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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

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by Simon Perchik

 

*

This bird must hear the blood
all day nesting in its gut
slit open to catch rainwater

draining some roof the way your hand
dries from the balcony half feathers
half seaweed—it listens

for waves, each one now motionless
bending over the other
—two deaths from one botched egg

though there are no leaves to fall
to gather more sky for the flight back
and you are singing alone, slow

getting the words wrong
caressing its belly with the same breeze
now bathing it—you rinse the blade

still sharpening itself on its shadow
back and forth till the sea
no longer reflects just one sky

stranded, unshapely—a monster
covered with wings already stone
clinging to you even over water.

 

 

*

When this clock holds back
its scent has meaning
—even dogs are trained

for lies or no lies—truth
has a calm to it, by instinct
soothes this kitchen wall

flows underneath as bone
and sleeplessness—you wait
for night to reset the hands

teach them honesty
practice till the weak one
hardens solid, smells

the way an invisible stone
can be trusted
lets you lower your head

against this darkness
falling out your skin
as silence and the nights to come.

 

 

*

And the sun by a single stroke
broken into rain and forgetfulness
—you lift a child’s bat

that still has heat to it, a ball
overgrown and against this mangy glove
stumbles headlong as further on

—this attic needs more room
the bases are full though you try
to remember the route stretching out

to dry the air Vaughn will need again
but not just now—what you store
is drought, drought under drought

—your brain half rock, half
drilled for this dust all these years
falling from thirst and leaving go

—tell me, who would come here
except to climb forever, not sure
why your steps won’t go away

as if it takes all that time
to be remembered
and softly by its name.

 

 

*

As if they once had teeth, your hands
nibble on apples half mud, half worms
—you eat only what falls to the ground

rotted, serene, made dark
by the welcoming slope into evening
—you pick the way every stone

points where to rest, has this urge
to be useful, calms your arms
still attached to the same mouth

and milky breath, holding on
—you share these twins with the sun
stretching out on your forehead

shining in its darkness from the start
and in your arms the word
for offering, for stillness, pieces.

 

 

BIO

Simon PerchikSimon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, free e-books and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

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Discordant Song

by Sharon Rothenfluch Cooper

 

My currents defied gravity,
wallowing fingers of thought
dazzled the discordant silence,
washed out the urgency
and freed themselves.

I lost the way and my voice
was just leftover dregs
and gums bled from grinding,
tasted only the bitterness of silence.
An unzipped brain draped
those tumbled feelings,
wicked silhouettes brushed
the corners of my mind
leaving emotions dulled and murky.

A fool to not pry thoughts open,
I never wished them to see daylight.
Hope struggled in a tight dark space
in those hours of silence.

 

 

Fever

 

We became attentive to needs that tumbled
as pale fingers stroked with vibration.

Efforts were wrapped in extensions
of ourselves and hands tangled hair
as we drank with fevered yearning.

Awareness climbed higher,
clenched my muscles and passion
was just a stroke of the brush.

We linked fingers teasing in their touch
and my song was a gift of giving
that burst forth at last.

What a voyage it was – riding high
on the crest then slipping over the falls
into oblivion.

 

 

 

Tracings

 

I wore his anger…
envisioned my hair smelling of violets

his words were a windstorm…
I wanted my voice to break into song

a tunnel of noise erupted…
I hungered for the fringe of daisies
in the meadow

we lived where continents divided…
I needed to run and catch
fireflies to tease my senses

sound bruised my ears…
I longed to swim in the patter of rain

mangled pulses belched…
I yearned for a warm breeze
to touch my face.

An imp of fate alive in a storm drain
rose – my fury now my cudgel.

 

 

Reflections

 

Pieces of me disintegrate
like flakes of paint,
shards ground to dust
devoured into quiet flatness.

Drops map a path
weightless and inevitable
my countenance washed bare.

The days peel away
worn and indistinct
and the ancient pain broods.

 

 

Fall’s Bright Flush

 

Wind song flutters
through clinging leaves

as they slowly lose their grip
and are whisked away to strafe
the windows with pure bright images,
whisper secrets in my ear
and breathe sweet smells
with autumn’s breath
in the days of dying.

Fluid breezes brighten
me and brush away the sound
that sweeps a faded summer.

Downy seeds fill the air
and drop into warm earth
to lie dormant
under a forecast of snow

a sampler of a season
losing its vibrant flush.

 

 

Sweeping Gestures

 

Seasons push us back and forth
like a giant swing with highs that gleam
like a crystal cylinder – lows that are
mud-spattered after long solitude.

Time’s skin perspires
long and languorous, wishes tangled
and leftover dregs blown asunder
then – up again with a radiating smile
that blinks away dusk and flickers
into flame.
Rain raises its curtain
and nostrils breathe the splintered air.

In clear silence and anticipation
I lean forward with a sweeping gesture
and bring my song with perfect timing
toward the fallow season.

 

 

BIO

Sharon Rothenfluch Cooper is an active member of the Friends of the Oregon Symphony, an active participant in the Well Arts Institute devoted to mental health, poet-in-residence at The Argonauts’ boat and soldiersheart.org, and is very much a today’s woman.  An astrological Leo, this lady thrives on poetry and music.

Sharon has been published in ‘lingerings’, Horsethief Journal, Wired Art from Wired Hearts, The Foliate Oak, Painted Poet Literary and Art Journal, Fluid Ink Press, Ophelia’s Muse, Poetry Magazine, Vinland Journal, Poetry Niederngasse, Poetic Reflections, Wilmington Blues,  Rustlings Of The Wind,  Erosha Literary Journal, Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry, The Informant, Short Stuff, Creations of Today,  Mi Poesias E-Zine, Swan Dive, Wicked Alice, Verse Libre, La Rosa Blanca, Muse Whispers, The Circle of Addiction, Sound and Silence Magazine, Mosaic Minds, Sol Magazine, Australian Poetic Society, Poetic Voices, Women Beat Poetic Journal, Epiphany Journal, Ascent Magazine, The Flaneur, L’Intrigue, Tryst, Le Zine Poetique, Maegara, Reflections, Skyline Magazine, Earth Echoes Galleries, Perigee Publication for the Arts, Petals, Subtle Tea, Blue Frederick, The Prose Toad, Interpoetry, The Moonwort Review, Miller’s Pond, Scorched Earth Productions, TMQ OnLine, TPQ OnLine, The Argonauts’ boat, Soldier’s Heart, Mannequin Envy Quarterly, The Other Voices International Project, The Ultimate Hallucination, Poetry Quarterly, Voices In Wartime, International Poetry & Art, Purple Dream, Falling Star Magazine, BluePrint Review, Interpoetry, ‘remark’, Kritya, Cracked Lenses…, Underground Window, Ancient Heart Magazine, Sage Of Consciousness, The Arabesques Review online, Taj Mahal Review, Falling Star Magazine, LYNX, Flutter, Alameda PDX.org,  Stride Magazine and many others.

Hard copy: The SP Quill Quarterly, In The Eyes Of The Wild, Emerging from Twilight – Vol. 2, Before the Last Shadow Fades, Vol. 3, Panda Poetry Magazine, Aesthetica Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Battle Stars’, Backstreet Poets Quarterly, Providers in Partnership for Kids, MiPo~Print, WRITE ON!!, Ancient Heart Magazine, Book of Remembrance Poetry Anthology Vol. 2, Peshekee River Poetry, and The Arabesques Review.

Two e-chapbooks of her poetry, Mood Magic and A Slice Of Life, were hosted by Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry and also archived on Origami Condom. Her chapbook, Reach Beyond, was the winner of the International Chapbook competition by MAG Press. Three poems published in mo(nu)ment, and twenty-three of her poems performed in the play ‘Soldier’s Heart’ to sold out audiences with the performance recorded on DVD. Her latest poems can be found featured in the Summer issue of Poetry Quarterly and also in the October issue of Flutter.

 

 

 

 

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The Tiniest of Television Sets (O, Siete Cartas Personales)

 by R V Branham

 

 

UNO:

 

Recife

Pernambuco

Brasil

 

Dearest Martin —

(Or, as mama’s letter from La Habana suggested, should I address you as Martina?)

I only hope you can survive that frivolous decadence of Southern California; I am certain you must be happier, perhaps, freer, perhaps (or is that merely license?); at any rate certainly less harrassed.

Mama keeps dropping hints like Molotovs in a cathedral about me “settling down” with Saint Elena of the Overbite, having decided that membership in la escuela chess club & two dates in four years constitute a romance, an engagement, a betrothal.

Mama also reminds me that the Overbite’s grandpapa fought in the montañas with Fidel & Che & Leon Trotsky. Ho hum.

As for my Brazilian adventuras…well, if Mama hasn’t bored you to death, I am one of those Cuban Ambasadors to the benighted Mundo Tercero.

My assignment: To shove a lit flare up the Brazilian ass of poverty & ignorance.

I live and work in a demifavela along the coast, just outside Recife, the State Capital of Pernambuco.

You know it is the State Capital because there are as many silver Volvos (the official car of el Sudamericano govt official) as green Falcons (official car of el Sudamericano death squad).

A consular official suggested I go for a used Falcon, & have it painted green. Which I did.

They didn’t do a very good job, because I am detecting little bubbles like pimples, & blisters like herpes scars.

But I really am too busy being bored to take it back.

Sometimes I go down to the beach, passing other green Falcons (which flick their lights on & off), and jog along that impacted sand at the Atlantic’s edge.

Sometimes I encounter a Canadian doctor, or Americana Peace Corp volunteeristas (who do everything in pairs).

But they are less than rigorous in the pursuit of fitness.

These encuentros are of a frustrated sort — I wish to practice my English, & they their Spanish.

So we settle on a mutilation of the Portuguese.

The consul advises us to be wary of Americanos, Who Are All C.I.A.

Even The Ones Killed By The Govt. Deathsquads? I ask.

Especially Those, he says, To Provide Cover.

Remember, sibling, you read it here first.

Oh, another thing. Remember the epileptic in our escuela, & how everyone put pencils in his mouth when he had fits so our pencils would be broken and we would get out of escuela-work? (The Yrs. Of The Pencil Shortages.)

I have an estudiante, Naná, a bright child, with amazing eyes.

Only when he has fits, his eyes roll back, go white, & then become clouded.

I must ask the Canadian doctor about Naná.

For entertainments, that is about it.

If you found La Habana bored you to tears, count your blessings.

In Recife you would be crying turds.

There is, however, the tiniest of television sets which belongs to the tiniest of tribes, which has reruns of American television the likes of which no one has seen, epipsode after episode of To Be Continued.

& there is a story running through each show, about a Cuban overseas, teaching kids just like…

Forget it, I think it is just los tropicos getting to me, the dark of heartness, all of that.

Well this will have To Be Continued, too —

I have piles of papers to grade, & graded papers to pile, & it is four in the morning, so I must say:

Often.

And soon.

Yrs in Harpo, Groucho, Chico, & Karl,

Eduardo

 

— Oh yes, & a PS — You could have saved yourself & mama a shit hill of grief by just telling her what she wants to hear (not quite the same as lying) though I confess that my letters to Mama are mostly made up of discreet lies, while my communiqués to you have always tended mostly & indiscreetly toward the truth.

— & by way of PPS, could you send a CDisco of el nuevo Miles Davis reissue, or burn me mp3s?

 

 

 

DOS:

 

To My Mama Dearest,

I’m aware of being long past overdue in replying to yr letters. Please, but please, forgive this.

It is so busy & there is so much to be done.

It is staggering, appalling, the poverty here.

Ten to twenty percent of the populace forages through the city’s garbage dump for food. (We make jokes about food riots, jokes of which you would not approve. But, let me assure you, though my tongue wags cynically, in my heart I am resolved to the necessity of the People’s Struggle, of Leon’s Revoluccion Permanente.)

& about Martin, I must agree that even though he is a gusano, he is of our flesh and blood.

I did talk to a colleague with some training in psychology & he told me that Martin’s struggles with his gender, with his sex, were no joke.

Sometimes, he kidded me, Nature Is Not Politically Correct, Is In Fact Frivolous.

But when someone is a subject of one of Nature’s jokes, things are not at all funny to that someone.

If, in his last letter, Martin was rather harsh with you (as you related to me), please try to forgive him.

As you suggested, I wrote to him.

But, so far, no response.

 

Yr devoted son,

Eduardo

 

PS — Congrats to Padre on winning that Marianao council seat.

 

 

 

TRES:

 

Dear Martin/Martina —

I suppose I should say I am sorry for not having written sooner.

But I could also ask why you haven’t written in the six weeks since I sent my first letter.

Also, where’s my Miles Cdisco reissue? (Los Bill Laswell remixes?)

Days I teach reading & writing, mathematics & Marxist theory (“why a duck?”); driving to the beach in my Death Squad Falcon

I think I mentioned the bad paint job in the last letter; well now the paint has started to peel, creating a green-black piebald effect; flirting with the Peace Corp volunteeristas…

Nights I watch Kirk & Spock, Lucy & Ricki, Hawkeye & Pierce on the tiniest of television sets, only here is the weird part.

They are all of an episode I never saw, have never seen listed (independent consultations with the Canadian doctor, the Peace Corp cutie pies, & the consul have confirmed this), & they are all To Be Continued, the same episode turning in on itself & out & in, week after week todo moebius strip-like.

And one of the main characters is a teacher like me in a country like this, who writes to a brother like you. (Or should I say Sister?)

On this point I kid you not.

And the owners of the television set are the two remaining members of the Moribundo tribe; they traded this tiniest of television sets, with a three-inch screen, for a few of their shrunken heads.

They also got four sets of binoculars & an old iMAC in the bargain.

And a Japanese television documentarian got his own cache of shrunken heads.

As good a description of capitalism in action as any I have seen.

Yes, it is barter, but it is capitalistic barter.

What, you may ask, is an Amazonian tribe doing on the coast?

They are not here for Carnivale…they were machine-gunned & mortared & napalmed here…with nothing but a cache of 300 or so shrunken heads.

Their names are Ix and Xhe, & they are quite reasonable about the rental of binoculars.

But Xhe insists on keeping the snake head label from each liquor bottle & the snake head from inside each bottle.

Ix and Xhe also have a PacMan machine & an old iMAC with a very bad internet connection & a jukebox which plays too much Britney & Espice Girls & not enough Prince & El U2.

I shit on those idle entertainments, though.

Give me my Peace Corp cutie pies (even if they are only cock-teasers out for a chance at free television viewing), binoculars, & tiniest of television sets any day.

I mentioned to Flora, who does my laundry & cooking, that you were having this problemita, & she said she would pray to Balthazar. **

But first we fought over the binoculars, because they are starting reruns of Los Invaders.

I wish she would pray to the loas of antibiotics…I got a dose last week which sent road dividers up & down my back.

(& don’t tell Mama.)

She wants to know if there is a subplot about her, like in the other shows; & I, who have watched the other shows, in which no one has had to have anything washed, do not know what the fuck she is talking about, Flora is a raving loca bitch, there is no wash.

The subplots are about me.

Last week I told our Canadian doctor about Naná, of the hurricane eyes, & he insisted on coming to class.

Well, that very day Naná had a fit, & the doctor looked into his eyes & said That Is The Coastline Of La Peninsula De Yucatan, & There Is A Storm In The Caribbean.

& then Naná left….

That night one of our Peace Corp volunteeristas kept batting her lovely becalmed eyes at me, & asking me about Naná, about his stormy eyes.

& Xhe told me not to worry, that Naná would return from Antares soon, that the bug-eyed women would be nice even though the Moribundo tribe had eaten the last flying cup that landed on la tierra.

& the next day I heard on the end of the World News about Hurricane Fay Wray hitting La Peninsula De Yucatan.

Frankly, I do not know what to make of this.

Well, time to go.

Estar Etrek is on.

Yr Concerned Brother,

Eduardo

 

**) Balthasar, besides being the name of a puzzling & exasprating novel, is one of the Brasiliero voodoo deities.

 

 

QUATRO:

 

Dearest of Mamas,

Things here are much the same.

My students do very well, & are never absent.

I know that the only reason they show up is that they will get a good meal from me.

And I do not mind, not even feeding them from my own pocket moneys.

They are more attentive when the rumbling of their stomachs is absent.

Also, & alas, Mama, when I sent you my funds to put away for me, I did not want a letter saying you’d used some of those funds to send Elena 2 doz. roses for her birthday.

& No, I do not have Flora as a maid anymore—I had to let her go.

Things kept disappearing.

So I finally asked her to disappear.

And as for your concern about my informing Martin I had written at your request, DO NOT WORRY. I may be “silly” sometimes (in yr words), but I am not a dolt.

I am now past that one-year hump, when you are lonely & homesick EVERY day.

I am considering signing up for Asia or Africa when I am finished here.

I am not at all certain that this is something you wanted to hear. But. There it is.

Yr Loving Son,

Eduardo

 

PS — As to what I do for entertainment: Read, play pool. (I would not be caught dead watching Brazilian TV, it is SO dumb. So mindrotting & demeaning, really. It’s all Norte-Americano. DREADFUL.)

 

 

 

CINCO:

 

Martin —

It’s silly, you know, not to write to your brother.

Maybe now you’re not my brother any more, but, gender aside, we are siblings.

So write, sibling.

I know it’s been a month since I’ve written, but aside from Mama’s dispatches, the only thing I’ve received from you was an unsigned card last Xmas.

Last week our star student, Naná, presumed abducted by the Peace Corp C.I.A. sweetie pies, showed up, rattling off Fibonacci numbers, came into class late & with the most horrid sun-burn on half of his body; he claimed he’d gotten it the night before, when the Bag-Eyed Mothers came for him, took him in their flying cup.

He then proceeded to synopsize several Marx Brothers comedies, & acted out all the parts to BRINGING UP BABY, a very good Howard Hawks comedy with El Grant & La Hepburn.

But frankly, I remain bemused.

Also, perhaps, he sd, hedging his bets, there ARE guardian angelitos.

I told you about Volvos for bureaucrats, & green Falcons for death squads.

Well, I think they just changed their vehicle specifications, because yesterday I saw someone getting into a Volvo, & thought I might be able to ask about that new land reform legislation.

So I walked across the lot to his car, & he was opening the rear door, & he turned & saw me & slammed the door.

Or tried to.

There were a few arms, limp, hanging, blue & streaked with blood, & he turned to me & pulled out a gun, & told me to Fuck Off.

I fucked off.

After he shoved the arms back into the car & closed the rear door & then left I noticed a dark pool where he had parked.

I went to look at it, & I will tell you now it was not 30-weight.

& today an estudiante was anxious because thugs in a Volvo came for his papa last week, & he’s vanished.

I tried to see what could be done through our consulate, but the consul advised me to Keep Quiet, & to Be Very Careful.

I talked with the Canadian doctor, who said he’d check with his consulate.

& they told him To Be Careful, & Keep Very Quiet.

So it seems there really isn’t much to be done.

Except to Be Careful.

Very.

And quiet.

So, tomorrow I will look at used Volvos.

The antibiotics took hold, the new math has not, & Estar Etrek has been replaced by Battlestar Galactica.

And, also, they stopped showing Los Invaders.

(All no doubt conclusive proof of God’s death.)

But there ARE binoculars.

And our Father’s City has many houses, many rooms.

Many bedrooms, with Big brass beds (& handcuffs), Many bathrooms, with Big Mirrors, Many rooms with Many windows.

We shall, we shall:

 

Eduardo

 

 

 

SEIS:

 

My Most Cherished Mama,

I am sorry if my last reply distressed you.

But please remember that Elena & I had talked about getting engaged.

I have not written to her about it because, frankly, I’ve not made up my mind yet.

And it would be cruel to mention it before my mind is made up.

Also, I’ve not heard from HER for several years now.

So, please, don’t worry.

Also, rest assured that there’s no one here, no one for me.

I had to laugh when you asked if I had a thing for Flora…

Flora is past 70.

Please don’t worry about my love life.

I’m sorry Martin hasn’t written in months…but what can you do?

He hasn’t written to me either, not since the holidays.

I am sorry, also, to hear of Padre’s ulcer.

Tell him to take up yoga meditation & drink buttermilk.

And you must tell him to relax.

But only after YOU have relaxed.

Also, there is no point to wondering where you failed in raising Martin.

None at all.

Ask a counselor or psychologist, even a priest.

Padre & you did your best by us.

That is ALL a parent can do.

The rest is up to the Fates.

Love, Eduardo

 

 

SIETE:

 

….Sibling —

¿What’s the matter — cat got yr coño?

It is now almost Xmas-time again; Ebing Crosby *** is posing with Edavid Bowie *** while they lipsynch “Little Drummer Boy” on the tiniest of television sets.

(I remember a Gil Scott Heron song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” That Crosby & Bowie duet is proof enough.)

Flora told me she was pregnant; I sd: Oh.

She sd: You Are The Father.

I sd: Prove It.

She sd: I’ll Let The Loas Prove It.

I sd: Go Ahead.

She did.

The next morning, while taking a bath, I found myself achieving an orgasmic ecstacy while washing my underarms, and was quite amazed to see little red orifices forming.

I had a second discussion with Flora.

I sd: Let’s Not Get Rash.

We were able to find a good dentist who got rid of it.

(Don’t tell Mama!)

Also, the Canadians came through—that vanished father of an estudiante I’d mentioned in my last note to you showed up last week, after being gone for months.

Half-starved, badly beaten, but alive.

The only other exciting things I’ve had happen to me are stepping on a jellyfish wrapped in seaweed when I was jogging, and dreams.

Dreams so real.

I dream of a Triangle, an Axis, from Recife to La Habana to Ellay, yes, an isosceles triangle, yes, perhaps, with Mama & you coming along in a straight line, cunts snapping, snap snap…

& I run to Ix and Xhe & there is a May Day special on the tiniest of television sets…

& all the curtains to the bedroom & bathroom windows of the Rolidei Palacio of Earthly Delights across the way are shut…

& of course the curtains of the Rolidei Palacia are red, though the red is more suggestive of the womb than of the dictatorship of the proletariat…

& the ghosts of all of Joseph Stalin’s victims dance on the ghost of el nuevo improved Berlin Wall…

& there is a new video game, “Consumers Of The World”…

& all the songs on the jukebox are politically correct…

I wake up screaming & Flora takes the sheet from me & turns over & snores.

Oh yes, in the dream all the heads are shrunken.

So, what do you think of that, Martina?

& another thing, this interminable weaving of To Be Continued came to an end last night when the teacher character went to the mirror & looked at himself, really looked & found an alien monster staring back…

At least they are bringing Estar Etrek back.

Drop me a letter, a postcard, a line.

I don’t have a phone…but Ix and Xhe do.

Moribundo TV Bar & Grille, just below the Rolidei Palacio of Earthly Delights, in Recife.

They are in the phone book, & on-line.

It is so strange, here in the Southern Hemisphere.

I will never learn these stars that blink interminably through the night.

(A Canadian nun starts to point out the Southern Cross to me, but it is occluded by storm fronts, & she insists that one of those stars is the nail in the right hand of Jesus, & I ask if it might not be the crown of thorns, or pack of cigarettes, & she looks at me funny, shakes her head at my impertinence.)

I will never get used to the way that water goes down the drain clockwise instead of counter-clockwise, like in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sometimes, I feel like I am on another world.

I have to go now, to return the binoculars.

If you cannot, & YOU cannot, be good, then be happy, be reasonably happy.

Lie to Mama, tell her that operation mierda was just a joke.

& speaking of lies & mierda & jokes, I’ve somehow been compelled to turn a little lie & joke into a somewhat bigger truth:

I’d written Mama, told her I might sign up for Asia or Africa, doing it more out of spite for her interminable meddling than anything.

Well now, I am in the position of having signed up for another term—in 14 mos. I may still be here, or in Zambia, or even possibly Nepal (or Southwestern India, where I hear they speak Portuguese).

I’m no more certain about why I signed up than why I’d teased Mama about it.

So lie, joke, or tell the truth.

And then go on, lead yr life.

Eduardo

 

 

 

[ end ]

[ last pg ]

 

***) eastern europeo mispronunciation… Spanish isn’t the only language that deliberately mangles its loan words…

 

 

##

 

for Laura Mixon Gould

 

 

 

BIO

rv branhamR.V. Branham has worked as a short order cook, firewood bundler, security guard, tech writer, aerospace clerk, book-seller, photo researcher, newspaper editor, paste-up ninja, Treasury Department terrorist, assistant X-ray tech, rape crisis counselor, social worker, translator, and interpreter. [Optional: As a ’70s survivor, he co-hosted a floating æther den (as if there were any other kind back in the day). ] He is author/compiler of Curse+Berate in 69+ Languages (a 90 language dictionary and phrase book of insult, invective, obscenity, blasphemy, and other political speech, now in its 2nd. printing, from Soft Skull Press). His fiction has been anthologized in Dinosaurs 2, Full Spectrum 3, Ghosts 2, Hybrid Beasts (a Red Lemonade e-book anthol.), and Midnight Graffiti; and in magazines including Back Brain Recluse (UK), Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mag., Midnight Graffiti, Isaac Asimovs SF Mag., Tema (a bilingual Croatian mag.), 2 gyrls quarterly, & online in In Other Words Mérida, Red Lemonade, & Unlikely Stories, The Writing Disorder, and W*O*R*K. His essays and interviews have been in the Australian artist book anthols. Mother Sun and Drawn To Words, as well as in Gobshite Quarterly, Paperback Jukebox, Portland Metrozine, and Red Lemonade (online). Two of his plays, Bad Teeth and Matt & Geof Go Flying had staged reading productions in Los Angeles, CA., and in Portland, OR. He is publishing editor of Gobshite Quarterly, a multilingual en-face magazine (a 100 page perfect-bound 6×9 trade paperback, double issue flip book), and as publisher of GobQ/Reprobate Books has published El Gato Eficaz/Deathcats (an en-face Spanish/English edition of Luisa Valenzuela’s classic magico-realist novel), as well as Douglas Spangle’s A Bright Concrete Day: Poems, 1978—2013, with bilingual chapbook & e-book editions of El Gato Eficaz/Deathcats , & collections of Russian and Croatian writing forthcoming in 2014 & beyond.

Gobshite Quarterly

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Persephone Abbott

A Bucket of Water

by Persephone Abbott

 

Better warm up the Nutella on the radiator this morning,
Mandela died, the saint who was nobody’s wife,
They’re still trying to make him wash the floors
When what the small boy craved was to be able to think exactly
About the words he wanted to say out loud,
Taking a part along with a smaller part of the world.
Maybe it was privilege
But it must have been so lonely, extending love over
The masses and celebrated for having walked in prison
During thirty years of our lives, exiled from ourselves,
Our little grace period, while he took up
A crowbar adamant at prying open the crypt.

 

 

The Pear in Her Lap

 

She held the green pear
Steadily within her fist,
She had carried it around
To many appointments
Just in case she got hungry.

She decided it was time
To remove it from her bag
Before, unused, it’d be split into two
By mistake. Dusk was coming
It would become too dark
To see the colour of the pear.

In the twilight under closed eyes,
Shaken gently by the train ride,
She longed to awaken
Peeled to touch and odour
To lily bottom rocking,
In rough sand, abrasive grit,
No horizons.

 

 

I Want for Powder

 

In your agenda hours, open slots,
I want for powder to blow
Up the bridge under which two swans
Preen in the frigid waters,
Their necks twisted,
Not looking at each other

 


Rambunctious Love Fix Me

 

Saw some sugar off of me
From coagulated bones
Attempting to hide the holes,
Drilled chasms,
Cowering in the depths.

 

You know you’ve got it.
Sand the ivory,
Make powdery love dust
Prime me, fix me,
Rambunctious turn me
Upside down.

 

 

Short Florida Saga

 

Hot weather
Lounging around
Boiled shrimp.

 

 

 

BIO

Persephone Abbott poetPersephone Abbott has been composing poems in her head for years. In this way, before they have the opportunity to meet paper, many poems have already been lost, or heavily edited. A book of her short stories, A Sample of Gouda (2014), as well as an alternative walking guidebook, The Bee’s Tour of Gouda, Buzzing Though Vinita’s Lens (2012), have been published and she is currently working on a chapbook, Flowers of Amsterdam. This last item is a result of her recent move from Gouda to Amsterdam, both situated in the Netherlands. Persephone finds poetically she prefers urban vines to rural pastures.

 

 

 

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Ruth Deming writer

SUITE 1003

by Ruth Z Deming

 

Drop Cap L rock 625ibby Korngold did all her research, as befitting the former head librarian of the Upper Moreland Public Library. Their track record of library directors was not very good. Mrs. Helen Jackson, a politically savvy tyrant who looked askance at the Asian and African-American influx into the community, had died of complications from kidney dialysis. The assistant librarian, Peg Forrestal, was quickly elevated to head, only to be diagnosed three years later with breast cancer, had them both lopped off, and gave up the post, though not the ghost, as she recovered at home.

The Board of Directors received ninety-seven resumes for the job.

Libby Korngold walked into the library two years ago, regal as the Queen of Sheba, wearing a stylish outfit – straw hat, lavender pantsuit with matching earrings – and charmed what she jokingly thought of as the nonagenarians on the board.

Two years later, she faced the very same board, though one member had died while crossing the street near her home, hit by a teenage driver.

And now Libby Korngold was going to disappoint them once again.

Folding her hands on the conference table in the glass room where she could see her beloved library and the patrons she knew so well, she smiled a weak smile.

“I have so loved working here,” she said, her voice breaking. “I hope you have been happy with me. For personal reasons, I must resign.”

She looked at their seven concerned faces. Faces she had come to love.

A chorus of indignation and puzzlement arose like an orchestra tuning up.

Betty’s voice soloed from the choir. “I know it’s personal, dear,” she said. “But might we have a reason, Libby?”

“Betty, you have been so helpful to me. You’re a wonderful voice at our Book Club, and you always attend our free Sunday movies. But I must ask for your understanding. It’s simply too difficult for me to speak about,” Libby said, tapping on the table.

“Just call it health issues,” she relented.

“Libby, we’ve come to love and respect you,” said retired engineer Aaron O’Neill. “In two years, you’ve remade our old-fashioned library into a modern one – free computer lessons…”

“And that Sunday movie program with Maurizio!” Betty chimed in.

“Your skill as a grant writer,” added white-haired Jeannie. “Who knew we could benefit from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation?”

Libby nodded and smiled. “Your skill in finding good directors is unparalleled,” she laughed.

“Yeah,” said Aaron. “Next time we’ll make them take a physical.”

Libby’s last day was that very Thursday, after presiding over the Book Club. The last book she would ever read was Open City by the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole.

She had barely been able to follow the narrative of this highly-acclaimed first novel. Dutifully, she wrote down the various characters in her notebook and referred to it often during the discussion on a sunny day in late March. She would pose a question to the group, “Do you think the main character Julius will make a good psychiatrist?” She pulled off the discussion group well, aided by the ten women, all white, to her dismay, who regularly attended, each with a yellow name placard set before them. They spoke not as one voice, but as individuals, who often bickered and yelled at one another – nicely – throughout the discussion.

Diana Fogelman, a high-paid jewelry designer, took affront about real or imagined affronts to her Jewish people. W.G. Sebold got a good thrashing as did poor Teju Cole.

“I hate, absolutely hate, that the main character spoke about Jews as an ethnicity and not a religion,” said Diana in her high-pitched voice.

“Join the Anti-Defamation League,” her dear friend Sheila yelled at her across the table.

The five-minute yelling spree was finally quelled.

Libby didn’t tell The Book Club she was leaving, nor, of course, did she speak of the disease infiltrating her mind with every page she turned. “What if I have no mind left at all by the end of the book?” she thought. It seemed that reading fueled the disease and made it worse. Her neurologist – who diagnosed her with a long-winded progressive disorder she refused to learn to say or spell – scoffed at the idea that reading hastened the disease process, but who was he? He did not live in her head.

She wept while reading the lyrical prose of Open City and the wandering Jew aspect of the main character as he walked all across Manhattan. She wept for all the walks she would never take, the books she would never read, the concerts she would never attend. She imagined inviting Teju Cole to her library, the Gates Foundation would finance it, and introducing the community to this marvelous writer. Hers was the only library in the county to offer talks by first-rate authors.

Libby’s bed served as her reading space. While friends of hers looked forward to spooning before sleep with their husbands, Libby had preferred reading books or the New Yorker or information tucked inside the electric or water bill and pictured their tap water coming from underground pipes connected to a clean shimmering reservoir forty miles away.

Though she would never reveal to her husband what she and her friend Lynne had discussed, it was certainly possible that the man who slept beside her, Dane S. for Sheldon Korngold, a noted brain researcher from the University, had Asperger syndrome.

Relationships had always been difficult for this handsome well-dressed man. Libby never had to worry about his having affairs with secretaries or with his students. If he did have an affair or two, she would have been happy for him.

Dane refused to believe she was losing her mind, notwithstanding the evidence: the huge gaps in her speech – which he quickly filled in – and the yellow Post-it notes she stuck on the kitchen cabinets – flour, pasta, spices – and reminder signs placed throughout the kitchen: “Turn off burners.” Or the birthdays of Barry and Marty, their two grown children, pinned onto the kitchen bulletin board, next to her library schedule.

Did she love Dane? She supposed so. She did enjoy caressing him when he got into bed. She would massage his bald head, take his face in her hands, and stare into his searching black eyes. Rubbing her forehead against his, she said, “It doesn’t matter if you accept my diagnosis. You’ve accepted me and that’s enough.”

She told him she was so proud of him for being a gene researcher and finding genetic links to several mental disorders. She was certain that after she was gone, he’d tackle her own disease. “The Elizabeth Korngold Foundation.”

When Dane was about to leave for work, she walked with him, as she often did, to the circular brick drive where his steel-gray Infiniti was parked. They stood together a moment admiring their home on a quiet, out-of-the-way street.

“Look at your herb garden!” she said, with her musical voice, as she brushed her hand over the lush growth.

“It needs to be cut back,” said Dane as he walked toward his car. “Do it today, please?”

“I’ll do my best,” said Libby.

A school bus with “Lower Moreland” written on the side whooshed down the road. She watched it stop and pick up little Grace and her brother Max. How she loved little children, probably the happiest time of her life, when Marty and Barry were small and carried their own Superhero lunch boxes onto the very same bus.

Several years ago, as they lay in bed, Dane explained to her – which she so appreciated – a bit of incomprehensible physics – that Albert Einstein, his hero, had nearly given up a conundrum he thought himself unable to solve. This recognized genius had simply thrown up his hands in despair of ever finding the answer.

“We think of Einstein as perfect,” said Dane. “But like all of us, he struggled inside.”

Libby wondered if Dane was referring to himself.

“So what do you think happened?” she asked.

Dane reached onto to his bedside table and picked up his wristwatch with its huge black face. They had bought it years ago at a conference on genetics in Bern, an ancient-looking city with red-tiled roofs, an aquamarine lake and people scurrying about speaking German.

“Remember the clock tower?” he asked Libby, smoothing down the white eyelet cover. “Einstein imagined a car, an automobile, this was in 1905, so they had cars like the old Model T’s.”

He looked over at Libby.

“I’m following you, dear,” she said.

“Good. I expected you would. Now here’s Einstein’s eureka moment. He imagines a car driving away from a clock tower at the speed of light – that’s 186,000 miles per second, you know – so the clock on the tower” – Dane was speaking slower now so Libby could understand – “would appear fixed in time to someone in the Model T.

“There were streetcars in Bern. Loads of streetcars. We saw them, too, remember, dear? The clock’s light,” he said, tapping the face of his wristwatch, “could not possibly catch up to the streetcar, but the car’s clock would tick normally to the person inside.”

Libby nodded in understanding. She didn’t want to disappoint him and say she needed to go over it in her mind to truly understand it. She knew she would eventually get it. The trolley factor explained why Dane loved riding his 7:22 a.m. to work, a train, a trolley car, little difference, and feeling close to the ideas of Einstein, which he thoroughly mastered with his budding genius at the tender young age of seventeen.

Such conversations rarely passed from Dane’s lips for the past five years. His research swallowed him up and it was almost as if he had forgotten how to speak to anyone not connected with his work. It was futile for Libby to protest. She did not want to get in the way of his important work that one day may change the lives of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or drug addiction.

She imagined how thrilling it must be for Dane to take the train to Thirtieth Street Station and then walking with his swinging black leather brief case to his lab at the University of Pennsylvania. “D.S. Korngold, PhD, MD” was stitched onto his white lab coat, which he’d bring home for Libby to wash.

She was that busy woman who got everything done. She and Lynne played indoor tennis every Thursday night, and on Sunday afternoons, Libby and her children would talk on the phone, while Dane was in his study rustling his papers.

She and Dane rarely went out together anymore. He claimed fatigue from a day at the lab. She would try to revive the relationship by asking, “What’s new in the world of the genome?”

In the driveway, Libby watched Dane ease himself into the Infiniti and pull the gray harness across his light spring jacket. Click! “Such finality,” she thought, knowing she would never see her husband again.

She leaned over, picked up his hand and kissed it, something she hadn’t done since the early days of their courtship, and then stroked his clean-shaven cheek.

“Listen for my ring when I leave for the train tonight,” he said, as he drove off.

Blowing a kiss, she watched him drive out the driveway, knowing he was on speed-brain, locked in his inner world of numbers and abstracts and hypotheses.

She cut back the basil, marveling at the delicious aroma. Spring, her favorite season, was inching forward, slow as the yellow crocus peeping out from the still-brown grass. The pink red bud tree, its tall pink spikes clambering toward the sky, was newly in bloom. In the fair weather, she would have her morning coffee and croissant on the front porch overlooking the brick driveway.

How she would miss it all.

Her desk was in the study, which was once little Barry’s bedroom. Entering the quiet room, with its plush off-white carpeting, she listened to the twittering of birds, then cranked open the window and peeked into the window box. Only the day before, a mother robin deposited three perfectly shaped blue oval eggs in her newly built nest. Even Dane showed enthusiasm – well, make that “interest” – when she brought him into the study. She was sorry she wouldn’t get to see them hatch and become those naked unfeathered fetus-like creatures who would one day grow up to look like their mother, with her purposeful yellow beak.

Purpose. Libby’s only purpose now was to rid herself of the incessant ravishing of her brain.

She sat down at her antique desk, with its gold inlaid swirling designs, that she and Dane had bought in the resort town of New Hope. In the days when Dane spoke. And Libby had a mind.

The letter she was about to compose to Dane must be flawless. Not because he was a perfectionist who made it to full professor at an unusually young age. She must have a good feeling, a feeling of satisfaction and completion, when she left it for Dane to find.

“Dearest,” she began, knowing it sounded old-fashioned and romantic, but happy with the words nonetheless.

When you arrive home tonight, I shall be taking a trip. No need to find me or call anyone. I shall be in touch tomorrow, Thursday, April 30. Have faith in me, darlingl I love you and the children with all my heart. – Your Libby

The note was written on her initialed – EJK stationery – Elizabeth June Korngold. It was a soothing cream color and her initials were embossed in orange, an emphatic energetic triumphant orange, like the setting sun.

Everything she did now would be for the last time.

The very last time.

For Elizabeth Korngold was going to die.

She packed a few personal items in a paisley bag she bought in the gift shop of their synagogue, the Frank Lloyd Wright one in Elkins Park, where their two sons had been bar mitzvahed in the huge chapel the color of the sands of ancient Judea.

Into the bag went books she would read in the car: “Sonnets from the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson. “I would not stop for death/So he kindly stopped for me.” She stroked the prickly brown leather cover, rubbed it against her lips and placed it in the bag. Into a smaller cosmetic case, she put her contact lens case and solution, her red lipstick, and a shiny blue pill box filled with Seconal. She quickly remembered her conversation with the head of the gift shop, Mrs. Ada Goldman, who said her newest granddaughter had begun crawling. Backward.

She chuckled out loud and then placed the call to the limousine service.

“Hello,” she said. “This is Libby Korngold. I’m ready for a pick-up in Huntingdon Valley, 1212 Greenleaf Way. We’re to go all the way to Cleveland, Ohio.”

She gave him her credit card number, as they had told her to do earlier that week.

Cleveland was her favorite city in the world. It was her childhood home, where as a teenager she never missed a radio broadcast of the Cleveland Indians with Jimmy Dudley’s excitable voice blasting from her transistor radio. “Looks like Colavito’s hit another home run!”

Looking in the mirror for a last goodbye, she patted her straight, shoulder-length black hair in place and reapplied bright red lipstick, blotting it with a piece of Charmin. She left it in the toilet bowl for Dane to find. As she headed for the stairs, she changed her mind and flushed it away.

* * *

In Brooklyn, jazz pianist Billy Morton kissed his wife goodbye and got in the taxi to go to LaGuardia. His wife was accustomed to his many goodbyes and though she missed him had a full life of her own as principal of an inner-city school where she was famous for hugging students and taking them aside for conversations, introducing them to the back and forth of dialogue they rarely heard in the poverty of their own homes.

“You are one helluva woman,” Billy would often tell her.

By 8 in the evening, Billy was in a beautiful hotel suite in Cleveland, which towered over a revitalized downtown of wonderful restaurants, boutique shops, book stores and outdoor cafes, which reminded him of when he played in Paris twice a year.

Whenever he played jazz clubs in Cleveland, he and Libby would meet once a year for a night at this same hotel, in the very same suite at the end of the hall: Suite 1003.

Like his wife, Billy also visited some of Cleveland’s inner-city schools and urged youngsters to study music. “Little brothers and sisters,” he’d tell his young friends, “if you don’t have a piano, go practice at church. They’re bound to let you. Pick up the drums or a trumpet. And if you can earn some money, by washing cars or doing chores, save up for an electric piano. Be your own Stevie Wonder.”

He planned to visit Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School the next day, which would be a much-needed distraction from the difficult events of this evening. He had brought along some sheet music for his young friends.

Billy took off his sports jacket and hung it on the back of the dining room chair. Upon the glass table was a basket of fruit and a bottle of champagne from the hotel. A shiny metal corkscrew, the kind with two upended wings, was placed by the same invisible hands nearby. Billy walked slowly around the room, cracking his knuckles, smoothing down his mustache, and then reached into his suitcase to extract a bottle of coconut oil to rub into his chocolate-brown hands, the well-cared-for hands, with manicured nails, that earned him his living in one of the greatest modern jazz bands of the day, “The Billy Morton Quartet.”

Now in his fifties, he’d cut his teeth subbing for McCoy Tyner in the John Coltrane band. Billy and Tyner were still in touch. McCoy Tyner had embarked on a solo career and could bounce the keys better than ever in his seventies. He also pulled out a jade green smiling Buddha from his bag, about the size of a coffee mug, and placed it on the table with a clink. Billy laughed, then startled himself by hearing it turn into a sob.

“I must be strong,” he said out loud. “Be professional for my woman.”

Walking over to the door, he stuck his head out into the hall where he could hear someone push the bell for the elevator. A red Persian-carpet-like rug lined the hallway. He walked back into the room in his white shirt, without tie – jazz players didn’t need to wear ties, unless they were invited to the White House – which was the only time Billy put one on. He went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and whispered, “Hey Morton! It’s not going to be easy, but she loves you, and you’ll help her.” Splashing cold water on his face, he knew he would write another song about her. He’d written almost as many songs for Libby as he’d written for his wife Nora, who, of course, must never know about his lover.

Libby and Billy met when they were both single and living in San Francisco. He’d been playing a gig at the North Beach Jazz Cafe. They were immediately drawn to one another. Libby had her beautiful dark eyes on him throughout his performance, nodding and smiling and closing her eyes in ecstasy as he played. They went home to her small apartment on California Street, in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, where they became flower children, as they made love on the Murphy bed she pulled out from the wall.

After they made love, he watched her prepare a snack from her mini-refrigerator.

“Turkey with mayo and mustard, sweetheart?” she asked.

“Perfect,” he said, admiring her perfect body.

She boiled some water and they drank piping hot Folger’s Instant.

In the morning, they kissed goodbye and he returned the next three nights until the San Francisco gig was over.

Years passed. Each one thought of the other like a vanishing grace note as they easily settled into their lives without one another.

Libby found him again when he played at Zanzibar Blue in downtown Philly. She’d dragged a reluctant Dane to the performance, but after a gin and tonic, he was out for the night. Libby replayed her own performance from San Francisco and arranged to spend a few hours with him the following day in the Ritz Carlton where his quartet stayed for their four-day gig.

Would love be born again?

Directly after work, Libby drove downtown to the Ritz, and rode up the bronze-colored elevator to Billy’s room. She held out her red-manicured nails and watched them tremble in anticipation. As she knocked on his door, she heard classical music on the radio. Mahler’s Sixth.

She was too nervous to remember which movement, as she lay her forehead on the door.

Only one thing mattered. Would they become lovers again?

It was as if they had never been apart. Beautiful bodies – porcelain-white and café-au-lait entwined easily and knowingly. “I remember your smell,” said Libby, nuzzling her head on his chest, filled with tufts of African twisted hairs she hadn’t seen in over twenty years.

Lying side by side under a delicately colored lime ceiling, Libby posed the question of “guilt.”

“Guilt?” laughed Billy. “Guilt about what, for chrissakes?”

“About that horrible word. The ‘A’ word.”

“Oh, shit!” he said. “We aren’t about guilt. We’re above that. Besides, who made those rules, Lib? I sure didn’t. And I don’t approve. And never will. Never never,” he said, kissing her cheek.

After a pause, he said, “Listen, Babe. Jazz musicians are notorious for two things: drugs and women. Charlie Parker. Let me tell you a little about him.”

“I saw the movie, darling,” she said. “The same actor who played King of Scotland played Bird.”

“Incorrigible heroin addict. Once he got a taste of it, he kept coming back for more. Couldn’t stop though it was killing him. That and the liquor. He had a couple of wives though he never married the last one, who was Jewish, like you. Us black men adore you Jewish women.

“And we love you back,” said Libby, nuzzling closer to him.

She confessed feeling strange making love in the same city where she lived with husband.

“You Jewish women gotta stop getting yourselves in a tizzy. Hold your heads up high,” he said, kissing her hand.

Billy awaited her arrival in their other hotel. The Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland. The last hotel they would ever visit together.

He could always tell her knock on the door. A certain rhythm with her second and third fingers.

He rose from the couch and opened the door.

“My beautiful girl!” he said, opening the door and hugging her hard.

“Ah, the champagne’s already here,” she said, taking off her coat and putting it over the chair. “We must drink to our eternal night of love and freedom.”

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but she was different than the last time he’d been with her, a year ago. Yes, she was definitely different, as if a new person inhabited her body. An intruder.

They sat at the glass-top table facing one another and holding hands.

“And who is this darling creature?” she asked about the jade Buddha.

“He’ll keep us company,” Billy said. Libby stroked the Buddha’s cold face and body. “I shall take my deep sleep tonight, knowing he’s watching over us,” she said in her now halting voice.

“Whatever you wish, my beautiful girl,” he said.

“Let’s make a toast,” said Billy.

He popped the cork of the champagne bottle and poured the fiercely bubbling liquid into the long-stemmed glasses.

“Inhale it,” he said, as he stuck his nose inside the glass.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Mmmm,” she said.

“To our eternal love,” he said, his voice breaking, “to the woman I will never forget, and who I will take with me wherever I go. To my Libby.”

She touched his glass and took one deep sip.

“I …. like …. it,” she said.

They sat a few moments listening to Mahler’s soaring music, coming from a Bose in the adjoining living room.

“I’ve brought the note,” said Libby, with difficulty. “You know, the, uh, suicide note, so you won’t get in trouble. We’ll call Dane from the bedroom and leave him a message. Oh my God, so hard.”

Her speech, thought Billy, is like an unrehearsed orchestra trying to remember its notes. She was no longer his fluent brilliant Libby, his bubbly flirtatious woman who talked about her Sunday movie program, the lives of her sons, and who enjoyed reading him poetry after they made love. “I Sing the Body Electric” by Whitman. Seemingly overnight, she evolved into a hesitant, uncertain woman who time was defeating as every minute ticked by. He knew her to be a maverick, a pioneer. She was doing the right thing. He wasn’t sure he could take the same path but this was her choice, something she knew she’d do since she was a young woman. Suffering was not becoming. It was pointless. “Fuck, Job,” she had told him over the phone. Especially, as she said, if my brain is being eaten alive as if there’s a mouse inside having his way with me.

“I’d like to be as comfortable as possible when I go,” she said, stroking the Buddha’s head.

Billy noticed she avoided using the word “die.”

They arose from the table and went into the bedroom. Billy patted the white bedspread. Libby lay down in her taupe sweater and black pants, her high-heeled black boots keeping her company on her ride to the stars. She removed her contact lenses and put them in the case.

“Won’t be needing these anymore,” she said.

She gave Billy her home phone number. He dialed the 215 exchange and waited until it began to ring, then handed the phone to Libby.

She whispered that the answering machine was coming on.

“Dane, it’s Libby. I, I’m sorry to tell you that I can’t live like this, so I am putting an end to my suffering.” She sat up in bed. “I love you and the children, kiss them for me, please … well, goodbye, dear.”

Both she and Billy had looked up Seconal on the Internet and knew it worked very quickly, as long as you didn’t vomit. Billy, wearing his white sneakers, climbed in bed next to her. He handed her the glass of champagne, which still had bubbles on the bottom.

“You like the champagne?” he asked.

She nodded.

“In another life, you’ll be my bride.”

She nodded again and picked up the pill case. She shook it gently and they both listened to the soothing music of the pills rustling together.

“My deliverance,” she said.

Fully relaxed now, he kissed her on her forehead, her cheeks and her lips.

She was gone within four minutes.

After her body was removed, he checked out and went for a long walk in the dark night of downtown Cleveland. It was cool and breezy. April 30. A day to remember. He sat at a table in an outdoor café and ordered a turkey on rye and a cup of coffee.

Leaning back in the chair, he thought of nothing. Nothing at all. Sipping the hot coffee, he closed his eyes and saw Libby again walking into the jazz club in San Francisco. She met his eyes.

He listened to the sounds of the night. Couples walking by, talking softly or erupting into gales of laughter, a waiter setting down utensils on a nearby table. The music inside the cafe played Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are.” A beautiful tune, he thought. He cast glances over the big black tent of a sky that seemed to swoop down beside him. He leaned back and saw the stars were out and a small silver plane arced toward the airport.

“I know you’ll understand this, Lib,” he whispered into his coffee, which warmed his face. “I feel fully alive. More alive than I’ve ever felt before.”

When the waiter came by, he asked if he could borrow his pen. He began scribbling music notes on his coffee-stained napkin.

 

 

BIO

Ruth DemingRuth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, has had her short stories, essays and poetry published in Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, Mad Swirl, Haunted Waters Press, and The River. A mental health advocate who writes articles to staunch the stigma of having a mental illness, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with bipolar disorder, depression and their loved ones. See NewDirectionsSupport.org. Her blog is RuthZDeming.blogspot.com. She lives in Willow Grove, PA., a suburb of Philadelphia.

 

 

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Joshua M Johnson

LOVELY THINGS

by Joshua Michael Johnson

 

“The last romantic notion died in 1962 and we’ve been running on fumes ever since,” the man said on the radio, his voice bleeding into Lynda’s favorite country station. A hair-breadth’s adjustment to the tuner and the man’s voice disappeared. The suspension of Lynda’s LeSabre popped and groaned as the aged car dipped through the underpass where East Main suddenly dove under a railroad bridge. The underpass was where Lynda always started to wonder if she was doing the right thing. But the feeling will pass, Lynda thought, as she adjusted the rear-view mirror so she could see the baby boy sleeping on the back seat. She wondered what had happened in 1962.

It’d be quicker to take the freeway to New Hope, but Lynda didn’t want to take any risks so she took back roads over the foot of Lookout Mountain and on out to Nickajack. A warm breeze gusted off the river and through the car’s open windows. Lynda smiled, and started to feel better. She brushed her hair out of her face as the road wove along the river’s edge. She’d always felt close to the river, like the river spoke to her, but more like there was something the river always wanted to say but never did. A mile or so later the road began to peel itself away from the river and Lynda pulled off and alongside the faded peach wall of the abandoned motel she always went to when she stole children—the Scenic City Motor Lodge.

Lynda gathered the little boy from the backseat and took him to cabin twenty-four. A “J” was embroidered on his blanket so Lynda decided to call the boy Baby-J for the next couple of hours. I never thought to name one before, Lynda thought, and the newness of the idea made her smile. Baby-J lay on the bed and stretched his neck out like a sleeping cat, and for a while she forgot she’d stolen the child.

On the porch, Lynda sat in a rocking chair to think as a blue jay snatched a bug off the stairs between the porch and the dock. Ricky would be along in a couple of hours and then Lynda would go back to her section-eight duplex on Holly where car stereos boomed through the night. The idea of growing old in that house was unbearable, but Ricky said they’d be going away together soon. Live in the valley, raise a child or two of their own, build a cabin on the riverbank, have a big porch. And rocking chairs, Lynda had added. And rocking chairs, Ricky said, of course we’ll have rocking chairs. Sometimes the thought of it was loud enough to drown out the stereos when Lynda was trying to go to sleep. Those were the good nights.

Ricky said most people didn’t deserve children. Children are special, a gift from God, and someone had to look out for them. We’re rescuers, he said, liberators—saints doing the Lord’s work. Children deserved better than what they got and there were more than enough devoted couples in the valley to love them and raise them to fear the Lord. Ricky’s exaggerated smile always widened when he said things like this, and his voice softened. We’re rescuing the children of God, he’d tell her, and Lynda would let his words comfort her. She hated how she could believe what he said as long as they were together, but as soon as he left, her mind would fill with doubt again—and fear. She’d never known what it was like to know God like Ricky, but she often wished she could see things the way he did. It had to be incredible to know you’re doing the world good, she thought.

Baby-J woke up from his nap and began to fuss. Lynda got the bottle out of the LeSabre’s trunk. Just a little won’t hurt them, Ricky had told her when he placed it in the trunk, and they couldn’t have the neighbors hearing. Baby-J’s feet and arms kicked and squirmed beneath his blanket as Lynda opened the bottle, but she couldn’t make herself do it. Lynda set the bottle on the dresser and lifted Baby-J into her arms. She hugged him to her chest and returned to the rocking chair, and as she rocked, Baby-J soon fell back to sleep. Lynda continued to rock as the sky darkened. She knew Ricky would be there soon.

After a while Lynda noticed a large black snake coiled in the porch rafters looking down on her and the baby.

“How long you been up there watchin’ me?” Lynda asked. Snakes had never troubled her much, but Ricky always became irrational when he saw them. He believed them to be a bad omen.

The snake’s tongue flicked in and out of its mouth.

“That long, huh?” Lynda leaned back in the rocker, Baby-J still asleep in her arms. “Ricky’s late today. Sun’s already goin’ down.”

The snake hissed overhead. Its tail slipped off the rafter and whipped back and forth. Lynda realized Ricky would probably react badly if the snake were still there when he came to get the boy. She held Baby-J tightly in her arms. Ricky wouldn’t like this snake one bit and he would take it to be a sign from God warning him that there was something evil about the boy. The Lord wills it, he would say before doing something excessive—something awful.

Lynda took the boy inside, away from the snake. She sat on the bed with him and wound Baby-J’s blanket tightly around his body. She lay down and curled her body around the boy. She could feel his warmth.

She knew she had to save him.

Lynda searched the cabin and found a plastic tub of old gaskets and hoses in a closet. She dumped it out on the floor and placed a blanket inside. Outside, the snake had begun to wind its way down a post. Lynda thought she heard the crunch of gravel in the drive as she carried the tub and Baby-J down to the end of the dock. She glanced back at the cabin. The snake was on the stairs already and she could hear someone calling her name. Baby-J was still asleep beneath his blanket as Lynda placed him in the tub and eased him into the water. Lynda pushed the tub out into the current and watched as it floated down river through the rippling reflection of the setting sun.

When she returned to the porch the snake was gone and she was alone. She sat in the rocking chair for a while longer and wondered where the river would take the boy—if it would be kind to him. Soon the sun set, but Ricky never came.

 

That night Lynda lay awake listening to the steady parade of car stereos until the pounding was slowly replaced by the distant rumble of thunder. As the storm swept through the city, Lynda thought about Ricky and what she’d say the next time they were together. Ricky would know what she’d done—he always knew. He’d cry as he told her she needed to ask God’s forgiveness for going against His will and, because she knew her place so well, she would do it. Lynda only hoped Ricky wouldn’t abandon her for what she’d done. The first time they’d met, Lynda was just a girl in a cotton dress spending time with her aunt and uncle who were in town for a visit. The family had spent the long summer evening talking and playing cards on the porch of cabin twenty-four, and as the sun set, Lynda had gone down to the dock to dip her feet in the water. And that’s where she met him. Ricky said many things to her that first night, lovely things, things she no longer believed.

 

 BIO

Joshua Michael JohnsonJoshua Michael Johnson teaches at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and his work has been published in SNReview, Static Movement, and Product 26. He has also been awarded the Ken Smith Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2008 and 2009 by the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. He is a native of Tennessee and finds much of his inspiration in the culture and places he experiences in the little southern city by the river he calls home.

 

 

 

0
Beth Castrodale

Con Artist

by Beth Castrodale

 

Drop Cap L rock 625loyd Shrumpeter’s thick pink fingers with the neat buffed-and-trimmed nails were a legacy of his grandfather’s and the only thing, it seemed, that connected him to a more substantive time–a time of metal, as if every plane, tank, and gun from the great wars had been melted down and turned into desks like fortresses, typewriters that clacketed like Gatlings, phones that sounded alarm with every ring.

Once, years ago, when Lloyd had visited Hal Shrumpeter Senior’s office at Furley Auto, Accident, and Life, the old man picked up a gun-metal stapler and hefted it in his hand. “In my day, son, these things were weapons. In fact, I once saw the office Romeo get cold-cocked with a Swingline. The chickens came home to roost for the office Romeo.” He laughed. “Imagine that.”

The stapler on Lloyd’s own desk was plastic and no heavier than a model airplane. He picked it up, tossed it, then squeezed it until he felt the pang of a spring then a loosening of its cheap inner works. It hit the trash can with a sound that was utterly unsatisfactory, nothing like the ring of metal on metal.

 

* * *

 

pull quote bethThat Lloyd continued to meticulously trim and buff his nails was something of a contradiction given the state of his life. Or maybe it was a necessity, a type of magic ritual now that he might have need of such things.

During his days at L.O.F. Marketing Associates, Lloyd now only made calls; he accepted none. Whenever the phone burbled, he waited until voice mail, now his only ally, interrupted after the fourth ring, accepted the caller’s wrath, and transformed it into an angry red pimple of light. At the end of the day, after a long walk into the weedy outer reaches of Industry Square, he would pick up the handset, press the red light.

            You have … forty-three new messages.

None of them had a chance against the # * keys and his crushing index finger.

    “I—”

Message erased.

            “You’d better–”

Message erased.

            “You fuckin’–”

Message erased.

On and on it went until the messages disappeared, one by one, into the electronic ether. He curled and uncurled his burning finger to limber it up, straightened his pens, and went home without saying a word to anyone. Keep your nails clean and stay low-key, he told himself. One more week, or maybe two, and you’ll be gone into a new life, a new town.

One night, after a solitary Chinese dinner, he cracked open his fortune cookie and pulled out the little note.

It said, “In all things, your intentions are pure. Your lucky number is 3.”

This uncanny truth rang of validation and permission, and he left a twenty for an eight-dollar check, as if to thank and appease any gods who watched over him.

 

This was the sixth time that Lloyd had been hired with a résumé that was an artful mix of truth and fiction and the sixth time that he’d reached these sweaty last days. He was on his sixth name, too: William Rutherford Howe, which, like the others he’d chosen, had a solid, presidential ring that seemed a recommendation in itself.

“Oh. You’re Mr. Howe, then,” the receptionist at L.O.F. had said on the day of his interview.

“Indeed I am.”

“We remember that name, of course. And your letter, such a letter. Please have a seat.”

He knew how to use words like indeed, precisely, and undoubtedly that suggested breeding–a gloomy yet romantic childhood at boarding school, a rigorous classical education in damp, dingy halls. Mustard plasters. Headmasters. He’d suggested all of these things in his letters and e-mails, in his phone voice, in his tailored yet not-too-fashionable suits, in the shine on his nails and on his high, intelligent forehead, all of which made him seem older than his twenty-six years. He’d cut a darkly impressive figure in L.O.F.’s sherbet-colored waiting room.

Inside the office of the sales manager, Mr. David Crubbage, he presented himself with grace, humor, and the proper amount of enthusiasm, given the nature of the work he would be doing. He hinted at, without specifying the details of, the painful end of a relationship that had brought him to this new city, this new start.

“Well, Mr. Howe. I can see that you’re more than qualified for this job. But I’m afraid there might be a problem. Not an insignificant one, I might add.” Mr. Crubbage tilted his head, thoughtfully.

“What might that be, Mr. Crubbage?” He braced himself for the news, willed his heart to slow its beating.

Mr. Crubbage sat forward and placed his elbows on the table, touched his fingertips together. “You’ll pardon me if I ask why a man of your obvious education, breeding, and experience would be interested in a frontline sales position at L.O.F. Marketing Associates. Might there be some other position that you would find more … more rewarding?”

Lloyd paused, as if in thought, though this was not the first time he’d answered such a question.

“I am an artist, Mr. Crubbage. That is my reward. Of course, I must support myself, so I chose a profession that comes most naturally to me—and keeps me in pigments.” He smiled. “Sales is that job, I can assure you.”

Outside, the bells of an old clock tower started to clang so loudly that he and Mr. Crubbage had to wait through a carillon interlude and the last toll of eleven to finish. All the while, they smiled at each other like new sweethearts.

“Welcome to L.O.F. Marketing, Mr. Howe.”

 

* * *

 

What Lloyd was was a rip-off artist. The reasons for his choice of vocation were not those an armchair psychiatrist might seek. His upbringing, though modest, had been comfortable, and he’d not suffered abuse beyond the ordinary. In his youth, he’d managed to make friends and mess around with some girls. He’d been a passable student in high school and then in college, where he’d received the philosophy degree that was to be his undoing–or his making, depending on how you looked at it. (“Why philosophy, son?” his father, Hal Junior, had asked when he first heard his son’s choice of major. “Where will that get you, exactly?” Three years later, Lloyd had a very good answer. But by then his father was dead.)

Sitting in the lecture hall, Lloyd had been stripped of his belief in free will. Later, in the library stacks, and in small seminar rooms smelling of chalk dust and trapped breath, he’d constructed something to replace that belief—something powerful if imperfect and perhaps dangerous, like a movie monster. In his final thesis Lloyd posited two ways in which Furley Auto, Accident, and Life might destroy Hal Junior: overwork (actual) and a shotgun blast to the temple (theoretical). Both means, he argued, were moral equivalents.

He received an A in the course and then was hospitalized.

 

Because Hal Junior was ailing by then, his oldest associate, Bill Menahan, visited Lloyd at Our Mother of Charity.

“When you get out, I’m going to set you up with something at the office. Just till you get on your feet. Some understanding of claims adjustment might be practical. And then there’s the paycheck, of course.” He winked and handed over the ketchup cup of pills that the nurse had left for Lloyd. “What do you say?”

Lloyd sat up to take the pills then sip from the bendy straw in his bedside glass. As he reclined, the white-walled room expanded, then snapped back, making Bill Menahan’s face jostle like a ball. Closing his eyes against this, he saw painfully bright light, not the whiteness of the walls but the scalding white of the 60-pound bond onto which he’d printed his thesis.

“In the developed world, nearly all work is a corruption of the soul,” he whispered. “I can provide a moral justification for a life of crime.”

 

* * *

 

In his early days on the con—when he could still tell himself it was an academic experiment—Lloyd had considered going it alone, setting up a basement office or renting cheap space where he could do the dirty work and then make notes for his never-to-be written It’s All Relative: Morals and Modern Work. But there was the trouble of sales leads—he had none of his own, and wouldn’t for some time. Working for others, Lloyd got the leads and base pay on top of that. More than that, he discovered that he had a real talent for talking money out of strangers. Never had he been so good at anything. Within a few weeks of his first con, he discovered a living and all but forgot his book.

Lloyd’s duties at L.O.F. were little different from those of his five previous cons. He was shown to the sales bull pen, given a briefing book on L.O.F. products (polar-grade camping gear, fruit-by-mail, slimming undergarments, novelty shower curtains, among others), and told to study up. His own mission, too, was little different: within two months, he was to ring up as many sales as he could and divert a certain number of checks to the temporary account he’d set up under the name “Leap of Faith Associates.”

The trick to the con, he’d learned, was to get out by eight weeks (the limit of customer tolerance, given the standard four-to-six-week delivery period) and to give any customers who asked for it a phone number—his own work phone number—to serve as a pressure valve for complaints until he made a break for it. Before accounting caught on to him, and before customer complaints about undelivered goods reached a higher level, he would be on his way to another state, with another car, another license, and, this time, perhaps another hair color. He might arrive in Montana as a redheaded trucker with a limp, a twang, and an aura of recklessness irresistible to women.

L.O.F., like the other places, was obsessed with the notion of the “team.” To get the job, he had to assure Crubbage that he was a “team player.” On his first day, he was welcomed to “Customer Satisfaction Team F,” housed in a quad of cubicles by the break room.

The members of Team F barely looked up when their leader, Rob, introduced Lloyd around.

“Hey,” said a kid who looked about 18. He was transfixed by the explosions on his computer screen.

“Death Ray is on all of the computers, William,” Rob whispered as he led him away. “In case you want to play it on your break. You get ten minutes every two hours, no lunch hour. In case you weren’t aware of that.”

These minimal glimpses of L.O.F.’s moral ruin made him all the more eager to get started. “Show me to the phones,” he said in a hero’s baritone that was lost on Rob.

As they approached his desk, a woman rose from the adjoining cubicle (in Team D, Lloyd learned later) and smiled distractedly, for she was on the phone. Her hair, a dark, blueberry color, was twisted up messily on top of her head and fixed with a pencil. She had beautiful brown eyes whose sheen dimmed, just slightly, the minute she saw Rob. She turned away and cupped a hand near the mouthpiece.

“Talking to her kid again, on the clock,” Rob mumbled.

“Who is she?”

When she sat down, out of their sight, Lloyd’s heart plunged, then lifted at the thought of seeing her again.

“Hope Topsfield. She’s a new rep, too. Let’s see how long she lasts.”

“What seems to be the problem with Hope, Rob?”

“William, I’m afraid she’s not making herself part of her team. I’m afraid she’s letting them down, us down.” Rob looked him straight in the eye for the first time. “So don’t get too attached. To Hope, I mean.”

“Not my policy.”

Rob nodded then extended his hand to the empty cube with the black console phone. “Well, here you are. You’ll get professional selling skills at eleven—I know you’re a vet, but it’s standard–then we turn you loose at one. For now read your phone manual and check your call list. Got it?”

“Certainly do, thanks.”

Rob gave him an abrupt, clammy handshake then vanished, leaving Lloyd to his inch-thick list of prospects.

From the other side, where the kid sat, came the sounds of apocalypse. Behind him, the lovely Hope cooed what sounded like a lullaby. It was a fine day to begin.

 

In these halcyon days of tele-sales—before the rise of the Do Not Call Registry—L.O.F.’s prospect lists were especially sweet, drawn from the ranks of catalog addicts, tchotchke enthusiasts, TV shopping junkies. As he flattered and cajoled these people over the phone, Lloyd often imagined them sitting amid personal museums of junk: commemorative Civil War plate collections, vibrating heated cushions, Wurlitzer jukebox banks, various lidded contraptions that tinkled popular tunes when opened.

“I’m sure you’re concerned about your grandchildren’s educations, Mr. Stearit. You sound like an educated person yourself.”

“I might be.” Stearit grunted and chuffed in what might have been impatience, disgust, or the symptoms of chronic illness. Like so many of the people Lloyd called, this man’s indifference–if that’s in fact what it was–was not great enough to get him to hang up.

“Mr. Stearit, do you know that 80 percent of elementary school students can’t identify even five of the United States on a map? Do you know that odds are that your grandchildren don’t even know your state’s capital? Madison, isn’t it?”

Stearit grumbled and made some kind of clicking sound with his teeth. Dentures?

“What are you driving at?”

“Our Wisconsin state shower curtain has been endorsed by the U.S. Geographical Education Center as a valuable learning tool. It is a detailed, topographically accurate, large-format representation of the Badger State, complete with locators of major cities and geographical features; lists of key industrial and agricultural products; depictions of the state bird, tree, and flower; and a timeline describing important events of Wisconsin’s rich history. If your grandchildren shower at least three times a week, Mr. Stearit, their reading and geographical skills are bound to improve. Studies back me up on this.”

“How much does this thing cost?”

“Thirty-nine ninety-nine, plus tax. Sixty-five plus tax if you order two.”

“Jesus.”

“I think you’re concerned about your grandchildren’s educations, Mr. Stearit. Isn’t that true?”

“It might be.” He rattled his teeth again. “But really, Mr. …”

“LaRue.”

“Really, Mr. LaRue. What does my grandchildren’s education have to do with a shower curtain? What does much of anything have to do with a shower curtain?”

“I’m just reporting the results of a–”

Mr. Stearit hung up the phone.

“That was pretty good.”

He looked over his shoulder and saw Hope standing by the cubicle wall with a steaming coffee cup. Lloyd was both startled and thrilled. Though he’d been on the job for almost a month, he hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with Hope, who was almost constantly on the phone, using one of two opposed voices: the halting, script-reading voice of her sales calls or the hushed, passionate voice directed toward her apparently constant personal crises.

She wore little make-up, but her clothes were snazzy–a fitted purple suit cut just above the knee, purple pumps, and shiny pantyhose printed with Eiffel Towers, gondolas, and passports. Her legs, Lloyd noticed, were quite shapely. He looked down, away, toward the carpeting, feeling his face growing warm. “Well, I didn’t get the sale. That’s not so good.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, but you’re new.”

“Not really.”

“Well, you would have tempted me. Is that really true, about the National Geographical Society endorsement? Because I have a kid–”

“It’s absolute rubbish, I’m afraid.”

Loathing surged through him, for Stearit’s rattling teeth, for Hope’s naiveté, for the smell and light of this place, which in a perfectly just world would be reduced to rubble.

She put a hand to her mouth, her brows arched. But she started to smile, then laugh, revealing the delightful surprise that she was a bit snaggle-toothed. This little imperfection clutched at his heart and stirred longing, mingled with a premonition of disaster.

“I’m glad you have a sense of humor,” she said, recovering herself. “You’ll need it here.”

Lloyd had never mistaken his conning skills for having a sense of humor. Still, he took the compliment.

“I’m Hope,” she said, extending her hand.

“William Rutherford Howe.” He took her hand and pulled it forward a little, considering whether to kiss it. But when he saw the look of anticipation, or confusion, in her eyes, he gave her hand a little squeeze and released it, regained himself. “What brought you here, Hope?”

“I’m raising a kid on my own.” She offered the explanation immediately, as if it were customary. “His father’s out of the picture. I mean, he’s not dead, he’s just … just a bum.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lloyd, though he wasn’t at all.

She shrugged, as if to dismiss any notion that she should be pitied. “I just wouldn’t want you to get the impression that I’m working here for the love of it.”

“Thanks for straightening me out on that.”

Hope snuffed a laugh against her hand and then swayed closer, almost drunkenly, lowering her voice confidentially. “Word’s getting around that you’re an artist.” She said artist in a near-whisper, in the way that some would say “bed wetter.” It occurred to Lloyd that he might have chosen the false profession that–at least in this place–was shrouded in mystery commensurate with his need for secrecy.

“So do you paint, or what? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Lloyd glanced down at his nails and realized, distantly, that their neatness might give him away. Ideally, they’d be dulled from solvents and chipped, perhaps flecked here and there with paint or yellowed varnish. “Well,” he said, “painting is part of it, yes, but I guess the proper classification—if the thing that I do must be classified–is that I am a mixed-media artist. I use paint, yes, but some of my works incorporate welded metal parts, paper sculpturing, automotive detritus, and other found materials. And I’m not above some cheap tricks with photo transfer, either.”

“I love art of all kinds,” Hope said eagerly, as if she hadn’t heard him. “When I was ten, and my aunt was living in New York, she took me to a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit. I never forgot it.”

Her expression grew solemn, almost bitter, making him wonder what particular, lasting appeal those cartoony, dotted images–the recriminating women crying fat tears, the bland apartment scapes, the vapid dialogue–had for her.

When she noticed his gaze, she did not change her expression, but seemed to include him in her memory, studying him like the representation he was–an assertion of form, lightness, darkness. Then, her eyes flashed with awareness that she was staring.

“Well,” she said at last, “I better get back to work.”

 

At the beginning of week seven, just as Lloyd’s voicemail began accepting the wrath of the stiffed, Hope disappeared for three days. He could have asked Rob, game boy, or any of the other members of Team F where she was but was afraid to hear the answer. It was the nature of corrupt organizations such as this to silently purge the weakest and most defenseless, removing their personal effects and name plates overnight, as if they’d never existed.

In response, Lloyd sold more aggressively than ever. Those feverish three days in the cube recalled to him that time in carrel 105 of the Randhoff Library when the ideas for his thesis had come together at once, as if he were merely their recorder.

When, on Thursday morning, Hope strolled into the office looking harried but otherwise fine, Lloyd could barely restrain his joy. He thought of ways he might approach her, of lines he might use to show his interest, casually yet unambiguously. These thoughts were checked, however, by the knowledge that he must leave in a week, two tops. What was the point of falling in love?

Still, Lloyd barely disguise his delight when later that day, Hope called over his shoulder in a voice that was both soft and insistent.

“I hope I’m not being too forward,” she said, clasping her coffee cup protectively close, “but I’ve been thinking about you being an artist, I mean a real artist.”

His heart skipped. “Tell me more.”

“Well, my friend Thea is on the new Arts Council, and she’s trying to put on a show of the local talent. It’s just a month off, and she’s having trouble fleshing it out, as she says. With something different, that is.” Hope was warming up a bit, becoming less bashful.

She continued: “There’s no shortage of puppy pastels, she tells me. Or peonies and teacups. What’s lacking is genuine work,you know? Something that might make people think.”

“I see.”

“It sounds as if you might do the type of work that Thea is looking for.” She lowered her eyes, and her cheeks flushed ever so slightly. “But I understand if you don’t have any interest in a small-town show.”

Of course, taking part in any sort of show was impossible, and Lloyd had an excuse at the ready: his works, as large as they were, would have to remain in storage until his new studio was built.

But his tongue felt suddenly thick and immobile, giving his mind enough time to focus on the familiar bright-heat from within himself, now narrowing to a laser-sharp point of inspiration. In his mind, the work of art, the work that he would create, was assuming the vertical, pronged height of an organpipe cactus.

“Of course I do.”

Hope rocked forward with joy. “Thea will be so delighted, William. If you want to bring in some photographs of your collection, she can–”

“Oh, there’s only one work I’d enter,” he said, his plan nearly formed. “I’m afraid the rest are in storage. “Perhaps you and Thea would like to stop by to see it? Perhaps this weekend?”

“I’d be delighted.”

 

This city, as it turned out, had an art museum, an impressive-looking if small one that boasted some lesser-known works by big names (Monet, Picasso, Giacometti) as well as pieces by local and regional artists, an Egyptian collection, and two rooms full of the glassworks of Joan Astra, a New Mexican artist who, Lloyd learned from the museum catalog, had attended a local university years before and had since “achieved international fame.”

He had not visited a museum of any kind for years, and something about the strangeness of being there, of walking through its echoey marble halls in the middle of the day (in a raincoat he never removed) made him aware that he was a criminal. The sensation was not entirely unpleasant. In fact, he felt remarkably at peace, especially as he ambled through the small eighteenth-century collection with its portraits of old scoundrels in velvet and lace. They fixed him with steely eyes that missed nothing of the truth about him.

Lloyd kept moving, skirting the Egyptian collection and the touring exhibit of nineteenth-century landscapes. He was here to see the large, modern pieces–the sculptures, the mobiles, especially anything made of television sets or car parts–understanding that he could not get away with making anything small or two-dimensional. His creation would have to be of a sufficient scale to forgive its inevitable ugliness and shoddiness.

He studied the stringy lengths of the two Giacomettis, looking for seams, connecting joints, or soldering and discovered nothing of its construction. The scrambled lines confounded him in their intricacy, their lack of beginning or end. A sculpture by Species Zero, a local artist, presented another impossibility. Some type of hybrid of an early submarine and the innards of a great clock, it would have required the resources of a Defense Department contractor.

Joan Astra, he discovered, was obsessed with pupas, which, according to an interview with her in the catalog, “are intended to embody the secrecy and contained fire of all life, all lives.” Her exhibit was full of glass pupas in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. A group of them hung, like a curtain of parti-colored cream horns, in one large window, scattering shivery globs of light—purple, red, and green—across the walls and floor. In another corner, a delicate totem pole of them reached nearly to the ceiling. Suspended in each transparent body was a different object that Lloyd could not connect to any particular theme—a pulled tooth, a rattle, a fortune cookie, something fleshy and obscure like part of an organ. “Journey,” it was called.

Astra’s grandest work stood at the center of the room–a nine-foot-high pupa within a pupa within a pupa, at the core of which sat a sculpture of a naked woman, arms clasped in front of her shins, shorn head tucked to her knees, like someone poised for a tornado. Lloyd knelt down and stared through the layers of bluish-green glass, which gave her the warped and dappled look of something under water. His first sense was that he’d seen this work before, perhaps in an airline magazine, or while flipping through channels on motel cable. But the memory held more weight than that.

He tapped the glass before he realized what he was doing, but no alarm sounded. He looked from right to left and then over his shoulder, and saw that the room was empty. Even the guard had disappeared; the measured scuff and squeak of her crepe soles echoed in the adjoining corridor.

Lloyd got up and stepped back to read the plaque. “Sea Woman Waiting,” it said. He scanned the Joan Astra write-up in the catalog for a mention of the work and found nothing but a studio shot of “the artist’s assistants” (a group of sweaty, long-haired men in their twenties, stripped to the waist like roadies) pouring glowing-hot glass for “Sacred Object.” In truth, he did not want to learn what had inspired the Sea Woman’s creation, or to see her molten origins, for he felt in his heart that she had never existed apart from him, that she was his own, necessary illusion.

Lloyd left the museum immediately, dropping the catalog in the trash can past the revolving doors. He hailed a cab and directed the driver to a lumber “super store” he’d seen advertised. It was time to begin his project, his other project. As the cab sped past the gloomy bungalows at the edge of town, Lloyd realized that his mind was repeating the words “Sea Woman Waiting, Sea Woman Waiting, Sea Woman Waiting.”

 

It was a revelation to Lloyd that roadie-like apprentices did the grunt work of important artists, but because he had no roadies—much less a vision—he cabbed around, aimlessly at first, buying lengths of lumber, a power drill and nailer, various hardware, spray paint, glues, and plaster of Paris. Eventually, he asked the driver (who was remarkably patient, or indifferent, remaining silent throughout the adventure) to cross the highway and drop him and his growing collection of supplies at Van-Tastic. There, for fifteen dollars a day, Lloyd rented a rust-speckled Econoline, loaded it with his purchases, and headed for a scrap yard that, according to Van-Tastic’s proprietor, carried “Grade-A Shit.” That one junkyard could be better than another was as pleasing as it was puzzling and made Lloyd grateful to have been saved from the inferior spots, which might have dimmed his fragile inspiration.

The guardian of the junkyard, a skeletal man toplit in his booth by a single bulb, barely looked up from his paper to wave Lloyd through the gates. Lloyd pulled the van to a stop along some stacked, rusted-out chassis and stepped out into the crispening air. It was near dusk, not long before closing time, he guessed, but he paused anyway, momentarily confused. Beneath him, the earth felt less than solid and seemed to faintly ripple, as if just settling down after some disturbance.

He moved past the chassis, past mounds of stacked tires and fenders. Behind a stand of old sinks and wringer-washers was the type of child’s car, run with pedals, that he’d owned years ago and hadn’t thought of since. Further on, silhouetted against the twilight sky, were the metal legs of an upturned kitchenette set very much like the kind that his grandmother had owned. The starbursts and galaxies on the chairs’ turquoise vinyl had actually entered his childhood dreams, twinkling and spinning in a silent wind.

This place had a museum’s mysteries, but without the keen glimmers of human calculation–without the con. And if anything was a con, art was. Lloyd did not doubt the genuineness of the artist’s passion, any more than he doubted the thing that drove him. But the willful creation of illusion was their life’s work as much as it was his. And if the illusion happened to convince and seduce, so much the better.

He moved on, looking here and there for things that might cast some sort of spell on Hope, realizing that all his choices would be presumptuous, based on the scantest impressions that were filtered through his own desires. He picked up a soiled dressmaker’s dummy, still stuck with pins, then put it back, understanding that the only thing that had drawn him was its suggestion of a woman’s form. Later, he scaled a treacherously stacked hill of scrap for a bike fender, painted bright metallic purple, that glinted like a lacquered curl in the last rays of a sun. Somehow, this thing stood out as being absolutely perfect and necessary. With time, Lloyd developed a churlish certainty of purpose that an artist might call “vision,” and this made him move fast; he was under a fragile spell that too much contemplation would break.

Reminded of Hope’s trip to see the Lichtensteins, he picked up a stack of old comic books that he’d found in a mildewed box, then some broken picture frames. In a far corner of the scrap yard, amid piles of broken concrete blocks and tile, he discovered some glass bricks that would have to come with him, though they were heavy and far from the gate.

By the time Lloyd had finished, just minutes before the yard’s closing, he’d accumulated a chest-high pile of junk. At a post near the gate, he rang a yellowed doorbell labeled “customer service,” summoning the booth man, who shuffled forth, then circled the pile once.

“That’ll be ten dollars,” he said. “Cash only.”

As Lloyd drove back through the gate, his van now packed to the roof, the booth man was bent toward the glow of a lunch-box-sized TV. He gave no sign as Lloyd passed.

 

* * *

 

Lloyd realized that the thing he was to create would look nothing like the organpipe cactus of his early vision; his ability and materials permitted nothing so graceful. After he’d pushed the cheap living room furniture aside and laid down a couple of old sheets, he mixed himself a bourbon and water in a convenience store tumbler and stood staring at the empty space, and drinking, until the back of his skull tingled pleasantly. Then, from the front hall and kitchen, where he’d crammed everything from the van, he carried in the pieces one by one, stacking them according to their weight.

When he had finished sorting the junk into piles, he paused again. He looked from pile to pile and in his growing drunkenness, felt more and more that he was standing in an indoor scrap yard. Other purposes and desires were not available to his imagination. The last time he’d felt this way, he’d also stood amid junk–in the driveway of his parents’ house, shortly after their separation, not long before Hal Junior learned of his cancer. It seemed in those days that the two of them, Lloyd and his father, were always standing, mystified, among things that had to be sorted or discarded, reluctant to admit that what surrounded them (the driftwood lamp, the mildewed boxes of games with their missing pieces, the black vinyl couch that nearly stripped the skin from the back of Lloyd’s thighs so many childhood summers) was garbage. At the same time, it seemed important to get rid of these things as quickly as possible, get them out of sight, and then find some new things—things free of history—to fill the putty-colored rooms of his father’s brand-new condo.

That college summer, Lloyd had been working as a clown at the zoo–as a “subtle clown,” he liked to say, for he wore street clothes and minimal grease paint. The job depressed him, but not for the reasons one might imagine. Every day put him in brutal touch with the sadness of childhood: the fascism of organized trips; the random cruelties inflicted by kids who were older, bigger, fatter, or skinnier; the hideous stuffed “prizes” clustered at the rafters of various attractions.

At first, Lloyd had tried to single out for attention the unhappiest-looking children, the ones who appeared most abandoned or misunderstood. But, almost universally, they shrank from him and kept moving. And Lloyd saw himself, momentarily, through their eyes–an incarnation of life’s ugliness and disorder, a portent of future cruelties that would come out of nowhere.

Eventually, he tired of these reactions and took to making kamikaze ventures toward clusters of malicious-looking teenagers, arguing lovers, tense-looking loners. He understood by then that his function was to annoy and thereby de-fuse, and so he looked for situations where his effect might be the most catalytic and useful. To his surprise, though, his approaches (in which he might tell a stock joke or two from his training or twist a balloon into one of three animal shapes) usually were met with a curiously patient silence, a forbearance bordering on politeness. Lloyd came to understand that, as Lethargio the clown, he was a good deal like a threat divorced from meaning or context, a mugger without portfolio.

It was in this frame of mind that, that summer afternoon, he’d driven to his parents’ house without removing his arched black eyebrows and down-painted mouth. He knew that this was an act of aggression against his mother, who had hinted that he should once again see Dr. Slocum, and just one more layer of strangeness for his father, to whom so many other things (aside from the dependable drain of his job) were now strange, and new. But his mother did not emerge from the house when Lloyd arrived. And Hal Junior seemed to take no notice of the grease paint.

“Thanks for coming, son.” He laid a moist hand on Lloyd’s shoulder. “I’m making a go pile and a stay pile, and the stay pile can be only yay high because the new place doesn’t have much room. Just use your judgment.” He winked, though his expression was grim, and the movement seemed like an illusion, a flickering of life in a sandstone head. “You know what the single man requires these days.”

Despite his father’s assurances, Lloyd did not know how or what to choose that day. He would have liked to think that the things he put in the stay pile would be of particular use to his father in his new life, but very few items on that driveway could be considered useful. So he chose the things that still held some residual fascination from the years they’d spent together in the jaundiced, pizza-parlor light of the basement. Among them, a footlong human skeleton suspended on a platform and wearing a fake Olympic medal that a young Lloyd had crafted, a salt-paste volcano (now growing crystals) that he’d made for his third-grade science fair, and an Indian rattle full of dried navy beans.

After a few minutes, Lloyd felt his father standing beside him again. He expected some mild reproach, or to be questioned as to whether there had been some confusion between the stay and go piles.

But his father was silently crying. This was maybe the second time in his life Lloyd had ever seen him shed tears.

“All these things you made, son. Such beautiful things.”

 

Sometime between ten p.m. Friday and one a.m. Saturday, after a third or fourth glass of bourbon, Lloyd had entered that fragile and magical frame of mind that some have referred to as the artist’s trance. He moved, stacked, glued, drilled, and hammered with a purpose he’d never before felt, following not so much a vision as an instinct. His choices seemed at once preordained and surprising, driven by a desire to discover what he could in these materials before the magic wore off and the sun rose, showing the junk for what it was.

One thing he discovered was that Hope was at the center of every choice. As Lloyd built the scaffolding of metal and wood, as he pasted the comic-book faces behind the wavy glass brick, as he affixed the purple bike fender at just the right crowning angle, he thought constantly of her shape, her voice, her gestures, her trapped glory.

Lloyd finished just after five a.m., as the sun was rising. He told himself he had to wait until at least ten to call Hope, to tell her that she and her friend Thea could stop by at any time.

 

Later that same morning, Hope regarded her son, Avery, from across their kitchen table. He had just finished a piece of the cake she’d baked to celebrate his six-and-a-half-year birthday. Now, he was making his usual morning effort to read from the Times.

“Mommy, what’s this word?”

Pointing an inky finger to the relevant spot, Avery slid the paper toward Hope, who read the word aloud: “perceived.”

“What does it mean, Mommy?”

Usually so proud of Avery’s ever-active mind, Hope was feeling cranky and ill-equipped for it this morning. “Seen, viewed.”

“Read it in the sentence please, Mommy.”

The word was part of a quotation from a Dr. Feldman, which in turn was part of an article titled “Dating and the divorced parent.” Hope considered that delving into this particular piece might not be such a good idea. But she tried to never be dishonest with Avery, and so she read Dr. Feldman’s words aloud: “‘Giving a child at least a perceived choice about the parent’s future mate seems to contribute to harmony, although the child’s choice need not be the central concern.’”

Avery made a face. “‘Giving a child at least a seen choice, at least a viewed choice.’ It doesn’t make sense, Mommy.”

Hope pushed the article away, but Avery reached for it, scooted it back between them.

“Okay,” she said. “It means you give the child what seems to be a choice—what they would see as a choice—so they feel they’re getting to choose, even if that choice is not really significant, to the parent that is.”
As soon as the words were out Hope was sorry for them. Surely Dr. Feldman would not have put forth such a cruel explanation.

Yet Avery registered no hurt or offense. He had the article back under his nose and was staring into it as if he might dissolve it through sheer concentration. (His brain is eating, Thea had once remarked upon Avery at his reading.)

Now he fixed his eyes on Hope.

“So when you meet a man, you might ask me if I like him but do what you want anyway.”

Hope cast him her silly-you look. “Avie, the article’s not about me. And anyway I didn’t say I agree with it.”

She got up from the table to get more coffee. The dull headache she’d awoken with had knotted itself behind her right eye.

“What if you fell in love with Dr. Feldman? Or someone like him?”

“That’s highly unlikely. Now put aside that paper and finish your juice.”

Hope drained the last of the coffee from the carafe into her cup and considered how she was heading for trouble with Avery. In fact, she was already deep into it, and she had no one to blame but herself.

At all times, Avery got most of what he wanted. But as Hope saw it, it was only because he was unusually appreciative and deserving. He never asked for more than what she would gladly give to him, in most cases.

Hope’s sister, Martha, who had money enough for two nannies, had voiced her disapproval about Hope’s parenting, and Hope no longer spoke to her. And Thea, now the closest adult in Hope’s life, had started making faces of distaste when she heard of such things as the half-birthdays.

But no one, not even Thea, knew about moofy.

To merely think the word, as Hope was doing now, sent a chill through her.

What was moofy? It was Avery’s word, Avery’s cry, invented years before to unite her breasts with his desire for food and comfort. As his vocal cords matured, moofy took on a husky insistence, tearing through the house like a separate being bent on making Hope its own.

Finally, around the time of Avery’s fifth birthday, she’d managed to end the breastfeeding, but there were still nights when he’d call out moofy—in his sleep, she assumed, she prayed. She’d lie in her bed frozen, sweating, thinking that if this happened once more, it might be time to call that family therapist Thea had recommended.

Sometimes in her own dreams Hope answered the doorbell to find Avery standing on the porch—an older Avery dressed in business-casual—tan khakis with a pressed blue shirt that exactly matched his blue eyes, which were set in a composed and mature face above the quizzical mouth of his childhood. His smile and baritone voice tinged the word moofy with what may or may not have been irony. He’d glance over her shoulder, into the depths of the house, then smile at her again and shrug, as if to say, Well?

In the dreams, she could never speak. Instead, she’d cover her aching breasts with her arms and will herself to wake up, or for the dream to change.

In the kitchen, as Hope began to rinse the coffee carafe, the phone rang and she answered it.

“Hope, it’s William. Can you and Thea come this evening, for cocktails and a little showing of my work?”

Hope’s heart beat hard with anticipation. “Oh, yes, I’d be delighted. What can I bring?”

“Nothing but yourself and Thea, of course. And your son, if you’d like.”

Hope couldn’t bring herself to mention, in front of Avery, that she was planning to call a sitter. “What time shall we say?”

“Seven?”

“Yes, wonderful. I’m so looking forward to it!”

Hope hung up and turned to Avery, who had neither finished his juice nor put aside the paper.

“What is wonderful, Mommy?” he asked, his eyes searing hers.

 

Lloyd had finished his preparations (including his first cleaning of his apartment) by six-thirty Saturday evening, poured himself a drink, and sat in his small living room to admire his work, which he’d called simply “Ode.” Including the bike fender, it measured just over ten feet high, and he might have built it taller had it not been for the limits of his ceiling.

Never before had he had any interest in creating art, much less the sense that he possessed any sort of talent, but now he wondered if, by accident, he’d stumbled upon some new path for his life. Part of him suspected that any artistic institution of at least the C level would consider his work to be poorly envisioned and executed. Yet he also believed that he’d captured some truth, some authentic statement about lived female life (Hope’s) that any moderately sensitive person would respond to.

If someone had wheeled “Ode” into a corridor adjoining Joan Astra’s, no one would see it as a fraud, of that Lloyd was certain. And it was just this vision—of “Ode” standing solitary in an antiseptic yet reverential gallery space—that gave Lloyd the near certainty of being accepted into Thea’s show, and Hope’s heart.

The phone rang again, four times, and the caller hung up without leaving a message. It was at least the fifth time this afternoon that he’d gotten a hang-up. Worry that Hope was calling to cancel kept him from picking up the phone. Lloyd speculated (foolishly, he realized) that she was not the kind of person to break a date through an answering machine message, and if he didn’t pick up the phone, she wouldn’t be able to break the date.

He hadn’t felt this way about a girl since college, but why? He hardly knew Hope. What if she were seriously dating another man? What if her ex were dangerously unhinged, the jealous, lover-killing kind? What if she honestly had no interest in Lloyd?

The phone rang again, and Lloyd gripped the arm of his chair as he counted to the fourth ring. This time the caller didn’t hang up.

William, this is Rob from work. I hate to leave this kind of message on your machine, but you’re not answering, so I guess I don’t have a choice. From the background came the sound of rattling paper, then of the receiver being muffled as Rob spoke to someone on his end.

Listen, we found some things in the call accounts that we’re a little concerned about, some things showing up where they shouldn’t be. I’m not saying it’s anything you did—I’m sure it’s not—but I’m wondering if I could come by a little later to ask you some questions, just to clear things up. If you’re around give me a call, OK? All right then, bye.

Lloyd drained his drink and sat up. He braced his trembling hands against his knees and put his mind to the problem. This wasn’t the first call of this kind he’d gotten since he’d begun his life on the con. In fact, he’d come to see such calls as blessings, signs that it was time to pull up the tent and move on. Up to now, the powers that be had been stupid or untutored enough to give him this kind of warning, and there was no reason to think it would be any different this time.

But this time, he wasn’t ready. Not yet. Over the past few days, he’d begun to reconstruct his vision of the future, and it no longer included packing alone in the middle of the night as hair dye or bleach assaulted his nostrils and scalded his scalp. Lloyd knew he had to think and move quickly, but this setback to his still-brewing plans left him immobilized.

And then the doorbell sounded. As he went to answer the door, Lloyd pulled the phone cord from the wall.

Outside, on the crumbling stoop, stood a woman of about fifty in a loose, ankle-length dress of purple and green satin. Her pointed face and small stature gave her a girlish look, and her graying hair had been done up with little pins studded with sparking flowers and dragonflies.

“William Howe?” she inquired.

Lloyd realized from her face that his own must have registered disappointment at Hope’s absence.

“That’s me,” he answered, trying to sound cheerful.

“Thea Granby of the Arts Council,” she replied, extending her hand, which Lloyd shook warmly.

“Delighted,” he said. “Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you,” she said, rummaging through her purse as she stepped over the threshold. “Hope will be here in a minute. She couldn’t find a babysitter for her boy, and she’s back at the car trying to make him fit for society.”

Thea fixed Lloyd with a conspiratorial look. “The child can be dear, but on occasion his behavior is, well.”

In that instant, Lloyd had a vision of his potential influence on this boy he hadn’t met. He saw himself sitting by the child’s side on the stoop, imparting wisdom that might change his young life.

…and when you discover that you need not meet society’s expectations—that, in fact, you can happily thwart them—the world will open up for you ….

Thea found what she was looking for in her purse—glasses. With an almost ceremonious gesture, she perched them on the bridge of her nose and stepped forward to face “Ode.” She then took measured little steps around it, like a druid going through the paces of a ritual. All the while she looked it up and down and made soft sounds of appraisal—whether appreciative or not, Lloyd couldn’t tell.

“You follow Ferber?” Thea, now behind the sculpture, poked her face around the side of it. “The Ferber works in glass and metal?”

“Some.” Lloyd prayed she wouldn’t probe much further than this. “I’m more influenced by Astra.”

“Oh, yes. Joan Astra. I can see that now. She’s a worthy inspiration.”

On completing her orbit, Thea stopped and stood with her hands on her hips, still staring at the sculpture.

“Well, I think it’s truly extraordinary, and we’d love to have it in the show.”

Lloyd’s heart leaped. “Seriously? You truly mean that?” He wished immediately that he’d been more subdued, as if he were accustomed to such invitations. “I mean, I don’t usually get much interest from people who run, you know, local shows.”

Thea turned to Lloyd and smiled in a way that suggested she was indulging him. “I can assure you that we’re not like most small-town arts councils. We want what’s new and different. We want the risk-takers.”

“Well, I’m certainly that.”

He laughed, and she laughed. She didn’t take her eyes from his.

“Pardon me for saying this, but has anyone ever told you that you resemble the young Gregory Peck?”

“For that, you get a drink. Gin-and-tonic? Wine? Soda?”

“Wine. White, if you have it.”

“It’s yours.”

As Lloyd turned to leave for the kitchen, he was stopped by the sound of commotion outside the front door—thumps that weren’t knocks, and something literally beastly—snarling? He turned to Thea, as if she might have an explanation.

“Prepare yourself for Avery Topsfield,” she exclaimed wearily.

Lloyd and Thea listened, immobile, as the thumping and snarling diminished, then ceased.

Slowly, the door opened, and in stepped a large-headed but exceedingly handsome little boy with enormous blue eyes that exactly matched his Oxford-cloth shirt—recently pressed but now bearing fresh grass stains. Though quiet, he was chuffing little post-tantrum breaths, suggesting he might still go off. Seeming to sense this, Thea approached, knelt to the boy’s level, and tilted up his chin to look directly into his eyes.

“How’s my Avery?” she said. “My dearest little Avery.”

He stopped huffing and became instantly composed. “Very well, thank you. And you?”

The boy’s sudden gentility disarmed Lloyd. He sensed that this boy—very much like Lloyd himself, as a child—was sensitive, highly intelligent, and very possibly misunderstood, leading him to act out in the only way he knew.

Quietly, like a handler creeping into a tiger’s cage, Hope stepped through the doorway behind Avery. She wore a fitted dress, slightly off-the-shoulders, whose yellow cast a glow upon her face, which was still fetchingly flushed from her struggles with Avery. Lloyd had never seen her looking so beautiful.

Catching Lloyd’s eye, she gave him an apologetic little wave and mouthed, “Hi.”

Lloyd waved back, a motion that Avery detected instantly. He looked at Lloyd neutrally.

What to do? It wasn’t his way to kneel before a child and pander, and he had the feeling the boy would see through this anyway.

So with all the confidence and authority he could muster, he said, “Avery, I’m Lloyd, and I’m very pleased to meet you.”

Avery regarded him with the same neutral stare and then looked at Thea, who gave him a smile and nod of encouragement. Then, he said over his shoulder, to Hope, “You said his name was William.”

This wasn’t the first such slip for Lloyd, and he quickly replied, “Lloyd was my grandfather’s name and my own nickname as a child. Sometimes, especially around boys who remind me of myself as a child, that old name comes back to me.”

Hope stepped forward and took her son’s hand. “Avery, what do you say when someone says they’re pleased to meet you?”

Avery seemed to be passing a bitter lozenge back and forth in his mouth.

“Avery?”

“I say, pleased to meet you, Lloyd.”

Lloyd—and the other adults—would accept this. Nothing could be gained by correcting him.

“Well,” Lloyd announced, feeling it was time to change the focus of the conversation, “I’m getting white wine for Thea. Now what can I get for the two of you? Soda? Wine? Gin and tonic?”

“White wine for me too,” Hope said. She kept hold of Avery’s hand but walked him farther into the room, near the worn armchair from which Lloyd liked to admire “Ode.” She added, “And water for Avery? I like to avoid soda, if I can.”

“Of course.”

Lloyd retreated into the kitchen and made his own drink first—a strong gin-and-tonic that he gulped and finished while preparing the others. Then, he placed the two wines and waters on a chipped glass tray left by the previous tenant and started for the living room.

The sight he witnessed stopped him in the doorway.

Avery was struggling toward “Ode,” mumbling rhythmically. On either arm, restraining him, were Hope and Thea. The three of them had their backs to Lloyd and did not notice him in the doorway. He kept silent and listened.

At first, Lloyd couldn’t make out what the boy might be saying. He strained to hear, and then did.

Awww-ful, awww-ful, awww-ful.” He said this over and over, like a mantra.

“Stop it,” Hope said in a hushed voice. “Stop it now.”

“But look, Mommy.” He pulled free of Thea and pointed to one of the glass bricks and the pasted-on cartoons. “Look there. You can see the glue. See?”

“Yes,” Hope said softly, taking both of his arms and kneeling to pull him close. “Yes, I see the glue. Now quiet down. Quiet down or you’ll get a spanking. And I mean it.”

“Please, Mommy. Just say it’s awful. Just say it’s awful and I’ll be good for the rest of the night. I promise.”

Avery stopped struggling and stared into Hope’s eyes, just as she was staring into his, and Lloyd was reminded of profiles struck on ancient coins, gods or royals of another realm. Not his.

When, at last, Hope obeyed her son’s command, Lloyd turned and retreated back to the kitchen. The rattle of the glasses on the tray must have caught the women’s attention, for they were at his back instantly, calling after him.

“Oh, William, I didn’t mean it.”

“Of course she didn’t mean it.”

Lloyd ignored them. He rested the tray of drinks by the kitchen sink, braced his hands on the counter, and stared out the kitchen window into the summer evening. Across the street, a sprinkler sputtered to life and hurled spirals of water onto some unknown neighbor’s yard. On the freshly black-topped driveway of another home, a young father knelt by his son, buckled the chin strap of his bike helmet. A bit of the good and normal.

Into this frame drove a black town car with darkened windows. It stopped at the curb in front of Lloyd’s apartment. A moment later, two men stepped out—Rob and Mr. Crubbage. Both wore neat shorts and short-sleeved dress shirts, and both carried bulging leather portfolios under their arms, but while Crubbage was composed, his face an unreadable mask, Rob’s eyes darted this way and that. Sweat stains showed under his arms.

As they walked across the yard, toward the front door, Lloyd sat down on the floor, aware that the women were still speaking to his back.

From the living room came a great crash, and Lloyd was stunned neither by that nor by the approach of his accusers. On some level, he’d long understood that he’d descend once more into chaos, the result of all too many theories and experiments when pushed to their limits. Now, he waited for acceptance: that great strength and weakness of Hal Shrumpeter Junior, and Hal’s faithful companion through a long, difficult, and honest life.

 

 

BIO

Beth Castrodale writerAfter receiving a journalism degree from the Ohio State University, Beth Castrodale worked briefly as a newspaper reporter and then moved into book publishing. For many years, she edited print and digital media for Bedford/St. Martin’s, eventually leaving to devote more time to her fiction writing. Since then, she has completed two novels, which she is currently shopping around, and she’s partway through drafting a third. She also recommends small-press books on her Web site, SmallPressPicks.com.

 

 

 

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David Rose author

DAVID ROSE INTERVIEW WITH THE WRITING DISORDER

by Ruby Cowling

 

Drop Cap An interview with David Rose, “hidden gem of the British short story”. Author of Posthumous Stories (currently shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize) and Vault: an “anti-novel”, his work has been described as “euphorically paranoid, slyly narrated, often hilarious” (The Guardian) and “deft, deliberate and utterly delicious” (3:AM). Here he’s generously answered some probing questions about the advice given to young writers, different artistic approaches, and what it means to have lived a “boring” life. Thank you, David.

 

David Rose was born in 1949, in a small semi-rural town outside London, moving later to another small, entirely suburban town slightly nearer London. He left school at 16 with two O-Levels and spent his working life on the Post Office counter.

 

WD: A review headline described you as a “hidden gem”. How long were you writing before you were published?

DR: I had my first story published at the end of 1988, in The Literary Review, which was then edited by Auberon Waugh (the son of Evelyn Waugh) – I still have his handwritten letter of acceptance. I had by then been writing fiction for about four or five years.

 

WD: As a younger writer, did you have a mentor? Did you feel generally encouraged or discouraged by the people in your life to pursue the writing of fiction?

DR: I had written the usual sub-Eliot poetry in my teens, but never thought of writing fiction, or writing seriously, until my mid-thirties. It happened spontaneously: I suddenly had an idea for a story, based on a man I met on a bus, and wrote it out of curiosity. As it happened, I was working with a woman whose daughter knew the novelist Graham Swift – this was around the time of his writing Waterland. I had read an extract in Granta, then read his earlier novels, and wrote to him through that connection. When I finished the story, I sent that to Graham too, for an opinion. He was tactfully encouraging, despite the amateurishness of the story. So he was in a way my first mentor, but not in any more active sense than that. But that was enough to make me join a local creative writing adult-education course. As to friends and family: I never showed my writing to friends or family, and never would. If they want to read it now, they can buy it.

 

WD: Young writers are sometimes advised to have “one true reader” for whom they write (for Stephen King, it’s his wife). Do you have one, or have you had one?

DR: The one reader we are writing for or to is that reader who has read the identical books, and had similar experiences, i.e. ourselves. We write for ourselves, initially, then consider others. I don’t think we can consciously aim our work at a specific readership; that’s too calculating.

But if we do happen to have a specific friend as a reader, that’s a different matter, and a bonus. Wasn’t it Steinbeck who wrote a long (unposted) letter to his agent every morning before a day’s writing, as a way of clarifying what he wanted to write?

 

WD: What are your tastes in other art forms? Do you enjoy experimental music, visual arts, etc, or are your tastes more conventional?

DR: I have always had an interest in all the arts – music, painting, literature – from my teens, though the interest wasn’t nurtured at school. My tastes in music and painting mirror my taste in literature: Twentieth-century Modernism and beyond. So in music, the discovery of Mahler was overwhelming (as was Mahler’s discovery of Dostoyevsky), but also then leading on to the discovery of the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, their contemporaries such as Bartok and Janacek, the Americans – Copland, Ives, Harris, the later Minimalists, and jazz… One discovery always leads to another in an endless ramification.

Likewise in art, the great Modernist movements leading onward and, by their confrontation and engagement with the past, backward (as with music: Weber leads backward to early polyphony…). I thus have an interest in most contemporary artforms, apart from conceptual art (an oxymoron). I think we do need to immerse ourselves in the expressions of our age, which are most condensed in the arts but should extend to philosophy and history. (Old-fashioned Humanism, I guess I’m advocating.)

 

WD: There are a lot of “how to write” books and blogs around. To what extent do you buy in to the importance of sticking to agreed formats – such as the 3-act story structure? If this “works”, why do something else?

DR: I haven’t seriously read any ‘How-to-write’ books – I find the idea of them dispiriting. You can only learn how to write copies of stories/novels. Better to read good citical books on literature, and learn by example.

Agreed formats produce formula writing. That is fine if you want to write ‘best-sellers’ or Hollywood scripts – and it’s equally fine if you do want to do that – but not if you want to write something original. I don’t believe for one minute in ‘the 3-act story’ – it’s similar to Aristotle’s rules on drama, which were simply describing current practice, not prescribing how drama should work.

Formats work, of course – that’s why they exist – and will obviously go on working, but will do so with diminishing returns, and eventually the formats wear out. Just ignore them.

 

WD: Is part of a writer’s job to expand the form in which s/he is writing? Is writing simply a personal “emission” or transmission, or does a writer need to be aware of the historical context of their genre (including literary fiction as a genre) and the direction in which it’s going, and take some responsibility for their part in that?

DR: Yes, I do think it’s the writer’s concern to expand the form – that is a logical result of simply finding one’s own approach, own voice, and producing the one (or more, if you’re lucky) work that only you can contribute, which seems to me the only worthwhile reason for doing anything.

Is it ’emission’ or ‘transmission’? It’s both. It starts as emission – finding one’s voice and subject – then becomes transmission in clarifying it for others, which is how it becomes literature. I always think of Sartre’s definition of literature as a person sitting quietly in a room, using their freedom to write in addressing a reader sitting quietly in another room using their freedom to read it.

But I believe a writer’s first duty (only duty, since the rest follows naturally) is to the initial inspiration; in getting that idea out intact and alive, and finding for it its natural form. Once that is captured, the revision stage becomes a process of transmission, and of engagement.

I do think we need to be aware of what has already been written in our own field. Literature is community, not solipsism, and finding our own voice is only done by engagement with others. So as I have said about engaging with our time, we do need to be as aware as possible of the history of our chosen genre, and although it’s impossible to read everything, to at least be conversant with the range of what’s on offer. But it’s probably unnecessary to say this; most writers were readers long before they became writers.

I don’t think we are individually reponsible for the direction of a genre, because such direction can’t be controlled or directed. As Popper pointed out in science, and history, progress can’t be predicted. But in the process of finding one’s unique ‘take’, and in engaging with the genre and body of existing work, that uniqueness of voice will inevitably alter the direction of history, however marginally.

Because part of finding one’s voice lies in opening up new approaches, exploiting the possibilities of the form. I think this is especially true of the short story, which is the most Protean of literary forms, with limitless possibilities – many of them still currently ignored. But the important thing for me was always allowing the idea to dictate its own shape. It has been commented that my stories can be bewilderingly different, but I have never set out to ‘do something different’ – only to find the ideal form for a particular idea, and come up when successful with something fresh.

 

WD: What do you think about the argument that writers who are writing now must have an online presence, a profile?

DR: I am firmly of the pre-internet generation, and feel closer to writers such as David Markson and Cormac McCarthy in their non-use of the digital world. However, when Vault was first accepted for publication, my agent advised me to have an ‘on-line presence’ in the form of a blog – which he set up for me – and by joining Facebook. No one ever read the blog, but Facebook proved rewarding in making contacts and, in a number of cases, genuine friends, as well as reconnecting to some old ones.

It enabled me too to become acquainted with several writers whose work I would never have encountered otherwise – American writers in particular: Steve Himmer, whose novel FRAM I read in manuscript and loved (soon to be published); Edmond Caldwell, whose post-modern masterpiece Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant I went on to review several times, including in American Book Review; and Oisin Curran’s brilliant late-Modernist novel Mopus, which is still scandalously unknown even in America.

In turn, they and others have discovered my work, and stirred interest in it in America, Brazil and elsewhere. So it’s reciprocal, and that is the point. To set up a ‘presence’ in the form of relentless self-promotion will backfire. Literature is a community of writers and readers, and use of the internet is one way – now I suppose the quickest way – of tapping into and becoming part of that community.

 

WD: You’ve said elsewhere that “my own life has been extremely boring”. Yet you produce very rich and interesting fiction: in spite of, or because of, this quiet life?

DR: When I described my life as boring, I meant outwardly – most of it spent working, at what would appear to be a boring desk job. Actually, it was anything but – on the Post Office counter I was in close contact with thousands of people over the years, from the whole spectrum of society, many of whom I came to know well. And many of whom had led interesting lives; many of them were very funny, and some deeply strange.

Life will always trump fiction. Many of these people I could never have made up, and a number of them were the starting point for my fiction. It was, as someone pointed out to me, the ideal job for a writer.

But the imaginative conversion of the material into fiction takes place in that silent, empty room, in the evenings, which I would spend either writing or reading. Writers live a rich interior life, but an outwardly boring one. The ‘hell-raisers’, the drinkers – the hell-raising and drinking was all done when they weren’t writing (drinking doesn’t help you write; it helps you to not write).

 

WD: What advice do you have for writers starting out?

DR: I have never seen the point of advice on writing itself; if you need to write, you will, and you’ll find your own way. But it’s the next stage which becomes tricky: getting your work published and known.

My only advice on that would be to get involved. Don’t just submit to magazines – subscribe to them. Set one up, or help on an existing one. Starting a magazine may be easier now, in the digital age, or harder – I don’t know. It was perhaps easier in the old days of photocopying and stapling and distributing small magazines round colleges or bookshops.

In my case, I became involved in a print magazine, Main Street Journal, initially as a contributor, when it was just getting off the ground. Then, when it was refused Arts Council funding, I became involved financially, then editorially. Paradoxically, that meant we could no longer use my work in it (it would have been vanity publishing) but that didn’t matter. It made me friends and contacts who later proved immensely valuable. But at the time, it also brought satisfaction: to spot talented writers and excellent work in the unsolicited submissions, and be in a position to do something with it is deeply rewarding. It’s the community aspect again; give and take. And if you don’t support others, why should they support you?

 

WD: What’s next in your writing life?

DR: Next in my writing life? There is no next; my writing life is over. I have an experimental – and I believed unpublishable – novel due out in November [title: Meridian]. That I think will be my swan-song.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling was born in West Yorkshire and now lives in London, UK, working as a freelance writer for nonprofits. Winner of the 2014 White Review Short Story Prize and the 2013 Prolitzer Prize from Prole magazine, she was a finalist in the February 2014 Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers as well as being Highly Commended in the 2012 Bridport Prize.  Her recent print/online publication credits include The Letters Page, Unthology 4, The View From Here, and, in audio format, 4’33” and Bound Off. She is represented by Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath.

 

 

 

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Cassie Kellogg author

Dirty Feet, Squashed Tomatoes

by Cassie Kellogg

 

I started biting my nails again.

Well, not right now.

Last month, I think, I started that again.

I look down. I see dirt. Crumbly dirt. Not wet dirt. The floor isn’t dirty. I am. My feet are, actually. I don’t have on shoes because I don’t want to wear them for this. So my feet are dirty from walking to the back house from the main house.

That makes me sound rich.
I’m not.

The main house is small. I don’t know about square feet or anything like that but I know it’s a small house that only has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It doesn’t even have a dining room or a living room. It has a kitchen that flows into the family room where my baby brother’s crib is set up and the tiny TV is perched on a sideways bookshelf and the couch has a dark purple throw that’s stained with apple juice.

The back house is a one-car garage that my uncle built when he first bought the house. I turned it into a place to paint when Uncle Henry sold it to us.

 

I haven’t painted in forty-five days.

I look over at the last thing I painted. I stopped because I realized no one had seen anything I’d painted, ever. There are canvas’s propped against the walls.

The last one I painted was blue and grey. I wanted to mix the paints to turn it black, but I wasn’t there yet.

My nail beds are bleeding now.

“Fuck,” I say. And then I say it three more times.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Mom used to say fuck when she thought I couldn’t hear her. She would say it after she fought with my dad. She’d go into her bathroom and start washing her hands roughly, and when she couldn’t get them clean she’d say it. I was usually there. I usually heard it, but still, she always seemed to be surprised when she’d turn around to see that I’d come after her.

“Maggie!” She’d yell like I was burdening her when all I was doing was standing there.

I used to start crying when she would say my name like that.

You know when a tired mom runs into an old friend in the grocery store at the worst possible time? When her kids are hysterically crying because she said “no” to the strawberry shortcake and she feels like shit because she’d just been screaming at the kids and now she sees this old friend who probably thinks she’s an abusive parent and she wants to set the friend straight but she’s still got to make the kids calm down, too?

That’s how I felt, like an unwanted old friend butting in on someone’s life when I have no right to do that.

She doesn’t say fuck anymore. She doesn’t say much of anything anymore. Well, at least she hadn’t.

This time she was depressed for sixty-eight days. Sixty-eight days of deflection, and of disinterested stares when I’d try to cheer her up, and of barely eating anything, and of sometimes forgetting that the toddler needed to be fed too.

Day sixty-eight was last Tuesday. Today is Monday.

Today, she told me I should bring in something I’ve painted to hang on the wall. I told her I’d go get one, but that’s not what I’m doing.

I’ve thought about it a lot.

I’ve thought about everything a lot.

I’ve thought about how even though the sixty-eight day stretch has broken, it’d probably only last about twenty days, if we were lucky. I’ve thought about how she told me last month that looking at my face made her want to vomit and leave.

I asked her what she meant, and where she wanted to go.

Her eyes became glossy like she was thinking of a place she would rather be and she finally said, “Anywhere else.”

I’ve also thought about how I cried when she told me “Anywhere else,” and how she responded to me crying by looking bored, bored, and just flatly said, “Don’t act like you’re surprised.”

 

Maybe I should bring in the blue and grey painting. I think about it for a minute, only because that feels like my default. During the good stretches, when she’s happy, I try to prolong it as much as I can.

Not for me anymore, but for June and Max. June shouldn’t be raised by a mom who hates her; I can’t do that do her. And Max is only two and a half. I have to protect them.

I used to have to protect them.

I don’t now.

 

My feet are dirty. Is that how I’d like to be remembered? Dirty feet and sad paintings?

June always has dirty feet. She would go outside into the garden that dad grew during the summers and jump in the soil, like really jump. She’d ruined dozens of tomatoes (they were her favorite to jump on), but dad didn’t care. Mom would yell at June and then yell at dad for not being mad and he’d just say to her, “Laura, you’re missing the entire point!”

June would say it wasn’t her fault, though, when mom yelled at her. She’d always look at her and say, “Maggie made me do it!”

That was her catchphrase. “[Enter person to blame here] made me do it!”

Someone always made her do it.

The garden thing though, well I did make her do it. I told her it’d be funny. It was for a moment. It made me feel like a kid again, like when you could jump on tomatoes and be happy to have tomato guts all over your feet and between your toes and things were still all right.

 

June is so different from us. If I am blue and grey, she is yellow.

June deserves all the yellow paintings.

Maybe one day she’ll grow up and move far away and be happy. And maybe, when she packs to leave she’ll come out here and look around and somehow just know, and she’ll take all the yellow paintings.

I hope she does, anyways. They are for her.

 

My feet are dirty. I’m staring at them. Well, going back and forth between staring at my dirty feet, the blue and grey painting, and the crate on the floor.

What am I supposed to say right now?

What does anyone think to say right now?

All I can think is that I really should just bring the painting inside.

 

I don’t.

Instead I remind myself of day three of the sixty-eight day stretch. Mom had been cleaning, but cleaning when she’s depressed isn’t regular cleaning. It’s scrubbing until her body is aching and bleeding, yes, literally bleeding. Her nails were breaking and bleeding underneath the nail beds because she was scraping the ground trying to get something off that had dried onto the tile.

I did something that day.

I told her she needed help.

Really, I did that. I said that to my mom. I think I said this exactly:

“Mom, I think you need to see someone. I think you need some help.”

She said this:

“Go kill yourself!”

 

I got this crate from the garden. It had cucumbers in it. I dumped them out onto the grass around the side of the house.

I press my toes against it, just barely.

I think when I do that I’ll want to step back, or run away or something.

I don’t want to, though.

 

Someone’s crying. June, I think. It sounds like her. I think my heart breaks a little because June crying is the happiest sound I’ve ever heard. She cries in a good way, you know?

I mean, she doesn’t cry because she hates herself, or because she just relapsed, or because her mom has been sleeping for twenty-seven hours.

June cries because she wanted five cookies and only got four.

June cries when she realizes it’s gotten too dark outside and she has to come back in now and stop playing for the day.

June cries for all the things any normal person wishes they could cry about.

 

I don’t go in. Not even after hearing June.

I should.

I know that.

But sometimes in life, I think I’ve learned, you have a bunch of things you should do, and the whole point is finding the one you should do the most.

And I think this is a thing I should do the most.

 

Do you remember when you were a child and you didn’t even know that people died? I do. I remember when mom told me her sister died when I was four. That was when I found out the big secret: people die.

I still didn’t get it then, of course, I was just four. But I found out that day that dying was a thing that people did.

 

I step up onto the crate. I move away the rope that I haven’t looked at yet. I don’t think I will at all.

 

Once I told someone that I thought I should commit suicide. It was mistake. They told me, “Then do it.”

They didn’t even ask why or anything.

I did tell them why, but only because I said, “You should probably at least act like you care.”

So they asked why, and I answered: “Because I have counted the days that I remember being good and the days I remember being bad and the bad outweigh the good.”

They said, “Your goodness isn’t something you get to define.”

They walked away after that and I still don’t know what they meant.

 

The rope just rests on my shoulder, waiting.

 

June isn’t crying anymore. That’s good. She’s good. Her good outweighs her bad.

 

I put the rope around my neck and wait to feel scared. I still don’t. I still don’t feel anything.

I look at the blue and grey painting and think that if I were to paint something right now I’d use those colors, but this time mix them until they were black on the canvas, because I’m there now.

 

I smell tomatoes and want to smile. Well, I want to want to smile, but I just don’t want to. Like I want to want to live, but I don’t want to.

 

I think of mom yelling at June over the squashed tomatoes and June saying, “Maggie made me do it!”

I’ve never said that. I guess because I couldn’t. I just never could. My only job was to not say it, in fact. My job was to say the opposite. Because how do you really say that?

 

But my job is over now, I think.

 

So I say it,

 

“Mom made me do it,” and kick my dirty feet forward.

 

 

BIO

Cassie Kellogg writerCassie Kellogg is currently an undergraduate student at Arizona State University studying English and Philosophy.  She works as an editor for Canyon Voices Literary Magazine and as an Editorial Intern for Pants On Fire Press. Her hobbies include reading books, blogging about reading book, and drinking Dr. Pepper. This is her first publication. You can follow her on Twitter @cassiiekel or read her blog at howshereads.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

 

 

0
author Shelby Stephenson

Chapter 14, from Country

 by Shelby Stephenson

 

 

Now back to the ballgame, as they say, near the

green fields of home, the frat-boys singing songs the

 

college crowd loved during those early 1960’s

when “Green Leaves of Summer” rose over the

 

airwaves and boys and girls starred in Mitch Miller’s

Sing Along showering spaces popularly

 

elegiac until MM’s demise at ninety-nine

in 2011; meanwhile, the LP output of the Brothers

 

Four was a real gas. Sparkman, Arkansas, home of

Jim Ed Brown and Bonnie Brown and Maxine,

 

Louisianan. Their biggest song, “Jimmy Brown,”

not “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy,” that A.P. Carter

 

lament: the Browns’s “Jimmy Brown” was based

on the folksong, “Three Bells”: Roy Orbison sings my

 

favorite version: the old songs gave The Browns popular

sellers like “Scarlet Ribbons” and “The Old Lamplighter.”

 

Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie sang off and on until Jim Ed

kept singing when the trio stopped: “Pop-A-Top Again,

 

I Think I’ll Have Just One More Round.” Before I

forget I want you to know that Tom Brumley’s

 

one of my favorite steel-guitarists; Boudleaux and

Felice Bryant, two of my special songwriters, wrote

 

Little Jimmy Dickens’s first hit. I learned it because I

am a “Country Boy”: “I’m just a plain old country boy,

 

a cornbread loving country boy; I raise cane on

Saturday but I go to church on Sunday.” Isn’t

 

childhood the works? Read Dylan Thomas or

Theodore Roethke: I figure I’m not a failure,

 

trying to make something out of local

stuff, my years as a boy in the country, the

 

road not yet paved in my mind, the huge, red-tailed

hawk circling easily out over the five-acre field,

 

instead of drafting near the house to stir the baby

bluebirds: clearly trouble comes in phases of the

 

early years; if I do not succeed, I lose the brilliance

of the dwelling I was born in: inviting you, too, to

 

come, sit a spell, while we talk about words in these

B’s, for example. The Bryants wrote songs on the

 

funny-side of life−like “Hey Joe.” I learned it from

Carl Smith. The Everlys recorded the Bryants’

 

“Bye Bye Love.” The Osborne Brothers released

“Rocky Top.” Jim Reeves named his band for “Blue

 

Boy”: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” My blades get

chummed with black-green, pussle-gutting wads.

 

The spindles crank under my seat, stalling my

John Deere LT 155 until it chokes down. I

 

smell a thicket of fishbait. I am no mechanic

want-to-be: I use wheel-chocks when I transport the

 

mower. I want to learn how to doctor a ratchet; that

is, actually use one. The manual does not say:

 

Warning: pull strap all the way through slot of

short-hooked end and then hook both ends, ratcheting

 

the tie-downs three times. Oh those tie-downs −

like the whiskers of Toonces the Driving Cat − they

 

flow until they almost flap loose from their

moorings meowing along the wind’s road

 

Immortal Dorkman’s major tune. There is a

lot of bucking, too, especially when I drive over

 

railroad tracks slow enough to bounce the little

tractor or the Scag, hoping and praying wheels

 

will not roll, wondering if I locked the brakes. I

perspire. Will the unblocked tires (forgot those

 

chocks) show me off to Someone Who Knows,

dressed in JD Green − or Scag Orange with that

 

Tiger Cat logo across the shirt? The cash-register

pings and I pay this time the woman at the

 

Quality Equipment Company (the John Deere place)

and she says: “Honey, your mower has been

 

ready since July 20 − we called you and left a

message on your voice-mail machine.” The

 

burden’s on the payee, isn’t it, the tutee,

underdog. Cricket does not know she’s one:

 

weighs ten pounds, Long Valley Norwich Terrier,

born, June 22, 2002, breeder, Georgia Rose Crompton:

 

Cricket’s ten years old on her birthday, 2012: what

beautiful and loyal companion she is: never

 

smiles, just rolls her eyes around, like that Lucky

Old Sun, waiting for me to come home,

 

staying by my side without straying, until she

smells an animal and she’s gone, like Don Rich,

 

that guitar-playing fiddler whose motorcycle did

him in and under: Buck Owens said his “right arm

 

was gone”: O sleep good and rise, you Buckaroo.

Nin and I saw Buck Owens and the Buckaroos

 

once at a theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

When I was fourteen at Cleveland School, by the

 

way, I was in the chorale just long enough to sing

“There’s a pawnshop on the corner in Pittsburgh,

 

Pennsylvania, and we stroll hand in hand beneath

the clock!” The Buckaroos were dressed in yellow:

 

Buck looked like Big Bird. To fly you must feel the

fuzz under your armpits and hold on to your seat: it’s

 

lonely there, hero-worship a far cry from Tom Brumley’s

steeling-glow. Tom’s Albert Brumley’s son. His bar

 

swoops the neck of his guitar toward

Doyle Holley, Rich, and all the Buckaroos.

 

 

 

Chapter 28, from Country

 

 

I don’t want to surf Imagination for any

chronology: surfeit withers like

 

Saran Cling Plus Wrap with its sharp-cutting

edge, no Hallmark attendance, no Phuns; yet,

 

pshaw − clear the throat and Hawkshaw Hawkins

appears as a given. Harold Hawkins, the singer

 

from Huntington, died in the plane crash with

Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Randy Hughes,

 

the pilot. I wonder if Hawkshaw of “Dry September”

could sing:   I’ll bet he hummed some amid the

 

powder and the pomade, hemming and hawing, trying

to make a difference among cowards ganging up

 

on Will Mayes: Hawk knew Mayes did not harm

Miss Minnie Cooper; yet he went along with the

 

lynching party, maybe hoping to help throw off

balance the whole bunch − Butch, McLendon, and the

 

hot-heads − faithful their rage might pummel evil into

bigotries too many to matter, Will calling Hawk,

 

Mr. Henry. Like a sharp-eyed detective

Hawkshaw Hawkins was a hunter in his youth. Why,

 

he might have been called “Hare,” I suppose, for

I’ve read he traded some rabbits he shot for a guitar: since

 

Wheeling was near, he was close to the WWVA

Jamboree, starred there, regularly, in the early 50’s,

 

appearing also on Red Foley’s Jubilee on ABC-TV:

my junior year at Cleveland High he joined the

 

Opry, 1955: Saturday nights I’d hear him on WSM,

650 A.M., the Air Castle of the South: “Sunny Side of the

 

Mountain,” “Barbara Allen”; “The Little White-washed

Chimney” he sang his heart out on, gathering in the

 

boy he was, born 1921, died 1963 near Camden,

Tennessee, in that airplane which fell into pieces

 

approaching Nashville: the troupe had done a

benefit in Kansas City, Kansas, for the widow of

 

“Cactus” Jack Wesley Call, a local DJ, who died in

a car crash, the chain of wrecks continuing after the

 

plane scattered on the ground, when Jack Anglin,

tenor singer of Johnny and Jack, got killed in a

 

highway wreck on his way home near Nashville,

after attending a memorial service for Patsy Cline:

 

to eulogize his friends in his song Tex Ritter rewrote

his “Hillbilly Heaven.” I’ve levitated in lofts as a

 

boy − you could say without much pretense I could

have been the Billy in the Low Ground, for I have

 

pronged hay with forks and pitched it; in the fall

when brown leaves call, I have set my fields on fire;

 

I have showered sparkles, too, with the folks at

PoetrySpark, at a Sizzle in Raleigh, reading with

 

poet David Rigsbee: we did not let the flame get

out of hand in the room we were in, a dressed-up

 

backend of a bar and grill, money exchanging in

front, but one − to be heard − did kiss a microphone

 

which smelled like a breath birthing breadthways

so the audience could hear: I could feel Poetry Central

 

lowering its bar to carry on without me: first reciting

Emily’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and an

 

Ammons ditty from Sphere about verse dithering

among loose vowels or “sun-thing” like that, I

presented “Etching” from my Possum and finished off

with “Refrain” from Family Matters: Homage to July,

 

the Slave Girl in part about that ten-year-old

who took me away; art quailed, images fell

 

amuck, trucks on the streets ran into man-holes

withering to size and fed the underground metaphors

 

Stevens’s angels could have mixed, my underwear

shifting, the mike outright stinking: I could tell

 

the audience might not have come there to hear me

imagine what life’s like on my greatgreatgranddad’s

 

plantation: or, maybe I am wrong and some are

right: certainly, by jostling history to Poetry Personal, I

 

did not usurp the drinkers listening to “I’ll Take You

Home Again, Kathleen”: I lend and lean PoetrySpark from

 

this terrace under D’s Canopy, the same old place Nin

fell into a depression for the I-don’t-know-what-time.

 

The mockingbird’s singing in the Nellie Stevens holly.

Cricket’s watching the shadows for wings leafing the

 

hollering geese: the tulip poplar’s leaves fill the lawn

right where I ran the Scag and made the grass pretty; yet

 

the eye, my pupil, most of all, must find me, as I

evoke George D. Hay again, radio-station executive, announcer,

 

reporter, editor, Indiana-born, 1895, died, Virginia, 1968,

elected Country Music Hall of Fame, same year: I have brought up

 

the rear of multiple careers all my life: at first all I

knew was singing − and maybe that’s the last thing I know:

 

when I was fifteen I ordered from WSM A Story of the

Grand Ole Opry by George D. Hay, “The Solemn Old Judge”

 

(Copyright, 1953, by George D. Hay); after all these

years I’ve lived with the book − a pamphlet

 

sixty-three pages, first edition, price, $1.00,

privately printed. I took it off the shelf and a

 

cut-out fell out, a paper microphone, WSM, I

crafted for Miss Galloway’s typing classes I

 

took in 1954 and 1955: no “strikeovers,” she’d say:

now what can I say: that there were three books

 

in our house in ’53 − the Big Family Bible

(Southwestern Publishing House, Nashville, Tennessee),

 

a Sears Roebuck Catalogue, and A Story of the Grand Ole Opry:

life’s more than a bunch of crows cawing over western

 

Johnston County: doesn’t a life of poetry fill with the

marvelous and the shaky, solid rays of suns the world

 

over, with rags and children in them, fashions sparkling

bold and arrogant; ravens tagging the tops of sycamores

 

as one settles in the tip of a very slim-needled stem atop

a pine in Danny Langdon’s meadow, Danny, walking

 

up to me, cicada’s hull in his beard, while Nin

waits to come out, be counted and courted again.

 

George D. Hay started in real estate, taking a

job with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, then

 

turning to Radio, his birthday radiating between the

births of Paul Green (1894) and William Faulkner (1897):

 

I can see my father’s Philco on the little vanity by the

kitchen-sittingroom window, the radio’s top hot from the

 

blue-green-rose tubes in the casing, the noise a crackle, some

snaps, pops, rattle: I’ve read that Hay was the first to report the

 

death of President Harding, 1923: more people knew Hay’s

name after that; he became main announcer for WLS,

 

Chicago: my namesake Shelby Jean Davis he must have

known: by 1925 Tennessee got WSM, owned by

 

The National Life and Accident Insurance Company:

Hay put fiddling Uncle Jimmy Thompson on the

 

radio, called the show The WSM Barn Dance,

November, 1925, probably not a rainbow in sight, Hay

 

saying something like The clouds are grand with

opera; now the land’s full of grasshoppers hopping and

 

hoot owls hooting; cotton blooms a shindig and so

do we: Welcome to the Grand Ole Opry! The Dixie Dew Drop,

 

Uncle Dave Macon, came on in ’26: the Fruit Jar Drinkers,

the Gully Jumpers, the Possum Hunters, Delmore Brothers:

 

Sam and Kirk McGee from Tennessee: Hay brought in

there, on stage, a real steamboat whistle and he

 

blew that thing; the clear channel station went out

into the land, all over here near Benson: I listened:

 

peripheries found me, the long rows without end − go to

the end and turn around, a through and a round: feed the hogs,

 

water the mules, and watch out for snakes in the corncrib: the

people said You will wither with the wheat and the corn in

 

fall and shocks shall stand tall and you shall still miss the

image seeking you all the more, life and death informing life

 

and death, the living and the dying, the call of the payment and the

pavement in the central empire of the marginal: dirt roads and

 

woods shall celebrate triumph and return, as sorrow’s

by your side and memory your foundation.

 

 

 

Chapter 47, from Country

 

From Paul’s Hill for my country all the songs in the book

for the singers and the songwriter-poets I sing −

 

“If That’s the Fashion” and “If You Ain’t Loving, You Ain’t Living.”

Songwriter: Tommy Collins (Leonard Sikes). Like a Bird of Dawning

 

I’ll chant all night long for the Pythian Home − and for orphans − for

Leon Payne’s “I Love You Because” and let the

 

pages record Gene Autry’s rendition of Ted Daffan’s “I’m a Fool to Care.”

Marty Robbins just about weeps “I’ll Go On Alone.” “Is It Too Late Now?”

 

Listen to my brother Brown and me perform a Flatt & Scruggs Songbook.

Picture me crooning “I’ve Always Wanted you,” one of the first

 

country songs I heard Sonny James smooth seemingly out of drops

bubbling tears in his throat. I’m prepared to sing Marty’s

 

“I’ve Got a Woman’s Love” he sang for his wife Marizona. I shall sing it for

Nin: no longer impatient with scores and chords, I’ll ford the river: “I Won’t

 

Have to Cross Jordan Alone,” my Dell laptop changing and moving

words − Salute! − the Esterbrook Fountain Pen I wrote in flowery permanence

 

the songs in my book (ink was less expensive than the Ball Point, invented the year

I was born): the long run stretches “Just Out of Reach of My Two Open Arms,”

 

V. F. (Pappy) Stewart waiting for Faron Young to tune body and soul, as I

make that creation the origin of my teen years: Ferlin Husky:

 

I bought the album-turned CD − “Among My Souvenirs”: Ferlin

died, March, 2011. Merle Haggard said: “There were a lot of years

 

when nobody in the business could follow Ferlin Husky.

He was the big live act of the day. A great entertainer.”

 

Now stand up for Nelda Fairchild, the real author of “Kisses on Paper”:

May Ned (her pen-name − reap heaps): “Kiss Me Big,”

 

Ernie Ford’s novelty, breaks out of Speedy West’s steel and

Jimmy Bryant’s strings. Catch the sound of Wade Ray’s lament against

 

that Devil Booze (“Let Me Go, Devil”). “Letters Have No Arms”−Ernest Tubb

had a hand in writing − I learned it from Wade Ray and the Cow Town Five,

 

D-J-ing my life away, part-time, WMPM, Smithfield, North Carolina.

Sense in Ray’s version of “It’s All Your Fault” the poetry Cindy Walker pens.

 

May I remember the first stanza of “Look What Followed Me Home Tonight,”

lost from the little book: deliver Newt Richardson’s and Vic McAlpin’s lyrics

 

for “A Lover’s Quarrel.”   “Mister Sandman!” Popular in the 50’s when I made

my book while Webb Pierce sang Merle Kilgore’s “More and More” and Carl Smith

 

cried out for all tomorrows Leon Payne’s “More Than Anything Else in The World.”

Like most of Payne’s songs, this one feels like a poem and

 

a love-story: “More than anything else in the world I want to hold

you in my arms, darling, when you are near, then everything seems

 

all right.” “One Has My Name, the Other Has My Heart”

(Eddie Dean, Dearest Dean, Hal Blair) I learned from my

 

brother Paul who sang it in the late 1940’s as part of the Campus Playboys when

he was a student at Louisburg College, Louisburg, North Carolina.

 

Paul also sang and played rhythm guitar with The Moonliters,

a band which played around Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

Jim Fleenor played clarinet in the Campus Playboys

band, after college, returning home to Abingdon, Virginia, where

 

he presented full craftily for decades his clarinet in The Highland Quintet − east

Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina:

 

Freddie Hart’s “Loose Talk” I learned from Carl Smith: Buck Owens and

Rose Maddox recorded a blazing version of the song, a real country feel in it,

 

a smell of pending divorce court and family matters, gossip, deceit:

“We have to leave here to find peace of mind, dear, some place where we

 

can live a life of our own, for I know you love me and happy we could be

if some folks would leave us alone”: “Pretty Words,” Marty Robbins: one

 

of my mother’s favorite songs and mine, too: “Pretty words were like heaven to me”:

“Release Me,” Eddie Miller, Dub Williams, Robert Yount, listed

 

as writers: my favorite version: Ray Price’s: everybody

recorded it, just about: “Rosetta” I got from Wade Ray. Earl Hines

 

and Henri Woode, writers: Bob Wills sang it too, recorded it. He loved the song,

named a daughter − Rosetta. Leon Rausch recorded it with Tom Morrell and

 

the Time-Warped Top Hats: “San Antonio Rose” − Bob Wills − one of

the all-time classic swings: Nin and I sing it often to hear the players play:

 

“Someone to Care,” one of my favorite sacred songs, “Jimmie Davis”:

“That’s the Good Lord Saying Good Morning,” “Tex Williams”:

 

I must have liked the song for the pop-poetry: the world as

Nature, I would learn later: “When the meadowlark sings at dawning

 

and the wind’s in the willow trees, that’s the Good Lord saying good

morning, good morning to you and me”: “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,”

 

written, Gene Autry, a standard I sing. How many more! “A Place for Girls Like You,”

Red Hays, writer, Faron Young, singer. On this hill, through the fields,

 

Brown and I harmonize “Talk of the Town,” one we learned from

Don Reno and Red Smiley, early 50’s: I remember

 

they had the song on King: O Songs of King! When the last breath

I take among days of shadows and desert-rattling water, “Then I’ll

 

Stop Loving You?” I’ll bow to Jim Reeves who’ll sing it, while Wade Ray

bows his fiddle and wails “Too Late to Cry.” Noel Boggs shall play his steel guitar;

 

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” bless the flakes as Eddy Arnold falls for all

who’ll listen. I’ll take your hand, Lord, and my brother’s banjo shall roll out

 

“I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” and “The Wiggle Worm Wiggle.”

Jim Eanes’s melodies shall sprindge from his hand burned when he was a

 

child, a bad fire inspiring with ardor “Down Among the Budding Roses.” Shoots

shall shower Little Jimmy Dickens jumping backwards through a hula-hoop,

 

simultaneously pantomiming “Thank You” in rhythm to Thank You! painted on the

back of his acoustic Gibson guitar twirling amid the crowd’s rousing music’s

 

waves, rescuing you and me, O Reader, from the Hand of Many Falsehoods: I

exclaim to the Boy back there on the Hill, “You’re Under Arrest (for Stealing My Heart),”

 

Autry Inman and Bill Foster hoping Ray Price and the Drifting Cowboys

might turn good bad verse into frogskins and liverwurst, leaving the

 

image of theft and scary, sorry lines in corncribs for the rats and

mice that’ll bring back corn they stole last winter: George Washington’s

 

picture shall show supreme! “You’ll find that crime doesn’t pay;

your sentence is life, darling, here by my side, this is the price you must pay.”

 

 

 

BIO

Shelby StephensonShelby Stephenson’s Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize, Allen Grossman, judge. Shelby Stephenson’s The Hunger of Freedom (2014) was published by Red Dashboard.

0

ADORATION #109

by Darren Demaree

 

for the delivery guy from Jimmy Johns

 

When anyone says
have a great fuck-
ing day, it makes

you think you can
have a great fuck-
ing day. Plus, now

you have some chips
& a sandwich.
This can be good.

 

 

 

ADORATION #110

 

for my son

 

Absent
teeth, now
present,

like gravel
between
two ponds,

I un-
derstand
your cry.

 

 

 

ADORATION #111

 

for Nik De Dominic

 

I know all of the different
ways to hold gravel in a drive-
way in Ohio, but I think

I learned what to do with those rocks
in Alabama, how to toss
them casually near train tracks

most of the time because you can
only throw a few of them through
windows without dropping your smoke.

 

 

BIO

darren demareeDarren C. Demaree is the author of “As We Refer to Our Bodies” (8th House, 2013), “Temporary Champions” (Main Street Rag, 2014), and “Not For Art Nor Prayer” (8th House, 2015). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net Nomination. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

 

 

 

 

0
Jacob Reecher

In the Care of Professionals

by Jacob Reecher

 

Drop Cap Fifteen people are playing bingo. The prize is a Twizzler. Any one person can win a maximum of two Twizzlers, and no one can win twice until everyone has won once. These people are men between the ages of 18 and fuck-knows, and this is the first time they’ve been reasonably quiet all day – although there are the obligatory bingo jokes.

A petit blonde nurse, dressed in her own street clothes like all of the half-dozen or so nurses, turns the crank and reads the number from a ball[1]. “B-4,” she says.

Covering the B-4s on his cards, Ryan, a young man with a widow’s peak of blonde hair and cartoonishly blue eyes says, “Before what?”

There is tepid laughter, but not from James, who shaved his wild beard in the lobby mirror yesterday[2], and who is in his third month on the ward[3].

“Ugh!” he says with sarcastic exaggeration. “I’m gonna throw something at you.”

James is the first among us to win a Twizzler, which is strange, because we’re allowed to play with as many boards as we believe will raise our chances of winning, and James is the only one of us with only one board. I’m playing with two myself; Ryan is playing with four; Dale, the tall one in khakis and a sweater with the strained and husky voice that sounds like the muscles in his throat are cramped in that way that wakes you up at night clutching your calf and wrenching the top of your foot towards your shin, is playing with six.

“N-44,” says the nurse.

“I can’t keep up with this shit,” says Andrew, a.k.a. Solo, who is bald and tattooed on his neck and wears his institute-issued gray sweatpants low like he is making a rap video. He’s playing with nine bingo cards, and he’s one of the last to get his candy. I don’t think he’s too upset about it – none of us would be. The only reason we’re sitting here playing Bingo is because the nurse said everyone would win eventually. A candy guarantee is enough to get fifteen grown men to play bingo when the only other options are Saturday-evening television[4], a paltry DVD/video collection, or reading a dime novel on a mattress that feels like a layer of Beanie Babies on slab of concrete.

Twizzler, anyone?

 

* * *

 

I arrived on the ward after spending twelve hours in detox. I did not need to spend twelve hours in detox; I blew a .02 on arrival and could have easily blown zeroes by breakfast. However, for reasons you can infer from the steak-knife scratches up and down my arm and the short in my bathroom’s electric socket, I was to be taken from detox to a mental hospital until a court hearing would decide my fate: return to school or remain on the psych ward until I was considered neither a threat to myself nor others.

And so I stood, handcuffs looped through a special leather belt that kept my hands graciously within junk-adjusting distance, outside door number six of some brown building covered in box elder bugs. I was cold, wearing only the white t-shirt and torn tight jeans the cops had pulled on me before carting me to detox. I had not shaved in four days, and my beard, which had been subject to several days’ worth of alcohol-induced testosterone spikes, was beginning to itch[5]. My hair was matted, unwashed and uncombed since my last shift at KFC two days ago, flattened into shameful hat-head. I was happy at least to be wearing the leather boots I have described as being “too fly,” but in honest they were cheap, and after only a few months of use were as close to falling apart as I was. I doubted they would survive the cold and snowy and wet Wisconsin winter.

With me, ringing the doorbell, was a Platteville police officer and some fucking intern whom I felt I recognized, and about whose presence I was not happy. What exactly was the logic in sending a student on a ride-along with the cop transporting another student from detox to the mental hospital? How did Platteville’s finest reconcile this plan with confidentiality?

“Well son,” Officer Half-Beard probably said to Intern before knocking on the door of the detox center to pick me up, putting his hand on Intern’s shoulder and strapping on his this-is-serious-policeman-stuff face. “Can you keep a secret, Champ?”

Platteville’s not a big campus. You see people again. And Intern, who served the vital purpose of holding things which Officer Half-Beard had no third hand for[6], would surely be pointing me out to his buddies in the student center, kicking off the highlight story of the lunch break with a “No you guys, see that dude? Well, one time….”

Finally a nurse named Katrina answered the door. She looked tired – not the way you look after a long day at work or an endless night out, but in the way a grade-school teacher with a naughty class looks in mid-May. She brought me inside and had Officer Half-Beard remove my cuffs. As I rubbed my wrists and followed her into the heart of the ward, Katrina asked me if I’d ever been on a psych ward.

I don’t remember whether I said yes or no. I had been in a psych ward, but only as a visitor.

“Well, we’re state-run,” she said, “so we have some pretty sick people here. Just let me know if you don’t feel safe.

“In here,” she ushered me through a door bearing the words “Treatment Room,” where she checked my vitals and asked if I were feeling signs of withdrawal. I said no, but she told me the nurses would find me every few hours to take my vitals and ask whether I felt any headaches or anxieties.

Katrina asked me to wait in one of the three “day rooms” until she got my personal room ready. Dinner would be served in about an hour.[7]

I won’t go as far as to say I felt unsafe, but in those first few minutes on the ward it was strange to – instead of guessing someone’s taste in music or sense of humor – to be prospecting likely levels of craziness[8]. It was a goofy little twist on that “new kid in school” feeling.

I had trouble sizing up the first patient who spoke to me. He was of average height, but looked longer because he was thin and wearing the gray sweat-suit that about half the patients wore.

“What are you here for?” he asked, looking at me with polite eye contact that because of the situation and his vivid bluer-than-O’toole eyes made me nervous.

I told him quietly.

He didn’t blink. “How long are you here?” he said.

“I dunno,” I said. “My court hearing is Tuesday, or Wednesday, they said, at the latest.”

“You’re lucky,” he said.

This may have been and may be true. Hell, it was and it is. It being true doesn’t make it less weird to hear when you said you tried to kill yourself three sentences ago.

“Wh-, uh, why are you here?”

The young man, whose name was Ryan, laughed and said, “Well Wednesday I woke up to the cops bangin’ on my door…well maybe I’d better start at the beginning.”

The story began to skip around a bit, due to Ryan’s ADHD. The jist of it is that Ryan “was fucked up in a Wal-Mart bathroom,” and somebody called the cops or an ambulance.

“I heard somebody banging on the stall door behind me,” he said, “so I quick flushed a needle down the toilet.”

EMTs took him away in an ambulance, but a bag of drugs was found in the stall. To avoid jail, Ryan said he was depressed and was sent to an expensive-as-shit psychiatric hospital outside of Milwaukee. To get out, he signed a settlement that allowed him to leave on several conditions: see a therapist, no drinking or drugs, et cetera.

“There was one little clause that fucked me,” Ryan said, indicating its size with a forefinger and thumb held half an inch apart. “It said I had to follow all my doctor’s treatment recommendations.”

Ryan’s doctor wanted him to take a non-stimulant medicine for his ADHD, but Ryan had no insurance and could not pay for the expensive medicine. When Ryan asked for cheaper meds, the doctor refused because he did not want to prescribe Ryan any stimulants.

“I told him to fuck himself, threw a Kleenex box at him, spit on the floor, and left. And the next morning I woke up to the police bangin’ on my door.”

Ryan and I played Texas hold ‘em with another patient our age named Jack. Jack had keen eyes and dark hair that on his chin formed an uneven beard and his head seemed to harden into a wet helmet no matter how long ago his last shower was. He wore discharge clothes, having been in solitary confinement for a month and a half prior to his arrival on the ward.

About three hands in a nurse named Jay told me my psychiatrist was waiting for me. The doc was a nice and hip-seeming guy with thick-framed glasses who wore his thinning hair like a fashion statement. He was a keen reader of body language and accurately put into precise words my every facial contortion. He asked me questions. I answered them as honestly as I could.

 

* * *

 

Detox sucked. The hangover wasn’t particularly bad, nor was the food[9]. What sucked was that I had no idea what would happen to me after I got out. Would I get home before my classes ended that day? In time for work at four? Or would I be taken to a mental hospital indefinitely? Most of my time in detox was spent soberly considering these questions.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had the assurance that I would be on my way home in a few hours with nothing but hospital clothes and a story to tell. I’m sure waking up in detox still drunk and without memory of the previous night would have a fun “The Hangover” ring to it.

For example:

I had been awake for three or four hours[10], and was sitting in an armchair in the lobby reading an issue of The Economist[11], when a red-blooded Wisconsin college boy stumbled out of his room and said to the nearest nurse, “Excuse me, could you possibly tell me where I am?”

“You’re at an alcohol detox treatment center in Madison.”

“I’m in Madison?”

“Yes.”

Maybe detox would have just been boring had it not been for this kid. He asked the nurse for his cell phone and began calling friends in a vain attempt to reconstruct his evening.

“The last thing I remember is being in my room, drunk as shit,” I heard him say at least seven times. “I don’t even remember the party.”

He was wearing a blue hospital shirt because the one he was brought in had been cut off, likely to resuscitate him the night before. When he tried the breathalyzer at eleven in the morning, he blew a .12.

Shit dude. I don’t exactly abstain myself, but…shit.

 

* * *

 

Technology has never been a friend to me. And you know, I really don’t care much for it either. In TV ads newfangled gadgets are like godsends, able to coolly ease and improve lives due to superior usability and quality. The Mac, the Smartphone, updates to my internet browser, digital cameras, have all played the role of my technological nemeses.

But my great enemy is the DVD player. Get me wrong not, I’m a movie buff. But I was, throughout high school and for several years during breaks from college at UW-Platteville[12], a childcare worker, and my time at Tiger Den, as it was called[13] during the school year[14], was exacerbated considerably when the TV’s good old trusty VHS tape player was replaced with a DVD player that’s remote was naturally lost instantly. This resulted in cumulative days spent on my knees between 2007 and 2011 in vain attempts to get past the main menu of movies that would not play when I pressed the player’s “play” button. I am 90% sure that the vocalized impatience of the Tiger Den kids[15] over those four years flipped something in my psyche. So the following anecdote is not altogether lacking in humor, and perhaps even some kind of poetry:

After the interview with my psychiatrist and another with a physician, I was again set loose on the ward. Ryan spotted me walking into the day room and asked if I wanted to watch Ocean’s 12. I would have been more excited about Ocean’s 11 or 13, but the other option was Paul Blart: Mall Cop – still an easy choice.

We asked a nurse, a black man with an African accent almost too strong to understand, to set up the movie for us, and settle down onto green furniture that looked like it was made from recycled McDonald’s play-places, but felt more like a stress ball. The nurse unlocked the cabinet of the entertainment center under the TV and inserted the disc into the DVD player. The TV was small and our “couch” was across the room. From where we sat, the screen was no farther across than my index finger held at arm’s length. I worried for a second about my film-viewing pleasure – I didn’t even have my glasses. The cable television characters that appeared on-screen before the nurse switched the input were blurry masses of tan and white.

I stopped worrying once the nurse hit the button and the screen turned to static, only static besides the words “No signal,” flashing in a little gray box in the middle of the screen. Wires were checked, another nurse was fetched.

“No signal.”

“No signal.”

I was bummed that Ryan and I couldn’t watch Ocean’s 12, but at the same time I finally knew how the kids felt on the days I couldn’t get the DVD player to work. It’s like you’d been promised something and the promiser reneged. It feels like being cheated.

 

* * *

 

I’m reading in the day room with the Packers/Colts game in its second quarter. Dale is at the puzzle table, Jeremy is behind him in an armchair, and Andrew is sweeping. This is a classic strategy to quiet tiresome talkers like Andrew, a strategy I learned week one of childcare: give small-time troublemakers and loudmouths menial jobs to keep them distracted.

John, a man whom I haven’t heard speak and who wears orange Crocs with his gray sweat-suit, enters and starts shuffling through puzzle pieces.

“Will ya fucking move?” says Jeremy with quick anger. “I can’t see the fucking TV.”

“Why should I?” says John. There are empty chairs and sofas all around the room, and John can’t move out of Jerry’s line of sight without abandoning the puzzle.

“I can’t see the fucking TV!” says Jeremy, his voice rising.

John grabs his crotch. “You want somma this, motherfucker?”

“No, and if you think I do you must be a faggot.”

“How old are you, thirteen years or thirteen months?”

“I’m 49.”

“Yeah, well I spent five fuckin’ years in fuckin’ Vietnam,” John says, kicking Jeremy challengingly in the foot, “and I don’t have to take this!”

Jeremy sits up and clutches the arms of his chair. “Kick me again!”

“Come on then!” says John, striking a fighting stance, dukes up.

“Kick me again! I’ll put you on your ass in half a second!”

“Come on then!”

Jerry heaves his mass to his feet and steps closer to John. “Come at me!” he hollers.

“I was in fuckin’ Vietnam!” John yells, backing away from the curly-haired behemoth inching towards him, finger in a deadly point.

Just when I think I’m about to see grown men come to blows for the first time in my life, nurses rush in and tell both men to go to their rooms.

John acquiesces immediately, and stalks off muttering about Vietnam.

Jeremy is not so quiet, and lands himself in a chair.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong! Why d’I gotta go to my room? He kicked me! He kicked me!

The nurses began to interrogate Dale and I.

“I asked him nice to move s’I could see the TV!”

At daycare this could have gone on all day. But whereas childcare workers can’t touch kids for fear of lawsuits, physical force is totally in-bounds here on the psych ward. Jerry knows this, and he can also hear Dale tattling from the puzzle table, so after a minute more of arguing he begrudgingly lifts himself and stomps to his room for his time-out.

 

* * *

 

To be sure, I am a man whose fastidiousness in regards to my appearance leans dangerously into absurdity’s turf. I have been known, for example, to shower, style my hair, and spend ten minutes choosing my clothes, on a Saturday during which I have no plans to leave my house.

So as I made my way to the bathroom after snack[16] on Monday night, it was not unusual for me to still be wearing my precious leather boots, even though I had only been reading in my room[17].

I knocked on the door of the half-bath on my wing. Hearing no response from inside, I entered and conducted business.

There were four bathrooms on the ward. Two were half-baths, only a toilet and sink, within a few steps of the lobby. Andrew, however, suggested I use the full bathrooms, equipped with two stalls, two urinals, and three sinks each, due to their less frequent use and consequent norms of tolerable cleanliness. It would have behooved me to heed this advice.

I saw the floor was wet when I entered, but unfortunately assumed it was water. Strolling down the hall to my room, however, I heard with each step a soft sound not unlike the peeling of old Velcro. My boots were sticking to the floor, dipped as they had been in the piss of a grown man.

Needless to say, I was careful to take off my boots before sprawling on the tabletop they call a bed and lying awake.

 

 * * *

 

“We’ve proved that time travel is possible,” says Andrew. “Here, I’ll show you, but I gotta get up.”

This group[18] began as a trivia game in which patients read each other riddles from a deck of playing cards. Here are the riddles I read (answers found below):

 

“Dare it so” is just a clue

for you to rearrange;

a giant belt in outer space?

That sounds a little strange[19].

 

In Greek it means

“A wandering star”;

the closest neighbor

is very far[20].

 

This fluid’s name

is what’s in question;

I start the process

of digestion[21].

 

There was something deeply sad about watching Dale practically choke reading a poorly-metered iambic quatrain that rhymes “bees” with “sneeze.” James was so bored he read the classifieds of the Wisconsin State Journal. Lawrence, a bespectacled gentleman who is friendly with distinguished academics across the country, and who without my knowledge secured my transfer from the bioengineering department of John Hopkins University in Baltimore to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I could finally realize my dream of becoming a cardiologist, and who (don’t tell anyone), is actually 003, an English spy working for the CIA, highly prized for his mental dexterity and imperviousness to torture, falls asleep after reading his first riddle[22].

After telling my third riddle, I skip off to the bathroom. When I return, the game has broken down into an exchange of trivia, which Andrew naturally dominates with information that I, thanks to reading Kratt’s Creatures books to introverted six-year-olds,

either already know[23] or know is incorrect[24].

I guess I should cut him some slack. He himself had said that he learned to read and write only a few years ago[25], and was honestly surprised that I, at age twenty-one, had never been to jail.

But as he steps now to a space on the wall that isn’t covered by a completed puzzle, preparing to explain how time travel has been proven possible, I fold my arms and put on my most cynical face – the one that reads: “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“A’ight, so here’s a star in the sky, kno’wh’I’m sayin’?” he says[26], pointing to a spot on the wall. “And it takes a million years for me to see the light from this star.”

We all stare. Particulars obviously incorrect, concept close enough. So what?

“But this star moves,” says Andrew, turning from the wall and pointing to the ceiling. “Throughout the night it moves across the sky.” He moves his hands in the air to illustrate the sliding of the heavens’ panorama.

Andrew has wounds up and down his arm of varying size and shape. The first night I arrived he told me that when he was caught with twenty grams of cocaine, four pounds of weed, and a cache of weapons whose names I recognized only vaguely from the dialogue of very serious TV cops, he was sentenced to life in prison[27]. His reaction: fuck it. He sliced his wrist with a razor. They took away his razor, so he stabbed his forearm with a ballpoint pen. When they took that away, he bit two dime-sized holes a few inches below his wrist. There is still a stitch in each hole. Unable to extract all his teeth, and by this point convinced that “Solo” would inevitably find a way to knock himself off, the State sent him here to the psych ward – presumably to teach us about time travel. Andrew seems to have called off snuffing it for now – his lawyer tells him they might beat the rap if the search which revealed the drugs and guns can be proven illegal.

“So how come I see it the same when the star is here,” he points back to the spot on the wall, “and the light takes a million years to get to me as I do when it’s here,” he points to another spot several inches from the first, “when it takes three million years to get to me?”

There is an explosion of groans, nos, and buts from the group[28]. James leaves under cover of the noise, shaking his head. Once again Andrew is able to shout over everyone.

“Did I just go over y’all’s heads?” he says, before launching into a repeat of his argument that proves, rather than nips in the bud, my suspicion the he stumbled upon this theory one morning while smoking a blunt on the way back from the corner store. While he had lived in Chicago, a trip to the corner store was second in Andrew’s morning routine[29]. Every day he bought a pack of Newport 100s, two ice cream sandwhiches[30], a strawberry milk Big Chug, and two blunt wraps. Andrew would roll a blunt in the store and then walk back home, smoking, eating, and drinking.[31]

After his third explanation of time travel I finally figure out exactly what was wrong with his theory.

“I’ll tell you where you’re wrong,” I say. “The stars appear to move because the earth rotates. So their apparent movement across the sky doesn’t affect the Earth’s distance from any one star.”

Andrew suddenly becomes professorial as hell. He gets a piece of paper and starts drawing a diagram.

“Here’s us,” he says, pointing to a little black dot. “And here’s the sun,” he points to another dot twice the size of the first and a half-inch away. “And this [third black dot two inches away] is the star. See how Earth moves away from it? So how come I see this star just as good from here as from here?”

I leave the room dazed at both the man’s perseverance and his stupidity. A patient in solitary confinement is beating his head against the wall – it echoes throughout the ward. This is Dan, whom I met my first night here. He, like me, is in the ward due to what he calls “circumstantial insanity,” and told me when I met him that if I want to talk, he’s a pretty level-headed guy. He is now in solitary confinement for punching out a light bulb in the bathroom and holding the socket to his neck. As his head’s thumps echo through the halls, I consider knocking on the door and asking to join him.[32]

 

* * *

 

And if you, reader, are anything like my classmates in workshop, you’re waiting for a moment of vulnerability from me, the narrator. For example, the rundown of my history of suicide attempts, eating disorders, and past and current drug and alcohol consumption that I gave to my psychiatrist. It might make for some interesting dialogue, or a chance to reveal my – the narrator’s – tumultuous past, you could be thinking.

Or possibly a scene in which I reveal a real emotional connection between myself and, say, my parents, would be an effective way to let the reader into my – the narrator’s – emotional world. Just think of the fireworks inherent in the revelation of the long-standing family dynamics[33] that could have in part contributed to my – the narrator’s – being jumped by a bunch of cops while naked and drunk in my – the narrator’s – apartment and carted to a detox center by a pretty blond one[34].

But a scene with my – the narrator’s – mom and dad might toe the line of cliché, or might come across as emotionally manipulative. Maybe something more low-key would suffice. Perhaps a vignette about the time Jack and I played chess, best two out of three, and I beat him the first time with a nasty little queen trick[35] before he handed my ass to me twice on a plastic dinner tray. I – the narrator – went back to school the next day, and I believe Jack went back to solitary confinement. Another possibility is me and Jack and Ryan playing cards[36] in a dark room[37].

This last example provides an excellent segue into my confession to the fact that none of these scenes will be included in this piece. This is because my – the narrator’s – time talking with my psychiatrist or visiting with my parents or playing chess or cards with Jack and/or Ryan was mine – the narrator’s. While the rest of my time at Mendota Mental Health Institute was spent remembering dialogue or constructing scenes in my head or jotting impressions in a notebook, I turned the writer off for some parts. And unfortunately for you – the reader – those parts turned out to be exactly what you wanted most to read about.

 

* * *

 

I apologize.

A psych ward is the only place on Earth where three sober people can all simultaneously sell themselves the idea that a game of Monopoly would be fun. This is because people in psych wards are either crazy or crazy-bored or both.

Ryan, Dale, and I have played maybe twelve turns. We can only find one die, which we roll twice. Dale and I have each amassed a respectable real-estate investment portfolio and are entering the game’s early wheel-and-deal stages. Ryan has landed on “Free Parking” twice, and is biding his time.

A cute young nurse with a slim waist and black curly hair approaches with a small paper cup of meds for Dale.

“What is it?” Dale croaks. “Since when do I take my medicine now?”

“I don’t know, I’m just following your sheet,” says the nurse. “Will you just take it?”

“Well why should I?” Dale wheezes, his throat visibly straining to speak under his gray goatee.

“Because you have to. Because it would make my life a lot easier.”

“I want,” says Dale, his tight growl rising in volume, “to be told when my medication changes! Why wasn’t I told?”

“Dale,” says a bald male nurse looking up from a newspaper in an armchair in the back of the room. “Would you please not raise your voice?” He spoke like a father desiring a quiet Saturday with no bickering from the kids.

Dale slammed his fist on the table, shaking the die and the chess pieces[38] on the board.

“Dale!” say both nurses.

“This is fucked up! This is fucked up!” Dale’s voice is cracking.

The male nurse stands. “Calm down Dale!”

The cute nurse says gently, “Take your meds.”

“Ah, fuck you,” says Dale, grabbing the cup of pills, emptying it into his mouth, and throwing it on the floor. He does the same with the cup of water. “Get me a grievance form” he said as the cute nurse picked up the cups and left the room.

The male nurse sits down and picks up his paper again. “We don’t have any,” he says as he looks for the spot where he left off.

“I want a grievance form!” Dale hits the table again.

“We don’t have any. Fill out your grievance on a plain piece of paper.”

Slam! “Don’t play this game with me! I know this game!”

The nurse hides behind his newspaper.

Dale is silent.

“It’s your turn Dale,” Ryan says.

Dale looks at the die for a second, then shoves his money to the middle of the board.

“I quit,” he says, getting up and leaving the day room.

 

* * *

 

Every morning after breakfast and an optional shower[39] there was a goal setting group in the main day room. Like all groups, it was optional, but about ten or so patients were usually present[40]. The patients’ goals were usually the same every day. Andrew promised every morning to be “less conceited.”[41] James, throwing his arms in the air in mock enthusiasm, committed daily to being “positive!” Jack once said he wanted to “increase conscious contact with God as I understand it.” He said “it” because “my god’s got some lady parts too.”[42]

 

* * *

 

Daytime Groups.

Saturday: Prose, Poetry, and Lyrics. I am absent due to visit from parents[43].

Sunday: Patients are asked to list what they believe to be the five greatest movies of all time. Next they are asked to imagine different endings for one of the movies. Finally patients imagine different endings for events in their own lives. Ryan said the only thing he would change is signing his stipulation agreement the last time he was on a psych ward. He regrets this more than he regrets his father’s death.

Monday morning: a deck of jumbo cards are passed around. Patients draw one and answer a corresponding question. Patients answer questions in clipped sentences, rushed by the nurses as if we patients care about even distribution of turns. The questions are listed below along with their card counterparts.

 

  • Ace: When and where do you feel most relaxed?
  • Two: What is a hope you have four your future?
  • Three: Where would you like to go on vacation?
  • Four: What is one of your long-term goals and what steps are you taking towards it?
  • Five: What medical breakthrough would you like to see during your lifetime?
  • Six: Name someone who has encouraged you sometime in your life.
  • Seven: Who is someone that is part of your support system?
  • Eight: If a book was written about your life, what would be its title?
  • Nine: Name one decision you made within the last two weeks which has had a positive effect on you.
  • Ten: What are the two most important things in your life?
  • Jack: Tell us something you are proud of.
  • Queen: If you could be any age what would you be and why?
  • King: What is one life improvement you would like to make?[44]
  • Joker: Give yourself a compliment.

 

Monday Afternoon: Bead-fusing – a slow repetitive activity which sooths the mind. I make a flower, but have to stop due to a visit from my parents. Others make lizards, bees, their initials, et cetera. This activity was popular among young girls at daycare.

Tuesday afternoon: gratitude journals. Patients learn to make daily entries of three things they are grateful for, and decorate their journals with patterned construction paper. I do not decorate mine, because my parents arrive to take me away mid-group.

 

 * * *

 

And if you, reader, are wondering[45] if you are wondering why it is that my arm was scratched with a steak-knife or the electrical socket in my bathroom was shorted, I will advise you to keep[46] that particular question to yourself. It doesn’t matter and I’m really tired of talking about it.

 

* * *

 

But this may give you a hint.

The first new patient since my arrival appeared on the ward Sunday night after dinner. I noticed him being given the grand tour on my way to take a phone call. He looked confused and scared, but also a bit like he always expected to be in a place like this sooner or later. I’d seen this face on countless kindergarteners, but on a guy my age it threw me.

A few hours later I was watching the Saints/Chargers game and playing solitaire. I had just played my best game ever – a smooth and fast three-card draw – when the new guy walked in. He looked younger than me. I asked how it was going. It seems unlikely that he said “good,” but he said something and sat down.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Tristan,” he said. “What’s yours?”

I told him. I noticed I was making the same wide-eyed eye contact Ryan had made with me the first night. I hoped I wasn’t scaring Tristan, and tried to joke around a little bit.

“Are you sizing people up,” I said, “wondering how crazy they are?”

Tristan looked truly stung by the question. “No,” he said.

I felt bad for asking. This young man was probably in no mood for sarcasm. I tried to make him feel better. “I was,” I said.

Tristan said nothing.

“Wanna play a card game?” I asked, abandoning my game of solitaire and and shuffling.

He said sure.

“You know speed?”

He shook his head.

“Texas hold ‘em?”

“I don’t know many card games.”

I didn’t feel like playing teacher, and wished someone else was nearby who’d want to play. After a minute Tristan got up and walked out of the day room. He returned soon, and plopped in an armchair in the back.

I quit my game of solitaire and went to apologize.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out,” I said, plopping in the chair next to him.

“No,” he said, looking at his hands.

I sat down. “What are you here for?”

“I don’t know.”

This surprised me. “Well, where are you coming from? Where are you from?”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“All right,” I said, so embarrassed I got up and looked at the bookshelf I’d perused a dozen times. I even took down a book – a history book titled The Making of a Prefident [sic] – to adequately fake genuine interest.

I don’t know what I did wrong in my exchanges with Tristan. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I asked the wrong questions, or in the wrong order. Maybe I should have done most of the talking, like Ryan did during our first conversation. Maybe he didn’t realize I was another patient; I was dressed in street clothes, not a sweat-suit. Or maybe I didn’t do anything wrong, and Tristan just didn’t want to talk [47].

FOOTNOTES

[1] This is a legitimate Powerball-lottery-type bingo machine they’ve got here on the psychiatric ward. The cards don’s even need chips. Instead they come equipped with see-through red slips of plastic that you slide over the number like a Star Wars scene-transition effect.

[2] The only way you can shave here is with an electric razor in the lobby.

[3] After three months on the psych ward: you will be able to correctly guess “missing link” in Pictionary based on a drawing of a puzzle with one piece missing. This is because you have already seen somebody else draw that picture for that card.

[4] Even with basic cable, pretty bleak.

[5] It was however, still blond, and thus invisible, and thus impossible to acquire sympathy through complaint about. My facial hair will forever look like the peach fuzz of a preteen.

[6] While driving from detox to the hospital, Officer Half-Beard searched Google maps for directions while driving. And he probably writes tickets for texting behind the wheel.

[7] Dinner: cold, bland, served on stackable trays. Presence of single-serving ice-cream is cause for excitement. No lactose-free milk available, so I must ask for Lactaid pill before every meal. It is a bit embarrassing due to its relation to bodily functions. Ryan and I trade food in secret – milk and vegetables for bread and butter.

[8] Weight played a factor, as did age and the presence of facial hair. Marked similarity in appearance to Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas earned one inmate – excuse me, patient – named Jeremy a “FUCKING CRAZY!” rubber stamp on his forehead. His constant pulling at possibly imaginary stitches in the back of his head and his unwavering conviction that Brian Eno is a cocksucking faggot who raped and almost killed Jeremey’s girlfriend didn’t help.

[9] Considering.

[10] A conservative estimate. My room was “secure,” meaning it was video-monitored and constantly lit. When I found out, I wished I hadn’t been so sober, as a nice little buzz would have brought sleep faster.

[11] And feeling like quite the informed citizen doing so.

[12] Until August 2011, when it was suddenly required that employees reapply for their jobs each year, and I was told that I would not be rehired as a result of my general ineptitude as a childcare worker. My own opinion that the reapplication requirement was in reality an excuse for my boss to clean house of workers like me without actually using any form of the verb “to fire” is shared by all other workers who were not rehired for the summer of 2012.

[13] The tiger is the Byron School District’s mascot.

[14] In the summer it was referred to officially by the Byron Park District by the stupefyingly generic “Summer Camp.”

[15] Whose number ranged from ten to 50 during my years there.

[16] Referring to a snack as simply “snack” is normal when it is as regular as breakfast, lunch, or dinner – as it was at the daycare I worked at (ten o’clock a.m. and three o’clock p.m.) and the psych ward (eight o’clock p.m.). A favorite snack served in both places: Nilla Wafers…despite the lack of milk to go with them.

[17] During a visit on Saturday, which was uncomfortable and exhausting, and which mainly consisted of silence and gin rummy and overlong hugs in front of my new drug-dealing-or-just-out-of-prison friends,

my parents had brought me my homework. I had been falling behind in the reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children even before all this hullabaloo, and now had some real catching up to do. They also brought me a pair of jeans, some socks, and some v-neck t-shirts.

[18] group n. a scheduled period of time in which men on the ward gather to participate in a planned activity.

[19] Asteroid belt.

[20] Planet.

[21] Saliva.

[22] During my parents’ visit, Lawrence was being visited by his wife. Not ex-wife. My mom said the saddest parts were Lawrence’s brief moments of lucidity.

[23] Boa constrictors aren’t poisonous, and squeeze their prey to death instead.

[24] Komodo dragons aren’t twenty feet long. They generally max out around thirteen feet.

[25] He’s twenty-two.

[26] I am not exaggerating. For a while I was unsure whether to include Andrew in this piece because his dialect was next to impossible to pin down. One thing I absolutely remember, but couldn’t fit in any other way, was his insertion of the letter R into the word beautiful, as in “I’m brutally brutiful.”

[27] This did not quell Solo’s entrepreneurial spirit. He constantly stalked around the ward waiting for some contact to call him with an update of some kind. While I called my parents to tell them where I was, he incessantly badgered me to ask them to text his guy on the outside. I did. They texted “Solo says to call” to God knows who, and only received on text back: “Who is this?” I still half expect them to call with news of a mysterious rusty Acura parked across the road, watching.

[28] Here used in the more traditional sense.

[29] First was a rinse of Listerine and a shit ton of gum.

[30] The kind with the “bun” made out of cookies.

[31] He told me all this on the patio, where after a few days patients were allowed to spend a half-hour outside. On the patio was a gazebo, a garden with tomatoes and jalapeños and habaneros, picnic tables, and an 8’ basketball hoop. Naturally, the basketball was flat.

[32] Later, scribbling this scene in my notebook, I thought Andrew might have been trying to explain a layman’s version of the theory of relativity. If so, I don’t think he understood what was coming out of his mouth any more than the rest of us did. I don’t think it’s often he does know what’s coming out of his mouth.

[33] Which could maybe be foreshadowed in the dialogue with the psychiatrist.

[34] Who, it is discovered en route, was the same cop who found me – the narrator – passed out on the corner of Water and Main the night several months prior during which my – the narrator’s – landlord gave me – the narrator – CPR, and whom I decided halfway between Platteville and Madison it would be wholly inappropriate to ask out for a drink sometime.

[35] The only ace in the sleeve of my chess game, if you’ll forgive the clunky metaphor.

[36] I don’t remember what game.

[37] I don’t remember why it was dark.

[38] Used in lieu of the normal metal pieces, which could of course be used to kill oneself.

[39] There were two shower rooms, which could only be accessed by permission of a nurse. The state of Wisconsin courteously provided each patient with a Tupperware of toiletries which included: one (1) bar soap, one (1) stick deodorant that worked like a ballpoint pen and pinched my armpit hairs every time, one (1) tube Greenco fresh mint tartar control fluoride toothpaste, one (1) toothbrush with bristles that hurt my gums, one (1) cheap plastic comb. After my release I used the soap when I showered in the gym locker room. I keep the comb in my back pocket, greaser style, at all times.

[40] Mostly because they were in the day room already anyway and didn’t feel like leaving.

[41] A challenge for a man who, on the outside, will only wear a shirt once before throwing it away. He spends a lot of money on white cotton undershirts.

[42] Jack kicked my ass in chess my last night on the ward. Once he walked into the bathroom while I was picking a zit and called me Rico Suave. I liked him.

[43] Another reason for my half-heartedness regarding their visit.

[44] Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

[45] As were the cops who took me from my apartment to detox, my hip psychiatrist, my parents, and both counselor’s I’ve seen since my release.

[46] As did the patients at the Mendota Mental Health Institute.

[47] But then why did he sit down when I asked how he was doing? Why would he agree to a card game if he wanted to be left alone? What could I have said or done to make him feel more comfortable? What did I…?

 

 

BIO

Jacob Reecher writerJacob Reecher graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2013. This is his first non-fiction publication, although his fiction has appeared in Driftless Review. He currently lives in Byron, Illinois, and is editing his first novel.

 

 

 

0
Melissa Grunow writer

Shelter/ed

by Melissa Grunow

 

There is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance.

—E.M. Forster, “What I Believe”

 

 

I park my car in front of the house and climb out slowly, not knowing what to expect. The grass is soggy beneath my feet as I walk across the yard toward the open front door, though no sound is heard from within. Halfway across the lawn I pause to get my quickening breath under control. Water seeps into my shoes, and I pull my cardigan tighter around my body to ward off a chill. I wipe away the rain water rolling down my temple and onto my cheeks like cold tears, take a deep breath, and step toward the porch.

The door opens and my niece runs to me with her arms outstretched. I’m filled with relief as I pick her up, her little arms warm against my cold, wet cheek.

“I yelled at my dad,” she whispers in my ear. “I told him I was going to your house.” She pulls back and looks to my face for approval.

“Are you hurt?”

She shakes her head and wriggles.

“Stay on the porch and out of the rain.” I set her back on the ground. “Don’t go back inside.”

Moments later my sister steps through the open door. She isn’t crying, but looks as though she has been. I’m surprised by how skinny she is, how skinny she has become. Her long hair is pulled back, but strands have fallen out of the rubber band and are hanging loose around her face.

“He said you can’t come in.” William. Her boyfriend. Keeping me outside and in the rain is his way of reminding my sister, and me, that he’s the one in charge. He’s the one in control.

I don’t protest because I know how quickly his temper will escalate. Instead, Mary Beth passes boxes to me out the front door, and I pile them into my car and her minivan. She and William are still fighting. I can hear them, though their voices are chopped by the opening and closing of screen doors. My niece sits on a bench on the covered front porch and stays there, just like I told her, sheltered from the rain. I am afraid if she goes back into the house she will never come out.

 

* * *

 

I was brand new to my position writing technical manuals for a software development company when I met Raul. I was recently slender, recently out of a four-year marriage, and recently without a hint of self-esteem or self-assurance.

I don’t know what drew me to him initially. He wasn’t particularly attractive. Tall, yes, and Hispanic, his skin tone a smooth, almost caramel color. He was younger than I, by about four years or so, but his body wasn’t aging well. His hair was thinning already, even in his early 20s. He dressed more like a used car sales manager than his own peers. His sense of humor was terribly immature and he believed himself to be much smarter than those around him. An introvert and a recluse, he sheltered himself, the ruler of his own tiny world.

But he also had moments of kindness, of thoughtfulness, moments where I felt connected to him because he said something insightful or did something unexpected. He had me hooked on the hope that I would catch him being a good person, that I would be witness to a different sort of man, a better man than he presented as himself. So instead of refusing him, I pursued him.

He made it clear from the very beginning that he wasn’t interested in me, that I wasn’t good enough for him. I was thin, but not thin enough. “Suck in that brisket,” he would tell me as he poked my stomach. My hair was long, but not long enough. “My ex had hair all the way down her back.” I was a woman, but not feminine enough. “Why don’t you ever paint your nails?” I was too pale, too stumpy, too opinionated, but also too easily influenced. His criticisms were a challenge; if I just tried hard enough to please him, I would win him over. It was a test of my virtue and my self-worth to pursue him in the first place. It was a test that I ultimately failed.

Less than a year after I met him and a summer of sleeping with him, I moved from New Mexico to Ohio to start a doctorate program. I spent those first nine months flying in and out of the El Paso airport trying to keep the relationship going, but my efforts often backfired. If I stayed longer than three days during any given visit, we would fight. It normally started with him disapproving of my hairstyle, my clothes, or that I never wore enough makeup to cover the imperfections in my skin. They were the same criticisms over and over until I refused to listen any longer.

When Raul and I fought, we fought without resistance or regret. Our fights were slaughterhouses of words. “I have really high standards. I deserve better than you,” he once said to me. It was four hours into an argument. He was seated in his computer chair in the corner of his bedroom, hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, his giant frame sinking into himself.

I was standing next to his open closet, pulling clothes off the hangers and stuffing them into my rolling duffle bag. Scattered on the floor were objects he had thrown at me when I had started packing my bag. They were mostly gifts I had given him and framed pictures of us, memories created where the smiles hid a rigid system of rules that I could never seem to follow.

I had suspicions that he was not entirely committed to me, but I couldn’t prove it. Whenever I brought my suspicions to his attention, he managed to convince me that I was crazy, that my instincts were wrong, that I was just jealous. That was until I found naked pictures of Verna attached to his emails during one of my weekend visits. I didn’t confront him about the pictures. Not only was confronting him useless, but I strangely relished my discovery. It finally gave me something real, something tangible, to cling to so I could convince myself that I had to leave him. Those pictures gave me certainty.

My body told its most convincing lie ever the night I found the pictures. I was affectionate, loving, attentive. I offered him a drink, a snack, a hug each time I moved from room to room, gathering my things and packing them away for my flight home the next day. I moved slowly, cautiously, trying not to seem too eager to leave. I had to be careful to not start an argument that would devolve quickly into him criticizing and me pleading with him to see that I wasn’t fat or disgusting or stupid or worthless, as he had told me so many times before. No, I wanted that night to be calm and quiet so that I wouldn’t relapse into being desperate for him to keep me.

His suspicion came the following afternoon when he drove me to the airport. It was the first time I didn’t cry over the thought of leaving him and returning to Ohio, back to the doctorate program that I would ultimately abandon after the first year, partly because of him, and partly because the program made me feel worse about myself than he did. As much as I tried, I couldn’t fake tears. I sat in the passenger seat of his black Viper, dry-eyed and silent as we crossed the New Mexico state line into Texas, the last time I would travel eastbound on I-10. I wanted to remember the distant shacks positioned on the side of mountain, just on the other side of the river, but still Mexico, still a foreign country.

I turned to look at him, his face hidden under the reflection off his glasses. “I’m going to miss you,” I lied. But in the weeks ahead, it would become true. I would miss him. I would believe I needed him as I struggled with myself not to go back. I had given up so much to be with him that I had nothing left to fill his absence with when I tried to move on.

“I’ll miss you, too, Tubby.” Tubby. His nickname for me. A constant reminder that his idea of affection was to insult me. He hadn’t called me by my real name in months.

I checked my watch as we approached the terminal. After nearly a year of traveling back and forth to visit him, I had experienced every travel delay and disruption imaginable. This time, though, the sky was clear, and I was nearly two hours early for my flight. For once, the weather was on my side.

He took my bag out of the trunk and set it on the ground, avoiding eye contact. He was angry again, quiet, shifty, and distant. Typically I would start to panic and pester him with questions, trying to figure out what triggered his mood. It was always something I did; I just never knew what exactly. “I’m sad to leave,” I lied again, hoping to soften him up. I hadn’t cried at all that morning, and I was worried he had caught on to my untruth. I was also determined for him to remember me as a good person and to feel regret for letting me go. He knew exactly how to keep me clinging to him. By the time I leaned in to give him a hug, he barely put one arm around me.

“Goodbye, Tubby,” he said with irritation in his voice. I wanted to slap him for that infernal nickname.

I hated him for carrying on some internet romance with a woman I was always highly suspicious of, and I hated myself for not paying attention to my suspicions. I walked up to the ticket counter, pulling my duffle bag behind me, feeling duped and defeated, another relationship failed, another promise broken. So I did what any self-respecting women who had no other idea about how to take control of her life would do: I spent $90 I couldn’t afford and upgraded my seat to first class.

On the plane, the cabin darkened around me, and I looked out my window at a single pink streak across the blackening horizon. The shifting clouds flashed over it, and I caught my transparent reflection in the window. I turned away, not wanting to be reminded of all the times I stared for hours into a mirror, smoothing my hair, studying my skin for blemishes, determined to see the flaws he could see and desperate to fix them. Raul reminded me all the time that he believed my tattoos and my upbringing made me trashy and worthless. I bit into a warm cashew and washed it down with a sip of chardonnay. I reached up to turn on the light above me and sat back in my seat. I immersed myself in first-class perks, smirking inwardly at how easy it was to pretend. I was a graduate assistant teaching one composition class a semester and making about $16,000 a year. I didn’t belong in first class then or ever, but nobody around me had to know that. For a few hours I could pretend that my life was different, that I was deserving of more.

I had deceived myself for an entire year pretending my relationship was something extraordinary, that it was worth the cruelty, the infidelity, the name-calling, the insults, the mood swings, because I believed that I had won him over in the first place, so I just had to try a little bit harder for his affection, I just had to be a little bit better to be deserving of his love.

It was time to stop lying.

 

* * *

 

William comes out the front door, and I stiffen. His rage is printed all over his face, and his eyes are dark and darting around until they settle on my niece. I’ve managed to keep her outside for an hour, and as long as I can see her, I know she’s safe.

I pick her up and turn away from him. “Leave her alone,” I say. “I don’t trust you.” I murmur reassurances to my niece. She clings to my neck and doesn’t look at her father. He stares me down. I brace myself for a shove or a punch. He finally goes back into the house, and within minutes I hear my sister screaming.

I run to the door just as she is coming out onto the porch.

“He won’t let me take Madison.” She puts her palms to her temples, her fingers spread wide.

I had screwed up. I had taken my niece from him for a moment, and now he was going to take her from my sister for the night—or longer—just to remind us both that he has the power.

I feel that same churning in my stomach that I had felt every time I had given in to Raul’s demands, every time I had conceded his point just to avoid an argument.

“She can’t stay here,” I say to Mary Beth. “You don’t know what he’ll do to her.”

“She’ll be fine.” My sister is scared, but her words don’t reflect it. Even in the process of leaving him, she is still convinced that William subscribes to some kind of moral code, that he isn’t a man-shaped monster.

Williams comes out of the house and stands on the porch, waving the court paperwork at me, a demonic smile on his face. I approach him and stand on solid legs, legs that Raul had once measured the circumference of as evidence that I needed to lose weight. My sister, waifish and shaken, stands behind me with her arms crossed.

“You’re not taking my daughter.” He leans over me from the top of the porch, his narrow-set, beady eyes darkening. “If you do, it’s kidnapping.” He had what the courts called the right of first refusal. He could, at any time and for any reason, refuse a caretaker for my niece, even if that caretaker was family, and in this moment, especially if that caretaker is me.

Legally there is nothing I can do, and he knows it.

“She’s terrified of you,” I say, calling his fathering abilities into question, knowing it will anger him. I’m stalling, trying to think of a way out of this.

“Do you really think I would hurt my own daughter?” he narrows his eyes at me. “You have no right to talk to me like that. This is my house.”

“You let her go,” I say. “Or I’m calling the police.”

He laughs. Right in my face, he laughs. My sister shifts from one foot to the other, visibly nervous. “Go ahead. They were already here, and they left. You’re just wasting your time.” He stands up straight. “I’ll make sure they know that if you keep running your mouth, I won’t hesitate to put you in your place.”

For a moment, I try to think of a way to make him hit me. His temper is bubbling just beneath the surface, and I know that if I could get him to lose control, then I could press charges. But it wouldn’t be enough. Even if I could get him arrested for the night, he would be out tomorrow and ready to retaliate. I look over at my niece. If I don’t get his permission to take her for the night, who knows when I would see her next? Getting him to hit me wasn’t a long-term solution. In so many ways he is Raul, and I know it isn’t possible to outwit him with words or antagonize him to violence.

Being with Raul for so long had equipped me with the knowledge that the way to calm down a man like William is to appear to give in, to lose. So, I exhale, soften my face, and look directly at him. I force an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.” My voice cracks, and I even manage to force a few tears into my eyes. “I know you would never hurt her. I know you’re a good dad. But imagine if you were me, and you came into this situation when I did. Wouldn’t your greatest concern be for the child? I don’t know what else to do. I’m just here to help my sister.” I turned and looked at her, then back at him. “Because she asked me to.”

On the corner of the porch my niece sits with her legs crossed. She smears dirt from a spilled flower pot, muddying her clothes and shoes in the process. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone but me that she is there witnessing all of this.

“You’re right. You’re totally right. I’m sorry,” I say again. “I’m just trying to do the right thing. For everyone.”

He searches my face, and for a moment I think he is going to call me on my bluff. I’m not the least bit sorry. But I have to let him think he has complete control. I have to let him think he has won.

His eyes shift and I swear a shadow has been lifted behind them. He blinks and takes a step back. “I’m sorry for giving you attitude.”

It isn’t until I exhale slowly that I even realize I had been holding my breath. I smile a soft smile. “Won’t you let her come with us? Just for the night?”

He turns and looks at his daughter, dirt smudged on her cheeks. She should be wearing a jacket, but she isn’t. “Madison,” he says. “What do you want to do?”

She looks at him, then at my sister, and then at me standing in the rain. I stare at her, hard, as if I can force my thoughts into her head. Finally, she says, “I want to sleep at Miswissa’s house.”

Without a word, William stomps inside, letting the screen door slam behind him. My sister and I face each other, and she looks shocked, betrayed. I’m confused until I realize she believes my apology is sincere, too. Like him, she was expecting me to match aggression with aggression. She had never seen a woman take on an abuser and win.

William returns with Madison’s jacket in his hand and tosses it at my sister. “I want to talk to her before she goes to sleep,” he says, his jaw rigid.

My sister nods in compliance, and I’m already scooping up Madison to strap her into the car seat before William can change his mind.

The sky darkens as we drive home that night. I shiver in my wet clothes and turn up the heat. Rain water rolls in rivers on the windshield just before the wipers smear them away. The twenty-minute drive to my house is the beginning of a long journey ahead of us. But it is one that I have traveled before.

 

 

BIO

Melissa GrunowMelissa Grunow’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New Plains Review, The Quotable, Ohio Edit, The Adroit Journal, 94 Creations Literary Journal, The Dying Goose, Wilderness House Literary Review, and others. She teaches college-level English and creative writing courses in Michigan, and recently finished writing her first book titled “River City, A Memoir in Essays.” Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com/.

 

 

 

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Reading John Fante

Born in Denver, Colorado on April 8, 1909, John Fante was the son of a hard drinking Italian immigrant father and a timid, deeply religious mother. Fante’s early years were defined by poverty, prejudice and his parents’ incompatible union, all of which became lasting themes in his literary explorations of Los Angeles and the working class immigrant experience.

Fante’s passion for writing eclipsed his interest in school, and by 1929 he had dropped out of the University of Colorado and moved to Los Angeles to make it as a writer. His break came in 1932 when his literary idol, H.L. Mencken, published Fante’s short story “Altar Boy” in the journal American Mercury.

The Bandini Quartet

In the early 1930s, Fante began work on The Road to Los Angeles, the first in what would be a series of four novels featuring his now legendary alter ego, Arturo Bandini. The book was highly autobiographical, describing a young man’s struggle to escape conflicted parents, prejudice and poverty and become a great American writer. Though later critically praised, this first novel was unanimously rejected, and Fante never did see it in print.

In 1937 the author married Joyce Smart, a striking Stanford-educated poet and editor whose support was central to Fante’s ultimate recognition and the survival of his work. She was her husband’s fiercest defender and advocate, eventually resurrecting The Road to Los Angeles and having it published posthumously.

Fante continued his Bandini quartet with Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938) and Ask the Dust (1939). Both were published to great critical acclaim. Ask the Dust is widely considered to be Fante’s masterpiece. Yet neither of the books found a large readership and fell out of print within a short period of time.

Fante’s Inferno

Plagued with disappointment, and with children on the way, Fante turned to screenwriting as a side career. He bought a house in Malibu, worked with Orson Welles on the doomed project It’s All True, and made a comfortable living writing scripts that mostly didn’t get made. “I am now a complete and ungarnished hack,” he wrote to his friend, the writer William Saroyan. Anchored to a job he despised, he saw any hope of pursuing the literary work he valued drain away.

Years later, Fante’s health also began to fail. Diagnosed with diabetes in 1955, by the 1970s he had lost both legs and his eyesight to the disease. His books had long fallen out of print, and his inspiration was gone. He was known to say that if he were to have written about these years, the title would have to be “Fante’s Inferno.”

Lost and Found

In the early 1970s, Robert Towne, then a young Hollywood screenwriter with one script to his credit (The Last Detail), came upon Ask the Dust while researching 1930s Los Angeles for his script Chinatown. Towne thought the book was the best novel about Los Angeles he had ever read and immediately sought a meeting with the author in hopes of acquiring screen rights. At first Fante was disagreeable and suspicious, but his wife Joyce smoothed the way, and in the mid-1970s Towne bought the rights with Fante’s blessing.

The writer Charles Bukowski further improved Fante’s fortune in 1980 when he sent John Martin, his editor at Black Sparrow Press, a copy of Ask The Dust. A devoted fan of Fante’s work, Bukowski famously claimed that Ask the Dust was the best book ever written and that John Fante was his God. Bukowski had also referenced Fante many times in his novels, and his editor finally wanted to know if this Fante was real.

After reading Ask the Dust, John Martin was so taken by the work that he phoned Bukowski and exclaimed, “Fante is great, great! I can’t believe it! I am going to republish his works!” And soon Fante’s stories and novels were all back in print at Bukowski’s Black Sparrow Press. The fresh acclaim energized Fante. In spite of his poor health and blindness he embarked on writing what would be last book, the final piece of his Bandini quartet. Called Dreams From Bunker Hill, the novel portrayed the negative effects that Hollywood and screenwriting had on Arturo Bandini’s soul and writing. Fante wrote it by dictating to his wife, and it was published just before he died in 1983.

 

http://youtu.be/WnpRJJKYvJg

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bleeding edge close up

Book Review

 Bleeding Edge Thomas Pynchon

BLEEDING EDGE

by THOMAS PYNCHON
Penguin Press HC, 2013
496 pages

 

How to Read Bad Books by Great Writers:

A Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge by David Letzler

 

Over the years, I’ve come to group readers into two categories: some of us are aficionados, and others are connoisseurs. Aficionados devote themselves utterly to a small stable of writers: for instance, on the day that a budding Margaret Atwood aficionado first reads The Hand-Maid’s Tale, she hurriedly looks up the release date of the next Atwood book to mark it on her calendar, then runs off to acquire and read everything else Atwood has written, back to The Circle Game. Nothing can deter her: if reviewers are unimpressed with the latest book, they must simply lack her own deep understanding of Atwood’s artistry. A connoisseur, on the other hand, believes that since even an excellent writer only manages a couple of great books in a career—and since there are many great books out there—he is better served reading widely than deeply. Even if impressed with Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example, he might decide, upon seeing that This is How You Lose Her is yet another compendium of tales about how Dominican men just can’t stay faithful to their women, that there are probably other books out there worthier of his time. If a connoisseur has favorite writers, it is because he loves their very best books, and he believes the best way to honor those books is to avoid reading those that do not live up to their standards.

For music and film as well as books, I tend to be a connoisseur(*1). However, just as even the most devoted aficionados occasionally break fidelity to experiment with someone new, I sometimes turn aficionado: as a teenager, I strayed from my dutiful survey of the Greatest Rock Albums of All Time to spend time with the lesser works of Paul Simon, and as an adult I have read all five thousand dense pages of Thomas Pynchon’s nine published books. Gravity’s Rainbow is, I think, the greatest American novel, and Mason & Dixon and V. are also on my long list, so consequently, I’ve decided any new book he puts out deserves my attention. Being a part-time aficionado in this way reminds you that there are some wondrous things just beyond the mainstream: the only way you’re going to find songs like “How Can You Live in the Northeast?”, for instance, is to listen through the new album Simon puts out every five years, and the only way you’ll read scenes as sparkling as the apotheosis of the airship Inconvenience is to get all the way to page 1085 of Against the Day. That said—you have to sit through a lot of mediocre Simon songs to get to the revelations, and Against the Day, though it has plenty of beautiful passages, doesn’t have one thousand and eighty-five pages of them. Being a part-time aficionado, in other words, also reminds you of the arguments for connoisseurship in the first place.

This year’s Bleeding Edge, though, looked as if it might add to Pynchon’s impressive list of era-redefining masterpieces, rather than his second tier of minor delights. It was to be set in New York, circa September 11th, 2001, and would focus on fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow’s exploration of the darker corners of the young Web, making shattering discoveries along the way about the connections between era’s financial malfeasance and geopolitical catastrophes. Upon its release, the book got all sorts of positive press, including a National Book Award nomination. When I agreed to review it for The Writing Disorder, I was optimistic that it would, as several of Pynchon’s books had in the past, cut through our morass of incoherent cultural discourse to clearly and powerfully articulate where our civilization might be headed.

After I had read it, though, I considered withdrawing my offer. It’s a lousy book, probably Pynchon’s worst, and negative reviews of books by famous writers usually benefit no one(*2). But I don’t like refusing assignments, so I’ll use this essay, instead, to talk about an important and underexplored element of the reading life: what to do with bad books by great authors. While most people choose simply to avoid discussing bad books (“if you can’t say something nice,” etc.), there is a lot to be learned from them about craft: after all, nothing quite highlights the artistry of Raiders of the Lost Ark so well as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In this review, then, I want to point out four specific problems in Bleeding Edge, which collectively make it fail where Pynchon’s masterpieces have succeeded. (For those who have not read the book yet, I’ll arrange them in order of least to greatest spoiler content.) If the goal of criticism is to call attention to the valuable aspects in art, then a negative review of Bleeding Edge can at least use the book to demonstrate, in relief, what is so excellent about Pynchon at his best.

Problem No. 1: On the Present Tense

Bleeding Edge is written in the present tense. Many of the book’s reviewers have noted this metaphorically—i.e., that it does not have a historical setting, as did the colonial Mason & Dixon and fin-de-siècle Against the Day—but it’s also literally true. On page 1, we read, “It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school” —not “It was the first day” or “walked her boys to school.” Perhaps that doesn’t seem so strange—given the setting, it might even appear appropriate—but Pynchon’s three other novels set more or less at the same time they were written (V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Vineland) all use the simple past: it’s only in his chronologically-loopy historical tours de force Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon that Pynchon uses the present. As innocuous as the choice might seem, I think it’s at the root of the book’s problems.

In 1987, William Gass, one of the few living fiction writers that postmodernists will allow in Pynchon’s league, penned an irascible essay about the present tense for the New York Times Book Review, lambasting its use in the minimalist stories that were then gaining favor over his brand of erudite metafiction. When used by great writers, Gass notes, the simple present signifies a “habitual present”—things that happen persistently and without change—which can then be juxtaposed to singular events operating in other tenses, collectively generating a “thick present, a present made of a deep past.” However, he adds, this is not how the present tense is used in much contemporary fiction: there, it is frequently deployed under the pretense that it makes a story feel more “authentic” or “immediate”—even though, of course, no one uses the simple present this way in real life(*3). Consequently, Gass claims this use of the present is “thin,” and even readers who find his essay overwrought and reactionary otherwise can probably agree that this adjective is appropriate for describing a certain kind of creative-writing-workshop piece written in the present.

Now, Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon have thick presents. Famously, Gravity’s Rainbow begins, “A screaming comes across the sky”—but that is only because a supersonic V2 rocket has already hit, foreshadowing the novel’s extended treatment of complex and inverted causalities. Similarly, Mason & Dixon’s opening sentences, setting up the book’s frame-tale about the young republic’s subjunctive possible worlds, span a variety of verb forms—“Snow-Balls have flown their arcs,” “the Sleds are brought in,” “shoes deposited in the back Hall,” “the Children, having all upon the Fly, among the rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might,” “Here have come to rest a long scarr’d sawbuck table,” etc. Even Pynchon’s books written in the past tense tend to apex when timeframes scramble, as when Sidney Stencil in V. realizes that there is “No time in Valletta. No history, all history at once” or when Merle Rideout in Against the Day uses the Integroscope to run his deceased daughter Dally’s old photograph forward in time. Pynchon, in other words, has always been at his best when the time is out of joint.

Bleeding Edge does not use the present tense this way, however. Instead, it sticks to the linear, close-third present tense that we see in the first sentence, consequently forcing Pynchon to spend much of the book recording his hard-boiled heroine’s perceptions of ephemeral minutiae and local color rather than deploying his characteristic syntactic fireworks. It may not quite be minimalism, but it’s not really Pynchon either. I had wondered if he does this to mimic the conventions of the female-investigator genre, but no: the annals of Maxine’s predecessors—Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum—are all written in the first-person-past. Regardless of the reason, this decision severely constricts Pynchon’s prose. Reading him describe adolescent disgust at organic food (“‘Sprout Loaf? Organic Beet Fritters? mmm-mmm’”) and relay Jewish women’s reminiscences of their first visits to Loehmann’s (“It was boot camp. Gave you discipline and reflexes”) is occasionally amusing, I guess, but it tends toward pastiche rather than insight, and it’s not his strength. If Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star came off as a Pynchon novel written by someone without Pynchon’s scientific acumen, then Bleeding Edge sometimes feels like the reverse, Pynchon trying to write a DeLillo novel without the latter’s feel for mimetic chatter and idle musings.

Granted, The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice were similarly focalized on the linear narratives of investigator-protagonists, but at least in those books Pynchon could sketch their sixties California milieu effortlessly and with precision. (Think of how Shasta Hepworth’s “sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt” so effectively place us in 1970 L.A. in the latter’s opening paragraph.) The present-ness of Bleeding Edge is especially limiting because Pynchon is much less adept at the culture of the present. To place us in 2001, he relies on references to the Jennifer Aniston haircut and Doom, which, in addition to being pretty standard-issue, are about six years too late. Outside of brief shout-outs to Mitch Hedberg, Bart Simpson, and Ace Ventura—funnymen that, while in tune with Pynchon’s comic sensibilities, don’t inspire the prophetic cultural insights of, say, Underworld’s Lenny Bruce interludes—Pynchon only gets comfortable when given the opportunity to invoke 2001’s nostalgia for the late 1970s: you can see him relax considerably when he gets to drop references to Steely Dan and write a parody of “Car Wash.” Overall, then, Bleeding Edge’s entire technical framework seems, from the first sentence, to be a peculiar misuse of Pynchon’s immense talents.

Problem No. 2: On Character

The book’s setup also prevents Pynchon from doing what he does best with his characters. Pynchon’s characters have always been something of a litmus test for appreciating his books: his huge casts of eccentrically-named nutjobs tend to fascinate his fans and wear thin on everyone else. On the surface, Bleeding Edge seems to have the usual rogues’ gallery: the inadvertently-acclaimed documentarian Reg Despard, who asks Maxine to look into some fishy accounting by his mysterious tech client hashslingerz; the transplanted West Coasters Vyrva and Justin McElmo, the former of whom knows Maxine through their children’s neo-Freudian private school and the latter of whom is working on a proprietary Deep Web venture called DeepArcher; the Luciferian hashslingerz tycoon Gabriel Ice, who has his eyes on Justin’s project; a foot-fetishist hacker named Eric Outfield; a pair of Russian goons named Misha and Grisha; and so on.

But in Pynchon’s masterpieces, his characters are not weird just to be weird. Their quirks, in addition to providing comic value, explore the practical consequences of certain abstract concepts. The story “Entropy,” for instance, features a quartet that plays jazz without any melody, harmony, or instruments, but that’s not just a joke on the bare-bones tendency of modal experimentalism: it addresses the very limits of communication itself. In Bleeding Edge, though, quirk tends to be gratuitous, as in the case of Conkling Speedwell, a man with eidetic smell who wants to find out what cologne Hitler wore. This restricts our emotional engagement with the characters, and especially with the villains, who have, ever since the Lady V., been so vital to Pynchon’s metaphysical terror. James Wood once argued that Pynchon’s cartoonish characters made his treatment of evil unconvincing, writing “everyone is ultimately protected from real menace because no one really exists. […] The Nazi captain Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow, or the ruthless financier Scarsdale Vibe in Against the Day, are not truly frightening figures, because they are not true figures.” That is a grossly inadequate description of Blicero, terrifying precisely because he is so similar to the Herero hero Oberst Enzian, whom he loves passionately and abuses grotesquely. It is, however, a fair treatment of Vibe, and it’s even truer of Gabriel Ice. Ice is a caricature of the sniveling tech profiteer, a foul-mouthed Snidley Whiplash who gets dialogue like, “Listen to me bitch, I’ll buy as many judges as I need to, but you’ll never see my son again. Fuckin never.” Characters like Ice may be “true” in the sense that people as blandly awful as them do exist, but I think what Wood means is that their one-note crassness prevents readers from having to spend any time thinking about them, which severely limits their fictional function. Far scarier is a villain that makes readers realize what can be so enticing about such personalities, and how thin is the line between good and evil.

It’s possible that Pynchon simply lacks the intuitive grasp of the paradoxes of high finance and computer science (in contrast to his earlier work’s command of physics, astronomy, and vector theory) to make the book’s characters as interesting as they could be. Though Maxine knows enough math to name-check interesting phenomena like Benford’s Law, she does so only to engage their practical rather than theoretical implications. When Igor Dashkov asks her about the safety of his investments with Madoff Securities, she simply replies (with the immense benefit of hindsight) that Madoff must be running a Ponzi scheme, which is not especially edifying to any reader who follows the news(*4). Maxine may be the one character in the book who isn’t just a slapdash oddball, but as contrasted to Oedpida Maas’s philosophical seeker, she’s more a pragmatic Jewish mother (albeit one toting a revolver): you’d prefer her as a friend, but she’s not an ideal protagonist for a systems novel.

As a result, Bleeding Edge’s dramatis personae are often reduced to little more than plot explication. If someone with more patience than I were to run Bleeding Edge though an OCR scanner alongside Pynchon’s other books and do some data-mining, I suspect they’d find that it has the highest percentage of dialogue in his oeuvre. Without the time-warping, expansively-inclined central narrators of his earlier books, the requisite intricacies of Pynchon’s narrative end up having to be exchanged verbally, which makes both the prose and the characters speaking it much duller than Pynchon is capable of writing. Combined with the problem of the present tense, the effect is sort of like what basketball fans felt in 1994 watching Michael Jordan, on hiatus from the NBA, play minor-league baseball badly for the White Sox: the strides and leaps that looked so spectacular when executing free-throw-line dunks seem far less impressive when they fail to catch fly balls.

Problem No. 3: On Conspiracy Theory

There is one place in the book, though, where Pynchon pulls off one of his patented ontological time warps. It occurs on the night of September 10th, at a techie instant-nostalgia party for the 1999 dot-com collapse, which concludes to the chords of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” as everyone stumbles home “under silent assault, as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining.” Pynchon is not original in yoking together turn-of-the-millennium tech-finance instability and 9/11, but the link is worth exploring. After all, in tandem the two at least partly refuted the 1990s thesis that we were at the “end of history,” that the new century would bring perpetual peace and prosperity in the form of a unified world-system of liberal democracies joined by an optimized capitalist market that would simply make everyone richer and richer. New York on September 12th, then, might be depicted as something like the postwar Zone in Gravity’s Rainbow, a site of catastrophic destruction awaiting (in both anticipation and terror) the arrival of a new worldview to replace an old one still freshly smoldering in the streets.

That idea’s great promise makes what Pynchon does with 9/11 quite disheartening. I’ll put it this way: the word “al-Qaeda” appears exactly once in Bleeding Edge, as does the name “Osama bin Laden”; all other references to any other individuals potentially involved with either of them take up less than one page total. Many more pages, meanwhile, are devoted to what has long been Pynchon’s hobbyhorse, conspiracy theory. There’s video of suspicious feds with Stinger missiles; a set of financial records linking hashslingerz and the CIA to certain Islamist groups; a litany of truther talking points, including the suspicious fluctuations in United and American Airlines stock prices in the week leading up to the attacks; and so on. If the book’s not a full-on truther manifesto—these plot strands, to be fair, never lead anywhere concrete—it’s clear that Pynchon thinks they’re the most promising avenue for analysis. As Maxine’s friend Heidi tells us, “No matter how the official narrative of this turns out […] these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.”

But if the late-twentieth-century novels of Pynchon and his cohort had elevated paranoid conspiracy theory into something of an epistemological weltanschauung, the September 11th attacks ought to have reminded everyone that it usually derives from nothing more complex than bigotry and ideological rigidity. Take, for instance, the view—held by a not-insignificant number of people both in 2001 and today—that every major event in contemporary politics is controlled by a malevolent cabal of Jewish financiers. 9/11 should have been received as a rejection of that thesis: after all, if the defining global event of the early millennium was executed by anti-Israel terrorists, targeting the city with the world’s highest Jewish population and destroying the center of world finance, then that vaunted Jewish cabal couldn’t really be all that omnipotent, could it? However, faced with an irreconcilable conflict between empirical reality and dogma, these individuals, of course, find it much easier to revise reality than their worldviews, so there emerged a rumor that the Jews working in the WTC were warned of the attack and stayed home, proving that 9/11 was an inside job plotted by the Israel lobby to turn world opinion against Islam and further Zionist imperialism. 9/11 conspiracy theory, in this way, tends less to validate any postmodern thesis about the inaccessibility of truth or the machinations of all-powerful institutions than to recall Richard Hofstadter’s argument about the paranoid delusions that have always run along the margins of American politics.

Besides, in Pynchon’s best fiction, he uses paranoia not to celebrate it, but to raise questions about how we map large social formations. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop discovers the Bland-Jamf-IG Farben conspiracy against him by becoming more paranoid, but his resulting belief that everything he encounters is connected to that plot leads him narcissistically to conceive the whole war as a stunt to manipulate him; upon finding that approach untenable, his resulting “anti-paranoia” causes his identity to scatter. Pynchon’s take on 9/11 paranoia, by contrast, is not so sophisticated. In many respects, really, his approach may derive from nothing more complicated than ideological distrust of the cops. Having invested so much energy in Vineland warning us that shows like CHiPs and Hawaii Five-0 had undermined the counterculture from within by presenting the police as benign authority figures, he has become constitutionally incapable of acknowledging genuine police heroism: regarding the NYPD’s work on 9/11, he has Heidi say, “Dating cops is like so over. Every chick in this town regardless of IQ is suddenly a helpless little airhead who wants to be taken care of by some big stwong first wesponder. Trendy? Twendy? Meh. Totally without a clue’s more like it,” which prompts Maxine to reflect upon how “arrogant” the police have become post-9/11, guilty of such acts of oppression as “yelling at civilians for no reason” and getting free “Hero” jelly doughnuts from local bakeries. (Portraits of the department’s work during the long and draining response efforts are, as you might expect, entirely absent.)

I have not made a thorough survey of 9/11 literature, but it strikes me that one reason we so far lack any really great fiction on the subject is that no writer has been able to integrate two indispensable facts about the attacks: on the one hand, the clear culpability of a deeply conservative Arab religious and political worldview in executing them; on the other, the place of that worldview within a larger global situation. To do both at the same time seems beyond the capabilities of our current ideological camps: those on the left, like Pynchon, have generally been unable to acknowledge that there could be any terrible global event for which Western imperialism is not ultimately responsible, and those further right (at least as far right as anyone in letters gets—say, John Updike) have been unable to deal with the role of Western global dominance in making Islamism so popular. That’s probably why many writers have shied away from the big picture, dealing instead with small-scale family portraits. That’s fine so far as it goes, but it’s inadequate to a lot of the event’s bigger issues and, for that matter, tends toward treacle. I don’t know how this problem will be resolved, but the writer who manages it will be the one who gets ensconced in our grandchildren’s syllabuses.

Regardless, the problems with the book’s politics run deeper than Pynchon’s contempt for the police. Subsequent to the diatribe above, Pynchon has Maxine and Heidi critique how “irony” has been scapegoated for 9/11, treated as a “fifth column” because “somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening,” which they believe is just part of an opportunistic Establishment attempt to discredit “urban gay humor.” A number of reviewers, however, have pointed out a more obvious demographic connection involving irony, discussing its place in the intellectual white male humor of Pynchon and his aging contemporaries. In addressing this subject, several have invoked David Foster Wallace’s 1992 essay “E Unibas Pluram,” which famously claimed that the ironic strategies used by that school in the sixties and seventies for political subversion have been coopted by TV and now merely further consumerism. Through Maxine and Heidi, then, Pynchon seems to be pushing back against that attitude, advocating for the continuing political value of postmodern irony in the post-9/11 world. Yet this entire debate has always struck me as somewhat silly: irony, in the end, is just a literary trope, one that can be used well or poorly, and subsequently lacks any inherent axiological standing. (Can you imagine an aesthetic being championed for, say, its resolutely synecdochic perspective?) Arguments like Wallace’s, I think, are a byproduct of academic histories of literature: to talk about literary history, you need to identify movements, and to identify movements, you need to emphasize a broadly-defined common denominator uniting disparate writers—but by their nature, common denominators are the least interesting things about any particular book, and, moreover, they tend to be the easiest features for bad writers to mimic. If irony seems less effective now than it once did, that’s simply because a lot of mediocre writers have been using it. Irony used well can be as cutting as ever it was—just as irony used poorly was as ineffective for Daniel Defoe’s 1702 “The Shortest Way With the Dissenters” as Wallace found it in early 1990s fiction.

Pynchon does write irony well when he wants to, though it’s not on the short list of his greatest skills and certainly isn’t all-pervasive in his work. At his best, he uses it to bring out the uncomfortable tension between possible attitudes toward a complex situation: at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, when the wisecracking narrator tells us to “Follow the bouncing ball” by singing an old Protestant hymn as we face nuclear doom, the ironic lightness of the statement highlights American cultural passivity but also suggests that there is something to be held onto in the communal experience of religion and the cinematic sing-a-long. But there’s another kind of irony that sometimes pops up in his work, too, which uses its double-voicing to sidestep problems that Pynchon doesn’t know how to solve. This type appears all too often in Bleeding Edge. For example, at one point, Pynchon has Maxine’s family spend a night out at what she calls “the last unyuppified bowling alley in the city.” Of course, Maxine is herself a yuppie through and through, but while Pynchon presumably realizes this point, there’s never any acknowledgment of our heroine’s mild hypocrisy, nor any exploration of how the anti-gentrification gentrywoman ought to conduct herself in modern New York. More seriously, it’s irritating to see Maxine’s circle of comfortably settled Upper-West-Siders (whose demographic, as many reviewers have noted, Pynchon shares) relay talking points about the city’s economic disparities that are best exemplified by their own dominance of the Upper West Side. Perhaps Pynchon is smirking behind all of this, but that’s not a sign that he’s got it all figured out—instead, it’s that he’s hasn’t got figured it out, and isn’t particularly interested in trying.

Problem No. 4: On Utopia

The book’s political vision isn’t entirely negative, though. In fact, as with much of Pynchon’s later fiction, there are some utopian impulses, which are here related mostly to the DeepArcher project. The program is originally designed as a private, dreamy oasis on the Deep Web, somewhat reminiscent of SecondLife and centered on a train depot with departures heading out to…well, it isn’t that clear, because we don’t spend much time there. This isn’t groundbreaking for fiction—William Gibson’s Neuromancer did much more with technical aspects of the idea thirty years ago—but it does extrapolate the idealistic escapes of Pynchon’s last few historical novels into a logical contemporary space. On 9/11, though, DeepArcher’s security becomes compromised, which prompts Justin and his partner Lucas to make it open-source. Unsurprisingly, the site is immediately overrun with tourists. As one longtime user complains to Maxine, “All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web.” The techie dream of an Eden insulated from the corruption of the material world is, as with so many would-be Edens before it, destroyed.

But isn’t that always the trouble with utopias—they’re perfect until any actual people get to them? There’s something distinctly elitist about disowning one’s beloved projects as soon as the masses find out about them. If striving for the beyond has any positive function in art, it has to be striving to get beyond something other than just other people. For all the energy that Marxism has devoted to theorizing about commodification and the culture industry, this line of thought always reduces to a peculiarly self-defeating form of hipsterism: anything that succeeds for a small audience is dismissed for lacking transformative scope, but anything that expands to a large audience is condemned for having been coopted. The absurd consequences of this view might be best seen through how Maxine’s disappointed interlocutor now wishes to set off for the Even Deeper Web, telling us, “They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted. Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable. And that’s where the origin is.” Indeed, we later read that some of the book’s other hackers have gone off the grid to devote themselves to building such a place. But if they are to create anything more than a private playground for a programmer aristocracy, it, too, will be overrun, and they’ll have to find an Even Deeper Deeper Web.

Pynchon’s best work, of course, has long struggled with this problem, but elsewhere it has more obviously acknowledged it, deriving its power from the beauty and dread involved in idealists’ efforts to create a world anew. Toward the end of Mason & Dixon, for instance, Pynchon imagines an alternate narrative in which the famous survey concludes differently:

One late Autumn, instead of returning to the Coast, the Astronomers will just decide to winter in, however far west it is they’ve got to…and after that the ties back in to Philadelphia and Chesapeake will come to mean that much less, as the Pair, detach’d at last, begin consciously to move west. The under-lying condition of their Lives is quickly establish’d as the Need to keep, as others a permanent address, a perfect Latitude,—no fix’d place, rather a fix’d Motion,—Westering. Whenever they do stop moving, like certain stars in Chinese Astrology, they lose their Invisibility, and revert to the indignity of being observ’d and available again for earthly purposes.

Using all his powers of syntax and figuration, Pynchon here tackles everything awesome and terrible about the American sublime (at least, as seen by Europeans): its possibilities for discovery and wonder, its freedom from orthodoxy, its capacity for remaking—and its potential for dissolution, destruction, and conquest. As it happens, this passage is echoed, tellingly, in Bleeding Edge. After a late night of investigation in New Jersey while her family is visiting the Midwest, Maxine reflects:

Maxine’s hair is a mess, she’s been out all night for the first time since the 1980s, her ex and their children are somewhere out in the U.S. sure to be having a nice time without her, and for maybe a minute and a half she feels free—at least at the edge of possibilities, like whatever the Europeans who first sailed up the Passaic River must have felt, before the long parable of corporate sins and corruption that overtook it, before the dioxins and the highway debris and unmourned acts of waste.

This is not the voice of a writer who approaches his book’s political implications in a spirit of exploration, his thoughts holding “no fix’d place, rather a fix’d Motion.” It is the voice of someone firmly set in his beliefs, who sees his work largely as a way to rehearse those beliefs to an audience he expects to share them. This is the voice of complacency; from a writer who has for decades so fearlessly and with such enormous scope challenged his readers’ beliefs, these provincial limitations to Bleeding Edge are deeply disappointing.

In Search of the Twenty-First-Century Novel

At some point, someone will write a novel that makes sense of the September 11th attacks—and maybe, in the process, the Internet, our financial system, and America’s role in the twenty-first century. That novel will rewrite all the contradictory dogma and platitudes plaguing existing avenues of cultural discourse: it will find figuration adequate to economic interrelations that are increasingly less comprehensible to anyone but the most specialized of specialists; it will engage a world in which radical egalitarian desires to improve access and choice are indistinguishable from the “frictionless” ideals of neoliberal technocracy; it will acknowledge that any technology that makes the transmission of information more “open” will also make it more exposed (surveillance and transparency being, after all, synonyms), eroding the private self that the literary novel has for so long fostered; it will treat religions seriously, not as arbitrary and indifferent collections of ethnic traditions but as deeply-held integrations of experience that are mutually incompatible with both each other and secularism; and it will discover why an event that killed fewer people on the day of September 11th, 2001 than did AIDS in South Africa alone should have so utterly remade the way our civilization understands the progression of its history.

I had hoped that Thomas Pynchon, who forever altered how we understood the founding of the United States and the end of World War II, might be able to pull that off. Perhaps that was too much to expect. As all connoisseurs know, most writers only have a few miracles in them, and Pynchon has given us more than his share already. If there is another Pynchon novel in the future, hopefully it will show, as did Mason & Dixon after Vineland, that everyone is allowed a bad book now and then, and that they do not imply any irreversible loss in talent or insight. But for the sake of appreciating the brilliance of his masterpieces, it’s important to understand how totally Bleeding Edge fails. I titled this essay, “How to Read Bad Books by Great Writers,” and my answer to that question is that you must admit they’re bad—it’s the only way you can explain why the good books are good. Bleeding Edge is the novel that people who hate Pynchon think Pynchon always writes; to praise it is to tell the world that the rest of his output is what they thought it had been all along, nothing more than the rantings of a stoner crank.
Reviewed by David Letzler

 

 

BIO

David LetzlerDavid Letzler teaches English at Queens College in the City University of New York and lives in Briarwood, Queens with his wife and cat. He’s just finished his dissertation on the enormous novels of Thomas Pynchon et al, so you can trust that he basically knows what he’s talking about. Most of the time, he promises, he likes Pynchon more than Michiko Kakutani does.

 

 

*

1. My wife, meanwhile, is an aficionado: that’s all that’s behind the otherwise arbitrary gendering of my two categories.

2. It’s hard not to come off as envious, splenetic, and self-serving. Plus, there’s not much upside: while people love to lampoon negative reviews of books later considered to be classics, I have yet to see anyone mock positive reviews of works later considered to be terrible.

3. This need for artificial felt immediacy probably only appears necessary, I suspect, in stories when there is little worth having feelings about otherwise.

4. If you want novelistic insight on high finance, the best place to go is still William Gaddis’s J R.

David Letzler on Thomas Pynchon

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chang rae lee

Interview with Chang-rae Lee

THE ART OF THE WRITER

A Conversation with CHANG-RAE LEE, author of the book, ON SUCH A FULL SEA

 On Such a Full Sea

Some writers are gifted, and some writers are truly gifted. When reading a book by a truly gifted writer, we wonder how their writing became so intelligent and inspiring. Was it their upbringing, their education, or were they just born with this talent? Chang-rae Lee is a truly gifted writer. It’s apparent on every single page he writes. When you read one of his books, you know you’re going to get something special—a very compelling story, some deeply felt characters, and beautifully composed sentences from beginning to end.

Chang-rae Lee is a Korean American writer and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. His books include Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, which received the 2006 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Adult Fiction category, and The Surrendered, a nominated finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was also selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty.

His latest book, On Such a Full Sea, published by Riverhead Hardcover, was released on January 7, 2014. I wanted to learn more about this new work, and why this book is so different from his previous work. I spoke with Mr. Lee in late autumn.

THE INTERVIEW

C.E. Lukather: First of all, I’d like to say congratulations. I really enjoyed reading your new book, On Such a Full Sea. It’s a really great story. Is this an idea you had thought about writing before? Where did it come from?

Chang-rae Lee: I never thought that I would write such a book. The book that I originally conceived, and may still write, was going to be about contemporary China and all the things that are happening there, its economic power in the world, its ascendancy. The focus was on factory workers and the factory towns where they make everything we use here in this country. So I went over there and did some research, which was a fascinating experience, and planned a social realist novel centered on workers and their bosses and the owners. The story was going to have an American component, though not much of one. But when I got home and started writing, I felt I wasn’t adding that much to what I saw, nor to all the good journalism I had been reading about China. I guess I didn’t have enough of a special angle. When you’re writing a novel you need that angle.

Around the same time I was on a train trip, taking the Amtrak along the northeast corridor from New York to D.C. And when you’re on that train, which I’ve traveled all my adult life, you pass a ghetto area of Baltimore. Over the years I’ve seen serial iterations of that area, the houses burnt down, boarded up, abandoned. So at this point they were boarded up but kind of cleaned up, too, like a ghost town right in the middle of a very busy city. And then I had a thought—I wondered why we couldn’t just give these buildings to some people. And my next thought was odd: why not just bring over some people from China—people from some environmentally ruined area where they couldn’t live anymore, and bring them over here to settle and revitalize the place. And then it all just sort of clicked and I thought, maybe that’s my angle. Of course it wasn’t my original story, but it bridged what I was interested in at the start, namely Chinese ascendancy but also American decline.

C.E. Lukather: Yes, I think that comes through in the book.

Chang-rae Lee: The two kind of go hand-in-hand. So I projected out a few generations, setting the story in the future, writing about what America would look like in a future when China was the great power. Then I thought why not write a story about these people who are brought over here as workers to live in factory-like towns. And it just sort of developed from there. I think all of the factory research in China helped, but I didn’t really use that much of the specifics. It was more of a feeling or sensibility of the people that I began to write about.

C.E. Lukather: Was it exciting for you to write a futuristic book—something you’ve never really written before?

Chang-rae Lee: It was exciting. I thought I would be more wary writing it, since I hadn’t written a book like this before. But in fact it wasn’t a different experience fundamentally, for even when you’re creating a “new” world like this it’s not that different from creating a world that already exists. Perhaps I felt I could take a few more liberties but you still have to make the created world absolutely possible and realistic.

C.E. Lukather: And the book does feel very real, to me.

Chang-rae Lee: This book is partly an adventure story, with the main character going off into a strange world, but also it’s a story about community, the place where she comes from. The book alternates between those two worlds, and I had a lot of enjoyment inventing both. I don’t know if it would have been as much fun just writing about one or the other.

C.E. Lukather: Well, you’ve really created three different worlds in your book. There’s the hometown of the main character, Fan, there are the outlying, sort of wild areas, and then there are the more affluent, well-mannered towns that she visits during her journey.

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, three distinct worlds, without much or any mobility between them. Aside from describing those worlds and the divisions between them, I found myself becoming just as interested in who was doing the telling, which in the novel is an unnamed “We.” A first person plural narrator. In some ways this was the part I enjoyed the most, in terms of the process, developing this communal voice and letting it evolve.

C.E. Lukather: So how long did it take to write this book?

Chang-rae Lee: It didn’t take that long, about two years. For some people that’s a long time, but for me it was really short. I usually take four or five years to write a book. But once I started and got into it, it really kind of rolled along. After the first draft I would go back and forth with my editor about certain sections. But the book is pretty much how I wrote it.

C.E. Lukather: The main character, Fan, is a really great, strong character. Is she inspired by anybody?

Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I was simply interested in a strong young female character, this Fan. She’s not very talkative, or anything like a typical hero. She’s not really a leader, but somehow she manages to inspire people by her presence. I liked that idea of a quiet hero, who is sort of a mirror and a vessel for everybody around her. People also use her and take advantage of her, but she draws them out, too, and compels them to reveal and expose who they are.

C.E. Lukather: She draws you in, and attracts people to her.

Chang-rae Lee: She’s a small-statured young woman, who holds all our hopes and wishes as she goes out into the landscape.

C.E. Lukather: The scenes when she’s outside, in a sort of unrestricted zone, are pretty terrifying.

Chang-rae Lee: That’s a funny thought. Compared to my last book, they didn’t seem so terrifying to me.

C.E. Lukather: Well maybe not terrifying, but shocking, the way they unfold and what happens really startled me as a reader.

Chang-rae Lee: Well, that’s good. You always wonder as a writer. But that was part of my interest in writing this adventure story. And I think in a way any kind of speculative fiction is an adventure story—you know, we’re all traveling to a unfamiliar place. Trying to figure out how everything works. Rather than watching people within a context we already recognize, and seeing what they will do.

C.E. Lukather: And some of the more shocking or startling scenes in the book actually take place in the more civilized regions of this world.

Chang-rae Lee: That was why I had these three different places strictly cordoned off by class. I had the idea that within a particularly cloistered section of society, very weird things can begin to happen. Strange practices, strange beliefs. And that’s one of the things I wanted to get to, this idea that these elite people are just as bizarre and absurd as anyone else. Of course the other people back in the counties and B-Mor have their owns problems as well.

C.E. Lukather: They seem like the most civilized of all.

Chang-rae Lee: In a way, it’s the most controlled, being a production facility. It’s a facility more than a town. And that’s one of the things I saw during my research in China. The factory I saw wasn’t a horrible place, being in fact decently clean and well-run. But everything was specified, and that contributes to a certain kind of environment and ethos. In my novel, I wanted all the functionality and specification to ingrain itself into the consciousness of B-Mor and its citizens.

C.E. Lukather: Without giving anything away, was the outcome of your story something you had envisioned from the beginning, or was it something that happened along the way?

Chang-rae Lee: It unfolded as I wrote it. I didn’t know what was going to happen from chapter to chapter. I had no map at all. So I kind of went on a road trip. Usually on a road trip you know where you going, but with this story, I had no clue. Of course I realized some things about halfway through, that certain things would have to happen and that Fan would meet certain people.

C.E. Lukather: So when you were writing this book, did you have to get in a certain frame of mind in order to write, to see these characters and this place?

Chang-rae Lee: Yes. I had to allow myself a lot of flights of fancy. And a lot of startling things began to happen, which also startled me. Like some of the things that happen in the house of the older Charter couple—just horrifying. But then you continue, and you just keep making linkages as you go. Writing a novel is the risking of a certain kind of fright. But that’s what’s fun and challenging about it. But to be honest I was strangely relaxed writing this, which I hadn’t felt in a while. The other novels I’ve written, I felt rather tense the whole way.

C.E. Lukather: Describe what your writing routine is like.

Chang-rae Lee: I wake up early. I have kids, so I usually make breakfast for them before they go to school. Then I go up to my desk. I have an office in the house. And basically I work until lunch. I have a quick bite and maybe I’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll work again until the late afternoon. I also teach, so on those days my schedule is a little different. If I’m teaching in the afternoon, I’ll still try to work in the morning. And I’ll prepare my work for class at night. I don’t tend to write at night anymore. I did when I was younger, but now I mostly just work in the morning. When I’m finishing a book and really pushing to the end, I will write around the clock—for a few weeks usually. But normally it’s a pretty structured writing day. I need a good routine. That’s the only way it works for me. I write one sentence at a time, and I take my time.

C.E. Lukather: Do you work with an editor, or do you finish an entire book and then send it to an editor?

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I try to finish a full draft before I send it off to my editor. That’s the way I’ve worked with most of my books. I send it off, once I’ve finished the story. Is that crazy?

C.E. Lukather: No, you’re in total control of your work.

Chang-rae Lee: I really don’t want to get too much feedback mid-stream. I always say, you can get really good advice, and really sound technical advice, but if it doesn’t come from you, it might not fit. It won’t be organic. It may lose that special feeling. And special doesn’t mean it’s perfect, it means that distinctive angle or passion you have for your story.

C.E. Lukather: You mentioned that there were projects or books that you worked on in the past, but then moved on to something else. Are there still some projects that you would like to go back to and complete? Or do you just move on and not look back on those at all?

Chang-rae Lee: I may go back and try to totally rework the original China novel. But the others—no. Those are just different versions of the books I’ve already written and published. So there’s no reason to go back and write them. I don’t ever want to write even close to the same book twice. It’s a pity, all the work that went into those projects, but the work comes out in other ways, and it’s all just part of the process. Maybe the novel you read is only possible because I spent a year and a half writing a slightly different version.

C.E. Lukather: So this book begs the question, would you ever bring back a character that you’ve written in another book?

Chang-rae Lee: Likely not. It would have to be such a different book, and I might only be interested if the main character were different enough. Otherwise why bother? But you never know.

C.E. Lukather: Do you work on a computer, a typewriter, or write on a pad?

Chang-rae Lee: Always on a computer. I’m from the generation when people were starting to use personal computers on daily basis. I wrote all my student papers on an Apple computer—those early models. Sometimes I wish I’d written longhand, but I guess I’m just too lazy. Also, my process is that I write each sentence about 25 times. So it makes more sense to do that on a computer. And perhaps the computer enabled that. But I edit with a pen, printing out on paper what I’ve written.

C.E. Lukather: Would you talk a little about your family life?

Chang-rae Lee: I have two daughters, both in their teens. We have a pretty normal family. My wife is an architect. And we both work from home.

C.E. Lukather: Is it sometimes hard to get any work done with your family always around?

Chang-rae Lee: They know that when I’m in my office writing it’s my job. And the kids are in school during the week. And during the summer they have lots of activities. So everyone is pretty busy.

C.E. Lukather: So you teach short fiction at Princeton?

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, we only have undergraduates here, so they’re not really writing novels. So they write short stories and we read short fiction as well. That’s a big part of my class, the reading part. They’ll write three or four stories during the course of the term.

C.E. Lukather: For young writers today, what do you see as their greatest gifts and their greatest obstacles?

Chang-rae Lee: They have the ability to write about a lot of different things. They’re not just writing about college kids at frat parties. The subject matter is very diverse and I encourage that. They’re trying to push themselves, and not just write about what’s around them. I think one of their greatest obstacles is that sometimes they write a story in the way that they think a story should be written, rather than just writing. They have this theoretical idea of how a story should sound, and what should happen. And that’s good in the sense that it offers some structure, and a little roadmap. But most often the best writing I see is when they sort of let loose and are free, get a little dangerous, a little transgressive. Young writers are sometimes too careful in a funny sort of way, because they don’t want to make mistakes.

C.E. Lukather: What books did you read growing up?

Chang-rae Lee: Pretty much everybody. James Agee and Joyce, Whitman and Hemingway. I was really into American stories, being an immigrant kid who thought all about this place.

C.E. Lukather: Do you do a lot of social media? Are you on the computer and internet a lot?

Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I have a Facebook page. Sometimes I post things there. I don’t have a Twitter account. Mostly I just use email.

C.E. Lukather: Does the internet or technology interfere with your family life?

Chang-rae Lee: No, not really. When we’re home we try to have a family meal every night. And our kids enjoy our cooking. Even if they have things to do, they always have dinner with us.

C.E. Lukather: Are you a good cook?

Chang-rae Lee: I think so. We cook a lot of different things. It’s important to us. It’s really nice to have everyone home to enjoy a meal. My wife is part Italian and I’m Korean so we and the kids always have these discussions about whether the Korean meal or the Italian meal brings the most pleasure. We go back and forth between the two.

C.E. Lukather: The new book comes out in January? Will you be taking time off from teaching to do a book tour?

Chang-rae Lee: Well, I don’t teach until February. So for the main part of the book tour, I’ll be free. I have a full teaching schedule in the spring, but I can still do events on weekends. I have a really packed schedule for spring. My publicist is great, though. She’s really a fun and smart person and people respect her. She’s really good.

C.E. Lukather: I think your new book will bring you a whole new audience. It’s a really great adventure story. Even the cover is great. I love the image of the main character.

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I think it came out great.

C.E. Lukather: Thank you very much for your time. I enjoyed speaking with you and I really appreciate it.

 

To follow Chang-rae Lee on Facebook, visit: Facebook

For details about his new book, visit: On Such a Full Sea

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