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Paul Garson author

Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War:
Man’s Best Friend on the WWII Battlefield

By Paul Garson

All photos & illustrations from the Author’s Collection

 Dog Story Capt. David Vogel, of the 102nd Engineers, trains in war games with dog Rex in a photo taken in 1935.

 

When Shakespeare had Marc Antony, after Caesar’s assassination, lament … Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war… the phrase appearing in the Bard’s 1601 play Julius Caesar… he was not referring literally to dogs. Although huge canines were used in Roman warfare, the phrase was originally a signal used by English military commanders of the Middle Ages to signal their soldiers to begin the usual pillage and chaos accompanying engagements on the battlefields.

The Bark Heard Round the World

While the wolf became man’s companion 12,000 years ago, it would be 4,000 years before the historical record indicates they were first trained as wardogs, oddly enough in Stone Age Tibet. As far back as 800 B.C. illustrations of mastiff like dogs were trotting alongside King Tut’s chariot as seen in his tomb art. Apparently large fighting dogs were also popular with Kryos, then King of Persia who had then harnessed and sent to the frontlines of battle.

The effectiveness of the dog as weapon eventually took hold worldwide. Some 30,000 of the mastiff type dogs became a staple of Kublai Khan’s 13th century all-conquering army. In the following centuries, wardogs have appeared in times of conflict taking on a variety of roles from message carriers to sentries to first aid providers to living bombs and occasionally as supplemental rations.

Eventually brought into Europe, the Romans took hold of the concept breeding smaller dogs for herding and guard dogs, larger ones as weapons of war, the latter equipped with spiked collars and armor while some carried containers of open flame on their backs to create panic among the enemy’s warhorses. One of the first “hero dogs” recorded was named Sorter, the only survivor of 50 wardogs that were the first to meet a surprise attack by Athenian soldiers during the Corinthian War (395-87 B.C.). Sorter ran to the citadel arousing the sleeping garrison who threw back the attacking force. In appreciation the dog was awarded a silver collar with an inscription, “To Sorter, defender and savior of Corinth.”

Columbus brought 20 tracking dogs with him to the New World and the Spanish Conquistadors used attack dogs in their destruction of the Aztec empire. By 1500 dogs were serving as frontier guards, catching errant cattle in England and tracking runaway slaves in America where Benjamin Franklin in 1755 described the best way to use dogs “against the Indians.” By the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French Army had organized complete camps to care for their canine soldiers. In the early 1900s when battling the French and Spanish in colonial Morocco, the Rif natives dressed dogs in their clothes to attract gunfire and thus reveal the enemy’s positions.

The very first recorded dog show took place in Belgium on May 28, 1847 near Brussels. Then in 1880 a Belgian breeder, Edmond Moecheron, became famous throughout Europe by giving sideshow-like demonstrations of his specially trained “police-dogs” which set the whole concept in motion. This breed of Belgian Shepherd, similar in appearance to the Rottweiler, came into official police use in 1899.

 

Wardog as Standardized Weapon

Moving forward to the first of the World Wars, the British embarked as it were on a head start program just prior to the outbreak of hostilities when they began organizing a War Dog Training Center under the leadership of a Lt. Col. E. H. Richardson. They however had taken the cue from the Red Cross which first promoted canines for ambulance duties on the Western Front. While England thought it a jolly good idea, its French allies found the idea unacceptable and quickly banned their ambulance attendant use shortly after the war began. In the autumn of 1914, Richardson, undaunted, then focused on equipping his charges for sentry and patrol duties. After finding the breed particularly adaptable to the requirements, Airedales were his main choice but the Catch-22 was that he had to requisition the dogs from their source in France. He managed to acquire a few four-footed French recruits that apparently learned English very quickly. The training went well and the British found support in their efforts when their Belgian allies were receptive to the idea, Richardson then supplying them with several of his graduates. Some also went to Britain’s WWI Russian allies who equipped the dogs with medical supplies and set them lose to find the wounded lost in the desolate landscape of Manchuria.

The Belgian military had previous experience with dogs of war, having employed a special indigenous breed, the now extinct Matin–Belge, apparently a very sturdy Mastiff variation that often pulled heavy machine guns and ammunition carts.

Meanwhile the English were looking for more uses for their dogs, so Lt. Col. Richardson provided two Airedales, aptly named Wolf and Prince, to his comrades at the Royal Artillery, 56th Brigade, 11th Division and received glowing reports as to their performance which accelerated further efforts to develop more dogs as messengers in the field.

A training school was subsequently established in France, the main kennels located in Etaples initially under the direction of a Maj. Waly, then by 1917 the operation came under the control of the Royal Signal Corp. Each human handler was acquainted with three dog trainees and vice-versa. As the British were particularly fond of their dogs and provided for those in need, many were found available from various Dog Homes in Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. Due to an ever increasing demand, strays from all over the UK were rounded up by the local constabulary, then as the need continued to mount, additional “volunteers” were requested from the general public. The appeal was well-answered by those felt they were unable to adequately feed their pets as a result of war rationing. Soon it was raining “dogs and dogs.”

The German Shepherd aka Alsatian aka Wolfdog was first developed in 1899 by Capt. Max von Stephanitz who through careful breeding produced an ideal service dog under the motto “utility and intelligence.” Their jaws exerted 238 psi of pressure, second only to the Rottweiler. Eventually introduced into the military by the Prussians, the Reichswehr had 6000 dogs trained for battlefront duty during WWI.

Germany also trained their dogs to carry and deliver medical supplies and sometimes a bit of schnapps. At times they wore the symbol of the German Red Cross (Rotes Kreuz), a collar identifying them as acomfort dog” or Sanitätshunde in the service of the German military. While they were trained to ignore corpses, the dogs were trained to retrieve from the wounded soldier his Bringsel, a decorative cord that was an element of the Prussian uniform. After bringing the cord to a medic, the dog would lead his human team mates to the wounded soldier. As the injured were treated, the dog would provide comfort therefore the name “comfort dogs.”

Back in America, with its isolationist policy looking askance at entering a European war, its canine contribution amounted to some 400 sled dogs provided for use by the French military, the war raging on three years prior to U.S. involvement. However, one French dog, a Highland Terrier, adopted by an American infantryman saved many WWI doughboys, his acute hearing warning of artillery attacks as well as his success in delivering critical messages under fire. Named Rags, and besides surviving many wounds, he was also the first dog to parachute when his owner found it necessary to bail out of an observation balloon. Perhaps the most decorated and most famous WWI canine was a bulldog named Stubby whose intelligence and bravery saved many American soldiers to the point he was presented to three Presidents-Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

By war’s end in 1918, some 30,000 dogs had served with the Allies and Central Powers and had brought aid to the fallen, acted as couriers, first-aiders, guards and early warning sentinels. Over 3,000 were KIA.

 

 dog sample breeds

Angels Disguised as Devil Dogs: America’s Elite Canines

 

“At Ease” – New Recruits at WWII U.S. Army Training Center

Several breeds are represented including a Great Dane, German Shepherd, Doberman, Airedale, Collie, Labrador and good American mutts. While not seen in this photo, one of the first wardogs was the poodle. One such four-legged French hero was named Moustache who though wounded rescued the French flag at the famous battle at Austerlitz on December 2, 1805.

 

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Playing K-9 Catch-up

While the U.S. the military had neglected wardog training during the first war, they began to catch up prior to the following war, in part due to the campaigning efforts of a dog breeder named Arlene Erlanger who, anticipating the need, formed a group called Dogs for Defense. Celebrities of the day added their vocal support of the program including movie stars Rudy Valle and Mary Pickford who in fact gave their personal dogs in the hopes of inspiring the American public to follow suit. Eventually the U.S. military, who named their war dog project the K-9 Program, began experimenting with some 30 breeds before focusing mostly on German Shepherds and Dobermans, the selectees then trained for sentry, patrol, messenger, tracking, and mine-detection duties. Some dogs even joined U.S. paratroopers and British SAS parachuting with them into enemy territory.

All such dogs were held in high regard for their loyalty, intelligence and courage under fire, often laying down their lives for their humans. They were especially valued in the Pacific Theatre where the Marines faced stealthy assault by skilled Japanese infiltrators. The canine warriors often slept in the foxholes with their handlers. The dogs exercised exceptional hearing, up to 35,000 hertz per second as compared to a human’s maximum of 20,000 as well as the ability to close-off their inner ear and micro-focus on a particular sound. Acute audio skills were complemented by a sense of smell some 100 times more acute than a human and capable of following a scent several days after originally made and as far away as 250 yards. As a result, these war dogs served as “early warning systems” often sounding the life-saving alarm while their intense loyalty and fearsome aggressiveness often threw them into direct hand to paw combat.

 

Training Takes a Twist

A more than strange story comes out of the effort to train war dogs for Pacific duties, i.e. battling the Japanese. A plan was hatched to teach dogs to identify Japanese people. Some 25 Japanese-American soldiers were asked to volunteer for a secret mission. They found themselves off the coast of Mississippi on Cat Island which apparently had the climate of the Pacific islands plus plenty of alligators. According to veterans who took part, they spent four hours a day training the dogs, the rest fishing, playing guitars and drinking plenty of beer since the island’s water was sulfurous.

Training consisted of feeding the dogs meat and firing a gun at the same time for several months. Then a period when the Japanese –Americans were ordered to whip the dogs until they bled which resulted in the dogs being very eager to bite them anytime they saw them. It wasn’t popular with the dogs or the soldiers. As it turns out the plan didn’t pan out, the dogs didn’t differentiate between races, and most dogs were too civilianized to take well to the training. When a demonstration for the brass didn’t go well, the military pulled the plug on the program in July 1944 but not before 400 dogs went through the Cat Island experiment. A more traditional war dog training program was then initiated.

 

Leathernecks with Collars

During WWII, there were also rigorous programs organized at the Marine Corps War Dog Training School at Camp Lejuene, NC. As a result, several Dog Platoons were formed then sent with their handlers to take part in many of the amphibious landings on Japanese island strongholds including Guam, Bougainville, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jimo, the Philippines and Okinawa. On Guam alone, the dogs took part in over 550 scouting patrols during which 40% saw encounters with the enemy detected by the canines. Many of the dogs and their handlers seeing action in the Pacific campaign paid the ultimate price but in the process saved hundreds of American lives as well as contributed to the destruction and capture of hundreds of the enemy. Many of the Pacific islands had their own wardog cemeteries. On Guam alone, one such burial place held 25 K-9 soldiers.

The dogs, trained to withstand the sound of gunfire and explosions, were also taught to remain silent when they detected danger so as not to alert the enemy. A technique was developed that saw the handler, when sleeping at night in a foxhole, would lie with one hand, palm up, against the throat of his dog. Although trained not to bark or even growl when detecting an enemy soldier creeping toward the foxhole in the cover of darkness, the dog’s throat would emit a vibration that would be felt by his handler and thus awaken him in time to thwart the attack. Obviously both dog and man were very much in tune with each other, deep bonds that often saw sacrifice from both. In one instance, a Marine K-9 familiar with the effects of grenades, saw one land nearby a group of leathernecks, grabbed it its jaws and ran clear of the men, but not in time to drop the grenade.

 

war dog swims in pool

Pool Training

Special training installations could be used both for water and fire simulations. Here a dog is being gently introduced to a water training site used by the 508th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne. Notations on the back of photo identify the dog as “King” and the soldier as “Pittman” while the installation is located in Frankfurt, Germany, the time frame a few months after war’s end.

 

war dog dober Aug 1944

The photo and caption appeared in the August 1944 issue of the American Legion Magazine. The sleek, almost elegant yet fear-inspiring Doberman-Pinscher was prized by American troops for their skills and bravery, especially in the Pacific battlefield and where, as a result of their short fur, the animals weren’t as affected by the heat and humidity as other dogs. Originally the Marines inherited many German Shepherds from the Army, but later gained many Doberman’s thanks to the efforts of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. Some estimates indicate 75% of the dogs in Pacific service were Dobermans.

 

war dog parachute Dec 1943

Successful Landing – February 1943

In a Signal Corp photo snapped somewhere in England, a dog named “Salvo” is shown planting his feet on the ground to resist the pull of his open parachute while waiting to be released from his harness by his U.S. Arm Air Corps fellow soldiers.

Salvo appears to have some Jack Russell in him while the two aircraft in the background appear to be an American ‘spotter’ and a British open cockpit trainer, each bearing the emblems of the U.S. Army Air Corps and British Royal Airforce.

 

Marine Devil Dog 1944

Semper Fi – South Pacific – August 1943

A Marine “devil dog” named Andy joins his two legged comrades, PFC Robert E. Lansley of Syracuse, NY and Lt. Clyde A. Henderson of Brecksville, OH. The trio was photographed somewhere on Bougainville, the island the scene of savage fighting during the campaign that lasted from November1, 1943 until August 21, 1945 as U.S., New Zealand and Australian troops battled the deeply entrenched Japanese holding the island.

The term “devil dog” was actually the name given to U.S. Marines by their WWI German enemy, while G.I.s and Marines considered their canine comrades “angels.” In this case Andy and his handlers were “on point” during a patrol on the look-out for snipers and ambushes. Andy would trot ahead and “indicate” if danger lurked nearby. At one point Andy indicated something was not right with two banyan trees flanking both sides of a trail. The Marines then noticed the trees had been camouflaged as machinegun nests and destroyed them before they could unleash their lethal cross-fire.

Many dogs serving in the Pacific developed illness and contracted diseases caused by the climate as well as insects. Often the dogs had to survive on a diet of C-rations and many with thick coats suffered from temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees. Heartworms and kidney diseases were common afflictions not to mention shrapnel and gunshot wounds for which they were cared for by medics alongside their human comrades.

 

wounded Shepherd

Hail Caesar – Two Bullets Couldn’t Stop Him

While he may not have received a Purple Heart, a Marine-trained K-9 Corps Shepherd named “Caesar” earned the gratitude of the leatherneck with whom he served for saving his life and taking two bullets in the process. During the battle on Bougainville, Caesar, a member of the 1st Marine Dog Platoon, was on patrol with his two handlers Prvt. Rufus Mayo of Montgomery, AL and Prvt. John Kleeman of Philadelphia, PA, both members of M Company, 3rd Raider Battalion. In the dense jungle their walkie-talkies became useless so Caesar filled the gap as the main source of communications from the soldiers’ position at a strategic roadblock and the command post in the rear. Caesar made nine round trips under fire and later prevented a Japanese infiltrator from dropping a grenade into the marine’s foxhole, but in turn was shot twice. He recovered and lived on, but with a bullet lodged near his heart.

Meanwhile on the European Front, American K-9 soldiers were performing above and beyond the call of duty as sentry dogs, ammo carriers, messengers, mine detectors, search and rescue, even in combat roles and parachuting with Airborne troops. A Shepherd/Husky/Collie mix named Chips landed on Sicily with Patton’s Seventh Army during the operation ironically called Operation Husky. Detecting a camouflaged pillbox, the dog raced forward diving into the bunker and routed the Italian machinegun team forcing four to surrender. Chips was awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Star, the first and only dog in the history of the United States to do so. His act of bravery under fire spurred further recruitment and use of wardogs. However when he nipped Gen. Eisenhower’s hand, he was relegated back to sentry duty, but eventually was “pardoned” and took part in the D-Day invasion.

 

war dog comic Chips

The story even turned up as part of a comic book that gave the backstory about Chips, the dog volunteered by Gail and Nancy Wren from Pleasantville, NY. The story describes him as a “mutt” and both he and his handler, the latter named Rowell, as being clumsy and a lot of trouble according to their sergeant. One of the panels even shows Chips nipping Eisenhower, followed by Chip and his handler in a landing craft under fire during the landings on Sicily and also his routing of the machinegun nest.

 

dog press guard

Corporal Butch on Home Front Patrol – Spy Catcher – 1944

The Westinghouse press release photo dated August 10, 1944, appeared with the following caption:

 

“Good work, pard,” says Sgt. Denkel J. White to canine Corp. Butch after the war-plant police dog had discovered a strange man rowing a boat in the Delaware River near the Westinghouse Merchant Marine plant at Lester, Pa. “even if he didn’t turn out to be a saboteur.” Corp. Butch helps guard the waterfront and the plant where turbines to drive America’s merchant marine fleet are made. The police say Corp. Butch, part Shepherd, part Chow, is “nearly human” in intelligence. Each night he picks one of them to accompany on the beat. He won’t fraternize with anybody who doesn’t wear a uniform. He has his own floor fan, identification and police badges, and hospitalization fund (5 cents a week from each policeman.)

 

wardog stamps

Caes Na Guerra – War Dogs – 2009 S Postal Issue by Sao Tome e Principe

The postage honoring wardogs was printed by the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, two volcanic islands straddling the equator located off the central eastern coast of Africa and comprising the continent’s smallest country (964 sq. miles), but they are big on stamps, a source of international revenue.

 

The Fate of Man’s Best Foxhole Friend

Prior to 2000 and new legislation allowing “discharged” wardogs to be adopted by civilians, service dogs were “euthanized” aka killed. An estimated 10,000 dogs were trained for WWII service. Of the 559 dogs still in the field at the end of WWII, 540 were “repatriated” to civilian lives. However of the estimated 4900 Vietnam wardog veterans still overseas, only some 200 made it back to the states. Thanks to new legislation, today most wardogs return to good stateside homes with applications for adoption far exceeding the number of dogs available.

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

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Larena Nawrocki writer

Stomping on Spiders:

The Fall of Saddam Hussein

by Larena Nawrocki

 

They were resting in their tent, sleeping or lying on their cots when the big sirens went off. Then the announcement came: “Get to the end of your tents.” Amber, a promotable, a specialist, and team leader in the army, gathered with her fellow soldiers at the open tent flap wondering what’s going on? Her black hair was slicked back against her head into a ponytail. Then the news reached them. “They’re taking down the statue.” As she told me this story, her hands came up to her shoulders as if she were riding a roller coaster. Her Polynesian-shaped eyes in cat-eye makeup widened. “We were all like ‘Oh my gosh!’” They were in BIAP or Camp Striker near the BIA, aka Bush International Airport to Americans and Baghdad International Airport to the locals. It surrounded Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds where they could see the large man-made lake in the midst of the dusty rock strewn terrain. They were only a half mile away.

In the spring of 2003, April 9th, the American troops took control of Baghdad. The US overthrew the government and the people were relieved and excited. BBC news claimed that a few Iraqi men tried to pull down the statue. They removed the metal plaque at its base. They weren’t able to so the US soldiers helped them by attaching a chain to an armored vehicle around its neck. The Marines were fired upon once while removing the statue, yet they quickly resumed the task.

Amber didn’t get to witness this event, though she told me some of the details from the actual fall. The soldiers there tried to get the citizens to bring down his statue, the statue of a man who terrorized his people. His sons and himself pillaged, raped, and murdered thousands of their people. Amber saw some of the graves grouped by the thousands, some by the palace. It’s estimated that 300,000 to one million were killed. She explained that the soldiers first tried to get the people to bring down the statue, yet they wouldn’t touch it. I asked her why they wouldn’t do anything and she replied that “they were too scared.” Some of the soldiers tied ropes and a chain around the statue and started to pull it down by themselves. Soon after that the people joined in. Soon the soldiers backed off and only the Iraqi people were left. Once it came down, they decapitated his head and beat on it. They tied ropes to it and dragged it through the city.

As I interviewed my co-worker, I wondered how she knew this if she was not there. I assumed it was from the soldier there at the time. After all, the whole camp was in Blackout. “I wanted to call my mom and say what happened.” Yet she couldn’t do so. They weren’t allowed to text, email, call, or leave the camp except when on duty. As she answered, her feet were bouncing up and down and she reached for her cherry slushy to take a sip.

I have only worked with Amber for only two months, but I already know her ambitions. She served in the army for six years and was deployed four times. She, like me, attends school and works as a hairstylist when not in class. Her goal is to become a nurse; a goal that helps others. After her first couple of weeks there, I learned about her military past.

I was talking about things that make me shudder. I hate spiders. They creep me out to no end. I once had a late night because random thoughts tortured my mind. While I was sitting at my computer watching TV, I saw a shadow in the corner of my eye. I looked at the door frame where it met the wall and there were two spiders; one the size of a quarter and the other the size of a half dollar. In my mind, they were as big as my fist. So I did the most logical thing I could think of. I stared, cried, and screamed in hushed tones until my angel mom came with a thick sole shoe.

Amber likewise had an encounter with a spider while in Iraq. I learned this story while interviewing her at the Southglenn Colorado Dairy Queen. Her patrol group had just finished and returned early in the morning. She decided to take a shower while it was still cool. The water was kept in giant plastic containers that heated up during the scorching day. The only time to wash was in the morning or at night when the water wasn’t boiling. The showers were about one DQ wall to the other DQ wall wide. She showed this by gesturing with her arms. Roughly, it was about the length of the common car. Well, the sun was beginning to come up and cast her shadow on the wall. When she looked, there was a Camel Spider, in her shadow. Camel Spiders are enormous goliath spiders that reach 8 inches in length. They can run about 10 miles per hour and they follow your shadow. When she saw that spider, “Let me tell you, I freaked out. I was screaming and yelling, but I couldn’t move.” Amber’s body shivered as she told me this. She simply had to wait, naked, and wet, until some soldiers came to help. They cornered it, trapped it, and released it far away from base camp.

I was intrigued by how a strong female army veteran could fear bugs when she experienced the harsh reality of the war in Iraq. There was a bond through our fear of bugs, yet when I talked about her military career, her face tensed and she spoke in monotone. Her words were slow and fierce. “We knew what we signed up for.” Wanting to understand, I reached out to my sister’s half-sister Jennifer Gustin and her husband Cody. Both served in OIF (operation Iraqi Freedom); Jennifer served in the 86th CSH, or combat support hospital and Cody is currently and was in the 160th SOAR unit, or special operations aviation regiment. Part of Cody’s job was to fly Chinook Helicopters in Mosul, Iraq and escort prisoners, or insurgents. He also had an experience with a slimy creepy crawly.

In Kuwait, February 2003, they were prepping for the invasion of Iraq by building up Camp Udari, or now called Camp Buehring. They were digging Z trenches in the vast dirt chalkboard desert when someone saw a lizard. It was about four feet long with a prickly tail, much like a Spiney Tailed lizard. He had the bright idea to pick the lizard up and put his “finga in its cloaca” and talked to it “like Steve Irwin.” His friend videotaped him taking the lizard away from the safety of their tents. As he set the lizard down, it slapped his foot with unthinkable power and almost knocked him down. “Some days, that’s all I had to cheer me up.” Jennifer had a much different experience working in the hospital. She “had to piece together body parts of soldiers and bag them in mass casualties.” One of which was from a decision to pull a lever.

One picture that Amber showed me was of a vehicle’s skeleton, blackened and twisted with parts broken off. It was hardly recognizable as the car’s guts. I could imagine this picture as I read about Jennifer’s experience. There was an explosion from an IED, or a road side bomb. A US soldier whose senses were flooded by fear rammed into their barricade with his “hum’v.” Jennifer needed to either shoot or to pull up the road spikes. It could possibly be an insurgent bent on mass murder of all the wounded soldiers in the hospital. She chose to pull the lever. Later, she found out, one of the soldiers died. Though that soldier might have lived if she didn’t chose the lever, she “made the correct decision.” She protected the other soldiers. This experience added to emotional residue. “I was pretty shell shocked when I got back to the States.” It seems she would succumb to her fear, but her training kicked in. This may have been what happened with the citizens of Iraq, only with their vengeance. The videos of the statue’s fall are only two minutes long.

Three men tied a noose around the statue, but it was too tall to completely wrap it around his neck. The people are throwing shoes at him. A tank the color of their dirt and shrub landscape pulled up to the statue. A six story building vomits out smoke nearby. The crowd parted as it drove up. A marine balanced on the crane of the tank an tries to place an American flag on Saddam’s head. The wind makes it difficult. The next shot is of an Iraqi holding the flag, allowing it to flow free in the wind. The crowd takes up a chant as the marine tightens the noose around his neck and adds on a chain noose. A comrade behind him eyes his work and now holds the flag. The Iraq flag from before Hussein’s reign of terror flies in the hands of an Iraqi citizen. The crowd claps and whistles. The statue looks as if it is waving first. The birds fly frantically away. Then his legs break apart at the knees and he teeters slowly forward. Suddenly, the statue falls down into a horizontal position. It bounces up and down as they try to get it off its pedestal. The crowd rushes right below it in anticipation. It suddenly drops to the ground and the crowd swarms over it dancing and waving their arms. They are stomping on it.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for them, but I have a small glimpse. I felt fear, much like how Amber felt when confronted with the nightmarish spider. I felt the fear and I didn’t do anything. Luckily I had help. If my mom had given me the shoe, would I have stomped on the spiders? Would I have been happy if someone helped me by enforcing their methods upon me? Would I have been myself still? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I am still afraid of spiders. Though the problem for that night was removed, I still have the implications because I didn’t overcome it myself.

 

 

 

BIO

Larena NawrockiLarena Nawrocki lives in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. She is currently a senior at Metropolitan State University. She is working on obtaining a bachelor’s in English with an emphasis on education. She hopes to teach elementary level children to improve their writing through exploration of the world and current events. Until then, she is a cosmetologist who enjoys hearing the stories people tell every day. This is her first published non-fiction essay.

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Paula Panich

What God Hath Intended

by Paula Panich

 

Pectin makes it all possible. Pectin is one of God’s best ideas, purveyed in fruity packages. No question: God intended us to have jellies and jams and marmalade. This is why I take my marmalade straight, by the spoonful.

So my friend Julianna and I decided to make marmalade. We were inspired by a perfect bitter orange marmalade we had eaten in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the delivery, by my friend and Los Angeles neighbor Léo, of a recipe for kumquat marmalade.

We were also inspired by this truth of communal cooking: It lightens the spirit. “It suffereth not the heart to be burnt,” as my seventeenth-century friend the Countess of Kent would have said. My heart, as it happened, was burning.

Shared labor with beautiful fruit, sugar, sharp knives, good conversation, and a big solid pot put to the fire—the citrus fragrance alone was a tonic.

 

Marmalade in our day seems to carry its own definition, which is a conserve of oranges. That’s what most of us think of when we think of marmalade, if we think of it at all. In fact, in Europe until the eighteenth century, the word marmalade, when used by itself, according to the British food historian C. Anne Wilson, meant only one thing: a marmalade of quinces.

The word for “quince,” in Portuguese, is marmelo.

But nothing is simple with the human heart, nor is it easy to untangle the means and the meaning of what looks to be an uncomplicated mix of sugar and fruit in a small glass jar. Human relationships with food, like our relationships with one another, are a complex and passionate matter, and involve politics, religion, and invasion.

Homemade preserves were known in Roman times; Greek physicians were convinced of the efficacy of quince to aid digestion; Dioscordes recommended it for dysentery and complaints of the liver and kidneys. His recipe for kudonites, made with quince, pops up in Tudor and Stuart times as “quidony of quinces,” and wouldn’t you, just once, love to attend a dinner party at which someone asked for this and it was brought forth?

It would be awhile, though, until marmalade was used to break the nighttime fast.

Marmalade of quinces was prepared dry, and cut, as you would a pie, with a knife, thanks to the discovery that cooked fruit combined with sugar (honey) and acid (vinegar) would result in a solid, thick, leathery, and delicious substance.

You can buy the offspring of this idea in quince paste from Spain, membrillo, sold in gourmet shops, to be eaten with cheese.

Now where was I? Yes, looking for a bridge to take us from quince to orange marmalade. Without Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade (1985, 1999), I might still be standing on a riverbank looking first to an island and then to the shore beyond, with no idea how to cross.

The first bridge is the apple; the second is a moving force we might call the conquering Arabs and the resulting Crusades.

The apple’s gift was its suitability for making jelly. (Many are the early recipes for “jelly of pippins”—pippin meaning for a few centuries any apple grown from a seed.) The pectin content of apples is highest when they are newly picked, in autumn.

The Crusades caused many hearts to suffer, both Arab and European, but left behind, in southern Europe, orange and lemon trees and the knowledge of how to make them flourish by means of irrigation.

Wilson surmises that if apples were put by to make jellies later in the year, intrepid magicians of the kitchen discovered that the addition of lemon juice would push along the jelling and that a bit of orange “pill” (peel) made it more interesting.

Here is a recipe from A True Gentlewoman’s Delight (1653), my own Countess’s cookery book, at least the one published under her name. (I’m obsessed with this cookbook!)

 

Take Pippins and pare them and quarter them, and coar them, lay them in water. And when you set them on the fire, shift them in another water, and put them in a skillet, and put as much water as will cover them and a little more, set them over the fire, and make them boil as fast as you can, when the Apples are soft, and the liquor tastes strong of the Apples, then take them off, and strain them through a piece of canvas gently; take to a pound of juice a pound of Sugar, then set in on the fire, and when it is boiled up then scum it, and make it boil as fast as you can, and when it is almost boiled, put in the juice of three Lemons strained through a cloth, and if you will have Orange pill pare it thin, that the white be not seen, and then lay it in water all night, then boil them in the water till the pill be soft, then cut them in long pieces, then put it into the sirrupe and shift it about and fill your glasses, and let it stand till it be cold, and then it is ready to it.

 

Julianna and I, at least on that day, had misplaced our faith in God and her pectin packaged in citrus fruit. We winged it a bit. But what we did wrapped us right into the feverish activities in the kitchens of the Countess four hundred years earlier, though with the reliable and consistent delivery of fire by my Viking stove. We, too, were boiling as fast as we could.

In our cookbooks and online, Julianna and I looked at many recipes urging a twelve- or twenty-hour “curing.” That’s when if you put seeds and pith into a cheesecloth bag, natural pectin will come forth and fulfill its proper function: that is, to provide just the right amount of thickening. We didn’t wait long enough in the cooking, however, curing or not curing, and foolishly lost faith in the natural process.

We used commercial pectin. We used commercial pectin and made the dry marmalade of the Middle Ages. It took a bit of work to excavate it from our pretty jars once it stood until cold—in our case, in the refrigerator.

But we loved our marmalade. We used mostly rangpur limes, Citrus x limonia, a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon: very, very bitter, and not a lime at all. We used a great deal of sugar. Our marmalade was good to eat from the spoon, but its texture was not to everyone’s taste. It defied the expected.

 

Apparently John Lennon loved marmalade. And if I could easily get it, I would eat daily Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade, the thick-cut version, which Captain Robert Scott took on his fatal trip to the Antarctic a century ago and Edmund Hillary toted in his pack to his icy death on Everest. They found momentary comfort in those jars. I’m sure of it.

 

Julianna and I had a jolly time, and later drank good white wine and ate delicious hearty Greek dishes brought in from a restaurant. Making marmalade with a beloved friend kept sorrow at bay, for, as my Countess says, it isn’t right for “melancholy or flegm to have dominion above Nature.” And what is melancholy except “flegm” of the heart?

 

 

BIO

PaulaPanich2My essay, “What God Hath Intended,” is part of an unpublished collection of personal essays entitled The Cook, the Landlord, the Countess and Her Lover. The subjects and themes of this book make up my primary concerns as a person and a writer — food, shelter, landscape, history, and of course, love.

My work as a professional writer was born the same year as my daughter, 1984. Some of this work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Gastronomica, the Harvard Review, the North American Review, and other publications. I have written books, one of which is about nonfiction writing: Cultivating Words (Tryphon Press, 2005).

I’ve taught writing in many places, a great joy to me because I learn far more than I could possibly teach.

I have lived in Los Angeles with my family for nine years. In my north-listing 1921 garage in the middle of the city, I am a printmaker by avocation. I can see daylight through its peeling old boards.

 

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jj anselmi

Entering the Moment

by J.J. Anselmi

 

I heard the rumble of Steve’s Bronco when he pulled up to my parents’ house. Two months earlier, I’d started my junior year of high school.

“Ok mom, I’m going out to Jared and Bryan’s to ride.”

“Alright baby,” she said, looking up from her Anne Rice novel. Mom didn’t care if I came home super late from Jared and Bryan’s house or, oftentimes, not until the next day. When I was with my friends, she knew I’d be Ok. Our obsessive focus on BMX kept Jared, Bryan, Steve and me from fucking around with drugs or booze.

“I’ll call if I stay.”

Jared and Bryan lived seven miles outside Rock Springs, in a small community called Arrowhead Springs. Kenny and Tammy, Jared and Bryan’s parents, let my friends and me build ramps in their large garage. Within two years, we’d turned it into our own skate park. They also let Steve and me stay at their house too many times to count, basically adopting us into their family.

The fact that Dad had worked for Pacific Power for over twenty years seemed like a feat of manliness to me. In high school, my male classmates constantly talked about customizing their trucks and working tough jobs. I tried to follow their conversations, pretending that I knew what it was like to endure long shifts of backbreaking labor involving machinery that could eat you alive. But I felt like the world these boys inhabited would always be foreign to me. Building ramps with Jared, Bryan, and Steve helped me feel like a man in a town where I often didn’t.

Over the years, my friends taught me some basics of construction. Although he’d worked in a power plant, Dad was a mountain man, and he’d never been mechanically savvy. I hated the only woodshop class I’d ever taken because I constantly worried that the teacher and other boys thought I was a pansy. But, in Jared and Bryan’s garage, I loved to cut plywood and two-by-fours with an electric saw while listening to old school metal. My friends were patient when they taught me about ramp building, and their jabs about my lack of mechanical sense were mostly playful.

A gust of wind blew hair into my mouth when I walked outside. The October nights had become frigid, and the first snow of the year coated the sidewalks. Seven months of harsh Wyoming winter loomed. My breath snaked into the air, getting sucked from my throat by the wind. I looked at the plywood quarter pipe on the edge of my parents’ driveway, its bottom corners curling up from being left outside.

During the previous summer, I’d bought the ramp from a rollerblader. My friends and I hauled it to my parents’ house in my truck and set it up on the left side of the driveway. A few days later, I spray-painted ‘Six Six Six,’ ‘Destroy,’ and ‘Hate’ on the ramp. I didn’t believe in god or the devil, I was just an asshole metal head, and I loved to piss people off. Dad had spray-painted black boxes over my tags, but I could still see my words beneath thin coats of paint. He hated the tags for the same reason I thought they were badass: anyone who drove by our house could see them.

Pantera’s The Great Southern Trendkill pulsated my eardrums when I opened the back door of Steve’s Bronco. I lifted my bike in, careful not to scratch my Metal Bikes frame. We drove uphill, passing Uncle Mark and Keith Hay’s large houses.

On Highway 430, wind pushed against Steve’s Bronco, making it more difficult to pick up speed. Icy snow danced across the cracked asphalt. Steve and I didn’t try to talk over the music. “Suicide Note Pt. 1”—an acoustic ballad on an album that mostly consists of southern rock-infused thrash—drifted from Steve’s speakers. Phil Anselmo crooned, Would you look at me now?/ Can you tell I’m a man?

We passed SF Phosphates, a chemical plant that marked the turnoff to Arrowhead Springs. Large concrete and metal cylinders emitted sickly white smoke into the air. The chemical plant, with its flickering green and red lights, looked like a tiny, diseased city.

A cottontail suddenly darted across the road. The rabbit sounded like a plywood plank slapping against the Bronco’s wheel well when Steve hit it. “Those little fuckers,” he said. “It’s like they’re on a death mission.” We usually ran over at least one rabbit during the nights we drove to Jared and Bryan’s house.

After we parked in the driveway and got out of the Bronco, I heard plywood and two-by-fours slap against concrete, punctuated by a tink of coping. Light seeped under the tall garage door, which Steve lifted up for us to walk under. Metallica’s Kill ‘em All echoed off the insulated walls in the garage.

“Get the fuck out of here you fucking peter-eaters!” Bryan yelled. We’d started calling each other ‘peter-eater’ after Jared and Bryan’s dad drunkenly mumbled it at Jared one night.

Bryan pedaled at a quarter pipe on the far end of the garage. A three-foot wooden ledge sat on the deck of the ramp. Bryan jumped from the quarter pipe and stuffed his shoe between his fork and front tire, stalling on his front wheel on top of the ledge. With seeming effortlessness, he jumped back into the quarter pipe, landing an inch or two below the coping. Above the next ramp, Bryan planted his left foot on the wall while holding his bike above him. His back wheel spun, freewheel ticking like a manic clock, before he dove back into the transition. Throughout the rest of his run, Bryan performed similarly difficult tricks with the precision of a mathematician.

When Bryan finished his run, Steve shot out from his spot next to me. After airing a quarter pipe, he made a sharp turn and rode up the adjacent vert wall—a super steep ramp we’d pushed against Kenny’s tool room. Coming down, Steve pushed his tires into the transition to gain speed. He launched over the nearby hip and tilted his bike past ninety degrees, executing a perfect tabletop. Steve zipped around the garage, turning and spinning his opposite direction without a hint of awkwardness.

Steve’s smooth riding contrasted with his chaotic home life. His parents were divorced, and he switched between staying at their houses. Once, during a fight, Steve hit his step-dad in the kneecap with a hammer. Scared of getting his ass kicked, he rode to his dad’s trailer across town. Watching their big-screen, chain smoking, and blasting Motley Crue, Steve’s dad and step-mom got drunk every night. A pack of children with popsicle-smudged faces always seemed to be running around the trailer.

Like my dad, Steve’s dad—who Jared, Bryan, and I called Old Steve—was super supportive. He used to ride BMX himself, and, every once in a while, he’d hop on his old school Haro and ride with us. He’d also tell us stories about riding with his friends back in the day. They’d sharpen their pegs and do kick-outs into the doors of cop cars, which I thought was rad.

I can’t count how many times Old Steve fixed my car or truck. He was an amazing mechanic, and he knew most of the auto shops in town would rip me off. He never called me a pansy or dumbass because I didn’t know how to work on cars. Even though he spent forty-plus-hours-a-week working in an auto shop, he never seemed to mind helping me out.

But, like all of us, Old Steve definitely had his shortcomings. He and Steve’s mom hadn’t planned on having Steve. They were only kids themselves—both around seventeen or eighteen—and Old Steve didn’t want to force himself into a monotonous adult life. Although he loved his son intensely, I think he wanted to be Steve’s buddy instead of his parent. Steve only mentioned it to me a few times, but he and his dad had also gotten into a few fist fights, and I think this violence loomed over their relationship. When Old Steve teased his son as if he was his drinking buddy, Steve usually looked like he was trying too hard to smile. Riding fast and pumping each transition for momentum in the garage, Steve’s mind entered a place where only the present moment existed.

Starting my run, I ice-picked the ledge above the quarter pipe. Unlike Bryan, Steve, and Jared, I didn’t rotate my opposite direction during my runs. It felt awkward, and I didn’t have enough patience with myself to learn. At this point, I felt too embarrassed to go back and learn the foundational tricks my friends had all picked up in junior high.

I rode straight up a different quarter pipe, slamming my back wheel into the adjacent wall while squeezing my brake lever. I stalled in an over-vertical position for a fraction of a second, my front wheel hanging over my head. I hopped into the transition backwards, back-pedaling and then quickly flipping around. I loved the sensation of going down a ramp the wrong way. Most of my tricks consisted of variations on these two maneuvers—a fakie wall ride and an ice-pick stall—whereas my friends’ riding was much more varied.

“Yeah, J.J.,” Jared said. He, Steve, and Bryan clapped, although they’d all seen me land this trick several times before.

Jared pedaled toward the quarter pipe furthest from where we sat. Launching off the ramp, he spun a 180 and landed on the three-foot ledge. His sprocket dug into the wooden edge, and his front wheel hovered just above the quarter pipe’s coping. Jared used to tell me that this trick, called a disaster, is about overcoming the mental picture of flipping over your bars on the way back in and smashing your face on the ground. He hopped back into the ramp, tires adhering to the transition as if magnetized.

Riding, each of us pushed beyond fear. Momentarily floating in this space, we disconnected from thoughts about our fathers’ flaws and how much we hated Rock Springs. Even though I mostly did variations on the same tricks, overcoming fear was always part of the equation. You can’t ride without getting injured, and riders often get hurt doing routine tricks.

BMX constantly fucked all of us up. My injury list: separated shoulder; two broken feet; broken leg; countless gashes—one on top of my head that had to be closed with staples—scrapes, and bruises; fluid build-up behind both kneecaps—my right knee used to swell to twice its normal size after bumping it, even lightly; and one concussion. And my BMX injuries were minor compared to a lot of other riders’. I remember getting around school on crutches after I broke my foot or leg. Most kids and teachers knew how I’d hurt myself, and I felt like a badass as I crutched through the halls.

We rode for about an hour and a half before going upstairs. Jared and Bryan’s mom had bought KFC for us and set it out on the counter.

“Hi guys,” Tammy said. “J.J. and Steve, have some dinner.” Steve and I’d long gotten past the point of politely refusing food from Tammy, knowing she’d just tell us to eat anyway. On her way upstairs, she exhaled and stopped. To Jared and Bryan, she said, “Your dad won’t be home until late.” We all knew what this meant: Kenny was going to get shit-faced and drive home.

Bryan had recently ordered a new BMX video, Manmade Chapter 2. He put it in the DVD player while Jared, Steve, and I piled greasy chicken onto our plates and sat down in the living room. Filthy, tar-soaked riffs of Floor’s “Assassin” play during Dave King’s section, both of which made me feel giddy. Dave flies over huge dirt jumps, doing picture-perfect tabletops and turndowns—classic, style-oriented tricks. There’s a tough, manly beauty in his riding. He and his bike become one entity, and I wished that I could ride like him. A rider usually needs a background in racing to attain this level of smoothness, and I’d never raced. As Dave rides, Floor’s Steve Brooks, one of the few openly gay metal musicians I know of, sings Crazy for the boy in a weirdly soothing, off-kilter melody. This song perfectly fits Dave King’s stripped-down riding.

An energetic From Autumn to Ashes song plays during Chase Hawk’s section in Chapter 2, which follows Dave King’s. Chase floats in the air, whipping his back end to the side over steep dirt jumps as if his bike is an extension of his body. He doesn’t do circus tricks like double back flips, but, to me, his effortless flow was much more beautiful than the riding you’d see in contests like the X Games. You can hear the zip of his tires as he flies off the lip of a dirt jump, the whoosh of wind as he zooms past the camera. Over each jump, he performs an acrobatic dance that exists somewhere beyond human emotion. As I did with Dave King, I wished I could ride like Chase. About two years after this night, I’d hang out with Chase and Dave in Austin, discovering their bisexuality, which seemed terrifying at the time but now makes perfect sense.

We heard Kenny pull into the upper garage in his vintage Jaguar, a car he’d rebuilt himself. Like most nights, he’d driven home after getting hammered at a bar in downtown Rock Springs. During his early 20s, Kenny, driving drunk with two female passengers, had gotten into a gnarly accident. One woman died and the other would never walk again. About fifteen years later, Kenny flipped a four-wheeler onto himself, breaking his neck and back. Now, to turn his head, he had to turn his entire body, and he usually wore a neck brace.

Kenny shuffled in from the garage. He grabbed a plastic bowl of salad from the fridge, eating lettuce and vegetables with his bare hands. My friends and I laughed hysterically. I waited for Jared or Bryan to fuck with him.

“Dad,” Jared said. “You’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.” This phrase sent all of us into hysterics.

Kenny chewed a piece of lettuce, smacking his lips. Between incoherent mumbling, he said, “No, you’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.”

Laughing at Kenny, we told ourselves that we would never be like our fathers, even though we’d all inherited our penchant for recklessness from our dads. Although I laughed, I also knew that Kenny’s drinking was a yawning pain for Jared, Bryan, their older brother Jesse, and Tammy. We never said this, but my friends and I all wished Kenny wouldn’t drink anymore.

He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. With short brown hair and a trimmed beard, he was perpetually hunched over from his back injuries, and his lips always curled up in a smartass grin. Like a stereotypical Irishman, his cheeks were deeply ruddy. I still can’t believe that he let us fill his work space with ramps.

Instead of telling us to be careful when he watched us ride, Kenny would try to get us to do crazier shit, often yelling, “Do a 360!” When Steve and I came over, he never made us feel like mooches, even though we routinely raided his fridge and slept on his couches. He always told us to think of his expensive tools as our own, and his tool room became the go-to place when we needed to fix our bikes. Almost every time I saw Kenny, he asked me how my parents were doing. He and my dad had known each other for a long time, having a mutual friend in Joey Hay.

It was this mix of deep-hearted kindness and selfishness that made our dads so perplexing. Beneath our anger and sometimes-sarcastic view of our dads, I think we worried that they were constantly on the verge of killing themselves.

 * * *

During high school, Steve, Jared, Bryan and I became friends with Josh, a Rock Springs BMX hero who was seven years older than us. When Josh moved to Salt Lake, he offered us an open invitation to sleep on his floor. He lived with Mike Aitken, a legendary BMX pro. Like us, Josh was straight edge.

When he visited Rock Springs, he usually rode our garage ramps. One weekend, we were listening to the Ramones’ self-titled album as Josh walked his bike into the garage.

“Fuck this pussy shit,” he said. He grabbed a Pantera CD from his truck and put it in the garage stereo. Phil Anselmo’s anger on Vulgar Display of Power sent ecstatic pulses through my veins. I’d listened to Pantera a few times, but this was the moment when I fell in love with the band’s dirty southern thrash.

Josh’s lips curled into a tight frown while he rode. He went faster than any of us, and I always thought of the term ‘balls out’ when I watched him ride. He launched at a wall above a quarter pipe, planting his rear tire at least three feet above the highest point any of us had reached. He glided back into the transition, his freewheel roaring like a table saw.

Between Josh’s runs, I stared at his tattoos—tire-treads on his right bicep, and a bike company logo on his left wrist, both in black ink. Sweat glistened on his closely-shaven head.

Around Josh, I often felt embarrassed and frustrated by my riding. Still, after I landed a trick, he usually said, “Yeah,” or whistled.

  * * *

During the summer before senior year, my friends and I finished our BMX video, which we’d been working on for the past two and a half years. Bryan and I edited the video on my parents’ computer, teaching ourselves about editing as we went along. I loved feeling like I could control tiny snippets of reality.

Just a few weeks away from starting school, we watched our video at my parents’ house one afternoon. I wished my section had more trick variety, but I also felt like it captured my personality. Megadeth plays while I ride full pipes, street spots, and skate parks in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho, and Oregon. I was proud of my editing in the video, especially in this section. During the intro to my part, snippets of me riding, wrecking, and the tags on my quarter pipe flash, on beat with Megadeth’s high-energy death rock in “Skin O’ My Teeth.”

One of my favorite clips was of me riding a metal cylinder that Steve and I’d found earlier in the summer. Driving along a highway just outside Rock Springs, one of us noticed rows of huge metal pipes, all lying on their sides in an industrial yard. The gate was open, so I just drove in, passing three or four ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Barbed-wire-topped fencing lined the perimeter of the yard, and massive equipment that I didn’t even remotely understand surrounded us. I stared at metal teeth, intricate piping, and humongous tires, knowing that each machine in the yard could’ve swallowed me.

With some maneuvering, we were able to get our bikes through a small opening in one of the cylinders. Rust coated the inside of the pipe, and it took a minute or so for our eyes to adjust. The cylinder was hard to ride. Unlike a half-pipe built for riding and skateboarding, there was no flat-bottom, which would’ve made it a lot easier to accumulate speed.

I positioned myself at the bottom of one transition, then, pushing off, quickly rotated a bit less than 180 degrees on the other side. I spun on each side, then put pressure on my handlebars, pressing my front wheel into the transition’s curve to gain speed.

The pipe amplified sound. A metallic roar replaced the usual zip of my tires.

Steve and I filmed some clips of each other. In the clip of me riding the cylinder in our video, rust rises from the pipe’s surface, swirling around me as my tires touch the point where the transition curls over itself. Watching this clip now, I remember how rust particles floated into my nose and mouth, sticking to my teeth. I also remember how powerful I felt during these moments. The pipe weighed thousands of pounds, but it shifted, slightly, against my weight and momentum.

Breathing in rust became too much to handle after twenty or thirty minutes. The cylinder also magnified the dry Wyoming heat. A large work truck pulled up right after we got our bikes out. The driver, a middle-aged woman with short hair, said, “You guys should get out of here. I just called the sheriff’s department.”

Whenever I’d drive past the yard after riding the cylinder, I remembered the weightless feeling I experienced as I carved the pipe. I never found out why these cylinders had originally been built, and I didn’t care. In Rock Springs, I usually felt alienated by the industrial machinery surrounding me. But repurposing industrial objects gave me a sense of control. After I rode one of them, the cylinders seemed like they were made of something softer and more malleable than industrial-strength steel.

My friends and I finished watching the video and then decided to ride the ramps in front of my house. We’d put our bikes in the garage, where the rancid air made us all gag. Fishing poles, reels, nets, coolers, boat oars, spare tires, rope, disorganized tools and other random shit cluttered the garage floor. Bryan, Steve, and Jared covered their noses with their shirt collars as we picked up our bikes and went outside.

“Jesus Christ,” Bryan said as we sat on our bikes on the walkway that cut through the front yard. “What’s that smell again?”

“I think it’s those hides on the rafters. I don’t know why the fuck my dad still keeps them.”

We rode the quarter pipe for fifteen or twenty minutes, mostly just fucking around. Although we often rode seriously, we also spent a lot of time doing joke tricks that were either out of style or just plain ridiculous.

Dad pulled up in his truck, parking on the sloped curb next to our house. He grabbed a fishing rod and cooler from his flatbed. “Honest question,” he said, walking toward us. “Which one of you guys can do the baddest trick?” He set down his cooler and took off his one-piece sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot slits. In his deep monotone, Dad said, “Let’s see a mobius flip,” referring to an old-school skiing trick. During the 70s and early 80s, Dad used to ski off twenty-foot boulders, extending his legs into huge spread-eagles, of which I’ve seen a few pictures.

After each of our tricks, Dad said, “Hell yeah,” or “Right on.” He watched us for a few minutes, cracking us up with filthy jokes. Suddenly, he said, “Seriously though, you guys don’t ride this thing much, do you?” His tone became gravelly. “You know you’re going to have to get rid of it soon. I don’t want this bullshit in my driveway anymore.”

An awkward silence momentarily hung between my friends and me after Dad went inside. Jared pedaled across the walkway, toward the ramp. As he rode up the quarter pipe, I yelled, “Do a mobius flip you fucking peter-eater!” Laughing, he steered off the side of the ramp so he wouldn’t eat shit. Steve and Bryan’s high-pitched laughter echoed off the retaining wall behind the quarter pipe.

  * * *

A month or so later, Steve and I drove to Denver to see a Metallica concert, which I’d constantly been thinking about since buying my ticket. Black Sabbath, Slayer, Pantera, and Metallica—I felt like I could depend on these bands in the same way as each of my friends.

Driving through Wyoming in my Tacoma, we passed towns that seemed like smaller and larger versions of Rock Springs—middle-class neighborhoods, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and motels, all divided by large, empty lots and surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills. We listened to Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All, Ride the Lightning, and Kill ‘em All.

To me, everything Metallica recorded after The Black Album was bullshit. I liked The Black Album itself—the album with “Enter Sandman” that sent the band into super-stardom—but it didn’t come close to capturing the same energy in the first four albums. Together, Lars’s crazy double-bass drumming and James’ and Kirk’s gnarly guitar riffs form an aural assault.

I also loved the songs that move from delicate acoustic sections into crushing walls of heaviness—songs like “Fade to Black,” “Battery,” and “One.” The movements in these songs reminded me of classical music, sans pretension. Listening to early Metallica, I felt deeply connected with the young, death-obsessed and socially alienated brains of Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Cliff Burton, and Kirk Hammet. James, who, like me, had gnarly acne during his adolescence, sung lyrics about death as the only true escape from hopelessness.

Steve and I left a day before the concert to ride skate parks and street spots in and near Denver. On Sunday evening, we drove to a southern suburb, Aurora, trying to find a cement spillway called the hook that some local riders had told us about. As we drove on I-225, Steve spotted the structure, which sat on the edge of a golf course.

I parked at a nearby apartment complex. An empty drive led into the golf course. Steve and I walked our bikes under a chain with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign attached to it. We looked around the chain-link fence-enclosed golf course to make sure no one saw us. After Steve climbed the fence, I lifted each of our bikes over the top and into his reaching hands. When I jumped off the top of the fence, my shoes sunk into marshy ground beneath waist-high reeds and grass.

Painted dark green, the hook looked intimidating—fifteen feet tall and about one-hundred feet wide. Imagine a full pipe cut lengthwise, down the middle. The concrete monolith loomed above the grass of the golf course.

A dust-and-gravel-covered runway led to the massive transition. Before I even thought about mustering the balls to ride this thing, Steve pedaled at the hook. His tires crunched on gravel, then zipped when they hit the smooth cement of the transition. He reached the point where the transition curled, becoming over-vertical.

A pool of black muck sat about twenty feet away from the hook. Horseflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes, and gnats buzzed above plastic bags, beer cans, and other trash in the sewage. Immediately after gliding down the transition, Steve skidded to avoid this sludgy mess. The drone of nearby traffic echoed off the concrete wave.

I thought about Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” to get myself psyched. Steve, Jared, Bryan, and I, like other BMX riders, often referred to riding as destroying. To me, destruction was an act of creating beauty.

“Seek and Destroy” features raw, punk-infused guitar riffs, pushed by Lars’s drumming and Cliff Burton’s manic bass playing. During the middle of the song, the band pushes boundaries of control with tempo. These sounds echoed in my brain as I pedaled toward the hook.

Climbing the transition, my tires zipped. At the height of my ascent, my right arm grazed cement that curved beyond ninety degrees.

After I carved it, the hook didn’t scare me as much. It was a humongous, unmoving cement structure, but I’d found my own way to use it.

BIO

jj anselmi 2J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His work is upcoming in Weber: The Contemporary West, and has appeared in Word Riot, The Writing Disorder, Obsolete!, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. Along with “Living Through Pantera” (published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Writing Disorder), this piece is part of J.J.’s book, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music. A regular contributor to Splicetoday, J.J. loves beating the shit out of the drums for his doom band, Hymns to the Stone. He also just bought a new BMX bike.

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daniel carbone

In the Details

by Daniel Carbone

 

Carl believes he is Jesus. Not a metaphorical or a pretentious “fuck you” kind of Jesus. He believes he is the real thing. I want him to prove it, to show me what the son of God is like, but I’m worried he may stab me or set me on fire before the night is over if I upset him. I don’t try convincing him that he is a delusional psychopath who is no more like Jesus than I am like sour dough bread. Then again, I’ve never met Jesus. I don’t know anyone who has, and I think that perhaps Carl is exactly like him. Jesus was all into self-sacrifice too. Maybe when I watch Carl through the window in the backyard biting a tree, he is sacrificing the bark, the enamel of his teeth, for some reason other than obscurity. God works in mysterious ways.

He comes back into the house, grabs the glass pipe from Ella and takes a hit. He looks at me. “I used to bite my arms, my legs, sink my teeth into my skin until I would bleed, but it hurt too much. That’s why I bite the tree now. It hurts less,” he says, “but, but it’s less intimate.” He rubs his hands up and down across the hair and scars on his forearms. These are his public displays of mutilation.

I nod my head. I’m concerned that the wrong reaction will send him charging, sinking his teeth into my flesh instead of his own. Ella asks me if I want another beer or some wine and when I say both, she starts pouring the wine into my tall plastic glass. I indicate with my eyes to keep going when she is about to stop. I just met Carl, I just met Ella, and the alcohol makes what they say more believable. I enjoy the warm buzz it creates in my head. It makes it okay to become one of them.

Carl says he’s going to take a nap before we go to Maynard’s Cafe and he skips back into his room and I hear him close the door, slowly, trying to make the sound of it clicking shut seem as if it’s happening within a vacuum. “That’s your roommate?” I ask Ella.

“Yeah, that’s Carl,” she says. “People give me a hard time for taking him in, but Carl has a good heart. I couldn’t possibly turn him away.” Ella tells me she pays his rent. He looks homeless. If he really is Jesus, he traded in his seventies rock star look from his crucifixion days for a badly executed crew cut with large sections where he had completely buzzed off his hair. The well-kept goatee that Jesus displays in pictures and paintings had been replaced by a badly shaven face covered with cuts, and now he kind of looks like Popeye, the sailor. Carl is forty-four, Ella is twenty-three.

I am not interested in Ella. I thought I was while reading her online profile and talking to her, but I was impatient. I wanted to meet. And Carl—I didn’t even know he existed. Cut to the present and the only thing that keeps me from running out of the house and towards the ignition of my car is curiosity. These people—their relationships—fascinate me, and I think if I make it out alive, I’ll have plenty of material for whatever I write next. I no longer look at the night like a traditional date. It’s a date for information, a date for details, and Ella and Carl and whoever else participates in this evening are the characters that will illuminate the pages. I smile; more excited about the night than before, when I thought it would be a romantic night, when I had hopeful expectations.

It’s just Ella now, standing with her shoulders hunched forward with an old lady’s posture in the kitchen. I want to talk about Carl, about how unattractive she is to me, how repulsed I am by the whole situation yet strangely excited to fill empty pages with the little that has already happened. Instead, I ask about her best friend and her best friend’s boyfriend, who live upstairs, Leah and Chris, who she says will be joining us soon. “Where did you meet them?” I ask.

“I’m training Leah to be my replacement at work. And Chris—I met Chris on an online dating site too, but of course he had a huge crush on Leah. He only kept coming back for her,” she says. “It’s bad enough they hooked up. Now I have to hear them having sex above me every night.”

“Wow,” I say. “I promise I won’t have sex with any of your friends.” I can’t help thinking that would make an interesting story too. I put down the tall glass of wine I am holding and ask Ella where her bathroom is. I don’t use the filthy toilet, but I notice stains running up and down the walls by its side. I don’t wash my hands. I rub my eyes and look at myself in the mirror. Then I take notes in my phone. I’m already drunk. I don’t care if it’s rude. Ella just told me she was moving, that she got a job offer in Washington—that her old job ended and she wouldn’t be sticking around. I see no reason to perpetuate a lie, no reason to return her affection, when before we met I told her I wasn’t into short-term dating. She lied to me. I see no reason why I can’t enjoy myself and get something out of this misadventure, even if it comes at the expense of what she thinks of me.

I come back from the bathroom and I realize I have no idea what Ella does for a living. She told me before but I couldn’t comprehend the profession, forgetting what she told me almost immediately. I should ask Ella why she is still friends with Leah and Chris after they started dating, but I think it will be more interesting if I meet them and let the relationship play out for itself. Like a movie or book I’m experiencing for the first time—the details will be more vivid and exciting. I don’t really care about Ella’s feelings, but she is a part of this group, a part of the story, and I push her off to the side, willing her, forcing her to become the flat character I have already decided she is.

I chug the rest of my wine and she asks me if I want some more. She empties the bottle into my cup and I hope we leave for the bar soon before my buzz wears off. I take a seat on the recliner in the living room and she sits down across from me and picks up her banjo.

“So—do you know what you’re playing tonight?” I ask.

She tunes the banjo and strums different chords and strings while she talks. I shift my gaze towards Carl’s room. I wonder what he’ll do next, when he comes out. “Well, yes and no,” she says. “I think I’m going to read the poem “Pinocchio” by Shel Silverstein. Maybe one song. I’ve never played the banjo live before.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ll do great. I’m excited.”

Leah and Chris barge through the front door with their arms wrapped around each other, dragging the strong smell of marijuana into a room already soaked with the scent, and Leah screams out a war cry of excitement that makes the panda hat she’s wearing look like it’s dying on top of her short-cropped red hair. The sound she makes is a loud-pitched wail, her hands high in the air and her eyes closed towards the ceiling.

If Carl thinks he is Jesus, Chris is John Lennon. Lennon’s glasses sit on his nose and the circular glass in the frames magnifies the pupils in his eyes. He’s tall and skinny and has an acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder. I look behind him to see if Yoko Ono is following. I introduce myself to them and hand Chris one of Ella’s beers. I tell him to drink up. I make it a personal goal to make sure there will be no sober people tonight.

I met Ella on an online dating site. I wanted to meet alone. I wanted a personal introduction at a coffee shop or a bar or in a third world country, surrounded by malaria-infested mosquitoes—anywhere but here with a bunch of her friends whom I’d never met. They constantly stare at me. Leah keeps asking if I’m having a good time. She says I look like I’m bored, like I don’t like them. I don’t tell her that I’m studying them intensely, that my looks aren’t judgmental but perceptive. Ella told me her friends are cool, her friends are interesting, her friends are awesome. If she would have only added weird, I would have completely agreed.

“Chris, we need to practice this song,” Ella says. “Did you hear me, Lennon? We need to be at the bar by seven, and I haven’t practiced yet.” Chris doesn’t lower his beer. He raises the bottom of it higher to force the alcohol down this throat faster, dragging the oxygen away from the corners of the can by his lips, and I want to tell Lennon to wait for me to grab a beer so I can join him. I use the distraction he creates to write in the note sections of my phone, “Lennon,” over and over again, all in capital letters. Then besides that note, I write, “Goofy, Leah and Chris, hippy hipsters.” I hope what I write makes sense to me in the morning. When Chris finishes his beer, he swings the guitar over his shoulder and goes behind the counter of the kitchen.

“You should have practiced. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“If you got the weed earlier,” Ella says. “How was I supposed to practice without you, exactly?”

“I’m going to get a private show, then, huh?” I say. Ella smiles and plugs in her keyboard.

“Ready,” Chris says. “One, two, three, four.”

They play the song “We Are Young” by Fun a few times, never making it through the second stanza. Ella doesn’t hold notes down long enough during the chorus. When they finally get their timing right, they play through the song, and Leah and I listen, happy spectators. I can’t help but smile in her direction more than in Ella’s. I don’t find either girl attractive—Ella is a liar and a hippie and physically unattractive and boring. She has nothing interesting to say, nothing interesting to offer, and I don’t know what I saw in her when I messaged her on the dating site for that first time. I think I was just looking for something to do, a distraction from the feelings I had for someone else I couldn’t be with. Leah has something to offer me, though—a panda hat. A comparison to Ella, the girl I follow for the story, like a reporter following a soldier in a war zone, not for the solider, but for the action he will ultimately lead her to. And I hope Carl is an active Jesus who will help the story, and me, along. I hope God really does help those who help themselves.

“I’m just here for moral support,” Leah yells into my ear.

“Huh? Yeah, I have no idea what’s going on,” I say, and smile. “I’m just trying not to get in the way.” They play through the entire song, Chris singing like any proper Lennon would, without disturbing the excitement in the room, and the song seems nostalgic and perfect for the evening. I write the song’s name down in the notepad of my phone, having never heard it before, but knowing I’ll want to listen to it the next day.

When Chris strums the final chord Leah throws her hands in the air. “And the crowd goes wild!” she says.

“You guys are awesome,” I say. And I think I mean it.

Ella goes back into her room and changes her clothes. When she comes out of the room, she is wearing a tight tie dye t-shirt that shows her weight spilling over the side of her jeans and hugging the fabric of the shirt, stretching it beyond its designed size. I’m glad she pulls her jeans up high above her waistline—it prevents her stomach or her backside from popping out into the open where they’re not welcome to be seen. Closely behind her, Carl is following her into the room, shirtless. The circus is in town.

“Carl’s not coming to Maynard’s,” Ella says to Leah and Chris.

“Why not?” Chris says.

“He’s sad,” Ella says. Carl grabs a beer and lights a cigarette. “He’s upset that I’m moving.”

“No, Ella. It’s that neighbor. I swear, when you move, I’m leaving too. If these people don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here.” He takes two slices of pizza from the rack in the oven.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Our neighbor called the cops on him. He was trying to record Carl speaking, so Carl went and took a shit on his car, and then the neighbor, he called the cops.” I feel guilty, for a second, and realize I need to be more careful about my note taking. I don’t want to have to clean feces off my car. That neighbor has access to Carl and these people on a daily basis, and whatever other odd people lived in the area. He had the idea before me. I just hope he’s a poor writer.

“I’ll tell you what—Dan? You said your name’s Dan, right?” Carl says. “Dan, these people don’t understand. They don’t get what I’m trying to do. They’re all ungrateful. They don’t appreciate me. What did I tell you, Ella? Huh? I told you. What did I say? Yesterday I said there was going to be no more bad weather and what happened?”

“Today was beautiful.” Ella turns her back towards Carl and looks at me and rolls her eyes into the back of her head. Carl is serious. He believes he is Jesus. A bitter Jesus disappointed about the ignorance and weakness of his followers. You’d think he’d understand, I mean, after being crucified and all, that humans are imperfect.

“That’s right, Ella. If these people don’t appreciate what I’m trying to do, then fine, I’ll go somewhere else.”

Leah and Chris are sitting in the living room that connects to the kitchen. They aren’t paying much attention to Carl. I notice the guitar of Carl’s that Ella showed me earlier. Carl made it himself. Ram’s horns have been morphed into the frame of the guitar, wrapping around and protruding out of the edges of the solid dark wood, ending where the frets begin. It looks incredibly intricate and detailed, beautiful in a horrific way, but it doesn’t seem saintly. I can’t remember if it’s “God is in the details” or whether the saying is “The Devil is in the details.”

“Ella, do you have any cigarettes. I’m out,” Carl says. “Ella, do you think you could buy me cigarettes?”

“I’ll buy you cigarettes if you come watch me play.”

“Okay, Ella. For you, darling. I’ll go for you. Call me when you are about to go on. I’ll walk over.”

I shove Ella’s keyboard in between my body and my arm and we are getting ready to walk over to the bar, Maynard’s Café, a few blocks down the street. Chris leaves his guitar strapped around his shoulder and Ella brings a laptop bag and video camera. Leah is carrying a large beach bag, which she fills with beer.

“What are we going to do with this?” she asks.

“We can just hide it outside the bar,” Chris says, “or you can bring some of it in your bag. We’ll just go outside when we want a beer.”

“Okay, but I can’t carry that much,” Leah says.

“We’re only five minutes away,” Ella says, her glasses slipping down her nose. “We can just run back and grab more. Come on, let’s go. We’re already late.” I hold open the door for the three of them and they start walking down the dark streets crusted in the smell of ocean and the decay of the beach town of Margate just outside of Atlantic City.

We pass a Wawa convenience store and cross streets without looking both ways, and Chris starts singing the song they played earlier. Everyone joins in, and even though I don’t know the lyrics, I attempt to mouth the words of the stanzas and sing what I know of the chorus. When they finish singing the song, they start over from the beginning. Ella puts her arm around my shoulder and it feels awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t lean in. She leaves my side and walks close to Leah and starts talking to her, leaving me in the back, playing follow-the-leader, where I can observe them without fear of being caught recording.

I see the bar and it’s a dive. It is one of those outside bars with a roof and four walls giving the illusion of a building but not the heat or insulation. I walk into the bar and see that it’s worse than I thought. People are smoking cigarettes and the air is cloudy with tar. In each corner of the small bar is a fake fireplace emitting heat, and we claim a spot in the corner by the stage near the heater. I look around the bar and see a world I’ve only seen in movies. A tall blind guy sits behind the bar, clutching the reins of his Seeing Eye dog. He must be running the audio equipment. Either that or the owners of the bar let him run his fingers through the dozens of wires and play with the knobs of the equalizer before the show begins. It gives his dog something to do, as he is trying to untangle himself from the wires that the man has shoved the dog into. The sign on the bar says beers are two dollars for a draft, and I can’t believe we went through the effort of dragging a twelve pack of beer into the bar in our bags and pockets. I see the guitarist Ewan Dobson, who lives locally and occasionally plays free open mic nights to hone his skills. He is relatively famous and I wonder if I could add that detail to whatever writing comes out of this night, but I’m not so sure. Then again, I know sometimes a writer jots down a lot more than he uses, and I take note of his presence.

After a few hours, Ella is spending most of her time talking to other patrons of the bar, and Leah and Chris are making out. Dobson is playing a twelve-string guitar and he plays so quickly that my eyes fail to follow his fingers dancing up and down the fret board. I close my eyes and let my mind get lost, using the loudness of the music as an excuse to remain silent, and I think this is exactly where I want to be, away from everyone, alone, but feeling more connected to the life of the town, the setting, the characters that I am creating in my head for my next story, than I could have in an empty room.

Eventually, Ella rests her body beside me. She inches close to me. I keep my arms in at my sides and my hands on my lap, and I don’t turn in her direction. I wonder if my next online dating experience will be this productive. I’m excited to find out. We don’t talk much and in between our conversations I find myself texting my roommates—who are excited by the prospect of me spending the night with Ella—about the date and taking more notes in my cell phone for further reference. I tell my roommate no, that I’m not into her, that I’m out late because this is too interesting to walk away from, that I’m having a good time, a good experience, and I have a fun story to tell her tomorrow, and I snap my phone shut, but it’s too late. Ella catches me.

“Are you texting, right now?” she says.

“My roommates were worried,” I say. “I just wanted to let them know I’ll be back later.” She looks down and lets out a nervous laugh and shakes her head. She isn’t pleased. I shrug it off in a conversation with myself. A few minutes later, still sitting beside me, Ella starts texting random people religiously. I think she is trying to do to me as I have done to her, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m not jealous. I’m happy she has a distraction.

We run out of money and the three of us want to drink some more before Ella and Chris’s set. I think more alcohol could lead to a more interesting set, and I encourage the idea, telling Ella that she will be a lot less nervous if she drinks a little bit more. We go outside and pull the beers out of their hiding places. Leah pulls one from her back pocket and Chris untangles one in the webbing that lines the inside of his jacket. Everyone else grabs one from the beach bag. Then we walk around the corner of the building and attempt to chug some beers, but all of us fail. It is cold. We are shivering. When we are about to go back inside Carl shows up screaming and yelling in the parking lot of Maynard’s and Ella runs over and pulls him away. The second coming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I want to run over and help, to grab some insight, to find out how the world will end and if I have time to publish this story before it happens, but Ella tells me to wait with Leah and Chris. She comes back a few minutes later, having pawned Carl off on an older woman whom I don’t know. Ella leaves again to talk to Carl and doesn’t come back.

“So what’s with Carl?” I ask Leah and Chris.

“He’s crazy,” Leah says. “Ella always wakes up to him screaming or banging his head against the floor. She says he cuts himself and beats himself to represent what society is doing to itself. He thinks he’s some kind of martyr.”

“Yeah,” Chris says, “one time, he said he was going to make flowers grow, and the next day Ella got a call from her parents that there were dandelions outside their house that weren’t there before. Sometimes she buys into that garbage.”

“I heard the story about the weather,” I say. “I didn’t have the heart, or maybe not the courage, to tell him I knew that too. The weather channel can be useful. The least he could have done was made the night warm as well.”

Leah and Chris are shivering as one, so I lead the way back into the bar and we take our seats next to the glowing television-like fireplace. Ella is inside setting up her keyboard, getting ready to play her set. Carl is in the back of the bar, apparently calm now, standing against the wall, talking to the older woman.

“Ella, do you know what you’re playing? I think it’s time to decide,” I say.

She shrugs and tells me the poem by Shel Silverstein and the folk song “Circles of the Sun” by Sally Rogers. The owner of the bar introduces her and she sits on the stool with the banjo strapped around her neck, red in the face and clearly drunk, and she trips on her own feet and almost falls off the stool, despite the fact that she is sitting. She recites the poem, but I only hear the first stanza. “Pinocchio, Pinocchio, that little wooden bloke-io. His nose, it grew an inch or two with every lie he spoke-io,” she says, stumbling. Jesus leans against the wall and watches his roommate, his provider, embarrass herself, and I think it’s ironic. Someone could pull her off the stage after the poem, to prevent further disaster, but Jesus reincarnated in Carl form doesn’t do anything. If he’s not going to do anything, the merciful one, I decide I certainly can’t either. What would Jesus do?

Once she finishes the poem, she sings the short folk song, and the few people left in the bar clap unenthusiastically. Then Chris goes up and he plays the song with her that they rehearsed earlier, and then he plays a few songs by himself. After they kick us out of the closing bar, we walk back to Ella’s apartment, with the equipment in our hands. When we get back, Carl is already at the apartment in the backyard, sitting in the tree he had bitten earlier, playing a banjo. God is in the details, I think. The saying is definitely God is in the details. I wonder if I should protect the tree from Carl, or maybe just patch the dozens of empty areas where he has bitten off bark. We walk past him and into the house and Ella fills her glass pipe with more weed and hands it me. I don’t typically smoke, but I take a hit and hold the smoke in my mouth before blowing it out into the room, refusing to inhale so I don’t get high, and pass it to Leah, who takes one hit and falls to pieces. Ella and Chris call her the “one hit wonder” and within minutes I understand the name when her eyes get bloodshot and she becomes the clown version of a catatonic person, unmoving with an enormous giggly smile on her face and a set of red circles in her eyes. Chris, concerned, wants to put her to bed, and he takes her by the hand and leads her out the door, outside, towards their apartment on the second floor.

“It was nice to meet you both,” I say, and shake Chris’s hand.

“Yeah, it was fun. I hope to see you again.”

Ella packs the rest of her drugs into the glass pipe and hands it to Carl, who has walked back into the apartment. He finishes off the entire pipe in under a minute. He says she should have known better. Then when he asks Ella if he can borrow money so he can run to Wawa and buy milk for coffee, she tells him no, that she has no money left for him. He starts digging pennies out of drawers, picking them up off the floor, and fishing them out of little nooks all over the apartment. He collects a little bit and says he has about a dollar, but he’s not sure if that will be enough. Ella refuses to give him any money, but watching Carl, Jesus, crawling on his hands and knees and collecting pennies for milk makes me feel sick. I don’t know who I feel bad for; Carl, Ella, myself, or the attendant who will have to count the pennies, but I decide to give Carl the money. It feels like charity, but he doesn’t refuse. He acts like he wants it. When I hand him the money he shakes my hand and cups the hand he shakes with his other hand, like he was getting a peace treaty from the president. He looks me in the eyes when he does it and holds onto to my hand tightly. His smile terrifies me, but I don’t know if it is because of the way he looks at me and says “thank you” or if I’m terrified at the thought of this man being Jesus. What if he really is Jesus? I could never really know the truth.

“Okay, this has been fun,” Ella says, “but I need to go to sleep. Dan, you can stay here with Carl if you don’t think you’re okay to drive.”

“No, no. I’m fine.” I walk around the kitchen counter and hug Ella. “It was nice to meet you. I had a great night.” There is no romance in the hug, but I mean what I say. I avoid shaking hands with Carl, but I tell him I had a good time, and that I’ll see him again soon. I don’t mean it, but I don’t feel the need to explain my desire to leave.

When I get to my car I sit in the driver’s seat for a couple minutes contemplating the night I have just experienced—the people, Ella, Carl, the odd romantic triangle between the friends—and how I should interpret the evening and the characters I have created. Lennon, Jesus, the stereotypical Hippie Ella, and Leah, who I think forms a subcategory within the hipster demographic. I can’t help thinking that it was one of the least successful romantic experiences of my life, but all I can do is smile and laugh. I’m laughing, alone, trapped in my car, away from people at four in the morning, and I enjoy every second of it. But then, I begin to cry. I don’t know exactly why I am crying. I am drunk. All I know is that something is missing, that the characters aren’t as complete as they could be, and I want to go back inside and talk to Carl and Ella again. I’d like to sit down with Carl and interview him, gather his entire life story, but I still don’t think the character and the person could ever become one and the same. I look through the notes I took in my phone. I didn’t realize how diligent I was during the evening with my observations. There are over twenty separate notes, literally pages of notes, but I have no better sense of who Jesus and his friends are. The notes are snippets, fragments of a person, and the story itself is only a series of short moments in time, forming an evening. It’s not complete. The story, the characters, never will be. I drive away with the notes in my phone, knowing they, the notes, the events, and the people will make a great story, but that I will never see them again, that whatever I write, the full story, will still be my creation. “Jesus H. Christ,” I think.

 

 

BIO

daniel carboneDaniel Carbone was born in Howell, NJ. In 2012 he graduated with an academic standing of magna cum laude from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and accepted a scholarship to the Rutgers Camden University School of Law shortly thereafter. He has served as an editor for Stockton’s Stockpot literary magazine and published his first short story under the same title in 2011. While busy studying law, he continues to find time to write for readers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to satisfy his need to tell thought-provoking stories. He resides in his hometown with his Fiancé, Stephanie.

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Melissa Palmer

Breaking the Silence

by Melissa Palmer

 

“We’ll need to address your daughter’s depression.” The doctor had said it as if it were an afterthought, a plate of French fries tacked on to the side of the main course, her autism. My seven year-old has a high functioning form of ASD some doctors still refer to as Asperger’s. It’s characterized by anxiety, repetitive movements, concrete thinking and an inability to read other people’s emotions as well as several other idiosyncratic behaviors that my husband and I, and even her little sister had gotten used to. But depression? Depression was no side dish, not for me. It was the first time in my experience as a mother that I ever thought-Please, not my kid.

It seems so silly now thinking about that, that those words were the first to go through my head, considering by then we’d already gone through a full school year with Pippy’s diagnosis. We had a full year knowing there was a reason why she twitched and pulled her hair, why she was petrified of toilet sounds and bright lights, why she grunted and ate paper. For a full year we had the answers we’d been searching since she was just a little baby. And we had gone even longer than that knowing we have to speak literally, that a phrase like I love you to the moon and back serves no purpose in her world but to confuse. We’d also had plenty of time to get used to the way other kids looked at her on playgrounds when she spoke in gibberish or repeated strange sounds, or at parties when she professed her name was Tobor the Robot or that she was “a little girl from Greece named Vanessa who doesn’t talk.” We’d had plenty of time to get used to all of it. But yet it was on that day that I felt dread. Because of one single word.

I watched my mother struggle with bipolar disorder through my entire childhood. From the first time I could remember until the last time I saw her, there was a battle going on inside of her. She was the most beautiful and creative person I’d ever met, the singing, loving, kind Mommy who had a joke or story for every occasion and a spot at the dinner table for any kid in the neighborhood who needed one. But then a switch would flip and either anger or sadness would win out and pull her away from us for days at a time. Sometimes she would drift off to a quiet, unspeaking place. Those days she would lay on the couch still as a rock, and we knew not to bother her for snacks or tying shoes. On others she would rage over math papers or badly posed pictures, pulling frames from the wall and breaking them to pieces. All of that seemed difficult but none so much as the silence we all maintained to keep it hidden away. We never talked about the illness, to anyone. Nor did we acknowledge that sometimes mom went away for months at a time for treatment.

For whatever reason, we were told not to. Everyone close to me told me to leave it alone, to never tell anyone that mom was sick or crazy even though I never thought of her as either. I just knew she was hurting. But even as such I couldn’t tell, because there were kids who would make fun of me they said. Sure, there were. But crappy kids are crappy kids. If it wasn’t mental illness, they would have cracked on my overbite or my cheap shoes. But my family didn’t see it that way. It was supposed to be a secret. What was worse was everyone talked to my mother like she was a big, dumb child. And when they weren’t talking to her, they were talking about her like she wasn’t there and that was what hurt her even more. My family wanted to protect me. But I felt like I was the only one protecting her.

When no one was around my mom would tell me that she felt stupid, like she didn’t have the mental power to control what was happening inside her mind, like only a weak woman needed mommy’s little helper pills to make the world an easier place. Back then it was the 80’s, and that was the common idea. And even now, I wish I could go back in time and tell her it just wasn’t so.

My mom hated taking those pills. She would ditch them for days and then start spiraling down. So then she’d have to double or triple her dose, and end up sleeping for days which would make her skip pills all over again. It was a vicious cycle that rolled halfway into the next decade until it became too much for her heart to take. To this day I think the stigma had just as much to do with her suicide as the illness itself.

Stigma is probably why I dragged my feet the first time we had to see the new psychiatrist that day in the office. I didn’t want anyone making my daughter feel like she was sick or crazy. I wasn’t going to let anybody put that on my little girl. Pippy has her quirks and her anxieties. At night she has violent nightmares, and she has an irrational fear of accidental poisoning but I always thought of it all as manageable. I didn’t want her to have to relive all of that information with a new doctor, with a stranger. And I was trying to protect her.

That day I heard my second grader tell a virtual stranger that she had thought about killing herself. I looked at my little girl and saw my mother’s suffering eyes.

The doctor asked, “Would you be willing to try medication?”

I’d be willing to go to the damn moon and back.

 

 

 

melissa palmerBIO

Melissa Palmer is also the author of A Life Less Normal, a memoir examining the life of a woman child growing up in the shadow of mental illness with the support of her proverbial north Jersey crime family. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for short fiction “Mrs. MacMillan’s Garden” which was the inspiration and backbone of Twin Oaks. She was nominated for the Eric Hoffer Prize for short fiction for her story “Blood”. But of all the honors she was most touched when the McStorytellers named her an honorary Scot for her story “At This Moment”. Her work has been featured by Hospital Drive, Best New Writing, The Quotable, and The Writing Disorder among others. Her short stories range from absurd to dark and in a former life she wrote a prize winning haiku for the show Spaceghost Coast to Coast. In her spare time she wrangles Newfoundlands, two precocious girls, and one very handsome cat with the help of a strong silent drink of water with whom she shares her life. She is never not writing, frequently baking, and always a little off-center.

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Simon Larbalestier Logo

The Writing Disorder Presents

 

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

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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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