Category Archives: Issue 3.4 Summer 2014

Issue 3.4 Summer issue

Elisabeth Murawski

Elisabeth Murawski is the author of Zorba’s Daughter, selected by Grace Schulman for the 2010 May Swenson Poetry Award, Moon and Mercury and two chapbooks. Hawthornden Fellow 2008. Publications include The Yale Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, FIELD, et al. She currently resides in Alexandria, VA.

 

The Birthday Party

The crystal pendant in its box
catches the light. I hold it
in my palm, letting it warm
the lines for life and love,
the five-pointed star I forget
the meaning of. I am caught up
in my jewel song, daughter
of a king. I gush and purr
you shouldn’t have, the giver
smiling at my girlish glee
over a cheap bit of glass.
Always my difficulty: how to be.
Poor magpie in the mulberry,
believing in every shining thing.

Richard Tuschman

Morning Sun 2012
Morning Sun 2012

 

Spotlight on an Artist

Richard Tuschman began experimenting with digital imaging in the early 1990’s, developing a style that synthesized his interests in graphic design, photography, painting and assemblage. His work has since been exhibited internationally and recognized by, among others, Photo District News, American Photography, Prix de la Photographie, Paris, and the International Photography Awards. Commercially, his work has been featured in publications and advertisements for clients such as Adobe Systems, The New York Times, Penguin, Sony Music, Newsweek and Random House, among others. He has lectured widely on his artistic technique and creative process, and has taught at the University of Akron Myers School of Art (Akron, OH), Ringling College of Art + Design (Sarasota, Fl) and Cuyahoga Community College (Cleveland, OH). He currently lives and works in New York City. Find more of his work here.

 

Hopper Meditations

Hopper Meditations is a personal photographic response to the work of the American painter, Edward Hopper. 

Woman Reading 2013
Woman Reading 2013

My images are created by digitally marrying dollhouse-size dioramas with live models. The sets I built, painted and photographed in my studio. A lot of the furniture is standard dollhouse furniture, but some I made myself. I then photographed the models against a plain backdrop, and lastly, made the digital composites in Photoshop. 

I have always loved the way Hopper’s paintings, with an economy of means, are able to address the mysteries and complexities of the human condition. Placing one or two figures in humble, intimate settings, he created quiet scenes that are psychologically compelling with open-ended narratives. The characters’ emotional states can seem to waver paradoxically between reverie and alienation, or perhaps between longing and resignation. Dramatic lighting heightens the emotional overtones, but any final interpretation is left to the viewer. These are all qualities I hope to imbue in my images as well.

Hotel By Rail Road 2012
Hotel By Rail Road 2012

In other ways, my pictures diverge from Hopper’s paintings. The general mood in my work is more somber, and the lighting is less harsh, than in Hopper’s. I am trying to achieve an effect perhaps closer to the chiaroscuro lighting of Rembrandt, another painter I greatly admire. I would like the lighting to act as almost another character, not only illuminating the form of the figures, but also echoing and evoking the their inner lives. I suppose I would like to marry the theatricality of Rembrandt with the humility of Hopper. In this way, I like to think of my images as dramas for a small stage, with the figures as actors in a one or two character play. The characters, by appearance, are rooted specifically in the past, somewhere in Hopper’s mid-twentieth century. For me, this augments the dreamlike, staged effect of the scenes. The themes they evoke, though—solitude, alienation, longing—are timeless and universal.

Still-Life Montage

This series of still-life montages digitally layers tabletop photography, painting, and assemblage. Though the process relies heavily on technology, it is important to me that the work conveys a sense of intimacy and emotional weight, qualities that one does not often associate with technology. I see the works themselves as mood pieces, exploring themes of loss, vulnerability, longing, growth and decay. 

Hat & Book 2007
Hat & Book 2007

The fragile beauty of birds, flowers and small plants has always seemed an apt metaphor for the ephemeral preciousness and variety of life itself. In addition, for a long time I have been drawn to organic materials such as wood and oil paint for their primal physical presence. I had been working with these materials for many years before digital technology came along, so it felt only natural to incorporate them into my digital work. I also like the way the early photographic techniques left artifacts of the process on the finished print, adding both an abstract poetry and a reference to their creation. I suppose I am after a similar effect. The scanned and photographed painted textures in the montages are built layer upon layer of brushed, scraped, rubbed, and glazed oil or acrylic paint. One step leads to the next, applying the paint in one way or another, then responding to that, over and over. When I am compositing the scanned textures and photographs on the computer, the process in analogous. Instead of applying layer upon layer of paint, I am continually re-working layers of images and textures, trying different opacities and blending strategies, dodging and burning, etc. I see each new layer as analogous to an event in the life of the piece, one leading to the next. In this way, even those layers that end up invisible in the finished version, much like forgotten events in our lives, have somehow contributed to the whole.

 

Western Still Life 2011
Western Still Life 2011

Issue 3.4 Summer 2014

Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read.

"Think" Art by Tommy Ingberg
“Think” Art by Tommy Ingberg

"Passage" Art by Tommy Ingberg
“Passage” Art by Tommy Ingberg

"Hollow" Art by Tommy Ingberg
“Hollow” Art by Tommy Ingberg

Poetry:

Isaac Black | Hiroshima
Charlie Bondhus | Jeffrey Dahmer Talks to His Father
Bill Brown | Ladders
Ruth Foley | Benthos | Consolation
Risa Denenberg | Tisha B’av
Anthony Frame | Everything I Know I Learned from Kermit the Frog
Denise Low | Garden of William Burroughs | Crop Duster Plane
Cindy Hunter Morgan | Columbia, 1859
Elisabeth Murawski | The Birthday Party
Jean Nordhaus | On the Road to Qumran
Lee Slonimsky | Pythagoras’s Bees | Mid-Autumn Languages of Trees
Cheryl Snell | Reinventing the Wheel

Fiction:

Migara de Silva | Of Fences-
Mike Koenig | The Lost Ones
Robert Joe Stout | A Big and Wonderful Now
Leslie Santikian | An Old Fashioned Voice

Nonfiction:

Kurt Caswell | Haboob
Sigrid Erro | Bones
Danusha Goska | Star Tattoo

J.W. Young | Big Dumb Baby

Translations:

Katrine Marie Guldager | The Car Accident | **Lindy Falk van Rooyen
Fernando Valverde | Snow Covered Landscape | ** Liam Walke 

Spotlight on an Artist:

Richard Tuschman

Book Reviews:

Christopher Lowe | When You’re Down By The River | review by B. Kari Moore
Jake Marmer | Jazz Talmud | review by Shlomo Liberman

Jake Adam York | Abide | review by Simon Seamount

**Indicates translators

Charlie Bondhus

Charlie B.Charlie Bondhus’s Charlie Bondhus’s second book, All the Heat We Could Carry, won the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and the Publishing Triangle’s 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Previous publications include How the Boy Might See It (Pecan Grove Press, 2009), and two chapbooks, What We Have Learned to Love—winner of the Brickhouse Books 2008-2009 Stonewall Award—and Monsters and Victims (Gothic Press, 2010). His poetry appears or is set to appear in numerous periodicals, including POETRY, Tupelo Quarterly, Midwest Quarterly, The Hawai’i Review, CounterPunch, The Alabama Literary Review, and Cold Mountain Review, among others. He teaches at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, and is the Poetry Editor at The Good Men Project (goodmenproject.com).

 

Jeffrey Dahmer Talks to His Father

I.

The first time I killed
a boy I was
a dumb teenager,
home alone,
tired of drunk
and jerking off
to muscle magazines,
even the centerfold
with his body like a basket
of polished, black fruit
was as worn as the questions
you’d been asking me about my future—
college, the military, work,

in a few years I’d try them all
and each would be like the shirts
Mom bought me: too big, too tight, too itchy.
My brain was a squirrel
trapped in a flooding basement;
I drove because it was hot
and the car had A/C.

When I found him
he had bare arms and a raised thumb,
a mouth wisped with corn silk.
I tried, Dad, I really did.

II.

We sat on opposite ends
of my mattress, listening to Judas Priest,
swallowing Pabst Blue Ribbon, and talking about girls.

The cans left sweat
on our lips as I drank
to him, corn-fed and scarred
from too much sun.

You’d been gone for months, discovering religion,
and Mom was somewhere in Wisconsin.

Then as now, what I wanted most
was a friend I could touch.

He was almost to the door
when I drove all ten, metal pounds
of my desire into his skull.

III.

I lingered by the broken remains, imagining you
reading your Bible, and wanting
to ask about the soul, whether it lives
in the body or is an absentee landlord.

Taking him apart
was like unwrapping
a piece of paper that’s been folded
twelve times and counting the creases.

I remembered
the homemade Father’s Day card
with the big, imprecise heart,
stray marks
on the cream-colored page
like the blood spatter
I scrubbed off the linoleum,
dissolving guilt
into godly cleanliness.

IV.

I left him in the drainage pipe
until he was nothing but broken
bits of gray bone that didn’t smell anymore.

Mom was still having seizures
that made her twitch,
like the dead frog I galvanized
at the science fair,
earning an A. Your hand
fluttered on my shoulder,
blessing me uncertainly,
not knowing if either of us
had the right to be proud.

V.

A year later,
I hauled the fragments out,
took a sledgehammer,
and scattered
the flour-thick dust
in the forest, thinking
of the farmer in the parable,
and how even seed that lands
on rocky soil can produce
a bitter kind of fruit.

Bill Brown

Bill Brown Bill Brown is the author of eight collections of poems, and Important Words, a writing textbook. His new collection, Elemental, is forthcoming from 3: A Taos Press, Denver in 2014. He has twice received fellowships in poetry from the Tennessee Arts Commission, awarded the Writer of the Year 2011 by the Tennessee Writers Alliance, a Scholar at Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a Fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Bill Brown has graduate degrees in literature from Middlebury College and George Peabody College. He has taught creative writing, literature and learning theory at Hume-Fogg Magnet School, Radford University, and Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. He lives on a ridge north of Nashville with his Wife, Suzanne, and a tribe of cats.

 

BillBrownPoetry_ScreenShot 

Cheryl Snell

Cheryl Snell is the author of Prisoner’s Dilemma (Lopside Press Chapbook Competition winner) and five other collections of poetry. Her most recent novel is Shiva’s Arms (Writer’s Lair Books), and her poetry has appeared in many online and print journals, including The Curator, Olentangy Review, PANK, egg, Deep Water Literary Journal, and Mixitini Matrix. She has had work chosen for a Best of the Net Anthology, The Centrifugal Eye’s Fifth Anniversary Anthology, and other anthologies, and has just brought out her latest chapbooks, Warped Passage and Live Through This, with Scattered Light Library, a micro press housing her word and art collaborations with Janet Snell.

 

Reinventing the Wheel

Sunflowers in clay pots 
on the haphazardly swept porch
where we sip summer
drinks, make us smile—
as does a child’s spiky sun
the ovals of a star’s orbit
cartwheels on the lawn
spiders spinning webs,
dew dropping like tears from the filaments,
or the spokes of passing cyclists
who barely register and then
completely forget what they saw
in this place where turning
makes the world beautiful.

Anthony Frame

Anthony Frame is an exterminator who lives in Toledo, Ohio with his wife. His first book of poems, A Generation of Insomniacs, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Press. His chapbook, Paper Guillotines, was published by Imaginary Friend Press and recent poems have been published in or are forthcoming from Harpur Palate, Third Coast, The North American Review, Redactions, The Dirty Napkin, Gulf Stream and diode among others. He is also the co-founder and co-editor of Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Learn more at http://www.anthony-frame.com/.

 

Everything I Know I Learned from Kermit the Frog

It can’t be easy, froggy baby,
carrying the world on your

anthropomorphic shoulders. I’d hate
being a typecast hero, happiness

the order of everyday, never allowed
to display your neuroses. Your chemophobia

or ornithophobia. It’s hard not being
a scream, everything boiling beneath

your chest, while you keep singing about
rainbows and the color of leaves

until you forget to feel the heat inside
your heart, all those banned thoughts

about who’s in control. Sit with me,
Kermit, let’s share a smoke and figure out

why it’s so troubling to be so sentient.
Like, how I’m not sure a frog has a soul

so what do I do with a puppet that
feels so real? Look, the leaves are changing,

beauty through death. Do you ever
think about it? Just a snip of the strings

so you can go limp. I doubt thoughts
of death ever cross your fingernail-

mind. Kermie, why do I want to confess
my ommetaphobia and zeusophobia to you?

It must be tough being responsible
for everyone’s laughter while having

to hold their sorrow in your tiny,
felt fingers. Sometimes, without

the aid of a puppeteer’s hand, I find
it’s not easy remembering to breathe.

Denise Low

Denise Low, the second Kansas Poet Laureate, has published twenty-five books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Saylerwrites: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time (rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. http://deniselow.blogspot.comwww.deniselow.com 

 

Garden of William Burroughs

The backyard lot deepens—
acid-dream fuzz asters
sumac and wild marijuana.

Behind a privacy hedge
poison ivy pokes mitts
through orgone box slats.

By the back door a pond
its scrim of algae scum.
Arrowroot leaves are hatchets.

Outside his window sinks
a smaller pool, moon-round
cattail-circled bracken

what he dove into before sleep
as fingers loosened their grip
on the pearl-handled pistol.

 

Crop Duster Plane

loops its nervous buzz
one green-shag row, the next,
tracing perfect graphs,

puffing powdered sugar
through heavenly blue air.
Poison settles on corn.

Inside the cab, radio thumps
bass and combustion.
The fuel gauge counts time.

Beyond the irrigated swatch
sandstone dunes, shrubbery,
hawks on cottonwoods.

This is how one day passes—
measured, remote,
solo and slow.

Jean Nordhaus

Jean Nordhaus is the author of Innocence and The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, and four other volumes of poetry. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, the New Republic, Poetry, and many other journals and anthologies. She lives in Washington, DC.

 

from On the Road to Qumran

Danger

is a small lapse
of attention: a missed
ramp, a left turn
instead of a right,
a closed face, an open
gate, sundown,
a torn map.

 

At the Spring of Banias

The pagan gods are powerless,
but they still haunt. Water
slips down the face
of the rock. The spring
still flows. The old gods
weep for valleys sown
with mines. They call us,
but their shrines are few
and difficult to find.

Isaac Black

Isaac Black, a MFA graduate of Vermont College, has published in journals like The Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, Poetry Quarterly, Boston Literary Magazine, and Spillway. Founder of a major 501(c) college help organization, he’s been awarded the Gwendolyn Brooks Literary Award for fiction and Broadside Press Award for poetry. He’s also been a Pushcart nominee, and recipient of poetry fellowships from the New York State Creative Artists Service Program (CAPS) and New York Foundation of the Arts. Isaac’s also the author of the African American Student’s College Guide (John Wiley & Sons).

 

Hiroshima

The ghosts in my dreams looked deranged, kept
multiplying. I didn’t see any Archangel. I only saw
a thousand-and-one hollow-eyed men, women
(their orphans and offspring) waving back at me,
gone crazy, screaming, as if they were imprisoned
inside the ribcage of some shapeless psychiatric
ward. Today, I’m wincing and afraid in the next cubby,
staring at the padded walls, keyless locks, unable
to defecate, empty my bladder, be romantic, feel
desire. It’s a merciless, God-forsaken nightmare if
this is one. I feel like I’m inside Oliver Stone’s head,
sucking-up setups, dubbed-effects, edits, on the last
storyboard ever. I’m witless, black as night, can’t
count forward or backwards. There are no gold-
plated trophies, wild figs, cheese in the fridge,
poets glorifying anything. The oddest faces look like
trout you can’t catch. What’s not hemorrhaging?
I see a fiery, unfurling toilet flush, another Devil’s
Ground Hog’s day. I’m sick, hear the rivers of acid
splashing under my bench (reserved) on the New
York City pier overlooking the Hudson River .
Once again, it’s going to be the “perfect storm.” At
this minute, I can hear the Elona Gay, that B-29,
in the air.  It fills my mouth. I hear the most horrific
scream ever: “It’s Baby Boy, Five Tons!” The switch
is all bones. I stick a finger in each ear, push up
to my elbows. Passersby (not far from the Statue
of Liberty , Ground Zero) stroll, roller blade, pedal
on their bikes. I won’t give anyone’s name, collect
a single driver’s licence, Citi card. Nope, won’t
find an identifiable photo, fingerprint, strand of
hair. I’ll be traveling through electric wires. Pass
Stuyvesant High, Taco Bell . To the dark, very
dark, E-Subway Station. “Hi Honey, I’ll be late.”
It’s Rush Hour, and I’m Queens Bound. Fish for
dinner, stir fries. Nobody will stop the train, pick
up any broken harp, smell a muskrat. At every
stop I see Hollow-eyed gristle, endless spools
of red-orange, crime-scene tape. In the end, I’ll
grace the food, try to catch that one star in the sky.
It’s all, well, speechifying.  I can never get off at
my stop, and if I could you’d never find me there.

Ruth Foley

Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her recent work is appearing or forthcoming from Redheaded Stepchild, The Bellingham Review, Yemassee, and Sou’wester, among others, and her chapbook Dear Turquoise is available from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review. Her blog is Five Things.

 

 

Benthos

I’ve been told—a lie—it is impossible
to fold a single piece of paper more

than seven times. I would crease and
bend, smooth myself flat, curl over

my own skin in layers of molting
calcium and discarded carapace. I

would fit myself into the smallest place—
under the rotting board of the back

porch, into the funnel-woven web
where patience waits for the smallest

vibration. Or best: between the two
stones at the base of the sea wall.

There, I could begin again to breathe.
I have lost my ground, been too long

away from my hermit cousins. Once
folded, I could reclaim my pioneer

shell, return—clean-washed if not
pristine—to something narrow and

capable. Once stolen, it would be
almost fitted again, almost mine.

 

Consolation

            for Anne

She sees the spaces we have forsaken
—the spokes of a Ferris wheel stilled,

empty gondolas transfixed in irradiated
air—and curses us for our desertion.

How little we know of care or maintenance,
how much we allow ourselves to lose to

perforated vessels. Entire cities betrayed,
branches reaching through surrendered

windows, the homes we refuse to reclaim.
The trains decanted, or long since shunted

or rumbled to other lines, cannot cross such
crumbling trestles, leaving us without any

way of getting out, she says. God, yes.
A single passenger, her luggage dragging

a path through the plaster-fallen floor,
could take a bench and rest. No one to

find her here, no one to ask her for
the time, or for anything at all—seduced,

she could be the one who chooses, the one
who leaves, the ever-vanished woman.

Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg is an aging hippie poet currently living in the Pacific Northwest. She earns her keep as a nurse practitioner and has worked for many years in end-of-life care. She is a moderator at The Gazebo, an online poetry board, and reviews poetry for the American Journal of Nursing. She is an editor at Headmistress Press, dedicated to publishing lesbian poetry. She has three chapbooks, what we owe each other (The Lives You Touch Publications, 2013); In My Exam Room (The Lives You Touch Publications, 2014); and Blinded by Clouds (forthcoming 2014, Hyacinth Girls Press) and a full length book, Mean Distance from the Sun (Aldrich Press, 2013). http://risadenenberg.blogspot.com/

 

Tisha B’av

these are days of awe, we fast and mourn, fast and atone
my bed is north, my love is south
I break my fast with broth  

I sip tea and wait for the waitress to serve the bland soup
the curve of a coke bottle arouses pleasure
a brown sweetness, a time for everything

cane sugar, cocaine, crack, sea-green glass
my bed is empty, my love is gone
I cannot eat the soup for the slipperiness of hope

risk skims as a needle slides smoothly into a vein
I am the eye, the pistil, the sadness
the store-bought flowers in their paper wrap

snow rimes my bed, my love slowly chills
water circles the drain counterclockwise
here is my list of sins 

 

Note: Tisha B’av is a fast day on the Jewish Calendar, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.

Lee Slonimsky

Lee Slonimsky has poems recent or forthcoming in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, The Classical Outlook, Glass, The Homestead Review, Mudfish, the New York Times, Nth Position, Per Contra, and Poetry Bay. His fifth collection, Wandering Electron, will be out in 2014 from Spuyten Duyvil Press. And his New York City based poetry workshop, Walking with the Sonnet, is going into its tenth year. As a fiction writer, he writes with his wife, Hammett Prize winning mystery novelist Carol Goodman, under the name “Lee Carroll.” The Black Swan Rising trilogy is available from Tor Books.

 

Pythagoras’s Bees 

“The fascinating drowse of the morning
keeps the traveler from traveling.”

from “One night I was thinking” by Saadi (Persia, 13th century)

The fascinating drowse of small white bees
in dreamy hover over red petals
distracts Pythagoras; he doesn’t see
a hawk’s stiletto-sharp trajectory,
hypotenuse-of-plummet scything air
toward sudden talon-spike of careless hare.
Nor does he notice first light’s trapezoid,
branch-etched in pond, scarlet geometry.
He’s sleeping with these bees though wide awake:
savant of minutae, he loves the balm
mild wafts of air offer bees’ slow float
and him.  Sweet scented haze.  There’s nothing wrong
with all the world in this tableau that soothes;
bees startle into flight, but P won’t move.

 

Mid-Autumn Languages of Trees

The dialects depend on shapes of leaves
and how they face the wind. The southern drawl
of this slow sprawling oak requires a breeze
of just the proper softness. Don’t we all
speak best high on a mountaintop at dawn?
The angle’s crucial too; long leaves that slant
rootward will flirt with Cockney, sometimes song.
Bare branches only whisper — tender — faint.
My favorite might be pompousness of birch,
a royal diction phony as the warmth
of mid-October at the edge of snow.
Or give me the mild twang of cautious beech
admiring red-tailed hawks so high aloft
they blur the sun. The beeches praise their glow.

Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter MorganCindy Hunter Morgan teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and is the author of two chapbooks: The Sultan, The Skater, The Bicycle Maker, winner of The Ledge Press 2011 Poetry Chapbook Competition; and Apple Season, winner of the Midwest Writing Center’s 2012 Chapbook Contest, judged by Shane McCrae. She is working on a full-length poetry manuscript about Great Lakes shipwrecks. Her poems have appeared in a variety of journals, including West Branch, Bateau, and Sugar House Review. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan and has a website at www.cindyhuntermorgan.com.

 

 

Columbia, 1859

Lake Michigan

They dropped anchor at Plum Island,
but when the chain broke
they lost what held them –
all that was taut and fixed.
Slammed into shore,
even language splintered.
They climbed into the rigging
of the double-masted brig
like spiders
and moved from rigging
into tree branches
like birds
and lived thereafter
with a knowledge
of what was inside them:
silk and spinnerets,
wing bars and tail feathers,
extra lives
wrapped in sail cloth.

Katrine Marie Guldager

Translator’s Note on Katrine Marie Guldager’s Work:

As an innate writer of poetry, Guldager’s prose fiction has a strong lyrical resonance of immense depth, while still retaining a simplicity and clarity that is characteristic of Danish fiction. In her autobiography Lysgrænsen [The Border of Light] (Gyldendal, 2007), Guldager writes that she was torn between becoming a psychoanalyst or an author, but during one of her many travels to Africa, which has had a strong influence on her poetic imagination, she realised that her fascination with the intricacies of family ties is best expressed in the language of literature.

Guldager’s short story, “Trafikulykke” [The Car Accident], is from her second collection of short stories, Kilimanjaro (Gyldendal, 2005). In an interview in the magazine Udvikling [Development] 1 Febr./Mar. 2013 about her writing and the significance of her three years in Zambia as a child, she remarks:

“We know very well that we cannot save the world. We turn off the TV, because we cannot bear to see the pain and suffering we see there. But how often can we continue to do this, without losing something of our own humanity? There is no definitive answer to this question, but this is the conflict I write about [in Kilimanjaro].”

All eleven stories in Kilimanjaro are independent, and set in Copenhagen and the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, yet they are connected by a subtle intertextuality in order to demonstrate the fragility of the arbitrary connections between our lives. 

 

Katrine Marie GuldaKatrine Marie Guldager, born in Hillerød north of Copenhagen in 1966, is one of Denmark’s most acclaimed authors, and has published several collections of poetry, short stories, children’s books and novels since the appearance of her poetic debut, Dagene Skifter hænder (The Days Change Hands), in 1994. She is a graduate of the renowned Writer’s School in Copenhagen and holds an Masters of Philosophy from Copenhagen University. Her works have been translated into Swedish, Norwegian, and German. Her first collection of short stories, København (Gyldendal, 2004) [Copenhagen, BookThug, Toronto] was published in English in 2011.

She is currently writing a family chronicle stretching from the Second World War to 2012–about a fictional family living in suburban Copenhagen. The first three volumes, Ulven [The Wolf] (2010), Lille Hjerte [Little Heart] (2012), and Den Nye Tid [New Times] (2013) have been published by Lindhardt & Ringhof (Egmont), Copenhagen, and the fourth volume Peter’s Død [Peter’s Death], is forthcoming in 2014. 

Van RooyenLindy Falk van Rooyen (translator) was born into a multi-lingual family (Danish/English/Afrikaans) in South Africa. She studied Law at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and worked as an attorney in Cape Town until she emigrated to Copenhagen in 1998. After living and working in Denmark as a commercial translator and legal liaison for four and a half years, she moved to Hamburg, Germany in 2002. She holds an LL.M in Commercial Law and an MA in Scandinavian and English Literature from the University of Hamburg. Her book on Virginia Woolf’s fiction, Mapping the Modern Mind: Virginia Woolf’s parodic approach to the art of fiction in ‘Jacob’s Room’ (Diplomica, 2011) is an adaptation of her MA thesis. She is a freelance writer and has been working as a literary translator since 2012.  

 

The Car Accident

If Kilimanjaro is Africa’s roof, then Dar es Salaam is its damp, teeming floor. A man and a woman drive past Ubungo and down into Dar es Salaam via Morogoro Road. There is a teeming crowd on the streets and a throng of boys who are trying to sell everything from ragdolls to automobile equipment. It is hot. The man and woman drive down United Nations Road and cross over Selander Bridge. The woman casts a wistful glance over the Indian Ocean that is lying in waiting like a serene queen. They stop on Haile Selassie, and the woman buys some flowers; the boy selling them has some difficulty in hiding his surprise. He hands over her change without looking up.

The man turns the car onto Haile Selassie. He is looking forward to getting home, feels the wind in his hair. He is driving too fast. At the junction of Haile Selassie and Chloe Road there are always a lot of people: people, who stop and shop; drivers, who stop and wait. The man is still driving too fast, and he doesn’t notice a woman about to cross the road approximately fifty meters farther ahead. The woman is carrying a little bundle in her arms. A bundle, which may very well be a child, but the man is oblivious.

The man breaks as hard as he can. The car swerves and very nearly rams into several other cars. People grab onto their neighbors, and jump for their lives. But the damage is done: The little bundle which the woman had been carrying has rolled under the car. People close in, people gather round the car; engulf it. Two men emerge from the mass. They talk to the man in Swahili, wave their arms in the air, and fish the bloodied bundle out from underneath the car. Now people emerge from everywhere. They swarm around the car from all sides, rest their hands on the hood; their eyes scour the car’s interior.

One woman cries out that the child has been killed, and the cry is planted from one mouth to another like an echo. The crowd isn’t agitated, yet. The man gets out of the car and walks over to the child with the intention to take responsibility for his actions. The question of money had just entered his mind, when his path is barred by the woman who had initiated the cry. She looks at him with eyes that seem to say: you’ve done enough harm already. The man wants to go over to the child, wants to see the woman who had held it in her arms. But the crowd won’t allow the guilty party to meet the victim; on the contrary, the victim is cordoned off.

Without knowing what prompts his sudden unease, he realizes that the mood is about to change, and he casts his eyes downwards; he doesn’t turn his back, but retreats to the car. The woman is still sitting inside. The further he retreats, the greater the crowd’s animosity. The man is like a foreign object that must be expelled from the body.

The man gets into the car, slams the door, and thinks that, perhaps, under the circumstances, it is best to drive home and call the police. The woman doesn’t say anything­–she is too shaken to say anything­–she has lost her power of reason. She doesn’t know what they should do. She just says:

Drive!”

 *****

They drive back to their home, hoot at the port, and leave the car standing with doors open wide. They discuss what should be done. Their maidservant is home, but they don’t notice she’s there. They cannot agree. The man wants to call the police and explain what has happened­–tell things the way they are­–but the woman is more cautious. Perhaps it’s the shock. Perhaps it’s best not to do anything: They must think about the consequences. The man cannot understand why she won’t take responsibility for their actions. They were, after all, driving too fast, way too fast. He should have seen them. He doesn’t know what he was thinking. The man is overwhelmed by emotion; he feels a lump rising in his throat. Was it really a child wrapped in the bundle? How can he live without knowing the truth?

The woman doesn’t say anything, and, in the interval she doesn’t speak, the man decides to call the police and lay all his cards on the table. He would like to explain that he had tried to help the injured party. He would have liked to drive the injured child to the hospital, but the crowd was so agitated that they wouldn’t let him anywhere near. He imagines explaining everything to a friendly policeman, but, before his call is answered, he puts the receiver down: His wife is right. If you involve the police, there’s no telling what the consequences would be.

  *****

It is the woman who suggests that she drive her own car back to the scene of the accident. She will try to find the woman with the child, ask her what she needs and offer compensation. Surely the sight of the man would merely give rise to hostility, but if it were the woman who tried to help? This would be best for all parties concerned. Perhaps they could call the police afterwards. First and foremost they should concentrate on finding the woman; find out what happened to the child.

The junction at Haile Selassie and Chloe Road exudes peace and quiet. The shopkeepers are standing in the doors of their shops and looking out onto the streets in anticipation of a good deal. Cars stop; people pile out of them and buy fruit. There is no hint of the accident that took place less than an hour ago. The sea is calm; the waves have flattened themselves out. The woman parks the car next to the taxi stand and walks down Haile Selassie to the place where the woman had sat with the bloodied bundle. Not a trace. She looks into the shopkeepers’ faces, tries to discern whether they recognize her, but the shopkeepers’ eyes mirror neither a white woman, nor a car accident. Confused, she walks over to the other side of Haile Selassie. Can that be? Is it really possible that a child can die here, at this junction­– less than an hour ago­–and every discernible trace of it is gone? The woman observes the shopkeepers who are stacking bananas, oranges, and coconuts in bags; she sees white people fishing in their bags for money; she sees tired drivers flipping open the daily papers. Life goes on as before.

The woman drives home to the man, hoots in front of the port, and drives into the carport. Before she gets out of the car, she glides her head into the nape of her neck, allows it to hang suspended there; she closes her eyes to ward off the incredulous sense of irreality. This morning, they had woken up peacefully in a hotel in Ruaha, tired from the Safari they had joined at dawn. Now everything had changed; now, they were the kind of folk who hit and ran. The woman goes into the house and explains to the man that everything was utterly peaceful on Haile Selassie. It seems as if everything was just an evil dream. The maidservant is listening from the kitchen. She can hear what the man and women are talking about, but she doesn’t dream of interfering. She doesn’t consider what would be the right thing to do at all. Even so, she feels a rising sense of disquiet. What if the man and woman don’t go to the police? Perhaps she should go to the junction and make some enquiries. Perhaps­ after the working day is done. 

Fernando Valverde

Translator’s Note on Fernando Valverde’s Work:

“Snow Covered Landscape” is from Fernando Valverde’s 2004 collection Razones para huir de una ciudad con frío, a work that left me with a feeling of cold, a sense of solitude and nostalgia. In this poem, we are reminded of time’s inevitable passing, and of the way that the mundane can evoke memory, such as in the lines “the rain…/ remained constant, tracing/ your face on windows and shop fronts.” 

 

Fernando Valverde is a critically acclaimed poet based in Granada, Spain. He has been widely published not only in Spain (by Visor Libros), but throughout Latin America. He has been awarded, among others, the Juan Ramón Jimenez prize, the Premio del tren ‘Antonio Machado’ for his poem Celia o El viaje del mundo, and the Premio Emilio Alarcos for his most recent book Los ojos del pelícano. An English version of the latter (The Eyes of the Pelican) was recently published by the University Press of North Georgia. Valverde is the director and co-founder of the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Granada.

 

Liam Walke (translator) is making his debut as a literary translator, though his translations have appeared previously in Diálogos online forum. Collaborating with Fernando Valverde to publish an English/bilingual version of Razones para huir de una ciudad con frío is his first major project. Liam lives in Montreal, Canada, where he works as a freelance translator and editor. Find out more at Liam’s blog or here 

 

Snow Covered Landscape

The snow appeared this morning,
it is a solemn act after so much time,
a moment of peace
that hides the summer’s ragged vignettes.

And the rain, the rain that predicted this story
remained constant, tracing
your face on windows and shop fronts.

I had just enough time to kiss somebody
until my lips were purple and cracked.

A strange taste of you, without you, so clearly ours.

The children came out of their houses
with neither books nor wallets,
so weighed down already
by the strange presence of discoveries.

And the hats,
a city covered in colourful hats,
I thought I saw you a thousand times,
leaving some bar or with your tired
face, and your expectations,
your grievances, your yawns.

The cars seem like the embers
of a primitive fire,
entranceways are guests of smoke
and a trembling of promise undoes
beyond the hours and all the plazas.

It snowed tonight, I’m cold,
I woke up sweating and winter existed.

 

Paisaje nevado

La nieve ha aparecido esta mañana,
es un acto solemne después de tanto tiempo,
un momento de paz
que esconde las estampas traposas del verano.

Y la lluvia, la lluvia que predijo este suceso
permaneció constante dibujando
tu rostro en las ventanas y en los escaparates.

Tuve tiempo siquiera para besar alguno
hasta tener los labios morados y con grietas.

Un extraño sabor a ti, sin ti, tan nuestro.

Los niños han salido hoy de sus casas
sin libros ni carteras,
iban ya muy cargados
de la extraña presencia de los descubrimientos.

Y los gorros,
los gorros de colores por toda la ciudad,
creí reconocerte cien mil veces,
saliendo de algún bar o con el rostro
cansado, y tus expectativas,
y agravios, y bostezos.

Los coches se parecen a las brasas
de un fuego primitivo,
los portales son huéspedes de humo
y un temblor de promesa se deshace
más allá de las horas y de todas las plazas.

Ha nevado esta noche, tengo frío,
me desperté sudando y el invierno existía.

Leslie Santikian

Leslie Santikan photoLeslie Santikian has an MFA in fiction from CSU, Fresno. Her work has appeared in the Santa Clara Review and San Joaquin Review. She lives in Fresno, where she teaches college composition and rhetoric and fiction in CSU, Fresno and Fresno City College.

 

 

 

An Old Fashioned Voice

I perform in a lounge in the Central Coast every Wednesday and weekend, a place constructed of wall-length windows that make it look like a transparent, breakable jewel box. Right now, I forget the words to a song. It’s old, from the 60s, and involves drinking brandy in the morning. I knew the words an hour ago. I rub a finger along the edge of Mike’s piano, and to make things extra hard on myself, try to remember what the brandy represents in the song—heartache? A way to stop sadness? I know the words to most songs by now, since my profession, last time I checked, is “singer.” I adjust the mike.

Outside these windows, the ocean churns, choked by clumps of seaweed and bright streaks of foam. If I look to the right, past eucalyptus and fragrant red dirt, I see the smoke that curls from the chimneys of the lounge’s adjoining hotel, the Highwoods Inn, where each room has a fireplace and logs to burn. A lot of couples honeymoon here. When I think about that, it reminds me that forgetting the words to a song isn’t the worse thing I could do. I could be married and stuck in a bedroom with someone when I really want to be alone.

Tonight, I’m not drunk, despite the fact that it’s Saturday and I’m sometimes drunk on Saturdays. Alcohol hasn’t yet sunk in, its sharp, clean scent wafting from my skin like an invisible fence, like a warning, similar to the way skunks use their smell to scare away predators. In other words, I look better than usual tonight. My hair, combed then curled with an iron, looks good. My dress with its strips of emerald fabric and sequins—a torn mermaid look—was like this when I bought it. Despite what Louis, the manager of the hotel and my boss, may think, I didn’t tear my dress while in a boozy rage before coming to work like I did with that white dress I loved last summer.

The smeared lipstick, though, is newer for me. It happened a few minutes ago, when I was making out in a bathroom stall with Jeff, a waiter seventeen years younger than my 41. We make out a lot: in the bathroom, in the kitchen when the cooks go home and turn off the lights. He plays the drums in a band and calls himself a musician, though I think he still has some growing to do. Jeff’s one of the few things in my life that’s both easy to start and easy to end. We made out for half an hour tonight, and then I walked out here, ready to “perform.” Ready to be on. I need a drink.

Mike catches me staring at the piano.

“About ready, Gabby?” he says, his voice amused. It tells me I don’t have a choice in my answer. His eyes are gentle, though. He’s always been good to me, Mike.

He’s been my piano player for a few years. We’ve been together so long—Gabby and Mike—that I know he checks his reflection in the mirror and smoothes his hair, still dark and thick despite his middle-aged years, before every performance. I like having him around because he doesn’t comment on my life, and talks music with me. A father figure, you could say, since my dad left and mom is dead. She’s been dead 10 months ago today. Pancreatic cancer. I remember the last time I held her hand in the hospice. It was as if her bones were strung together with air instead of skin, hollow like a bird’s.

“Yeah, I’m ready.” I do a little flourish with my hand, as if I were saying “ta-da” in a magic show. “Warm up the keys.”

Mike laughs. “Sure, kid.” He knows I’m good, even if I can’t remember the brandy song words right now. I’m a soprano, know all the good big band songs old people, or young ones who romanticize the past, like. I sing about moonlight or stardust, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” I know all the good songs. What I don’t always know is how sober I’ll be, but I’m working on it.

Despite what people—Mike, Jeff— try to make me believe, it’s not a simple thing to be an alcoholic. It’s not easy. I used to think I was a social drinker, before I got smart and accepted the truth. Two bottles of wine with dinner when I’m eating alone. Gin or vodka with tonic, scotch on the rocks in one of my mom’s aluminum cups from the 30s. Amaretto or sambuca when I want to pretend that alcohol isn’t a drug but a dessert, something I could drink with friends late into the night. This assumes I have people like this in my life, which I don’t. Just Mike and Jeff. And the audience. Songs aren’t people, though, and nothing new happens when I sing them.

With me, it’s the same information. Sometimes, I sit up in bed and all I want to do is carve open my chest and pour some alcohol inside. It’s humiliating, being so weak.

Talking and laughing, the sound of heels on the floors and booze being poured, hums all around me. It’s deafening.

I look at the clock: 8 p.m. Time to start. I want a gin and tonic to ease my throat into singing, but Mike’s watching. He’s been harder on me these past few months since I’ve stopped rehab. I’ll take a sip here and there, especially if someone cocky and handsome in the audience buys, but nothing serious. I need a paycheck to make rent, buy groceries. It’s not like Mom can give me money anymore.

Mike nods to me, his fingers hovering over the keys.

“Well hello, ladies and gentlemen,” I say to the crowd. I force my voice to sound husky—the opposite of frustrated.

I still can’t remember the words. In my head, I panic. My body feels sluggish.

Forget the brandy song, I tell myself. I’ll just start with something else.

I adjust the mike until it’s even with my mouth. Tonight’s crowd is a mixture of newly-wed or engaged couples (the Highwoods Inn boasts a reputation for elegant weddings and receptions); old patrons with old money to spend, a few out-of-town travelers, some of them families.

One of those families sits a few feet from me, and all of them have the glazed look of people used to getting what they want: a mom and dad, three girls of different ages. Two of the girls have a cocktail in front of them—a French Peach Bellini; a Kiwi Lemon-Drop, rimmed with sugar—so I assume they’re 21 or older. Still, I could be wrong. Most of the people who come here have money and are returning clientele, so the lounge doesn’t deny them, or their offspring, anything. Same for spouses, partners, etc.

The third girl with a cocktail holds a wine glass with either water or vodka, and crushed ice. Condensation runs down the sides, drips onto her dress like weak rain, leaving splotches.

“I’d like to begin with a love song,” I say. “It’s called ‘Time after Time’.”

As I sing, grasping the gangly body of my mike, I look towards the back of the room and see Jeff lowering a platter of buttermilk-batter calamari onto a table where three pristine old women sit, glasses in their hands. He’s wearing his black pants and pressed white shirt that creases in all the right places. His hair looks shorter; neat, clean. Did I tell him that I like men with short hair? I might have said something last week, when he was clearing dishes from tables and everyone was gone, and I leaned close to his ear and whispered “Hi.”

The song’s finished. People clap. I say the requisite couple of words—“Thank you”—and start another song, this one about being on a train and missing someone. It’s a tear-jerker with the right crowd, especially for those who’ve seen combat.

A couple sits close to each other in the front, near enough to throw things if they wanted to. Newlyweds—I’m sure of it. Their faces have the same dumb look, and they hold hands like they’ll evaporate if either one of them lets go. I smile at them so they don’t think it’s odd that I’m staring while I’m singing, and they smile back. Then I notice that the guy is no longer listening to me.

Instead, he rubs his nose against his wife’s neck, rubbing his lips all over the soft place behind her ear. The wife looks like she wants both their clothes gone and the varnished wood and glass and light from this room to melt into a bed, sheets, moonlight, darkness. I want a gin and tonic so much that I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next song.

I tell the audience I’m taking a break. The husband lifts his face long enough from his wife’s neck to call me over. My emerald dress sashays a little, but my body’s buzzing and uncomfortable. I don’t want to deal with this “please the customer” thing now. When do I ever want to deal with a “please the customer” thing?

“You were so great,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. Not a bad looking man, kind of like a young William Shatner with darker skin. Muscles, too. I can tell.

“Oh yeah,” says his wife. “I really love these old songs.” I nod. She looks a good ten years younger than me, with one of those blonde bobs that almost no one can pull off, including her.

“Thanks so much” I say, my smile stretched tight. Their compliments and clean, grateful faces kill me. Customer kindness, even when sincere, is always patronizing. Thanks for wowing us with your old-fashioned voice! Thanks for being our night’s entertainment! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to applaud or not depending on our mood, thereby reasserting our power over your self-worth! My body’s buzzing again.

“So, when did you guys get married?” I say. I can feel Mike watching me, shaking his head in amusement at my attempt to be civil with this couple.

“Two days ago,” says the wife. She’s beaming. “Or, should I say, two nights ago?” She laughs low, and eases her hand into the crook of her husband’s arm. “We got married at night.”

“Aw.” I want to mean it. I do. Or not.

“Hello again. Would either of you like more champagne?” Jeff’s next to me, holding both his hands behind his back and standing straight. His voice is a wonderful tenor, a smooth, warm sound. He’s trying to act like the perfect waiter to make me laugh. I smile down at the floor, holding it in.

The couple says yes, and Jeff goes to the bar to get it. I have ten minutes left of my break, so I follow him.

“Well, that was nice,” I say.

“Better than you were.” He grins, leaning against the bar cut out of one giant redwood. He’s waiting for Tony, the bartender, to open a fresh bottle of champagne—the stuff with the nice label that slides down like water, too good to give you a hangover. “Even I could tell you didn’t want to talk to them.” He touches my waist with his hand, his touch so light that if I close my eyes, I almost wouldn’t believe I was feeling anything.

“How do you know? Maybe I did.”

“Did you?”

I shrug, tucking a curl behind my ear. “Not really.”

“Is anything wrong? You’re acting funny.” His eyes are bluish-green, like seaglass. They make me want to look at him more than I already do.

“No, I’m fine. Just tired I think.” I smooth my dress with my hands while Jeff watches, even though the fabric is wrinkled on purpose. It’s the look.

Jeff grabs the two glasses of fresh champagne and places them on his tray. “Well, just keep it real up there. Maybe we can do something after.” He runs his fingers down my waist to my thigh, touching it with his fingers before breaking away. The heat from his hand disappears instantly. “You know, I didn’t want to talk to them either. But it’s my job.” He sounds playful, but the implication pisses me off.

“Right.” My throat feels dry, like cracked earth. I ask Tony for a glass of water, and drink it in four swallows. I wipe my mouth, and gesture to the warm golden champagne in two crystal flutes, which Tony poured and put on Jeff’s tray. “Hey, sneak me a glass of that.”

He looks at me, then laughs, as if anything I just said surprised him. “Right, Gabby. I’ll give you champagne.”

“That’s the spirit,” I say. I sound like the woman in her 40s that I am. Like I’ve seen it all.

I walk back to the piano and the rest of the show.

The first time Jeff and I made out, we were in a stall. That’s the clearest memory I have. Arms, lips, and the small, confined space that felt oddly comforting.

He sat on the toilet in his waiter’s uniform while I straddled him in a black dress with diaphanous see-through sleeves. We’d locked the ladies room door so no one, not even the older women with their heavy perfume and propriety, would come in.

It was my first week working in lounge—about eight months ago, a time when I still wanted to give up drinking and rehab was an option.

He kissed my collarbone. I grabbed his hair as my legs clenched around him.

Part of me wanted to push him back, away from me, that I remember; but I needed something for the feeling that I was disappearing. That numbing feeling, the not drinking-cold. It was as if everything tangible about me—skin, bone, muscle, hair—was evaporating into a fine mist over my head. I’d only been sober a month.

Jeff kept my body there. He kept me in my skin.

I moved his face up from my chest and kissed him, my hands clutched around his face. Towards the end, I wanted to cry. The kisses weren’t working, and I knew what would.

 

My performance ends. The last song—“Moon River”—finished, I take a bow and let the applause surround me. It doesn’t come in a tide like it would in the movies, but at least there’s enough that I can feel it vibrate the air.

Mom used to love “Moon River.” It’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s fault. Mom was a romantic. She owned a used bookstore in Mountain View that she started with my dad, which she kept for 20 years after he left her. She watched Travel Channel, then planned trips for us to places like Tokyo and Croatia. She went antique shopping one day, and came back with a locket that had someone’s hair in it. She even wore the thing.

Sometimes when I drink, it’s like I’m telling her I’m trying to care about the world again. She’s dead and I’m still telling her things in my head.

I can’t start crying now.

Jeff walks by, so I grab his arm. Some patrons look at me.

“Hey,” I say. Under my eyes, my eyeliner feathers to the edge of my dark circles. I know what my liner does after a night of singing.

“Hey,” he says. I swallow.

“So we should—after we’re done here tonight. Do something.”

He looks at me like he did before, when I wanted the champagne: like he understands some, but not all, of the words I’m speaking and has to translate it all in his head before answering. Like he’s afraid of getting it wrong. “Uh, sure. Sounds good to me.”

“We can go out, find a place.” I lean closer. “We can be even more alone than we are right now.”

“Cool.”

He thinks I’m crazy, but I know what I’m saying. I leave him to the audience, then walk to the bar, where I ask Tony to pour me a gin and tonic. I fight to keep the brokenness out of my voice. A strained voice needs lubricant, so I’m getting it. Tony doesn’t need to know about strain: he can just take my money. I have twenties in my clutch.

“You’re sure?” asks Tony.

“Yes, please.”

I get the drink into my hands and sip, and a lushness falls over me. My skin feels extra smooth, like velvet.

“I’ve widened my repertoire, did you notice?” I say. My lips are rubber and can say anything. “Gershwin and Porter, Mancini.”

“That’s some good stuff. I was getting tired of the older tunes.”

I finish my drink then ask for another.

“Wait a bit, sweetheart. You know. Give it time.”

I slide a twenty on the counter, and my cheeks hot. It feels so good to have someone call me sweetheart that I fight the urge to cry all over again.

I want to grab the bottle from Tony’s hands and run in my stupid heels to the bathroom—no Jeff to kiss, no bodies or mess. Now I’m crying for real, and Tony freezes, not knowing what to do.

Mom called me sweetheart, at a time when my hair still curled on its own. I remember her taking me to Golden Gate Park for my fifth birthday, when she bought me a soft pretzel and let me ride the merry go round horse with rusted knobs of gold on its bridle. A band played in the park that day, and I sat in her lap on the grass, listening to drums and voices and trumpets, watching the people dressed in red and white stripes like candy. She called me sweetheart then. Be careful, sweetheart, walking with me to the playground. Riding down the slide’s hot metal. Getting ice cream. Ten months, and I still can’t let her be gone.

I’m having trouble breathing. “Oh God,” I say. Voices swirl around me—people talking to other people, glasses being clinked. I couldn’t care less if they exist or not. I reach into my clutch, dig another twenty from inside. “Tony, come on. I’m paying you double.” He hesitates, but eventually starts pouring, like I knew he would. Jeff’s probably behind me somewhere, watching my glamorous torch singer meltdown, the tray shaking in his hands.

Tony slides my gin and tonic to me without a sound.

I down this one, too. My fingertips melt into the wood.

“I need to tell Mike something,” I say, talking to no one in particular. I meant to say Jeff, but the names of the men in my life—father figure, fling—get jumbled. I don’t even know what I want to tell Jeff. But I need to talk while I’m drinking. I need to talk to someone and not be alone.

Jeff’s in the kitchen, I guess, because when I turn around, I don’t see him. I don’t feel lush anymore, or strong, or whatever I thought drinking would make me feel. My liner’s everywhere, streaked down my cheeks.

“Stay calm,” I say to myself. “Be cool.”

I fall onto a bar stool, but don’t quite make it. My body hits the ground, hard. I’m on my back.

I don’t care who sees me. Look at this, audience.

Ten months ago. Mom in the ground, a cold dead body. Mom, in the ground. It hurts too much to breathe.

I need to stay calm, so I picture all my bottles at home, pretty in their cart. I think of what I’ll do with them while playing some blues, and the thought overwhelms me. I want the idea of going home to be like Christmas morning, so I focus on the bottles. Christmas without candy or lights strung along the house, winking through trees. Christmas alone, the opposite of Christmas when I was little. Mom not there to make me go to bed early, making me wait for the good things I stayed up all night for.

Migara de Silva

Migara de Silva is a 25 year-old Barrister, educated in London but currently living in Sri Lanka, who dreams of living in Manhattan to write. She is in the process of trying to get her first novel published. Her interests include but are not limited to Manchester United, Louis de Berneires, the Rolling Stones, and being generally unencumbered. This is her first publication.

 

Of Fences-

There was a fence and it separated two lands. “Good fences make good neighbors”. I never understood that. There were two trees that grew on either side of the fence. They were the exact same tree except they were different trees. There was a house on either side of the fence. Sidath lived on one side and Maya lived on the other. They loved each other with a fire red. In short they were in love. They were at that place where everything is sexual and everything is a temporary madness. There were endless hoards of “I love you’s,” sighs like furnaces and pledges of death if the other should ever leave.

Then Sidath had to leave for a year to make his fortune. The goodbye was tender and the passion was intense like the sun. Off he went and Maya felt a pleasure in the amount of tears she cried. She was in love with him. She cried all day. And the next day. But the day after that she went back to trying to look pretty. “One must always look pretty while one is” she would say. She was as beautiful as the day is long, her limbs, also as long as the day is long glistened in the hot tropical sun. She did not want to be robbed of her youth.

She had many admirers. At first she wouldn’t even allow them to talk to her, she was in love. But eventually she yearned for compliments and breathlessness. So allowed them to visit her and bring her gifts. She never had the slightest intention of leaving Sidath for any of them, but what she thought of herself depended only on what everyone else thought. She needed to feel beautiful. It wasn’t enough to be beautiful. It never is. The men brought gifts and rumors of Sidath’s sexual escapades. Gradually they got to Maya. Even her best friends were talking about it. The village was alight with gossip. Her parents muttered in corners.

A year passed. Maya fell out of love. She married the richest man in the town. Sidath was unfortunate enough to come back on their wedding day. He moved into the house in which he had lived before he left. Maya’s house was demolished and replaced by a concrete monstrosity. The only thing that remained tying that land to the earth was that tree.

The years passed like flowing water. Sidath never married. Maya hated that tree. It reminded her of Sidath. She did not want to think of him. He slept with whores and he never denied it. But she also never asked him. They hadn’t spoken in 50 years even though the lived next to each other. “Good fences make good neighbors” and Maya’s husband had erected the best fence.

Maya could no longer bear the sight of that tree. While her husband was at the brothel she asked the servant boy to cut it down. It took him the best part of five hours to do it. The tree cried and screamed and then fell and splintered. The whole ground shook. As Maya’s tree fell so did Sidath’s. She looked up towards his house to see him standing on his doorstep, tears in his eyes. Maya’s heart broke.

“You were in love with me. Being in love is something any fool can do. As the saying goes, love is what is left when being in love has burnt away. You were in love with me but I love you. To me it was inconceivable that we should part and that’s why I never moved. Our roots, like these trees have become too entwined. There is no one without the other. It seems like you have discovered too late, what I always knew. This was one tree and not two.”

Robert Joe Stout

Bob StoutRobert Joe Stout’s books include The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives, “a rich chorus of voices, which produce not a song but an energetic discussion and argument about the soul of Mexico,” according to Publishers’ Weekly; Why Immigrants Come to America, the novels Miss Sally and Running Out the Hurt, and the poetry volume A Perfect Pitch. A graduate of Mexico City College (now the Universidad de las Americas) he has won national journalism awards for spot news writing and his fiction and poetry have been anthologized in a variety of publications, including New Southern Poets and Southwest.

 

A Big and Wonderful Now

That Alison went alone to the women’s health center and told Yoshio afterwards shoved something unwanted into their relationship. Not that the relationship was clearly defined: Neither he nor she had given it a name or described themselves as belonging to it. Something sparked between them when they were introduced by a mutual friend and they made excuses to see each other afterwards. Yoshio went to hear her sing with a little jazz group entertaining in a hangout near the university campus; she made a point to be near the finish line when he completed the lake-to-lake half-marathon a week later. Conversations led to a dinner date and the dinner date to a night—and many nights afterwards—in her little north Austin rental. They became an “item,” happily involved in each other’s presence. Then despite their precautions, Alison missed her period. The visit to the women’s health center confirmed that she was pregnant.

And not for the first time. Alison’s daughter Lisa was eleven; Yoshio’s seven-year-old son lived in San Antonio with his ex-wife. He and Alison talked about their kids but not about a kid-to-be. That is until Alison, in her flat Midwestern way, confirmed, “Well the news is yes, I’m pregnant.”

Yoshio responded, slowly, by embracing her and received a cold and rather rigid response.

“So, what do we do?”

We. A term they used frequently in conjunction with meals, weekend trips, dancing. This was different. “So what do we do?” Alison repeated and Yoshio, instinctively, “What do you want to do?”

“Me? So it’s up to me?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You sure as shit did.”

Invariably that’s how their arguments began. And invariably Yoshio, the serious one, professional, security coordinator for the city of Austin’s government employees, reframed whatever they were arguing about to give Alison space to win small victories or gracefully give in. But having a baby—or getting an abortion—wasn’t about small victories and graciously giving in. Either way it was a life-changing event, one that could have disastrous consequences for their undefined relationship.

Yoshio didn’t like disastrous consequences—he’d seen too many of them—so he cajoled, “I asked because ultimately you have the right to choose. It’s your body—”

“That’s a cop out.”

“No. I want to be part of the decision. But I want to make sure that what we decide is best for you.”

“What if there’s no ‘best’?”

“In any situation there are better choices and choices not so good. We didn’t expect this but we have to deal with it. Decide—”

“Don’t lecture me! I’m not seventeen!”

“So what do we do?”

The retort flashing across Alison’s broad features made her recognize that he was repeating her phrase. Jerk! The word, mouthed but not audible, culminated in a snort of laughter. Head averted she groped for his embrace.

“We could go make love. I sure as hell can’t get more pregnant than I already am.”

Yoshio knew he had to be careful. Alison was the best thing that had happened to him since the initial months of his first marriage and he didn’t want to make a mistake. He knew it always was possible to make a mistake but he hated mistakes made out of stupidity, lack of investigation, lack of honesty.

Alison, instinctive, flippant, spontaneous and sometimes irrational, had retreated into exaggerated bluster to cover her evasions but hormonal changes already taking effect made her edgy, cross, inappropriately exuberant. Carefully Yoshio listed points he needed to make and noted them in his pocket agenda. Sunday’s was:

“It’s time to tell Lisa.”

“Tell her what?”

“That you’re pregnant.”

“That we don’t know what to do about it?”

“That we’re trying to decide and want her input.”

“Do we?”

“It might help.”

“Shit!” But with a you’re probably right sigh. “I’ll—we’ll,” she amended, “do it.”

Without looking up from her cell phone, “So you decided to tell me,” Lisa winced in her pre-teen that’s-all-we’re-having-for-dinner worldliness.

“It was that obvious?”

“Either that or the two of you were planning to assassinate Obama.”

Yoshio laughed. Alison cursed. Then grimaced, “So how many others know?”

None of them had that answer.

Next on Yoshio’s agenda was consulting a marriage and family therapist.

“So she can tell us what to do?”

“It’s a way of processing. A third party asking questions, sifting answers that we’re stumbling over.”

“I’m stumbling over,” Alison corrected but admitted she was a tumble of doubts, wishes and fear and agreed to a consultation.

The therapist, a pudgy fiftyish pipe smoker with an affable countenance but grumpy voice: “You’ve talked about it with each other? And these conversations? Can you describe them?”

They could and couldn’t. And they could and couldn’t articulate how either decision would affect them. Yoshio, carefully, explained that his main concern was for Alison, what either decision would mean to her.

“How can I know? There’s too many if’s! Twenty more years as a single mother?”

“We’d be togeth—”

“What if you leave me? What if he’s ugly? What if—?”

She stopped abruptly. “Well,” she turned to face Yoshio. “Japanese-Norwegian?”

“She could be devastatingly beautiful,” he replied.

Not that the decision was airtight. Alison fretted; Yoshio gritted his teeth. The future that for years had been short-term stretched towards eternity. “It’s not what either of us imagined,” he confided and Alison hiccupped, “What did we imagine?” When he didn’t answer, “Making love again tomorrow”—that and only that. A big and wonderful now! Now the present was a mere particle, incidental. Everything was future, exaggerated as the end of the first trimester passed and the decision became irrevocable. “Don’t expect me to babysit!” Lisa warned. Then, “It’ll be nice to have something besides stupid adults around the house.”

The house. They would need something larger than Alison’s little rental. A three-bedroom apartment. Yoshio calculated its impact. Despite a good salary and job security he’d be paying child support for ten more years. Travel, restaurant meals, spontaneous gifts would diminish. Alison fretted and pulled away. Arguments flared. Finally after cabernet sauvignon on lawn chairs in the little backyard, “You’re about to leave me, aren’t you?” Alison pouted.

“No, I want to be with you. For a long time.” Although it was two weeks before the date he’d marked on his agenda, “There’s something we need to talk about. Consider.”

Her what? was a mere whisper.

“Marriage.”

“What?” voice running up scales to a high b-flat.

“I want you to marry me.”

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Inward gasps directed to herself not him. “Yos-Yoshi…” she spluttered, “I, I, but—” Her toe caught the leg of the lawn chair as she lunged to her feet and she stumbled, the wine from her glass gushing across Yoshio’s face. “No!” she wailed, lips twisted downwards and tears filling her eyes. “I, I, I…” Yoshio, laughing, daubed his cheeks, wiped his glasses and beckoned for her embrace. She stumbled into his grasp, spluttered coughing interrupting her attempt to laugh. Head against his neck she wiped her tears on the short sleeve of her dark cotton blouse and panted, “Okay, okay, Iloveyou, yes, but jesus it’s, I mean, so frigging much, a baby, marriage, I never—I mean, it’s, it’s—”

“Scary,” he finished for her.

“Shit yes. Yoshi, I don’t, see, we—we’re not talking tomorrow, next week, this is long-term stuff, I can’t even pict—”

“Maybe the therapist?”

“Shit! He’s not involved! This is me, you, the rest of our lives!”

Yoshio nodded. He’d already calculated the odds: Marriage gave a sort of stability—fragile perhaps, disruptive perhaps, but identity, a base. Remaining single with two kids to support: Intolerable. And detrimental to a career: Divorce and child support is one thing, divorce and support for two from different mothers indicated emotional instability. Emotionally unstable Yoshio was not.

“Besides there’s Lisa!”

“I could be a good fath—.”

“Yeah but she—!”

“We should ask her.”

Ohshit! He heard under her breath. And I haven’t said yes for Christ’s sake! But she assented—because, he knew, she’d put consideration for Lisa on the table and couldn’t back down.

Thumb running images across her cell phone screen Lisa listened to her mother’s abrupt and he’s talking I mean, wants us to get married… and shrugged.

“Should be better’n you going it alone.”

“Could you stand me as a father?” Yoshio interrupted what he could see was going to be Alison’s retaliatory thrust.

Thumb still moving, “Could be worse,” Lisa shrugged. Then, peering directly at Yoshi, “I just hope I do so well when it comes to having a man.” A quick glance at Alison, then back to the cell phone, “And if I do, unlike my mom, I’m going to realize how frigging lucky I am.”

She slammed the cell phone cover closed.

“Now any idea which of you is fixing supper? I’m hungry.”

“We’re ordering pizza,” Yoshio confirmed. “And maybe champagne for three.”

Mike Koenig

Mike Koenig received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He currently lives in Columbia, Maryland and works for Discovery Communications. His fiction can be seen in Phoebe, Quiddity, Clover, and The Tulane Review.

 

The Lost Ones

“There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you,” Doctor Johnson said, looking up from his charts. “Medically speaking, you should be able to have a child.”

Emily was hoping this doctor, this expert, would be able to offer her some news about her condition. She had gotten used to the words seem and should. They were terrible words that offered no comfort because they came with no cure. No matter what the tests said, Emily knew, as any woman would, that three miscarriages don’t just happen. The situation wasn’t just unfortunate; it was scary. And without a definitive medical reason, her miscarriages were terrifying. Statements like: this is just one of those things, or the bad end of statistics didn’t give Emily any consolation. Neither did Dr. Johnson’s assurances that Emily was as capable of having a child as anyone else. She was a completely healthy twenty-nine-year-old woman with many child-rearing years left in her.

After the appointment Emily met her mother for lunch.

“Did he say anything different?” Emily’s mother, Lauren, asked after hearing about the appointment. “Anything helpful?”

“Not really. He said it’s a good sign that I’m able to get pregnant and that I should keep taking the fertility pills Dr. Kumar prescribed.”

Lauren shook her head. “This is just awful what they put you through. Just awful.”

“All we can do is keep trying,” Emily said, lifting her glass of water.

“What does Tom think?”

“About what?” Emily asked. She was looking around the restaurant more than she was looking at her mother.

“Did you tell him what this doctor said?”

“No,” Emily admitted, “he doesn’t know about this appointment.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” Lauren said, with an all-too-motherly furrowed brow, “You shouldn’t sneak off to a doctor without telling Tom.”

“I know. He’s just not much for second opinions, much less fourth.”

“Still, you should tell him. He is your husband.”

“I’ll tell him tonight,” Emily said.

*****

The first pregnancy had been Emily’s longest. It lasted about ten weeks, long enough that she could feel the baby kick, or at least Emily thought she felt the baby kick. It was just as likely some indigestion mixed with wishful thinking. Emily and her mother had started planning the nursery. It was going to be a gender-neutral yellow color with teddy bear wallpaper. Emily, who taught second grade, was determined to finish the room before her summer break was over. She spent a week priming and painting the room with her mother, and another week cutting out and pasting the teddy bears along the wall. The room was golden yellow and when the windows were open light bounced around, giving the eyes of the teddy bears actual life.

The Friday they finished they went to the mall for a celebratory lunch, both looking and not looking at baby items. They ended up buying a mahogany rocking chair with a soft white cushion. The chair had flat legs instead of round ones and swung more than rocked. Emily felt it was a good reading chair. She planned to start reading to the child in utero. And since the chair came with free delivery, it seemed the perfect deal. It arrived the same day it was purchased and Emily was set up and reading by the time Tom came home.

“Wow,” Tom said at the doorway.

“What?” Emily said.

“You look like a real mother.”

Emily gave a playful frown.

Tom kissed her, first on the forehead then the stomach. “You look beautiful.”

“So you like the chair.”

Tom nodded.

“Good, cause it’s non-refundable.”

Emily listed the things she had seen that day. She particularly liked a stroller that could fold into quarters. It was only twenty pounds but very stable. She also thought the crib should be placed away from the window, so the sun wouldn’t bother the baby in the morning, and the changing table could go near the door and the rocker in its current spot because it seemed the focal point of the room. Emily talked so fast that there was hardly a space between the words for Tom to agree or disagree. He just smiled and took in Emily’s excitement.

“So what do you think?” Emily offered at the end.

“I think you might not need me at all. You and your mother have this whole thing worked out.”

“Well, you helped,” Emily said, patting her still flat belly. “A rather enjoyable help at that.”

“Is there anything else you wanted to do before you go back to work?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I was just thinking,” Tom was rubbing Emily’s shoulders as he talked, “maybe we could take a few days, just for ourselves at that cottage at Castle Lake. We might not be able to get a real vacation next year with the baby.” Tom was now kissing Emily’s neck between words, “How’s that sound? A couple of days, just us?”

 *****

The night of Emily’s fourth opinion, Tom came home around eight. Emily had left him a pork chop and green beans on the kitchen counter with the note, “went for a jog.” Tom was watching TV and napping when Emily came back and didn’t hear her until she started drying her hair with the electric blower.

“Did I wake you?” she asked, when Tom sat up.

“No, I was up.”

Emily was combing her brown shoulder-length hair.

“I like Patricia if it’s a girl and James for a boy,” Emily said.

“I thought we liked Andrew and Julie,” Tom responded.

“That was for the last baby.”

Tom got up and took off his dress shirt and pants, hanging the pants neatly in the closet.

“So,” Emily asked in a slightly high-pitched voice.

“What?”

“Do you like the names?”

“I don’t know why we have to pick new names—I like Julie, Jules for short.”

“We can’t use that name.”

“But we never told anyone. No one will know.”

“I’ll know,” Emily said, putting her brush down.

Tom went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. When he came back he said, “Why don’t we just wait until we get pregnant before picking out names?”

“Okay,” she said, “but they have to be new names.”

Tom agreed to this condition and apologized. It was easier than fighting. And he supposed Trish was as cute as Jules. He kissed his wife. And remembered how he used to pick fights with her when he was in law school just for the chance to make up with her later. Back then she bought underwear at Victoria’s Secret, surfing the online catalog late into the night. He hadn’t seen a colored bra in what seemed like years. It was just standard white Hanes these days. He caressed his wife, first on the stomach but then moved upwards.

“I’m not ovulating,” Emily said without moving. Tom stopped his playful advances and rolled to his right. They were back to back, separated by a foot of clean white sheets. “Next week,” Emily whispered.

Tom could remember a time before babies when sex was fun. When his wife coming out of the shower was a call to action, when she’d slowly remove her towel and perform a small dance before ripping off his clothes in passion. He remembered a time when waiting five minutes was excruciating, and if they touched each other’s hand at dinner, they’d race to the bedroom. He remembered sex that was full of moans and looks of ecstasy, a feeling of connection with his wife that was now easily postponed with the words “next week.” This of course was only a promise of intercourse, not passion, not sex. After the act, they didn’t kiss or hold each another anymore; they didn’t even talk. Emily would immediately move into some yoga position that supposedly helped conception, often chanting herself into a trance that would remove bad energy from her body. At this point Tom would be unneeded, and he’d retreat to the basement.

 *****

“Did you tell your parents, yet?” Emily asked.

“Tell them what?”

“About the miscarriage.”

“They didn’t know we were pregnant.” Tom didn’t turn his head from the road; he didn’t need to turn to feel his wife’s glare. It was their fifth miscarriage, and Tom had decided to stop talking about the pregnancies until they got to the second trimester. This pregnancy, Baby Susan, because Emily was sure it would be a girl, had only lasted three weeks from the positive pregnancy test to the pains that sent Emily to the bathroom.

“I just didn’t want to tell them in case this happened again,” Tom finally said, still feeling his wife’s glare.

“Whatever’s easier for you,” Emily said.

They drove in silence the rest of the way. When he pulled up to the church, he asked Emily if she was sure she wanted to come.

“She’s my niece too,” Emily said.

“I just wasn’t sure if you. . . I can make an excuse if you don’t want to see everyone.”

“I’m fine,” Emily said with a plastic smile.

They walked together to the church, but separated once inside, as Tom, the godfather-to-be, was needed in the annex.

After the priest gave some brief instructions Erin, Tom’s sister-in-law, offered Tom the baby to hold. Lily’s eyes opened wider when passed to Tom and she gave a soft coo that made Tom smile in a sad clown sort of way. His eyes were glossy, not quite wet but full of wanting. Tom pulled Lily a little closer, feeling each light exhale against his lap.

“You and Emily have any luck?” Tom’s brother, Jim, asked.

Erin shot him a look.

“What?”

“You don’t ask such things,” Erin said.

“He’s my brother,” Jim said.

“It’s not polite,” Erin replied.

“We lost another one,” Tom said, letting Lily grab his finger.

“What?”

“I’m sorry, Tom,” Erin said, putting her arm around his shoulder.

“Three days ago. We weren’t going to tell anyone.”

“Is Emily doing okay?” Erin asked. “If you guys don’t feel up to . . .”

“I told her she could stay home. But she wanted to come.”

“I feel terrible,” Jim interrupted, “Lily was an accident. And you. . . ”

“She wasn’t an accident,” Erin said, “She was a surprise.”

“I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense that they’re trying to have a kid and can’t and we’re not trying and have one.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Erin said.

“I feel bad, is all. It’s like we took his kid.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tom said, “one has nothing to do with the other. We’re just unlucky.” Tom pulled Lily into a hug against his chest. “But for the sake of my wife, let’s try not to let anyone bring it up at the party.”

 *****

“Honey,” Tom said, coming back to the living room, “did you move my stuff?”

There was no reply, so Tom went to the kitchen. “I had some adoption pamphlets from this guy at work. Did you see them?”

Emily looked at the kitchen trashcan.

“I go to the bathroom and you throw out my papers?” Tom asked.

“I’m just not ready to give up yet.”

Emily turned her attention to the onions, cutting them in loud thuds.

“It’s not giving up. It’s just looking at options.”

“That’s not an option,” Emily said, still focused on cutting vegetables.

“Well, it’s like a three year process, so I thought we should at least look into it now. I thought you wanted more than one child.’

“I’m not ready to raise someone else’s baby.”

“It would be our baby.”

“Do we have to do this tonight?”

Tom stopped talking and poked his head over the trashcan. He saw the pamphlets at the top, but knew better than to fish them out. Instead, he returned to the living room couch and flipped through the channels, never settling on a show to watch. Emily’s cutting continued for about ten minutes, until she went to bed without cooking anything or saying goodnight.

 *****

It was at Castle Lake that Emily had lost the first baby, Justin for a boy, Nancy for a girl. She had had bad cramps for hours before saying anything to Tom. The nearest hospital was a two-hour drive, and Emily was screaming as Tom drove. About twenty minutes before they got to the hospital a calm feeling came over Emily, some type of relief. Tom didn’t ask if she felt better or not and didn’t point to the blood that was seeping through her sweatpants.

When the doctor reported the baby was lost, that there was nothing anyone could have done, Emily slapped Tom across the face. “Why did we leave home? This wouldn’t have happened at home.” Then she turned into her pillow and cried. Tom’s own body had gone numb with the news; he reached out to touch her shoulder but Emily pulled away. For a few minutes he tried to think of something to say, something comforting, but the words never came. He finally sank into a chair and watched as Emily emptied herself through tears.

Emily was discharged from the hospital, and they went back to the cabin to collect their luggage. It was a quiet ride with neither music nor conversation, just the sound of the engine. There was a small blood spot on the passenger’s seat that forced Emily to sit in the back. She stared out the window as they drove. The trees were still green, and the sunlight of the day made everything look alive and feel terrible.

Within a week Tom would sell the car rather than clean it. But for now they had to avoid the spot. About an hour down the road Emily put her head next to Tom’s headrest.

“I’m sorry for what I said at the hospital.” Emily’s voice was soft, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”

Tom gave her a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll get pregnant again soon.”

They didn’t say much after that, but the car ride didn’t feel as eerie. For a while Tom even put his right hand between the seats so he could hold Emily’s hand as he drove. That was enough to make him think things would be all right.

***** 

“This calls for a celebration,” Lauren said upon hearing of her daughter’s pregnancy. “I’ve been waiting three years for this.”

Tom smiled at his mother-in-law as she got the champagne glasses from the top cabinet. She had been asking for grandkids since she first heard that Tom had proposed and now the promise of their arrival gave Lauren a pregnancy glow all her own.

“I was so worried about you guys. Three years.”

“Well, we weren’t exactly trying all this time,” Tom said.

“Mom had trouble conceiving,” Emily said, “she assumes everyone else does.”

“It took us six years,” Lauren said, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, not anyone. But when you feel that first kick, when you feel the baby growing inside, that’s when you really know what love is.” Lauren gave Emily a Hallmark smile that made Tom snicker. “I almost feel sorry for you men,” Lauren continued, “You’ll never know what that’s like.”

“Well,” Tom answered, “from what I hear labor is no picnic. So I’m quite happy to not be the pregnant one.”

“Don’t you listen to him,” Lauren said, “it isn’t that bad.”

Lauren poured two glasses of champagne. “I wish your father were here,” Lauren said, handing a glass to Tom. “I hate to celebrate without him.”

“Hey, where’s mine?” said Emily.

“You can’t have alcohol,” Lauren said.

“I don’t think a sip of champagne is going to matter, Mom.”

Lauren grudgingly poured a third glass much smaller than the first two and offered a congratulatory cheer before the three drank.

 *****

When Tom entered the bathroom, Emily was on the floor holding her stomach. “Call an ambulance,” she said. Tom knew immediately the baby was lost. As they waited for the ambulance to come he got on the tile floor with her, holding her hands in his. It was the way he used to hold her when they were first married and spent Saturdays lying in bed together.

“Why can’t I be a mother?” Emily asked.

Tom kissed her on the forehead. He couldn’t comfort her anymore than that. That was the third miscarriage, the Andrew or Julie miscarriage.

In addition to seeking her second, third, and fourth opinions about her physical condition Emily also started going to church after that miscarriage. At first it was just an occasional Sunday, but then it became more regular, and finally included bi-weekly counseling sessions with Father Mark.

“Am I being punished,” she asked the priest, “somehow tested like Job?”

“I don’t think that’s the case,” the priest answered.

“But the doctors tell me I’m healthy. They can’t explain why I keep losing these babies.”

“We must always have faith in His plan,” Father Mark said. “We can’t always explain it, but we must have faith that it is right.”

“My husband thinks we should adopt.”

“I’d be more than happy to recommend a good agency; Catholic Charities does wonderful work.”

“Could you really love a child as much, knowing it wasn’t actually yours?”

“I know many people who have adopted,” Father Mark answered, “and they are just as loving as any other parents.”

It was the answer Emily expected, the argument Tom had always provided. But there was something inside of her that doubted its truth. And in the wake of her “good health” she couldn’t see how adopting was the right solution, even if adopting a foreign child, as Tom now suggested, sped up the process. She couldn’t see herself loving at first sight the way her mother had loved at first feel.

***** 

Tom didn’t recognize his refrigerator anymore. There used to be soda and beer and nacho cheese on the door. The peanut butter used to be Jif with pieces of peanuts in it. Now it was some Whole Foods goo, the oil rose to the top and needed to be stirred for twenty minutes to make a sandwich. Tom used to get 2% milk and white bread; now there was only soy milk and whole wheat multigrain. Tom never brought his lunch with him to work anymore. It was the one chance a day he got to eat what he liked.

But it wasn’t just the food that had changed. Emily herself had. She did yoga in the morning, waking at five to do her stretches before school. She also went to the gym in the evening, for light calisthenics. There was only about an hour a day when he could actually sit and talk with her. But even that was difficult because all she wanted to do was talk babies. There were no more “how was your day” pleasantries, no more funny stories about what her kids had done in class. It was all business. We need to try this or that. She read medical journals like a pharmacist and knew which pills she might consider trying next. After her sixth miscarriage, the Daniel/Danielle miscarriage, she found a doctor who would prescribe Cervexus, an experimental drug that strengthened the walls of her uterus, one potential cause for miscarriages, though he noted like the doctors before him, that her uterus did not seem particularly weak. Still, the drug gave Emily a new sense of accomplishment and her regimen of exercising, cleaning, dieting, existential breathing, and researching made her feel in control.

The house was different too. It had been clean before, but now it was spotless. Emily ran the dishwasher every night, not wanting any germs in the house, and scrubbed the tile of the kitchen floor and bathrooms religiously. Since no one could tell her exactly what was wrong she wanted to eliminate any possible cause of her unhappy life. Cleanliness became a calling for her. And the house was almost a museum where Tom couldn’t touch or use objects because he was not as clean as them.

But the most jarring change for Tom was the crucifix that hung over the bed. It was a testament to Emily’s new life as a devout Catholic, a promise that if she was deemed worthy enough to have a child, she would raise it in the Church. Tom didn’t mind the religion entering her life. He too was Catholic, if only in name. What disturbed him about the crucifix was how Emily looked at it with unwavering intensity, offering it small prayers before they had sex.

What had started as understandable eccentricities for a woman under stress had developed into an insane routine. Tom no longer saw the woman he married in his wife, and when she looked at the cross as they made orgasm-less love, he had no idea who she was.

 *****

Emily locked herself in the bathroom. They had a full-length mirror on the door and she was looking at herself with her T-shirt rolled up. She was a thin thirty-two-year-old, merely three days pregnant, or at least it had been three days since the positive pregnancy test. Emily arched her back and tried to make herself look fat. Not satisfied with the reflected image she rolled down her shirt and pushed her stomach out. In a few months she’d look this big.

She continued playing in the mirror, trying to imagine herself in the third trimester. The door handle jiggled.

“I’m in here,” Emily said.

“Is everything all right?” Tom asked.

“Yeah.”

Emily fixed her shirt and splashed some water on her face before coming out. Tom was sitting on the edge of the bed, a pale look on his face.

“Is everything okay?” Tom asked, nodding toward her stomach.

“Of course.”

“You were in there for forty minutes.”

“I was just— you know women in the bathroom.”

Emily sat next to Tom on the bed gently rubbing his thigh.

“I thought. . .” Tom stopped his words.

“What happened at the lake isn’t going to happen again. We’re going to be fine,” Emily said, giving Tom a kiss. “I feel so much better this time.”

Tom smiled. It would be another week before he’d get called to meet Emily at the emergency room.

 *****

For Tom’s fortieth birthday Emily had the whole extended family over for dinner. It was a light fare of lemon chicken with brown rice and carrot cake for dessert. It was great to eat dinner with the whole family. Tom had two nephews, Andy and Scott, and two nieces, Lily and Brittany, whom he loved but rarely saw.

“How old are you, Uncle Tom?” asked his five year-old niece Lily as Emily started lighting the candles on the birthday cake.

“I’m this many,” he said flashing all ten fingers four times.

“How old?”

“This many,” he said and flashed his fingers up again.

“You’re old,” Lily said, still unclear of his exact age.

“I know,” Tom agreed, “I think I need help blowing out the candles.”

As the family began singing Happy Birthday, Tom lifted Lily to his knee. He filled his cheeks with air anticipating the amount needed to blow all the candles out. Lily mimicked her uncle, and when the song was over they worked together to get all forty candles out.

“Did you make a wish?” Tom asked.

“Yeah.”

“What did you wish for?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot.”

After cake Tom let Lily open the gifts for him. She tore through the paper in seconds, barely looking at the contents, mostly shirts and books, before moving to the next package. As Lily played with the discarded paper Tom looked at his wife, hoping to share a moment. But there was a bleakness in Emily’s eyes, as if she were in her own world far away from Tom and Lily.

After the guests, left Tom and Emily went to bed. As Tom took off his shirt, Emily lay on the bed, seductively calling him over with her index finger. Tom slid over the top sheet then kissed his wife on the neck and shoulders. After a few minutes of kissing, Emily got up and gave Tom a little strip show. He took off his own clothes, remembering his honeymoon and sex before pregnancies. He thought tonight would be like the old times, but as Emily climbed back in bed she wasn’t staring at Tom, but rather at the crucifix that hung over the bed.

Tom laid Emily on her stomach and stood behind her.

“What are you doing? This is not the ideal position for conception,” she said, wiggling to her back.

“I thought tonight could just be about us. Maybe we can mix it up. You know like we used to.”

“I don’t want to waste my most fertile days.”

“Do you really think position matters that much?”

“The experts say it helps.”

“Well, can we just do it for real. . . You know, for my birthday. I mean, do you have to just lie there?”

“I have to focus on my breathing, create an inviting space for the baby.”

“I’m just saying once a year, can we have sex like people who love each other, not people trying to create a baby?”

“We only get one good chance a month. Shouldn’t we do everything possible to get pregnant?” Emily said.

“You really think staring at that crucifix and breathing every six seconds matters? Our problem isn’t getting pregnant. We’ve always been able to do that.”

“This time it’ll be different. I’m on those pills now, and we’ve started a new hormone treatment. It’s going to happen, I deserve it.”

Tom was sitting on the bed now. “Deserve it,” Tom repeated.

“I know I can carry to term,” Emily said, “I know I can. Once we get pregnant it’ll be different. You’ll see. We’re going to do it this time. We’ve been doing everything right—diet, exercise, prayer, everything.”

Tom turned to Emily, “And what if it doesn’t happen?”

“It will,” Emily said.

“It’s not a question of deserve. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

Emily was silent.

“I don’t know what our problem is,” Tom continued, “but I don’t think our milk and bread has anything to do with it. I don’t think position has anything to do with it.”

“What harm does it do to try everything?” Emily asked.

Tom looked at Emily, “I think you need to start seeing a therapist about this.”

Emily laughed, “I talk to Father Mark once a week.”

“No, I mean a real therapist.”

Emily was silent.

“What harm could it do to try one more thing?” Tom asked.

They didn’t have sex that night or the next day or the day after that. They skipped two more of Emily’s cycles, and Tom spent most nights in the guestroom. Emily didn’t want to see a therapist and still wouldn’t talk of adoption. Her only reason for denying both requests was that it wasn’t time to give up, though she wouldn’t say, even now entering her late thirties, when the exact time to give up would be.

 *****

They were married in Jamaica in 2000. Emily wore a strapless white wedding gown that flowed with the breeze coming off the ocean. Her hair had small curls, and she took deep breaths to keep herself from crying.

Tom wore a light hemp pants suit with a cotton button-up shirt and no tie. He wasn’t moved to tears, but he couldn’t help smiling and couldn’t look away from Emily. She was captivating even through the deep breaths that held back happy tears.

As Tom repeated his vows the world seemed to slow; he could feel every movement of his mouth and feel Emily’s hands tighten around his. The justice of the peace then turned to Emily whose voice was barely a whisper as she spoke, yet unmistakably happy. As soon as she got the words out, she jumped into a kiss before a pronouncement of marriage could actually be made. The justice of the peace made a small joke about Emily’s excitement that seemed to take away her tears. Or maybe it was just Tom’s arms around her waist.

Tom thought about that day often when preparing the paperwork for the divorce. He would let her keep the house and gave her more of his personal assets- 401K and stocks- than she’d ever think to ask for. He loved her despite everything, which made signing the divorce decree difficult. She hadn’t looked at him directly in any of the meetings with the lawyers, which made leaving easier. Had he seen her face, her eyes, he would have been tempted to sink with the ship.

 *****

As the plane rolled toward the runway, Tom closed his book and looked out the window. It was his first flight ever without someone he knew beside him: his ex-wife, his brother, his father. It was a twenty-hour flight to Vietnam, and the return flight would be just two days later. Just enough time to sign forms and make everything legal.

As the engines geared up, Tom felt both nervous and excited. His whole world was about to change. And the roar of the plane gave the trip the feeling of reality. The flight attendant went up the aisle checking everyone’s seatbelts. It was a full flight, so the process took several minutes. But Tom didn’t care. It was a bright cloudless day; nothing would stop the trip now.

Some fifty miles away in the home they once shared, Emily sat alone in the Teddy Bear Room. The room was still empty save for the chair that sat by the window, in which she quietly rocked. In her hand was a rosary, and as she recited her Hail Marys, she watched the neighborhood kids play touch football in the street in front of her house. Johnny, who lived three houses down the street, was playing quarterback for both teams and threw dead-on spirals as he marched the opposing squads up and down the field. Emily smiled as they celebrated the latest touchdown and tried to wave at the boys, but they didn’t see her. So she turned her attention back to the rosary, falling into a slight trance as she prayed. Everything was going to work out. If nothing else, Emily was sure of that.

Danusha Goska

Danusha V. GoskaDanusha Goska‘s new book Save Send Delete tells the true story of her debate about God, and love affair, with a prominent atheist author. Celebrity Larry Dossey, M.D. called her work: “Lyrical, forceful, inspiring…” Her blog is http://save-send-delete.blogspot.com.

 

 

Star Tattoo

I descended my neighbor’s outdoor, concrete flight of stairs, as I always do on Food Bank Day. I descended from bright August sun and stifling Indiana heat to the basement’s cool, dank dark. My neighbor had a new tenant; this tenant had cats; the basement, where the twice-monthly Food Bank was held, would reek. The aluminum shelves of canned food and cereal boxes would be lit by one overhead, sixty-watt bulb. There would be people like me there: poor, but decent. At last, I’d get to feel at home. As we filled our bags – even, on a bad week, with just five boxes of breakfast cereal and one can that had lost its label – we’d rejoice that we were receiving the weapons with which we could defeat hunger for the next two weeks, till the next Food Bank Day.

As I pulled back the screen door, I was happy with anticipation. But something had gone wrong. Three sweating white males crowded the readily available space and monopolized the air. In opposite corners were two women. The only sound: the scrape-scrape panting of a hound.

The younger, slutty woman was a stranger. I studied her. She was looking, alternately, absent and then focused and then absent again, like a black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV, oscillating between clarity and static.

I know the small woman in the other corner. She is a food bank regular. I don’t know her name. I know her enough to like her and care about her looking cornered and scared. She’s tiny. She wears worn but conservative skirts and blouses, even in this heat. She has neatly cut and permed hair. She has stopped me in the street, downtown, and told me that angels have informed her that she must relocate to Minneapolis.

She was snarling like a weasel trapped someplace rectangular and domestic; she was shooting looks and balling her fists. One of the guys, sleekly bare-chested, like the others, but with tattoos, was smirking. This guy was maybe in his early 20s. He was like a human razor: economically designed for mental or physical assault. He stood out as the leader of his own pack: another, blonde boy, the substantial hound, and the slutty blonde teen.

I’m big. Taller than the average woman, big-boned, and I walk a lot so I look sturdy. Before I got sick, and came to need food banks, I had been a teacher. I demanded, just with my body, “What’s going on here?” and I announced, with my body alone, “Whatever it is, it had better stop.” I created a passageway. The Small Woman took it, sliding behind me, bolting out the door and up the steps. I glared at the tribe of Smirkers. They deemed me unworthy of eye contact. But I knew that they had “heard” me. The Smirkers shot challenging looks at the third man. The third man suddenly seemed very alone, under their stare. He’s an organic farmer, another food bank regular, a man I know, and a new father, but I’m not sure of his name. Taking their cardboard boxes and their time, the Smirkers sauntered out, one by one. Even their hound was surly.

I was now alone with the Farmer in the basement. I looked at him. He volunteers his truck and his back to gathering food at drop-off points – restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets – and bringing it here. He was sweating from his exertion. He was fuming with righteous rage.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“It’s not worth talking about,” the Farmer announced. He knows that this food bank, that materializes every other Wednesday, is as much my place as his. I, too, have unloaded the trucks full of expired soymilk and day-old loaves for our vegetarian, low-impact, food-bank-cum-lefty-political-powwow. I’ve put in hours in the dim light and cat-piss smell and instructed newcomers to sign the waiver (the back of a recycled sheet of paper, usually some political flier) stating that they won’t sue if they get sick from spoiled food. I, too, have adjured patrons to donate (into a coffee can with a slotted plastic lid) and begged them to volunteer (to carry stuff in off the trucks; to watch the many toddlers that accumulate underfoot like dust under a dresser, so that they don’t fall on the concrete stair). The Farmer doesn’t know my name, but he’s seen me do this work; he wasn’t dismissing me or being unkind. It’s just that he is a farmer, and his idea of what is worth talking about and my idea of what is worth talking about, are two very different ideas. But I was frustrated, and I was curious. My route back to serenity out of such a frightening stand-off is words. His route is silence.

We opened some boxes and stacked some shelves. We greedily pocketed some goodies for ourselves alone – I grabbed the lone can of mandarin oranges. We set some goodies aside for others: “Cashew butter! Jed will love that. His kid’s allergic to peanuts.” I love cashew butter, too, but I did the math in my head: added my hours of volunteer work, subtracted the mandarins, multiplied by Jed’s kid’s allergy, and found my balance could not cover the cashew butter.

Eventually, the Farmer did speak. The head Smirker, the dark haired one, with the tattoos, had once beaten up a woman friend of the Farmer’s. That Smirker – that batterer – had yet to repent. The Farmer wouldn’t have that. He needed the guy to publicly state, “I did it. It was my fault. I’ll never do it again” before he’d allow him back into the community.

The Smirker, fresh from prison following the battering, had showed up this morning at the food bank, surprising everyone. The Farmer, apparently thinking, at that moment of the Smirker’s arrival, that it was worth talking about, had dropped a comment about the Smirker’s rap sheet. “You smell like prison,” he had said. The Farmer repeated the line to me. He had meant this as an open door, he explained. The Smirker could apologize, and lose that smell.

The Smirker had been bending over a box. He stood up straight. He did not apologize. Rather, he stated, loudly and clearly, “Takes two to tango.” The Farmer was infuriated. But, he decided to just let it go. Some things are not worth talking about.

The Small Woman, as far as I could make out, had never even seen the Smirker before, and knew none of his story before she arrived. She’s just a food bank regular. She just walked in on it all. She just overheard. She just wanted to brain the Smirker, the batterer, the bare-chested man/boy ex-con with the tattoos – I never learned his name. She just itched to torpedo her small, marginal, girly body, which had maybe never done violence to anything more threatening than a pack of tofu, and make him, just, just, make him sorry, just show him what it’s like, make him know, make him … just, make him. The Farmer had had to hold her back. Everyone had been staring their challenges when I walked in.

“Mmm.” I nodded. I went back up the stairs and outside.

I found the Small Woman hyperventilating in front of a sun-drenched, bee-thick patch of Jerusalem artichoke growing in my neighbor’s yard. Careful of the bees, I approached. The sun was punishing. I squinted. I had no idea what the appropriate thing to say would be. I didn’t have much vocabulary here. The tough looking Smirkers in the basement hadn’t actually said anything after I’d entered – had they? The Small Woman had merely muttered. Had I understood everything the Farmer just told me? Had he told me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Whatever had just happened was something I was feeling, not reading. I didn’t even know the Small Woman’s name, either, though I’m sure that at one point she had told it to me. It was something Midwestern, like “Betty,” “Sue,” or “Jane,” not the kind of coastal name associated with those who speak with angels that you’d expect in Berkeley or The East Village. Not knowing what else to say, I settled on, “Do you want me to stick around?” My large body will never make a man fall in love with me, or land me the lead role in just about anything. But I have known, since kindergarten, that I can use it to make smaller people safer, when that is needed and I like the smaller people.

“No, no. That’s cool. I’m fine. I’m leaving Indiana soon anyway. I think I’m supposed to be in Minneapolis. That’s where my fate awaits me. But you know…no, no. I’m fine. That’s okay. You don’t have to stick around. That son of a bitch.” She was still hyperventilating.

I stuck around without calling it “sticking around,” until the Small Woman got into her rickety, perforated compact car and drove off.

If it’s a good haul, I get two weeks’ worth of food, or at least two weeks’ worth of something – bread, soy milk, cereal – on a given Food Bank Day. But then I need to transport the boxes back to my room. I usually do this by stationing myself next to my boxes of food and gazing hopefully at other food bank patrons as they pass me, returning to their jalopies. I never have to ask. They ask me. And they do go out of their way.

The Smirker approached. I could smell his sweat. I could hear the air bruising the thick, dry sycamore leaves above my head. He sized up my load. “Come on,” he said to me, with a jerk of his head toward his rusted Caddy. “Get the dog in the backseat,” he directed this to the younger, blond guy, the deputy Smirker. “Get her boxes in the trunk. Get that shit out of the way,” he said to the blonde girl. “Here. Sit here. Where you going? Okay. I know the way.”

I sat next to him in the front seat. I was afraid.

I wasn’t afraid of physical assault. I’ve been there and done that so many times, from both ends, that maybe nothing scares me less than flying fists, which I know is not a healthy or normal response. I was afraid of being awkward. I was afraid of saying something stupid. I was afraid of being struck dumb, indicting him with a silence so icy it could only be understood as, “I’m a woman and I’ve been beat up and I think scumbags like you should have your balls cut off and shoved down your throat. You hillbilly gangsta geek, you’ll never get a decent job in your life, ever; I’m better than you, and I’m taking your ride, but I will not talk to you.” I was afraid of saying something school teacher-y, Politically Correct, “Oh, so you are a batterer, how nice, and do you have other hobbies? Everything is beautiful in its own way.” I was afraid of failing, of not being equipped, of not being cool. I was so focused on adrenaline and ego that if a Hoosier had cartwheeled naked in front of the car, I would have missed it.

Then I realized that my focus was pathetic. So I drew my focus away from my fear. Lacking any other handy targets for my racing brain, I folded my hands in my lap, as our nuns used to encourage us to do when we prayed silently at our school desks, and, just, sat, quiet, listening, seeing, and waiting, making myself ready for the voice of God.

It was the Smirker who spoke. “I am not seen.”

Someone nodded ascent; maybe the deputy smirker, the out-of-focus girl, or the hound jammed into the backseat with three-people-and-a-dog’s-two-week haul of foodstuffs. I thought I heard some kind of “Amen” back there. I looked at the man/boy holding the steering wheel.

“I’m seen as a label. I refuse to be a label.”

His biggest complaint was not that the Farmer rejected him, pretty much ensuring that his post-prison readjustment would have to proceed without benefit of the only food bank in this small, tightly-knit town. His biggest complaint was not that I was stiff and silent while sitting next to him. His label metaphor impressed me.

He asked, “Is a person the worst thing he has ever done?”

I gasped and stared really hard. I resisted the urge to dive in and lead a discussion analyzing this very question.

“They don’t react to me. They react to the image inside their heads. They never say anything about us, and we were ‘us.’ But forget her. I’m more than that. When you turn a person into a label, you’re not talking about a human being any more. I’m not going to participate in that.”

The Lead Smirker, the Bare-Chested Tattooed Man Who Has Done Time, melted. The unlabeled struggled to communicate himself to me during our timed car trip. Apparently, he, too, had been trying to find the right thing to say. He looked younger. He looked human. Same species as I, as the Farmer, as the Small Woman, as the girl he had battered.

There was another long silence. Tossing out the hope of saying anything pertinent, I tilted my head and asked what seemed most immediately pertinent to my curiosity, “How does your mother feel about all those tattoos?”

“Pfft. My mother? I would not know. I ran the fuck out of there when I was fifteen.” The way he pronounced this suggested that he was unaware of the full dimension of the dictionary definition of the word “mother.” I immediately lunged at the clock of our time, trying to slow it down, so that things could be said and done that would expand the world and make it better.

I saw where we were. “Yeah, that’s it, right there. That’s what I call ‘home.'” He pulled up. Our journey was ending.

They insisted on carrying my boxes of food inside and putting them on the table, though I could have easily done so, and usually do. I was confined in my room with two scary, bare-chested men; the dog and the girl were out in the car. As they had in the basement, they did take up space, these men/boys; no, they throttled it, with their muscled bodies claiming the sole possession of limited things like the space in a room, or the dignity.

I was no longer afraid. I knew I wouldn’t say the stupid thing. It was a hot day. They had worked hard. I said the obvious thing. I offered them some juice, or water, and homemade cookies. They took water. I plopped in some ice cubes. The Lead Smirker had a five-pointed star tattooed on his back. It was solid and dark blue.

“Why a star?” I asked.

“Five points,” he told me. “Like a human being.” Demonstrating, he slapped his head, point one; his hands, points two and three; and, lifting them, the soles of his feet, points four and five. Ah, of course, a human being. “It’s not satanic,” he insisted. “That’s bull cooked up by the officials.” As he explained, he seemed tall, though he hadn’t, before. Suddenly I realized that I was looking up at him, which I hadn’t realized, before, either. He seemed a professor, with worthy knowledge he was happy to pass on. “In prison, they strip you; they penetrate you; they take everything. They give you a number instead of a name. They can’t take away your tattoo.” It was time to go. He left.

Before their departure, the younger guy, the deputy Smirker, hesitated – stalled – not the right words at all – took time, made time, to stand at my door, make eye contact with me, and shake my hand.

Sigrid Erro

Sigrid Erro lives in a cohousing community in Santa Cruz, CA. She has worked as a massage therapist, security officer, avocado ranch owner, graphic designer, and lay chaplain. She is writing a memoir set in a psychiatric hospital. 

 

­­Bones

My friends want to be cremated when they die. Not me. I want my bones to survive.

I’m home for Thanksgiving, visiting Vista cemetery, where the bones of my ancestors live. My paternal grandmother, Astrid, and my grandfather, Hans, lie here. Their flesh has disintegrated, but not their skeletons. Bones can live for hundreds, thousands, of years. When I feel my clavicle, press on my rib cage, I know these parts will endure, and it comforts me.

Some people want their ashes spread over the ocean. The notion chills me—to have no idea where my body will land, particles traveling this way and that. I know exactly where I’m going to end up: in this cemetery, buried six feet under the ground, in our family plot, the space furthest from my father.

I find the place where we buried my father’s ashes. The headstone is small and unadorned, as he wanted. First and last name, middle initial, 1931 to 2003.

For forty years, I prayed he would die. As a child, I imagined his headstone with longing; I stand on it now. Anger and relief course through me. It feels good to be on top of him, for a change. People nearby place flowers at the graves of their loved ones and weep. I’m afraid I appear irreverent, but I don’t move. Having been cremated, his skeleton does not remain; this pleases me.

When I was younger, I came to the cemetery with Honey, my maternal grandmother, and we visited the graves of her husband and daughter. I stared with dread at the empty spot next to my grandfather, knowing Honey would be there someday, her kind face decaying. Then I reflected that the bones in the hand I held would always be here, just under the ground.

I see my own grave site and move to the space where I will be buried.

*****

As Honey’s headstone now sits on her grave, mine will eventually rest here. I wonder, though of course it would be impossible, what I might think about in my coffin. What would I regret? What, like Marley’s ghost, would I wish I had done, but be forever unable to?

So I ask my dead self. I talk to the ground. What is it that I need to do? What is most important? And I imagine myself underneath, forever unable to see, or move. My message to my living self is clear: Give up your rage and bitterness.

Immediately, I feel a release—a vast, cool river, washing away my fury, grief, and shame. And in that instant, it feels possible. Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I know my life can change, and I’m eager to begin.

I turn to leave and eye my father’s headstone. I want to stand on it again, grind my heel in, feel the power I now have over him. The brilliance I just felt is gone. My reverie disappears as my wrath takes hold.

So I stand there. Angry at my father. Angry at myself, for giving in to the rage. Angry at my dead self, for not granting me the power to cling to its message.

I don’t stand on his grave again. Instead, I take a deep breath, grateful for lungs that still breathe, legs that still carry me.

I return to my car. With one stride, I yearn for freedom from bitterness, I pray for grace; with the next, I picture his headstone with vengeance. Whether I stand on him or not, his bones are nothing but dust.

 

J.W. Young

J.W. Young’s essays have been anthologized by Random House, Dzanc Books, and Pinchback Press. Her work has appeared in both print and online journals including The Apple Valley Review, Memoir, and Front Porch. Her recently completed memoir, Blood and Circumstance, recounts the effects of living as the daughter of one of California’s most notorious serial rapists. You can contact her and read more of her work at www.joyousinhell.blogspot.com. 

 

Big Dumb Baby

I was raised by my maternal grandmother who—among teaching me the finer points of smoking non-filter cigarettes and ironing a perfect crease into polyester slacks—made sure I grew up understanding the one true pillar of friendship: “Most friends,” she’d say, the words oozing from her mouth like some fine poison, “wouldn’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” So many times was this phrase repeated that it should have been etched into our family crest and set above the front door.

I knew Grandma to have only two friends. The first, a woman named Linda who was several years Grandma’s junior, seemed to come around only when the two of them were going on cruises to Mexico. Linda owned a pizzeria and as a kid I spent afternoons inside the small restaurant feeding quarters into the pinball machines in the back while the two of them sat at one of the small tables and smoked and laughed over pictures of their latest trip. The last time Grandma saw Linda, I was nearly an adult. We were both invited to her wedding—she was on her fifth or sixth husband by then—and while we were welcome at the ceremony I remember feeling as if we’d crashed the reception. Grandma didn’t know anyone at our table and spent much of the afternoon trying to make her way over to the one with Linda’s adult children. When she finally made it, she sat down next to a tanned young man who looked just like his mother. He seemed to not know who she was, though Grandma spoke loudly, saying, “I used to feed Mark strained peas. They were his favorite.”

Taking her place in the receiving line, ready for a warm response from Linda, all Grandma got was a short hug, a brief introduction to the groom, and a complicit smile. I don’t think the two women ever spoke again. Grandma stopped mentioning her cruises, sitting at captains’ tables, and the fact that a little boy named Mark used to hang on her every word.

The only other friend Grandma had was a German immigrant named Gretta who called our house three or four times a day. Each time Grandma picked up the phone, perhaps hoping to hear from Linda, she’d cheerfully say, “Hello,” and then roll her eyes. “Hi Gretta.” For the next hour she’d be roped into listening to the thick accent, the woman recounting her most recent complaint about her adult daughter or her newest physical ailment. When Grandma hung up she’d say, “God I hate that damned woman.” But she still picked up the phone every day. Eventually, one of Gretta’s many ailments proved fatal and the day after her funeral—where Grandma was the only friend in attendance—the phone rang and Grandma joked, “That’s probably Gretta calling me from beyond the grave.” She picked up the receiver only to find dead air. This happened more than a dozen times over the next month, and I came to believe that when a friendship died, its haunting spirit somehow remained.

*****

Perhaps it goes without saying that for most of my childhood I was lonely. Sure, I had schoolmates and neighbors, but I was only allowed to socialize with one girl, Michelle, whose parents were both teachers. For some reason, Grandma trusted them and so I was allowed on occasion to have a little contact with Michelle outside of school. Still, I can count on one hand the number of times I was allowed to accept invitations to her house. Miraculously, the summer before I was fourteen, I spent two weeks with her family in Hawaii. They treated me like a second daughter, allowing Michelle and I entire hours of time on our own that we spent on the beach, exploring sea side walking paths, and swimming in the resort pool. When I returned home, I regaled Grandma with tales of our adventures.

After that trip Grandma went out of her way to keep Michelle from being a part of my life. She moved me to another town. She wouldn’t allow me to talk to Michelle on the phone; I wasn’t permitted to accept any more invitations to her house, even for her birthday. Since both of us were too young to drive, I saw my childhood friend again only one other time. She appeared on my doorstep a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday with a card and a copy of Stephen King’s newest book. I stepped out onto the front porch and sat with her on the cold cement step while her mother waited in the car.

“You’re not mad at me, are you?” she said.

“No.”

“It’s just, I don’t get it. Why don’t you want to be my friend? It’s okay that you live here now. We can still keep in touch.”

I didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t realize at the time Grandma had purposely moved me away from my only friend. But I knew that move had made us destitute—house-rich and everything-else-poor. When Michelle showed up at my door that day I couldn’t invite her inside in part because I had nothing to offer her; our refrigerator housed a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes, a head of lettuce, and a jar of mayonnaise. I feared—because Grandma said it—that Michelle would somehow know we were suffering and judge me for it, terminate the friendship. Sitting on the front step, not looking into the face of the girl who’d been my friend since kindergarten, I suddenly felt like a baby whose only response was to cry—my face burned with tears. Michelle looked at her shoes, green Converse sneakers I envied. “I gotta go,” she finally said.

These years preceded email and social media, so we only exchanged a handful of letters over the next few months, letters I received only because I was the one to check the mail each day. One of the last Michelle sent was an essay she’d written in her English class about her best friend, me. She’d made a cover for the essay, a collage of photos of the two of us over the years, and in the essay she lamented the fact that we drifted apart.

*****

As I grew into an adult, I constantly thought of Grandma’s words, “They won’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” But once I’d left home I was able to gain some perspective on our life together that suggested to me I’d forever be hard-pressed to find a healthy friendship. I’d been damaged by fate: Grandma—like so many other single-parents—had developed an emotional dependency on me. She’d been divorced several times, had a hard time maintaining relationships with her own children and siblings, and because she didn’t work was isolated at home for most of the day, her only hobbies were chain smoking and obsessively dusting her antique furniture. I was her sole companion, and if I’d had a relationship with someone else she would have felt threatened. Today this condition is known as Parental Co-Dependency, but when I was young it was simply the way my world worked.

Or maybe Grandma was incapable of maintaining more than one close relationship, as a large majority of adult Americans are wont to do. Based on her track record with Linda and Gretta that seems to fit the bill. Or she could’ve been like the millions of people on the planet who simply use a spouse—in her case a pseudo-spouse, me—as their best friend. Some psychologists argue that it’s only natural for a spouse to become the best friend, while another camp argues such behavior results in an unhealthy marriage of co-dependency. We surely fell into the latter category. Whatever the reason, I wish Grandma would’ve told me what she was feeling so I could’ve tried to understand it, if not somehow grow from it, maybe even learn to be a better judge of character.

*****

As I entered my thirties—the age experts agree signals the plateau of true friend-making—I took a short assessment of my friendships: I knew six people who would pee on me if I suddenly burst into flames. To those close friends, I’d become fiercely loyal. One in particular, Gibb, had earned my respect over the ten years I’d known him. And while I admired him, the longer I knew him, the more I pitied him: he lived alone, hardly left his apartment, his bookcases were filled with Disney DVDs and Playstation games. He spent the wee hours of his mornings in chat rooms. In an attempt to show the world what a good guy Gibb was, I named him Managing Editor of a writing journal when I stepped down.

The following year, my husband Adam and I moved to another state. But we got together with Gibb whenever we could. During one visit we sat around in his living room—movie posters on the walls and scented candles lit on every surface—drinking beer and catching up on each others’ lives. Before we left, he told me, “That’s what I like best about you guys. I don’t have to talk to you every day to be close friends. We just kinda pick up where we left off.” Though I didn’t say it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for years he’d been meticulously measuring our friendship against others he had, weighing me against some criteria for keeping and discarding people.

A few years later, when a position opened at my workplace, I wrote Gibb a letter of recommendation. I put in a good word for him with my boss, telling her how much the two of them had in common, and that I thought he’d really fit in. It didn’t take long for him to get the job. It took even less time for him and my boss to become lovers. At first, I was supportive of their relationship. I helped them keep it a secret from the higher-ups so neither one of them would be fired, and even deceived my fellow coworkers so they wouldn’t be found out. Gibb was my friend. And friends put out fires for one another.

Then I found out about Big Dumb Baby, a sex game they played where Gibb was made to act like an infant called Big Dumb Baby and my boss acted like Mommy, spanking him and telling him what she wanted him to do to her. I’m all for kinky sex, but never have I felt turned on by the idea of intercourse with a baby. Gibb liked Big Dumb Baby enough to marry her. Every time I saw him in the halls, in the copy room, at parties, all I could think about was him trussed up in adult diapers wearing a baby bonnet and sucking his wife’s toes. I imagined him bent over and allowing her to spank him.

A few months after taking their vows, Gibb told me over the telephone, “I unfriended you on Facebook.” Because I hadn’t seen Gibb around the office or at any social gatherings since his marriage, deleting me from his Facebook list was the emotional equivalent of what I’d done to Michelle over a decade earlier.

“You what?” I asked.

“It’s not personal or anything. It’s just, sometimes you post comments about your boss.”

“And? So do a lot of people.”

“Your boss is my wife.”

“She’s not my only boss.” I’d been irate about some policy changes and had posted a few comments about how unjust they were. And while Mommy had started to go out of her way to make my work life miserable, none of my posts were directed at her. “I haven’t posted anything about her,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s true.”

My face suddenly got very hot and before I could stop them, my eyes filled with tears. “So instead of talking to me about it you just unfriend me?”

“I’m sorry, but your posts make for awkward conversations around my house. Conversations I don’t want to have.”

Just before their marriage, Gibb told me he and Mommy had never fought, had never had a full-blown, heated argument about anything. Which made me wonder if they even really cared about each other. I suddenly blamed myself for Gibb’s passionless, dishonest marriage where his wife treated him like an infant. But instead of revealing what I knew about him, trying to help him through his embarrassment, I got angry, Grandma’s warning ringing in my head. I’d befriended someone who was simply pissing on me. “This is bullshit,” I said.

“It’s not bullshit. I’m married. My wife and I are one,” he said. As if after his wedding he’d gotten a lobotomy or been plugged into the Borg. And with that, our friendship was officially over. Like me and Michelle, like Grandma and Gretta.

*****

Gibb systematically cut all of his pre-marriage friends out of his life. It’s a common enough phenomenon. Some couples end decade-long friendships prior to getting hitched. But usually, the ties are cut with single friends not married ones. Still, I’m not naïve enough to believe people don’t change during marriage. Compromise is part of a working relationship. But never have I thought during the course of my own marriage that I needed to end a friendship because Adam doesn’t approve. We maintain common friends—most of them other married couples—and our own friendships that came with us before we took our vows.

“I feel so used,” I told another one of Gibb’s toss-aways.

“It’s funny that she still has all of her friends, but he’s had to get rid of his. The people he’s friends with now are people she brought with her to the marriage,” she said.

“I don’t get it. How could he just use me? Just jump ship?”

“It’s the type of person he is,” she said, shrugging. And something in her tone reminded me so much of Grandma’s warning that I shuddered. “But if you really want to know the truth,” she said, “I think he had a crush on you before he got married and was stupid enough to actually tell her about it.”

I didn’t want to believe it. But I immediately recalled an evening at Mommy’s house when I made a joke about how I’d landed my husband. “If Adam hadn’t wanted me,” I’d laughed, “I was going to move in on to Gibb next.” Big Dumb Baby blushed, and Mommy’s smile became a tight-lipped mask. After Adam and I got home I asked him, “Do you think Gibb thought I was serious about wanting to date him?”

“Obviously,” he said. “You saw her face, too.”

“So she hates me now,” I said. “She’ll probably try to get me fired.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Adam said.

Shortly after Gibb unfriended me, I began to imagine him as a prisoner in Mommy’s house. He was trussed up in his Big Dumb Baby garb, drooling and crying for a diaper change. She circled him while slapping a riding crop across his bare legs. No matter how he cried, she was determined to keep him right where he was. I never dropped by their place for fear of realizing their game had gone too far. For fear that I’d failed to help my friend out of a humiliating relationship, failed to put out the flame. I, too, had become the very sort of friend I’d worried myself over.

The end of my relationship with Gibb made me question the validity of every close friendship I still had. Three of my five remaining friends lived hundreds of miles away and most of our weekly interactions took place through social media. I sent cards at holidays, but my ability to remember birthdays and anniversaries was sadly lacking. I loved these friends very much, more so even than family members. But I’m unsure if they really knew how valuable they were in my life, how crushed I’d be if they suddenly cut me out. I contacted each of them, letting them know I’d pee on them in a second, should the need ever arise. And they all assured me they would happily do the same. Without Gibb I would’ve never recognized how miserably I was failing as a friend. For that, I’m thankful.

And I wish I could’ve saved him from Mommy and Big Dumb Baby, though I know that ultimately he made those choices on his own. Still, the more I think about his end to our friendship and those that—despite my shortcomings—are still thriving, the more I relive the moment with Michelle on the front step, her green sneakers, and my desperate, silent plea for my best friend to recognize I was being forced to give her up. If I’d just swallowed my pride, or had the courage to stand up to Grandma, to tell her our relationship isolated me, perhaps my life would’ve been a little less lonely. Perhaps I could’ve grown into a woman who saw strangers as potential friends rather than people who, at the sight of me aflame, would turn tail and run.

Kurt Caswell

Kurt Caswell is the author or two books of nonfiction: In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information, please go to: www.kurtcaswell.com.

 

Haboob

It was like coming down the mountain, not like dying at all, but like living and coming down the mountain, even as the world wanted to die, as the rooms of the house went dark in daylight, the great dust cloud of the haboob come over the top and pressing in, the sun blotted out, the view of the neighbor’s house blotted out, the sky blotted out, the weird orange light in the darkness at mid-day, like the bomb at Trinity, I imagined, like Semipalatinsk, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sitting alone, wondering if this might not be the end of something, the end of this thing now, the end of the world, at last. It was like coming down the mountain from the pure, happy clarity of the high country, its sparkling waters and expanses of blue, its trees and wild strawberries, its bears at root in the ground for termites and in the air for cutworm moths, lazing in the sun, its horny toads, the little ones, poinging off into the shades of sage and pine and stones on the trails that ascend to the nine summits where from this vantage, you see cranes in migration on the wing, another 10,000 feet above, still, almost into the heavens. It was like coming down the mountain into the dark valleys and onto the wide plains filled and covered over with the smokes and wastes of industry and the chemicals of agriculture, the writhing masses of the people living one on top of the other, one on top of the other, and the land scorched and burned by summer fires, and spring fires and autumn fires with the rise of the mammals, and then the primates, and the great apes, and Cain and Abel into you and me and we, and into the ten thousand years of agriculture pushing the sixth great extinction on earth.

In Muleshoe, Texas, October 17, 2011, a haboob came to town out of the Llano Estacado, the dry, flat wastes of the Texas tableland. A photograph taken by a resident showed a massive wall of black dust towering eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. The photograph made its way onto the local news in the neighboring city of Lubbock, where I live. Get ready, everybody, the weatherman announced. Seek shelter now. This haboob is headed our way. It’s a wall of dust, a great body of black dust moving at about thirty miles per hour and pushed by winds with gusts of up to sixty miles per hour. It won’t take long to get here. It will be here real soon. Get ready.

Your poet, Li Po, the simple man, the lover of wine, the lover of the moon, the Banished Immortal, writes:

Sunlight is light bringing tangled sorrows
Facing ten-thousand-mile winds, autumn geese leaving,
we can still laugh and drink in this tower tonight,

chant poems of Immortality Land, ancient word-bones.

The word “haboob” is Arabic, as haboobs are most common in desert regions like the Middle East, North Africa, and also in western Australia and on the southwest plains of North America. Why Arabic, I wonder, and not Comanche, or Kiowa, or Nubian, or Walmajarri? I wonder what the Comanche called the dust storms descending upon their horse herds and their teepees, on their camps out on the flat wastes of the Llano Estacado where the U.S. Calvary feared to go? The word comes from the root “habb,” which means “wind,” and “haboob” means “strong wind.” During the Dustbowl years of the 1930s, most of the great dust storms were haboobs, but people in this part of the world called them “black wind storms,” or “black blizzards.”

At my home in Lubbock, Texas, the photograph from Muleshoe came to my attention on the local news. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I had no idea what it meant. The local TV news turned to the national TV news. Maybe I’d see what was happening in the world while waiting for the haboob. Then I’d know what it meant. I wanted something new, but it was the same news as last night, the night before, every night. Conflict all over the world. Nations at war with each other. Nations at war with themselves. Nations at war with drugs. Drugs at war with drugs. The real estate crisis in America. A world economic slow-down, recession, financial collapse. Nations going bankrupt. Banks going bankrupt. Corporate executives taking people’s money, and then going bankrupt. Another environmental disaster and its cleanup, even while new legislation makes future environmental disaster inevitable. The most disastrous heat, again, in the history of record keeping, but don’t ever, ever use the term “climate change.” One person is murdered in a city park, and a famous person has died. A thousand people are born. The world’s population at seven billion and climbing ever faster. What are we going to do? Never mind that. Pro life! Pro choice! Abstinence. It doesn’t work, but let’s pretend it does. Get married. Get divorced. Pro gay marriage. Anti gay marriage. Humidity. Terrible flesh eating bacteria. AIDS. Avian flu. Swine flu. Whooping cough is back. The common cold, stronger than ever, killed nine people. Fracking is poisoning your drinking water, and nobody cares. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! Pause for a commercial break. Buy this prescription drug. It will relieve your symptoms from your obscure condition; the short-term side effects range from shitting yourself to death, to death, but if you live, the long-term side effects are unknown. Ask your doctor about it now. Your doctor isn’t smart enough to know what treatment you need. You do, because you watch TV. Take aspirin for your heart condition. If you don’t have a heart condition, might as well take it anyway. Buy this insurance for your insurance. You can never have enough insurance. Back to the news. A plane crashed in Russia, everyone dead. A white collar criminal goes unpunished, again. Nobody cares. A poor minority (fast becoming the majority) gets the electric chair, in Texas. Nobody cares. Everybody in America is obese, and the children are obese, soft, dying. Nobody cares. Does your school have a contract with Coke or Pepsi? More darkness. More degradation of the earth’s air and water and the loss of biological diversity. The ice caps are melting. Greenland is melting. Glaciers are melting. Polar bears are dying. Maybe. Nobody cares. The conservatives publically maintain that climate change is natural, and Jesus will solve all our problems. What would Jesus do? Don’t bother with voting or recycling or walking instead of driving your car. Just pray. Pray, baby pray. And then, the finalé, to counterbalance all this death: an orphaned, three-legged dog finds a friend in a blind chess champion, somewhere in small-town West Virginia. And that’s the news, folks.

The haboob is coming.

Haboobs form when strong winds flow down and out of the leading edge of thunderstorms and cold fronts. These winds pick up dust, condense it, drive it forward, usually at about half the velocity of the winds themselves. The dust cloud can extend for sixty to ninety miles, and reach five thousand to eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. Some might reach as high as fifteen thousand feet. Such storms don’t usually last very long: thirty minutes maybe, three hours at the most. Haboobs in the Middle East and North America are typically associated with thunderstorms, which is why it often rains after a haboob, though in arid climates, this rain might never reach the ground. Haboobs in Australia are most often associated with cold fronts.

Out of the thunderstorm or cold front comes a strong wind. When this wind passes over dry, loose soil, the smallest dust particles (0.002 millimeters and smaller) are immediately suspended in the air. The threshold velocity of a wind that can move small particles like this is only about nine miles per hour, so a strong wind will move much larger particles as well (0.5 millimeters). The largest particles are often too heavy to be suspended in the air, so they roll along the ground, a process known as “creeping.” Between the small and the large particles are the medium sized particles (0.002 to 0.5 millimeters), which climatologists call “silt” or “dust.” Dust particles are too heavy to be suspended, but too light to creep. They bounce against the surface of the earth. When these bouncing particles hit other particles, those other particles bounce too, and then those particles get still more particles bouncing. The effect is exponential, like the world’s birthrate. Dust particles bouncing off the surface are born aloft when caught in the power of the wind, and as more particles are drawn into the storm, particles have yet more particles to bounce against. The result is that these medium sized particles, too heavy to be suspended in the air under normal circumstances, are suspended in the air by bouncing from the surface and from one particle to another. They climb thousands of feet into the atmosphere by bouncing.

These bouncing particles also generate a static electrical field. By bouncing, they acquire a negative charge. The ground has a positive charge. The flow of energy between positive and negative creates an electrical field. As this electrical field builds, the particles require less and less wind energy to keep them aloft, until ultimately, the field itself will lift particles from the ground.

The interplay of bouncing particles, which escalates rapidly with the force of the wind, and the building static electrical field, is known as “saltation,” and is the major action of a haboob; saltation makes a haboob a haboob.

The summer of 2011 was the hottest on record in west Texas. Like a lot of places in the U.S., in the world even, heat records of all sorts were broken daily. Many of those records were set in 1930s, during the Dustbowl. In Lubbock, June, 2011 was the hottest month in recorded history. Until July, which broke the June record. Until August, which broke the July record. It didn’t rain. One hundred miles to the north, Amarillo recorded fifty consecutive days with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And no rain. Lubbock recorded forty-nine consecutive days at temperatures above normal, and as many at above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. All records. The night temperatures in the region, the low temperatures, were also the highest on record. At midnight, it might still be 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Lubbock. And no rain. The trees in the city were dying. Juniper and red oak, pecan trees and pines, Siberian elm and rose of Sharon. You could hardly grow a tomato in your backyard. Even the weeds failed. People went on watering their lawns, sometimes at mid-day, and often they overwatered, so water flowed in the streets. The city insists it is not running out of water, though it exhausted its main water source at Lake Meredith in 2011, a reservoir on the Canadian River one hundred forty miles to the north. At the end of 2012, a new pipeline, sixty-five miles long and costing $2,000,000 per mile, began pumping water to Lubbock from Lake Alan Henry, a reservoir to the southeast on the South Fork of the Double Fork of the Brazos River. Stage two water restrictions are in place. Even still, when I go out for morning runs, most any day of the week, any time of the year, water flows in the streets.

The haboob rolled in over my house, snuffed out the sun. I sat in my little room with the TV news, and my vision became a tunnel, darkness closing in until the TV was the only light. I looked down the little tunnel to the TV, like looking through a tube or a pipe, or looking into a drinking glass. It came on fast enough that I didn’t notice it at first, that adrenaline dream-time in slow motion, or some delay in my brain’s synapse. It was light. It was dark. I stood up. I went to the window. I could see it wasn’t night, and it wasn’t an eclipse, and it wasn’t a monstrous thundercloud. The atmosphere was brown, black-brown, and the air had thickened like a gravy, heavy, saturated, laden with material. I could see it, the stuff in the air, swirling around. I could not see it. Even as it went dark like a switch—on/off—it went dark in stages too, like rungs on a ladder, steps in a staircase. Step one. Step two. Step three. I remembered the steps—one, two, three—as I stood at the window after it had already happened. I stood at the window in the center of the haboob, and I experienced the haboob as it came in. I could not now distinguish between what was happening in front of me, and what had just happened. I lost my belief in the flow of time from the past to the present. It all seemed to happen at once, the on/off, the stages, the blotting out of the sun, the tunnel vision to the TV. These separate events seemed to occur separately and simultaneously. I knew then that Einstein was right. I stood at the window. I looked out. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I stood at the window.

The major hazard of a haboob is low visibility. You can’t see shit. And it comes on suddenly, within seconds. Planes cannot take off or land. Drivers on the road panic and stop without warning, triggering multi-car pile-ups. The particulates in the air combined with the wind can uproot trees and power lines, and cause damage to electronic equipment, houses, barns, buildings, everything. In the Dustbowl of the 1930s, people developed “dust pneumonia.” The storms came so frequently, it troubled and choked their lungs. The morning after a storm, farmers woke to find their livestock dead in the fields. These days, such dust clouds are more toxic, containing pollutantslike heavy metals, carbon monoxide, pesticides, sulfur, salt, byproducts of industrial agriculture, and all of it raised up from the land.

You need a lot of dry, loose soils to form a good haboob. In North Africa and the Middle East, you have a sea of sands. The Sahara Desert, for example. In west Texas, you have a lot of cotton farming. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the southern plains, the Llano Estacado, was a sea of grass, supporting the greatest bison herds in North America. If a windstorm got up, a downburst from a thunderstorm or a cold front, the grass held the topsoil in place. These days, everywhere you go on the Llano, you see plowed fields with exposed topsoil. Thousands and thousands of acres of it. Top soils drift away on the wind, and then when the time comes to plant cotton, Texas farmers fertilize. Maybe the word “haboob” is Arabic and not Comanche because the Comanche didn’t know haboobs. They knew wind, but the ground, in those days, was luxuriant grass that supported their horse herds, and the wind was a helpful spirit that blew in over the land.

Your poet, the Banished Immortal, writes,

But slice water with a knife, and water still flows,
Empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.

You never get what you want in this life, so why not
shake your hair loose on a boat at play in dawn light?

At Preston Smith International in Lubbock, the tower was evacuated, and the controllers directed air traffic from the backup room on the ground floor. A small cargo plane on the ground turned over in the wind. Across the city, trees unmoored and came down, shingles flew from roofs, neighborhoods lost power. Instead of a thunderstorm, this haboob came out of a cold front, the winds of which hit sixty miles per hour. After all, winter was coming too.

The haboob passed over. Where I stood in my house at the window, blue sky and bright sun. I went to the back door. I thought about seeing the turkey vultures a week or so before, kettling, floating in that narrow gyre on their southern migration, right there behind the house. Some years they roosted right there behind the house, a couple days, a day more, and then moved on. I went out to check for damage, but the crepe myrtle and the red oak, all intact.The massive pecan on the neighbor’s side, still intact. The Siberian elm, not much to boast about, still intact. A few small branches down, dead branches that would have come down anyway. The Rose of Sharon still dead from the impossible summer heat. For now, the living were still living and the dead were still dead. The haboob was still a haboob, but it was over there now, instead of right here, as it was when it was in Muleshoe, before it was here, that little window between then and now, between now and what came next. The haboob would blow itself out in an hour or so, its winds would spend out their energy, and the dust—the small, the large, the medium sized particles—would return to earth. Somewhere else. This is how things get moved around, how change occurs. A chaos of wind. A calm of light. Blue sky and bright sun. I did not know it in that moment, but soon, from behind my house, I would see sandhill cranes high overhead, a steady pattern to build the day on, and winter would arrive with its cooler temperatures, temperatures that would allow me to believe, once again, that the world would endure another year.

Jake Adam York

Abide Cover PhotoAbide
by Jake Adam York
Press: Southern Illinois University Press
Date: 2014
Pages: 96 pages
ISBN: 978-0809333271
Reviewed by Simon Seamount

 

Abiding in our Memories

The tradition of honoring the dead through poems that narrate the details of their lives and deeds is as old as the hymns of Orpheus, where singers of the tales of the human adventure, and the people they sing about, abide in our memories. Abide by Jake Adam York presents a vision of blues musicians and common folk of the American southeast, a poetics expressed in this verse from “Postscript, for Medgar Evers:”

I didn’t want to write this,
even to think of you,
afraid the thought would curl,
would tangle and make you
common and factual as light.

Narrative poetry is presented by a detached narrator who presents characters in a specific setting as they perform actions, interact with other characters, and express feelings about their perceptions. A good narrative poem is rooted in action, and gives the reader the sense of watching a movie. Whereas, lyrical poetry, invented by Orpheus singing as he strummed the lyre that Hermes invented, is the voice of an individual who is participating in narrative action, and the concepts they express are timeless, expressions of feelings about perceptions of their interactions with people in the world. Lyrical poems are most often the disembodied voice of a speaker outside any narrative frame. While some might perceive these poems about people to be narrative because they are about people in place, yet there is no arc of action from beginning to end. In Abide we forget everything:

Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees

The best poetry is generated by an alchemical transformation when the mind of the poet assimilates characters, concepts, and images with the emotional heat of desire to create meaning out of suffering, and generates a coherent vision that beams from the polished surface of the text. Much poetry these days appears like the poet mined some minerals from the materials of experience, half processed them into nuggets of gold and iron, then strewed the nuggets on a table and declared with pride that they had forged a sword or a grail. We transform life with the heat of words, as in “Exploded View:”

While he worked, the furnace flamed
in dream, and I tried to follow
through the swarm of yellowjackets,

hot wings of iron, but they were just
outlines in my dream, dream,
not iron, not fire in the dark – just spray

from one rare story I tried to follow.

The poems in Abide are more molded than the usual modernist, postmodernist, and metamodernist poetry, yet these still appear only half molded as he strews his poems with names of Blues musicians, scenes, and objects associated with the Blues, and a general sense of the emotional content of the landscape of the Blues overlaid on the ancient landscape of Greek mythology, recorded in “Lines Written on a Hundred Dollar Bill;”

O there is no sound like this in the world above
except the one you engraved in the great disc of the night
that spins above us, through the hole of which
every C-note floats to bud from that one magnolia
somewhere in east Mississippi where the sound was born.

Fleeting references to names of Blues singers leaves me yearning to know more about them in the context of his poems, but as in much poetry in the past century it seems obscure references are intended to whet the appetite of the reader who is assumed to be eager to go read more outside the text, so the text of the book looks like pieces of fabric torn from a vast tapestry of tradition, expressed in poems like “te lyra pulsa manu or something like that:”

as the coins rang again on the dome of night,
and Zimmerman in the graveyard
where he taught Johnson how to listen,
looking up through the trees and playing
until the dew had fallen on him again
and he felt a music in his fingers
he hadn’t known for years

Many of the poems in this collection follow that poetics of fragmented flashes of forgotten memory, yet with the overall theme of the Blues tradition of music in the American southeast. The problem is, such fragmented imagery works only for readers who are familiar with the culture, when the reader is able to supply the coherent background of the history of Blues music in the southern states when reading the poems in Abide. However, readers in other cultures, and in the far future, and even in our contemporary American culture, may not have the necessary framework in their memories to be able to understand the vague references to names and places in the history of the Blues. Reading Abide is like wandering through an old deserted house filled with fragments and scraps of letters and photographs and pages torn from newspapers. Even York seems aware of their fragmentary nature when he sings in “Letter Written in the Dark:”

dream phrases, names
memory’s made illegible,

the notes I find are written over one another,

tangled as the hair a pillow offers afternoon.

Allusion rather than explication has been the ruling principle in poetics since Mallarmé argued for that style when he stated in an 1891 interview, “I believe … that there must only be allusion. The contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song.” While there are many allusions in these poems to people and events, lack of knowledge about Blues music and cultural issues of the past 100 years may leave readers wandering in an empty graveyard of forgotten memories.

For myself, I have long studied the lyrical roots of ancient tradition beginning with Hermes designing the lyre, Apollo tuning the strings, and Orpheus singing songs that enchanted the minds of listeners so that people, animals, and even plants and stones seemed to enter a transcendent world of visions so that they could see people acting in events in a waking dream. Because I have studied ancient traditions of shamans chanting visions for listeners, a tradition that continues in oral poetry in every culture, even to the Blues tradition of the American southeast, I see this vast background against which the fragmented images of these poems shimmer, and thus I have enjoyed the poems in context of visions that abide in my memories. Can this be expected of every reader who may be more familiar with current pop culture content from radio and television, and yet be completely unaware of the ancient traditions of folk singers who preserve the tales of tragic loss and comedic love?

If you are familiar with ancient traditions of lyrical expressions of characters struggling to understand who they are and what they should do to fulfill the desires of their dreams, then you will enjoy the fragmented imagery of the poems in Abide. If you are not, then perhaps the names and references to the Blues tradition of singers will act as guideposts to awaken your curiosity, and lure you deeper into the labyrinth of history where we abide in our memories of human life. You can see the original poetics in a “Letter Written in the Dark”:

Soon
the Lyre will spill its music,
Hermes to Apollo to Orpheus,

a story that almost recites itself

 ––––––––

Simon Seamount, under the pen name Surazeus Astarius, is writing an epic poem about philosophers and scientists called Science of Hermes or Hermead of Surazeus. Simon has been writing poems since 1984. Simon earned a BA in Liberal Arts at Washington State University in 1988, and a MS in Geographic Information Science from Michigan State University in 2008. Simon works as a cartographer in Georgia where he lives with his wife and two children.

Jake Marmer

Jazz Talmud Cover PhotoJazz Talmud
by Jake Marmer
Press: The Sheep Meadow Press
Date: 2011
Pages: 91
ISBN: 978-1-931357-88-3
Companion CD: Hermeneutic Stomp by Jake Marmer with Frank London, Eyal Maoz, Uri Sharlin, and Greg Wall (The Blue Thread Music, 2013)
Reviewed by: Shlomo Liberman

 

Jazz Talmud was first published in 2011 as a poetry book. Since 2013 it has a companion 16-track CD called Hermeneutic Stomp, in which Marmer reads some of the poems from the book accompanied by his jazz band. True to the art of improvisation in jazz, the text he reads on the CD does not follow the printed text in the book exactly. The book and the CD are sold as two separate items on Amazon.

Marmer’s first book of poetry is a surprising and provocative experiment with new forms and mixed contents. I am not a typical fan of poetry but, as a practicing Jew and an admirer of jazz music, I was intrigued by the title. The book explores Marmer’s journey from his childhood in the provincial city of Kirovograd in the Ukraine to Jewish learning at Yeshiva University, where he gradually became involved in New York’s artistic world, especially in performance poetry and free jazz. Several of the poems were written while he, newly married, was on a Dorot Foundation Fellowship in Jerusalem. His migration between different countries and cultures is echoed throughout the book such as in the poem VISA about his visa extension application at the American Consulate in Jerusalem: “the only place in the universe/ I’ve seen Jews and Arabs/praying in the same room.” All this may or may not be relevant as Marmer himself points out in the Post-Face: “…facts in one’s biography have little, if anything, to do with one’s biography.”

The symbiosis between poetry and music is evident in many of the pieces, for example in the short poem “Rachmonos Blues”:

I know a little women,
she got a truck full of rach-
monos, yeah a truck full of parsnips and rach-
monos wonder if she’ll park it on my street tonight.

When you listen to the poems on the companion CD, the klezmer instruments together with Marmer’s rendering of the poems suddenly reveal the inner soul of the poem as in this excerpt from the Klezmer Bulldog:

Klezmer bulldog: imagine him on the cover of Tikkun Magazine
He gone sledding in Caucuses
saved babies in the Urals
hoisted his klezmer flag atop of the Carpathian mountains
all of his friends have sad, drooping clarinet noses
but he’s got a pug, a button, cause his gramma mighta
been raped by a Mongolian Cossack Frenchman Henchman and
he won’t let you forget that, no! he won’t let you forget!

The clarinet singsong, the deep sound of Greg Wall’s saxophone and Frank London’s trumpet convey the klezmer atmosphere while Marmer’s distinct Russian accent transports us up in the clouds over the East Russian landscape. Greg Wall is not only a great saxophonist but also acting Rabbi of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue and founder of the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band.

My favorite poems are those in the first part, grouped under the heading Mishna Cycle, which are inspired by Jewish tradition but are totally fresh with alluring titles like Mishna of Silence and Mishna of Loneliness.

There are three types of loneliness in the world: green, red and
purple. So says the house of Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they
say: loneliness is either black or white; all other types don’t exist
and require a sacrifice of a young goat: your internal goat.

In The Laws of Dream-Cooking Marmer tries to replicate the style of a Babylonian Talmud tractate when alluding to Zionism and music:

“There’s no cooking after cooking.” Once a dream
has been in the oven for two thousand years, it’s
done and nothing that happens to it is considered
cooking. That’s if a dream is a solid. If a liquid, it
may have long evaporated and you’re deluding
yourself over an empty burning pot. But, if the
dream is a sound, an invisible musical cloud, then
you are the one being cooked: on the endless
spinning vinyl, zapped into music by needles of
history.

The playful jazz spirit lends to great improvising and mixing – as in the two Haiku style poems, the short Japanese form of juxtaposition of images or seasons, which deal with domestic chores in a hilarious way.

“To be a good writer is to be a wild reader,” proclaims Marmer at one of the KlezKanada Poetry Retreats he organizes together with Canadian poet and Professor Adeena Karasick. There he declares himself to be Chief of the Discordant Talmudic Crisis, poet and performer, expressing a healthy dose of self-irony blended with clever witticisms, both so vivid in the book.

If you are new to poetry like me, read and listen to the poems and enjoy them immensely. Don’t expect to learn Talmud from the Jazz Talmud, but if you know a little about the Talmud and want to get a fresh Jewish angle into the world of free jazz and performance poetry, this book/CD Combo is for you. A special bonus – the CD has a few tracks with poems that are not in the book.

––––––––

Shlomo (Salomon) Liberman is a graduate student of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He holds a Masters of Science degree from the Lund Institute of Technology, Sweden and a Top Executives MBA from Tel Aviv University. He is a proofreader and editor and a freelance translator of English, Hebrew, and Swedish on ProZ.com. He is the co-author of an English-Swedish Electro-technical dictionary and received the 1980 IEEE Power Engineering Society Award for Most Noteworthy Paper. (http://www.ieee-pes.org/membership/awards/pes-past-award-recipients)

 

Christopher Lowe

When You're Down By the RiverWhen You’re Down by the River
by Christopher Lowe
Publisher: BatCat Press
Date: May 2014
Pages: 59
ISBN: 978-0-9843678-9-4
Reviewed by: B. Kari Moore

 

            The South is in Christopher Lowe’s blood. You can feel it from the first words of his new short story collection When You’re Down by the River. Each story is steeped in sweet tradition and it’s clear that Lowe is taking a leisurely path below the Mason-Dixon way. You can feel the South, but not its expected heat; Christopher Lowe’s stories are cool in their simplicity but rich and thorough in their execution.

            Lowe has the ability to make martyrs ruthless and the angels sing in sin. In “Uncle Frank,” his ex-convict turned preacher-family man feels altruistic; while the spurned spouse in the title piece is a hard woman to love, a woman you’d cheat on yourself if you had the chance. With each storyline and each character, Lowe makes a point of keeping them human and close to the ground. The lofty ideals are left to the reader.

            There are four distinct stories in You’re Down by the River and each shares a certain reliability. While you never see the strings, each decision made by the author seems square and fitting, without comment but with expectation. Lowe knows where every story is going and we deliberately follow along. However, common enough to be part of the aesthetic but rare enough not to taken for granted are moments of pure daring and skill, where the Mississippi man takes the reader all the way to the edge, sometimes even dangling us off. He is ever in complete control, reeling us in when needed, keeping our minds in check but leaving our bodies on walkabout.

            A solid collection, When You’re Down by the River by Christopher Lowe will make you crave the South, a certain type of people and a different type of living. Blue Lyra Review is honored to have published Chris Lowe before, and we look forward to watching his continuous and inevitable rise.