Do You Think I’m Beautiful

(flash fiction)

If I were a hostess in Japan, I’d be the favorite of an overweight salaryman. His wisps of hair would be spread across the top of his skull. He would smell sweet, like ginger and molasses.

Before our shift started, the other girls and I would get ready together. We’d tease our hair and fix our makeup. We’d pucker our lips and check our teeth. We’d admire our reflections in the mirror.

Do I look pretty? we’d say. Am I beautiful?

If I were a hostess in Japan, my overweight salaryman would buy me glasses of orange fluffy drinks. I would suck on them with a twisty green straw. I would smile when he smiled. I would imitate his gestures. He wouldn’t realize I was doing it on purpose. He would think it was just our connection.

He would call me by my genji-na, which would be Sakura, for cherry blossom.

It’s such a common name, he’d say.

I’d laugh like he’d made a very funny joke. I’d put my hand on his arm.

If I were a hostess in Japan, I wouldn’t let my Japanese boyfriend visit me at the kyabakura. Because I would have one: a Japanese boyfriend. He’d have black hair and eyes that were so dark it would be like gazing into nighttime.

The other girls wouldn’t have boyfriends.

Who’s got time for that, they’d say.

They’d take me along with them after work to the host clubs. Everyone’s favorite would be Tanigawa, with his bleached hair and Armani suit.

He’s so authentic, the other girls would say, and fix their makeup again before we left for the host clubs.

They’d say: How do I look?

If I were a hostess in Japan, the other girls would tell me to beware of the Kuchisake-onna.

She used to be a hostess like us, they’d say, but one of her clients disfigured and murdered her, and now she’s a terrifying yokai.

She hides her slitted mouth under a surgical mask so you’d never know it’s there. And if she asks you am I pretty and you say yes, she rips the mask off and says how about now, and then she cuts your face like hers.

If you say no, she’s not pretty, she cuts your face.

They’d say: There’s no escaping her.

If I were a hostess in Japan, I would know they weren’t supposed to employ me. I would know about the hostesses who had been murdered, girls like me, foreign. I would know their names. I would have copies of the newspaper articles. But it wouldn’t matter. I would be American and invulnerable and take my payment under the table.

If anyone asks, you do the cleaning, the manager would say.

If I were a hostess in Japan, I wouldn’t do the cleaning. I would let the wrappers from the twisty green straws in my orange fluffy drinks flutter to the floor, and leave them there. I would touch my overweight salaryman on his arm and laugh at his jokes. I would tell my Japanese boyfriend: I don’t want you coming here. Please. I would follow the other girls to the host clubs when our shift was done.

It’s much easier this way, don’t you think? they’d say, while we shared a bottle of champagne with the tanned hosts. No strings.

No strings, I’d agree, but I would excuse myself early, before Tanigawa sang Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki. I would leave alone, to hail a cab back to my twelve-tatami apartment and my Japanese boyfriend.

On the street, looking for a cab, I would hear a voice: Watashi kirei? Am I pretty?

And I wouldn’t know if it was the Kuchisake-onna, or one of the dead foreign girls, or one of the other hostesses, or if it was even myself.

I would close my eyes and cross my fingers.

I’d say: Hai. You’re beautiful.

Cathy UlrichCathy Ulrich always picks up her straw wrappers. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including The Airgonaut, Monkeybicycle, and Literary Orphans. Her humor writing can be found at Hollywood Hates Me.

The Price of Words

“It’s so…” I sighed and stared at the dress.

“Colorful?” Phoebe guessed.

I shook my head.

“Stylish?”

“No.”

“Then I think I know what you mean.”

Dreamy, I thought. Charming, lovely, exquisite, ornate. It looks like something out of the fairytales my mother told me when I was little, before the laws took our stories away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell Phoebe any of this. I didn’t own the right words.

Phoebe loved language almost as much as I did. She understood the frustration of finding the right word at the right time but not being able to use it. She understood my yearning for all the words I’d never have.

“Shall we?” she asked, nodding toward the dress. I ignored the glaring eyes of the sales clerk and pulled up the PriceCheck application on my phone. With a quick wave of the device, I scanned the barcode printed on the inside of the dress.

Armatage Pointe presents: The Lillian

An image of the dress floated onto the screen, breathtaking and beautiful. The advertisement zoomed in to highlight the dress’s intricate patterns and stitching, then zoomed out to reveal its airy shape and flawless design.

Be the belle of the ball and the envy of your friends in the Lillian, the gown of your dreams.

In moments, the dress was seamlessly integrated into the pictures on my phone. There I stood, onstage at my school’s award ceremony, beaming in the dazzling dress. I saw myself surrounded by friends at my latest birthday party, looking absolutely radiant in its blue-green folds. I had to admit, it was a clever marketing ploy.

“If you decide to wear this dress for your next party,” Phoebe whispered, “at least warn the rest of us.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

This dress would buy me thirty-seven new words, an intoxicating splattering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Thirty-seven new words to enhance explanations, deepen conversations, strengthen relationships.

I would never own a dress like this, and we both knew it.

Once my pictures disappeared from the screen, I scrolled through the dress’s care requirements and customer reviews. There was so much information to sift through to get to what I really wanted to see.

The dress was expensive. 1700 credits, which was almost all I had. But the words! This dress would buy me thirty-seven new words, an intoxicating splattering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Thirty-seven new words to enhance explanations, deepen conversations, strengthen relationships. Thirty-seven new words to roll around in my mouth, to let loose off the tip of my tongue.

My hungry eyes devoured the list, trying to digest each word and definition before the advertised offer expired. They wouldn’t be mine to write or speak, but no one could stop me from using them in my mind.

It hadn’t always been like this. When I was young, people could use any words they wanted for any purposes they chose. Freedom of speech, they had called it, freedom of expression. But then things began to change.

It had started off innocently enoughcorporations claiming ownership of their names and slogans, artists requesting rights to the lyrics in their songs. Soon, it became hard to keep track of which words were in the public domain and which words required rights. Laws were created to regulate the system, and our vocabularies were reduced to basic word lists. Now, each new word came at a price, and the cost was often too high to excuse.

I looked back at the words this dress would afford me. Ominous, surreal, whimsical, confound… I tried to hear them in my head, tried to imagine what they would sound like spoken through my voice. And then I saw it. I was so surprised, I almost said it out loud.

“It must be a good one,” Phoebe said softly, startling me out of my thoughts. And it was.

Dreamy.

She scrolled back through the list and pointed at the word. “Was that the one you” I nodded. She had known what I was thinking after all. Looking at price tags was often the closest we got to truly communicating.

Phoebe pulled out her phone. “You were meant to have this word. I wonder if it comes with anything else.” She opened her personal dictionary, accessed its word locating system, and entered “dreamy” in the search bar.

This component of the application acted as an inventory for available words. When information on a specific word was requested, it listed the brands that retained rights, as well as the sites and stores that sold their products. Querying for a potential purchase was one of the few times we could use the words we didn’t already possess, and buying sponsored products was the only way to legally obtain them.

“Pardon me.”

I looked up from Phoebe’s phone and turned to stare at the boy who stood behind me.

“Could you please excuse me?” he asked, nodding toward a sales counter, his politeness quickly merging with impatience. “I’m sorry to say my time is scarce.”

Dazed, I moved out of his way.

How many words did he have, how rich must he be, to be able to talk like that? “Pardon” was a rarity, an artifact among words, and “scarce” was also uncommon. Before Phoebe could stop me, I strode over to him.

“Your words are so…” I stopped, unsure of how to best complete my thought. Enthralling…impressive…envious… Words danced around my head, but I dared not let them spill from my mouth.

“Dreamy?”

I shook my head. All those words, and he couldn’t choose one that fit?

…I wondered if the entirety of my life would be spent chasing the wisps of words I could never afford to have, and something inside of me snapped.

“Do you have anything with ‘dreamy’?”

I realized he was talking to the sales clerk, and then I realized she was looking at me, gesturing to the dress I still held in my hands. “That’s the only piece in the store.”

Actually, Phoebe texted, that’s the only piece in the state. She sent me a screen shot of her search results, and my stomach sank. If she was right and “dreamy” was meant for me, the universe had a strange way of showing it.

Nevertheless, I felt a sudden possessiveness over the dress. When the boy went to reach for it, I pulled it closer.

“I just want to see it,” he said, annoyance apparent in his voice. “You’re not actually thinking about buying it, are you?”

“I’m considering it.” I held the dress up to my body and let my eyes linger on the fabric against my skin.

“There’s a clearance rack on the other side of the store,” the sales clerk assured me. “It may have something more suitable for your price range.”

I felt my face flush. My mind still churned with the words I had just seen, and I suddenly felt desperate, angry, sad. For the zillionth time, I wondered if the entirety of my life would be spent chasing the wisps of words I could never afford to have, and something inside of me snapped. I risked a glance back at Phoebe. Her eyes widened as she realized what I was contemplating. I frowned slightly at the dress as if this was something I did all the time, as if I wasn’t shaking inside. “I’ll take it.”

As the sales clerk busied herself wrapping up the dress and adding its words to my personal dictionary, the boy pelted her with questions. Where else could he find the dress? Did ‘dreamy’ come standard with all Armatage Pointe special occasion dresses, or was it specific to this color and style? When did they expect to receive their next shipment? When she told him it was a limited edition dress and I’d just purchased the last one, he stifled a scream.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” he asked the clerk. “I’ve got to have that dress.”

“I’m sorry, but all sales are final.”

“You, then!” he exclaimed as the sales clerk handed me the dress with an apologetic smile. “I’ll buy it from you!”

“It’s not for sale.” I grabbed Phoebe’s arm and started toward the store’s exit. In less than a minute, we were deposited back into the middle of the mall.

“Don’t you at least want to hear my offer?” the boy asked, hurrying to keep up.

“No.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged off his question like it didn’t sting. “I just don’t, okay?”

“I’ll give you twice what you paid.”

Phoebe gasped, but I refused to consider all I could buy with those credits.

“What’s your problem?” I asked, whirling around to face him. “You have plenty of words. Can’t you let anyone else…” I winced, realizing I was going to embarrass myself with my inferior lexicon.

He waited.

“Can’t you let anyone else…widen their vocabulary?” I sped through the last part, mumbling the words to make them as unintelligible as possible.

“You mean ‘expand their vocabulary’?” His eyes laughed at me, and I wished I had a larger selection of insults to choose from. Not wanting to subject myself to further ridicule, I turned toward the mall’s exit. I was furious with him, with my lack of words, with the world and the way things were.

“Come on!” he shouted at the back of my head. “I was only kidding.”

I walked faster.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

Silence was my only response.

I was furious with him, with my lack of words, with the world and the way things were.

“You don’t understand!”

No, I thought, I don’t understand. You have more words than I’ll speak in my entire life, yet you feel entitled to the few words I possess. How am I supposed to understand that?

Phoebe caught up with me quickly. As we neared the mall’s exit, I reached for the door, thankful to put this whole ordeal behind me.

“I can get you more words!”

My fingers froze, inches from my escape. I slowly turned to face the boy, his desperate syllables still bouncing around in my brain. “What did you say?”

His eyes widened as if he was just now realizing the implications of his offer. They darted back and forth, scanning the surrounding area, and for good reason. An unsanctioned transfer of words was a sizable offense, punishable by law.

Once the boy was convinced no one had overheard, he turned his attention back to me. “I can get you,” he repeated through gritted teeth, “more words.”

I glanced over at Phoebe who immediately shook her head. Her pleading eyes told me I’d gotten into enough trouble for one day, and she was right. Still, I was curious.

I studied the boy’s face, trying to gauge his sincerity, and he flashed me an infuriatingly charismatic smile. “I’m sure we can come to an amicable agreement,” he said. “I have plenty of words. It’s just a matter of determining which ones you’d like.”

He approached us and took out his phone, once again exuding nothing but confidence.   Maybe Phoebe was right. This sounded too good to be true.

The boy’s hopeful eyes rested on me for a moment. When I offered no response, he sat down on a nearby bench and gestured for me to join him. I followed but remained standing.

Sighing, he glanced at his watch. “I’m sorry to say this offer won’t last long. I really don’t have much time.” Against my better judgement, I sat down.

I watched as he opened his dictionary. He scrolled through his wordsso many more than I’d ever seen on one person’s phoneand chose a collection titled Excess & Expendable. Then he turned his phone toward me.

“What’s in it for you?” I asked softly, holding his gaze. “Why does this one word matter so much?”

He shrugged. “Why does any word matter? You should know better than anyoneone word can mean the world.”

His phone still glowed in front of me, and I couldn’t resist it any longer. I dared to let my finger scroll through the endless sea of letter combinations, dared to lose myself in the mesmerizing waves of words.

“Where did you get these?” I breathed.

When he didn’t answer, I glanced back up at him, but his eyes had moved to something behind me and his face had changed somehow.

I turned to follow his gaze. “What is it?”

The boy made no move to respond. Instead, he frowned and slipped his phone back into his pocket. My hand was left hanging awkwardly in the air, and I was left embarrassed, hurt, confused. Hadn’t he been the one to suggest this in the first place? Had I done something wrong?

Frustrated, I looked back over my shoulder and followed his eyes deep into the mall. At first, I didn’t notice anything unusual. Then I felt a chill creep up my spine. One floor down and several stores over, a man stood, watching us.

How long has he been standing there? I wondered. Long enough to hear the boy shout that he could get me more words? Long enough to see me scroll through the dictionary on his phone? This man could mean trouble, and I sensed that the boy felt it, too.

I watched as the boy slowly stood and took a small, unsteady step toward the mall’s exit. That was all it took to set things into motion.

“Jace!”

The man’s voice rang out like a shot from a pistol. One by one, people turned to stare, first at the man, and then in our direction. The mall became eerily quiet as he pushed through the crowd, his eyes never leaving the boy.

In seconds, Phoebe was by my side. “Let’s go,” she mouthed, nodding toward the exit. “Now.”

I shook my head, willing her to understand.

His phone still glowed in front of me, and I couldn’t resist it any longer. I dared to let my finger scroll through the endless sea of letter combinations, dared to lose myself in the mesmerizing waves of words.

I couldn’t leave an opportunity like this, not without exploring it first.

I looked back at the boy, whose name, I guessed, was Jace.

“What’s going on?” I demanded.

This seemed to snap him out of it. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath. Then, with fast hands, he snatched my dress and took off running.

“Hey!” I shouted after him. “HEY!”

“I know you’re upset, but” I didn’t catch what Phoebe said next because I’d already left her behind.

I sprinted from store to store, stopping only to survey my surroundings. The mall was big, but I was fast. Jace couldn’t have gotten far.

When movement on the far side of the food court caught my eye, I was ready. I narrowed in on my target and chased after him, trying my best not to be seen.

“Jace!” I hissed once I was within earshot. He ducked into a bookstore. “Ja

“Shhh!” He grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a shelf of world language books.

What I wouldn’t give, I thought, to live in a world where I could speak a multitude of languages instead of fighting to speak just one. I lowered myself to the floor, fuming and catching my breath.

“Who was that guy chasing you?” I demanded between gulps of air, “and why did you take my dress? I’m afraid turquoise isn’t your color.”

His voice sounded almost amused when he answered. “I don’t want your dress.”

“Good.” I grabbed the gown and glared at him. “It better not be ripped.”

He smirked, which only frustrated me further.

“If you didn’t want the dress, why did you take it? Its words were already added to my account.”

His grin spread farther across his face, and things started to make sense.

“You wanted me to follow you.”

“You’d still be looking for me if I hadn’t wanted to be found.”

“So what, you think stealing my dress and making me chase you around a mall is going to get you my words?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Ugh!”

Panic passed over his face at the volume of my voice, but I was so mad I didn’t care.

“You don’t know what it’s like, watching every word that comes out of your mouth, browsing only to come across words you can’t afford. You don’t know how it feels to not be able to share your ideas with your family or your friends, to

“How do you know?” he snapped. “Do you really think you’re the only one who’s affected by all this? That you’re the only one who cares about having words?” His reaction stunned me into silence and, when he spoke again, his voice softened. “I didn’t have a choice, okay?”

We both sat there for a moment, not saying anything. Then Jace’s phone buzzed. After reading the message, he dragged a heavy hand across his face.

“Will you please tell me what’s going on?”

He looked back down at his phone and sighed. “Your new word is the last one I need for a collection I’ve been working on for one of my customers. That customer,” he said, gesturing back into the mall, “as a matter of fact.”

As if on cue, his phone buzzed with another alert.

“If I don’t get him his words, I’m going to lose out on a lot of business . . . or worse.”

Getting caught cheating the system could mean a fine in credits, or worse, a fine in words. I’d had a few docked here and there, but an infraction like this? It could cost me a third of my vocabulary.

He started opening his Excess and Expendable list again, but I held up my hand to stop him.

“I don’t want your secondhand words,” I told him, “and I especially don’t want the ones I won’t even be able to use.”

“But

I pointed to the heading at the top of his list. “I know what those words mean.”

I continued, frustrated I couldn’t use the first words that came to my mind.

“I also know that my word must be (valuable) worth a lot. It came with a (limited edition) special dress and, with the (plethora) number of words you have, you still don’t have it. I want to make sure I’m (compensated) treated fairly.”

He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “Okay . . . then what do you want?”

“I want to know how to get the words myself.”

The feigned confusion on his face almost made me laugh. Everyone knew there were groups who cheated the system, who bought and sold words like candy and never got caught. Still, his reaction didn’t surprise me. I’d expected him to play dumb.

“I have a feeling you don’t get all of your words by running off with pretty dresses.”

Jace laughed and studied me for a moment. “You’re an interesting girl, you know that?”

I wasn’t sure if it was a slight or a compliment, so I remained silent. After what seemed like an eternity, he shrugged. “Fine. Why not? Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?”

Anticipation surged within me as I thought of all the words I could acquire.

“But I want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Here we go, I thought. The part I’ve been trying so hard to forget.

I smoothed out the bag that held my dress and tried to force down the lump in my throat. Getting caught cheating the system could mean a fine in credits, or worse, a fine in words. I’d had a few docked here and there, but an infraction like this? It could cost me a third of my vocabulary.

“I know the risks,” I told Jace, “and I’m willing to take them.” I took out my phone and drew in a deep breath. “What do I do first?”

He didn’t waste any time getting started.

“Open your browser,” he instructed. “Then, enter this address.” He typed a URL into his phone and held it up for me to see. In seconds, I was connected to a depressingly ordinary-looking site.

“What does this have to do with

“Just trust me.”

I copied the web address and pasted it in the middle of one of my notes for safe keeping. Then I nodded for him to continue.

“Click here,” Jace said, pointing to a link. His voice was barely a whisper. “They post clues in the forums.”

I hurried to keep up as he navigated through the message board, guiding me through thread after thread.

“Now open your dictionary app.”

“Wait.” I lowered my phone to stare at him. “You get your words through your dictionary? How is that possible?”

“The occasional glitch,” he said with half a smirk. “One of the app’s developers feels generous or makes a mistake… If it’s subtle enough, it gets past information security. You wouldn’t believe how many hours people spend trying different combinations and techniques in hopes of finding such an oversight.”

“And these people post clues on this site?”

He nodded.

“Here’s something.” He stopped on a post about halfway down the page. “Do you see this word? The one that’s miscapitalized?” I scanned through the list and nodded.

In the post, it was written opTimism. Normally, I would’ve rolled my eyes at such a careless error, but now that I knew it was intentional, I was intrigued.

“Enter it into the word locator.”

It’s one word, I told myself, it’s only one word, but I felt like I was losing my vocabulary all over again. Jace had been right. One word could mean the world.

“Capitalized?”

He lifted his finger to his lips. Once we were quiet, I heard it, too. The man was still out there, calling his name.

“Is he dangerous?” I whispered.

“Do you still want these words?”

I bit my lip and nodded.

“Enter that word, ‘optimism,’ into the word locator, with the capitalization shown. Now, do you see how it’s the letter ‘t’ that’s capitalized? It’s the third letter, right? That means you have to hit search three times before closing out.”

My fingers fumbled to type the word into my phone. I hit search three times and clumsily closed out of the application.

“How did you know to do that?”

“There are all sorts of clues. Rhyme, punctuation, figurative languagethe list goes on and on. They have to be complicated enough to mask the glitches from those who would fix them but simple enough to be deciphered by those who know to look.”

“I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t.”

It was an amazingly frustrating realization. All this time I’d spent wishing for words, and the clues had been here all along.

“How many words do you get with each glitch?”

“It varies. Some give just one. Others yield entire collections. Once you know what to look for, they add up quickly.”

As he spoke, the man’s voice got louder, and my heart threatened to pound a hole in my chest.

“Okay,” Jace said, urgency apparent in his voice, “I held up my end of the deal.” He gave me his sixteen-digit dictionary code and showed me where I could safely post my word in exchange. I nodded and tried to ignore the nausea that swept over me.

It’s one word, I told myself, it’s only one word, but I felt like I was losing my vocabulary all over again. Jace had been right. One word could mean the world.

Before I could change my mind, I sent him “dreamy.” Only after I transferred the word did I realize that I hadn’t even spoken it while I’d had the chance.

“Jace!” The man was close now. Really close.

Jace peered around the bookshelf and swore under his breath. “You can’t be seen with me. You’ll have to make a run for it.”

“What?”

“Turn off your phone. Don’t turn it back on until you’re someplace safe.”

I hurried to power off my device. “But

“I’ll be fine.” He gave me a half-hearted smile before he stood and stepped around the bookcase. “Where’ve you been?” he called out to the man. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

Before the man could answer, he took off running. Again. At least this time, he left me my dress.

I had no other choice, so I ran in the opposite direction, as fast as my long legs could carry me. I didn’t stop until I was on the bus headed home.

Once I was safely in my room, I locked my door and took the dress out of its packaging. It seemed out of place in my hands, my room, my life. Still, I had to admit, it was beautiful. I let my fingers caress the silky soft fabric and wondered what it would feel like wrapped around my skin. Richluxurious…dreamy. I mouthed the word, but unspoken, it felt hollow. It made me feel empty, too.

Catching sight of my reflection in my mirror, I thought back to the pictures the dress’s advertisement had fused together earlier that day. So much had changed since then. I stared at the dress for a moment, still stunned that I’d dared to buy it, disbelieving that I’d given up the single word I’d purchased it for.

After one last longing glance, I stashed the gown in the back of my closet and watched it crumple like a lifeless butterfly. It had to stay hidden for now, but I’d find a chance to wear it someday.

Sighing, I slid my closet door shut and sat down on my bed.

I mouthed the word, but unspoken, it felt hollow. It made me feel empty, too.

Then I took out my phone and stared at its blank screen.

What had happened to Jace after I’d left? Was he able to access my word? Did he get his collection to the man chasing him? Had anyone seen what we’d done? Questions swirled around my head as I clicked on my phone.

The first thing I saw was a string of texts from Phoebe. Where are you? Did you get your dress? Are you alright? The messages were from over an hour ago and I felt a stone of guilt settle in the pit of my stomach.

I should’ve thought to text her sooneronce I’d found Jace, once I’d recovered my dress. I should’ve checked that she’d gotten home okay, should’ve apologized for running off. Now, I knew, I should text and invite her over so I could explain everything.

My finger hovered over Reply but then hit Close instead. As nice as it would be to share the day’s events with someone and absolve myself as a friend, it was too dangerous. I’d get back to Phoebe, with minimal details, soon. There was something I had to do first.

I said a silent prayer and selected my dictionary app.

To my dismay, a cursive uppercase D appeared on the screen, an icon meant to inform me that the application was loading. It always showed up at the most inopportune times, and now was no exception.

As I watched the thin line loop and curve to create the letter over and over again, the day’s events began to replay in my mind. I found myself analyzing each decision, every word. There were countless implications for trouble within them.

My actions could’ve been caught on the mall’s security cameras. Someone could’ve noticed my suspicious activity online. Authorities could be in the process of tracking me down at this very moment. They could be on their way to my house right now.

Stay calm, I told myself. Everything’s fine.

I watched with growing anxiety as the scripted D was leisurely traced over and over again. My dictionary never took this long to load.

I tried closing out of the app but couldn’t. I tapped the phone, softly at first, then harder, until I was jabbing at its screen. What if my dictionary didn’t open? What if something had gone wrong? What if nothing had changed or, worse, if all my words were gone?

Please be there, I thought. Please, please, please be there.

When the scripted D disappeared and the application finally opened, my breath caught in my throat. I frantically scrolled through my collections, thinking this wasn’t possible, thinking I’d somehow made a mistake.

There were sixteen words in my Merchandise collection that hadn’t been there before. An added forty-three appeared in Plants and Animals. My Emotional Reactions set showed an increase of seventy-nine words, and Arts & Culture was up by ninety-one. I kept scrolling, astounded, disbelieving, thrilled. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of words that hadn’t been there before. And they were all officially mine.

I opened a collection at random and scanned the list, dizzy with excitement. My eyes smiled at each new word as if we were long-lost friends.

“This is…” I hesitated. My eyes scanned the room and my ears strained to listen for any unfamiliar sounds. I looked out my window and double checked that my bedroom door was locked. Then, I looked back at my phone. I found an appropriate word, and I breathed it to life. “Amazing.”

I waited, half expecting law enforcement agents to storm my room or one of my parents to wake me from the fog of this wonderful dream. When nothing happened, I followed with more words, enunciating each letter sound, savoring every syllable. “Elated,” I whispered. “Overjoyed.” My heart sang as I set free words that hadn’t graced my lips since I was just shy of nine years old. I didn’t stop until I’d gotten through them all.

I counted a total of eight hundred fifty new words, and that wasn’t even including the thirty-seven I’d gotten with the dress.

Thirty-six, I reminded myself. I was surprised at the pang of regret I felt, even with all the new words I’d been granted.

Before I knew what I was doing, I tabbed back to the forums. I scrolled through the messages, trying to find the thread Jace had shown me earlier, wondering if I’d ever know who to thank for this precious gift.

My eyes landed, almost immediately, on another miscapitalized word. I studied it for a moment, disbelieving, and then everything clicked into place. With trembling hands, I opened the word locating system in my dictionary app.

I knew I could get into trouble for this. I could lose every last word that I had. Still, I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face, and when my tears fell, they were of only surprise, gratitude, and joy.

I entered dreamY into my dictionary, hit search six times, and closed out of the application.

Maybe Jace wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Maybe there was still reason to hope for a change. Maybe, someday, we would live in a world where words were considered priceless but the price of words was free.

Jennifer KaulJennifer Kaul lives in Minnesota where she writes and works in education. Her stories stem from the happenings in our world and the what-ifs that swirl around her head as a result. Her hope is, through her writing, to encourage thought and conversation and to make the world a better place. “The Price of Words” is her first published piece. jenniferkaul.wordpress.com.

Durling Avenue

Summer in its simplest colors
comes over Durling Avenue.

The sweetest invitations come
understated, the girl in the yard

barely lifts her eyebrows, the boy
shrugs his shoulders as if to say

I’ve been waiting, I can wait.
All we’re asked to do is recognize

the beckoning—the grass
splashed brown that will be cut

by dusk, the woman who’s placed
sun tea on her porch. She wears

the dress her mother wore,
lets it fall about her hips and pauses

because it’s Saturday, nothing
pressing in the news, the radio

turned to Frankie Avalon
and laughter, those days, that

handful of Pontiacs moving slowly,
making no dust. There are streets

in America that defend themselves
against time, streets of blackberry

and elm and clusters of boys
lining up to play stickball. I stop

the car and listen to their rules:
the phone pole’s foul, the hedge

behind the Murray house always
an inside-the-park home run.

If rain comes, the great, mournful
interruptor, we take lunch

to the pavilion at Memorial Park
and wait. Maybe Susie St. Claire

in her dress will bring sun tea;
maybe we can save the freckles

on her shoulders for later,
for bed, when all is cricket-sound,

the Erie train, our fathers holding
our church shoes under lamplight.

I was of and not of them,
inside their clothes and distant,

driving toward Broad Street
where the new light flickered red

(it was 1962, it was today)
at the Lutheran church, where I

married the day summer ended.
All the trees were yellow and I

in my gray suit lingered, laughed,
in time and far beyond it.

Carl Boon

A native of Ohio, Carl Boon lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at 9 Eylül University. His poems appear in dozens of magazines, most recently Burnt Pine, Two Peach, Ink In Thirds, and Poetry Quarterly. He is also a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee.

 

The Do-Over

When the ruddy-faced doctor at the Joshua Tree Medical Clinic announced, “It’s back,” Vera nodded, picked up her old purse from the floor and tucked it under her arm. She was still nodding when the pleasant red-headed receptionist called out, “Have a nice day,” as she exited through the sliding glass doors of the clinic. The dry heat hit her like an oven. Nice day, unlikely.

The air conditioner in the Buick spewed a lukewarm stream. On either side of the two-lane highway that beautiful shimmering floor of ancient trees beckoned to an ancient sea. On certain mornings, Vera swore she smelled its salty breeze. She longed to plunge into a water so cold it could erase everything. A semi behind lay on its horn and she turned in the direction of the green blinker on the dashboard. In the shade of the K-Liquor Mart sign, Vera shut off the engine. She took a deep breath. Frank hadn’t yet spotted her through the store window. She gripped the wheel, watching her knuckles turn white.

There was the issue of Rain.

*     *     *

Six weeks ago, her daughter Stevie the-queen-of-heartaches had showed up unannounced with a surprise at their new motor home. “Her name is Rain,” Stevie informed them, dropping a sleeping child into Frank’s recliner.

“Why not Thunder or Lightning?” Frank asked under his breath.

They’d been in a middle of a game of Scrabble and Frank hated to be interrupted when it was his turn.

“I just need you to watch her,” Stevie snapped. The circles under her blue eyes were darker than Vera remembered from the last time.

“Vera, did we put a babysitting ad on craigslist?” Frank asked.

“She’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Stevie challenged.

“That wasn’t my first thought,” Frank replied. “But it was in the top five.”

Three in the afternoon on a Thursday, a year since any communication and already they were at it. Vera laid a hand on her husband’s broad shoulder. It wasn’t Frank’s fault that he’d inherited Stevie at sixteen when it was too late to change things.

Stevie skulked to the fridge, opened the door and peered inside. “She’s three, no wait, four, I think. She likes oranges, Cheerios, bacon, not bananas.” She pulled out a Coke and opened the can. “Oh, and be careful, she’s got this weird thing for cotton balls. Really packs them in.”

“I hardly ever serve cotton balls anymore,” Vera joked, but nobody laughed.

Stevie took a swig of Coke and scanned the room. “Not bad. Hey, where’s Bob?”

“Hit by a UPS truck,” Frank said.

“Jesus,” Stevie sighed. “I warned you.”

Frank grunted and slid his big frame out of the dining nook. “Good to see you, Stevie.” He walked to the door. “Call your mother more often.” It slammed hard behind him. They listened to his heavy boots descend the metal steps and walk the gravel path to the Mart.

“He never liked me,” Stevie said, sliding into Frank’s seat at the table.

“Bob loved everybody,” Vera replied, and her daughter laughed.

One day, the blind basset hound had pushed the unlocked mobile home door open with his nose and found his way down the stairs, around the store parking lot and onto the warmest patch of sunin the middle of the highway. Frank had buried Bob down deep where the coyotes couldn’t get to his body. Now dog food commercials left him as misty-eyed as Christmas movies on Hallmark.

Stevie moved the Scrabble tiles around, her stringy blond hair shadowing her face. “He has the Q and the Z, but no U.”

“It’s good to see you,” Vera said, trying to keep her voice steady. “Everything all right?”

Stevie shrugged, “Peachy.” She grabbed a handful of Frank’s jellybeans from the candy dish on the table. “I thought he had diabetes,” she said, spilling out the syllables one by one.

“I can scramble you an egg.”

Stevie returned her gaze to Frank’s Scrabble tiles. “I’m clean, mom.”

Vera listened to the wind pick up, scattering bits of leaves and trash across the yard, surprised to feel a spark of hope ignite. “That’s good,” saying the words easy and slow.

“He could spell qi,” Stevie said.

“Qi?”

“You can spell it c-h-i or with a q and an i,” Stevie said, moving Frank’s tiles around. “It means inner life force.

One day, the blind basset hound had pushed the unlocked mobile home door open with his nose and found his way down the stairs, around the store parking lot and onto the warmest patch of sunin the middle of the highway.

It’s Chinese. Every person is allotted a certain amount each lifetime. When it runs out, you’re out. But then you get a new life with more. I think I believe it.”

“Qi,” Vera repeated. In her religion, you only got one life and then it was up or down. “I like it. But, don’t tell Frank. I’m winning.”

Stevie pulled the curtain aside and peered out the window. A Camaro with darkened windows waited near the mailbox. Vera wondered if Frank had bothered to stop and inquire, probably not. A while back they’d agreed: they didn’t have any more money to spend on rehab or any inner spirit left to recover from heartache. Where Stevie was concerned, it was better for their marriage to assume that things wouldn’t get better. More than likely Frank was walking up and down the aisles inside the Mart getting rid of a slow burn.

“I could make you and your friend pasta for dinner?” Vera suggested.

“Jesus, stop,” Stevie said, sliding off the bench. “I gotta pee.” She disappeared down the short hall, sliding the bathroom door closed behind her.

Once, she’d been a pleasant person. Her name was Stephanie then. Stephanie was a bright, pretty kid who’d taken to water like a fish. “Stephanie has talent,” her junior high swim coach, Mr. Ambrosia, had told Vera. “UCLA, maybe even Texas A&M. Real potential.” And real curves and a sweet disposition.

After they won the lawsuit against the school district, Vera moved them to the desert. Yes, she’d been single and working two jobs, but she was the only line of defense against the ugly in the world. Why hadn’t she noticed sooner? They tried child therapists, family therapists, and various medications. Vera apologized until her face turned blue and capillaries broke in her eyes but no one could resuscitate the daughter. Frank appeared solid and steady, but Stevie wasn’t interested in a good male role model. She’d escaped into the wrong crowd with the right drugs. Would it be smack or meth or the needle? It was a marvel a heart still beat in her tortured body, that it would continue once Vera’s had silenced.

“Stevie, there’s something we need to talk about,” Vera started.

“Oh, hey, Mom, can you spot me some cash?  I lost my ATM card somewhere in Colorado. It’s a fucking mess. You won’t believe this. I went to the bank, but they needed my driver’s license. It’s expired, whatever, I don’t carry it on me. I can’t drive. They made me call an eight-hundred number and some woman with a seriously heavy accent said the bank could only mail a replacement card to my address on file. But I’m in-between places. Rick moved that bitch in, whatever, we have to be in LA tonight.”

And there it was. The longer the story, the bigger the lie. Vera reached for her wallet and pulled out forty dollars. Not enough to buy real trouble.

Stevie stuffed the twenties into the front pocket of her jeans. “Thanks.”

“How long do we have to watch Rain?” Vera asked, feeling the return of the hard edges.

“I gave her dad your number,” Stevie replied, draining the last of her soda and setting the can on the counter instead of putting it in the recycle bin.

“Good to know you still have it.”

“I’m sorry.” Stevie threw her bony arms around her mother’s neck, “I’m such an asshole.”

Vera took a deep hungry whiff, hint of beer and cigarettes, and yes, the faintest trace of sweetness. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. She tightened her jaw to stop the unconditional from rushing out and pried her daughter’s arms from her body. “Enough, Stevie. Enough.”

As the dark Camaro peeled out onto the highway, Stevie’s arm shot out the window in salute. Vera gave her the finger. To grieve the loss of the dead was too unbearable.

A while back they’d agreed: they didn’t have any more money to spend on rehab or any inner spirit left to recover from heartache.

A short time later, Frank returned with orange juice, milk, and Cheerios because he was a good and reliable person. The little girl devoured two bowls and fell back to sleep on the pullout sofa without a single question. Frank and Vera finished their game of Scrabble without a mention of the word qi, but Frank won anyway.

*     *     *

Now, six weeks later, everything had changed.

Frank caught Vera’s attention through the front window of the Mart. Quite a few customers were lined up at the cash register. She faked a smile and gave him the thumbs up.  He held both up at her. Her hand shook as she unzipped her purse, pulled out a gold tube, and carefully applied cherry red to her chapped lips before returning to work.

Later that night after a dinner of cold fried chicken and pork ‘n beans, Vera washed the dishes while Rain, emotional, recounted a children’s story about a lost kitten.

“It was white,” Rain repeated at Vera’s side. “But it had a black spot. And it was lost. In the big city.”

“Honey,” Vera assured her. “I read that book to Stephanie when she was little.  In the end, the mama kitty finds her kitten and they all live happily ever after.”

Rain wiped her nose with the back of her small arm. She stared at Vera with big saucer eyes. “Truth?” she asked. The kid was way too smart. She ran to Frank, sitting in his recliner watching a ball game. He pulled her up onto his big lap. “I don’t remember that ending, Pa Frank.”

“Rain of the forest. Rain of the sea.” Frank sang in deep baritone. “Rain, the dark-haired beauty queen of the desert.”

It was a miracle, each day that passed without a phone call. At church people assumed she was Stevie’s. Folks had prayed on her troubles, so the delusion fell easy. At first, they’d been afraid of what Rain might say, but the girl acted like they were her real grandparents. Every day, Vera meant to bring it up to Frank, but the days kept passing, and in all fairness, Frank hadn’t mention it to her, either.

He carried Rain to the sofa bed. “We will never lose you in the big city,” he said.

“You have to say, promise,” Rain said, looking up at him. “Twice.”

“Promise. Promise,” Frank said. “Promise, three times.”

Vera pulled the covers up under the child’s chin, examining the defined cheekbones, the jutted chin, the dark hairline that grew low over her forehead. Where was the mother?

*     *     *

One month later, the well-tanned cancer specialist at the Palm Springs Clinic pronounced “metastasized.” While he rattled on about the minimal benefits at this stage of chemotherapy, Vera traced the hardened crescent moon of the old wound across the taut skin where the right breast had once lived with the left. Frank had spread aloe and kisses across her old road map of a scarred chest. She grabbed her big white bra with the foam prosthesis and stuck it in her purse. “To hell with appearances,” she said, but the specialist rattled on.

A brown-skinned receptionist quietly handed Vera a scribbled prescription for oxycodone, one of Stevie’s favorites, on her way out. She rode the noiseless elevator down to the sparkling empty lobby and called Frank from her cellphone. “Store busy?”

“Nothin’ me and Burt can’t handle,” he said, over the din of after-school teens loafing near the register. “Everything all right?”

“Peachy. I’ve decided to stop wearing a bra,” she announced. When he didn’t respond, Vera added, “Sign me up for Beer & Brawl’s white t-shirt contest.” That at least got a laugh.

At church people assumed she was Stevie’s. Folks had prayed on her troubles, so the delusion fell easy. At first, they’d been afraid of what Rain might say, but the girl acted like they were her real grandparents.

The sky was bright blue, the 10 freeway shimmering ahead. She shivered and rolled down the window. It was hot, but she didn’t feel warm.

Inside the Dairy Queen, Vera picked a booth near the back. She slowly spooned cold sweet vanilla into her mouth trying to fill the emptiness and watched the people in line. A short man held the hands of two small fat boys. Three teenaged pimply girls giggled behind a tall handsome boy. The boy pretended not to notice. Sweet young boys and budding teenage girls with promise. Vera unfolded the map and spread it across the table. It was a three-hour drive to Lake Havasu. They’d leave Burt in charge and the mobile parked behind the Mart so as to not arouse suspicions. With the camper on the truck, they could enjoy themselves until the weather turned.

“Planning a vacation?” Betsy asked, sliding her wide frame into the booth across from Vera.

Vera jumped. “Jesus.”

Betsy laughed and set a small milk carton down, sloshing white liquid across the table. “Sorry, sorry, but I am clumsy.”

The woman reeked of cheap drugstore perfume. Vera blotted the wet map with a napkin, trying not to show her irritation.

“I told the leader at Weight Watcher’s this morning, ‘You don’t understand the power of my drive,’ but I resisted and ordered a small two-percent. Hopefully, my lactose intolerance won’t act up.” She stared at Vera’s sundae. “You should join Weight Watchers, Vera. We could be buddies.” Betsy turned her focus to the map.

“Havasu. Frank wants to teach Rain to swim.”

“Take her to the Y.” Betsy shivered, holding up the stump of her left arm as evidence. “Less dangerous.” A boating accident one summer in Wisconsin.

Betsy smiled. Vera smiled. Once, they’d been friends, not the best, but good enough. Ah well, old age showed unattractive in different ways. Vera scraped the last bite of fudge into her mouth.

“Wanna split a dog?” Betsy asked, slurping down the last of her milk.

“No, thanks” Vera started, but stopped at the word MISSING stamped on the side of the cartoon. Underneath was a black and white photograph of the child living in their house.

“Must’ve been quite a shock finding out Stevie had a kid,” Betsy said, slowly crushing the carton with a fat, pink palm. “She’s good-looking, no offense, but she doesn’t look like either of you. What is she, half Mexican? Excuse me, Latino, whatever it is they wanna be called these days.”

Vera quickly refolded the damp map. “Sorry, Betsy. But I promised I’d make mac ‘n cheese for supper.”

“It’s only three-thirty.”  Betsy stared into her eyes. “Vi, are you all right? You look a little drained of color.”

“It’s the air-conditioning is all,” Vera said, standing. She picked up the smashed carton. “Let me recycle this for you.”

“Huh?” Betsy asked, a look of confusion crossing her face as Vera jammed the evidence into her purse. “All right, thanks.”

“No, thanks” Vera started, but stopped at the word MISSING stamped on the side of the cartoon. Underneath was a black and white photograph of the child living in their house.

“Good luck with Weight Watchers,” Vera added, then quickly left before the idiot said another word.

*     *     *

After two weeks at Lake Havasu, Frank looked well-rested and Rain looked well-fed. In the mornings while it was still cool, Vera sat in a lawn chair under an old beach umbrella and read her romance, while the two, well-slathered in sunscreen, waded out into the shallow reddish waterFrank wearing swim trunks, a faded Dodgers t-shirt stretched over his thick middle, and Rain, skinny with a protruding girl belly, in a new pink suit she’d picked out herself from Walmart.

Frank balanced the shrieking girl on his shoulders and slowly lowered himself blowing bubbles underwater. Rain shrieked and the two laughed so hard it was like chords of music to Vera’s heart. He’d married her sans uterus and never complained once about not having his own family. Now, twenty years later, she watched her lumbering husband patiently make circles with his arms in the water and a little girl’s mirror in unison. She’d always suspected that Frank loved children. His never having mentioned it made her love him all the more. What had she done to deserve such goodness? Suddenly, a rolling wave of tiredness coursed through her body. She felt a little frightened over the imminent.

Rain Gomez was snatched from a small town named Cortez down near the four corners in Colorado. Three months ago. In broad daylight. By a “skinny white woman with stringy blonde hair wearing a black leather jacket.” In almost every case on the missing children’s website, the words “Taken in broad daylight,” were near the top paragraph, as if children were only safe under the dark of night. Vera remembered how easily Stephanie would slip through her fingers under a clothing rack at Target, behind a tree in the park, and recently, a Camaro with darkened windows. She’d known Stevie capable of many things, but never child-stealing. Funny to learn that kidnapping was in the family genes.

“Ma Vi!” Rain called out. The child dunked under water, then popped up, sputtering and coughing, wet strands of hair clinging to her cheeks. “See my can hold my breath as long as my want to!”

Today several fellow-vacationers had looked more than once in the little girl’s direction. And a woman with binoculars had been enough to arouse Vera’s anxiety. “I can,” Vera called back. “I can hold my breath as long as I want to.”

Later that night in bed, Vera suggested, “I think we should drive on.” There were dozens of small towns along the RockiesDurango, Buena Vista, even down into Cortez, the four corners, where history got interesting.

“All righty,” Frank said, patting her bottom. “Lots more fun to be had.”

If Frank knew about the black and white photo on the milk carton, which she’d destroyed with garden shears back home, he showed no signs of wanting the party to end.

*     *     *

The third week they stayed in a faux-chalet motel in Durango with a pool and cable television. It was hotter than normal for Colorado. They spent a lot of time when they weren’t in the water napping on the queen beds in the air conditioning. They ate dinner each night at Denny’sRain’s favorite, always fried chicken. The waitresses fawned over the girl wearing an oversized pink sunhat to hide a new, very bad, haircut. Even though she was nauseous, Vera tried to eat enough so as to not arouse Frank’s suspicion.

By the end of the week, they had poked in and out of art galleries and shops in historic downtown, eaten ice cream and buffalo burgers, and were ready to move on. But before they did, Frank wanted to take Rain on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

“The train departs at eight-fifteen, so we gotta get a move on! Oh, Rain, but it will be beautiful, traveling along the winding Colorado river with you, Rain of the forest, Rain of sea,” he sang. “Rain, the beauty queen of the desert.”

Vera declined with a headache. She was having a hard time waking up over the weak coffee Frank had brought up from the motel lobby. After the door closed behind them, Rain chattering away, Vera lay back against the headboard and tried to take in a deep breath. She may as well have been sipping air through a straw. Maybe it was true what Stevie said about chi because Vera could feel it draining from her body.

For the first time since they’d left Joshua Tree, Vera dropped the façade. She took an oxycodone, then lay back on the bed in the dark, the air blowing ice cold across the sweat beads on her skin. So, this was bone-tired. Against the dark pain, she cried out for Stevie the queen of the heartaches, whose cell phone had been disconnected. I’m sorry. I love you, still and always. I see. I see it now, this life, this life offers beauty and pain up to its very edges, take it, take it.

Hours later a voice brought her home, “Ma Vi! Ma Vi.” Rain wrapped her arms around Vera’s neck, planting little kisses across her check. Vera struggled, clawing her way back. “Settle down, gracious,” she snapped as Frank flipped on the light by the bed.

“We got pizza for dinner,” he announced, holding a large box in his hands.

“Roni with cheese,” Rain said, jumping on the bed. “Cause we all like it.”

Vera shook her head. She reached for her glasses on the nightstand. “I must look a fright.”

“You sleep all day?” Frank asked, a worried look on his face.

“What time is it?”

Rain interrupted, holding up Frank’s phone. “Ma Vi, lookey,” she said, sticking the screen in Vera’s face. “My took a selfie. And drank a Shirley Temple. But don’t worry, it isn’t real, only make believing.”

In the photo, Frank and Rain sit in the train’s dining car under a plastic dome. On the table, maraschino cherries sparkle inside two glasses of soda. They grin for the camera. Rain’s little body leans against Frank’s, pink sunhat pushed back from her smiling face. They could be related.

“It’s the funniest thing,” Frank told Vera, biting into a slice. “A woman on the train recognized Rain.”

“What?”

“She had a weird finger,” Rain said.

“It was in a splint,” Frank explained. “She swore up and down that she recognized Rain.”

“I said my name was Susan,” Rain jumped in.

And so Vera told them about the MISSING girl on the milk carton.

    *     *    *

Cortez. The four corners. Land of the Anasazi. Canyon of The Ancients, the ancestors, tall silent red rocks which had stood the test of time.

“This is a cute little town,” Vera declared, trying to sound joyful but ending flat.

Frank pulled the truck alongside the curb. “It’s nothing more than fast food, a drive-thru liquor, and a hardware.”

Rain sat quietly between them.

Vera grabbed the AAA travel book from the dashboard and opened to a cornered page, trying to steady her shaky hand. “Rain, did you know that your town features real live stagecoach rides?”

The child pondered Vera’s false cheer. She climbed up onto her knees to get a better view through the windshield. “My going to be lonely,” she prophesied.

“No such thing as alone when you’ve got people who love you,” Frank said.

Vera could hear the tight pain in his throat. She took the child’s small hand and squeezed it.

Rain bit her lower lip, fighting back big tears. “But, you love me.”

Frank worked his jaw hard. He reached over and placed his hand on theirs. It was heavy and hot and felt all right. The three stared through the front windshield at a Ruby’s Diner just down the street.

“First,” Frank said. “I could use a slice of pie.”

“I like cherry,” Rain announced. “But only with white ice cream.”

In the distance, dark ominous clouds threatened an afternoon storm. Frank helped Vera down the sidewalk to the diner. Her legs felt like jelly and they took their time, Rain hiding at the edge of his left side. Once inside they ordered three slices of cherry pie with vanilla ice cream from a young man with angry acne across his forehead and listened to the thunder growing closer. There were only two other customersan old man in a cowboy hat sipping a cup of coffee, and a young woman with a pierced eyebrow eating a greasy burger.

On her way to the ladies’ room, Vera spotted the MISSING poster with Rain’s face. She ripped it from the wall and took it into the ladies. In the disabled person’s stall, she sat down on the toilet and closed her eyes against the stabbing pain. Relief, relief what in the hell was this life about anyway? She opened the poster and saw the number scratched in red ink with a name. Five, four, three, two, she grabbed the sticky metal bars on either side and with a grunt and stood. Thunder bellowed nearby. Rain, likely.

The payphone by the emergency exit was keyed with four letter words. She took a Wet Wipes from the pack in her purse and cleaned off the numbers as she dialed.

He answered on the fifth ring, voice thick with sleep. “Yeah.”

“Is this Dylan Gomez?”

“I ain’t got your money,” he yelled, slamming down the phone.

Back at the table, Vera flattened the crinkled poster.

“Rain, can you show us which way?”

Rain stuck out a small arm and pointed west, her dark eyebrows knitted together.

The waiter gave them a suspicious glance as he set down the check, but then it could have been Vera’s imagination. By then, her fever was one hundred and four.

Rain lived in a clapboard house of peeling green paint and old furniture on the front porch. A brown muscled dog in the yard lunged as they approached, but his leash caught up short. “Get back, Harley,” Rain commanded. The dog whined and sat back on its haunches. Vera and Frank each took a small hand and they walked shoulder-to-shoulder up the concrete steps and across the squeaky wooden porch to the front door. Vera had to stop twice to catch her breath.

Rain let go of their hands and peered inside through the locked screen door “D?” she called out. A TV blared a news program inside. A young man appeared. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. “Girl?” he asked, peering out, and not in a way that seemed excited or relieved, but more like he wondered if he were still stoned on the sagging couch in front of the television.

Rain nodded her small head. “Yes,” she whispered.

The winds picked up in the cottonwood tree and the dog growled low.

Dylan Gomez stepped outside. He wore faded jeans but no shirt. His chest was shiny brown and shrunken. His dark hair grew past his shoulders. He had her eyes. But his were rimmed in red. The heavy pit in her stomach told Vera that she had made the wrong decision. He reached out and grabbed the little girl by the arm. “Where in the hell have you been?”

“Easy,” Frank said, his voice steady. “She’s back now.”

“I’m sorry, D,” Rain whispered.

“Girl?” he asked, peering out, and not in a way that seemed excited or relieved, but more like he wondered if he were still stoned on the sagging couch in front of the television.

Dylan Gomez’ fingers gripped her arm turning the flesh under his tips white. “Cops been lookin’ for you.”

Frank took a step toward him. Dylan couldn’t have been more than five-seven. He looked up at Frank. The dog barked, straining at its leash.

“Let go now,” Frank said. “Let her go.”

Ignoring the warning, Dylan jerked Rain closer. “Do it againI’ll give you somethin’ to be sorry about.” Dylan turned to Frank and Vera. “You with child services? Did the cop catch that bitch?”

A shiver ran down Vera’s spine and she grabbed the back of a rusted chair to keep from falling.

The dog lunged to the end of its leash, barking with fury. “Come on, girl. Inside.” He jerked her toward the door.

“D, don’t,” Rain cried. “It hurts.”

“I said let her go,” Frank commanded.

“Fuck you,” Dylan said. “She’s mine.”

And so, Frank cold-cocked him.

*     *     *

The sky cleared without a warning just outside of town, the storm leaving traces of dark wet pavement and small puddles in its wake. They drove to Monument National Park. Frank paid the fee at the ranger kiosk and drove into the park.  He found an empty campsite off the main road, far from any facilities or tourists, and parked beside a large boulder. The last of the day was sinking soft pink light toward evening.

After he made Rain an impromptu treat of cheese and Cracker Jacks in the cab to keep her occupied, he joined Vera in the back for their conversation.

Vera said she was glad that she’d done it the way she had and hoped that Frank wasn’t too mad. The sheets of pain made it hard for her to sufficiently explain her reasons, but they had loved each other long enough to let misunderstandings slide. She wouldn’t go into hospice. It was best to give things their proper respect. They’d lived in the desert under stars their whole married life.

Frank wiped the tears from his face. He gave her a pain pill. He pulled the quilt over her shaking frame. “Your daughter finally did it,” he said, kissing the top of Vera’s head. “Get some rest.”

As night passed, Vera flew, circling over the canyon of red arches while her husband seated in the cab of a truck below stared out into the darkness and made plans for the small peace offering curled in sleep beside him.

In the morning, Frank’s voice carried through the heavy fog. “Thought we’d head on down to El Paso, then through the Franklin Mountains down into Chihuahua, Mexico.”

“My has never been to Mexico,” Rain sang, patting Vera’s head a rat-a-tat-tat with her small hand.

Peachy, Vera thought, feeling the pills enter her blood stream. Maybe there was chi and maybe there wasn’t. Maybe it was one time and that’s all you got, no matter how badly you screwed it up, oh well, it was all just water flowing underground until it reached the ocean. And then . . . cold refreshment.

Staci GreasonStaci Greason is the author of The Last Great American Housewife. Her essays have appeared in Brevity (Jan 2017), Slate, Angel’s Flight Literary West, the Huffington Post, and many others. She also coaches fellow writers at The Write Muse. www.thewritemuse.biz.

The Revenant

Like a prodigal son, Lufuluabo returns. He returns from a long and difficult journey. He will have to get used to the new manners and new names of the avenues and principal squares of the city: Avenue Mobuto [1] is now L. D. Kabila [2] Street; the images of President Mobutu have been replaced by bigger and more numerous ones of President L. D. Kabila; the little market once known as “Soko ya Bazungu” because of the wares that were displayed there has moved, and is now L. D. Kabila Market. The people usually call it “the market of Mzee.” The governor, Kyungu wa Kumwanza, [3] for reasons of his own, has also renamed certain areas and avenues: the road that leads to the working-class district Katuba now bears his name. The Place de L’Étoile has become Place Moïse Tshombe; [4] Avenue Kasai has become Avenue Munongo, [5] and the Katuba Kananga [6] neighborhood has become Katuba Kaponda [7].… So many changes! The contradiction is great. The public places and roads are full of potholes, mud, and pools of filthy water, but this matters less than the worthy names they bear.

He returns, he who left the country as a very young man to study in Grenoble, swearing he would never come back. After a first round of coursework in different fields, he married a Frenchwoman who later on fled with her West African lover, a marabout who was living in France under the protection of one of the big guns in French politics. In hunting them down, he ended up homeless in Paris, a fixture of certain Metro entrances: Barbès–Rochechouart at first, then Réaumur–Sébastopol, and finally La Motte-Picquet–Grenelle.

Like the prodigal son, he returns heavy with memories of the paternal home. In his mind’s eye, he again sees the zoo and the big chimney of the state mining company, Gécamines, puffing bluish breath from its lungs with arrogance and pride, a symbol of the company’s historic ascent and Abel’s offering giving glory to his Creator.

His father had been an executive officer in the company and his older brother—his only brother, an engineer from the Official University of Congo—was one, too, but posted to Kolwezi, that tiny city of pleasure! Nothing but pleasure there, let me assure you!

Luano International Airport is a far cry from Roissy Charles de Gaulle, from where he had caught his plane only a few hours before. An old man, shabbily dressed, greets him with joy:

“Wako! Wako! Wako!”

He translates the Swahili expression mechanically as “yours,” and says in reply, “wako,” as if to affirm “I am one of yours.” He doesn’t understand that the old man refers to his origins to obtain some favor…. How much has changed!

Despite all the marvels he saw in France, the memory of the zoo has never left him. His child’s mind was really marked by that space. The big public buses no longer exist. They have been replaced by vans called “taxi-buses,” inside of which mothers-in-law and sons-in-law shamelessly scramble their legs. A taxi-bus pulls up while he is looking for the stop. The conductor hails him, shouting out his destination:

“Gécamines?”

He takes his seat. He is the last to pile in. A woman looks at him and says, with a smile:

“Wako! Wako! Wako!”

“Wako!” he answers back.

Everyone turns around to stare at him. He doles out an easy smile while nodding his head.

At the zoo’s entrance, the ticket seller is nowhere to be found but the gate is wide open. After a moment of hesitation, he decides to enter. A loudspeaker plays some song or other by Wenge Musica at full blast. Such loud noise, he thinks, must disturb the animals.

He stops himself from admonishing a young man in his twenties who practices dance moves in front of the loudspeaker instead of going to work. He makes his way to the crocodile pond.  An old couple of caimans—seemingly starving—warm themselves in the sun, waiting to see which will be the first to die. The reptile cage, which once took his breath away with an upwelling of admiration and fear, is empty. The way to the den of the black bear—that gigantic, impressive hulk—is impassable. He retraces his steps. Almost all of the paths are deserted. The few people he meets say pathetically:

“Wako! Wako! Wako!”

What a surprise!

He decides to visit the former office of his late father to pay his respects. The building looks dilapidated. The parking lot is empty even though it’s ten a.m. He mounts the flight of steps in an athletic burst. In the begrimed waiting room, an old security guard in a faded uniform drowses behind a broken secretary desk. She starts, and says, in a shrill voice:

“Wako! Wako! Wako!”

This time he goes past without answering. From a window on the other side of the room, he notices the unmown grass and straggly flowers. Falling to his knees, he looks out at the dead chimney that no longer emits anything at all, raises his hands toward the sky, and cries out in desperation, “Mother, we have sinned against you; we are no longer worthy to be called your children!”

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All footnotes are the author’s.

[1] Mobutu: the second president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he ruled for thirty-two years as a dictator.

[2] L. D. Kabila: the third president, who led the so-called “War of Liberation.”

[3] Kyungu wa Kumwanza: Katangan leader who initiated the ethnic cleansing of Kasaians in Katanga during the 1990s.

[4] Moïse Tshombe: Katangan leader who led the Katangan secession.

[5] Munongo: former associate of Moïse Tshombe, also known as “Kifwakiyo” or “The Broom.”

[6] Kananga: capital city of Kasai-Occidental province.

[7] Kaponda: traditional chief of the Bemba people from the southern DRC.

Translator’s Note

A combination of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and the biblical parable of the prodigal son, Kayembe’s short story narrates the anguished return from diaspora of one of Congo’s native sons. The matter of place—real and remembered—is central to the effect of this story set between metropolitan France and the mining city of Lubumbashi in the southeastern section of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Clocking in at just a tick under 1000 words, Kayembe’s compact narrative succeeds in conveying the despair of a no longer young man returning from France to find his country bereft of the landmarks of his childhood.

When I translated “The Revenant,” I was serving as a pro bono French-language translator and interpreter at the Program for Survivors of Torture at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Owing to this work, I became increasingly drawn to Francophone African literatures of conflict and migration. Kayembe’s story seized my attention because it is a cri de cœur, a story that refuses the balm of hope. An editor I showed it to observed that it “feels like the beginning of some larger action, which then just cuts short.” Rather than as a lack of completion, I see this “cutting short,” or refusal to develop into narrative fullness, as a mark of the story’s stance toward personal and political futurity. Packed with allusion to the harsh history of Belgian colonialism and decades of postcolonial strife, in its final lines, the story abjures the moral function of the parable it at first appeared to be. The uninstructive affliction of the character returning to his homeland offers neither hindsight nor optimism.

Along with its brevity and parable-like qualities, the story’s tone of bitter understatement and its mobilization of the Swahili word “wako” as a central motif were interesting features for the translator. The footnotes in the story appear in the French edition. Transliteration of African proper nouns has been changed, where necessary, to reflect standard English spelling.

J Brett ManeyJ. Bret Maney is an assistant professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York, where his areas of interest are American literature and culture, the practice and theory of translation, and the digital humanities. He is a past recipient of a grant from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund as well as several other translation awards. He translates from the French and Spanish.

chroniques-du-katanga-cover-lin-lieu-of-author-headshot_optChristophe Kayembe was born in 1955 in the copper-mining city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the author of stories, plays, and a novel, and has won various African literary prizes. “The Revenant,” which was published in the French-language anthology edited by Dominique Ranaivoson, Chroniques du Katanga (Sépia, 2007), is his first work to be translated into English. The story appears here with permission of the copyright holder, Éditions Sépia.

Michael Jaime-Becerra, Author

Michael Jaime-BecerraIn one of Michael Jaime-Becerra’s stories, “Lopez Trucking Incorporated,” the sixteen-year-old narrator climbs into the cab of the commercial rig belonging to his grandfather, a man who’s been estranged from his family—and perhaps himself—for years. “The rig smells like old smoke and leather,” the narrator observes. There’s a statue of the Virgin Mary sitting on the dashboard, along with a yellow clay ashtray in the shape of Texas, something his sister made for their Grandpa back in the third grade. “It’s been cracked and glued back together a few times,” he says, and the passenger seat is big and soft, like “a catcher’s mitt,” but the rumble from the rig’s engines are enough to make everything shake: the Virgin, the ashtray, even the fillings in the boy’s teeth.

One gets the feeling that all of Jaime-Becerra’s characters have been cracked and put back together a few times. Family holds them, too, even if it sometimes stalls the launch of their own lives. Setting serves the same purpose, and for Jaime-Becerra’s collection of linked short stories, Every Night is Ladies’ Night (Rayo, 2004), as well as his novel, This Time Tomorrow (Thomas Dunne, 2010), that setting is El Monte, California, a four-by-seven-mile tract of low-lying land east of Los Angeles, bordered by the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers. Once a way-station for nomadic Native American tribes, Spanish missionaries, and soldiers, El Monte is now a predominantly Mexican-American community of small businesses and industrial outlets, bordered by two of LA’s busiest freeways (the 605 and the 10). It is also a continuing beacon for immigrant families seeking to realize their dreams; or, as the chamber of commerce says in its online history, El Monte offers a home for those who want to put down roots while seeking “new opportunities and ideas.”

That can be said not only of Jaime-Becerra’s characters but perhaps of the author himself, who met me at Diana’s restaurant and tortilleria on Durfee Avenue, one of El Monte’s main drags (and the main thoroughfare in many of his stories). Over generous burritos, we talked about all of his works to date—including, most recently, nonfiction for LAtitudes: An Angelenos’ Atlas, and a story in the final issue of Black Clock—as well as his experience as a student, practitioner, and now an associate professor of creative writing (over a decade at UC Riverside). We talked about trying to find that ever-elusive balance between family and artistic fulfillment, and then he took me on a personal tour of the old neighborhood and the familiar places that still catch him, like a big, well-oiled glove, even as they rattle and crack with age and break open to the new.

Sherrye Henry Jr.: You’ve said that when you were young, you wanted to be a cowboy first—and only later, a writer. What changed your mind?

Michael Jaime-Becerra: The first real success I remember having was in fourth grade. I was writing an Indiana Jones knock-off, called Panama Jack. It was terrible, but I had a lot of fun doing it. And then in seventh grade I wrote a book about a skateboard contest in outer space. I was into skateboarding and had a taste for science fiction, and I tried to merge the two. You would get medals in school—and I was really competitive, and wanted one of those medals—but nothing happened that year. Only my English teacher found it imaginative and inventive. I found this out much later (in fact, she came to a reading of Ladies’ Night, and told me she did this without her principal’s permission), but she had forwarded the book to the county fair at the time. I didn’t know about it until I got this letter at the house that the book had placed third, and that was a really transformative moment for me: The book that I had made was in this glass case, with other books from other cities that I hadn’t even heard of, and there was big ribbon around it. And that moment really galvanized me: that moment of publication, of writing something for a public audience. I was writing about what interested me; I drew from the things I was passionate about at that age; I was living in this imaginative world. So it was a convergence of all these things.

The book that I had made was in this glass case, with other books from other cities that I hadn’t even heard of, and there was big ribbon around it. And that moment really galvanized me: that moment of publication, of writing something for a public audience.

I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I knew that I wanted to write.

That moment—I go back to it a lot, for being recognized for a talent that I had, outside of my own environment, by an audience that had nothing to do with me. The county fair is everybody, and it was real validation. That’s a word that’s really important to this discussion. It’s personal validation, but more than that, it’s cultural validation, like we all have a place in the world. As time has gone by, that’s become more my conscious purpose as a writer.

SH: So it’s both aspects of validation, the internal satisfaction of your writing and also its acknowledgment and acceptance by the outside world.

MJB: Yes. My parents lived along the San Gabriel River. Every year the rains would cause the river to overflow, and someone would invariably decide to go inner tubing, and without fail, every year, the county search and rescue would have to fish the person out, and we’d hear the sirens along the bike path and the helicopters overhead. One year my dad had a ladder pressed against the fence, and I saw Stan Chambers, a local newscaster, doing a live remote. That was another really important moment for me, the world coming to where I lived. This idea of this is where I’m from but it has a place in the larger world.

SH: You started in college [UCR] with poetry. Why and when did you switch to fiction?

MJB: I was a terrible fiction writer. I believe I got a B- in my first creative writing class. But I didn’t have a healthy literary diet. I was reading Frank Miller and The Dark Knight comics; and Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero, and I was doing my best to imitate them. And then, I was really struggling. I was the first in my family to go to college. I was the first person I knew to go to college. And things were really chaotic at home. I was working a graveyard shift and then showing up for an 8:30 class in my work clothes. I was having terrible time of it, and I was afraid to ask my advisor for help. I felt like something of an astronaut, launched into orbit. So I thought I’d take the most advanced class I could find, and if I did well, then I deserved to be there. Otherwise I’d keep working at UPS.

So I took this class with the poet Maurya Simon, and I decided to write something that entertained me. That was a huge distinction, because up until then I’d been writing to entertain people, this imaginary perceived audience, by emulating [other writers]. So I wrote this poem about the frustrations of getting my father a beer in the middle of a football game. It was really short—maybe ten lines, called “Los Angeles 34, Denver 17,” something like that. The workshop responded really well. I think they saw a sense of honesty, of honest emotion, and personal investment in the work, and that was the turning point for me. I thought, I’ll just keep doing this. I started to look for more experiences to write about, and to read more poetry, and began a series of poems from memories of my adolescence that eventually became my first book of poetry, The Estrellitas Off Peck Road (Temporary Vandalism, 1997). That was a lot of fun.

SH: When did you make the transition to fiction?

MJB: At UCR, we have a cross-genre requirement. (We still do, and I’m glad we do.) So I decided to try fiction again, and took a class with Susan Straight. That was a happy accident, because here I was, a person interested in writing about where he was from, stories that are rooted in memory, and [she’s] a writer who is one of the best at doing exactly that. I wrote my first stories in her workshop. I started to realize that my poems were scenes with line breaks, and if I stacked enough of these scenes together, I had a story. They were rudimentary, they were teetering, but they were stories.

SH: And that became another turning point for you?

MJB: The last poem I wrote was called “The Water Machine,” about a boy and his mother’s abusive boyfriend. It was this big sprawling poem [that] was really a story, and I felt I needed more space. I wanted a bigger canvas.

SH: What did you bring to fiction from poetry?

MJB: An attention to line; an attention to the rhythm and the shape of the paragraph; a lot of that attention to micro detail that a poet has to have, and even if I didn’t have the skills back then, the understanding that such things existed came from my work in poetry.

A lot of the poets I love are very visible on the page; you are reading a distillation of their vision… Whereas I want my reader to see the characters, and my role as a writer is to be more of a conduit between the two.

SH: Do you still get called to write poetry, even on the side?

MJB: I do and they end up being scenes.

As time has gone by, I want my own presence as a writer to be less visible. A lot of the poets I love are very visible on the page; you are reading a distillation of their vision, and you go into their poetry with that understanding. Whereas I want my reader to see the characters, and my role as a writer is to be more of a conduit between the two. There are writers, like Annie Proulx, who are in the foreground. When you open her book, you’re on her turf, with her language. Michael Chabon, too. But [John] Cheever—even though he’s hilarious, he’s in the background a lot. My role model for the last couple of years has been William Trevor, who allows the characters to be who they want to be and adapts the perspective of the narrator to meet that.

SH: You’ve now written a collection of linked short stories and a novel: How do you decide what form a story will take—or does it tell you?

MJB: The leap from poetry to short stories was based on space, and [so was] the leap to the novel. The last story I wrote for Ladies’ Night was close to seventy pages [“Media Vuelta”]. One of my readers said, you know, I think Michael is just going to keep going. And I realized that I could. Then going through grad school and writing a lot more and reading a lot more, having a healthier literary diet, created a sense of possibility for me. Up until that point, the idea of writing a novel felt like buying a three-story house and filling it with furniture from my studio apartment. It’s too much space; but by then I felt I was ready to move in.

The story [for This Time Tomorrow] came out of a conversation with my barber at the time, who said, “Once you’ve been with someone for a year, you know whether you want to marry them.” That really struck me. At the time, I was dating a woman (now my wife), and she came from a really traditional Mexican household, which meant that you don’t leave until you are married. I came from a version of that household too—so I thought how interesting it would be to write about this: this lack of space.

SH: This part of the world, El Monte, appears in all of your stories. How do you make setting become a character, invested with a body and beating heart?

MJB: You have to find the meaning of the setting to the characters. One of the most valuable comments made to me in workshop—I’ll never forget it—was about a description of a McDonald’s play yard, and [whether] it was important to the story, or just important to me.

That made me think, and realize the process of stepping into the background. I rewrote the description from the point of view of the character who’s sitting in the drive-through window, who’s just had a miscarriage and is seeing the play yard through her experience. There’s another moment, in Ladies’ Night, when Lencho, who has burned hands, is grappling with something—fumbling as if looking for a socket wrench. I use his frame of reference, which is the auto mechanic, to attach itself to the setting which becomes character.

SH: And why is this particular setting, El Monte, so important to you?

MJB: I wanted to take my world to the larger world. During the early 90s, [California] Proposition 187 sparked a lot of anti-immigrant debate and rhetoric, and it was very much part of the cultural conversation at the time. I remember thinking—I’m the son of an immigrant on my father’s side, and I’m second generation on my mother’s side, and a lot of the people I knew growing up were immigrants, and they were productive, hardworking, honest people. My father got up every morning at four a.m. to work as a meat cutter in Altadena. The people who were being railed against were not the people I knew or the experience growing up that I’d had.

At the same time, James Elroy—the iconic crime writer—wrote My Dark Places about his mother’s murder in El Monte, and (understandably) he describes the city really negatively. But that was not my experience, and so I wanted to write the social and cultural context that I came out of. That was another turning point, a moment of convergences that led to Ladies’ Night. That remains a focus: I want to bring this place and its people, their personal goals and struggles and dreams and desires, into other people’s lives.

SH: Two of the stories in Ladies’ Night are from a woman’s point of view, as are two sections in your novel. What are the challenges in writing “the other”? What must any writer do when expressing an experience or consciousness distinct from their own?

MJB: Emotional truth is the goal for me. That applies when I’m writing any character, but most of all when I’m writing one who’s not like me, in terms of race, gender, etc. There was a woman in grad school who was working on a novel from the male perspective, and the men in workshop would say—Oh, no guy would ever do that! He’s too aggressive! So she’d dial it back, and then in the next workshop, she’d hear that the character was too passive.

Emotional truth is the goal for me.

That caused a lot of frustration on her part, because she was going back and forth trying to hit this imagined target and not really satisfying anyone. [I realized] that the character has to be true to him- or herself, and has to be consistent to his or her views. Whatever people want to make of that is up to them. That takes a sense of confidence on the writer’s part. Flannery O’Connor is a role model for this; her characters are often ugly, and she just leaves it up to us to decide what to make of them.

At the same time, a lot of what I was writing about with the character of Joyce [in This Time Tomorrow] came out of my own experiences and emotions: wanting to escape a responsibility to tradition, wanting to escape a sense of loneliness, wanting to invest in another person but not being sure. All of these are very human things, not gender things. And that’s the part of her that I tried to concentrate on, and hoped other people would connect with and see the truth in. All my work in poetry informed this too. The poet Ai writes persona poems, in which she embodies people like Jimmy Hoffa, Elvis, and James Dean. I was fascinated by her ability to adapt these personalities and convince me of their experiences, and I thought, surely I can write from the perspective of other characters. Ultimately, it’s in honoring “the other” that writers create characters who feel tangible, real. Otherwise it can feel exploitative; writers who put the perceived audience first rather than the characters can end up exploiting both.

SH: Growing up, did you feel an “otherness” with aspects of American culture?

MJB: Absolutely. I remember, when I was about eight or ten, my father wanting a nice golf sweater. He didn’t play golf, but he wanted a sweater, so we went to a nice store in Arcadia, and as we were walking around I noticed the salesperson following us. That was the first moment I became conscious of my otherness.

Even more than race—because the El Monte I grew up in was pretty homogenous—was this idea of class, something I became acutely conscious of. I had some friends who wore the same clothes all year, but I got new sneakers once or twice a year. I had jeans, but they were Levi’s. I had a skateboard. I had a bicycle. I had a Commodore 64 computer. I had mixed feelings about these badges. Then, between the eighth grade and high school, I went from public school, where I was among the upper economic tiers, to a private school, where I was among the lower. So my experience of the social order got completely reversed, and the older I get, the more I realize how profoundly that year affected me. That’s why Ana [in This Time Tomorrow] is thirteen, as are some of my other characters. That’s a really profound age, the age when your identity starts to harden, if it hasn’t already, along with your sense of what’s possible in the world.

SH: Will you—or your characters—ever venture from El Monte?

MJB: Many of my characters want to escape. There’s a theory that we all tell the same story over and over again, and that’s the one I tell: Joyce wants to escape responsibility to her father; Gilbert wants to escape the confines of his loneliness; Ana wants to escape the perceived threat of Joyce to her father. One of the books that I want to write, down the line, is set in a mining town in Chihuahua, where my father and his family are from. It’s about a boy who takes up the accordion and eventually ends up playing in a conjunto during the fifties, and taking a road trip west.

SH: So you do have stories in the pipeline? You’re not one of these writers who finishes a book and stares at the blank page and says, “Oh no, what next?”

MJB: I have the next ten years of my life mapped out, creatively speaking. I’m working on another linked collection, inspired by the Nick Adams stories of In Our Time, by Hemingway, about innocence to loss of innocence to the need for recovery. The central character is a guy named Memo, short for Guillermo, and the arc as I imagine it is Memo learning to make bad decisions from his father, and then making bad decisions as a young man, and then Memo seeking redemption at the end.

SH: So now in addition to escape, we get to see the aftermath.

MJB: I’ve also started this novel about a boy named Omar, who wants to run away from home to join a skateboard contest in Long Beach, with hopes of joining the tour and that will lead to endorsements, etc. It starts in El Monte. My hope is that it will end up a couple hundred pages down the river, in Long Beach.

SH: As a former MFA student and now a teacher, you’re aware of the controversy surrounding the degree, from Junot Diaz’ assertion that the programs are still “too white” to the recent article in the Atlantic, which casts doubt on their value to would-be writers at all. What advice would you give to any student considering an MFA degree, its possible risks and rewards?

…writers who put the perceived audience first rather than the characters can end up exploiting both.

MJB: The greatest risk is going to the first place that lets you in. The same way that writers jump at the first agent who suggests an interest in them, thinking that’s the only chance they have. I actually teach a course at UCR for our most promising undergraduates. It’s all about researching graduate programs to understand their philosophy, the work of the faculty who teach there, and then talking to the current students, to get a sense of what the program is like so they can make an informed decision [rather than] applying blindly to the “best” school and then assuming that it will fit them, be productive for their work. That’s not always the case.

Know where you are applying to is the first thing, and then do your best work to apply there. Sometimes people apply too early, or think of the MFA as a place where they will read a lot and hone their skills. That’s implicitly going to happen, but if you don’t have something to take with you going into that program, it’s not going to be a productive experience. If you’re writing short stories, have at least three, four, five of those stories under your belt in some form, before you apply. If you’re writing a novel, have at least 100 pages and be committed. I was in school with people who started a new novel every quarter, it seemed. They’d go through workshop and think—well, the workshop didn’t like that, and then they’d cast it aside. That’s not the way the degree is best served. The degree to me is best served as a finishing point or capstone for the craft of writing. So you have to have some facility with the craft and also some investment in it, something more than, “This is what I think I’ll do.”

SH: What about another criticism of MFA programs, that they all produce writers who all sound alike?

MJB: That argument presumes that all MFA programs are the same, or that all MFA instruction comes with the same rigor and understanding. They’re not. There are good MFA programs, venues for writers to unfurl themselves, and there are places for writers to mold themselves into a niche or image. I’m hoping we have the former. What is it that you want to do? Who is it that you want to be? And how can I use what I know and the skills that I have to help you become that, your fullest form and expression as a writer?

Even when I find myself disagreeing with a student, over what they’ve done on the page, I make my argument on the basis of the art. I can see what you tell me you want to do, and if you modify this or change the POV, cut this scene or expand here, then that’s more the story I think you want to tell.

If one is in a workshop with ten people, and you come out with three people understanding what you’re trying to achieve, that’s still a positive experience. Don’t let others make your story into what they want to see. Those are the people that we have to cast aside. Those who really understand what you’re trying to do and honor your creativity with their commentary: those are the people you listen to.

SH: Let’s talk for a moment about love. For me, as a reader, that’s what drew me into your characters and their stories: love and all its complexities. It’s what they fight for and what gives them hope. Without straying into the morality of fiction (another controversial topic), do you feel a writer has a responsibility to create worlds in which there is still the hope for love, even if—like the spark of wires in the last story of Ladies’ Night—it’s all so tenuous and uncertain?

MJB: I have a hard time with a lot of the fascination with dystopian worlds right now, because I feel that comes from a place of privilege. Things are so good in your existence that you can afford to tear it all down and play around with what’s left? Whereas a lot of the people I grew up withand am still surrounded byare working toward a starting place: of putting together a world.

I also feel that it’s easier to write the sad story than the happy one. I feel some readers go into a story expecting that this will be serious and dark, because if it’s not, then there’s not a whole lot of dramatic value to it. It’s harder to tell a story where the character wins—and wins plausibly, to the reader’s satisfaction. It’s easier to see the dark and sad stuff, it’s harder to pull off the spark. It’s harder for me. The original ending of Ladies’ Night found a character taking a dark, sad turn, and I changed it after a conversation with my editor, who asked me what note I wanted readers leaving my world with. So it’s not that you have to end on a happy or light note. My responsibility is to the truth. To create the social, cultural, and financial context of the world that my characters come from, and the truth of it is that sometimes we have good days, sometimes we win. That’s part of our reality too. We need to see it. To have that spark of hope, to keep going. Even in dark stories, that spark can take the form of connection or transcendence.

SH: Is there a topic we haven’t covered—anything you’d like to add to the current conversation on creative writing?

MJB: I’m always happy when I can put a book down and I can remember the person in the book—the character and the story. We live in a culture in which attention is the most prized commodity. It used to be television we [writers] were fighting with. Now it’s all sorts of screens, all the paths to wander on your television and your laptop and your phone. When something stays with me, and makes me excited about the craft and its ability to survive all those competing things, then that’s the beauty of the art. Great literature still has the power to do that. It has a way of moving people. As a writer, you have to give something that will hit the reader hard, and stay with them. It’s the truth that hits the hardest.

Sherrye HenrySherrye Henry Jr. has wanted to be a writer all her life, and thankfully it only took her fifty years to quit everything else and give it a shot. A reformed lawyer, a runner turned yogi, and a mom forever, she is grateful to be engaged in the terrifying pursuit of trying to wrap words around the human experience, and has found great courage in the MFA community at Antioch LA, particularly in her role as Nitpicker (Proof Edit Manager) for Lunch Ticket. You can find her in a Rocky Mt. cabin with one bearded husband and two shaggy dogs.

The Charred Companion

JD twists in his chair and searches for something to toss in the fire. This shouldn’t be difficult. Woods border the site, and sticks litter the ground in the trees’ shade. A good-sized limb rests between my family’s tent and the trail that leads to the playground.

But JD needs something in arm’s reach. He won’t abandon his chair. It’s the only one that can unfold into a recliner. He’s already cleared the area around him. In a minute, he’ll tell me to get up and start gathering. I bend forward and look under my seat. The matted grass holds three dead leaves. I hand them over. He takes them without a word.

The leaves are his. The reclining chair is his. The campsite is his. Got it.

As soon as they hit the flames, the leaves flutter up with a hiss. We observe their flickering descent. JD straightens his leg and snuffs the burning leaf closest to him with his shoe. The other two die on their own. I consider his outstretched sneaker. I’m too big to inherit his things anymore, but anticipating them is an old habit. When I realize what I’m doing, I jerk my gaze back to the fire and feel the heat in my face.

My mother’s got her sister cornered in the camper. Their voices drift through the screen.

“Why bother?” Mom asks.

The blinds rattle over the sink. Aunt Janet’s killing flies again.

I consider his outstretched sneaker. I’m too big to inherit his things anymore, but anticipating them is an old habit. When I realize what I’m doing, I jerk my gaze back to the fire and feel the heat in my face.

It’s September, but the horseflies are still bad. “Not much out there,” my aunt says.

“He reads the classifieds every Saturday.”

Aunt Janet’s laugh sounds like a cough. “Good luck with that.”

“There’s nothing. Nothing he’s qualified for. Then it’s back to McGregor’s on Monday. Goddamn it, he hates that job.”

My aunt swats the screen door, and for a moment, she appears behind the mesh, a trim and sharp-featured woman. Pointy best describes her: pointy nose, pointy chin, a mouth that makes a pointing pucker when she’s thinking. She and my mother don’t look anything alike.

Mom’s round. When it comes to her weight, she blames her depression, tells me she self-medicates with food. I hear a lot about depression, the symptoms, her history with it, the antidepressants. The latest is Zoloft. Like the others, it offers its own special blend of shitty side-effects. Depression keeps her from getting a job. Sometimes I think it is her job. That’s one reason Dad doesn’t quit his. He’s worked as the pub’s manager since I came along fourteen years ago. He’d leave McGregor’s and look for something better if Mom could cover the bills for a few months. She can’t, so he’s stuck. Lately, he complains he’s depressed. I guess it’s catching. I’m glad I’ve got a bike and can steer clear of the house.

Mom and Aunt Janet’s conversation shifts to their brother. Uncle Danny’s a favorite topic. He never married and lives in Brooklyn. He teaches and writes for a living. Last April, he bought a motorcycle. The sisters disapprove. They’re taking turns, charging him with typical maleness and ridiculousness, predicting a lonely old age for him. Their voices make me smile. They might not look too similar, but they sound alike. It could be Mom talking to herself in there.

“Where the hell are they?” JD glares at the fire. My older cousin’s lanky like his dad, sharp-featured like his mom. Tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair, he looks like a king on his throne, waiting for news regarding a battle’s outcome.

I shrug. How should I know what happened to our fathers? They left two hours ago to pick up potato salad and marshmallows. I cross my legs at the ankles and look down. My legs still amaze me. Last year, I was short. Suddenly I’m not. In fact, though JD’s thirteen months older than me, I’m as tall as he is. Technically.

“I want to eat.” He slumps and closes his eyes.

The wind kicks up, and a charred curl of newspaper drifts from the fire and floats all the way to the top of his head. His blond hair, springy and thick, traps it. He looks kind of silly, wearing the blackened bit. The sight cheers me.

I fold my hands over my stomach and sniff. Others have started their meals, and the smell of grilled sausages and hamburgers hangs in the air. From the site to the north, a child’s high-pitched yell breaks through the rumble of men’s voices. On our other side, a radio commercial segues into country music.

It’s not very late, but people eat earlier at the end of the camping season when nights fall fast and cold. Already the sun’s heavy in the sky. Its glow turns the clouds over the yellowing trees into bars of gold. A different kind of cloud, just a wisp of smoky violet, winds through the gilded layers, like a genie set loose in a prince’s tomb. Though the light looks ancient and warm, the late afternoon air is brisk. JD shivers, sits forward, and stirs the fire with a forked metal tong.

A wind suddenly licks up then flattens the flames. As the gust stirs the branches, the trees make a sound like rain. I’m watching leaves skid sideways through the air when a girl’s laugh travels our way. The leaves’ twisting tumble, the way the wind jolts them, is so playful and animated that for a second, it almost seems as if the laughter could have come from them.

But then JD straightens. I follow his gaze past the trees. Three girls amble down the road. 

Tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair, he looks like a king on his throne, waiting for news regarding a battle’s outcome.

We’re in the C-loop, close to the main stretch that leads to the registration building and campground entrance, so we see plenty of people wander this way. But not so many our age—at least not in September when most families quit camping and shift into school mode. Aunt Janet’s a diehard: she won’t let Uncle Jerry winterize the camper until the end of October. In the fall, she sticks to this campground, Roosevelt Beach. It’s only fifteen minutes from their house, twenty from ours. The proximity means camping won’t interfere with the school soccer schedule. My cousin’s schedule, not mine. I don’t play.

JD is staring hard at the girls.

I hear the laugh again and realize the middle one’s responsible. She’s cute. “Do we know them?” I don’t, but JD might.

“Nope.” He stands, his expression alert. “But we should.”

He heads that way, and I rise to follow. The girls don’t stop for us, but they don’t exactly go either. They manage an awkward shuffle to give JD time to intercept them.

Since they’ve focused on him, I’m free to look. At first, I peg them as juniors. But as I get closer to the road and peer past the makeup and clothes, I change that to sophomores. It’s hard to tell. Despite the cool temperature, they all wear tank tops, black layered over white, and though one girl is all bones, the other two have breasts that make their scooped necklines interesting. The middle one’s the prettiest, not just curvy but golden and fit too. I wonder if her breasts happened quickly and took her by surprise, like my long limbs startled me.

I glance at my cousin. He’s studying her, as well.

Once JD and I reach the dirt road, the five of us exchange nods and heys. I kick a rock. JD sticks his hands in his jean pockets. While the skinny girl on the right takes her time texting someone, the busty one on the left makes a show of kneeling to lace a sneaker. Her tank top inches up. A small roll hangs over her shorts. As soon as she stands, the roll disappears.

Only the pretty laugher looks at us steadily. The two who flank her glance breezily at each other, at their phones then quickly, like they don’t want to get caught, at JD and me. The peeks might be brief, but they’re intense, and the fake-casual routine, so at odds with their dolled-up faces and hair, strikes me as funny.

When the middle one catches my expression, she links her hands behind her, like a teacher waiting for a student’s answer. She raises an eyebrow.

I stop smiling. “Heading to the beach?” I cross my arms over my chest and jerk my chin to indicate the end of the loop like I need to remind them that Lake Ontario’s to the north. I feel stupid.

“Nope.” She gives her golden hair a flick and sends it down her back. “To the park.”

Then she smiles like I’m invited.

JD shoots me a frown. “The trail behind my site goes that way. Want a shortcut?”

She gives her hair another toss. “Sure.”

My cousin leads. The girls go next, the pretty laugher first. I’m last, but with the girls ahead of me, my position beats JD’s.

When we get to the camper, my cousin pauses and, looking uncomfortable, casts a quick glance at the girls behind him before leaning into the screen door. “Mom? We’re heading to the park.”

Our mothers’ curious faces appear on the other side of the screen. They take in the girls then smile at us. In that moment, they actually look like sisters. Their expressions—embarrassingly, tenderly amused—match.

“Okay, sweetie,” Aunt Janet says. “Don’t be too long.”

Hyacinth’s smile widens. She catches my eyes, and I can tell from her expression we’re conspirators, bound by the secret of the charred decoration.

JD winces and glances at me, a second-long look that says, How many more years until we escape this? Then he hurries away from the door. We continue single-file around the campfire, where the burning logs are giving way to red coals, past my family’s old black tent, and onto the trail. The brush makes the route a narrow pass. Pink fruits that look like miniature apples hang off thorny branches, and the trees arching above the bushes cast quivering shadows over the girls’ bare shoulders. Ahead, JD walks slowly. His hair still traps the blackened curl of paper. I wonder if the girls notice too.

The trail widens to a field. Flat and green, the clearing stretches, acre after acre, uninterrupted, except for a stone building by the distant parking lot and, squarely in the middle of the open space, a single, elaborate construction of interconnected slides, bars, platforms, and swings. The stone building is the rec center. It’s closed for the season, and its glass panes darkly reflect the stand of trees separating the park from the campsite. No one’s here but us.

JD pauses to let the girls pass. The three sashay around him and do a giggling huddle a few yards ahead. After smiling at us over their shoulders, they go back to being sophisticated and saunter to the playground, their shaved legs flashing and hips swaying and arms swinging at their sides.

I’m impressed. Do they practice?

As soon as we reach the playground, the attractive one climbs a set of metal rings to the lowest platform. She turns and leans over a bar to smile down at JD and me. Her hair swings forward, and the sun behind her makes the wavy length brilliant, a gilded red. The other girls race to the end, lunge for the swings, and wiggle their butts onto the belts of plastic. Clinging to the chains, they trot back and grin at each before swooping forward. They look like kids.

“What’s your name?”

I peer up, glance over at my cousin, look up again, and blink. She’s talking to me. “Benjamin.” Benjamin. Ben would have been better. Why didn’t I just say Ben?

“I’m Hyacinth.” She slides her eyes to my cousin who’s standing stiffly at my side. I see her eyes touch his hair, and a smile quivers on her mouth. “And you’re?”

“JD.” He strides forward and jumps up to grab a bar. He lets his body swing there for a moment then maneuvers his hands to the next bar then the next. When he reaches the platform opposite hers, he nimbly propels himself onto it.

I’m tempted to clap. He showcased the biceps he’s been working on with the free weights in his basement and looks lean and strong. Plus, he’s nailed the expression: disdainful disinterest. He must be punishing her for paying attention to me first. The problem is he’s got that blackened curl of paper, perky as a bow, tucked in his hair.

Hyacinth’s smile widens. She catches my eyes, and I can tell from her expression we’re conspirators, bound by the secret of the charred decoration. Then she straightens, clasps her hands behind her again, and starts asking questions.

She gleans the basics. No, we’re cousins, not brothers. And no, we’re not the same age. Though we attend the same high school, JD’s a sophomore. I’m a freshman. JD, clearly still smarting, keeps his bored look steady but somehow manages to establish that he plans to go to medical school, takes advanced placement classes, plays goaltender for his soccer team, and succeeds at most sports, so well that the soccer and baseball coaches yanked him out of JV last year to include him on their varsity teams.

By the time he finishes sharing his resume, he’s breathing heavily. He leans against the ladder of metal rings that lead to the next platform and swipes his forehead. The action jars the blackened paper, and I wait for it to flutter to the ground. Instead it crawls forward and takes up residency over his bangs. It looks like a baby bat caught in a net.

A laugh escapes Hyacinth. She nods slowly and shifts her amused gaze to me.

The action jars the blackened paper, and I wait for it to flutter to the ground. Instead it crawls forward and takes up residency over his bangs. It looks like a baby bat caught in a net.

“What about you?”

“Me?” What about me? I sit on the grass and stretch out my legs. There they are again: my long legs.

One of the other girls squeals. They have the swing chains twisted. The skinny one yells, “Now!” And at the same time, they lift their feet and spin.

I glance back at Hyacinth. “Nothing.” I yank out a blade of grass, trap it between my thumbs to make a whistle, and blow. The trumpeting sound, honking and discordant, like a duck quacking and farting at the same time, seems to sum up my life. I toss aside the blade. “I don’t do much. Just ride my bike. Try not to fail any subjects.” Except math. Math’s hopeless. No point in killing myself over logic proofs. “Avoid my parents. That kind of thing.”

She settles an approving look on me.

I frown and mentally review what I just said to search for what could have possibly dazzled her. Nothing. I shake my head.

JD looks baffled too.

Hyacinth starts drilling us with camping questions to determine how long we’ve camped, what we like to do when we’re camping, if we’ve ever switched the Hershey’s chocolate for Reese’s peanut butter cups in s’mores. She slips under the lowest bar encircling the platform and, as graceful as a gymnast, leaps to the ground. When she sits next to me, she draws up her legs and rests her cheek on a knee. “Where do you usually camp?”

I don’t answer right away. I want to make the moment last, her eyes, bronze like a lion’s, her slightly parted mouth, her smooth cheek, its edge reddened with the last of the sunlight, and her interest in me, her inexplicable interest—this dumbfounding, unprecedented preferential treatment. I get the sensation I experience sometimes when I’m bicycling, pedaling as fast as I can, and heading down a road I’ve never travelled before, where maybe no one knows me or my parents or JD. It feels like more than freedom. It’s possibility.

But then I glance at JD. At some point, he abandoned the platform. Now he slouches at the foot of the slide and scrubs his sneakers against the circle of packed dirt where landing feet have worn away the grass. He studies his loosely folded hands. On his bent head, directly centered above his forehead, is the burned paper. In the dim light, it could be a stump, blackened with blood, the remains of a stolen horn.

His slumped stillness stirs a memory. When we were kids, for the longest time, JD went through a Toy Story stage. He craved anything related to Woody: boots, toy gun, cowboy hat, vest. He must have been six or seven, maybe six and seven. His obsession seemed to last forever. In fact, he grew out of his favorite shirts—T-shirts with Woody plastered on the front—long before he moved on to his next interest.

Aunt Janet, of course, passed along the shirts to me with the rest of his outgrown wardrobe. I promptly insisted on wearing the one that sported Woody and Buzz. I liked Buzz better than Woody and, though I didn’t have the matching action figures or toys, usually played Buzz whenever JD and I got going on our Toy Story games.

…I remember getting what our parents likely didn’t: that growing too big for something doesn’t mean we’re ready to give it up.

I don’t know now if I realized, as I pulled the T-shirt over my head the morning we left for the camping trip, that JD would go nuts. Maybe I was a smug little shit and did. I’d rather think it was just plain old idol worship that made me want to dress like my cousin. Anyway, his punching, pushing, shirt-yanking, screeching meltdown got him a timeout. Through the screen, I watched him sitting in the camper, his chest heaving and face wet and red. And I remember getting what our parents likely didn’t: that growing too big for something doesn’t mean we’re ready to give it up.

I glance at Hyacinth. Instead of gazing at me, waiting for an answer, she’s looking at her friends on the swings. Her face wears a peculiar expression, wistful and boastful at the same time.

“I like camping here,” I finally say. This campground is no KOA: it doesn’t have a pool or movie nights or a giant trampoline. But Roosevelt Beach State Park has Lake Ontario. And it’s got great trails through the woods and lots of open space—fields like this one.

I look around. The beginning of darkness, like steeping tea, softens the playground, the grass, and the swinging girls. The trees in the distance have turned black. And the three of us: We’re darker now too, shadows moving among shadows. The moon, white and nearly full, is rising. I rise, as well, and brush off my jeans. “My family camps wherever JD’s does. They let us pitch our tent on their site.”

Hyacinth gives me another one of those assessing, approving smiles. “Real campers use tents.”

I snort and stride to JD. “Poor campers do.” His face is sullen, and he starts and pulls back when I reach for his hair. I follow, detach his charred companion, and hand it to him. “We’re basically squatters,” I say over my shoulder. Sponges, takers, moochers. For now. Someday I won’t be.

JD doesn’t seem to hear me; he’s scowling at the black remnant in his hand. When he does look up, he stares at Hyacinth. This time, he’s not faking his expression. It is pure dislike. Glancing away from her, he stands and says, “No you’re not, Ben,” even though he’s the one who came up with the nicknames. He drops the burned paper between us, and I grind it into the ground.

The moon has shrunk. Strange how the moon grows smaller the higher it climbs, an interesting diminishment, like a balloon on the loose. A freed balloon… At first, you’re pissed you let it slip away, but then you start thinking about where it’s heading and how far it will fly.

My stomach growls. “I’m hungry.” Starving, actually. “I bet our dads are back. Ready to go?” Since JD’s still frowning and quiet, I add, “How about we race?” Nothing cheers up JD faster than the prospect of a race.

He nods abruptly and crouches, his body angled for a sprint.

When he gives the go-ahead, I shout goodbye to the girls then save my breath for panting. We pound across the grass and head straight for the trail. Though we can’t spot it in the inky trees, we don’t have to. We’ve gone this way a hundred times or more. JD’s quick, but I’ve got these new long legs. They make me fast, faster than I’ve ever been before. JD might win. But I could win. Now I could win too.

Melissa OstromMelissa Ostrom teaches English in rural western New York, where she lives with her husband and children. Her fiction has appeared previously in Lunch Ticket as well as other journals, including Corium, decomP, Monkeybicycle, and Juked. Her first novel, Genesee, is forthcoming from Macmillan in the spring of 2018.

 

 

 

Alternate Ending with Beach House

This is what I wanted:
++++++++++++++++mug full of coffee each morning
++++++++++++++++and a walk to the ocean. Wind blowing sand
++++++++++++++++into the curtain hems
of your parents’ beach house where we wouldn’t pay rent
and you’d reprise your role as the good son who spent
the six months before I met you there, sober,
fixing the cherry red Cabriolet.
++++++++++++++++Garage full of oil spots.
Your face growing wrinkles from deep concentration,
stub of a Camel dangling ash from the crook
of your mouth. I wanted the floral apron, the chubby baby
on my hip, and the cold leftovers I’d eat alone in the kitchen.
++++++++++++++++I knew you’d never quit drinking,
++++++++++++++++so I worked it into the ending,
++++++++++++++++amber glow of lamplight
through Maker’s in the wood-panelled den.
++++++++++++++++But in my version, you’d drink moderately,
or at least from glasses, and we’d listen to the baby monitor
and make slow love, which I knew even then
++++++++++++++++would really be more like absent-minded fucking.
But that’s as far as I can picture of the alternate ending
because in this world, when you begged me to marry you
from the passenger seat of my Buick, I knew you were drunk,
++++++++++++++++and the pregnancy test
++++++++++++++++came back with only one line on it,
++++++++++++++++and I never even saw the beach house,
only drove the long flat road
++++++++++++++++toward it a half dozen times.

rebecca bornsteinRebecca Bornstein’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slice, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Word Riot, Hobart, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from North Carolina State University and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. http://www.rebeccabornstein.com

Fables of Purgatory: III. A Horizontal Job

L’Angoisse qui fait les fous.
L’Angoisse qui fait les suicidés.

ANTONIN ARTAUD

III. A HORIZONTAL JOB

++++Poor Miguel Ángel. I’ve always said he had the worst
luck. There are lucky dogs—but he’s one unlucky dog.
++++He had looked for work. The offices emery-polished
and the banks full. He had looked with the utmost sadness.
++++One day he crossed an avenue—Corrientes, I believe,
or 9 de Julio—and disappeared.
++++That is to say, his vertical motion disappeared. For the
line of passing cars was so long he was submerged in the
asphalt. All that remained in sight were his eyes, his mouth,
his hands.
++++The asphalt has waves with which to defend Miguel
Ángel’s face and hands from the wheels of cars.
++++Once informed, the Mayor paid him a visit to offer him
the position of Talking Traffic Light.
++++Poor Miguel Ángel, I say. He had to end up drowned in
asphalt in order to get a job.
++++Of course now he no longer does anything he likes. He
only shouts traffic rules and even so the people scorn him.
Yesterday someone—unintentionally, but still—stepped on
his hand.
++++What a world. What shadows. Surely now he will never
die by the sea.

prose_section_divider

L’Angoisse qui fait les fous.
L’Angoisse qui fait les suicidés.

ANTONIN ARTAUD

III. UN EMPLEO HORIZONTAL

++++Pobre Miguel Ángel. Siempre he dicho que tuvo una
suerte perra. Hay perros que tienen suerte; pero él es un
perro perro.
++++Buscaba empleo. Las oficinas esmeriladas y los bancos
llenos. Tristísimamente buscaba.
++++Un día cruzó una avenida, creo Corrientes o 9 de Julio y
desapareció.
++++Es decir, desapareció su andar vertical. Porque fue tal la
fila de coches que pasó, que lo hundieron en el asfalto. Sólo
quedaron a la luz sus ojos, su boca, sus manos.
++++El asfalto tiene olas, con ellas defiende de las ruedas de
los autos el rostro y las manos de Miguel Ángel.
++++Enterado el Intendente, lo visitó para ofrecerle el puesto
de Semáforo Parlante.
++++Pobre Miguel Ángel, digo. Hubo de quedar ahogado en
el asfalto para conseguir empleo.
++++Claro que ya no hace más nada de lo que le gusta. Sólo
grita reglas de tránsito y aún así la gente lo desprecia. Una
ayer, sin querer pero igual, le pisó una mano.
++++Qué mundo. Qué sombras. Ciertamente ya no morirá
junto al mar.

Translator’s Note

“A Horizontal Job” belongs to the series “Fables of Purgatory” from Fragmentos fantásticos, Miguel Ángel Bustos’s third book of poems published in 1965. This book marks his departure from the predominant aesthetic of the Argentine generation of 1960 toward a more narrative, epic poetics. Still, the conversational tone and center in Buenos Aires for which that generation is known enlivens this poem and makes it fun to translate. “A Horizontal Job” describes a predicament familiar to any poet, yet it is darkened by an awareness of the widespread disenfranchisement and unemployment of young Argentines at the time—and now. The poem opens with an untranslatable pun on “suerte perra,” an expression meaning bad luck that uses the word dog. Bustos’s identification with dogs is picked up later on in the series, in poems where he uses the animals metaphorically. In order to capture Bustos’s comic timing, I’ve relied on punctuation and fragment, stripping away any extraneous words to create clipped, punchy lines. While Bustos hopes to die by the sea, the language of the poem—“waves,” “drowned”— suggests that the asphalt is a man-made ocean, and part of the poet’s pain comes from his bitter recognition of the subjugation of nature.

Lucina SchellLucina Schell works in international rights for the University of Chicago Press and is founding editor of Reading in Translation. Her translations of Miguel Ángel Bustos appear in Ezra Translation Journal, The Bitter Oleander, Drunken Boat, and Seven Corners, and her literary reviews appear in Ezra and Jacket2.

captureMiguel Ángel Bustos (1932-1976) was a major poet of the Argentine Generation of 1960, an illustrator, and a literary critic. Among his five published books of poetry, Visión de los hijos del mal, with a prologue by Leopoldo Marechal, earned the second Buenos Aires Municipal Prize for Poetry in 1968. Bustos became an early victim of the military dictatorship, which ushered in decades of censorship of his poetry. His collected poetry was republished in 2008, the first time it had appeared in print in more than thirty years. Bustos’ remains were identified in 2014 by forensic anthropologists.

Somebody. Still.

I had wanted to be something in the world once. A teaching degree, a Masters degree, and several academic honors hang framed on my study wall. I might have had any number of careers but at twenty-five I made a choice and let the world go on without me: Bedside for my mother’s cancer right after college slid into marriage, morphed into children, and landed me in a seaside community buffered by comforts. A few decades later I was looking at fifty and an empty house. And hiding in the laundry room.

Four years out of college my best friend whisked me to France when my mother became terminal, and proposed over flaming omelets on Mont-Saint-Michel, an ancient French Monastery stranded by the tides at the edge of the northwestern coast. Despite the earnest look on his face I hardly noticed the romantic setting. I was all out of emotions: My mother was dying from ovarian cancer far away in Seattle and I was worn out keeping her and myself together. As the velvet box slid across the table my reasoning seemed so reasonable; we knew everything there was to know about each other, he loved my family, my mother would still be there for my wedding if we hurried. So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

Nobody put a hand on my shoulder and counseled me to avoid making big decisions in times of big grief. Nobody warned me that grief was not a reliable emotion on which to base life-changing commitments. I had pushed the three-diamond heirloom ring on my finger with relief, chose the road most traveled and said yes yes yes to my oldest friend. I was tired. Marriage seemed an easy answer.

I looked down at the sparkling ring and said quickly, “How fast do you think we can pull off a wedding?”

Twenty years later, three talented children, one suburban community, twenty slack pounds heavier an invisible net began to cinch tight.

So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

The first episodes began in the laundry room, folding the never-diminishing pile of sports shorts, lacrosse jerseys, strings of candy-colored thongs, hipster boxers, and my faded, elastic granny panties. I discovered I couldn’t breathe. All I could hear inside my head was, I am nobody.

Then I closed myself in the coat closet and cried.

Was this empty nest syndrome, my second child departing for college at the same time my youngest decided to head to boarding school? In truth, they were all ready to go: happy, adjusted, busting at the seams to grow into adulthood.

Was I an ungrateful bitch, not appreciating my safe community, successful husband, beautiful family? No one could doubt my love, devotion, and dedication to my family. I sobbed into the raincoats hiding my despair; I wanted to do something else with my life, only I had no idea how to start again or where to start again. I wasn’t ungrateful I just wasn’t done. Who thinks this way?

My struggle intensified as the house got quieter. Anxiety chattered in my head, You only have yourself to blame, as I tried to catch my breath while the dryer tumbled. Back to gratitude! my mind raced. My mother had died at fifty-one-years-old. I was lucky to be alive to see my children grow. I shoved my saggy underwear behind the detergent and put a smile on my face.

*     *     *

The garage was staged with bins of extra-long sheets, towels and pillows for the two dorm rooms. Moving old photo boxes out of the way, a picture of my husband and his former live-in girlfriend, sitting an inch apart on a couch smiling at each other, dropped to the floor.

The photo haunted me for days.

He married you out of pity.

He loved your mom and wanted her to know you were taken care of.

But what froze my blood was,

He had never smiled at me like that before.

But let’s be honest, what was he looking at? I filled the days, months, and years with too much food, alcohol, and projects. Caregiving of other relatives took a toll on me all over again. I gained weight, had high cholesterol, and drank martinis nightly by the double. Filling my time and my belly had not filled my soul or made me attractive. Her face in the photo glowed, her chestnut hair swirled around flawless skin. I had stopped looking in the mirror.

The cost of my decision over that omelet flambé was finally here: I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years. I had sledded down the slippery slope of taking care of everyone else, riding a comfy cushion under my butt into oblivion. How could I possibly salvage anything of that twenty-five-year-old now?

When the house was empty of children we began to eat dinner in front of a news show every night, our meal balanced on knees, his laptop open beside him. I was bored to tears and brought to tears that this was how my life would continue to unspool forward. I lay awake at night, stroking my dogs, devising plans: I will go back to school. Find part-time work in a shop in town. I was qualified to be a dog walker, a cook, a housecleaner. I pulled the pillows over my head.

I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years.

First, I thought, first I should salvage the marriage. I set a table for two, lit candles and prepared a nice meal the next day.

“Now we can focus on us for the first time in years!” I said, clinking our wine glasses together.

“Did I tell you I am going to Europe next month to extend the company?” he replied.

Could I have been any more invisible than that moment?

As his words hung between us I stacked the dishes and felt a bizarre rush of relief. In some ways, being apart would be good for both of us. As he chatted on about his trip, I suddenly realized that I had no intention of just sitting here waiting for someone to decide to come home for a meal. I wasn’t angry. I was certain.

I sat at the computer the next day and typed random requests into Google:

Continuing Education Classes Knitting instructor Writing courses

I applied to a workshop in Seattle, noting at the beginning of my essay,

“I am not pretending I know how to write. I just want to try.”

Someone in the program wrote back,

“Welcome! This is great. Here is what we recommend.”

Someone wants me?

Just one line, from a stranger. In rapid succession I scoured Craigslist for rentals and found a furnished flat for a six-week workshop, put down the deposits with my own inherited money, secured dog sitters, emptied the fridge, put the garden to bed, and found a ride to the airport.

“I’ll be back after you return from Europe,” I said as he packed. But both of us knew this was the defining moment of something else. And I had defined it. Unprecedented. Exhilarating.

*     *     *

A friend said to me before I left, “We are so confused, you were the ultimate mom, you did everything perfectly, why do you need to go away?”

My dog sitter said, “Do you know everyone is talking about you? Wondering if you are getting divorced?”

I shouldn’t move forward, but everyone else can?

*     *     *

The first hour in the flat I watched the clouds flick the tips of the snow-capped Cascade mountains and listened to the silence. Not fearful, just acutely aware I was making big, irrevocable decisions based on advice from a stranger. Would this work out? Did it matter?

At a second-hand store down the street I purchased two wine glasses, two plates, and a vintage tablecloth dotted with plums. I felt the blood zinging through me.

Who did this? Somebody.

I took a deep breath and went to bed alone.

Alexandra DaneAlexandra Dane is currently completing Cope: An Imperfect Story, her memoir about coming of age in the midst of her mother’s divorce and terminal illness. For the last four years she has honed her writing voice in Seattle, Washington with thanks to Hugo House and The Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in thewritersworkshopreview.net. Her weekly blog alexandradanewrites.com is an assemblage of thoughts on the small things that matter. She lives in Boston and Seattle.

Broken Horns

Yeah, so, they give us these little bathroom breaks every hour or so, cause it’d be a real shame if Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, pissed his fluffy purple dress pants in front of these little whiney-ass children. Their parents, many in the death throes of potty training the little imps, would certainly be nonplussed.

It was that time again, so me and Rhonda Hornblower, who silently encased my buddy Dave, would smile (always the same flat, toothy grin) and wave at the poor souls who would now have to wait in amusement park purgatory for fifteen blistering, immobile minutes. I always felt sorry for Jimmy, the poor old sap who worked the line, trying to be firm and cheery at the same time, delivering the bad news.

“Okay, everybody, thanks for your patience. The Dancing Rhinos are so happy to see all of their favorite little fans. We’re just gonna take a short break so Rudy and Rhonda can get a quick drink.”

Man, I loved that part, seeing contempt and despair simultaneously ooze down the faces of those sweating, irritated parents. This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.

“Don’t worry, Daddy, it won’t be that long. I’ll be real still.”

I did feel sorry for the kids, though, because some of them were pure, selfless in their devotion to the caped, purple-bedazzled Hornblowers.

This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.

Rudy and Rhonda had been created for daytime children’s television to educate children, in a fun way, on the dangers of animal extinction. It’s all happy and nice, comes at it from a preservation side, you knowpositivedonate, raise awareness, etc., but I like to research my acting parts, so I dug a little deeper.

The real story is quite brutal, so the show has to seriously cut out the gore and violence, you know, the tranquilizers and bullet holes, the de-horning with axes. Most people think Rhinos are tougher than nails, but they’re easy marks for poachers. Black Rhinos are super aggressive, but White Rhinos (Rudy and Rhonda are White Rhinosthe most numerous and easily recognized) usually run from danger, but then stop when they get tired and need something to drink. But then they lose sight of the hunters and forget. That’s just the threat on the ground from locals, doesn’t account for the professionals who tranquilize the creatures by helicopter and then land, lopping off the horns and letting the animals die from drug overdose or blood loss while they fly away again, taking only the lucrative horns. It makes me sad to think of those massive bleeding hulks dying slow, then being torn apart by scavengers or left to rot. And I wonder about the lonely calves.

Well, enough on that depressing crap, let’s get back to the jolly theme park.

So, anyhow, on the Saturday of spring break, you know, the busiest day of the whole season, Dave and I were taking our three o’clock break, and I got a call on my cell. Now, I wasn’t even supposed to have it on me. I’d already been warned when it happened before.

See, one day it started ringing, and this crazy-eyed four year old with red hair and chocolate ice cream smothered hands started running laps around me, patting down Rudy the Rhino in all of the uncomfortable places, searching for the source of the screamed, repetitive, “Turn down for what?!” while his younger brother awkwardly head-bobbed to the muffled electronic warbling, “eh-eh-aah-eh-uh-ooh!” By the time the ringtone ended, the grubby little monster had smeared so much chocolate on my suit that it looked like poor Rudolph Hornblower shit himself.

So this time I ran to our private little crapper for characters and disrobed fast, hoping no one would hear the phone. I was out of breath and sweating profusely when I said hello. The voice on the other end was distant, as always.

“You still dressing up like a douche bag Rhino?”

I can only guess that Pops was mean so he wouldn’t feel.

“Yeah I do, Pops. Thanks for the annual telephone call; it’s always so nice to hear your voice.”

A long pause, and I was starting to get irritated, needed to pee, for real, and get a drink, you know, chill a second before going out to face the endless adoring throng of maniacal children and perturbed parents.

“Pops…?”

His voice was nearly a whisper.

“So, anyway, I got bone cancer, got it bad. Two months is all…”

It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he camea long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest. I leaned back against the locker just as Dave silently walked in, and I was glad I’d been sweating, the moisture all over my face.

“Yeah, so, I just wanted to tell ya. All right then.”

Click.

Pops had a way of always avoiding everything, missing each tender moment.

It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he camea long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest.

He never wiped a tear, never read a page, never threw a ball or came to watch a game. He ignored every real and imagined pain, letting mom do the best she could until she finally got sick of his shit and called it quits, took me far away, on a permanent cross-country road trip. That was fifteen years ago, and he’d seemed happy to let us go, hadn’t come around, not even once. No presents, no cards. Few calls, most of them a few weeks after my birthday or Christmas, to sort of apologize. I say sort of, because he never really said he was sorry. I guess making the effort to call was good enough in his mind.

And I learned to make it without him, without the strength or direction, the protection and kindness that a kid needs from a father. And though I hated him very much, I never lied to myself, pretending like it didn’t matter. I couldn’t change my life, but that didn’t mean I had to act all Zen about getting screwed by the guy who should have loved and cared for me.

And I always hoped for something, the smallest grain of good.

Two months.

Not enough time, even if he wanted to try to make it right, and clearly, he didn’t.

I leaned over, looked to make sure Dave wasn’t paying attention, and then took a deep draught from the flask I had secreted in my bag. Evan Williams, he was my daddy, the one who hugged and punished, who put me to sleep at night and then pounded my head in the mornings. I took some consolation from his wisdom that afternoon and then washed my face real good and popped in a Lifesaver. Can’t walk back out smelling like Rudy the Whino, right?

Anyhow, one of the good things about being an oversized cartoon character is that you don’t get to talk. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to talk for days without crying, and frankly, I wouldn’t know the words. The other benefit of that giant Rhino head is that no matter how shitty you feel, no matter how disastrous your life becomes, you can and in fact do, always smileone big, incredulous, cheesy grin.

So there I went, hand-in-hand with my buddy Dave, back to the anxious children and their tortured parents, to renew the happy and ridiculous farce. I trudged through, shaking hands, hugging, posing, and signing books.

I was fatigued, the terror of permanently incomplete closure looming, and Rudy started becoming lethargic. The line was moving too slow. Even Jimmy, the old dude who monitored the crowd, started urging Rudy to move a little quicker. Rhonda kept looking over with that goofy smirk, waving her arms in exasperation.

Then I heard it, the conversation between the man and woman and boy, maybe four families back. The dad was pissed, was just staring off in the distance, folding and unfolding and folding his arms again, huffing and puffing. Under his breath I heard him curse (by the way, Rhinos can’t see shit, but their hearing is superb) asking why in the hell they should keep waiting in this forsaken line. The mother just smiled, patted the eager son, Bobbie, on the head. She spoke placidly, saying how much it meant to their boy.

Suddenly, a memory surfaced, circa six-years-old. I had a glove and a ball, my Pops was sitting in his La-Z-Boy, watching a Phillies-Mets game. I’m sure if I could fly back in time and see everything clearly, I might notice that Phightin’ Phils were getting their asses beat, and Jimmy Rollins had just dogged it half way to first base after a bad first-pitch swing on a low fastball out of the zone, the result not a homer as he hoped, but an infield popout, a bad play, a selfish play. I don’t recall any of that. I just remember wanting, more than anything in the world, for my Pops to go get his glove down from the top corner of his desk in his office. I asked and asked. If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.

Finally, I guess my questioning blew his top and he leaped up, snatched my glove and ball. He marched outside, and I was a kid, so like, I kind of thought that even though he didn’t have his glove, maybe he was going to bare-hand catch or something. Naw, he chucked the ball in the creek behind our yard and tossed my glove on the roof. Didn’t even look at me. Just turned around, went to the fridge and grabbed another MGD, then sat back in his La-Z-Boy. Never spoke a word.

By now Rudy was a statue; I was drowning in a hopeless feeling, staring at little Bobbie. And he was staring back at me, concerned.

If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.

“Hey, momma, is Rudy okay, he seems kind of sick or something.”

Then I heard the dad again, grumbling that I was an asshole.

“That’s enough, Will!”

The mom gave a sharp look while the family I had largely been ignoring moved along, and the unhappy family of three moved a step closer to bliss. The dad’s face was all red now, but he was silent, had been rebuked by the mom, who was clearly in charge. Little Bobbie was becoming a bubbling ball of happy. He turned to his father, and his face was shining, all sweaty and hopeful.

“Hey, Dad, we’re almost there, see?”

The dad didn’t look at his son or acknowledge him, but instead spoke to the mom.

“Sheila, I can’t take any more of this shit. When you guys get done, come find me over at the Wild Safari Brewing Company around the corner. I gotta get a beer.”

No one saw it but me. Not Sheila, whose eyes were following her husband with disgust, and certainly not Will, who was already gone. Bobbie was crushed, wiped a tear, set his jaw. He wanted to see Rudy the Rhino, sure, but he really just wanted to be with his mom and dad, to hang out for a little bit on his terms, in his little, simple world, where Rhinos get to dance and smile because there are no poachers roaming about.

They say the Black Rhino is aggressive, will charge any threat, has been known to pose a real danger to people on safari if they get too close. Will had gotten too close, had stomped on my wound, and my soul was breaking dark.

We all want to right things that are unfair, and I’m no different. The next family had moved forward, three bouncing little girls bearing pink notebooks adorned with smiling, twirling images of Rudy and Rhonda. They also had those big fat purple Sharpies.

The smallest girl handed me her Sharpie and I patted her on the head, walked off set, and followed Will around the corner to the Wild Safari Brewing Company. I, or rather Rudy, was all smiles.

Jimmy and Dave, well, you know, Rhonda, just stared after me for a second, didn’t understand that the dam had broken through, the sorrow was over the banks, and there was no turning back.

Will was putting back one of those fancy micro beers, a semi-hoppy golden ale or some bullshit. I guess he thought he deserved a break, had literally been pushed too hard, had earned the several dollar mark-up by his paternal exertion.

Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, charged, attacking with the fat Sharpie until it exploded and bled purple all over the unconscious body of Will.

Then Rhonda finally reacted, ran over and pulled Rudy off poor Will quick enough to save his life, but not quick enough to salvage my job. Oh, well. Rudy was still smiling when security took him away.

And hey, don’t worry. That dull father is going to wake again. And when he does, maybe he’ll remember his son.

See, a Rhinoceros horn completely severed never grows back. But sometimes, when a horn is only broken, it still has the chance to heal, to grow again.

Blake KilgoreBlake Kilgore lives in Burlington, New Jersey, with his wife and four sons. People there treat him with kindness, and he is at ease living among the old and tall forests of the Garden State. His lingering accent, however, verifies that his heart is still Texan and Okie. Blake’s writing has appeared in Forge, Midway Journal, The Stonecoast Review, The Bookends Review, OxMag, and other fine journalsTo learn more, please visit blakekilgore.com.

After Eagle Drawings: Ink Drawings

Todd Mitchell on Graphic Narratives: The Frontier of Visual Storytelling

Todd MitchellTodd Mitchell is the author of several award-winning novels, stories, and graphic texts, including the young adult novels Backwards (Candlewick Press, Colorado Author’s League Award winner), The Secret to Lying (Candlewick Press, Colorado Book Award winner), and the middle grade novels Species (forthcoming from Delacorte Press) and The Traitor King (Scholastic Press, Colorado Book Award Finalist). He’s also a writer for the graphic novel, A Flight of Angels (Vertigo, YALSA Top 10 Pick for Teens), and the graphic series, Broken Saviors (made possible by grants from the NEA and Colorado Creative Industries). In addition to his books, he’s published short stories, essays, and poems in national and international journals. He has over fifteen years of experience teaching creative writing at college and graduate levels, and serving as Director of the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program at Colorado State University. When he’s not traveling, he lives in Fort Collins, CO with his wife, dog, and two wily daughters. You can visit him at www.ToddMitchellBooks.com

Katy Avila interviewed Todd Mitchell via phone call in August 2016.

Katy Avila: I took a course in my undergraduate English program where we studied the development of pulp fiction and comic books through the 1950s. Last term, I was assigned Fun Home (2006), a graphic memoir. Do you have anything to say about this transition of graphic narratives from pulp fiction into the more “literary” world?

Todd Mitchell: I think everyone would see that turning point differently. It probably has a lot to do with personal bias, but in terms of mainstream culture the big turning point was Maus (1980-1991), because Maus won the Pulitzer, got some critical praise. It cued the larger public on how comics can be used to tell stories; they weren’t just for kids. More recently, you mentioned Fun Home, which won several best book awards. That was a mainstream crossover.

Since then, I feel like we’re in this golden age of comics, where a lot is happening with independent comics as well as the traditional comics. If you look at Hollywood, most of their movie development for big blockbusters are coming out of comics, even some indie films are coming out of comics too. YA literature. Hybrid texts. There’s room for writers to explore how images can be used to tell a story in ways that haven’t been done before, that isn’t just sequential narrative. All of these different forms of graphic texts are now becoming a big part of our general culture and not just a subculture.

If you think about a frontier, there is this undiscovered country that we can go into, and it is the country of graphic texts, and it’s just opening up now.

KA: You mentioned technology—do you mean graphic narratives are gaining popularity because of the internet?

TM: Yeah. It’s a new territory to discover new stories. Technology has enabled graphic mediums to spread, and they’ve increased publishing costs. There’s a lot of authors who are realizing, “Oh wait, there are whole new stories we can tell with art.” We can use art and stories in ways that haven’t been done before, and that’s what really excites me. If you think about a frontier, there is this undiscovered country that we can go into, and it is the country of graphic texts, and it’s just opening up now. I’m seeing a lot of books now where they use art and image along with narrative as a way to tell stories using an online format. The internet is very graphic—it’s a graphic medium. People want pictures with their texts so readers are getting more accustomed to graphic texts.

KA: It’s like memes. Those have blown up in social media in the last several years. Pictures and words are easy to connect to. They try to catch some familiar feeling like, “That time when you…” along with an expression, working in juxtaposition of what’s said in the text and the image, and it plays with your image of familiarity because you’ve probably heard the phrase or seen the picture before. I feel like comics do the same thing by playing on what you know and what you don’t know.

TM: That’s a really good connection. Readers are inundated with graphic texts all the time without realizing it. Memes are a great example. The problem right now though is that a lot of readers are pretty lazy at reading graphic texts. If we look at a picture of a chair, to be good readers of graphic texts we have to think about why the chair is depicted the way it is. Why is it empty? A lot of readers aren’t asking all the questions that they need, because we’re used to receiving information from images.

The challenge for writers, for creators, is to try and elevate the ways that readers read these graphic texts. It demands that readers get more critical and thoughtful about how they read. If you don’t know how to read a graphic text, you only get about one-tenth of what is actually on the page. Schools need to do a better job at developing graphic literacy.

KA: What was the first comic or graphic narrative that caught your attention—were you a kid or an adult?

TM: I actually came pretty late to comics and graphic narratives. I didn’t read any as a kid. I had a roommate in college who was big into X-Men and others, so I started reading some of his. But really the first one that that blew my mind is a very surreal comic called Stray Toasters (1988). I’ve never even met anybody who has read this, I don’t know how I got it, but it has these very painterly panels and text, and it’s put together in a way that utterly baffles me and I read it multiple times just trying to understand it. Like what is this? What does it mean?

But if your question is what is the one that made me think about graphic narratives as a writer, that one was probably Maus.

KA: You said Stray Toasters perplexed you, not knowing what it meant and how it was put together. What caught your attention with Maus?

TM: For Maus, I put off reading it for years. The idea of a comic about the Holocaust kind of appalled me. When I finally did read it, I was utterly surprised that I was affected more by this book than any other book I had read about the Holocaust. I wanted to know why there was this particular power to graphic narratives that I had overlooked. In the case of Maus, it comes from the fact that it is a comic so we know it’s going to be a story about the Holocaust, but we think it’s going to be more light-hearted, more cartoonish. The characters aren’t depicted as people, they’re depicted as mice, and at several significant points in the text we are reminded that these are people, and that this is a memoir. The book gets through all the barriers we put up, goes in through the back door and surprises us with feeling. That’s when I realized there are ways graphic texts can tell stories you can’t with ordinary texts.

KA: Do you think there are certain stories that led themselves better to graphic narratives, or is it more about the storyteller’s vision?

TM: Absolutely. There are certain stories that need to be told graphically. There are certain stories that are better told with just text. When a story starts knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, you need to create me,” one of the first questions I ask myself is: “What form does this need to take?”

With one project I’m working on, there’s a story about an alien invasion and it has to do with the scope of the story. There’s a lot of spectacle and the scope is bigger than any one character, so that story demanded to be visual early on. If I were to write that as a book I would get too stuck in one character’s consciousness, and the larger story wouldn’t come out. Represented visually, the reader can participate in viewing the spectacle to see it and experience it as a spectacle, which is the character’s’ experience.

In the graphic essay, “The Two Questions” (2008), Lynda Barry represents the stream of consciousness through these large, very busy panels that you have to navigate on your own, and she teaches you how to read images as symbols, and then recurring images. The essay itself is about how you take what is in yourself and represent it externally, so there’s a match-up of form and content. It activates different parts of our brain. 

When a story starts knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, you need to create me,” one of the first questions I ask myself is: “What form does this need to take?”

KA: Is that something that makes the graphic narrative “work?”

TM: There needs to be a reason for the image, sometimes that’s a matter of having a contrast between image and text. Like Maus, that’s what really gives the book power. Sometimes it’s a matter of having images do something that words can’t. That different way that our brains navigate images. A graphic text is good when it haunts me, when my brain keeps going over the ways that the image and text interact. You’re constantly looking at the two, thinking about how they merge, and you’re getting a third thing that is ineffable.

KA: And that third thing is a process of your own creation. I like that participatory element that comes along with graphic texts. When I read Fun Home, I felt like I was writing a part of it while reading. I had to slow down to do that. I couldn’t do that at first.

TM: That’s what I mean about being a good, active reader. A lot of first time readers of graphic texts don’t realize that the story actually lives in the gutter, the story is in the spaces between the panels, which we animate ourselves. The reader is invited to participate in the creation of the narrative.

KA: As an author of graphic narratives, what is your process in creating one?

TM: This depends on what graphic text you’re doing. If you’re talking traditional comics, they are super fast-paced and there’s a lot of “compression” of information in both image and panel, so you have to give it a sense of how that pace works on the pages first. How many panels you’re going to have on each page, you don’t want to crowd them in a series, each issue is exactly twenty-two pages, so how do you get a story arc, or two-and-a-half story arcs across in twenty-two pages with maximum nine panels per page…

KA: That’s like a math problem.

TM: You have to break every narrative down into essential parts and pace those parts out. That took me a long time to learn, but it’s helped my writing. It has tightened my sense of story structure.

And stories are changing shapes. You can see it through TV: character arcs spread out over four seasons. That changes our notion of story structure. It’s not a three-act story anymore, it’s a 100-act story, and comics arrived there first, by having this visual medium telling complex character arcs over many, many issues. I think that’s paved the way for some of the great TV we’re seeing now.

KA: More complexity can be revealed. I saw on your website a how-to for writing a comic book. Do you do a drafting process, like a storyboard? Are the images and panels the first idea and then you nail down what words you want, or is it simultaneous?

TM: I script first, because when you make changes, what’s easiest to change is in the script, but when I write out a script I have to ask myself, “how do you get this into images?” so I write image descriptions. Artists always like to work with as few panels as possible because they can have bigger, more painterly panels. It’s a question of which moments you can combine, how you can make it more concise.

Graphic storytelling gets so compressed, I almost see it as a medium closer to poetry because it’s how you can say the most with the least, and that pressure to both get minimal wordsbecause you don’t want the words to cover up the art, and you want the image to tell as much of the story as possiblebut also minimal images. That’s where I think the story possibilities come out, because as you’re compressing it’s not just about simplification it’s about a discovery of what is essential to the story, to the characters, and helps you see the story in a new way.

KA: More specifically than images, what affordances, or elements do graphic texts have that traditional texts don’t? I know a little about how writers use the white space between panels, which is similarly poetic in the spacing, and what get’s left out. Are there other specific elements of craft used?

TM: You want as much of the story as possible to be told through the dialogue, so that forces you into a “showing” mode. How do you show this externally—that’s the story focus. But yeah, other aspects of the form: gutters, the layout, the panel structure, the page turns, the pace, and color. You write a book in black and white; you get to use color with graphic text. Color changes mood, color is just used representatively, artistically, sometimes they contrast or are used expressively. There are all different ways to apply it, to shock the reader to look at an image in a different way.

There’s also hyperbolic elements. Manga often has a realistic style but gets very comical in moments. Like in a realistic comic a character will get angry and suddenly their features become overly cartoonish. There are different ways of telling a story better. And one thing that really struck me when I first read Manga was how the writer/artist breaks down the fourth wall even in the midst of a very serious story. Suddenly the writer or artist will have this offstage dialogue directly with the reader, and you don’t see that kind of editorial interruption in western comics or literature. 

A lot of first time readers of graphic texts don’t realize that the story actually lives in the gutter, the story is in the spaces between the panels, which we animate ourselves

KA: I really enjoy when literature breaks down that fourth wall. It jars you. There’s almost an element of graphic narratives that encourages you to read on even though you don’t know what’s happening. The synthesis is slower, so you’re turning pages, confused…

TM: I find it exciting when there’s something new going on.

KA: What about collaborating with an artist?

TM: That’s a part of what attracts me to graphic texts. Writing can be very lonely. I also enjoy getting to have an interaction with an artist through a story; it’s really fun and can add a bit of synergy to the story. Finding the right artist is the hardest part. Somebody who is invested in the story too, who is not just an art monkey. They’re going to be a co-creator in the vision. The story changes as I see how the artist visualizes it. They’ve got to have the right style and the right vision, they’ve to be somebody you can have a good working relationship with.

And graphic narratives aren’t as bound by language barriers. When I was looking for an artist for Broken Saviors, over 120 artists sent me portfolios. I looked at them all and most of them were really good. There were artists from Brazil, Argentina, Malaysia, India, China, Poland. There were certain areas actually where it seemed like hot spots for graphic art, but each had different styles and approach.

KA: Have you always considered yourself a visual thinker?

TM: I’m a visual thinker with very little visual ability. Visual thinker trapped in a writer’s body. I did art well before I did writing because I’m dyslexic and I struggled a lot with writing. I think what we struggle with is what attracts us too and interests us. So I worked more at writing because it didn’t come naturally to me. I definitely have always been a visual thinker, even when I’m working on a novel without any graphic elements I’ll storyboard it with thumbnail sketches. That can be very clarifying, and if you’re working with image you can’t show everything.

KA: In the same way, if someone is reading a non-graphic novel, they aren’t necessarily thinking “what’s being left out?”

TM: Which is exactly why one of the best ways to become a better reader of graphic texts is to take a practitioner’s approach—to try and create one. Telling a story graphically, whether it’s in sequential images or single images, or with a hybrid text, once you start engaging in that process I think it opens your eyes to all the choices that go into storytelling.

KA: Do you have any advice for writers who are interested in graphic narratives for the first time?

TM: The biggest thing is to explore. Stories can be told in new ways, and they might discover an entirely new story once they start making graphic stories. Don’t worry about it being good, do your own little thumbnail sketches and ask, “Okay, what does this experience say?” rather than “how would I write a short story about it?” Ask how would you fit it into a short comic, and see what comes up, because it takes the story in a different direction.

I love to keep graphic travel journals because graphic narratives are good places to train your mind to pay attention to what’s going on around you. I like to draw characters, places, it’s a way of sorting through your experience, and what images are important to the story, the story of your life, an experience…

KA: That seems like a great practice even for people who don’t want to try a graphic narrative. As a writer, sometimes it’s hard to know which details to pick or include.

TM: Because if you’re like, “I’m going to include everything,” when you go to draw it you very quickly realize it’s not an option. You must choose!

It gets you out of your own head. It puts you in a position of being more of an observer yourself. Phillip Lopate’s “Turning Oneself into a Character” talks about how the essential thing for creative nonfiction is to get some objective distance on yourself. The reader doesn’t know you, you might think you know you, but you don’t always know you, either. So the work of creative nonfiction is to stand outside yourself and create some of your character. That’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer because we know what we mean when we use a word. We know what we’re thinking when we write that line, and we lose sight that the reader doesn’t. With a graphic text, you’re bumped outside yourself and you’re able to get this new view.

KA: Writers are always looking for something to make them think about their stories differently, to jar them out of their perspective. It seems like an interesting practice to start playing with and creating images.

TM: I come reluctantly to the graphic narrative table because so much work goes into making a graphic text. It is so much more labor intensive. I’ve got this theory. It’s something that I didn’t know until I started trying to create graphic texts, but it’s the narrative mediums that take the longest to create which are often the quickest to read. There is this inverse relationship. Thirty seconds of film might take several people a week or a month to create, and yet an audience will view it in thirty seconds, and think, “Ah, I got it.” Or as a writer, I could spend ten minutes writing something that’s going to take a reader five minutes to read.

So much work goes into graphic texts—people create a plan and an idea of how long it takes to get every panel right, and they’re fairly quick things to read but they take a long time to unpack. We’re getting more information than we realize at once. A painter could spend two years on a painting that somebody could walk past in a museum, spend less than a minute looking at. But the beauty of these mediums that are quick to take in is that in a year or two, that image or painting might come back to us for reasons we don’t know. Maybe that goes back to your question about what makes a graphic narrative work—when that compression of information stays with you so you are left thinking about it long afterwards. So yeah, that’s my inverse relationship theory.

KA: That a perfect way of stating what works. When it strikes a chord with us, kind of gives this real response that we don’t understand completely, it comes back.

TM: It’s the images that come back, the stories that come back.

Katy AvilaKaty Avila lives in Los Angeles, CA where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University. Her obsession with Victorian pseudoscience, literature and culture, and interest in medical humanities have inspired her to look closely at the relationship between body and story, and how narratives attempt to embody (or disembody) modern experiences.

The Only Star

Rolled up in my sheets,
marinating in nervous sweat,
+++++brain a flipbook:
speed-painted images, words, phrases
like ticker tape rolling on & on.

I watch the crescent moon
steadily sheathe its blade edge
in a neighbor’s chimney.
+++++Alarm clock says “4 AM.”
+++++Hypothalamus says “Fuck this.”

If I got out of bed now,
I’d be like a half-forged moth
hulled too soon from its cocoon—
stunted, wingless, crawling, soft
+++++meat for the world to devour.

++++++++++Now

dawn takes wing
+++++from its silver nest
+++++behind the eastern slash pines,
+++++plumed in slivers of
+++++misted pink glass.

+++++I do my best to hate
the sudden splendor
of this,
the only star of trillions

+++++that keeps me alive.

Jonathan DuckworthJonathan Louis Duckworth is an MFA student at Florida International University and a reader for the Gulf Stream Magazine. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, PANK Magazine, Thrice Fiction, Cha, Superstition Review, and elsewhere.

Golem

“Please don’t misunderstand me.” She is barefoot and wearing a robe, all soft and white.

This is in the nineties when we live in the house on Taney Avenue, about twenty-five miles from the edge of Harrisburg. She names herself Zephyr and our parents amiably allow it, granting her this little teenage rebellion. I want to change my name too, but I can’t think of anything so I keep it for now.

“Please don’t misunderstand me,” she says. She is seventeen and when she laughs it comes out in a rush like wind. “I’m not crazy.”

Earlier that day, Marla throws a stick at my bedroom window and when I look down, she whispers-screams, “Avette, your sister has lost her mind.”

I want to say, “What else is new,” but don’t, instead climb down clutching the rain gutter. This is all just for show. On the way down, I spot my parents through the kitchen window and they both give me a wave. My mom motions for me to zip my sweater.

We have the type of parents who allow us to make our own bedtimes and to do our chores on whatever time frame we see fit and to set our own punishments when we get out of line, and perhaps this is why my sister and I end up the way we do, although our parents also taught us to take responsibility for our own actions, so perhaps not.

Once I reach the ground, Marla hugs me tight, her body shaking. We are not like this, Marla and I. I try to think of a way to disentangle myself. Eventually, I pretend I’m having a sneezing attack, and she releases me.

“What’s happened?” I ask when I’m freed. “I thought she was with you?”

My sister Zephyr often disappears, from home, from school, from my life, and then pops back up again with a new haircut, or a nose ring, or a venereal disease as she does later when she is twenty-seven and needs me to take off work and drive her to the clinic. She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best.

Marla sniffles. I notice then that her nose is quite large. “She was but then she just kinda lost it, and went running out, talking about fixing things. You know how my parents are moving us to Cleveland tomorrow. I think she went over to Flanders Park, over by the hiking trail?”

I sigh, roll my eyes, but inside my heart is a hammer. Zephyr’s world is like mine but only louder. I have to take advantage when I get invited in. “OK, let’s go find her,” I say.

Marla’s got her bike there. It still has purple and white streamers coming down from the handle bars even though she is seventeen. I am embarrassed for her, and then for myself as I hop on the back and we glide down the street. I hope I don’t see anyone from school, even though I remember nobody cares so it’s not a big deal. I’m too quiet at school, it freaks people out. The only kids I hang out with are the ones who read fantasy novels during lunch. And Zephyr, of course. But even though I know no one would care, I’m embarrassed anyway because I’m riding on this silly bike with a girl who is wiping tears and snot from her face, and it’s really just the principle of the thing, I guess.

When I am seven, Zephyr is ten, and she is not Zephyr but another name that I am not allowed to say anymore. She shaves both my eyebrows with our mother’s Lady Bic. She does mine as an experiment to see how they look before she does her own. The Powerpuff Girls don’t have eyebrows. It doesn’t occur to her that number one, their eyebrows are probably just covered up by their bangs, and number two, they are cartoons. My mother explains this to her right after Zephyr finishes with me.

She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best.

They try to draw some eyebrows with markers, but it ends up looking worse. In the end, I go around looking like some kind of alien and at school I freak the other kids out a little. Zephyr starts calling me E.T., but whenever she says it she puts an arm around my shoulder and gives me a squeeze so I don’t mind as much as I should. Still, it takes months for my eyebrows to grow back. You don’t realize how much eyebrows do until you don’t have them anymore. It is worse when it rains. I can’t keep the water from my eyes.

This is not the last time my sister uses me like I am a toy. She dresses me like John Oates to go with her Daryl Hall costume. I hate the mustache she tapes on my upper lip; it itches the bottom of my nose and sneaks into my nostrils whenever I inhale, but I stick with it because she would look ridiculous in her blonde wig without me. I should be more bothered when she uses me how she likes, but I can’t ever help but feel like I am helping her.

On the bike, I look down and see Marla’s got greasy hair. I wonder if Marla even knows. Maybe it’s a fashion statement, shows she’s committed fully to that grunge look, like Kurt Cobain and his hair that’s been dipped in sweat. It would be almost too sad, I think, for Marla to be walking around all day with hair like that and not even realize it. I see she’s got one earring that’s a white cross and one that’s a gold moon. They’re cool, I think, against my better judgment. I wonder if Zephyr’s seen them, though of course she has.

I know Marla’s parents don’t like my sister and they will not be the last ones to feel like that. I’m not surprised. She’s a hard one to like, honestly. She wears these combat boots that we found in my grandfather’s attic after he died. They are two sizes too big, so there’s this loud clomp whenever she puts her foot down and then an accompanying drag when she picks her foot back up. You can always hear her coming from a mile away. She lives her life noisily and doesn’t know any different. When I move into my first apartment after graduating from college, Zephyr crashes at my place for two months and while I am away at work, she leaves a burning grilled cheese sandwich on the stove and doesn’t pay much attention when the fire alarm goes off. “I had my music on,” she tells me, “and you won’t believe how well a fire alarm goes with the beat. It sounded seamless.” The wall next to the stove needs to be redone and the landlord is ready to sue, and even after Zephyr talks him off the ledge by offering some cocaine she just has lying around, I still decide to move out a few months later when my lease is up.

Marla and I ride down the street, then round the corner. I’m impressed with how fast Marla is going, despite having both our weight on the bike. It is the very launch of fall, so when the cool breeze whips at our faces, it feels nice, not punishing. The leaves on the asphalt look like they’ve been painted from fire.

“Whose homeroom are you in this year?” Marla calls back to me.

I grip her shoulders tighter as we ride over a speed bump in the road. “Willoughby’s,” I reply. I don’t want to talk more about it. School is only two weeks in, but I have a feeling that eighth grade will be just as terrible as everyone promises. I ask Zephyr if she has any tips on how to survive middle school, and all she does is roll her eyes and tell me that in the grand scheme of human suffering, middle school ranks considerably lower than global warming and genocide in the Sudan. Zephyr should not write an advice column, I have come to realize.

I could have skipped to tenth but my parents think my social age isn’t quite that advanced, whatever that means. My locker is right by the English wing staircase, so people are always bumping into me on their way to class. In Phys. Ed. we’ve been doing an archery unit, and my arms are so weak that I can’t pull back the bow string. I get out of Home Ec., though, by saying I am so terrified of needles that the sight of them immediately causes me to vomit and faint, in no particular order. My mother even signs off on the note herself and I spend my third period on Tuesdays and Thursdays filling out crosswords in the nurse’s office. So I have that going for me, I guess.

“Cool,” Marla says and I grunt back. If I ask Marla about how to survive middle school, she will probably tell me just to lay low. I think she might have more concrete advice than Zephyr. I consider Marla’s greasy hair and have a feeling eighth grade was no picnic for her.

We reach Flanders Park and she slows to a stop. She walks the bike over to a bike rack and locks it up, although who would actually want to steal that silly thing, I don’t know. “She’s by the hiking trail?” I ask.

Marla shrugs. Her eyes are wide and too large. “I think so. She said something about needing to find virgin earth.”

“Of course she did,” I say, and stifle a chuckle. Marla looks really worried, but she doesn’t know Zephyr like I do. When I am eleven she refuses to talk to me for a week. I wrack my brain for reasons why she’s mad at me, I wonder what I’ve done wrong, if it is because I took the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer, but at the end of the week she tells me she just decided to take an oath of silence to see if she could do it. Zephyr says things, does things, but most of the time doesn’t actually mean anything by it. My mother calls her, not unkindly, “a well of false profundity.” At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth, and by punching Tommy Enzo square in the nose at the bus stop when I am in fifth grade, the day after he calls me a whore for taking his seat on the bus, hitting him over and over till he starts to spurt blood all over his yellow polo shirt, till he begins to whimper like a hurt animal, till I have to hold Zephyr back myself while I let him wiggle free towards safety. She is like that.

We walk along the hiking trail, our eyes peeled for Zephyr. When she is eighteen she will have midnight-colored hair but now at seventeen she’s got this bleached blonde look so I hope it will be easy to spot her through the trees. I keep looking past the dark for the flash of light that is my sister. “So she ran away because you’re leaving?” I ask Marla.

When she turns thirty, Zephyr disappears for a little over a week. My parents say she’ll turn up, but I am concerned, and keep calling her cell phone until her voicemail is full. I go to her place but a neighbor tells me she doesn’t live there anymore, and when I peep through the windows, I see only the sun falling in through the glass, flooding with light the empty rooms where my sister used to be. When she finally returns, she laughs and shoves some poker chips in my cupped hands and tells me she went to Atlantic City for a break, just a little getaway is all she needed, and maybe she can stay with me for a while, but when I look down at the poker chips they are made of cardboard, like she got them at a dollar store or something, and when she tells me she is sorry she made me worry, I don’t believe her.

Whenever she runs, I can’t understand why. Marla shrugs, sighs deep. “She was over at my place and my parents wanted her out. They don’t know I’m here. I’m not allowed to talk to her anymore.” She pushes her hair behind her ear and I spot that gold moon glint in the sunlight. “They said they’ll rip up a letter if they find one in the mailbox.”

Early this summer I walk out to the back deck and they are there kissing on the steps. I am not surprised by it really, but rather by the way Zephyr looks at her afterwards, like she wants to swim inside her skin. I don’t understand because Marla seems so utterly ordinary.

At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth…”

I have never seen my sister’s eyes look that way, like they could chip in an instant. Usually they are like tiny boulders and I have to be careful when they roll my way to keep from going under.

I guess Marla’s parents want to move away so they can escape Zephyr, but they don’t know that you can never escape my sister. “I used to love them a lot more,” Marla says quietly. “Before.” Before Zephyr.

Finally we see my sister’s bobbing blonde head through the fall foliage. She is a few yards from the hiking trail, standing in a big expanse of dirt. When we get close, we make sure we don’t step on any sticks. There is something in both of us that doesn’t want to make any noise and scare her away.

Zephyr is wearing all white, this ivory-colored robe that makes her look young. I recognize it from my closet. When I am nineteen, she borrows my very first car, a Dodge Neon, to road trip to a Dave Matthews concert. She crashes it after one too many but doesn’t pay me back.

Out near the trees, her feet are bare and black from the earth. Her eyes are closed and she’s got her hands folded together like she’s praying, and I’m surprised. Never before have I seen her pray and I won’t see it again after this.

Her eyes are still closed when she turns to us and says, “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not crazy.” Her voice rings in the surrounding stillness.

She says the same thing to me soon after that mysterious trip to Atlantic City. Only this time she is not standing in a mess of trees, but lying in a tangle of sheets at the hospital, her eyes a dry red, wild and wide.

I don’t say anything to her that time, but now I ask, “Zephyr, what are you doing?”

“Relax, guys,” she laughs. She is calm. “I know it’s silly, but it just felt right, coming here. You remember, Avette? The golem?”

I remember, but am surprised Zephyr does. There are times I don’t think she’s listening when in fact she’s picking up every word. The golem comes from our dad. He tells us stories sometimes from his mother, who dabbled in Kabbalah every now and again. “You mean the man of clay?”

“What man?” Marla asks.

I think back to what our father told us. “The golem, it’s this man you make out of the earth. You need to have a pure heart and you need to know some word to write on his forehead before he can come to life, and then he’ll be there.”

“To protect you,” my sister adds with a knowing smile.

“He’s just a myth, Zephyr,” I say. “Just from a story. He’s soulless, this Frankenstein thing.”

Marla steps closer to her. “Who is he coming to protect?”

There is a silence that is loud because it is Zephyr’s and she says it without saying it: Us.

I can’t understand. It is not that she wants to create a man out of clay, but rather that she wants to do it for someone like Marla. My sister, who at nine tries to teach herself German and only remembers key phrases, like “Where is the bathroom?” and “I have a headache.” Who draws a comic strip of a feminist superhero named Super Bitch who goes around throwing thunderbolts of enlightenment at every misogynist she sees. Who is the only person I tell after I pee my pants at Pammy Lytle’s house and throw my dirty underwear out her bedroom window where it lands in a tree. She hangs out with Marla nearly every day after school but sometimes I see her twirling her hair at Anthony Slimner at the bus stop. Sometimes she talks to Jennifer Ypsilantis on the phone at night and I overhear her say honey. Why the golem now? I’m not sure of this sister standing in front of me wearing white.

“You’re not making any sense,” I say.

When she is in the hospital for the first time, she holds up her hands to me and asks me if I see all the thousands of pixels in them, how those little boxes of light make up her body and cover her whole, but I don’t see a thing, just skin stitched over veins. I tell her she’s got to stop mixing her medication with coke.

Zephyr stomps one foot on the forest floor. “Avette, your negativity’s bringing me down,” she snaps. Her face is tight. “I know it’s stupid, it won’t work, but it just makes me feel better. You know what I mean?”

We don’t reply. It wouldn’t matter if we did. She tells us we can stay if we want but we are not allowed to help. Marla wrings her hands and leans against a tree, never taking her eyes off Zephyr. I crouch in the dirt, write our names on the ground with a leaf.

She begins and we are witnesses to it all. Grabbing clumps of dirt, sifting through till the sticks and rocks and leaves are thrown out, sprinkling drops of water from an Evian bottle she’s brought, she crafts a man out of mud, with eyes of earth, muscles made from mounds of soil. I wonder how she can stand it, she who’s never had the patience to finish a full game of Monopoly.

I think about my father’s stories. They never end well. “You can’t play God, Zephyr,” I say, but it isn’t true. She’s been playing God my whole life.

Zephyr doesn’t reply. She is busy sculpting the face, with its square chin and wide full nose. It looks a bit like Bruce Springsteen. She presses her thumbs sideways to make indents for the blank eyes.

“Z, let’s just talk for a second, okay?” Marla says. She is hugging herself like she wants to climb inside her own skin. Zephyr stands, shoots Marla a crushing glare meant to level her, and then turns back to her dirt.

When she is done he lies there flat on the ground and Zephyr towers over him holding a stick like a blade. She carves something onto his forehead. “What is it?” Marla asks, but Zephyr doesn’t answer. A secret word.

By this point, her hands are black with soil and her white robe is stained. She looks down at herself a moment and then takes the robe off. She is above him in her underthings, a matching Tweety Bird set that makes her look younger than she is. Her hip bones jut out sharply, she looks scrawnier than I’ve ever seen her. I could take an arm and splinter it like the stick that’s in her hand. I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.

She stands over him and waits.

I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.

Marla goes over, tries to hold her hand but she pushes her away. She doesn’t look at her, but down at him. Marla chokes back a sob. I wish I could tell her to wash her damn hair once in a while but I feel like that would just be embarrassing for everyone involved. She returns to her tree and slumps to the dirt, her head in her hands.

Later when she is in college, Zephyr buys a yellow lab pup on a whim and keeps him until she gets sick of him peeing on her rug. The pup goes to my parent’s house, where I am finishing up high school. I master staring down the dog right at the exact moment when he’s about to pee on the carpet, till he’s so uncomfortable that he learns to go outside in only two weeks. My parents don’t mind having him, but it’s me who ends up taking care of him, just because I can’t ignore the begging, the need that’s embedded in every muscle of his body. There are times when I look at that dog and am reminded of Marla, in more ways than one.

“Babe, stop it,” Zephyr says. “Please. You know why I’m doing this, but I need you to stop crying. I’m trying to concentrate.” Marla quietens down. I think she’s got a future in drama club, except for the fact that her nose is too big. She’d only get bit parts playing dancing trees with her face all covered so you couldn’t even tell it was her, which is kind of tragic if you stop to think about it.

The sun tumbles down the sky slowly. My stomach growls and I wonder what’s for dinner at home. I wonder how long we’re supposed to stay here before we realize what won’t happen. I wonder if I can get away with skimming chapter six of Lord of the Flies before the quiz tomorrow.

At nine, she constructs a lemonade stand out of my dad’s old poker table and parks it at the corner of our street. We spend all day making the product and she swears we’ll be rich, but we only get three customers, bringing our grand total to seventy-five cents. But she insists that it will happen, people will come, so we wait until the air cools and it has grown dark. We wait until the flies swarming around our lemonade pitchers have all gone to sleep, until my arms are pocked with goosebumps, until I use my sugar-coated hand to loosen her clenched fingers and hold onto her disappointment, until my father walks over and says the time has come for us to go back home.

From my spot on the ground, I can see the golem’s thick stomach, looking much like a pillow packed hard and full with flour. I wait, watching, and it is just like the day when I am all grown and I sit on the floor of Zephyr’s bathroom, where she lies sprawled, and I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness, because I know if I will only be patient, it will happen.

There in the woods, I look at the golem and I wait for his stomach to rise and fall.

She tells me often how she dreams of me before I am born. As a toddler, she thinks up my hair, each brown curl, my eyes, one slightly rounder than the other, the lone freckle on my nose. I am her blank canvas.

When I am a young child, our bedrooms are right next to each other and the walls are paper thin, so I hear when Zephyr cries out from her nightmares. Our parents want us to soothe ourselves, so they don’t come running, but I do. I sneak into her room, and by then she is awake, and she is crying, and holding her hands out for me, and when I squeeze them tight, she whispers to me that she dreams she is in heaven being made, constructed from scratch, but there is a clog somewhere on the assembly line, and so when she tumbles down to earth, there are a few parts of her that haven’t been put in just yet. In the morning, she turns my sleepy face to hers and says, “Don’t worry, I didn’t mess up with you. You’re all finished.”

She sees me entire, imagines every particle, tries my name on her tongue before I am even a kernel of life in our mother’s womb. She tells me I am a creation of her own heart and I believe her when I am a young child chasing after her in the grass and I believe her even still sitting now in the dirt.

When the time comes, Marla tells us she needs to leave. Her parents are waiting for her, they’re probably livid that she’s snuck out. “I wasn’t allowed to come out, you know,” she says to my sister. “But I wanted to see you one last time.” There is a note of hope in her voice that makes me wince for her.

She pecks Zephyr on the cheek, and Zephyr flashes a lazy smile, still standing over the golem. Marla waits, expectant but only for a moment. I wonder if she’s thinking about her parents and the way they look at her now. I wonder if she’s worrying about starting over in Cleveland, where there probably won’t be someone who finds that greasy hair charming. I wish she had known before she started with Zephyr, I wish I could have warned her not to love this girl who can’t even give her a goodbye after shaking up her entire life.

Marla doesn’t look at me when she leaves. There will be more days, September and October ones, yet she is only temporary. There will be more hers to come, but despite Zephyr’s little cruelties, I am here for the long haul, all the way until she decides she cannot endure the noise of her life any longer.

Zephyr is shivering now in the wine-tinted air. I tell her to put the robe back on. She shakes her head no, but after another moment she does. She stares at him still. “What do you think he’ll say?” she laughs. It is a sharp sound in the silence we have been sitting in. It crashes against the trees around us and slices its way to my eardrums. I would not be surprised if she’s forgotten Marla entirely by now, but that only makes me want to stay here longer, to make sure she remembers me.

“He can’t talk,” I tell her. “He’s an unfinished man.” I stand, creep closer to her but she doesn’t move. When I am near enough, I crouch down to see him better. Even in the dimming light, he looks like he is only sleeping.

“That’s right,” she nods. She looks down at me. “Isn’t that sad, Avette?” Zephyr pulls her hair back into a ponytail. I don’t answer. I am suddenly touched by the crude life in front of me. I want to reach forward and grip his hand but I know that it will only crumble and that Zephyr will smack me for it.

My sister sighs. “Sometimes I feel like the biggest idiot on the planet,” Zephyr says. “I thought he could help me. I just didn’t want things not to be real this time. But it’s always the same, Avette. Things are never real.”

I am hunger and fear solid enough that you can hold in your hand. She is all sound and sheen. She is made of splinters that crack down to her very marrow.

I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness…

I say, “Things are real enough. And at least you know you’re not made of dirt, like this guy.” She kicks my shoe, but it is not as hard as I think it will be, and that makes me want to give her my jacket and carry her all the way home. And the part of me that doesn’t love her hates her because I know she will not let me, she will never let me. But despite all those times she disappears from me, from those small moments when we are children until that last final hour, I never want to stop trying to hold her still, to push my own air into her lungs whenever she thinks she can’t keep on breathing.

We wait. The park will close soon and we will make the trek back home in the night. She will convince me tomorrow to go vegetarian with her because she’s been reading about cruel practices in the livestock industry. She will confess how much she likes Celine Dion and beg me not to laugh. She will want to know what I think about Marla’s earrings and I will be oddly grateful when she doesn’t say anything about the greasy hair. She will ask me to follow her and I will, anyplace.

But now, here in the plum dark, we wait for the golem. She says, “Tell me a story. Anything. You talk and I’ll listen. I just want to hear you talk.” I place my hands in the dirt and when I open my mouth, I don’t even know how to begin.

Taylor Kobran

Taylor Kobran holds an MFA from Hollins University. She was runner-up for the 2016 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the 2013 recipient of the Moorehead-Timberlake Award for Creative Writing at Dickinson College. She is interested in literacy education and is from New Jersey.

 

 

Fred Moten, Poet

Fred Moten

Fred Moten is a professor at the University of California, Riverside. His work comprises several books of poetry, including Arkansas (Pressed Wafer, 2000), I ran from it and was still in it (Cusp Books), Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works, 2008), B Jenkins (Duke University Press, 2010), The Little Edges (Wesleyan University Press, 2014) and The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions, 2014). His critical works include In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Autonomedia, 2013), which was co-authored by Stefano Harney. In 2009, Moten was regarded as one of ten “New American Poets” by the Poetry Society of America. His current projects include two upcoming critical texts, which will further explore his study of black art and social life.

I interviewed Fred Moten via Skype in August 2016. Fred was kind enough to spend nearly an hour with me navigating a discussion on poetry, passion, and the current and ever-looming state of our nation.

Doni Shepard: In a 2014 interview from the National Book Awards, in which you were a finalist for your collection The Feel Trio, your work was referenced as “riveting, lyrical, jumping, beat-poppin’, black devotion.” Your work continues to engage in conversation about experiencing and understanding black progress, pain, and the dedication to justice. In a time of such discourse in America, what are your thoughts on the way the mainstream media is engaging in conversations about police brutality and violence to black bodies in 2016?

Fred Moten: I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I probably don’t think about it very much because I don’t watch mainstream media often. It’s no different now than it ever has been. The root of the problem of police brutality is police. There is a relationship between the police, the necessity of their presence, and black people living in America. How is it that the presence of black people is used to justify the very idea of the police and the particular ways of engagement that police have with people? Now if the mainstream media ever even asked why can’t we mourn the social life that we murderously regulate and the lives of those we send to regulate it equally then that might be cool—or at least a place to start.

DS: Where do you think the most honest conversations are happening?

FM: The most honest conversations I’ve ever heard on the relationship of black people and policing are the conversations that black people have. There’s a lot of interesting stuff people are saying about policing and a lot of rhetoric around police brutality coming from folks who are concerned and folks who are activists and organizers. Some of that talk is more interesting than others. But none of it, the most advanced of it, is never anything other than what I heard around the dinner table.

Black folks have always understood something fundamental about police, how the police operate, and how policing works. I don’t know that there’s anything all that deep or new to be said about it. The thing that was important and legitimate to say thirty years ago, fifty years ago when the Panthers were most active, those things are still true now. The only real question is: How do we work towards the abolition of policing? Really this is just another moment in the long history of the question of abolition. People have been saying this forever, you know? It’s still true. 

To be interested in poetry is to be interested in the music and the content that emerges as a function of social life in all of its complexity and richness and pain and beauty.

DS: How does the current state of black America change the voice of black poets? How do you define the relationship between politics and poetry?

FM: The current state of black America is the old state of black America. If there’s such a thing as a black poet and if there is such a thing as a particular role that a black poet has that is somehow different than anyone else’s role, I don’t think that role has changed since the time of Phillis Wheatley or George Moses Horton or Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s the same. The thing is, there are people who are interested in poetry, and I definitely believe that there is such a thing as poetry, and I believe it is possible and necessary for people to be interested in it. To be interested in poetry is to be interested in the music and the content that emerges as a function of social life in all of its complexity and richness and pain and beauty. So, we make music out of our lives, out of the way we live in order to hopefully make that living better. That’s my sense of what it is. There’s a bunch of possible ways to do that.

Do I think the conditions are special now? That there’s some specific role of the black poet? No. Conditions that exist right now, they existed ten years ago and they existed twenty years ago. The police didn’t just start shooting black folks. To run around acting like this is something new is embarrassing, as far as I’m concerned. By the same token, quite frankly, if a person decided that in the face of the latest murder of a black person by the police, or by the chairman of Goldman Sachs, or by the top lieutenant of some set of the Grape Street Crips, or whoever, if they felt that the way that they needed to respond was to write a poem about how beautiful this tree is that they are looking at right now, I still feel that this is a completely legitimate response. Ultimately, what do you do with the language that comes to you and who do you do it with? That’s the question.

But do we need 8,000 more poems that are describing some horrific thing that just happened to another black person? For me, no. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have those poems. I’m saying that doesn’t strike me as the only possible response. If that were the only possible response then it didn’t just become the only possible response now. It’s been that way. Black people have been getting killed in messed up ways for as long as there have been black people. That’s not to be cavalier, it’s just to say that a lot of times, people start running around talking about some special task that the poet has. It’s another form of self-aggrandizement.

The flip side is always some form of self-flagellation where you have to feel bad about not doing it this way, or even more often, where you can make a whole bunch of other people feel bad because they aren’t doing it this way. This or that thing that this individual does in response to the contingencies of social life is almost always negligent. It doesn’t matter how self-righteous or pontificatory you think you have a right to be when it comes to that. It’s nastiness and recrimination and name-calling going on in the so-called poetry world that for me is silly and disgusting. I’m uninterested in it completely. Involuntary exile from the poetry world for myself, to be honest, and I’m feeling pretty good about that.

DS: How has the current cultural climate affected the work you are producing now? What effect is this having on your curriculum as a professor?

FM: The issues that I have been concerned about as a teacher and as a writer, they were there before I was born and they are still here. I don’t feel like my primary concerns on a thematic level have changed. The only thing that I’m trying to do better is to organize better the form of my classes and the form that the writing takes. That primary task is really about collaboration and working with other people and trying to foster the most people in the most generative and loving forms of collaboration. But the themes haven’t changed. The content doesn’t change. The form changes and I’m trying hard to figure out a way to do better when it comes to those things.

I don’t want to do anything by myself. That’s horrible. I have these things that I feel obligated to do over the next year or so but I just really would like to finish them as quickly as possible. If I could just abandon them, I would, but I made some obligations and commitments to try and finish these things. So that’s what I’m going to do. But I’m never going to start anything where it’s by myself. At least that’s the way I feel about it right now. Even the stuff that was supposedly by myself was never really by myself. I don’t even want to pretend like that anymore.

DS: I think as poets and writers that we’re constantly—as much as it’s a solitary act—we want that connection and to collaborate and to kind of get that energy from the people around us and the world around us. That is a very relatable feeling.

FM: Everybody wants to be with other people. Nobody wants to be by themselves. Sometimes there’s a commonplace misconception of what it is to be a poet. Or at least I used to think that there was a set of commonplace misconceptions about what it is to be a poet that required people to isolate themselves even if they didn’t want to. Now I’m thinking maybe these aren’t misconceptions about what it is to be a poet. Maybe that’s what a poet really is—a person who isolates in the interest of a certain conception. The misconception isn’t about what a poet is but about what poetry is. Any poets who have isolated themselves is not what poetry is in the first place. At this stage in the game it’s the whole identity of the poet that’s the problem, but at the same time, it’s very difficult to extricate oneself from that way of thinking. It’s like a straitjacket. In a way, you’re trying to extricate yourself from it, but it’s just as delusionally heroic to fully embody it. It’s not some big thing where someone has to struggle against the identity of the poet. You just have to forget about it. So I’m trying to not struggle with it and turn that into some poetic theme. I just want to do something else and that’s all.

DS: Are there other poets or musicians you tend to gravitate to for a sense of connection? Are there any emerging artists you have been inspired or influenced by?

FM: There are certain writers whose work I have been invested in for a long time and I’ll never not be invested in them. Part of it is because those writers are the ones who are bigger than just themselves. They are these conduits, passageways through which someone discovers something bigger, and they are always the same. Amari Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Shakespeare, Samuel Delany, John Donne.

On the most basic level, my work has been primarily structured by love of blackness and love of black people, both of which are often conceived of by what you called the mainstream media as “unlovable.”

There is also a whole bunch of new stuff that I love but I keep coming back to the ones I’m always interested in. It turns out that there’s always so much more to them than I ever thought.

Some of the folks maybe my own age or younger who I have been really enjoying reading the last few years are Renee Gladman, Mercedes Eng, Douglas Kearney, Kimberly Alidio. There’s a lot of great stuff so I’m trying my best to keep my eyes open and my ears open and pay attention.

DS: Who is your intended audience—or do you have an intended audience in mind when you write?

FM: No, not really, to tell you the truth. The audience is anybody who wants to read it. What I’m writing is definitely not for everybody. I don’t believe that it should be. I don’t think that there’s anything in what I’m writing that’s so absolutely necessary that anybody has to read it. There’s plenty of other stuff out there. I don’t have some sense of a mission I’m on that requires the world to be reading my work. On the one hand, I feel like I’m writing for anybody who wants to read it, but on the other hand, it makes perfect sense to me if no one ever wanted to read that at all. I would still probably be writing in some way. In this respect, it’s just not an individual thing. I don’t know that anybody is so absolutely indispensable.

DS: During your visit to Antioch [University Los Angeles, June 2016], you spoke about “loving the unlovable.” Can you expand on this? How do you integrate this concept into your work?

FM: It’s an imprecise way of saying things because, of course, the paradox is if the unlovable can be loved then it ain’t unlovable. But what I was talking about was specifically with regard to this song by Snoop Dogg called “Ups and Downs.” There’s this one moment in the song when he is speaking directly to men on death row and expresses love for them. “All my dogs up against the life sentence.” For me, it was a totally important and beautiful moment in the song because he is expressing love for folks that are often conceived of as the very embodiment of the unlovable. That capacity to express love for those who are generally perceived of to be unlovable is important.

The question is how can we sustain that? It’s interesting in the song just because I don’t know that the song is able to sustain it for much more than a second. The next lines of the song are really problematic, but for that one moment, something has opened up.

DS: How have you worked that into what you are currently producing?

FM: On the most basic level, my work has been primarily structured by love of blackness and love of black people, both of which are often conceived of by what you called the mainstream media as “unlovable.” I don’t know that I’ve tried to make some big set of theoretical or thematic claims about why black people should be loved. I’ve written from the assumptions that they are lovable.

DS: At the Antioch residency, you read a poem about your son experiencing bullying. How would you describe the influence of parenting in relation to the work you produce?

FM: My kids are constantly saying all of these really amazing things. If I have a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper, it’s great for me because I can write it down. So parenting on that level produces a great opportunity for plagiarism. [laughs] But also, it’s a deep and profound experience of being both more and less than yourself. It is also an experience of feeling this extraordinary vulnerability or precariousness and of actually embracing that rather than trying to resist. It’s basically like any other thing that’s really worth anything. It’s really fun and it’s really hard at the same time and it’s something that you immerse yourself in. You’re never out of it; you’re always in it. It’s this fundamental aspect of life that turns out to be like life itself.

DS: Your work in regards to form and structure appears to be deeply calculated. It moves. It transforms. While some of your work follows a traditional format, other pieces are fragmented, not capitalized, and splashed with voided space—always in motion, always appropriate and intentional. How would you describe the way you employ form to demonstrate resistance or activism in your work?

FM: I don’t know that it’s meant to demonstrate activism. Maybe nowadays I would say that it’s an attempt to demonstrate demonstration itself. To demonstrate that term “monstration.” That term is interesting. It’s all bound up with showing— even the miraculous. It’s also bound up with the notion of the monstrous, the strange, the radically disruptive. That’s also a fundamental aspect of life. To live is to be disrupted. To be challenged. To be faced with the surprising. The revelatory. We figure out a way to deal with that. How we ought to be able to deal with it is to embrace it, to love it. But often it turns out that how people devise ways of dealing with change or difference is to try to fight it or kill it. To suppress it or to regulate it. What I’m interested in is the writing being a field for the embracing of differences, rather than their suppression.

The best way to work across boundaries is to refuse to believe in them.

The primary precursor for that is the aesthetic feel, which for me is most prevalent within black music. That has always been the model for me, in terms of how to leave my own work open to what you might call the demonstrative or the miraculous or the monstrous even. Black music is beautiful to me. As Hortense Spillers says, it claims monstrosity rather than trying to reject it.

DS: In an interview with NPR, Douglas Kearney referred to you as “the perfect storm,” speaking to your ability to create vivid work through a combination of intellect and lyricism. Do you feel that using this multi-faceted approach assists your work in transcending barriers as a poet? What is the advice you would give to writers who would like to work across genres as you have between your poetry and critical work?

FM: The best way to work across boundaries is to refuse to believe in them. I know this is what Doug does in his work but to me this has always been a hallmark of art, and of black art more particularly. I don’t think that art accepts these artificial distinctions between theory and practice or between the discursive and the lyrical, between critique and celebration. That’s my opinion. It’s not a new opinion. It’s not a unique opinion. It’s a commonplace formulation, but it doesn’t feel any less true to me.

One of my favorite poets is John Donne; another is Amari Baraka. I don’t see that there is any simple acceptance of the distinction between critique and celebration or critique and lyricism in their work. By the same token, they are philosophers, whose work is equally as disruptive and dismissive of those artificial boundaries. The problem is these generic boundaries in the first place. It’s not that I don’t believe in genre. It’s not that I don’t believe in the differentiating force that emerges in writing. It’s just that it’s possible—as my friend and mentor Denise da Silva would say—to have difference without separability in writing. This is what all of the really good work out there is doing. It’s demonstrating, constantly. It’s difference without separability.

DS: You have been quoted as saying “poetry is a modality of organization.” What types of strategies do you employ in word choice throughout your poetic material? How do you suggest poets implement this intricacy to motivate change in their readers?

FM: I never think of it as trying to motivate change in a reader. I just assume readers change. They don’t need me to motivate them to do it. They don’t need motivation to do it. Stuff changes. Things change. People change. To the extent that there’s an intention behind what I’m doing, it is to be in praise of the stuff that I love and to try to do so in a way that people will enjoy. I don’t feel like I have some special set of things that I need to tell people. The stuff that I know is stuff that everybody already knows. Maybe it’s cool to be reminded every once in a while, but I don’t even know that I have some particularly special, indispensable way of reminding people.

It’s just fun and something that I need to do. I’ve got a temperament and I was brought up in a certain of way and it led to me being embedded in this kind of activity. It’s great. I feel lucky. I’ve got a job that allows me to do it. I get paid for it well. I feel very lucky that everything lined up for me this way, but the luck of it is almost fundamentally detached from any sense of me deserving it.

It’s also detached from any sense of me being able to somehow account for it or compensate for it or pay something back for it. I always get freaked out when I hear about these athletes talking about giving something back to the community. That always struck me as a form self-aggrandizement. Because first of all, anything that you would ever put forward as a recompense pales in comparison to what the community gave you. You can’t pay the community back for what the community has given you. The community don’t want you to pay them back; that has been my general experience of it. All those things are just the ways in which so-called individual achievement becomes this platform from which people constantly play out this oscillation between exaltation and shame. I’m not interested in that. It seems contradictory: You’ve got a lot to say but it’s only special if it’s relatable to what other folks have to say; it’s a saying that only comes into its own within the context of a choir.

That’s the way I feel, so when it comes to techniques and word choices and stuff like that, I don’t consider that. I once heard the great musician Cecil Taylor, they were asking him about what his composition method was. He was like, “Well, I play one note and then I try to find another note that will sound good next to it,” you know? I have one word and I try to find another word that will sound good next to it. Sometimes it will look good next to it. The only key thing is to not limit yourself in terms of what that next word might be. Try to have as big of a set of resources as possible for what that next word will be. Just don’t limit yourself. Try to make something that will make the people move.

Donielle ShepardDoni Shepard is a poet, mother, and lifetime learner currently residing in Phoenix. She spends her days managing content for a popular startup, mommying an extraordinary three-year-old, and serving as Lunch Ticket’s Poetry Editor. Upon nightfall you can generally find her in an insomniac haze binge-watching Shameless with a fluffy orange feline named Doobie. Her work has been featured by Dirty Chai, and can be found in the love anthology Spectrum 3: LoveLoveLove. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, concentrating in poetry.

 

Who Cut the Tribe in Half

— The sea is so blue, the valley so deep. That’s why sadness goes far and wide. But you must stare it in the eye. Only by braving it will you outgrow the child and be an adult. To the children at Gangkou Elementary School, Hualien County, Taiwan.

Ina often calls my name on this side
and asks me to buy betel nuts from Pilaw the grocer on the other side.
An impolite mountain road cuts through the entrance of my house.
It has a number like my seat number at school.
Its number is eleven. Mine is nine.

Last year, on the way to my house to play,
Kacaw’s dog was hit on the road and died.
Ina said,
“After all, it was a doggie, not a person.”
Since then, a new curved mirror appeared
at the intersection of our neighborhood—
facing Pilaw’s betel nut counter.
We thought Pilaw loved looking at herself in the mirror
and even laughed at her in secret. But
only us the children would go up to the mirror,
watch our faces change shape, grow big, turn funny.
Ina said the road hadn’t existed before;
the tribe had been a single whole, boundless to run.
The beach used to be our path.
Grandpa walked along it to preach, all the way to Shuilian Village.
The sea waves recorded his footprints and kept him from drowning.
Now, the mountain road brings in lots of city folks
and takes away our betel nuts and whitebait.
The beach has slowly disappeared
in a swamp of sticky rice dumplings
where Kacaw and I would climb up,
play hide and seek, and catch kalang.
As our road enters the mountains,
it goes across two peaks and reaches my house.
On the opposite side are a grocery store and a church.
Many elders, thinking it’s no different from the past,
cross the road as if taking a stroll.
The cars would roll down their window,
shouting ma la sun in our face.
But Grandpa won’t go to a padawsi in a suit.
He’s going to the church over that ………… side.
The road isn’t wide, only cars are fast.
So we form a line to see God.

prose_section_divider

是誰把部落切成兩半?

——海是那樣藍,山谷是那樣深,所以更會有遍地傷心。但你/妳必須要去逼視,唯有如此,才能從一個小孩長成為一個男人/女人。獻給港口國小的孩子們。

ina 常常在這邊呼喊我的名字
我去那邊的雜貨店跟Pilaw買一包檳榔
一條沒有禮貌的山路開過我家大門
它跟我一樣有座號
它是11號  我是9號

去年,Kacaw的狗來找我玩時
被撞死在路上
ina 說:
「只是小狗沒關係,還好不是人。」
從此以後,四鄰的路口多了一根
凹凹凸凸的鏡子——
對著Pilaw的檳榔攤照
我們以為是Pilaw愛照鏡子
還躲起來偷偷笑她     但其實
我們小孩子才會一直跑到鏡子前面
看我們的臉變形變大變得很好笑
ina 說以前才沒有這條馬路
整個部落都是連在一起   可以跑來跑去
我們的路走在沙灘上
阿公沿著沙灘到水璉去傳教
海浪會記得他的腳印   不會把他淹沒
現在山路載來了好多都市的人
也載走我們的檳榔、魩仔魚
海灘就漸漸消失
浮了好多肉粽上來
我跟Kacaw 都會爬在上面玩躲貓貓
還可以抓 kalang1
我們的路走進了山裏
沿著路穿過兩座山就會來到我家門口
路的另一邊有雜貨店和教堂
很多老人到現在還以為是從前
過馬路就像在散步
車子就會搖下車窗來罵人
說我們馬拉桑了啦
但是阿公才不會穿西裝把導係2
他是要去那……一邊的教堂
馬路沒有很寬只是車很快
所以我們都要排隊見上帝

  1. 阿美語「螃蟹」之意。
  2. padawsi,阿美族人在家庭、朋友團聚的場合,喝酒、唱歌、聊天的行為。

Translator’s Note

Among Taiwan’s predominantly Han Chinese population, about two percent, or 550,000, are aborigines from more than twenty tribes. The largest of these tribes is the Amis, whose life and culture are explored in “Who Cut the Tribe in Half?”

Albeit in many ways assimilated, the Amis preserve their traditions in everyday life. Yet they face increasing challenges brought by the dominance of the Han Chinese majority and the impact of land development, as depicted in “Who Cut the Tribe in Half?” Through the innocent voice of the anonymous child speaker, the poem describes a literal division of the tribe by external forces. Jade G. Huang dedicates the poem to the students at Gangkou Elementary School, where she taught in 2012. The school has a very small student population totaling thirty to forty per year, and almost all students are from the Amis tribe. In the poem, kalang means “crab” in the Amis language. Ma la sun is a Sinicized term for “drunk,” originally from the Amis. Padawsi means a party or get-together among families or friends.

I first met Huang at a poetry festival in Taiwan in summer 2016. She read a poem about a fatal accident of a boy studying at Gangkou. The deep feelings that Huang, a Han Chinese teacher, had for her Amis student, expressed subtly in that poem, were part of her core concern for the Amis’ future. Huang’s poems engage readers with questions that ultimately pertain to pangcha, an Amis term by which the tribe address themselves, meaning “human being.”

Elaine WongElaine Wong received a PhD in English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She translates literature from Taiwan and researches visual poetry while teaching Linguistics at Trinity University in San Antonio. Translating poems from Taiwan helps her reacquaint with a birthplace of which she has little memory. Her poems, translations, and scholarly essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Exchanges, Grey Sparrow, International Poetry Review, L2, Modern Poetry in Translation, Reunion, TAB, The Taipei Chinese PEN, Transference, and others.

jade-g-huang_optJade G. Huang lives in Hualien, Taiwan. She recently obtained a Master’s degree at the Graduate Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies at Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University. Her thesis is titled “The Reproduction of Hualien Urban Space Under Capitalism.” Huang’s first poetry book, Who Cut the Tribe in Half?, received the inaugural Yang Mu Poetry Award in 2014. The poem “Who Cut the Tribe in Half?” won the first prize of the Lin Rongsan Literary Awards in Poetry in 2012. Huang was a Santa Fe Art Institute Fellow in 2015 and gave her first performance art and poetry presentation at the Institute.

The Dead Girl

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. Never thought a shadowy figure appearing at the end of my bed would be all that frightening. So when the dead girl appears in my grandmother’s kitchen on a humid August morning, my eyebrows nearly hike off my forehead with excitement. My first thought is that I’m not alone anymore; the second is that my mother must’ve sent her.

While she blinks away her surprise, I stiffen, spoon poised over a bowl of cereal. My eyes dart across the table to my grandmother, who’s watching an ancient rerun of Press Your Luck on the small black and white television perched on the counter; she’s angled her chair toward the screen so the sun glare doesn’t wash out Peter Tomarken’s face. “Pass! Pass it!” she shrieks, oblivious to the girl’s bare feet padding across the worn, leathery linoleum. At the window, she pauses to study the sun-boiled trees beyond the glass. Her arm stretches to the lock, trying to jimmy it open, but the glob of superglue I squeezed into the crank holds tight.

At the window, her hand flattens against the warm pane before sliding down, fingers gathering under the sill. When she pushes upward, it won’t budge.

With a hiss of a scowl, she stomps out of the kitchen. I toss my half-full bowl into the sink and chase after her, though she’s slow, wandering the dark house like a curious cat. I keep close as she runs a finger over the rip on the arm of the couch, kicks the stack of romance novels and celebrity magazines stockpiled next to the wooly dust ruffle of my grandmother’s chair. The knotted, yarn-like tangle of her blond hair flops as she creaks up the stairs, peeking in doorways, sliding through shafts of swirling dust motes. In my bedroom—my mother’s old room—she passes the unmade twin bed, the girly white hutch holding my books, the peeling teacup wallpaper. At the window, her hand flattens against the warm pane before sliding down, fingers gathering under the sill. When she pushes upward, it won’t budge.

“It doesn’t open,” I say, watching from the doorway. “None of the windows open.”

I step forward as she tries again, but the nails I hammered into the wood keep it sealed shut.

She whips around, silent, watchful. Her thin black T-shirt is tied into a knot above her belly button. Frayed cut-off shorts sit low on her hips, the white pockets hanging against her bone-pale thighs. Dried blood runs like a river over her temple and weaves into her blonde hair, turning it a sickly pink around her ear. She’s older than me, but I’m sure she goes to the high school, the one I’d start in a few weeks if I hadn’t refused to go. But even if we’d crossed paths in the hallways, I know we wouldn’t be friends. She isn’t the type who would look at me twice; she’s the girl under the bleachers, the girl whose kiss tastes like cigarettes. She’s not bad though. I can’t believe she’s bad.

“You can stay,” I urge. “You should stay.”

Her fingernail plucks at the shiny nail head splintering the wood, trying to pry it loose. When it won’t lift, she shoves by me without a word. She smells like the woods—sap and pine, along with fresh dirt. I have to hold my breath until it’s gone.

*     *     *

The top story on the news channel that night is about the girl who sulks on the sagging corduroy couch paging through a Star magazine from 2004. In the kitchen, my grandmother leans her dry elbows on the countertop and stares at the TV. Over the sizzle and pop of a frying ham steak, a reporter recaps how hikers found the girl’s body slung across a rain-bloated brook, her long hair tangled around a log. Her school photo appears onscreen. One eye is concealed by a strip of black dyed hair. She doesn’t smile.

I wander to the couch, settling myself at the other end.

“I’m bored,” she says, her first words to me. She looks up briefly before her eyes trail back down. The magazine remains open across her legs, but she plays with the knot of her shirt. “I didn’t expect it to be like this.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“Like being dead. Stuck here.”

“It’s not so bad,” I offer. I wonder if she believes me.

She alternates between mussing her hair into a halo of frizz and running through the knots until it’s smooth again. I shove my hands into the sponge of the couch. She has hair you want to touch—girls probably hated her, while boys curled their fingers when a trail of blonde flapped over the back of her chair onto their desk.

“I want to go,” she says, pointing to the window. “Out there.”

“We can’t. We have to stay inside.”

She drops her dirty feet from the coffee table and leans toward me. “Take me into the woods. Now, let’s go.”

The next morning, when the girl is busy dangling a thread over the nose of my snoring grandmother, I creep to the front door and kneel before the mail slot. When I lift the flap, my eyes are full of trees.

“I can’t.”

She blows at that errant strip of hair falling over her eye. It’s no longer black, but blonde again, matching translucent lashes that remind me of spider webbing. She yanks her head in the direction of the kitchen. “Because of her?”

“Because I don’t leave the house,” I say, shrugging.

“Ever?”

My head wavers back and forth. No. Never.

She lowers her eyes, unable to disguise her disgust. Her chin weighs on her fist, the other arm limp with boredom. When dinner is ready, she trails after me, right on my heels. “Outside,” she whispers. “Let’s go outside.”

*     *     *

The next morning, when the girl is busy dangling a thread over the nose of my snoring grandmother, I creep to the front door and kneel before the mail slot. When I lift the flap, my eyes are full of trees. The leaves wave, challenging me, making me remember all those times I’d yell a quick nothing to my mother before bounding out of the house, running so far into the thicket that the sun was blotted out by a canopy of green. My hands whirled over flaking, white oak trunks, breaking pieces loose with my speed. The shrieks of my friends came from all around me as we took off like a pack of werewolves through the wild, overgrown brush, shedding ourselves and becoming a tangled, handsome mess.

For hours, the soles of our sneakers bent against lichen-slick rocks, making us slip as we’d jump into the soft layer of undergrowth below. The hum of a far-off creek matched the coursing of our blood as we sweated and issued dares and bragged about the worst thing we’d ever done. When dusk turned the sky dark blue and cast the trees into black silhouettes, we lingered, imitating the fretful voices of our mothers. At full dark, we dragged our bramble-scratched legs through the trees to home, our wildness temporarily tamed. There was always a light on behind closed drapes, suddenly bright, as the fabric swung back by a worried hand.

One of those times, I stayed out too long. My mother’s call echoed from the tree line, trying to find its way to me in the dark. I sprinted, scuttled, tripping over a twist of roots, colliding face-first to the forest floor. Dirt filled my mouth, wedged into the crevices of my teeth. My ribs flapped like moth wings for air, my heart banging so loud it drowned out the insects. I thought then how I’d show her my cuts and bruises; she’d know it wasn’t my fault I was late. Despite the full moon sagging in the sky, I ran right past her. Past the flashlight beaming its foggy eye into a thorn bush. Past her body that had fallen into a soft bed of clover after a blood clot burst in her head. I might have even jumped over her as I crossed over the fallen pine tree, the last hurtle to home. All night, she was there. By first light, beetles had taken up residence in the pockets of her knit sweater.

Through the mail slot, a thick haze soaks up the blue sky. A hornet spirals around the porch, tap tapping as it bounces against the door separating me from the tall grass bending in limp arcs, deceitful in their stillness. I know they clamor for ankles to pass through so they can slither forward, tie in knots around bones and crack them sideways as the trees watch with sick grins carved into their maws. I don’t know why the girl would ever want to go back out there.

*     *     *

“I’m leaving today,” she taunts me the next morning. “Last call. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

I don’t respond, but when she jumps off the countertop and runs to the hallway, I grab her arm. She’s stronger than I am and drags me with her. It’s only after the door hinges creak that I let go, wincing at the square of sun broiling the few hairs on my chin.

“No, it’s true. My grandmother can’t see you. No one else can talk to you. Just me.” I slide farther down the wall, closer to her. “Imagine what it would be like with no one at all? Being a lonely ghost trapped in the woods. Forever.”

I hear the trees across the street; they bristle, their leaves beckoning, sounding like hands running through my buzzed scalp. I flatten against the wall, trying to find something to curl my fingers around, but it’s only flat and more flat. The girl remains inside and juts her arm past the threshold to wave it around.

“See?” she says, craning her neck toward me. “There’s nothing wrong out here.”

I step forward, a tentative, shaking step, so I can yank her back by her hair if she tries to dart away. She brings her arm back and places both hands against the door frame. Her foot drops outside the door.

“Don’t,” I grunt. My palms leave wet prints on the wall.

“Stop being such a baby.” Her toes wiggle in the breeze before touching the rough straw doormat.

“What if you leave and can’t come back?” I croak. “You don’t know what’s out there. It might not be safe.” I lick my dry lips. “I bet you can’t come back if you go. I bet you’d disappear into thin air.”

“You’re making that up,” she snaps. “Stop trying to scare me.”

“No, it’s true. My grandmother can’t see you. No one else can talk to you. Just me.” I slide farther down the wall, closer to her. “Imagine what it would be like with no one at all? Being a lonely ghost trapped in the woods. Forever.”

Her face tumbles out of defiance and she glances outside, no longer so sure of herself. I’m all she has to tell her it’s okay to go, and I won’t. She hesitates and looks at me, defeated.

When she moves away from the door, I stand upright, releasing the wall one palm at a time. “You’re letting the air conditioning out,” I say over my retreating shoulder.

She stomps her foot, but I don’t look back.

*     *     *

When she finally stops pouting, I find ways to distract her. I read to her from my Orson Scott Card novels, and she shows me the constellations she knows. Her fingers ride mine, pressing against the window pane to trace the stars we can’t see. She guides me through the clapping games of her childhood; we slap our hands together in complicated rhythms and patterns, laughing when we mess up, until my grandmother shouts for me to stop making a racket.

Then I show her my photo album. She peels back the sticky plastic to touch a snapshot of my mother while I watch, making sure she doesn’t crinkle the sleeves or smudge the pictures. Next, I open the box holding my mother’s clothes—the few things my grandmother let me keep—carefully unfolding familiar gauzy skirts and blouses that are beginning to smell like cardboard. I arrange them on the bed, as if her body might come up from the mattress and fill them.

“Did you see her?” I ask the girl. “On your way here?”

She shakes her head and nods to the window. “Maybe she’s out there.”

I turn away, hiding my face while returning the clothes to their box, along with the photo album. Once they’re safely stowed in my closet, the girl tells me about another game, describing how she and her brothers used to dig up worms after a rainstorm, hook them to a line with clothespins and wait for birds to swoop in for their breakfast. It doesn’t take us long to find a frayed rope in the laundry room or clothespins. After she watches me yank the nails from the window sill, we take turns tossing the line out my screenless window until it catches on the antennae of the roof next door. I shout when I finally get it.

After baiting our pins with gummy worms—mine are bright orange, hers are green—we wait. The sun skims through their translucent bodies when a breeze rattles the rope, luring the birds. I’m skeptical, like maybe she’s made it all up, when a black streak of starlings launch between the houses, spreading their wings to plane directly into the line. With sharp beaks like darts, they tear the worms free in a fluid plunge, exactly how she said they would. I point and whoop, but the girl doesn’t see it; her eyes are closed against the heat scorching us from the open window.

*     *     *

The following afternoon, the sky turns pewter. Shredded clouds coil together, rolling and twisting like bed sheets in the dryer. Rain randomly drips, starting and stopping like a jumble of tuning instruments.

I run into the wind, launching over the threshold to find the girl sitting on the edge of my sill, staring at the churning sky through the open window. Her hair blows away from her face, skittering the limp ends across my wrecked photo album.

The girl says she’s afraid of storms and hides in my room while I eat breakfast.

When the first rumble of distant thunder breaks over the television, I expect her to come running downstairs, but the house remains still. I put my bowl in the sink, listening as I go up the stairs. As my foot slaps the final step, a humid gust slams against my skin. My bedroom door bangs against the wall, knocking me out of my stupor. I run into the wind, launching over the threshold to find the girl sitting on the edge of my sill, staring at the churning sky through the open window. Her hair blows away from her face, skittering the limp ends across my wrecked photo album. She tosses it on my bed by a mangled plastic sleeve and kicks aside the nails I removed from my window, sending them across the floor boards until they catch in the seams.

I step around her to see the clothesline we found rippling in the ferocious wind. The pins she’s clamped to the line teeter precariously, holding on with tight hinges, keeping my photographs in their grip. A dozen dot the blank space between houses, alongside my mother’s clothes. A white blouse is seized at the shoulders by pins; it cracks the air as the fabric lashes like the tail of a whip. I can’t turn away, as if my gaze alone might hold everything down.

Behind me, the girl waits.

My mother’s smile swings forward and backward, twirling and twisting. She is glossy against the matte sky, flashing as a great whoosh of air snatches the first photo. It spirals as the current dips and wanes, then flies away. I lean out the window, stricken, trying to snatch it, but the trees swallow it whole, licking their lips for more.

The next picture rips free and I tug on the line, trying to loosen it from the antennae, but it won’t release. The tautness only gives the wind more power. Another picture snaps free, smacks the house, then peels away. The shoulder of my mother’s blouse tears and swings wild, jerking the other side off the line. It floats and twists, curling into a summoning finger before drifting away.

“Let go,” the girl says, pushing my hands off the line. “Let it go.” The corners of her victorious smile are like a scythe.

I shoulder past her and pound down the stairs. Her bare feet trail after me, matching my pace until I slide into the foyer. My grandmother’s voice rises in alarm as the door smacks against the wall. “Oliver! Stop all that noise!” The wind dissolves her voice as the pads of my toes burrow into concrete, then into the scorched, needle sharp grass.

The girl grabs my hand and holds it so tight I feel the bones under her skin. She leads me down the hot asphalt driveway, across the road and toward the woods, tugging me farther from the house; by the time I look back, it’s already faded into stripes behind the trees. We stumble and explode through tangles of weedy thistle, too fast for them to twine around our bare shins. We run like cheetahs, boundless, until my muscles sear along their seams, unused to the exertion. When a stitch burns my ribs, I slow, and the girl’s palm slips from mine. She dashes ahead as I curl my fingers around the lichen-spotted bark of a birch tree, using it to press forward.

Along the way, I pick up leaves and bits of trash, anything resembling my photographs. I sprint up gentle slopes and down shallow valleys, bursting mushroom caps and snapping twigs under my bare, aching feet. Around me, the girl has disappeared. I stop and whirl around in a circle of panic, looking for a tail of blonde hair, a flash of her pale skin. Wind plasters my clothes against my body and whips my hair around like helicopter blades. My back is slick and cold while my face burns from the humidity soaking the atmosphere.

When I realize she’s gone, my own weight pulls me to the ground, into a soft bed of decayed leaves. A splotch of rain thwacks my lip. Another splashes my eyebrow before rolling to my ear. Trees sway, rustling and dousing me in loose branches as the hem of a black cloud rolls overhead. Against the dark sky, I suddenly see the tattered white sleeve of my mother’s blouse holding onto the elbow of a knobby branch. I reach out, as if I might be able to pull it down to protect myself from all this wildness. I don’t move as we watch each other, having a silent conversation, just before a great wind carries her over the canopy, one sleeve whipping around like a farewell. I search the empty sky until the raw clouds open up, finally unleashing torrents of rain.

As I limp home, water drips from the ends of my hair, my nose, my grimy fingertips, picking up dirt from my skin and rinsing it back into the ground. I leave puddles on the stairs up to my room while my grandmother stares, mouth agape. The next morning, I cut down the clothesline and unpin the pictures that survived the storm. They’re wrinkled and waterlogged, but I take them outside, into the sun. As I sit on the step, sweating in the humid August heat, I watch them dry into new wavy shapes. Thinking that maybe they aren’t ruined completely.

Lori Ann PalmaLori Ann Palma earned a Fine Arts degree before deciding she wanted to tell stories with words instead of pictures. Now focused on Young Adult fiction, she writes and creates in Southern New Jersey, and contributes to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Eastern Pennsylvania chapter in the role of Co-Blog Coordinator. To learn more about Lori Ann, follow her on Twitter @LAnnPalma.

Chassis

I knew I was in trouble when the Director asked me to cock my head to the right.

“I can’t cock my head to the right. Or the left.”

“Just like this.” He cocks his head to the right. But, see, he’s not wearing a fiberglass suit of armor with a helmet attached to the shoulders. He doesn’t look like a low budget Cyberman. Or, a lower budget Cyberman, as it were.

“I can’t move my head.”

“Okay. Just, look shocked.”

So the camera starts speeding, I take my mark, and it’s time to make this awkward robot costume convey shock. I try some Meisner. Why am I shocked? What is causing the shock in me? Well, I am trapped in a dirty robot costume, standing in a parking lot on Cahuenga. That should be shocking enough. Why am I here? Because at 11:30 last night I got a frantic text from the Producer telling me they’d lost their robot guy and needed me to come in and replace him. Obviously, this was a terrible thing to do with my time. So I was relieved when the Producer texted me a few moments later, saying she’d found a replacement. But, bright and early next morning, another frantic text. It seemed the replacement had also disappeared (this should have been a warning sign but my reasoning skills aren’t the sharpest in the morning) and I saw this all as a Sign from the Universe. Some inescapable force of nature had determined it was my fate to don a clunky robot costume and have at it.

“Can you try tilting your head up?” the Director asks. He demonstrates again.

I convey shock.

“That was great! Next shot.”

This is going to be a long day.

*     *     *

By 2:00 pm I’ve discovered this wonderful resting position. See, I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.” So I’ve taken to leaning against one of the cars on set and using the back of my helmet as a headrest. It’s surprisingly comfortable.

I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.”

While in this position, I can see Houston through the tiny little eye holes, teaching the Producer how to punch. Houston is my fight partner. We go on sets and choreograph the fight scenes. That’s how I wound up involved with this project. Of course, I had no idea that I’d be the one having to throw the punches. If I’d known, I would have had the robot fight entirely from this awesome leaning position. Houston isn’t choreographing the Producer into the fight though. He’s just doing that thing that we all do where we constantly teach people how to throw a proper punch. You’d be surprised how few people can.

And the Producer is asking, “How many fights have you been in?”

Houston says, “Four, maybe. One of them was with that kid I was telling you about, in a Chinese restaurant. Then there was Japan, where I saw a fight and tried breaking it up.”

I can’t imagine Houston breaking up a fight. He’s all Krav Maga and Falcon Punch.

“Then there was the one at the football game in high school.”

Huh? I’ve never heard this one.

“Tim, have I ever told you about that one? It was a Stanford game and this racist guy behind me kept shouting awful stuff and spitting sunflower seeds on me. So I asked my dad if it was okay to get into a fight with him.”

I can picture Houston asking his dad for permission to get into a fist fight.

“Every fight I got into, I broke these bones.” He points at the little bones in the back of his hand.

“Where’s Tim?” I hear the Director call out. Like he can’t take the extra two seconds to locate the only robot on set. Maybe I blend in against the mustard-colored 1982 Mercedes Benz.

I say, “Here” but my voice just sort of meanders around the inside of my helmet, unable to squeeze through the tiny mouth and even tinier eye holes. So I push off the car, which takes more effort than I’m proud of, and do my robot saunter.

“We need the robot to fall over.”

“I can’t fall over.” A nickel in the jar for every “I can’t” today would really cost me.

“Can you just go prone and do a reverse pushup?”

“Nope.” I can’t even dougie. That’s how restrictive this outfit is.

“Guys. That suit cannot touch the gravel,” the Producer says. “It is worth 19,000 dollars and if we scratch it . . .”

19,000 dollars? This awkward piece of shit?

“Okay, so, Houston! Do we have those pads we talked about?” the Director asks.

“No. I don’t have the pads. The Producer does.”

“Yeah, but I asked you to bring them.”

Houston clenches his jaw, takes a deep breath. He has a short fuse when it comes to incompetence.

“I emailed you. I said, ‘I don’t have the pads. The producer does. She owns them. She has them in her possession.’” Houston has taken out his phone. He’s reading an email. “‘She is in charge of the pads. She has them. If you want them on set, ask her.’”

The AD asks the Producer if she brought the pads. I have to turn my whole upper body to see her.

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to.”

By now, we’ve moved on. I’m dropping to one knee, putting one hand on the ground. Like I’m hiking a football.

“Can you make a fist?”

“No. I can’t make a fist.”

My gloves are made of the thickest possible rubber, as if the designers were terrified that the suit would allow for any amount of dexterity.

…every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

“Try something like this.” The Director demonstrates making a fist.

*     *     *

Later on, I start to notice that the shadows are awfully long, and we still have most of the fight scene ahead of us. The Director makes an impassioned plea to the actors, who are circling the craft table. He says, “We’re running out of time, so we need to speed this up.”

For whatever reason I imagine us doing the fight scene in Benny Hill double-time. Maybe it’s the tunnel vision, but by now I’ve begun interpreting everything literally.

I overhear the AD tell the Cinematographer, “I’m going to start calling cut, if that’s okay.” Which is nice to hear. Until then, every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

I’m supposed to lower one of the actors to his knees in this take, and the actor seems really worried. He says his knees are messed up. I’m not sure what that means.

Now, during the next take, he’s supposed to just wait on his knees a while. For a moment, I forget he’s there because he’s left my pathetic field of vision and I’ve taken to imagining that the universe is just two little disks, joined in the middle and if I can’t see it, it’s not there.

Then he stands up.

“You have to stay on your knees,” the Director says.

The actor goes back down, exiting the universe. I hear him say something about his knees bleeding.

“Action!”

I know every move. After all, I came up with half of them. But I can’t really see what I’m doing so it’s harder than I’d hoped. I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize. It resists at every instant.

One of the PAs walks over and tells the Director his cat has gone missing. Someone else makes a meowing noise.

While a fellow actor wildly thrashes my armor with a rubber crowbar, I notice that the crew has shifted their attention to the parking lot entrance. I rotate my entire body around to see a white pickup pull in. The driver, who looks like Terry Crews in a golf cap, jumps out of the car and starts shouting at us.

“Either someone shows me a permit right now, or you get the fuck off my lot! Right now! This is private property!”

I hear someone say “Okay, pack it up. Pack it all up.”

So we’re all rushing around, packing up the crafts table, the props, the rigging, the camera. I’m very slowly making my way out of the parking lot. There are no extra hands to help me take off my armor, so I’m doing my best impersonation of an embarrassed robot, one foot at a time, while Terry Crews eyes me from his pickup.

Finally I manage to get my gloves off. I use my newfound dexterity to remove my helmet. My shell of solitude is gone. I suddenly realize how loud everything is. Everyone is shouting at someone, somewhere. Terry Crews is shouting at the Producer. Cars are peeling out, tearing up the road. The Props Master finishes removing my armor and now I’m in a form-fitting silver jumpsuit feeling more than a little naked.

I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize.

I climb in the back seat of my car because it’s the only open door and Houston has my keys.

From inside the car I can see everyone is still shouting. I spot Houston talking with the Director. As the Director talks I can practically see the power-up bar above Houston’s head, slowly building up. Like when it reaches the limit he’ll have enough energy for a fireball, or go Super Sayan or something. I wonder if the Director realizes how close he is to the edge of a very steep, unforgiving cliff. Does he really want to start a fight with the fight choreographer?

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled. I’m not really here. I’m just observing from my spaceship. Then Houston gets in and starts the car. I put on my seatbelt and think of Houston as my chauffeur. I’m still wearing the silver jumpsuit.

We’re driving to the AD’s house to regroup and for some reason Houston’s gone all The Italian Job, weaving through traffic, driving in the breakdown lane. I’m not sure why we’re trying to get there so fast but it’s all very exciting nonetheless.

Houston rants in the front seat and this is what I pick up between the growling: First, the Director blamed Houston for not rehearsing enough. Then, when Houston asked him about whether or not we had permission to shoot there, the Director said he had talked to management. Then, when Houston asked the same question again, the Director revised his story saying that he “called them, like, five times and no one picked up so I assumed it was okay.” Then, Houston didn’t punch him.

“I swear I’m going to punch him,” he says. I think about the little bones in the back of his hand. “If he tries to blame anyone but himself for this mess, I’m just . . .” Then more growling.

We’re the first people to arrive at the AD’s house. We sit on the porch and the sun starts to set over Silver Lake Boulevard. Ten minutes later, everyone except the Director has filed in. Each of them haggard, shell-shocked. The Producer has been crying. She asks if everyone’s here.

“Everyone except our fearless leader,” Houston says.

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

Someone calls him. His phone is dead.

The AD talks about some other shots they need to get today while the sun is out. But we need the Mercedes, which the Director is driving. They also need the Director, though I’m not sure why.

The Cinematographer is on the phone with someone in the car with the Director. He’s giving directions.

“760 Harvard Ave . . . 760 Harvard Ave. 760 . . . Harvard . . . Harvard. Harvard . . . Like Harvard University. Like the college. Like, ‘I went to an Ivy League college, Harvard University.’ Yes . . . 760. Harvard.”

Houston starts laughing.

“Did he just get in the car and drive somewhere . . . anywhere?”

Apparently, he is in West Hollywood. No one really knows why.

So later, an hour later, the Director, our fearless leader, shows up. He looks awful. I wonder where his cat is. I picture the little critter, wandering Cahuenga, playing with strays, smelling new smells. Seeing new sights. Then the sun sets and the cat is alone and hungry and his home is nowhere to be found. He licks his fur. He curls up in a ball and forgets everything that’s ever happened. He accepts the wild.

So now I’m putting the suit on again. They’re turning on the little blue bulbs around the eye holes so now everything I see is framed in little blue glowing lights.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat. I can’t even put on my seatbelt without help. They’re mounting a camera to the hood. And the driver, my lovely co-star, decides this is a good time to mention she’s almost blind without her glasses. And it’s night time.

“So, put on your glasses.”

“No, see,” the Director pipes in. Fuck. “If she wears the glasses then she’ll have to be wearing them in the next scene.”

“We could have her take them off.”

“No. We don’t have time for a shot like that. No . . . Are you comfortable driving just around the back roads?” he asks.

I can hear Houston restraining the urge to hit The Director.

“You cannot seriously be thinking . . .” he says. Then storms off.

“I couldn’t drive on the freeway. But back roads should be fine.”

“We could have Tim spot for her.”

Then we would literally have the blind leading the blind. Between the two of us we could barely read a stop sign.

“The AD will sit in the back and give her directions.”

So we start to pull out, but the light attached to the dashboard falls off.

Correction, the dashboard falls off.

So the Cinematographer is taping the dashboard back on. The Props Master is helping him. The AD is sitting in the back. The Cinematographer accidentally opens the sunroof. Suddenly everyone bursts into motion pressing every single button they can find trying to get it shut. They’re reaching over me, fumbling over each other. I can’t help but notice that the car has a bright red button on the front panel. Occasionally someone’s finger drifts over it then moves on. I wonder what it could be.

Finally, someone finds the right button, the sunroof is shut. The light is attached. The dash is attached. We’re ready to go. And I guess she’s not going to wear her glasses, so that’s cool.

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled.

Two rings of glowing blue frame the lights of Western Ave. and I start to realize that there’s a good chance I will die in this stupid robot costume. And the funny thing is I don’t really care. I can see the red tail lights and the orange streetlights reflected in the pavement. I can’t really see my driver, but when she asks the AD where to go next, she sounds confident enough. Of course she doesn’t seem to understand how to follow directions.

“Turn right here.”

She goes straight.

“Okay, it’s okay. Just keep going straight.”

She turns.

“This is fine. It’s fine. Turn left here.”

I watch a pedestrian skitter across the road.

I pull back from the eye holes and look around the inside of my helmet. My iron maiden. My little spaceship. It’s just me in here, alone. I’m not in a car, headed towards my inevitable early death. I’m in a robot. I trust him to keep me safe. I trust him to lead us home.

Then someone’s pulling off my helmet. We’re parked at the house. We’re not dead, which is nice.

We wait inside for the Director to make an appearance. Secretly, I think we’re hoping he’ll make things worse for himself. Blame someone else, maybe make some racist comments. But maybe we’re too exhausted for that. Even Houston looks haggard.

When he finally arrives, he sits down on the couch between Houston and the Producer. He doesn’t speak at first. He just stares at his shoes. Then, after a long electric moment, he begins, “Guys, my girlfriend is going to be so pissed when I get home, for the cat getting out. Just so you know, she’s going to tear into me so . . .”

So . . . so what? Are we supposed to pity you? Should we mount a search team? Jump in our cars and patrol Cahuenga? We could have the lead actress drive. Maybe I could spot for her.

After all the ridiculous events of the day I wonder if possibly this is some sort of elaborate practical joke, or maybe performance art. It would be called “A Dog Teaching a Human How to Wag His Tail,” or “The Limits of Tolerance,” or the always classic, “Sabotage.” I think about the robot, now in pieces in his box. They didn’t need me. They just needed someone to fill the skin, someone to carry it. I wonder if that’s all the Director is. Maybe this kind of thinking is dangerous.

The Director makes some comment about how we might have to cut the fight scene completely and Houston gets up. He doesn’t look the Director in the eyes, but he points his whole body at him, clenching his fists. They share a silent moment, filled with horrible potential. Then, something truly amazing happens: Houston just pulls out his keys and we leave in silence.

On the drive back we see an empty car parked in the middle of the street with its lights on, its engine running, and its doors ajar. It hums quietly to no one.

T. Lucas EarleT. Lucas Earle is a writer, filmmaker, and musician. His fiction has appeared in Electric SpecColored LensRazor Literary Magazine, and New Myths. His dark comedy, Abduction, premiered in LA Shorts Fest in 2013. His most recent film, in which he plays the lead, is Up Next. T. Lucas lives in Los Angeles.  http://www.tlucasearle.com/

 

Susan Southard, Author

Susan SouthardDuring the June 2016 residency of Antioch’s MFA program, Susan Southard taught a workshop on research-based writing, having written Nagasaki, a heavily researched and beautiful work of nonfiction about life after nuclear war. She explained that while John Hersey had written about the bombing of Hiroshima, no one had written about Nagasaki. Her workshop turned into a conversation about the process of writing Nagasaki, which took twelve years to complete and tells a story that has never been told, and how writing it was an act of social justice. Everyone left with the indelible impression that Southard had given a great gift to all of us with this project.

Nagasaki is the story of five hibakusha, survivors of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. Each of the hibakusha was a teenager at the time of the bombing, each lost family and close friends, and each has a different story of recovery and survival. It’s a braided narrative that begins with a description of the political situation and state of the war, continues with a vivid and detailed account of the bombing, and gradually follows the lives of the hibakusha for decades afterwards.

Southard is an intentional writer. She chooses every word carefully. She is committed, beyond the average expectation, to being true to the stories she tells. She understands the power of storytelling and uses an astounding amount of research to ensure that she does the story justice. Writing Nagasaki involved multiple trips to Japan, a Japanese translator, and years of research assistance. The resulting work allows us as readers and citizens to understand so much more about the consequences of nuclear war than we did before.

During the time I was exchanging emails with Susan for this interview, she was invited to speak at the United Nations, and won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the only international peace prize awarded in the U.S. This well-deserved recognition was not only for her writing, but also for her contribution to history, society, and citizenship.

The rest of Southard’s life reflects the same intensity of commitment. She has taught writing in prisons to youth and to women. She is the founder and Artistic Director of the Essential Theatre, a playback theatre company. She describes playback theatre as “an interactive, improvisational performance in which members of the audience tell stories from their lives and then watch the performing ensemble of actors and musicians bring the story to artistic life.”

Southard brings real people’s stories of survival to life, in all of their complicated, beautiful, messy wonder.

Emma Margraf: You founded a professional theater and social change company that focuses on Playback Theatre, an effective tool in mixing art and social justice; you are a graduate of the Antioch MFA program, which has a social justice emphasis; and you wrote Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, which gives readers a profound understanding of the impact of nuclear bombs on humanity. Why is social justice important to you?

Susan Southard: Most of my life, I have been drawn to the stories of individuals who have felt invisible, whose realities and suffering have been minimized or denied. Being a part of making visible what has been hidden is important to me, and I think it permeates both my theatre and writing work. It’s also very important to me as a person and as a U.S. citizen that I—and my country—am accountable, as much as possible, for the impact of my actions on others. This is not a strong suit for the United States.

EM: Do you consider yourself an author or an artist first? How do the two interact?

It’s also very important to me as a person and as a U.S. citizen that I—and my country—am accountable, as much as possible, for the impact of my actions on others. This is not a strong suit for the United States.

SS: What an intriguing question! At the moment, I’m not sure. In the past, I would have definitely considered myself a theatre artist first—it’s something I’ve done for nearly thirty years. Two years ago, in order to finish my book, I stopped acting and directing in my company, so now I feel less of a theatre artist than before. And since being a published author is still fairly new to me, that label still feels a bit foreign.

The thread that binds Playback Theatre and narrative journalism is storytelling. Though the process and end results are completely different, both art forms require listening to and witnessing a person’s experience and then sculpting an artistic work to honor the story. In the case of Playback Theatre, someone in the audience tells a true story from her life, and the ensemble of actors and musicians bring the story to artistic life through movement, music, metaphor, and scenes. It’s improvised and immediate, in front of person who told the story and the audience.

Writing Nagasaki, on the other hand, took twelve years, and except for my trips to Nagasaki to interview survivors, physicians, and atomic bomb specialists, most of the work took place in my office, not in a rehearsal hall or performance space. Sometimes I worked with my researcher or with the team of translators I hired to help me with the interviews, essays, articles, and letters needed to complete my research. Mostly, though, I worked alone, which was so different from the collaborative ensemble process of Playback Theatre.

EM: Nagasaki is powerfully and thoroughly researched, which the reader experiences right from the start of the book. What drove you to that level of research? Why was it important to you?

Two things kept me going: First, I had really come to love the survivors whose stories I was telling, and second, I felt it was so important to bring their stories, still hidden from view in our country, into visibility.

SS: When I started the project in 2003, I had no idea how much research would be required. As I interviewed the survivors, conducted some initial research, and began trying to formulate a narrative, it was clear that the story was far bigger than I had thought, and that in order to tell the personal and community stories of post-nuclear survival with accuracy and breadth, I had to research, understand, and interpret for my readers many topics I previously knew nothing about—for example, the effects of high-dose radiation exposure on the human body, U.S. censorship and denial of these effects, the U.S. occupation of Japan, the job and marriage discrimination hibakusha experienced because of their potential long-term health risks, and on and on. Finding and analyzing sources and conducting this level of research was something I’d never done, so I hired an amazing researcher, Robin LaVoie, who worked full-time with me on the project for many years. The book would not exist in its present form without her.

EM: This project spanned twelve years, as you’ve noted. How did your vision shift over time?

SS: It’s very interesting to look back now, with a bit of perspective. My initial vision—to tell the survivors’ stories—was passionate and committed, but also simple and naïve; as I said before, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The first big shift in my vision came about a year in, when I realized the scope of the story I was telling and worked to adapt my thinking and planning to hold this new view. The second major shift came after I submitted the first four chapters (about half the manuscript) to my editor. I didn’t realize how tentative my authorial voice was; I was afraid to get things wrong, so I never took full grasp of the narrative. In my editor’s feedback to me, he challenged me to take hold of the narrative with authority. It took me a long time to understand how to do this, but his mandate, and my efforts to fulfill it, transformed not only my vision for the book but the actual words on every page.

EM: The narrator’s voice is consistent throughout the telling the stories of five very different people. How did you decide whether to keep yourself out of the story?

SS: At first, I was in the story. Not a lot, but whenever survivors were recounting specific memories, I included my asking the questions to them, and I described what the survivors looked like, their facial expressions and gestures, and their surroundings, etc. I wanted the reader to feel like they were in the same room with the survivors, experiencing them as I had. But my editor, and also Viking’s senior nonfiction editor, strongly advised me to take myself out. It took a while to fully accept their suggestion, but ultimately I completely agreed—especially after I began strengthening my authorial voice.

EM: I found myself needing to take breaks from reading Nagasaki, as it so thoroughly threw me into the hard world of the hibakusha. How did their stories affect you personally?

SS: It was a huge honor to hold their stories and strive to bring them to life in my book. At the same time, it was often extremely hard. The horrors of the bomb and the extreme suffering at so many different levels, of those who died and those survived, were overwhelming. Sometimes it was overwhelming and, like you, I had to take breaks too. Two things kept me going: First, I had really come to love the survivors whose stories I was telling; and second, I felt it was so important to bring their stories, still hidden from view in our country, into visibility.

EM: Propaganda plays a big role in this story, as does perspective. You’ve said that you get angry responses from American readers who believe Nagasaki is too slanted towards the Japanese. Were you aware when you started this of how strongly some feel about this?

I believe it’s critical that we look at history through the clearest lens possible, and that if we choose to take and defend wartime military actions that cause great harm to civilians, we must also be willing to look at the impact of those actions…

SS: Not at the beginning, but it didn’t take long. Long threads of hate-filled comments fill some veterans’ online chatrooms, which gave me a clear idea of the vitriol many people still feel and openly express about the Japanese people during World War II. I have received passionate, angry emails and letters asking me if I had been to Pearl Harbor, or saying that the writer, or his father, was saved by the atomic bombings because he didn’t have to participate in the planned land invasion of Japan. One thing I often say at readings and book talks is that Nagasaki in no way defends the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor, atrocities in China, or mistreatment, torture, and killing of Allied POWs.

At the same time, I believe it’s critical that we look at history through the clearest lens possible, and that if we choose to take and defend wartime military actions that cause great harm to civilians, we must also be willing to look at the impact of those actions, regardless of our perceptions or feelings about how the war ended.

It’s important to say, too, that I have received far more positive communications from readers than negative, from people who lived through World War II and those who are just coming of age now and learning about the atomic bombings.

EM: Do you think there are lessons from Nagasaki relevant to today’s politics?

SS: Yes, I think there are many connections to today’s politics. First, there are so many ways that our politicians (and we, everyday citizens) justify our actions—like the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—that cause great harm to others, and our justifications somehow gives us permission turn away from seeing the consequences of our actions. Second (and connected to the first), which stories we tell, and how we tell them, matters not only to history but also to our integrity as individuals and as a nation. Is there room for all of the stories, even those that we don’t want to hear? Third, Nagasaki holds the profound and difficult lesson of the humanitarian impact of nuclear war and the twisted perspective that nuclear weapons are instruments of peace.

EM: Much of Nagasaki reads like textbook coverage of the event with an added element of riveting narrative. Were you interested in developing this educational aspect when you started the project? How would you like to see Nagasaki taught in schools?

SS: I didn’t write Nagasaki from an educational perspective, but I do hope that it will be taught in both high schools and colleges, as John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) is. While [the city of] Hiroshima takes the focus of nearly all atomic bomb discussions in schools, Nagasaki is barely an afterthought in most people’s minds. But the atomic bombing of Nagasaki was a separate act of warfare, under different circumstances, using a different kind of bomb on a city with a different history and culture than Hiroshima. I hope my book helps make Nagasaki and its hibakusha an integral part of how we remember, analyze, and understand the 1945 atomic bombings of Japan.

EM: It seems clear that you have a strong commitment to authenticity, particularly when it comes to telling stories of the invisible. Why is true detail so important? Is a commitment to authenticity especially important when telling the stories of the invisible?

SS: True details are absolutely critical in telling anyone’s story, perhaps most especially those of people who have been invisible. Because if we as writers are going to give them a voice, it has to be their voice, their experience. Otherwise, we are—even if unintentionally—appropriating their stories for our own use and again yielding power that silences their individual voices, experiences, and truths.

EM: What advice do you have to other authors interested in research based writing?

[Taniguchi Sumiteru] and many other Nagasaki survivors have spent much of their lives trying to ensure that Nagasaki remains the last atomic-bombed city in history.

SS: Here are some things I learned that might be helpful: If you know how to find excellent sources, great; if not, get help from a skilled researcher. Work hard to understand your own bias and the biases of authors whose work you are using in your research. This will inform you invaluably. For me, at least, it was a long and arduous, but also amazing and life-changing process. Finally, choose a story or topic that nourishes you on many levels, and if it really matters to you, don’t give up!

EM: What role do you think artistic freedom plays in research-based historical nonfiction?

SS: This was a question I grappled with during the research and writing of Nagasaki. Where is the line between fact and artistic freedom? “Artistic freedom” may be more restrained for nonfiction writers, and I certainly gave highest priority to factual truth that I could back up by my research. But nonfiction writers have a lot of freedom, too—and responsibility, I think—to bring the facts alive with language, structure, characters, and scenes: to engage the reader from one page to the next.

EM: You have taught writing in prisons to both women and young people. Could you tell me more about that?

SS: Yes, I briefly taught personal narrative writing for juveniles (boys) in a state prison. There, I mostly introduced writing prompts and freewriting exercises to give the boys a sense of inner freedom, and to explore new and different ways to mine and express their memories. Also, I directed a three-year creative writing program for women at a federal prison outside Phoenix. In this program we also used writing prompts to explore memory and personal narrative. But we took the artistic process much further by creating longer, polished pieces. At the end of each workshop series, the women read their deep, moving, and often funny work for an audience of enthusiastic and receptive peers. This program was labor-intensive, as I provided editing to each piece every week so the writers could revise and strengthen their writing, but it was the most fulfilling and transformative teaching project I’ve ever done. The women were hungry to learn, ready to take feedback, and thrilled as they saw their writing transform into beautiful work. The program ended due to funding issues; I wish it were still going!

EM: What do you think are the connections between writing and advocacy? What can writers learn from that kind of work? 

SS: I don’t think of myself as an advocate of or for something/someone…more, I’m a witness? A sculptor of stories? As I think more about your question, I’d say that my activism is more subversive than public. That is, typically I don’t speak out about issues that are important to me; I tell the stories that I hope will impact others to think more deeply, expansively, and empathetically. This is what I love to do. And, as a result of the opportunity to be published here and in other countries, I’m grateful that people in the United States and different parts of the world are now reading the survivors’ personal experiences and understanding more fully the enduring impact of nuclear war.

EM: You just spoke at the United Nations, an incredible honor. Can you tell me a little bit about what brought you there and how it went?

SS: Because of my book, I was invited to represent the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of 440 partner organizations in ninety-eight countries, to speak at the United Nations International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. It was a high-level meeting of representatives from many U.N. nation-states designed to promote and move forward the U.N.’s goal to eliminate nuclear weapons throughout the world.

One of the fascinating parts of the day was listening to forty-four delegates speak about their country’s position on nuclear weapons, and to understand the nuances of their language. Depending on how they worded their statements, they subtly indicated their acceptance of the status quo or their commitment to negotiate and sign a nuclear weapons ban treaty. The delegate from Russia spoke defensively about its nuclear security needs, and when the representative from North Korea spoke, the whole room went silent. The man spoke defiantly of his country’s need to develop and expand its nuclear weapons program in the face of constant nuclear threats by the United States since the early 1950s. The United States didn’t even come, which was expected, but—for me, at least—disheartening.

I was one of the last speakers of the day, and I had ten minutes compared to the four minutes each delegate had—not sure how that happened! I spoke about how important it is to achieve the proposed nuclear ban treaty, and why. I spoke about the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings, bringing to life some of the visceral terrors of those days and the weeks, months, and years that followed. I was able to weave in the story of Taniguchi Sumiteru, one of the five survivors whose story I tell in my book, briefly telling what happened to him, and speaking to his anger when he hears nuclear-armed nations argue that nuclear weapons exist as a deterrent to war. He and many other Nagasaki survivors have spent much of their lives trying to ensure that Nagasaki remains the last atomic-bombed city in history.

I was extremely nervous but fortunately well-practiced, so I was able to speak with energy and confidence, and it was very moving to me to speak about the Nagasaki hibakusha and the need for total nuclear disarmament to this audience. Afterward, a Japanese man who works in the U.N. Office of Disarmament Affairs told me that this was the first time Nagasaki had ever been included in such an address; the Japanese atomic bomb narrative always focuses on Hiroshima. How glad I am about this—and I’m extremely grateful to have had this opportunity—is more than I can say.

Emma Margarf

Emma Margraf is a freelance writer, devoted home cook, and former foster parent working toward her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles.

10 Poems

The evening flares, the cat naps on a beam.
Someone is praying: “Lord Jesus.”

The twilight blazes, the fog kindles;
There is a scarlet curtain over the ornate window.

Spider webs stretch from the golden toolshed.
Somewhere a mouse is scratching in a closed cage…

By the forest meadow—bundles of wheat.
Firs, like spears, rest against the sky.

The dew-covered groves have started to smolder…
In the heart, only silence and relics.

*     *     *

How good, in the freshness of fall,
To let the wind shake the soul’s apple tree
And to watch the plough of the sun
Cut through water above the river.

How good to strike out of one’s body
A nail that turns songs red-hot,
To put on festive white clothes
And to wait for a guest to knock on the door.

I am learning, I am learning in my heart
To shield the color of cherry trees in my eyes.
Only austerity lets feelings survive
When the ribcage threatens to crack open.

Wordless, the belfry of stars is booming,
Every leaf is a candle for the dawn.
I won’t let anyone in my room.
I won’t let anyone through the door.

*     *     *

The rude are destined for joy;
The tender are destined for sadness.
I pity nothing;
I pity no one.

I pity myself a bit;
I pity stray dogs.
This path has led me straight
To a tavern.

Why are you yelling, you devils?
Am I not my country’s son?
Everyone here has pawned
His pants for a drink.

Hazy-eyed, I look out the window;
My heart is heavy and hot.
The street in front of me,
Wet from sunlight, rolls on.

There is a boy in the street.
(The air is fried and dry.)
The boy is so happy
And picks his nose.

Go right ahead, my dear,
Get your whole finger in there,
Just don’t burrow into your soul
With the same force.

I’m toast… My courage is failing…
Look at my host of bottles!
I collect corks to plug
The holes in my soul.

*     *     *

Even now, little by little, we are departing
For that land of silence and grace.
Pretty soon I too may have to pack
My measly belongings.

My dear birch thickets!
Earth! And you, sands of plains!
Faced with the throng of departing
I cannot hide my anguish.

I care too much for everything
That clothes the soul in flesh.
Peace be with aspens that have forgotten themselves
Staring into pink waters with open branches.

I’ve thought many thoughts in silence;
I’ve composed many songs of myself;
And on this grim earth
I’m happy to have breathed and lived.

I’m happy to have kissed women,
Crushed flowers, rolled in the grass,
And never hit beasts on the head,
Since they’re our lesser brothers.

I know woods don’t bloom over there,
Swans’ necks don’t ring out in the wheat.
That’s why I always tremble
When I face the hordes of the departing.

I know that other land won’t have
These cornfields, gold in the dark.
That’s why I love the people
Who live on this earth with me.

*     *     *

One dawn calls out to another,
Smoke blows over smooth wheat…
I’m thinking of you, my dear,
My senile mother.

Walking up the hill, like you used to,
Clutching your crutch in hand,
You look at the stump of the moon
That drifts down the somnolent river.

And I know you’re thinking bitterly,
Restlessly and very sadly,
That your son’s soul doesn’t ache at all
Over his native lands.

Then you walk up to the graveyard
And, staring point blank at a stone,
You sigh so sweetly and simply
Over my brothers and sisters.

Yes, we grew up knife-fighting,
And my sisters grew up like May—
Still, don’t raise your vivid eyes
So sadly to the sky.

Enough grieving! Enough!
It’s time for you to notice
That even an apple tree is sad
To lose its copper leaves.

Joy is a rare occurrence,
Like a morning murmur of spring.
And instead of rotting on branches,
I’d rather burn out in the wind.

*     *     *

I’m walking through the valley. A cap on my head,
A dark-skinned hand in a suede glove.
In the distance, the pink steppes are glowing,
The calm blue river stretches far and wide.

I’m a carefree fellow. I don’t need anything.
I just want to listen to songs, sing along in my heart.
As long as the weather stays light and cool,
As long as my young posture doesn’t bend.

I’ll walk beyond the road, walk under the cliffs—
I see so many vibrant men and women!
The rakes are whispering, the scythes are whistling…
“Hey, poet, do you have what it takes?

It’s lovelier on the ground. Quit swimming in the sky.
If only you loved labor the way you love open space.
Were you never a villager? Were you never a peasant?
Swing a scythe, show us what you’ve got.”

Ah, a plume is not a rake; ah, a scythe is not a pen—
But a scythe can come up with some excellent lines.
Under a spring sun, under a spring cloud
People read them every year.

To hell with my English suit. I get rid of it.
Come on, give me a scythe, I’ll show you—
Am I not your kind? Am I not your kin?
Don’t I cherish the memory of my village?

I don’t care about pits, I don’t care about bumps.
How nice it is, in the morning mist,
To trace lines of grass with a scythe in the field,
So that a horse and a sheep can read them.

These lines are songs, these lines are words.
That’s why I’m so happy when I think of no one at all,
Because every cow can read those thoughts,
Paying me back with warm milk.

*     *     *

Life is a lie with enchanting anguish,
And that’s what makes it so powerful:
With its crude hand it writes
Lethal letters.

Every time I close my eyes, I say,
“Let the heart be disturbed.
Life might be a lie, but even life, sometimes,
Garnishes its deception with pleasures.

Turn your face to the gray-haired sky,
Try to read your fate in the moon;
Calm yourself, mortal, and don’t demand
The truth you can’t use.”

How good it feels, in the blizzard of cherry blossoms,
To think that life is a road.
Let frivolous darlings lie.
Let frivolous friends betray.

Whether a tender word caresses me
Or a tongue cuts sharper than a razorblade,
I’m ready for anything,
Ruthlessly used to it all.

I feel a chill from these heights.
The fire of stars carries no heat.
Those I loved have denied me.
Those I lived for have forgotten me.

Even so, repressed and persecuted,
I greet the dawn with a smile
On this earth, so close and so beloved,
And thank life for everything.

*     *     *

For my sister Shura

Ah, so many cats in the world,
You and I could never count them.
The heart dreams of sweet peas,
And a blue star is ringing.

Whether awake, delirious, or just waking up,
I remember this from long ago—
A kitten was purring on the couch,
Looking at me with indifference.

I was still a child then,
But at hearing grandmother’s song,
He leapt up like a young tiger cub
At the ball of yarn she had dropped.

All has passed. I lost my grandmother.
As to the cat, several years later
They made a hat out of him,
And our grandfather wore it out.

*     *     *

Ah, hell, what a blizzard!
It’s hammering white nails into the roof.
But I’m not afraid—it’s in my fate
That my hapless heart nails me to you.

*     *     *

Snowy plain, white moon.
Our land is draped in a shroud.
Dressed in white, the birches cry in the woods.
Who perished here? Who died? Could it be me?

prose_section_divider

Задымился вечер, дремлет кот на брусе.
Кто-то помолился: «Господи Исусе».

Полыхают зори, курятся туманы,
Над резным окошком занавес багряный.

Вьются паутины с золотой повети.
Где-то мышь скребётся в затворённой клети…

У лесной поляны — в свяслах копны хлеба,
Ели, словно копья, уперлися в небо.

Закадили дымом под росою рощи…
В сердце почивают тишина и мощи.

*     *     *

Хорошо под осеннюю свежесть
Душу-яблоню ветром стряхать
И смотреть, как над речкою режет
Воду синюю солнца соха.

Хорошо выбивать из тела
Накаляющий песни гвоздь
И в одежде празднично белой
Ждать, когда постучится гость.

Я учусь, я учусь моим сердцем
Цвет черёмух в глазах беречь,
Только в скупости чувства греются,
Когда рёбра ломает течь.

Молча ухает звёздная звонница,
Что ни лист, то свеча заре.
Никого не впущу я в горницу,
Никому не открою дверь.

*     *     *

Грубым даётся радость,
Нежным даётся печаль.
Мне ничего не надо,
Мне никого не жаль.

Жаль мне себя немного,
Жалко бездомных собак.
Эта прямая дорога
Меня привела в кабак.

Что ж вы ругаетесь, дьяволы?
Иль я не сын страны?
Каждый из нас закладывал
За рюмку свои штаны.

Мутно гляжу на окна,
В сердце тоска и зной.
Катится, в солнце измокнув,
Улица передо мной.

А на улице мальчик сопливый.
Воздух поджарен и сух.
Мальчик такой счастливый
И ковыряет в носу.

Ковыряй, ковыряй, мой милый,
Суй туда палец весь,
Только вот с эфтой силой
В душу свою не лезь.

Я уж готов… Я робкий…
Глянь на бутылок рать!
Я собираю пробки —
Душу мою затыкать.

*     *     *

Мы теперь уходим понемногу
В ту страну, где тишь и благодать.
Может быть, и скоро мне в дорогу
Бренные пожитки собирать.

Милые берёзовые чащи!
Ты, земля! И вы, равнин пески!
Перед этим сонмом уходящих
Я не в силах скрыть моей тоски.

Слишком я любил на этом свете
Всё, что душу облекает в плоть.
Мир осинам, что, раскинув ветви,
Загляделись в розовую водь!

Много дум я в тишине продумал,
Много песен про себя сложил,
И на этой на земле угрюмой
Счастлив тем, что я дышал и жил.

Счастлив тем, что целовал я женщин,
Мял цветы, валялся на траве
И зверьё, как братьев наших меньших,
Никогда не бил по голове.

Знаю я, что не цветут там чащи,
Не звенит лебяжьей шеей рожь.
Оттого пред сонмом уходящих
Я всегда испытываю дрожь.

Знаю я, что в той стране не будет
Этих нив, златящихся во мгле…
Оттого и дороги мне люди,
Что живут со мною на земле.

*     *     *

Заря окликает другую,
Дымится овсяная гладь…
Я вспомнил тебя, дорогую,
Моя одряхлевшая мать.

Как прежде ходя на пригорок,
Костыль свой сжимая в руке,
Ты смотришь на лунный опорок,
Плывущий по сонной реке.

И думаешь горько, я знаю,
С тревогой и грустью большой,
Что сын твой по отчему краю
Совсем не болеет душой.

Потом ты идёшь до погоста
И, в камень уставясь в упор,
Вздыхаешь так нежно и просто
За братьев моих и сестёр.

Пускай мы росли ножевые,
А сёстры росли, как май,
Ты всё же глаза живые
Печально не подымай.

Довольно скорбеть! Довольно!
И время тебе подсмотреть,
Что яблоне тоже больно
Терять своих листьев медь.

Ведь радость бывает редко,
Как вешняя звень поутру,
И мне — чем сгнивать на ветках —
Уж лучше сгореть на ветру.

*     *     *

Я иду долиной. На затылке кепи,
В лайковой перчатке смуглая рука.
Далеко сияют розовые степи,
Широко синеет тихая река.

Я — беспечный парень. Ничего не надо.
Только б слушать песни — сердцем подпевать,
Только бы струилась лёгкая прохлада,
Только б не сгибалась молодая стать.

Выйду за дорогу, выйду под откосы —
Сколько там нарядных мужиков и баб!
Что-то шепчут грабли, что-то свищут косы…
«Эй, поэт, послушай, слаб ты иль не слаб?

На земле милее. Полно плавать в небо.
Как ты любишь долы, так бы труд любил.
Ты ли деревенским, ты ль крестьянским не был?
Размахнись косою, покажи свой пыл».

Ах, перо — не грабли, ах, коса — не ручка,—
Но косой выводят строчки хоть куда.
Под весенним солнцем, под весенней тучкой
Их читают люди всякие года.

К чёрту я снимаю свой костюм английский.
Что же, дайте косу, я вам покажу —
Я ли вам не свойский, я ли вам не близкий,
Памятью деревни я ль не дорожу?

Нипочём мне ямы, нипочём мне кочки.
Хорошо косою в утренний туман
Выводить по долам травяные строчки,
Чтобы их читали лошадь и баран.

В этих строчках — песня, в этих строчках — слово.
Потому и рад я в думах ни о ком,
Что читать их может каждая корова,
Отдавая плату тёплым молоком.

*     *     *

Жизнь — обман с чарующей тоскою,
Оттого так и сильна она,
Что своею грубою рукою
Роковые пишет письмена.

Я всегда, когда глаза закрою,
Говорю: «Лишь сердце потревожь,
Жизнь — обман, но и она порою
Украшает радостями ложь».

Обратись лицом к седому небу,
По луне гадая о судьбе,
Успокойся, смертный, и не требуй
Правды той, что не нужна тебе.

Хорошо в черёмуховой вьюге
Думать так, что эта жизнь — стезя.
Пусть обманут лёгкие подруги,
Пусть изменят лёгкие друзья.

Пусть меня ласкают нежным словом,
Пусть острее бритвы злой язык.
Я живу давно на всё готовым,
Ко всему безжалостно привык.

Холодят мне душу эти выси,
Нет тепла от звёздного огня.
Те, кого любил я, отреклися,
Кем я жил — забыли про меня.

Но и всё ж, теснимый и гонимый,
Я, смотря с улыбкой на зарю,
На земле, мне близкой и любимой,
Эту жизнь за всё благодарю.

*     *     *

Сестре Шуре

Ах, как много на свете кошек,
Нам с тобой их не счесть никогда.
Сердцу снится душистый горошек,
И звенит голубая звезда.

Наяву ли, в бреду иль спросонок,
Только помню с далёкого дня —
На лежанке мурлыкал котёнок,
Безразлично смотря на меня.

Я ещё тогда был ребёнок,
Но под бабкину песню вскок
Он бросался, как юный тигрёнок,
На оброненный ею клубок.

Всё прошло. Потерял я бабку,
А ещё через несколько лет
Из кота того сделали шапку,
А её износил наш дед.

*     *     *

Ах, метель такая, просто чёрт возьми!
Забивает крышу белыми гвоздьми.
Только мне не страшно, и в моей судьбе
Непутёвым сердцем я прибит к тебе.

*     *     *

Снежная равнина, белая луна,
Саваном покрыта наша сторона.
И берёзы в белом плачут по лесам.
Кто погиб здесь? Умер? Уж не я ли сам?

Anton YakovlevBorn in Moscow, Russia, Anton Yakovlev studied filmmaking and poetry at Harvard University. He is the author of poetry chapbooks Ordinary Impalers (Aldrich Press, 2017), The Ghost of Grant Wood (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and Neptune Court (The Operating System, 2015). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Hopkins Review, Prelude, Measure, Amarillo Bay, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and elsewhere. His book of translations of poetry by Sergei Esenin is forthcoming from Sensitive Skin Books in 2017. He has also directed several short films.

A prominent twentieth-century Russian poet, Sergei Esenin (1895-1925) was one of the founders of the short-lived but influential Imaginist movement. From a peasant background, Esenin spent most of his adult life in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), but his poetry focused on nature and rural life. In 1921 he married Isadora Duncan, but their marriage was stormy and short-lived. Esenin initially supported the Bolshevik regime but became disenchanted with it, criticizing the encroaching effects of Soviet industrialization. According to the official version, on the night of December 27, 1925, he hanged himself after writing his final poem in his own blood.

Elegy for Sylvia

Stripped down to nothing
in the dirty river, my skin sheaved

like silk from corn. The things I did not say
grew malignant in my body. A cancer

of words & the sickness that spreads
from the inside out. By thirteen,

I tasted like war,
skin of wrought-iron

& chrysanthemum seeds. The snowstorm girl
who does not sing, a wind-petal body

she forgets & remembers. What light
do you keep inside your bones?
Break them in half.

See what pours out.

Kathryn Merwin is a native of Washington, DC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Booth, Notre Dame Review, So to Speak, and Sugar House Review, among others. In 2015, she was awarded the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Poetry and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She will begin pursuing her MFA in the Fall of 2016.

Community

A few weeks before my brain broke, as I waited in a grocery store coffee line, an elderly man in front of me dropped his cane. I focused on it. The cane’s clatter, the man’s shaky stoop, careful and slow as he picked it up. How sad, I thought, the need to link one hand to the ground. How frustrating to have only one hand to fill your coffee cup, to add creamer and sugar, to stir.

*     *     *

Estranged from my extended family in preadolescence and raised in a home of three—myself, my identical twin brother, and my mother (my father, already a father, bolted before my birth)—I never considered myself part of a real family. I idolized TV families, normalized a mother and father, children of different ages, and as a teenager I formed pseudo families. Friends I referred to as brothers and sisters. Parents of friends I called mom and dad. Most weekends I attended hardcore shows, which I later traded for the underworld of drug addicts.

*     *     *

A week before my brain broke, as I sat in the waiting area of a drugstore pharmacy, I noticed an old man. Grinning, chuckling, his cane clicking the floors. “Excuse me,” he said, “I’m a little slow.” All around him people smiled and stepped aside to let him pass. The disabled, I’d soon learn, especially those who use mobility equipment, draw attention to themselves. They’re surrounded by pitying patronizers, people who infantilize and play Good Samaritan—forcing smiles as they open doors, stepping aside to let them pass.

*     *     *

For two years I felt at home in twelve-step halls. Gone were the betrayals and ensuing distrust that pervaded the drug scene. Twelve-steppers, we held weekend dance parties and cookouts. We visited each other’s home for birthdays and holidays. But something felt off about the program. Trading one obsession for another: caffeine, cigarettes, sex, food, petty fights, clean time, the number of meetings one can attend in a week (some, somehow, boasted double digits). Chanting “keep coming back” to those who relapsed, but never guiding them toward professional help, the rehab and detox facilities many of us had briefly called home. And while we were encouraged to celebrate our “recovery,” we were also encouraged to hide our last names and to contain the contents of our meetings within the walls of twelve-step halls.

*     *     *

Two weeks after my brain broke, after an MRI showed that my cerebellum had atrophied, a neurologist showed me pictures of my brain, led me in painful, exhausting exercises, and said, with a grin, “You have spinocerebellar ataxia.” When I asked him to define the condition, he refused, still smiling, and ushered me from his office, leaving me to wander into dangerous emotional territory. Maybe he needed to refuse an explanation—having seen patients break down in his office, faking a tight-lipped smile helped him survive each workday. He was wrong, however, to guess my diagnosis before the genetics test results arrived, sending me home with no explanation of the disease, aside from this: my brain may continue to shrink; the only treatment was physical therapy.

*     *     *

I’d romanticized drum and bass since high school. Not sure why. Call it a visceral urge. Like television, hardcore, and drugs, drum and bass felt as necessary as food and water, as friends and family, and though I felt less connected to bass heads than to recovering addicts, climbing twelve-steps seemed a sluggish, senseless exercise when I entered the drum and bass scene. I was twenty-one, had drunk plenty in my teens, but never in a bar, and after two and a half years of listening to the same recovery stories in church basements and attics, and in stuffy twelve-step halls, furnished with soda bars and old video games, I needed this: hooting and bouncing, sloshing drinks in darkened nightclubs as DJs spun out deep bass lines over breakbeats, transitioning to warbling bass riffs layered over doom-laden samples. I managed not to die or go to jail—a common twelve-step caution (If you leave these halls…)—once the club closed and we convoyed to an old house near train tracks, where we danced as we chased pills with beer, sniffed powders, and filled our lungs with smoke, until daylight revealed our faces.

*     *     *

My brain shriveled. My knees buckled. I bought a cane. “Excuse me. I’m a little slow.”

*     *     *

A month after my brain broke, before I began physical therapy, before the lab sent inconclusive results of my genetics test, leaving me without a specific diagnosis, a cause for my shrunken cerebellum—doctors use the word “sporadic” (sporadic cerebellar ataxia) to name an unknown cause of cerebellar atrophy—I researched spinocerebellar ataxia and learned this: The disease is progressive, fatal. Genetic. On my way home I wondered who else in my family suffered from this disease. Who else developed epilepsy and blindness and lost motor skills until they died too young? Each time my eyes wiggled, each time my vision blurred, my hands shook, or pain shot through my back or chest, adding to the constant ache in my hands and feet, the soreness in my legs as if I’d been standing five, six hours at a time, I saw myself in a hospital bed, a death bed, attached to tubes, my neck supported in brace. Drool dangling from my lip.

*     *     *

Twelve-steppers, active addicts, bass heads—each subculture welcomed me into a realm that for various reasons was closed off, misunderstood, or shunned by society. Each required a special skill, a bank of knowledge, or a particular interest for entry. Each contained its own jargon, a unique set of rules. Its members were dedicated. Obsessed. Despite the pitfalls each subculture contained, each one offered the gift of community.

*     *     *

Two months after my brain broke, the first time I followed my physical therapist into the gym, filled with people who seemed unlike me because they were elderly, missing limbs, or overweight, I felt out of place. Any moment someone would tell me how much harder their lives were, and that I should come back when I needed fake limbs or a wheelchair, or when I was eligible for senior discounts. Fear dissipated as I worked through exercises in a gym with these others, all of us fighting our conditions. While walking on a treadmill, practicing tai chi, lifting tiny barbells, I began to feel united with those who all my life had seemed unlike me—the obese, the amputees, the senior citizens who smiled through pain as we hurtled toward uncertainty.

Bernard GrantBernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He’s also received residency and fellowship support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School. He holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, Stirring, and The Chicago Tribune. He’s the author of the nonfiction chapbook Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and currently serves as associate essays editor at the Nervous Breakdown.

New Views of the World: Intaglio Prints

5 Poems


The Drafting Teacher  

I’ll tell you all a story about three pencils.

The first pencil went to war.
Sketched tanks and ravens on the battlefields.

The second stayed in town on Roundup Street.
Slight and short, it snuck into a hiding place.

The third was carried in a pocket to a meadow.
There it drew wildflowers, weeds.

And then what, then what, dear teacher?

The three pencils never met up again.
The three pencils, what a sweet refrain.
The three pencils. With no erasers to be had,
the pictures they created will remain.

But where? Teacher, tell us where.

 

Addresses

Mostowa 19.
A bare bulb beams
in the heatwave.

Plac Nowy 27.
That striped gooseberry,
an underlit
tart lantern,
marks a holy day
that passes unnoticed.

Miodowa 72.
Suspended
at the synagogue’s entrance:
violet stalk
of the Kaddish.

Thoughts of you
soothe
like a shade
against the glare
of those blinding
addresses.

 

Empathy

Let’s meditate
on God’s suffering, the rabbi suggests
at the Holocaust conference.
Let’s do that instead of trying to explain
how it could happen.

Cinnamon cookies
with slivered almonds
are served.

Near the camp
children dig up
the shattered head of a Madonna
from a local church.
The plaster body’s some ways off.

In the crematorium
a tourist poses for a photo.
Let’s share in God’s suffering, the rabbi urges.
In ten minutes we’ll meet back
at the bus, the tour guide says.
We’ve got to keep to the schedule.

 

Hiding Place

He went missing.
Maybe he was kidnapped.
Though I had my suspicions

I was not allowed to look for him.

Once I heard
human voices from behind the curtain.
I felt that someone was hiding there.

I took advantage of the commotion
when they broke the Christmas wafer
and exchanged wishes at the table.

I slipped in through
a narrow window.
Tense, I glanced around.

Then I gathered my courage
and lifted the curtain
to the ark of the Torah.
In the niche—

curled up—
he lay there
sleeping.

I lowered
the faded parochet
and fled
down the spiral staircase.

 

They’ll decide

The little gate
to the Remuh Graveyard
has a handle
only on the inside.

So the dead will decide
whom they’ll let in.

prose_section_divider

NAUCZYCIEL ROBÓT RĘCZNYCH

Opowiem wam bajkę o trzech ołówkach.

Pierwszy ołówek poszedł na wojnę.
Rysował czołgi i kruki na pobojowiskach.

Drugi został w mieście, na ulicy Łapanka.
Wąski i mały, przemknął się do kryjówki.

Trzeci zaniesiono w kieszeni na łąkę.
Tam rysował polne kwiaty, chwasty.

I co dalej, co dalej, panie profesorze?

Trzy ołówki nigdy już się nie spotkały.
Trzy ołówki, jaki to miły refren.
Trzy ołówki. Zabrakło gumek do mazania.
Obrazy, jakie stworzyły, zostaną.

Ale gdzie? Panie profesorze, prosimy jaśniej?

 

ADRESY

Mostowa 19.
Świeci się naga
żarówka w upał.

Plac Nowy 27.
Agrest w paski,
podświetlony,
kwaskowy lampion
na niezapamiętane
święto.

Miodowa 72.
U wejścia do bożnicy
zawieszono
fioletową szypułkę
kadiszu.

Myśl o Tobie
działa
jak kojący abażur
na jaskrawych,
oślepiających
adresach.

 

EMPATIA

Kontemplujmy
cierpiącego Boga, zaproponował
rabin na konferencji o Zagładzie.
Róbmy tak, zamiast wyjaśniać,
dlaczego do tego doszło.

Podano ciasteczka
z cynamonem
i płatkami migdałów.

Dzieci wykopały
z terenu przy obozie
pogruchotaną główkę Madonny
z pobliskiego kościoła.
Gipsowy korpus osobno.

W krematorium
turystka pozuje do zdjęcia.

Dzielmy mękę Boga, ciągnął rabin.

Za dziesięć minut zbiórka
przy autokarze, woła przewodnik.
Musimy zmieścić się w programie.

 

KRYJÓWKA

Zaginął.
Może został porwany.
Nie wolno mi go było szukać.

Miałam swoje podejrzenia.

Kiedyś usłyszałam
ludzkie głosy za zasłoną.
Czułam, że ktoś się tam ukrywa.

Skorzystałam z zamieszania,
gdy przy stole
łamano się opłatkiem.

Wczołgałam się
przez wąskie okno.
Rozglądałam się nerwowo.

Zebrałam się na odwagę
i uchyliłam zasłonę
Aron ha-kodesz.

We wnęce –
zwinięty w kłębek –
był tam.
Spał.

Zasunęłam
spłowiały parochet
i uciekłam
spiralnymi schodami.

 

DECYDUJĄ

Furtka prowadząca
na kirkut Remu
ma klamkę tylko
od wewnątrz.

To umarli decydują,
kogo wpuścić.

Translator’s Note

We often think of translation as a one-way street, moving from the source to the target language. But for Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, the highway of writing—and translation—moves in at least two directions. She has brought fifteen books into Polish, including a novel by Alice Munro and a book of essays and poems by Thomas Merton, and she has co-translated into English a volume of Ewa Lipska’s poetry with Robin Davidson. In fact, I first encountered Nowakowska through her translations of Lipska, seven of which I included in Scattering the Dark, an anthology of Polish women poets that White Pine Press issued in 2016.

But this summer I delved more deeply into Nowakowska’s own work, particularly Trzy ołówki (Austeria, 2013), where the five originals in this selection first appeared, and an earlier work, Merton Linneusz Artaud (Forma, 2012). In both books, Nowakowska’s taut, resonant language allows her to spotlight people, places, or relics from a disappeared past. Her fragmented syntax and short line put each phrase, each word under pressure. As I tried to replicate that intensity in English, I remembered Peter Constantine’s brilliant translation of Isaac Babel’s story, “Guy de Maupassant,” which itself happens to be about bringing a work from one language into another: “When a phrase is born. . . [t]he secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.”

Trzy ołówki [The Three Pencils] is dedicated to the Margel family, Kraków Jews imprisoned in the city’s ghetto and in the local concentration camp, Płaszów, during World War II, who had been close neighbors of the poet’s great-grandparents before the war. Much of the book catalogues images from the past and present of the Kazimierz district, where synagogues stand close to Gothic churches. In “Addresses,” for instance, we get the names of streets still extant in Kraków: Mostowa [Bridge], Miodowa [Honey], and Plac Nowy [New Square]. Like those addresses, Nowakowska is alert to other traces—a striped gooseberry resembling a lantern, the “violet stalk” of the Kaddish—organic images that still live.

But other poems in the collection move beyond Jewish Kraków to contemplate Polish Galicia, a multicultural part of the country under Austrian control from the late eighteenth century through World War I, which was home to a large Jewish population. “The Drafting Teacher” refers to a parable that the writer Bruno Schulz is said to have told his students when he was working as a shop teacher in the Galician village of Drohobycz before World War II. By personifying the three pencils, Nowakowska suggests some of the different fates that Polish Jews and Catholics met during the war and also the ability of art to preserve vestiges of the past. Movingly, she also hints at the limits of art—how it freezes the past at a certain moment, after which, bound by the span of human life, it cannot follow.

Reading these lyrics by Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, you might experience what I did: returning to my own world, I felt transformed by the most ordinary things—a pencil, a lamp.

Karen KovacikKaren Kovacik has published translations of contemporary Polish poetry in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, West Branch, Mid-American Review, and Southern Review. In 2011, she received a fellowship in literary translation from the National Endowment for the Arts for her translations of Agnieszka Kuciak’s work. In 2013, White Pine issued her translation of Kuciak’s Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist, long-listed for ALTA’s National Translation Award. She is editor of an anthology of Polish women poets, Scattering the Dark (White Pine, 2016); author of the poetry collections Metropolis Burning, Beyond the Velvet Curtain, and Nixon and I; and recipient of, among other awards, the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum.

Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska is a poet and translator (of Alice Munro, Thomas Merton, Ewa Lipska, among others). She has been awarded the Baczyński Prize for her work, and has published four collections of poetry, most recently Trzy ołówki (Three pencils) from which these poems have been excerpted. Her previous collection Merton Linnaeus Artaud features a conversation among those three thinkers. She lives and works in Kraków. With Robin Davidson, she translated Ewa Lipska’s The New Century (Northwestern, 2009). (Photo credit: Jan Wertz)

Bikini Wax

(flash fiction)

Rosalina is Mexico pulled inside-out. A striking woman, smooth as an olive, with a firm bun of brown hair. Desire on legs, whether she’s pussyfooting between the rooms at the Salon or she’s doing a Brazilian on a client under stark, fluorescent lights, patting the pussy, waking it up.

When I arrive after three months of growth tangled between my thighs, Rosa is busy with another client. I don’t mind waiting. Other attendants pass by. I hold their faces for a moment. Nice girls. Girls waiting for someone. A man or a woman, doesn’t matter. Not Rosa. She’s here even when she isn’t.

When the door opens, a twenty-something girl walks out. Rumpled hair and flushed cheeks. I walk in and Rosa hugs me, the smell of her lavender shampoo tickling my straight bearings. She replaces the sheet, sprays the room with Lysol, and adjusts the TV. A busty Latino is singing.

“Long time.” She sticks a towel between her breasts and helps me undress. A layer of wax glistens over my pubic bone like molten gold. I tell her my husband is traveling again, the last trip to India seemed so long and my swimming lessons are going well, as if I have promised to disclose all the details of my life. She talks about her ex-boyfriend whose last name was Ali. He was a carpet weaver from Iran who liked to have burritos and pancakes for breakfast. They had sex every single day when they were together. Sometimes even three times a day. One morning, the immigration authorities took him away. He never came back. She presses the strip and pulls hard.

“Shit.” I bite my tongue.

“He coming soon?”

“Who?”

“Your husband? You have someone else?” She laughs and the luster in her eyes deepens as she wipes the exposed skin and applies moisturizer, slowly circling from my navel to my clit. I see her arched eyebrows, sweat trickling down her neck, her frame oscillating between hurt and pleasure, and I feel words rolling on my tongue and falling back, sticking in my throat.

“Take your time.” Her voice cracks. She pats down my pussy, her fingers groping the flesh for reassurance. I try not to think of my vacant home, my absent husband, the swimming lessons I don’t go to, and the vacation that never happened. I’m wet, maybe even smelling. The room is like a void, nothing but a knot of excitement in motion. This is the real thing. I repeat it quietly. I’ll never come here again. I’ll come here again and again and again.

The girl on the TV is still singing.


Tara Isabel ZambranoTara Isabel Zambrano lives in Texas with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Moon City Review, Parcel, Juked, Necessary Fiction, Gargoyle, and others. She likes to read three books at the same time and is an electrical engineer by profession.

Ana Maria Spagna, Author

Ana Maria SpagnaAna Maria Spagna is the author of five books of nonfiction including Reclaimers and the memoir/history, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize. Her work appears regularly in journals and magazines such as Orion, Brevity, High Country News. Her sixth book will be a middle-grade novel The Luckiest Scar on Earth, coming in February 2017. She is on the faculty of Antioch Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing Program, and lives in Stehekin, Washington with her wife, Laurie.

Haley Isleib interviewed Ana Maria Spagna by phone in the summer of 2016.

Haley Isleib: When you began to write, what did you aspire to write about and why? What’s your origin story?

Ana Maria Spagna: When I was a little kid I wanted to write. My teacher let me write a novel when I was in second grade sitting in a beanbag chair; that’s probably the highlight of my career so far. But when I got to high school and college, I lost the spark some. I went to college and I was an English major. Anybody who’s been an English major knows you mostly read books and analyze them. I didn’t do any creative writing. So I had lost that spark and was a little lost after college and went to work for the Park Service.

As soon as I was in these beautiful places, working Canyonlands, and then I moved here to North Cascades, all I wanted to do was write. I wanted to write and write and write. But when I sat down to do it, all I could write was, “It’s really pretty.” [laughs] I didn’t know what to do with what I wanted to say. I realized I had to go back to school.

I went back and studied fiction writing. That was the absolute best thing for me because I learned about an actual narrative arc and having the story go somewhere. Then I went back to the woods and I could hang all these things I wanted to say on actual story. I went immediately—or pretty soon—back to nonfiction. Nonfiction with this narrative structure that I had learned in school. I worked in the summers and wrote very seriously every winter. Since about 1996 that’s been what I do, write.

HI: In winter?

AMS: In winter until I quit my trails job in 2004. That’s when I started thinking, this is what I do, I’m a writer.

HI: Has your career followed an expected course? When you were studying fiction did you know you wanted to write nonfiction?

AMS: I think I did. I had written an undergraduate thesis about creative nonfiction, so I knew the term, knew it was out there, and admired it. So I probably did know I wanted to do that. The unexpected part was realizing that I needed that fiction training and I need fiction in my writing life. I need a little variety in my writing life. I don’t write poetry but I read poetry so that’s part of the spark too.

HI: I sense that poetic voice in your writing. You have a new book coming out, but I want to talk about another book of yours, 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It).  

AMS: Right. [laughs]

HI: Its tone is so different. My first year at NILA [Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA] I thought, Oh poetic prose, she’s very serious, which of course isn’t the only true thing. There is humor in your other works too. Can you tell me a little bit about how that project came to be?

AMS: That’s the anomaly in my writing career because someone came to me. I had written a very tongue-in-cheek piece. Orion has a column every month that’s just a list, called “Enumeration.” I had made a list of ten skills you’ll need for the post-oil world. It was very playful, whimsical. Ten skills from sleeping to navigating by the stars. After that came out, a book publisher, Story Publishing, wrote to me and asked if I would do a hundred skills. I said, “No, no, you don’t get it. I’m not a dooms-dayer, that was just playful.” They said, “No, we do get it, we want it to be exactly like that, playful.”

Coming up with a hundred skills was super easy. I thoroughly enjoyed that whimsical tone and living in that world. I was worried about the illustrations because the writer never works with an illustrator—the wrong type of illustration could undercut that tone, could make it seem like I was trying to be serious. The publisher found this illustrator whose work matched the way I saw the book perfectly.

HI: Did you work at all with the illustrator [Brian Cronin] or meet him?

AMS: Not one tiny bit. In fact the publisher was quite adamant about not having any direct contact with the illustrator. For example, the original illustrations—as much as I liked them—were all male figures. I can’t abide that, on principle. So they wrote to him and asked him to put more female and they sent me the pictures. I said, “Now the girls are doing all the girly things. Can you please have the girls do some welding or something?” All of that happened with the publisher mediating, which was interesting to me. It worked, but I would someday like to meet the guy.

HI: Tell me about Stehekin, the remote spot where you live in Washington state, which is a town you have to hike to, no road in, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness. You have internet but no grocery store. How does this experience impact your creative process and the content of what you write? How long have you lived in Stehekin?

AMS: I’ve lived there off and on since 1990. Full time since ’98. Eighteen years now.

HI: So right after grad school?

AMS: Before grad school, we lived here in the summer. We were working seasonally and they give you housing for the summer. In the winter, we’d have to go and find work someplace else. When I was pushing thirty that was getting old; that was also part of why I went to graduate school. I remember Laurie asking me, “Do you have a better winter job lined up?” [laughs] “Go to graduate school.”

As soon as I finished graduate school, Northern Arizona University, where I went, offered me a job at the university. Very, very hard to turn down, but Laurie was committed to working here in Stehekin and I was still very enamored of my life on trail crew. I made the difficult decision to say no to that job. We bought land, built a house, and made this our home.

People make progress and try to make right and then lose ground. Sometimes what you define as right changes over time…

There are no roads in or out, so it’s like an island. But it’s not an island; it’s a landlocked valley. A community of about eighty people live here year-round. In summer, a lot more people come to their summer homes, so there might be up to 400 people in summer. There’s a bakery that’s open in summer and there are restaurants that are open in summer, two of them, but other than that there’s nothing. There’s no grocery store, movie theater, nothing—just each other. [laughs]

The bakery, they sell my books, and I get credit. I eat a lot at the bakery. It works out.

HI: You mentioned the seasonal rhythm to your writing early on. How does Stehekin figure into your writing practice?

AMS: Part of my writing practice is going on long walks, or going running or going skiing in the winter and thinking things through. It is a quiet place for me to be productive. I think there aren’t as many distractions as there are in other places, although in summer it’s so wildly busy and everybody else is on vacation. They presume, of course, I’m on vacation because I don’t go to an office to work. There are certainly things that pull against me but I’m pretty disciplined about getting up, getting into the writing, spending the necessary hours in the chair every day. I don’t know how this works in the so-called real world, but I can still unplug my modem and have no internet so…

HI: Ahhh. That’s wonderful.

AMS: So even if I wanted to be distracted, it would take so long for the modem to boot up it’s not worth it. [laughs] I force this on myself.

HI: I’m going to switch gears a bit. I’ve heard people say we’re living through a new civil rights era. Your second book, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, is a work of nonfiction about your father and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Do you see any parallels between then and now?

AMS: Absolutely. It was actually the late fifties when he was involved, very early in the civil rights movement in northern Florida. At the time that I was researching that book—I was doing most of my research between 2004-2006—the gay rights movement started to gain real national momentum, seemed to be gaining steam. Couples had lined up in San Francisco to get marriage licenses, which seemed outrageous to me at the time, I mean outrageous. [laughs] I could definitely see the parallels of that sense of momentum and also the sense of danger too, that people were putting themselves out there. That part is woven into the book.

When I wrote the book it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Tallahassee bus boycott. This year is the sixtieth. If anything, in terms of race, things are even more fraught, if not more dangerous. At least people are talking about the danger in different ways, in ways I wouldn’t have expected it to re-erupt. As scary as that is—maybe people find it disheartening—I find it heartening, taking things that have been held under the surface and letting them erupt. Having the conversations we have to have. I don’t think I would feel that way if I hadn’t done the research I did for that book, and immersed myself in that earlier civil rights movement.

HI: I’m hearing maybe that research gives you hope.

AMS: Yeah, it absolutely does. It gives me hope and it gives me perspective. It makes me realize the necessity of the courage to speak out, and gives me a lot of admiration for the people in the Black Lives Matter movement, and all over the country for speaking out, however you do it. It only leads to good even if there’s a rough road in between. I wouldn’t think that if I hadn’t done that research.

HI: The word I heard you say a couple of times was “surprise,” about both the mid-oughts and recently. I wonder if that surprise is related to hope in some way. Because in retrospect, it always seems like, “Of course, because it only makes sense,” but at the time…

AMS: When I first thought about the fifties and sixties civil rights movement, the way I learned it in school, it just seemed inevitable that that was going to happen. When I did the research, I realized how very un-inevitable it was in their time. And still, in my dumb passive American way, I still thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that that erupted in the past.” To see it erupting again, very much in our present time—yeah, it gives me hope for the kind of history that can evolve in our own time.

HI: I think we have a way of seeing history as progressing, going from A to B to an end goal, but life isn’t really like that at all. In a way it’s a surprise that things can suddenly erupt, but things can also suddenly retreat or go back.

AMS: Yeah, most assuredly. The whole history of all the progress that happened post-Civil War in terms of race—what happened to it? For so long the reactionaries won with Jim Crow, with pushing it back, taking voting rights away. And see how easily that’s happening again in our own time.

HI: In Reclaimers, which is more recent, you tell three stories braided together—I think this weirdly dovetails with what we were just talking about—because these are stories about people reclaiming things that had been lost. At some point in the past, things got worse, and then after decades of effort, people reclaimed. Two pieces of land return to their tribes, and a river was undammed.

AMS: There is a parallel. There was a surprise in it. When I started Reclaimers, I thought of it as a book coming out of my interest in nature and nature writing, and issues of land and water. I didn’t see it as a book that would be related to Test Ride or to civil rights. But it was absolutely clear once I started finding these stories of people reclaiming land and water that there were exact parallels. People make progress and try to make right and then lose ground.

Sometimes what you define as right changes over time, which is one of the themes I pursue in Reclaimers. In the thirties, building dams was the best thing we could possibly do and people with good intentions built dams. And then a hundred years later people with good intentions are bringing those dams down. A certain openness to changing our idea of what’s right and letting that evolve over time became one of the underpinnings of a book that I thought was just about land policy.

HI: This idea of reclaiming, these braided stories, seem like part of a wider weave. I see “reclaiming” as an underlying mission of our times. This documenting of reclaiming could be almost infinite. Do you see any future projects continuing on this focus?

AMS: You’re absolutely right that it could be infinite. Everybody who heard that I was doing a project on reclaiming would tell me a story of reclamation. And it would be something in a realm I hadn’t even thought of, like reclaiming identity. I realized at some point that this could sprawl. I had to rein it in.

This is a little digression, but I realized that when I finish a book, I have a sense of loss. Now I don’t live in that world everyday and I miss it. I lived there so long and I was so close to it, and it meant so much to me; now it’s this thing that belongs to everyone else out in the world, and I need to distance myself. Maybe it’s getting to where I could revisit it and start writing about those ideas again, but that was just a realization that came to me in the last few days.

And the American West is totally fraught with that end-point thing because it was the Western expansion. This is where we would get to, and this would be paradise. Now we’re just barely a hundred years in, and no, this is where we live, and we’re going to have to make it work for a lot longer than one big glorious burst.

HI: And this is just an aside too. The concept of writing about reclaiming could be its whole own genre almost, not that you would have to do all the work.

AMS: It really could.

HI: In a lot of ways, many memoirs, especially of difficult times, seem related, not exactly the same, but people resurrecting relationships they’d let die…

AMS: Or reclaiming their past.

HI: Right. Did you start a whole genre?

AMS: [laughs] Parsing the language a bit, I think a lot of memoirs are an arc toward redemption, just like a lot of work in nature these days is work toward restoration. And both of those words make me a little bit uncomfortable because they suppose an end point. You have this place that’s ruined, you restore it and it’s good. Or you have this nasty past and you redeem yourself and it’s good. What I like about “reclaiming” is that, no, that’s not how it happens, you reclaim it and then at some point in the future it will need to be reclaimed again. When I’m teaching memoir, I encourage people not to feel like you’re writing a book in which you feel like your life now has an end point. “Yes, did that, all better now.”

HI: You’ve hit on something I think is an underlying obstacle in our Western thinking—at least in my Western experience, there’s an idea that we’re going to get somewhere and that will be good, and we’ll be done. Reality isn’t like that. Even evolution isn’t like that. “Progress” implies that there is a goal that can be reached and then you’re done.

AMS: That taints a lot of my work. A lot of my work has been wedged into the genre of writing about the American West. And the American West is totally fraught with that end-point thing because it was the Western expansion. This is where we would get to, and this would be paradise. Now we’re just barely a hundred years in, and no, this is where we live, and we’re going to have to make it work for a lot longer than one big glorious burst. That’s something that makes writing about the West challenging. What are we? We don’t know what we are yet, us white Westerners. What about these people who were here a long time before we were? They’ve got a story. We’ve got to listen.

HI: Speaking of that, tell me a bit about the two tribes who reclaimed pieces of tribal land in Reclaimers. I’ve heard you talk about the process of getting close to those stories. What made those two stories stand out of all those you heard?

AMS: In 2011, I was on a road trip with my mom when I passed a sign at the entrance to Death Valley National Park that read “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone.” Now I worked for the National Park Service [NPS] for many years and I’ve visited plenty of parks and I’d never seen a sign like it so I was intrigued. Over the next several months I uncovered a remarkable story, basically that the Timbisha Shoshone have lived in Death Valley for 10,000 years but had their land taken by the NPS in 1933. After years of effort by elders and activists like Pauline Esteves, they were able to reclaim 325 acres in the middle of the park at Furnace Creek in 2000 through a congressional act signed by President Bill Clinton. It was an astonishing feat, a tiny tribe versus the U.S. government. That’s what attracted me to the story, but it took me a long time to track down Esteves. When I finally did she explained that the tribe has continued to struggle in the fifteen years since the reclamation. If she didn’t introduce me to the idea that reclaiming is cyclical, that it must happen over and over again, she certainly reinforced it.

The other tribe is the Mountain Maidu in the Northern Sierras. My first attraction to their story was to a program they’d initiated working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to manage USFS lands. I liked the idea that reclamation could happen without changing ownership. But again, the longer I lived with the story, the more my understanding grew and changed. The Maidu ended up with the chance to reclaim title to a sacred valley called Humbug Valley from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and that saga was amazing—the way they brought allies to their cause, the way they remained patient and hopeful in the face of pretty long odds and real tragedies along the way.

So I suppose it was serendipity that drew me to those two sagas–and to the story of the Condit Dam removal as well—but it was the experience of staying with the stories and the people involved, understanding the complexity and nuances over several months (I followed each saga for about three years) that most affected me and my understanding of reclaiming as an ongoing, ever-changing, communal commitment. It’s a basic human endeavor, both an instinct, in some sense, and an obligation, not limited to indigenous people. Or perhaps it is in the sense that one Maidu woman articulated. All of us are indigenous to this planet so, “Find your place and care for it.”

HI: You have a middle-grade novel, The Luckiest Scar on Earth, coming in early 2017, featuring a snowboarder. Where did this come from?

AMS: After graduate school, I was writing a lot of short stories. One rule of my writing life is that if an editor or anybody contacts you and asks if you do X, you say yes. An editor with Milkweed Editions wrote to me—this would have been in 1998, a long time ago—and said do you have any short stories for kids? And I said yes. I did not have any short stories for kids. So I went back to a story I loved, about a snowboarder in her twenties, and I made her younger for the sake of the request. I realized that this is what this story needed all along; this story is not about a twenty-whatever- year-old, it’s about a fourteen year old. And I sold it to Milkweed; they were going to put it in an anthology, which never came out. But I loved this fourteen-year-old so much that it became my little playground, no matter what book I was writing I would go back and I would play around with Charlotte the snowboarder for a while.

So I was writing it for a long, long, long time. And it’s about a snowboarder and her activist father…

I was writing it intensely while I was writing my Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus about my dad. And I didn’t even realize this, that’s how crazy my subconscious was. When I saw I’d written the same exact book, I was so embarrassed that I put it back in the proverbial drawer. Forget that.

But then last winter I thought, what’s wrong with writing the same book twice? I like Charlotte and I think I can do something with her. So I pulled it back out, and worked on it. I was delighted to see how our subconscious works. Not only is it about a daughter and her activist father, but spoiler alert, at some point her father has a heart attack, which my dad did. And the fourteen-year-old is able to save him out on the slopes. If I had other modern grief counseling, this is exactly what they would have had me do—rewrite my story. The book did that work for me, whereas when I was writing it I thought of it as a playground, some place where I can change characters and make them do things.

HI: Do you snowboard and is there a culture that goes with that?

AMS: I do not snowboard. I’m a skier. I do backcountry telemarking. Part of the book is backcountry snowboarding, so that has the parallel. Her world of snowboard culture is familiar to mine from going to small ski areas. Stehekin is a small ski area. But also it got to be another world I could inhabit that isn’t my world. So it was familiar but not familiar. It was great to have a story that is entirely set in winter. I was doing a lot of my writing in winter. I could just inhabit that snowy landscape.

It’s part of the story for young people to understand, things are being changed and that we are propelling that change, whether on private land or public land or through the climate.

One of the joys of the book—there are many joys of the book—but in its final stages I realized that I had never had a kid read the book. So I hired my eleven-year-old niece to be a reader for me. It was such a fantastic experience: to have an eleven-year-old reader. Kids read so intensely. She had such insights into these characters that they could have knocked me off my feet. I definitely made changes to the plot based on her feedback.

HI: Since we’ve been speaking about hope, what kind of future do you see for kids like the hero of your story?

AMS: I have a remarkable amount of faith in people finding their place and loving it. It doesn’t have to be as bizarre a place as Stehekin. But finding your place and planting your feet there and caring enough about it to care what happens, both to the natural world in that place and also in the community. No one’s going to be able to tackle world hunger by themselves, but you can certainly work at a food pantry, you can certainly notice it in your own community.

So that idea of finding a place that you love passionately enough is one thing I have a lot of faith that kids can find. I know there’s a lot about the natural world that is threatened, but there’s a lot that’s still alive. Spending time in the non-human world can give you the brain space and the peace within yourself—now I’m getting all preachy—to look the hard stuff of the world in the eye. The more young people can get out and play outside, be outside, doing whatever, then when they come back to face the world we live in, they’re bolstered. At least that’s been my personal experience and I hope that at least some young people can have that experience.

HI: There are certain obstacles for that. Some kids living in cities never get out, because they can’t afford to.

AMS: Right, and there just aren’t the opportunities. I don’t think everybody has to see the great wilderness either. Just having city parks down the street make all the difference in the world. And that, again, is something that people can make happen in their own small places. That’s something that is actually attainable, to make parks available, to get kids to parks. Give them the chance to play outside. But you’re right. There are institutional obstacles.

HI: I’m from Alaska and when I was growing up, things were quite open. But I remember taking a road trip with my dad across Texas, and it’s also wide-open space. At one point he turned to me and he said, “You realize all of this is privately held land, this is private land.” And I actually looked at him and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean?” It was just so strange. When we were going through some scrubby not very beautiful land with prickly pear and mesquite and rubble, natural rubble, he said, “This area was grasslands, and it was beautiful. It’s been overgrazed, and it’s hard to recover a grassland once you destroy it. But this isn’t how it used to be.”  

AMS: It’s like what we were saying about the end-thing. You can have this static idea of the landscape, and you don’t realize that the landscape has been changed. We have changed it; we are changing it radically all the time. It’s part of the story for young people to understand, things are being changed and that we are propelling that change, whether on private land or public land or through the climate.

I’ve often been perversely grateful that I didn’t grow up in Alaska. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, in Riverside. In the 1970s, it was the smoggiest town in the United States. We didn’t have snow days, we had smog days. We had to stay home from school because it was so smoggy. There are mountains all around but you couldn’t see any of them. I think that gave me this fierce desire to care for the outdoors. Not only get away and be in the outdoors, but also to care for it and be aware of what can happen to it. It’s an amazing reclaiming story that in Riverside now you can see the mountains. Through smog control measures and air quality control laws, California has reversed it from the seventies. Now it’s not perfect, but the fact that I can go there and see the mountains is stunning to me. And a testament to people who worked really hard.

HI: Tell me about your teaching philosophy.

AMS: I believe in the writing itself. I believe that what’s most important in any creative writing class is to figure out what the piece is about. I had a teacher at NAU (Northern Arizona University) named Jane Armstrong Woodman. In workshop, the first thing she would do is ask everybody what’s the piece about? It was the single most useful things I had ever had a writing teacher do, because I was stunned at all the different answers people had of what they thought my story was about. Some of them were what I thought the story was about, but a lot of them were not. Some of them were things where I said, “Wow, if that’s what you think this story is about, I have to change something because it’s not.”

That taught me about finding the core of what happens. I try to help the students figure this out—I don’t think as writers we know what it’s about until we are well into a piece. At least I don’t. I want to help the student figure it out, but I also want students to help each other try to figure it out, and respect that there is an “aboutness” to every piece of writing. The feedback we give has to grow out of that place naturally. Otherwise, we’re imposing our own aesthetic or our own ideas on a piece that may not be what we want it to be. So I thank Jane for teaching me about “aboutness.”

I had several teachers as an undergraduate, and even in high school, who had such a passion for reading literature that way, for getting at the heart of literature and challenging me to think more deeply about what I read. That literature background informs the focus in my teaching of writing and in my own writing—to get at the core of things. And to complicate things.

The other thing that Jane Woodman would say is that we aren’t ever trying to teach in our nonfiction, we’re trying to wonder. You’re trying to figure out, what do I think right now? What do I know right now? Which is the Montaigne thing.

Through smog control measures and air quality control laws, California has reversed it from the seventies. Now it’s not perfect, but the fact that I can go there and see the mountains is stunning to me. And a testament to people who worked really hard.

HI: Was she a teacher of fiction or nonfiction?

AMS: She was a teacher of both. When she first taught me that it was in a fiction workshop. Later I took nonfiction from her and she had the same approach. Whether I’m teaching fiction or nonfiction, I would approach it that same way.

HI: What are the changes you’ve seen over the years in terms of “creative nonfiction” as a distinct field?

AMS: It’s definitely moved in interesting ways. John D’Agata at Iowa is a real provocateur. He’s been provocative in terms of moving nonfiction closer to poetry or to fiction. All of that is super exciting. I love seeing what writers can do with imagery and juxtaposition so that they’re not having to lean quite so heavily on traditional direct reflection to make meaning in nonfiction. I admit that I am immersed in that world of reflection and I love reflection on the page—I live there, I reside there in my own writing. But in student writing and other people’s writing, I love to see how they can find ways to make meaning without depending on that particular kind of direct telling; they can do more with showing.

I’m not particularly interested—because it’s tiresome to me—about the how much can you lie in nonfiction. I think you don’t lie in nonfiction. But there’s a lot of gray area there, there are things you can miss, or things you don’t remember rightly. I think most people who read and write nonfiction know all that. I’m more interested in how you get at the meaning, and all the amazing ways there are to use words to make meaning on the page.

HI: When you say you don’t lie in nonfiction, that means you don’t make events up or…

AMS: You don’t change a fact on purpose. John D’Agata has this famous thing where there’s a number (I won’t get this straight at all but anyway) he changes an actual number. He knows the number is nine but he thinks five sounds better, or something like that. That to me is abhorrent, you can’t do that just because you like it better, you can’t change it. You can work around it, but don’t change facts, don’t fabricate events, don’t fabricate characters. I’m sort of on the fence about compressing time. If you visited your mom three times at the hospital, can you dramatize it as one visit to the hospital? You probably can, I don’t think that’s lying in a crucial way. But if she wasn’t in the hospital and you say that she was, that’s lying.

HI: That’s a good definition. The gray area, though, is vast, because of course memory isn’t a recorder. Not just the facts can be different from somebody else’s when you compare memories, but what you remember is so shaped by the emotion you were having at the time.

AMS: There are all kinds of new neuroscience research proving this, which anybody who spent any time writing memoir already knows. Your own memory can be affected by how you felt at the time. Your memory is going to be different from other people’s who were in the same place. That’s part of the fascination of exploring memory or seeing how another writer explores memory. It’s all that tricky terrain.

HI: What are you working on now? 

AMS: I am working on another collection of essays. Whatever longer book effort I’m working on, I always go back to essays. It’s my little comfort zone. That collection is coming together and I think it will be finished in the fall. Then I’ll start thinking about another long book project. I’ve been asked to write a sequel to the middle-grade novel, so I’ve been fooling around with that too, playing with that on the side while I write the essays. That might the next thing, or there might be another nonfiction project too. One crucial aspect of my creative process is that I have to be working on more than one thing at once. I can’t just work on one project at once, or I start pressuring myself too much.

HI: I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your writing day to do this interview. I appreciate it.

AMS: Thank you.

Haley IsleibHaley Isleib writes and lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a recent Antioch MFA graduate with a focus on writing for young people. Her work has appeared in a variety of places, including Daily Science FictionPlasm, and Fireweed: Poetry of Western Oregon; her screenplays have won awards including Best Feature Screenplay in Other Worlds Austin Film Festival; and she is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship in Poetry. Born & raised in Alaska, she is in self-imposed exile from winter and no longer owns a pair of snow pants.

Peninsula

Dad was with me when I saw a whale go by on the back of a truck. It was black, and three people stood around it, scooping seawater from somewhere in the truck bed and throwing it onto the whale by the bucketful.

“A whale just drove by,” I said to Dad. We were sitting at a small table outside The Sweetest Thing, a bakery in Simon’s Town that I loved. We were meant to be sharing carrot cake for my fifteenth birthday, but Dad had the shakes because he hadn’t had a drink in two days, so he sat with his black coffee, trying not to spill as he sipped.

“What’s that?” he asked, turning to look too late.

“Yes,” said a man with a mustache like a broom who was sitting at the table next to ours, “fifty whales beached out near Kommetjie, a real tragedy.”

“Are they going to save them?” I asked.

“There are rescue workers and volunteers down there,” the man said, taking out his phone and searching for the latest news update.

Dad kept looking from the man to me as though he was sure he’d known us once. I felt bad for him. Two days ago, I’d come home from school and, for the fourth day in a row, found Dad passed out on the couch, the curtains drawn, empty sherry bottles tipped over on the floor, one of them leaking a purple bloom onto the carpet. It frustrated me that he drank, but it frustrated me more that he was on the couch in the morning when I left for school and still there when I returned eight hours later; I needed help cleaning the house, maintaining some sort of order in our lives. I’d confronted him and, without any resistance, Dad had hung his head and promised to quit the boozing. But now it was painful to see how his body rebelled against that promise.

“This has happened before,” Dad said,  “ten or twenty years ago. Those ones all died.”

“We have to go help,” I said, standing so quickly my chair crashed over. The thought of fifty whales dying less than twenty kilometers away while Dad and I sat here eating cake was horrifying.

“I’m sorry,” Dad said, lowering his voice and leaning towards me. “Jenny, I can’t drive like this.”

It frustrated me that he drank, but it frustrated me more that he was on the couch in the morning when I left for school and still there when I returned eight hours later; I needed help cleaning the house, maintaining some sort of order in our lives.

And he held out his hands in front of him so that I could see how badly they were shaking.

I saw the man with the mustache look away, not wanting us to know he’d witnessed our tiny family tragedy.

That night, I sat in front of the TV and watched as E-News showed coverage of whales being shot in the head on Kommetjie beach. A man called Mike walked from whale to whale, pistol in hand. I couldn’t believe they were shooting the whales; I’ve always thought of them as the elephants of the sea—surprisingly graceful for their size and more intelligent than I could ever hope to be. Something about the smallness of the pistol next to their large, gently flailing bodies angered me.

“Dad,” I screamed, running from the lounge looking for him. “They’re dead, all of them.” I found him lying in the dark in his bedroom. I flicked on the light and watched as he clutched at his eyes to keep the light from hurting. “They killed all the whales,” I said, and then I picked up the wicker wastepaper basket and threw it at him. Wadded tissues, dental floss, and a Cadbury’s wrapper rained down on him.

“Jenny, what the fuck!” Dad said, sitting up in bed.

“We could’ve helped,” I said, and picked up a photo frame that contained a picture of me and Dad five years ago, both of us somehow looking happy. I threw it at Dad, but it hit the soft duvet and bounced off, landing intact on the carpet. “It’s your stupid fault,” I said.

“What is it you want?” Dad shouted, leaping from bed and running out the bedroom.

I followed him to the kitchen and watched as he dragged a chair over to the counter, stood on it and began rooting through the high cupboards above the stove. He pulled out a full bottle of Old Brown Sherry and waved it at me. “Do you know how badly I want to drink this? More than anything. But not more than I want to make you happy, I just don’t know how.”

“Just be normal,” I said. “If you were like other people’s dads, we could’ve helped.”

The way Dad sighed reminded me of a deflating air mattress, as though with each exhale he too lost his purpose. He put the sherry back in the cupboard. “I’m trying, Jenny-Bear, but you should know, there’s nothing we could’ve done for those whales.”

I glared at him, wondering why people ever bothered trying to be good or helpful if it all went to shit anyway.

“Thanks for the worst birthday ever,” I said, and left Dad standing on the chair in the kitchen.

*     *     *

In our peninsula, there is a theory about why whales beach themselves again and again on that Southern Suburbs stretch of white sand. Thousands of years ago, the peninsula wasn’t a peninsula, but an island, and the towns called Sun Valley and Fish Hoek would’ve been ocean floor. Whales could’ve circled from Atlantic Ocean to Indian, swimming over what is now mall and old-age homes and fish and chip shops. But, at some point, sea levels fell and the island transformed into a peninsula, and so all that remains of that ocean channel is a memory passed down through families of whales, and when they beach themselves it isn’t because they’re sick and dying, but because they’re searching for that channel with a memory of how things used to be.

*     *     *

In English class the next day at school, instead of discussing Hamlet, everyone was talking about the dead whales and I began to cry.

“Jenny, what’s wrong?” Ms. Le Roux asked, walking down the row of desks toward me. The other thirty-three students stopped talking and watched. I’d never cried in front of anyone who wasn’t family before; I was so ashamed and confused by my tears that I cried even harder.

Ms. Le Roux put her hand on my back and made small circular motions all the while saying, “Shhhshhhshhh.”

“Emma, bring the tissues from my desk,” Ms. Le Roux said.

I could feel everyone in the classroom leaning in, watching my face, wondering what was going on. I blew my nose and it sounded like an elephant trumpeting.

When they beach themselves it isn’t because they’re sick and dying, but because they’re searching for that channel with a memory of how things used to be.

“Is it the whales?” Ms. Le Roux asked, trying to be helpful.

I nodded, not knowing if this was true.

“Were you there?” she asked, her voice changing as though she’d made a startling connection.

Not knowing why, I nodded again. “Yes,” I said tremulously.

“Did you see them get shot?” someone from class asked excitedly.

Again, I nodded. A ripple of awe ran through the class. At school, I was quiet and had no friends, so no one knew anything about me. I’d always worried that if I let people get close to me, they would want to come to my house, or their parents would want to meet mine, and then everyone would know that my dad was a drunk.

“Poor thing,” Ms. Le Roux said. “That must’ve been very traumatic for you, and here we all were just talking about it.”

“Can I go to the bathroom, please,” I asked, wanting to escape the scrutiny of my classmates.

“Of course,” Ms. Le Roux said, and ushered me to the door. “You know what,” she said once we were in the quiet of the linoleum and brick corridor, “I’m going to tell Mr. Vermeulen about this and recommend that you get an award at assembly.”

I stared at her, horrified. “I don’t want one.”

“Go get cleaned up and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“This weekend a great tragedy took place at Kommetjie beach—I’m sure some of you heard about it. Fifty-five false killer whales beached themselves and though the rescue efforts were valiant, with volunteers working for hours to try and get them back in the water, unfortunately the whales had to be euthanized,” Mr. Vermeulen, the school principal, said from behind his lectern at the end-of-day assembly.

He’d been standing up there for a while making announcements, but I had no idea what they were because all I could think about was whether Ms. Le Roux had or had not told him to give me an award, and if so, would it be today or another day. Word had spread that I’d been with the whales and now I had newfound popularity. Students kept coming up to me and asking me questions.

What did they feel like? Smooth, I’d said, but not as smooth as a wet bathtub.

What color were their eyes? Black, but in the right light, I saw blue.

Were they scared? Duh, you would be too.

One boy even asked me if, when the whales died, they crapped themselves. I told him he was an idiot, and didn’t answer. But, if I’d known the answer, I might’ve told him—that was how much I loved the attention.

It had started out that I was terrified Mr. Vermeulen would call me up during assembly, but now, I thought that if he didn’t it would be worse.

“One of our very own was at the beach yesterday to help in the whale-saving efforts,” Mr. Vermuelen said, “And the school would like to give her an award for her spirit and dedication to saving the environment. Would Jenny Bluell please come up here?”

Everyone was clapping and I felt sure that I wouldn’t be able to step around the chairs or find the stage because my vision was blurred and my ears were popping. Someone whistled and I wondered if this was what it felt like to be a celebrity. The only other time people had clapped for me had been at a dance recital when I was six and they’d been clapping for all the other girls on stage too, and, afterwards, the clapping hadn’t mattered because I’d found out that Dad had missed the show.

“We’re proud to have you at Simon’s Town High, Ms. Bluell,” Mr. Vermuelen said, handing over a piece of paper and shaking my hand. “We hope you continue to dedicate yourself to work within the community.”

I couldn’t say a word because all my energy was focused on how I could possibly get this feeling again, the feeling of being liked, cheered on, perhaps even admired. For once, I felt like less of a loser and more like everyone else.

*     *     *

When a whale faces danger or becomes stranded, it sends distress signals. Help me, is what its saying. Come find me, save me. Any whales that hear this plea will swim to the source of the call.

Dad never checked my bag for homework or school notices I’d forgotten to give him, but the guilt of having lied to the entire school made me cautious.

Some people believe that this is why mass beachings occur—the whales cannot ignore a cry for help, and so they end up stranded too.

*     *     *

Before walking through the front door at home, I stopped and unzipped my backpack and buried the award between the pages of my math textbook. It had a large gold emblem on it like a many-pointed star, and shone brightly as though it wanted to be seen. Dad never checked my bag for homework or school notices I’d forgotten to give him, but the guilt of having lied to the entire school made me cautious.

“Dad, I’m home,” I yelled, as I walked into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. He’d been asleep when I left for school this morning, and he didn’t reply now. “Dad,” I shouted louder.

With a cheese sandwich in hand and one on a plate for Dad, I knocked on his bedroom door and then pushed it open. The bedclothes were rumpled and I saw the telltale signs of sherry drinking—Dad’s white mug smeared with stains as though an artist had been at it with purple brushstrokes. I didn’t know what to think. This wasn’t the first time Dad had quit drinking and, after a while, the inevitability of his failure became so mingled with the hope that he would succeed the two were impossible to tell apart.

I went to his bathroom and knocked, the old wooden door rattling on its hinges. “Dad?” I asked, easing the door open because I was afraid Dad would be in there taking a crap. Instead he was on the floor in a puddle of water, not moving. I stood with one foot in the bedroom, one in the bathroom for what felt like hours. Thoughts swirled like some massive school of fish had found its way into my head and was desperately searching for a way out.

Is he dead, is it because I lied, is this how karma works, no, surely not this fast, why is there water everywhere, did he pee his pants, is that broken glass, it’s brown fucking glass from his goddamn sherry bottles, if I’m a good daughter I’ll make sure he’s buried in a coffin lined with sherry, I’ve imagined him dead before, he looks surprised the way his mouth is open, God, he’s dead, isn’t he, just because I’ve thought about finding him dead doesn’t mean I wanted it to happen, does it, he’s breathing.

“Dad,” I said, dropping the plate with the cheese sandwich onto the tiles, not hearing it shatter. I knelt beside him and my grey school stockings and skirt soaked up the liquid on the floor. I didn’t even care if it was pee. Dad didn’t open his eyes and I tried to remember what I’d learnt in the emergency response course we’d absurdly been taught in fifth grade. The only thing I remembered was one of the boys feeling up my chest during the CPR portion of the class. I balled my hand into a fist and punched Dad in the chest. “Wake up,” I shouted.

Dad groaned and moved his hand to his chest in a protective gesture, but didn’t open his eyes.

“Move your feet,” I ordered, terrified he’d be paralyzed.

His feet waved slowly on the tile floor. The relief I felt was as if someone had pushed me from a four-story building and at the last minute I’d been safely caught in a fireman’s blanket. For the second time that day, I began to cry.

“What the fuck are you doing on the floor?”

“I slipped,” Dad said. He put his hand on my arm and through my school jersey I could feel the heat from his fingers.

“I’m going to call an ambulance.”

Dad shook his head and winced. “We can’t afford it.”

But what if you die, I wanted to say, but instead asked, “What can I do?”

In increments, Dad and I moved from lying down to sitting, and then sitting to standing, and then from bathroom to bedroom. The sun was setting in glaring orange behind the mountain by the time Dad was in bed. I brought him cups of tea made sweet with condensed milk and cut up a cheese sandwich into centimeter squares, all of them skewered with toothpicks as though we were at a fancy tea party, not sitting in Dad’s bedroom trying to keep him awake and alive.

“It was water on the floor,” Dad had said during one of the breaks as we moved towards the bedroom. “I wanted a bath, and then I thought I would have one last drink and then pour the rest down the sink. The bottle was mostly done by the time I remembered the bath.” He touched the back of his head gingerly. “Serves me right,” he’d said, and then hadn’t looked at me for a while.

That night, we sat together in Dad’s bed, head to toe, and made a game of staying awake because Dad had heard that was what you did with a concussion. We both have ticklish feet, so Dad held onto my left foot and I held his too, and each time one of us began to drift off, we were tickled awake.

I was so scared for Dad that I forgot about the dead whales and the award hidden in my backpack and the way I’d felt, as if I were a phoenix rising above it all.

*     *     *

Just as there are viruses that make us ill, there are viruses for whales too.

Perhaps it was that I’d cried in front of everyone, or maybe it had something to do with Dad, or my hormones, or any number of things that had built up over the years.

Some of these viruses, scientists think, get into the whales’ brains and attack their sonar so that when the whales ping for open water, their sonar lies to them and they end up somewhere they didn’t intend, like stranded on a beach.

*     *     *

“My brother was at Kommetjie beach, and he says he didn’t see you there,” Aimee, a bird-faced girl from my grade said during break.

I was sitting on a small grassy hill with four other people who were treating me like I had a special aura because of my proximity to the whales during death. This was the first time I’d had someone to sit with at break in almost two years.

“And my sister says she didn’t see you either,” said Lizette, a heifer of a girl who would’ve thrown herself off a mountain if Aimee asked her to.

My stomach turned into an icebox.

“How do they know what Jenny looks like?” asked Emma, my staunchest supporter ever since she’d fetched Ms. Le Roux’s tissues for me when I’d cried during English class yesterday.

“The grade eight class photo—my brother says no one that looked vaguely like you was there, and he can prove it because he took loads of photos. I looked through them and you weren’t in any of them,” Aimee said.

“Why would Jenny lie?” Emma asked. “It’s not like seeing whales get shot is a happy event.”

“Yeah,” I said weakly, “why would I lie?”

I still had no idea why I had lied. Perhaps it was that I’d cried in front of everyone, or maybe it had something to do with Dad, or my hormones, or any number of things that had built up over the years.

“Because you’re an attention seeker,” Aimee said. “Because you wanted people to think you’re cool.”

I stared up at Aimee’s crossed arms; they seemed stunted and weak, like they’d break if I applied the slightest pressure. I wondered how she knew exactly how I felt. I wondered what her home situation was like.

“I was there,” I said, “at one end of the beach. I watched one of the whales get loaded onto a truck so they could drive it to Simon’s Town harbor.”

“I’m telling Mr. Vermuelen,” Aimee said.

“Me too,” Lizette said.

I wanted to stick my tongue out at them, or give them the finger. Instead I said, “Why does it matter so much to you, are you jealous?”

“We are not!” Lizette said, as if the idea were hilarious.

Aimee glared at me but her face turned pink, and, in the moment before total panic at having my lie uncovered in front of the whole school set in, I felt sorry for her because I realized that maybe the two of us weren’t so different.

*     *     *

“Will Jenny Bluell please come to the Principal’s office,” a voice said through the intercom.

It was two periods after Aimee had confronted me. I hadn’t expected her to work so fast. As I walked from the classroom, I caught Emma’s eye and she mimed hanging herself. If I hadn’t felt like I was about to puke, I would’ve laughed. I liked Emma; she was the first person in years I thought I could give the word “friend” to, even though I knew the friendship was based on lies. The thought that after this she would never speak to me again was surprisingly painful.

Outside Mr. Vermuelen’s office, I paused and for some reason smoothed my hair back, as though a neater appearance would help. I knocked.

“Kom binne,” Mr. Vermuelen said in Afrikaans.

There was no one with him in the office and this made me feel slightly better. I was sure that when he revoked my award I’d cry, and the fewer witnesses to that the better.

“Jenny, how are you, have a seat,” he said, smiling as though this were just a social visit. He was in his sixties, but his hair was still thick and blonde. He was a surfer and had a permanently sunbaked look. “Were your parents proud of you, for the award?”

“It’s just my dad.”

Mr. Vermuelen nodded as though this were fascinating conversation.

It had been a year since Dad had cleaned the kitchen—the last time had been when he’d realized he’d forgotten my fourteenth birthday, and to make it up to me he’d tried to bake a cake, which had come out lopsided, and then to make up for that he’d cleaned the kitchen.

“Before I gave you the award, I should’ve spoken to you about it, and then perhaps this all could’ve been prevented.” He leant forward in his desk. “Jenny, I have to ask you this—were you part of the effort to save the whales? And, you should know, whatever you say, the consequences won’t be great, we’ll ask you to return that piece of paper and then say nothing more.”

I thought about the star on the award, it was such a smooth gold. I’d never been given an award before, and the thought of giving this one back, even though it wasn’t deserved, didn’t seem fair. My name was written in fancy cursive!

“I was there,” I said, and with some previously unplumbed depths of impudence, looked Mr. Vermeulen in the eye. “I helped for hours.”

“Okay,” Mr. Vermuelen nodded, “all right.” He leant back in his chair and smiled. “How are you enjoying school?”

“It’s nice,” I said, “thank you.”

“I think to really put a nail in this, I’ll give your parents a call, and then if anyone has any doubts, well, tough takkies.”

For the last while, it felt like any time I got the slightest relief or ease, it was immediately smashed as though I didn’t deserve anything good. I thought about Dad sitting at home with his concussion. I wondered if he’d had a drink today and if it would be better if he had or if he hadn’t when he took Mr. Vermeulen’s phone call. I wasn’t sure Dad would even remember the beached whales.

“You can go now, Jenny,” Mr. Vermuelen said.

“Thank you,” I said, sounding uncertain.

*     *     *

Some people believe that whales are family-oriented and that a pod of whales, though not all related by blood, is family. These people believe that whales have such strong links to one another that even if just a few are sick and beach themselves to die, the entire pod will come up onto the beach in solidarity.

*     *     *

Dad was sitting in the lounge with an ice pack on his head when I got home.

“How was school?” he asked.

I couldn’t tell if this was meant politely or if Mr. Vermuelen had called and it was innuendo. “Fine,” I said. “How’s your head?”

“I’ll live.” Dad held out the ice pack. “Refresh this for me, please.”

When I walked into the kitchen, I saw that it had been cleaned. For once, there were no crumbs on the counter or dishes in the sink, and I was sure, were I to take my shoes off and walk barefoot across the floor, I wouldn’t feel bits of old food or clumps of dirt stick to my feet. It had been a year since Dad had cleaned the kitchen—the last time had been when he’d realized he’d forgotten my fourteenth birthday, and to make it up to me he’d tried to bake a cake, which had come out lopsided, and then to make up for that he’d cleaned the kitchen. I wondered if this was his way of apologizing for the concussion, or maybe the fall had knocked something loose in his brain and he’d had one of those personality shifts I sometimes saw on medical dramas.

Dad was grinning when I came back with the ice pack.

“What do you want for dinner?” I asked, annoyed by his “cat got the cream” look, but still grateful for the clean kitchen.

“Fish and chips.”

“Are you sure we can afford it?”

“No, but what the heck, let’s live a little. Besides,” Dad said, “we’ve got something to celebrate.”

Immediately, it was like an alarm had been tripped and warning, warning was flashing in my head. “We do?” I asked, sure that he was going to make some joke about the phone call from school.

“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Dad said. “And I have a beautiful daughter who is alive too—what’s not to celebrate?”

“All right,” I said, bemused. “I’ll walk down and get the food.”

Dad had set the dining room table with two yellow placemats, white napkins, knives and forks, and a vase holding a spray of purple bougainvillea, which ran rampant in our garden.

They say the calves are the first to go, forced into the shallows and then ashore by currents and heaving waves.

There was also an unopened bottle of sherry and two glasses.

“A bit fancy for fish and chips, isn’t it?” I asked.

Dad took the newspaper-wrapped parcels from me and hurried into the kitchen, returning with the oily food glistening on plates.

“Sit,” he said. He unscrewed the sherry and poured for both of us. When I was younger, Dad would often pour little nips of sherry for me so that we could drink together, but it had been years since then.

“A toast,” Dad said, raising his glass.

I raised mine too, wondering what next.

“To Jenny, a wonderful young woman who is kind not only to her old man but to all creatures, great and small.”

I stared at Dad thinking, surely not.

“Whose efforts won her an award—which I would like to see, by the way,” Dad said.

“Dad,” I said. I wanted to explain, to apologize.

He held up his hand to silence me. “When the school called wanting to hear all the details, I told them that as soon as you’d heard about the whales, you’d made me drive you, and then you’d helped for hours.”

My ears were ringing and for a moment I was sure I was hallucinating; I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours.

“I even told them about how you’d helped get one of the whales onto a truck even though you were exhausted and freezing. I told them how proud I was of you because you were always ready to help those who need it,” Dad said, and the way the light caught, it looked like he might cry. “That you’re a kind, patient girl, even when sometimes you shouldn’t be.”

“Dad,” I said again, though now I didn’t know what I wanted to say.

“Don’t let your food get cold,” he said, and took a long drink from his sherry glass.

*     *     *

Before the peninsula was named The Cape of Good Hope, it was The Cape of Storms and these storms come in winter bringing high seas, sheets of rain, and a wind known as The Black Southeaster. It is this weather, people believe, that beaches whales along our shores. They say the calves are the first to go, forced into the shallows and then ashore by currents and heaving waves. Unable to abandon their young, the parents choose to swim alongside them, away from open water, knowingly toward danger. And then the rest of the pod follows and all of them lie side-by-side on the white sand like sunbathers until they dehydrate, or drown, or their bodies give out under their own weight.

Holly Beth PrattHolly Beth Pratt lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she is currently earning her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, she misses home a lot, so she is at work on a collection of linked stories all about the Southern Peninsula.