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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.

Aesthetic Transmissions:
A Conversation with Robert Hass

By George Guida

Robert Hass, U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus, Distinguished Professor in Poetry and Poetics at Cal-Berkeley, and long-time environmental activist, published his first collection of poems, Field Guide, in 1973, and his latest, Summer Snow, in 2020. In all he has published seven collections of original work, eight volumes of translation (seven of Czeslaw Milosz’s writing and one of Japanese Haiku), and four volumes of criticism. Hass has won a myriad of awards and prizes, from the Yale Younger Poets Award to the Pulitzer Prize, and for five decades has been a presence on the California literary scene.

George Guida: Did you understand from an early age that you wanted to be a writer?

Robert Hass: I didn’t know how you got there from here, whether it was a pipe dream or not, but that’s what I thought I wanted to do. When I graduated from college, I was writing poems, stories, essays. It was in graduate school, when I was 21, 22, 23 years old and had access to a library that had lots of literary magazines, where I really started reading contemporary poetry. I also took a couple of graduate classes with teachers who were very charismatic.

GG: Who were they?

RH: One of them was Ivor Winters, who was an incredible reactionary. I didn’t agree with anything he said. Actually, I didn’t know enough to agree or disagree, but I had never heard anyone talk so passionately about anything in my life as he talked about poetry.  He was extremely contemptuous of his students. He’d say, “I’m an old man, but you’ve come to hear me, because I said, ‘Crane got sold the Brooklyn Bridge by Emerson and Yeats is an overrated poet and a fascist.’ Let me tell you this: Poetry is a serious art. People go into it with almost no apparatus to defend themselves against their feelings. My friend Heart Crane killed himself. My friend Ezra Pound ended up in an insane asylum. Coleridge was an addict and a depressive. I don’t have much use for you. I think you’re going to become sentimental old college professors, dabbling, to the destruction of your betters,” and he walked out the room. First day of class.

GG:  This was at Stanford?

RH:  Yes, in 1963. I thought, “Wow!” But he interested me, and, again, I was reading the literary magazines, which featured novelists of the period: Bellow, Roth, Updike, Cheever. And I read the poets and thought they were way more interesting.

GG: Who were those poets?

RH:  Gary Snyder, for sure, for California writing. I was also reading Ed Dorn at that time, and William Stafford, because they were also Western writers. Then too I read the New York School and the Black Mountain School. The Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, had just come out. It seemed like there was this incredible range of ways you could go about writing poetry and also of materials you could get to from writing it.

GG: At that point did you feel not only that you wanted to write poetry, but also that you wanted to be a part of that world? 

RH: No, I didn’t imagine such a thing. The world that I imagined joining existed in the literary reviews—The Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The New Republic—but it wasn’t particularly about poetry. The world I was signing up for included James Agee writing about movies, Clement Greenburg writing about art, Delmore Schwartz writing about Kafka and existentialism. It was a world of ideas and art. It was thrilling to me.

I could see that among the poets at Stanford there was this little clique of people who were trying to write in a way that Winters would approve of. And I knew that there was a Beat scene, where something really interesting was going on, and that was also a community, I didn’t particularly think of it as a literary community. I thought of it as a countercultural—though we didn’t have that word then—community.

GG: What was your relationship with the countercultural community, other than seeing it from afar?

RH: In high school our older brothers and sisters, not mine but my friends’, were in North Beach. They were the people who were sort of the outsiders in high school and who listened to Jazz.

GG: Were you a city kid?

RH: No, I was a Marin County suburban kid. In the city we got snuck in with fake IDs to the Anxious Asp, to hear Jack Spicer read his poetry on Blabbermouth Night. At the time I didn’t know what I was seeing. It was only years later that I read about the event.

GG: So you probably ran across a lot of the figures of the era without knowing who they were?

RH: I knew where City Lights was, and I recognized who Ferlinghetti was. Another thing that would give me a sense of community were the journals in the basement of City Lights.

GG: The mimeographed magazines?

RH: Yes. I remember that Ferlinghetti published a magazine called The Journal for the Protection of All Being. It came out once a year for a few years. There was an essay in it by someone who, at the time, I’d never heard of, Gary Snyder, called “Buddhist Anarchism.” And I thought, “I’m not sure what Buddhism is and I’m not sure I know what anarchism is,” so I started reading. And then there was the symphony and the kids in my high school who were interested in classical music, which I knew nothing about. Wednesday night was a student night in the balcony and I would see these older students, now college kids, wearing black jeans and black turtlenecks, alongside all the fancy folk who had symphony tickets and were dressed up.

GG: Did you come from a family of intellectuals?

RH:  No. My parents were socially a bit unusual. They were from the Depression Era. Their parents had been to college, but they didn’t go. They were plenty smart, but they were just raising kids. My dad was a tax attorney for an insurance company. They read the Saturday Evening Post and subscribed to the book of the Month Club.

GG: But you had this younger generation around you and your grandparents.

RH: My grandmother would recite poetry

GG: What would she recite?

RH: “Godfrey Gustavus Gore / would you please shut the door? / I’ve told you again /  I’ve told you before.” But she could also recite some Joris-Karl Huysman and the poets a literate college girl of her generation would have known.

GG: So your entrée was mostly the older kids and what you read when you got to college.

RH: Also the Donald Allen anthology gave me a sense that there were poetry communities and a poetry world. At that point I was trying to write stories and poems both. I was involved in activism on civil rights and against the war. I started a weekly newspaper with friends, called Resistance. The first issue we called Commitment: A Journal of the Asylum. It reflected the existentialist ideal and our political commitment. The more radical people in our group wanted a more militant sounding name, so we changed it to Resistance. A lot of what we did was research into military contracts. The Stanford Research Institute was helping to prosecute the Vietnam War.

GG: I know when your first book appeared, and I have a timeline of when you start publishing your work, but when did you start perceiving yourself primarily as a poet.

RH: Sometime after 1967. At Stanford there were a group of people–partly around Ivor Winters–and each of them was going around writing poetry, saying, “I’m a poet.” Robert Pinsky was one of them. James McMichael was another. John Mathias and Kent Fields, who was Winter’s replacement. I I thought they were conservative in their practice. Then I met Mitch Goodman, who was the husband of Denise Levertov and an anti-war activist. He was a lecturer for a couple of years. He saw that I moved around Wallace Stegner, and he thought, “Here’s someone who isn’t a Winters person.” He would say to me, “What poets would you like to hear? We’re trying to invite some that Ivor”—”Arthur,” they called him—”would disapprove of.” I said I’d love to hear Denise Levertov and Frank O’Hara.

The last couple of years at Stanford I started to write more poems. When I thought of a line, I couldn’t wait to get home and write it down. I had little kids, so I would go home and take care of the kids and take out my notebook. And I saw once that a copy of The Hudson Review had the last fragments of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and they said there would be more in another issue. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to be published in the same magazine as Ezra Pound, so I sent poems to The Hudson Review, and they took two of them. To me that was an incredibly big deal, and I had absolutely no one to tell it to except my then-wife, and she said, “That’s nice.”

Then I got my first job at SUNY-Buffalo. I went there because it was teeming with poets, though I didn’t quite understand how much. The summer I arrived, I saw this whole rich—I wouldn’t say community. “Network” is certainly a useful word for this purpose. That is, many different groups interacting, and playing out their rivalries. I thought I was going to Partisan Review heaven. Leslie Fiedler had taught there. Joe Barber. Michelle Foucault was on the faculty. Susan Sontag was there for the summer. My second year there, Merce Cunningham and John Cage had a joint appointment. Robert Creeley was on the faculty. Charles Olson was on the faculty, and he’d hired a lot of Black Mountaineers to teach in the night school. There was a very intense group around Creely and Olson. There was an intense group around John Logan, and around Irving Feldman. The younger generation of poets from the New York School, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, and Tom Clark, were very active. That was when I came to see that it was a scene. By then I was trying to focus on writing poetry. I had done my academic work in a completely other area, and I didn’t even tell them I wrote poetry when I was hired at Buffalo.

GG: Your degree is in?

RH: A Ph.D. in comp lit and the novel. I’d done a dissertation on Dickens and Doestoevsky and Freud and capitalism and blah, blah, blah, blah. And I was still thinking that stuff through, because I had finished the dissertation when I was there, but I had lost interest in it. I was really interested in writing poems.

GG: And you entered into this world of poetry silos at Buffalo. These were not overlapping circles of poets. Were they camps?

RH: It’s difficult to describe.Here’s an idea: I had mixed feelings about the social position of Elizabeth Bishop. That was a period when Howard Moss was Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. Bishop’s poems appeared there regularly, and they seemed, at that wild and wooly moment, very well-behaved—but subtle and musically kind of amazing. Creeley would ask me, “What poets are you reading?” and I happened to say Bishop, and he said, “Oh, dear.” I thought, you may not like her, you may think she’s conservative, but how could anybody who writes poetry not think she has an amazing ear. Hearing Creeley read, you understood his poetics. Logan read in this rich, orotund way these off-rhymed Lowell-ish poems. Irving Feldman was outside of poetry scenes and contemptuous of them. He was writing out of the Jewish Eastern European experience.

GG: When and where would you hear these people read?

RH: Almost every night. In coffee houses, on campus, all over the place. I had gone from Stanford, where you just didn’t hear much poetry at all, and then suddenly there were readings everywhere. The summer I arrived, there was a reading from summer visitors: the Irish poet Austin Clarke and William Empson. Empson was there for 2 summers, and I was put in charge of taking care of him. He was a serious drunk. Paul Carroll, who was the editor of Big Table Books. Michael Rumaker, who was a fiction writer and poet from Black Mountain. There were tons of poets reading, and there were overlapping communities of interests. The Olson people were either, “You’re cool or you’re not one of us.” Logan’s circle of friends included A. R. Ammons and James Wright, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Isabelle Gardner, Adrienne Rich and W. S. Merwyn. They were a group of poets who were expressive, while the avant garde poets were more interested in analytic technique issues. The bars were full of poets.

When Creeley was going on leave, he said, “Why don’t you try teaching my contemporary poetry class while I’m gone?” I was teaching these courses on the novel. I said, “What I’d really like to do is take the difference between your salary and my salary and bring in a bunch of poets. I can teach the poet’s work on Tuesday, have them read on Wednesday, and they could teach the class on Thursday.”

GG: That sounds like a perfect world.

RH: Sure. So I invited Alan Ginsberg, who said he would only come if I invited Gregory Corso. Years later I stood on Corso’s grave in Paris and said, “Gregory, you owe me 400 dollars.” Anyway, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, William Merwyn, Ed Dorn, Ginsberg and Corso taught the course. Corso gave a talk on the origins of cave drawings of people getting stoned on morning glory seeds. I was suddenly submerged in this world. And there were many other things going on that were interesting. Ray Federman was part of a group of people, along with John Hawks and Jon Barth, the new fictioneers.

GG: It may warm your heart to know that Buffalo still has a vibrant literary community on many levels, including the local community level, but the scene you’re describing is remarkable.

RH: There were readings at bars with local poets. I remember one guy with a Greek surname, from Buffalo, who read a long poem that went on and on about the Marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. He didn’t quite get booed off stage, but after a while people said they’d really heard enough. He came to the bar, and I said, “That was a long poem,” and he said, “Onassis is going to be so pissed off.” Delusions of grandeur.

GG: The distinctions between academic poets and community poets have, axiomatically, eroded over the last twenty or so years. What was your experience negotiating those two milieux?

RH: I was aware of the distinction early on, and my impulse was not to buy into it. The way the allegiance thing worked was that if you were in the Creeley camp you had to think Joel Oppenheimer was a great poet and Galway Kinnell was a terrible poet. I would think, “Joel is a charming guy and he’s kind of writing like Creeley. He’s very funny, but his poetry isn’t very deep.” At the time Galway Kinnell was writing The Book of Nightmares, trying to write Rilkean poetry in America. The place asked you to choose camps, and I didn’t want to choose. I also saw that, in ways that seemed to me not completely healthy, they formed affiliation gangs. Each one drew on the energy of the star poet in the center of that group. It’s perfectly natural it would happen. It’s the way aesthetic and spiritual transmissions get made.

GG: How do you mean?

RH: Around that time, I was in New York visiting a friend. She was taking acting class. We went by to pick her up and we were standing outside the classroom where Uta Hagen–who had been in Lee Strasburg’s class and had done the first blind reading of Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando–was teaching this group of students And it raised the hair on the back of my neck, thinking about the way artistic transmissions happened. It’s very much like the way transmission happens in Buddhist communities: You find a master, you learn from the master, you eventually become a master yourself. It’s through that semi-erotic attachment, complicated by power relations. I loved the work of several of those poets, but I didn’t want to sign up particularly.

GG: So at some point you left this community in Buffalo?

RH: I would come back here in the summertime, and I would see the silos in San Francisco.

GG: Do you agree with that assessment, that it’s a siloed city?

RH: Yes and no. There’s leakage all over the place. I came back in 1971. I published my first book in 1973. At that point what I was interested in was poetry. I also saw here versions of what I’d seen in Buffalo: this group, that group. There were the San Francisco State poets. Berkeley was pretty dead, actually, in terms of a poetry scene, but here were terrific poets. Thom Gunn was here, but he was interested in the Castro and that world and not interested in a poetry scene. Ishmael Reed was here. Pinsky was teaching in the English Department. Josephine Miles was at the edge of retirement. So Berkeley had a rich tradition of growing poets–Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer—so there was a lot here, but the graduate program was not a creative writing program. After I got a book published, I got invited to read in Berkeley, and someone said—maybe it was Jack Foley—”Good luck. It’s like beating a very ancient carpet.” It didn’t feel welcoming and alive.

GG: San Francisco did?

RH: San Francisco did. 

GG: When you say San Francisco, are you talking about City Lights or other venues?

RH: I’m trying to remember. I was raising small children, so I didn’t have much of a social life. But I would get out every once and a while to poetry readings at the San Francisco Poetry Center. But from here that’s a long schlep over to San Francisco State. Intersection was the place that tried to make an art community in the city at that time, and that’s where a lot of the cool readings were. It’s gone now, but I think for 20 years it was a venue. I forget what year New College began. The language poets as a group in the 1980s gave a series of talks at 80 Langston St, which is a little alley between Market and Mission. And that became a kind of downtown place for all non-academic-centered ideas, particularly linguistics and critical theory and language poetry. That was the cool scene, and they were interested in their different kinds of community. Folks like Ron Silliman. They would read for a couple of hours outside BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] stations. At the time Silliman was helping to edit The Tenderloin Times, which was a newspaper for street people to sell, in order to have something to do.

GG: Now the reading that happens at BART station is an impromptu spoken word event where they draw a chalk circle at the 16th and Mission Station, and there’s no order. It’s just jump into the circle, jump out of their circle.

RH: The language poets’ writing was extremely heady, but Silliman would tap his feet to the rhythm as he read. So it was poetry that denied having a body, even though it was totally bodily in the way that it was performed. There were a lot of people working in different ways. There was still a kind of Beat scene, though Gary Snyder was gone and Ginsberg was long gone. Jack Hirschman and Neeli Cherkovski were there, among others. There was a group of poets around Robert Duncan at San Francisco State. Stan Rice, the husband of Anne Rice, was a hot young poet in San Francisco, before they moved to New Orleans. Jack Gilbert and his partner Linda Gregg formed a kind of group.

GG: I want to go back to your idea of community in a more platonic sense, regarding poetry and being laureate. What’s your perception of the situation now in San Francisco? Of the community’s poets? Of poetry here generally? The power of it, relative, cultural?

RH: I don’t feel at all on top of what’s happening here, but one of the things that’s definitely happened is this: When I started reading poetry in 1963, ’64, ’65, I could read every book of poems published in America in a given year, including the mimeographed stuff. There were maybe 17 books of poems published a year. Last year there were 1400 books of poems published.

GG: Those are just books by the presses acknowledged as national presses.

RH: There was no thought that you could make a career writing poetry. When I was graduating college there were two creative writing graduate programs: Iowa and Stanford. I was in Stanford, and I wasn’t in the creative writing program.

GG: But you were aware that the MFA existed.

RH: I wasn’t actually, I don’t remember being aware of it as a choice. I thought at that point, “I want to be a writer.” I’d already gotten married, I’d worked 2 summers doing research at a bank, and it made it perfectly clear to me that I didn’t want to put on a suit and go to an office from 8 to 5. And it seems that’s what you do when you graduate from law school. I went to graduate school for a PhD in the same spirit in which I might have decided on law school. There weren’t models of poets teaching in the university, particularly, yet. What changed things was by the time I was back here in 1971, there were creative writing teachers at every college, so there came to be MFA programs, which exponentially increased the number of people writing poetry, and the number of people publishing poetry, and the number of communities usually organized around the aesthetic of the charismatic teachers in each program. That was also true of New York at the time.

GG: Those developments have had enormous implications in a couple of ways. The first of which is for the state of poetry. Do you have strong opinions about those implications? 

RH: The writers of the older generations were extremely suspicious of the academy. There’s a poem of Theodore Roethke’s era about Roethke raging in the cage of the university. Kenneth Koch wrote in “Fresh Air,” that poets were “trembling in the universities and publishing houses,” “bathing the library steps with their spit.” They feared the university as a trap. 

The greatest period in the history of lyric poetry was the Tang Dynasty in China, which produced, over 100 years, five or six of the greatest poets who have ever written in any language, and they all had to take exams in poetry in order to get the jobs as secretaries, in the waterworks, and in the other administrative jobs for Confucians. The evidence is that the more a culture encourages poetry, the better the poetry it produces.

GG: You would say generally that there’s more good poetry being written now than at any point in American history?

RH: We don’t know. Great poetry is mysterious. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are. On one hand the history of American poetry is the original work came from people who were on some level profoundly loners. I mention the Tang example as a counter argument to the idea that there’s a kind of static uniformity.

GG: Not a static uniformity, but let’s say we have a large number of programs producing poets who then become solitary poets, and they’re all over the place, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet in the United States.

Robert: I think that’s a really important thing. Look at early 20th-century American literature. In 1915, roughly when Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Pound were getting started, only 16 percent of Americans graduated from high school.

GG: It makes me think of poetry scrapbooking in the early 20th Century. It was a time when many people had scrapbooks of poems, but not everyone was writing poems. Now not too many are keeping scrapbooks, but everybody’s writing poetry.

RH: It was middle-class people who were keeping scrapbooks. In Sherwood Anderson’s stories of small-town life, people were going crazy and running through the streets naked in the middle of the night, in these oppressive environments. Now every disturbed and upset person in the country can find their way to some community college where somebody who loves poetry or painting or musical composition is teaching them. What’s not good about that?

GG: There is no downside to that.

RH: But this was the point I was coming around to, what’s been interesting about the Bay Area in the last 20 years. The creative writing program at Dominican University at San Rafael, the old hallowed one in San Francisco State, the College of Arts and Crafts, St. Mary’s, Mills College, they’ve each spilled into their surrounding communities. The graduates from my wife’s program from Saint Mary’s now have two or three different weekend poetry reading programs. There’s an audience of 75 to 100 people every couple of Friday nights. There are salons. And the groups intermingle and overlap–some, and some they don’t. The young poets want to take their art out into the community.

GG: That’s the experience that I’ve had, that just as you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poetry reading, Everywhere, every night of the week almost.

RH: You’ve got people saying that Americans don’t like poetry.

GG: That’s hard to believe.

RH: There were maybe 5 poets working in every University in America in 1948. Now every single college, university and community college in the country has two poets and two fiction writers teaching creative writing.

GG: It’s an amazing industry.

RH: And somebody’s paying for it, tax money mostly. We have on this campus our monthly poetry reading series and a biweekly one. Meanwhile there’s the Starry Plough and Studio One, off-campus venues

GG: So this is progress? Socially?

RH: Absolutely.

GG: The effect on society is positive, because…?

RH: It’s hard to say exactly. Everyone loves to quote William Carlos Williams: “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found [in poems].” Jeremy Nobel, a doctor at Harvard, started a non-profit called The Unlonely Project. He started working with veterans, writing and reading poetry. There are things like that going on. Lyn Hejinian has said that poetry coteries, her word, are necessary, because young poets need support and nurturing to find their little groups.

GG: I’ve discovered that poets leave coteries.

RH: People have talked about that in different ways. Somebody asked Robert Pinsky about being a Jewish poet and he said, “It’s the neighborhood I come from.” Some people stay there forever, or at least they become professionally associated as a spokesperson for that neighborhood of poetry.

Jane Jacobs, who is great on the subject of community, said, “New ideas come from old buildings.” Most new social initiatives of all kinds have to do with creating community. Another background of all of this is the distinction between community and network, and the networks that capitalism, a market economy, creates; and the kind of community good that has become the rhetoric of poetry and of the people who try to raise money to promote the arts as a way of promoting community.

GG: There’s a network of practicing poets in the academy. I have poet friends who know your wife professionally. I didn’t know that until two days ago when one of my friends mentioned it. There’s a reason they meet at the AWP conference every year. Then there are many communities that I’ve encountered in which people have absolutely no interest in networking, less than zero. They don’t care to get out beyond their specific communities. And I would say that’s the majority of people who write poetry. Were you aware of this when you were Poet Laureate?  Did it feel like part of the task to encourage any particular sort of community?

RH: I had been traveling around the country, giving readings, for maybe twenty years by that time. I knew that in Yakima, Washington, you might think you’re going to get four people at a reading and the place is full, because somebody happened to have taught your poetry in their class, and you go to another place and nobody shows up. From that perspective, a poetry community feels like a pond where the temperature keeps changing.

As Poet Laureate I was interested in creating readers for poetry, figuring out how to do that, and using the position to confront fundamental issues of literacy. Because I  was also the first person from the West of the Mississippi to have this job, I thought I should do something related to the environment. And they said, “We have $30,000 for you, to have some kind of conference.” Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress had just been elected. For the first time in fifty years, a Republican was in charge of financing for the Library of Congress. So I said, “I’d like to get the environmental writers together, because I hear that the lobbyists are sitting in the offices of  these new freshmen Congressmen, rewriting the environmental legislation.” I went back the next week and they said, “We thought we had money available for a conference, but turns out we’re not going to this year. Sorry”.

GG: The Contract with America.

RH: So I said to them, “If raise the money, could I go ahead and do it ?” And they said, “Sure, if you raise the money.” I had never tried to raise money for anything. I called around to some people. Very quickly somebody called me, a guy named Charlie Hopper, who was the director of a foundation that used the Sara Lee Cheesecake family money. He said, “I hear you’re thinking of doing an environmental program at the Library of Congress, and I think that’s wonderful, and maybe we can give you some help”. I said, “I could use about $30,000.” He said, “How about 100,000?” I went to the Center for the Book, at the Library of Congress. It’s a place that produces those maps of writers that you see in schoolrooms. I thought “Bingo! If you just add environmental responsibility and the natural history writing tradition to these maps, you’ve got exactly the community poetry is interested in.”.

GG: But this could apply to other issues as well? It’s just a sort of paying attention that poetry demands.

RH: When Rita Dove had the job, she organized the first literary conference on the great diaspora, on what took black people out of the Jim Crow South and into the cities of the North, and created the art scenes that happened in places like New York and Chicago. It was about literature creating communities for people.

GG: As a white male Poet Laureate, were you very conscious of the imperative to diversify perspectives in and on poetry? We’re to the point now where many of the most celebrated books are by poets of color, gay poets of color, immigrant poets.

RH: I was certainly aware, because I grew up with the civil rights movement, so I understood very well the need for it, especially sitting in the Library of Congress where almost all of the employees were black and all the appointed staff were white. One day I went to work, there were an older guy and a younger guy, like they were in an August Wilson one-act, sitting on a bench outside the entry. The young kid said to the old guy, with tears in his eyes, “I don’t have to take this shit anymore.” And the old guy said, “Son, you do.” 

I’d also started this environmental poetry program for children, and the first place we did it was in the Anacostia district in D. C.. I met a guy, who was a descendant of Daniel Boone, who created the Friends of the Anacostia River Society. Washington has a dual-store sewage system, like most American cities. Every time there’s a heavy rainfall in D. C. the sewers from the Federal Triangle overflow into the Anacostia River, and all the Congressional shit flows through the poorest neighborhood in the city. How’s that for a definition of community? So I was discovering a lot of stuff from doing that and feeling like bringing poetry into these communities that were concerned with the environment and with social justice was part of the work to be done.

GG: Is this something inherent in poetry which lends it to alliance with social justice movements? Or is that something that’s just happened?

RH: Well, that’s an interesting question. What do you think?

GG: The thing that occurs to me when I think of this possibility is that I have a friend who’s a a good poet, a professor, and a very conservative Christian. He rages about having to be a poet in an academic environment defined by the constant imperative for social justice. He thinks it’s all a bunch of…

RH: Bullshit.

GG: Right. To my mind poetry usually attracts people who are concerned with social justice, because it’s the people who reflect the most who are most concerned with social justice. I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s what it feels like.

RH: You can date the imperative for social justice of the kind that we have now, poetry arts in general, from Romanticism and the French Revolution. Was Shakespeare concerned with social justice when he was writing the Sonnets? I don’t think so. Were the great 17th-century religious poets concerned with social justice?

GG: I would think about Blake, but I would say poets of those times were concerned more with the awareness of social injustice, not so much with campaigning for social justice.

RH: So Blake is the turning point.

GG: The Industrial Revolution.

RH: Somebody said that The Vicar of Wakefield is the first novel in which someone mistreats a child. And it’s the same period when poets started writing poems about wounded animals, like Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse.” The moment of the birth of modern liberalism comes from romanticism and poetry of that period. Resistance to power has been an element of the arts since the end of the eighteenth century.

GG: At the risk of sounding ill-informed, when I think about the Modernists, I don’t think particularly that that’s a group of poets concerned with social justice. Eliot, Pound, even Stevens.

RH: In the Depression they turned themselves to that question, each of their own way.

GG: So you look at the poet of The Four Quartets as a different poet from the poet of The Wasteland.

RH: At the same time, Langston Hughes was writing, Carl Sandburg was writing. In his way Stevens, in “The Man on the Dump,” tried, from his lofty heights, to address the Depression.

I have a friend who was reading applications in the graduate program he’s in, with a couple of younger poets on the faculty. One of the applicants said that she particularly wanted to come to this program, because she really wanted to work on issues of gender injustice and inequality, and this older poet said, “This is not a program in gender and social inequality. It’s a program in poetry.” A younger poet on faculty went to the chair of the department and made a formal complaint against this poet for making a racist remark. Somebody else, somebody teaching at Harvard, told me that he was teaching Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” After class a woman came to him and said that, as a survivor of sexual abuse, she was very disturbed by how casually he had used the term “ravished.”

GG: I’ve heard people put this more vulgarly: that having the correct pronoun is not the same as having someone grab you.

RH: So right now that’s the moment. On the other question, of the spread of graduate programs, which has caused people who want work and who love this art to want it in more communities, I remember when Dana Gioia published the book Can Poetry Matter? Czeslaw Milosz was enraged by that title. He said, “This assumes John Carson matters.” He meant Johnny Carson and late night t. v. It was evident to him, who had seen whole generations carted off to the gas chamber, that the conversation that went on in poetry was a matter of life and death. That way of thinking also belonged to a time when it was only an educated aristocracy who read and wrote poetry.

GG:  I did take issue with Gioia’s argument. It seemed to me that he was talking particularly about a subject of his next book, about San Francisco and the way the publishing industry here had disappeared.

RH: There’s another aspect to that discussion. First of all it’s only from the middle of the 19th Century that most people could read. And right around the time of Whitman’s debut there began to be cheap enough printing to make books.

GG: Compulsory education began in 1840.

RH: 1840. Unless you were black, and then you could still get killed for trying to read. During that period from about 1840 to 1920, the main source of information was newspapers and magazines, so people who work in the print media created celebrity. And what happened, beginning with radio and then with t. v., is that celebrities became people admired by the producers of news and entertainment. So the Modernists, who disliked popular poetry, which people had been working very hard to use in the spirit we’re talking about, for creating a community, were basically biting the hand that fed them just as it was being withdrawn. And they remained stars, so they–you know, Eliot and Pound, would show up in Bob Dylan’s songs. That was the end of that particular kind of celebrity for writers.

GG: I often look back on the 1980s, when I was in undergraduate, as the last gasp of the New York literary old line. I interned at The Hudson Review and The Paris Review then, and that was the last gasp of seeing literary types go to Elaine’s or seeing John Updike get into an elevator at a swank party. That sort of literary celebrity doesn’t appear to exist much anymore. And that’s not all bad. I can come here and interview you. You were Poet Laureate. And I was able to ask another Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, to visit with my class. And I’m just some guy at the City University of New York. It’s not the same sort of exclusivity.

RH: I have no clear picture of the way things are now. It’s clear that the Internet is changing the whole discussion about community and how you make it. Virtual poetry communities are everywhere and nowhere. I think the rise of identity politics is a subject for poetry, is connected to everywhere and nowhere. You have to talk about this carefully, because it has a blood and soil element. It was complicated for me, figuring out how to do environmental poetry without talking about how important attachment to community is, at the same time that cosmopolitanism is the solution to small-town prejudice. You encourage Nebraskans to be Nebraskans by taking care of their environment and stop polluting their rivers.

GG: I talked to two people this week who have said outright or implied that when push comes to shove people retreat to their tribes. Last night someone very close to my age who was running a poetry slam said basically as much. Berkeley is for Caucasians. Oakland is for brown people, as she put it. And last night at the Oakland Slam, there was as diverse a mix of people as I’ve seen, and I come from a place that was diverse and have taught for 30 years at a university that is.

RH: Fifty-five percent of undergraduates from Berkeley are not European-American in one way or another, and twenty percent of them don’t speak English as their first language at all.

GG: The definitions of diversity are interesting too, because back at my college in Brooklyn, the students speak one hundred and fifteen different languages. If there’s a dominant group, maybe it’s Latino students, but even they are from various places. I’m staying by Lake Merced in San Francisco, in an area that is predominantly Chinese American, almost entirely. Is that diversity?

RH: In my growing up, San Francisco was very much the patchwork model.

GG: Yes, and that’s New York as well, in terms of ethnic neighborhoods. I perceive that this generation of students is different. They really are blending together in a way that previous generations have only lip paid service to. But there still seem to be lingering doubts, especially among people who are part of communities of color, that there is a kind of final blending of communities, which includes poets. Do you believe that poetry is an effective vehicle for social change? Not necessarily for social justice, but for change.

RH: Here’s my formula for understanding poetry this way. For reasons that nobody quite understands, in the middle of the 18th Century, theologians were really puzzled by the existence of mountains, because they were such a waste of space. By the 1790s Friedrich Holderlin was writing these amazing poems about climbing up mountains. Coleridge and Wordsworth read Holderlin, and Thoreau read Wordsworth and Coleridge. John Muir read Thoreau. And Teddy Roosevelt read Muir. And we got national parks. Poetry isn’t responsible for what happens, but it’s the archive of everything human beings have thought and felt, more powerfully expressed than any place else. The idea is that the seeds of new things find their first shape in music, images, lines of poetry.

GG: What distinguishes poetry from other sorts of writing that could effect social change is that it’s got those elements that are part of the subconscious, that consciously work on a subconscious level.

RH: In the way that metaphor does. The oldest associations of poetry in every language from which written language emerges are with memory. It’s the power of poetry to invoke memory, making the way you say things memorable by making it rhythmic. If there is a world community, it’s that community. You were talking about poets belonging to networks on one hand and communities on the other and kind of moving between them. But I want to talk about this other thing, about spiritual traditions of transmission that happen inside and across communities. That is to say that people who love and practice an art are companions to everyone who loves and practices the art. When a painter dies it means something to the community of painters. That’s why the elegy of a poet for a poet is such an important form. I respect the work of almost anybody who gets work done.

GG: Did you continue to teach when you were Poet Laureate?

RH: I taught  on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I caught planes on Wednesday mornings. What I did first, before I got involved with the environmental stuff or with writing the column, was to talk about literacy. I got invited to a downtown Oakland business club, and I called somebody in the school of education, and I asked, “What’s the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” and they told me. Then I went to the Oakland Rotary’s breakfast and said, “How many of you can name all of the linebacker corps of the Oakland Raiders?” And everybody could. Then I said, “How many of you know the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” And nobody could. And I said, “I couldn’t either, until I asked.” Then I said, “They’re you kids. If they can’t read, it’s your fault.” That was my attack on community at the outset. I ran around saying that imagination makes communities. Self-interest makes networks. Imagination makes communities. I just said it as a mantra. Poetry, by feeding the imagination and describing for us our shared world, makes a community of value. That’s partly true and partly a wish.  


George Guida is author of nine books, most recently the novel Posts from Suburbia (Encircle Publications, 2022) and the collection of poems Zen of Pop (Long Sky Media, 2020). He is at work on Virtue at the Coffee House: Poetry and Community in America.

George Guida

English Department
New York City College of Technology

Posts from Suburbia (2022)
Zen of Pop: Poems (2020)
New York and Other Lovers: Poems (2020)
Pugilistic: Poems (2015)
The Sleeping Gulf: Poems (2015)
Spectacles of Themselves: Essays in Italian American Popular Culture and Literature (2015)
The Pope Stories (2012)
The Pope Play (2009)
Low Italian (2007)
The Peasant and the Pen: Men, Enterprise and the Recovery of Culture in Italian American Narrative (2003)



by Inez Hollander

I didn’t want to ask for money in a letter to our son.  I told Heinrich at the time that Henry certainly shouldn’t deprive himself. Maybe some cigarette money for Heinrich, if he could spare it. We knew Henry had enough troubles, living out of a suitcase in Paris, and sleeping on park benches. 

I opposed the letter Heinrich wrote. We are a proud people and don’t like to ask for help. Asking for money is what panhandlers do, and begging is beneath us. It is not dignified. It is not how I was raised.

But Henry, bless his heart, would always write back, even though we hadn’t seen or heard from him in years. Poor Lauretta sometimes asked if her brother had died in France. Maybe Heinrich feared that too. He was always eager to hear from Henry, and maybe more so since he had fallen ill. Henry was our only son, you see, and for a long time, he had been the only hope to inherit the tailor business which my father had started after he learned the business in London, from the best— only the best! 

As a boy of six or seven I used to sit at my grandfather’s workbench and read to him while he sewed. I remember him vividly in those moments when, pressing the hot iron against the seam of a coat, he would stand with one hand over the other and look out of the window dreamily […] I remember the expression on his face, as he stood there dreaming, better than the contents of the books I read, better than the conversations we had or the games I played in the streets. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

When it became my turn to write something, I told Henry how the cherry tree, lilac and apple tree were blossoming. Some years we just had enough apples to make a pie. I guess Nature sometimes falls on hard times, too. America, that land of plenty that relatives were writing about to us in Die Heimat was not something we had felt in recent years, but then my family didn’t come here for the plenty. Germany was wrapped up in endless wars. America became the escape hatch for both our families, to make sure our men didn’t turn into cannon fodder. 

The three grandfathers and the two great-grandfathers are huddled near the stove talking about the Franco-Prussian war. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

I sometimes wonder whether we were punished for our dereliction of duty. Prussians, my family, we like to show up and do the job, no questions asked. I’ve always taken orders— that’s how I was raised. Once I had a wart on my finger and it was unsightly, and I asked Henry what to do with it. “Just cut it off!” He said, and I did what I was told, as I always do. Blood everywhere— even on the nice dishes, covered in blood, and then Blutvergiftung. And Henry thought it all hilarious.

Two days later, [Louise] shook her bandaged finger at him shouting: “And you told me to do this?!” Then she slapped him repeatedly. Miller never forgot this bewildering and nightmarish experience.
~ Mary Dearborn, The Happiest Man Alive, A Biography of Henry Miller  (1991)

But to make a long story short as they say here, I never had any problems with following orders and discipline and doing what you have to do, so if I had been a man, I would have enlisted, even if it meant fighting the country where I was born. We were all Americans now. How I suffered when Henry was living with us again— the Great War was in its second or third year and all Henry did was lie in bed till noon. No job to go to, just lolling about. One morning it got me so mad that I filled a bucket of cold water and doused him with it. “You either enlist, or get a job!”  

And what did he do?  

He got married to Beatrice to stay out of the war. Call me superstitious, but all this draft dodging has weakened our family. We escaped the war and arrived in America alright, but we could not flee our past or cancer, craziness or the clap. Maybe we were cursed, paying for the sins of our ancestors.

It always seemed astounding to me how jolly they were in our family despite the calamities that were always threatening. Jolly in spite of everything. There was cancer, dropsy, cirrhosis of the liver, insanity, thievery, mendacity, buggery, incest, paralysis, tape-worms, abortions, triplets, idiots, drunkards, ne’er-do-wells, fanatics, sailors, tailors, watch-makers, scarlet fever, whooping cough, meningitis, running ears, chorea, stutterers, jail-birds, dreamers, story-tellers, bartenders… 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

When Henry wrote that long letter from Paris after Heinrich asked him for money, I was a trifle offended by his mention of madness and epilepsy in his letter, but it’s true, it has been rampant in my family. I grew up around it and I, as one of the sane ones, had to keep up appearances while taking care of my mother, and sisters (and Lauretta!) the best I could.  

It taught me discipline. And making do. And not asking too much of others. And staying strong. I have always tried to stay away from emotion— it stirred up too many things, so I learned to be quiet inside and out. It’s better not to ask too many questions or demand too many things. Heinrich was different. He was the talker, and even more so with a little Schnapps. I only talked when necessary. It baffled me how Henry could be such a scribbler. So many words. How did he know so many? If only words could sell like tailored suits or pretty bonnets.  

… this flow and rush of words, this wild, mad, fantastic talk that swelled and grew and gathered momentum—a stream, a torrent, a flood. 
~ Michael Fraenkel, on Miller’s echolalia in “The Genesis of the Tropic of Cancer”, The Happy Rock (1945)

Henry was such a bright little boy, but when he quit his job and wouldn’t want to help take over the tailor business, I thought he had gone mad! I tried to convince him that he needed to help Vati, or rather keep an eye on Vati.

A joint corporation of father and son, with mother holding the boodle.
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

The tailoring business wasn’t doing so swell and instead of cutting cloth or waiting for the first customer, Heinrich would grab his hat and left! Gone for his 10 AM drink. I told Henry to keep an eye on him and prayed our son might warm to the business. My father was a fine tailor, and every man should learn a trade to pay the bills and feed the mouths at home. 

In the past every member of our family did something with his hands. I’m the first idle son of a bitch with a glib tongue and a bad heart. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

But alas, I’m not sure Henry learned anything. It was beneath him to serve others or maybe his heart wasn’t in it. It made me anxious, if not terrified. 

She got us so damned jumpy with her anxiety that we would choke on our own spittle. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

I would nag every day and ask how the shop was faring, but Henry would clam up. I knew his head was drowning in words. Words, words, words, and maybe not the words I wanted to hear. Maybe he merely tried to spare us both. No, I never cared for a single book he wrote… Anyway, with the way he went on about some of the customers, I should probably have been relieved that he never took over the shop: He would have run it into the ground!

They were ticklish bastards, all these old farts we catered to. It was enough to drive any man to drink. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

Once or twice he grumbled something about who had died, which meant business and black cloth and maybe paying one of the outstanding bills, but the customers were not his thing. I always wanted to know who had died, but even that he wouldn’t disclose. Or when I bothered him long enough, he’d blurt out silliness like: “the dead guy was a bartender who picked his nose with a rusty nail—hail and hearty one day, dead the next!” Imagine that! Picking your nose with a rusty nail! Henry didn’t care about the business or learning something new! He would rather hang out with Ferd Pattee in the back of the shop whose only joy in life was… cheese! 

He was passionate about schmierkäse and Limburger especially— the moldier the better. In between the cheeses he told stories about Heine and Schubert, or he would ask for a match just as he was about to break wind and hold it under his seat so that we could tell the color of the flame. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

It was a world of men. Women ruled the roost at home, but all I had was Lauretta. Heinrich was surrounded by men. Clients, friends, and anyone he’d meet when drinking. Henry may have been introduced to Heinrich’s many “friends”, but ach, es tut mir leid, it did ja nichts, gar nichts for his professional life or future. 

The men my father loved were weak and lovable […] No shred of them remained—nothing but the memory of their blaze and glory. They flow now inside of me like a vast river choked with falling stars. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

I never could get a grip on Henry, or Heinrich for that matter. And because of it, I felt so alone. The two men in my life were missing in action, and I could complain all I wanted. Nothing ever changed.

In those days, women were barely more than workhorses. Unfortunately, my mother didn’t have any alternative. It was just her luck that she got stuck with a son who hated to work.
~ Henry Miller, “My German Heritage”, Reflections (1981)

Who knows, maybe I made it worse. I had hit a wall with them. They were out of reach and untouchable. As if they were as good as dead, or crazy, and locked away like my poor sister. 

These days, we might say that Miller’s dad suffered from a “burnout”. His temperament, however, might have been close to Henry’s in that both father and son simply “dropped out”. For Miller senior this turned into an intense relationship with the bottle but for the son it was more like a rebellion of the heart, that is, a dropping out in favor of a life of the arts and senses. The dad was a dipso, the son, an Epicurean.  
~ Inez Hollander 

Henry was such a daydreamer. Coming home from the tailor shop, he was in a world all his own, and I couldn’t reach him. It worried me. When you’re in your head so much, you go mad, and I had had enough madness in my life! Henry once told me that we were all mad because of incest and inbreeding but I highly doubt it… although when I hear people talking about his books, I wonder how much madness there is in his writing.  

Each morning I write a new book, walking from the Delancey Street station north towards the Waldorf. On the fly-leaf of each book is written in vitriol: The Island of Incest. Every morning it starts with the drunken vomit of the night before it makes a huge gardenia which I wear in the buttonhole of my lapel, the lapel of my double-breasted suit which is lined with silk throughout. I arrive at the tailor shop with the black breath of melancholy, perhaps to find Tom Jordan in the busheling room waiting to have the spots removed from his fly. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

Madness. A living death, that’s what that is. When we travel inward, we meet our own demons and if we listen too much to those, we go moldy and mad in the head. Better ignore those voices. It’s not reality. The imagination can be a gateway to hell. I know that for a fact. I have seen it in my family. Far too much of it. So all I do is stay the course and not dwell on things too much. For sanity’s sake. For the family’s sake.

I am the very essence of that proud, boastful Nordic people who have never had the least sense of adventure but who nevertheless have scoured the earth, turned it upside down, scattering relics and ruins everywhere. Restless spirits, but not adventurous ones. Agonizing spirits, incapable of living in the present. Disgraceful cowards, all of them, myself included. For there is only one great adventure and that is inward toward the self, and for that no time nor space nor even deeds matter. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

Henry’s favorite aunt was Emilie, so I remember writing Henry in Paris about how I would pay her a visit, bringing cake, fruit and homemade boiled ham. The poor soul loved to eat. She looked healthy but then she didn’t have a care in the world. They have regular hours to eat and sleep, but still it is a living death. I was always glad when visiting day was over.  

When Henry was still living with us, she loved gazing (and barking!) at the moon. She was queer even as a child… Then, one day, she was sitting on the stove. The stove was lit but her skirt had not caught fire… yet! Something had to be done. She could light the house on fire and kill everyone in it.

She was fond of Henry and since he had no job to go to, we told him to take her on the trolley and the train and to the country where the home was. When Henry accompanied her, he said she was quiet. She asked about the moon and whether he had brought any liverwurst. He said she seemed to trust him. He said she was half-witted but to him she was a saint. He was upset when he came back. In fact, he was in a state. 

Walking down the gravel path towards the big gates Mele becomes uneasy. Even a puppy knows when it is being carried to a pond to be drowned. Mele is trembling now. At the gate they are waiting for us. The gate yawns. Mele is on the inside, I am on the outside. […] Two great, round eyes, full and black as the night, staring at me uncomprehendingly. No maniac can look that way. No idiot can look that way. Only an angel and a saint. 
~ Henry Miller, “The Tailor Shop”, Black Spring (1936)

Henry said she must have remembered what he called the “bug house”. He remembered it from when we used to visit mother on Blackwell Island. Henry was a grown man, but I could tell he had been crying. He scolded me. Why couldn’t they just let her be? Have her sit by the fire and dream the day away? Why, he said, must everybody work— even the saints and angels? I had nothing to say. She might have set the house on fire— that’s all I know. But Henry was a romantic— that was his German blood. And yet, his words did linger, which is why, I think, we never moved Lauretta into a home.  

In the end, things didn’t work out for Henry at the tailor shop. He was just… too different and contrarian. 

I had need of nobody because I wanted to be free, free to do and to give only as my whims dictated. The moment anything was expected of me or demanded of me I balked. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939) 

He had always been like that. When I told him to walk, he ran and when I told him to sit, he’d dance. When I told him to pursue Cora, he pursued a widow twice his age, and when he suggested marrying her, I’d had enough of his rebellious ways. I was rummaging through the knives’ drawer, and for a moment I think he thought I would bring out a knife and threaten him, but all I did was slam the drawer shut and wag my finger in his face. I told him he was not going to throw his life away for a woman who might be barren and exploiting him. For once, he may have listened. 

Usually, it was the other way around. After all, I didn’t want him to write, so he became fixated on being a writer, verdammt nochmal. On Emilie’s old sewing table, he wrote, in the front parlor. Even after I asked him to sit away from the window. When the doorbell rang or visitors were expected, I’d rush in and Henry fled into the closet. I just didn’t want to answer any questions. Scribbling was not respectable enough. Artists can’t pay the bills. Having to answer questions about Lauretta was hard enough. Heinrich disagreed. Told me I censored the boy. I didn’t even know what that word meant until I looked it up. I merely put him inside the closet. The closet of American literature, Henry sneered once. 

I would stand in the dark, choking with the stink of camphor balls until the neighbor took leave. Small wonder that I always associated my activity with that of a criminal. 
~ Henry Miller, “Reunion in Brooklyn”, Sunday After the War (1944)

I wanted Henry to succeed but all that scribbling business was poppycock and fiddle sticks. When you have two children and your youngest can’t even finish school, you need all the help you can get to provide for the family. I had hoped Henry could be there for us, but I fear I drove him away. He was such a good boy. And such a bright child. What a waste of talent! Yes, we had plenty of fights. I nagged and scolded, but he was slippery as an eel. He did whatever he wanted. And that was that. He was out of my hands.  

Mothers can be fatal to their sons […] She that gives life also blocks the way to freedom. 
~ Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (1990)

My mother was the Northern type, cold, critical, proud, unforgiving and puritanical […] It was against her, against all that she represented that I directed my uncontrollable energy. Never until I was fifty did I once think of her with affection […] I felt her shadow across my path constantly. It was a shadow of disapproval, silent and insidious like a poison injected into my veins. 
~ Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (1946)

Haunted. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but I felt haunted by Henry’s lack of success. Not as a writer but as a man who can feed his family. That came first, though clearly not for him. It went from annoyance to aggravation. And I started to badger him. 

She belittled me constantly. Any effort I made was never good enough. She tried to scold and shame me into respectability.  
~ Henry Miller, “My Mother”, Reflections (1981)

It breaks my heart. I know I pushed him away, but maybe I also, eventually, pushed him to write. 

When finally I found the courage to write what I’d been storing up for years, it came pouring out into one long relentless tirade. Beginning with the earliest memories of my mother, I had saved up enough hatred, enough anger, to fill a hundred books.  
~ Henry Miller, “My Mother”, Reflections (1981)

No! Didn’t I say so earlier?! I never read anything he wrote. I had a feeling it wasn’t meant for my eyes. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be known as the mother of Henry Miller, the author. And when his books couldn’t be published here, I knew it was because he wrote scandalous, daffy things. That’s his contrarian side, you see? We rage because we want to rebel. 

It was only natural that I should become a rebel, an outlaw, a desperado. I blame my parents, I blame society, I blame God. I accuse. I go through life with finger lifted accusingly. I have the prophetic itch. I curse and blaspheme. I tell the bitter truth. 
~ Henry Miller, “Uterine Hunger”, The Wisdom of the Heart (1941)

I love all those men who are called rebels and failures. I love them because they are so human, so ‘human-all-too-human.’”
~ Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud  (1946)

 And maybe he was still rebelling against me, writing those dirty books. I did my best I could to be pleasant and civil. But I knew he had rejected me. When I heard his first novel was called Clipped Wings, I had the uneasy feeling that he was trying to tell me that I had clipped his wings. But apparently it was a book about messengers, and his first real job. He lost that manuscript. He lost so many things. His common sense is one thing. And maybe he lost me as well, or rather we were both lost to each other.  

The mother from whose loins I sprang was a complete stranger to me. 
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939) 

It was not for lack of trying. I loved him dearly even though I could never utter those words. It was simply not done in my family.  

His mother was wearing a fur muff and he never forgot the pleasure of slipping his cold hands into the warm fur. From his talk I would guess that was the only kind of warmth his mother could give him, against snow and cold, animal fur and no human warmth. 
~ Anaïs Nin, January 1935, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, vol. 2: 1934-1935 (1967)

I loved him and just didn’t accept his life choices. Although June, his second wife, had something to say about that, which shook me profoundly. During a Christmas dinner, when I, once again, inquired about money and jobs and making something of yourself, she said: “If you don’t accept him as a writer, you’ll never have him as a son.”  

June was drunk. But sometimes drunks tell the truth. I knew that from Heinrich. He sometimes made more sense when he was drunk than when he was sober. So maybe I drove Henry away, and drove him abroad. Who can say? For years and years, he was gone.

It has been found that phantasies [sic] of exploring the mother’s body, which arise out of the child’s aggressive sexual desires, greed, curiosity and love, contribute to the man’s interest in exploring new countries […] In the explorer’s unconscious mind, a new territory stands for a new mother. He is seeking the “promised land”, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” 
~ Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation & Other Works, 1921-1945 (1975)

When he finally did come home, it was such a happy family reunion! To see him walk through the door! He was late but for days we had been anticipating his arrival. We had hung up new drapes and made lunch, Lauretta and I, and when he stepped into the hallway, full of life, and stories of Paris and Greece, I had to excuse myself and wipe away some tears in the kitchen. It was like, like the…verlorene Sohn. I wanted to hug him, and kiss him and hold him but did none of the above. When it came time to go, I rushed toward him, wanting to put my arms around him but something in him made me recoil. Stepping back, I focused on his sleeve instead. I held him back momentarily and picked at a loose thread that was sitting there.  

The climax came when, just as I was about to slip into my overcoat, my mother in a tearful voice came rushing up to me and holding me by the arm, said: “Oh Henry, there’s a thread on your coat!” A thread, by Jesus! That was the sort of thing she would give attention to! The way she uttered the word thread was as if she had spied a leprous hand sticking out of my coat pocket. All her tenderness came out in removing that little white thread from my sleeve. Incredible—and disgusting! 
~ Henry Miller, “Reunion in Brooklyn”, Sunday After the War (1944)

When Heinrich died, Henry arrived too late. To allay his feelings of guilt, I told him that Heinrich had told the nurses about his “wonderful son,” which moved Henry to tears. Or so I think. Unlike me, he cried easily. When he kissed Heinrich in the coffin, he most certainly wept. I did not, as I think one should only weep in private. One puts an unnecessary burden on others when they see you cry. People don’t know what to do with tears or grief.  

With Heinrich gone, the house became very quiet and solemn. Lauretta started looking after me when I felt more and more fatigued. I couldn’t even finish my letters to Henry.  

Dear Henry, thank you for the gift. Mother is fine. I am taking good care of her. 
~ Lauretta Miller, in a 1944 letter, Henry Miller Collection, UCLA

In 1945, Emilie died. Annie and Mary rushed to her bedside for a last embrace. She had been living in that asylum for more than thirty years. It surely was a mixed blessing, her death.  

Henry and I lost touch again. A letter here, a letter there, an occasional check, even though I told him not to, for now he had two children of his own in a house overlooking the Pacific. After the hullabaloo of Paris, I thought he might get bored there but he seemed very content. Maybe he was finally growing up, being an actual father… the father he hadn’t been to Barbara, the daughter he had with Beatrice, his first wife.  

And then, one day, the doorbell rang, and imagine what? Lepska, Henry’s third wife, and the kids filled up the house with blondness, gaiety and joy. Two little angels… and Tony looked so much like Henry when he was that age! Lauretta and I were over the moon. I wanted to buy them gifts but being too ill, I couldn’t make it to the store. Lepska made pictures of the visit and when I received them in the mail, I showed them off to whoever wanted to see them.  

In those years, we also had an unexpected visit of a man by the name of Alfred Perlès, who had lived with Henry in Paris. He told me all about what a great writer Henry had become. I told him that Henry had always been a good boy. Maybe that was a strange thing to say. Maybe it implied that he was a good boy but not a good man but what I meant is that I saw his promise to be a good man when he was a little boy. For a moment, a tear welled up in my eye, and not wanting to show my emotions, I turned away and coughed. Mr. Perlès may have noticed it and may have even told Henry about it. I wish that would have been the last of it.  

When I became really ill with cancer of the liver and could no longer take care of myself or have Lauretta look after me, Henry came to care for me and although there were things I wanted to say to him, all that came out was past recriminations. I failed him and I failed myself.  

And now it is too late. The end is near as I become weaker every day. I struggle and resist, not because I want to hold onto life, but because I am worried about Lauretta. Henry said he will take care of her but he never took care of Beatrice and Barbara, so how can I trust him? I wish Heinrich were here to reassure me about Henry. And Lauretta. I wish I could unsay some of the things I blurted out when Henry helped me out of the bed this morning. I wish I knew what I know now. I wish… 


Louise Miller died on March 21st, 1956. When our mothers die, part of us, our childhood, a part of our identity, our achievements die with them.  

Yet Henry remained haunted by her presence. He simply could not wash her out of his system. Even in the funeral parlor, Henry claimed, she would have her eye on him: When stooping over her coffin, one of her eyes opened and stared at him. 

Having been born half an hour after midnight on December 26th, 1891, Miller also blamed her controlling, retentive womb for failing to deliver him on Christmas Day. At the same time, Miller couldn’t have blamed it all on Louise’s womb. When describing DH Lawrence, Miller was essentially describing himself: “He was a man struggling to free himself from the womb. He could not get born.”[1]

Undoubtedly, this started his strange fascination with the womb as a source of creation and destruction, attraction and repulsion, life and death… and always the struggle to get born (and reborn). Or in the words of his friend and fellow writer, Michael Fraenkel: “Miller who pries into these orifices, openings, crevices, Miller in the symbolic belly of the whale, is not simply the scatophage or the irresponsible, but Miller the suffering man who has entered ‘the festering’ wound to cleanse it, to be cleansed, to come clean of the past, to be born.”[2] 

His gnarly obsession and fixation with his mother didn’t fade over time. He would go looking for many mothers in the relationships he had with women but he could not finish the unfinished business with his mother.  Until late in life, when people asked him about her, he always mentioned her lack of warmth and love.  

It is striking, in this context, that Miller wrote that his earliest childhood memory was not a memory of his mother, but a remembrance “of the cold, the snow and ice in the gutter, the frost on the window panes, the chill of the sweaty green walls in the kitchen” (Tropic of Capricorn). One could see this as a metaphor, or rather, a metonym of the coldness of his mother. 

In his writing, and real life, he hadn’t been able to fix this relationship but in his dreamworld, which he cultivated and relished, he managed to get to Devachan or what we call Limbo in Catholic theology. In his dream, the first person he meets is his mother and overwhelmed with emotion, all he can say is “Mother, dear Mother.” His mother has undergone a complete transformation. She is everything she wasn’t in real life, i.e. a loving, tolerant and proud parent.  

At the end of the dream, which really feels more like a vision than a dream, his mother fades away to return to Earth. It triggers a panic in him, not unlike like the panic of a little boy who has lost sight of his mom in a busy shopping mall.  

But then he suddenly sees her again, on her way out. She’s waving goodbye: “With that I stood up, my eyes wet with tears, and giving a mighty shout, I cried: ‘Mother, I love you. I love you! Do you hear me?’ I imagined that I saw a faint smile illumine her face and then suddenly she was no more. I was alone, but more alone than I had ever felt on Earth, and I would be alone, perhaps, for centuries or who knows, perhaps through all eternity.”[3] 

Miller had found, and finally lost his mother again four years before he’d die himself. The existential dread that follows makes sense. Mothers allow us to exist but when they don’t or can’t see us and appreciate us as mothers (anymore), we may feel invisible and dead. This dark, black hole is the one Henry tried to fill for most of his life. It explains the sex, it explains the dysfunctional sex, it explains his relationships with and writing about women. He was damaged. But then so was Louise… 
~ Inez Hollander 


Inez Hollander, Ph.D., is a writer and translator. In 1999, she published a biography of the American novelist and journalist Hamilton Basso with Louisiana State University Press, which were followed by two memoirs, Ontwaken uit de Amerikaanse droom (Amsterdam: Archipel, 2004) and Silenced Voices (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008).

In spite of the long overdue #MeToo movement, Hollander feels that Henry Miller’s work deserves a second hearing. She tries to do this in her new, creative nonfiction manuscript and bio-memoir Crazy Cock.

Following his life and work through the different and most important women in his life, she has channeled the women’s point of view and feelings which are so woefully absent from his autobiographical novels. This puts Miller in a different light, as a man, and an important American writer.

[1] Henry Miller quoted by Michael Fraenkel’s Bastard Death: The Autobiography of an Idea (Paris: Carrefour, 1936) 41-42.

[2] Michael Fraenkel, The Genesis of the Tropic of Cancer”, The Happy Rock, A Book about Henry Miller (Berkeley: Packard Press, 1945) 49.

[3] Henry Miller, “Mother, China, and the World Beyond,” Sextet (1977; New York: New Directions Book) 164.


By Emilio Williams

“The real function of art is to change mental patterns,
making new thought possible.”
Jean Dubuffet                                                                                         

To Carson Grace Becker

After a tortuous renovation, I hang the artwork back on freshly painted walls. Three framed Soviet posters on this side, three male nudes here, and three Ionesco lithographs over there. My friend Kim approves: “Everything looks better in groups of three.”

A fissure opens on the wall I’m facing and inside, a cavernous tunnel. I’m not saying that nature, life, and art do not have any other underlying code, don’t get me wrong. But all I can see, as of right now, is the master, organizing principle, the permanence of three.

“Methodic writing distracts me from humankind’s current condition,”, says Borges in The Library of Babel. In that infinite library that will outlive humans. a curious reader will find an encyclopedia of everything, everything, on the number three.

Khepri, one of the three forms of the Egyptian sun god, surfaces from the horizon and is represented in the shape of an ovoid scarab. Re, or Ra, the sun of the midday, supervises creation and fertility. Atum, dusk, sets on the horizon to complete this world.

I learned in school: “Living beings are born, grow, reproduce, and die.” That version of the maxim is not entirely accurate, loaded with implications, because not all living beings, me for one, end up reproducing. Birth, growth, and death: the three absolute constants in life.

Birth is the beginning, growth is the middle, and death is the end. Life rendered as the daily sun or an Aristotelian climactic narrative in three acts. The moment a storyteller messes with that primordial, organic expectation, the audience moves uncomfortably in their seats.

I’m sitting at a table across from my guy, and he tells me he can fold anything into a trifold brochure. He grabs a piece of paper and folds it into itself, in three. Then, he folds a plate, then the table, and when he is about to three-fold the room with us inside, I wake up.

I kept having these night-long dreams that I’m in a department store as large as a city. The layout, the clerks, and the shoppers change every time. In the final reiteration, the dream becomes a nightmare when I notice all products in the store are in the shape of a triskelion.

When I’m pregnant with new writing, without fail, the anxious dreams start. Tonight, I dreamt of my arrival at a palace, where I met a king, whose name I didn’t remember and whom I needed to impress. A menacing third person I couldn’t see was surveilling us.

My graduate advisor, Amy England, emails every day an original translation of a traditional Haiku. “A cold moon:/amid the withered trees/a stand of three bamboos.” Each haiku, three Japanese vertical lines, dances in my head softly, bamboo shoots in the wind.

“I’ve been down so long/That down don’t worry me/Repeat/ I just sit and wonder/Where can my good man be?” sings Billie Holiday. The blues repeats the first two stanzas and then surprises with a rhyming third. The loopy pain of the blues, a musical swinging razor.

What if I could declutter sentences, chopping the output of my brain with a machete? What if I could streamline all thoughts and ideas into something that could be three mere whistles? What if every new thought could fit in a small index card, three horizontal bamboos?

Anu was not only the god of the sky in Mesopotamia; he also was the father of other gods and, most surprisingly, demons too. Enlil was the Lord of the air, and he separated Heaven and Earth to make room for agriculture. Ea completed another godly triad as the Lord of Water.

The ancient spiritual and medical practice of Ayurveda defines the three doshas as vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water). Vata relates to the nervous system, pitta to the enzymes, and kapha to the mucus. Health means the doshas are balanced and in equilibrium.

In The Timaeus, Plato discusses the order and beauty of the universe. He declares the existence of four primordial elements: fire, air, water, and earth. All of them are formed, everything is formed, he believed, by the most basic of shapes: the triangle.

Pythagoras thought that there were three types of men. Those who came to the games to buy and sell, those who came to compete, and those who came to watch. Those who love wealth and material possessions, those who search for honors, and those who look for wisdom.

The three states of matter are liquid, solid, and gas, as it happens with water, ice and steam. The states correspond with our three basic animal needs for life: drink, food and air. At the atomic level of matter, another triad: protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Three is the first non-symmetrical plurality that is not perfectly divisible in half. You can have one or two, but it is at three that a pattern kicks off. Three is the first number that gets things slightly off-kilter, and therefore, I would argue, when they finally get interesting.

Creation, preservation, and destruction are the forms of the Trimūrti of Hinduism: Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Brahmā, the self-born, is often the mind, Viṣṇu, the protector, the heart and Śiva, the destroyer of evil, is the body. Of course, mind, heart, and body, the braid within us all.

The three Hindu Gods have a trinity of companions, the Tridevi. Saraswati, Brahma’s wife, represents learning and cultural fulfillment, and Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife, material and spiritual fulfillment. The third, Śiva’s wife, is Parvati, is the goddess of both war and love.

Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakur was a wiseman from the 17th century of our era and wrote poetry and rhetoric. He established three types of merits in excellent poetry: sweetness, energy, and perspicuity. Perspicuity is, in my case, the elusive goddess of clear thinking.

Three sons of three merchants were given refuge in the middle of the night by a beautiful widow who offered to marry the one who could tell the scariest tale. Each young man told a horrific, bloody story. To this day, she has not decided which of the three was the scariest.

While three princes went to war, a maid ordered their fiancés to be gouged. The three blind queens delivered three baby boys while hiding away in a cave. One of the boys cured the queens by blowing three candles, so they all returned home and roasted the maid alive.

Once upon a time, a girl was granted three wishes, or maybe it was three guesses or three opportunities to crack a riddle, I am not sure. Once upon a time, there were three bears, three little pigs, and a three-legged cat. Once upon a time, humans built all tales around trinities.

The Golden Triangle was the preferred compositional form of the European Renaissance. Raphael used it in all of his portraits of Madonna and the child. In art textbooks, they superimpose the triangles over the paintings as if to show its secret code, its x-ray.

The rule of three divides any visual composition into three vertical columns and three horizontal rows. In the intersections lay the focal points. They are like the beginning, middle, and end of a story, or the sun’s daily journey, so ingrained, we don’t even notice them.

Three kinds of light illuminate opaque bodies, observed Da Vinci. The “direct light,” that of the sun, the “diffused light,” of cloudy or misty weather, and the “subdued light,” when the sun is entirely under the horizon. Was he talking about painting or my moods?

In the Book of Revelations, God is that “who was, and is, and is to come.” When he became human, according to that tradition, he had to face three temptations. And the ending of the story, a re-start: he was dead for three days before resurrecting.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The three Archangels are the Catholic tradition’s mega-angels, and the Wise Men who visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were also three. In the Last Supper by Da Vinci, the Apostles sit in groups of three.

Providence, both omnipresent and omnisapient. At the Uffizi in Florence, in The Supper at Emmaus by Pontormo (1525), the Eye of Providence supervises us, mortals, from inside a triangle. The same eye that watches us from a pyramid in the US dollar bill.

“I’m writing about triangles,” I mention to my friend Margaret Mary. “You mean the musical instrument?”, she asks. This makes me laugh, and then I remember that when I was a Catholic kid, the triangle was the only instrument they let me play at mass.

My first communion at age nine was the culmination of a year-long process of Catholic indoctrination. Among other things I learned: the Confiteor. Hand in fist, one knocks three times on the chest while confessing: “por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi grandísimas culpa.”

In Persia, third century of the common era, a new doctrine that boils everything down to two principles, Good and Evil, takes shape: Manichaeism. Two create an illusory comfort. The third idea, object, or person crashes in and makes room for something that is not as simple.

The French say: “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité“. Franco, in Spain, cried: “¡Una, Grande, Libre!” Jefferson applied “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness” like lipstick on John Locke’s lips, because, let’s face it, Property, not the Pursuit of  Happiness, is the ultimate American god.

A new generation has shattered the binary perception of gender. Still, so many false binaries are assumed in the American conversation left/right, red/blue, right/wrong. Manichaeism’s righteousness (us vs. them) is alive and well in this irritable capitalism of late.

Populism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism offer those tired of complexity a respite from the messiness of a nuanced third: you’re with us or a heretic. At one point, oversimplifying catches up. Binary dogmas will continue to implode because their falseness is not sustainable.

The North-Atlantic democracies seemed a given, but are now just brittle. In life and online, I’m surrounded by loud Roman emperors, displaying a thumb up, or most often, a giant Pollice Verso. So here I am, doing my best to resist by longing for moments of messy maybes.

Two is company, three is a crowd, they say, but I beg to differ. Somedays, one is a crowd, and I guess that the experience of finding two to be a crowd may not be that uncommon, mainly when the novelty, like dead fish, expires. But who says three could not be good company?

Finally, a portion of the hetero-world has become more accepting of certain forms of queerness. How many friends, straight and gay, have casually denied to me the existence of bisexuality? Bi is not here or there and therefore is a threat to the false safety of the simplified.

When I watched Cabaret on TV, as a young teen, I loved the songs. The bisexual love triangle at the heart of the personal drama either totally escaped me, I found unremarkable, or maybe both. In the song Two Ladies, the MC sings: “Twosie beats onsie. But nothing beats threes.”

Growing up in Spain, in the last years of General Franco we only had two TV channels. American Hollywood classics played in rotation. On my bedroom wall, I collected posters of old movies with a trio of characters at their core: Casablanca, The Apartment, Some like it hot

Lubitsch, Wilder, Hawks, all the great directors seemed to recognize the primordial balance and tension of the triangle. Most of the time one of the two men won over the woman. Only, in Lean’s Blithe Spirit, the love triangle of one man and two women sublimate in the afterlife.

Barthes: “The three trials of the writer are Doubt, Patience, and Separation”. The first one is an abstract trial, what to write; the second a practical one, the step-by-step process; the third one, a moral one, how society will judge. He was so blocked, he died before writing his novel.

I have no doubts: I’m compulsively researching the implications of three. The process is limited and helped by the three-line constriction. The third one: if I were to worry how anybody will judge my musings on three, I wouldn’t be able to put down one word.

Author Emilio Williams passed away last night in his sleep. He was known for his essay “Thrice,” a piece credited with ending all two-person entanglements. It was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film starring Antonio, Brad, and Denzel, as the perfect threesome.

Growing up, my family. My father and two brothers, my mother and two sisters, my two brothers and me, my two sisters and me, my parents and me. Me, the baby who came a bit late, could take two at a time, but the minute three of them got together, there was no entry point.

Our sense of time passing is measured in days, months, and years. If I drill down, it also is measured in hours, minutes, and seconds. The first set of times is easier to remember, more historical, but the second just gets lost, it dissolves in the blur of a non-existent present.

I finally move the debris of my father’s life from a storage locker into our new garage. Not absolute chaos, things are contained in boxes, but not proper order either. Here it is now, the cruel randomness of the private archive in all its brown-boxed glory.

My dad takes me to the Prado, and I hold his hand, afraid to get lost. We come into a room where people are waiting in front of a box on the wall. A man in a grey uniform and white gloves unfolds the covers, and there it is, Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The left panel includes Jesus, Adam, and Eve in a bucolic paradise. The right panel is a scary, grotesque black scene of Hell. But the mystery of the triptych is in its central panel, a paradise where hundreds of human figures give themselves with complete abandon to hedonistic joy.

Purgatory is that space where souls are triaged before ending up in heaven or hell. My father passed just before the COVID-19 lockdown, and his boxes arrived shortly after. I started opening them in the early summer, but by box number three, I had to stop,  it had become too much.

According to the Cleveland Clinic website, there are three types of tears. The basal covers and protects the eye; the reflex appears when a foreign object enters the eye; and the emotional, well, that one you know. “Humans are the only creatures known to produce emotional tears.”

In the Catholic tradition, tears can be a gift, not a curse. Holy tears can be penitential (regret), tears of love (grace), or tears of compassion for those suffering. In my all-boys Catholic school, like the song, we were only taught one thing about tears: “Boys don’t cry”.

Cranach, the Elder, painted several versions of the Allegory of Melancholia. The most famous is at the National Gallery of Denmark, and it is as abstruse as melancholia proper. This 1532 oil has three naked toddlers trying to pass, with two sticks, a ball through a hoop.

Few thinkers have had a more decisive influence on our messed-up sexuality than St. Augustine. The ordeal started when, as a teenager, he had an involuntary erection in front of his father who reacted with pride and joy. The mother, Monica, who was very devout, shamed them both.

After a long life of “sin” and belief in Manichaeism, Augustine developed the doctrine of peccatum originale. Based on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Augustine codified that every human being is a born-sinner stained by voluntary and involuntary desires.

For Augustine there were three types of lust: that of the senses, that of power and that of curiosity. The first two are better known and more straightforward. The third one is a lust of the eyes, a craving that includes an interest in theater, the sciences, and knowing more.

Quintilian was a Latin master of oratory who was born only an hour away from my mother’s birthplace. He established a binary between “clear” and “obscure” speech. But the French enlightenment came later to save my day with a new concept, that of “Je ne sais quois”.

Woolf said, “life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Attempt to discuss the semitransparent nature of life, and they will make you pay a high price. Although the pathology is in dichotomous thinking.

Who is afraid of the “Je ne sais quois”? Why is every piece of writing, every play, every artwork only as valuable as some desire to have it explained? Let’s celebrate that certain experiences transcend our ability to pin them on a cork board as if we were collecting butterflies.

Early movies were called the theater of silence, just a camera sitting there while the actors moved around the stage. Then, montage helped movies find their mojo. If you place this image here, next to this other image you get a third thing pregnant with symbolic meaning.

At the Studio Museum, in Harlem, artist Fred Wilson reorganized objects in the collection, as part of his project “Mining the Museum”. By placing a 19th-century chair, next to a slave whipping post, Wilson created a third thing. Parataxis is the dot, dot, dot between two ideas.

In 1982, three major events took place in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s life. She married, published her avant-garde “novel” Dictee, just a week before being murdered. In her cult book, she combines two elements (text and image) to create a third thing teeming with new connotations.

Bierce famously defined good writing as “clear thinking made visible”. Who gets to decide what is good writing and how do they get that job?  Oh, how I hope that by now I have made translucent to you my current lack of clear-thinking!

Refranes are popular sayings, proverbs, that usually have a rhyme or work as a couplet. In Spanish, they are considered the wisdom of the people. “No hay dos sin tres” literally asserts that there are no two, without a third.

In English, the “where” adverbs are binary: here and there, this or that. In Spanish, there are three forms aquí, ahí, allá, and esta, esa, aquella, with gendered options to the latter. So ahí, and esa, eso, ese allow a vagueness to be in a middle-range, a place in the in-between.

Duermevela in Spanish is a type of light sleep between being awake and falling asleep that I thought had no exact translation into English. But apparently there is a word, a term that sounds more pathologic than poetic, no wonder it is not commonly used. The word: hypnagogia.

The Japanese concept of Ma is usually translated to English in a binary sense: negative space. A better translation could be the in-between, for example the Ma between two karate fighters. The kanji symbol for Ma is a door with a sun peaking, the life between the edges.

A door has three frames, two vertical, one horizontal on top, but it is the empty space that creates a threshold. To cross a door, for an instant, I walk in the liminal space that is not here or there. Like breathing, travels in the in-between are so constant most times they pass unnoticed.

Laudonia, one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is divided into three: the city of the dead, the city of the living, and the city of the unborn. The city of the unborn feeds the city of the dead like sand passing through an hourglass. The amount of sand is, of course, finite.

As the first anniversary of my father’s passing approached, I couldn’t procrastinate any longer the opening of old boxes filled with the debris of a lifetime. In one folder among my old letters to him, somebody else’s letter had been misfiled. Its secrets were not for me to read.

Deleuze in The Logic of Sensation discusses Bacon’s triptychs by quoting the theory of rhythm by the composer Messiaen. There is an active rhythm and a passive rhythm. But there is also a third one, a rhythm he names attendant, a witness to a conflict, who remains inactive.

The Borromean knot receives its name from the Italian House of Borromeo which used its shape in their coat of arms. The knot is made out of three, inseparably linked shapes, usually circles that connote the eternal. When one of the links is removed, the structure falls apart.

Lacan borrowed the metaphor of the Borromean knot to explain the human mind. The symbolic ring is linguistic and the imaginary ring involves images and mirrors.  The third one is the real: everything that is impossible to represent with images or words, the unknowable.

Lacan defined three functions of the father related to the three rings. The symbolic father represents the law and the imaginary father is a construct of our ideas of the father. Even people who understand Lacan (I don’t) consider his third definition, the real father, difficult to grasp.

The Classic era of Athens and Rome eclipses two and a half thousand years of history in Northern Europe. The three matrons (the mothers) were the triple goddesses of Ancient Europe. Their function was the protection of the family and fertility and, at certain times, war.

Myth, life, and that space in between called the stage. Lear had three daughters and Macbeth, three witches. Later, Chekhov created The Three Sisters, Genet three women role-playing The Maids, Beckett three old friends in Come and Go, and Albee, Three Tall Women.

Pessoa wrote three women mourning a dead body in the play The Mariner. In a night-long wake, they sit still, uttering non-sequiturs, each line more beautiful than the last.  The third watcher says: “It horrifies me that soon I will already have told you what I am about to say.”

I’m thinking of the three graces in Botticelli’s Primavera interlocking their fingers playfully. I’m thinking of the three fates, the Parcas: Nona, Decima, and Morta, spinning, measuring, and cutting the fine thread of life. I’m thinking, mostly, of my mother and two sisters. 

I’m Theseus in a labyrinth of cathexis and amnesia. In 2011, when I moved back to Chicago, my father’s hometown, I saw an arresting exhibition of amateur snapshots, women posing three at a time. I reorder the old catalog online: I don’t remember a single one of them.

The photo reads on the back “Lindau, c. 1920’s,” probably snapped from a boat. The black silhouettes of three women on a pier walk away from the camera, back towards land. Maybe they came to see the boat off, to wave goodbye to the photographer, this time probably for good.

Untitled (Lindau [?]) c. 1920/29. Photographer unknown.
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago


Emilio Williams is a bilingual (Spanish/English) award-winning writer and educator. His fragmented essays have appeared in Hinterland Magazine, and Imagined Theatres, among other publications. His critically acclaimed plays have been produced in Argentina, Estonia, France, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.  Emilio has lectured around the world, and taught in several U.S. universities, including DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Georgia State University. He holds a BA in Film and Video and an MFA in Writing. He is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists where he is also a faculty member. www.emiliowilliams.com

Grace Street

By Frederick Pollack

The most significant photo
of my childhood isn’t of me
but a man three stories down,
alone, galoshed, earflapped,
woolen (long before parkas
even for soldiers), bent against the wind
(there was always wind), responding
tactically to ice ahead. It could
be noon but is almost as dark
as the brick apartment buildings
in their long lifetime
of soot. An age and neighborhood
of small deals, nominal
top tax rate 94%, the B-36s
of the Strategic Air Command
protecting us. (I could sell you
reasonably the damp grey
dry-rotted windowsill above
the radiator, over which
I could almost see.) All I know
for sure about the walker
is that he’s dead. So I can
hope that his small deal
that day went through – that
the girl, lawyer, shop steward
accepted the line
he was rehearsing. And
coopt him for other purposes, as
he was already.

The Loom

What if art had been different? During the
rappel à l’ordre
of the 1920s, everyone shifts
to tapestries. (What manifests ordre
more than a tapestry?) Not just a few
luxury experiments – the norm:
more weavers, brought in from the provinces,
in Paris than lithographers
(someone always profits). Leger’s robots,
Braque’s tremulous (head-wound) yellow-greens,
fuzzy. A creeping if not creepy
nostalgia for pre-artillery
stone walls sets in; Maurras and his cane-
wielding monarchists approve;
Dada withers, Surrealism
never takes off. Everywhere
texture, pastels in the light
of calla-lily lamps, covert vertical
frottage. Bonnard’s twelve-meter offering
at the Hôtel de Ville. Even
the poor nail up their linsey-woolsey
reproductions of “Verdun.” Soon, portraits
of various Leaders assume
this presence all over Europe,
wall-posters vaguely déclassé. In an
Italian film (the “White Telephone” school
absorbs neorealism), a girl
of the people, being kept by
an aristocrat, pulls
a tapestry from his wall and
wraps herself in it,
lying on a patch of parquet; her dark
eyes flash as she cries,
“My whole family could sleep under this!” …
You can see her, can’t you.

One of the Names

I came voluntarily.
It was nicer than I’d hoped.
They were pleased I’d given up
without a fuss my tent beneath the overpass,
brought nothing but a clipping,
didn’t fight (like some I knew)
for every plastic bag. Accepted
delousing, tests, shots,
without screaming. And the jumpsuit.
Answered their questions, said I had no skills
(which gratified them after days and weeks
of shamans, lathe operators,
superannuated sex workers, agents
of or against the secret masters, ex-
executives, Jesus).
Didn’t ask for a drink.
There but for the grace of God,
I’d like to think they thought.
On the benches in the big room,
the shadows of four windowless towers
(more going up) crossed
my comrades, who, if they talked at all,
said one way or another
It won’t hurt. One yelled we’d be killed
immediately, or our spoiled bodies
flushed in a year or two
down some hole; he was dragged away. Few
speculated when we’d be awakened.
I thought of nothing else.
Didn’t imagine a fresh start,
cures, kindness. Only
the power keeping on and on,
concrete remaining whole, letting us out
finally on a former
sea floor. What I’d really like
is just eight minutes as the sun goes nova …
the sun will need me.

Thousand Aves Told

                  With the demise of monasticism, there is now no place where one can
                  professionally execrate the world.

After the Revolution, we take seriously
Cioran’s lament. With the joyous, self-congratulatory
élan that comes with the demise
of money, we build in forests and waste places
negative structures: not pseudo-ancient
or aggressively austere.
The chapels at their heart
lack altars, but the chairs are hard
and widely spaced, the quiet quieter.
With our usual warmth, we ensure
that those who wish to enter
have not attempted suicide too often,
or killed, and probably won’t. Offer
counseling, leave a number
they can call if they want. (In all this
we show a consideration
not extended to religion.)
Left alone, they tend to adopt
a partial code of silence, banning
the loudest and most defensive. Make their beds,
grow their food. Through
the windows in the common room
or, often, from narrow hallways
they stare at cherished birds and trees and
sometimes, on the horizon,
us building. Nights they see a face
they wounded, or their own. They consider
the dark beneath the earth. Whisper
curses shaped over years and carefully
inscrutable. Gods and things like gods
exude like sweat or winter breath; despite
the care they have for each other,
to some the place feels always hot or cold.
And they fight and break up fights, and eat in dimness.
Co-ed. Flirtation frowned upon.
But sometimes two wind up in the same cot.
With the understanding that, tomorrow,
they will leave without goodbyes,
fasten each other’s pack, descend
to the trailhead and the nearest town
with its windmills, brass band,
and equivocating, indispensable banners.

Personal Items

Eventually they return
my passport, jacket, tie,
phone, and hat. One declaims
haltingly their sorrow
for any inconvenience; I sign
a form saying I have no complaints.
Become almost tearful,
seeing again my stickered, scuffed,
beductaped leather suitcase.
It will look as suspect and as quaint as I
(I know – I’ve followed the world
on television) among

those twirling, weightless things
that people pull along
like aphids dragging pupae. These
unfurl, I’ve heard, into well-appointed
shelters for those homeless who can afford them.
Prepare hot meals on the run.
Equipped with stirrups, can be ridden
or (for all I know) flown.
Are in touch with the great mainframe
and commiserate with their owners
on the horrors of travel. My smartphone,
likewise, will seem no longer

smart. No more will I – must reinvent
my look as “aged but resolute.”
Nor, I must say, do the officials,
whose uniforms were redesigned
(and not to their advantage) during my stay.
They hesitate, handing back
my suitcase. Will they subject it
to yet more dogs, decryption, x-rays, profiling?
“Would you like to check … ” asks one
with unauthorized compassion.
I smile as if I scarcely care.
After so long, I know what’s in there.


Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems: THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both from Story Line Press; the former to be reissued by Red Hen Press. Also two collections of shorter poems: A POVERTY OF WORDS, (Prolific Press, 2015) and LANDSCAPE WITH MUTANT (Smokestack Books, UK, 2018). Pollack has appeared in Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Magma (UK), Bateau, Fulcrum, Chiron Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, etc. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Hamilton Stone Review, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Mudlark, Rat’s Ass Review, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, etc.


by Justin Reamer

‘IT’S-A ME, MARIO!’ Mario. Next my pillow, smiling. Blue eyes glowing. Red hat. Letter M. Red M. Large nose. Large to pull. Eyes opening. My eyes. Mario looks. Sees me. Smiling. I tired. Mario smiling. ‘It’s-a me, Mario!’ Shouting. Happy. Eyes gaze on Mario. Mario friend. Mario my best friend. He like me. Mario happy. Brown hair under red hat. Black moustache. Hair different from moustache. Why different? Must like hair-dye. Wears red shirt. Red shirt under blue pants. Blue pants with yellow buttons. White gloves. Brown shoes. Mario happy. Me? Waking up. Tired. Still waking up. Mario wake me up. Eyes still adjusting. Hands still, feet still. Yawn. Tired. Body under covers, in bed. Feel warm. Body under covers. Bed comfortable. Humming of lights. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Very low hum. Hmm… Very, very low hum. Hmmmmm… Not too loud. Hmmmm… Humming not bad. Quiet. Not loud. Loud hurts my ears. Mario smiling still. Cannot feel my feet yet. Still in bed. Hands still, feet still. Can’t move. Feel tired. Why tired? Just woke up. Not move yet. Don’t feel like. Need to lie. Few minutes. Few if okay. Few I need. Few more, I need now.

   Dryer loud downstairs. Hrrrrmmmm! It rolls. Hrrrrrmmmm! Very loud through muffled floor. Hrrrmmm! Continues to run. Very loud for ears. Very loud when close. Hrrrmmmm! Muffled when away. Not so loud. Slightly quiet. But loud even through floor. Hrrrrmmmm! Don’t like loud. Loud bad for ears. Can’t stand. No like. No like at all. Hrrrrmmmm! Continues to run. Mommy does dryer. Dryer for laundry. She uses for laundry. Does laundry with dryer. She like. I no like. Too loud. Hurt my ears. Hrrrrmmmm! Lights hum in my room. Hmmmm… Lights hum quietly. Hmmmm… Quiet unlike dryer. Hmmmm… Dryer too loud. No like dryer. Mario no like, either. Hurts his ears, too. Dryer loud for him. So says. I like quiet. You like quiet? Quiet nice. Soothing. Better for me. Too loud bad. Too loud hurts. Still in bed. Hear dryer downstairs. Dryer for laundry. Never want to be around. Bed warm. Bed comfortable. Mario like bed, too. Mario is my friend. We like bed. Bed nice and warm.

   ‘Good morning, Oak!’

   A voice. Know that voice? Whose voice? Mommy’s voice. Mommy nearby. Mommy in my room. Mommy be here soon? Mommy, I know. Mommy nice. Mommy, I like. Mommy nice. Mommy nice to me. Mommy, I like a lot. Reads me bedtime stories. Mario like her, too. Mommy in my room. She has nice voice. I like Mommy a lot.

   Mommy: ‘Time to get up, sweetie. We have to get you to school.’

   Mommy entering room. Mommy now in room. Turns lights on brighter. Ow! My eyes! Hurts! Pain! Ouch! Hurt eyes. Eyes hurt. Close lids. Burns. Eyes burn. Eyes hurt. Huge owie. No like owie. Owie bad. Owie really bad. No like owie. Owies hurt. Need boo-boo bunny. Boo-boo bunny help pain. Boo-boo bunny make owies bye-bye. Boo-boo bunny good. Mario like bunny. Me like, too. Need bunny. Eyes hurt. No like hurt eyes. Owie. Owies hurt. Have bunny? Have bunny, Mommy? Need bunny. Eyes hurt. Please bunny. Like bunny. Need bunny. Eyes hurt. Please bunny. Need bunny, Mommy. Eyes hurt. Owie. Owie bad. Owie bad. Mommy? Speak.

   Mommy: ‘Sorry, Oak.’

   Still pain. Owie. Painful sting. Couple seconds. Bunny not here. Where bunny? Eyes hurt. Need bunny. Bunny. Where bunny? Eyes hurt. Owie? Owie going away? Still hurt. Voice? Voice speak.

   Mario: ‘Oh, no!’

   Mario shout. He upset, too.

   Mario: ‘Mama mia!’

   Mario upset. Lights hurt eyes. Both our eyes. Hurt both.

   Mommy: ‘Sorry, Oak. I know it stings, but I didn’t mean to hurt you. I really am, sweetheart. Are you okay, honey?’

   Agh! Wanna scream! Really wanna scream. Hurt eyes. Agh! I feel…What feel? Eyes adjust. Light not so bright, not so loud. Feel…better…Feel…okay…I okay. Mario okay, too. Smile. I laugh. It funny. I like laughing. Laughing fun. Laughing good for me. Laughing, I like. Eyes hurt no more. Mario like, too. No more pain. We like a lot. Happy, we are.

   Mommy: ‘I’m glad to see you’re okay, Oak.’

   Mommy smiling. I like Mommy. Mommy nice.

   Mommy: ‘We have to get ready for school, okay?’

   School? School. Place go every morning? Mommy take me? Is school? Yes. School. Place with tables and chairs. School. That’s name. School. Lights humming. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Still hums, even in bed. I hear. Hmmmm… Can hear lights. Hmmmm… Not loud. Okay. Mommy around. Important. Mommy nice. Trust Mommy.

   Mommy: ‘Are you ready to get out of bed, Oak?’

   Bed? Still lying. Body under covers. Should get out? Ready yet? Covers warm. Like warm. Warmth nice. Take myself out? Body ready to move? What do? Body get out of bed. I get out of bed. That I going do. My hands and feet out bed. Remove covers. Move hands and feet. Get out bed. Must get out of bed. Can get out of bed. Will get out bed. I get out bed. Shall succeed. Make Mommy happy. No make Mommy angry. Mommy angry when stay. Mommy no like stay. Get out make Mommy happy. Mommy nice when happy. Need make happy. Scary when angry. Need make happy. Be good boy. Nice when Mommy happy. I happy, too. Feeling my feet…my hands…my arms…my legs…still…slowly moving…now move. Pull off covers. Move feet. Move hands. Pull myself out bed. Feet on ground. Standing. Standing two feet. Out of bed. In bed no longer. Mario in arms. Mario happy, too. Mario out of bed, too. Me and Mario happy. We out of bed.

   Mommy: ‘Great job, Oak. Now, it’s time to take your medication.’

   Lights humming in background. Hmmmmmm… Low hum still. Hmmmmmmm… Very quiet. Still hear. Not so loud. Mommy reaches. What reaching for? Bottle. Brown bottle. Brown bottle, white cap. Look funny. Rattles. Rattles like maracas. Venomous? Is it? No, not venomous. Rattlesnake venomous. Bottle not. Bottle rattle, though. Sounds funny. Stings my ears a little. Ch! Ch! Ch! Ch! Rattles. Bottle rattles. Loud. Ch! Ch! Ch! Ch! Hurts my ears. Mommy stop? Please? Hurts. Please stop. Grab bottle, but Mommy snatch. ‘It’s okay. We’ll just make sure you get your medication, okay?’ Bottle open. Pwuh! Puts finger in bottle. Grabs square. White square come out. Fingers hold it. Holds what? White square? What is? Pill? Oh, no. Pill taste bad. No like pill. Mommy hold, look at me. Avert gaze. Lower eyes. No want pill. Pill taste bad. Gross.

   Mommy: ‘Now, put this in your mouth and swallow, okay, Oak?’

   Puts in mouth. Taste bitter. Yuck! Very gross. Taste terrible. Want to spit out. Swallow, though. Must swallow. Swallow make Mommy happy. Mommy nice when happy. Be a good boy. Swallow bitter pill. Taste terrible. Mommy happy, though. Better when Mommy happy. Close bottle. Put away. Rattle stop. Takes out another. Repeat three times. All yucky, all gross. Don’t like. Taste bad. All them. Tastes blucky. Must swallow, though. Swallow, Mommy happy. Like my Mommy happy. I good boy. Swallow. I swallow. Mommy happy. I good boy. Mommy happy now. I happy, too. Me good. I love Mommy. Mommy the best.

   Mommy: ‘Okay, Oak. Time for you to use the bathroom, oaky?’

   Bathroom? What that? Bath. B-A-T-H. Bath. Water. Splashing water. Lots of water. Toys inside. Soaps and suds. Bubbles. Warm water. Bath. Bathtub. That bath. Room. R-O-O-M. Tables. Chairs. Couch. TV. Nintendo. Rug. Carpet. Room. That room. Bath-room. Bathroom. Room where bath is. Room I take bath. Bathroom. That’s bathroom.

   Mommy: ‘I’ll get you dressed after you go potty, okay?’

   Mommy grabs hand. Holds hand. Walks with me. Walk toward door. Grabs doorknob. Fingers rotate. CATCHIKH! Doorknob rotates. Door opens. ERRRRREEEEEEE! Door screeches. Ouch! Loud in ears. Very loud. Hurts. Really hurts. Tears in eyes. Really painful. Can’t stand. Really hurts. Really hurts a lot. Really…

   Mommy: ‘It’s okay, Oak. I have you. You’re going to be okay. Come with me.’

   Mommy comforts me. Feel calm. Voice soft, soothing. Relaxing. Like her voice. Voice nice. Voice very nice. I like Mommy. Mommy really nice. Mommy best. Okay now. I okay. Will be okay. Walk down hallway. Leading me. Holds hand. Another door. Already open. Lights buzzing. Hmmmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmmmm… Walk into room. Room big. Bright lights. Blue paint. Hmmmmmm… Lights hum. Always humming. Hmmmmmm… Giant bowl in corner. Leads me toward it.

   Mommy: ‘Time to go potty, Oak.’

   Giant bowl in front. Leads me to it. Bowl full of water. Has seat. Seat like chair. Opens seat. DUNK! Porcelain. Seat clanks with porcelain. This bowl has water. See handle. Silver handle. Flushes. Oh, no! No like flushing! Flushing loud in ears. Hurt my ears. No like. Please, Mommy. No like. Please.

   Mommy: ‘It’s okay, Oak. Just go potty, okay?’

   Okay. Make Mommy happy. Like Mommy happy. Need to make. No make in pants. Makes Mommy angry. Need to make. No make in pants. Be a good boy. Hold my butt. No make in pants. Need to make. Hold my butt. Make Mommy happy. No make in pants. Go in white bowl. Make Mommy happy. Be a good boy. I good.

   Mommy grabs waist. Lifts me off ground. Flying. I fly. Feet dangling. WHEEE! This is fun! I airplane. I like flying. Flying fun. Can do more? Land on seat. Mommy place me. Need make. I high above ground. Feet dangling. Can see floor from above.

   Mommy: ‘Go potty, Oak. Are you ready?’

   Need to make. Hold butt for Mommy. No want Mommy angry. Need to make. Wait for Mommy. No make in pants. Make Mommy angry.

   Mommy: ‘I am going to take off your pants, Oak, and then you can go potty. Are you ready?’

   Chick! Button unbuckled. Zzzzp! Zipper lowered. Pulling down pants. Feels funny. Feels very funny. No like. No like. Cannot stand. Please stop. Please stop, Mommy. No like. No like. Tears. Mommy…

   Mommy: ‘It’s okay, Oak. I’ve got your pants down. Now, you can go potty.’

   Butt on seat. Cold seat. Brrrrrr! Very cold. No like cold. Brrrrrr! Shiver. Very cold seat. No like cold seat. Brrrrrr! Then go. Need make. Make now. Pluck-plakh! Make. Spsh! Splash in water. Sound funny. Feel better. Less pressure. Pluck-plakh! More sound. Spsh! Another splash. Sound funny. Less pain. Make in white bowl. Not in pants. Make in bowl. Pppppffffffffft! A sound. Funny sound. Sounds funny. Ppppfffffft! Funny. Funny sound. Laugh. So funny. Can’t stop laughing. Butt speak. Butt sound funny. Why butt sound funny? Why speak in funny? Ppppppppppfffffffpppppptt! Butt speak again. Laughing. So funny. Laugh. I like sound. Sound funny. Can’t stop. Pppppffttt! Laugh more. Funny. Like funny. Butt funny. I like butt. Butt an old friend. We old friends. I like butt. Mario like, too. Make funny sound. Make Mommy happy.

   Mommy: ‘All right. That’s enough, Oak. Let’s get you down, okay?’

   Mommy bend over. Grab waist. Fingers wrapped around me. Lifts me. Flying. I fly again. Land on the floor. Feet on floor. Feel feet on ground. Ground very still.

   Mommy: ‘I’m going to pull up your pants, okay? Then we’ll get you changed.’

   Fingers grab pants. Lifts them up. Feels weird. No like. No like at all. Zzzzzp! Zipper up. Chick! Button buttoned.

   Mommy: ‘Good. Now, I’ll flush the toilet.’

   Toilet? What that? Mommy look at bowl. Giant bowl. Hand out, lever reached. That bowl. No! Loud in ears. No like flush. Flush bad for ears. Tears in eyes. Please, Mommy. Please no. Hurt ears. Please. No me like. Hurt ears.

   Mommy: ‘I’m going to flush this, okay, Oak? You might want to leave the room.’

   Leave the room? An exit? Move head. Door behind me. Open. Move legs. Run behind door. Wall. Brown wall. Crouch. Crouch on ground. Cover ears. Giant waterbowl loud. Too loud. Cover ears. Don’t like pain. Hurt ears. PHECH-EWWWW-WHOOSHHHHH! Loud flush. Very loud. AHHHH! Hurting ears. Ouch! It hurts. Can’t stand it. GAAAAHHH! Hurts ears. No like. Make it stop! Make it stop! Painful. Make it stop! QUA-QUA-QUA! More noise. Toilet painful. Tears in eyes. Really hurts. Can’t stand it. Really hurts. A lot. Gaaahhhh! Make it stop! Make it stop! Hurting me. Gaaahhhh! Cannot compute! Cannot compute! Head no work. No work. Make it stop! Pounding head. Cannot compute. Pounding head. Head against wall. Brain won’t work. Gaaaaahhhhhh! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Banging head. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Head banging. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Too much noise. No workie! Gaaaaaaahhhhh! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! No workie. No workie. Bad. Bad! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Bad. Too much. Really bad! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! No workie.

   Mommy: ‘Oak, what are you doing?’

   Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

   Mommy: ‘Oak, stop that! You’re gonna hurt yourself.’

  Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

   Mommy: ‘Oak, cut it out. Stop banging your head. You’re going to hurt yourself. Stop it, you hear me? Stop it!’

   Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Gaaaahhhh! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Ugh! Collapse. Back on ground.

   Mommy: ‘Oak?’


   Mommy: ‘Oak?’


   Mommy: ‘Oak, are you okay?’


   Mommy: ‘Oak, sweetie, are you all right?’


   Mommy: ‘Oak?’

   . . . . .

   Long pause.

   Mommy: ‘Oak, it’s okay, honey. Mommy’s here.’

   Brain back. Tired.

   Mommy: ‘It’s going to be okay.’

   Wake up. Stand.

   Mommy: ‘You ready to get up and get changed?’

   Yup. I love Mommy. Tired, but love Mommy. Time to get up. Get up. Change.

   Mommy: ‘Sorry I hurt your ears, Oak.’

   Mommy nice.

   Mommy: ‘It’ll be okay.’

   Love Mommy.

   Mommy: ‘Let’s get changed, okay?’

   Mommy help me. Mommy change. I change. Clothes change. Change clothes. Downstairs we go. I like Mommy. Mommy the best. Continue downstairs. Mommy the best.

Table. Brown table. Shiny table. Shiny table glowing under yellow light. Light humming. Hmmm… Table brown under yellow light. Yellow light illuminate room. White light far off. Table brown. White and yellow light, both on ceiling.Mario on table. Mario happy. I in chair. Sitting in chair. Waiting for Mommy. Mommy here, too. Someone else. A voice.

   Voice: ‘What happened to Oak, Mommy?’

   Sister. Emily. Emily’s voice.

   Emily: ‘Why was he crying?’

   Mommy’s voice.

   Mommy: ‘He was upset, Emily. That’s all. Why don’t you eat your breakfast, okay?’

   See Mommy’s voice. Eyes gaze at table. Mario in lap. Mario see Mommy, too. Mario understand. Emily speak.

   Emily: ‘Okay, Mommy. I still think he’s weird, though. He cries too much.’ No understand. Weird? What mean? Buzzing lights. Hmmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Not loud. Quiet enough. I like quiet. No hurt ears.

   Mommy: ‘Now, don’t say that about your brother, Emily. He’s just different. That’s all.’

   Humming lights. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm…

   Emily: ‘But why can’t he be normal like the rest of us? He always wastes so much time. He’s such a weirdo.’

   Weirdo? What mean? What weirdo? Who? Weirdo? Barking dog. Arf! Rover. Beneath table. Arf! Barking. Arf! Arf! Barking a lot. No like. Mario no like, either. Humming lights. Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm…

   Mommy: ‘Just eat your breakfast, Emily, so we can go to school. Sound good?’

   Clang! Bowl on counter. Really loud. Clang! Ding! Dang! Bowl on table. Very loud. Need cover ears. Ears can’t stand. Hurts ears, noise does. No like. I no like at all. Lights hum, too. Hum like bumblebees near flowers. Hmmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Hovering bumblebees in garden. Hmmmm… Pollen tasty. Hmmmmm… Low hum.

   Emily: ‘Yes, Mommy.’

   Humming continues. Blowing air vents, too. Whirr. Whirr. Wind blowing. Whirr. Whirr. Hear in ceiling. Whirr. Whirr. A soft blow. Soothing to Mario. Soothing to me. Nice. Like wind. Nice wind. A voice. Hear it? Whose? Mommy’s. Mommy speaks.

   Mommy: ‘Now, Oak, I’m going to pour you some cereal, okay? Let’s eat breakfast so we can get you to school.’

   Brown table glows in yellow light. White light even brighter. What saying?

   {Breakfast school?}

   Are they words?

   Emily: ‘No, we’re not having breakfast at school, Oak. We’re having breakfast here. You’re not that stupid, are you?’


   No not say. What mean?

   Mommy: ‘Emily, be nice to your brother. Eat your cereal, okay?’

   Humming lights. Whirring breeze. Mario smile. Mario understand.

   {Breakfast school?}

   Smile. Mommy smile. Smile back. Why smile? Mommy speaking.

   Her voice: ‘Yes, Oak. We’ll get you to school. Let’s eat your breakfast, okay?’

   Cling! Bowl on counter. Ouch! Loud. Very loud. Hurts. Hurts ears. ‘I’ll pour you cereal, okay?’ DING-DING-CLANG-DING! More crashing. Ouch! Loud. No like. Really no like. Hurts ears. No like. PSH-WHOOOOSSSSHHH! Pouring of liquid. What that? Not sound good. No like.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. Eat up.’

   Mommy’s hands. Hands on table. Bowl. Bowl placed in front. Front of me. See in my eyes. Bits and orts. Grains. Food grains. Food grains floating in liquid. White liquid. What liquid? Milk. White liquid milk. Silver thing. Silver utensil. Spoon.

   Mommy: ‘Eat up, Oak.’

   Cling! Spoon on bowl. Ouch! Hurts. Not nice. Crunch, crunch, crunch! Chewing. Sister chewing. Emily chewing. Chewing cereal. Gulp! Swallow. Swallow cereal. Cereal down throat. Cling! Spoon again. Collides with bowl. Hurts. Cover my ears.

   Mommy: ‘Right, I forgot your earmuffs. Here, Oak. Use these.’

   Earmuffs over ears. Muffs good. Muffs better than none. Allow me to quiet. Quiet always nice. Going to eat cereal. Going to grab spoon. Going put food in mouth. Going to chew. Going to swallow. See my hand lifting spoon. See put food in mouth. See me chew. See me swallow. Can eat cereal. Can grab spoon. Can put food in mouth. Can chew. Can swallow. Fingers move. Move fingers. Fingers twitch. Raise hand. Right hand. Hand reach bowl. Fingers grab silver. Can do it. Can do it. Can do it always. Fingers silver wrapped. Lift right hand. Milk flowing in curve. Grains flowing in. Lift hand to head. Spoon in mouth. Close mouth. Wrap lips around. Move spoon out, hand backward. Chew grains. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Chewing. Tastes sweet. Soggy. Very soggy. Like moist sugar. Gulp! Swallow. Liquid down throat. Grains down throat. Repeat. Clang! Spoon against bowl. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Chewing. Gulp! Do again! Tastes good, too. Repeat. Repeat. Want more. Scooping and scooping. Bowl empty. Full. Stomach full. Feel better. Food good. Cereal good. Not bad. I like. Mario likes, too. We both happy. Wait Mommy. See what Mommy says. Mommy knows best.

   Muffs off.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. I’ll brush your teeth for you. Let’s go upstairs, okay?’

   Scratch head.


   Confusion. Not sure. What she want?

   Mommy: ‘To the bathroom, Oak. We’ll brush your teeth.’

   Bathroom. Flushing toilet. No like sound. But bathroom. Understand! Love baths. Mario, too. ‘It’s-a me, Mario!’ Mommy.

   Mommy: ‘No, Oak. Mario doesn’t need his teeth brushed. Please leave him here.’

   Takes Mario.

   Mommy: ‘Let’s brush your teeth.’

   To bathroom. See Mario soon. Bye, Mario! See you soon! Mommy hold hand. Walk stairs. Back to bathroom. Lots of walking. Stairs big. Move up. Reach the top. Hallway above. Go in door. Shhhhh! Water running. Faucet, sink. Emily. Emily brushing teeth. Chigga-chigga-chigga! Scraping teeth. Sounds weird. Shhhhh! Still running, water in sink. Shhhhh! Sounds nice. Not too loud. No hurt ears. Me like. Mommy standing at sink.

   Voice: ‘Okay, Oak. We’re going to brush your teeth, okay?’

   Drrrruurrrr! Open drawer. White tube. Long and white. Long and white with cap. Fwit-fwit! Cap off. Plickew! Paste on brush.

   Mommy: ‘Open wide, Oak.’

   Open my mouth.

   Mommy: ‘Say, “Ah!”’

   Open mouth.


   Brush in mouth. Scrubbing teeth. Feels weird. No like. Brush. Brush continues. No like. Chigga-chigga-chigga-chigga! Scrubbing teeth. No like. Hurts teeth. Chigga-chigga! Chigga-chigga! Brushing. Minty taste. Gross. Blucky. No like. Taste bad. No like. Chigga-chigga! Chigga-chigga! Brushing finish.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. Rinse out your teeth.’

   Ptooie! Spit out paste. Gross. Mint gross. Taste bad. Bleckh! Disgusting. No like. Taste really bad. Ilkh! No like. Gragga-gragga! Water in mouth. Schwuck-schwuck! Shake head. Water in mouth. Ptooie! Spit out. Disgusting. Bad taste. Taste gone. Better.

   Mommy: ‘Great job, Oak. Now, we’ll go to school. Come on, Emily. Let’s go.’

   Bring Mario?

   Mommy: ‘No, Oak. Mario must stay here. He can’t be in school. You can bring your shell, though. How about that?’

   Green shell. I take. Shell in pocket. Go to school. Bye, Mario! See you soon! Must go to school. Shell stay with me. I like shell. Shell soft. Soft in hand. Shell good. Like shell. Like shell lots. Go school. We go school. School nice. School good. Shell good. Shell nice. Shell like. Like shell. Go school now.

   Mommy: ‘All right, Oak. Let’s put on your shoes.’

   Shoes? What shoes? Look shoes. Shoes where? Mommy find thing. Picks up.

Desk. Big brown desk. White light. Buzzing. Bzzzzz… Buzzing white lights. Bzzzzz… Buzzing loudly. Very noisy. Loud. Distracting. Hurts ears. No stand. No standie. Very loud. No like. Need quiet. Bzzzzz… More sound. Scratch, scratch. Pencils. Lots of pencils. Pencils on paper. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Many pencils. Scratching paper. Very loud. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Very loud on every desk. Very, very loud. Makes anxious. Bzzzz… Low hum. Scratch, scratch, scratch. No stand. DV-VWVWVWVWVWVW! Roaring engine. Mama mia! Sharpener. Even louder. Hurts ears. Hurts a lot. DV-VWVWVWVWVW! Roar. Bzzzzz… Ugh. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Gah! ‘Enough of the pencil sharpening. Get back to your seats.’ Shell in hand. Twirling shell in hand. DV-VWVWVWVW! Roar too loud. What do? No standie. No stand. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Ugh. Bzzzzz… Ouch. Too loud. Must cover ears. Ears hurt. Must cover. DV-VWVWVWVWVWVW! Covering ears. No stand. No stand. Covering ears. Too loud. Too loud. No workie. No…

   Voice: ‘Oak, are you okay?’

   Hand on shoulder.

   Voice: ‘It’s okay. Here are some headphones. You can use them.’

   Quiet. Headphones on. Quiet. Much better. Shell in hand. Feel good. Much better. Calmer. Feel calm. Soothing. Like Mozart. Mozart nice. Mozart good on ears. I like Mozart. Mario like, too. We both like. Both happy, too. Teacher walk in front. Name? Think of name. Thinking. Mrs. Ashby. Mrs. Ashby talking. What say? I no know. Voice next me. Woman. Tall. Give me headphones. What name? Ms. Janca. J-A-N-C-A. Sounds like ‘YAHN-kuh,’ not ‘JAN-kuh.’ Janca with j sound like y. My what word? Trying find. What word? Help? Other word? Aid? She my aide. She Mommy’s friend. Mommy like her. Ms. Janca like Mommy, too. I like. Mario like, too. Both happy. Like Ms. Janca. Ms. Janca helpful. Ms. Janca good. Ms. Janca nice. I like very much. She always good. I’m happy always.

   Tap on shoulder. Tap on left shoulder. Poke. Hurt little. Ouch. Flinch. No touchie! No like touch. Hurt a bit. Skin hurt. No like. No like at all. No touchy. But mean something? What mean? Attention? What wrong? Mozart playing. Headphones on. Move head left. Move eyes left. Peer over shoulder. Woman kneel. Kneeling on ground. Head at eye level. Long, dark hair. Cream skin. Blue eyes. Gold necklace on neck. Very shiny. Voice speaking. Can’t hear. Hands over head. Remove headphones. What happening? Buzzing lights. Bzzzzz… Low hum. Bzzzzz… Barely hear. Bzzzzz… Ms. Janca. Look in eyes, speaking. Voice, I hear. Voice, I see. ‘Hey, Oak. It’s time to take out your iPad. Mrs. Ashby says we’re going to do reading this morning. Are you ready?’ iPad? Not with me. Ms. Janca has. Not me. No have. She has.

   Janca: ‘Here, let me take out the iPad for you.’

   Eyes watch. Pull off purse, Ms. Janca. Lower on ground. Reach for clasp. Click! Clasp open. Zip! Unzip zipper. Hand reach inside. Rumble, rumble. Fingers dig purse. Rumble, rumble. Digging, searching. Rumble, rumble. Still digging.

   Janca: ‘Aha! Here it is!’

   Fingers grasp item. Pull out. Black rectangle. Big black prism, rectangular, come out bag. Zip! Zipper zipped. Click! Clasp shut. Purse back over arm. Black rectangle. Big black rectangle. Dark screen. Silver back. Case enclosed. Enclosed red case. iPad? Is it? Black rectangle iPad? Tablet? Called tablet? Yes, is tablet. Also, iPad. iPad, it is.

   Janca: ‘Here is your iPad, Oak. Here, let me open it for you.’

   Mess with iPad. Fingers moving, eyes moving. I watch. Watch Ms. Janca move fingers.

   Janca: ‘Here it is. Now, when I give it to you, plug your headphones in, okay?’

   Will do. Put iPad on table. Plug in headphones.

   Janca: ‘Now, we’re going to read Maniac Magee with the rest of the class. Are you ready?’

   Nod. Ready read. Ready learn. Reading nice. Push sideways triangle. Play. Text on screen. Highlight so I read. Voice read. Ears listen, eyes follow along. No read without iPad. Too hard. Headphones help. iPad good for reading. Follow along very well.

   Going to read. Going to sit in chair. Going to sit still in chair. Going to watch iPad. Going to listen to iPad speak. Going to hear iPad’s voice. Going to follow along. Going to follow highlight. Going to follow highlight text. Going to read book. Going to read Maniac Magee. Going to read with rest of class. Going to understand book. Going to learn. See me read. See me sit in chair. See me sit still in chair. See me watch iPad. See me listen to iPad. See me hear iPad’s voice. See me follow along. See me follow highlight. See me follow highlight text. See me read book. See me read Maniac Magee. See me read with rest class. See me understand book. See me learn. Can read. Can sit in chair. Can sit still in chair. Can watch iPad. Can listen to iPad speak. Can hear iPad’s voice. Can follow along. Can follow highlight. Can follow highlighted text. Can read book. Can read Maniac Magee. Can read with rest of class. Can understand book. Can learn. Can do anything. Can be me. I like me. I can do it!

   Stare at iPad. Black letters. Letters? Letters: alphabet. Alphabet? Alphabet: a, b, c, d, e, f, g… Letters make words. Letters a and s = as. Letters d, o, and g = dog. Letters make sounds. G = guh like baby: Goo-goo, ga-ga! D  = duh like Banjo: Duh-huh! B = buh like sheep: Baaaaahhhhh! M = muh like cow: Merrrrrrrrr! U = uh like Goofy: Uh-hyuh-uh! Letters make sounds. Sounds make words. Words reading. Looking iPad screen. Voice speaks. Highlight appears. Highlight moves with sound. Voice in ears: <Chapter 2. ‘Everybody knows that Maniac Magee (then Jeffrey) started out in Hollidaysburg and wound up in Two Mills. The question is: What took him so long? And what did he do along the way?’> Voice continues reading. Ouch! Kick under table. Flinch. What that? Hurt. Leg hurt. Voice read. Can’t listen. Kick again. Ouch! What that? Who hurt? Look up. Boy. Front of me. Cross table. Smiling. Kick me? Again kick. Ouch! Hurt! Flinch. Lot pain. Boy smile. Laugh. He kick me! Boy name? Steven. Steven Hayworth. Steven kick me! Kick again. Ouch!


   Speak no. Hard speak. But try. Hurt. Leg hurt. Steven laugh.

   Steven: ‘What are you gonna do about it? Idiot.’

   Kick again. Ouch! Hurt. Stop! Please. Please stop. Steven laughs. Laughs hard.

   Steven: ‘That’s what you get for being an idiot!’

   Mad. Can’t stand it. Throw headphones off. Gaaaah! Stop! Kick again.

   Steven: ‘Take that, retard!’

   Ouch! Hurt.

   Steven: ‘That’s what you get for being an idiot!’

   Laugh. Not funny. Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Cannot… Scream! Head bang. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Brain! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Sensory overload. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Information breached. Brain jacked. Cannot compute. Sensory overload. Cannot compute. Too much noise. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Head banging. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! ‘Oak, stop banging your head! You’re going to hurt yourself.’ Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Cannot compute. Cannot compute. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Brain! No brain! Brain! Screaming. Crying. Head banging. Tears in eyes. Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! ‘Oak, stop it!’ System shutdown. 3, 2, 1… Disconnect. System terminated. Time to recalibrate…

   Janca. Voice: ‘Oak, what’s wrong?’

   Exhausted. Very tired. Very, very tired. Uhhhhnnnnnhhhhh…

   Steven. Voice: ‘Ha ha! You’re an idiot!’

   Sleepy. Can’t think. Can’t pay attention. Sleepy. Feel tired.

   Janca. Voice: ‘Steven, stop being mean to Oak. You must behave.’

   Sleepy…Very…Tired…Very, very tired…

   Ms. Ashby. Voice: ‘What’s going on, Cheryl? Is something wrong? Why was Oak banging his head?’

   Sleepy…Cannot pay attention…Very, very tired…Uhhhhhhhhhgghhhhh! Feel sick. Very, very sick…

   Ms. Janca. Voice: ‘Oak is sick. I’ll take care of him.’

   Janca bend. Grabs hand.

   Voice: ‘Come on, Oak. Let’s get you outside, okay?’

   Hold hand. Help me on feet. Ugh. Feel very sick. Legs feel wonky. Can’t balance. Lights hum. Hmmmm… Hmmmm… Low hum. Hmmmm… Hmmmm… Very sick. Legs wobbly.

   Janca: ‘Come on, Oak. I know you can do it. Let’s go to the hallway, okay?’

   Help on feet. Move feet. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Step forward. Little step. Me no like. But tired. Need hallway. Noises too loud. Room too loud. Need rest. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Holding hand. Janca carry. Ms. Janca nice. Like Ms. Janca. Nice lady. Happy with her. She make happy. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Near door. Door come close. Janca: ‘We’re almost there, Oak.’ Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Tired. Very tired. Cannot stand. Janca: ‘Almost there.’ Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Tired…Left foot, right foot. Ptuck! Hand grab door. Click! Hand rotate knob. Errr-errr! Door creek. Janca open door.

   Janca: ‘All right, Oak. Let’s go in the hallway, okay?’

   Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Errr-errr! Door creek. Kthunk! Door close.

   Janca: ‘Sit down, Oak, okay? Just sit and relax.’

   Sit down. Brain tired. Very tired. Need rest. Recalibrate. Tired. Sleepy. Sleep now. Sleepy…

Bzzzt! What now? Where? Where I? Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Buzz? What that? Black brick? Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Black brick. Always buzzing. Black brick buzz. Buzz like a bee. Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Office. Quiet. Office. Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Fingers on board. Typing? Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Typing? Typing. Keyboard. Fingers on keyboard. Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Person typing. Who? No know. Tikka-takka-tikka-takka. Typing. Weird. Quiet. Nice, quiet. Where I? Hand in pocket. Reach inside. Find object. Grab. Pull out. Shell. Shell here. Green shell. Koopa shell. Soft. Soft in hand. Look at shell. See top. Green top. Shapes. Count shapes. One shape. Two shapes. Three shapes. Four, five, six. Seven, eight, nine. Ten, eleven, twelve. Thirteen. Thirteen shapes. Thirteen shapes on top. What this? Not same? Shapes not same. Two not same shapes. One shape: six sides. Hexagon. Like beehive. Bumblebees. Bzzzz! Hexagon many. Other shape: three sides. Triangles. Like Egypt. Egypt pyramid. Mummy. Oooooh-oohhh! Scary movie. Scooby-Doo. Triangle many. How many? One, two, three. Four, five, six. Seven. Seven hexagons. Other? One, two, three. Four, five, six. Six triangles. Hexagons: seven. Triangles: six. Thirteen shapes on top. Shell many shapes. Rotate. Rotate shell. What this? White rim. White rim, round shell. White rim. Top and bottom. Not same. Rotate. Hand rotate shell. What this? See bottom. Bottom shell. Bottom not same. Shapes not same. One? Round. Round circles. Black round circles. Other? Four sides. Not same. Long and short. Rectangles. Lot rectangles. How many? Circles. Count circles. One, two, three. Four, five, six. Six circles. Rectangles? Count rectangles. One, two, three. Four, five, six. Six rectangles. How many total? Shapes. Count shapes. One, two, three. Four, five, six. Seven, eight, nine. Ten, eleven, twelve. Twelve shapes. Six circles. Six rectangles. Feel good in hand. Like shell. Feel good. Shell nice. Miss Mario. Wish had Mario. Mario friend. Shell nice, miss Mario. Shell fine now. A voice. Someone speak. Ms. Janca.

   Janca: ‘Hey, Oak, are you feeling okay? You seem to be fine.’

   Okay. I okay. What next? Where go?

   Janca: ‘Well, Oak, we’re going to recess, okay?’

   Recess? What recess? Playtime? Is playtime? Playtime nice. Where go? Playtime? Playtime nice. Play good. Like playtime. Where go next? Janca hold hand.

   Janca: ‘What’s this?’

   Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Hear sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound outside. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! On roof. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! But what? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Scratchy sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound nice. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What sound? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What be? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Tap sound? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound no know. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! No know sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What is? Titta-titta-titta-titta! No know. Voice. Ms. Janca. Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘It’s raining!’

   Rain? Is rain? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound rain? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound rain. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Go to window. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Look out. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Watch window. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Watch rain. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Hear? … See rain. … Hear? … Hear nothing. … See? Drops. Rain. … See rain. Sound quiet. … Rain see. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound on. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound hear. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Rain is sound. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Sound rain. Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! Think? Titta-titta-titta-titta! Titta-titta-titta-titta! What think? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! What same? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Sound same. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta tatta-tatta-titta! Think. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Mind. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Mind past. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Was outside. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Rain. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Water. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! From sky. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Clouds. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Dark. No sun. Titta-titta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Dark clouds. Wet. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Ground wet. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! I wet. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Puddles. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Jump puddles. Titta-tatta-tatta-tatta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Laughing. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Mud. Muck. Mud muck. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Dirty. I dirty. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Is rain? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Rain, yes. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! I okay. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Why now? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Sunny before. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Voice. Speak.

   Janca: ‘It seems like it’s raining, Oak. You might have recess inside.’

   Ms. Janca speak? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Ms. Janca speak. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! How know? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! No know. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Not sure. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! How know? Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Not sure. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Ms. Janca think fast. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She quick. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She fast. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She think very fast. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Magic. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Like magic. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Think like magic. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! She magic always. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Wish magic, too. Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Titta-tatta-tatta-titta! Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Ready for recess?’


   {Recess rain?}

   Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Yes, we’re going to recess.’

   {Rain know?}

   Janca: ‘Rain? Oh, it’s raining. It’s okay, though. We’ll just take you to recess, okay, Oak?’

   Still know no. Recess inside? Okay by me. Recess fun.

Recess. Classroom. In classroom. Lights hum. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Low hum. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Soft sound. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Nice on ears. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Not too loud. Hmmmm! Hmmmm! Like more. Nice in ears. Like much. No bad. Enjoy hum. No need bunny. I okay. Enjoy hum. Hum nice. Hmmm! Hmmm! Sound okay. Me okay. What this? Shape. Look. Need look. Like look. Need look find. See shape now.

   Eyes look down. Rectangle. Rectangle in hands. Top? Gold. Gold top. Bottom? Red. Red bottom. Both form rectangle. Top? Gold top. Middle gold top? Blank screen. Black screen. Black screen blank. Why blank? Not on. Power not on. Where power button? Find soon. But more. Words. Words top screen. What say? S-U-P-E-R. S = sss like snake. Hiss! U  = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… P = puh like balloon. Pop! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! R = ruh like dish-dish. Ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh! What say? Super. Soup-errrr. Super. Like Superman. Super. Next. What say? M-A-R-I-O. M = muh like cow. Moo! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! (Brush no fun. Brush bad.) R = ruh like dish-dish. Ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh! I = ih like Emily. Like mad. Ihhhhhh! O = oh like Mommy. Like ear hurt. Oh! What say? Mario. Like friend. Mario best friend. Mario my friend. Word mean friend. Mario. What say? Super…Mario. Mario Superman? No. Not Superman. Mario super. No same. Super Mario = Mario super. No Superman. Superman Mario no same. Different. Mario different. Mario Mario. Not Superman. Next. What say? B-R-O-S. B = buh like sheep. Baaaah! R = ruh like dish-dish. Ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh-ruhruh! O = oh like Mommy. Like ear hurt. Oh! S = sss like snake. Hiss! What say? Bros. Bros? What mean? Bro. Ah! Brother. Luigi. Mario’s bro. What say? Super…Mario…Bros. Super Mario Bros. Mario, Luigi. Super Mario Bros. Word bottom screen. What say? N-I-N-T-E-N-D-O. N = nuh like horse. Neigh! I = ih like Emily. Like mad. Ihhhhhh! N = nuh like horse. Neigh! T = tuh like tree. Tap! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! N = nuh like horse. Neigh! D = duh like Steven. Duh-huh! O = oh like Mommy. Like ear hurt. Oh! What say? Nin…ten…do. Do? No, doh. Like cookie. Cookie dough. Yum! Nin…ten…doh. Nintendo. Say Nintendo. Like Nintendo. Like a lot. Nintendo good. What this? More. Two shapes. Circles. Red circles. Two red circles. Round red. Round red circles. Letters. A. A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! B. B = buh like sheep. Baaah! What say? Ab. Ab? What ab? No know. No sense. Oh, well. Ab = buttons. Okay. Other sign. Black. Black cross. Plus sign. Like plus. One plus one. 1 + 1. Black plus. +. Plus. Arrows. ó. Lot arrows. ß. Left. à. Right. Up. Down. Button? No know. Oh, well. Right top. Words. First. What say? G-A-M-E. G = guh like Rover. Grrrrrrrrrr! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! M = muh like cow. Moo! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! What say? Game. Like tag. Game. Next. What say? No know. Sign. Draw finger. Finger draw. &. What mean? No know sign. No know. Oh, well. Next. What say? W-A-T-C-H. W = wuh like baby. Waaaaaaahhhhh! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! T = tuh like tree. Tap! C = cuh like clock. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! H = huh like me. Like me run. Huh-huh-huh-huh! Wa-tuh-chuh. Wahhh-tuh-chuh. T quiet. Watch. Like Daddy. Daddy’s wrist. Be a clock. Watch. Game…Thing?…Watch. Game watch. Game watch? Sport clock? Ball clock? Why clock on ball? Kick ball with clock? Won’t break? No. Game. Eye game. Like Pac-Man. Pac-Man game. Maze game. But clock? Why clock? Pac-Man like dots, not clock. Eat dots. Ghosts? Ghosts clock? Nee clock? Like clock? No, no clock. Ghosts like Pac-Man, not clock. No need clock. None do. Both in maze. Maze no clock. Eye game clock? Think so. Game watch? No know. Oh, well. Eye game, though. Know that. Turn on? Want on. Where button? Turn. No left. Turn. No back. Turn. Ah! See! Grey circle! Push! Screen light. Turned on! Colors. Many colors. Pretty. I happy. Word? Word flashing. What say? P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hissssss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Pause. Mean stop. How go? No know. Need find. Find button. Button help. Where button? Need find button. Button need find. Where be? Find button? Need find. Shapes. What shapes? Round. Grey. How many? 1…2…3… Three round shapes. Ovals. Grey ovals. Words. See words. What say? First. On top: G-A-M-E. G = guh like Rover. Grrrrr! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhhh! M = muh like cow. Moo! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Game. Game. Like tag. Tag a game. Button? No. Not button. Next? Words. What say? T-I-M-E. T = tuh like tree. Tap! I = ih like Emily. Like mad. Ihhhhh! M = muh like cow. Moo! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! What say? Time. Time…like clock. Numbers. Minutes. Time. Where I next? No know. Button? No. Not Button. Next? What say? P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hisss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Pause. Mean stop. No more. Stop. Pause. Look screen. Same word? P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hiss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeeek! What say? Pause. Same word? Yes. Pause = pause. Words same. Button? Yes. Button. Press button. Push! Screen on! Screen work! Yay! What this? Music. Music play now. What for? Need know.

   What screen? Shapes on screen. What shapes? No know. Why? Need know. What shapes? No know. Lots of colors. Bottom screen? Shapes. Lot shapes. What shape? No know. Count sides? Count. One…two… three…four. Four sides. Sides same? Same sides. Four sides same. What shape? Four sides. Same. No long. No short. All same. What shape? Rectangle? No. Not rectangle. Square? Yes. Square. Shapes squares. Color? Brown. Brown squares. How many? Lots. Lot squares. Lot brown squares. What make? No know. Need. To. Think. Need think. Think. What brown? Sweet-sweet? No know. Is sweet-sweet? Sweet-sweet brown. What like? Sweet-sweet think. Think sweet-sweet. Four sides. Wrap. Brown. Sides same? No. One long, one short. Square? No. Sides no same. Sides different. Rectangle. Not sweet-sweet. Table? Table brown. Is table? Think. Need think. Think table. Table think. Shape? Sides. Four sides. Same? No. Not same. One long, one short. Not same. Square? No. Not square. Rectangle. Square not table. Chair? Chair brown. Is chair? Think. Need think. What shape? No know. Sides? Lot sides. Many sides. Have four? No. Not four. No chair. Not square. Chair not square. Not square. Dirt? Dirt brown. Square? No know. Sides? No know. No sides. Dot. Dirt dot. Lot dots. But brown? Brown, yes. But bottom screen? What screen like? Other screens? What has screen? TV? TV has screen. TV play eye-play. Bottom screen? Brown? Brown, yes. What be? Hmmmmmm… Look feet? Look feet. What see? Floor. See floor. Else? Ground. See ground. What like out? Dirt? Dirt, out. Dirt ground? Dirt ground, yes. Ground same? Ground same, yes. What bottom screen? Mmmmm… Ah! I know! Ground! Ground bottom screen! Ground = brown squares. Ground bottom screen. Top screen? Top screen. Look. Shapes? No shapes. But one. What shape? No know. Count sides? No count. Blob. Shape blob. Color? White. White blob. One white blob. What be? No know. Other shapes? No. No shapes. Color? Blue. Shade blue. Blue color. What make? No know. Wait! Look bottom! Look bottom. Ground. Ground bottom. Feet ground. Ground feet. Walk ground. Ground walk. What not ground? What blue? Look up. Lights? No. Not lights. Lights not blue. Lights white, not blue. Lights hum. Hmmmm! Low hum. Hmmmm! Not lights. Blue else. What be? Boards? No. Not boards. Boards not blue. Boards white, not blue. Boards four sides. Boards rectangles. Boards not blue. Blue not boards. What be? What this? Art? Draw? Draw. Top page. Top page blue. What blue? Sky. Blue sky? See window. Look up. Blue. Lot blue. What see? Sky! Blue sky! Blue sky top screen! Top screen blue sky! What blob? Puffy. White. Puff. Cloud! White cloud! Blob = cloud. More shape? Two. Two ground. What shape? No know. Count sides? No sides. Blobs. Blobs like cloud. Blobs like cloud in sky. Color? Green. Both green. Both different. One left, one right. Left blob: dark. Right blob: light. Left: dark green. Right: light green. What be? No know. What green? Searching. Wall? Paint. Shade. Green. Flat. Big. Blob? No. Not blob. Wall not blob. Wall wall, not blob. Blob not wall. Luigi? Luigi…Searching…Hat = green. L = green. Shirt = green. Blob? No. Not blob. Luigi man, not blob. Blob not Luigi. Yoshi? Yoshi… Searching…Skin = green. Nose = green. Arms = green. Legs = green. Tail = green. Hands = green. Blob? No. Not blob. Yoshi Yoshi, not blob. Blob not Yoshi. Plant? Plant…Hmmmm…Searching…Leaf = green. Stem = green. Needle = green. Tree = green. Grass = green. Bush = green. Blob? No. Plant plant, not blob. Not all plant. Bush? Bush blob. Bush plant. Bush plant and blob. Plant bushy blob. Plant blobby bush. Plant bush and blob. Plant blob and bush. Aha! Plant blob! Blobs plants! Other shapes? Yes. What shape? Mario! Mario friend. Like Mario. Mario nice.

   Buttons? What do? No know. Buttons: Ab and plus (+). Ab: red circles. Plus (+): cross. Cross arrows: ó. Up. Down. Left. Right. What do? Try. Push button. Ab same? No. Different. Two circles. Right: A. Left: B. Say Ba. Ba? What mean? Sheep? No know. Ba different. B and A. Try? Try. Which? A first. Try A. Press button. Push. Boing! Whoa! Jump. Mario jump. A = Mario jump. Press more? More press. Press more. Push. Boing! Push. Boing! Push. Boing! More push. Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! This fun. Jump fun. Like jump. Like Mario jump. Mario jump fun. Like fun. Like Mario jump. Always fun. Next? B. Red circle. What do? No know. Try? Try. Press button. Push. None. None? How? Try more. Push. None. Push. None. Push. None. Push. None. Push. … None. What? None? Odd. B = none. B = not fun. None not fun. No like. No like none. None no like. No like not fun. Not fun no like. No like B. No press. Next? Plus (+). What do? No know. Try? Try. Press button? Press button. Which? Up. Up first. Press up. Push. None. None? How? Try more. Push. None. Push more. None. Hmmmm… Up like B. No work. Why? No know. Next? Down. Try down. Press button? Press button. Push. None. Push. None. Push. None. No work. Why? No know. Oh, well. Next? Left? Left. Try left? Try left. Press button? Press button. Push. ß. Push. ß. Push. ß. Push. ß. Push. ß. Whoa! Walk. Mario walk. Walk left. Mario walk left. Left = Mario walk left. Left = Mario walk ß. Hold? What do? No know. Try hold? Try hold. Hold left? Hold left. Hold button? Hold button. Hold. ß. Walk. Mario walk. Walk left. Mario walk left. Not same. No stop. Keep walk left. Walk left no stop. Mario no stop. Mario keep walk. Mario keep walk left. But wall. Wall stop Mario. Mario no stop. Mario keep walk. Mario walk wall. Mario keep walk left. Mario walk left wall. Fun. Hold ß = Mario keep walk left. Hold ß = Mario walk ß ∞. This fun. Like fun. Like Mario walk. Like Mario keep walk. Mario walk fun. Like fun. Like Mario. Mario friend. Next? Right. What do? No know. Try? Try. Press button? Press button. Press right. Push. à. Push. à. Push. à. Push. à. Push. à. Whoa! Walk. Mario walk. Walk right. Mario walk right. Right = Mario walk right. Fun. Like. Like lot. Hold? What do? No know. Try? Try hold. Hold right? Hold right? Hold. à. Walk. Mario walk. Walk right. Mario walk right. Keep walk right. Mario keep walk right. No stop. Mario no stop. What do? Hold à = Mario keep walk right. Hold à = Mario walk à ∞. Whoa! More shapes! See more shapes! Stop! Must stop! See shapes. Must see. How? Push button. Which button? Oval. Grey oval. Bottom oval. How know? I know. Say P-A-U-S-E. P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hiss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider. Eeek! What say? Say Pause. Pause = stop. Pause stop eye game. Push pause? Push pause. Push. Game stop. Word show. P-A-U-S-E. What say? P = puh like balloon. Pop! A = ah like dentist. Ahhhh! U = uh like Daddy. Uhhhh… S = sss like snake. Hiss! E = eee like Mommy. Like see spider … Eeek! What say? Pause. Pause = stop. Eye game stop. New shapes? Must see shapes.

   New shapes. New shapes screen. What shapes? Noise. Hear noise. Noise approach. Pause. Pause game. What noise? Voice. Funny voice. Sound funny. What voice? Whose? Voice. Speak.


   Odd voice. Shocky. Shocky voice. What voice? Look voice. Boy. Boy front me. Sit in chair. Boy in chair. Chair boy. Boy chair. Who boy? No know. Make noise. Chair noise. Noise chair. VWOOM!  Whoa! Chair move. How move? Things. Round things. Round on bottom. What be? Think. Wheels. Chair move wheels. Who boy? No know. He loud. Voice loud.


   Owie! Loud. Voice loud. Hurt ears. No like voice. No like. Hurt ears. No like voice. Hurt ears. Stop. No standie. No like. No standie. Hurt. Hurt lot. No like. Need phones. Where phones? Need phones. Ears hurt. No like. Need phones. Need…

   Hand on shoulder. Look. Who be? Ms. Janca. See Ms. Janca. Hand on shoulder. Look in eyes. See face. Open mouth. What say? Speak.

   Janca: ‘What’s wrong, Oak? You look upset. Do you need your iPad?’

   Hold ears. Ears hurt. No like. Shocky voice loud. No like. No like.

   Janca: ‘I see. You need your headphones. Here. I’ll give you your iPad.’

   See Janca. See Janca pull bag. Janca pull bag. Janca open bag. Janca reach.

   Janca: ‘I found it!’

   Pull out brick. Black brick. Long brick. Rectangle.

   Janca: ‘Here you go, Oak. Here’s your iPad.’

   Reach hand. Grab iPad. Push button. Touch screen.

   iPad: <My ears hurt.>

   Janca: ‘I see. How can we help you with that?’

   No know. No think. No workie. No like loud. Loud voice. Press button.

   iPad: <Voice is very loud.>

   Janca: ‘Whose voice, Oak?’

   No know. Try talk. No talk. Press iPad? Press iPad. Press button.

   iPad: <Boy in chair.>

   Janca: ‘Oh, I see. That boy. Oak, that’s Tony Burns, one of your classmates. He’s trying to be your friend.’

   Friend? Why friend? Mario friend. Like Mario. Who Tony? No know. Why friend? What want? Want to be friend? Why friend? No know. No sure. Need know more. What do? Look iPad. Press button.

   iPad: <He wants to be my friend? I didn’t know. His voice hurts my ears.>

   Boy in chair look. See boy in chair. Chair boy speak.


   Ow! Voice loud. Very loud. No like. Hurt ears. No like. Ears hurt. No like. Cover ears. No like. Really hurt. Ouch. No like. Need phones. No like. Janca look. See Janca look. Speak.

   Janca: ‘I see, Oak. His voice hurts your ears. I’m sorry.’

   Janca look Tony. See Tony. See Tony look. Tony watch. Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Hey, Tony. Could you turn down the volume on your computer?’

   Look Tony. Tony speak.

   Tony: <Yes, I can turn down the volume on my computer. Does this help?>

   Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘Yes, that helps. Thank you, Tony.’

   No hurt ears. Feel better. Like quiet. Tony voice better. Like lot more.

   Janca: ‘Hey, Oak. Do you feel better now?’

   See Janca speak. Look iPad. Press button.

   iPad: <Yes.>

   Janca: ‘Good. Now that you feel better, I’m going to tell you something you might like to hear.’

   What? What be? Gift? Eye game? What be? No know. Glee. What be? Need know.

   Janca: ‘I see the excitement on your face, so that’s a good sign. Well, Oak, did you know that Tony likes Mario, too?’

   Tony like Mario? No know. How like Mario? I like Mario. Tony like, too?

   Janca: ‘Yes, Oak. He loves Mario, don’t you, Tony?’

   Tony speak.

   Tony: <Yes, I love Mario. He’s fun to play with. Can I play with you?>

   Tony like Mario? Cool! I like Mario! Mario friend. Mario nice. Mario’s friend, mine also. Like Mario’s friends. Tony new friend. Like Tony. Tony cool. Like Tony. Mario like, too.

   Janca: ‘So how about you play together?’

   Look Tony. Smile. Excited. Press button.

   iPad: <Yes! I would love to!>

   Janca smile. Janca speak.

   Janca: ‘All right, Oak. Feel free to play together.’

   Smile. Smile real big. Make new friend. Tony new friend. Like Tony. Tony nice. Excited. I happy. I happy always. Mario happy. Mario like, too. Mario make friend. We make friend. New friend happy. We play eye game, Mario and Luigi.


I never thought I would write this short story. Prior to graduate school, I was working on a novel pertaining to some personal interests which I will not mention, but when I returned to graduate school this past fall, I took a course called Disability Studies with Dr. Christine Neufeld, which led me down this path. In LITR 590, I began researching autism in literature and the many stereotypes that permeate throughout fiction in general. When I researched this area, I discovered an article by Claire Barber-Stetson entitled the following: ‘Slow Processing: A New Minor Literature by Autists and Modernists.’ In this article, Barber-Stetson argues how modernists revolutionized narrative via the method of stream-of-consciousness with writers like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner each writing in a way that is fragmented and cacophonous instead of straightforward and monolithic. Then she mentions how autists like Tito Mukhopadhyay began developing the subgenre of ‘Slow-Processing’ to subvert neurotypical cognition like the modernists did and, in doing so, illustrate autistic consciousness to neurotypical readers so they can comprehend the autistic mind. As an Aspergian myself, I became intrigued with the endeavor and sought to replicate this genre myself. Like my forebears, I hoped to capture autistic consciousness and transcribe it on the page so people could understand it. By illustrating it, people might be able to understand autism, and that was what I hoped to do.

   Writing ‘Bradyphrenia’ was no easy task. I needed to understand the psychology of nonvocal autists who are ‘on the lower end of the spectrum,’ as they say. For this reason, I needed to do lots of research, so I began reading the books by nonvocal autists like Naoki Higashida and Tito Mukhopadhyay so I could understand their cognition and began taking vigorous notes on their psychology. The most poignant of them was Higashida’s The Reason I Jump because it offered lots of insight into nonvocal autistic consciousness. At the same time, I read Joyce’s Ulysses very closely so I could absorb his style and replicate it on the page to master the art of ‘slow-processing.’ I performed several writing exercises accordingly to practice this foreign style, and lo and behold, Oak was born. After several exercises, I managed to capture Oak and his mind, and I wrote the piece you see before you. In doing so, I captured autistic consciousness, which I hope readers find enlightening. I worked hard on it, but I’m glad I did.

   In capturing autistic consciousness, I created a piece not only unique and unorthodox since it diverges from neurotypical cognition, but also human and childlike since it portrays a character with whom the reader is sympathetic. As a character, Oak is innocent and childlike, exploring his world with insatiable curiosity and mirthful whimsy and wonder. His imagination runs wild, and his efforts to understand it, although sometimes impeded by outside obstacles, never cease as he tries to overcome them in various ways. Deep down, all he really wants is to be understood, so when he makes a friend at the end, he finally achieves his goal, although he may not always comprehend his environment or its inhabitants at first glance. This desire for both under-standing and companionship is something we all share, and in this desire, we identify with Oak and recognize his humanity as a sentient being with thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires which is not much different from our own. In doing so, we empathize with him and understand the autistic condition better, for we can now see others as we see Oak in this story. As Tolstoy once wrote, the sole purpose of art is to teach us empathy, and this, I believe, I have accomplished, so I am glad to share it with everyone. Now, I think, neurotypicals can, perhaps, understand we Aspergians and autists more so we can avoid further confusion. In doing so, let us build a better future for neurotypicals, autists, and Aspergians alike. This, I hope for us all, so let us strive for a brighter future together. Anyway, thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the piece.


Justin Reamer is a poet and a fictionist from Holland, Michigan. His work has appeared in several feuilletons such as Straylight Literary Magazine and The Sampler. He is currently attending Eastern Michigan University to obtain his M.A. in Creative Writing.

Nick Bryant is a tattoo artist, working out of Dark Light Studios in Fort Collins, CO. He’s been tattooing for over eight years professionally, getting his start in Seattle, WA. Tattooing is his passion—striving to give clients his best work, and a great experience in a welcoming environment. This series is an ode to a couple of his favorite artists, Norm Collins aka Sailor Jerry, a tattooer, and Bill Waterson, an illustrator/cartoonist and the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. Nick combined the art of both artists into some really fun images to hang on the wall or get tattooed. Both have happened.

If you’d like to see more of Nick Bryant’s work, you can see his most up-to-date pieces on Instagram at @wolfantlers


By Kate H. Koch

            A blur of glass and color flashed past Ted’s eyes. He watched it move up, steadily higher and higher, until it came to a gentle stop at the sixth floor.

            “Glass elevator,” the man sitting across from him mused as he watched it climb back down. “Classy.

            Ted offered no reply, tracing a finger across the thin grey lines of the lobby table beside him. Smooth, cold, hard. He’d always liked marble.

            “Classy,” the man repeated. “Don’t you think?”

            “Loosen your tie.”


            “Loosen your tie, Ripley.”  Ted hissed the words through gritted teeth. “If we go in there and you look desperate, you’ll blow it.”

            “I’m not desp—”

            “When you’ve got a pitch like this, you don’t grovel,” Ted looked up at his partner, watching the kid fidget with the cuffs of his shirt. He sighed, and continued more gently. “Look, I get it—I was nervous during my first pitch, too. But you have to be firm in there. Remember, this isn’t just any million-dollar idea.”

            Ripley smiled back sheepishly.

            Ted scanned the crowded atrium as he spoke. His partner was right, the headquarters of Apophis Incorporated were designed to impress. Light poured in from the tall windows high above him, bouncing off the smooth white floors and against the polished stone walls. It jumped into every nook and cranny, daring any visitor to find an imperfection. His eyes settled on a large plaque against the back wall:


            His mind wandered to Tori. She’ll get over it.

            Ted settled deeper into the velvet lobby chair. “We’re not some door-to-door salesmen, Ripley,” he continued. “That’s one thing I need you to remember. We belong here, so you have to act like it.”

            Ripley tugged at his collar. “Ok,” he stammered. “Ok—but, if that’s the case, shouldn’t we look professional? They all do.” He gestured toward a group of businessmen milling around the lobby’s entrance. “I mean, it’s—it’s a pitch, Ted. And I get that it’s your idea, and that you’ve done this before. But, they’re expecting professionals, aren’t they?”

            “They’re expecting to be disappointed.” Ted reached across and hooked his fingers around the knot of Ripley’s tie. “They’re expecting something they’ve seen before. But that’s not us, Ripley. I told you on the train, stop trying to amaze them. They’re here to be amazed. This—” he yanked on the tie, leaving it to fall lazily over Ripley’s chest. “This thing we’ve got is going to provide that amazement.” He sat back with a satisfied grin. “We’re doing them a favor, and they need to see it that way.”

            Ripley fussed with his loose tie and said nothing for several moments. At last, he mumbled about the time.

             Ted gave no indication that he’d heard the kid. On days like this –days when image mattered—Ripley could be infuriating.

            To be fair, he was likable enough. And useful, too. The resume he’d given Ted certainly proved that. A certified wunderkind, the kid had graduated top of his class the previous year with degrees in computer science, finance, and statistics—all before he’d turned twenty-two. He could code in his sleep if he wanted to. And he never said no.

            Ted needed a decent business partner this time around, and Ripley certainly fit the bill. Even so, he couldn’t abide the kid’s insistence on shuffling around with his tail between his legs, an unspoken apology always hovering over his lips. The thought of being lumped in with someone like that made Ted’s skin crawl.

            But it would be worth it, in the end.

            “Did you bring the papers?”

            “Yes,” Ripley replied.


            “Well, if they sign it, they’re locked in. But I added a couple of clauses in there that’ll make our lives easier.”

            “I’m listening.”

            Ripley rifled through the papers in his briefcase. “Like, I—where is it? Oh—like if they sign, they work exclusively with us, but we can sell the—”

            “Don’t say it.”

            “Right, sorry. Right. We can sell it to anyone. Complete control on our end.”

            Ted leaned back, a broad smile spreading across his lips. “Not bad.”

            “You know, my brother and I were talking last night. He actually reminded me of one of those old wives’ tales about dreams.” Ted shot him a warning look, and Ripley quickly added, “No, I didn’t tell him about this thing. Totally unrelated. But he told me that some people say that if you die in a dream, you don’t wake up. That’s wild, right?”

            Ted raised his eyebrows. “Wild.”

Ted watched Ripley’s eyes dart around the room, searching for any excuse to get going.

            “Let’s head up now.” The plea tumbled out of Ripley’s mouth. “Floor fourteen, right?”

            Ted made a show of glancing down at his watch. “We’ve got a few minutes.”

            Ripley gave a half-hearted laugh. “Come on, Ted. Please.”

            Ted held his partner’s gaze for a moment. And then, with feigned exasperation, he made his way towards the elevator.


            The receptionist on the fourteenth floor had thick dark hair that fell elegantly over her narrow shoulders. She looked young, twenty-two, maybe, and smiled warmly as the pair exited the elevator. Ted smiled back, nudging Ripley. From the corner of his eye, he saw the kid’s face go red.

            “Ted Brace and Dennis Ripley.” Ted knew better than to speak too formally. “We’re here to see the investment team.”

            “I’ll let them know you’re here.” The girl stood. “Is there anything I get you while you wait?”

            “We’re fine, thank you,” said Ripley.

            Ted glanced at his partner, who absentmindedly tightened his tie as he spoke. When the girl moved out of sight he reached over and tugged at it again. “I told you to loosen that damn thing. We’re doing them a favor. Remember that.” He paused for a moment before adding, “You can tighten it before you ask her to meet you for a drink.”

            Ripley gave a nervous laugh.

            “I’m serious, kid.” Ted gave his partner a gentle shove. “I know that look. I had it when I met Tori, too.”  

            The blush crawled back up Ripley’s cheeks, and he looked relieved when the receptionist returned.

            “Mr. Brace, Mr. Ripley, they’re ready for you. If you’ll just follow me…” 

            They followed the girl –who quickly introduced herself as Ivy LeMay— down a wide hallway. The walls here were glass, too, but thick and textured for privacy. Ted could see the shapes of desks and the blurry figures hunched over them. Ripley started to fidget again.

            “It looks like they’ve got the room booked for you two for the next hour,” Ivy began. “That’s typically a good sign, Mr. Brace.”

            “Oh, I doubt we’ll need the whole hour, Ivy. But Ripley and I appreciate the sentiment.” Ted made sure to linger on his partner’s name.

            Ivy smiled at Ripley. “You’re welcome.”

            The trio turned a corner and faced the entrance to the conference area; another glass room, filled with other blurry shapes.

            Inside, three people sat around a sleek wooden table. Ted and Ripley shook hands with each of them. Ms. Maria Harper, tall and severe, Mr. Ryan Kelley, well-groomed with a permanent scowl, and the real prize: Mr. Amos Bell, whose net worth hovered somewhere around $108 billion.

            Ted felt his heart beating against his chest.

            Ryan spoke first.

            “Well, gentlemen, we’ve heard a lot about you, and you’ve piqued our interest.  Maria here says you’ve promised us ‘the pitch of our dreams.”

            Ted chuckled obligingly. “Maria’s not wrong about that. What I’ve got here really is the stuff of dreams, especially for an advertiser like Apophis.” Still standing, he placed his hands on the back of his chair. “But I could stand here and talk at you for the next hour, or—”

            Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Or…?”

            Ted hoisted a speaker onto the table. “Or, Ryan, I can show you how to level your competition to the ground.” He looked around the room expectantly. “I just need one of you to take a sleeping pill for me.”

            “Why?” Ryan look on warily, leaning back in his chair.

            “That’ll spoil it.” Ted winked. “And everyone here knows that any investment requires a little risk.”

            None of them offered any reply. From the corner of his eye, Ted could see Ripley wiping beads of sweat from his forehead.

            “We could get someone from the lobby.” Ripley’s voice shook as he spoke. “Offer them $100 to come up and test it out?”

            Maria smiled. “Sure, that s—”

            Ryan leaned forward. “Come on. Anyone down there could be working with you for all we know.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, but if that’s the best you can do…”

            “Why don’t you test it for us, Mr. Kelley?” Bell looked up at last. “I think everyone here would agree that you owe us a favor after your little stock experiment last year.”

            Ryan’s face went white.

            “Besides,” Bell continued, searching Ted’s eyes for any hesitation, “if this thing works, then you have nothing to worry about.”

            Unfazed, Ted held out his hand to Ripley, who offered him a small bottle of pills from his pocket.

            Bell held up a hand. “No. Let’s use one of ours.” He turned to Maria. “Miss Harper, didn’t you just finish a campaign for a fast-acting sleeping pill?”

            “The one for plane rides?” Maria asked, unzipping her bag. “I might have some on me now.”

            In a moment, she slid a pill across the table to Ryan.

            Bell smiled. “Good luck.”


            Maria was right, the sleeping pill worked quickly. Soon, Ryan slumped forward over the conference table, snoring lightly. Ivy tip-toed around him, placing three cans of soda in the center of the table. In his corner, Ripley had set up his laptop and a small speaker.

            “Orange, cherry, and cola—perfect.” Maria turned to Ivy. “That’s all, thank you.”

            As Ivy moved towards the door, Ted cast a glance at Ripley to see the color rising in his face again.

            “Alright,” Ted settled into his chair. “I just need one more thing from the two of you: What would you like Ryan to want?”

            Maria raised her eyebrows. “‘To want’?”

            Bell leaned back in his chair. “The cola.”

            “Good luck,” Maria looked down at her sleeping colleague. “He hates those.”

            “Perfect.” The corners of Ted’s mouth twitched. “Ripley?”

            Ripley opened his laptop, quickly typing strings of code. Ted turned back to the investors.

            “In a few minutes, I’ll be in Ryan’s head. I can make him dream about anything, anything, and that means I can make her want anything, too. With the Sandman Update.”

            “You’ve danced around this for a while now,” Maria replied. “What exactly is the Sandman? I think I speak for everyone here when I say this isn’t going forward until we get some information.”

            Ripley carefully slid a stack of papers across the table to Ted. He passed these around without looking at them. This part – the graphs and numbers— had always bored him—it was why he’d scouted Ripley form MIT anyway.

            “Ripley, want to tell them how it works?”

            “The Sandman opens up new avenues for advertising through soundwaves and sleep cycles.” Ripley tightened his tie. “By installing this update in the software of your phones, electronic home assistants, computers, et cetera, Sandman will release a soft hum, and those soundwaves interrupt the sleep cycles of anyone within 30 feet of it.”.

            Maria flipped through the pages before her. “What do you mean by sleep cycles?”

            “Sleep stages, I should say.” Ripley corrected himself. “The hum gently interrupts stages I-IV until it permeates the target’s REM stage.”

            Bell pushed his papers to the side. “Once you get to REM sleep, Mr. Ripley, that’s when you get into the dreams, I take it?”


            Maria narrowed her eyes. “But how do you control the dream? You’ve interrupted the stages, then what?”

            “Then we plug in a string of code that manipulates the soundwaves to produce a specific effect in the target’s brain.”

            “It’s like writing a script,” Ted jumped back in. “That code changes the way the hum sounds. It adds pauses, changes pitch… the code basically creates a unique pattern for the hum to follow.”

            “And that controls the dreams?” asked Bell.

            Ted smiled. “A good line of code can do just about anything.”

            Silence fell over the room.

            At last, Bell spoke. “Apophis is successful because we don’t tolerate mistakes.” He paused, straightening up in his chair. “You’ve certainly intrigued me, but I like to know that I’ll see a quick return on my investment. If you can’t promise that for me in eighteen months, then I don’t see a future for you here.”

            Ted sighed. “I can’t promise one in eighteen months.”

            “Well, then—”

            “But I can promise one in eighteen minutes.” Ted bit his cheek. “Let’s get things started before that sleep aid wears off, though.” Ted jerked his head in Ripley’s direction. “Feel free to look through those papers while we wait for Ryan here, but now…”

            Ripley switched the speaker on. For minutes, no one dared to speak as Ryan’s eyes flickered in his slumber.  

            “One last thing.” Maria turned to Ted. “Have you thought about the FCC? Lawsuits? Competitors? This thing won’t do us any good if we can’t get it off the ground.”

            “Why?” Ted asked. “There’s no legal precedent for something like this. There’s no hacking, no theft…” 

            “That’s true,” she replied. “Dreams are uncharted territory, and that lack of legal precedent will make outside litigation difficult, to say the least.”

            “I think,” Bell began, toying with his pencil again, “that we’re being shortsighted. You boys know the story of David and Goliath, yes?”

            Ripley nodded. Ted Raised his eyebrows and said nothing.

            “Well,” Bell continued, “it’s always told as a feel-good story, but there’s much more to it than that—it’s a cautionary tale about poor planning, when you think about it. If a giant worries about every little thing in its way, it dies. But, if you crush David before he can grab a slingshot, you have nothing to worry about at all.”

            Bell leaned back in his chair. “And that’s one of the benefits of being a giant like Apophis: we get to keep things pretty contained. If we keep everything in house, the FCC won’t know to grab their slingshots. Do we understand each other?”

            A smile spread across Ted’s lips. “Absolutely.”

            Ryan stirred in his sleep. Maria gave him a sharp nudge. He blinked in the light, the embarrassment and annoyance clear on his face. With a grunt, he reached across the table for the cola and drained it in one gulp.

            Bell laughed and extended a hand to Ted. “Well then, let’s make a deal.”


            The brassy numbers on door 436 glared at Ted as he approached. They stuck out against the white paint behind them, gleaming obstinately yellow in the low light. Ted shoved the key into the scratched lock, feeling his heart lift a little as he did so. His days here were numbered. Finally.

            Before he could turn the knob, his phone buzzed in his pocket.


            “Ted, hey” Ripley said, breathless. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole thing.”

            “Stop,” Ted fought to hide his annoyance. “I told you when they signed that contract, we have nothing to worry about.”

            “I know,” Ripley persisted. “But everything in there—no FCC, Goliath—”

            “Ripley, I don’t think you understand the gift that’s been handed to us.” Ted turned away from the door and lowered his voice. “Forget the FCC, forget the legal bullshit. You’re not just in a new tax bracket, kid. You’re in a new life. Go call that secretary and celebrate.”

            He ended the call before Ripley could reply.

            Tori Brace stood with a wooden spoon over a tall soup pot, and didn’t notice her husband walk in. Ted had called and told her not to expect him until late tonight.

            “Hello, beautiful.”

            She spun around. “Hey! Where were you today?” Short, mousy brown curls framed Tori’s face. She had small, bright blue eyes that disappeared when she smiled, but tonight they searched Ted’s face with concern. “You didn’t say when you called.”

               Ted grabbed her in his arms and kissed her. “What do you think of this place?”

            She blinked. “What?”

            “What do you think of this place?” Ted gestured around the cluttered studio apartment. “What do you think of it, really?”

            “Ted, if this is another—”

            Ted held a hand up to silence her. “Humor me.”

            Tori bit her lip. “You know how I feel about it. This place works for us. We don’t need another—”

            “This place worked for us. But who wants to live here?” Ted grabbed his wife’s shoulders, guiding her towards the kitchen cabinets on the opposite wall. “You know what’s behind the bowls in there?”


            Ted opened the cabinet door and playfully lifted one of Tori’s hands up towards the bowls. “You know what’s back there, right?” He watched his wife’s fingers tremble slightly. She’d glued on a new set of fake nails, baby pink. Ted inched them closer to the shadowy corner of the cabinet. “Well, Tori?”

            She tried to pull her arm away, but Ted held it firm. “Ted, I don’t want to do this.”

            He pushed her hand closer, imagining the eight long, spindly legs so near her fingers. “Answer me.”

            “Spiders. Ok? A hundred tiny, disgusting spiders.” He didn’t let go. “Please, Ted.”

            Ted dropped Tori’s hand, just a breath away from the cobwebs. “Exactly. Spiders. Flies, roaches, who knows what else? You hate it here. Admit it.”

            She moved back to the pot on the stove. “You know I hate when you do that.”

            Ted followed her. “Come on, you know I wouldn’t actually let a spider get you. But you can’t lie. This place is awful and we both know it.”

            “Fine.” Tori turned to face him. “But we can’t afford another move. We talked about this.”

            Ted wrapped his arms around his wife. Lowering his voice, he moved his lips towards her ear. “But we can.”

            Tori squirmed, exasperated. “Ted, I’m not doing this aga—”

            “I had a meeting today, Tori. A big one.”

            His wife went still. “What kind of meeting?”

            “I pitched the dream idea. We’re calling it the Sandman.” Ted hugged her closer. “They bought it.”

            “The dream idea? My idea?”

            “The dream idea.”

            Tori spoke slowly, cautiously. “Ted, I came up with that idea in school. I told you about it when we started dating.”

            “Tori,” Ted hugged her closer. “It doesn’t matter—”

            Tori broke free and turned around. “Yes, it does. It was my idea, and we made a deal. I know you remember, Ted.”

            He did remember. They’d been the two poor kids in business school with stars in their eyes. He remembered lying in bed with Tori, promising never to become one of those miserable couples who crossed each other at every turn.

            “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine.”

            But when he made that promise, Ted didn’t think he’d still be living in a shitty apartment with brassy yellow numbers on the door.

            “Try to think about it logically. These guys were old school. Old boys club-types. The idea had a better shot if Ripley and I pitched it alone.”

             “You took your assistant?”

            “He’s not an assistant,” Ted interjected.“He’s the one who writes the code for it.”

            “Whatever he does, you took him and not me?” Tori stared back at him, gripping her spoon like a weapon.

            Ted stretched out his arms. “Babe, I already told you why. Think about it: you already tried to pitch this, and it fell flat. I mean, you said so yourself.”

            “Yes,” she responded slowly. “But that was one bad pitch. One.”

            “And you haven’t pitched it anywhere else since.” Ted smiled back with sympathy. “And I get it –I know how much those rejections hurt. I just didn’t want to see this great idea die because of one bad pitch.”

            Ted watched Tori’s anger soften, but she continued, “Still, you didn’t even think to tell me? Why couldn’t I have been in the room at least?”

            “I should have told you. I messed up” He watched the corners of his wife’s mouth tremble. “It was a great idea—something you get once in a lifetime; I couldn’t just let that go. But you’re my partner in the business now, so the pitch doesn’t matter.”

            Tori turned back to the stove. “I’d better be.”

            Ted pulled his wife into his chest again. “Of course you are. And you know what? We’ve already got a pretty successful thing going. They paid big money for it.”

            “How much?”

            “They offered ninety million.”

            Tori blinked. “Ninety million? Ninety million dollars?”

            “Ninety million dollars.”

            Tori leaned her head against her husband’s shoulder. Neither of them spoke for several minutes. At last, she asked “What does that mean for us?”

            Ted’s lips curled into a smile. “It means that you won’t have to live in a dump with spiders in the cabinets. With yellow wallpaper that smells like piss. It means you don’t have to buy shitty plastic nails again.” He put his knuckle under her chin to raise her face up to his.

            “It means that I’ve got your back.” 


            A passerby likely wouldn’t look twice at the headquarters of Sandman Industries. Ted had resisted the urge to roost in a glitzy high-rise; he knew discretion would benefit him in the end, so he and Ripley had set up shop in squat building at a strip mall on the edge of town. The old GNC next door had been empty for years, much to Ted’s delight. No nosy neighbors.

            Ted looked over the list of new clients before leaving for the night. He had just finished writing the dream code for a new prescription. In a few hours, that obscure blood pressure pill would be a household name.

            Ripley sat next to him, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Should we add something about the side effects before we send this one off?”

            Ted didn’t bother to look up. “Why?”

            “Don’t we have to? We don’t want someone to go in without underst—”

            Ted slapped Ripley on the back. “Go home, kid. You’ve done your time.” Ripley looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. “We don’t need to add anything—it’s a dream, not a TV commercial. We can do whatever we want.”

            “But don’t we owe it—”

            “Go home, kid.” Ted threw his jacket over his shoulder. “Unwind with Ivy and don’t lose sleep over this.”

            Ripley smiled. “Maybe you’re right.”

            Ted laughed. “Of course I am. How long has it been now? Two years?”

            “Just about.”

            “Looks like I was right about a couple of things,” Ted said with a wink.

            Ripley stood and cleared his desk. “She’s been asking when we can get dinner with you and Tori again. How is Tori?”

            Ted sighed. “Good question, I haven’t looked at the calendar. I’ll let you know.”

            “How is Tori?” Ripley repeated.

            Ted chuckled and moved towards the door. “She’s fine kid. The way you always hound me about her, I’d think you were interested if I didn’t know any better.”


            Tori smiled as her husband sauntered into the brightly lit apartment. She stood at the tall window in the living room. Life on Fifth Avenue continued busily below her.

            Ted tossed his jacket over the leather sofa and stopped to admire his wife’s silhouette against the setting sun. She’d started dressing better after the first Sandman check came in, he thought, and he was pleased to see that she’d used some of the money to tame that frizzy hair. As he approached, Ted reached out an arm and twirled Tori around in full view of the window before kissing her neck.

            “Ted,” she pushed away slightly. “You’re going to put on a show for the neighbors.”

            “I don’t mind.”

            She extracted herself from his grip. “You hate PDA.”

            He shrugged. “Not anymore.”

            Tori raised her eyebrows. “Why’s that?”

            Ted could sense the gears turning in her head; he could almost see the word secretary flashing across her mind.

            “Do I need a reason?”

            “Does the reason wear stilettos?”

            Ted laughed. “Maybe you should get yourself a pair.” He thought about whether this little game would be worth the fight tonight. As Tori’s hands started to shake, he added, “Come on, you know it’s not that. I got a big new client today. Guess it put me in a good mood, but if you’re…” His voice trailed off.

            Tori’s eyes went wide, “Oh God, I’m sorry Ted. Honey, I’m sorry. I always do this.”

            “It’s fine.” He poured himself a drink and settled in the kitchen.

            “Ted…” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I just haven’t been sleeping well lately.”

            Ted knew why, but he raised the drink to his lips to hide his smile. He’d been careful—hiding the speaker, wearing discreet earplugs to bed. Maybe the sleep wasn’t great, but she hadn’t asked him for a favor in weeks.

            “Who’s the new client?” Tori pressed.

            “Pfischer. The pharmaceutical company.”

            “Nice!” Ted could hear the relief in her voice. “What are they selling now?”

            “I can’t exactly say.” He took another drink. “The CEO had me sign a bunch of NDAs before we got started.”

            Tori traced her fingers around the nape of her husband’s neck. “Not even with your business partner?”

            Ted felt her plastic nails through the fabric of his shirt. Dammit, Tori, do you always have to look cheap?

             “Not even you.” Ted turned and took her hand in his. “You’re still wearing these, huh?”

            Tori pulled her hand away. “Ted, I want more out of this company.”

            “You own half of it.”

            “But it doesn’t feel like it.” Her voice was gentle. “It was my idea, Ted. I need more of a say.”

            Ted took another drink.

            Tori sat down beside him. “I’m serious. You know I’d be good. When it comes down to it, we have the same qualifications. Same school, same grades…”

            Ted rolled his eyes. “And yet you still interrogate me like I’ve got a mistress for every day of the week when I get home. Do you really think you have the nerve to sit in contract meetings all day? They don’t tip-toe around your feelings, babe.”

            Tori balled her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “Give me a chance to prove that I ‘have the nerve,’ then. I have a right to be there.”

            “We both know you can’t handle it.”

            “I can.”

            Ted drew his wallet out of his pocket. “Yeah? Then you might as well make yourself stand out.” He threw his credit card onto the counter. “Buy yourself a pair of stilettos.”

            With that, Ted stood, drained his glass, and moved toward the bedroom. He’d almost reached the door when he heard his wife’s voice.

            “I can’t do this anymore, Ted.”

            He turned to face the kitchen. “Do what? Whine about not having to—”

            “I want a divorce.”


            Ted wandered back to Tori’s side.

            “This hasn’t been working for a while. We both know it, Ted.”

            “So you want a divorce? A messy, legal, nightmare divorce?”

            Tori nodded.

            “You want to lose this lifestyle? You want to go back to shitty spider cabinets?”

            “I’m not losing anything. I own half this business.”

            Ted felt his face go white. “Well, I mean—”

            “My name is on all the documents. I know it is, I was there.” Tori turned to face her husband. “It was my idea, Ted. My idea. You don’t even know how I came up with it.” She paused for a moment, before adding. “You and I both know I could ask for a lot more than half.”

            “Then you’re asking for half?” Ted asked.

            Tori locked her eyes on the back wall. “I’m asking for half, and I’m going out to find more clients. We’ll split the business, and from here on out I’m keeping anyone else I sign on. You can do the same.”

            Ted reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “Honey, I told you, it’s an old boy’s—”

            “I don’t care.” She shrugged him off. “That’s my proposal. You can take it, or I can go for the whole business.”

She stood. “You decide, Ted.”


            But the apartment door slammed shut before Ted could finish his thought.


            A week later, Ted stood over the kitchen counter. Watching the remnants of a strong drink settle in his glass.

            “What are you doing here?” Tori asked from the doorway.

            “I think we need to talk about this.” Ted poured himself another glass of scotch in the kitchen. Ripley’s words echoed in his ears: “Some people say if you d—”

            “It’s been a week, Ted.” Tori’s words pulled him back to reality. She hadn’t moved from the doorway. “I told you I’d give it a week but I’m not changing my mind. We don’t need to make this difficult.”

            Ted pulled out a chair and motioned for her to sit. “I know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about this.”

            Tori took the seat next to her husband. Wary. “I won’t be vindictive.”

            “I know.”

            “Then what’s to talk about?” Tori pressed. “I’m filing tomorrow. You can be there if you want.”

            “I told Ripley not to come in today.” Ted’s words muddled into one another as he slumped over the kitchen island, his fingers still firm around the scotch glass.

            “What does that—Ted, what do you want to talk about?”

            “He couldn’t be there—” Ted caught himself. “You wanted to go to Hawaii.”


            “You talked about that when we met.”


            “Used to look up pictures of the beach. Remember that?” Ted swallowed. “Used to say you wanted to fall asleep under a blue and white umbrella.”

            Tori closed her eyes. “I did.”

            “But we never went. Why didn’t we go?” He looked directly at Tori now, her face swimming in his eyes. “We had the money.”

            “You’re not making this any easier, Ted.”

            “Why didn’t we go?”

            Tori turned to face her husband. “Because I wanted us to have a reason to go. I wanted it to be special.”

            Ted nodded.

            “What did you want to talk about, Ted?”

            “I can’t—I can’t do this if you hate me. I had to be here to make sure you don’t hate me.”

            Tori put her hand on his. “I don’t hate you, Ted.” Her tone was soft. “We just aren’t good for each other anymore.”

            Ted drained his glass. “That’s true.”

            “Should I call someone? Ripley?”

            Ted stood quickly and his head spun. “No—don’t call Ripley. I’m leaving.”

            “Goodbye, Ted.” Tori wiped her eyes.

            “Goodbye.” He paused.

            Ted waited until the lock clicked behind him. After a few moments, he closed his eyes and sent the code.


            He’d waited until the next morning before he called the police. When the paramedics arrived, Ted tried to shake his wife awake, explaining that she had been completely fine the night before.

            The funeral had been hard, but the wake was worse. In the receiving line, he took pulls from a flask between shaking hands. He didn’t need to be sober, everything the mourners said blurred together anyway.

            “I’m so sorry Ted.”

            “Dying in your sleep. If it has to happen, that’s the way to go.”

            “At least it was peaceful.”

            That part was true. Ted had paid special attention to Tori’s comfort as he’d written the code. Calm, white sand beaches, a warm, comfortable tide to carry her out to sea. He couldn’t think of a better way to die in a dream.

            Eventually, a familiar couple shuffled up to him.

            “Ted,” Ivy pulled him into a hug. “I’m so sorry. Tori was—I don’t even have a word for her. She was incredible.”

            “Thanks, Ivy.” He replied, before taking another pull.

            “She was like an older sister to me,” Ivy continued. “Just a brilliant mind, and so kind.”

            “That’s true,” Ted replied, blankly.

            “I’m sorry, Ted.” Ripley looked at him with bloodshot eyes. “I know what a loss this is. There will never be anyone like Tori.”

            “Exactly,” said Ivy. “She was one of a kind.”

            “She was,” Ted replied, taking care not to slur his words. “She was. Ripley, I’m going to stay out of the office for a while.”

            “Yes.” Ivy spoke for him. “Yes, Ripley will take care of everything. And I’ll even come in to help –I mean, I already understand how it affects people, anyway.”

              Ripley threw his arms around Ted, who stumbled under the embrace.

            “I’ll take care of it.”

            “Thanks kid,” Ted whispered, taking a long pull as he watched the couple walk away.


            Back in the apartment, Ted sat on the edge of the sofa, watching the ice cubes crash into each other as he swirled them around with the dregs in his glass. He knew eventually he’d have to enter the bedroom –whether to sell the bed or gather his belongings—but he couldn’t face it yet.

            Besides, some part of him welcomed the sore neck and stiff muscles he’d get after sleeping here. Maybe if he did enough penance here, he wouldn’t feel sick when he saw Tori’s hairpin, or a box of her fake nails.  

            Ted’s phone buzzed next to him. Ripley’s name flashed across the screen.


            Even in his stupor, Ted felt his heart drop. He rubbed his eyes before replying:


            Before he had time to set the phone on the nightstand, it buzzed again.

            OK. I’LL HAVE IVY FILE IT.

            A pause, and then:


            Would Ripley piece it together?  He shook the thought from his head. He’d been careful. No one would know. 


            Ted tossed the phone on the couch and ambled into the shower, desperate to scrub the sweat and guilt from his skin.


            A loud rap at the door jolted Ted awake. He looked over at the clock on the mantle.

            12:30 AM

            Ted closed his eyes. They’ll leave.

            Another rap, and then another. Ted swore and pulled himself up from the sofa.

            Ripley stood in the doorway, holding a bottle of wine. “Ted,” he beamed at him.

            Ted stared, bewildered.

            The kid stumbled in. “I brought a bottle.” He held up the wine. “Thought we could celebrate a little.”

            Ted rubbed his eyes. “What are you doing here?”

            “Celebrating, Ted. We’re celebrating.” Ripley wandered into the kitchen and began searching for a corkscrew.

            Ted followed. “Celebrating what?”

            Ripley wrenched the cork out from the bottle. “Tori’s life. Get some glasses.”


            “Glasses. Wine glasses.”

            Ted pulled two down from the cabinet while Ripley sloshed the wine over them. It glugged and splashed, speckling the dark drops all across the marble counter.

            “Raise a glass,” Ripley commanded, “to an incredible woman. Tori was one of a kind.”

            “Kid, what the hell do you—” Ted tried to protest, but Ripley was already shoving the glass into his hand.

            “We’re celebrating Tori’s life, Ted. It’s what people do.” Ripley smiled at him with wild eyes. “We owe it to her, to honor her memory.”

            “I’m really not in the mood.”


            He met Ripley’s gaze. Did he know?

            Ted put the glass to his lips, draining it. The minute it touched the counter, Ripley was pouring again.

            “It must be hard,” Ripley continued. “I know what she meant to you.”

            Ted drained the next glass. “She meant a lot.” Ripley’s face blurred as he looked back at him. The only things in focus were those eyes, wide and bloodshot.

            “You know how much she meant to me?” Ted asked.

            “Of course I do,” Ripley responded, already gathering the glasses for another pour. “It was easy to see why you fell for her.”

            Ted smiled. Relieved.

            “Anyone would fall for her,” Ripley continued. “We should focus on the happy times you two had. I remember the first time the two of you came out with Ivy and me.”

            “The Hibachi bar,” Ted pulled his glass towards him, spilling most of it over his shirt. “We talked about when we knew each other in college.”

            “Yes,” Ripley’s voice sounded more distant. “Ivy thought that was adorable.”

            Ted rested his head against the marble countertop. “It was.”

            “And you two talked about all those big dreams you had.” Ripley laughed hysterically. “Remember? You said you wanted to make a million dollars.”

            “Mhmm,” Ted nodded his head slightly.

            “And Ivy loved Tori’s—she was just telling me about it. Those two talked about how badly Tori wanted to see Hawaii. Do you remember that, Ted?”

            Ted was hardly listening now, laboring just to keep his eyes open. 

            “We were just talking about it, before I got here.” A smile stretched across Ripley’s face, pulling back his ruddy cheeks. “You were right, Ivy’s pretty great—observant, at least. But hey, we’re drinking for Tori, not my girl. We need some music. Where’s your speaker?”

            Ted jerked his head towards the living room.


            The lyrics soon floated into the kitchen.

            I’ve just closed my eyes again…

            “You like Gary Wright? Dream Weaver?” Ripley called, but Ted had had enough. His head ached, and the marble felt so smooth and cold. He didn’t even mind the wet wine spots against his skin. It would be so nice to sleep here, so easy…

            Ted hardly registered the click as his apartment door swung shut, nor soft hum from the living room, fainter than his own measured breathing. As it rose, he became aware of how heavy his body was, how it seemed to be pulling itself towards the ground. It had been a long day, an awful day. His muscled screamed out for rest.

            That hum was so sweet, so soothing. Where had he heard it before?

            Ted rested his head against the marble. Tori had never liked it. I bet she’d have gotten rid of it after she left. Ted felt his eyes droop. I bet she’d still wear those cheap nails, too.

            He succumbed to sleep before the Sandman’s hum hit its crescendo.


            Ted awoke to the sound of rain. Not heavy, but enough to ruin a nice pair of shoes.

            Perfect. Ted groaned and stretched his arms, slowly easing himself up from his chair. The clock across the room read 10:43. Ted looked around. Shards of glass glittered across the kitchen floor.

            Ripley, he thought. Too drunk to clean up.

            As Ted stumbled around the kitchen to sweep up, he caught a glimpse of a soft blue glow on his right. He turned towards it, watching the light ebb and flow under the bedroom door.

            Until then, Ted hadn’t registered the pounding in his own head. He sighed. What could he expect after last night?

            The light grew more intense.

            What did I leave on in there? Ted rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

            As he made his way towards the bedroom, the glow stretched farther across the floor. When Ted closed his fingers around the doorknob, he heard seagulls in the distance.

            “What the—”

            The door flung open, and Ted stumbled onto a beach. The sand burned white hot beneath him. A short distance ahead, he saw a woman resting under a blue and white umbrella.

            “I’ve got your back,” she called to him, not bothering to turn around.


            “You’ve got mine.”

            “Tori, I’m sorry.” Ted tried to walk towards his wife, to get away from the thick, stinging sand. He felt his legs sinking deeper in with every step. “Tori, please. I’m so sorry.”

            “I’ve got your back.”

            Clear blue waves began to break against the shore. Each reaching slightly farther than the last.

            Ted looked down to see that the sand had reached his waist. In the distance, the sun began to set against the horizon. The waves pushed closer and closer to Ted.

            “Tori—” the hot sand had swallowed his torso now. “Please.”

            “You’ve got mine.”


Kate H. Koch has synesthesia, which means every sound flashes as a color before her eyes. Her vivid condition inspires her to create dark, colorful writing, and this has helped her during her time as a graduate student at Harvard Extension School, where she is pursuing an ALM degree in Creative Writing and Literature. You can find Kate’s work in Corvid Queen Magazine, Flora Fiction, The Metaworker Literary Magazine, Club Plum, BOMBFIRE, Cholla Needles, and Z Publishing House’s Minnesota’s Best Emerging Poets of 2019: An Anthology, as well as a script for ESPN and poetry forthcoming in Belle Ombre Literary Journal. You can also find her writing on her website: katehkoch.com

Three Footnotes from Henry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler, Volume I

by Clarissa Nemeth

P. 44

Vienna, 1877

            Frau Landler cannot rid herself of the headache. It feels as if someone holds ice to her temples; they throb coldly, deeply, and each pulse of pain reverberates in the cavity of her mouth. For days now. Weeks. Even when she sleeps.

            She has never had such headaches, and she believes they come not from within her, but from some malevolency without, some creeping evil spirit kicked up from the city’s mud and dirt by the careless feet of its socialists, its Jews. Her tenants, three bedraggled boys, drag such filth to her door on the tracks of their boots.

            She dreams of leaving Vienna. Her husband once promised her a house in the country, by a lake, but now she has only the meager income from the room she lets. She hates him for dying. She hates the boys. She hates this pain.

            From downstairs comes the clanging of a piano that used to be her husband’s, the one she cannot bear to see anymore. Then bellowing voices, monströs. The little shits never stop singing. The low notes of the piano echo in her head, but the high falsetto, the warbling Brünnhilde, she feels in her teeth.

            Frau Landler heaves herself down the stairs, into the little room that reeks of sweat and dirty clothing, coffee and overripe fruit. “Aussteigen!”

            The trio, crowded around the piano, look up at her, puzzled. The one in the middle, the the one she suspects is a Jew, pushes up his glasses. His gaze is piercing, pitiless. As if the sin were hers.

            “I will not stand this! Aussteigen! Jetzt aussteigen!”

            She screams until they scramble their skinny limbs like spiders, grabbing armfuls of clothing, stacks of sheet music and scores, boots, an apple, a coffee cup. She screams so that they cannot speak to each other. She screams until they have put their threadbare coats upon their backs, and then she stands in the doorway and screams at them in the street.

            Then the room is bare but for their smell, and the piano. The pain in her head pounds as if the boy still sits at there, fingers splayed over the keys. As if he has given it rhythm, texture, cadence; a terrible, insistent kind of beauty.


Venice, 1900

            When the stranger at the door tells her that the conductor of the great Vienna Opera is in the courtyard, she thinks it is a joke. She asks, Do you think I am a fool?

            No, no, signora, the strange woman says; the conduttore is…indisposed. We are touring the canals, you see. And the need came upon him…

            Then a man comes up behind her, tall and pale. He argues in German, she does not know what he says, but it hardly matters. How can it be, she thinks; such serendipity!

            Conduttore, of course, she interrupts, gesturing for them to come in. Conduttore, this is an honor, to be in the presence of such a great artist, such a master, it is a dream of mine to hear the opera someday, tell me, do you play Verdi there?

            His companion translates, says, Madam, may he…?

            Oh yes, of course, you must make yourself at home, conduttore, please, let me show you.

            She thanks God she has just replaced the flowers in the drawing room, that there are baskets of fresh oranges at hand should the great man need refreshment. She fetches the chamber pot, presents it to him like a chalice.

            The conduttore’s eyes are wide, his face flushed. He protests with his hands, speaking rapidly to his companion

            Madam, is there not another place?

            No, no, I insist, you must use the best room in the house, it’s only right.

            But if there were a more private…?

            No, no, it does me honor to have you here, you are an artist, a genius!

            And so she and the translator slide shut the little door and leave him to his performance. She wants to sing with joy, that history has come to her humble little house on the Giudecca. The longer he stays in the room, the more blessed she feels.

            When he emerges some time later she offers him water, wine, food, but he insists he must be going along. To thank her he goes into the courtyard and picks a little bouquet of violets. When she takes the flowers from him she clasps his hand and kisses it. When they leave she can hardly believe it happened.

            But there is proof. The chamber pot sits in the drawing room, between the window and the undisturbed basket of oranges. She peers into it, thanking God for the blessing of the visit; thanking God for the blessing of the violets.

P. 553 

Vienna, 1900

            The Deutsche Zeitung is calling her a Jewess again.

            Every time she sings, whatever the role—Elisabeth, Sieglinde, Leonora—they imply in their reviews that she is on the stage not because of her talent, but because of the Kapellmeister’s agenda. They are always comparing her to Marie Renard, the soprano she replaced. Selma Kurz, they say, is not as pure as Renard.

            The readers understand they are not referring to her voice.

            Once she ignored this sly libel. It was easy to do when after every performance he praised her lyric voice, her liquid eyes, the incomparable softness of her tone. So supple, he said; watch, and I will shape you into a woman no one will forget.

            In those early days his genius seemed fierce, towering, irresistable. So when he insisted that she rehearse for days with a blindfold to capture the movements of Iolanthe, or break the Guild’s rules to sing his own lieder with the Philharmonic, she never considered that she might say no.

            She kept the notes he slipped under the door to her dressing room: Selma, come round my flat tomorrow, I want my friend to paint you.

            Selma, Liebchen, come to my office, I must see you.

            Mein Schatz, my eyes ache for the sight of you.

            Selma, why did you slip away after rehearsal? Don’t be angry, Schatzi, you know how I must behave. When we are alone, I will cover that treasured face with kisses.

            Selma, have no delusions; my heart belongs to you and you alone, but how can I marry you unless you leave the opera?


            She burns them now, the notes, the letters, every one, in the flame of the candle, along with the review clipped from the Deutsche Zeitung. The edges crisp, curl, blacken. The words flake away to smoke and bits of ash that she can blow off her hand in half a breath, no effort at all. She knows how to conserve and use her lungs. He taught her, his hands around her waist, beside the piano: just there, Selma. See? Oh, but what they will say when I am done with you.    


Clarissa Nemeth is originally from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and currently hails from Asheville, North Carolina. She has a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. She has previously published work in The Writing Disorder and Appalachian Heritage (now The Appalachian Review), and is the winner of the latter’s 2015 Denny C. Plattner Award for Excellence in Fiction. When she’s not writing, Clarissa is involved with community animal welfare work and enjoys spending time with her husband and their pets. 

the wounds of anne sexton

by Jonah Meyer

anne sexton, at what point were you surprised to see the waters still
rippling in the long island sound?

anne sexton, 2 o’clock on a tuesday, august 1960, has everything
happened, or has nothing happened at all?

anne sexton, did your sun-drenched yellow dress add light upon light
under intrusion of the pock-filled hospital room ceiling, nurses and
doctors with scissors in hand, making origami of your tender pale skin?

how much for the poem, anne sexton? how much for the sea? how much
your pack of cigarettes, dangling from a sunburnt hand relaxed on the
pane of the ship, and where, by the way, is your wallet? where, your keys?

anne sexton in the age of luminous eyes!

anne sexton, composing ‘keep off!’ against the
lovely surface of the sea.

anne sexton, the good fat plump happy babies have sunk snug into their
carriages heavy like stones, and so why are you saddened, why
almost undressed?

anne sexton says nothing at all.

is as fragile as sponge.
light as a cup of milk.


they have their words to keep wheeling, whispering.
have their stories always spinning.

the poets will yes inherit the world come

have their rhyme, their meter, their
pleasant confusion.

the poets are now forming a corporation.
conducting business overseas.
holding late-night clandestine
get-togethers, serving white wine & chocolate biscotti & discussing
the meaning of it all.

ten dollars an hour the poets are paid.
twenty on particularly productive sessions.
bonuses each time a new poem
breathes on its own.

the poets walk the streets, shuffling like madmen,
joy burning in the eyes.
it’s funny how one might say to another:
the day is young, the season
marvelous, without
spilling word.

sometimes the poets rest in tall homemade hammocks,
their gnarly raw language setting the sun.

each new break-of-day, the poets can be seen dropping
bread-crumbs to geese,

such happy animation dancing through breeze.
they hiss & they howl & they
generally carry on.

the poets speak of things which
they – indeed all hoomankind – shall
never understand:

love, they moan outloud,
love is a chinese riddle!

the poets create poems on napkins,
tabletops, restaurant barstools.

         (the poets have convinced themselves
         graffiti is no crime)

once a new poem is borne, the poets
circumcise it, speaking a little hebrew,
careful not to cut too much.

at age 13 the poem is thrown a huge party in
which the poets get drunk &
dance into the skies.

yes the poets are really getting ahead in life.
really grasping a handle on
how much mess there is to be made.

weaving freshly-woven limericks into flower petals,
thrown to the wind, the poets take
long afternoon naps,
dreaming of eternity

             – and –

             the day when    all
     humankind  will  take  to
    writing  love  sonnets


sixty-one times i lost my soul to the small asian lady wearing pink cotton
jumpsuit and large copper earrings behind the counter at my favourite
place to grab lunch in san francisco chinatown

sixty-one times the colour of my true love’s hair

sixty-one the number of tics i glance at the young couple as they sink into
snuggling state of union, the movie theatre down in the dark front-corner
row, matinee showing of the life of freddie mercury

sixty-one times playing with soft language until we approximate
literary ejaculation

sixty-one calls to arm a busy nation policing the planet
a budweiser country high on box-office porn, buttered beer and
blustering pontification

woke up this morning with poetry crusted in the eyes, tried to rinse it out
while it spilled into these dog-eared pages

sixty-one stages in pure confused delight

sixty-one flags lowered at half-mast
some small god’s wind attempting to schmear it back up
the length of the pole

sixty-one, says the city bus driver
6161 pennsylvania avenue, dripping with blood,
fangs in the eye-sockets

and kerouac’s railroad earth is drenched in sunset
and all of general georgie washington’s d.c. is drenched in heavy flooded
moonshine machinery

observe the great heavenly satellite sky hovering over every man woman
child—she is a drunken sailor, smacking chewing gum grit & grin

and the humble buddha here on earth, schvitzing heady mindful practice
at the guidance of a video rental on the subject he got for a buck-sixty-
one down at video review on lawndale boulevard

and the sea, she is whispering sixty-one

and the old-growth forests are burning alive on tee-vee sets

and sixty-one hills and valleys busy shedding their stubborn
botanical growth as the great gab-smacked goddess returns with baggies
of dust, of deceit

how does one begin to spell out mother earth? 
the way we are all fashion’d from star?

glorious hydrogen oxygen calcium carbon organic,

sent spiraling spending the lonely centuries speeding thru milk the
way a baby, rocked gingerly, might burp into
some semblance of


1. as if your precious fucking life depends on it

2. as though, through the magic & craze & pure joyous glee
         involved therein, at once nothing matters save
         that freeing dance with words — broken, insane
         dreamy, divine
         she is a gatekeeper — the poem — and
         when you come a-knocking she’ll rise & rise &
                  cast a heart into hot jazz graffiti
         — sum
         this & that informatics, baby — charged, symphonic,
         this beating sweating flirting flickering
         storm that is
         itself the poem

3. hungrily

         knowing well every hearty morsel

4. with a newfound peace

5. for the sole purpose


         being caught inside the words


Jonah Meyer is a poet, writer, and editor based in North Carolina. His creative work has been published in O.Henry Magazine, Ampersand Literary Journal, Carolina Peacemaker, Bohemian Review, American Crises, JAB Fiction and Poetry, Found Spaces, The Mountaineer, Cold Lake AnthologyRaise the Voices, and The US Review of Books, among other places. Jonah serves as associate poetry editor with Mud Season Review and associate editor with Thrush Poetry Journal.

Better Late Than Ever

by Jeff Underwood

May 3, 1831

London is wet. The rain has flooded Father Time’s courtyard, leaving little chance for our croquet match to continue. I had been playing a most friendly contest with my siblings, Early, Timely, and Late, so its continuation is certainly desirable. I write now from my childhood bedchamber. The pillicock engravings on the desk delight me nearly as much as they did those days long ago. Out the window, I watch Father Time’s groundskeeper tend to the torrent of rainwater laying waste to the various gardens. He is a good man, Groundskeeper Jack. I often enjoy our long-winded conversations and I know he is well and good to be called a decent family man. Tonight we celebrate a far greater family man, though, my father, Father Time. Nary a one of us believes him when he says he will be three-thousand, two-hundred and fifty-two years old. Seems like not yet just yesterday he was turning three-thousand, two-hundred and fifty-one! But time is funny and Father is time so… Anyways, it’s been fun to see Mother Nature in such a good mood. She can be so temperamental and broody! But the day saw easy rain and we thanked her for it. She even baked Father Time his favorite cake, German chocolate! I think I will venture down and treat myself to a slice. Till we speak again, dear diary!   

– Never

May 4, 1831

Oh diary, today was utter dog dredge. Father Time wasn’t satisfied with a single night of birthday celebrations so he demanded we dine out at his favorite victualing house. Thus, we all piled into and onto the carriage and bumbled all the way out to the financial district so Father Time could have his Sweetings. He once said their oysters are the best thing he’s ever eaten in his life and he’s broken bread with Jesus! The rest of the family loves them, as well, but I can’t say my feelings are mutual. Slippery little buggars, those oysters! At any rate, we’re at the house and everyone orders their oysters and I order just a burger and a shake, nothing crazy, ya know. I tell ya, if we hadn’t been caught up in another one of Father Time’s stupendous New Year’s Eve stories (this one involving Napoleon, Duroc, and Mozart), we would have taken more notice of the time it took for our food to arrive. Father Time is especially perceptible to that kind of stuff. Finally, Early’s oysters arrived at the table. He complained about them being slightly undercooked but he wolfed them down. Then Timely had her plate arrive, along with Mother Nature’s and Father Time’s, all cooked to perfection. Late and I watched them nearly finish their plates and they were even starting to lick the plates when Late’s oysters finally showed up to the table. They were obviously overcooked but he actually likes his food that way so he annihilated them. Now everyone had their food except me but I figured, hey, it’s a burger, probably just needs to cook longer. I like them well done. Well, we didn’t see the waitress again until she brought over the bill and when I asked her about it she said it was going to be out at any moment. So we waited another forty minutes before deciding just forget it. The waitress said thanks for coming when we left but I didn’t say thanks back. I’m so sick of this happening every time we go out to eat!

– Never

May 5, 1831

I heard the most curious of phrases today, diary. My brother Late and I were down at the Westminster Public Library returning some overdue books when up to the front desk barges the old librarian, Miss Cranks. She had some not-so-great words for us about the sanctity of time and how disappointed our parents would be if they knew how late our library books were, yadda, yadda, yadda. But she got pretty quiet after Late busted out the overdue books and tossed them onto the counter. It was an absolutely ace move! And so Miss Cranks was logging the returns in the ledger, muttering to herself as she does, and upon finishing, she looked up to Late and I and said, verbatim, “We’re happy to finally have these books returned, gentlemen. Better late than never, after all.” Better late than never? What does that even mean? I looked over at Late after she said it but he was just staring off and smiling wide. I wonder if he knew what she meant by that. Maybe I’ll ask him tomorrow but if you find out first, diary, let me know. Thanks.

– Never

May 6, 1831

Oh, diary, how I loathe my Uncle Tony! I loathe him so! I’ve told you about him in the past and how he doesn’t have any time powers but that doesn’t stop him from dictating how all things shall pass. He’s Father Time’s older brother so you can probably imagine that dynamic. One is an all-powerful time-god and the other works in the Department of Agriculture. Uncle Tony does a lot of compensating. But they get along well and Dad is still trying to squeeze out some birthday love so he invited Uncle Tony to come over tonight to play board games and what have you. Father Time decided he wanted to play Kriegspiel so we began to split into teams. Here’s where the night turned, diary. Now, I’m used to being picked last in all things competitive, or, hell, never picked at all. It comes with the name. But Father Time and Mother Nature had been kind about bending the laws of time lately so that I could have as much fun as the other children. Instead of never being picked to participate in croquet, I am simply last to be picked now. So I was so excited to play because I love Kriegspiel and I could see Timely was just about to pick me for her team when I felt Uncle Tony’s hand fall on my shoulder. “Grave consequences await those that meddle with the sanctity of time,” he says. So I’m like, “Righto, Uncle Tony, I just wanna play a little Kriegspiel.” And I tried to pull away from him but he just gripped my shoulder tighter and repeated that same line. I looked at Father Time but he just shrugged as little brothers do. Thanks, Father Time. Mother Nature at least flashed lightning in her eyes before yielding to Uncle Tony’s demand. “Can I at least be umpire?” I asked my ratbag of an uncle. “Never!” He shouted over and over until we were all like, oy, we get it. And so I didn’t play the game but watched as they divided up into adults vs kids and then brought in Groundskeeper Jack to be the umpire. Such an insult to my ability as a time-god and Kriegspiel player! Finally, the evening ended with a steady win for the adults, and Uncle Tony was almost out the door when he just had to turn around and brag, “You’ll never beat Father Time, Mother Nature, and your dear old Uncle Tony!” I don’t know why he had to stare at me while he said it but it just made me feel even worse. I hate Uncle Tony. I won’t cry because he doesn’t deserve that satisfaction. But, damnit, why do people have to be so mean! Thanks for listening, diary, I love you.

– Never

May 7, 1831

Well, work sure was a drag today. Father wanted me at the factory to ensure nothing ever arrived in my department despite me assuring him that nothing ever did. “Father Time, you are Father Time, you see all planes of time and space, you know nothing is coming into the Department of Never.” I told him this, but he just said to be in at eight. I got there at eight-fifteen only because the roads are still so damn wet and the carriage rolls like a bumbuggy! But Father Time laid into me, nonetheless, giving me one of his tried and true lectures on the ‘sanctity of time’. Bullocks, I really don’t care about being on time when THERE IS NO WORK FOR ME TO DO. I sat around the office watching Barb and Mel run community theatre lines. Even they know our department is useless! It’d be nice to have some kind of purpose, diary. Eh, tomorrow’s another day. Goodnight.

– Never

May 7, 1831

Better Late than Never! Better Late than Never! I heard it four fucking times today, diary, and that was just while walking the flooded back streets well away from the main square. And the words weren’t even directed my way but seemed to have been placed into the lexicon of commoners all over. Men and women using these words as justification for tardiness and lazy efforts. Bah! Why do they heap such praise onto a brother of mine with such slipshod practices and shameless abandon of the sanctity of time? Curse him and curse them all!

– Never

May 8, 1831

Feeling rather delightful today, diary! The night’s sleep felt as if I had been stork-wrapped and upon waking I found myself in the most amazing of spirits. After breakfast, Late and I have scheduled ourselves another rousing match of croquet. Despite having never lost to my dear, younger brother, I find myself increasing in unease at his rapid development in the sport. However, if he should ever overtake myself in skill and finally find himself on the receiving end of victory, then I shall swallow my pride, congratulate him so, and help guide him forward in his quest for croquet dominance. I love my dear brother Late after all!

– Never

May 8, 1831

LATE IS DEAD. Late is fucking dead, diary. And I know it didn’t have to be but the universe compelled it so! I am a time-god, in the end, and one time-god can only take so much torment! I lost the croquet match. But through no fault of my own. It was that damn groundskeeper, Groundskeeper Jack. See, Never and I had been enjoying our contest for some time and were nearing the finish when that pesky Groundskeeper Jack came to the fence for a heckle. It started innocently enough, him calling fouls each time my mallet met the ball or him laughing in a fit each time I missed the wicket. It wasn’t much a bother until he hollered a couple of unsavories along the lines of: “Has little brother Late always been better than you, Never?” and “What’s better than Never, Never?” They were teases and I could see them for that, allowing them to roll off my back at first. Late, however, began to take them as cheers and used the jeers as fuel for a champion’s performance. As stated previously, diary, I have never lost a match to Late. I would rather perish altogether than lose a match to Late. And so when he cracked that final winning wicket with his ball, hatred burned inside me at Sol’s heat. But I prepared myself for the gracious defeat, lending my hand out for the congratulatory shake. And instead of shaking my hand and being a most gracious champion, Late simply gazed down towards my hand and then into my eyes. His smile spoke for him before his mouth did so I knew the words that were coming. “Looks like it really is better Late than Never,” he said to me as he walked by. And I just fucking lost it! One swing, diary. That’s all it took to bring the pompous power of Late down to his dead knees. His head split open like the grapefruits we used to mallet as youngsters. When Groundskeeper Jack saw this, he totally lost his cool, of course. But Groundskeeper Jack is old and slow and he tires fast and he can’t protect himself much. So I made quick work of him and now he’s buried beneath his precious tulips, diary. Look, I didn’t want to kill him but, I mean, witnesses? Yuck. Alright, I’ve got to get back down there and make sure the palm leaves are still covering the spot I buried Late in. Not a bad day, diary!                                               

– Never

May 9, 1831

Unsurprisingly, the family has been a bit worried about Late’s disappearance but I managed to convince them that he ran off for the week with the stable girl from down the way. It was hard to convince them of such a story as Late has never missed a day of work and so when he didn’t show up after his usual late entrance I had to do much satisfying. But satisfied they were and now I am so. Father Time even trusted me with Late’s work since he wouldn’t be in to tend to it and because my department is so bare. I gotta say, Late’s job really isn’t all that tough. Sure, the workload is enormous with all the late arrivals, late pregnancies, late registrations…but it beats NEVER getting any work. I can handle this.

– Never

May 10, 1831

Oh goodness, diary, what a mistake I’ve made! Why did I think I could run the Department of Never and take on all of Late’s work? Bloody well stupid, that thought! Obviously, I am getting my arse kicked. WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DAD’S COMING HOME FROM WORK LATE? Now that they’re being processed in the Department of Never they’re not coming home at all. Never! By all accounts, they just sit there and stare at their office walls, stuck in some kind of time-limbo. And what the hell am I supposed to do about it? I didn’t go to school for Late, I studied Never, damnit! I need to fix this ASAP. I need to bring Late back.

– Never

May 10, 1831

Ok, I’ve got his body. Had to dig it up from under the pile of palm leaves but thankfully the decomposition hasn’t had too much of a run at him. He still kinda looks like a time-god! Now, the tricky part is going to be bringing him back to life. I never took biology in school so I’m really not too sure what I’m doing but I do have one trusty resource. An old graverobber lives down the block with whom I’ve had some lively chats. He’s never said anything about bringing a corpse back to life but some of the tales he told lead me to believe he can get it done. I do worry about his hands as they lack any kind of steady countenance but we don’t need a Super-Late. Hell, we don’t even need the Late of old. Just something to pass as time.

– Never

May 11, 1831

Capital news, diary! Late is back once more! And hardly a mare could notice a difference in the lad. Hell, he’s even more late than ever! Late enough to convince Father Time and Mother Nature of his return, at least. Needless to say, my time in the Department of Late was forgettable and Father Time made that apparent when he recalled all the Dad’s back from the Never-realm and returned them to a natural state of late. No matter, I had a smashing time. And I know some of the Dad’s did, too! We’ll see how good of a time they’ll be having when little Frankenlate is bumbling around the office. I am filled with delight at the prospect of that three-ring!

– Never

May 11, 1831

No, diary, I will not bring back Groundskeeper Jack.

– Never

May 12, 1831

Diary, have you heard of the word ‘kismet’? I can’t help but feel a tad bit regretful with how this whole ordeal has played itself out. Perhaps Late didn’t deserve any of this and that I was a wee more reactionary than I ought to have been. If I should happen upon my dear brother then I think I shall divulge the exact details of how these last few days have played out. Our relationship has seemed stilted since his resurrection. I do not enjoy it much, I must say. I love my dear brother after all.

– Never

May 13, 1831

Mother’s mercy, diary, we have a massive problem! Groundskeeper Jack is back! And he is mad! Oh diary, my regrets only intensify with each passing day’s transgressions. And today was most regretful. I saw Late and I told him what happened, everything. I’m not sure if it was because we could only scoop half his brains back into his head or what, but he wasn’t even mad when I told him. He was more concerned about Groundskeeper Jack which then made me mad. So I made him promise me that he wouldn’t dig up Groundskeeper Jack and that he wouldn’t take him to my graverobber friend and that they wouldn’t rebuild him but he said NO PROMISE! And now Jack’s bloody well back. I tried to apologize to Groundskeeper Jack but he just stared at me, drooling heavily. Eventually, I had to softly sidestep his outstretched hands as he slowly raised them towards my throat. I shall be avoiding those hands in the future, I do say! In all seriousness, diary, I do hope Father Time finds reason to terminate his employment. Be well, diary.

– Never

May 3, 1831

Well, Father Time heard about what happened and reversed all of time. All the good I did for naught. Then he gave me a lot of grief about the ‘sanctity of time’ and told Mother Nature what I had done. And so, London is wet again.

– Never


Chicago based writer Jeff Underwood has a strong affinity for comedy and the absurd. He was born into a large family in the mountains of Arizona and was forced into weaponizing comedy as a means for attaining affection. His humor has led to laughs from the likes of famous men such as Sacha Baron Cohen and Kurt Thomas. Check out his Instagram @horstapony for more work of a similar nature.

A Prequel to My Sister’s

By Donna Talarico

I called my mom from the yearbook office phone—being on the staff had its advantages, including dialing home without the need to find a quarter or wait in line at the payphone—and told her I’d be driving around with Laura to sell ads as part of my official duties of cataloging the 1995-1996 academic year. Laura was a junior, one of my best friends, not even on yearbook staff, and not old enough to have a license; but her dad allowed us to use his old powder blue Chevy Celebrity station wagon as long as I drove and neither of us got in trouble.

“Not today,” Mom said, letting out a drag. I could tell she was smoking, and probably holding the phone between her cheek and shoulder while doing dishes, all with a lit cigarette. It was like she had three hands, always.

“Why?” I asked. I was never told no. Like ever. Especially now that she was busy with the kids.

Christopher and Brittney were still in diapers, and they shared the middle room in a small cabin-like house we moved into right after the owner died (we’d kept all his things, even the spaghetti in the cabinet), shortly after we moved back to Pennsylvania from four years in Oklahoma—where they’d been born and I’d lost my virginity.

“Just not today,” she repeated. “Take the bus home.”

My school district was big. It’s vast and rural and woodsy here in the Poconos, and it takes me almost an hour on windy backgrounds to get to school on Bus 31—only about 35 minutes, though, if I catch a ride with Wayne, who has a black pick-up truck and good radio. Laura lives in another direction, and I have an unofficial-permanent pass to ride her bus. (I lived with her for a few months when we first moved back to PA because there wasn’t room for me at my step-dad’s parents’ house. And the bus driver liked me.) The plan was to take the bus to Laura’s, get the Celebrity, and then drive up and down Route 940 to visit restaurants and video stores and ski rental shops to talk the owners into buying a full page ad—or, please just at least half, sir—to support the Cardinals.

I twirled the tan cord around and around while taking stock of the closet I was in; we call it the yearbook office, but this is actually a storage room that happened to have a phone jack, so Mr. Jeffries (or maybe the yearbook advisor before him) equipped it with an extra school desk, chair, and telephone. We worked on the yearbook in an actual classroom, in the basement, next to the graphics arts room, woodshop, and ceramics studio. I would sometimes get a pass out of class to come to this office-closet to do official yearbook business; I’d bop into Jeffries’ English class and I didn’t even need to say anything; he’d just take the yearbook key off the main ring and hand it to me and continue talking about Chaucer or whatever he was teaching that day. Laura joked that I was in love with Jeffries and that we’d do it, right here against this desk. [Maybe I had a mild, mild crush, and maybe I fantasized about it once or twice, but only after she put the idea in my head.]

What could be SO important that I couldn’t go to Laura’s after school? I thought. And then I finished that thought by thinking aloud, “What? Did you get me a computer or something?”

“Just. Come. HOME.”


My uncle Matt—my mom’s little brother and one of the twins [Melissa is the other]—was at the house when I got home. Came all the way from outside Philly. He was in business school and was getting rid of an old computer, so my mom bought it (promised to pay him one day?) as a surprise for me.

I was happy, but also I felt terrible. I’d ruined the surprise. I didn’t know if I was smart or psychic, but somehow I knew.

I knew that my mom knew my deepest desire was to write and that I longed for a computer more than anything in this world. I knew that deep down my mom wanted to make me happy if she could. So I knew that if she was telling me to come home after school that it must be something big. And the only thing big enough, special enough, to me, would have been the miracle of a home computer.

Things had settled down and I was in my room playing Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and I was in heaven.

“Donna got a ’puter,” Chrissy kept saying, and it was adorable as the time he shoved a pea up his nose and started to cry.


I still called them “the kids” long after they were out of diapers and big enough to microwave themselves hot dogs for dinner.

“How are the kids?” I’d ask my mom every time I called, which I know wasn’t often enough. I was out of the house at 18, never to look back. It wasn’t her, exactly. It was her choice in men. I was old enough to know better before I should have been old enough to know better. That’s why I had multiple after-school jobs, and seasonal ones, too, because the Poconos was a tourist area and there was always work at the ski resorts in the winter. [That’s how I met Wayne, with the truck.] If I was awake, I did not want to be in that house. Not ever.

So I remember them in diapers, maybe training pants. And they remember me as the older kid with the ’puter.


If I’m being honest, when I asked my mom, “How are the kids?” I already always knew the answer, especially as they became tweens. And if I’m being really, really honest, I was asking my mom because I wanted her to say it out loud. And hear herself saying it. I wanted to be right.

That procreating with a monster meant these poor kids’ lives were doomed.

When I was working on my MFA thesis in 2009, even though it’s almost two decades since that first IBM interrupted my afternoon of official sales calls, I still thought of it as the ’puter. Still do. And when I think of the ’puter, and the tiny voice that said it, I want to cry.


My thesis has been in today’s digital equivalent of a drawer for more than 10 years. It’s not that I’m NOT writing, but I write so much in my day job and read and edit so much in my passion project literary journal that sometimes my creativity is drained. My emotional energy, spent. When people ask about my memoir-in-progress, I remind myself that I can’t even call it a work-in-progress because, progress it doesn’t. But I was once told it still counts as writing when you’re constantly thinking about your story, working it out in your head.

I could also be fooling myself. It might not be lack of time or lack of energy — or not JUST lack of time or lack of energy. It could also be that when you’re writing about your own life, it’s a never-ending story. But it — that “it” being a specific piece of that story, a story within a still-evolving story — has to stop and start somewhere. And, sometimes, I feel that I don’t yet know my destination.


I haven’t seen my sister since my cousin Adam’s funeral. He’s OUR cousin, I know. But “my” always comes out. Just like my mom never referred to “Grandma” as “grandma” when talking about her; instead, she’d say things like, “My mom grew up in Jersey….” or “My mom is coming over today.”

Adam, only 39, died not long after his dad; our Uncle Paul. Which was not long after our mom, my (adoptive) father, my cat, my same-age aunt Theresa—and just before “our mom’s mom.”

It was a rough couple of years.

Then my (our) brother Christopher Then their (not our) dad.


“I have nightmares that Britt kills me,” I tell my other childhood best friend, Jasmine. “Like, they’re crazy vivid.”

“That’s some shit,” Jasmine says. We’re talking about my gradual approach to getting back in touch with my sister. Jasmine lost her dad many years before I’d experienced the loss of the parent, before that few years of terrible family losses; at the time, I know, in my heart of hearts, I was not there for her like I should have been. It’s true what they say: you’d don’t know the gravity of losing a parent until you do. I want to be a better friend to her, forever and ever.


This is why you need distance when you’re writing a memoir. I’d added an epilogue because it seemed important at the time, but it didn’t belong in my story, at least not in this way.

But, at the time, when I called my mom and asked, “How are the kids?” I found out that one of the kids would be having one of their own.

I told you so, was what I wanted to say. But instead, I asked the due date.

Later that night, I lamented how it was so unfair that these two kids shared their DNA with a monster, while also realizing that they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, and, now, neither would this baby, and this tortured my conscience. Then, a thought came to me. I’d lost my virginity to a much older man at about the same age my sister and brother are now; it’s just that no one had to ever know about it because I did not become pregnant.

A few months later, as I left work early to rush 45 minutes in one direction to pick up my brother from Red Rock Job Corps., where he was living/working/learning at the time, to race to Lehigh Valley Medical Center an hour in the other direction to meet my mom and sister (and new niece or nephew), the adrenaline told me, this THIS is the end of your book.


We come from a family of halves. My mom has a half-sister and a much older half-brother, but they are still my real aunts and uncles. So I promised my mom that I’d consider Chrissy and Britt my “real” siblings, even though we had different dads. Even though HE was their dad.

In my late 30s, as I became distant—and grew ashamed of their actions—I started referring to them as half-siblings in conversations with newer acquaintances, people I’d just met. I wanted to ensure 1) that people knew that half of them came from something I have zero part of and 2) that nothing was their fault, really.


All I knew about my sister was via her public Facebook posts. I was usually scared to look; but sometimes I would, especially on days on which I had dreamt or night-mared about her the evening before. In 2021, the content of her posts began to change significantly. I accepted her lingering Friend request.


I run a literary magazine and one of the essays we published in the March/April 2021 issue hit me in a way I didn’t expect. Empathy poured out for my sister, instead of my anger toward her father and resentment for my mother’s choices. These thoughts were overwhelming and definitely something I’d need to talk with someone professionally about, to sort through all of these memories and grudges and emotions—and grief for the years with her I’d lost, and for those with our mother and brother neither of us would get again.

But, in that moment, I knew those feelings were the start of something big, something healing. I suddenly saw my sister as a whole person, her own person. I reflected back to the time I thought I had an epilogue to my story (I’d still need 10 years to figure out what I was actually writing and why). I also thought about superheroes and supervillains and origin stories and the rising popularity of prequels in Hollywood/Streamingwood—when the beginnings help us better understand the end.

It’s not that I no longer have a story to tell. It’s just that—that little diapered girl I left behind when I packed up my ’puter and headed off to college and then to forever—I want to know what happened to her.   

This is more than a realization that Britt has a book in her, one that might pick up where mine left off. Rather, this metaphor of the prequel is helping me understand that she’s not a bit character in my story, but a main character in her own. A survivor.

She is my sister. She has a story. And I can’t wait to learn it—and learn from it.


Donna Talarico is an independent writer and content marketing consultant in higher education, and she also is the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its annual conference, HippoCamp. She writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Guardian Higher Education Network, The Writer, mental_floss, Games World of Puzzles, and others. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Donna teaches or has taught about branding and digital identity in graduate creative writing programs, including Wilkes University and Rosemont College, as well as at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Beaufort 4

by Bruce Parker

Like the sea my body pulses
choppy in wind against its current,
an open sea concealing squid eyes,
phosphorescence and fish that briefly fly.
It is the pulse of sex along my spine
still seeking surcease, sometimes
finding it and love, the sea otter, floats
on its surface, cuddles its young until
they are gone and my sea is empty again,
open sea with choppy waves.

Belle Hélène

The room was small and dingy
in a small and dingy hotel,
nothing to remember about it,
perhaps an unremarkable print hung on
a probably brown wall, I don’t remember.
Down at the end of the narrow hall
on each of the two floors was a decrepit
shared bathroom.  The hotel would have been
forgettable anywhere but there in Greece,
standing alone in bright sunshine
a little down the road from Mycenae,
where Schliemann believed he had found
the mask of Agamemnon, where he stayed
during his excavations, had signed
the guest register that I, too, signed, signed
also by Heinrich Himmler, Charlton Heston,
and others* who must have each enjoyed
the same shared bathroom at the end of the dingy hall.

*The others include:
  Claude Debussy
  Jean-Paul Sartre
  Hermann Goering Joseph Goebbels
  Pedro II of Brazil
  JK Rowling
  Gustav Adolf VI of Sweden
  Albert II of Belgium
  Agatha Christie
  Allen Ginsberg
  The Duke of Windsor and the Duchess of Kent
  Henry Miller
  Virginia and Leonard Woolf
  William Faulkner
  Irving Stone
  Jack Kerouac
  Andre Malraux
  Lawrence Durrell


The question of god begins with definition
name an attribute and there remains an exception
yes for every one of the ninety-nine names
suffering persists
we are allowed to destroy our home like children in
the name of free what
can you expect I am the deity you know
he is said to have said and even he
is suspect gender need not apply
is everywhere not a person in the way
of peculiar substance and accident combined
my empty hands will be fulfilled does supernatural
mean anything any more
any more than anything
more than anything else
any god imaginary friend invisible
all outside time and space


Bruce Parker holds a BA in History from the University of Maryland Far East Division, Okinawa, Japan; and an MA in Secondary Education from the University of New Mexico.  He has worked as an ESL teacher, technical editor, and translator.  His work has appeared in The Inflectionist Review, Pif, Blue Unicorn, The Hamilton Stone Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and has a chapbook, Ramadan in Summer, forthcoming January 14, 2022, from Finishing Line Press. 


By J.T. Neill

            In the winter, storms were frequent. They held the coastline to ransom. The sea that only a few months prior held waves on long leashes of refrain would wrestle with white horses that rode as far as the eye could see. It was power Islanders had understood for generations. But that was the winter. Such nights were rare in the summer, and only a particular wind, from a particular direction was able to dig down to the seabed floor. As the garden door slammed shut, she knew that that night could be one of those rare nights.

            The Island awoke the following morning as if witnessing a strange and messy argument between the sea and the wind. Seaweed was thrown everywhere, small dinghies once painted as transit marks had snapped from their anchors and washed up on the beach. Pebbles that had been thrown into the sea by children returned in their droves, forming walls of rock.

            Virginia Huntington was a third generation Islander and had a house on the seafront which she shared with her husband Mark and their three children. She had inherited the Victorian property when her father died and the house became the family’s bolthole to escape the city. Mark would drop by for weekends and bank holidays like a passing ship, careful not to dock and offload his worries in a place he had always felt like an outsider. Virginia had spent most of her childhood on the Island; playing in the rock pools to catch crabs, crying on the seafront when her boyfriend broke up with her, making love to Mark under the autumn stars, and a space she called her own to think.

            She was up earlier than usual. She picked her ‘walking Barbour’ up off the hook in the hallway and closed the door behind her.

            Down on the beach, as Virginia turned over mangled seaweed with her foot, she began to think about a problem that had been plaguing her for some time — the education of her eldest son, William. He was coming up to thirteen and Mark, single-mindedly thought the Big-Five were the only suitable suggestion, airing his frustrations as he said, ‘we’ve been over this ground before,’ annoyed that she wouldn’t see things his way. Virginia thought William was too sensitive to go to boarding school and had heard horror stories about bullying at what Mark regarded as ‘esteemed institutions.’ However, Mark controlled the money, so she knew her protestations could only go so far. She knew there were people she could talk to about it, but that would mean she had to admit she had a problem, something the Island didn’t take kindly to.

            ‘I may have to go back to work,’ thought Virginia.

            The transience of the morning’s light hung delicately over the beach, gently bringing out its sandstone colour. Her toes had managed to dislodge a clump of seaweed attached to a rock. She kicked it to the side and headed to Friars Bay, a stretch of beach that curved round like a bent forefinger, beckoning those at sea to come ashore.

            ‘Morning Virginia,’ said a local resident, whose name she could never remember.


            She walked past, sure to keep brooding when the Islander grabbed her by the arm.

            ‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen what’s further up the beach,’ said the man, as Virginia looked startled at being accosted in such a way.

            Is it Simon?

            ‘Not yet…What do you mean? What’s further up the beach?’

            ‘Well, I must insist I come with you, because I came across them earlier this morning and couldn’t quite believe my eyes.’

            ‘Did something wash up?’

            ‘You could say that. It’s best if you see for yourself. If I explained, you wouldn’t believe me.’

            She still felt tired, and longed more than ever to know the man’s name. She remembered the fact he had a brother named James, but then thought everyone down on the Island had a brother named James.

            Was he a cousin, perhaps, of the Peridot family? Mind you most people are, I think I may even be loosely connected to them. Incestuous place this is.

            They walked briskly, and the man’s dog, not wanting to be ignored, weaved between their legs, sniffing every bit of seaweed that’d come ashore.

            ‘It’s a little further,’ said the man.

            The beach was abnormally quiet, except the excitable croon of seagulls flying above. Virginia thought perhaps she had missed some grand event that everyone else had been invited to. The seagulls dipped down to the sea’s surface, everything went quiet.

             Just past eight, she said to herself, strange.

            ‘You see,’ said the man, bending down to pick up what he thought was a torn red jacket half buried in the sand. ‘I thought you’d be interested.’

            ‘A lifejacket? I don’t suppose someone was wearing that?’

            ‘This is nothing,’ said the man, ‘there are plenty more of these further up the beach, look I’ll show you.’

            She realised she remembered his name.

            ‘Just behind that rock,’ said the man with an almost giddy expression.

            Rupert, ah yes, his name is Rupert, thought Virginia, pleased she now remembered.

            A pair of sandals were the first things to catch her sightline.

            What is this?

            Then a jumper, then several more lifejackets.

            What are these things doing here?

            Then a foot, then a leg, then a body.

            Then people.

            Resting against a large slab of a rock, a huddled mass with legs and arms all woven into a great knot, sat shivering. Their skin was blotchy with goosebumps the size of cysts. The tide was far out and Virginia stood in disbelief. Her eyes looked at the mass of bodies then to the sea, then back to the mass. They were still sodden as if the sea had given birth to them at some point during the night. The colour had drained from their Middle Eastern faces and the coarseness of their lips spoke to each second, minute, and hour they had spent at sea.

            They can’t possibly have survived the storm, she thought, it doesn’t make any sense.

            Virginia murmured something. Then she cleared her throat and said: ‘Let me help you.’

            One woman, who hugged her knees appeared to open her mouth, but her chattering teeth rang out where her voice would have been. Virginia was able to make out the word ‘water’ just before her mouth closed, her jaw shaking all the same.

            Damn it, I don’t have any water on me.

            ‘Rupert…Rupert, water, do you have any water?’

            She turned around.

            ‘What are you doing over there?’

            ‘Afraid not,’ said Rupert, whose head popped out from a rock behind her that blocked Virginia’s view of the route she’d just taken.

            ‘I think they’ll be alright. They’re here now.’

            ‘No Rupert. No they’re not going to be alright. They’re barely alive.’

            ‘They’ve made it this far,’ said Rupert, casually, like he was commenting on a flock of seagulls. ‘Now Gin I really…’

            ‘Don’t you dare say it,’ she snapped, ‘don’t you dare say you’re leaving.’

            ‘Ok, ok,’ said Rupert with palms facing her. ‘But all I’ll say is that I have to feed Mercutio, he’s been awfully unwell recently and he needs some rest. Vets orders.’


            ‘My dog.’

            Virginia’s face froze in disgust. Mercutio’s tail wagged excitedly as he ran up and licked her shoes.

            ‘Rupert, you can’t be serious. These people need our help, your dog’s belly can wait. Surely, you can see that.’

            ‘He’s an old man these days Gin, but I can see you need my help. Now shall I call the police?’ Virginia grabbed his arm as he reached for his phone.

            ‘No, they need water not the authorities.’

            ‘But they’re not our responsibility! They’re grown adults, they decided to come here, they have to live with that.’

            ‘Can you understand what I’m saying?’ said Virginia as she bent down to speak to the group. ‘Where’s the boat…the boat…the vessel you arrived on? Do you understand?’ She was now speaking as slowly as possible, like you would to a child.

            ‘Leave them to the authorities, they’ll know what to do,’ said Rupert pleadingly.

            ‘Rupert, just for one minute could you pretend to stop being such a heartless bastard,’ said Virginia angrily as she stood up to face him. ‘There’s a little girl here! Hardly a grown adult is she. Do you think she deserves being stranded on this beach until the police show up and arrest them all?’

            They both turned to look at the mass of frozen bodies wrapped in red lifejackets that displayed the fading grasp of the devil’s hands.

            ‘Ok fine,’ sighed Rupert. ‘What do you want to do with them?’

            ‘Well, there’s…’

            Virginia started to count how many there were, disentangling one body to the next. ‘There’s ten of them here, so why don’t I take five and you take five.’

            ‘What?’ barked Rupert, ‘I hope you’re not suggesting I take these people into my home. My boys are there, they’ll think I’m a madman.’

            ‘Fine,’ she sighed. ‘I’ll take them back to mine. I have plenty of space.’

            ‘I’ll help carry their belongings, or whatever these things are,’ said Rupert, picking up the sodden rags of clothes and inspecting them like they were live animals.

             It was a short walk from the beach to Virginia’s house but several times on the way she went back to encourage those who fell behind to keep up.

            ‘I think that’s the last of them,’ said Rupert like he had personally lifted each one up the stairs of the seawall.

            ‘You have a kind soul Virginia. I’ll be round later to see how you’re getting on.’        

            And you have no soul at all, is what she wanted to say, but social bridges on the Island took years to build and only minutes to break.

            ‘Thank you for your help. I’ll phone you later, we may need some supplies, my food delivery isn’t scheduled until tomorrow.’

            ‘I’ll see what I have.’

            Rupert shut the gate and walked along the seawall out of sight.

            This is a lot of people, thought Virginia.

            She surveyed the contents of her house, slightly fearful things may be stolen, and thought about hiding some of her jewellery.

            ‘Just stay here…here,’ she said pointing, ‘one, two, three…there we go.’

            She then got out the biggest jugs she had in the house, which were only really used for special occasions, and filled them up with water. She then refilled it, then again, and again. Next she went into the store cupboard and removed all the towels, leaving them in a big pile next to the kitchen table. 

            The woman, who had tried to speak earlier, pinched the salt-crusted sleeve on her arm, and tugged upwards.

            ‘Ah yes…clothes, I’ll show you. Lets get you out of those rags.’

            Virginia directed them to separate rooms along a short corridor. They each slowly went into one and closed the door and by this loose association, Virginia was able to gauge the different relationships within the group.

            ‘Finally getting somewhere,’ she said to herself.

            Now food, what do I have.

            The kitchen was in the process of being re-done so there wasn’t much. But there were half a dozen packets of dried pasta, and she started to cut up a few onions and peppers. After that she added a few tins of chopped tomatoes, moving methodically around the room. Unfixed cupboard handles were pushed to the side. It annoyed her that after six-months she still didn’t have a kitchen. The fitter came recommended from mutual friends on the Island. But in reality there was only one carpenter in the village and he was paid per job. Two-months into the project she realised he was also the local boat builder and being the only one of everything meant he rushed only when filling out his invoices.

            By now, the sun had claimed the day and the sound of running water from the shower briefly put her mind at rest. The sun’s rays cast out, bejewelling the surface of the sea.

            Suddenly, this tranquil moment was broken. A man, speaking Arabic, kept saying the same unintelligible word. She didn’t know what he was saying but he was pointing at his towel and then putting his arm up, waving his hand around.

            ‘Clothes…are you saying you need clothes?’ said Virginia.

            The man nodded, ‘come with me, there might be something here.’

            She led him into her bedroom, which was furnished sparingly, and directed the man towards Marks side of the wardrobe. He clearly was not much impressed with the selection available and turned some hangers back and forth, inspecting them, and then feeling each individual shirt.

            ‘What’s your name?’asked Virginia, with the kind of tone you would expect from a headmistress speaking to a naughty child.

            He turned around with a perplexed expression.

            ‘Your name?’

            He shrugged, not saying a word, and pointed in the direction of a woman, coming out of one of the bedrooms who was drying her hair. Virginia thought she looked quite beautiful, as her long chestnut hair fell across her back.

            She couldn’t be more than twenty or so.

            ‘Excuse me. Do you any of you speak English? I asked that gentleman over there,’ said Virginia, pointing to the man in her bedroom, who was measuring the length of one of Mark’s shirts with his arms. ‘But he just pointed to you. I don’t suppose you speak any English?’

            ‘Little,’ said the woman, whose hardened walnut eyes, both entranced and unnerved Virginia.

            ‘Well, I must insist that you tell me something about yourselves.’

            This is my house, she could hear herself say.

            ‘Who are you? Where have you come from?’

            ‘Asma,’ said the woman putting her hand on her breast, ‘that man, who try shirt is Yusuf, he came Sudan, escape war, he lost brother in storm.’

            ‘Goodness,’ said Virginia, slightly taken aback, ‘where did you come from?’


            ‘Athens? Why would you want to come here?

            ‘No,’ said Asma pausing, ‘A — leppo.’

            ‘Oh Aleppo, you’ve travelled quite a way.’

            Virginia thought of the destruction she had often seen in the news about the ancient city, that had been reduced to rubble.

            ‘Did you come on a boat from France?’


            ‘Gosh, I mean I’ve seen on the news about the crossings but never did I think they’d be in my house.’


            ‘It’s very brave what you did, do you understand.’

            She went back and stirred the pot.

            ‘I just can’t believe it, in my house, you’re lucky my husband isn’t here,’ said Virginia smiling over her shoulder, ‘he wouldn’t be very happy.’

            A few more people came out of the rooms, their bodies had steam rising off of them and looked at Asma and spoke among themselves.

            ‘What are they saying?’ said Virginia, pointing with a spatula.

            ‘They say you a nice person.’

            ‘Oh really, that’s nice.’

            More people came out and sat on the sofa, they each went into Virginia’s room after the man had put on his shirt and let them feel the fabric. 

            ‘I can’t believe you all came on the same boat.’

            ‘Yes, a man called it dingay,’ said Asma.

            ‘Dinghy, what man?’

            ‘The man who sold it, they everywhere in France, selling big boats and small boats.’

            ‘How big was yours?’

            Asma shook her head, then attempted to measure it with her arms, but gave up.

            ‘All of you were in this dinghy?’

            ‘Yes,’ said Asma, ‘we meant to reach Duhver but storm was too big and we were scared and held each other. When we woke, we on beach.’

            ‘Unbelievable,’ whispered Virginia, ‘I mean, really unbelievable, and Yusuf’s brother was the only one who died in that storm?’

            ‘No,’ said Asma meekly, a sorrowful expression absorbed her whole body, ‘two others also die. Now we are ten, before thirteen.’

            A girl came running into the room, where two buttoned cotton sofas faced opposite each other, in stale conversation, as long floor-to-ceiling windows, seemed to be listening in.

            ‘Mama, mama, mama,’ said the girl running to Asma to hug her leg, the sodden clothes from the beach made her physique even smaller. She looked almost like a small, soak-ridden gerbil, with raisin eyes and a stub nose.

            ‘Is she yours?’ said Virginia, stooping down to look at the child. She started speaking in gobbledygook which the child frowned at and with a rag in her mouth, dug her little nails into Asma’s legs.


            Asma then started to rub her back, assuring her that this woman wasn’t going to harm her.

            ‘Isn’t she just delightful,’ said Virginia excitedly.

            Malika steadily came forward, the rag still in her mouth and extended her small, delicate hand to Virginia, who shook it gently. She had always wanted a girl.

            Two more middle-aged men came out of her bedroom wearing Mark’s clothes. The daylight had done little to relax the wired expressions that seemed to be made out of stone. Then another woman, who was much older than Asma, and had a skeptical, prejudicial face, came over to inspect what Virginia was cooking. Simultaneously, a couple with the airs and graces of nobility, came over, and though they appeared graceful in their movements, there was an immeasurable gulf of loss between them. It was as if the storm had robbed them of something greater than the sum of their parts. There was a heavy smell of damp as they all sat down on the sofas with towels wrapped round them.

            ‘What are you doing?’ said Virginia.

            Pools of water gathered on the floor. The sand, still too afraid to let go, accompanied their feet on the thick fibrous rug.

            ‘Asma, Asma, please tell them to get up, they’re still wet for goodness sake. My husband would be furious.’

            Asma indicted that they stand for the time being while Virginia went about wiping up the water and sand.

            ‘If they need clothes, they’re in there,’ she said, irritatingly pointing to her room, before adding: ‘but its still warm, tell them I’ll hang their clothes up outside.’

             Virginia drained the pasta to combine with the tomato and pepper sauce. She then measured out roughly equal portions into small bowels. They each took one, and ate prodigiously, barely stopping to breath. Some stopped, but only to take a swig of water before going back to the bowel.

            Virginia watched and felt a flash of brevity in helping these people in a physical sense, rather than just giving them money, or showing them where the nearest hotel was. She had always thought that people should strive to do the right thing. It was a code of life instilled in her from her father, a vocal opponent of the government of the day in the House of Lords. His position was always the devil’s advocate. ‘It’s always useful to ask questions those in power don’t want asked,’ he used to say. Virginia took this on board and this sense of morality had dictated her life since when she was a young girl, and proved a point of contention when Mark finally met her parents some thirty years ago because he wasn’t used to being challenged.

            But now as she looked upon her latest act of goodwill, she knew her father was right, and she asked herself, what am I to the vulnerable?

            Before she could answer this question, a spasm that had started in her gut, had made its way to her mind, somewhere in the periphery, something wasn’t right. She again looked and examined the faces of momentary solace on those around her. It was when she looked at the old woman, a figure of featureless contempt for all those she crossed, imagining what her own face would look like, when in twenty years time, she would be a similar age. At all those years of difference, ten to twenty, back to ten, the number branding itself in the forefront of her mind.

            Ten, ten…it came like a message in a bottle. Then…she remembered there were ten on the beach. She looked round, counting only eight, and it suddenly dawned on her that she had been deceived, that perhaps her father was wrong, that doing the right thing was a precarious occupation.

            It opens you up to being vulnerable, thought Virginia, before consolidating, never again.

            A loud, rapid thump, was heard on the front door. The sound of which echoed throughout the light-flooded room. The sound of forks scrapping porcelain halted and everyone found themselves staring at the door. The hair on Virginia’s arms stood to attention and a gentle shiver traversed down her spine. She opened the front door just a slither.  

            ‘Virginia, sorry to intrude, but I need to speak to you,’ before adding, ‘now!’

            Standing in the doorway was MacTaggart, a retired British Army Major with a firm handshake, and bird-like face, those he commanded said he had the appearance of a raven, helped by a full head of black bottlebrush hair. He was known on the Island for his distinct voice that sounded as if he were continually shouting into a barrel.

            ‘Hello Major, what’s wrong?’

            ‘Have you heard about these people arriving this morning. I heard you met them?’

            ‘Yes, I did.’

            ‘Well,’ said Major MacTaggart, leaning away from Virginia to catch a glimpse of inside the house.

            ‘Look I’ve heard on good authority, they’re in here,’ he said pointing to her house.

            ‘Here,’ said Virginia, ‘what makes you think that?’

            ‘Half the village knows,’ said Major MacTaggart, with his hand on the door as some kind of insurance policy. ‘You know how quickly word spreads down here. Now, I’ll ask you again, are they in there?’ His eyes narrowed, as if he were on a perch.

            Virginia relaxed her slant against the front door. It slowly opened and Major MacTaggart seemed to comprehensively examine the face of each person, as if painting a picture of the different shades of villainous traits they had.

            ‘So it is true,’ said Major MacTaggart, ‘I will alert the authorities immediately.’

            ‘Wait stop, what are you doing, they’re not criminals. Why bring the law into it?’

            ‘Virginia! Are you out of your mind? The law governs this land, I suggest you look up the Dublin rules when it comes to this sort of thing because the courts will agree with me. Period.’

            ‘I’ve never heard of the Dublin rules, but they’re eating, at least wait for them to finish.’

            ‘Gin,’ said the Major stepping closer, ‘you must understand, I’m doing this for the good of the Island.’

            ‘But John…’

            ‘Please, it’s Major,’ he puffed up his chest and boomed: ‘I worked hard for such a title.’

            ‘But John, for whose good? I’m down here for such a short time. They are not a nuisance, if anyone should be annoyed its me. They are in my house. But they are not a threat, please J — Major, let them at least finish their food.’

            She decided in that moment not to disclose to MacTaggart that two people were already roaming the Island.

            ‘I don’t like this at all. Are you not worried that your life might be in danger?’

            She looked round as they were all eating and chatting, and then returned to his stern repose.

            ‘I’d say I’m more worried I’m not going to have any food left.’

            She smiled, and relaxed her shoulders. But any charm slid straight off MacTaggart’s back.

            ‘Gin,’ rumbled MacTaggart, ‘this is no joke, you can get in trouble. Does Mark know?’

            ‘John, I really don’t see how that’s relevant.’

            ‘He’s the man of the house, of course its relevant.’

            ‘What age are we living in?’

            ‘Look Gin,’ the rumble returned, ‘all I’m saying is that there are too many of them,’ MacTaggart start to point behind the door, ‘there’s too many here already.’

            ‘I simply disagree.’

             MacTaggart stood firm, then without turning took two steps back and announced: ‘we are a community here, we protect one another, can you safely say the same?’

            ‘Excuse me?’  

            MacTaggart felt he had made his point and saw no reason in responding. He marched off down the gravel drive to the road with fumes of dust trailing after him.

            She stayed resting against the door frame thinking.

            As the years ticked by, it was becoming increasingly clear that this place was not right for her. When she brought it up, Mark always said, ‘but you’ve been coming here since you were a little girl, you’ve always known what this place is like.’ But as she watched MacTaggart turn left out of sight, she wondered if she really did know what the Island was like. For lack of a better idea than to come down because her boys enjoyed it.

            I’m so sick of it, she thought, closing the door. I feel like a moth dancing round one particular type of flame.

            Standing with her back to the door, she thought: To hell with these people, I can’t take it any longer. Then she moved just a step and thought: I have to stay, what would I say to Mark? What would I say to the boys? They must never know.

            Asma was holding Malika’s arms and swinging her around the room. Malika kept giggling, asking again, again, again. She reminded Virginia of Mark doing the exact same to William. Virginia was taken back to the beach when William had just been born. For a moment, her worries dissolved. Then the phone rang.

            ‘Virginia its me.’

            ‘Hi Lizzie.’

            Lizzie was Virginia’s neighbour from two doors down and rarely called. Lizzie had all of her conversations on the beach, by the time she returned home, there was little else to say.

            ‘So how are things?’

            ‘Same as usual I guess.’ Virginia chewed her gums. ‘I did want to ask you about the Big Five, though we’re thinking…’

            ‘That’s good isn’t it.’

            ‘Yes, well…’

            ‘A little birdie told me you have friends staying.’

            ‘Only for a short while.’

            ‘Who are they?’

            Virginia could hear Lizzie in the background whispering to someone, ‘she says they’ve been there a short while.’

            ‘Just friends.’

            ‘Oh lovely,’ Liz paused, then continued: ‘well MacTaggart paid us a visit and said they were in fact migrants. Is that right Gin, you have migrants in your house?’

            ‘I haven’t asked.’

            ‘You know my husband’s very ill at the moment, terrible cough. Doctors say it’s a chest infection and well we don’t want any outside contact, you know, we can’t risk any foreign nasties, if you see what I mean?’

            ‘I thought you said MacTaggart came round.’

            ‘He’s an army man Gin, you know that.’


            ‘Anyway, you must pop round soon, perhaps when your friends have gone.’

            ‘I will let you know. Bye Lizzie.’

            ‘Bye, bye.’

            She hung up the phone. There were numerous other messages flashing red. She put the phone on the receiver and walked over to the group. The group were huddled round one another, and Virginia felt like they were trapped birds that needed to be freed. Her boys had always been reticent to believe her when she said, ‘down here news travels like wildfire.’

            If only they could be here now, she thought. Then they’d believe me.

            ‘Who was that?’ said Asma.

            Oh whats the use. Virginia put her head in her hands. The phone started to ring again and Asma ever so gently tapped her shoulder but Virginia could no longer take it and got up and ran into her bedroom. She sobbed and sobbed, each tear felt raw as if it had been conjured up as blood. Throughout all her years on the Island, Virginia had never been in such a situation; torn between her allegiances on the Island, people she had known since she was a girl, and being responsible for those in her care. As she grew up, there were always lingering thoughts about never returning, but then she saw how much her boys enjoy it, how happy some moments are. In those moments, not a grey sky, nor rain could ruin. They were hers forever, and she wanted to keep them that way.

            Asma came and put a box of tissues near her leg. She grabbed them, embarrassed to look up. The whole day had been some strange apparition, the concept of time had floated off long ago. But as Asma stood there refusing to move, her presence diluted the syrupy thoughts that Virginia had built into monuments. She wiped her eyes, breathed in and looked up.

            ‘You have problem?’ said Asma.

            Virginia blew her nose to the point where her nostrils could give no more.

            ‘I do.’

            At that moment, Asma said something and the whole group came into the room. The couple, whose faces had previously expressed such immeasurable sadness sat either side and started to console her, while the stern-faced looking woman stood directly in front as if she had come to collect Virginia’s emotions.

            ‘It will be alright,’ said Asma, as she offered another tissue for her eyes, ‘you’re a good person.’

            ‘Oh stop it will you,’ snapped Virginia, ‘I’m not good, I’m just scared.’

            ‘We are all scared of something,’ said the old woman who had not moved.

            Virginia looked up, speechless and shocked.

            ‘Mama, mama,’ said Malika, tugging on Asma’s arm.

            She quickly turned and said something that sounded like ‘lays alan.’

            ‘You speak English, after all this time. Why didn’t you say something?’

            ‘When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, sometimes being quiet is greatest friend.’

            ‘God I wish that’d work down here.’

            ‘I hear your troubles with that man, angry one who came earlier, he’s just messenger boy, don’t worry.’

            ‘Everyone knows,’ Virginia said exasperated. ‘Everyone, people don’t like outsiders down here especially you’re…especially people who come off boats.’

            Asma was about to say something but the old woman spoke over her saying: ‘then they don’t know themselves, every one comes off boats.’

            ‘Are we going to be taken away,’ said Asma.

            ‘Oh,’ said Virginia sobbing again, ‘I don’t know.’

            She picked up another tissue and blew into it fiercely, ‘I don’t know.’

            Virginia gathered herself and stared blankly at the wall before continuing: ‘they would have told the police by now, who have probably told the Home Office or Immigration. I’ve thought about leaving many times, all the whispering and the gossip. Christ my brother’s divorce was known by my neighbour before me.’

            Asma rubbed Virginia’s back, in a similar manner to how she introduced Malika only an hour before, and said: ‘You know in Syria, we have saying, for difficult situations.’

            While Virginia looked her squarely in the eyes, Asma continued: ‘It’s better to deal with the devil we know than the devil we don’t.’

            Virginia smiled, and said: ‘And I’ve known this devil for a long time, perhaps too long, perhaps meeting you will finally get me to leave this Island.’

            Asma nodded along, pretending to know what she meant, but the food and warmth had made her own history indulgent.

            ‘I’ll never forget, you say fiancé, told me, just after the first shots were fired.’

            Virginia had recovered herself and everyone scattered themselves into chairs around the room. Asma rested against the wardrobe looking up at the ceiling.

            ‘You see, as protests started, people they were very hungry. Not just for food. I remember hearing at university about boys, what’s the word,’ she said something in Arabic to the old woman.

            ‘Graffiti,’ she replied.

            ‘Yes,’ said Asma before continuing: ‘they spray graffi-titi on school in Daraa, that say doctor you’re next. Since then we suffer hell, everyday, a hell even the devil would run from. But Faheem, my beautiful Faheem.’

            Asma’s tongue lingered on his name, as if she could taste him and then said: ‘he told me we get rid of Bashar, where we go then? Like father like son, they say over here. Same in Syria, we know too well graves the Assads dig. Too many to count. We hoped Bashar would reform Syria, give us the change he want, but just like father he couldn’t. He killed us, his own people. My family killed, my mother killed, my sister killed, even my beautiful, beautiful Faheem, killed.’

            Everyone in the room was solemnly nodding.

            Asma put her hands on her chest, and said: ‘I’m the only one of my family who got out, only one.’

            Asma’s voice started to break and the old woman picked up her story as if it were part of her own.

            ‘If Bashar listen, just listen once about reform, everyone we love would still be alive. But then came devil we don’t know. Extremists, terrorists, things people say we are, but we’re Muslim, terrorists are not followers of Islam. No Islam we know. They butcher us just like all the Assads, but your country can’t have two Assads so they start a war. Everyone follows UK, why do you think we want to come here in first place.’

            Asma traced the scars on her hands.

            In the background, Malika innocently played with the curtains, while Virginia looked on in silence.

            ‘Faheem told me only bitter people are angry, and if you suck lemon long enough, of course you’ll be bitter.’

            ‘What do you mean?’ said Virginia.

            ‘If you really want to leave, you would have done already, but you prefer devil you know.’

            ‘It’s not that simple.’

            The old woman stepped in, ‘it is, but you want more difficult because then you don’t have to make decision. Like those two people who came with us, you don’t speak about them — why?’

            ‘So you knew, were they your friends?’

            ‘Of course not,’ said the old woman raising her voice, ‘what you think all Syrians are friends, have you not been listening.’

            ‘But they came with you, anyway, they’re the Island’s problem now.’

            ‘And what about us,’ said Asma, drawing her hands to her chest.

            Virginia didn’t know what to say and rubbed her ear lobe. She always did when she was nervous.

            After a few seconds, she said: ‘I don’t know, I’m sorry, I really am.’

            A silence drifted over them. The old woman gave curt and quick remarks in Arabic to other members of the group, who were looking down at the floor. Virginia got up, hoping her absence meant they could discuss in earnest what they needed to say. But as soon as she got up, she sat back down. The way one does when you feel truly comfortable in your surroundings, where the simple act of savouring the moment disrupts time and place in equal measure, there’s no rush because there’s nothing on the horizon except more of the same and who would want to ruin that?

            Outside, the wind had disappeared high up into the heavens. The water shimmered in the afternoon light as the sun’s rays travelled along uninterrupted grooves on the surface, wiggling and waving. Virginia dreaded what would come after the moment had passed and wished for nothing else than to seize it and make it her prisoner.

            She thought about Mark and what she would say to him. Whether to tell him what happened on that fateful summer’s day.

            Later, she thought. I will tell him later.

            In the distance, the soft crunch of gravel could be heard. Virginia took a sharp breath in.


J.T. Neill is a London-based writer. Born and raised in Ealing, he graduated from the University of Manchester, where he studied English Literature and American Studies. During this time, he did a semester at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Since then, he’s worked as a journalist in Spain and the UK. You can follow him @jedtneill on Twitter.

Under the Ice

by Holly Day

In the winter, I surround myself with pictures of frogs
statues of frogs, books about frogs, because you never see frogs
when it’s 10 below zero, and that’s the time I seem to really miss them.
When I go to the zoo, and I see the little poison frogs in their cages
it’s not the same, because it’s not like seeing a flat-footed toad
sliding down my office window in the middle of a rainstorm
scrabbling against the glass as if trying to get in
or when I go to my mother-in-law’s house
in the dead heat of summer, and find a tree frog
perched on top of her doorbell, or spying over the lip of a flower pot.

It’s not so much that I like frogs, but that I miss seeing them because it’s winter.
It’s not so much that I miss frogs, but I miss the weather associated with them:
the hot summer rains that cause tadpoles to sprout legs and spring free from the water
the way the lawn explodes with tiny brown toads when I start the mower up
the way my daughter used to dance with the frogs she found in the back yard,
around and around, like she was some sort of fairy tale princess
this is why I’m surrounded by motionless surrogates, these harbingers of spring,
always, and especially now.


The wasp climbs out of the hole it’s chewed in the rotten apple
stumbles drunkenly across the grass as if stumbling towards me.
I, too, have been drinking, and I have no desire to fight
am only interested in enjoying the warm sunlight on my face and shoulders
the cool, tiny feet of the occasional butterfly treating my arm like a perch
the soft cushion of grass and purple wildflowers pressing into my back.

I turn my head and watch the passage of the drunk wasp, track it
as it tumbles into a depression in the mud, emerging moments later
shaking its head as though it’s angry or laughing. I prefer to think it’s laughing
and I laugh, too, startling the finches congregating in the branches overhead
a couple of rabbits hiding in the tall grass nearby, even myself, a little bit
so out of place my voice sounds
in this world of buzzing bees and crackling undergrowth.


Cockroaches are one of the only insects that actually like to be touched,
are some of the only non-domesticated creatures
that crave physical attention, aren’t comfortable unless they’re wrapped
in the bodies of their companions, in the palm of your hand
tucked deep in the bottom of a shoe or the folds of a pocket or a hat.

If I had known that when we put the new wallpaper up
I would have left the cockroaches where they crouched, low,
against the wall, covered them carefully with paper and paste
circled the area on the wallpaper so I knew where they were.
I could have made it a routine to carefully stroke those circled spots
every time I went up and down the stairs,

knowing there was a little cockroach under there
contentedly gnawing on dried paste varnish
perhaps slowly tunneling a passage to escape
through the underside of the paper.


Holly Day (hollylday.blogspot.com) has been an instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis since 2000. Her writing has recently appeared in Hubbub, Grain, and Third Wednesday. Hernewest books are The Tooth is the Largest Organ in the Human Body (Anaphora Literary Press), Book of Beasts (Weasel Press), Bound in Ice (Shanti Arts), and Music Composition for Dummies (Wiley). 

An Analysis

By Robert Boucheron

     As a baby, the patient had golden curls, a skin complexion of white and rose, and chubby limbs, all of which prompted strangers to say, “What a little angel!” By way of proof, he brought an album to the psychotherapeutic suite. Photographs showed a cherubic little boy in a romper. Under one picture was written “His new shoes. Adorable!” Another showed a pair of gossamer wings affixed to his back as a costume. For confidentiality, and because the analysis depends in part on the nickname, I will call the patient “Angel.”

     At the time we met, Angel was in his twenties, sensibly groomed, wearing street clothes. His manner was earnest, ready to confide. His body was well-developed in bone structure and muscle mass. His facial features were regular. He said he ate a balanced diet and exercised three times a week at a gymnasium. Now and then he posed as a photographic model in advertisements for clothing and consumer products.

     “You’ve probably seen me in a newspaper insert for a department store sale,” he said. “I have the right combination of chiseled masculinity and bland vacancy,” he said. “On the street people stare without knowing why. A moment later they forget about me.”

     In a large city, hundreds of people pass in the course of a day. It is impossible to remember one seen for an instant on the street, or for the duration of a ride on public transit. And freelance gigs are common. Was the patient unduly sensitive? Did he expect too much from a casual encounter?

     In possession of a superb body, a good address, and many creature comforts, Angel said he suffered from a lack of purpose, a sense of cluelessness. This mental state was so strong, he said, “I struggle to get up in the morning, drift through the day on automatic pilot, and go to bed with a feeling I accomplished nothing.” Angel was employed full-time, I should point out, in the business office of a well-known manufacturer of medical supplies and products for the care of infants.

     From the age of fifteen, Angel experienced an inner compulsion, a need to tell others what was on his mind. “I had this urge to express myself. It was like I had an important message, only I didn’t know what the message was, or who it was for.”

     In the way of adolescent boys, he was silent and sullen, afraid to blab. When not shooting baskets or throwing a football, he began to write poems, scraps of dialogue, and short stories. He dared not show these pieces of writing to anyone. Even the mention of them caused his face to burn red from embarrassment.

     “They were awful, exactly what you would expect, imitations of what I read in English class and what I heard on television. I threw them away.”

     Angel did well in high school. He attended college, where he studied the liberal arts, and graduated at a favorable time to enter the labor market. Life proceeded smoothly. Within the metropolitan area, he found a job and an apartment, made friends, and as noted, picked up modeling assignments.

     Unmarried, Angel had dated women since his teens. Lately he had been seeing a young woman I will call “Mary.” From his description, Mary was amiable and unremarkable, much like him. He showed me her photo on his pocket phone: an attractive brunette with nothing on her mind.

     Mary and Angel met for dinner once a week, watched movies together, and engaged in bedroom frolics. The neurosis, then, had nothing to do with repressed or deviant sexuality, the subject of so many cases. Meanwhile, in the placid pond of Angel’s life, the urge to write seethed below the surface.

     “Now and then, I grabbed a notebook and started to scribble. I never knew what was going to come out, only that I had to put words on paper. It was an itch I had to scratch. I heard voices in my head, like characters in a play. Plot lines, conflicts, descriptions of places. Moods and sudden turns. This might sound crazy, but writing stuff down was my way of coping.”

     “Nothing sounds crazy,” I said. “Feel free to say whatever comes to mind. Ramble and rant, blather and blurt. An analyst listens and takes it all in. Did you know, by the way, that ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ in Greek?”

     “No. So what?”

     “In the interest of putting our time to its best use, allow me to ask a question. Do you still feel compelled to write?”

     “Yes. Now I type on a laptop.”

     “Do you favor poetry or prose?”

     “Mostly I stick to stories.”

     “Creative writing is a harmless hobby. Where is the problem?”

     “After all these years, I still don’t know what my message is. What am I trying to say? And who needs to read it?”

     “Has Mary read your work?”

     “No. She isn’t into contemporary fiction.”

     “Have you talked to her about writing?”

     “A little.”

     “And what is her response?”

     “She says, ‘I’m here for you.’”

     “Does she encourage you?”

     “She says, ‘If that’s what you really want to do, maybe I can help.’”

     “Do you love her?”

     This challenge elicited a degree of squirming, and at last an affirmative.

     The onset of symptoms at puberty implied that Angel’s “message” was simply the need to find a receptive partner, or in biological terms, to seek a mate. The frustration he experienced in writing stories indicated a misdirection of psychic energy. The analysis suggested a course of action.

     “Write a love letter to Mary,” I said, “not a literary exercise, but a sincere declaration.”

     Angel did so. Mary’s response was encouraging. It led him to propose marriage. Without hesitation, she accepted. The next day, Angel reported this to me by text and attached a photo of the two, all smiles.

     “You know that mysterious urge to write?” the message said. “It went away.”

     A follow-up session was unnecessary.


Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Christian Science Monitor, Fiction International, Louisville Review, New Haven Review, and Saturday Evening Post. He is the editor of Rivanna Review. His blog is at robertboucheron.com

An interruption
And the night shifts. Something
Clatters the bamboo.

No one clatters
Along this bamboo but I,
This lonely night.

Night clatters along.
Something lonely shifts
The bamboo reeds.

Lonely reeds shift and
Something in the night clatters
An interruption.


From damp earth
A bright gray smell
Of leaves, of earth again.

No smell of damp.
Leaves soon turn bright and
Fall to earth and mud.

How soon it must turn.
Damp leaves fall bright, then
Mud and earth again.

The leaves, gray. The smell,
gray and earthen. Damp,
mud, the turning earth.


In the frost, listen.
To the water, listen.
The moon cries: listen.

Listen to the frost
Crying at the moon, the water
crying too. Listen.


Ash Ellison is an artist and educator in Tennessee.

Make It Go Away:
Love, Loss, and What I was Reading

By Joan Frank

            Quick: what’s the first goal for a writer—for artists, for anyone—living in a time of worldwide plague?

            Easy, on the face of it: Survive. Keep strong. Stay well, and alert.

            Shut up and do everything it takes. Care for beloveds. Minimize risk. Obey the Surgeon General. Stay put. Get the vaccine when it shows up.

            Soon—maybe by the time you read this—we’ll be looking back on the scourge in relief. Trading memories of how it was.

            At this writing, we’re barely able to keep up with the now.

            That’s become—putting it gently—the trickier task.

            For this moment, breaking revelations still blizzard down nonstop, burying us past our eyebrows. By revelations I don’t just mean the progress of vaccines, political wars, riots and insurrections, gossip, ecological cataclysm, mortality numbers, or dwindling hospital beds.

            I mean revelations about meaning. Hide-and-seek with meaning.

            With the advents of all the above, meaning itself seems to mutate almost hourly, twisting, collapsing, shredding. Life’s under siege. Nothing can feel the same from the moment one steps outside the door—though if you squint, things on their surfaces appear familiar. It’s what’s directly beneath those surfaces that decimates. The news screams death, destruction, chaos. Our minds struggle to look straight at it.

            Unsurprisingly, our responses have popped forth in waves, a surging of flung-open jacks-in-the-box. We’ve had awful trouble sleeping. We’ve experienced bad dreams, anxiety, stress; muzziness; depression, manic panic. We’ve felt spaced out or angry or glum, tired or twitchy, scared or numb or listless; wanting to eat or drink ourselves insensible or just to stop eating and never get out of bed. We’ve burst into tears at odd moments. Former goals (productivity; social gestures; acquiring things) have flattened and bled out, unrecognizable as road kill.

            The known world shrank to the size of domestic floor space. Fastidiousness seguéd into neurosis, childlike irritability, and straight-up freakouts. You’re standing right where I want to be. I like that cup best. Get dressed? Why?

            Analogies for lockdown realities have varied. One is Ann Frank’s attic. Another is living under house arrest. Another—repeated ad nauseam like the particulars of our days themselves—is the movie Groundhog Day, which I’d only reprise here to highlight one refinement. Our predicament’s best captured, I think, by one crucial cut in that film—to the scene in which Bill Murray calmly reads a book at the lunch counter of the local diner. With that inspired shot (which no one, to my knowledge, has yet singled out for major praise) we’re slammed by the totality of Murray’s character’s surrender. Forced to accept his entrapment, sentenced to live out the same day into eternity, he’s done a poignantly existential thing.

            He’s made himself at home inside it.

            To a large degree, many of us have done the same. We’ve resigned ourselves to reading quietly at the eternal lunch counter.

            It’s consoling—sort of—to find oneself inducted into a huge club by default. But that does not change the unspeakable conditions of membership. A dear friend commented wisely: “I know we’re lucky and that so many people we know are lucky [to have] good health, homes, enough food, etc. It sometimes strikes me that complaining is a luxury. Even so, I complain—and malls are closing and small businesses can’t pay rent, so the outside world is a twisted art installation of shuttered doors.”

            It may be that when this thing is past—if it will ever be past—we’ll promise each other never to forget it, to be and act and do better. Then we’ll quickly forget every last speck of it and go back to being heedless, grabbing idiots. It is possible.

            Meantime? The prime internal bulletin for me, during the deep-vault exile of lockdown, has been one I don’t see a slew of writers admitting.

            A saggy joke throughout this pandemic, from well-meaning friends and family referring to us writers—well known to be introverts, cranks, hermits—went like this:

            “Jeez, you must be in heaven. You don’t have to go anywhere or see anyone. You can live in your pajamas and eat popcorn and write your heart out.”

            Cue everyone’s sour laughter. Utterers of the quip sounded proud of its fresh wit, waiting for the writer to find it hilarious, too.

            Technically, it’s true. We’ve gone straight to the work every day. We’ve maybe felt some guilty thankfulness for being able to do it, without preamble or apology.

            But that’s where the joke breaks down. Have writers viewed this new, enforced working time as perfect heaven? Did we feel clear and purposeful about whatever we’d been tapping out in our plague-buffered hidey-hole?

            Yeah—no, I don’t think so. No. Would you easily celebrate hunkering down at the notebook or keyboard while an asteroid sped toward earth, or a tidal wave raced toward your home? Feel compelled to restyle interior decor in the Titanic’s cabins?

            I couldn’t. Can’t.

            No question, in the old days certain jolly distractions—travel and recreations imposed by my dear spouse and innocent others—seemed a zombie-conspiracy to drink my blood, to block my blazing love affair with reading and writing.

            Yet if you asked any number of writers during a plague year, I’m suspecting they might well confess the unspeakable, as I do here:

            We’ve missed everything and everyone. Teeth-chatteringly.

            That could, I know, be another way of saying we’ve missed the enemy.

            We’ve missed Zorba’s “full catastrophe:” the pulse and chaos of life, the fussing and yammering, juggling and chafing. The endless, draining noise and dance.

            I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve missed ground-level hubbub—even if it was always something I routinely fought. Like Kingsley Amis’s battleships laboring to turn around at sea, I’ve begun to grasp the stunning lesson of plaguetime: the utter primacy to us as animals, of gathering.

            Take away gathering; little remains. Commerce, services, systems implode or go wonky—and with them, culture, and close behind that, mental health. Without familiar shapes, motions, and networks, we lose our bearings. Who’d guess that even within the saddest, most people-hating hearts lurked an actual, physical longing to hug and be hugged (even those lucky enough to live with a beloved partner)?  Some of us have also painfully missed the very small beings (not, alas, in our pods) whom we once could unthinkingly hold in our arms. By the time we can safely hold them again, we fear they may be grown.

            We’ve missed thoughtless, intermingled, physical, busy, abrasive, stupid, forceful, exalted life.

            I never could have accepted this, had I not felt it.

            But the revelation goes deeper. It’s been about more than animal hunger to hang out and be held.

            What’s also gone mushy and mealy is identity. One defines oneself, as a rule, against a witnessing backdrop. If you say to a wino crumpled on the curb hey, I’m a writer, he or she might or might not deign to grunt back at you. But you’ll have named a calling in recognizable language before a fellow-member of your species. Something happens. You’ve defined yourself—if only for yourself—before another’s gaze, another’s sensibility, however weird.

            If witnesses vanish, do we exist? Crisp boundaries loosened during lockdown, disassembled, floated off in motes. This weightlessness seems related to the riddle of a tree falling in a forest with no one near to hear. It also feels connected to the futility of dressing in street clothes—street suddenly such a telling designation—or wearing makeup or jewelry. By extension: why fuss with meals? Why arrange the green beans in their own little pile beside the veggie burger? Why anything? Why not just stare out the window watching the light change for, oh, twelve or fourteen months?

            (Bathing, I do hope, won’t fall by the wayside.)

            Parents raising kids? You’re hereby given a complete pass on everything. Not for you such lazy whithering. More: You deserve medals and prizes. The same for healthcare workers; also service workers, first responders, and everyone on the front lines: everyone who’ll have acted, in Mr. Roger’s words, as a Helper.

            At the beginning of all this, an astronaut wrote an article advising us that if she could live in space alone for a year, we could manage living in isolation under lockdown. She itemized her principles: make a routine, exercise, care for your brain and emotional health; stay connected. Turns out these sane basics did not prove so easily adaptable by earthbound types. Are we inferior creatures? Certainly, later historians will feast on the naughty-nice list of our small triumphs and cavernous failures. And without doubt a ton of zingy post-facto studies will appear, like thousand-piece human nature puzzles (shadows of Lord of the Flies flickering through the window).

            Except, guys? To hell with it.

            Like everyone, I never wanted to be part of this experiment. I want back the simple luxury of fighting people for private time. I crave the clarity of knowing, without an avalanche of second (third, hundredth) thoughts, what I’m doing and why. I want to embrace friends while eating and drinking with them—if later grumbling about them.

            More than anything I want people to stop getting sick and dying, to get jobs, food, health care, schools, and decent life restored to them.

            In the words of my then-very-young stepson when my husband, telling him stories, channeled a scary invented ogre named Mr. Meany:

            “Make it go away!”

            It’s worth noting here that in many an artist’s heart a tremendous deadlock has raged, around which all the above-named commotion twirls—like that symbol for medical doctors with its famed righteous sword entwined (menaced) by snakes.

            How can writing—any art—matter during mortal terror?

            “Leave me alone to make—”

            To make what, exactly? More to the point, why?

            Who wants to make up stories or discuss vagaries of style when people are dying in swaths? What can any of us produce that will be of real use—or even make sense in this context?

            Cue the slow, deep breath. Cue the lowered head.

            Multiple times the above question has reared its big angry head. And my reflex each time is to surrender, conceding the worst: that mere art, during a plague, can make no more difference than morning dew—that it can scarcely matter. If bombs are falling, how puny art must seem.

            Yet in the next instant I’m forced to remember the heroism of European museum curators who, during war years, evacuated precious inventories and hid or buried them in secret locales until it was safe to exhume them. How this fact repeatedly fills us with wonder as we gaze on incalculable treasures, generations later.

            Then I begin to think about our own personal choices, daily, hourly, for the use of time during isolation—with no observer taking notes or holding a gun to our heads.

            I notice what I’ve seen myself reach for constantly as comfort, nourishment, reinforcement. And from their reports, a lot of friends have appeared to be doing pretty much the same.

            I’ve reached for music, films, and books. Simple as that.

            I’ve never stopped playing the music I love, Bach to Barbosa-Lima. Evenings we’ve watched movies that distracted, beautified, stirred, soothed, or made us laugh like maniacs. Documentaries. Dance. If anything made me happy-cry, so much the better.

            But above all I’ve been constantly immersed in the reading I sensed would fortify me, the language that would feel irreducible—even if bombs fell.

            This reading has included some horrific material, stories others might consider nihilistic or weird. Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye  (my paperback edition introduced with fierce relish by Tennessee Williams), proved as powerful a nightmare as they come. Yet something about its calm recital of human peculiarity and darkness felt like release, pure and invigorating as lungfuls of alpine air. The terrible truths embedded in every word of its eerie murder story—of jealousy, erotic confusion, inchoate mortal longing—reassured. I couldn’t question this odd chemistry. Most of what I’ve been reading could not have been written to address someone stranded in frightened isolation during a plague year. Yet there was no escaping the awareness that the material had been written because it had to be written. Thus, the writing that most mattered felt as if it had been murmured in the dark to a secret friend—me—with that gorgeous one-on-one urgency that reverberates in a reader’s skull like a struck gong.

            Meredith Hall’s novel Beneficence, an epic, glittering novel chronicling an American farm family’s ordeals during the early 20th century, was one such discovery. So was Nicole Krauss’s dreamlike yet ruthlessly cerebral story collection To Be a Man, and Robert Hass’ latest book of glittering, gritty poetry, Summer Snow. Wright Morris’s Plains Song (I’m late to it) struck me as wondrous. I was swept away by Peter Cameron’s dark, austere, nearly perfect What Happens at Night, and wished it would never end.

            Other reading that “gave good weight” during plague-time included Henri Troyat’s brilliant, bristling biography, Tolstoy. (Troyat’s oeuvre proves eye-poppingly vast.) Another was Rachel Cohen’s deep dive into her own experience interleaved with that of Jane Austen, in Austen Years. Another still was Margot Livesey’s luminously compassionate The Boy in the Field.

            I’ve got a queue of waiting titles at the library (via curbside pickup) as tall as me. In that queue are some surprises, if what I’ve cited sounds too draconian. I’ve ordered plenty of what’s making the rounds (Ayad Akhtar, Charles Yu, Yang Huang, Robert Jones Jr.) but also essays: Homo Irrealis, Andre Aciman; My Lives, Edmund White; The Way of Bach, Dan Moller. Black Futures, Kimberly Drew. Late Migrations, Margaret Renkl. Wintering, Katherine May.

            Underpinning the above also runs a series of impulses to reabsorb some timeless icons. The Russians. Shirley Hazzard. Marguerite Yourcenar. Tove Jansson. Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary was written while real bombs fell, and describes them).

            Not every title works. I’ve had to abandon some. It’s a waste of time to pretend otherwise. And time’s still precious, even as it collapses and bubbles like lava. The oldest criterion applies: given horrific straits, what insists we stick around? What reaches into us; what puts something back? Engagement’s slipperier than ever, given our pulverized attention spans. I’m after whatever works—aware too, very sadly, that for plenty of others this might mean video games.

            As my canny young granddaughter notes, shrugging: “What’re you gonna do?”

            Maybe good art (in any form) fixes a hard ground-floor of honesty that can be stood upon calmly while the planet shudders; a sturdy roof when the heavens open: Here is the church, here is the steeple. The works that feel talismanic, as if they emit lifesaving signals, demand we hold them tightly: Here’s who we are. Here’s who we’ve been. Here’s what we have meant and can still, may still, mean. Certain books act like emergency-relief parcels dropped straight into the yearning heart. Their voices—all some variant, per Louise Glück, of “the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing”—still talk to me, telling me things it helps to remember while the shitstorm rages outside. In truth, the exact same chemistry applies post-shitstorm. It’s the only answer to inarticulable anguish I can locate for now—one I’ll keep taking as I find it.


Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of eleven books of literary fiction and nonfiction. Her newest novel is THE OUTLOOK FOR EARTHLINGS (Regal House Publishing). Concurrent works include WHERE YOU’RE ALL GOING: FOUR NOVELLAS (Sarabande Books), and TRY TO GET LOST: ESSAYS ON TRAVEL AND PLACE (Univ. of New Mexico Press). She lives in Northern California.

Drive-up Christmas Eve

by Stuart Watson

Only a week had passed since someone from our church, wrapped around one too many holiday martinis, suggested a drive-in Christmas Eve service. In the parking lot of the newspaper, just downhill from the red taco truck.

I was still living with my parents, going to juco. Getting some credits out of the way while I figured it out. They said they were going, maybe I could join them. I asked them what was the plan.

Nobody would have thought of such a thing, if not for the clouds of virus wafting around the planet, dropping in here and there, infecting dozens of people with a lassitude counterproductive to mass holiday consumerism. People, deprived of their drug, were stressed.

As a result of the plague and an understandable public desire not to get the extensive sores and oozing worms and the sudden inclination to fall down and roll around and shout out in language never before uttered from one’s lips, the congregants tilted toward seeing Jesus through their windshields.

The Rev hadn’t had indoor service in months. It seemed like an atheist plot to not have Christmas Eve. She had heard about people doing service at old drive-in movie parks, so she convinced the editor of the paper to let her stage a drive-in service.

“You gonna show Psycho?” he asked. “I’d come. I did the first time.”


She didn’t pursue it. The editor and his girlfriend, who would later become his wife, conceived their first child watching Norman Bates slash Janet Leigh. He just figured it best to let the church people have their way.

Then the Rev turned to the flock, to help her paint the fence.

I was driving a 1979 Ford LTD at the time. Bought it at a local salvage yard, got it running with help of my auto shop class (we live in a small town, where they still have such things, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to take home-ec). It had an eight track player with this cassette of Bad Company’s Straight Shooter stuck inside of it. Talk about heavy rotation. It was the only cassette I could listen to. Oh, man, my best memories were all attached to this car and that cassette. I told my folks I would go, if my girl Florice wanted to go too. She was done baking Christmas cookies, so some heavy rotation sounded good to her, too.

The event came together at warp speed. Mandy told the Rev she would build a spreadsheet. A column for names, a column for cars, a column for how many people needed extra space for barbecues and coolers. She should have included a column for weather.

Mandy used to run a clothing store. She had names of contractors who could turn out some hats and T-shirts. She sent that to Katie, who managed the newsletter, and fired off a quickie blast to all the Christians and hangers-on who liked the Gospel Choir. A couple dozen said they might like a little Tailgating with Jesus.

Elrod said he could round up some volunteers to help park cars. Stand in the lot in reflective vests. Wave flashlights so people knew that they should pull in to parking slots and keep going to the opposite slot so their car and the one behind them would all be facing in the same direction.

There would be a stage. With people wearing reindeer antlers, purchased from the Dollar Store. Sue Zee was in charge. She also enlisted people for the creche, a Joseph (Stan), a Mary (Wanda) and a baby Jesus (a potbellied pig dressed in a lamb’s wool vest).

Sue didn’t want anything to do with the sound system. That fell into the lap of Marv, who ran the speakers in the sanctuary when the faithful weren’t all trying to avoid breathing on each other. He had a trailer full of gear with lights and knobs and places to plug in wires. He would pull it into the lot and let church members get out of their cars and wander by and take a gander.

“Is that where the plug goes?” someone might ask, and he would say, “Yep. Gotta plug the plug.”

Then, when the Rev said “Go,” he would crank it up to thirteen and blast the faithful to the great beyond.

Betty said she would get the kids together to create costumes that made them look like dessicated deer. With lights on their heads, operated by battery packs hidden inside the deer butts.

Several of the ladies from the Good News Grannies were planning their next outreach to shut-ins when one of them mentioned the service . Another said it sounded like going to a drive-in movie or a car-hop burger joint.

“I’ve still got my skates,” Loretta said. “I think. I know the box where I think they are. If my son didn’t steal them and sell them on eBay. Shitbird does that.”

“Me, too!” squealed Cindy Lou Talmage, one-time Miss Southeastern Missouri Hog Farmer. “I could wear my sash. Should we take orders?”

“For what?” asked EllaMae Whisenhutt. She liked meetings, but wasn’t too swift on the ideas, or helping with ideas that others contributed. Kinda like a pile of mashed potatoes, but she smiled a lot, and folks liked her, even though most could count her IQ on two hands.

“We could have the tailgaters make stuff,” Cindy Lou said. “Hot dogs. Chili. Chili dogs. That’s a menu, isn’t it?”

“For Christmas Eve?” EllaMae asked. “Jesus didn’t eat chili dogs.”

“I agree, there are limits,” Cindy Lou said. “We can’t do shish kebab, or onion rings. But how long is this thing — an hour, ninety minutes?”

They contacted the barbecue crew, and the boys were down with it. A couple even had thoughts about brisket, and were planning to drag a smoker into the lot. Elrod was excited. He came up with an idea for a Communion Wafer Burger — two thin crackers wrapped around a slice of brisket, with a daub of “moose turd” from the line of packaged condiments produced by the company of church deacon Beneezer Filbert. They sold a shit-ton at roadside stands, to tourists infatuated with the idea of foodstuffs made from stuff grown within eyesight of the highway.

Phil Bertelsen, one of the ‘cue crew, later said he was merely joking when he suggested they set up a drive-through booth so people could order. The roller girls objected, so they settled on a compromise to sell canned beer at the drive-through window, to folks entering the lot.

An hour before the service, darkness settled beneath the downward pressure of winter’s thumb. A wad of Arctic air collapsed onto the valley floor, driving the last vestiges of warmth from air above and around and upon the newspaper parking lot. Then an extremely moist cloud slid over the frigid air, and disgorged its contents. The rain fell and when it hit the pavement, it froze.

Cars began sliding into the lot about fifteen minutes later. The Rev rode her e-Baru into a bank of arbor vitae, kicked the door open, and crawled with the help of a couple ballpoint pens across the parking lot to the stage.

Marv had started with the sound system the day before, so he was ready, and popped in his thumb drive when he saw the Rev.

Paul Rodgers rocks, but never more so than he did that night.

“Feel like making LOVE to yooouuuu!” pounded out of the speakers.

Marv was aghast. Wrong thumb drive, for one thing, but where was the one with the carols on it? And if he had a clue, he couldn’t get there anyway. Every time he took a step, he fell flat on his wide Texas ass.

Elrod’s parking crew was struggling. Most were lying in the lot, waving their flashlights as cars slid from the street through the curb cut and twirled on ice into the railing in front of the newspaper office. They just stacked up, one on another, until the lot was mostly full of people suffused with the holiday spirit. You could see them, tipping bottles of bourbon to their lips, to settle their racing heartbeats and restore to themselves a vision of future life on earth.

That’s when I slow-rolled the LTD into the lot and glided through a couple donuts before lightly trunk-bumping us into the pile. We could see the stage. Florice smiled at the chaotic scene outside. The windows were already streaming up when she leaned close.

“I got something for you,” she said.

I hadn’t bought her anything, but she found it anyway.

Outside, a few diehards tottered from their cars and removed propane grills. Before long, the smell of grilling brats and tri-tip filled the lot.

EllaMae and her roller girls tried, bless them, to reach the car windows, but finally agreed that skates weren’t cutting it. They had to shed the shoes and try to walk, but even that failed, with ice on everything. They would slide sideways across the lot until they neared a car where they thought they might take an order, and then they would slide beneath the car and out the other side. The occupants finally figured out that the only way they could place an order was if they opened their door and grabbed one of the carhops. Hold them. Talk to them. Help them write down what they wanted.

Elrod and the boys jerry rigged a system of ropes and pulleys to drag the carhops to the tailgaters and relay the orders.

Delivering the orders was another thing. They had to reverse-pull the ladies, none of whom were very agile, bunched as they were on the upside of seventy. People in the cars were so damned happy to have something to eat, though, they were more than glad to wait until the carhops quit slipping around before they opened their car doors. No need to clock the poor things in the noggin, just for a Holy Brisket Burger.

The Rev finally got vertical and used a pair of ski poles to help her approach the microphone. She said something that nobody could hear because they were safe inside their cars eating burgers.

Marv had rigged up a low-wattage broadcasting thing, but something happened. It linked up with Bluetooth and dialed everyone within a half mile for a lecture on the coming of the Christ child.

Problem was, the lecture took a turn. The church kids were supposed to walk up a short flight of stairs to the platform and light some candles. The candles were mounted too high for the kids to see what they were aiming their wicks at. Years later, they would look back and think of it as foreshadowing, but on this holy night, they struggled to stay upright, what with the ice and all. The biggest kid teetered backward, and his wick flew over his head and into a holy banner the organizers had hung from the sign — Duncom Call Eagle — above the newspaper office. The banner went up in a “Foof!” and lit the roll roofing. As flames marched across the roof, they must’ve hit a gas line. We heard a huge sucking sound, and the walls of the building bowed inward just before the detonation that blasted the newspaper sign over the vehicles in the lot. The publisher of the newspaper was not happy about that, even though the Rev later tried to mollify him with the thought that “at least nobody died.”

“Don’t even think about an Easter service,” he said. “Cutting a little close to the bone.”

Nobody could hear the Rev anyway, but Marv heard Paul Rodgers kick into “Shooting Star” and did something only Jesus could approve of. He cranked it up. Cars were bouncing in the lot when the newspaper building soared overhead.

Nothing about the blast reduced the negatives of the ice. Tow trucks had to come and haul everybody out of the lot. It took a while. They had chains, but it wasn’t enough to keep them still while they were loading a car.

Florice and I had to mop the windows off before we could leave.

“That was the best Christmas eve ever,” I told my parents later.

“It was a disaster,” my dad said. “What service were you at?”

“I was there. With Florice. She said it was really special.”

I felt like I had gone down a blind alley. Any second, he might ask me what was special about it. If I said anything more, I would never get out, so I just went upstairs.

I don’t know much about Jesus and the like. When I recall that night, I think of that quote from Matthew: “Whenever two or three come together in my name.”

Behind a veil of steamy windows, me and Florice and Paul Rodgers felt the spirit of Christmas descend. From that day onward, I cherished a huge and abiding faith in a much higher power.


Stuart Watson wrote for newspapers in Anchorage, Seattle and Portland. For fun and low pay, he and his wife later owned two restaurants. His writing is in more than thirty publications, including Yolk, Barzakh, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Bending Genres, Flash Boulevard, Revolution John, Montana Mouthful, Sledgehammer Lit, Five South and Pulp Modern Flash. He lives actually in Oregon, with his wife and their amazing dog. He lives virtually at chiselchips.com and tweets @StuartWatson50

Months drop off the calendar.
Nothing changes
But the weather.
Dirty mugs still litter the sink.
The neighbor’s dog still barks
At every passerby,
And so we live
In silence.

Didn’t there used to be snow
This time of year?

I seem to recall a blanket,
A window blank as paper,

Air crisp as ice.
But now it is late

Winter and nothing
But rain streaks the glass.

When building boats, we try
To hold out against the waves.

Some boats are beautiful. Some
Do the job. When you need to cross

Whatever seas need crossing, you
Sometimes need to build a boat.

Though you do not know how
To build or boat. Though you have

No tools or oars. Just
A bedsheet patterned like clouds:

A single sail,
A breath of wind.

All the cool kids
Have children now
And jobs in the city.
Late nights just stories
Told at brunch.


Kate Porter is a full-time bartender and part-time poet. Her work has appeared in The Writing Disorder and Ziggurat.