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Raphael Dagold – Blackout

Nonfiction Contest Winner

Raphael Dagold

This is an essay about blackouts. Not the electrical kind, as in This is the largest blackout in the region’s history, or A squirrel caused the neighborhood blackout. And not the kind that means a period of unconsciousness, as in I felt really faint and then I blacked out, or I blacked out when the car hit the pole and I didn’t come to until after surgery, or I drank so much I blacked out on the couch and when I woke up my friends had sharpied a moustache on my face. But I do mean a kind you have to drink to achieve. Here is the essay:

No, I’m kidding. You’re still reading the essay, which is about blackout drinking. So it’s not about blacking out. This isn’t a kind of blackout that’s used as a verb. Blackouting? No. No verb. Adjective or noun, as in I was a blackout drinker, or I came to out of that blackout standing in front of a hotel mirror. And coming to in front of a mirror means being conscious before coming to, being conscious during the blackout, which seems impossible, and that’s the trouble. I was a blackout drinker. Not every time, not every night, but I would wake up in my car in the driveway at 3:30 a.m., having fallen asleep before opening the car door, and when I woke up, I could not remember driving home, could not remember going to my car from the bar, not remember some hours in the bar, or bars. I’d ordered whiskeys during a blackout, I’d conversed, I’d driven home. This was very different from a normal lapse of memory, or a blurry recollection. This was the blackout me having done those things. There is a neurophysiological explanation for alcoholic blackouts: memories are not “encoded” and therefore are not retrievable; put another way, during a blackout, memories disappear, they no longer exist to be retrieved. And this is profoundly troubling. This is another me, somewhere, one I seem never to have experienced. One morning, my wife wakes me. We’re separated, living in different houses, and she’s come in through the front door to find me asleep in bed. She’s stepped past the pile of clothes on the floor by the front door, she’s stepped between footprints of one bloody sock, to collect me for our weekly counselor appointment. This doesn’t make me want to save you, she says, as if I’d performed a “cry for help.” This is no cry for help, I think, this is no cry, there is no help, this is drinking, this is no intention, this is whiskey in glasses. We cancel our appointment, I clean up the gash in my head, we sit in the kitchen and talk for a couple hours. At this point I have no idea how I cut my head, why my bloody sock, why my clothes by the front door—except I’m sure I didn’t cut my head in the house. I’d walked in that way. Somehow I know this much. There are two kinds of alcoholic blackouts: “fragmentary”, in which a few brief glimpses into the blackout session are available to memory’s view, and “en bloc,” total absence of any memories for the blackout session, which seems to me—en bloc—much more refined, so French. One night, or rather very early morning, dark, I come to during a conversation with a police officer who’s standing outside my car window. My car is stopped in the middle of a residential street just before a traffic-calming circle. The officer is giving me three choices: he could take me to detox, or he could call me a cab, or—I can’t recall the third option. I ask him, So if you take me to detox, I’ll wake up in jail? Yes, he says. We’re having a conversation. I opt for the cab. I remember what happens after this, I mean after coming to during the conversation with the police officer, I’m no longer in a blackout. Can I remember anything before the officer, during the blackout? Was it fragmentary, or was it French? A couple years later, I write a poem, a sonnet, about the incident: a friend of mine, a writer of fictions, writes in this poem’s margin, “dislocated self.” And I think, yes, that’s exactly it. And not just dislocated as in a self yanked from one place to another, or a self in two places, but also in the medical sense, as in a dislocated shoulder, a self put out of joint, able to be popped back in place: but the body will always remember that sickening pop. I do remember part of a scene from the blackout before the officer’s listing choices: I’m in a strip club, a large one with multiple stages, talking with another patron and his girlfriend at the bar. He’s a fast talker, smooth, tells me there ain’t nobody like him, I tell him I’ve met people like you before, he says You ain’t never met nobody like me before, I tell him No, I mean, I’ve met other people who aren’t like anyone else either. Then I come to in the middle of the conversation with the cop, standing by my car in the middle of a quiet street. He calls me a cab, now I’m out of my car, he puts me in his car so I won’t get too cold—he tells me I don’t notice the cold, from being so lit—and assures me repeatedly I’m not under arrest, I guess so I won’t make trouble. He parks my car, I have to tell him to lift the ring on the gearshift to put the car in reverse, It’s a Volvo thing, I say. The cab arrives, the cop gives the cabbie my keys, they seem to know each other. The cabbie drives me home. A week later, I’m at a bar, this time—a brief attempt not to drive drunk—without my car. I call a cab. I’m too drunk to hear the first cabbie call out to the crowd for who called him, I call another cab. When I get in the cab, the cabbie reaches his arm to the back seat, hands me my car keys and his business card: it’s the same guy from the week before with the cop. Near my house, I tell him to drop me off at one of my regular spots, the Lamplighter, where they serve Chinese at the bar until closing. In the morning, I find my keys in my coat pocket, along with the cabbie’s card, on the back of which he’s written, Go to AA. I do, for a month, every day. Later, a friend of mine who I drink with, a chronic, longterm alcoholic, calls me one morning asking me to drive by his house to take him and his much-younger girlfriend Anna to his regular bar: he’d gotten a cab the night before, as usual, and needs to pick up his car. On the way to his house, I smell burning, look for smoke, maybe some wiring has fizzled, my car’s about to go up. But no: it’s my corduroy coat, not burning, but burnt, near the pocket, a large patch of it gone, the hole’s edges singed. The car stinks of burnt coat. En bloc, it seems, this time, I have no idea how or when I burned my own coat, must have been a cigarette held there, but when, at home slumped in a chair after a double-vision drive home, or at the bar, perhaps, perhaps someone noticed and put it out for me, who knows, I sure don’t. What’s that smell? says Anna, wrinkling her nose, and I think, Yeah, you’re welcome, but really I’m ashamed. And ashamed, too, when my wife finds me crashed out with a bloody head to pick me up for marriage counseling, but I’m still a little drunk from the night before, so I’m like, I don’t really see the issue. When she leaves, I try to piece together what must have happened. I find bloody bar-napkins in my jacket pocket, I must have been in that bar down the block where I always go. There’s a sock wadded up by the front door with the rest of most of my clothes, I must have used it against the gash in my head and then for a tiny pillow a while before stepping the other sock in blood and to my bed. There’s blood on my computer keyboard, I check my sent email, I’d sent messages at 4 a.m. about an invented recipe. Suddenly I recall–fragmentary—standing in front of my bathroom mirror, head dripping a little, ecstatic, full of joy, vibrant, huge smile. That evening, well enough to leave the house, I go to the bar to find out more. The bartender, none too happy about the incident report she’d had to file the night before, tells me I’d come out of the bathroom with my head gashed open, or someone had found me in there like that, that then a small crowd gathered, checking to see I was ok. I ask what I was like, she says I was pleasant, lucid, talking like normal, I knew where I lived, that one of their regulars walked me home (what am I, I think, chopped liver? I’m here all the time). I go into the bar bathroom, lock the door, look everywhere for where I might have hit my head, did I pass out to the floor, did I lurch backwards and to the side, did I lean too fast too far, how long had I been there, I find nothing, no sharp corners, no flecks of blood, I’m forensically inept. I’m tempted to use this as a metaphor for my failed marriage, which of course I already have: there is no other me: and that’s the real trouble.

The blackout me is still out there, or more precisely, still in here. There is no blackout me. And I remember him.

Raphael Dagold’s collection of poems, Bastard Heart, was published by Silverfish Review Press in 2014. His poetry and prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Frank, Washington Square, Northwest Review, and elsewhere; poems are forthcoming in North American Review and Western Humanities Review. This winter, he was a finalist for the 2015 North American Review James Hearst Poetry Prize and won the 2015 Mountain West Writers’ Award in Poetry. The recipent of fellowships and awards from the Ucross Foundation, AWP, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center, he has taught writing and literature at Lewis and Clark College, the University of Utah, and other institutions. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Utah, where he recently won the Ramona Cannon Award for Graduate Student Teaching Excellence in the Humanities.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:34+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Sharon Solwitz – Magnify, Sanctify (Fiction)

Fiction Contest Winner

Sharon Solwitz
Magnify, Sanctify

  [In] the process of grieving we wait in full knowledge that what we wait for will
not appear..
                                                                                     –Charles Baxter, “Stillness”

It’s time to feel better. Shloshim is over, the thirty days when we can’t go to parties or clip our fingernails. I’m not observant but Nate was, so we’re trying it on. I am. Going through the Jewish motions. I shaved my thirty-day beard and got a haircut. My beard is gray though my hair’s still brown, most of it; I still have most of it. In the barber’s mirror I looked younger. Shloshim means thirty.

For the moment I am able to work. I meet my scheduled classes. In accord with Jewish law I went back right after shiva. But after three hours of studio I drive home as if I just woke up. As if all day there was another I out in the world, affecting people. Who came to my office hour? Was I helpful? Who in the hallway said comforting things? I try to imagine how I look, zombie-ish, probably. Before I shaved, someone said I looked like a hippie. Thea says I look shell-shocked.

Not that my job is in danger. People are kind; I have what is called leeway. Praise ye the tenure system. But where my emotions reside, or are said to, I don’t care. I’m trying to be accurate. The sheets are off our mirrors, and I look at myself to see what’s left. I must care about some things. Thea; Dylan. I don’t want to lose my job. I want to do my part for my abridged family. But when Dylan tells me a stupid, funny thing his gym teacher said, and I know he won’t always be twelve years old wanting my attention, I get heavy in the gut, like I’ve eaten too much. Thea and I keep to our sides of the bed like there’s a hole in the middle. But when I think of holes, all I see is Nate’s open grave and the basketball his friend threw in for him. It bounced on the casket and bounced out and I started to laugh. O God.

I never thought he would die. Not when he was diagnosed. Not when the cancer came back. Not even as he took his last breath, because who knew there would not be another? His breaths were unusually slow that night, far apart, and I lay beside him reading to him from Dave Barry and doing some cheerleading in my mind. Come on, breathe a little faster. Deeper. He exhaled once, harsh and loud, in his bed at home—not a hospital bed, the same futon he’d slept on since he left the crib. He was walking, going to the bathroom on his own. He was not in hospice care. With a spurt of hopefulness I waited for his next, yet-more-vital breath, and it didn’t come. It didn’t come. I waited, putting off full comprehension. Then something must have thrust me through and past, because for no reason that I grasp even now (my unbelief having just been reaffirmed), I rolled over to him and murmured in his ear,

Shma yisrael adonai elohenu adonai echod.

Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.

Boruch shem k’vod malchuso l’olam va’ed.

Blessed be God’s name and glorious kingdom forever and forever,

the mandated last words on a Jew’s lips. I hope he heard. And that it made his light glow brighter, if there was light. Now, though, I wish I’d held him. Maybe his mind was still chugging away in there (according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead the soul lingers by the body for three days). His neck was warm. It’s been two months, spring is here, and I’m freezing cold.           


The Jewish Way of Mourning

Today V’ad Chesed called. There’s a retreat in the fall for Jewish parents who lost children to cancer. At Camp Osher Hanefesh where Nate went in remission. It’s free, even the plane fare. Thea thinks we should go. I don’t know. Being with all those believers. At Camp Happiness.

Before he got sick we were happily secular. I was, yes, a Son of the Covenant but had no such plans for the boys. We joined a temple only because my father begged, in honor of his father. Bet Hashemesh, House of the Sun, called by Nate (haha!) House of the Rising Sun (not that he necessarily understood the joke). It was Reform, tolerant and inclusive. Rabbi played the guitar, God was unisex, called God and not He/ Him. But the main sanctuary was domed like a church, a big bubble for genderless “God” to bob around in. In Exodus, Jews prayed in a tabernacle, 45’ x 15’ x 15’ (multiply by 2/3 to convert back to cubits), long and low like a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The kids had their own complaints: Sunday school didn’t count (as did their grammar school). It took up
time better spent on basketball. When Tuesday-Thursday practice with the cantor was added to the program, Nate threw a fit.

I can’t say we tried that hard to return him to Yahweh. Why make a kid recite mishmash, not to mention what the party costs. Then our personal bomb drops; someone hooks us up with V’ad Chesed, the Jews’ Make-a-Wish. And instead of Disney World or lunch with Bret Favre, Nate gets a Hassid “big brother,” to visit him in the hospital and take his mind off of bad things when he’s home. And maybe convert him too, but so what? Whatever his brand of Judaism, this young man was just plain good; seemed to enjoy hanging out with a sick kid. Seriously ill. He took Dylan on too, took them places we avoided that they loved—horror films, laser tag, a huge, crowded video arcade called Dave & Busters—and suddenly Nate was a Hassid. We went to a dinner for cancer families, sixty or eighty people at a kosher restaurant in Skokie. We ate in a private hall, and afterward there was dancing and singing, the cancer boys and their Lubavitcher mentor-pals circling the tables. It was a bit disconcerting since the girls didn’t dance and the men we met wouldn’t shake Thea’s hand, but the sick kids were into it—teenagers in baseball caps or openly, exuberantly bald, hopping around like I never would have at that age, some of them older than Nate. And suddenly in and out of the hospital Nate was studying Torah. Life beckoned sacrosanctly. His shrunken tumor was removed, scans showed him cancer-free. One steamy July morning he became a bar mitzvah, impressing us all with the clarity and length of his recitation.

I was developing a mild, grudging affection for Judaism. My firstborn son and I, Sons of the Covenant. Now Dylan’s is coming up. I cringe at the sound of his Torah CD. Please shut the door.

The one part of Judaism that still makes sense is shiva. Not the food people bring, or even their heartfelt sympathy, but the fact that Thea and I had to sit on low stools for a week. Our friends and family sat on chairs and we sat at their feet on footstools, meaning we had been downed, Cast Down in Fortune and Men’s Eyes, down on our luck, down and out. We were. How right, to enact it.

But shiva lasts only seven days. Shiva means seven. Shiva is long gone, and I still want to sit on a low stool. I could sit on a footstool the rest of my life.                                                                                                         


Who I used to be

 A reasonable man. A happy man, shy lover of women (too shy to take full advantage). Passionate lover of Thea, who accepted me despite my advanced age. Now I look at my wife and see she is pretty. I look at the young women in my classes: Pretty. So-so. Not. I attach names to faces, but to what end?

Office hour

            Denise Lockhart came to see me today. She’s the student you love to hate, or at least I do. Streaked yellow hair, big breasts, big confiding smile. She might have run the show in her high school, and she could draw after a fashion—horses and children’s faces with big, sad, eyelashed eyes; here she can’t understand why she isn’t at the top of the class. Some teachers are good with plodders. They remember how they came to know what they know and guide the student there step by painstaking step. For me, if there were steps in my learning I’ve forgotten them. I’m not a bold thinker but that’s what I’m drawn to, quick, inventive students like Thea was. Although I try to be patient with Denise, in the end she’s near tears. She dumps her model bus stop on my desk and half yells, “What’s wrong with it?” and can’t or won’t recognize that the painstakingly glued flower boxes on her plexi walls block the view of an approaching bus. I show her Brian Donleavy’s model, an L-shaped plexi front to block the wind, but she’s relentless. She spent all weekend on it, the semester is ending, only one more project, she needs an A on it to get a B in the course, she doesn’t know where to start!

A cramp starts in my heart and travels the length of my arms to my hands, which curl with a bizarre rage. At this girl for whom tragedy is a C in Design II. Maintaining, however, the required professional distance, I suggest a tutor. I recommend someone, a graduate student to help her develop her ideas, but she’s out the door without even a grudging thank-you. Without her model, which sits grumpily on my desk confirming the badness of my teaching. Fuck me.


Persistence of memory

Nathan’s former violin teacher sent us a CD of Nate’s last recital. Bach’s Sonata in C for solo violin. It’s complicated, fast music. I listen with my eyes closed, picturing, grateful for the clarity of my memory: instrument tucked under his chin at the front of the room his teacher rented at the Three Arts Club. He’s pretty good, I say to myself, although in truth I believed he was very good, gifted, his sure, agile fingers, and his heart for the music that governed how long he held certain notes. On the third or fourth go-around Thea comes into my study, goes straight to the radio-CD player and turns it off.

 I threw my coffee mug. Not at her, but in her direction. In truth, I wanted to slug her.

“How can you stand it?” she says.

I can’t even look at her.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “but it goes all through the house. It goes into my bones.

He’s already in your bones, he’s in our bones, I think but don’t say.

Of course I apologized too. The cup didn’t touch her, and luckily Dylan was out of the house. She got a broom and swept up the mess. She kissed my cheek. “Allan, I miss you.”

By every criterion my wife is doing better than me. She wrote thank yous to everyone who tried to help us these two years, to people who did no more than send cards. A card for a card. Now it’s bar mitzvah plans. We do for Dylan no less than for Nate. She’s right. She hasn’t started traveling again but she goes to the office, comes back with groceries, makes dinner. She talks on the phone a lot. She wants to go to Europe next summer, the three of us, with the Rosenthals or maybe just Kevin Rosenthal. She started taking karate. I don’t think she loved Nate less than I did, or that her feelings are shallower than mine. But she seems to want to forget him or at least allow forgetting to take place in her.

Forgetting for me is a new death.


My bad

I’d nearly made it through the semester without calling negative attention to myself. On the weary last afternoon of the last class, my Design IIs delivered their final projects and piled out undifferentiated. I’m straightening the chairs, a task that helps me leave one room and enter another, and I fix for a moment on the churning dust in the slanting sunlight from the high oblong windows, dust to which I will one day to return, and there’s Denise in front of me. Her face is pale, her gaze neurotically intense. Under her paint and glue-daubed T-shirt there is no sign of a brassiere.

“Can I help you?” I say, a statement I’m pretty sure isn’t actionable. I gaze beyond her nicely formed breasts like a teacher zombie, wondering why she’s paying so much attention to me when most students don’t seem to know my name. She fidgets with a plastic bag in her hand. Digs her toe into the floor tile. Then she opens the bag and hands me a disc, looking hard at me like I’m supposed to understand something. The disc, home-made, is titled in the handsome lettering of one who has taken graphic design, Stress Relief in the Age of Anxiety. 

Denise is eighteen but looks fourteen, there’s nothing she can give me, and the idea that she doesn’t know it starts me breathing hard. I grope for a mask of courtesy. “Thanks, that’s kind of you,” then, I don’t know, I indulge myself: “But I’d rather you’d brought me an apple?”

She looks at me for a second while the full nastiness of my words blooms inside her. And inside me too. I’m wondering whether or not an apology would make it worse when she’s out the door.



When friends visit, Thea entertains them. “It’s right to grieve,” they say to me, “it’s only four months.” Weeks later: “Not even a year.” I try to think when he died. It seems long ago, it seems like yesterday. It was January 6. In an ice storm, broken branches on the streets. It’s May now, new leaves on the trees. To Thea they say, “Are you going back on the road or is it too much now?” To me, “Are you seeing someone?”

“Yes, though it’s pointless,” I tell the first one who asks. With the next I don’t bother to elaborate. “Yes.” There’s dead silence, a void, familiar to me but probably not to my consoler.

My mother calls with advice. “Do something new,” she says. “That you aren’t used to. It’ll put your mind in a new place.”

“How about Sudoku?” I say. Every morning I do the Sudoku in the Tribune. I’m pretty good at it.

“How about tennis? Or yoga? Men do yoga these days.”

“You know what’s really sad?” I say. “He died without ever having sex. I think about that.”

“Honey,” she says.

The Hassid brother calls to say that he and a group from Chesed are saying prayers for Nate’s soul. “Thank you,” I say, meaning, Is that all?  Meaning, What for? Meaning: Oh yeah? Well, I’m playing Sudoku! 



I asked for and received a leave for the fall. My shrink says I’m depressed. Well, duh, as Nate used to say. But, according to Diane, until my depression lifts I won’t be able to feel grief. Ah, motivation? But she has her MSW. She says I’m mired in guilt. She thinks I think I failed Nate somehow.

Obedient client that I am, I’ve addressed the question. I don’t say Kaddish, which may delay Nate’s entry into Jewish Heaven. As a Jew, I am obviously half-assed. Half-hearted. I can’t magnify and sanctify anything, let alone Whoever’s running this show.

But sincerely, Diane, with all my flaws, when it comes to Nate I find no other fault in me. I was with him in the hospital, and at home I slept in his room. Beside him on his futon. Thea was in and out, so it was up to me, but I wanted to. If I stinted someone it was Dylan, all those nights at the Rosenthals’. They, if anyone, deserve a thank you. And despite everything, in the face of shit (it’s true!) Nate’s final year was happy. We hung out. We laughed, a lot. We had a pact. No tears.

He was afraid, of course, when his cancer came back, and though I was freaking out I didn’t lose it. The test—of my adulthood, my self-control—came after the second scan. The doctors mentioned new tumor growth and we were trying to absorb it, trying to climb back toward hopefulness. There were second-line drugs. Nate, who had played basketball the previous day, sat on the hospital bed in his street clothes, awaiting the f
irst round of what Paul jokingly called Chemo Lite: wouldn’t even touch his hair, which had grown in thick and curly. Nate felt fine. Then the Bad Doctor laid it all out right in front of us and Nate too—may Someone forgive her (because I won’t)—the five new tumors she saw in the scan—five—and a spot near his heart. Spot? I wanted to strangle her, but it was too late. Nate’s eyes widened, his chin wobbled, and I can hear his voice, suddenly high and thin and helpless: Does this mean I’m going to die? Such a wee voice. When I think of that woman, my hands still clench. Later Thea and I would sit in the car in the parking lot and weep, but Nathan got only our strength, such as it was. I sat down on his bed and took hold of his hand. “Look at me,” I said. “I will not let you die, do you hear me?” I outlined all the second line drugs for his treatment, and angiostatin, which cuts off the tumor’s blood supply, and then herbs and acupuncture and as final assurance a Brazilian faith healer. A trip to Brazil, him and me. “My grand finale?” he said, a riff. He felt better already. I loved him so much at that moment I thought I’d fall to my knees.

“Let’s just call her back-up,” I said, and he laughed. Yes, he died, but not in pain, not miserably.

Am I protesting too much?  


Family visit

In June my folks fly in from Florida. They are elderly but healthy, Dad a golfer, Mom a player of bridge. Mom, at Arrivals with tears in her eyes: “It should’ve been me and not him. I’d’ve traded places.” She said the same thing at the funeral but it’s true. She would have, if she could have. My father scowls, which means pain, not disapproval (it took me years to understand that). He sits in the passenger seat. We scowl at each other companionably.

 “How’s Dylan holding up?” my mother calls from the back. “We’re so excited about his bar mitvah. And Thea sounds good on the phone. Are you taking care of yourself?”

“Don’t I look like it?”

I’m aware of their tanned, creased, concerned faces. They will die one day, soon maybe. All of us will die.

The next day all five of us visit the cemetery, Nate’s as yet unmarked grave. Tonight for the first time in years we will go to services. Dylan starts to protest then cuts it off, good boy. “You haven’t ordered the stone?” says my father. “You ought to, you know. Want me to take care of it?”

“It’s under control,” I say. It’s under Thea’s control.  I don’t look at her but feel her shoulder against mine. We gaze down at the close-mown, unmarked sod. 

If loss is measured by the mandated length of the mourning period, the most profound loss in Judaism is of one’s parents. I regard them, trying crazily to gauge my response to their deaths. Parents are mourned eleven months, till the stone setting, while official mourning for children ends at shloshim. My extended mourning, therefore, is unofficial. Perhaps that’s why it seems endless. A state of being.

In the Exodus days children of course died aplenty. 



She’s back to work full time now, travel and all. New people, sights, sounds, smells. New, new, new. At home, less desperately lively, she attends to me. Today she brings me a second cup of coffee and a bagel from the good bagel place near us. She brings a chair into my office and sets it next to mine.

She seems to want to talk, which makes me nervous, as I have nothing to say. If I have to be with people, I want at least two in the party, so they can talk to each other. She puts her head on my shoulder. I smell her shampoo, which I’ve always liked. What did we used to discuss, the boys? Our work? Another stupid thing Bush said? The August sun burns through the window onto my keyboard. My hands feel ice cold. “I’m cold,” I say.

“So turn off the air-conditioning,” she says. “Put on a sweater.” She goes out and brings back a sweater. She opens a window. We’re swathed in hot air. “You seem—” She looks at me.

“How do I seem?”

“I don’t know. Angry? Lost?”

I shrug. “I hate Name-That-Feeling. It’s bad enough with Diane.”

“Allan,” she says, “do you love me? Or is that an ignorant question? I know it’s hard to feel it when you’re in pain.”

Her voice is barely inflected, but I recognize the question as one I’m not permitted to avoid. I try not to sound surly. “Nothing’s changed in that department.” Then, more gently, “I know I don’t show it these days.”

She leaves the room but not huffily. I sit and shiver in my sweater, wondering what she decided not to say. I want a divorce. Wondering when she’ll say it.

I’ve tried to remember what I was like before Nate died. Private. Gruff? An asshole? (But it wasn’t my job to please the world). I was also, I believe, easily hurt, though I don’t know how much of it came through. Humorless I may have seemed although Thea could make me laugh. She used to like that about me—that she, and few others, could make me laugh.


Is there sex after death?

Tonight is Friday and Dylan is sleeping across the street. Thea’s old silky pajamas slide her across the bed to me. Thea wants to make love. Why not, we’re alone? We can groan, we can shout with joy.

Obedient chap that I am, I
give it a shot. Our lips come together. My hands commence what hands do in such circumstances. We tried it once or twice in the winter. Disaster. I’m glad she still wants to. But I may have transcended sex. I don’t even masturbate. She looks at me and I have to say something. “I’m sorry?”

With a whispered curse she rolls out of bed. She stands over me, punching out her complaints. “We have one child left. Do you know how much weight he’s gained? It’s like your life is over, it’s so—” she sifts for the word “self-indulgent!” She takes her pillow and goes to sleep in Dylan’s empty room.

Alone, I try to explain myself: Nate was my boy like Dylan is hers. When I tried to soothe infant Dylan, when I picked him up he would cry louder. He wouldn’t even let me give him a bottle. Nate loved both of us.



He tosses me a note from his camp counselor. Mom’s in London so it’s my problem. The envelope is sealed; he hasn’t tried to open it. I understand, or think I understand: He doesn’t care. “So how’s camp?” I say.


This is a new word for him, at least to my ears, but I take it in. “In what way does it suck?”

“I want to stay home. Please?”

The note mentions problems with another camper, unspecified. It is handwritten and signed Tiffany Diebenkorn. Tiffany wants me to talk to him about aggression. Using words, not fists.

Dylan stands at the door of my office, hopping from one foot to the other like he always does. He has gotten a little tubby, but he looks like himself; no suppurating wounds. He can’t stay home. I’ve gone through the Sudoku book that Nate got in the hospital, all the puzzles, easy, medium, hard and evil. Now I download them from the website. Mind-numbed days pass, in which I should be writing a new article. A book: Interiors of Grief? ”Do me a favor,” I say. “It’s only one more week. And you like the sports, right? They have soccer?”

“It’s a week and a half.” He stomps his foot, a very minor loss of self-control.

“Please,” I say. “Exercise is good for you. And there’s a reward. Which would you rather have, a computer or a new bike?”

“I have Nate’s computer!” He glowers at me.

“Well, what do you want?”

“Take me to Great America?”

He sounds almost eager; I am suffused with relief. “Sure! I’ll take you and Kevin.”

“Kevin’s so gay.”

“Please don’t use that word as a pejorative. Do you know what that means?”

He goes down the hall to his room and bangs the door shut.


Zombie as cuckold

I read the counselor’s letter over the phone to Thea in her hotel room. It’s midnight in London, dinnertime here. Ordinarily after a couple of minutes with my itinerant wife I’m ready to hang up, but I’ve resolved to be patient. I give Dylan the phone, hear the lilt of their voices. Upbeat. Liking each other. She will approve, I think, my concern for him.

When I retake the phone she says drily, “So what are you going to do?”

My response is automatic. “What do you want me to do?”

She’s swallowing exasperation. “You could start by talking to the counselor.”

“Tiffany Diebenkorn? What would I say?”

“Oh I don’t know!” she cries sarcastically. “Are you free this weekend?’” Her laugh is furious. 

“What have I done, Thea?”

“Good question. What have you done?”

Her words clatter like hail on the roof. I want to calm her down. “I’m sorry. I know you wish I were more proactive—”

“Sorry? Are you really sorry? What are you sorry for?”

I’m thrown for a loop. She has been angry with me before, but not sarcastic. She’s drunk or she has started to despise me, I’m thinking, when the picture comes clear: There’s someone in the room with her.

I’ve had intuitions in the past; they rarely pan out. Thea doesn’t try to get off the phone. But she bursts into giddy laughter, which comes from somewhere beyond me—even her apology (for her so very mild outburst), and her murmured I love you as we hang up. Afterward I wished I’d said coolly, You aren’t by chance fucking somebody over there? Though, I suppose, I can hardly blame her.



With Thea returned to the marital bed, I have a bad dream. We’re at “Fallingwater,” a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Pennsylvania we visited as a family the year before Nate got sick. There’s a huge fireplace made of living rock, a natural boulder at the heart of the house while everything else went up around it. It’s a house that lets the outside in, that blurs the boundaries between outside and inside; I love that place and the boys loved it too. A stairway leads down to a stream you can see through a glass hatch. Which opens, and you walk down and stand in the stream. Nate asked me to build us one like it with a water slide. In my dream Nate and I are looking down through the glass at the fast-moving water, and then Nate is gone, the hatch yawning open. I jump into the icy stream and wake up with a bad headache.

It’s midnight, I’ve slept an hour. Thea lies on her side of the bed with her back to me. “You aren’t
over it,” I say. “Don’t pretend.”

She turns. I see she’s been crying. I prepare to hold her like a good husband but she will not be touched. “I’m trying to live with it!”

She sits up, hugs her knees, and tells me about her affair—she is indeed having an affair, in London, on and off for two years and more, it started when Nate got sick. Do I want details? I want no details. “Does it matter to you? Tell me the truth,” she says. “Is there anything you want to say about it? Would you like to know, for instance, if I’m in love with him?”

“No,” I say, suppressing I knew it!  and the concomitant tone of triumph. I do not feel triumph.

It’s Friday night, Shabbat, the night that married Jews are enjoined to conjoin. I take my pillow into the den and lie down on the couch. Instead of Thea and her lover, I focus on Nate, who made us keep Shabbat even in the hospital, with electric candles since fire wasn’t allowed. We brought challah and blessed it. We blessed the hospital grape juice and sometimes smuggled in wine. We had given up on his bar mitzvah but now he wanted it. The cantor came to the hospital and they practiced together, Nate sitting up in bed with a tube running into his port from a bag of yellow liquid that couldn’t have been good for him. With poison dripping into his vein, he and the cantor sang. Nurses stood at the door. It was sweet and uncanny, something going on bigger than all of us.

If I were a believer I’d hate God for setting him up like that. I think how Nate must have felt. Betrayed.


The zombie walks

The weekend passes in a surreal silence that not even Dylan tries to break. On Monday as usual Thea goes to work. As usual I drop Dylan at camp. He doesn’t resist; doesn’t say goodbye. I wonder if this is how we are going to live from now on. In silence, eating, sleeping, working. It’s how I’ve been living.

I don’t want to go home. In my car in my fully legal parking spot, I think of Dylan behind the doors of the Evanston Y. Try to picture him being welcomed into roiling groups of boys his age. Is that unrealistic? At the wheel of my car in front of the building I wait for my body to choose its next move, trying to remember where I read that 75% of the couples who lose a child get divorced and consider the effect on the statistic from sexual betrayal. That I sensed it before the confession may have lessened the shock. I’m pretty sure my former self—though more and more a figment—would have felt bad, but then? My current self would not choose divorce.

Then I’m walking into the Y’s odors of chlorine and teenage sweat. There’s a glass enclosure with a small aperture through which papers can pass. “Where is Tiffany Diebenkorn?” I say into the aperture more aggressively than necessary. The ceiling is two stories high; words lose their way. I wave the counselor’s letter, am led down a corridor to a door that opens onto a small office where, behind a large desk, as young and round-faced as when the roles were reversed, sits Miss Denise Lockhart. Director, says the tag on her shirt.

We gaze at each other while perspective dissolves and reforms, I imagine, for both of us. If she says Omigod! I am resolved not to sneer. Professional as you please, though, she waves me to a seat. I place the letter on the desk and watch her read it. Her hands are plump and white, holding each other. I imagine their warmth, the dampness of the palms. “I feel so bad,” she says. “About your son, I mean your other son . . .” There are tears in her voice. Then without a thought, though I am not an impulsive man, I have taken hold of one of her hands and pressed it to my lips. She doesn’t cry out. Nor does she snatch it back. Her ears are red and she’s panting slightly. Eventually our hands return to where they belong. “I’m sorry,” I say when I have regained some control of myself. “I sincerely do not want to hurt you.”

She blinks and the tears are gone from her eyes.  “How could you hurt me?” she says. “Do you think like you’re God or something?”


Sex and death

Then there’s the night soon afterward when Thea sweeps into the den where I’m trying to sleep. She turns on a light. “Do you know how angry I am?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. It seems insufficient. “I am, too.”

She snorts contemptuously. “That’s better than nothing.”

We stare at each other across our customary gulch. Then she yanks off my blanket, yanks off my PJs, steps out of her bathrobe.

I said I was angry, but am I? Heat is steaming from her. Her skin glows, as perhaps it did with that chap of hers, that bloody Brit. But the part of me that once held jealousy seems to have been excised—whatever held my manhood up to be honored and avenged. My brain is an empty hole in the ground.

Then I think of her free, of me, free of pain and grief while I’m drowning in it, and a small but palpable clot of what might be rage rolls around my chest. It finds a site in one of the valves of my heart and swells, and I come at her howling like a sick dog. I don’t want to hurt her, but I’m not protecting her either, and if I hurt her, what does it matter with all the other pain? She stuffs an end of the sheet in her mouth and comes harder than I’ve ever felt her, gasping and sobbing and holding onto me. For a second I’m hovering over the face of the deep, King of the Universe, creator, destroyer.

“You’re shaking, Allan.”

Am I?

“Please look at me.”

My eyes will not focus. I sense, faintly, the locus of sounds and smells that is my wife.

“I don’t want to have a tragic life,” she says in a tiny, child’s voice: “Is that too much to ask?”


The word seems to arrest her. Her eyes scan my face. Interesting am I. An odd, interesting chappy. “You’re so wry,” she says. “That’s wha
t I’ve always loved about you. One of the things.” She smiles. Then tears begin.

She is much younger than me. It worried me then I forgot about it. Overlooked. Something. She hugs me hard then releases me, quick and sorrowful. She breathes, “I’m moving out. I have to, Allan. I’m so, so sorry.”

I’m nodding agreement. Of course she has to. No point in arguing. I’m not God, am I?

But on its own a groan of sorts is rising in my chest. No more loss, please. I’m down on my knees before her, an abject petitioner, with nothing to offer but my entire, rich to overflowing, share of our pain. “Please don’t,” I say, a fragile pair of words, foolish, reckless, wafting out into the world as if they think they can soften a heart out there. “Dear wife of mine, please?”  

Sharon Solwitz has had stories in magazines including Tri-Quarterly, Ploughshares and Mademoiselle; awards include the Pushcart, the Nelson Algren and the Katherine Ann Porter. She has published a novel Bloody Mary and a story collection Blood and Milk with Sarabande, Inc. Her collection received the Carl Sandburg award and the Midland Authors prize, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. A story from her novel-in-progress appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012. She teaches fiction at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:34+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Michelle Y. Burke – Not by Extraordinary Means (Poetry)

Poetry Contest Winner

Michelle Y. Burke
Not by Extraordinary Means

There is so much material     in the material world.

We have no yard; the philodendron pots are small; we’ll bury the cat elsewhere.

The Vikings were precise but not extraordinary

in their cruelties. King Ælla’s ribs were broken from his spine, then pulled open

behind his back to resemble wings.

                                                                        Little brown bats are vanishing

like smoke from caves they’ve filled for thousands of years. It is a small thing,

but if you don’t add eggs one at a time to cake batter, the emulsion will break,

and the cake won’t rise.

                                           The Vikings—sometimes they yanked the lungs through.         

Salted them.

No, not by extraordinary means, my mother told the doctor when pressed. He wouldn’t

let her leave for the night. Then, in her smallest voice, But, yes, everything else, please.

Michelle Y. Burke holds an MFA in poetry from the Ohio State University and a PhD in English from the University of Cincinnati. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Lake Effect, Another Chicago Magazine, Parcel, and The Offending Adam. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:35+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Tori Malcangio – Ever Seen Sedona? (Fiction)

Fiction Contest Winner

Tori Malcangio
Ever Seen Sedona?

I’m kneeled on the old woman’s green shag carpet, bubble-wrapping forty-three Tiffany- crystal miniature presidential busts from her china cabinet. Lance is across the living room packing up her entertainment center, rifling through CDs and calling out musicians he loves.

“Don’t ever let me collect anything I can’t give away,” I tell Lance and he looks at me like I’ve just asked him to whittle the Seven Wonders of the World.

“Relax. I’m not asking you to marry me,” I say. Lance owns Prescott, Arizona’s largest moving company and because he takes as much time with sex as he does explaining String Theory, I tag along on my days off.  “All I’m saying is that if we’re still together when I start stockpiling matchbooks, kill me.”

“How do you want to die?” He mimes holding a pen to imaginary paper. “I’m taking notes. Not a bloody death, please. Not for my Goldilocks.” In the adjacent bedroom, his three-man crew is making a racquet taking apart a canopy.

“Cyanide, then,” I say. Lincoln, with his especially fragile stovetop hat, requires an extra layer of bubble wrap. “Enough to down a horse. I don’t want to feel a thing.” His face instantly disfigures. “Man, Leah. Why are you rushing?” He grabs Lincoln from me and demonstrates a chaste packing technique. “Slow down, sweetheart, pack it like it’s yours.”

Mid-morning sun slants through the condo’s vertical blinds, adding more angles to his already Modigliani-chiseled face. If Grandmother met him today she’d say: He’s too good-looking for a good life. She’d call him a lady-killer and not mean it as a compliment, but as prophecy.

“Don’t forget,” he says, “everyone’s shit is my bread and butter.” “That’s what you should have had painted on your trucks.” “What’s wrong with Let Us Move You?”

“Sort of schmaltzy,” I say. “ And slutty.”

He moons me and goes back to fawning over the CDs.  As I look up to agree with his appraisal of Elton John, I see him sneaking Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits into his Carhartt jacket.

Last week was the first time I caught him stealing—a set of diamond cufflinks— and he said not to worry because he sells most stuff on eBay and donates 40% of proceeds to Prescott’s no-kill animal shelter. He said it’s actually charity work because he’s helping people cull down their crap and appreciate what they didn’t lose.

“Are you coming with me tomorrow to visit Mom?” I’m fuming mad about having to ask him a second time. After dating a month I asked, even buffering the question with “my mom.” But now we’re going on three months and it’s hardly any skin off his back anyway to meet Mom when he won’t have to say a word, not even Hello.

“By the way,” I told him about a month ago, “she’s in a coma and has been for almost twenty-one years, since a stroke.” And he said, “Wow. That’s how you’re going to tell me? How frighteningly sociopathic.” And I said, “Sorry. I don’t tell people ever. I’m short on practice.” Right then he took me in his arms and we sat on his brick fireplace hearth while the heat from the fire pulled my face tight. “I thought the Hope House only took dying people?” he finally said. And before I could tame my completely reflexive and hostile expression, he was already buttering me with apologies, practically mewing into my neck. “Please, stop,” I said. “I get it: she’s dead to everyone but me and Grandma. Trust me, I get it.”

“Tomorrow won’t work,” he says and I can see that the bulge in his pocket is bigger than just a Whitney track. “I want to, but I can’t. Next week. Promise. Tomorrow, we’ve got a ‘three by three’ on the schedule.” That’s his industry lingo for moving folks out of a place with three flights of stairs and into a place with three flights of stairs.

While he’s loving on a Kenny Rogers CD, telling me how he used “She Believes in Me” for his Harmonic Frequencies paper in college physics, I pull off my sweater and quickly nestle Bill Clinton inside. I’m careful not to let Lance see, more careful not to snap off the itsy cigar some smart-aleck designer at Tiffany’s carved into the corner of Bill’s smirk.

I clock out at noon the next day, shed my apron in the break room, and squeeze through the service hallway past stacked boxes of our signature Ho-Ho-Ho Honduran Blend. We’re only one day in to November and already grinding through seventy pounds a day of the nutmeg-undertoned bunk. By New Year’s Day, The Beanery will have sold fifty five thousand cups, enough to stain the enamel of every Prescott resident, twice.

I run the five blocks to Hope House to visit Mom. The sidewalk is slick with freezing snow; I feel my foot muscles orchestrating my balance. Grandmother’s daily passage is written on a Post-It and stuffed deep in my jacket pocket. A righteous man hateth lying. -Proverbs 13:5.

I visit every day at noon; Grandmother visits only on Wednesdays, after 2 o’clock confession. She says she must be pure in the face of a miracle. Mom will wake one day, she says. It’s only a matter of time, as much as Mom’s survival was only a matter of timing. If, when she snapped her spinal cord at C1, the apartment’s night security guy hadn’t found her three minutes later to administer CPR and get her heart beating, she’d be dead rather than—Vegetative? Comatose? I’ve tried understanding the differences, stayed up late following trails on the Internet, but have decided that whatever she is, it’s not what she wants.

At Mom’s closed door, I rehearse like the village idiot, what to say. Grandmother tells me that we don’t know what Mom does and doesn’t hear. It’s the closest we will come to intimating a conversation with God.

Finally, I barge in and yell, “Congratulations, you’ve both won the Nobel Peace Prize for perseverance.” Mom is rolled on her side for a view of the sink, and Nancy, mom’s roommate of five years, is turned toward the wall heater. The nurses say she went in for breast enhancement surgery five years ago, but came out with a ventilator.

I roll mom on her back and sit at her socked feet. After reading the Bible passage, I stick it to the metal bed rail next to the others.  Grandmother a
llows them to be thrown out on the first of every month.

A menagerie of clips secures Mom’s long graying hair atop her head. Her arm is a flute, her fist a root-ball of fingers that I pry open about once a week to slip in a Tootsie Roll, or a weather update, or six years ago, my wisdom teeth. I imagine her waking one day to these gifts, then rising and screaming like a kid on Christmas morning.

“This is president Clinton,” I say and force her stiff fingers around the crystal bust. “I was in grade school when he got his presidential blow job under his desk, under a stack of Classified CIA documents.” I imagine her laugh sounding like mine, which Lance says fills him with happiness and more cum than he knows what to do with.

I coat her cracked lips with the Cherry Chapstick kept at her bedside. Mom’s the color of cold Earl Grey tea and I hate how I judge her against the higher standards of the living. But every visit, every day, there’s a moment when I feel like I’m back in her womb, her body preoccupied with assembling my green eyes, my disappointing lips, while I’m listening to the muffled ticking and beeping keeping alive this woman who I’ve never met except through Grandmother’s stories. Her name is Jill Thompson. And if this were a merciful day, I’d say was. I’d say: Her name was Jill Thompson.

The next night, Grandma is still up waiting for me at the glass kitchen dinette. The old bronze fixture casts anemic shadows on the beef patty, the canned peaches and rice pilaf, each claiming space on her partitioned plastic plate. I untie my coffee-stained apron and sit beside her. Midnight, I’ll bet my left tit, doesn’t look like this for any other twenty-one year old.

“Did you hear me, Grandma?”

She sips from a ceramic Farmer’s Insurance mug. “Yes, out with Lance again. I heard you. How long you two been seeing each other? And why haven’t I met him?”

She licks her finger and rubs at something on the bubbled glass. Sometimes I think she’s mad at me for reminding her too much of Mom.

“Three months,” I say. She hasn’t met him because, as I said, she’ll either proclaim him lethal or want me to marry him immediately. Either way, I lose.

“That necklace is from this Lance boy?”

I nod and steal a peach slice from her plate. “He’s really busy during the day. But, I swear, you’ll meet him.”

Her warm dough hands touch the yellow topaz pendant resting on my neck. “You know, that’s your mother’s birthstone?”

“I told Lance the other day that Mom’s birthday was next week and he shows up tonight with this.” There’s that love squall again rising up in my thighs and tumbling through my heart and up into my head where I try to reconcile what I’ve heard about men with what I feel for Lance. I think back to the day we met, not knowing then how quickly a nobody stranger can become everybody, everything. The story goes: Lance walks in to The Beanery just before noon, all armpit stains and Popeye biceps, like he’s the blue- collar Messiah come to shake-up the sedentary world. When he orders a steel cut oatmeal and a vanilla latte, I almost kid him about the paradox of “steel” and “vanilla”, something like: “Wow, the first well-rounded man since Jesus.”  But he leaves without us exchanging anything more than flighty eye contact and a thank you. An hour later, he shows up again, and asks if I doubled his shots. Yes, I tell him, of course I did. Laughing, he holds up his shaky hands, saying that he’d ordered one shot of decaf and for my near lethal oversight would I please accompany him to detox tonight at a nearby restaurant?

“Your father was sweet like that with your mother, at first,” she says. Her pain is so deep if she were cracked open it’d be its own organ with its own pulsing vein. She leans in, hugs my shoulders. Her pink nightie has lost all its elasticity and I get a glimpse straight down the gaping neck and find two miserable, shapeless breasts that—I decide right now—hang like half-empty IV bags. “I must take something back.”

“Buyers remorse?” I say. We’d gone shopping for clothes earlier today, before my shift. She bought me two pairs of pants without fighting me on them being too tight. She bought herself a pink cardigan, and on the way home, stopped for milkshakes at Arby’s.

“No. About your mother. I said something untrue today in Sears.” She breaks off a piece of the patty and crumbles it between her fingers. “She never said anything rotten about your father. She should have, but she didn’t. Your mother was too kind. Not once did she hint at what he was capable of.”

She walks her plate to the sink and dumps all the food down the disposal.

“I would have eaten that,” I say. Lance and I didn’t eat. After work, I’d walked straight to his condo. We talked about how his PhD in physics, how his expertise in black holes and transmutable universes translates seamlessly to moving people’s shit. He told me there is something called the God particle that holds the formula for when the cosmos will destabilize and the world will end. He told me I was stupid for dropping out of the University three-credits shy of graduating. It’s good to have that piece of paper, he said. Nobody can own you, he said. Then we had sex.

“Let me make you something. Grilled cheese and tomato?” Grandmother’s umpteenth failed attempt at making Mom’s favorite sandwich mine.

“Cereal is fine,” I say.  “I can get it.”

Grandmother hushes me and is already up at the cabinet pulling down one box each of puffed wheat and Corn Pops. She begins pouring them into Mom’s plastic red bowl, stopping to stare midair, at nothing— or everything maybe. Maybe her entire life is finally coming back to life and there’s her half-dead daughter riding in on a shaft of that dull light like Calamity Jane. She looks down at the bowl and laughs. The joke is on her again, nobody but me around.

“Did your mother like yesterday’s Bible passage? It’s one of my favorites.” “Yes.” My answer has been the same for as long as I can remember. Mom was twenty-two years old when she moved into the Hope House. Next week she turns forty-three. “I think I felt her twitch at ‘hateth’.”

Grandmother resumes pouring cereal. “Your mother, you know, loved her cereals mixed. Wanted it all at once; always afraid she’d miss out on something.” And without looking at me, she sets down a placemat, the red bowl, a matching red plastic fork, surely meant to prompt me to do as mom did and use it to skim out the cereal, then drink the sugar milk alone.

m still eating when Grandmother flicks off the light and walks out, her red mess of hair eaten up by the dark in the hallway. It’s on these nights I go to bed wishing to suffer the same fate as Mom and maybe not wake up the same person.

“There’s this running joke in my family,” Lance says. We’re sitting on the floor of his empty condo eating Pad Thai from a carton. All his furniture, including a 10-foot fake Christmas tree, is already set up in his new house—a foreclosure he chased down after moving out the distraught family—but the walls were painted today and even tonight the fumes would be too ripe. “‘Lancey,’ they go, ‘You didn’t even have to reach for the stars, they were given to you, and yet, you’re still playing in the dirt.’” He grabs my hand; I fondle his knuckle hair as he goes on. “I guess owning a moving company isn’t good enough when your great great grandfather was Percival Lowell. You know the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff?”

“Know it well,” I say. “Grandmother still insists on a visit every new moon.”

His carpet is nappier than I remember but we make it our mattress anyhow and pillage hoary depths of animal pleasure. Lance has blonde pubic hair. Lance is 5 feet 7 inches of butterscotch pudding and humble privilege. Lance is a petty thief who could have more, but is happy enough cherry picking the best from other people’s lives. Lance is thirty—that’s nine years older than me. Same nine-year age gap as Mom and my biological father, Rich. Nine bastard years. And no matter what I do to ignore her, Mom’s up in my ear, yapping something about Rich, or rather Lance, and how he’s another Rich, what with all that handsome charisma and pent-up passion. Don’t you see it, Leah, my history lurking in your shadow?

“Back to your question,” Lance says. We’re loitering in that dangerous post- coital confessional territory. “I’d say my most strange moving experience was when a woman asked me to pack her closet for her. So I start opening her drawers and there’s like, you know—”

“Kinky Lingerie?” I say, instantly embarrassed for sounding so novice.

“No, no. Videos. A serious porn library. And as I’m bubble wrapping each one, per our standards of excellence, she walks in and says she should really weed through them before wasting my time wrapping junk. Next thing I know, she’s screening them on her bedroom TV. Turns out they’re all videos of her.”

“You watched?”

“God no. Me and the guys are staying busy coming in and out, but we still see too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Puritan. But all I can say is: wrong place, wrong time” He turns on his back and stares up. “Because I’ve always worried I’d either sound like a fruitcake for not taking her bait or I’d come off as a pervert for even telling the story, I’ve never told anybody. Stupid, now that I think about it.” He sits up, takes my right foot in his hand and massages the arch. “You look like you’re about to bitch me out for being a scumbag or something.”

“It’s about my mom,” I say, hoping to God he’ll look at me quickly and ask why I’m shaking so I can explain that I’m afraid he’ll confuse his own hot rush of sympathy for liking me. I want whatever happens between us to be about us, or me, just me, and not about Mom. I don’t even know why I’m telling him now, but the urge is huge and heavy, maybe like giving birth when there’s no turning back—when it’s right there at the threshold of tender flesh and all you can do is breath and respect the urges of your body.

“I know, I’m a total asshole for not visiting her yet. I’ll go tomorrow. What time? You tell me. I’ll have the crew cover for me. I’m an asshole. It’s no excuse, but hospitals, and that kind of thing—” That kind of thing, I think, he has no idea what kind of thing. “—they’re out of my league.”

“Remember when I told you she’s comatose because she had a surprise stroke? Not true. She was pushed off her apartment balcony by my biological father, Rich. She was six months pregnant with me.”

“My God. Leah.”

“They’d had a fight about what she was wearing, apparently something too skimpy. Anyway, so he goes to prison for life and three years in, he trips over a barbell and breaks his neck and dies.”

“Shit. I guess that’s the good of it. Right? Not like just karma, but ricochet karma, the same bullet back at you.” His difficulty with the news is more genuine than I want, and also exactly what I want. “I’m being a total idiot. Go ahead, say it. Can I come for her birthday tomorrow?”

“Not her birthday. Soon though. Her birthday we always spend alone. Plus, I have to give her fair warning. She’ll want to doll up.” His laugh is so unsure and his legs so thin next to mine, I’m knocked with an awful urge to devour him, like a lioness does with her runt cub.

He hurries to a drawer in the kitchen and returns with a pair of earrings, no tag or box, likely stolen, to match the yellow topaz necklace. “If she’s anything like you, she’ll expect the set.”

More talk about Mom and the four known spacetime dimensions in the Superstring Theory and it’s one o’clock in the morning. “I better get home,” I say. “Once a week sleepovers is all I get?” He zip-lines the topaz from behind my neck back to its forward position with care in his hands I think must be the human version of primate preening and I’m hit hard with guilt by my wanting to stay here, indefinitely. “She needs me home.”

As the car bumps over the rounded curb into my short driveway, his headlights graze an object in the slushy front lawn.  He backs up to shine the lights directly on the thing. It’s Grandmother wearing a nightie and snow boots, slumped over and asleep in a lawn chair. A paperback is fanned over her chest, the harlequin cover rises an inch with each shallow inhale.

“Lance, cut the lights.” I’m not ready for them to meet. I lean over and kiss him goodbye, tasting the briny tears from him crying earlier when I also told him how Mom is two years shy of making it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest surviving woman in a coma. I played along like it was an accomplishment and now realize he was probably crying for my clinical denial.

“Crap, Leah, she’s getting up,” he says.

Shaking a finger at us, she lumbers over like the swamp thing’s bride. Lance rolls down his window and as she leans in, a breast tumbles out and is instantly shoved back in its place as if she’s reprimanding a rascal puppy. I can smell Muscat on her breath. “Oh look,” she says, tipping up Lance’s chin, “It’s the Great Gatsby.”

“I like that,” he says, all social charm. “I’ve never been exactly who I wanted to be anyway.”

“Grandmother, this is Lance and he’s dropping me off. Please give us a moment.” “I suspect you’ve had ‘moments’ all night. Time to come in.”

“Please, Grandmother, go inside. I’ll be in soon.”

“I’m done waiting, Leah. All I do is wait—for you, for your mother. I’m a goddamn waiting whore.”  In a nostalgic mood, she’s reminded me that my being perpetually late is the rebellious product of my arriving too early. At seven months gestation, they cut me out of Mom. In case she could process pain they gave her an epidural. Grandmother took only one picture, and in it, Mom wears a blue hair coverlet as all mothers do in surgery, but no smile, no tears, no breast soothing my four pounds of squawk. Our silence started right then. Still wet and gluey, they handed me to Grandmother. She says, since she was the only woman in the room that day breathing on her own, it felt like, at fifty-five years old, she’d just given birth to me.

I slide the topaz on the chain while Grandmother continues: “And you’re thinking ‘what else will she do if she’s not waiting?’ I’ll start thinking about killing myself, sweetheart, is what.” As she backs away, faint moonlight sifts through her nightie revealing a nondescript body outline, a thing kept in the dark. I get out of the car and walk toward her.

“Let me take you to bed,” I say. She backs toward the lawn chair then crumples into the rotting nylon. I kneel at her side, the dirty snow soaks through my pants. I touch her shoulder, down her neck and back, navigating a city of bones. “You’ve had too much to drink.” Lance is now kneeling with me at the lawn chair too, and I make note that this is probably as pious as we’ll ever be.

“Your mother,” Grandmother says, choking up, “always brought home leftovers after a date and we’d sit and talk about the boy—always too chatty, or too nice, or too interested—while I ate a cold tenderloin or a picked-over shrimp scampi. And one time, your mom, she dated a boy missing an arm and all I could wonder was how he was going to grab both her breasts simultaneously. It’s what women want you know, a man with powerful hands. And did I tell you, Leah, about that boy, I think his name was Guy, he picked up your mom in a Best Western Courtesy shuttle and just as they cozied into a booth at Coco’s, the police stormed in and hauled them to the precinct because Guy was on the clock and the shuttle had been reported stolen?”

“The good news is: I don’t steal,” Lance says. It’s hard to see in the dim light, but something tells me he’s winking at me like a lunatic.

“I don’t care if you steal,” she says. “I care if you kill and you seem a friend of the Lord.” She points at the sky. “The moon’s a real pisser tonight.”

Lance bolts back to the car and rummages in the glove compartment, then comes back and hands her an envelope. What did he steal for her, tickets to the circus?

“You’re asking me to the prom, aren’t you, buster?” Her smile covers the width of all happiness. “He’s a good kid, Leah.”

“I hear you like the Lowell Observatory,” he says. “Now you can go see a good moon every night, if you want.”

Despite trying to shield Mom’s birthday cupcake from the falling snow, the fudge icing is liquefying.  Kim, my favorite Beanery co-worker, knew it was Mom’s birthday and set aside a double chocolate, then stuck in a used candle she’d found rolling behind the smoothie blenders. Her instructions were to sing loud enough to wake the real sleeping beauty. Kim is raising a Down Syndrome son, so she’s not a sucker for sympathy either.

As if the Hope House’s glass doors know my stride, they slide open as I approach. I wave at Elsie, my favorite nurse of the bunch. She’s playing solitaire at the circular desk that is the drab nurses’ station, and in between moves, twirls her long black hair around her fingers.

“You ever go home?” I say.

“My husband says I work more than the hinge on a hooker’s jaw.” She laughs and her third-world teeth cancel out her pretty face. “Oh by the way, we’ve moved your mom to a new room. Her birthday gift.”

I brush snow off my jacket and follow Elsie to Mom’s room. I’ve never been able to pinpoint the odd smell in this place—where it’s coming from or to where it might be going. Maybe it’s snagged in the same Purgatory as Mom, and like her, unable to commit to smelling clean or dirty, dead or alive.  It’s Tuesday, so Grandmother’s Post-it is in my pocket: If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest …you shall not take the mother with the young. –Deuteronomy 22:6.

Elsie pushes open the door to room #32 and sweeps her dimpled hand like I’ve won a Corvette. “Her own place. She’s earned it.”  Her new room is smaller, but brighter as if she’s being squeezed out of this world toward the light. Her framed “BS in Sociology” diploma from Northern Arizona University is already nailed on the wall. The clay mugs and vases she made at her potter’s wheel, the photos of her selling her wares at art festivals, the one where my father’s thick fingers grip the lip of a green-glazed bowl, sit on a bureau.

“And wow, an atrium.” I walk to the clean panes of glass, hoping to find fairy people in the folds of the giant bird of paradise.

“There’s a bright green gecko in there. A real one,” Elsie says. “It’s got its own tropical climate piping in.”

“I want my own climate.”

Elsie leaves laughing, at a different joke I think, maybe the one about the nurse who died and went straight to hell and it took her two weeks to realize she wasn’t at work anymore.

I find Mom’s sleepy, robotic respiration and slow mine until we’re synched. Thin strips of tape hold closed her eyes, to give them a rest. Her bed is more upright than usual; though she’s not really sitting or lying down, but sort of stuck in perpetual compromise with comfort. I bend to read the adjustable dial: 37-degrees. In an hour it will go up or down five degrees. The solace here is that nothing goes unmeasured: her incline, her heart rate, her blood pressure, her hair growth, her fluid intake, her urine output, her score on the Glasgow Coma Scale. In twenty years, Mom hasn’t measured above a 4. Eleven is partly conscious, 15 is having a lucid conversation about The Resurrection.

A half-eaten hideous cake sits on the counter near the steel sink.  “Mom, why didn’t you tell the
m that you’re on a gluten-free diet?” This time she doesn’t laugh, she flicks my ass. I imagine our alternate reality too vividly and often end up walking home missing someone I’ve never known.

“Mom, I have something to tell you and I know I say this every year, but here goes again: When a girl celebrates a birthday laying down, it’s never good. No laughing. It’s not a joke. Oh, you’re proposing a toast? Fantastic.” I unwrap the two plastic cups sitting on the sink, fill them with water, and sit down at her shoulder. While holding her hand closed around the cup, I lift it to meet mine. “Cheers to parallel universes.” I sip. “The one where we’ll meet and you’ll teach me how to work with my hands and maybe I can teach you how to land on your feet.”

As I put our cups down and begin to Chapstick her cracked lips, the door opens. There’s Lance smiling through the fluorescent fog and holding a gift bag. “I’m just dropping this off for that lovely lady over there.” His voice is a thing God should make holy. “When she wakes, tell her it’s rude to nap at your own birthday party.” He gets it. He totally gets it. Lance knows survivor humor.

He heaps his jacket on top of her bureau and lifts an odd thing from the truffle of tissue paper. “It’s a Kachina doll,” he tells Mom, now at her bedside and fixed on her like he’s a professional one-way conversationalist. “It’s painted in a rainbow colors to signify the direction of heaven.”

“She wants to know,” I say, going for charming and trying with everything I’ve got not to sound suspicious, “where you bought such a gorgeous item.”

Rather than answer me, because he’s officially a platinum member in this alternate universe, he answers straight to Mom. “I think your daughter is hinting that I didn’t get her anything the first time we met.”

“Stop. Not true.” I slip the wooden doll from Lance’s hands.  Her eyes are black octagons, her mouth a fierce red square, her legs bent to suggest tribal dance. I drag a finger around the feathered headdress.

“Wild turkey feathers,” he says.

I lay her down on the bed to retire the laces on her tiny moccasins and notice something penciled on the sole: To Denise, Happy 40th Anniversary.

“You stole this,” I say.

“Relax, it’s from a pawnshop.”

“Oh please, Lance. A pawnshop? You went to a pawnshop for a Kachina doll?”

“I didn’t go specifically for anything. You said she was big into Native American art, so I went looking and this was there.”

“Give me the people’s address. Now. I’ll take it back, leave it at the front door.” “Fine. Let’s say I stole the doll,” he says, the metered tenor of a man on trial.

“Let’s also say I didn’t go to Unicorn Jewelry and get this.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a diamond ring.

“Are you kidding me? Here? Right now? This is me and Mom’s sacred ground and you weren’t invited anyway, and now you’re going to turn this into some kind of woe-is-me melodrama.” He looks so injured and I want to tell him that I’m the one he can’t trust: not my love or my blonde hair, or my mom, or my coffee making—even decaf has caffeine.

“Let’s say I didn’t sit at some jeweler’s desk for three hours like an imbecile and settle on a princess cut—for obvious reasons— and ask to have it centered between two smaller diamonds—one for your grandmother, one for your mom. Let’s say I stole the ring from a single mom who was planning to pawn it to buy groceries when funds got too tight. Now what?”

“I have no idea what you’re getting at.” I’m dizzy and want to run straight to Grandmother and bury myself in all her sacred lore of Mom. How easy to hide in a static life. But when will Lance grow up and stop stealing? Who am I kidding? I’m not wondering when, I’m wondering if Lance stops stealing what would it mean for me, this girl who has learned to love only people who teeter on the brink—of dying, of getting caught, of living in a kind of prison. It must be the same cataclysmic yearning a free diver has for oxygen deprivation.

He takes my finger and forces on the ring. “Your freaking out has nothing to do with where this doll, this ring, where any of this came from. I’m too big to fit in your life. You have two people who are your entire universe, who consume you and—let me be a physics geek cause I’m good at it—I’m the unstable God Particle come to break it up.”

I find my way to the visitor’s chair and fall into the hard plastic and cry, though not hard enough to drown out the beeping and ticking of Mom. The noises—who made them and why can’t they be discreet? Like minipads and hummingbirds. Like death.

Lance fishes again in his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper. “You need proof? Here’s proof.”

The receipts are valid: a $10,000 receipt from Unicorn Jewelry, attached to a $200 receipt from Andy’s Pawn dated two days ago.

“Sorry.” I spin the ring, thinking it the most terrifying symbol, the way it circles in on itself and never ends, a tail eating a head.

Though, the real problem might be his encroaching too fast into space I’ve reserved for Mom. He’s pushing her out and I promised her nobody would do that again.

“Well then, apparently I’m the asshole.” I take off the topaz necklace and cup it in my palm with the earrings. “These too also from this nice guy.” I run the necklace through the air pocket between Mom’s neck and the pillow, then clasp it. With some wiggling, the stud earrings prick through the calcified layers of her pierced ears. In my periphery I see the bird of paradise in the atrium shimmy. The gecko lumbers up the giant plant to a gecko hideout from where he’ll one day fall and be found stone-colored. I walk over and press my hands to the warm glass, reclaiming the cadence of my own breathing.

“I need to get out of Prescott. Somewhere I’ve never been, which is anywhere.”

I remember Grandmother telling me about Mom’s plans to visit America’s Natural Wonders while pregnant with me. “Ever seen Sedona?” I say. “Not with you,” he says.

“You come up with that or was it divined?” “Whichever makes you want me more.”

The next day, then into the next week I break from routine and predictability, like mothers do with childre
n who they want to grow up and leave the house. One day I’ll visit Mom before work when the sun is new and the gecko is still camping in the plaster rock cave I bought it.  The next day, I’ll wait for Lance to finish a move and not come until after dinnertime when the place smells like meatloaf or curry or whatever the nurse on call has microwaved.

Today, I’m here after lunch to remind her that Lance and I leave for Sedona at four tonight. My bag is packed and Lance is cutting out early from an office move to meet me back at my place.

As the glass doors slide open, the motors groan new despair. Nobody is sitting at the nurses’ station. Without meaning to, I crumple the AAA map that Lance and I highlighted last night with our road trip route.  Though he wanted more circumventing and I wanted the most direct route we eventually compromised. I look down at the stained carpet with its spilled coffees, sauces and soups, the dirt lifted from campgrounds and beaches, all the overwhelming evidence of life lived despite the stutter-stop in this zero-dimension place.

A mother’s intuition? What about a daughter intuition? What about a daughter waking to her sixth sense while running down the long frigid hallway past ten catatonic humans who can’t whine or fight or screw or swallow? What about the air getting lighter, splitting into quarks and electrons and now sifting so easily through her lungs’ alveoli, lifting her like she’s a kite and no longer grounded in Prescott? What about pulling out her Grandmother’s passage and reading it–He shall restore what he took by robbery.- Leviticus 6:4—then stopping and reading it again? What about feeling guiltily, maybe prematurely, relieved?

I swing open Mom’s door, so sure this is it. Finally. The end.

Elsie is sitting at Mom’s feet, slightly slumped. My tears just turn on without my consent and there’s Elsie leaping up with her arms open.

“She’s fine sweetheart,” she says, pressing me into the cushion of her breasts. “I was only changing the bandage on that ruptured edema on her foot.”

She tucks my hair behind my ears. “Far as I can tell, this woman isn’t going anywhere.”  I’m shaking now, and my body, I can’t trust it after having sent false signals.

While running to her room, I’d plotted the exchange. Elsie was going to say: “She went so peacefully.” We were going to talk about the gift of passing, as it goes, in this place. Elsie would offer one more consoling anecdote before leaving us alone, “To say goodbye.” I would tape closed Mom’s eyes, hold her hand and, this time, confirm no pulse.

“Sorry for the scare,” Elsie says and walks out.

I sit at Mom’s shoulder and match my breathing to hers. “Mom, I’ll be gone for four days. Lance is driving and he promises not to speed or talk all the way. Grandmother has our itinerary, but so you know, too.” I rest the map on her chest, and begin tracing the route hard so she feels it through her breastbone. There are no breasts anymore.  “Dewey, Arizona first to visit an old copper mind Lance says is buzzing with negative ions.” I walk to the door with the marked cadence of a bride or a pallbearer. I dim the lights, wash my hands, humming. I return to her side.  It’s warm under her blankets and I want Lance here to explain planetary thermodynamics and how it takes lifetimes for a dying star to cool. Under her panties, I find the Foley Catheter warmer yet with urine. No resistance, it comes out on the first tug. I’ve seen Elsie change it enough to duplicate the delicacy. “Then a night’s stay in Camp Verde.” I pull off the clamp on her index finger. For more than two decades it’s been reading her oxygen levels, pathologically reassuring us, She’s alive! She’s alive! “By Sunday we’ll be in Sedona.”  I pull out the Nasogastric tube, feel slight resistance then pull harder, careful not to dirty her with the putrid sludge from her stomach. “We’re going to a vortex where you can talk and I can hear you. Tell me: Did you ever sneak Grandmother’s Muscat when she wasn’t looking? What was your favorite time of year? Do you like the name Grandmother gave me?” The IV and arterial lines slip out effortlessly and rather than put pressure on the puncture wounds, I watch the trail of blood trickle down her arm, then dab it. Her necklace shifts with her breathing. An alarm is sounding in the nurses’ station. I’m sweating, my heart beating the speed of sex and fear and winning—never has it found this pace next to Mom. I unplug the ventilator at the wall and watch the EKG blips slow, then flatten into a digital horizon. The topaz on her throat rests, a pebble fallen to the bottom of a water glass. Alarms are ringing like church bells. I feel a hallelujah coming on. A praise the Lord. The gecko rakes his bark, perhaps testing his burial skills. This is my microclimate too, or more like my micro-dimension where the sun never sets and nightmares, the falling from the sky kind, are the stuff of urban myth.

Elsie appears, not panicked. She stands there in the doorway, an usher at the symphony waiting to see my ticket so she can light my way to a seat. “I think I’m supposed to say, ‘She went so peacefully,’” I tell her. I’m pressing now on Mom’s puncture wounds. I want her to stop bleeding. I want her lips to stop cracking. I want Lance to drive me to the highest point on the Mogollon Rim and hold me back when I’m overcome with vertigo. “She went so peacefully.”

I think, but I can’t be sure anymore, because I might be talking for her, too— but

I think Elsie says, “Take your time, Leah. God knows she did.”

Tori Malcangio’s stories can be found or are forthcoming in: the Mississippi Review, Tampa Review, Cream City Review, ZYZZYVA, River Styx, Passages North, Smokelong Quarterly, Pearl Magazine, Literary Mama, The San Diego Reader, and VerbSap, as well as the anthologies: A Year in Ink and The Frozen Moment. She is also the winner of the 2011 Waasmode Fiction Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and an MFA candidate at Bennington College. 

By |2018-12-13T20:02:34+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Nikki Moustaki – Big Blue (Fiction)

Fiction Contest Runner-Up

Nikki Moustaki
Big Blue

Ren Holloway wanted the presidency of the South Florida Parrot Society so badly he wasn’t beyond poisoning John and Judy Conure’s birds. John was the current acting president of the club, but Ren planned a sweep as January elections approached. He had already begun a smear campaign. He told Molly O’Connell, the club’s past secretary, that John’s flock was infected with Psittacine Beak-and-Feather Disease. He told Ozzie Gonzalez that he witnessed John pouring bleach into Dr. Duran’s lovebirds’ water at the spring bird competition and expo in Sarasota.

Accusations like these often buzzed through the membership of the SFPS, but never about John. He and his wife, Judy, the acting treasurer, were the most respected members of the club. They offered their home for the club’s annual holiday party and donated bird toys to the monthly raffle. Judy made them herself from coconut halves, plastic pacifiers, rawhide, and sisal twine. John had been president for five years and always ran unopposed.

But this wasn’t why the members of the SFPS respected the Conures. The club members respected the couple because John and Judy owned a hyacinth macaw. Most people in the bird club had only seen this rare species in the local zoo, a ten-thousand-dollar parrot, more than most of their annual mortgage payments. The giant, iridescent blue parrot stood on John’s shoulder through every club meeting, preening John’s hair and eyebrows. The bird had fleshy yellow rings around its eyes and at the corners of its mouth, and its shiny black beak could exert enough pressure to crush someone’s finger right off her hand, but the bird was gentle, a result of John’s love and careful upbringing. Judy bred lovebirds, but the macaw was John’s baby.

The one bird that garnered more respect was a black palm cockatoo, but the only private individual who owned one within a thousand miles was Mr. Carl Lipman, a paranoid recluse who owned a dozen McDonald’s restaurants. He allowed club members to visit his vast bird collection once a year, after passing through two barbed-wire-crowned gates and past four guards armed with Uzi submachine guns.

Ren headed to Kinko’s to make 300 copies of his campaign flyer. The monthly meeting was in a few hours, and he planned to let the air out of John’s high-flying balloon. Among the points why he should be president, or rather, why John shouldn’t, included the following:

  1. Since last year, membership has dropped from 303 members to 294 (not including children under 12). 
  2. In April of this year, President Conure allowed rabbits on the seller’s table. The SFPS’s bylaws strictly state that mammals will not be sold in any month but November. 
  3. At the SFPS’s yearly show, President Conure’s orange-faced double-recessive pied lovebird took high honors. The judge, one Mr. Ira Stern, is Mr. Conure’s barber.
  4. President Conure was late in his dues by four days in this calendar year. 
  5. The embroidered jacket awarded to President Conure last Christmas for his leadership was bought with club funds by one Mrs. Judy Conure. The receipt was handwritten and highly suspect. 
  6. The bylaws strictly state that visitors are allowed to attend three free meetings before they must pay dues. President Conure allowed his former neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Keppler, to attend four meetings before paying dues. (Feb-May) The club lost $5.00 as a result of this “oversight.” 
  7. Last month, a child of one of the members was bitten by a blue mutation Indian ringnecked parakeet, which was left unattended. President Conure was standing five feet from said incident and claimed not to have seen that the bird was alone while the “here-nameless” member used the toilet. 
  8. The coffee has gotten worse this year, as have the cookies. 

He copied half the flyers on light blue paper and the other half on light green, stacked them on the counter, and placed them into a manila folder. He couldn’t afford a ten-thousand-dollar hyacinth macaw, sure, but he’d run that club with his little African red-bellied parrot on his shoulder, and he’d do it better than John ever could.

The flyers were phase one. In phase two, he’d put ant poison into John’s birds’ water. It would make John and Judy wish they never got into birds in the first place, and they’d have no reason to come back to the club.

The hyacinth macaw, Big Blue, lived in the Conure’s living room. He would be the easiest target. Everyone petted and smooched and fed the bird at the holiday party, and Ren would do the same, then add a packet of powder to the water during Secret Santa, when no one was looking.

The lovebirds, a hundred or so of them, lived on the screened patio. Judy bred them for show, and she owned rare colors that no one else in the club had, like white-faced violets and par-yellow black-eyed masked pieds. But Ren didn’t respect her for it. He didn’t ooh and ahh at the shows like the others. She bought those birds from breeders out of state. She didn’t use complicated genetic formulas and selective pairings to develop the fancy mutations the way he did. She didn’t line-breed and agonize over each clutch of babies. He was a master at lovebird genetics. Still, he couldn’t place more than third at the circuit shows when the Conures were in attendance. But that would change once he took office.

He didn’t want to poison Judy’s lovebirds, but he felt a burning in his gut every time he saw her take home another blue ribbon. He hated Judy’s smug humility when she talked about her lovebirds, or brought hatchlings to the meetings to show them off. He suffered an ocular migraine and lost his appetite when he thought about how Judy emblazoned all of John’s t-shirts, neckties, and ball caps with the image of Big Blue, the bird a badge of superiority in puff paint and acrylic. The other thing that made his stomach ache was that he was in love with Judy. He didn’t want to be, but he was. She had wings in his dreams and could fly like a hummingbird.

Judy had gone to high school with Ren and graduated one class ahead of him. She wasn’t a cheerleader or the prom queen. She wore horn-rimmed glasses, and had a fine, pointed nose, and flitted to her seat in the cafeteria wearing long, dark peasant skirts. Ren selected the locker under hers so he could accidentally touch her arm each morning and afternoon as he reached for his lock. Judy was a polite teenager, quiet, and she always looked a little worried, like she was afraid of turning to ash and blowing away. It gave her creases in her forehead twenty years later. Ren wondered what she was so concerned about. Certainly not him.

Ren arrived at the VFW hall where the SFPS held meetings on the third Sunday of every month. Members usually brought their birds. The meeting room was dark and cool, with a small kitchen to the right and a rectangular, raised stage in the back. A clutch of half-heliumed balloons wilted in one corner, probably from a dance th
e night before. The place was squawking with dozens of species of parrots, some talking, some cat-calling. A yellow-naped Amazon parrot sang “Happy Birthday” over and over, out of tune, and the ratcheting cry of baby birds radiated from a glass fish tank on the seller’s table.

Ren recognized every one of the hundred plus members in attendance. He knew what they did for a living and what species of birds they kept. He doubted John knew as much.

The meeting came to order at 12:30 pm with old business. As usual, Arma Caviness couldn’t read her own handwriting, so she skipped the motions from last month’s meeting. Ren jotted this down in the notepad he kept to record discrepancies and wrong-doings.

After old business came new business. Molly O’Connell suggested that they turn off the fans in the room so everyone could hear better. They took a vote and the motion passed. Ozzie Gonzalez made a motion that the club allocate three hundred dollars to the holiday party this year, fifty dollars more than last year. Judy seconded the motion. The rest of the members shouted aye. Ren abstained and wrote in his notebook.

Most of the membership disliked Ren for reasons they couldn’t identify. He had a strange, dark energy that surrounded him like feather-dust. He stood too close and invaded people’s personal space, and he spit a little when he spoke about things that excited him, like his lovebirds—and he was always talking about his lovebirds. The little parrot he carried on his shoulder was named Adolf, and that caused concern with some of the older members. What they didn’t know was that he named the bird after Adolf Wilhelm Mueller-Welt, the man who invented contact lenses, his mother’s fourth cousin thrice removed. Ren had met the man once, and was impressed with his poise and graciousness, his diplomacy and confidence.

Ren raised his hand. “I have new business,” he said. All heads turned, except for the flushed Hannah Hoffmanbeck, who had begun to nurse her infant, Danny, whose father was in the Army and hadn’t met the baby yet.

Ren stood, nearly knocking over the metal folding chair. He handed out flyers as he spoke. The rattle of paper overtook the room.

“As you know, elections are in six weeks, and I’ve decided to run for office. Our current president has run unopposed for too long, and we need changes in the club. On this flyer, you’ll see why our current president should step down.”

Hannah Hoffmanbeck turned away from infant Danny to glare at Ren. Even the parrots fell quiet. In anyone’s memory, no one had ever challenged the elected officers. At election time, people in the membership nominated one capable person for a position, then voted with little slips of paper dropped into a coffee can.

John stood behind a podium on the stage. He wore a dark work shirt with Big Blue hand-painted on the pocket. Everyone watched him. His lips moved slightly as he read the flyer. Big Blue, who stood on a towel draped over John’s shoulder, bobbed his head and shrieked. Some people laughed. Others averted their eyes and folded the flyer, embarrassed for Ren.

“Ren, are you making a motion?” John asked.

“Yes,” Ren said. “I’m nominating myself for the position of president.”

“You can’t nominate yourself, Ren.”

“Bylaw 3.C was amended two years ago and states that I can.” No one could argue with Ren’s knowledge of the bylaws and amendments.

“Anyone want to second that motion?” asked John. Big Blue shrieked again. “Besides you, Blue.”

Ren scanned the members. Most looked uncomfortable. A few people left their chairs for the coffee maker. A few went to the lavatory. Others tended to their birds.

“I second,” Ren said.

“You can’t second your own motion.” John scratched the back of Big Blue’s neck. The bird yawned.

“Bylaw 6.F states . . .”

Molly O’Connell stood and raised her voice before Ren could finish his sentence.

“Ren, we’d like to get to the raffle today. I have a copy of the bylaws, and 6.F is about club field trips, not seconding motions.”

He didn’t expect anyone to have the bylaws at their fingertips. Molly had them stored in her phone.

Ren stepped onto the stage with John and turned to the members. “Doesn’t anyone want a fair election this year? Doesn’t anyone want fresh blood in office? Come on, people. I’ll bring back the Milano cookies.”

After a few moments of human silence and chittering birds, a female voice rose above the murmuring crowd and birdsong.

“I second.”

All heads turned to Judy Conure. Her hand was raised, her words seeming to echo around the room. Everything went silent for Ren. He watched a pair of colossal, white wings unfurl from between Judy’s shoulder blades. She was shiny and radiant, and she floated in her spot, ready to rise and hover above him.

You second?” John asked.

“I second,” Judy said. She lifted from her chair with one flap of those gleaming wings.

John shook his head. “All in favor?”

Bill Rankin raised his hand, but his hearing aids weren’t working and he thought he was voting to turn the fans off so he could hear better.

“All opposed?” asked John.

A few raised hands pocked the room.

“Any abstain?”

Thirty or so hands rose.

“Who’s abstaining from abstaining?” asked John.

Another thirty hands rose. Judy floated near the ceiling, waving her wings like a flag caught in a slow, swirling draft, fanning Ren’s face. He felt hot and everything seemed made of plastic, even himself.

He turned his attentions away from Judy. “This isn’t a democracy,” he shouted. “This is a dictatorship.”

Ren grabbed Big Blue around the neck and pulled him off John’s shoulder. The room gasped and chairs crashed to the floor as people stood, a clamor like disharmonic cymbals on the concrete floor. No one knew what to do. Tom O’Connell, Molly’s husband, who had been watching Hannah Hoffmanbeck breastfeed her infant, sprung from his chair and approached Ren, but stopped before he reached him, feeling that tackling Ren could be deadly for Big Blue.

John froze.

“Ren, give me back Blue,” he s
aid. He held his hands in front of him as if he could contain the moment using nothing but his will. “Come on, Ren. I’ll say aye to your motion, okay? Give me Big Blue. Let’s handle this like gentlemen.”

Ren held tight to the bird’s neck as it squirmed and gripped his forearm with its claws. Adolf, not used to such commotion, snuggled into the shoulder of Ren’s collared piquet shirt. Adolf’s nails were sharp, but Ren barely felt them.

“It’s my bird now,” Ren said. What he really wanted was to snatch Judy down from the ceiling and hold her around the neck and kiss her and pet her wings.

“Put the bird down, Ren.” John’s gaze shifted from Ren’s face to over his shoulder.

Judy was behind Ren, and he couldn’t figure out how she arrived there so quickly. Her wings were gone. He noticed for the first time that her printed t-shirt said, “Did You Eat a Bowl of Brilliant for Breakfast?” Ren was confused. Big Blue’s claws cut into his skin and he felt Adolf digging in to his shoulder. Ren moved slowly toward the double doors. His car was parked close to the building, next to the handicapped spot where Simran Kuhnar, who didn’t even own birds anymore, always parked, though Ren was certain her hip was fine by now.

The members parted as he walked backwards through them, toward the door, into the sunlight with Big Blue, who squawked and squirmed in Ren’s fist. Ren fished his car keys out of his pocket and unlocked his car door. His cell phone rang. There was no way to answer it, hold the bird, and put the key in the ignition at the same time. Good try, John, he thought.

The members poured out of the VFW hall, many of them on the phone with 911. Ren started the car, still holding Big Blue by the neck. He screeched out of the parking lot and let the bird loose in the back seat. Big Blue stood panting on the fabric cover, then defecated. Ren didn’t care. It wasn’t anything Adolf hadn’t done before. He pulled the little parrot out of his shirt and popped him into his carrier, buckled for safety in the front seat. Big Blue shook himself, unruffling his feathers, then climbed on the passenger seat and perched on the headrest. Feather dust swirled inside the car, riding on sunbeams, making Ren conscious of his own breathing. Big Blue smelled sweet, like carnations. Ren wanted to press his nose underneath the bird’s wing, where the feathers were downy and white. But he had to concentrate on the road. He felt pressure building in his head. 

John had Ren’s car in sight, driving behind him and catching up fast. He thought he saw Big Blue through the rear-window, but wasn’t sure. The fierce afternoon sun reflected off of the glass, blinding him. He put on his sunglasses and thought about the day when the doctor told him and Judy that they wouldn’t have kids of their own. John didn’t know why that scene came so vividly now, the antiseptic smell of the office, the Cuban nurse who plastered photos of her own kids around the reception desk. 

Ren turned onto the highway that led to Dania Beach. He didn’t know where else to go. He hadn’t planned this. He hadn’t meant to kidnap Big Blue. Sure, he was going to poison the bird—eventually—but now that plan was ruined. His phone rang again and he fumbled to answer it. 

“Ren? Are you there?” Ren couldn’t place the voice. “It’s Judy.” 

Ren dropped the phone and swerved, almost colliding with a gasoline truck. He recovered the phone and placed it to his ear again. 

“Yeah, Judy?”

“Ren, what are you doing?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t.”

“Why don’t you come back? We’ll pretend this never happened.” 

Ren doubted that. “Listen, Judy, your husband isn’t as familiar with the bylaws as I am. Do you understand?” What he really wanted to say was that he loved her and hated her and that he could read her mind and knew what she was like inside, where it counted. 

“None of that matters now. Come back. Or stop the car where you are.”

Ren saw John’s car in the rear view mirror. It looked mean. 

“Judy, I want to tell you something.” He swallowed hard. “I love your wings.” There was silence on the other end of the phone. “Judy?”

“Ren, I don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re taking Blue, but so help me I will make your life a living hell if something bad happens to him.” 

“Judy, is that you?” He thought he recognized her voice, but figured someone else was on the line too. 

“I’m not kidding around, Ren.” 

Ren pulled off the highway onto the causeway toward the beach. At the pinnacle of the bridge he saw the ocean ahead. The water was the same color as Big Blue. Ren relaxed. The ocean was beautiful and giant and awesome, like the bird. Big Blue stared at the ocean too, and Ren thought the parrot had probably never seen it before. 

“Ren, are you on medication? Seriously. Did you take it today?”

“I’m taking your bird to the beach.” 

“Excuse me, where?”

“Judy, why did you second me?”

“You’re taking Blue where?”

“Why did you second me? Back there, in the club?”

There was a pause on the line and Ren thought he heard fingernails drumming the phone. The noise stopped and Judy sighed. “I don’t know, Ren. You seemed to have wanted it and no one else was helping you.” 

“I knew you were one of a kind. Rare.”

“If I’m so rare and wonderful, can you please bring my bird back? I have a bad feeling about this. Ren, are you listening? Something ugly could happen here.”

“Hold on, I have another call.” Ren pressed the green button on his phone. 

“Ren, you jerkoff, I’m behind you and when I catch you I’m going to kick your freaking ass,” John said.

“Please hold.” Ren swapped calls. “Judy, I have your husband on the other line.”

“Ren, bring the bird back. We love that bird. He’s like a kid to us. Do you understand? Like a child. Big Blue is special.”

“He’s the color of the sea, Judy. Did you know that?”

“What is this about? It’s not about the club, is it?” Judy’s voice sounded like birdsong to Ren, but sad too, like a Bach fugue or the sea at ebb tide. He didn’t want to drive anymore. He wanted to go home and sit in his comfortable chair and watch game shows with Adolf. 

Ren pulled into the parking lot next to the Muni Meter. He’d have to feed the machine, then put the white ticket it spit out onto his dashboard or risk a parking violation. 

“Hang on, Judy.” Ren put the phone on his lap and fished for his wallet in his back pocket. He opened the wallet and his gaze settled on a photo of his daughter. He hadn’t seen her in seven years, not since her mother left. The girl was a toddler then. He picked up the phone and swapped calls again. 

“Hey, John, do you have any singles? The machine only takes singles.” 

John had pulled his car into the spot next to Ren’s. He wanted to take the tire iron from his trunk, bust Ren’s windows, then crack his head open. But there was Big Blue, unhurt, perched on the passenger seat, preening his chest feathers. 

“Ren, please let me have my bird back. I don’t know what this is about. You can be president. I don’t care at this point.” 

Tom and Molly O’Connell parked their truck on the other sid
e of Ren’s car, and the parking lot began to fill with members of the SFPS. Tom wanted to crawl on his belly toward the car and slash Ren’s tires. Ozzie figured someone should park behind Ren’s car, keeping him in the spot. All agreed that a drastic move might cause Ren to hurt Blue. The members loved that parrot. It was the last bird that Shelly Tomahawk’s daughter held before the girl was hit by a van and killed one Sunday after a club meeting. Big Blue precipitated Jeff and Sally Hemingway’s autistic child, Lukas, to speak his first and only word, ever: want

“I have to go.” Ren dropped the phone into his lap. The rearview mirror was filling up with people he knew, but he forgot how he knew them. He studied Blue.

“What are you doing here?” he asked the bird. 

Ren unlocked the door and stepped out of the car. He recognized someone in the crowd. He knew the guy. Yes, it was John Conure. Ren had gone to the guy’s wedding. John married Judy. Judy with the translucent wings and the lovebirds. Judy floating like a hummingbird. Judy with feathers so polished, they made Ren’s eyes ache. 

John approached Ren. The rest of the members stepped back. Overhead, a seagull cried into the wind. The ocean rolled in its bed and the sky painted itself cerulean with invisible brushstrokes. Palm trees at the edge of the beach gestured over the scene like a magician. The men stood a few feet apart for a long minute, staring. John could see Big Blue in his periphery. He saw that the bird was the color of the sea and it struck him as amazing. How could something be so beautiful? He remembered Ren’s daughter’s christening, how content Ren was then, how happy. He remembered how Ren rocked the little girl in his lap and how he looked at her like she was the sun after a long winter. 

Everyone thought John was going to strike Ren when he stepped forward. Instead, John wrapped his arms around Ren and held him. Some people in the crowd thought John held Ren the way a parrot holds her nestlings under her wings to keep them safe. Others thought it was more like the way a father holds an infant daughter—gently, and a little afraid.

Nikki Moustaki is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant in poetry, along with many other national writing awards, including three Pushcart Press nominations. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various literary magazines, anthologies, and college textbooks, including Poetry After 9-11: An Anthology of New York Poets and America Now, chosen by Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series. She holds an MA in poetry from New York University, an MFA in poetry from Indiana University, and an MFA in fiction from NYU. Nikki’s 45 educational and how-to books, on topics from choosing a college to training dogs, have been translated into five languages and have sold over half a million copies worldwide, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry and the Cliff’s Notes to Dante’s Inferno and Orwell’s 1984. Her memoir, The Bird Market of Paris, is forthcoming from Henry Holt in early 2015. Nikki splits her time between New York City and Miami Beach.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:38+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Xujun Eberlein – Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges (Nonfiction)

Nonfiction Contest Winner

Xujun Eberlein
Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges

The man I’m now married to was a foreigner in 1987, when he and I took a heretical hike along the Yangtze. We went to the mountains of Wushan through which the renowned Three Gorges are carved. According to a Tang Dynasty poem,Water is hardly water after experiencing oceans / Clouds are no longer clouds apart from Wushan’s mountains. Until a dam—said to be the world’s largest—cut the Yangtze into two halves at the waist, those damned words were so poignant that they could make the stoic sentimental. As rumors of the Three Gorges Dam gathered momentum, I increasingly worried its construction might invalidate the clouds before I saw them with my own eyes. I was a graduate student living in my birthplace of Chongqing at the time. Bob, a 28-year-old visiting American scholar, had cycled across China to see me, only to be expelled by my good old compliant father, who feared it was illegal for a Chinese family to host a foreign visitor. When in doubt, kick out. For love, I chose to go with Bob, and on one August evening the two of us found ourselves at an uncharted point in Wushan’s mountains, unwary of the drama ahead.

It was near dusk when Bob and I gave up hope of finding a port, abandoning the plan to take a boat back upstream to our hotel at the county seat of Wushan. That morning, the undulating hills on the south bank had lured us to cross the Yangtze and hike downstream all day. To our surprise, we never encountered another port along the sparsely habitated riverside.

Where were we exactly? Even Bob’s omnipresent map could not give us a hint. Looking down to the left of the hilly riverside trail we’d been walking along, the vast Yangtze had unexpectedly become a thin belt. Its fast-moving waves calmed; the water appeared clear and shallow, as if one might simply paddle across. Ahead of us, amidst endless farm fields and wild vegetation, a small village could be faintly seen, our only hope of shelter for the night. 

“Big brother Marx!”

At the crisp young voice, we turned. A boy of 12 or 13, pant legs rolled up to knees, mud-covered feet clad in plastic sandals, was gleefully shouting at Bob in the local vernacular similar to my own Chongqing dialect. The only connection I could think of between Bob and Karl Marx was that the former once read the latter while pursuing his Ph.D. in economics. I was pretty sure the boy knew just four foreigners, from wall pictures: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, in that order, and Marx was the one who had a beard as big as Bob’s.

Bob obviously was fond of his new name—everything in China seemed to amuse him. He smiled broadly at the boy, though I doubted the child could see it through the fluffy blond beard. I asked him where we were.

 “Goddess Peak,” the boy pointed to the other side of the river. Following his finger, I looked up at tall, slim cliffs shimmering ethereally in clouds and mists, like a Chinese ink painting. Bob, whose Chinese vocabulary was severely limited, saw the perplexed look on my face and asked what it was.

“That doesn’t look like a Goddess,” I said.

Bob understood right away. “The Goddess in Mao’s poem?”

Hours earlier in the hiking, I had roughly translated for Bob a 1956 Mao poem that ends with these lines: 

     Moreover, walls of stone will stand west of the river
     Cutting off Wushan’s clouds and rain
     In the high gorges appearing a placid lake
     And should the Goddess weather the years
     The changing world would certainly shock her

This poem, titled “Swimming,” is one of 37 that Mao Zedong published. They were printed in a pocket-size book with a red plastic cover, the sibling of the “little red book.” When I was ten or eleven, I ardently recited all of them. I can still recite most. My childhood reverence of Mao came largely from those majestic poems, long before my own experience taught me how the reality under his rule belied his poetry. This particular poem was regarded as a prescient blueprint for the Three Gorges Dam. Having become irreverent, I suspected that Mao got a huge kick out of writing the line “Cutting off Wushan’s clouds and rain,” because the phrase “Wushan’s clouds and rain” was an ancient allusion to having sex, almost as if Mao had in mind the image of cutting off some man’s genitals. But I did not say that to Bob, partly because it was indecent for a Chinese woman to speak such things, partly because my English was not up to the task. 

I was upset by the government’s plan to build the Three Gorges Dam, not for the scientific reasons that concerned other, more erudite and environmentally conscious, protestors, but because of the area’s cultural significance. Three Gorges is the font of China’s ancient myths. Once the so-called “world’s number-one dam” was built, all the beauty and legends of the region would forever be drowned. It was a most destructive idea, all because some leader wanted to realize the lines of Mao’s poem from three decades earlier, or to have his own name carved in concrete.

The village the boy led us to had stone steps running up between some dirt-walled single-story houses, all built into the hill.  Above them stood the “Goddess Peak Inn,” the only two-story wooden house.  The middle-aged innkeeper, with clothes cleaner than those of the farmers, stopped moving his limbs at the sight of Bob. 

“Please, do you have rooms?” I had to ask twice.

“We’ve never received a foreigner before,” he finally said. “Don’t know if we’re allowed to.” 

He sent the boy, who jauntily bounced out, to get instructions from the village chief. A while later the chief, a dark-skinned old farmer with somber eyes, appeared. He and the innkeeper took turns grilling me with questions, and then huddled in a corner whispering. 

“You two must sleep in separate rooms,” the innkeeper told us, “our chief said so.”  

What he had said was at the same time absurd and alarming, since Bob and I had never planned to stay in the same room—more out of fear than for virtuous reasons. Among Chinese males I knew, one tireless topic was how police ambush and catch a pair in bed having an affair. A week earlier in Guizhou, a remote province, Bob and I had checked into two separate rooms at a state-run hotel. Moments after we entered Bob’s room together and closed the door, a middle-aged receptionist kicked it open and bolted in.
Apparently she had expected to catch us in bed so she could seize and deliver us to the police. I can still remember her eyes, covetous and menacing like a vigilant tiger, and her angry breathing at missing such a dramatic opportunity: Bob and I were doing nothing but chatting. A few days later in a crowded overnight train to Hubei, our seats hidden behind standing passengers jostling each other for position, I leaned on Bob’s shoulder to steal a quick nap. But the conductor patrolling the train spotted Bob’s big beard right away. He called me into his tiny office at the front of the car and scolded, “What were you doing leaning on a foreign man, young lady? Do you have no sense of shame?” His tone, however, was more that of a serious older brother teaching a naïve sister; it made me confess that the foreigner was my boyfriend. He paused a moment in disbelief, then said, “Even so, it’s improper for a Chinese girl to lean on a foreign man in public. Don’t you lose face for us Chinese!” and sent me back to my seat. For the rest of the train trip I maintained Chinese propriety.  Later, the conductor came again to give preferential treatment to Bob the foreigner, selling us two sleeping-car tickets—which we had been told were “sold out.”

Sex had been a big taboo in 1970s China during the Cultural Revolution. That taboo was gradually fading in the 1980s, but the liberalization did not extend to a relationship involving a foreigner. Foreigners, especially Westerners, were clothed in a completely different set of rules, just as they deserved to pay much higher prices for airplanes and hotels. “Foreign” was a more persistent taboo, in whose context the sex taboo gained new strength.

After a simple country-style dinner with the usual greens and pork, which Bob and I, exhausted from hiking, relished, we went to sit on the beach to contemplate the famous clouds. Unnumbered threads of mist rose from the river, the beach, mid-mountain, and nowhere. Pink-tinged and milky white, they wove into sheets of flowing veil, gently swirling around the Goddess Peak, changing shapes as they moved. Sitting there at twilight, alone and enchanted, we did not want the moment to end.  The unnamable emotion when I first read the poem on Wushan’s clouds returned anew. I struggled to render the ancient poem in English, but the poignancy of the lines was lost in translation.

Our reverie was cut short when the ever-present boy, sent by the village chief, came to summon us. Back at the inn, the chief had brought in a crowd of similarly dark-faced men. The village had no electricity. Next to the kitchen, in a large room where several oil lamps flickered, the men surrounded us and carried out an interrogation. Most of the time the chief was the sole speaker; the others just stared. Over and over he asked who Bob was and what relationship we had, and (rightly) refused to believe my claim that we were teacher and student. It did not take long for me to see all his beating-around-the-bush questions pointed to a single interest: whether the foreigner and I had had sex. The interrogation reached an impasse as I refused to answer any more questions, at which point Bob and I went upstairs to our rooms.

In the dimness of the crudely furnished room, a peasant woman sat on the cheap wooden bed across from mine, an oil lamp casting a grossly enlarged shadow of her on the wall. She did not look like a guest and she did not utter a single word. I stepped out to peek into Bob’s room, and saw a similar situation: a coarsely dressed man was sitting across the room staring at him.

“This is for your protection,” a turbid voice from behind startled me. It was the village chief. “What if the foreigner comes to your room in the middle of night?” 

When I returned to my place, the peasant woman was already asleep, snoring loudly. It was still early for me, but there was nothing left to do. I blew out the lamp and went to bed.

I awoke to knocks on my door. Outside the window, the sky had only just started to turn white like a fish’s belly. The other woman was gone. 

The innkeeper was standing at my door. “My wife has prepared breakfast for you two. Please eat quickly and run!” he said hastily.

His wife? The woman in my room?

“What’s wrong?”

“The chief called the county police last night,” he lowered his voice.

This was China in 1987: a remote village without electricity had a phone line and wire broadcasting. The inn housed the village’s only telephone.

“They are sending motorcycles here to arrest you. They will arrive between seven thirty and eight.”

 I glanced at my wrist watch as I ran to find Bob. It was a little past six and his room was empty.

“Where’s the foreigner?” I heard panic in my voice.

Out of nowhere emerged the boy. “Big brother Marx is doing Tai-chi by the river!” he declared.

Grateful, my heart settled back in place. I couldn’t help but ask the innkeeper why he took the risk, telling us about the police. The man’s face flushed. 

“You two don’t seem like bad people,” he murmured.

His voice became more urgent as he walked with me to the beach. “Don’t take the road. There’s a trail behind the inn, motorcycles can’t get onto it.”

I felt gratitude and warmth to this kind man whom I barely knew.

On a wet sandy beach at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, Bob’s long arms moved in parallel circles, slowly disturbing the thin morning fog. “Cloud hand” couldn’t have been a more fitting name for the Tai-chi movement he was clumsily performing. Across the river, the Goddess Peak was almost completely shrouded in haze and mist; more fog kept flowing out of the rift between it and the adjacent peak. The air was cool and damp, despite the toasting sun that would soon pop up.

I got Bob back to the inn for a home-style breakfast:  rice porridge, steamed buns, and pickled vegetables. We were hungry – when you are young and traveling and in love nothing can dampen your appetite. But we ate a bit faster than usual. Bob doubted police would bother to come all the way from the county seat, getting out of bed before dawn, riding motorcycles over dirt roads in the dark. “Not much of interest here,” he said. The thinking of a foreigner. Apparently he had not learned his lesson a few weeks earlier—when he cycled across China, he and his American bike were both arrested in a small town near Chongqing. He never figured out the exact reason, other than that he was a foreigner “operating a foreign vehicle.” He was released after paying a two-hundred-yuan fine, one hundred for himself and one hundred
for his bike. Not a small sum at the time.

I had no doubt the police would arrive—arresting people was the thrilling part of their job, arresting a Chinese woman with a foreign man even more so—but I wondered what had made the village chief inform on us. It seemed that the improbable event of a foreigner in his village had stimulated all kinds of fantasy for him, one of those probably a promotion opportunity, a departure from the backwater.       

Bob and I argued a bit about what to do, and decided to run in the end. We did not have much time to waste on the police nonsense: Bob’s visa was about to expire. The gleeful boy watched us eat the country food and argue in English, tilting his head with a cat-like curiosity. Bob asked him if he’d like to have a steamed bun. “Eaten,” he said. 

The boy gladly took the innkeeper’s instruction, brought us to the back of the inn, and showed us the trail. We said goodbye, and I wondered when the police came if he would be showing them, with the same cheerfulness, the path we took to escape. 

Bob and I walked quickly downstream, stamping on wild grass, the morning dew wetting our shoes. I didn’t feel the need to run; it was still early and, as the innkeeper had said, this trail was too narrow for motorcycles. When it passed eight and we hadn’t seen a single soul or heard any man-made sound other than our own footsteps and occasional conversation, it gave us the deceptive impression of safety. 

For a long while Goddess Peak remained in sight, though the angle slowly changed. I kept looking up at the clouds that engulfed it; they were thinning out a bit.

Bob’s eyes were also on the mist. “Clouds and rain—a curious name for sex,” he said.

That euphemism originated sometime during China’s Warring States Period, coined by Song Yu (301-240 BC) in a pair of prose poems describing the immortal Goddess’ encounters with two successive kings of the Chu Kingdom, first the father and then the son. In the first piece, “Gaotang,” the old king is traveling through Wushan. He drifts off midday, and the Goddess comes to his dream “offering her pillow mat.” He rejoices at the opportunity to bestow imperial favor on her. On departure, the Goddess tells him where she can be found again: she is “clouds at dawn, rain at dusk.” In the second piece, “The Goddess,” the son travels to Wushan after his father deceases, accompanied by the poet, who tells him the “clouds and rain” story. The young king fancies about reproducing his father’s romantic encounter. Sure enough, the Goddess comes into his dream, too. But despite her apparent attraction to the son of her lover, the Goddess gently rejects the young king’s pursuit.

Thus the Goddess became symbolic of a chaste lover. The image of chastity had been steadfast in Wushan’s mountains for more than two thousand years, and only recently began to be challenged—by a female poet no less. Shu Ting, an older contemporary of mine, visited the Goddess Peak in 1981, six years before we did. Her widely cheered poem “Goddess Peak” ends with these two lines:

     Either on the precipice displayed for a thousand years
     Or better, one night’s good cry on a lover’s shoulder

Shu Ting’s poem broke a number of taboos: a woman openly alluding to a sexual relationship, placing love above chastity, valuing temporary pleasure more than the perpetual, and cherishing the human instead of the ideal.

But she did not have a foreign lover, and had not been writing about one.

Bob’s foreignness became increasingly lost on me since he first said “I love you” a few months earlier. Despite the mutual attraction, my impulsive response to his declaration was, “But you are a foreigner!”

“I’m a man; you are a woman,” he replied, apparently baffled by my line of reasoning. His words gave me pause. It did not occur to me he needed to say such an obvious thing, but then, it did not occur to me it was obvious before he said it. I’m talking about the position of the person versus the country.

As we hiked, and the rising August sun baked our hatless heads, Bob endured his thirst and let me drink most of the water. Of course, I was the one who was talking, telling him ancient myths about the Yangtze in choppy English. Despite the endless clouds and mist, the only drinkable water we had was in a one-and-a-half liter military canteen. The timeworn green vessel was a relic from the Cultural Revolution era, when every youngster, boy or girl, longed to be a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, eager to liberate the three suffering quarters of the world, the material deficiencies of our own quarter notwithstanding. In those years of empty stores and barren shelves, when you couldn’t buy the things you needed, you could always find that canteen.  This one, forgotten in my parents’ house for years, came in handy for our hiking trip. 

I had filled the canteen with boiled water that morning at the Goddess Peak Inn, but it soon proved insufficient for two hikers under the scorching sun, and we had not found another supply. For several hours, walking along the mountain paths, we had passed only a few small villages, a handful of houses in each. So when we suddenly came upon a tiny port in early afternoon, I skipped and Bob whistled, anticipating a boat ride returning to Wushan. Alas, in order to go upstream we had to go further downstream, and a sampan landed us in the nearest civilization a couple of hours later.

It was a languid summer afternoon in a good-sized town called Badong. Children played on the dusty streets, men and women chatted at storefronts. A teenage boy spotted us first and shouted “Mister! Mister!” in imitated English. Before we knew it, a crowd of men had formed our entourage. We entered a store through one door then exited from another, but our followers waited right at our exit to resume their pursuit.

Unexpectedly, Bob turned around, throwing both arms into the air and making a devil face. “Rawr!” he bellowed. It was so loud and sudden that the startled men fled in all directions, like birds at a gunshot. 

“Stop it!” I yelled at Bob. He grinned sheepishly like a small boy, his teeth white and neat. He thought it was funny. I was embarrassed by both my foreign companion and my isolated countrymen. A moment later I looked back—the crowd had gathered again and resumed their pursuit. They had figured out that the foreign devil was unthreatening after all.

In the evening, we finally boarded an overnight ferry upstream back to the county seat of Wushan. The small ferry had benches along its walls, all occupied, leaving the middle of
its cabin open for standing or squatting passengers. We sat on the filthy floor and dozed off like the locals.

We arrived in the early morning. Despite having hardly slept, and ignorant of what awaited our return, we jumped right onto a tourist boat going up the Da’ning River.

The Da’ning River is a tributary of the Yangtze, known as the “Lesser Three Gorges,” home to the Ba tribe’s “hanging coffins.” In the middle of cliffs hundreds of meters high hung those ancient coffins, triggering ever-lasting interest and endless discussions as to how such heavy wooden tombs, painted in dark colors like rusted iron, were brought to a point seemingly unreachable from either above or below. In the 1970s, explorers managed to take down one of the coffins and found human bones, a Ba tribe sword, and bronze vessels.

I believe my mother and I are decedents of Ba. In my childhood I read a story written by a historian, of how the intrepid and dance-loving people mysteriously disappeared toward the end of China’s Warring State Period, about 300 years B.C.. Their last traces were found in a cave on the cliffs of the Da’ning River. Some historians say it was the Chu Kingdom that exterminated Ba.  

In my mother’s hometown Zhong County, along the Yangtze between Chongqing and Wushan, one hero’s name has been handed down from generation to generation.  The small kingdom of Ba was once caught in strife—whether it was an uprising or an invasion from another kingdom is unclear—which Ba’s tiny army was unable to quell. To get help from a powerful neighboring kingdom, Chu, Ba general Manzi offered them three towns to restore order. Chu’s army came and quelled the internecine war, after which Chu’s king sent an envoy to receive the three promised towns. Manzi said to the envoy, “My head may be given, our land may not. Because I can’t give you our land, to keep my promise I’ll give you my head.” He drew out his sword and cut off his own head to hand over. The envoy brought Manzi’s head back to Chu. The king of Chu was so moved that he held a grand burial for the head, while the Ba Kingdom gave an equally grand burial to the body. Since then, a number of tombs claimed to belong to Ba Manzi have been discovered along the Yangtze, one in Zhong County,  my mother’s hometown, one in Chongqing, my birthplace, and others elsewhere.

For two thousand years, every spring, on the third day of the third lunar month, Zhong County held a grand temple fair called “the third moon festival”  commemorating their hero. “Zhong” means “fidelity”; the county’s name was bestowed by Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shiming to memorialize Ba Manzi.  In middle school, my mother had heartily sung and danced in each year’s “third moon festival” parade.

Ba Manzi was my mother’s hero, and mine. But once, years after I’d moved to America, a disturbing thought surfaced. I was reading the news that in Chengdu, the neighboring city of Chongqing, a 47-year-old woman Tang Fuzhen immolated herself trying to stop the government’s demolition of her house. Her death did not halt the forced demolition, a widespread practice nowadays. There would be no Ba Manzi to defend his people’s land in this situation, because the line is clear: one who resists a foreign power is always the hero; one who resists the domestic government is always the bandit.  

My memory of the hanging coffins on the cliffs of the Da’ning River might be clearer if it were not for the melodramatic development that hijacked our exploration. As it happens, their images appear only as small dark dots in the background of a white Jeep parked at Wushan’s port.

Bob and I saw the Jeep, and the two men in pressed pants and collared long-sleeve shirts leaning upon it, as we got off the boat returning from the Da’ning River about noon. Seeing Bob, they suddenly rose and walked toward us.

“Are you …?” The thinner of the two asked my name in Chinese. I nodded hesitantly. “Are you Robert?” He then asked Bob in accented English. After verification he said, “Please get in our car.  We are from Wushan Foreign Affair Office. We invite you to go with us.”

“What’s the problem?”  I asked, not moving. 

The other man, much bigger in size, jumped at me. “Are you going with us or not?” He yelled. “If you don’t want to take our invitation, would you like the police’s invitation better?”

Bob and I looked at each other. We got into the car.

We were brought to an office building five or six stories high. They handed Bob over to a young man downstairs and escorted me upstairs. Walking up, I asked how they found us.

The fatter man kept his stern face and ignored me. The thinner man said, “The eyes of our masses are snow bright! Around the time the Goddess Peak Inn called the police bureau, we also got a call from Wushan Hotel. You two checked in to two rooms and left your luggage there, but did not return for the night.” He gave me a meaningful glance with apparent implication. My feeble attempt to explain was disregarded as he continued to brag. “We knew you would come back for the luggage. We knew you went to Da’ning River. A foreign face is easy to distinguish for our enlightened masses, you know.” He smiled.

In a small office on the fourth floor, sitting across two wide desks that were joined together, the men took turns interrogating me. Though like the peasants, they were also interested in our sexual relationship, they had some higher concepts in mind. They kept asking, “Is the American a CIA spy? What is his mission coming here?”

“To bomb the uninhabited mountains? To cut off the clouds and rain?” I offered a few possibilities, which resulted in the fatter man smashing his fist on the desk.

 CIA or not, as of this writing no foreign intrigue has been blamed for damaging people’s livelihoods in the Three Gorges region. The dam—built long after our visit—and the relocation of millions induced by it, were purely domestic. In primeval times there were gods who did damage, according to Shi Ji, the ancient Chinese historic chronicles. But even those were Chinese gods.

Thousands of years ago, there was a horrible flood caused by two gods fighting for the crown of heaven, for even among the gods there is an emperor. The loser, in his fury, smashed his head into Buzhou Mountain, one of the four pillars holding up the sky; the mountain snapped and the northwest corner of the sky collapsed. Endless water poured onto the earth from the Sky River, the folklore na
me for the Milky Way. The lands were inundated, villages and crops drowned.

As a child I read the above tale in footnotes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong. There were four thick volumes of them. It was a time when all books other than Mao’s were prohibited.  The unsettling thing is, in spite of his misconduct, Mao was a learned man in literature. He collated and alluded expansively, and historians had to write tremendous numbers of footnotes explaining his allusions in those volumes. I soon found the footnotes much more interesting than the war-time telegrams Mao wrote to his generals.  In the several years that all schools ceased classes, I spent days and nights reading those footnotes. That began my life-long love for ancient Chinese writings, one of them Shi Ji, or Records of the Grand Historian, which I got my hands on as soon as the city library – and schools – gingerly reopened.

In that immense flood crisis of antiquity, Shi Ji says, Emperor Shun, one of the first five emperors in China’s history, ordered a capable tribal chief Guen to stop the flood. Guen worked hard for nine years trying everywhere to block water with no success. Frustrated, Emperor Shun used lightning to execute him. (When I told Bob the story, he asked, “Is it history or myth?” A question beyond me.  I’d love to learn a method that could distinguish the two.)

Emperor Shun then asked Guen’s son, Yu, to carry on his father’s quest. Yu and his colleague Boyi—who is the earliest known ancestor of the Xu lineage, the lineage of my father—scaled mountains and forded rivers over nine continents for thirteen years. Changing Guen’s “blocking” strategy to “dredging,” Yu eventually brought the grand flood under control. Since then, the study of forceful “blocking” versus accommodative redirection through “dredging” has become a metaphorical necessity for every generation of China’s rulers, in treating social issues as well as floods. Mao, and other Chinese leaders after him, also promoted “dredging” in theory, but not necessarily in practice. The largest engineering of “blocking” in today’s China is none other than the Three Gorges Dam.

It was in that ancient flood the Goddess and Yu crossed paths. Interestingly, in folklore, the Goddess is a heroine trying to save the human race, not at all the chaste lover of written literature that developed much later. She first descended from her heavenly palace because she was bored of immortal life and craved earthly excitement—the typical plot line of Chinese legends involving a goddess.  In her descent she ran into Yu, who was struggling with the flood in the Three Gorges. Moved by Yu’s effort, the Goddess stole a book on flood treatment from the heavens—whence the water had originated—and gave it to Yu. Then she stayed in Wushan’s mountains to help navigate ships to safety, until one day she petrified into an eternal presence. 

My interrogators cared about none of what I had said when I told them the truth, that Bob and I had come for the legends. For four hours the two men took turns alternatively playing at hostility and kindness. One said they would send me to jail if I didn’t tell them why the American was really here; another said they were very concerned about me being duped by a suspicious foreign man. When I demanded to know my crime, they said it was against the law for a Chinese female to travel with a foreign male. When I asked them to show me the particular law, they said “It’s not for you to see.”

I argued, I ridiculed, no use. They threatened, they wooed, no result. We entered a deadlock.    

Someone came in and interrupted us; it was the young man who was with Bob. He whispered something to the skinny man’s ear and it made me concerned. When he was leaving, I asked, “Where’s the foreigner?  What’s he doing?”

“The foreigner,” he pursed his lips toward downstairs, “is doing Tai-chi in the courtyard.”

I believe that was what broke the impasse. No one could help but grin, even the choleric man. 

Later I asked Bob why he was doing Tai-chi in such a place, at such a time; was he making a scene again? He said he was baffled by his freedom and my detainment: “I was in the dark, didn’t know what they were doing to you. Tai-chi calms me.”

I was finally released under the condition that we cease traveling and return to Chongqing immediately. There were a lot more things I wanted to see along the Three Gorges, but I never got the chance. The next morning, the foreign affair officials made sure that Bob and I boarded an upstream passenger ship. Two mornings later, as our ship approached Chongqing’s Chaotianmen port, Bob asked if I’d consider going to America with him. 

“Why don’t you live in China with me?” I asked hopefully.

“You know I love you deeply, but I don’t want to live in China. I love America.”

It was so strange to hear a man say he loved his country when he was not under a mandatory requirement to do so. It was so strange to hear a man say he loved a country that had been the enemy of your own. The words hurt my ears. 

Seven years later, in December 1994, the Three Gorges Dam construction, aimed at creating the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, broke ground, despite heavy objections from many scientists and intellectuals. A writer who attended the 1992 National People’s Congress that approved the dam told me later that many of the delegates expressed objections in group and private discussions during the conference, the number a lot higher than the 177 opposing votes indicated. Still, one tenth against a government bill was unprecedented in the history of the People’s Congress.

The dam took 16 years to complete. By October 2010 the water had risen to the designated 175 meters above sea level. More than a million residents in the flooded areas were relocated to places all over the country; the Goddess Peak Inn where we once stayed was long drowned, along with numerous archaeological and cultural sites. We never went to the Three Gorges again. A recent photo of the Goddess Peak I found on the internet shows a bare, much lower mountaintop with no clouds around it.

Sometimes, when the name “Three Gorges” comes up in conversation or reading, I briefly wonder about that curious-eyed boy who called Bob “big brother Marx.” He should be in his mid-thirties by now. Where has he been relocated to? Did he ever go to college? He would have made an excellent student with his insatiable curiosity.

In May 2011, for the first time the Chinese government admitted that the Three Gorges Dam is causing “urgent problems,” citing pollution, geologic, and migration issues that now require
“disaster prevention.” These problems, and more, had long been warned of by scientists and writers in China, from even before the dam was started. China’s renowned hydropower expert Huang Wanli, for example, once predicted, “if the Three Gorges dam is built, we will eventually be forced to dynamite it.” Huang spent the last twenty years of his life, until he died in 2001, doing everything to stop the project, to no avail.

In February 2005, I visited China and travelled with my younger sister Maple, an avid photographer, to see Yunnan’s terraced fields. This photogenic area also attracted lots of Japanese tourists. One morning, when my sister was setting her tripod up on a hilltop, a group of Japanese photographers came in behind her. One of those, eager to find the best camera angle, signaled impatiently at my sister to leave, apparently because she blocked his view.  Maple, usually shy with strangers, became fierce. “Where do you think you are?” she reprimanded sharply. “This is China!”

Though scuffles occasionally occur among tourists and photographers vying for a better view, Maple wouldn’t have been so upset if the man were Chinese. Her mood echoed the Chinese public’s sentiment toward Japanese then. After all, Iris Chang, the author of The Rape of Nanking, had recently taken her own life, while Chinese news reports kept coming in about Japan’s history textbooks teaching school children a distorted view of its WWII invasion of China.

The Japanese tourist, who did not seem to understand Chinese, appeared surprised: my sister’s anger was unmistakable. The man’s hands dropped from the camera hanging on his neck, and he quietly walked away.

The next morning, Maple and I got up at 5 a.m. to try to catch the sunrise. The sun never showed on that chilly winter day. Instead, in the rift between two mountain peaks, immense milky clouds rolled toward us in waves. It was like Goddess Peak all over. I was speechless.

A luxury tour bus arrived with a full load of Japanese tourists before dawn. When daylight broke, I saw a spunky old Japanese man standing beside me, an expensive-looking camera hanging around his neck. As our eyes met, he smiled and said something in Chinese. We chatted. It turned out he was second generation Japan-Chinese, in his mid-70s. 

Perhaps because his Chinese ethnicity caught me off guard, I attempted the topic of WWII and criticized Japan’s alleged denial of its historical crime. “Japanese did lots of terrible things to the Chinese during the war,” I said at one point, in a clumsy effort to stress my point.

“People do terrible things everywhere,” he replied in a politely dissenting tone, “Chinese did lots of terrible things to Chinese, too.”

I was pissed off by his claim. I wanted to refute it, and wanted that badly, yet I could not find one good word.

Xujun Eberlein is an essayist and fiction writer, and a native of Chongqing, China now living in the Boston area. Author of the award-winning story collection Apologies Forthcoming, her stories and essays have appeared in many magazines in the United States as well as Canada, England, Kenya, and Hong Kong. She has received an artist fellowship in fiction/creative nonfiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology, multiple nominations for the Best American anthology series, the VCCA’s Goldfarb Non-Fiction Fellowship, first prize in the Ledge Fiction Awards, and second prize in Literal Latte’s Essay Awards. 

By |2018-12-13T20:02:33+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Tobias Wray – Sci-fi Aubade (Poetry)

Poetry Contest Runner-Up

Tobias Wray
Sci-fi Aubade

Say God breaks his covenant

and floods return Manhattan to the deep

where future fisherman dive for pearls.

Say a diver blacks out from the pressure,

rises like a dark flare sent against the storm,

and surfaces, blooming on the heavy waves.

To the creatures below, he’ll sleepily wave

his arms like tendrils, like a hungry, beckoning thing

that survived the flood to become predator

of the silky blue, a latter-day monster

singing down nightly from this balcony in the sky,

begging, Please, wend this way


and sway to silent songs that promise feasts

to come. But the diver, not knowing

this is what he is saying, is still and dreaming:

A woman opens beside him like a new testament

and rests her head against his and whispers

what he’ll spend so many mornings trying to remember.

Tobias Wray is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he is a reader for the Cream City Review. His work has appeared in Phoebe, Wayfarer, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2010 Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest. He holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas in poetry and translation.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:37+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Susannah Nevison – Preparing the Animal (Poetry)

Poetry Contest Winner 

Susannah Nevison
Preparing the Animal

I’ve been watching your hands
     for weeks, watching the rain gather
its woolen shawl around the house,
     while you sharpen tools, lay them out
and show me–gut hook, drop point, skinner, priest
     what they can do, test each honed blade, 
run the edge above your arm, close to skin,
     just close enough that tiny hairs bend or fall.
When I was a girl, a boy showed me a knife
     whose steel I couldn’t believe, though he insisted
it was real, dared me to touch it.
     I pressed my thumb to check its sharpness, certain 
it was fake. I bled. The cut and sting
     fine as the stream of water

he then held my hand in, so cold
     it made me ache. What are we but sinew
and synapse, a system’s grim accumulation–
     but softer? Soon, you will slit
the belly, you will enter with cupped hands 
     to loose the windpipe and split
breastbone, the structure falling
     around the heart’s muscled knot.  I know 
you will work quickly, not to staunch the wound
     but to bleed the body, to keep the meat, the hide,
will lay the body out, bless the knives—you, who cup my face 
     gently, who drag your fingers
through my hair, until I bend 
     or fall beside you.

Susannah Nevison’s poems and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming from JERRY Magazine, Western Humanities Review, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2013 Academy of American Poets Larry Levis Prize, and was a finalist for the 2013 Cider Press Review Book Award. Her first book, Teratology, won the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, and is forthcoming from Persea Books in 2015. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah and lives in Salt Lake City.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:37+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Stephen Lackaye – In the Orchard

Stephen Lackaye

In the Orchard

Fascinated once more by the tyranny of trees
arrested in their ranks graduating from the valley,
and by the groundfog that imparts a sense of mystery
to air too warm to be foreboding, too cool for the work
of a dream. I once watched in a similar air, in similar
fascination, a woman drop a gray, silk scarf 
from a fourth floor balcony. Such a dramatic gesture! 
Like some noble flag in abjection, I saw it fall through 
eddies of shade, through the reading lamp light of lower floors, 
before melting into the rain-darkened pavement at my feet. 
This is where the moon tracks sorrowful over the trees;
the orchard grows aloof, conspiratorial in its rustling.
There’s blame to this landscape, or guilt, for sentiment
or tyranny. The streets had emptied into the dinner halls, 
all that smoke and music smoldering behind doors, 
and the hand that had dropped the scarf, lit with the same 
unjust albedo of the apple boughs raking down the fog,
climbed into the hair of the man who stood beside her,
though all I’d thought I’d seen changed suddenly
when he grabbed her by the throat. This happens 
all the time now. I get lost in common questions, 
watching romantic notions fail, or perhaps, in their ways,
succeed: I cannot shake the memory of how closely they held, 
without kissing, those two figures on the balcony, their mouths, 
each one breathing in the poisons the other one expelled.

Stephen Lackaye has his MSc from the University of Edinburgh, and his MFA from the Johns Hopkins University. Other poems have appeared recently in Boxcar Poetry Review, Conte, Crab Orchard Review, Grist: The Journal for Writers, Los Angeles Review, and RHINO. He lives in Beaverton, Oregon, where he works for Powell’s Books and teaches online for Northeastern University.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:36+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Emma Bolden – Museum of the Body

Emma Bolden

Museum of the Body

First they hang each of your aches
from the eaves. Then the curator comes
with her stick pins, her white cards,

her typeset: head-, heart-, ear-,
belly-. The collectors start
small. They take your pinkie toe,

which you miss only in mornings
with the start of each starting step, you miss
only the feel of carpet under it.

They come for your skin slow
and in pieces. Soon you’re accustomed
to the look of muscle, the ruby

and the glint of it. Soon you admire
each white hint of bone. In the museum
the walls fill: a vertebra. Scapula. The pale

plain of ilium, ischium, the pubis
no longer embarrassing without its rough
shock of curls. There is a guide to lead

you from knee cap to talus bone. There
are words, finally. They explain: see here
the scar from a second grade bike wreck.

See here the thumb. See the nail asleep
in its bed. You are given headphones.
They tell you: here is the cranium,
mandible, the ear and all the words
it drummed: love and fear. Echo. Here the long
strands of hair you never asked to own.

Emma Bolden’s first full-length collection of poems, Malificae, was published by GenPop Books. She is also the author of three chapbooks of poetry: How to Recognize a Lady, published as part of Edge by Edge, the third in Toadlily Press’ Quartet Series; The Mariner’s Wife, published by Finishing Line Press; and The Sad Epistles, published by dancing girl press. Her work has appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, the Indiana Review, the Greensboro Review, Redivider, Copper Nickel, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, and on Linebreak.org. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and blogs at A Century of Nerve, which you can find at emmabolden.com.

By |2018-12-13T20:02:38+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Circe Maia (Translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval) – Three Poems

Circe Maia
(Translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval)

Three Poems

Calle lateral

Al anochecer
muchas casas tienen todavía
las puertas entreabiertas:
franjas de luz, cruzando las baldosas
llegan hasta la calle.
            Durante todo el día
van y vienen personas
que no cierran las puertas
sino que las entornan . . .
            Quedan a veces
a la vista una planta, un zuguán, escalones.

Y el misterio se instala a plena luz
porque ahora
cada puerta entornada ha dejado volarse
un hálito
de la cerrada vida de la casa.

(Las hojas de la planta del zaguán se agitan
por el viento que llega de la calle.)

Side Street

At dusk
many houses still have
their doors half-open:
bands of light crossing the tiles,
reaching the street.
            All day long
people come and go
who do not shut the doors
but leave them ajar. . . 
            Sometimes leaving
in view: a plant, an entryway, stairs.

Leaving the mystery open to broad daylight
because now
every door propped open has let escape
a gentle breeze, a breath
of the closed life of the house.

(The leaves of the plant in the hallway tremble
in the wind from the street.)

Voces en el comedor

La puerta quedó abierta
y desde el comedor llegan las voces.

Suben por la escalera
y la casa respira.
Respira la madera de sus pisos
las baldosas, el vidrio en las ventanas.

Y como por descuido se abren otras puertas
como a golpes de viento
y nada impide entonces que se escuchen las voces
desde todos las cuartos.

No importa lo que dicen.
Conversan: se oye una,
después se oye la otra.
Son voces juveniles,

peldaños de madera
y mientras ellas suenan
-mientras suenen-
sigue viva la casa.

Voices in the Dining Room

The door was left open
and from the dining room come voices.

They rise up the stairs
and the house breathes.
The wood of its floors breathe,
the tiles, the glass in the windows.

And, as if by accident, other doors open
as if by gusts of wind
and nothing stops the voices from being heard
through all the rooms.

It doesn’t matter what they say.
They converse: one is heard,
then the other is heard.
There are young voices,

They climb the wooden stairs
and while they sound
—while they are able to sound–
the house stays alive. 


 . . . Aquí me ves, cubriéndome la espesa
capa, torpe tejido
de los desordenados pensamientos:

germina uno, se alza un poco, baja
y en una niebla de trivialidades
se diluye, se ablanda.

Dio una hora el reloj. La hora lisa.
Pronto se agotarán estos sonidos
de cháchara liviana.

Pronto se apagarán, pequeñas chispas
se aflojarán los nudos, las cadenas,
—esqueletos de ideas–
que a duras penas se alzan.

Ha de bajar la sombra un sueño inquieto.
Sorberé sus imágenes
como bebida agria.


. . . Here you see me, covered in a thick 
layer, clumsy tissue
of disordered thoughts:

one germinates, rises a little, lowers
and in a fog of trivialities,
is diluted, softened.

The clock strikes one hour. The smooth hour.
These sounds will soon be covered
by frivolous chatter.

Soon the small sparks will go out,
the knots, the chains, will be loosened
—skeletons of ideas–
struggling to stand.

An unquiet sleep has lowered its shadow
I will sip its images
like a bitter drink. 

Circe Maia is the author of nine books of poetry. Her collected poems, Circe Maia: Obra Poética, was published in Uruguay in 2011. In 2013, she was awarded the Delmira Agustini Medal of Art by Uruguayan President, José Mujica.
Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of 13 books of fiction, memoir, and poetry, and is the editor of América Invertida: an Anthology of Younger Uruguayan Poets, which is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press. 

By |2018-12-13T20:02:35+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

John Hoppenthaler – Bamboo

John Hoppenthaler


“She likes the big Bambú!” He’s grunting & singing 
off-key like an idiot frat boy, shit-eating grin 
on his arrogant George Walker Bush-looking face, 
& Oh, I do, I really do, but not the over-sized

shroud of cigarette paper into which he’s rolling 
inferior weed & not what he was getting at 
with the double entendre, the largely 
exaggerated dong lurking nearby, slinking around

there inside his baggy, relaxed-fit shorts. 
I’ve remembered my grandparents’ backyard, green 
stand of bamboo, tropical playground on the cesspool 
side of their property. I haven’t thought of it for years, 

how suburban New York became the jungle, 
how magical flutes might be fashioned on the spot 
by my bachelor uncle. How blowguns, how wind 
chimes, long sunfish poles & walking sticks, & how

has it all come to this: barely stoned on shitty pot, 
& the idiot butcher of Iraq chanting victory songs 
& smirking, & about to fill my every hole with reeds? 
Bamboo rustled like Serengeti grasses in the wind. 

The skeletal clatter & mourn of my lonely uncle’s
hollow chimes spooked the drowsy air. Always 
at dusk, a feral cat would come, & I’d pretend that cat 
was a lion. I’d pretend he was wild & came only for me.

John Hoppenthaler’s previous books of poetry are Lives of Water (2003), Anticipate the Coming Reservoir (2008), and Domestic Garden (forthcoming, 2015), all with Carnegie Mellon University Press. With Kazim Ali, he has co-edited a volume of essays on the poetry of Jean Valentine, This-World Company. For the cultural journal Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, he edits “A Poetry Congeries.” He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at East Carolina University.