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Camera Simon

My Leica M – with 50/1.4 ASPH, and old 35/1.4 from 1960’s in my studio, Chungju, South Korea, 2012.

The Simon Larbalestier Interview | The Writing Disorder

Simon Logo

 

Drop Cap Simon Larbalestier is without a doubt a master photographer. He’s been working at his craft for years, creating a body of work that is both inspiring and indelible. His  style has influenced a generation of photographers. It’s a vision that puts him squarely in the class of great photographers. From his dreamy black and white images, to his stark, beautiful figures and locations, Simon creates a world you almost can’t describe. Known for his work with the iconic record label, 4AD, which began back in the 1980s, and for his images of remote, exotic lands, Simon’s work covers a wide range of topics and styles. We talked with Simon recently, to learn more about his work, and the creative process.

 

When did you first take an interest in photography?

SIMON: When I was studying on my Foundation Course at Jacob Kramer, Leeds, UK in 1979/80 we had a makeshift darkroom in our studio with which the “roof” was made of lengths of wood for making stretchers for paint canvases—and invariably it would leak light as people pulled the wood from the pile above! Anyway the immediacy and the flexibility of the medium struck a deep cord with me at that time even if most of my resulting prints ended up being fogged in the intermittent light leaks!

 

Partial to the Picture

“Partial to the Picture,” interview with Creative Photography, December 1985

 

Talk about your first camera, and the type of equipment you had back then.

SIMON: I started out with a brand new Olympus OM4 and backed up by an old OM2n that I preferred to its more expensive brother. I only had one lens that was a wide-angle 24mm (I don’t know why I didn’t get the standard 50/1.8 which was excellent!)

 

Did you develop your own film?

SIMON: Back in the days of my BA in Newcastle Upon Tyne (1981-84) the answer would be no, as everything was fed through the machine – at that time I was primarily interested in just making the prints and then photocopying them and pasting them into my collages. But later during my Masters at the Royal College of Art (RCA) (1985-87) then I become obsessed with controlling everything from shoot to print and I began to explore all facets of film developing and printing my own negatives.

 

You have a Masters Degree of Art. Talk about the kinds of tools and techniques being used/taught back then.

SIMON: I was mostly interested in working with Polaroid Type 55 film—this is the kind with a peel apart and printable negative. The negative itself required some care and attention with careful washing and drying, but its high detail, fine grain and of course the beautiful and random edge borders of the negative made it a winner in my eyes.

 

Simon Pixies cover

Paired Polaroid Type 55’s from Masters Degree (1985-87) which were later licensed for the Pixies’ first EP “Come on Pilgrim” (4AD Records/1987)

 

At what age did music become important to you? What bands or music were you listening to then?

SIMON: I think around 12-14, I began to listen to Patti Smith, Neil Young, Rush, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and many others.

 

What were some of the first photographs that made an impression you?

SIMON: I think the early work when at the RCA, I won a traveling scholarship to Greece and shot everything with my OM2 and a Fuji 645 folder—that was the beginning of work that would underpin my huge Odysseys’ series.

 

Simon Image

Greek Orthodox Votives, Hania, Crete, Greece, 1985. From the series “Odysseys I (1985-1999)”

Xania Book Simon

Working Notebook from the award RCA Basil Alkazzi traveling scholarship (1987)

 

When did you switch to digital photography? What are the pros and cons of digital work?

SIMON: It was during 2008, I was working between SE Asia (mainly Thailand and Cambodia) and the UK. I had several projects on the go, some with short deadlines. I had a fantastic commission to shoot 13 Charles Dickens book covers for Vintage over a couple of years. The first three I dutifully shot in film, as until that point I was a 100% involved with only film cameras. But I blew my limited book budgets all at once and soon realized that if I was to retain my fee per book I had to seriously rethink. So I took the plunge and bought the diminutive Ricoh GRD II a 10MP compact with a fixed 28mm lens. I had its analogue brother and the lens was quite outstanding in its rendition. The compact worked well but the learning curve was working with the RAW files in early versions of Photoshop 3 and Lightroom 2. In the summer of 2008 Vaughan Oliver gave me the Pixies Minotaur project and this seemed an ideal project to push the GRD II further. I was based in SE Asia and for 3 months. I shot exclusively with this compact in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I returned to the UK later in October and presented my working folder of images to Vaughan and so began the project. The little compact enabled me to get very close to my subject matter and work very discretely and as I shot in RAW format. I had the choice of working in color or monochrome (In the end I worked with both). So the break into digital enabled me to embrace color in a way I have never been able to do with film, though I spent years trying.

 

Figure Image Simon

“Cuban,” Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. From the Pixies’ Minotaur Project (Artists in Residence, 2009)

Glove Simon Image

“Glove,” Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. From the Pixies’ Minotaur Project (Artists in Residence, 2009)

 

You’ve created an impressive body of work over the years. So many fantastic images. Which of your images do you display in your house? Where else is your work displayed?

SIMON: Thank you, Christian, very kind of you to say! I have very few displayed where I am living in NE Thailand, but the most important of all is a panoramic image of my children, Jack and Lucy, shot when they were in their mid-teens at one our favorite locations in North Yorkshire. I have moved 14 times in almost as many years since leaving the UK in 2001, and that picture goes everywhere. My middle brother Nic has the best collection by far but there are other avid collectors who have supported my work over the years, friends, colleagues and print clients.

 

Man Woman Image Simon

My children Jack and Lucy, North Yorkshire (circa 2008).

 

What are some of your favorite cameras to work with?

SIMON: I think it very much depends what I am working on—right now I am very happy with what I have and it’s a pretty basic but expensive set up (Leica M9, fast 50 and 35/1.4 lenses, an old Nikkor 105 telephoto with a Leica M fitting, and a couple of the new Sony’s RX1, and its smaller sister the RX100) I get the results I want with this gear and I can work from mid telephoto down to macro, so all my bases are covered.

I do have a brace of Leica M’s, an Xpan and two unique 120 film 6×7/6×9 cameras back in the UK, but I very rarely uses them these days.

 

You’ve traveled all over the world. What are some of your favorite spots? Where would you still like to visit?

SIMON: I love NE Thailand where I am now, I love Bangkok, Vietnam was interesting but Cambodia was the place I photographed the most up until the summer of 2008. I would like to visit South America, Russia and Japan.

 

Simon On Location

“Me, working with The Cambodia Trust”, Kampot Province, Cambodia, 2005 © Sothea Chea.

 

When you’re given a new project, where do you begin?

SIMON: Reading usually. Getting a feel for the subject.

 

Do you prefer to work in a group, or on your own?

SIMON: Alone always.

 

When did you first meet graphic designer, Vaughan Oliver? How did you get involved with 4AD?

SIMON: I first met him just after graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic, that would have been 1984/5, just before I began my Masters Degree in London. I showed him all of my third year project, which was mostly decayed buildings—not at all applicable to music sleeves (or so I thought … years later the image of the Tuscan bed, used for the first Red House Painter’s LP, Down Colorful Hill 1992), had all of these ingredients of my very early photo collages). He was very receptive and because of his interest I invited him to my degree show at the RCA in the summer 1987, and from that point on we began on the Pixies project.

 

Red House Painters Simon

“Bed” Tuscany, Italy, 1989, licensed for the LP cover of
“Down Colorful Hill” by Red House Painters (4AD/1992)

 

What was your first project with 4AD like?

SIMON: Not counting the licensing of the first two images of the Pixies EP Come on Pilgrim, technically the first project was Surfer Rosa and this was one of the few times that Vaughan Oliver and I were actually in the same room during a shoot. I think there’s enough printed already and posted on the Internet to explain what that shoot was like but I will say this: Never at the time did I consider the impact those images would have on my photographic future (these impacts were dually positive and negative over the years) had I realized this I might have paid much greater attention to negatives that I actually threw away—like this one!

 

Woman Pixies Simon

One of the original “Surfer Rosa” Polaroid Type 55’s from
the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa shoot, Wandsworth, London, 1988.

 

What was it like working with such an esteemed label?

SIMON: I didn’t consider them in that light at the time. I was working simultaneously with many blue chip clients so 4AD was just one of them at the time—only later I think did the gravitas of what 4AD stood for in terms of creative music and artwork become apparent to me.

 

Did the music impress you at the time you first heard it? Is that what you listened to, or were you into other bands?

SIMON: I really liked Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins. Not the Pixies, on first listening though. I did grow to love the songs on Doolittle. I was into many other bands, mainly rock and ambient music.

 

Did everyone hangout together and get along?

SIMON: I had a very young family so I spent my time either in the darkroom or at home, so I can’t comment on that.

 

What are some of your favorite 4AD albums you photographed?

SIMON: Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Here Comes Your Man, River Euphrates, Down Colorful Hill, and Piano.

 

Pixies Doolittle Simon

Pixies Doolittle promotional postcards (4AD records/1988)

 

With 4AD you created such a mystique and aura. The music and the imagery went hand in hand. It was like your created an entire dream world. Was that your intention?

SIMON: A lot has been written about all that and in a way that has destroyed the mystery of how we all worked—hindsight and reflection has killed the legends and myths which makes the work so intriguing. I think the only thing I would say now is that yes it was my intention to create my own visual way of thinking not so much a dream world as one of nightmares and a vision of hell!

 

Who are some of your favorite photographers?

SIMON: In no particular order of preference I like Edward Weston, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, Gary Winogrand, Ralph Gibson, Dieter Appelt, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Chatwin, Philip Jones Griffiths, James Whitlow Delano, Tom Stoddart, Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Richard Misrach and Jeff Wall. But my perhaps if I had to choose only one favorite it would be have to be Wim Wenders.

 

Where do you call home?

SIMON: The Chaiyaphum Province of North East Thailand.

 

What do you do for fun these days?

SIMON: Ride my dirt bike out to the jungle temples and generally exploring and documenting NE Thailand, and most importantly quality time with my families both in Thailand and the UK.

 

Motorbike Simon

My bike on the way to work, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2013.

 

What is your advice for designers and photographers just starting out today?

SIMON: Spend a lot of time researching and refining your own creative voice and develop your own visual working methodology. Looking at other photographers for inspiration is a redundant method in my opinion, as you really need to discover your own interests and beliefs so that you create work that has your own unique stamp on it. Most of the books I read about other photographers was how they lived, though, and not what they photographed. Ansel Adams, Wim Wenders and Edward Weston represent the classic example. Fred Picker also with his Zone System. You also need a deep internal drive to make the work and have a lot of stamina, as there are always knockbacks.

 

Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? What sites do you frequent most?

SIMON: I try not to because it eats up a lot of time. I would rather be out photographing, but the cataloging of my work to raise its online presence requires me to frequent FaceBook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and even Flickr. I also spend time on my WordPress blog sites, and of course my Photoshelter online photo archive.

 

What are some of your upcoming projects?

SIMON: Without giving too much away my current self directed projects are “Ash,” “Cyphers,” “Husk” and the forth one is what might be Part V of the Odyssey’s series but really I need a more specific title for this so it’s still in the working stages of development.

 

Brush Simon

New works in Progress from the series “Ash” Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

House Simon

New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Odysseys V”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

Statue Simon

New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Odysseys V”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

 

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

SIMON: As I spend my life in a place that has its Buddhist culture based on the present moment I think that looking forward 10 years is no longer relevant what matters to me is what happens in the here and now.

 

With everyone having access to a camera and video, where do you see art/commercial photography heading?

SIMON: That’s a very hard one to answer but the billions of images now available online has saturated our visual world and destroyed our sense of patience, intrigue and mystery for looking at image. They are read so quickly and then discarded or replaced by the click of a mouse or mobile device track pad.

 

Can you develop a creative eye, or is it something you’re born with? How did you develop your talent and skills?

SIMON: I honed mine over the years but the 6 years of academic training (Foundation Degree, BA and MA Degrees) were the roots of my creative thinking.

 

Do you like working in Photoshop? How much do you use it—when and where do you use it? What other software programs do you use and like?

SIMON: The use of Photoshop first came into play around 2005/2006 when I was starting to scan a very large body of documentary work that was shot mostly in Cambodia and Thailand between 2001 and continued up until 2008. After painstakingly scanning each negative (35mm and 120mm) on an Imacon virtual-drum scanner, Photoshop was then used to clone out all the dust and other negative imperfections which was largely the same action as hand-spotting my prints. I still use Photoshop now (the latest CC version), to do the heavy lifting when cleaning up negative scans and RAW files. For cataloging, captioning and exporting of the final TIFF versions, I prefer to work in Adobe’s Lightroom 5. As files can be opened in Photoshop easily from Lightroom and then saved back into Lightroom, the workflow between the two is quite seamless and fast. I often utilize a couple of the Nik range of software plugins (now owned and distributed by Google) especially Silver Efex for my black and white work. Sometimes I also work in Capture One (lastest version) particularly for my color work but its user interface is quite different and the final files are still exported into Lightroom for final captioning, key-wording, color space assignment and export settings. I have always viewed my digital approach in much the same way as my analogue darkroom thinking methodology; in that the final image is always a result of a combination of different elements. What I mean is this: in the traditional darkroom, it’s the combination of film developers, specific enlarger types with light-sources, particular lenses and then the right combination of chemistry and paper emulsion to achieve the specific results I want. In the case of the digital workflow; it’s the combination of softwares and subtle plugins to achieve a similar effect. The approach is really just the same except that the digital workflow takes place in daylight on a computer screen and is much less engaging and meditative!

 

Seahorse Simon

New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Cyphers”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

 

Also, talk about working in the studio versus working on location, the benefits and drawbacks, and your preference.

SIMON: I spent most of my time between 1987 and 2000 shooting within my studio with holiday periods allocated to shooting outside and on location. The majority of my commissioned work required me being in the studio so that clients or art directors could come and visit me and take a Polaroid back to their client for approval. So working in the studio was a highly controlled and somewhat sterile creative environment. I much preferred the looseness and freedom of shooting locations but it rarely paid the bills! When I began to consider a move away from the UK in 1999 I began to spend longer periods of time in Europe and a brief visit to the USA. In 2001 I spent the first 4 months in Australia where I began to really focus on my landscape and more documentary approach. The later part of 2001 was spent in Thailand, Northern India, Laos and Cambodia and this really opened my eyes. In January 2002 I relocated to Bangkok and remained there until October last year (2013) when a decision was made to relocate up to North East Thailand, in the province of Chaiyaphum. During this long period I also spent a year back in the UK (2009-10) and 12 months in South Korea (2012-13) though my base was always Bangkok. Much of my early time (2002-2008) was spent in Cambodia where I shot most of my work and this was all shot with film cameras. Most of my work up until the summer of 2001 had always excluded people (the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa series was a rare exception) but with the radical the shift to a totally new culture and environment, it was inevitable that in meeting and growing to deeply respect the people within these cultures, my approach would begin to become more social documentary in its nature. I spent a number of years photographing the social care of Khmer families who were supported by the UK charity The Cambodia Trust. This was a real eyeopener for me in that I got to visit areas well off the tourist track and into villages deep within the Cambodian provinces. I saw and photographed many aspects and was a witness to family situations that I will never forget. The Cambodia Trust supported families that had severely disabled members and had set up outreach centers to target those families that required help and support. Children born disabled were often shunned in society and sometimes kept hidden away in the rudimentary family home – it was these places that I visited. The support system was such that some of these children (with the families’ agreement) would be helped with medical aids (crutches, leg braces etc) and with physiotherapy training would become able-bodied enough to work to help support the family financially. I was very deeply touched by this experience. I spent almost 4 years working with them at close quarters, later I would work with children in Thailand that were born HIV+, another complex social issue that is still deeply shunned. During this time I joined two documentary photo agencies: Network Photographers, in London and Anarchy Images in New York but both collapsed as the digital and internet revolution and the steady decline of print magazines specializing in social content. “Positive Lifestyle” stories were much preferred to sit alongside expensive advertisements for a better life. In the end with the collapse of this market for me and no representation I decided to move back to making my own work and concentrating on print sales and exhibitions, as well as teaching photography and creative thinking in some SE Asian Universities. The work I make now is still heavily underpinned with social commentary and ethos, yet it still encompasses much of the same visual ingredients of the image of the Tuscan bed shot back in 1989. Recent work has included a color series entitled “Coelacanth” which is Part 1 of a much larger body of work that will explore the largely publicly unseen complexities of family life in NE Thailand. The working title for the whole series is “In The Belly of The Whale” as NE Thailand (or Isaan as it is more commonly known) really represents for me, the underbelly of Thailand itself. This is a long term project that will flow and ebb at its natural pace, as I find my way deeper into what is a fascinating culture steeped in mystery and ancient traditions. My approach is much the same as it was with the Khmer families supported by the Cambodia Trust—an approach that is deeply respectful and non judgmental.

 

What books did you read growing up?

SIMON: All the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, a lot of science fiction mainly trilogies that I can’t now remember but the one book that really stood out for me and I read again recently Raft of Despair by Ensio Tiira—a true story. It still strikes a deep resonant chord within me.

 

What are some of your favorite books and films?

SIMON: Authors: Paul Auster, Mo Hyder (Tokyo my favorite), Jeff Long, Iain Sinclair (Radon Daughters my favorite) everything by Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, China Mieville (everything I have read so far) to name but a few.

Film Directors: Andrei Tarkosky, Wim Wenders, Lars Von Trier, Andrey Zvyagintev, and Peter Greenaway are favorites that quickly come to mind. Chris Marker, David Lynch especially the early works, all of the films by Tsai Ming-liang, the Brothers Quay and recently I discovered through a good friend of mine Tom Gordon the works of Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet which has some outstanding cinema photography.

 

What current bands/music do you listen to today?

SIMON: Excluding all the 4AD bands which is a separate question, my first LP was Patti Smith’s Easter I think I was 14 at the time, followed a week or so later by Rush’s All the Worlds a Stage, then came Neil Young, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Later came Neil Young, Rory Gallagher, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers and The Adverts, followed by Brian Eno Ted Nugent, Tangerine Dream, Talking Heads and UFO. After that I was into Iron Maiden and Saxon (new British metal bands) and of course U2 (I remember playing a bootleg cassette of theirs a friend gave me over and over again). Then came David Sylvian and R.E.M and later in the mid ’90s I was introduced to Talvin Singh and Paul Oakenfold which I used to play repeatedly in my darkroom when I was printing recently which introduced me to the world of trance/house uplift music especially Tijs Michiel Verwest (knowns as Tiësto). Recently I have been rediscovering The Church who I liked years back and also Three Doors Down.  I am sure there are many others but I don’t have my iTunes currently with me as I’m traveling.

 

Who were your favorite 4AD bands?

SIMON: I really liked Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, Ultra Vivid Scene and the Cocteau Twins. I was into many other bands at the time, mainly rock and ambient music. My all time favourite from the 4Ad label is Michael Brook.

 

Do you embrace new technology, or do you take a wait and see approach?

SIMON: The problem with new technology is it’s always changing and often more expensive (just look at Leica’s current prices!) so nothing stays new anymore! I think it very much depends what I am working on. What’s important to me is that each lens has a unique signature and renders or draws images in quite different ways depending on the f-stop and its aperture blades. I use them like brushes really and to be honest I now see my work much closer to painting then photography. (This is an important change for me because I moved into photography from painting when I was a student because I couldn’t get the results I wanted using brushes and paint mediums).

 

Karen Hill Tribe 2

“Karen Hill Tribe Girls”, Thai Burmese Border, 2003 © Simon larbalestier.

 

Has your creative process changed over the years?

SIMON: I think it has yes, in the way I shoot. I still am fascinated (obsessed even) by textures and the sense of impermanence (for me best visualized by decay), religion is still a heavy undercurrent especially with all my years in South East Asia. I had two distinct ways of approaching my work when I left the RCA in 1987 (three if you count all my collage work but I abandoned this way of working in 1992). There was the very clinical, almost surgical still life sets (all the Pixies’ early works for example), book covers and numerous annual reports etc.—these type of images were painstakingly arranged under a camera lens usually a 5/4” camera but I also shot 10/8” and meticulously lit with tungsten lights, reflectors and mirrors. AND there was the location work that I was shooting in Europe, the best example being the image of the bed we discussed earlier.

This second way of seeing for me has become the primary way I see now.

I found in SE Asia, such a rich tapestry of visual juxtapositions that there was never any need to recreate them in a studio setting. Everything I did then and now is captured using available light (natural light)—no flash or additional lighting. I still see things in terms of planes of focus and everything is shot within an internal grid system (visualized in my head) so my shooting principles have really not changed just the visual aesthetic—for example I often favor the very limited depth of field of the fast 35/1.4 and 50/1.4 lenses that render a soft dreamy background, but other times I still shoot at f5.6/8 to retain full detail across the plane of vision. It really depends on the nature and character of the subject matter I am shooting and how I see the project developing. These days I tend to work in large sets of images – a series may total 100+ images. In a sense, as well as a growing and firm affinity with painting (Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer, Edward Hopper and Fred Williams are special favorites) there’s also an attraction the sequential image and cinema: Chris Marker’s work often plays in my mind in terms of using still images to convey narrative. Narrative or the sense of it, is very important in my more recent work and I now find it hard just to make a single image without shooting several that might relate to it. I have always enjoyed the narrative sequences of Duane Michal’s especially when he writes on the surface of his prints. I also enjoy mixing the dates of images so that underlying themes begun years ago, can be re-introduced into newer bodies of work, giving the whole series a greater sense of history and identity. The body of work entitled “Cyphers” employs this approach. I like recycling themes and motifs, it allows for a degree of playfulness in my work and sometimes the dark humour lifts the mood slightly.

 

Touch Somploy 1 Edit

Touch Somply, supported by The Cambodia Trust, Kampot Province Cambodia, 2006 © Simon Larbalestier

 

What is your all-time favorite camera?

SIMON: Leica M—there’s no substitute.

 

Thank you for your time and participation. We enjoyed talking with you.

 

TO SEE MORE GREAT WORK, VISIT –  SIMON LARBALESTIER

 

Blog:  http://blog.simon-larbalestier.co.uk/simon/
Instagram: http://instagram.com/simonlarbalestier
Twitter:  http://www.twitter.com/SimLarbalestier

 

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Keicha Kempsey writer

Dos Trensas/Two Braids”

by Keicha Kempsey

 

Drop Cap There is nothing to disguise the lies as efficiently as more lies. Her hair was dark, almost black, and thick, coarse. It took hours to comb though the waist length mane. By the time the chocolate-colored, old, weathered hands finished braiding it, bedtime was upon them. Two ponytails this time, tightly held at either side of her head by strips of colorful rags made to look like hair ribbons, fashioned from old worn clothing that even when new to her had been second-hand. Or more than likely, third or fourth-hand. Usefulness did not have an expiration date. The young girl could feel the tugging of the hair ribbons pinching. Her head was throbbing but she dared not complain. That old hard-leather chancleta[1] would be off her grandmother’s callused foot and connecting with her flat backside with a swiftness that defied the old lady’s age.

“Alright, get up,” she was told, brusquely, in Spanish, of course. The hands that had held her close just seconds ago shoving her away. Quietly, she collected the brush and comb as well as the pomade that had travelled all the way from the home country, Dominican Republic. She gathered the hair that had been pulled out of her head in the process as well. The broken brown kinky curls a knotted ball in her skinny hand. She put everything back in its place and tossed her ripped out hair in the bathroom garbage.

She looked in the bathroom mirror, an old medicine cabinet that hung in front of the bathroom window, nailed to the frame, ensuring the window would never be opened. A blank gaze stared back at her. She was tall, gangly, homely looking. And now, thanks to the two extremely tight braided ponytails at either side of her oval head, her prominent forehead was resplendent. She wanted to undo them, wanted to rip the ridiculous ribbons from her head and flush them down the toilet. But she would not. She dared not. She did as she was told. Always had. So what if she was eleven years old and her grandmother still combed her hair. She was okay with it. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought or said.

A silent tear trekked down her caramel cheek and disappeared into her thin lips. She swiped angrily at her face, puffed out her chest and went to bed in the room she shared with her thirty year old virgin aunt. There were three beds in the room. One single bed, a captain’s bed in unfinished wood which belonged to her aunt. Then there were bunk beds. She slept in the top bed and the bottom was a catchall. Or, if someone came to visit, as long as they were female, it was a guest bed.   She climbed up to her bed, said a silent prayer and slept.

*          *          *

“Why don’t you try turning your head a little to the left and tilting your head up?” The man behind the camera tried to find her “good side.” He had been at it for five minutes already, and she was becoming increasingly stiff, not comfortable, with his every suggestions. Everyone else in her class was waiting. They had already taken their class picture and their individual pictures. She glanced over at her teacher, her eyes searching, asking for help, for the pain to stop. Mrs. Diaz smiled at her, recognizing the pained look. It was the same one she gave in class when called upon to answer a question or read aloud. Mrs. Diaz walked over to the photographer and whispered in his ear. He frowned instantly, but nodded.

He turned to me once again and offered me a furtive smile. “One more?” I glanced at Mrs. Diaz. She nodded. I forced a smile on my lips, tilted my head slightly to the left and stuck my chin out defiantly, my two braided ponytails, with their colorful mismatched ties, hanging at either side of my head like heavy burdens.

 

[1] House slipper

 

BIO

Keicha KempseyKeicha Delacruz-Kempsey lives in New York with her husband and two young children. She teaches high school English and Spanish in a public school. She received her undergraduate degree from The City College of New York, a master’s degree in teaching from Empire State College and a second master’s degree in English Literature from SUNY New Paltz.

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Kantu damage

In Quest of Indelible Images:
Re-Discovering the Great Kantu Earthquake of 1923
Through Photo-Archeology

By Paul Garson

 

tokyo earthquake rescue

 

This article is an excerpt form a larger work now in progress, a book titled, Adventures of a Photo-Archeoolgist: Earthquakes, Spies, Forgotten Wars and Lost Worlds.

 

Drop Cap The 5,000 years of human civilization can be viewed as a continuum of indelible images. Enter the proliferation of the camera into the equation, and the images recording more recent history have gained the status of time machines, each photograph capturing an instance of reflected light that came only once into being and then vanished. However, in untold instances those very images themselves have disappeared, yet to be unearthed and then re-examined in an effort to bring into focus pivotal events.

While the evolution of the camera and photography can be traced back to ancient China, untold billions of photos have been taken since the “modern” portable camera appeared in 1888 with the first Kodak. Since then and in addition to the professional photographer serving science and technology, the amateur’s “snapshots” have also provided a wealth of documentation that has chronicled history in the making.

Though not cast in stone or metal, these relatively fragile slips of coated paper, are still in essence, “artifacts” that have survived war and natural disaster over ever increasing periods of time. The role of the photo-archeologist is to search for those that can cast the past in a new and revealing light. It requires diligence, patience and an abiding curiosity to literally spend thousands of hours “digging up” the images from around the globe via the Internet as well as from scouring swap meets, auctions, collector photo events and garage sales ad infinitum. Further effort via computer software is often required to maximize the quality of the images, as well as months of research that takes the photo-archeologist through many a twist and turn investigating rare books, vintage magazines, film documentaries and of course, surfing the Web, in order to thread the images together in a tapestry of some coherence, all in the hopes the final outcome would provide the reader/viewer with the ah!-factor experienced during the adventure of discovery.

In each instance the “dig” begins with a chance meeting with a single photograph be it from an old scrapbook or found as a postcard. Then the hunt is on …. and it may be days, weeks, months, even years before the next thread is found. Following is an excerpt from one such “photo-archeological dig,” all images form the author’s collection.

Like a shard of pottery or glint of a buried relic, it all begins with one fragment, the first piece of the puzzle.

 

* * * * *

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923: Portent of Disaster Unheeded, Seeds of a Future War Sown

 

 postcard Japan 22

 

Two Weeks Out at Sea- Ominous First Warning – September 23, 1923                          

A postcard transmitted via U.S. Seapost Transmission from an unidentified cruise ship bound for Japan, Mrs. Gillet has written to a Miss Gertruck Pollack in Los Angeles. Her message reads, “Tomorrow at daylight we will be in Japan. Our wireless is busy telling of terrible earthquake and fire. I’m enjoying every minute, never miss a meal. Best wishes to Fritz and all.”

 

The Next Thread – Original Photo 1923– Passengers aboard the Empress of Australia

 

Empress passengers

 

aboard cruise ship

 

The luxury cruise ship was equipped to accommodate 400 First, 165 Second and 1200 Third Class passengers. All First Class passengers were provided with cabins fitted withbedsteads without the “annoyance” of upper berths. The public rooms were lavishly detailed in Louis XVI motif while the indoor pool was decorated in Pompeian style. These passengers onboard that Saturday, Sept. 1, 1923 would find themselves caught on the very edge of a maelstrom of fire and destruction, the ship entangled and unable to leave its mooring.

 

Empress ship card

 

The Empress of Australia – Hero Ship

An illustration appearing on a 1924 issue trading card found in Wills’s Cigarettes shows the Canadian Pacific Liner Empress of Australia, a survivor of the Yokohama earthquake.

She became the most famous of the ships that served as a sanctuary during the earthquake and fires. At 21,850 tons, the 615 ft. long, 75 ft. wide, the streamlined silver and black steamer was able to save over 2,000 lives thanks to the courage and leadership of its captain, Samuel Robinson. His heroic efforts would see him honored as a Knight Commander of the British Empire as well as the recipient of decorations by Emperor Hirohito of Japan and the King of Siam.

 

* * * * *

Point of Intersection – Where the Images Lead

Since 1871, in a country known for its traditions, at exactly the noon hour, the loud report or don of a cannon being fired from the plaza of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace notified the city’s inhabitants that the day was proceeding normally. On the muggy Saturday morning of September 1, 1923, the muffled “bang” to which the citizenry of the island nation’s capital was long accustomed never sounded. At one minute and 15.4 seconds before the noon hour struck, the Earth beneath Japan literally rose in revolt.

 

damage Asakusa

 

Apocalypse Now

Rather than the remains of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after their destruction by nuclear bombs in August 1945 during the last days of WWII, the vast devestation seen here was visited some 22 years previously upon the thriving Japanese seaport city of Yokohama. The 8.3 level earthquake struck on September 1, 1923 from an epicenter located hundreds of feet beneath Izu Oshima Island in Sagami Bay some 25 miles from Tokyo, seismic waves sent the Honshu island’s Plain of Kanto heaving for at least four minutes and for as many as ten, instantly toppling hundreds of thousands of factories, homes and government buildings and in the process setting aflame the city of mostly wood and rice paper. Seen here is a portion of a panoramic photograph of Yokokama taken some days afterwards as evidenced by the resurrection of the utility poles.

The combination of flame and flood, mud slides and avalanches impacting Yokohama and Tokyo and surrounding areas killed between 105,000-140,000 people and injured tens of thousands more as well as left nearly 2,000,0000 homeless. By comparison the WWII atomic explosions killed an estimated total of 105, 000. The Great Kanto Earthquake as it was called had been accurately predicted, but the warning was ignored to disastrous result. Greater disaster would follow as the destruction of the two cities would indirectly and directly help fan the flames of a global war.

 

1923 color postcard harbor

Aftermath

Amidst the destruction, a cameraman has photographed the remains of the Ryounkaku, one Tokyo’s best known landmarks situated in the Asakusa entertainment district. The 220-foot tall “skyscraper” containing many stores and shops was also known as the “12-Storey” and “Cloud Scraper,” the octagonal brick building designed by British water engineer W.K. Burton under contract to Tokyo authorities. Completed in 1890 it was for many years the tallest building in Japan. From its rooftop one could view all of Tokyo. And from almost anywhere in city you could see it as well. During the earthquake it broke at the eighth floor, the top four floors crumbling, its skeletal shell left standing for months until Japanese army engineers dynamited its remains while clearing the post-quake rubble.

 

Tokyo Lunarscape

In the foreground and distant background the white-cladrescuers comb the debris field, the fires, some 130, having subsided after 40 continuous hours. Some two-thirds of the city felt the effect of the earthquake while fire consumed all of it. Once the embers had cooled, thousands of bodies had to be extricated from the pancaked buildings. Amidst the ruins a lone traffic tower still remains standing, although the streets, partially cleared show, no resumption yet of vehicular traffic.

Some 40 miles to the east of Tokyo, the coastal resort city of Kamakura was also struck by the earthquake, the 13th Century bronze Great Buddha, weighing some 93 tons, slid forward on its base two feet while the surrounding buildings were destroyed, the area’s beach hit by a 20-ft. tsunami that, along with the earthquake and resulting fires, claimed over 2,000 lives. Here the seismic event raised the sea floor and beach some six feet.

 

naval officer and wife

 

Formal Portrait

While the West calculated the year as 1921, the Empire of Japan officially counted it as 2583, time out of joint as it were. The collision of long isolated feudal Japan with the modern world led to more than conflicting clothing styles as evidenced by an officer’s Western influenced Imperial Navy uniform and his bride’s traditional kimono, the latter’s creation requiring the total production of 5,000 silkworms.

 

General McCoy

 

America Sends Disaster Relief with Semi-Disastrous Result
Seen in an original 1923 photograph, Brig. Gen. Frank R. McCoy, who had by chance recently arrived in Japan on leave prior to the earthquake, was then designated to the post of Director General of American Relief. He had his job cut out for him. As a result of the Kanto Earthquake and collateral damage the area suffered estimated damages equivalent to $1 billion.

America mounted an unprecedented relief effort, an exercise of global good will made possible by the combined efforts of the U.S. Navy, Army and Marines bolstered by monetary and material contributions by the American public and business community on a scale never seen before. While their attentions were focused on U.S. citizens (167 killed, many injured among some 500 foreign casualties), the effort aided the Japanese as well through food and supplies and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Through the efforts of the American Red Cross and then U.S. President Calvin Coolidge some $12,000,000 was raised, the monies turned over to the Japanese Red Cross for distribution. One shipment from the west coast of the U.S., among tons of foodstuffs, included nearly 5,000 kimonos.

 

seismologist Immamura

Seismic Seer Unheeded

(Photo courtesy of Kazumi Terada, Immaura’s great-grandaughter)

In 1905 Akitsune Imamura, then 35, a member the Seismology Department at Tokyo Imperial University, and a leading if controversial researcher seeking a means by which to forecast earthquakes, warned against the fragility of the alluvial landfill as well as the susceptibility of the vast number of wooden structures to massive fire damage in the event of an earthquake. Imamura made detailed recommendations to prepare and ameliorate such an eventualityand even virtually pinpointed the location of the next great quake, moreover predicting its time frame. He also was one the first to associate earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis and would build the first “earthquake proof” house. While Japan was well-versed in its seismic vulnerability, his university superior belittled his doomsday forecast and when a local newspaper splashed his warnings in lurid terms, he became a subject of ridicule. His vindication on September 1, 1923 would be a bitter one, two cities destroyed to prove him right. He would survive both the earthquake and WWII and gain wide recognition for his contributions to seismology.

As for the predictions of future disasters, Akitsune Imamura, the vindicated and then much heralded seismologist who had forecast the Great Kanto Earthquake, years later predicted a second major earthquake, one that would be generated near Osaka. He again called for earthquake preparedness, but was ignored for a second time. 1300 peopled died on December 7, 1944 when the quake struck at the point Imamura had predicted, the date coincidental to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack and seen by some Western observers as divine retribution, by others as the human ability to repeatedly ignore the warnings of history.

 

newspaper headline Sept 1923

 

The Front Page of the Louisville, Kentucky The Courier-Journal – Wednesday Morning edition September 5, 1923

The feature article erroneously reported the eruptions of volcanoes 50 miles northwest of Tokyo but accurately as “the greatest earthquake in the history of this country” as well as the 20 foot swells that reached the California coast. Details included concerns over 29 missing Kentuckians then in Japan. At this time Tokyo was still being spelled Tokio in U.S. publications.

 

 

 

BIO

paul garsonPaul Garson is a writer and photographer. He has contributed to many magazines and periodicals, and has published both fiction and nonfiction books as well as written two screenplays that have been produced. He served as a university instructor of composition and writing, as well as a martial arts instructor. His public relations and marketing projects included several for national and multinational companies.

His previous books include Album of the Dead, concerning WWII in Europe, available through Chicago Review Press, and New Images from Nazi Germany available through McFarland & Publishers.

 

 

 

0
Seijun Suzuki Nikkatsu

Still the Master – Seijun Suzuki Legendary Filmmaker

by Chris Casey

 

tokyo drifter

Tokyo Drifter, 1966

 

On May 24, 2014, Suzuki Seijun, one of my most favorite filmmakers turned 91. Under typical circumstances, I would have created a status post about Suzuki’s birthday for my Facebook page. However, since the passing of my father, I have found myself to be physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually busy with first one thing then twenty others. Therefore, I have to confess, I simply forgot about Suzuki-sensei’s 91st birthday.

Interestingly enough, though, yesterday was the first time in many, many moons I was actually able to sit down to watch some movies and guess what films I chose to watch? Two classics from none other than birthday boy, Suzuki Seijun, himself! Perhaps, subconsciously I remembered it was his birthday—but, then again, perhaps not. All I know is that there are a fistful of films I call my “comfort movies” (these are films that I can, and do, put on and enjoy anytime, anywhere—but, most especially when I am feeling out of sorts). And among my comfort movies are the Suzuki masterpieces I watched, yesterday: TOKYO NAGAREMONO (TOKYO DRIFTER) and KOROSHI NO RAKUIN (BRANDED TO KILL).

They just don’t make ’em like Suzuki Seijun anymore.

SUZUKI SEIJUN

Undeniably, the most well-known practitioner of Nikkatsu Action eiga (at least in the West) is maverick director Suzuki Seijun. His work for Nikkatsu Studios ranks as some of the most intriguing and visually stunning cinema ever produced, in any country or within any genre. Over the past ten years, an endless number of film journalists, critics, and fans, have written miles of well-deserved rabid reviews, and elegant essays regarding this colorful director’s life and his brilliant work. In most of these articles, Suzuki is likened to “outlaw” directors such as Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, and Jean-Luc Godard. Although, he no doubt shares much with these celebrated auetuers, he is also very much unlike them. With a few exceptions, these other directors worked outside of restricting studio systems. Seijun, on the other hand, boldly made his own artistic statements within the confines of such systems, making him a completely unique, and paradoxical, rebel of conformity.

 

branded to kill 1967

Branded to Kill, 1967

Typically, Suzuki Seijun films are hyperbolic, intense, overtly melodramatic, flamboyant, and frequently just barely within the lines of controlled chaos. However, at the same time, they are subtle, sensual, and highly artistic in execution (though Suzuki, himself, would firmly deny it!). The medium to which Suzuki’s work is most closely related would be the traditional Kabuki style of theatre. Suzuki-sensei’s surrealistic use of color to denote various emotional aspects of the scene, his utilization of sound, his stage-like framing, and the acting style of the performers, often reflect Kabuki–as tempered through an anarchic, cinematic eye.

Suzuki’s works have been frequently referred to as radical (in both the good and bad sense of the word!); and radical they most definitely are. Yet the wild, rebellious nature inherent in his films could be interpreted as a logical extension, or reflection, of the world in which Suzuki grew up.

Born Suzuki Seitaro in May of 1923, Suzuki (and thus his film work) is a product of the tumultuous Taisho period. This period of Japanese history (including the years between 1912 and 1926) was a volatile time of cultural upheavals and political revolutions. These were chaotic–yet, picturesque—days of newly imported, translated, and assimilated, philosophies, literature, and entertainment forms (including silent films) mixing with traditional Japanese ways and viewpoints. This cultural wildness seems to have left an indelible mark on Suzuki’s psyche.

After completing a course at Tokyo Trade School, in 1941, Suzuki attempted to enter the College of the Ministry of Agriculture; but, he failed the entrance exam because he was weak in physics and chemistry. For a brief time he did basically nothing (with the exception of watching numerous films), until he somehow managed to end up in a college at Hirosaki. However, his days as a student were soon cut short.

Suzuki was drafted into service during World War II in 1943. While serving as a Private, second class, he was shipwrecked twice. Sometime after these experiences he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant with the Meterological Corps in the South Pacific.

In 1946, after the War, Suzuki returned to Japan and his studies at Hirosaki. He finished his courses there and attempted to enter the prestigious Tokyo University; but, he failed to win a place there. Trying a new direction altogether, the young film buff, Suzuki, decided to heed the advice of a friend, and enrolled in the Film Department of Kamakura Academy.

In 1948 Suzuki was accepted as a salaried employee at the Shochiku Film Company’s Ofuna Studio. While with Shochiku, he worked mainly as an assistant director. He worked a great deal and learned a lot; however, he was not making very good money. After six years, he decided to transfer to Nikkatsu purely for–he claims–financial reasons.

 

youth of the beast

Youth of the Beast, 1963

At Nikkatsu, Suzuki again worked chiefly as an assistant, though better paid, to many of the studio’s best directors. After proving himself to be a very efficient second unit man, and a very capable scriptwriter, he was finally given the chance to direct features of his own. Still using his real name, Suzuki Seitaro, he began his illustrious career as a full-fledged director in 1956 with a minor-league pop music film. Suzuki quickly became a skilled master of studio-dictated, production line features; however, with each new film assignment he seemed to try a little harder to entertain the audience in a new way and make tired ideas seem fresh.

With the 1958 crime film, “Ankokugai no Bijo” (“Beauty of the Underworld”), Suzuki Seitaro became (and would remain) Suzuki Seijun. Yet, the “Seijun Style” would not truly come to exist until 1963 and the release of three perfect examples of Sensei’s art, “Tantei Jimusho 2-3: Kutabare Akutodomo” (“Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!”), “Yaju no Seishun” (“Youth of the Beast”), and “Kanto Mushuku” (“Kanto Wanderer”).

From 1963-1967, Suzuki Seijun created some of the most amazing pieces of cinema ever screened. Always trying to top himself in an effort to “keep the audience from getting bored,” each successive project seemed to push a little closer in exceeding the limitations of genre, budget, and expectations.

 

Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh, 1964

In 1967, Nikkatsu was having some major money problems. Kyusaku Hori, the company president at the time, decided (for who knows what reasons) to make Suzuki the scapegoat for the entire company’s financial woes and fired him for making “incomprehensible” movies that made no money. Kyusaku particularly hated “Koroshi no Rakuin” (“Branded to Kill”), a film that is now regarded as Suzuki’s masterpiece worldwide.

Ignoring all protests from fellow Nikkatsu workers, friends, and student groups, Hori stuck to his decision to dismiss Seijun. Feeling rightfully cheated, Suzuki took an unprecedented step and sued Nikkatsu for wrongful dismissal, a case which the director won three and a half years later. Though he won in the courts, Suzuki was effectively blacklisted by all of the major studios for nearly ten years.

Filling these lean years by directing a few commercials and publishing books of essays, Suzuki constantly sought ways to continue his filmmaking career. In 1980 he joined with independent producer Genjiro Arato and released a new film, “Zigeunerweisen“. The film was a great success with critics, and did well financially despite the fact that it was not allowed to be distributed through normal circuits. In fact, Suzuki and Genjiro distributed the film themselves, exhibiting it via a specially built mobile theatre!

Since that time, Suzuki has directed two more independent works, “Kagero-za” (“mirage Theatre”) and “Yumeji“, as well as one film, “Capone oi ni Naku” (“Capone’s Flood of Tears”), for his former employers, Shochiku. His Nikkatsu films began getting noticed in the West sometime in the mid to late 1980’s with festivals, from Italy to Canada, successfully screening many of his classics. In the ’90s, with the advent of more niche-oriented home video (DVD) and the World Wide Web, Suzuki’s cult of admirers has continued to expand (and deservedly so).

 

bastardshellposter

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!, 1963

 

Recommended Suzuki Films:

BRANDED TO KILL (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967)
YOUTH OF THE BEAST (Yaju no Seishun, 1963)
TOKYO DRIFTER (Tokyo Nagaremono, 1966)
KANTO WANDERER (Kanto Mushuku, 1963)
STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (Shunpuden, 1965)
GATE OF FLESH (Nikutai no Mon, 1964)
UNDERWORLD BEAUTY (Ankokugai no Bijo, 1958)
TATTOOED LIFE (Irezumi Ichidai, 1965)
DETECTIVE BUREAU 2-3: GO TO HELL, BASTARDS! (Tantei Jimusho 2-3: Kutabare Akuto-domo, 1963)
THE FLOWER AND THE ANGRY WAVES (Hana to Doto, 1964)

 All titles, with the exception of THE FLOWER AND ANGRY WAVES, have had U.S. DVD releases.

 

BIO

Chris CaseyChris Casey is a musician, writer, film buff, occasional actor, and nagaremono currently residing in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA. Chris digs: Japanese action cinema of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Spy flicks and TV shows of the 1960’s, Westerns (Spaghetti and American); Film Noir; Hard-Boiled Pulp Fiction; Mods, R&B; Soul, Beat Music, Jazz, Ska, Reggae, Punk, Instrumental Surf Rock, Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, Raymond Chandler, Mishima Yukio, and much more.

 

 

 

0
Ruth Berger author

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

by Ruth Gila Berger

 

Drop Cap To change: to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of something different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone. To transform or convert. Change implies making either an essential difference often amounting to a loss of original identity or a substitution of one thing for another.

  *  *  *

A spiderweb riddled with raindrops is shaken by a passing cat and shaken again. Can that path of water be traced? Water slides along the threads and is flung back to its original position. Did it change? Did the cat impart some fundamental influence on how the light then hits and reveals a perfect geometry? Did the cat change its future? Such a web is one of the most dazzling things to see, always, always unexpected and alarming.

   *  *  *

If you go to treatment for chemical dependency, which I did, they will tell you that changes made for another person are inherently fragile, not lasting. Soon fraught with resentment they boomerang. On a basic level this is a view with which I agree. Yet. To answer the question, how has knowing Christi changed me? Because her experience casts light on mine, and through that prism, so much blue churns. The cadmium answers. And what I see is that I want to change how I relate, not just to Christi, but to other people in my life. Knowing exactly where or how that interpersonal weave has shifted, knowing exactly when I turned around to catch and repair any given stitch is hard to trace. Right now the change in me is about many conversations I would have never previously even imagined having.

   *  *  *

I was, I am, the girl who loves dandelions. Their silver streaks across my history and I need to gather at least one strand from every plant in the yard. Momma had a baby and her head popped off. Each flower flies off, a different vision. I wish I could cut the memories as easily a that stalk-severing snap. But they always come back. The most obvious reevaluation of my relationship with my mother was prompted by the fact that Christi’s died when she was fifteen. That loss shines light on value, that no matter what my relationship with my mother was, it is a living, breathing thing that could grow and change.

   *  *  *

Do you know where you’re goin to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you goin to? Do you know? Do you get what you’re hopin for when you look behind you, there’s no open doors what are you hopin for? Do you know?

   *  *  *

The first time Christi met my parents was in July; we’d been dating since February. It was during this visit I realized I was no longer a fly caught in amber, unable to move or change and it was during this visit I would realize just how much I had changed.

For my parents’ visit, I engineered around obstacles. There would be no awkward moment at the airport; I had my parents book a rental car; they’d need it regardless. And because I wanted this to be a new start, I tried to give Christi a different set of stories, to show her something other than the trashy set of teacups I have always hauled out to put on display, chipped, cracked and gritty. I worked hard to tell her about happy times. Almost all my stories took place within the grease stained walls of my parents’ kitchen. We were a food-obsessed family, with my dad’s Crohn’s so many things had to be avoided. I grew up reading ingredient lists. Bread should be flour, water, salt and yeast.

I told Christi about how I started to cook before I started school. My parents got me a kid’s cookbook, Look I can Cook! It had goofy illustrations. My favorite thing was Crocque Monsieurs, grilled ham and cheese. From there I went on to make my own recipes.

What they had to eat,” I said. “I loved candles and made them eat by candlelight. Pissed my dad off in such a big way. He liked to see. I don’t know. They were really kind of extraordinary. Like I used to sing them these operas I made up—that they listened more than once is astounding. Jesus. My mom drove me to ballet like every other day. She hated driving but I don’t remember her ever yelling at me about it. You know, that she was doing something I should be grateful for? The lists of things, I take you everywhere, I get you everything, all that. I mean there was all this generosity. And I didn’t do anything to deserve it, not really.”

“My parents took me to swimming twice a day,” Christi interrupted me.

“Yeah, your dad said you could quit at any time.”

Christi nodded.

“Wow. You remember I told you that? All I know is if I were my dad, I would’ve been angry,” she said.

“My parents were really pretty great,” I said. “They even went to see a speed metal band. It was right after high school. My boyfriend played the bass. You should’ve seen them dancing. I mean I wasn’t embarrassed, not exactly. But oye, remember the Cosby Show, second season, the opening sequence? My dad was kinda like that. Only he wasn’t Bill Cosby. It was a moment for them and me. I want you to love them. You know? Not to enter it all accusations. I mean. Nevermind. At this point there really aren’t those accusations to make.”

The week before my parents were set to visit Christi called me at work. An accident. She’d gotten McDonald’s and was chasing a fry, those last ones in the bag under the napkins after she’d finished the red thing of them and didn’t see the Suburban in front of her stop before it was too late. Her CRV was smashed.

“He didn’t even have a dent,” she told me. “Jackass came out all whiny and screaming at me. It was stop and go traffic. At the fastest I was going was under twenty. Bubbles whole front needs rebuilding. Vina will do it, he won’t even charge me for rent since I can’t pay all of it but how am I going to get the money, two thousand dollars?”

Later that night Christi buried her head under the covers.

“What am I going to do without a car. There’s no bus to the studio. To where I work. I can’t take the bus anyway. I have a mental illness. Everyone on there is crazy during the day. Crazy people make me more crazy. All the shouting,” Christi wailed. “Shit I need the car for Matt. What am I going to do?”

I stared at Christi. I’d recently met Matt. He was sweet. A friend of hers who’d found himself with a cancerous tumor in his brain. He’d tried for bright and bubbly that day but he was sick, broke and uninsured, a bulb on the fritz. He’d answered the door and his white Pomeranian mini did a NASCAR on the rung when we entered the foyer. Matt quickly led us to the living room where he could sit down again. They went over what he needed from the store and when his appointments were that week. Before we left he handed Christi two large bags of pills. Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin. He had a refillable prescription for all three but felt more sick when he took them. Christi, being darkly connected, sold them with interest and gave him the money. With this arrangement he paid rent and didn’t bounce the check he wrote for cable and electricity.

The last time pills were easy for me was when I was in India with its newspaper kiosk pharmacies. Open air, a counter on the street. Just memorize the generics a friend had advised me. That stash was years gone.

Happily I helped Christi take her tithe of freebies. Like fine sandpaperI’ve long loved pills—they smooth all edges, chemical hands that shape the world, make it clay, squished down in size. They cut the worst off the menstrual cramps that doubled me often enough when standing on line at the post office. They allowed me to stand straight those days.

“Honey,” I said. “It’ll be okay. Really. We’ll share my car. You’ll have me to drive to work everyday, pick me up. That’ll be pain but you can deal with it. I have a coffee maker. You can save at least $56 a week that way. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.”

“What if my coffee sucks. You’ll hate me,” Christi said.

“Just make it stronger,” I said.

“Your parents’ll hate me. Crazy moocher lesbian on disability, Jesus. Your parents will hate me and I’ll lose my mistress,” she said.

“More like you’ll be disgusted at how I am with my parents and want nothing further to do with me. Like one of the early times Craig was with me we were saying goodbye to my mom at the airport. She hugged me and kissed my neck. I actually threw her off of me. I have no idea what I said but she just stood there whispering just a hug, just a hug. Am I any better now? I can’t say.”

This time it was Christi who reached to comfort me.

   *  *  *

Stories have a way of changing, their bones grow or shrink from loss of calcium. What was once solid now shows up in x-rays as a disturbing lace. The story of what we’d forever refer to as my moment on the stairs doesn’t. There might be a few previously forgotten details but the colors stay the same.

I had asked my parents to visit for four days but they scheduled to fly in for six. The explosion came exactly as I was loath to predict, on the fifth day of their visit. Up to this point things between us have gone swimmingly. Christi’s studio, restaurants, conversation. There were no presumptuous digs about my last relationship—my ex in comparison with Christi. Perhaps I had a few small sores in my mouth from where I’d worried the sides of my cheeks. Perhaps I had started to dig my nails into the palms of my hands. But my patience was a frozen lake, smooth, no cracks. My mother regaled Christi with her knowledge of artists and art history, her theories about this or that painting, eyes sparking, thrilled to finally have an audience who sat close to me. And although Christi would later confess to feelings of inadequacy next to the collective intellect of my family, her dimples populated a galaxy as she told my parents stories. Together the four of us went to Christi’s apartment to meet her roommate Howard and their animals. My parents’ skin glowed in the bright inclusion. Christi beamed. Grudgingly, chafing, I conceded the invisible concrete I moved in was awkward and unnecessary. Although each night we agreed Christi should go home, we kissed, caved, and she stayed. Sunday I planned our dinner for Monday. I’d have to get up early to marinate the steak and prepare the tomatoes for slow-roasting before I went to work.

In the car that morning I instructed Christi to make sure my dad started the grill before she left to get me so I could run upstairs, change, and do the rest of the cooking. Risotto with shrimp, shallots, basil, red pepper flakes and the tomatoes. An Argentinean parmesan cheese.

“Yummy,” Christi smiled at me.

A chill waltzed the sweat on my body and I turned to her, goose-pimply.

“The last time I cooked for them was a disaster. A total fucking disaster,” I said. “I forget what I was making but it had zucchini and the zucchini ruined everything. It was so bitter I spit it out. Like actually spit it at the table. Was so disgusting. But my mother had to do her whole fucking martyr thing and keep eating.”

“Sweetie,” Christi plied me. “You’re twitching.”

“Not!” I said.

My blood had turned to bees. The reflection of my face shimmered in the dirty window.

What is wrong with me?

At five o’clock prompt Christ was there to pick me up.

“How was work?” she asked.

I shrugged. When we got home the sky put on a crayon-box evening. The weather wasn’t too hot, it was lovely. My parents were waiting. Their scattered things for a second added extra teeth to wrap my mouth around, my mother’s balled up socks on the rug, two extra shirts on the couch, made it hard to breathe. Pages of the New York Times were everywhere. My mother blocked the stairs so I had to hug her or tell her to get out of the way.

“Excuse me,” I said, ducking roughly.

Once in the bathroom—the tweezers, the mirror—I search for black hairs that need plucking. Grudges, I name them and celebrate the audible catch and slide of their release. On my finger the root of one chin hair has a coat of skin—taste it—almost to my lips before I shudder and wash it away. What if someone were watching? Changed, in fresh make-up, I returned to the kitchen.

“How’s things at Books Consort-e-um?” My mother asked me.

I feel Christi’s eyes. They are soft, dusting me. She knows this needles, my mother’s renaming everything I share.

It’s not totally off base, Christi has told me. Everyone has trouble with names. Like she can’t remember so she goes by association. You work in books, there’s a word, Consortium. Books Consortium. It makes sense, okay?

“Great. Did I tell you I got an office? I finally moved into a real office. It’s pink. Really, really pink. Everyone comments on that, the cognitive dissonance, even people who don’t know me, that it seems a strange color. For me, I mean. Office conversation. Anyway things are great. Busy, everyone’s excited about the catalog this season. We’ve got what’ll probably be the last Kurt Vonnegut,” I said.

Quickly I chopped onions to get the risotto going. Olive oil, toss with rice, chicken broth and simmering. My mother stood behind me.

“Can I help?” she asked.

“No. I’ve got everything. Sit with dad, enjoy. Want a glass of wine?” I smiled. “Christi, I forgot about wine. To ask you. All I’ve got is the cooking. Did you get any?”

Christi’s dismay stormed quickly.

“No, no, no, baby, don’t worry. Not your fault. I wasn’t thinking. You were busy. It’s okay,” I said.

Fussing with the rice, I addressed my mother still behind me, kitchen conversation.

“Risotto’s tricky. You have to time it just right. You want it to need a bite but not be crunchy. Should be creamy,” my voice trailed and stalled after the word creamy as I watched her stiffen and pale.

“Otherwise the texture is wrong, gooey,” I said.

“You didn’t use cream, did you? Your dad can’t eat cream. Charlie can’t digest milk sugars,” she said.

I shook my head.

“No cream. Of course not. Dad can’t eat dairy. I know. Jesus. I know that. What I meant was extra starch dissolves and makes the risotto creamy. It’s a word, ma, creamy,” I say. “Jesus. Relax. Go sit. Really. Talk to dad. Enjoy. I do things faster anyway.”

She ignored my plea but shuffled a little out of the way. She looked so small. I wanted to make her happy.

“Honestly. You can do the dishes,” I laughed. “If you absolutely need to do something.”

For a few minutes the silence was companionable. The rice burbled upon a dash of wine. Smiling I caught Christi’s eye—our check-in—everything was fine.

“Music?” she asked. “Anything?”

“Um huh, the, you know, jazz with the guy. Whoo,” I said.

She got my meaning. A CD we bought on a date—soothing, the memory of a perfect evening. My mom looked at me, uncomprehending.

“Nothing.”

Christi launched into the story. I shook my head slightly.

Ignoring me, Christi bent to my mother.

“We bought a CD at a concert we went to, on a date. A jazz place,” she explained.

The court jester, the bard, the clown, Christi-blue crazy eyes. A born storyteller, my lover, who wants to include everybody, she doesn’t understand my saying nothing and continued in her opportunity. Her phone rang. She held a hand over it and pointed upstairs. I nodded and she left me with my family. Later Christi would tell me she spent most of the conversation trying to get off the phone because she heard me yelling.

In a dance around my kitchen I slid, dipped to grab the grater and turned to get my cheese, mom behind me. Her voice was bleaty, tentacles shivering.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Grating cheese,” I said.

“You’re not going to put that on anything, are you?” she asked.

“No, it’s staying in this bowl,” I said.

“Because.”

“Dad has Crohn’s,” I interrupted. “I know. This is for you, me, and Christi.”

My mother hasn’t stopped her conversation.

“He’ll get very sick. He has Crohn’s disease and Celiac Sprue,” she continues.

“Yes ma. No wheat, no dairy. I know. No dairy. For over thirty years,” I say.

She continues gathering speed. I lose track of the back and forth of what gets said. The conversation loops and repeats.

“He can’t,” she says.

“Ma, I know, okay? The cheese is NOT going in anything. Back off,” I say.

Her mouth keeps moving. It is a flying train.

I turn.

There is no present tense, my age now, irrelevant. The years between five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-four vanish. We’ve passed that one second where the entirety of my life flies at me, every grievance, all the pick-peck-picking, time backwards, a storm of nails take shreds away my skin and plays bass on my veins. I’m muscle, raw skeleton, vibrating, vibrating. The room holds still a second before I explode.

“You think I’m going to poison my dad? You think I’m some stranger and I need to be told?” I say.

My mother backs away.

“I can’t believe you’re still going on. He’s not in here, worried. What the hell are you doing? I know ABOUT the CHEESE, okay? I can’t believe this,” I say.

Then high decibel, “I WAS THERE MA! Who do you think you’re talking to? I mean. You’re amazing. You really are. I was there. It wasn’t just you. That was my life too. That’s why the cheese in here in a fucking bowl. Do you see that?”

I thrust the bowl towards her face.

“Okay, so you say it once. That’s going to stay separate, right? And I say yes. That’s fine. You worry. Fine. But you gotta stand on top of me and push and push and push. Like I’m going to poison my father? Fuck you. The reason I’m even grating the fucking cheese is for you, a treat, because I know you don’t buy it, like it’s going to contaminate his food through the fucking air. Or maybe you don’t want to make him jealous. Whatever. I don’t care. I was there when he stopped eating cheese. It was like when I had surgery. I was five okay? But no. You’re the only person who could possibly have a memory. His being sick is the story of my whole fucking life, okay? But you know what? Fuck you. You’re RIGHT. It was only you. You know what? I can’t be here,” I say.

“You mean you’re not going to eat your beautiful meal?” my mother asks me.

“No, ma. Your deal,” I say.

She steps closer and reaches towards me.

“Then I won’t eat it either,” she says.

I yank my arms away from her.

“Get out of my way,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

The impulse to grab and shove her dies. My spine is a slinky, melting, it won’t hold me up. I soften, barely whisper.

“Please. Trust me. It’s better that way,” I say.

I start to leave but turn and dash up the stairs where Christi stands momentarily frozen. She catches me.

“I’m here. It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m here,” she says, squeezing me.

My dad finally enters the fray.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

Like a teenager, I shout back, “Out. I. Don’t. Know.”

His tone stays even.

“When will you be back?” he asks.

“Late,” I say, less extreme.

Blinking, Christi steers me. At the driveway she raises her eyebrows. I snap my head away.

“Mexican?” she asks.

“I’m not hungry,” I say.

“Whatever. Margaritas?” she asks.

I nod, now crying.

“Damnit. I’m so sorry. That was exactly, I knew, I didn’t want it to be this way. It’s like everything just goes white. I’m sorry it’s so ugly. I didn’t want. We were doing so great, you know? I really,” I say.

Christi’s hand is large and strong against my leg.

“Honey, it’s okay. There’s history,” she says. “I understand. Taco Morelos?”

I drop my head back so my face is flat below the car ceiling.

“You know the funny thing?” I ask. “I mean you heard me last week. I called her to apologize—right speech, you know?—for all my screaming and cursing. What did I say? That it was disrespectful and she did nothing to deserve it? Shit. Nothing. So what does it take? Nothing. I’m right back where I started,” I say.

We sit at our usual table and order, Enchiladas Suiza and the steak with bacon and jalapenos. Supersize jumbo margaritas. A Mexican game show is playing. Bright and shiny. I get lost in it until we get our drinks. Everything is incredibly large and incredibly far away. I pick up a chip, turn it over and replace it. For a second I’m surprised my feet don’t swing above the floor. Still big. Christi drinks. Nudges a glass towards me.

“Do we have any?” I ask.
Red-red lips expel their straw.

“Phew. Thought you’d never ask me,” she says, passing me a Vicodin.

I crack then swallow the pill in two pieces.

“Better this way,” I say. “Like I would deliberately poison him?”

Christi cocks her head at me.

“I don’t think that’s what she meant,” she says.

Her voice and tequila dance seductive beneath my skin. Microscopic springs release by the thousands.

Rattlesnakes under my skin. My blood is whirring.

“You’re changing the topic,” Christi tells me.

“I didn’t say anything,” I say.

Sheepdog. I need a sheepdog in my head. Keep it together, focus.

“Whatever. You want my take?” she asks.

I nod.

“At the studio the other day. Did you notice how we didn’t really have a conversation?” Christi asks.

“We were talking,” I say.

“Yes but. It was like everything your mom said was about her. We’d look at my painting and somehow I’d never get a word in. Somehow it was very dramatic, When I look at my work, I’m sure you understand. I’m not always sure what I’m trying to communicate. I see things abstractedly. I’ve been studying clouds and planets. What I paint doesn’t necessarily look like a cloud or a planet. Sometimes I spend weeks trying to get one image because of the light, you know how that is. Most people say something, like, I like your painting. Or That’s cool. At the very least, The colors are pretty. How long you’ve been painting? maybe—compliments are nice, you know, even if they’re lying. I think she said Palmer’s one painting was interesting.”

I spill salsa on the menu.

“Which means she doesn’t like it,” I say. “I hate that. It’s so obvious. And now I use it, when I don’t know what to say. It’s interesting.”

Christi’s face goes hound.

“You say that to me,” she says, quietly.

“Well sometimes it is. Interesting. Like there’s a story. Jesus, baby. You know I won’t like everything.”

“What don’t you like?” she asks.

“The octopus Hand of God painting. Besides, if my reaction was always the same it wouldn’t be worth anything. Oh shit. Christi-blue,” I say, food back up my throat.

The waiter comes.

“How’s everything?”

I gulp. Christi is chewing.

“Great,” I say.

“Another drink?” he asks.

We nod, in harmony. He leaves. I wave a chip at Christi.

“So. You were saying?” I ask.

“I was saying. Rah. Even if I was, I wouldn’t be anyway. I don’t know, like, it was strange. I mean I get what you’ve been saying. Your dad’d try to say something and she’d interrupt back to her work again. He wasn’t much better, only with him it was all official sounding. His interpretation of the models, what was it? That he took a narcissistic pleasure in being painted. That she was. . . I forget. You know, those studies I did at Atelier. Nothing like I like the way you use color, or line, or shadow, any of the usual shit. Rah. Jesus. A narcissistic pleasure. If Josie was there she’d be like oh yeah? Think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. And even, even if you did, you don’t anyway. Narsa-sa-sis-DIC. So? I know. Think you’re so smart using big words. Yeah, well, I know big words too! Nars-dic,” she says.

I giggle and cheer, “Go Josie! Go monkeys!”

Christi takes another drink. Shakes her finger at me. Tries not to laugh.

“Monkeys.Really. Don’t encourage them!” She scolds me. “But sweetie, it was strange. Like it was all about him. Not that it wasn’t sweet, in a way. I mean he wasn’t showing off—he was serious. Nobody gets all serious about my shit like that. Just made me feel kinda stupid, you know. But I don’t know. Your parents are awesome. They bought a drawing.”

In her pause, we both look down and drink. Our margaritas are big. Christi continues.

“Then there was all that I’m sure Ruth can tell you it wasn’t easy, growing up with me. Maybe she was baiting you, but almost like showing off. At the studio was really, really strange. You know how babies are like all-about-me? She’s kinda the same way. Otherwise she’s not there. Blind, maybe? Like she can’t make that leap,” Christi says. “You need to stop explaining. It doesn’t matter what tiny pieces you break it into. It’s not simple and she doesn’t understand.”

“It’s, it’s, it’s just, I mean fuck her. Like his being sick wasn’t my fucking life? It’s funny how you learn how things in your family might have been a little different. Like my ex made this huge deal about farting. She said she never did and then she called it fluffing. That made me crazy. Like are you seven? A Victorian lady? You have a body. Everyone farts okay? Her ignorance was stunning. That you had shit in you from years ago and that’s why a yogi who stopped eating kept shitting. This was the reason for colonics. I think she learned that from her ex girlfriend. Eating disorder one might say. When I explained that intestine’s lining sloughs off a healthy person around every seventy-two hours and the bacteria in your gut keep digesting themselves, regardless, she didn’t believe me. I think I left rather than continuing the conversation. I mean of all the fucked up fights, that was the one I walked out the middle of. I’m sorry. I don’t need to be talking about her. Was just I realized a lot alone that night. That growing up the sound of my dad passing gas in his sleep was comforting. It meant he was alive. It wasn’t the soundtrack of him retching or on the toilet in pain. I don’t mean to be disgusting or reveal anything but that’s Crohn’s disease. It was always so extreme, like he could die each time. I’d get home and the fridge would be full of Jell-O and I’d know he was sick. As a kid I was afraid of red light. Like I’d shut my eyes at exit signs and had to move my bedroom because the bridge reflection was paralyzing. Brake light river jiggle. I never put it together, that was red Jell-O, the way it held the light. But you’re not kidding about psychobabble. It’s a second language. I was fluent at five. Defense mechanisms. You’re acting like your mother. Baby Freud. With a twat. How’d you think Freud would like that?” I ask.

Christi waves her straw at me.

“You didn’t let me finish,” she says.

“Sorry,” I say, shrinking.

I suck down my drink. Christi catches and holds my eyes before she starts talking.

“Dzzt. That’s not what I meant. Listen to me. Here’s the thing. You could bang your head against the same wall the rest of your life. What your mom understands is that you’re upset. She’s said something and you’re upset. And given her face, I know she wants to make it right.”

“She’s been apologizing my entire fucking life. It’s great. Nothing changes. Don’t mean shit,” I say.

I shove the chips for emphasis.

“But it does. Now it does. Because that is what she is capable of. What she can give. So it means a lot. To her. To apologize. Which means you can choose to give her the opportunity. You have to plan what you say. You tell her she hurt your feelings and you want an apology. That you didn’t mean to start screaming and you apologize. Nothing more than that. Don’t go into what was said. Don’t get into the why,” Christi says. “You need to practice what you’ll say.”

The Corona bottle filled with salt becomes my microphone.

“So scripted. Hehhem, mom, you hurt my feelings and I want an apology?” I ask.

Christi narrows her eyes.

“And,” she says.

My swallow goes down the wrong pipe and I sputter margarita. Christi squints again.

“And I’m sorry,” she finishes for me.

Suddenly my hands fascinate me. I talk through clay. My voice is tiny.

“And I’m sorry I yelled at you and I shouldn’t have stormed out. I mean I’m not sixteen there’s no reason I should behave that way. You don’t deserve any of it,” I say.

Red-red lips. Firefly dimples flash-flash.

“Exactly. Except I forgot and cursed at you. Ready?” she asks.

“I guess,” I say.

The waiter drops the check and takes our plates.

When did we eat?

Christi pays. We are silent three blocks. At Lake Street I gulp loudly. Christi pets my leg. Once home I follow Christi up the stairs, realize I left my phone in my purse, head back down, and am then trapped by my mother on the stairs. She’s sniffling, she babbles.

“I’m sorry I’m such a horrible person that you can’t even be in the same house,” she says.

I interrupt, “Mom. Stop.”

“That you can’t even eat with,” she continues.
“Stop. Mom, Mom. Stop, okay? Just shut up. Please,” I say.

She doesn’t hear me.

“I know you grew up with, it was difficult, there were deficits.”

This time I interrupt her shouting.

“Shut up. Just shut the fuck up. You don’t get to rehash this idea you have of my life. It’s not. Just not this time,” I pause. Inhale, exhale.

“Look. It’s really simple. You hurt my feelings, I over-reacted and I’m sorry I was shitty,” I say.

My mom takes a breath to speak. I can see her thoughts beneath her forehead lines. Her same words are orange in her throat. They radiate. I cut her off before she can repeat the scene.

“Okay. Now you say Ruth I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. Then I say thank you. End of conversation.”

The evening’s soft purple is swallowed by a darkening gray. The circles under my mother’s eyes absorb our silence and deepen. We have the same hairline, the same shape head. She takes a new now shaky breath.

“Ruth, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry too. I love you mom. Good night.”

One of my cats chases a rabbit-fur mousie with a rattle. We watch him careen around the landing.

My mom starts again.

“I’m so glad,” she says.

An ambulance screams by.

“I’m so glad,” she continues.

This time I cut her off.

“No, you don’t get to do your unworthy martyr bullshit,” I smile—it’s a little forced. “Okay? I love you. You know that.”

A moment goes by.

“’Night mom, I love you, okay?” I say.

I hug her quick and jump away. My dry skin turns hot, cracks like asphalt. Once up the stairs, I collapse into Christi. She pulls me in and kisses my forehead, whispers.

“I’m proud of you sweetie. You did great. Maybe screaming shut the fuck up wasn’t exactly what I was thinking. But you did great.”

We take out contacts and brush our teeth. By rote and routine. Christi whines as I floss.

“You take too long,” she says.

We pee, don pajamas and climb into bed.

Do I realize with this evening my life is changed entirely?

Years later my therapist will tell me, “There is touch that hurts and there is touch that heals. Touch that heals is what you have with Christi.”

   *  *  *

This conversation is a cat bounding through cobwebs, the water that glistened on it now flung against black fur drying fast. That silk is undeniably changed. But can the spider now revise and reweave or does she mourn the loss of food she had caught? It was only after years with Christi that I could conceive of that silk thread to build.

For the most part the conversations I have had with my mother were about impersonal things, slightly above weather level diversions. When I look back for answers as to why, why we were not close there is nothing but blank light hurting my brain. My grievances are first world problems, inadequate details of a privileged life, unreasonable and petty. They feel like squawky justifications. So I was a bullied child, miserable at a regimented private school where they wouldn’t let me read or advance, wahn. So my crying was ignored every day. That doesn’t fully explain it. I was clothed, fed, taken to every kind of lesson, schlepped to friends’, given money, given everything. There was never any violence.

   *  *  *

I am not able to resolve how my mother fits into my sexual memory. The rundown on abusive behaviors. Did she penetrate me with objects? No. Perform oral sex? No. Have me service her? No, I know that didn’t happen. Did she masturbate me? No. But then there is a gray area and I have this weird sense of suggestion, that a suggestion was made to me. A suggestion made by Ray that my mother was the same, that they felt the same about me, a sexual feeling. I have no real memory, just that revulsion; it leadens my bones, houses rattlesnakes under my skin. I have images, frozen moments of space, images of his summer place with its monstrous exposed ceiling beams, bright pillows on the couch, wallpaper that was Victorian advertising and the smell of quiche. Just the sense there was something sexual, about me, something dirty.

   *  *  *

The bath is where I learned to masturbate myself.

Three, four, five, six, I don’t know. Each time I think I’ve got my age pinned down, someone tells me a story they assert was from an earlier time than I thought it did. What I remember. It was a singing feeling up in that hole. Like drinking cider that had turned, undiscovered. From an early age I masturbated often. My parents’ tub had the faucet in the middle on the wall. I put my knees up and my fists under my butt to get it closer to the spigot. My mother came in once and caught me. She laughed.

Doesn’t that feel good. And. It’s important to keep oneself so clean. One’s vagina clean.

And in the bath with me, her stomach a disgusting jiggled planet above the spread purple and floating hairs.

There was another game I played. I had shiny plastic bracelets, bangles. Primary colors, also, pink, purple, aqua and green.

Called them ginnee-rings.

Dimpled knees, scarless hands, I’d stand and wrap my vaginal lips around one, shaking my hips till it fell, and shuddering I plopped back to the water. A little later, I had to be younger than seven, I peed in the diaphragm she left on the bathtub ledge, got out and dumped it out in the toilet. I remember thinking that was also a game to see if I could get there without spilling. It took me years to put together why as a child I hated her singing in the morning.

Bop-dee-be-bop-bum-bum-de-de.

She was too cheerful. Horribly off key. Bouncing, trilling, animal, announcing happy, she had just got laid.

Abusive, not abusive. Neither statement feels completely honest. It is more that I feel used.

   *  *  *

You’ve spun their guilt into gold. Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin. You don’t love them.

   *  *  *

Finding peace with memory is a children’s treasure hunt in a grass-overgrown alley. The glint and momentary flash turns out to be one earring missing its stone. A slightly corroded diary key. Half a ripped love letter that has miraculously survived the elements, a perfect plastic rose. I try to keep these pieces close to me, to hold them tight, but it is hard, hard, hard.

   *  *  *

Do you know where you’re goin to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you goin to? Do you know? Do you get what you’re hopin for when you look behind you, there’s no open doors what are you hopin for? Do you know?

   *  *  *

The hows and whys my relationship with Christi has enabled an ever-less-tentative relationship with my mother are complicated. First listening to her talk about her mom, now gone over a decade, I realize part of my relationship with my mother is all about me and determinedly I can change my reactions. The need to resolve old anger morphs into a clothing, something I can move around in even if it sticks to my skin, that thick air of urgency is a hard one to breathe in. Christi is an artist and perhaps my choice of her as a wife in some way validates my mother and her choices. Whereas I was not previously interested in art this new common soul gives my mother an in with me. Maybe she too has seen the seasons pass in her ever more mapped skin and wrestled with the same sense of urgency to resolve what a bad therapist might abstractly call our differences.

We were in New York visiting my parents. They took us to the Met and the Whitney. My mother then showed Christi her latest group of paintings. Perhaps I was on the phone when they started looking. The result was I opted not to join them. The paintings were of faces.

When Christi comes up to check on me hers is funny. Not twitching, but her forehead worry dents are deep and busy.

“You take your meds?” I ask. “It’s past four thirty.”

“Yeah, early,” she says. “Why?”

“You look, I don’t know. Like you ate something. Funny,” I say.

“Your mom’s painting faces,” Christi says.

I nod.

With a step Christi shuts the bedroom door and grimaces in the mirror.

“God I hope I didn’t make some weird face,” she says horrified.

“You didn’t,” I say. “I’m sure you didn’t. You came in fine.”

I peacock my hands, “You shut the door, then your face went funny. Oh honey don’t worry. In your art class you mentor people, look at stuff and give them feedback. You have that neutral reaction down automatically. It’s the only time I’ve got no clue to what you’re thinking, when we’re at art galleries. If you don’t say I have no idea. It helps when you’re catty.”

The look Christi gives me colors her solidly unconvinced. I sigh.

“God I hope I didn’t react too badly,” Christi says. “I told her I learned by studies done with a model. Studying faces, light, shadow, proportions. How you have sat for me and that maybe she could ask Charlie, I suggested. I don’t think she was offended. Or I hope she wasn’t. But she was a little huffy. I don’t have to look at faces to paint them she said. I know what faces look like. We have them imprinted on us from infancy.”

Christi-blue firefly dimples, like lightening, flash, flash. I stare at her.

“I think you just hit something. Just listen. I don’t have to look at faces; I know what they look like; we have them imprinted on us from infancy. If you substitute the word reality with faces. The fit isn’t perfect but it seriously goes a long way towards explaining things. I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to articulate what it was that was missing with her, outside reality. She’s never been interested in anything I called reality. Because she’s got that already, self-contained. She doesn’t need to look outside for reference, what she’s saying. Faces are imprinted. She doesn’t have to actually look at them to see. Do you remember my moment on the stairs?” I ask. “At dinner before it you said there was something childlike about her, that all-about-me thing one sees in children like she was stuck in her development. Am I making sense? Faces are the most basic place we go for information. The eyes are the window to the soul, you know that shit. Because the idea it’s all imprinted in her seems to explain everything to me. Why at some point I completely stopped trying to relate. There are still missing pieces. There is still that revulsion, that feeling from way back that I was there for some sort of gratification. Her gratification, not sexually so much as I was being used to fill something, some need there was no way of ever identifying. You think I’m crazy.”

“No honey,” Christi laughs halfway.

“It even explains her thing with names. Why she’d change them,” I say.

“That’s a reach. I suck at names,” Christi says.

“No, no. It’s not the same thing. You just ask. You might be embarrassed but you ask. She doesn’t. She renames with confidence, with absolute certainty. I correct her and she repeats the mistake, not the next day but with no time in between. I used to think she did it deliberately because she knew it pushed my buttons but now maybe not. Think about it. I don’t need to look at faces to see them. I don’t need to listen to you. I don’t need anything from your reality. She didn’t say you’re not real to me. My dad does that. Well, did. I don’t know honey. For years I’ve tried to figure out what was missing. Because far as I can tell there’s nothing diagnosable. Maybe some sort of cognitive deficits but again I’m not sure I believe that. She wasn’t interested the reality I moved in. This feels like physics, cracked open, that big,” I say.

   *  *  *

Like rattlesnakes buzzing under my skin.

   *  *  *

That I own a house still often surprises me. I wobble across my floors, a cue-ball shot astray. A house with a garage, a car. A new family moves in the house next door. They are young, from Mexico, her newly, him back and forth between countries the past ten years. They have a baby and Catholic iconography all over the place, crosses on their necks, decals on the car, a sticker on the porch warning the door knocking Mormons away. They ask me if I’ve lived here long. And about the neighborhood. We watch a clump of teenagers on the corner, dancing, laughing doing their thing. They are assorted shades of brown, flitting between oversized SUVs jacked out with block thumping speakers.

“They’re good kids,” I say. “It’s summer so they hang out but I don’t see them late. They’re good.”

My neighbors’ eyes narrow as two cops scream by.

“It’s a city,” I tell them, wave my hand. “You know. Something’s always happening. Neighborhood’s safe.”

They nod.

   *  *  *

There’s no place like home. Home, James, and don’t spare the horses. A man’s home is his castle. A woman’s place is in the home. I feel so at home here.

   *  *  *

I wonder how my new neighbors see me, a single woman with another woman coming and going constantly. They very likely realize I’m gay, that’s easy. But my life—how I afford it. Hard work? Frugal living? Do they think I have a sugar daddy? Each conversation I imagine cuts my life in to strange configurations. The subject never comes up. Largely we live indifferent, each house like a cake box, wound up tight. Still, I wonder how I’m seen. Because I am the girl who loved dandelions—weeds not noticed, until they are viewed with irritation. I am an exhibitionist, a narcissist, and have been so for as long as I can remember.

   *  *  *

Look at me, look at me, listen to me listen to me. My name is not Ruth. It’s Firetruck! Wee-oouu, weee-oouu, wee-oouu! Firetruck. I’m two now but when I’m eighteen I can change it. My name will be Ash-ah-rain-ah, triple the letters of Ruth. Ashahrainah jumping on the bed! Ashahrainah jumping on the bed!

   *  *  *

Maybe it started with my feeling I wasn’t quite what my parents imagined, that I wasn’t Athena sprung fully formed, grown from my father’s head. I was obsessed with my reflection. Since I was all stories I wanted to be certain there was something real in the mirror that didn’t change.

   *  *  *

Hotly, July unwinds. In my house I take bizarre chances. Putter naked in the bedroom windows. Hear the chorus in my head hum. The factual danger is in its volume. How the noise can subsume and obliterate me.

You’ll only get what you asked for. Get yourself raped. They’re different from us, you know. Don’t think for a second that anyone will feel sorry for you. Stupid slut.

More practically, Christi questions my choice of sheer curtains for a bedroom comprised of mostly windows.

“My dad’s mother threatened to skip my wedding. She didn’t want to see me look like a slut. Like that Madonna. I just know it. I had to promise to wear something modest,” I say.

My girlfriend raises an eyebrow. “Did you?”

“Kinda,” I say. “For a wedding dress, no. For me, yes. Except I let the straps slip to piss her off. Was stupid. Looked a little sloppy and I don’t think she noticed. I was her only grandchild. She was thrilled I was married. That I wasn’t gay. Oh well. What were we talking about?”

“The curtains,” Christi says.

I sigh. Ritzo jumps on the bed and kneads Christi’s stomach. She pushes him away. He jumps back. They continue this game. I ramble on.

“Fuck. I don’t know. It’s like I bought this house for the sunroom, cause I could knock out the wall and have a bedroom full of windows. Sunlight. So it would be bright and sunny in case I got depressed. But then I painted the room dark.”

I finger the gold curtains. There are many pulled threads.

“Fucking cats,” I mutter.

Ritzo looks at me. I jut my head towards him and stare wide. He continues to knead Christi.

“The previous owner left these white sheers. They were pretty. It was like being in the middle of all these sails. You know, billowing sails?” I ask.

Christi gestures.

“Yeah, billowing,” she says. “Your ship.”

I kiss her.

“My ex hated them. She tended more towards the baroque. Gilt. I guess the gold was our compromise,” I say.

“They’re transparent. You should get shades,” Christi says.

“I hate shades.”

“Blinds?” she asks.

“Worse. Except the wood ones and they are crazy expensive,” I say.

Christi’s voice drops, “Maybe you could ask your parents.”

My calculus is strange. Do the bad things that happened somehow equal the gifts I now receive?

   *  *  *

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

   *  *  *

If crazy is a country I’ve left, forgiveness is a continent barely imagined. When I was a child the acrylic paints my mother used didn’t blend well. More than two colors and the result became mud. Forgiveness is the space in between molecules of red and yellow and blue, itself a periphery, the smallest diamond of air before brown. To err is human, to forgive, divine. Many times I have tried to read about this thing, letting go. Duty-bound I have hit the library only to incur massive fines. Each book I open puts an immediate fifty pounds on my eyes, and sleep. Forgiveness is a land of dust, human skin, grease, particles of other things, arranged with invisible intricacy, a Persian rug of dirt. I inhale and moments are reincarnated as altered DNA. Viral shedding affects every memory. Time loves the human ecosystem—its neurons, tendons and veins—their kiss so deep air is not required. I change back to a previous self without ever realizing. Beneath my skin. Letting go? The past is a kaleidoscope—it returns—the present tense upends.

   *  *  *

“Just as memories for ordinary experiences are made accessible when a current emotional—or mood-state is reminiscent of that experienced during encoding, the state of physiological hyperarousal and access to traumatic memory seem to be interconnected. The more the individual’s physiological/emotional state resembles that of the original trauma, the more likely retrieval of the trauma will be in the somatosensory memory of reexperiencing.” –Fay Honey Knopp, A Primer on the Complexities of Traumatic Memory of Childhood Abuse

   *  *  *

Wave bye-bye to your baby sis-ter. It’s important to feel clean.

   *  *  *

Forgiveness. In a religious context, my understanding has its limits. While this is a fact I can change, stubbornly I don’t. My ignorance remains—a Freudian slip? Am I just not ready? To let go. To make amends. In Judaism forgiveness is fairly easy; there is none. Judaism is a religion based upon the observance of laws, mitzvahs, their study providing the only way out. Transgression lies in the space between molecules of yellow and blue and red. The Hebrew God is impossible to know in His rage—He too breathes the recent past. He rides on thunder and guilt; He smites; He smites. Vengeance is the power of noise and with it He shows His might. The promised land beckons but entry is denied.

  *  *  *

My last year of college I was awarded a black box production space for a play I wrote. The play charted the course of an important dinner date on which a young woman becomes increasingly unhinged. I didn’t have the words post traumatic stress but that was what she was experiencing, flashbacks to when she was molested early. The central image was a carton of naked Barbies. Ray had given me Barbies, the dolls old, a little dirty, sometimes without clothing. Because this production was my greatest achievement my parents flew out to see it. Craig was with me, we were in the car with my parents after going to dinner to celebrate. My dad narrowed his eyes at me and asked if the play was about Ray. When I reflexively said no he insisted it was. They’d found that carton of dolls and toys when they cleaned my grandmother’s apartment. Congratulations, I remember thinking. You must be so proud of this realization. Since this dinner was where Craig and my parents were first to meet I did what any reasonable person in the situation would do. I drank heavily. By the time Craig and I got home I was in a keening rage.

   *  *  *

Anger is easy, unconscious as marrow, it moves in my bones. My bones move me. Sometimes I feel it all shaking, different from the buzz of rattlesnakes. From below my belly, a washer agitates ribs the wrong way against my skin, which moves in opposition. My jaw tightens. I swallow to keep the movement from reaching my brain, my brain cannot take all the thrashing. But it is something I cannot contain. My throat closes under what feels like an empty head. Up from around my tongue floods a profusion of spit. It is never seen, the shaking. There is only my skin, hard with gooseflesh I can’t explain, sweating and freezing. Words are rocks, sound hard to make.

   *  *  *

Because we have company my bags are newly cut. They are too high and crooked but at four I don’t care too much. I play underneath the dining room table, dark wood, wobbly. The leaves hang down and hide me. My grandma Gladys and Ray are having dinner but I don’t like what they’re eating so I’m allowed a plate of crackers under the table with me. There is a Bible story; the conversation rhythms strange. My dad and Ray are then fighting, about the story? About me. Something sexual, something sexual about me. Like Jonah got swallowed for masturbating only I know that’s not right, not what it is. After my dad threw Ray out no one said anything. I don’t remember anything changing. Nothing was explained. But I’ve always thought it meant he realized something Ray did. But nothing changed. Nothing was said.

   *  *  *

It’s been a decade and a half since my parents saw my play. I haven’t yet asked my dad either about my memory or about his car conversation. Held together by skin, I am a collection of stories, compressed and merging, the pressure now about to explode. Lying next to Christi I realize I will have to initiate this conversation and ask my father what happened and why he didn’t protect me. Forgiveness is beyond the reach of all my stories interrupting, crashing, breaking, now an impossible swirl of noise, beyond the vibrating shadows of pieces, uncatchable as dashing mice. Forgiveness would now be silence. I raise up on an elbow and watch my lover sleeping. Christi-blue crazy-eyes. Her left arm flails as if punching away flies.

“No-no-no,” she says. “Bugs.”

I kiss and smooth her forehead. “No bugs baby. Bad dream. You’re safe.”

She mumbles something and snuggles in. Again we sleep.

   *  *  *

Just like me, they long to be, close to you …

   *  *  *

I am a crow, attracted to what’s bright and shiny. I horde these things, weave them into my nest, into me—there are stainless razor blades, one earring, silver gum wrappers and a broken necklace with a possible diamond. Was there a point where I knew I could never change those stories, once certain accusations were made? What if all my emotions, my reactions, the things I say were based on lies made to fill a void—the void of no intelligence, no talent, no beauty, no drive—to create a dynamic personality different from those around me. The void tastes like apple juice, turned, I don’t know why.

   *  *  *

I am tripping on a fault line. I dance and try to fill it with words to keep the earth from shattering out beneath me. Because it feels like my life is built on stories. Fundamentally everyone’s is. Except. There’s very little that’s real to me. How much of my personality is feathers and tape, boots and paint? How much of my experience is based on memory and how much on intimation, invention, or just out and out bullshit? How far did I go as a child to gain attention? How extreme did my stories need to be?

   *  *  *

Mom, I have this memory.

It’s a fly in amber, unchanged. But the memory is sketchy and I don’t know if my understanding is correct and I can’t say what it means.

If I tell you, can we, sort through this? Because I need your corroboration.

The conversation I need to have starts after a phone call you got when grandma Gladys was divorcing Ray.

You came into my room.

That call was in the middle of the crisis. Gladys had become confused. She took too much medicine. Suicidal gesture? With Pepto-Bismol if I remember correctly. It interfered with her beta blockers or something. Two bottles of Pepto-Bismol, not the usual OD.

There were mutual accusations of mental cruelty between her and Ray—I remember this collection of sounds repeated and repeated. So the family debate was heated about whether or not a judge would grant the divorce and then, what would be done about Gladys’s property. Ray had stolen money but for some reason that wasn’t enough, that the family’s credibility on this accusation was lacking, maybe. It wasn’t a small sum, four thousand, again if I remember correctly.

You got off the phone and came into my room to talk to me. The suggestion was made that I testify Ray had abused me sexually.

It is here my thoughts get spun in cotton.

Why?

Certainly my testimony would have sealed Ray’s coffin and secured Gladys’s estate, the condo, accounts, whatever furniture, art and jewelry.

Was this idea of abuse floated here because something was known? Suspected? Or was it a scheme? I was in fact studying to be an actress—what better stage than one with such high stakes? Either way how could this have been deemed a benign request to make of me?

How did you come to suggest such a thing, or if the idea was not yours, how did you come repeat it?

Or is this all something I’ve imagined and concocted all high dungeon? Because I suspect this is memory, accurate memory. It is a fly in amber, unchanged, with the rest of the scene unfolding as I screamed.

What did I scream? Get out of my room? Leave me alone? Fuck you, get away from me?

When I shut my eyes on this recollection there are no lights spots that dance. Past and present, I am only staring at my bedroom door, the wood frame of the door mirror, maple, glowing. The image doesn’t go away. I’ve wanted to add details, to make the story more dramatic, always with my throwing a knife, but it didn’t happen that way. Instead when I got up from under my covers my knees began clicking, the sound almost metallic, of a lock catching. The noise, its echo, made me thirsty. With any amount of drinking my throat remained dry and my hands heavy, heavy. I didn’t want to do anything to move them. Only a cigarette later confirmed my breathing. Hand to mouth, suck in, flick-flick, expel and there I am, operated by an internal command center still working.

   *  *  *

This is a conversation imagined, water glistening on a spiderweb. It was only after years with Christi that the silk to weave and catch such liquid was even conceived of. So maybe the imagined conversation that begins Mom, I have this memory is a real possibility.

   *  *  *

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

 

 

BIO

Ruth Berger writerRuth Gila Berger is thrilled to be published by The Writing Disorder. She has a piece in Frequencies 4 (Two Dollar Radio), April 2014, and another piece published by Permafrost, Spring 2014 (all three pieces are contained in a full length memoir in progress). Her resume has over a dozen finalist commendations, the most recent from Arts & Letters for their 2012 nonfiction contest. Past publications credits include Gulf Coast (where she was given an honorable mention in their 2006 nonfiction contest) Creative Nonfiction, Chelsea Review, Water~Stone Review, GSU Review, Great River Review and the Emrys Journal.

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David Rose author

DAVID ROSE INTERVIEW WITH THE WRITING DISORDER

by Ruby Cowling

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

WD: What’s next in your writing life?

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

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Melissa Grunow writer

Shelter/ed

by Melissa Grunow

 

There is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance.

—E.M. Forster, “What I Believe”

 

 

I park my car in front of the house and climb out slowly, not knowing what to expect. The grass is soggy beneath my feet as I walk across the yard toward the open front door, though no sound is heard from within. Halfway across the lawn I pause to get my quickening breath under control. Water seeps into my shoes, and I pull my cardigan tighter around my body to ward off a chill. I wipe away the rain water rolling down my temple and onto my cheeks like cold tears, take a deep breath, and step toward the porch.

The door opens and my niece runs to me with her arms outstretched. I’m filled with relief as I pick her up, her little arms warm against my cold, wet cheek.

“I yelled at my dad,” she whispers in my ear. “I told him I was going to your house.” She pulls back and looks to my face for approval.

“Are you hurt?”

She shakes her head and wriggles.

“Stay on the porch and out of the rain.” I set her back on the ground. “Don’t go back inside.”

Moments later my sister steps through the open door. She isn’t crying, but looks as though she has been. I’m surprised by how skinny she is, how skinny she has become. Her long hair is pulled back, but strands have fallen out of the rubber band and are hanging loose around her face.

“He said you can’t come in.” William. Her boyfriend. Keeping me outside and in the rain is his way of reminding my sister, and me, that he’s the one in charge. He’s the one in control.

I don’t protest because I know how quickly his temper will escalate. Instead, Mary Beth passes boxes to me out the front door, and I pile them into my car and her minivan. She and William are still fighting. I can hear them, though their voices are chopped by the opening and closing of screen doors. My niece sits on a bench on the covered front porch and stays there, just like I told her, sheltered from the rain. I am afraid if she goes back into the house she will never come out.

 

* * *

 

I was brand new to my position writing technical manuals for a software development company when I met Raul. I was recently slender, recently out of a four-year marriage, and recently without a hint of self-esteem or self-assurance.

I don’t know what drew me to him initially. He wasn’t particularly attractive. Tall, yes, and Hispanic, his skin tone a smooth, almost caramel color. He was younger than I, by about four years or so, but his body wasn’t aging well. His hair was thinning already, even in his early 20s. He dressed more like a used car sales manager than his own peers. His sense of humor was terribly immature and he believed himself to be much smarter than those around him. An introvert and a recluse, he sheltered himself, the ruler of his own tiny world.

But he also had moments of kindness, of thoughtfulness, moments where I felt connected to him because he said something insightful or did something unexpected. He had me hooked on the hope that I would catch him being a good person, that I would be witness to a different sort of man, a better man than he presented as himself. So instead of refusing him, I pursued him.

He made it clear from the very beginning that he wasn’t interested in me, that I wasn’t good enough for him. I was thin, but not thin enough. “Suck in that brisket,” he would tell me as he poked my stomach. My hair was long, but not long enough. “My ex had hair all the way down her back.” I was a woman, but not feminine enough. “Why don’t you ever paint your nails?” I was too pale, too stumpy, too opinionated, but also too easily influenced. His criticisms were a challenge; if I just tried hard enough to please him, I would win him over. It was a test of my virtue and my self-worth to pursue him in the first place. It was a test that I ultimately failed.

Less than a year after I met him and a summer of sleeping with him, I moved from New Mexico to Ohio to start a doctorate program. I spent those first nine months flying in and out of the El Paso airport trying to keep the relationship going, but my efforts often backfired. If I stayed longer than three days during any given visit, we would fight. It normally started with him disapproving of my hairstyle, my clothes, or that I never wore enough makeup to cover the imperfections in my skin. They were the same criticisms over and over until I refused to listen any longer.

When Raul and I fought, we fought without resistance or regret. Our fights were slaughterhouses of words. “I have really high standards. I deserve better than you,” he once said to me. It was four hours into an argument. He was seated in his computer chair in the corner of his bedroom, hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, his giant frame sinking into himself.

I was standing next to his open closet, pulling clothes off the hangers and stuffing them into my rolling duffle bag. Scattered on the floor were objects he had thrown at me when I had started packing my bag. They were mostly gifts I had given him and framed pictures of us, memories created where the smiles hid a rigid system of rules that I could never seem to follow.

I had suspicions that he was not entirely committed to me, but I couldn’t prove it. Whenever I brought my suspicions to his attention, he managed to convince me that I was crazy, that my instincts were wrong, that I was just jealous. That was until I found naked pictures of Verna attached to his emails during one of my weekend visits. I didn’t confront him about the pictures. Not only was confronting him useless, but I strangely relished my discovery. It finally gave me something real, something tangible, to cling to so I could convince myself that I had to leave him. Those pictures gave me certainty.

My body told its most convincing lie ever the night I found the pictures. I was affectionate, loving, attentive. I offered him a drink, a snack, a hug each time I moved from room to room, gathering my things and packing them away for my flight home the next day. I moved slowly, cautiously, trying not to seem too eager to leave. I had to be careful to not start an argument that would devolve quickly into him criticizing and me pleading with him to see that I wasn’t fat or disgusting or stupid or worthless, as he had told me so many times before. No, I wanted that night to be calm and quiet so that I wouldn’t relapse into being desperate for him to keep me.

His suspicion came the following afternoon when he drove me to the airport. It was the first time I didn’t cry over the thought of leaving him and returning to Ohio, back to the doctorate program that I would ultimately abandon after the first year, partly because of him, and partly because the program made me feel worse about myself than he did. As much as I tried, I couldn’t fake tears. I sat in the passenger seat of his black Viper, dry-eyed and silent as we crossed the New Mexico state line into Texas, the last time I would travel eastbound on I-10. I wanted to remember the distant shacks positioned on the side of mountain, just on the other side of the river, but still Mexico, still a foreign country.

I turned to look at him, his face hidden under the reflection off his glasses. “I’m going to miss you,” I lied. But in the weeks ahead, it would become true. I would miss him. I would believe I needed him as I struggled with myself not to go back. I had given up so much to be with him that I had nothing left to fill his absence with when I tried to move on.

“I’ll miss you, too, Tubby.” Tubby. His nickname for me. A constant reminder that his idea of affection was to insult me. He hadn’t called me by my real name in months.

I checked my watch as we approached the terminal. After nearly a year of traveling back and forth to visit him, I had experienced every travel delay and disruption imaginable. This time, though, the sky was clear, and I was nearly two hours early for my flight. For once, the weather was on my side.

He took my bag out of the trunk and set it on the ground, avoiding eye contact. He was angry again, quiet, shifty, and distant. Typically I would start to panic and pester him with questions, trying to figure out what triggered his mood. It was always something I did; I just never knew what exactly. “I’m sad to leave,” I lied again, hoping to soften him up. I hadn’t cried at all that morning, and I was worried he had caught on to my untruth. I was also determined for him to remember me as a good person and to feel regret for letting me go. He knew exactly how to keep me clinging to him. By the time I leaned in to give him a hug, he barely put one arm around me.

“Goodbye, Tubby,” he said with irritation in his voice. I wanted to slap him for that infernal nickname.

I hated him for carrying on some internet romance with a woman I was always highly suspicious of, and I hated myself for not paying attention to my suspicions. I walked up to the ticket counter, pulling my duffle bag behind me, feeling duped and defeated, another relationship failed, another promise broken. So I did what any self-respecting women who had no other idea about how to take control of her life would do: I spent $90 I couldn’t afford and upgraded my seat to first class.

On the plane, the cabin darkened around me, and I looked out my window at a single pink streak across the blackening horizon. The shifting clouds flashed over it, and I caught my transparent reflection in the window. I turned away, not wanting to be reminded of all the times I stared for hours into a mirror, smoothing my hair, studying my skin for blemishes, determined to see the flaws he could see and desperate to fix them. Raul reminded me all the time that he believed my tattoos and my upbringing made me trashy and worthless. I bit into a warm cashew and washed it down with a sip of chardonnay. I reached up to turn on the light above me and sat back in my seat. I immersed myself in first-class perks, smirking inwardly at how easy it was to pretend. I was a graduate assistant teaching one composition class a semester and making about $16,000 a year. I didn’t belong in first class then or ever, but nobody around me had to know that. For a few hours I could pretend that my life was different, that I was deserving of more.

I had deceived myself for an entire year pretending my relationship was something extraordinary, that it was worth the cruelty, the infidelity, the name-calling, the insults, the mood swings, because I believed that I had won him over in the first place, so I just had to try a little bit harder for his affection, I just had to be a little bit better to be deserving of his love.

It was time to stop lying.

 

* * *

 

William comes out the front door, and I stiffen. His rage is printed all over his face, and his eyes are dark and darting around until they settle on my niece. I’ve managed to keep her outside for an hour, and as long as I can see her, I know she’s safe.

I pick her up and turn away from him. “Leave her alone,” I say. “I don’t trust you.” I murmur reassurances to my niece. She clings to my neck and doesn’t look at her father. He stares me down. I brace myself for a shove or a punch. He finally goes back into the house, and within minutes I hear my sister screaming.

I run to the door just as she is coming out onto the porch.

“He won’t let me take Madison.” She puts her palms to her temples, her fingers spread wide.

I had screwed up. I had taken my niece from him for a moment, and now he was going to take her from my sister for the night—or longer—just to remind us both that he has the power.

I feel that same churning in my stomach that I had felt every time I had given in to Raul’s demands, every time I had conceded his point just to avoid an argument.

“She can’t stay here,” I say to Mary Beth. “You don’t know what he’ll do to her.”

“She’ll be fine.” My sister is scared, but her words don’t reflect it. Even in the process of leaving him, she is still convinced that William subscribes to some kind of moral code, that he isn’t a man-shaped monster.

Williams comes out of the house and stands on the porch, waving the court paperwork at me, a demonic smile on his face. I approach him and stand on solid legs, legs that Raul had once measured the circumference of as evidence that I needed to lose weight. My sister, waifish and shaken, stands behind me with her arms crossed.

“You’re not taking my daughter.” He leans over me from the top of the porch, his narrow-set, beady eyes darkening. “If you do, it’s kidnapping.” He had what the courts called the right of first refusal. He could, at any time and for any reason, refuse a caretaker for my niece, even if that caretaker was family, and in this moment, especially if that caretaker is me.

Legally there is nothing I can do, and he knows it.

“She’s terrified of you,” I say, calling his fathering abilities into question, knowing it will anger him. I’m stalling, trying to think of a way out of this.

“Do you really think I would hurt my own daughter?” he narrows his eyes at me. “You have no right to talk to me like that. This is my house.”

“You let her go,” I say. “Or I’m calling the police.”

He laughs. Right in my face, he laughs. My sister shifts from one foot to the other, visibly nervous. “Go ahead. They were already here, and they left. You’re just wasting your time.” He stands up straight. “I’ll make sure they know that if you keep running your mouth, I won’t hesitate to put you in your place.”

For a moment, I try to think of a way to make him hit me. His temper is bubbling just beneath the surface, and I know that if I could get him to lose control, then I could press charges. But it wouldn’t be enough. Even if I could get him arrested for the night, he would be out tomorrow and ready to retaliate. I look over at my niece. If I don’t get his permission to take her for the night, who knows when I would see her next? Getting him to hit me wasn’t a long-term solution. In so many ways he is Raul, and I know it isn’t possible to outwit him with words or antagonize him to violence.

Being with Raul for so long had equipped me with the knowledge that the way to calm down a man like William is to appear to give in, to lose. So, I exhale, soften my face, and look directly at him. I force an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.” My voice cracks, and I even manage to force a few tears into my eyes. “I know you would never hurt her. I know you’re a good dad. But imagine if you were me, and you came into this situation when I did. Wouldn’t your greatest concern be for the child? I don’t know what else to do. I’m just here to help my sister.” I turned and looked at her, then back at him. “Because she asked me to.”

On the corner of the porch my niece sits with her legs crossed. She smears dirt from a spilled flower pot, muddying her clothes and shoes in the process. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone but me that she is there witnessing all of this.

“You’re right. You’re totally right. I’m sorry,” I say again. “I’m just trying to do the right thing. For everyone.”

He searches my face, and for a moment I think he is going to call me on my bluff. I’m not the least bit sorry. But I have to let him think he has complete control. I have to let him think he has won.

His eyes shift and I swear a shadow has been lifted behind them. He blinks and takes a step back. “I’m sorry for giving you attitude.”

It isn’t until I exhale slowly that I even realize I had been holding my breath. I smile a soft smile. “Won’t you let her come with us? Just for the night?”

He turns and looks at his daughter, dirt smudged on her cheeks. She should be wearing a jacket, but she isn’t. “Madison,” he says. “What do you want to do?”

She looks at him, then at my sister, and then at me standing in the rain. I stare at her, hard, as if I can force my thoughts into her head. Finally, she says, “I want to sleep at Miswissa’s house.”

Without a word, William stomps inside, letting the screen door slam behind him. My sister and I face each other, and she looks shocked, betrayed. I’m confused until I realize she believes my apology is sincere, too. Like him, she was expecting me to match aggression with aggression. She had never seen a woman take on an abuser and win.

William returns with Madison’s jacket in his hand and tosses it at my sister. “I want to talk to her before she goes to sleep,” he says, his jaw rigid.

My sister nods in compliance, and I’m already scooping up Madison to strap her into the car seat before William can change his mind.

The sky darkens as we drive home that night. I shiver in my wet clothes and turn up the heat. Rain water rolls in rivers on the windshield just before the wipers smear them away. The twenty-minute drive to my house is the beginning of a long journey ahead of us. But it is one that I have traveled before.

 

 

BIO

Melissa GrunowMelissa Grunow’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New Plains Review, The Quotable, Ohio Edit, The Adroit Journal, 94 Creations Literary Journal, The Dying Goose, Wilderness House Literary Review, and others. She teaches college-level English and creative writing courses in Michigan, and recently finished writing her first book titled “River City, A Memoir in Essays.” Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com/.

 

 

 

0
Jacob Reecher

In the Care of Professionals

by Jacob Reecher

 

Drop Cap Fifteen people are playing bingo. The prize is a Twizzler. Any one person can win a maximum of two Twizzlers, and no one can win twice until everyone has won once. These people are men between the ages of 18 and fuck-knows, and this is the first time they’ve been reasonably quiet all day – although there are the obligatory bingo jokes.

A petit blonde nurse, dressed in her own street clothes like all of the half-dozen or so nurses, turns the crank and reads the number from a ball[1]. “B-4,” she says.

Covering the B-4s on his cards, Ryan, a young man with a widow’s peak of blonde hair and cartoonishly blue eyes says, “Before what?”

There is tepid laughter, but not from James, who shaved his wild beard in the lobby mirror yesterday[2], and who is in his third month on the ward[3].

“Ugh!” he says with sarcastic exaggeration. “I’m gonna throw something at you.”

James is the first among us to win a Twizzler, which is strange, because we’re allowed to play with as many boards as we believe will raise our chances of winning, and James is the only one of us with only one board. I’m playing with two myself; Ryan is playing with four; Dale, the tall one in khakis and a sweater with the strained and husky voice that sounds like the muscles in his throat are cramped in that way that wakes you up at night clutching your calf and wrenching the top of your foot towards your shin, is playing with six.

“N-44,” says the nurse.

“I can’t keep up with this shit,” says Andrew, a.k.a. Solo, who is bald and tattooed on his neck and wears his institute-issued gray sweatpants low like he is making a rap video. He’s playing with nine bingo cards, and he’s one of the last to get his candy. I don’t think he’s too upset about it – none of us would be. The only reason we’re sitting here playing Bingo is because the nurse said everyone would win eventually. A candy guarantee is enough to get fifteen grown men to play bingo when the only other options are Saturday-evening television[4], a paltry DVD/video collection, or reading a dime novel on a mattress that feels like a layer of Beanie Babies on slab of concrete.

Twizzler, anyone?

 

* * *

 

I arrived on the ward after spending twelve hours in detox. I did not need to spend twelve hours in detox; I blew a .02 on arrival and could have easily blown zeroes by breakfast. However, for reasons you can infer from the steak-knife scratches up and down my arm and the short in my bathroom’s electric socket, I was to be taken from detox to a mental hospital until a court hearing would decide my fate: return to school or remain on the psych ward until I was considered neither a threat to myself nor others.

And so I stood, handcuffs looped through a special leather belt that kept my hands graciously within junk-adjusting distance, outside door number six of some brown building covered in box elder bugs. I was cold, wearing only the white t-shirt and torn tight jeans the cops had pulled on me before carting me to detox. I had not shaved in four days, and my beard, which had been subject to several days’ worth of alcohol-induced testosterone spikes, was beginning to itch[5]. My hair was matted, unwashed and uncombed since my last shift at KFC two days ago, flattened into shameful hat-head. I was happy at least to be wearing the leather boots I have described as being “too fly,” but in honest they were cheap, and after only a few months of use were as close to falling apart as I was. I doubted they would survive the cold and snowy and wet Wisconsin winter.

With me, ringing the doorbell, was a Platteville police officer and some fucking intern whom I felt I recognized, and about whose presence I was not happy. What exactly was the logic in sending a student on a ride-along with the cop transporting another student from detox to the mental hospital? How did Platteville’s finest reconcile this plan with confidentiality?

“Well son,” Officer Half-Beard probably said to Intern before knocking on the door of the detox center to pick me up, putting his hand on Intern’s shoulder and strapping on his this-is-serious-policeman-stuff face. “Can you keep a secret, Champ?”

Platteville’s not a big campus. You see people again. And Intern, who served the vital purpose of holding things which Officer Half-Beard had no third hand for[6], would surely be pointing me out to his buddies in the student center, kicking off the highlight story of the lunch break with a “No you guys, see that dude? Well, one time….”

Finally a nurse named Katrina answered the door. She looked tired – not the way you look after a long day at work or an endless night out, but in the way a grade-school teacher with a naughty class looks in mid-May. She brought me inside and had Officer Half-Beard remove my cuffs. As I rubbed my wrists and followed her into the heart of the ward, Katrina asked me if I’d ever been on a psych ward.

I don’t remember whether I said yes or no. I had been in a psych ward, but only as a visitor.

“Well, we’re state-run,” she said, “so we have some pretty sick people here. Just let me know if you don’t feel safe.

“In here,” she ushered me through a door bearing the words “Treatment Room,” where she checked my vitals and asked if I were feeling signs of withdrawal. I said no, but she told me the nurses would find me every few hours to take my vitals and ask whether I felt any headaches or anxieties.

Katrina asked me to wait in one of the three “day rooms” until she got my personal room ready. Dinner would be served in about an hour.[7]

I won’t go as far as to say I felt unsafe, but in those first few minutes on the ward it was strange to – instead of guessing someone’s taste in music or sense of humor – to be prospecting likely levels of craziness[8]. It was a goofy little twist on that “new kid in school” feeling.

I had trouble sizing up the first patient who spoke to me. He was of average height, but looked longer because he was thin and wearing the gray sweat-suit that about half the patients wore.

“What are you here for?” he asked, looking at me with polite eye contact that because of the situation and his vivid bluer-than-O’toole eyes made me nervous.

I told him quietly.

He didn’t blink. “How long are you here?” he said.

“I dunno,” I said. “My court hearing is Tuesday, or Wednesday, they said, at the latest.”

“You’re lucky,” he said.

This may have been and may be true. Hell, it was and it is. It being true doesn’t make it less weird to hear when you said you tried to kill yourself three sentences ago.

“Wh-, uh, why are you here?”

The young man, whose name was Ryan, laughed and said, “Well Wednesday I woke up to the cops bangin’ on my door…well maybe I’d better start at the beginning.”

The story began to skip around a bit, due to Ryan’s ADHD. The jist of it is that Ryan “was fucked up in a Wal-Mart bathroom,” and somebody called the cops or an ambulance.

“I heard somebody banging on the stall door behind me,” he said, “so I quick flushed a needle down the toilet.”

EMTs took him away in an ambulance, but a bag of drugs was found in the stall. To avoid jail, Ryan said he was depressed and was sent to an expensive-as-shit psychiatric hospital outside of Milwaukee. To get out, he signed a settlement that allowed him to leave on several conditions: see a therapist, no drinking or drugs, et cetera.

“There was one little clause that fucked me,” Ryan said, indicating its size with a forefinger and thumb held half an inch apart. “It said I had to follow all my doctor’s treatment recommendations.”

Ryan’s doctor wanted him to take a non-stimulant medicine for his ADHD, but Ryan had no insurance and could not pay for the expensive medicine. When Ryan asked for cheaper meds, the doctor refused because he did not want to prescribe Ryan any stimulants.

“I told him to fuck himself, threw a Kleenex box at him, spit on the floor, and left. And the next morning I woke up to the police bangin’ on my door.”

Ryan and I played Texas hold ‘em with another patient our age named Jack. Jack had keen eyes and dark hair that on his chin formed an uneven beard and his head seemed to harden into a wet helmet no matter how long ago his last shower was. He wore discharge clothes, having been in solitary confinement for a month and a half prior to his arrival on the ward.

About three hands in a nurse named Jay told me my psychiatrist was waiting for me. The doc was a nice and hip-seeming guy with thick-framed glasses who wore his thinning hair like a fashion statement. He was a keen reader of body language and accurately put into precise words my every facial contortion. He asked me questions. I answered them as honestly as I could.

 

* * *

 

Detox sucked. The hangover wasn’t particularly bad, nor was the food[9]. What sucked was that I had no idea what would happen to me after I got out. Would I get home before my classes ended that day? In time for work at four? Or would I be taken to a mental hospital indefinitely? Most of my time in detox was spent soberly considering these questions.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had the assurance that I would be on my way home in a few hours with nothing but hospital clothes and a story to tell. I’m sure waking up in detox still drunk and without memory of the previous night would have a fun “The Hangover” ring to it.

For example:

I had been awake for three or four hours[10], and was sitting in an armchair in the lobby reading an issue of The Economist[11], when a red-blooded Wisconsin college boy stumbled out of his room and said to the nearest nurse, “Excuse me, could you possibly tell me where I am?”

“You’re at an alcohol detox treatment center in Madison.”

“I’m in Madison?”

“Yes.”

Maybe detox would have just been boring had it not been for this kid. He asked the nurse for his cell phone and began calling friends in a vain attempt to reconstruct his evening.

“The last thing I remember is being in my room, drunk as shit,” I heard him say at least seven times. “I don’t even remember the party.”

He was wearing a blue hospital shirt because the one he was brought in had been cut off, likely to resuscitate him the night before. When he tried the breathalyzer at eleven in the morning, he blew a .12.

Shit dude. I don’t exactly abstain myself, but…shit.

 

* * *

 

Technology has never been a friend to me. And you know, I really don’t care much for it either. In TV ads newfangled gadgets are like godsends, able to coolly ease and improve lives due to superior usability and quality. The Mac, the Smartphone, updates to my internet browser, digital cameras, have all played the role of my technological nemeses.

But my great enemy is the DVD player. Get me wrong not, I’m a movie buff. But I was, throughout high school and for several years during breaks from college at UW-Platteville[12], a childcare worker, and my time at Tiger Den, as it was called[13] during the school year[14], was exacerbated considerably when the TV’s good old trusty VHS tape player was replaced with a DVD player that’s remote was naturally lost instantly. This resulted in cumulative days spent on my knees between 2007 and 2011 in vain attempts to get past the main menu of movies that would not play when I pressed the player’s “play” button. I am 90% sure that the vocalized impatience of the Tiger Den kids[15] over those four years flipped something in my psyche. So the following anecdote is not altogether lacking in humor, and perhaps even some kind of poetry:

After the interview with my psychiatrist and another with a physician, I was again set loose on the ward. Ryan spotted me walking into the day room and asked if I wanted to watch Ocean’s 12. I would have been more excited about Ocean’s 11 or 13, but the other option was Paul Blart: Mall Cop – still an easy choice.

We asked a nurse, a black man with an African accent almost too strong to understand, to set up the movie for us, and settle down onto green furniture that looked like it was made from recycled McDonald’s play-places, but felt more like a stress ball. The nurse unlocked the cabinet of the entertainment center under the TV and inserted the disc into the DVD player. The TV was small and our “couch” was across the room. From where we sat, the screen was no farther across than my index finger held at arm’s length. I worried for a second about my film-viewing pleasure – I didn’t even have my glasses. The cable television characters that appeared on-screen before the nurse switched the input were blurry masses of tan and white.

I stopped worrying once the nurse hit the button and the screen turned to static, only static besides the words “No signal,” flashing in a little gray box in the middle of the screen. Wires were checked, another nurse was fetched.

“No signal.”

“No signal.”

I was bummed that Ryan and I couldn’t watch Ocean’s 12, but at the same time I finally knew how the kids felt on the days I couldn’t get the DVD player to work. It’s like you’d been promised something and the promiser reneged. It feels like being cheated.

 

* * *

 

I’m reading in the day room with the Packers/Colts game in its second quarter. Dale is at the puzzle table, Jeremy is behind him in an armchair, and Andrew is sweeping. This is a classic strategy to quiet tiresome talkers like Andrew, a strategy I learned week one of childcare: give small-time troublemakers and loudmouths menial jobs to keep them distracted.

John, a man whom I haven’t heard speak and who wears orange Crocs with his gray sweat-suit, enters and starts shuffling through puzzle pieces.

“Will ya fucking move?” says Jeremy with quick anger. “I can’t see the fucking TV.”

“Why should I?” says John. There are empty chairs and sofas all around the room, and John can’t move out of Jerry’s line of sight without abandoning the puzzle.

“I can’t see the fucking TV!” says Jeremy, his voice rising.

John grabs his crotch. “You want somma this, motherfucker?”

“No, and if you think I do you must be a faggot.”

“How old are you, thirteen years or thirteen months?”

“I’m 49.”

“Yeah, well I spent five fuckin’ years in fuckin’ Vietnam,” John says, kicking Jeremy challengingly in the foot, “and I don’t have to take this!”

Jeremy sits up and clutches the arms of his chair. “Kick me again!”

“Come on then!” says John, striking a fighting stance, dukes up.

“Kick me again! I’ll put you on your ass in half a second!”

“Come on then!”

Jerry heaves his mass to his feet and steps closer to John. “Come at me!” he hollers.

“I was in fuckin’ Vietnam!” John yells, backing away from the curly-haired behemoth inching towards him, finger in a deadly point.

Just when I think I’m about to see grown men come to blows for the first time in my life, nurses rush in and tell both men to go to their rooms.

John acquiesces immediately, and stalks off muttering about Vietnam.

Jeremy is not so quiet, and lands himself in a chair.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong! Why d’I gotta go to my room? He kicked me! He kicked me!

The nurses began to interrogate Dale and I.

“I asked him nice to move s’I could see the TV!”

At daycare this could have gone on all day. But whereas childcare workers can’t touch kids for fear of lawsuits, physical force is totally in-bounds here on the psych ward. Jerry knows this, and he can also hear Dale tattling from the puzzle table, so after a minute more of arguing he begrudgingly lifts himself and stomps to his room for his time-out.

 

* * *

 

To be sure, I am a man whose fastidiousness in regards to my appearance leans dangerously into absurdity’s turf. I have been known, for example, to shower, style my hair, and spend ten minutes choosing my clothes, on a Saturday during which I have no plans to leave my house.

So as I made my way to the bathroom after snack[16] on Monday night, it was not unusual for me to still be wearing my precious leather boots, even though I had only been reading in my room[17].

I knocked on the door of the half-bath on my wing. Hearing no response from inside, I entered and conducted business.

There were four bathrooms on the ward. Two were half-baths, only a toilet and sink, within a few steps of the lobby. Andrew, however, suggested I use the full bathrooms, equipped with two stalls, two urinals, and three sinks each, due to their less frequent use and consequent norms of tolerable cleanliness. It would have behooved me to heed this advice.

I saw the floor was wet when I entered, but unfortunately assumed it was water. Strolling down the hall to my room, however, I heard with each step a soft sound not unlike the peeling of old Velcro. My boots were sticking to the floor, dipped as they had been in the piss of a grown man.

Needless to say, I was careful to take off my boots before sprawling on the tabletop they call a bed and lying awake.

 

 * * *

 

“We’ve proved that time travel is possible,” says Andrew. “Here, I’ll show you, but I gotta get up.”

This group[18] began as a trivia game in which patients read each other riddles from a deck of playing cards. Here are the riddles I read (answers found below):

 

“Dare it so” is just a clue

for you to rearrange;

a giant belt in outer space?

That sounds a little strange[19].

 

In Greek it means

“A wandering star”;

the closest neighbor

is very far[20].

 

This fluid’s name

is what’s in question;

I start the process

of digestion[21].

 

There was something deeply sad about watching Dale practically choke reading a poorly-metered iambic quatrain that rhymes “bees” with “sneeze.” James was so bored he read the classifieds of the Wisconsin State Journal. Lawrence, a bespectacled gentleman who is friendly with distinguished academics across the country, and who without my knowledge secured my transfer from the bioengineering department of John Hopkins University in Baltimore to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I could finally realize my dream of becoming a cardiologist, and who (don’t tell anyone), is actually 003, an English spy working for the CIA, highly prized for his mental dexterity and imperviousness to torture, falls asleep after reading his first riddle[22].

After telling my third riddle, I skip off to the bathroom. When I return, the game has broken down into an exchange of trivia, which Andrew naturally dominates with information that I, thanks to reading Kratt’s Creatures books to introverted six-year-olds,

either already know[23] or know is incorrect[24].

I guess I should cut him some slack. He himself had said that he learned to read and write only a few years ago[25], and was honestly surprised that I, at age twenty-one, had never been to jail.

But as he steps now to a space on the wall that isn’t covered by a completed puzzle, preparing to explain how time travel has been proven possible, I fold my arms and put on my most cynical face – the one that reads: “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“A’ight, so here’s a star in the sky, kno’wh’I’m sayin’?” he says[26], pointing to a spot on the wall. “And it takes a million years for me to see the light from this star.”

We all stare. Particulars obviously incorrect, concept close enough. So what?

“But this star moves,” says Andrew, turning from the wall and pointing to the ceiling. “Throughout the night it moves across the sky.” He moves his hands in the air to illustrate the sliding of the heavens’ panorama.

Andrew has wounds up and down his arm of varying size and shape. The first night I arrived he told me that when he was caught with twenty grams of cocaine, four pounds of weed, and a cache of weapons whose names I recognized only vaguely from the dialogue of very serious TV cops, he was sentenced to life in prison[27]. His reaction: fuck it. He sliced his wrist with a razor. They took away his razor, so he stabbed his forearm with a ballpoint pen. When they took that away, he bit two dime-sized holes a few inches below his wrist. There is still a stitch in each hole. Unable to extract all his teeth, and by this point convinced that “Solo” would inevitably find a way to knock himself off, the State sent him here to the psych ward – presumably to teach us about time travel. Andrew seems to have called off snuffing it for now – his lawyer tells him they might beat the rap if the search which revealed the drugs and guns can be proven illegal.

“So how come I see it the same when the star is here,” he points back to the spot on the wall, “and the light takes a million years to get to me as I do when it’s here,” he points to another spot several inches from the first, “when it takes three million years to get to me?”

There is an explosion of groans, nos, and buts from the group[28]. James leaves under cover of the noise, shaking his head. Once again Andrew is able to shout over everyone.

“Did I just go over y’all’s heads?” he says, before launching into a repeat of his argument that proves, rather than nips in the bud, my suspicion the he stumbled upon this theory one morning while smoking a blunt on the way back from the corner store. While he had lived in Chicago, a trip to the corner store was second in Andrew’s morning routine[29]. Every day he bought a pack of Newport 100s, two ice cream sandwhiches[30], a strawberry milk Big Chug, and two blunt wraps. Andrew would roll a blunt in the store and then walk back home, smoking, eating, and drinking.[31]

After his third explanation of time travel I finally figure out exactly what was wrong with his theory.

“I’ll tell you where you’re wrong,” I say. “The stars appear to move because the earth rotates. So their apparent movement across the sky doesn’t affect the Earth’s distance from any one star.”

Andrew suddenly becomes professorial as hell. He gets a piece of paper and starts drawing a diagram.

“Here’s us,” he says, pointing to a little black dot. “And here’s the sun,” he points to another dot twice the size of the first and a half-inch away. “And this [third black dot two inches away] is the star. See how Earth moves away from it? So how come I see this star just as good from here as from here?”

I leave the room dazed at both the man’s perseverance and his stupidity. A patient in solitary confinement is beating his head against the wall – it echoes throughout the ward. This is Dan, whom I met my first night here. He, like me, is in the ward due to what he calls “circumstantial insanity,” and told me when I met him that if I want to talk, he’s a pretty level-headed guy. He is now in solitary confinement for punching out a light bulb in the bathroom and holding the socket to his neck. As his head’s thumps echo through the halls, I consider knocking on the door and asking to join him.[32]

 

* * *

 

And if you, reader, are anything like my classmates in workshop, you’re waiting for a moment of vulnerability from me, the narrator. For example, the rundown of my history of suicide attempts, eating disorders, and past and current drug and alcohol consumption that I gave to my psychiatrist. It might make for some interesting dialogue, or a chance to reveal my – the narrator’s – tumultuous past, you could be thinking.

Or possibly a scene in which I reveal a real emotional connection between myself and, say, my parents, would be an effective way to let the reader into my – the narrator’s – emotional world. Just think of the fireworks inherent in the revelation of the long-standing family dynamics[33] that could have in part contributed to my – the narrator’s – being jumped by a bunch of cops while naked and drunk in my – the narrator’s – apartment and carted to a detox center by a pretty blond one[34].

But a scene with my – the narrator’s – mom and dad might toe the line of cliché, or might come across as emotionally manipulative. Maybe something more low-key would suffice. Perhaps a vignette about the time Jack and I played chess, best two out of three, and I beat him the first time with a nasty little queen trick[35] before he handed my ass to me twice on a plastic dinner tray. I – the narrator – went back to school the next day, and I believe Jack went back to solitary confinement. Another possibility is me and Jack and Ryan playing cards[36] in a dark room[37].

This last example provides an excellent segue into my confession to the fact that none of these scenes will be included in this piece. This is because my – the narrator’s – time talking with my psychiatrist or visiting with my parents or playing chess or cards with Jack and/or Ryan was mine – the narrator’s. While the rest of my time at Mendota Mental Health Institute was spent remembering dialogue or constructing scenes in my head or jotting impressions in a notebook, I turned the writer off for some parts. And unfortunately for you – the reader – those parts turned out to be exactly what you wanted most to read about.

 

* * *

 

I apologize.

A psych ward is the only place on Earth where three sober people can all simultaneously sell themselves the idea that a game of Monopoly would be fun. This is because people in psych wards are either crazy or crazy-bored or both.

Ryan, Dale, and I have played maybe twelve turns. We can only find one die, which we roll twice. Dale and I have each amassed a respectable real-estate investment portfolio and are entering the game’s early wheel-and-deal stages. Ryan has landed on “Free Parking” twice, and is biding his time.

A cute young nurse with a slim waist and black curly hair approaches with a small paper cup of meds for Dale.

“What is it?” Dale croaks. “Since when do I take my medicine now?”

“I don’t know, I’m just following your sheet,” says the nurse. “Will you just take it?”

“Well why should I?” Dale wheezes, his throat visibly straining to speak under his gray goatee.

“Because you have to. Because it would make my life a lot easier.”

“I want,” says Dale, his tight growl rising in volume, “to be told when my medication changes! Why wasn’t I told?”

“Dale,” says a bald male nurse looking up from a newspaper in an armchair in the back of the room. “Would you please not raise your voice?” He spoke like a father desiring a quiet Saturday with no bickering from the kids.

Dale slammed his fist on the table, shaking the die and the chess pieces[38] on the board.

“Dale!” say both nurses.

“This is fucked up! This is fucked up!” Dale’s voice is cracking.

The male nurse stands. “Calm down Dale!”

The cute nurse says gently, “Take your meds.”

“Ah, fuck you,” says Dale, grabbing the cup of pills, emptying it into his mouth, and throwing it on the floor. He does the same with the cup of water. “Get me a grievance form” he said as the cute nurse picked up the cups and left the room.

The male nurse sits down and picks up his paper again. “We don’t have any,” he says as he looks for the spot where he left off.

“I want a grievance form!” Dale hits the table again.

“We don’t have any. Fill out your grievance on a plain piece of paper.”

Slam! “Don’t play this game with me! I know this game!”

The nurse hides behind his newspaper.

Dale is silent.

“It’s your turn Dale,” Ryan says.

Dale looks at the die for a second, then shoves his money to the middle of the board.

“I quit,” he says, getting up and leaving the day room.

 

* * *

 

Every morning after breakfast and an optional shower[39] there was a goal setting group in the main day room. Like all groups, it was optional, but about ten or so patients were usually present[40]. The patients’ goals were usually the same every day. Andrew promised every morning to be “less conceited.”[41] James, throwing his arms in the air in mock enthusiasm, committed daily to being “positive!” Jack once said he wanted to “increase conscious contact with God as I understand it.” He said “it” because “my god’s got some lady parts too.”[42]

 

* * *

 

Daytime Groups.

Saturday: Prose, Poetry, and Lyrics. I am absent due to visit from parents[43].

Sunday: Patients are asked to list what they believe to be the five greatest movies of all time. Next they are asked to imagine different endings for one of the movies. Finally patients imagine different endings for events in their own lives. Ryan said the only thing he would change is signing his stipulation agreement the last time he was on a psych ward. He regrets this more than he regrets his father’s death.

Monday morning: a deck of jumbo cards are passed around. Patients draw one and answer a corresponding question. Patients answer questions in clipped sentences, rushed by the nurses as if we patients care about even distribution of turns. The questions are listed below along with their card counterparts.

 

  • Ace: When and where do you feel most relaxed?
  • Two: What is a hope you have four your future?
  • Three: Where would you like to go on vacation?
  • Four: What is one of your long-term goals and what steps are you taking towards it?
  • Five: What medical breakthrough would you like to see during your lifetime?
  • Six: Name someone who has encouraged you sometime in your life.
  • Seven: Who is someone that is part of your support system?
  • Eight: If a book was written about your life, what would be its title?
  • Nine: Name one decision you made within the last two weeks which has had a positive effect on you.
  • Ten: What are the two most important things in your life?
  • Jack: Tell us something you are proud of.
  • Queen: If you could be any age what would you be and why?
  • King: What is one life improvement you would like to make?[44]
  • Joker: Give yourself a compliment.

 

Monday Afternoon: Bead-fusing – a slow repetitive activity which sooths the mind. I make a flower, but have to stop due to a visit from my parents. Others make lizards, bees, their initials, et cetera. This activity was popular among young girls at daycare.

Tuesday afternoon: gratitude journals. Patients learn to make daily entries of three things they are grateful for, and decorate their journals with patterned construction paper. I do not decorate mine, because my parents arrive to take me away mid-group.

 

 * * *

 

And if you, reader, are wondering[45] if you are wondering why it is that my arm was scratched with a steak-knife or the electrical socket in my bathroom was shorted, I will advise you to keep[46] that particular question to yourself. It doesn’t matter and I’m really tired of talking about it.

 

* * *

 

But this may give you a hint.

The first new patient since my arrival appeared on the ward Sunday night after dinner. I noticed him being given the grand tour on my way to take a phone call. He looked confused and scared, but also a bit like he always expected to be in a place like this sooner or later. I’d seen this face on countless kindergarteners, but on a guy my age it threw me.

A few hours later I was watching the Saints/Chargers game and playing solitaire. I had just played my best game ever – a smooth and fast three-card draw – when the new guy walked in. He looked younger than me. I asked how it was going. It seems unlikely that he said “good,” but he said something and sat down.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Tristan,” he said. “What’s yours?”

I told him. I noticed I was making the same wide-eyed eye contact Ryan had made with me the first night. I hoped I wasn’t scaring Tristan, and tried to joke around a little bit.

“Are you sizing people up,” I said, “wondering how crazy they are?”

Tristan looked truly stung by the question. “No,” he said.

I felt bad for asking. This young man was probably in no mood for sarcasm. I tried to make him feel better. “I was,” I said.

Tristan said nothing.

“Wanna play a card game?” I asked, abandoning my game of solitaire and and shuffling.

He said sure.

“You know speed?”

He shook his head.

“Texas hold ‘em?”

“I don’t know many card games.”

I didn’t feel like playing teacher, and wished someone else was nearby who’d want to play. After a minute Tristan got up and walked out of the day room. He returned soon, and plopped in an armchair in the back.

I quit my game of solitaire and went to apologize.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out,” I said, plopping in the chair next to him.

“No,” he said, looking at his hands.

I sat down. “What are you here for?”

“I don’t know.”

This surprised me. “Well, where are you coming from? Where are you from?”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“All right,” I said, so embarrassed I got up and looked at the bookshelf I’d perused a dozen times. I even took down a book – a history book titled The Making of a Prefident [sic] – to adequately fake genuine interest.

I don’t know what I did wrong in my exchanges with Tristan. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I asked the wrong questions, or in the wrong order. Maybe I should have done most of the talking, like Ryan did during our first conversation. Maybe he didn’t realize I was another patient; I was dressed in street clothes, not a sweat-suit. Or maybe I didn’t do anything wrong, and Tristan just didn’t want to talk [47].

FOOTNOTES

[1] This is a legitimate Powerball-lottery-type bingo machine they’ve got here on the psychiatric ward. The cards don’s even need chips. Instead they come equipped with see-through red slips of plastic that you slide over the number like a Star Wars scene-transition effect.

[2] The only way you can shave here is with an electric razor in the lobby.

[3] After three months on the psych ward: you will be able to correctly guess “missing link” in Pictionary based on a drawing of a puzzle with one piece missing. This is because you have already seen somebody else draw that picture for that card.

[4] Even with basic cable, pretty bleak.

[5] It was however, still blond, and thus invisible, and thus impossible to acquire sympathy through complaint about. My facial hair will forever look like the peach fuzz of a preteen.

[6] While driving from detox to the hospital, Officer Half-Beard searched Google maps for directions while driving. And he probably writes tickets for texting behind the wheel.

[7] Dinner: cold, bland, served on stackable trays. Presence of single-serving ice-cream is cause for excitement. No lactose-free milk available, so I must ask for Lactaid pill before every meal. It is a bit embarrassing due to its relation to bodily functions. Ryan and I trade food in secret – milk and vegetables for bread and butter.

[8] Weight played a factor, as did age and the presence of facial hair. Marked similarity in appearance to Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas earned one inmate – excuse me, patient – named Jeremy a “FUCKING CRAZY!” rubber stamp on his forehead. His constant pulling at possibly imaginary stitches in the back of his head and his unwavering conviction that Brian Eno is a cocksucking faggot who raped and almost killed Jeremey’s girlfriend didn’t help.

[9] Considering.

[10] A conservative estimate. My room was “secure,” meaning it was video-monitored and constantly lit. When I found out, I wished I hadn’t been so sober, as a nice little buzz would have brought sleep faster.

[11] And feeling like quite the informed citizen doing so.

[12] Until August 2011, when it was suddenly required that employees reapply for their jobs each year, and I was told that I would not be rehired as a result of my general ineptitude as a childcare worker. My own opinion that the reapplication requirement was in reality an excuse for my boss to clean house of workers like me without actually using any form of the verb “to fire” is shared by all other workers who were not rehired for the summer of 2012.

[13] The tiger is the Byron School District’s mascot.

[14] In the summer it was referred to officially by the Byron Park District by the stupefyingly generic “Summer Camp.”

[15] Whose number ranged from ten to 50 during my years there.

[16] Referring to a snack as simply “snack” is normal when it is as regular as breakfast, lunch, or dinner – as it was at the daycare I worked at (ten o’clock a.m. and three o’clock p.m.) and the psych ward (eight o’clock p.m.). A favorite snack served in both places: Nilla Wafers…despite the lack of milk to go with them.

[17] During a visit on Saturday, which was uncomfortable and exhausting, and which mainly consisted of silence and gin rummy and overlong hugs in front of my new drug-dealing-or-just-out-of-prison friends,

my parents had brought me my homework. I had been falling behind in the reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children even before all this hullabaloo, and now had some real catching up to do. They also brought me a pair of jeans, some socks, and some v-neck t-shirts.

[18] group n. a scheduled period of time in which men on the ward gather to participate in a planned activity.

[19] Asteroid belt.

[20] Planet.

[21] Saliva.

[22] During my parents’ visit, Lawrence was being visited by his wife. Not ex-wife. My mom said the saddest parts were Lawrence’s brief moments of lucidity.

[23] Boa constrictors aren’t poisonous, and squeeze their prey to death instead.

[24] Komodo dragons aren’t twenty feet long. They generally max out around thirteen feet.

[25] He’s twenty-two.

[26] I am not exaggerating. For a while I was unsure whether to include Andrew in this piece because his dialect was next to impossible to pin down. One thing I absolutely remember, but couldn’t fit in any other way, was his insertion of the letter R into the word beautiful, as in “I’m brutally brutiful.”

[27] This did not quell Solo’s entrepreneurial spirit. He constantly stalked around the ward waiting for some contact to call him with an update of some kind. While I called my parents to tell them where I was, he incessantly badgered me to ask them to text his guy on the outside. I did. They texted “Solo says to call” to God knows who, and only received on text back: “Who is this?” I still half expect them to call with news of a mysterious rusty Acura parked across the road, watching.

[28] Here used in the more traditional sense.

[29] First was a rinse of Listerine and a shit ton of gum.

[30] The kind with the “bun” made out of cookies.

[31] He told me all this on the patio, where after a few days patients were allowed to spend a half-hour outside. On the patio was a gazebo, a garden with tomatoes and jalapeños and habaneros, picnic tables, and an 8’ basketball hoop. Naturally, the basketball was flat.

[32] Later, scribbling this scene in my notebook, I thought Andrew might have been trying to explain a layman’s version of the theory of relativity. If so, I don’t think he understood what was coming out of his mouth any more than the rest of us did. I don’t think it’s often he does know what’s coming out of his mouth.

[33] Which could maybe be foreshadowed in the dialogue with the psychiatrist.

[34] Who, it is discovered en route, was the same cop who found me – the narrator – passed out on the corner of Water and Main the night several months prior during which my – the narrator’s – landlord gave me – the narrator – CPR, and whom I decided halfway between Platteville and Madison it would be wholly inappropriate to ask out for a drink sometime.

[35] The only ace in the sleeve of my chess game, if you’ll forgive the clunky metaphor.

[36] I don’t remember what game.

[37] I don’t remember why it was dark.

[38] Used in lieu of the normal metal pieces, which could of course be used to kill oneself.

[39] There were two shower rooms, which could only be accessed by permission of a nurse. The state of Wisconsin courteously provided each patient with a Tupperware of toiletries which included: one (1) bar soap, one (1) stick deodorant that worked like a ballpoint pen and pinched my armpit hairs every time, one (1) tube Greenco fresh mint tartar control fluoride toothpaste, one (1) toothbrush with bristles that hurt my gums, one (1) cheap plastic comb. After my release I used the soap when I showered in the gym locker room. I keep the comb in my back pocket, greaser style, at all times.

[40] Mostly because they were in the day room already anyway and didn’t feel like leaving.

[41] A challenge for a man who, on the outside, will only wear a shirt once before throwing it away. He spends a lot of money on white cotton undershirts.

[42] Jack kicked my ass in chess my last night on the ward. Once he walked into the bathroom while I was picking a zit and called me Rico Suave. I liked him.

[43] Another reason for my half-heartedness regarding their visit.

[44] Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

[45] As were the cops who took me from my apartment to detox, my hip psychiatrist, my parents, and both counselor’s I’ve seen since my release.

[46] As did the patients at the Mendota Mental Health Institute.

[47] But then why did he sit down when I asked how he was doing? Why would he agree to a card game if he wanted to be left alone? What could I have said or done to make him feel more comfortable? What did I…?

 

 

BIO

Jacob Reecher writerJacob Reecher graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2013. This is his first non-fiction publication, although his fiction has appeared in Driftless Review. He currently lives in Byron, Illinois, and is editing his first novel.

 

 

 

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