It was a summer of little and drought and as the cookout approached my father sat me down to ask which of our three dogs I disliked the most. Our only few relatives were up from Abilene, he said, and they had brought their fireworks and hunger.
By the afternoon we’d all met and I ended up with the two older cousins, the teenagers, Marimar the girl and her pale brother Caleb, and as these were days of trust we walked to the creek edge of the depleted ranch with ourselves for supervision and a satchel full of Bingo Bangas. My brother I made promise to stay home with the adults and the other young kids and I told him One day you’ll come with me. But then he cried until I flecked him at the ear with my ring finger and thought Well I should be the one who’s crying, and I told him so, and, when he asked Why, we remembered the way Gracie would nip our shoelaces undone at the dinner table before tugging them off down the hall. So, he quieted himself.
It turned out, as we went along, that Marimar and Caleb were both pretty learned about the family and about our northern way of things and Marimar seemed to like twisting her black hair around her finger before bringing up some next observation of hers.
She said, “Well your Dad and our Dad had been fighting for years.”
And I asked, “What about?”
“No it’s less that,” Caleb said, “and more a disagreement. You know.”
“Well are you gonna tell me or won’t you,” I said.
We set a firework each to the cracks and old scars of a long dead box elder and stepped away until we could see just how well it shadowed against the hill.
“It was a disagreement,” Marimar said, “about their own Dad and what was gonna happen when he died.”
“What was gonna happen?” I asked.
And Caleb said, “He had money.”
“He had some thousands of dollars and didn’t leave any papers saying where it’d go,” Marimar said.
“So who got it all?” I asked.
And they smiled to each other and looked me up and down without I think meaning to.
Caleb asked, “Are you going to light them?”
And Marimar searched her dark hands through her hair a moment before pulling a bent wad of matches from her bobble. She looked at me and I kept my hands in my pockets until she understood, and then she started forward and said, “Happy Fourth,” with a flat voice and flaring palms.
It was a few weeks later in Texas that we were given an entire guest room to share. My brother set his two books and a pocketwatch that, before parting, our mother had given him into a small shrine beneath the baseboard convector. I told him to be careful and he asked if I had anything to add. Before their take off together homeless to Kansas City our father had given me a baseball card wrapped in wax paper, so I handed him that. Unopened. He said Thank you, and at night while I’m soaking my charred feet in the tub he makes me pray for their safety amidst The Midwestern vagabonds or whatever next evil it is he’s learned about through his comics. Sometimes I tell him I’ve learned enough. Like how a dust will not burn but when a dust is carbon and chaff and the mashings of steer soil it will and the fire will stay low enough to take only your shoes before carrying on to the house that will bend quickly to the black foundation.
At dinner we talk about the day. There is Marimar and Caleb and their parents and the two smaller ones, boys, one in diapers still, and they’re involved in swimming lessons and struggling to line dance at the town hall and gathering the confidence to speak for the first time in formed thoughts. In some respective order. When they get to us I say Oh I’ve been reading, though of course I haven’t, and my brother nicks his butter knife into the edge of their mahogany table with a small twitch habit he’s taken on. He tells them he’s about ready to see his way around town, make some friends maybe. He’s seen kids his age passing along the sidewalk.
My uncle says, “There’s an idea, there,” and then he looks at me.
Marimar looks with him and when her burn scarred forehead purples into a blush I’d like to say that I hate her. That I something. She burned our house down and I only something. She breaks eye contact and I’ll need to talk with her later.
“Do you think you’re able to take your brother out around the neighborhood one of these days?” her mother asks.
“I’d take him,” Caleb says, “if I had the time.”
“You do have the time,” my uncle says, snapping. “Or you will. I just mean,” he says, turning back to me, “you could take him sooner, before the weekend. If you’re able.”
And I say, “I’d be glad to.”
For the rest of the week I find myself walking the town a good hundred feet behind my brother somewhat at his instructions. Mostly we pass back and forth through 1st Street until we’re pink with heat and heavy with sweat and he returns to me so that I’ll squeeze his hair back and buy him an ice cream. But on Friday we find kids and a softball game in a long yellowing lot and he leaves me at a run to join them. I take my shirt off to lay as a cushion over the single scalding bleacher.
He has fun. I can tell. They like him and they’ve moved beyond teams to play in a cycling mass with shoed divots in the baseless dirt. A boy with a cut of towel wrapped along his eyebrows fouls a second strike into the small backstop fence and it gets stuck and all the friends cheer. They take the bat around the other side of the chainlink and swing until it pops free and by consensus the day is ruled a tie. Soon my brother leads them approaching me.
A boy says, “We hear your family burned down.”
And another boy says, “We hear you’ll buy us ice cream.”
“Let me tell you what I’ll do,” I say, and I stand and hold my shirt to cool in the wind.
I tell them a story. I tell them about a space on consuming earth where I can watch the laces on my shoes ignite so quickly that I won’t feel it for weeks. About a billowing aurora that smells like pine shingles and hinge grease and my father’s melted truck tires. I tell them about my brother, who never listens to me, who broke his promise not to follow, hidden and breaching the muck of the creek behind us the only one entirely unscathed with a gasp for breath so loud and so beautiful that all we can do is raise into the sky and twist our small fingers together the every last one.
Jon Chaiim McConnell (@JonMcConn) is the Fiction Editor of Split Lip Magazine, and a graduate of the Emerson College MFA program. His work has appeared previously inMoon City Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Requited, and The Knicknackery.
You scramble forward and pretend not to see but how not to see? He sees you not seeing and he lifts it higher. He is on his knees. You are like an animal. A squirrel in the trees is watching. Shouting. And it’s you. The squirrel starts and slips and you stop and he drops it and all three of you are frozen then and there, and there is where you’re found, afterwards. So long afterwards that you – are you still you? – are only bones and he is only bones. And the squirrel? Only dust.
Now, you and he float above and watch the finding of you, watch them scrabble and unearth, under mounds and under years. He is still trying to show you something as you shimmer in your cloud. And you are still pretending not to see. The squirrel speaks. It is no surprise. Earth, sun and moon, we forget, are spirits too.
Tania Hershman’s second story collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, was published in May 2012 by Tangent Books. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.
A man and a woman live in the tub. There are rules such as: no clothes in the tub. Such as: water in the tub should never be taller than the ankles. The woman is allowed to leave the tub for no more than twenty minutes at a time. If she leaves for more than twenty minutes at a time, the man believes that she is at the end of the driveway fetching the paper and is suddenly impaled by the side view mirror of the mail truck. Or, she shakes the refrigerator loose and it lands on her forehead. Or, her internet lover buff_stud23 is stopping by to kiss her goodnight. He wants to put her in a plastic poncho and take her to Niagara Falls. On average, she is gone for roughly ten minutes at a time. She jumps through the house naked collecting bread and sometimes observing the length of the lawn while the man pees in the tub drain.
Just last week the man was at the front door holding the television set, thinking about jumping outside.
“Go ahead,” the woman said. “What’s the harm?”
“You know very well,” he said. She did. She knew the harms. Ones he didn’t know. Ones he shouldn’t know. Ones he knew that she didn’t.
“The shooting?” she asked pointing to the small hole in living room wall. It had only been the neighbor’s kid with his father’s gun trying to shoot cans off the fence post while no one was home. The coffee tins stand in a line on the fence that they share. One has fallen over and onto the couple’s side of the lawn.
“Well, you can’t stay inside forever,” she said.
“I’ll sleep on it,” he said.
Except, later that night the woman was vacuuming the living room and there was a rattle in the hose so loud he heard it from the toilet. The man ran out with his pants unzipped and found her kneeling, holding out the little bullet like a thimble in the palm of her hand. He slept in the tub that night and he’s been there ever since.
The cordless rings while the couple is soaping each other’s underarms. The man drops a loofah to reach for the phone with a wet hand. It’s Uncle Bill, he says to the woman. She knows Uncle Bill is the family poet. He combines words like “decadent” and “wax” and “salmon” and “quiescent.” She knows the story of Uncle Bill’s son Tim and Tim’s wife Martha that goes like this:
That before they were married, they had agreed not to touch each other. Not until the wedding. She even threaded a sturdy leather belt through her blue jeans and bedclothes. She wore dark lipsticks, even to bed where it bled on the linens. The night before the ceremony, Martha was making stir-fry. Timothy went in for a peck on the cheek. He placed his hand on the shelf of her hips. Martha removed the hot wok from the burner and pressed her palms against the coil.
“Don’t touch me,” she said and that night they both, for the first time, learned the scent of burnt skin.
She appeared at the altar in her mother’s gown and dark lips and gauze-wrapped palms. They skipped the ring exchange. They skipped the kiss. They turned to face the crowd with flat and tragic lips. They looked married.
Instead of a wedding gift, the man said that he had dropped a golden dollar into a wishing fountain and whispered: sterility. Two children later and the man still has never seen Timothy and Martha kiss. Not even when they’re supposed to. Not even when they think they’re alone in a place, or when another man calls Martha beautiful. The space between them when they are standing side by side couldn’t possibly be an exercise in romantic suspense. The man wonders how they did it, how Timothy and Martha made children. Miracle children, the man calls them in secret. Kissless sex must exist, the woman had said. Kissless sex exists in romantic comedies, he said. But even so, only sometimes. We will never look married, he said to her then.
Uncle Bill is calling because he is afraid that everyone will see Martha hanging like a piñata in a public tree on News Channel 12. That when she is nervous she unties her shoelaces and weaves them into complicated sailing knots. Her father owned a sailboat and they only ever bonded over raised jibs and gutted fish. If she does it, if Martha kills herself, it will be by hanging and she will be good at it. Uncle Bill is calling to tell him because the man studied psychology at a public university, but who hasn’t? Uncle Bill is calling to tell him so that he has someone to whisper, “Didn’t I say?” to at the wake. Uncle Bill will cry, of course, but he also thinks this will be great for his writing; will compare her decadent wax face in the open casket to a white salmon belly bobbing in a quiescent pond.
When the man hangs up, he calls Martha selfish. The couple nods at each other as if to their song.
“Pretend the tub lip is our front door,” the woman says. The man stands in the tub naked and tall. He is hunched like a child grown out of his clothes. She is just as naked, coaching him from the bathroom floor. Gray water escapes through the drain.
“It’s nothing like the door,” he says.
“Sure it is. It’s just another obstacle in the way of where you are going,” she says.
“Where am I going then?”
“Lift one leg.” He bends his knee.
“I can’t,” he says and resumes the fetal position at the bottom of the tub. She climbs back in and holds him until they are the same stuck together shape. They sleep through the afternoon.
The woman wakes and the man is reading. “When cows are born,” he says, “they are covered in a thin white sac. They can’t even stand on their own legs.”
“When will you leave?” the woman asks. She pets a soap stain on the tub wall with her toes.
“They want to stand,” the man says.
“…but they just can’t,” he says.
“I think that your problem is knowing too much,” she says.
The man presses his hand to the porcelain. Knocks his knuckles against it. Slumps his head below the lip of the tub and into her lap. The woman pats his head. She will let him think their tub is bulletproof.
On a bread run, the woman, through the window, can barely see the fallen coffee tin wrapped in tall weeds. She considers retrieving it and opens the front door. A boy goes by walking a dog and stops to inspect the television set on the curb. The woman regards her nudity in the reflection of the storm door. The dog barks and the woman closes the front door hard, but does not lock it. Upon hearing the shutting door, the man in the tub runs the bathwater. He has imagined the falling refrigerator and the woman’s head, a pomegranate scattered to every corner of the kitchen. The woman enters the bathroom and steps into the warm bath. She rescues the man’s head in her hands. She blows against his wet ear, pretends she is the wind.
“Let’s just try it,” the woman says about the sex without kissing.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to like it,” the man says.
“Come on, let’s find out if those miracle kids are adopted,” she says.
“What happens if I kiss you by accident?” he says.
“Pretend that kissing me is like walking out the front door. Does that help?” she says.
It does. The tub stands on porcelain lion’s feet that knock a little tap dance on the floor.
Taylor McGill is a recent graduate of Rutgers University. She writes, among other things. Her work has appeared in Metazen and elsewhere.
The men in my advanced seminar are unfortunately named. Peter, William, Richard. They are large Great Dane boys, slender with large paws, like puppies. They have velvety smooth ears sticking out from shaggy hair. They wear flannel. I think of them fondly while I take notes. When I was younger I used to bully boys like these easily, shove them facedown in their cafeteria trays and grind their downy lips into their mashed potatoes. It’s not something I’m proud of but I remember the intense gratification of the act as I adjust my position in my chair. The lecturer is talking about our final exams. I am really not listening. I am remembering the silky sound of the gravy going up some shy boy’s nose.
It is a long lecture. I think it’s about economics, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been here, really, since I’ve woken up when I’m in this room. My hand takes the notes. It moves easily across the page, scritch scritch. The professor is telling us that the wage gap doesn’t really exist. Feminists have perpetuated this myth, he is saying. I am not listening. I have had this professor before. I’ve heard this speech before; he gave it in 103, too. Women, he says, choose professions that are more oriented toward–and I am looking at the boys.
Richard says “fuck” a lot, which is a shame because he is the least attractive of my boys and every time he says it I am forced to imagine him naked. He has curly hair and a thick coarse beard so I imagine him hairy, a shy little face peeping out of the bushes. I think about a video I saw once in which a hairy Italian girl is held down and her entire body is waxed while she wriggles. I am not really sure how little Dickie got here; he talks with a southern drawl and he has a large coat he keeps draped over his shoulders. He has the lingering traces of a Georgia or Florida tan. Fuck, quietly and under his breath, becomes a long and leisurely word in my mind, an afternoon in which every hair of his pelt is ripped off in long strips, leaving behind pink stripes on his tanned hide.
Class is over, I hear. And I am standing up and leaving. I feel my body move toward the door. Willie is behind me. I can feel briefly his breath on my neck. I hunch my shoulders and scurry down the hall. It’s an evening lecture and after we leave they shut the building down. Behind me, the lights clunk out one by one.
I am interning in an office. It is very much like the office you work in. The carpet does not match the gray fuzz of the cubicles, and this bothers me. I make coffee and run errands. I will have a hard time getting employed in this field, the other women in the office tell me. There are two of them, and they are much older than me.
One of the younger guys at the office asks me out, which means that we go to his house and watch a movie about men who start a club where they fight each other. I like it, but I have a hard time understanding it. I get the idea that people would be frustrated with their mediocre lives, that they would want to relieve the stress of feeling powerless all day by using their bodies for what bodies were made for: shoving, pummeling, grunting. All of that made sense, and so I ask him what I do not understand: why is one of the rules that women can’t join?
He laughs and says that it’s a guy thing, I wouldn’t understand. He is saggy and sickly compared to the boys in my economics seminar. I wonder if they’re going to end up like him when they cut their hair. I want to sink my fingernails into his fleshy belly until he bleeds. When he leans into kiss me, I fall backward trying to get away. That wasn’t what I wanted from him, I realize. He manages to grab me when he drops me off. I go inside wiping my cheek with the sleeve of my coat.
It really gets to me that one of the rules was no women. I mean, nobody needed it more than women. Working office jobs, getting feet pinched by high heeled shoes, ass pinched by bosses, what’s the matter, you PMSing? Hm, putting on a little weight? Nice haircut, did you get any work done this weekend—
There is one other girl in my seminar with me. She is short and compact, a hard-looking girl, and she wears a flannel shirt. One day after class, I catch her before she scurries off and I ask her if she’s ever been in a fight.
“I took a self-defense class,” she says. “But I never really got to hit anyone.”
When we started meeting on Thursday nights in Stephie’s apartment, it becomes clear to me why they didn’t let women in. We are too vicious. We learn quickly not to wear earrings after middle-aged Judy from accounting tears Luz’s earlobe. We wear shower caps over our hair to keep from ripping it out. We yell while we fight. Fucking fat disgusting skank, ugly ass ho, bitch don’t you know who I am I’m the bitch with my fist in your teeth.
We get complaints from the neighbors. We move to the basement of the public library when Angela the children’s librarian joins us. Nobody yells louder than a woman who spends all day being nice to other people’s kids.
We make rules we would never have thought of in response to the reasons for our emergency room trips. No going for the eyes. Fingernails must be be trimmed to the quick; if you keep your manicure, you wear gloves. No biting the throat, no matter how bad your day was.
At work we start getting shit. Is your husband beating you? Are you okay? If you ever need someone to talk to, my place is… We grin through split lips. Nice haircut, I didn’t know you were a lesbian. Hm, looks like you’re putting on weight, the bosses say, nervously squeezing our new biceps. Better watch those doughnuts. We eat slowly in front of them, letting them see tracks of blood our gums leave in the white glaze.
In my seminar I sit differently. I sprawl out in my chair and stretch my calves to feel the twinges run down my spread legs. I survey the boys in the class. The ones next to me are trying hard to take up less room.
I feel almost tender toward Peter. He is gentle and downy-blonde and never speaks, but he is apparently a wunderkind with numbers. I think about bathing him in milk, but I don’t think he’d go for it. He never talks to me, or responds to the comments I make, except to look away. Is he an idiot? Does he think he’s too good for me? I am back in school, thinking I could rub gum in his hair if I were quick about it. It’d all have to come off, all that lustrous golden hair. When he’s bald as a shaved rhesus, his ears sticking out like handles, his good looks broken, I’d spit in his face. The thought inspires a whole string of doodles in the margins.
I moved here to get away from the bodies. In Georgia it was all sweat and the reduction of clothes from crisp to liquid. Boys peeled off their shirts easily on the field, the track team wore microscopic tissue paper shorts. I was surrounded on all sides by the way of all flesh. Hard bodies were the cut and currency of my visual life, my daily bread, and completely inescapable. I felt always as though a string ran from the top of my head to my pelvic floor and it was constantly tightening like a winch. I packed up my things, I bought a coat, I moved north alone.
But even here I can’t escape it. It never had anything to do with the shorts, I guess, or the lazy way that a boy playing soccer strips his shirt off without thinking who’s looking at him. Ever since Thursday nights, I can’t stop the flashes of spliced-in footage, imagining the way that they’d flinch and arc if I hit them, those boys. Here in the cold, I too am haunted. I sit in the library in a well-trafficked corridor. Oops, he dropped something. Bend over, I think. Benditbenditbendit ah, and a little surge of relief as the jeans pull tight over his ass and he picks up the wad of paper.
It is now impossible to accept dates with people I will have to see again. I think about going to bars but I don’t want the things that they want me to want, can’t be coy or wait demurely until it is too late for you to change your mind. I try once. He says, Hi, buy you a drink? I say, I want to beat your face until you look like you crashed your car. He thinks I am a militant lesbian. Militant, sure, but when I’m rolling over on my own hand at night, I’m never thinking of beating a woman until she can’t see.
I am in the building late after class, using the grimy bathroom before heading home. I see Willie come out from around the corner, and then he shoves me against a concrete pillar in a dark corner. Fucking whore, he mutters under his breath, sounding almost embarrassed at himself. Sitting like that. Why do you keep looking at me. Stop looking at me.
He is feeling me roughly through my clothes and I am electrified. I am locked in terror but this is also my chance. I let my face fall against him while he holds me there, and when I get my opening, I bite down into the softness of his neck. I can taste the rubbing alcohol in his aftershave and then the skin snaps like a sausage.
He yipes and clamps a hand to his neck. I can see blood trickling out between it. He backhands me with the other hand, but he’s scared and it’s easy enough to knock him over. I think about all the things I could do now. I could sit on his face. I could kick in his ribs. Instead, I kneel down beside him and hold his head. I try to kiss him.
Suddenly he is scrabbling across the floor like a crab, away from me. I am heartbroken as he stands, backtracks, bolts down the dark hall and out through the double doors that lead out into the world. A cold gust slams the door behind him. Wait, I call after him, spitting a little pink. Wait. We were just having fun.
Rose Wednesday is an MA student in fiction at the University of Maine. She has been published previously in “The Armchair Aesthete” and was the 2013 winner of Maine’s Grady Award for fiction. She writes in Maine and blogs at rosewednesday.tumblr.com.
There is this hole in my middle, and at first I think it is hunger. I fry fatty steaks, toss lettuce in lumpy blue cheese dressing, bejewel my shirts with cracker crumbs, breadcrumbs, darkened olive oil splotches. Michael says to keep the foods separated, that the problem is in the mixing.
The empty is still there after potatoes, chocolate bars, strawberry smoothies. My ears fill with the shaking, rattling, theme-park sound of plastic pill bottles—I buy vitamins and supplements, an alphabet in the pantry. Michael says this is absurd, that I will eat a spectrum of nutrients on my own if only I listen to my body.
What I hear is this: popcorn kernels crunching in my teeth while I edit the online dictionary. Crackers and dry toast pounding through my head each day as I arrange myself on the couch with my cups and bowls and boxes. I eat while I monitor search results, scouring the internet for common usage, tracking words to decide which are going extinct. The dictionary is small, and our shtick is people; there are programs that can sift through pages, but we believe in a human brain. We’ve lost boviander and beverand frigorific and brabble. They are pulled from the site to make room.
I write the day’s deletions in my notebook, along with their definitions. I keep the flopping Mead next to my copies of Oxford and Merriam-Webster. It is not something I ever read, but I like to see the thin stripe of blue lean against the big black dictionaries.
I sit with my notebook and my pen, my fingernails sounding strong when I flick the plastic spine against them. They hit the pen quickly and blur into a movement that is droning and hypnotic. When Michael comes home, he wraps his arms around me from behind, places his hand on mine and stills my fingers. Ari, he says. Before, I’d bite my nails while he’d glare at me and say my name across the room. They don’t break as easily now, so I’ve stopped.
Michael kisses my hair, which has grown longer since I’ve started taking the vitamins. He tells me my skin has a vacation glow. He says I look like someone who is missing nothing.
I press my pen against my cheek. I tell him the feeling is still there, and it is a sense of something gone. I am listening, but I can’t tell what my body is saying.
We discuss possibilities like worms, infection, the physical manifestation of depression. I examine stools, drink detoxifying teas that come in yellowish boxes covered with pastel plants. I buy a book of illustrated yoga poses and a squishy green mat. I sink my toes into the foam, try to relax my muscles while keeping my back and neck straight. This is what the book says to do. This, and breathe into a center. I slide it onto the shelf and sit on the mat with my computer and a cup of milky tea.
The absence becomes a sudden, knifing pain on a Sunday while I am vacuuming. The Hoover roars evenly as I fold into the floor, and from my lips there is a distant sound like a whinny. I gasp to a cab driver through the phone. He does not drive fast, and he asks questions, a quick spilling of them while I hold my stomach in the passenger seat. Where are you going? What do you do? Are you from here? I try to smile. I try to breathe from a center. St. Joseph’s, I tell him.
At the hospital, people are nodding and calm. They wear patterned scrubs and little gold name tags. Their curiosity is perky and mild. My condition is new to them. I am unexplained. It seems, they say, that I am, from the inside, dissolving.
Dissolve: To mix with a liquid and become part of the liquid.
To officially end.
To end or disappear or cause to end or disappear.
Michael says they don’t know what they are talking about, that there is a lot to attitude, that I should start saying affirmations in the mirror. He tapes a note about strength and positivity above the bathroom sink. I stare at its swooping letters and think how hard it is to tell the difference between love and irritation.
I get MRIs and CTs and pints of ruby blood sucked from my veins. It has started, mercifully, in the appendix. The unnecessary organ mixes with the miscellaneous body liquids and becomes a part of them. I see it all in the black-and-white images the doctor spreads across a small metal table. Illuminated and stripped, the interior of a body becomes so alien.
The doctor gives me a plastic jug that looks like it should hold cheap orange juice, and I take it home and pee into it for a week. Michael sees my sample sitting in the middle of the refrigerator, and he says I should really drink more water.
I am grateful for my at-home work, for the fact that there is no one who I owe an explanation. My email conversations are short and professional. I read online discussions, make notes about what is being said. My father calls, tells me about a new kitchen table and a new neighbor and a foreign film they went to see. I say that everything here is the same. I say we have not gone to see any films.
To dematerialize, to disappear, to evanesce.
I am examined in the office where pregnant women go to be slathered in ultrasound goo. They walk under the thick arms of men, or holding hands with wispy, worrying women. Their faces shine in a joyous fear.
A girl, alone, sits across from me on a black waiting-room chair. Her arms are bones dangling down her sides. I wonder if I will dissolve evenly across my body, my arms and legs shrinking to be skinny like hers, or if I am simply to shrivel inward from the middle.
The girl is wide-eyed, jerky like a rodent. The vinyl she sits on crunches as she shifts her weight. When the nurse calls her—December, what kind of name is that?—she jumps up, walks stiffly with her arms still stuck against her hips. I return to my magazine, a bulleted list of blowjob tips, a collage of sunglassed celebrities with to-go cups and wiry dogs.
Michael tells me not to think of other women, these women swelling and doubling themselves into new life. At least, he says, I am luckier than the skinny girl who will raise her babies lonely and too young.
Evaporate, fade, flee, fly, go, melt, sink, vanish.
I take pills for the pain, and my appendix is gone. The jug test comes back inconclusive. As far as anyone can tell, I have fine levels of everything, but the dissolution moves to my left kidney.
At the seafood restaurant where we stop on the way back from the appointment, Michael points out, again, that this strange plague is merciful. An appendix, a kidney—these things can be spared. Maybe I am only being cleared of my excess organs, made efficient and functional, a sleek modern model of myself. We order wine, a full glass for Michael and an empty one for me. Michael pours an inch into my cup, a treat to celebrate that despite my kidney, I am only failing in manageable ways.
I say that I imagine the appendix looked something like the Merlot as it pureed itself into liquid. Michael spits a piece of shrimp into his napkin and folds the edges around it politely. Ari, he says.
At home, I make recommendations for words to add to the dictionary. They seem cartoonish and vulgar. Noob, yo, hashtag. I pour through blogs, articles, message-board discussions. I am reading for individual words, for what is recurrent and what is missing. I read pages and pages and can’t remember what any of it says.
Destroy, disintegrate, terminate, annul.
Tests. Scans. A specialist from Boston. A specialist from Dayton.
The doctor suggests I try to de-stress. Worry can make recovery harder. More peppermint tea, more time at the gym, maybe get a bike or take up kickboxing. But take it easy too, he says. Have you been grinding your teeth? Have you and Michael considered counseling?
My left kidney is gone. My pancreas is fading at the edges.
Melt, liquefy, detach, loosen.
On a Wednesday, I sit on a paper sheet in the examining room, waiting for the doctor. A breast-exam poster covers the wall across from me. It pictures three women: one young, one old, one somewhere in the middle. They are not smiling. Beneath is a sketch of inhuman, desexualized breasts, a tic-tac-toe of self-examination. This is how you do it. This is what you look for.
On the other wall is an ad for the plastic surgeon upstairs, before and after pictures—an arm stitched up like a centipede and then smoothed out, a blonde woman with a jagged nasal bridge in the first picture and flashing teeth in the second where her nose is a straight, perfect button. The surgeon specializes in the removal of scars. Those referred from this office receive twenty percent off.
My doctor is new, filling in for the last. He brushes away a strand of his hair that has fallen from the slicked-back mass. He is handsome and hurried like a doctor should be. I swing my legs on the crinkling paper and ask which office is usually his. He waves his hand as if to say all of them or who even knows, and he asks me about pain, children, if I have a family history of anxiety or depression or schizophrenia or cancer. I tell him these are questions I’ve answered, and he nods, says yes, marks something on the clipboard.
I’ve gotten very good at lying in these plastic tubes, always keeping my eyes closed, letting the darkness allow me to imagine I am not trapped. I drift into something that is heavy but not sleep. I think I can feel things moving and shrinking in my abdomen, but I’m sure I am just making this up. The doctor’s voice startles me through the headphones, and I slide out of the machine. He shakes my hand for a long time, saying he won’t be back but he wishes me luck, he really does.
To separate into component parts, to bring to an end, to pass into solution.
A body eats itself from the inside for no discernible reason. You must calm down, you must breathe. It happened to a woman in New Delhi. Her husband, an engineer, built mechanical replicas of organs, bribed a doctor to replace her failing parts with them. The doctor put the pieces in one by one, installed the new organs as the old ones began to diminish. Six of these surgeries. Six man-made pieces moving the body along.
She is dead now, but there was success. This is not New Delhi. This is worth a shot.
The form is thick, pages and pages describing the mechanics of interior prosthetics, the risks, the drugs, the studies that will be done, the liability that is no one’s. Michael thinks I should sign. He says I am rejecting my own insides. The engineer will be German, the design very good. The doctor agrees. In his eyes, I see the rims of contact lenses. They float robotic in the white, invisible in the sharp blue.
I stare at the three women on the poster, and say I need time to think. They stare back into the room, each with different colored eyes. These women are pretty, but harsh in high-definition. They are not smiling in any part of their faces.
Take some time to think about it, but not too long.
I see December in the chocolate shop on Eighth, or at least I think it is she. Her belly hints at new largeness, buried under a thick sweater. She is buying a red heart, running her hand over the crinkling foil. I think I can feel something slipping inside, and I tell myself it is probably just my pancreas.
I stand behind a cardboard Elvis cutout until the bell on the door clangs and I see December walking past the window. Then I pay for two hearts, the large kind with two layers of truffles. I sit on a sidewalk bench, breaking the chocolates open, watching their insides ooze from their cracked shells. I hunt for caramel and coconut. I open them all, leaving their carcasses pressed into their soft plastic beds.
I am biting on something cherry-filled when Michael calls. I pick up and can hear shuffling office noises and what sounds like a quick, deep breath. I chew and swallow and tell him he would be very disappointed in my eating choices. For a long time, he says nothing, but he also does not hang up. We listen to each other’s breaths and it seems like there are no words that can say more.
To be emotionally moved, to fade in and out.
You cannot eat this away, Michael says. He touches my hair and places a white pill beside my soup bowl. It is for the pain, and it is to dull my racing mind.
I click through webpages. There is mangina. Chillaxing. Words split and excised of letters, reassembled to something new. I ask Michael what he thinks of this. He tells me to stop slurping my soup. He says we must act before the pancreas is gone.
I sign the paper on a Friday. The doctor smiles and shakes Michael’s hand, and he pats me on the elbow. He reassures us: We have made a good decision. He knows this is hard, but we have an opportunity. We are lucky for so many reasons—our good insurance, the engineer’s interest, the availability of the surgeon. The doctor has a good feeling. He says to bring me to the hospital next week.
Botryogen, wittol, automobilize. I add these to the blue notebook. I flutter the pages with my fingers, feel the breeze against my skin. On the inside flap I write: To. I tap my pen on the paper, and watch it leave its faint indentations. I write a season, a month, a landscape of snow and sweets and hibernation.
I press my pen into my stomach and feel where there might be holes inside. I tell myself that they will be filled. I take a pill for the pain, though my last hasn’t worn off. It is amazing how well feelings can be controlled.
I write in blue ink. It is the color of veins, but not of blood. This is something I remember from the endless clicking through so many facts and inquiries. There is a collective consciousness and it is constantly rebuilding, it is everyone always wondering. It is full of questions and answers, some truth and lots of guesses. I tap my pen, and I write her name.
Change. Continuity. Blur.
The room is cold when I lie down on the mat, though I can feel the sweat dripping under my arms. Michael squeezes my hand and kisses my hair before a nurse comes to guide him out of the room by the shoulder. He’ll sit in the waiting room reading magazines or staring at the little television that is suspended in the corner. The woman at the front desk just outside the waiting room has the blue notebook. Michael doesn’t know she has it, and this makes me feel like I am getting away with something. Maybe I am only feeling strange from the cold sweat and the empty stomach.
I asked the woman at the front desk to save the book for the thin girl named December who will come in for Maternity. She might be coming in for birth. I am not sure how far along she is, but I know she looked big last time and must be bigger still now.
This is what I think of, while my gown’s cotton scratches against my skin and I stare into the white rectangular lights as the nurse stretches the rubber band around my arm: December will lie down too. She will look into lights.
This is what I have written to her: I have seen you. I am worried about your thin arms. I am worried about myself. I want to give you this book, full of words you’ve likely never said before, words your baby will never read. These are words that float in some vacant, liquid space between birthed and known. Someone once wrapped lips around them. They are not gone yet, but they are going. You don’t know me, so you may find this crazy or strange, you may throw this notebook away or rip up its pages. It is yours. Do what you want. I am giving it to you.
I am scared, but I guess the doctors are right: I am lucky to have good insurance, to have piqued the interest of an engineer from Frankfurt, to have a chance to redeem New Delhi.
The nurse says there will be a pinch, and he sticks the IV’s needle into my wrist. He smiles and he asks how I am doing. I smile back, I look up, and everything is shrouded in uncertainty.
What I know is this: I will fall asleep. Michael will sit fidgeting in the waiting room with the other nervous people, all of them rustling and pacing and looking at each other with blank faces. The woman at the front desk will smile and laugh awkwardly and she will give December the notebook. December will have her baby. It will be there, it will open its mouth, and it will wail.
Reem Abu-Baker is an editor at Y’all’d’ve. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Thin Air Magazine, Barely South Review, and other journals.
It’s the kids that make me sad. Watching them from my window. Knowing they all got the world figured out.
Especially my neighbors’ kids. Three of them out there. Playing after school. Make- believe, hands like guns, shooting each other. Falling down and laughing. They see the world for what it is. One big joke. Me inside, with my parents. Them yelling over who gets what, who does this, where I’ll go. I can hear them talking. “Who’s gonna tell Ethan?” they say. Like I don’t have ears of my own. “Who’ll mention the divorce?” I don’t know. I guess they don’t think it registers. Like my ears skip words, like my brain doesn’t understand basic conversation. But it does more than they know. I have a good brain. A smart brain. That’s my problem. All my life I’ve had it figured out, and no one’s let me tell my story.
My neighbors’ kids are eight, seven, and five years old. The five year old is named Marky and he runs around the yard until he’s ready to throw up, and then he does throw up. The father, his name is Randall. Randall gets annoyed with the two other kids. Says not to let Marky run in circles like that. But me, I’d let him run. I’d let him run so fast that he pukes and pukes and gets up and runs again. That’s the thing Randall can’t understand. Marky doesn’t mind this world. Marky doesn’t feel its pain. If Randall knew how Marky felt, he wouldn’t ever tell him to stop.
My parents didn’t want me going over there. My mother said I was too old for kids. My father said I could hurt someone. Because of my size. I was twenty-three years old and five-foot seven, three-quarters. Short for my age, but too big for kids. I thought like them, like the kids. I related to them, in ways my parents couldn’t relate to me. The kids, they spoke like me, talked like me. They acted like me. Kids had it all figured out. But the problem was no one ever asked us to keep on going.
One night my parents went out. That’s why I’m telling you this story. It was a Sunday night. They went out and it was dark and warm and the kids were playing with flashlights. Mrs. Monroe was sleeping downstairs. She was my babysitter. And around this time she always went to sleep. Because I’d never done anything wrong. That was her problem. All those years thinking I would never make her mad. So I walked right out the front door and said, “Hi Marky” in the most adult voice I could manage.
“Are you here to play?” he said.
“If that’s what we’re doing.”
“Don’t get caught, we’re hiding.”
I crouched beside the bushes. Marky, squatting there next to me. “Who are we hiding from?”
“Are they trying to catch us?”
“They’re looking for us now.”
“OK, then I’ll hide,” I said.
We squatted there for a few minutes until Johnny, the oldest one, saw us hiding side-by-side.
“I found you,” he said.
“He found us,” I said.
“Run!” yelled Marky.
So I went running straight at Johnny, with all my might. He stopped like he was frozen. His eyes went wide. I kept on going. He was scared. Like a school bus speeding toward a mini cooper. I ran and ran, straight at Johnny and yelled, “Let’s not get caught!” and sent Johnny flying straight off his feet, like a boxer getting knocked out of the ring. I turned back and called to Marky: “Marky, we’re free, let’s run.”
Marky came running. I grabbed his hand. The middle brother, Patrick, started chasing after us.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Patrick’s coming.”
“Where are we going?”
I held his hand tighter and kept on pulling. “We’re going to California,” I said.
“Do you know where that is?”
“It’s out west.”
But really, I had no idea. I couldn’t tell Marky that. So I just kept going. California was far. A few nights of running at least. We made our way through the neighborhood, and Marky was laughing the whole time.
“Have you ever run away before?” I asked.
“Is that what we’re doing?”
“That’s what we’re doing.”
“Johnny will find us. He always does.”
“If we keep running he won’t.”
“Then let’s run!” he said.
We kept on going, past the neighborhood, past Edge Hill Drive, down Welsh Road. We came across a shopping center and went toward the CVS.
“Do you need anything from here?” I asked.
“Are we running away for good?”
“We might be,” I said.
“Then I’ll have a juice box.”
There were fourteen dollars in my pocket. “Good thinking, I’ll get one too.”
Marky came in with me. In one of the aisles was a woman my mother knew. Mrs. Parks. A middle school teacher. She wouldn’t like me being there. Especially with Marky. The two of us alone. I knew what she’d think. That someone should be watching us. That someone should tie us down. I grabbed Marky’s arm and pulled him along with me.
“We gotta go,” I said.
“But what about the juice box?”
“We’ll get it later.”
So we headed out of the CVS as quickly as our legs could walk.
I didn’t know where to go. Welsh Road was busy, and there was an intersection up ahead and yellow-flashing lights. It looked like every place I’d ever been. Intersections and traffic. I could run a thousand miles and still just be a minute from those yellow flashing lights.
“Where are we going now?” said Marky.
“Let’s keep moving.”
We walked about a hundred feet, toward the K-Mart. It was a big shopping center. I turned back, to make sure Mrs. Parks was no where around. I sniffed the air. She wore too much perfume. I couldn’t smell her. She was gone.
“You need anything from K-Mart?” I said.
I could feel the night getting hotter, the farther we walked.
“Hold on a second,” I said, and stopped to take off my sweatshirt. “I won’t be needing this anymore.”
I dropped it beside a trash can.
“But what if it gets cold?” said Marky.
“It’s hot in California. Besides, you don’t have one.”
He grabbed the front of his shirt. “Oh yeah.”
I saw his arms—how skinny they were, like he had nothing but bones beneath his skin.
“So what’s your life like, Marky?”
“It’s pretty good.”
“Is your family all right?”
“I love my family.”
“I don’t see your mom around much.”
“She’s on business.”
“It’s OK, my parents aren’t home either. They go on dates with other people.”
“Well my mom sells houses,” he said. “She’s always going someplace.”
“What’s your dad do?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s interesting,” I said.
He looked at me, like he was getting scared. Like he was thinking too hard. Or thinking about his family. His eyes were unfocused. I shouldn’t have brought his parents up.
“If it makes you feel better,” I said, “my parents fight a lot, especially when they’re together. They talk about who should take me. But they’ll probably just leave instead. Neither one wants me. They think I’ll tie them down.”
“Is that true?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t blame them. I’d run off too, if I fought like that. They should both go. Without each other. Without me. I hope they do it sooner than—”
Marky stood there, like a dog that’s trying to concentrate.
“It’s OK,” I said. “You don’t have to know about that.”
His skinny arms stuck out like toothpicks, and he tucked them in, beneath his armpits.
“Are you cold, Marky?”
I turned around and grabbed my sweatshirt off the sidewalk.
“Here, you take it,” I said and put it over his arms. I laughed. He might as well have been wearing a dress. “That’s pretty big on you, isn’t it?” He swung the sleeves in circles.
We kept on walking.
“Are you my neighbor?” he said.
“Yeah, didn’t you know?”
“I don’t see you much.”
“My parents don’t like me playing with you.”
“They think I’m too old.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, I’m five,” said Marky. “How old are you?”
A guy stood outside the Starbucks in a green apron, smoking a cigarette and watching us through blood-shot eyes.
“How old do you think?” I said.
The smell of coffee and cigarettes, and big fat stains on an ugly sidewalk.
“I don’t know.” There was something he wanted to say but wasn’t sure if he—“You live in the house next to us, right?”
“Yeah, next door.”
“My parents say someone crazy lives there.”
“In my house?”
“What do you mean?”
“They say a crazy person lives there, and I should stay away from him.” I looked him over.
“Do you think that’s true?” I said.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”
“Is it me?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Good,” I said.
But I wasn’t stupid. As much as people thought I was, I wasn’t. I knew it was me. Marky, though. He didn’t, I could tell. The look in his eyes, like he was curious. I felt safe, seeing him there. Relaxed. Like he was giving me a chance to talk. I watched him there, looking me eye-to-eye, sweeping away the bad thoughts. He was different than the others. He let me speak, not fill my mind with his own ideas.
“So,” I said, “what kind of things does this crazy guy do?”
“Well, he yells for one,” said Marky. “That’s what my mom says. And he curses.”
“Can you hear him?”
“He keeps the lights on, even when he’s sleeping.”
“How do you know?”
“My mom tells me. She sees him in his room. Sometimes he watches us from his window.”
“Why does he watch you?”
“I don’t know. Because he’s crazy, I guess.”
I kept walking. Hoping he couldn’t see my thoughts, how they were stirring.
“My parents don’t think he sleeps,” said Marky.
“Like a zombie?”
“Yeah, like a zombie.”
“You’re making me sad, Marky.”
“Is it your brother?”
“I don’t have one.”
There were lights up ahead. Different than the ones at the intersection. They were bold lights. And they were warm and bright—red, blue, orange, green, neon lights—and if I squinted, they squirmed in my eyes like they were trying to get free, and I said, “Marky, do you see that? Why don’t we go over there?”
“To those lights?”
“Yeah,” I said and I felt like running. So I ran.
“Wait for me!” he yelled.
But I kept on running, moving my legs as fast as they’d go, releasing the cords that had tied them down, and I could feel myself gain speed, going faster, faster, like I was tumbling down a hill.
And Marky’s voice in the background, saying something like, “Why are you running?” or “I can’t keep up,” and I glanced over my shoulder, his sleeves pumping their hardest to keep me from getting away. I could see the worry in his eyes and in his hair, the way it streamlined back, and in his mouth, how he was ready to scream. He didn’t want to be left alone. Not in a shopping center. Not at night. He was trying to catch me. And that’s when I thought it: no one had ever chased me before.
So I stopped.
He smacked me in the back of my legs. “Why were you running?” he said.
The lights that I had seen—they were there, in the windows of a restaurant, big blue neon lights: Cinco De Mayo, in fancy letters. And beneath it, a cactus and a sun and a Mexican beer, lit up in greens and orange, and along the roof, a string of red lights.
Marky looked at it, too. “Is this California?”
I shook my head. “What do you think, Marky?”
“I don’t think so.”
People were seated inside pressed up against the windows, looking out on a parking lot with nothing but cars and chains and cigarette butts.
“I like those lights,” said Marky.
But it was an ugly place. The restaurant, tucked in back of a shopping center, and another intersection just over its shoulder. Potted plants and an ash tray and an Open sign missing half of the O. “I guess they’re pretty nice,” I said.
“You know I’m not crazy,” I said. “Don’t you?”
“I know you’re not.”
“Are you sure?”
He squinted one eye like he was thinking and said, “Yup.”
And it was right about that time when the lights turned a different color, when they started to swirl across the building, blues and reds, going back and forth, taking their turn. Marky started waving. I knew who it was. Or what it was. I turned to look. Two police cars with their lights on us, coming quickly but without their sound. They stopped. Marky looked surprised. “Are they here for us?” he said, and I pretended not to know. A couple of officers stepped out—one around my age and the other, older, with a saggy tattoo on the side of his neck. The tattooed one said, “Are you Marky York?” Marky nodded. The smell of food from Cinco De Mayo, beans and a burnt stove, and people watching us, with their faces pressed against the glass. I could see a man outside the Starbucks, taller and skinnier than the one before, sucking down a cigarette and looking our way. I pictured Mrs. Parks, somewhere among the cars, watching us and shaking her head. Flashing lights at the intersection and—
My parents had always told me that the world is a miraculous place. That was their theme: the world is miraculous. It all is, everything, even the crooked corners and the places you’ll never see. They told me to believe that. To convince myself it’s true. Because no matter what happens, it’ll all still be there. This miraculous world won’t try to run, even if it seems bleak sometimes—and right then, I knew my parents were wrong. There were no miracles in this place. A shopping center at night, with cars parked and cars moving, and ugly store after ugly store, and lights flashing, swirling, and Marky and me standing in the middle of it all, with the world going round in circles. Even the stars had decided to hide. And my parents didn’t live by that theme anymore. Didn’t tell me it. Not since they started fighting. I wondered if they had stopped believing it—and if they had, then could they ever get it back?
The tattooed one came toward us, saying something to Marky, about his parents wanting him home, and that’s when a third policeman stepped out of a car and said, “Ethan?”
It was Jerry. Fat Jerry with a mustache. He knew my father. They’d gone to high school together. I saw him around every now and then, but I answered “Yes?” like I’d never seen him in my life.
“Hey,” Jerry told his guys. “I know him. He’s OK.”
“You know this guy?” said the tattooed one.
Jerry nodded, with his thumbs tucked inside his belt strap.
It was quiet. Only the sound of traffic and music from one of the stores.
Jerry looked at me. “Hey Ethan.”
I gave him a funny look.
“You’re not trying to run, are you?” I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You’re not trying to steal Marky, right?” He forced a laugh.
“Marky and I came together,” I said.
“So you don’t wanna hurt him?”
“Good,” he said and crouched down, looked at Marky. “Why don’t you come here, son?”
Marky went toward him but not quickly. Sleeves dragging through the parking lot.
Jerry grabbed him by the shoulders. Held him an arm’s length apart. Looked him eye to eye. “What were you guys doing out here?” he said. “Playing?”
“We were hiding from my brother.”
“Like hide and seek?”
“More like tag.”
“OK,” said Jerry and he signaled to the officer my age: “Drive him home.”
Jerry stood up. “It’s OK, Ethan. I know what happened,” he said. “You were just having fun. Both of you.”
“We were running,” I said.
“From his brother?”
“That’s how it started.”
Jerry nodded and looked at Officer Tattoo. He lowered his voice, but not too low. Like I wouldn’t hear him anyway. “It’s OK,” said Jerry. “He didn’t realize it was wrong.”
“What?” I said.
“You didn’t realize it was wrong.”
I didn’t answer.
He repeated: “You didn’t realize that—” He slowed down, so I could understand his logic. “That what you were doing was wrong.”
Tattoo interrupted. “Why don’t we take him in, Jerry?” He scratched his neck.
“We’re just talking,” Jerry said. “He’s not dangerous.”
He looked at me and smiled.
“You’re not dangerous, are you, Ethan?” He winked like it was a joke. Like it was a ridiculous question. He thought I was simple. Childish. Like my brain hadn’t been fully formed. My parents thought it, too. That’s why they told me the world is a miraculous place. Because if I could convince myself of that, then I wouldn’t see the rest of it. I wouldn’t think crazy thoughts. I’d find the miracles. And only the miracles. But I never lived in that world. I hadn’t turned out as simple as they’d told me to be.
“You’re wrong,” I said. “I’m dangerous.” Jerry’s smile went away.
“Marky and I, we were gonna run to California. The two of us. And we weren’t ever coming back.”
“This isn’t time to joke.”
“I’m not joking. We were gonna run.” I took the fourteen dollars out of my pocket. “We were gonna buy food and make our way on our own. That’s why Marky was wearing my sweatshirt. He was cold and we were gonna be out here all night.”
“Are you trying to get in trouble?” said Jerry.
“Ask Marky,” I said. “Ask him where we were going.”
Marky was in one of the cars.
Jerry looked down at the parking lot. At his feet. “I don’t need to ask him,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me?” He motioned for me to come.
The look on his face—like I’d broken his heart. He was only trying to help. That’s what he’d tell my parents. But they wouldn’t believe that I talked back. They’d say I must have been provoked. Jerry knew it, too.
“Shit,” he said. “You really fucked up, Ethan. I didn’t wanna do this.” He motioned for Tattoo, who approached.
“Wait,” I said.
“I’m gonna run.”
“You’re gonna what?”
“I said I’m gonna run,” and that’s when I turned. I ran. Boots behind me, loud and heavy, getting closer, closer—and I only made it a block before I felt a hand on my arm and a twist, and Officer Tattoo breathing down my shirt until he brought me to the ground, telling me what rights I have, how I’m not supposed to talk. The sidewalk, pressed against my cheek, still warm from the afternoon sun, and people watching from their cars, some talking, some laughing, his knee pinned against my back, and Jerry waddling toward us, like his legs were leaving his body behind. I hadn’t expected to get away. Lying there, with time to think. I didn’t know if it’s what I wanted, either. To get away. Where would I go? I wanted them to chase me, to think I was dangerous, that I was capable of more than just sitting up there in my room, that I had thoughts of my own other than what I was told. This is right and this is wrong—and I had never been told to do wrong. Where did he learn that? I could see my parents, wondering what crossed my mind, what made me think that this is right. Where did he learn to kidnap? That’s what he was doing, right? He must have been—kidnapping that poor little boy; and I could see my parents, meeting with Marky’s family, telling them, “I don’t know what got into him, he’s normally such a good kid,” never questioning their own logic. I could tell them the truth. The truth: that Marky sees the world the way I do, that our pain isn’t the same as theirs. That running away isn’t trying to hide. That we were just having fun. But my parents wouldn’t believe me. They’d think I lost the miracles. But maybe that’s what it was, a miracle—that in this hollow, dingy place, I made them question who I am.
Officer Tattoo hoisted me off the ground and held me by the wrists. “I’ll take him from here,” Jerry said, and put me in the back of the car. He closed the door. They stood outside for a minute, talking. Then they got in. We drove.
It was quiet until Jerry’s little eyes appeared in the rearview mirror, looking back at me. We slowed toward the intersection, yellow lights illuminating his mustache, and all he said was, “I didn’t expect that from you, Ethan.”
“I know,” I told him and we watched the road run by, outside our windows.
Matt Barrett was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and attended Gettysburg College as an English major. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at UNC Greensboro, where he is working on a collection of short stories. “A Shopping Center at Night” is his first publication to date, and he is grateful to Timber for the opportunity to “get his foot in the door.” He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his girlfriend, Lindsay, and hopes to convince her that they should get a dog.
Cloud cover so low hanging it cracks her femurs. A grey so pedestrian it breaks her heart. Her man standing next to her, waiting for a Blue Line train from O’Hare to their apartment in the city. The blue waters of the Caribbean, the seaside ruins of Tulum—it is all long behind them and maybe for good. This is how they return home.
A week earlier, the white sand shores of Cozumel are rising to meet the airplane’s descent. Nina and Marek are marveling at the turquoise waters, saying things like, Can it really be such a shade of blue? Marek sips his complimentary Bloody Mary mix from the can. He doesn’t even pour it into the plastic cup. Yes, sweetheart. And warm. Nina finishes her whiskey soda and rattles an ice cube into her mouth, crunches it, says, If I remember it right, you can see clear to the bottom where the barracuda swim.
Marek fantasizes. His eyes wander. Nina knows these things to be true and mostly ignores them because she thinks Marek thinks better of her for not thinking much of it. Or that it’s easier, anyway. Still, during their first dinner on the island, Nina keeps looking to see what it is drawing Marek’s eyes away from her; and when the answer is invariably an attractive woman with plump breasts and etched calf muscles, all dolled up, she decides she doesn’t like it. Marek looks back at her and smiles before turning down to thumb the screen of his mobile phone. He promised to take a break during the trip. Nina decides she doesn’t like that either.
She wears a new bikini to the beach in the morning. To sun. To swim. To smack Marek in the head. A burnt orange bottom that doesn’t much cover her bronzing buttocks. An off-white string top that threatens to come off with the next crashing wave. She lounges on a beach chair. She wades into the water. People notice her. She feels them taking her in. She allows it. Look, you idiot. Look what you have. Marek does compliment her, curses hell how sexy she is, even though his eyes wander plenty. She doesn’t see him take in her curves as she tans face down, sometimes with a lingering, lascivious gaze at the place where the back of her thigh meets the extent of her bottom. He paws at her before lunch, chases her into the shower. She says her cycle is up to make him hurt for it. The next day she lets him have it.
At the mercado, Marek tries in his broken Spanish to purchase the fresh red snapper hanging from a hook at the front of the fishmonger’s stall. Nina watches the handsome boy take the fish down and hold it by the bottom lip while he shows her man how fresh it is, how the gills are still a fleshy blood red as if a final gulp of oxygen might still be bubbled up in the snapper’s belly. He lays it on the cleaning surface, his eyes smiling and obliging Marek’s attempts at humor.
Nina watches and wonders about the women who keep a man at home while they travel around—business in Boise, cocktails in Guadalajara—carrying on, wearing heels, pulling the strings their men cannot pull. Or don’t. The men giving them eyes at the bar. Sweaty, rushed coitus in the elevator. Does that happen? Do those women exist? Is this mercado really a front for furtive glances among secret lovers and old, one-time acquaintances? She imagines an unspoken understanding between her and the young fishmonger, carrying along with him right in front of Marek, the two of them knowing damn well what they had done to each other the last time she came alone to his city. He catches her eye and smiles.
“La cabeza, bonita?” He points to the snapper with his knife. “Hm?” Marek is flipping through his wallet, counting pesos.
“No,” answers Nina, snapping out of the reverie. The sounds of the market descend on her again. The fishmonger winks and begins breaking down the fish, starting with the fins. He runs the blade down the center of the underside, reaches in to remove the organs, the spine.
“Quinientos,” he says to Marek, who turns to Nina.
“What he say?”
“Five hundred,” she answers. “Ask him to put the filets on ice. I’ll be waiting outside.”
The Mayans knew how to pick pieces of land for their settlements. God did they know it well. At San Gervasio, a complex woven into the jungles of Cozumel, Nina reaches out to touch the remnants of the village while Marek wanders off to snap pictures with his DSLR camera. She considers the pillars of Las Manitas, stubs now in various states of decay. She rebuilds the residence in her mind, brand new, brightly painted in the Mayan style, the ruler of Cozumel sleeping within. In the hot sun she finds shade and repopulates the whole thing. She imagines the women of Maya travelling from the south of the island to kneel at the altar and pay homage to the goddess Ix Chel.
“Turn around,” says Marek. He focuses his camera. Nina looks off and pictures a noble gazing back at her in all the seriousness she imagines a serious people might have had. “Say cheese.”
At the ruins in Tulum, it is raining. The weather doesn’t stop visitors from walking down the steps to the oceanfront where families are gathered, some swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Nina walks beside Marek and considers the place. These structures are more intact. No need to rebuild them in the mind. Centuries old and world-renowned. Marek stops to snap a picture of the temple. A handsome man passes them walking the other way and makes eye contact with Nina, then quickly acknowledges Marek as he passes on. Have I seen him somewhere? wonders Nina. Have we made love? She watches Marek reviewing the photograph he just took. Did I ever know this man?
The sun is not shining in Chicago and Nina knew it wouldn’t be. It is January. Marek steps into the train ahead of her, takes a seat and begins fiddling with his phone. As the train moves out Nina sees another Blue Line coming in, glimpses a woman her age sitting alone near the window. Not for me, she thinks. Not alone to the international terminal. Not alone through customs and into the airport bar for a drink and Oh, where are you headed, before boarding to Mexico. Or Russia. Or Korea. Alone is for that woman on the train, maybe. For the sub-networks hovering below the surface of every place, anywhere, interconnected by some cosmic privilege. There and not there but certainly not for me. Not anytime soon. Not alone.
At the front stoop Nina puts her suitcase down and rubs her hands together while Marek fumbles with the keys. It is cold. He pushes the door open and steps inside. Nina follows and he stops her in the open doorway, hugs her and kisses her and whispers in her ear. When he lets go Nina turns to look over her shoulder, thinks maybe another beauty is walking by in the street.
Anthony Martin (@pen_tight) is a mutt whose favorite word is subtext. His work appears, or is forthcoming, in WhiskeyPaper, Mojave River Review, pacificREVIEW, and Lunch Ticket.
In Barstow, the Mojave River flows underground: an invisible body of water in the desert.
In Barstow, the river runs backward. West of the continental divide, the Mojave flows east.
The Mojave River draws a line that marks Barstow’s northern city limit. You can’t see the river, but it’s there, an article of faith. A modest bridge crosses the Mojave and everything beneath the bridge is sand: fine, pale sand, shaped like a river, blowing between banks of the regular, brown dirt.
In 1993, it rained so much and for so long that our river had water above ground. Water deep enough to flow, flowing east. Water that dried up just a few days later, leaving us the familiar, sandy blank. That spring, the water-filled Mojave filled a two-page spread in my freshman yearbook, chronicle of our miracle—water flowing in the desert.
A visiting cousin, on seeing the “Mojave River” sign on the bridge: “Guys? I think someone took your river.”
We laugh, tell her how the river is underground, pretend this is a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Our not-river. Our river of dust. Our ghost river.
Let’s say the Mojave taught me how rivers can mean ghosts. Let’s say La Llorona visits that underground river, let’s say desert winds whispered her legend to me before human tongue. Perhaps I breathed her legend in with the dust of Aztlán or maybe she’s been with me since birth, since even before—she might be coded into my matrilineal DNA, passed down to me through placenta and cord. Why else would it seem, the first time I set eyes on that doleful double L, La Llorona was already there?
La Llorona isn’t a story I grew up with; I got her in grad school. She slipped in incidentally, between the pages of the postcolonial, transnational queer feminist theory I studied in my twenties. I read Gloria Anzaldúa’s words to a story so familiar, a wailing woman who haunts rivers at night, crying for her drowned children.
When I was 14, I asked my mom if I was going to get a traditional Mexican quinciañera celebration for my 15th birthday, with a fancy white dress, a mass in my honor, and a large reception in the parish hall. Mom said, “No.” I said, “Whyyyyyyyy-yuh?” and she answered, “Because I didn’t raise you in that culture.”
Roman Catholic tradition, which, according to Mom, transcends nation and race, is the culture I was raised in. Roman Catholic tradition first came to me, as it first came to California, by way of El Camino Real: I made my first holy communion at the Mission San Buenaventura. Later, my family moved from the coast to the desert, and St. Joseph’s Parish in Barstow became the primary site of my education in matters of spirit.
Instead of a traditional Mexican childhood which would have included La Llorona, I got my archetypes from the Old Testament. My favorite stories involved prophets and danger: Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Joseph, betrayed, and his coat of many colors. Daniel surviving the lion’s den. David and Goliath. Joshua blowing his horn as the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.
And best of all: Moses. Oh, Moses. Moses, and all those plagues before the exodus. Moses’ story, which begins with his big sister Miriam.
The Mojave River is nothing like the Nile.
When my son was born, and I was seventeen, I did what Miriam did for Moses. I placed him in a basket of reeds, sealed with pitch, and floated him down that river of dust so he could grow up a prince instead of a slave, in Orange County, instead of Egypt. So that we could write different stories, separately, than the one we might have written together in Barstow.
After I floated my son away, I sought my own river to haunt.
I graduated high school, left Barstow and my parents’ home for college in Spokane, Washington, a city a thousand miles away from the desert I knew. Spokane is built on, and named for, a river, a proper river, with water you can see and hear and touch. A big river, with powerful falls, where in the nineteenth century some Jesuit missionaries decided to build a college, and a hundred and fifty years later, I matriculated.
I had many excellent teachers in college. My favorite was the Spokane River.
I walked the bend of the Spokane that lined my campus many afternoons, some mornings, and a lot of nights—sometimes with friends or lovers, but mostly I walked alone.
I walked along the river in each of Spokane’s four seasons. I never knew, until I met them, how I had longed for such snow-quieted winter nights and lilac-mad spring evenings and hot, too-hot summer afternoons when the cold of the river is balm for bare feet and autumn. True autumn. A blessed, genuine, northern autumn I could see and taste and feel most anywhere in Spokane, but most especially I saw and tasted and felt it by the river.
For the first four years of my son’s life, I haunted the banks of the Spokane River. I was learning, a thousand miles away from where my son, too, was learning to talk, to walk.
I wasn’t always thinking about my son during those solemn Spokane riverside walks. Sometimes, I was thinking about Wordsworth and Sartre and Samuel Beckett. Sometimes, I was thinking about Vatican II and why I couldn’t be a priest and how to reconcile my faith with my feminism. In my four years of walks along the Spokane River, I wasn’t always crying, wailing, or gnashing my teeth, but sometimes I was.
Melanie Madden’s work has appeared in The Essay Daily and is forthcoming in The Feminist Wire. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona where she teaches creative nonfiction, and regularly performs with FST! Female StoryTellers in Tucson.
Narrative: Invited to Wren’s first show.
Objective: He will be a DJ at Sound Riot.
Assessment: Happy he wants this case worker there. Making progress.
Plan: Attend concert. Build Trust. Bond. Cleanse Past. Build Love. Signed: Carrie Drake, Case Worker, Official Bible Certificate
Narrative: Wren said his name is “girly” but that he likes it anyway. He wouldn’t say more, instead asked about this writer’s name. This writer told him the truth because in this opinion it is a therapeutic necessity to tell clients the truth: Lulia is the shortened version of Hallelulia, this writer’s mother’s misunderstanding of the word, Halleluiah.
“So your name should be Luiah,” he said. And that is what he calls me. “It’s easier to pronounce, anyway,” he said. “It’s beautiful,” he added. “What was your mom thinking, calling you Lulia? Wasn’t it hard for her to enunciate, Lulia, change out of that sexy dress. This instant, Lulia. You are too damn smokin’. Lulia? Lulia! Do you hear me?”
Wren said he appreciates that this writer is candid with him and asked why honesty is so important to me. This writer turned the question back on him: “What do you think?”
“Because you have been lied to and hurt in your life.”
When asked how he likes his current living situation, he said, “I don’t really live where you think I do.”
When asked if he feels unsafe in his aunt’s home, he said, “How could I be unsafe? Do you see how tall I am? Do you see how strong I am? Do you think someone would fuck with me?” A few minutes later he added, “I’m not a victim, Luiah. I’m a protector. If you ever need help with anything, just ask. I am here for you.” And he waved his arms in wide circles. When asked what the arm gestures meant, he said, “I am wherever you need me to be.”
Objective: We met at Mac and Friends, a restaurant Wren selected, where we ate hamburgers and watched the sun turn things pink as it went down. We drank milkshakes handmade by Mac and his friends (yes, we watched them being made, the window into the kitchen being one of the features Wren likes about the place); Wren’s was peanut butter and mine was ginger.
His saggy jeans and Cheat the State t-shirt looked clean, his hair was carefully shaped: afro parted on the side, like a caricature of a clean-cut white man’s hair (I hope this passes as “objective”…). It looks like he combed it, which indicates good self-care. But it also looks a little messy: a smaller puff on one side and a bigger puff on top of his head. He laughed easily and often.
Assessment: I wonder where Wren lives. I should have followed up when he told me he doesn’t really live where I think he does. His file says he lives with his aunt, so now I know that is probably not where he actually stays. That’s not the very best start, but it’s where I am. He is good at turning the attention away from himself, good at finding ways not to reveal information about himself. According to his file, he’s only 15, but it is conceivable most people will assume he’s several years older than that.
The following question is now prominent in my mind: What is he trying to hide? He seems cooperative, but perhaps this information avoidant behavior is a form of defiance disorder. A case of defiance could help explain why he is doing so poorly in school. For instance, I can imagine his teacher asking, “Where’s your homework?” and him flinging his papers through the air, making a celebratory display of 8-and-a-half-by-11 sized confetti.
Plan: Find out his grades, where he’s living, how he is affected by the childhood trauma of being taken from his mother, being abandoned by his father via suicide, physical abuse, and serial foster homes. Make a service plan. Find out what happened to previous case worker. Ask how he likes being a DJ. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA.
Supervisor’s Post-it Notes: Each time you write a note, ask yourself: How would this sound if read in court? Signed: Denise Lawson, Casework Supervisor, MSW.
N: The woman at Wren’s school’s front desk didn’t look up from her crossword puzzle when she told me Wren wasn’t in class. As I walked away, I heard a voice say: “You can’t just tell anyone that. We don’t know who that lady is.”
O: Did not see Wren.
A: I wonder if he’s sick. I wonder if he’s skipping.
P: Will call his house to see if he’s okay. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
N: The woman who answered the phone at Wren’s aunt’s house (and who could be Wren’s aunt), sounded like she had just woken up, and said Wren wasn’t there.
O: Did not speak to Wren.
A: Maybe Wren has run away. Or maybe he’s staying with a friend and they are spending days together instead of going to school.
P: Visit his school again tomorrow. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
N: Visited Wren’s school and the woman at the front desk said, “I’m sorry, Wren is not available to see you.”
O: She looked at me and winked when she said this.
A: It seems like Wren is seriously sick or seriously skipping.
P: Call his house again. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
N: Called Wren’s aunt’s house. The woman on the phone, who I believe is Wren’s aunt, sounded like the woman I talked to last time.
O: She said Wren was not home.
A: Wren could be in trouble, could also be having the time of his life.
P: Keep trying to find him. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
N: The same sounding woman answered the phone at Wren’s aunt’s house. “Is this the same white woman my nephew is staying with?” she asked.
This writer said, “No.” Then she asked, “If he’s not with you, where the hell is he?”
This writer didn’t say anything.
Then she added, “You think you love him, don’t you.”
O: This must be Wren’s aunt.
A: This writer didn’t know what to say. Does this case worker love her “cases”? The general answer would be yes. How long does it take a case worker to know a client enough to love him or her? Maybe only moments. Is that true love? Yes. If an angry and afraid aunt is told a random, mysterious white woman loves her nephew, will she become more angry and afraid? Probably.
P: This writer doesn’t know. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
May 20th, 10:20 am
N: No one seemed to be around the school office today, except for the woman who always sits at the front desk. I asked her if Wren was in class and if I could see him.
She said, “You really need to find this kid, don’t you.”
I wanted to tell her I was his case worker, but since Wren hasn’t signed a release for me to talk to school employees, I just said, “Yes.”
She pulled out a file and said, “He has class at the community college this afternoon.
Horticulture 107 at Edmonds.” She wrote the classroom number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. Then she asked if this writer knew who wrote The Waves.
“Virginia Woolf,” this writer said.
“W, O, L,” she started.
“WOOLF,” this writer replied.
“If it weren’t for these crosswords, I could almost forget how illiterate I am,” she said with a smile, which, on her, was as bright and astonishing as light caught in a sapphire.
O: Occasionally literary knowledge is invaluable.
A: See above.
P: Will visit Wren at horticulture class. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
N: This writer found the horticulture building, looked in the tiny window of the classroom door, and didn’t see Wren. Getting lost on the way out of the building meant exiting through a different door. A thriving rose garden was populated with smokers, and there were two people making out against the trunk of a cedar tree. Their heads were somewhat obscured by the branches, but one of them seemed to have a puffy yet parted hair-do, not unlike Wren’s. His hands looked bright and brown, the color of chestnuts just out of their husks.
A man asked for a smoke.
“Sorry,” this writer said.
Then he pulled out a metal cigarette case filled with Virginia Slims. “I found these,” he said. As we smoked, he talked about pruning roses, and fortunately, like most men, didn’t ask this writer anything about herself.
Eventually the two stopped kissing under the cedar tree. The guy was Wren and the woman looked quite a bit older—in her late twenties or early thirties.
When Wren walked by, this writer said, “I’ve been looking for you.”
He looked surprised and said, “I guess you caught me.” He made a fake shooting sound, jerked his body as if he’d just caught a bullet in his heart, closed his eyes, and then walked away. The woman laughed and smacked him on the bum as they walked into the building.
O: The woman Wren was kissing is beautiful, has lithe and muscular arms, blonde hair, bottle green eyes.
A: She may be wearing tinted contacts. No one has eyes that color. She is probably the one Wren’s aunt said is in love with him. Wren is probably “living” with her.
P: Find out why this woman is messing up the life of a teen-age boy. Talk to supervisor regarding how to make a CPS report. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
N: Wren was waiting outside this writer’s office. “How’d you get here so fast?” this case worker asked.
“Carpool lane, I guess,” he said. “You must have gotten held back in traffic.”
“Someone drove you here?”
“Who is the woman you were with today?” this writer asked, unlocking the door to her office.
“You don’t like her, do you.”
“That’s not the issue.” This case worker held the door open for Wren and motioned for him to come inside. “The issue is she’s much older than you.”
Wren looked this writer in the eye like he was about to tell her something really important.
“Can I talk to you somewhere more private?” he asked. This writer offered to close the door.
Wren shook his head no and said, “I feel bad that you’ve been looking for me so long and then I wasn’t so nice to you today. Could I take you out to coffee?” This writer offered to take Wren out to coffee, using money from the Coffee with Clients Fund, on the condition that he participate in creating a service plan.
While drinking cappuccinos at the café across the street, he asked this writer for advice. “I can tell you’re concerned about me and that you don’t think I should be with someone older than I am, but I really like her. What should I do?” This writer deflected the question by asking him what he thought.
“I don’t know. Probably I should focus on school.”
This writer told him that sounded good.
“You make me feel good,” he said. It felt for a second like he was about to move the conversation in an inappropriate direction, the aforementioned comment being said with strong eye contact, but then he added, “You make me feel like doing the right thing.”
“That’s wonderful to hear,” this writer said and pulled out the service plan paperwork.
“You’re probably about to get off work, aren’t you?” Wren asked.
“Yes, soon, but I have time to spend with you. You’re important to me.”
He looked like he was about to cry, his eyes got glossy. “Would you let me take care of something real quick and then meet up in a little bit? I hate to ask you to work late, but I really want you to be able to get your paperwork done, and I want to work with you. I think you can really help me.”
This writer reminded him he promised to do the paperwork.
“I just need to take care of one thing. I promise. I’ll make it worth your while.” This writer saw a turquoise and white pick-up truck outside and what looked like the woman Wren was kissing earlier in the driver’s seat. Wren noticed this writer looking at the woman in the truck.
“I don’t want to hide this from you,” he said. “I’m going to go break up with her. I have to do it now.” His knee knocked into this writer under the table. “I really care what you think,” he said.
He stood, squeezed this writer’s shoulder, whispered, “I’ll do anything for you,” and as he opened the door to leave the café, he called out, “I’ll meet you at your car in half-an-hour. We’ll have dinner, my treat this time.” He left before this writer had a chance to agree or disagree.
O: We drank caffeinated coffee at five o’clock in the afternoon.
A: It’s possible transference is occurring here. Wren seems to have elevated this case worker in his mind, which is a natural part of the therapeutic process. All that has to happen to keep things healthy is for the case worker to maintain appropriate boundaries. The way in which he offered the invitation to meet up in half-an-hour is perhaps a power move, to test the bond between himself and his therapist. Or perhaps it’s an attempt at empowerment—making himself feel powerful. Increased self-esteem can increase client’s sense of options, motivation, and ambition.
P: Clean car, meet Wren, drive to a quiet place where we can catch up on paperwork. Maybe somewhere on the water: the shore inspires renewal, possibility, daring. Signed: Lulia Mort, Case Worker, MFA
N: Attempted contact but no luck yet at home or school.
O: Not easy to reach.
A: This kid goes through social workers like nobody’s business.
P: Find him, get to know him, help him the best I can. Signed: Rob Ray, Case Worker, BA
Shira Richman has stories and poems published or forthcoming in Monkeybicycle,Keyhole, Copper Nickel, Bayou, Third Coast, [PANK], the Los Angeles Review, Newfound, and elsewhere. She has published interviews with Dorianne Laux, Lynn Emanuel,Prageeta Sharma, Tess Gallagher, and Fady Joudah in Willow Springs. Her interview with Jake Adam York can be found at The Volta. She lives in Bavaria, where she studies German and Germans.
He used to hide it behind the water heater, but now he hides it out in the shed. The sealed baggie glistens from the narrow, dark space where the ceiling slopes down to meet the top shelf. The shelf is full of crusted paint cans and unused tiles from their new bathroom. He moves aside some cans and reaches through the dust.
Tiny footsteps and a voice, his daughter’s. She’s standing right outside with her little wagon.
Can he help her look for leaves?
Of course! (Did that sound too enthusiastic?) His hands unfreeze and he slides his parcel to the back of the shelf—she can’t see this high, anyway, he reminds himself. He finishes pretending to organize the paint cans and joins his daughter. The panic doesn’t land until the shed’s door latches. His chest slams too-close too-close too-close as they scour the ground and search the wooded area at the end of the yard. She only wants pretty leaves: small or medium-sized, nothing brown, nothing with too much stick. They find some good ones, oval shaped ones and little ones with zigzag edges. A few with the blush of early fall. His breathing slows and his chest begins to calm. After a while, his daughter announces they have enough.
Now they need pinecones.
As soon as she’s pulled her wagon away, he hurries back to the shed and pushes aside the paint can sentinels to retrieve his tiny parcel from the dark. He bites through the baggie and taps some of its contents into a careful line on the edge of the shelf. His lungs and stomach are inflated with want. He’s only doing a little.
Everything is peaceful outside the shed. Slices of sun come through the trees at the end of the lawn. There’s a low buzzing only he can hear, a pleasant bitter drip at the back of his throat.
His daughter pulls her loaded wagon from among the trees. She has something in her free hand, something small and dangly. It’s a frog, a tree frog. White belly, brown speckled back. She dangles it and grins even though they’ve talked about this: she knows not to bring dead things back from the woods (last time was a worm, before that the husk of a cicada). She drops it in the wagon and it lands like a tiny wet sock. It blends almost perfectly with the other things in the wagon; easy to hide until it starts to rot. He puts on his stern face. Time to revisit their policy on dead things.
She’s pointing up at his face.
He wipes the back of his hand across his nose and it comes away streaked red.
Dinner is butternut squash stuffed with garbanzos and pine nuts and mushy rice. His daughter’s portion has been scooped out of the skin for her, left in a watery plop on her favorite Disney plate. His wife asks what they found out back today.
Leaves, their daughter says.
Pinecones, he says.
They chew in silence. Out the window, the wagon sits beside the shed in the darkening backyard.
Eric Hawthorn works as a researcher and social media manager at a real estate firm in Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Monkeybicycle, Thrice Fiction, and other journals. He is the slowest writer he knows. You can visit his website: thebackroomdiaspora.blogspot.com.
“Radiohead’s In Rainbows was released while I was at the residence, and its closing track, ‘Videotape,’ haunted me—less because it’s about a suicide note left on VHS than because its eccentric, syncopated percussion kept knocking around in the suburbs of my brain like beautiful, claptrap birdsong, both mechanical and pulmonary, as if Morse code could be found in nature.” – Andrew Zawacki (from an Interview with Barbara Claire Freemen, 2014)
One must be desirous of scooting off the grid and rushing down a strand of sound upon entering Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape. This is a tape shattered with almost pointillist attention to the fragmentation of language. By lensing perspective in specificity, even ice becomes loud as it “glisters, is/ listened to” (22). Each object (as in thing and as in word) is an indulgence of concentration, demanding the eyes and ears to percolate a resonance between vasts: weather and plastic, meadows and washing machines, language and music. Time is forced into the body as the eye must stutter through snagged linearity:
Perspective is so narrowed that one can hear the striking of a “match” at full volume; the performance of “life” becomes wrapped up in the music of ordinary objects These objects refuse to fade into the background; rather, they become the tools of existence. This perspective is concerned not with the human, but with the interaction between things and people—the lens has veered away from the ‘I’ and into surrounding accessories. Things from this angle become noisy.
While both Track A sections of the book play with ecstatic syncopation of the fragment, the two Track B sections flatten into prose blocks on the bottom of the page. The condensed form of these sections works almost as a horizontal plane that exists subtly, like “a burned CD, skipping” (37). The book, structured ABAB, seems to contrast vertical and horizontal placement of words, heightening visual attention to space on the page. Just as John Cage famously argued for the importance of space between notes, so does Zawacki debate between two musicalities. By pressing the words pancake style, a unique monotony of rhythm arises in the B Tracks. The page becomes a musical score sheet; space dictates rhythm.
Several reviewers have claimed that Videotape is a project aligned with Sci-Fi poetics. Although this book may very well fit a niche in the realm of Sci-Fi poetry, I did not find anything particularly fictive in its content. Instead, Zawacki seems concerned with locating reality—perspective lies somewhere between real and false surroundings. Like improvisational jazz, the question becomes how do we compromise? The camera’s lens is one way to make a distance between viewer and viewed: “I found myself instead acting as a kind of camera lens, recording not only the landscape but also the act of recording itself, the technological means” (from an Interview with Barbara Claire Freemen, 2014). Thus the book is navigating between the act of looking and how one manages to look:
In this instance, adequate seeing requires technology. The eye cannot appreciate this flourish of nature without a heightened focus; we work with machines so naturally the question becomes what is natural? Perpetual juxtaposition of the pastoral landscape and the technologic scape troubles any comfortable boundaries we have placed between these two locations. These worlds have become wired together both visually and sonically:
Sound becomes an aggressor, sweeping in on the still life “sill” and permeating environment with movement. Since the poem begins with a question of preposition use—one could be either “in” or “of” the environment— the following stanzas actively strive to distinguish a point of location. Here, it is arguably hard to mark the axis with any kind of precision. Though the speaker is looking at the “yarrow” and “basil,” these natural things are “dried” and dead; thus the “anthem” comes not from a natural world, but from a manmade machine that permeates the room with vigor. Once again the eye and ear collide; the struggle between distant observation and personal immersion take a jarring center stage as location noisily dissipates. Of course, maybe it’s okay to not know where we are.
In "Videotape," Zawacki presents “scavenger music” as blended parts (58). Environment melds as the question becomes not “what is the world” but “what isn’t” (103). The lens fails to focus on any one thing; there’s always something else intruding—there’s always something else and else and else until a wide-brimmed chorus becomes the only lens left.
Doug Paul Case lives in Bloomington, where he’s an MFA candidate at Indiana University and the editor of Gabby, a new journal dedicated to the talky poem. His work has appeared in Salt Hill, Court Green, Hobart, and Sou’wester.
Jessie Janeshek’s first book of poems is Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010). An Assistant Professor of English and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Bethany College, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and an M.F.A. from Emerson College. She co-edited the literary anthology Outscape: Writings on Fences and Frontiers (KWG Press, 2008).
Tony Mancus is the author of four chapbooks, most recently Bye Sea (Tree Light Books) and Again(st) Membering (Horse Less Press – out in fall). He is co-founder of Flying Guillotine Press and he currently works as a technical writer. He and his wife Shannon live in Arlington, VA with their two yappy cats.
Dolores Dorantes’ most recent books include Querida fábrica (Práctica Mortal, CONACULTA, 2012) and Estilo (Mano Santa Editores, 2011). Her op-ed pieces, criticism and investigative texts have been published in numerous Mexican newspapers, includingDiario de Juárez, El Norte and Día Siete. sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre, a bilingual edition of books two and three of Dolores Dorantes by Dolores Dorantes, translated by Jen Hofer, was co-published in early 2008 by Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions; a new edition with books 1-4 from the series is forthcoming from Kenning Editions. Dorantes lived in Ciudad Juárez for 25 years, and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Jen Hofer is a Los Angeles-based poet, translator, social justice interpreter, teacher, knitter, book-maker, public letter-writer, urban cyclist, and co-founder (with John Pluecker) of the language justice and literary activism collaborative Antena. Her translations, which have won awards from the Academy of American Poets and Pen American Center, can be found at Action Books, Counterpath Press, Kenning Editions, Les Figues Press, Litmus Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, and University of Pittsburgh Press. Her writing lives at Atelos, Dusie Books, Insert Blanc Press, Little Red Leaves (Textile Series), Palm Press, Subpress, and in a variety of homemade chapbooks. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches poetics, translation and bookmaking at CalArts and Otis College.
Much of “July in Montana” is quite language-based. What comes first for you — language? Character? Story? Or is it even possible to segregate these impulses?
Language is definitely what comes first, but I don’t think it’s a matter of segregating those impulses as much as arranging them in a hierarchy. Or, knowing what my personal hierarchy is, at least. So a character becomes “who is this language coming from” and then the story becomes “in what order does this language make sense?” and it’s all built from there.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work, either in “July in Montana” or in other pieces?
I think it means setting out on a project for a piece that necessitates stepping outside of the usual rhetorical means to complete. Usual as in… well-trodden, maybe? Unexciting. Though I do think a lot of experimental literature is presented very openly the other way around, lauded for a rhetorical premise that leaves the content as secondary, which isn’t my thing. My favorite books tend to wow me with how completely and irrevocably they’ve embedded an unexpected movement into the text.
All this to say: I don’t strive to innovate (and don’t think that I do by accident, either) but I more collect as many of these “movements” as I can so that I know what to do when I’ve written myself into a problem that needs to be solved. The less usual all of these pieces are, the better.
What’s your goal when you write? Was “July in Montana” written for a particular audience?
My goal is to express a thing, as opposed to really telling a story — I’ve met a bunch of storytellers, and the skill sets seem different.
“July in Montana” started from a writing prompt that a friend showed me. And it was a call for stories with “summertime fun” as a theme and so I began writing it “for” the site that created that prompt as the submission they’d least like to see. I don’t think it ended up so spiteful though.
You graduated from Emerson with an MFA. How do you feel that the MFA process has influenced you as a writer?
It introduced me to lot of my favorite writing, either directly or through becoming aware of the world of lit journals. And it hammered into me the idea that a first draft is allowed and encouraged to be awful, which was really valuable. And, as for workshops, it helped me to decide what sort of criticism is helpful to me. Whenever someone hates on MFAs I can usually find a lot to agree with them about, but I was maybe especially in need of the exposure of it all.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
I am, I’ve been working for about a year on a novel that extends on the premise of this story. Pretty hard going, since it’s my first. I think that’s another thing I got from my MFA – as soon as you see really just how much work has been put into all these books that you love you start raising the bar for yourself.
Your story relates emotional barriers to physical barriers — a hot wok, a bathtub, a doorway. Can you describe the use of physical objects in the writing process? Does the emotion come first, or do objects spark ideas for you?
My writing process tends to be image-driven so the idea of the tub and the couple confined to the tub came first. From there, I experimented with the potential emotional circumstances that had caused and maintained their situation. I think most of the details in my work accumulate this way.
In this story, the objects act as barriers because of their psychological associations rather than their structural properties or functionality (for whatever reason I think that I was thinking about the philosophy of rule-following and mental restriction around the time I was writing this). Instead of expressing emotion in conventional ways, emotion is conveyed through the characters’ interactions with these objects. Roundabout ways of feeling seem to occur often in my stories, which I think is the result of my own difficulty naming emotions.
“The Tub” pivots around a story in a story – Tim and Martha’s relationship. Can you discuss your choice to use a nontraditional structure in the narrative?
The Tim and Martha bit functions like a physical object for the tub couple. The tub couple’s relationship with it offers insight into their mental place through their criticism of Tim and Martha’s relationship in contrast with their own.
Not much happens in the “present” of “The Tub.” Most character movements and scene transitions are subtle. The nontraditional elements that exist parallel to the “present” are intended to add depth and narrative; to make this more than an illustration of a bizarre circumstance.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work, either in “The Tub” or in other pieces?
Innovative writing explores the absurdities of modern ritual, alienates the familiar, disfigures and distances the mundane. It also regards the grotesque and bizarre with a certain nonchalance. In any case, it perceives of places, people, behaviors, etc. in a new combination of senses and language; for me, that is the appeal. It is hard to define “innovative” by structural experimentation or degree of commitment to narrative because even linear and unremarkable stories can fit the category. The feeling of reading and writing innovative fiction is a lot like discovering (there’s an element of surprise) so I think that if I come away from a piece of writing with new tools for noticing, interpreting, and translating encounters, I’ll consider it innovative.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”? Which journals?
Bolano doesn’t count as “today” but I’ve just finished reading Antwerp and I am halfway through The Savage Detectives. Antwerp reads like an attempt to recall the furthest memory; the narrative details are vague and surface in brief fragments, but the images are so sure and persistent. I understand that Bolano was transitioning to fiction from poetry around this time in his writing life. I feel as though I am forever transitioning between the two. Donald Barthelme doesn’t count as “today” either, but you’ve caught me making my way through his “60 Stories” and I find that it is influencing the experimental elements of my narrative voice. I didn’t answer the question, but these guys are really on my mind lately.
I do read Diagram, PANK, Gigantic, Conjunctions, etc. (I have a long list) pretty regularly, all of which I admire for their commitment to innovation.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
I’m working on a few micro-pieces now, real short form stuff, that are questionably narrative. They aren’t quite as committed to story as they are to the language and the visual elements. I’m experimenting.
The narrative voice you use in this piece is complex – it’s intelligent, wrathful, gleeful in its objectification of men. How did you create this voice?
Well, I was in a workshop with a few guys who were doing these fairly macho, “tell it like it is” voices that would often be really negative toward women–like this one guy’s story had a girl getting attacked by a rabid squirrel and it was narrated with absolute vindictive pleasure. I could identify with the hate but I felt alienated by the idea that this hate happens to women in stories but never comes from women. I think humans as a whole have a lot of viciousness in them but women in particular are asked to efface their viciousness, pretend like we don’t sometimes want to just haul off and punch someone–but when we do that, we get stomped on in other people’s narratives. So I wondered what a female narrator would sound like if she wasn’t doing all of that editing. I looked at thoughts that I’d never really let myself follow out, places where I’d cut myself off, and let them really run. It turns out I’m a bit of a monster.
Could you discuss the Fight Club influence on your story? How do you feel about the social messages of film and/or Palahniuk’s novel?
I love the film. And I feel bad about that. I watch it and I get a huge surge of adrenaline and feel like I can take over the world, but I also know that this movie was not only not written for women, it writes women out of it almost altogether. It’s hugely problematic because it describes an anti-capitalist revolution, but it’s a revolution for young white guys only. And I think the narrator starts to see that. But when Tyler Durden says “our great war is a spiritual war; our great depression is our lives”, I still get chills and want to burn down banks.
I think the fundamental struggle in Fight Club is between a hatred of capitalism but the growing knowledge that if you tear it all down, individual people are going to suffer immensely. So I want to be Tyler but I guess I have to be the narrator.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”? Which journals?
I like Adam Novy a lot; I think he and I share an appreciation of ultraviolence and of the fortitude of teenage girls. I think the writers of Adventure Time are probably the most innovative writers I’ve “read” recently–they’re writing a children’s TV series about a lovable post-apocalyptic wasteland rife with morally ambiguous characters. I’ve seen a lot of great stuff on Strange Horizons, as people use the idea of “genre writing” as a launchpad for these really sharp critiques and experimental perspectives. I think genre writing can produce really great experimentation.
What’s your goal when you write? Was “FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT” written for a particular audience?
My goal when I write is to empower people who don’t usually get power in narrative. I think of a lot of what I write as “speculative” for that reason, because I’m specifically trying to flip scripts and see what the formula looks like when it’s from a different vantage point. “FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT” feels like classic “men’s fiction” to me, but can it still function that way if its narrator is a woman? At first I thought “FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT” was written for men, as a kind of warning that while they’re objectifying us, we’re also objectifying them–but the more I think about it, the more it seems like it’s for women. I’m curious to see who responds to it, though.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
Yes! I’m writing an urban fantasy novel–in the sense that it’s a fantasy novel that is deeply concerned with the politics of cities. I’m also co-writing an album about ghosts with the band Girls With Depression.
There are interesting references to gender topics, including pregnancy, in this piece. Can you discuss how you approach gender in your stories?
I believe that all writing is political, so I try to consciously engage with the politics. I try to be aware of how gender affects interpersonal interactions. In this story, most of Ari’s direct interactions are with men, and I tried to write them in a way that recognizes this. Right now, I’m kind of fixated on women’s bodies and the contradictions surrounding them. Pregnancy fascinates me because it is this ultimate act of power and creation, but—at least in our culture—it also turns the woman’s body into a vessel and a tool. This story was shaped by current conversations about reproductive health, and the disconnects I feel in that dialogue, how there’s a specific class of men leading and dominating conversations about women’s bodies, and the divide this creates between the theoretical and the actual. I’m interested in gender as a source of discomfort, and in bodies as inextricably tangled up in our identities and selves and also separate from us.
You made the “disease” that the main character suffers from fictional, even fantastical. Can you discuss your invention of the “hunger” disease, as well as the disease’s connection with the dictionary?
The disease started as an absurdist rendering of our impersonal and often antagonist relationships to both our doctors and our own bodies, and how dismissive we tend to be, especially towards women. I was thinking that a woman could literally be dissolving and our reaction would be “Is this stress? What’s your diet like? Calm down, everyone.” I’ve always loved The Metamorphosis because of how mundanely Gregor reacts to his transformation—he’s freaked out about missing work. This feels so honest to me because it’s so funny and so sad and in some ways totally obnoxious, and I think maybe I was subconsciously reaching towards this. The dissolving, the hunger, relates to the complicated relationship between person and body and power that fascinates me. It’s important that the disease be mysterious because this weird culture of extreme privilege but simultaneous disempowerment is kind of nameless and faceless. Language is so integral to autonomy; it allows us to communicate, to protest and assert ourselves and tell our own stories. When I was writing this story, I was reading articles online about archaic words that were being removed from the standard dictionary. There was a reactionary movement to use these words in order to give them an online presence and save them from being excised, which I found fascinating. This fell into place with the issues related to gender and the disease, and a lot of parallels emerged organically. Ari is mostly disempowered in this story—though she is extremely privileged socioeconomically and geographically and intellectually—but I think she is empowered through her connection with December, which manifests in Ari passing along language to this younger girl. And language, ultimately, falls short. And bodies fall short, and society falls short, but I think there is hope when we break out of our stupors, use language and physicality to connect and to cry and to declare.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work, either in “Common Usage” or in other pieces?
I guess I hope that innovative or experimental literature works on its own terms and follows, or breaks, its own rules to tell the stories it needs to tell. I have issues with the traditional narrative arc because it usually feels dishonest to me. It’s too neat, and it’s a view of the world to which I’ve never been able to relate well. I don’t think life moves linearly, and it’s not a collection of discrete and conclusive stories. I think the best innovative work is messy, moving in multiple directions at once with the goal of being as disconcertingly true as possible. This is the work that I love. I don’t think I strive to be experimental, per se, but I am unconcerned with maintaining traditional plot arcs, and the way I approach story is really all over the place, really fragmented, and I’m interested in the spaces between fiction and poetry. Recently, I’ve been trying to make myself uneasy when I write. My theory, right now, is that if I’m not making myself feel weird, I’m probably not doing or saying anything very interesting.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”? Which journals?
Currently, I’m really excited about the fairy tale revival that seems to be happening, about all the writers who are repurposing old tales or using fable and myth and horror to write these gorgeous and painful and funny literary stories. I enjoy reading stories that have a sense of magic and lushness combined with the importance and sadness of serious adult fiction, and I love when I’m surprised while I’m reading—either by something that happens or by something the language does. I guess Fairy Tale Review is an obvious choice for this. I also love Booth for the form play it publishes. My favorite writers are the ones who employ a lot of lyricism in their prose, who are unafraid of oddity, and who are using form and language and strangeness to address important issues. I love Alissa Nutting, Anthony Doerr, and Caitlin Horrocks, to name just a few I can see on my bookshelf. Honestly, I think there are so many different exciting and innovative things happening right now that I feel guilty trying to point to just a few writers or journals. I’m kind of baffled by complaints I hear about contemporary fiction; I feel like I’m amazed or surprised or unnerved by what’s being produced on a near-daily basis.
What’s your goal when you write? Was “Common Usage” written for a particular audience?
Issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and the like are extremely important in my writing. I’m interested in places of convergence, both in content (cultures, peoples, genders), and in form, and I’m increasingly interested in not allowing myself to avoid politics. I try to write stories about the parts of life I don’t know how to talk about and the things that I think it is vitally important to talk about. I guess ultimately my goal is to write about important things in interesting ways. I’m not sure I can pick out a specific audience. Right now I just feel lucky and grateful to be able to publish in journals I like.
MFA INTERVIEWS: Columbia
[The following is an interview with Daniel Tovrov, an MFA Candidate at Columbia University, describing his experience with the program. This interview was conducted in November of 2013, as is reflected by some of the time-sensitive questions. Questions by Bird Marathe.]
What attracted you to Columbia? How long have you been with the program, and how long will it be before you finish?
I am a second-year fiction student. I’ll be all done with classes sometime in May, and then be done with my thesis a few months after that. We are about to select our courses for the spring term, and it’s made us all very aware of how quickly this has gone.
When considering an MFA, I was specifically looking for a program in New York. There were a lot of personal reasons involved, but I was already living in New York, and I simply love this city. The year prior I had left and gone to London and I didn’t want to leave again.
There are actually only a handful of MFA programs here, and I think I applied to all of them. I liked Columbia because it was, maybe, the only one that felt like a full-time program. I figured that if I was going to do this, I would do it all the way. George Saunders spoke at the admitted student reception and I put my deposit in the mail the next day.
Does Columbia have a particular aesthetic? How do you see yourself fitting into it?
I don’t think that Columbia does have a particular aesthetic. It’s a big program, so naturally there’s going to be a lot of variation from the start, but even the professors are coming at this from every direction.
Can you walk us through what a week in your program looks like?
We take a lot of classes. Right now, I’m taking a workshop, two seminars and a lecture, and my four-week master class just ended. So, my week is split between reading and writing, with the balance tilting in relation to workshop submission deadlines. There is an event most weeks, usually a guest lecture. We also have student readings once a month, which get very “social.” Otherwise, I spend most of my day in Dodge Hall, which is School of the Arts building, and before and after class I’m often in a library.
My life really is a lot more interesting than that sounds.
Can you describe your workshop experience at Columbia? How do you apply workshopping to your writing?
My workshop experience has changed slightly over the three semesters, but my philosophy has been to push myself further with each piece. That’s a platitude, but it’s true. I use my submissions to explore my weaknesses. I often give myself restrictions in which to work.
Next semester is the thesis workshop, so that’s going to change. I’ll be workshopping a novel for the first time, which will be an adjustment for me, I’m sure. But workshop continues to be very exciting, especially as we get to know each other and each other’s work.
Do you have any advice for potential applicants to Columbia who aren’t sure if it’s the right program for them?
I am realizing that this whole interview is becoming a pitch for Columbia, which I didn’t intend. Here’s what I’ll say: Don’t be scared by the size of the program. I wasn’t worried about it, but I was surprised to find that the size is actually a big strength, in my opinion. There is a great diversity in artistic perspective, yet it’s easy to find “your readers,” as we say. Also, the program size allows for an outstanding roster of professors.
The other thing people talk about with Columbia is the cost. That’s real. It can be a hang-up if you let it. But it’s an investment. You aren’t throwing away money. You’re putting it into a fund that is your own art with the hopes that the fund will mature and pay-out dividends over time. No one would do it if it wasn’t worth going into debt over.
I don’t quite know what else to say. Everyone is wonderful. That thing about building a “community of writers” that everyone writes about in their personal statements when applying is actually real.
Can you describe the literary scene at Columbia? What writers have your cohort excited right now?
There’s a long answer and a short answer to that question. The short answer is that we are always talking about literature all the time. This is the one time in any of our lives when we’ll be able to just talk about books, so we talk a lot about books.
Delving into the land of difficult hypotheticals, how would your writing be different if you hadn’t joined the program? What are you hoping to have done by the time you’re finished? That’s easier to answer than it seems. My writing would be:
A) Not very good
B) Wouldn’t exist.
I’m half-kidding (guess which half…). One of my professors said the other day that the point of an MFA program is to cut 10 years off of a writer’s development, meaning that when it’s over I’ll have accomplished in two years what it might have taken me 10 years to accomplish on my own. I hope that’s true.
What comes after the program for you?
I’m working very hard at not thinking about that question. For me, I have two years to not worry about that type of thing and to focus entirely on my writing, which, for the most part, has worked out. I would like to leave Columbia with a good chunk of a novel done and the momentum to keep working on it.
What have the faculty members you’ve worked with meant to you?
I am surrounded by role models.
All of the faculty members I’ve studied with are working writers, and it’s been quite edifying to talk with them about their own careers and career beginnings. I have found mentors when I wasn’t looking.
Also, I once ran into Ben Marcus at a grocery store in SoHo and we had a very nice chat. He’s incredibly honest.
How does New York City influence the program, and your writing in particular?
New York has a big influence on the program in that there is always a reading or event or lecture or party going on. I’ve been able to see—and meet—many of my heroes, and it’s been very inspiring. Last fall, I felt that I had to go to all of these things, but now I’ve settled down.
Morningside Heights has a special function, too. It feels like a little enclave within the city, which is important, especially (I imagine) if you’re new to New York. It might be related to the size of the program, but you will always see a friend when walking around the neighborhood, which is rare in New York. I still live downtown, which allows for a sort-of mental separation between life and school, which is important for me.
Strangely, I haven’t met many people from the other NYC programs, although I’m sure we’re at the same readings all the time.
Beyond classes and your journal, what sorts of activities are the members of your program involved in?
For Halloween (and for the 50th anniversary of the first public reading of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs), we had a Dead Poets reading. It was conceived and organized by students and sponsored by Columbia. We dressed up as our favorite dead poets and read their work. It was one of the best events I’ve been to here, if not the best. I think we’re going to try to create more events like it.
In general, people are involved in all sorts of things. People are working at literary magazines, at publishing houses, for Columbia organizations, at bars. Some people spend a lot of time browsing the bookshelves at thrift stores. Lots of us are teaching now, some at the university but more through a program called Columbia Artist/Teachers, which sends teachers all over New York. I’m currently teaching a creative writing class at a high school in Harlem once a week.
Also, a bunch of us are in a fantasy football league together.
Do you want to plug any of your writing projects, or pieces you’ve published?
Look for my story “The News Cycle” in the Winter issue of ZYZZYVA.
[The following is an interview with Courtney Kelsch, an MFA Candidate at Rutgers – Newark, describing her experience with the program. This interview was conducted in October of 2013, as is reflected by some of the time-sensitive questions. Questions by Bird Marathe.]
What attracted you to Rutgers? How long have you been with the program, and how long will it be before you finish?
I’m in my second year in the program now, and I’ll be in the program for a total of three years. I’m a part-time student, so this is a bit longer than many of my classmates. Full-time students finish in two years.
As far as what attracted me to the program, initially I was looking for NYC-area programs and I was impressed by the Writers at Newark Reading Series, both because of the fantastic authors that read on campus each month and because of the way the series is used for community outreach. (We have a high school program and a community reading group, and through these programs adults and teenagers in Newark get a chance to study the work of our visiting writers and meet with them at the readings.) But what really sold me on the program was the people. The community is incredibly supportive and welcoming, and all the faculty members are very invested in the work of the students. I’ve heard of other programs where students are competitive and clique-y or there’s a divide between the fiction writers and poets, but that’s just not the case here at all. We all genuinely respect each other and enjoy each other’s company, and that makes for great learning and writing.
Another thing that wasn’t really on my radar but is worth noting is that there are a lot of teaching opportunities for students in the program. I already had a teaching job before applying to programs, so I wasn’t necessarily looking for that, but most students in the program do teach in the English department. Also Rutgers just launched a creative writing minor for undergrads, so there are now opportunities for MFA students to teach creative writing courses.
Does Rutgers have a particular aesthetic? How do you see yourself fitting into it?
Short answer: nope. At least not on the fiction side (I can’t really speak to that aspect of the poetry program). A friend of mine is working on a science fiction novel, another friend is working on a series of stories about early twentieth century carnival freaks. Some of us write literary stories about ordinary people, others write supernatural stories about fantastical people. It’s all welcome and taken seriously, and needless to say, workshop is a lot of fun.
Can you walk us through what a week in your program looks like?
Well, depending on if you’re a 3-year student or a 2-year student, you either have 2 or 3 classes a week. All classes taught by MFA faculty are in the evenings from 5:30-810, but we’re also allowed to take courses in other departments, which are sometimes offered during the day. The typical schedule of a full-time (2-year) student would include one workshop, two electives (literature, craft, publishing and editing, or pretty much ANY course that interests you – history? women’s studies? You name it, Rutgers offers it and you can take it). There are readings just about every other Tuesday – one Writers at Newark reading and one student reading per month. We also have student readings at KGB bar in NYC one Saturday every month. And in addition to this, a lot of people teach two days a week.
Do you have any advice for potential applicants to Rutgers who aren’t sure if it’s the right program for them?
Visit. I think the heart of this program is in the people, and you need to come experience that in person. Come to a reading, sit in on a class, hang out with us at the bar after class. If you need a place to stay, one of us will offer a couch. It’s worth the trip.
Delving into the land of difficult hypotheticals, how would your writing be different if you hadn’t joined the program? What are you hoping to have done by the time you’re finished?
Gosh, this is hard. I mean, my writing wouldn’t be as good, that’s for sure, but what does that mean? I guess the biggest effect the program has had for me is that I take more risks in my writing than I ever did before. I feel like I’m in a growing period right now, and I’m just exploring my own obsessions. I don’t think I would be able to do this if I wasn’t in a program as supportive as Rutgers; I’m fortunate to have teachers and classmates who nudge me outside my comfort zone and make workshop feel safe at the same time.
One of the benefits of doing the program in three years is that I get a little more time to play and explore before I have to settle on a thesis. But I guess, in a general way, what I hope to have done by the time I graduate is written a bunch of things and grown to be a better writer in the process. Right now I’m writing stories, but I’ve been working on some essays too. Next up maybe I’ll tackle a novel. I haven’t decided yet. I’m not ruling anything out.
What comes after the program for you?
Who knows? I mean, I’m a bit unusual because I already have a teaching job. I know for a lot of my classmates, getting a teaching gig – or cobbling together a bunch of adjunct jobs – is at least part of the plan. All I know is that I want to keep doing a lot of what I’m doing while I’m in the program: writing a lot, reading a lot, and talking about reading and writing with these really smart people I’ve met. That’s the primary plan. Everything else is secondary.
What have the faculty members you’ve worked with meant to you?
Oh, the faculty has meant so much! They each have different strengths, different insights that they bring to class, but one thing they all share is that they truly care about the students and our writing. It’s great enough to have such talented writers saying smart things to us every day, but that they are so thoroughly invested in our work is what makes the program really wonderful. They try to understand what each of us is trying to do, so that they can help us be the writers we want to be instead of pushing us into aesthetic boxes. In addition to classes and program events, they make themselves available for lots of one on one conversations, and always encourage us to come talk with them whether we’re in their classes that semester or not. They are our teachers and our critics, but also our biggest supporters.
Beyond classes, what sorts of activities are the members of your program involved in?
Well, a lot teach. Some also work in the writing center. Last year one of the poets did an internship at Poets and Writers. Another poet wrote a play that’s being performed at Repertorio in the city. A bunch of students are involved with a project called Selfies In Ink. Another student is a burlesque performer. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Lots of people are doing lots of cool things.
Much of the tension in “A Shopping Center at Night” comes from the pairing of an adult character of uncertain maturity with the clipped yet sharp narrative voice. Can you discuss how you created this voice?
When I sat down to write this story, I had a vague idea of what it was going to be about: a young man who runs away with his five year old neighbor because he thinks they share some kind of philosophical connection. I had an image of Ethan looking out his bedroom window, and I decided that the only way to begin would be by getting inside his head. So I imagined what he’d be thinking, as he sees these children “who understand the world,” and after writing for a few hours, I noticed that my sentences had become very fragmented. In that sense, the voice was created organically. If I’m writing in a room by myself, I’ll say each word as I type it, so I can actually hear what the “voice” sounds like, not just imagine it. And even though Ethan may have some mental limitations, I didn’t feel like I had to hold anything back. By giving him a chance to truly express himself, his thoughts became longer and more drawn-out, which led to a kind of epiphany that the fragmented sentences wouldn’t have allowed.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work, either in “A Shopping Center at Night” or in other pieces?
If a story isn’t innovative, I don’t see much of an incentive to read it. “Innovative” writers know all the rules, and choose which ones their stories should break. I like to think that I consciously strive toward innovation—for instance, I wrote another story where the first-person narrator claims to understand what everyone else is thinking, so in a way, it became a first-person omniscient voice. When I look through a collection of stories, I’ll start with the ones that have the most white space. I like the way dialogue appears on a page, especially when the sentences are various lengths. I think stories are capable of affecting readers by their visual quality, not just the actual words, so I try to make each page look a little different by changing the lengths of paragraphs. When I wrote “A Shopping Center at Night,” I liked that I could re-read some of my pages in just a few seconds, due to the very short dialogue. I try to write stories that I’d enjoy reading, and since I’ve had to re-read this piece about fifty times, I’m relieved that this is my goal.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”? Which journals?
If you asked me this question six months ago, I’d probably have a better answer. But ever since I started an MFA program, I haven’t had much time to read modern-day authors, and most of my style has been influenced by people who aren’t doing much of anything today, let alone innovating. I’ve always loved reading Elmore Leonard’s work because of his ability to capture the sound of someone’s voice. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned the authenticity of his dialogue. I’m also drawn to the stories by Raymond Carver, particularly the way he illustrates a big idea with so few words. Actually, some of the most innovative writers today, at least from my perspective, are those on TV or in the music business. For instance, there are a few episodes of Louis that stretch far beyond comedy to ask incredibly philosophical questions. When I watch a show like that, I’m inspired by the ability to twist genres into something more than you’d expect. I also listen to a lot of music, especially when I’m driving from Chapel Hill to UNCG, and I’m drawn to good lyrics. I think that some of the best rappers are highly innovative wordsmiths, and I’ve been greatly influenced by their energy and the way they play with language.
What’s your goal when you write? Was “A Shopping Center at Night” written for a particular audience?
My goal is to entertain and to make each character as real as possible. When I wrote “A Shopping Center at Night,” I had recently joined a writer’s workshop in my hometown, so I visualized how each member would react to certain lines. I also discussed the idea with my sister, who is studying film production at Emerson College. It’s nice to get her perspective on my stories, since she thinks of them mostly in terms of movies. If there are any moments in “A Shopping Center” that have a cinematic effect, it’s thanks to her influence and the way I imagined her reading it. Typically, I’ll talk to a friend about a particular story idea before I actually start to write it. My ideas almost always get changed before I begin, which I think allows me to explore subjects in a way that my readers might like.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
As an MFA candidate at UNC Greensboro, I am hoping to write the majority of a short story collection for my thesis. I’m currently in my first year, so I have a few more months to decide what the connecting theme will be, but I’ve written several stories that have to do with movement (or the inability to move), like in “A Shopping Center at Night.” I have a few more stories that I’ve been sending out to magazines, so make sure you keep your eyes open!
There’s a terrific sense of compression in this piece — that what we’re presented with is pared down from something larger, and that the characters’ lives extend beyond the page. How do you achieve this effect? Did you write a lot more than you ended up including?
Oh, how this echoes in my ear like the best music. I didn’t pare anything down for “Some Filament Abroad”—it was one of those peculiar stories that just happen. Nina and Marek and their trip came out more or less as is, its entirety achieved in one sitting. Compression involves subtext, and subtext is to me one of the most important elements of a good story. Subtext is life. I’m keen to the notion that every situation has underlying movement, be it a conversation in the elevator or the girl with tattoos walking down the street. It’s there and I’m always looking for it, both in the fiction I write and the fiction I read. I practice and practice and practice, and short-form fiction gives me a way to evince these subtexts—a way to keep that “something larger” at bay just long enough that it remains in the reader’s.
Tourism seems to be related to lonesomeness (among other things), here. Can you discuss your use of setting in the piece?
I’ve been on good trips and I’ve been on bad trips. What is it about traveling with another person that brings out the true fabric of a relationship? It’s already enough that, wherever you travel, you never really get there—you’re never really in, because each place has its people and its culture and its community, all of which is (thankfully) far too complex for just anyone to walk in and be a part of. It is earned over time. You travel long enough and you realize this every time you step on a train or ascend to 35,000 feet—it makes you a little lonely and out of touch with the place you are in, even though you are standing right outside the bodega, drinking your beer and watching the bustle in the street like everyone else.
Setting is very much at work in “Some Filament Abroad.” It reveals the strained relationship between Marek and Nina—the underlying tensions they brought with them. Marek is on a trip, seems to be ignorant of any strain; Nina is a bit more in tune with her surroundings and, oddly enough, more aware of Marek’s shortcomings and lonelier because of it.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work, either in “Some Filament Abroad” or in other pieces?
Those words get used a lot and I’m not sure where I stand on their definitions. There is this d-word, derivative, that haunts me, as I’m sure it haunts many contemporary fiction writers. Perhaps it has already been said far better than I can say it, but innovation requires courage—the courage to move outside the confines of what feels safe, even if what is safe is working at the time. And it is a risk, dammit, because people innovate and experiment all the time and miss horribly. We all miss. It is fundamental to moving the conversation forward. To me, though, the innovation and experimentation that works—that kicks me in the gut and wrenches my heart—can still be defined as a story; it still has movement and characters and some discernible meaning. I strive for that balance. Experimentation doesn’t have to be inaccessible. I think immediately of The Sound and the Fury. It may seem dense and cryptic at first, but you’re reading it and stopping and talking to yourself and then, all of the sudden, you realize that the text is challenging you and moving you in ways that perhaps no other text has. Bingo. Faulkner has you by the lapels and he is shaking you in a way that no one has before.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”? Which journals?
Frankly, I don’t read enough contemporary novelists to comment in any meaningful way. I’m working through the old stuff. Sherman Alexie does come to mind. He explores gender and gender relationships and racial identity and all of the difficult questions that Americans should be asking themselves in a way that challenges the reader—that makes us squirm. He wrote a short story called “The Toughest Indian in the World” that stayed with me long after I read it. I mentioned Faulkner before. Faulkner did it masterfully. Danilo Kiš comes to mind but he is dead. They are all dead. Their work haunts me but it’s not today. Journals? I’m so glad you asked about journals, because I am in love.Memorious gets me every single time, always in a new way. Anne Valente published a story called “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” that I think about each time I go to read the latest issue. Wag’s Revue always brings an element of wit that I admire and aspire too. For flash fiction, which I love to write and love to read (when it’s done well), Bodegaand Wigleaf come to mind. I come across a lot of flash fiction that is more of a micro-diary entry or a scene. It doesn’t do anything, and in my eyes, fails to meet the strictures of the genre—the work in Bodega and Wigleaf rarely suffers from this ailment, if ever.
What’s your goal when you write? Was “Some Filament Abroad” written for a particular audience?
I write to explore what challenges me first—I am unabashedly selfish in that regard. I want to surprise myself and say, damn, this works. I write with no particular audience in mind but I keep the audience in mind always. The reader is intelligent, intuitive and, most importantly, living in the same world I am—I do not want to waste that person’s time with a story that doesn’t do anything. Then I’m just writing in my journal. I’m taking pictures of my food and posting them on the Internet. Those things happen and maybe they bring some fulfillment but it is not what I am after in my fiction.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
At the moment, I am content with earning my stripes—with developing my craft and reading extensively. I am highly interested in extending into the world of longer works, though at the moment I haven’t been able to get any of my ideas off the ground. Still, the stories keep coming and I seem to get better with every publication and I wouldn’t stop if you put a gun to my head.
You spend time in Rivers discussing things that are well-known to you (the Spokane, Roman Catholic tradition) as well as things that are either hidden or not part of your childhood experience (the Mojave, La Llorona). Can you discuss what the combination of the experiences and the researched means to you as a creative nonfiction writer?
I like that idea of research as finding “things that are hidden.” I don’t know that the act of blending the experience of the world with what is learned about the world is particular to creative nonfiction—maybe it’s more apparent in the essay form, more self-conscious, but I think that the best poetry and fiction share a hunger for knowledge of the world that manifests as research. Why write if not to understand better? How can I understand better unless I learn more?
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work, either in “Rivers” or in other pieces?
My knee-jerk reaction to those terms (and a bias I’d like to rid myself of), is to equate them with “inaccessibility,” and think that’s not for me. And so I’m inclined to think they’re terms that don’t apply to my work, because I aim to be accessible, plain. I don’t consciously strive to write nonfiction differently than it’s been done before, but when I try to imagine the tradition or the canonical lineage of essayists as a three-dimensional object in space, I don’t exactly see my hands on the shoulders of the guy at the end of that Conga line. I’d be over in the corner, more likely, or maybe in the alley out back.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”?
Ander Monson, and I’m not just saying that because I’m about to get an MFA from Arizona. He’s willing to break into text to mess with the moving parts and watch it behave strangely. Lidia Yuknavitch, whose book The Chronology of Water is the most right-bodied wordhouse I’ve ever had the privilege to be invited into. Speaking at an AWP panel yesterday, Lidia suggested instead of “memoir,” we should think “we-moir,” because memoir (if it’s good) isn’t just about “me.” She also suggested nonfiction writers should learn from poetry, which resonates with what I’ve been learning at Arizona.
What’s your goal when you write? Was “Rivers” written for a particular audience?
I write to smash patriarchy. I know that’s kind of glib, but I have internalized and constantly had it reinforced to me that what I think is worth less than what men think or what rich people think and that depth of emotion—vulnerability—is weakness that I ought to correct. I write to assert that my stories are as good as anybody’s, my thoughts as valuable. That shouldn’t feel radical, but it does. I write out of that, and I suppose I write to that, as well: my audience is anyone who’s ever believed there are people this world values and I’m not one of them. I write to assert that my experience of life has value so I can increase the volume by whatever fraction I can on the growing chorus of voices who’ve realized it’s our scripts, not our selves, that ought to be corrected.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
I’m working on an essay collection/wemoir that deals with dwelling in a desert and thinks about survival, faith, being a daughter, and being a birth mother. I’ve also been writing poems to see what happens when I take that same material but condense it and smear the syntax. I’ve started piecing those explorations into a collection, but right now, while finishing my degree, the essays are my priority.
The NOAP format combines storytelling with an ostensibly “objective” analysis in a way we don’t usually see in fiction. What inspired you to write a story using this structure?
When I wrote NOAP Notes, I was thinking a lot about the way creative writing is pursued in the United States. Earning degrees in creative writing isn’t unusual there despite the fact that the diplomas aren’t clearly translatable into specific jobs. You end up with all of these people using their stellar writing skills to write cover letters persuading people why they can work in a whole array of exciting fields. That’s how I got my first job out of college at a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescent girls. I eventually worked my way into case management with an organization in Seattle that works with homeless youth, and that is where I was trained to write case notes documenting every interaction or attempt at interaction with each client.
NOAP is a bit of a futuristic vision in which there are so many people with MFAs that we have infiltrated every field. Perhaps we aren’t so good at doing some parts of our jobs, but the writing that virtually every job requires for documentation and communication purposes is sometimes beautiful, occasionally compelling. In NOAP, the case manager does her job disastrously. Her objective observations are often so limited that they are worthless: “Did not speak to Wren,” when that detail is already obvious. In other cases they’re irrelevant to the social work situation: “Occasionally literary knowledge is invaluable.” She goes into way too much detail in the “narrative” portion of the notes, as if she has literally interpreted this section’s purpose to be story telling replete with dialogue, description, and sensory detail.
Although the format I used to write case notes at YouthCare was NAP, Narrative, Assessment, Plan, when I was writing NOAP, I looked for samples of case notes online to refresh my memory about clinical language (which Lulia attempts to use in her opening notes). I found that a commonly used format for case notes is SOAP, Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan. NOAP is what I view as a comical combination of NAP and SOAP.
What’s your goal when you write? Was “NOAP” written for a particular audience?
When I write I’m trying to make sense of the mess of details strewn across my erratic thinking. Writing is one of the few venues in life that offers a structure that makes the act of organizing pleasurable, stimulating, and meaningful to me. My background is in poetry. Often a tight, somewhat confining structure facilitates the progress of my ideas best.
When I think of a potential audience for NOAP, I think of something Lynn Emanuel said in her poem, “The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am a Poet”: “And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader.” Even though NOAP isn’t technically a poem, I think of it as being similar in that it requires more work on the part of the reader than a more traditional story might. I can’t say my work is always complex and demanding, but I suppose at my best I’m writing for the readers you’d want at your back in a dark alley.
You study German and Germans – how does an insight into another language and people inform the way you write in English?
German culture puts a premium on practicality. Germans are trained for each very specific job that they do. For instance, there is a training course and certificate for working as a cashier at a grocery store. This approach to work has urged me to get a practical skill. As I study graphic design, I find my writing feels freer. I’m no longer trying to convince myself to get a job teaching English in one form or another. I no longer need to obsess about publication and ancillary involvement in literary projects. I am hoping this will allow me to continue to focus on writing increasingly non-commercial work. I’m feeling less desire to write the traditional novel I was working on when I first arrived in Germany a little over two years ago.
While living in the land of Gutenberg, I’d also like to learn how to use a letterpress. I’m currently very inspired by the photography of Cuban-American Abelardo Morell. He uses old-fashioned photography methods such as photograms, cliché-verre, and camera obscura to make pictures full of texture and surprise in a world dominated by digital photography and Photoshop. I am interested in the book as artistic artifact and hope to start a small press to make books with words you can feel as you brush your fingertips across their thick pages.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
I’d like to continue telling the story of and surrounding Wren. I remain intrigued by the way in which a practical document can affect the unfolding of a fictional story. Perhaps the stories of Lulia, Wren, Darla, and others they become involved with will find their way into legal briefs, receipts, and PR campaigns.
We enjoyed the impressionistic, image-driven nature of the work. Is it your process to start from image/scene and craft prose around it?
I wish I knew. Each story I write seems to emerge through a completely different process. I guess that’s what makes each story different. Since each piece comes about through a different set of circumstances, a different strategy, I’m never sure how to describe my process.
This story started out being about a cupcake. I wanted to write a story about obsession and compulsion, but I wasn’t sure what the object of the obsession/compulsion would actually be, so I used a cupcake as a placeholder until I found something else. That something turned out to be drugs. Surprise, surprise.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work, either in “Leaves and Pinecones” or in other pieces?
A lot of people seem to be skeptical about the term “experimental,” but I’m more skeptical about the term “innovative.” I like to say I’m an experimental writer since I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. It’s all experimental. The experiment in “Leaves and Pinecones” was to see what would happen if a dead frog showed up in the story.
Of course, these things are totally subjective; what’s innovative for me today may be something Burroughs did forty years ago.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”? Which journals?
I’m a big fan of writers who mix literary and genre forms–people like Brian Evenson and Stephen Graham Jones–who aren’t afraid of labels like “horror” that may be attached to their work. I think genre writers are really helping to push the boundaries of fiction, introducing elements you wouldn’t find in your typical contemporary realist piece from the New Yorker. My favorite journals are the ones that feature genre-blurring, hybrid-y works that straddle the line between capital-L Literary and genre, or between fiction and essay or prose and poetry. Lately some of my go-to journals are Diagram, Juked, and Wigleaf. I read a lot of online journals while I’m at work, supposedly working.
What excites you most about what’s happening in literature now?
Online journals have made literature more exciting, giving less-established writers an alternative to high-barrier markets like Ploughshares and Tin House. Some people criticize online journals, saying that more people submit their work to the journals than actually read them. I’m not sure that’s true. I read a lot of journals I’ve never submitted to, and I’ve discovered some phenomenal writers that way.
“Leaves and Pinecones” ends quietly. Do you see the piece more as fitting a classical dramatic structure with a resolution or crisis moment, or do you intend it to be more of a mini-episode looking in on a relationship?
I didn’t go into it trying to write according to a predetermined arc or narrative structure, but the story fell into one on its own. Rising action and climax and so forth are kind of inevitable, in one way or another.
Do you want to plug some of the pieces that you’ve published elsewhere?
Sure! My blog has all the links to stories I’ve written: thebackroomdiaspora.blogspot.com. The site is named after my novella, The Backroom Diaspora, which is available for free on the site. It’s a story about porn, mostly, and it’s the dirtiest thing I’ve ever written. It also has a lot of playful text formatting, sort of like House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. So, yeah, it’s basically the House of Leaves of porn.
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
I write stories in batches. Right now, I’m working on 8 different projects–a few longer short stories, the rest flash pieces. I find I need a certain amount of variety to maintain my interest. None of the stories I’m working on are about porn. Okay, one of them is.
Alexis Almeida: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me. I’d like to ask you first about the work we’re featuring here. Can you tell me a little bit about the project these fragments come from?
Jen Hofer: The project is a book titled Querida fábrica (Dear Factory), which in turn is part of a larger project titled Dolores Dorantes, by Dolores Dorantes. A number of years ago, Dolores began writing a sequence of books; though I’m not sure she initially conceived of it as a sequence, it became one, and that’s now how we both see those works. The first was titled Poemas para niños (Poems for Kids) and came out in 1999 on a small press out of Mexico City, called Tucán de Virginia. Some fragments from that book are in my anthology, Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). When I started translating Dolores’s work, I knew I wanted to write and think through her texts — that is, translate them — over the long term. So when she sent me an unpublished manuscript while I was still working on translations for the anthology, and then shortly thereafter sent another — books 2 and 3 from the series — I began working on the translations, even before they’d been published in Spanish. Those two books became sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre, a bilingual version of books 2 and 3 of Dolores Dorantes by Dolore Dorantes (Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions, 2008). Querida fábrica is the fourth and last book in theDolores Dorantes series. The original idea was to continue that series indefinitely, but when Dolores went into exile from Ciudad Juárez, where she’d been living most of her life, her writing practice changed. Though the books don’t declare this overtly, the work inDolores Dorantes is sited in Juárez, so once Dolores was no longer there, the books became something else. Perhaps “Dolores Dorantes” became an other Dolores Dorantes once she was forced to leave her home. So Querida fábrica is (unintentionally) the last in the sequence. It’s a book that contemplates violence prismatically, from a number of perspectives, all equally horrified, all equally refracting: violence that multiplies, creating disintegration that only makes more disintegration, on the social level, the personal level, the structural level.
AA: I want to ask about how you make the decisions to translate the people you do. For instance, how did you come into contact with Dolores Dorantes? How did you find the authors who would appear Sin puertas visibles? – your anthology of contemporary poetry by Mexican women? Are there certain guidelines, or even biases you tend to follow, (political, stylistic, or otherwise) when looking for someone to translate?
JH: I have a really strong sense of politics around whose work translators might choose to bring into another language—especially into English, which is a dominant language in the world, and especially into English in the U.S., where reading habits tend to be myopic at best. As Ammiel Alcalay says, translation is a form of cultural advocacy. I think of translation in itself as political work, because the underlying message—alongside whatever messages or ideas or imagined realities are transmitted in the content and form of the work being translated—is that there is something being said or written elsewhere, in another language, that we here need to experience. So when I choose to translate a work, I’m thinking about which literary and political conversations I want to participate in, and how I imagine the thinking and ideas of the writers I translate might contribute to those conversations. I’m also thinking about writers whose use of language is complex and subversive, so that I can work in an English that is complex and subversive. I prefer to work with living writers, not only because it is easier to communicate with them when I have questions about their texts (I’m working on my séance skills but they still leave a lot to be desired!), but also because I’m excited to bring the writers whose work I translate to the U.S. so they can meet other writers and readers. I think of most of the work I do as cross-pollination. Among my many goals as a translator, I’m committed to expanding—or even exploding—the literary conversations that occur in the U.S.
Specifically in terms of Sin puertas visibles, and I write about this in the introduction to the book, I knew that I wanted to extend the reach of my reading beyond just Mexico City, where much of Mexico’s cultural production is centered. I created a call for work and sent out posters and emails to the Casas de la Cultura in every state in Mexico, and published the call in the literary supplements of a number of widely-circulating newspapers and journals, and I talked about the project to everyone I met, everywhere I went. I read as many literary journals and poetry publications as I could get my hands on, and any time I encountered writing by a woman whose work interested me, I’d try to learn more about her work. This is how I encountered Dolores Dorantes’s work, and eventually got to know her personally. I had heard of Dolores’s book Poemas para niños (El Tucán de Virginia, 1999), but I couldn’t find a copy in any of the bookstores I knew in Mexico City—but I knew I wanted to read it. A friend of Dolores’s in Ciudad Juárez saw the call for manuscripts I put out and suggested she send work, because the project sounded congruent with her work. At that time, Dolores wasn’t in the least interested in being translated into English or in being published in the U.S.—her gaze was focused south, toward Mexico and the rest of Latin America, and not north, toward Juárez’s all-too-near neighbor. So she didn’t particularly want to send her work. The friend was insistent that the project sounded cool (lucky for me), and Dolores told him to go ahead and send out a packet of her work if he really wanted to. He did that, and now here I am, fourteen years later, translating everything Dolores writes. So in terms of the guidelines or biases that shape my decisions of which work to translate—well, first of all, I wish I could translate way more than I do! If only there were more hours in the day and more days in the week. So to some extent, my limitations are time, and the fact that I’m also engaged in a range of other projects simultaneous to my translation practice. But in terms of the decisions I make, and beyond my long-term commitments to certain specific writers, when I choose work to translate I’m thinking (in no particular order, but rather all at once and simultaneously) about the politics of language (i.e. the usefully unsettling effects the work in translation might have on dominant structures in English), and I’m thinking about the politics of U.S. imperialism (i.e. work that might illuminate the ways that U.S. foreign policy affects others in the world), and I’m thinking about dynamic and compelling content and form (i.e. work that is tremendously moving or thought-provoking or instigatory or radicalizing in its approach to subject matter and/or forms of expression) and I’m thinking about writers whose approach to literary work shares some of the ethics of my own commitments to a range of different communities and public enactments of political convictions.
AA: I love the idea of translation as a form of cultural advocacy. I also love that you look for writers whose use of language you consider complex and subversive, so that you can work in a complex and subversive English. Aside from your translations, has your own poetry been influenced by the authors you’ve translated? Has translating caused you to reconsider ideas you had about your own work?
JH: I believe that everything we do affects everything we do. I am the kind of writer I am (though what “kind” I am and how I conceive and practice “writing” are fields that constantly shift) because of translation, because of reading, because of teaching, because of language justice work, because of collaboration, because of stitching, because of bookmaking, because of cooking, because of gardening, because of knitting, because of curating, because of bicycling, because of traveling, because of many other things that make up a list too long (and possibly too boring) to enumerate here. And also because of many people (poets and artists and non-poets and non-artists) and groups whose influence contributes to my thinking and my making — and many of those people or groups are phenomena I’ve encountered in the process of translating or researching my translations.
On a concrete, material level, my thinking about the materiality of language — of language as a plastic, tactile, malleable substance — comes directly out of the ways language disintegrates and reintegrates in translation. In translation, a word or phrase or line is never the same as itself — we break it apart and reconstruct it, both as itself and as other than itself. That breakage, that feeling of same-but-different, that sense that we are always approaching an idea or image but never landing on it squarely, is also how I approach writing. Poetry becomes a space where our language can function differently than it does in other realms — it can become foreignized, as it does in translation — and therein lies the radical political potential of poetry.