Cyclone: a biography of inheritance

(flash creative nonfiction)

 

“Cyclone.” Original score by George Bassman & George Stoll, 1939.

“Cyclone.” Original score by George Bassman & George Stoll, 1939.

[Fix]

The one time I met Dad’s dad, he pissed in Mom’s closet. Grandpa George liked speedballs—cocaine and heroin in the same syringe. He liked prostitutes—the power of purchase was the one he abused most readily. But most of all Grandpa George liked Music—and Music liked him back, God knows why.

[Catalog]

Grandpa George composed for Hollywood. He was the cyclone that whisked Dorothy to Oz, from black-and-white to Technicolor. He was chanting monkeys beating their filthy wings. He rode the high country. He got sentimental over you. He was into both guys and dolls. Passion without compassion fueled his compositions. It spilled into his Music from a pool deep within him—the rest of him withered, or perhaps was always dry.

[Mercy]

The kindest thing my grandfather did to my father was neglect him. I shudder imagining what might have happened if he’d raised him.

[Fetch]

The worst was already over before the beatings began: “Go get my belt,” George would whisper. My father delivered his abuser the instrument of abuse. The pain didn’t matter—the shame was in the submission.

[Inconvenience]

When you became inconvenient to George he sent you to live in the Neuropsychiatric Institute. Indefinitely. First went his wife. Then his daughter Leslie. Then David—his son, my father—at age thirteen. No diagnosis was necessary. A rich man’s word is binding.

[Independence]

The fifteen months Dad spent in the psych ward were the best of his young life. He found love in kindred spirits. He found real education, found rebellion and counterculture. It wasn’t unlike a cyclone, hurling him from black-and-white into color.

[Burden]

Decades passed. Piss in the closet. Having blown the fortune his son would have inherited, George came begging for the money that was meant to buy my diapers. Later he pled ignorance when the dealers came pounding on our door.

[Altruism]

Weekly my father would buy his father a hot meal, even though his father never fed him. He would put his father up in a motel room, even though his father had locked him in a nuthouse. And he would tell his father about how he was raising his son.

[Death]

“Bassman’s later life was marred by tragedy—his personal life involved three marriages, and the last had a duration of scarcely a year. He was cut loose from his career, and he later fell in with the wrong people. He died forgotten by his profession and alone in Los Angeles in 1997.” (“George Bassman,” Wikipedia.)

[Legacy]

Is my Music “mine” then? My own? Is his Music mine now? What is left to inherit from an empty man?

[Spite]

Dad was forbidden to play the piano. Grandpa George couldn’t stand the sound of amateurs. A lesser narcissist would want to spit his own image onto a vicarious heir. But George denied his son every piece of himself.

But I have come to claim my inheritance.

[Portrait]

“George Bassman.” Original photo by David Bassman, c. 1969 Photo of photo taken 2015.

“George Bassman.” Original photo by David Bassman, c. 1969
Photo of photo taken 2015.

nicholas-bassman_optNick Bassman writes songs, stories, poems, essays, Facebook rants, and weird lyric nonfiction pieces like this one. He hails from Los Angeles and currently studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. Nick writes for the Oberlin Review and co-created the quarterly art zine California Salmon Chronicle with Malcolm Gottesman. This is his first poetic publication. Find music from his band, Flowerteeth, at https://flowerteeth.bandcamp.com and his personal ramblings at https://www.facebook.com/ackbasswards.

 

Passage

(flash fiction)

As a girl of seven, she was told to pretend the stranger was her father. Fake passports and stories to match, enough to fool an inquisitive customs officer. At first, she’d wondered whether coming to America meant she’d get a different father. A father who was there, not just a name to put to a framed picture in the living room. And now, outside the terminal, was this what an American father looked like—younger and in a jean jacket? She memorized his birthdate, the color of his eyes. He complimented her for being such a smart girl. She remembered it still, his hand on her shoulder, his comforting nod to her mother. He was a ghost that remained with her; a shadow longer than a promise. Sometimes in the shower, trying to cum after a long day at work, her unguarded mind would falter upon his gaze. Something about his heavy eyes, conveying a belief certain as an anchor. After all these years she remembered how he had said her name. He’d been the first to pronounce it in the Anglicized syllables she had later come to identify with herself. A milky glaze drizzled over the delivery. The softer R, an easy roll over the first A. It had all started with him, the doors and life and existence that formed her now as much as that birthing Portuguese village faded behind yellowed curtains of hovering dirt. A fake father was all it took to come to America. After the flight and the questions and the suitcases he disappeared into a cab and she was back to being someone else’s daughter.

Hugo Dos SantosHugo dos Santos is the translator of A Child in Ruins (Writ Large Press, 2016), the collected poems of José Luís Peixoto, and a recipient of a Disquiet International scholarship. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications in the U.S. and Europe, including upstreet, Queen Mob’s Tea House, DMQ Review, Public Pool, and elsewhere. He is the author of ironbound – a blog.

 

Smoke and Mirrors

(flash creative nonfiction)

I found a fledgling in the yews in the side yard when I was eight or nine. He was covered in bird lice, and shit down my arm as I washed him clean with the hose. I still remember the heat of it. His big, dumb eyes blinking in the light. He didn’t seem to know he was pitiful, and that itself was a kind of magic. My mother made me put him in the tall grass beyond the swing set. She made up stories about his wonderful adventures.

My brother got pooped on by a white dove at a magic show. He was small enough still to sit on our father’s lap in a gymnasium full of metal folding chairs. The magician popped a big red balloon with a straight pin and the bird it contained startled, arced out over the audience and let fly a great white splash of poop before settling in the rafters. The entire audience followed the dropping with their eyes and I remember them gasping in disgust as it hit my brother’s leg. The magician doffed his top hat and insisted it would bring my brother luck.

But a magician’s gift is misdirection. My brother has never known what hit him. Then and now and all his life. Smoke and mirrors, the bared arm and the nothing up the sleeve, rabbits kicking against the air, and doves that disappear against the sky with a flap of desperate wings.

There are those days lost to memories. They pour out endlessly like silk kerchiefs from the head: The bright bouquet of his fortieth birthday, harsh and plastic. The candles winking out. There is the collapsible top hat of his never marrying, the dangling legs of the pretty girl cut in two. The risk of lives not being put back together. There is the sword that pierces the heart like loneliness. There is the flourish of the black cape and the tap of the wand. There are the false bottoms, the trap doors, the hidden compartments. There is the way he laughs at you using nothing but his eyes. There is his smile twitching midair. There are the hours with their circular flight. There is a brother you can’t quite believe in. There is a brother who disappears before your eyes.

Brent FiskBrent Fisk is a writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky. His work has appeared in Rattle, Fugue, Folio, Cincinnati Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other places. He is taking time off from his day job to finish several book-length projects and perfect his mid-range jump shot.

Trouble with GobbledUp

(flash fiction)

Hi!

Thank G-d I’m a busy writer, wife, mom, and grandmom. I joined GobbledUp several years ago. During that entire time, I elected not to take advantage of the many freebie upgrades you’ve offered me because of my high number of connections. Truth is, I’ve also been too busy to learn all of the needed technology.

Anyway, some time ago, you, i.e. GobbledUp, asked if you could access my Hoo-hoo email address book. I said, “Yes.” In that list are various folks in the publishing profession. I don’t know most of them, personally, but I have had professional, tangential contact with all of them.

Weird stuff happened thereafter. I continue to get “accepted” invitations from people I never met. What’s more, few were in the publishing industry. Albeit, the military logistics folks were interesting, but annoying, while the gamers were annoying without being particularly interesting. Nonetheless, that latter group, those computer athletes, helped me to promote my most recently published fantasy book. To wit, I received better sales on that title than I did on many of my others.

No matter. Until recently, I mentally shrugged at each new notice GobbledUp sent meI am truly, blessedly busy filling multiple book contracts. However, now you, GobbledUp, have put restrictions on my ability to send out connection invitations. I am exasperated. I repeat: I am exasperated.

I gave GobbledUp permission to riffle my Hoo-hoo address list, yet I’m getting penalized for giving you that permission!!!! I was nice enough to be “out there” for you, for your military members, and for your military enthusiasts, and made no complaint about the vast number of strangers filling my GobbledUp mailbox. Yet, your gratitude to me got manifested as restricting my privileges. Let me repeat: I am exasperated.

Recall: I have no time these days to seek new contacts, except for the handful of writers or publishers with whom I need to communicate. Recall: as a result of allowing you to access my Hoo-hoo address file, I’ve become an unwitting mentor to many aspiring writers (I’m happy to be their guide, but would have preferred to do so on my own terms). Recall: I’ve been a good sport, never registering, until this moment, a complaint with you.

At your first convenience, please fix this situation. That is, please restore my ability to connect with folks at will. If that means GobbledUp no longer has access to my Hoo-hoo email list, so be it; it has not proved to be cost-efficient to be a “good citizen” in the GobbledUp world.

If I don’t hear from you within the week, I’ll have to consider an alternative recourse. Some of my new gamer friends are hackers. Some of my new military friends are confrontational, that is, are physical “hackers.” A few of those new military friends are based roughly a half-hour from your headquarters. They’re expert at breaking and entering, especially the breaking part.

Sincerely and Never Meekly,

Petra Gram, Granny Writer

KJ Hannah GreenbergKJ Hannah Greenberg’s whimsical writing buds in pastures where gelatinous wildebeests roam and beneath the soil where fey hedgehogs play. Her newest books are a collection of poetry, A Grand Sociology Lesson (Lit Fest Press, 2016), and a collection of short fiction, Friends and Rabid Hedgehogs (Bards & Sages Publishing, 2016).

Lily

(flash fiction)

Because the white boy had saved me from drowning, my father invited him to dinner.

He brought his six closest friends with him and three newcomers—including a girl. I’d never seen him with a girl before. She floated like a cloud by his side, pale as the moonlight by which we dined, and just as devoid of heat. He turned not once to look at her.

As the meal began, she was whisked away to the kitchen with the other women. Only I remained, my father’s favorite and his heir, to observe the men as they ate and smoked and sang.

The white boy’s friends were dressed, as always, in animal skins—full hides, heads and all. And the white boy himself donned a war bonnet though we were not, to my recollection, at war. They spoke of us, and to us, in words we hardly even used: how, squaw. They affected our accents. And they, in their pomp and belligerence, dressed as they were in carcasses—they called us savages.

And we—wary of this tentative treaty, knowing that, should we object, we would only be seen as the antagonists of the tale, then and in all future reimaginings—we said nothing.

I said nothing.

I sat between my father and the white boy as they smoked together—each putting his lips where the other had put his lips, breathing the same breath, pantomiming intimacy—and I dared not speak. About how their love of our customs didn’t feel like love at all. About hard work and ritual and what it actually takes to earn a place at the head of this circle. I watched the youngest of them slap war paint on his teddy bear, and still I said nothing.

Forgive me. I was only a girl then, and did not yet know the grown-up words to express my discomfort.

Forgive me. I was only a girl then, and feared that if I’d spoken up, the men might have laughed at me, shamed me, even banished me from my place at their party, sent me to the kitchen with the other women. From whence, I now noticed, the white girl was watching the reverie, her eyes drawing the small wooden dagger from its place in the white boy’s belt and shooting it back at him as he continued to forget her.

At him? No. No, I realized as I sat there in silence, watching the men, watching the girl—she was shooting the points of her blue eyes at me.

Forgive me. I was only a girl.

And he had saved my life.

And I had, in that moment of being so poorly drawn by a room full of white men, something to prove. I had to prove something.

I kissed him.

Without pretense or permission, I turned to that boy in his ostentatious feathered headdress, grabbed hold of his shoulders, and put my lips right where his lips were. I gave him a kiss he’d never get from any mother.

His mouth felt fresh like the wind and the rain, tasted soft like surprise and imaginary cake. The mane of feathers shrouded both our faces for a moment, and when we emerged, the whole world went red.

The boy’s friends, embarrassed by the public display.

The girl, jealous and raging—finally a little spark in her skin.

The moon, grown bold with the promise of harvest.

The fire at the center of the circle, leaping and dancing and licking the air in a way I hadn’t known it before.

At that young age, who knows what love feels like? At that young age, this is exactly what love feels like.

And the boy, so kissed, reddening from suede tip to copper top, believing that the blush on him could make us kin. But I can blush too, boy, in a shade of earth so rich, it’ll ground you in your tracks. Go ahead and make me.

We danced together, he and I, until the party burned to embers.

And then, at the end of the night, he left with the white girl after all.

Things were simpler that way.

marie-marandola_optMarie Marandola received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She now lives in San Diego, where she remains in the habit of picking up bits of fallen trees and giving them to people.

Word from the Editor

I began drafting this essay at the end of the presidential election season, in light of what many of us thought would be a landmark historical moment: the United States’ election of our first woman president. On November 8, as we are all too aware, despite winning the popular vote by (as of this writing) over two million, the Electoral College results tallied in favor of her opponent. Spurred by a campaign rhetoric that relied on a cornerstone of violence, fear, and hatred, the president-elect continues to provoke considerable domestic and international criticism. Shocked by what this outcome revealed—that nearly half of voters responded positively to his rhetoric—, many say that it appears we have two Americas, red and blue. Like warring tribes, we’ve now turned away from each other and returned to our camps, separated by a modern Mason-Dixon line in the divided states of America. We curl up with our own news sources, revel in our own truths. The fissure is too deep, we say, and so draw a line that relieves us of reconciling our differences, scrutinizing root causes, or compromising our values.

Fissure is just one analogy to describe the state of the (dis)union. We could, instead, look at our picture of this country and say that part of our view was obscured. As political theorist Andrew Robinson writes, “Any particular way of seeing illuminates some aspects of an object and obscures others.” With our sights set on equality, community, and eco-conservatism, we now realize that we missed a large segment of the picture. Feminist scholar Julie Jung calls this synecdochic understanding: using part of something to represent the whole. As it turns out, many of us—including every major newspaper and pollster—were looking at the U.S. through this device. The election results lifted the shroud. Now we’re squirming in discomfort about two new sources of awareness: that which was underneath the shroud and the shroud itself. As long as there’s a shroud, the former cannot be helped. But we should question why we didn’t investigate our blind spots, why we overlooked the shroud.

Often writers think of revision as a task grudgingly—or happily—undertaken to perfect our work. We reread our words seeking moments of disconnect for the bits that don’t seem to belong, and we assess their worthiness to the story. We want our work to make sense, so we seek a narrative arc. If something doesn’t propel the narrative or make consistent sense for a character, it falls to the cutting room floor. Smooth out the wrinkles, wash out the stains, turn in the essay, get an A.

But what if we revised revision? What if instead of smoothing out the wrinkles, we held them to a magnifying glass? In this approach, so-called flaws would not to be brushed away but, rather, probed. As writers, artists, and activists, can we approach our work so that revising—that process of looking closely at our work for moments of disconnect—is not a process of glossing over but of examining more closely? Instead of manipulating truth in service of a smooth narrative, we should examine our motives for creating a smooth narrative to begin with. In this light, revision becomes not an act of making something flawless but, rather, making it more whole. As Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. . . This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon.”

Given this approach to revision, what cultural material have we rushed to brush away before truly exploring? In our attempts to move toward equality and understanding, it’s now apparent that we’ve not fully attended to the underlying bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobic ills that this election season oozed to the surface. We have a country half-peopled by those who either resonate with or can overlook narratives of distrust and resentment for “the other.” Although it feels for many that we’ve now taken six decades’ worth of steps back, perhaps the reason we need to do so is because our progressive vision glossed over too many foundational cracks. While we were moving forward, half the country planned a revolt. If we’re committed to walking our talk of inclusion, then we need to hunker down in this new climate to revise our understanding of the United States and build something more tenable.

It was with these thoughts that I have been turning the pages of our tenth issue, which is my last as editor. It appears to me that what we’ve put together here is a multi-layered, multi-genre conversation about gaps in cultural narratives, moments of disconnect or desire for connection, and an attempt to, as Dillard wrote, stalk the gaps. If anything, the eighty-two pieces in this Winter/Spring 2017 issue, from interviews to art to new and translated work in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, point to the value and necessity of open discourse, of reading the white space between words along with the words themselves.

In her interview for our Lunch Special, Maggie Nelson says “every draft is slathered with self-deceptions,” which we must examine in order to get to honesty. In a separate interview, artist Harry Dodge responds to Nelson’s The Argonauts by reminding us that “any piece of art, whether nonfiction or otherwise, is a construction” and asks “whether language is able to do the work of describing fluidity, or anything really.” In his interview, poet Fred Moten talks about how writing should not suppress what he calls the monstrous, the strange, the radically disruptive fundamental aspects of life. And Susan Southard says of Nagasaki, a braided nonfiction narrative about the U.S. bombing in WWII, “I felt it was so important to bring [the survivors], still hidden from view in our country, into visibility.”

This theme of visibility is stitched throughout the issue. We could say the stitches are like sutures, repairing cultural wounds, but the stitches are also like hand-sewn needlepoint, each threaded with its own palette, in its own frame, its own unique picture. Gabo Prize winner Jim Pascual Agustin’s poem Danica Mae is about the recent mass killings in The Philippines. Diana Woods Memorial Prize winner Sarah Pape’s CNF piece Eternal Father & The Other Army brings to light a nuanced experience of depression. Call to Arms, Marine Lieutenant Lisbeth Prifogle’s featured essay, is about the need for publishing “stories that could alleviate the fear, isolation, depression, and anxiety of joining the old world after a deployment.” Grace Lynne’s featured art collection, The Exploration Series, seeks to show “Black culture in a new light, and open people up to a side of my culture that they haven’t seen.”

I could, without reservation, list every single one of the eighty-two pieces in this issue. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, mind-expanding collection, and an honor to publish this one as my last. After three issues as editor, this is a bittersweet goodbye as I now step away from the journal. My studies in the Antioch MFA program and, recently, as a Post-MFA in Pedagogy student are nearly complete, and Lunch Ticket has and always will be student-run. My work leading the editorial and production staff, reading our submissions, developing relationships with our writers and artists, and connecting with literary and art lovers who come to our pages has been humbling, inspiring, and invaluable for my personal growth as a writer and as a woman in this world. Thank you for being here, for sharing your stories, for reading ours.

And take good care,

Arielle Silver
Editor-in-chief

arielle-silver-3_optArielle Silver is a writer and musician. Her work has appeared in BrevityGulf Stream, From Sac, Moment, and Lilith Magazine. In 2016, she was nominated by The Poet’s Billow for a Pushcart Prize and received the Antioch University Los Angeles Library Research Award for her MFA critical thesis, “Wicked, Selfish, and Cruel: An Inquiry into the Stepmother Narrative.” She is currently at work on a memoir about love, childlessness, and stepmothering, a portion of which will be published in a Burning Man anthology in 2017; and an historical novel set in the bebop and burlesque world of New York in the 1940s. She received her MFA from AULA, where she served on Lunch Ticket in various roles from May 2014 through June 2015, and as Editor-in-chief from June 2015 through December 2016. www.ariellesilver.com.

Now Serving Fresh-Baked Cookies

(flash fiction)

I’m making cookies from scratch and I’m confused. But I’m here, cookbook in hand and flour in bowl, pretending to be something I’m not. Because I’m in love with a boy and I’m losing him. He likes girls who cook from scratch, who are serene, who have ponytails that bounce when they walk. And he used to love me, even though I’m a different kind of girl; the kind of girl who curses when she trips, who orders takeout so often the delivery drivers say “what’s up” when they see her at concerts. The kind of girl whose hair is so curly, ponytail holders roll up and away from her hair and fly through the air like a hornet hopped up on nectar. But now when he looks at me, he sees what he’s missing and not what he’s got. And so I will make him love me again by making him cookies. I brought the cookbook with me into the grocery store and spent twenty-two dollars on exotic ingredients like baking soda and vanilla extract. Piling the contents of my cart onto the conveyor belt, I ignored the raised eyebrow from the cashier at the checkout. The one who knows me and knows my typical grocery cart holds makings for sandwiches, cheap wine, jars of spaghetti, and frozen lasagna. Now I am a domesticated tiger, embarrassed to be caught jumping through fire when I used to bite those who tried to tame me. Yet here I am. In love and in the kitchen. The cookies come out of the oven at the exact moment the doorbell rings: the boy is here. A kiss, followed by a hug, then I lead him by the hand to the kitchen. I’m making you cookies, I say. And he smiles the kind of smile you can’t ignore. His grin starts in his heart and dances in his eyes before it comes to rest on his face. He is happy, and he’s happy with me. I am his now, and he is mine and I am not quite myself and I know this and he knows this. But I want to be the kind of girl who is wanted by the kind of boy who now stands in my kitchen. And so I am, and so he does, and so we eat the cookies and so we stay in love for a little while longer.

erica-gerald-mason_optErica Gerald Mason is the author of the poetry collection i am a telescope: science love poems. Her poetry has been published or forthcoming in Silver Birch Press, Blue Lyra Review, Lunch Ticket, Zoetic Press, The Found Poetry Review, and HIV Here & Now Project. She blogs at www.ericageraldmason.com.

Porches

My wife asks me to leave
the porch light on before bed.
I ask if we are expecting
guests; she says it’s to keep
them away. There was a time
a flame in a window was
a welcome mat, a compass
in the dark. Tradition has
a way of unraveling the longer
it lasts. Think candles
to repel the moth; I wonder
how we learned to fear the light
more than its absence. When
I grab the banister and step
without flipping the switch on,
my memory is a stairwell, groaning
under shadow cast by porches—
neighbors inviting me to stay.

Geoff AndersonGeoff Anderson crosses the tracks, the bridge, the floodwall, and the overpass in Columbus, OH. His work is forthcoming or appears in Wherewithal, Outlook Springs, and Up the Staircase, among others.

The Temperature of Islands

(flash fiction)

After her heart attack Barbara returned to the island. She knew very well that the helicopter—if available—would take twenty minutes from the mainland. She went straight to the stoned guy on the beach who did winters in India, and bought a purple sarong.

Barbara sunbathed nude, it was heartening—heartening!and her ropey body soon gleamed. Friends passed. Emmanuel and his poodle-headed partner Nadine from Paris. They were already seamed and brown. The northern Italians with their glorious sons. A waddling Greek woman whose rear was a lopsided adjunct and whose breasts moved as though they were gourds filled with water.

They all asked her how it had been, this first year without Hervé. Did she have plans to move? Had the children been supportive?

Barbara replied that she had had a heart attack. A smallish one—not at all like the one that had thrown Hervé to the ground when he was sitting at Roula’s pouring back raki—but a heart attack nevertheless.

At that, her friends remembered the clumsy display of Hervé’s dying, the useless propping of his head, the lack of final goodbyes, and Roula’s extinction of the music. Barbara watched each of them recompose after this.

But— 

They wanted to say, But are you not afraid? But the helicopter? Do you not remember that drive to the heliport in the dark? The way those imbeciles had almost tipped Hervé’s body onto the rocks?

In fact Barbara did. She smiled at them and rolled over and tanned her bottom.

*     *     *

Barbara dragged herself up to the heliport. This was where she had seen the life leaking out of Hervé, vanishing from his livid face. It was true, the paramedics had levered him unevenly so his body almost slid to the ground; one young bearded man had looked at her apologetically. The other had not.

She stood at the rusty chain wire fence that had been tossed over by the seasons. Growth burst through the concrete slabs, mostly relieved of their colored paint. This was where she had realized Hervé was leaving her. This where she saw that life would blaze through each of them, leaving carcasses and flickering shrines. Barbara thought of Hervé the day before, elbow on the table, trying to entice Emmanuel to invest in the faded discothèque on the hill, or at the least hire Manolis’s fishing vessel that afternoon—when Hervé knew very well that Emmanuel would never leave Nadine alone on the beach. And then, Barbara saw the two of them on their separate beds in the room, each shrouded in greying sheets, Hervé’s farts uncontained.

Barbara’s heart attack had happened on a train crossing Germany. With discomfort, she had stood up to move down the carriage, but found herself wading in water, blind in all but the centre of her eyes, crashing into headrests and shoulders, and landing with an injured face in one man’s lap. At first, they had thought of terrorists, and police charged through looking for youths with knives or guns, until Barbara, whimpering, was surrendered.

Barbara rattled the chain wire fence. She kicked a stone. There were wells on the mountain tops with wooden planks laid over the openings, and these were held in place by abrasive stones. There was a temple of loosened rocks with a font made of a burning black substance that Hervé had said was certainly from a meteorite. There was a white church several peaks away where there were candle stubs on a stand and a powdery square of carpet, and an icon of Saint Gabriel sweeping across a gold frame.

Catherine McNamaraCatherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris at twenty-one to write, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and a semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Her work has been Pushcart-nominated and published in the U.K., Europe, Australia and the U.S.A., in reviews including The Collagist, Literary Orphans, Flash Fiction Magazine, Ambit, Structo, Litro, Wasafiri, Southerly, Two-Thirds North, Short Fiction and Trafika Europe. Catherine lives in Italy.

 

Harry Dodge, Artist

Harry DodgeHarry Dodge is an American sculptor, performer, video artist, and author, whose work crosses genres and mediums, and flows through a variety of philosophical questions while addressing intermediacy, relation, materiality, and the unnamable.

In the early nineties, Dodge was one of the founders of the San Francisco community-based performance space, The Bearded Lady, which served as a touchstone for a pioneering queer DIY literary and arts scene.

His solo and collaborative work has been exhibited at many venues both nationally and internationally, including at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, a solo show entitled Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2013, and Hammer Museum’s 2014 Biennial, Made in L.A.

Dodge’s work is in a variety of collections, including The Museum of Modern Art (NY), and The Hammer Museum (LA). In 2015 he was featured at Wallspace, NY with his solo exhibit, The Cybernetic Fold. Recent group exhibitions include: The Promise of Total Automation at Kunsthalle Wien Austria; a three-person show at London’s The Approach Gallery, Triples: Harry Dodge, Evan Holloway and Peter Shelton; and Routine Pleasures, a show organized by Michael Ned Holte at the MAK Center in Los Angeles.

Dodge co-wrote, directed, edited, and starred in (with Silas Howard) a narrative feature film, By Hook or By Crook, which premiered at Sundance in 2002 and received five Best Feature awards. From 2004 to 2008, Dodge collaborated with video artist Stanya Kahn, and has since made a series of his own videos, including The Time-Eaters, Love Streams, and Mysterious Fires.

Dodge holds an MFA from Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College and is on the faculty of the School of Art at California Institute of the Arts, Program in Art. Harry Dodge is also the partner of the author and academic Maggie Nelson, whose interview is the featured Lunch Special in this issue.

His latest show, The Inner Reality of Ultra-Intelligent Life, is on view through January 8, 2017 at The Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Ca.

Harry Dodge graciously constructed this interview with me via email in October 2016.

Carrie Kellerby: Your art practice has involved a variety of film and video work over the course of your career—including the feature film By Hook or by Crook, and a number of videos including The Time-Eaters, Love Streams, and this year’s Mysterious Fires. One of the recurring characteristics of this work includes the layering of multiple edits. Can you describe your creative process while filming a project, and specifically address your attraction to layering and repetitions?

Harry Dodge: I’m interested in all parts of a work being read, either analytically or viscerally. Layers and repetition can certainly be read as related to my interest in constructedness, or even superposition, simultaneity, non-location, plurality, the multiform elsewhere. I mean I’m a deep materialist and really into thinking through these ideas of everything being kind of interlocked, you know intergalactically entangled.

Everyday Carry, 2015

Everyday Carry, 2015

When I’m scripting, I am happiest making language objects that are complicated and specific. I want the performers to say the words exactly as I’ve written them. I use a lot of non-actors and these folks would never be able to remember everything, so we film with a live (human) prompter, feeding a performer phrase after phrase. I edit out the interstitial material and part of the fun is pressuring my edits with the goal of generating a final performance so smooth and funny that (even though there are hundreds of edits in every minute of video), the performer comes off as preternaturally voluble. I’m a really active director. I’m constantly interrupting, sculpting the performance, so there’s a lot of that stuff that needs to be cut out. That’s part of the liberty I take while directing, right, because I also know that the “joins” (as some editors refer to them) produce meaning. In my last video though, Mysterious Fires, I decided while editing to include some of the informal moments: directing the actor, giggling with one another. In allowing viewers to witness this material, I was able to discuss new subjects like how art arises from sociality, how form arises from flow that is already happening, not from some distinct exalted, estranged art-zone. I thought of it (the inclusion of this material) as a way of re-valuing love, community, affect.

CK: The titles of your work are also very intriguing. Can you discuss the concept of title as it emerges in your work? How do titles work towards or push against terms of categorical definition? Does the title in any way limit the possibilities of what the work can do?

HD: I do the titles last. I always know what the strange, affective truth of my interest was while making a piece. When I title, I’m trying to reify that, while knowingly providing specific registers and references through language. They’re packed little poems—sometimes they even contain fragmented quotations or short jokes. So, yes, there’s a lot to each title. The title might limit, but there is no problem with that at all. In fact I’m trying, with the title, to de-limit a reading, direct a viewer.

CK: Much of your art responds to philosophical theories, yet it doesn’t feel overly intellectual or static; in fact there is a distinct emotional texture to your work. Would you discuss the emotional qualities of your work in general and how theoretic speculation interacts with those qualities?

HD: During my childhood and for the first decade of my career, which included live performance, creative writing, and filmmaking, I was absolutely concerned with addressing emotion. Back then I thought emotionality was the only way to reach people and hold them long enough to communicate. Also relevant: I’ve always had a love for, a devotion to, and a knack for making narrative-based work that generates humor and pathos at once. I think of Richard Pryor here as a sort of magnificent example of that, a big influence. And also these Bette Midler VHS tapes (of her Broadway shows) I hoarded as a kid, which for some reason intermingled in my mind with her stellar, crushing performance as Janis Joplin in that movie, The Rose. There’s this moment, when playing Janis Joplin, she is singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” really slowly and weakly, and then she just collapses. These strange moments shape us forever. Ha ha.

Some people say an artist works on only one question in a career. I absolutely believe I’ve been lucky enough to have two.

In this Hole / Honey Bucket (Consent not to be a Single Being Series), 2015

Right after I was done with By Hook or By Crook, I lost interest in pressing on the possibilities of narrativity/emotionality as my main tool for effecting communication, change, relation. Like a lightning bolt, I suddenly wanted to employ an attention to structure almost exclusively, and sought to have form or flow be the effervescent stew from which experimental vapors arise. I got into theory, science, philosophy, and history, and started experimenting with more poetic forms.

Worth noting: I think that I worked so hard and so long in narrative, and have such a deep love of humor entwined with pathos, that even when I pay no attention to it, it’s still one of the oft-used tools in my box. I still use character, I guess, to deliver inquisitions on structure. My video Love Streams is an example of that, where a performer delivers monologues about how these extension arms are built. (It’s an extended, off-kilter metaphor about quantum entanglement.)

The fact is, even though a lot of the early work was narrative, I’ve been interested in poetics since I was young. I have always liked things that were kind of hanging together but also falling apart at the same time, or being formed in situ. I could feel the reverberations between two words, say, in a poem, much more than in a story and I like the weird echo, all of that energy happening in the space between things. Narrative is so bossy and overwhelming. It’s like the worst kind of narcotic—especially if you want to communicate about structure. That said, I think it’s generative for me to use media and forms that I am suspicious of. I sort of stay irascible. If a thing gets too coherent, “Oh I got to figure out how to knock this back down.” There’s like a fracas that is always on.

I read everyday, before and after studio work. This pleasure is one thread of what I call the erotics of my practice. I also heed physicalized desires (I guess you could call these libidinal urges) during moments of making, or choosing materials. But I don’t understand those zones (libidinal) as distinct from theoretical interests (intellectual)! My point is that I experience these impulses/pleasures as absolutely mutually imbricated, mutually generating. In this way, (bodily saturation with erotic pleasures via extended bouts of thinking) I mean that quite often structures I’ve been researching will, in some way or another show up in the work.

Night Goat, 2013

Night Goat, 2013

CK: Your work also seems to spring from language, particularly when I look at your drawings, paintings, and sculpture. It’s tempting to describe your art as visual writing. Would you describe your relationship with language and how it develops as a process for artistic production?

HD: I have to admit I experience language as a sensory faculty, like little raccoon hands on an acorn—a weird mental haptic. And conversation as one of our options for being together physically, like aural frottage. In my case, as I said, thinking, reading language: they’re full body pleasures, not totally distinct from the feeling of hot sand or a poke in the eye.

I read a lot of theory, a lot of nonfiction. One book leads to another. When I go into the studio, or into a generative mode, I don’t try to make diagrams of what I’ve been reading, and I don’t worry (specifically) about “legibility.” I assume that my cells have been saturated in the information I’ve been thinking about, and I let those “cellular intelligences” go to work. Often the larger organism (one’s whole body) is way ahead of the language-based computations conventionally understood as located in the brain. I like to listen to my whole body talking (as if you could ever do otherwise!)

CK: Your text, The River of the Mother of God: Notes on Indeterminacy, V2. (A work in progress), strikes me as a performative of the whole notion of human indeterminacy, as if it were a philosophical proposition about the aggregation of “possibles” within human experience and the transitional nature of the ephemeral “Thing-in-itself.” One of the many interesting explorations of this piece has to do with relationship—juxtaposition and place. Could you describe how this project began and how you see this kind of work developing for you in the future?

HD: A few things:

  • Maggie [Nelson] was finishing her book, The Argonauts, and I kept reading and advising her to add more theoretical information about indeterminacy, to make it sort of encyclopedic on the subject of flow, continuousness. I had these lists of situations, philosophers, years of research. She would say, “That is your book, not my book.” Or something like that. “You should write that one.”
  • At the same time I had just read the [Hito] Steyerl article, “On Free-Fall,” and felt oddly compelled to connect it to this [Gertrude] Stein essay about how she loves verbs.
  • I had had a show at just that point, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, which I had really worked hard on, but which had been at a museum in Connecticut. Very little personal conversation was generated from that show (#isolated&dejected), and I wanted to do a kind of (social) experiment in which I tried, explicitly and generously, to outline my specific thoughts and interests. I wondered if, in this way, I might be able to connect more certainly, begin conversations: Is language (in its way) a social fabric? A magic carpet that can bridge us (however imperfectly) for long moments?
  • I needed a matrix that could house this series of observations, collected research. Implicit in a discussion of place, or orientation, is relation. In a discourse on poetics of relation, by definition you have difference, encounter, verbs, and so the notion of action (change) becomes a fulcrum. Using orientation as a kind of theme, River of the Mother of God could fold and flower from that point, or maybe that condition. Rather than being borne solely by words introduced as symbols, the ideas could slide against the form (as the form) and make meaning in that way as well.

CK: In this textual collage, language is the medium for artistic exploration, but it is also the subject of the exploration, suggesting a parallel with the way our bodies deliver the perception of experience as embodied beings. What do you see at the possibilities and/or limitations in which working with, or transforming, language affects the way humans experience one another?

HD: I mean, let’s face it, there a lot of ways of using language, so what are we talking about? Poetics, road signs? And while language is amazing, it’s not everything. Remembering that it’s not a zero-sum game is half the battle. (One of the things discourse can do—ecstatically—is augment, knit, even secrete, human sociality.)

That said, I acknowledge that language teaches us, by its apparent specificity, to expect mastery, crave mastery. I mean that’s cultural too: injunctions, coercive at best, which seek to manage, compress, excise specificity from our otherwise infinite or fractal-tastic experiences.

Supernumerary Phantom Limbs and The Comedy of Reciprocal Interference, 2013

Supernumerary Phantom Limbs and The Comedy of Reciprocal Interference, 2013

The pressure, the sinking feeling that the “real” should be quantifiable, navigable, and describable in language is a place where we flounder. I might be looking at some art and bringing my attention to bear on the piece and that bodily experience is in some real sense, proliferative, chaotic, maybe even infinite. There’s something about the pressure of the rational, these gridded, clacking protuberances exploded off of the Enlightenment, the worst parts of Humanism, and the history of that, that needs to be re-thought. We have this devaluation, this amputation of all kinds of bodily experiences, or what I call non-language knowings. It’s forcing a sort of stultifying binary, which is “This is rational or irrational” rather than, “I know this thing by this other set of parameters—one of myriad ways of knowing.” It’d be cool if we didn’t have to go straight to the word “irrational,” which has a specific connotation.

Relevant here: poetics as a way of addressing this unknowable. And maybe this is obvious, but check out Adorno’s theory of “Non-Identity” as outlined in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. She defines it as what’s left over after you make a concept, “the preponderance of the object.” Here’s a passage from Bennett:

Non-Identity is the name Adorno gives to that which is not subject to knowledge…it is a presence that acts upon us: we knowers are haunted he says, by a painful, nagging feeling that something’s being forgotten or left out. This discomfiting sense of the inadequacy of representation remains no matter how refined or analytically precise one’s concepts become. ‘Negative Dialectics’ is the method Adorno designs to teach us how to accentuate this discomforting experience and how to give it a meaning. When practiced correctly, negative dialectics will render the static buzz of nonidentity into a powerful reminder that “objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder” and thus that life will always exceed our knowledge and control. A sort of ethical project par excellence, as Adorno sees it, is to keep remembering this and learn how to accept it. Only then can we stop raging against a world that refuses to offer us the ‘reconcilement’ that we, according to Adorno, crave.

So poetics (language-based or otherwise) feverishly practiced, is a way we can attempt the impossible work of addressing that which is unknowable—encountering affect. And worth noting: this isn’t a vague or general infinity. We’re talking about the proliferative filigree of specificity, Planck space even, difference par excellence. What Edouard Glissant calls “Relation” or “totality.”

CK: In addition to paintings, writings, and video work, you also have a body of sculptural work. Can you describe what inspires you to work in one medium rather than another?

HD: Each of these modes of approach allows a different tonal mode of communicating. Also each of the media institutes a different sensory and bodily grid in terms of the workday. I’m sitting, standing, typing, video-editing, texting friends to help make video, sawing, shopping, sanding, drilling, dragging charcoal around, etc. (I like to mix it up.) Also worth noting is my belief that each of the media talks back to non-art things in our world—instance by instance. E.g., if I make a video, it’s talking back to Youtube, or Facebook, or iPhone cameras. If I make a sculpture it’s talking back to bodies in space, object acquisitiveness, food, nature, the machinic.

The word drip or droop: they both have a kind of register, so to pull up an instance of the unexpected (for example) using a word, is a different challenge than to rustle an uncanny construction into a sculpture. Drawing is wry and reverberative in distinct ways. I’m interested in all of that.

Most of my video work is structured around the power of language rather than images. Which, as you may know, is considered a video sin. It’s like I ride a figurative horse into abstraction—I mean my interests are quite structural in a weird way.

…language teaches us, by its apparent specificity, to expect mastery, crave mastery.

I often think of things in terms of shapes, forms, and flows, so it’s odd that I employ so much character—emotion, as you call it, or even comedy, but for me those things, if I complicate them just enough they start to break down as signifiers, hopefully. They atomize a little.

CK: In the movie By Hook or by Crook, the character you play, Valentine, finally finds his birth mother with the help of his newly found friend, Shy. After reading Maggie Nelson’s book, The Argonauts, I discovered that this is a fragment from your own life. She describes your discovery of your own birth family in a way that feels like a continuation of the movie, as if the book was one piece in the many time-space continuums of Harry Dodge.

HD: That’s funny, I love that idea. That this character lives in different authors’ minds at discoherent times, coming and going in various voices and dimensions.

While this is true almost whole-cloth as an observation, it’s important to remind here that any piece of art, whether nonfiction or otherwise, is a construction. I mean—I think you’re all over that when you say the word “fragment” here, but to me it’s absolutely interesting. I’m not sure absolute “nonfiction representation” is even possible, right? But that’s not a lament on my part. Honestly, it’s a miracle that anything like language is even possible. I tend to view it positivistically. But sure, a couple of otherwise canny readers have asked me, “What’s it like for someone so uncomfortable with language to have a writer for a partner?” E.g., there is this structuring device in The Argonauts, which limns a conversation Maggie and I had when we first met about whether language is able to do the work of describing fluidity, or anything really. We take sides in the first part of the book, but the binary unravels. This thing is perhaps calcified in the book for the sake of navigability—and it works. It’s social—which is one of the boons of language—but not exactly factual.

Having said all of that, I want to add that the the notion of privacy (and it’s true that I’m exceptionally private) strikes me as functioning in a register or sphere that is actually fairly distinct from the machine of presenting one’s creative endeavors as social and communicative mediating objects. You see what I mean? One thing is crafted to cause or augment sociality (conversation piece)—another thing is simply the wrestling of control over moments of imminent exposure. Control-consent seems to be the hyphenated fulcrum under that particular teeter-totter. In other words, I’m much less distressed when I’m the one making decisions about how I’m represented. It’s not called exposure at that point. It’s called art.

CK: How do you view the making of art in terms of cultural dialogue? What kinds of responsibilities do you think artists have, if any, outside of the art world?

Mental Field All Sides, 2012

Mental Field All Sides, 2012

HD: Art, the word, the practice, protects and cultivates not only the imaginary—which alongside the agency of matter = potency—but all manner of things that defy instrumentalization by capitalism. Art (the word and practice) points at (and enjoins) all the stuff that can’t be quantified in any other way: the unnamable, the unknowable, affective inner experience, etc. The teeming open system that Glissant calls “totality” from which he subtracts “unity.” He says—and I agree—that there are things we can never know, and that “consequently we imagine it through a poetics; this imaginary realm provides the full-sense of all these always decisive differentiations.” Here, to me, poetics is a synonym for art and experimentalism in general.

Now, as social-ethical beings, citizens, friends, lovers, neighbors (aside from being artists, whose tools are fevered, demented, and poetic, and whose works should not be judged in terms linked to efficacy, transparency, or coherence) we’ve a great responsibility to be out in, discovering, entangling with, and critiquing our world, worlds.

As an aside, I do read art (not judge it) finally, each time, in terms of its contemporary relevance—invoking resonant forms (from outside of the gallery) and trying to get a sense of the relationship(s) the artist might be having to those rhyming supra-art situations/forms. But I wouldn’t extrapolate this habitual intellectualized art-reading protocol into a sort of cogent, articulated “political” injunction for art, in which a kind of experimentalism or opacity is pressured to causality in knowable ways.

CK: There is an additive dynamic to your work—a this-and-this—as opposed to this-or-that. Do you believe that identity is potentially everything that one accepts it to be?

HD: I think our identities are always on the move. Everything is always on the move. The trick is to allow ourselves to heed alternate forms of epistemological sense-making. (It’s hard to see “clearly” that thing in motion.) So identity—which is a word I almost never use any more!—doesn’t only accrue, it also winnows and alchemizes continuously (being constantly affected by every other thing). As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m very interested in the idea of a plural subject and sort of keep fondling a specific notion of multiplicity and interconnection (Relation) that is fecund, replete, with difference. In other words, homogeneity doesn’t have to be the final result of permeability. Intense articulation is not only possible, but (I suppose) inevitable. E.g., #Callmemyname.

As Glissant says, “In Relation the whole is not the finality of its parts: for multiplicity in totality is totally diversity. […] Diversity, the quantifiable totality of every possible difference, is the motor driving universal energy…” 

CK: And finally, what are you reading now that might be inspiration for future work?

HD: I just started looking into what they’re calling software studies. I’m about 100 pages into The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty by Benjamin Bratton. Also into A Prehistory of the Cloud by Tung-Hui Hu. As I said, I’m a deep materialist. Lately, I’ve been (successfully) trying to alchemize/transform my neo-Luddite/technophobic thinking habits into a more dynamic understanding of materiality through reading intensely on machine consciousness and the philosophy of (the infrastructure of) network technologies and computation. The accidental megastructure. Wow, man. These last few months, it’s like I got a new brain.

Carrie KellerbyCarrie Kellerby has a BFA in Art History, a BA in Creative Writing, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, and the advisor and co-editor of the Arts and Graphics department at Lunch Ticket. She teaches writing at Colorado Mesa University, dabbles in paint and yoga, and spends way too much time gardening.

Giant Slayer

July is obscenely hot, but the air conditioning broke two weeks ago and their mother won’t let them leave the house, so they suffer quietly. Felix sits on the plastic-covered couch, poking at the remote control with his toes, flipping from Maury to PBS to the station that only ever plays novellas. There is thin film of sweat on the bottom of his foot that streaks across the remote, but he doesn’t wipe it off because his mother is in the next room. She has been there since last night, tracing the gold rim of a saucer and staring at the remaining sludge in her coffee cup.

Felix leaves the television humming lowly and crosses over to the kitchen. It looks like his mother hasn’t moved at all, not since his father left last night. His father had careened out of the house, swearing rapidly at his mother, who sat with her body bowed at the kitchen table. Felix had heard them; he has never remembered a time when he didn’t crouch at the top of the stairs, tracking the shape of his father’s angry strides toward the door. His father never seems to leave for very long; a few days, enough to keep his mother sour-faced and silent in his absence, and then jubilant when he reappears.

The kitchen is in disarray. The window over the sink is cracked open slightly, letting in flies. There’s one resting by his mother’s ring finger, and she doesn’t slap at it. She doesn’t even seem to notice it.

“Ma,” Felix says. She doesn’t look at him. “Ma,” Felix says again, and he feels angry. He has a mountain of rage within him for his mother, who lets the trash pile up whenever their father leaves. It makes him want to rush at her, to shove her out of her chair and watch her hit the cracked linoleum. He wants to hurt her, but instead fidgets in the doorway, chewing on a hangnail.

Randi, who has a way of walking so closely and quietly behind someone so that no one could feel her there, says, “Jesus Christ, is she still there?” She smells like dry smoke and tangerines; he can see the faint orange from the fruit staining her nail beds. Like Felix, Randi bites her nails as if she has only ever wanted to devour herself. Their father slaps at her hands whenever she puts them in her mouth; Felix remembers, faintly, their father putting chili powder on what was left of them and saying, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you” as she squirmed. She hadn’t cried but instead had sat, sulking, in the bathroom all night with the door cracked slightly open but refusing to let anyone in.

When Randi would still let him touch her, he would press his own fat fingers into them and try to rub the marks away. They had only ever seemed like they could not be fixed one time, last year at the end of May.

Their father had ignored her, except to pound on the door every so often and laugh uproariously when Randi jumped in surprise.

“Yeah,” Felix says reluctantly. He feels almost guilty about telling Randi, as if their mother’s lack of movement should have been a secret between the two of them. Any other day, their mother would’ve been shuffling in time to the radio, or snapping at Felix for his hourly sojourn to the pantry for snacks, or hissing at their father through the telephone.

Randi rolls her eyes and pushes past him; Felix pinches his nose shut against the mixture of sweat and citrus. He thinks about pinching the roll of skin peeking over the waistband of her shorts and twisting it, or telling her to take a shower. It used to be a game: the two of them, baiting each other and wrestling on the thin rug in the living room. He would kick her under the table at dinner; she would wait until he had fallen asleep in front of the television and shove her fingers up his nose. It was familiar, and warm, and his way of knowing she loved him. But Randi doesn’t touch him much anymore. Felix chews on his hangnail and spits it out through the gap in his front teeth, thinks about asking his sister if she still loves him, or at least likes him a little. He feels the way he did when he rode a rollercoaster for the first time: unbalanced and nauseated.

“Randi?” Felix asks.

“Shut up, stupid.”

Randi braces her forearms on the table and stares directly at the crooked part in their mother’s hair. She raises her hand, as if to smooth down the stray hairs, but instead lets it fall down by her side. “Mom,” she snaps, impatient. “Mom, get it together.” Their mother doesn’t move. Randi leans forward, puts her face directly in front of their mother’s and says, “Sarah, get the fuck up.”

Their mother looks up when Randi slams her hands on the table; even from across the room Felix can see the heavy skin under her eyes. The dull bruised color matches the chipping paint on her fingernails. “Miranda, baby,” she says tiredly, “please give your mother a break.” Felix watches Randi’s face contort, the skin wrinkling into a whirlpool of fury. She’s going to start screaming any minute. Randi, he thinks, looks just like their mother. He’s seen the pictures of their mother when she was Randi’s age; heavily curled hair flying in every direction and the mole by her mouth that she had removed when she got married. She had had a gap between her teeth as well, one to match Felix’s own. That had been corrected too.

Randi’s darker, though, her hair kinkier than their mother’s and the mole hovers by her mouth like a defiant period. Their father had offered to get it removed as well; Randi had sworn at him so loudly that the neighbors had called. Felix remembers the story his father had told around the dinner table at Thanksgiving; Randi had thought her name was Negrita until she had entered school, had spelled it as “Negrita” in proud letters on all her kindergarten tests until the teacher had pulled her aside and gently showed her how to write out “Miranda” in cursive. Their father had laughed when she had come home, her face contorted in rage. He had never once called her Miranda, as their mother would, or Randi.

“Sarah,” Randi says, faking patience, “what’s the matter?” She props her chin upon her fists and bats her eyes at their mother. “You got boy problems? You gotta man that ain’t shit, Sarah?” Felix nearly chokes and shoves his whole hand in his mouth so he won’t disturb them. He’s not supposed to be doing that (“Babies do that, you’re not a baby anymore”, their father told him), but he isn’t sure of what to do.

She is speaking in the sort of voice that sounds cocky, but Felix has learned that means she wants to cry instead. Felix hasn’t learned how to speak like that yet; he still cries when he means to shout, sometimes.

The insolence in the air is thick and strange to Felix; he has never explicitly communicated anything to their mother that was not in the form of “yes” or “please.”

Their mother doesn’t look amused. “Miranda. Go away.” She claws a hand through her hair, tries to smooth it back down but it doesn’t go so easily; there is too much heat for that. Their mother haunts the salons downtown when the blow-outs that she gets religiously start to unwind themselves; they usually last long enough for their father to smooth the thatch of straight hair over her forehead, pleased and smiling. “And don’t call me Sarah,” she says, half-heartedly. She hauls herself out of the chair  and walks over to the mirror hanging over the sink. “I’m your mother,” she continues, staring at her reflection, “so show some respect, Negrita.”

Randi stiffens. Felix watches her hands clench into themselves. He knows they will leave half-moons cut into her palms; when Randi would still let him touch her, he would press his own fat fingers into them and try to rub the marks away. They had only ever seemed like they could not be fixed one time, last year at the end of May—but that had only been once, and the red semicircles had faded eventually. “Don’t call me that,” Randi says. Her voice is soft, but it sounds as if she is shouting. It’s unusual for Randi to not yell when she wants to; this, Felix, thinks is her trying to be kind. It’s not easy on her body; she appears to be vibrating in place. She looks, he thinks, hurt, and it makes the back of his neck itch. He rubs it against the rough grain of the wood behind him, hopes idly that the skin will catch against a stray piece of the paneling and tear. Not badly enough to call the ambulance, but enough to bleed uncomfortably and have Randi and his mother stop circling each other like feral cats and instead pay attention to him.

Their mother half-turns, her eyes flashing. Felix shrinks against the doorway, curls his body half into himself. “Miranda,” she says testily, “I’ll call you whatever I like when you’re acting like that.” She picks up the hair hanging heavy and damp on her neck and piles it on top of her head, reaching for bobby pins to secure it. She motions towards Randi, who always seems to have at least six of them in her tight curls. Randi pulls them slowly out of her hair and hands them instead to Felix, who fumbles with them and drops one on the floor. He feels certain that he will disturb something important if he bends down to pick it up; Randi will gut him like a fish, most likely.

“You’re impossible,” Randi says, stalking away from her. Her voice is still low, but crackling with a sort of electricity that Felix never quite hears when she’s talking to their father. She is speaking in a sort of voice that sounds cocky, but Felix has learned that means she wants to cry instead. Felix hasn’t learned how to speak like that yet; he still cries when he means to shout, sometimes. His voice still cracks, sounding trembling and feminine during every fight he has ever had. Felix has never seen Randi cry, but he imagines her doing it now, becoming soft and girlish in a way only he has known himself to be. It feels foreign in his mind; he has no earthly idea of what it would look like. He has only ever seen Randi angry, Randi hitting below the belt, Randi laughing, just a touch too cruelly—but there is one moment, nearly buried in the back of his mind of last May, when he’d uncurled Randi’s fingers from her palm and her eyes had looked large and liquid in her thin face. He didn’t see any tears, but instead listened to her shallow breathing, the whispered repetition of Felix, I—Felix, I—oh god, oh god—

The door bangs open at the back entrance. Their father looms in the doorway, beaming at them all, as if they had all grouped together to cheer at his arrival. Randi is frozen halfway down the hallway; the only possible movement Felix can see are her eyes, which move rapidly from their father’s presence to the ceiling, as if she’s asking God for help. Felix thinks about stretching out a hand to her and smoothing down the riotous curls at the back of her head, but their father pins him with a stare so mocking that the action dies in his head. He fingers the bobby pins nervously and watches his father travel over the expanse of Randi’s body—the shorts, rolled twice at the waistband, the curve of her shoulder peeking upwards from a too-big shirt, the fragile bra-strap resting against her clavicle.

Randi’s eyes are impossibly huge in her face. They look like the tiniest galaxies Felix has ever seen.

Like Felix, Randi bites her nails as if she has only ever wanted to devour herself.

“Negrita,” their father says into the still air, “what the hell are you wearing?” He takes one step towards them, and reaches his hand across the space to touch the pad of his finger against the small strip of Randi’s dark stomach. Felix watches his father’s nail scrape slightly against her navel; Randi jerks backwards so quickly that she nearly falls over. “Go get changed,” their father says, and Randi pivots, her arm brushing against Felix’s own body. He thinks he feels her squeeze at his wrist for just a half a second before she runs upstairs, leaving the soft scent of citrus behind her like a coda. The click of her bedroom door echoes, as does the sharp sound of her lock sliding into place.

Their father smiles at him, sharp and toothy. “Women,” he says, laughing, and heads upstairs after her. Felix tucks the bobby pins into his pocket, watching his mother scramble around the kitchen, nearly throwing dishes into the sink. She holds a hand out frantically for the pins, her hand all but twitching. “Give them to me, Felix,” she says desperately. Felix watches the lines in her face shift with agitation, wonders why she even bothers dressing up for their father. “Baby,” she says, going for sweetness and just barely missing it, “please—please—”

There is a faint purpling around her temple that has all but faded into her skin. It’s roughly the shape of Spain, which he had studied in class so many months ago and had been seen, unfortunately, by the whole grade when his mother had picked him up from school. Later, one of his classmates had asked him on the way home from school if it was true if all Latinos beat their wives, their mouth a half-moon of delight. Felix had known the words to deny this, how to make it sound apologetic the way his mother did when people spoke in Spanish to her. “No habla,” he had heard her say over and over again, in front of his father’s disdainful eye, half-mumbled in embarrassment. He had heard his mother offer halting Spanish to his father just once–he hadn’t seen his face but had, instead, pictured it curled in revulsion.

Felix fingers the pins in his pocket and watches her face go slack in the same way that Randi’s never does. Felix is more than aware of the easiness that would come with helping his mother pin up her hair while his father is upstairs, but every time he blinks he sees Randi’s contorted face behind his eyelids.

“Ma,” he says uncertainly, but it’s too late—there is, almost instantly, the long, lanky figure of his father in the kitchen with his dimples on display. Felix’s father is handsome, he knows, but in a way that eclipses everything. The sharp cheekbones of his face are almost oppressive, as is the way he reaches towards his mother’s cheek and touches a knuckle to her cheek. His mother does not flinch, but Felix can tell by the tightening of her mouth that she wants to. They have all heard the whisperings from their neighbors: even as the women giggle as his father walks by, he knows that they keep their shutters closed tight.

“Hey, my girl,” his father says easily. He combs her hair over the bruise on her forehead, dropping a kiss down beside it. His father’s eyes catalogue the faint wrinkles in her shirt, the coffee cup on the table, the dishes piling in the sink, but he stills smiles widely enough. “Hello, Felix,” he says, holding out a fist. Felix taps it gently with his own, feels oddly as if he is betraying someone. Upstairs, he hears Randi’s window softly click shut, the nearly inaudible sound of her foot pressing against the sill and allowing her to lever herself outside.

Felix feels himself beginning to sweat heavily. He places his fist back into his mouth, his front teeth sinking into the skin. His father slaps at it almost immediately; his fist slips from his lips, catching against his teeth and leaving a scrape that doesn’t bleed but instead throbs under the skin. “Felix,” his father says testily, “are you a baby?”

“No.”

“No what?”

“No, I’m not a baby.”

His father leans in close, pinches his nostrils shut until Felix coughs, fidgeting in place but unwillingly to step away entirely. “Then,” his father says tightly, “don’t act like a fucking baby.” Felix feels, unsurprisingly, the urge to burst into tears. He’s twelve and tries not to cry so much anymore, but it’s difficult and he nearly has to bite clean through his lip to manage it.

In the heat of July, Felix feels his heart break. It makes less of a difference than he thought it would.

His mouth is open now, gasping for air, and he lets out a noise that sounds so weak that his father lets go in disgust, wiping his hand on his jeans. Before Felix pivots and runs, he sees his mother’s face at the back of the kitchen, her hair loose and her large eyes looking blank and heavy. She looks, Felix thinks, like someone who is used to this, and has grown to find a strange comfort in it all.

Outside, the air has turned even thicker with humidity. Felix has never run in his life—not in gym class, not in the one field day when his father had come to and sat awkwardly in the worn-out bleachers—but he does now. He runs with a hand on his stomach, as if he is going to give birth. He does feel like he might; a combination of exhaustion and the look of Randi’s face when their father’s nail had dipped briefly into the curve of her navel. The distaste that Felix has for himself makes him want to push himself, to punish himself for everything he does not know. It is so difficult for him to be brave, to grow his own courage, to fight the way he knows his father does. His father has never been particularly kind, has never been able to be sweet like his mother, but he isn’t afraid of anything. Felix is so certain of this, has been told time and time again about how his father fought to get them into this neighborhood with its colorful shutters and acclaimed schools, had fought other men who wanted to date his mother.

Even Randi fights sometimes, when the other boys corner him after school and pretend to play the drums on his protruding stomach, or when the girls ask him slyly if he and Randi have different fathers, if they’ve ever met them or seen them on the news. He is incapable of hitting anyone—he is so unwilling to hurt—but she still teaches him to how to throw a punch afterwards, her fingers curling around his and forcing him to make a fist.

Felix feels as if he is being torn in two different directions, as if his body will split open if he stops running. His whole body aches. He can’t remember ever feeling this awful; not even after the string of nightmares he had after Randi had nearly cried, dreams where her eyes were pecked open by the blackbirds that sat on their lawn and their father refused to pay for corrective surgery and instead put cherry pits in them. It had been bizarre; he had woken up covered in a thick layer of sweat and forced himself to walk down the hall to his sister’s room. Randi had let him sleep in her bed. But just once. Just that one time.

She had tucked his head between her jaw and neck, and whispered the fairytale she’d been covering in class called “Jack the Giant Slayer”; a more gruesome story of villains tumbling to the depths of the earth, of giants being felled by the virtuous and never returning. Any blustering villain Randi created in her stories died: there was a never a sequel in which they came back for revenge, they all stayed They had dug a pit in the yard so similar to the one Jack had made for Cormoran the giant; their father had stumbled in it one evening and bawled for their mother to come get him. They’d heard him cursing at her through the night, had seen the worn shape of their mother’s body holding out a hand for him to climb out, wedding ring glinting in the the little daylight that was left. “Bags,” he’d heard him snap, and subsequently seen his mother recoil as if she’d been slapped.

Randi had laughed from where they had been huddled in the bushes, her hand squeezing his. He hadn’t heard her laugh since then; he thinks that maybe Randi had buried her desire to laugh last May, when she had started to lock her door at all times and walked around with her fists clenched. Come to think of it, his mother doesn’t laugh either, even though she has the little lines by her mouth that indicates she used to, probably often, probably with her mouth open to show off that canyon-sized gap between her teeth. She doesn’t even laugh when their aunt Anita drives over to visit, although her body always moves like she wants to. Now, no one laughs but his father, who seems to do it almost constantly, with more than a little touch to it that makes it feel as if you aren’t quite in on the joke. It rings hollow around the house, sharp and unwelcome: he has seen Randi jump when their father strides chuckling from room to room, he has seen his mother drop plates and then collect them hurriedly, murmuring apologies even if their father is not home.

In the heat of July, Felix feels his heart break. It makes less of a difference than he thought it would.

Imaani CainImaani Cain was born in California, raised in Connecticut, and currently lives in Massachusetts. She is a graduate from University of Connecticut who serves on the editorial board for Talking Writing as well as being involved in miscellaneous projects. Her work has appeared in Mannequin Haus, Gone Lawn Journal, Bird’s Thumb, and other publications.

 

Small Packages

Paul hates talking on the phone so Connie’s the one who calls his daughter-in-law once a month to catch up. She doesn’t mind calling Vicky. She likes hearing about the grandkids growing up too fast in the new house in Simi Valley where they’ve never been invited. Emily’s ten and Noah is almost eight.

“He’s right here if you’d like to say hello.” Connie holds out the phone but when Paul shakes his head no she puts it back in her ear. “He says to give the kids a hug.”

“We’re taking the RV up to Santa Barbara this weekend for Noah’s soccer tournament,” Vicky says. “My parents are coming with us.”

“How nice,” Connie says. “Maybe we could meet up with you guys somewhere.”

“Sure,” Vicky says. “I’ll talk to Robert and let you know.”

Her voice carries through the receiver and Paul rolls his eyes, slides open the screen door to the balcony and goes outside. Connie can predict the future. They won’t hear back from Vicky or Robert and then they’ll see pictures of the other grandparents on Facebook.

When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence.

“I found a band for Paul’s birthday,” she tells Vicky. His sixtieth is coming up and she’s talked him into a party at the Elks Lodge. She’s hired a taco truck and Trina, her best friend from work, is baking a cake. “They sound exactly like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”

“Paul’s going to love that,” Vicky says. “Robert too.”

Tom Petty is one thing Paul and Robert have in common. When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence. Men can be like that, Connie supposes. Maybe there’s nothing really wrong. Maybe whatever it is will work itself out.

She watches the sun sink through the black web of electrical wires and palm fronds behind their apartment building and smells garlic from their neighbors cooking dinner downstairs and the sticky-sweet scent of the joint Paul has just lit out on the patio. She wishes he’d quit. He’s already a quiet man and getting stoned doesn’t help his conversational skills.

They haven’t been married long, thirty-four months next week. She believes in celebrating every milestone and she’s got Paul in the habit too. He’ll stop by the Mini-Mart to buy her flowers and a card. She’ll pick up something special to eat on her way home from the nursing home where she works. She’s never been much of a cook, not like Paul’s first wife, Sheila.

Connie was married before too, a long time ago. Her first husband died young, in the accident she tries to forget but can’t help remembering every time she looks at herself in the mirror. She’ll be fifty-eight next year and almost made peace with her face and the fact that she never had children. When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

“They coming to the party?” Paul asks when Connie joins him on the patio.

“I think so.” The sun disappears behind the San Gabriel Mountains. She imagines a photograph of the grandkids with Paul, something she can frame and put on top of the dresser in their bedroom. Someone else could take the picture so she can be in it too, as long as she’s in the back and slightly out of focus.

*     *     *

The night of Paul’s party is warm for October and the air-conditioning at the Elks Lodge takes a while to cool the room down. The guests eat tacos out in the courtyard. Robert and Vicky and the grandkids are the last to arrive. Robert shakes Paul’s hand and glances over at a table piled with gift bags and cards. “I have something for you I didn’t want to bring,” he says. “I’ll get it to you soon.”

When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

 Robert and Vicky go inside with the grandkids and sit down at an empty table near the stage. Connie wonders why they don’t mingle. It’s hard to believe they’re shy. Vicky sells real estate; surely she’s good at conversation. Robert’s an investment broker, he makes his living convincing clients he knows what he’s talking about. They’re a little overdressed for this crowd. Robert wears a silk shirt and Vicky has on a linen sheath and three strings of pearls. Connie means to go talk to them but Trina needs plates for her cake and someone else wants to know where the bathroom is. She looks around for Paul later, planning to get a picture of him with the grandkids but the lead singer from the band asks her to unlock the door behind the stage so they can bring in their equipment.

One of Paul’s cousins is sitting with Vicky when Connie returns with the key. They have empty wine glasses in front of them and don’t notice Connie heading behind the stage towards the back door. Robert’s turned away to talk to the cousin’s husband and Emily and Noah stare down at their phones.

“Connie’s eyes make me nervous,” Vicky tells the cousin. “I can never tell if she’s looking at me or not.”

It’s not like Connie’s never heard this kind of thing before though it’s usually from strangers and not from family. She can’t remember the cousin’s name which is not like her at all. Remembering names is one of her strong points.

“Grandma Connie’s creepy-looking,” Noah says.

“She’s not our grandmother,” Emily says in her clear, young voice. “She’s only Grandpa’s wife.”

The door to a van slides open behind the building and someone knocks. Connie’s feet are blocks of cement in her uncomfortable heels.

“That’s enough,” Robert says. “Show some respect.”

“You don’t need to yell at them,” Vicky says.

Connie doesn’t realize she’s been holding her breath until she exhales and finds she can move her feet after all. She swings the door open and the band brings their equipment inside.

Later, when she cuts the cake, she makes sure Robert gets a corner piece. Vicky says she just wants a taste. Connie cuts a small slice and dumps it on a plate, frosting side down. Since no one is watching, she spits on her finger and cleans off the knife, flicking the cake debris to the side of the plate with her thumb. She sucks the frosting off her fingers. Her fingertips are slightly purple from the way the red and blue Happy Birthday Paul letters have bled into the white frosting.

“Vicky,” she says, holding out the plate. “Is this a small enough piece?”

*     *     *

“We never got a photo of us with the grandkids,” Connie says later as they lie in bed. “They left early.”

“I’m surprised they came,” Paul says. “It’s a long drive for them.”

“It’s your birthday. Of course they came.”

“I could have been a better father.”

Paul’s said this before. “You’re a different man now.”

“I worked all the overtime I could get and sat on a bar stool every night until closing time. Robert’s lucky Sheila had enough sense to divorce me.”

Connie finds the place under his arm where her head fits perfectly. “What do you think his gift is?”

“I don’t know.” He pulls her closer. “Something too big to fit in the car, maybe.”

“Something nice to look forward to.”

*     *     *

Paul’s back goes out the week after his party. He can barely sit much less drive and he has to lay off work for a while. He worries about the loss of his paycheck even though Connie tells him not to. She makes enough at the nursing home to cover the rent although there’s no health insurance or retirement plan.

A month goes by and Paul seems to have forgotten about Robert’s gift. Connie hasn’t. She decides to forgive what was said, putting the blame on too many glasses of wine, and calls Vicky to check in.

“When can we get together?” she asks.

Vicky itemizes their activities. Emily has cheer practice on Wednesday, guitar lessons on Friday. Noah plays soccer on Mondays and Thursdays and his games take up the entire weekend.

“It’s a lot,” Vicky says. “I worry sometimes it’s too much for them.”

“Kids need time to be kids, I guess.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Vicky’s voice sharpens. “Let them stay home alone and play video games? I’m closing on three houses right now, and Robert’s under a lot of pressure at work.”

“Maybe you could take some time off.”

“My job’s not the problem. You don’t understand. You’ve never had to juggle kids and a career.”

“You’re right,” Connie says. “I’d like to understand.”

“I love my job. And the kids are fine. I’m just tired. I’m sorry. I should let you go.”

“Robert mentioned he had something special for Paul,” she says and waits.

“I’m not sure we’ll be down there anytime soon,” Vicky says after a moment. “Maybe you could pick it up next time you’re in the area.”

As if they’d ever be in the area. It’ll take hours for them to drive back and forth to the Simi Valley from Santa Ana. Even though Vicky’s probably hoping she’ll drop the subject, Connie can be persistent when she needs to be. She’s simply holding Robert to his promise.

“What would be a good day for you?”

“I’ll need to check my calendar.”

“I can wait. How about next Tuesday? Didn’t you say Tuesdays are good for you?”

“Did I?” Vicky’s annoyed. “We don’t get home until after five-thirty.”

“We’ll see you then.” Connie hangs up before Vicky can say another word.

“They want us to come up there,” she tells Paul later when they set up the folding tables in front of the television.

“You mean to their house?”

“Tuesday night,” she says, putting down plates of microwaved macaroni and cheese. “They get home from work around five-thirty.”

“You know how much traffic there’ll be at five-thirty?”

“I don’t mind driving.”

I mind. Robert promised he’d bring the gift to me.”

“They’re busy. It’ll be nice to spend time with the grandkids. See the new house.”

They eat and watch television for a while without speaking. “Maybe we could sleep in their RV,” Paul says during a commercial.

She knows he’s kidding. “Let’s splurge and get a motel. We can always cancel it at the last minute if we need to.”

*     *     *

Every time Connie has to pass a truck Tuesday afternoon, she murmurs part of the rosary and grips the steering wheel, feeling her shoulders hunch tight towards her ear lobes. Twice she has to get off the freeway because the lane ends and she can’t get over. Paul puts “Free Falling” by Tom Petty on the CD player. She asks if he wouldn’t mind turning it down. She needs to concentrate.

They still arrive at Robert’s house too early. It’s a huge place, three-car garage, basketball court on the side. A dog barks behind the cinderblock wall. No one is home. They get out of the car and walk around, stretch their legs. It’s hot. Robert and Vicky finally get home around six o’clock, kids in the back seat. Vicky and Robert go upstairs. Paul and Connie sit on the couch and watch the grandchildren watch television.

“How’s school?” Paul asks Emily.

She shrugs and stares at the television like she’s hypnotized. Connie sees Noah take secretive glances at her face.

“I was in an accident a long time ago,” she says.

“I know,” he says.

“It doesn’t hurt or anything. It’s just a scar.”

“Oh,” he says, staring at her openly now. “I scored a goal last week.”

“How about if we come see you play sometime?” Paul asks.

“That’d be okay.” Noah grins. He’s missing a front tooth.

Paul squeezes her hand.

Robert comes downstairs and says he’s taking them all out to dinner. Vicky’s right behind him in a cloud of perfume and an angry expression. Connie and Paul follow them in their car to a Mexican place. The food’s all right but the kids are antsy and Vicky’s not in a good mood. “It’s hard for us on a school night,” she says. “The kids still have homework.”

Paul limps as they walk back to the car after dinner. “My back’s killing me.”

She almost suggests they go straight to the motel so he can smoke and she can take a hot shower. “We won’t stay long,” she says instead and they follow Robert’s car back to the house.

Vicky takes the kids upstairs and Robert brings out a small gift bag. “Here you go, Pops. A little something I thought you’d like.”

“Good things come in small packages,” Paul says.

He tries to take his time unwrapping whatever it is even though there isn’t much tissue paper in the bag and there isn’t a birthday card either. Connie can see right away it’s a Laker’s cap, a give-away item. She’s seen the photos on Facebook of Robert, Vicky, Emily, and Noah sitting courtside wearing the same exact hat and matching team jerseys.

“Thanks, son. This is nice.”

Connie clears her throat. Robert gives her a quick glance and she realizes she’s glaring at him. At least he has enough sense to look embarrassed.

“I guess we’ll take off,” Paul says.

Robert follows them out. “Emily and I are going to see Tom Petty at the Forum next week.”

“You and Emily,” Paul says.

“Yeah, since she started playing guitar she loves the Heartbreakers.”

“The Forum,” Paul says.

“Orchestra seats. I can’t wait.”

Connie gets in the car.

“I imagine you’ll see your mother for Thanksgiving?”

“We’ll go to Santa Ana for lunch with her,” Robert says. “Then Laguna for dinner with Vicky’s parents. Our holiday tradition. Drive all over Southern California and eat too much. Maybe we could get together with you guys on the weekend.”

“I’d like that,” Paul says.

“I’ll talk to Vicky. We’ll let you know.”

Paul says goodnight and angles himself in the passenger seat. Connie starts the ignition and Tom Petty sings on the car stereo, “I Won’t Back Down.”

“His first solo album,” Paul says as she pulls away.

“I know,” Connie says. “You’ve told me before.”

*     *     *

While Paul smokes in the motel parking lot, Connie cries in the shower and dries herself off with a thin towel. Even though she can’t see her face in the fogged mirror she knows her left eye is weeping. The doctors say the right tear ducts might unclog someday and if they don’t it’s nothing to worry about.

Trina claims happy tears come from one eye and sad tears from the other. It’s something her grandmother told her although Trina can never remember which eye is which. Tears are tears, Connie thinks. She’s pretended she’s not sad for so long she’s not sure she’d know the difference.

*     *     *

The only tickets Paul can get last minute are nosebleed seats. It costs twenty dollars to park in the Forum lot and the T-shirts are thirty-five each. Paul says he doesn’t like the designs and doesn’t want one. At least his back’s a little better, Connie thinks, as they climb the stairs up to the last row of the Forum. The opening act is Steve Winwood. The sound’s a little distorted up so high but they can almost see the big video screen. When Winwood finishes, most of the people in the seats around them head down the stairs.

“You want something to drink?” Paul asks. “I’m buying.”

She imagines him negotiating the stairs down and back up again. “I’ll have to pee. I don’t want to miss anything.”

They watch the crowd and wait for Tom Petty. A young couple standing at the bottom of their section seems to be staring at them. Connie automatically puts a hand across her face. The boy has a crew-cut and wears thick glasses and the girl has pink highlights in her hair. Connie wonders what it would be like to be so young and stylish with money and energy to spare. The girl runs up the stairs, two at a time, in heels no less, straight towards her and Paul, the boy right behind her.

“We’re looking for the people with the worst seats in the building,” the girl says.

“That would be us,” Connie says. She can feel the shock on Paul’s face. She doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but their seats are terrible.

“Here you go.” The boy hands Paul two tickets. “They’re down in the pit.”

“No thanks,” Paul says.

Connie elbows him. “How much do you want for them?”

“Nothing,” the girl says. “They’re free. We’re going to Winwood’s party. We wanted to give our seats to someone who’ll appreciate them.”

“We’re fine where we are,” Paul says.

Connie stands and hugs the girl thanks.

“It’s probably a scam,” Paul says when the couple is gone. Connie takes the tickets from Paul’s hands and heads down the stairs towards an usher. “Go down and keep going,” he says. They take two flights of stairs and then three more and finally they are on flat ground. Another usher motions them forward and points towards a group of folding chairs set up in front of the stage. The lights go down and the Heartbreakers walk out.

Connie’s never thought Tom Petty’s voice was particularly good, but tonight he sounds wonderful. The lyrics are crystal clear, the guitars ring, the keyboard slinks through the mix; the drummer brings everyone to standing. A woman next to Paul lights a joint and passes it to him. He takes a deep drag and Connie tries not to breathe in. She already feels lightheaded. She takes a picture of Paul with the band in the background. Someone taps her shoulder and she sees panic register on Paul’s face. When she turns around, it’s a large man, motioning for them to stand closer together.

“Let me get the two of you,” he says.

Afterward, they walk circles around the Forum trying to find their car.

“This building looks exactly the same on all sides,” Paul says.

“It’s round.” Connie laughs. “You’re stoned.” Her feet hurt from dancing. “Stop for a minute.” She adjusts the toe of her sock and pulls out her phone, brings up the picture of the two of them with Tom Petty in the background.

“That’s good,” he says.

“I’m posting it.”

“It’ll seem like we’re showing off.”

“Too late,” she says. “It’s done.”

*     *     *

Paul’s phone rings the next morning. “Hey, Robert,” he says and puts the phone on speaker, lays it down on the kitchen table between their bowls of oatmeal.

Connie can’t remember the last time Robert’s actually called Paul instead of texting or messaging or having Vicky call her.

“I’m impressed,” Robert says through the speaker phone. “You were down in the pit?”

“Someone felt sorry for us,” Paul says. “Great show, right?”

“We left early. This asshole kept smoking pot right next to Emily. How’d you get those seats?”

“We were up in the rafters and this couple picked us out of the crowd.”

“If I’d known you had those kinds of connections, I would have asked you to get me tickets.”

“We got lucky for once.” Paul clenches and unclenches his fist. “Is it so hard to believe your old man might have a bit of luck once in a while?”

Connie touches his arm.

“What are you pissed off about?” Robert asks.

“You could have invited me to go with you and Emily. You know how I feel about the Heartbreakers. It was my sixtieth birthday. Kind of a big deal.”

Robert’s voice bristles through the speaker. “We came to your party. We gave you a gift.”

“You did. A hat.”

Connie sucks in her breath. Paul’s never sarcastic and immediately he backs off.

“A nice hat. Did you think any more about Thanksgiving weekend?”

“Turns out Vicky has to work on Friday. And Saturday we’re heading up to Pismo with a bunch of friends. Taking the sand toys. We’re giving Noah Emily’s ATV and buying her a new one. It’s going to be a blast.”

Connie shoves away from the table. The chair legs scrape the floor. She lets her bowl and spoon clatter down in the sink and turns on the kitchen faucet full blast.

“Maybe Christmas then,” Paul says.

“I’ll let you know.”

Paul hangs up. “That right there is an example of why I don’t like to talk on the phone.”

Connie takes a few deep breaths until she feels calm again. “I don’t know about getting together with them for Christmas. It’s our anniversary.”

“Three years,” he says, and manages a smile.

He’s a good man with a big heart she might not deserve. “I was thinking of buying a pie from Marie Callendar’s. They usually have them on sale around Christmas.”

“Cherry,” he says.

“I know, it’s your favorite.”

*     *     *

On Christmas Eve, Connie waits in line at Marie Callendar’s and tries to decide if she should buy one pie or two. She couldn’t talk herself into calling Vicky this month, so she’s not sure what their plans are. If she and Paul end up going to Robert’s house, they’ll need to bring something. She thinks about how much money there is in her purse and when it’s finally her turn at the cash register she says, “One cherry pie, please.”

“There are some almost ready to come out of the oven,” the clerk says. “I’ll be right back.”

“Why don’t they have more people working the register?” a familiar voice says behind her. “It’s Christmas Eve, for God’s sake.”

Connie glances over her shoulder. Paul’s first wife Sheila is in line a few customers back. Although Santa Ana is not a small town she can’t help running into Sheila once in a while. When the clerk comes back with her pie Connie hands him a ten-dollar bill and waits for her change, then turns towards the door. Sheila’s impossible to avoid. She’s gained a lot of weight since the last time Connie saw her picture on Facebook. She’s no longer plump; she’s fat.

Good, Connie thinks and feels momentarily guilty about being so mean-spirited until she notices the smirk on Sheila’s face as she sizes up Connie’s old Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings, the same ones she wears every year.

“This line is ridiculous,” Sheila says. “I still need to go to the market. I’m making tamales tonight with the grandkids.”

“They’re spending Christmas with you.”

“Christmas Eve anyway. Vicky will insist on leaving first thing in the morning to go to her parent’s house. At least I get to do Santa Claus this year.”

“Well,” Connie says, attempting a smile that feels more like a grimace. “Enjoy it. I’d better get back to work.”

“I thought you’d retired already.”

“Not yet. I like my job.”

Sheila smirks again. Connie wants to take the pie out of the box, smash it in Sheila’s face and watch the red cherry juice run down her cheeks and collect in the folds of her triple chins. Instead, she blurts out a quick, “Merry Christmas,” and flees towards the door. She places the pie box carefully on the floor of the passenger side. Her hands shake a little, so she decides to sit there for a minute and calm down. She won’t mention seeing Sheila to Paul. It will only upset him.

It takes all the strength she has not to run into Target and buy him something special. A complete set of those “Die Hard” movies he likes so much. New speakers for their CD player or even a few packages of socks and underwear. They’ve agreed not to exchange gifts this year but she’d do anything to fill up the big gaping hole Sheila has ripped through her holiday spirit.

*     *     *

When she gets home from work and plugs in the tree it doesn’t cheer her up like it usually does. It needs presents. She finds some Christmas paper in the hall closet and wraps up some old games for the grandkids. She doesn’t have any ribbon though and the gifts look like orphans underneath the tree so she puts them on the top shelf of the closet. The kitchen table is too fussy, she decides, with the six Santa Claus placements and the evergreen candle in the center. She takes four of the placements off the table and stuffs them in the closet on top of the gifts.

When the phone rings, Connie barely recognizes Trina’s voice. “I hate to ask,” Trina says after she finishes a coughing attack, “but could you work for me tomorrow? I’m running a fever and I can’t keep anything down. I know it’s your anniversary.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Connie says. She can use the extra money. She’ll ask Paul to come with her. They’ll make a day of it.

*     *     *

On Christmas morning they eat cherry pie for breakfast before they leave for the nursing home. Paul wears a Santa Claus hat and she puts on the Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings. Someone brings in a spiral-cut ham and there’s red and green Jell-O salad and too many store-bought cakes.

Paul plays card games and helps the residents with jigsaw puzzles. He sees her watching him and smiles from across the room. Someone’s grandson picks out Christmas carols on the piano and she hears Paul’s tenor singing harmony.

They’re both tired when they get home and find a box propped up next to their front door. Paul brings it inside.

“It’s from Robert and Vicky,” he says. “The kids even signed the card.”

There’s no good reason to feel guilty. “Too bad we missed them,” she says.

“They could have let us know they were coming.” It takes him a minute to loosen the ribbon and open the box. He unfolds a black leather jacket, holds it out in front of him and turns it around so she can see the embroidery. The Heartbreakers logo, a red heart pierced with a Gibson Flying V Guitar.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says, trying it on.

It’s a little too big for him. It’s more Robert’s size. “I’m sorry I made you go to work with me today.”

“Are you kidding? I had a blast. It was a great way to spend Christmas. And our anniversary.”

“You could have stayed home and been with your family.”

“I was with my family.” He crosses the room and wraps his arms around her. “They should have brought something for you.”

“I don’t need anything.” She buries her face in the soft leather, feeling the tears start. “You should call and thank him,” she says, hoping the jacket muffles the choke in her voice.

“I’m busy right now,” he says, kissing the top of her head, holding her tight against him. She wants to stay there forever but she needs to blow her nose and wipe her eyes so she won’t ruin the jacket.

“How about a piece of pie?” she asks, pulling away and trying to turn her head so he won’t see the tears.

“Are you crying?” He holds her face gently with both hands, his brown eyes worried. “Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m fine,” she says. She goes in the bathroom to blow her nose. She’s at the point now where she can inspect the scar on her face and not flinch. She never was a beauty, not even before the accident. Something about her reflection tonight though is different. The scar seems diminished in comparison to the crow’s feet stamped around her uneven eyes. She’s older, of course, and she’s tired. She looks her age. She wipes her nose again and sees what’s changed. She’s crying out of her right eye.

“You sure you’re okay?” Paul calls out from the living room.

“I will be.” She smiles at herself in the mirror and turns off the light. “How about some ice cream with the pie?”

“Sounds good,” he says.

He opens the patio door and lets in the noise from the freeway. A steady stream of cars heads home from family parties, trunks full of presents, kids asleep in the backseat, parents looking forward to taking them up to the snow tomorrow or what about Disneyland? What about New Years? Super Bowl’s coming up, then Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s and Easter and suddenly it’ll be summer and the grandkids will be another year older.

She’ll call Vicky in the morning. She’ll ask about their Christmas and thank her for Paul’s jacket. She’ll suggest they meet somewhere special for lunch next week, their treat. Some place convenient, just off the freeway, halfway in between.

Mary CamarilloMary Camarillo’s fiction has appeared in Extracts: A Daily Dose of Lit and The Ear. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband and their terrorist cat. She is a recovering CPA and a lifelong music lover, frequently found stalking Los Lobos across the country.

Martial 2016

BOOK  I, 16

You’ll find good, middling, then bad in spades
among these pages: So, dear reader, books get made.

BOOK I, 23

Bathtime, that’s your banquet’s subtext:
Feasting, soaking, double portions of beef.
My guess why I never got be your guest?
Undressed, I’m not your type. What a relief.

BOOK  I,  28

Acerra stinks of drink from last night on the town:
Not true. He’s been knocking them back since dawn.

BOOK I, 33

For your late dad not a sob when you’re alone;
enter a guest and boohoo, tears gush like rain:
One who fishes for compliments is not in pain;
bona fide suffering proceeds unseen.

BOOK I, 37

Excretion first, Basso’s value system stinks:
His potty’s gold, mere glass the cups from which he drinks.

BOOK I, 47

An undertaker, formerly you were a surgeon—
Career development, the two in your case turn one.

BOOK I, 118

You know people who’ve read these 100 epigrams yet pine
for more? Ring a.) a psychiatrist or b.) 999.

BOOK II, 38

Nosy Parker asks after the profits from my farm out of town.
My answer: Not having to see a certain face, his own.

BOOK III, 8

‘Quintus loves Thais.’ ‘But which?’ ‘The one-eyed one.’
‘Ah, I see. Still Thais has one eye working, he none.’

BOOK  III, 17

A pie was being passed round for the second course,
so hot it scalded all hands that touched it.
Salsido’s greed was roused more than before;
One, two, three, four: emitting gases galore,
he puffed downward. The pie cooled for sure,
but nobody touched a piece. It had turned to . . .

BOOK III, 43

With every haircut, the younger you grow;
Yesterday’s swan has become a crow.
You may fool some, but Proserpine’s in the know
and to rip away your mask is waiting below.

BOOK III, 70

Aufidia’s ex-husband, you’ve now become her lover;
her husband now is your ex-rival, the role reversed.
Cuckold cuckolder, so others’ women outdo your own?
Or without thoughts of being caught you cannot get it on?

BOOK III, 71

Young friend’s got an ache in one end, you in the other:
No need for a diviner, Mr. White-as-Snow, to blow your cover.

BOOK III, 76

Only ladies of a certain age can get your mojo
working; girls, however beautiful, turn it off. A stark
raving headcase are your hormones. What libido
ever preferred granny Hecuba to nubile Andromarque?

BOOK IV, 21

‘Heaven’s empty, the gods do not exist,’
brays Segius. You want proof of his hypothesis?
How, the gods denied, he’s grown rich.

BOOK IV, 50

You chide me, dear Thais, for my each advancing year:
Then kiss me high or, better, low; you’re my elixir.

BOOK IV, 69

You pour for us guests the choicest wines,
albeit rumor begs to disagree:
You’ve outlived, they say, your wife four times.
Benefit of the doubt, but I’m not thirsty.

BOOK IV, 85

Our beakers are glass, yours of agate. Please explain:
Might it be that the wines are not the same?

BOOK V, 13

Okay, Big Shot, I am a perpetual pauper;
That’s not to say I too haven’t been made a ‘Sir.’
Its own currency, my verse gets quoted world over.
What the grave gave few, life itself on me confers.
Your mansion may rest upon a hundred pillars;
add a safe which heaves, estates in the Middle East,
those flocks near Parma raking in a golden fleece:
Where does that leave us? To equal you lies in reach
of any Tom, Dick or Harry. Soon we’ll both be dead,
but you’ll stay so, period; at least I shall be read.

BOOK V, 18

‘But I never dine at home,’ such is Philo’s boast.
Invite friends? When to himself he won’t play host?

BOOK V, 34

I commend—genetrix Flacilla, Fronto pater—
this girl who was lately my delight;
of the shades below may she have no fear,
neither of Cerberus nor his bite.
From reaching the winter of her sixth year
she was cut short by as many days too few.
Among patrons of yore let her now play,
chirruping my name in pastures new.
Spare, insensate clods, her tender bones. Clay,
weigh as gently on her as she weighed on you.

BOOK V, 45

‘Sono bello,’ boasts Berlo, ‘and vigorous and youthful.’
If you say so, but anything but truthful.

BOOK V, 64

Pour me, Callistus, a flagon of Falernian red;
you, Alcimus, cool it with summer snows.
Anoint, while it’s still there, my hair
then weave soft roses around my head:
Augustus’s Mausoleum just down the road
urges ‘carpe diem’: even gods can end up dead.

BOOK V, 73

Theodore, you’re a drill with no off switch,
imploring that I forward you my every booklet:
Why then do I refuse? Talk about just cause
It is lest, in return, you send me yours.

BOOK V, 83

You chase me, I flee; you flee and I give chase
Both ways willy-nilly here in cupid’s maze.

BOOK VI, 44

Life and soul of the party, a god-sent right
to crack jokes at anyone’s but your own expense
in your mind a star, guest par excellence?
Thus a certain Calliodorus, 95 AD

2013, the ‘Pink Viper.’ One comment from me

c.f. yours truly, that table would take flight.

BOOK VI, 48

One of your goblets comes engraved with serpents
which would be worthy of a Michelangelo
A pity, though, as regards the contents
Half ‘plonc’, half venom, a snake’s hello.

BOOK VII, 16

Re. you gifts: Now I’m broke, living in a shack,
any chance you might kindly buy them back?

BOOK VII, 62

Across the backside of official paper Picens pens verse,
then gets offended when Apollo turns arse-first.

BOOK VII, 64

Here, as barber, you were top of the heap. Then bingo!
Lady’s legacy and you’ve snatched up a knighthood.
To flee a court-case common among the Great and the Good
you hotfoot it down to Nowheresville, Sicily:
Which skill will now see you through the years?
Draughts? Cards? Dog-eared Gazzettas dello Sport?
Umpteenth coffee or amaro out in the piazza?
Imitating Etna by lighting one more cigarette?
No rector, you, not even a poor language teacher.
Stoics, Cynics alike boast some crumbs of comfort;
In your booklet, they could both be soccer teams.
Better head back to Rome, its napes, pates, beards.

prose_section_divider

MARCUS VALERIUS MARTIALIS: EPIGRAMMATA

LIBER I, XVI

Sunt bona, sunt quaedam mediocria, sunt mala plura
quae legis hic: aliter non fit, Avite, liber.

LIBER I,  XXIII

 Invitas nullum nisi cum quo, Cotta, lavaris
et dant convivam balnea sola tibi.
Mirabar quare numquam me, Cotta, vocasses:
iam scio me nudum displicuisse tibi.

LIBER I,  XXVIII

Hesterno fetere mere qui credit Acerram,
fallitur. in lucem semper Acerra bibit.

LIBER I,  XXXIII

Amissum non flet cum sola est Gellia patrem,
si quis adest iussae prosiliunt lacrimae.
Non luget quiquis laudari, Gellia, quarit,
ille dolet vere qui sine teste dolet.

LIBER I, XXXVII

Ventris onus misero, nec te pudet, excipis auro
Basso bibis vitro; carius ergo cacas.

LIBER I, XLVII

Nuper erat medicus, nunc est vispillo Diaulus:
quod vispillo facit, fecerat et medicus.

LIBER I, CXVIII

Cui legisse satis non est epigrammata centum,
nil illi satis est, Caediciane, mali.

LIBER  II, XXXVIII

Quid mihi reddat ager quaeris, Line, Nomentanus?
Hoc mihi reddit ager: te, Line, non video.

LIBER III, VIII

‘Thaida Quintus amat.’ ‘Quam Thaida?’ ‘Thaida luscam.’
Unum oculum Thais non habet, ille duos.

LIBER  III, XVII

Circumlata diu mensis scribilita secundis
urebat nimio saeva calore manus;
sed magis ardebat Sabidi gula: protinus ergo
sufflavit buccis terque quaterque suis.
Illa quidem tepuit digitisque admittere visa est,
sed nemo potuit tangere: merda fuit.

LIBER III, XLIII

Mentiris iuvenem tinctis, Laetine, capillis,
tam subito corvus, qui modo cycnus eras.
Non omnes fallis; scit te Proserpina canum:
personam capiti detrahet illa tuo.

 LIBER III, LXX

Moechus es Aufidiae, qui vir, Scaevinie, fuisti;
Rivalis fuerat qui tuus, ille vir est.
Cur aliena placet tibi, quae tua non placet, uxor?
Numquid secures non potes arrigere?

LIBER III, LXXI

Mentula cum doleat puero, tibi, Naevole, culus,
non sum divinus, sed scio quid facias. 

LIBER III, LXXVI

Arrigis ad vetulas, fastidis, Basse, puellas,
nec formonsa tibi sed moritura placet.
Hic, rogo, non furor est, non haec est mentula demens?
cum possis Hecaben, non potes Andromachen!

LIBER IV, XXI 

Nullos esse deos, inane caelum
Adfirmat Segius: probatque, quod se
Factum, dum negat haec, videt beatum

 LIBER IV, L 

Quid me. Thai, senem subinde dicis?
Nemo est, Thai, senex ad irrumandum.

LIBER 1V, LXIX

Tu Setina quidem semper vel Massica ponis,
Papyle, sed rumor tam bona vina negat:
diceris hac factus caeleps quater esse lagona.
Nec puto nec credo, Papyle, nec sitio. 

LIBER IV, LXXXV

Nos bibimus vitro, tu murra, Pontice. Quare?
Prodat perspicuus ne duo vina calix.

LIBER V,  XIII

Sum, fateor, semperque fui, Callistrate, pauper,
     sed non obscurus nec male notus eques,
sed toto legor orbe frequens et dicitur “Hic est”;
     quodque cinis paucis, hoc mihi vita dedit.
At tua centenis incumbunt tecta columnis              
     et libertinas arca flagellat opes,
magnaque Niliacae servit tibi gleba Syenes,
     tondet et innumeros Gallica Parma greges.
Hoc ego tuque sumus: sed quod sum non potes esse;
     tu quod es, e populo quilibet esse potest.  

LIBER V,  XVIII

Numquam e cenasse domi Philo iurat, et hoc est :
non cenat, quotiens nemo vocavit eum.

LIBER V, XXXIV

Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
     oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
paruola ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
     oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
Impletura fuit sextae modo frigora brumae,              
     uixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
Inter tam veteres ludat lasciva patronos
     et nomen blaeso garriat ore meum.
Mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa nec illi,
     terra, grauis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.

LIBER V, 45

 Dicis formonsam, dici te, Bassa, puellam.
Istud quae non est dicere, Bassa, solet.

LIBER V, 64

Sextantes, Calliste, duos infunde Falerni,
tu super aestivas, alcime, solve nives,
pinguescat nimio madidus mihi crinis amomo
lassenturque rosis tempora sutilibus.
tam vicina iubent nos vivere Mausolea,
cum doceant ipsos posse perire deos.

LIBER V, LXXIII

Non donem tibi cur meos libellos
oranti totiens et exigenti
miraris, Theodore? Magna causa est:
dones tu mihi ne tuos libellos

LIBER VI, XLIV

Festive credis te, Calliodore, iocari
Et solum multo permaduisse sale.
Omnibus adrides, dicteria dicis in omnis;
Sic te convivam posse placer putas.
At si ergo non belle, sed vere dixero quiddam,
Nemo propinabit, Calliodore, tibi.

LIBER VI, XLVIII

Quod tam grande sophos clamat tibi turba togata,
non tu, Pomponi, cena diserta tua est.

LIBER  VII, XVI

Aera domi non sunt, sperest hoc, Regule, solum,
Ut tua vendamus munera: numquid emis?

LIBER VII, LXII

Scribit in aversa Picens epigrammata charta,
et dolet a verso quod facit illa deo.

LIBER VII, LXIV

Qui  tonsor tota fueras notissimus urbe,
et post hoc dominae munere factus eques,
Sicanias urbes Aetnaeaque regna petisti,
Cinname, cum fugeres tristia iura fori.
qua nunc arte graves tolerabis inutilis annos?
quid facit infelix et fugitiva quies?
Non rethor, non Grammaticus ludive magister,
non Cynicus, non tu Stoicus esse potes,
vendere nec vocem Siculis plausumque theatris,
quod superest, iterum, Cinname, tonsor eris.

Translator’s Note

Leave myth, legend, and related heroics to others. In Martial’s work, life-as-it-is-lived is the thing. Hence the title “Martial 2016,” for the effect is often astonishingly modern: rent boys, escorts, mutton dressed as lamb, plagiarists, corrupt gladiators’ (cf. footballers’) agents; scroungers, drunkards, barbers retired or practicing, gold-diggers galore; then the perennially struggling poet: they’re all here. Having lived in Rome for fifteen years, I can vouch that the Romans’ acerbic streak is still intact, making Martial one of the most readand pertinentof Latin poets.

Martin BennettMartin Bennett lives in Rome, where he teaches and proofreads at the University of Tor Vergata while contributing occasional articles to Wanted in Rome. He was the 2015 winner of the John Dryden translation prize.

Hailing from distant Spain, Martial casts a cold, now wry, now scurrilous eye on the pretensions and foibles of “Caput mundi.” Arriving in the capital at 24, he hoped to use the Spanish connection with the philosopher Seneca, among others, to get on in the world and avoid becoming just another  lawyer. After Seneca’s forced suicide, Martial was left without support. Forced to seek patronage to survive, he became the archetypal struggling poet, acquiring some support under emperor Titus, only to have it snatched away under the paranoiac Domitian. Eventually he returned to Spain. His friend, Pliny the Younger, paid Martial’s expenses while sniffing that his work “would not endure.” Martial’s place on Parnassus long since secured, one can envision this poet as the ultimate underdog made good, penning a couplet on the same theme, while translators—this one included—throng the lower slopes, only too happy to receive it.

Artist’s Expedition: Mixed Media

Eternal Father & The Other Army

It is still dark when I leave the house, bags and rolling cart full of teaching materials stacked up by the door. I let the silence of the road and the slowly lightening landscape pull me into the waking world, coffee clasped tight in one hand, while the other hand steers. I drive for an hour and forty-five minutes up I-5, arriving in Redding with twenty minutes to spare.

I will teach teachers all day at the county office, clicking around in low heels and doing my best impression of what I think a charismatic person does—points excitedly, tells engaging pseudo-personal stories, praises others for their contributions. At the end of the day, I sit for a second and read through the evaluations. Powerful learning. Best professional development I’ve attended. Could’ve provided more snacks.

I gather up all the stray papers, binders, and trash and haul the load back out to my Honda with a dent in the front. I will never get this dent fixed. I don’t care about a pristine car and my daughter says it’s how she recognizes our vehicle in a crowded parking lot. I slip my shoes off and put on some sneakers over my tights. Rather than turn left out of the parking lot toward home, I turn right. I’ve been thinking about that right turn all day.

Just half a mile from here is a white, geometric building that now houses an insurance agency. It’s changed faces many times over the years. Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.

*     *     *

Randy was there the night of my intake. I was snowy-eyed and limp. It was the apex of late June heat, but Mom and I stopped at the outlet stores on our way and I picked out a Stanford sweatshirt. I needed long sleeves because I didn’t want them to see my arms. They all had the manila file, but I still didn’t. Randy brought me up from the blinding lobby, three floors to the Adolescent Ward. He put my suitcase on the bed and pulled out every item—clothes, shoes, toiletries, books, stationary—unzipping and unfolding each object and organizing them in piles.

Being brought to the Hilltop Care Center meant that I was beyond trying to look like things were okay. I relented my control, which I had believed was utter and complete. In Randy’s presence, I cried inexplicably. I asked him questions that others didn’t and requested that he pray with me in my room. He hugged me hard, which was the payoff. He had five kids, a wife, and smelled like Ivory soap. There was a tidiness about him that permeated everything—his collared shirt, high-waisted jeans, clean white sneakers, jet-black hair clipped short over his ears.

Twenty years ago it was a mental health facility for youth. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t stop cutting my arms and dreaming about death. My mother brought me here hoping to save my life.

He had control, so I felt I didn’t have to when in his presence.

Randy noticed the small cross I wore, gave me a little book of biblical meditations and wrote a message on the inside cover: What occurs on this earth by the hands of men means little in the eyes of our Eternal Father. He loves you, Sarah. I read the inscription again and again, blurring the words to say, “I love you,” which is what I wanted desperately to hear from him. I wanted him to take me home with him at the end of his shift and plunk me down at that table of seven.

He was one man in a cluster of men that fit a particular profile: Christian, a father, conservative, a caregiving rescuer. These men made me cry easily. I needed their physical touch in a way that was a bottomless asking.

At the HCC, our days were composed of a rigid schedule that started at six a.m. The first few days there I felt half-dead, either from waking early or the myriad pills I swallowed from a white paper cup. At home, I had been sleeping twenty hours a day, spending my brief waking hours in the middle of the night, when the house was dark and silent.

*     *     *

Rose, my roommate, had the same need that I did. She had targeted the male nurse, Greg, who was good-looking, like Huey Lewis, but only had one arm. She hung around the front desk long after everyone had retired to their rooms for Free Time. Joking, she would dance around in front of him, her cut sweatshirt hanging down on one side, showing the hint of tattoo just below the raw fabric. Her makeup was always perfect. She filled our room with a musky, womanly scent.

We bonded quickly, in part, because we were both survivors of sexual abuse. “Sister,” she would start each sentence directed at me, “My sister, Sarah.” I loved my little brother, but I had always had a deep desire for an older sister. I often developed sibling crushes on my friends’, jealous of the shared family knowledge, the way one launched out into the world like a pilot fish for the other to follow. Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.

Her daddy was a biker. During group family therapy, I remember the way she clung to his large, calloused hands and crumbled inside the circle his arms made for her. He was a fortress built of leather, ink, facial hair and buckles, yet he cried when she cried.

In my adulthood, many people have commended me for surviving the early parts of my life. You could’ve been a drug addict, they say, a prostitute, and while I think there are a hundred other possibilities in between those extremes, I always think of Rose. She was a prostitute. She was trading time from the California Youth Authority and could lessen her punishment for getting through the levels of the HCC. I wonder about the shape of her story, whom she ended up loving, if she was able to discover a life in which she didn’t have to sell her body to survive.

I wonder if she would remember me now and if she did, would she still call me “Sister”?

*     *     *

Each time we transitioned to a new activity, I had to meet another adult. They liked me. I wasn’t belligerent or acting out. In the schoolroom I read past the passages that were assigned and wrote long responses. I immediately earned enough points to be taken out to pizza for lunch, but couldn’t until I had reached the second level. There wasn’t a set graduation from the program, or really a stated objective we were told to accomplish. Most were pushed out of the program as soon as their insurance stopped paying, which, on the average, was two weeks. It was more like they had to provide us some system to work through, a measurement of “progress.” Some kids were there for eating disorders, others for violent episodes. I was there for what they labeled as “Major Depression” and “Suicidal Ideation.”

Their guiding principle for getting better seemed to be based on proximity—that closeness to the suffering and eventual improvement of others would cause you to follow. It worked both ways. Sometimes there would be a vacuum of despair, everyone leap frogging off the person who just shared, anteing the trauma like tokens of anguish. Other times, you would weep at the earnest confession that another was, in fact, feeling better. I hope, they would admit hesitantly, as if they would be kicked out of the sacred circle for wanting to live.

My therapist, Jamie, had the bluest eyes I had ever witnessed in another human. Mt. Shasta loomed huge out the window of her office and the jagged powdered peaks cut a sky to match them.

Rose was an unexpected, yet perfect companion—mouthy to my quiet, angry rather than depressed, tan fleshy arms against my covered, broken skin.

Most of the time, Shasta looked like a postcard with its pristine and ancient presence held in that small frame, but once in a while, I would use it as an imaginative space, a placeholder for the life I would one day have. Maybe I would be a woman who hikes, or one who meditates, as I’d heard the staff talking about both. The native people of the area saw it as the center of creation, a stepping stone for the Great Spirit ascending from heaven.

Conversations around ideas of “spirit” were mostly limited to a Judeo-Christian framework. Jamie and the other staff believed that I could handle adult texts and would take me to the storage room filled with self-help books of every kind. I would go back to my room, arms full, and arrange them on the small desk in my room. Of all the books they offered on spirituality and wellness, the ones I chose were about surviving sexual abuse. And out of all the words in those books, I was interested most in the gritty, detailed descriptions of “what happened.”

There’s a way in which suffering becomes quantified, especially when first identifying it as your own. A need emerges to press your experience into a discernable shape, to measure it next to other shapes, and feel the contraction or expansion of that. When I was fourteen, it seemed everyone had been abused by somebody else. Soon after my father went to prison, he began having flashbacks of an older neighborhood boy. He was discovering the shape of his wounds, too.

Jamie put The Story of a Soul in my hands, the autobiographical writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese died at twenty-four and lived her short life certain that she was meant for service to God. She believed in the power of small sacrifice, in gestures that lift those around you. Those that have studied her note the potential for a kind of mania, of hysteria and oversensitivity. Her mother died of breast cancer when Therese was very young, which triggered what could be characterized as a breakdown, in a strand of many. What cured these hysterical occurrences were her signs received from Christ. She found respite in prayer. She said, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”

It was the simplicity of her message that anchored me. She didn’t deny suffering and was still able to find comfort, to persist into what her mind had first told her was unlivable.

*     *     *

One of the beliefs I held during this time was that I was a pervert magnet. I have a fragmented memory of being very small and holding my mother’s hand as we walked around the downtown plaza of my hometown. As we walked, two men, twins, walked in our direction. They were like living Ken dolls—wavy blonde hair, well-dressed, tan—and my mother knew them. She began to chat with them and one crouched down, trying to engage with me. I lost it. I started crying, screeching, pawing at my mom to pick me up. She told me years later that she was shocked by my response. I had never done such a thing and was usually such a placid child.

Many years later, we read in the newspaper that the twins were brought up on charges of sexually assaulting their own invalid mother. They had thousands of photographs of her nude, in various positions, with them, without them.

“They were always so nice,” my mother commented. She had met them at a time when she was very involved with church and was excessively kind, even when she didn’t have to be. And then she remembered that time I cried at the sight of them. The way I clung to her and squeezed my eyes shut, so they would stop trying to make me see them.

Did I know they were deviants, that somewhere in the perfect curl of their smiles, there was a dark damaged yearning? Maybe I was a sensor, rather than a magnet.

But then what of Mr. Bell, my seventh-grade Science teacher whom people whispered about? He was suspect of lingering too long with female students after school, letting his hand rest on their shoulders, complimented them on their beauty, offered to drive them home. I volunteered to stay after. I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation. He knew what people said about him. Whether he was what they said or not, I wanted to live in his classroom, yet he would make me go home after an hour.

He came to my house to visit me after everyone had found out what my father had done. He was the only teacher who did. I can still see him sitting on the dark blue floral couch in our living room, his checked shirt buttoned all the way up, his ankles crossed in front of him. It’s a terrible thing, he confirmed, but you will be okay. You will have a good life.

Years later, I was in the lingerie section of a department store browsing for something sexy to wear for my boyfriend. I was just out of high school and trying out my new adult identity, attempting to perform something—the wiles of a woman, someone who is capable of seduction.

I was holding a black and grey lace teddy against my body and looked up to see Mr. Bell approaching from the Housewares section. I blushed at his arrival, letting the garment sag against my leg. He looked just the way he always had—grey-haired and distinguished, like Sean Connery. We made small talk. I told him I was registered to take classes at the community college.

We hugged goodbye, transported by years and the shared knowledge of secrets and the power of what people say. He leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Take a picture of yourself in that and send me a copy.”

*     *     *

At Hilltop, it was easy to get lulled into familiarity. A strict schedule offers someone who is untethered a sense of purpose. Even if that compulsion, what one might call will, was merely the tiny agreement to walk to the Art Therapy room. I loved that room. Wall-to-wall shelves with every craft supply you could think of. For weeks, I worked on a pine box, creating a mosaic on the top surface that was white with a blue cross. I was making it for John, a family friend who had become a kind of father figure.

John was a good man. Maybe the prototype for all of those who came after him. He was conservative, hardworking, and devoted to his family. His wife, Jennifer, was the first person whom I told about the abuse. She was my youth group leader at church.

I felt luminous in his presence, as if I could drown in the light he doled out with each hug, pat on the back. I also felt drawn by his hesitation.

In the chaos after everyone found out, after the police had left, after my father had gone, Jennifer stayed close to our family. She picked my brother and me up from school, something my father had always done. She spent hours listening to me, letting me cry, making us dinner. She told me that when she told John what had happened to me, he cried. I had known them both from the after-part of church on Sundays, when everyone was in clusters chatting and kids and teenagers chased each other around the lawn. He had always teased me.

That he cried made me feel something I had never experienced before. I felt protected. Maybe valued? Loved? It was not sexual, though there was some part of me that was compelled to make it that. The truth is that I didn’t know what to do with a healthy presentation of genuine care.

But I wanted his love and affection so badly that I would work myself into a fit—sit, thinking about my father, his hands, the smell of his hair, set with grease and a metallic dust from the garage. I would allow myself into the worst thoughts. The darkened hallway. His loafers, softly crossing the house to my bedroom. And then I’d be crying. John would come and take my hand, lead me into their room, sit down in his recliner and let me sink into his lap, resting my face on the muscled edge between his shoulder and neck.

I step away from that image now and witness my thirteen-year-old self being rocked by a thirty-year-old. I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.

It was almost impossible to get that kind of contact in the hospital. Hans, a permanently red-faced, red-haired boy, would go on periodic rampages. The kind of screaming that should be reserved for the actual act of murder, the kind that alerted the body to run and get as far away from whatever animal is in such exquisite pain and hide. A staff member would draw some kind of boundary—no more foosball, something fairly benign and you would first see his fists form, like small hearts, flooded with pulse and power. He would spin into a blur of punches. Then he would shoot like a bullet down the hallway, feet pounding the soft carpet after him. The first one to him would wrap him up in their arms, his legs striking for any surface, sweeping through the air—his chaos something so large his small body could not contain it.

Once a week, a man would come to sit with us cross-legged in the group meeting room and play us songs on his guitar. There would be a stir in the group energy when he would arrive, his long, salt-and-pepper hair tied back by a leather string, the black guitar case a new intruding shape on our monochrome, strapped-down environment.

He wrote his own songs, most of them about having been redeemed by Jesus. He had a low vibrato and I would sit in the circle and let tears go. Hans was also affected in this way. He would close his eyes, his freckled cheeks flushed with something that looked like pleasure, like peace.

*     *     *

Then, Billy came through the door in ropes. His parents told him they were going to visit family and when he agreed, they tied him up, shoved him in the car, and drove straight to HCC. We were circled up in our evening group when he arrived, but I could see him through the cracked door. His face was dark with rage. He looked like he could destroy us all. I knew if given the chance, I would let him.

There are two opposing male archetypes that have populated my life. One is the Randy, the John—men that would be described as gentle, loyal, trustworthy, kind. They are the Good Men.

Then there is the other army. The young men who had swallowed a bomb at birth, those who were ignited in their injury and were bent on loving women as a kind of revenge. I could sniff them out, rouse them from their disaffected sleep, and get them to turn their blistering gaze on me. Some of my men were both: older ones who had grown out of a rebellious youth to become righteous, younger ones who looked like disciples from the exterior, but seethed with some caustic potential. No one is just one thing, but for many years, it felt like that.

Billy was sullen, non-verbal and impervious to the tactics of even the most engaging staff. In our many circles, he sat low in a chair, arms crossed. The only time I saw him behave differently was during gym. We were encouraged, but not forced, to spend an hour a day engaged in physical activity. Most of the girls sat with their backs against the wall watching the boys play basketball. I loved basketball, but had spent my gym time each day in the row of girls. It was easier to conform. And I was a little bit afraid to seem okay. I worried that if I indicated enthusiasm toward any given thing, they would take note, and make me leave.

I had a boyfriend at home.

I am thankful that someone, a grown man who was intrinsically good, would offer that kind of closeness to me. Yet, I am also undone by the nearness, the potential harm that could’ve occurred if he had been otherwise.

He was Jennifer and John’s foster son. At different times, they would have between two and six teenage foster boys in their home, but Tim was permanent. Jennifer would pick us all up from school. They had a freezer full of Homerun pies and we would take turns at the microwave warming them up. Mostly they were hot as molten lava, but we would blow and bite, blow and bite, while crowding around on the carpet like puppies, watching Days of Our Lives, Jennifer’s unwavering choice.

After scarfing down the powdery pastry and saccharine fruit gel, some of us would go out to the bare dirt mound where the basketball hoop was mounted. Tim was the best at basketball, and the other boys would get bored after few games of Horse. I was tenacious though, waiting for the moment when everyone else would clear, leaving the two of us alone. In these short lengths of time between the moment we were left and the encroaching night, we would go head-to-head, the ball ringing out against the hard-packed dirt, our hands smooth with dust, sweat sticking to our t-shirts, marking our hands and anywhere we had touched one another with the smudges of our game.

He, like all the boys, had been warned by John to treat me with respect. I was like a princess among them. Except for Tim, who would let his arms wrap around my middle in an attempt to get the upper hand, would place his legs on either side of mine—our appendages woven together—any closeness the ball allowed. It was only a matter of time before we kissed.

It was decided that I would go to Hilltop when I stopped going to school. Things that had been keeping me alive were losing their hold. Tim knew. He seemed to love my damage. He was going to be a Good Man, or at least he was trying. When I said stop, he did. I told him I would come back better.

When Billy passed me the basketball, it was reflex that grabbed hold of it and lobbed it back. He was rough and fast, his movements unfamiliar and jerky. I met him, step to step, didn’t fall back when he pushed forward. I scored on him from the three-point line, expecting the wide-open grin that Tim would’ve reserved for such a shot. I turned into his body and he checked me. I hit the ground hard. He was not my sweet opponent who would sneak a kiss to the back of my neck, who would throw me over his shoulder for winning.

I mistook this boy for another. No one had told him to protect me. To keep me safe from someone just like him.

*     *     *

My mother came to visit every chance she could. She would work all day, get in the car and drive the hour and forty-five minutes north just to see me for forty minutes. There were kids whose parents lived in the same town, but only came on Family Night. I knew then, and have always known, the certainty of my mother’s love. It’s something that set me apart at HCC, that my mother came each day. She gave me letters from my family, my friends, and Tim. She knew every staff member by their first name and asked for detailed updates on my progress.

She is the reason I lived. She believed me, both when I said the truth of what had happened and then again when I questioned the value of my own life. The hardest truth is that a mother’s love can’t always protect the child. Even from the other parent.

That month I was at HCC, there were record heat waves. We didn’t know it or feel it in the air-conditioned bubble of the interior. A week before I was released, our whole unit was allowed to hike up the hillside along the side of the facility to watch fireworks. A few days before, Rose had been moved to another place. She still had time left, but there was no more funding to support her treatment. Her departure was hard on me. I was surprised by the strength of my grief. If she left, I would leave soon too.

Without Rose around, I was vulnerable to Billy’s attention. She recognized immediately what kind of boy he was and would tell him to get the fuck away from us. Once she was gone he began sitting at my table at meal times, passing little misspelled notes: “Yur room. Toniht.”

“You’re not going to get into my room,” I challenged. “Staff are everywhere.”

“Is that a dare?” he sneered, his face red and pocked with acne. I wanted to tell Randy about the notes, but there was a part of me that was testing what would happen, that didn’t want protection, who wanted to see if the pervert curse held. There was also the beguiling hook that he liked me (or I perceived that was what his attentions meant). He wasn’t threatening to sneak into any other girl’s room, which by default, made me special. How many times had I enacted this exchange: aggression, silence, agreement, accusation? Was there ever a time I hadn’t, was more likely the question.

Was I surprised when the hall light, that never turned off, cut a shadow of his figure in my doorframe?

Did I answer him, deflating my name in the static air, hissing, Sarah Sarah Sarah?

I remember that his breath was acrid and mouth dry as he pressed his lips to mine, then the cruel bite, and the warmth of my blood. I was tucked in up to my chin, swaddled in the number-stamped bedding, which he pulled at, my lower lip kept still in his teeth. He found my nightshirt, pulled it up and held my breasts, one in each hand. He held to my flesh like he was intent on remaking me, as if I were clay he could shape into someone else, as if I could be pressed through the small openings his fingers left.

The next day, I had a fat lip. In the mirror, I saw that he left two purple wings, spreading and deepening in color across my chest.

He had only been there a moment. He knew that’s all he had. Before I could react to his swift violence, he was back in the doorframe, waiting for the right moment to creep back to his room.

I turned over into my wild, beating heart. I never told anyone.

*     *     *

Would it have been easier if Story of a Soul were my story? If praying was the answer to my suffering, letting me embrace the contrast of loss with the love of God. It wasn’t. I never opened that book of scriptures that Randy gifted to me, other than to read his words. It’s in a box somewhere, buried in stacks of letters and worksheets populated with my loopy teen script. If God existed anywhere, it was in those seconds my body was held against his with pure intent, or those few moments John allowed me to fall apart, protected in his arms.

When I was at HCC, I was between dying and finding the next story to live into. I didn’t yet believe that there was something better. I wanted merely to know that eventually the radiant edge of Mt. Shasta would look again like a mountain, rather than a cardboard cutout someone might punch their fist through. The love of those steadfast, uptight, gracious men calmed the gasping, flailing girl inside me, allowing me the knowledge that safety was possible. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the life I would build or know that some suffering abates, that trauma retreats with the discovery of new ecstasies, new grief.

Driving south on I-5 toward home, I watch the last hour of sun play along the hillsides and ravines that make up the landscape between where I’ve come from and where I live. I think of my mother at the end of her long workday, driving these same roads to visit me, the fear and hope she must’ve held together over these miles.

I can barely remember the body and mind of my young self at Hilltop, but I do recall the guided imagery Jamie would lead me through in our sessions. She would lay me back on her couch and cover me with a soft blanket, turn the lights down. Once, she asked me to imagine a place where I felt protected and I saw my childhood bedroom, the butter-yellow walls and crinkled gauze curtains floating over the windows. I moved toward the small closet that my brother and I would hide in sometimes, pretending that we were looking for a portal into another world. There was a board there that you could move aside and see into the guts of the house.

In my mind, I held the edges of the board with my fingertips. I pried at it with all the strength my hands could muster. There was warmth on the other side. And there was light.

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Special Guest Judge, Bernadette Murphy

“’Eternal Father and the Other Army’ is a narrative of healing crafted with lyric language and deep emotional insight. The author limns the human condition in all its complexity and messiness, celebrating moments of peace and redemption amid the pain and difficulties of growing up and moving forward.”

– Bernadette Murphy is the author of, most recently, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, May 2016), and the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Sarah Pape Sarah Pape teaches English and works as the Managing Editor of Watershed Review at Chico State. Her poetry and prose has recently been published in New England Review, Passages North, Ecotone, Crab Orchard Review, Bluestem, The Pinch, Smartish Pace, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and others. Her chapbook, Ruination Atlas, was published this year (dancing girl press). She curates community literary programming and is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Check out her website for more: www.sarahpape.com.

Progress Notes

The first time I visit her, she lies in bed at the far end of the hall where residents with the worst kinds of dementia are placed, where the man in room 308 rigidly slumps in a geri-chair, eyes and mouth open wide as if in a trance, where the wild-haired woman in room 309 clasps a soft-bristle brush to her breast and rocks back and forth, tied to her wheelchair with a blue padded belt, where the bed alarms never stop beeping and the questions are endless, Where am I? Who am I? Will you help me? Two knocks on her door, room 310, and I enter. A radio sits on her bedside table. On the shelf across from her bed, a rubber snake coils against a pink ballerina music box. She stares up at a poster tacked to the ceiling above her bed, a photo of wildflowers on a high mountain slope. I wonder what she thinks about, if she can still think at all.

Her name is Rita. She is in her mid-fifties, decades younger than most residents, admitted for wound care because bedsores have broken through the tender skin on her backside, and her husband can no longer care for her at home. Her thin body is contracted, bent knees wedged between the bedrails, hands curled into tight fists. She can tolerate sitting in her wheelchair for an hour a day when her husband comes on his lunch break. After he leaves, an aide puts her back to bed and a nurse pours milky-brown, high-protein liquid into the tube in her belly to keep her hydrated and fed.

Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

I know a little about advanced multiple sclerosis: she may suffer from painful spasms or burning sensations. She may have a lucid mind or significant memory loss, clear vision or blurred. Because I’ve heard she can no longer speak, I have no way of knowing for sure. According to her Activities Care Plan, I’m supposed to provide one-to-one visits three times a week for sensory stimulation: play music and ring bells, wave cinnamon sticks and rosebud sachets beneath her nose, or show her objects from my cart—bright fabrics, silk flowers, rhinestone jewelry—the types of activities I do for residents with severe cognitive deficits. Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

Her long wavy hair, deep brown with a hint of silver at the temples, fans across her pillow, and several tendrils stick to her damp forehead.

I rub her arm.

She screams, high-pitched wails that rise from deep inside, as if with all her strength she pushes out the noise.

I turn on the radio.

I know staff can hear her in the hallway and residents listen through the walls. When I push their wheelchairs past her room on my way to a social program, they glance toward her door. One resident may shake his head and say, “Poor kid.” Another will yell, “Shut the hell up!” She annoys me too.

Each one of her screams is punctuated by a moment of silence before beginning again. I pull a picture book from my cart and hold it up to her face. She bares her teeth.

*     *     *

I spend my workdays serving coffee, painting fingernails, conducting exercise groups, and calling Bingo. A year has passed since I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English, got married, and moved five hours from home. When I tell people that I work in the Activities Department of a nursing home, the same type of job I had all through high school and college, I always add that I plan on returning to college to get my master’s degree, that I intend on doing something else with my life. And before the move, I seriously did consider graduate school, even took the GRE, but my scores were so low that I lost my nerve. I threw away the admissions packets I sent for and said I needed a break. I said I needed time to study, to read and to write. Besides, I said, I was a college graduate and could find a good writing job anywhere.

But after the move and weeks of filling out applications, I realized I wasn’t going to get that writing or editing job. Just one company called for an interview, and it was for a position in collections at a bank. I let the machine pick up and continued to scan the Classifieds until I saw the ad for an activities assistant, a job I knew I could get.

So I help the residents plant flower gardens in the courtyard and paint birdhouses. I sing to them, songs like “Bicycle Built for Two” and “You Are My Sunshine.” I take them shopping at the dollar store and help them place two dollar bets on horses at the racetrack across town. I also read to them, sweet stories with happy endings. When I conduct the nursing home’s monthly poetry group, I photocopy lighthearted poems from Reminisce or Good Old Days magazines. I sit at a table with eight or ten residents and read the verses aloud. Then I ask them what they would like to write about.

Some stare off into the distance. Others nap.

“What happens this month?” I ask.

“Kids return to school,” one resident says.

I write down their words:

September first, and back to the red brick schoolhouse,

skipping or dragging summer-feet

in ugly brown Oxfords.

A far cry from black patent leather,

but “they’re practical.”

Their poems fit well inside the Resident Chronicle, the facility newsletter I put out each month. They see their words in print, next to the birthday list. Some cut them out and post them on the corkboards in their rooms; others carry the newsletters with them, tucked inside the waistbands of their sweatpants, ready to read to visitors, or again to themselves.

For a while, after work and on weekends, I write too. My husband works nights as a security guard at an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town, so I spend evenings alone, and those first few months I draft essays, laptop balanced on my knees, notebooks and journals strewn across the floor of our one-bedroom rental. Free from the demands of college homework, I write whatever, whenever, I want.

This doesn’t last long.

Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

Blame it on the lack of deadlines to keep me motivated, blame it on the demands of a forty-hour work week, but after a while I am no longer writing. I watch television. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy fill my evenings. When I think about writing, I manage to talk myself out of it: I am too tired, I have to clean the bathroom, go to the laundromat, walk the dog, wash dishes, mow the lawn, sweep the garage, trim the shrubs, grocery shop. I begin frequenting craft stores, learn to make oatmeal soap, plaster trivets and cement stepping stones decorated with cobalt sea glass and bits of broken mirror. I make dog biscuits and roll out egg noodles for chicken soup from scratch. Or I just don’t feel like writing. Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

*     *     *

Three times a week, I show Rita photographs of horses and cats, wave vials of citrus and peppermint beneath her nose, stroke her arm with a peacock feather, even read to her from Chicken Soup for the Soul—anything to get her to respond—but she screams or stares at the ceiling, not once indicating she knows I am there. When I record our interactions in her chart’s Progress Notes, I consistently write “No response.” One afternoon, the charge nurse asks me to give Rita’s contracted hands range of motion therapy, so I smooth lotion over the top of her right fist and stroke her fingers down to the tips, where her long nails burrow into her palm. She whimpers, and when I slip my thumb beneath her curled fingers to straighten them, she shrieks. The undersides of her fingers are gummed with sweat and smell like sour milk. I try to ease her hand open a little more, to rub lotion around the joints, but she screams louder. Afraid I’ve hurt her and that I’ll break her brittle bones, I let her fingers spring back into her palm.

In the hall outside Rita’s room, the charge nurse smiles sympathetically. “What did you do to that poor woman?”

I know she’s only teasing, but I don’t feel like laughing. I go next door for a visit with a catatonic man in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. I lean over the man’s bed, carefully wipe the sleep from his unblinking eyes with a warm washcloth, and listen to Rita wail through the wall.

Later, at home, I wonder if she cries out clear into evening, or if she’s finally stopped. I curl up in my own bed and let Lucy Ricardo’s terrible singing lull me to sleep.

*     *     *

I meet Rita’s husband after I’ve been visiting her room for a month. The conference room is cramped with a large table and a dusty, ceiling-high ficus tree. The state requires that the care plan team meet every few weeks to review and update the progress of new admits. I ask her husband, a small man with dark hair and a thick mustache, about her past interests.

“She used to like poetry,” he says, adjusting the bill of his baseball cap. “Used to write it too, even went to graduate school for her MFA, but never finished because—well, you know.”

And I’ve been reading her Chicken Soup for the Soul.

“Who are her favorite writers?” I think of the books high up on my shelves at home, the dog-eared covers and tissue-thin pages filled with blue ink and pink highlighter.

He folds his hands and shrugs. “The usual famous ones, I guess.”

Impatiently, I wait for the other departments to finish giving their reports—Nursing: her bedsores have almost healed. Dietary: she maintains a healthy weight. Social services: she screams on a regular basis—and after the meeting, I hurry to Rita’s room.

As usual, she lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“So you’re a poet,” I say.

I lean over her bedrails. “I used to study writing, too. Who do you like? Plath? Dickinson? Wordsworth? Blake?”

She turns her head and looks at me.

*     *     *

I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”

When I was in college, I used to take my textbooks with me to the nursing home and study on my breaks, sometimes when I was supposed to be doing quarterly activity assessments and care plans. During music performances, while the residents listened to fiddlers strum “Tennessee Waltz,” I critiqued essays for workshop, and during church programs, I scribbled ideas for essays on napkins. Back then I filled every spare moment with reading and writing, some mornings rising at 4:30 to fit a few more hours into my day. I wouldn’t turn on the television all semester. Now, a year later, I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” I’ve grown into the habit of sleeping in until the last possible minute, hitting the snooze button so many times that I’m nearly late for work each morning. On my lunch breaks I drive home and settle into the Game Show channel, after work TV Land.

I wipe off my book jackets with a damp cloth. It is fall, and classes are in full swing. Right now, students hurry across campus on their way to the library, backpacks weighted with binders and books. Maybe a young student heads up to the second floor, to the quiet cubicle in the northeast corner, the heart of the literature stacks overlooking the sprawling lawn and administration building, my favorite place to study. Maybe this student opens an American lit book and begins to read. It is nearly seven o’clock, dusk, and through the branches of the giant elms lining the sidewalks, the streetlights dully gleam. Then the clock tower begins to chime, and almost 300 miles away, kneeling in front of my old textbooks, something stirs inside.

*     *     *

Her eyes are closed and she moans the afternoon I read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips.”  I’ve spent the morning at the copy machine with a heavy pile of books, filling a three-ring binder with my favorite poems. I glance up from the page. The vertical blinds are drawn, and the leaves on the cherry tree outside her window have turned deep gold. Sun glints off the metal light poles in the parking lot, off the windshields of the parked cars, and she’s stopped groaning. She watches me, studying my face and hands, and for once, I can also really see her, the intensity of her green eyes.

When I reach the concluding lines—

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health

—I hesitate. Should I be reading something this grim to her? But she remains still, staring at me, as I skim the pages of the binder. I ask who she would like to hear next, Williams, maybe Blake?

She opens her eyes wide and inhales, and so softly I almost miss it, she mouths a “B.”

Doctors, nurses—everyone—say she’s nonverbal, so I’m not sure I hear her correctly.

She tries to lift her head from the pillow, but her hair is pinned beneath her shoulders. “B— Bla—,” she whispers.

“Do you mean Blake?”

Perspiration flecks her upper lip, and she closes her eyes. “Yes,” she breathes.

I suppress the urge to run out of her room and tell my co-workers they were wrong—she can talk. Instead, I flip through the notebook and find the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I turn to the first poem and start to read:

Piping down the valleys wild,  

Piping songs of pleasant glee . . .

And then I lose track of time. I read about bright tigers, little lambs, and chimney sweeps, about laughing meadows and London town, bleak fields and children’s cries of weep, weep, weep, weep. When I finally look up from the binder, I’ve read through most of the Songs, poems I haven’t read for a long time, that she hasn’t heard for an even longer time.

Before I leave her room, I turn on the radio. The announcer gives the weather report, and Rita stares at the ceiling, but I believe she sees something else. Instead of the mountain scene on the poster above her bed, she sees the words she still knows.

*     *     *

I would like to say it is the poetry that inspires me to fill out the application for graduate school, but it’s more complicated than that. Rita couldn’t finish school because of the rapid progression of her disease, and I know it sounds cliché to say that I feel my own life slipping away when I visit her room and see her deteriorated body, the days she passes in bed, but how else can I put it?

That fall, when she is able to sit up for an hour, and her husband doesn’t make it in, I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror. Then I take her outside. The courtyard is in the middle of the nursing home, surrounded on all sides by windows and resident rooms. I wheel her to the rose garden and pull up a patio chair next to hers. Inside, residents sit in wheelchairs waiting to be invited to an activity program or a meal. Some watch television. Others are dying. But I don’t look at the banks of windows encircling us. The roses are four-feet tall and we face them, white with pink trim, deep red with velvet petals. I read to her, and for a short time pretend we aren’t in the nursing home, in the center of the city, caught in the same routine. The howls of an ambulance at the hospital across the street, the beeping of the facility bus, disappear, and if only for a few minutes, we live somewhere else, immersed in the language of some other time, breathing in the sweetness of the last of the season’s roses, wisps of hair skimming our flushed cheeks in the crisp breeze.

But then one dark winter afternoon I visit her room, and from her bed she looks at me with what I can only describe as despair. The nursing staff has shaved her head nearly bald with clippers.

When I stop Rita’s nurses’ aide in the hall and ask why, she says the long hair was too hard to care for and that Rita’s husband gave his consent.

“But did you ask her?”

The aide continues down the hall, her arms filled with bed linens, and does not respond.

Several weeks later on New Year’s Eve, I apply to just one school, one thirty miles north of my hometown that doesn’t require entrance exams.

*     *     *

It’s early spring, and the cherry tree outside Rita’s window is thick with pink blossoms. The day before, I received the phone call I’ve been hoping for—I’ve been accepted into graduate school—and just like that, my life has changed. The binder overflows with hundreds of photocopies, some I’ve enlarged so she can read along with me though I never know if she can actually see them.

I’m not really thinking about poetry. I’m thinking about packing and moving, about registering for classes. I’m thinking about how to describe the stuffiness of Rita’s room, the rash of broken capillaries on her cheeks, and the flecks of dried blood on her chapped lower lip.

I need to tell her I am leaving.

Her room feels too warm, so I crack the window. “Is that better?”

She stares at the poster on the ceiling.

“Your hair’s really growing back.”

She raises her eyebrows. An inch of dark stubble covers her head. I haven’t shown her a mirror in a long time.

I begin to tell her that I wrote the night before, but then stop. What will she think if I tell her I am writing about the residents in the Alzheimer’s Unit, how they try the doors all day, insisting they need to get home, how when I take them for rides in the facility van, they beg to go back inside? What will she think if she knows I will also one day write about her?

I finally blurt out that I am going back to school to get an MFA. Then I hesitate. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Part of me feels as if I’m rubbing in what she will never have.

Dense white clouds drift past the sun, and the plastic blinds clack in the breeze. She doesn’t look at me, but there is no mistaking what I hear. “Good for you,” she whispers.

*     *     *

I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror.

It isn’t always good those months before I leave. There are days when she cries out during the entire visit, days when I sit beside her bed and her screams drown out the poems I read aloud, when I lose my temper and ask, “Do you want me to read to you, or not?” One afternoon she spits in my face. I glare at her and leave her room, though when I return to my office to record our interaction in her progress notes, I don’t know what to write. What is it like when a woman half her age bounds into her room with poems she’s picked out for her to hear? How does it feel when she tells her she’s going to graduate school to study writing while her hands, no longer able to grip a pen, have curled like dead leaves? When her husband visits once a day for an hour, and she’s so lonely for his touch, but can’t ask him to lie down beside her and hold her or even demand that he stay, when the old man in the hallway outside her door won’t stop asking where he is, and the woman in the room next door rhythmically thumps her wheelchair into the wall behind her head, and the whole place smells like piss and shit, and she is young—only in her fifties—and should be doing anything but lying in a bed, staring at a poster of wildflowers someone tacked to the ceiling.

Twice before I leave, she scrapes her fist against her G-tube until it pops out of her belly and liquid food soaks her sheets, pooling on the white linoleum beneath her bed. Nursing staff considers the first time an accident, but they scold her the second time.

“What are you trying to do?” I overhear her nurse say. She and an aide tape the tube down along her side. They smother her stomach with a pillow so she can no longer work it free.

When I show the binder to the middle-aged woman hired to take my place, she glances at a stack of care plan assessments in her hand instead. I flip through the photocopies, pausing at the pages with the corners folded—Wordsworth and Keats, Coleridge and Blake—trying to explain Rita’s preferences. “Don’t worry,” the woman says, “I know just the kind of inspirational poetry she needs.”

Then I stop trying to explain. I know she isn’t listening, and I tell myself I don’t really know what Rita needs anyway. I used to ask her husband to bring in her own poetry from home, but he never did. At first, he told me he forgot. Then he said he couldn’t find it. Maybe he wanted to keep that part of her for himself. I used to imagine him sitting at her desk, sifting through her notebooks, reading her words, remembering. Or maybe he kept the notebooks shut, tucked away on the top shelf of the bookcase. Maybe he thought the poems would awaken something inside that she would never be able to regain. Maybe he knew something I didn’t, that it would hurt too much, and it was best if she forgot. She once mouthed a B, maybe a D, when I asked her to tell me her favorite poet, and I listed off names. Blake, Bishop, Dickinson, Donne? She shook her head. Dickey, Berryman, Bly? No, she said loudly, her face red with effort. Doolittle, Browning? Spit gathered in the corners of her mouth, and she screamed.

I am leaving soon, starting a new life, but until then, I visit her room three times a week. The pink privacy curtain surrounding her bed is drawn back, and her folded bedspread neatly covers her feet. My mind these days is elsewhere, already focused on the future. Still, I sit beside her bed and flip through the notebook, choosing poems I think she wants to hear. The lazy slant of afternoon sun shines on her face and perspiration beads her forehead. Her light blue hospital gown has slipped off her shoulders, and the white sheet bunched up at her waist hides the tube in her belly. She listens to me read, her hands balled into tight fists against her heart, and stares up at the poster on the ceiling, looming peaks of snow-flecked mountains, sparse stands of subalpine fir, and a lush meadow of wildflowers, tiny lavender daisies and white tufts of bear grass, their pale faces forever turned toward the sky. For her, delicate fingers of lupine hold everything.

Jennifer AndersonJennifer Anderson is an English instructor at Lewis-Clark State College, and her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, the Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Cimarron Review, and Open Spaces Quarterly, among other places. She also collaborates on documentary films with her husband, Vernon Lott; their latest project, “The Act of Becoming,” explores the recent international success behind John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner.

 

Danica Mae and other poems


Danica Mae

The President’s helicopter will never land
near your barangay. He will never walk
up to your mother’s house, dust his shoes
off before stepping through the door.

He’ll never look around where you kept
your toys. His eyes won’t linger on your clothes
as they hang or lay folded, now separate
from the family laundry. He won’t ask

what your favorite ice cream
flavor was, or how you held a crayon
in your hand, or whether you covered
your mouth whenever you laughed.

Whatever I say won’t matter,
not to you. Not even as I declare that bullets
did not end your life, words did.
The bullets were nothing but bits

of metal that could have been
a door to your toy car,
or the buttons of a dress
you will never now wear.

 

Standing in Tagaytay

He crumples
his plastic cup
in his fist, this boy
with a toy gun.

Then he hurls the cup.
Like his father, he laughs
as it misses
the garbage bin.

They move to the woman
who has just dropped
a coin into the telescope.
“Ma, it’s my turn!”

The woman does not budge.
The boy gives a nudge
at his mother’s elbow
and, with his gun,

hits the metal body
of the telescope. It echoes
like a wailing baby.
As the woman surrenders her place

the man lifts the boy.
Happy, he clings to the cold
metal and takes a peek
at the stillness of the volcano

and the lake
that seem only a picture
misted in time.
For a moment

the woman watches her family
before turning back
to the vast world embracing
all who are there.

She stares into the distance
at the only boat moving,
moving as if forever
without reaching shore.

Tagaytay is a popular destination for Manila’s population because of its proximity and elevation. It offers a magnificent view of Taal Volcano which is surrounded by a lake; but inside the volcano is another lake which surrounds the center of the collapsed volcanoan eye-within-an eye if seen from the heavens.

 

The Long and Brief History of the Bald Old Man and the Busted Pot

coal darkens then goes
red at the fervent groans
and gripes of this man, all
skin and bones, boiling rice
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Danica Mae

Hindi kailanman lalapag malapit sa iyong barangay
ang helikopter ng Presidente. Hindi siya kailanman
maglalakad patungo sa bahay ng iyong ina, o magpapagpag
ng alikabok sa sapatos bago humakbang papasok ng pinto.

Hindi kailanman hahagurin ng kanyang tingin kung saan mo
dating itinatabi ang iyong mga laruan. Hindi magmamabagal
ang kanyang mga mata pagtanaw sa mga damit mong nakasabit o tiklop na
nakahimlay, ngayon ay hiwalay sa labada ng pamilya. Hindi niya tatanungin

kung ano ang pleybor ng paborito mong ays krim,
o kung paano ka humawak ng krayola,
o kung tinatapakpan mo ng palad
ang iyong bibig tuwing matatawa.

Walang halaga ang ano pa man na aking sabihin,
lalo na sa iyo. Kahit pa man tukuyin kong hindi mga bala
ang kumitil sa iyong buhay, kundi mga salita.
Mumunting piraso lamang ng bakal

ang mga bala na maaari sanang naging pintuan
ng laruan mong kotse, o mga butones
ng damit na hindi mo na maisusuot
mula sa araw na ito.

 

Nakatayo sa Tagaytay

Pakuyom na pinalalagutok
ng batang may baril
na laruan ang plastik
niyang baso.

Inihagis niya matapos
sa basurahan sabay tawa
nang hindi pumasok
tulad ng sa kanyang ama.

Pinuntahan nilang dalawa
ang babaeng kahuhulog pa lang
ng bayad sa teleskopyo.
“’Ma, ‘ko naman!”

Hindi tuminag ang babae.
Tinabig ng bata
ang siko ng kanyang ina
at pinagpapalo ng baril

ang bakal na katawan
ng teleskopyo. Umalingawngaw
na parang uha.
Pagsuko ng babae

binuhat ng ama ang batang
tuwang-tuwa sa pagkapit
sa lamig ng bakal at pagsilip
sa bulkang walang tinag

at sa lawang tila
larawan lamang na dinapuan
ng hamog ng panahon.
Sandaling pinagmasdan ng babae

ang kanyang pamilya
bago bumaling muli sa lawak
ng daigdig na yumayakap
sa kanilang lahat na naroon.

Tinitigan niya ang mala-palitong bangka
na mag-isang naglalakbay,
para bang habang panahong
maglalakbay bago makadaong.

 

Ang Mahaba’t Maikling Kasaysayan ng Matandang Kalbo at ng Butas na Kaldero

naninimdim ang uling
sa taimtim na daing
at hinaing ng butu’t
balat na tagasaing

Translator’s Note

The Philippines can claim to have the most abundant linguistic heritage in the world, largely due to its geographic features and its long trade and colonial history. Yet this heritage has not been given proper attention even within its own borders. With the continued dominance of English and Filipino in the local popular culture, this poor situation can only continue. These days, though, there are far more tragic things taking place in the country.

I myself can only claim fluency in Filipino (or Tagalog, from which it is largely drawn) and English, as taught by Jesuits from America. My father was from the Ilocos region in the north (where the remains of Marcos, the former dictator lies, and his wax image displayed like a museum piece). It is home to one of the few surviving pre-colonial epics of the country, Lam-Ang. I should have learned from my grandmother who spoke only Ilocano (or Iluko), but all I picked up were the words relating to water and food, as well as a few curses (which I learned from my over a dozen cousins).

Although Filipino is my mother tongue, I started trying to write poetry in English first. Those attempts, way back when I was in my last year of high school, were awkward and artificial, but I didn’t know better. When I got to university I realized how hollow my attempts were. So I forced myself to write in Filipino after being told by a teacher that my work would sound more authentic. Indeed I noticed how I felt each poem came about more naturally instead of something I had to labor over. I did not, however, give up writing in English. They just seemed like separate worlds to write in, one warmer than the other.

Then my first mentor, the bilingual poet Danton Remoto, taught me how to identify weaknesses in my own poems by translating them. It was an exercise in looking at one’s own creation as if it were someone else’s. Being able to use two languages meant greater creative freedom. I could figure out how to improve a poem, or in which language the images and ideas would work better. It was like each piece had the possibility of having two lives, or two skins, sometimes with alternative levels of meaning.

For instance, the first images of a poem might arrive in Filipino. But then if I got stuck I would translate it to English and keep working on it almost instantly. Once I felt satisfied with the completed piece, I would then go back to the original Filipino and “transfer” the ideas and images in the vessel of my home language.

This transfer, though, often feels more like recreating a new life altogether. Sometimes it would be the other way around, with English acting as the first vessel. Eventually I grew accustomed to this way of writing. I saw then that each language had its own unique way of capturing an idea, an image, or an entire experience.

When we write we are merely trying to grasp the images from our minds, hoping we can share them with others by placing them in the vessels we have, the shape of whatever language(s) we are bound to use.

“Danica Mae” is a response to the terrible recent events in The Philippines under current President Rodrigo Duterte, and supposedly endorsed by U.S. President-elect Trump. In the last six months, under Duterte’s brutal anti-drug campaign, police have killed over 2,000 people. Additionally, the New York Times reports in that same time period over 3,500 unsolved homocides.

I started writing the poem in Filipino, but I stopped because I found the lines exhaustingly long. They needed to be shorter and less direct, almost detached, so I tried to translate the initial skeleton of the poem—or re-wrote it, to be more precise—in English. The more controlled tone in the English version gave the poem a less hysterical treatment of such a tragic subject matter. I then went back to try and bring that same feeling to the Filipino version, but the long lines proved unavoidable. That is the fate of the Filipino version, it seems.

The two other poems in this set were written many years ago. They were far easier to translate, as they rely on clear and simple, everyday imagery. I believe these two poems would be fairly easy to translate to other languages as well.

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Special Guest Judge, Mark Statman

“There is something beautifully and sadly dense about these poems, which the poet, Jim Pascual Agustin, himself has translated. I found myself returning to them because I found them at once mysterious and ordinary, describing what I can only think of as tragic events (in “Danica Mae,” the actual death of one child, in “Standing in Tagatay,” the learned careless callousness in the life of another). The final short poem, “The Long and Brief History of the Bald Old Man and the Busted Pot,¨ presents the reader with a different kind of tragedy, a view of a long life at its unhappy end. Not easy to want to read, these poems nonetheless demand it. That demand is what I think I want most from a poem.”

– Mark Statman’s poetry collections include That Train Again (Lavender Ink, 2015), A Map of the Winds (Lavender Ink, 2013) and Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose, 2010). Other books include Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa (University of New Orleans Press, 2012), the first English language translation of the significant poet of Spain’s Generation of 1927, and, with Pablo Medina, a translation of Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York (Grove 2008). His next translation collection, Never Made in America: Selected Poetry of Martín Barea Mattos, will appear with Lavender Ink/diálogos in April 2017. Statman’s poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in twelve anthologies, as well as such publications as Tin House, Hanging Loose, Ping Pong, and American Poetry Review. A former Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School, he lives in Oaxaca, MX.

Jim Pascual AgustinJim Pascual Agustin writes and translates in Filipino and English. Born in the Philippines, he moved to South Africa in 1994. His poetry has appeared in Rhino, World Literature Today, and Modern Poetry in Translation. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila published five of his seven books of poetry, including his most recent, A Thousand Eyes (2015). In 2016 USTPH released his first short story collection in Filipino. He won Third Prize in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award in 2014 and 2015. Jim wishes to draw the world’s attention to the despicable war on drugs pursued by Philippine President Duterte. www.matangmanok.wordpress.com

All My Bones / The Morning After

All my bones will say woman.
All my bones say woman.
Woman.
Why do you curve.
Why do you adapt.
Why do you embody pity.
Why.
Lips rounded
Your streets are lucid smiles
Your palate candied.
Your bones are bleached deep
Your lips two weekdays sealed
With golden twine.
Your lakes are ancient dreams
Crucified with primordial blue
Like two aged warriors of wisdom
Your blessings are borders that burst
Your roses archived,
Your timing revealed,
Suspended, graceful as deer
Freed from the bridle,
Alienated from the python.
Look not upon me
because I am,
because I was.
I am
White as the abyss of snowy mountains,
Scorched by honesty,
My womanhood cast
Into shattered cisterns of interpretation.

 

The Morning After

The next morning
An imitation of a poem is written
Without waiting for words,
Its language giving tone to letters,
Probing syllables
Deep in their beginning.
She who follows
Buries her head in lower case.
The end deduces the beginning
All the syllables are a treasure
All the treasures are hidden
All the syllables are stored
Each breath disrupts thought
Each combination entering the world
Is the next one.

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כל עצמותי

כּלָ עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה אִשָּׁה
כּלָ עַצְמוֹתַי אוֹמְרוֹת אִשָּׁה
אִשָּׁה
מָה לךְָ מִתְעַגֶּלֶת
מָה לךְָ מִסְתַּגֶּלֶת
מָה לךְָ מְרֻחֶמֶת
מָה לָךְ
אַגְּנוֹת שְׂפָתַיִם
רְחוֹבוֹתַיִךְ חִיּוּכִים זַכִּים
חִכֶּךְ מַמְתַּקִּים
עַצְמוֹתַיִךְ לֹבֶן בּוֹהֵק מַעֲמַקִּים
שִׂפְתוֹתַיִךְ שְׁניֵ יְמוֹת חֹל חֲתוּמִים
בִּשְׁנִי הַזָּהָב
אֲגמַַּיִךְ חֲלוֹמוֹת עַתִּיקִים
צְלוּבִים בִּכחְוֹל הָרֵאשִׁית
כִּשְִׁניֵ לוֹחֲמֵי חָכְמְָה עַתִּיקִים
בִּרְכוֹתַיִךְ סְיָגיֵ גּבְוּל מִתְפַּקְּעִים
שׁוֹשַׁנּיִַךְ גּנְוּזיִם
עִתּוֹתַיִךְ גּלְוּיוֹת
תְּלוּיוֹת, לוְִיוֹת חֵן, אַיָּלוֹת
שְׁלוּחוֹת רְסָנִים
.מִתְנַכְּרוֹת לִפְִתָנִים
אַל תִּרְאוּנִי שֶׁאֲנִי
שֶׁהָיִיתִי
אֲנִי
לְבְָנָה כְּמוֹ תְּהוֹם הֲרָרִים מֻשְׁלגָיִם
כּיִ שְׁזָפַנִי הַיֹּשֶׁר
וְהִשְׁליִךְ
אֶת נָשִׁיּוּתִי הַבּוֹהֶקֶת
לְבֹארֹת נִשְִׁבָּרִים

בבוקר הבא

בַּבֹּקֶר הַבָּא
.שִׁיר חִקּוּי נִכְתָּב
בְּלִי לְחַכּוֹת לְמִלִּים
שְׂפָתוֹ מַצְלִילָה אֶת הָאוֹתִיּוֹת
וְטוֹמֶנֶת אֶת הַתֵּבוֹת
.עָמֹק בְּרֵאשִׁיתָן
כָּל הַמִּתְחַקֶּה אַחַר הָרֵאשִׁית
טוֹמֵן רֹאשׁוֹ בְּתֵבָה
– סוֹפוֹ מַקִּישׁ לְרֵאשִׁיתוֹ
כָּל הַתֵּבוֹת הֵן אוֹצָר
כָּל הָאוֹצָרוֹת טְמוּנִים
כָּל הַתֵּבוֹת אֲצוּרוֹת
כָּל נְשִׁימָה פּוֹרַעַת מַחְשָׁבָה
כָּל צֵרוּף
הַבָּא לָעוֹלָם
הַבָּא הוּא

Translator’s Note

I am deeply attracted to poetry that is open to the world, but also holds secrets. This is especially pertinent to the act of translation, in which words are filtered through the delicate prism of language, culture, and history. The poetry of Michaela Lamdan lends itself so beautifully to this. Her words are simple yet complex, the meaning hovers beneath the words, waiting to be discovered. Michaela Lamdan’s poetry weaves a delicate and often whimsical message that is layered through time and history. Her work delves into Jewish mysticism but never forgets the here and now of the world we live in.

Joanna ChenJoanna Chen’s poetry, essays, and literary translations have been published most recently in Guernica, Mantis, Poetry International, and Asymptote, among others. She authors a column in The Los Angeles Review of Books. In 2016, Less Like a Dove, a collection of translated poetry, was published by Shearsman Books.

Michaela LamdanMichaela Lamdan is an Israeli poet and literary editor. Her first collection of poetry, Between the Clothing and the Body, was published in 2009. She is the recipient of the 2009 Sheindel Yizraeli Prize and the 2016 Weizmann Institute Prize for the Encouragement of Creativity, among others. Lamdan teaches creative writing at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. She is a member of the Israeli Film Writer’s Association and is presently working on a second book of poetry and a film script. She lives in Jerusalem.

Every Man a Fortress

We traded snippets about ourselves when the chaos allowed and found we’d both joined the Corps to make something of ourselves, serve our country, and shoot things—Schnieder wanted to be a Rifleman while I was already slated to be a Machine Gunner. Before enlisting, Schnieder had been a degenerate living in his parents’ basement. I’d enlisted eight months prior at seventeen, and had just graduated high school before shipping out. I told Schnieder how the Army Recruiter had blown off my appointment, and when the Navy Recruiter asked me why I wanted to join I’d told him, “To shoot things,” so I’d been sent across the hall to the Marines. We were scared, but determined. Neither of us had any intention of washing out. When we’d watched the rack-less Recruits being marched away he’d said thank you. And meant it.

I slowly rocked my weight to the balls of my feet and then back onto my heels again to alleviate the pain in my lower back. When the Drill Instructors had left, after putting the platoon at POA, they’d laughed and joked about how they’d come back to find a squad bay of Recruits passed out face first on the concrete floor. Many dark outlines of Recruits swayed as if drunk on their feet. When knees lock they cut off circulation, but when a Recruit stood at the POA he needed to “lock his body.” As new Recruits we hadn’t figured out to almost lock our knees, or rhythmically tense and relax them to keep blood flowing.

Heads bobbed and weaved as things started to gray out. I relaxed my knees, not realizing I’d tensed them, hoping it wasn’t too late to recover before passing out. If I fell no one would move to help me. The Drill Instructors had been clear that if a Recruit went down, no one was to help him up. They said we would be told not to help others throughout boot camp to destroy our expectation of assistance—seek nothing outside of yourself, the well-built Korean DI said, once every man became a fortress we would be Marines.

The florescent tubes hummed overhead. Light became dizzy staccato flashes. I tried to motivate myself by thinking back to why I joined the Corps. My memory of the morning blurred into a kaleidoscope of images. The initial scene of a single tower smoking seared into my mind. I could still see a 747 glide into the second tower and erupt out the other side a shotgun blast of fire, twisted rebar, and broken glass. Smoke, pouring out of the first tower and wreathing the second. The way flailing figures spun as they plunged to the street, their descent tracked frantically by cameras.

Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again.

Towers crumbling to nothing. People running, screaming, as tidal waves of ash and debris flooded through the surrounding avenues. They just fell, one after the other, first the bodies then the towers.

I’d wondered if there had been trumpets that morning, as my teacher panicked and sat dumbfounded. From the doom on his face my stomach had knotted in fear that the rapture had happened and all of our parents had been disappeared off the face of the earth, teleported up to heaven—that my parents had been right all along. My classmates and I stared at the television screens with blank expressions. The cyclical nature of the newscasts, hashing out and then rehashing what had happened, showed us again and again. Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again. The narrative stopped being linear in my mind and become a jumble of destruction on screens I had to watch. The humming of florescent lights took the place of sirens and screaming as teachers switched on subtitles. The same sound that had filled that day buzzed above me now, and the same scared looks and blank stares on faces lined up.

Silently the door opened, and Stahl stepped through. Silently it closed again.

“Look to your left and right,” Stahl said.

The platoon looked.

“Some of the men to your right and left won’t be here a year from now. Hell, some of them won’t even be alive six months from now,” Stahl said.

Staff Sergeant Stahl paced the length of the squad bay, his flashing corframs click-clacking, click-clack as he drove his heels into the floor. He told us about himself and how he was going to run the platoon with an iron fist while the First Hat was away bucking for promotion. Stahl was a “been there, done that,” Marine. He came from the Old Corps, when things had been much harder. And he’d served in Iraq, leading a Mortar Section in combat operations and earned several decorations for their performance. Stahl had taken lives, rifled through dead insurgents’ pockets for cigarettes and food. He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time. He’d watched his men die, blood bubbling out of their nostrils as they screamed for their mothers. Stahl knew something we couldn’t imagine—we weren’t all going to make it.

“And some of you,” Stahl shouted. “Shouldn’t be here! Take a look around and you’ll see who they are. Schnieder wouldn’t even have a rack if it wasn’t for his rack-mate telling a bunch of Recruits twice his size to fuck off. You know what kind of Recruits can’t seize and hold a rack? Non-hackers.”

Stahl explained that “non-hacker,” like almost all military jargon, was not counter-intuitive. Later in our careers as Marines we would learn idioms and rhymes that seemed childish: “red means dead” to remind us if we could see the red dot below a pistol’s safety then the safety was disengaged; “brass to the grass” to remind us to load ammunition into machine guns always with the shiny side of the brass rounds down and the black connecting links on top; “tap, rack, bang,” to remind us of the correct immediate action of tapping the magazine, racking the bolt and trying to fire again when our rifle misfired; “treat, never, keep, keep,” to reduce the four weapons safety rules to something small and manageable. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded. Never point your weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot, keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire, and keep your finger safe and off the trigger until you are ready to fire, was easily remembered as “treat, never, keep, keep.” Non-hacker was the first in a long list, and the most self-explanatory.

He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time.

Stahl explained it anyway.

“A non-hacker is someone who can’t fucking hack it, good to go?” Stahl asked. He didn’t look up to see if there were any questions. The platoon couldn’t move or speak when at the POA.

“Recruiters, they don’t go to combat and watch men die. They sit stateside and don’t do shit like the fleet dodgers they are. All they care about is numbers. So some of you were recruited by men who knew you don’t have what it takes.”

Stahl’s head whipped like he’d heard a sound. He stalked over to a short, fat Recruit with freckles, a red nose and red stubble on his head. The Recruit looked straight ahead while Stahl stared at him, inches from his face.

“Your Recruiter was slumming when he picked you up,” Stahl bellowed. “What the fuck did you do in the civilian world?”

The Recruit didn’t answer for a second, then spoke in a quavering voice.

“I–” the Recruit started.

“This Recruit!” Stahl screamed, spittle speckling the recruits face. “You no longer say ‘I’ do you understand? You will only say ‘This Recruit’ when referring to yourself.”

“This Recruit,” he started again, voice cracking. “Used to roller blade and hang out with his friends.”

Stahl took off the hat DIs wore, the same kind worn by Smokey the Bear. Holding his hat in one hand he ran the other down his face. When his hand fell it revealed an Oni mask of hate where Stahl’s face had been. The sudden transformation could have been comical in the civilian world only because it would have been safe to assume it jest. Stahl wasn’t joking though. His face turned purple with rage, a hue I hadn’t realized brown-skinned people could achieve. His right hand knotted into a fist with the pointer finger extended at the second knuckle that he slammed into the Recruit’s cheek, as if pointing at his eyebrow.

“And you didn’t think it might be important to lose some fucking weight for Marine Corps boot camp?” Stahl asked. “What did your friends say when you told them that you were going to join the Marine Corps?”

The Recruit looked ready to shit himself.

“They told me not to,” he said. “They told me I couldn’t make it.”

“They were right! You are, disgusting!” Stahl’s body made a retching motion; his head swung down to slam the brim of his Smokey Bear into the Recruit’s face.

The Recruit started to cry.

“What did your dad say?” Stahl asked.

“My father killed himself when I was young,” the Recruit started to explain, slipping back into the first person.

“Oh, you don’t have a dad?” Stahl said, interrupting. “Well it makes sense he killed himself, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t want to be your dad either!”

The Recruit wept openly. Stahl turned away in disgust and spat on the floor. His muscles bulged as he stalked between the two lines of Recruits. His head swung back and forth, looking for certain ones. When he found them he’d stuck his hand in their face, all his fingers and thumb pointing forward in what the Corps called a “knife hand,” and asked them if they had a father. Every time the answer was no. Every time Stahl leaned back and brayed at the top of his lungs about what degenerates the Recruits were, how no man would claim them as their children. When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

I was terrified. Stahl could pick out the bastard children.

When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

That information wasn’t in our Service Record Books, which had transported our basic information—height, weight, hair color, religious preference—to boot camp. Stahl had only been able to observe the platoon for a few hours that day before the inspection. I wondered what kind of predatory instinct allowed him to feel out weakness. I realized I was dealing with someone very good at his profession, what he grimly referred to as “making Marines.” But Stahl said a lot of cliché little idioms, and the next was something about “needing to break a few Recruits to make an omelet.” Stahl offered to fight any man in the platoon, said he’d take his rank off. He walked up to the largest Recruit, a six-and-a-half-feet tall, three hundred pound Texan with the last name Payne.

“What about you, corn-fed white boy?” Stahl asked, his voice croaked hoarse from smoking.

Payne stared ahead, “No, Sir!”

“Had to think about it,” Stahl said, stepping in close so his face starred up into Payne’s. “You sure? Maybe it’ll be like wrestling a steer?”

“Sir, no Sir!” Payne’s voice shook.

Stahl walked away and addressed the platoon, his heels clacking.

“That’s goddamn right you don’t!” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “Gentlemen, welcome to boot camp. I make the rules here!”

But I had my own problems—“problem children.” These Recruits weren’t just Stahl’s pet projects, his little toys he’d play with on the quarterdeck until they broke or he got tired. No, the problem children represented the fault lines in the platoon’s granite foundation: the people who would crack under pressure, who made mistakes not out of laziness but ineptitude. Recruits that couldn’t figure out how to get dressed quickly enough when the platoon woke, couldn’t remember to say “Sir” at the start and finish of everything they said, who didn’t understand making the entire platoon wait on them several times a day couldn’t be justified with an excuse. Stahl hated them for it. Veins writhed in his neck and bulged from his forehead as he screamed at them. Spittle flew in explosions of syllabubs as Stahl barked diatribes-turned-psychoanalysis that probed the depths of the mind. Stahl examined Recruits’ foibles with the steady rhythm of an oncoming train, divining the gruesome future from their pupils.

Schnieder was one of them, so was Oou.

Schnieder’s carelessness struck early the morning when he wanted to move slowly. He’d forget how his shower towel hung folded from his rack, or to shave. The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him. Stahl told me that’s how it went, that I needed to make up for the shortcomings of my brothers and I was failing not only the platoon, but Recruit Schnieder and myself.

“I’m sorry I’ve been fucking up a lot lately,” Schnieder whispered to me after a particular bad hazing session. “I’ll do better, I promise. Just don’t hate me. Stahl is trying to get everyone to hate me.”

“You’ve got to get better,” I replied.

Schnieder stopped making incessant mistakes and life got easier for us. After he’d kept it up for a few days he apologized to the whole platoon when we got turned to hygiene. From then on the platoon widely accepted him. Schnieder proved he could hack it. He’d walked through the fire, maybe not well, but well enough. Stahl even gave him a few kind words in passing. I could tell Schnieder’s heart swelled with pride that he’d turned things around. When other Recruits turned into problem children, Schnieder didn’t hate them; he accepted it as part of the process. But there was one problem child that tested all of our patience collectively, even Schnieder’s. I felt bad for him at first, because he was a nice enough guy.

The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him.

“Things aren’t so bad, guys, right?” Oou would say. “Pretty soon we’ll graduate and boot camp will be over.”

Oou didn’t realize that after boot camp there would be war. No matter how many times Stahl showed him the dead in the papers and explained the similarities the dead Marines and Oou had in common, he didn’t understand. Oou always had a look of perpetual astonishment on his face. Always. No matter how many times he made the same mistake and the entire platoon got hazed for it, Oou was always surprised. Stahl knew how to fix him. Before lights out, when the platoon stood in line in front of the bunks, locked at attention, waiting for taps to play over the loudspeakers, Stahl called Oou front in center. Stahl made Oou drink first one canteen of water, then two. Then he had Oou refill the canteens and come back out in front of the platoon.

“No one gives a fuck about you, Oou,” Stahl said. “Because you’re weak, a non-hacker I couldn’t wash out. I failed you, Oou. You shouldn’t be here. And it’s going to get you and the men around you killed.”

Stahl turned to us, grin spilling across his dark face like milk.

“What do you think, 3111?” Stahl asked, addressing the platoon by its number. “If the rod should be spared, speak out.”

My jaw set. I wasn’t going to stick my neck out for Oou, who had been fucking up at every opportunity. I’d been sucked into the mind games, made to hate Oou for his shortcomings when I should have tried to help him. I thought about how Oou kept letting us down, how pushups bruised my palms stigmata. How he sat there looking like a child while the rest of us paid for hours. I knew Stahl would stop the punishment if someone spoke out, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Drink the other two,” Stahl said. “While you jump up and down.”

Oou made it half way through the third canteen before he threw up—once, and then twice. Stahl made him keep drinking and jumping, until the third canteen was empty and Oou bent over retching long tendrils of bile that hung from his lips.

“Should I have him roll in it?” Stahl asked.

He looked at the platoon for a reaction.

The platoon didn’t need to say anything. Stahl already knew the answer.

“3111, always too soft,” Stahl said. “Well Oou, I guess everyone likes paying for your mistakes.”

*     *     *

Before being sent out into the world as full-fledged Marines we’d had the boot camp version of a battalion meeting. The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs. Several DIs took the stage in an auditorium and pleaded with everyone to “piss clean” at the School Of Infantry. When we checked in to SOI, it was explained, as many as half would be randomly selected to take a urinary analysis. The Marine Corps zero-tolerance policy of illicit drug use made passing the test an imperative. If a Marine failed the test, he would be separated from the Marine Corps.

The first thing I heard out of Schnieder’s mouth after leave was, “If I have to piss, it’s going to be dirty.”

“What did you smoke,” I asked. “And when?”

The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs.

He had a sickly pallor and looked like he hadn’t slept all leave. As a short, overweight balding guy with the first signs of meth-mouth, Schnieder usually looked pretty bad, but now he looked terrible. I had no doubt he would be picked for a urine screening, and so did he.

“I smoked meth last night,” Schnieder said.

Sure enough, when the Marines formed up outside of the barracks the first thing that happened was roll call for urinary analysis. My name was one of the first called and Schnieder’s one of the last. We stood in line together, cups in hand, waiting our turn. I learned an important lesson that day. Not that listening and doing the right thing pays off. I learned that Marines were frequently men of extremes. Maybe the Corps owning Marines drove men to excess of drinking, drugs, and women, or maybe the kind of person that seeks out the profession of United States Marine is predisposed to immoderation. Schnieder had decided to go on a ten-day meth bender knowing that he was going to be tested, and if he failed it would ruin his life. This lesson didn’t stop with our piss test.

I saw Schnieder in line at the PX buying a pack of smokes and a cheesy lighter. I tried to get his attention. I wanted to ask him what he was going to do about the piss test, if there was any way to fight it. While we’d waited in line, cups of piss in hand, I’d had the idea that maybe he could blame it on an over-the-counter medication causing a false positive. Explaining away the results was a long shot, but I wanted Schnieder to make it. He had become a part of my Marine Corps experience, and I was having a hard time imagining it without him—letting go.

Like a lot of guys trying to claw their way out of the gutter, Schnieder never imagined he’d be a Marine; Schnieder came from a life of meth and video games in his parents’ basement. When Stahl had got me down, Schnieder cheered me up with his lopsided grin and easy humor. The first time hunger drove me dumpster-diving, Schnieder stood watch and I’d split it with him.  When the San Diego skyline exploded with fireworks we’d stood and watched from the squad bay; it made us feel better to know that the whole world wasn’t boot camp. Something changed, though, and he’d started thinking about using again—talked about it with other junkies. Then Stahl had become frustrated toying with me, like a coyote giving up on a box turtle. When he shifted his attention to Schnieder, he sensed a weakness I missed, one that went beyond messing up the trivialities of boot camp.

I waived to Schnieder from across the PX; he just looked at the ground and shuffled out the front door. I never saw him again. He went UA; that is, he decided Unauthorized Absence was better than consequences. Schnieder was the first person I lost in the Corps.

Jason ArmentJason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in, among others, Narrative, Gulf Coast, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Pushcart nomination), and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Zone 3, Duende, New Madrid, Veterans Writing Project, Midwestern Gothic, and The Iowa Review. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017. He lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with the Colorado Humanities.

 

Aubade in Los Angeles

Aubade in Los Angeles
               After Laura Kasischke

August 1981, and someone’s killing

couples from Santa Barbara
to Sacramento. A woman called Linda

sits with her boyfriend

beneath the buzz of a motel sign
drinking coffee in the yawning summer.

This is the year they drove the Pacific coast
through towns where men lay hobbled,
crockery balanced on their spines

listening to the treble clef of terror
in their wives’ throat
waiting for the sun to rise
like a final breath.

There’s a degree of separation
between everything we see here.
All I know

is what my father told me. How
he should have married Linda, how
he isn’t sure

why things fell apart,
the membrane of a college romance

worn away until it tore

revealing cigarettes, more souvenirs
than memories, and an emptiness
a little like walking the streets at night.

Megan ArlettM.J. Arlett is an MFA candidate at Florida International University, where she is the nonfiction editor for Gulf Stream Magazine. She was born in the U.K., spent several years in Spain, and now lives in Miami. Her work can be found in The Boiler Journal, Gravel, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

Emoticon

(flash fiction)

I knew Nick before we had words. Our mothers met in childbirth class. They were seated next to each other in the circle. They struck up a conversation and had such a good time talking they almost forgot the solid forms of their husbands, who sat behind them, legs spread, each supporting his wife’s body with his own.

I have pictures of Nick and me as babies snuggled into the same playpen, and shots of us riding the carousel as our mothers held us in place. The story is he spoke first. Never an innovator, Nick’s first word was “da.” I spoke later. I said “ba ba,” as I waved my hand goodbye.

We were best friends through grade school and then went our own ways in middle school. In high school, I was horrified to recognize my growing attraction to Nick, who had seemed more like a brother than a boyfriend. We dated all through college, sometimes barely speaking, feeling more and more like our pre-verbal selves.

Nick and I never spoke in our post-college days. We sat side-by-side in coffee shops and bistros in Paris, Milan, and Geneva, and stared at our phones. Correction: He sat hunched over his phone and I watched passersby, elegant women dressed in black, teenagers in ripped jeans, working men with scruffy beards, all looking at their own small screens. Dogs peed on light poles and birds flew like winged drones through the sky without anyone watching.

Every so often, Nick would send me a text. I knew it was him because after the ping I could hear him let out a small sigh.

How r u?

He’d stare at the screen waiting for my response. I wanted to type bored, but instead I’d type F for fine. He’d go back to texting.

I watched a father and son sit side-by-side on a bench, both staring at their phones. After a while, the son nudged the father, but he never looked at him. The father nudged the son back, his face glued to the screen. They pushed at each other, not seeing the smile on the other’s face.

We went to museums. I watched Nick take pictures of the art we were standing in front of. His images were one-dimensional. I looked at the canvas noticing the layered swirls of paint.

It was only at night, lying in bed in some cheap hotel, that he looked me full in the face, his eyes unfocused, his body moving against mine. When he was done, he gave that same satisfied sigh he gave after texting.

We had a month left in our trip before we looked for jobs, faced the future. Lake Como was our last stop. I’d seen pictures of the still lake, mountains in the background, buildings the color of parchment paper. Lake Como was beautiful, but it was the smells that intrigued me, the dank scent of the water, the sweet bougainvillea, the sharp espresso. I took it in, watching Nick’s fingers dart back and forth as he played a video game.

Our waiter looked at me and Nick appraisingly. I looked back and shrugged. He brought me a plate of cookies I didn’t order. I wrote my phone number on the napkin and slipped it into his breast pocket. Nick’s phone trilled—high score.

Later, I watched as Nick walked dangerously close to the water’s edge, texting. That evening, we sat in the town square, I watched the passeggiata, the evening walk. The waiter, now in jeans, approached and extended his hand. I took it. His hand was warm. We walked slowly away from where Nick sat on the bench, his face peering at his screen.

“Ba ba,” I called to him over my shoulder. I didn’t look back.

ellen-birkett-morris-headshot_optEllen Birkett Morris’s fiction has appeared in Great Jones StreetShenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Upstreet, among others. She is the 2015 winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for flash fiction for her story “May Apples.” Her story “The Cycle of Life and Other Incidentals” was selected as a finalist in the Glimmer Train Press Family Matters short story competition.

Witness 2016, United States of America

The People wanted a reality television star to be their leader and we have to take responsibility for creating that.

It was 2003 when the first season of The Bachelor aired. Girls were on their hind legs like animals begging to be picked for a rose. Jerry-Springer-type talk shows began their de-evolution into hysterical chanting and violence. We’d already lived through the start of reporters and news stations discarding sacred words like report and news in favor of irresponsible mandates like speculate and entertain. Thirteen years ago, our modern day version of throwing Christians to the lions for entertainment was in an unfortunate full swing. I remember watching that first episode of The Bachelor, the new advent of this “reality” television. The farther along the show progressed, the tighter I curled up. I pressed myself into the farthest corner of my couch watching, through my fingers, in horror. My soul was already reacting my body because of what I was witnessing. I felt physically sickened by it and I never watched another reality TV show again… almost. Never one minute of Trump’s,  but I’d peek in on others from time to time; the advent of DVRs made it easier to fast forward through the painfully scripted and edited-within-an-inch-of- its-life “unscripted” chaos.

No one can ever tell any woman, minority, LGBTQ, transgender, Muslim, African-American, American Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, any and all ethnicities other than white, that we are paranoid ever again, because this shit is real.

For almost thirty years we’ve been watching people act inhumanly towards each other in the name of ratings and money, and calling it entertainment. Not only is it the norm: entire generations know nothing else. The nation has become negligently desensitized to what it means to be a respectful, thoughtful human to another human because that’s not good TV. The medium is so powerful, it created a caricature of a person so strong that he could not be stopped. The Democratic and Republican parties TOGETHER were not strong enough to stop what reality television and the media had created: Donald Trump. He is the worst of humanity and he uncovered the millions of people in our country who respond to that. We have made him a drug, and people are ravenous for it. We, the watchers, have to take responsibility for that. We are complicit.

I’ve had this terrible feeling for months and months that we are at an actual crossroads of humanity. That we are experiencing something like 1930s Germany, to which people look back and say, The signs were so clear. Why didn’t they stop him? He was just one man. Well, everything is extremely clear. There has been nothing covert about this man’s message. Whether he meant it all, whether he means to follow through, Trump has shined the biggest black light on our beloved country. Apparently, people have been lying in wait for this particular trumpet call. And, boy, did they instantaneously respond.

No one can ever tell any woman, minority, LGBTQ, transgender, Muslim, African-American, American Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, any and all ethnicities other than white, that we are paranoid . . . ever . . . again, because this shit is real. It is deeper and darker real than even any of us could have imagined. Even in our beautiful bubbles of Manhattan and Los Angeles blood has already been spilled.  It is not hyperbole to be afraid because it’s already begun. If we let it continue, families will be ripped apart. People will be deported. Separated. Segregated. Rights will be stripped. January 20, 2017 could set our clocks back decades and be marked as one of the darkest days in American history.

This has been exhausting to the core. To be so bewildered by humanity, so gob-smacked by people we love, whom we thought we knew, whom we thought loved and respected us and our rights and our freedoms. Millions of little civil wars have already begun, brother against brother, the stepping away from, the distancing of.  As artists we have an abundance of empathy, which is usually a great thing, but in these days it can feel like quicksand trying to course its way through our veins. We are weighed down by our disbelief, and shattered at witnessing some crazed game of telephone where the truth, crystal clear, is spoken, and as it passes, even just to the very next person, it is somehow transformed and ignored.

The most hopeful thought that moves me forward is that they can want to make a group of people register with the government because of their race or religion, they can want to take away our rights, but because it is today and not 1930s Germany, there will never come a day where this can be allowed to happen again. There is no way we would let it. Artists have always been part of the resistance, and here we are, so that there will never come a day when….

Artists and storytellers, with the mandate of talking about what our job is now, I put forth that our job now, as always, is to do magic. We create tangible worlds out of thin air. A thought has its lucky genesis in one of our gorgeous heads and we create people and their worlds where nothing existed before. We start to care for them, and hand the baton to an audience who begins to care for them, too. The world watches and laughs and cries and gasps and cares. We have our  shared experience, and that, my loves, is Magic. There is so much value in not only shining a light on the darkest parts of humanity, but also in making humanity giggle its ass off. Make music and art. Write stories and poems. Make documentaries and films and plays and television shows… scripted. As the music swells, so will our hearts.  As voices rise, so will our spirits. As collaboration strengthens, so will community.

I vow here, today, to do everything in my power, including stand in front of the harm with arms linked, to bear witness, in the name of what is right and good and decent, to support our nation, so that our creative community can shine our collective light to heal the pains and awaken the slumbering so they can see clearly: he is like me is like she is like we.

Deidra EdwardsDeidra Edwards is an LA-based actor, director, writer, and collaborator to writers. Her work has appeared in television, on film, and in theatres around the country. She directs with her mentor Jeff Perry, Co-Founder of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, in theatres such as The Alliance and The Guthrie.  She’s spoken out on LGBT Issues with her videos on YouTube under the title Enough Already. “Witness 2016” can be viewed here. Deidra is honored to be a contributor to Lunch Ticket.

 

Purple Pen

You started it. Last Thursday.

Under the stairway next to the cafeteria door, there was a spot where the cameras don’t reach. The security guard was probably staring at a freshmen girl’s butt. You must have slipped right past him.

I noticed it on my way to the bathroom. When I walked by, the security guard sneered. His nose twitched like he caught a whiff of dog poo. That’s what the guards do instead of ogling me. I wear the same uniform as all the girls, but on me a white polo and khakis look like guy’s clothing. I tried to sway my hips and take small steps. Sometimes girling it up helps me blend in. Then you made me forget everything. Behind the security guard, on the wall under the staircase, I saw what you did. In purple ink, you wrote “R.I.P. Prince.”

In fourth period English, I spotted the purple Sharpie in the back pocket of your pants. You slouched behind the desk in front of me, like you have every day all semester. I’ve never said anything, but I see you. You wore the same boring uniform as the rest of us, but your nails were painted purple and gold. It must have been you.

My right leg bounced up and down. You made me nervous.

You’re so beautiful that they don’t notice you’re pretty weird, with those big books that you carry around in your sparkly magenta backpack.

Ms. Damon-Moore was saying something about giving back our final papers tomorrow, reminding us that the assignment was worth half our grade. She frowned at us, but no one paid much attention.  Her mouth was stuck like that. I think she teaches here on the west side of Chicago because she enjoys bossing around black kids. When the bell rang, she kept going, yelling about how she wasn’t afraid to give out Fs. You stood and grabbed your backpack. The marker slipped out of your pocket.

I picked it up from the floor. I could have touched your elbow, handed you that pen, and smiled. No words necessary.

I didn’t do it.

I couldn’t pay attention in the rest of my classes. I pictured myself talking to you, making you laugh. I have been thinking about your laugh for months now. When I close my eyes, I imagine your belly wobble while you giggle, but I can’t decide what to say to you. You’re that girl that everyone likes. The teachers, too, even the white ones. You’re so beautiful that they don’t notice that you’re pretty weird, with those big books you lug around in your sparkly magenta backpack. They think they know you because you chat with them and nod, but to me you always seem separate. On your own. Like you have secrets. At lunch, you sit by yourself, listening to music, keeping an eye out so that the security guards won’t confiscate your headphones. I want to know what you think about when you’re alone, but if I ever tried to talk to you, I probably couldn’t make my mouth move. No problem. If you liked Prince, then I had a plan.

When the final bell clanged, I didn’t head outside with everyone else. I walked into the bathroom by the cafeteria, clutching your pen. I waited, my ear smooshed against the door, until the hallways were quiet. Most of the security guards would be in front of the school, watching students leave. If I was lucky, I would have a minute or two alone in the hall.

I pushed through the girl’s room door, looking to the left and right. Empty. I strode to the spot under the staircase. Beneath your words, I drew a circle. I sketched a line down from it, ending in an arrow, and crossed it with a dash. I drew a spiral to the left of the circle and kept going, crossing the original line and then ending in a vertical slash. The symbol. Prince’s symbol. It looked pretty good. I imagined your lips curling up when you saw it. I wanted you to know I was the one who made you feel that way. I would wait until I was sure you had seen it and then give you your pen back. Then you would know how I much I liked you, without me saying a word.

I thrust your pen in my pocket and I hurried toward the front of the school. A security guard was eyeing a senior as he walked out the door. Good. I wasn’t so late that I’d seem suspicious. Sometimes, if I leave school after everyone else, the guards insist on checking my backpack. I walked past the metal detector, avoiding eye contact with the guard. He stared past me. Still good.

In the afternoon, the metal detector is turned off, but I still hate passing by it.

Do you remember the morning that the detector went off on Keisha Conner? I was next in line, so I had to watch the whole thing. The guard made her empty her pockets and take off her earrings, but the beeping didn’t stop. He kept ordering her back to try again.

“Do a pat down,” she pleaded.

The guard shook his head. That was the week that Vice Principal Howard found out that one of the guards had been groping girls.

After the tenth time Keisha tripped the detector, she lost it.

“I don’t have anything!” she yelled. The guard stepped in front of her.

“Whoa, whoa,” he said. He held his hands in front of his chest and backed away slowly. He acted like Keisha needed to be tamed.

I wondered, if the world could love a tiny dude who sang falsetto, could you like a girl who looks like a boy?

“You know I don’t have anything,” Keisha screamed. She reached out toward the guard. Her hand was like a bird, fluttering toward that big white guy with the metal wand. I could see in her face, tight-lipped, tear-stained but with eyes still expectant, that she was offering peace. With her outstretched palm, she was extending to him a chance to be human. All of the guys and girls behind me in line saw it too. We knew she didn’t touch him.

The guard jumped back like she had hit him.

They called the cops. I mean, the guard growled into his radio and the cop who’s always at school came over. He popped handcuffs on her wrists. I winced at the sound of them snapping together. Did you hear that she had to go to court? Did you see how she tried not to look at anybody when she came back to school?

We shouldn’t be writing on the walls. They’ll call it graffiti. They’ll call the cops.

*     *     *

When I got home, I headed straight to my mom’s turntable. Mom has Prince records. Vinyl. A stack four inches high. I’ve been listening to her play them since I was little. I’ve never paid too much attention, but she plays them so often that I know every song anyway. Mom gets a faraway look in her eye while she listens. I’ve always thought her thing for Prince was a little weird, but if you liked Prince, then I wanted to know everything about him. Maybe he could teach me how to tell you my feelings. I needed Prince lessons and I didn’t have much time before Mom got home. I wasn’t ready to tell her about you, or about me liking girls.

If I had known which album was your favorite, I would have started there. Instead I put on the record from the top of the stack.

“Dearly beloved,” Prince’s voice soared up from the speakers. “We are gathered here to get through this thing called life…”

Prince, get me through this.

I stood in front of the mirror and looked at my body. I’m a foot taller than Prince and built solid. My skin is darker than his and I’ve never worn heels or eyeliner. In middle school, when the girls were getting boobs, my chest stayed as flat as my ass. Mom was cool with me dressing in button-downs and loose jeans, but I doubted that many girls would swoon over me.

From the album cover in my hand, Prince smoldered up at me. He straddled an oversized motorcycle, gripping the handle bars with his white lace gloves. The frills of his blouse stood out against his purple trench coat. He balanced the bike with one foot in an exquisite black heel. Poised. Powerful.

I wondered, if the world could love a tiny dude who sang falsetto, could you like a girl who looks like a boy?

I tried to sway my hips to the music like Prince did. I did my best strut back and forth in front of the mirror. I pouted my lips and squinted one eye.

Not sexy.

“The world lost a legend.” Mom looked me up and down. I must not have heard her come in over the electric guitar riffs.

“You know why everyone loves Prince?”

I shook my head.

“He was brave.” She smoothed my collar. “Like you are.”

My heart soared, pounding like a drum solo. Mom must have already known that I’m different. If I could just open my mouth and tell her how much I liked you, then she would say that she still loves me.

Mom sighed. “To find a man like that, right? Maybe one of us will be that lucky.” She kicked off her lavender pumps and hung up her leather jacket.

My breath skipped like a scratched record. See, I couldn’t tell her. You know the way that Prince smiles but looks like he’s about to cry? I gave my mom that look.

*     *     *

The next day at school, when the lunch bell finally rang, I hurried toward the cafeteria.

“Walk,” barked Vice Principal Howard. Standing beside the main office, his tall, white body stood out like a lighthouse. “We walk in the hallways.” Who’s this “we” teachers are always talking about?

On the wall under the stairs, there was a small black heart next to my drawing. Was it you? It must have been you. That black heart was a stage dive. It was a hip thrust against a mic stand. I understood that look Mom gets.

When I saw you in fourth period, I thought nothing could make me sad ever again. You changed your hair. You must have set it in big rollers and pinned back half of it. A cascade of curls spilled over the right side of your face.

Girl.

You glanced up at me. Your eyes were lined in black. Purple Rain glamour.

Damn.

Ms. Damon-Moore stalked the rows of desks, handing back papers. My good feeling vanished when I saw mine. She had written in big red letters “SPELLING. GRAMMAR.” She circled and crossed out my words with abandon. It was like my paper was a desk and she wanted to mark it up to make it hers. Grading was her form of tagging. I felt her writing on my skin.

“DID YOU PROOFREAD YOUR WORK?” she scrawled between my last paragraph and the bibliography. Her words were huge. At the end of my essay, she wrote a single letter in a circle. D. To her, it must have stood for dumb.

I thought I could handle it. I was used to teachers giving me bad grades without giving me any reason or trying to teach me to do better. I thought I could suck it up, until I looked up from my paper and saw you staring down at yours. I watched you shrink. Your shoulders slumped forward. You folded your paper in half, like you were trying to make it disappear. You wiped your cheek with the back of your hand.

My hands clenched. I pictured myself smashing everything in that classroom.

My paper was clean. Why’d she have to mess it up like that? Why’d she have to mess you up, too?

I wanted to make Ms. Damon-Moore feel as small as you looked, to tell her the things that Mr. Howard says to me in the hallway in the same condensing tone he uses. “Respect our school. Have pride of place.” My paper was clean. Why’d she have to mess it up like that? Why’d she have to mess you up, too?

I fingered your purple marker and raised my other hand. “Bathroom pass?”

Ms. Damon-Moore frowned. “You can’t wait?”

I shook my head. She sighed.

I gripped the pass and dashed down the stairs toward the cafeteria. The hallway was empty.

I drew a dove. I added a tear below its eye. I wanted to keep going. I would have drawn a purple rain cloud. I would have written every word to “Take Me with You,” but I heard footsteps. I jumped away from the wall like it was going to explode. I ducked into the bathroom. The dove would be enough. You would know what I meant.

I put my ear to the door. The footsteps grew louder and then stopped. I closed my eyes.

While I listened, I pictured what I was going to do as soon as school ended. I’d go home and finally tell Mom that I like girls. I’d feel her arms wrapped around my shoulders, her mouth pressed against my cheek. I’d watch the needle of her turntable drop. We would listen to all her Prince albums until we found the perfect lyric to tell you how I feel. Then on Monday, I would write that magic spell next to the dove. The full purple power of his Royal Badness would come down on us and you would know exactly how much I like you. I could never say anything, but I would write my heart on the walls. By Monday, I would be ready.

I heard the click and static of a walkie-talkie. “Graffiti,” barked Mr. Howard. “Cafeteria hallway.” His footfall echoed and then faded. Silence fell, like the pause before a record starts to play.

When the final bell rang, the hallways filled up with relieved students, guys talking loud, girls laughing. Nothing was left in the spot on the wall where the cameras don’t reach, except a purple cloud. By Monday, the wall was extra white. The custodian hung a sign that said, “Wet Paint.”

I never figured out the right lyrics to tell you how I feel. Mom said that’s okay. Yeah, I told her anyway. She said I’ve got my own words.

Here’s your pen back.

J.M. EllisonJ.M. Ellison is a writer, scholar, and grassroots activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Story Club Magazine, Chicago Literati, Racialicious, and other publications. They are currently finishing their first graphic novel, a timely nonfiction account of the power of community in a small Palestinian village. J.M. believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net

A Corrido for Macondo

1. There was a table.

Around the table, there were women and men and people who entered rooms holding their hearts in their hands. Around the table, people sat and they brought with them stories or words that would make stories, parts of little poems, thorns, and parts of their hands that would tremble with the long limbs of sentences or syllables that would grow into lilts. It was a table where so many things began.

The sound of a story happening inside a body is a marvel not everyone has witnessed. Or a poem. But shouldn’t we all be allowed a little bit of sound, a bit of that good light, if not all of it, if not a heap or a whole feast?

A table with pencils and loose paper, journals, books, and voices growing feathers, making themselves into old plumes. I imagine it like this. Laughter and coraje, Love and the naming of despair. I imagine so many things, but is imagining enough to mean realness, to mean wood and feathers and pencils and hair??  A caserola teeming with yeses when the belly has unpacked its nos is a hope I can hold in between my teeth or my hands, both of which Macondo has affirmed that I need for writing, though I could not see myself at that first Macondo table, not because I didn’t belong, not because I did not have anything meaningful to say. Others had to come before me so that my tongue could understand its own fire—I’ve learned that much about fire.

So, I figure one day my words, too, will play ancestor for those yet to be born.

Like all precious things, it began from need, this space for people like us to sit and be heard, to ask questions, to let our questions breathe light, and perhaps we left only with more questions, if not simple answers, perhaps we left knowing how to ask more questions and why and how we belonged, these bodies we are in, these stories our bodies wear like hair.

 

2.

There was a table made of wood.
Strong, handmade piece of furniture,
that was not only furniture,
but a sacred gathering place.

There were men and women, but I
was not there. Not because I had
nothing to place on the mantel,
salty and steaming like fat tears,

but because I still had too much
to consume. At the first meeting
the table was decorated
with cazuelas, pitchers, platos,

a bright rainbow of ceramics
hugging carefully cooked dishes
flavored with laughter, trauma, grief,
and joy, a legacy of joy.

The table is a metaphor
for family and the elders
who cared for the young. I was fed
from this table like a young doe,

but now, I am grown with my hand
on the back of a wood-carved seat.
The men and women have made room
for us, my brothers and sisters

and me. We are smiling. They say,
“Por favor, come! Sit! Share with us.”
Shy, I offer my meager dish:
nopales boiled, sliced into strips,

and mixed with red diced tomatoes,
purple onions and cilantro.
I make it like my grandmother
taught me, but I am embarrassed.

Nopales are not exciting
or new. No importa. They ask,
“Will you speak your grandmother’s name?”
“Ubalda Duran Bermejo,”

I share. And together we call,
“Ubalda Duran Bermejo,
Presente!” And I know this place,
this strong, handmade table is home.

 

3. Then, too, there is a tiny red bird.

And of course, of course, I will tell you there is something to wield when we gather. I won’t tell you its dimensions, not its dim textures or songs. Perhaps you already understand that you don’t have to hold something in your palm to believe in its magic. In this life, everyone should know a place where we feel we belong, a place where new parts and old ones, too, are born and reborn.

About fire, I will say this: the saddest thing is when it has to leave, or you do.  O, where do I begin?

And look, I cannot solve my loneliness alone. I cannot write anything that is built of rock and wind and feathered, of water, and fire, of course, of course, unless we speak their names. A few days of sitting at the table has helped me realize this now: tomorrow I will be someone’s ancestor, and so will you. It’s a fact that is written in our muscles, breath, and hair.

In any case, Love is a feast, a whole feast, a feast that begins with what we have lost and ends with what we give the world in return.

In any case, there, too, is that tiny red bird. And what did the poet tell us it meant? Again, what did she say its red feathers and tiny heartbeat could do with the trees, the montes, the winds?

 

4.

Remember the tiny red bird?
Like the table, it is fleeting.
Not to say it is frivolous,
but of a single, bright moment,

a sound home we create again
and again, but never live in.
Feathers cling to our fingertips
like magic so not to forget.

The summer of 2016
we were each a tiny red bird
nursing broken wings, silenced songs,
violated nests, but the fire

smoldered beneath plumes, and refused
to die. Is the tiny red bird
his fragility, her spirit,
or their ability to fly?

Is Macondo the tree we took
refuge in when the summer winds
grew too hot, too violent? Surely,
we found comfort in its branches.

We thanked it for embracing us
like a mother, raising us up.
Surely, we blessed the mothers too
for caring and giving too much.

I cannot solve my loneliness
alone. Alone a spider knits
a web trying her best to live,
but then the leaf, branch, wall and sun.

One day, I too will be a branch.
That is to say, we are the tree,
ancestors to those not yet born,
tiny red birds looking for rest.

 

5. Imagine holding Love in your hand like a bone.

Of every place I have been: leaf spiders and tree walls, the fingertips of feathers and moonlight, mesquite songs—

In the meantime, I can sit next to a woman whose poems remind me I am supposed to be alive. I carry tierra in my mouth, not because I am meant to suffer, not because I am made to eat mud, but because there is a tree inside me, which the table, which the people holding their hearts in their hands, help me allow to be a tree, which means it will release its saps, which means its roots will touch the earth and remember humming of the sun.

In other words, I can sit next to a woman who wields a machete and not be afraid.

In other words, if I open my mouth, some will see feathers. Red ones and wing-flap and moonlight and hard dust.

And so, I have a bone in my throat, which arises out of lust and sadness and great dark joys, and of course, of course, Love. Everything, after a certain point, means feast and birth and darkness, fire and hair.

And so, I have the urge to tell you I am struck by the magic. The great mercy of Love is telling ourselves we are good enough. It is the same when I hold a man or you hold a woman or we are held by someone with Love. Most enjoyable is the urge not to leave.  Most enjoyable is the fact we belong.

 

6.

Find a bone in the poet’s throat,
you will see the tender scarring.
Find the little part of poems like thorns
cutting and clinging to the skin,

and you will see my heart. My heart
wants to wield the bone tearing at
my insides, but I am fatigued
from all the scratching and bleeding.

To be a poet is to be
muscle movement, deep breath and hair.
Together we gather the hairs
like thread and weave a great blanket

of colors that stretch a rainbow.
Embedded tight in the knots, stars
or pieces of glitter shimmer,
and we remember we are light.

We remember light is love is
love is love is love is love is
to be good enough is to be.
We is made of you and me. Breathe.

Breathe.      Breathe.      Breathe.       Breathe.

Gather strength, collect provisions,
and prepare for the next battle.
Find the poet, the warrior.

Joe Jiménez Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize. His writing has recently appeared in Entropy, Drunken Boat, Atticus Review, and on the PBS NewsHour and Lambda Literary sites. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops. For more information, visit joejimenez.net.

 

 

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress, 2016), a 2016-2017 Steinbeck Fellow, former Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner, and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grantee. She’s received residencies from Hedgebrook and Ragdale Foundation and is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her work is published in Acentos Review, CALYX, crazyhorse, and The James Franco Review among othersA short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is a cofounder of Women Who Submit and the curator of HITCHED.

.  

May Be I Was a Bottle: Mixed Media

Impasse

(flash fiction)

These Alcatraz cells have ovens and sinks. Refrigerators. No ice inside Father’s, just time, chilling the rations. Past the bars, Father’s new captor paces. She is a child. Her blue ice skates have frayed against her ankles, but she sharpens the blades at high noon each day anyhow.

Father sleeps on the top bunk, the furthest he can get away. The bed below him stays made up, though he once shared this cell. In the nights, the girl hoists herself up. Atop Father’s mattress, she balances on two hands.

Father sleeps on his back, his neck a vulnerable target.

The girl’s skates, poised for the incision: one drop, feet first, she will fit her nails into the slash, use her fingers to make two soft flaps that she can pull open. Inside, she will look for something, she does not know what, but she knows he keeps it inside of himself.

This is the girl who once groped for his hand in the darkness, then pulled a finger from its socket. This is the girl who swapped flowers for weeds, who helped build Alcatraz, her hands shedding baby skin into its base. This is the girl who stutters whenever it is time to cut.

Father hears the crack of her blades on the concrete floor, her knees and hands smacking when she falls. He sleeps again. In a dream: the ice skates, new, slip onto a child’s feet, his own hands tie the laces. In the waking hours, the girl settles back into her post.

Alcatraz moon lays low. Prison stones drip drop into pools of viscous bloody rust. A rowboat lurches. If they escaped, there’d be a thousand buckets to bail, just to get an inch of water out.

Eshani SuryaEshani Surya is is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. Her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, First Class Lit, and Minetta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani

 

Tananarive Due, Author

Tananarive DueI was lucky enough to be asked by the Horror Writers’Association to sit down with Tananarive Due for an interview that will be featured in the souvenir book for Stokercon, the HWA conference, where Due will be a guest of honor in the spring of 2017. The HWA is a non-profit organization of horror writers and publishers around the world that is dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it, and to fostering budding horror writers of all ages.

They needed only 1200 words, but I had an hour with Due and we talked about a lot more than could fit into that space. We spoke the week after the Trump groping tape was released, before this presidential election was decided, so we were fired up on a few topics. We spoke again after the election and, aside from one addendum, we agreed to leave the interview frozen in time: we discussed things that are just as, if not more, relevant in this new reality.

I had just finished teaching American Horror Story: Horror and Speculative Fiction for Antioch’s BA program and Due is currently teaching a class on Afrofuturism for UCLA.

Due is a writer, teacher, and activist. She is a former Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Humanities at Spelman College (2012-2014), where she taught screenwriting, creative writing, and journalism. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University and in the BA program at UCLA. The American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient is the author of twelve novels and a civil rights memoir. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. Due’s novella, Ghost Summer, received the 2008 Kindred award and her collection of the same name has been nominated for the NAACP Image Award. She is a leading voice in black speculative fiction and is currently teaching a six-week Live/Evergreen Online course in Revolutionary Art: Writing for Social Justice.

During our discussions, Due and I talked about finding your writing voice, writing for social change, genre and social justice, racism, feminism, Afrofuturism, and how to look at the swirl of political vitriol in a positive light. In other words, it was a very Antioch conversation.

Kate Maruyama: When did you start spinning stories and how did you end up writing horror?

Tananarive Due: At the age of four, I wrote a book called Baby Bobby, and by book I mean I took typing paper and folded it in half and drew pictures on the pages and even drew pages on the back cover. I wrote liner notes; I said, “Baby Bobby is a book about a baby and the author is Tananarive Due.” I spelled “author” wrong…

I knew I loved writing, I knew what an author was, and I was self-identifying from the age of four. Probably because of my exposure to books from my parents, but in terms of when I knew the life-saving power of writingwhich is even separate from horrorwas at age fourteen. It was 1980 in Miami, Florida, where I grew up, and there was a widely publicized police killing and it was my first Black Lives Matter moment, way before Black Lives Matter. It was my first moment where I was like, whoah, we don’t matter. That awakening was so rude.

It was a pretty clear-cut case where a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie, who was a former military police officer, for some reason while he was on his motorcycle, would not pull over for police officers. I wish I could ask him why. But instead he led twelve officers on a merry chase, and the adrenaline building up . . . and he gets to a freeway onramp and he stops. He could have gotten on the freeway, but for whatever reason, he thought, “This has gone far enough,” and he stopped and the cops were apparently pissed off and amped up and they pretty much beat him to death with flashlights, whatever they had. He didn’t die right away, but he did die from the injuries and the police officers kind of panicked and they’re like, “Oh, hell, what do we do now?” So they also beat up his motorcycle to try to stage it as if it had been an accident. Imagine this case today. They would have gotten away with that, actually, except for a reporter named Edna Buchanan, who wrote for the Miami Herald. It all came to light: that they had beaten him to death and tried to make it look like an accident. There was such overwhelming evidence it actually went to trial. It was only a manslaughter trial, but all of the officers were acquitted, because the jury said they didn’t know which officer had dealt the death blow. Meanwhile there are people in prison now who were just sitting in a car in an armed robbery. It sparked this huge riot in Miami, a very devastating, awful riot, and I was sitting in my school cafeteria just full of rage, emotion, and hurt. Hurt, really, because it was like we don’t matter, and the school cafeteria was playing Muzak to try to keep everyone calm, with a black, white, Hispanic school. I don’t remember racial problems at school growing up.

I started writing an essay, I had a knot in my stomach and I was full of rage. I wrote what started out as an essay poem, “I want to live in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word, and no one remembers what nigger used to mean.”

I had a knot in my stomach and I was full of rage. I wrote what started out as an essay poem, “I want to live in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word, and no one remembers what nigger used to mean.”

That was how it started. And it went on and on and on about this sort of Utopian society I wished I lived in, and that knot in my stomach went away and I could breathe, and I showed it to my mother and she said, “You’re so lucky that you have your writing. The people who are out rioting in the streets, they don’t have that.”

That was when I got it: that writing was going to be something more than just the fun I had sketching stories in class instead of paying attention. It was something more important than that: It was going to be something that would potentially save me, heal me. Actually, heal others, because I performed it as part of an NAACP competition for teenagers like an academic Olympics ACT-SFO. I recited this poem and I won prizes. It was my first time I thought that maybe I could heal myself in my writing and maybe I could heal others.

As to the horror part, my mother loved horror movies. [She] had this whole civil rights history behind her but she wore a lot of scars from it. [She was] a civil rights activist who was very angry about her experience, because she’d been arrested many times and wore dark glasses after a tear gas attack when she was in college. An officer threw it right in her face and said, “I want you,” because she was leading a protest march. She spent forty-nine days in jail with her sister and a few other students from Florida A&M University because they wouldn’t leave during a sit-in. They just ordered some food. They refused to leave jail and pay a fine because they weren’t going to pay for the Jim Crow justice system. And it became a big thing. They got a lot of attention and Jackie Robinson sent them diaries.

I think one of her ways of dealing was horror, honestly. When we look at how popular horror is with blacks in particularI can’t speak for Latinos, but it’s also very popular, and when the numbers come in, those groups always score high. I think it’s a way to give some form to actual chaotic fear, so that it can be overcome or at least exorcised. Because you’re feeling the fear on maybe a more constant basis, or in a way that you can’t even acknowledge, you spend your days in fear, so watching a really scary movie gathers it all up and puts it in a harmless form and you can deal with it. Toward the very end of her life, she couldn’t watch as much horror, but then it was getting mean.

KM: When do you feel like you really started writing like you?

TD: I was intrigued and moved and my characters tended to be black, but honestly, the older I got, the whiter I got. The more I was introduced to canon, the more I lost my face as a writer, so I really was struggling with some identity questions. I wanted to write horror, but I didn’t know any black writers that wrote horror, and I didn’t know if it was okay to write horror, because there are more important things to write about. But when I tried to write about inner city youth, I couldn’t find my voice in that and I wasn’t from a rural tradition like the writings from Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. I grew up in the suburbs, in air-conditioning, going to integrated schools. As a young woman, between seventeen and twenty-two, I was really struggling to find my voice. My question was: If I write black horror will I be respected, because I wanted to be respected, right? As a writer. I grew up where my family name had weight and I wanted to live up to that expectation.

I’d been writing a lot of short stories, I’d started a couple novels that were stopped and started. One I got two hundred pages in, handwritten, about a gay white playwright, male. By the way, who’s diagnosed with leukemia and wants to see his brother, from whom he was estranged. They want to rekindle their friendship. Now, admirable premise, but I knew nothing about my subject matter.

And why I was trying to write everyone but me, I don’t know. I don’t even have a brother. That’s how little connection I had. It was influenced by canon and I was trying to find a story and I wasn’t worried whether or not I was in the story. I had never lived in New York, I had never been a playwright, I had never had leukemia. It was a breakthrough novel in a sense because I found paragraphs at a time that sounded like professional level writing. And I found those lessons in bouncing between dialogue and position and creating themes. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my voice. I was so invisible in my work.

[In interviewing Anne Rice for the Miami Herald, Due had asked her about the criticism she’d been getting for vampire novels. Rice pointed out that her vampire novels were being taught in universities and allowed her to talk about life and death and mortality and love. Due recounted that this, and reading Gloria Naylor and Stephen King had given her the conviction to write horror.]

After the Anne Rice interview, I started writing The Between, which was basically about me, except I made myself a black male instead; I was still not quite writing me. This was in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which was just devastating in Miami. So the premise was affected by the hurricane and was basically about a guy who was supposed to die when he was a kid but he didn’t, so he was in a series of alternate realities where death was trying to catch up with him.

My father would talk about his stories from his side of his family. Freed slaves who farmed their own land and were attacked by jealous neighbors but stood up and fought back, and my mother was always telling the stories of the activists she knew. Black and white.

And he’s just figuring that out in the course of this novel, and he’s the only one who can see it. Seeing a city devastated is a really interesting experience as a writer. Worlds that were crumbled and reassembled showed up in that book and it was like me, set free. It was a suburban family, two professionals, he’s a social worker, she’s a judge. These were the people my parents knew, the people I grew up around, upwardly mobile suburban black people. Not even people who happen to be black, because they were very politically black. But other than that, it’s a horror novel and I just sort of closed my eyes and hoped I’d find an interested party. I wrote it for a screenwriting contesteven though I didn’t consciously want to be a screenwriter. I lost the contest, the first agent I sent it to rejected it, so I gave up on it very quickly and stuck it in a drawer for nine months.

I was halfway through writing my second novel, My Soul To Keep, and I was under some mental strain and I realized I’m not living up to my promises to myself as a writer, I’m not submitting. I have a novel that I’m not submitting, what the hell? So I started submitting and I sold it like three weeks after that. Terry McMillan had published Waiting To Exhale and publishers were like, “Oh, black people read.” Seriously, that was the conversation. So they were buying a lot of stuff. Back in the nineties, there were a lot of movies getting made: black crime drama, black romance. Black commercial art really took off at the time I started trying to sell my book. I was so lucky for the timing and really blessed to find that audience both among horror readers and black readers. You know my current editor for Ghost Summer, Paula Guran, is someone whom I met back in the day when I first started publishing. She wrote a review of The Between where she was like, remember the name, so it’s been a nice full circle experience, because publishing is such that you’re marketed in a very narrow way.

I was never really marketed in the beginning as a horror writer. The horror community found me, luckily, and I got nominated for a couple of Bram Stoker awards early on for The Between and My Soul to Keep, but beyond that, the marketing team was really mostly concentrating on black readers because there were enough black readers that they didn’t need to specifically extend that to horror.

KM: Do you think that maybe you brought more readers to horror because you were being marketed to a black readership instead of a specifically horror readership?

TD: I do not know. That is a good question. There was a time when, as a black writer, there were just enough black horror writers who were touring around together and running into each other, that we thought that there was this black horror renaissance. But, I don’t know the impact of bringing more readers in general into horror. Maybe so. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve always loved horror and we were willing to buy Stephen King, we loved him.

KM: You grew up in this house that was steeped in social justice. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you think your writing is informed by that? The stories that you write?

TD: They gave me an example of world-building in this world. My mother was not as active, once the three of us were born, as she had been earlier. She wasn’t getting arrested, for example. I never remember her getting arrested; her last arrest was 1968. But whether it was the PTA or making speeches in front of the school board, she was always out organizing and trying to make a better world, and my father always was, in his way. He’s an attorney. He’s still living and he worked for an agency in Miami called the Community Relations Board, so it’s all about building relationships, and he was always out at meetings and as a result we were always out at meetings. I was a youth council president for the NAACP and I got in the habit of going to meetings.

Just as importantly, they were storytellers. My father would talk about his stories from his side of his family. Freed slaves who farmed their own land and were attacked by jealous neighbors, but stood up and fought back, and my mother was always telling the stories of the activists she knew. Black and white.

The civil rights movement was never about black vs. white to me. Because our godparents were white and the stories about the whites and the impact of the movement on them were just devastating. She knew one young man who committed suicide, he was so disillusioned that the U.S. wasn’t what he thought it was when he came south. This was a white friend of hers. It was about people who hated racism working together to create civil rights, black and white, Jewish and Christian. That is what it looked like to me.

KM: That’s what’s missing now. There’s this silence now from white people on very obvious infringements on human rights. Silence from white people about police shootings. It’s so strange to me. When I was growing up it was, “This is wrong for humanity, let’s fight it together.”

TD: Right. I came to the conclusion after working on the book with my mom [Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights], that the white students tended to be a little more radical. Most people weren’t putting themselves at risk.  Even my mom’s stepfather was disapproving of her activism.

The fact that Trump has even happened, shows us that we’re in that time. Not just because of him personally, but because of what his rise represents. What we’re facing in our schools, with our police departments, throughout our system. Our voting system, there’s just a lot being exposed.

Because what parent wants their kid to risk getting kicked out of school and going to jail, after all you sacrificed you can barely hold onto your job now? So these black parents were not. It was a radical act on the part of these young people to become involved and I think for whites to become involved there was just this one more ounce of radicalism. That it would take more to push. Maybe they were just a little more… visionary?… than their family members and friends.

KM: Or the risks were lower. Because they were more likely to get a slap on the wrist, you know? Not get thrown in jail.

TD: The risks were lower, but the incentives had to be higher, I think, because nobody likes to give up comfort. It’s really difficult. Now there are people of all backgrounds who are very, very comfortable. That’s how mass incarceration snuck up on us. Because even the Civil Rights movement was sleeping on it for a very long time. Civil rights organizations. I think that in part that was because my generation, Generation X, if you were lucky enough to have a middle-class income, there were scholarships available, there were job opportunities available. Even with all of the history and the storytelling in my home, I walked away with this false sense of progress because my parents had seen white only or colored only signs. I had never seen white only or colored only signs. So there was this curtain between them and me and my generation. A lot of us—too many of us—felt like we had gotten over racism. Without understanding how many had been left behind and how entrenched these attitudes were systemically. And it was going to emerge in different ways. So yeah, you’re going to get your integrated schools, but you’re also going to get teachers who expect less of you. Or schools that are more likely to throw you in jail. So there’s a big tradeoff.

I think people are starting to wake up a bit more.

KM: I know I came out to Hollywood thinking feminism was: “mission accomplished!” My mom had fought on the front lines as a woman reporter in the 1950s. So now I can do anything! And that just wasn’t true. And now it feels like we’re going backwards. There’s a lot of stuff this week. It’s a hard week to be a woman. [We held this portion of the interview the week of Trump’s groping tape.

TD: To what you were addressing: Is feminism done? I remember not long ago that there was this conversation of what impact gender was going to have on the election and we were all like, “We’re not sure.” Well, guess what? Gender’s a huge part of the election. For much the same reason that race became so much of a conversation after Obama. Because when it’s in people’s faces, they can’t help being jerks.

KM: Also the events of this past week have stirred up all of these conversations about… all of us, every woman I’ve talked to, we’ve all been mauled or molested or cornered or…

TD: Oh, yeah.

KM: I think there are a lot of guys who seemed kind of awake, who are now actually hearing this from their relatives and loved ones. And they’re like, “Wait, crap, this is a real thing.”

TD: Ultimately it will be a good thing that all this was exposed. Although too many people will be too quick to pretend all of this never happened. But it’s a good thing and good will come of it, ultimately. I really think so. Just as I’m really in some ways grateful that the anti-Obama backlash has been so obvious. [TD ADDENDUM]: Post-election, the backlash went so far, however, that many gains will be threatened and lost. It’s terrifying.

KM: How do you decide which project to work on next? Does one jump out at you or are you always working on more than one thing at once?

TD: This is the most difficult part of my current lifestyle. Between teaching, not just one place but two places, and then trying to introduce Hollywood into my life in a marked and consistent way, and short stories and what-not, my novel, which used to be a priority, is less and less a priority. And it’s taking forever to write this book… It doesn’t feel like I’m deciding, so much as certain projects jump up and prioritize themselves if I’m not careful. And the novel just never has that because it’s also the first time that I’ve written a novel without a deadline. Deadlines are enormously helpful to me. I was a journalist, I was trained on deadlines, so deadlines always have the priority. And the novel not having a deadline? Not so much.

KM: I always tell my agent I’m going to deliver something months ahead of time and that gives me the deadline. He doesn’t pay any attention or care, but my word binds me.

I would love to know your thoughts on Afrofuturism. Was it a movement before it was named, and how do you define it in terms of your work? Have your thoughts changed as you’ve learned more about it?

TD: I think it was a movement before it was named, but it was named at a point when it was becoming more obviously a movement. There were a lot of us who were writing Afrofuturism who did not self-identify that way.

Even if Trump won, or maybe even especially if Trump won, it would be such a ripe time for artists to raise their voices for change.

Because we didn’t know that was what we were doing. But to put it together, I’m teaching a class on it and the definition is so difficult, but what I would say is that it is a combination of literature, music, and visual arts that depict an African future, usually with ties to the past. I also like to include horror and fantasy in Afrofuturism (even though they’re not specifically futuristic), or alternate visions of African-influenced lives. Whether it’s black characters or an aesthetic for black horror, which I think will emerge more in film in years to come.

[Earlier, we had discussed her developing Ghost Summer for television.]

Let’s say my show gets on and it’s a black horror show. That could be really important to helping others find their shows. And one thing that comes up a lot in the black horror aesthetic and also the black science fiction aesthetic is this idea that you must look back to history to move forward. And I think that that resonates so deeply throughout the genres, because I think that history has been so hard, and has been so focused on that skin color, that whether you’re Colombian or Kenyan or black American, everyone’s dealing with that. And it’s a kind of commonality—that history of horror related to something you had no control over. Your skin color. Or your background. And we’re all kind of gnawing on that bone in different ways. So that comes up a lot, but it comes up in different ways. So Octavia had her way of dealing with it, and Toni Morrison had her way of dealing with it, I have my way of dealing with it. Nnedi Okorafor has her way of dealing with it and it’s not always black/white-centered either. A lot of that poverty is universal, too, so there are class issues that emerge and gender issues that emerge. So yeah, Afrofuturism is a growing movement and it’s one to be reckoned with. I think it’s about to have an effect on the face of film and television in a way that it has not before, because there have been so few projects. They have been few and independent, but that’s going to change. It may not be me, but in the next five years, you can be sure of that.

KM: In the introduction of Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown’s anthology, Octavia’s Brood, there was a concept of Afrofuturism that I hadn’t heard of before, which insisted that the stories written create a positive future. That was part of the mission of the stories. I didn’t know if you had any thoughts on that.

TD: That’s a good point, too. Absolutely. Some of it is Utopian, some of it is dystopian, and some of it is a combination.

KM: I thought that was an interesting and lovely edict. I don’t know if it’s something that as a writer, I could comply with.

TD: I think that’s it’s so much in the air you breathe as an artist that you don’t have to give it to yourself as a prompt to say, “When you’re working on something.” It’s a voice that comes very naturally to a lot of artists because no matter where you are, if you’re struggling poor or a CEO, you all have these shared stories of discrimination that stay with you on some level.  It’s just naturally what we’re gravitating to now.

KM: What advice would you have for any budding young writers out there?

TD: First of all, don’t be afraid to write horror. A lot of people are. Those professors are telling you. Don’t do it for them.

Read excellent fiction of all types, do not limit your fiction to horror. I would say that the majority of my reading is not speculative fiction. I’m always looking for great literature and I have to find that where it is. History novels. Historical novels, you know.

The third thing is find your circle of (beta) readers who will make you a professional-level writer. It’s great to take writing courses, it’s great to get MFAs, but in so many ways one of benefits of getting an MFA is the circle of readers that you met and you need to keep in touch with. You paid for that. And to lose that is tragic. You might get your teaching job, but will you finish your novel? That’s what your circle of readers is for.

KM: How do you keep in touch with your circle of readers?

TD: Well, I’m married to mine. (laughs) I don’t have beta readers like I used to. Beta readers take you to the next levels. For a time I considered hiring one of my former editors privately, because I’ve never written a book without her either.  I don’t advise hiring them, I advise keeping in touch via Facebook or having groups or having two or three people you send the manuscript to.

KM: I have a circle and we stop, so it ends up being not all labor for them.

TD: And take supplementary classes. You have to know what it’s going to take for you to keep your integrity to yourself as a writer who’s growing and producing.

It’s not clear how this election turned out. Even if Trump won, or maybe even especially if Trump won, it would be such a ripe time for artists to raise their voices for change. We’re still in that time. The fact that Trump has even happened, shows us that we’re in that time.  Not just because of him personally, but because of what his rise represents. What we’re facing in our schools, with our police departments, throughout our system. Our voting system, there’s just a lot being exposed.

KM: My friend Gloria Villegas says that she hopes that what’s happened is that the rock has been lifted on racism, and what we’re seeing are all of those little bugs scuttling out, all those nasty little racist bugs who are down there, but the light is also there. I hope so. It’s just the ugliness is so ugly, it’s very hard to…

TD: He’s doing us a favor ultimately, but it’s a hard time in this culture.

And like that, our hour was up. This was one of those conversations that flips your lid as a writer, and the sort of conversation I hope you all seek out. My advice to budding writers would be: Seek out conversations like these. Talk to people more advanced in your field, ask questions. Exchange ideas. As Due said, this is a time ripe for artists to raise their voices for change.

Kate MaruyamaKate Maruyama’s novel Harrowgate was published by 47North. Her short work appears in Arcadia, Stoneboat, Whistling Shade, and on Salon, The Rumpus, and Duende, among other journals. She has stories in the anthologies Phantasma: Stories and Winter Horror Days. She teaches in the BA and MFA Programs at Antioch University Los Angeles, and for Inspiration2Publication and Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She writes, teaches, cooks, and eats in Los Angeles, where she lives with her family.

Disquieting

I hallucinate. Only at night, only when I travel for work. The drug-induced visions are violent but worth it. I take an anti-malaria medicine to stay alive.

Malaria nearly killed my ex-husband when we lived in Vietnam. His fevers reached 107.5. He convulsed, raged, and sweat. He should have died, like our friend Clive.

The disease doesn’t always kill you. If you’re really unlucky, it can cause brain damage. I’m working in Mozambique, where malaria is one of the leading causes of death. It kills more than cancer, tuberculosis, car accidents, heart disease, murder, and diabetes combined.

I want to be lucky, so I take the drug then wait for that in-between state when I can never be sure what is real and who is dangerous. I’m sleeping in my Maputo hotel when I hear the voices. There are two this time. One is angry and loud, the other is scared.

Foda-se! Foda-se! It sounds like Fuck you! Fuck you! It’s strange to dream in Portuguese. I don’t speak the language.

Mom-m-m-m-a! Mom-m-m-m–a!

The mournful, pitiful cry must be coming from my psyche. I run away from it.

In fine print the pill bottle says, Psychotic episodes are rare though one of the undesirable effects. The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me. Another time, I ate that same man, scraping his tattoos off with my teeth. I’m powerful between waking and sleeping.

I get out of bed and open my hotel room door. The only light comes from the doorways open just wide enough so that whoever is standing behind them can see what’s happening without being seen. They are voyeurs. Like me.

The frightened voice is below me. A girl lies naked in the hallway. Her smooth brown skin is exposed, her tiny nipples erect. With no pubic hair I guess she’s younger than my daughter, maybe eleven. She’s crying, but she’s not alone. There’s a wrinkled white man, maybe in his fifties, kicking her with his dress shoe, screaming.

Everyone is watching. She looks up at me.

I think about the time I was in the New Delhi train stationa time I am not hallucinating. A boy sleeps on the platform steps. People are walking over him. His friend, his sister, I don’t know which, pulls on my dress and points. She scares me. The train station is notorious for thieving monkeys and children. The boy is not moving. Is he dead? Someone is supposed to meet me soon. I can’t miss my ride. I don’t know Delhi. Why isn’t anyone else helping?

The longer I am on the drug, the crazier I get. There was a time I mutilated a man, cut his arms off to keep him from grabbing me.

Mom-m-m-m-a. I’m back in Maputo. She’s still naked. Stop crying, I want to tell her. Can’t she understand that he kicks her harder the louder she gets? Keep quiet. It can save you. It saved me thirty years ago in a different hotel.

I was seventeen when my rapist broke into a room, dragged me through the window and told his friend to keep watch. He couldn’t get my clothes all the way off. Jeans half on, my legs were trapped. I couldn’t flail them. I stayed quiet. In return, he didn’t kill me. I was thankful. My rapist had been kind.

I’m terrified for this girl. Terrified, wishing for her silence. I have to do something. She’s crying for her mother. Why didn’t I cry for mine? Thirty years of silence.

If I’m remembering, am I hallucinating?

I run to my bed and pull the sheets off, as if the thin white cotton will protect her.

Here’s the part where what I tell people and what I do are different. I tell them I wrap the sheets around her and protect her from the man. This is what I would want someone else to do if it was my daughter, if it was me. But I don’t. I throw them toward her, and she wraps them around herself.

The white man is still yelling Foda-se! Foda-se! when the hotel staff arrives. A young man picks her up while another shushes her like a mother quiets a child. They carry her away in my sheets and leave the man. She’s still crying, Mom-m-m-m-a! as they leave the hallway. The man standing two feet away looks to me.

I run inside my room. There’s no furniture to block his entry. I checked earlier. Like I always do. Everything is bolted to the floor. I should have refused to stay here when I saw the hotel room safe had been stolen, leaving an empty space in the wall. But I didn’t want to be that womena fearful blonde American who insists on a safer hotel, a woman who demands of others. My Blackberry has no service. There is no peephole to see if he’s coming, so I slide my back down the door and hope my body weight will keep him out. I cradle myself, arms wrapped around my knees, staring at my sheetless bed. Then, only then, do I start to make noise. Sobsa crying that’s half in, half out: a pathetic crying that tries silencing itself and results in half breathing, half living.

I’m not hallucinating though wish I was. I long for the power. Instead, I’m crying for the girl, for the girl’s mother, for my daughter. I’m crying because I’m not the woman I want to be. I’m silent. Like everyone else.

Laura P McCarty

Laura P. McCarty is pursuing her MFA at American University. Her work has appeared in the GW Review and is forthcoming in the St. Petersburg Review. In 2016, she was a semi-finalist for the Disquiet International Literary Prize in nonfiction, and a selected reader at The Inner Loop, a monthly literary reading series in Washington, DC. In 2014, she coauthored and published her first book of poetry, My Mother, My Daughter, My Sister, My Self. She lives in Arlington, VA. (Photo credit: Nicole Schofield)

The Grey-Haired Man

The grey-haired man was back again today. He sat there for a few minutes, which isn’t very long for him. Then he looked out across the street and started the engine.

He always pulls out carefully though there’s hardly any traffic. People don’t drive down our road because it doesn’t lead anywhere. If you came here, you’d probably be visiting someone who lived in one of the long row of identical houses. The houses were built on only one side of the street so each house gets a nice view of the field on the other side.

The other people who come here are dog lovers. They park near the gate to the field. It’s an exciting moment when the boot opens and the dog jumps out. Mum and I used to try to guess what sort of dog it would be just from looking at the car. In general, the smaller the car, the smaller the dog. But oddly, people with small dogs tend to have two or three. So their total dog volume is about the same. We called the game “What Dog?” Mum would have been sad if I had lost, so I tried to win to make her happy. But it always seemed to turn out a draw. We would watch together as the owners walked politely around the edge of the field while the dogs ran across the middle and went to the toilet on the crops.

*     *     *

He doesn’t do anything. He just sits very quietly with his big driving-gloved hands resting on the steering wheel. He’s not really looking at anything and not making any noise. In fact, that’s the most striking thing about him. Even in a quiet street like ours, he is the quietest thing.

When a car engine stops it’s not usually the last sound you hear. Usually, there’s a car door closing at least and possibly voices, then a garden gate or a front door banging shut. But when the grey-haired man pulls up and stops his engine, that’s all he does. And the bits of your brain that connect to your ears are waiting for something else.

Then he sits there. How long he sits there can vary, sometimes it’s a couple of hours. But what he does is always the same. He does absolutely nothing. He doesn’t fidget or look bored. He doesn’t pick at things with his fingers or stroke the wood on the dashboard. He doesn’t look round if a door slams or another car parks close up behind him.

*     *     *

Mum spent the morning tidying my room. It isn’t untidy. It’s very neat these days, Mum has tidied it several times already.

She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away.

My room is at the back of the house. It’s the best room because it has a multi-coloured light shade. It looks quite small but it has cupboards built into the wall along two sides. If you took them out it would actually be quite a big room. The cupboards are very useful for putting things in when they have been on the floor too long. They are also good for security, for storing things that you don’t want other people to see. The top cupboard is best for this. All my personal projects are stored up there. It’s not very convenient but at least other people can’t steal your ideas. I kept other things up there too. I kept my fossils and my Doctor Who swap cards. I collected sixty-two Doctor Who cards and kept them in good condition. I made some good swaps, there are a few valuable cards in there. If anyone ever gave me money for birthdays or Christmas I always spent it on swap cards.

The walls in my room are plain blue. We painted it with a roller because this gives the best finish. I did have a poster of the TARDIS and a map of the ancient world. The map, which was still quite large even though it was on a scale 1: 40 000 000, peeled off the wall in the night. It left a terrible mark.

The drawers are built-in too. There are two large drawers underneath my sporting equipment shelf: the shirts and T-shirts drawer and the jumper drawer. That’s what Mum was tidying. She took everything out of my shirts and T-shirts drawer and unfolded them all, one by one. She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away. She looked through some of my other clothes that were hanging up in the wardrobe. She especially looked at my big jeans that Nanny brought me back from her holiday in America. They had buttons on the fly. They were for growing into.

*     *     *

He never comes in the evening when Dad’s at home. He usually comes at lunchtime and he can stay until about three o’clock when the kids get out of school. Not that there are any kids on our street, which is a shame. It’s mostly old people, Mum and Dad are probably the youngest people living here now.

Having said that he doesn’t ever do anything, he did something. He moved. That was all, it was just a movement. But he is usually so still. It had been a cold, boring day, not windy or rainy. The sun was white and fierce, poking out of the sky. It must have been coming at him through the front windscreen. He reached up and pulled at the visor. Then he watched his gloves as they came down again in front of his face.

He has bright cheeks, as though he’s been burnt by the wind. They hang off his face covered in a dry pink crust. Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

When his gloves fell back to the wheel he stared at them. Then he pulled them off and looked at his bare hands.

*     *     *

Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

Mum was doing some cooking. The main difference between when Mum cooks and when Dad cooks is that Mum never uses a book. Whereas, Dad is constantly checking the instructions. There are other differences too. Dad needs to have a drink when he cooks and he needs music on and no one to come in and ask him questions. You can’t ask him questions about anything, not even about what he’s doing. Especially not about what he’s doing. Mum would let me join in. I had special jobs and she would call me in to help her. The thing I was best at was tossing the salad. Even Dad said he could really taste the difference when I’d tossed the salad.

Dad came in and saw Mum cooking. He looked relieved to see her bustling to and fro in the kitchen, throwing things in a bowl. She never weighs anything out. She always guesses but she guesses exactly right. And if she guesses wrong it just makes it taste different but better. Then she tries to remember what she did wrong so she can do it on purpose next time. Unlike Dad’s experiments which have to be thrown away.

Dad gave her a little kiss on the cheek and then he left her to it. Recently, most of their meals have been from the freezer. Nanny cooks lots of the same meals and brings them round in plastic containers. She says they have to eat.

Dad smiled at Mum’s back as she was cooking. His smile faded when he saw what she had cooked. She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

That was one of my other jobs, laying the table. I always made sure everything was lined up very neatly at exactly ninety degrees. That’s what Mum did. She made right angles with the spoon just touching the top of the knife and fork so the food couldn’t escape before it was eaten. Then she served it up, fish fingers with fried potatoes and peas. Nice little garden peas like green sweets and a piece of buttered bread so you could make a fish finger sandwich. In the oven she had hidden a syrup pudding. It was waiting there for the ice cream. Most people assume boys like custard best but that’s not the case. Mum always gave me ice cream. It’s quite like custard but it’s really helpful if the syrup is too hot.

“I made all his favourites,” Mum said and smiled down at her plate.

“I can see that,” said Dad.

*     *     *

He has had to change his parking spot because Mum saw him. She was walking to the post box. She usually walks the other way, to the shop across the main road.

I liked going to the shop with Mum. I wasn’t ever supposed to go there on my own. She would give me coins so that I could buy swap cards. Going to the shop always put Mum in a good mood too. She would buy a chocolate bar and we’d break up all the squares and share it fifty-fifty. She told me not to tell Dad and although I never did, Dad had a way of finding the empty wrappers and getting to the truth.

Mum had a letter to post. She was feeling for the letter in her bag as she walked along and eventually she had to stop walking and look for it properly. She stopped right in front of his car. As she pulled the letter out, she saw him. He was watching through the windscreen. He was wearing his thick black coat with white flecks on the shoulder. Mum turned around and walked quickly back to the house with the letter still in her hand. He could have jumped out of the car and run after her down the street. He could have caught up with her before she reached the house. Later, when Dad got home, Mum didn’t tell him that she’d seen anyone.

*     *     *

Mum seems to have got worse since then. She spends a lot of time in the bath. Last Monday she stayed in the bath all afternoon. She was still there when Dad got home from work. Dad went into the kitchen and clattered the breakfast dishes into the sink. He switched on the radio and turned the volume up loud. Then he switched it off again. Then he ran upstairs and leaned his forehead against the bathroom door.

“You can’t carry on like this.”

But she just stayed there, she wouldn’t get out.

She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

Then Dad looked really tired. He went downstairs again and stood in the middle of the lounge with his hands in his pockets. He walked over to the window and looked out at the field. There was the outline of a man and his dog balancing on the path that led across the top of the hill. They didn’t seem to be moving. Dad scratched the stubble on his cheek and looked to see if there was anyone else out there but there wasn’t.

He walked over to the telephone and dialed Nanny’s number. Dad left a message on her answer machine. It took him a while to get going after the beep sounded, so when he did start talking there wasn’t much time.

“Hi, it’s Stewart. It’s us. It’s difficult. Could you come round?”

Mum stood behind him in her towel. “What did you have to call her for? She’s upset enough as it is.”

“Well, I had to do something. Things are getting worse.”

“How could things get any worse?” Mum asked. Dad didn’t know the answer to that.

*     *     *

He’s been here every day for the last couple of weeks. He just sits very quietly. He never brings a book but recently he has the car radio on sometimes. He listens to the type of music that doesn’t have any singing, just lots of violins. It’s a very gentle noise. It’s good music for sitting quietly and it means he’s not completely on his own. He has a noise with him. The music can grow though. At times it gets bigger and bigger and pounds on the car doors.

I like him. It surprised me when I realised it. But I do quite like him. He’s got a kind, saggy face and he moves slowly. I wonder if he’s got a wife, like Mum but a bit older probably and not as pretty. She must wonder where he is all the time when he’s sitting parked up in our road with his driving gloves on. She is probably thinking he should be at home helping her around the house.

*     *     *

Nanny came round, it was raining and she’d had to walk from the bus stop. She gave Mum a special long hug and her umbrella dripped onto Mum’s trouser leg making a damp patch. Dad was still holding onto the latch and hovering in front of the door, as though Nanny might turn around and try to leave. When Nanny let go Mum was still leaning in to her like she couldn’t stand herself up again. Dad was looking at Nanny, straight at her without looking away or blinking. Nanny looked about in a general way and then said.

“Hello, dear. How are you?” She kissed him nicely on the cheek.

“We’re managing,” said Dad and he found the confidence to let go of the front door.

“You might be,” said Mum.

“Would you like a cup of tea, love?” said Dad. The question seemed too simple and that made it difficult to answer.

“I think we should have some tea,” Nanny said, to help her.

Dad went into the kitchen. He lined three mugs up in a row. He made normal tea for himself and Nanny, fruit tea for Mum. It made the kitchen smell of jam. Dad put the kettle down but he didn’t let go of it.

While he was gone Nanny and Mum waited for the tea to come. They didn’t say anything. They could talk about the tea when it arrived.

Dad put two mugs down on the table and went back to the kitchen. Nanny looked up and watched him go. Then she asked quietly, “Why don’t you come and stay with me for a bit, dear?” But he heard her from the doorway and turned round.

“Why don’t you, love?” Mum looked at him as though he had offended her.

“Right, I’ll go and pack my stuff then.” She went upstairs without her tea. Dad stroked his finger round the top of Mum’s mug. He seemed to know not to look straight at Nanny now.

*     *     *

So, Mum went to stay with Nanny for a few days. She took her to the seaside and on a shopping trip but Mum didn’t buy anything. I wish Mum had stayed there longer. Nanny is good at looking after her, much better than Dad. Even when he is trying really hard to be nice he sounds a little bit like he is telling her off.  Nanny strokes Mum’s hair as though she was a little girl.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

Since she got back from Nanny’s she has barely stepped outside the house. She used to love little walks, even just around the block. The leaves are on the floor and there’s conkers now. Mum is good at conkers.

She always noticed things when we went for walks. “Look at that silly duck!” I tried to point out funny things too. We did it to make each other smile. Dad didn’t point things out so much. He would just grab me and hold me upside down. I quite liked it but I couldn’t do it back to him.

Mum spends her days inside the house, sorting through drawers, especially photographs. She endlessly rearranges the photographs. She writes long descriptions on the back. Where we were, how we got there, who was with us, how long we stayed, where we ate our lunch. Everything she can remember. She files them in date order.

It’s getting to the point that there aren’t many left to organize. She’s slowing down, taking longer over every detail. Added to which, she’s losing concentration. She’s getting distracted. She lays the photos out on the bed and then just sits next to them and gazes out of the window. She watches the local cats patrolling. She watches the postman’s legs marching along driveways. She looks out over the field on the other side of the road and watches the farmer shuttling up and down.

*     *     *

Mum was watching yesterday. She had seen him long before he rang the bell. Perhaps she recognized his car as it parked up right outside. He didn’t get out straight away. He sat in his car looking over at the house. It took quite a long time for him to finish doing that. He ran his hand over his hair.

His hair is definitely grey but only overall. On average his hair is grey. If you looked at the individual hairs they are actually lots of different colours. Some are still thick, coarse and black. While others are fine white hairs that look like they would fall off in your hand if you touched them. It is cut very short so you can see the fold of flesh at the back of his skull where it settles onto his neck.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

When she saw him from the upstairs window she sat back on the bed. She didn’t go running downstairs but when the doorbell eventually rang Mum was standing behind the door. She clicked the latch on the mortice lock and held her breath. The grey-haired man was moving on the other side. She edged away from the door. As she slid across the mirror in the hall she watched herself, creeping backwards. She stopped and looked for a moment. He rang the doorbell a little bit so it didn’t make too much noise, as if trying not to wake a baby. But there was no baby.

She didn’t look like she was going to move.  She looked like she was going to do “pretending not to be in.” But there are criteria that must be met for that. For instance, you mustn’t have the telly on and you should turn the light off in the hall. It’s best if you haven’t left a bike on the front lawn.

Today, Mum was meeting all the criteria. She could have stayed on the bed or even crouched down on the other side by the wardrobe, just to make sure. That is a very secret spot. I used to jump out at Dad from that spot and he was always really surprised. Once I did it and he nearly died of a heart attack.

But she gave up really quickly. He only rang the bell that once and then just stayed in the porch. He didn’t look irritated and keep pressing the bell like Mum did when we went to visit people who weren’t home. Looking back, they could have just been pretending too. They could all have been in the upstairs bedroom lying behind the bed with the telly off. Mum might have realised this, which would explain why she got so irritated.

Then she cleared her throat, so they would both know that she was home. He moved his shoes around. Mum unlocked the door and opened it. He lifted up his hand to show her that he was holding a box of chocolates and then he lifted up the other hand which held a bunch of big white flowers.

Mum looked beautiful, standing there with the sun coming through the coloured glass chimes and twinkling onto her face. “You shouldn’t have,” she said. The grey-haired man dropped his hands, so the flowers were all hanging upside down.

“Do you want to come in?” Mum asked, without making any room in the doorway.

“Thank you,” he said. Then they stood there in silence and it was a very silent silence. Mum pushed the door closed a little.

“Please…take these,” he said, waving the flowers about a bit. Mum put out a hand and took them. She didn’t say thank you or give him a smile. She closed the door and the grey-haired man stood in the porch. He was still holding the chocolates. He walked back to his car as though his legs were tired.

At teatime, Mum told Dad about it. “He was here.”

“Oh Christ,” said Dad.

“He brought flowers.”

“Flowers? Jesus, can’t he see how creepy that is?  He’s unhinged.”

“He’s just sad.”

*     *     *

The grey-haired man did look sad, leaning forwards, his head resting in his hands. That’s what he was doing that day when Mum first saw him. He was sitting on the side of the big main road just past the shop. A policeman was talking to him. He had his head in his hands. His legs were shaking. His car was parked on the verge and he was sitting beside it.

He was especially quiet today. He really didn’t stay long, just a few minutes. A gull was barking at him from a gate post. After he’d started the engine he looked over at the field. Then he checked the mirrors and tugged his big car awkwardly away.


Alison GibbAlison Gibb lives in Brighton, England with her husband and two young sons. She has previously lived and worked in London and New Zealand. She is a Doctor specialising in the care of vulnerable and homeless patients. She completed an MA in Creative Writing and Authorship at Sussex University.

Meat


“The stench was awful again.” I hear her talking in bed as I shave.

“I might have gotten used to it. I’m not sure.”

“I don’t understand how someone can get used to something so disgusting and unbearable.”

I believed that the unbearable stench in the apartment was affecting our sex life. We were making love with much more passion since that stench found its way through our nostrils to irritate our brains. I’m sure that I would not have been able to muster so much ardor were it not for that unusual smell. Ever since the stench began, I’d been fucking her somehow, well, epically, as if the world depended on it. After the first fuck with the stench she said as much: Since the stench started, you’re fucking me somehow, well, epically, as if the world depended on it.

There are other details connected to that smell. For instance: I come out of the bathroom and find her in bed naked, sweaty, wrapped in a thin sheet down past her knees. Her face is green, and her body is again covered in big red spots. She feels under the bed, pulls out a metal basin and brings it to her lips. She fills the basin with two or three quarts of liquid. She says it’s due to the stench. I tell her that I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up. I suggest we go to the doctor. She refuses and again grabs the basin and expels the contents of her intestines and I don’t know what else as the basin travels from the floor to her gradually less green face.

It wasn’t always like this. Her illness, her nausea, started when the smell first appeared. That’s when the problems started.

The part of town we live in was orderly and quiet, no worse than any other neighborhood. A few years ago a butcher shop opened in the storefront of our building. Then a second one opened. The butcher shops had a fair number of customers, but there was always more meat than demand. We watched from our balcony as the workers took out boxes of veal carcasses and pig guts and shoved them into the garbage bin just a few stories below our window. Thus began the sweet smell of decay phase. That’s what I called it. And really, it would be an exaggeration to say that the stench was stronger than the usual unpleasant smell of the dumpster in which the dead animals were decaying.

Then came the dogs, and with them phase two. The dogs that moved into our neighborhood were attracted by the smell of meat from the dumpster. The skinned bodies of the animals with torn and exposed arteries and ligaments made us think of human bodies. But only at first. Later we got used to them. Occasionally we’d hear a shriek, and we knew that it was just someone passing through the neighborhood for the first time.

Scraps of cooked meat from residential trashcans, fruit rinds and moldy heels of bread had been the diet of the dogs who hung around the entrance to our building. And then one of them bit into the neck of a dead animal. From the moment the hungriest of them tasted raw flesh, the corpses in the dumpster became the one and only entree on the menu of our neighborhood dogs.

The butcher shop workers continued carrying out the remains.

The first unfortunate incident wasn’t serious. An impatient dog attacked the meat before it was tossed into the dumpster, and the butcher shop employee came away with a few scars. The next incident was more severe. A dog pounced and sunk his teeth into the man’s leg. With one bite it found the femoral artery and sent the employee to the hospital. After that, they didn’t carry the meat to the dumpster anymore. They tossed it out onto the street, into the pack of stray dogs that waited for their meal.

Over time, all of us in the neighborhood became vegetarians. No one wants to carry a bag full of fresh, bloody meat if he lives in or passes through a neighborhood occupied by dogs. The butchers lost all their customers, but it was ordered that they continue working so that the dogs would have regular meals. They were trying to protect the residents from animal attacks.

And that’s how a full complement of meat from two butcher shops ended up on the street just a few floors below our balcony. And so began the next phase and the barely tolerable stench. We suffer. We get used to it. She throws up from time to time, changes color and gets big red spots. But her misery is short-lived. She went out one day to take out the trash and still hasn’t come back. She was the first in the neighborhood to disappear. I believe that my beloved met her unfortunate demise in the jaws of a dog.

Since then I haven’t left the apartment. I’m afraid of more attacks. They closed off our part of town after a few more disappearances. We get our food and supplies from the air. And it’s the same with the meat. They don’t throw it out onto the street anymore; now they attach it to steel cables and lower it from the air. Because of that, the dogs are even hungrier. They won’t leave. And we, the residents of Dog Town, live in fear that wild dogs will soon break down our doors and force their way into our apartments, attracted by the smell of unwashed bodies.

Every day I contemplate carcasses suspended in air. They pause for a moment at the level of my balcony as if they want to taunt me. The sound I have been listening to for years is a variation on the theme of dogs barking, whining and howling. Ever since the meat started being lowered down and pulled up from above, from the sky, I’ve been trying to remember a saying I read somewhere a long time ago. Into the mouth of a bad dog flies many a good bone, if I’m remembering correctly.

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Meso

– Smrad je ponovo bio užasan – čujem je kako govori iz kre­veta dok se perem.

– Ja sam se možda navikao. Nisam siguran.

– Nije mi jasno kako neko može da se navikne na nešto odvratno i nepodnošljivo.

Vjerovao sam da nesnosan smrad u stanu utiče na tok našeg seksualnog čina. Vodimo ljubav sa mnogo više žara od kad nam smrad kroz nozdrve iritira mozak. Siguran sam da ne bih bio u stanju da izvučem iz sebe onoliku strast da nije tog neobičnog mirisa. Od kad je smrada, jebem je nekako, sudbinski. Poslije prvog jebanja sa smradom izgovorila je to: Od kad je smrada, jebeš me nekako – sudbinski.

Postoje detalji vezani za taj miris. Na primjer: izlazim iz kupatila i zatičem je u krevetu golu, oznojenu, prekrivenu tankim čaršavom preko koljena. Lice joj je zelenkasto, a tijelo ponovo napaduju crveni pečati. Ruka prodire ispod kreveta, izvlači me­talni lavor i približava ga ustima. Puni posudu sa dva-tri litra tečnosti. Kaže da je to zbog smrada. Kažem joj da ja ne osjećam mučninu. Predlažem da posjetimo ljekara. Odbija i ponovo hva­ta lavor i ispušta sadržaj crijeva i ne znam još čega dok posuda putuje od poda do njenog sve manje zelenog lica.

Nije oduvijek tako. Njena bolest, njene mučnine, počele su kad se pojavio miris. Tako su počeli problemi.

Dio grada u kojem živimo bio je uredan i tih, ništa lošiji od drugih kvartova. U prizemlju naše zgrade prije nekoliko godina otvorena je mesara. Nakon prve otvorena je još jedna. Mesare su imale određen broj mušterija, ali mesa je bilo više nego što je potrebno. Sa terase smo posmatrali radnike kako u kutijama iznose teleće trupine i svinjske utrobe i guraju ih u kantu za smeće, nekoliko spratova ispod našeg balkona. Tako je počela faza kiselkastog vonja truleži. Ja sam je tako nazvao. I zaista, pre­tjerao bi onaj ko kaže da je smrad bio jači od neprijatnog mirisa kontejnera u kojem se raspada uginula životinja. Onda su došli psi, a sa njima i druga faza. Psi koji su naselili naš kvart bili su privučeni mirisom mesa iz kontejnera. Odrana tijela životinja sa otkinutim arterijama i tetivama podsjećala su na tijela ljudi. Ali samo u početku. Kasnije smo se navikli. Povremeno se čuo vrisak, a mi smo znali da je to još jedan prolaznik kroz naš kvart.

Komadi kuvanog mesa iz malih kanti, ostaci voća i krajevi buđavog hljeba bili su hrana za pse iz naših prolaza. Onda je neko zagrizao vrat mrtve životinje. Od trenutka kad je najgladniji među psima progutao živo meso, lešine iz kanti za smeće postale su glavno i jedino jelo na jelovniku naših pasa. Radnici mesare iznosili su ostatke.

Prvi nesrećan slučaj nije bio težak. Nestrpljivi pas nasrnuo je na meso prije nego što je prebačeno u kantu, a radnik mesare dobio je nekoliko ožiljaka. Sljedeći slučaj bio je teži. Pas je skočio i uhvatio čovjeka za nogu. Jednim ujedom zakačio je arteriju u butini i poslao radnika u bolnicu. Nisu više iznosili meso do kanti. Izbacivali su ga na ulicu, među podivljale pse koji čekaju svoj obrok.

Vremenom smo svi u kvartu postali vegetarijanci. Niko nije želio kesu punu svježeg, krvavog mesa ako živi ili prolazi kroz kvart naseljen psima. Mesare su izgubile mušterije, ali bilo je naređeno da ne prestaju sa radom da bi psi imali redovne obroke. Pokušavali su da zaštite ljude od napada životinja.

Tako je kompletan kontigent mesa iz dvije mesare završio na ulici, nekoliko spratova ispod našeg balkona. Počinje sljedeća faza i teško podnošljiv smrad. Trpimo. Navikavamo se. Ona s vremena na vrijeme povraća, mijenja boju i dobija crvene pe­čate. Ali ni njene muke nisu trajale dugo. Ona je jednog dana izašla da izbaci smeće i još je nema. To je prvi nestanak u ovom kvartu. Vjerujem da je moja draga nesrećno skončala u psećim čeljustima. Od tada ne izlazim iz stana. Plašim se novih napada. Zatvorili su naš dio grada nakon još nekoliko nestanaka. Namir­nice i hranu dobijamo iz vazduha. Isto je i sa mesom. Više ga ne izbacuju na ulicu, sad ga kače za sajle i puštaju u vazduh. Zbog toga su psi još gladniji. Ne napuštaju naše ulice. Mi, stanovnici psećeg kvarta, živimo u strahu da će podivljali psi uskoro da probiju vrata naših stanova privučeni vonjem neumivenih tijela. Svakog dana posmatram životinje u vazduhu. Zadržavaju se na trenutak u visini mog balkona kao da hoće da mi se nacere. Zvuk koji godinama slušam je varijacija psećeg laveža, cviljenja i zavijanja. Od kad meso odnose prema gore, ka nebu, pokušavam da se sjetim rečenice koju sam nekad negdje pročitao. Psi laju a karavan odlijeće, ukoliko se dobro sjećam.

Translator’s Note

Ilija Đurović writes stories that are surprising, disturbing, real in an unreal kind of way. Reading them, I feel as if I am walking in on a scene in progress—like entering a movie theater where the film has already begun or pausing by the door of an apartment that has been inadvertently left ajar. I have to listen for a moment to figure out who is speaking, what is going on, what is the relationship between the characters…

Like the experience of reading Đurović’s stories, my process of translation is also a process of discovery. My first contact with a text is usually reading for pleasure or out of curiosity: what is the author like, what does he or she write about, does it grab me? I am not translating in this first read—I am reading for the story, picking up images, getting a sense of tone and rhythm. And if the story stays with me, I take another look. I read it again to confirm my first impressions. Did he really describe meat rotting in the streets? What was that about being a prisoner in his own apartment? And why does the title now bring to mind an image of a dangling cow carcass? I pay more attention to details in the second read, sometimes stopping to ponder how I would render a particular phrase. At this point I usually know if I want to attempt a translation.

Even after two read-throughs, though, there is still more to discover. Now the linguistic issues kick in. How does the narrator express himself and, stepping into his shoes, how do I approximate that in English? Does he play with language, use uncommon words instead of common ones, speak in slang, make literary allusions? And what is left unsaid?

The danger of translating in discovery mode—working your way from beginning to end—is that you might encounter the most difficult challenge in the very last sentence. In “Meat,” for instance, the story’s punch line is a common saying in Montenegro and other countries of the region. The saying, “Psi laju, a karavana prolazi,” is commonly translated, “The dogs bark, but the caravan passes.” The narrator, in his stressed out state, twists that to “The dogs bark, but the caravan flies away.” But the dog/caravan saying is not a common expression in the United States (a few documented utterances substituting stagecoach or wagon train for caravan notwithstanding). I had to find an English expression that could be twisted in a similar way, preferably featuring dogs, barking, and, most important, motion that could become flight. The search led me through the internet and into the stacks of my public library, through a handful of proverb dictionaries and hours pondering the origins and meanings of the sayings I found. True discovery mode. Trying to solve these kinds of puzzles is one of the pleasures of translation.

Paula GordonPaula Gordon’s work as a literary translator encompasses drama, short stories, memoir, poetry, and archival material. Her translations have appeared in Words without Borders and Copper Nickel. Her translation of Otpad [Refuse] by Montenegrin playwright Ljubomir Đurković was commissioned and published by the Montenegrin National Theatre in 2003. She posts “current event” translations (from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian) of news articles, essays, and Facebook and blog posts at https://dbaplanb.wordpress.com/aktuelnost/.

 

Ilija Đurović

Ilija Đurović (Podgorica, Montenegro, 1990) has been writing since he was a teenager. “Meso” is taken from his short story collection Oni to tako divno rade u velikim ljubavnim romanima, published by Žuta kornjača (Podgorica) in 2014. Another collection, Crne Ribe, is forthcoming from the same publisher. A story from this new collection, “Djelovi grada,” was one of three equal prize winners in the “VranacBest Short Stories of 2016” competition held by the Odakle Zovem festival (Knjižara Karver, Podgorica). His story “The Five Widows,” translated by Will Firth, appears in Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2016 (London, November 2015). Đurović also writes poetry, plays, and personal essays. He lives in Berlin. (Photo credit: Ivan Čojbačić)