Home Authors Posts by writdisord

writdisord

333 POSTS 0 COMMENTS
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.

0

Adult Jeans

by Evelyn Levine

 

The Girl was dragged to the mall by her family. They took the large forest green suburban. When they arrived, the family flopped out of the van like fish freed from hooks. Little Jimmy even fell on the asphalt and scraped his knee. They got ice cream at Priar’s Creamery to heal Little Jimmy’s wounds.

“Can I get a bite of that?” Uncle Bill asked Little Jimmy, already reaching to take the frozen treat.

Uncle Bill took a giant sloppy adult bite off the top of Jimmy’s mint chip ice cream. Little Jimmy whimpered small and sad, and took the cone back. It now had a deformed top: an ugly ridge down the center of the previously perfectly scooped domed delight, and it was dripping.

The Girl did not want to be at the mall, it was too soon. She told her family it was too soon, but they didn’t agree.

“We have shopping we have to do,” said The Girl’s mother.

“That’s right, it is nearly Christmas,” said her father. He adjusted the neck of his argyle sweater.

The family split up between wings of the giant commercial wonderland. Everything was garlanded and mistletoed. The gargantuan synthetic Christmas tree was up and covered in shining ornaments, sleigh-bell-infected music echoed through the halls. There were no real pine needles or peppermint candies in sight yet it smelled like pine needles and peppermint. A fat man posing as Santa would start working at “The Magical North Pole Gingerbread House Photo and Holiday Greeting Card Center” in two days. Two days had passed since Thanksgiving.

The mother handed The Girl a couple of twenties and instructed her to buy some new jeans. The jeans were the reason she had to go to the mall. The Girl only had one pair left because she had secretly destroyed all of the rest in protest. The dark blue jeans went in the dryer for a few hours too long, the white ones accidentally fell into the load of reds, and the purple pair got lost (under three feet of dirt in the backyard late one rainy night). For about a year The Girl refused to change out of the one pair of jeans for anything: parties, church, bed.

* * *

The Girl kept the same pair of light blue jeans for over three years after the accident. For the first six months her mother was sympathetic. She knew The Girl was deeply depressed. But, as the months turned into a year, the family decided to take action. At first her mother had tried just getting The Girl new jeans. She measured her daughter and guessed her size in the stores but the jeans she bought for The Girl never fit. Some jeans fell down over her hips and others grabbed too tightly on her thighs, and they were all too short.

The Girl ensured the jeans never fit by slouching, wearing multiple pairs of underwear when she tried them on, or simply disagreeing with the style. Did she say bellbottoms? No, she meant skinny—wait, boyfriend cut. The Girl would tell her mother that she didn’t like jeans when they were anything but blue, and they had to be just the right blue. They were never the right blue. Her mother was fed up with bringing home jeans for The Girl, and The Girl retreated further and further.

The morning they sought professional help, Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung, the mother went to the backyard to call her daughter in for breakfast. The Girl was in her treehouse as usual. However, unlike the everyday silence of reading, or soft sounds of singing, the mother overheard The Girl in a one-sided conversation.

“Last week when we went to get groceries—”

“At Ditmart, yeah–”

“Well, then Dad picked up the big bag of groceries and the cans all fell through the bottom! In the middle of the store.”

“Yeah, it was just like that time–ha, ha”

“Yes! We went out to dinner with your Mom on her birthday and then we told the waiters–”

“And all of the ice cream went everywhere!”

“Glass, chocolate fudge sauce…”

“The guy in the giant Sombrero–ha, ha, ha!”

“He was so confused.”

The mother had heard The Girl and Minnie tell this story many times but now half was missing, at least for the mother.

* * *

Dr. Sinnlose Bedeuting was a New York Times Bestselling author to a “groundbreaking” children’s psychology book called Die Probleme Kindern or, The Problems of Children. The mother read the book in one night after picking it up at the airport waiting for the father’s delayed flight to arrive. When he came out of the arrivals gate, she went running towards him with the book first, outstretched in her hand.

The father did not consume the book with such passion and fervor. However, the father loved his wife and worried for The Girl. The mother believed Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung was their only chance to save The Girl.

The Girl’s very particular situation moved the family up Dr. Sinnlose Bedeuting’s waiting list quickly. One day, a few weeks after emailing his office, they received a phone call with a recorded message saying they would have their phone consultation with the doctor the next day at 2p.m. The half hour phone consultation would cost them five-hundred dollars and “The Child’s presence would not be permitted for the duration of the conversation.”

The mother waited impatiently by the phone, reading the same line of The Problems of Children over and over again in anticipation.

The Child is not self conscious enough to communicate their own mental dysfunction and must be treated as one with Aspergers or another social syndrome… The Child is not self conscious enough to communicate their own mental dysfunction and must be treated as one with Aspergers or another social syndrome. The Child is not—

The phone rang. The mother yelled to the father to pick up the line. The three spoke for half an hour. Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung had broken English. He read the overview of the case and prescribed a treatment at 1:50pm, just before his assistants had dialed the family’s number.

“What do we do?” the mother pleaded into the receiver.

“Es ist sehr sehr wichtig” a breath, “Ah, I mean, it is very very important that she be immersed” said Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung. The heard some pages being turned back and forth.

“She needs to buy the — eh — jeans” he said.

“We have been trying but she won’t take any that we have gotten for her” said the father.

“Ja,” he replied blandly.

“She refuses them from any store” added the mother.

“Doch, ach so, she must be immersed in the experience, so that she may ground herself in reality. She needs to buy them herself in das gleiche Mall. Erm, excuse me,” he stopped. Typing clicks and clacks filled the receiver. Then an indisputable spacebar. A pause.

“In the– same mall” Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung finished, a satisfied resonance in his voice.

The father was outraged and hung up his side of the phone. It was seven minutes before the half an hour was up. Every minute counted twice, as almost seventeen dollars and as almost seventeen dollars closer to curing The Girl. The mother finished the conversation.

The mother and father shared a pot of coffee before the father went to pick up The Girl from school. The father called Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung a crackpot in a mocking german accent.

“He is a kreckpoot darling. He is all pop-psychology nonsense.”

When the father picked The Girl up from school that day she climbed into the green van and the father saw the shredded, dirtied, and harrowed jeans. They barely stayed together on his tiny daughter’s frame. Her brown hair was perpetually unbrushed and her blue eyes bleary.

That night, the mother and father concluded conclusively. The Girl would have to come along to the mall for Christmas shopping that weekend and buy her own jeans.

* * *

They told The Girl that they had to go to that mall because the other was two hours away, and then the other mall was three hours away. That was too far away, even for a Saturday. Her parents told her that repeatedly. The night before the trip to the mall The Girl laid prostrate on the linoleum floor in the kitchen. She begged, she promised to do extra chores, and she even told her parents to cancel her allowance. Forever. She refused dinner and desert, which was apple pie, which she loved. The Girl cried all night and it made no difference. The Girl tried to hide the following morning but it was all for naught because she just hid in her treehouse.

The family didn’t want to leave the Girl at home alone to waste away the day in her treehouse reading, they said. And, she did need new pants. But really, the family didn’t want to leave The Sad Girl alone to vanish.

* * *

The black and white checkered tile floors in the mall were mopped and shined so thoroughly, the Girl worried when she stepped on the black tiles that she would fall into her reflection. She crumpled the two bills her mother had given her in her sweaty left hand and stuffed them in the only pocket without giant holes: back left. She began to hop along the white tiles. The journey to the other wing of the mall where the Gape was, began.

In her only jeans, the Girl had clambered over logs, through branches, and tripped down streets chasing the school bus. She had ridden her bike and fallen off, harvested carrots and mud pies from the garden, and she had done all those things with Minnie. The jeans were now so short, it looked as though the Girl had gotten a shin extension. What were a pair of boot cut jeans were now a pair of capris with some holes, for extra air. That is what the girl said when people asked; she needed extra air.

The jeans also had patches. The Girl fingered the stitches on the flower patch above her knee. She liked the daisies, they smiled fondly at her. She liked the softened denim and the frayed edges she could braid when she was bored or nervous. She held on to the daisy patch as she danced from one white square to the next. Maybe she thought, she wouldn’t reach the store before her parents and everyone was done shopping, and then she wouldn’t have to go to that wing of the mall. It was unlikely. She kept hoping anyway.

The Girl approached a large modern fountain on her right. Water fell from a metal hoop suspended from the ceiling by shiny metal wires and other pipes. It was two floors up. The water rained down into a shallow black iron basin. Children stuck their hands under to feel the sharp streams. The air was chlorinated and the chlorine permeated the Girl’s brain. She swore she could taste it. The Girl remembered the day when she and Minnie stuck their hands into the fountain.

“You can throw these pennies in, but do not stick your hand under the fountain” The Girl’s mother had told them, handing each a few coppery coins.

When the Girl’s Mother turned her back to look at some mauve silk outfit in a storefront, Minnie and the Girl reached out to catch the water in free-fall. It tickled and stung a little bit too and they laughed. They both wiped their wet hands on their pants, behind their knees, hoping the Girl’s mother wouldn’t notice. Later, the two girls were surprised, the water stained their pants dark blue. When the water dried, they both had upside-down dark blue handprints on their pants. They must have dyed the water blue. Minnie and The Girl found that idea strange and silly.

The Girl put her hands on the backsides of her knees and felt the presence of the blue stains on the light denim. Minnie had completely ruined her light pink jeans. Neither of the girls ever got in trouble.

The Girl lost her footing jumping with her hands behind her knees and nearly fell into a black tile. She straightened out her arms for balance and steadied herself. Some passerby looked at the girl and wondered where her mother was, others thought about the sale on flatscreen TV’s and navigated quickly around the suddenly wider obstacle. Some huffed and hissed at The Girl.

* * *

Uncle Bill was in the Sharper Image store, like always, testing out the massage chairs, while Little Jimmy played with the remote control cars. The wouldn’t buy anything and Uncle Bill would yap on and on to the poor salesperson. He would tell the salesperson about how the founder of the Sharper Image was an alum of his class at his college, Yale. Some days Uncle Bill even said that they were friends back in the day, at Yale.

“What an opportunity I missed back at Yale,” Uncle Bill would say shaking his head. The salesperson would have to agree, reluctantly.

Then, Little Jimmy would beg for a red remote controlled car and the two would leave the store, Jimmy in tears. Uncle Bill did not believe in buying toys. Every boy is a man in training, and men do not have toys.

* * *

The Girl tip-toed, trickling down the first floor thoroughfare. To her left, in the center of the division of the main vein of the route, kiosks parked their petit a-line roofed carts. Some attendees sat idly on their tall stools, legs dangling, figuring that the monogrammed keychain market knew themselves and didn’t need to be reminded. Other attendants were stool-less, on their feet, black pants and brightly colored polos communicating fun and sensible vibes in association with their products. The last form of attendees were the exotic, aggressive and “foreign,” pedaling lotions and cremes with salt and herbs from the Dead Sea in ambiguous European accents. The Girl’s mother did not like the way the attendees grabbed.

The Girl thought the attendants voices were funny and wondered why they never tried to reach out and douse her hand in the thick “revitalizing” cremes.

The Girl thought about all those afternoons Minnie and her spent making potions. They didn’t consider themselves witches, but they had never read anything that said they too couldn’t make potions that would work. Some potions were dry and made of twigs, leaves, silk flowers, and plastic animals. Other potions were made with water, and a little bit of milk for that beautiful moonstone color (but they weren’t supposed to waste the milk like that, so it was a secret). If either girl had a particularly hard day at school, they would meet up later at The Girl’s house and make a potion for the problem. The day before they went to the mall together and ruined their pants, they made a very special new potion.

Minnie adjusted a purple tasseled lampshade slipping off of her tight brown braids. It looked like the lamp had two sets of tassels, the longer set thick and with multicolored bow clips on the ends. She always lost those little plastic clips. The Girl dawned her towel head wrap and lucky silver plastic beads. The two girls circled their hands over a small orange plastic bucket that once held chalk. It was the cauldron.

The Girl was being bullied by a boy named Ned at school. Minnie asked The Girl if she was being “chastised.” Minnie went to the advanced school downtown. The Girl didn’t know what all the words Minnie used meant; she didn’t mind though because she knew they weren’t bad words.

The Stop Crushing Me potion was a dry potion. It consisted of one plastic alligator, symbolizing Ned, the annoying boy, twelve flower petals from the pink rose bush, one palm frond, one small plastic butterfly, symbolizing The Girl and her desire to be free like a butterfly, a whole peel from a clementine broken up into little bits because they had just had an afternoon snack and one feather, because it was pretty.

The girls chanted around the potion for several minutes and then got up to do the official potion-casting dance. But, unlike the many other successful days of the dance, The Girl stumbled in the final high kick and accidentally spilled the dry potion on the floor and on Minnie’s exposed brown ankle. The girls didn’t know what to do; they had never spilled a potion before. The Girl told Minnie it was fine, and Minnie said it didn’t actually matter cause magic wasn’t real. Still, something was off.

* * *

The Girl’s mother and aunt were together no doubt, at some store like Chido’s perusing the clothes. They would talk about how if they lost five pounds, life would be simply better.

“If I lost five pounds, I think I could squeeze into this red number” one would say picking up a red dress.

“If I lost five pounds, I think I would be better in bed,” the other would whisper. Then, together they would cackle.

“If I lost five pounds, I think I could get a raise at work–” one would say seriously, and then the other would interrupt.

“–You know, I read this book that said that skinny women get paid more.”

“Wow,” the first would say.

“Yeah,” the other would say.

“That is not okay,” the first would say.

The women would leave the store with scarves and five-pound resolutions.

* * *

The Girl tip-toed on the white tiles. She was getting near the turn off for the Gape and North Wing restroom. The Girl hadn’t been back to the mall in three years. So far, it looked about the same. The Calendar 365 store, that only sold calendars was gone and the Jamble Juice that was replaced by a frozen yogurt place replaced by a cupcake place, was now a pie shop called Gimme a Slice. The Girl had no idea how the new North Wing restrooms looked.

* * *

“It’s only four stores” her father had told her as they pulled into the parking spot earlier that day. The Girl knew it would take hours.

“And, it is only one pair of jeans” her father said pulling the keys out of the ignition. He undid his seatbelt, turned around and held the Girl’s hand for a moment. Then he kicked into high gear.

“Let’s go kids!” he said to everyone, leaping out of the van.

The Girl’s father was crossing the mall alone with the Christmas shopping list and his silver fountain pen. He loved the feel of a physical list in his hands. He said that. The Girl was pretty sure it was because he couldn’t figure out to do it on his phone. Her father insisted the list was more definite, more tactile and serious, and he could use his pen. It was a nice silver pen. He said he liked to check things off his list. He would get everything just as it was written and no more and he preferred not be disturbed while doing so.

Christmas Shopping List

  • Red remote-controlled car
  • Williams-Sonoma seasonings gift basket (with black truffle salt)
  • Silver daisy charm bracelet 8’’
  • New York Yankees (not Mets) Cap
  • Wrapping paper from Washington Middle School art program fundraiser

 

* * *

The Girl turned the corner of the North Wing of the mall and looked into the candy store that on her right. Giant decorative lollipops bordered the back walls and garlands of wrapped candies hung from the ceiling. Spinning silvery chocolate kisses topped to the towering self-scoop candy bins. The rush of sugary air and color collided with the Girl’s senses. She stood still on a white tile and stared into the store. Her chest suddenly shrank and her heart pounded. It felt like that time a small bird was trapped inside her second grade classroom, and it just kept slamming against the windows and couldn’t get out. But now, the bird was trapped inside of her.

Minnie and the Girl had bought sour apple strip candies and malted milk balls at the candy store. The Girl had the malted milk balls and then after tasting some of Minnie’s candy, realized she should have got the sour green apple strips. They were really sour candies so Minnie went to every water fountain where they stopped in the wing of the mall. It became a game.

Eventually Minnie really needed to go to the bathroom. They went to the North Wing restrooms and the Girl waited outside with her and Minnie’s candy. They never got to all of the water fountains.

* * *

The Girl passed the candy store and saw the Gape down the hall, a dark blue sign with brightly lit white letters. Then, she saw the dark blue sign for the bathroom. She touched the crumpled money in her pocket then put her hands back behind her knees. Did she really need new jeans? Wasn’t there somewhere else she could get them? No, this was the place to go. These were adult jeans and she was supposed to be an adult.

* * *

The Girl was standing near the slatted wooden benches in the middle of the hall eating Minnie’s sour apple candy. The Girl lifted the bright green sugar-coated chewy strips and slowly lowered a few into her mouth. She liked to lick the sour crystals off of her lips. It was fun the way the sharp crystals rolled around her taste buds.

The Girl had hardly been standing there for a moment when a strange low groan became audible. It stopped. Then, there was another groan and a rumble. The Girl’s hand went back into the bag of candy. She opened her mouth. There were a series of crashes. Thundering, the noise echoed across the mall corridors. It was so loud the girl went to cover her ears, but then she heard Minnie’s cry. The scream careened over the deep noises and cracks of collapse. It was not a word or series of words but just a long call of pure desperation. The scream pricked every inch of The Girl’s body, summoning an army of goosebumps that stood at attention. The circulation in the mall stopped for a moment of human shock. All that could be heard was a chorus of humming lights, soda machines, air conditioners and the incessant Christmas music jingle.

The Girl ran in to the bathroom. She surveyed the scene through the dust of the fallen debris. Minnie was nowhere to be seen among the rubble. But, there was an enormous red, yellow and white clown statue, laying across the mounds of stucco and tile. It had a characteristically friendly smile and one waving arm. The Girl slammed down on to her knees and starting digging through the rubble with her hands. Her fingernails split, bled and filled with mushy plaster. She dug through the wet mess, pieces of the ceiling continued to fall and pipes were leaking. The Girl tried to lift the heavy pieces and look under them but she was too weak. Every muscle in her body strained in the absence of more strength. She yelled for Minnie. She hoped for a familiar small brown hand stacked with beaded bracelets. The Girl found nothing and did not stop. When the paramedics and emergency services came, they had to tear The Girl away from digging. She screamed as a fireman lifted her up from behind under her arms, and tried to fight against her forceful displacement. The paramedics wrapped The Girl in a blanket and had an wide-set fireman with a big white beard watch her; he kept her from running away.

* * *

The serious and suited on television used the words “unprecedented,” “unexpected,” and “quick” to describe the accident. Eye-witnesses with giant shopping bags cried crocodile tears and spun stories of shock and terror. The news cycle feasted on the girl sandwiched under the clown statue.

Engineers determined that the cause of the collapse was structural. Arguments rang out over what had been the final straw. It was a load-bearing problem around the piping and there weren’t enough support beams. There were enough support beams, it was lightening-quick Costa Rican mold, they said. The truth: there was no mold. It could have happened any day, they said. Although, it was hard for the to ignore that upstairs, right on top of the restroom, stood a new bronze eight foot tall clown statue celebrating fast food glory. The sheer force of the stature could have crashed through two floors. They said it wasnt the statue.

The new North Wing restroom was funded “anonymously,” though the money that might as well have come with a Smiley Meal Toy. Money changed hands and further investigation became private. Then it stopped altogether.

They all told The Girl that Minnie’s death was instantaneous and painless, but the scream that day, forever set in her mind, disagreed.

* * *

The Girl stood in the North Wing of the mall on one white tile. She was dizzy. The Christmas music and smells stirred around her and her vision blurred. She wanted to be gone. She stepped forward, straight on to a black tile. She prayed she would fall through. Was she in the world of her reflection the black tile promised? No. Her mouth felt sour. Something was fighting to come out. Would the bird finally be freed? The Girl’s mouth opened and the sourness cascaded all over her pants, it went through the holes, dripped down her bare legs, into her pockets, on her shoes and on the black tile below. The smiling daisies frowned.

* * *

Three deep breaths later The Girl turned away from the direction of the restrooms and stepped, shaking and soiled, into the Gape. She walked past the infant section, and then through the kids section and to the women’s. The Girl could smell her curdled self but kept moving to the women’s jeans. Two female employees stood behind the check out desk whispering and casting concerned and quizzical looks at The Sullied Girl in the women’s section.

The Girl left the mall wearing a new pair of light blue jeans, a little stiff, a little darker than she dreamed, but fitting. She met up with her family at the fountain carrying the sad daisies by the soft white string handles of the paper Gape shopping bag. She sat in the van on the ride home wondering if she had lost something.

 

 

BIO

Evelyn LevineEvelyn Levine is a senior English major at Whitman College. A native of San Francisco, she hopes to one day be able to afford the rent. Evelyn enjoys spending time with her vocal cat Alan, baking for friends and family, learning Tai Chi, and playing the mandolin (albeit unskillfully). This is Evelyn’s first fiction publication.

0
Aaron Weiss

In the House

by A.A. Weiss

 

We take turns raking up leaves because we don’t have actual jobs. The trees aren’t so healthy and die a lot, or at least spill their leaves during the wrong parts of the year. There is never anything left by autumn. I remember being afraid that one of those sick trees would die, for real, and collapse into the house and through my window and right into my crooked bed. But that actually happened once, later, and it wasn’t such a big deal. Whatever dream I’d seen was much worse than the reality. The tree didn’t even break the window.

We, in the house, are all fat. Everyone follows a pattern. You come in the house—skinny, large—however that might be. Then you gain weight proportionally to how much servicing your head needs. They feed you so you’ll feel better. There’s something psychological to it, I think. You don’t think when you’re eating. So if you can’t stand raking leaves and can’t sleep with another person in the room and finally wake up when the floor boards squeak, and then can’t go back to sleep, and get stiff back pain with metal, folding chairs and don’t like to “sound things out” and hate having your Polaroid taken—then you’re gonna get some food. That’s the pattern.

So it isn’t anyone’s fault that we all get so fat so quickly. Not really. The doctors and house workers just want everyone to feel comfortable and food is an obvious remedy. That’s how it happens. Pizza parties were only on birthdays at first, then later on school holidays and then later on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The food pacifies us.

The house wasn’t made specifically to support large young folks. The ones who grew big just surrendered to a large act of suggestion. The real theme of the house is to turn sad folks into happy ones; or rather a simple explanation like this is good enough for now. The house workers are paid to entertain us and feed us and talk to us. They get paid extra if we talk.

There was a meeting, awhile back, where all the people who worked for the house got together and talked on their own, without us. Some said we were too fat, and some said being fat was okay if we were happy, too. The house workers then asked the doctors, like they always did, and the doctors looked at charts and diagrams and determined skinny folks would be happier, in theory.

They started with rope jumping, which I was okay with, but that was too advanced for most of us. As a group we needed to work on coordination. And you needed a waist to bend for sit-ups. It was all just a little bit sad. So the house workers decided to take us away, put us on tour, so that we’d stop associating the house with physical torture.

We went bowling on that first outing. It was also a billiard hall and an arcade and a place that sold beer, which we all wanted to look at and possibly sip. I wore a pair of Velcro bowling shoes, more room on the ends than the sides. I remember thinking the lanes were like rows of corn and I was a giant looking over them. I used to look at everything as if I were a giant.

The whole experience of “exercising” us took about ten minutes because the balls were big and no one could hold them. The house workers complained and were told how professional bowling establishments didn’t have baby-balls or bumpers. Our gutter balls were depressing, and that wasn’t allowed, so we ended up chicken wings and watching Jurassic Park on the alley television.

They consulted a professional camp counselor for this second trip, and we were each given a sleeping bag to lean against on the bus. I think everything—the backpacks, the tents, the bug spray, the headlamps, the maps, the trail mix with dried fruit—was all donated. It had to be. We got the windows down and the bus stopped smelling like mold if you had the breeze in your face.

All the house workers were with us, four total, I think, but there was only one doctor. His name was Walker the Doctor and nobody liked him, I remember that. I didn’t like him. Still don’t. He is the doctor with the uncomfortable hairpiece and the soft voice. If you cry he will pet you on the back. I hate that. But he was in control of this bus. I looked at him, sitting up there in the front, talking to the driver with his calm voice and hands, and it was comforting to know that he was the same person inside and outside of the house. It wouldn’t be like I was going to learn this guy had a different life—could speak six languages and played the guitar—was interesting and, in fact, all my hateful presumptions were wrong. That would have worried me. But this doctor had no secrets, no surprises, no identity that I wasn’t aware of. His unchanging character was like: “Okay everyone, this isn’t going to hurt at all…Exercise is going to make you feel better…We can’t touch your toes for you…”

The house workers told us right away how we wouldn’t be able to do everything. The park was very large, included much of the area’s Atlantic coast, and had far too much ground to cover. But the trees were tall and green like I wanted them to be—big, healthy needle trees with squirrels and humming birds and everything else that I wanted to see. That’s what I was thinking just then—how separate it was from the house.

After pitching our tents some of us went off to the rocky beach and were followed by the doctor and a couple house workers. It was at the bottom of a hill and the doctor had to pay money. The water was cold and I convinced everyone to go hiking. I remember thinking how perfect the trail I wanted to walk sounded in the guidebook. It was the “View of East Coast paradise” and I think you could see a lighthouse, some lobster boats and even a few whales if there weren’t any clouds. And I had a group of folks wanting to go up with me—young, fat ones that had ground-floor rooms because they couldn’t handle the stairs. To my surprise, Walker the Doctor said, yes, go, and all of a sudden I was leading a group of us, slowly, up the craggily rock beach with only two house workers accompanying us. I was happy.

So the Precipice Trail, the one I’m talking about, went directly up a granite cliff. It was strenuous, no doubt, but I had confidence after reading of the switchbacks in place and the iron rungs stapled into the mountain. They’d support me, I thought, no problem. I imagined myself riding a clock pendulum, swinging to the top. That’s how it would have looked if you spent the whole day watching me.

 *  *  *

The two house workers now fronted our convoy of young fat folks, already panting from the exertion of walking carefully, as instructed, over the rocky beach. The house workers met the ranger first and had to listen to a prepared nature speech about Peregrine Falcons. They were dangerous birds, territorial, nesting on cliffs, and would attack the eyes of whatever threatened them, and so on. And they had claimed our trail for the rest of mating season. That was the speech.

The unarmed ranger said no, absolutely not, we couldn’t go, I couldn’t go, no one could go, not even the house workers if they went on their own. “It’s not personal, it’s nature.” And I think the house workers said something like: “…please…we bought a permit to exercise these folks…”

And even though the ranger said nothing about talons, I knew the falcons had them. I imagined large claws ripping up a baseball glove. It seemed every animal in the world had a built-in weapon, something intrinsic—or forcefully acquired—to warn other birds or people or menacing pieces of plastic. That’s what I was thinking.

The sun was at my back, so I didn’t have to squint. Then a man came, arrived walking, and a few things changed. And it wasn’t a change that I noticed to be good or bad. It passed like I imagine a concentrated blast of evolution would—leaving you in a foreign place without any how-to books. But at this point, I didn’t even know who he was. I should mention that. But I remember this, I said: “Damn, he looks just like my Mom.”

I’m not making that up. I really said that. It was the first thing I thought after I saw him.

He slipped behind all of us large folks and the unarmed ranger was too preoccupied with our exercise permit to notice him going onto the path. The forest was covered with soft things, the crunchy branches still on the trees, and he was wearing green army pants too, so that might have helped him blend in. I just remember him thanking me silently, with a wink, then disappearing up the path. He probably thought I was some type of leader.

He didn’t come back into view until later, when the ranger raised his binoculars in disbelief. The man with green pants had started climbing the Precipice and he’d taken his shirt off to get a tan. His shoes were good, you could tell because he wasn’t slipping like the ranger was saying he would: “The trail hasn’t been prepared,” and so on. But the climber was so far away that only the wind could carry the ranger’s words, and by then they were meaningless.

It looked like a rubber action figure was moving up the wall, fluidly, without joints. He wasn’t going back and forth around the switchbacks like I thought he would, but rather made a straight line up the vertical granite face. So he must have known something about climbing. The man was small up there, but I could see that much.

The ranger had a radio instead of a gun and called someone who yelled at him. A Bar Harbor police cruiser pulled up and the cop and the ranger started talking. They were friendly to each other, probably were friends, and appeared to enjoy the climber’s show. The unarmed ranger didn’t look afraid like he had been before, when the climber first appeared on the mountain. The bosses would see it his way, he imagined, I think. “You can’t stop some people,” they would say, “…and he does look good up there, like he knows a thing or two about climbing.”

Twenty minutes later there was a new ranger shouting threats with a bullhorn. He was privileged with a better uniform than the first ranger wore, one that looked closer to real military, with a larger shield. There was also a growing audience that might have distracted the climber. Arriving parents lifted children onto their shoulders for a better view. Retirees on their way to the rocky beach paused to look, towels draped over arms, floppy hat-brims pushed up for an unobstructed view. The cop surveyed the scene and decided he wasn’t going to do anything.

I was present the entire time and I don’t think any of these things fazed the climber at all. That is to say, it was definitely the falcons that made him fall.

There were four rangers now—the youngest, two middle rangers and a final old ranger—and they wanted to arrest the climber when he came back down. They needed to demonstrate how forceful angry rangers could be. The cop had gone back on patrol at the request of the old ranger, so he was gone, but the parents wouldn’t take their kids away like he asked them to. The retirees refused to carry on down to the rocky beach.

The birds were noiseless, or at least were from where we stood. I don’t know what the climber heard as they came off the cliff side. The falcons moved in a group, there were three, and they went for his hands as if knowing which method was most efficient. Like I said, the Precipice wasn’t an up-and-down mountain, the climber just chose to attack it that way. It was more like a jagged face with many levels. He didn’t fall that far. He rested on his stomach about twenty feet below where the birds had met him. Everyone stood up taller on their toes at the same time looking for movement or blood, anything, but it was hard to see without binoculars.

The old ranger didn’t speak and I wondered if he would be the one to retrieve the climber. Or maybe his job was over, I thought. I remember feeling anxious more than worried. I had nervous energy, and I asked a house worker if I could go get the man, honestly believing the workers would let me do anything if I asked politely. I wanted to cry, not because of the tragedy, but because I thought I could do something active to help and knew, impotently, that no one would let me.

The whole event seemed more like a movie than an accident. When it was over, everyone kind of stood up and nodded and left. There were no sweating climb partners speed-climbing to reach him, and no exhausted though still screaming wife, and there wasn’t a white-faced relative waiting to identify the body. No one around knew who he was. The doctors would be the first to know his name, or possibly the helicopter medics if they checked his wallet for a picture. Only then would they know what his face was supposed to look like—or they could have asked me. I knew what his face looked like. But no, we went home, to the house, after sticking our feet in the ice-cold water at the rocky beach and collapsing our tents without ever sleeping in them.

A week later a house worker forgot to recollect his newspaper from the breakfast table when he went to wash his dishes in the kitchen. There were lots of sad things in newspapers, international mostly, and this was a rare chance to see something forbidden. The sound of dishwater would drown out the sound of crinkling newspaper, I realized, so I grabbed the paper and spread it out. My heart raced because I was touching something forbidden. My fingertips were sweaty, and I couldn’t get the pages apart, so I scanned the front page.

I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone else, but if I’m looking at a whole sheet of newspaper, spread out over the table, I can use my mind to cut out everything that I’m not going to like. But I don’t always get to choose what will interest me. It’s like a subconscious filter that works before I even realize I’m missing something. I might skip over an article because I don’t like the picture beside it or because the headline doesn’t have a name or for some other reason of detail—I don’t really know how it works. And sometimes I’ll go back to a page I just turned, not trusting myself, and I’ll say: “Nope, you were right—you don’t like politics and you don’t worry about gun control ever passing and you don’t care who’s running for sheriff because you can’t vote anyway and you don’t need to lose time looking at the Wal Mart ladies model plus-size underwear.” And I’ll just remind myself that I’m one of the people I can trust—if that makes any sense.

I found the obituaries.

The man’s picture came out of the print before I even knew what to look for. Due to the rarity of the circumstances and the tourist-dollar-implications of his death, he’d been given kind of a starring role in this edition of the death pages. The man had been a victim of a climbing accident, with no local family, and the autopsy had been in Bangor and his name was Arthur Boyd.

I am also Boyd, I should mention, and this was not one of life’s amusing coincidences, my having discovered the man who’d fallen off the Precipice trail was my namesake, but a touch of high-consciousness to the center of my being.

I howled.

My compatriots around the table, previously perhaps envious of my newspaper and at least partly complicit, were now clearly re-afraid of authority and left the premises. So when the worker returned from washing his dishes I was alone, clutching the paper and screaming. I was crying, but if he’d looked closer he would have seen that I was elated, connected to the world, and really not a danger to anyone or to myself. What I’m saying, you know, is that the guy freaked out, in my opinion, and that I didn’t require the tranquilizer injection.

When I woke up, unrestrained at the hands but tucked tightly into bed by a blanket around my waist, Walker the Doctor said, “You’ll be treated like an adult.”

I wished to speak about the Arthur Boyd.

“My colleagues don’t understand that people like you, Alan, good people, become adults many years before normal children.”

I agreed with that. I’d been more mature than the kids at school.

“The only way to run our house is to accept reality; you guys are already adults, yes, but you will have to remain in the house until your maturity coincides with the normal adult laws that pertain to drinking and driving and smoking and voting and renting movies. You’ll just have to wait at the house until the rest of the world realizes how old you are.”

This was a well-practiced pacifying speech, way off-topic.

The newspaper containing the death pages in question had been folded into an approximate eight by ten size that he could put on his clip board. I saw it poking out from the sides. He was currently writing on it.

“Arthur Boyd,” I said.

And as though Walker the Doctor knew what I wanted, what I was getting at, linguistics aside, he said: “There are many people with your name. Here, there, everywhere. You’re not related.”

“Necessarily,” I said. I’d meant to say not-necessarily-related, but maybe, but I was too emotional to get it all out. I then thought to mention that Arthur Boyd had looked exactly like my mother, as a way of proof, but only, “Mother,” came out, and then, worst-possible-scenario, my mother was on the phone while Walker the Doctor stood in the corner, standing at a legally responsible distance, pretending not to listen.

“I love you, Alan,” she said.

“Arthur Boyd,” I said.

As though worried, she said, “Your name is Alan.” She paused for me to respond. “Alan?”

“If he was family,” I wanted to say crisply, clearly. “I could have lived with Arthur Boyd. But now he’s dead and I’m sad about that.”

I didn’t get all the words out.

Walker patted me on the back as he took the phone away. He spoke to my mother. His tone was even, polite, professionally supportive as if nothing in the world would ever change, and that was okay. I couldn’t feel my legs, so tight under the blankets, and so I kicked like I was doing extra-hard sit-ups for the military, hoping to untuck them, which Walker the Doctor must have taken as very aggressive, because he pinched my neck again and then I felt very sleepy. The air in the room changed. I was alerted to the walls taking on different tones—browns, reds, oranges and other comforting shades. Walker was using his voice, still calm, though wanting something from me, but I didn’t hear specific words, so he wasn’t a bother. The door was open and what I wanted was getting closer. What had just recently felt like burning was now just warmth. I was enveloped. I smelled spaghetti sauce and toasted bread and thought, pizza!

 

 

BIO

AA WeissA. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and works as a foreign language teacher after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico and Moldova, where he served in the U. S. Peace Corps from 2006-2008. His writing has appeared in Hippocampus, 1966, Drunk Monkeys, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Pure Slush, among others, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in New York City. Website: www.aaweiss.com

0

 The Art of Lauren Martino

 

lauren painting

 

Lauren Martino Art

Lauren Martino Art

 

Lauren Martino Art

 

Lauren Martino

 

Lauren Martino Art

 

Lauren Martino Art

 

Lauren Martino Art

 

Lauren Martino Art

 

Lauren Martino Art

 

Women We Worship

by Lauren Martino

 

we worship the women who are barely there
pigment void eyes
and platinum white hair
her torso is so thin she threatens to disappear
her skin is so white it’s verging on clear
she is a silent image with no voice of her own
she is an object of perfection — a capitalist drone
she is the height of Dennett’s zimbo —
the disengaged bimbo
and we’ll never hear her theory of mind
and she’ll never skull-crushingly illuminate humankind.

But there are these women who are filled to the brim
with pigments so demanding —
as to color the passion within
with voices so loud your brain will vibrate
and you will thank her out loud for showing you heaven’s gate

Her curves are fierce with unapologetic life
and her enormous dark eyes strike like an amorous knife
We must worship the earth as we worship the air
we must worship the women who are actually there.

 

 

The Vision of Collision

We are perched on a peak as we watch it collide,
deep and destructive.

The static in our veins
is the wreckage of the week
and the avalanche has become conductive.

We will see it unfold
before we have time to catch up
and the bottom falls out all over.

We crack like eggs into a syrupy glue,
the contents of our souls simmer out like steam.

We are but a dream in the land of a baffled philosopher.

And so we lay naked,
confused,
soulless,
in the contents of one another
hoping to make something more than a child.

More than another one
of what we are
or always were
or became.

We are the seams of dreams
meeting as one defies
the Other
and we seek to retreat
from the hearts pulse
into the cosmic beat.

 

Internal Battles

Claustrophobic thoughts, I must be insane
Packed tight in the tousled tubes of my brain
Electric, shaking, wild, and dense
A vicarious vacuum of intangible sense.

Conflicted and raw, my heart beats in my eyes
Pick the wrong card and the fantasy dies.
Muffled truths cry out in dirty-rotten air
You’ve said it before mama, you sincerely don’t care.

But ill stand idle in the night neglecting the drowning hours
Dismal and dead are their strong standing forever-powers.
Callous deceiver,
Your mind is so weak.
Notorious griever,
Your moans are so meek.

Now picture this

Without word or a rhyme

You drop into space

One inch at a time.

Give me your eyes
I can give them true vision

Now give me your heart
It’s not your decision.

 

 

Artist Statement:

It feels as if I am filling in an impulse, or a beat, what feels like an intuitive template or scaffold that I never asked or looked for. The process of my work often feels more like an unfolding rather than a directed venture there is never a point A to B, Its a point A to which ever point feels natural. My portraits are all informed by the psychology and personality of the subject as well as my own state. I strive to find an integral balance of external and internal impressions, a marriage of the objective and subjective. I would consider my photography to be an attempt to use my perspective and addition of various edits to reconcile the objective information a camera provides with the subjectivity of the shooter’s perspective and imagination. Finally, my abstracted pieces are the expression and solidification of something that I cannot verbalize, they are physical imprints of my innermost personal interpretation of reality. All of my pieces are learning experiences, I have mastery over none of them nor do I attempt to, i wish only for my pieces to reflect intentionality and to have autonomous agency.

 

BIO:

Lauren MartinoMy name is Lauren Martino and I refuse to write about myself in the third person. I paint, I write poems, I take pictures, I draw, I sculpt, I build sets, I make things. The day I stop learning is the day I die. I am the daughter of two painters who gave me the experience of a lifetime by raising my twin brother and I in a building called Westbeth Artists Housing. I pray one day to be at least half as talented as they are. Taking summer classes at FIT throughout my adolescence had an enormous part in shaping me into who I am today. I am currently embarking on a new journey as a part time student at the New York Studio School. I have shown at Westbeth Gallery under the alias of Heather Bridges because if they knew how old I was they wouldn’t have accepted my work. I have worked as a Set Designer for the ID channel and other independent projects. I am young, with time I will collect more anecdotes to inspire and impress perfect strangers, but for now this is me and that is all.

 

To view more of Lauren’s work:

 

 

0
Veronica

Van Hulse

by Veronica O’Halloran

 

 

The net this morning. Hulse is dead.

 

Immediately:

The body. Two boulders on a squalid mattress – nude? half-clothed? clothed?

Did he die in his sleep? Was he on his way to lunch, failing to arrive?

Infarction, stroke, congestive heart failure, massive unspecified cardiac event?

Auto-erotic asphyxiation? Rough trade too rough?

The colour of his skin when they found him. Who found him? Did they have keys to the house? Break a window? Call the police?

Was he alone?

Who lived with him?

He was unlikely to have had a cat.

The net’s already gabbling about the funeral, suggesting our pequeño PM elect’ll be there – our arts-defunding, abortion-banning, gay-bashing, state-forest-mining, ocean-plundering, refugee-imprisoning, medicare-privatizing, pension-cutting, wage-depressing, poor-bating, billionaire-coddling Vladimir Putin mini-action figure, our very own Putinesca of the South Seas, who emerges, dripping, bare-chested, tiny-Speedo’d, onto the sandy edge and front page of every new morning; our untethered id-monster, our new national lowpoint, grinning over every sky and behind every bathroom mirror, here to be us, here to stay –

Hulse made him thinkable.

More realistically:

The room. There, on his right side, huge and mounded, on a respectable bed, his left shoulder and back covered by a dressing gown of thin fine dark grey silk, his body lies cooling. In this box of early winter light the motes are floating unseen. The traffic fluctuates outside.

There are crushed velvet curtains, His glasses are on a table. There is the ticking of a small clock. It’s the clock he had when I knew him.

The kitchen is shadowed and cold. He used to be a good cook.

So he is dead. As dead as his parents, the one he loved and the one he hated; as dead as his oldest friend, as the teachers he by and large despised, who knew it and gave him a Third for his pains.

He – His body is still in the front bedroom, in the tarnishing light. The world is continuing. Tick by tick by tick he’s becoming meat. The friends will be on their way, will discover him.

Tall, high ceilings. Shadows.

I don’t want to look at his office, clunky Microsoft monstrosity or sleek, subverted Apple; photos with the famous, small-canvas stand-ins from large-canvas stars of Australian art. I don’t want to see the mechanics of what he’d become. I know what he became.

He outstayed his welcome.

It was that insistence he had: Attend to me, attend to me. He’d been beaten as a very small child. He needed nurturing but couldn’t stop dominating long enough to accept it. And so one day in the study-room, we – I watched, appalled and fascinated – threw his bag through the window, forcing him downstairs to save it, and locked the door behind him. (How thin his old schoolbag was when he picked it up; how it gaped shapelessly; how the empty brown paper bag inside it gaped, the only thing in it, gape inside gape.) It was three on a Friday afternoon; our translations were due at five. People could only give him so much time. He was my friend more than theirs, and he was trespassing.

Of course he didn’t want to go home. His father’s viciousness; his father’s corrupt, corrupted, terrifying face; soft, squashed, unmoist; uncooked dough; white mud after the passage of a column of tanks. A jagged opening for sharp, yellow, misshapen teeth. His father had been a coast watcher during the War, observing enemy troopships, isolated for weeks or months at a time, raped by the rest of the squad. His mother, bright-faced, smiling, dutiful, dependent, had been cut off by her relatives for marrying beneath them. Of course Hulse wanted to stay with us.

That was the year he was seventeen. Brilliant, lonely, a grass-blade burning.

He gave me a pot. I have it still, a small, unfired clay pot for holding bath-oil, I think – too small for olive oil, too large for perfume – with one intact amphora-shaped handle and a delicate body with one small hole, dug up, he said, by his uncle, a construction engineer working in Cyprus. It needs to be appraised… I wonder if he had a Will. It would have been like him to make one, feeling grand doing it, gifting, bequeathing. He needed to feel grand.

The house is grand enough, proportions, size. Grotty floor, counters, toaster, crumbs. It’s a gilded shack.

Oh, Hulse! Jesus!

 

*  *  *

 

We sat on the slope above the artificial lake and smoked, two children hooking it from lectures. Green-grey eyes and dark copper hair, an old pair of skinny brown cords, but you skinnier. The fags were yours. A payday splurge, broke three quarters of every month. Bonded, Education Department money.

The day you directed us, one of the Post-Grads in his Beetle, you, me, to the house in the hills your parents were renting then, wisteria over the front verandah. You made omelets. We ate under the flowers and talked about Winnie the Pooh. Childhood – hail and farewell – an informal tableau: the one you wanted and never had, happy portent and happy prelude to a brave new life: Joden Van Hulse, man of letters, boy wonder.

In any college in the U.S. You could have taken tests, passed, and bypassed most of the material they taught there. No doubt about it. But that was Australia, and I don’t think that’s possible there, even now. Lord, being punished themselves, how they believe in punishment.

So Hulse went exploring, skipping lectures, talking to the brightest people he could find, always in the caff, learning how to win the match game from Last Year in Marienbad – Most of our year was perpetually writing: essays, translations, tute papers; noses to the grindstone, just like high school, though in my case with a louche party or two thrown in, there and back on the back of Hulse’s scooter. He needed company; he needed a reciprocating passion.

So there he was, in the caff, while we were in the library or the study room. There he was when The Imperial Schematic first appeared; there he was, brilliant, well-read, aching for the position his temperament and gifts were ideally suited to; there he was, better equipped than any of us.

And there Warner Gilchrist was, as the months went by and the months revealed, firmly in the only editor’s seat there effectively was, firmly active editor and part-owner of the press The Schematic was printed on, and firmly, wordily, overweeningly occupying as many columns as he was printing.

“Bubble,” Hulse laughed, appalled, choking, back of wrist to mouth. “Can you imagine all that orange pubic hair?”

We both hated Warner. Even two years out I could see that he’d probably get all the angels and stars on the Christmas tree – the scholarship, the tutorship. His stupidity was fashionable and most of his teachers were fools. But Hulse understood what I did not: that editing the student paper was the established path to becoming a writer or critic of real reputation – Chris Pollnitz, Peter Craven, Christos Tsiolkas – and so Hulse lobbied Warner, and for a couple of months we were the Schematic’s joint literary editor. I gathered some good material; Hulse passed it on. I had to drop out but Hulse kept gathering.

Three or four issues later he told me that nothing we’d presented was seeing print. Again Hulse understood what I did not: that Warner would keep locking him out for the next two years and the succession would bypass him after that; that Warner had not only locked him out but had done it after pretending to let him in; that no matter what Warner accepted, from us jointly or from Hulse alone, he’d never print a word by anyone else if he could help it, that the literary editorship was at best a title, and in effect a waste of time, a cruel joke.

I was too busy to pay much attention. But Hulse was humiliated, and rather than continue in humiliation, he resigned.

For culture I’d had tantum ergo and mea maxima culpa and watching other kids get caned. I had things to read, things to learn.

But there Hulse was, in a desert: superbright, bored, compelled to be there another three and a bit years (Teacher’s College bonded), poor as a church mouse, ugly in some ways, openly homosexual when homosexuality was still illegal, nothing to learn, nothing to do, and as gifted as Oscar Wilde.

By the following year I was running out of time to be his friend. I had to produce a huge amount of work or lose any hope of a job that wasn’t an office or a shop or a short drive from suicide. He began to know people, I had the impression if I came up for air and had time to hear, I was relieved not to have to know.

By the time he was writing his thesis I’d been working in country schools for a couple of years. I saw him during the holidays. At the end of the second year we met at his local. I was working, so I paid. Just as the waiter was handing me the receipt Hulse remarked that I lacked charity.

I’m sure I’d said something tart, but that remark so annoyed me – for its truth or falsity, I’ve never been able to tell – I didn’t see him again for ten years.

The weight of not seeing him… It always felt like ten years. But now that I’m piecing it together, I find it was actually not quite five.

I’d finally got a full-time job in Melbourne. At the employment office, the day I applied, I’d bumped into Hulse’s old friend, George. He’d got married; we all had dinner and kept in touch; George put Hulse in touch with me.

He came into the office. As soon as I recognized him – waved copper hair a wiry scribble of black frizz, unkempt to the point of dirtiness, heavy, hand-spun Mexican cardigan shapeless, filthy as if he’d slept on a hillside – I bundled him out. The shock was his face, his head, ballooned and thickened with flesh and bone – so much thickened bone – skin shining with grease, eyes huge behind his glasses, blinking; huge head turning, looking about, myopic, goblin, looking about, looking for my desk –

I got him to the pub across the road, set him up with brandy, got some food into him. He was starving, had been for years, he said; the weight was from eating spaghetti, so much, so long. He was in Melbourne to meet Acheson Tooms, the columnist, the ad-agency man, the nationally known, leftwing columnist and ad-agency man. Tooms’d been retained by The Age to revamp its look and increase its market share. Tooms wanted to see the mockup Hulse and a friend had put together.

He was staying with George and Serafina. He was most like the Hulse I’d known when he was talking about the work. Otherwise – It was partly the sheer skankiness of what he had to tell: being fired by Flagstaff High (the Teachers College bond) for being openly gay; a junior Arts Council administrator’s offer of a Fellowship for a blowjob (waste of a blowjob). Partly it was that he was as broke as I had been on the edge of being for years, and in his presence, in his implicit request for patronage, I could see myself losing everything I had, and still not being able to rescue him. (The pain and abandonment in his eyes as he held his gaping bag and looked up at us.) Partly I was afraid of what his proximity would involve me in, madcappery in quarters seamier than I wanted to visit, demands on my mind and time I couldn’t meet. I was ashamed of all this subtext, and ashamed of my relief when he said he was leaving.

He was booked to go back to Adelaide by bus. The night before he left I had a party at my flat, everyone I knew and all the wine I had, among the beanbags and the cushions on the rug, everyone mellow and happy in the yielding, endless early autumn evening that flowed through the windows, the air and the grenache so soft I still remember them.

Tooms hadn’t paid Hulse and was no longer taking his calls.

And so Hulse caught the bus with no idea what he was going to do.

The bus crashed.

I must have heard about it from George: Hulse in hospital in East Melbourne, hairline fracture of the pelvis, refusing painkillers any more potent than Valium for fear of addiction. As well as my full-time job, I still had the part-time teaching job that had paid the rent while I was a student, I’d teach two nights a week, visit Hulse two night, and spend the weekends marking the long, mid-year assignments for two large classes. After a couple of months I was exhausted. I quit teaching, though I liked the job; insisted, though it was the middle of the year.

            Oh, what a blow that Phantom gave me, Hulse read to me from bed. He was released o George and Serafina, on crutches, to finish recovering. I was relieved and guilty and ashamed, too ashamed of my relief and reluctance even to get in touch.

A couple of months went by. I thought Hulse was back in Adelaide, “Do you think there’s some genetic component to alcoholism?” George said, one lunchtime. (I knew where George drank at lunch. Occasionally, I needed to, too.) “Hulse used to ask me to smuggle grog into the hospital and give it to him when the nurse wasn’t looking. And we both know about his dear papa.” (George? Visiting? Hulse always made it sound s though he had nobody.) (Of course George and Fina would visit him. Of course they would.) (Hulse never asked me for grog / that was interesting / he used to read to me to forget the pain.)

“He’s still at our house. He just sits and drinks all day. Fee likes him but she’s pregnant. She’s tired and he’s demanding, When he was well enough we asked him to leave. We put him on the train. When we got home that night he’d broken a window and climbed back in.”

Of course Hulse didn’t want to go back home, to the tumbledown farmhouse he was renting near Victor Harbor with the mockup friend, which had neither comfort nor care, which was miles from anywhere, no car, no money –

I didn’t offer to take him. I should have. But I hid from Hulse in anger and dread, from George and Fina in shame.

He did leave, eventually.

It was Warner all over again: Tooms locking him out after promising to let him in. (How many other little teams did Tooms have on the long finger? How many people did he do that to?)

I saw Hulse that Christmas – a jumbled impressions of a small flat somewhere in North Adelaide, a little silver Himalayan cat he’d procured from somewhere, to breed for money. A tiny, delicate cat, shimmering fur, tiny bones. She weighed nothing.

The following Christmas he told me that he had bred her, didn’t have the money to take her to the vet, and she died.

That he had seized that tiny, airy nothing and tried to force it to work for him – His greed and ruthlessness. The death of the cat, that black tide in my stomach, swallowed anger, disgust, grief –

Shit, Hulse! Why didn’t you just get a job for a while? Just for a while, just shut the fuck up, get a job, get some money? The Ed. Dept. fired you. You didn’t owe them time or money. I know you were beaten until you were six years old, I know you were seduced at a party when you were twelve. I know it’s a miracle that your sweetness survived as long as it did. But why the fuck didn’t you just get a job, any job, just for a while?

I remember exactly the small cottage in Chapel Street he bought in ’79, with the compensation from the bus crash. I was surprised that he’d bought a house, though looking back, I see it makes perfect sense – his father’s poverty, the abyss always nearby. That was the house we were in when He told me about Warner’s death. He was also starting to write for some obscure political rag.

If Tooms had paid him, acknowledged him. The doors that would have opened!

 

*  *  *

 

I can’t remember exactly when he began the affair. The net says it was ’73. I think it was ’72. We were still at ease, speaking.

He told me he was considering it. He was living in Tynte Street, across the road and down a bit from Channel Nine. He was skinny, still; the sun was knifing into my eyes; the house he was renting a room in was large and white (wrought iron balcony), two storeys; my body was leaning into departure, his was leaning over the fence.

George mentioned it to me once, at the beginning. I was relieved he was as dubious and quietly aghast as I was. We weren’t disturbed because Hulse might have fallen in love, but by the very real possibility that he hadn’t. The man’s eminence terrified us. We thought of Icarus. We spoke of the actualities, the calculating / humiliating Mrs. Thursday Night aspects of the.

            Deal is the word that comes to mind. Oh, God, Hulse, stop! I am aware that that’s the automatic American idiom for anything from an eventuality to an arrangement.

            Situation, then.

I could never stop you. I couldn’t even stop you trespassing on our time.

The net says the affair was long-running.

So was he your rich lover when you had the cat? Were on the dole? Taking your mockup to Tooms? Breaking George’s window and starting to break our hearts?

Did you end up killing the cat because you didn’t want to be a whore?

 

*  *  *

 

I left Australia at the end of ’81, relieved to be out of the concrete fog of the place, the official, semi-official, informal, familial, banal and endless nagging, bullying, micromanaging, minging, yattering; to be out of the smothering non-language, away from the closed-down loss of hope after the fall of the Whitlam government. To be able to think and breathe.

I don’t know how Hulse came to edit the Southerly Vista; he wasn’t one for writing letters. I phoned him a few times, those first years (when trans-Pacific calls were far from cheap); he told me then. I assumed the mag pre-existed and that he’d been hired in the usual way. It very gradually dawned on me that that might not have been the case.

I never knew where the money came from. It always seemed to me that the money followed on the affair. It was certainly subsequent to it. (Where else could the investors have come from? Where else could access to them have come from?)

In ’86 Hulse bought one of my stories. I used a pseudonym. My own name appeared under a letter I hadn’t written.

In ’88 my mother died; my father was ill with grief. We went to Adelaide, stayed with my father, saw Hulse at the Vista‘s offices. He gave us ten strange, distracted minutes, talking of mad, deliberate AIDS carriers, looking half-mad himself while he waited for the Vista to come from the printer. We rose to go. We needed lunch. He recommended a restaurant we couldn’t afford.

The second time he bought a story from me I didn’t hear from him at all. In ’95 I ran into an old Adelaide friend in Rochester, New York. We stood on the sidewalk, in the wind off Lake Ontario, my ears so dysfunctional all I could hear was the wind, and all I could feel was the way they were swelling in the velocity of the cold. We went to a coffee shop to hear ourselves speak. Hulse had published the thing in ’93.

I knew immediately. I couldn’t believe it; couldn’t credit that he’d do it and that he’d actually done it to me; couldn’t believe he thought I’d never know. Adelaide’s a small town. He’d published it under my name. Some time after I wrote to Hulse the Vista‘s managing editor apologized, enclosed a cheque, blamed the clerk.

That was the last day of our acquaintance.

 

*  *  *

 

In 2005 I was trying out a new search engine, testing it on old names and obscure places. There was an image bank as well. I read the photo.

You’re at a Wine and Arts Festival, unrecognizable except for your lips: ballooning skull, head, neck, all ballooning again and still, not with air or bone but with flesh, cheeks hanging, spreading, thickening, not quite loose enough for jowls; thinning hair (more skull, more thick and brutal bone) – your grossness, suggesting greed, suggesting little piggy eyes (they are, small, watery), suggested pig. But pig is wrong, beside the point, beside the soul, beside the vomited mountain of fat that you’ve become. You’d glisten like aspic if I stepped away and looked back.

And then I read the articles.

When the owners sold the Vista you went to The Age and then to Murdoch, arguing that the Timorese have no claim on Timorese oil and that Aboriginal land claims are irrational, falsified, and a hoax, especially those based on the claims of women – You’re against anything but the expanding power and reach and purview of the rich, against the whole box and dice of a middle of the road social democrat polity, against the rights and claims of people as battered as you were, who owned even less than you did –

And while you were with Murdoch you went speech-writing for Satan’s altar-boy, that earlier PM, the one who introduced barbed-wire prisons for refugees and indefinite prison for their kids, and who, on the excuse of child abuse, marched in and took control of Aboriginal reservations.

Reservations tend to lie within proposed mining leases.

You weren’t like that on the grassy slope.

What have you been doing, Bella, while I wasn’t there?

What are you doing dead?

 

*  *  *

 

Warner screwed him. Tooms screwed him. For all I know The Australian Worker screwed him.

The money for the Vista came from the affair, one way or another. Judging by the net, the Vista‘s literary section truly was great, everything the Schematic’s should have been, probably, in method, everything he recommended for The Age.

 

*  *  *

 

And so, he’s dead. And this is the cargo of things that won’t be said at the funeral:

That in his quest for power he did great and permanent harm to many people poorer and less powerful than himself; that he abetted the most destructive drives and elements in Australian society, making it acceptable for “decent” people to vote for a fascist government; that if Tooms had paid him, acknowledged him, if Warner hadn’t lied to him and humiliated him, if the Imperial Schematic had never been set up the way it was, if the students who owned the press the Schematic was printed on hadn’t also officered the Student Union and so made both ends of it, and brokered and signed off on the deal, some of all this might have been avoided.

 

*  *  *

 

That knot of us, the three I knew and half-knew: Warner, dead of his father’s blind love and his own conceit, ’79; George, that frail angel, that small, constant universe of compassion and delight, seroconverted, gone, ’91; and now you, standing beside me as I work, telling me how to get that photo to print, with that hesitant, trademark stutter you had when you were stunned by what I’d failed to see and were trying to be tactful, a hungry ghost.

 

*  *  *

 

Online the local vocals – the prefects and hall-monitors who appropriate everything, accustomed to owning and legislating every level and dimension of the word appropriate – pity him, deceived by power, mocked for his weight –

As though that is the point, as though the suffering he denied and justified can be pitied and personalized and foibled away, as though his loneliness were an absolution, as though the self-deception that enables ambition weren’t also a choice, as though blathering over the coffin and the corpse will leave anything whole or mended –

Stop your blithering! Leave us, who knew him before any of this, when he was all hope and gifts. Leave us to our grief!

And then explain to us, who’ve never been explained to yet, the difference between dishonesty and corruption and the way things are done.

 

 

BIO

VeronicaVeronica O’Halloran has taught English, Media Studies and Cultural Studies in high schools and colleges in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Los Angeles. She now lives in Cuença, Ecuador, where she is working on a book of short stories and completing a novel.

 

 

 

0
Marina Carreira poet

Capela da Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos

by Marina Carreira

 

Here on my side of the ocean, the mist
is a mantle of woolen smoke around the cliff
so many women have jumped from. I walk

steadily to the old chapel so many fisherwomen
have prayed in for the return of their husbands,
but I’m not here to pray. I stand and bear witness

to the crumbling blue and white tiles that form
the Blessed Mother of the Afflicted, the saint
of women plagued by fear and famine, phantasms

of both the mind and the body. No one knows I’m here
to plead for my mind back, for the return of the brain
that belonged to a woman who feared nothing.

To the kneeling woman on my left and the two
to my right, I am nothing more than an overwhelmed
tourist who forgot her camera but doesn’t care.

Rain is coming, and that is one less thing to get wet.
Later, on your side of the ocean, you tell me
about the sweltering heat of mid-afternoon in Newark:

It’s murder out here, even the sparrows stick
to the bark of the cherry blossoms to stay cool.
And we all know how they love to fly, so imagine.

 

 

 

 

Requiem for the Heart

 

Tiny purple gris-gris bags,
swimming in circles in my chicken soup.
I pick them out
and lay them lifeless
on the side of my plate.

The 4×4 cut-out
cards I exchanged with only girls
in my 5th grade class on Valentine’s day
now boxed
in my mother’s unfinished basement.

That pink birthmark,
a wet kiss on your lower back
hip. Your father has the very same
one he covers up every day
with Wranglers.

Hanging off the gold necklace
he gave me the Christmas after
we lost our virginities,
in it, our picture:
eighteen, unwounded, wide-smiling.

What my grandmother says
men are good at
eating. Easy like oranges,
their teeth slowly separating
each chamber.

 

 

 

 

En Route to Montreal, on Our Anniversary

 

  1. 5:36am

Day breaks slowly over the Catskills,
tree trunks scissoring the light.

White and wide as whale teeth,
lines divide us

from other cars on the Thruway.
I’m some spare part

of rib – rheumy-eyed, documenting
all my grandmother would call madness.

 

 

  1. 5:36 pm

We stop at Betty Beaver’s Diner
in Lewis. The heavy-lidded waitress serves us

bread and eggs as curry yellow
as the afternoon sun

breaking through the window’s grease.
Home feels four thousand miles away,

and it’s been nine lives since I overheard you
say Marriage is overrated.

 

 

BIO

Marina CarreiraMarina Carreira is a Luso-American writer from the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ. She holds a BA in English from Montclair State University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University. Marina is an adjunct professor of English at Essex County College and a correspondent for the Luso-Americano newspaper. She is curator and co-host of “Brick City Speaks”, a monthly reading series at Hell’s Kitchen Lounge in Newark, NJ. Her work is featured or forthcoming in The Acentos Review, Naugatuck River Review, Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora: An Anthology, and Paterson Literary Review.

 

 

 

0
James Gallant

Andrew the Vihuela-Player

by James Gallant

 

Daniella the black cat sneaks into the chamber, hides beneath a chair, and waits until Andrew is absorbed in his vihuela, then ascends lightly to the windowsill. She likes being there–his playing sweetens her sleep–but he does not like having her in the room. The contented rattle in her throat disturbs pianissimo. Aware of her presence he will remove her bodily.

Today, though, she is not the disturbance: There is a rapping at the door. He opens to Lady Cobb. “Andrew, Jayne needs your help in the kitchen.”

Lady Cobb’s smile has the slightly ironic edge it has always when Jayne and he are associated in any way. She has never approved her husband’s assigning the two servants adjacent private rooms connected by a door– another demonstration of Sir John’s understanding and generosity, as far as Andrew is concerned.

He follows Lady Cobb down the stairway to the kitchen on the lower level. He wears the same fustian work clothes and heavy shoes of Sir John Cobb’s other male retainers, but his red hair is longer on the sides than theirs, the remains of a fashionable haircut he received before playing for Queen Elizabeth.

Dark-haired Jayne, well-endowed in bosom, thigh, and rump, bends over the hearth pot she stirs. When she turns his way, her cheeks are rosy, her forehead curls matted by steam. She’s all business as she equips him with a wicker basket and knife, and orders him into the kitchen garden to pick lettuce and early raspberries. Her hostility has been palpable since she learned he is to leave the Cobbs. Did she suppose they would live together forever, man and wife for all intents and purposes?

There had been a shower while he was at his practice; the flagstones leading into the garden are wet. After hours of musical abstraction, the garden is a bower of loamy-smelling bliss, and his spine tensed by concentration relaxes as he bends over the chartreuse lettuce and plucks leaves near their gritty bases. The lyrics of the medieval troubadour song he is setting to music are running through his mind:

Absent sun,
Stay beneath the dark sea.
Lest he sail, I be undone.

Drowned star,
If you should leave your watery tomb,
Then what is dear to me is far.

Fair moon,
Cease movement, save my life
Weave a spell, forfend the noon.

Eternity,
Deface the heartless calendar.
Rest in peace, my surety!

 

Footsteps in the grass beyond the raspberry trellis, and voices: Andrew’s surrogate parent and benefactor Sir John Cobb and (Andrew assumes) Richard Hakluyt, who was to have arrived today from Paris with his fiancée Duglesse Cavendish.

“Spain is selling wool from America more cheaply than we can ours. English dominance in the market will end.”

“What will become of our sheepmen?” Sir John asks.

“I fear the worst.”

“King Philip’s been very quiet since Drake embarrassed him at Cadiz. What do you suppose he’s up to?”

“I have no idea, But the Pope called him a coward for letting Elizabeth and a pirate tweak his nose, and he’s a very proud fellow.”

“Been to our stool room since you arrived, Richard?”

Hakluyt laughs. “No, why do you ask?”

“Harrington’s installed for us one of his new odorless flushing commodes.”

“Well, I look forward to being odorless!”

“So do we all!”

The two men are laughing.

Andrew’s knife slips from his hand and lands in the grass.

“Who goes there?” Sir John calls.

Andrew peers around the edge of the raspberry trellis and smiles at the two older men.

“What are you doing, Andrew?”

“Picking raspberries.”

“I’ll have you know, Richard, that lad is one of the finest instrumentalists in England….Andrew, this is Reverend Hakluyt, the author of Diverse Voyages Touching the Discovery of America.

“Might I ask why one of the finest instrumentalists in England is picking raspberries?”

“Why are you picking raspberries, Andrew?”

“Jayne told me to.”

Sir John winks at Andrew.

“What instrument does Andrew play?”

“The vihuela.”

“I’d no doubt be impressed no doubt if I knew what a vihuela was.”

“An old Spanish instrument resembling our lute. My father brought us one from Aragon years ago. I once showed it to Andrew when he was a boy and I have never seen it since except in his arms.”

“A born musician.”

“So it seemed. John Dowland arranged for him to play recently for the Queen.”

“But he’s a servant?”

“His parents were servants of ours. They died in a fire here some years ago, and Andrew became our charge. Soon he’ll be going to Denmark as a musician at King Frederick’s court.”

“Really? How did this come about?”

“Frederick and my wife are cousins, you know. He paid us a visit after doing business in Edinburgh earlier this year. When he heard Andrew play he wouldn’t leave until we agreed to part with him.”

“And you did?”

“It was either that or have him stay longer and consume all my best wine!”

“The stories we hear of Danish tippling are true?”

“So it seems.”

“Will I get to hear Andrew perform?”

“This very night.”

 

A pleasant mid-summer evening. The Cobbs, Hakluyt, and couples from neighboring estates, dine on tables arranged amid flower beds in the walled garden.

Andrew does not ordinarily wait tables, but a scullion is ill, and Lady Cobb has asked him to help out. The meals Andrew takes with other retainers do not include meats except at Christmas and Easter. Never having acquired a taste for them, he finds the stench of flesh in the oven room faintly nauseating. He delivers a plate of roasted blackbirds to the garden, and takes up a position to one side of the diners to await commands.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of fine palazzos being built in Paris,” Hakluyt remarks. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry must have one, it seems.”

“But how does every Tom, Dick, and Harry afford one?”

“There’s an Italian usurer on every street corner offering loans at some incredible rate of interest.”

Andrew tries to imagine wanting a palazzo.

“I was recently at a house whose larder was bare. The owner had so much money tied up in house payments, he could barely afford to eat.”

“I’m much too fond of my roast beef to fall into that trap!”

“So am I!”

Desserts having been served, Lady Cobb whispers, “Andrew, put on your livery.”

To Andrew’s way of thinking, performing in the nude would be symbolism more apt than the garish livery, but since he’s going into the great world as a performer he may as well get used to looking like a juggler. He dons the red-and-gold striped doublet with pansid slops,* gartered gold Venetian silk hose that ascend to the lower hems of the doublet, and a red slouch hat with a golden feather. Vihuela in hand, hoping not to be seen in this getup by other servants, he makes his way back toward the garden.

Jayne smirks at him as he passes the open doorway to the oven room.

Twilight is deepening. Candles have been lit on the tables in the garden. Andrew seats himself in a corner some distance from the diners to pluck the strings softly as he tunes them.

“Duglesse, is your cousin Thomas still drinking tobacco?”

“He’s never without his pipe since coming from Virginia. I was with him in London last week when a Puritan preacher approached us. He informed Thomas that a person who breathes fire and smoke belongs in the bottomless pit and will soon be going there.”

“I hear that a servant saw smoke coming from Raleigh and thought he was on fire. She poured a bucket of water over his head.”

General laughter.

“This is all very interesting,” Lady Cobb says, “but I believe I heard the enchanting sounds of the vihuela.”

The guests smile at Andrew.

“Isn’t he splendid in his new livery?”

“The raspberry and blackbird man has become a Bird of Paradise!” Hakluyt exclaims.

As Andrew draws his stool nearer the guests, Lady Cobb describes his “wonderful opportunity” in Denmark. He does a bit more fine tuning, plays a series of swift runs, and then composes his thoughts a moment before playing a fantasia from Luis de Milan’s pieces for vihuela, followed by his transcription of a lute gigue by Valentin Bakfark, and then his own lengthy, demanding fantasia.

His playing has engendered awed silence in his audience and altered the ambiance of the gathering. At last a woman murmurs, “I didn’t want that to end.”

“I feel I have been to heaven and back,” says another.

The guests rise from their seats, stroll pensively in the moonlit pathways of the garden, or, wanting to be alone with their thoughts, make their way to their quarters in the castle for the night.

Andrew is on the verge of sleep when the door opens tentatively between his room and Jayne’s. He simulates the hoarse breathing of a sleeping person, and the door closes with a bang.

*   *   *

There is a forest of masts tilting back and forth gently in the harbor at Plymouth Sound. Rowboats large and small ferry passengers and baggage to ships on either side of the stream. Dock workers and carpet bag-toting sailors swarm among oxen and drays, kegs of gunpowder, tall piled coils of thick hemp rope, cannon ball pyramids, tar tubs, barrels of salt beef and salt pork and beer. The sounds of vendors ringing hand bells to advertise their wares reach the cliff above the harbor where Sir John Cobb and Lady Cobb stand with Captain Smathers of the ship Wanderer.

“What an amazing sight!” Sir John exclaims. “How long has the Royal Navy been in port?”

“All month, locals tell me,” Smathers replies.

“A confrontation with the Spanish must be imminent.”

“That’s possible,” Smathers agrees. “The sun and moon were bloody over Plymouth three times this past week.”

“You’ve no doubt heard the Pope declared Philip King of England?”

Smathers laughs. “No, I hadn’t.”

“That would make you and I Spanish subjects.”

“Best of luck to the Pope and King Philip!”

Smathers points a finger. “See those the two men examining demi-cannons? Lord Admiral Howard and Francis Drake.”

“I shall remember this sight as long as I live.”

“It’s been wonderful seeing you again Peter,” Lady Cobb remarks. “How soon will your ship depart?”

“As soon as they’ve loaded the Cornwall tin–within the hour.”

Lady Cobb touches her husband’s arm. “John, we should say our farewells to Andrew

“Indeed.”

The three make their way down stone steps connecting the cliff to the harbor.

 

The sea chest Lady Cobb has had prepared for Andrew’s voyage to Denmark consumes most of the floor space of his small cabin. Andrew assumes he will be asked to perform soon after arriving at Elsinore, so it will be important to stay in practice while en route. But he cannot seat himself properly to play with the chest consuming floor space. Once the ship is underway he will ask Captain Smathers if the chest might be relocated. Meanwhile, seated in his bunk, he studies in the dim light cast by a spirit-lamp his transcription for vihuela of John Dowland’s lute piece, “Fancy #3.” He can hear the piece in his mind’s-ear as he makes small changes in it.

The little bells dinging somewhere nearby are a distraction. He wishes they would stop.

 

With the sea chest in the middle of the floor there is room enough only for Lady Cobb. Sir John remains in the open doorway.

Lady Cobb extracts from the sea chest a bottle and says to Andrew, “This contains cider. You will find it very refreshing after the salted meat served aboard ship.”

The pervasive melancholy cast of Dowland’s music might be explained, Andrew supposes, by the fact that he has never found preferment at the English court. On the other hand, temperamental melancholy might explain his never having found preferment, since, as Andrew knows from personal experience, Elizabeth favors lively gigues and saltarellos.

“Before biting into a sea- biscuit,” Lady Cobb advises, “examine it to see if rodents have been there before you.”

“You may lose a tooth biting into one,” Sir John adds.

Lady Cobb removes from the chest a small rectangular metal container open on one end. She holds it up for Andrew to see. “If you place this little oven near a fire, it will soften your biscuits.”

“Where is he going to find a fire aboard ship?” Sir John asks.

Andrew is proud of his transcription of “Fancy No. 3,” although to play it well will require a great deal of practice. He should probably exclude it from his performance repertoire for the time being.

Lady Cobb extracts a jar from the chest. “You can also use the oven to heat this soup Jayne has prepared for you.”

Andrew wonders if it poisoned.

 

The Wanderer makes its way out of Plymouth Sound into the English Channel and sets a course for the North Sea. Captain Smathers is at the window of his cabin in the poop deck, hands clasped behind his back, when he sees something that makes him reach for his spyglass: a multitude of ships’ masts frail as toothpicks coming up over the southwestern horizon.

As a favor to his friends the Cobbs the Captain invites his young passenger to dine with him that evening. As they sit at the captain’s table awaiting the cook’s delivery of their meal, Andrew is reflecting on the inferiority of Dowland’s polyphonic works for vocal consorts to his lute solos. The trouble with words is that they come into music bearing the dross of the human ordinary; they lack the enchanting otherness of sounds generated by sheep guts and wood.

Smathers has been contemplating the absent expression on the young man’s face when he breaks the silence: “I think we may have narrowly avoided an encounter with the Spanish Armada this afternoon. We would no doubt have heard cannon fire, had there been a battle. But one can only wonder what the morrow will bring.”

Andrew has no idea what the Captain is talking about.

“Hard to say what the outcome would be. The light swift carracks of the English are superior to Spanish galleons from the standpoint of maneuverability.”

Smathers’ eyes narrow at the young man’s smile which seems a curious response to his remarks. (Andrew has heard him to say that the English have “light, swift carrots.”)

“On the other hand,” Smathers continues, “the Spanish have a great many galleons. They might lose a number of them without losing a battle to the carrots.”

Smathers has gathered from the Cobbs that their young man is exceptional in some respect, but his smile is that of an idiot. Smathers’ extensive experience of idiocy over the years while managing crews has sensitized him to its symptoms, and generated a theoretical interest in the subject. He has gathered from his reading a little nosegay of quotations on the subject. Erasmus in Praise of Folly alludes to Pythagoras who after many transmigrations–his soul had been embodied at one time or another in “a philosopher, a man, a woman, a fish, a horse, a frog, and, I believe, a sponge”— concluded no creature was happier than “that type of men we commonly call fools, idiots, lack-wits, and dolts.”

The cook enters the cabin and places before the two men plates of salt beef and suet pudding. The Captain digs in. His passenger nudges the beef to one side of the plate with his fork, downs a spoonful of the pudding, and winces.

 

Smathers honors Andrew’s request to relocate the sea chest. A music stand now occupies the middle of the cabin floor. Andrew, seated before it struggling with the devilishly difficult left hand fingering in his transcription of “Fancy No. 3.” is thinking, “I have brought this on myself”–when the North Sea generates one of its sudden howling squalls. The ship begins to heave dramatically, its timbers creak. Andrew is aware of the disturbance, but he has trained himself to ignore the distractions that abound in the world and perseveres. By the time the ship’s jostling ceases, he has mastered, for the time being, the fingering for “Fancy #3.” Savoring the pleasurable aftermath of self- and world-overcoming, he ventures from his cabin up to the deck.

The sun on the Western horizon is a luminous orange perched on the edge of a grey table. The crew are firing blunderbusses into the air, celebrating an escape from pirates who had been gaining fast on the Wanderer before the storm overturned their hoy.

Captain Smathers, aloof from the hilarity on deck, greets Andrew, and informs him that the ship lies off Schiermonnikoog.

“Ah,” Andrew says.

Schier is grey–the island of the grey monks. A storm once drove me aground onto Schiermonnikoog. I stayed for a time with the Cistercians. They wear grey habits.”

“Hmph.”

The Cistercians had struck Smathers as idiots.

*   *   *

Ordinarily, musicians and painters at Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, eat simple fare from bread trenchers with other servants. Today, though, at Queen Sophie’s Arts Appreciation Banquet they dine on pastries filled with beef marrow, roasted swan and cranes and pheasant, eels in a puree, and bream. The wine is flowing.

Andrew’s life at Elsinore has been strangely uneventful so far. He had assumed he would be asked to perform soon after arriving, but a month has passed, and nothing has been asked of him. He has enjoyed ample free time in which to maintain his skills as a player, and to work on his compositions, but he has felt at times like a ghost haunting the castle. Is the King even aware of his presence? When Andrew had mentioned his not having once seen Frederick to the English pastry cook whose arrival in Denmark had been almost simultaneous with his, the cook replied that the King had sought him out three times to request specific pies.

“You eat like a bird, Andrew,” remarks Lady Gyldenstjerne at his side. Gyldenstjerne, drama coach and arts coordinator at Kronborg, is a tall, big-boned Dane with wide-set eyes. She devours birds with gusto.

Axel Bente, the music-master, seated on Andrew’s other side, says, “The Scottish ambassador told me the North Sea winds did more damage to the Spanish Armada than the English warships. Protestant winds, he called them.”

“King Frederick’s sensitivity to music must be very great,” Andrew remarks.

Bente cocks an eyebrow. “What gave you that impression?”

“When I played Dowland’s Lachrimae for him in England, he wept.”

“Was this late at night?”

Andrew nods.

“I assume he was in his cups?”

Frederick, when his eyes filled with tears, had been gazing at Andrew over the rim of a tall flagon.

“Not to disparage your considerable talent, Andrew, but if Frederick’s had his nightly quota nearly anything will make him blubber.”

“I understood he was to be at the banquet today.”

“He’s in negotiations with the Scottish ambassador. By the way, they want you to perform with the Elsinore Town Band on Hven next weekend.” Bente’s grimace expresses personal abhorrence of this obligation.

Andrew wonders who “they” are.

“Be at my place in town this afternoon at four to rehearse.”

“The band makes such a merry sound!” Gyldenstjerne gushes.

The English pastry cook wheels into the Great Hall a cart bearing a gigantic Lombard pie* that brings a susurration of wonder from the banqueters.

Bente leans close to Andrew. “See that girl with the straw-colored hair by the Queen? That’s Princess Anne. She’s been making eyes at you. I’d not respond to that overture, if I were you. Frederick’s trying to marry her off to James the Sixth of Scotland.”

“She doesn’t look much like a queen,” Andrew observes.

“What woman does before the makeup artists and dress-designers go to work? I mean, strip your Queen Elizabeth of corset, farthingale, and ruff, you’d be looking at a plucked chicken.”

Gyldenstjerne’s eyes roll.

With Lombard pie under their belts, the guests are burping and sighing. The banquet seems to be winding down, and Andrew senses his liberation is at hand when Lady Glydenstjerne offers him her personal guided tour of Kronborg Castle. It does not seem politic to decline her offer, so he follows the rustling skirts that overlay her substantial posterior along a narrow corridor out into the deeply shadowed central courtyard of Kronborg Castle where she discourses on the significance of the Neptune Fountain, and the sculpted figures of Moses, Solomon, and David (Frederick’s predecessors in the administration of Justice) in niches by the Royal Chapel entrance.

“You’re going to love the royal tapestries,” she says as they enter the Hall of Knights. “They portray the kings of Denmark from the beginning to the present.”

The tapestries remind Andrew of Boethius’s remark that in things that do not move there is no music.

“Axel said the town band is to play at Hven. What is Hven?”

The question stops Gyldenstjerne in her tracks. Judging from her look, his question has betrayed abysmal ignorance.

“Why, Hven is Tycho Brahe’s island where he will entertain the royal family and the nobles this weekend.”

Andrew does not think it wise to inquire who Tycho Brahe might be, but Gyldenstjerne seems to have guessed his ignorance: “Mr. Brahe is the first man to have observed a new star in the heavens.”

“Ah.”

“It proved that the superlunary heavens are not immutable, as commonly supposed. And his observations have confirmed Copernicus’s belief that the planets rotate around the sun. Of course, he is not of those who believe the earth does.” Glydenstjerne shakes her head at the preposterousness of such a notion.

It escapes Andrew why people would want to know which heavenly bodies circle which. Do they imagine clarity in the matter would enable control of these movements? If not, what difference can it possibly make?

Escaped at last from Gyldenstjerne, he is in his private quarters embracing the vihuela, which warms to his touch, when someone knocks at the door. Vihuela in hand, he opens to a page who hands him a copy of Emil Fritjok’s Latin Life of Tycho Brahe, “with Lady Gyldenstjerne’s compliments.” The vihuela pops a gut that flies from the soundboard and lashes the hand of the astonished page. Andrew thanks the page, shuts the door, throws the book in a corner, ties a new string on the vihuela, and enjoys two hours of blessed communion with his music before he must go to town.

When he opens his door to leave for the rehearsal of the Elsinore Town Band, girly-gangly Princess Anne, her straw-colored hair in a bouffant, is in the corridor. “That was so lovely! What is your instrument?”

He tells her. She places a hand on his arm and looks up at him pleadingly: “Teach me to play!”

 

Axel Bente’s flat in Elsinore is above the fishmonger’s shop.

Bente leads Andrew to the back of the apartment into a staircase with a window overlooking Elsinore backyards: board fences in various states of repair, chickens picking at grain, a goose, a pig pen, a mulch pile, an overturned driftwood-grey wheelbarrow with its wheels in the air.

Members of the Elsinore Town Band sit on short logs set upright in the yard. A cornetist toots, a crumhorn whines, a sackbut blares flatulently, a tabor-player drums a taut skin. Three neighborhood mongrels side-by-side on their haunches, throats elevated, howl supportively.

Bente shoos the dogs, and introduces Andrew to the band.

“I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but Brahe’s wife wants us to dress as animals when we perform on Hven.”

Groans.

“Good ol’ Kirsten!”

“People laugh at her,” Jaeger the cornettist says, “but if you ask me that’s one fine piece of ass.”

“Yeah, and the beauty is,” Hans adds, “there’s enough of it to go around.”

Bente opens a chest which stands along the back wall of the house. “Question is, can we perform in these getups?” He extracts a furry one piece costume. “Hans–bear?”

“Why not?”

“Obviously our cornettist should be the cock–Jaeger?”

“Better cock than cuckold,” said Jaeger. He inserts the mouthpiece of his instrument through the short beak, and sounds a cockle-doodle-dooooooo.

A window nearby slams shut.

“Peder–you be the wolf….Skraeder, cod?”

“I’ve always felt a bit supernatural.”

“Cod,” Bente says, “fish.”

Andrew dons the raven’s head.

“Who but an ass would lead this group?” Bente says, pulling a papier-mâché donkey head over his. He brays hollowly from within. “First Up, ‘Rufty Tufty.’” He raises a director’s hand, and sets the band in motion.

Andrew has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing, but strums a rhythmic background. The donkey gives him thumbs up. The string Andrew had just tied on the vihuela breaks. He continues strumming with it flying about.

*   *   *

Below looming, grey, Kronborg Castle with its high walls and onion-minarets, parallel rows of spear-bearing guards form a corridor reaching from a pier to the gangplank of a barge docked in the Oresund.

The royal bloodhounds and riding horses, and their keepers, and the members of the Elsinore Town Band, await boarding for the short trip to Hven. The summer sun is intense. Andrew shares the shade of an umbrella with Axel Bente who is ruminating on the political implications of the just-signed marriage contract that will unite Princess Anne with King James of Scotland: “James is the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and grandson of Henry VIII, so he’s heir-apparent to the English throne. He marries a Protestant princess– that reassures Elizabeth he hasn’t the Catholic leanings of his mother. For Frederick, the marriage settles the longstanding issue over ownership of the Shetlands and the Orkneys– and it makes the rascally Princess someone else’s problem.”

Andrew nods as if he were following this line of reasoning, and remains silent for a time so as not to change the subject too suddenly. “You know, I haven’t once been asked to perform solo since I arrived in Denmark. I’m wondering why Frederick wanted me to come here.”

Bente looks at him blankly for a moment as he adjusts to the change of subject. “Frederick collects virtuosos—not that he gives a rat’s ass about music–or astronomy or philosophy. He wants people to regard Elsinore as the northern Florence.”

Eight heralds in purple tights, white tunics, and caps with big plumes dyed violet descend the walk to the pier, halt, level their horns, and sound a brassy tarum-tarum-tarahhhhhhhhh.

“You’ll find the Danes are very big on fanfares,” Bente says. “It’s all Frederick can do to get one of his sluts through the back door of the castle without those boys tooting.”

The King and Queen, accompanied by Princess Anne, the boy Prince Christian, and servants, descend the walk to the pier. Frederick’s long, ruddy, deeply- lined face floats atop a large white ruff. His bloodshot eyes meet Andrew’s briefly, without recognition. Following the royal family are an assortment of Danish nobles and the Scottish ambassador George Keith, a red-haired, freckled-faced, buck-toothed fellow with a permanent smile. Princess Anne breaks through the corridor of castle guards to brush against Andrew and whisper, “When do my lessons begin?”

Bente gives Andrew a look.

The King and Queen seat themselves beneath a canopy in the barge. A pair of servants begin waving long-handled fans. A third hands the king a tankard. The gangplank is drawn up, and deckhands equipped with long poles shunt the boat into the stream. Oxen tow to the edge of the pier a second barge which the royal hounds and horses, their keepers, and members of the Elsinore Town Band board.

“What’s this about lessons for the Princess?” Bente asks.

Andrew shrugs. “Her idea, not mine.”

“Be careful, Andrew.”

 

The voyage to Hven is brief. As the royal barges approach the island, peasants on shore toss their hats in the air and make loud huzza-huzza. Barrel-chested, sandy-haired Tycho Brahe, with the dwarf Jepp at his side, greets his guests in front of his red brick castle Uraniborg* with its peaked roofs, dome, and balconies.

“Hello, dear little Jepp,” Queen Sophie says.

Jepp gives her the finger.

Brahe leads his guests to the entrance of his observatory Stjärneborg and pauses to let them savor the inscription in gold letters on porphyry:

`Consecrated to the all-good great God and Posterity. Tycho Brahe, Son of Otto, who realized that Astronomy, the oldest and most distinguished of all sciences, though studied at length, still had not obtained sufficient firmness, or been purified of errors, and in order to reform it and raise it to perfection invented with incredible labor, industry, and expenditure exact instruments suitable for all kinds of observations of the celestial bodies.

 

“I can only imagine it must have been like to observe the birth of a star,” says the admiring Lord Kaas.

“Yes, I perceived its implications for affairs in Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway,” Brahe acknowledges. “I informed King Frederick of these and he rewarded me with the professorship of astronomy at Copenhagen.”

After dinner, the Elsinore Town Band performs “Begone, Begone my Jug,” and “Haloo, Fair Birdie,” and there is a skit in which Tycho Brahe’s sister plays Urania, muse of astronomy. Brahe shouldering lightly a large globe impersonates the Titan Atlas who declaims, “It is I who have taught astronomers from the time of Hercules and Hipparchus to trust not other men’s observations of the night skies, but attend to them patiently with their own eyes, using well-constructed instruments.”

In a second skit, Princess Anne dressed in green tights portrays Daphne. Apollo is the Negro son of a cook and a wardrobe manager at Kronborg. He wears golden tights and a spiky gold sun mask as he chases Daphne around a screen depicting a leafy rural scene.

“Save me Mother Earth!” Daphne cries.

“Tarry,” Apollo pleads. “I am no lion or a tiger, I am Phoebus Apollo. I hunger only for thy lips.”

“Which pair?” Daphne ad-libs over her shoulder, cracking up the sun god who trips over the edge of the screen and falls to the floor.

Skit director Lady Gyldenstjerne closes her eyes.

Princess Anne plants a foot on the back of the fallen god and addresses the audience. “The moral is, if you can make a god laugh, he might not fuck with you.”

The Danish nobility are in stitches.

Queen Sophie stares at the ceiling.

Scottish ambassador Keith is reconsidering the marriage agreement he just signed on King James’ behalf.

 

The dormitory on the second floor of the castle sleeps the dog-trainers, the grooms, and the Elsinore Town Band. The day’s heat lingers there. Andrew finds sleep impossible in the large assemblage of snorers, and rises from his pallet toward midnight to look out a window into the labyrinth below. At its center is a white marble bench bathed in moonlight. Sitting there and playing something simple and sweet on the vihuela would be pleasant, he thinks. He dresses again, picks up his vihuela, and leaves the castle.

High walls of shrubs border the paths of the labyrinth. Reaching the center proves more challenging than he imagined. At dead ends he must retrace his steps, and while doing so he hears footsteps nearby. Someone else is in the labyrinth. When he finally reaches the center, he starts at the sight of Princess Anne seated on the marble bench. She wears white tights beneath a white tunic, and has her knees drawn up to her chest. A pair of lean hounds at her feet growl at the sight of Andrew. Anne drops her feet to the ground and sits upright. Pleasure and apprehension blend in her face. “Did you follow me here?”

Andrew, torn between a desire to backtrack into the labyrinth and the absurdity of doing so, holds up the vihuela in explanation of his presence.

“You’re going to give me a lesson?” The Princess slides to one side of the bench to make room for him.

Andrew hesitates, wondering who might be viewing what is ostensibly a tête-à-tête from one of Uraniborg’s many windows, but he approaches the bench. He seats himself a comfortable distance from the Princess, and lays the vihuela across his lap. She reaches over and runs an exploratory finger across the strings. “Such a beautiful instrument.”

“I understand you’re to be queen of Scotland.”

“So they tell me. It keeps me awake at night.”

“You’re too excited to sleep?”

“Too depressed.

“You don’t want to be the Queen of Scotland?”

“Would you?”

“Many women would leap at the opportunity.”

“Even if they had to marry James Stuart?”

“What’s wrong with James Stuart?”

“Well, he’s skinny, and bow-legged. They say he wears padded clothing to bed at night–he’s scared of being stabbed.”

“That might be a good idea, in Scotland.”

“He also plays the bagpipes.”

That might be a reason not to want to marry him, Andrew thinks.

“They say when he concentrates, his tongue falls from his mouth.”

“I sometimes drool if I’m very intent on what I’m playing,” Andrew confesses.

“You needn’t have told me that. My father wanted James to marry my sister Elizabeth. She’s prettier than me, but she’s getting kind of old. He probably wants young tail.”

“You’ve met James?”

“No–and he isn’t coming for the wedding.”

“Really?”

“The Scottish ambassador will be the proxy husband. It’s all just politics. You know what? This afternoon I overheard one of the grooms calling me a dog.”

“Off with his head.”

“But it’s true, I’m not beautiful. What’s the good of being a princess if you aren’t beautiful?”

“I would think being a princess would be especially valuable if you weren’t.

“You agree with the groom, then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Would you like to fuck me?”

Andrew strums a descending chord progression on the vihuela.

“Are you a spy?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Wouldn’t put it past ‘ol James to put one on me–and you’re English.”

“It’s not the same as being Scottish.”

“Lucky you.”

“I’m no spy.”

“James sent me a girdle of Venus.”

“What’s a girdle of Venus?”

She pulls the neck of her blouse aside to reveal a blue pearl-studded wrap about her chest. “I’m to wear it until he takes it off personally. Isn’t that special?”

Andrew plays a bit of Gaucelm Faidit’s longing-saturated troubadour melody from the twelfth century.

“That’s so lovely. Teach me to play that thing. Please?”

“Here? Now?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not like teaching a dog a trick, you know.”

She punches him on the bicep.

An unfortunate choice of words.

 

Andrew is walking along a corridor of Kronborg Castle from the music studio to his private quarters one day when Princess Anne appears out of nowhere, seizes his hand and draws him through a doorway into a steep, spiraling staircase leading down into the bowels of the castle.

“Bet you haven’t seen our dungeon.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Silly! Every castle has a dungeon!”

A guard or two has accompanied Anne ever time he’s seen her lately. “Won’t they miss you upstairs?”

“Who cares?”

She leads him to the foot of the stairwell, and along dirt paths cut between earthen banks.

The main feature of the he torture chamber is a freestanding stone pillar with inlaid iron rings. “They hang a prisoner from the rings, and poke him with hot irons, or shoot arrows into him,” Anne explains. “Can you imagine?”

Andrew can.

The dungeon is a cell with rocks walls whose width and height diminish at its far end.

“No bars,” Andrew observes.

“They install them when there’s a prisoner. They can locate them all the way to the back so a person can’t even sit down.” She demonstrates, wedging herself into the acute angle where the walls meet. She simulates helplessness, and a blast of sexual radiation from her midriff causes him to start back to the stairs. He has only just returned above when a squabble in the corridor causes him to look over his shoulder. Two tall castle guards, each with a meaty hand under one of the Princess’s elbows, are carrying her off. Her feet are off the ground, thrashing about.

 

Gertrud’s Tavern in Elsinore has become Andrew’s refuge from Kronborg Castle. He would never try to compose music there, but the noisy tavern has the paradoxical effect of heightening concentration as he is editing his compositions. When he enters this afternoon with his vihuela bag on his shoulder, the tavern is unusually quiet. The barmaid Agnete greets him: “Hi Cutie.”

On his way to the back room, he passes seated at a small table the balding Englishman often at the tavern lately. Andrew had been told that he is a member of the English theater company performing repertory in Elsinore.

Today, the Englishman bends over the text of his play that will receive its premier performance at the Elsinore Town Hall next week. The play set in Elsinore has a story drawn from Danish history. It should have immediate local appeal, but something about it is elusive for the playwright. Staging Hamlet in Denmark will hopefully improve his understanding of what he has written, and perhaps inspire revision, before he plays it to the more discriminating audiences of London.

 

William Bull, a stocky, red-faced bit-actor in the English company, storms into Gertrud’s looking for Tom Boltrum, another actor. Bull is enamored of Abigail, the pretty young widow of Elsinore who has just told him to leave her house and never return. Bull thinks he knows why, and he’s going to have it out with Boltrum, who is usually at the tavern when he’s not working. He is absent at the moment, so Bull seats himself near the entrance to wait for him.

Gertrud and Agnete are in the tavern’s side yard roasting meats for the dinner crowd when Boltrum enters.

“OK, why’d you do that?” Bull says.

“Why’d I do what?”

“You told Abigail what I told you in confidence.”

“What you told me in confidence was she loved no one but you. When I told her that, she couldn’t stop laughing.”

“Leave her alone, you whoreson codpiece! She’s a nice girl–and as it is you’re screwin’ every woman in Elsinore under age ninety.”

“I’ve left you a spongy old malkin or two.”

Agnete reenters the tavern as Bull punches Boltrum. Boltrum punches Bull in the nose, knocking him to the floor. Bull picks himself up slowly, bleeding from the mouth, gives Boltrum a hostile look over his shoulder, and exits the tavern.

Boltrum seats himself at the bar, and Agnete places a bowl of ale in front of him. “What was that all about?” Tom’s head is aching, he doesn’t want to talk about it, so Agnete goes into the kitchen to wash dishes.

 

Andrew, in the back room revising of his new work, “Princess Anne’s Gigue,” had been unaware of the struggle out front. So, too, the playwright, his attention riveted by the inadequacies of Hamlet’s soliloquy in act three, scene one:

Here’s a thought: Suppose I kill myself?

                         Ye gods, the problems! And who can say for sure
Whacking away at them with a bare bodkin’s
Nobler than just stabbing oneself in the gut?
Slough the mortal coil! Eternal slumber!
That might be a way to go–although
Sawing it off, we tend to dream, and what
If nightmares dog the suicide?

 

The last line of the soliloquy–“Conscience doth make cowards of us all”—isn’t bad. The rest of it needs work, but the playwright’s creative energies are at low ebb and time for the actors to learn new lines is growing short. He is considering getting drunk and forgetting about the soliloquy when there appears before his imagination a chart of the celestial houses spinning like a top from which a voice issues: “To be or not to be. That is the question”–a superb replacement for the clumsy first line of the soliloquy. The voice continues: “To die: to sleep/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d.”

The Englishman is writing down lines as fast as they are dictated when Bull comes through the door of the tavern, withdraws a sword from his pant leg, and runs Boltrum through the gut, back to front. The tip of the sword lodges in the front of the bar. Agnete reappears, a dish towel slung over her shoulder, Boltrum is sitting upright on his stool, a carcass on a spit. “Get you another, Tom?” she asks before noticing the lack of animation in his startled face.

She rushes into the side yard. “Oh my god,” Gertrud says, “that’s all we need with the mayor trying to shut us down. Did anyone see it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

As the two women dislodge Boltrum from the bar, Gertrud eyes the Englishman writing feverishly at his table. They manage to get the corpse off the bar stool and into the kitchen. Gertrud opens the door there and glances up and down the alley. They drag Tom Boltrum into a grove of pine trees on the hillock beyond the alley.

When the fit is upon the playwright, lines just keep spilling onto his pages. The slightest event or sensation is assimilable in language Odors of roasting meat are coming into the tavern from the side yard. The playwright scribbles in the margin of his playbook, “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” He will use it somewhere.

A woman’s voice beyond the tavern shrieks, “Poor Tom’s a-cold! Poor Tom’s a-cold!”

The playwright dips his quill in ink.

 

Preparations for the wedding of King James and Princess Anne are furious at the castle. Dress-designers, carpenters, furniture-makers, and carpet weavers throng the halls. Fabric chandlers push about handcarts loaded with of silks, velvets and brocade. The tailors’ assistants stitching away in corners outnumber spiders.

The musical consort for the royal wedding is to include Andrew on the vihuela, two recorder players, the court lutenist Raphael de Angelo, and Axel Bente on the viola da gamba. The consort is rehearsing one day when an officious little German tailor appears in the music studio with a tape measure around his neck and orders Andrew to stand up.

“Why?”

“I measure you.”

“Measure me for what?”

“Your clothes for the coronation at Edinburgh.”

Axel Bente gives Andrew a look.

Andrew learns that he is the only musician from the court to be so honored.

His new clothes include two doublets with short skirts, flies tied with colorful silken bows; a high-crowned, short-brimmed muffin hat with a feather; shirts with standup collars, lace at the neckline and wrists; a long, fur-lined cape; and a collection of cotton stockings in various colors with leather garters.

He is practicing the vihuela in the music studio one morning when a cannonade thundering from the castle ramparts cause him to peer through a narrow window overlooking the Sound. Ships flying Scottish colors are approaching the pier below the castle where Danish dignitaries have gathered. A fanfare from the Danish royal hornsmen answers one from the deck of a Scottish ship. Horns glint in the sunlight, water shines, cannons boom. The Scots come ashore wearing identical cartwheel linen ruffs at their necks, tall black hats, and pointed beards.

Andrew is present with the Elsinore Town Band at an entertainment for the visiting Scots that includes the performance of the skit “Solomon and Sheba” in which King Frederick plays Solomon. Lady Kass (she of the beguiling décolleté) is Sheba. Solomon has been drinking and requires the aid of servants to ascend the riser steps to his throne chair. Sheba, too, is none to steady on her feet, and as she presents the riddles to test Solomon’s wits her speech is slurred. Solomon’s responses, slow in coming, require prompting from Lady Glydenstjerne, but suffice to convince Sheba that the king is indeed God’s elect. She wishes to present personally one of the many gifts her servants have lugged from Arabia in a mule train: a bowl of honey-laced date pudding. She ascends the steps to the throne very carefully with it and has reached the next-to-last step successfully when she trips, spilling pudding and bosom into Solomon’s lap.

“Oh my God, the goo!” exclaims the laughing Solomon as he fondles the slimy Sheba.

Servants come rushing with mops and towels.

The Elsinore Town Band strikes up “Hark, the Dog is in the Pork.”

*   *   *

At the wedding rehearsal, Anne’s lady-in-waiting slips into Andrew’s hand a poem King James has sent the Princess on which she has scribbled a marginal note: “God, he’s a maniac!”

TO MY QUEEN

Whenever I’m oppressed with heavy heart,
I need but take my pen, and recollect
The blessed hour when first my eyes beheld
The image of my Queen, this earthly Juno.
Three Goddesses of equal reputation
Spied the beauty, and nearly came to blows
O’er who should rule her. They Apollo
Asked, who said, “Bless this paragon
By sharing her; and so it came to be
If counsel’s what I need, Athena’s nie;
Chaste Diana mounts to hunt with me;
And if I’m tired, and would to bed repair
I fold in soft embrace my Venus fair.

In the Royal Chapel, the Princess exchanges vows with the freckle-faced, permanently smiling, proxy husband ambassador George Keith. Andrew is with the musical ensemble in the choir loft, and from his vantage, Anne in the white, hooded dress that flows around her and spills onto the floor seems quite overwhelmed by the weight of ceremony and authority– not at all herself.

*   *   *

The flotilla of Danish and Scottish ships leave Elsinore and steer northward in mild early fall weather. George Keith, the proxy husband, his stiletto beard flapping in the breeze, follows Anne around on the Gideon like a faithful dog. Anne shoots exasperated looks across the deck at Andrew.

Anne’s lady-in-waiting hands Andrew another of King James’s literary efforts with another of Anne’s notes: “I’m married to a lunatic!”

 

TO MY QUEEN

The wings of your enchanting fame have reached
Me across the wide and stormy sea.
Your smile will be my antidote against
The melancholy that oppresseth me,
And when a raging wrath within me reigns
Loving looks from you will bring me peace.
Whenever you will see me heavy-hearted
Practice then, sweet doctor, your magic art.

 

Andrew notices Keith gazing at him with squinty eyes.

Winds intensity as the ships enter the Skagerrak. Great waves begin to roll the Gideon from side to side and up and down. From peaks there are dizzying panoramas of churning white waters which disappear as the ship’s prow drops into dark troughs. Gray-faced and vomiting, Andrew retreats to his hammock in the forecastle where he embraces the vihuela, hoping to prevent its destruction. The Gideon springs leaks. All through the night the crew man the pumps.

The winds die abruptly at daybreak, and the cobalt sky and silver sun are innocent-looking. Ships that launched with the Gideon are nowhere to be seen. Admiral Munk orders the Gideon steered to a small harbor visible in the distance which turns out to be at Flekkeroe, an island near the Norwegian coast. The Flekkeroean farmers, learning of the ship’s fate, invite the passengers and crew into their homes, but warn that drought and poor fishing have reduced their food supply to subsistence levels.

Admiral Munk, touched by their hospitality and their plight, orders foods brought from the Gideon to be distributed among the cottagers, but discovers while overseeing this operation that the salt beef and pork in the ship’s hold are moldy. Sea biscuits swarm with brown grub worms, and maggots have infested the dried apples. The victualer in Copenhagen he had thought trustworthy, though Catholic, has obviously stocked the ship with leftovers from other voyages. The beer is sound, however, and he orders a barrel of it delivered to each of the homes entertaining the Gideon’s passengers and crew.

The largest log house on the island is Peder Pedersen’s. A note delivered to the house with the barrel of beer informs Mrs. Pedersen that Princess Anne of Denmark and other nobles will be staying with her and her husband. Mrs. Pedersen picks up her broom and sweeps vigorously the dirt floor around the fire burning on a stone slab at the center of the room. She replenishes the lamps with cod-liver oil, sprinkles fresh sprigs of juniper about, and draws the trestle table and benches from the wall.

Princess Anne requests that Andrew the vihuela-player, though a commoner, be lodged at the Pedersen’s, “because I think we will have serious need of entertainment while the ship is being repaired.” George Keith accedes to this request–having Andrew near to hand will facilitate surveillance. However, he assigns the young man to sleep in Pedersen’s barn with members of the Gideon’s crew, rather than in the house.

Mrs. Pedersen, wearing her festive red bunad with its elaborately embroidered high bodice, long pleated skirt, and white apron, places before each of her noble guests at table a quantity of hemp seeds, thick slices of bread, and a bowl of the ship’s beer.

Peder Pedersen bows his head.

“Lord,” he commences, “we thank you for your bread, and your seeds. People ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. What I would like to know is which came first the plant or the seed. I mean, where would chickens be without grains?… While I am on the subject, why do pea vines watch the sun so carefully all day long? Do they not trust what it is going to do next? Lord, these things are beyond our understanding. As the Good Book says, we look through a dirty window. But we thank you that our guests have come safely through the storm and brought us this first-rate beer. Amen.”

George Keith’s perpetual smile is a plaster replica of itself.

The bread’s consistency is chewy. It has a flavor evocative of pine needles. Peder explains that in hard times the residents of Flekkeroe and neighboring Kristiana bake this bread from fir bark ground into meal.

The beer and hemp nuts are popular.

After downing numerous bowls of beer, Peder leaves the room, and returns dragging behind him the ax six feet long with a worm-eaten handle and an oversized blade that he found buried in his hemp field. He speculates that it belonged either to the primeval giants, or the trolls who delight in baffling humans with curious objects planted about the countryside.

For his next act, Pedersen withdraws a jaw harp from his pocket and twangs a sea-chantey. Mrs. Pedersen is shaking her head back and forth gently as she rises to clear the dishes.

“Where’s the vihuela-player?” Princess Anne wants to know.

 

The vihuela-player is asleep in Pedersen’s barn loft. He sleeps the rest of that day, and all through the night, awaking in the morning to the sight of the smiling George Keith staring at him from an upper rung of the wooden ladder leading to the loft.

Keith informs him that he is to have sole possession of the loft. Members of the Gideon’s crew who were to have shared the space with him have escaped to the mainland. Andrew is instructed to take his meals at the table of the Alfhid family whose farm adjoins Pedersen’s. When Andrew goes there, the widow Alfhid and her three chunky blond daughters, hair braided atop their heads, are pleased to have a male guest at table and smile collectively as he wolfs down his fir-bread and hemp nuts.

Back in Pedersen’s barn, refreshed by long sleep and nourishment, Andrew takes up the vihuela. Resentful of his inattentiveness in recent days, she is cold to his touch, but he knows from experience exercises will correct the situation, and begins playing. Sunlight through narrow cracks in the planks generates a soft, warm light, and the barn has a pleasantly sweetish smell compounded of hay and animal dung. The raw pine siding makes for wonderful acoustics.

*   *   *

News that his bride is on Flekkeroe reaches King James and stirs his remembrance of Leander who swam the Hellespont fearlessly to reach his inamorata Hero, virgin priestess of Aphrodite, and it occurs to him that shipping to Norway personally to rescue the princess would be a wonderful adventure. He broaches the subject with Lord Chancellor Maitland.

“Entirely too risky,” Maitland says. “If something were to happen to you, all hell would break loose here.”

It occurs to James that undertaking this mission without Maitland’s approval would demonstrate his independence of the man many regard as de facto ruler of Scotland. There would no doubt be danger in the excursion, of course, but if he were he to drown history would remember him as one of the world’s great lovers, and he would be spared a reign likely to consist of trying to pacify squabbling Scottish lords and prelates while fearing constantly poisoned whiskey or a knife in the back.

 

At Flekkeroe, word reaches Admiral Munk that ships other than the Gideon which survived the storm have been blown to various points along the Norwegian coast. The flotilla reassembles near Flekkeroe and launches for Scotland, but makes small progress before being blown back to the island again by another gale. A second attempt to sail a few days later meets with similar results. Munk, inclined previously to scoff at rumors of witches casting spells on the mission to Scotland, is no longer sure they can be ignored. In any case, he has had his fill of fir bread and hemp nuts, and the beer is running low. He orders the Danish ships back to Denmark for the winter.

The Scots hope to make further attempts to reach home with Princess Anne before winter, but while waiting the unusually numerous fall storms in the North Sea to subside they elect to relocate to the more comfortable surroundings of Oslo.

Andrew, unaware of the ships’ departures, enjoys meals and sociable palaver with the Alfhids, and takes long walks along the coast with Ingrid Alfhid. To hear him play while she works, Ingrid works in the hemp field nearest the Pedersens’ barn during the harvest. Andrew attracts a various barn audience: a Maltese cat who purrs intensely, cooing pigeons roosting in a corner brace, a trio of field mice all ears atop a bale of hay. One evening a fearless white moth alights on the vibrating soundboard and contemplates Andrew with beady black eyes.

Andrew is experimenting with imitations on the vihuela of mouse chitter, cat purr, donkey bray, and owl hoot.

 

King James, having made covert arrangements for a personal quest of Princess Anne, enters the North Sea with six ships and three hundred sailors–better equipped than Leander had been. Two of the ships go down in storms, and sailors die, but the King reaches Flekkeroe where he learns that Princess Anne is in Oslo. He dispatches his chaplain David Lindsay there to arrange for an appropriate royal welcome and a repetition of the marriage vows, and expresses his desire that while on Flekkeroe he might sleep in the bed that had been Princess Anne’s.

Mrs. Pedersen sighs, puts a fresh loaf of fir-bread in the oven, and picks up her broom.

Lying in bed his first night at the Pedersens, James recalls that King Solomon, to advance his knowledge of the common people, roamed the rural countryside disguised as a peasant, and it occurs to him that while at loose ends on Flekkeroe he has a wonderful opportunity to do the same without the usual encumbrance of guards.

The next morning, in garb supplied by the amused Peder Pedersen out of his personal wardrobe, James hikes gaily from Høyfjellet, through Refsdalen and along Kjærlighetsstien to Bestemorsmed. In the afternoon, he lies beneath a sheltering rock by the sea, lulled asleep by the sound of the surf washing across pebbles.

Awakened by the mournful call of bitterns, and distant tinkling of cowbells, he is returning along a narrow path between the fields of the Alfhids and the Pedersens when he fancies hearing from a Norwegian barn what he cannot possibly be hearing: a work for lute by John Dowland with which he is familiar, and his sense that the place is enchanted is confirmed by the sight of the buxom, blond Ingrid Alfhid asleep in a furrow of the hemp field. His tongue falls from his mouth. He realizes that he is experiencing the Platonic “divine frenzy” of which Marsilio Ficino speaks that blends alienatio and abstractio of Saturnian origin with warm Venusian influences. Solomon, when he first laid eyes on the Rose of Sharon during his rural rambles, had undoubtedly experienced something similar.

*   *   *

When James steps from the carriage in front of the Bishop’s Palace at Oslo he is wearing a black velvet cloak lined with sable. His padded vest swells his torso, and when he removes his puffy high-crowned black hat to shake hands with the Bishop, he looks to Princess Anne standing nearby like a colorful beetle with small head disproportionate to its body.

The Bishop is delivering an ornate Latin blessing, when James spies the gangly, frowning young woman with frizzy yellow hair beside his friend George Keith — Princess Anne, obviously, though she bears small resemblance to the flattering pictures he has seen of her. He walks toward her dutifully in his shambling bow-legged gait, embraces her in a manly fashion, and attempts a kiss from which she turns away at the last moment, and his lips plunge into yellow frizz.

After the wedding vows are repeated, Anne goes to bed complaining of nausea and headache, and James in his private quarters at the Bishop’s Palace writes:

O cruel constellation which conspired
To seal my dismal fate before my birth!
My well-intentioned mother told her midwife,
“Spare no pains in bringing him to life.”
Her hopeful milk I drank a year and more;
And later, I imbibed inspiring waters
Drawn from Pierian spring by gracious Muses–
But lacked the ease to nurture fruits of wonder.
Born to royalty, a Scottish king.
A privileged lad, you say? The truth is rather
Job am I, whose patience Satan sorely smote.

Anne malingers, and as she and her new husband become acquainted while playing card games at bedside. She expresses her longing for music, and speaks of the admirable string player who was with the company on Flekkeroe. She wonders what has become of him. James recalls that Apollo is god both of music and medicine; that Democritus believed music could cure snakebite; and that music restored Odysseus to health after he was gored by a wild boar. He inquires with George Keith concerning the whereabouts of the musician of whom Anne had spoken.

Keith has a little talk with him about Andrew.

 

When the storms in the North Sea do not subside, and winter snows come early, the Scots abandon their plan to reach home before spring, and request permission to winter at Elsinore. King Frederick has been rejoicing in the dispatch of his madcap daughter to the hinterland, and does not relish the prospect of her rapid homecoming, but he dispatches sleds to Norway. In the dim light of a frosty morning, King James swathed in furs stands in a sled sheathed in black velvet and silver bangles and delivers a flowery valediction before a cluster of shivering, Oslo dignitaries.

The sleds depart in a blizzard and press on to Quille, and from Quille to Baahus Fortress on a cliff circled by a river at the Norwegian-Swedish border. Six hundred Swedish horsemen escort the entourage across the frozen Gotha-Elf and the Swedish Landflig, through Varbjerg, and Halmstadt. In the last leg of the trip, small boats convey the Scottish entourage down the Oresund to Elsinore.

Oh god, thinks Anne, I’m going to have to be seen with him in front of people I know.

The Danish royal family, and representatives of the court are milling around in the cold central court at Kronborg Castle as the Scots cross over the castle moat.

James meets for the first time his father-in-law and mother-in-law. “Amazing place you have here,” he says, looking around the court as he shakes the tremulous hand of King Frederick.

“The west wall was completed only last year,” Lady Gyldenstjerne puts in. “As you can imagine it has improved our security greatly. The fountain you see on your left is the work of Adriaen de Vriies symbolizing the Danish preeminence in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.”

“Where’s Anne?” Queen Sophie inquires.

James looks around. “She was with us a moment ago.”

The Princess knows all the hiding places in the castle.

*   *   *

Fond as Andrew is of the acoustics in Pedersen’s barn, living there in bitter cold weather is impossible, and the Alfids have taken him in at their farmhouse where he is continuing to develop techniques for imitating on the vihuela the sounds of mice, cats, donkeys and owls that he is incorporating in a new solo work for vihuela, The Barn Suite.

 

 

 

 

 

* The vihuela, a precursor of the modern guitar, was played in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tuned identically with the Renaissance lute, and close to the modern guitar, it had twelve strings (six pairs double-strung) rather than the modern six single-strung.

*A short dress-like garment with pleated panels.

* A pie made of custard and fruit.

 

 

BIO

James GallantJames Gallant, who lives in Atlanta, contracted the writing disorder at an early age, and has been basically incapable of making an income as a result.  His disorder led to a fortunate marriage to income-producing university professor and Romantics scholar Christine Gallant who as a girl had romanticized the idea of marrying a writer. At times she had said later, “Be careful what you ask for.” Gallant attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he concentrated in Renaissance studies, traces of which survive in “Andrew the Vihuela-Player.” This story is one of nine short works involving historical classical guitarists–some (like Andrew) pure inventions, other based loosely on the lives of actual performers. Two of the other guitarist stories have appeared in other journals. The pieces as a group would make a good collection, Gallant believes, if anyone were interested in publishing it. Grace Paley’s Glad Day Books published his The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House/a Novel of Atlanta in 2004, and his essays and fiction have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Georgia Review, Epoch, Massachusetts Review, Story Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, North American Review, Raritan, and Witness. He has a short novel, Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil, and a collection of thematically-related related creative non-fiction pieces, Visits in Time and Space, neither of which have publishers at the moment.

 

 

 

Susan Avitzour author

Phil Ochs’ Guitar

by Susan Petersen Avitzour

 

For years, I was convinced I was responsible for Phil Ochs’ death.

I conceived this belief six years before he died.

 

Friday, March 27, 1970

            Oh, I marched to the battle of New Orleans at the end of the early British war

Carnegie Hall erupted into shouts of joy and wild applause. Phil was singing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and we were eating it up. We could almost forget the gold costume, the weird guitar, the Fifties-style numbers he’d opened with. “We came for Phil, not Elvis,” someone behind me had grumbled. But now the hall roiled with long-haired, tie-dyed children of the Sixties singing along, clapping, dancing in place. My sister Ruth and I rocked in our seats. What could be better?

I was fifteen, too young to truly belong to the decade that was now drawing to a close, but I fervently identified with its ideals. Peace, Love, Freedom for All Peoples. Look out, world, our songs said, we’re a-coming and you’re a-changing. This concert was meant to be our time, our place, our message. Though I hadn’t absorbed this from the Sixties generation; Ruth and I had inherited it from our father.

Daddy had died two months before the concert; it was he who’d introduced us to Phil Ochs. Our parents had separated when I was eleven and Ruth was nine, and a couple of years later we found pages of Phil’s lyrics and some poems on the coffee table in our father’s living room. “This young man is talking about the real issues,” he said. “Not like these other songwriters nowadays, who can think only about themselves and their own feelings.” The next day, Ruth and I went out and bought our first album.

 

The audience forgave Phil, but not for long. He transitioned into a set of country-rock-n-roll songs, some he’d written and some by Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Merle Haggard. None, not even his own, had a thing to do with change, any connection with repairing the world.

“What happened to Phil Ochs?” one man shouted.

“This is as much Phil Ochs as anything else,” Phil retorted, and launched into one of his new songs.

Fill ‘er up with love please won’t you, mister
Just the hi-test is what I used to say
But that was before I lost my baby
I’ll have a dollar’s worth of regular today.

Restless bodies shifted in their seats. Country music belonged to the enemy, they were saying, to those flag-waving, war-loving rednecks.

But I sat quietly, trying to piece together what Phil was trying to do. Not all his songs were political, I knew. Some were lyrical. Some were autobiographical. At that thought – just as the booing started – I leaned forward in my seat and listened closely to the lyrics.

I never should have left my home, never left the farm
But the city was exciting, it couldn’t do me any harm…

I held my breath. Phil was channeling my father.

Walter Martin Petersen always felt it was up to him to right the world’s wrongs. Born on a farm just before the Great Depression, he grew up watching his mother serve plates of beans to the starving hoboes who’d come knocking at their back door. In high school he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, eventually becoming National Secretary. He enlisted right after graduating, hoping to fight the Nazis, though his flat feet landed him in the Merchant Marine. After the war and three years of college, he worked for a time as a machinist in a rather romantic bid to join the working class. A few years later, he lost another job – with the Liberal Party, of all employers – for spending most of his time preaching Socialism and trying to organize the personnel. When Ruth and I were small he’d sing us to sleep with songs like “Union Maid” and “Which Side Are You On?” (“This side!” “No, this side!” we’d pipe up from our beds.)

One time, about two years after he moved out, he picked us up for our regular Tuesday visit and told us he’d be taking us someplace special. “It’s a surprise.”

We were certainly surprised when we got there. A supermarket?

“You’ll see,” he said, winking.

As it turned out, he’d collected contributions from his friends and co-workers to buy food for Biafra, a famine-stricken province trying to secede from Nigeria. The three of us rolled up and down the aisles as if it were a skating rink, piling can upon can until the cart threatened to tip over. I’ll never forget his pride – and ours – when we drove out to the harbor and delivered those cans to the Africa-bound aid ship.

But it was the war in Vietnam that truly galvanized him. As it did the troubadour of the antiwar movement, Phil Ochs.

 

The audience was beginning to heckle in earnest, but I barely registered the commotion.

I cannot face another girl, I believe I’ll turn to drink
So I won’t remember, so I won’t have to think
Tomorrow will bring happiness or, at least, another day
So I will bid farewell and I’ll be on my way.

Was Phil drinking? Was that why his voice was beginning to hoarsen, to crack? Maybe he was just having an off day.

(A year or so after the separation, our father had told Ruth and me that he’d “stopped drinking.” That was how we found out he was an alcoholic. “But I’ve been dry ever since I moved out,” he proudly proclaimed.)

As the audience jeered, I suddenly felt protective. Can’t they see he isn’t feeling well?

Then Phil started “My Life,” the song I’d always felt my father could have written. This one was a “real” Phil Ochs number, and the crowd quieted and listened.

My life was once a joy to me
Ever knowing I was growing every day,
My life was once a toy to me
And I wound it and I found it ran away…

I knew just what he meant by “toy.” During the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Phil had not only sung to the protestors, but had also inspired his admirers and enraged his detractors with antics like buying a pig for Abbie Hoffman to nominate for President. He seemed to be having so much fun that I was a little envious of him and his friends.

My father also always loved the comic, the unexpected, the outrageous. In high school he’d been entitled, as student council president, to use the public address system. One morning he went into the school office and asked for the mike. “My dear friends,” he said, “I have a very sad announcement to make.” The secretaries in the office stopped what they were doing and looked at him, eyes wide. Had someone died?

At the time, a joke was being whispered around the school. A mortician is preparing a man’s body for the funeral. He’s so impressed by the body’s huge member that he cuts it off and brings it home to show his wife. She takes one look, gasps, and exclaims – and my father announced, without any lead-in, over the intercom – “Schultz is dead!”

One of his favorite shticks was to throw a blanket over our heads when he was driving us somewhere in his old black Morris Minor. “Charlie,” he’d say in a hoarse gangster’s voice, “where d’ya think we should dump dese goils?” He’d then speak in a high, cracked whine. “In da river, where d’ya think, Pete?” “I dunno, I’m gettin tired a dat place,” he’d have “Charlie” say. He’d keep this up until Ruth and I were helpless with laughter.

But his sense of humor began to wither as anger and despair over Vietnam slowly engulfed him. Antiwar activity began to push all else out of his life; he talked about practically nothing else.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of his obsession. It was certainly in full bloom by the time he sat Ruth and me down – how old were we? eleven and thirteen? – and explained to us about napalm. Words couldn’t describe it, he said, so he opened the folder he kept on his coffee table. Ruth cried, I think, but I just stared at the photos of blackened skin, of shriveled limbs, of half-melted faces. They are with me to this day.

About a year before he died, he founded a committee to raise funds for North Vietnamese victims of American bombing. After that, movies, miniature golf, and walks in the park were gradually replaced with afternoons stuffing envelopes in his apartment or handing out leaflets in midtown Manhattan.

Once, toward evening on a hot June day, he opened a folding table on the corner of 59th and Lexington. Passing sedans gunned their motors, taxis honked their impatience, and buses spewed their exhaust as we stacked our flyers. The sidewalk boiled with men and women rushing to the nearest bus or subway stop without more than a glance in our direction.

Finally, a young woman took a page and stopped for a moment to read it. “Yeah, this friggin’ war is the pits,” she said, opening her purse, “and it’s just going on and on.”

A group of curious teenagers drifted over. “Hey, what’s happening?” one said.

“Collecting for victims of American bombing in Vietnam,” my father said. “Can you help?”

“No, man, I can relate,” said another of the kids, “but I’m broke.” They milled around for another couple of minutes before ambling off.

Ruth and I went back to work. I’d just gotten into the swing of things – step up to a likely-looking woman or man, smile, offer a leaflet, get rebuffed, say “Thanks anyway,” then step up to the next person – when a rough voice coming from behind startled me out of my rhythm.

“What are you, some kind of Commies?”

We’d attracted the attention of two brawny men in sweaty T-shirts and hard hats. Their fists were clenched at their sides.

“No, no,” my father said, “just against the war.”

“Against America, you mean.” One took a step toward the table.

My father held up his hands, palms out. “Now, let’s not start anything. No one’s looking for trouble here.”

The hard hats exchanged glances and sniggered. One hawked and spat. The other grinned, walked up to my father, and upended the table. “Fucking Commies,” he said, before strutting off with his friend.

My father stood still for a moment, then bent down and pulled the table upright. Ruth and I collected the leaflets from the sidewalk and re-stacked them neatly. Then we went back to trying our best to interest the uninterested.

But it was only when Charlotte moved in with him that his obsession with the war morphed into full-blown monomania. Ruth and I had liked Rita, his first post-separation girlfriend. She was like Mom, feisty and funny, and Ruth and I were sorry when they broke up. Still, we were prepared to accept a new woman in his life, and curious to meet this one.

It was a shock when he finally brought us to his apartment and introduced us to her. My mother and Rita were hardly model material, but both were trim, well-dressed, and well-groomed. Charlotte was short and dumpy, with uneven features and long, curly black hair streaked with grey. Flaky face powder did a very bad job of concealing her very bad skin; bright red lipstick strayed here and there from the outlines of her mouth. She was dressed in an oversized T-shirt and shiny black pants.

I really didn’t care about Charlotte’s looks, though; it was her behavior that got to me. I can’t remember her saying a single positive word. Ever. The country was run by reactionaries; the hypocritical liberals were no better; the media was in cahoots with the forces of evil.

Ruth and I didn’t escape her scorn. Once we walked into our father’s living room wearing buttons saying “End the War in Vietnam Now” and “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” Charlotte looked at us and snorted. “These liberals,” she said through clenched teeth, “they think all they need to do is wear a button and they’ve done their part.” She stormed out of the room.

Another time, our father asked Ruth and me if we had any advice that might help Charlotte lose weight. We told him that when our mother was on a diet she’d sometimes dine on half a cantaloupe filled with low-fat cottage cheese. A couple of weeks later, Charlotte, flushed with anger, proclaimed that our “diet” was making her sick. It turned out she’d eaten nothing but melon and cottage cheese ever since he’d passed on our suggestion.

Part of what attracted my father to Charlotte was that she’d lived for some time in North Vietnam. He told us how she’d found Hanoi not to be the drab, grim caricature the American media painted of Communist countries. (At the time, I imagined life behind the Iron Curtain as lived literally in black and white.) Not at all; it was an Eden of beautiful public gardens and happy people who only wanted to be left alone to spread their bounty to their countrymen in the South. The summer after we met her, she told us to call her Lan, the Vietnamese name she’d taken when she lived there. Ruth and I learned this right after we returned from camp, where Ruth had woven her a beautiful lanyard bracelet spelling out C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E. She took one look and flung it back, saying only, “I don’t want it. That’s not my name.”

Charlotte/Lan also gave my father the chance to care for someone worse off than himself. She never leafleted with us, as she usually felt unwell. She was high-strung and sickly, he told us, because she’d been raised by a mother with a four-way split personality.

We were sitting in Prospect Park that particular spring day, eating sandwiches he’d quickly slapped together (she was resting; lunch in the apartment would make too much noise). Hoping to attract a squirrel, Ruth and I were throwing small pieces of bread to the sparrows and pigeons pecking around our feet.

“One of Lan’s mothers was almost normal,” he told us, “but she was almost never ‘out.’ The second was a nervous wreck who wouldn’t let her do anything, even go out to play. Number three was furious all the time, and used to beat her.”

I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. Was that a bushy tail flashing around that tree? Maybe if I threw a big chunk in that direction….

“The fourth personality,” my father said, “was so passive that she didn’t do a thing to take care of her own daughter.” He pressed his fingers against his eyes.

“So you see –” His voice broke. “So you see, she never really had anyone until she met me.” Tears glistened on his cheek. “I know you understand.”

I stole a glance at Ruth, who was busy shredding her bread. Then I nodded, turned quickly to the squirrel, and tossed it the crust I’d been clenching in my fist.

Toward the end of 1969, the sun seemed to come out again for my father. His face seemed lighter, and he smiled more often. He even took us one evening to Greenwich Village to hand out flowers. Holding armfuls of multicolored daisies and carnations, we waited for hippies to come and accept our offerings. When none turned up, we set out in active pursuit, wandering up and down the maze of streets until we finally got to Washington Square Park. Still no luck. So we gave the flowers to anyone who’d take them, mostly New Yorkers but also many tourists like the wide-eyed lady who came up to us and said, “Wow, are you real hippies?”

And he got funny again. True, some of this was “funny strange” – for one thing, he took to wearing an ascot and a beret, and using the word “groovy.” But, Ruth and I agreed, even the embarrassment of “groovy” was better than the bleak talk of the war that had been our fare for so long. And it was so good to laugh with him!

He didn’t give up his activism, of course; in October he took Ruth and me on our first and only road trip together, to the big antiwar march on Washington. He couldn’t stop marveling at how many people had turned out – at least a million, and from all over the country! It had been forever since I’d seen him so optimistic.

Until his toy ran away too.

 

Phil got to the last verse.

My life is now a myth to me
Like the drifter, with his laughter in the dawn.
My life is now a death to me
So I’ll hold it and I’ll mold it till I’m born…

Suddenly a thought set my stomach prickling. If his life is now a death, then being born can only mean….

And the next line:

So I turn from the land where I’m so out of place…

A picture popped into my head: the cover of Rehearsals for Retirement, the album that included “My Life,” showed a tombstone:

Phil Ochs
(American)
Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940
Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968

I’d thought this inscription was funny when the album first came out, but it no longer felt like just another of Phil’s outrageous jokes. And I knew, I just knew that I was the one person in the audience who understood exactly what he was saying.

What to do? And how?

Phil returned to his new program, and his fans to their complaints. Suddenly, in the middle of a Buddy Holly song, he stopped and walked quickly off the stage. The audience sat stunned. After a couple of minutes a man came on stage, announced that the show was over, and requested that we please leave the auditorium.

Inching with the crowd down the curved, carved grand staircase, Ruth and I speculated. Was Phil insulted? Couldn’t take the jeering anymore? Was he sick, his voice completely gone?

People around me began to mutter. What was this? The gold suit and the country-rock songs were bad enough, but cutting the concert short like that? The murmurs turned to open anger. “We paid good money for this show,” one fan said.

We found the marble and gold entrance hall packed, mostly with young men. Some were milling around. Others were sitting-in on the floor, demanding free entrance to the second show. Under one of the soaring arches that make Carnegie’s lobby look more like a cathedral than a theater, a group of scraggy bearded types had mounted a low side staircase and were exhorting the crowd: If the capitalists who own this place think they can cheat us, they’ve got something else coming. Power To The People!

Bored with their rhetoric, I looked around me – and there he was, just like that. Phil Ochs, out of his gold suit now, wearing ordinary jeans and a leather jacket, walking in from the back door. All eyes were on the orators on the staircase landing; no else one had noticed Phil. My heart picking up, I hurried over.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said. He glanced at me with agitated eyes. “Mr. Ochs, I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry for the way the audience acted during your performance. If you don’t feel well I underst–”

“Can you hold this for me?”

“Excuse me?” I could barely hear him over the shouting.

“Can you hold my guitar for me?”

My pulse throbbed in my neck. “Of course.”

I gathered the guitar into my arms and cradled it so its neck rested against my right shoulder, its body pressed into my middle.

Phil Ochs’ guitar. I imagined it as it must have looked nestled inside its black leather case, as I’d seen it onstage just a short time before. Dark, rich wood, its contours edged in a shiny white. Shaped like an electric, though he’d played it unplugged – a jazz guitar, I learned many years later. Its weight and bulk made it awkward to hold; still, I hugged it close, wondering for a second if I was dreaming.

But I didn’t have time to truly savor the moment, because here was my chance.

“You know,” I said, my voice shaking, “my father was just like you. He also –”

But Phil didn’t hear me. He turned away and began wading through the crowd toward the side staircase. Taking care not to damage my precious burden, I followed, catching up to him just as he mounted the self-styled revolutionaries’ podium. After speaking with them for a minute or two, he turned to me. “Can you say something to everyone for me, real loud?”

I nodded and climbed up beside him.

“Tell them,” he said, his breath ragged. “Tell them there’s been a bomb threat.”

I shouted out his words, to a chorus of boos.

“Tell them the threat turned out to be nothing. And I’ll let the management know that anyone who wants can come to the second show.”

Triumphant cheers.

“Listen,” he said to me quietly, taking back his guitar, “I’ll be around the corner at the –” He fumbled in his shirt pocket for a slip of paper. “This restaurant.” I read an Italian name. “If there’s any problem, you come tell me.”

I nodded and opened my mouth, but before I could say a word he was out the door.

Fifteen minutes later, I made my way to the restaurant. The theater’s manager had insisted it was up to him, not to Phil Ochs, not to any performer, to decide who gets into a show, and for how much, and certainly whether or not to let anyone in for free. And no way was he letting this mob in for free. The crowd had reacted predictably, and I’d left the lobby ringing with chants of Powerrrrrrrr to the People!”

Another opening. I figured Phil and I would walk back to the theater together.

In the restaurant’s muted light it took me some time to find him at a back table, where he sat with some other adults and a little girl. His daughter? “Rehearsals for Retirement” popped into my head.

Had I known the end would end in laughter
I tell my daughter it doesn’t matter.

I noticed absently that his daughter’s hair was dark blond and straight, like mine.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said, moving over to where he could see me, “you wanted –”

“Who are you?” Startled, I looked around the table. The voice belonged to an older woman. She looked about sixty. His mother…?

I looked at Phil. “I – I came because he wanted –”

“Can’t you leave him alone?”

“I’m sorry –”

“They don’t leave him alone for a minute,” she said to the table in general, then turned back to me. “Can’t you at least let him eat?”

“But he asked me to let him know –”

“Let him eat!” She glared at me.

“They won’t let people into the second show,” I said quickly.

Phil looked exhausted. He was pale, and his voice shook. “Tell them I’ll come in a little bit and talk with the management.”

OK, I was about to say, Enjoy your dinner, when a strident voice drowned out the soft background music.

“Hey, man, this really sucks.” I looked over my shoulder; a group of young men had apparently followed me from the theater.

I would speak with Phil once more. He’d return to the theater later that evening to keep his promise, only to find the box office closed. He’d smash a furious fist through its window, badly hurting his hand. So he’d borrow mine, and I’d take down the names of those who wanted to attend the second show.

But there would be no more moments when I might say what I wanted so much to say to him.

I’d missed my chance. Just as I had with Daddy.

 

Friday, January 30, 1970

I was hoping for snow, but it was an exceptionally clear night. My father had taken my sister and me to dinner, without Lan. He drove us home without saying a word, and I realized suddenly that he hadn’t cracked a joke all evening. It felt strange; I’d gotten used to laughing through meals with him again.

We arrived at Four Stuyvesant Oval at about nine-thirty. Our red-brown brick building stood waiting for us, dusky and impassive in the crescent moon’s light. Ruth and I got out of the car for the transition back to Mom territory. Usually we’d give him a quick kiss through his rolled-down window before he drove off, but this time he killed the engine and got out with us. I shivered a little in the frozen air as he looked at us intently, then bent down and clasped Ruth to him. Eyes closed, face unreadable, he held her a very long time.

I flashed on a photograph he’d recently given each of us. Daddy, receding hair freshly cut, tie carefully adjusted, glasses angled to minimize glare. Daddy, without the slightest trace of a smile. “So you’ll have a picture of your old man,” he’d said.

Now, watching him holding Ruth, something strange was going on in the pit of my stomach. Strange, but somehow familiar. What was it?

It came to me. The only other time I’d felt like this was that Saturday four years before.

We were sitting on the bare floor of our small bedroom, absorbed in a game of Monopoly. Sleet crackled against the steamy windowpane; the radiator hissed; the colorful bills rustled as we counted them out. Suddenly we heard our father clearing his throat. He stood in the doorway; his face sadder than I’d ever seen it. “Come to the living room,” he said. “Your mother and I want to talk with you.”

I thought, They’re going to tell us they’re getting a divorce.

I’d been almost right. Our parents weren’t divorcing, but they were separating. He was leaving the next day.

Now, as he held Ruth in that long embrace, my inner telegraph was signaling again. Daddy Is Going Away. He and Lan are surely moving to North Vietnam. We’ll never see him again.

As he put his arms around me and hugged tighter than I could remember him ever holding me, I cried out, Daddy, don’t go! Don’t leave us!

Except that the words stayed in my head.

He took me by the shoulders. There was pain in his eyes, as if he could see the scream in mine, as if he knew I knew. But he gave us each one last silent kiss, and drove away.

The next afternoon, Ruth and I came home from a day of volunteering at the Student Coordination Committee to End the War in Vietnam to find our living room overflowing with relatives and family friends. Our mother took us into our bedroom and sat us down.

I’d been almost right, again.

This horrible country killed me – as it killed Lan – by betraying and befouling every possible decent aspect of life here through the crucifixion of an innocent, harmless people, he’d written in his note to Ruth and me. The note to our mother explained that he and Lan had been planning to leave the United States for North Vietnam, where they’d hoped to make their home. Hanoi had rejected their application, crushing the only reason they had left to stay in this world.

And I’d done nothing to stop him from leaving.

 

Don’t kill yourself, I’d wanted to say to Phil Ochs. You have a daughter.

During the six years from that ill-starred concert until the day Phil was found hanging from a short rope, I thought many times – often at first, then gradually less so – of writing him a letter saying just that. But where would I send it? I had no address for him. I knew of no more concerts. There were no more albums, either, after Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, a collection of the Ochs songs the audience had booed that night. (Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a live recording from that same concert, would be released in the United States only many years later.)

Time passed. Phil faded out of my life as I grew into it. I fell in love with my first boy, then the next, then the next. I finished high school, went off to college. I spoke about my father with one therapist, then another, then another.

It happened once or twice that a stranger approached me on a New York street and said shyly, almost reverentially, “Aren’t you the girl who held Phil Ochs’ guitar?” Uncomfortable with this derivative celebrity, such as it was, I simply nodded.

Pete Seeger came to Wesleyan toward the end of my senior year, a very short time after Phil’s death. When a friend had called me with the news about Phil, my heart had contracted. He did it. Just as I was afraid he would. He really did it. I’d been right once more. But I was busy with my senior thesis, and had few thoughts to spare for anything else. The raw fact – suicide – truly hit me only when the grandfather of folk and protest music sang one of Phil’s songs in his memory. “Changes,” I believe it was, one of my favorites. Thinking of words unspoken, I cried.

It was then that the vague and fleeting guilt I’d felt each time I contemplated that unwritten and unsent letter to Phil revived, took shape, and crystallized into the thought – irrational and illogical, I knew, but insistent nonetheless – that what I’d held in my hands all those years ago was not only Phil Ochs’ guitar, but his life.

 

Friday, June 24, 2011

It’s not often that Wikipedia changes one’s world. But that’s just what happens today, when I open the article on Phil Ochs. It describes his career, of course, and lists his albums. There’s even a separate sub-heading for 1970, which describes his gold-suited concert tour – Carnegie hadn’t been the only concert at which “his fans didn’t know how to respond,” as Wiki put it delicately – and the beginning of his sharp emotional and professional decline.

But I know most of that even before I open the page. And it’s hardly surprising to learn that Phil suffered from alcoholism, that he sometimes needed drugs to help him get through performances. The discovery that blows me away is that he was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

And other severe psychiatric problems. Wiki, again:

In mid-1975, Ochs took on the identity of John Butler Train. He told people that Train had murdered Ochs, and that he, John Butler Train, had replaced him. Train was convinced that someone was trying to kill him, so he carried a weapon at all times: a hammer, a knife, or a lead pipe.

Ochs’ drinking became more and more of a problem, and his behavior became increasingly erratic…. [His] friends tried to help him. His brother Michael attempted to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Friends pleaded with him to get help voluntarily. They feared for his safety, because he was getting into fights with bar patrons. Unable to pay his rent, he began living on the streets.

After several months, the Train persona faded and Ochs returned, but his talk of suicide disturbed his friends and family. They hoped it was a passing phase, but Ochs was determined.

I take a breath and close my eyes. I see a girl standing in a crowded, chaotic theater lobby, clutching a guitar to her chest and brimming with a mission to save this man. I see this man, whose biology has already begun to betray him, whose brain will convince him in only a few short years that he’s been murdered, that his murderer has stolen his self.

Could any of his selves have heard her, then or ever?

Could my father?

 

 

 

BIO

Susan AvitzourSusan (Sara) Avitzour has published stories online and in the print anthology Israel Short Stories. Her full-length memoir, And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, chronicles her daughter Timora’s struggle to lead a normal life as she battled leukemia, and her own journey first with, then without her daughter after Timora died at the age of eighteen.

This year she will receive a Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Bar-Ilan University, and is currently working on her first novel.

Born in Brooklyn, Susan moved to Israel in 1980 and settled in Jerusalem, where she and her husband raised seven children. Over the course of her adult life she worked as a lawyer, mediator, grant-writer, and translator. At the age of fifty, she returned to school to become a clinical social worker, and now practices as a psychotherapist.

 

 

0
Carmen Firan

The Boiler Man

by Carmen Firan                                                                                  

 

 

In buildings like this, boiler men are indispensable. Especially during winter when the radiators clog, filters need to be changed, and pipes crack just when you need them most, on a frosty weekend. The residents at 89-13 62 Avenue were lucky. The super was also a boiler man, a member of a profession learned and practiced diligently in Eastern Europe where everything’s out of order or out of place.

Maybe the term “plumber” is more precise, but in his native country his specialty had been radiators. Back during the communist era, the boiler man had an ace up his sleeve since rumors had it that the secret police kept track of suspects by planting microphones in the radiators of suspicious tenants. He had to be trusted —not just skilled—to convince people that he didn’t work for the police.

Dick, who had won the green-card lottery, took his wife and daughter by the hand and didn’t stop until they reached Sunnyside, Queens. There, in only two weeks, he found this job as a “super” —the guy who does everything.

“I don’t believe in lotteries and that stuff about luck. I played on a whim to prove to myself that I couldn’t win. Everything I ever got in my life was through hard work. Nothing ever fell into my lap. This time, God knows, the devil stuck his nose into it. I didn’t really want to move to America, but once I got the visa, I figured, why not go and see how they live over there.” That’s what he confessed every chance he could, as he caressed a bushy moustache he thought boosted his sex appeal. “But I don’t like it here. I miss my little house and the vines and fruit trees in the courtyard, I miss my drinking friends and life over there, poor, sure, but happy. I worked, I didn’t work, something came up and I lived well, whatever. If it wasn’t for my wife, who kept bugging me about my daughter’s future and all that stuff, I would never have left everything behind.”

Dick looked like he could lift three buildings at once. He wore large denim overalls without a shirt, an outfit that showed off his muscular arms and hairy chest. His “super’s office” was in the building’s basement, surrounded by boilers, air conditioners, tool sheds, old furniture, torn mattresses, all kinds of useless items, and garbage bags. Basically, Dick ruled an underground empire.

At night, when the garbage was taken out in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Queens, Dick hit the streets in his vintage car, packed it with whatever could be reused, and unloaded his loot in the basement. He managed to stack up a serious collection of TV sets, microwave ovens, tape recorders, chairs, vacuum cleaners, rugs, outdated computers, and whatever else one might need to outfit a brand-new home. Some were in great shape; others he fixed and sold for nothing to newly arrived immigrants who’d ended up in Sunnyside. “I’m doing a good deed,” he’d explain defensively, “this is what I learned at home. Take from the rich, and give to the poor. What I get out of it isn’t important. It’s more of a communal gesture, since everybody here is so into the collective spirit.”

Dick had won over all the residents in the building he administered quite with competently. He carried old ladies’ grocery bags to the elevator, walked dogs, babysat for young families, tended the lawn outside the building, and, of course, replaced pipes and filters, unclogged toilets, and, since this was the country of technology, fixed computers, too. He couldn’t really be called industrious, but he was smart, skilled. He never refused a tip but didn’t rip anyone off, either.

This new world didn’t scare him anymore. He’d found out he could get what he wanted even without speaking the language because Sunnyside was populated by his countrymen. The stores, restaurants, pastry shops, medical offices, churches, and newspapers in his native tongue tempered his longing for the mother country. Occasionally the ghetto bothered him, and he’d snap with superiority:

“You immigrate to get rid of these folks and end up living with them. It’s the same ethnic borsh, only thicker.”

Despite rebuffs, he was capable of shedding tears over a native folk song heard in bodegas where people argued for the democratization of the old country, which some denigrated, some regretted, though none would ever admit that they felt like foreigners in both places. It was an unspoken dilemma they would be buried with.

“Well, they have everything here, except tomatoes like the ones back home,” Dick sighed over a glass of vodka, which was emptied more and more often and earlier and earlier in the day.

Dick was a romantic. A giant with delicate features, he was sensitive to miniatures. He loved small animals; maybe that’s why the mice and bugs that haunted his “super’s office” in the basement didn’t faze him. He didn’t protest the rabbit his daughter brought home, the rabbit which they kept in the bathroom; he loved the flashy fish swimming in an improvised bowl, the jar for pickles that they took out to the balcony in summer. He loved etchings and had even tried to find work as a house painter. With or without his clients’ consent, at the end of a job he painted thin stripes and floral motifs that set off the walls from the ceiling, a delicate water lily around the chandelier or colorful birds above the kitchen window.

“We have to embellish our life,” was his motto, which he practiced how he knew best.

His large hands, accustomed to pipes and hardware, could be gentle and soothing. He caressed animals, tended flowers, and cried during love scenes. Despite the dirt under his nails, and his T-shirts soaked with sweat at the chest and underarms, he wasn’t a repulsive boiler man. You noticed his virility and not his smell, his vigor and not the clothes worn out from crawling underneath sinks and toilets. He loved his wife and adored his daughter, whose every whim he accepted. Provided she was good in school and behaved.

“Life is a simple thing. I don’t believe in chance. Everything fits together, and as long as you act with common sense, there are no great surprises. If you can avoid abuse and excess, life is decent, the way it’s supposed to be. I’m not an intellectual but I feel certain things, I don’t know how. My grandfather was illiterate, but he knew everything. He died in peace one afternoon, after he’d washed and shaved, called grandmother to his side, held her hand, and told her that his time had come. He closed his eyes and a few minutes later he was gone. Light, beautiful, serene. Now people die with violence, death isn’t liberation any more, but a condemnation, a humiliation.”

Dick hadn’t read one book after graduating from vocational school, a two-year program where he learned all about the heating profession. He only watched movies and sometimes leafed through newspapers. Still, nature had given him poise that could pass as wisdom, perhaps inherited from his grandfather. He had some odd habits too, which could make him an interesting drinking partner.

In the evening, a few friends he’d made in the building descended to the basement, where he had improvised a warm, bar-like atmosphere that resembled his home back home. He’d brought in a plastic garden table from the street and a few odd chairs, even a sun umbrella that he stuck proudly through the hole in the center. Next to it he kept a cooler filled with beer and vodka. He and his companions played folk music and debated the state of the world. One neighbor came from his hometown. They’d been neighbors even back then and left the country just a few months’ apart. It’s a small world, but even smaller in Queens.

“Guys, I don’t know why, but since I left the old country, I’ve been plagued by memories. I remember everything, you know, everything! Early childhood, my birth, even before it.”

The boiler man amazed them with his stories, which included some disturbing details, like remembering his own birth.

“No kidding,” Dick would tell them, his eyes blurred by the power of memory. “I witnessed my own birth.”

At first they didn’t take him too seriously, but in time Dick won them over, and then they listened with baited breath. Each time, they asked him to tell them more stories about being born. They emptied one glass after another not fully believing what they heard but were moved by such an odd experience.

“Actually I remember details from before I was born, from the time I swam packed in my mother’s belly. You don’t have much space to move around in there, and your movements are restricted. The last stages of the pregnancy are the worst. Moving gets more and more difficult. You want to turn but can’t, you kick with your feet and hands but nothing happens. I remember that during the last weeks I wanted more than anything to do a somersault. A few times I rebelled out, I’d grown too much, and I think I kicked my mother too hard because I immediately felt her hands grabbing my heels to calm me down. I recognized her palms instinctively. They caressed me even when I hit her with rage.  I wasn’t nervous or restless, I had no reason to be, it’s warm in there and you don’t lack for anything.”

“Didn’t you choke?” Dick heard a puzzled voice.

“How could you choke?! I never breathed with more ease in my life. Everything’s natural and clean, you wish you breathed air like that all the time! The temperature is constant, same with the humidity, everything’s constant, know what I mean? Just the way it has to be, just as much as it should be. Nothing unpredictable or uncomfortable. You’re always satisfied. You’re never hungry or thirsty, and if you need food all you have to do is think about it and you’re immediately fed with delicacies. You want fish, you can be sure that soon your mother will crave just that, and, because a pregnant woman is always granted her wish, she’ll get fish, and you’ll extract its very essence, the reason why you want to eat fish in the first place. And even if she doesn’t eat fish when you crave it, you end up eating the essence of fish, because you extract from her whatever the fish contains. Get it? I’m trying to make everything simple, but I’d like you to understand how it works. You suck in everything you need from her and the poor mother knows it. She loses iron, even calcium. Some even lose their hair or teeth, their nails turn white, their faces have spots and they’re always worn out. Whoever says that a pregnancy invigorates a woman doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It drains her but you couldn’t live better anywhere else. In there I was happy. After I got out, I never felt as protected. It’s a divine harmony that’s hard to define because we never experience it in real life. My friends, we are born happy. Whatever happens afterwards, God knows!”

Sometimes he’d be paged for an emergency. A flood, a pipe, an anxious old woman whose vacuum cleaner wasn’t working. Dick would run there right away, fix whatever needed to be fixed, and come back to the basement where his friends waited for him, enveloped in cigar smoke. He came back with hands even dirtier, sweat dripping down his forehead. He’d curse, gulp a glass of vodka that would ruffle his moustache, knock his fist against the table, and continue his stories.

“What bothered me there, though, was that I had to keep my eyes closed. Strangely enough, I could still see. I don’t know what it feels like to be in other women’s bellies, but in my mother’s womb I saw an extraordinary world. But I never felt any smell or saw any color. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody who can confirm my impressions or exchange opinions. I haven’t met anybody who was aware of his fetal life or who witnessed his birth. I have a memory, some say, ancient, abnormally large and old. It’s possible. And since I moved to Queens it expands every day. Although I believe that memory is infinite. But people don’t try to remember that far back, or maybe they can’t imagine that it’s possible to remember the time before your birth, not to mention the birth itself, which seems so natural, since everyone was present at one’s birth, right? If you remember yourself when you were five, why not remember the five seconds after you came into this world? Isn’t that the same? The same life?”

His drinking friends would nod in agreement. For the moment, the boiler man’s point of view made perfect sense.

“I saw many things in my life, but nothing could top the world in my mother’s belly. Entire cities, archipelagoes made of jelly tubes, galleries of pipes stretching like nerves along fluid walls, a complicated architecture of channels, mazes, tunnels and grottos, abysses, a sky of stars, perfect shapes swimming through a delicate spider web, everything murky, like a half-done drawing, like a miniature map of the universe. I could hear my heart beating in the middle of the universe, and I kept floating like an astronaut caught in those transparent laces enveloping me, and rocked me gently like a mild summer breeze. Even stranger, I recognized all these as if I’d seen them before, I behaved as if I had been in my mother’s belly before, as if I had memories from another pregnancy. I wonder if I was born more than once.”

At this point his audience usually lost patience. Some mumbled in protest that they were being dragged into surreal territory, others looked at Dick with pity, a grown up man, a giant, raving and ranting, but they were all curious to hear the conclusion. Then Dick swallowed another glass of vodka, wiped his moustache with the back of a hand covered with brownish creases, and lowered his voice, while his eyes sparkled conspiratorially.

“There’s no pleasure in being born. First of all, it’s a long, painful, dangerous process. You pass from that perfect harmony to an unimaginable convulsion, you struggle, you push with your head first, you kick your legs, desperate to get out, nobody knows why, because it was so cozy in there! But at some point you’re not allowed to stay inside any longer, you have to leave! The worst is that you feel your own mother straining against you, as if she wanted to get rid of you. At first you lose your balance, you slip, and no matter how much you wrestle, the head drags you down, it suddenly becomes very heavy, as if filled with lead, your ears pop and stress increases. Your head enters a dark tunnel. This is the most difficult and frightening part of the process. The tunnel of darkness.”

“I’ve heard that story about the tunnel before,” one of the neighbors told Dick, “but it happens when you die, not when…” He didn’t dare say more. The word birth had already sent shivers down his spine.

“When you die, it’s a tunnel of light,” another interfered, “and in this one it’s dark.”

“Pitch dark,” Dick confirmed. “The first sensation is terrible. You choke, you drown, your hair gets caught in all kinds of roots, I heard something rumbling like a volcano ready to erupt. I pushed as hard as I could, my neck was stiff, and I thought I’d be trapped inside forever. One of my shoulders was stiff from all that effort. I suffered from pains in my left shoulder until I was 5 because of my passage through that thin, black, cold, damp tunnel. Then I felt the first smells, just as unpleasant as the sounds that were waiting for me once I was pulled outside. Because the truth is that you can’t make it by yourself, eventually you are pulled outside by others. I coughed and I began to sob. They grabbed me, wiped me dry of the lava, and undid the roots wrapped around me, irritating my skin. I was dying of cold and I’d turned green from all the effort and shouting. I opened my eyes but saw nothing. I heard strange, metallic, piercing screams around me. Suddenly, I felt hungry but this time no essence satiated me. I’d be administered hundreds of gallons of milk until I was fed up with it. They wrapped me, covered me, and laid me on a bed. I was alone. In my mother’s belly I’d also been alone, but here, outside, it was a different way of being alone. Dry. Cold. Deafening. I had only known happy loneliness until then. Now a desperate loneliness began, and I think that’s when I was scared for the first time. I understood what it means to be alone. To waver between happiness and despair. To be expelled from the world. To see, to hear, to feel, and not to be understood.”

The neighbors were already sad; they drank out of spite and experienced everything as if they’d just been born themselves.

“Look, I remember the first night of loneliness as if it were now. They put me in a bed face up. From there, through the dark window, I saw the moon for the first time. You will ask me how I knew it was the moon. I knew. I’d seen it before. Here, how? Hell knows! And, all of a sudden…”

Dick’s phone rang violently. Mrs. Simpson from the 9th floor had an emergency. Her toilet was clogged and she had guests in half an hour. The boiler man got up at once, duty came before everything else. He left his audience with the story unfinished, grabbed his toolbox and a few minutes later knocked on Mrs. Simpson’s door. She was waiting for him eagerly.

“Dick, you’re a miracle. What would I do without you?! God sent you to us!”

 

 

BIO

Carmen FiranCarmen Firan, born in Romania, is a poet, a fiction and play writer, and a journalist. She has published fifteen books of poetry, novels, essays and short stories. Her writings appear in translation in many literary magazines and in various anthologies in France, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Canada, UK and the U.S. She lives in New York. Her recent books and publications in the United States of America include: Inferno, novella, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), Rock and Dew, (Sheep Meadow Press), Words and Flesh, (Talisman Publishers), The Second Life (Columbia University Press), The Farce, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), In The Most Beautiful Life, (Umbrage Editions), The First Moment After Death (Writers Club Press). She is a member of PEN American Center and the Poetry Society of America and serves on the editorial boards of the international magazines Lettre Internationale (Paris-Bucharest) and Interpoezia (New York). She is the co-editor of Naming the Nameless (An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry), Stranger at Home, Poetry with an Accent, Numina Press, and Born in Utopia (An Anthology of Romanian Modern and Contemporary Poetry), Talisman Publishers. www.carmenfiran.com

 

 

 

0

Spent Grains

by Kent Kosack

 

Once it was salvation, that

First cold sip, the bitter notes.

So bitter!

The malty sweetness.

The bubbles in my nose.

The sun playing across the

Lot, shimmering with heat,

The empty chairs, the

Barrels of spent grains.

Once it was just so.

Then, things went astringent.

Bad end notes.

So bitter.

The way you stormed out,

Theatrical, past the grains,

Spent.

So bitter.

 

 

The attic

 

Youth is what you loved.

Yourself too. And maybe the

Margaritas we used to drink

Naked and close, in front of

An old air conditioner. Our

Own world, that patch of

Cold in an otherwise

Sweltering attic.

 

 

Your hair

 

Close-cropped it falls,

Thick and full and defiant,

Escaping through my greedy,

Searching fingers.

No one likes

Goodbyes.

 

 

Commute

 

Barreling down the hill towards (a job, I’ll say it, but who cares? It’s not me. It’s life in the cracks that counts) downtown, a piston, Barry Allen, a demi-god.

Yelling, straining more with the song of it than anything else, a half-remembered tune (from the Muppets?) humming inside me somewhere.

Approaching now, the road narrowing, options narrowing. The winnowing of a day. I, the chaff. And silence. Waste. A day-long suffocation.

Stepping heavily up each stair. Each. Stair. A change in atmosphere. Pounds of pressure per square inch, pressing, bearing down. Like astronauts in training.

Astonishing. A vast wonder. Lost in it. You can hear it—or not. What is it? (a tether to an unseen weight) All about, the void.

 

 

BIO

Kent Kosack teaches English and writes poetry and prose. He lives in Seattle.

 

 

 

0
John Tavares

Skinny Sister

by John Tavares

 

Maria grew excited at the prospect of travel in Winnipeg, as she chatted over the telephone with her Uncle Manuel, who invited her to visit his house. Her mother had given her permission to travel to the Winnipeg and stay at her uncle’s place in the suburbs over the March break holidays. These days Maria received the impression everybody was treating her special. She felt exhilarated: her life and circumstances were finally starting to get better, to improve, since she had lost weight. Now she was skinnier than she could ever remember. Earlier that evening her brother Andre had taken her cruising around the streets of Sioux Lookout in his Corvette and had even offered to allow her to drive his precious sports car, but she had refused. Although she was old enough, she didn’t hold a driver’s license and getting a driver’s license was not a priority with her. Besides, she didn’t feel confident and skilled enough to drive a motor vehicle. Definitely, she didn’t want to smash her brother’s Corvette in an accident; he loved his sports car more than his former girlfriends. Andre had also taken her to a sparsely attended movie, which she considered sophomoric, but she had enjoyed the experience since she hadn’t visited the local theatre in a few years. She liked the ambience of the big screen, even though the carpets were worn and threadbare and the seats were torn. During the movie, she chatted with Andre, who was, surprisingly, nice. During a particularly boring section of movie billed as hilarious, Meatballs, which seemed to alternate between the perverse and juvenile, she bought a medium-sized box of buttered popcorn at the takeout counter, took the saltshaker, and shook salt over the puffy kernels. She kept sprinkling salt on the popcorn and couldn’t saturate the puffed kernels with enough sodium crystals. Scrunched up in his leather bomber jacket in his driver’s seat, her considerably bulkier brother was relieved to see his skinny sister receiving nutrition, eating some form of food. After all, she was his only sister—his only sibling, in fact. He didn’t mind having her around and could easily imagine the hysteria, blame, and mutual recrimination that would occur if she died.

After she slipped into bed at home, as Maria tried to sleep, she could feel her heart beating irregularly. Her heart felt intensely irritated. As she continued to feel excited by the prospect of visiting her uncle, an abrupt pain hammered against her chest. It felt as if her heart had blown up like a balloon and then burst. The fear that she was suffering a heart attack and that she would die paralyzed her momentarily. She felt the urge to scream to her mother to call for an ambulance, but she realized it was probably best if she stayed calm. Bringing up her knees to her bony chest, against her pointy breasts, she sat up in bed. She tried to cope with the pressing pain and gauge its strength and significance. Perspiration breaking in beads on her brow, she slumped and breathed hard. Assuring herself she would not die, she lay her head on the pillow and eventually fell asleep.

The following morning, she felt as if somebody as bulky as her brother was kneeling on her chest. Since she needed a break from school and usually seized any opportunity to skip class, she decided she better visit a doctor and called the clinic. The doctor who examined her was new to the town of Sioux Lookout: he was dark, handsome, and had a big butt. He looked like a stereotypical cop, which was how Maria would have preferred the appearance of any potential husband. The doctor methodically went through the physical examination, listening to her heart and lung sounds through her stethoscope, but she was so hyper his manner seemed abrupt.

“How much coffee have you been consuming?”

She shifted uncomfortably as she lied. “I just drink a few cups a day.” In reality, she drank about a gallon a day.

His brow knitted, he wrote some notes on ruled paper, pharmaceutical company stationary. “Now I’m interested specifically in these chest pains. How did it or does it feel? Is it intense, oppressive, severe, brief, or prolonged?”

The questions confused her since she was distracted by his movie star looks. Her mind had been racing recently and she gave a clumsy, rambling response. Doctor Whitney handed her documents and forms and gave her instructions to visit the hospital for blood tests and an electrocardiogram. Later, as she walked across town to the hospital, and reviewed the appointment in her mind, she realized she was a walking contradiction. She thought she may have had a heart attack, yet she was walking from the medical clinic to the hospital, with a pain in her jaw, arm, and chest, yet she was walking across town like nothing had happened to her. After she stopped by Lee’s Cafe for a few cups of coffee, she walked to the hospital. In the outpatient laboratory, a grey-haired woman in a lab coat took two vials of blood from a vein in her lean, muscular arm. Then a nurse brought her to the medical laboratory technician, who happened to be the father of a classmate with whom Maria argued and fought in the schoolyard. But she felt euphoric, despite the persistent pain in her chest. After the electrocardiogram, she felt relieved she had no time to return to school. She headed to work at her part-time job as a grocery clerk.

At Valencia’s Supermarket, while she was changing the price tags—which, she had complained to her mother, was illegal, at least according to her economics teacher—on endless stacks of canned tuna fish, her boss with his large bald head fringed with white hair approached. He told her she had gotten an urgent telephone call he wanted her to take in his office and she went to answer the telephone in the manager’s office. While she looked around the piles of invoices and order forms and payroll slips on the manager’s desk, a nurse, a local who shopped at the store, whose voice she recognized, said she should report to the clinic immediately to see the pediatrician.

After she was ushered into the doctor’s office, she instantly recognized the pediatrician, who practiced mainly in Winnipeg, since she had recently seen him on a local television news documentary. He was chief of a surgical team transplanting a donated organ, a healthy liver, into a critically ill indigenous child. Doctor Jansen asked her questions about how much she ate and how her parents treated her. He wanted her to travel to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for treatment.

“I need to speak with my mother first.”

“I’ve already spoken with your mother, and she gave me permission to treat you and understood the gravity of your illness.”

She swallowed and gasped. “Illness?”

“Based upon laboratory analysis of your blood you’re malnourished and undernourished and at risk of sudden cardiac death.”

“Sudden cardiac death?”

He impatiently tapped the medical chart with the tip of his pen. “Sudden cardiac death.”

After the appointment, Maria walked to the bank. Since the bank was already closed and the westbound Via Rail train would be leaving for Winnipeg that evening, she had to call the manager from a pay phone. She withdrew a few hundred dollars from her savings account, money she saved from earnings at her part-time job. After meeting her mother at Lee’s Cafe for coffee, they both walked to the travel agency and bought a train ticket to Winnipeg. Although as soon as she had turned sixteen she had written the test to obtain a beginners drivers’ license, she had never taken the practical road tests and had never obtained her driver’s license. Her mother couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in the pickup truck or the Cadillac because she had been charged and convicted of impaired driving for the second time. Her brother Andre couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in his Corvette because her mother would not permit him. He would drive on Highway 72 and the Trans-Canada highway with the urgency and speed of a paramedic heading to the scene of an airline crash. Besides, her mother didn’t want him to miss his grade twelve classes when he was already a year late in graduating. And, since he was still making payments on his Corvette, he probably didn’t want to miss a shift of work at Ralph Curtis Motors where he was an apprentice mechanic.

By the time she arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg early the following morning she was riding a roller coaster of emotions—euphoric one minute, gloomy the next. At the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Maria took an almost instant disliking to the head nurse, who kept insisting she gain weight. Nurse Carlton reminded her she had to gain an average of four kilograms per week or she would lose her visiting privileges and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ward. Her intransigence would force her into bed rest. Nurse Carlton set down a long list of rules that Maria supposedly had to follow as a patient, including never having guests beyond visiting hours. What did Maria care anyway? She was only expecting the occasional visit from Uncle Manuel.

Every morning, Maria faced a battery of medical diagnostic tests. She travelled through a vast network of tunnels underneath the hospital complex, en route to a CAT scan in the neuroscience wing, an EEG in an epilepsy clinic, intelligence quotient tests in the faculty of psychology building beside the power plant. Every morning a young male nurse, recently graduated from Red River College, would meet her, and offer her a fresh strawberry milkshake with a smile and a warm touch. He would chat with her and ask her how she was doing. Was she gaining weight? Why or why not? She considered the male nurse good looking and she liked him, but he aroused Maria’s suspicions. Were the doctors and nurses trying to set her up, make her feel good, brainwash her into thinking this guy had something going for her? In her hospital room, which she shared with six patients, Maria watched with fascination as a young diabetic, two beds down from her, injected herself with insulin. She felt some sympathy for the girl with leukemia, who lived on a farm, and left the tub they all shared lined with grime and dirt.

Her Uncle Manuel visited her occasionally at night. He would bring her upstairs in the hospital complex to the cafeteria. Knowing her fetish for ice cream, he would bring her a one-litre container of gourmet ice cream in an exotic flavor such as chocolate chip cookie dough, or pineapple coconut. But he was depressed over the pregnancy of his daughter, who wasn’t married, and would soon start weeping. Eventually Maria was introduced to a psychiatrist, a thin, frail-looking woman with a pitted, wrinkled face.

“She wears these, like, expensive pant suits and looks as if she was way past retirement age,” she commented during a visit to her Uncle Manuel, who was starting to wonder why she simply couldn’t eat and become healthier.

The psychiatrist told her about her luxurious lifestyle, the television satellite dish at her family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Then she started asking Maria about her parents, her family, her relationship with her brother, and her career aspirations, and she broke down. Maria went hysterical and paced around the room. She insisted she wasn’t the person who had starved herself. She wasn’t the young woman who limped because she had broken her leg after falling from the Queen Elizabeth District high school roof one August night while looking for a peaceful dark place to make out with a girlfriend. She wasn’t the girl who hadn’t had her period in seven months or who no longer had a sexual interest in guys.

Later, the ward nurses told her she could go downstairs to the refrigerator in the staff kitchen below and eat whatever she wanted whenever she desired. After meeting her uncle or arriving home from an outing downtown at about nine or ten p.m., she hurried downstairs and helped herself to the cuplets of ice cream in the freezer compartment. First, she would plunge her finger into the vanilla or chocolate ice cream to test it, to ensure it was the proper texture and creaminess. The ice cream couldn’t be too hard or too soft. Having peeled the lid off the paper cuplet, she would stick her finger into the ice cream and taste it. If it was the correct creaminess, texture, and hardness, she would grab a plastic spoon and eat it on the spot; if not, she would set the lid back in place and put the cuplet back into the freezer box with the indentation her finger made in the ice cream. Occasionally she tested more than ten cuplets of ice cream before she found one that satisfied her. When she found no ice cream that suited her taste, she became bitter and angry. One afternoon Nurse Carlton confronted her about the cuplets of ice cream.

“What a waste.”

“The nurses on the floor said I could have ice cream whenever I wanted,” Maria protested. After she started sobbing Carlton pursed her lips in consternation and left her alone.

Allowed to leave the ward after undergoing all her morning tests and examinations and meeting all her doctors, Maria would skip lunch and not even bother with the hospital cafeteria. She would grab her Sony Walkman, which contained her Tattoo You cassette, the narrow black tape nearly worn out since she had listened to it straight through at least three hundred times. She rode the city transit bus to Portage Avenue, where she’d eat a piece of pizza or a submarine sandwich before wandering around the stores and shopping malls downtown. Bounding downtown with her seemingly limitless energy, she liked the narrow elongated shadow her thin body made on the sidewalk and the way the pressed cloth and sharp cuffs of her snug jeans hugged her body, wrapping neatly and tightly around her legs and ankles. During her trips downtown she started shoplifting, stealing fashion accessories, lipstick, eyeliner, and eye shadow from the cosmetics sections of the department stores downtown, Hudson’s Bay and Eatons, and slipping them inside her coat pockets. She tried to be casual and cool about her petty thefts. Traipsing from music stores and bookstores in the Eatons Place shopping mall, she also stole a few Rolling Stones cassette tapes and magazines and paperback novels. If anybody apprehended her, caught her, or called the police, she decided she’d pretend she was disabled, deaf and dumb, and gesticulate wildly and excitedly, making grunting and guttural noises. If necessary, she’d try to communicate through non-verbal messages she was a patient at a hospital and hurry off.

Towards the end of her second week as a patient at the Health Sciences Centre, she rapidly strode down the hallway to leave the ward on her afternoon outing. Her long thin legs marched steadily forward and her headphones acted as a comb for her unruly, untamed hair. But Nurse Carlton blocked her path, with her tall wide figure overshadowing Maria’s skinny stature.

“This time you’re not going anywhere. Your treatment regimen has been changed to behavioural modification. That means bed rest. You won’t be allowed to leave the ward until you’ve gained ten pounds and even then only after you’ve gained an additional five pounds a week.” Carlton gestured back towards the room, but Maria stood motionless. So she grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her back to the room. “You can’t be doing whatever you want anymore.”

“I don’t do whatever I want. I’m confined to a hospital.”

“Everybody is being such a soft touch with you, letting you do whatever you want.”

“That’s not true.”

“You’re a spoiled brat. It’s that simple.”

“You don’t know what kind of life I live. You can’t pass judgement on me.”

“You’re undisciplined and unruly. At least you’re not a slut, although that might come later. You need discipline, rules, routines, regulations.”
“You’re just being bossy. You love power.”

“Somebody has to look after what’s in your best interest. Otherwise, you’ll never be well.”

Clenching her Walkman in hand and against her side, Maria tried to leave the ward. When she managed to slip past her room door, which held six hospital beds but now contained only her as a patient, Nurse Carlton dragged her back inside. The old woman was strong, Maria thought, but she decided she would assert her independence. “Nobody is going to violate my constitutional and legal rights!” she shouted as Nurse Carlton restrained her by the arm.

The nurse and Maria became entangled in a pushing and shoving match. When Maria tried to bolt from the hospital room again, the nurse clenched her wrist and ripped the Walkman out of her hand. The portable stereo crashed to the floor. When Maria retrieved it she saw that the plastic lid that covered the cassette player had broken off. The starched white hat that normally rested on Nurse Carlton’s august head had also fallen in the struggle, so Maria quickly ran over to the headgear, stomped on the top with her running shoes, and kicked the crumpled piece across the polished waxed floor.

“Get the hell out of here. You’ve broken my cassette player. Now what am I going to do? Listen to nurses crabbing all day long?”

Whimpering, Maria abandoned any hopes of leaving just then. Cheeks quivering, wide-eyed, trembling, Nurse Carlton tried to maintain her dignified composure and erect bearing, although she felt aghast and shocked by this outburst, this affront, this unruly behaviour. She picked up her crumpled, dirtied hat and, seeing this rude, undisciplined patient was finally subdued, trooped her bulky mass back to the nursing station.

Although the cover case for the portable cassette player was broken, Maria still tried using the Sony Walkman. When she tried to play The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape she discovered the knitting needle-like rotors wouldn’t turn so she couldn’t hear the music through the headphones. She dropped back on her bed and started reading a magazine, Cosmopolitan, she had shoplifted. When Carlton finished her shift at four p.m., she sneaked to the telephone in the ward lounge and made a long distance call to her mother at the insurance office in Sioux Lookout where she worked as a broker. The staff at the Health Sciences pediatric ward weren’t allowing her to leave the ward and one nurse had broken her Walkman, Maria protested. Although her mother told her things would get better and promised her a new Walkman, Maria continued to cry into the telephone.

“I don’t belong in a pediatric ward. I’m too old.”

“You’re still in the right age group.”

“I had to drink a milkshake with radioactive dye. Then doctors scoped my intestines and checked my insides. They stuck a little camera connected to cables up my ass.”

“Oh, Maria, do you have to talk that way over the phone?”

“Well, it’s true, and I could even see my guts on a television monitor. They told me not to eat anything the day before, but I had some late night snacks. So they had a mess on their hands, but I didn’t care—they deserved it, and I laughed afterwards. I wasn’t going to deprive myself of ice cream for some medical test.”

On the verge of weeping at her insurance brokerage desk, her mother sighed. “Before you weren’t eating, and now you’re eating nothing but ice cream. Maria, you have to consume a balanced diet.”

“And the pain in my chest is getting worse.” Maria grew quiet and weepy. “I bet I had a heart attack.”

“Maria, the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with your heart. They said your electrocardiogram was OK.”

“They said there were anomalies and changes in the tracings they couldn’t explain.”

“But the doctor said you shouldn’t worry about the electrocardiogram.”

“Well, they didn’t feel the pain I felt. And I still have chest pain, but at least it’s not as bad.”

“Maria, the doctors said your electrocardiogram is not a concern.”

“And, Mom, the nurse got into a fight with me. She made me break my Walkman, and I think she did it deliberately.”

“You were fighting with a nurse? Oh, my God. We can’t have you arguing with hospital staff. I’ll have to talk with the head nurse.”

“She was the head nurse.”

“You were fighting with the head nurse? Oh, my God, what are we going to do about you? Well, I’ll just have to speak with the doctor about your conduct. But you do whatever the doctors and nurses order.”

“I’m not into bed rest, mom. The pediatrician never said anything about bed rest. And what about my Walkman?”

“Don’t worry about your music. We’ll get the player fixed—sooner or later.”

“Mom, I want out.”

“No, you’re not ready. You need to get better so you can return to school.”

“I don’t care about school anymore.”

“You’re going to back to high school and then university whether you like it or not. But we’ll discuss education later. You just follow doctors’ orders and remember to eat. Now I have to return to work. Just enjoy your spring break. Appreciate the rest while you still can.”

Muttering absently, Maria set down the receiver after her mother hung up the telephone. Her mother didn’t want her to gain weight; she wanted her daughter thin and lithe, svelte and fashionable. She had always reminded her of the importance of maintaining a slim figure and had always bought her diet soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, low-calorie salad dressing, low-fat peanut butter, fat free yoghurt. Her father, who had a potbelly, couldn’t care less and said he would die with a full stomach. He accurately predicted his own demise: he died, of a massive myocardial infarction, two years ago, with a full stomach, after dinner of tenderloin steak on Sunday evening, with a telecast of The Wonderful World of Disney in the background.

After returning to her room, Maria tried to listen to The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape again. When the Walkman still wouldn’t work, she decided that she had enough. Although she wasn’t certain what she would do, she decided she wouldn’t tolerate being bullied by the head nurse. She had enough of being imprisoned in the hospital ward. Perhaps she would call her Uncle Manuel and ask her father’s brother if she could stay at his house in Transcona. Depending on how expensive the nightly room rates, possibly she would stay at a motel downtown, even if it was seedy. For the first night at least she could stay in all night cafes.

She picked up her broken Walkman and placed it in her backpack. Then she decided she’d carry the cassette player in her hand while she walked and tried to fix the device. She shoved the rest of her most valued belongings in her backpack, although she tried to make it look as if she was still occupying her room by leaving certain of her rumpled clothes lying on unmade bed. Then she looked out the window. It had suddenly gotten cold and was probably around minus ten degrees, not including the wind chill. She checked the Yellow Pages for a listing of electronics retailers and appliance repair shops, preferably downtown, where she could have her Walkman fixed. She tore two yellow pages out of the Winnipeg telephone directory, folded them, and stuffed them in the tight pocket of her jeans. She walked past the nursing station without turning her head. She just pressed straight ahead and nobody challenged her. Relieved to be free, she moved down the back stairs and outside of the hospital. She hiked on the street in the cold, the smoking rising in curls from the pipes and smokestacks for the furnaces and power plants.

As she headed down the icy street she realized she had forgotten to withdraw money yesterday. She had left her bank card inside her wallet, which she had left inside the bedside table drawer in her hospital room. She didn’t even have a Winnipeg bus ticket, only a small amount of cash in her pocket. “Eff it,” she muttered, startling a passerby, a mother in a quilted down-filled ski jacket pushing a baby in a stroller. She would figure something out. Shivering from the chill of an unseasonably cold spring in Winnipeg, she continued to walk through the Health Sciences Centre, a vast complex of brick and concrete buildings, old and new, heading in a direction that she knew would bring her downtown. She continued walking along Sherbrook, striding quickly. A thin, reedy, diminutive man, with a shaved head, crossed the street, along which only an occasional motor vehicle passed, and strode alongside her. He was actually short, nearly a midget. Why did she attract the trolls?

“Do you want some speed?”

“I don’t do drugs.”

“Wow. A goody-two-shoes. I like them. But most goody-two-shoes never let on because they want to act cool. I’m not a narc.”

“You don’t look like a narc.”

His smile faded and his expression turned blank, as, seemingly disappointed, he looked down. “You sure you don’t want some weed?”

She glared at him.

“Do you want to mess around?”

“No.” Her expression grew alarmed, her voice trembled, and her cheek and eyelid twitched when she saw the intensity in his masculine gaze. He pulled out a knife and pressed the blade flat against her collarbone. “Now do you want to fool around?”

“I’m having my period.”

“Nice excuse. We can do it through the back door. I prefer it that way because you don’t have to worry about babies.”

He pushed her down on her hands and knees against the dumpster. She thought she needed to distract him, as she clenched the Sony Walkman against her bony thigh. Her grip tightened on the portable cassette player and her muscles tensed. She clenched her jaw and the tendons and gristles tightened and twitched across her lean cheekbones. She said she needed to stand to take off her top. As she revealed her slim waist and gripped her Walkman with the other, she asked, “Are you, like, a drug dealer or a pimp?”

A chance existed she might have offended him and angered him, but she saw that he looked flattered. She had distracted him and might have just asked him if he was a brain surgeon. She quickly brought up her arm and smashed the Sony Walkman against his face. She whacked the walkabout tape player over his head until she was breathing hard and he was stunned. As she brought down the Walkman on his head, she remembered the pediatrician’s words, “Sudden cardiac death.” She couldn’t believe the damage her manic burst of energy had inflicted, his head bruised and face smashed to a pulp and streaked with blood. She had knocked him unconscious, and his body form was sprawled along the sidewalk. After the rush of energy, she stared at his prostate form, which was breathing regularly, and started to feel afraid again. Lost, she ran along the Sherbrook Street sidewalk, towards what she hoped was the broad street and lights and traffic that was Portage Avenue. She needed a bite to eat, just a bite, and a pay telephone.

The encounter somehow put her in the mood for fast food. She walked furiously, with long bounding strides, until she reached Portage Street downtown and found a twenty-four sandwich shop open. She ordered a foot-long submarine sandwich, all dressed, with shredded lettuce, olives, sliced onions, diced peppers, gobs of mayonnaise, chopped mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and every variety of cold cuts, sliced ham, pastrami, salami, and mozzarella and cheddar cheese. Then she raced to a MacDonalds fast food restaurant and ordered a large super thick chocolate milk, a bacon double cheeseburger, a large serving of French Fries, and a coffee. She sat alone at a table near the window overlooking Portage Avenue and watched the elderly, bar and nightclub patrons, street people, police officers, bus drivers, and pedestrians, the lost and lonely, walking past to their apartments, houses, sleeping bags in a doorway, or benches in a park. As the night stretched, she had a few more refills of coffee and bought a few more vanilla soft ice cream cones for dessert, sneaking in yet another ice cream cone before they turned it off for the daily cleaning. By the end of her meals and snacks, she felt sick, nauseous, bloated, disgusted with herself. She locked herself in the women’s washroom in the fast food restaurant and vomited just about everything she had eaten that evening. She scrubbed, washed, and rinsed herself at the sink. Looking in the mirror at her reddened eyes, she realized she had nowhere to go but back to the Health Sciences hospital.

 

 

BIO

John TavaresBorn and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from social sciences at Humber College and journalism studies at Centennial College. His previous publications include Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, and The Writing Disorder. Moreover, he had about a dozen short stories as well as creative nonfiction published in The Siren, a college newspaper. He has had articles published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, The East Toronto Advocate, Our Toronto as well as community and trade publications such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He broadcast a set of his short stories as a community radio broadcaster for CBLS in Sioux Lookout one summer. He has recently written a novel and is an avid photographer. Having acquired an Honours BA, Specialized, in English at York University, he has returned to his hometown of Sioux Lookout.

 

 

0

Ain’t Got No

by Claudia Putnam

 

In grade three Scotty said I ain’t got no
lunch money. We were delighted.
We crowed, That means you do.
If you don’t have none, then you have
some. Mrs. Cole, otherwise kind,

had just taught us the double negative.
But Scotty, one of those kids always
moving, dirty, in trouble, starved for food,
kisses, laughter, anything and everything,
still had no money for lunch.

Some languages would let Scotty
have his doubled poverty. Russian,
for instance, negates everything.
U nevo ne bylo nichevo. Literally:
In his possession nothing of anything wasn’t.

U nevo is interesting. With him, beside him,
near him, in his possession, in his situation,
in his position, he is characterized by.
Most common English translation: he has.
U nevo nichevo. He has nothing.

English gathers round Scotty, jeering.
Don’t you know how to talk? Haven’t
you learned anything? Can’t you think?
Russian isn’t concerned with that logic.
Russian is concerned with nyet.

Nikovo nikogda nigde nichevo ne bylo.
No one never nowhere nothing was not.
A person with no lunch money could say,
U menya nichevo, ni deneg, ni obeda.
I am characterized by nothing,

nothing of money, nothing of lunch.

 

 

This Isn’t Really Happening

 

My black bird was bigger,
my mountains were burning.
The snows stopped coming

sometime around 1999. The wells
dried. The shower sputtering
with soap in my hair

so I was always late. That tame crow
someone set loose spying
through the skylight, jeering.

How many ways is that? Each year
the river running thinner,
fleeing its shrinking glacier.

The Arapaho said the thunderbird,
black as any bird
gets, lived just west of here.

Someone must have seen it,
the day it flapped away.
We don’t get regular afternoon

stunners the way we used to.
You could set your heart on
those 2 PM monsoons. Biblical

lightning, all that water. Now: rusting
Ponderosas, centuries old,
disrobing. All good things

must end. Perhaps nightmares
also end. Not perhaps
in our lifetimes.

Poor lost crow, these are not
the best of times
to be falling asleep.


 

Sync

 

A few months with other women,
a woman bleeds.

Ten years’ time, a woman synchronizes
with her man.

Over thousands of miles, your arousal
brings my body astir.

Men make movies, you said—now they loop
through my head.

Golden locks on our dark headboard,
naked ass raised.

If I were making this up, I’d be watching you
both; the camera’s on her.

Your currents churn through my body;
don’t think I don’t know.

 

 

 

BIO

Claudia Putnam’s work appears in I-70 Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, Literary Mama, Barrow Street, Artful Dodge, Cimarron Review, Confrontation, and in many other journals. A chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World, came out last year from Finishing Line and is available from Finishing Line Press and on Amazon. In 2011-12, she had the George Bennett Fellowship. In 2015, she’ll be at Kimmel Harding Nelson. www.claudiaputnam.com

0
mitchell Grabois

Transparency

by Mitchell Grabois

 

Wasps colonized my attic. I had to grab a can of wasp spray from my wife’s hand. She was a farm girl and stronger than me. She grabbed the can back and hit me in the head with it.

Our love was being overwhelmed by our differences. I found the wasps’ buzzing comforting, consoling. I heard messages in the drone, messages designed for me alone, telling me about the true nature of the universe. My wife said that if the droning didn’t stop, she was going to fall off the wagon—was I too stupid to understand?

Yet now that she’d hit me with the can of wasp spray, she couldn’t use it. She had created an inner barrier that she didn’t understand, but was unable to surmount. She went outside without saying anything, got into her old Pontiac, and headed down the road. She was going to the meth house. Whether she was going to do meth or just fuck the meth maker, I didn’t know. But I couldn’t pursue her. I was too engaged in listening to the wasps’ messages.

 

After I’d learned everything I could from the wasps, I went out on the front porch. I sat in my rocker and pretended to speak with my wife:

The world is corrupt, and pain closes us off to each other. We crave injections of transparency. We want to become floating windows, our religion Windex.

I see right thru you, girl, as if I were a psychologic genius. And you see thru me as well.

Crows and robins fling themselves thru the air, but part of what they think is air is us. We are annoyed, they are annoyed. It is significant, one of the downsides of transparency.

 

 

 

 

 

Angels

 

It’s a nice piece of fiction or nonfiction I’ve written—I can’t tell the difference anymore. I’ve hypnotized myself and can’t undo it—this is the creative process. Creativity has confounded reality. It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s at stake. It’s just words on a page.

It’s not my adult son’s maid vacuuming his carpet while crying over what’s happening in the Ukraine, where she’s from, and where her parents and sister still live. She’s thin and has a lot of prominent veins in her arms and shoulders. She has a firm grip from working hard. She can’t find her business card in her purse. She tells me I know a lot about women.

It’s not kidnapped girls in Nigeria, raped and traumatized. The difference between their conscious minds and unconscious minds is also blurring, but not in the service of art.

I want to use my wealth to buy them, all of them. I want to educate them and put them to work in my restaurant, in my factory, in my amusement park. Wherever they want to work, that’s where I want them to work. I will pay them $15/hour, well over minimum wage. I will bring their parents here. I will get them medical treatment for their poor and neglected bodies.

 

But, despite all my good intentions, I ended up getting too close to Heaven. Angels melted my face. It’s not that they lacked compassion or had a cruel streak—they were just following the laws of Physics. Even angels must follow the laws of Physics.

 

 

 

 

 

Rubber Crumbs

 

My father escaped the Nazis, went to NYC to his Uncle’s tenement, looked around and said: Holy fuck! This fucking place is going to kill me sure as Hitler (or whatever the equivalent was in Yiddish). So he went west, stopped in Colorado, got work on a ranch, learned Spanish. He was Rumanian, but easily passed for Mexican.

This morning I wake in my armchair in the living room of the ranch house he built by hand. A book of Yiddish poetry has slipped from my grasp. I pick it up and go wash my face. Today I’m putting down rubber crumb infill in my corral. The granules prevent flyout, splashing, migration of base, and promote traction and drainage. Shock absorption is maximized. The rubber absorbs more impact than sand and reduces the repeated concussions horses sustain from being ridden on hard surfaces. It’s easier on the horses’ joints and the crumbs don’t freeze in winter. And it keeps dust down. I like a dustless arena.

My father never knew anything about this. It wasn’t available while he was alive.

 

I try to focus on rubber crumbs and whatnot, but I have to put some focus on Green Energy, because placed too close to my home, these turbines are black as the soul of the energy company’s greedy CEO, with their noise, shadow flicker, and subsonic vibration.

I might have expected my sensitive wife to develop Turbine Syndrome, but me? I was a Marine, born to fight and conquer. Nothing bothers me, but I’ve also been felled by Turbine Syndrome. After all the armed enemies I’ve faced for my country, it is turbines that have defeated me.

I pray I won’t become a slave to sleeping pills, but I know I need sleep—I need to care for my stock—and this is the only way to get it.

 

 

BIO

mitchell GraboisMitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over seven hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for work published in 2012, 2013 and 2014. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. He lives in Denver, CO.

 

 

0
Kelly Thompson poet

Legacy

by Kelly Thompson

 

My mother always said
(Giving me a look)
“You’re just like my mother.”

I see Grandmother’s ghost
In the corner of my eye
At the supermarket again today
Rounding the bend of an aisle, she
Pushes her shopping cart in rage
Her wet heart calls – Escape! I follow her
Path among the produce; she steals a grapefruit
Offers me an illicit berry – “Here take it”

Mother washes a dish, sighs
“My mother was not domestic.”
Dries a plate, “You should never get married.”

Back at the supermarket, Grandmother runs, crazy
Through the aisle, throws jars of pickles, relish, capers
Crashing to the floor. She screams, “No more!”
I bend down among the vinegar, the rolling
Olives, pick up the red pimientos.

“You’re just like my mother,” she would say.
My mother, dusting the piano, looking off
In the distance, wistful.

The chill air prickles my arms, sleeveless
The condiment shelves empty, price tags
Intact as if to remind us of the cost
All the jars
Smashed – ketchup and mustard, salad oil, peppers –

Grandmother and I bend
Reaching for the same jagged shard of glass
Her eyes my mirror, I kneel
Before the shadow of her early death
Her aborted
Passion.


 

Colorado

Denver is the capital city of Colorado. My heart is the capital of a small frozen pond.

All of the “Beulah red” marble in the world went into the Capitol. It cannot be replaced.

Flower – Rocky Mountain Columbine (1899)

Left on my porch in Blue Jay, California for my 42nd birthday.

Colorado was admitted to the Union August 1, 1876. I was admitted to schools, hospitals, psych wards.

Tree – Colorado blue spruce (1939)

Hunkered down in Alaska, blue spruce between me and the neighbor.

Colo. is the abbreviation for the state. My mind abbreviated by grief.

Bird – Lark Bunting (1931)

Sorrow my sparrow, as soon as I left: a murder of crow, a kindness of raven.

The area of Colorado covers 104100 square miles. Circles I made in the snow.

Animal – Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (1961)

Exposed on the cliffs the day I got up from the table. The world’s largest flat-top mountain is in Grand Mesa.

Colorado was the 38th State to be admitted to the Union. I admitted, at last, only to failure.

Gemstone – Aquamarine (1971)

At the western base of this ancient chain of granite peaks was once an inland sea. Still,
I kept trying to get out of the boat.

The three largest Cities in Colorado are Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora. Minus 47 murdered in Denver.

Colors – Blue and White (1911)

I said yes to the stretched out hand and walked on water.

The Colorado State Motto is “Nil sine Numine,” translated as “Nothing without Providence”
And just it is that I should pay the rent.

Song – “Where the Columbines Grow” (1915)

I shall already have forgotten you when the river runs red.

 

 

Shape of a Song

 

Who stole it from me father?
Fear of the water is inborn in some.
Your great-grandmother was a witch. You’re just like her.
Her power lay in the words she controlled. She had a pack of wolves, a swarm of bees, a murder Of crows.

Father said she read his fortune in tea leaves but when she looked into Gene’s cup she turned, Refused to tell.   She wanted a pair of silver shoes.
It’s a gift, she told him. You’d have to sell your ____ to the devil.
But even she was afraid of the dark.

The witch’s daughter told the great-grand-daughter how it would be. She sang her into the shape Of a song.
She lived so long that a little girl could outwit her.
Father would not spill the water though the creek ran high.
The Wicked Witch of the West was destroyed by water.

The place we would step into the current will not come again.
But first, she starved the Cowardly Lion.
In the wagon they carried their most prized possessions, a guitar and a fiddle.
The witch’s daughter rode shoeless.

The witch foretold that men would land on the moon.
She saw the writing on the wall.
She named their firstborn but they declined the gift.
They preferred a new rhythm.

In time and space, they gave their children something blotted, blank, something human,
Where before, a melting witch lay steaming on the floor.
Father, said the daughter, I still carry her bequest.
The remnants of fires lay banked around them.

You were born without a ____, he said. Consequent bastard, he said.
The silver shoes I have thrown in the ocean.

 

 

BIO

Kelly ThompsonKelly Thompson’s writing has been published in 49 Writers, Manifest Station, Metrosphere, Limp Wrist, and Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping. She has won awards for her poetry from Writer’s Digest and was awarded funding to attend Key West Literary Seminar based on her short fiction. She is currently working on a memoir entitled Oh Darling Girl. Just as the narrator gets sober, one of her two barely adolescent daughters descends into addiction and rebels against her mother’s new found lifestyle of recovery. As the narrator struggles to save her daughter and face down a transgenerational legacy of violence, addiction, and shame, the lives of grandchildren hang in the balance and heartbreaking choices must be made. Kelly is also currently working on a chapbook of poetry focused on the themes of ancestry, transgenerational trauma, and legacy. Besides writing, Kelly is a psychotherapist who primarily works with soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. Kelly lives in Denver, Colorado, in the sunshine of the spirit. You can follow her on Twitter @stareenite.

0
Laura Wang writer

Synesthesia

by Laura Wang

 

 

It is September, three feet away

Stalking each of my footsteps

With each stomp, I hear tickles

With each sip, I taste glass

This cold coffee hums middle C

And C is green and green is three and three is an isosceles

 

Your eyes flit between 5 and M

Depending on the light

Your blue fingers often curl to form a pure G#

When you leave, I feel 4

3 lips taste of rectangles, velvet on my fingertips

Sorbet plus sorbet equals U

Your name is turquoise neon yellow lavender coral mauve

But I call you my September

 

*  *  *

 

The Synesthete

She points at our microwave. Her eyes are a bit glazed; her head cocks to the right; her fingers point at the number “1.”

“It’s kind of a whitish yellow,” says Melia. “Two is pink. Three is red. Four is yellow. Five, blue. Six… light green. Seven, dark blue. Eight is a magenta-pink color, probably closer to magenta. Nine is purple. Zero is white… or clear.”

She puts a pen in her hand and writes out her name on a piece of notebook paper. Her handwriting is precise. She spells her name green orange black blue yellow.

In Greek, “synesthesia” means “to perceive together.” It is a psychological phenomenon when a person perceives two senses to be linked when they are not. Melia sees numbers and letters in colors, the most common form of synesthesia, but there have been reports of tasting in color and hearing in color. Some think of abstract concepts, such as time, in terms of spatial distance. Others, when they hear sounds, feel sensations on their skin.

When Melia was younger, her mother, with handwriting even clearer than Melia’s, would write in bubble letters: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. She and her sister, Tia, got to color them in to celebrate.

“Tia, why can’t you just color them the right colors?”

Tia, purple crayon in her hand, stared at Melia. “What?”

“It’s an ‘H.’ Why can’t you color it pink?”

“Why can’t you be less bossy?”

Tia scribbled purple all over the “H,” not minding that it got outside of the lines. Melia sighed and quickly colored the “P’s” red, as they should be.

Melia and I were randomly placed to live in the same dorm room during our freshmen year of college. I’ve lived with her ever since. One night when we were white-years, we stayed up particularly late talking. She mentioned that she had synesthesia. My eyes widened and mouth gaped when she told me. She shrugged it off.

Today, Melia sits before me, sipping hot M tea in a 7 plaid skirt.

“I wouldn’t say that I found out that I was a synesthete. It was more like I found out everyone else wasn’t. When I was in eighth grade, a girl asked me what my favorite color was, and I said ‘yellow.’ She asked me what things I liked that were yellow and I gave her a list: lemonade, daffodils, and the letter ‘A.’”

Melia’s realization that she had synesthesia is actually similar to most other synesthetes. According to Boston University’s The Synesthesia Project, synesthetes almost never consider that their perceptions might be unique until they realize that there’s a discrepancy between their experiences and their peers.

Around the time that Melia discovered she was a synesthete, she was in a chemistry class and trying to keep up in her extremely competitive Silicon Valley high school. After discovering that she had synesthesia, she looked for ways to use it. Soon, elements and chemical compounds became blocks of color. NaCl, sodium chloride, was green yellow red lightish-yellow, but mainly just green red because those were the capital letters.

She retells with more difficulty the only time she ever remembers cheating on a test. After a particularly stressful week, she had a math test that she didn’t have enough time to prepare for and was panicking. She avoids my eyes as she tells me this story.

“I couldn’t remember the formulas, so I drew little colored dots on my hand. It didn’t work as well as I thought it would. When I see letters, the colors are vivid, but it’s not as effective the other way around. It was more like I remembered that the colors and letters were linked when I looked at the dots, instead of actually seeing the letter when I saw the color. I felt so bad afterwards. I thought I was sick.”

The only other synesthete Melia has ever met was the star flute player in their high school band. The girl heard in her color. She had perfect pitch, and with each distinct note she heard, she saw a differently colored orb-like blob. Melia, always the over-analyzer, tries to piece this out for me.

“I don’t know if her natural perfect pitch helped her develop synesthesia, or if synesthesia helped her develop perfect pitch. I don’t know which one caused the other, or even if there’s a causative relationship. I just think it’d be really cool to listen to music in color.”

“I think it’d be cool to read in color,” I tell her.

She laughs and nods. “That’s fair.”

Other than pneumonic devices and her one-time cheating attempt, Melia doesn’t use her synesthesia as a tool all that often.

“It’s like a party trick. It’s something I could bring up during an icebreaker or get-to-know-you game. I’ve actually written personal statements where I tap into that quality, but that’s about it. I don’t notice it most of the time.”

In truth, synesthesia is everywhere. The Synesthesia Project says that some scientists consider phantom limb as a type of synesthesia. Phantom limb or sensations sometimes occur when one gets a limb amputated. Even after their arm or leg is gone, they can still feel it, experience pain where their limb used to be, and even “move” it. Unlike Melia, whose had her synesthesia since she was born, people with phantom limb develop it later in their life and, with therapy, can overcome it.

The link between taste and smell also seem synesthetic. Our taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. All of the flavors we perceive in a vintage wine, apple pie, or yellow curry are mainly due to the sense of smell. The nerves in our eyes and mouth, not taste buds, are even linked to our sensation of taste when we eat spicy food. Each time I take a bite of a spicy hot chicken wing, I simultaneously experience seemingly unrelated senses, the smell of barbecue, the watery of my eyes, and sensations that create one, unified flavor.

Melia and I have a Star Wars poster on our living room wall. The poster is printed in Technicolor-bright ink, and its graphics appear vintage but I bought it at Target for ten dollars a year ago. It’s the largest poster in Melia’s and my apartment. As I sit talking with Melia, my head tilts to the side, studying the poster.

“So when you see that,” I point and she turns her head with me, “and you see ‘Star Wars’ written on there in red, what does your synesthesia do?”

“I don’t have colorblindness, so if something is written down, I don’t have trouble distinguishing the ink,” she tells me. “But on top of it, almost as a shadow, I see the colors that are associated with my synesthesia.”

I remember once when I was eight or nine (I’m not sure what the context was), my brother mentioned that spoken language is really just sounds. When people speak, all they’re doing is making noises and sound waves with their mouths and vocal chords. There’s no inherent meaning in any of it; we, as people, just attach significance to particular noises. It seems obvious, but this was a revelation for me at the time. Any word is only a word to me because I’ve learned to recognize it as such. When I hear someone say “Laura,” I can only understand that the combination of an “l” sound, with an “o” vowel, followed closely by a hard “r,” and closing with the neutral vowel, “uh,” is referring to me because someone taught that to me. If I heard someone say “hey woman” or another term of address in a foreign language, there would be no meaning, no “Laura.” I’d just hear sounds.

As we look at the Star Wars poster, Melia comments on the atypical font. “You know, out of context, I don’t know if I’d recognize the ‘S’ and ‘T’ as ‘S’ and ‘T,’ but as soon as I realize that that’s what they are, I simultaneously see my colors for ‘S’ and ‘T.’”

I ask Melia if synesthesia has ever brought her anything negative. She thinks about it, collecting her thoughts, before answering.

“You realize how subjective words are when you have synesthesia. Any sensory perception is a very subjective experience. I could say ‘color’ or ‘shape,’ but I don’t even know if you think of the same thing as I think of when I say those words. There are so many different ways of perceiving different qualities in our world that it’s difficult to describe something that, to me, is specific but to someone else is not.”

I immediately think of the way everyone seems to question, at least once in their life, whether people see the same colors. What if my yellow is your blue? And your blue is my white? The thought used to bother me quite a bit. I remember asking my mom about it when I was in eighth grade.

“They know.” “They” meaning scientists. She told me, “They’ve done tests for it before. There are differences between each person, but it’s not a big difference. People might see different shades or tints of the same color, but it would never be a different color entirely.”

My mom’s a scientist, but I’m not sure that she actually read any study on this because to me, Melia’s right. A researcher could run as many tests as he wishes on Melia’s brain and see which sections of her brain are triggered when she sees a letter or number and understand what causes synesthesia and why, but how could he ever know what her synesthesia looks like for her? Questions like this used to drive me crazy. A world in which the understanding of color was up for debate seemed a world that was far too unstable.

And yet, when Melia sees the letter “A,” she sees white-yellow, but she also understands that it’s an “A,” the first letter of the Roman alphabet, just as I understand that an “A” is an “A.” And when Melia sees “Star Wars” written in red, she also sees a handful of other colors, projected on top. I see the same “Star Wars” Melia sees, but I also see the ten dollars I spent on the poster. I see the Ewok my brother bought at Universal Studios when we were kids. I see my father, whose all-time favorite movies are the Star Wars movies. I see him thirty years ago, going to a movie theater to watch A New Hope, and I see a smile on his face because for the first time since he’s moved to America, he finally feels that he, at least a little bit, gets American culture. I see his excitement pulling out our VHS tapes, playing the movies for my brother and me. But I also see, “Star Wars” written in a sans-serif, wide font, printed in a vibrant red.

 

 

BIO

Laura WangLaura Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, studying English, Creative Writing, and Chinese. Laura was an Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates Summer Fellow, in which she worked with the International Writing Program to translate Chinese literature into English. She has participated in readings throughout Iowa City and presented at the Upper Midwest Region Honors Conference, Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities, and the UI Fall Undergraduate Research Festival.

0
Lowther

Selections from 555

by John Lowther

 

*

You know, this stuff you put four drops in a pot with boiling water and feel like a koala bear goin’ wild on drugs.
And even more starkly, there’s a very clear trend in the data, where each step up in waiting time results in a higher risk of death.
It all looks more than a bit scruffy; there is nothing along the road to soothe the eye, no riots of flowers to cheer the heart.

I get off where thought addresses the unthought and articulates itself upon it.
The occasionalist argues that all events are radically independent of one another.

*

Only through communism can we come to experience our bodies again.
Despite the title this is not about finding your soul mate.
The preamble explains why this matters and where this is going.
This is non-reg, but the cops have better shit to worry about, especially when it doesn’t impact the corporati.
Death is a black camel that kneels unbidden at every gate.
Frosties are just corn flakes for people who can’t face reality.
If the tweetstorm is right, this is a pretty grim situation.
The ego is the theology of free enterprise.
All theory of knowledge has sexual connotations.

*

I welcome the dead into my soul.

It uses many of the genre tropes, little kid, estranged family, nobody who believes, creepy house in the woods.
The world is its own best model.
The problem with all of my dreams is that I don’t speak the language.
Here’s some Swiss cheese and some bullets.
Don’t fall in love with yourselves, with the nice time we are having here.
It’s a fast-paced sci-fi trip.
The ride to complete the loop from the mine was on a diesel engine, which blew out lots of debris.

But what about those things out there.

*

A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.
They were too close to the door to close it.
In the back seat was a fur coat, and in the street was blood mixed with car fluid, nail polish, lip gloss, baby booties, a toy piano, condoms, and a collection of music on compact disc by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Vacuous suavity remains the abiding deficiency of self-consciously ‘good’ writing.
One is always responsible for one’s position as a subject.
Thus, by building robots, our intention is to learn something about intelligence, and not so much to build technologically sophisticated robots.

*

Judging from your pictures, you hate facts like poison.
The wind tunnel tells them all the same thing.
Sometimes I text myself a little pick me up.
I like knitted hats and I like vinyl records.
This is the traditional modus operandi of the sophist.
Without judgment, because it is judgment that defeats us.
Please try to stop shaking now and just breathe.
Don’t ever be yourself, it’s the kiss of death.
Let’s talk about spout fluid beds, fundamentals and applications.

Desire is the crucible within which the self is formed.
If you’re on board you’re on board all the way.

 

 

BIO

John LowtherJohn Lowther’s work appears in the Atlanta Poets Group’s anthology, The Lattice Inside (UNO Press, 2012) and in Another South: Experimental Writing in the South (U of Alabama, 2003). Held to the Letter, co-authored with Dana Lisa Young is forthcoming from Lavender Ink in 2015. John also works in video, photography, paint, performance and other mediums as the need arises. He’s writing a dissertation to reimagine psychoanalysis had intersex and transgender lives been taken as foundational for understanding subjective possibility. He blogs as Lowtherpoet at WordPress.

 

 

0

Where Erasers and Wastebaskets and I Am Kept

by Gerard Sarnat

 

I work for two desks.

One overlooks the sea, the other the forest.

The former is Lucite. Uncluttered. It’s all about open water.

The latter’s socked in by zealous woods plus sentimental photo fog.

On holidays overlords undo my chains, force me to go outdoors.

 

 

BIO

gerard SarnatGerard Sarnat is the author of three collections, 2010’s HOMELESS CHRONICLES from Abraham to Burning Man, 2012’s Disputes, and September 2014’s 17s. He is now working on Patriarchs. Harvard and Stanford educated, Gerry’s set up and staffed clinics for the disenfranchised, been a CEO of healthcare organizations and a Stanford professor. For Huffington Post reviews, future reading dates and more, visit Gerard Sarnat.com. His books are available at select bookstores and on Amazon.

0

Ctrl + A

by J Hudson

 

He’d spent the night. She awoke before him and made coffee and toasted an everything bagel for him and was now typing on her laptop at the table.

“What size font should I use for my resume, ten or twelve?”

“It depends, what typeface are you using?” He didn’t look up from his iPad.

“Calibri.”

“Calibri isn’t professional; use eleven point Times New Roman. It’s the generally accepted typeface of business.”

“New Times Romans is boring.”

“It’s Times New Roman and Business is boring. But that’s life.”

“I want to use, Garamond or Calibri. I like the look of those fonts.”

“You mean typeface. When discussing the aesthetics of letters or numbers or punctuation styles, you refer to them as typeface, not fonts. A font is a collection of tools.”

There was a sense of recitation in his definitions of typeface and font. He sounded like a robot parrot. She chuckled and said, “You’re a collection of tools.”

“Really? That’s not funny.”

“You’re not funny.”

“Good come back. I guess that’s why I have a job and you don’t.” He sipped his coffee and went back to reading the Times online.

She hit Ctrl + A and changed everything on the page to Times New Roman. She examined her vitae and then him, lounging on the couch and his white tube socks resting on her glass coffee table. She selected Comic Sans MS from the drop down menu, saved the document, exited the program, closed the lab top and sat back to enjoy her hazelnut coffee.

 

 

BIO

J hudsonJ Hudson is a local food and arts organizer from Akron, Ohio. He is a member of both the Kent Zendo in Kent, Ohio and the First Congregational Church in Hudson, Ohio.

 

 

Photo by Ash Adams Photography

0

I Spy Cameras:
Intriguing Cameras of Intrigue

Story and Photos by Paul Garson – Cameras and documents from the author’s collection

 

francis x bushman

 

Shoot Bullets and Photos

Sometime in 1933 the famous screen actor/director Francis X. Bushman seen here came up with the idea of melding an actual gun with a camera that could shoot bullets as well as still and motion pictures as an aid to law enforcement. The idea was even if the bad guy escaped the bullets, he couldn’t avoid getting his mug shot taken and thus sealing his eventual captured. Something smaller and less noisy was needed by real world spies which prompted inventors around the globe to search for the perfect spy camera. As a result untold variations were created, a few literally shaping the history of nations and wars, cold and hot. As an offshoot, “spy camera” compact design eventually entered the consumer market, some basically toys, others hi-tech wonders. Here are a few from the author’s collection of vintage cameras, but only touching upon the tip of the spy iceberg.

 

TheHitwasit

The HIT – Was It?

If you were a kid growing up in the 1950s and read comic books, you saw an endless flow of ads, small ones, for The Hit…and you just had to have one because it was so “spyish” and cool. Your parents probably tried to explain that it was a toy and you couldn’t photograph a barn door with the Honey-I-Shrunk-a Real-35mm Camera. But no doubt you pressed on as I did until you had one. Okay, so it took 40 years before I added a Hit to my current collection and now you many find many for sale on the Internet, some with their original cases and even film. In any case, The Hit seems to remain on the hit list of spy cameras even if no self-respecting agent would use one.

The Hit was the product of the Tougodo Optical company founded in Japan in 1930 and named as things often were at the time after a military personage, in this case Admiral Tougo of the Japanese Navy. The camera relied on 14x14mm film.

Actually there are several variations of sub-mini 1950s cameras from Japan, the prices ranging from $10- $3,000 depending on their level of rarity. This one cost me $3 at a garage sale.

 

mec 16 camera

MEC-16 SB – History Maker in Miniature

The MEC 16 was produced by Germany’s Feinwerke Technik around 1957-60. This example, an SB was updated in 1960, and gained milestone status as the first TTL Camera (Through the Lens Metering system) by incorporating a Gossen Selenium Exposure Meter in its subminiature design, no mean feat as the camera in closed position measures only 4 x 2.5 x 1.5 inches. It utilizes a high quality Rodenstock f 2 22mm lens, making it one of the fastest subminis ever made. Its “Cats Eye” pupil diaphragm is adjustable f 2.0 to f16 with focal plane shutter speeds from 1/30 sec. to 1/1,000 sec. with a range of focus form 1ft. to infinity. Considered a top of the line “mini,” they are considered rare, prices reaching $250 and beyond.

 

universal 16 mm

Universal Minute 16

Produced apparently for only one year, 1949, it was designed to mimic the shape of a movie-camera. While certainly spyish in appearance and size and all metal in construction, the optical performance of the f6.3-11.0 Anastigmatic fixed-focus lens with a fixed shutter speed of 1/50 second, was mediocre at best. It did sport a pop-up viewfinder, flash synch and provided 14 exposures per magazine. A later version included an f8 lens and a slightly fast single speed of 1/60 second. Boxed sets include the camera, flash and spare bulbs, negative holders, tripod and film and still have good cool factor.

 

mamiya super 16

Mamiya Super 16

Post-war Japan produced a slew of high quality cameras of various formats and sizes. One major company, Mamiya, made 16mm subs from 1949-62 and judged as exceptional in design and performance. This model, appearing in 1959, was its built-in selenium meter is actually larger than the original Mamiya 16 that came without the meter. As far as being “automatic” it was actually a matter turning various dials that provided for a quality image. The lens was either an f2.8-16 25mm with speeds up to 1/200 sec. It was also the first Mamiya 16 with a flash shoe.( I got lucky and found this one for a grand total of $18.10. It pays to stay up to 3 in the morning scouring the Web.)

 

true spy camera

True Spy Camera

Popular with the KBG and other international espionage organizations up until the 1990s when digital took over, the incredible Minox was actually designed and first built in Riga, Latvia, then later in Germany. This example, a Minox-B literally fits in the palm of your hand at least without its various attachments as shown here including flash and binocular mount. Production started in 1958 and ran to 1969 when it was replaced by the improved Minox C, but it never surpassed the popularity of the Minox-B.

The Minox B features a Complan 15 mm f/3.58 4-element lens with shutter speeds of 1/2 – 1/1000 seconds with a focal range from infinity down to eight inches. A special braided metal chain allows for precise distance measurements for documents being photographed. The Minox B is capable of producing up to 50 photos using a single cartridge and still a highly usable camera, film and processing available, though not cheap.

 

norton univex camera

Norton/Univex/Universal Micro-Mini

There are miniature cameras, sub-miniatures and micro-miniatures…all based of course on size and weigh though not necessarily quality of images produced, such is the case of this camera that wore several brand names.

Founded in New York City in January 1933, The Universal Camera Corporation was the brainchild of loan company exec Otto Wolff Githens and his partner, taxicab insurance agent Jacob J. Shapiro, both believing Americans needed a very affordable camera. With that idea in mind, they approached the Norton Laboratories requesting they design a small Bakelite camera, simple to use, and cheap to manufacture. Naturally, seeing a good thing, Norton started selling the camera under their own name. Not giving up, the original Universal company went on to manufacture the Univex Model A themselves as well as several other cameras.

Although most people have no recollection of the camera today, Universal eventually sold more cameras per year than any other company in the world, at least for a time. Keeping to their prime directive of affordability, the Univex Model A sold for 39 cents with over 3 million purchases in the first three years. Boosting the sales was the inexpensive six-exposure rollfilm that was packaged in Belgium and sold for only 10 cents in the United States. 22,000,000 rolls where sold in 1938. However, it was the monopoly on the special Univex film that contributed to the collapse of the company in 1958.

 

micro 16 camera

Whittaker Micro 16

Described as the size of a deck of cards, it was actually much smaller and could be concealed inside a pack of cigarettes, apparently a popular combination with detectives of its day. Using 16mm film via a 24 exposure cartridge, it appeared on the “spy camera” scene in 1946, just after WWII’s end, the design of a Hollywood, CA concern named after its founder, It relied on an achromatic doublet f6.3 lens with fixed focus and a single speed although the aperture could be adjusted for lighting conditions and color film usage via 1:11 (bright), 1:8 (dull), and 1:6.3 (color). Production ended in 1950, a short run for the popular mini that sold for a relatively expensive $30 in the 1940s, about what people were earning on a weekly basis at the time. Today prices range from $25 to several hundred for very rare editions.

 

last camera

In closing, if you’ve got the bug for vintage cameras, small or larger, remember condition, condition, condition….and keep both eyes open on the Web, at garage sales and swap meets. You may just find that treasure. But remember, the value is in the history, the quest and the kinds of cameras that open wide your own apertures of interest. Do your research by surfing the Internet or purchase a couple quality camera collector books as resources. Happy hunting!

 

 

BIO

Paul Garson SelfiePaul Garson is a writer and photographer. He has contributed to many magazines and periodicals, and has published both fiction and nonfiction books as well as written two screenplays that have been produced. He served as a university instructor of composition and writing, as well as a martial arts instructor. His public relations and marketing projects included several for national and multinational companies.

His previous books include Album of the Dead, concerning WWII in Europe, available through Chicago Review Press, and New Images from Nazi Germany available through McFarland & Publishers.

 

STAY IN TOUCH

IN THIS ISSUE