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

THE GREAT EMPTYING OF THE THREE TRIANGLES

by Marianne Villaneuva


A presentation by Brian Siy

      The present condition of the area known as the Three Triangles, is desert. The desertification occurred around 1511. Several decades later, the first instances of human migration to the coast began.

      Our first clue to what may have occurred came with the discovery of the Aurora Trench. By monitoring its striations closely, I have been able to ascertain that the area had, for a period of over 500 years, suffered from intense precipitation, unusual wind strength, and heat. This was undoubtedly the reason behind the Great Vanishing.

      In the space of little more than 100 years, 323 cities, most of which had flourished on the alluvial plain for millennia, disappeared. It was clear from detailed analysis of total organic carbon (TOC) that the degree of vegetation cover began to oscillate in a manner inconsistent with normal summer monsoon patterns.

      The climate grew appreciably colder and dryer. There is scientific confirmation in the archaeological evidence of the trench, which henceforward was given the name Maowusu, which in the ancient language meant: the Supreme Utilization.

      Now let us turn to the thirty-four cities whose archaeological evidence is most verifiable. These were clustered at the edges of the plain. Astonishing detail was provided by the populace’s habit of record-keeping. Everything, from the weather to the types of vegetation and the specific locales in which they flourished, were recorded on clay tablets, which collectively were known as The Annals. The Annals recorded the yearly arrival of the sparrows, and the dates on which the river (the Mother River was named Zhu, or “Discord”; the secondary river Araw or “Day”) began to freeze, were set down.

      The first onset of the strange weather was recorded, as were the years of terrible drought which followed.

      It was also recorded that the river Zhu, previously muddy and brown, turned clar. While the river Araw, whose waters were clear and sparkling, grew sluggish and heavy with silt and other decayed matter.

      There had apparently once been a network of waterways and canals that the populace used to move food and other necessities to one another’s villages and towns. There was evidence of exchange of goods (what we today refer to as barter).

       Whole communities were cut off from one another. The estuaries silted up.

      Inevitably, the population declined. One can cite the usual reasons: starvation, epidemics, and migration. Trouble and disturbances were widespread. Slavery became commonplace. Not only that, there was a plague of locusts. Cannibalism became a way of life.

      It is of no surprise then, to note the appearance of The Diviner’s Handbook, whose publication dates from a period roughly between 1622 and 1681. This handbook was the work of one man, who signed his name Jo-yu. The handbook begins with this sentence: “There was a great drought.” The handbook is little more than a compilation of exotic rituals, rituals which, for the inhabitants of the region, seemed to contain a form of transcendent significance. Rituals to accompany the rising and setting of the sun, of the stringing of bows (archery contests were a frequent occurrence, right to the very end of this civilization), births, funerals, weddings, and sacrificial offerings.

      The strangest artifacts from this period were the drawings of two-headed creatures left on cave walls. It is not certain whether these were mythical or actual beings. Certainly, the occurrence of conjoined twins is a sad anomaly, but in the period of the Great Drought, it seemed there was a proliferation of such births.

      Beneath one such drawing of conjoined heads were the words: “Our mother has abandoned us.” Since the word “Mother” at the time had a multiplicity of meanings, one could infer that it referred to the fecundity or lack of fecundity of the soil; to the river water, which had for so many centuries sustained commerce and life; or perhaps to an actual person, a woman, who had run shrieking with horror at the blight produced by her womb. All is left for scholars to conjecture.

      Gradually, the people of one village lost the ability to communicate with those of another village, even though the two might have been less than two kilometers apart. Each village began to establish its own customs.

      The people, therefore, had good reason to abandon their ancestral graves. Mother, father, grandparents and children were buried at a point just south of the Altai River. The populace was already very weak, the rulers unable to staunch the flow of new people, barbarians wearing bear skins, from the far north.

The Sadness

      The first group left for the northwest in March. They settled at a branch of the Ma-I River and arranged their homes in a defensive position.

      The earlier settlements were strung out along Ma-I like beads on a string.

      On of the earliest group of refugees to settle by the river was led by a most devout monk named Dao-an. Fifty-eight years old at the time of the migration, he is described in a fragmentary work of questionable reality as having a beard as white as snow, and back bent almost double from some childhood trauma, perhaps a fall. He was carried everywhere by four men in a palanquin.

      In the next few decades, these settlements began to conduct minor skirmishes against each other. Most of these skirmishes were conducted over the attempt to control the waterway. Other villagers attempted to band together and to dig new canals. One of these was quite long, almost 400 li. But, ultimately, this attempt failed. The villages on the opposite bank sent fire arrows which burned the supply boats and the men were forced to swim for the shore, where they were cut down by hails of arrows.

      In addition, these river settlements were continually harassed by a brand of marauding, dark people who came down from the hills. They had lived in that area probably for centuries. Perhaps they were off-spring of the men from the south, but having lived so long in the hills they had evolved a completely different language. Their main purpose was to acquire young woman to bear their children.

      There was also the need for the construction of wells.

      The next campaigns were the Campaign for the Freeing of the Mountain Routes, and another the Campaign for the Crossing of the Treacherous Cliffs.

Conclusion

      In effect, what the trench tells us is that the plain of the Three Triangles experienced devastating drought and freezing weather patterns, which caused the complete disintegration of human civilization. Whole settlements of people vanished, and it is not yet clear whether the emptying of the plain was due to emigration, internecine strife, or epidemics and starvation.

      I cannot tell you how much it has meant to me, dear ladies and gentlemen, that you have remained seated there, so quietly, in spite of the abysmal state of the airconditioning in this august building and my shortcomings at Power Point. I am perhaps a Luddite: technology is a barrier to truth. This is no doubt amusing to those of you in the audience who cannot remember an age before Apple. But I assure you, I assure you, that I am most humbly cognizant of your discomfort, and trust that my words have provided you with at least some measure of entertainment and distraction, no matter how brief.

BIO

Marianne Villanueva was a finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Award, in 2014. And a full-act opera based on her novella, Marife, received its world premiere in New Hampshire in 2015. She is currently teaching a class called, One Story: Six Ways for UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, Aug. 3 (six weeks, online).

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DUST

by Marianne Villanueva


      Vincent was standing at the door. He said, “Hurry up, Mom.”

      It was 10:30 in the morning. She was always watching the clock, anticipating the time when he would step out to see his friends.

       She ran to him, her hands still slick with dishwashing soap.

      “Will you be having dinner here?” she asked.

      He shrugged.

      She was sure there was a girl in his life, someone he didn’t want her to know about; he’d become so close-mouthed, the last year. And he was the type of son who had liked confiding in her. Still, she told herself, it was for the best.

      She watched him get into his car. She noted there was a new dent on the passenger side door. Vincent didn’t care. The car had over 120,000 miles when they bought it for him, when he graduated from high school. Jocelyn remembered how his eyes shone when they handed him the keys. That was almost three years ago.

      It was sunny, a glorious day. April was sometimes cold, but Jocelyn thought she could sense summer coming, just around the corner.

      The girl who clipped them, that afternoon in April, was just 18. Driving her red Ford Mustang at a speed that was just short of criminal, she’d gotten her driver’s license only that month.

      The Ford Explorer rolled over and over and over—for almost two years she saw the image flash into her mind, often just before she lay her head down to sleep. Then she had to get up and pace the bedroom, or take two Ambien if there was something important she needed to do the next day.

      By the time the vehicle came to rest, by the center divider on southbound 101, her son was dead. She was glad it had happened quickly. Perhaps there had not even been time for him to register a few seconds of fear.

      He had just returned from a backpacking trip in Yosemite.

      He arrived late at night on a Tuesday and he was dead on Wednesday. And there were still text messages coming in on his cell—that day and for almost a week after, from friends who, for one reason or another, hadn’t yet heard the news.

      The summer before, her husband had asked her why she still had Vincent’s baby things stored in boxes in the garage. She’d given them away, she forgets now whether it was to the Salvation Army or to Goodwill. Now she blamed her husband. If she hadn’t listened to him, she would have had something from that earlier time to hold.

      In the first moments of her grief, it sometimes seemed to Jocelyn that her son had returned expressly to keep that certain appointment. The appointment with the girl in the Ford Mustang.

      Her niece, Audrey, who’d been in the passenger seat, was just 19. She was a freshman at Stanford. She was dead, too.

      Audrey was majoring in Linguistics. She could speak Japanese, Arabic, and even a little Farsi. She was going to travel the world and maybe she would become a spy. At least, she liked to joke that she would.

      It had caused Jocelyn endless hours of amusement to imagine her niece wandering Beirut or Dubai in a bhurka. Now, of course, she could no longer imagine such things. She only wished that when her niece passed, she passed quickly. She couldn’t bear to think of the happy young woman she’d known being trapped in the car, waiting.

      She had kept a small newspaper clipping of the accident. Every so often she would remove the clipping, smooth it out on the kitchen counter top, and look at the words. She found it increasingly difficult to make any sense of them. The accident was four Aprils ago. Her son was dust in the earth, or soon would be. Unless the wooden coffin held true.

      She’d had it blessed by her old friend, Father Hidalgo, who’d come all the way from Manila for the funeral. Wood burnished to a high gleam. Her husband couldn’t look. How could he? He kept his head lowered the whole time, already defeated. Everything, from the pink satin that would couch her son’s body, to the make-up she had the morticians apply to hide the bruising on his face, was her own responsibility.

      And then she had to hold Audrey’s parents while the coffins were being lowered into the ground. It was awful the way Emily’s mother sank to her knees and lost her mind there, in the memorial park.

      It was an unseasonably cold day and the wind blew the other woman’s graying hair about her face as she knelt on the ground and keened. Jocelyn could only stare, dry-eyed, at her own boy’s coffin. It moved smoothly, as if lifted by invisible gears. Then it was positioned in the hole and she picked up a clod of earth and threw it with such force that a few particles rebounded onto her clothes. She took off her skirt later and saw the brownish stains. She wondered at them, their strange shapes. She folded the skirt and put it away. She would never send it to be cleaned.

      But she was not to be destroyed. Even in her blackest moments, her deepest despair, she knew she was not going to be destroyed. At the funeral, she looked proudly and stoically ahead of her. She could feel the rippling whispers behind her, around her. Women looking with something like envy because in her pride she had become something she’d never been before, almost beautiful. She blazed with an inner fury. Her skin, her eyes, were incandescent.

      All right, so the girl was 18. She was driving too fast, she just didn’t know how to handle a car like that. It was her cousin’s.

      18, and a bank teller. At a Bank of America a few miles south of Belmont, where Jocelyn lived. She might have even have met her a few times at the bank.

      Funny how these things go.

      Anyway, it had been four Aprils since then. Her life had gone on in a fashion, and even though her husband was absent a lot of the time (absent emotionally, though physically he was far too present) she had made do, she had learned to fill up the spaces and silences with busy work, like doing crossword puzzles and watching Dr. Phil and Oprah. It hadn’t, after all, been the end of her world.

      For years and years, since she only had the one child, she feared a calamity. She feared that the loss of her child would be cataclysmic, soul-destroying. Looking at him in his crib at night, she felt the pain of his loss as if it were inevitable. She knew there would be no others. Even the one child was a miracle. So old, she was, when it finally happened. 40. But after she and her husband had decided to have the child, he came easily to her. Too easily.

      He was born in the year of the Dragon. That meant he was special. Or so she thought. She consulted Chinese astrology books and feng shui books and she took to heart their superstitious admonitions. She put little turtles and elephants on his windowsill, facing a certain way. She hung a crystal from the ceiling of his room, to deflect evil spirits. She hadn’t thought to put one in his car; she had not thought of that.

      The fear of losing her son was so great, so overwhelming, that it steeled her, caused her to prepare.

      So when it happened, she somehow found herself ready. Unlike her husband, who was totally witless, beyond salvation.

      Men, she liked to tell her friends afterwards, are weak.

      She remembered when Vincent was four. How he’d wanted to go to the circus. But her husband wouldn’t go, he simply wasn’t interested. That was his word exactly. What interest, she thought. What does that have to do with taking your four-year-old to the circus?

      So she herself had taken Vincent. The boy was excited by his first taste of cotton candy, by the ladies riding around on elephants and horses. They’re so beautiful, Mom, he kept saying. But she had to admit, she secretly agreed with her husband that it was tacky. This was the Ringling Brothers and already the acts seemed from another age. The ladies were plump and their flesh-colored tights could not conceal the thickness of their thighs. She was tired and got a headache afterwards. But she had taken her son, that was the important thing. In her mind, she placed a mark against her husband: his first betrayal.

      Over the years, she stored them up in a little book in her head: there were the times when she’d had to stay late at work and asked him to come home early so that Vincent would not have to eat dinner alone in the house. She could imagine the boy, settled on the couch watching TV, and it made her heart ache to think of him eating macaroni and cheese that he’d heated up himself in the microwave. But oh, so many times she’d come home and there would be no husband, there would only be her son, drifting off to sleep on the sofa, his mouth smeared with the remnants of his dinner. I’m OK, Mom, he would say sleepily. You don’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself.

      She raged inwardly at her husband, at such moments. That thoughtless man, who was always worrying about something or other in the office. No wonder they had had only the one child.

      But Vincent loved his father, so she had forced herself to forgive. When the angry words rose to her mouth, she quelled them, but always with a great effort.

      Afterwards, it was her husband who wailed and cried. This astonished Jocelyn utterly. That the man had feelings, that he was not totally oblivious to the existence of their child, who had wandered in and out of their house with barely a nod from her husband, was a revelation to her. She found herself studying him as though he were some odd being who had crawled up from some primeval marsh. Who would have thought that the man she saw every day suited in grey pinstripes would have, somewhere on his person, a primitive, unruly heart?

      How odd it was, how odd. Afterwards, her husband couldn’t stop talking about their boy, and she’d find him in their son’s room, looking at the pictures they had framed: Vincent on his first basketball team. Vincent chasing a ball down a soccer field. Vincent at his high school graduation.

      He had aged overnight, her husband. The gray in his hair was the uniform color of steel, and his skin lost its elasticity and sagged around his jowls. Sometimes she barely recognized him. And, apparently, his work at the office was suffering and his boss was encouraging him to take more vacations, and in the past year they had hired younger men to assist him, men who exchanged brief, knowing glances that Jocelyn always caught when she attended the office parties. This all meant, she knew, that they were getting ready to nudge her husband into retirement. This, too, was another cause for her rage.

      Why, she sputteringly wanted to ask her husband’s boss, a bluff, hearty man who had a beautiful blonde wife and four perfect teen-age children, why would you do that to us? Do you realize how much we have suffered?

      Her husband left the house each morning with stiff, robotic steps. She watched him from the window, ducking quickly behind the curtains if she thought there was a chance he might look back at the house. He would put his briefcase into the trunk and then remain staring down with the trunk open for long moments. Then, startled by something, a passing car, he would look up, look around, and go back into himself. Yet she couldn’t shake the idea that when he entered the car he too was entering a kind of coffin.

      And now they read the obituary pages together, with a kind of stoic morbidity. And if it so happened that they recognized a name, they both chewed their food slowly and thoughtfully and without tasting anything. Neither of them could speak, so lost were they in their own private reflections.

      The days went on like that, for months, for years.

      Then, one day, there was an occurrence. A singular event. A young woman showed up at the front door. She was dressed in baggy jeans and a pink tank top and she was carrying a bouquet of pink and white roses. She was blonde and had the pink-cheeked health of the new German immigrant. She asked to speak to the lady of the house, and when Jocelyn responded that it was she, she simply handed over the roses and smiled.

      “You’re Vincent’s mom,” she said. And Jocelyn, who had not heard herself called that for several years, felt with sudden alarm the pressure of tears building behind her eyes.

      “Yes,” Jocelyn said. “And you are–?”

      “I’m Caroline,” said the young woman. “I knew Vincent in college. We were both in Physics. He helped me a lot—homework and stuff. I wasn’t very good at math. I took terrible notes. Vincent always shared his. I’m sorry, I couldn’t come to the funeral but I felt bad and since I was visiting someone close by I thought I’d bring you these.”

      She thrust the roses forward awkwardly.

      None of this made any sense, Jocelyn thought. Why had the girl waited four years? A half dozen of Vincent’s classmates had attended the funeral, and they had seemed uncomfortable, unsure of where to put their hands and feet. Afterwards, none of them had attended the reception. Red-faced, they’d come up to her and expressed their regrets. She couldn’t remember anything they had said.

      “Caroline,” she said. “Caroline. I think Vincent might have mentioned you. You were the one who was thinking of leaving school, because of your mom. Was that you? You have a single mom and you live in Visalia?” It amazed Jocelyn to remember these details.

      But Caroline was smiling. “Yes, that’s me. And I did leave school for a while. But now I’m back. I’m graduating next semester.”

      “I’m glad to hear it, Caroline,” Jocelyn said. She opened the door wide. “Won’t you come in? Do you have time for coffee? I would love to talk more.”

      But the young woman stayed where she was and shook her head. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “My friends are waiting in the car, they’re just around the corner. We’re late for a dinner. I’m sorry.”

      “Caroline,” Jocelyn said, “It was so nice of you to come by. It means a lot to me. I wish you’d come back. Anytime. Don’t hesitate. Anytime you’re in the neighborhood.” Her arms reached out as if to hug the girl, but the girl stepped back and Jocelyn’s arms reached out to an emptiness. She let her arms drop and stared helplessly at the girl.

      “I’m sorry,” Caroline said. “I’ve made you feel bad.”

      “No,” Jocelyn insisted. “No, don’t think that. I’m glad to have met you.”

      “Don’t worry, Mrs. Gonzales,” the girl said. “You’ll be with him soon.”

      Jocelyn stared at the girl. Had she heard right? And then Caroline, observing the confusion in Jocelyn’s face, said, “I only meant that, for Vincent it wouldn’t seem long. Don’t you think the dead have a different sense of time than us? For us, it might seem like decades since they left but for them it must seem like only a moment, an instant.”

      “Oh,” said Jocelyn, and her breath caught. “You don’t know how much I’ve worried about that. Worried that he’s alone—over there, wherever there is. I know it’s silly. But I don’t want him to be alone. Not ever. I can’t stand the thought.”

      After the accident, she found she couldn’t believe in a heaven, and so she really had thought of her son lost somewhere in a void, in a wilderness of strange, indistinct shapes.

      And she grew angry again. It was all so unfair, that her cherished boy should be cold in the ground. 19 years! There hadn’t even been time to take him to the Philippines, where she and her husband had come from. They kept telling their families, soon, soon. But it had never happened. Then, there was a period of political turmoil when it seemed that no sane American would take the risk of visiting. And then Vincent was grown. He didn’t want to go to a country where the only people he knew were old.

      “You’ll be with him,” Caroline repeated. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Gonzales. It won’t be long.”

      Then, with a flashing smile, the young woman turned and almost ran down the front walk.

      That evening, at dinner, Jocelyn could not make up her mind whether to tell her husband about the strange visit. She drank some red wine, an uncharacteristic gesture, but it left her feeling giddy and light-headed and she didn’t want to sound maudlin so she kept silent. If her husband noticed anything, he didn’t give any indication. Their entire meal passed with only the briefest exchange about the usual mundane things.

      But during the next few weeks, Jocelyn mulled over the encounter. With each passing day, the features of Caroline’s face seemed to become more and more indistinct. Jocelyn struggled against the imprecision of her memory with a feeling of increasing panic.

      One afternoon, she spent a few hours poring over the photographs she’d found stored in a file on Vincent’s computer. The keyboard was dusty and she had to wipe the keys carefully with an alcohol prep pad. She’d never ever sat at this computer, even when Vincent was alive. It would have seemed like a violation. But now she looked for the “on” key and found it and waited as the computer sprang noisily to life with what seemed, to her sensitive ears, like a great whirring of internal gears, followed by the faint sound of a fan blowing somewhere inside the mechanism.

      She didn’t have long to search, thankfully. She embarked on a file search and limited it to the two years Vincent had been away at college. Almost immediately a folder called “Pictures” appeared on the screen. Two brief taps of her index finger, and the folder opened up to reveal a file called “Birthdays.” Here were pictures of Vincent in a series of parties, with his arm affectionately thrown over the shoulders of this or that young woman, none of whom even remotely resembled Caroline. Another file, called “Summers,” contained pictures of his old high school classmates, and even one or two of Jocelyn and her husband, puttering around the house. The final set of pictures was in a file called “Beaches.” There were several pictures of Vincent spreadeagled on the sand, and one of him leaping over a sand dune. In every picture he was with a group of friends. None of them, however, was Caroline.

      What she saw, though, saw so clearly it almost took her breath away, was that her son loved his life. He loved his school and he loved his friends and they did everything together: camped on the beach, hiked in the hills, kayaked, drank. There was party after party. In one picture, he and three other boys held beer bottles aloft. In another, her son had his back to the camera, but his face was half turned and she saw he was laughing while apparently peeing into some bushes.

      This shot made her catch her breath and almost cry. Vincent had an imperfect nose. There was a prominent bump that she could see outlined very clearly as he turned his head toward the camera. She’d asked him once if he’d wanted it fixed. He’d shaken his head at her. “Mom,” he said, “Girls don’t seem to mind.” She’d let it go.

      And he hadn’t been a very good student. In fact, he’d almost gotten kicked out at the end of his freshman year. His GPA hadn’t even made 1.5. She and her husband had been furious. There was a summer of slamming doors and hateful looks. That was the summer before he died.

      Sitting there, in her son’s room, she found herself getting angry once again. She thought: There are two of them in the ground who shouldn’t be.

      She clicked on the Firefox icon and found herself a search engine. She typed in the name: Remedios Delgado. There were a few newspaper items; she chose the most recent ones.

      The girl had been released. She had been sentenced to the maximum of eight years, but had served only three. She was out now. She was free.

      But Jocelyn and her husband would never, themselves, be free. And Vincent was waiting.
      One of the articles had a picture. Yes, she recognized the girl, even after all these years. She was only 21, after all. There was still a whole life ahead of her. In the picture, Remedios was smiling.

      She’d moved back in with her parents. In the interview, she said she needed time to get her life back together. She looked good, with none of the baby fat from her earlier pictures. She wore skin-tight jeans and there was not a bulge anywhere. She had a tattoo in the small of her back that, according to the reporter, just showed when she bent over.

       So. Jocelyn sat there at Vincent’s computer. She thought. And then she thought some more. She knew where Remedios’ parents lived because it had all come out at the trial. They were in Redwood City, only a few miles south. For weeks after the accident, and during the trial, she had driven around the city in slow, meandering circles. But she never once encountered the Delgados, even when she took to shopping three times a week at the Safeway closest to their apartment building.

      Perhaps they went to a Mexican market. She tried that, too. But there was zip, nada, nothing. After a while, Jocelyn gave up and went back to her normal routes, and now she hardly went to Redwood City anymore.

      She wondered if Remedios might have tried getting her old job back, the one at the Bank of America on Woodside Road. One day, she went there. She stood in back of a long line of tired, impatient people. It was 4:30 PM, a Monday. She waited patiently for the line to move. And finally, finally, when she was at the front of the line, she forced herself to look up, to look carefully at the bank of tellers. Her gaze went from girl to girl slowly. That one had a face that was too square; that other one was too short; still another had a large mole by her lower lip. When there was only the last girl in the row, she stopped and considered. This girl had hair highlighted with gold and reddish streaks. She’d covered her eyelids with glittery purple eyeshadow. When her gaze stopped, the girl looked up. For a moment, their eyes locked. Then Remedios put a hand to her mouth and screamed.

      The scream seemed to go on and on and on, as Remedios stumbled backwards from the counter. She put out her hands, like a blind man feeling his way around a strange room. Jocelyn looked calmly at her. But she herself was badly shaken by the girl’s high-pitched screams and the blindly groping hands. Obviously the girl had seen something in her, some kind of vision. Everyone, she’d read in some book, had an aura. Perhaps hers was black now, or deep purple.

      Jocelyn turned on her heel and left the bank. She drove straight home, and it surprised her greatly when she arrived without mishap. For a while, her therapist had always warned her to be careful driving. But now it was as if she’d been doing this every day of her life, driving to Redwood City and back.

      After she climbed the stairs to the bedroom, she sat on her bed, kicked off her shoes and stared at the ceiling. She was very tired. She decided to run some water for a bath. She checked the time: her husband would not be home for a couple of hours.

       When the tub was full, Jocelyn lowered herself slowly, gratefully into the warm water. She hadn’t estimated right and some of the bath water sloshed over the sides and on to the bathroom floor. She looked at it blankly. Oh well, she thought. I’ll take care of it later.

       She put her head back and let herself feel the water cradling her. She closed her eyes. With each breath, the water around her ribcage trembled and she loved the sensation of movement. Her hands rose involuntarily to her face.

      “I must have looked a sight,” she thought now. She’d left the house without putting on any make-up. Her face must have looked pale and ghostly to the young girl.

      “You know, Remedios,” she said to the air above her. “You’ll always be a part of me, now.”

      And indeed, she could see herself, five years from now, reading about Remedios’ wedding in the newspaper. She could see Remedios surrounded by her happy family, see her mother lifting Remedios’ heavy tresses and arranging the bridal veil. The groom would not be handsome, because Remedios didn’t seem to have that kind of luck. But he’d be a stalwart young man, who would make sure Jocelyn never approached. And that was fine with Jocelyn, too.

      When her husband came home that evening, he called her name but she didn’t answer. He found her still in the bathroom, lying back in the tub and staring at the ceiling with a strange and unfamiliar look — a look, almost, of happiness.

      “Jocelyn!” he called sharply.

      Slowly, she lowered her gaze and looked at him. “Dear,” she said, still smiling. “I’ve had a wonderful day.”

      She could never understand, afterwards, why her husband, still in his dark suit, dropped to his knees at just that moment, holding out his hands to her and weeping.

BIO

Marianne Villanueva was a finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Award, in 2014. And a full-act opera based on her novella, Marife, received its world premiere in New Hampshire in 2015. She is currently teaching a class called, One Story: Six Ways for UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, Aug. 3 (six weeks, online).

Tina May Hall Interview

The Art of Writing

 

tina

 

Tiny May Hall is a very good writer. That’s what I thought when I first read one of her stories. Well, actually, I hadn’t even finished it. I was just a few sentences in. But I instantly got the feeling that she really knew what she was doing. Then I proceeded to read the rest of her book. It was every bit as amazing as the first part. And while she takes the reader on some very strange, humorous, and often unexpected journeys, you get the feeling that Tina May Hall is a born storyteller. It’s what we, as readers, are always searching for—the perfect book.

Winner of the 2010 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a competition Raymond Carver once judged, Tina May Hall’s outstanding book, The Physics of Imaginary Objects, is a true masterpiece, an instant classic, and a book that should be read by everyone. If you’re a writer, it will make you want to write more. If you’re a graphic designer, it will inspire you to write as well. Even if you’re a politician, it will inspire you to write. This is one of those books that makes everyone want to become a writer.

With so much enthusiasm for her work, I couldn’t help but contact Tina May Hall on behalf of The Writing Disorder. I thought an interview would help readers understand where a person who writes like this comes from, and how she became the writer she is today.

So I used my various resources and came up with an email. I sent off a note to Ms. Hall, and presto, she agreed to be interviewed for our literary journal. Not only was Tina a great person to interview, she also provided us with an example of her work to reprint on our site. With kind permission from the University of Pittsburgh Press, we thank you. And we’d like to thank Tina for taking valuable time away from her writing, teaching, and family, to participate in this interview. Thank you, Tina.

 

tinabook

THE INTERVIEW

THE WRITING DISORDER: Where did you learn to write?

TINA MAY HALL: I learned to write by reading a lot as a child and then later in a more disciplined fashion at the University of Arizona, Bowling Green State University, and The University of Missouri.

TWD: What books did you read growing up?

TINA: Everything by Jane Austen and the Brontës. Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Madeleine L’Engle. It was pretty typical girlhood fare.

TWD: Tell us about your family life growing up. Were there any creative people in your life?

TINA: My father is an electronic engineer who is immensely talented at rigging up all kinds of devices. My mother is an artist who cycled through pottery, painting, stained glass, porcelain dolls and now is back to oil painting. She has always been incredibly, inspiringly creative in all facets of her life. Both of my parents demonstrated on a day-to-day basis how one might cobble together something beautiful and functional out of unlikely materials.

TWD: How do you begin a story or piece?

TINA: I usually start with an image and write from there. It is a bit like walking into a dark cave with only the tiniest light—very fun and a little scary.

TWD: How long is the editing process?

TINA: Probably because the starting is so undirected, the revising takes a long time. I usually take a few months to write a draft of a story and then work for a couple of years on revisions. This is why I usually have two or three projects going at once!

TWD: Do you write at a specific time of day? What do you use to write?

TINA: I used to only like to write in the morning, but now that I have a child, I’m much more pragmatic and I write whenever I have the time to do so. I always write on the computer; if I try to write longhand, everything that comes out is unbearably sentimental for some reason.

TWD: Have you ever published something before you felt it was ready?

TINA: One of the benefits of having a long revision process and being generally reluctant to send work out is that the work normally feels pretty complete by the time it is actually published. That said, I’ve had invaluable help from the editors I’ve worked with who have taken the stories I’ve sent them and refined them with really beautiful suggestions.

TWD: What is your workspace like?

TINA: Cluttered. I like to imagine a clean desk, maybe with a vase of lilacs and a white curtain blowing at the window, but it hasn’t materialized yet.

TWD: Do you have other creative talents – music art, etc.?

TINA: Nope. I’m a one-trick pony.

TWD: What is it like to be a critically-acclaimed author?

TINA: I’m not sure I’d claim this title for myself. It is lovely to have the book as an object and such fun to hear from people who have read it.

TWD: What is your home life like now?

TINA: I have a four-year-old so my home life right now revolves around superheroes, Legos, and Ben 10. That Ben 10 theme song is catchy. I find myself singing it all day long. It is an existence rather steeped in testosterone and myth, for the moment.

TWD: What is a typical writing day for you?

TINA: As I said before, I have to fit the writing in where I can, which is wonderful and aggravating at the same time. A few years ago, my idea of a writing day was a whole uninterrupted day when I would get up, make myself a pot of tea and then sit and contemplate the story, write for a while, contemplate some more, write, repeat. Then I’d pour myself a glass of wine and read until bedtime. Nowadays, a more typical writing day consists of writing for a bit, getting distracted by the desires of the people around me for clean socks and underwear, packing some lunches, teaching a couple of classes, writing a little bit more after class, going to the grocery store, putting my child to bed after telling him multiple completely inaccurate stories about Superman, and then writing a bit more. Writing is a much more organic part of my life now—it really isn’t sacred in the way it used to be.

TWD: What’s the longest time you’ve gone without writing?

TINA: I write in fits and starts. There have definitely been months at a time when I don’t write fiction. So far, I’ve always been relatively secure in the knowledge that the writing will be there when I come back to it. It helps to keep a list or notebook of ideas and snippets of images, just to feel like there are things to prime the pump, need be.

TWD: Do you enjoy editing, or the initial writing process more?

TINA: Editing, by far.

TWD: How much of what you write do you throw away?

TINA: Probably about 80%.

TWD: How do you feel at the end of writing a story?

TINA: Like most writers, I feel ecstatic for about a day and then reality sets in. It always does feel like a bit of a miracle to have the whole thing in front of you, even if you are already starting to see the flaws.

TWD: What are you working on now?

TINA: I’m working on a novel about an encyclopedia entry writer who gets obsessed with Victorian arctic exploration.
TWD: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

TINA: Hike, camp, snowshoe—anything that gets me away from desk and outside. There is something so heartening about nature; it is a relief to just enjoy trees and stones and great drifts of snow after struggling with a story.

TWD: What are the challenges of being a writer today?

TINA: I think we have a lot of very attractive things to do in front of the computer besides write. It can be hard to turn away from the email and the blogs and all that. There are so many enticing ways to spend our time talking about writing rather than actually doing it!

TWD: What do you read now, who do you admire?

TINA: I read Carole Maso, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lydia Davis, Kate Walbert, Kathryn Davis, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Neil Stephenson, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje and a whole bunch of others. I have pretty broad reading tastes and love suggestions. I still make a summer reading list each year.

Tina May Hall is assistant professor of English at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Her stories have appeared in 3rd Bed, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, minnesota review, descant, the Collagist, and Water-Stone Review, among others. She is the author of the chapbook All the Day’s Sad Stories.

For more information, please go to: tinamayhall.com

 

AND NOW…
From The Physics of Imaginary Objects (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)
a story from TINA MAY HALL

 

Faith Is Three Parts Formaldehyde, One Part Ethyl Alcohol

 

Rosa keeps her finger in a jar on the nightstand. In the morning, it twists to feel the sunlight. She watches its gentle convulsions and holds her other fingers up to share the warmth. Since she cut off her finger, she has worked in the diocese business office, filing and answering phones. Mostly, she answers questions from parents about the parish schools and fields requests for priestly appearances. While at work, she doesn’t think about her finger too much. It is just her left pinkie finger; she can still type seventy-five words a minute. In fact, some people don’t even notice it is missing. Those who do usually look appalled and ask, almost reverently, how it happened. Then she has to lie, all the while praying for the Lord to forgive her.

She used to carry the finger with her in a large shoulder bag, the jar wrapped carefully in a bath towel. For a while, she needed it with her all the time. She would take it out at work when no one else was around and in restaurant bathrooms to assure herself that it was still there, that it hadn’t dissolved, that the glass of the jar hadn’t cracked, leaving it withered and gray. She never showed it to anyone. This was partly because she didn’t want anybody to know about it. Cutting it off had been enough to make the nuns expel her from the convent, even though she was, by their account, the most promising novice they’d seen in years. If the fathers found out she had kept it, she would probably be excommunicated. The other reason she never showed anyone is because she was afraid that sharing it would diminish its potency. Her severed finger is a miracle, a divine link. Every time she unwrapped it in the darkness under her desk or in the chill of a bathroom stall, it would glow love. It is a piece of her that is always praying, a sign of the preservative power of God’s grace.

She worried so much that she finally stopped carrying it with her. During the day it drifts at the edge of her imagination, two and a half inches of waxy faith suspended in a globe of silvery liquid. At night, she dreams of watery expanses and moons shaped like fingernails.

One Thursday in April, a man in his thirties enters the diocese office a few minutes before closing. He crosses to Rosa’s desk and stands in front of her, apparently studying her name plate. His silence makes her nervous, and she tucks her left hand under her thigh before asking how she can help him. He doesn’t speak, and she wonders whether she should try to get past him to the outside door or dash into the copy room behind her where her most lethal weapon would be a five gallon bottle of toner. Just as she starts to pray to the Lord for divine intervention or at least a little timely guidance, the man pulls a small silver box from his pocket, parts the edges of his collar, and holds the box to the bit of clear tube that protrudes from his throat. “Rosa?”

She thinks it is the most beautiful and terrifying sound she has ever heard. It is a cross between a whisper and a deep bass with overtones of metal, but it is not mechanical. It is a sound she imagines stones make when mating or dying. He repeats, “Rosa?” Again the sound amazes and humbles her, provokes a feeling she has only experienced after praying for hours, late at night, when the other nuns were sleeping and she was alone in the cold arch of the chapel. There is an almost sexual tightening of her abdomen, a powerful contraction deep in her stomach.

“Yes,” she whispers.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you, it’s just that this is the only way…”

He says he has a spiritual problem. His voice still startles her, but she is becoming used to it and its effect on her; however, this question throws her into a panic because all of the priests are out of town for a convention on venial sin except for Father O’Rourke who doesn’t approve of conventions and went to Las Vegas instead for the weekend. The man looks distressed by this.

“Well, then maybe you can help me. I guess it is sort of an administrative matter.”

“I’m not really an expert,” Rosa says. “Don’t you think you’d better wait for the fathers to get back?”

The man plucks at his collar in agitation. “If I don’t resolve this now, I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve.”

She wants to say something reassuring, but her stomach growls and the man smiles and says, “I’m keeping you from your dinner.” He holds out his left hand because he is still clasping the silver box to his throat with the right, and she hesitates but finally gives him her left hand to shake and is surprised when he doesn’t say anything about her missing finger. That’s when she finds herself asking him if he’d like to eat with her at the deli next door so they can talk more about his problem.

Over corned beef and coleslaw he asks about her missing finger, and because he asks so casually, she tells him the truth. He is the first person she has told the story. Everyone else who knows the truth heard it from the nuns who found her in the kitchen, on her knees, her severed finger beside her on the stone floor, her hands clasped, forehead pressed against the avocado metal of the refrigerator. They said she was in rapture; the doctors called it shock. She tells him how it didn’t bleed at all and how this disappointed her, how even at that time, even when she was having the most meaningful religious experience of her life, she felt somehow cheated by the absence of blood. She tells him without prompting, almost shyly, about the voice she heard before it happened, except it wasn’t a voice. It was more a feeling, a shifting of weights and forms around her. That’s how she explains it after the waitress asks if she wants cheesecake—it was as if her perception of everything slipped for a moment and she knew what she was supposed to do. He asks only one question.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s proof, of course.”

It isn’t until she has accepted his offer of a ride back to her apartment that she realizes they haven’t talked at all about his problem. He is quiet when she reminds him of it. The artificial voice box is a moth, still in his cupped palm. Then he says he was wondering if it was possible to bury objects, not a person, just an inanimate thing, in consecrated ground. She thinks for a long time before she has to say she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t think so. He sighs when she tells him this. The noise comes from his mouth, not the box; it is a painful sound that makes her knuckles ache. When they reach her apartment, he asks if he can come in for a moment, says that there’s something he’d like to show her. And because she feels this bond with him, this recognition, she doesn’t even question him, just nods and leads him down the sidewalk to her door.

“Do you have a tape player?”

His voice seems weaker, more metallic than before, and she wonders if he isn’t used to talking so much. So, as if her not speaking could conserve his strength, she simply nods again and points to the corner of the living room. He stands in front of the machine for a while, both hands pressed against it. When he does move, it is to reach into his pocket, but this time he brings out a cassette tape, not the silver box. He places it in the deck and presses play, and for a few minutes the room is quiet except for the murmur of the tape cycling into the machine. Rosa is still standing in the entranceway, the door open behind her, and she can see the dark form of his car in the mirror on the opposite wall, and strangely, she can see another reflection within that image. She recognizes the cold blur of the moon on his windshield as a voice comes out of the speakers and she knows without him telling her, for he is not talking or even looking at her, that this is his voice, was his voice. It is a child singing a song about a spider and a rainstorm, and as the rain starts falling, there is a click where the recording stops.

“May I leave this with you?”

This surprises her but she knows she will say yes, knows she won’t be able to help herself, and the sound of the tape player continuing past the voice, scanning silence, brings back that feeling of praying in the empty chapel and another memory, the rasp of metal against stone tile, the smell of onions, the whine a bone makes when it is lost. Rosa wants to give him something in exchange, to show him the thing she holds secret. She says, “I’ve been keeping something too,” and places her left hand on the coffee table, spreads her fingers until they are shaking with the effort, and uses the forefinger of her right hand to trace the cold transparent space where her pinkie used to be.

STAY IN TOUCH