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Perspectives

by Deanna Mobley

 

 

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul.  I wonder how much truth is in that statement.  When I look at my six year-old daughter, her goodness and innocence reflect in her eyes and in her smile.  But when I look at my reflection, at my eyes, all I see is the tired, middle-aged woman I have become.  Time has slipped by, dragging me in its wake.  I feel as if I have accomplished little with my life other than raising my children.  I try too hard to be what everyone else wants, to meet their expectations, and I let my dreams and desires flit away.

Oddly, this is readily apparent each time I ride in the car.  I often drive in silence or listen to an audiobook with my younger daughter.  When my older daughter jumps in after school, she immediately claims the aux cable connected to the stereo.  She fiddles with her phone for a minute and music fills the car.  If my husband drives, he immediately turns on whatever music strikes his fancy.  My older sons were always quick to tune in their music.  I don’t mind most of my family’s music.  Over the years, I have even grown to like some of it.  Yet, sometimes it would be nice if they asked me what I wanted.  The only problem is, I don’t know what I like anymore.

Rediscovering oneself is a difficult task.  I am no longer the shy, awkward teenage girl that I was twenty-five years ago, tormented and teased for my hand-me-down clothing, too scared to stand up for myself.  Nor am I the young mother of twenty years ago, trying to balance an infant and a new pregnancy while working full time.  I have moved past those stages of life, but sometimes I feel as if my identity is still based on my younger selves.  It is time that I start understanding not only who I am now, but also who I want to be.

I like to run.  I started about four years ago as a way to build endurance before my black belt test.  In the winter, I usually run indoors on a treadmill.  I watch a show on my tablet or, more recently, read class assignments.  I prefer to run outside early in the morning.  Few people are out that time of day, and I enjoy the quiet time to reflect on my life.

The path I follow marks the outer edge of a park in the center of my neighborhood.  Early in the morning, the streetlamps cast circles of light on the ground.  Just as I reach the end of one circle, the next one is always there waiting for me, unless of course it’s burned out.  Then I must brave the darkened path, hoping the path is clear of debris waiting to trip me up.

As I reflect on my life and my identity, I feel as if I am running in the dark on a gravel path.  I grope along, relying on the small amount of ambient light to show the way, scurrying from one circle of light to the next.  I am not one to engage in much introspection, especially not for others’ perusal.  I prefer to keep my self-doubts private and unacknowledged while I pretend that all is well.  Yet, writing inspires me to meditate on my failings and on my achievements.

 

A few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit our local art museum with my six year old daughter Khrystalle.  She wanted to play in the hands-on gallery of the art museum, the Experiencenter.  I sought inspiration.   I admire artists’ ability to express their thoughts and feelings through a visual medium, and I hoped that their example would help me to find the words I needed to express my thoughts.

The theme of the Experiencenter was performing arts.  A low wood platform formed a stage against the back wall, and a wooden wall painted to resemble theater curtains was attached to it.  Wooden doors in the center opened or closed to change the stage’s scenery.  Khrystalle rifled through the costumes hanging on hooks near the stage and tried on a burgundy velvet dress with gold trim and laces in the front.  The dress flowed to the floor, and the sleeves were fitted to the elbow and then flared as they reached her hands.  With her hair in a bun, she appeared very elegant.  I told her she looked like Celie from the Castle Glower Series by Jessica Day George.  Khrystalle informed me that she was a queen and handed me a kimono and a scarf to wear.  Then she walked around the stage, lost in an imaginary world, while speaking a quiet monologue.

How easily and confidently she slipped into her chosen role, with little thought for all that was happening around her.  I, on the other hand, felt embarrassed to wear a child’s costume and slipped out of the kimono and scarf as soon as more people entered the area.  As I watched my daughter, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s statement from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.”  I play various roles in my life, depending on the circumstances and the need.  I question whether I am simply a product of my roles or if there is more to me.

 

The lower level of the art museum contains some exhibits depicting African art, as well as Native American and Oceanic art.  Among the displays are a variety of masks.  The masks vary from simple wood masks to the elaborately beaded elephant mask and costume of the Bamileke people.  Many of the masks played vital roles in the cultures’ religious ceremonies.  As I examined the masks, I considered the masks found in our society.  Masks not used for religious purposes but to hide who we truly are.  Maybe we hide behind our makeup or our clothes, or behind our economic status.  I think even the roles we fill can become our masks.  But what are my masks?

I rarely wear makeup, except maybe for a special occasion.  I dress comfortably, usually in jeans and a t-shirt, or a sweater for winter.  I am not hiding behind my clothes or my makeup.  But what about my roles?  Are they my masks?  I submerged myself into my role as a mother for many years.  I was trapped in a box.  I could stretch and feel the sides hemming me in.  Every once in a while I poked my head out, just to see if the world still existed.  For a few short months, I took an art class at a local community college, and I was free.  Then, I didn’t have enough money to continue, and I felt myself slowly sinking back into my box, this time a much smaller box.  I finally broke out of my box by taking martial arts classes and earning a black belt.

Occasionally, I retreat into my role as a karate instructor.  I did this just last week, when my nieces and nephews were visiting at my house.  One of my nephews came into the family room carrying my sheathed sword, saying that it was fake.  I immediately grabbed it and showed him that it was real, not sharpened, but still real enough to injure someone.  Then I talked to him quietly but sternly, just as I do my students that are getting into trouble.  “This is my house,” I told him.  “You may play with the toys, but do not touch the weapons or the computers without permission.  Do you understand?”  He replied, maybe a bit defiantly, “Yes.”  I looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes,ma’am?”  After a moment’s thought, he finally gave me a “Yes, ma’am.”

I wonder who I would be without my masks.  I like to imagine that I am a strong, confident woman, though maybe a little too outspoken at times.  But is that who I really am, or is it just a façade?  Maybe I am really a shy little girl that is too ashamed to admit it.  Some of the words to Delain’s song “My Masquerade” run through my mind:

Take off your mask

The world will see

The freak in you

The freak in me

I am not sure if I want the world to see my true self.  I’m not sure if I want to see my true self.  What if I am not who I think I am?

 

I am looking at things the wrong way.  My perspective is off.  A couple of years ago, I grew frustrated that the toilet in our downstairs bathroom rocked.  I knew if it continued, it would leak and rot the floor.  I called the plumber and arranged an appointment, then I called my husband.  “It doesn’t rock,” he said, “I just used it this morning.”  “Yes, it does,” I insisted.  We argued back and forth, each of us insisting we were right.  When my husband arrived home from worked, he called me into the bathroom and grabbed the sides of the toilet.  “It doesn’t rock,” he repeated.  I grabbed the back and front of the toilet and rocked it.  “Yes, it does,” I said.  We were both right.  The toilet did not rock from side to side, but it did rock front to back.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven R. Covey shares an experience from a business class in college.  The professor passed out to half the class a line drawing of an old woman.  To the other half, he passed out a line drawing of a young woman.  After they looked at the drawings for a while, he showed the class a picture that combined both line drawings.  The half of the class that were given the drawing of the old woman could only see the old woman in the picture, and likewise for those that had the drawing of the young woman.  They argued about what they saw, even going so far as to insinuate the other portion of the class was stupid.  Then someone got up and traced out the woman they saw.  Eventually, each half of the class began to see the picture from the other group’s perspective, but it took work to adjust their viewpoint.  It reminds me of Obi-Wan’s statement to Luke, “So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

At the beginning of this essay, I stated that I felt as if I have accomplished very little other than raising my kids.  That is not entirely true; I looked at my life from only one perspective.  I only saw the toilet that rocked one way or the drawing of the old woman.    When I am honest with myself, I acknowledge that I have accomplished a great deal.  Just helping five kids grow into confident, successful beings is a great accomplishment. However, it is difficult to appreciate the full picture while bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae of living.

At the art museum, Khrystalle and I visited an exhibit on origami.  The last room of the exhibit contained a single large sculpture that initially reminded me of a distorted version of the domed jungle gyms that used to be found on playgrounds.  The sculpture was created from panels of stiff paper, maybe cardboard, riveted together.  From the end, the piece seemed almost like a snake, with undulating curves undulating reaching over my head.  At home, I looked back at a picture of my daughter and me standing in front of the piece. Instead of misshapen playground equipment, I saw wings spreading out to either side of us, as if we turned into a bird soaring through the sky.  Because I initially focused only on the details of the sculpture, I failed to recognize the beauty of the piece, just as I am unable to appreciate my life when I focus only on the parts.  I write about looking behind my roles and stripping off my masks, but now I realize that they are a part of me, a part of my identity.

 

In the middle of the glass exhibit, a curved metal framework sits on a pedestal.  An obtuse glass triangle, about six inches thick, hangs point down from the framework.    The smooth, clear outer layer of glass provides a window to see the inner beauty, bits of color embedded within.  I still see a tired, middle-aged woman peering out at me from the mirror.  But behind the exhaustion, behind the age, lurks a lifetime of experiences, bits of colored glass that help define who I am.  My experiences, my beliefs and faith, my choices, and my roles and masks work together to form my identity.  When I step back and view the whole picture, I realize that I do know who I am.

 

 

 

BIO

Deanna Mobley is the mother of five children.  She has worked as a karate instructor for five years and is also an independent study student at Brigham Young University.  She plans to eventually write stories and novels for children and young adults.  Aside from writing, Deanna also enjoys reading, knitting, and playing with her family.  This is her first publication.

 

How Author Eddy L. Harris Changed My Life

by Patrick Dobson

 

My favorite travel writer and friend, Eddy L. Harris, wrote books that changed my life. Maybe I read them at the right time or his messages hit me in the heart for who I am. Perhaps parts of his stories resembled my own life’s narrative. I think, at bottom, his writing affected me in these ways and many more.

I first ran into Harris’ second book, Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey into the Heart of Africa, while poking around in the travel narrative section of a book store in Laramie, Wyoming. At the time I attended the University of Wyoming. I took grad school so seriously I contemplated suicide and nearly put myself into the mental hospital. I was only sober a year after having alcohol in my blood constantly for the previous sixteen years. My girlfriend had a baby, my daughter, just three months before I took off for Laramie. And there I was, a single father, baby in Kansas City, son of working-class people who prized a regular job over education, convinced I was a failure before I even started. I was frightened all the time. But I had to prove myself. I sought redemption like starved animals fight for food.

So, I overcompensated. I read hundreds of books for my studies—326, actually. “A” grades weren’t good enough. I needed to shine and I pressed myself. I was not a decent student. Focus escaped me. I gobbled text after text, absorbing vast amounts of information. But I lacked and missed the importance of the contemplative moment, that time when a scholar sits back and thinks about what he or she has read and organize it into a digestible narrative. I was like a library without a filing system.

Along with all the books I read for my studies, I read travel narratives and travel memoirs. I took stacks of them out of the university library. I swallowed them whole, one after the other. I dreamed of far-away places. Bruce Chatwin took me to the Tierra del Fuego and Australia. I learned the beauties of Afghanistan from Robert Byron. Brian Newby ushered me through Waziristan and down the Ganges. I rode the Blue Highways, traveled with Charley, and floated the Missouri River with Apikuni. Paul Theroux, that snotty and dismissive bastard, impressed the hell out of me—and I read all his books.

Then, Eddy Harris took me to Africa. It was a pivotal moment for me. Fear soaked my being. The weight of my dissolute past smothered me. Learning what adults are and what they do proved harder work than anything I’d done before. In Native Stranger, I accompanied Harris as he went from the north coast of the continent to the southern tip. Between these points, he encountered all the heartbreak and love of a place that is not one but many—lands, peoples, and, unfortunately, oppressive regimes. More importantly for me, he showed himself becoming a different, more mature, and loving person.

I burrowed into the library shelves and surfaced with Harris’ first book, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest.  The river intrigued Harris, a St. Louis native, not merely because it was the river of his youth but because it was also the river of his history. He began his trip as the Mississippi does, in the small waters in the north. The river took him into the heart of the South, where black men don’t travel the river, where white men carry guns and grudges deadly to black men. The river, he writes, carries “sins and salvation, dreams and adventure and destiny.” If Harris’ story isn’t about facing fear, doing penance, and seeking oneself, I don’t know what is. And that’s what I thought when I read the first page of Mississippi Solo. This was a book about me

Yes, I understand Eddy is black and I am white. Our upbringings could not have been more distant from one another. Our family pasts were almost opposites. I grew up in the suburbs, Eddy in inner-city St. Louis.  I possessed some advantages that Eddy did not. Eddy grew up in a gentle, loving house. Despite the violence of my childhood and the depth of my despair, I still had the privilege of degrading myself. Eddy’s relationship with his father carried him through difficult and dark moment. I don’t speak to my father. No one ever saw me at night and crossed the street.

I read as much of Harris’ work as I could get my hands on. His books South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery’s Old Back Yard and Still Life in Harlem, speak to me as Native Stranger and Mississippi Solo do. Here is man afraid but courageous, who knows that salvation comes only to those who seek it. They only discover they been saved by hindsight: They were delivered in the moment they stopped seeking and started living.

I’ve been lucky to meet Eddy, and I now associate the writer and his written messages with his personality. He is a good man, a kind soul, and gentle person who knows how to stand up for himself, be assertive, and command attention. He breaks through stereotypes, confounds his critics, and works all the time to remain true to himself. If he is scared, he is also courageous. He’s no one’s patsy. These things, all of them, that attract me to him. I have faith in Eddy Harris and know that his quest is a good one; not just for him, but for me and the rest of us, as well. I can call him a friend.

I am just as guilty as any white person about asking the only black guy in the room about his experience being black. To my knowledge, few Black Americans have asked white people for an all-encompassing assessment of their racial experience. In our first long conversation, I apologized to Eddy about asking the him black-guy questions. I wanted to know about him and how people treated him as a black man. Through the trials and errors of being a well-meaning and basically decent-hearted soul, I learned long ago, back in my drinking days, that a person—white, Black, Indian, Hispanic, Asian—can only tell me their experience and not that of the race. Eddy’s very conscious of being Black. He also doesn’t pretend to speak for Black people. He understands that he shares common racial experience with other Blacks, but he knows and is confident of himself as an individual struggling, working, and trying to make it on his own.

He was very understanding of me when we spoke about his Blackness. He knew that I could never know what it meant to be an outsider, the invisible man. But he entertained my questions and treated me like an equal, another writer seeking experience that would one day affect his writing. He taught me that messages of redemption, fear, sadness, melancholy, and joy, while coded differently along American racial fault lines, are universal. Being Black plays an important role in his writing. His books entail a Black man’s experience. But Eddy’s mastered the storyteller’s art. He relates tales of human emotion. His tales are American stories. That’s why his books say so much to me.

Long before I met Eddy, his writing played an important role in my life. It’s in part due to Eddy that I took off twenty years ago to walk to Helena, Montana, and canoe the Missouri River back to Kansas City. I’ve traveled extensively with my kids with the knowledge that whatever happened to us would bring us a little closer to our own redemptions. Due to his example, I wrote and published two books about my long trip and many shorter pieces about the journeys my kids and I have made. Due to his writing, too, I had the pluck to enter Ph.D. studies when I was 41, and due to his encouragement and goading, I earned that Ph.D. after long years working in other fields and doing dissertation at night when I was 52. I teach now, and often think of Eddy when standing in front of a classroom. Eddy’ example of not letting things bother him before their time has motivated me when I have had the duty and opportunity to speak in front of large crowds. Eddy doesn’t worry. He just gets up and does it. I can’t tell you how often I’ve “Eddy Harrissed” a presentation, interview, talk, or workshop I’ve led. When nervous or upset, I remember Eddy, his steady demeanor, his confidence. I take that on for myself and don’t worry about what the crowds think. I give it my best. That’s all I can do.

Eddy went back to the Mississippi twenty-five years after the journey he wrote about in Mississippi Solo. He rightly believed that his voyage would tell us more about our country, our rivers, and about being Americans. He took a talented people with him on his journey this time, including Emmy-winning cinematographer Neil Rettig, whose work has featured prominently on National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, and BBC. Joining Rettig is Emmy-winning documentary maker Mary Oliver Smith and National Geographic WILD editor, John Freeman. With their help, he produced a full-length feature about how an American man changes with time, how his perspective shifts, and how the people and the country around him transform but remain the same.

I have not seen the documentary but in snippets. Eddy’s attempting to sell the feature to a distribution company or television channel. His efforts on the film have run him to the edge of financial ruin. But he put his money to good use. The excerpts I’ve seen are professional and personal. The experts he employed on the film did their work the best they knew how. Every day, I think, this is the Eddy will sell the film and it will be available to the general public. Perhaps, some of the viewers will learn what I have from Eddy Harris. They will be better people. They will know more after the watch the film who they are, who we are as Americans.

Eddy lives in France these days. He has been able to publish in Europe, in the French language. Years ago, he found that his outlook doesn’t fit the typical Black American narrative American readers have come to expect. His success in France parallels those who have gone before him: Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Like these Black Americans, he finds France a place where he can live outside the American racial experience. He seeks to be read as a writer and not as a Black American or merely as a Black writer.

Not only that, the French celebrate writers. He’s considered somebody because he writes. That’s all any of us can hope for. I keep thinking, well, maybe I should move to France, find myself a small village, and enjoy my status as someone who’s respected because he writes.

Eddy makes frequent trips to the United States. He still has close friends and family in his native St. Louis. He’s done residencies at prestigious universities, most recently William and Mary. He’s made speaking appearances in Kansas City and I’m arranging a workshop for him at the Writers Place, a Kansas City literary arts center. Whenever he’s in the states, he comes to Kansas City to visit me. It’s always a pleasure to have Eddy in my home with my family, for whom he has a great deal of affection. Due to our long acquaintance, he has lost his celebrity sheen with me and become a man, something I think he seeks to be with everyone.

When I think of Eddy, I can’t help but think just how he has changed my life. He encourages my literary efforts more than family, other writers, and my friends. I have the courage now to plant my ass in a chair, remain stoic, and fill the page from top to bottom. I am bold enough now to take the risk and put my writing out there for public consumption and criticism. I am braver and more spirited, not just in my writing life, but in my everyday activities. I am a better person for having Eddy Harris in my life.

 

 

 

BIO

Dr. Patrick Dobson has worked as a journalist, book editor, and union ironworker in Kansas City, MO. The University of Nebraska Press published his two travel memoirs, Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (2009) and Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer (2015). He teaches American History, Latin American History, and Western Civilization at Johnson County Community College in nearby Overland Park, KS. His essays and poems have appeared in New Letters, daCunha, Kansas City Star, Indiana Voice Journal, Garo, JONAHmagazine, and other newspapers and literary magazines. His essays and travel pieces can be viewed at http://patrickdobson.com.

 

 

 

 

BookStop

by Susan Lloy

 

BookStop is a small independent bookstore on the main drag of an Atlantic city. The citizens are proud of it and boost that it is their only haven separate from the other conglomerates. So, when I came to sign copies of my recently published collection, I was looking forward to it. The region is noted not only for its beauty, but also for the warmness of its citizens. Still, little did I know what menace lurked within the confines of the BookStop’s compact rectangular walls?

The day was drizzly and I had consumed many cups of tea prior to my expedition. When I arrived a somewhat friendly attendant greeted me and to our surprise she had recently vacated the city which I inhabit. We discussed the power of the sea and like the tide it pulls you back. She mentioned she was happy to be back in the bosom of her kind.

I was informed they were in possession of three copies. However, the male assistant was only able to locate two. Making light of it, I made a joke and suggested someone must have pinched one. Neither of the two salespersons cracked a smile.

The two copies of my book were finally signed and the female clerk stuck author-signed labels on the front covers. I then did an about face enthusiastically awaiting the eager book browsers. I sold one copy almost immediately, yet, unfortunately the second copy was a harder go. All the while the buckets of morning tea were weighing heavy on my bladder. So as the hour ticked onward I attempted to converse with the staff,

“Gee … this second copy is a lot harder going.”

Not a word was returned and when I asked if I could use the staff bathroom as I was ready to burst, the answer was,

“It’s not for the public!”

 

I had brought along several colored copies of my book review. The review hosted a photograph of myself and generous ins and outs of this christened – successful collection. When a snooty South End lady sauntered in, I inquired if she had an interest in short fiction?

“Why yes.”

Half way down the first paragraph she tossed my review back with disgust.

“The inner lives of the lost, the lonely, and the mentally ill. I don’t think so!”

Another staff member rushed through the door of this tiny shop with a scowl that could strip paint off the wall.

 

She came barging up to the counter and growled that I never OK’d this with the manager. I replied that he had invited me to casually drop in to sign copies.

“YES SIGN NOT PROMOTE.”

“Well, isn’t that what you expect from me? To sell my books for you?”

“NO. We sell the books! If you want to promote you have to rent a room.”

“Yeah, but, there’s only one book here.”

I left with my full bladder thinking that BookStop is aptly named. These handlers of words and slayers of hearts don’t respect authors and will stop a book dead in its tracks.

“Oh hear ye fellow authors. Beware!”

 

 

BIO

Susan E Lloy has published extensively in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and the United Kingdom. A writer of short fiction her short story collection, But When We Look Closer, was recently published by Now Or Never Publishing. Her forthcoming collection, Vita, will be released April 2019. Susan lives in Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW

by Linda Leigh

 

 

In April 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago). Unfortunately, I developed breast and lymph node cancer which I called The Blimp. School started in August, so I put off going until my treatments with chemo and radiation were complete. The school was very accommodating with this arrangement.

When 2014 rolled in I was ready to begin my life in the windy city of Chicago, and really excited about beginning a new and adventurous life. I started having large yard sales and sold most of my worldly goods and the rest went into storage. I said my goodbyes to apartment, family, friends and my cat Isabella, whom I raised from a kitten and thought was going to a good home (more about that later). After my train trip to Chicago I found a place to stay while I took care of my paper work at the school. Everything was verified that I was indeed ready to start the following week. Then a snag came the very next day. I was texted to come to the school immediately. It was discovered that my high school transcript did not have my graduation date on it and I was told without that document I could not attend. Unfortunately my high school in New York is now defunct, and the school now has an office for graduates to call and request their transcripts. At this time the school was closed and would not be open until September. Also the office would have to request info from the state to get that information for me.

Needless to say I am now homeless. Now I live in the elements. What does that mean when you don’t have immediate housing and may have to live on the streets? Actually, when I was asked by my granddaughter if I was homeless I looked at my daughter who was about to cry and said, no, I live in the elements. I then asked my daughter if this sounded better? She replied, yes. The journey will be memorable from how I got here to wherever it takes me.  Family and friends do not keep in touch nor have they come to visit. Lots to think about. But I am a very resourceful person and will definitely make the most of the situation I find myself in.  I will dance through these mirrors and windows and come through stronger and more informed.

•  •  •

A  Good Day

As I listen to a young girl’s poem or spoken word about how she got over her depression, and it being a good day, I thought back to a time that I rarely talk about — the moment I had a dark day.  Although I have never gone to the point of harming or killing myself, I do remember back in the fall of 2012 when I fell into a dark hole and could not climb out.  I actually sought help at a facility in downtown Los Angeles that a friend had recommended.  They had me do different tests and some talking and found that I was basically okay — nothing more, nothing less. But I knew it was something.

I remember it was a Tuesday in November I decided I would Love my depression, yes, I said love it like I did chocolate or a friend or a lover. When it descended upon me I told it, good to have you.  I love you, thank you for being here.  After taking a shower and getting dressed for class I walked to the door and could not open it to go out. I walked back into my room, got into bed and said, I love not having to go out, and I love you warm, cozy bed with my covers and sheets and pillows, thank you, I love being here.

I thanked my apartment and rejoiced in the fact I was in a dark hole loving it as much as I could. And finally one day after two months of this madness I realized it was gone almost as quickly as it came and that was a very Good Day.

•  •  •

Women in the Down Below settle their disputes by being overly aggressive, loud, and squabbling up in each other’s faces.  They put hands on one another.

In the Up Above angry bursts are not as confrontational but are settled by nippy, hurtful and sarcastic statements.

I listened to two young women while I was waiting for my train to arrive.  The women were both Asian and a Caucasian man.  They started talking about a co-worker who had cut and colored her hair.  Their conversation went like this “Did you see her new do?”  Asked one of the women.  The other replied,” Yes, and she was so proud of it.” First woman: “I know. I didn’t know what to say.  So I said, you got your hair cut.  I just couldn’t tell her how bad the color and cut was.” “I know,” replies second woman, “she was so enthused and happy about her hair.”  They giggled and seemed to be enjoying the moment in all its dishonesty.  I watched them and listened intently to them the whole time not caring if they noticed me watching them. I thought, what a sham.

In the Down Below, people are more intense, their anger is explosive but they are very honest in their opinions.  They may be quick to strike out at anyone at any time. At the same time there is so much more living than I’ve ever seen clothes, food, advice to get help and services.  Everyone seems to have a hustle; selling one cigarette for fifty cents, clothing they may have gotten for free goes for one dollar or more; candy and sunglasses even food … Cooking in covered and uncovered skillets. The side of buildings are used without thought for a bathroom while drugs are peddled freely on almost every corner and in front of buildings including the Police station. And trust me, no one does anything about it.

Everyone has a story, some are more horrifying than others. Like the women who’ve told me about their mothers and/or fathers that molested them as children, then put them on the street at eleven years of age for prostitution or the mother that gave her daughter up because she was too dark. All types of people live on Skid Row — educated college professors, business persons, chefs, lawyers, accountants, singers, actors, and of course the Vets, as well as the less educated or non-educated.

At the URM (Union Rescue Mission) where I now reside, I am treated with respect by the other women and the director. Actually, she did something for me she never did for anyone else. I had some boxes that needed to go into storage, and she let me leave them in her office and she personally put them in storage for me.  The women who ran the storage area also made sure my things were not rummaged through, and because my hair was starting to grow back from the chemo they would call me Mrs. Cosby (because of the color). I sleep on the fourth floor. It is like a large dormitory for women, about one hundred fifty, and you are assigned a bed which you get to sleep in every night if you follow the rules.  At night I had women who would ask to sit on my bed and tell me stories about how they were treated as children. Like the mothers and fathers who raped them at very young ages and then put them on the streets to sell themselves at eleven so their parents could have money for the Candy Man.  This revelation was shocking for me because I grew up in a very loving neighborhood where the children were monitored and loved. So this information was new and I began to look at black people in a different awareness always thinking we as a people would never treat our children with little or no respect or regard for their welfare. Another woman revealed to me that she was given up at birth because she was born too dark to a mother that was very fair and had three children before her that were the same color as her mother.  She told me how they were reunited when their mother was dying and asked her to help with the funeral cost and for her church to bury her mother.  And she did even though they, her siblings never communicated with her except at this time.

This is a humorous event that took place at URM, I think so anyway. A young woman comes in and announces she is going on a date with a gentleman she just met and who is really fine, well-mannered and dresses really nice. This young woman is getting ready for her big hot date. She puts on a beautiful frock (the women here have great taste and are very fashionable) and stilettos — yes, they do wear them in The Down below. Her face is made up to perfection, as well as her hair, set in long waves that cover her back, looking like a movie star. She adds one final touch, some bling earrings that dazzle and blind the eyes, then picks up her purse and exits the room. To our amazement, and it’s only been one hour, she is back at the URM taking her shoes off. A friend of hers asks what happened? The young woman starts to tell us that this guy gave her his address, and as she is walking by the tents on Skid Row, she finds it. A Tent, she exclaims, with an address and he is there waiting for her.  With a flourish, he flips open the flap and invites her in where to her amazement are two lawn chairs which she commences to sit on.  She notices that he has two coolers. He asks, “would you like something to drink?” She replies, “yes.”  He opens a cooler with drinks and offers her one which he opens and gives to her.  He then asks her ,“are you ready for dinner?” She hesitantly says yes again, and he opens the other cooler and offers her a sandwich (I don’t know what kind because she never says.) So she eats and drinks and thanks him for a lovely evening and leaves soon after.  After she has lamented about her tale of events she exclaims, at least he lives in a luxury tent and not a pup tent.

There is a white woman that lives on the streets and comes to the DWC called the Judge.  She is filthy and is foul smelling and even more foul with her mouth and manners.  When she enters the building the woman in charge of showers that day immediately takes her and allows her to have an emergency shower.  The shower monitor then rummages through the bins of clothing donations and finds her decent clothes to put on so she is ready to have breakfast.  This woman I am told was once a judge in New York and that someone had killed her whole family while she watched, and then they raped her and left.  I often wonder what she had done to make someone that crazy to do that to her.  I see her all the time now and she looks worse than when I first saw her, almost sickly.

Another white woman that comes in is from a very wealthy family. Being here is an eye opener to say the least, everything takes longer to get done, whether it is housing, medical, or transportation etc.

•  •  •

I am really tired today. I was up at four o’clock this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but now it is five-thirty.  I take a shower, which I do every morning and evening, especially down here. The filth is so appalling that I feel grimy from walking in the streets of downtown. It’s like if I don’t get that energy off of me I will drown in it.

I am dressed and skipping out the door to the Downtown Women’s Center where I volunteer cooking for over one hundred and fifty women, and I can boil three hundred eggs perfectly with a golden yolk. Actually I went through their Set to Bake program. A group of us baked the goods that went into the DWC’s café.  The program got cancelled and Chef Carlos, told Miss Faye, the director of the day center, that he wanted Theresa, Briana and I to work with him.  When breakfast is over I will catch the bus to The Up Above, Alhambra is where I used to live before coming down here.  I will put some items in my storage so my room at the Russ won’t be overcrowded.  I try to keep things minimal, so far good job.

It is November the weather is still warm on my way home from the DWC.  I can’t believe how time has flown. There is a wedding taking place this evening at the San Julian Park. The cleaning crew has been here all day preparing the park for this momentous occasion.  I guess when you are in a community it can become your home.  My understanding is that the bride and groom met here on Skid Row.

It is seven o’clock at night, the festivities are about to start. I am watching out of the bathroom window of the second floor. A real minister is going to perform the ceremony and the guests are strutting into the park and take their seats at tables set up for this special day.  The groom has arrived with his best man, and the music has started playing. It is soft and mellow.  A songstress steps up to the stage to sing. She has a beautiful voice, full and rich.  The song ends and a pause is felt and walking music for the bridal party begins, six bridesmaids with escorts approach, very elegant.  I wish I had a camera, no one would believe this.  Oh, how sweet, two flower girls with a ring bearer come forward.  A long dramatic pause as the bride arrives and makes a spectacular entrance on the arm of a fine looking older gentleman. It could be her father, uncle, brother, or could be a friend.  Does not matter she is glowing and exquisite — yes exquisite.  It is nearing the end of the ceremony. Bride and groom exchange vows and kiss… The food is catered and smells delicious. The band is setting up, yes, a real band. The party is about to begin.  I whisper to the couple, may God bless you and may your marriage be strong especially in the Down Below. All I can say is this bride has marvelous taste.

•  •  •

This morning I got myself ready — went to the beach. While there I studied for the Food Handling test that was to take place later this week.  It is warmer than I thought it would be.  I saw a beach chair by itself and took it.  The owner, an older woman in her eighties, came back and claimed it. She was really miffed.  I laughed to myself. I knew it was wrong to take that chair.  Saw a sea lion and heard its cries.  Were the waves too harsh?

•  •  •

It is Saturday, February 28, 2015.  This is the last day of the month. This is my six month anniversary for being in the down below.  Still waiting for housing I was promised to move from the Russ to the Rosslyn Hotel.  Leslie, the SRO coordinator, told me that I am moving on January 23.  She informed me that my background check had been lost and they have to submit a new one.  I have waited three more weeks and now it is February 24. Finally, I have met with the  Housing Authority and I am told everything looks good.

I cannot believe that I have been living in the Down Below for two years, so much has happened in a short span of time. People come and go like soft waves, whispering as they touch the sand on the beach, or the touch of fingertips that barely meet.  Here in the Down Below life appears to be tenuous at best. I have my apartment at the Rosslyn Hotel. It was such a big deal to move in here and it turns out not so big.

Walking the downtown section of Los Angeles CA, from Fifth and Main streets to Fifth and San Pedro, can be an experience unto itself which I try to do very Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my trek to the L.A.M.P. On any given day the streets from San Julian to San Pedro can be clean or littered with garbage, urine and or excrement and the odor can knock you into space. Hell you might even see a person you thought was asleep but was really dead.  Sometimes the streets are overcrowded with tents with more women and families are moving in every day and Asians soon will be the new majority in the Down Below.

•  •  •

This morning my sister-in-law Nellie, died from a rare form of cancer, she was sixty-four years of age.  She leaves behind my brother, her husband Albert g. Leigh III, her son Albert G. Leigh IV, his wife Olga and their three children Dyanna, Albert G. Leigh V and Peter. Christina Leigh Rueckner her daughter, and her husband Franz their two children Karsten and Liezel and her youngest son Brian Leigh, his wife Charlotte and their two children Tatiana and Tyler

When my father Albert G. Leigh, Jr.  made his transion, his six children realized we were now the front line — meaning, the next to go.  We also speculated on what would happen if one of us made our transition.  And what it would feel like.  Never did Nellie cross our minds. She was not even on the radar.  She being always healthy and in control. it took all of us by surprise.  How appropriate (relevant) she left on Valentine’s Day with her loving family surrounding her.  Good bye Nellie you are much loved and in our hearts you remain.

My heart is sad.
I missed you before you even took flight.
I knew it was inevitable,
But I prayed for a miracle.
But the heavens wanted you more.
Your job for now was through maybe a lesson or two.
You have made me wake-up to the fact that
tomorrow is now.
Living in the moment and doing what is needed for
me right now—not then, not later.

•  •  •

                                          Nellie
My heart is sad
            I missed you, before you even took flight.
                        I
                                    Knew it was inevitable.
            I prayed for a
Miracle.
                        But the heavens wanted you
                                    more.
            Your job,  for now is through.
Maybe,
                        a lesson too.
            You
                        made me wake up to the
                                    fact
            that tomorrow is
                                    now.
                        Living in the moment
            doing
                        what is needed
                                    right now
and
            Certainly not later.

(poem done two different ways)

 

For the past three weeks I have been sick with a bladder infection. The first two weeks I had no idea what I had.  Week one could not get out of bed, and the mere energy of the television made me weak as if my energy was being pulled through it.  My favorite shows on PBS are the mysteries and they were a no go.  Very interesting those electrical currents from the television and what they can do to you.  The second week I thought I had contracted African trymarosamiasis.  I somehow mustered up all my strength and dragged myself to see the doctor and found out I had, a bladder and intestinal infection.  Antibiotics were prescribed and the infection cleared up.  I could not even visit the L.A.M.P. and work on my projects which is where I had my first attack of being sick.  The second attack occurred at the Star Apartments’ art show.  Interesting, in this condition I could not see anything surrounding me in this environment — not clutter, dirt, grime or the people piled up in their tents. They are all a blur on my lenses.

In my listless state of consciousness all I thought about was what is really important to me and realized I really wanted to teach meditation. o I proposed this idea to Hayk at the L.A.M.P. and to La Shalle at the Rosslyn where I live. Both classes are scheduled to start very soon. I have recovered from and have a clearer vision and more vitality to do this work.  I am encouraged to move forward and to perform the Forgiveness Meditations to the Earth at the beach.  I have schedule one for the 26th of June at nine o’clock in the morning. Posted it on Facebook. I’ll see what happens.  I am really looking forward to this event.

•  •  •

Another thing that has taken place in my coma-like-state is that I realize my family has never supported me in my endeavors, although I have been there for them.  I am the constant one that makes arrangements to go to everything, including things that their friends might be involved in.  Well, I vowed that I would not attend my sister’s birthday party since she has not come to visit me — not one time.

Saturday, June 18, has arrived. I’m going to the party dressed and heading out the door to catch the Gold Line to Pasadena.  It is somewhat overcast today but warm.  I arrive in Pasadena. It is sprinkling. I’m cheered up even more.  My sister sent Uber to pick me up. We make it to Altadena and it is raining. She lives next to the mountains.  I walk into her house and the setup is magnificent, and my niece has catered the event.  There are so many people I haven’t seen in twenty to thirty years, and they had their children and grandchildren with them.  I had the best time. I am glad I did not sit this one out being stubborn and missing this glorious day.  There were tents set up in case the sun was beaming on us.  It turned out very useful for all this rain.  A trio played music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. People danced while the children got in the pool on huge swans and flamingos floats.  Close to two hundred people came to wish Gloria a happy birthday.  It really shows how much love she has given over the years to so many people.  Thank you for a wonderful day and evening.

•  •  •

Another busy day.  Arrived at the doctors’ office at 7:35 this morning. I hope to be out of here by eleven I have a poetry class in the building next door.  It is now 8:30. I came early because if you don’t you may never be seen by the doctor.  So many people in the waiting room, which is too small for the amount that are here today.  Oh, God, kids are crying and cell phones blare their crazy obnoxious sounds.  There’s a sign that says, no cell phones — turn them off. Otherwise, you have loud and argumentative conversations clamoring all over the room, especially here in the Down below.

Finally, numbers are being called. Oh, yes, you are given a number in order to be checked in.  Of course someone will come and get you take your vitals.  Hoping my weight reflects how my clothes are fitting a lot looser.  It is nine o’clock and I am still sitting, waiting, hoping I am out by eleven. I will be fine. Cheeze they have only called one person’s number and I am number 13.

•  •  •

On July 4, 2016, I awaken several times during the night. Damn those folks with their fireworks. Wasn’t it enough that City Hall had a big splash?  I tried going back to sleep and awoke at 8:30am.  I am late. wanted to leave house at 7:00am to go to the beach.

Oh well, slow start should I go or should I stay?  That is the question. Go get ready open the door step into hallway.  Door closes and locks. That settles it. I make way to the elevator today. It is the express, no stops to other floors.  I have to get out of Down Below, it’s smothering. Up Above is cleaner and cooler.  I make my way to Metro 7th street station and find I have to wait twenty-two minutes for Santa Monica train, and this is not even the weekend. It is 10:00am, and wait, oh good, they are changing the Long Beach train and changing it to Santa Monica, now all those people have to leave the train. Too Bad.

How am I feeling? Not sure I am ready for this. Great, a young black man is arguing with his sister on his cell phone … who wants to hear this crap? Not me! Who cares? He doesn’t have a car and wants someone to watch his children, and man, is he giving this person hell.  Thank God, he and his girlfriend finally depart and it is QUIET!

Okay, here you are — end of the line — Santa Monica Pier. New question: Do I stay here, or catch the 534 bus to Will Rogers Beach? Okay, stay — experience something new in this part of the world. Found a spot to enjoy my time here.

Wow, it’s getting crowded already. Did I make the right choice?  I am finding I do not want to be around a lot of people today, and it seems they are all in this one space near me.  This is a big piece of seashore, why are they converging here?  I am trying to relax and enjoy this moment, but it is busy here. A Mexican woman, brightly dressed, shouts in a  sing song voice — Mango, Mango. Oh man, another vendor, this time it’s a man shouting buy his umbrellas and beach pails and small surfer boards.

What time is it — can I really stomach this?  Relax and breath, that is what I tell myself. At least you are not sitting in that heavy energy in the Down Below.  What’s going on with you? I have to ask. Reflect on what you are feeling. Do you feel like your space has been invaded? I chuckle. Okay, look at all the people arriving now.  Wow, the waves are bigger and people are having fun and enjoying the waves thundering over them, laughing.  The children’s laughter washes over me like the waves they gleefully jump into.

I notice this woman whom I saw earlier with her partner.  The toddler with her is tentative going into the water. She gently leads him in and smiles.  I watch. She is heavy in weight with many tattoos.  Earlier I think, did I judge her? I watch her now and feeling much emotion that the people here are just in the moment not caring about what the television or other media say they should look like or be.  Somewhere deep I feel a connection with humanity so profound it moves me to write, least I lose this ennui.  How beautiful we are when for a few precious moments on, one is thinking about how we are big booty and bust; at this time with the waves thundering against their wonderful bodies they are in the thrill of the moment. I need to get away from the Down Below more often. The reflection they generate is not full and complete. Ha ha, my imposed deadline to leave the beach at 12:00pm has now come and gone.  I am more relaxed now and not ready to leave.

I walk on the sand, happy that the sun is not bearing down and scorching the earth. I walk-on.  Actually, feels kind of cool.  On the train ride back I watch my thoughts and I really don’t want anyone sitting next to me, so I scoot my bag over just enough to make it uncomfortable for someone to sit. Space issue again?  Finally arrive at 7th street. Why am I rushing almost like? (Need to find word).

Trying to get home out of the streets of the Down Below.  Hush, hush, your minds take your time breath.  I noticed the streets are cleaner; what, no urine smell? I glide, taking in my environment.  Today is a good day.  There is peace inside of me.  Lunch is calling what should I eat.

 

Children run to
Thundering waves
Their laughter and the sound of the surf
Are One

•  •  •

Children rush to the water
            Thundering
         Waves washes over their
            Bodies
         Resounding laughter mingles
            Laughter
         Rushing sounds of the waves
         children’s voices become one
            and
         there is tranquility
         inside of me

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Leigh was born in Queens, New York. She enjoys creative writing and poetry. Ms. Leigh now resides in Los Angeles and is an accomplished artist, her works are displayed throughout California. She is also very involved in Social Justice in her community.

 

 

 

 

 

—————————————————————————————————————————

NEW SERIES FROM

The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Ivy Pochoda Introduction

 

In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.

 

Our first piece from the Skid Row Zine writers group:

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh

 

Ghost Girl

by Emmie Barron

 

 

Do you ever have those moments when you wish you could freeze time, if only for a little while? Moments when you just feel so completely happy and secure and whole? These moments come and go for me; what comes in between are raging storms, storms with a numbing chill that destroy me from within.

There are days I can’t get out of bed. I’m irritable and empty. My dirty laundry sits in a heap on the floor, and my garbage reeks from the takeout that’s been sitting in it for days. My body has no energy, no purpose. In my moments of clarity, however, I finish my homework, clean my room, update my family on my life–all things I should be doing everyday, or, at least, more often than I do.

My family doctor first diagnosed me with major depressive disorder around December of my sophomore year of high school, the year I lost thirty pounds in the span of a month. Busy with their own lives, my friends didn’t notice I only ate two carrots for lunch. They also didn’t notice when I left the lunch table early, without a word, and sat in the bathroom for twenty minutes. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

“I want you to take ten milligrams of Lexapro every night before going to bed,” my doctor had told me, putting me on my first antidepressant. “You may experience some side effects, such as increased tiredness, dizziness, or headaches. This is just your body adjusting to the medication. If it doesn’t go away, please give me a call.”

In March of my sophomore year, I told my mom I wanted to kill myself. That was only the beginning of a downward spiral.

“Oh, Sweetie,” my mom said, frowning, looking up at me from her iPad that probably had Facebook pulled up on it. “Don’t say that.”

My family didn’t understand. They tried to, though. My dad had a lot of social anxiety as a kid, and he always told me stories about how he wasn’t one to go to parties and would rather be alone in his room, listening to music. He tried to relate his own experiences to mine, which I always appreciated, but it’s impossible to understand what depression feels like unless the person has firsthand experience.

Sometimes I’d get into a depressive episode and remain in bed all day, not even getting up to eat. My room always looked like a tornado came through–dirty clothes littered the floor because I couldn’t even muster the energy to throw them down the laundry chute. I didn’t even bother making a path out of my clothes, electronics, and art supplies to get to my bed; I just stepped on my belongings in the hopes that I wouldn’t break anything.

My walls were covered top to bottom in random shit I’d collected since middle school, including posters of different bands, drawings I’d done, and a giant tapestry of New York City. I stared at the tapestry often, imagining what it’d be like to live there. I’d wanted to write books ever since I became an avid reader in fourth grade, and my dream had always been to be a famous, successful author. Writing was an escape of mine, along with art and skating.

When I was motivated, I occasionally worked on my artwork or writing. I had too many works-in-progresses to possibly choose one to finish, so I usually just started new stories and drawings. I’d done watercolor paintings since I was ten, but lately I was getting into pencil-drawing portraits. The few that I actually finished and didn’t hate were randomly pinned to the walls of my bedroom; the rest were scattered across my floor. My writing stayed on my laptop–I didn’t even let my closest friends see any of the stories I’d start to write and then abandon.

Sometimes during my depressive episodes, my brother, Ethan, would peek his head into my room, saying, “Gem. Dinner’s ready” or “Gem. Wanna watch a movie?” Sometimes, he would just come in, fart, and leave. I drew little caricatures of him, with giant fart clouds coming from his butt.

My mom and Ethan were similar in the sense that, to them, depression was this daunting presence far off in the distance. It was something they knew existed, but that was about it. It was scary and alien to them. They were the type to always be cheerful, and when they got in a bad mood, they could just snap out of it. It was rare to see my mom crabby.

My dad and I, however, seemed to be constantly battling our inner demons, though mine were much different from his. I never really understood what inner turmoil plagued my dad; I only knew it wasn’t quite depression.

I tried to explain how I felt to my family, but it was difficult. How could I explain feeling everything and nothing at the same time? It felt as though no one could ever possibly understand. I needed someone to know how much I was hurting, though, because I couldn’t describe it, or maybe I kind of didn’t want to. I thought I was a burden, as if my problems weren’t significant enough. My parents didn’t help when they’d condescendingly say, “Oh, Gemma, your life isn’t bad. There’re people that have it much worse.”

Contrary to popular belief, people with depression aren’t constantly depressed and don’t walk around with our symptoms on display. We laugh. We perform well in school. We crack jokes. We participate in extracurriculars.

We’re coping.

Going into my senior year of high school, I felt secure. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but enough, and I got involved in clubs and activities. Being one of the only graduating students on my figure skating team, I got more ice time at competitions. There was something about being out on the ice alone that helped me forget about everything else. It made me feel alive. Skating was one of my solaces, and I was happy enough.

“One more year,” my parents would say, because they knew I needed to get out of Gladstone, a town of 5,000 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was pretty sure most people who lived there were delusional. It was the only explanation as to why so many adults in their twenties, thirties, and even forties cared so much about high school football. Plus, Gladstone seemed to produce a lot of racists. It was a town that praised Donald Trump and called gay people “faggots” as if they didn’t realize people who aren’t straight and white still deserve basic human rights. Most people who grew up in Gladstone never left, or if they did, they ended up coming right back.

On my first day of senior year, I curled my long, black hair to frame my apple-shaped face. I played with makeup a lot over the summer, having finally gotten my horrible acne under control. My eyebrows were filled in and my wings were pointed to perfection. My skinny 5’2 frame that had been recovering from my eating disorder was now filled out more. I could almost properly fit into cute dresses that desperately clung to my small but actually existent boobs.

It was a tradition in my family to get a photo of my brother and me on our way out of the front door on our first day of school, but this year it was only me; my brother, Ethan, who looked absolutely nothing like me, with his short blond hair, husky build, and long, straight nose, was sleeping in; his community college classes didn’t start until later. As we got older, our pictures changed along with our physical similarities: we went from hugging, to holding hands, to smiling and standing apart, to not even smiling.

That day, I smiled, while my mom cooed, “Gemma, you look so cute! Is it okay if I post this one to Facebook? Your aunt would love to see it. You’re gonna have such a good year. I just know it.”

My mom and I looked very similar, save for her bobbed brown hair. Our personalities were starkly different, however; I was quiet, reserved, and overthought everything, while my mom was loud and confident.

I thought I was doing okay. Getting out of bed wasn’t a huge challenge; I was eating full meals and hanging out with my friends and feeling whole. I thought this was my moment of clarity.

On Friday, October fifth, a shift occurred. It was silent but heavy and unexpected.

I went to the homecoming dance, the only one in my group without a date. My hairdresser gave me an intricate updo she claimed made me look like “a college girl,” and I did my makeup more dramatic than usual. My thighs and butt were strong from figure skating, so I wore a tight, black two-piece dress that revealed my belly button piercing.

“Hurry up,” my brother said through a fake smile as my mom snapped pictures of us together. My mom said it’d be nice to get some pictures of the two of us before I went off to college, although I hadn’t even applied anywhere yet. She and my dad had high expectations for me.

I drove myself to dinner. My friends and I ate at a small family restaurant.

“Gem, you look so good!” my friend, Jane, cried when I walked inside.

“Thanks. So do you,” I responded with a smile.

Jane was there with her boyfriend, Logan. Jane had been my friend since before I was in preschool. She was a small thing with flawless, pale skin, a tiny bird-like nose, and huge brown eyes that made it seem like she was constantly looking into your soul. Her brown hair was cut in a pixie-style, and she wore a vintage-looking lace dress. Jane was smarter than most people at our school, and she knew it. Logan was a small yet muscular guy with shaggy brown hair and bad acne. We were all in the same calculus class.

My other friend, Amanda, was also there with her boyfriend, Josh. Amanda and I went way back, too. She was the heaviest of the three of our small group, but arguably perhaps the prettiest, having long, blonde hair and striking blue eyes. She bounced from boy to boy, each one shittier than the last. I’d advise her not to talk to a guy, that he was only going to hurt her, but she’d ignore me, and I’d wait with an available shoulder for her to cry on when her relationship with the jerk would inevitably implode. It was a familiar cycle. In secret, Jane and I talked about how neither of us liked Amanda’s current boyfriend.

My friends were safe. They weren’t anyone I needed in my life, especially not at that time, but I got comfortable. Making friends wasn’t something I was good at.

When the waitress came to take our order, I said, “I’ll have the grilled chicken salad with Italian dressing on the side.”

“You need to order a burger, Gem. Put some skin on those bones!” Amanda joked. “You’re so skinny.”

“I don’t wanna be bloated later.” I forced a laugh, pointing to my exposed belly. To be fair, my friends didn’t know that I was in recovery from anorexia. Whenever someone joked about my weight, I just laughed. What else could I do?

“Gem, remember that time…” Jane started, but had to stop because she was laughing too hard to get her words out. “Remember…when we went to the buildings and you painted ‘ass juice’ all over?”

“Yes! Wow.” I started laughing.

“The buildings” were what we referred to as these abandoned buildings in Gladstone that overlooked Lake Michigan. They used to be offices for an insurance company or something boring like that and had been abandoned since the fifties. Jane, Amanda, and I would go there together in the summer to spray paint profanities in pretty purples and pinks. A lot of the locals would go there to smoke weed or get drunk. A fire pit had actually been moved inside one of the buildings. It was technically trespassing, but the cops never seemed to give a shit. It was amazing the things kids found to do in their free time in a town with no shopping mall and three McDonald’s.

“Remember when I spelled my name wrong?” Amanda said, giggling. Amanda often joked about not being smart. She felt that since Jane and I always got straight A’s and she didn’t, it automatically made her stupid.

“At least you didn’t forget your name one time during roll call,” Logan said. Jane laughed so hard she snorted.

We reminisced about the past summer, ate, chatted about classes, and stressed about college applications. I watched them talk to their boyfriends. The only time Josh acknowledged my presence was when he laughed at my joke about wanting to take shots of bleach instead of going to calc on Monday.

After we finished, I drove myself to the dance. It was held in the small cafeteria of our high school, which consisted of about 500 students. I walked in, paid $10, and immediately smelled B.O. and felt the vibrations of the speakers that blared out overplayed pop music. Uptown Funk, possibly the most annoying song ever created, started playing as I sat down at a table, waiting for my friends and their boyfriends. If you freaky, then own it. Don’t brag about it. Come show me.

I watched bodies gyrate against one another on the makeshift dance floor. Our school wasn’t known for throwing classy dances.

Jane and Logan eventually arrived, sitting across from me.

“Gem, come dance with us!” Jane insisted, trying to pull me up from the table.

Looking out onto the dance floor, I saw Amanda and her notoriously douchey boyfriend grinding against each other. She was screaming along to the song, while Josh’s face was expressionless as he held her ass and danced slightly offbeat. I remained sitting.

During the slow songs (“Bad Day,” “Sorry,” “She Will Be Loved,”) I didn’t get asked to dance despite desperately wanting some rando to come up and awkwardly ask, “Hey, uh, you wanna maybe…dance with me?” and him grabbing my hips too low, swaying to the music as though we actually liked whatever terrible song came on next.

I wanted to be noticed.

It was some weird, perhaps Midwestern, tradition to end every dance with the song “Cotton-Eye Joe.” So, as soon as I heard “If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe” blast through the speakers, I headed straight for the door. My friends were nowhere to be seen–Jane and Logan had presumably left to have romantic car sex, while Amanda and Josh were probably off somewhere breaking up again.

I grabbed my jacket off the coat rack near the entrance. As I was walking outside, the person in front of me let the door slam in my face. Whatever. While zipping my jacket to protect my bare stomach from the chilly U.P. fall air, someone’s shoulder slammed into me. I caught my balance, but my phone slipped out of my pocket and landed face-down on the cement.

The guy who walked right into me didn’t say a word; he kept walking, hand-in-hand with some chick. I didn’t recognize either of them; they were probably underclassmen.

“Great,” I muttered, picking up my phone with a new large crack across the screen. Was I fucking invisible?

Walking to my junky red Pontiac Grand Prix, I blinked back tears. I sat in my car with the radio off for about twenty minutes, staring at nothing, thinking one of my friends would come find me or text me. Nobody did.

The parking lot had mostly cleared out, except for those underclassmen who were still waiting for their parents to come pick them up. I drove off feeling numb. I imagined what it’d be like if I wasn’t me, if I were one of the pretty girls who always got asked to dance and whose friends cared enough about her to send a text, letting her know what they were doing or to see if she was even okay.

I wondered what it’d feel like to be an actual whole human being, not some ghost everyone could walk right through.

When I got home, my parents were already in bed; my brother was probably out somewhere getting trashed with his girlfriend.

I grabbed a Bud Light from Ethan’s secret stash–my first beer–and any pill bottles I owned. It felt weird–I wasn’t hysterical or anything. My eyes were dry; my mind was clear. It was a moment of clarity, a moment when I saw everything as it was. Rather, how I thought it was.

Who needed to learn calculus? Who needed to go to college to get some pointless degree? I didn’t want to get stuck in this cycle of constantly doing what I thought I should be doing, or what my parents wanted me to be doing instead of what I actually wanted to do. How would I ever make it to New York? I was just some Nobody from a town that produced a bunch of other Nobodies. And we all say we’re gonna go on to do great things, but you know what happens four, five years down the road? We end up right back where we started.

I opened the first pill bottle, pouring the contents out onto my bed. Lexipro, ten milligrams. Doing the same with the other bottles, I then counted out all the pills I had: seven Xanax, twelve Lexipro, six Nyquil, and three Vicodin.

My hand trembled as I reached first for the Xanax. I popped one into my mouth, chasing it with the beer. I grimaced at the taste. I swallowed another. Another. I started to swallow a few pills at once until I realized there were no more on my bed.

I wish I knew exactly what I was feeling at this point. Mostly lonely. But, honestly, being alone and feeling alone are two very different things; the only thing worse than being alone is being surrounded by a bunch of people and feeling alone. In a fucked up way, I felt at peace.

Crawling into bed, I pulled my comforter up tight to my neck and stared at the blue ceiling. The intro to Cotton-Eye Joe was still stuck in my head from hearing it at the dance, a strange contrast from I’d just done.

I stared at my New York tapestry for a while, my last thought being, I’ll never make it there, before I eventually drifted off into unconsciousness.

***

I couldn’t open my eyes. I tried, but I was trapped. My mind was fuzzy. Finally my eyes cracked open slightly. Everything was blurry. I couldn’t move, so I just fell back into a sleep-like state.

At about 2:00 P.M. that Saturday I was finally able to get out of bed. My dad was at the papermill because he was on call for work that weekend, and my mom had gone grocery shopping. I didn’t know where my brother was. My vision was still blurry. I stumbled down the stairs and into the living room like a drunk.

Flopping onto the couch, I tried to figure out whether what I was experiencing was real or a dream. My entire body seemed to be shaking. The gravity of what I’d tried to do hadn’t hit me yet.

When my mom came home, she saw me passed out on the couch. “Gem, what do you want me to make for dinner?” she asked, gently nudging me awake.

Seeing the look in my eyes, my mom immediately asked me what was wrong. “Don’t be mad,” I started in a small voice, “but I did something really bad.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I … I took some pills,” I said quietly.

“Your … Lexipro?”

“All of them.”

“What?” My mom was in denial for a little while, but deep down I knew that she knew exactly what I meant.

“And my Xanax.” Seeing the look of horror on her face, I paused. Then, I said in an even smaller voice, “The Vicodin, too. And Nyquil.”

My mom cried a lot that day, but my eyes remained dry.

“You could’ve died,” she half-sobbed, half-scolded me.

“I know.”

By seven o’clock that night, my body had made a relatively full recovery. I still felt numb, but I could see and walk properly. It was as though nothing had even happened.

My dad got home a little while later, and immediately sensed something was wrong. From the living room, where I stared at the TV without actually watching whichever HGTV program was on, I heard my parents whispering about me.

“Are you serious?” my dad yell-whispered to my mom. “Jesus Christ.”

My dad came into the living room a moment later and sat next to me on our squishy leather couch. “Gem…” He sighed and ran a hand through his thin, graying hair. “Gem, why’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.” My dad looked much older than fifty in that moment. His worry lines seemed to be accentuated.

“I … I don’t know.”

“Did you want to kill yourself, Gemma?” he asked.

“Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

I paused before saying, “I mean, yeah. Yes.”

“Gemma, I want you to know how much we love and care about you. I wish you would’ve told us you were feeling bad again.”

“I’m sorry.” I wished I would’ve felt more sorry.

“We’re gonna get in touch with your therapist again,” my dad told me. I hadn’t been to therapy since sophomore year.

“Okay.”

My mom made spaghetti for dinner because she knew that was my favorite. I made an effort to eat to please my mom, but it was as though I couldn’t taste anything.

Ethan got home at around nine. I figured he’d want to play his Xbox on the TV in the living room, so I got up and went downstairs. Our basement was arguably the creepiest place in the house because of the seven mounted deer heads that stared at you with lifeless eyes. I sat on the couch in front of the TV, looking at my reflection in the black screen. My eyes looked almost as lifeless as the deer.

About five minutes later, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Gem, what’re you watching?” Ethan appeared at the bottom of the stairs. He walked over to me and frowned when he saw that I hadn’t even turned the TV on. “Wanna watch a movie?” It’d been awhile since my brother and I hung out. He was almost always with his girlfriend.

I hesitated before saying, “No, that’s okay.”

“Okay, well, Mom doesn’t want you to be alone so I’m either gonna sit here and watch you stare at nothing, or we can watch a movie.” Of course Mom had already told him.

I sighed. “What movie?”

“Star Wars.” He knew I hated those movies.

I laughed for the first time that day. “I’d rather die.”

Ethan looked like I slapped him. “Gem, don’t say that.”

“You always laughed at my jokes about wanting to die before!” I protested.

“It was funny because I thought you had your shit under control,” he said, exasperated. “Now every time you joke about wanting to drink bleach, all we’re gonna think is, ‘Shit, is she actually gonna do it?’ Do you know what it’d do to the family if you killed yourself?”

Stunned, I didn’t respond. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was the closest I’d come to actually feeling something like regret.

Ethan sighed and sat down next to me. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

We both stared silently at our reflections in the black screen. Finally, Ethan broke the silence by asking, “Did you write a note?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “It said, ‘I’m doing this because I hate how many people like Star Wars even though it’s objectively terrible.’”

Ethan laughed and shook his head. “You’re fucked up.”

“Thank you.”

That night we watched stupid comedies on Netflix (Napoleon Dynamite, Superbad, Step Brothers) until about 3:30 A.M.

The next day I slept until noon. After quite a bit of mental motivation, I finally got up and changed into stretchy workout pants and a sweatshirt–my typical practice gear for skating. I grabbed my skates and headed for the door.

“Where’re you going?” my mom asked, stopping me.

“What do you mean? I have practice.”

“Are you sure you don’t wanna text your coach? Tell her you’re not feeling well?” she suggested, furrowing her brow. “I can make you lunch.”

“I feel fine.”

“Gemma.”

Physically fine.” I grabbed my car keys. “Beth said she’s gonna put me on the harness today to practice my axel.” Beth had been my coach for about five years.

My mom sighed. “We need to talk about this later.”

“Talk about my axel?”

“This isn’t funny, Gemma.”

“I’m sorry.” I gave my mom a kiss on the cheek. “Bye.”

Everyone at skating greeted me as though nothing was different, but I’d changed. I smiled half-assedly at my skating friends as I headed for the locker room to put my skates on. Sitting on the wooden bench, I breathed in the stench of sweaty feet and found it oddly comforting, the familiarity of the shitty locker room in our rink that didn’t get nearly enough funding. I wiggled my feet into my skates and laced them up tight.

When I stepped out onto the ice, I could tell the Zamboni must not have been functioning properly again because of all the grooves left from an earlier hockey practice.

Beth skated up to me and said, “Go warm up. I’ll take you after Janel.”

In no mood to form coherent sentences, I nodded and skated off. I warmed up by doing a slow lap around the small rink, the cold air making my eyes water. I gradually picked up speed until other skaters around me were indistinguishable blurs I had to dodge. Tears streamed down my face from the cold that hit me like a slap to the face, but it woke me up.

I sped up, trying to not think about anything and just focus on the burn in my thighs and the air on my face. But as I went faster, the storm did, too, chasing me until all of my shit started to catch up with me. Faster.

I thought about the guys who ignored me at the dance, and instead of being apathetic and empty, I felt a pang in my chest. Faster. I dodged another skater. Faster. The storm finally unleashed its wrath, pouring down over me: My friends who didn’t really care about me that much and my family who just didn’t understand. Faster. And then the fact that I tried to fucking kill myself just to make all of it stop.

I was gasping for breath when I finally came to an abrupt stop, grabbing the edge of the boards to support myself.

I stared at my reflection in the glass; my cheeks were bright red and my hair stuck up all over. My nose was dripping. The tears were no longer just from the cold air hitting them.

I felt guilty and sad and lonely and a million other things, but all that mattered was that I felt alive.

 

 

 

BIO

Emmie Barron is currently a sophomore studying English at the University of Michigan. She has written many fictional short stories, and this is her first publication. She plans to pursue a career in writing. In her free time, she teaches creative writing to children in Detroit through a program called Seven Mile Arts.

 

 

 

 

The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Introduction by Ivy Pochoda

 

 

In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.

 

This is a New Series from the Skid Row Zine Writers Group:

Each issue will feature new work from the group.

This issue features:
UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh

 

 

 

Stitches

by Rick White

 

 

It took me a good twenty or so years to realise that it was a feather duster, the strange alien life-form which lived in my grandmother’s airing cupboard. As a young boy, whenever I walked down the hallway to the bedroom where my grandmother lay, I’d pass the airing cupboard and I always had to stop and look inside. The feather duster I remember was red, or some sort of vivd pink and it moved and pulsated like a weird plant. Its soft, feathery tendrils moved in the convection of the warm air and seemed almost to beckon me in.

And although I was always a bit frightened to look inside that cupboard, I still had to do it every time I walked past. I only thought of it today, decades later, because a huge spider has made it’s home in the compost bin in my garden. Now every time I walk past the bin I have to open the lid and look inside at the miniature forest world, draped and festooned with fine cotton sheets of web. The spider always retreats slowly from my view and I close the lid and walk away.

There are tiny parts of this world which do not belong to us. Miniature worlds within worlds just like my grandmother’s airing cupboard which have been annexed by something other, and in to which we can never truly hope to look. Part of the fabric of our Universe, yet quite entirely apart from it in every way, hidden behind the finest of shrouds. And it freaks me out.

My grandmother was dying, although I didn’t realise it at the time because I didn’t know what dying was. She lay in her pink sheets and blankets in her bed by the window. Her small frame and short curly hair just as light as the feathers on the duster or the spider’s web. She was waiting there to float up from the mattress one day and out of the open window.

“Give me a hug to last until I next see you.” was what she’d always say at the end of my visits. And I would squeeze her tightly, just not so tight that she’d break, and I really believed that the hug would last. Of course she knew that each time might be the last time we’d see each other, but that was not something she wanted me to have to know.

She was my paternal grandmother, my dad’s mum. My father and I have never really spoken about her except for when he told me she was a spiritualist. She believed there was a connection between the realms of the living and the dead, and she believed that this connection could be used to heal.

My dad told me about a dog that wouldn’t stop snapping at its own ear, and my grandmother asking its owner if she knew anyone who had passed over who walked with a cane and smoked a pipe.

“That’s Uncle John.”

“Uncle John – I’m sure you’re very welcome to come and visit any time you like but can you not bring your dog as it’s scaring this one.”

That story gave me chills when I heard it, especially because it was so incongruous with dad’s most pragmatic nature. It seemed so unlike anything he would ever subscribe to that it must be true. I since heard somewhere or other that the whole “don’t bring your dog” trick is bread and butter to anyone wanting to pass themselves off as a Medium. It’s like telling someone in a cold reading that they’ve always wanted to write a novel.

Dad really seemed to believe it though, or maybe he believed it because his mother believed it. Maybe he found it easier to believe that story, than to admit how much he loved and missed his mother. Maybe he clung to it, maybe he needed it.

Not so many years after I heard that story, my younger brother injured himself quite badly while riding a motorbike on holiday with me and my dad. He bit through his lower lip and had to have the wound stitched without any anaesthetic, in case he swallowed his tongue.

Dad sat by my brother’s bed and held his hand while the stitches were being sown and he said that he could feel every last ounce of my brother’s pain. Later, Dad asked my brother if his pain had diminished whilst he was holding his hand, and my brother replied that yes, it was the strangest thing, but it actually had hurt less.

I had sat out in the corridor on my own as all this was taking place and heard my brother’s screams echoing through the hallway. I would suggest that sure enough he’d felt every last stab of that needle, every last tug of that thread and could still feel it later when he was being asked to relive it.

I think he wanted to make my dad feel better. So maybe you can take someone’s pain away if you want to, and if they’re willing to let you.

You just have to believe in the same stories.

You just have to give them a hug to last them.

 

 

 

BIO

Rick White is a writer and debut novelist from Manchester, UK. He currently writes for a number of online magazines including Vice and Drunken Werewolf, as well as his own blog www.badtripe.com. Rick’s first short story was published earlier this year by Storgy Magazine, https://storgy.com. Rick hopes you enjoy reading his work.

 

 

 

An Intercourse with Ghosts

by Anika Gupta

 

 

“Each word in its adult form possesses two sides: it is intelligible on one hand and moving on the other. These two qualities generally depend on each other and are therefore, in this way, contradictory. Furthermore, they are variable, because if the emotion conferred by a word increases, its intelligibility decreases and vice versa.”

– Epstein, La Lyrosophie, pp. 167-168.

*

At age 25, I live in New Delhi in a hopeless apartment. At night, the ceiling in the bathroom flakes away from its beams. In the morning I find slivers of plaster in the sink. The railing that borders the stairs curls upwards like a witch’s fingernail, and on my birthday (I can’t remember which one) the power goes out, so I eat my cake in the dark. My life feels dark and unmoving, like the green water that gathers in potholes in the street, where mosquitoes breed. I dream that I’m somewhere else, doing something else, with someone else. It’s a dream I’ve had for years, and sometimes I don’t know how to separate the dream from my life.

I dream of the future, including grad school. A friend’s cousin agrees to advise me on graduate school applications. Over the course of several weeks, he encourages me to aim high; he believes in my abilities. I write out essays, I try vainly to summarize and justify my life. In the evenings, as New Delhi’s heated rain gives way to dust, I date a few of his friends, but without much success, until one winter evening in Delhi when he invites me to a party at his house. The air is smoggy with the crumbled particulates from a thousand small fires, and the roof of his apartment building is paved flat. When my friend sees me, he asks if I’ve cut my hair. I have, but only by two inches, so instead of saying yes, I say no and look confused, as if to suggest, who told you that?

I scuttle downstairs and into his bedroom, where I find myself enraptured by his bookshelves. Years from now I’ll remember this moment, this spread. I gaze at his books with reverence, respect and avarice. They’re organized, and not by color. By genre, by historical period, by their authors and their essences. He has hundreds of them, possibly more than a thousand, and to me in my early 20s these books feel more like home than any home I’ve ever lived in. I look at his bookshelf and I remember, at age 16, climbing on a step to reach the top shelf in the Rockville Library. I remember tumbling titles out onto the floor, sifting through plastic-wrapped covers. Thinking, oh there you are, friends. Oh, there you are, future.

Everything about his life combines into a pastiche of what people can aspire to: the structure and aesthetics of a particular form of success, of maturity, of forward-moving life. I think about his stable, successful career and his graduate school diploma. I think about the business he moved to New Delhi to start. I think about myself, my life, described by a colleague a as “a startup that has received series A funding.” Make no mistake: she was talking about my dating prospects.

I leave his house feeling hollowed out by longing. Over the next few months I spend hours on graduate school applications for MBA programs in fantastic universities, because this is what I’ve been taught to want. And I do want it, in a sense. What’s the line between what we want and what we’re taught? In between writing out essays on the power of the word in my life, things that will not sway admissions committees for the types of programs I am applying to, I write a series of short notes to my friend. A sample that now makes me cringe: “You’re obviously interesting and smart and I feel like I learn things from talking to you.” After I send it, I feel like I’ve lost a limb, but instead of losing blood, I stare at my computer screen, shedding tears. He replies with an emoticon, but at least it isn’t the winking face. The graduate schools to which I apply do not, for the most part, reply.

*

I learn about Franz Kafka’s love letters when I offer to write a series of book reviews for a site whose logo features a picture of a woman reading naked in bed. The editors send me a galley for a new biography, the story of Kafka’s life as told through his love letters. In paging through the letters themselves, I find myself on the brink of someone else’s madness, and yet it offers me a comforting map. In his mid-30s fading Kafka, engaged to another woman, tubercolic, begins a series of letters to his translator, Milena Jesenská, with this bold provocation:

“The rain which has been going on for two days and one night has just now stopped, of course probably only temporarily, but nonetheless an event worth celebrating, which I am doing by writing to you. Incidentally the rain itself was bearable; after all, it is a foreign country here, admittedly only slightly foreign, but it does the heart good. If my impression was correct (evidently the memory of one single meeting, brief and halfsilent, is not to be exhausted), you were also enjoying Vienna as a foreign city, although later circumstances may have diminished this enjoyment, but do you also enjoy foreignness for its own sake?”

*

Let us enjoy the same difficult thing, for its own sake.

*

In Delhi, not prone to monsoon rains, I nonetheless find that the weather can be a generous metaphor. When it rains, the water gathers like silted treasure in metro stations and under highways, and children ford the sudden streams with yelps of delight. Motorcyclists pause under overpasses, alongside roadside vendors and English teachers, to mop their brows. The world stands still, for eight to ten minutes, and afterwards, the aftermath of rain magnifies faces and signs like a crystal prism. Brief human camaraderie – the fellowship of the waylaid – evolves, solidifies, and is lost. Maybe in my other world I’d find these rains intolerable. But these bursts of pleasure open up to me another corner of Delhi’s unknown heart. I want to love someone else like I want to love Delhi, for love’s sake, because love for its own sake does us good. I want to love someone else like I love Delhi, slowly unfolding the secrets of an unknowable heart.

Kafka populates his solitude with Milena:

“I would very much like to share Meran with you, recently you wrote about not being able to breathe, that image and its meaning are very close to one another and here both would find a little relief.”

The work they do together moves between them, shaping their correspondence, recalling it to reality in ways he cannot abide. He receives her translation of his text and lays out his disappointment: “I wanted to hear from you and not the voice from the old grave, the voice I know all too well. Why did it have to come between us? Then I realized that this same voice had also come between us, as a mediator.”

I imagine the voice from the grave as the voice of necessity, the things we do because we must. In between filing a police report for my broken door or beating back anxious palpitations over the machinations of an abusive boss, I perk my ears for a voice that heralds my work as a source of life. In Kafka’s letters, his illness becomes a transcendental state, and Milena figures as a sun burning through a darkness. He needs an imaginary cure because none of the real ones work.

In Delhi, I call my mother, my sister, just to hear their voices on the phone. My sister and I spend hours together on Skype without talking. I read, she cooks. Where’s the seam between love and love’s medium?

*

I would like to share New Delhi with you. I would like to share it at all.

I wanted to hear from you, but not the voice I know too well.

*

A friend of mine writes to me from an airport, a one-line email. “He’s engaged!” it says. I read the email six times. I swallow a grief so large it feels like if I open my mouth, I (like Krishna?) will show my mother the entire universe. The world inside my mouth is bitter and unyielding; or maybe that’s just what my mouth always tasted like and I never knew.

Not to be outdone by other writers, I pen a polite congratulatory note, even though I feel like I’m swallowing ashes. It ends, “I wish you all the best as you open this new and very exciting chapter in your life.” I feel as if something – the future? – is draining out of the cracks in my existing life. I consider an engagement gift: my copy of In the Presence of Absence, a love poem to life written by a dying author, the margins full of my notes. Love and its medium seem the same, the same.

Before he dies, Kafka gives Milena all his diaries. He never gives them to anyone else.

*

I wish I could fall asleep in my life and wake up in yours.

*

“German is my mother tongue and as such more natural to me, but I consider Czech much more affectionate, which is why your letter removes several uncertainties; I see you more clearly, the movements of your body, your hands, so quick, so resolute, it’s almost like a meeting; even so, when I then want to raise my eyes to your face, in the middle of the letter – what a story! – fire breaks out and I see nothing but fire.”

*

By some strange chance, I meet another friend for dinner the same evening I learn about the engagement. My friend – my actual, flesh-and-blood friend – normally lives in Stockholm. He arrives for dinner wearing a suit and carrying flowers, and I have a terrible sense of premonition. Over dinner he says, “I would never forgive myself if I didn’t say the following.”

He has written me a poem. It ends:

“Now as you look out for pastures anew,

Your tenure in New Delhi you never should view

When the bells ring for the last post…

Know that Delhi has turned Mughal and British invaders into burnt toast

In this regard, you’ve lasted longer and done better than most.”

He’s called it ‘Inferno at Midnight,’ and long after the recitation is done and years have passed and we no longer speak to each other ever, I’ll still have it.

The cousin – my imaginary friend – does not reply to the congratulatory note about his engagement.

*

As time goes by, Kafka’s letters to Milena seem to become more urgent and more sad. He begs her to leave her husband, but she waits and waits until waiting becomes its own answer. And into this waiting, Kafka writes: “Although my own room is small, the true Milena is here, the one who ran away from you on Sunday, and believe me, being with her is wonderful.”

He persists in claiming that he knows her: “I can no longer write to you as to a stranger.” In a parenthetical, as if it’s an aside, a private conversation hidden from the mediators, he writes: “(you belong to me, even if I should never see you again).” Who is Milena? The Milena he carries like a marble in his pocket, whom he bears like a shield against life: it is impossible to address her as a stranger because he has created her out of himself. She comprises verbs and nouns and prepositions strung together across a ravine, an invisible bridge, between the world and ourselves.

Milena, the version of her that may be true or may be false but anyway the version of her that is legally verifiable, does eventually divorce her husband. By then Kafka is dead, and she writes to someone else: “I was incapable of leaving my husband…I have, however, an insuppressible longing, a maniacal longing for a completely different life than the one I am leading now or ever will lead…And this is what probably won out over everything else inside me, over love, over my love of taking flight, over my admiration, and once again over love… And then it was just too late.”

Milena wakes beside Kafka in his exile from wellness, Milena marries someone else but dreams of children she’ll never have, Milena loves Kafka and will write him a beautiful obituary.

*

My mother: “He was too old and too Indian for you.”

And then it was just too late.

*

Kafka to Milena, March, 1922:

“All my misfortune in life…derives, one might say, from letters or from the possibility of writing letters. People have hardly ever deceived me, but letters always have, and as a matter of fact not those of other people, but my own…Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts.

How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power.”

*

One evening, after seeing his books but before he marries someone else, I sit down and light a candle – maybe my power is out, like it often is – and write him a letter. It is three paragraphs long, but I edit it down to its essence: I like you so much, and I never expected it. Give me a chance? I fold it into a tiny square and carry it with me like a talisman, until I forget about it. I am afraid of what it suggests and the life it enables.

*

I move back to the United States. Years pass. I’m standing on a street corner in New York, rooting for something in my purse, when my fingers find the familiar softness of old, worn paper at the bottom of my bag. I pull out the letter. I recognize it and something cold passes through me, not unlike a ghost. I feel a brief sadness, a mourning for a girl I knew and a dream she had. The mourning – the way it prickles in my scalp – feels like happiness, too. I’m holding the memory of something I loved, and the memory is precious. And yet, for all its rumored truth, I never sent it. Or maybe I sent it to myself. I am Kafka and Milena, the man who loved and the girl who waited. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! I tear it up and toss it in the trash. I cross the street. It’s gone.

 

 

BIO

Anika Gupta is an essayist and fiction writer who lives and writes in Washington DC. Her work has previously appeared in the Common Online and On She Goes. She writes about migration, literature and travel. She spent five years living in New Delhi, India, and working as a journalist.

 

 

 

 

Sparky

by Pam Munter

 

I don’t know where he came from but when I got off the school bus one afternoon at the corner of my street, my mother was holding him in her arms. He was an agitated ball of black and white fluff and he looked to me like a perfect puppy. His snout was white with little black dots all over it. The rest of his body looked a little like an Oreo cookie.

“I brought you a surprise,” my mother said.

I thought my brother’s arrival less than a year earlier had been a surprise, too, but this was something else. This one was mine.

“Oh, thank you. Thank you.” I could hardly wait to go back to my second grade class the next day and tell them my wonderful news.

She handed me the puppy and asked, “What do you think we should call him? He needs a name.”

“Uh. I don’t know.” All I could think of was the names of my movie star heroes. “How about…”

“I think we should call him Sparky,” she said, as if she had already given this some thought.

“Sparky.” I liked the name as soon as I heard it. “Why Sparky?”

“Dad’s an electrical technician. It’s perfect.”

“OK. I like it. Hi, Sparky.”

It was the late 1940s. My father worked for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, California and my mother was a housewife. Looking back on it, I wonder why she chose this moment to adopt a dog, especially a hyperactive breed like a Springer Spaniel, so soon after giving birth. I was already a bit of a handful, myself, always out exploring the neighborhood on my bike and questioning most everything.

It wasn’t long before Sparky became a constant companion, trailing behind my bike as I toured the alphabet streets in the middle-class section of Pacific Palisades. He had become used to sleeping on my bed, too, even though I shared the room with my brother. A few years later, my father would build an addition on the house, allowing me my own bedroom and installing a dog door in the den which helped avoid accidents in the middle of the night. Sparky was excitable, we all knew that.

Though he was puppy-dog sociable, it seemed whenever I had kids over to play, Sparky would enact one of his frequent vomiting performances. A kid would call him over, start to pet him and, without even the courtesy of a warning cough, the dog would puke all over him. It was hard not to laugh, but, of course, I feigned concern and disgust. I wondered if Sparky was a mind-reader. It could have been a coincidence, of course, but it seemed to me he chose just the right kids.

The only accommodation we made to this emetic inevitability was avoiding certain scraps. For instance, it was clear after one especially egregious episode that spaghetti leftovers were best just thrown away.

These were the days when dogs were free to roam without a leash and he was out of the house as much as was inside. If he was gone too long, my mother would plaintively call for him, in the same tone she used for her children.

“Sparrrrrrky. Sparrrrrky. Come here. Sparrrrrky.”

We joked about his selective hearing. There was never any lag time between her call and his appearance at dinner time. In the afternoons, without the promise of food upon compliance, sometimes she’d just give up and leave the front door open so he could come home when he felt like it. She was far more permissive with him than she was with us.

Before much time had elapsed, Sparky became my best friend. When I was angry or sad, I knew I could go over to him, lie down next to him and bury my face in his furry nape. I’d tell him what was wrong and he’d kiss my face. He let me snuggle with him as long as I needed then would follow me into my bedroom when we were done, awaiting further disclosures.

The Palisades was a populated suburb but on some summer nights the distinctive aroma of skunk filled the air. We never saw the culprits but there was little doubt they had been there. They weren’t the only evidence of wildlife, either. One July afternoon, an intrepid neighbor killed the rattlesnake that she found in her back yard, the yard right next to ours. After that, I hardly ever went out in the backyard without first surveying the ground and never after dark. But Sparky did. He had no fear.

Though it was dark and I was asleep, I heard him scamper into my room and jump up on my bed, accompanied  by great commotion. The light flipped on suddenly.

“What’s going on?”

“Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him,” my father ordered.

“Why? What’s…” One intake of breath and then I knew what it was. Skunk. “Uhhhhh.”

“Fran, get a blanket.” My mother quickly obeyed and returned with a pale blue wool blanket she often used in the living room for her naps. She wrapped Sparky up and my Dad carried him outside. I followed, if only to get the smell out of my nostrils.

He held Sparky on the ground and pointed to my mother. “You hold him while I hose him off.”

“That won’t help. Let me see how much tomato juice we have.”

I was watching this middle-of-the-night excitement like it was a suspenseful drama. My eyes were wide with anticipation. What would happen next? Would Sparky be OK? Would the smell ever go away? Would I have to go to school tomorrow?

Once again, my father picked up the dog and placed him the bathtub while my mother poured tomato juice all over him. I wondered if it were some secret rite, known only to adults. Once the deed was done, Sparky remained locked in the laundry room for the night. We all went back to bed.

I’d like to report it never happened again but such events apparently were  inevitable then and could be prevented. But the next occasions were dealt with more alacrity and a ready supply of  rattier blankets and tomato juice.

As Sparky aged, I dreaded the thought of losing him. His gait was slower, his adventures shorter. I no longer rode my bike much so he wasn’t getting as much exercise. One of my other’s coffee klatch buddies down the street had two children for whom I had babysat. The parents had bought the girls a Belgian Shepherd for Christmas and was named Shirley, after the oldest daughter’s favorite doll, Shirley Temple. But long-forgotten circumstances required them to give Shirley away. My parents stepped up and now Sparky had a playmate.

Shirley was little more than a pup but much bigger than Sparky. Her favorite sport was to back up to a sleeping Sparky and abruptly perch on his head. This did not go down well but the two never fought. They didn’t play much together, either, but Shirley’s presence seemed to bring Sparky back to life a bit.

But soon, there were more puke episodes, more trips to the vet, more really long naps. He no longer cared if Shirley sat on his head. When I came home from high school one afternoon, Mom greeted me at the door.

“We had to let Sparky go, honey. It was time.”

I nodded and ran into my room, crying. I knew it was time but it’s never time. Some dogs you can never just “let go.”

 

 

BIO

Pam Munter is a retired clinical psychologist, performer and former film historian, working on a deconstructed memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide and Angels Flight—Literary West, among many others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs of Kathmandu

by Brett Horton

 

 

There is a clear view of the green Himalayan foothills from my 4th floor window.  October blue sky with clouds floating by, low in the background like puffs of smoke from the invisible Hindu gods- invisible, yet represented everywhere.  From my rooftop balcony, our rooftop, I have a panoramic view of the multi-colored, dusty, squat, rectangular buildings all varying size, the different levels of life, different levels of rooftops, balconies, porches, streets, that ride and sit on their portion of the wave of the valley.  There is a rooftop above and below me.

Wei Lin has just returned with a copy of the Kama Sutra, in Spanish, for the English version was sold out and the Chinese version’s drawings didn’t look as authentic.  Too cartoony.  We are leaving now, splitting a taxi to Patan Durbar Square with an American who just arrived from D.C.

 

***

 

The golden top of the temple of Suryambhunath, one of the most ancient Hindu sites in the world, atop its hill, points to and touches the sky, directly in front of me.  I see it above the red brick and cement rooftops, a little ways across the city, as I face west.  Laundry hanging, blowing, striped flags billowing.  The rooftop terrace railings are lined with bowling pin-shaped supports.  The sky is still blue, the air warm, much warmer than anticipated, with a slight cool breeze that breathes, periodically.  There are people, enjoying their breakfast, tea and coffee, on patios below and above me.  Large dark birds swoop low through Kathmandu valley, circling and soaring and gliding.  They could be hawks or vultures.  Pigeons are alighting on rooftops below me.  Pigeons perch on crumbly temples.

The Himalayan foothills beckon the wayfarers.  Flowers are in bloom all around.  A lady waters her rooftop garden slightly below me.  The spiral staircase to my left goes to the rooftop above me.  That is the highest rooftop of the Family Peace House yet there are only more views of higher rooftops and yet a mightier panorama when it is summitted.  Everest and Nuptse and Lhotse and their tall siblings are far off across the foothills and deathly peaks.  Everest, the rooftop of the world, we saw from the airplane, rising high above the level of clouds on our flight from Kunming.  My camera has a zoom like a pair of powerful binoculars.  One almost could mistake the mountain’s white and blue for the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky if one wasn’t paying close attention, but upon a closer inspection, it is unmistakable.

The house cleaning lady, in her red ornate garb, smiles as she walks by, the red blessing dot of the tika smeared on her forehead.

Wei Lin comes up the stairs and asks for the key.  Padlock doors.

“Did you buy something?” I inquire.

“Yes.  A dress.”

“You have a dress in that tiny bag? How can you fit a dress in that bag?”

“I’m tiny,” she replies and giggles, steps in, steps out and reappears with a black dress of embroidered turquoise and purple flowery design and a light, handmade cashmere scarf.  She matches the exotic scenery.  She sort of followed me over here, but she’s a likeable companion.

With all these surroundings, words fail me somewhat, but out they come from inward.  I could just take a photograph or video, or my fascinations make me want to paint or draw, or I can also record my words as I can speak faster than I write oft times, but no matter, all these mediums and forms of expression are good.

There is a large mural downstairs that reveals, “Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.”

We are now on our way to Suryambhunath, the Monkey Temple.

 

***

 

Yesterday, we made our way to Patan-Durbar Square.  Needless to say, we walked around, taking pictures and videos, which contain memories and vivid details, so there’s no real need to go overboard with descriptive writing.  The long walks are good exercise, but I’d prefer to get up in the foothills where I don’t have to watch out for being clipped by a wayward motorcycle or car- where other dangers lurk.

We are now sitting on the roof terrace of La Bella Café & Acqua Bar in the Thamel district, the traveler’s ghetto, near to where we are temporarily living- just for 10 days, but living, nonetheless.  The days have been long and full, as we’re early birds, as Nepal is 2 1/2 hours behind China time.  That’s the first time zone by a half-hour that I’ve ever seen.

It’s 4 pm and my Irish coffee has arrived with cream and chocolate on top.  Wei Lin has just gotten her third heart in a row upon ordering a cappuccino.  The first heart was prepared by me at La Renaissance in Mianyang, my attempt at latte art, for the bizarre and surreal purpose of the movie, a reenactment of ourselves, which had been actually transcribed.  The reenacted video was actually filmed before, a video at the same location of spontaneous conversation that was lost.  To me, it is slightly unusual that the scene was filmed at all, because I didn’t know if it were likely that Brian and I would be in the same Chinese city together again.  And it was transcribed to paper only because I used it as a scene in the script that was typed mainly for approval/permission, and while that drawn-out process has dragged and perhaps even dwindled, a huge portion of part one has been independently made, already.  I ducked out of China to nearby Nepal for a visa duration reason and will return late next week.

The whiskey is now flowing through my veins and I feel fairly good, but stuffy in the dust.  All the color is dusty.  Not too dusty, though.  Not Grapes of Wrath dusty, which I am reading lately.

Now, I’m drinking a big bottle of Everest beer, though I prefer Nepal Ice, but it’s sold out.  We walked back to our area from Kathmandu’s Durdar Square.  We also made it to Boudhanath and Pashupatinath yesterday.  Along the Bagmati River, we looked down as the people carried out their Dashain Festival ritual of setting free the painted statues of gods and goddesses down the eternal life flow of the river.  Durga was the final goddess to join the float, it seems, and for some reason she didn’t go as easy as the others.  We sampled the momo. Wild monkeys ran through the streets between cars and watched and swung from the trees.

At Boudha, we joined the Tibetan monks walking clockwise around the stupa and spun the prayer wheels, then surveyed the view from a café balcony.  We were joined with a Japanese American named Ryan who worked as an assistant to a national security advisor to a Democratic senator in Washington, D.C.  He’d minorly injured himself before he could execute his plan of trekking to the Everest base camp, so he went to plan B and took off to Chitwan on a jungle safari and to Lumbini, Siddhartha Gautama’s birthplace, the Buddha.

A flute flutters notes up from down somewhere in the alley-street.  Hindu and Buddhist temples reside tranquilly next to each other. Monkeys and dogs roam free.  It is like walking through a friendly ghetto.  Through earthquake rubble.  A picturesque and holy trashcan where gods of gilded gold and intricate artworks and relics reside.  There are no trashcans to be found.  No functioning traffic lights.  Slum children on sidewalks learning to live like pigeons.  More businesses are opening as the holiday winds down.  The whole city is an ancient temple with bars, restaurants, hotels, stores, streets and traffic inside.  I am learning more of Hinduism and Buddhism.  If it is all superstition, it is still fascinating.  The old bearded monks bless me with the red dot of a tika and humbly ask for money.  We’ll soon be off for a day into the hinterlands, perhaps near Nagarkot.

Wei Lin pointed out a black cat running along the fence, and it’s about the only cat we’ve seen.

Descending the high steps from the Monkey Temple, we sampled some “poli” (?) from a street vendor, fried balls with something (?) inside, dipped in a spicy lemon sauce.  Also, the local dahl bat meal w/ mutton and chicken biryani, naan, masala tea- I am trying to learn a little more, but sometimes it seems I merely push old stuff out the more I push new in.  New words in foreign dialects push old English words out.  Some days I am just a weary traveler who knows not where he is going in the long run, and I can’t express myself with any eloquence.  Though, I still attempt to stack knowledge like Jenga.  My head is expanding like a balloon.  I feel the need to hone vocabulary, but few things are true needs.  Taking a cue from my environment, I could focus on one word.  Meditation station.  Too many loud mufflers and horns for meditation.  There is a constant barrage of information everywhere and little if any time made for recall.  Animal blood is spilled and stained on stone temple floors for ancient sacrificial rites.  It is all a sight to see, but I am a traveler with not much of a tourist soul, and I get enough of sightseeing quickly, after 2 full days.  I prefer to sightsee casually, slowly, at random, if possible.  I just aim to balance with grace.

I’m templed out for the moment.  Wei Lin finished her cappuccino and went shopping for an hour.  I’m not interested in much shopping and just want to mostly lurk in cafes from here on out.  In the streets, the shops, I am hassled by salespeople especially because I’m a white male- though, I’ve been remarking that I am peach.  As I walk with Asian companions, it is me that the sellers cling on to.  Nepali mother after me to buy her child milk.  At the top of Suryambhunath, I bought 3 original oil and acrylic landscape paintings on small pieces of canvas that easily roll and fold for transport, for only 4500 rupees.  I love to support the local artists and local all sorts, while being international.

 

***

 

            Sitting in the Garden of Dreams, it’s like an ancient civilization sprung to life.  The high pillars of the café patio rise into the dome’s archway beneath.  I ponder the colonnade.  Together with the gazebo, elephant statues and circular railings painted a soft yellow- proper descriptions elude me these days- specific English words of detail sometimes are sleeping in the recesses of my searching mind, the more I learn Chinese and Spanish, but it will come to me later, the words are there somewhere.          Pretty Nepali girls take each other’s picture next to the fountain and sit in the green grass.  The high bamboo swing is taken turns upon.  I am tired today so it is almost like dreaming.  Children splash their hands in the pool.  The only thing missing is a hammock.  I could lay there and swing and nap and smile the whole day.  Maybe I will stretch out on the grass or go back and take a nap.  This is another day when I focus on drinking much water as feeling a little dehydrated.  Any anxious feeling will eventually dissipate.  I can sleep in a chair.  No reason to despair for too long.  I am a seeker of the truth of God.  There is a river of eternity of God to learn.  Lily pads float in the small pool.  I once named a woman Lily.  I named another Lily in a movie.  I wish to be pure, to alleviate pain.  A painkiller poet.  I’ll take a heart of gold, but moreso I pray for a heart that beats and beats and beats on.

– Black Olives Café, Thamel

            Got a cold in Kathmandu or something similar, maybe just a reaction to the surroundings.  Hard to tell the difference- may be wearing my black bandanna on the street like a masked bandito, soon, amongst the face masks, silk scarves and shawls.  Brian wechats me, “How is Nepal?”

I reply a short summation and ask if he got a designer face mask while on his Beijing jaunt, like so many sport.

Wei Lin has gone shopping, and I certainly don’t want to go along.  My white male face gets hustled, though gently, but nonetheless.  Serious solicitations, though not as aggressive as some other places I’ve been.  Most of my shopping is already complete, my Xmas shopping mostly done in October, an early bird this season.  There are deals you can’t find just everywhere, even if they are overcharging me.  This is a bargaining land.  Basically, you just cut the price in half from what is 1st said.  Except in the bars, restaurants, cafes.  Ryan of DC said I was a good bargainer, but I am only just checking the other prices 1st.  Many don’t give you a chance to browse even the 2nd item before sinking their sales claws into you.  Some are chill.  I bought a handmade Nepali cashmere scarf, 3 landscape paintings, a bracelet, a shape-shifting toy made of gold semi-ringlets and beads, oblivious to the proper name, as I was latched onto on the busy street and usually I will decline approaches, but this one got me.  Also, I found a pair of hiking shoes, one of the only sizes that fit me in the area.  They started out at 9000 rupees then went down to 4800- then, I ended up with the same pair for just 4000 rupees at a nearby shop.  The trick of bargaining is simply to walk away and return, or not even to return, in many instances.

I’ve relocated now to my rooftop and have washed a pair of socks in the sink and hung them on the clothesline on the rooftop above me to dry.  There is a solar panel directly above our room.  Now and then, the electricity turns off briefly.  There are black hot water tanks on rooftops across the city, heated by the sun.  A blue and green one.  Gray buildings, red bricks, mint-colored building, blue roofs, aluminum roof below, salmon-colored houses and apartment buildings with white trimmed windows, 7-up signs hanging, a dwelling with a shade of painted blue that is both bright and dark, blush red roof shingles.

I am sniffly.  Last night, I bought some nasal spray from a pharmacist whose counter opened directly to the gravelly inner-city street.  He recommended Rhinozol, a couple of drops 3 times a day, which is made of the chemical Xylometazoline.  I’ve had a couple of snorts, and it is clearing me out with a runny nose, sneezing and some coughing.  Blowing my nose over coffee and tea.  I’ll be better soon.  The side of the decongestant box reads that it is to be prescribed by a registered physician.  Maybe the pharmacist is the physician.

Wei Lin now just went downstairs to fill 2 water bottles, 3 flights down and back up, but it really felt like she went down one flight and turned right back around with 2 full bottles, such is the blurring of time in a Hindu land.

 

***

 

We’ve been taxi-hopping then walking through all the areas of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples.  1st, Patan-Durbar Square- the temples all reside peacefully next to each other.  I’m learning some more each day, always.  The stupa in Durbar Square is said to be from 250 BC, built with 3 others by King Oshoko, ordered by him.  I doubt he lifted a finger.  Maybe he was a good king, though, out there stacking and cutting stones with the serfs.  Ryan sat in gum- who puts gum on a seat?  Later, I felt a little guilty for spitting gum out on the ground, but I did it over in a sidewalk corner among rubble and rocks, in the hopes that dust and debris would cover it before it found its way to somebody’s sole, not thinking it a place where anyone would stand.  I never spat gum on the ground before, but there weren’t trashcans anywhere.

We went to Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred temples in Hinduism and took a stroll.  Only Hindus are allowed inside the actual temple.  The smell of fresh cow dung hung in the air and you had to watch your step.  We turned down the entry fee to witness the funeral, where masses of Hindus are cremated along the littered banks of the Bagmati.  I’ve already mentioned all these places the other day when I let loose with a sangria, then Nepal Ice, a gin and 7-up and more beer.  Not sure how much of my current condition is owing to a 3-day lingering hangover or the dust and polluted air or a legitimate cold or allergies or all of the above.  I am sneezing less now only a few hours later.

The day before, we walked to Narayanhiti Palace and went inside.  A palace now turned museum.  No bags, cameras or cell phones are allowed.  Inside, there are stuffed tigers mounted.  Not toy stuffed tigers like Hobbes (who is arguably real in Calvin’s world), but real life tigers who were stuffed by a taxidermist and stand on their hind legs, growling in fierce poses.  These are like the bears you see in the homes of hunters in America.  Rugs, full body with the heads snarling- there was a bear and a tiger.  The furniture was in stark contrast to the luxurious, sprawling palace.  Sofas and carpet rugs that looked like they were from the 70’s or early 80’s- the long lime-green carpet, for instance, which I did a double take on to make sure it wasn’t shag.  The old TV set had been sitting for a long time showing no shows.  In the crowning room hung the longest-hanging chandelier that I’ve ever seen, perhaps 40-foot long, like long cylindrical crystals.

The monarchy was dissolved and now Nepal has a president.  Prince Dipendra murdered King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, all in all 10 members of the royal family in mysterious circumstances, debatably because he couldn’t marry whom he wanted.  There was a sign outdoors that pointed to the “site of the massacre” and a haunted empty building where the shooting took place.  The shooting which is typically labeled a “mass murder, massacre, murder-suicide, fratricide, patricide, sororicide, regicide, matricide, avunculicide.”  It makes one wonder, if reincarnation were true, what a prince would be reincarnated as.  Nothing near as holy as a frog.  There is a small, low stone bridge over a stream out back where the Prince was found, dying, and oddly enough, he actually became the King for a few days while in a coma, until he died and his uncle, Gyanendra, became king until the people ran him off and elected Ram Baran Yadav to be president.  It had actually been Gyanendra’s 2nd reign.  But all this can be read about elsewhere.  There are rumors about what really happened, such as it being a framed set-up job by Gyanendra to assume the throne.

In one of the guestrooms, Wei Lin marveled at the huge mirror facing the bed, saying that in China, that is bad luck.

 

***

 

These are the kinds of streets you can move through like a masked outlaw and no one takes a 2nd glance, though they are relatively safe.  There is a constant, incessant roar of motorcycles and honking taxi horns, weaving through the flowered rickshaws and occasional bicycles- bicycles, these cities should have stuck with bicycles.

Whistles blowing, loudness~ Wei Lin has just left to the airport in a taxi, and I’m ready to leave.  I should be back in about 100 hours.  If I lived here, my teenage angst would maybe return and I’d start vandalizing cars- vengeance for driving through what should be pedestrian areas and just being a nuisance, stirring up noise and dust and taking up space and stinking up the air with pollution.

I’ve relocated to a room on the ground floor.  It is only 600 rupees a night, still with a private bathroom, but with a twin bed, and I’m smoking it out by burning a mosquito coil.

The crowds blabber, the horns get louder, at night the mongrels bark and bark and howl like they’re wolves.  I’m tempted to yell from the rooftops for everyone to shut up.  Isn’t this the land of meditation.  Of course, I’m in Thamel.

Back here, where I’m staying in the Paknojol area, it’s much quieter.  I’ve had someone to talk to all week, so I hadn’t actually noticed the extent of the noise in the daytime cafes.  It was more pleasant when we first arrived and most of the businesses were shut down due to the Dashain Festival, which is their #1 Hindu festival.  It’s almost like their Xmas.  Not too long after is Diwali Festival.

Moving through the streets, the whisperings of smoke & hashish in my ear, one-armed beggar extending his hand.  A rat runs by in broad daylight, but it came from an area of potted plants, so it doesn’t seem as repugnant.  Let’s not forget there are disgusting human beings, too.  A mosquito lands on my arm.  I shoo it away.  I’m still smoking them out of my room so they don’t wake me in the night- hopefully- there are some cracks in between the bricks and gaps in the wood, so we’ll see.  That octagon coil can burn up to 10 hours.  The mosquitoes can transfer the Zika virus.  About 1 in 5 people will get it, warns the airport sign.  It’s like a fever for a week and goes away.

The Buddha teaches that all life is suffering, and I can see that to a considerable degree, as I sit with a runny nose swatting mosquitoes (I just got one with this book) on an uncomfortable seat.  All the seats are broken in some way, wobbly or just hard.

I’ve considered upgrading to a different room, but it’s only 3 nights.  It’s almost like camping, but a step up, and I’ve camped many times in my life.  I like it in some ways and hate other aspects of it.  Nature, city and town are all miserable, just in different ways.  This is why the world needs those kindred souls who deflect the constant barrage of misery.  I am able to enjoy myself more when drinking, but if I don’t check it, I just end up sicker, and checking it can also sometimes be a drag.

The sun is going down, and I will go find a restaurant soon.  I have eaten meals in so many restaurants in my life, a superplethora, around the world- I only hold a fraction of the memory of their names.  I’ve loved it and sometimes felt guilty about it.   I will do a 16-hour fast soon, not 24 hours as not being top of the weather, seeing as how I’m in the land of fasts.

 

***

 

I buy cheap cigarettes, sometimes, out of addiction, smoke some, then throw them away.  Like last night’s Surya, on the street, pictures of disease on the box, for 220 rupee.  No bargaining when everything was closed and the bars were still going.

The Black Olives Cafe every morning lately.  Nepali omelette, Tibetan omelette, Israeli special breakfast, Shakshuma- an Israeli-style meal served w/ masala tea or milk coffee along w/ freshly squeezed papaya juice, a multi-vitamin and a big cold bottle of water.  Though it’s much cheaper than most other countries, I could still be even more frugal, if necessary.  Drinks and smokes add up anywhere, though most nights I don’t even do that, lately.

I dropped the soap in the toilet this morning and look forward to American bathrooms.  I am eager to make money somehow without being someone’s slave and while being legal.  Maybe start a business.  I have paying music gigs coming up, but maybe should get more.  They’re not for a while.  If I were lucky, too, I could sell some paintings or writings or this movie.  The streets are quiet this morning.

 

***

 

There was visa confusion of a lesser caliber than at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco when I arrived at Kathmandu Tribhuvan Airport, where many people were lining up to get their visas upon arrival.  Some of the visa machines were out of order and the other lines were moving slow, until I found out those machines were simply for the passport-size photo, of which I already had one.  The visa application papers were actually on a rack further back.  Then, I paid the fee and waited in a long line.  When I got much closer, I was informed that it was a line for Chinese citizens only and that my line was the next one over, which was not a line because there was no one in it.  There was an immigration officer sitting in his booth.  He was really polite.  If I would’ve known, I could have practically walked on through.

 

***

 

Just ordered a Kahlua, Cream & Coffee in the Jesse James bar, with my black bandanna mask tied around my neck and a feather in my fedora, amongst candlelight.  Avoiding exhaust.  The streets are a game to walk, though just now as I’ve sat down, they’re not nearly as blaring as before.  Need to go pretty easy and get more good sleep and get back to better health.  I’ll feel a little better with a dose of alcohol flowing.

Not long ago, we were watching live music, some Nepali flute folk at the New Orleans Bar, a Nepali rock band at the Reggae Bar playing classics by American & English bands:  Hendrix, Doors, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Nepali Rock and we saw some others playing real softy, but some Clapton and Rolling Stones.

Now, with the night, the still busy streets but much less honking, fire glow, the bugs not bugging, the BLT and tomato soup (which is superb, and I haven’t had such a thing in ages) I am content to be here some more days, alone.  I haven’t been alone in a while, but I can get used to it pretty quick, anytime, these days.  I think of past days and days to come.  I’ll keep learning is one thing that I feel sure of.

“Namaste,” said the native village children on the hillside, as we were led by Raju, our guide.  We hiked from Nagarkot to Changunayaran.  Our driver dodged the potholes and oncoming buses and motorbikes coming directly at us as we climbed the ever-narrowing road with no railing and an almighty drop-off, villages or a construct of sort dotting the way.  It was a mountain of around 2000 meters but a foothill compared to what would come.  The Himalayan foothills were foggy that day so no view of the snow-capped peaks.  The trail was littered near the villages and cleaner the higher you got.  The walk was only a few hours, pretty mild.  Wei Lin almost looked like a native, as we both had a tika on our forehead and she wore a pink silk shawl with sparkles in the sun.  The old ladies passed us on the path, carry their dokos on their backs, the weaved basket-backpacks.  We each took a turn on the ping, the high bamboo swing, up on a plateau with a panoramic view of the valley.  Careful not to step in cow dung or dog poop, which Wei Lin said some Chinese say that is good luck.

We walked amongst mountain cornfields, orange trees, grapefruit trees, millet, which produces the national Nepali wine, potato plants, tobacco and marijuana plants and drove past rice fields and dusty dogs.  The hike was about 16 km.  Changunayaran is the oldest temple in Nepal, built under changu trees.  We were told the legend and how there are millions of Hindu gods.  It is vast and complicated mythology.  The 3 major ones, you may well know, are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer and all around there are temples dedicated to the various ones, it goes without saying.  The Hindu do a prayer gesture similar to Catholics crossing themselves, but they just touch their forehead and heart.

There are, of course, mini souvenirs of all these gods.  Many people are a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism.  There are Buddha statues all over- skinny, serious, curly-haired Buddha.  I’ve seen the fat, bald, laughing Buddha finally in some shops.  Ganesh, the elephant head god, Krishna, the flute-playing god, the topless flying goddess who plays the pipa behind her head (inspiration for Jimi?), Chhinnamasta, the naked self-decapitated goddess who stands on a divine copulating couple and holds her severed head in her hand, a scimitar in the other, while 3 jets of blood spurt out from her neck and is drank by two attendants and her beheaded head, but I didn’t see her anywhere.

We saw a clumsy goat tumble and fall down a dirt cliffside then stand up and look blankly at us, a slapstick moment.  For lunch, we had the local dhal bhaat: lentil soup w/ rice and chicken curry and more, as sheep came bleating up to our outdoor table and were quickly shepherded away.  Raju mixed all the curry sauce and rice and ate with his hands.  We washed our hands by pouring cool water from a plastic container.

Now, we’ll see what the next day’s incarnation is and my candle has literally burnt down to the last flicker of the wick, 2 dancing flames, and I’ll finish my Everest, get the bill and go to my room.  Now, before its final breath, the flames are kissing and joining into one bigger flame.

 

 

BIO

Brett Horton was born on the edge of Kansas City and grew up in a small oiltown called Ponca City, Oklahoma and the more metropolitan Wilmington, Delaware.  At age 15, he began a music career playing the local venues and bars of Oklahoma and has since traveled and moved extensively.  As a teenager, he worked as a paperboy, then later, in the circulation room of the newspaper.  He has worked as a gas station clerk, a seasonal cook, a folk musician in an Alaskan vaudeville show, a foreign English teacher, a TV show host, a barista,  and a free-lancer of various jobs just to name some.  These days, he is making indie movies, playing music, throwing art shows and writing, writing, constantly on the go.

Please check out more of his work at: www.bretthorton.org

 

 

 

0

Little Traffic Light Men

by Joan Frank

 

 

You can’t wish away a lifetime’s conditioning—movies, print, Saturday morning cartoons—as if it were some dismal weather system. At least this time, after twenty-two years away from Germany, the language sounded more comic than not. Something-fährt was printed on a huge airfield building as we taxied in on a sunny May morning, and Something-else-fährt on another. That cheered me.

So this time (clenched into a wad of aching muscles on the nonstop from San Francisco, tramping the sprawling, halogen-lit maze of Frankfurt Airport) I meant to push aside reflexive dread. Time is ripe, I thought, to flip that trope. I already sensed that confronting the language, and everything it once evoked, might no longer knife me.

Surely it would feel easier this round. Enough years had passed. A new generation had grown up—now itself busy making babies. Things would have changed. Germany, I reasoned, would step forward to meet me more than halfway.

I also longed to be taken out of my own head, made to look outward. Read on.

The last time my husband and I walked on German soil was in 1994. The wall had tumbled only five years before. Five years, in the staggering-to-its-feet of a war-raked city, is not a lot. Sun filtered through pale and weak on our first day there: early spring, exceedingly cold, and Berlin looked and felt like a plane crash. Air held a dazed, floating-motes aftermath. People’s faces appeared locked as they hurried past, scrubbed of any readable inflection as they swayed from hand-held straps with the tram’s roll. Cold spaces. Hard surfaces. Conventional niceties nowhere visible. Bulletholes peppered many walls. Alexanderplatz yawped wide and barren then, an abandoned military concourse, windswept and freezing, the infamous radio tower stabbing from it like a spear, its concrete emptiness a space we could too easily fill, in imagination, with platoons of goose-stepping, helmeted troops—or worse.

We wandered that day, confused: no sense of a there there. Only hodgepodge. Bricks and rubble. Canvas half-draped a gaggle of life-sized statuary huddled at the rear of a vacant lot behind chain-link fencing, like a crowd of refugees trying to shelter itself.  West Berlin, on its surface, felt no more appealing or friendly, no easier to navigate or make sense of, than East. It was only more expensive.

* * *

Some disclosure’s in order. Because of my last name and vague sense of family background (my late folks had no more truck with Jewish orthodoxy than an occasional sip of sweet kosher wine), and because of the 50s and 60s I grew up in—that era’s haste to push off from the past, get on with things—I’d guarded all my life a secret terror that fascism, in the form of a resurrected Nazi machine, could spring back at any time, fast and stealthful as a cancer. Never mind I had no clear idea why an evil cabal wanted to kill people bearing my last name. It had done so once; it could again, wasting no time taking over my country and the world. A child could only build upon what she’d grasped in the first ten years of life, from a range of half-buried allusions and images. Thus, all people of Jewish background (however dimly I understood that) would, in my secret nightmare, be hunted down, rounded up and destroyed in ways I had read about or seen enacted in films—starting with The Diary of Anne Frank.

* * *

I remember, in those growing-up years, feeling dizzy with it, the blank non-comprehension: How could the kind, loving grownups of this world allow what I’d read about, and what I’d seen that film suggest, subtly but terrifyingly, to happen? How could it have been real—how even conceivable?

My little sister and I attended Unitarian Sunday school. We trick-or-treated for UNICEF on Halloween.

Yet before that selfsame world, findable in any library, was The Diary of a Young Girl—breathing quietly beneath its shroud of reverence and fear and yes, titillation. All references to the diary, to the history inseparable from it, made the book itself seem transgressive, hot with controversy, unspeakable implications. Even as a kid you couldn’t not be shot through with queasiness for the reverence, as much as for the implied unspeakable. Somewhere I’d seen photographs; been unable to look away. Living skeletons, hollowed-out animals dying behind cage bars. Tall piles of bony corpses, great mounds of bodies shoveled onto one another by steam-shovel. Arms and legs and feet and ravaged faces sticking out of these piles, mouths frozen open. Tattooed numbers. Piles of gold teeth, wedding rings. Six-pointed yellow stars. Crushed humans by the millions. Families. Children.

This really happened?

All of it juxtaposed by turns against black and white snapshots of the young diarist’s face: sweet, sunny, framed by dark curls above her Peter Pan collar.

My ten-year-old eyes stared at that photo again and again. She’d have loved, I guessed, all the stuff my sister and I loved. She’d have had favorite songs, favorite books, games, a bracelet or necklace, a sweater; maybe a cigar box for keepsakes, an acorn, a marble, a piece of ribbon. I remember trying as a child to imagine how she’d have looked after she and her sister were devoured by the camps: heads shaved, lice-ridden, starved and freezing, death by typhus.

That part, of course, doesn’t appear in the film. All you see at the film’s end are the characters looking quickly at each other after the fatal alert has reached them. Their hopeful, pitiful gambit, hiding silently in an office attic for two years, is up. Their glances at one another in final moments, like the squeeze of a hand, telegraph their nod to the incomprehensible: This is it. Someone in Amsterdam has tipped off the authorities; the SS knows the group’s whereabouts and is that moment bearing down upon them. Awareness is sharpened by the approaching sound, louder, louder, of the two-note German police siren: eee-aww eee-aww, a hellish, hysterical braying.

My child’s mind would always shut down at this point. (How my poor little sister’s mind ingested what we’d seen, I can’t imagine. We wouldn’t have known how to speak of it.)

My adult mind wants to shut down, too—but it’s packed with images, the kind that pop up to terrorize at 3 a.m. for the rest of your life, scored by the sound track of that siren.

To this day the crazed screaming of European police-car sirens—that two-note wail, that high-pitched, frantic eee-aww, unchanged it seems since the war—still has the power to stop the heart, shatter thought, atomize reason like a lightning bolt. It’s an aural marker and fanfare of death’s jaws gaping, a sound I can never completely dissociate from they are coming for me. Can never flush the closed throat, the adrenaline prickle, the bunched fists and stuttering heartbeat. Can never pretend I am co-existing calmly, indifferently, maturely, with that sound.

* * *

We flew into Frankfurt first to visit my stepson, a wonderful young man stationed nearby as part of his military duty. It seemed the right moment for revising the dread that surely now no longer fit. I had rolled up mental sleeves, determined to sweep out biases, see things new. We had all lived—Germany and the world—into new news. Twenty-seven years had passed since the end of the Wall. Other horrors now darkened our planet’s once-clean heavens: climate change, ISIS and Al Qaeda, belligerent viruses, internecine tribal atrocities, refugee crises, insane assassins armed to the teeth, maniacs and despots seizing power. Meantime, in Germany, a full generation had come of age: one that appeared well-educated, matter-of-fact about even the worst aspects of the realities they face, willing to invent something better.

Now comes the “what I supposed versus what I learned” recital. The German contingent of this new (my stepson’s millennial) generation, from what I thought I could discern without language, seems to respect the old nightmare—granting that the nightmare’s after-images still grip aging survivors in bloody talons. But the young adults also seem determined to consider it ancient history, the kind discussed in textbooks. They publicly consecrate the memory of the murdered (now the official word), pledging and repledging themselves, in monuments and speeches, to exemplify vigilance, to safeguard human rights. Markers and museums of every aesthetic, insisting we never forget, crop up everywhere. In Mannheim our son led us to a glass booth on a busy thoroughfare, whose walls bore a kind of foggy transluscence. At closer glance this fog turned out to be inscription, in tiniest letters, of thousands of lightly-printed names covering every inch of the glass. A brief scan confirmed that most of those names were, like mine, recognizably Jewish.

We stood there a moment, running our eyes over column after column.

Each name, someone’s beloved darling: now a cloudy mark on glass, in a bustling city.

We walked the tidy districts and neighborhoods, seeing the young (like their counterparts elsewhere) absorbed by the daily, the necessary pleasures and tasks: showing up to jobs, rearing kids, building communities, savoring arts, sports, landscapes, food, friendship. These people looked smart, humane, preoccupied with survival, hoping (like any species in progress) to make things better.

They were parents, harrassed and proud and tired, pushing strollers or calling toddlers to their sides in parks, cafes, fast food outlets, sidewalks. They were self-styled bohos, smoking and chattering amid the litter of beers and coffees. They were musicians, painters, boutique owners, bookstore and retail clothing clerks, grocery checkers, museum guides, landscape and building maintenance and construction workers, teachers, researchers, drivers, waiters and waitresses, nurses, cops and firefighters, nannies and caregivers, highway repair workers. (“There are two seasons,” our son told us: “Winter and Road Work.”) They were students, rumpled and sleepy, flirting in parks, playing horns or guitars or cellos, sketching in museums; they were old guys perched patiently on stoops or in cafe chairs or on benches. They were tourists exploring palace grounds, forests, scenic lookouts, truck stop restaurants, patiently escorting aging parents, explaining, cajoling. They coached and scolded and laughed at their own kids.

I felt no darkness from them. No perfidy. No scorn. Of course I stood outside the culture, outside the language, but say what you will: humans emit force-fields that can often be felt and heard and to some degree, read. I looked and listened. Young bohos in the Germany I glimpsed appeared identical with young bohos in comparable settings; kids and babies and parents as you’d expect to find them. I cannot claim to have felt great warmth from these individuals, but courtesy and mildness ruled. Sometimes strangers offered to explain a sign or menu, or clarify directions. Our son drove us through Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Nuremberg. I swallowed hard at the sound of that latter name, but the Nuremberg we saw presented as cheerful and handsome, oblivious to the day-of-reckoning thunder its name once evoked. The city has proudly rebuilt itself almost completely—even its cathedrals, which manage to look centuries old.

We found wellsprings of charm and beauty in Bamberg: its genial mix of locals and visitors, cafe culture, vine- and flower-covered, saggy-gingerbread homes along the river, fairy-tale style. An aged man with thick white hair and patrician features leaned out a high window to prune his roses; the blooms were fat, round and velvety, peach-red. Squinting up as we walked past, on impulse I called out to him that his flowers were beautiful. (This was something my sister would have done, along with stopping to pet and croon at every dog and baby.) The aging man nodded wearily as if enduring a stale gesture, as if he heard those words every day. At once my impulse felt smartly checked. Who might he have been, in a prior century? Who might I have been, as part of the population surrounding him? Might he have as wearily targeted me, or the family or compound that harbored me? Might I have been but one of a steady stream of undesirables, as steadily and casually singled out for exile—or extinguishment?

During the hours I strolled past the gingerbread homes and hand-built fences along the river, all of it covered with thick-twining roses—afterward sitting down to trocken, crisp white wine in an outdoor cafe packed with families, couples, students, shouting, exuberant—those questions pulsed below the more mundane concerns: where we might next walk, what were we presently seeing, which photos to snap. I pushed the dark questions down before they could unfurl in pretty daylight.

What, I wondered then and wonder now, has second-guessing ever truly served?

It can be argued two ways.

One: Assign no meaning more sinister until there’s evidence for it.

The other?

Assume the worst. No point second-guessing is what lots of people told each other in the years and months leading up to 1939, to Krystallnacht. Thoughtful people, good, smart people counseled family and friends, Calm down. Be reasonable. Wait and see. No need to panic; just wait a while. It will come right. It will sort itself out.

* * *

Despite those prickling reverberations—inflamed now by the election, in the year of this writing, of perhaps the most frightening proto-fascist ever to assume office in American history, with terrifying implications for the nation and the planet—despite those, I confess that in the halcyon days of touring with our son (and later by ourselves in Berlin) we took refuge in a mental condition we’ve nicknamed a spazz-out of happiness: meaning the arbitrary eruption of a heightened state; antic, glassy, willed jubilation. People are good at heart. History rights itself.  Life and objects may be trundling along having logical, discrete identities and trajectories unconnected with other matters. But the perceiver’s spazz-out corrals, connects, and infuses all it spies in that moment with the meaning necessary to serve the need. The Happy Story we tell ourselves can be a bully and a brute—something Americans do especially well. We do it best, in fact, while we are tourists. We’ve invested a lot in our story. Self-image. Money. Fear.

Fear of what, you ask?

Why, fear of the jolly story being otherwise.

Were it otherwise—they might be coming for me.

Was any of this grim internal tabulating fair to modern Germany? Did Germany know or care? Of course not. What is Germany or any nation-state but an aggregate of individuals, each toting her and his aggregate of needs, touched inadvertently by pieces of common history and current culture? Germany as a collective consciousness cares most at any given moment—like any other generalized group—about survival; as a close second, about a quality of survival. Each person in its fold, infant to elder, wants to feel well, do well, thrive and prosper.

All the rest? My imposition.

But isn’t this the way any traveler moves through the world?

* * *

As noted earlier, weather still calls the shots. Never doubt this. Whatever weather happens to be doing wherever we happen to be traveling, that place becomes that weather, in memory. If we’re stuck in Blackburn, England in January, and the dirty snow outside and bitter-freezing temperatures make my husband’s father take one look out the window and climb back upstairs to tunnel back into his bed, that will forever be Blackburn in my brain’s illustrated dictionary. If I am a twenty-year-old living in a Peace Corps trainee dorm in Dakar, Senegal when sudden rains hammer the corrugated roofs like poured nails—and when five minutes later the soaked earth roils steam into a sky white again with boiling sun, while the smell of pummeled leaves and dirt and feces and rotting mangoes and baked bricks and grease and gristly-meat-smoke fills my skull—that’s the permanent imprint, no matter how many years ago it happened. In my mind’s album of emblematic scenes that will be the diorama floating forward, replete with grit and humid stink.

But recent scenes can, and do, eclipse their predecessors.

So when in Berlin, twenty-two years after our freezing first visit, with its plane crash tableau, we step into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting—a bright blue sky filled with marching bands of cotton-puff clouds—suddenly that becomes the new template, the forever-picture of Berlin (maybe of all of Germany) in the brain’s archive.

Come with me into the present tense now. My husband and I have traveled here after visiting our son, to have a swath of time together in this city we scarcely remember.

Our venture seems blessed by weather. As if weather were the Pope in an extremely good mood, it has palmed the crowns of both our heads and declared, Guys, this is gonna be a bell-ringer. I guarantee it.

We know it the moment we step out of the train into the towering interior of the Berlin Hauptbanhof, a megalopolis of a station serving (from the looks of it) the whole universe. Google it: the Hauptbanhof is a symbol, a machine, kinetic art, a multi-level hive; its entire front wall—three sky-piercing facades—a flashing quilt of blue glass. Not least, the station serves as a multiplex shopping mall, whatever you may think of that—several levels of store upon store offering home decor, clothing, jewelry, pharmacy sundries, sports equipment, chocolate, crystal, groceries, booze. This is how we do it, the German sensibility seems to be declaring. Monolith of glass and steel: seen through half-shut eyes, the structure resembles some hokey science fiction conjuring. Hordes push through in all directions around the clock; people wend their bicycles through swarms of walkers.  Frenzied, roaring futuropolis—and once we manage to thread through the exit doors and step outside, the beauty of heavenly weather falls over us like silk.

Shining City! Hope of men!

Because we have allowed ourselves certain occasional luxuries at this stage of our traveling lives, we take a cab to the hotel. Through its windows we gawk at clustered skyscrapers, thronged streets, motorbikes, babies, cafes, businesses, tourists—and everywhere against that sky for three-hundred-sixty degrees, gargantuan building cranes, moving with slow determination like some giant, benevolent aliens tending the expansion of their earthbound nest. Everything’s bathed in sparkling sun. It is June. It is warm. People zoom around on bicycles.

Spazz-out goes into overdrive.

* * *

We loved everything we saw. I can itemize highlights or you can read about them in Rick Steves. Art: dazzling, brilliantly showcased. Architecture: handsome, stately. Streets and parks and buildings, historic and modern, almost always immaculate. Energy: crisp, strong, exhilarating. Ambience: a festive air of good will toward men, fortified by abundant, delicious beer and wine. (Excellent coffee, bakeries, fish.) Best of all, the rollicking momentum of this feckless bien-être felt punctuated and buttressed at every turn by the regular, larger-than-life appearances, inside the cylindrical cones of traffic lights―of a remarkable figure.

Actually, there are two of them: quite different.

The stocky, bright-red little man faces you, both arms stretched wide to indicate, unmistakably, no no, go no further! Whereas the walking little green man is silhouetted, mid-step, from the side, so you can appreciate his long, confident stride. Both men appear to wear a pork-pie hat. Except on Red Guy, who faces us, it looks more like a helmet. But if it were a helmet, it would not (I must insist) be a soldier’s. It would be the helmet of civic duty: that of a crosswalk guard or civil defense volunteer.

Allow me (assisted by Wikipedia) to introduce Ampelmänchen, Little Traffic Light Men, created in 1961 in then-East Germany “by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau (1927–2009), as part of a proposal for a new traffic lights layout...”

Ampelmann! My new best friend. Symbol, especially in his Green version, of a friendly friend who cares for my safety―and much more. Ampelmann signals not just when it is time to go forward but—pay attention please—how. Do as he does, he seems to be urging. Set forth with resolve, with full-hearted expectation.

All that’s often given to us to control, we’re often reminded, is our own response. Response to the unspeakable, the ineffable, the unknown. Ampelmann enacts a best-of-all-possible responses, one that recalls the late E. B. White’s analogy for commencing to write an essay: namely, going out for a walk. (One envisions White’s cheerful ur-essayist venturing forth in exactly the posture of Green Ampelmann, alert, friendly, spirited.) Call this state of mind, say, forwardism, a pre-emptive Yes: heading out to meet whatever may be coming with an already-extended arm―as if ready to shake hands with a promising, heartening, equally glad future.

Ampelmann’s history, easily found online, likewise moves and inspires. How on God’s earth these stout-hearted emblems made their debut in the starved, brutally guarded, beaten-down wasteland of a German Democratic Republic, is tough to imagine. Perhaps the little traffic light men served in some tiny way as encouragement. (Unthinkable hardship and cruelty were givens. Read Joel Agee’s immortal memoir, Twelve Years, a record of his childhood as his then-family struggled to survive in that Dante-esque netherworld.)

A shameless industry of tokens and goods has burst from these now-beloved images, from key-chains to earrings, T-shirts to beach totes.  It’s an exploitation I can’t begrudge. Even thinking about Green Ampelmann, his sprightly, roving manner—easy to imagine him to be whistling—never fails to lift me, a sturdy cocktail of relief and hope. I’ve pasted a circular bumper sticker bearing his greenly-stepping-out form on my car’s back fender. And every time I lay eyes upon that sane, chipper, striding-toward-excellent-adventure fellow—something in me recalibrates. On the spot I resolve, willy-nilly, to do better, be better.

* * *

Only once—in the area near the river called Museum Island, where the city’s most splendid museums align like a set of Parthenons—did a shadow fall over our spazz-out. A busker implored us in winsome sign language for contributions to an apparent charity for the deaf, putting his cheek to mine as a warrant of tender affection. I gave him a couple of Euros. The busker had counted on receiving more than that. In an instant his Peter Pan charm vanished; contempt deadened his face as he turned away. He stalked off to count the afternoon’s take with a female busker. I stared after them, embarrassed and angry with myself as much as with him—I’d been an idiot to fall, even a little, for his false bonhomie, and what was probably a total con anyway to fetch themselves cigarette and beer money. But what right had I to ordain some candy-shell of unilateral cheer as the personality profile for an entire population—a population doubtless as needy and diverse and complicatedly fucked up as any other?

* * *

In hindsight, I missed certain cues—a tightness on people’s faces and in their carriage; the ways they moved, spoke, stood. As noted earlier (against my own spazz-out’s sugarcoating), I seldom felt from German people what you’d call innate warmth. The vibe was trickier. You might call it a kind of girdedness: a controlled, systematic tension of readiness-against-whatever-might-drop; getting on with duties while taking generic care not to cause harm. The message I absorbed from individuals we watched or with whom we had any transaction, was I do what I must. In short, they were earning a living, taking care of life and business. Of course that’s how people everywhere talk to themselves about hauling themselves to a job every day and performing, hour by hour, what that work requires. Perhaps the tightness I read was my own projection.

But surfaces can mislead, or at least rarely tell the whole story. Some months after we returned home, two New Yorker articles appeared. One, by historian Thomas Meaney, focused upon the alarming ascent in Germany of a neo-rightwing movement which tended to scapegoat immigrants. This piece gave the lie—unnervingly—to my breezy supposition that the country had once-for-all morphed into a model of humanitarianism by dint of sheer group will. The other article, by New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger, was called “Ghost Stories.” Bilger journeyed to Berlin to participate in a kind of progressive group therapy, designed to help middle-aged Germans (“unaccustomed to self-pity and allergic to national pride”) exorcize the abiding internal pain of connection with all the history I’d so blithely assumed them safely past. “Theirs was a country responsible for history’s bloodiest war and most efficient mass murder: sixty million killed, including two-thirds of all European Jews,” writes Bilger. “They were here [in the therapy session] to wrestle with that guilt.”

Grown children of German emigrés have not, it appears, escaped the same stigma. “Family history,” Bilger notes, “is an uneasy topic for a German-American…A sense of guilt by association hangs in the air, even for people of my generation.” Bilger was born in 1964. “To be German, it seems, is still to be one part Nazi.” As survivors with direct memories of the war are now dying off, “people began to realize how little they knew about their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. They needed to hear those terrible old stories after all…Kriegskinder, they called themselves: children of war.” You need to know the story, it seems, to excise the story: to free yourself. “Evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations has steadily mounted,” observes Bilger. He then recounts the anguish of each therapy group’s participants, as they tried to understand the behavior of a family member who’d been involved at any level with Nazi actions.

Things had never, apparently, been what they seemed.

* * *

In truth, one real trauma did occur in Berlin—the only one of our voyage. Some people might reject that it qualifies as trauma. We weren’t robbed or beaten; not blindsided by a car or motorbike. No one was injured—mortally. The ordeal was interior: a private bomb whose latent power I’d been striving to escape, or bury deeper, with the busyness of travel.

It had nothing to do with Germany. Yet Germany was its context; therefore, its midwife.

It, too, happened at Museum Island, when I suddenly discovered I’d lost my special museum pass, purchased and handed to me by my husband only moments before—a pass good in all the museums for three days. We had just two days left in the city. Each pass cost about forty dollars, not a fortune but not nothing, and we were trying, as always, to control expenses. In the swirl of people pushing through the receiving area of our first museum—as we were puzzling out how to stash our belongings in one of those little lockers requiring a Euro coin deposited in a sticky slot—my ticket disappeared. We later guessed I’d unwittingly dropped it, and that someone had scooped it. Next came a panicked fluster: furious checking of all pockets, dumping out of the handbag—followed by that frantic, sickened feeling when each object grasped and set aside is not the desired one nor is it sticking to, or hiding, the desired one. My husband—a good, sane, generous, consummately decent but mortal man—got angry with me, incredulous that within mere minutes of its purchase I could somehow have managed to let that pass evanesce into air.

In a stroke, I felt crushed.

Defeated. Emptied. Stupid—not fit to live; suddenly not much caring whether I lived.

Please now allow for a last, perhaps outrageously late disclosure, introducing the submerged monster in this odyssey—of personal grief.

My beloved younger sister, Andrea, had died, suddenly and horribly, of apparent pancreatic failure, about a year earlier. The event could not have been more abrupt: a bolt flung by a Greek god. And though my husband and I had eventually resumed life and travel, moving over the surface of the world in customary ways, I secretly felt as though I had to work twice as hard to convince myself (let alone others) that a world without her—lifelong co-pilot, witness, simultaneous mother and daughter, co-survivor of multiple early losses—was still making sense as a world. Not least, I struggled to convince myself that whatever it was that I called “I” was still making sense as a part of that world. Until the moment of the vanished ticket, the world we looked upon had been making a reasonable show of worldness—if never quite fitting together as it once had.

To be sure, ghost reminders had whispered behind people, settings, objects. The names etched into the glass booth in Mannheim. The aloof, aging man whose roses she’d have praised. The babies and dogs, chotchkes and weather.

During the months after losing her, I would hold my head with both hands to keep it from breaking open. My little girl, my baby wren, soft brown feathers for hair, sitting opposite me on the cool smooth concrete of our Arizona front porch, repeating my language lessons with eager, smiling, trusting brown eyes. Hamburger. Hang-aber. Spaghetti. Ba-sketti. Yellow. Lellow.

It is a deeply strange experience to travel after the death of someone as close to you as your own skin. You regress in ways to a blank slate, almost needing to re-learn the most basic assumptions and practices of a modern society. You look around in bafflement at the colossal, intricate, bearing-down life of a world that has neither paused nor changed a jot; you gaze in wonder at the busy, rushed, full-tilt nonstopness of things. Until our hapless halt near the museum’s banks of lockers, the world’s surface—if gossamer, if whisper-plagued—had sort of “held.” When the little ticket disappeared and my husband grew angry, that thin construct shivered, suddenly cross-hatched with a million infinitesimal cracks. In the next moment, like a hurled glass globe, it fell to bits. And so did I.

I didn’t care anymore where we were, what we did, or whether we had money. I wanted my baby sister back—my second heart, known to me in every pore since they first brought her home in a blanket, she who best knew my own heart and the hearts of her children and husbands and friends, who did everything in her power (sometimes beyond her power) to put her arms around the world, make it happy—the kindest, gentlest, most loving soul I’ll ever know, the only one left who could corroborate everything that had happened to us (early deaths of parents and husbands; gypsy-rover lives eventually made good). In the words of a friend, “a million others should have gone before her.”

But you see, they had. They did.

So how do we measure loss? I stared in shock at her motionless form in the hospital room—we’d arrived too late, too late—that adored face still frowning, as if in dismay and perplexion at the terrible pain which had been her last awareness, her last consciousness.

This really happened.

I have begged my little sister silently, every day since, to give me any sign that she still somehow, somewhere, is. No sign has come, except for dreams. They give the brief comfort of her presence, which may be all I or anyone can realistically hope for. Staring from my emptied handbag to my exasperated husband in the midst of that museum lobby’s noisy mobs, I wanted only to slip back into one of those dreams, away from the brittle, thousand-arrows-deluge of living, to hold my sister tight, smell her clean, apricot-shampoo scent. Nothing mattered then. Not travel, not art, not food or drink, not even my dear husband. Not Germany, not planet Earth.

My husband, recognizing what had been loosed, scrambled to stanch and smooth it over—but I’d lost my bearings. Zombified, tear-streaked, I stumbled back to the ticket cage and bought another pass. We entered the museum. It was the Pergamon, I think. Gallantly, my husband (now in triage mode) tried to distract me, pointing out extraordinariness and sublimity in all directions. I could not respond—could not muster a straw of coherent thought, only sickened freefall as I cast my eyes toward magnificent pillars and priceless tapestries, jewelry, glassware, mosaics, weaponry, tools: marvelous things that people (now dust) had bravely made. I can still feel the bottomless cold abyss of it, the outer-space shriek in my ears. What good to me, the riches of ages? She was gone. What good was anything? What could, in fact, any longer be called good?

To whom, wailed one ancient Egyptian inscription, can I speak today?

My husband and I zigzagged, at careful distance from one another, through immense rooms. The Germans, to their unending credit, had arranged sarcophogi, statuary, bas-reliefs and sculptured busts so that there was plenty of light-filled space around each piece—each piece lit so artfully and subtly, the works themselves seemed to glow. I tried to hang back, give my husband a long lead, make room between us to allow for my ballooning horror, which I could not seem to control.

Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: It is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them. Crave as I did to disappear, the thing that is me lurched on in its same, mute, faithful body: carrying case for a wailing soul.

We kept walking. (He walked. I trailed him.) At last we entered a room in which a massive screen had been mounted on a base of console-height. A long bench was fixed at perfect viewing distance across from the screen.

People were seating themselves there, to watch.

A sign above the installation promised simply, Time Travel.

We sat.

Then all at once we were seeing a semi-animated, computer-graphics-aided film, panning over a landscape of primitive Earth: cave-dweller years, wintry and raw. Soon, swiftly, the camera homed in on a family going about its then-life: a hefty fire crackling, animal skins drying. Details were visible. Our eyes were guided over tools and implements, weapons and eating utensils, crude clothing. Yet the quality of animation softened the view, the panning camera almost smearing it so that the images came at us like a sequence of half-remembered dreams. Then, above the screen, a sort of chronometer (time-ometer?) fast-forwarded several thousand years. And before we knew it we were watching a small tribe building shelters, fishing, dancing, eating. Little kids scrambled; mothers called to them. Laughter. Hammering. Then the time-ometer pushed ahead again and we watched two villages, or townships, at war. We heard shouts and cries and horses screaming, clanks and clunks of metal and wood. A series of stills showed men struggling in combat; we heard them howl in anger and pain. Eerily, what separated this cinematic dream from other kinds were its sounds: no specific language was ever clear but voices carried, voices like ours—as did the warmly familiar sounds of wind and weather, of animals, human merriment, human anguish, human sorrow.

We watched an early wedding. A funeral.

No single word was intelligible: only universally-understood sounds.

This really happened.

Slowly my heart and body calmed and gentled.

Wordlessly, body and heart were absorbing some deep, cellular recognition: the continuum of human struggle, of atrocity, joy, agony and wonder, understood across incomprehensible spans of years.

Up floated a phrase I’ve never forgotten—the hand-lettered title of a folksy mineral display we’d browsed in the Arizona outback many years ago:

The vastness of geologic time.

And the whole of my tired, grieving body recalled slowly, as if by granules through an hourglass, that we had always been part of that. We were part of it—of all we were viewing. Nothing more nor less. We were them. We would fade as they had, this long line of forebears. The time-ometer showed generations blurring inexorably back into a ceaseless, mostly-forgotten past. Me, my sister, her children, their children. All of us sharing a fate stretched along an infinite continuum.

At last, in a trance, we rose and left the museum; emerged blinking into the dusk-lit city of Berlin, the country called Germany, continent known as Europe, planet named Earth, the year denoted, for reasons now nearly forgotten, by the number 2016. And in sepia light, overlooking wide streams of bellowing cars and buses, cop’s whistles, hordes from everywhere moving across squares and playing music and drinking beer and romping with kids in parks and along the river in tour boats, monstrous building cranes nosed slowly side to side in the background as if nodding along with the human roar, against early evening’s fading sun. People were moving, as they must. We moved with them, waking yet still entranced, striding out into it with intensifying resolve to do, to be. Among them, amidst it. Heading out—why not—like Ampelmänchen to meet whatever might next come, while we could. All that it is given to us to invent, to deploy, is response. Later I would think about the curious weightlessness of those moments, as we joined the surging cars and crowds—but also about how, at the same time, I felt the time-ometer pressing forward: infinitesimal, patient, relentless. And in truth it was not a bad feeling, not bad at all.

 

 

BIO

Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Her last novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Joan’s work has received many honors and awards, including the Richard Sullivan Prize and two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards. She lives in Northern California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

My Green Card  

by Maria Lopez

 

 

Recently a friend gave me a greeting card. The front of it was a beautiful bright green, like the fresh grass and trees in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. My friend didn’t know the effect her little card had on me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For years my secret dream and hope has been to have a green card. And here I was holding one in my hand! All I could do was make fun of myself – How easy it is to make my dream come true! I’m so excited I’d better be careful not to have a heart attack before I get to enjoy this gift. I need to calm down.

A Chinese classmate once told me a proverb – “If you want something very badly, you won’t get it. You have to be calm and put yourself in a higher state of mind, and things will come to you.” That’s good advice to avoid a heart attack, but not to get a green card. I had a roommate who’s very religious, and she told me to be patient and leave my situation in God’s hands. With all respect, God has no special influence with immigration officers. Paying an immigration lawyer also doesn’t help. When I first came here and got a job as a maid in a big house, I went to a big office in Queens that had a big sign outside – “Immigration Lawyers. If you have legalization problems, we can help you get a green card.” The sign also said, “We handle divorces and bankruptcies, as well as foreclosures.” I ran there every week on my day off with twenty-five dollars in my hand and gave it to the lawyer who was supposed to be helping me. He was from my country, Colombia, so he spoke Spanish, was well dressed, and seemed very professional. He took all my information and wrote it down, asked me how much money I’d brought that day, and told me he was going to the court and I should come back next week. He said the same thing every week, and every week I expected him to hand me my green card.

One day, after I had given him a hard-earned two hundred dollars in total during the eight weeks I’d been going to him, I was sitting in the waiting room full of desperate people like me when the police came. Some of them went into the lawyers’ offices, and some talked to us. One policeman was Puerto Rican and spoke to us in Spanish. He asked if we had gotten receipts for the money we gave the lawyers.  Nobody had.

I started to cry and told the young policeman that I had already paid two hundred dollars! Two other women were crying harder than me. One of them, who was beautiful, young, and well dressed cried out, “Two hundred?  That’s nothing! I gave him two thousand dollars!” The other one, middle-aged and humble-looking, wailed, “Ay, I paid him three thousand and five hundred dollars!” The policeman was astonished. He asked the women, “Where did you get so much money?” The middle-aged lady said she had sold her house back in her country. The young beautiful one told the policeman she saved all the money she made from cleaning offices at night. After that, no one paid any attention to my poor, lost two hundred dollars, the most money I’d ever had in my life. It couldn’t compete with their thousands.

The next thing that happened was the three lawyers and their three young secretaries, all pretty girls in high heels, all crying, were led out of the offices by the other policemen, their hands behind their backs in handcuffs. We all stopped talking and stared, confused, wondering if we were the next to be arrested! But no, the police went out and loaded the lawyers and their beautiful secretaries, with their mascara running down their cheeks, into the police cars. One secretary got a high heel caught in something and it broke off as she was getting in. The broken heel was left in the street as the cars pulled away.

I was so nervous, thinking they might come back to arrest us that I sneaked out the door and walked as fast as I could to the subway. I could feel an invisible hand grabbing the back of my collar. I got on the first train that came in which was going the wrong way for me, but I didn’t care.

Next week on my day off I headed to Queens as usual, but this time it was different. Someone had told me that they wouldn’t arrest me: “You’re a victim,” he said. I was nervous anyway, but I was more curious. When I got there I stood across the street and looked at the closed storefront. It had a big sign taped to the window. The only word I recognized was “Police.” Finally I got the courage to cross over. A man was passing and I asked him if he spoke Spanish. He did, and he told me that the lawyers didn’t have a license to operate this business. They weren’t real lawyers! I told him I’d given them two hundred dollars to get a green card.  I was hoping for a little sympathy, but he hurried off, almost laughing, and said something that sounded like “Furgedaboutid!” I didn’t know what the words meant, so I quickly wrote down what I’d heard, and looked for a Spanish person who could speak English and was friendly. I stopped a woman passing by who seemed to have the complete package, and read aloud what I’d written. “Olvidalo,” she said, “Forget about it.” I thanked her. But I never did forget about it. I’d still like to have my two hundred dollars back.

Since that time, I’ve seen a few immigration officers and explained my situation. I asked if there was any way I could become legal and get my green card. They didn’t have me arrested, thank God, but the answer was always the same – no. They may have even felt a little compassion for me, but compassion wasn’t in the job description.

So I never got the legal green card, but I still have the green card my friend gave me. Who knows? Maybe some day in the future when there are no borders, a green card from a friend will be more important than one from the government.

 

 

 

BIO

Maria Lopez is from the Andes Mountains in Colombia. She grew up in a little shack with no running water or electricity; she only had the moonlight to lead her at night. She could not read or write in Spanish as she had no education, so she had her work cut out for her when she moved to New York and had to learn English. Through working for Americans and free writing classes at the public library and colleges, she has learned to read and write English, better than she speaks it; her pronunciation leaves many Americans scratching their heads. Writing has become her newfound passion and priority.

 

 

 

 

Break the Silence

by Damilola Olaniyi

 

Most days I do not know who I am anymore. Somewhere in the recent past I refuse to remember my identity, I became a conformist and blamed it on the culture – for the sake of peace – my identity is shaky at best. I try to convince myself that I  have grown, that I have become older, more mature; but it is just the brand of lie I tell myself to make my brain stop buzzing so that I can get some shut eye.

On most days, I wake up in cold sweat, doubtful if I really ever went to sleep. The exhaustion becomes worse than the previous night and I check to see why my fourth finger feels a little stiff as I try to flex it and when it finally touches my sweaty cheek while catching the morning light, I find that I am married. But how did it happen, in my sleep?

Weeks leading up to our first year anniversary, I do not understand how I got there and I am so confused. We dance in a funny way and the silence between us is strained. We go to great lengths to avoid each other and I know the magic is lost. I wonder why our dance never seems to satisfy the pregnant silence as I crack my knuckles and he moves one leg, I adjust my pillow and he pulls the covers, I sigh deeply and he presses his phone. We are not the people we are many months ago and I am convinced I traded my happiness to save my family name. You see, we are all girls, five of us and it is said that my father is not man enough. But it is said in whispers so that there would not be a blood bath. My mother has cried and begged and fasted but her X chromosome only merged with another X to produce five girls. She has given up on a male child which is just as well. But still I do not know how to describe myself.

My mother’s brother who helped to discipline me by spraining my ankle with a Levi’s belt buckle on a visit one dull afternoon would possibly describe me as extremely stubborn, in need of taming. Now I understand why his family is still in London aside from the passport detail, my nervous long fingers might just leave welts on their bodies.

My father who would tell me in a good mood that I looked just like his dear beloved mother in stature and physical appearance would proudly say that stubbornness runs in his side of the family. He would also call me a rebel leader and non-conformist, a child who knows what to say to get herself out of any situation not a limp noodle who gets lost in pleasing her mother’s heart for fear of losing her identity.

For my mother, I have put her enemies to shame. With the martyrical tone most African mothers adopt, she would thank God in my presence, say a prayer out loud even though we both really know that those spoken thoughts are meant for me. And on the days when I try to be a good daughter I cut her some slack absolving her of the guilt of my bad sleep and persistent headaches by pasting a smile on my face even though I secretly worry about laugh lines forming around my mouth and my cheeks ache.

And that link created at birth during the nine month bonding period, I’m afraid it never happened for us and what little there is has faded out upon instruction to stay away from my father’s house. I did not even have the luxury of absorbing the message first hand. So now, I tell myself never again to apologise for my writings, avoid family as much as I possibly can and mutter to myself that I would find Me, that things would change and people will see me for who I truly am when in truth I am scared deep down and even the tastiest desserts would not drive away this fear.

And so when at thirty I am married, I tell myself that I am one of the lucky ones all the while wondering how I got here. Even though in my husband’s words I broke the jinx, I wonder why I am deeply unhappy waking up next to him and I place one leg on the floor at three AM because I am unable to sleep for fear that I would wake up as a mother with mournful tales to tell my own daughter.

 

 

BIO

Damilola Olaniyi is an eclectic creative. She is the brain behind Onkowe Contest aimed at helping children discover their creative side. She is a script writer. She loves writing, reading and has a passion for moving images. Some of her reviews have appeared in local dailies like The Daily Sun and Nigerian Pilot.

 

 

 

Motorcycles, Hot Rods, and Fine Art:
The Life and Times of Renaissance Man, Don Nowell

 

 

by Paul Garson

 

With half the year already gone, one can start reflecting not only on the future but the past as well. It can get pretty interesting when you’re looking back 75 years and start clicking off the redlined high points. You also add in Father Time and Mother Gravity calling in their chips. Case in point, Don Nowell of Don Nowell Design.

We’ve known about Don for some 30-odd years…and there have been some really odd ones…but you could say anything he touches turns to gold in one form or another… especially when horsepower, performance and innovative design figure into the project at hand. When it comes down to it, Don is an “artist” in the real sense of the word, one gifted with an analytic mind and a work ethic that nudges fanatical in its attention to details.

Let’s start from the beginning. When we made the call to check on his current doings, we heard his reply to our opening query “Is this the famous Don Nowell?” to which he replied “I think you’ve got the wrong number.” But before he could hang up, we explained the reason for our visit and started gathering the facts.

Don was born in Inglewood, CA on May 22, 1941 at 4:30 in the morning. Since then he likes to get an early start. By ten he was earning money mowing lawns, hawking newspapers and selling flowers on the weekends. In Junior High during the ‘50s it gave him some coin to buy some nifty clothes. “It was all about impressing the girls,” chuckles Don. “They were all wearing their poodle skirts and tight sweaters, so we guys had to look cool.”

His first wheels was naturally a bicycle which he “hot-rodded” by placing playing cards in the spokes to produce some “vroom-vroom.” Then in 1956 Don was in high school taking shop classes where he earned his first award, winning Best in Class in a Rotary Club competition for his electric motor, the best of 320 entries. “It was at this point I learned to operate a lathe. I also couldn’t resist hopping up that little motor, trying to get the most rpm out of it and had it smokin’ and jumping all over the bench.” You could say the die was cast, as this was Don’s first motor, one of a long line of high performance engines that would power cars, bikes and boats.

Another milestone arrived at age 16, when after working his butt off after school at a model toy shop, he saved enough to buy his first car, a turnkey 1951 Chevy Bel Air coupe, paying a grand total of $325. “Most of my friends had ’49, ’50 Fords but I just liked the look of the ’50- ‘51Chevies better.” The car just had a stock 6-cylinder, but Don took it right to the Cohia muffler shop in San Fernando and had it slammed to the ground with a spindle kit, leaving ¾ inches of inch ground clearance.” Don was already letting off sparks. He laughs and adds, “At San Fernando High, they wouldn’t let you in class unless your car was lowered.” He also bought himself an airbrush set and tried his hand at scalloping his own custom paint job, cream over charcoal grey. “I just read some articles in Hot Rod magazine to see what Larry Watson was doing, his work just taking off.” But when he took his “low-rider” to Bob’s Big Boy in Van Nuys, he got turned away. Only hot rods allowed. This was 1957, the year of Sputnik and a rapidly changing world.

Graduating high school, he wrangled a job at the San Fernando based Tom Carroll Chevrolet as a lot boy handling deliveries. One day he spotted a spiffy ’59 Impala, white with a turquoise interior. It happened to be a repo and the price was tempting. Says Don, “It came with a 3-2-barrel carbed 4-speed with a hydraulic cam so it wouldn’t turn much rpm, but it was a pretty car, a neat car. I painted the wheels the color of the interior and street raced it all over the Valley.”

Then one night, Don’s ’59 got bested by a ghost white ’57 Chevy. Later he spotted the car, now parked and went to investigate. “The owner’s name was Kenny Safford and we became best of friends. He later became famous as a fuel dragster racer. He was also a member of the Road Kings and I started hanging out with those guys. It eventually brought me to a ’57 Chevy with a motor built by Ray Cash. I sold my Impala and got it. It was my first serious street racer and skirt chaser.”

Since the motor had seen plenty of racing and was a bit tired, Don decided to rebuild it, his first time tackling a pro hot rod motor. When asked where he got the skills to do the wrenching, Don laughs again and says, “I didn’t. I just took the heads off and started doing it. Rappa-rappa, I got it together.”

In late1960, Don took another quantum leap,  buying a ’37 Chevy Coupe bodied car was not in top form after being flogged at El Mirage and Don had to work his magic to get it up to snuff for the B Gas drags, choosing that class because it was the most competitive with more cars to race. He then took part in the early NHRA sanctioned events and at independent ¼-mile drag strips at San Fernando, Long Beach and Irwindale. “My pit crew was me and my buddy John with my tow car tied with a rope. It was run what you brung.

“The first time I raced the car at San Fernando, in September 1963, I ran 11.85 on an 11.84 record, beat everybody and took a trophy home. That was a good day.”

People started taking notice, Don and his dragster featured in the December 1965 issue of Hot Rod. It would also get him invited to join the Hot Rod crew for both the ’65 and ’66 events at the Bonneville Salt Flats.  He would campaign his Gasser for four years, lastly setting the speed record in ’66 at Irwindale with 121.80 mph in B Gas.

Don with some of the trophies won by his super Chevy and his heavy foot. The tall trophy on the far left was for a First Place at the L.A. Sport Arena, the trophy with the globe awarded at the Winter Nationals Car Show circa 1965 while the smaller trophies represent wins at the various drag races.

Don was also slinging a hammer to help pay for work on his car, and things were getting pretty slow financially, but then he got a call in April of ‘67 to work at engine shop, and not just any shop, Don finding himself building Cam Am race motors at the famous engine shop run by  Al Bartz. In fact Don was his first employee. “I first started just doing rebuilds because Al wanted to check my assembly knowledge in building a small block before I started both rebuilding engines and all the new engines. They were 350 Chevy’s stroked a little, making about 525 horses. I’d also modify other parts like the distributors, the water pump, the front timing cover, etc. to get parts ready for the engine builds. By ’68, he was shop foreman, but left to start his own business, working out of his Dad’s garage.

 

In the process he met a boat racer, Tom Paterson, who also owned a helicopter company and ended up building parts for choppers, including the very first Los Angeles TV station news helicopter, that for KTLA Channel 5. Asked if he got in some rides, he says, “No, I don’t like to fly so wouldn’t have enjoyed that a bit. Airplanes are bitchin’ but I don’t like being up in the air.” But Don was still building car motors and flying as fast as he could on terra firma, but he did step off onto the water.

Don’s stint in the Air Force reserve helped fuel his interest in aviation.

Seen here is one of his favorite, the F-4 Phantom Navy fighter, in this case a radio controlled scale model

“The Sparkler” skittering across the Colorado River.

Don found himself working on race boats, even piloting his buddy Paterson’s 385 horsepower, 1300 lb. 16-ft long “Crackerbox” class race boat aptly named “Sparkler” with its motor in the center, rider in the back. “It’d scare the wee out of you like an ocean going Sprint car. We set the record at 95.70 mph in the Flying Kilo at the Colorado River. Tom’s now 88 and still racing boats.”

Jerry Titus campaigned in Trans-Am, motors built by Don.

In 1969, Don got another of those milestone making phone calls, this time from the legendary racer and moto journalist Jerry Titus who wanted him to build his engines, 302 Chevy’s with cross ram manifolds, to race the last part of the season. Titus also raced for Carroll Shelby winning championships in ’67 and a class victory at the ’69 24 Hours of Daytona. Sadly, Titus aka “Mr. Trans Am,” would die in a 1970 crash during the Trans Am race at Road America.

When asked when he got into motorcycles, Don points to 1964 when he bought his first bike, a Yamaha 80 motocross, then wanting more power went for a 175 Montesa for blasting out into the desert and through the canyons. Says Don, “Back then people were running imported Greeves and the Dots fitted with Blooie pipes, basically straight pipes and you could them making bitchin’ music playing off the canyon walls, but then they went to those expansion chambers for more power but they sounded like bumble bees.”

In 1970 he met up with a young guy named Terry Dorsch who raced AMA Grand Nationals, mostly flat track events on Triumphs against the likes of John Hateley. Terry had ordered a Trackmaster frame and it was specially marked with#1 on its bottom. “I started riding with Terry on the fire roads and he taught me how to go fast and slide in the corners. We did that for ten years. It was a ball and very addictive. Terry used to say it was the most fun you could have with your pants on. I got to go with Terry when he raced flat rack at Ascot, then he started running Champion frames in Northridge. He asked me to make brake rotors for their Champion flat trackers and I made about 200 of them, some probably still being used in vintage racing. That’s also the time period when I did my first frame-up build, my Honda thumper. ”

Don’s first scratch built bike powered by rare Honda race motor was built for doing it in the dirt…and fast!

Don built the frame out of .049 chrome moly tubing, tipping the scale at a mere 15 lbs. plus a 4 lb. swingarm. Says Don, “That was a cool thing, building that frame from scratch, a real education.” Into that frame Don stuffed a rare Honda factory short rod, big bore 350cc motor made for the Baja 1000 race. “I just happened to get one of those trick engines with its sandcast barrel. I got some metric wrenches and took it apart. The cylinder had a quarter inch lining, so I bored that baby out to 385. The frame was nickel plated, the gas tank yellow, the seat upholstered in metallic blue Naugahyde. It was some bike, but then Yamaha came out the TT500 and I just had to have it, so like a dummy I sold my Honda, and I still wonder where it is today.”

During the 1970s while working on his race motor builds, Don figured necessity was the mother of invention. Since it was a mother trying to get the angles of a valve job to meet exactly which then determines the diameter of the valve and where it seats, he came up with a tool of his own design, calling it Qwik-Seat, and it made the job much easier. Gaining a patent, he sold them to machine shops all over the country.

1923 McFarlan, owned by silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, was restored by Don. The rear section featured a special trunk that house booze for Fatty who took his film breaks getting toasted.

Jumping to 1975, Don took another creative tangent when he was signed on by the late J.B. Nethercutt, wealthy owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics, to restore one of his 250 rare classic cars, now on public display at the San Sylmar Museum. In this case, the project was a 1923 McFarlan, the chauffeur driven Knickerbocker Cabriolet Twin-Valve Six originally owned by the silent screen star Fatty Arbuckle who went down in flames after a major scandal.

Says Don, “I worked on that car every day for four months at the museum’s workshop. It had come out of the paint shop with just the bare body, so I put everything else on it…all the metal pieces, the bright work, glass…fabricated the front grill guard, the tail lights, you name it. The car, painted a ketchup color, won a Best of Class at the 1975 Pebble Beach. I was standing there next to the car when I heard a familiar sounding voice say, can you open the door, I’d like to look at the interior. I turn around and there’s Clint Eastwood. And I said, sure, you bet. He looks inside, and he says, thank you. And I say, oh, you’re welcome.” It sure rounded out a cool day. Then later, Mr. Nethercutt came up and said, “Put your hand out. I want to give you a good handshake for turning my old truck into a show winner.”

It was the first recognition of his talents, nor far from the last.

In 1978, while hanging out with Terry Dorsch at a party, Don met up with veteran screen actor Bobby Carradine who told Terry he had a Triumph he wanted to put together. When Terry looked at the Trackmaster frame, he noticed it had #1 stamped into it…so it was his first frame from back in the day. Terry was pretty busy so asked Don if he wanted to handle the project. “I asked how they wanted the bike to look and they said, just do it like you were building it for yourself. Now in high school I had drawn sketches of my dream Triumph and Bobby said go for it. It took two years but I got it done, a real race bike, the real deal.

As Don recalls the moment with his usual photographic memory when Carradine first through a leg over the bike, he says, “He’s wearing cowboy boots, pressed Levis, crisp white shirt, leather jacket with fur collar, shades, a scarf, no helmet, the bike wafting the distinctive aroma of Castor bean oil, it’s the pre-requisite Lee Marvin/Keenan Wynn classic attire for an actor blasting down Sunset Boulevard. One kick and the bike starts…rappa-rappa!…and he’s off blasting down Sunset Boulevard. Bobby’s riding his dream bikes, laying it over in the corners, wide open megaphone growling.  One of the better days in my life! And we got the photos. The Triumph was featured as a center fold in an issue of Motorcyclist. Bobby still has that bike, almost 40 years later.”

Then Don took yet another jog in the road, trying out a bit of “downsizing” when he was contracted by Fred Thompson, the new owner of the famous Los Angeles based Smith Miller Toy Company (circa 1948-55), known world-wide for their large scale model trucks, beautifully crafted and very expensive, even more so as collectibles when the company faded out. Getting things going again in 1979, Fred asked Don to turn a flatbed trailer into a low-boy to carry a Doepke D-6 Caterpillar Tractor, another top end classic toy. Using vintage photos to take measurements, Don made a balsa mock-up, then a metal version as the final prototype prior to production. In the process he also designed and built a pumper fire truck. Fashioned in 1/16th scale, the large models measured from 22-48 inches long. Don laughs and says, “It was up to me to figure how A fit into B, and I built 20 trucks, about one new design a year, both prototype and production, for the 20 years, producing about a 1000 trucks at my shop in the first three years. The rebirth of the Smith Miller company proved immensely successful, eventually producing 48 different hand assembled trucks, much sought after in limited editions.

It’s safe to characterize Don as a “Man for All Seasons and All Reasons.” For example, he even took a bite out of the dental industry. In 1980 he met the people at the Proma Company and designed several prototypes for fixtures and appliances used during dental procedures.

Now into the 1984, Don found time to build another fire-breathing motorcycle. In this case, it was commissioned by Michael Bowen, another Hollywood actor, and half-brother to Bobby Carradine. The BSA triple project featured a Marzocchi front end as well as a motor beefed up with an 840cc kit by hyper motor guru Jack Hateley. During the build, Don designed and fabricated a bunch a neat components as well as the 3-into-1 pipe. The badboy Beezer was also featured in a 1986 issue of Motorcyclist, the magazine recognizing the quality of Don’s work.

Then another quirk of fate occurred. While perusing model vehicle magazines, Don noticed the high-end car models gaining attention for French and Spanish artisans. “It got my wheels turning to try my hand at world class models. But I didn’t know what to build. Those guys already had a foot hold in car models.” But while talking with his buddy at the aforementioned dental company, he heard him say, Well, you big dummy, why don’t you build a Harley model. “Yeah, cool, okay, and I thought a ¼ scale, two-foot long man-sized model would be the real deal. So I got it going, that was in 1994.”

Meticulous attention to detail makes it difficult to distinguish the full-sized Softail from Don’s “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” version.

The prototyping alone took 13 months, the design based on the Harley-Davidson Softail with the Evo motor.  Previously, his only scratch-built bike building experience was with the Honda thumper and now he was going from full-scale to quarter-scale. So how to make it happen? It turned out that Nick Ienatsch, now well-known in the pages of Motorcyclist, was dropping by in the evenings to earn a few extra bucks by doing some spot-welding work on the model cars Don had been designing. Don says, “I go up to Nick and say, where’s your Harley. He says it was at his Dad’s house in Salt Lake City. I told him I needed a bike to get dimensions. He says hold on, and a few minutes later I get a call from Frank Kaisler the Editor at Motorcyclist. I told him my story. Later that day, he gave me a brand new Softail and I rode it around for a week. I started measuring the length of frame, the swing arm pivot, head stock angle, all the dimensions and then divided it by four, took my

blueprint paper and started drawing. I also got the dimensions from a set of brand new S&S cases. At Monday night bike gatherings at a burger stand in Van Nuys, I’d meet Frank who’d bring me a part, an oil pump, a hand lever, whatever I needed to get my measurements to make an exact scaled bike.”

Get out the magnifying class. For example, Don made the swingarm pivot bolts, the rear and front axle bolts and nuts, the front end bolts, the head stem bolts…all cut from stainless on his lathe and milled to attach the 1/16th inch Allen heads, then polished each tiny piece and we’re talking 152 miniature screws for each bike. Talk about labor intensity, just to make the rear axle sleeve nut, it took 55 separate moves. The frame parts alone took months of machining. In this case when they say big things come in small packages, they weren’t whistlin’ Dixie.

Don wanted the bike to “feel” right as well as look right. So the swing arm moves with 3/4 inch of travel as does the front fork. The left hand lever incorporates a spring for the operational feel of a clutch lever. The right lever is fitted with a rubber o-ring so that as you squeeze on it, you feel resistance, replicating the feel of a front brake lever, the same for the footbrake lever. For the shift lever, there’s a ball détente, so you click-up, click-down, echoing gear changing, again like a real bike.

He went so far as to upholster the seats in real leather, added .040  of an inch diameter individual polished stainless spokes laced to the wheels. He also contacted the Avon Tire Company in England to secure permission to cast from molds exact rubber miniatures of their tires including their logos, and the Avon people graciously agreed, eager to see the finished product themselves. To thank them, Don handmade a unique pen and pencil set incorporating the polished wire wheel and mounted tire. Don chuckles and says, “The Avon honcho wrote back saying “You really screwed me. Now I have to buy a brand new desk because your pen and pencil set is so nice.”

In 2000, with the dawn of new millennium, Don shipped a specially commissioned Knuckle version of his model to the Motor Company in Milwaukee, this before the new Harley-Davidson museum was completed, so it was kept in their archives department until moved to the new museum upon its opening in July 2008.

The paint for his bikes was various candy pearls, except for the Harley-Davidson Museum model. They wanted a Knuckle chopper that looked like something aa guy would have built at home in 1960. There was a custom red scalloped, yellow paint job, but no polish on the cases, the barrels black, aftermarket open primary, just like back in the day.

A motorcycle fan in Germany noticed Don’s creations in a local magazine and just had to have one…to the point that one day he arrived at Don’s house/work shop in Granada Hills, CA and “went shopping” and upon up close and personal inspection it turned out that he had to have not one, but three…including a black Fatboy based on his own bike and also a Knucklehead created in the likeness of the iconic Capt. America chopper seen in the classic 1969 film Easyrider.

Don’s workshop contains a wide spectrum of industrial grade  and vintage tools down to surgical instruments capable of fashioning almost microscopic components.

Don’s latest projects include building replicat of Bonneville speed record  bike, here seen in mock-up stage.

2017 and Don Nowell’s “Engineered Art Worth Its Weight in Gold”

Says Don during our most recent conversation with him, “For a long time I’ve been wanting to build some art for the real art world. I had tried some stuff with the bikes I built, pieces out of wood and aluminum but that didn’t fly, so put the pieces back in the drawer. But after I took some hard knocks including losing both my Mom and Dad and then my lady friend and most recently, in March of this 2016, seriously injuring my back which was keeping me mostly bedridden, I was feeling pretty low. I knew I needed to do something to get back on my feet mentally, something that turned a new leaf, to step in another direction besides the gearhead arena…so I put head together to create some world class art.”

“I wanted something both plain and elegant at the same time. Something that drew your eye and kept it, something that wowed your senses. So I gathered rare woods from South America, Africa and Australia, all with awesome colors and grains. I’m a wood nut and love the grain, and found that the use of clear coating really makes it pop, a mile deep… there’s nothing like it.

Don’s premiere piece was titled “GoldBlades” and in part was inspired by the vintage mirrors and golden pocket watches he had seen during his experiences at the Nethercutt Museum. Deciding to employ blade shapes and gold to create the reflections he sought, Don took out his French curve templates and starting drawing, counting on the smooth transitions the forms allowed. After making some full sized sketches, he started making parts, finally sending the parts to the platers, focusing on the ultimate richness of 24K gold matched to a black granite finish for contrast. Says Don, “When it all came together, it exceeded my expectations, the gold having this rich, rosy finish that is staggering when amplified by the reflections playing back and forth from any angle your view it from.”

Tasmanian veined Eucalyptus on Gold Base, the piece is titled “GoldenWood” and measures 22 inches long, six inches wide, 12.5 inches high.

A work titled “GoldenBlades” features a total of 100 pieces including 14 separate 24K gold plated blades set in a mathematical progression, creates unique visual impact from all directions and angles. It measures 36 inches high, 14 inches wide, 22 inches long.

As for his choice of materials, Don says, “You can’t ask for anything better than Mother Nature’s finest… gold…and the trickest woods available. There’s nothing like seeing the gold and woods together…it’s the best of the best.” Toward that goal he opted for 7075T6 billet aluminum, the hardest you can get but also the best for acquiring the 24K highly polished gold plating. The choice of woods offered include Maple, Walnut, Burbinga burl, Tasmanian Resin Vein Eucalyptus, Buckeye burl, American Redwood and others, all finished to perfection.

These GoldenWood and GoldenBlade models are currently available with more designs in the work. In addition to fine art collectors, it would seem they would also lend themselves well as exceptional corporate gifts or even as exceptional awards of achievement.

If you’re interested in investing in art that grows in value every day, check out www.donnowellart.com, email him at dn@donnowelldesign.com or call Don at (818) 363-8564. International delivery as well as local Los Angeles pick-up available.

Post-script:

As we put the final touches on this story, we’ve become aware of Don’s growing difficulties, time and gravity taking their toll. The sale of his awesome art will go toward easing the mounting financial stress of his long-term recovery now requiring round-the-clock healthcare. While it’s especially hard for a solid, self-sufficient guy like Don to reach out for assistance, at 75, he sums it up with his tell-tale sense of humor, “I’m happy, just fucked up! Don’t get old!”

 

BIO

Paul GarsonPaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

I Was the Dean of Futures Studies

by Barbara J. Campbell

April 20, 2008

Greenfield Community College
English Department
One College Drive
Greenfield, MA 01301

Dear Search Committee Members:

I am writing to apply for the Full-Time Lecturer English Composition position, reference code FAC 91540 start date August 28, 2008, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my six years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and American literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is best demonstrated by my educational philosophy, the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department, and my student evaluations. I integrate the Socratic Method and traditional lecture in order to accommodate particular learning styles. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, most of them writing intensive.

I have worked with a variety of student writers throughout my career as an instructor: low-income and first-generation college students enrolled in the federally funded TRIO program, undergraduates preparing for nursing and business careers, English majors, non-native speakers of English, transfer students, international students, and continuing education students. All of my courses, whether Basic Writing, Freshman Composition, or American Literature, include readings from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class writers, LGBT authors, and writers with disabilities. The attached student evaluations corroborate my commitment to multicultural and diverse curricula that draws from students’ experiences to challenge them academically. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). My highest scores (9.7 in American Literature, 8.8 in Basic Writing, 8.7 in Literature and Composition) have well exceeded department averages. Due to my success in our program, the department allowed me to teach advanced courses such as American Literature, an opportunity granted only to advanced Ph.D. students.

Although I have not taught at a community college previously, working with students from varied academic experiences has shown me that I can best put my skills to use in an open admissions institution.

Many of the economically disadvantaged students I have taught needed to balance the demands of full-time employment while attending school. In several cases, the student had family responsibilities, such as a single-parent raising children or an international student attending college with the goal of obtaining a good job so his family could join him to live in the United States. Instead of relegating the potential stressors of work and family experiences to the margins, though, and viewing them as obstacles to student accomplishment, I devised innovative writing assignments that invite students to reflect and incorporate their experiences from outside the classroom.

I am seeking a position at Greenfield Community College because the institution provides an exceptional education to a diverse student population, many of who may initially find state universities and private liberal-arts schools financially out of their reach. I began my teaching career as many in our profession do: tutoring students individually in all aspects of academic reading and writing. The experience I gained tutoring in writing centers serves as the basis for my teaching philosophy as an English instructor. My teaching style works to cultivate the student’s own voice through a rich, inner dialogue with a variety of textual forms.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with the students at Greenfield Community College. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae and references. My teaching philosophy, excerpts from student evaluations, and course syllabi are enclosed. Should you require a teaching portfolio or any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at barbara.campbell@uconn.edu or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Ph.D. Candidate in English, UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

May 1, 2008

Mystic Seaport Museum,
The Museum of America and The Sea
P.O. Box 6000
Mystic, CT 06355

Dear Human Resources:

I am writing to apply for the historical reenactor position Miss L.E. Ackerman for Mystic Seaport’s nineteenth-century living history maritime museum advertised in the Norwich Bulletin. Given the sketch of Miss Ackerman’s character, I think that my six years of teaching experience, research in nineteenth-and-twentieth century American women writers, and affection for intramural baseball fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is attributable to my educational philosophy which combines the Socratic Method with traditional lecture. These approaches are transferable and ideally suited to the reenactor’s art of first-person interpretation required at Mystic’s nineteenth-century replica of a New England Coastal Village. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, all of them highly interactive.

My work with a variety of American literary and cultural texts would create an authentic portrayal of Miss Ackerman. Imagine a composite character based on different protagonists found in nineteenth-century American women’s novels: Jo and Beth March from Little Women (1868), Ellen Montgomery and Alice Humphreys from The Wide, Wide World (1850), even the statue of the Korl Woman from Life in the Iron Mills (1861) could serve as an inspiration. Many of these women, whether angels, orphans, or invalids, tested the boundaries of the traditional domestic roles of marriage and motherhood when granted greater access to higher education, including even those consumptive British Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. In fact, my recent experience with whooping cough coupled with my own economic struggles would only enhance my portrait of Miss Ackerman: I can die from lack of oxygen and exhaustion on the job with verisimilitude. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). Therefore, I would excel at playing Miss Ackerman in Mystic’s Performance Outreach Program for K-12 students.

Although some years have passed since I’ve played America’s favorite pastime, I welcome the chance to hone my athletic skills with Mystic Village’s all-female Blue Stockings baseball club.

According to Mystic’s website, The Blue Stockings were “inspired by a photograph of the 1876 Vassar Resolutes,” one of two teams Vassar College created in 1866 to play baseball on campus. It just so happens that I’ve completed extensive research about women and higher education at the Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections as part of my dissertation. This makes me intimately familiar with the college culture in which the Resolutes played. While not adept at recreating 1860s baseball games, especially when uniformed in a dress and crinolette, I could enrich other reenactors characters by researching primary sources in the archives.

I am seeking a position as historical reenactor Miss L.E. Ackerman because Mystic Seaport’s Living History Museum provides an informative and entertaining experience to all members of the public. If hired as a reenactor I hope my performance would prove invaluable beyond the summer season. Due to financial constraints, I am pursuing an alternative career path instead of returning to my graduate program in the Fall. My teaching style would work to cultivate visitors’ knowledge of nineteenth-century American women and maritime history through a rich dialogue on a variety of subjects.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with Mystic Seaport’s visitors. I have included a copy of my resume and references. In addition, my teaching portfolio includes exercises for the reenactment course at Mystic that I hope to teach: “I Would Go Back In Time: An Introduction to Roleplaying.” Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Master of Arts, English
UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360


 

 

June 20, 2008

Press Services
International Headquarters
8400 2nd Avenue
Montreal, Qc H1Z 4M6
Canada

 

Dear Mr. Laliberté and Mr. Gauthier,

I am writing to apply for the position of Giovanni the Clown (CAS03136) in your touring show Dralion advertised on Cirque Du Soleil’s website. Given the description of the show and the role of Giovanni, I think that my many years of busking, study of Eastern philosophy, and dislocation skills fit the preferred qualifications of the job.

Although I have over fifteen years of formal training in voice, my success as a singing street performer is best demonstrated by the nickels and dimes left in my guitar case and the rave reviews elicited from passing strangers. By September of 1995, my folk trio and I sung over 50 songs in 10 venues across the East Coast ranging from Portland’s Monument Square to Boston’s Faneuil Hall. I have performed in front of a variety of audiences in my career as a busker: skateboard punks, snot-nosed children who lacked adult supervision, the downtown lunch crowd of CPAs and insurance agents, soccer moms, yuppie summer tourists, drunken sailors on shore leave, the homeless, the elderly, and finally, the toughest crowd of all—Mormons. My set-list of songs reflects my sensitivity to and understanding of a diverse audience; all of my songs include selections from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class musicians, LBGT lyricists, and even musically challenged Canadian singers such as Céline Dion. The attached summary of scores corroborates my commitment to a multicultural and diverse playlist that draws on and challenges the audience’s experiences using innovative arrangements and instruments including the kazoo, slide whistle, and the wholly underrated thumb-piano. My average “Audience Evaluation of Performance” is $8.00 out of $10.00 per hour, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” ($8-$10 per hour). My highest scores ($9.00 and one transfer ticket for the city bus from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young covers, $8.00 from a capella barbershop and blues-jazz classics, $8.75 from Christmas carols and madrigals) have well exceeded city averages. Due to the trio’s consistent success, we landed the opportunity to perform at the much coveted lawn in front of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, a favorite pitch claimed only by advanced buskers.

While I have not worked as a clown in the entertainment world of circus arts previously, my history performing in front of demanding audiences makes me an exceptional choice for any of Cirque’s touring shows. Since all of my previous work has entailed speaking and singing parts, including Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Joanne in Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, I would welcome the opportunity to broaden my kinesthetic skills with the role of Giovanni the Clown, who, according to Cirque’s description, is a “small timid man who does not like to be left alone on stage.” Having developed an acute form of monophobia from routinely being left alone as a child, I think I am well-suited to this role. Moreover, my undergraduate study of Eastern thought and religions dovetails nicely with Dralion’s theme of Eastern philosophy, quoted on Cirque’s website as the “never-ending quest for harmony between nature and humans.” A substantial period of my college years were spent reading the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching, listening to the East Indian inspired Mahavishnu Orchestra, and smoking copious amounts of marijuana in my parent’s basement.

Lastly, Cirque’s application guidelines ask job seekers to comment on whether or not one is an autodidact with any special talents to bring to the troupe. I am double-jointed in my thumbs. Given Cirque’s call for performers with dislocation skills I hope to contribute to Dralion or any other Cirque show with this unique talent. Currently I am honing my dislocation abilities by engaging in a rigorous practice schedule of my own design. I should emphasize that I have never received any formal training in thumb dislocation—I am entirely self-taught. The experience I gained busking serves as the basis for my performance philosophy. My performance style combines my childhood love and affinity for mime icon Marcel Marceau with the avant-garde style and intelligence of the Blue Man Group.

I am seeking a position as Giovanni in the show Dralion because Cirque provides exceptional performances to diverse audiences, many of who have determined that it would be beneath their social station to attend circuses by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey or the Shriners. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae, references, and two photos (one headshot, one of dislocated thumb). I hope to prove myself an invaluable addition to your troupe for Dralion and possibly a full-time member for other shows. I will be available to work in the Fall since I am unable to return to my graduate program due to financial constraints. However, I am ready for this career change. Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

 

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell,
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

July 3, 2008

An Den Dekan der Philosopphischen
Fakultät der RWTH Aachen
Professor Paul Hügel
Templergraben 55
D-52062
Aachen, Germany

 

Herr Prof. Paul Hügel:

Guten Tag! Erlauben Sie mir bitte, sich vorzustellen. Mein Name ist Barbara Campbell. Obgleich mein Deutsch ausreichend ist, hoffe ich Sie don’ t-Verstand, dass ich den Rest dieses Buchstaben auf englisch geschrieben habe, um meine Qualifikationen zu übermitteln.

I am writing to apply for the position of Dean of Futures Studies at Rwthaachen University, start date August 13, 2009, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the job description, you seek a colleague with “didactic competence” and a “scholar with profound experience in the methodology and in the practical application of futures research.” Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success in didactic competence is best demonstrated by the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department and my student evaluations. By May of 2008, I will have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn. Moreover, I have worked with students from several disciplines throughout my career as an instructor, including engineering, chemistry, and business. Given this experience, I am well-prepared to undertake the responsibility of “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties.”

The only problem, Herr Professor Hügel, is that I am not entirely sure what “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties” really means. Perhaps “module” is synonymous with “course?”   Are you describing the German version of curriculum development?

Your advertisement emphasizes that the Dean of Futures Studies must possess considerable knowledge of the natural sciences. While my formal academic training is in American Literature and composition, medicine and biology are additional research areas of interest. I’m an avid reader of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and The Journal of the American Medical Association. Furthermore, Rwthaachen University’s successful candidate will also “conduct basic research at the interface between technical and political social developments.” One such interface at which I would conduct research is in the revolutionary technological field of nanomedicine. I am particularly interested in nanobots’ potential for drug delivery and nerve cell regeneration. In fact, if such a research study was in progress at Rwthaachen University, I would happily volunteer as a subject-participant.

You see, I’ve been ill, Herr Professor, most recently with whooping cough, or Keuchhusten. As I write this letter, the violent coughing, the spasms, and burning in my throat have receded, but the pain from my chronic illnesses, my preexisting conditions, has increased with a vengeance. Maybe I’m just experiencing side effects from the antibiotics and Tylenol with codeine but I’m worried. Whooping cough kept me flat in bed for three weeks and I remain too sick to work as my professor’s research assistant, at the journal, or teach in the summer program as I normally do. A professor took pity on me and gave me some typing to complete for money at home in between coughing fits, but the paltry income I expected to claim this summer has been cut by over half. So, I’ve been a dedicated job-seeker, Herr Professor. I don’t know how it works in Germany, but here in America we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, overcome our obstacles, and beat the odds. When I consulted The Chronicle of Higher Education there were pages devoted to administrative, dean, and executive positions but not many full-time, tenure-track positions in English. I applied for some jobs that I know are outside of the realm of my expertise, but I’ve been engaged in significant professional development which I think increases my employability. For instance, as a graduate student worker, I’ve learned how to mix and match one shirt and a scarf with four pairs of Goodwill pants to create several presentable job-interview outfits. Thus, I applied for Chair of Fibers at Savannah College of Art and Design. As Chair of Fibers, I could caress folds of cashmere, soft as lamb’s ear, wrap myself in 1000 thread count cotton samples, listlessly stroke silks with my fingertips while informing my assistants, “This is beautiful, but entirely the wrong shade of blue—it should be a keener, midnight quality…” Or, when the swatches seem cheap and coarse, I would stamp my foot and yell, “they call this tweed?”

Although I do not currently have my Ph.D., my anticipated dissertation defense date is December 10, 2008; therefore, I will have my Ph.D. in hand by the start date of the appointment for Dean of Futures Studies by next August.

In truth, Professor Hügel, I definitely won’t have my dissertation completed by December of this year. I won’t be finished because I’ve been teaching two (sometimes three) sections of writing intensive courses every semester, helping professors with their research projects, and assisting at a journal. I’d probably be finished writing my second book by now if you were my advisor Herr Professor! You do speak English, don’t you Professor Hügel? (I’m sure you’ve already deduced that I don’t speak or write German. I sing quite a bit in German, though; at least, enough to notice that BableFish may not have translated my opening remarks accurately). I confess that I have been preoccupied recently. The graduate school will not renew my teaching assistantship funding for the Fall saying my time to degree is up. No contract, no health insurance, no paycheck, mounds of student debt and maybe I won’t even get my degree. What will I do without health insurance? I want to complete, but the only thing I’ve made progress on this summer is my codeine addiction. We have a saying here in America, Professor Hügel: ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” but really means “all but dead.”

My friend Katie got a job. I ran into her one morning on campus in May, a couple of weeks after she got the news. After giving a final exam I had stopped at Student Health Services for what they thought must be bronchitis or pneumonia. I trudged up the path that ran between the university’s botanical garden and the decaying hand-built stone wall that bordered the old cemetery on my way to the hilltop parking lot. Abundant with bright, blue larkspur, lush wild grasses, and fiery poppies, the garden was a quiet place to stroll or rest, rich with the earthy comfort-smell of fertile loam. Katie sat alone on the bench underneath the garden’s spring centerpiece; a stunning pink-and-ivory magnolia tree, its curved branches her canopy from the sun. She had defended her dissertation and landed a position. After months of grueling job applications, she was finally at peace. She had time to linger underneath the magnolia, its petals cupped by a soft wind as they slipped to ground clustering in a medallion underneath her feet. She had time to let her mind wander while the magnolia’s warm and honey-drenched scent doused the worries of tomorrow, next week, and the years to come. She seemed so contemplative that I didn’t want to disturb her, but she saw me. We chatted briefly, but I couldn’t stay with so many exams to grade. I wish I could have stayed. Herr Professor. Breathless and tired, though, I said goodbye and marched up the hill, my shoulders aching from my flimsy overflowing knapsack, the tablueau vivant of Katie underneath the magnolia affixed in my mind.

I am glad that Katie got a job, not just because she is my friend, but because she deserves it. She’s intelligent, performs interesting research, works hard, and is a great teacher. Katie and her partner Amy had a goodbye cookout and yard sale before they left. After the celebratory toasts and goodbye tears from friends, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Amy had been adjuncting for less than ten-thousand dollars per year and no health insurance.

Have you read the recent statistics from the American Association of University Professors Herr Professor Hügel? Seventy-four percent of faculty in higher education work in non-tenure track appointments and, overall, more than half are employed only part-time. Chastise me if you must for choosing this profession Herr Hügel, but how was I supposed to predict this? How was I supposed to know that there were no full-time jobs? Don’t tell me I should have known better. For seven years I was schooled like the way you’d train a Greyhound for racing. “Don’t worry,” my advisors said, “You’ll get a job.” I am thirty-nine years old Herr Professor and not as pliable as I used to be. Please don’t advise me to return to school yet again for a degree in higher education administration, human resources, or criminal justice. Don’t tell me to embark on yet another reinvention of myself.

I saw the future once. I would finish my dissertation. I would land a full-time, tenure-track job teaching composition and literature. I would write a book. I would garner a mediocre salary and decent health insurance. I would work no more than sixty hours a week. I would pay off my enormous student loan. I would marry my boyfriend, own a good used car, an old house, and take care of a few pets. I would be beautifully average.

But now I’m running out of time and all the years of hard work are wasted. Oh, mein freund, I feel the heel of the boots pressing on my head, shoving me back down into Jack London’s social pit for the poor, the concrete habitat from which I originally emerged. I applied for waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility yesterday. My sixteen-year-old body performed service industry work with ease, but this older, broken one will not fare very well. Although some time has passed since I have worked in food service, the employment experience I gained during high school as a chef’s assistant, waitress, and dishwasher, fit the job description well.

In this version of the future, Herr Professor, I work my body down to the ground waiting tables, peeling potatoes, and mopping the floor. It won’t matter how many hours I work; I will never make enough money. The rent will go unpaid and the oil tank will be empty. My boyfriend and I will huddle in the kitchen keeping the oven open for heat. I will haunt the streets, Professor Paul, rummaging through trash cans for returnables as I did in my youth while all my teeth rot out of my mouth.

I will come full circle.

So much for our American meritocracy, eh Professor Paul? You see, I went to college and graduate school because I was good at reading, writing, research, and communication. I loved teaching, especially those first-year students who struggled, often because they came from poverty, worked manual labor jobs, and only had their wits and the occasional whims of others’ kindness on which to rely.

I liked teaching those students because I used to be one of them.

So what does it mean for one to have worked so long and hard, studied for so many years, committed one’s time, skills, and compassion to serving others only to end up worse off than when one began? Does it mean I am a sucker?

I tutored Roberto extra hours every week to help him improve his English. I spent my time off last summer designing a research project for a short story class filled with students who hated reading. I commented on thirty-six freshman composition papers per week last semester. I located an audiobook for one of my dyslexic students so she could understand the material better. I imagined a better future for those students.

I know now we have all been duped, Professor Paul, so I propose a radical vision for the future, one in which waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility, assembling Styrofoam at the Softlite factory, and teaching students to read and think critically all deserve a living wage, health insurance, a voice on the job, and respect.

It’s a long-shot, but it’s worth imagining.

I think it is obvious, Herr Professor Hügel, that I do not have the necessary credentials for the position of Dean of Futures Studies.

I am so sorry to have wasted your time.

 

Sincerely,

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

Elysian Fields University
English Department
One Heavenly Drive
Cloudville, Big Sky

3.14                                                                                                                                                                                               ????

Note to Self:

I’m reading the newspaper again today and I don’t see any positions I can apply for.

I could do the crossword or jumble instead.

 

 

HOROSCOPE

                                                            by Holiday Mathis

                                                (for entertainment purposes only)

Aquarius: Most humans at some point in their lives have a spiritual experience. You’ve always felt you were a spirit having a human experience, and you’re right. Today’s events reinforce this belief.

FORECLOSURE                            FORECLOSURE                               FORECLOSURE

I may never sit peacefully underneath the magnolia tree,

LOST CAT

but mein leiber freund, I was the Dean of Futures Studies.

 

 

 

BIO

Barbara J. Campbell completed her Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut where she taught Freshman Composition and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Literature. She is currently a full-time lecturer at Butler University where she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Her essay “The First Girl to Land on the Moon” is published in Illness in the Academy: A Collection of Pathographies by Academics (Purdue UP, 2007). She is working on an illness memoir called “The Survival Guide” and a group of short stories tentatively titled “The Dream Stenographer.”

 

Photography by Christian Willey

 

We’ve Got Sweaters

by Anthony J. Mohr

 

 

One night in May 1963, Chuck, Joe, Bobby, Larry and I left a banquet at Maison Gerard, an elegant French restaurant, and walked south on Beverly Drive. We wore identical sweaters, blue with an ornamental white S sewn in at chest level. The sweaters were thick enough, and my slacks from Carroll & Company were tailored well enough, that I didn’t look heavier than the others, although I was. It was bracing to be among them — model students who laughed a lot and had studied together since kindergarten. Despite the chill of the marine layer that covers the Los Angeles basin in the spring, I felt warm.

I saw them first, catty corner from us at the intersection of Beverly Drive and Charleville. Five boys in black jackets standing under the red and white awning of Wil Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor. We took our dates there after school dances. I enjoyed the vanilla ice cream they served in stainless steel cups with long stems as well as the macaroon they put on the saucer.

These boys didn’t fit in Beverly Hills. Their ducktail haircuts looked greasy; their jeans, worn. They belonged outside a bar on the ground floor of a dirty New York City apartment house like the building across the street from where my divorced mother and I had lived five years earlier. One of those places with no doorman, a fire escape above the front entrance, and a hallway that smelled.

Looking at those brutes made me so giddy that I called out, “We’ve got sweaters; you don’t.”

They crossed the street against the light and surrounded us. I was too scared to say anything. They had the build and the mean mouths of pugilists, with acne on their pale faces, and the most understandable part of their speech consisted of four letter words.

I stayed quiet through the exchange that followed, Chuck’s refined voice against their threats and bad syntax, his tenor against their bass, his complete sentences against their fragments. Chuck said that we belonged to “the Squires, an honor service club of freshmen and sophomores at Beverly Hills High School” that required high grades and the vote of the members to join. They answered with words like “asshole” and “beat the shit out of you.” I held my breath as Chuck explained again who we were, and this time he added apologies for my words.

Something made them leave without hurting us. Maybe Chuck convinced them to go. Maybe they feared the Beverly Hills Police, an organization that did not treat outsiders gently. Or, just perhaps, they had simply wanted us to know that my remark had been hurtful.

The first thing I said, after exhaling, was thank you to Chuck, but I said nothing more when he and the rest of my friends demanded to know why, for God’s sake why, I had taunted those boys. I didn’t, couldn’t, answer their question other than to promise not to do anything like that again.

We walked on in silence through the quiet neighborhood, and our group shrank as Joe, Chuck, Bobby, and finally Larry turned down their respective streets, toward their houses. Mine was farthest from the incident, and I passed the last two blocks alone, too shaken to think clearly.

***

The event became legend among us, which it remains today, decades on, and of course everyone laughs when the story is retold. I smile too, even though I now know the answer to the question my friends put to me.

During 1958, alone in New York with my mother, I wondered whether she would ever remarry or whether her Bells Palsy would come back. I was afraid that the little money she had would run out, a possibility she voiced more than once, through her tears. It would not have taken much to remove us from our tidy apartment and shove us across Lexington Avenue into that place where loudmouths loitered and where, one night from my fourth floor bedroom, I watched two of them beat each other senseless in the middle of the street.

My mother stayed healthy and met a good man from California. He moved us there, and by May 1963, I felt safe among the well-behaved boys of the Squires, a joyful type of safe, the giddy relief of being over the border and away.

 

BIO

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, Common Ground Review, Compose Journal, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Front Porch Journal, The MacGuffin, Prick of the Spindle, Word Riot, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013) and is upcoming in Golden State 2017. His work has received four Pushcart Prize nominations. He is a reader for Hippocampus Magazine and an associate editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

 

 

 

I’m Not Afraid Anymore

by Mira Martin-Parker

 

 

Occasionally I receive painful emails from my family about my writing. Usually they come in the form of a rant, and the rant is essentially the same: My stories are hurtful, inaccurate, and the feelings I express in them are just plain wrong. I have no right to publish such things, and I am a bad, bad very mean person.

I first shared these stories about my family when I was in a fiction workshop at San Francisco State University. I wasn’t sure what sort of reception they would receive—I suppose naively I thought people would find them funny. However, instead of laughing, most of my classmates found the material disturbing. “Who are these people?” one woman asked. “Why are they so narcissistic? What’s wrong with them? Why doesn’t this girl say or do anything? Why is she so passive?”

The seriousness of some of their comments made me wonder. While my father’s irresponsible nature and flagrantly bad parenting had always been openly discussed in my mother’s family, my mother’s highly unusual behavior as a parent was never mentioned. I remember being repeatedly warned by one of my aunts not to smoke pot with my hippie father, but apparently drinking, smoking, and going to punk gigs with my mother was okay; not one of my five aunts ever said a word to me when I started doing these things with her at the age of fourteen.

I received the first flaming email from my mother not long after my stories began appearing in online literary journals. In her email she accused me of lying about and distorting the past, of enjoying being a victim, and of (ironically) abusing her. She then threatened to get an attorney if I got to “defamatory.” “Why don’t you wait until everyone’s dead to publish your work, like other writers do,” she concluded.

I also received a series of similar emails from my brother. And the most recent angry outburst came in the form of an attempted comment on my blog by one of my aunts.

I understand why my family finds my writing upsetting. But what I don’t understand is why they direct their anger at me. I have never made any attempt to share my stories with them; they found them because they sought them out online. I am also careful to classify my work as fiction, even though it is heavily based on personal experience. My stories are the product of a creative process, and I have never claimed them to be journalistically accurate depictions of my childhood. In many I have freely played with time and place, and imagined feelings I might have had at the time.

However, in no way did I deliberately distort the characters of those involved, merely to demonize their real-life counterparts. Nor did I make anything up—all of the events I wrote about actually did occur.

No one should be expected to remain silent about their childhood, simply because certain revelations will embarrass or upset others. Requiring an adult to adhere to a code of silence with regard to their underage experiences is to sentence that person to a form of emotional imprisonment. And yet this is exactly what my family expects of me; I am to remain silent about my past, specifically as it involves my mother, no matter how detrimentally this affects me. A family like this is no family at all. I was too afraid to speak up as a child, but I’m not afraid anymore.

 

 

BIO

mira martin parkerMira Martin-Parker earned an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Istanbul Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Mythium, and Zyzzyva. Her collection of short stories, The Carpet Merchant’s Daughter, won the 2013 Five [Quarterly] e-chapbook competition.

 

 

 

Learning From My Past

by Lynne Blumberg

 

 

A few years ago, I was standing beside one of the four aisles of cashiers at Reading Terminal Market in Center City Philadelphia. My cashier, like her co-workers, wore a tiger orange t-shirt with “Iovine Brothers” written in white across her chest. With a young forefinger hovering over the button that would total my items, she turned to me and said, “Do you qualify for the senior discount?”

She’s trying to be nice, I told myself, forced a smile and said “No.”

I paid full price, trudged away from the market stall clutching two supermarket bags of vegetables and fruits, and recalled the hairdresser I stopped going to a couple of years earlier. She pleaded with me to let her color the band of gray framing my face. She said it would take off ten years. People would think I was in my 40s again.

Whenever I considered her advice, I recalled events that began in the seventh grade when Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg. Piecing the events together chronologically, I remember in the seventh grade I tried to distract attention from my nose by begging my mom to let me wear makeup, hipper clothes and longer hair.

Mom, and Dad, wanted me to turn off my stereo and study more in school. I couldn’t fathom how this would improve my situation. I remember sitting in my assigned seat in seventh grade English class, and surveying my classmates tucked into their own desks in different rows. They were all paying attention to Mister Binkley, even the students sitting in the back. I thought: Don’t they get it? They’re where the action is. In other words, whether or not they considered me cool was much more important to me than Mister Binkley’s explanation of number three in a grammar exercise.

In the eighth grade, Mom finally let me get a tube of frosted rose-pink lipstick from the Woolworth’s in the Abington suburban shopping strip across the street from Sears. I had fantasized about wearing a “Slicker” frosted pearl-white lipstick by Yardley of London, but a Woolworth’s lipstick was better than no lipstick at all.

I snuck on eye makeup in the girl’s bathroom in-between classes until Mom, whose only makeup was a shade of love-that-red 1950s lipstick, let me wear eye makeup the following year. I remember getting up extra early before going to school to work on my large brown eyes that classmates said reminded them of Paul McCartney.

I sat in front of the face mirror I had propped up on my desk, and pried open my tortoiseshell compact with three shades of brown shadow. As the saleslady at Wanamaker’s instructed, I applied medium brown shadow on my lids, a darker taupe on my creases, and buff shadow beneath my brows. Next I dipped a mini brush into a Dixie cup of water, and swept it across a cake of mahogany-colored mascara. I wiped a hand dry on a leg of my bellbottom jeans, and this hand kept an eye open while the other hand brushed on the mascara. After blotting out accidental globs, I placed the pads of a metal eye curler around my upper lashes, and gently clamped the pads together. I had heard a story of a girl who pressed too hard, and all her lashes fell out. Then I rested the curler on my desk and sat back to view my whole face. I expected to see Twiggy’s doe-eyes, but my coated lashes seemed to make my lids droop down over my eyes.

Because of my bad grades, Scott S. was no longer in my classes. Guys in my eighth, ninth and tenth grade classes simply ignored me. A saleslady showed me how to deflect attention from my nose by covering my face with skin-colored foundation, and then blending a darker shade around the sides of my nose. I also wrote to Dear Abby for advice on how to wear my hair, with a drawing of how my nose uniquely hooked at the end to ensure an accurate reply. Abby’s typewritten letter said I should part my hair on the side, not the currently fashionable middle. This would draw attention away from the center of my face.

Makeup, hairstyle, mod clothes, a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine—nothing seemed to get the boys’ attention. After one particularly frustrating day at school, I took the scotch tape dispenser from a kitchen drawer and brought it into the upstairs bathroom. Using the medicine cabinet mirror to guide my hands, I taped the end of my nose to curl up like a ski slope; like how Mom used hair tape to create pincurls beside her cheeks.

I kept on the tape for ten minutes, returned to the bathroom and peeled off the strips. I looked past the red marks left by the adhesive, and swore I saw the end of my nose starting to curl up. I applied new strips to set my nose for an hour, and came back downstairs. Mom saw me passing through from the living room to the kitchen and asked what in the world I was doing. I explained, and she squirmed with distaste and told me to take the tape off before I hurt myself. I had my father’s nose and there was nothing I could do about it.

“I could get a nose job,” I said.

Who actually gave me this nose wasn’t clear cut. My pretty mom had her father’s Roman nose, but her mother had an eagle’s beak bigger than mine. Nana told Mom she would have done anything to get her nose fixed at my age. Nana convinced Mom to let me get a nose job, and they both convinced Dad. A morning during the summer before my senior year of high school, I awoke on the operating table, looked up at my masked doctor, heard him scraping away at my nose, and fell back into an aestheticized sleep. I re-awoke in my semi-private hospital room with my nose covered in white tape.

About eight months later, while shopping with Mom at Woolworth’s, we bumped into Mrs. Corcoran, my English teacher senior year. Mrs. Corcoran told Mom what a good student I was, and Mom told her this wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, I brought home report cards with five D’s…I drifted away to another aisle while Mom went on with her usual spiel.

In English class a few weeks later, we finished the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. Mrs. Corcoran’s weekend assignment was for us to write what we would do if forced to make the Knight’s choice. Would we choose an old and ugly spouse who was kind and faithful, or a gorgeous spouse who was cruel and promiscuous?

That weekend I recalled my friend, Joanne. She was gawky, taller than most boys, and her overbite had reminded me of a horse. As I got to know her sweet personality, her mouth seemed to resemble Sophia Loren’s. So using metaphors I thought would make F. Scott Fitzgerald proud, I wrote that I would choose the ugly spouse because my perception of him would change as I got to know his personality.

On Monday I handed in the paper, and later in the week Mrs. Corcoran returned it with a big red “A” at the top, and the word “Beautiful” beside my favorite metaphor. When she finished returning the rest of the papers, she came back to my desk and said, “Did you show this paper to your parents?”

I shook my head.

“Show it to them.”

After the school bus dropped me off, I found Mom working by the kitchen sink. I read aloud my composition while she leaned against a kitchen counter wearing a short teased hairdo, A-line dress, and sensible black pumps. At the end she shrugged and said, “I don’t see what the big deal is about.”

I squinted with disbelief: “This is how you respond to your daughter’s composition, that her teacher recommended she read to her parents?”

“I’m not going to lie.”

“You bitch…”

I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home and get her in trouble. His sports car roared up the driveway a couple of hours later. I reported what happened as he stepped through the back door. He stopped in the kitchen and I read my composition as he stood beside Mom, eight inches taller and dark and dashing in his pinstriped suit. At the end he shrugged and said, “I don’t see what’s the big deal.”

My mouth fell. After all the times he sided with me against Mom’s ridiculous ideas, and a few years later would divorce, I couldn’t believe he was siding with her on this one.

Mrs. Corcoran, who dressed like Mom but without a trace of makeup, came up to my desk the next day. “Did you show your parents?”

I nodded.

“What did they say?”

I couldn’t tell her the truth. “They really liked it.”

About ten years later, I was sitting in the dark office of my therapist, Betsy. She was helping me get past my own brief marriage and my parents’ bitter divorce. Betsy claimed Mom was a better parent than Dad, so I brought up this incident. “Are you sure your mother was putting down your intelligence?” Betsy said.

I threw out my hands. “What else could it be?”

A few days after our session, I thought about how I began studying during my junior year of high school. I had attributed my behavioral change to the heart-to-heart I had with myself while walking home from a girlfriend’s house one afternoon the summer before. Like my father, an attorney, grilled me, I asked myself what I was good at. I thought of how I wasn’t good at drawing or doing other things with my hands; and two years of piano lessons confirmed that a dormant musical talent wasn’t veering me away from my schoolwork. I decided if I wanted to get anywhere in this world, I needed to go to college.

I earned B’s and C’s my junior year, and when I became a senior, I got report cards with A’s in everything except Math. Mom boasted to everybody that I achieved those A’s because my nose job had boosted my confidence. I was positive Mom shared this theory with Mrs. Corcoran that day in Woolworth’s, and this explained why Mrs. Corcoran wanted me to show Mom my composition. Mrs. Corcoran was a nun before she married a priest.

I recounted this memory about my nose job to Betsy during our next session. I also confessed that I used to look in the mirror and think I was beautiful before Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg.

Betsy, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with thick black layered hair and jingling jewelry, took the door mirror resting against one of her wood-paneled office walls. She held it in front of me and said, “What do you see?”

Sitting on a black cushioned chair sat a 26-year-old woman in jeans and a black tank top that revealed thin yet muscular arms; thick brown hair streaming past her shoulders; a band of natural gold highlights framing her pale unblemished face; and naturally long lashes fringing cinnamon-colored eyes.

“That’s real,” Betsy said. “You’re really that pretty.”

I crossed my arms over my ample chest, not knowing how to integrate this.

After the session, inside my studio apartment, I considered how knowing I was pretty could change me. In my family, Mom was typed the pretty one, and Dad the smart one. How could I be both? I didn’t want to become one of those people who are always conscious about how they appear. I didn’t want my looks to go to seed either.

I decided to forget about how good I looked and just live my life. I focused on getting A’s in college, eventually teaching, and maintaining my health. It wasn’t until 25 years later, when people asked me about the senior discount that I panicked about my looks again. I had procrastinated in my search for another mate, and without some major renovations to my appearance, I feared I was now too late.

 

After the comment at Iovine Brothers, I examined my face in the bathroom mirror of my current apartment. Since my late 30s, the dark marks under my eyes stopped disappearing after I got more sleep, but the corners of my eyes weren’t crinkled with crows’ feet. Worry and the sun had lined my forehead, but young people had worry lines too. What they didn’t have, was the band of gray replacing the gold highlights around my face. The hairdresser was right.

Yet I remained hesitant about coloring my hair. In addition to my nose issues, I thought about the men who were perceived as more distinguished-looking when they grayed. Look at Richard Gere and George Clooney. Someone who thought I should color my hair bet that Gere’s salt and pepper shade came out of a bottle too.

I also debated with myself about what is natural. Simply washing my hair or brushing my teeth could be considered unnatural too. Personal maintenance was always a balancing act between what you’re born with and what you can change.

I realized if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have fixed my Semitic nose. As society grew more accepting and I grew into my features, I would’ve been considered attractive with the schnoz. The surgery also dulled my sense of smell. So this time around when my looks weren’t conforming to the cultural ideal, I could be a pioneer. My embrace of aging could help expand future definitions of beauty. But I wanted people to think I was pretty now!

I remember the surprise of Michael, the colorist a friend highly recommended, when I announced that this would be the first time coloring my hair. “Let’s make you into a red head,” he said.

“Whaaat?!” My eyes were popping out in the mirrored wall before the salon chair.

Michael clasped my smocked shoulders and laughed. “Relax. I do suggest you go a shade or two lighter. Skin pales as we age.” I bet the pale-blonde hair color blending with his pale lined complexion covered a full head of gray.

Since most of my hair, except for the front, was still brown, instead of covering the full head, I opted to frost my hair with dark-blond and pale-brown highlights and left a few gray strands untouched. After Michael unwrapped the foil sheets and blow-dried my hair, he swirled my chair so I faced the mirror. I thought I looked the same…Maybe a little more rested.

I paid the 100 dollar fee, Michael’s tip, and paraded my new look along Chestnut Street’s brick sidewalks. It was lunchtime in Center City, and I peered at the business-suited men for their expressions. No one that day or in the days that followed paid attention to me in the ways they paid attention to me when I was ten years younger. Did the highlights make me feel more confident about my appearance nonetheless?

While brushing my hair in front of the large mirror above my bathroom vanity, I discovered orange-tinged gold streaks in my hair. Ewwww! I wondered how this blatant artificiality could be considered more attractive. Michael changed the blonde highlights to caramel during my next appointment, but even these seemed too synthetic. Plus I was getting some kind of itchiness on my neck, and one of the first questions a dermatologist asked was if I was coloring my hair.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

A month ago, I walked past the decorative mirrors in my apartment building’s lobby. I glanced at a sweet elderly-looking woman with dark hair except for the gray framing her smiling face. I did a double-take and walked back. This elderly-looking woman was me, and I was still ineligible for the senior discount.

I pressed the up button and waited for an elevator while I considered going back to Michael for a full head color. Inside the elevator and riding up to my floor, I considered never stepping outside of my apartment again, like how Greta Garbo handled aging. Walking down the carpeted hallway and inside my apartment, I decided to forget about how old I looked and focus on staying healthy and sharp. I’d still strive to be attractive, but also embrace that attractive at 59 was not the same as at 26. Maybe I’d even find an eligible geezer whose love for my inner qualities would transform me into his beauty queen.

Of course I wavered on this decision later that day and during the days that followed, especially after Comcast posted photos of blonde, 61-year-old Christie Brinkley, in a bikini. Then a few days ago, when I thought about visiting my mother in Florida, I finally pieced together another memory. I realized that the summer I got my nose job was the same summer I read about ten hours a day, every day. My 16 year-old-self calculated that by reading this much, I could make up for the years I goofed off in school. Unlike taping my nose, maybe this idea of mine actually worked: the disciplined reading enhanced my study skills, and the enhanced skills, not my enhanced nose, brought about all those A’s.…

After piecing together this memory, my mental fog lifted. The decision was final: I’m not coloring my gray hair. It’s like what Doctor Freud said about recovered memories … And after election of Mr. Beauty Pageant, I won’t even be tempted by model pictures for a long time. Standing up for more inclusive body images is imperative.

 

 

BIO

Lynne Blumberg has written for various national and local publications about topics in health, religion, education, and urban living. She lives in Philadelphia, and when not writing, teaches English as a Second Language at the Community College of Philadelphia.

 

 

 

Lost Time

by Edd Jennings

 

 

July 22nd, Wednesday, Sun at 75 degrees in the northeastern quadrant—I lost my watch, or maybe—I hope—I misplaced it somewhere in my gear as I packed up to leave camp. The little Timex was already on its last legs. The plastic band had broken, and I had it attached to my wrist with parachute cord. The watch’s calendar showed a day behind because it always shows a thirty-one day month, and I couldn’t reset it correctly for the beginning of July because the adjustment knob had broken off. Without the watch, I feel naked because I cannot at a glance reduce my world to a number.

It is early morning and calm. Beyond that what can I say about my place in time and the world? My latitude lies just above sixty degrees forty-five minutes. The sun stands at seventy-five degrees by my compass reading, and I haven’t figured out how to use the crude clinometer on the compass to get the angle of elevation of the sun above the horizon. To measure the sun’s elevation with any accuracy would mean looking directly at the sun.

I use the watch for pacing. If I hurt after four or five hours of paddling, I have the tendency to take a breather and continue. If I feel good after twelve hours, my tendency is to quit. Many athletes recommend that you listen to your body, a cute enough expression, but only the simple-minded fail to realize that the body lies.

 

Sun 87 degrees—If the sun is at 87 degrees, and my shadow falls directly in line with the canoe’s bow, I must paddle on a line, which amounts to approximately due west. I hadn’t attempted to use the sun or its shadows for much of anything in the past. The sun and its shadows are one of the few navigational tools an ancient wanderer would have known. By rarely using the sun, when I do use it, I do it with uncertainty and clumsiness. I always wonder if I miss the useful and the obvious or whether my dissatisfaction with generalities causes me to look for specifics impossible to determine with the means at hand. I don’t want “about west.” I want the 273-degree reading of a graduated dial.

My compass readings lack refinement. The 87-degree reading I use for the position of the sun comes off a spruce that seems to stand directly below the sun, but no matter how big the rose on this Suunto Compass or how accurate, I don’t use the compass with a level. To further introduce inaccuracies, I read the compass from the unstable platform of a canoe shifting in the breeze.

 

Sun 103 degrees—I have my system. The sun makes one, or rather the earth—I almost went back to Ptolemy—does one revolution in about twenty-four hours, or moves about 1/24th or fifteen degrees of the full 360 degree circle each hour. I can easily get enough readings for sunrise and sunset, which will change only slightly each day, to calculate the remaining daylight by comparing those readings against the sun’s apparent fifteen degree per hour movement across the sky. Time elapsed doesn’t seem like an hour since my last entry. Whether it is or isn’t, I will soon be accustomed to the difference and begin to take more accurate readings more quickly.

 

Sun 112 degrees—It occurred to me that perhaps a back reading using the compass lanyard to make a shadow across the rose might have more accuracy on much the principle of the backstaff replacing the quarterstaff. I have entered a world of altered values. At home, this red nylon lanyard attached to my compass could sit in a drawer for years, an unremarked item of clutter, as superfluous as the ivory billiard ball or the sewing kit that might not have been examined or moved since the Second World War. If someone in the next generation living in the old house after my time fished the compass out of the clutter of the drawer, he might speculate that the compass would fit into the pocket more neatly without the lanyard. The person looking into that cluttered drawer sometime in the future would never guess the importance this simple piece of red nylon string had in my life and fortunes, as I fail to appreciate the small items left over from the generations before. Life is lost, and holding the small item in my hand and wondering what it could have meant will never quite bring it back.

I can’t make the islands I see in front of me match the map, but where else but this outlet bay could I have traveled for so many hours toward the north? Wishful dangerously wrong reasoning.

 

Sun 118 degrees—I have made the map fit my position. Even a back reading, which is easier, subjects itself to wide variation. The compass requires a dead level surface and the string held exactly perpendicular. Suunto rates their compass as accurate to within two degrees. If I had a solid surface, and a pair of levels, I see no reason why it wouldn’t hold to such a standard.

 

Sun 128 degrees—A haze in front of the sun made a back reading impossible. Doubt checks my speed. It must have been the same for the early hunters moving into this country. To learn this country must have been the work of generations, as a man in his prime hunted a bit farther afield than his father.

 

Moments later—Perhaps I should give stage directions rather than continual readings. I will try. The decrepit man’s legs hurt. He is perhaps lost, but only moderately concerned. He proceeds through his country with an eye for anything he might use. Were he to use his compass mirror for self-examination, he would discover that he had let himself go. His attention to grooming has dropped far below the level of the civilized man, who is aware that he may be seen at any time. Our man, if he itches, scratches.

I like this. After all how different am I from a character in a novel? I have the power to create myself as I wish, don’t I?

 

Fewer minutes later—To a degree I create myself. I can be physically strong or not based upon the amount of work I do. I won’t, though, run the four-minute mile. I can be intelligent or not, as I choose to read, but I am past being hailed as the new prodigy. The genetics of my makeup limit. Chance also is an element. Lesser men have done more, better men less.

The vast majority of humanity is a combination of no more than the effects of genetics and crass chance. There are those few, however, who fight, and every skirmish is not lost. It is a man’s job to fight the unequal fight.

 

Sun 166 degrees—I pulled up on the bank to make bannock and tea. I am lost. When I hit this big open stretch, I knew I couldn’t be where I thought I was. Blue goes into blue in the southwestern quadrant, where sky touches lake. Nothing in the area of the outlet matches that scenario.

I spent some time, when I first stopped here, with the map and compass. I only made things worse until I decided to build a fire and have tea.

My first order of business demanded that I deal with my anxiety. I had to ask myself if I expected to do this trip without mistakes, and now that I had made a mistake, how serious was it? My answer had to include the two basics: I had not hurt myself, and I had not lost any gear, which meant I had the means to deal with the problem.

 

Sun 240 degrees—I finally made a place on the map fit. It lies on the north shore of Wholdaia on the main shore north of a chain of islands just west of the 104th meridian, and on the eastern edge of map 75A. I thought I had moved much farther east. I don’t have and may never have a reasonable explanation of how I arrived here. I may have lost a full day of paddling. I don’t care. I just wanted the anxiety to be over. Before I matched this place with the map, I had to fight the impulse to just follow my instinct and move. Had I allowed my instinct reign, I would have moved in exactly the wrong direction.

 

Loaded and paddling east—I could have stayed where I stopped to make tea and bannock, according to the sun, I have been out ten to eleven hours since I left camp this morning, but to stay at that campsite would have made for a very bad night. The place had natural beauty and an easy place to load and unload a canoe, but it was as if the place had been trashed, although that’s not exactly it. At the sight of somebody’s liter, I could have felt righteous indignation, not a completely unpleasant emotion. In that place, I fought the worst of myself and came near to losing. All afternoon, I had the impulse to load up and go, and figure within hours I would be in the Dubawnt River’s current. I wouldn’t have been. I would have paddled in the wrong direction. The memory of the rising panic tainted everything about this otherwise beautiful and untouched place.

 

Sun 268 degrees, Camp XLVI—I will accept the setbacks of the day with the best grace I can manage. If the season depended upon the success or failure of a single day, I wouldn’t have a chance.

Thinking about today’s solar observations makes me realize just how little I know of the actual mathematics of the universe. Though I know some of the history of science from the Greeks to Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, and up to the moderns, I couldn’t personally produce the mathematics to refute Ptolemy. As far as having knowledge of the visible motions of the heavens, and how these motions relate to the day, the month, and the seasons, I know less than the ancients. I don’t usually concern myself with the movements of the sun. I use a watch. I don’t usually track the phases of the moon. I use a calendar. I don’t watch for the rise of the Pleiades in the east, or the setting of Orion in the west. These things the ancient mariners knew, and lived by, feel strange and clumsy to me. I have gained from my instruments, but in so gaining sometimes I feel as if I have become less man.

 

 

BIO

edd jenningsEdd B. Jennings runs beef cattle on the banks of the New River in the mountains of Virginia. Since spring of 2016, he has placed work with Trigger Warnings, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jotters United, Bedford 87, Thread Magazine, Quail Bell, Roane Publishing, Sicklit, Ginosko Literary Journal, Tell us a Story, Sleet, The Blotter, REAL magazine, Literary Orphans, and Quarterday. His nonfiction Arctic canoeing books and his novel, Under Poplar Camp Mountain, are with the Leslie E. Owen Agency.

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BOOK REVIEW: Apocalypse All the Time by David Atkinson

The End Is Never Really That

by Ryan Werner

 

 

The morality of an apocalypse dictates that it can happen only once. Our main characters in David Atkinson’s newest book, Apocalypse All the Time, argue this semantic point to a level of necessity and then live in its tumult. There’s an apocalypse for all the natural disasters one could think of, as well as plenty of anomalies in apocalypse form: locusts show up to be overwhelmingly locust-like, the moon parks itself in front of the moon and fucks up the weather, stairs to a golden city show up and all the Jews start walking up them.

The Apocalypse Amelioration Agency sorts out the different apocalypses and, thus, the world itself. Between them and Marshall, our eyes and ears for end after end after end, we get the power and compliance that propel the book. The narrative structure doesn’t necessarily pit them against one another, but with every apocalypse, the AAA and Marshall rub up together more and more abrasively.

Popping the door open didn’t change much. It was still dark. The hallway had no windows. Marshall didn’t know if it was day or night. Still, the hallway was empty so it was easy to crawl along on the carpet, easy to find the exit to the familiar emergency exit stairs, and easy to follow the guide rail down to get outside.

Easy. This was a normal day with minor inconveniences.

In many ways, the presentation perfectly reflects the chaos. Everything is broken up, if not broken: short chapters, multiple parts, interludes, and, within all those, a ramble that jumps from one piece of situational absurdity to another. At its best, Apocalypse All the Time puts onto the page all the never-ending tangents that a continual series of earth-ending events would cause.

But, at its worst, Apocalypse All the Time has a real roundabout way of getting to the goddamn point sometimes. I see Pynchon’s fondness for unrelated avenues and Vonnegut’s tendency to spend most of a book ruminating, and while those are respectable literary touchstones, I just want the whole thing to be a bit tighter when mixed in with Atkinson’s own style, his bizarro inclinations filtered through the lens of straight up observational fiction.

The sum of the book’s brief 180 pages has the feel of a novel more than a novella. Its length is at the uppermost part of that gray area where it might be worth discussing what to call it, but I really wanted to see it go down instead of up in terms of page-count. When reading, I saw tiny cuts to be done in almost every paragraph: action to be streamlined, more points and less viewing in the POV.

With the exception of the interludes—narrated by one of the mouthpieces for the AAA—that I thought stroked the gimmick of the book a bit too hard, there was great and necessary material in every section. I also fear that too much cutting would, unfortunately, leave us without many of the wonderfully meta aspects of the form. However, if Marshall is walking around looking at stuff and I’m done looking at it before he is, it’s either time to make the style more stylized or trim up at a sentence level.

Atkinson’s writing is at its best when he breaks it down into scene. Marshall and Bonnie, Marshall’s more alpha-minded companion who he meets while going through the doldrums of yet another apocalypse, are on point when they banter and scheme and, occasionally, find each other the perfect place for a dump of plot-related information. They’re united mostly by their desires outside of one another, and good on Atkinson for not coasting off what could be easy thrust from a relationship thread. Their chemistry is one of the most appealing aspects of the book. Aside from the friction of the AAA and Marshall, it’s also one of the better propelling devices for the narrative as a whole.

“Yeah, the oceans and rivers are currently solid,” Marshall continued. “The fish are all probably dead. The agency rationed water until the situation gets fixed and sealed the water treatment systems away from external sources. Travel to anywhere near the frozen stuff is prohibited.”

“So?” Bonnie yawned. “What’s bugging you? Were you planning a trip or something?”

“No.” Marshall threw up his hands. “It’s Ice Nine.”

Despite some clashes between the straightforwardness of the narrative and the absurdity of the overall conceit, Atkinson dances between the two quite gracefully. At the moments when he makes the explosion meet the philosophy, it becomes a clearly wrought story about perception and determination. Even through the dissonance I see the parallels with the form: not one thing, not the other.

Within Apocalypse All the Time is a solid, enjoyable story. There’s perhaps too much of it, but Atkinson’s creative form and cinematic dialogue make this a fun journey for anyone willing to take the ride through all of its twists and digressions. When it’s over, perhaps you’ll wonder if anything is ever truly over.

 

 

BIO

Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud, instrumental rock band called Young Indian. He’s online at RyanWernerWritesStuff.com and @YeahWerner on Instagram.

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