Category — Fiction
What We Always Did but More
By Mitch James
We’ve been waiting for the world to end now for seven months, three days, and twelve hours. We know how we’ll go. Our life now is preparing for it, yet I don’t even look up to see it anymore.
Most of us saw it on sunrise the first day. Those who missed it saw it during sunrise the second day. By the third day, it hung there at all hours, a red dot beside the sun.
On the first day I was taking Haley to school. She said, “Daddy, what’s wrong with the sun?”
I said, “What do you mean, honey? What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s all blurry,” she laughed. “Silly sun.”
I came to a stop light and peered at my daughter in the rearview mirror. She stared out of her window. I followed her gaze. The dot was but the size of a marble then, cadmium red diluting to transparent orange as it bled into the halo of the sun, a ruptured vessel in the yoke of an egg, spread on a canvas of phthalo blue. Within twenty four hours, dozens of artist all over the world painted their rendition of that sky. Brendan Monroe’s Fin Du Monde sold for 1.3 billion dollars, far outselling Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players, the most expensive painting to date.
I took my daughter to school despite the sky. Kids and parents alike stared high, parents with hands on their hips or in their pockets or over the brow of their forehead to block the sun, the kids asking mommy, mommy, daddy, daddy, needing answers. The bell rang, and the teachers blew their whistles. The school yard cleared and was still except where blades of grass tried to stand tall inside a single boot print.
After that, everything was news. Nobody knew exactly what was happening. Scientists postulated. The Russians and Americans agreed that Apophis was a planet missed by telescopes due to its ovular orbit, one that brought it from beneath our solar system and around the back of the sun. That was the end of Russian and American agreement until just weeks ago. The Americans suspected the sudden climate change over the last thirty years was actually a result of the gravitational effects of Apophis entering our solar system. The Russians disagreed. One week after the appearance of Apophis, there was an international conference in Hawaii debating whether or not global warming and climate change were results of the planet or of mankind or of some combination of both. The answers to such questions, they said, could affect the lives of generations to come.
Their second disagreement concerned the likelihood of impact. During the first few weeks of Apophis’ appearance, American scientists argued that impact was inevitable and that, for humans, it would be a global killer. Russian scientists believed the planet would miss earth by a mere 973 miles, showering our planet in an onslaught of tail debris that would be catastrophic but not world ending. Then the Americans argued that if Apophis came that close it would reverse our gravitational pull, flipping earth upside down within half a day, sending the oceans in mile high waves across every continent. The Russians agreed. Then cognitive scientists suggested that such a large disruption in electromagnetic energy would scramble the circuits of our own brains, very likely wiping them clean, leaving most of us vegetables at best. People began moving inland, and the wealthy built large, tall structures with interior rooms made purely of lead.
Two months later, as Apophis grew bigger in the sky than the sun, both the Russians and Americans agreed impact was inevitable and that it would kill us all.
While all of this happened, those of us in the country or small towns did what we always did but more. I worked and picked my daughter up from school every day and made certain I had her at her mother’s house on time every weekend. I helped the neighbors hand dig the start of their underground storage shelter. Though they got their name on the wait list within the first week of Apophis’ appearance, if took nearly three months before they could rent a back hoe from State Supply. We had most everything dug by the time we got the machine. The Kellys put lead walls and a series of sump pump systems in their shelter. The pumps drained into the valley. Gerry was certain those pumps, which he rigged to be both solar and gas powered, could drain enough water to keep the place livable even in Noah’s flood. We chuckled about that and started to dig the hole for my bunker but had to return the back hoe. By then the waiting list was at 36 months.
In the country and small towns, we mostly helped each other, stocking up goods, sharing meat and vegetables, canning and pickling and providing manual labor. We went to work, tended our families, and came home and prepared not to die.
In the past seven months scientist have predicted the impact date three separate times, but there’s been no impact. The night before the first predicted impact, I took Haley to her mother’s. It was the first time the three of us had been together in a room in four years. We had dinner and played Go Fish. Carol and I held hands on the couch while Haley slept across our laps. We watched the sky and the clocks but then decided to put the clocks face down and close our eyes and listen to the world end. I woke up at sunrise just as Haley was getting up to pee. It was a Wednesday, so I told Carol I’d bring Haley back that weekend, and we left. On the second impact date, I brought Haley to Carol’s again, but this time we sat at different ends of the couch and watched the clocks while Haley colored. It was a Monday afternoon. Two hours after the time of estimated impact, Haley and I decided to leave. The third predicted impact was on a Saturday afternoon. I dropped Haley off at Carol’s that morning and picked her up that Sunday evening.
We used to pray many times every day. We used to watch it in the sky all of the time, until it got bigger than the sun. It’s been months since I’ve really sat down and looked at it like I used to. I’ve heard the sunsets are beautiful, a red disc and an orange disc beside each other, their colors bleeding together on the horizon, but I haven’t seen a single one. I can’t bring myself to do it. Scientists agree that there will be something left of earth but not of humans, like we were never here. Everything we’ve ever thought about the universe will be erased. The understanding, shape, color, and smell of every single thing, gone. If something comes after us, it will have to start all over again. I don’t want to see that in a sunset, so I don’t pray or look at sunsets. I work and take care of my daughter and help my neighbors prepare to survive.
About the author:
Mitch James was born and raised in Central Illinois, where he received a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Eastern Illinois University. He received a Masters in Literature from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and has had fiction and poetry published in Decomp, Underground Voices, Kill Author, Digital Americana and Blue Earth Review among others. Mitch is a doctoral candidate (ABD) in the Composition and TESOL program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he’s both an instructor in the English Department and Assistant Coordinator of the English Writing Portfolio Placement Program. Mitch’s latest scholarly article, “Tragedy, Plot, Fiction: A Study of Sameness and How You May Have Been Duped,” was recently published in New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Mitch James/Fiction
Two Book Reviews
by Mary Kane
Reviewed by Miriam O’Neal
Author: Mary Kane
Published By: One Bird Book
ISBN-10: 149 4838427
Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com
Door, Mary Kane’s first full-length volume of poems, has the fullness of a mature writer. This is a poet who has practiced her craft extensively and with intensity. The door of the title poem turns out to be the broad expanse of a man’s back. Other doors turn out to be memories, windows, spaces between trees, death, ideas…. Each contains a threshold and a frame. Each invites entry or exit; from unconsciousness to consciousness, from the past to the future, from grief to acceptance, from the real to the surreal.
Over the course of the first 5 poems of Door we move from,
- the ‘black door’ of a man’s back ‘opening/ to a church where the flat/hat of a single congregant/ accommodates despair
- to the ‘black coat’ in a series of photographs, which reminds the speaker of an early time when ‘Doctors and clergymen’ visited people in their homes.
- to ‘several varieties of morning light, all of them useful for reflection….’, in the daytime memory of a dream of an extramarital affair,
- to a woman named Mary Ann, who exists in a painting by that name, but whom the speaker invites you to imagine as yourself.
- to lemons in a daughter’s drawing that elicit layers of awareness of grief, desire, the loss of innocence, and more.
Real and imagined characters, artists, writers, and family members enter and leave the rooms of these poems, the action often takes place in a kitchen, on a sidewalk, in a dream, and other places. One wonderful characteristic of the poems in Door, is that Kane manages to persuade you to suspend your disbelief early on by providing familiar and ordinary details through which to view the worlds these poems inhabit.
Each poem operates as a report or a musing. We read the odd details of dreams or memories; the propositions she presents begin to reveal our own unconsciousness to us. I do not mean she preaches to us; she discusses matters with us. In “The Listener” we meet Joe, who
…cups one hand
behind his ear and crouches
in a scraped out space beneath a sidewalk, in hiding
in the dark nine-tenths of who I am….
It’s difficult to say how many times I have read this particular poem, but every time I read it I am amazed by its ability to clarify the particular reality of an acknowledged hidden self who understands what we are about. We each have a ‘Joe’ within, a ‘listener,’ that hidden part of ourselves with whom we long to merge; we “long to sit at dinner// with [our] entirety….”, even though until this moment we haven’t had a name for that self or for that longing.
A lot of what opens the door for the reader of these poems is Kane’s ability to remove us from the predictable immediately. Her titles and opening lines set up expectations of a one kind only to displace us by way of curious images or ideas. You might imagine you know what to expect from a poem whose title is, “Better Than Catholicism,” but you would be mistaken.
A man walks up Main Street
with a cardboard box on his head
and decides he likes it
better than Catholicism
but not so much
as a cigarette at a bar.
It’s important to say that Kane never reaches for the polemical. If she’s writing about religion, she’s not claiming it’s rightness or wrongness, she’s writing about the longing that one’s connection to a religion may or may not fulfill. That theme of longing is echoed in “Love Poem #279”, whose opening lines tell us “A poet is someone who is stupid/ enough to keep scratching….”, and with the closing lines of “Love Poem — Egret”,
which closes with,
…. I used to be
made of bird too, my fast
heart, my voice hidden
in foliage, my ready flight.
That sense of past life is one way that the poems address the presence of absence.
Absences create spaces. Spaces are to be entered.
Kane’s poems startle me into awareness again and again. There is the line from “A Fine Red New of Capillaries In The Shape Of A Human Head” where the speaker claims, “If you bring forth what is in you, that’s the Gospel of Thomas.” Thomas was the apostle who doubted that Christ has risen, so was invited to place his fingers in the wound in Christ’s side as proof that this was Christ. As such, this single line provides a quick insight or an afternoon of contemplation. What is the place of doubt in the human psyche?
There is also an intense awareness of how we inhabit the physical world as in the poem “Measure” where,
In the first winter
two sisters skate at night, lying on their backs
on the ice afterward, their ears and fingers
cold, the creak and moan of thick ice
widening the night….
Like a painter who knows her brushes, Kane has captured the experience of night skating precisely with a few strokes, including the sound of ice refreezing in the dark, which makes the night feel deeper, broader, and more mysterious.
If you review the table of contents of Door, it might seem that she sometimes goes too far with her titles. There are 7 poems whose titles are 9 or more words long, and 1 exceeds 20 words. These are juxtaposed with the single word titles like ‘Door” and “Measure,” “Parnate” and “Evidence.” I mention the titles only because they are, all of them, the kinds of titles, whether brief or extensive, that take on the work of doors themselves, framing the spaces of the poems, insuring that when you enter, you know how you got there, especially because where you end up can be so unexpected.
One of the remarkable characteristics of Kane’s work is her capacity for an undercurrent of droll humor. Imaginary characters like Eleanor, Ellen, a woman sitting on clouds or in a tree, and 3 women having tea, arrive with strange news or casseroles, or a photo of a window and a field; a poem shows up with mud on its trousers. The reader feels she knows the cast from somewhere else. Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Woolf, Whitman, Dickinson, Cezanne, Kitaj, Degas, and others show up to referee, infer, or illuminate situations. Yet there is not a single presence that feels self-conscious. They inhabit the poems as naturally as the birds— herons, orioles, egrets, the shadow of a hawk.
A common practice of reviewers is to examine a collection of poems for its arc. I won’t claim to have found one in Door. What I find is a wandering, as in the aboriginal ‘walk about’, which is defined by some as a rite of passage of adolescence, but is also related to the practice of leaving ordinary/daily life without notice when a ceremony must be attended to. The poems lead the reader on and on, from room to room, world to world, vision to vision. The first and title poem “Door” ends with the line “I only have to change/ utterly to enter.” The final poem “There Will Be A Woman Written In As A Wren,” suggests the transformation has occurred when one last character is introduced, “…there’ll be a young boy tossing a baseball in the air, higher and higher, always catching it in his glove….”. His easiness with ball and glove, in spite of ever growing distance between the two suggests a way of living with it all— with longing, with absence, with wonder, with grief: stand still, wait, receive, release. Repeat.
Door, by Mary Kane (ISBN 13: 978-149483423)
One Bird Book
35 Brush Hill Circle
Hatchville, MA 02536
About the Reviewer:
Miriam O’Neal has published poems and/or reviews in AGNI, Marlboro Review, Louisiana Literature, Birmingham Review, and The Guidebook, as well as elsewhere. Her translation of Italian poet, Alda Merini earned her a Beginning Translator’s Fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in 2007. Her manuscript, We Start WithWhat We’re Given is currently looking for a home.
From These Roots
by Audrie Clifford
Reviewed by Eileen Dandashi
Title: From These Roots
Author: Audrie Clifford
Published By: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
(March 4, 2014)
Audrie’s books are so unique. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. She tells us that some are purely fiction, some are memoirs and others are a combination. She’s got stories in her, this feisty-tell-it-how-it-is-80-year-old, who puts just enough fictional material in a factual setting that you have to read it.
Her story about her mother and grandmother was researched through family and her own memory. It is her mother’s story, but it’s hers and well as her brother and sisters. The absolutely clever way she begins the book keeps you reading, after all, doesn’t everyone want to find out what the dead have to say?
I’ve been dead a good long while now. I didn’t mean to scare you by saying that, but I didn’t want you to think that I was alive and that you could communicate with me.
I died in 1939, which was a considerable time ago, but you know how folks say that as long as there is anyone who remembers you, you’re really not gone? Well, it’s true. There are only two granddaughters left who have the vaguest memory of me, and those two girls are getting old, so I won’t be around much longer, I guess. I’ll just be fading into that blur of ancestors that we all have, and I don’t know if there are individual spirits among them. Guess I’ll be finding out pretty soon.
I liked the book for the story itself, the relationships been daughter and mothers. I was touched by the purely unselfish acts that women did for each other. It also described life as it used to be. I am not as old as Audrie, but I know life was simpler in the 1950s. But in the early 1900s when Florence, lived, there was very little of what we’ve come to expect today. Yep, outhouses were the norm in lots of the United States since much of it was rural. People did their own canning of summer harvests to tie them over through the hard months of winter. Poverty during the depression years was the new norm. Cars were a rarity. Doctors may know what you have, but have nothing to make it go away. And if they know what something is, there were no pills to pop, just herbs and natural ways to get over something. Addy, one of Emma’s children, had the Cuban itch. What is the Cuban itch you ask? The doctor had such a novel way to get rid of it! Hey, you gotta’ read the book, I can’t tell! People had to rely on themselves whenever they could, but also found help was available from the graciousness of others who had a little more than they did. Life was simple, yet difficult.
Women have always had to be strong. They were survivors. They still are. Our environment and challenges have changed, but the struggle continues. I’d like to think that our genes have been conditioned by our ancestors dealing with adversity. Women have always been thus challenged. We shall overcome and be stronger for it.
Audrie writes from her heart in a very entertaining way. I really have enjoyed all her books to date. I hope that you’ll choose to read one. Below are the covers of her books with purchase links from Amazon. Below that are links to my previous reviews of her three other books.
Book Jacket Blurb: Most of us don’t live in exactly the same style as our parents. It is the nature of the child to break away and to see a life more in keeping with their own inclinations. From These Roots tells the stories of Florence, a woman of the early 20th century and her daughter, Emma. Both women faced the challenges of poverty and heartbreak and yet, neither woman let circumstances define her.
As women of the modern age, we are inclined to give ourselves credit for our strength and courage in overcoming obstacles, never wondering where those qualities came from.
Perhaps the best thing to inherit from your ancestors is neither money nor beauty. It is the ability to cope with adversity.
A warm, but unsparing look at the events that occur in many of our lifetimes. Florence tells the tales of her own life and that of one of her daughters. They were both good women, but while Florence accepted betrayal and heartbreak in a docile manner as was proper at the turn of the twentieth century, Emma was more inclined to fight back or to get even. Their strength and endurance, along with that of other mothers has been left as a legacy to the women of today. “Great story about the joys and sorrows all families face during a lifetime.”
Another Damn Newcomer https://eileendandashi.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=852&action=edit
A bit of information about Audrie Clifford:
My first book was factual, my second and third books were fiction, From These Roots is both.
I always knew that I wanted to tell my mother’s story because I found it to be almost unbelievable. What I needed to put it in an acceptable format was someone to tell the story from an all-seeing point of view. My mother’s mother seemed to be a perfect solution. The only problem was that I hadn’t known my grandmother. She died when I was only five-years old, after seeing her one time.
Family history, however, gave me some of the known facts of her life and she became “Florence” in my book. All I had to do was write the story to conform to the known facts.
My mother’s story (“Emma” in the book) was written to be as true to her reality as I could make it. She really, truly did intend to commit murder, and admitted it quite casually to me. She really, truly did deliver another woman’s baby in the desert.
Most women don’t have those kinds of stories, so that’s why I felt hers should be told.
The book I’m currently working on was decided on as a bit of challenge to me. This is a story of an ordinary life as told by a nine-year old.
About Eileen Dandashi:
“I am a lover of books, both reading and writing. My mission is to encourage people to see the treasures that lie between the pages. I enjoy conversing with authors, fellow bloggers who have anything to do with books and have a particular thrill seeing writers newly published. I am a past teacher of music, English as a secondary language, and French. I have traveled and lived in much of the Middle East, Arab speaking countries and would like to share my experiences and knowledge through the printed word.”
November 5, 2014 Comments Off on BOOKS/Reviews
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By Jason Allen
Here we got a woman not an ordinary woman she’s a woman with extraordinary looks and a personality to match and she reads all kinds of books and it says here that you won’t be disappointed in the sack, no she’ll leave you stunned and amazed and you’ll profess your love to her even though you’re still in a daze and she can cook and she likes dogs and even though she doesn’t know yet if she wants any of her own she likes kids, and she’s good with ‘em and she’s kind and she has a sense of humor and she knows what’s going on in the world and people say she’s got a sharp mind and just look at those eyes gentlemen those majestic lovely eyes guys she’s more than a pretty face you know don’t you know she’s the only one you’ll ever want you’re one true love, hey can I hear an opening bid can I hear a thousand who will gimme a thousand and we have a thousand from the smart man in the back can I hear two who will gimme two who will go to two thousand there’s two can I hear three yesiree there’s three, now fellas don’t let this one pass you by she’s the one of your dreams even more than I could describe she’s a diamond in the rough and one in a million at the same time ain’t she fine, can I get ten thousand who will say ten thousand, and there we have it we have ten thousand to the gentleman right up front, ten thousand going once going twice and—sold! to the man with the odd smile, and take her hand sir, and I now pronounce you husband and wife.
Hey! Okay we’re gonna keep moving and it’s your turn ladies to bid on our next item up here, bring him up now and try to settle down now ladies so we can get this man hitched as quickly as we can and we’ll start the bidding at a thousand for his muscles and the soap-opera jaw-line alone, and he’s not a felon and he sings in the shower and he’ll bring you flowers when it’s not even your birthday or your anniversary and there we have a thousand we have a thousand how about two, two from the well-proportioned woman in blue and you ladies out there is she gonna be the one who wants him most or will he unpack his bags tonight with another one of you who’s really ready to invest in love and there’s three we have three thousand from the sweet young vixen who ain’t fixin’ to wait until it’s too late to find a man who can break rocks with his bare hands but also writes love letters and poems with your name as the title and let me tell you he’ll wind you up like a yo-yo and unravel you from the inside out and dangle you from the palm of his hand and dance the tango in more ways than one and you’ll be the object of his undivided attention and so let’s see who’s ready for love and prepared to slap down the credit card to prove it, can I hear ten thousand who will gimme ten thousand for a lifetime fairytale that’s for sale right here and now, and there’s ten do we have another bidder, it’s ten, ten again to the woman in red, ten thousand once, twice, three times—sold! and now clasp hands, and by the power vested in me I now pronounce you husband and wife, and now seal the deal with a kiss.
About the author:
Jason Allen has an MFA from Pacific University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at Binghamton University, where he is an editor for Harpur Palate. His work has been published or is forthcoming in: Passages North, Paterson Literary Review, Contemporary American Voices, The Molotov Cocktail, Oregon Literary Review, Spilt Infinitive, and other venues. He hopes to one day meet Tom Waits and buy him a cup of coffee.
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Jason Allen/Fiction
This Is for Life:
Kathryn Levy’s Disquieting Reports
Review by Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles
Book Title: Reports; Type: Poetry
New Rivers Press, 2013
ISBN #: 978-0-89823-286-8 9 ($14.95)
83 pages; 6″ x 9″
The semi-divine, for some of us, alchemist of language and sentiment, Rainer Maria Rilke, once advised 19-year-old fledgling poet, Franz Kappus, that “nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism.” I take his memorable exhortation to mind as I pick up Kathryn Levy’s newly published second book of poems Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) and reflect on some of the strange pleasures I found in “art” as showcased in it.
First of all, the volume is slim enough to seem non-threatening when you first see or pick it up. It is also a brief eighty pages of similarly slim, down-the-left-margin-running poems. Its cover is as evocative a cover for a book of poems as I believe any could and should be. And how apropos these initial, superficial observations seem! for in its four-part span, various themes will be tried after: here loneliness, there rage; here love, there the indiscriminate, indistinct sweepings in and out of random indecision or death—or, which is worse (a poem in Reports assures us), even paralysis, a state that takes many forms. The book works as lure. It invites, then beautifully unsettles.
Indeed, Levy’s poems in Reports seem to provide a need as well as create a demand for the book’s well-chosen title, for what is experienced in these poems is the result of intense witnessing, of personal or shared elations, of personal or shared shocks. Many of the poems take hold of a reader and run him/her through a sort of psychic gauntlet, one that is as strangely ravishing as it is intensely frightening.
Four poems from Reports that illustrate what I have tried to phrase adequately are: “In the Place in the Woods”, “Wedding”, “A Wonderful Life” and “Exposed to the Winds.” Each of these briskly paced pieces called out for specific attention, shocking me awake (with harrowing surprise) as did a few other pieces in this disquieting second collection I will not be able to get to at present.
Disquieting is no hyperbole. Levy’s “In the Place in the Woods” proves this from beginning to end. Here is a narrative dilemma, lyrically elided, presenting a child, a woman, a blind man, a not clarified “they” in a sort of “selva oscura” where “the shooting continues.” As if Levy had ripped this poem’s situation right out of our now too-routine for this type of crime headlines, a child “clutches/ rage in his fists” and:
his gun at the sky and
the trees those leaves
the birds who keep flying
for he believes “they/ have to be taught”:
I can’t see
anymore – so I have to hang
onto this gun…
Words like shooting, begs, blind, closet, bends, pounding, clutches, tumbles, explosion, murder, rage, sacrificed, refusing, pokes, hang, gun possess us in unremitting sequence from the first line to the last until we have become every character in the tragic “In the Place in the Woods.” We become the enraged child, the woman who tries to stop and comfort him, the blind man who hides, even the trees, leaves and birds at one remove from their exit. We become, too, the undisclosed “they” − those who witness, those who move on as if “uncaring,” those who must “be taught.” This poem’s great strength, if brevity and pacing are put after, is its inconclusive finger-pointing. Who is at fault for setting innocence to rage? Who is its victim?
Levy’s “Wedding,” a second poem from Reports, moves us from blind rage to a marital celebration. In this also lyrically elided poem, the poet conjures up a common scene – a wedding. Here there is song and dance and ritual “patterns”—here, too, these give way to “the ground/ slipping beneath us” as we are whisked by emotion and metaphor to this startling comparison:
….like watching your wake
as the boat presses
into the wind the sails
swell the hand grasps
the powerful tiller − this
could lead us to death −
for a marriage contract is, in faith and legality, a risk – a departure into deeper, unpredictable waters. And here again the poet “grasps” for grounding and possibly control by locking in on the minister who witnesses, but who also places “hands upon hands” and declares, “…This/ is for life -” Are we at a celebration or arrived at another kind of “wake”? The reader is given no easy or conclusive answer. A marital vow, after all, promises no sureties. By this point readers of Reports can be left feeling as if they had begun a poem by George Oppen or Louise Gluck and arrived somewhere else entirely. Its four times depicted “flowers” seem to conceal more than they decorate.
Who reads to be startled? Who takes his/her time to enact and/or join a poet in such inconclusive witnessing? Perhaps readers who demand, like Levy, that poetry take them to the breath-taking edge, daringly – with nothing freely given or mapped out before or after. Thus “A Wonderful Life,” also in Reports, flashes on and off, and, like a bolt of lightning, dazzles and singes. It begins innocently enough with laughing and “a party at/ Christmas time.” The speaker in the poem ventures to a store and is unable to decide on what to purchase. Why the confusion? Is there nothing left? Is the money at hand too little? Why the anxiety that leads to “Tearing/ the dollars to pieces”? Levy changes voice for pictorial dilemma as economic collapse is considered and distant, Scrooge-like “men with the gold/ bars in their pockets” are judged, even as they are shown:
laughing at a dinner, mumbling at the bedside
of another friend who is dying – and
gripping the bars as tightly as they can…
A line further we read: “In/ this world you have to survive.” Clear accusation also does not assuage in Reports. Instead readers are made to ask, “For What?…For/ what?”
Kathryn Levy’s Reports is a collection of truly risky psychical dilemmas survived; the strange power of the whole, as in its parts, is its brave gleaning into the multifaceted nature of what is ultimately, in our moral-hungry world, termed beautiful or meaningful. Like “Exposed to the Winds,” one of its final poems, asks, “will the storms ever stop?…./….did you think the storms were the worst of night?” The paralyzing answer is “rush through these halls/ to find/ even one sound// they are all gone.” So are clever or tender words to appraise this book of poems. Whoever reads it can either hide in an actual or metaphorical closet like the blind man mentioned earlier or else rise to witness, report.
About Kathryn Levy:
Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections, Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) and Losing the Moon (Canio’s Editions, 2006), as well as The Nutcracker Teacher Resource Guide (NYC Ballet Education Department, 1996), a guide to poetry instruction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications including Slate, Cimarron Review, Hanging Loose, Provincetown Arts, The Seattle Review, The Minnesota Review, The Southampton Review, and the Manhattan Poetry Review, among others, as well as the anthologies The Light of City and Sea, We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, and Adventures in the Spirit. She has received numerous writing fellowships, including awards from Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation. Levy was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, two poetry-in-the-schools organizations. She divides her time between Sag Harbor and New York City.
Kathryn Levy’s website for more information: http://kathryn-levy.com
Kathryn Levy’s email: email@example.com
About the reviewer:
Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles is currently a high school teacher and former adjunct professor of writing and literature at Miami-Dade College and St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an MFA in Creative Writing graduate of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles is a poet, literary critic, translator, plus enthusiastic advocate for peace-making via ecological and spiritual renewal.
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Whale of Desire, a Jacob’s Wrestle
Review by Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles
Whale of Desire, by Micah Towery; Cat In the Sun Press, 2013
ISBN/EAN13: 099115231X (9780991152315) ($12.00)
76 pages; US Trade Paper, 5.5″ x 8.5″, English, B&W
….What unlike things must meet and mate;
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.
-Herman Melville, from “Art”
I recently read Micah Towery’s first book of poems Whale of Desire (Cat in the Sun Press 2014) and came away from the experience thinking of two key figures: Jacob and Herman Melville. Jacob, of biblical renown, came easily to mind due to the uneasy wrestle between the personal and spiritual observed in the poems of Whale of Desire, moreover, because of how Towery attempts to keep these many times dual strains immediate, arresting, fortifying, even while establishing a name for himself. I thought also of Herman Melville, not only because he and his work are alluded to directly and indirectly in the volume, but because Melville’s lines above, taken from his poem/credo “Art,” neatly summarize, for me, the best of what is to be found in Micah Towery’s Whale of Desire, that is, a poet’s wrestle to have the material and transcendental fuse.
That many of the poems in Whale of Desire conjure up a poet/Jacob can be quickly seen in the personal and spiritual “wrestlings with the angel” that turn into poems like “Hunter (Seraph)” and “Moth (Psalm 39).” In “Hunter (Seraph)” readers come across a man (the poet?) who:
self to staunch the lode
out in a cold brume and sags
around him, high in the tree,
where he and his body hang,
in hopes that once today
he’ll spear a searching ray
into some chest –
after which he’ll lay his able back
down and rest…”
Readers are further told that the end of this “staunch” effort, which also mirrors the Passion of Christ and perhaps even the subsequent piercing of his side, is that “searching ray”, which is among “the first/ fruits of them that sleep.” But a “searching ray” to understand himself, others, the divine? For sure all three, but mostly the divine one being addressed as both giver and destroyer of beauty in “Moth (Psalm 39)” where a reader overhears how the divine one snatches:
… away another’s beauty
in gloating silence, leaves us bleached,
belly-up whales on the sand’s ecru…
while a few lines later the same man/moth complains, “Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?”, which question leads to the bitter-sweet:
… your beauty
is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while you consume
me with the blows of your hand – my beauty,
a moth, feeding, still hungry.”
The fusion of actions described above become a startling transformation or revelation, like many others in this book, that brings to mind the Suffering Servant Christ, St. John of the Cross’s moth in “Super Flumina Babylonis” or from Book One (Desire and Detachment) from his Dark Night of the Soul, John Donne’s hammer and anvil in “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” several meditations in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and Leda of William Butler Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” a startling revelation or transformation which is uneasily arrived at suddenly, finally, which is “the point” of such a redeeming, though we are not told this directly, struggle.
Two other Jacob’s wrestle lyrics of power and refreshed, even fortifying imagery are “Prologue” and “On The Refrain Taken From An Old Hymn.” In “Prologue” readers are told quite literally that a “hammer was the face of God” and several lines later “But man tired/ seeing his own face in the face of the hammer, when he met/ the hammer in the cool of the morning,/ every morning,” lines which lead to a wholly original and surprising conclusion. “On The Refrain Taken From An Old Hymn,” the poem that closes this book, the poet tells his soul “Be still” no less than ten times in a poem of twenty three lines and he tells it to be so with deeply sensed and down-to-earth catalogued images like the “condensation on a beer glass,” “my father deep in reading contemplation/ or when napping/ or thick stained glass” or the “way my mother draws blood from her patients.” Whale of Desire closes with ten be stills, but, of course, we come to sense this cannot and will not be so, hence an ongoing wrestling and its tripartite consolation: transformation, revelation, poetry.
Indeed among the highest felicities of Towery’s first book is the rarity of coming across an American writer of any age, male or female, especially one with Christian leanings, who can wrest and share such spiritual grandeur in mostly formal poetry without turning it into the one-scent pleases all potpourri of prevalent consumerist pseudo-mysticism or without rapping one over the head with hand-me-down, splintery ruler platitudes. While Micah Towery’s Whale of Desire also brilliantly engages more day-to-day coming-of-age themes, among them growing up, work, the experiential souvenirs of travel, falling in love, plus a young man’s trying to make sense of things, which more directly honor material pursuits, I revel in the fact that I am left “feeding, still hungry” by the spiritual honesty and mystical questing of this first book. I am tempted to refer loosely to two more figures Whale of Desire made me recall as I close, figures who could lead to another topic completely, Jonah and Jack Kerouac. Those who know these two prophetic figures and who go on to read Whale of Desire will know how, so far, Micah Towery’s trajectory seems to mirror and simultaneously deviate from these figures and their studied, much talked about paths.
About the author:
Micah Towery helps run thethepoetry.com and teaches at Indiana University – South Bend.
About the Reviewer:
Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles is currently a high school teacher and former adjunct professor of writing and literature at Miami-Dade College and St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an MFA in Creative Writing graduate of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles is a poet, literary critic, translator, plus enthusiastic advocate for peace-making via ecological and spiritual renewal.
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The Kidney Sellers:
A Journey of Discovery in Iran
Review by Matthew Ray
The Kidney Sellers: A Journey of Discovery in Iran
by Sigrid Fry-Revere, Carolina Academic Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-55507-635-4 Hardback $35, 254 pages
A post from Bioethics International on the bioethics.net blog[i] from October 2013 acknowledged, “Paying living donors for their kidneys would reduce the number of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients on dialysis and transplant wait lists, and save the healthcare system money.” What this post does not state is that doing so also has the potential to vastly improve the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people. With this idea at the fore, Drs. Fry-Revere and Bastani recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with donees, donors, administrators, and overseers of the Iranian system from throughout the country. Upon their return to the United States, Dr. Fry-Revere’s interns at the Center for Ethical Solutions[ii] began translating the many hours of footage and compiling this information into usable data to garner insight about the Iranian system.
Whereas Dr. Fry-Revere admits that she initially intended to publish this information as a manuscript, the nature of her findings changed that portrayal into one of discourse. She gives an honest reflection about her pre-conceived notions before and during her trip, and lays out those preconceptions throughout the book as they become applicable. This presentation lends itself well to gaining an understanding of how the country’s religious and social dogmas direct the mechanism of transplantation, as well as how we as a predominantly Western audience may check our preconceptions while grappling with understanding the book. Many of the facets of a system espoused as “altruistic” must necessarily discuss socio-political mores of the system in question. Since Iran is a predominantly Muslim country and seemingly devoid of much “Western” influence, the format as a book telling the story intertwined with an expose of the system aids in understanding how Drs. Fry-Revere and Bastani came to their conclusions about the nature and scope of the Iranian system, in addition to its benefits and shortcomings.
The author provide continuous discourse with strong, yet hopeful, condemnation for the US system of organ transplantation. To quote,
“The United States should be ashamed to be outdone by a country like Iran. This is not to suggest that what Iranian has done is flawless. The Iranians should be more proactive about informed consent and provide life-long health insurance for donors, and [since the systems are regionally governed] some are lacking in the financial and medical resources necessary to make any form of organ-procurement system work. It also would improve the Iranian system if they could find a way to take the bargaining out of living-kidney donation, perhaps by raising the government contribution to the going rate of four or five million tomans [approximately US $50,000, when adjusted for purchasing power parity and the benefits received by donors] so fewer donors will haggle for more, and fewer will feel cheated or undervalued. The United States, on the other hand, could introduce compensated living-kidney donation without facing most of the problems Iran has faced. Unlike Iran, informed consent is already part of the U.S. medical and social ethos, and administratively, paying donors instead of paying for dialysis would be an easy transition.[iii]”
While arguing that neither the American nor Iranian systems are perfect, the author makes powerful, and compelling, recommendations to aid in our plight facing the shortage of adequate transplantable organs. Given the gravity both in lost quality of life and in financial mismanagement, it seems that our system could greatly benefit from some of their insight. If we can learn from mistakes made, and adapt our policies to allow for the possibility of compensated donation, then the understanding Dr. Fry-Revere has brought back from Iran could be used to greatly change the way we approach transplantation, and for the better.
End Stage Renal Disease presents an immensely problematic issue in modern medicine. If we can alleviate some of the bottleneck to advancing our stance on the issue of compensated altruistic living-donor organ transplantation, we can begin to reshape the system of management of these complicated patients. The Kidney Sellers details a compelling account of not only how we can benefit from the lessons learned in Iran, it also gives us the opportunity to use this information to benefit many, many people in the process.
 I say this as a Westerner who has been to the Middle-east on vacation, but never to Iran, and never having lived in a totalitarian state. I do not have any firsthand experience with the country, and much of my understanding comes from the published news-media and in discussion with acquaintances about the area.
 See discussions about the possibility of adapting a compensated living-donor organ transplantation program in the United States for more insight into the debate.
 I say this as a Westerner who has been to the Middle-east on vacation, but never to Iran, and never having lived in a totalitarian state. I do not have any firsthand experience with the country, and much of my understanding comes from the published news-media and in discussion with acquaintances about the area.
[i] bioethics.net. 2013/10/paying-kidney-donors-can-save-help-patients/)
[iii] Kidney Sellers, pp. 291
i Kidney Sellers, pp.7
ii Kidney Sellers, pp.8
About the reviewer:
Mat Ray has an MA in Bioethics from NYU, and is in his last year of medical school at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. He plans to become a full-spectrum family physician and work with the National Health Services Corps to provide medical services to people in medically under-served communities in the Northwestern regions of the US. He has worked with the Center for Ethical Solutions since 2009 as an intern, and was promoted to scholar in 2010. His interests include understanding how decisions affect quality of life outcomes, and how those surrounding the medical course for death and dying can be better implemented to ensure a peaceful and fulfilling end to life.
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In the Pink
by William Taylor, Jr.
In the Pink, by A. D. Winans
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (January 8, 2014)
ISBN-10: 149475455X ; ISBN-13: 978-1494754556
English, 156 pages, 6″ x 9″
Fittingly enough, I read most of In the Pink, A.D. Winans’ first collection of short stories, in the heart of the San Francisco’s Financial District while on my lunch break. I sat on a stone bench on Market Street in the midst of a busy afternoon. I ate my sandwich and watched the people bustling past, imagining any number of them as characters from Winans’ colorful stories. Today’s San Francisco has gone through some changes since the incarnation captured in Winans’ tales, but if you dig beneath the surface a bit, you realize most of the difference is superficial. A city is always in flux, but the people on the streets are its heart, and they tend not to change overmuch. The drunks, the junkies and the crazies crash and rush about me as I eat my lunch, their curses and laughter ringing in my ears.
The majority of In the Pink’s stories take place in San Francisco during the 1960s and 70s and appear in roughly chronological order. In the first few stories the protagonist appears as a young boy just experiencing puberty and all that goes along with it. Later we follow him through his young adulthood while serving overseas in Panama, then back to San Francisco as he eases into middle age.
As the title suggests, the common theme in the collection, other than the city of San Francisco itself, is sexual experience, in all its glory and horror. In the first story, the narrator is a young man on the edge of puberty, experiencing the wonders of sexual awakening through spending some quality time with his boyhood friend’s stepsister in the backyard tree house. The experience is humorously awkward though ultimately educational for the narrator, who eventually walks home with the understanding that everything, somehow, had changed.
During the stories set in Panama and eventually back in San Francisco, the sexual encounters remain less than blissful, and have the ring of hard-won truth about them. Winans doesn’t flinch from the messiness of human relations. Throughout the book we encounter a variety of people, many of them seeking some kind of answer in sex and generally finding only more confusion. After detailing his first true sexual experience (with a two dollar street whore) the narrator concludes “The whole thing took less than thirty seconds and left me feeling as badly as I have ever felt in my life.” But the seeker remains undaunted, and moves on to the next bar room, the next bedroom. By the end of the collection, we’ve encountered enough prostitutes, drunks and just plain crazy folk to populate a Bukowski novel.
And there is certainly a Bukowski influence in these stories. Winans and Bukowski were friends who corresponded for years, and during the 1970s, Winans published Bukowski’s work extensively through his Second Coming Press. In the two men’s work you can feel a similar take on the absurdity of the lives of the down and out. While Bukowski chronicled it in the streets, bars and skid row rooms of Los Angeles, Winans did the same in the City by the Bay. The specter of Bukowski even makes a brief appearance in one of the more fantastical stories in the collection: The narrator is spending a harrowing evening with a woman who may or may not be a witch who may or may not possess the power to turn men into living dildos. As he attempts a hasty retreat, the woman tells him, “You know, I once had a poet named Bukowski, but he escaped.”
The other writer that immediately comes to mind when reading Winans’ work is Jack Micheline, whose writing Winans has longtime championed. Fittingly enough, and quite by accident, the last book I read before Winans’ was a collection of stories by Micheline, published by Second Coming Press. Like Winans’, Micheline’s book chronicles the horror and the joy of the lives of artists, bohemians and other outcasts on the fringe of society as they live their chaotic lives in San Francisco. Micheline’s work shone with an empathy for the mad, the poets, the dreamers and the outcasts. Winans’ stories come at you from a similar place. Like Winans, Micheline revealed the soul of San Francisco through the eyes of the downtrodden and lost in his poetry and stories, and through them you can experience the city one again as it was when it was a more hospitable place for poets, artists and others not particularly adept at making the rent. As well as being entertaining tales in their own right, the stories in In the Pink also make good reading for students of the cultural history of San Francisco and the Bay Area.
While upon the surface some of the stories in the collection might appear samey (narrator drinks in a bar and ends up having an unsettling sexual encounter with someone he meets there), the characters and situations encountered are diverse enough to make each story a unique experience. The book is branded fiction, but it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that the majority of the pieces are largely autobiographical. In Roses Trapped in Cubes of Ice, one of the early stories made up of a powerful collage of images from various moments of a life, the narrator incriminates his grandmother for the fact of his becoming a writer: “She bought me my first typewriter, and told me to become a writer. I don’t know whether to thank or curse her. All I ever wanted to do was retire.” In my mind, I hear these words coming, in perfect dead-pan fashion, from Winans’ own mouth while sipping a beer somewhere in the Mission neighborhood which, along with North Beach, provides the settings for many of the stories in the collection.
Like much of Bukowski’s work, Winans’ stories are crafted with simple and effective unadorned prose. The unmistakeable music of spoken language flows through these stories. From beginning to end, In the Pink is a solid, entertaining read that manages, with a unique voice, to capture the spirit and the people of a San Francisco that doesn’t quite exist anymore. Or maybe does, if you know the right neighborhoods.
About the Reviewer:
William Taylor Jr. is a Pushcart Prize nominated poet. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and a cat named Trouble. His work has been widely published in the small press and across the internet in such publications as Poesy, Anthills and The Chiron Review. He is the author of several chapbooks and his latest books are So Much Is Burning (sunnyoutside, 2006) and Words For Songs Never Written, (Centennial Press, 2007).
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on 4 Good Books
from the Novel
During my turn in the bunk, I listened to the raging storm and thought of Maggie. I didn’t want to but, as I lay awake in the late hours, I envisioned our lovemaking, especially our last time during the day. These thoughts turned me on, so I tried to concentrate on her face – her smile and how her forehead furrowed when she was searching for words. I missed her without wanting to, lonely the way only a man going to war can be. I wasn’t sure she loved me, but felt she was close, so I used her for my girl anyway. I didn’t think it harmed anyone, but the more I did it, the more I wanted to, the more I missed her, and the more I wanted to see her again. Loneliness is a strange bedfellow.
Loneliness also brought my mother with it. I thought of her as much as I thought of Maggie and with her, I was even able to bring in some smells. I would see her at the stove, fussing with the meatballs and sauce, and I swear I could smell the tomatoes simmering with basil and parsley right there on the ship.
My dad came to me in a dream one night when the weather was at its worst and several of the guys were puking. I had covered my head with the sheet to block the ubiquitous odor, and was dozing on the edge of wakefulness when the generator kicked off, cloaking the ship in darkness. In this place between wakefulness and sleep, my dad came to me.
He died before I really got to know him, killed in a building collapse when I was nine, but I was left with some warm memories. He was a small man, with thick forearms and fingers – he was a mason who could lay bricks faster than any guy I’ve ever known – teased because he was so good. They called him Brickyard because legend had it he could lay a yard full of bricks in one day. He liked his wine and his favorite food was roast chicken with oregano; he could eat two chickens if he was of a mind. I saw him do it once, after a full day of work in freezing weather. He came home and thawed out with wine, then sat down to eat. His cheeks were rosy from the cold and his hair was disheveled from his knit hat. His wool pants were too long for him and he had to cuff them up about eight inches, but he didn’t care how he looked. He just wanted to be comfortable and warm while he worked.
The night he came to me, he had on his wool pants and flannel shirt, and his cheeks were rosy, just like the night he ate the two chickens. He stood there for a while, and I tried to talk to but nothing came out when I moved my mouth.
He looked at me and said, “Be careful.” Then he turned completely around as if he were doing a little jig and said, very faintly, “Trust your instincts.” He sat down at a round oak table and placed his hands face down on it, looking straight ahead, saying, “Fight like a rabid dog if they get you in a corner.” A cloud of dust enveloped him at the table, and when it cleared, my father and the table were gone. Then I woke, and Thomas was puking below me.
By late afternoon, the storm had subsided and everyone was walking on the decks to breathe the fresh air. It was my turn in the berth again, but I couldn’t get myself to go below, so I made it up to my favorite spot to watch the sea while I drifted to sleep.
I woke to choppy slaps of chilly air on my face. I had slept through the day, and the blue sky had been replaced by millions of blinking stars. I stroked my stomach, feeling tranquil as I listened to the swish of the waves and canvas flapping somewhere astern. A meteor streaked across the sky just as I heard my name whispered.
“Hello, Johnny Stone.”
She stood before me like she’d been dropped off a star. She was wearing a military uniform, but her hair was loose and blowing around her shoulders. I froze, my mouth open in disbelief. I shook myself and started to rise when she stopped me.
“Just stay there for a moment, Johnny, while I look at you.”
I listened, too stunned to do anything else.
“I saw your name on the roster. It took me a few days to pinpoint your berth. Your bunkmates directed me here.”
“Thomas and Bobby?”
“Yes, and Stanley.”
“Yeah, they’re good guys.”
“Funny, I come here at night, too, only I use the stern to watch the stars.” She inched closer. “May I sit next to you?”
I was aching for her to sit, to let me kiss her and hold her. I moved to the side. “Yes.”
She sat, drawing her knees to her chest, and wiggled next to me so we were just touching. “I missed you, Johnny, especially since our day together.”
“I wanted to see you before I left, just in case something happened or we didn’t meet for some time. I tried to see you, Johnny, honest. Everything happened so fast, I even missed the ship in New York.”
“What, it was you at Ambrose Light?”
“Yeah, silly Maggie Hogan embarrassed to the hilt.”
And just like that, she had me smiling. Imagining her unique gracelessness, I turned and hugged her to me. The embrace became a kiss and I knew instantly she had my heart, a good hook right into it. When our lips parted, she rested her head on my chest and gazed upward.
“I love looking into the Milky Way.” She caressed my leg when she spoke. “See the constellations, Johnny? Orion, the Dippers, Draco, and Pleiades? They give me such a wonderful feeling.” She turned to me. “I get the same feeling when I’m with you. I felt it the last day we were together.”
She kissed me again and I lost it. I wanted to make love with her right there, but I pulled away as something nagged at me. She looked up at me and our eyes met. As the cool breeze caressed our hair, I swung her on top of me, her legs straddling mine, and kissed her again, our bodies pressed hard against each other.
Holding each other, we slept for only a few minutes. As the sun crept out of the ocean, we tried to part several times, but kissed again and again, waiting until the last moment when we had to part.
“We hit England tomorrow, so we can have tonight,” she said with eager eyes and mischievous smile.
“Okay, we’ll meet here?”
“Yes, I have dinner with the captain and the rest, and after that I’ll be up. About nine, okay?”
“Yeah.” The plan made it easier to part, but my time with Maggie compounded the confusion I had been living with. I knew I had to confront her, but wanted our final moments to be precious.
That night I told the boys they could use my bunk and slipped out. They didn’t question me, and I was glad to avoid making lies and excuses.
It was the most beautiful night, with a light breeze that blew away the warm air, leaving it cool and fresh. The stars had multiplied from the night before, alive with brightness, and the ocean was calm so the ship rocked like a soft melody.
Again, Maggie appeared from nowhere with a wool blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She dropped it to the deck, sat and pulled me to her. I hiked up her skirt and began reveling in our love. Lit by the stars, we moved with the waves and touched each other like the gentle breeze. It was a perfect moment, a moment to take with us across Europe, loving one another like another day wouldn’t come.
When we finished, she sat curled in my arms looking up into the sky. “I know that one,” I said, pointing to a red star in the east. “Mars. My dad showed it to me from the Statue of Liberty one night.”
“It’ll be our star, Johnny.”
“What’s going to happen with us, Maggie?” It wasn’t exactly what I meant to ask, but the words came out on their own.
“I don’t know, baby, I don’t know.” She turned to me. “I have to tell you something. I see other men, but I love you, Johnny. I don’t want to, but I do.”
“Why don’t you want to?” I was confused.
“I don’t want to hurt you, or to have this get messy.”
“Ah, naw, that’s not goin’ to happen. No, never, don’t worry, I got it covered,” I said, but she did have me guessing.
She kissed me. “Thank you, Johnny Stone.”
“You’re welcome, Maggie Hogan.” I pulled her onto me yanking the blanket out from underneath and wrapping it around her. We moved slowly with the same sway as the boat
Moments later, she pulled back and sat up. “But you have to understand, Johnny, I’m still frightened of my duplicities. I mean, I love you, but saw other men to further my career. So, I’m scared of myself, really.”
I really wasn’t expecting what she said particularly at this moment. “Like you did to me with Petrillo?” She brought it up, so I figured I might as well ask.
She grabbed my arm. “Oh no, Johnny, I thought that too, but I know it’s not true. I wish I got to him through someone else. Please don’t think that I meant to use you, I love you, truly.”
I shook my head; she was really something. “I don’t know – ”
“Please believe me. This world is a crazy mess, but even though we haven’t known each other long, I think we love each other. I don’t want it to be ephemeral. I want it to be real.”
I saw her lip quiver in the glow of the bow light and held her tighter. “What’s that mean?”
“Short-lived, like a flower, like a rose. I love roses.”
“It’s okay, baby, I’ll live through it with you.”
“Oh, Johnny you just don’t understand. Listen to me!” She turned away and paced towards the stern and then turned and paced back her eyes both on fire and watery. “It’s distance. After tomorrow, you’ll be gone and as the longer we’re apart, the farther we’ll be apart. The distance will be a big problem, I feel it.”
“Maybe you want the distance, maybe you love people who you know will be distanced from you.” I felt her shudder when I said it.
“Why would I do that? It doesn’t make sense.”
Was I ever in new territory with that one. I’d never been in love before – I wanted to spend every minute of forever with her. So what I said was natural and true. “Maybe you’re afraid of love.”
It took her several moments to respond. “I don’t know, Johnny. That’s my honest answer, and I want to always be honest with you.”
She was so beautiful, even her contradictions and duplicities, but especially her honesty. “We just have to keep telling ourselves love can bridge the distance.” I was unsure if I believed it.
“So are you, baby.”
She hugged me again. “You’re not like other men. Tonight at dinner, the other journalists were awful. I don’t understand them.”
“Maybe they’re jealous of your talent.”
“No. They think I don’t belong,” she said.
“It’s a male thing. Maybe it threatens them, you know – more competition and they get nervous about it.” It was the only thing I could figure.
“I know,” she said. “But I will succeed, no matter what it takes. And you know something else, Johnny?”
“No, what?” I loved listening to her: her defiance and enthusiasm charged through me like ungrounded electricity.
“I love the excitement of danger.” She looked up at me, her smile full of impishness and rebellion.
There was nothing I could do, Maggie Hogan was going to break my heart.
Back at quarters, Crowley’s voice came from nowhere. “Pero, get your stuff together quick and get above with the others.” I looked around and there he was, standing near my bunk. “I don’t know what you’ve been up to, and I don’t really care. But now I’m watching. Is that clear?” Crowley’s eyes were wide and his face red with anger.
I was shocked he was so mad. “Yes, sir.” I grabbed my duffel bag and rushed up to the deck just behind Thomas.
Thomas glanced back as he was going up the stairs. “Crowley did a bed check while you were gone. I covered for you, but he knew. It’s no big deal, but I think he’s gotta show us he’s in charge.”
“It’s okay. I’m alright,” I said trailing him. “And thanks.”
“You’ll do the same for me sometime.”
When we got to the deck, the sun had given way to mist and we were able to see land. “England,” one of the sailors yelled from above. I stopped and, leaning over the railing, saw a thin strip of land to the east.
By mid-day, the thin line had turned into a harbor and we were moving into the docks. I smiled, knowing I had crossed the Atlantic, met and made love to the woman who was instrumental in changing my world. I won four hundred dollars and ninety-eight cigarettes and never got seasick. I was feeling pretty good when they dropped anchor. Maybe the next few months wouldn’t be so bad.
July 15, 2014 Comments Off on Maggie’s Wars/Phil Pisani
On Writing Historical Fiction
with Mike Foldes
Q) Tell me, how did you happen to start writing? Does it run in the family? Why historical fiction?
A) I’ve been writing since I was about seven. Turns out my grandfather (I didn’t know him – he died the year I was born) was a poet. Unsuccessful, commercially. I have one of his rejection letters from Harper’s, about 1930. Historical because I love the travel of it, that sense of being in a different time and place.
Q) What did you study in college, and when did you write your first novel? Did it sell, or is that among the undiscovered manuscsripts of J.M.?
A) I studied English lit with minors in art and history. I finished my first novel in my late thirties… slow bloomer… and yes, it was published: The Frenchwoman, from St. Martin’s Press. I did write quite a few short stories before I began working on that novel, and was short-listed for a few contests, but didn’t publish them. They were kind of like warm ups for me: my heart is in long fiction.
Q) What is your process for developing a story line? Plot? Character development?
A) I usually begin with an initial image and just follow the story. Who are the people in that first image? How did they get to whatever that place is? What is at stake for them, what are their possibilities? I like to mix fictional characters with real historical characters, so, for instance in The Beautiful American, the historical figure is photographer Lee Miller; I imagined her, just after World War II, in London, bumping into an old friend outside of Harrods. What are they doing there? What are they looking for? The old friend is the fictional character, someone who can follow Lee from childhood on, telling Lee’s story mixed in with her own.
I tend to write chronologically, beginning to end, as if I’m telling myself the story as I’m discovering it. That’s the first draft, of course. Much, much rewriting follows the first draft. John Gardner says writers should work as if in a dream state, that a good novel is an uninterrupted dream, and that’s how I like to work: deeply trusting some unknown part of my imagination to supply what I need for the story.
Plot and character can’t, for me, be separated. They come from each other. The tricky part is not letting my own self seep unnecessarily into the characters. For instance, I have a quick temper. When I’m writing fiction I have to make certain that the trait doesn’t automatically become part of the characters. When I might slam a door, someone like Lee, as I imagined her, would be more clever, more subtle when angry. I have to intuit who the characters are, what shapes them, drives them, and then make sure they are very separate from my own psychology.
Q) What was your most useful ‘other’ occupation that helped define your successful career as an author?
A) Not to be too cynical here, but John Gardner (yes, him again) recommended that writers marry rich spouses so they wouldn’t have to work ‘day’ jobs. I couldn’t go that far, though I see his point. Instead, I found part time professional work that allowed me a few hours every morning for my fiction. Those hours were worth their weight in gold. Successful? I don’t think of myself that way. I’ve managed to get my novels published.
Q) How much have other types of “writing jobs” influenced your approach to historical fiction?
A) My other writing jobs have been in journalism – print and a little radio, and I don’t think they influence my fiction writing, except in very basic ways: they gave me a kind of confidence on the page. I know my way around a sentence, and I can write to a deadline. Perhaps they also kept me a little grounded. My type of fiction is about a two way communication. I don’t write with readers looking over my shoulder, but when I write fiction I feel an obligation to tell a good story for that reader, just as, in journalism, you must be able to anticipate questions a reader would ask if that reader were there with you.
Q) Would you recommend that everyone try out a variety of forms on the way to ‘settling in’? or is that inevitable?
A) Absolutely. If writing is your choice, your way of experiencing the world, then why not experiment with it? It should be a bit playful and adventurous. I write historical fiction, but I’ve also written mysteries under a different name, and lots of journalism. I’m not a poet, but every once in a while I’ll challenge myself to try some poetry, just to keep some imaginative flexibility.
Q) When we spoke last year you had a contract for two books. How’s the second one coming along, and are you able to work on two books at a time or do you actively work on them in succession?
A) I’m about a third of my way through the second book in this contract. I’ve tried working on two books at a time, but I just can’t do it. When I’m actively writing, that voice ‘telling’ the story is going on in my head whether I’m at my desk or not, so I can follow only one narrative at a time. It is kind of like finding yourself in a dream, even when you’re wide awake.
Q) I understand you went to Europe while you were writing The Beautiful American. Do you work well on the road? Was this an investigatory excursion? Did you visit places that were central to Lee’s associations at the time?
A) No, I can’t work on the road at all. I’m a true creature of habit. I need my desk, my reference shelf, my pot of tea. The trip was to revisit some of Lee’s old haunts and other locales in the novel, so it was a research trip specifically centered in Nice and Grasse. There was a huge storm in the upper part of France, and all the trains had been snowed in, so I didn’t make it to Paris, but I already know that city pretty well.
Q) Thank you, Jeanne.
About the interviewer:
Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in “About Us.” This interview was conducted via email between January and March 2014.
Also in this issue: A review of The Beautiful American.
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on Jeanne Mackin/Author Interview
The following story by Ely Azure, is a runner up in Ragazine‘s first fundraising writing contest, “Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Written in 2013)”. We extend our appreciation to all those who entered the contest, and especially to our esteemed judge, Sheree Renée Thomas.
Click here to read the winning entry, “The Chance,” by Avery Irons.
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NEVER. GIVE. YOU. UP.
By Ely Azure
On my fortieth birthday, Mac blindfolded me and took me to an adoption agency. He told me to pick one, as many as I wanted, and we would take them all home. I burst into tears. Not exactly the reaction he was going for and over a wad of tissue I explained that it was a baby I wanted, and nothing short of an actual baby would ever satisfy me. I’m sure I sounded like a hopeless brat, but Mac just nodded and swallowed several gulps of air, a nervous habit he has when he’s trying not to cry.
He looked around at the hordes of unwanted kids. One sweet-faced toddler with bushes of dark brown curly hair waddled towards Mac with his one arm outstretched. What was left of the other was heavily bandaged and soiled. Mac scooped the child into his arms and the little boy lit up like the sun. This child was familiar with my husband.
“They need love too, Mel,” he said. His voice choked back emotion and I felt a certain aching come over me.
“Parker has that same curly hair as yours. Why don’t you hold him?” He held the child toward me and I took a step back.
I had no idea how much preparation he’d put into this visit, the paperwork, the extensive meetings with the agency. He wouldn’t have unless he’d felt sure of more than one kid I would gravitate toward.
The children at this agency were all victims of terrorism and natural disasters. They had been orphaned by circumstances beyond their control. Parker was the youngest of the bunch, barely two years old, while the rest fell between five and fifteen, and all looked desperately abandoned. Their eyes passed over Mac with softness, like fingertips caressing his face, but they scowled when they looked at me. It felt like they were poking their dirty little fingers right into my eyes.
“I can’t stay here another second,” I said, holding my breath. I fled to the safety of our car in the sweltering heat of the parking lot. I’d forgotten to pull the mask over my face in my haste and those few moments in the tainted, diseased atmosphere had me hyperventilating.
The building was draped in airlock plastics as were most of the structures outside of the safety zones in Miami. It was mid-August and there was no breeze blowing. The buildings looked like giant, frozen ghosts. I shuddered and inhaled from the alkaline booster that was plugged into the cigarette lighter, and then pulled the paper mask over my nose and lips. The boosters had been invented a few years prior as a method of prevention, to try and neutralize the infection at first contact. I’m not sure they ever really worked, but Mac and I always kept them handy. I brushed a bead of sweat out of my eye.
For the past six years, an airborne virus had swept across the United States, leaving a lot of people in a decayed state; what we in Miami called the rotten, because their skin was covered in foul lesions by the time the infection was finished with them. The normal dead could be buried or cremated, but the rotten happened to still be walking around, and the virus was so aggressive that a simple sneeze had the potential to wipe out an entire city block.
When the government realized that the infection couldn’t be contained they began to organize evacuations. Massive amounts of the population tried to migrate into other parts of the world. The gates at customs were quickly slammed in our faces. Mac hadn’t been home to France in almost ten years.
The grind of a concrete drill suddenly filled the silence. I twisted my head right and left searching for the sound, then saw Mac walking toward the car. He didn’t look happy.
“You alright, baby?” he asked with concern. Even after I’d clearly embarrassed him in front of the entire agency’s staff. I couldn’t find any words. I only nodded. He handed me an envelope.
“I don’t want to disappoint you, but it’s rare for the agency to receive babies anymore. Parker is their youngest. All of the kids here are infection-free and certified healthy for the most part. This is the only agency in the south with a kid under three years old, I’ve checked. Parker’s ours if we want him, but there is another family waiting to adopt.” He paused, waiting for me to answer or change my mind. I could do neither.
“If we don’t decide by Wednesday, they’ll put us on a waiting list. If a baby comes available, we’ll be the first couple they call. I’ve made sure of it.” He motioned to the charity slip with a huge donation made in our names. I stared quietly out of the reinforced window.
“I won’t lie,” Mac said. “I’m disappointed, but I’m not angry with you, Mel.” He reached across to slide the mask down to my chin, then leaned over and kissed me. My body folded into his and I melted against his shoulder. His touch was familiar and soothing. He reminded me of fresh-baked sugar cookies. The curve of his neck was where the warm cookie scent was the strongest.
My mother had known sugar cookies were my weakness, my pleasure, my comfort. It was the last thing she did before the infection took her from me. Right after my hysterectomy she’d brought a warm batch over to the house. Since then Mac has baked pounds of cookies for me. I still enjoyed the scent on him, but because the taste reminded me of my mother, I couldn’t eat them anymore.
“I’m sorry I flipped out,” I said. “I’m just so stressed about turning forty.” It wasn’t completely a lie. I’d found two gray pubic hairs in the last month and one in my armpit. I was slipping again; I felt that familiar sludge of sadness creep across my shoulders.
We floundered on the adoption waiting list for five years before they started closing state borders. Three more years passed since then. The infection was rampant and it was a miracle that Mac and I were still healthy. My fiftieth birthday was staring down at me from the top of the hill. I kept looking the other way, but my hair had started to shed. I tried to keep Mac from seeing the full-length curly black hairs wash down the drain.
He still had an entire head of lustrous hair, with only a minor spackle of gray. He was still as beautiful as he was when I met him twenty years ago as a part of the student exchange program in college. I looked haggard and wore the wrinkles of an old woman. Mac would be so angry if he ever heard me say that aloud, so I only ever whisper it to myself.
Nine years later, the call we’d been waiting on finally came. I nearly wet my pants when Mac told me. Did I still want a baby? Was he kidding? Just the news of an available infant made me so happy that I was dancing around the kitchen in my slipper socks, singing into a pepper sauce bottle.
Mac and I made love for the first time in four months. Then we dove into our rows of sterilized boxes in both the attic and shed, pulling out long forgotten baby toys, clothing and furniture. I insisted that he finally peel that “baby on board” sticker from its shiny white backing and promptly attach it to the bumper of our Chevy Volt IX.
The next day we charged a car that had been parked in the garage for a year and headed down the familiar roads. A sheet of dust covered the hood, made it look gray instead of baby blue. I bounced in my seat as we rode through a city devastated by the infection. It was ashen outside. Smog clogged the sky, the Earth coughed and shook. In order to decontaminate areas of the city, more buildings had been demolished than there were buildings still intact, and the reconstruction efforts were undermanned. There were more rotten than living people occupying the cities.
There were less than ten passenger cars on the road going in any direction; mostly the streets and highways were congested with delivery trucks. It was late January, and even though Miami didn’t experience winter, the ashy substance floating about reminded me of dirty snowflakes.
Every few miles a patrol Hummer would pass by, red and blue twirling silently, checking for breaches to the perimeter; it’s what the military did now, fight homeland wars. Outside of the safety barricades, the fluorescent green flashers were the ones to worry about. Those meant an uncontained contamination site was nearby, take cover.
Quite a few roads were permanently blocked off and the streets were littered with yellow detour signs and those sterile red, white and blue “Quality Assurance Quarantine Area” signs. They were fresh out of the box and had yet to be defaced. The QA markers were intended to be a comforting thing, but it’s hard to feel safe in a place guarded with barbed wire and airlocks.
The things that normally soured my mood didn’t that day; I’d waited too long for this. It’s true what they say about becoming a mother for the first time.
When Bambi looked at me with those big, round eyes, I oozed delight. She was only two weeks old. They reassured us that she was African-American, one of my preferences; however, her complexion was so translucent that there was hardly any color in it at all. She had the palest, pouty, heart-shaped lips I’ve ever seen. She was almost weightless.
I loved her immediately, but there were so many warning labels wrapped around my baby that I couldn’t feel her touch. Those tiny fists and feet were enclosed in safety mitts. I didn’t even know they made a protective mask that small. She was already infected.
She was a part of a growing unit of newbies that had been born of infected mothers, but the infection was in a precognitive stage the doctors believed the right kind of treatment could suppress, but were not hopeful of long-term survival. She would need to be placed with a family with the right amount of resources in order to give her the best chances at a semi-normal existence.
Mac and I were prime candidates, not just because of our financial security, but also because of our ages. It was news to us. Something about a vaccine we’d been given as children made our resistance higher. Too bad the government had cut funding for it when they decided it had become obsolete.
We were part of a first-time experimental group of parents and along with that responsibility came an ocean of waivers to sign, mountains of health paperwork, and hordes of medications. The doctors had to be sure we understood the potential risk of exposure while caring for an infected child.
There was also a field of protestors waiting for us outside. The coggie experiment, as the media liked to call it, had angered the survivalist groups who believed that releasing coggies into the safety zones, heavily medicated or not, was a danger that threatened their health and freedom.
Initially I agreed, however there were seven coggies at the agency in Miami, and the moment I held Bambi, I was certain that I no longer held that extremist view. I didn’t need to look any further. My family was finally complete.
Two of the many sanctions of the experiment were to wear full body protective armor at all times while handling the baby and to keep a detailed health journal of the child’s developmental milestones. While wearing the armor, Mac pretended to be an astronaut to make Bambi laugh, which by three months she hadn’t done yet. Not even a hint of a smile in her sleep. The doctors warned that her growth would be far behind that of the average child.
That didn’t bother me so much, but the crunchy sound of the plastic body wrap that separated me from her was unbearable. How was I supposed to establish a bond with my baby that way? I was almost to the point of ignoring the warnings and loving her right. I wanted to hold Bambi against my chest. I wanted to press my lips against her fragile skin and feel how alive she was. She was alive. Nothing anyone can say will ever change my mind about that.
Mac didn’t share my complaints. He loved to don his body armor and take Bambi outside. The doctors said it was good for her to get fresh air. Technically the virus was dormant as long as we kept her on those thousand dollar medications. However, she’d be highly susceptible to the infection becoming primary, so ‘fresh’ air was the key word.
Mac bought one of those bulky supercharged alkaline booster machines they used in the sports stadiums. Most of the surviving arenas were quickly closed-in and the owners added the extra benefit of the machines to reassure the crowds that the games were safe to attend, but the infection was too strong, people still got sick, so soon the machines became obsolete. The doctors agreed that the machines could work better in a smaller area, such as our backyard, where there was less contaminant. It made me smile to watch Mac run around the yard pretending Bambi was an airplane. Mostly she looked terrified, but she never cried.
I sipped mineral wine and filled baby journals while Mac and Bambi had daddy-daughter time. The normal developmental milestones say that by three months old, the infant should be able to lift her head while being held at the shoulder.
At five months, holding Bambi that way only made her cry. I would’ve, too, if I had sticky plastic plastered to my cheek. She preferred the arm cradle so that she could always look up at our faces. She didn’t lift her head on her own much, yet, but she could turn it from side to side pretty well, even with her tiny face smashed into the carpet. She wiggled and kicked up a storm and responded well to our voices.
Just before she turned seven months, a flaming diaper filled with rocks and mud flew through the window, splattering glass everywhere. Someone had scribbled “diseased baby” on it. It landed on the floor a few inches from where Bambi was snuggled asleep on a pallet. Without even waking, she rolled out of the way of the fire bomb and stuck a thumb in her ear. That was a surprise. We hadn’t expected to witness a full rollover for a least another four to six months.
The week before she turned nine months old, we were unloading boxes in an entirely different city in Florida while Bambi sat in her rocker on the shady side of the porch. She already had eight teeth and was gnawing ragged little patterns into her safety mitts. We had to finally throw away most of her toys. She’d long ripped all of them apart. In fact they were becoming so unevenly chipped that we’d been searching for a dentist in the area that would treat her early. No such luck.
We’d already moved twice to avoid the intense sort of scrutiny that made some angry protestors set our first house on fire and leave a burning tombstone in the yard of our second home in Coral Gables. It had Bambi’s name slashed angrily across it in wet spray-paint. At first, we refused to be bullied. But after the incident with the flaming diaper, Mac thought it better to abandon Miami completely.
I had been reluctant to move, afraid the conditions would be worse in other parts of the state, but St. Petersburg wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t as hot as the bottom of the Florida peninsula, and being located on the milky Gulf coast, the breezes were heavenly. Mac and I could afford the overpriced, gated, twenty-four-hour safe zone. It lulled the inhabitants into a false calm that made it easy to forget the horrors on the outside.
Before the infection became official, Mac and I had gotten in on the Amway knock-off, Tidal Wave Industries. We topped the pyramid in less than three months. Both of us were business majors; Mac had been a financial advisor and I worked in accounting, so we knew how to run a business. Everyone wanted online product distribution to deliver the things they were unable to find within their own communities. They rarely traveled farther than a few miles, even for work. Retail businesses couldn’t prevent contamination unless they were closed to the public. We kept so many products on-site in order to offer quicker delivery service that we eventually had a storage facility built on our property.
At fourteen months old, Bambi still wasn’t crawling. She could roll-over like a slinky, pushing those awful little gagging noises out of her throat. I hated when she did that, it was almost as bad as when my little cousin ground her teeth in her sleep. The doctors suggested we keep her supplied with pacifiers, but she usually chewed those into tiny bits. Once, she nearly choked on a piece that got lodged in her throat and Mac had to pry her jaw open so I could shove my finger into her mouth to get it. She tried to bite down several times and missed my finger by only a second.
Her face crumpled like she wanted to cry, but then her eyes swiveled to her bare fist and she chomped down on her own hand instead. Blood slithered from the tiny hole her incisor made just above her knuckle. Mac applied pressure to the bite while struggling to keep her mouth away from her own skin. I hurried to get bandages. After we replaced her safety mitts and mask, she glared and rewarded us with the silent treatment. Not one gagging sound until the next meal. It nearly broke my heart.
Speaking of meal times, she hated the formula we fed her, but refused to graduate to the jar varieties either. The only thing she seemed to really want was Vienna sausages. She’d devour can after can after can of those things. I was getting worried that her diet was insufficient. We’d tried so many of the snack choices and usually ended up sweeping that off the floor. She was gaining weight at a decent pace, on the other hand. Thirty pounds already and it was killing my arm and hip to carry her around.
Her fingernails grow like kudzu. I had to clip them twice a day or she’d rip holes in the mitts that we already had to replace once a week because she chewed on them. But whenever she slept, we loved to curl up around her, intertwining our hands and feet, creating a circle of love to protect her from the rest of the world.
Mac slid his fingers through Bambi’s straggly curls. “Our baby is growing so fast,” he said with a tired yawn. It had been his shift the previous night. She doesn’t sleep well alone. If she woke up and no one was near, she’d screech like a recently spayed cat.
“She really is,” I said, staring into Bambi’s angelic face. Her eyes darted side to side as she dreamed those innocent baby dreams. If only she didn’t breathe so jaggedly. I rubbed my finger across her lips and caressed her belly. Those were the only times I allowed myself to touch her without the body armor. Her skin was so soft that it felt like cool water against my fingertips. It had darkened over the past few months, but instead of getting browner, it was taking on a grayish pallor.
“I love you so much,” Mac whispered to me and clasped our fingers into a tighter grip.
“Me too.” I squeezed him back. My heart ached with love for my family.
Just after Bambi turned two, the state relinquished all responsibility of each city back to itself. It was becoming too much of a burden to control the entire state. The new decrees were fierce in St. Petersburg. There was barely any communication with any city beyond Tampa and Clearwater. We could no longer take Bambi in to see the doctors in Bradenton for her check-ups and the wait time for a video consultation was enough to make me pull out my hair.
The good news was Bambi finally crawled. It was an odd, shuffling sort of movement. She appeared to be dragging her left leg around instead of using it, but she was definitely beginning to move. Mac was ready with the video camera. Their trips out to the backyard became ten times more interesting. Bambi had an eye for bugs. She stopped to examine every single one that crossed her path. Keeping her from sticking them in her mouth was the biggest obstacle. It didn’t take long before she graduated to small furry animals. It took all of my energy to keep chasing the squirrels away. Poor things, they didn’t know any better.
My birthdays after fifty went by unnoticed because Bambi was the center of our entire lives. She was one of only two coggies still alive from the original experiment and I was determined to keep her that way. The doctors were amazed at the developmental growth I expressed in Bambi’s journal entries and attached videos. They still warned that long-term survival was not likely at this point, but nothing could discourage me.
The safety zones encouraged community involvement, be we shied away to protect our child from the external dangers and the hatred. Some of the other experiment participants had inadvertently put their children into harms’ way. I never left the house, not even with Mac, now that we had Bambi to protect.
He understood that and still found ways to make putty out of my heart.
It was one of those nights that Mac got all romantic and prepared an extravagant dinner. Bambi was asleep on the couch where we could keep an eye on her, but lucky for us she was dead to the world while she slept. After dessert, Mac switched on the karaoke and even though the song was long forgotten nearly two decades before we were born, we had a thing for vintage music. Mac belted out the verses of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” as if he’d written it himself. It was the same song he’d performed for me at our wedding reception. We danced closer than we’d dare to then.
Things had just begun to heat up when Bambi’s gagging sounds interrupted us. She sometimes made them in her sleep, but it came in short grunts, not the gasping, choking sound she made while awake. Sometimes it seemed she was trying to communicate, I’d written it up in her journal. Mac and I jumped as if we’d been caught kissing behind the bleachers.
“Omigod, Mac, she’s standing up!” I immediately tore myself from his embrace and ran to my daughter.
“C’mere, Bambi, come to Daddy!” Mac said with his usual enthusiasm. Bambi lifted her right foot, the one she didn’t drag, and put it back down. There was no forward movement, but it was still a reason to celebrate. We cheered and clapped to encourage more attempts, but she only stood there staring off into space. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve called it sleep-walking. The gag and sputter were the only replies before she plopped down on her bottom.
I swooped her into my arms, cooing in her ear. I felt Mac’s arm wrap around us. We stood that way until we thought she’d fallen asleep again, but when I moved to lay her down, she squeezed tighter. Mac had to peel her arms from around my neck and in the process her fingernail scratched my skin. I suppressed a yelp and scolded myself for forgetting the body armor. It was enough to keep me preoccupied the rest of the night; Mac finally gave up on rekindling and went to sleep.
As soon as it was safe, I hurried into the bathroom to survey the damage. A cut, not more than a half inch long on the back of my shoulder, had already stopped bleeding. I knew how lethal her nails could be, but I was still shocked at how easily it tore through my blouse to draw blood.
My thoughts were playing bumper cars. Was Bambi even contagious? If so, was the small scratch enough to infect me? Should I worry Mac about it?
I doused the area with alcohol and smeared Bambi’s medication over my skin. Just as a precaution, I swallowed two of the antidote capsules I normally had to mix into her food. I sucked on the spare alkaline booster like it was an inhaler. Was my breathing uneven? Did I feel feverish?
I stared at my face in the mirror. It couldn’t be, but it looked like my eyes were pink around the irises. I splashed water on my face, took a breath, decided that wasn’t enough, and then stripped down naked for a scalding shower. My scalp tingled, my toes curled, but I didn’t turn off the water until I had washed my fear down the drain.
I reapplied the skin creams, put on my pajamas, and made an entry in the journal. I vowed to wipe the incident from my mind. It was just a little scratch; nothing could happen to me because I had to be here for Bambi. The only thing worse than other people fearing her would be her parents doing the same. Mac and I had worked hard to create a safe haven for her, and I wasn’t willing to mess that up. Wrapping the plastic-rubber jacket around me, I gingerly moved Bambi from the couch to her crib and went to bed.
The scratch healed, although I hadn’t been able to keep it a secret from Mac for very long. No doctor would examine me on the outside. They were too afraid I was infected simply by association with my child. So Mac had insisted that I order a double supply of Bambi’s vaccines and antidotes for the next few months, just to be sure. The medicines made my skin dry and my body dehydrated, but other than that, I didn’t notice any changes.
It was easy for Mac to forget about it because the act of standing had been ammunition for Bambi’s growth. Within less than a year she was able to walk on her own, slowly dragging the left foot, her steps were more certain. At three, she still hadn’t spoken a word, but she found ways to communicate. Mac and I joked that instead of teaching her English, it would be easier to learn her language. So we deciphered the signs she gave for needing to be changed, wanting to play or be held, and most of all hunger. She’d eat all day if we let her, but we didn’t. We had to force her to drink the nutritional supplements by withholding meat.
Just after Bambi turned four, some neighbor’s poor pit bull pup got loose and ended up in our backyard. The outer bands of a tropical storm had recently passed over our region and we’d been stir-crazy cooped up in the house. The three of us were having a picnic on the lawn and playing dolls together when Bambi suddenly lurched forward into the bushes that lined the back gate. I’d never seen her move so fast. The whimpering sounds soon followed.
Mac pointed at me like it was my turn to save the squirrel, but by the time I reached her she’d already torn into the puppy’s neck and had blood and guts all over her hands and face. I didn’t have time to cover the shock. The dog was the biggest animal I’d ever seen her attack and honestly we’d gotten so comfortable saving the little ones in our yard, that I didn’t think she really hungered for them anymore. Perhaps the occasional lizard, but I left those parts out of the journal entries.
She stared at me, red-streaked palms up, with a guilty look on her face, and let a tuft of damp fur fall from her lips to the ground. My shock was replaced by pride that we had somehow gotten through to her. She knew by killing the dog, she’d done something wrong. I held back the usual chastisements and instead smiled at her. And for the first time ever, she smiled back. It wasn’t exactly a proper smile because her mouth was open too wide, but the idea that she was able to move the muscles of her face in that direction had me bouncing. I called Mac over and he snapped several dozens of pictures. An hour later, her face was still frozen that way, even after I brushed her teeth.
It became impossible to satiate her hunger with food after that. She’d refuse to eat anything that wasn’t living flesh. After three days of nothing to eat, I could see her rib cage poking through her tender skin. Her breathing was choppy and she slept for longer periods of time than normal. Mac gave me that look, the one that said, “We do what we got to, to save our little girl.”
I stared out the patio doors at the backyard and tried to meditate on what all that involved when a squirrel scurried across the tree branch near the house. It looked at me the way I was looking at it. I accepted the sacrifice and crushed a sedative into a bowl of nuts and fruits. An hour later, two squirrels lay still, warm and breathing, underneath the tree.
Mac brought Bambi outside and put her down. The scent must have been strong because she immediately opened her sleepy eyes. She looked up at us curiously. Mac nodded and held my hand. Bambi squatted over the small animals, and touched one with her fingertips as if to check for a pulse. She then pressed her face into the animal’s belly and tore it open with her teeth. I refused to look away. Blood splattered across her nose and her eyes rolled back in her head. She didn’t stop until there was nothing left but a shriveled, matted piece of furry skin. She offered the other squirrel to Mac. He took it with a smile.
“How about bath time with Mommy, while I put this somewhere safe for you?”
Bambi gurgled a reply and came to take my hand. Mac kissed me on the cheek.
“Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll teach her how to hunt. Everything will be fine.”
I had strange dreams for months where I was being served little creatures: squirrels, mice, chicks. The taste of warm flesh was inviting; it was the fur that made me gag. I’d wake up and vomit like I had morning sickness. While I nursed a bellyache, Mac ordered a tranquilizer dart gun and hunting gear for the two of them. I dare to say he enjoyed the excursions, and since they were the only times Bambi could leave our property, she wore that wide smile on her face for days. Her skin lost its sallowness and she almost looked cured. I didn’t want the doctors to misinterpret that part, so I left that out, too.
The morning of her fifth birthday, I received an email from the doctors expressing gratitude for my meticulous journaling, but they regretted to inform me that it would no longer be necessary. The other surviving coggie had died the previous week. I believe Marlin was his name and he’d been only a year older than Bambi. The autopsy revealed the same results as all the other coggies. The medicines hadn’t worked, there was no cure, so the experiment was over. They confirmed the coggies had mostly damaged internal tissue, very little brain activity, and the failing organs of the elderly.
They suggested, gently, that we have her put down at a local veterinarian’s office. It was so gentle, in fact that they rambled on for six paragraphs before dropping that bomb. My heart lurched. I deleted the email before Mac could see it. There was no way I was going to euthanize my daughter. At a vet’s office. The nerve it took to even suggest it.
I went back into the kitchen where Bambi and I were baking her birthday cake. Mac danced around the living room while hanging decorations. Bambi grunted to the music. We were just like any normal family. We had a picky eater. We had some behavioral issues. Sure, we wore plastic-rubber all the time, but for one night that would change. This was a special birthday and Mac and I had promised to dress up in real party clothes.
“I’m going to jump in the shower. Don’t forget to set the table, baby,” I said to Bambi with a plastic kiss. She grunted that she understood. At some point Mac joined me in the shower. The heat between us made the de-steamer obsolete. We didn’t care. It was the best day of our lives.
We came out dressed in clothing we hadn’t worn in years. Mac, in his cobalt tuxedo jacket, told me that my gold Grecian evening gown complemented my skin better now than in the past. We had that morning-after glow all over our faces, but the birthday girl outshined us both.
Bambi was all dolled up in the pink taffeta with the tiny white hearts that I’d laid out for her, complete with white patent leather shoes. There was a pink feather in her hair and more on a chain around her neck. It was jewelry the two of us had made together one rainy afternoon. She led us to the table that had been decorated for a tea party, like the one in her bedroom. We each took a seat and sang happy birthday to her. She smiled, a genuine one, and clapped excitedly. We’d been working on her wide mouth scowl for months.
She moved around the table as she poured us some of the lumpy beverage from her teapot. We toasted and drank it and I was suddenly feeling quite sleepy. A blurred tranquilizer dart sat broken in the center of the table. I was unable to have any reaction at all when Mac slumped to the floor.
He’d gulped. I’d only sipped. The scent of rotting flesh was strong and no longer able to be ignored. I watched paralyzed as Bambi put on her bib, bowed as if to say grace, and then began chewing gracefully on Mac’s neck. Blood bubbled and his body twitched involuntarily.
When she finished, she wiped the blood from her lips on a birthday napkin and looked at me with eyes so ravenous that it was hard to believe I’d just watched her chew most of the flesh from her father’s bones.
Bambi climbed onto my lap and reached for me. That move I’d been waiting for, but had never received. That recognition of the bond every child has with their mother from birth and hearing their voices utter that beautiful word.
“Mommy,” Bambi whispered in a tone so soft that it melted from her lips. A milestone. I felt hot tears well up in my eyes, but they never fell. I was in a state of frozen ecstasy. She pressed those precious lips against my neck and my eyes closed. I wished Mac had been alive to see it.
About the author:
Erica Shaw, pen name Ely Azure, is a native Floridian and a veteran of the United States Air Force who has been conjuring imaginative tales as a storyteller since she about eleven years old. She loves the sounds of nature, traveling, and every color in the orange spectrum. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California-Riverside. Her short story “Strange Fruit in Pratt, Kansas” was chosen as a finalist in Glimmer Train Press’ 2012 June Fiction Open and she has had both poetry and creative nonfiction published in The Cypress Dome‘s Spring 2011 issue. Currently, she is a poetry reader for The Whistling Fire and has written professionally for both the Goodfellow Monitor, a military news publication, and the “Teen Wrap” section of The Florida Times-Union.
Walter Gurbo, Drawing Room
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Fiction Contest/Runner Up
Kilinski statue, file photo courtesy histomil.com
Hurled Into Eternity
By Paul West
Weeks later, as he bled through clumsy necktie tourniquets into the makeshift bed of a big wooden drawer hauled outside by the few surviving Red Cross nurses, Ludwik Czimanski remembered the golden Poland of before, and the bicycle festooned with his suits. The land had been alive with doomed people full of flamboyant bad humor, dryly joking about motor torpedo boats, the famous statue in Warsaw of Kilinski brandishing his saber at the sky with a face of invitational outrage, and the invincible yellow-capped national cavalry whose red and white guidons flapped above their heads like swallows’ wings. How uncanny the sky had been, stunning him like a blue gas his mind’s eye inhaled again and again: the drug from nowhere that wiped out the ills of the land. Everyone had looked upward, inhaling hard (at least as he remembered them), looking not for the first wave of bombers but for scrubbed and rosy refugee camps arranged in vistas tapering infinitely up to that comfy otherwhere in which, as legend said, everything went right.
Ludwik began to finger the five suits, one with satin lapels, one of a tweed perfumed with Baltic heather, a third with two vests of which one was velvet with maroon pearl buttons, while the other two were ordinary and a bit worn at the cuffs and elbows: these two culled from the house, not his own at all, and certainly not his taste, which did not run to tree-bark brown.
“Worn,” muttered Gnonka thickly into his splattered shirt, then added that the gold didn’t amount to much either.
“All there is.” At this they began to argue, the one voice raw with clumsy sullenness, the other clipped-brisk and only letting the words out a little more than it drew them back in again, as if communicating only through tone. What you expect—The bargain—Which was?—Two children—Two!—Two, as he had said the last time, ashamed and half-willing to kill, to walk away at least, as if he had caught himself making overtures to a pig.
“Two’s a lot. Which’s the Jew?”
“You don’t need to worry, squire. They’ve nothing against Poles, why should they? But Poles that have Jews in tow… They sell better things than you in Kazimierz market. Why don’t you go and peddle your suits where they belong?” Gnonka, who had a pea-sized polyp growing either side of his nose where it joined his face, scratched them both now with slow, studious vexation, savoring the gulf between his customer and himself. Then, as he saw the suits go back into their brown-paper, “Well, maybe for a few more. I’ve a busy winter ahead of me, see, I’ll be a man in demand, what with visitors. I can’t be signing milk contracts in my working clothes, can I, my lord?”
“Yes or no? For two?”
“I’ve sacking aplenty.”
Promising to return in one hour, Czimanski rode away on the disencumbered bicycle, eager to breathe a different air, and Gnonka’s German shepherd chased after him until Gnonka slurred a one-syllable command, at which it loped back and followed him, desperate, lumpish, flawed; a man contemplating the scenario of his own end as vaguely as this could hardly accuse himself of being self-centered, but he felt he was, against his will soothing himself with that finality instead of bracing himself with what the Admiral had said: We’ll pick you up in Kazimierz, remember: in Warsaw it won’t work at all, there won’t be any Warsaw left. Just think of it: a million fewer violins!
Right where he was, Major Czimanski wanted to cry, because highly evolved human companionship, sustained across frontiers through several languages over many years in complete accordance with elaborate protocol, should not (he said “must not” aloud and made Gnonka flinch) be subject to something essentially barbaric. It was as if crocodiles were running the world, who could not be swayed, argued with, or bought off; and men of brains and sensitivity found themselves driven to inventing gruesome and unseemly plans, primitives all over again in a world gone mad.
The other plane curved away to watch the Polish one reel flamelessly smoking into a low hill lush with trees. Faltering like a small leaf, the wingtip sailed into the flank of an oblivious cow in Gnonka’s main pasture, causing a minor stampede, after which it sat there on the grass, among the cowflops, arbitrary but final, the size of a breakfast tray, all of a sudden perched upon by haggling sparrows in whose landbound airscape it had become a permanent ramp, already subject to weathering, birdlime, and decay.
The Nazi fighter, its pilot unaware that Kazimierz had already fallen, cruised back low over the town and machine-gunned the steeple of a local church, making its bells pong-pang and en passant shredding the skull of an old man in the belfry to repair sections of rope, which he did (and was doing that morning, Nazis or no) by rolling retied sections under the sole of his boot. Next the fighter redundantly shot up a stationary motor coach used for outings to Warsaw, only to pass through a fan of vertically fired rounds from an old-fashioned Lewis gun worked by a wounded Polish soldier cut off from his unit and just waiting for something to do, unable to carry the gun away, reluctant to leave it for the intruder, and uncertain how to immobilize it. Shot through the groin, all the way up into his trunk, the pilot clasped his belly, sagged against the control column, and dived the Messerschmitt right into the post office and the lending library. The gas mains exploded with a gigantic bang, scattering envelopes and stationary far and wide. Books flew through the air as well, more of them leaving the shelves in that second than Kazimierz took out each year. A copy of Gulliver’s Travels done into Polish landed in the Sakal’s back yard with a fluttering plop, just beyond the verandah.
“What on earth was that,” Suzanna said, “I’ll go and get it.”
“Incendiary bomb, no doubt,” Wilson told her.
“I can see it. It’s a book. Or it was.”
“Even so.” He wanted the world to be still, to keep its distance from him, and his mind, recoiling from bangs and shots and bells and distraught women, had fixed on a big bowl of petunias, kept in the house for a month until they began to wilt and fade, then unleashed into full sunlight like a small wild animal incapable of being housebroken, and thereafter blooming a profound purple as never before.
“If it was an incendiary,” Suzanna pursued her point, “then our children are not safe where they are. But it’s a book, it’s just a bit of a book. You won’t have to throw sand on it to put it out.”
With a pout, a toss of her shoulders, and then a gathering snarl she did not quite know how to complete, Suzanna went outside, picked up the half-burned book, brought it in and tossed it into his lap.
“It’s still on fire, Wilson.”
“I’ve read it,” he said proudly. “Long ago.”
Deciding it was her turn to speak, Wanda said something mild and faint about the gift of life, the gift of a book, the way in which a book is the life-blood of a stranger made available for a pittance. “Ludwik’s mother,” she said eventually, “once took a honeybee into her cupped hands and let it sting her, saying, ‘It’s life, it’s life. Why not?’”
“I’m not that disabused,” Wilson scoffed. “Neither was the author of this burnt offering of a book.”
“Disasters,” Suzanna said, “ought to be in winter, not in weather like this. It’s hot, it’s glorious. It’s obscene.”
“A good sky for dive-bombers,” he whispered. “I don’t want to see anybody heading for the door. Stay put. In light as good as this, a pilot can see for miles, and they’ll shoot at any target that offers. I still can’t fathom why they’re shooting up the town after they’ve already taken it.”
“It’s because,” Wanda told him curtly, “because the only people left in town are Poles. They’re having target practice.”
“I don’t want to live in a ravine like a savage,” she told them all. “I wouldn’t know how. Your mother’s better off.”
“You’ll be lucky if you get a chance to,” Ludwik said. “But he’ll find us, I’m sure he will. He’s a man of his word.”
“He sounds might distant to me,” Wilson said loudly. “Maybe we’ll have to join the Nazi party before he’ll do anything at all. They might not be so eager to have Jews with fully paid subscriptions. We’ll take a raving any day. Just lead us in. Now what about the farmer?”
“If you don’t want them to get you,” Izz announced with cantankerous brightness, “hide in a museum, among the statues, still as stone, and someone will bring you a bagel at night to keep your tummy from rumbling during the day.” Shushed, he subsides, but mouths his impatience to Myrrh, who giggles, then says her piece.
“Husband, you haven’t told anybody anything yet.”
“I think he means,” said Izz with an elaborate, cunning look at his mother, “the domestic form of emigration! That’s what the Germans call it, isn’t it? You vanish without going away.”
“The domestic form of evacuation is more like it.” Ludwik looked at his son with unfocused eyes. “How ironic that you have come to know German so well. How elementary some mysteries are.”
“Are we going to take poison,” Izz asked. “Like Socrates.” Heroic nausea made him rub his mouth and then, even as he looked up to watch his parents watch him, halted with his wrist in front of his lips, as if stifling a burn.
“You and Myrrh are going to hide.” Ludwik thought he was going to faint, and abruptly fixed his gaze on Myrrh, who had stood in order to fidget about, and now faced away in profile with one hand on the smudged veneer of the dining table, fingers together in a trowel shape, as if imperceptibly nibbling across the surface to a bowl of grapes. God save us, he thought. How scraggly and golden she has become. She reads Verlaine in French and draws penises freehand with her eyes closed. They think they have secrets, but they have none from me. Imagine a regime, to which I myself have been some kind of cavaliere servente, or go-between, wanting to wipe out the likes of her, just because her mother descends from Shem. It’s unbelievable. The light doesn’t refuse to shine on her. The air allows her to breathe it. Water doesn’t rebel when it enters her mouth. The table reflects her without demur. Why, she looks more Slavic than anything, yet she’s one of the doomed. Look how her lower face falls away from its natural sit, but because she sucks in her mouth and tugs back her chin when she’s lost in thought, as if she’s just swallowed the idea of death and is waiting for it to go down. She could stand there forever against that folded screen, a long black-haired pixie lost in cogitation. She knows. And so does he. They pick things out of the air. They receive our transmissions before we even formulate them. That’s what adolescence is for: the intuition of essentials while the grown-ups shuffle their vocabularies. “Hide,” she said in belated echo. “What are we doing now? Advertising where we are?”
“Underground,” he told her, told the room, with lips like slabs of cement. “Briefly, until help arrives. And then another country where,” he let the limp joke out, “for once I have no diplomatic privileges.”
“Then,” Myrrh said, again sitting, “tell us where, and we can all begin learning the language. Is it where the rivers go uphill and the natives live on liquids only?”
“Cuckoo clocks,” he answered, desperate for something precise, unwilling to admit he didn’t know.
“Or sleds drawn by reindeer?” Izz had come back from a reverie so intense his top lip shone and his incipient mustache looked plastered down.
“Make them grow, Izz. And don’t bite.”
“Like baby lemons,” he gasped, his truant mind on Bantu women who stretch out their bottom lips with a wooden disk, and Bantu men who elongate their penises with a stone tied on.
“If I were bigger,” she told him languidly, “I wouldn’t seem so optional. You’d want me more. And so would other boys.”
I am mouthing inverted daffodils crammed with clay, he told himself. I’ll end up making her sore. No, this is what they’re for. Then he heard a muddled purr begin, and fixed his mind on what he was doing, lost in a rhythm with her, in a spell of things imminent: two actors endlessly repeating their opening lines.
About the author:
The author of 50 books, Paul West has received the Literature Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985, a 1993 Lannan Prize for Fiction, and the Grand-Prix Halperine-Kaminsky Prize for the Best Foreign Book in 1993. He has also been named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. The Tent of Orange Mist was runner-up for the 1996 National Book Circle Award in Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature. His previous work in Ragazine was an essay on Beckett’s Texts: http://old.ragazine.cc/2012/10/paul-west-beckett/
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March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Paul West/Fiction
The following story by Avery Irons (above), is the winner of Ragazine‘s first fundraising writing contest, “Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Written in 2013)”.
We extend our appreciation to all those who entered the contest, and especially to our esteemed judge, Sheree Renée Thomas.
Runners up (stories to be published in Ragazine in 2014):
Ely Azur’s “Never. Give. You. Up.” (moving but creepy adopted monster/baby/zombie? And a disclaimer, don’t usually care for zombie tales, but this family’s attempt to adopt and become parents during a biological epidemic was compelling)
Lisa Bolekaja’s “Don’t Dig Too Deep,” (spooky children’s lore), and
Sharon Warner’s “The Color of Time” (short and sweet microfiction).
Honorable Mentions for Imagination and Lore
“Jacob and the Owl,” by Shawn Frazier
“Ruth’s Garden” by Kyla Philips
Honorable Mentions for exciting locations/settings:
(Dogon tribe /Africa), Sacha Webley
(Brazil), Adanze Asante
by Avery Irons
Robert pulled our thin curtains aside and jabbed his index finger at the snow falling on the other side of the window. The ceiling light flickered in rhythm with his thumps on the glass. “If those suckers at the city are dumb enough to open up in all this mess, that shows you how jacked up their system is and why you shouldn’t go.”
I lay on the couch watching his shoulders bunch higher and higher towards his neck, the signal that he was prepared to argue the point all night. “How will I get more food credits if I don’t go?” I asked.
“Are you hungry?” he turned hurt eyes to me.
“No, but you know that babies sleep and eat.” I emphasized the ‘you.’ I didn’t want to waddle to the Pregnancy Registration Center in two feet of snow, but I had already traded two night shifts at the hospital to get the day off. If the first radio reports said that the government offices were open, I’d make the trip even if I had to dig a tunnel all the way to downtown Brooklyn.
“We’ve been making it, and we’ll keep on making it. Fernando said he’s gonna need more help in his new building in a few weeks.” Robert walked over to our leaning bureau and rummaged through the top drawer for his emergency pack of cigarettes. Knowing the unpredictability of bodega owners during snowstorms, I hoped that he had enough to get him through the next day. His shoulders gathered even higher—he didn’t.
“You working with Fernando isn’t getting us anywhere. He has you running around the neighborhood fixing toilets and checking boilers at all hours of the night for change. It’s not safe.”
Robert shrugged and sighed as he bent his tall, lean body to check the temperature on our space heater. “Hot or cold?” he asked.
“So hot, I wanna strip naked and go lay in the snow.”
Chuckling, he sat next to me on our saggy loveseat and draped our afghan over his legs, placed my feet in his lap and said, “Please don’t.”
“I don’t have a choice.” I nestled back against the cushion. “Tina says it’s easy. The services clerks think we’re all trifling and sleep with anybody anyway. I just say that it could be more than one man’s baby and I don’t know where either is. They’ll give me a hard time to embarrass me and then move on.”
I told the short version of the story, leaving out the details about the services clerk interviewing my sister raising her voice so all of the other clerks could hear that part of the interview. Tina told me that she’d heard snickering and teeth-sucking from all around her; and, as she left, four or five clerks found reasons to stand or leave their cubicles to cut their eyes at her. I also didn’t tell him about the signs posted all over the PRC describing the government’s plan to start DNA testing all fatherless babies in 2152. The PRC’s would then cross-reference all of the baby DNA samples with the male samples in the Justice System Database. We couldn’t afford the baby I was carrying, so having another in just two years wasn’t even a possibility.
“We always have a choice,” Robert said, his calloused hands kneading my swollen feet.
“Baby, I don’t need a lecture right now.” The over-head light was dim, but I put my arm over my eyes— my own signal that I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “It at least gives him a chance of staying out of the Centers. If something happens to me, or if he gets sick and has to go the hospital, they’ll start digging around. If they figure out he’s yours, they’ll take him for sure. I’ve seen it happen at the hospital—too many times. I’d rather dance with the devil on my own terms.”
“That’s the problem.” Robert shifted upright. “That’s why things never change, except to get worse. People think it’s easier to just go along. Look around this zone. Trash on the streets. Buildings falling down. We choose this shit. You leave the zone every day. You know nobody else in this city lives like this. And they aren’t registering their babies. Even if you say the baby isn’t mine, as soon as he gets to their schools they’ll give him a million diagnostics until they find something wrong with him. And then they’ll take him.”
I lifted up and looked around our studio apartment bulging with just a double bed, our little couch, a work desk for me, a mini-fridge and microwave, and a chest of drawers. The yellowed paint on the walls had cracked and bubbled, and no matter how much I cleaned, the place smelled like the dried-out hardwood floors. The lights flickered again, dimmed for a few seconds and then brightened. “You look around. You have a choice too Robert. We can get out of this. You take care of the baby for the first few months, and I’ll pull whatever shifts I have to finish my practicum hours. Then I can apply anywhere in the city. You’re waiting for some moment when everyone’s gonna run out into the streets. It’s not happening. ”
“What am I supposed to do, Jackie? “ His eyes darted to his ankle bracelet “You show me a good job, in a good neighborhood, with a swipe station near it. Who’s gonna hire me? I went through their facilities, got their diploma, but I come back and can’t get a job.”
I wished that I hadn’t brought up work. He and plenty others would have gotten on-the-books jobs if they could’ve. Few businesses would hire the young men and women returned from the Healthy Child Centers. Even in small print, the words stood out on their records, warning instability and disconnection. Robert’s parole status and the required and random swipe check-ins didn’t make things any easier. I wasn’t trying to upset him, but I was tired of the never ending argument. And I was tired of not talking about what was really going on with him. I softened my voice to just above a whisper. “Just because you lost Little Robert doesn’t mean they’ll take our baby too.”
Robert tensed and straightened on the other side of the couch. His burdened, brown eyes gave me the same searching look they always gave me when I brought up the little boy tucked away in his wallet. “Like father like son. Isn’t that what they say? Isn’t that the reason they sent me upstate, and for this leash around my neck?” He ripped the swipe card and chain off his neck and flung it across the room. “I want to burn that bullshit. I’m just trying to give the baby a chance.”
He leaned his head back against the couch’s spine, closed his eyes and said, “Baby, you know it wasn’t always like this, right? I don’t think it was ever perfect, or ever will be, but it wasn’t like this. It used to be that at least a man had a chance to stand or fall on his own. A child didn’t have to pay for his daddy’s mistakes. I didn’t have anything to do with my no-account father killing that man.” Robert turned to look at me, his eyes fierce and desperate. “Jackie you gotta keep him out of their system. Don’t let it anywhere near him. It eats our babies.”
His words hung over me. My mouth opened, but what could I say? What could I do? As if to buy me a little time, or mercy from the pain in his eyes, the light flittered out and the space heater and mini-fridge both rattled to a stop. We sat in silence and darkness except for the glow from the snow falling outside. I wanted to tell him that I saw what he saw, that I understood, but when you’re surrounded by fire, the only way out is through it.
Robert’s legs started to shake. His breaths deepened between muffled sniffles. I reached over, felt the wetness on his cheeks and ran my fingers through the edges of his short afro. He wrenched away and snapped up off the couch. His bare feet thudded on the hardwood. Our front door screeched open and slammed shut behind him. I remembered his swipe card on the floor across the room, hoisted myself up and stumbled in that direction, running my fingers under the radiator until I found the cheap, aluminum, beaded chain. Not wanting to waste time forcing my feet into my snow boots, I slipped into Robert’s work boots, wrapped the blanket around me and ran to the door only to stop short in the hallway’s complete darkness. I moved back towards our door, but then pictured a gang of cops lounging in a van calling over everyone who passed by. They would take any parolee without a monitoring card to the house of detention. Panicked heat spiked through me and I inched forward until I touched the banister. Balancing my roundness and Robert’s boots, I took the steps one at a time.
The snow fell in sheets of large, wet flakes. I shuffled slowly in Robert’s tracks, working to lift his boots with each step, hoping his bare feet would turn him around soon. My chest and thighs burned after the first block. I leaned against a brownstone’s railing to steady myself and rest for a moment. The gray sky hovered above me like the cement below me, unending and immovable. Without the orange-yellow glow of the streetlights, the snow fell pure white and rounded the cars into rows of little hills. Except for a few prayer candles dotting a few windows, the block had given in to the clarifying darkness. It was a night rarely seen in the city and under different circumstances would have been beautiful, like the night I’d met Robert a couple of years before.
I’d worked a double-shift and had to take the late, late bus back to the zone. A few guys hanging at my stop started following me with hey-babies and shouts that I made my scrubs look good and how badly they needed a nurse. I picked up my pace and headed for the nearest all-night bodega a few blocks away. When we neared a young man smoking on a stoop; I figured he’d only add to my problems. But as we passed him, he stubbed out his cigarette, eased down his steps, stood his full six feet and barked at the guys to leave me alone. Without arguing, they scrambled back towards their corner.
The young man said his name was Robert and walked me the rest of six blocks to the apartment I shared with my sister and grandfather. Keeping a respectful distance between us as we walked, he asked which hospital I worked in and how long I’d lived in the zone. I explained that I’d been born in the zone and raised there by my grandfather after my mother’s death. He only nodded when I said I was surprised that I hadn’t seen him around. Despite the summer heat and my fear that I smelled like antiseptic and sickness, I left my cardigan on since my little curves didn’t amount to much. I concentrated hard on holding my right foot’s pigeon-like tendencies in check, all the while trying to hide my nervous interest in him. I wanted him to ask me more questions, talk more. None of the young guys I knew had a voice like his, gentle and unhurried. I smiled with relief when we reached my building and he asked if he could take me for another walk the next day.
Robert let me into his life a little bit at a time, taking me to his favorite neighborhood spots and his friends’ houses for parties or to hang out. I’d known immediately that he was on parole. It was summer and too hot to hide his ankle bracelet. And his parole officer buzzed him to swipe during more than one of our dates. He’d dash out of the restaurant or friend’s house to the nearest swipe machine and return embarrassed and quiet. A couple of months in, he finally sat me down and told me about the bar fight with another young man back from a Center. He didn’t actually remember the fight just the young man bleeding on the ground as the cops cuffed him.
I trudged in Robert’s tracks for two more blocks, the cold, crisp air squeezing my lungs. “I can only make it one more block, baby, and then I have to go back,” I said aloud to Robert, wherever he was. Tightening the blanket around me, I rubbed my belly to calm the baby kicking in protest of all the late-night jostling. Slow step after slower step I crossed the intersection and began trying to convince myself that Robert would find his way to safety. At the end of the block I scanned all the streets around me. My heart jumped into my throat as a gust of wind swept the snow aside revealing the outline of a man standing stone-still halfway down the next block. I croaked out “Robert” and ran-wobbled, holding my belly, telling the baby it would be okay, and asking God to keep me on my feet.
The snow had whitened his afro and soaked through his t-shirt and jeans. My own feet hurt for his bare toes. His head shook and his shoulders trembled. He stood transfixed. I followed his stare across the intersection to the black, metal spider’s nest raised high above us. You never knew if there were any cops in them. I wasn’t sure if the thing even worked when the power was out, but I wasn’t waiting around to find out. I called Robert’s name again and grabbed his slick, bare arm to pull him back towards home. He jumped a bit, but held his gaze and his ground.
“I’m sorry, baby. I need to get you home safely,” I said as I fastened the swipe card around his neck and tried to pull him again.
He raised his hand to the swipe card and looked at me for the first time. His eyes went back and forth between me and the spider’s nest. His trembles became shudders. I expected him to scream or yell; but, a loud sob burst out of his chest. He dropped to his knees, clutched his stomach and vomited onto the snow. I eased my hand towards him. When he didn’t flinch away, I knelt beside him and began to run the base of my palm up the side of his spine. As I pressed more forcefully, his purges deepened, shaking us both. In that moment, I fully, and finally, realized that it would take both of us to work the pain, anger and fear out of him. When he was spent, I settled my heaviness into the snow beside him and rocked us until the sobs lessened and his breathing slowed.
“We we’re just kids, J. We hadn’t done anything wrong,” he cried. “They set us up. They set us all up. We were so small, baby. How could they do that?”
I wiped away the tears and melting snow in his eyelashes and on his cheeks. “I don’t know, baby. I’m so, so sorry. “
His eyes raised to mine. “Please don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me,” he begged, holding my hand to his face.
“I won’t ever leave you, Robert,” I said. “Let me take you home.”
His eyes questioned me. I nodded. “Yes, baby, let’s go home.”
With my arm around his waist, we slogged through the three blocks back to our building. Exhausted, and with Robert straining through each step, we climbed the still dark stairs without hesitation. Once inside he headed straight for our bed, but I stood him against the wall to undress him. After he lay down, I elevated his feet, cupped my hands around his cold toes, and was thankful to feel them give a little. Murmuring for me a stop, he groaned as his feet warmed, but I hugged them until I was certain his toes would recover. After I’d tucked him under our comforter and sat beside him, he wrapped his arm around my waist and pressed his head against my hip
“She was in on it, baby,” he said from the edge of sleep. “My mother . . . She let them take me. She should’ve fought and found a way. She told me I was going to some new school with lots of kids and places to run around. She actually said I’d have fun, that I’d be happy there. How J? How could she do that to me? She was supposed to protect me. All of us were so small baby, and mad and hurting. We didn’t know who to blame, so we fought each other. I prayed and prayed for her to come get me. The boys in the dorm laughed at me, but every night I kneeled by my bed. But god never answered my prayers. She never came to get me.”
His arm tightened around my waist. I felt him looking up at me through the darkness. I didn’t know what to say. He rarely talked about his mother. I only knew that she and her second family had moved out of the city during his last stint upstate; she hadn’t left a forwarding address for him. I had no idea why she had registered him or listed his father and couldn’t judge a woman for hard decisions made in hard moments. I just needed Robert to see that I was trying to make the best choice in our hardest moment—I had to go the PRC.
My worn-out body refused to get up and undress for bed, so I dozed off sitting there with Robert. I dreamed the dream I had every night. I was standing in the middle of the street holding a little boy’s hand. The boy and I tried to cross to the sidewalk, but endless cars zipped in front of us and behind us. I shouted for Robert, but one of the bums on the sidewalk yelled that he was locked up again—or sometimes, that he was dead.
The flickering of the overhead light woke me. Relieved to be in the calm of our apartment with Robert safe, I got up to hang up his wet clothes and straighten up before turning in for the night. As I cleaned, I bumped his pack of cigarettes on the chest of drawers. Surprised by the lightness, I opened it. It was empty. He hadn’t said a word about it.
The clock on the chest read five minutes after twelve. I prayed that the all-night bodega hadn’t closed because of the snow. I grabbed Robert’s wallet, slipped on his boots again and bundled my winter coat around me the best I could. The snow had stopped and most of the clouds cleared. The full moon glistened off the momentarily perfect blanket of snow. By sunrise the snow plows would have piled it into street corner mountains, and the buses and cars started their task of turning it into a long-lived, gray slush. The PRC would open in the morning.
It was just half a block to the corner store, but I huffed by the time I made it to the bullet-proof window and pounded to wake the man sleeping behind the glass. He jumped up, fumbled for his glasses, and slicked his hand back over the few strands of hair on his head. “Good thing for you my brothers are late coming to help me close up, or I would have been long gone.”
“Lucky me,” I said. “Can I get ten unmarked?”
“These are for my revolutionary friend.” The man leaned closer to the glass and ran his eyes around the empty street before stretching his arm high above him and bringing down ten unmarked cigarettes wrapped in cellophane.
“Yeah.” I didn’t like where he was about to go.
The man laughed. “I’m not joining any revolution led by a man that sends his pregnant woman out in a snowstorm to get his cigarettes.”
“He’s not feeling good.”
“Sure, Mommy. That’ll be six bucks.”
Robert had exactly six dollars in his wallet. I hesitated, but slipped them into the metal dish beneath the glass. It would be okay—Robert could sell a few as singles if we needed a few dollars until I got paid, or our food credits came through. As I was about to fold the wallet away, I saw the picture of Little Robert and pulled it out of its slot. The boy looked so much like Robert I couldn’t believe the resemblance. On the back, a feminine hand had written “Little Robert, Age 8, 2130.”
I stopped. That date had to be wrong; the picture had to be much more recent. I thought back to one of early dates when I had caught a glimpse of it as Robert had opened his wallet to pay for something. I made him show it. “Who’s that?” I had asked
“Little Robert.” Embarrassed, he rushed the two words as he shoved the picture back into his wallet.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a son?”
Robert had tilted his head, given me a questioning look and then relaxed. But he spoke with a longing sadness. “The system got him.”
Once back in the apartment and stripped out my bundling, I sat beside Robert again. I looked at the man and then at the boy in the picture. Both had the same point to their ears and arch in their eyebrows. Both had the same brown speckle on the right corner of their bottom lips. I wished that Robert had just said that it was a picture of him. Maybe, I thought, it was too hard for him back then to own that lost and hurting little boy, too risky to trust me with that knowledge. In the photo, Robert’s eyes were blank and his mouth was a straight line. I wondered if Robert’s mother had written his name on the back. How could she have gotten that picture and left him in that place—a scared and miserable little boy, sleeping in a cold, bare room with dozens of other cast-off boys?
Although Robert was healing, the boy would always live inside the man. If we had a baby boy, Robert wanted to name him after his late grandfather, Richard, but with the last letter changed to a “t” so our son would know that even if he was alone or hungry or cold, he would still be rich in his heart. Realizing just how much I had misunderstood Robert hurt my own heart. I had always thought that he wanted a second chance. For the first time, I understood that he’d never had a first, and that I was the only one who could give it to him. I pictured the baby growing inside me, imagining Robert’s toffee skin, lush black curls, and round, dark eyes. Both the child and the man deserved a chance. Clicking off my alarm, I whispered, “I trust you,” as I slid under the blanket and into Robert’s warming arms.
About the author:
Avery Irons is a writer and advocate for youth justice. She currently splits her time between Champaign, Illinois, and Los Angeles, CA.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on CONTEST WINNER: The Chance
Drawing Room/Walter Gurbo
With No Affixes
by Joel James Davis
People take turns holding Anne, the eldest. She’s unhinged, wrecked, disjointed right now, being the one who found her father. She continues to murmur about his face, what it looked like inside the tight coil of rope that was less like a noose and more like a thick, fancy summer camp necklace. Anne turns sixteen tomorrow and is surrounded by extended family who fidget on the folding metal chairs. Her sister Janey, twelve, hair the color of al dente spaghetti, sits next to Anne. Janey began her menstrual cycle that morning.
Many strange new things.
On the other side is Sylvia, the youngest of the three Papa has intentionally left behind. She has a generous space in her mouth where teeth will eventually decide to reappear. A pixie cut is the dark shingles on her tiny roof. She’s small, and the ceiling in this room seems so far away to her.
All three cry together as the reverend says nice things, avoiding, of course, that one thing each person in the stiff chairs is thinking. Tissues are yanked from boxes like the table cloth during a magic trick.
Cemetery, dirt, flowers.
Day succumbs, evening arrives.)
Back at home, the air in the house feels like the sound a car makes when it won’t start, and everyone’s gone except Aunt Sophie and the three girls he has left behind.
Not much has been said all day until Janey notices a void in their new family.
They call her name.
Sylvia! They check the entire wooden home, floor to ceilings.
Dear God! they hear Sylvia call. Dear God!
She’s out front, Auntie Sophie says. They rush through the door, onto the stoop, down to the lawn next to Sylvia and a prostrate step ladder.
Look! Sylvia says, directing her index finger toward the night sky. It’s Papa!
Their heads follow the finger high into space until their eyes rest on the giant yellow moon.
It’s Papa! Sylvia repeats. The moon has swallowed Papa!
There, sure as anguish and sorrow exist in this world, Papa’s inside the moon.
How’d he get there? Sylvia asks.
Look what his light does to the colors of the grass and the car and… us. Look at us! Janey says. Look at what Papa has done to us.
Anne looks into Janey’s eyes. The moon is the sky’s menstruation. It arrives and cleanses the sky of the past month’s tragedies.
So it’s taking Papa?
Yes, Anne says, smiling, finally smiling.
Sylvia tugs at the ladder. They all lift it to make a large A shape. Go to Papa, Sylvia says to Anne, rubbing a small circle on her back.
As midnight arrives and as Anne turns sixteen, she climbs the ladder, stretches toward the endless roof of the world, and brushes her long fingers across Papa’s smile. Anne’s smile goes slack. Why’d you have to do it? she whispers, pinching a crater into his bright moon face before descending down, down, down.
About the author:
Joel James Davis has work in Redivider, Alimentum, Paterson Literary Review, Pindeldyboz, Bitter Oleander, Lamination Colony, Portland Review, and others. He lives in Binghamton, N.Y., where you can probably find him right now at Kingsley’s Pub drinking beer with Kim.
December 31, 2013 Comments Off on Joel James Davis/Fiction
Where You Are Now
by Alex Straaik
You are leaning over me, holding a noisemaker, clutching my arm. Your eyes are shadowed by a false drunkenness, convincingly posed behind the green glass of an O’Doul’s bottle, the label carefully removed. Your purple dress, speckled with sunflowers, rests across your legs. You are the most important object in the room. Everything else is brown leather and brown wall paneling and grey marble, which I am told is very expensive. I don’t remember who took the picture. I do remember someone saying your eyelashes steal everything away, being encouraged to accept the metaphorical red ribbon.
A child, you are already trained in the art of seduction; lips curled up, a teaser of a smile. I am your little boy-girl cousin, sitting next to you, left without enough room on the edge of the couch. My arms are crossed, a failed effort to cover those cruel and useless tits, cloaked by an oversized Miami Dolphins jersey, an orange turtleneck, and tattered, open hair shafts.
It is New Year’s Eve. The ball is just about to drop, or already has.
Your grandfather’s too-loud projection television, quite literally the length of the kitchen wall at my house, is just out of the frame. Dick Clark is on, and a room full of overweight family members are eating slabs of lasagna, of eggplant parmesan. They’re devouring mounds of salad drenched with oily dressing that will inevitably wind up on their clothes. The evening always culminates with a mad dash to the sink, and frantic, flawed attempts to remove stains that have already set. With plates on their laps, zoning out underneath the glow of the screen, they sip iced champagne, always Dom Pérignon. A sharp contrast from my five-liter boxed-wine parents.
We are the only people who know that, on other days, when there are no guests but us, your grandfather watches porn on that television, yells, “Stay out of my bedroom. Later. I’m having sex with my woman tonight.” The kind of man whose wealth came almost directly from his brashness and frugality, he is the type of person who brings home cartons of maxi pads from liquidation centers tied to the roof of his Cadillac, screaming at us to unload them. He keeps an inhaler for his asthma in every room. All the time, he says he will die soon.
His “woman,” Margot, the mistress whom everyone pretended was his wife for the sake of convenience, didn’t leave her house for three years after you left, and wouldn’t let anyone in. Then, she just arrived at Belmont Lake for our annual Fourth of July picnic, sat down at the table, and made herself a plate. Two hamburgers and a generous side of baked beans. “It’s nobody’s business, what I do,” she said, perpetually defensive, angry, when anyone asked her why she’d done what she did. “Because I felt like it,” she’d say, other times.
Nothing in that house ever changes, or grows. Margot’s oldest daughter, Suzanne, still lives in her childhood bedroom at the end of the hall, still wears the same hairdo; a sweeping wave of bangs brushed back over her fluffed, stiff mane. A Brooklyn bouffant, my mother calls it. Suzanne is fifty-four years old. She has over one hundred teddy bears facing her bed, which we were forced to take naps in on New Year’s Eve. My mother constantly worried that I would fall apart from fatigue. I never slept. Suzanne still has a fake boyfriend named Nick whom no one has ever met. She tells people, “I pity anyone who doesn’t have satin sheets.”
I chose her as the sponsor for my Confirmation, thumbing my nose at my family’s God. It was this move that provoked my father − botanist, teacher, skeptic — to ask me if I didn’t believe anymore. A scientist, he always sought clarity, evidence. I was twelve. I said no, I just don’t.
Nodding, he said, “Good for you.” Then, “Don’t tell your mother.”
Really, it is unbelievable, the things you don’t know. How it has come to this, that this picture of some insignificant evening is the only photograph I have of us together.
I used to keep so many photos of us I couldn’t even begin to count. And they weren’t crushed into the bottom of a nightstand drawer, like this one is, laden with white marks and accidentally torn, the edges warped from the heat. They were in quilted photo albums, labeled with glue pens, the years written in my mother’s cursive. I remember looking through them often, even after I gave the books to my grandmother, who displayed them on her coffee table as if our memories were ones anyone else would want to look through. Now, those albums are in her attic, per my request, stacked behind the gigantic yellow teddy bear I cannot imagine my mother once loving. They are covered with dust and bits of sawdust that fall from the ceiling during thunderstorms, and the only reason I don’t wipe it off (because, despite not wanting to open the books, I always open the books) is because it would feel like telling a lie.
The attic was legendary, a revealer of false bravery. Both of my grandparents discouraged us from going up there. My grandfather — World War Two veteran, Greek bull — said it was dangerous; was infested with wasps, had poor ventilation, and an unreliable floor. My grandmother — Brooklyn-born Italian, chronic worrier, believer of miracles — said she’d heard people up there at night; ghosts sliding their feet across the pine planks, never daring to make the trip down the five steps into her bedroom. They feared the crucifix, she’d said, which was affixed to her door.
“Why are they afraid?” I’d asked, young, looking at the many crosses that adorned her walls, wondering how she could sleep underneath so many tortured men, some with dried palm still tucked behind their metallic heads.
“Everyone is afraid of God,” she told me. My grandmother was constantly making statements like this, and even now, after over a decade of my absolute atheism, she stills signs all of her cards “You’re in my prayers.” She is the only person who can get away with things like that. And in her attic, where the fear of God keeps everything in and the fear of bees and asphyxiation keeps everyone out, the albums remain.
Out of the hundreds of photographs in those books, spanning over at least fourteen years, I can only remember three. In one of them, we’re teenagers, posed on the bed in my mother’s childhood bedroom, which, like much of my grandparents’ house, seems untouched by time. All of the furniture, cloaked in plastic, pictures of dead people and sold houses cluttering the mantle. The carpet is the same hunter green my mother had walked upon when she was in high school — then, the beautiful star in the school musicals, envy of others, now the office manager at a job she is too good for. The rug is so stained and faded, patterns unintentionally emerge from the corners. Her twin sized canopy bed is still in the middle of the room, the comforter properly folded, the pillow aptly fluffed. For thirty-two years, no one has slept in it. In the picture, there we are: giving the peace sign for an undisclosed cause, smiling through too much lipstick. I am wearing a long, maroon skirt and an unflattering white button-down shirt; I am still too shy to show my legs, to accentuate the shape of my breasts with form-fitting sweaters. You come from a family of people who are only comfortable in green velvet and black satin and are dressed accordingly. You stare directly at the camera, and I do too, almost. My eyebrows, now too thin, were then too thick. I was a blonde, and so were you.
In another picture, that is just of you, you’re standing on stage, holding a bouquet of red roses, wearing that peach-colored bridesmaid dress that was left over our Aunt Joanne’s wedding. She hadn’t even asked me to be in the bridal party, and while silently devastated, I still had fun with you, sitting in the suite, stealing sips of champagne and glances in the mirror. I remember you wore your hair pin straight and jet black, bangs swept to the side. My hair, a purposely unnatural red, had been dyed in passive aggressive protest the day before. But in the photo, taken a year later, your hair is honey-brown again and your smile is huge, honest. Your teeth are visible. I remember sitting in the front row at the beauty pageant, bored, watching your full lips mouth thank you; and your mother, next to me, who always smelled like cigarettes and wore too short dresses, pointing to your competitors, and saying, “All those girls would be terrible fucks.” She only clapped for you.
That was in the days when we used to have sleepovers and watch television all night — usually MTV, back when it was still okay to like it — until we fell asleep on your living room couch, comfortably experimenting with drugs. That living room, all different shades of green. Your mother thought she had it in her to be a designer, but I hated that room, I absolutely hated it. I felt like I was in a forest, somewhere lost in the underbrush with low hung branches scraping against my skin. It was so dark in there. I don’t know how you stood living in a house that was so dark. But back then we still swam in the fountain in front of city hall at midnight. We squatted, by choice, in the unfinished building we lovingly named The Foundation. That was before you squatted, without choice, strung out, living on scaffolding above the Lincoln Tunnel. That was before I lost you.
The other photo was taken much earlier, at the Manorville Game Farm out on the east end of Long Island. We must be no more than eight. On the mornings of the long car ride, I recall awaking in a terrible panic, immediately hit with the realization that I would become ill during the journey, forcing my parents to pull over as I threw up onto the side of the parkway, much to my brother’s dismay; because our car had a rust hole on the floor behind the driver’s seat, we were pushed together, buckled into a single seatbelt, far away from the hole. “Pull it,” my mother would say, yanking the belt across our chests, and we’d pull it, covertly seizing the opportunity to dig our elbows and knees into one and other, already learning to fight for the biggest piece of the smallest corner. He was always the kind of kid who was in a rush, even if it was at your expense, begging my parents to continue on, as if oblivious to the events that were presently unfolding. His left foot, severely scarred from an unfortunate accident involving a scalding hot cup of tea, would beat on the back of my father’s seat as he half-cried, “I want to go now.” But it wasn’t his fault. He was born too soon. There wasn’t enough space between us, and the walls in our house weren’t thick enough to conceal the hushed, late night dinner table conversations about high food bills, no vacations, the lack of money to finish the goddamn basement/leak in the roof/rot on the tool shed, and the endless question of what did we do wrong that everyone else did right?
There is none of this, though, in that photograph. These gripes are new blues. When it was taken, things were different. My parents were still firmly together, the kind of a couple who held hands in the front seat. My father doesn’t yet live in the basement. My mother doesn’t yet throw her birthday presents into the Atlantic Ocean, or sleep, when she feels like it, at her office. I do not yet hate her and I do not yet forgive her; I do not yet understand that type of loneliness to do either of those things. But in this picture, there is just you and me and my brother, not yet my friend, standing a little off to the side, disgruntled from hanging out with the girls. There is a straw in each of our mouths. We’re sipping soda from a single can.
And now, a letter appears in my mailbox, along with this picture from an unknown New Year’s. The envelope is blue and the handwriting is yours, just as I remembered it, alongside mine, scrawled across walls of abandoned buildings. Judging by the way you shape your letters, the roundness of your vowels, the open circles above your i’s, you are still fourteen years old, the kind of girl who forges love letters you will never have the courage to send. I won’t say the same doesn’t go for me, but I don’t even bother writing them. Not anymore. Always nostalgic about something, the girl (now the woman) who stares out of living room windows during family parties, watching the passing traffic, wondering who’s riding with whom, trying to picture myself in a million lives, quietly trying them on to see which one, if any, would fit.
Rather than telling me where you’ve been for the past six-and-a-half years, you’re explaining that girls who are married aren’t allowed to compete in the Miss America pageant and you sound profoundly upset, truly disappointed. It seems like you just don’t understand, or don’t want to acknowledge, the fact that you are no longer a kid. No longer a beauty queen, climbing trees and sleeping in the woods, with me, watching the sunrise.
You do not mention the time you set fire to your bedroom with both of us in it, how you took an X-acto™ knife and sliced up all of the furniture in your mother’s apartment, drawing all of those crazy designs on your walls and mirrors and telling me I couldn’t understand the code. You do not mention us finding your flattened dead kittens laying on the concrete floor of the unfinished basement, the grey one’s tails curled halfway around the rusty leg of your father’s old worktable, forgotten and covered with mildew, left to rot underground. Those are the memories I think of now, when I think of you at all. How the black fleas ran up our legs that night, forcing us, together, crying and naked, into the shower.
But that’s not what you think of. You have never been the type of person who knows how to look back. You just say, I miss you. That we should have a sleepover. That you hope I’m well. Mockingly, you still call me Ms. Nobel Prize, ask if I’m “still too smart” for you. You use too many exclamation points. You never use a question mark, even when you ask “How are you.” You just end the sentence with a period, with a single flick of your pen. It is more of a line than a dot. Everything you write, it seems, proves why my grandmother was afraid to tell me about you. Because you are too the same. Because you are still a child, now overgrown. At a family wedding a few months ago, she’d come up to me so slowly, her hand crumpled around a piece of paper — your grandfather had given it to her, making my family do the dirty work again. I could tell she didn’t want to give it to me by the way her fingertips lingered around the edges. But there was no drama like I imagine you’d think. There was just a piece of paper, passed from one hand to the other, with your name and phone number scribbled in your handwriting, and nothing more. No conversation about where you’d been, if you were healthy or the kind of sick that you never recover from, or out on bail or on parole, or really free, trying to make an honest go of it again. There was none of that. Your resurgence was so unceremonious, so quiet. My grandmother simply handed me the paper, and asked if I’d tried the cake.
And in spite of it all, regardless of the fact that I never called you, even after I received this letter in the mail that I hid underneath my mattress for three days after seeing your name on the return address, I finally, late at night, drew the deepest breath I could, exhaled over what felt like a minute, and opened it. And there we are: on the couch getting a second chance, wearing old expressions, yours still self-assured and smiling, and me, right there next to you, uneasy, regretting every second, but lacking the courage to move.
About the Author:
Alex Straaik is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, essays, and observations. Her major pursuits/loves include writing, reading, storytelling, backpacking, behavioral health activism and education, and other adventures. An introverted loud mouth from New York, she is currently living, loving, and learning in Dayton, Ohio. You can check out more of her work at www.alexstraaik.com, and send her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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November 2, 2013 1 Comment
FUND RAISER/WRITING CONTEST
Contest Is Closed.
Winner and Runners-Up will be announced in December.
Thanks to all those who entered!
November 2, 2013 6 Comments
by Kevin Carey
I’m counting the white shirts that step off the train onto the street below me when I hear Carmen’s knock, a single tap, then two quick ones back to back. Boom, boom-boom. I watch every morning from my third floor balcony, the briefcase-carrying white-flight suckers. They leave their two acre lots and their SUVs for eight hours a day and they think they belong to the city.
Eighteen, nineteen. Carmen knocks again. Boom, boom-boom.
“Coming, you freak,” I yell.
I hand him a twenty when I open the door. “One-nine, one-nine,” I tell him.
“The lucky count,” he says, smiling, his dark round glasses, his long blonde hair combed back off his forehead. He wraps the twenty around a thick pile of bills. “Phone?”
I point to a white wooden table by the window. “Tell that boss of yours to give you a raise so you can get your own cell.”
“But I can always use yours, right, Buddy?”
He removes the lid of a green ceramic pot in the center of the table. “What’s the doctor selling?” he asks, lifts a fat joint rolled in yellow paper from the bowl. “This it?”
“You’d think the freak would hook me up for the weekend,” I say. “How’s a guy to make a living off of one spliff ?”
“I think you need a new grocery store, my friend.”
“A new life, maybe.”
Carmen sniffs the joint like fine wine. “You can always jump back into the suit coat.”
“Time me,” I say.
He sparks a lighter, holds the flame near the tip of it. “May I?”
“It ain’t free.”
“My man, I’d never.”
“Not you. Freckled-faced faggot.”
It’s a game we play. He never pays for the weed I have in my bowl and I get to slide on some street numbers.
He tucks my twenty under the green pot, takes a few hits off the joint, then passes it over. “Come on, Bud, invest,” he says. The generous type, especially with my shit.
He punches numbers on the cell phone singing to himself, “Viva Las Vegas,” taps the table, waiting. “Yo, it’s Carmen. One-nine, one- nine, twenty times,” he says to some guy on the other end of the phone, then rattles off a list of number combinations and dollar figures. Carmen tells me the guy is small time, neighborhood numbers and local book on games. He swears he is legit, that this number works just like the real lottery, only it’s based on attendance figures at the race track in Revere, but I’m not so sure.
When he’s done, we finish smoking the bone and drink a beer on the balcony.
“Does anyone really hit that number?” I ask him, “or you guys just collecting your own welfare money?”
“In their dreams.”
“Just hasn’t been your lucky day yet.”
“Or ever,” I say.
Carmen drinks the last of his beer, crumples the empty can, looks at me with those sun glass eyes. “Up for a game?”
In a few minutes we’re walking through City Hall Plaza, a wide plateau of brick and cement and one bronze sculpture that looks like a pile of licorice. It’s a cloudy day and the city smells like rain. Carmen takes off and runs up the flat concrete steps in front of City Hall. He leaps two at a time, pretending he has a football tucked under his arm, cutting back and forth like a running back in the open field. Then he catches his foot and trips face first, just barely bracing his fall with his hand.
“Clumsy bitch,” I yell.
A gray-haired woman, pushing a shopping cart filled with empty cans and bottles, stops and looks in my direction. She stares from behind the hair hanging in her face, the low, tight tuck of a green and white Celtic’s cap, looks at me like I called her name.
I catch up to Carmen and the woman moves away, across the empty Plaza, the rusted wheels of the shopping cart squeaking on the worn brick.
We walk into the subway entrance that sticks up out of the ground like some secret passage to a cave.
“Red or Green?” Carmen asks.
“Green line,” I tell him, pushing through the turnstile.
We sit for a few stops, the sound of the steel wheels turning underneath us. We don’t speak until Carmen points to the other end of the car where an old man is holding a twelve-inch cross and mumbling to himself. “Check it out,” he says.
“Waiting for vampires?”
Carmen laughs. “Or the end of the world.”
“Like this dude I heard on television talking about the Apocalypse,” I tell him.
“No. This guy was a Bible scholar going on about an eight-year-old kid they had set up in some shrine room in New Jersey. People were coming from all over the world to listen to his prophecies.”
“For how much?”
“See, nothing’s free. Not even the future.”
When the car slows we look at each other.
“No peeking.” Carmen says.
“Old woman. Middle door.”
The car stops and the doors slide open and a young man wearing a Co-Ed Naked Lacrosse sweatshirt, carrying a knapsack, steps in. I hand Carmen a ten spot. “Lucky guess.”
“So this kid, what did he say?” he asks me.
“He was warning people to get supplies ready, oxygen masks, canned goods, shit like that.”
“This other guy had a business building underground shelters, made millions.”
“Where there’s a need,” he says. “You better make sure you get cash, less you plan on collecting upstairs.” He points a thumb to the ceiling of the car.
“Ya. St. Peter’s collection office,” I say. “I’ll give him ten percent to frisk them at the gate.”
We laugh again, this time loud, slapping the seats and drawing stares from the handful of people onboard.
The train slows.
“Mother,” I say.
The door opens and a woman carrying a baby in a pouch walks in first.” I take the ten back.
“If it ends right now, you’ll go out a winner,” he says.
“Today I think I’d welcome the end. Why not?” I look at him sitting there, a slight smile on his face. “Do you believe in God, Carmen?” I ask.
He lowers his sunglasses, stares back. “What’s up with that?”
“Just a question. Do-you-believe-in-God?”
“Think God would sell pot?” I ask him, “I mean, if he was down here, like one of us.”
“Probably not. But his kid? He had those apostles slinging vino all over the place.”
“So they might have smoked a few if it was available?” I ask.
“Sure. They were fishermen, not angels.”
The lights flicker off and on as the train switches tracks, and suddenly the car is more crowded than before, folks reading the paper standing up, a few city kids with iPods.
“I’m not sure I believe in God,” I say.
“What do you got to lose?” he asks, “if you find out there’s nothing when you die, you won’t know, cause there‘ll be nothing. If you say you believe in God and you die and he’s there, you’re covered.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t have enough evidence.”
“Oh I get it.” He lifts his arms over his head. “Show me the holes in the hands.”
I straighten up, look at him real serious. “Let’s say I told him, ‘God let me hit the number and I promise I will give up selling weed and donate my money to the church.’ Why wouldn’t he do it? He gains a disciple, I do something good with my life. Everyone wins, right? So why wouldn’t he?”
“You got a point.”
“Bet your ass I do.”
“But,” he says, lowering the sunglasses on his nose again, “what if it doesn’t work like that.”
“What if you have to believe without the proof?”
“What fucking sense does that make?”
“I don’t know. But it always seems to be the way.”
“The way, Yahweh, the word, it’s all bullshit. I’m talking about a practical approach. He shows his face. I tell the world. And so on down the line. One poor slob at a time.”
The doors open and a Boy Scout troop gets on. We sit quietly for a few stops, cornered behind the sea of blue caps and gold-tasseled ties. One kid looks back at me, thick, round glasses and a fat face. I nod my head and he smiles. The doors open and he walks away looking back once more before catching up to his troop.
“I do believe sometimes more than others,” Carmen says.
“When times are good, you believe?”
“More like when I’m sitting alone, quiet you know, and I get this feeling that everything is going to be okay. I can’t explain it, but that’s when I believe.”
We get quiet again, look out the window at the train passing in the opposite direction.
“Ah, but you’re grateful because you have something someone else doesn’t,” I say.
“So how about the have-nots? Does God exist for them?”
“The meek will inherit the earth right?”
“And suffer the whole time they’re here,” I say, my hands open in front of me like I’m waiting to catch something falling from the sky.
“It’s about salvation,” Carmen says. “The poor, the ones with nothing get the spoils at the end of line.”
“I don’t buy it.”
“Then you don’t believe in God.”
The train slows.
“A nun.” I say.
“A priest,” he says.
We look as the door opens and a tall, slender girl, long black hair, dressed in a tight half- shirt and jeans, walks by and stands at the end door, her back facing us. “Maybe there is a God,” I say.
The next few minutes pass with the long exchange from underground to above ground tracks. We ride in the dark tunnel without saying a word, just the steel wheels scraping on the turns, the sudden shifts of weight rocking the train. We don’t speak until after we come up into the light of Commonwealth Ave. and bet on a policeman and a lesbian.
“You know what really kills me?” I say.
“Not hitting the number?”
“That fucking Bible.”
He looks at me, waits.
“Look at it,” I say. “It’s a bestseller, murder, lust, sex. I bet they ran it like a weekly. ‘When we left our hero he was on his way to the Red Sea.’”
“What if it were all true?” he asks me.
“Come on, man. It’s Rocky and Bullwinkle for Christ’s Sake. Where’s the truth? Where’s the hope?”
I stand and face him, holding the hand rails over my head. “At least we provide some hope, Carmen, something to help you get to the end of the stinking day, something real. Can’t you see? It’s all designed to keep the meek, meek and the poor, poor. ‘Give them religion, that’ll keep them from causing trouble, keep them from rising up. Promise them the great pay day, put it all in a book.’ You said it, Carmen. What if there’s nothing? Really think about that. Imagine the end is nothing.”
He stares at me, hard, like I’ve hurt his feelings. “Don’t knock the flying squirrel, man.”
At the end of the line we switch trains back. By the time we get home I’m forty dollars to the better, hitting the last four; back to back lawyers, a secretary and a gangbanger.
Carmen heads to the corner to check the number. “See you tomorrow, Bud,” he says, “unless I come knocking with your winnings.” He laughs and pretends to knock with his fist.
“And I’m the pope,” I yell after him.
I dial a beeper number so I can connect for the weekend, then I sit outside on the balcony waiting, looking over the city, at the empty train station, at the afternoon sky. There’s a kind of yellow-gray haze floating low over the buildings. It looks fake to me, like a backdrop on a pine frame that could be wheeled away at any moment or turned off with the flip of a switch. This could be the end of the world I think, right here, right now. It’s peaceful and quiet and I’m content just to sit and watch it happen.
A single raindrop lands on my arm and I stare at it, sitting there like a small pool in the crevice of my skin, and it makes me think of a time when I was a kid and my father made me a tire swing in our backyard. It was summer and a warm breeze was blowing and I was alone, swinging, my head arched back looking up at the sky. It was gray, like today, and the rain had fallen onto my forehead and I remember trying to keep my balance so the raindrops wouldn’t fall off my brow. I imagined them living there like a colony of tiny lakes. I remember I stayed that way, gathering drops, until the warm rain had soaked through my clothes, rocking back and forth, never wanting to leave, never wanting to stop looking up at the sky, never wanting to be anywhere else on earth.
The phone rings at my side. “Hello,” the voice says. “I got what you need. Come on by.” At the same time, I hear a knock at the door. Boom, boom-boom. Carmen.
“Hello,” the voice says again, “You there?”
Boom, boom-boom. Carmen yells from the other side of the door, “Open up man, you won’t believe it.”
I hold the phone to my chest, the tiny muffled voice still speaking impatiently, and I see that the clouds have broken slightly and a soft ray of light peeks through the grayness and spreads like a blanket across the rooftops and I smile, a silly sort of smile, like I know a joke no one else knows.
About the author:
Kevin Carey teaches in the English Department at Salem State University. His work has been nominated for a Push Cart Prize, won Best of the Net 2011, and was a finalist for The Million Writers Award 2012. He recently has been chosen as a finalist for 2012 Black River Chapbook Competition. His co-written screenplay “Peter’s Song” won Best Screenplay at The New Hampshire Film Festival 2009 and his one act plays have been staged at The New Works Festival in Newburyport, Mass., and The New Hampshire Theater Project. His book of poetry is The One Fifteen to Penn Station.” Kevin is also a seventh-grade basketball coach in Beverly, Mass., and a part-time filmmaker. He has recently completed a documentary film, with photographer Mark Hillringhouse, about New Jersey poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, called “All That Lies Between Us.”
June 29, 2013 Comments Off on Kevin Carey/Fiction
Out of Fashion
By Thaddeus Rutkowski
In school, I wore bell-bottoms made of brushed felt. The pants were tight around the thighs, but the bells — which had fringes — were very loose around the ankles. I kicked the fringes when I walked. For a top, I wore an orange corduroy shirt.
I walked alone in the halls of my high school. No one wanted to walk beside me. If I happened to be walking toward someone, the student stared at me as I passed.
I had one teacher — a Spanish teacher — who was a perv. He would notice any girl who wore a miniskirt. The school had a dress code — one of the rules was that the hem of a skirt had to touch the floor when the wearer was kneeling.
Whenever this teacher had any doubt about the length of a skirt, he would have the student kneel on the tiles, and if the fabric of her skirt touched the floor, she would be allowed to take a seat and the class would resume. If not, the teacher would dress her down, in Spanish.
When I walked into the classroom wearing my bell-bottoms, the teacher looked at the fringes brushing the floor and shook his head. He waved a finger, then rubbed one finger over the other as if to say, “Shame on you.”
“Tomás,” he said, addressing me by my Spanish name. “Tomás, we don’t do that here.”
My math teacher didn’t care what clothes students wore, but he was a sadist nonetheless. He said he would raise students’ grades, on one condition. “If you take a whack,” he said, “I’ll give you a higher letter.”
He opened a closet door to reveal a collection of paddles. He had flat wooden bats in various shapes, some with holes drilled through them for a greater sting.
Students lined up around the classroom, waiting to be paddled. The line included girls as well as boys. One by one, they went to the front of the room. Each of them took a swat, except for one boy, whose grade was too low for the paddle. He had to accept a kick. The teacher hauled back and booted the boy. The force of the blow sent the boy hopping forward, but he didn’t make a sound.
Only a few students were doing well enough not to get whacked. I was one of them. When the teacher noticed me sitting at my desk, he said, “You, Mouse, come up here. You’re next. You also get one — that’s a real number, plus one — just for being here.”
I rose from my seat and went forward.
At home, I put on hip boots to go fishing. My brother called the rubber wear “hippie boots.” I walked to the creek with the tops of the boots folded down. When I was ready to wade, I pulled up the tops and buckled the rubber straps around my belt.
As I walked through the fast-moving water, I realized the boots weren’t really necessary; the creek was only about two feet deep. I could have waded wet and made my casts. I could have fished without stepping into the water at all.
I put away my hippie boots when I returned from the stream. The next time I went out, I decided, I would wear sneakers.
My father took my family to see the movie Alice’s Restaurant. The movie was rated R, and I looked forward to seeing some sex, but there was next to none in the film. There was some nudity when the main character was given a physical exam for induction into the military. There was drug use among the people who were living communally. There was some swearing. That was it.
Later, my father became angry about a scene in the movie. In the sequence, one of the characters, a recovering junkie, gets high on drugs and swings around on some kind of apparatus. As he hangs like a monkey, he says repeatedly, “I am an artist!”
“That guy was no artist,” my father said. “He was a horse’s ass.”
After a few drinks, my father called me to where he was sitting. “I’m a real artist,” he said, “I’m serious, too serious for the rest of the clowns. But you don’t give me my due. You treat me like your social organizer. My job is not to entertain children!”
My mother brought home a small box from the hospital where she worked. The box held greeting cards. “Look,” she said. “It’s drawing by your father.”
I looked at the sepia-colored drawing my father had made. It showed the hospital where my mother worked. Every edge of the building was sharp; every angle followed perspective. The roof of the car port jutted out over the area where ambulances arrived. The windows of the rooms looked new and clean.
I could see that my father had talent. He had exceptional eye-hand control. I couldn’t understand how his hand could be so steady, even after years of drinking.
My sister embroidered an image from one of my father’s paintings onto a lapel of my jacket. In light- and dark-blue thread, she constructed an antique bottle, the kind with a stopper instead of a twist cap. It was one of the bottles my father had dug from an old dump in the woods. He’d cleaned the old glass container and set it up in a still life.
The bottle floated there, against the tan color of my cotton jacket. I wore the jacket to school, and some students noticed the splotch of color in the shape of a bottle, but no one asked me what it was.
I tried writing a piece in the manner of a book I was reading. The book was ostensibly about fishing for trout in America, but it was really about a character named Trout Fishing in America. He did some fishing, but he did a lot of other things as well.
My piece had a beer wino in it. This wino drank only beer, which he bought by the case. He would start drinking in the afternoon, and he would go until he fell asleep in front of a television test pattern at night. He drank beer like a wino.
Somehow, my father saw my story. After he’d read it, he said, “Is this all you can do? Write funny stories? Why don’t you go to your room now and write another funny story?”
I went out to the porch, where there were hooks in the ceiling that had once held a swing. The swing must have broken and been taken down. Or maybe it hadn’t been broken, and had just been taken down. Perhaps my father took it down. Maybe he just didn’t like the idea of rocking in a swing on the front porch, chanting that he was an artist. It might have signaled boredom to him, as if people who sat in swings had nothing better to do. He had his ways of relaxing— sitting on a porch wasn’t one of them.
Most of our neighbors did, however, have porch swings. I would see them sitting there on summer evenings, looking out from their front porches. They wouldn’t be talking. They’d just be staring.
When I walked by, they wouldn’t talk to me. They wouldn’t wave, even if I waved. So I didn’t wave. I even avoided eye contact when I passed by.
The last thing I wanted to do was to have a swing on our porch. I didn’t want to rock back and forth in it and chant, “I am an artist.” That would be an embarrassing thing to do.
About the author:
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Fiction and Fiction International. He was awarded a 2012 fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
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April 27, 2013 Comments Off on Thaddeus Rutkowski/Fiction
Bernadette’s Sea Gull
By Rachel Guido deVries
When she was a little kid, starting when she was around three or four, my sister Bernadette’s favorite game, which she played all by herself, was to fold a small white washrag over and over into little squares, unfold it a flap at a time, and then start all over again. She would do this for hours. Our parents didn’t like it, but it was hard to yell at her over such a harmless, quiet way to pass time. It seemed to make Pop particularly uncomfortable, and although he could be quite the disciplinarian, he could never bring himself to do anything to make her stop. Years later he would say that was when he knew something was funny with her, and he wished he had stopped her. Instead, he became fiercely protective of her and her washrag, and once, when my cousin Anthony, always an over-active kid more given to guns and stones than washrags, got caught up in Bernadette’s game and tried to take the rag away from her, Pop hit the roof. “Give her the goddamned washrag, ya little son of a bitch,” he screamed. Anthony drove him nuts anyway, and to see him taking away one of the few things that made Bernadette look content filled him with rage. For her part, Bernie did nothing, just sat there watching Anthony making off with the washrag, while her dark brown eyes filled with huge tears that spilled down her cheeks.
But she never tried to get it back, and it was probably that defenselessness, that resignation to her loss of pleasure that so infuriated my father. He’d had to pry the washrag out from between Anthony’s clenched fingers. When he handed it back to Bernadette, she took it, and resumed her folding and unfolding, while he wiped away her tears with a big thumb, saying, “there, okay, ya happy now?” It was a rare display of tenderness from him, but from that point on, he kept a special eye on Bernadette, and he told me to keep an eye on her too, because I was her big sister.
Once, when we were still in Catholic school, I had to come to Bernie’s defense, just like Pop had. I had watched the scene with Anthony, and it stuck with me. I guess I started thinking about her as a little bird with a broken wing that you had to be gentle with. We were walking home from school on a drizzly day in fall. I was strutting on a long cement ledge that ran the length of a block of row houses, imagining I was Zorro on a bridge over the Grand Canyon, my umbrella a sword I kept poised to keep away outlaws and animals. Bernie walked dreamily on the sidewalk beneath me, her little brown plastic book bag bumping off her knee with each step she took. She was eight, and I was almost eleven. Jimmy D’Amico caught up with us, and at first, I didn’t pay any attention to him, but then he was making fun of Bernadette, calling her snotty nose and crybaby, and sure enough, she started that soundless crying right away. I told him to quit it. He wouldn’t. Jimmy was in my class at school, and sometimes I liked him, but right then he was making me really mad. I told him again to quit it, and still he kept it up, so I leaped off the bridge over the canyon and came at him with my sword, yelling “En Garde,” the skirt of my uniform billowing out as I jumped. The umbrella’s point caught him in the chest and he started swinging at me with his fists. I fought back until I was straddling him on the sidewalk, where I held his arms down and he wiggled wildly, trying to avoid the spit I was dribbling onto his face.
“There,” I said, when he was beaten. “Now leave her alone. Go pick on somebody your own size next time, you jerk, you weakling.” I took Bernadette’s hand in my own and we walked the remaining blocks home like that. I can still remember the way her hand felt, so tiny and soft, and slightly damp.
A year or so after that my mother took us out of St. Anthony’s. First, the nuns had a talk with her. “Mrs. Brancato,” they said, “Bernadette has a runny nose all the time. We think it’s a nervous condition.” I heard Mamma telling Pop this when he came home from work. My father did not like nuns, or priests either, for that matter, and neither of my parents went to mass, though they made me and Bernadette go every Sunday. When I heard Pop say, “Whadda they think, They’re head-shrinkers now? Let’s take ‘em out of there, Delores. It’s too expensive anyway,” I was thrilled. All I could think of was no more catechism, no more “who made me” questions and answers to memorize. Bernadette showed no reaction one way or the other. It just meant a longer walk to school.
Something happened to Bernadette in public school. She never became an outgoing kid, and she always seemed resigned to what ever came her way, good or bad, but around the fifth grade she started skipping mass on Sunday to sit drinking lemon cokes in the sweet shop not far from church, and then skipping school, and by the seventh grade she was smoking cigarettes and hanging out with the hoods. She never talked back to our parents or teachers. She just quietly refused to do anything that she didn’t want to. The days of the washrag were long gone by now, of course, but that same air she’d had when she used to play with it stayed. She still cried easily if anybody hurt her feelings. She was terrified of bugs of all kinds and would get hysterical imagining one was somewhere on her body, or in her clothes. And she never learned to protect herself—not from bugs, or hurt feelings, or from kids who were always up to no good. She just put up with what ever or who ever came her way.
When she was 15, she got pregnant. She would never say who the boy was that made her that way, and she seemed to have no reaction at all to the fact that she was going to have a baby. Pop carried on about her being a putona, and about how the family was shamed. Bernadette sat still on the couch, crying a little. Plans were made. She would go to an unwed mothers’ home at the shore in New Jersey, far enough from Syracuse so that no one but our family had to know what was going on, but close enough so we could visit her once a month.
The first and only time we went to see her, something happened. It was March, and pretty cold, but we all walked on the boardwalk, and after a while, we bought some coffee and sat on a bench looking at the sea. Sea gulls were flying all around us, and all at once, my sister caught sight of one in particular and began to get upset.
“What’s the matter, Bernie,” Mamma asked.
“Lookit that bird, Mamma, that one!” Bernadette was pointing wildly, her eyes full of terror and pity. We all looked where she pointed but none of us saw anything unusual, none of us was even sure which bird she meant. There were so many of them, swooping close to the boardwalk to pick from the trash baskets.
“Cut it out, Bernadette,” Pop said. “They’re just flying, looking for food.”
“Not that one,” she insisted, beginning to really cry, and she pointed again to one bird she seemed to see in a flock of birds. The three of us couldn’t see any difference in any of them, but Bernadette did.
“Look,” she was practically wailing. “It can’t land, Papa, it’s got no legs. It lost its legs, it just has to keep flying. Oh my God, that poor bird is so tired, it can’t land. Look! All the other ones have landed a couple of times, but that bird can’t land.”
Our father stood up and began waving his arms wildly, the way I had waved my sword at Jimmy D’Amico all those years before. Tufts of his hair, almost the same gray as the gulls’ soft bodies, blew straight up in the wind. “Leave her alone,” he screamed, “get the hell outa here!”
The birds took off in a mad flutter of wings, heading out to sea, even the one my sister insisted couldn’t land, I guess, because after that she was quiet. But we were all shook up after that incident, and Pop insisted she come back home with us where she belonged, the hell with what anybody had to say. I guess he really knew then that Bernadette was a wounded bird, and she needed a nest. Mamma, who had never wanted to send her away in the first place, cried a little in relief.
A few months later, Bernadette had her baby, a little girl, and she spent hours feeding and washing her, brushing her soft dark hair, and washing, ironing, and folding her clothes. Bernadette was happier than any of us had ever seen her. After a while she could even laugh a little when we talked about the sea gull without legs, but today, although over twenty years have gone by, Bernadette says she still thinks about that poor bird flying endlessly around the shore of the Atlantic, near the boardwalk, where so many people can see it, waiting for one of them to help it land.
About the author:
Rachel Guido deVries’ latest book of poems is The Brother Inside Me, (Guernica, 2008). Her first children’s picture book, Teeny Tiny Tino’s Fishing Story, (Bordighera, 2008) was a winner of The 2008 Paterson Prize:Books for Young People Award. She self-published a collection of poems for young readers on topics her students asked for: The Purple Potato and Other Poems. Other books include her novel, Tender Warriors, and two other collections of poems, How To Sing to a Dago, and Gambler’s Daughter. She is past recipient of a New York Foundation Artist’s Fellowship in fiction. She is a poet-in-the-schools throughout central and upstate New York, and offers workshops independently. She lives in Cazenovia, NY.
March 2, 2013 1 Comment