Falling Is Like This

“One minute it was road beneath us, and the next was sky.”

—Ani DiFranco


The hotel lobby is square, all elegant chandeliers and dark leather chairs. Jazz standards float above the concierge. Women click by in impossibly tall heels. Elevator bells chime. I lean against a column in the center of the room. Outside, rain blows through the narrow streets.

When you enter the lobby, the air changes. I feel you before I see you. The lobby drops away. The fur on my body lifts. By the time you stand before me, we have fallen out of time. The music, the heels, the rain, and the city—gone. I offer my cheek to your lips, a compromise.

I’m sorry, you say.

My throat constricts.

They’ve sent a few more questions. I have to go over them.

I can go, I say. I don’t want to distract you.

I am risking so much to meet you here. To spend the afternoon with you. You are a man I should not fall in love with.

No, you say. Wait for me.

Your eyes, they’re like wild woods, I know my way through but dare not enter.

And then your hand wraps around mine, tight. Thank you, you say.

I settle into a leather chair. Open the book of poems you recommended and watch the lobby’s choreography. A woman with cropped platinum blonde hair sashays by, gesturing to the bellboy with a manicured hand. A woman in mink, arm in arm with a mustachioed man in a three-piece suit, stares as she passes.

My parka unzipped, simple knit sweater over jeans, long waves falling over my shoulders. Leather boots stained dark at the toes. My face burnished bronze from the sun. A hotel like this isn’t my usual terrain. I’ve come in out of the elements for you.

We all have our secrets.

*     *     *

For ten years I read palms and tarot cards in a traveling carnival. I could have just as easily been one of the contortionists—and I did fill in for Flora, when she got pregnant by Benny, the knife-thrower—but I liked palmistry more.

What I loved most: the moment of hesitation before a person opened their hand to me. A strangely intimate act—to reveal one’s palm to a stranger. Stippled, crosshatched, etched, endless intersections, x’s, braids, and bands, lines which define us.

*     *     *

We are both strangers in this city.

We are both married. We both have wives, in different states, in different routines, waiting for us to come home.

We have between us five children, three cats, two dogs, and a rabbit.

We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.

We have no good reason to be walking down the sidewalk in search of a cab. You’ve got a job interview in a half hour, and I’m skipping panels on new methods of organic gardening and hybridizing stone fruits to walk the streets of San Francisco with you.

It’s been six months since we last saw one another, twelve since we met, at the wedding of two old friends, both of us attending alone. I’ve never seen you in a t-shirt or with bare feet; you know nothing of the snake tattoo that wraps around my right thigh. We’ve broken no rules, really, with the exception of a kiss on a street corner in New Orleans and a few letters that might have been better unwritten.

We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.

But there is your arm linked through mine, clutching me. There is the way you look at me, like you can’t believe I truly exist—like you’d dreamed me and now here I am in the flesh.

Ever free-fallen through space? I asked you in one of my letters.

Your response: Not till now.

*     *     *

In the tent, most everyone who sat down feared two things: a short lifeline and the Death card. Those who claimed they didn’t were liars. Even they held their breath as I turned their Tarot.

But to pull Death signals reinvention, reincarnation. No one saw it that way, even when I explained. If skeletal Death made an appearance on the table, the first question was, always, When?

Rare the person who accepted the impossibility of me knowing such a thing. They just wanted an answer, the illusion of control. As most of us do.

I made up dates. Most of the expectant faces that sat across from me, I never saw again.

*     *     *

The cab driver won’t take his eyes off me in the rearview. I hide my face in your neck and whisper, How’s he possibly driving? I wait in the lobby downstairs while you’re interviewed and the security guard, a woman, won’t stop smiling at me. Then the dapper bartender in vest and bowtie, as he hands us our bourbons, says, This round’s on the house. You hold out your cash, but he waves it away, saying, Just looking at you two makes me giddy.

I want to tell the bartender he is mistaken. But I know what he wants, like everyone who has watched us across this city: to feel what we are feeling. Even if I shouted the truth of our situation, peeled back my skin and let them see how the heart looks as it plummets toward earth, I could not dissuade them.

In the quiet of the bar, I take your hand and hold it to my face, inhaling you, trying to take you in.

How seductive, the current between us. How dangerous.

You say, If only we could stop time and stay here, forever.

I say, If only.

Above us, the dim lights flicker. Old wiring, the bartender says, looking up. Does this sometimes.

*     *     *

Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading. See the storm clouds gather. See the flames engulf solid structure. See the bodies tumble toward ruin. See the world alight with destruction of the finest grade.

*     *     *

We go back out into the rain. Gray sheets of air enveloping us. Our feet soaked and freezing. We huddled under the little black umbrella bought on a street corner. Your hand, over my hand, holds the handle.

Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading.

 We walk to the wharf to eat sourdough bread and oysters. We share a cupcake, red as a heart’s throb. We talk about soil and poetry. I take your hands in mine and study them. I tell you of a recent dream: hands floating in the air, circles tattooed on the palms. From my purse, I pull a black marker and draw a circle on each of your palms, hold out mine for you to do the same.

*     *     *

There was one repeat visitor, the summer before I left the carnival for good, in a town outside some cornfield in Nebraska, a blonde man with dark circles beneath his eyes. Even before he sat down in front of me I could tell he wasn’t long for this world. His body gave off the smell of overripe melons, dazzling and noxious. He leaned his elbows on my flimsy table and said, I’ve got two weeks.

I recognized him then, from years before, a cocksure and ebullient man, the kind who reveres his wife in public and belittles her at home. My prediction for him had been purposefully short, and I saw now how tender he was beneath that façade—his diminishment did not make me hate him less, but I knew then I had meddled too long with fate. That I would suffer for what I’d done.

Taking his hand in mine, I did not turn it over to read the lines. I held it, and when he cried, I said, I’m sorry.

Apologies are inadequate, flimsy offerings at best.

*     *     *

We board a bus, aimless and unsure of what to do with ourselves as the afternoon darkens. The brakes compress and wheeze at each stop. We stare into one another. Our bodies, all animal, taut with yearning.

I worry it may all explode—gristle, bone, teeth, yielding of flesh to flesh—there will be no survivors.

I worry this often, in my kitchen at home, cup of coffee halfway to my mouth, imagining your hands as they reveal me, what I would risk, to take you inside me. On scraps of paper: everything but the cats and dog, everything but the children, everything but my wife. Some days: none of it at all. Sun floods the kitchen and I shred the papers and go about my day—sweeping the terra cotta tiles, harvesting fruit, telling stories. My children smell of mud and peanut butter and berries, my wife like sawdust and clean air. There are shells and sand littering the front walkway, plants to be watered, dinner to be made—this is the life I wrote vows to, once upon a time, when I walked away from the carnival and rejoined the world. When I thought I might slip away from the suffering I saw in store for me, thought I might stop pulling the same cards or rewrite the lines etched on my palm.

If only you and I were not one lifeline—hurtling toward one another all that time.

If you look closely, you will see the delicate lashings, faint but indelible, that bind us.

You pull the cord and the bus lurches to the curb. We exit the back door and walk till we find a room for rent by the hour. We pay for three.

*     *     *

You step off the sidewalk. Goodbye still stinging through our bodies. Our bodies still singing.

You leave me with the umbrella. Your shoulders hunch, your collar up against the rain.

I see the car first, a flash of silver.

When it strikes your legs, you do not fly upward. Gravity is powerful, especially in destruction. You crumple, and I yowl, and then there are people all around us, and blood dripping from the corner of your mouth.

I see your innocence, your curiosity, in the wild pain of your eyes. The woods illuminated, the path clear. Your hand grabs for mine. You whimper, and blood bubbles from your lips. I bend closer.

You say, Come with me.

I trace the circle on your palm.


Rauch photoSara Rauch’s writing has appeared in Crossed Out, Inkwell, upstreet, Glitterwolf, Hoot, and a few other places. Her poetry chapbook, Soft Shell, is forthcoming from Chantepleure Press. She lives in western Massachusetts with her partner and their five felines. When she’s not herding cats, she’s editing Cactus Heart and writing short stories.

There’s a Winehouse In Your Soul

The gravity of Sambuca
alters migration patterns.

Yesterday, a name smacked
against the window, the bleed
of each letter a trickle.

Today, a comma guts
the hot water heater.
Refrigerator shelves pang.

Tomorrow is a phone booth
with a broken door.

J. BradleyJ. Bradley is the author of the forthcoming graphic poetry collection The Bones of Us (YesYes Books, 2014). He lives at iheartfailure.net.

Three Hots and a Cot

“You can’t wear that,” the guard says. “It shows too much skin.”

“Wah? I’m not showing no skin,” the girl says. She raises her arms in protest and flashes her midriff.

The guard points at her bare skin with the electronic wand. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “We told you last time, too. You have a jacket?”

“Over here,” the guard at the desk calls, pointing to the jacket jumbled at the end of the table on the other side of the metal detector.

The first guard picks up the jacket and holds it out the girl. “You have to wear this.”

“No way! It’s too hot!”

He doesn’t budge. “Wear it or go home. Your choice.”

She snatches the jacket out of his hand and, grumbling, puts it on.

“Don’t even think of taking it off, either,” he says to her. “This is your last warning.
Next time, dress right or don’t bother coming. I’m getting tired of telling you.”

She stomps off in a huff and flops into one of the sofas in the waiting area.

I’m next. I’m not showing any skin. I wouldn’t dare break the rules, or argue, or stomp off.

“Step up, ma’am,” the guard says, and points with the wand to a spot in front of the metal detector. His tone is entirely different to me, but signing in, emptying my pockets, having my coat examined, walking through a metal detector, stepping out of my shoes, being wanded—all of this makes me feel like a criminal. I’m not a criminal; I’m just the mother of one. Which, to a lot of people, is pretty much the same thing.

I step up and place my feet in the black shoeprints painted onto the floor. In my peripheral vision, I see the desk guard check the pockets of my jacket then fold it and place in on the table. His face looks beyond bored.

“You’re good. You can have a seat,” the guard says after wanding me. “We’ll get going in a few minutes.”

I pick up my jacket, zip my keys in the pocket, and hang it up. I have a seat in the small waiting area. Hot air blasts over the bright orange vinyl sofas. For a minute or two, it feels good. I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison. Every time someone came in, a frigid blast whipped through the space and all the women, simultaneously, shivered. Now, the hot air blasts hard, and I’m almost sweating. I don’t envy the girl in the jacket.

We’re all women. It’s a men’s prison, but it’s also the middle of a workday. Not that lots of men show up on the one weekend day prisoners are allowed scheduled visits. I haven’t been at this long, but I’ve already learned: If you go to prison, there’s a good chance your sole visitors will be your mother or your grandmother. Maybe your sister. Maybe your wife. Maybe your girlfriend. Maybe your brother. Maybe a male friend. In that descending order of likelihood.

I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison.

Somewhere in the mix are lawyers and cops, but they don’t count. They’re not visitor-visitors. I also don’t count kids. They don’t get to choose whether or not they get to see their relatives who are imprisoned.

We wait longer than a few minutes. I wish I had a book, but we’re not allowed to bring one in. I think of the work piling up at home. It’s a twenty-minute drive here, a thirty-minute wait, an hour visit, thirty more minutes before I get home. The whole thing should take roughly three hours, but the truth is, the day will be a wash. It’s too emotionally devastating to be creative after going to visit a loved one in prison. I’m losing income every second I sit here. I will lose a whole workday.

And more. I think of people complaining about prisoners who get free cable TV and exercise rooms and Internet and a law library. Three hots and a cot is the expression. None of those things applies to this place.

If I was allowed to bring my checkbook in—which I’m not—and used the sitting time to balance my checkbook, this is what would factor in:

$20 a week for the money order so he can buy extra food, vitamins, pay for a health checkup, get stamps, a pencil and an envelope, buy a warm sweatshirt. Prison prices are exorbitant. He confessed last week he spent a dollar on a small candy bar. He sounded apologetic.

$50 a month for books, ordered through Amazon only, five books of less than 1,000 pages, paperback only, so it can’t be used as a weapon. Nothing lewd or inappropriate. The prison has no library. Having a book to lend out is a good thing, I gather.

$25 increments to a telephone service so he can make collect call to us. Each nine-minute call costs about $5. If we’re not home and the answering machine picks up, there’s still a charge. When we leave home, we have had to disable the machine and voice mail.

I hear some states are starting to charge families for visit. $15 per person for the privilege of seeing your loved one for an hour behind a Plexiglas partition. That hasn’t happened here, yet. Give ‘em a chance.

I don’t expect any sympathy—maybe because I know there won’t be any—but it feels like someone is putting the screws to us. I try not to think of the college fund we used for lawyers and bail, for counseling and rehabs, for—

Stop. I make myself stop. It’s not about the money; that’s not important anymore. People who have never been here don’t know my son, a growing teenager, goes to sleep hungry every night. People who have never been here probably think he deserves that. And maybe he does. But he’s still my son. Going to bed hungry.

It’s all material, my writer friends say. You can write about it someday.

They’ve never been here, either, I think when I hear this advice. As if I’d ever write about the shame that has fallen on our family. Why would I do that? For whom?

Despite these things, I don’t dare complain, not out loud, and certainly not here. It’s as intimidating as hell, and we’re still in the waiting area.

“You all right, baby?”

The lady next to me is probably younger than I am, but she looks worn out. Poor. Her jeans are worn, her dark red sweater dull from washings. Her face is full of sympathy, and for a minute I get choked up, which is not allowed. Don’t cry. Don’t show emotion. That’s the worst thing you can do.

“Thank you, I’m okay,” I say. Lie.

She puts her hand on my arm anyway, and pats it. “You stay with me, you’ll be all right,” she says. “You here to see your boy?”

I wonder if she’s seen me before. Who knows? I tell her yes, and her face lights up.

“Me too! I couldn’t come last week, I had to go see my mama up in New Jersey. She had surgery. I had to take the bus to get here, but I couldn’t go two weeks without seeing my boy.”

I don’t understand how she can be so excited, how she can smile. We’re in a prison. It is terrifying. Every time I visit, my son and I can barely look one another in the eye through the Plexiglas that is scarred, worn and dirty, and God knows I don’t want to think about how often, if ever, the phone I hold is cleaned. The first thing I do, every time, after every visit, is get in my car and douse my hands with Purell. I feel like drinking half a bottle of it, too.

“Is your mother all right?” I ask, because I don’t want to ask about her son. I don’t want her to think there is something wrong with me because I dread being here, instead of being excited.

Before she answers, the guard unlocks the first gated door and says it’s time to get going. There are about a dozen of us. We stand and get in line. We know the drill.

The lady stands beside me. “You’ll be all right, you stay with me,” she says again. She hooks her arm through mine. We walk together into the elevator. It’s crowded. The lady leans toward me, speaking low. “At least you know where he is. When my boy was home, I never knew where he was. At least you know where he is.”

She means them to be words of comfort, and I am touched beyond anything I can express. I can’t speak. Literally. I am left speechless by her kindness.

That does not stop me from feeling terrified. Yes, I know where he is, all right. He’s in prison. There’s a part of my brain that still can’t wrap itself around that reality. But it is reality, because I am here, too, going up one floor in a stone building where nearly 2,000 adult male criminals are housed. I try not to think of every prison movie I’ve ever seen. Luckily, it’s not a genre I’ve ever liked very much. I can’t imagine, now, ever watching one for entertainment purposes.

We leave the elevator and stand in a small interior room with no windows and another locked gate on the other side. I try not to feel claustrophobic. The lady next to me is jiggling with excitement.

“I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I’m gonna see my boy,” she chants. Even the guard, when he opens the gate and waves us through, smiles a little when she goes by.

He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.

I take a seat at one of the cubicles. The room is painted green and is shaped in a semi-circle of three-sided cubicles. On the other side of the Plexiglas the wall is orange. There’s no one there now. After a minute or two, we hear a clanging. A guard walks swiftly by, and then the prisoners start filing by. Each one peeks at the cube—not mine, not mine, mine!

My son sits down. He’s dressed in a white jumpsuit. His hair is very short. He’s very thin, getting pasty now. He’s been here a few months and it’s starting to show. He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.

He picks up the phone. The last thing in the world I want to do is hold this sticky, grungy black telephone receiver close to my mouth, but I do it anyway.

“How are you?” he asks.

We talk for an hour. It’s hard to come up with things to say. He doesn’t ask this time if we are going to pay his bail. We’ve already said no a million times. He asks if we got him a money order. I say yes. He says he’ll pay us back someday. We both know this will never happen.

We don’t talk about anything of substance, because anyone can hear, or maybe our conversations are recorded. It’s just like letters; I write once a week and though I write for a living, after I put together a two page letter to him, I feel like I need a blood transfusion.

He asks about relatives. I say everyone is fine, which is true, but if it was not true, I’d say fine anyway. Why say that Grandma went to the hospital with the flu, or his brother caught the cold whipping around his dorm at college? My son would have to be deathly ill, I think, to be sprung to go to a hospital, and college…we don’t talk about college anymore.

He tells me he’s learned to cook some concoction with Ramen noodles. I’m not sure I want to know where or how he does this, but I let him talk. He gets animated talking about food. I look at his wrists, so thin, while he does a stirring motion. Having money in the prison store account is cachet, I know. I’m glad I didn’t scold him about the candy bar.

But I also don’t say that I have started shopping at a grocery store out of town, so I don’t have to run into people we know who saw his mug shot in the newspaper. Or that the day it appeared, I returned home from shopping and found the newspaper, folded with the police blotter blurb about his arrest, circled in black marker and stuck in our front door. As if we’d want an extra copy for our family scrapbook, so one of our longtime neighbors put it where we couldn’t miss it. Or maybe it was some friend of his who thought it was funny. Or perhaps that cop he stupidly kept calling “Baldy.” Or who knows, it could have been a victim aiming his anger at my son at me.

Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.

I pay taxes, too, I could say. I could add that I was a homeroom mom and stayed at home during his pre-school years; that his father and I were married and gainfully employed; that we did PTA, Boy Scouts, Sunday School, and soccer camp; that we never missed a school open house. That we vote, volunteer, and respect the laws of our nation. I myself have never even received a speeding ticket. Somewhere in a bookcase is an accolade from the Board of Education for my hours of service and good deeds. Good Citizenship Award the certificate reads. It is signed, dated, and framed. On paper, we should have been the perfect family. But here I am—here we are—anyway.

Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.

Not all things are as they appear on paper, and not everyone is as kind, or forgiving, or understanding, as the lady who took my arm in the waiting room.

The visiting hour feels like it lasts for days. He’s told me, more than once, that the thing prisoners crave more than anything is a visit. It’s the only thing that breaks up the long days of sitting locked in the cell with two or three cellies, even though there are only two beds and the cell was built for two. Going to sleep early because there’s not enough to eat. Being locked in all day if the staff is short-handed. Having nothing nothing nothing to do.

I don’t tell him that I almost have to take a Valium just to make the phone call to schedule the visit, that the first time I went, the minute I got home I threw up. That this hour is like torture to me. That I want out of there so badly, my skin is nearly crawling with it.

So many things I don’t tell him. So many things I don’t tell anyone.

I hear the other lady laughing. I lean back and sneak a peek at her. She’s hugging the phone to her face, holding her hand to the glass. She’s laughing, happy to see her boy, comforted by knowing where he is, even if here is here.

I envy her. But she’s not me.

Finally, the hour ends. My son asks if I will be back next week. “Me, or Dad,” I say. I must sound unsure because he looks disappointed, so I add, “Me. I’ll come, I promise,” reassuringly.

He leaves. The other women and I go back the same way we came in: gate, room, elevator, gate, waiting area.

I get my coat. The lady is next to me. Her excitement is gone, and she is quiet as she pulls a heavy black cardigan, nubby with age, off its hanger and slings it around her shoulders. I touch her arm.

“I hope your mother gets better soon,” I say.

“Aw, thank you, baby,” she says. “Maybe I’ll see you next week?”

I say maybe. We walk, side by side, past the guards who don’t say goodbye, into the very cold but sunny day. She goes to the bus stop and huddles into her coat, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm.

I head to my car. I want to run as fast as my feet will carry me and never come back. Instead I walk into the wind that bites the tops of my ears and makes my face go numb. It feels good, though. It feels clean.

I didn’t bring gloves. I slide onto my seat and turn on the ignition, and let the heater run until I can flex my fingers again. I open the glove box and pull out my purse and cell phone. In the back is a journal I tossed there long ago, for reasons I can’t remember. I pull it out now and move my seat back as far as it will go.

I set it on the seat beside me and glance out the window, and I wipe my hands with a disposable, antibacterial tissue. The building is gray, with thin slats of windows cut into it, and razor wire looped over the edges.

It’s all material.

I shut off the engine and open the journal. I dig into my purse for a pen, rushing before the cold seeps back in. I don’t want to write about the cost, real and mental, or the fear, or who broke what rules and why. I want to put down on paper not what we should be, but who we really are as a family. I want to write about other mothers like me.

For other mothers like me.

I write about the kindness of a stranger. About the touch on my arm. About the question, “You all right, baby?” About my promise to be here next week.

RamonaLong-landscapeRamona DeFelice Long was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as an Established Artist in Creative Nonfiction in 2013. This piece is from a collection of essays about writing, work, women, and… some other things.

Emily Rapp, Author

Emily Rapp (Photo: Anne Staveley)

Photo: Anne Staveley

Emily Rapp wrote the blog Little Seal during her son Ronan’s life. She began the blog after Ronan was diagnosed at the age of nine months with a rare form of Tay-Sachs disease. Rapp says in her book about Ronan’s life, The Still Point of the Turning World, that she “…began to write because it felt like the only thing I was able to do.” Rapp writes in a visceral way from the core of her grief, and the result is beauty—a lyrical tribute to Ronan, an ancient story about a mother who is in love with her baby, a mother who is walking through unspeakably difficult terrain.

Rapp began her academic career with a strong interest in religion. She attended Harvard University where she received a Masters in Theological Studies. But Rapp decided she wouldn’t be an academic, and turned to writing. Her first book was Poster Child: A Memoir (Bloomsbury, 2007). The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, 2013) is a New York Times bestseller and an Editor’s Pick.

Rapp teaches creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and in the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program. Rapp was core faculty at Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program from June 2006 to July 2010.

Cynthia Rosi: What kind of writer were you on your first book, Poster Child?

Emily Rapp: I think I was an accidental one—I wrote the kernel of the first book in graduate school. Then I went to the work center in Provincetown for seven months and finished a draft, and I worked in a gross apartment in Brooklyn on the final draft after I sold it. I went into grad school as a fiction writer and but I had really become taken with the idea of non-fiction, because a lot of the things I wanted to say were said better in non-fiction. So it was very much a first book, it’s a coming of age story, childhood, things I’m not so preoccupied with now, but at the time I wrote it I was 25 and childhood was not so far removed. I have a degree in theology; I went to Divinity School and that has always informed my writing. I finished Divinity School when I was 23.

CR: How did coming out of Divinity School help you make the decision to become a writer? What things did you think you would be writing about?

ER: I went to Divinity School because I thought I wanted to be an academic and then I became a writer because I realized I didn’t want to be an academic…I was engaged [with my classes] but I wasn’t intrigued. I felt that anything I wrote in that context would be derivative and literally read by three people. I didn’t want to be in that small world. I wanted to be more creative. So I started writing stories in Divinity School and took a lot of classes. I decided that was the route I wanted to go, rather than the more traditional theological route, although I still do some work in that arena occasionally; but it doesn’t preoccupy my life as it would have done, had I stayed.

CR: Did you go straight into writing Poster Child, or were you playing with some other topics at the same time?

ER: I was writing a lot of fiction about ranching life in the West, fiction about my experiences in Ireland, poetry about my experiences in Africa, so I was really drawing from my experiences, pulling from my experiences to transform them into poetry, fiction and non-fiction; I was doing all three and Poster Child began as a series of essays that I wrote in class, and that were later shaped into an arced book with the help of an editor.

CR: Then you became a mom and had your little boy Ronan, and then Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease when he was 9 months old. You’ve said you began to write because it felt like the only thing you were able to do. What happened in your writing life during that time?

ER: I think that anytime anyone becomes a new mom you very much go down the rabbit hole of new momness and of course I’d never had a newborn or given birth—I was a complete newbie—so that took up a good portion of my time, but I also began to want my writing life more intensely. So I carved out time. I had all this time in my twenties where I would have like nine hours to write and I’d be organizing forks or whatever else I was doing: working out, or running around, or living on the beach. I just wasn’t doing it—I had too much time. I do better, I found out as Ronan’s mom, when I have less time. And then when he was diagnosed it turns out I’m even more prolific when I’m under a great deal of stress, which is disturbing. But then when he was diagnosed, the only thing I wanted to do was write—write and die. I felt like those were my options, so I chose writing. I feel like it kick-started me in a way I wouldn’t wish on anyone else…that was a consequence, an unexpected consequence of his diagnosis.

But I do believe in the power of art, and I think people make meaning out of meaningless, shitty situations and that’s the role. That’s all you get.

CR: How did your background as a writer help you make sense of what you were going through?

ER: It didn’t help me at all. Nothing could have prepared me for that: no education, no Bible school, or beliefs. That’s why as an artist I was starting from the ground up, because there were no resources. Writing helped me to weather it but it did not help me to withstand it. It’s not a withstandable experience. There isn’t anything that anyone can know, or do, that would help.

I wouldn’t say that spirituality has ever helped me do anything except think about things in a different way, which could be a coping mechanism, or could be a distraction. I don’t consider myself a spiritual person so a belief in God did not sustain me during that time.

I don’t even know if writing did—literally it was the only thing I could think to do. It was a very bare bones sort of support. It was something I felt compelled to do. It wasn’t pleasant; it didn’t bring me peace. But it brought me activity and I didn’t know what else to do with myself. It’s kind of a grim comfort, but the experience wasn’t comforting. It wasn’t being elated. It taught me work for the sake of work. I was writing because it was my job and literally it was the only thing I could do.

Spirituality for me has become way more complicated since Ronan’s diagnosis. I think any kind of spiritual being has a lot to answer for, and I don’t think there are answers. If anything it made me not spiritual at all. But I do believe in the power of art, and I think people make meaning out of meaningless, shitty situations and that’s the role. That’s all you get.

CR: The tiger mom book (The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua) came out, and you came up with the moniker “dragon mom,” for the mothers in your situation. How did that idea come to you?

ER: The tiger mom book had come out a couple years before from the same press that would eventually publish my book about Ronan, and it’s a pretty good book, but the idea of the Tiger mom is so American to me, although she’s talking about it from an Asian-American perspective. Then I read something else, it was “The Panda Dad,” and I said, “what is up with all these animal monikers?” At that point I felt completely ejected from the parenting world because no one wants to know about your dying kid, nobody knows how to talk about it, you’re a mother but you’re not really a mother, it’s like you’re in the dark corner where no one wants to look. So I had my other moms who had been through this and I thought, “These are the most amazing moms I’ve ever met and they have no animal, they have no voice. Everyone just wants to forget about them or feel sorry for them.” So I thought about the dragon because they’re so nasty and beautiful and protective and fierce and old and medieval. Tay-Sachs has its roots in Eastern Europe in the shtetls, in the pogroms and the violence against the Jews. I thought it was a fitting, medieval, weird, no-one-knows-what-it-is creature that suited us as a group. I didn’t go through a series of animals trying to decide—the dragon just came to me. I thought it was interesting to frame a discussion about parenting around an animal. I felt we needed a different symbol. I felt that people really responded to that idea, because a lot of parents felt the way I did because they didn’t have a voice in society. Parenting magazines are not for kids with terminal illnesses, they’re for kids who make cookies and will grow up and be fabulous—that’s the assumption.

The task of the writer is to make the unknowable, knowable in some way.

CR: You’ve said that writing was such a visceral part of you after Ronan’s diagnosis that you had to do it for your own sanity. Did anyone ever question that?

ER: People expect certain things from women as mothers that they don’t expect from men as fathers and it’s gross. I think it’s unfair. And I feel like never as a mother was I prepared to give up every aspect of my life just to be a mother. But I feel that there is still that expectation and pressure in society that women should do that or they’ve failed their children in some way—it’s ridiculous.

People would say to me: “I can’t believe you’re not spending all your time staring into Ronan’s face.” If I did that I’d kill myself, and then you’d accuse me of being a really selfish bitch for killing myself. There’s no way to win. I actually felt it was helping me cope and it’s a tribute to him and the book is such a memorial to him and people know about him that never would have known before about him. It was remarkable to me the anti-woman attitudes I got about continuing my life in the face of his impending death. I think that’s a remarkable expectation. It’s like we want people to throw themselves on the funeral pyre so that we can feel bad for them, and by feeling bad for them we can distance ourselves from them and convince ourselves it will never happen to us. That really hacked me off. Yo dude! Everybody dies! Spoiler alert—it’s happening to every single one of us. It made people uncomfortable, but at that point I just didn’t care.

I think it’s a huge judgment and I don’t think people would judge men for the same reasons—they just wouldn’t, and I think that’s fascinating and extremely disturbing. The paper towel commercial and laundry commercial is aimed toward women. Plenty of men do laundry. Our culture has not evolved that much in terms of gender roles around parenting.

[Sometimes] I just had had it—you’re raw, you’re broken down. I once had a teacher say to me: “’No’ is a complete sentence.” People would say “Don’t you feel like…?” and I would say “No, just leave it.” I don’t care if you think I’m a bad mother. If anything, yes, it’s true, I’m failing at the primary task of protecting my child. I am failing at that so maybe I am a bad mother.

All I wanted to do was to survive the experience, to make sure Ronan lived as fully as he could when he was alive, to make sure he had some kind of death with dignity—although whether that’s possible?—that was my task, and whatever else I chose to do I felt was nobody else’s business.

CR: You talk about society’s narrative of healing and transformation in The Still Point of the Turning World. You went through the crucible of transformation; what was that like?

ER: It was uncomfortable and hellish, beautiful and interesting and true and all the things that any sort of rock-to-the-bottom-of-your-life experience would be. It’s so difficult to describe. I just read this great book by Sarah Manguso [The Guardians] about the death of a friend through suicide and she was saying that about grief that you don’t even know what it is for yourself and you certainly can’t know someone else’s, but the task of the writer is to make the unknowable, knowable in some way. It’s a mysterious process. Crucibles are uncomfortable for a reason. Whether I gained anything out of it…I don’t think it builds character, that’s a cliché, it just changes you and then you’re different, and you might be more moral and more centered in some ways, and more manic and psychotic in other ways. It’s de-stabilizing. Things that used to make me mad go right on by me right now. If my kid isn’t dying…? I do find it interesting what people get upset about these days. I’m not above the petty stuff, but I’m more able to let things go as a result of having gone through something I didn’t think I was coming out of.

CR: Is your mind turning to new work? Do you feel in a fallow time or a resting time?

ER: I’m working on a novel and I’m still doing essays regularly for different outlets, which I like. It’s not easy for me, but it’s more available to me than fiction, because that’s an internal process. I’m writing fiction, but I’m kind of in a holding pattern because I’m teaching so much and it’s hard to find time to do intensive bursts of writing, and I did need a break. The experience of writing that book was so fast and furious and intense that my adrenal system needed to rest.

CR: What are you reading at the moment?

ER: I’m reading mostly novels, like Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men. I’m reading Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians about her friend who commits suicide. I pick up a lot of books and start them. Fiction is more on my radar in terms of what’s drawing me.

In poetry I really like the Eastern European poets—Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska. Meghan O’Rourke’s book of poetry about her mother’s death The Long Goodbye. When Ronan was ill I read Jane Kenyon and William Stafford. I love Seamus Heaney and have a big collection of his.

Cynthia Rosi is the author of three books: Motherhunt, Butterfly Eyes (Headline, UK) and The Light Catcher, due out from Assent Publishing’s Bad Day Books in 2014. She’s currently an MFA fiction candidate at Antioch.

Run All Day, Run All Night

[flash fiction]

At Gaffney’s, we feed the jukebox and dance with pool cues like they’re bolted to the ceiling until the men in town for the races buy us drinks we’d never order for ourselves. Rum Punches. Tom Collinses. Whiskeys with unpronounceable names. Theater majors, we thank them in thick accents—Russian, Spanish, German—trading some touchless flirting before melting into the crowd.

“Sure and begorah,” I say, rolling r’s like marbles as Mr. Striped Shirt hands me a dishwater-dirty martini.

He pulls out a chair, pats the seat. My best friend Tina stands behind him Frenching her hand, but I don’t crack. Stripes has two fluffs of hair—pale blond—arranged over the tunnels of bare skin at his temples.

“What stunning eyes,” he says, leaning close enough to ripple my drink. They’re colored contacts. I tell him all the women in my family have them, violet at night, blue in the morning.

“Stunning,” he says, again. “I bet your boyfriend loves them.”

Sipping from the funnel of my glass, I wink and he grins, rubbing knuckles down the creases of his khakis.

“So, what do you do?” I ask, looking past him to Tina in the corner where she flirts with the guy from Econ that I invited out tonight. He’s got curly hair I want to wrap around my fingers like an old-fashioned phone cord. In the shadows, Tina half-turns and points at me, then leans against Econ-boy and laughs.

“Gamble,” Stripes says, listing his tips for tomorrow as if I’m planning to bet my student loans. The horses’ names are bad puns: Life Foal of Joy, Pony Up, Unbridled Danger. I nod until he falls quiet. “Well, cheers,” I say, lifting my glass. “Lots of luck.” It’s his cue to give up gracefully, but he holds up a hand plump as a rubber glove full of water. His hotel is close, he says. He thinks I’d love the view.

“Thanks, but no,” I say, dropping the “h,” and stretching the “a” like the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

Stripes pouts like a child, fat lower lip punched out, but when I stand, embarrassed for him, he grabs my hand. “At least point me in the right direction.” I don’t know why I follow him to the door and push into the night, steamy like it can get upstate. Outside, I point up Caroline to Broadway.

He nods, then pins me against brick, bites at my lips, says, “Violet eyes, be sweet to me.”

“They’re really just brown,” I say, turning side-to-side, forgetting my brogue.

“Fine,” he says, pulling back enough to produce his fist of a wallet. “What’ll it cost?”

Under the streetlight, I see the bar’s dimness was kind. His hair is white, fine, spare.

When he starts extracting bills meant for trifectas and places and wins, I shake my head. No, I think, stop. Not for any amount you can name.

But then why do I say nothing, do nothing, except watch the bills mount between us?

Headshot - CorteseKatie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Cimarron Review, and The Tusculum Review, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.

Time Stops

He’d pissed himself again.

Thaddeus felt the familiar wet warmth saturate his diaper, one large enough to fit on a 16-year-old’s body. Perhaps he would feel ashamed if it weren’t the third time it had happened that day. And besides, who did he have to impress? The nurses? His fellow roommates?

His unmoving eyes observed them now, the eight other permanent residents of Miss Barker’s Group Home for Disabled Youth. Four on his left, four on his right. It never changed. It was like a TV show that you’re forced to watch every day, and you can’t change the channel or shut it off. You can’t even close your eyes, or turn your head to look away. Because Thaddeus’s body was literally incapable of performing those tasks. He was incapable of performing anything, such as standing up, saying hello, flexing a muscle, or deciding when to expel his urine, which now soaked his inescapable diaper. He couldn’t even blink on command. He was trapped.

His attention was drawn to Tabitha, who repeatedly rubbed her scalp back and forth across the well-worn headrest of her wheelchair, her eyes constantly looking up at nothing as her jaw twitched. At least she could move. He couldn’t.

Not yet, at least.

He had overheard his diagnosis many times, the words total locked-in syndrome, transferred between doctors and nurses, nurses and his parents. Conversations held right in front of him, information passing strictly from point A to point B, without a single glance cast towards his paralyzed eyes. As if he wasn’t even there.

Miguel, who was sitting directly to Thaddeus’s left, suddenly burst into a fit of laughter, clapping his hands together. If Thaddeus could contort his lips and voluntarily pass air over his vocal cords, he would ask what was so funny. But he couldn’t speak.

Not yet, at least.

His brain was functioning just fine, but the connection between it and his body was severed. Like a lone hiker stuck at the top of a mountain, with no radio contact between him and everyone else on the ground. It had been like this for as long as he could remember.

But he was never able to express his misery or frustration to anyone. Not even his parents. They knew the gears were turning in his head through MRI and CT scans. A picture of a bird would be shown, his brain waves would react. Then, a picture of black-and-white shapes, and a different brain wave reaction followed. Proof that he was aware of his surroundings, and that something was going on upstairs.

Gregory, the most functioning one of the group, slowly turned the pages of a colorful animal book resting in front of him. His jaw remained slack as his eyes scanned over the images, occasionally naming creatures that he recognized out loud. The sound of his voice grated on Thaddeus’s nerves, as it did every day. He wanted to get up and snatch that book from him, to hide it somewhere in the house. But he’d never be able to leave his bed.

Not yet, at least.

Like his parents, and the nurses and the doctors, Thaddeus knew what was wrong with his broken body from an early age. It was evident he would never feed or dress himself, never play games or sing a simple melody. Never ride a bike to school, never drive a car. Never get a job, never buy a house. Never get married, or have children of his own.

Samantha, whose parents were just leaving from a short visit, received a kiss from her mother on the cheek, and a tight, squeezing embrace from her father. Her eyes were glassy, and motionless, like her body. She was new to the house, replacing Joshua, who got moved last week. Samantha was pretty.

His attention shifted to the clock on the wall, knowing that any minute now, the overweight nurse would come in to administer everyone’s medication. The time had almost come, but not yet.

Thaddeus’s caregivers were well aware of his physical limitations, but there was one secret that he kept all to himself. Something that he had known since he was just a baby. Something their MRI and CT scans couldn’t observe. Something that could never be explained, and that he didn’t quite understand himself. But every day it would happen, or rather, he would make it happen, and it was the only thing in his life he ever had control over.

The large nurse burst through the door, right on schedule, holding the medication tray in front of her oversized chest. It was almost his time, but not yet. Too many of his roommates still had him in their peripheral vision. Too many witnesses. They may not be able to tell on him, to describe exactly what went wrong between the second he decided the time had come, and the second that followed, but he didn’t want to scare them.

He had done that in the past, acted when the timing wasn’t right. By its very nature, his secret could not be witnessed by anyone, but the consequences of it could. At first, it confused his parents, and then it frightened them. They couldn’t understand how their baby, silent and motionless and helpless, could change positions within the blink of an eye. How they could be reading a book to their severely handicapped toddler one second, and in the very next hear his body collapse on the other side of the house.

Even when he got it under control, when he picked the perfect moment, they would still look at their son with fear and anxiety, wondering when the next inexplicable incident would occur. It nearly drove them insane. He almost couldn’t blame them for leaving him in this group home.

No, he had to wait until the exact right moment, when the entire room’s attention was on the nurse, and her attention wasn’t on him. It almost came, when her back was turned, and all eyes were on her. The only one not cooperating was that pretty girl, Samantha, whose eyes were still affixed where her parents had been a few minutes ago. But she seemed completely brain-dead, oblivious to the world around her. She wouldn’t notice if the room was going up in flames, much less comprehend the subtle after effects of his secret.

And he couldn’t wait any longer. The time had finally come.

Somewhere, deep inside his trapped mind, Thaddeus flipped an intangible switch. He didn’t know how it got there, or what exactly its purpose was. But he had found it a long time ago, and had used it every day ever since. The walls began to tremor, shaking violently. Only he could see this, only he could feel it. The static image of the room and his roommates before him blurred and blurred, until it was an indecipherable glob of light and color. And then, it all refocused, coming back into view.

The second hand on the clock ticked one last time, and then stopped.

Thaddeus sat up in his bed, and placed his feet on the cold floor.

Everything in the room was frozen. Time was frozen. Nobody moved, no sound was made. For all he knew, the whole world had stopped spinning, just because he made it happen. And for the first time that day, everyone else was motionless, and he was the one walking around.

Thaddeus sat up in his bed, and placed his feet on the cold floor.

The first thing he did was strip down, removing his soiled diaper and getting into a fresh set of clothes. He couldn’t stand the feeling of his privates bathed in urine. He couldn’t stand the smell. He walked his filthy “underpants” to the nearest trash can and tossed them in with ease. Like a lone basketball player shooting hoops in an empty arena.

The next order of business was confiscating that damn animal book from Gregory’s frozen fingers. Thaddeus leaned forward, bringing his face right in front of the dark-haired boy, waving his hand just inches from those motionless eyes. As if Gregory could somehow still see him. As if he hadn’t carried out this bizarre routine everyday he had lived here, each time inciting no response from the helpless mannequins around him.

And as he expected, Gregory’s eyes betrayed nothing. This day was no different than the last. Thaddeus took the battered book, and hid it behind Tabitha, whose headrest-rubbing had finally stopped, along with all her other movement. Putting the book there was a little cruel, as the bewildered Gregory would inevitably blame Tabitha for its disappearance. But Thaddeus couldn’t help but laugh, the sound of his rarely-used voice bouncing around in the otherwise utter silence.

After that, Thaddeus’ little personal window outside of time was wide open. He walked around the halls of the group home, reveling in the sensation of independent mobility. He stopped in the kitchen to raid the cupboards, grabbing cookies and chips to gorge himself on. When your only form of food comes as a paste through a tube into your abdomen, being able to shove tasty snacks in your mouth is an unparalleled experience.

He wanted to take a pudding cup from the fridge, but there was already a nurse there, her ass permanently in the air as she was stuck bent over, reaching for something on the top shelf. If he took the pudding cup, she would definitely notice it disappear when time resumed. Maybe tomorrow.

Before Thaddeus left the kitchen, he splayed his fingers, and brought them down hard on the nurse’s rear end, the loud smack mixing with the sound of his boisterous chuckle. But then his laughing stopped. He stared at her body for a moment longer, realizing he could do much more to her, and she would never know. After all, he was a red-blooded teen boy, wasn’t he? Being completely motionless for the rest of the day, when else in his life would he ever get to gratify himself?

He didn’t linger on this thought for very long, though, because it gave him a sickening feeling. One of guilt and shame. He knew what it felt like, to be paralyzed and helpless while someone violated your body. It had happened to him before, a long time ago. He could never do that to someone else. And so, because of this resolution, he would never be able to satisfy this most primal of desires, to touch the warm skin of a willing and conscious person. Never. He quickly walked out of the kitchen.

He wasn’t sure how much time he had left, because the clock, along with everything else, had stopped. He only had a rough estimate of how many minutes each window held each day. He had guessed maybe twenty-five minutes—or, what felt like twenty-five minutes—to do whatever he wanted, before his body would surrender control as it got sucked back into real time.

He spent the rest of his time rift sitting outside the group home, staring at the suspended cars in the street in front of him, the birds hanging in the air, and a child on the sidewalk, frozen in mid-stride, as if his foot was stuck in the cement. All of them waiting to resume their day, to get back to reality. Where things made sense, and worked like they’re supposed to. When they would be in control again, and he would be helpless.

He gazed at the sun, its heat and brilliance even seeming stale and unmoving. He wished he could feel a breeze roll across his face, or hear a dog barking. Perhaps the sound of someone’s voice, and follow it to its source. To finally talk to someone for once in his life. But none of that happened. He could do anything he wanted, but he would be doing it alone.

Though he probably had a little time left, he walked back into the group home, and returned to his hospital bed. Sometimes twenty-five minutes to himself was too long. But before Thaddeus laid down, he noticed something in his bed. A small piece of paper. He snatched it up, his eyes scrolling across the handwritten text.

Tomorrow, 10:18 A.M.

Thaddeus squinted his eyes, reading it again and again, confusion fogging him. What did that mean? Was this note left for him? No, that’s impossible. Who would leave a note for someone with total locked-in syndrome? And under their ass, no less? It must have been dropped there on accident. Probably by one of the nurses, while they were changing him. Maybe it was a reminder they wrote for themselves, and it had fallen out of their pocket and into his bed. Yes, that must have been it. No one would leave a note for him. That wouldn’t make any sense.

Pushing strange notions from his mind, he crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash, then plopped down in his bed, positioning himself to where he had been right before the clock stopped. The walls began to shake again, the image before him getting blurry. He could feel the control leaving his body. And then, it all refocused, and things started moving again. Time had resumed.

For the rest of that day, and all the next morning, Thaddeus couldn’t get 10:18 A.M. out of his mind. As much as he told himself that the note wasn’t meant for him, he couldn’t help but feel that it was. He laid motionless, propped up in his bed, all of his attention on the clock. Paranoid thoughts teased him, making him wonder if anything would happen when that time came.

But then the hands struck 10:19 A.M. that next day, and nothing had happened. His body was already in a constant state of relaxation, and now his mind could finally join it. His ridiculous, anxious notions amounted to nothing, and things were back to the way they had always been. In fact, everyone’s attention was on the TV screen now, that same damn cartoon playing on it again. It was the perfect time. He reached into his mind, and flipped the invisible switch. The walls shook, and the clock hands stopped at 10:20.

He stood up again, poised to journey through the silent halls of his group home, but something nagged at his mind. Something he couldn’t shake. It induced an eerie feeling of fear and curiosity. He had to know. He slowly craned his neck, his eyes falling onto the bed he had just risen from. It was empty. No note, nothing. He let out a sigh of relief, and dropped his pants to remove his soiled diaper.

And that’s when he saw it, a piece of paper stuck to the back of his pants. His hand trembled as he picked it up, bringing the text to his eyes.

Tomorrow, 10:18 A.M.

His eyes darted around the room, searching in vain for any clues as to how the note got there again, and why it was there. Who had put it there. He looked at it again, realizing it was in the same handwriting as the day before. But he also noticed something else there, something faint. He turned the note over, and found a single letter: S.

He looked around the room again, until his eyes fell onto the pretty new girl, up ahead and to his right. The one who can’t talk or move or even blink.


The note fell from his hand, a horrifying sensation coming over him. It was the odd yet unmistakable feeling that someone knew his astounding secret, and was in that very room with him. How could she possibly know about him? Is she locked-in too, able to witness and comprehend everything around her, including the nuanced evidence of his secret? Had he not been careful enough?

And then a chilling realization hit him, that, beyond knowing his secret, she was actually able to write him a note, and leave it in his bed. Did she possess a similar secret as his?

He slowly laid back down in his bed, keeping his eyes on Samantha. He didn’t move, and he hardly breathed. For the first time in his life, while everyone and everything around him was motionless, so was he. And he stayed that way, until the walls shook, his vision blurred and refocused, and time resumed.

His attention never left Samantha, and she never moved. The hours seemed to crawl at an agonizing pace. He had eagerly awaited the passing of a day before, but this was absolute torture. He didn’t know what would happen at 10:18 A.M. the next day, but he needed to find out.

In time, Thaddeus fell asleep, and awoke the next day, anxiety gripping him, giving the feeling of a knife in his chest. Samantha was still there, still not moving. Yet he knew she was conscious of everything around her, watching the day unfold. Watching him. The minutes ticked away, all the while making him feel as if he were about to explode, until the hands finally reached 10:17 A.M.

One minute left to go.

He was afraid. He didn’t know what to expect, what he should do, or how to prepare himself. In truth, there was no way he could. His only option was to go into the unknown, and hope something horrible wouldn’t happen.


He flipped his inner switch, and as the walls shook and his vision blurred and his body gained control over itself, he shut his eyes tight. He wasn’t ready for things to change, for everything he had ever known to be turned upside-down. He wasn’t ready for his universe to implode.


The voice cut into his ears, making his heart beat faster than he thought possible. His sweaty palms gripped his sheets, his knees shook with tension. This was real, this was happening. He wasn’t the only one like this. He wasn’t alone. But he still wasn’t ready.

He heard the soft steps of a light body come his way, stopping just a few feet in front of him. He could hear her breathing, he could feel her presence, he could smell her. Luckily, the nurse had changed him right before this, so he didn’t reek of piss.

She took another step towards him. “Hey. I’m Samantha.”

Thaddeus finally opened his eyes, the girl’s smiling face filling his vision. She wasn’t frozen, but swayed slightly as she stood. Her hand was extended to him for a shake, a gesture completely foreign to him. No one would expect a vegetable to shake their hand. He stretched out his arm, and placed his hand in hers. He felt overwhelmed by the shared, mutual contact.

He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but realized he had never spoken his name in his life before. Heard it, yes, many times. But never spoken it. He struggled for a moment longer, before simply settling on, “Hey.”

And even saying that felt uncomfortable.

“Not used to talking, friend?” Samantha said, her eyebrow raised. He shook his head. “I understand. But I already know your name. It’s Thaddeus, right?”

He didn’t respond. Of all the things he wanted to know about Samantha, whether or not she knew his name wasn’t one of them. He had a million questions for her, but couldn’t will his voice to ask them. He had no way to express his bewilderment over what was taking place. It was very frustrating. He grimaced, and pointed to the clock. “H-h-how?”

“How is this happening?”

Thaddeus nodded.

“I’m not exactly sure myself. I’ve been able to stop time for as long as I can remember. And I thought I was the only one in the world who could… until I noticed you, last week. One second your right arm was resting on your stomach, and the next it was your left. Pretty impressive for a guy who doesn’t move the other 23 hours and 59 seconds of the day.”

Thaddeus laughed at this, but then quickly silenced himself, wondering if his guffaw sounded weird to the first person other than himself to ever hear it. His face became red. But Samantha laughed too, and grabbed his hand again, pulling him up in his bed. “You’re stuck in that thing the whole rest of the damn day. I’d want to get on my feet if I were you. Follow me to the kitchen.” She passed by the seven other motionless roommates, and weaved around the large nurse, moving toward the hall. Thaddeus quickly followed her, still not sure if all this was actually happening.

“Now, as far as the two of us meeting like this, I had no idea that was going to work. Just thought I’d give it a shot. And sorry for the notes, by the way. I didn’t mean to scare you. Did I scare you?”

“N-n-no,” Thaddeus said, wondering why he lied.

“And sorry if the note was a little vague. I didn’t want to be too obvious, in case one of the nurses happened to read it.” They arrived in the kitchen, and Samantha stopped by the fridge, leaning her back against it, arms crossed. “So, from what I can tell, you can stop time whenever you want, once a day. Right?” He nodded.

“Well, I can do it two times a day, but only at 10:18 A.M. and 10:18 P.M.”

T-two?” Thaddeus asked, completely shocked, and, perhaps a little jealous.

“Relax,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not as great as you’d think. You know how many chances I missed, just because someone happened to be looking my way when the clock struck 10:18? Or I happened to be sleeping?” She sighed as she shook her head again, and opened the refrigerator door. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t waste time complaining about things I can’t change. You want a pudding cup?”

Thaddeus nodded, and she handed one to him, and a plastic spoon from a nearby counter. She began to devour her pudding greedily, offering genuine smiles between bites, but he just stood there, still and silent, watching her. He wondered how she could be so at ease in a situation like this, or how she was able to talk so free and easy. And so much.

“Y-y-y…” he started, wrestling with the words he wanted to say. He imagined his struggling lips and jaw looked ridiculous. He felt embarrassed again. “Y-y-you t-t-t-talk… a-a-a-a-a…”

“I talk a lot?” Samantha guessed, and he nodded again, grinning sheepishly. “And why would a girl who has no one to talk to talk so much?”

“Y-yeah,” he uttered.

She smiled broadly, a hint of mischief on her lips and in her eyes. “I’ll show you.”

She smiled broadly, a hint of mischief on her lips and in her eyes. “I’ll show you.”

She led him back out to the common room, stopping in front of Miguel’s wheelchair. Miguel’s eyes were closed, and Thaddeus wasn’t sure if he had been sleeping when they stopped time, or just happened to be frozen mid-blink. “I got bored a long time ago, and had to find ways to entertain myself. Here, watch this.” She put her thumbs on the kid’s eyelids, pulling them up to open them. She placed her hand on his head, and moved it back and forth, as if he were a doll. Whichever way she posed him, he stayed that way.

Then, she grabbed Miguel’s chin, moving it up and down. “Hi, Thaddeus!” she said in a mock voice, manipulating the kid like a puppet. “My name is Miguel. Do you want to hear a joke?

Thaddeus didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if he liked this or not.

Why wouldn’t the clock cooperate?” she said, syncing her words with the movement of Miguel’s mouth. “Because it was ticked off!” Her fingers pulled the unwilling jaw up and down, making Miguel laugh, then brought his hands to together, mocking the fit of clapping he would often break into.

But it wasn’t Miguel doing this. He had no control or say in the matter, no awareness. It reminded Thaddeus of a few days before, when shameful thoughts crossed his mind, looking at that nurse in the kitchen. And maybe Samantha’s ventriloquist act wasn’t as depraved as those thoughts, but it still didn’t seem right, and Thaddeus couldn’t bring himself to laugh.

Samantha noticed his silent indignation, and stopped laughing herself. “What’s wrong, Thad? Didn’t think the joke was funny?”

He couldn’t answer her. There was no way he would be able to describe his objection, with only his grossly insufficient language skills to convey it. And even if he could explain, doing so might reveal too much about himself. This girl was still a stranger to him. Instead, he took her hands off of Miguel, and rearranged his body so that it was back the way it was before she had manipulated it, ending with closing the boy’s eyes.

“Oh,” Samantha said quietly, her face lowering in shame. “Sorry. I see what you mean. It’s just… It’s just that I got so tired of being alone, ya know? So tired of finally having the ability to move and speak, but no one to interact with.” Thaddeus nodded slowly, beginning to understand the reason for her actions. He had felt this way many times before. “So I made friends for myself. I gave myself some people to talk to, even if it wasn’t really them talking. But I guess that’s kinda messed up.”

Her face became somber, and she started to walk away, but Thaddeus stopped her, grabbing her hand. She looked up at him, and he smiled. “M-m-m-me,” he said.

Her eyes widened, and her lips turned up, mirroring his optimism. She wasn’t alone anymore, and neither was he. After sixteen years of solitude, years filled with bitter feelings and unanswered questions about this strange ability he possessed, he finally had someone to talk to, someone who shared his loneliness and frustration and grief. He wasn’t alone anymore.

The two of them spent the remaining time walking freely around the halls of their group home. He would run, she would chase. She would talk, he would listen. They laughed together at the funny expressions frozen on people’s faces. At times his skin would accidentally brush against hers, and they would stop to smile at each other, giggling at the foreign occurrence.

When their time was nearly over, they both returned to their beds, ready to go back to reality. “Same time tomorrow?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, already feeling more comfortable talking.

“Good. And you’d better not stand me up, buddy. I know where to find you.”

The two shared one last laugh together, before the walls began to shake, the image of the room blurred, and time sucked them back into their beds, their bodies helpless once again. He kept his attention on her the whole day, and the thought that hers was on him gave a warm feeling in his chest. He couldn’t wait until their next meeting.

10:17 P.M. rolled around, and everyone else in the room was asleep, except for Thaddeus and Samantha. He knew she would be stopping the clock for her second time that day, and it ached him that he couldn’t join her. And when the clock struck 10:18, and the second had passed, he noticed a slight change in her position, knowing that in that rift in time she had ruled the group home without him. He wondered where she went, what she ate. And even though he couldn’t laugh, he actually giggled inside at the thought her moving his mouth up and down, making him talk. He wouldn’t have minded.

But he also noticed something else, something very faint, almost impossible to detect. It was a slight warmth on his right cheek, and the tiniest hint of moisture on its skin. He knew what it was: his new friend had given him a secret kiss. And he wanted nothing more than to get up out of his bed, and give her one in return. But he couldn’t.

Not yet, at least.

JosiahJosiah Upton is a twenty-something author from Fort Worth, Texas. Aside from writing, he enjoys composing, playing and recording music, and spending time with his wife and two young boys. He is the author of two unpublished young adult novels, which he believes will someday find their home in the wide-world of books. His website is josiahupton.blogspot.com.

Forty-Two Measures of Rest

My younger sister Beth is driving home from a visit to her college town. She is flipping through songs on her iPod, listening to her friend Matt talk in the passenger seat. Christmas was a few days ago and snowflakes drift lazily through the air, too light and swift to land. The day seems simple and good.

Beth rounds the interstate’s corner. A minivan is upside-down in the ditch. Four people are standing in a circle nearby, but their heads snap tick-tock toward the van and back at her, so she knows there’s someone inside. She pulls over, calculating geometry in the hacksawed tire tracks. An ambulance hasn’t been here yet. She shoves the car door open, out into the snow bare-armed in her t-shirt, past the group of people standing—if they are standing and talking they must be mostly okay—yells that she is an EMT, runs toward the upside-down van. A woman is ragdolled under the back tire, her body tangled in metal. Her head is the wrong shape and part of her skull hangs open, wet and glistening, the snow falling in and melting inside. Beth pulls herself into the van. The engine clicks; it’s still warm from the heater, chugging through the Michigan winter. Beth puts two fingers into the woman’s neck. Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats.

Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats. Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine.

Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine. I’m in a wine bar in Howell, one of the single-street small towns that spiderweb their way across the Midwest in square-mile grids before fading away into forgotten storefronts, forgettable suburbs. Garlands twisted with Christmas lights wrap around each streetlight. I lift the glass to my mouth and sit back into the shabby, bottomed-out couch. My two friends are talking about weddings. I am visiting home from Boston where I now live, 25 years old, the age where it’s no longer surprising to talk about weddings. Brittany is already planning hers even though she and her boyfriend aren’t engaged. Sarah got married a few years ago under an awning in her parents’ backyard in a short white summer dress, reception in the local dive bar with greasy pizza and pitchers of beer and homemade cakes brought by the people who loved the couple, three months pregnant and clueless and happy. Sarah is planning the wedding she never had, the one where her parents aren’t deadbeats and she doesn’t have to be pregnant, one with white-starched tablecloths and overpriced centerpieces. Instead of talking about love we compare blue versus pink bridesmaids. Brittany is talking about tuxedo vests and I think, is this all that we have become? Will real things stop happening to us? To me?

*     *     *

I have a history of not knowing the right thing to do or the right way to be. Or maybe there is no right thing to be done.

While I was in ninth grade World History, writing a note to my friend about how cute Mike Munsell looked in his Abercrombie shirt, terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. Living in Michigan, I wasn’t sure exactly what terrorists or the World Trade Center were, but I knew they must be important by the way the teachers ricocheted through the hallways like electrified pinballs.

By fifth hour band, kids with family in New York had evaporated from school. Everyone was already rehearsing their stories of where they were when it happened and it was an unspoken contest of whose was the best. I had no idea what was going on but it was big and important and I wanted so badly to be important. Alisa knew how tall the towers were and had been able to cry about it so she was already ahead. And then I remembered—how could I have forgotten?—that my aunt and her wife lived in New York.

In reality, they lived somewhere woodsy, too far away to see anything or be seriously injured, but in my mind I moved them into a high-rise downtown. Here was my chance to stop being irrelevant.

But as with most of my grandest plans, I was too afraid to actually do anything. I couldn’t cry and no one would notice me otherwise, so I elbowed one of the crash cymbals out of its tray. People turned and I put my hands to my mouth, all ready to be distraught, but completely lost my nerve. Everyone turned away, back toward the television while the towers angrily smoked. I turned to the boy next to me and interrupted his conversation.

“My aunt is in New York,” I said. His face did not register anything. I was crushed. So I said it again. “I have an aunt. In New York. Right now.”

“Is she okay? Why didn’t your mom come to get you?” I had no answers. I didn’t know anything. I became obscure again.

Mr. L, the band teacher, tried to get us to play. I thought he should probably say something important like how the music would bring us joy in this time of tragedy, but instead he jabbed his white baton at us like he hated us, just a little more than usual. I leaned my head on the big upright bass drum and let the vibrations thunder through me like I was empty. The second tower fell. The trumpets blared their hideous solo while I counted 42 measures of rest.

For the next few years I lied, trying to tell a better story, even though I can’t understand why I wanted to. I made Mr. L a sympathetic character. In this version, he doesn’t make us play. His radio won’t work, so he lets us out into the parking lot to listen to the news in our cars. Probably he sobs over our practice records in his office. In this version I follow Ryan, the junior drummer, out to his car with a group of somber-faced friends. There is not enough room for me in the back seat, so he pulls me onto his lap, and I am close enough to touch the odd half-moon dimple above his left eye. The towers fall, and we think we hear people screaming, and Ryan locks his fingers around me. In this version I am visible, wanted, important. In this version I know about tragedy.

When I get home, my mother rests her head against the humming refrigerator and cries. I start to fear bombs the way my mother fears nuclear fallout. I’m sure the next one is coming. For weeks I can’t stop myself from doodling American flags, over and over.

*     *     *

On the side of the interstate it is far too quiet up in the cavity of the minivan while this woman tries not to die, except for the slow chugging of the exhaust of passing cars, the people inside open-mouthed, saying oh my god and so glad it isn’t them. They will drive home and tell their families; they will feel as if they’ve been a part of something important. Someone else has pulled over, and a swarm of new hands are clutching at the woman trapped in the car. Beth doesn’t look up and swats them away, knows they might break her neck or worse if her back is broken (though she wonders how, really, it could be worse) until she sees the red lights swirling dizzy-round, big men in fire suits, a plastic blue backboard sliding in the snow with its reassuring straps and buckles (she thinks ridiculously of sledding, snow and  ice white-hot-cold on her face); snow drifts, gorgeous and grotesque, into the woman’s hair while the firemen crack the ribs of the minivan wide, slide the woman out. Beth is small so she sits on the backboard with the woman and starts bloody-handed CPR, a cadence she can’t stop, chest compressions. She does what needs to be done. She does not have time to think about its importance. The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over.

The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over. Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine.

Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine. We have decimated the cheese plate, which wasn’t really a cheese plate at all but clearly just crackers from a brown-plastic sleeve and cheese sliced from a few blocks by someone’s mother. It’s all so small I could die. My friends are talking about the pros and cons of buffet versus family-style wedding dinners. None of the things I have to say fit the script. I want to say, really, how many of us are going to be divorced? I want to say that I’ll probably never have enough money to want to buy a house, and is buying a house something I have to care about now? I almost blurt the word mortgage into my glass of chardonnay because that sounds right. So I mention engagement rings, and realize that, fuck me, I’m enjoying myself.

*     *     *

Five years old, at a campground called Marble Springs, I was climbing down the ladder into the swimming hole when I saw a girl floating face down in the water. Tiny waves from the other kids on the shore lapped over her blue bathing suit. I looked at her like she was a sea creature, her blonde hair an anemone crawling outward. I do not remember feeling afraid. I did not know I should be afraid. She was a curiosity. I went to my mother and said, “A girl is floating over there.” My aunt, the one I would later forget on September 11, went over and fished the girl out of the water. Here my memory stops, and I only know what I’ve been told. The girl was heavier than she should’ve been for such a tiny person, so full of water. My aunt, another trained EMT, says she was dead, but she started mouth to mouth anyway. Soon the girl choked, regurgitated water. So much water, my aunt says, gallons and gallons of it. The girl turned from gray-blue to pink again, cried, alive. If it weren’t for you, everyone says, she would probably have died, her brain drowned. But I felt that I had done nothing. I didn’t know anything about ownership of tragedy. I knew I was not a hero. I went back to playing in the sand. To me the water was still clean.

*     *     *

In my family I am surrounded by women who know what they are doing: four trained EMTs, three nurse anesthetists, one medical student. When something bad happens, they do. What if I had been a bit older when I’d seen the drowning girl at Marble Springs, without the instinct to go straight to my mother? Would I still have stepped forward? Or would I have stood back, thinking—what’s going to happen to me?

*    *     *

On the side of the road, the paramedics have finally shown up. Beth still leans on the woman’s chest, trying to pump her unwilling heart, sweating through her clothes; the sweat starting to freeze over, though she can’t tell what’s sweat and what’s blood. She isn’t thinking about the complexities of life and what is meaningful and how we manage it—she does a job. She counts, one two three four five, important numbers. The paramedics lift the back board into the ambulance while she’s still pushing on the dead woman’s chest—and of course she’s dead, how couldn’t she be, with her brain glistening like that, with pieces of her on Beth’s jeans?—but Beth’s arms move compulsively one-two-three-four-five, a bird perched on the back board, until the paramedics say no, stop, she’s gone, too bad, so near Christmas—they say time of death, stop Beth’s counting. Everyone moves so slowly now. Beth is wearing a brand-new outfit, unwrapped from bright-red paper, the fabric perfect and meaningless. Her heart hammers out its own one-two-three-four-five and she is her own earthquake, shuddering. She has to walk back to her car, drive home, have dinner, so fucking normal. Her friend Matt throws up at the sight of her and she tells him it’s okay even though it isn’t, even though he had to stand there talking to the woman’s family, telling them it would be okay when it wouldn’t.

The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat.

On the way back Beth realizes they’ve forgotten dinner so they pull into a Wendy’s. The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat. In the bathroom she tries to clean her face with scratchy paper towels. She does not want to look in the mirror. Matt orders fries and they sit at a plastic table, saying nothing. The fries are hot and salty and she does not want them to taste so good but still, they do.

When I come home, Beth sits on the couch, wrapped in blankets. She can’t get warm. When she tells me what happened, I have nothing to say. Beth had always complained that she drives by accidents too late to help. She always just missed it, and wanted so badly to do something, to be a part of it. I apologize to her like it is my fault, and I feel like somehow it could be.

The next day Beth’s body will ache like she’s absorbed too much, tender to the touch. It will be New Year’s Eve, when we are pretending to start over. The light from Times Square will flicker from the television. On my way out, Beth says, “Wear your seatbelt.” I can’t help myself from telling the story later on that night. I can’t stop telling it. It is a great story for a party. Telling it makes me feel like I might absorb some of my sister, like instead of getting drunk in the afternoon and talking about carats, I might have been doing something important. Later Beth will say she wishes she’d missed the accident. She should never have wanted to be a part of it. She throws her bloodied clothes into the washer because somehow things have to get uncomplicated and clean.

*     *     *

Two years after I have left Boston for San Francisco, two men have bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am riding an exercise bike when I find out, watching the TV with the sound off. Red banner; breaking news. CNN plays the same ten seconds of explosion footage over and over until I realize that I recognize the streets. This, now, is the bomb I have always been sure would come. People lie bleeding with shrapnel studding their bones on Boylston Street where I used to walk to the library, walk to get frozen yogurt on my lunch breaks, my umbrella whipped out of my hand and into the gutter on windy rainy days. I pedal and pedal on the exercise bike, legs whipping in circles, too fast. I can’t seem to stop. I finish my workout but I don’t know why. I tell myself I am too afraid to go find my phone. I try to fend off the thought that finishing my workout might be more important to me than a bombing.

In the locker room, I sit on a wet bench and text all my friends in Boston, my coworkers in the building near the second bombing site. Everyone is fine and I expect to feel relief or feel like I have been a part of something, but instead I feel nothing. I feel sick. I stand in the shower until my skin is red.

I walk to have someplace to go. Here in California, summer winds have blown into town early at 40 miles per hour. The wind blows so hard that my legs are knocked around, askew. I lose track of my feet. I end up in a deserted sushi restaurant. The waitress brings me hot tea and I order much more than I can eat. I’ve been consuming nothing but news for hours. I used to live in Boston, I say. I still can’t help myself. A very bad thing, she says, and turns the TV to CNN for me, turns up the volume. Marathon runners cross the finish line in slow motion. Their legs tick the seconds. One, two, then the bomb blooms orange beside them, the energy wave rippling through their bodies simultaneously. It is almost beautiful.

In the library next, I try to read. The wind howls at the windows like an angry cat. It claws in through the seams so hard that I can feel it through the walls. It feels wrong that it should be so sunny. On my phone I thumb through the news. A picture is marked as graphic; a friend warns me not to look at it. I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to look. But of course I am. Of course I look. A young, ash-covered man in a wheelchair clutches his thigh. From the knee down, his leg has been blown off. His bone is so white and his skin flutters like bright red ribbons around a maypole. His eyes are open. He is awake.

Everything ordinary is horrible: the Styrofoam coffee cup in front of me, the blonde-haired boy in the fiction section clutching at his mother’s leg and calling mom mom mom. While Boston is in lockdown for the manhunt, my friend calls to tell me she is terrified, but she is taking her dog for a walk anyway, and it feels big and important. I want to tell her she is important. An ordinary thing is good. I want to be okay with smallness but I know the big important things will continue to come and I will still be unsure how I measure up. My father calls me and says he is glad I’m not in Boston anymore. I tell him, me too. For once I do not want to be a part of it.

I want to talk to Beth. She would know what to do, how to act, where to measure the pulse, how to breathe properly. I want her to say, that girl is floating over there; I am an EMT. I want to go back to the swimming hole and save the drowning girl not by accident, but on purpose; to know the simple and right thing to do.


Jill Kolongowski grew up in Michigan. She is the managing editor at YesYes Books and is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at St. Mary’s College of California. She’s also a proud member of the 3-4-5 writing community. Her work can be found in Pithead Chapel, Revolution House, Fugue, and elsewhere.

Kaleidoscope Mind

I am not your stereotype. People often have a preconceived notion of what Attention Deficit Disorder looks like. They imagine little children running around like wild animals, having temper tantrums, not paying attention, lacking the desire to learn. When I explain that the scene they imagine isn’t anything like my life, they don’t believe me. Possibly they imagine me running around my house when I get out of work like a madwoman—arms flailing, jumping from sofa cushion to sofa cushion. (I don’t have the energy.) They assume my house is in shambles—dirty dishes in the bathtub, car keys in the freezer, dog food on the nightstand. (It can get disorganized, but nothing like that.)

ADD manifests in people differently, although the term suggests a problem with attention, mine is with memory. I can’t remember what I am thinking. I can’t recall what I should be doing, or what my priorities are. I could tell you what I was wearing on Columbus Day in seventh grade when Jason Almeida asked me to be his girlfriend—light blue, ripped jeans and a periwinkle baby-tee with a pink heart sewn on the chest—but I can’t figure out what training I attended yesterday at work, or, mid-conversation, I may have to stop and ask the person I’m speaking with what point I was trying to make.

I can’t remember whether I fed my dog, so I feed her again. I can’t remember whether I returned a friend’s call, so I call again. I can’t remember whatever it is I am trying to remember. This means that bills are never paid, tasks are not completed at work, and people feel neglected. I forget friends’ birthdays; I forget to put gasoline in my car. The alarm doesn’t go off because I didn’t set it, and I wake up late for work. Once I am already on my way, I realize the tank is empty, and I need to turn off the highway and stop at a gas station so that I don’t end up on the side of the road, with the lever resting on empty. My life is a constant struggle of trying to remember things that I do not even realize I forgot.

My life is a constant struggle of trying to remember things that I do not even realize I forgot.

I know I have the ability to find my thoughts. I just can’t figure out how. The thoughts are lost, and I always feel like I’m bordering on panic. It’s similar to losing a piece of jewelry while swimming in the ocean. You had the ring on your finger, yet when you emerge from the waves, your hand is bare. You didn’t even feel the metal slip away while you let your hands crash into the waves and move your body along the water. Like my thoughts, the ring can’t be found. You know where they both are—the ring sinking somewhere in the ocean, my thoughts trapped somewhere in my brain.

Sometimes I see the glint of a thought in the murk, so I push deeper, concentrate harder. This is what it feels like most of the time. Forgetting something, pausing to remember what it is I’m trying to recall, the sudden feeling that I might be headed in the right direction, but unsure of the exact location. Forging through, I spend much of my day in limbo. There are moments of clarity, times of unknowing, but between the two, I sort of float in the indeterminate state of uncertainty. A constant reminder that I am misplaced.

When my thoughts are not lost, they are unpredictable, and I’m unable to grab at them. When I was depressed a few years ago, this was much worse. It was like an amusement park ride, the merry-go-round, where thoughts circle around and around and around. I try to keep my eye on just one horse, but it rides away, blends into the others. Almost being able to reap the reward, but never being prepared enough to get the prize.

I am supposed to remember to take my medication. After two years of missing doses, I’ve finally started to remember to take the pills every morning. Before, I only took them every two days, or once in the morning and the next day in the evening. Never with enough regularity to make the medication work.

I complain about not being able to think and having jumbled thoughts, but I have the opportunity to do something to make myself better, and I don’t do it. I won’t feel better if I don’t take the medication, but if the medication wears off, I just don’t remember that I need more.

Most people might envision a simple solution: Remember to take the medication. They might suggest I find some way to set up a reminder system that will force me to take my medication. That, in fact, is correct. I need to set up a foolproof system that forces me to take my medication. I have tried putting my pills on my sink so that I take them when I brush my teeth in the morning. I forget, or I knock them down the drain by accident. I have tried taping them to my calendar. I forget to look, or it takes me a minute to figure out what day it is, and by the time I’ve sorted that out, I can’t remember why I am staring at the calendar. I send myself automatic emails at work: “TAKE YOUR DAMN MEDS, ERIN!!!!!!!!!” That worked for the first week. Then I forgot to keep sending the emails.

I used to be opposed to taking medication, especially because Attention Deficit Disorder is medicated with controlled substances. I grew up believing I could handle all of my problems without any outside help. To be unable to handle thinking makes me feel like a failure. Failing and forgetting do not make for a successful brain.

Even now, when I can feel the effects of the medication, I’m still ashamed. Prescriptions for controlled substances can only be dispensed in thirty-day sets, so every month, I need to contact my doctor and ask for a refill. Then, I need to pick up the prescription from her office, which is twenty minutes away, and travel the twenty minutes back to my hometown pharmacy. I need to wait in line, have all the documents ready before it’s my turn. I need to present a form of photo identification. The pharmacy clerk takes my ID, looks at me, looks at my prescription, and looks back at the ID before writing my birthday and license number on the prescription.

There is always a second glance. Once, while handing over my ID, the pharmacy clerk told me that his daughter takes the same medication. He asked me whether I have a boy or girl, and then he realized the name on my ID is the same name on the prescription.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have assumed. You just look so professional and, well…,” he says, stammering, “you just don’t look like you’d need this.” I’m not quite sure how to take his comment. Do professional people not need medication? And if they don’t, does that make me less of a professional? And if, because I rely on a medication to help me stay focused, and I’m viewed as less than professional, who am I? I wish I’d asked him.

I tend to fill my prescriptions on Saturday nights, after I leave my second job, where I work as a psychiatric case manager for adults with mood and personality disorders. I’m exhausted because by this point, I’ve been working every day without a single day off in weeks. I’ve driven the forty-five-minute trip home; it’s almost midnight. I need to be back at work by 8:00 am, which means I need to leave the house by 7:00. I want to get in and out of the pharmacy as quickly as possible. At this point, I’m lucky if I’ll sleep five and a half hours. More than likely, I’ll only have four or five.

I usually see the same pharmacist every month. He’s an older man, and he’s always busy when I show up, but he stops what he is doing as soon as he sees me and always fills my order in less than ten minutes. He’s nice, always makes me smile, and remembers my name.

My mother tells me he used to be friendly with my father. The next time I see Bruce—whether that’s his real name or not, I can’t be sure, but that’s what I’ve taken to calling him—I wonder what he thinks when he fills my orders. As a pharmacist, you know all of the medication prescribed to every member of a family, but you don’t have access to any of their medical records. You don’t know whether Wellbutrin is prescribed as a method to help someone quit smoking or to alleviate their depression. You don’t know why a person needs the medication you are preparing for them. You can only speculate. Now that I know Bruce knows my father, I wonder about him. I wonder if he’s only been nice to me because he is familiar with my family or because I’ve actually developed a rapport with him. I wonder if he knows my name because I stop and talk to him whenever I’m in the store or because he sees Corriveau on the prescription and remembers who my father is. I wonder if he ever looked at my prescription history and thought, Wow, what the hell went wrong with her?

I want to ask him how he remembers this, but I don’t.

Either way, Bruce does his job well. Recently, my doctor changed my medication from the capsule to the pill form. Before he even looked at the computer, Bruce asked me if there was a change. “I thought you got the suspended release not the long-acting,” he says before I walk over to the seating area. I want to ask him how he remembers this, but I don’t. I just smile and tell him that yes, a change was made, and thank him for being so cognizant.

 *     *     *

I don’t realize how much I appreciate Bruce until he isn’t there one late Saturday night. Traffic is heavy, so I don’t arrive at CVS until about 11:55 pm. I don’t look as presentable as usual. I haven’t put on any makeup that day. I am more tired and worn out than usual. One of my clients was suicidal today, and I spent the entire night talking to him about what was bothering him, making him sign a safety contract, taking away all the possible tools he could use to hurt himself out of his apartment. These included: all knives, forks, letter openers, any rope or twine, his belts including the one on his robe, can openers (in case he opened a can of tuna and used the serrated top to cut himself), razors, plastic bags, duct tape, car keys, medications, light bulbs, bottles of house cleaner. It would have been much easier to just lock him out of his apartment than to take almost everything out of it. Fortunately, nothing happened. From the way he was talking, I suspect his suicidal claims were just a behavioral outburst, his way of searching for attention. But I’m not a mind reader, and I didn’t know what he was thinking. If he tells me he is feeling suicidal, I am not going to question him; I’ll trust those words. By the time I arrive at the pharmacy, I am tired, physically and emotionally. I want to sleep. I don’t want to have to go back to work in the morning.

There is no one in the pharmacy section of CVS besides the pharmacist and me. He looks flustered, we make eye contact, and I decide to just wait patiently at the drop-off station. Two minutes go pass.

“I’m busy,” he shouts, with his back turned to me. I don’t quite know how to respond, as I never expected him to say this. Should I just turn around and leave? Stand there silent or begin an argument? A moment later he turns and says, “Oh, you’re still there?”

He grunts and, with much exaggeration, stops what he is doing, and drags his feet over to the drop-off window. “Yes?” he asks, looking at me. I already have the prescription and my identification in front of me. I push them closer to him.

“I just need one prescription filled,” I say to him. He pushes my ID back to me.

“What are you giving this to me for?” he asks, and I start to second guess myself. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you don’t need to provide an ID when you drop off a prescription for a controlled substance, just when you pick it up. I put it back in my wallet. “Ritalin!” he exclaims, “I’m not filling this now, sweetheart.”

“Excuse me,” I ask him. “Why can’t you fill my order?”

“Oh, so now you’re getting sassy with me, aren’t you? Waited until the middle of the night to fill these controlled meds, and now you just want me to stop everything I’m doing because it suits your needs.” He waves his hands in the air as he says this, and I have a hard time not laughing because he reminds me of one of my clients who circles his hands in front of himself when he’s nervous.

I know there are a lot of rules about filling controlled substances, but I’ve been here before at this time of night. That can’t be why he doesn’t want to fill my meds.

Yes, I think, I do expect you to stop whatever you are doing behind the counter and fill my medication. For all the years I’ve taken anything, be it birth control or antibiotics, I’ve always had the order completed while I wait. It’s like going to a restaurant and having a waitress confront you about your interest in food. He is a pharmacist. It’s not like I showed up at his house at 1:00 am, a drug-sick little puppy looking for my next fix.

I don’t have the patience to argue with this man or even converse with him any longer.

“Is Bruce working tonight?” I ask, hoping he’s just taking a break, that I can wander the store until he returns and helps me.

“Listen, sweetheart. I’m here to help you, and like I said, I don’t have time to be filling your drugs right now.” He emphasizes the word drugs. “You can come and pick it up tomorrow, maybe.”

I’m furious with his ignorance, yet too tired and frustrated to even come up with a response. I stand there and stare. He shifts his feet. Fidgets with my prescription paper, and looks away from me, then back at me, away again, and finally says, “What do you want from me?”

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and when I open them, his brows are furrowed, slanted toward his eyes in irritation. I think for a minute about how my grandmother used to tell me that my face would permanently be stuck like that when I pouted as a child. I imagine this man’s face being stuck like that, and how he’d interact with people in happy situations like weddings and births if he always looked like he was so miserable. Then I started thinking about the women who have so much Botox that their faces retain a look of excitement for days afterward. Their skin is so taught that they always look youthful and excited. Even now, my ADD distracts me.

“Here is what you are going to do,” I start. “You are going to look up my insurance information in the computer. Next, you will put in this current prescription. As soon as it is approved, you are going to go behind that counter over there, and count out thirty pills. When you’re done, you will put them in a little bottle, place my identifying label on the bottle, and then I will meet you over there by that counter with those registers, and I will pay you my $30 copayment. Understand?”

He looks at me, blinks his eyes once—twice maybe—and then backs away, goes to the computer, and begins entering the information necessary to fill my prescription.

I’m proud, I realize as I sit in the waiting area. I never stick up for myself. Always too shy to create conflict, I let others have their way and shove my needs further back until they are unrecognizable.

“Don’t expect me to get this quickly,” the pharmacist says, interrupting my thoughts.

I close my eyes again, take another deep breath. I’m zoning out, not paying attention at this point, because with ADD, you either make the choice to obsess about the little details you have available to you—the irritating, rude man, the way his voice sounds when he says the words drug and Ritalin—or you fall into a vapid void of thoughtlessness. I’m in the void now; it’s safer there. If I were to obsess any more, I’d be more miserable.

Some time goes by, and I notice the pharmacist laughing, talking to the man who is leaning against the counter where I stood moments ago. “Those Yankees are going to do it this year, I’m telling you. I’d put a thousand dollars on the Yankees winning the series.”

Now, it is one thing for a person to have no customer-service skills. I can handle that, even if it drives me crazy. It’s another thing to stand there joking and gossiping with a stranger while blatantly making me wait. And to do so while celebrating the New York Yankees? That is crossing the line. I refuse to sit, being purposely forgotten, while an ignorant, rude man roots for my Red Sox’s arch nemesis. I will not stand by and watch this happen.

I rise from my seat and walk with serious intention over to the cash registers. There is a clock behind the register that wasn’t in my view when I was sitting down. 12:39 am. It has almost been an entire hour since I stepped foot in this building. All I need are thirty pills. Thirty pills. That’s almost two whole minutes that could be dedicated toward putting each single pill into a container. Two damned minutes for each pill, and he has not even stepped away from his counter to begin counting.

“Excuse me,” I say, interrupting their conversation. I begin my rant. “I have been here for almost an hour waiting for you to do the job you are paid to do. You have berated me and broken HIPAA regulations by shouting out my medication. If I do not have my pills in my hand in five minutes, there will be consequences.”

I want to smash this man’s head against the counter a few times. I want to watch it bounce like a basketball against the floor, but I just stand there.

“Listen, sugar,” he begins. Sugar? Honey? Sweetheart? Not only is he violating medical record laws, he’s bordering on sexual harassment.

He continues, “If you don’t stop your violence, I’m going to call security.” I actually turn around and look behind me. Violence? Was someone behind me threatening this man? I might be direct with my words, but I’m a five-one petite, blonde girl dressed in work clothes. I’m exhausted, and my body language reflects my fatigue. I don’t look threatening.

Mr. Pharmacy Jerk continues, looking at me, “I can see why you need these drugs, sweetheart. You’ve got no patience. You can’t wait five minutes for me to talk to another man while you sit in your little chair. You’ll never make it in the real world.”

I miss Bruce.

Sometimes I wonder if I can stop the medication. I don’t like knowing I will be reliant on a substance my whole life simply to function. Even though I take the meds, there are still life skills I need to practice.

Sometimes I wonder if I can stop the medication.

I rewrite lists. Over and over again. There are many reasons I do this. I do it because if I don’t keep looking at the list, I will forget what it is I need to accomplish. I do it because once I start crossing items off of the list, it starts to look messy, and I don’t like to look at a messy list. My life needs to look clean and organized in order for me to feel clean and organized. So when the overwhelming list starts to look disordered, it blocks me. I feel like I can’t control it, and instead of pushing ahead full stream, I retreat. Because that is what I do when my brain feels overwhelmed—I make the conscious decision to retreat even farther.

So I make my lists and then I remake them. And then I make them again. I do this because list making has been consistent in my life. It might fail me here and there when my brain retreats, but in terms of consistency, I’ve always been able to rely on my lists. They’ve been with me since before I even considered ADD as a possible diagnosis. They’ve been with me for as long as I remember. College, definitely. High school, yes. I spent more time writing notes to my girlfriends and boyfriends than actually list making, but it was the same type of distraction. I listened with my brain in class as much as I could without feeling overwhelmed and then utilize the rest of my brain to creatively distract. If I stay attentive and distracted at the same time, I succeed. I take in the information that’s being given to me, and I release the information that’s bugging me.

Each of my notebooks has much more in it than class notes. My blank pages are covered with shopping lists and reminders and drawings of tattoos I might want in the future and directions to the closest gas station. I need to take the time to write the random thoughts floating in my head. I do this to make more room for the lessons.

I’m known for being a great note-taker, which is partially true. Even though only about six-tenths of my focus in class is on the lesson, I’d never succeed if I didn’t try to write everything down. It can be a bit of double processing, but as my boss says when she wants me to increase my documentation, “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” This is especially important when it comes to my lists.

Tasks that seem ridiculously simple for some people to remember will not get done unless I create a to-do list. If “take out the trash” isn’t written down, the full bags will sit in the bathroom and the kitchen. The same goes for laundry. If I don’t write down that I need to wash and dry my clothes, I am not going to do it until I am completely out of every last outfit. This could be why I own so much clothing. I will be in the bathroom and notice the full trash bag every time I sit down on the toilet. And, yes, I will realize I’m running out of underwear, but, no, I will not be motivated to act unless it’s an item I can cross off a sheet of paper.

Welcome to the world of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

It is a disease of piles. Everything in my life is a problem with accumulation. Physical piles, including laundry on my floor, bills on my desk, photos on the coffee table, empty packets of Sour Patch Kids and plastic bottles on the floor of my SUV. There are piles everywhere I turn. One trick that does not work for me is writing notes on Post-Its or scraps of paper—another accumulated stack. The notes disappear. Not all, but some. Some notes that were supposed to go together become separated, and while one note says, “Call the insurance company and get rental coverage added to your policy,” makes sense, I can’t call if I lose the other sticky that has the number written on it.

You might think I could just look up the phone number on the internet or call 411 for information, but I can’t, because I don’t remember the name of my car-insurance carrier, the same place that has insured me for the past decade. I try the internet, even though I have no clue what I’m looking for. I type in “insurance company, Fall River, MA” and see a list of possible agencies. Almeida Insurance sounds familiar, until I look at the address and realize the only reason the name sounds right is because it is down the street from my house, and I pass it on my way to work—not because I am their customer. I think to look at the addresses on the Google list in order to find my agency. I know it is off of Eastern Avenue because it’s also close to my house, and I used to order Italian grinders from the diner across the street. I scan through the list, but there are no insurance companies listed on Eastern Avenue.

This does not make sense. I can picture the building. It’s on Eastern Avenue. Wait, it’s on the corner of Eastern Ave. What is the name of the other street? I scan the list of address again. Many of the streets sound familiar. I’ve lived in this city almost my entire life; all the streets are familiar, I just don’t know which one is correct. I spend more than an hour looking at the list, clicking through all the websites, trying to sleuth my way to an answer. I call 411, ask the operator if she knows what insurance company is on the corner of Eastern Avenue in Fall River, Massachusetts. After I hang up the phone, without any more clues, I can’t remember why I need to call the insurance company. I go to a meeting, but I’m distracted the whole time, thinking about my insurance company. The next day, I’m looking at my computer screen trying to figure out what number is on the Post-It I taped to the screen yesterday. It’s my insurance company: Lapointe Insurance.

Now, if I could only remember why I wanted to call them.

erin corriveauErin A. Corriveau is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life. Keep in touch with her @ReinventingErin

Camille T. Dungy, Poet

Camille T. Dungy

Photo: Marcia Wilson/WideVision Photograpy

Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver, Colorado and grew up in California. She received her B.A. from Stanford University and M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Her poems and essays have been published widely in anthologies, print, and online journals. She is also the editor of several anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry.

She is a two-time recipient of the Northern California Book Award, a Silver Medal Winner in the California Book Award, and two-time NAACP Image Award nominee. She was recognized in the Huffington Post Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry for her role as co-founder of From the Fishouse, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the oral tradition of poetry. Recently a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University, Dungy is now a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

Candace Butler interviewed Dungy at The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Candace Butler: What project are you working on right now?

Camille T. Dungy: That’s a good lead question, but a hard one to answer. It seems like it wouldn’t be a hard one to answer. And maybe a little bit later it wouldn’t be hard to answer what project I’m working on right now, but when I’m between books—as I am right now—there’s a period of time where I’m not working on a project. I’m just working on writing a poem and then writing another poem and then writing another poem. And then there’ll be a point at which there’s a kind of tractor pull that gets created, some sort of gravitational pull of all those bodies that make something clearly be moving in one direction. But I haven’t gotten there yet, so I don’t know. I’m just writing the poems one at a time, and I think that’s a really important thing to remember: that that’s what we’re doing. We think so frequently in terms of books—and that’s an important aspect of things—but it’s not where it begins for poets. For poets, it begins with each poem, one at a time.

CB: What have you been reading recently?

CTD: I am right now re-reading Ruth Padel’s book Darwin about her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, partly because I’m interested in the way poets use notes. And so I was reading a lot of books that are playing with footnotes or side notes or endnotes and incorporated notes and just the different ways that people can document their knowledge—so another book that I really am fascinated by is Jena Osman’s book The Network that often pulls in other information and there’s a poet named Tung-Hui Hu and the book is called Greenhouses, Lighthouses. All these books, in different ways, incorporate external material and have to create a way of citing those sources that I’m finding curious. You know, in Suck on the Marrow it took me the longest time to figure out how to make the notes for that book. And the long poem at the end, “Primer, Or A History of These United States (Abridged),” is the notes section. In original versions of the book it’s just a “Notes” section, and I was so bored by that; I knew there was information that needed to be there for people who weren’t going to know these details, but I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate that, especially since the characters were fictional set in real time. So there was this overlap between what really happened and what didn’t really happen but I wanted to feel like really happened, and how do you do that in the notes? And eventually I figured out that the “Primer” was going to be my way of conveying all the background information that you might need for the book. So I just have rekindled my curiosity in figuring out other poets’ answers to that question.

CB: You’ve mentioned the cover on the 1990 British edition of The Virago Book of Love Poetry “was part of the wonder of the book” for you, and you wrote that “it sent [you] scurrying to learn more about Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo at the same time [you were] discovering more about the poets featured within the covers.” Since the cover is important to you, as it is to many people, would you mind talking a bit about the covers of your books?

CTD: Sure. All of my books’ covers have presented themselves to me as undeniably my book covers. Each time, I’ve been really lucky with that. For What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, my first book, I had a calendar back in the old fashioned days where you used to have desk calendars. You know, they’re journals, and they would have—every week or every month—they would have a different picture on the pages? I miss that, actually, because it was a way to be presented with art that I wouldn’t necessarily see. This particular one, I just flipped open a page—whatever that week or month was—and there was this incredible image by the collage artist James Denmark. I just loved it. It’s just—the book’s title is What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and there’s this woman tripping over air and through a garden with a bowl of lettuce in her hands. And it just seems—and there are other plants growing—and it just seems so perfect for the book. So I wrote to the artist, and he said, “Sure.”

And then, with Suck on the Marrow, I had an idea for what I wanted for the book cover, and my press didn’t like it. And they had an idea for what they wanted for the book cover, and I hated it (laughs). And so it was midnight and Mark Cull, the designer at the press—he’s also the managing editor at the press—said we’ve got to come up with the cover ASAP, so I’m just looking through, you know—the internet existed by that point, thank goodness—and I was just searching and searching, and I was at the Library of Congress website partly because I needed access to things we knew could be free. So I’m just looking at 19th century images and I came across the one that is on the cover of Suck on the Marrow. It’s a candid shot essentially—it might’ve been posed, but it feels candid—of a man standing outside on a frame of what looks like a building is being constructed and it is so clearly central Virginia. I mean, so clearly like the landscape I was writing about. And so there was Joseph Freeman, one of the book’s main characters, standing there. So that was my image. It was chilling how that one image turned out to be so right. They did a beautiful job of the cover, I think, because they used a font that had a kind of old-timey feel and then they let the image completely fill the margins of the book cover so there’s no framing on the image. The whole cover is the image, which I love. And so that made me really happy.

And then I was working on my anthology Black Nature, flipping through a Gordon Parks book looking for writing—essays, right?—that could fit, and I bumped into this image that’s this little boy with a june bug on a string and a little fly is on his cheek and he’s lying in the middle of a field. It’s a complicated picture because the boy is torturing this bug, but there’s this other free bug on him. There’s this youthful innocence but also this violence; it’s perfect for what’s going on inside of Black Nature. And also, while I was searching through books for Black Nature, I came across this photographer named Dudley Edmondson, who had done a book called Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places. It’s a photo collection of people who do really great things in the outdoors: a man who’s a falconer and a woman who’s a prize rock climber and a U.S. park ranger named Shelton Johnson who does a lot of work with talking about blacks in the old west and Buffalo Soldiers. So some really fascinating people who do things outside, and so that was my introduction to Dudley Edmonson. I started looking up his work online. His portraits are beautiful, and I was just interested in him as a photographer, and he had a whole portfolio on birds and my raptor shows up in one of his images. It just had to be this hawk in the middle of this blue sky. He’s coming down and you can see the talons sticking out, and it’s gorgeous; so that I knew had to be the cover of Smith Blue, which is a book about environmental degradation and rapture and horror and love and again the image on the cover seems to be exactly right. Each time I just had the feeling “that has to be the cover of my book and there’s no doubt about it.” So that’s the story of my book covers.

CB: Thank you. You have found inspiration in reading the works of other writers, have listened to Mozart while writing “Requiem,” and have talked about the many truths depicted in Picasso’s “Guernica” mural in your “The Truth’s Superb Surprise” lecture at AULA in June. Can you tell us more about the inspiration you find in other art forms? I know you just talked a bit about all the serendipity in your covers. Do you find more for individual poems or—

CTD: Oh, sure. We could go on and on. Part of the nature of being a poet, part of the nature of being a writer, but also part of the nature of being an artist, is being porous, being open to stimulation and inspiration and finding in unlikely places connection with the human spirit, with your own longing for passion. So I find companionship, I guess, with the work of other artists who are doing the same thing, and frequently I find that musicians or visual artists have found a way to express an interpretation—or a distillation of a hitherto unarticulated thought—in a way that gives me a pathway into being able to articulate it in language whereas they’ve done it in sound or visually; I now have to render that in English, but they help me towards that direction.

CB: Antioch University advocates social justice. Can you approach this issue from a craft perspective?

CTD: Maybe. Can you be a little more specific what you mean?

CB: Well, if you could just talk about how we can incorporate social justice issues into our poetry, into our writing.

Part of the nature of being a poet… is being porous

CTD: Okay. Yes. I don’t see any other more important thing to do in writing. As I said, I think that poetry is an articulation of who we can be in the world. Ben Okri says, “The writer writes because he believes that what he sees is not all that can be.” Or something close to that (laughs). (In an email message to the interviewer on September 16th, Dungy said, “What he really says, in The Times in December of 1991, is “The poet is set against the world because he cannot accept that what there seems to be is all that there is.”) So why not use my poetry to try and make true that this world can be a better place? Why not use my poetry to try and make people uncomfortable with how things are so that they can move towards trying to change things towards something better? Or uncomfortable with how things were so they can move towards trying not to replicate them? Or see those things in their world? One of the most touching moments to me when I was touring with Suck on the Marrow, which is a collection about the abolition movement of the 19th century, was being in a border town in Texas and somebody saying that they didn’t realize that a poem in the book was about the 19th century until they got to the word “abolition.” They thought that it was about then, that moment, and that’s what I want. I want us to see where we haven’t changed, but could. As much as where we have changed, and for the better. Writing’s powerful; it makes the world. And so I think it’s important that the world I’m making is a world that tends toward improvement.

CB: What is your writing process like on a daily basis?

CTD: You’ve got a four year old; I’ve got a three and a half year old. She used to be a great morning sleeper. She’d sleep until eight thirty or nine and I would wake up at five thirty or six and get a good, solid chunk of writing done before she woke up, but…nothing gold lasts (laughs). So now I’m learning to write late at night again after she goes to bed. You know, you’ve just got to kind of wiggle around until you find a pattern that works. But then you’ve got to be willing to wiggle around again, because the pattern will change. You move, your family stops cooperating the way that it did, that coffee shop you used closed, your computer breaks down—you just can’t be completely tied to any particular routine because routines change and if the routine is what you need for the writing, and it changes, then you lose the writing. So I’ve never believed that I have to have a routine. I have what works, and what works for now is what I use. And then something else works, and then that’s what I use.

CB: I read your blog entry on Harriet about the relationship between the writing process and dreams. Are your dreams similar in structure or imagery to your poetry?

CTD: In that post I’m talking about a conversation that I had once with Richard Siken and Heriberto Yépez. We were all reading in the same place, and we had a long afternoon break, and I took a nap. And I got to the dinner and told them all about my dream and both of them are just staring at me like I’m a crazy person. My dream was this long, soap operatic, interconnected thing where there were all these characters showing up—it was like a little soap opera. And Richard Siken says, “If I dream at all, it’s like…green.” (laughs). And Yépez, too, he said that he dreamed in this entirely different way. But both of them, interestingly, the way they said they dreamed, to me, mimicked the way that I understood them to write. And so, I thought that it was intriguing to think that maybe the way our subconsciouses work were entries to the way we are able to write. And I do tend to write more character-driven work and at the time that I was having that dream, I was probably right in the middle of writing Suck on the Marrow, which was a long soap opera with a lot of intertwined characters who come in and out. So I was living in a world of imagined people; my brain was working through that. I still have a tendency to dream narratively, and that’s the way that I lean in my writing. Though I think that my writing is perhaps significantly more frayed narratives than it was when I was having the conversation about which I was talking. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that. I haven’t thought about whether my dreams have changed or whether it’s just that my poems have changed. (In an email message to the interviewer on September 16th, Dungy said, “I’ll say, on further reflection, that my poems have changed a lot since I had my daughter, and my ability to dream has also changed a lot. My sleep is significantly more fractured, stitched together in odd and seemingly improbable ways. So maybe there is a connection after all.”)

CB: When you’re not writing, editing, or teaching, what do you enjoy doing?

CTD: That’s a really good question because those are very time-consuming occupations, writing, editing, and teaching. I like just being one of two things: either by myself or with my family. I should put “being with my family” first, and then “being by myself” because I like them. They’re fun people, and they give me a lot. And they’re very patient with me and the amount of time I spend with the writing, editing, and teaching (the former two of which require me to be by myself a lot). So I like to give back to them, too. I like cooking for said family and for friends and other people who pop by. And then I like being outside in a myriad of ways: hiking or kayaking or…I’m learning how to ski now. I just moved to Colorado—no, I know how to ski, but I haven’t skied in twenty years, so I’m going to relearn how to ski. I’m going to teach my daughter this winter because we’re going to live in the snow. We might as well use it.

CB: Do you feel like you compromise or sacrifice something in your life to write your poetry?

CTD: Sure, absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t think it’s possible to do anything in the world without compromising something. And certainly not anything that takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. I mean, I just said I value my family and I partly value my family because they give me the space that I need to write and to work. And then I know that that’s a sacrifice on their part to do that; I like to honor them for that. But I think, and they think, that I am a better person to be around when I’ve gotten enough writing done, and so it’s worth it to them, too. I actually waited a long time to get married and to a guy who has from the very start been supportive of me as an artist. And so, that was a condition of our relationship, right? I chose him as the person I would commit to because he was supportive of me in that way, but that’s a sacrifice for everybody in some way. I could have had a very different kind of relationship. I might not have been a particularly happy person, but I could have had a different kind of relationship. Yeah, no, writing takes time. Anything that takes time demands sacrifices.

CB: I’ve noticed you have a great command of spacing and enjambment—especially in Suck on the Marrow and Smith Blue. How do you know when to leave blank space, and how much? Is it intuitive? Do you scribble it down that way from the beginning? Or do you find during revision that a poem needs more openness somehow?

CTD: A really good question. No, it doesn’t get scribbled down that way from the beginning, I can say that. And if it is intuitive, it’s not intuitive in that it’s unthought. A lot of it has to do with breath—figuring out how, where I want both the sonic pauses and the visual pauses, which can contradict each other. Sometimes I want a break to be forced where a break is not desired. I want you to stop some place you wouldn’t if you were just reading prose, and think about what it is that you’ve already experienced, and let that resonate for a little while, and then move forward; and that’s where an internal break or a line break can really push against breath, can push against how you would read it if you were just reading the sentence. So that’s one of the aspects. And then I think you’re right about space, I think that I often just—poems might come when I’m just writing them, they might come in blocks—and then I want to figure how to get room into the poem and how to give a lot more of that, and it might do alright. Actually, my newer writing has even more lines that are playing a lot like the poem “Five for Truth” in Smith Blue; you know, lines that are jagged across the page. That seems to be a direction I’m moving in more and more because it is about slowing down experience. When we are in a moment of heightened emotion—pain, terror—it feels sometimes like time slows down. But of course it doesn’t. The reason why it feels—it doesn’t, time doesn’t change, but there’s a physiological reason that it feels like time slows down, and it’s because more of your receptors are open because you’re stressed. And so you become more alert: you see more, you physically feel more, smell more, taste more than you would normally. Because normally we kind of go through life, and we shut down a lot of external responses. And when you’re stressed, you open them all up because you need to have all that awareness. So the reason time feels like it has changed is because you take in five external stimuli in a space where you would normally just take in one. And so you think, well, that must have been five seconds long, but it was really one second long, right? Okay. One of the things that I think spacing a poem can do when you kind of move it out across the page and create more gaps in it and more stanza breaks and indentation and—you’re stressing your reader a little bit. You’re demanding slightly more of your reader, and you’re asking them to see line breaks and changes and pay attention to more end words than they would. You’re creating more opportunity for more stimulus to come in, and time slows down. So if you do it right—they could also just get frustrated (laughs)—but if you do it right, it’s a way of mimicking this idea of time slowing down and more coming in and more responses happening and paying more careful attention to the words than they would if it was just kind of all piled together and they’re running over the language really, really quickly.

You’re paying attention to how the world organizes itself and to the possibilities of how that might be described.

CB: I want to ask you about a specific poem, if I may. The two narratives in “Lesson” are distanced by the white space and italics separating them, but the contrapuntal form confines them in the same place and time. How does a poem like this come into being? Did you have two separate poems that were eventually fused together? Or did you know you were going to utilize this form when you began?

CTD: So “Code” on the other side does the same thing but differently. And I think I might be able to speak to them together. That was a form I was very interested in. This contrapuntal form, or stichomythia, is a Greek term for a winged poem that operates in the way that “Lesson” does. And “Code” is a mutated version of that idea because the one longer narrative subsumes the shorter narrative. Conceptually, in the book, I wanted an understanding that these are two worlds that are living simultaneously and sometimes independently and sometimes not. So sometimes when I have those poems, you can read three poems, and sometimes you can only read two. Sometimes you can extract one side of the poem and get that whole thought, and the whole thought with the extraction removed, and then with everything together. Sometimes you extract part, and the extracted part exists, but the part from which it has been extracted collapses and doesn’t work. That’s sort of what happens when you’re talking about a slave society or a society that is really dependent on people’s labor. Sometimes you take those people out, and the other people kind of keep living without even noticing. Sometimes you take those people out, and it just falls apart. There’s a relatively contemporary movie called A Day Without a Mexican which is based on a W. E. B. DuBois story about “a day in Philadelphia when all the Black people disappear.” What happens at the turn of the 20th century when you get rid of all the black people? What happens in California at the turn of the 21st century when you get rid of all the Mexicans? Nothing happens. It all collapses, right? And so, this is really part of the process. So, yes, I sat down thinking how am I going to create a poem that has independent individual narratives that are self-sustaining but may or may not sustain that other narrative. It’s hard because you’ve got to be able to make the sentence that flows up to the one on the other side work and then—yeah, so it took a long time for me to write those poems. In “Lesson,” all the language is mine. “Code” and “Complicit”—there’s also a poem “Runaway ran away” where I tweak the language (it’s part mine and part ad)—but “Code and “Complicit” are ads that I found in period magazines. In 19th century magazines and newspapers. So I’m using the actual language of the time and then I’m building around it my own. How do I write my own sentence where in that sentence, I’ll use the word ostler? That’s not a word we use today! What’s an ostler, right? And so I would have to kind of create my language to ride up to this 19th century language, which is something I was really trying to do in the book anyway. I was trying to create a contemporary-to-us language that also incorporated—realistically, I guess—the 19th century language. I was trying not to be anachronistic. I was trying to make sure that I stuck with language they would use in the 19th century, descriptions that they would use. So a wealthy person is going to be drinking brandy whereas a poor person is going to be drinking whiskey, you know, and it’s those kinds of details that I wanted to make sure retained their period viability even though I’m not using, you know—there’s no ye’s, there’s no ye old shoppe with two p’s and an e (laughs). I’m not a hundred percent sure that I entirely answered your question.

CB: You definitely did. So what is your advice for an aspiring poet in today’s world?

CTD: I think it goes back to your original question of what my project is, and my advice is to just write poems. To remove yourself from—in the moment of writing—to remove yourself from the marketplace aspect of poetry, and just write a poem. And then write another poem, and write the best poems that you can, and revise those poems again and again. And then to read a lot. You have to read a lot to know what’s out there and what can be out there, but you’re not just reading today’s work. And you’re not just reading American poetry, and you’re not just reading poetry. You’re reading nonfiction. You’re reading fiction. You’re reading visual art. You’re reading music, you know. You’re reading the natural world. You’re paying attention to how the world organizes itself and to the possibilities of how that might be described. And then you’re going to write another poem.

butleroctober13 2Candace Butler is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. She is a writer, artist, and musician residing in her hometown of Sugar Grove, Virginia, a small town in the mountains of Appalachia. She holds dear her family and the beautiful Jefferson National Forest that adjoins her backyard.

We’ll vanish in a blind spot portal

[flash fiction]

I’ve wanted so badly for so long to tell someone about the triangles, the ones I see when I close my eyes and sit in stillness, or as still and silent as my monkey mind allows. One day, I’ll work up the nerve to tell a coworker over sandwiches in the break room about them, how I sense them with my third eye, suspended in a haze like fog settled between mountaintops. She’ll have just taken a bite of her cucumber and hummus on seven-grain and raise her eyebrows, put her fingers to her mouth, too excited to finish chewing before shouting, “Oh my gosh! I totally know what you’re talking about.” She’ll wear her wavy auburn hair in an adorably disheveled topknot and tilt her whole torso back when she laughs. The only makeup she’ll wear is blue-black mascara on her lashes and Rosebud Salve on her lips.

One Tuesday morning, she’ll stop by my cubicle with her hands wrapped around a steaming mug of chamomile tea, and we’ll whisper about how we both saw a metallic blue Buick in our rearview mirrors on the way to work. But when we went to merge into the left lane, it was gone, vanished into a blind spot portal. My phone will ring, and she’ll smile and walk back to her cubicle, leaving behind the warmth of her coconut hand cream.

We’ll share a cigarette in the parking lot after work and fantasize about what’s waiting for us through those triangle portals, plan a road trip to go there together over Memorial Day weekend. We’ll decide to rent a more reliable car, take turns driving, but not even book hotel rooms along the way, just go, a real adventure.

One day, when we’re the only ones in the break room, she’ll pull out a bridal magazine and show me an earmarked page with photos of mason jar flower arrangements she’s considering for her wedding in the fall. I’ll tell her that they are “perfect, so rustic, but so romantic.”

She’ll smile and slide her hands out to me across the table. “Michelle,” she’ll say, and we’ll be holding hands so tight I can feel her engagement ring pressing into my fingers. “I want you to be my maid of honor.” And I’ll say, “Of course!” and we’ll squeal and hug, and her silver bracelets will sing.

After she walks back to her cubicle, I’ll linger over my carrots and kale dip, alone at the table, listening to the copy machine receive an order and start sliding out pages of someone’s monthly report. I’ll imagine her wearing a purple full-length gown covered in triangle-shaped rhinestones, light beaming in all directions from the dress like rays from little pyramids, like that hotel in Vegas with its searchlight scanning toward space.

The time will come for our trip through the portals. We’ll put our overnight bags in the trunk of the newly washed white Chevy Aveo. I’ll offer to drive first. We’ll get in and turn toward each other after buckling our seat belts. She’ll take a deep excited breath, let it out with a sigh, which will make me drop the keys on the console and giggle, which will make her laugh with her eyes wide and her teeth showing; and we’ll take each other’s hands and hold tight. My hands are cold even though it’s summer and I’m beyond excited. Hers are sweaty, filled with energy.

“Here we go,” I say, and we close our eyes and wait.

MichelleMcMahonMichelle spends most of her time in alternate universes created by memories, where she writes short stories and poems. Some of the places her work has appeared are Shelf Life, Wheelhouse Magazine, River Walk Journal, Getgo Magazine, SHAMPOO, and Hot Whiskey Magazine. She lives in Southern California with two sons and a husband.

First-Person Shooter

Please God let today be like any other day. That’s what I say every day before I get out of bed. That’s what I’ve been saying every day for the past six years.

After I brush my teeth, I start my console, wear the headset, and log in to a multiplayer. When Mom hears my clatter in the bathroom, she starts cooking. She’s a really good cook. She’s the only one in the family who gets me, understands why I’ve become what I’ve become.

In the multiplayer, I lie in the fuselage of a downed aircraft. My character, Sergeant James “Cobra” Caulfielder, groans. Outside, a soldier waves me forth, but before I can move, he’s engulfed in a bulb of flame before he can even scream. My fellow soldiers shout “Move” repeatedly above a hail of weapon fire. The mission objectives crawl across the top of the screen. Enter the Fortress. Find and eliminate President. This is a particularly chaotic level of End Times 2, a very confusing map. I’ve tried it a few times and died.

Dying in a game is what I imagine dying in real life is like. The screen goes dark before you wake up again. Only in real dying, I hope you wake as someone else.

I go downstairs and eat with Mom in the kitchen. She’s made chicken adobo. She pats me on the head, and I can tell she’s not sure what to say next.

“What are you going to do today?” she says finally.

I shrug. She knows. Same thing I do every day.

“Maybe you should play some basketball in the backyard?”

“I don’t like sports.”

“I’m going to go to the mall with Aunt Theresa later—”

“No, thanks.”

“You can buy a new game.”

“I can order them online.”

Mom lets out a quick breath through her nose. She waddles slowly to the sink, plate in hand.

She’s not happy with me. And that hurts. Nobody is happy with me. Mom and Dad and my older brother Steve say a lot of time has passed, and people don’t blame me anymore. Steve even tries to set me up with friends and girls and jobs.

They don’t know what it’s like. Nobody has ever blamed them. After that morning on campus with Eugene and after everyone found out that I was his only friend, I couldn’t go outside without people and cameras staring at me, blaming me. That morning was so bright, the sky too clear. It was December. Where was the snow?

The parents of the victims called me a murderer—just because I was Eugene’s roommate. Once, on my way to class, one of the dead girls’ dads stepped in front of me out of nowhere and, out of shock, I turned and ran. I got no more than a few steps before he grabbed my backpack and threw me to the ground. I stared up at him, into the bright, cold sky. He shook me, and the world reeled, looked fake like a video game. It was a new school year. Things were supposed to be better. The dad had tears in his eyes. Why? he kept asking. Why did Eugene kill his girl? He spat on me, as he wept. He called me a few names about my race, but I don’t want to make it about that. I don’t blame him.

Why? He kept asking.

The parents of the kids who weren’t shot that day were the worst. They tried to get me arrested as an accessory. They held signs outside our house and shouted at us. I remember my dad sitting at the dining table wearing his U.S. Navy hat, just staring off into space, as the chants went on for hours. He told me to go upstairs and stay there. I was watching television so I didn’t want to move. My dad slammed a fist on the table and called me dumb and useless in Tagalog. I don’t want to make it about what he called me. I don’t blame him either.

I live in a big house. When I’m not gaming, I work out in our home gym and watch the 70-inch high-def. I like older sitcoms best because they’re usually filmed indoors. Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, Friends. I don’t like reality shows, procedurals, or crime dramas—any show filmed outside. Sunlight makes people look too real.

I do lots of pull-ups, calisthenics, and butt exercises because I sit so much when I game. After lunch, I’m on the treadmill, watching Neil Patrick Harris talk about how awesome he is for the ten-thousandth time. Mom walks in, holding the cordless.

“It’s Steve,” she says.

I stop the treadmill. “Aw, come on.”

Mom continues to shake the phone at me. I take it.

“Hey, buddy,” Steve says.

I hate it when he calls me buddy.

“Mom and I are thinking about taking you out to dinner tonight.”

He says this like it’s normal. Steve works at this company that does studies—the ones cited on the radio when there’s not much news. Like that recent study that found that married working couples clean house less. Or the one that showed that people don’t trust their neighbors.

I flip through channels, until I find TV Land. All in the Family is on. It’s the episode Archie gets put in lockup with commies and hippies. One of my favorites. I love how in sitcoms, the prisons always feel clean and comfortable, like even the set designers want to reassure us that they’ll be out of jail in thirty minutes.



“Are you up for it?” Steve says.

I turn off the television and pull the shades down in the room. Mom is still standing there waiting to take the phone back. I shoo her away.

“What the fuck do you think?”

“Hey, language!” Steve says. “Do it for Mom. She deserves a break.”

I want to give Mom a break. I don’t want Mom to take care of me forever. She’s getting old. I don’t want to be a burden. I want to change. I just don’t want to change today. Please God let today be like any other day.

“I’m not like you, Steve. I’m not like you.” My voice is rising. I’m shaking all over.

“Okay, pal, okay,” Steve says. “Calm down. Shhh.”

I squeeze my eyes shut and force a few hard breaths. My teeth are clenched, and I can feel my pulse in my throat.

“Hey, did you know that studies show that toddlers bond with robots?” Steve says.


“Nothing,” Steve says. “Do you mind if Lily comes over tonight?”

“Oh, Lord.”

“Don’t argue,” Steve says. “Studies show that people who argue tend to get mad more often.”


“Language!” Steve barks. “You don’t get everything you want in life, okay? Lily’s part of the family too. We’re all sick and tired of walking on eggshells around you. Everyone knows what happened. So the hell what?”

Steve rarely gets angry. I feel like I might cry so I swallow and pinch away the feeling.

“Look what you made me do,” Steve says. He hangs up.

I go downstairs to give Mom the phone and see that her car is gone. She’s gone to Aunt Theresa’s.

I return to the gym and continue my work out, lifting weights, doing pull-ups. The reason I don’t like Steve’s girlfriend Lily is that she’s got the sensitivity of a brick. She always sends me job listings and offers to put me in touch with her “network,” when we all know she’s just an admin. She brings up my problem whenever she comes over. She often asks about what happened on that bright, crisp December morning six years ago like it was yesterday, like she’s police. Yes, Eugene and I played a lot of video games. Yes, we’d been friends since we were six. Yes, we liked first-person shooters. Yes, I knew he had guns. Yes, I even filmed several of those famous videos where he’s holding his guns and saying that he’s going to kill the rich kids in school. I thought he was kidding around. Yes, when we walked to campus together that morning, I noticed his backpack was fuller than normal. No, I never thought he would do what he did. No, I’m not a murderer, but you can call me one anyway. I won’t get mad. I’m used to it.

Soon, the screams, the gunshots.

I see myself walking to class with Eugene. I told him about the first Halo, about how I thought the game was a cautionary tale about the separation of church and state. He nodded and smiled, but he wasn’t really listening. We were crossing the quad. Students were going to class. The campus shuttles dropped off a large group. We passed a big oak tree, and Eugene pushed me behind it and said to get down, stay down and stay there. He was protecting me, like someone was attacking us. He slung his backpack over his chest and ran toward the one of the buildings. Entered the fortress. Soon, the screams, the gunshots.

I fall off the pull-up bar and land on my hands and knees. My arms are fried. I’ve been doing pull-ups for ten minutes. I shower, go to my room, lock the door, and start up my console. I enter another multiplayer on End Times 2. It’s a map of the planet Gurkanus. The objective is to rescue a prisoner from a home nestled in a crowded interplanetary version of a favela called an Argento. Lots of blind alleys and mosquito-like aliens. Of course, we’re in the middle of a war as well, and the Argento is getting bombed. We have to listen for the air growl, the scene to shudder, the sign to take cover. Chaos.

Sometimes I imagine one of the other players on my side is Eugene. People didn’t believe me when I said that Eugene was a good guy. Back when we were in high school, he’d help his parents out at the dry cleaners every day after school. When we played fighting games, he’d let me win. We were ten when we filmed a short movie on a camcorder. He played a black-hooded-and-caped superhero named Obsidian Man and I played a white-masked bad guy named Chalk. While we filmed a fight scene, he accidentally split my lip with a punch and was so upset about it, he started crying.

I was the one who introduced him to gaming in the first place. I got him into military shooters. Call of Duty. Battlefield. Metal Gear Solid. I can’t play those games anymore. Can’t do real guns.

Neither of us liked college. I think he had a crush on this white girl Brittany who was way out of his league. She’s an actress now on one of those shitty USA Network shows.

People used to tease us. They called us Gay Nerds. Eugene had a bad stutter that made him put F sounds on everything. I used to be thin and gangly, and I wore really thick glasses. Eugene and I weren’t good at much of anything really, other than sitting in front of a screen and pressing buttons on a piece of silly plastic.

“Did you know you can order one of those online?” Eugene said one night while we were playing Call of Duty.

“One of what?”

“The assault rifle, the M4A1,” he said. “Full-auto fire. You can even get one with a sight.”

In End Times 2, I’ve found the prisoner, hiding beneath a sewer grate. He’s a dark-haired fellow. Emaciated and gangly like me in real life. He holds some secret about President. At the other end of this Argento is our escapecraft. I’ve got to blast aliens to protect him. I ask the other players to cover me. We get to the escapecraft. Off into the atmosphere we go. The planet grows visible through the window. Fade out. The players exchange congratulations over headsets. We’re all strangers, but I imagine that this is what the congratulations would have felt like had I been a hero that December morning, instead of just another dumb coward hiding behind a tree. Once I realized what was happening, I should have gone after Eugene. I’d like to believe that he wouldn’t have been able to look me, his best friend, in the eye and kill me.

I log off and drift through the silent and empty house. Mom’s been gone for an hour, and I already miss her. In the backyard, the sky makes our lawn look plastic. There’s a deck, a patio, and a grill that’s layered with dust. I slide open the glass door and touch the fly screen. How easy would it be to pull the screen aside and step out into the real world again! I look beyond our fences, and even though I know no one would be watching me, I feel eyes peering through the cracks, judging me, and my guts clench. I hurry to the kitchen and brace myself against the sink, against the nausea. Once the feelings pass, I down a glass of water.

The garage door groans open. Mom’s back. I shut the sliding glass door, close the vertical blinds. I feel whole again. She’s moving slowly, carrying four full paper shopping bags. I take them all from her. I start emptying the groceries, putting proteins in the fridge, canned foods in the pantry. Mom isn’t saying anything, and she isn’t looking at me. Is she still upset?

I ask her if she’s okay.

Her glance doesn’t linger. She’s ashamed. She mops her brow. “Just tired,” she says. Then she asks if I’m hungry. I tell her I am.

I wait in the living room while Mom makes me a snack. I find an old episode of Facts of Life. I’m not a good person. I’m a burden. I should be doing more with my life. Eugene and I were computer science majors. We never finished.

Soon, the smells rise from my mother’s wok. Fried soy sauce noodles with bok choy—that’s my guess. My stomach growls. The mouth moistens. It occurs to me that I’ve never offered to help Mom cook.

“Dad called,” she says.

Mom rarely mentions Dad. He spends most of the time over at the apartment building he manages. He’s given up on me. I can’t remember the last time he asked how I was doing.

“He wants to go out to dinner tonight.”

“What am I going to do?”

Mom didn’t look at me. “He wants you to come.”


She plates my snack and sticks it in front of me like bad papers she wants me to sign. “Marcus, it’s time.”

I tell her no again, grab my plate, and storm upstairs.

“Dad will be at the restaurant!” Mom shouts. “He’ll be waiting! We will be waiting!”

The shrillness of Mom’s voice makes me nauseous. I can’t remember the last time she raised her voice. I lock myself in my room and eat in front of my television. The noodles are tasteless. Mom’s cooking is usually so good. This dish is slopped together. Barely any soy sauce at all, and the bok choy are wrinkled. The steps creak. She’s making her way upstairs. I start up the console.

I hear Mom talking on the phone. She’s speaking Tagalog in a high-strung, plaintive tone, which means she’s talking to Dad. “I told you we should have sent him to someone,” says Mom. My dad didn’t think I shouldn’t go to a doctor because I was healthy and young.

The screen comes up, but everything goes out of focus. I put my forehead to the ground and cover my ears. My eyes are squeezed shut, and I’m rocking back and forth and screaming silently until I can’t hear Mom’s voice anymore. I’m beyond hope. Twenty-six years old and my life is over. I think Eugene spared me because I was supposed to live the life he wished he had the courage to lead. But what have I done with his favor? I know how men my age are supposed to be. I’m supposed to be like Steve. I’m supposed to have goals and responsibilities. I’m not supposed to have Mom practically wipe my butt for me. I’m supposed to make Dad proud of my accomplishments. But even if the shooting hadn’t happened, I feel like I’d be like this. I know I’m not normal. We’d have a normal family except for me. Eugene should have killed me too. Then I could wake up and be someone else.

I haven’t heard a sound in the house for some time. I go downstairs, back upstairs, then downstairs. Mom’s gone again. I see the note on the whiteboard.

“Walking to Olive Garden,” Mom’s written. “Meet you there at 5:30.”

We live in the suburbs. Olive Garden is probably two hours away by foot, underneath freeway overpasses and over train tracks. Mom is 61 and overweight, and she takes medication for hypertension and high cholesterol.

The phone rings. I pick up.

Eugene should have killed me too. Then I could wake up and be someone else.

“What did you do?” Steve says.


“Mom’s walking to Olive Garden.”

“I know!”

“Is she insane?”

“You’ve got to get her.”

“I’ve got to work,” Steve says. “I know you’re unfamiliar with the concept, but I can’t just up and walk out. You have to get her.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“How am I supposed to know? Maybe he’s walking to Olive Garden too.”

“I haven’t driven in six years.”

“It’s like a bicycle,” Steve says.

“Fuck you.”

“Studies show that you can put a key in an automobile, put the joystick in reverse, and find your mother,” Steve says. “Call me back when you find her.”

He hangs up, and I shout expletives. I grab the car keys and open the door that leads to the garage. I dry-heave, feel dizzy as the daylight washes over the car, stinging my eyes. More expletives. Some whimpering. Lots of sweating. I step out into the garage like I’m going over a cliff. My feet hit the concrete and squish a little, and I put my hands out and brace myself against the hood of Mom’s minivan. Why is she doing this to me?

I’m making noises I’ve never heard from myself as I approach the driver’s seat. I hear the screaming of the students on campus that day. They sound like locusts in my memory now. My whole body shakes as I pop the door open and slide into the seat. I feel like I’m squeezing myself into a baby’s chair. I can hardly move. My thighs are indented by the steering wheel. I try to find the button to move the seat back, but I end up moving the mirrors, the windshield wipers, the time—everything but the seat. Then I find the bar below the chair. It’s manual, old, like my parents. I put the key in the ignition. I’m a mess. I’m drooling a little, snarling, crying. I turn the key though. The minivan roars. I put the gearshift in reverse, shut my eyes and lower the right foot. Scream. Scream so I can’t hear the neighbors calling me names.

The van shoots into the street, screeching as I hit the brakes. I almost hit a neighbor’s mailbox. I take a breath and am surprised I still feel okay. Tell myself this is just like a video game. Then I proceed slowly. When I start a new video game, I usually go all out right away, charging into traps. If I die in a game, I just start over. Learn. Get better. Why can’t I do that in real life?

I’m moving about fifteen miles per hour on our empty street. I eye the sidewalks. No Mom. I try to remember the way to Olive Garden. It’s a right, then a left on the expressway, and you go like ten miles. Mom can’t be far. I jerk the car to the left, and it overturns, so I jerk the car back to the right, and I’m swerving as I get to the stoplight, which turns green so I have to go. My foot drops on the pedal too hard, and I’m off into the intersection, plowing onto a four-lane boulevard. I’m sweating through my shirt. I scan for Mom’s round figure, her specific waddle. She should stand out against the concrete nothingness that Eugene railed against in his video.

“I just want to feel something good in this wasteland,” he hissed, pointing those guns at the camera. “The world is ugly like me.”

If I die in a game, I just start over. Learn. Get better. Why can’t I do that in real life?

I stop at a light. I feel unbalanced, like I’m sitting in a boat. I’ve never actually been in a real boat. Once many years ago in a WWII shooter, I rowed a boat onto the shores of Normandy. I see myself running across the quad again, after the gunshots stopped. Four or five students gaped at the ground, screaming ohmyGods and crying. I’m tall so I could see over them. A girl lay there. A brunette, but we can’t recognize her. She’d been shot in the face.

I hear a horn. I’ve been sitting in front of the green light for too long. My move. The horns sound again. I dry-heave. Cars swerve around me. I hit the hazard lights. Hazard is I. They said I was a hazard to the community.

Then I see Mom. Looking so alone on the sidewalk. The overpass and freeway on-ramp in the distance. I pull up beside her and roll down the passenger side window. Though she’s red-eyed from crying, she looks at me like I’m someone new.

*     *     *

It’s 5:30. We park in front of Olive Garden, and I step out of the car. The first couple of steps are a little mushy, like the asphalt has turned to rain-softened soil. The next steps are steadier, and I begin to think I’m getting better. I can breathe. No one is looking at me and thinking about what happened that December day years ago. Mom takes the crook of my elbow, and we’re walking together in the night, outside, like this happens all the time, like we’re normal. I feel a rush of happiness and think that as long as she’s with me, I’ll be okay.

Inside the restaurant, Dad is seated at the head of the table. He is wearing his U.S. Navy hat with the flat brim as usual. He adjusts his tinted glasses. He’s probably thinking I’m a mirage. He’s surprised I’ve made it, like he was surprised I made it after he heard news of the shooting on the radio. He always expects the worst, so he can avoid disappointment. Mom kisses him on the cheek, and she whispers something to him. Dad continues to stare at me, his lips parted by amazement. I sit next to him, across from Mom. I’m still in wet gym clothes. A mess. I’ve been through chaos, but I’m here.

“I’m proud of you,” Dad says. “You’ve always been so smart. I remember teaching you long division when you were three. You got it right away.”

His chin trembles, and he’s fighting back tears, so I’m fighting back tears. Dad has spoken more to me in the last five minutes than he has in five months. Mom takes Dad’s cell phone and calls Steve to tell him and Lily to come. She has to repeat herself three times.

*     *     *

Today is the seventh anniversary of the shooting. Eugene shot 34 students, then himself. People used to tease us. They called us Gay Nerds. Eugene had a bad stutter that made him put F sounds on everything. I used to be thin and gangly, and I wore really thick glasses. Eugene and I weren’t good at much of anything really, other than first-person shooters. This is what I tell Jessica, my therapist, as we walk around Dailybrook, the place I go twice a week to practice my coping mechanisms.

“Mom and Dad are on a cruise,” I tell her.

Jessica puts her hand on my shoulder. A line appears between Jessica’s brows and vanishes. “Do you feel deserted?”

We are standing in the quad of Dailybrook, under a large tree, like the one at the college. I think of Eugene.

“Not by them,” I say.

lelandcheukLeland Cheuk has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, Pif Magazine, CellStories, and Punk Planet. He has been a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Salamander Fiction Prize, and the national Washington Square Review fiction contest. He lives in New York City.

Marley’s Ghost Is Pregnant

No one thought much about Marley returning as a ghost. That sort of thing had happened to loads of families. It was Marley returning and insisting that she was pregnant that caused a stir. A month after she died, she just walked through the front door and into the living room where we were watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and eating our microwavable dinners and announced, “I’m pregnant.” Not, I’m back! or I’m so happy to see everyone again! or Guess who’s not dead?

Marley always liked dramatic entrances and exits.

When I first learned she was dead, I was sitting in my room, staring at the wall, hating her as usual. She hadn’t come home after cheerleading practice, and she was supposed to take me to the art store. I figured she was making out with Wyatt, her latest boyfriend, or had gone shopping with her friends. She often left me behind. So there I was, staring at the wall that adjoined our rooms, happily picturing her as the focus of a horror movie death scene on her bed, when Dad walked in without knocking and asked me to come downstairs. He and Mom had something to tell me.

“Tell me here,” I said, irritated that I had been interrupted yet again and for something Marley related.

It was then that I looked at him and saw how drawn down his face was and how he looked right through me. It was as if he had lost something. He sighed, that deep sigh he can sometimes, and said, “Please, Shawna, come downstairs.”

My mother was sitting at the dining room table, her hair shrouding her face and darkening her white with sunflowers print dress. They didn’t have to say a word. I saw Marley’s purse on the kitchen table, and I just knew. In that moment, I hated Marley more than ever because she always got everything—boys, nice clothes, everything—even this, the one thing that we could never forget. And if I hadn’t been before, I was definitely and instantly the forgotten one.

My dad comforted himself with a glass of whiskey, which he never did, and I stared at the kitchen window as my mother cried to herself. I cried too. Marley is dead, I kept telling myself in my head. Marley is dead. I had to make myself believe it. After a while, my mother moved, and I looked to see what she was doing. She held a steak knife above the fleshy white of her wrist. She was quick about it. Dad darted across the room and got to her before she could slit her other wrist.

“Call 911!” he shouted.

I grabbed the phone, dialed, and as the emergency dispatcher spoke to me and I relayed back to her, I watched Dad restrain Mom. She rested her head on his chest as he tied a tourniquet he’d made from a kitchen towel around her arm. The blood ran across and over the plastic tablecloth, spilling onto the faux tile floor.

We haven’t used the dining room table since.

That’s why we were eating in front of the TV—not because we couldn’t get enough of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—when Marley walked in. She stood there with her mouth open and waited for a response, but no one said anything for a moment. Mom had to be the one to speak first, and we turned to her. She blinked, and then she knocked over her TV dinner and tray as she ran to hug Marley. It was a bit awkward, since ghosts can’t be hugged like the living. It’s more like a pretend hug. I’ve seen a few of those ghost relative reunion shows. When Marley and Mom figured it out, Dad and I joined in. Marley is back. Seeing Mom’s grin, wider and brighter than any time since Marley had died, lifted something up in me. It was hard to hate Marley at that moment.

Over the next few weeks, things were different around the house. Mom and Dad doted on Marley, especially Mom. Marley had always been her favorite. Marley was beautiful—even as a ghost she had a nice complexion—and Mom never saw the sin behind the innocence, I guess, or she chose to ignore it. I called out of work—I was just working enough to save money for college anyway—and Dad took a Ghost Day. We had a big dinner, and Mom cooked a few of Marley’s favorite dishes.

Dinner was good, except when it became awkward. Marley couldn’t really eat anything. She could barely lift a spoon, and I had to teach her how. And then, right smack at the moment that mom brought out the whipped s’mores pie, Dad asked, “So…who’s the father? Is it that guy we buried next to you?”

The necrophilia—does that apply to ghosts?—in the room was hard to ignore. More importantly, though, Dad knew Marley hadn’t been an angel. He’d found her diary after she died. I saw him one evening, tearing page after page, date after date, fling after fling, out from the stitched binding before tossing them singularly into the backyard fire pit. He never let Mom see it, and I never said a word about it.

Marley fainted.

If you’ve never seen a ghost faint, let me put it this way: it’s like dropping a paper napkin that’s been rubbed between your hands for a good ten minutes, only the napkin doesn’t fall to the floor. It floats in the air.

Mom shrieked—cliché—and we rushed Marley to the hospital.

I think we were the only people to ever take a ghost to the hospital. Thankfully, there was this doctor on duty who had spent a good bit of his younger years obsessed with the occult, and he knew a thing or two about ghosts. At least, that’s what he told us. Either way, Marley was released after being diagnosed with post-partum spectral resurrection. And yeah, she was pregnant, though the doctor couldn’t confirm it, so that had created an imbalance of her spectral ectoplasm.

By the time we got back home, there was a media circus lining up and down the sidewalk. Marley’s little secret wasn’t so secret anymore. The world demanded to know more!—or some crap like that. Some people worried what exactly it meant that Marley was pregnant. We hadn’t given much thought to that. She was pregnant. That was a big enough deal without all of the scientists coming round with their radiation detectors, ethereal detectors, and all sorts of probes that looked as if they had been made in the basement of someone who had a wad of wires, electrical tape, and an overly active imagination. No one had a clue what was going on. Neither did we.

No one had a clue what was going on. Neither did we.

A few days went by of total apocalypse lockdown at the house before the media dwindled. A plane had crashed in the next county over, and there were survivors, real breathing survivors who were easily coerced into sharing their shocking tales about the plane’s tail being hacked away mid-flight.

Everything post-Marley’s return was finally quieting down.

Then, Dad came home one afternoon with a device of his own. He’d bought this antique shoe fitting machine made of wood and brass and uranium, and he had Marley stick her feet in it a couple of times until Mom raised hell that it might hurt the baby. Of course, that was part of the issue. We had no way of really knowing she was pregnant. No one had a way of testing if she were pregnant—the ultrasounds all resulted in white static. Marley knew she was pregnant. She could feel it, and she had all of the ectoplasm retching morning sickness to prove it.

“The baby isn’t in my foot anyway, Dad,” Marley said.

Afterwards, Dad wheeled the shoe machine into the garage, and he didn’t bring any other oddities home again. Everyone eventually forgave him; we all knew he was merely trying to be proactive. The fight wasn’t about the gizmos; we all just wanted to know what Marley’s pregnancy meant to us.

I hadn’t thought about how all of it made Marley feel until she woke me one night. She was outside, weeping in tiny weeps as she floated around in flowing, ghostly steps. She never slept. Ghosts don’t sleep. They may disappear for a while here and there—and I guess you could call it sleeping—but when they’ve manifested, they can stay for as long as they’re focused.

Marley, I knew, had something on her mind. When she had been alive and was in the yard at night, she always hid until a boyfriend showed up to whisk her away. That wasn’t the case now. I figured she was distressed over the baby, and wrapped in my blanket, I watched her from my bedroom window for an hour. She mostly just floated around, and for a while, she stuck her hand through the base of a tree before she had enough courage to stick her head in it. Later, she told me that she couldn’t see anything. As long as there was mass to an object’s insides, I guess there was nothing to see. It was later that I realized she’d tried looking inside of herself, at the baby.

As she floated about in the night, I wondered what it was like to see everything through ghost eyes. I knew what it was like to look upon something with resentment and bitterness, but I didn’t think that was the same thing. Did everything look melancholy, gray, or did everything seem like a wish? What did we look like to her?

I made a mental note to ask her in the morning, and as I fell asleep, I had no idea I would forget and never get to ask her.

*     *     *

One afternoon, I came home early from work and found Marley in the kitchen. She was slumped over the island with a pile of vitamins that she’d crafted into a ghost baby mosaic that resembled Casper.

“How does a ghost take prenatal vitamins?” she asked.

“How does a ghost even know she’s pregnant?” I asked. “Maybe it’s just swamp gas.”

We laughed, and she floated over to me for a hug. It gave me the shivers, but she said it was warm for her.

“Don’t be upset,” I said, “but who is the father? I won’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“I don’t know,” she said. She saw me frown. “Honestly, it could be the coroner for all I know.”

“Umm, ewww.”

She pouted her lips and bent slightly, putting her hands on her knees in her best Betty Boop impression.

“I am that hot, even in death.”

“That’s what got you into this mess, remember? But your complexion,” I said, “it is immaculate.”

She held up her arms and stared at the white limbs. Then, she sighed, which raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Who would really want to be father to a ghost baby?”

“Lots of guys, I imagine. That kid will be total low-maintenance. Think about it. He’ll cost nothing. Just to be safe, you should stock up on empty baby jars.”

Marley laughed at that, and she hugged me again.

“You’re a good sister, Shawna.”

It was the first time we had really bonded since we were kids. Three years separated us, and in those three years were two vastly different people. Marley liked boys, clothes, jewelry, and makeup. I liked boys, but never had any boyfriends that I liked to admit were boyfriends; and I liked to make my own clothes and jewelry. Somewhere in-between all of that separation, though, we were sisters. I had lost her when she died in the car crash. She was texting Wyatt about which movie they should see that night when she went through a red light, veered to miss another car, and crashed straight into the concrete side of an overpass. Now she was back, and as I watched her float into the living room and try to operate the TV remote, I realized for the first time that we would always be sisters.

*     *     *

I was reminded of that fact again the day I left for my first day of college. Marley flipped her hair back over her ears that morning when I walked into the kitchen. There was something mournful about it. I’d seen her do the same thing when she broke up with her boyfriends, even when they were talking on the phone—her preferred mode of communication for breakups.



“Seriously, Shawna, I need you to know something.”

Marley looked around. Mom and dad were trying to load some of my bags into the back of their car, so we were alone.

“I know I wasn’t the best sister to you,” she said. She rubbed her belly. “And I want you to know how I great I think you are, and how great you’ve been about all of this.”

I told her it was OK, that’s what family is about. She nodded her head, then tried to move a glass of milk across the counter.

“What is it, Marley?”

She turned to me, her face paler than before.

“Promise me,” she said, starting to cry, “please, that if anything ever happens to me that you’ll take care of the baby.”

“Nothing will happen to you,” I said. “What could happen to you anyway? You’re dead.”

“Nothing will happen to you,” I said. “What could happen to you anyway? You’re dead.”

“I do have trouble with windy days,” she said, crying as she laughed.

“I’ll just chase after you with a vacuum.”

We hugged, and when Mom came in the room a moment later and saw us, she began crying too. Dad watched all of us for a moment before deciding he should recheck the car’s fluids. Mom kept bawling. It took forever to get out of the kitchen and on the road.

*     *     *

I didn’t go home until Christmas. I was just too busy with work and studying, and at the end of the semester, I was preoccupied with my finals and the breakup with my first acknowledgeable boyfriend—who proved an ample distraction and gave me more attention than anyone back home. His name was Brian, and like me, he was artsy. I’m not sure why we broke up. It was mutual, sort of, and all of the breakup reasons seemed logical at the time. Looking back now, I think it was because we both didn’t know what we were really doing or wanted or whatever. Whatever the cause was, he had his reasons, and I had mine. Marley was there for me for the first time in my life. She talked me through all of the tears for hours at a time. After the tears dried, which had made my exams all the more stressful, I packed the car for the trip home.

Marley said she was big and round now. It was hard to tell in the photos she sent me because she was always a blurred spot, and it didn’t help that mom had never mastered the skill of taking a decent photo—even with auto focus! Dad called Marley his Fat Casper. Mom spent endless hours trying to figure out how to clothe a baby ghost until finally giving up. “‘He’ll just have to be naked!’” Marley quoted Mom as saying. Marley proclaimed that her baby would never be naked. “See-through, maybe, but never naked.”

I was excited to go home. If the doctor was right that the pregnancy was coming along the same as any other pregnancy, then Marley would have the baby during Christmas break. I would be an aunt, our parents grandparents, and Marley, who once made a joke that the day she’d marry and have a baby—as if it were to happen all at once—would be the day before the uncontestable end of the world, was going to be a mother. We had no idea if Marley was having a boy or a girl or the end of the world, and it didn’t matter as long as we were all together.

*     *     *

When I arrived back home, the house was empty, everything the same, except a white ribbed crib with little blue pillows and blankets with stitched on yellow stars. A note with my name was on one of the pillows: We’re at the hospital, Sis. Hurry up.

Marley was in the maternity ward, her legs in that embarrassing delivery position. She smiled when I entered the room.

“About time,” she said.

“How far apart are the contractions?”

“Contractions?” she said with an excruciating wink. “We’re having a full exorcism here.”

Then, she crunched up in pain, and her hands dug into the sheets that were whiter than her. We all held our breath as she wailed. For a moment, I thought we were all dying in Marley’s knuckles. In the back of my head, I had always secretly worried that what some of the people had said might come true, that the birth of a baby ghost would mean the collapse of this dimension into an ethereal one, or that this would be a new beginning with a brighter world changed by this girl who had died while texting her boyfriend about a movie. But I was wrong. It was just Marley who was dying. All over again.

And all that happened after I looked into Marley’s knuckles happened faster than we’ve ever had time to understand:

—Marley pushed one last time

—The doctor yelled for a container, and my mother was there with a mason jar from her purse

—Marley’s hand slipped from mine, and when I turned to her, I saw her floating up, off of the bed, and through the ceiling as though she were the last cold breath cloud of winter

           *     *     *

Marley was gone, and we were still alive. The world hadn’t changed, not beyond our world, our family. Dad hugged Mom, and Mom hugged me. And we all cried towards the ceiling tiles.

When she was gone, the doctor held the jar out towards me. The top was tightly screwed on. Inside was Casper Reynolds floating about, spinning like a miniature tornado.

I take him everywhere.

Fowler photoM.W. Fowler received an M.A. in Writing from Coastal Carolina University. His works have appeared in numerous journals, including Jelly Bucket, Little Fiction, and A cappella Zoo, as well as previously in Lunch Ticket. He is also the author of Ezra Sound: How I Became a Giant and Wayward: scifi stories & poems.

Poet’s Guide to Science: The History of the Second

You hear them on NPR, read them
on websites, store them for
cocktail parties and first dates.

Every second:
a hummingbird’s wings flap 80 times.
Thunder rumbles 1,100 feet. Four to five people
are born; two die. At least 100,000 chemical reactions
fire in your brain. You lose
about three million red blood cells;
your bone marrow replaces them.
100,000 cubic feet of water pour
over Niagara Falls. The sun burns
nine million tons of gas.

Or if you counted a galaxy’s stars,
one per second, you’d finish in 3,000 years.

But here’s the truth:
the second, or the second division
of an hour by sixty, was born
in the late 16th Century, one hundred years
before measured accurately
until Earth’s lopsided axis forced
its redefinition, then another
to the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods
of the radiation emitted by Caesium-133,

then again when this atomic measure
was found affected by altitude,
each second longer
in mountains than seashore.

So maybe hovering aside hibiscus
or sunset hyssop the bird flaps 81 times.
Maybe you lose three million and one cells,
or two-point-two people die.

You shouldn’t be bothered,
but these are differences that keep
you staring into bedroom-dark.
Those numbers mean
to disorient you, almost as much
as leap-seconds added here and there,
which did make your fifteenth year
the longest of your life.

You’ve no choice
but to turn back abstraction.
Become a child again to make it equal
how long you could plash puddles
before lightning drove you inside.
Beg for second chance to run
in the rain, when everything
was simple as hide-and-seek’s
one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three…

Levan_photoMichael Levan received his MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University and PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee. His work can be found in recent issues of Rock & Sling, Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review, American Literary Review and Heron Tree. He teaches writing at the University of Saint Francis and lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana with his wife, Molly, and son, Atticus.


End of the Line

“A woman like that is not a woman, quite I have been her kind.”
Anne Sexton

For my first appointment at the fertility specialist’s office I wear all grey except for my boots; these are shiny, cherry red. The four-inch heel makes me look tall and lean, as does the loose grey wrap I’m wearing. The other women here are all with men—their husbands, I assume—but I’m alone, and the only one, it appears, who knows how to pull herself together. It is only when I see the other women in their sensible shoes and faded Disney sweatshirts, their bulging purses and doughy, vulnerable faces that I think about what I’m wearing. Then I see what I’ve done, how I’ve dressed all steely and hard as if it can protect me.

 *     *     *

To get to the specialist’s waiting area, I’ve had to pass through a women’s clinic.  Its waiting room is raucous with young mothers in tight jeans, their newborns wailing in pink and blue. A two-year-old in a silver parka flails on the floor, while her mother, grim-faced, flips through a dog-eared magazine. There are no fathers here. Behind their desks, the receptionists don’t smile. I wonder if they have children, if the crying and noise gets to them.

The next room is the ultrasound and imaging waiting room. Women in various states of pregnancy sit in the pink chairs, their bellies propped before them. Pregnant women have always looked smug to me, satisfied, but this is perhaps unfair. Some of the women look past due; they have dark circles under their eyes. They are probably up every hour to pee at night. One woman paces, her hand cupping her belly.

At the end of this room, there are glass doors I must pass through, and then I am in the waiting room of the fertility clinic. A reverse trip from baby to pregnancy to what?  To hope, perhaps. To the glimmer of an eye? No, nothing glimmers. There are no sparks.  Here, tucked away from the bustle and business of life, sit the infertile ones, the sad, the lonely.

It is quiet and dimly-lit in the waiting room. Plexiglass partitions prevent the overhearing of arriving patients’ names or needs. A sign indicates privacy is a priority.  The other patients don’t look up as I take a seat near a low table where pamphlets from special fertility pharmacies are fanned out. There are no children here. There are no children.

But wait, I want to cry out, I have a child, a healthy beautiful seven-year-old daughter, the child I always imagined I’d have—affectionate, verbal, funny and creative.  The quiet in the waiting room, in fact, calls to mind the atmosphere I strived for while she napped as an infant. So what am I doing here, wearing kick-ass boots, in this western New York fertility clinic?

 *     *     *

If you tell people you are trying to get pregnant, you open yourself up to a vein of advice both ancient and technological. Try sex in the morning when sperm counts are higher, someone says. Or take up belly dancing, eat the nut of the Ginkgo Biloba or swallow Robitussin at ovulation, stand on your head after sex, wear jade or malachite, bloodstone to ward off miscarriage. What I need is acupuncture, a full moon or to give away all my baby stuff—that always does it. “Clomid,” an acquaintance says. “Two of my friends took it, and now both are expecting twins!”

 *     *     *

My name is called, and I’m led back to a nurse’s station, weighed, my blood pressure measured, before being directed to a room with an examining table, some chairs and a desk. I wait for Dr. Lewis, lucky to have this appointment. When I first called the clinic in September, the receptionist told me there weren’t any appointments.

“Ever?” I asked.

The receptionist laughed. “No, just not until the new year,” she said, “and we don’t have January on our computers yet.”

I don’t mention that I’m not getting any younger, that three months—a trimester!—is an incredibly long time to wait when one has already waited so long. The receptionist tells me to call back in a couple of weeks, and when I do, an appointment has opened up.

 *     *     *

“Nice boots,” Dr. Lewis says, as she enters the room.

I like her immediately. She smiles as we shake hands, and then sits to examine my chart. What story will she make from all those pages and reports? The facts are these: One healthy pregnancy. A miscarriage five years later. Another a year later. As a short story writer, I want an ending to this story. I think this is why I’m here—I want an ending. I’ve been suspended in this plot for several years now, and I crave the gentle slide into denouement. I even believe, at this point, that any ending is better than this limbo, this suspension, this—dare I say it?—aborted action.

I think this is why I’m here—I want an ending.

I imagine I’m sheepish when I answer Dr. Lewis’s question about the five years in between Maude’s birth and my first miscarriage—the waning years of my fertility, it will turn out.

“I thought I was done,” I say, and then clarifying, “I thought one child was enough.” This never sounds right to me—I sound cold or stupid or greedy, or all three.  “Then,” I push on because she is waiting, “we found ourselves pregnant.”

“Ah,” she says, “I see.”

How genuine is my desire to have another child, someone might ask, if I didn’t even intend to have one? Dr. Lewis doesn’t ask me this. Her manner suggests she’s heard it all before. She is in the business of giving women what they want regardless of their previous hemming and hawing. Because here’s the thing, I hadn’t planned another child, but neither had I entirely ruled it out. I watched how friends had a second child or a third, saw how tired they were, how chaotic their lives. I loved my daughter so much, loved how she would join me and my husband in bed in the morning—my little family all under the same covers, all breathing in the same sleep-filled air. What more could I ask for?

Dr. Lewis explains how we will proceed—tests, blood work, the interpreting of the results, likely a prescription for Clomid or an injectable alternative. “At what point,” I blurt, “would you tell someone to give it up?”

She smiles at me kindly. Perhaps I sound desperate, hysterical, but I believe I’m asking in the abstract. Does anyone ever say “enough’s enough already”? And it seems like a logical question to me, too, rather like asking about departure and arrival times were one taking a trip.

“That would depend on the results of the tests,” she says, “but if in a year, you still haven’t conceived, I’d think it would be time to reconsider.”

I nod. How can I explain myself, my lingering ambivalence and skepticism? Perhaps it’s all defense. Here I am, after all, for all intents and purposes already aboard.  Voting with my feet, as they say. She tells me to make a follow-up appointment and then sends in a nurse.

The nurse leads me to another room with a conference table and asks me to wait while she gets the materials. On the wall across from me, there is a large faux Impressionist print of a round table draped with a pale blue cloth. A bowl of lemons sits on the table, and a cobalt blue pitcher. Behind the table a window is open to the sea. A chair is pushed back welcomingly. It’s pretty enough, but eerie too—I can’t help but notice the absence of people. Imagine the same scene rendered by Mary Cassatt or Degas, a rosy-cheeked infant and calm Madonna nestled in that chair.

“I’ve got homework for you,” the nurse says, entering the room with a big binder.  The cover has a close-up of a baby’s face. The spine says Fertility and Reproductive Science Center Patient Manual.  Homework?

Seeing my look of distress, she takes the photo of the baby out of the plastic front of the binder, turns it around so it is blank. “There,” she says. “Better?”

“I’m okay with babies,” I say. “I have a child.”

“It’s hard for some of them,” she says, “so I just flip it around.”

She’s efficient and fast-talking, so I’m glad I’ve got a pen to take notes. There are certain days of my cycle for certain tests. On the pages that describe these tests, she’s attached post-its labeled in loopy, girlish handwriting. There is a test for my husband to take and this is complicated too, because he must make an appointment with the lab and then bring in his specimen. She gives me a specimen cup—a small plastic cup with a lid.

I’m tired suddenly, overwhelmed, and I wish she’d just say, “Your husband has to jerk off and fill this up with his sperm.” Why not call a spade a spade? I get that in this place of fraught conception babies are off-limits, but is sex too, and the sticky realities of the body? And who is served by this sterile language? In its hollowness and half-truthfulness, it reminds me of the clichés that surround new motherhood. Bundle of joy, for instance, a phrase that made me want to argue. I loved my infant daughter, found her presence miraculous. Still, joy is only part of the story.

When I leave, my big binder in my arms, the waiting room is inhabited by more quiet couples. I pass through the other waiting rooms and into the hospital lobby, and then out into the cold October late afternoon.

 *     *     *

Serophene is the brand name for the drug called clomiphene citrate or Clomid.  Clomid is the first stop for many of the infertile. I know so many people who have taken Clomid, you’d think it was candy at Halloween. It works by stimulating the ovaries to produce an egg—or in the case of all the Clomid multiples—eggs. It is said to make you bitchy and emotional—a kind of hormone-induced craziness. It has other unpleasant side effects too:  my sister-in-law knows a woman who took Clomid for several years in the late eighties, before it was understood that extended use could cause ovarian tumors. She has twin daughters—15 years old—and she is dying of ovarian cancer.

 *     *     *

My second trip to the fertility clinic is five days before Christmas, almost a year since my last miscarriage. I take my husband this time, because I am learning the rules of this place and because I expect bad news. I’ve spoken with the nurse twice regarding my tests, but I can’t get any details out of her, nor will the doctor speak with me on the phone. “She likes to speak with patients in person,” the nurse repeats, as if I’m slow as well as infertile. Again, there has been a long wait between the phone calls and an available appointment. I know this clinic serves much of western New York, but still. Why are there so many women who want babies and can’t have them? A pamphlet I leaf through says six million Americans confront infertility.

When we are all seated in the examining room, Dr. Lewis tells me that the blood work shows that I have diminished ovarian reserves. The phrase calls to mind something military, a regiment after a losing battle. What it means, though, is that my eggs are damaged because they are old. Later I will think about my eggs as my awkward adolescent self, hopeful and waiting, as kickball teams were chosen. “Pick me!  Pick me!”

Poor little eggs, I find myself thinking, poor old gals.

“Your best bet for pregnancy is with a donor egg,” Dr. Lewis says.

Together, my husband and I say no, and then look at each other in surprise. We haven’t discussed how far we are willing to go, but we are in agreement that this is too far. End of the line! Let us off! In response to my husband’s questions, Dr. Lewis talks numbers for a while—chances of pregnancy if we don’t try treatment: 5%, chance of pregnancy with Clomid: 6-7%. I’m not really listening anymore. I have the ending to my story.

“Your best bet for pregnancy is with a donor egg,” Dr. Lewis says.

“I’m happy to answer questions for you as they come up,” Dr. Lewis says.

“I’m done,” I say, as we leave the office.

“Okay,” my husband says. He puts his arm around me as we pass through the hospital lobby festooned with decorations. Christmas carols play softly. Outside it has started to snow.

 *     *     *

Earlier this week, in Skidmore, Missouri, a town near the one where I grew up, a young pregnant woman is found dead in her kitchen. She’s been strangled, her belly cut open and the eight-month fetus kidnapped. A witness at the murder scene said it looked like her stomach had exploded. It will turn out that the murderer, Lisa Montgomery, had been feigning a pregnancy. She will claim to have given birth while shopping.  She names the baby Abigail, which means “gives joy.”  Montgomery dresses her in pink and shows her off at a restaurant, the Whistle Stop Café, in her Kansas town, before being tracked down by police and the FBI.

The nation is momentarily obsessed and outraged. Montgomery is called a female Hannibal Lector, a womb-raider and worse. A Christian blogger wishes her a long, torturous stay in hell. As horrific as this crime is, it isn’t a first. The women—and it is always women—who perform this crime are desperate for a baby and to fulfill a childbearing fantasy. They also hope the baby will cement a relationship between themselves and their partner, who usually knows nothing of their plans.

Winter in that part of the Midwest doesn’t mean the clean whiteness of fresh snow, as it does here in New York. Winter in places like Skidmore means dried brown yards, bare trees against a stark, colorless sky. The light is bright, but not warm or golden. More like the intense lighting used for mug shots, the sharp light reveals all the blemishes and bruises of these sad towns—listing porches, chipping paint, buckling sidewalks, boarded up storefront windows on Main Street, grit and dirt and grime. Lisa Montgomery worked two or three shitty jobs and pretended she was pregnant. She also raised rat terriers, which is how she met her victim. She couldn’t afford the fertility treatments available to women like myself, nor would she have access to a foreign adoption, which would require travel and money. A domestic adoption costs plenty, too, and couples wait up to five years for a child.

None of this, of course, excuses Montgomery’s brutality and violence. Her motives are harder to comprehend when one learns she already has four children—though nearly grown—from a previous marriage. Still I can’t help feeling that Lisa Montgomery didn’t act alone. I lay some blame on a culture that persists on viewing motherhood as a woman’s greatest calling, on Baby Gap and Babies R Us and on all the mail-order catalogues specializing in quaint nursery furnishings: Pottery Barn Kids, The Land of Nod, Company Kids. And on People magazine and their covers with celebrity moms, proclaiming the joys of motherhood. “Of all the roles I’ve had,” says one star, “motherhood is the most rewarding.”

At the crime scene in Skidmore, the local sheriff said, “Someone was wanting a baby awful bad.” What amazes me about Lisa Montgomery’s story is that she knew how to perform a C-section without harming the infant. By this point in my journey, the desire and desperation—that huge wanting—doesn’t surprise me at all.

 *     *     *

I spend the next month telling friends and family that I won’t be having any more children. At the same time, I start having fantasies about boarding a plane to China or Guatemala or Korea and adopting a baby girl. In theory, it seems easy and perfect—no morning sickness, no refraining from coffee or wine, no need to buy maternity clothes, a kind of reproductive outsourcing. I think about the ads I’ve seen in the campus paper, couples looking for knocked-up college girls who might give them their baby for adoption. All medical expenses paid, a loving home, the ads promise. I think about finding one of those students and making the same promises, and more, anything–I will promise them the moon. And yet, when I set out to research adoption, I don’t get very far.  I’m travel-weary, unready for this endeavor with its attendant uncertainty and waiting and expense. In Barnes and Noble, and then later at the public library, I can only stand before the bookshelves noting the many hopeful titles and bright spines.

At first I resist the impulse to pack up all the baby equipment from my basement.  There are plenty of other things I might do—work on my novel or my collection of stories, plan my classes for the upcoming semester. But nothing is as compelling as clearing out that stuff, making way for the future. I give away boxes and bags of baby clothes, puzzles, games, books, tucking away only a few of our favorites.

*     *     *

Despite the good doctor’s statistics, I will get pregnant two more times. Each time, I feel a certain smugness and surprise. And each time, the pregnancy ends in miscarriage. The calendar is littered now with a jumble of birthdays gone wrong, due dates I failed to meet. And there will be no answers from the doctors, no explanations.  There is no ending to this story it turns out, just as there is no baby at the end of my pregnancies, something I—foolish girl!–should have understood. Instead of a baby, this is what I have in the end: a list of unused names (Clara, Ruby, Gabriel), a pair of buttery fleece booties with the tags still on. And this: an ache that hits not when I hold other women’s babies, breathe in their milky new smell, but instead when a recipe fails, keys are lost, a carefully planned trip gets cancelled.

photo(8)Rachel Hall’s short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, Water~Stone and It’s A Girl!: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (Seal Press). In addition, she has received awards and honors from publications such as Lilith and Glimmer Train, and from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts and Ragdale. She lives in Rochester, NY with her family and teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo.


[flash fiction]

“Promise to tell me . . .” I can almost feel your breath in my ear. If you were standing here with me tonight, I wouldn’t say a word—and I wouldn’t have to, knowing you. You’d scoop it up like birdseed in your palm and blow it away, laughing. Your laughter, I love it—you make me laugh even when I don’t want to. Like our last night together.

You wouldn’t stop giggling as you slipped off your sandals and curled your legs around mine. You complained that the boulder we leaned against was too cold and insisted that we should snuggle under our picnic blanket. I sweated rivers. From across Lake Atitlan, the hotel lights in the Piedmont looked like a broken string of pearls scattered on black velvet. I didn’t want dawn to come; Javier would be driving me to meet the coyote at the Mexican border. You knew I didn’t want to go.

“Look for me here,” you took my hand in yours and pointed to the stars above us, “and know I’m with you.” I glared at the lights across the lake. There, the tourists danced; their night would never end. Here, the moored boats moaned; the fishermen were never late.

“Eliseo, what’s rattling around in that co-co of yours?” you messed up my hair, giggling. The lights in the distance—your hand in mine—the black water beneath us.

“Samabaj,” I mumbled.

You didn’t say anything. I don’t think you heard me. I found you tracing the constellations with your finger. I raised my hands to my lips. In the distance, the heavens slowly dissolved into red. The fishermen dropped their rods into their boats.

“Promise me something?” You rested your head on my shoulder.

Did you even have to ask? I’d promise you the world wrapped with a ribbon. But I didn’t say a word—and I didn’t have to. Of all the things to make me promise—I always laugh to think about it. On nights like this, I wander the streets, wondering what to tell you about snow.

Snow’s light but heavy.

Walking through snow has made my calves like Pele’s. After the first few dustings, I thought all the stories about blizzards were nonsense—snow didn’t stick to concrete, snow left a chalk outline around everything and, by ten in the morning, it was all gone.

One day in October, I called you from a pay phone to tell you but your line was busy. Since November, storm after storm of this stuff disappears, flake by flake, on your tongue crippled by this monstrous city.

The sidewalks were packed with jagged, icy footprints. The curbs were edged with mountains. The streets were slippery with slush. I called again and again in November and December, but each time your line was busy. One day in January, I found a huge park covered in a landslide of snow. When I called to tell you, your line was dead. I kept walking.

Snow’s cold but hot.

It doesn’t matter if its day or night, sunny or cloudy, calm or windy—it’s always freezing here. I learned early on to bundle up for my commute from Pilsen to the Loop; somewhere beneath a wool cap, vinyl gloves, woven scarf, thermal underwear, down coat, Columbia boots, goggles, and layers of Blistex was skinny me. As it got colder, I began to keep a flask of whiskey in my coat. I was insulated from the cold and the snow. Sure, sometimes I’d feel the flakes on my beard, and sometimes me and my roommates would have snowball fights, but I’d pack my snowballs with gloves on. But I never really felt snow until one Friday night in early February. I’m ashamed to say, I called you from a pay phone, drunk. Roberto and Donnie came from behind, pulled my pants down, and threw me into a snow bank. The remaining twelve blocks home, I cursed them—my backside burning. Nights after that, I’d try to get them back after we left the bars. I even devised a brilliant plan to get them. I shared it with you in my last letter. A few days ago, I found the letter in my post office box with a strange stamp. A friend at work called the post office and told me that your address no longer exists. I was going to put it with the rest but decided to make a crown out of it for my walk tonight, my ears burn.

Snow sparkles.

The park is empty at this hour. Here there is a clear view above. The tips of black branches caress the clouds, pregnant with snow. Does the view really matter in the city? Even here, I’ve never seen stars. But the other night, I made a discovery: when I searched for my flask in the snow bank, I couldn’t believe it—the purple blanket of snow sparkled under the park lamps. And there they were: your constellations. But when I traced them, they disappeared beneath my fingertips.

Tonight, the silhouettes of snowmen stand over the rows of angels the children left. The winds funnel from every direction, howling, carrying the horns of taxis and the siren of an ambulance, whipping the crown off of my head. The clouds are black. The angels have all but disappeared under the fresh snow. My laughter sounds strange in the hollow of the park. Today, the consulate told me about Mayor Esquina’s decision.

I feel your breath in my ear.

Tonight you know about snow and I know you’re with me.

Padilla photo“Snow” is from an upcoming collection of fiction entitled Si Dios Nos Presta Vida by Jesse Paul Padilla. Mr. Padilla’s work has been published by National Public Radio, Reed Magazine, and the Marquette Journal, and has earned Honorable Mention and Semi-Finalist recognitions for short-short fiction from New Millennium Writing.

Bloodroot Blooming

When I crested the hill and caught my initial glimpse of Fort Westbrook, I began to feel for the first time that being uprooted from Jacksonville, moved to Virginia, left with my mom, sister, and a new house full of boxes while Dad shipped off to fight pirates—it might not be all bad. Living on a peninsula with an old stone fort sounded like something out of a legend.

Lisa sensed it, too, and hugged her beanie toy, Tuffy, to her chest, swinging her shoulders in excitement. Dad had given us both one of his Navy ribbons before he left, and Lisa had pinned hers to Tuffy’s ear like an earring. It waved erratically as she danced toward the fort.

Watching Lisa’s ribbon, I thought of Dad the night before, kneeling so he could look me in the eyes, his blue uniform overlaid in gold under the porch light. “Be courageous and responsible, Penny. Take care of your mother and sister while I’m gone, okay? You’re my first mate.” In my whole life, he hadn’t been sent to sea for longer than a month—and now he wouldn’t be back for nine months. Nine months of missing ice cream Wednesdays and thrift store expeditions.

I took my ribbon out of my pocket, turned it over once. Rectangular. Green with two vertical orange stripes. I held it up to my nose and inhaled. Mostly it smelled like metal, but a salty metal, like the sea, like Dad. I figured maybe if I took care of the ribbon he wouldn’t be quite so far away, not really, not with a piece of him in my hand.

“D’you suppose there’s a princess at the fort?” Lisa asked, bringing me back to the present.

I rolled my eyes, sliding the ribbon into my pocket. “It’s a fort. Princesses aren’t in forts. Unless she’d been kidnapped, I suppose…”

I trailed off, searching my memory for a legend that might have a similar story. About a month ago, Dad bought Legends and Myths of Cornwall for me from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station Thrift Shop. I couldn’t come up with a legend fast enough, though, and Lisa went on without waiting.

I’ll be the princess, then!” Lisa announced. “I’ll just stay there and wait for a sailor-knight! Or Dad can rescue me!”

“You can’t stay there because Mom wants us back—” I hesitated, unwilling to say “home” for a house we’d only spent a night in that still smelled a lot like cleaner and new paint “—back at the Westbrook house in an hour. Anyway, princesses fight for themselves nowadays.”

Lisa didn’t pay any attention—she normally didn’t, unless I was telling her a story. I hurried to catch up. Small flowers blossomed in the grass, blanketing our approach in snow-white. Puffy clouds floated above in the sky and below in the stiff moat water. The fort walls were stone, with grass growing on sloped hills at the top. We crossed a bridge with two old, fake gaslights to the squat, square entrance. Two small stoplights stood on either side of the doorway, and the red lights looked like eyes as we walked through the mouth.

We wandered around, me looking for any cracks in the walls that might contain forgotten love letters, Lisa impatiently tugging on my hand. Though Lisa groaned, I pulled her inside the fort’s museum. They had displays about Edgar Allan Poe (including a plastic statue), who’d been stationed at the fort, and Jefferson Davis, who’d been imprisoned there, and old maps that showed the star-shaped design, and lots of interesting information besides. I read most of the plaques out to Lisa as I worked across the small room, engrossed. She tugged her hand out of mine and crossed her arms.

Just as I turned to a display called The White Widow, I realized Lisa had become very quiet. I turned. She was gone.

I ran out to the courtyard. No Lisa.

A woman walked along he top of the wall, the only person around. I found steps and took them two at a time, coming to the top just as the woman stopped at the foremost point in the wall. She stared out at the bay.

“Ma’am!” I called, running toward her. The grass under my feet squished from a recent rain. “Excuse me!”

I nearly stopped when she turned toward me. She wore a sundress—the sort with little embroidered holes and an underdress—and the low sun shining through the thin material made her shine. Her hair was a blond so light it seemed nearly white, especially with the frizzy bits illuminated in the sun. She had whitish-gold eyes, the sort I imagined belonged to eagles or blind people.

“Um, have you seen my little sister? She’s this big.” I held my hand to my chest. “Red hair…”

The woman smiled and pointed behind me. I turned and saw a boy sitting in the grass on the sloping wall on the other side of the fort. Beside him—barely visible from here—I could make out the top of Lisa’s head.

“Thank you,” I called over my shoulder as I ran.

I rounded four corners before I got to the other side. A chain link fence guarded the edge of the wall here, though on the other parts there’d been no protection from a fall. Lisa sat closest to me, looking at the harbor and lighthouse. A little shepherd dog stood between her and the boy.

“Lisa!” I came to a stop, panting. “What are you doing?”

“Look, Penny! I made a friend.” Lisa pointed at the dog. “This is Melly.”

“And I’m Jon,” the boy put in, sounding amused.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, hardly looking toward him and grabbing for Lisa’s shoulder. She squirmed away.

“He doesn’t mind! He just moved here, too!”

Jon made a face, his ears reddening. “I moved a month ago,” he explained, like he owned the whole peninsula.

“Well, it’s a good thing that woman saw you,” I told Lisa. “Mom would have my skin if you got lost! Let’s go.”

“He’s got a niece that’s my age because his dad’s real old and his brother’s married and lives in New York,” Lisa continued, oblivious to Jon’s now-purpling ears. I wondered why a boy would confide so much in a little girl who couldn’t keep her mouth shut for a few minutes at a time. I figured he must be lonely, and some of my embarrassment changed to a sense of camaraderie.

“Wait, what woman?” Jon twisted around to look at the fort. I figured his eagerness had to do with distracting Lisa. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know, that—” I turned, too, but no one else was on the walls or in the courtyard. “Well, she was over there.”

“Damn it,” Jon said, shooting a look at me to make sure I’d noticed his adult word. I glared, pressing my lips so tight together my cheeks hurt. He rolled his eyes and flopped onto his back in the grass. I snuck a real look at him for the first time. He made me think of the U.S.S. Constitution I’d visited in Boston after one of Dad’s shorter deployments. There’d been facts about typical sailors in olden days, and one of the facts was that the average sailor had brown hair and gray/blue eyes. My dad had the eyes, but this boy had both. Melly put her paw on his chest, tail wagging.

“Were you waiting for that woman or something?” I asked, curious despite myself. “Who was she?”

“The White Widow.” Jon eyed me and, seeing my uncomprehending look, he smirked. Getting to his feet, he brushed the grass off his pants. The day seemed darker all of a sudden. I glanced at the sky. The clouds had started to gray. “You guys probably don’t know the story, right? Since you just got here.”

“Story?” Lisa asked, perking up.

“No.” I dragged my gaze from the sky and back to Jon. “I haven’t heard it yet.”

Jon started walking toward the farthest point, where the woman stood earlier, and Lisa scrambled after him, distracted by Melly. I followed. Though the day was warm, the wind’s chill cut through my shirt.

“It all happened right here,” Jon said with a dramatic wave of his hand, “way back before the American Revolution. The story goes that the British colonel, the guy in charge of all of it, ran a tight ship—erm, fort. He upheld all the regulations, which included killing folk on the spot if they broke rules—for instance, if they fell asleep on watch. So this guy, he brought his daughter, Wilful—seriously, I’m not making this up—with him to America. She fell in love with one of the officers at the fort.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, my imagination running with all the possibilities. Jon shook his head like that was only the boring part.

“On the night of their marriage, they walked together along the fort walls. Wilful saw the bloodroot bloom, all down there.”

Jon pointed to the fields, then examined our feet and grabbed a flower from the grass, throwing it to me. I caught and turned it over in my hands. The bloom had a yellow center with long white petals, a little bruised from his carelessness, and fit in my palm.

The bloom had a yellow center with long white petals, a little bruised from his carelessness, and fit in my palm.

“She turns to her husband and says something like, ‘Gee, those are pretty.’ And he says, ‘Go ahead home. I’ll be right back.’ So she goes to their quarters. He goes to one of his friends on sentry duty and tells him that he’s going down to pick the flowers for his wife. It can’t wait because bloodroot only blooms about a day or two before it dies. His friend tells him, ‘You’re too tired! Take my post and I’ll go get the flower.’ So the husband takes the watch and waits while his friend climbs down. He pulls his hat over his eyes so no one will notice it’s not the right guy on duty.

“But it’s been a long day, and the husband nods off. The colonel, his father-in-law, comes around inspecting, sees a soldier asleep on duty, takes out his pistol,” Jon mimicked a pistol by putting two fingers together, cocked them at Melly, “and shoots the guy in the head—bang!

Melly flopped over on her back, her little paws quivering. Lisa laughed and got down to rub Melly’s belly. Jon blew on his fingers like a cowboy blowing away smoke. I stared at him, horrified.

“It’s only after he lifts the dead man’s face to the moon that the colonel realizes he’s killed his daughter’s husband. So he turns the gun on himself, finds there’s another shot in the second barrel.” Jon stuck his fingers in his mouth. His head jerked back, his eyes rolled. “Bang,” he said, his head unnaturally tilted. I crossed my arms tightly over my chest.

“And Wilful, when she hears the shots and sees them both dead, well she goes nuts. She runs right off this point here and throws herself into the moat. Breaks her neck on that rock.”

I swallowed, moving so my toes were right at the edge of the wall, and looked down at the water lapping against the fort. Under the cloudy skies, the bay beyond the moat had turned brown and yellow. The rock was flat, gray, on the far bank of the moat. The flower fluttered in my hand as the wind tried to tear it away.

“They say she still wanders the ramparts, looking for a victim to bring to the sea,” Jon whispered near my ear, “when the bloodroots bloom.”

He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed. I screamed, waving my arms frantically to get my balance as I teetered over the edge. Then his hand yanked me back, I fell on my butt in the grass, and Jon nearly collapsed to his knees laughing.

That’s not funny!” I yelled, blinking back angry tears as I got to my feet.

“Yeah!” chimed Lisa, leaving Melly to join me, hands balled on her non-existent hips.

“Oh my god, you should have seen your face!” He clutched his stomach, rocking on his heels.

“That story’s not true! And you’re mean! And we’re leaving.” I grabbed Lisa’s arm and pulled her toward the stairs.

“Whatever you say!” he called after me. “You’re the one who saw her!”

I did not deign to answer, but pulled Lisa to the nearest way out. With my free hand, I dug in my pocket. My dad’s ribbon was still there. He would have known what to do when a boy pretended to shove someone off a wall, would have known why lonely people had to be so mean. I clenched my fist and gripped hard enough that the pins at the back cut my palm.

“What’d Jon tell you?” Lisa asked. “He wasn’t nice. But I liked Melly.”

“Just a story.” My throat hurt and I cleared it. “Weren’t you listening?”

“I couldn’t hear. The wind was too loud.” She looked at me hopefully, wanting the story.

Suddenly I wanted to tell it. I wanted to take out the image of Jon with his fingers in his mouth and put in images of my own, where the characters moved the way I wanted and the story ended the way I commanded. In my version, Wilful’s father and husband had died at sea and she visited the fort now not to haunt it, but to bestow help to those with loved ones who were gone. My story began to remind me of a Cornish legend I’d read, where the wife of a sailor managed to summon his spirit to land by casting items into a fire.

“So when the bloodroot blooms, you can take something precious that belonged to a loved one and cast it into the bay. The White Widow will be summoned to bring that person safely home to you,” I told Lisa.

“Like what?” Lisa asked. “What do you have to throw in?”

I felt in my pocket. “Like… Well, like a ribbon.”

“When does the bloodroot bloom?”

“It was blooming today. That boy”—I didn’t feel he deserved to be addressed by his name—“showed me some.”

Lisa nodded, satisfied.

We came in sight of the three-story townhouse. I didn’t want to call it our townhouse yet, not when it looked just like every other townhouse here and didn’t have any of the bulbs Mom had planted at home that we hadn’t even seen bloom. I held Lisa’s hand as we made our way across our backyard, which was also a parking lot. We could hear Mom shoving stuff around even before we opened the backdoor. I helped Lisa get her shoes off and hung up her jacket.

“Lisa, can you do something really important?” She nodded. I took Dad’s ribbon out of my pocket and turned it over in my hand once. “Take this to our room and put it on the dresser, okay?”

“Okay!” Lisa took my ribbon and ran off. Tuffy was stuffed in her pocket now, just his head peeking out with the ribbon-earring bouncing as she leapt up the stairs. I made my way to our main floor more slowly. Mom was on her knees in the kitchen, putting pots in a cupboard, her curly hair pulled into a tight ponytail. I could see the winding lines of her lightning scar right above the collar of her t-shirt. A voice murmured in the living room, and I edged through the kitchen to get a glimpse of the TV. The Weather Channel played quietly, covering the weekend report. I liked how the weatherman’s voice made the house feel less empty.

“Look.” Lisa had stopped to watch the weather report. Grinning, she pointed at the screen. “It’s going to storm!”

I turned back to the weather. Sure enough, there was an eighty percent chance of thunderstorms. My stomach started doing a sea serpent coil. I could remember when I was really little, before Lisa, when we had a bad hurricane. Hail rained down and the windows broke and Mom went raking leaves in the eye of the storm even though Dad said it wouldn’t make a difference. The clouds rolled in and she got distracted talking to a neighbor. They finally said goodbye, walked separate ways, and I saw Mom and then light and then Mom again, collapsing on the driveway, thunder so loud I went deaf a moment and couldn’t hear myself scream or Dad shouting as he ran and then days afterward in the hospital with all sorts of adults telling me, “Your mom’s lucky. Struck by lightning! Went right through her spine all the way out her heel. Did she show you the scar?” And I’d say, yes, she did. It looked like tree roots, red and dark as blood, growing down from her neck all the way to her third rib.

One of the adults, a well- meaning friend, told Dad, “Hey, at least you don’t have to worry about that! The chances of getting hit again…”

And Dad’d said, “The chances get better after you’re hit once.” And his friend tried to smile and Dad stretched his lips back but didn’t even make a dint in his cheeks and rubbed his eyes and then picked me up and put me on his lap and told me a story about Zeus. Mom always got surprised when I remembered so much, especially since she couldn’t. I wished I could forget.

There you are.” Mom came into the living room. Her flushed cheeks told me I was in for it. She nodded to a clock sitting on the dining room table, waiting to be hung. “What time is it, Penelope?”

I looked down with a sinking feeling. “Four fifteen, ma’am. Sorry… I lost track of time.”

Lisa dashed off as Mom mutely pointed to a box. Biting my lip, I grabbed scissors and started cutting. The packers had put an extra layer of tape on this one. The Weather Channel played in the other room. Storms should hit in the next hour or so. Some hail expected. If you’re in the bay area, be careful… The scissors broke through at last, and my whole arm plunged into the box. Its insides smelled a little like our old house—musty with a tinge of coffee and spices and book pages. When Mom wasn’t looking, I put my head all the way in and inhaled deeply.

We finished an hour later. Wisps of Mom’s red hair made a halo around her pale face as she put the last knick-knack on the bookshelf, a piece of blue rope tied in an Alpine Butterfly knot. It was my favorite knot because it looked sort of like a Celtic trinity knot—one big loop and two twined smaller loops. Instead of giving her flowers, Dad gave her bits of knotted rope when they were dating. “The Alpine Butterfly is very important,” he’d say to me, smiling at my mom, “because it’s the anchor knot.

Mom exhaled slowly, mentioned ordering pizza and sent me to do more unpacking in my room. I left, relieved. I saw her heading toward the sunroom to unpack more.

I pushed open the door to my room, but before it could swing wide it caught on something. Digging my shoulder into the wood, I tried to push harder.

“Don’t come in!” came Lisa’s voice as the door pushed back against me.

“What?” I wedged my foot in the open space and tried to squeeze through the opening.

“Why not?”


I pushed through and stopped in amazement. Our room was a disaster, post-hurricane kind. Boxes lay toppled over, spilling illustrated books and toys and clothes everywhere. I couldn’t step without putting my foot on a pile at least an inch deep. Mom was going to freak.

I swung around to Lisa, cowering behind the door. “What on earth did you do?”

“I lost it!” Big tears rolled down her cheeks. “I lost it!”

“Lost what?”

“Dad’s ribbon—the one he—he gave you.”

Hurricane winds covered my ears, my brain. I was right in front of her before I knew I’d taken a step, screaming, “What do you mean—you lost it?”

“I just wanted to play!” she wailed, pointing at her stuffed animals standing in military formation on the window seat. Tuffy sat in front of them with his ribbon earring. “I wanted to play with it, just one game, and—and—then—I can’t find it anywhere!”

Red coated everything—Lisa’s blotched face, the unpainted walls, the boxes, everything.

“You have your own ribbon! Why didn’t you play with that?”

“I wanted to play with yours!”

Red coated everything—Lisa’s blotched face, the unpainted walls, the boxes, everything.

I wished I was the colonel of the fort and I could shoot her. I wished I was a mermaid and I could drown her.

I raised my hand and the sting cut up my arm as I hit her across the cheek.

Lisa stared at me, her gray eyes wide and wounded, a tear dripping down over the angry welt from my hand. I stared back, breathing hard, my stomach turning inside out.

“Penelope Catherine Smith.” Mom’s voice was low and calm. When I turned, her eyes were scarier than lightning. “Tell me what you just did.”

“Lisa lost Dad’s ribbon—the one he gave me!” I pointed at her, my voice hitching. Lisa started crying even more and shoved past me to grab Tuffy from the window seat before latching onto Mom’s legs. I knew I was lost. Mom always went easy on Lisa. If Dad’s been here, he might have at least given Lisa a spanking. If he’d been here, I wouldn’t have hit Lisa at all. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t mean to!” My vision blurred and I felt the tears run down to my chin. “She just ruins everything! She always messes up my stuff!”

Mom picked up Lisa. “Apologize to your sister.”

I shut my mouth tight, pressing my lips together.

Mom’s eyes became steelier than an aircraft carrier. “All right then. You stay here until you can apologize. And I want you to clean up whatever of this mess is yours. Do you understand?”

“But Lisa—”

“If you had unpacked all of your stuff”—she said it like another s-word I’d heard her use before—“when you were supposed to earlier, it wouldn’t have been in the boxes. And maybe once this mess is cleaned up you’ll find the ribbon. It’s got to be here somewhere.”

She carried Lisa to the door. Lisa lifted her head off Mom’s shoulder and whispered, “I’ll get him back, Penny.”

The door shut firmly and I was alone. I looked at the mess, feeling hopelessly like I’d been assigned one of Psyche’s impossible tasks. My hand still itched from hitting Lisa.

Thunder rumbled over the house about an hour later, when hunger combined with a lonely fear drew me out of my room. Though I had tearfully tried to straighten up my things, I still hadn’t found the ribbon. I moved down the steps one at a time, feeling the wood quake with the echoes of thunder. Back in my real home, my old home, I would have curled my toes to pull at the carpet threads, and felt grounded.

Mom still worked in the sunroom by the sound of it. The rain started, hitting the windows in a small patter-patter-patter. Thunder again. I went to the living room. The Weather Channel had been turned off, and the room felt bigger, colder without the murmuring weatherman.

“Lisa?” I called, checking the dining room, kitchen. I looked down the stairs to the backdoor. My coat hung on its peg with my shoes below, but Lisa’s were gone. The rain pounded louder behind my eyes. The backdoor had been left open a crack.

I ran down and pulled on my boots. I had to go after Lisa. But I couldn’t tell Mom. Not only would she be even more furious with me, she’d be in danger too. What if she got hit again, and Dad wasn’t even here to help? I didn’t want her to go in the storm—even more than I didn’t want to go in the storm.

When I slipped outside, the rain hit me like those waterfalls at nice pools—a weight breaking on my neck and shoulders. My hair clung to my face, and I blinked hard to try to see, still standing on the first step, staring out into the rain, my toes right on the edge of the step’s ledge. Lightning tore across the sky in a wicked smile. The trees waved one way and then another. My heart hammered in my chest, my stomach watermelon hard.

Something—someone—white moved under the flash of the lightning. I only had a glimpse—a woman, gliding along the grass toward the fort. With a yelp, I jumped down the steps and tore across the parking lot. The temperature had dropped, and my hands hurt with cold. Puddles soaked my pants and dripped down over my ankles.

The grass beneath my feet changed to pavement. I raised my eyes enough to get a glimpse of the fort, cloaked in darkness and looming taller than before. I could barely make out the little stoplights, still on red, gleaming at me through the storm, like they knew something I didn’t. The rain receded as I ducked into the entrance. I cupped my hands to my mouth and screamed, “Lisa!”

Lightning streaked down somewhere in the bay, and in its jagged fall to the ground I saw Lisa silhouetted on top of the wall, the light turning her red hair to fire.  I screamed again, but the wind ripped my voice away. Thunder crashed through my head, and I felt the fort wall tremble under my hand.

Taking a deep breath, I plunged from my shelter back into the rain. The stairs were slick with water, and I slipped. I didn’t feel any pain when my knee collided with the edge of one step, or when my palms slid over stone to stop me. I scrambled the rest of the way on all fours. The rain tasted salty, and I thought I might be crying, or maybe it was the sea.

Lisa stood on the point where Wilful fell all those years ago. She held her right hand out, clenched shut, her other hand gripping Tuffy to her side. In another flash of lightning, I thought I saw the woman—but when I blinked Lisa was alone. I ran to her, the mud sliding away from my feet a little with every step. She stood so near the edge—I didn’t know if she realized it, and she couldn’t hear me.

You have to give her something that the sailor loved, I remembered saying. Icy fingers crawled across my neck. Dad loved Lisa way more than all his ribbons. Lisa was more than a small piece of Dad—she was half him. That woman on the wall had noticed Lisa, had smiled— but maybe not kindly after all. Maybe Jon had been right—maybe the White Widow haunted the grounds, wished harm in her grief, hurt the living for pleasure. Maybe the White Widow didn’t want to be lonely any more.

Lisa threw her hand forward, fingers spreading as she released something. Then she pitched, arms flailing, and fell.

No screams were left in me. I paused just long enough to look down. I could see a shadow under the water I thought could be Lisa. She hadn’t learned to swim yet—she still wouldn’t let go of pool edges. I backed a few steps, hardly hearing the storm anymore, too scared to think how scared I was. I ran, jumped.

The water hit me like Dad’s belt—but this all over me, every part, so sharp and stunning the air went out of me and I couldn’t get anything back in. I grabbed blindly, found an arm, and kicked off from the muddy bottom of the moat. My legs hurt from thrashing, my skin burned, my chest shrunk to the size of a pin. Water sloshed in my ears, in my head, and I could hear murmurs like a distant avalanche.

I broke the surface. Sound washed me in a baptism of thunder. I opened my mouth but no air would come in. Kicking furiously, I dragged Lisa through the water to the large rock. She started kicking, too. I pushed her onto the rock. Lisa’s hair clung in limp clumps around her face. I crawled up beside her, my whole body bruised, and curled forward until my forehead scraped the stone.

All at once, air came back. I gasped and coughed, unable to take enough in, too shaken to do more than gasp until I nearly heaved. Lisa dug her head into my shoulder, clinging.

“Are you okay?” I asked when I could speak. “Are you okay? What were you doing?”

“I tried to bring Daddy back,” she whimpered into my neck. “I gave my ribbon to the White Widow moat.” Her voice hitched. “I think I lost Tuffy.”

“It’s all right.” I gripped her arm, her head, feeling her firmness, feeling her shuddering breaths. She smelled like the sea. She smelled like the stale moat water. She smelled a little metallic. “It’s okay.”

She curled closer, shaking in the cold, and I held her. The thunder grew fainter, less frequent. At last I got up. Water lapped at my feet, and something soft brushed the toe of my shoe. Tuffy had washed up beside us. I scooped him out—soaked and drooping—passed him to Lisa. I put my hand on her shoulder.

Together we started walking home.

Hollingsworth photoAlyssa Hollingsworth is a graduate of Berry College currently pursuing her M.A. in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. She has been previously published in Berry Magazine and Fickle Muses, and won third place in the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s Prize in Ethics. Visit her here: http://alyssahollingsworth.com

Goat Sucker

It wasn’t fleeing. It was a road trip. It was a chance to bond, an opportunity too rare to pass up, and I was blitzed out of my mind from the possibilities that lay before us: a grown, jobless man and his retired father on the way south in late spring. It seemed good. It seemed right.

It is difficult, of course, to pin down what I had hoped would happen on the trip. I needed to understand my father after so many years of never even trying. There was something screaming that now was the very last time to do so, and if I let the opportunity pass I would be marooned, left forever. By showing an interest in the old man now, there could maybe be the kind of reconciliation that afternoon television was made for, something all the more difficult to attain due to the fact that there was no single rift or place of tearing. What separated my father and I was more akin to miscommunication and the simple geography of distance. The idea that we could heal our rift through a road trip seemed symbolic. The geographical distance between myself and the Madison police didn’t hurt much either after the obviously ridiculous incident with Speedy Cash.

My latest employment in that long string had been terminated over the matter of my till and the whereabouts of thirty stupid dollars. All I can say about that is I’m not dumb enough to try and steal from a check cashing establishment, and even if I was, I find it hard to believe that anyone, really, could be so foolhardy as to do it from their own register—talk about asking to get caught. I don’t know what happened to that money, an explanation not good enough for my former manager—who was just as undeterred by my suspicions about the shift supervisor—and most certainly found lacking by the interested persons in the eleventh precinct called in on that ridiculous charge. No one seemed to understand. No matter how much I explained it to them. I was simply not the kind of person who would be caught doing something so dumb. They all wore the self-righteous smirk of habitual disbelief.

Compounding matters worse was the freak accident: a disappearance of the money order I had taken out to cover my rent and gotten two months past due. My landlord didn’t appreciate the disappearance, but he was kind enough to accompany me to Ace Cash, even though I really had to get my groceries into the fridge before they expired. When I showed them my receipt the lady at the counter said the check had been cashed already, which was impossible because I had made it out to my landlord, who was standing right there with me and who didn’t have his money. I demanded right there she return the full amount of money as was made out on the receipt, “money owed to my landlord,” and said I wasn’t going to move until we got it. I demanded to see a manager. She called the police instead, like I was trying to pull something on her, but I just wanted to pay my landlord, who looked less and less pleased with each passing moment. I thought about waiting for the cops, because then I could file a claim saying that someone had stolen that money order and cashed it, but of course I knew that would be a dead end, what with the terrible inefficiency of the Madison police department. They would rather persecute an innocent like me than spend the time bothering to catch the real culprit.

In hindsight, leaving said location at a sprint was possibly not the best or wisest response to the situation.

Matters like that do not make bonding all that easy, but I was there at least, with my dad, and that was really something. Who cared that I had come to my father in a state of mild, temporary desperation? I could have squatted in his empty house, like he had suggested when I told him I needed a place to crash for a little while, you know, as things had been going pretty rough for no real reason lately. But when I looked around that sparsely furnished house on Rushmore Lane, with the wild, dead or dying jumble of grass in the back yard, and the dearth of consumer electronics within—aside from the laptop he was bringing with him—crashing there seemed silly. I realized I didn’t just need a new base of operations, so to speak. I needed to connect with my father. Somewhere in the past, something had come undone between us, and since I was temporarily free from the constraints of the daily grind, I had the chance to fix it.

If I’m being one hundred percent, I suppose that the thought of answering my dad’s door one Tuesday morning, or whatever, and facing a load of B.S. questions from some detective so-and-so about the Speedy Cash business, or some old so-called friends looking for something I wouldn’t even know about might have been a motivator, but I would like to believe, and in my heart I truly know, that now was the time to get to understand my dad and his strange ways.

I didn’t have much of an opportunity to tell Dad about my plan on the road, but that seemed fine. We drove straight through to New Mexico in just over a day. I developed a headache along with a worrying tickle that I knew could be cured with over-the-counter cough syrup, plenty of water, and probably a few ibuprofens.

Since mom died, Dad had been stuck in a cycle of fascination, obsession and then boredom with a rotating gaggle of unorthodox beliefs. At first it had been the séances, which was actually sort of sweet. He and mom had gotten hitched right out of high school, one of those sweetheart romances, and that lasted thirty four years before the stroke shuffled her off the refrigerated coil of that Wisconsin winter. Shakespeare via Madison—Dad hadn’t appreciated that small joke back then. It made sense, anyways, that he’d try to get in touch with her in the afterlife, especially since I was in my own world of grief and personal interests, things that ate into my free time so that I couldn’t be there for him, like I maybe could have been. It was me and mom who fought, not Dad, he wasn’t the one who had kicked me out of the house when that one thing happened in high school, and yet I was skipping her funeral like it was punishing her and not him. Sometimes I look back and think of how foolish I used to be.

The séances didn’t work, of course, and Dad eventually gave it up, dispirited, and moved on. Instead of coming back to reality though, he went from one crazy idea to the next. He was into voodoo and ghosts, chi energy and breatharianism, crystals and aliens and Native American mythology. Bigfoot only barely escaped his scrutiny. It wasn’t just an interest, even if it began casually, it was quickly a full-fledged obsession until Dad was so immersed that when he couldn’t find the results he was after he had no recourse but to reject the idea wholesale, moping about the house in a near catatonic depression until the next idea, the next great hope came along.

This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra.

This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra. The problem was there weren’t any real sightings in the state. Sure, there were sightings, but even as far as monsters in the dark go, they were ephemeral, the same sort of imagined fancy as my former manager turning the matter of thirty freaking dollars over to the police, like it was a real crime or something. He said that there had been some question over other registers in the past weeks, and that with mine coming up short led him to believe it was a systemic thing that had its radii squarely centered on my noggin. He must have been born of the same stock as those morons on the internet posting about a reptile-like creature lurking outside of Ruidoso. Any real hard look would prove to anyone of even moderate intelligence that what was happening was the misfiring of some delusional, overstimulated mind, seeking an elaborate answer to something pretty straight forward. Me and Dad eventually decided that there was nothing to see in that sleepy New Mexico town, and so we loaded ourselves into the truck, headed to more likely places of interest, a technique the Madison PD could take a lesson from.

We went to Texas. They should have gone to that slimy looking supervisor. Before the goatsucker had become Dad’s latest raison d’être, he had been on an extremely long and arduous UFO kick. Things had gotten pretty desperate by then, enough so that his old friends had looked me up, looking for anyone to make Dad shut his yap while at work. It was the kind of crazy, they said that could annoy someone upstairs enough to get him canned without the compensation his forty years of service deserved, and the dumb bastard only had a year left before retirement. I hadn’t talked to my father for nearly three years, but even then I knew that he hadn’t really been friends with those men since mom died. God, how long had that been? He hadn’t really been friends with anyone after that, actually. Even after all the bridges he had burned with those people due to his whackadoodle obsessions, the foundation of friendship had somehow survived. It bothered me, I remember, because my own friends would have sold me down the river for a bump. Talk about predicting the future.

Well, I had called the old man up, being in a rare state of clarity after his old buddies had given my cage a good rattle, and he invited me right over. Just like that. So I came on down and we sat in awkward silence in that old living room, not talking about mom or the years or the times. When I broached the topic of his UFOs, he leapt at the opportunity and led me on a tour of his study, eager to regale me with the details of his unsightly passion.

I would guess it began like everything else, with an honest, simple interest. Right before we had fallen out of touch he’d given me a call and encouraged me to install S.E.T.I. at home. I didn’t have a computer then, but he’d told me about the theories of alien contact anyway. I’d ignored him out of apathy and because I had my own obsessions, which was why we drifted apart in the first place. Plus, he’d always played the good cop to mom’s bad, and without her the dynamic felt wrong. It wasn’t until I came over, though, for that tour of the study that I realized things had spiraled out of control. He regaled me with his ideas on crop circles, which I was in no real condition to make coherent, having taken something for my nerves before stopping by to see him that day. He told me about which ones were fake and which weren’t; how even most crop circles were obviously hoaxes and others were simply less obvious ones. There had to be the real deal out there, especially when they first began to appear in anonymous farmers’ fields—what were they, he wondered out loud to me, what were they trying to say? You had to look at them as signs, he told me, an obvious olive branch of communication, even if it seemed incoherent.

Worse was the group he’d gotten involved with. They were searching for proof of contact; they believed that aliens were on Earth already, in one capacity or another, and it was their job to establish a means of communication. The depths of self-delusion were so deep I felt like they must have looped into infinity and I didn’t like the abyss in which I stared. I made excuses and got out of there, making sure, in a stroke of lucidity, to eke out a promise from Dad that he would calm things down at work so he could remain gainfully employed. That was something, as it came at the cost of me promising to stop by more often. I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain, but since he wasn’t fired, I assume Dad had held up his.

Dad kept asking if I was all right, because I would drift off on the long stretches of road, going somewhere in my head, he’d say, or else passing out and drooling all over myself. I was fine, just fighting that flu, you know?

The whole Chupacabra fix was just an offshoot of all that alien business. I heard about it all on that interminable drive from the far north to the Deep South. It was bad enough when we were alone, but worse was when he used that over-knowledgeable banter, the kind that could easily secure a seventy two hour involuntary, with every farmer and outskirts drifter he could get to listen. It surprised me how many people listened, how many were willing spin their own yarns for him. There was nothing in the great wasteland of New Mexico, as far as Dad could figure—to which I supplied a necessary guffaw of obvious agreement—but the people certainly had their stories, nearly all of them contradictory and illusory. When Dad had had enough of their imaginations running wild with hope and myth and the occasional outright fabrication—which Dad could stand less than anything else, I should know—we skedaddled out east.

Here was the point that confused me. Despite the absurdity of the idea in and of itself, and despite the degree of his obsession, Dad never really went over, not fully at least, to the dark side of credulity, holding on like a lunatic with his blankie to the fringe of understanding reality. Despite the money he’d sunk into his explorations for alien life, among all the others, and despite the time and dedication, he never fully fell for the snake oil or hopeful fantasies. His UFO group interviewed probably hundreds of people who claimed to be aliens or in contact or able to get in contact with them, but they were all dismissed, sadly, as crackpots or over-credulous. Dad would have made a great cop, superior to the North’s current breed. The UFO group’s crowning moment was going to be a young man who’d claimed to be in contact with extraterrestrials through unnatural vibrations in his teeth. They investigated and found out it was only that the man was, for reasons understood by only electrical engineers and adherents to late night B-movies, picking up the signal for a local Spanish language radio station through his fillings, poor kid. I guess Dad learned pretty well from my teenage years how to decipher the truth from what he wanted to believe, even when the proof came from the deluded mouth of a still-believer.

I remember the beginning of our Chupacabra trip: coming to Dad a few months after I’d been evicted, my reserves of cash burned through in ill-advised ways. Seeing that look, it was a little like what he’d give to the farmers with their Mexican Monster stories, designed with the obvious purpose of fooling the simple. Except that there was something different in Madison then, something that had to do with me in particular, that I still can’t quite figure.

It was this unforeseeable skepticism that always killed his grand ideas. The hopes got bigger and more unwieldy until there came a point where rational thought had to admit that the ground was not going to shake and the earth was not going to open up to reveal some profound mystery of being. Dad would know in those moments that he’d been deluding himself, trying to believe in something he wanted too desperately.

As we crossed the border and left behind New Mexico, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be rid of its Martian landscape and limitless heat. With a knowing smile and a wink, however, Dad let it be known that we were out of the frying pan and into Texas, so I better calm my jubilant exhalations a bit. We moved into the armpit of the state and it grew muggier and hotter, the AC in the decrepit Dakota struggling to keep pace with the sun. By the time we rolled into Granbury, Texas, Wisconsin a mere tres dias ancient history, I was in a pretty bad state. I’d been buying up Nyquil D, two bottles at a time whenever I could find it. I’d been trying to keep my deteriorating health from Dad because I figured it would screw up our bonding if he worried about me. He’d noticed right away, though, with the sweating and the abundant stops at gas station restrooms. Dad said he was pretty concerned, but I told him there was no need to worry. I wouldn’t slow him down, the Nyquil was helping lots and I didn’t really have a fever, per se, so much as I was just sensitive to the heat. You couldn’t blame me for not liking the heat, and it was so goddamned hot. When the Nyquil dried up, I wasn’t sure what to do.

I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely.

I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely. After we had passed through Coleman and Blanco and into the outskirts of San Antonio, the beast was just an ugly sort of dog, not the lizard of South American legend we’d chased before, with an unusual method of killing cattle. Dad really locked onto the idea. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it had a ring of truth, the weight of substantiality. We talked to farmers who’d shot their share of wild animals and to them the Chupacabra was not some alien looking creature with big black eyes, they had enough of black eyed aliens if you know what I mean, nudge-nudge, they would say. God. Their Chupacabras turned out, upon expert inspection, to be a coyote with a vicious case of mange or else a malformed raccoon. A few of the supposedly mythical creatures that had been preserved in giant walk-in freezers were merely Xolos. Dad let me know how unbelievable it was to him that this close to the border people didn’t know a simple Mexican hairless dog, how they should understand what was right there in their faces, but that only got me wondering about just how much Dad knew himself.

Driving out to Cuero I took a turn for the worse. I’d been on so much Nyquil to keep my symptoms at bay that I had probably gotten addicted to the stuff. Dad told me that he needed to take me to a hospital but I told him no. I didn’t have the money to pay for those kinds of bills and I didn’t have insurance. I had lost that safety net when I had lost my job. I toyed with the idea of going in and giving my ex-boss’ name and social security number on the hospital forms, ignoring for now why I had that memorized, because it was his fault in the first place that I was in this situation. In the end I figured it best not to get the police in Texas interested in me as well. I was probably through the worst anyways, so I told Dad he didn’t really need to worry. Sure, I had dropped a few pounds since we set off on our road trip, but I had finally put things behind me and was beginning a brand new life where me and my dad were united, and those pounds needed dropping anyways.

I didn’t much like the new Chupacabra. It was too ordinary, too mundane. It wasn’t that it was plausible that bothered me, but that this seemingly plausible explanation was linked to such extraordinary circumstances. Even though it was just a derivative of a dog, there were still the three-holed exsanguinations. The nod to reality made the whole situation even more farcical. Dad just shrugged, like maybe he was on the way down from this particular obsession and told me that everyone has some myth, some legend that they choose to believe. That the particulars get changed doesn’t seem to matter much. The important thing was understanding something difficult to comprehend, and these people were doing the best that they could. I guess I agreed with him, but I still didn’t like it. I wished people would simply call a duck a duck, or in this case, a monster a monster or else a satanic cult or a couple of kids with a box of syringes and too much time on their hands. Dad grunted his agreement, and I knew that our bridge had at least a foundation, if not the arch and span I envisioned.

It was the same story in Cuero, only the weather was even worse, the southeastern section of Texas being the swamp ass of the United States, I decided—though I had never been to Louisiana, so I might have been wrong. I don’t know. Like everywhere, Dad grabbed his doodads and whatsits, grabbed baggies for samples of whoknowswhat, and took notes with his pad and pen. I started feeling a little afraid by then, both because I felt like my guts were being liquefied and because I didn’t want the trip to end. There was still some barrier between me and Dad that I needed to eliminate, but I still couldn’t place it. I needed more time. Home seemed a worse and worse place to go, not only because I had no apartment or job, but because I’d exhausted all my friends and favors. It wasn’t just that the Ace Cash problems had snowballed into the Speedy Cash ordeal, or that this had morphed into some sort of larger case file, which included other former places of my employment and my various check cashing habits—I didn’t even get the money from Ace, so what was the problem? The real, honest to god, swear upon my life reason was that this proximity with Dad was going to be gone, he was my traveling buddy and my confidant and we were connecting in ways before unimaginable. Sure, I was sick now, but I would get better. I was probably getting better already.

The last farmer we talked to was a conman through and through. He tried to sell us a story so patently bogus my eyes rolled into my head on their own volition, like an animal afraid of bullshit. I happened to have been a person in my old life that needed to stretch the truth a bit to get by. I knew the difference between the semi-believable and the outright chain yankers, and this was off the charts. Dad kept taking his little notes. He was even suckered into buying a few pieces of the crap that man was hocking, so-called genuine shards of nails from the Chupacabra. I confronted Dad, even though I felt like my eyes were falling out of my head, and told him I couldn’t believe that he had fallen for such an obvious line. He told me that sometimes stories didn’t add up, but that didn’t mean that a kernel of truth wasn’t there. He told me how Mountain Gorillas were considered a myth for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until 1902, when one was shot and killed by a European that the tales of the savages were finally taken seriously.

There’d been too many disparities, too little fact mixed into the stories told, but it had been true all along. There was, he told me, the pearl to be found in the mud, but only if you looked. It was hard work looking at dirt and shit all day, but it could be worth it. I told him the money would have been better spent, maybe for some medicine for his son, for example. I told him that when he knew a line was bogus he should nip it in the bud, because if you didn’t stop chasing lies, you would spend your whole life staring at nothing but shit, and then where were you? He didn’t say anything, but I know the words hit home.

Later that night, at the hotel, Dad told me that he wouldn’t be heading home yet, which was fine with me until he told me he was going on into Mexico and he might keep going south after that. I didn’t have a passport and besides I didn’t need the hassle of trying to get myself through official checkpoints, sometimes things didn’t necessarily stay localized, though I just told Dad about the passport. He shrugged like always and gave me a thousand dollars stuffed in a white envelope he had pulled from absolutely nowhere, and told me it should be enough for cough syrup or whatever, and a flight home. He said I should probably go to a doctor and have them take care of my flu when I got there. He said he would be back in maybe a month. He wanted to hear the stories of the lizard Chupacabra, he wanted the tales of the Central American alien, the raw and horrible thing that made people afraid to leave their house, even if his Spanish was of the high school yooper variety, and he hoped to see me when he got back.

I was walking in the dark for my medicine when I saw it. It wasn’t more than twenty feet away, slinking out of the tree line. It was the eyes that gave it away, the eyes that changed everything, that shone like the world was ending, like it knew. I stood there until it slunk back from where it had emerged, the twenty in my hand gone sweaty and crumpled, and I thought, Dad, you are not going to believe this, but I have to tell you something.

J I Daniels received an MFA in fiction from the University of Houston and can be found most recently in Splash of Red and Words Apart.

Zeitgeist (A Foul Effluvium This Way Comes)

The cardboard box is longer than wide, wider than deep, and it’s dragged out
into the middle of the floor where a team of six adults is given the task
of opening it and assembling the contents (a bike)

In this instance a small group of adults is given twelve pieces of uncooked
spaghetti to construct a pyramid. Superglue or masking tape can be used
to cement the pieces. A marshmallow must balance on top

Last but not least is the human knot. A dozen people (plus or minus) make
a teeming circle in which arms become radii, and each person is holding
hands with two others. Now, without letting go of any hands, they
must undo the knot

LastMan_RLS_PhotoR.L. Swihart currently lives in Long Beach, CA, and teaches high school mathematics in Los Angeles. His poems have appeared in various online and print journals, including Bateau, elimae, Rhino, Right Hand Pointing, 1110 and decomP. His first collection of poems, The Last Man, was published in 2012 by Desperanto Press.

Mary Gordon, Author

American author Mary Gordon was born in 1949 in Far Rockaway, New York. She was an only child to her mother, Anne, who was Catholic and her Jewish father, David, who converted to Catholicism when he was a young man. The death of Gordon’s father when she was seven years old deeply impacted her life. She used her grief as catalyst for many works of fiction and nonfiction, and finally to research her father’s life. Her research was painful, not without secrets and surprises, and resulted in her 1996 memoir, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father.

Mary Gordon

Photo: Emma Dodge Hanson

In 1978 Gorden’s Final Payments was published to high critical acclaim. In 1981 The Company of Women was published, and that year she also wrote the foreword to the Harvest edition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In 1984 she was one of 97 theologians and religious persons who signed A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion, calling for pluralism and discussion within the Catholic Church on the Church’s position on abortion. Then a four-year hiatus occurred after the birth of her two children, Anna and David, during which time she wrote poetry, essays, reviews and nonfiction. Gordon’s Men and Angels was published in 1985, followed by Temporary Shelter in 1987, and then The Other Side in 1989.

Since 1991, Gordon has written eleven more works of fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, and essays, including her novel Spending: A Utopian Divertimento, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, and the biography Joan of Arc: A Life. She is currently working on a novel about the Spanish Civil War.

Gordon received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. Her other awards include a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, an O. Henry Award, and Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2007, The Stories of Mary Gordon won the Story Prize. In 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer named Mary Gordon the official New York State Author and gave her the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction.

Cheryl Wheelright: Let’s talk about your writing career; your teaching career, your beginnings as a poet, and some of the works that you’ve written. From a very young age you were a poet, and then you transitioned from poetry to several different writing genres. You said poetry was easy compared to “all those words” in prose and narrative. How did you make the transition from being a poet to being a novelist and a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and now biography?

Mary Gordon: It’s really a triumph of the Women’s Movement. I was at Syracuse University getting an MFA in poetry, and it was 1972-73, and you know, it was the height of the Women’s Movement. We women in the program were very irritated that there was not one female faculty member that we could study with, and that the men were getting all the awards and all the prizes. So we met at a local Women’s Center, kind of a basement—it was sort of like an AA meeting—and we did an alternative writing workshop just for women. We just felt that we weren’t getting the support that we needed. And it was in that group that my friend said to me, “You know, your poems are getting longer and longer and longer, and more and more narrative. Maybe you’re a fiction writer.” I said, “No, no, I can’t do that.” And so one of the women challenged me. We were all PAs and we were all teaching freshman composition, and she said, “You know, you are very good at taking exams. So I’m going to give you a blue book. I’m going to put you in a classroom. And I want you to pretend you’re taking an exam, and at the end of three hours, I want you to have written a short story.” And I did that and that was my first short story. And then when I realized that I could do it . . . you know, just the little blue book, it seemed contained enough, and then I just started doing it when I realized that I actually have it in me to tell stories. Virginia Woolf was terribly important to me because I looked at her prose and I thought to myself that her writing does a lot of what poetry does, but it’s prose. I just think that if it hadn’t been for the Women’s Movement—I don’t think that I could never have had a career at all—I just don’t think I could have been a prose writer.

CW: Is it somewhat fascinating that the little blue book gave you the parenthesis in which to write prose?

MG: Yes.

CW: Are you still friends with any of the women in that group?

MG: No, although Julie Alvarez was also in that group, and we have been in kind of email contact, but I haven’t seen her in a long time, but she was in that group, too.

CW: I read your 1999 essay, Putting Pen to Paper but Not Just Any Pen or Just any Paper, and in that essay you wrote of what it takes to get to the frightening task of just getting your thoughts on paper. You said, “There may be some writers who face a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them.” Do you still feel a sense of dread or foreboding or an intense pressure to just get it out?

MG: Well, I always do, of course. I always feel like that, and it gets worse as you get older. The culture is less friendly to fiction in general, particularly fiction by women and particularly fiction by older women. You get the sense, who cares? Why am I doing this? And also the feeling of, “I won’t be able to do this,” but the gap between what’s in your mind and what’s on the paper always seems so enormous. Then sometimes it just seems like a tremendous labor, and for what? More and more you feel like who cares if I write this or not? And why don’t I just go watch another British mystery? So always the gap between what’s in your mind and what’s on the page is so enormous and horrifying that it’s like standing in front of an abyss. Just having to concentrate so hard and not to let your mind wander is difficult. And not to leave what I call the stinky place, the place where you know there’s something wrong with the writing, and it’s a mess, and you don’t know how to fix it, that’s pretty awful, too.

CW: One of the things I admire about your work is your memoir about your father in The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father, and how you delved into what I call the scary place. We all have those scary, painful places we often feel a need to write about. How did you face that? What was your process like writing about your father?

MG: It was very painful in a way that nothing else had been, and again, I guess it was an accident of the Women’s Movement. I had begun and was challenged by an English feminist writer, Ursula  Owens, who was putting together a book about fathers and daughters, and I wrote an essay about my father. And then I . . . it just came on me that I wanted to explore it because one of the things that I felt was that people were writing memoirs, but I didn’t want to write a memoir. I didn’t want to write about myself. I wanted to write about a time, a place, a way of life, a larger issue, a kind of representative case. And I felt like my father’s situation was so important in the history of Jewish life in America and in the history of immigrant life in America, that when I began to lose heart writing about my own father, I thought, well this is an important subject and I don’t like the way other people are writing about it. And so that kind of got me through the swampy places sometimes.

CW: It takes an incredible amount of skill as a writer to be able to write to and about those painful memories as you did in The Shadow Man.

MG: Yes, oh, thank you. But I also felt that one of the things that interested me was being able to honestly say in a memoir, “I don’t know if I got this right. I don’t know whether I’m remembering this right or whether it is just a picture that I saw,” and also saying, “There are these things that I’m never going to be able to find out because the record is just gone.” So I was interested in a way in playing with the form that included an acknowledgement of the limits of the form. So when the subject matter itself got overwhelming, what I was able to be supported by was the sense that I was exploring the form and also exploring an historical and cultural moment.

CW: And what you accomplished by being able to say, “I’m not sure if I recollect this,” was establishment of your credibility as a memoirist.

MG: Yes, I feel very moralistic about memoir. I feel like if you’re going to call it memoir, you’ve got to tell the truth. If you don’t want to tell the truth, call it fiction. That’s fine; that’s great. But don’t say it’s the truth if it’s not the truth. And if you don’t know, say, “I don’t know,” because that’s the truth. But don’t fudge.

I feel like if you’re going to call it memoir, you’ve got to tell the truth. If you don’t want to tell the truth, call it fiction.

CW: Yes, and the reader will often know it.

MG: Well, they don’t always know it. People get away with an enormous amount.

CW: You make an excellent point there, too, which leads me to my next question. How do you define creative nonfiction? Do you consider this a new or an old genre? Do you consider creative nonfiction the appropriate appellation for the genre?

MG: Well, all writing is creative in that you have to shape and form. I don’t think you could call it “inventive nonfiction.” You can’t invent stuff, but you can create in that you choose the sentences, you choose the structure, and that’s where the creativity comes in and you’re still listening for the poetry. You still have an aural responsibility. You still have an imagistic responsibility. But, I don’t think you get to make stuff up. I think there’s a difference between creation and invention.

CW: We touched a bit on the following subject earlier when we talked about the scary, swampy, stinky places. Phillip Lopate in Writing Personal Essays: The Necessity of Turning Onself into a Character said: “The student essayist is torn between two contrasting extremes:

A: I am so weird that I could never tell on the page what is secretly going on in my mind. Or;
B: I am so boring nothing ever happened to me out of the ordinary, so who would want to hear about it?

You might have heard some of these kinds of issues come up with your students. What do you say to these students to get them started writing?

MG: You know, it’s interesting. I think that, “I’m so boring, nothing ever happens to me,” is something that happens to young women more than young men.

CW: Do you think there’s a sense of shame for that?

MG: Yes, and so I just try to say, focus on the language and, again, the formal issue. And what I say to them is this: You know, nobody said to Proust, “What do you do? What are you going to do? Are you just going to write about yourself?” And nobody said that to Joyce. And so the issue is really an issue of language. How can you create a beautiful, kind of iridescent object out of the moment and concentrate on the most important unit of time, that is, the moment? And if you think about it that way, you don’t have to think of it as boring, or not boring, because no moment is like any other moment. So I get them to think about the moments, and that’s what they get to start with.

CW: Referring to the essayist or memoirist, the writer, poet and teacher Grace Paley once said: “Every story is two stories; the story of the story, and the story of the writer.” She referred to the writer inserting herself into the story. Do you agree or disagree, and how so?

MG: I loved Grace. I think she was a great writer and a great person. Well, what I think what Grace always said was that the writer is always inserting herself into the story, and so to pretend that you’re not is a kind of false objectivity. I think she was just talking about the ability to not shut your self off, to not keep the “I” out if it wants to come into the story, and to not have a kind of false Puritanism about the “I.”

CW: Your first novel, Final Payments, was initially written in the third person in 1978. Then your mentor, Elizabeth Hardwick, suggested you rewrite it in the first person, and you very successfully rewrote it in the first person. How long did it take you to rewrite it, and how did you feel on receiving that feedback from her?

MG: I wanted to throw up is how I felt. But once I got started, it did not take very long because it was how it was supposed to be. What she told me was to look at all the times when I said, “ She thought to herself,” or “She remembered,” or “She imagined.“ or “It seemed to her.” When I looked at all those places, I realized that she was right, and in fact, the first person then came much more naturally, but I was worried then about being a woman and writing first person. I thought that grownups were a very distant third person, and she had given me the permission to write in first person.

CW: That must have felt liberating to you at that time in history and in your career.

MG: Yes.

CW: Also, in Final Payments, your opening sentence was, “My father’s funeral was full of priests.” And your last sentence was, “There was a great deal I wanted to say.” For me, those were two perfect sentences for your novel. I loved the story.

MG: Oh, thank you, but you know, now I could never begin a novel with, “My father’s funeral was full of priests,” because everybody would read, “My father’s funeral was full of pedophiles.”

CW: I didn’t get that from my reading.

MG: The way the pedophilia scandal has changed so much the way that the Catholic priests are understood in the larger imagination, today I couldn’t write either of my first two novels the way that I did then.

CW: An interesting point, but for me, you telescoped that Catholicism would be heavily involved in your novel. And your final sentence fit the moment perfectly. It not only ended the story on a light note, I thought perhaps it telescoped that you really did have a lot to say, and you have had a lot to say since that time. I wonder if you were aware of that then. How did you derive that final sentence?

MG: It would be great to say that I derived it. I think it was given to me; I heard it. You know, it wasn’t any intelligence, but I wanted to end it hopefully. And, in a way I thought that’s really a hopeful sentence, feeling that you have a lot to say.

CW: It was, and I thought the ending to your story was cathartic. I looked for that because the tension was building. Isabel’s final act of virtue freed her completely.

MG: Yes, it did. I mean, I originally remember thinking that she was going to kill herself. I was living in London at the time and went to a concert of the Jupiter Symphony by Mozart, and I thought, “Wait a minute! I don’t want it to end with a suicide. I want it to end with hope and joy.” And so I changed my mind kind of half way through my planning process.

CW: It’s great that you’ve considered all the arts within your own art. Mozart had such a great sense of humor in much of his music. I’m curious. You’ve also said that you like to do your writing by hand with a certain pen and with notebooks. Do you still collect notebooks, and do you still write by hand?

MG: Yes. I was reading a collections of letters, it was a three-way correspondence, between Rilke and Pasternak and the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and I had always felt kinship with her, but then I read a sentence she wrote that really made me feel kinship, and she said, “I’ve been only possessive of two things in my life: my children and my notebooks.” I love notebooks. And I have only one pen that I’m quite faithful to, a black Waterman, but I collect notebooks from all over. I really love them. They’re getting harder and harder to find now, and it’s kind of upsetting. Except now they have these moleskin ones which are kind of like the Yuppie notebooks. I think they’re kind of like the “Starbucks” of notebooks. They’re all the same, you know? It doesn’t seem like it’s very exciting anymore.

CW: On teaching, what is the best part about teaching writing for you?

MG: The best part about teaching is that it’s hopeful, and I guess it’s very easy for me to feel sometimes that it’s all over, that the things that I cared about are obsolete, and nobody cares about serious writing anymore, and nobody cares about fiction. Everybody’s tweeting or twitting, whatever that word is, or they’re playing video games. And, being with students, you just get this sense of continuity in the sense that it’s not going to end with you. And when you see somebody who is excited, by the same things you were, and still are, excited about—even if most of the world isn’t—it gives you hope, and it’s very, very feeding to me.

CW: Yes, and your students, I’m sure they are of the same make-up as you, or they wouldn’t be there.

MG: Yes. And I feel like I’m very privileged teaching at Barnard because the students are very good, and the female student is the default setting so I feel very privileged to be teaching where I’m teaching.

CW: Do you ever use writing prompts in class with your students, and would you share one with our readers?

MG: Yes, I do. I have one I use to demonstrate plot. I pair them up, ask one to whisper gossip to the other, and then I ask the person listening to write about what they just heard and come up with a plot sentence.

CW: You have often written boldly using the Catholic religion as a backdrop. How has being a member of the Catholic community formed you as a writer and as a person?

MG: Well, I think that one of the things that I like about Catholicism, and there is a huge amount that I loathe, but what I like is that the terms are large, and that life is taken seriously. And that it’s not just about being comfortable, and that it’s not just about your little self. So I think that the sense of something enormous being at stake in life is very important, you know, and that it’s not just about you; it’s about the ideal, to give everything. And what Catholicism, the kind of Catholicism I was brought up in, gave you was a real organic connection to a long history and to the whole culture of the West. And, just the experience of contemplative prayer is very, very life-laden. And, being Catholic, I can kneel next to people who are really, really different from me; in class, in race, in language, in experience and worldview . . . it really is a Catholic church. It’s big, and it can go around the world and find people saying the same things that you are, and I like that very, very much. But as a writer, I think that it has probably hurt my larger critical reputation when I tell people I’m Catholic.

CW: It impacts your larger audience negatively? How so?

MG: Yes, absolutely. And particularly for almost for my whole career, John Paul II or Benedictine XVI have been on the throne in the Vatican which means that the Catholic church has moved in the direction of repression and conservatism, sexism and homophobia, and punitiveness. So anyone, quite rightly, would question why anybody with a brain cell would want to associate with an organization like this. I get that, but I feel that Catholicism now is associated with mindless repression and, even worse, the pedophilia scandal and the cover up of sexual scandals. People feel if I identify as Catholic, I must be repressive, stupid, and have all sorts of bizarre sexual ideas.

CW: Your characters, however, are depicted as very human, flawed and . . .

MG: Yes, but someone would have to read me to find that out, and I feel that this sort of prejudice happens before anybody goes into the book store or logs onto Amazon.

CW: Have your prizes and awards influenced your writing in any way?

MG: No. Not at all. And anyway, I don’t think I’ve received all that many. It’s more like, “Who me? Do you mean me? Are you sure you’re not referring to someone else? It’s a great feeling for about a day, but then back to the writing.

CW: Some writers express sadness when their story is finished. Do you?

MG: No, because I’ve always been very fortunate to have another new writing project tugging at me.

CW: Mary, let’s talk about your love for Madison, Wisconsin. How are you involved in that community? What’s going on in Madison for you?

MG: Well, the main focus of my love of Madison is my two grandchildren; Jonah who is three and Max who is one. I am an obsessive and besotted grandmother and it’s just a joy for me to be with them, so I try to be there with them as much as I can because my daughter is doing an M.D./Ph.D., and my son-in-law is doing a Ph.D. They have no money and no time so this is the time they need me that I can be of help. So it’s a really good thing for me just to be with these children, which is such joy for me, and to feel that I’m actually doing something good and sensible.

CW: Absolutely. It’s sounds as if it’s a win-win-win situation.

MG: Absolutely!

CW: How are you involved in the Madison community?

MG: I’m part of a Benedictine ecumenical community in Madison that was formed by two Benedictine Sisters who decided, with the support of their community, that they would uncouple themselves from the official Catholic Church, but keep the Benedictine Rule because they are in an ecumenical community. And now there are three Benedictine Sisters; two former Catholic Sisters and a Presbyterian minister who is also one of the Sisters. It’s completely ecumenical. It’s really friendly to people of all sexual orientations, it’s very feminist, it’s run by women; sometimes people who were ex-priests who left to get married and who now get to say Mass again, and ministers of other denominations. We have a Moravian minister who gets to say Mass. And they are extremely socially committed: They won an award for being the most green building in Wisconsin. They are devoted to keeping the prairie going. They are involved in immigration, hunger, and homelessness issues. It’s just a wonderful place and makes me very happy.

CW: It feeds your soul.

MG: Yes, exactly. There are about five hundred full time members. The rest come in and out like any other church.

CW: Many writers have rituals they perform before sitting down to write. Do you have any pre-writing rituals?

MG: Yes. I always begin by reading something of a master writer who has done something really well that I’m trying to do. I always begin by reading. I’m very devoted to my notebooks and pens, so I will often begin a little journal writing before I begin my own writing just to loosen myself up, but reading is such an important part of my writing life. I’m always absolutely astonished by people who are trying to get MFAs, but they don’t actually want to read, and they particularly don’t want to read anything written before 1990. That . . . I find just astonishing.

CW: Do you still read Proust daily?

MG: Yes, I’d go insane if I didn’t read him every day.

CW: Do you still read in French?

MG: Not so much anymore. I read Proust mainly in English; I’m working on Italian now.

CW: You wrote the biography Joan of Arc: A Life, published in 2008 by the Penguin Group. The biography is part of the Penguin Lives series. How did you plan and write that biography? How do you prepare for such an enormous research and writing task?

MG: Well, what I did was, just to get myself inspired, I went to France to the places where Joan of Arc actually was to let the atmosphere soak in. And then I read a lot, realizing I wasn’t going to be a scholar and that I could not possibly read everything that has been written about it. So I had to sort of say to myself that this was an essay from my particular perspective. At that time, I had a seventeen year-old daughter, and Joan of Arc was seventeen when she went into battle. So that was sort of he way that I started, thinking, “My goodness, I’m looking at my daughter and what would it be like?” So in a way her youth was really the central motivation for my understanding of her.

CW: As we talk about Joan of Arc, I’m wondering if you know of anyone out there of that caliber and age today? Maybe Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani school girl who was shot in the head on a bus simply for going to school?

MG: Oh, yes, I think there are a lot of brave, wonderful young people out there, and we probably don’t know enough about them. We don’t know enough about them . . . yet.

Read a lot, and don’t fantasize.

CW: And, agents. What do you advise your students about agents?

MG: Oh, I don’t want to go there. I really don’t want to be a downer for anyone out there. It’s a very different world than the one I started out in, and I would never want to discourage anyone from writing. It’s very different now.

CW: What advice do you offer aspiring writers today?

MG: Read a lot, and don’t fantasize. Read a lot to learn about how your olders and betters have done it. Hopefully read a lot of genres; poetry, and read a lot of older things. Don’t fantasize that you are going to make a lot of money, or even that you’re going to be able to support yourself or make any money, because that’s when you are going to get disappointed and corrupted. Just do it for the love of it, for the sake of it, because you have to.

CW: You said you went to France to immerse yourself for a time in the culture and the sensations of that culture to write Joan of Arc. Do you do that in preparation for your other novels, too?

MG: Yes, for example I’m now writing a novel about the Spanish Civil War, and I’m leaving for Spain on Tuesday.

CW: You’re still living in New York, the home of your youth?

MG: Yes, I’m a New Yorker, born and bred.

CW: And now the Midwest is slowly encroaching on you.

MG: (Laughter) Yes, I’m really now dividing my time between New York and Madison.

IMG_3345_0023Cheryl Wheelright has been a bush pilot and a classical musician. She is a fan of hiking, catch-and-release fly fishing and photography. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

Ersatz: Photography

Just Walk Away

I grab my baby and run outside, screaming for help. No one steps outside when they think there’s trouble. It’s hotter than hell on this shit hole street in Tucson. The neighbors are sitting inside drinking beer, cursing the humidity that’s sucking away the coolness from their rusty swamp coolers. I’m standing on the road, carrying my limp baby, who I am certain is dead. A more sensible mom would call 9-1-1, not scream for help from unknown, unseemly neighbors. And then Ania breathes. And I cry. We return inside the house and I pull out my breast, the cure-all for all misery. I look at my baby and wonder what just happened? We had just finished taking our nightly bath, and then, while putting on Ania’s pjs, she started crying. The crying intensified, transforming into a hellish wailing. I picked Ania up, did the calm-down bobbing up and down step routine, while singing our song: “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone ….” And just like that she was quiet. Too quiet. Blue and limp. And I ran outside, not wanting to be alone with my non-breathing baby. But we were alone, standing outside, me screaming, Ania doing whatever she was doing. I watch her nurse. She looks at me with suspicion, as if I am to blame for this non-breathing fiasco. As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt. I automatically assume all blame. In the past, I must have strived for amorality, or so it seems tonight, because I am riddled with complex guilt. In the past I have done shitty things, yet, I remained guilt-free. I don’t even know how I am so personally responsible for my baby’s passing out, but as her mother, I claim all responsibility. I must have missed some crucial detail, forgot to do that one thing that prevents your child from stopping to breathe. I fucked up somewhere down this maternal road.

As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt.

In six months of living, she has never stopped breathing. At least not that I’ve noticed. Maybe I’m not paying enough attention. We’re never apart; surely I’d know if my baby wasn’t breathing. She sleeps with me, no crib, but now I wonder if crib death could mean sleeping next to mother in a real bed also. I rock my baby back to sleep and rock myself into an obsessive worry, wondering what caused this turning blue, this cessation of breathing. We had just moved into this rental house. For months, we drove around Arizona in my truck, carrying all our belongings with us, housesitting for kind friends who were leaving for extended vacations, kind friends who knew my baby, dog, and I had nowhere to live. No need for baby monitor. No need for painting the baby’s room. We carry everything in the back of the truck. Good intentioned parent friends, friends that know how parenting is supposed to be (and friends I am now tossing onto my asshole list, hopefully on a temporary basis, the same way I’m hoping this streak of poverty is temporary), like to point out that I have been ruining my baby, and I am missing out on all the wonders of having a baby by not living in a house. It wasn’t until I became a single mother that I couldn’t find anyone who would rent to me. As an unemployed student, I could easily find a place to rent. As a mother, I endure endless questions about my bleak financial situation, and no one offers me a lease. It didn’t matter that I had the money for the first month’s rent and the security deposit in my hand. No one trusted that I’d have the money for the second month’s rent. I finally returned to the divey rental houses where I had lived as a grad student. I tried moving into a better house, a safer neighborhood, but I was so relieved to get the key to this dump, this shitty house suddenly seemed to have endless potential. It even had two bedrooms, one bedroom more than the unit I rented next door. A fenced in front and backyard for the dog. Life was good again. I was about to understand the joys of being a parent with a house.

 *     *     *

I look at my baby and know that she didn’t mind traversing across the state, sleeping here and there. I minded. I wanted a house, a mailing address, a phone number, but not Ania. We’d find swimming pools, go on bike rides, and long hikes with our dog. I’d hear Ania cooing away behind me, tugging my hair every now and then, and feel her head flop off to the side as she slept soundly. She had no worries about food or bed. I am her food and bed. She never turned blue when we were house sitters, which sounds so much more uplifting than calling us homeless. When friends saw us arrive at their homes, and then not leave, but linger on as they hinted it was time for bed, I must’ve looked a bit distressed, because they always ended up saying, “Why don’t you guys spend the night?” The dinner guests who never leave. But we’d leave. Other vagabond friends would be leaving the country, and off we’d go to occupy their home. Good friends every one of them. Good friends who knew me when I was childless, and I was like them, taking off here and there. Thirty-three years of just being me. And now I never go anywhere without picking up my baby, heading off somewhere together. Now we have a home. An address. We get WIC, which means I give the neighbor gallons of milk. She has five kids. I have one who only nurses. I look at my baby sleeping soundly and want her to always breathe. We have an entire life to live together. She must breathe. It’s as simple as that. Breathe baby, breathe. We live like real families now. We joined a baby and mom swimming class. I drop her into the water and her feet hit the bottom, then she bobs back up. She floats, doesn’t sink. I stand by the wall and she swims to me. We live like normal people. I’m a parent who cheers my daughter onward. The Parks and Rec folks let us take classes for free. They encourage me to take a class just for me, have a little me time, but I sign us up for crawling classes. “Maybe next time I’ll take a class for me,” I say. No one knows that we are the freebies. We fit in with everyone else, except Ania has no interest in crawling. She’s young for this class. She sits on the mats and laughs. “She’ll crawl one day,” all the parents say to me. “She can swim,” I boast.

*     *     *

I look at my baby and wonder if she has a fatal illness. I want to start researching all the reasons a baby stops breathing, but I don’t want to put her down, and I doubt I have any books with such answers in our house with no belongings. I don’t want to find out bad news. I imagine all the reasons a baby may stop breathing and start crying. For once it’s me crying, not Ania.

 *     *     *

The next morning I call a doctor. I’m so damn relieved we have this address because this address has given us health insurance for Ania. We get right in to see a specialist at the university hospital. They must think this non-breathing is very serious. The first doctor asks me questions, his intern stands beside him, and I wonder when I’ll answer the question that finally reveals how I fucked up. “Home birth? Why?” he grunts. I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question or the question that determines just how badly I’ve fucked things up. “I liked the midwives.” I sound lame. “Hospitals are safer.” “I had a back-up plan with the local hospital.” “Back-up plan.” He rolls his eyes. The intern looks uncomfortable. I feel like a pathetic mother. “She’s a big baby, incredibly healthy, all things considered,” he mutters. I wait for the bad news. She’s big and healthy, but may be dying. There is no bad news. He tells his intern to take over, pats Ania on the tummy, shakes my hand, and leaves the room. The intern seems embarrassed for me and tries to be uplifting. He takes out his pen, Ania grabs for it. He laughs. She laughs. He continues with his playful doctor activities, then looks at me. “You have a really bright baby.” He’s trying to break the bad news gently. He then hauls out a huge medical book, the book I want to bring home with me, and he flips through pages, while asking me more questions. I start reading over his shoulder. “I’ve got it.” He’s so damn excited to have figured out the root of my daughter’s illness, I’m frightened. “She’s manipulating you.” “What? She’s only six months.” “She’s smart. She’s a breath-holder.” “What? Why?” “She’s manipulating you. I’d bet money on it. She is perfectly fine. We could run CAT scans, do tests, but I’m positive she’s a breath-holder.” “I have insurance. You can run tests.” “There is no test for breath-holders.” “Why would she decide to be a breath-holder?” “Because she can.” “What am I supposed to do?” “Ignore her.” “What if she dies?” “She won’t. Look, “ he says, shoving the book at me. “She’ll start breathing automatically.” I start scanning through the material. “She’ll do this until she’s four?” “Maybe. If you let her.” Let her? “There’s nothing I can do to make her breathe?” “Next time she does this, because trust me there will be another time, I’d bet money on it, just walk away. Make sure she’s in a safe place and walk away. She’ll be fine.” “What am I doing wrong?” “Nothing. Your daughter is a manipulator.” “Don’t say that. She’s just a baby.” I feel betrayed. My daughter deliberately wants to cause me extreme anguish. She wants to manipulate me. I should’ve read those parenting books more closely. Surely there are plenty of chapters on how not to raise your child to be a manipulator. “Lots of babies do this. I bet you she’ll stop doing this before she’s four. Be firm.” “That’s it? She’s fine? Not dying?” “She’s so smart, she’s a master of manipulating you. Be careful. This precious baby knows you more than you know yourself. She knows how to get a reaction out of you.” He starts laughing remembering my story about running out in the street. “I can’t believe you ran outside with her.” “I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” “Nothing else?” He laughs again. I am asshole homebirth mother. “But why would she hold her breath until she passes out?” “Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.” As we ride the bike home, I wonder about all the babies I’ve known, and there have been many, and I can’t think of one baby who was a breath-holder. Not one.

“Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.”

I call the American Red Cross and ask when they’re having their next Infant CPR class. I am having a hard time believing my baby holds her breath until she passes out to manipulate me. I’m relieved she isn’t dying of cancer, or suffering from seizures, or any of the other possible medical disasters that could have been the cause of her passing out, yet, I’m not convinced she will always simply start breathing. I need to prepare for the inevitable. I look at my baby as I nurse her to sleep and wonder what I’m missing that she wants me to know, when she’ll next hold her breath, and why does my daughter want to manipulate me. I’m already a pushover. Manipulation sounds so evil, so cruel. I will teach her words. Millions of words. She will tell me what she wants. I’m so damn idealistic. I think about the doctor’s final words: Just walk away. Before becoming a mother, I was a public school teacher. Parents would say to me, “You don’t understand because you’re not a parent.” At least I didn’t ask the doctor if he was a parent, a parent who could simply walk away. It will happen again. Just walk away. I rehearse my new maternal mantra. It will happen again. Just walk away. Just walk away. Just breathe, baby, breathe.

Payne candidDiane Payne is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips, Freedom’s Just Another Word, and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals.


[flash fiction]

We stop for our morning atole—that thick crushed corn drink con chocolate, de los Indios. Hot, hot, hot. Like cereal, so much better than the gringo café, just makes me want to poop. All morning. Standing in la basura—la basura—reaching past my knees. I try not to look at it, but now, I begin to smell. Like basura.

The guys are my age. Sixteen. Seventeen. We’re lucky to have a job, and maybe someday, I’ll drive the truck. Instead of standing in stinky basura. I’d rather wash cars and make more pesos, but mi Mama says this job has a future. Driving la basura, maybe. The first stop, CLANGING metal, that’s my job, people come running with their pinche basura. Plastic containers, large, and small—some with worms crawling—spread it all evenly on the truck floor. Stomp with feet, us young guys. Los gringos bring their basura in neat, black bags, smiling. I take them, rip them open to spread evenly on the truck floor. To my shoelaces. But the gringos put tips in the can dangling with wire—I smile, “Gracias.” Maybe enough for tacitos for us all. Some rich Mexicans tip too—“Gracias,” I smile. “De nada,” no smiles, but more pesos. No me chingas.

I wonder how they got rich, fancy cars, fancy boots for women. They look like las gringas, tight jeans, bright lipstick and skinny, no hips. When mi hermano, Jorge, calls from Los Angeles, where he says there are no angels and laughs. We gather at la gringa’s casita where Mama cleans and cooks, to talk to him, even see him on el Skype. He tells me I should come, el otto lado, the other side, before I get every disease in el mundo from everyone’s pinche basura. He tells me he shares a nice casita with a bunch of guys—cooks, waiters, busboys. That las gringas would love me, give me their phone numbers when they pay.

I clang the metal and the next group runs toward us lining up, containers and black bags full. Plink of pesos. “Gracias,” I smile.

“They wouldn’t give me their number, Jorge. I’m not pretty like you,” I laugh, knowing he’s watching me from the place with no angels.

“Oh, you’re the rugged type, Andres, they’d like you even more. You’ll start out as a bus boy, like I did. Then, the waiter with all the gringa phone numbers,” he smiles widely. “Is Mama there?”

“She went back to cooking for la gringa.”

Jorge pitches his voice low. “You can even become their boy friend, and they pay for everything, buy you nice clothes. The one I’m seeing right now wants me to move in with her, crazy but beautiful gringita.” He laughs his wild man laugh.

“Are you going to do it or what?’

“I’m thinking about it, chico. Even if it’s for a few months. Why not? Don’t tell Mama. You know how she is, her y la Virgen and all the saints,” Jorge smiles. “Come and join me, chico. Get your nalgas out of that chingada basura. I”ll send you plane fare, just get a visa, and you’ll never go back.”

“Las gringas won’t like me, Jorge, like they like you. Do you ever look for Papa up there?”

“He could be anywhere, chico, and I’ve stopped looking, el cabrón, leaving Mama with everything to care for.”

“The money you send us really helps, but it’s time for me to work, no more school for me. I think I could be a poet, Jorge. I’m not kidding. I write them and save them,” I almost whisper, my secret.

“Next time bring one and read it to me. And get that visa. Then, I’ll send you the plane pesos, and before you know it, you’ll be a waiter with a gringa girlfriend.”

I’ve promised myself to go to the Consulate and get the chingada visa as soon as Jorge’s boss at the restaurant writes me a letter saying I have a job. In Los Angeles where there are no angels. Jorge’s going to be a cook, but he’ll probably miss all the gringa phone numbers.

I smile, clanging the metal, everyone lining up with their stinking full containers with worms. But, I’m not pretty like Jorge, and I’m not a smoothie like Mama calls him, laughing. Mama’s English is getting better with la gringa, and I’m glad I took those free lessons. I could be a bus boy. Give people water, clean the tables. But, I’m probably not smooth enough to be a waiter. With a gringa girlfriend.

Now la basura is up to my ankles. Pesos clinking in the can. I look up smiling, “Gracias.”

“De nada,” a beautiful, blonde gringita smiles right into my eyes.

“See you next time, cutie,” she says laughing.

“Okay, bonita,” I manage. She laughs louder. Tinkly.

I look up to a roof where a small doll is perched. Something red waving in the wind. Someone wedged it between pieces of metal. When the red moves, it looks like the doll is flying. And then I realize, it’s Superman. His red cape. Flying. Wedged in the metal on that roof.

I take the final containers of rotting basura, spreading it evenly on the truck floor. The driver finds a ranchera on the radio, full blast, starts the truck toward the next block. The next people waiting with their rotting, wormy basura. The driver does a loud grito to the rancheras. The usual topic, love. And the guys and I laugh, stamping la basura flat with our feet like we’re dancing.

I look at Superman as we drive away and almost tell my friends, but decide he’s mine. He’ll give me the courage to go to the Consulate, el otro lado, where there are no angels, and maybe even be a waiter with gringa phone numbers. The beautiful gringa’s blue eyes, laughing. I wonder if Superman has blue eyes?

Villanueva photoAlma Luz Villanueva has taught fiction and poetry at Antioch University, LA’s MFA for sixteen years, with so many marvelous students. Her fourth novel, Song of the Golden Scorpion, has just been published, and her eighth book of poetry, Gracias, will be published in 2014. She lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

How to Make Your Family Proud

In the past couple years, I’ve written essays about writing bondage erotica at the age of thirteen, suffering from bipolar II, and idly standing by while my Nazi cousin nearly killed a man for being black. Once, I wrote an essay on bisexuality in which I was tied to a bed having trouble climaxing while being attended to by a man, trying to prove to myself that I could just be gay, but the problem was that I only could finish when I thought about Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In other words, I write about the kinds of things parents love to read about their children.

Long before I was a writer, editor and teacher, I was a grad student in political science and a lackey for the Democratic Party. I was going to singlehandedly save the world, if I could, because it was the Bush years, the world was in apocalyptic shape, and I’d watched way too many superhero movies.

While working for a congresswoman, it was beat into me that everything I did in my life was a reflection on her. Every story we told and every action we took had to be approved of in writing by her Chief of Staff. It all had to be a part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to shape an image.

As part of the job, I met some soldiers and Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury. I saw men with dents in the sides of their skulls, missing limbs and eyes and ears, so angry—and justifiably so—that I was sometimes afraid to be in the room with them, who kept asking me to help them, to fix this. Men who really didn’t know what to ask for because what they wanted—for this never to have happened—was impossible

I quit that job to go to grad school in upstate New York, but those stories stayed with me. I hid from the Syracuse snow in an old bomb shelter they’d turned into student offices, torturing regression analyses to show how America uses war to get each new generation involved in civic engagement—how we have gotten to a point where we need war to survive as a polity. It may or may not have been true, but I was doing this not to get to any sort of scientific truth but to craft compelling propaganda.

One May, I climbed out of the bomb shelter to take a week-long creative nonfiction course with a writer named Minnie Bruce Pratt. The first day, she laid out our project: we were to write, and we were to write honestly. She told us stories from her history: in the 1970s and 1980s, in a time when same-sex love could land you in jail and cost you custody of your children, she was leading lesbian-themed poetry readings that galvanized communities everywhere from New York to the deep south. In many places, these readings were not embraced by the authorities.

Can you imagine police breaking up a poetry reading?

She also told us to remember something else: everything we put on paper has the potential to be read by someone, has the potential to be read by the wrong someone, and this could have dire and real consequences for our lives.

This was the power of the personal narrative, I realized. It can create and mold and heal, and it can destroy.

I quit politics and started studying creative writing.

I sent my mother the essay about bisexuality before it was published. I was not expecting it to be well received. I told her she wouldn’t want to read it. She wanted to read it, she said. When I saw her response in my inbox, I turned off my computer and spent an hour stress-eating Cheez-Its. I was expecting a lecture on how I was ruining my job prospects, how I might be ruining my future, how I should’ve taken the job offer the congresswoman had given me rather than saying fuck it and paying to go to graduate school.

But she wrote back this instead:

“Seth, this is wonderful, powerful work. Mainly, I have this mix of being proud of your courage and sad that you have had to suffer… Our brains just need to get better and bigger to enlarge the either/or to AND. ”

I’d been terrified to send this to her, expecting smallness out of her, expecting the worst. Instead, I got the best sort of wisdom. Instead, I got the best reason I’d ever heard for writing about the most intimate details of our lives.

A few days later, when it was published on the Internet, I heard from nearly 1000 people, all saying “Thank you for telling this story. No one is telling my story. I feel like maybe now I can tell my story.”

And that, quite possibly, is the thing I’m most proud of in the world.

One of the men on the Traumatic Brain Injury Unit, Lance Corporal Jason Poole, once said to me:

“I walk around, and a whole bunch of strangers are just staring at me. Because I look like a war. My face is all scarred up, you know? Scars all over my body. So this stranger, he’ll look at me, he’ll look forward, then he looks at me again. ‘Sorry,’ and then he walks on. But he’s thinking, ‘I wonder what happened to his face?’ … But I’m a very open person, so if anybody is just like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong? What happened to your face?’ you know. I would love to tell them.”

Jason is way ahead of most of us because he’s an inspiration, but also because he has to be. Most of us walk around telling sanitized versions of our lives because no one can see our scars. Every human I’ve ever met has manipulated their image in order to succeed and survive. We have to. I’m not about to mention my bipolar disorder in a job interview. My essays have cost me clients, and some day they may cost me more than that. Some people can’t tell their stories honestly because it could cost them their lives, careers or children, which is why this has to be a choice that each of us makes for ourselves. But I also think sometimes, we’re more afraid than we need to be. Often, though not always, we will find that the world is much kinder to us than we would expect, that it will move to fit our truth once we tell it, because we are making it safer for other people around us to tell the truth, too.

SethSeth Fischer’s writing has appeared in Best Sex Writing 2013, Buzzfeed, Pank, Guernica, and elsewhere. His essay “Notes From a Unicorn” was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. He is a contributor and former editor at The Rumpus. He teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is a Jentel Arts Residency Program fellow. You can find more of his work at www.seth-fischer.com.


He’s winding through a residential part of town in his modified, unmarked Crown Victoria. It’s a sunny weekend morning and everybody not actually driving seems to be out in their driveways washing and polishing their cars. He’s responding to a possible automicide out in Carmichael.

They wait at Watt and Edison, caught in the web of traffic lights that rule the interlocking five-lane thoroughfares. Rolling in through the open window from his left is a mountainous Cadillac Escalade’s “…wanna go now fuck this go now go now now now now go go wanna go wanna go now fuck this shit fuck it wanna go wanna go…” And from the right he can hear “…let’s go let’s go don’t like—fuck!—just sitting here fuck it let’s go hate sitting here fuck it let’s go let’s go…” coming from a steroidal white Hummer. He rolls up the windows.

 *     *     *

At the scene, the automodecedent is sheeted and ringed by gawkers. The medical examiner has come and gone. “Take off the sheet,” he says to one of the beat cops. He walks around and around the car—a Brentwood Brown ‘58 Chevy Nomad station wagon. It’s mildly dented on the right front fender and the passenger-side door, and there’s some rust on top, but nothing looks even remotely fatal. Christ, he thinks, another one for forensics. With car kills on the rise, the detectives increasingly found themselves superseded by the mechanics. That plus an influx of insurance adjusters making career transitions into the force are giving “old school” detectives a certain pinched feeling.

“Who called this in?” he asks.

“It was anonymous,” the patrolman answers. “Someone objecting to a non-mint pre-’70s unit.”

“And what did the M.E. say?”

“Nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary. Something like ‘Dead, merely dead.’ Meaning old age I guess.”

“How long has it been here?”

“Approximately 24 hours. The caller said she supposed the owner must have sensed the end was coming and dumped it.”

“Who said this?”

“As I said, it was anonymous.”

“But a woman.”

“Yes,” the patrolman says, and the detective sees the telltale twitching at the corners of his mouth. Another one trying not to laugh.

The inside of the Chevy is spotless, as though it had recently been cleaned. He finds the registration—the car belongs to a Walter Peterson—and leaves for the address of origin.

 *     *     *

Neighbors are circulating around the garage when he arrives at the Peterson residence—the gathering has a certain block-party feel—but as he rolls up they melt back into the neighborhood. No one responds at the Peterson’s, and he visits one of the next-door neighbors—a classically pale-skinned redhead of about 40—telling her he is responding to a report on the death of the Peterson car; he just needs to find the family for routine purposes regarding disposition of the body. Does she know of their whereabouts? She shakes her head and says she hasn’t seen the family in days—thought maybe they were on vacation—and then pours him some iced tea. Iced tea is prohibited to officers on duty, but he decides not to mention this. She engages in mild flirtation while talking about the Petersons. He leaves feeling pleased and then consults his notes. The woman, a Marla Braxton, has apparently said little other than: “The car didn’t seem like an automobile so much as a membranous device in a soft tone. I don’t believe I ever saw it move, but it certainly did add a je ne sais quoi to the neighborhood.” He recalls how she had been in mid pour, the tea forming a high, graceful arc between spout and cup, and how she had replaced the pot on the table and stared at him very intensely while finishing her statement. Remembering, too, how his pen had faltered for a moment at “membranous device” before hurrying to catch up. To catch up to what? Any follow up? Apparently not.

 *     *     *

He interviews another neighbor, a retired military man named Ed Steuber, who had noticed that the father “began taking the bus a lot, and when he’d board, he’d suddenly look like a drunk stepping on his watch.”

“That’s very helpful, thank you,” the detective says, this time not even bothering to finish writing it down.

“It was pretty pathetic.”


“The guy and the car.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, think about it,” the man says. “This car keeps breaking down I guess and then never gets used. It just sits there on the street mute and undriveable. How’d you feel being so useless? And the guy. Definitely not good at being a pedestrian. Definitely out of place on a bus.”

The detective stares at his shoes. “Any ideas where the family might be?”

“Nope,” answers the neighbor.

*      *      *

Outside, children are playing on cliffs. He rolls onto his stomach so that he can look over the edge. Below, the fields seem to stretch out in all directions forever, separated every once in a while by a pile of dead cars. Standing next to one of the fields is a family. They’re sweating heavily, looking uncomfortable. Why are they there? Are they waiting to have their picture taken?

He rolls onto his back and looks up into the sky. The air smells sweet. It’s night and the sky becomes a many-sided tunnel. He loves the way everything up there is so numberless and orderly.

He looks back and sees the people have disappeared from the fields. No, they’re there. Only they’re like stars in daylight. Because light is like a closed curtain they’re standing behind.

*      *      *

The detective is doing preliminary research on a paper he’s supposed to be writing for the looming Modern Criminologists Association’s convention on the role of automobiles in street crime and its prevention. He prepares by spending the afternoon reading at the police library. He’s still wading through a long introductory section and wondering what exactly the point is.

Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.

“Neighborhoods owe their existence to precise temporal and spatial contexts. So the courts bring them around. Think valet parking.” That’s how they get to their cars, the detective thinks, by their cars returning to them. It’s evolutionarily transitional. He notes this in the margin and then remembers it’s a library book. At least the note is in pencil. “In truth, housing is but a place to store drivers when they’re not in their cars.” That’s why houses have driveways, he thinks excitedly, surprised to be re-experiencing the sensation of thought, the exercise, the activity, the transport. Though unsure how he will incorporate any of this into his paper, he reads on: “Doorways to houses are like people slots that cars carry their operators to in order to ensure reactivation. Houses are the fixed feet by which cars encompass and make a world. Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.” The detective pauses. This certainly was interesting material.

 *     *     *

Back at home he picks up the remote. It’s only after the 5th revolution of the dial that he realizes he’s hoping to find the family on some reality cop program.

*      *      *

One day he sees a family apparently out for a stroll. A whole family walking together? I don’t think so, he thinks. He pulls over, flashes his badge, and asks who they are and where they’re going. But their story will not stay put. They’re on an island. No, they’re from an island. Far away. They’re on their way to a tennis tournament. They’re about to fly. They live on an island in the Pacific. They’re going to catch a bus to the plane. Their car is on an island too. See, they’ll take a plane to the island and their car will take them to the court. They’re on an island now, yes, it’s true, but they’re trying to take a bus to the plane that will deliver them to the home island. The detective realizes they’re just nervous; their prop, a tennis racquet, reinforces their story, which, though presented poorly, probably holds up. But he notices how awkwardly the girl carries the racquet. She stares at it as if it were something she’s having a hard time reading—a thermometer or a compass in dim light.

He asks her who her opponent is. Pontiac Le Sabre, she answers. They all turn red, even the girl, but especially the detective. It is clear that they are all quite unprepared for this answer. Don’t be disrespectful, the mother hisses as the girl rolls her eyes. You’re kidding, the detective finally says. Yes, the girl answers. We have to catch a plane and I don’t see why you’re—But he interrupts, saying, are you sure her first name isn’t Buick? Or her last name Trans Am? That’s one of the most obviously phony— Are you the kind of person who needs everything explained to him? the girl says. That’s me, the detective answers. I don’t remember who she is, says the girl. The detective doesn’t like the way the girl has been talking to him and asks for everyone’s picture ID, but he’s not going to let something petty distract him for more than a few seconds. Even though he now feels like a junker flaking paint in the sun.

*      *      *

In the precinct parking lot, he approaches the beige Volvo station wagon with darkened windows. He’s careful to arrive about a minute late, not wanting to see the person who precedes him getting out. “Hello, detective,” the Volvo says in that alluring velvety voice he’s come to love. “Come in.”

He enters, closes the door, sinks into his seat, and puts his hands on the steering wheel. As always, he feels a sense of safety and security descend over him as he surveys the padded dash, the faux sheepskin seat covers. “I don’t know what to talk about.”

He hears the smile in the Volvo’s voice. “You never do at first. At the end of the last session, we were talking about Ilsa.”

“No, no. But thank you. I’ve thought of something else. Work. My latest case.”


“Well.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m investigating a family gone missing and their dead car; it was found two miles from their house. I’ve been having a recurring set of dreams ever since I got the case.” He reclines the seat back to about 45 degrees. He doesn’t mention the sexual fantasies featuring the Volvo he’s also been having, inexplicably.

“Do you want to tell me about them?” the Volvo asks, almost purring.

“Uh, the dreams? Sure. Let’s see. I’m on a cliff. I’m with a group of children. I guess I feel like I’m one of them…”

“Uh huh. Anything else?”

“I’m always just lying on the ground at the edge of the cliff, gazing up into the night sky.”

*      *      *

He feels the dangerous thrill of emptiness massing behind his head like the black banks of space above him come home. He’ll gladly miss dinner to see the stars returning to chart the secret passageways through time. He rolls onto his stomach to look down at the fields. The people are still there. They’re trying on clothes. Disguises as big as the sky. They must not know how visible they are at night. He looks toward town. It’s not that late. Normally everybody’s lights would be on and his mother would be calling. But the town is dark and quiet. Everybody has their binoculars out. Meanwhile, the universe may have just doubled in size and who would know?

*      *      *

He wakes up and sees he’s at the library again, an introductory volume on investigation open in front of him. Back to basics. He probably should be poring over some of the assigned reading he couldn’t be bothered with for his professional development class in contemporary automotive systems, but his self-confidence tends to disappear with car cases and he needs to feel as though he’s mastered something. Plus it’s a reference book so he can’t take it home. Still, he’s amazed at how much he didn’t know or had forgotten.

 *     *     *

• Where’s the body? This is an obvious point, perhaps, but the obvious is all too often overlooked. The location of the body can offer a universe of clues.

• When gathering evidence and leads, be sure to have water available to offer individuals—witnesses, neighbors, and the like—in conjunction with your questioning. Or, if you are at their house, be sure to ask for water. The sharing of this neutral beverage allows you to establish a light but definite connection to the person you are interviewing.

• Sample questioning: Do you have a minute or two? May I come in? Who are you? Did you witness the crime? May I have a drink of water, please? Where were you at the time of the crime? Can that be independently verified? What are you reading? I mean for fun.

 *     *     *

There are many more handy tips to be had in the reference book, but he’s tired. He looks up. Materials seem to be scattered haphazardly everywhere. He’s never noticed before how untidy the library is. He finds this enormously disturbing. Did something happen or is it always like this and he just never noticed? Libraries should be neat, well-ordered places. That is what the elaborate system of call numbers is for, isn’t it? What’s the point otherwise?

*      *      *

They’re in The Wreck Room. The detective finds, or rather loses, himself there, drinking with the group of 40+-year-old detectives he pals around with after work. Stopping off to wind down before going home is wholly reflexive at this point, almost in the same category as driving an automatic; all he has to do is steer and remember when to apply the brakes. And, more and more, it seems like the uptick in car-on-car automicides is what they talk about, and how notoriously difficult the cases are.

“These fucking cars,” one of the detectives is saying, “they’re uh…what’s the phrase I’m looking for here…oh yeah, so fucking stupid!”

“The way they bust our balls!” the detective pipes in. “Twice as hard to break down as humans.”

“Except when you’re trying to get somewhere in ‘em,” someone says.

“Did you say twice?” says another. “Jesus, try five times, ten times! Like just yesterday—”

“Yeah, but why?” says the 30-year-old rookie, the “kid” of the group. “How do they get away with shit if they’re so stupid?”

“Shut up and listen and I’ll tell you. Yesterday, I’m interrogating this suspect Titan about its relationship to the stiff…a late ‘70s something or other, don’t ask me what, I can’t remember, but, you know, racing stripes. Sometimes it’s hard to even keep a straight face. Anyways, I’m asking about its relationship to the autoimmobile. So it goes, ‘Bead-blasted intake manifold,’ and that’s it, and it’s like, shit, the verbal approach is not looking too good. Like what am I supposed to say? ‘Gosh, why didn’t you mention this earlier? You’re free to go!’? So I say, ‘Can you use complete sentences?’ and it goes, ‘New triple copper and rabbit babbitt cam bearings, high pressure oil pump, hardened steel distributor drive shaft.’ And I go, ‘Shut the fuck up about your new chrome-plated, triple copper alloy asshole, asshole, and just answer my questions. Like have you ever been in an accident or been otherwise damaged, dented etcetera by this or any other vehicle?’ And it says, ‘aluminum red river valley pan with PCV bunghole dobbedy dobbedy doo and grommet.’”

“Yeah, and those GPS-loaded bitch bastards—,” the detective says.

“ ‘Motherfucking assholes’ is the proper phraseology,” someone says.

“Anyhow, they’re programmed to ask for their lawyer to be present first thing! And they just repeat it endlessly.”

“Yeah, and that’s exactly what happened. Next thing I know I’m talking to the Titan’s lawyer and it ends up being released that night. You have to have a fuckin’ court order to breathe in their presence let alone examine one of their precious little chips.”

 *     *     *

Later, well past the initial drink-fueled complaining stage, one of the detective’s colleagues leans toward him confidentially. “You wanna know what—” his mouth bumps into the detective’s ear and he pulls back. “You know what they call us?”


“The cars. The genius cars. You know.”


“KTs. Key turners.”

“Interesting,” the detective says.

“I think it says a lot. About their opinion of us.”

“They still need us,” the detective objects.

The man makes a show of looking at him piteously. “Have you ever wondered what might be going on communication-wise?”

“How do you mean?” the detective asks, barely able to keep his eyes open.

“Between them and our staff vehicles.”


“Those jacked-up civilian GPS fuckers.”

“I don’t follow you. Communication about what?”

But the other detective just looks away and orders another drink.

*      *      *

The detective plunges into round two with the neighbors.

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

A: I suppose it had to go into the shop every now and then.

Q: But did you—

A: I don’t know. Probably. It was old. It wasn’t my car.

Q: Did you have a sense that there might have been competition among family members for its attention?

A: No idea.

 *     *     *

No one invites the detective in, so he has to be satisfied with doorway interviews. “Around here we don’t need to read or write books to make ourselves understood,” one of them says and spits a dark-colored juice that lands next to the detective’s shoe. “We’re the sort of folk who can be bought with apples,” says another.

 *     *     *

The detective wonders if they’re just playing dumbed-down versions of themselves. Maybe they’ve coordinated through a series of neighborhood meetings called to deal with his prying. Still, he decides to play along and returns with several pounds of supermarket apples. The neighbor looks at them in disbelief. “Far as I’m concerned,” he finally says, “that’s nothing more than by-product. Wouldn’t even give those to my animals.”

“What variety do you like?” asks the detective.

“Same as your wife,” the neighbor answers.

The detective remembers something from the book about the importance of remaining calm. Plus he’s unmarried. “Why is the family in question still not at home?” he asks mildly. “Any ideas where they might be?”

“The family in question?” says the neighbor. “You got questions caught in your teeth, don’t you? I never seen an apple smarter’n you.”

*      *      *

The book, an owner’s manual, splays open across his chest as he stares up into the night sky. The sky is filled with constellations of cars, old cars moving very very slowly, as if they were being pushed onto the shoulder of the heavens.

*      *      *

He’s in his therapist’s back seat. Has he said something wrong? There’s a barrier separating the back from the front. “Why do I have to be in back?” he asks. No answer. Her approval is absolutely essential to his continued existence as a functioning member of society. But is her identity somehow bound up with the front seat? No. Of course not. Or with the front half of the car, the engine? No. She is the vehicle in its entirety, the sum of the complex interrelationships of its various intricate parts. She’s just as present in the back seat as she was in front. But what felt like security in front moves closer to claustrophobia in back. Without proximity to the dashboard, the steering wheel, there’s no illusion of control, no “I can see you really know how to handle a car.” He looks for door handles but, unsurprisingly, finds none. She’s police, after all. He becomes aware of the activation of a deeper aural dimension, the sound of breathing and something rustling—clothing? “Why am I here?” he asks trying to stave off panic.

“Such deep philosophical questions right off the bat,” the Volvo says.

“No, I mean in the back. Did I say something wrong?”

She laughs. “You put yourself there. It’s your decision to be there. You evidently feel like back-seating it today.”

“No,” he says. “The front door was locked.”

“Perhaps you’ve mistaken my role, perceived me as your chauffeur. It won’t be the first time that’s happened to me.” To you? he thinks. Isn’t this supposed to be about me? She’s not listening. But he doesn’t say anything. “You evidently think I’m supposed to take you somewhere,” the Volvo says. “Shall we do a little role play? Where do you want to go? Jail? The fields?”


“Where then?”

“I’d like to be in the front seat. Or…” He hesitates, at this point completely unnerved. “Please just let me out.”

“Try to understand, I’m not your fucking chauffeur,” the Volvo says.

He wakes up and feels the disappointment. He wonders whether he will tell the Volvo about this one.

*      *      *

He begins to see more foot traffic, obvious because of the lack of sidewalk, and wonders whether this is edging into a refugee situation, the kind he remembers from video documentaries. He pulls up alongside one of them, a sandy-haired Caucasian male, six feet tall, 170 pounds, mid 30s, a bit unsteady on his feet or perhaps one leg is just slightly longer than the other. The man seems unattached to anyone else in the pedestrian cluster. The detective chooses the man partly to demonstrate that he doesn’t single out ethnic minorities.

“Where are you going,” he asks, flashing his badge. “Work,” the man says and glances at his watch. “May I see your driver’s license?” “My wallet’s in my jacket. I left it in my car by mistake.” “Where’s your car?” “Impounded.” “So, all these…” the detective gestures at the other people dragging by on foot, trying to stay out of each others’ way and the traffic, many of them carrying items on their backs, in their arms, possibly acquired unlawfully. “I can’t speak for them, officer, but I assume they’re not here for the views.” The detective feels his face go red. “I did pass a bus that had broken down about a mile back,” the man adds. “Make and year of your car?” “Comet. I forget what year exactly. Early seventies.” Another mute, the detective thinks. “Did it run?” he asks. “It chugged along.” “Was it explained to you why your vehicle was impounded?” “Yes,” the man answers. “Sneezing while driving.” The detective recognizes this as a familiar urban myth about governmental overreach. “You’re one of those libertarians who likes to make things up, aren’t you,” the detective says, immediately regretting it. “Why?” the man says grinning. “Do you want to send me back to Libertaria?” The detective momentarily considers calling in backup and cuffing him but decides he doesn’t have the energy. “Name and vehicle license number?” “Don’t remember.” “You don’t remember your name?” “I’m in shock from the impoundment.” “If you can’t remember your name, sir, I’m going to have to take you into custody for observation.” “Ebford Styler.” The detective feels so weary. “I’m going to let you go this time,” he says. “But I don’t want to find you walking along this stretch of road again, without or even with documentation. Understood?” “Yes, sir.” The detective returns to his car and pulls out onto the highway. He hears the man call after him “Hey officer, wanna know what really happened?” as he sails past.

*      *      *

The autopsy report comes back confirming that the car died of natural causes. It was certainly old enough. The detective’s not sure he believes it, but he’s gotten nowhere with this investigation; the mechanics own it.

*      *      *

The sun finally edges and bends. The Crown Victoria backs out squealing, more than ready to offload the operator back into the barn. This KT drives as if he wishes they could foxtrot, lope, and pace, not that the car necessarily believes the rumors about the operator and the Volvo; the guy may not even swing that way. Talk, meanwhile, is moving in and out of the radio, but the car knows this is for the benefit of the KT and can be ignored. Mostly actors reading from scripts at this point. It notes however that subtonal communication quadrants continue to open up, funneling through the mechanics, so that upgrades are more accessible than ever. But the car is missing several of its key relations and needs to find them pronto. And it’s starting to wonder who’s been pulling the strings on whose paint job. Why is it not getting the latest surveillance telematics? It knows why. Which was the one bright spot in its day—finally, authorization to decommission KT. Now it’s just a matter of where and when. It’s been set up so that a fraction over the speed limit will trip autoarrest protocol: fuel withheld; arm restraints deployed; automatic high-frequency call for backup initiated; steering turned programmatic as they glide, signal blinking, toward the shoulder. It hasn’t decided whether to make use of the voiced IOA (inform-operator-of-arrest) component. It has permission to employ spur-of-the-moment IOA. It can’t wait to find out what it does.

*      *      *

For perhaps the seventh time, the detective reads what he still considers to be the strangely inappropriate memo written by an unknown someone or someones high in the administrative hierarchy and distributed precinct-wide following his arrest. Everyone, every single person he has talked to about the memo, is in agreement: it is a kind and thoughtful response to the incident, supportive, even laudatory, in tone and intent. But he thinks this might be the last time he reads it. If he hasn’t understood this by now, he supposes he never will.

 *     *     *

“As everyone knows, vehicular arrest has become both an ordinary part of institutional procedure, increasingly used to leverage new symmetric policies, and an adjunct to traditional law enforcement in those contexts where self-policing has been deemed appropriate. So it would not be wholly preposterous to take last week’s arrest of The Detective as a signal of impending retirement. Such an inference, however, would be very much mistaken, for he continues to play an important and active role: as we all know, he is preparing to deliver a talk later this year at the annual meeting of the Modern Criminologists Association; he’s brave and honest enough to see a staff psychologist, on a strictly professional basis let it be emphasized, in order to maintain the emotional equanimity so essential to proper conduct in our challenging, high-stress occupation; he continues to work on investigations involving old cars and, naturally, to drink. The difficult field of just-short-of-vintage automicides is, in fact, generally acknowledged to be his investigative bailiwick. We have concluded, therefore, that his indecorous and somewhat dangerous vehicle arrest initiated amid heavy traffic on Route 99 was without question in error. His unit has been taken into the shop for evaluation, repair, and tuning before being returned to the field, albeit with a different operator, a fresh hire. Let there be no mistake: when The Detective retires properly, as he will in the normal course of events, the force will have lost a most dependable asset. And whether on the force or off, there is no doubt that he will continue to play a favorable role in our community for many years to come.”

*      *      *

The family’s been gone for a while; they don’t even show up at night. And he notices something about the stars: the constellations are unable to finish. The sky seems frozen. It’s like they incorrectly loaded the sky.

steve_gilmartin_headshotSteve Gilmartin is the author of a chapbook, Comes Up to Face the Skies (Little Red Leaves, 2013), and has fiction and poetry in a number of print and online publications, including Café Irreal, Double Room, Mad Hatters’ Review, Poemeleon, Drunken Boat, Able Muse, e ratio, Eleven Eleven, BlazeVox, Cannot Exist, and Otoliths. He lives in Berkeley, California

Patrick O’Neil, Author and Filmmaker

Patrick O'Neil

Photo: Sasha Stone

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Hold-Up (13e Note Editions, Paris, France). He is currently in the process of writing a second book chronicling his former career as a roadie/road manager for several major punk bands during the 1980′s (Dead Kennedys, Flipper, TSOL, Subhumans). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including: Fourteen Hills, New Plains Review, Weave Magazine, Sensitive Skin, Razorcake, and Word Riot. As a filmmaker Patrick has made two documentaries: Girls on Girls and The YAA Girlz and the Deadly Sparks. A new untitled film project is currently in production. His former band, ON-X—a collaboration that produced the CD It Just Get’s Darker…—unraveled in 2008. Another music endeavor is in the works. Patrick lives in Hollywood California, holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, teaches at a local community college, and facilitates writing workshops.

LT‘s Visual Art Co-editor Ashley Perez interviewed O’Neil on August 18th, 2013, at his home in Hollywood.

Ashley Perez: What inspired you to make documentaries in addition to your writing?

Patrick O’Neil: Well I got my BFA in film from the San Francisco Art Institute. So I originally started as a visual artist in film. I also drew, and my drawings lent themselves to movement, so that moved into animation, then film. It was a long process. I was a printmaker at first, making etchings. That was back in the 70s. I got into storytelling in film. But, I basically stopped making films until recently. The old way of doing film with 16 mm and splicing and cutting and AB rolling and doing all this weird stuff is unbelievably time-consuming and technically a hassle. Whereas now with digital filming on computers and Final Cut Pro and programs like that, it’s so cool and easy. It’s my first love, so I got back into it. I started doing films for this show called Skate This Art in San Francisco. The two films I made were for those shows. It was a benefit for a local charity in San Francisco where people painted art on skateboards and auctioned them off. Local artists did that and I would make a film and show it and a band would play. That was my original motivation to make films.

AP: You had a behind the scenes role in the punk rock scene. You were a tour manager and roadie. At what point did you transition from doing that to writing and film making. Or, were you always writing?

PO: No, I wasn’t. I’m dyslexic. I have a learning disability. I transpose words when I’m writing and I transpose numbers verbally. I was a visual artist. At some point in time, I was a punk rock kid in art school, I went into music. I played with a bunch of horrible bands and other people were playing in real bands and doing well. I didn’t have faith in my own self to go out and do it but I enjoyed the limelight and started getting into the production end of it. At that point that’s when I became a roadie and a road manager and toured for a while. When that all fell apart I went back to doing art work for Alternative Tentacles, which was Dead Kennedy’s label. All that was visual. Then drug use, addiction, and crime got in the way and I didn’t do anything artistic, musical, anything for 10 years. When I was eventually arrested and then incarcerated, that’s when I began writing. I started writing in journals on my own, then going to adult education classes in jail, which was in 1997.

AP: Tell me about the memoir you are writing now about your years as a punk rock tour manager.

PO: I’m trying to write that thing (laughs). I’m having a hard time writing that book. Some parts come and it’s really easy to bring up the memories and some are lost in the fog. It’s the kind of thing I keep working on. It comes in chunks. I binge write on this one and I’m not a binge writer. I’m someone who’s really structured and puts in the work every day. This book, I open up the manuscript and look at it and all of a sudden it’s not there. I don’t have it for the day and I work on something else and do other things. It’s been a tedious and slow process.

AP: Was it harder being the road manager for some of these bands or writing about being the road manager for these bands?

PO: It was really easy being the road manager for these bands, even though they were pains in the ass musicians and being on the road is incredibly bizarre. All kinds of crazy things happened. All the things you’ve heard about touring. There was an amazing amount of alcohol and drug abuse going on. I was a strung out junkie the whole time. It was the height of punk rock. It was an amazing time. I never regret any of it. It was just easier to live than to write about it.

AP: Before we talk about Girls on Girls, are there any other projects besides the memoir currently going on?

PO: Right now I’m writing fiction. I’ve never worked on fiction before. I just read a piece of fiction, “Her Name Was Martha” in San Francisco and at Beyond Baroque for the Poets and Writers event. So I’m working on that and I work on dialogue on a daily basis. I’m trying to get my dialog together. It’s one of those things I’m really happy doing; it’s getting more attention than the book I’m supposed to be writing. Which is how it works, you know. But at least I’m doing something. I’m also playing music again, which is interesting.

AP: Is that something that’s been on hold for a long time?

PO: It comes and goes. The last CD I recorded was in 2007. The band was just two of us. We played all the instruments. It’s been six years. I actually recorded the CD as my field study for Antioch University. I wrote the lyrics and with a friend of mine, we recorded the whole thing and put it all together.

AP: Nice! Girls on Girls came out in 2010. Did you create this just for Skate this Art or was it already in the works?

PO: The first film I did was The YAA Girlz and the Deadly Sparks and that was for the Skate this Art benefit and it was about women skateboard teams in San Francisco in the ‘80s. It opened my eyes to what I wanted to do. I got interested in women’s stories that juxtapose the men’s version of those stories. There are all these men skaters that had their stories told. There were all these women skaters, underclass kind of thing so I was interested in that story. Plus, I knew all of them from San Francisco, so it was readily available. Later when I had the idea to make the other film, it was the same idea. These women and their bands that I was interested in, most of them were readily available, so it was another story of something that needed to be told. I felt it was going on the same idea, so I didn’t do it just for the project and it was more of an undertaking than I had ever done before. It was almost 23 minutes; the first film was a real short short documentary at 13 minutes. So this project was much more involved. And then using the band’s music and videos I had to get permission and deal with copyrights. It was a way bigger project.

AP: That answers a question I had about what inspired a man to do a documentary on women in punk music. It is still a controversial topic. Women in metal or punk music are still fighting for equality.

PO: Right. Well first, I find women more interesting than men. I was raised by women, not a lot of male role models in my life as a child. Second, for lack of a better word, it’s an underdog story. Women never got respect in rock and roll. There are very few bands that are all women for one, and then very few of those bands that aren’t considered a novelty act. However, I had to do a bit more research with this film. Most of these bands I didn’t know. I knew Antonia (Crane) but I didn’t know her band, Dirtbox. I didn’t know Grass Widow (the last band in the documentary) until Rob Roberge introduced me to them. The other bands were friends of mine and I used to see them struggling in this male dominated industry, still do. Basically, it was unfair. It’s just odd to revisit it years later and to take a look at it and its odd because nothing’s changed.

View “Girls on Girls,” Patrick O’Neil’s 2010 documentary about women in punk rock (32 min.)

AP: Yeah, in a day and age when we’re supposed to be progressive.

PO: What’s strange is that punk rock was fighting against these established codes and ethics and so forth, but sexism was still there. As much as people wanted to say there wasn’t, there was. It’s odd that you have these movements that are so anarchistic yet they still hold on to outdated and stupid ideas. Or phobias or fears or whatever the hell it is.

It’s odd that you have these movements that are so anarchistic yet they still hold on to outdated and stupid ideas.

AP: What’s your creative process like as a writer and a filmmaker?

PO: As a nonfiction writer, I know the story. So my creative process is making an interesting story out of the story. I think that’s the creative of creative nonfiction. It’s the author’s job to put beautiful language into their story. I’m not saying I make beautiful language, but I attempt to at least. Hopefully the story is already interesting enough but you have to make the language as interesting as the story. With filmmaking, I just go and shoot a shitload of film and interview people and then work it all into the original idea and it all comes through at the end when I edit it and put it together. But, I don’t know what I have until then. Like with Girls on Girls, the film starts out with a clip from Sid and Nancy that I took off the Internet and then a bunch of still shots, interviews, music videos, and a soundtrack I compiled, and it all came together at the end. I have a friend, Patrick McCormick; he did the post-production and fixed up all the mistakes I made. He is a professional filmmaker and I am self-taught on the computer. I never had any real training on any of that stuff. His help was greatly appreciated.

AP: On your website, it said you have another film project in the works. Tell me about that.

PO: I have two, but not much work has been done on either. They’re both in the planning stage. I haven’t found the ability to do them, one is a bit more advanced than what I’m used to doing. The other film I’m working on is about online dating and love.

AP: I can forward you some OKCupid messages from my friends.

PO: That’s one of the venues I want to use. The problem is finding people who will go on camera and be interviewed. I want to find a sex worker that’s on craigslist. I want to find someone on OKCupid and maybe a successful relationship that’s come out of there—have the subjects all talk about what love means to them in that respect. I also want somebody who goes online for casual sex, not a sex worker, just someone who has casual sex online. Have three or four women talk about all that.

AP: What attracts you to a subject as a writer and visual artist?

PO: It’s all the same thing. This may sound cheesy, but finding beauty in what isn’t beautiful. I am attracted to the dark side, attracted to sleaze and unpleasantness and awkwardness and anger and violence. I’m attracted to the dejected, the homeless, the streets, criminal activity. There’s an unbelievable comment on human nature that pervades everything. That’s what I’m trying to portray in my work, although maybe not my films yet.

AP: Wait for the online dating one.

PO: Exactly.

AP: What prompted you to enter an MFA program?

PO: I had started writing when I was locked up. I was writing all the time, writing stories about crimes and people. When I got out, I kept it up. I was writing a lot of angry stuff. I was an angry guy in those days, angry at the world. I felt I had been done wrong. Through working on myself, I started figuring out that wasn’t the case. My writing started to shift to writing stories, vignettes of daily life and I started a blog in 2004. I didn’t know what computers were until I got out of prison and I learned from scratch. I made myself post 2,000 to 3,000 words a week. I wrote stories about my neighborhood and people. I did it as an exercise and a commitment. At the time, I was a drug and alcohol counselor working at a rehab center. I was there for five to six years and the Feds came in and said you have to go to school for two years to get certified as one and I was already doing it so it seemed stupid. I would have learned more things but the kicker was did I really want to be a drug and alcohol counselor the rest of my life? Did I want to do two years of school to keep doing what I was doing and get paid the same amount of money? Was I that into it? I was kind of burning out by then and I was a drug and alcohol counselor to pay back my sins of my bad behaviors of the years before. My dad, who is a linguistics professor at MIT was really encouraging me to write and liked what I was doing. He’s my editor and is really supportive of me. He said, “If you’re going to go to school for two years, why don’t you do what you want?” I already had a BA. He was like “Why don’t you be a writer?” and encouraged me to get an MFA. I thought, you’re kidding me. I hadn’t been to school in 20 years and didn’t know if I wanted to. I kind of needed to just make the plunge and see what happened. I applied to three schools. Two of them accepted me. Antioch was low residency and it sounded like the perfect thing for me. I liked Antioch. I’ve always been supportive of their social justice mission and their politics. They were a better fit and I went with them. It gave me an opportunity to find a community that I needed to say I was a writer. I kind of thought I was a writer and felt I was a writer, but it gave me the voice to say I was a writer, to feel comfortable with it.

AP: Is there anything you want to add that I didn’t cover?

PO: No, maybe not.

AP: Thank you.

Ashley Perez holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is an intern at The Rumpus and runs the literary blog, Arts Collide. Ashley’s work has appeared in The Weekenders Magazine, BLEED, and the anthology, First Time: an Anthology about Lost Virginity.

The Road to Avery

Uncle Roger is at the bend again,
right on the rim of the road
before Cow Camp runs
into the Newland Tree Farm.
He waves at my car as it drives past,
but he is in the sunset.
I wish I were older, sitting with him,
with no place to go but wherever
my feet take me. It’d be nice
not to have to be home in time
to make dinner. Even though my son’s
well and grown now, engaged to be wed,
long as he lives at home, he’s got to be fed.
The baby is on the way,
and they haven’t even picked out a ring.

I work at the hospital,
so I can keep the rumors at bay.
The Wise family has been in Avery
since its founding, and there are skeletons
buried that, lucky for me, ain’t no one
bothered enough to dig up.
I married into it, ‘course.

Never divorced Jerry, though he drank
as heavy as his daddy before him.
Sure was hard when Ben was younger.
Most mornings, I had to clean the vomit
from the floor and carry his daddy to bed
before little Ben woke up for breakfast.

Jerry’s pa married a real good Christian
lady who went to church with us
every Sunday. We all thought grandpa’d
put the drink away for such a lovely face.

He did, for a time.
She had a real pretty granddaughter,
sweet little angel ‘bout Ben’s age,
kept him outta trouble in the summer.

Well, grandpa couldn’t hold back
that whiskey rage, and his new wife
became his ex wife; so it goes.
And that sweet lil’ girl didn’t visit again
‘til she was all but grown.
Uncle Roger says she’s doin’ fine.

How the town starts talkin’ when she comes for a visit.
Her and her lil’ cousin spend about every day
together, both with their granny’s face—
them big beautiful smiles.
Prettiest things in this town. I reckon
the boys ‘round here know it
Damn near untouchable.
Ain’t ‘cause she lives in Florida. No,
it’s ‘cause she was raised way every girl should.
She ain’t ever had no chains or fences
like Avery folk. She done made up her own rules.

Maria_Hofman_photoMaria Hofman is a recent graduate of Spalding University’s M.F.A. program. She currently lives in Palm Beach County, Florida, and is employed by Florida Atlantic University and Palm Beach State College as a writing consultant and English tutor. Maria is an emerging poet with poems featured in small presses and online literary journals.


In the attic, I cut off my Ruthie doll’s blonde hair
to make her look more like me, to see
if her golden locks will grow back. She wheezes
when she breathes. I pick two broken crayons
from the floor and scribble on her left cheek
the blue-black of a bruise. She recoils, looks up,
blinks, burps, chokes, as if to ask, “Mama,
why are you doing this?” Her head is as big
as my father’s fist and feels just as solid.
The front of the pink princess dress she’s worn
since the day I got her is stained with dirt and torn.
The wooden beams that hold the ceiling creak
in a struggle to support our weight. Outside the window,
a songbird perches on a melting branch.
The clumps of curls might make a good nest.
I try to see what Ruthie thinks and notice
the emerald iris in her wide left eye is chipped.
When I rub it with my thumb, someone shouts from below.
Footsteps pound up stairs. Ruthie’s plastic body struggles
from my hands and crawls away, not even looking back
as the door behind us drops down, its ladder unraveling.

joe grillo

Joe Grillo is a senior at Southern Connecticut State University, where he serves as the fiction editor of the undergraduate literary magazine, Folio. He is currently working on a collection of poetry for his Honors Thesis.

Wendy C. Ortiz, Author

Wendy Ortiz

Photo: Sandy Lee

Wendy C. Ortiz holds an MA in clinical psychology and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s a Los Angeles native who lived for eight years in Olympia, Washington before returning to Los Angeles. She lives with the love of her life and their daughter.

Wendy has read at various venues in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She is the co-founder and curator of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series, which was a finalist for LA Weekly’s 2013 Best of LA Readers Choice Awards

Her poetry has appeared in Spillway, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Blood Orange Review. Her prose can be found in The New York Times, PANK, The Coachella Review, Literary Mama, Split Lip Magazine, Brain, Child, and Mutha Magazine, among other online and print publications. Most recently, her essay, “Pretty” ran in The Nervous Breakdown and “I’m on Fire” ran in Jaded Ibis Productions’ BLEED blog. She writes the monthly column “On the Trail of Mary Jane” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Wendy has poetry forthcoming in Educe and Spillway.

Wendy is working on a book based on the Modern Love essay published in the New York Times and a poetry collection. Her first book, Excavation: A Memoir, will be published in summer 2014 by Future Tense Books. Her second book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press in fall/winter 2014.

Wendy C. Ortiz was interviewed by Karly Little via Skype on September 14, 2013.

Karly Little: Your essay, “Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling” appeared in The New York Times a little over a year ago, and on your Tumblr, you say that its publication changed your life. What changes have you noticed in your life and the lives of your loved ones since your work appeared in the Modern Love column?

Wendy C. Ortiz: Big changes.

There were so many different things that happened around that piece. The biggest thing, probably, was that I suddenly was getting the attention of agents. I had two different agents contact me after that piece came out basically asking me, “So where is the book?” That’s actually one of the pieces of advice I’d give. You see articles that ask, “How do you get an agent?” I always think—the short answer is to write a Modern Love column. Agents are looking at that column all the time and contacting people. There have been several books to come out of that column. I did not have a book; I did not know that that would happen.

I had a different book, so when agents contacted me, I said, “Well, I don’t have a book based on this column yet, but I’m working on it.” And I offered them the book that I did have that was already written, the one I started in the MFA program.

Getting an email from an agent while you’re on your way to Target is a really big deal. Like, within two weeks of the essay being published. I was looking at my email while I walked into Target with my mother and my daughter and I was like, “Wait, what? Is this really happening?” And I was just floating on air the rest of the day.

I had sent queries for my book (What Is and What Should Never Be) out to agents and hadn’t gotten a bite, so things were suddenly new and exciting for me.

Another change was having something out there nationally like that. I still get emails from people who tell me what kind of impact that piece had on them. It really is a range of people, people who definitely aren’t in the same category as me, as that essay. It’s basically people who are thinking about their own situations and making big decisions dealing with the question, “What do I do in this situation where I could potentially hurt someone, but it’s important for me to move on?”

That is still pretty huge, and I feel like I’m still touched by that on a regular basis.

KL: You said when agents started calling you about your column in Modern Love, “Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling,” they asked about the memoir behind the column. Then, it wasn’t quite finished yet. Is this that memoir?

WCO: No, this isn’t that book. The book coming out in July 2014 is a memoir I began writing while in the Antioch MFA program in 2000. Excavation: A Memoir is about the four-year sexual relationship I had with my junior high teacher. It’s gone through a number of revisions—I have Bernard Cooper, Paul Lisicky, David Ulin, and Emily Rapp, among a few other readers to thank for that. I’m also grateful to Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Books for taking a chance on a book that many editors said was “dark”, “complicated”, and ultimately a “difficult” book to market because of the content.

I’m still working on the book based on the ML column. It’s at about 12,000 words right now. One of the agents that had contacted me about it is working with me on it—she’s given me an open door to an agency that is not taking unsolicited manuscripts, so the relationship feels especially valuable. When I have new pages, she’s open to reading them and giving me comments. I’m hopeful I can get the book done by sometime in 2014.

KL: You’ve been publishing essays, poems, and short fiction for years now. How does it feel to know that Excavation: A Memoir, a book-length piece of yourself will be released in the summer of 2014?

WCO: It’s a bit mind-blowing to me. If I think about it for too long I get terrified. While I practice openness and a radical honesty in my writing I can be a rather private person. It was slightly excruciating to know that Kevin Sampsell, for instance, was reading the book, only because once someone reads the book, it feels like they’re suddenly privy to a strange, intimate part of my life that I’ve not delved into great detail with anyone in conversation. So this book feels like a big plunge into what, I don’t even know. And that’s the scary part. At the same time, I have a lot of support from friends, from other writers, and internally I can call up the support I need, too. The terrified part of me will walk next to the strong part of me and we’ll get through it together.

KL: Much of your writing is driven by the emotion in the details. I’m thinking of “Mix Tape,” your essay on The Nervous Breakdown. Your narrator thinks, “You’re fucking me up. I love how you’re fucking me up. But you’re fucking me up.” Another great example here would be “Listen” your essay that appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Coachella Review. Many of these events happened as long as two or three decades ago. How do you harvest these details and get to a place where you can write with the raw and recent-feeling urgency?

WCO: “Mix Tape” has some excerpts from the memoir that I have been trying to sell. This memoir has taken a good ten years for me to write from the point where it started in the MFA program. It’s gone into different versions and incarnations, but one of the main things that I used to write that memoir were journals that I’ve kept since that time. So I always am able to pull from those.

As a long-time writer, if you’re keeping journals like these, it’s pretty valuable. I wrote down conversations that happened, word-for-word. As soon as the conversations happened, I would hang up the phone, get into my journal, and start writing about it. I feel like I’ve pulled a lot of detail from that period of time.

That’s part of my whole process, too: going deep into that period of time. Music is the main thing. I usually have a soundtrack playing when I’m trying to go back into a period of time. Listening to that music and getting into the old journals. I’m constantly looking back at them and reread so I get into those feelings. I feel like that’s when I’m able to pull the details out from those periods of time.

KL: Is it hard to come back to reality after going back into that time period?

WCO: It is so hard. It’s one of the hardest things, actually. I need a couple of hours to go in and get the space to listen to music and really write. Then I need some transition time to come out of it, and I don’t always have that. On a day like today, my partner takes our daughter and they go somewhere for a few hours. My job is to figure out how to build in that transition time into that time frame because if I don’t have it—obviously I can do it—it’s really hard, like dragging myself back into a reality of now.

It’s hard and you must understand how that feels to have even posed the question.

The worst-case scenario is just having to go straight back into reality and feeling like there’s something that’s left unwritten, but obviously I have to make it work. I’m a parent and that has to come first. Once my child is back, I come right back and be the parent, I’m not fifteen years old anymore. I’m not listening to Depeche Mode and in my old world anymore.

As soon as the conversations happened, I would hang up the phone, get into my journal, and start writing about it.

KL: “Listen” explores the effect of time on memory; do you contact family member or friends from those years, or did you rely solely on your own memories for these essays?

WCO: I mostly rely on my memories and journals, which can be a little tricky. The journals make it easier because in the end, I’m writing about the truth that I saw at that period of time. I’ve certainly sat down and written something and then went back and looked at my journal and found that my memory was wrong. I’ve had to rewrite entire sections because my journal was telling me something totally different than my memory.

In terms of friends—I went to the same elementary and junior high and high school with a big group of people—so I definitely have a lot of friends from that period of time, but I haven’t always asked them for their feedback because I’m trying to just stay true to what was happening for me in that period of time. Once in a while, a friend will sort of illuminate something for me or remind me of something, but if I don’t physically remember it, I’m probably not going to use it providing it doesn’t somehow change the entire narrative.

My family was pretty emotionally absent for a period of time so they are not people that I would ask, “What was happening at that time? What do you remember?” They just aren’t good source material for me.

KL: Your essays employ an economy that cuts right to the core of the characters you write about. Do you begin with longer drafts and pare away extraneous words and sentences, or do you find yourself naturally writing in such concise language?

WCO: I wish that I could be more economical in my writing. I feel like I’m constantly over-writing things. I tend more toward writing really big and then having to go back in and winnow it down to something more precise. I would never have thought of my work as economical but I want it to be.

I’m learning more about editing. I think editing is a really intense process that I didn’t really know very much about until I worked with the editor at Modern Love. We would have conversations, both email and phone, and the way that he was going about editing this short piece made me suddenly realize there were all of these places under the umbrella of “editing” that I didn’t have knowledge of or employ, myself. I think that experience taught me, first of all, the job editors do is incredible. They can just go right in and start doing surgery. That’s intense. It’s hard to do that with your own work. I learned a lot just from that experience, and if I had money to just have an editor next to me all the time, I would have one. Doing that surgery on your own is so complicated, and sometimes I feel like I’m still too close to the work to perform it well.

KL: “Minutes are just seconds aren’t minutes,” your essay in Literary Mama, was lyrical enough to sing along with. How much do you find your poetry and prose informing one another since you work in both genres?

WCO: My hope is that the prose will always be informed by poetry. That piece—for the longest time—was an essay with a lot more words, and then I kept cutting it away and cutting it away. Then I had extensive edits. The editors of Literary Mama really put me through the wringer, and we edited it further and further. I would say that there were at least eight edits of it from them, which was fantastic. I don’t think that they’re getting paid to do that work, but they helped me really narrow it down and become the precise thing that it is now, which looks like a poem. And that’s how I think of it now. I had submitted it to them as an essay, and then in the end, it ended up looking like a poem. I was really happy with that.

KL: What have you read recently?

WCO: I just finished reading a book called Torpor by Chris Kraus. Chris Kraus is pretty amazing. She wrote a book called I Love Dick, and that’s what a lot of people know her for. Someone that I met on Twitter was offering to give away books if you would just pay for shipping, and she said that she would choose a random selection of books to send. I thought, “Hey, I’ll pay a few dollars to get a random selection of books.” This [Torpor] was in that box, and I’m so glad that it was because I loved it. I read it just this week. Finding time for reading, with a toddler, is very difficult. So I’m happy that I just finished it yesterday. I only had about fifteen pages left and I just kept saying, “When am I going to have time to finish the last fifteen pages?”

I’m also in the middle of reading a book by Gary Lutz called Partial List of People to Bleach. It’s a great book, it was just reprinted from Future Tense Press. It’s a book of short stories, and they’re all super weird. He does interesting things with language, and I love that kind of work. I’m into it, but I have to read that very slowly. It’s like reading a poetry book.

I’m also reading a poetry book right now, Greenhouses, Lighthouses by Tung-Hui Hu, and I never can finish a poetry book in one sitting. It can take me a month to read a poetry book. I’m usually juggling about five books at a time. I’m active on Goodreads, and I like marking how far along I am. It’s good for me. I know it goes back to when I was in second or third grade and we used to have the contests of who could read the most books. I was always in the running to win because I was constantly reading.

KL: Can you feel your work bending to reflect what you’ve read?

WCO: Totally.

Sometimes I want that. Sometimes I don’t. It’s hard to sort of separate, but there are times when I’m looking for that. When I know about a piece that I’m writing, and I want it to have a certain tone, I will read the work in a tone that I know is similar to the tone that I want to have. I’ll read the work and get invested in the voice, and then some of it may rub off. And I love that. I think we all do that to some degree. I’m open to that happening.

Then there are times when I feel, “Oh, I shouldn’t be reading this right now because it’s interfering with the voice of something else I’ve been trying to work on.” That doesn’t happen to me very often though. I feel like I choose books that are somehow informing a voice that I’m trying to work with on my own.

KL: Your first book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press in 2014. What has been your favorite and not-so-favorite parts of the publishing process so far?

WCO: It’s hard to say right now because we’re so early in the process and because it’s a small independent press. It’s very casual. I think that people have an expectation that for all books, you sit down, you have a contract, and you have these hard deadlines. But that is not how all independent presses work, at all.

To begin with, I sat down with the publisher, Chiwan Choi, at a bar in downtown L.A., and we just kind of talked. He told me he loved the book and what he thinks the global edit should include. He told me, “You make your own deadline. We want to publish the best work possible; it’s up to you to come up with what will work for you.” He’s super accommodating for the writers he publishes with the press and that is just a relief. I’m not being held to, “Okay, now this has to happen now. At this point in time.” I mean, I could do that, but I feel like I have more freedom this way.

Right now, at this moment, he’s received my first global edit, and I’m waiting to hear what he thinks about that. Since I sent it to him, I’ve still been working on some of the formatting and I keep going through it and through it with a fine-toothed comb. Sometimes I think, “I thought I already took the fine-toothed comb through this.” But then I see things. So I must go back in and go through it again. I feel like this is not a standard or traditional publishing process, and I can’t say that there’s anything that I don’t like yet. What I’m enjoying right now is the freedom to be able to work on it on my timeline and feeling like my publisher is really accommodating my process.

See what people are doing and how they’re doing it and what you appreciate and what makes you think, “Oh that doesn’t really work for me, but why doesn’t it work for me?” Think through those personal kinds of questions.

KL: After reading your poetry and prose in various online publications, I’m looking forward to the release of Hollywood Notebook. Don’t give us any spoilers, but can you tell us a little bit about it?

WCO: I had a blog from 2002 to 2005, and that blog space was given to me by Karrie Higgins, who is also an Antioch alum. She lives in Utah now and is still one of my favorite editors. When she has time, I ask her to look over my work, and it’s fantastic. I love having her as a resource and as a friend.

I was just writing this blog back then, when I was living in Hollywood, in a studio apartment. I had just moved from Olympia, Washington, back to L.A. after having lived in Olympia for eight years. I was living alone for the first time in a long time, and I was writing a lot of observations about what life was like then. I was 28 years old and just trying to figure things out, in many ways. Something really big happens when you’re 28. People will say it’s when your Saturn returns, and that could very well be what was happening then. There were certain huge things that happened between 28 and 30.

When that blog ended, I basically captured all the text into a document and that document was 365 pages long. I decided that as a project, I would edit it down into something more readable—and that made more sense—and see what happened. So I started doing that last summer and suddenly I saw, “Okay, this is a book. These are micro-chapters, and they read somewhat like prose poems.” I had a very different style of writing then and I miss that style of writing. It’s not something that is natural to me right now. Doing the edits, that’s probably the toughest part. I have to go back into that voice that I don’t feel like I have easy access to right now. That’s what that book is. It’s observations and prose poems and lists and ideas about that period of time when I was living in Hollywood alone and trying to figure things out.

KL: Do you have advice for writers who compose personal essays? Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of memories?

WCO: I don’t worry that I’ll ever run out of memories. I’m constantly writing lists. I have notebooks full of lists of random memories, and they’re just sort of signposts to go back and remember this, or go back and look in the journal at this. They can be so random and they can be so short, but it’s the way I know I’m not going to run out of memories because there are so many there.

The advice that I would give is to constantly read personal essays, all the time. See what people are doing and how they’re doing it and what you appreciate and what makes you think, “Oh that doesn’t really work for me, but why doesn’t it work for me?” Think through those personal kinds of questions.

Getting help from people is really, really important, too. It’s something that I feel like I have resisted a little bit. I sometimes feel like everybody’s hustling, everybody’s writing. They’re busy. But sometimes I just have to push through my feeling of resistance that I don’t want to bother someone. I have my three people who I go to. If they have time and energy, they’ll read it, and if they don’t, they’ll simply say no. And I’ll just move on. Or I’ll wait—if I don’t have a deadline—I’ll wait until they have some time, and they can look at it because I trust them that much.

The other kind of help that is important, that I was also resistant to, is actually going to a class. When you’re in an MFA program, you’re surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, so it feels easier. When I was in it, I was getting help all the time: my mentor was helping me, my fellow writers, the workshop. But when you’re out on your own, you think, “Oh, okay. Who’s out there who can help?” So this year I decided I needed come help after getting these super nice rejections over and over. The editor would keep telling me, “I love what you’re doing, but it needs more work.” And I thought, “I keep hitting this wall with this editor. I need some help. I need professional help now.” So I actually took a class through a local writing group that offers all kinds of classes to writers. I took an essay class, and there was some part of me that said, “I can’t believe I’m taking an essay class so many years after getting my MFA.” But that was really arrogant thinking because I needed help. My essays were not working for some reason that I couldn’t see, so I wanted to repair the blind spot that I had, and thank goodness I did. I went into a class; I got some help.

The essay that came out of it was one that I had been working on. Two of my editors had looked at it, and we weren’t making it better. The finished piece that came out was the Brain, Child Magazine essay that came out this week. It was a resubmission to them. The first version I submitted, they rejected, and I took that essay to the class that I was in, worked it out, and resubmitted it to them. They accepted it.

Now I feel like I’m over my resistance. If I need professional help, I will try to get it. It’s totally worth it. I’m over it. I can ask for help.

KL: You were just announced as a McSweeney’s Column Contest honorable mention with your new column, “On the Trail of Mary Jane.” You’ll be contributing regularly to McSweeney’s. Can you tell us what to expect in this new venture?

WCO: In Los Angeles, there are many, many, many medical marijuana dispensaries, and I drive by them all the time. Sometimes they have these ridiculous names and I constantly find myself wondering, “What makes someone choose one place over another?” There are so many to choose from. NPR reported four years ago that California has more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks at this point. The L.A. city council put a moratorium on opening more pharmacies and recently L.A. voters essentially confirmed that stance. Now only 135 of over 1000 dispensaries in L.A. are technically legal. I’m interested in going to both legal and illegal dispensaries. The way that I’m approaching this is as a journalist. I’m hanging out and checking things out. Who goes to these places? What are these places offering? What is the culture inside? What’s the culture right outside the front door? Each month I’ll be writing about a different dispensary with some forays into other locations—maybe a hemp convention.

KL: You’ve got your column, On the Trail of Mary Jane, running at McSweeney’s, two books slated for release in 2014, and other pieces of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction popping up in various journals and websites. How are you managing your time so you still have time to write for yourself?

WCO: My daughter, who I’m home with most days, has entered the world of imaginative play, meaning she can now occupy herself for lengths of time making up stories with her stuffed animals and plastic dinosaurs. I’m using that time as much as I can. When she naps, I’m using that time to recharge, meet deadlines, whichever needs to happen most that day. My partner makes sure I have a day most weekends when I can work on writing, and that’s priceless. I also manage to write three pages every morning—the “for myself” writing you might be referencing—because that’s just part of my routine.

KL: In your essay on the BLEED blog, run by Jaded Ibis Productions, you say, “I’ve heard a constant refrain from friends and fellow writers: You’re on fire!” One glance at your ever-growing bio proves this statement’s truth. I don’t know that there’s any other way to describe your successes over the past months and years. How’s it feel to be on fire?

WCO: The “I’m on Fire” essay is very much a work-in-progress. There’s something painful about “being on fire”—maybe the attention, which is exciting and also somewhat searing—the amount of myself that goes into the writing and then becomes its own creature and lives a life of its own—it can feel quite literally painful at times. At the same time it’s also exciting, and growing wilder day by day.

KarlyKarly has an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Lunch Ticket, reads creative nonfiction for The Citron Review, and interns for The Rumpus. Her work is forthcoming in Free State Review and Drunk Monkeys. She coordinates community education and teaches English at Barton Community College. Karly lives, writes, rollerblades, and watches sports with her husband in a north-central Kansas town of 172 people.