Why do you want this so badly, anyway?

2:56 PM A. Albin: Look at her. She’s like a vanilla ice cream cone, no sprinkles. How can you resist?

2:56 PM W. Black: Easily.

2:57 PM A. Albin: How about now?

3:10 PM W. Black: You’re terrible.

3:11 PM A. Albin: You have to admit, she can work a spoon.

3:12 PM W. Black: That whole show was just for me, wasn’t it?

3:12 PM A. Albin: With a cherry on top.

3:13 PM W. Black: You still didn’t answer my first question. What’s in this for you?

3:17 PM A. Albin: Look, Will. You said I screwed you over. Fine. This is me being nice. If you don’t like it, we can go back to normal. But I wouldn’t pass this up if I were you. Believe me. I give very good presents.

3:18 PM W. Black: I know what you do with friends. No offense, babe, but I’d rather be your enemy.

 

The bass of techno fades against my hammering pulse. The old couple rises, throws away their cups, and disappears from the shop. A napkin beats across the shiny tiles, coasting in the gust from the door. And the words on the screen stare. I understand enough to know I should be doing something. Anything. An action other than sitting, arms out like a paper doll as Anna, William, Katrina, Jun, Mom all pin their smiles and sighs to me, make me over, serve me and suck me dry again, and again, and again.

I know.

But then again: what does Li Hua know?

I close the window. I bring up the browser. And I update my status:

Best day ever.

J. Ifueko is a freelancer from Portland, OR, completing her BA in English and Theatre at George Fox University. President of GFU’s English Honor Society chapter, she currently assists peers with fiction and nonfiction pieces. She is nearing completion of her debut YA novel.

Things We Never Know

The black and white sign taped to Connor’s bedroom door said GO AWAY. I should have. Should have turned around, walked down to Fleming Lake, sat on the ledge above the cove, figured out a beat, taken out my notebook and written a thousand lines about how everywhere I looked I saw Carly’s eyes and how every voice I heard used words that didn’t sound right because Carly wasn’t saying them and how I didn’t know how I was going to concentrate on anything without her in my life anymore.

She’d texted me right after school: I found the words to one of your raps in my green hoodie. About walking around on the stars. Remember that one?

I didn’t want to text her, like, instantly and look like some desperate jerk. But I did: Forgot about that one. Lame right?

No way. Where are you?

Going to my cousin Connor’s. My aunt begged me.

You mean weird Connor? LOL. What’s wrong w him now?

Depressed I guess.

I almost added, “Who isn’t?” I could never decide if I wanted Carly to know how much it was killing me to not be with her or if I wanted her to think I didn’t care.

A second later she texted me back: Who isn’t?

Okay, so she didn’t want to go out with me anymore, and she could never tell me why exactly—all she’d say is she needed to find out what she really wanted—but she texted me every day.

I stood in front of Connor’s door wanting so bad to be down at the cove figuring out a beat that would pound the world like a hammer and rhymes that burned the skin off every ugly thing I saw. Instead I knocked.

I waited until I heard a grunt, took a deep breath, went in. The room reeked of weed. My brain felt swishy just breathing.

I waited until I heard a grunt, took a deep breath, went in. The room reeked of weed. My brain felt swishy just breathing. Connor sat slouched in his ratty easy chair—the one he wouldn’t let Aunt Judy throw out—wearing plaid boxers and nothing else. Man, he looked skinny—like third world starving skinny—and pale, and his mop of dark brown hair looked like tornado damage. The little TV in the corner was on, sound off, some cartoon, and the laptop was open on the desk to YouTube. Manga, I think. Books and magazines were strewn all over the place: books about science and serial murderers and wars; graphic novels; all sorts of technology magazines. Connor had been a crazy reader since he was, like, three. “Our little Einstein!” all the uncles and aunts always called him, my parents included. “He’ll do great things when he grows up!”

I used to think, what if he gets hit by a bus when he’s twelve? What if he blows himself up making a bomb?

“Hey, cuz. Long time. Here to watch me kill myself?”

It took me a second to notice the compact, silver-bladed bowie knife in his right hand. He was watching himself run the tip of his pointer finger back and forth over the blade. Finally he glanced up, eyes glazed as donuts, and slurred, “Hey, cuz. Long time. Here to watch me kill myself?”

Typical Connor statement. I told him his mom texted me and said she thought he could use some company.

“‘Company.’ That’s actually funny.” He sort of laughed and looked around the room. “Oh, horrors. I have company and the place is such a mess. What must you think of me?”

If I’d told him the truth, he wouldn’t have liked the answer. Actually, he wouldn’t have given a crap. “Why don’t you open the window?” I said. “It stinks in here.”

“’Cause it stinks worse out there.”

“There’s no smell outside. I just came from outside.”

“Never mind.”

I asked him what was up with the knife.

“Pay attention, dude.” He waved his hand. “Shut the door. Come here and feel how fuckin’ sharp this blade is.”

Another time we were in the woods behind my house, and out of the blue he decides to light his hair on fire.

“I believe you,” I said. I did close the door but I stayed where I was. With Connor you were smart to have some kind of plan, some kind of escape route, just in case. Anything could happen. You could be walking down the street with him, say, and all of the sudden he could decide to pick up a brick and throw it into the side of somebody’s Lexus. That happened once. Another time we were in the woods behind my house, and out of the blue he decides to light his hair on fire. Would’ve let it burn, too—it was flaming up. I had to pull him down and slap the fire out with my hands. Got burned pretty bad, but not as bad as he did. For six months his head was covered in these scaly, gross-looking blisters. At least I thought they were gross; he thought they looked sick. Said he hoped they never healed.

Aunt Judy and my mom are sisters. Pretty close. So when we were kids, Connor and I hung out a lot. Back then it was okay, sort of. He was already strange and moody and “impulsive,” but not as much. But by the time we were teenagers I’d gotten tired of always feeling nervous around him. Plus, I was into my own stuff. Music, poetry. Carly. I mostly saw Connor on holidays or so-called “special” occasions.

Aunt Judy’s text made me feel like if I didn’t go I’d be letting her down. I have a weird thing about letting people down. If I do, the guilt kills me. Blaise, please please please come keep Connor company. He’s in the dumps. You’ve got such a good head on your shoulders, and the two of you used to be such good buddy-cousins.

“Buddy-cousins” was some tag one of the adults put on us—I think it was Connor’s father, Uncle Ritchie, who Connor calls “the Bastard.” He’s a college professor and a writer. He published this book about how he cheated on Aunt Judy with like twenty different women and got away with it for ten years. When it came out it made him semi-famous, at least for a few months, especially after he was interviewed on the radio by Howard Stern, who thought the whole thing was hysterical. Stern kept calling Aunt Judy a moron. How could she not know, the moron? How blind can a person be? Anyway, now Aunt Judy was divorcing Uncle Ritchie and everybody in the family hated his guts, Connor most of all. Except Connor always had problems with him, even years before the stupid book came out. Maybe he suspected his dad was a lying cheating bastard even when he was little. I mean, he was a born genius, right?

Not that we talked about our parents. We almost never did.

So I asked him if he felt like walking down to DQ. Aunt Judy’s idea: get him out of his room, get him some fresh air. “I feel like a Blizzard,” I said.

He looked up from the knife, his green/gray eyes all bloodshot and out of focus. “You look more like a McFlurry to me. No, make that a McBlurry.”

I laughed. A little. Couldn’t help it. Connor could be funny sometimes. A little. Funny, weird, super smart. Smart enough to get into The Ward School, which was this our-shit-don’t-stink private school on the north side of town. Everybody in the family made a huge deal about him getting in. “That kid is going to make a name for himself!” Sometimes I wonder if they went overboard because he was so weird and wild that they needed to convince themselves he’d do something worthwhile with his life.

Of course my parents wanted me to go to Ward, too, except I didn’t “qualify.” The day we got the rejection letter my dad told me, “Don’t sweat it, you’ll thrive at Kennedy,” and my mom nodded, but I could tell they were disappointed. No matter what people say, I always know when I let them down. My parents, teachers. Carly. It’s a gift I have.

So, yeah, Connor was smart, but in this whacked-out, who-knew-what-the-hell-he-was-thinking way. He’d say things that sounded brilliant but that didn’t make sense, at least to me. (Example: “I’d rather be a particle than a wave. More covert. Plus a particle can be in two places at once, a wave can’t.”) He was smart in the way that he could ace any test he wanted to but usually he didn’t care enough to want to. Most of us were freaking out about our scores on the SATs—were they going to be good enough to get us into a half-decent college? Would our parents be pissed off because we were only “average” or whatever? But Connor could get any score he wanted. Didn’t have to study or pay some nerd to come over and practice with him like a lot of us did.

It’s like he was certain that there was all this bullshit in the world underneath the skin of the regular stuff like banks and schools and cars and TV shows and malls and smartphones and everything else.

There was another way he was smart, too, but it’s harder to describe. It’s like he was certain that there was all this bullshit in the world underneath the skin of the regular stuff like banks and schools and cars and TV shows and malls and smartphones and everything else. Except he wasn’t able to pretend he didn’t know it like most smart people do, so he was always pissed off because basically he felt like everything was a big lie but nobody would admit it.

To me, the surface was where the bullshit was, and it was easy to see, but if you went deeper down you’d find the good stuff. The real purpose of things. The pureness of things. My problem is I’ve never been any good at explaining myself. I could explain things in school, like how electricity works or why a heart eventually stops pumping or what the theme of some classic novel is (usually death), but I couldn’t explain the important stuff. The under-the-surface stuff. Maybe that’s why I like to write raps. It’s how I get at things.

Sometimes I think rap saves my life.

I said to Connor, “Maybe I don’t look like a Blizzard, but I feel like one. Want to go or what?”

“What’s a Blizzard feel like? Always wondered.” His eyes were practically melting out of their sockets.

I shrugged, played along. “Cold. Sweet.”

“Not quite an oxymoron,” he said. “So, what, Judy texted you to come over and save me from hurting myself? Like you could even do that.” (Connor called his mother Judy.)

“She just wanted me to hang with you for a while.”

“Did you bring a noose?”

“Ha.”

“Actually, I don’t like the idea of my eyes getting pushed out of my head. I’ll slit my wrist. Or my throat. Guess I could drown myself in Fleming Lake. Never liked guns. Never liked the sound.”

Classic Connor. He loved to make you feel uncomfortable, see how you’d react to some outrageous thing he said or did. It always seemed like he was trying to see how much he could get away with, you know, how far he could go. Which was probably why he never had many friends. He’d hang out with one kid for a while, then the kid would be out of his life and there’d be some other kid hanging out with him. Then that kid would be gone. Big surprise, right? Who could take somebody like Connor for long?

I had some friends—Sully, Dave Cappella, Greg O—except when I started going out with Carly I pretty much stopped hanging out with them. I went out with her for a year and two and half months. After we broke up, those guys didn’t want anything to do with me. Guess they thought I dissed them. What the hell though? I had this awesome girlfriend, man. If any of them ever had a girlfriend like Carly they’d have done the same thing.

Actually, even Connor had had a girlfriend for a couple months. This intense emo chick who called herself Mary Magdalene. But she moved away, like, the day after freshman year ended. I don’t think she told him until the night before she left. I used to ask him about her, but he didn’t want to talk. At all.

“You want ice cream or not?” I said, still standing by the door, hoping he’d say no so I could go write a rap. I mean, I had this urge.

He yawned a wide, snaky yawn. “Maybe. I got pretty bad munchies.”

He climbed out of the chair in super slow motion and walked toward me, knife dangling in his bony fingers.

“You should wear clothes,” I said.

He looked at himself. “Oh, yeah.” He put the knife between his teeth, bent down and picked out a black tee shirt and a pair of jeans off a heap of clothes on the floor.

“You won’t need that knife,” I told him. “I have money.”

He took it out of his mouth, stared at it, turned it this way and that. “Dude, I’m taking this.”

“Why?”

“Because you never know.”

“You never know what?”

“You never know a lot of things. Think about it. Think of all the things you never know. There’s a billion more things you never know than things you do know. We don’t even know the things we’ll never know.”

I wasn’t in the mood for his crap. “At least fold it and stick it in your pocket.”

“Duh. Think I’m stupid?”

I looked at the TV in the corner. Some cartoon character was pounding another character over the head with a gigantic sledgehammer.

As Connor tried to fold the knife it slipped out of his hand, blade first, and just missed stabbing him in the big toe. I picked it up, but as I handed it back I accidentally touched the blade with my pointer finger and, damn, it sliced me. Pretty deep, too. The kind of cut where you don’t feel the sting right away, where it takes the blood and the pain a minute to get to the surface.

“Be ironic if you killed yourself before I did,” Connor said.

“Shut up.” I licked my finger to try to stop the bleeding before it started. “Why the hell do you need a friggin’ knife anyway?”

“Dude, you don’t listen. I might not come back, okay? I’m just waiting for the right moment.” For one second his eyes unblurred. “Don’t tell Judy.”

Connor being dramatic. Connor trying to see how I’d react. I didn’t.

He shoved the knife in his pocket and went over to this dresser and started picking through one of the drawers. He pulled out a couple of expensive-looking gold watches that he probably got from his parents for being a genius, or for not destroying the world. “Which one you think is sweeter?”

I looked at them both and pointed at one at random. But right then an idea hit me. An idea for a beat: ticking. A clock ticking. Tick, tick, tick. I’d rap about how without Carly I could hear every clock in the world ticking. My life was ticking away because I didn’t have her.

Connor shoved the watch into the same pocket as the knife. He said, “Dude, want any of the crap in that drawer? A watch or gold chain or anything? I don’t need it anymore. Never did, actually.”

I told him I didn’t either. I sucked on my finger and tasted blood.

***

This girl Patricia who lived next door to Connor was out on the sidewalk in her wheelchair. For years I’d seen her out there whenever I came over to Connor’s. She was around fifteen now. Special needs. She also had something wrong with her bones. Could hardly control them. There was this big bald spot on the back of her head where she rubbed it against the leather headrest too much. Connor knew all about what was wrong with her. In, like, the actual medical terms. One Christmas afternoon he described her condition to me. For two hours. I didn’t want all the details, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by blowing him off, so I sat there and listened.

Whenever Patricia was outside, her father, who was this thin guy with a caved-in face, sat on the porch reading a book. Her mother was dead for some reason.

“Hey, Petunia.” Connor sounded totally stoned when he walked over to her. The father looked up for a second, then went back to his book.

“Patricia,” the girl drawled. Her head moved all over when she talked. “My name is Patricia, Connor.”

“Not to me it isn’t.”

She made a face. “You smell funny again.”

“Told you that’s the way I smell, Petunia. Seen any crows today?”

“Only one. She was in the gutter. A big fat shiny one. She flew away.”

Connor explained that Petunia loved crows.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Here.” He pulled the knife halfway out of his pocket. He mumbled “Not that,” and took out the watch. “Crows like shiny things like this.”

“Okay,” Patricia said. Connor slipped it on her wrist. It was way too loose, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Bye, Petunia.”

“Patricia.”

“Not to me you aren’t.”

When we walked away Connor said, “She ain’t gonna be around much longer either. They never expected her to live this long.”

What do you mean either? Shut up.

***

We walked three blocks without saying a word. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, early April, kind of cool outside. The sky was blue and the sun was shining, but it wasn’t giving off much heat.

I said, “You like Hip Hop? You listen to rap?”

Connor grunted, “Nah.” I thought maybe he’d like it because it was, in our town anyway, scary to people. Subversive. Way too black, way too inner city. Mortonberg was mostly white, with some Asian families mixed in and a handful of blacks. Super conservative. The sign on Route 333 as you drove into town said: Mortonberg, Where Family Still Matters.

“Aren’t there any rappers you like?” I pushed.

He made a face like it was going to take this huge effort to answer the question. “I used to,” he said. “Tupak. Beastie Boys. Jay-Z. I don’t know. I stopped listening.”

“I like those guys, too,” I said. “I like Eminem best.”

“Should’ve pulled a reverse Michael Jackson and turned his skin black. For cred, you know?”

“Why? Why can’t he be white and rap? He’s friggin’ great. What’s the big deal that he’s white? You can’t be white and be a legit rapper?”

“Yo, dude, chill,” Connor said. “I don’t give a crap if he’s purple.”

“Michael Jackson was confused.”

“So who isn’t?” Connor said. “You’re either confused or you’re dead.”

I looked across the street, into the trees, down at my Nikes. “I write raps sometimes. I ever tell you that?”

“No.”

“Maybe I’ll play one for you sometime. I recorded a few of them on Garage Band. I’m thinking I might put them on Facebook when I get them just the way I want them.”

“I don’t listen to music anymore,” Connor said. “I don’t listen to anything. Actually, I do. I listen to nothing.” He hawked a wad of spit into the curb. “You should try it. Pure nothing. It’s the only thing that makes any fucking sense.”

“But don’t you think music helps?” I felt like my voice was plowing up through gravel. “Like, helps you get through things? It helps me, man.” I wanted to say that it helped me deal with the whole Carly thing, but so far nothing helped with that. “Like…take all this SAT crap? All this ‘where-you-going-to-college’ and ‘What are you going to major in?’ crap. I totally tune it out when I’m into my music.”

“Music’s irrelevant to me.”

I swear I didn’t get that. That made no sense. None. It made me feel like Connor wasn’t even human any more.

***

My phone beeped.

Carly: Bored to death! Studying AP History. Ugh. having fun with mr. sunshine?

Me: No. This sucks.

What I didn’t text: why are you doing this to me?

What she didn’t text back: because I still want you.

***

We came to a place that used to be woods but now was a construction site for some new McMansion. All they had up so far was a foundation and some of the framing. Nobody was working that day.

Connor stopped walking. “Wait here a second, okay, Blaise?” But then he stood there and stared at me like it was this complicated question that I had to really think about before I could answer.

“Okay,” I shrugged. “Got to take a piss?”

Another text: FYI: I’m going to dinner with Walker Livingston Thursday. Not a date! Just friends, swear to god! :-)

Fuck.” I punched my cell phone. “Fuck you, Carly.”

Connor shook his head and smirked. “That chick still playing you, dude?”

“You don’t know anything about it, man,” I barked at him. “So just shut up, okay? What the hell do you want from me anyway? What do you want from me?”

“Nothing, dude. I don’t want anything from you.”

“Then go take your piss so we can get this over with, okay? I got somewhere to be.”

“Okay, cool.” He turned, stuck his hand in his pocket. He walked over a bunch of ruts in the ground, past a small bulldozer and a stack of two by fours, and disappeared behind the foundation.

I thought about sending Carly a text but I had no idea what to say. So I started making up a rhyme:

Don’t know what to do, don’t know what to say
My whole fuckin life is tick, tick, ticking away
Blue sky turning gray
Wish my parents taught me how to pray
They don’t know shit anyway
Nobody knows nothing, not today,
Nobody has nothing worthwhile to say
Carly, girl, why didn’t you stay?

Lame. Then, shit, fist-to-the-gut: what’s he doing back there so long? I screamed his name and my voice came out like this wild caw.

I ran, found him sprawled in the red/brown mud, his head leaning against the foundation, his eyes closed.

“Connor. No. No, Connor.”

His eyes blinked opened. They looked like they were covered in red cellophane. That’s when I smelled the stink of weed and saw the ghost smoke dissolving around him. His eyes clicked over me like he was processing who I was. He smiled this weird, weak, broken smile. “Dude, you’re all upset.”

“What the hell do you expect? What…”

“Like I said, you never know. It could happen just like that. Gonna happen just like that. Except, don’t worry, you won’t be there.”

“You’re an asshole, Connor.” I thought I was going to cry, so I turned.

“Think I don’t know that?”

The sky was totally blue, but I couldn’t find the sun. Some insane prisoner was beating his fists on the walls of my heart.

Connor picked himself up like he was ninety years old. “Still feel like a Blizzard?”

“No.”

“Good. Let’s go home. I hate DQ.”

***

Patricia was still outside.

“Connor, the crow came back,” she called out, all excited. “She liked the shininess.” She tried to make her arm point toward the gutter, but it pointed into sky instead. Connor’s watch slid up and down her arm as she moved it. “She was so close, Connor.”

“That’s good, Petunia. You know what? It’s good luck when a crow gets close to you.”

“It is? Oh, goody. I had good luck, Connor. Connor, you smell.”

My phone buzzed again. Connor watched me. Go to hell, Carly, I thought. I didn’t mean it but I wished I did. I let it buzz. When it stopped, Connor actually smiled. I turned away.

A crow landed in a tree across the street. I said, “Hey, Petunia. Look over there. There she is again.”

“Where?”

“Right there.” I stretched my arm as far as I could, and she tried to get her head to move in that direction. “There. See?”

But her head wouldn’t let her see it, and she got all agitated, her whole body twitching like she was being electrocuted.

“Wait,” Connor said. “That’s not a crow. That’s an old black hat. See, Blaise? It’s a hat.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. I felt like an idiot. “It’s a hat.”

Petunia calmed right down.

“Dude,” Connor said, “you got somewhere to be, right? Go ahead. I’ll tell Judy you did your duty. Hey, there’s a rhyme for you. Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

“I won’t.”

“Later, cuz.”

But I just stood there like this human knot. Maybe I wanted to apologize, maybe I thought I’d never see him alive again. Everything felt wrong. “Know what,” I sputtered, “Petunia’s lucky to have you around.”

For, like, two seconds, Connor’s eyes closed. I swear he looked five years old. He looked…I don’t know… pure.

Steven Ostrowski is fiction writer and poet who teaches at Central Connecticut State University. He has published stories and poems in numerous literary journals and zines, including Literary OrphansSleetMadison Review, Harpur PalateWisconsin ReveiwRaritan, and many others. He has also published two poetry chapbooks, one from Bright Hill Press and one from Finishing Line Press. “Things We Never Know” derives from the first chapter of a novel-in-progress called The Suicide Walk.

David L. Ulin, Author and Los Angeles Times book critic

Photo: Noah Ulin

No one knows books like David L. Ulin. On any given day, the Los Angeles Times book critic has an assortment of books within his reach, and each one is as different from the others as the hues of the rainbow. From The Best American Short Stories 2012 to Waging Heavy Peace, the meandering memoir by singer-songwriter Neil Young, Ulin’s personal and professional tastes for reading material run the spectrum. He counts iconic author Joan Didion as one of his greatest influences.

“One of the great things about my job at the paper is it’s just a kind of public version of my private reading life,” he said. “I pretty much read what I want and write about it.”

Ulin has also written several of his own books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and The Myth of Solid Ground: The Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, which was named a Best Book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. He has edited three anthologies: Cape Cod Noir, Another City: Writing From Los Angeles, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a 2002 California Book Award.

His most recent book, Labyrinth, is about a middle-aged man, now living in Los Angeles, who travels to San Francisco, his former home, to confront his geographic and social history. He seeks solace at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, where he walks the labyrinth and reflects on who he is, who he was, and the relationships between distance and belonging, memory and identity.

Ulin is also the author of essays and articles that have appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, The New York Times Book Review, LA Weekly, Black Clock, and Columbia Journalism Review. He also published a book of poems, entitled Cape Cod Blues. His essay, “The Half-Birthday of the Apocalypse,” was nominated for the 2004 Pushcart Prize.

Ulin teaches graduate-level writing courses at several Southern California universities, including the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Lunch Ticket editor Wendy Fontaine recently interviewed Ulin.

Wendy Fontaine:  You’re a professional reader and a professional writer. Which do you like better?

I like having written more than I like actually writing. I started as a reader and I became a writer because of how much the books I was reading, and the writers I was reading, meant to me, and how much I wanted to be in their company.

David L. Ulin:  Reading is a lot more fun. I like having written more than I like actually writing. I started as a reader and I became a writer because of how much the books I was reading, and the writers I was reading, meant to me, and how much I wanted to be in their company.

WF:  What’s your typical workday like?

DU:  I don’t have a typical workday, I don’t think. I like to do a lot of different things. It keeps me interested. A typical week would include teaching a couple of classes, reading a couple of books, and writing usually two things for the paper. Generally I write in the morning. I find that’s when my mind is freshest. If I’m really working on something, I’ll be writing by 6, but usually I’m writing by 7 or 7:30. I want the writing time to be as unencumbered as it can be.

WF:  How do you decide what to write about?

DU:  It depends on the project. It takes me a while [to write a book.] Writing even a short book will take me a while, so if I’m going to be engaged in a project, it’s got to be something I want to sit down and wrestle with. It’s got to be a relationship that I want to be in.

WF:  Does the marketplace influence your decisions?

DU: I want the marketplace to like my books, but I have to like my books first. With shorter pieces, it’s a little different. You live with them for a shorter period of time. I’ve been lucky. I really haven’t had to do much work geared for the marketplace.

WF:  Speaking of the marketplace, what are the literary trends coming down the pike, and should we, as writers, even care about the trends?

We do write for readers. That’s part of what the job is. You’re writing to be read. You’re writing to have a connection to the reader, so we need to be aware of the idea of writing as a public act.

DU:  For a writer, trying to pay attention and tailor one’s work to trends—particularly to market trends but even to cultural trends—is kind of a loser’s game in a certain sense. By the time a book comes out, who knows what the trends will be then? It’s sort of like chasing smoke.

We do write for readers. That’s part of what the job is. You’re writing to be read. You’re writing to have a connection to the reader, so we need to be aware of the idea of writing as a public act. But we can never determine who those readers are or how they come to our work. So I think that your best bet is to find the material, the style, the voice, the writing, the story that speaks to you first. It’s only when we write out of that authentic center do we produce work that is going to connect with the reader.

I’m much more interested—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a writer—in trying to find that essential core and trying to create something that will actually speak to someone, beginning with myself.

WF:  Do you think that kind of authenticity is what gives a book or an essay its sticking power?

DU:  Absolutely. That other stuff just doesn’t resonate as deeply. If we’re not trying to express ourselves deeply and directly then we’re wasting our time and we’re wasting readers’ time. I don’t want to say writers should isolate themselves and not worry about the marketplace. You have to worry about the marketplace because you have to survive.

There is always that conversation about author platforms and how to position yourself, and I think that is important for writers to think about. But in terms of trying to market the stuff, or thinking about its marketability, all that can be centered on after the book is finished or after the writing is done. Otherwise it gets in the way.

WF:  When you get to read for pleasure, what do you choose?

DU:  I love hard-boiled detective novels. I read essays, cultural criticism, literary fiction. I read pretty much the same kind of stuff that I read for the paper.

WF:  Is there a book that you’ve read recently that surprised you?

DU: Yes, Neil Young’s memoir. It’s the weirdest rock star autobiography I’ve ever read in my life. It’s authentically Neil Young’s voice, which is good and bad. It’s messy, it’s long…but it’s also kind of weirdly beautiful because it’s so much a representation of him.

WF:  Last June at Antioch University, you spoke about the ethics of nonfiction, specifically about how facts are defined and treated by certain authors, like John D’Agata. (D’Agata wrote an essay in 2002 about the suicide of a Las Vegas teen, having taken liberties with certain details of the story to heighten its literary effect. The fact-checking process for the essay is the subject of D’Agata’s 2012 book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Some say D’Agata’s method deceptively blurs the line between fact and fiction while others say it redefines the parameters of creative nonfiction.)

What are the rules of creative nonfiction, or are there any rules any more?

DU: I don’t really believe in rules, in general. I think there are certain ethics. I’m not a D’Agata apologist, but I think he threw a really interesting bomb into the middle of the room. You don’t need to agree with him, but I like the idea of art and literature as a provocation. One of the things we are supposed to be doing, as readers and as writers, is shaking up our preconceptions, so whenever a writer provokes us into something, I think that’s a good thing.

Nonfiction is an interesting and really complicated territory. You can tell by the way there’s no good way for us to talk about what it is. Fiction is fiction. Poetry, you have a really good sense of what that is. But nonfiction means everything. It’s across the board, and then we subcategorize it as creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction or literary journalism or whatever you want to call it. None are satisfactory umbrella terms for what it is we are trying to do. We start to think that, because we are using the word “nonfiction,” that what we are dealing with in this kind of writing is fact when what we are really dealing with is truth—and they are not always the same. What D’Agata is trying do, though sometimes a little heavy-handedly, is create the space for us to discuss this.

WF:  Books are difficult to write. They take focus, passion and commitment. That said, is it difficult for you, as a critic and as an author, to give a bad review?

DU:  It’s really hard to write a book, even a book that’s a complete disaster. But the critic’s job is to tell the truth about that book as he or she sees it. I can’t do the job if I’m not willing to say this book didn’t work and here’s why. It’s harder now because I have had that same experience [of receiving a bad review]. What I think has changed since I started writing books is that I’m much more aware of the subjectivity of the reviewer.

The ethical requirement of the critic is to be honest from their perspective, to say whether they think a book works or doesn’t work for them. The ethical requirement of the critic is also to be respectful of the process.

WF:  Do authors ever call you afterward and complain?

DU:  Very rarely.

WF: What advice do you have for those of us who are aspiring to be working writers?

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t be a writer. Don’t listen to their negative bullshit. The people who became working writers are the people who didn’t quit.

DU:  Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t be a writer. Don’t listen to their negative bullshit. The people who became working writers are the people who didn’t quit. The lack of perseverance is a guarantee of failure. But if you can’t be dissuaded, then you will be a writer.

WF:  Lunch Ticket is a literary magazine with a special interest in social justice. What social issues do you wish more people cared about?

DU:  My social justice begins close to home. I start with the things that affect the people I care about and then I move from there. The big issues that I’m involved in are issues of gay rights and women’s rights.

The key, to me, is empathy. I think we, as a culture, lack empathy. We are generally selfish and self-focused, and we tend to think of the “other” as “other” instead of being of the same human dynamic. But creating empathy is at the center of our literature, whether it’s for actual people in nonfiction or invented characters in fiction, whether it creates empathy for people who are very different from us in terms of point of view or in terms of culture. How can we not have empathy when we read our way into the life of another human being? That is the social value of art.

Also, empathy cuts both ways. We have to be empathetic toward those who are not empathetic. There has to be a meeting ground in the center, a place where we all share a set of common experiences, and where disagreement is tolerated as long as it’s civil.

WF:  What book should every writer read?

DU:  I don’t know if I can boil it down to one book but to me the essential text is Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Another book I find really, really important is The Confessions of Saint Augustine for precisely these kinds of empathy questions that we were talking about and the idea of empathy stretching across millennia. To read that book, you enter into Augustine’s head. The stuff that he’s wrestling with—questions of meaning, questions of love, questions of experience, questions of fear and mortality—are all the same things we’re dealing with now. Everything has change but nothing has changed.

Placement, or The Sound of Caves

The drumbeat of his brain, a cave dweller sonata; birch branches pounded on scorched log; the curvature of myelin sheaths, the upper elevations of intelligence, the emergence of the bipedal stranger in the dark night gazing at the moon like the flat face of the clock that reads 4:07.That has read 4:07 for the past two hours. Here in the office where he’s been told to wait. To wait for Mr. Sheldon, who never comes. Who may not exist. Who may be a ploy to subvert him. No place to go. No place at all. And he waits on the slimmest of hope. The possibilities wire thin, like the silver lines routing from his ears into some secret location in his pants where he keeps his iPod.

He slouches. In loose clothing looking like a large Hefty someone’s tossed onto a chair and forgotten. He taps his fingers. Eyes are always scanning movement, wary of danger, sharp for survival. If only he could tell the difference.

He twirls the metal stem of a paperclip in his mouth. Eyes focus in on the doorway. Ms. Ginger’s voice comes around the corner. He groans to attract her attention. She stops at the opening. Files piled on an arm. Car keys bunched in hand. “J.?” She looks surprised. “Doing all right?”

He removes the metal from his mouth and works it back into his ear. “When is my court date?”

“Who’s your worker?”

“Mr. Sheldon.”

“You have to ask him.”

“He said you could tell me when my court date was.”

“I’m not your worker any more. You have to ask him.”

“He took off.”

“You’ll have to wait.”

“Why do I have to be here? I’m bored.”

She motions, come, come with me. He offers to take files, but she declines. She angles around the corner with J. straggling along. A large marker board on the wall is divided into sections. The names of the workers in the foster care unit are written in green, the gridlines dividing the names are red, and the magnetic dots beneath IN and OUT are black.

“Where’s Mr. Sheldon’s name?” J. asks.

Ms. Ginger stares at the board. Dentist occupies her destination column. She erases the word and checks her box IN. “I’m not sure,” she says. “He must not’ve put his name up yet. It should be there.”

Others who are IN are really OUT and vice versa. J. smiles when seeing Ms. Upton’s name. Her dot is between IN and OUT. He feels hopeful when he sees the dot is more IN than OUT. She could help him find Mr. Sheldon. Or maybe a place herself.

Ms. Ginger asks the receptionist if she knows where Mr. Sheldon has gone. She says he had court in the morning and then errands to run and then home visits afterward.

“Did he say when he’ll be back?”

She sneaks a look at the open magazine flat on her desk and shakes her head. “He didn’t say.” Ms. Ginger looms over. The receptionist lifts her eyes. “Do you want me to page him?”

J. stares at the marker board. He rubs out the k from Martha Penesk.

“If you don’t mind.”

While the receptionist is brightly mumbling, “Not at all,” Ms. Ginger turns to J. and motions, calm down. “You’ll have to wait here till Mr. Sheldon comes back.”

“Can’t I come with you?”

“Got things to do. You’ll have to wait.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Mr. Sheldon’ll get lunch when we find him. Go back to the office and wait.”

“But what if you can’t find him?”

“Go back and wait.”

“Did he tell you what happened at the foster home? Do you know why I can’t go back? Mr. Wert was cool. Think I can go back? What do you think? About going to Mr. Wert?”

“I have to go. Wait for Mr. Sheldon. He’ll deal with it.”

“What about lunch?”

J. stretches out on a chair in the empty office. Feet propped on boxes that fill the room. Some boxes hold diapers foster care workers take to families. Some contain child restraint seats. Toys overflow others.

J. stretches out on a chair in the empty office. Feet propped on boxes that fill the room. Some boxes hold diapers foster care workers take to families. Some contain child restraint seats. Toys overflow others.

“Why aren’t you in school, buster?”

J. removes the ear-buds and twists onto his hip and stares up the double chin of Ms. Sandy. “Have you come to get me?”

Children roost on her hips. Elephantine legs lunge from green shorts. “Where’d you get a fool idea like that?”

J. spins around. Feet drop on the floor. “They won’t let me stay anywhere, unless you take me, you could tell them.”

One of the children raises a runner of hair and peers into a globular ear. She sputters like a blown tire. “Oh, don’t give me that.”

“Go ask if you don’t believe me.” He boxes himself forward, dangling wires around his neck. “You could do it.”

“Give me a hug.” Her voice booms. The children fall from her hips like paratroopers. She sweeps forward and smothers him. He falls on her, face moonwalking on her breasts.

“Who’s your worker?” she says. “Mr. Franks?”

She wedges a hand, creates space.

“No. Mr. Franks was last year. Then Ms. Burns and then Ms. Upton, and then I think

Ms. Hollis after that and then Ms. Ginger and—Mr. Sheldon’s my worker now. Have you seen him? He was supposed to find a placement for me. I want some lunch, too. You got anything to eat?”

The children hide behind her legs. Pink hands are over knee knots. “I wish I could take you in, honey,” she says. “I’m full now. Anyway I thought you were with—what’s that man’s name?”

“Mr. Wert.”

“What’re you doing here?”

“I want to go back and live with him. But they won’t let me. Will you tell them for me, talk to someone?”

“What happened?”

“I ran away.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“I wanted a cigarette.”

“Honey, you have to do better.” She scoops up the children and backs like a truck into the hallway.

“Hey, don’t go. Will you look at something? I drew some stuff.”

“I’ll look next time.”

“Tell them I’m hungry, OK? Come back and see me when you’re done?”

“Sure, honey. I’ll see you soon.”

The child on the left strokes Ms. Sandy’s face as if it’s a balloon. She wheels around and disappears.

J. wanders into a counselor’s windowless office; navigates a passage between the sled-based guest chairs; beneath bleary slim-line lamps. He plays with small cartoon characters standing on a shelf filled with glossy textbooks. Lavender and baby powder float in the air. He spies on the desk a picture of Ms. Upton. Three beaming children surround her on a jungle gym. He eases open a cabinet and thumbs through files. He goofballs at himself in the wall mirror.

“What’re you doing in here?” Ms. Upton drops heavy files on the desk.

“Looking in the mirror.”

“You aren’t supposed to be in here.”

“Your mirror’s dirty. All covered with dust.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “No one looks in it. Where should you be?”

“Water and paper towels clean pretty good. Want me to get some?”

Ms. Upton closes the file drawer. “What were you doing in my files?”

“Looking for mine.”

“You aren’t supposed to be in here looking for anything.”

J. smiles and sinks into a guest chair. “Remember when we went to Disney together?” His hands slide up and down the molded oak frame. “A long time ago? Remember? And we had a good time?”

She crosses her arms, stares down at him. “I don’t know who you are.”

She scans the room, appears to itemize office details. She crosses behind the desk and rearranges the cartoon characters.

“You were my caseworker for over a year,” he says. “Com’on. You know who I am.”

She shakes her head. “I’m certain I don’t. I have hundreds of cases every year. I don’t remember anything unless the case file is open on my desk and I’m looking right at it. And even then I’m distracted by other things I need to do. You need to leave this office. Now.”

The receptionist brings pizza on a paper plate. Three slices curl like lava over the sides. She hands the plate to J. and sets a soda on the desk. She asks if it’s enough.

“I’m good,” he says and eats quickly.

She’s barely gone when he runs to the doorway. “Can I get another soda?”

“In a bit.” She’s shrinking toward an exit sign.

“Mr. Sheldon call?”

She shakes her head without looking back.

He steps into the hall and then around the corner. Posters stapled every few feet down the corridor. He pokes the large eyes of the child on one that reads, “I’M NOT A BURDEN. I’M A CHILD.”

J. opens his eyes. 4:07. He rubs the cuticle he took too much skin from earlier. He removes ear-buds and puts them in his pocket and stands. Turning one way and then the other like a goldfish in a bowl, he floats across the confines of the office. He steps into the hall and then around the corner. Posters stapled every few feet down the corridor. He pokes the large eyes of the child on one that reads, “I’M NOT A BURDEN. I’M A CHILD.” Workers glance as he passes their doorways. A gray-haired woman facing a computer screen.

“Ms. Tern?”

The woman spins in her chair. “J.,” she says and smiles. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m waiting for Mr. Sheldon. I can’t find him. He’s supposed to find me a placement.”

“Did you ask the receptionist?”

“She says she called him but that was hours ago. Can I sit here a minute?”

She wears a black sweater that makes her look small and deformed. A faint citrus odor wafts from her skin. “Of course. What happened with the Werts?”

J. arranges pens on her desk, sorts them by color and then by length. “They wouldn’t let me go with my sister.”

“You ran away, didn’t you?”

“Who told you that?”

Ms. Tern clasps her hands. “I know everything about you, J.”

J. laughs. “Like a guardian angel.”

“Like an adoptions worker,” she says and taps an index finger on the desk, an indication for him to put the paper he’s just lifted back down. Then she says, “You have to help yourself, J. Remember the Bobbles?”

“My forever family in Naples.”

“That’s right. You were there six months before you blew placement.”

Randy Bobbles was an engineer for a company that contracted with the military. His wife stayed at home and cared for their three-year-old daughter. They had a Manx. They lived in a gated community.

“I didn’t kill the cat,” J. says

“J.,” she says, narrowing an eyebrow, a tone like pulling teeth.

“I get blamed for everything, Ms. Tern,” he says. “That’s why no one wants me.”

“And what happened to the Flextowers’ dog? Nothing to do with that?”

J. shakes his head, shoulder to shoulder. “I can’t remember. He was hit by a car or something.”

Ms. Tern eases back into her chair. The AC grumbles and blows dusty streams of air over their faces. “The dog’s head was crushed. You know something about it.”

His lip curves a little. Then his face assumes a pale mannequin expression. “I can’t remember.”

Ms. Tern folds her arms. “The Flextowers really wanted you, J. They were crushed. You didn’t give them a chance.”

“They had too many rules,” he says. He removes the paperclip from his ear. “And their dog was mean.”

“J., it’s no canyon jump.” Her lips are like orange slices in a baking sun. “No one’s trying to hurt you anymore. Stop fighting.”

J. reinserts the paperclip. His head toddles and a grin forms. “I won’t do that when I find Mr. Sheldon. You’ll see.”

“He may not show up.”

J. sticks his hand up. Air from the vent blows cold over his skin. “Mr. Wert would let me come back. He trusts me.”

How’d he get here? J. lived with the Werts for nearly eight months, the longest placement he’d kept since entering foster care. Ms. Ginger was his worker but she was replaced halfway through by Mr. Sheldon who never came to visit. Very few visited the rural location. The Werts lived in a trailer slowly being converted into a house. Walls were cut, rooms added to accommodate more boys. Four others lived there with J. Half the roof was topped with shingles, the rest with tin. The side of the hill caused the floors to slant. A portion of their land was swamp, feeding a large lake, around which stood several homes.

He lived fine there. Fishing from the shore; exploring the swamp; shooting bottle rockets over the lake; taking an ax to a tree just to watch it come apart; hauling wood for bonfires. He fought with the other boys, but Mr. Wert set things to right, holding them to the wall and threatening to beat the shit out of them if they ever went at it again.

One day J. received a call from his sister in Idaho. The last time they lived together was with their mother and step-father in a trailer with a large hole in the bathroom floor.

“It is so good to hear from you,” she said for the third time.

“You should come here and get me,” he said. “There’s a lake and everything. You could live here.”

“I wish I could see you.”

“They won’t mind. There’s an empty room.”

“Maybe you can come here, you know, when you turn eighteen.”

“Maybe now, maybe you could send a ticket.”

“We have snow.”

“I can get them to pay for it. When can you come?”

“It’s almost time for me to go to work. I love you, J. Call me again, OK?”

“But I can come there, right?”

“Of course,” she said. “Sure. Let’s talk about it next time, OK? Got to go.”

His “love you” died against the device. He folded the phone. He found Mr. Wert in the kitchen. “My sister says she wants me to visit.”

Mr. Wert popped the microwave oven door. “That’s great. Tell the boys to get in the truck.”

“I’ll be staying in Idaho.”

He set the plate on the counter. “Right now we’re going to the market. Get ready.”

“Where’s Idaho?”

Mr. Wert closed his lips over an apple pastry, consuming it in three chomps.

J. leaned against the jamb. “Near Arkansas?”

Bustling up, Mr. Wert bellowed. “Ya’ll come on. We’re going for some fish.”

Five boys piled into the truck bed.

Coming back from the market, Mr. Wert saw Mr. Simmel closing the hardware store for the night and swerved the truck filled with boys and fish into the sandy parking lot and jumped out. “You said one twenty five.”

“That machine’s worth two twenty five and that’s what I told the wife.”

“That ain’t what she said. Now I give the money and I want the machine.”

“Until I see two twenty five it stays in the store.”

During the scuffle J. lifted fifty dollars from an envelope in the cab of the truck and ran for the bus station. Past yellow painted curbs, up concrete steps protected by slick red guardrails, and over the crosswalk to the park. He watched under cover of fat hornbeams. Someone whistled, and cowboys hollered across the street. His hand covered wet knees, panting out full dreams. Idaho near Arkansas dreams mashing his skull. Not long at all now. Dizzy elation down to tingling fingers clutching green bills. He saw the tumbleweed brick building, and figured out his lines, calm exposition. Sure speech. Feet burning like hot crayons. Moving across the lawn; carrying him inside.

An hour later a deputy arrested him and he spent the night in detention. Ms. Burns picked him up in the morning.

“You’re not my worker,” J. said.

“Mr. Sheldon had things to do,” she said. “You’ve blown placement. He’ll be back later and find you a place to stay.”

“Can’t I go back to Mr. Wert?”

“No.”

“I’ll apologize.”

“Mr. Wert said under no circumstance. He can’t abide a thief. That’s what he said.”

J. saw the black Hefty in the back seat. “You got my iPod?”

“Everything,” Ms. Burns said. “All of your clothes and your iPod. Sit back and relax. It’s a long drive.”

She found a vacant office and left him there. When he glanced at the clock it read 4:07.

Ms. Tern walks J. to the staff kitchen and buys him a soft drink. He tries out a lounger, feels his way over the cool vinyl. “Can I sit here a bit?” he says. She nods. “You’ll tell me if you see Mr. Sheldon, OK?” She pulls the loose ends of her sweater together and nods again. He sinks into the cushion. Ear-buds empty Butthole Surfers into Heschl’s gyrus. He examines the ends of his sneakers down long stretched legs. Gray matter climbing over the white rubber toes of his Chucks. He works on the cuticle. A smile spreads. His chest heaves with soft laughter. Mr. Sheldon is just like me: a real good joke. They probably made him up while figuring out what to do. He’s not on the board. Not on the phone. Can’t find him nowhere: a real good joke. Forty minutes later Ms. Tern comes in. A crushed soda can rests by his feet. He rises quickly. “Bet you haven’t found him.”

“I really haven’t looked, J.”

“I don’t think he’s coming.”

She sits and crosses her legs. “Court can take hours. Some other child might need immediate attention. Traffic. A hundred other reasons he’s running late. He hasn’t forgotten you, J. He’ll be here.”

“No, he forgot me,” J. says. “He went home or something and forgot me. He could call. At least he could do that. He could call and tell me where I’m staying tonight. I’d be better off with my sister. I’m hungry. Do you have anything to eat?”

“I’ll check on food before I leave,” she says, rising.

He stares at the leather bag on her arm.

“Who’s staying with me? Are you staying? I thought you were staying.”

“Ms. Burns and Ms. Penesk are working late. I have families to see. I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

People trickle out of the building and cleaning crews empty the trash and mop the floors and pick up the crumpled can. Ms. Penesk brings J. half a sandwich she’d ordered at lunch but couldn’t finish. He chews the brown bread and listens, hooking to every footfall, every door swing, every sucking vacuum, every buffer rotation, every emptied plastic container. There’s swish of fabric. He rushes to the doorway. Frowns as housekeepers in union blue pass by with gray trash bins sporting push brooms and dusters raised high. Waving like battlefield colors. The ingredients soak into the bread, damp and cold on his teeth. The kitchen is quiet. A noise startles him. The AC blows overhead. Then he sees past it; past the chrome fixtures; past the laminates and particle board. The eerie drainage of time on the savannah. The sound of caves just before black blooded meat is dragged inside. A cerebral cortex smell rising from the crusty midden. The brooding silhouette of loneliness on a distant hill. A deep terrifying breath. There’s J. running over the field. A despairing rabbit with no hole to drop into.

D. E. Lee’s work appears or is forthcoming in Emerald Coast Review, Alligator Juniper, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Broad River Review, Mixed Fruit, and Prick of the Spindle

Tales of Corruption

MY FIRST TIME.

Wouldn’t it be great if I remembered the first bribe I ever gave? I’d love to shine a light on its romantic aspect, the shameful complicity between the briber and the bribed, the shy smiles exchanged. Maybe I’d write something like, It was a first kiss: loss of innocence paired with the excitement of getting away with something. Unfortunately, I don’t remember my first time even vaguely. It came and went as naturally as the first time I used deodorant or drank a beer.

EXTRA, EXTRA.

In “The Sun, the Moon and Walmart,” Homero Aridjis writes, “A child in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, El que no transa no avanza—loosely, You’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t cheat.”

Published as an op-ed in The New York Times (April 30, 2012), “The Sun, the Moon and Walmart” immediately struck me as a rare specimen not because of the severe indictment with which it begins, but because we Mexicans—who love trashing Mexico while in Mexico—rarely speak a word of criticism about our Mexiquito lindo to foreigners, let alone gringos. Aridjis goes on to tell tales of once being asked for a bribe by a teacher and years later being offered one by a government official.

WHEN IN ROME.

a scandal had popped up in the news recently about Walmart having paid more than $20 million in bribes in Mexico to get permits for their stores, so corruption in Mexico was—momentarily, because Americans were involved—news.

Corruption in Mexico is as surprising as kidnappings or the national soccer team losing in the last minute. Why would the Times publish a piece on the obvious? Well, a scandal had popped up in the news recently about Walmart having paid more than $20 million in bribes in Mexico to get permits for their stores, so corruption in Mexico was—momentarily, because Americans were involved—news. People were talking about it. Aridjis’s argument was that Mexicans can’t be outraged at Walmart for taking advantage of our corrupt system. “According to a recent study,” writes Aridjis, “companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.”

INTRO TO BRIBES.

If a Mexican tells you they’ve never bribed someone, they’re lying. Bribing, in Mexico, is part of The System. Dealing with the Mexican government means dealing with poorly paid bureaucrats with no accountability who will do anything for an extra peso. A lot of the times the bureaucrat you’re dealing with has to move a certain amount of money up to his boss in order to keep his job. Guess where that money’s coming from. I remember once reading somewhere that police officers, who earned a little over a couple of hundred dollars a month, had to “rent” their guns and bulletproof vests from their superiors. I remember an architect complaining to me a few years ago that since the Left had taken over Mexico City the bribes had more than doubled for people in the construction business. I could go on and on. And I will.

IT MIGHT’VE BEEN A STUFFED FROG.

I do remember the most expensive bribe I’ve given. I was still a teenager, driving to my girlfriend’s house one night with some sort of a tacky gift in the trunk of the car. Let’s say it was a stuffed something or other. I ran a red light and immediately heard the siren. “Pull over,” said the bullhorn.

I was a weak and frightful—frankly, childish—teenager. Cops scared the shit out of me.

I plucked my driver’s license from my wallet as the officer’s belly stared at the side of my head. A knot formed in my stomach: the face of Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martínez was smiling at me like the reflection from a tiny, distorted mirror. A few weeks earlier, thinking it would be something amusing to show people, I’d cut out a little headshot of the Dominican All-Star from Sports Illustrated and taped it over my own picture on the upper left hand corner of the license. I liked to look at it every now and again: Pedro’s face with my name next to it. (Unfortunately, I’m sad to report, I seemed to be the only person who found the switcheroo amusing.)

I was a weak and frightful—frankly, childish—teenager. Cops scared the shit out of me.

“Wait a second, please,” I said to the officer. Then I proceeded to carefully unpeel Pedro’s face from mine. I handed him the license. After looking at it for a second, the cop said:

“Watcha got in that hand?”

“What? This?” I responded, holding up the little headshot as innocently as possible.

The cop took the picture from my hand and carefully covered my own headshot with it. He shook his head.

In order to get as much money from you as possible, I learned with experience, Mexican
cops try to convince you that you’re in way more trouble than you actually are. For example, say you run a red light and the fine for running a red light is $10. The policeman will tell you that the fine is $50 and that you have to pay it personally in an office on the other side of town and that, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but with this new rule they came up with to stop people from running red lights, you’ll probably get your license suspended, so why don’t you just give him $35? This officer told me that I’d defiled my official government identification and that it was, of course, a big deal. Millions or billions (possibly trillions) of pesos of fines were headed my way.

“But officer,” I said, “it was only a joke.”

“Please step out of the car.”

I did.

“Open the trunk,” he said.

I did.

He stared at a colorful little paper bag with a gift-wrapped something or other sticking out.

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to my girlfriend’s house,” I said in a shaky voice. “It’s a gift for her.”

The second officer appeared. “What’s that?”

“Says it’s a gift for his girlfriend.”

Then Officer #1 showed Officer #2 how I’d sullied my sacrosanct driver’s license and Officer #2 shook his head. He knew the drill. Said something like, “Oh boy. Tsk, tsk. This is bad.”

They asked me for money. I told them I didn’t have much cash.

“So you want to go to the Public Ministry?” said Officer #2.1 “Find out what the judge has to say about your little joke?” (I’ve been threatened with seeing “the judge” dozens of times, but I’ve never actually come across him.)

“No, officer, please. It’s just that I only have two hundred pesos.”2

“Well,” said Officer #1, “I noticed you had a couple of cards in your wallet.”

Long story short, Officer #1 gets in the passenger seat of my car and we follow Officer #2 to an ATM. Officer #1 goes into the ATM with me. I withdraw 2,500 pesos. I hand him the money. Then I ask him for directions to my girlfriend’s house.

WALMEX: A BRIEF TIMELINE.3

The practice of an employer paying its employees with vouchers only accepted by the employer hits a special nerve with Mexicans, since it used to be common during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Walmart paired up with Mexican magnate Jerónimo Arango in the early 90s. In 1997, Walmart bought 51% of Arango’s Cifra and renamed it Walmart de México. Controversy then erupted when, in 2004, Walmart built a 71,900-square-foot store next to the archeological site of Teotihuacan (north of Mexico City), on what was thought to be protected land.4 The alleged bribes doled out by Walmart to Mexican officials—of which we know, thanks to a 2012 Times article—happened in 2005. Then, in 2008, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Walmart could not continue to pay part of its employees’ salaries in vouchers that could only be redeemed in Walmart stores. (The practice of an employer paying its employees with vouchers only accepted by the employer hits a special nerve with Mexicans, since it used to be common during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz.) According to Enrique Bonilla, the leader of something called the National Front Against Walmart, Walmart México pays 1.60 pesos in taxes for every 100 pesos of sales. In the first trimester of 2012, Walmart México reported utilities of 4,710,000,000 pesos (roughly 339,590,000 dollars). Currently, Walmart operates more than 2,000 stores and restaurants in Mexico.

MORDELÓN.

The slang term for a bribe in Mexico City is “mordida,” literally meaning “bite.” As in:

“I got stopped by the police for speeding.”

“Did they give you a ticket?”5

“Nah, I gave him a bite.”

That’s how Mexico City traffic cops earned the nickname “mordelones,” “biters.”

“I got pulled over by a biter.”

EN LA VERDAD HAY VICTORIA.

Of course Pedro Martínez was a phenomenal baseball superstar. The Dominican Republic (pop. ~9.5 million) basically exists to provide Major League Baseball with great players. Twenty-eight of the MLB’s 30 teams have “academies” in the DR. The DR supplies more players to the majors (103 in 2012) than any other country outside the U.S.6 (It reminds me of that city Henry Ford tried to build in the Amazon to provide him with an unlimited supply of rubber for his cars.) Every Dominican kid wants to go to the majors. Can you blame them? The DR’s per capita GDP in 2011 was $9,286;7 In his 16 seasons in the MLB, Pedro Martínez earned on average over $9 million a year. The reward for catching the eye of a big league team is being, literally, a thousand times richer than your average compatriot.

When the stakes are so high and there’s so much money involved, there’s going to be corruption. A common practice for Dominican aspiring MLBers is to lie about their age. There was, for example, Roberto Hernández Heredia, a pitcher who played for the Cleveland Indians as Fausto Carmona. When the Indians signed Roberto/Fausto they thought he was 17 when he was actually 20. He was caught and arrested. Now he travels up and down the DR talking to kids about his “mistakes” and at the end of the talks he hands them t-shirts that read In Truth, There is Triumph.

WHY I HAVE TO LIE.

Cheating worked for Dominican infielder Miguel Tejada. He played 15 seasons in the majors and earned over $95 million in salaries.8 In 2008, while Tejada played for Houston, an ESPN reporter pulled an ambush interview on him:9

ESPN: How old are you?

MT: Thirty-two.

ESPN: Born in?

MT: Dominican Republic.

ESPN: In which year?

MT: Seventy-six.

ESPN: You sure?

MT: Why I have to lie?

ESPN: We acquired the…birth certificate that your father filed when you were a boy and…I want you to explain this to me, OK?

MT: [Holding the document. Confused.] What is that?

ESPN: This is a birth certificate. Your birth certificate, right?

MT: Who give you that?

Tejada, whose last name was originally Tejeda, walked out of the interview. The documents revealed that he was not born in 1976 as he claimed, but in 1974.

AUTHORITY MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS FOR DIFFERENT PEOPLE.

I once read somewhere that authoritarian regimes breed rule breakers. While citizens of countries with democratic governments know that rules are there for a reason, people who’ve suffered dictatorial governments think that rules are absurd tricks designed to fuck them over.

I once read somewhere that authoritarian regimes breed rule breakers. While citizens of countries with democratic governments know that rules are there for a reason, people who’ve suffered dictatorial governments think that rules are absurd tricks designed to fuck them over. (Think of your craziest high school friends. Weren’t they the ones with the most authoritarian parents?) Mexico hasn’t had a dictatorship proper in a long time, but we Mexicans did live for 80+ years under the unopposed rule—disguised as a democratic system—of the cleverly named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), something that Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship.”10 Rules for us mean hurdles, potholes.

I JUST DRANK A FIFTH OF VODKA—DARE ME TO DRIVE?

I regret almost everything I did in my youth. For example, there was that hip-hop phase I went through, in which I wore expensive white t-shirts, baggy white sweats, white “sneaks,” a silver wristwatch, and listened to Eminem. There were plenty of times when I could’ve been nicer to my sister who’s always been, by all measures, a saint. One of the things I regret the most is how often I drove drunk during my late teens/early twenties. It’s a true miracle I never hurt myself or others. It still gives me the chills to think about it.

For example, one time I was driving drunk at two or three in the morning when I suddenly realized I was completely, desperately lost.11 Then, suddenly, from the heavens appeared one of those ugly green signs with white lettering that abound in the confusing metropolis: TURN RIGHT AND YOU WILL BE LESS LOST. The right turn was only a few feet in front of me and I was in the middle lane. I turned the steering wheel and almost crashed into the car to my right—which happened to be a police car. Siren. Bullhorn.

Cut to: me parked in a dark alley in front of the police car. I get out of the car. One of the cops joins me.

“You almost crashed into us.”

“Sorry, officer.”

“You’re drunk.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Of course you are. You can barely walk. We’re taking you to the Public Ministry.”

With the courage that comes from a night of drinking, I took my wallet out and laid a fifty-peso bill on the hood of my car. The officer took the money and left.

APOLOGY EXPECTED.

In 2009, Tejada admitted to lying to congressional investigators about steroid use in the majors and to having taken steroids himself. He held a teary-eyed press conference regarding the issue:

I’m sorry to my family, to the Congress, to the Houston Astros, to the Orioles, to the Major Leagues, and [struggling to hold back the tears] to all the fans in baseball. And I really apologize because I don’t want to be in this situation. And I apologize to the whole United States because this country gave me the opportunity to be who I am and the last thing I want to do is let this country down.12 I hope they forgive me.

MY 10,000 HOURS.

As with anything, experience in being extorted makes one better at handling extortions.

This next tale takes place when I was in my mid-twenties and had already had a considerable number of run-ins with the cops. I ran a red light. It was a red light that made no sense. An absurd red light. A red light that would serve as the inciting incident of a hypothetical preachy Ionesco one-act titled Job and the Red Light that served as a parable on dictatorial regimes. Anyway, this stoplight was in the middle of a slow, narrow street, no exits, no incoming traffic, just a narrow, slow street. Someone must’ve put the stoplight there by accident. Or maybe someone needed to fill a stoplight quota. It could’ve been someone’s way to steal a little money. In the surreal labyrinth that is Mexico City there are stoplights where there should be none, stop signs that mean nothing, speed bumps at traffic lights, cul-de-sacs that lead into the freeway, freeways that take you to dead ends.

So I ran the red light. Guess who was waiting on the other side. Yes, a cop was stationed there, his back on the side of his car, waiting for someone to run the red light that made no sense. He stepped in front of my car and directed me to pull over. This was how the man made his living. He probably bribed one of his superiors to get that sweet spot.

Officer, looking at my license: “I’m going to have to take this with me. You can pick it up in [whatever number of] days over at [government office that is one hour from my house].”13

“What? No. I have to work, officer. I can’t just take a day off and go to [government office that is one hour from my house]. I wouldn’t even know how to get there. Besides, how am I going to drive there without my license?” I was now a jaded young man.

“What do you want me to do? It’s my job to protect the people in this city. What if you pass a red light and you get into an accident? You might not like being stopped, but we do it to protect you.”

“I know, officer. I apologize.”

Interactions with Mexican cops are also taken from Ionesco’s playbook: both parties say exactly the opposite of what they mean and the truth is taboo. Then someone brings up the bribe. But the word bribe, of course, is never mentioned. (I guess that would make it a David Mamet play.) The police officer can say something like, “Dame algo pa’l refresco,” loosely translated as, “Give me something so I can buy myself a soda.” Or the driver will offer to help the officer out if only the officer could find it in his heart to help the driver out. Sometimes the officer volunteers, if given the money, to “pay the fine” so the driver doesn’t have to go all the way to [government office in Who Knows Where].

I don’t remember who did the offering in this particular situation, but I do remember I had no cash on me. And I was driving to a coffee shop on my day off from my dead-end job so I could spend the day writing. That I remember.

“Look,” I said to the officer, showing him the sad inside of my wallet.

“What do you want me to do? I have no option but to take your license.”

“Listen, there’s an ATM over there. I’ll just go over and get some money.”

He looked at me, trying to size me up. Was I trustworthy? He didn’t really have much of an option. “OK,” he said. “I trust you.”

“The ATM’s right there! How could I even—”

“It’ll be on your conscience if you don’t follow through.” The Morals of Bribery, by That Police Officer Who Stands Next to the Useless Traffic Light.

I drove on, seeing the officer shrink in my rearview mirror.

BRIBE OR DIE.

A good friend of mine was driving home late one night, drunk out of his mind, when he destroyed his car against a truck. Nothing happened to the truck or the truck driver, who calmly went on his way, but my friend was left sitting on the curb, face bleeding, a chunk of one of his ears dangling from his head, straddling the line between consciousness and unconsciousness.

A young couple stopped to help him. They were also on their way back from a night out but they were sober. A police car arrived. Then an ambulance. The first thing the police did was steal my friend’s iPod. They would’ve also taken his phone and wallet, but the couple who’d stopped to help him, knowing what was coming, had hid them in their car. “Where’s his wallet?” one of the policemen kept asking. “Where’s this man’s wallet?”

The good Samaritans were talking to the paramedics about which hospital to take my friend to when the other policeman intervened. “This man’s not going anywhere,” he said. At least not until someone gave the cops some money.

So there they were, paramedics, Samaritans and police all arguing under the pre-dawn darkness while my friend sat on the curb with a stupid smile on his face. Then another good Samaritan stopped. This one was a doctor. He told the police that if my friend wasn’t taken to a hospital soon there would be dire consequences to his health. The police didn’t give a fuck about dire consequences to anyone’s health, but at some point they got tired of arguing and just left.

YOU LIVED THE DREAM, MIGUEL.

As I’m writing this I read that Miguel Tejada just asked for his release from the Baltimore Orioles. Tejada—who as a kid allegedly idolized Orioles great (and Mr. Hard Work & Honesty) Cal Ripken, Jr.14— had already played for Baltimore in 2004-07, and again in 2010. According to the CBS Sports blog, “Tejada had been working his way back to the majors at [Orioles AAA farm team] Norfolk, where, in 36 games, he had been slugging a meager .296 and…showing diminished range at third base. As such, it’s hard to imagine that Tejada is going to find many takers out there.”

COKED-UP COP & SLEEPY COP.

The stakes with the Mexican police get higher late at night because cocaine enters the picture. I’m not about to sit here (in bed) and pretend that all Mexican police on the graveyard shift are coked up, but every once in a while you do run into one.

EXAMPLE #1: A young lady and I go to a party. The young lady leaves her car at a supermarket parking lot from where we take my car. The party’s kind of shitty. Also, either she didn’t like how I acted at the party, or vice versa (or both). I park in the supermarket parking lot and turn off the engine. Before she leaves we decide to argue a little. Am I an asshole? Is she being unreasonable? Suddenly, a police car parks next to us. Coked-Up Cop opens my door and sticks his coked-up head in the car.

“Don’t try to cover yourself!” says Coked-Up Cop to the young lady, who was, of course, fully clothed. “I saw you!”

“Saw what?” I say, panicking.

We get out of the car. Coked-Up Cop is maniacally screaming at me about Public Ministries and judges while his partner, Sleepy Cop, looks at me with a hey-I-have-to-work-with-this-guy face.

EXAMPLE #2: I’m driving late one night when suddenly I hear the staticky words of a bullhorn. I look at my rearview mirror and see a police jeep tailing me. I pull over. As I see Coked-Up Cop and Sleepy Cop walk to my car I open the window just a crack.

The first words out of Coked-Up Cop are, “You drunk?”

I’m driving a shiny, small sedan, so he probably stopped me thinking I was a sixteen-year-old driving drunk in his new car. (Which is, to be fair, an earlier version of me.)

“No,” I say.

Coked-Up Cop: “Your license.”

I hand him my license.

The date of birth on my license and my somewhat calm demeanor let Coked-Up Cop know that I’m not the target he was hoping for. But he still gives it another shot: “You fucked up? Coming from a bar?”

Sleepy Cop yawns.

“No sir, just driving home.”

Coked-Up Cop leaves to harass someone else. I feel a cold emptiness in my stomach.

DENOUEMENT.

I almost finished this piece without tying the loose ends of the Walmart bribery case. You’re probably wondering what happened with all that. If you are wondering that you know nothing of how the Mexican justice system works. It doesn’t. It’s no coincidence that there’s no word in Spanish for “justice.”15

President Felipe Calderón said he was outraged by the Walmart corruption case. Please, this coming from the guy who—maybe—stole the 2006 elections and then proceeded to start a nationwide drug war. Any Mexican knows that nothing will happen to Walmart México. The U.S. Department of Justice is holding its own investigation. Time will tell if that is also a sham.

WHEN IN ROME, II.
I’ve been pulled over a couple of times since I moved to the U.S. I’ve had a couple of little accidents too. Look, I’m not a good driver. (My psychiatrist says it’s one of the many symptoms of my ADHD.)

The first time I got pulled over in the U.S., it was because I’d forgotten to turn on my headlights. As the officer walked to my car I opened the door. Force of habit.

“Get back in the car!” said the officer.

I did.


1: Public Ministries are hell on Earth. They’re basically concrete, windowless boxes filled with judges, lawyers, scriveners, typewriters, files, cells, doctors, policemen, criminals, etc. back
2: Listen, the peso’s relative value to the dollar is something that’s always changing. These days, for example, one dollar can be worth anywhere from 12 to 15 pesos. Back then, let’s say, one dollar=10 pesos. back
3: Information for this brief timeline was gathered from Marta Lamas’s “Wal-Mart: lo barato sale caro” in Proceso, Roberto González Amador’s “Se privilegia a Wal-Mart desde el poder público, acusa ONG” in La Jornada, James C. McKinley Jr.’s “No, the Conquistadors Are Not Back. It’s Just Wal-Mart” in The New York Times, and Silvia Otero’s “Anula Corte sistema de ´tienda de raya´ de Wal-Mart” in El Universal. And Wikipedia. back
4: The store they built was not actually a Walmart, but a Bodega Aurrerá, which is a subsidiary of Walmart. back
5: No denizen of Mexico City would ever ask that. Police there don’t “give tickets.” back
6: baseball-almanac.com. back
7: International Monetary Fund. back
8: baseball-reference.com back
9: I’ve slightly edited the transcript for space. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube scored with blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?” back
10: Mexico has just elected the PRI back into power only 12 years after their ousting. back
11: Mexico City is a monster. It feels like I spent half my time there completely lost. back
12: But Miguel, please, how can you think you let this country down? You did everything in your power to succeed. Nothing more American than that. back
13: This happened in the Estado de México, Mexico State, which horseshoes Mexico City and has no Public Ministries. back
14: Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gherig’s record for most consecutive games played: 2,632. He has a slightly different background than Tejada. His dad, Carl Ripken, Sr., spent most of his professional life with the Baltimore Orioles organization. At one point Ripken, Jr., was coached by his father while playing alongside his brother, Billy. back
15: Of course there’s a word in Spanish for “justice.” How dare you. back

Pablo Piñero Stillmann has received fellowships from the Foundation for Mexican Literature and Indiana University. His work appears or is forthcoming in Brevity, Cream City Review, Juked, The Normal School, The Rumpus and Tierra Adentro. He is a fan of the Swedish electro-pop singer-songwriter Lykke Li.

Karen Golightly: Photography

I-5 N

A biker sped by,
pushing 70,
with bugs in his beard
and grease in the crooks of his elbows.
Miles of grime on the plates left him stateless.
In the bitch seat,
more than a weekend’s packing
and two tiny flags
where familiar thighs should have been.
He looked like an old man,
but he was just the jacket of a round
fired in ’71.

R. Joseph Capet is a poet, playwright, and essayist whose work has appeared in such magazines as decomP, Montreal Review, ITCH, and Sennaciulo. He currently serves as poetry editor for P.Q. Leer. This fall, he began the pursuit of an MFA at the University of New Orleans.

Wishing Weeds

Everything was green. The way the sun shone down made everything seem brighter than it was. The arch of trees above my head should have provided a veil from the warm spring sunshine, but it didn’t. The sun still managed to shine on everything, even the tiny black ants scampering at the base of the trees. They gathered specks of dirt and pieces of splintered bark left over from the storm the night before.

The path was hidden, and if you didn’t know where to look, then you would never find it, which I found to be a shame because everything about it was beautiful. Only one other person knew about it. When we were seven we agreed to keep it a secret, and ever since then I struggled to keep my lips closed tight. I was never good at keeping secrets. He was, though.

I stared at the dirt, counting the roots as I walked. I concentrated so hard it was almost as if my feet weren’t moving at all.

A breeze blew through the trees, and I closed my eyes as my hair fell in front of my face, but I didn’t stop walking. I was never very graceful, even with my eyes open, but still I kept my eyes closed. I could hear the faint sound of the creek up ahead, and I let the running water guide me like I knew he would if he were here beside me.

When I opened my eyes, a speck of copper brown caught my eye through the trees, and I couldn’t stop the smile that spread across my face. It had been only a few days since I had seen the sparrow out on the path. I knew it was the same one because the patch of black on his breast looked like a heart. He perched on a low branch a few feet to my right, and if my arm were a foot longer I probably could have touched him. I knew his presence, so buried in the forest, was rare because sparrows, as far as I could remember, preferred the city and the presence of people. There were no people here, except me. He blinked once, and when I took a step towards him, he flew away.

I never quite understood why people wanted to kill the dandelions growing in their gardens. Each fluffy, snowflake weed was as good as a free wish, and I’d learned years ago never to waste an opportunity to make a wish.

Right before the path opened up to the bank of the creek, I cut through the trees like I always did and scoured the small field for the patch of dandelions that had been there for as long as I could remember. I never quite understood why people wanted to kill the dandelions growing in their gardens. Each fluffy, snowflake weed was as good as a free wish, and I’d learned years ago never to waste an opportunity to make a wish. He’d taught me that.

I’d been wishing on stars and weeds ever since.

I bypassed the empty stems that had been left naked by the wind and plucked the first fully round wishing weed I could find. I shielded its perfect seeds as I walked back through the trees and onto the creek bed.

Maneuvering through the soppy dirt, I sat down on the large rock as I always did and watched the minnows swim past. Sometimes I wondered where they were going or imagined how great it must feel to always be surrounded by the water.

I twirled the dandelion between my fingers and inhaled a breath before raising it to my lips and blowing the seeds into the wind. Some of them landed in the water and were carried with the current while some of them floated into the sky and disappeared. I closed my eyes and listened to the creek, the wind, and the birds. I was alone, but when I came down the path and sat by the creek, it never felt that way.

“Hey.”

His voice appeared out of nowhere like it always did. There were hardly ever any rustling leaves to signify his presence. I smiled and my eyes fluttered open. “Hi.”

He leaped off the rock on the opposite side of the creek and waded into the middle of the water. His shoes, classic black Converse, and favorite blue jeans, dark wash and straight legged, didn’t get wet. “Anything exciting happen today?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Not really.” I tied the stem left over from the dandelion into a small knot. “Isn’t the water freezing?”

“No,” he said. “I can’t feel it.”

I set the stem onto the rock. “I went to your house yesterday.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Your mom and I still talk sometimes.” I watched as he retreated back onto the dry dirt. “I think she wishes you could come home.”

“She and I both.”

“I was thinking, what if I brought her here? You know, maybe—”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because this was ours,” he said.

“But I just thought that maybe she’d be able—”

“If you bring her, I won’t come back.”

I blinked once, then again. “Okay.”

“I mean it.”

“I know. I won’t bring her here.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to see her,” he whispered. “I just can’t do that to her. She’s finally moving on.”

“But I’m moving on, and I still get to see you.”

He shook his head. “At this point, you wouldn’t move on if someone paid you.” He smiled and raised his hand in a small wave as he disappeared through the trees.

I took a deep breath and held it until I was certain I would pass out, and then let it out slowly. The water ran clear over the pebbles, and all I could hear was the trickling of the creek, filling the section of forest around me.

What if he was right? What if I wasn’t moving on at all?

What if he was right? What if I wasn’t moving on at all? I played miniature golf with some friends last weekend, and his mom told me I looked better, but I always tried to look better around her, whatever better was.

A small tickle on my arm distracted me. I quickly smacked the mosquito and flicked the insect onto the ground.

A few moments later, I felt my phone vibrate inside of my pocket. By the time I wedged it out, it stopped. ‘1 missed call’ flashed across the screen, but before I could see who it was, it rang again, my mom’s name appearing. I pressed the button to ignore the call and started the walk back home.

***

“Are you sure there isn’t anything you want to talk about today?” Rose, my therapist, asked.

I shrugged. Her office was stuffy and bright red. It hurt my eyes and caused my vision to blur if I focused too long on any one portion of the walls. She had a small wooden giraffe sitting on the edge of her desk. I’d never told her, but giraffes were my favorite animals. The patterns painted across their massive bodies fascinated me, and I could spend whole afternoons thinking about those long necks and the muscles it took to hold up their magnificent heads.

“I don’t know,” I said. I always said I don’t know when she asked me that. I spent every Tuesday afternoon in this office for almost two months now, and I still hadn’t figured out where to begin.

Rose pulled open the bottom desk drawer and rummaged around before coming up with a black and white composition notebook. She flipped through it, stopping to tear out a few pages that had writing on them, and handed it to me.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s for you to write in. Take it home and maybe try and write down something you want to talk about next week. It can be anything at all.”

I flipped through the pages and noticed just how dry they made my fingers feel. I didn’t like this. I didn’t like this because next week, no matter how hard I fought it, I was going to have to talk. “Okay,” I said. I stuffed the book into my backpack and gave her a half smile as I walked out of her office.

***

“You’re later than usual,” he said, perching himself on the biggest rock near the creek.

“I know.” I placed my backpack onto the ground and tossed the stem from the dandelion I had picked into the water. “I had therapy,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“Still?”

“Yup.” I sat down where the dirt was dry and began drawing circles in the brown dust with my finger.

He smirked. “Did you talk about me?”

“I don’t talk about anything.”

“Well,” he paused, jumping down off the rock, “maybe you should. I mean, maybe it’ll help you.”

“Help me what?”

“Just, I don’t know, get over all of this.”

“Get over all of what?”

He sighed as he walked over and sat down in front of me. “Doesn’t this make you feel crazy?” he asked.

“Of course it does, but why does that matter? I’m here. You’re here. I’d say it’s more miraculous than crazy.”

“I just want you to live the rest of your life, and not here at the creek, down this path. Out in the world, doing whatever it is you want to do.”

“But I like it here.”

“I liked it here, too,” he said. “But I had to move on.”

“Why do you keep telling me to move on?” I picked up a pebble and tossed it into the water.

“Because I think you need to.”

“You want this to end?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why are you trying to make it end?” I looked up into his eyes, and they were nothing like I remembered. It was eerie, almost as if I could see straight through them.

“I don’t want you to be stuck here anymore.”

***

I could see her looking at me out of the corner of my eye. She always did this when she wanted to talk. Small talk was all it ever amounted to anymore.

One night, while I was watching TV, Mom sat down next to me. I could see her looking at me out of the corner of my eye. She always did this when she wanted to talk. Small talk was all it ever amounted to anymore.
“How was your day today, sweetie?”

I turned my head to look at her. “Fine.”

“You got home from school pretty late.”

“I was down at the creek.”

She leaned forward to grab the remote from the coffee table and turned the volume down. “You spend so much time there.”

I shrugged. “It’s peaceful.”

“You’ll have to show me sometime.”

I gave her a tight-lipped smile. “Yeah.” Not a chance in hell.

***

“Do you remember that time you came to the beach with my family for my birthday? Mom put the cake on the railing so she could unlock the door, and the wind blew it off. It splattered all over the driveway.” I smiled and pulled my knees into my chest.

“And the ants were so bad the next morning your dad spent an hour trying to hose them off.” He smiled at the memory. “How are they doing?”

“Who?” I wasn’t sure if he meant the ants or my family.

“Your parents.”

“Oh. They’re fine.” I picked up the dandelion stem from beside me and twirled it between my fingertips. “What about the time you tried to ask Sara to Homecoming, and you left the note on the wrong car.”

“The football player.”

“Or the first time our parents let us ride our bikes farther than the cul-de-sac by ourselves, and I broke my arm. They didn’t let us do that again for at least a year.”

“Stop.”

He spoke so calmly it startled me more so than if he would have shouted. The dandelion stem fell to the ground. “Stop what?”

“You’re living in memories.”

“They’re good memories.”

He slid down off the rock. “But they’re not all that’s out there. The world is so much bigger than memories.”

“I wish you would stop trying to push me away.”

“How can I push you away? I’m not even real. This isn’t real.”

I jumped down and stood in front of him, closer than I ever had before. “It’s real to me.”

“You can’t keep wishing for me on weeds.” He reached out to grab my shoulder; it was the first time he’d ever tried to touch me. I couldn’t feel the pressure, and there was no warmth in his touch. The hair on my arms stood straight. I took a step back and, for the first time, realized that maybe he was right.

***

Something had changed since yesterday. The trees and the ants were just where I had left them. The sun still made the green brush glow, but there was something different about the path that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Birds chirped like they always did, and a breeze blew through my hair. The closer I got to the clearing of dandelions, though, I noticed the strong smell of fresh cut grass. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent, cherishing the familiar smell in a new place.

When I emerged from the dirt pathway into the small clearing before the creek, my heart sank. Every single dandelion was mowed over. For the first time in years, the grass was short and tidy.

My eyes clouded over as I ran to the creek. Just because the dandelion was missing from the equation didn’t mean he wasn’t going to show.

I waited for an hour. He never came.

By the time I got to the cemetery, the sun was beginning to set. I walked to the spot I had tried so hard to forget and sat down on the prickly grass.

“They mowed the field,” I said, my voice unsteady. I picked a blade of grass and tore it to pieces. “No more wishing weeds.” I looked up, his name etched in stone staring back at me.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, but when I got up to leave, there was a sprinkling of stars emerging across the sky.

The notebook from Rose sat on the corner of my desk, and before I even realized what I was doing, I wrote down everything. I wrote about the day we found the path.

I skipped dinner when I got home. I kicked off my shoes and locked my bedroom door behind me. The notebook from Rose sat on the corner of my desk, and before I even realized what I was doing, I wrote down everything. I wrote about the day we found the path. I wrote about the time we snuck out of our houses and watched the stars from the rocks by the creek. I wrote about the sixty-one encounters I’d had with him after he died.
I didn’t plan on showing Rose what I had written, not yet. I grabbed the scissors out of the top drawer and carefully cut away the pages. I folded them and hid them underneath a small pile of CDs in the bottom drawer of my desk.

Before stuffing the notebook into my backpack, though, I wrote one simple word on the front page for Tuesday: Giraffes.

Grace Thomas is a graduating senior in the BFA creative writing program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In addition to her love affair with words, she also enjoys running, music, photography, and traveling. She is very excited and honored to be able to call Lunch Ticket her first, but definitely not her last, publication.

Freight

Just about the time that you really want to talk, you can’t say a word. The train talks for you; machinery rumbling beneath you, wheels turning faster than sound, faster than vision. You look down and it’s a blur: green, brown, green.

That night we curled up in the grain car, trying to compact our body heat, trying to bring it in closer. Lee and Christy crawled inside their sleeping bags. I don’t know how they did it, there was hardly any room to move. You could barely take two steps. I didn’t want to untie my bag, I’d barely gotten it to fasten just right to the backpack, and I didn’t want to do it all over again. So I shivered and pulled my coat tighter, pulled my hat over my ears tighter, shrank into a little ball, smaller. Time went by, marked only by the noise, the dark, the clunk, the clang, the sweeping sound of the wheels on the track.

I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking.

We spent the previous night in the field by the tracks. Dylan and Christy exchanged stories about people they used to know in high school. I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking. I watched him, crouching, rubbing, his fingernails caked with dirt. Dylan tossed Lee a lighter.

“Just use this.”

Lee sighed, then laughed. He built a fire. He rolled a cigarette. We looked up, and it was dark. Sudden, like a light switch. Fall had arrived. There was no denying the shortage of light, the chill.

I curled up close to Lee that night. We spread one sleeping bag on the dirt ground, and the other on top of us as a blanket. We slept in our clothes, with our coats on. Lee left the tiny fire burning in the middle of the four of us, one little flame. I worried we should put it out. He said it would be fine. He’d done this whole thing before. I aligned my body with his and tried to shelter the little heat between us. He breathed in deeply, slowly as I inched closer. I breathed out as he turned over, his face close to mine in the dark. The white air curled up between our noses.

“Are you still cold?” he asked.

“No,” I lied. He had arranged and rearranged the sleeping bag, trying to find the warmest, least lumpy configuration. He had offered his jacket to me. I had refused it.

“I can give you my jacket,” he offered again.

“No,” I said. “Really. I’m okay.”

When morning came, Lee explained the way things would work.

“You have to be ready to go,” he told us, “when it comes. You have to be ready to just run like hell or we’ll miss it.”

We sat on the dying wild grass, our backpacks and sleeping bags strapped tight to our frames. Lee ran ahead in the field, looking far into the distance. He perched up on his tiptoes, as if that would help him spot the train sooner.

Christy turned her head toward me, smiling, looking sleepy. Her dark brown hair had recently been bleached blonde. It was frizzy in the back, and bits of grass and dirt clung to the short waves. She scratched her brown roots, plucking out the plants and making the frizz worse. We watched Lee. He turned to us and shrugged, put one hand on his hip and leaned his weight onto his right leg. Dylan took off his black square frames and rubbed the lenses on his flannel shirt. He squinted in the light.

Lee walked back.

“I guess we should just hang out for a while,” he said. Lee, Dylan and Christy rolled cigarette after cigarette, and lit them, the tobacco sizzling and disappearing steadily in the sun.

Restlessly, I rose, and dropped my bag on the ground. Dust and grass flew up, cloudy. I noticed a cornfield to the left and walked toward it. I looked back at my companions, and there was Lee, a few steps behind me.

“Mind if I walk with you?” I didn’t mind. I had expected him to follow. We arrived in the field. The corn was overripe, the stalks turning brown in the post-harvest sun. The ears were hard, the yellow was deepening. I plucked one off a six-foot stalk and held it in my hand, like a sword.

“En guard!”  I growled, playfully, pointing the ear toward him.

“Ah-ha!” He grabbed another ear from a stalk nearby, challenging mine. I chased him with the corn, our ears hit each other, thwack, thwack, a smell of dirt and fertilizer and sun and insects rose up in the field around us. Thwack. My ear broke in half. Then his did. We laughed, nervously, and I pulled another ear off a stalk. We walked back to Dylan and Christy.

“Someone forgot about their corn, I guess,” I said, softly.

His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me.

“Yeah,” Lee muttered, as he picked a long piece of stalk from his patchy beard. His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me. The left looked as if the top and the lobe had been squeezed together, and had somehow stuck.

Lee’s smile was uneven, a kind of half-smile. One side of his face was immobile. The lip didn’t curl up at all. I never asked him why. He smiled up at me with his divided face, one half grinning and lively, the other half with folded ear and stopped-short smile.

Christy looked up from her cigarette. “Where’d you guys go?”

“Over there,” I said, vaguely.  I unzipped my pack and placed the dried ear of corn inside. Christy watched, and asked, “Are we sure a train will even stop here?”

“I’m sure it will stop,” Lee said, looking off again. “I just don’t know when.”

Dylan turned to Lee and said something under his breath. They talked and I rolled my black pants up over my sweating ankles. I looked up, and Dylan was leaving.

“Hey, where’s he goin’?” Christy asked.

“He said he just realized he had a lot of work to do at home,” Lee said. “Rent is due on Monday.”

“Maybe he didn’t want to wait anymore,” Christy said. “Bye, Dylan!” She shrieked into the blue sky, and Dylan turned and waved.

“So Dylan just decided he couldn’t come on the trip with us? After all that?” I asked. It seemed like a waste, after sleeping through the freezing night by the tiny fire, after waiting in the sun.

“He’s never done it before.” Lee raised his eyebrows, sighed. “I don’t know, maybe he’s freaked out.”

We’ve never done it before,” Christy reminded him.

Soon after Dylan left, there was a distant whistle and Lee took off running. Christy and I rose to our feet, flustered, not sure at first what was happening. And then we saw it, the great clunking beast approaching. We ran alongside the train, trying to grasp hold of anything to boost ourselves up. Lee was first. He hoisted his five-foot-three-inch body up and swung his legs behind the railing. Christy and I reached, running, grabbing, and then we were standing, watching the landscape swooshing by in green and brown and blue.

Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

“A Cadillac! We got ourselves a goddamn Cadillac! Woo-hoo!” Lee shrieked and grabbed the railing, shaking it with joy. Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

For a while, it seemed to me like flying. Water towers proclaiming the names of tiny Iowa towns spun by in the fields, fences chopped the land up into squares, cows grazed and looked vacantly at the train as we flew by. In the daylight, the sky was big and blue and like a giant dome sheltering us and making us feel invincible, super human. The sound was so loud it became a kind of silence.

Then as the sun started to sink, our Cadillac grain car slowed down. When it stopped, the actual silence felt strange and large and my ears buzzed. Lee whispered frankly that we should lie flat, in case the yard police were around. I realized, crouching there in the grain car, that I had to pee. I told Lee and he just said, “Hurry.”

I crawled down the side of the car with the help of Christy’s and Lee’s small hands. I peed under the car, nervous and wide-eyed, then scrambled back up inside, finally letting the breath out again when I thought I couldn’t be seen anymore.

The sky darkened, and the car stopped again and again, and every time it did, I felt fear creeping up on me. I imagined being caught on this train, somewhere between Iowa and Illinois. I imagined the rail police informing my parents, our college, that we had illegally hopped a freight train. There was a gradual slowing and then a sudden sensation of metal breaking on metal, a grinding halt.

The hours passed, but no one knew what time it was. And then it got cold, very, very cold. As I curled into my tiny fetal ball, I thought about how crazy this whole thing was. How a year or two ago, I would have thought this was completely insane. And really, it was.

Earlier, Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer. He also carried a secret manual that was circulated among all the kids who like to travel for free – a manual that said which trains stopped where and when. Rumor had it a manual like that had been around since the Depression. Lee was always writing poems about riding freights. He talked about waking up with the sunrise on his twenty-first birthday in a boxcar. His poems always used the word “barreling.” Barreling down the tracks at 2 am, flask of whiskey in my hand…

Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer.

He was smart and a little sad, with a collection of books in his dorm room that included The Outlaw Book of American Poetry. He liked Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie. He could cook one thing: salty hash browns made from potatoes that had been diced into tiny cubes. He sometimes liked to wear a skirt on hot, humid Iowa days. He climbed trees. He developed a reputation for this on campus. I caught him looking at me while I worked on homework, and he caught me looking at him when he was reading. He had a smell that reminded me of my friends back home – the musk of unwashed clothes, the lingering staleness of cigarette smoke. Coffee or whiskey or both were always on his breath. He spoke of loneliness. His body language said he never expected to find anyone to love him. I wanted to prove him wrong, wanted to be the heroine in the story that saves the lonely boy and makes him her own, loyal, forever.

I didn’t know that Christy had begged Lee to take us on one of his train trips until she came by my room and announced the plan for fall break: we were hopping a freight train to Chicago. I probably never would have suggested the trip myself, although I was as curious as she was. Christy was more free-spirited than me, less worried about offending people. She played sad songs on her guitar and wore polyester thrift store pants. She illustrated her journal all through the daily assemblies required by the music department and made raunchy jokes about the boys in the music fraternity.

Four nights earlier, Lee and I had sat on the beaten-up couch in the house we shared with twenty other students. His head was in my lap, the TV was on, the movie was over and the screen had gone blue. The early morning light in the house was blue-ish and dark, and it made everything seem isolated and loud. Every breath, every word seemed magnified in that eerie blue spotlight.

He had closed his eyes, shifted his small body on the couch. I had my hand in his thinning, curling hair. His mouth was tiny, two fish lips. My mouth met his mouth, fumbling and graceless, with the downward motion of my head to his head. My spine curled to meet him on my lap. His shocked mouth woke up his eyes. He sat up to meet my face.

On the train, I fell asleep and dreamed that it was just Lee and me there. But in my dream, the train was small, like a toy, and we rode on top of the car, completely exposed. There was nothing covering us, nothing protecting us from anyone who happened to look up.

When we all woke up from our frigid nap on the cold, steel floor of the grain car, there were no more fields, no more open spaces. Instead there was steel and gravel and light all around us. We pried ourselves from the floor and hopped out the side of the car. We yielded to Lee’s hushing. We heard the gravel crumble beneath our boots and stick in the crevices of the treads. We walked towards the brightest lights we could find, asking each other where we were, how far we were from the center of the city.

“I’m tired,” Christy sighed.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“We could just sleep in a bush,” Lee added. But none of us wanted to sleep in a bush. We saw the bright heavenly glow of a Days Inn, and sauntered into the lobby at 1:25 am.

The next morning we ate at a diner and walked by a man holding a sign on the street corner that said, “Nuke them and there will be no war!” It was the first of October, 2001, and in every gas station, restaurant and gift shop there were bumper stickers featuring angry looking eagles and American flags.

We rode an El train to the loop. I looked down to the ground, felt tiny in this strange multi-layered metropolis: levels of trains, buildings with windows, pigeons and the ground below, the homeless men with yellow teeth, the heels of the women clicking, the rattling of change, the rattling of words, gum-splattered pavement. It seemed the city just went up and up and up. It was a jungle, and the El stations made strange canopies.

We passed doughnut shop after doughnut shop until it became a strange visual litany. Dunkin Donuts everywhere. The insane repetition. The rumble of the El overhead. My own smallness kept coming back to me.

Four days later we were on our way back to Iowa, first by Metra train, then in the car of Christy’s friend. He’d come to Chicago for fall break, too, but his method of getting there hadn’t been quite as adventurous as ours. I looked over my reading assignment for the next day’s class. It seemed so silly, so out of place. On the Metra, Christy leaned over and wrote in my notebook, Are you guys together now? And I wrote, I don’t know. But I did know. I had made him mine. The morning after the kiss in the blue TV light, Lee had said he woke up crying because he was so happy. Now he looked at me with devotion and moony-eyed disbelief.

Two months later, Lee and I went to a party. Dylan was there. He was laughing, drinking, rolling cigarettes, saying that Beck’s Midnight Vultures was the party album of the year. Six months after that, I was asleep on the top bunk in my dorm room, and Lee slipped in, letting the hallway light stream onto my face. He was crying, drunk, and when he breathed on me, I cringed at the mingle of tobacco, armpit sweat and cheap college beer.

“What? What is it?” I mumbled, half asleep.

“Dylan’s dead.”

I jolted awake. “What happened?”

“He told me he was just going to do it one more time.”

Lee leaned his head against the frame of the bunk and I touched the tiny curls that grew around his ears. He was so small and vulnerable, unraveling before me in a puddle of tears and alcohol. I ached to comfort him, and ached to send him away.

Lee and I went to Dylan’s funeral together. The chapel in the cemetery was filled with kids our age, none of whom I recognized. Christy wasn’t there.

She’d dropped out of school in March and we didn’t really know where she had been. Throughout the winter she had written songs on her guitar and sobbed in her room by herself. She had dyed her hair multiple colors in the same week. She found boyfriends and then lost them and then found them again. She decided she needed to get out more and then a few days later decided she needed to stay in. She decided what she really needed was to smoke more pot, and I wouldn’t see her for a week. She’d suddenly resurface, saying she needed to stop smoking pot forever. She’d show up drunk to class after giving some artist guy a hand job, then swear off drinking altogether.

Lee and I walked to the front of the chapel and peered into the casket. I’d never been to an open casket funeral before. Dylan wore the same black, square glasses, but his face was Ken-doll orange, his cheeks and lips a cloying pink. I thought back to Christy and Dylan smoking their cigarettes, laughing quietly to themselves. I wondered if she knew he was gone.

The morning was quiet and blue, with swans on the chapel pond. Dylan’s girlfriend kissed the casket before it was lowered into the still-thawing April ground.

“Fucking heroin,” Lee said, under his breath, as we walked back to my car.

Lee graduated from college and went back to his trains for the summer. He sent me postcards and letters with xoxoxo all over them. He called me and left half-drunk messages on the machine. I saw him once over the summer. He had gone home to New Mexico to borrow his parents’ car. Then he drove up to Denver to see me. I baked him a pie for his birthday, and he hugged me with his small arms, wearing a cowboy shirt with pearlescent snaps. We sat on the couch one afternoon, absently watching TV. I felt something curdling inside me as he told stories about the hobos he was meeting that summer. He used words like folks, Howdy, good ‘ol boy.”

Two days later he said goodbye. As I watched him drive away, I wanted to release everything he represented in my life: loneliness, uncertainty, insecurity and clinging to the past. I thought of the dying cornfield we’d found nearly a year before and how pieces of stalk had clung to his beard. I thought of the poetry he wrote about front porches and freight trains and lost love. I remembered camping overnight and running like hell. I remembered tracks thundering beneath a gray grain car, with three sleeping kids inside, and the fourth, wandering somewhere towards a blue morning and an open casket.

Tara Walker received her BA in English from Coe College, and her MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently teaches writing for both CU Denver and the Community College of Aurora. Her work has most recently appeared in The Columbia Poetry Review, After Hours, Requited, and elimae.

Dialogue with the Body

I thought about leaving you.
But you didn’t.

Why did you treat me so badly?
I was testing your love,
but those days are over.

I was a cigarette under your heel.
You inhaled—admit it.

If I said “stop,” you heard “more.”
I thought you enjoyed a little rough play.
Besides, who had who in bondage?

We used to have fun.
I still love you. I’m just not
in love with you.

Look me in the eye when you say that.
I don’t trust mirrors anymore.

We’re more like roommates now.
I’d like to scale down, move into
something with clean lines.

I’m sick of you micro-managing me,
tired of 2 of these, 1 of those,
working my core.
It’s my way of saying sorry
I took you for granted.

Chocolates make a better apology.
You’ll thank me one day.

I wasn’t as beautiful
as you made me out to be.
Beauty is wasted
on the beautiful.

You don’t take me anywhere.
You don’t take me anywhere.

A body needs a body.
After all I’ve given you?
Sinewy, stubbled, bountiful,
smooth, man, woman.

You seem so distant
and happy without me.
You’re no help
with Sudoku.

I can almost remember
the time before you:
the swaddling sea,
my neck a small boat.
Those hands are dead now.

Who will take care of me
when you’re gone?
Proper arrangements
will be made, your care
entrusted to a stranger.

Where will you go?
I will be a passenger
on a highway that bends.
I’ll ride through cropped hills,
cows still as mushrooms.

Can you hear me now?
You’re all rhythm
and no melody.

Then sing with me.
Help me carry the tune.
Yes, I will be the words
in our little threnody.

Brandel France de Bravo won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House poetry prize for Provenance. She is editor of Mexican Poetry Today and co-author of Trees Make the Best Mobiles.  She has received Washington D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities artist fellowships and the Larry Neal Writers’ Prize in poetry.

Me After You

In the interest of being honest, I fucked someone else fifteen minutes before we met.  In the pay toilet at the Peace Park, room for only me, this guy, the squat toilet, the sign that said Gyōgi yoku shi nasai – Mind your manners.  He laughed at some half-formed joke I made and turned me around.  I was tan from a summer spent lying on the deck of the Eco-Hotel near Ganne-Moon Beach.  Remember when Tony didn’t care how long you laid out or whether you ordered a single thing, as long as you were gaijin, in a bikini, and talked to everyone as if you really, really, truly missed home?

This was not for traditionalist young men with short haircuts and polo shirts like I might have favored at home.  Japan was a sexual minefield, and by then I already had a well-trodden path.

But the bathroom guy was Kenji. He was one of my night students and he had no clue how much I liked him.  He had heard rumors that I was leaving Japan, so he met me in the park, which was near his office, and then, you know.  His eyes were lined a faint grey, like he’d put on makeup and then tried to rub it off. He’d said “Good girl,” like he was my grandpa and I’d finished all my cooked cabbage.  I know he didn’t mean it that way.  That’s the thing about language: If you listen for what you want to hear, the words themselves don’t matter.

And you know about Hiroshima.  It was easy to flummox some men.  If I pouted my lips, if I exposed a bra strap, if I tugged my bangs across my forehead, just slightly obscuring one eye.  If I stood very close and whispered “Sumimasen” and crawled, two-legged, off the bus.  This was not for everybody.  This was for salarymen just off work, tired old pachi-puro, kinky otaku types.  This was not for traditionalist young men with short haircuts and polo shirts like I might have favored at home.  Japan was a sexual minefield, and by then I already had a well-trodden path.

This was before I knew you, of course.  Before you found me that afternoon in the Peace Park, you on your welcome tour, me drunk on Tennesssee whiskey at three in the afternoon (6,000 Yen for one modest bottle).  Cassie Corko introduced us, didn’t she?  She said, “Here is your future wife, Dumb-Dumb.”  I didn’t pay much attention after I saw your whiteboyness.  It’s like Cassie would say, What’s the fun?  Pretty soon he’ll realize that because he’s blond, they think he looks like Brad Pitt.

But then you said, “You’re cute when you’re fucked up.”

“I don’t know what to say to that,” I said.

“Works for me,” you said.

 

For dinner, we went to Petit Moulin.  You liked it then, even though you try to pretend that you never did.  You ordered sazae for both of us.  I told you that when I worked in Kochi, my boss used to go diving for sea snails off the city pier. He would come home soaked, his wet suit pulled halfway down, his big belly glinting like a gem. He’d present us a plastic bag full of clacking snails.  And his wife – she was so nice, so deferential to him – would boil them and teach me how to spear the innards with a toothpick and pull them out for consumption.  It put me off shellfish: that chewy texture, that watching them watch you absolutely hate this piece of their culture.

Like I said, this was before you.  Before garlic dipping sauce and glugged sancerre and your thick eyelashes pulling focus.  Before you joking that we could dine and dash.  Before me saying that the management wouldn’t know how to describe us to the police except to say, “Brad Pitt and a girl –big eyes, big chest, too fat.”  Before we stopped by the bathroom on the way out and you pulled me in with you and kissed me with hot, mint-sweet breath.  Before you said my name, “Veronica,” letter-perfect, like you’d known how to say it your whole life.  Before you locked the door behind us and I tried to remember when I stopped missing home, when I became an “outside person.”

And you might not remember, but you said, “Have you ever done this before?”

And I said, “No.”

Then you said, “What’s wrong with being a little crazy?  It’s like we’re on vacation.”

And I wanted to say, “This is the fourth year of my vacation.”  But instead of that I hugged you hard, wanting our bodies to fuse into one innocent self.

After that I made us leave, amidst you saying something about other girls you knew and how they might’ve reacted to your spontaneous hard-on, to an otherwise empty bathroom, to a date that had gone so well so far.

We walked home the long way, around the perimeter of the Genbaku Dome, me pretending I was the only thing real and permanent left in the world.  You put your arm around my shoulder, even though I didn’t expect it.  It was like you forgave me, but I hadn’t done anything wrong.

You said, “It’s beautiful here.  I kind of feel like we own the city.”  And I looked up, just past the top of the dome, the exposed lattice of its ceiling.  I didn’t think about my job or my family or my sadness or planes flying over just this spot dropping fire.  I only thought about you and how much you had to learn.  I felt small but safe, bound in place like a child tucked in tight.

Erin Kilian is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at Illinois State University. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona and a former Fiction Editor of Sonora Review. Her work has been published in Barely South Review.