Let’s Make a Movie”: Visualizing Blackness Beyond Trauma Through the Lens of Film and Poetry

Criticism / McKinley E. Melton

:: “Let’s Make a Movie”: Visualizing Blackness Beyond Trauma Through the Lens of Film and Poetry ::

Black his­to­ry is full of trau­ma. More­over, when exam­ined in rela­tion to the con­tem­po­rary moment, the time­line of that trau­ma-filled his­to­ry defies a nar­ra­tive of unabat­ed progress. Indeed, one of the deep frus­tra­tions of engag­ing thought­ful­ly with the real­i­ty of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry is the feel­ing that, regard­less of how many tran­si­tions our world has under­gone, Black pain remains con­sis­tent. In the effort to use artis­tic pro­duc­tion to give voice to this frus­tra­tion, Black artists face the chal­lenge of rec­og­niz­ing and rep­re­sent­ing trau­ma, in both the past and present, with­out allow­ing it to become the defin­ing fea­ture of Black­ness. Rec­og­niz­ing pain as a part of the sto­ry, which can­not be allowed to rep­re­sent the total­i­ty of Black iden­ti­ty, is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for those artists who seek to artic­u­late an under­stand­ing of Black­ness through visu­al means, for whom image and imagery are cen­tral to the cre­ative effort.

Films and film-mak­ing play a piv­otal role in cre­at­ing images of Black­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly with respect to trau­ma. In the cur­rent moment, when Black trau­ma is pro­ject­ed across screens of all sizes through viral videos, social media, and cease­less cable news, there is a pow­er­ful sense of imme­di­a­cy con­cern­ing the con­di­tions fac­ing Black bod­ies. How­ev­er, it’s vital to rec­og­nize that film is but the lat­est iter­a­tion in the evo­lu­tion of Black image-mak­ing. Jacque­line N. Stew­art reminds us in her analy­sis of “the emer­gence of cin­e­ma” that “its ear­ly meth­ods of rep­re­sent­ing Black­ness both entered into and reflect­ed a long, com­plex tra­di­tion of Black ‘image’ mak­ing in visu­al and non­vi­su­al media, a tra­di­tion that had sig­nif­i­cant and often quite dam­ag­ing per­son­al and polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions for African Amer­i­can indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties.” [i] This has cer­tain­ly per­sist­ed as Black film has evolved over the course of the past cen­tu­ry. Con­se­quent­ly, as Black artists turn to film, both as cre­atives and crit­ics, to exam­ine how it shapes under­stand­ings of Black­ness in rela­tion to hurt and pain, they engage not only the his­to­ry of Black trau­ma, but also the his­to­ry of Black image-mak­ing. Black artists, in their ongo­ing effort to pro­duce images of Black­ness with greater dimen­sion, must be under­stood as enter­ing into long­stand­ing and ongo­ing crit­i­cal dis­cours­es around Black visuality.

In this dis­cus­sion, I con­sid­er the work of three such artists, plac­ing their cre­ative efforts in con­ver­sa­tion with schol­ars who are sim­i­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the visu­al­iza­tion of Black­ness. Film­mak­er Ava DuVer­nay crit­i­cal­ly reflects on pop­u­lar­ized rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Black­ness and trau­ma while endeav­or­ing to pro­duce counter-nar­ra­tives through grip­ping visu­al texts. Through­out her body of work, but specif­i­cal­ly in her 2019 Net­flix series, When They See Us, DuVer­nay is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the con­se­quen­tial rela­tion­ship between pop­u­lar­ized images of Black­ness and the lived expe­ri­ence of her films’ sub­jects. In dia­logue with DuVer­nay, I exam­ine the work of con­tem­po­rary poets Gabriel Ramirez and Danez Smith, focus­ing on poems where­in the artists employ film as a metaphor for their com­men­tary on preva­lent Black images. 

As poets whose filmed per­for­mances rep­re­sent visu­al forms of artis­tic expres­sion as well, Ramirez and Smith con­tribute to a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of how Black­ness becomes visu­al­ized through images pro­duced in mul­ti­ple media, each of which oper­ates in dis­tinc­tion from, and in dia­logue with, one anoth­er. These artists col­lec­tive­ly uti­lize film, both as metaphor and as medi­um, to pose pow­er­ful ques­tions about the need for Black art to engage trau­ma with respect to Black his­to­ry and his­tor­i­cal con­text as well as to re-frame rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Black­ness for their view­ers, there­by illu­mi­nat­ing not just the trau­ma of Black life but the full­ness of the lives that trau­ma interrupts.

When They See Us offi­cial trail­er

When Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us was released on Net­flix in May 2019, the response from the view­ing pub­lic was swift and var­ied. Detail­ing the events that led to the wrong­ful arrest of five teenagers—Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richard­son, and Ray­mond San­tana, Jr.—for rape in 1989 and fol­low­ing their lives from incar­cer­a­tion to exon­er­a­tion, the series imme­di­ate­ly cat­alyzed a robust dis­course of reviews, respons­es, and crit­i­cal­ly-mind­ed “think pieces.” Crit­ics, schol­ars, and gen­er­al view­ers found them­selves re-exam­in­ing the case, explor­ing the biogra­phies of the re-monikered “Exon­er­at­ed Five,” dis­cussing the per­for­mances of the young actors who took on these roles, and con­sis­tent­ly draw­ing par­al­lels to the con­tem­po­rary moment. The con­ver­sa­tion around the film series only grew as Net­flix announced that it had been the most watched pro­gram on its plat­form each day in the weeks after its release and that it had been viewed by more than 23 mil­lion accounts world­wide with­in its first month. [ii] In the midst of that con­ver­sa­tion, a cen­tral con­cern recur­rent­ly rose to the fore­front: giv­en the painful­ly trau­mat­ic nature of the series’ sto­ry­line and its emo­tion­al res­o­nance with ongo­ing debates about the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and the per­sis­tent crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Black youth, much of the con­ver­sa­tion cen­tered on its “watch­a­bil­i­ty.” View­ers reflect­ed on the emo­tion­al work required of them to com­plete all four episodes, and poten­tial view­ers inter­ro­gat­ed whether they were ful­ly pre­pared to sit through the chal­leng­ing scenes from the dis­com­fort of their liv­ing rooms.

Many with­in this debate felt that the trau­mat­ic nature of the view­ing expe­ri­ence was crit­i­cal to the effec­tive­ness of DuVernay’s film. Rec­og­niz­ing that DuVer­nay her­self had arranged for cri­sis coun­selors to be on set for the cast and crew dur­ing film­ing, the dif­fi­cul­ty of the mate­r­i­al was ful­ly acknowl­edged. [iii] Many insist­ed that the will­ing­ness to embrace that dif­fi­cul­ty was nec­es­sary, as a show of sup­port not only for the “Exon­er­at­ed Five,” but also for the film itself and, by exten­sion, for future efforts to tell the sto­ries of the trau­ma­tized in order to facil­i­tate heal­ing and to pre­vent these cir­cum­stances from recur­ring. Ida Har­ris argues,

[DuVernay’s] work deserves our eyes, col­lec­tive con­tem­pla­tion, and action … As black peo­ple, we must be aware of the aggres­sive crim­i­nal­iza­tion of black and brown people—which lends a hand to mass incar­cer­a­tion. We must know these sto­ries and be famil­iar with the enti­ties who ben­e­fit from our demise. [iv]

Sim­i­lar­ly, Zeno­bia Jef­fries Warfield argues that the emo­tion­al heft of the film bears sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels under­ly­ing its neces­si­ty. After admit­ting that she “didn’t make it to the end of part one before [her] chest hurt so bad­ly from anx­i­ety and rage that only an over­whelm­ing wail from deep with­in brought [her] relief,” she rec­og­nized that her pain was communal:

In some Black spaces it may be about affirm­ing our humanity—our expe­ri­ences, being seen, being heard, being believed, and mak­ing the world hear first­hand these sto­ries of hell­ish­ness and heart­break. I would equate the pain of watch­ing the series to see­ing the tele­vised images of Black people—including children—being hosed, beat­en, and jailed dur­ing the civ­il rights era. [v]

The par­al­lels drawn here are sig­nif­i­cant, not only for the ways that these writ­ers link his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary trau­ma, but also for how they cen­ter film—both its mak­ing and its viewing—as a crit­i­cal form of resis­tance to that trau­ma and the acts that incite it. Giv­en that one of DuVernay’s pre­vi­ous films, Sel­ma, explored the inter­na­tion­al impact of tele­vised scenes of vio­lence in the civ­il rights era, name­ly the live broad­cast­ing of “Bloody Sun­day” on the Edmund Pet­tus Bridge, it would be rea­son­able to con­sid­er how DuVer­nay engages in sim­i­lar themes with When They See Us.

While rec­og­niz­ing DuVernay’s intent in pro­duc­ing such a pow­er­ful film series, oth­ers assert­ed that the episodes demand­ed too much of the audi­ence and sug­gest­ed that poten­tial view­ers should absolute­ly feel free to avoid the series for the sake of their own men­tal health and as a delib­er­ate act of self-care. KC Ifeanyi, for exam­ple, rec­og­nized that “pub­lic dis­plays of black trau­ma were an inte­gral cat­a­lyst for the Civ­il Rights Move­ment” and acknowl­edged the impor­tance of “tele­vised accounts and por­traits of black bod­ies being hosed and torn by dogs” as well as the “heart­break­ing deci­sion to have an open-cas­ket funer­al” for Emmett Till. [vi] Yet, Ifeanyi still argued for the need to “opt out” of the view­ing and the demand to revis­it these boys’ trau­ma through film. Essays like CNN con­trib­u­tor Doug Criss’s “I’m a Black man with a teenage son. I can’t bring myself to watch When They See Us” and Essence mag­a­zine senior enter­tain­ment edi­tor Joi-Marie McKenzie’s “I was 7 Months Preg­nant Cre­at­ing a Black Boy While Watch­ing When They See Us” brought into stark relief the emo­tion­al tax being drawn from Black par­ents in par­tic­u­lar. These writ­ers saw in their own chil­dren the poten­tial fates of the young men whose con­fes­sions to a crime that they did not com­mit were so bru­tal­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly coerced in a coor­di­nat­ed effort between police and pros­e­cu­tors in the series’ first episode. Con­sis­tent­ly, the objec­tions raised to the view­ing expe­ri­ence were not only about the pain of re-liv­ing these moments from 1989, but also about rec­og­niz­ing the very real pos­si­bil­i­ty that such events could repeat today.

Nov­el­ist Eisa Nefer­tari Ulen sim­i­lar­ly addressed the pain exact­ed from par­ents, doing so with a con­scious­ly his­tor­i­cal lens that extend­ed even far­ther than the late 1980s. Ulen writes, “I think about my ances­tors, about the trau­ma of par­ent­ing enslaved chil­dren. How can my fear com­pare to the real­i­ties my fore­moth­ers faced? Chil­dren dragged from their love and into pure white ter­ror. Why do I feel so sud­den­ly unable to cope, when they sur­vived far worse?” [vii] Chal­leng­ing her sense of guilt over an appar­ent inabil­i­ty to muster the for­ti­tude of her ances­tors, Ulen rec­og­nizes that her pain is com­pound­ed by the recog­ni­tion that “things have not changed so much after all … this is his­to­ry. This is now. This is inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma.” [viii] Ulen writes, “I am suf­fer­ing wit­ness trau­ma. Every time I see a video of police vio­lence, a sur­veil­lance tape, a dash cam record­ing, I am expe­ri­enc­ing a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture.” [ix] In mak­ing this dec­la­ra­tion, Ulen also argues,

The truth in this series shouldn’t be my trau­ma to bear … It is time for white women and white men and white chil­dren to have this expe­ri­ence, to know this sto­ry, to con­front this real­i­ty. White law stu­dents, age-old pros­e­cu­tors and police offi­cers can­not claim to be pro­fes­sion­als if they do not wit­ness these truths. Five hun­dred years is long enough. Black moth­ers have screamed into the night long enough. It is time for white peo­ple to see them—the killers who live in their families—and con­front the evil they have done. [x]

In this pow­er­ful dec­la­ra­tion, Ulen echoes a sen­ti­ment that is shared by mul­ti­ple writ­ers, such as David Den­nis, Jr., who wrote “Dear White Peo­ple: Make Your White Friends Watch When They See Us” for News One. Den­nis sug­gests that the trig­ger­ing nature of the series was a vital ele­ment of the view­ing process and that the ques­tion up for debate should not be whether the series is “watch­able,” but who should be watch­ing, in order for the visu­al­iza­tion of Black trau­ma to be pre­sent­ed to great­est effect.

The ques­tion of audi­ence and his­tor­i­cal-con­tem­po­rary con­ti­nu­ity func­tion as the two cen­tral themes in this debate about the “watch­a­bil­i­ty” of Black trau­ma, as engen­dered by dis­cus­sions of DuVernay’s work. While today’s crit­ics take on these ques­tions through social media and pub­lic schol­ar­ship, these are not new ques­tions with respect to the pro­duc­tion of Black art. They have been addressed repeat­ed­ly by schol­ars who exam­ine the place of trau­ma in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Black life through Black art. Saidiya Hartman’s sem­i­nal work, Scenes of Sub­jec­tion: Ter­ror, Slav­ery, and Self-Mak­ing in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, explores pre­cise­ly these ques­tions while ref­er­enc­ing the pain of enslaved peo­ple that sim­i­lar­ly inspired Ulen’s response and thought­ful engage­ment with the trau­ma of her ances­tors. Ana­lyz­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of “scenes of sub­jec­tion” through nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture, the­ater, and visu­al arts, Hart­man explic­it­ly address­es the ques­tion of audi­ence. She writes,

What inter­ests me are the ways we are called upon to par­tic­i­pate in such scenes. Are we wit­ness­es who con­firm the truth of what hap­pened in the face of the world-destroy­ing capac­i­ties of pain, the dis­tor­tions of tor­ture, the sheer unrep­re­sentabil­i­ty of ter­ror, and the repres­sion of the dom­i­nant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fas­ci­nat­ed with and repelled by exhi­bi­tions of ter­ror and suf­fer­ance? What does the expo­sure of the vio­lat­ed body yield? Proof of black sen­tience or the inhu­man­i­ty of the ‘pecu­liar insti­tu­tion’? Or does the pain of the oth­er mere­ly pro­vide us with the oppor­tu­ni­ty for self-reflec­tion? At issue here is the pre­car­i­ous­ness of empa­thy and the uncer­tain line between wit­ness and spec­ta­tor. [xi]

DuVer­nay, in her metic­u­lous atten­tion to the details of the lives of these young men and the rip­ple effect of these trau­mat­ic events on their fam­i­lies, impels her audi­ence to inter­ro­gate sim­i­lar ques­tions of them­selves. DuVer­nay chal­lenges her view­ers to con­sid­er their own role as spec­ta­tor and wit­ness in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry and to clar­i­fy the oblig­a­tions and indict­ments that come with the roles.

Build­ing upon and acknowl­edg­ing her debt to Hartman’s work, Jas­mine Nic­hole Cobb moves beyond the trau­ma of enslave­ment to con­sid­er how Blacks worked to fash­ion their pub­lic image in the face of what she describes as the “pecu­liar­ly ‘ocu­lar’ insti­tu­tion” of chat­tel slav­ery. Cobb con­vinc­ing­ly argues that the insti­tu­tion “uti­lized an unsta­ble visu­al log­ic of race to enslave per­sons of African descent and to pro­tect Whites from the threat of the gaze,” and she argues for an under­stand­ing of “slavery’s visu­al cul­ture as an imped­i­ment to rec­og­niz­ing free­dom” and for a crit­i­cal engage­ment with “Black visu­al­i­ty as shaped by and resis­tant to slavery’s visu­al cul­ture.” [xii] Cobb ana­lyzes how nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry media, in sup­port of slav­ery, defined Black­ness and enslave­ment inter­change­ably to cre­ate an imme­di­ate asso­ci­a­tion in the minds of white view­ers. The work of slave­hold­ers, then, was to main­tain the “log­i­cal” link between Black­ness and enslave­ment in order to pre­serve slav­ery, whose “dai­ly exe­cu­tion thrived in a racio-visu­al econ­o­my that deter­mined ways of see­ing and ways of being seen accord­ing to racial dif­fer­ence.” [xiii] Con­verse­ly, Black activists and anti-slav­ery advo­cates of the time worked to refash­ion pub­lic images of Blacks as some­thing oth­er than enslaved in order to reshape pub­lic under­stand­ing of free­dom as a state of being attain­able by Black bod­ies in the nine­teenth century.

This essen­tial­iz­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Black­ness as syn­ony­mous with a par­tic­u­lar state of being is pre­cise­ly what DuVer­nay chal­lenges in the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry con­text, forc­ing her own audi­ence to con­front the ways that crim­i­nal­i­ty is imme­di­ate­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Black­ness. This is evi­dent in the very title of the series, When They See Us, which was notably changed from “The Cen­tral Park Five.” As DuVer­nay explained in the ini­tial announce­ment, the title change “embraces the human­i­ty of the men and not their politi­cized moniker.” [xiv] Actress Niecy Nash, who was nom­i­nat­ed for an Emmy award for play­ing Deloris Wise, Korey’s moth­er, explains the sig­nif­i­cance of the name while once again echo­ing the his­tor­i­cal import of the work being done by this film:

It is still a sto­ry that could have hit the news­pa­pers yes­ter­day. It is telling of Amer­i­ca today and yes­ter­day, hence the title When They See Us. I loved that we moved away from call­ing this the Cen­tral Park Five because that was the moniker the media gave these boys—they were called a wolf pack when they didn’t even know each oth­er. What do they see when they see us? They see mon­sters, a vil­lain. Some­one of ill repute, some­one nefar­i­ous who doesn’t get the ben­e­fit of the doubt. [xv]

Duver­nay explores the imme­di­ate asso­ci­a­tion of young Black men with crim­i­nal­i­ty through the inter­ro­ga­tion scenes in episode one of the series, as the audi­ence watch­es the vio­la­tion of these boys’ inno­cence through a refusal to see it, all as a pre­cur­sor to the com­plete loss of that inno­cence in the episodes that fol­low. More­over, though the police sta­tion scenes of the first episode are jar­ring, it is in the sub­se­quent episodes that DuVer­nay explores the process by which these young men are vil­i­fied in the media through the sen­sa­tion­al­ized cov­er­age to which Nash refers. In high­light­ing this process, DuVer­nay inten­tion­al­ly uses her film to pro­vide counter-images of these young men and to detail how those dom­i­nant images were cre­at­ed and rein­forced in the first place.

In scenes where DuVer­nay explores the process of crim­i­nal­iz­ing these spe­cif­ic boys, she address­es a sec­ond aspect of Cobb’s analy­sis of how Black­ness was so nar­row­ly (and sim­i­lar­ly) defined in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Through an exam­i­na­tion of “a diverse array of print ephemera, such as auc­tion adver­tise­ments, run­away adver­tise­ments, and pick­up notices,” Cobb argues that,

White view­er­ship became essen­tial to the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of slavery’s visu­al cul­ture, as print media under­gird­ed the slave econ­o­my. Slav­ing media, then, nor­mal­ized White­ness as a dis­em­bod­ied view­ing posi­tion by exclud­ing slavers, auc­tion­eers, pur­chasers, own­ers, and catch­ers from the page. Instead, these items announced the arrival of new chat­tel for sale or called on the White view­ing pub­lic to assist in the recla­ma­tion of enslaved prop­er­ty … A still-bur­geon­ing U.S. media indus­try became cen­tral to the buy­ing and sell­ing of chat­tel per­sons with adver­tise­ments that invit­ed free White view­ers, specif­i­cal­ly, to vis­it auc­tion sites and view scant­i­ly clad Black bod­ies for dis­play and for pur­chase. [xvi]

DuVer­nay revis­its this in her film series, high­light­ing the news cov­er­age and the images that bom­bard­ed media con­sumers in the midst of the 1989 “Cen­tral Park Jog­ger” case. DuVer­nay focus­es on news­pa­per head­lines describ­ing the teenagers as “Wildin’” in the park and Don­ald Trump’s full-page adver­tise­ment call­ing for the return of the death penal­ty, among oth­er media cov­er­age. In one par­tic­u­lar­ly pow­er­ful scene, Yusef Salaam’s moth­er, as played by Aun­janue Ellis, is seen view­ing the cov­er­age on her own tele­vi­sion screen, to which she incred­u­lous­ly responds, “they wan­na kill my son.” DuVer­nay high­lights how these visu­al texts incit­ed the view­ing pub­lic toward uni­ver­sal con­dem­na­tion while invit­ing them to par­tic­i­pate in the cam­paign for pun­ish­ing these young men for their sup­posed crimes. These scenes echo Cobb’s analy­sis of run­away adver­tise­ments that invit­ed their view­ing pub­lic to par­tic­i­pate in the dis­pen­sa­tion of “jus­tice” to fugi­tive slaves.

While DuVer­nay depicts this process with­in the series, she also uti­lizes her artis­tic author­i­ty to chal­lenge the “dis­em­bod­ied view­ing posi­tion” of Whites that had char­ac­ter­ized ear­li­er depic­tions of Black­ness. As Cobb argues, the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry media that sus­tained slav­ery “func­tioned as per­cep­tu­al doc­u­ments, as mate­ri­als that taught Whites how to see Black­ness, but also encour­aged Whites to believe that Black­ness was a thing to see, and that White sub­jec­tiv­i­ty func­tioned as a domain for look­ing,” suc­cess­ful­ly accom­plish­ing this “by focus­ing atten­tion on Black bod­ies and away from White bod­ies, espe­cial­ly away from Whites who were active­ly involved in the process of enslav­ing oth­ers.” [xvi­ii] In When They See Us, DuVer­nay delib­er­ate­ly holds white fig­ures account­able for the role that they played in the con­vic­tion and incar­cer­a­tion of these five young men. From the moments of the ini­tial arrest through the court­room scenes, DuVer­nay is unspar­ing in her pre­sen­ta­tion of the active choic­es and will­ful col­lu­sion that drove police and pros­e­cu­tors, name­ly Felic­i­ty Huffman’s Lin­da Fairstein and Vera Farmiga’s Eliz­a­beth Led­er­er, in their pur­suit of con­vic­tion. In so doing, DuVer­nay active­ly avoids absent­ing Whites from the nar­ra­tive of “The Exon­er­at­ed Five,” where­as their removal from nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry media depic­tions of slav­ery had absolved them from respon­si­bil­i­ty for the preser­va­tion of that institution.

While DuVernay’s engage­ment with his­to­ry and his­tor­i­cal con­text is absolute­ly key to the suc­cess­ful project of this film series, the filmmaker’s pur­pose­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the ques­tion of audi­ence also drove the crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar response to her work. As a pro­fes­sion­al film­mak­er uti­liz­ing the glob­al plat­form of Net­flix, DuVer­nay no doubt desired the widest pos­si­ble audi­ence. Yet, she inten­tion­al­ly de-cen­ters and there­by dis­em­pow­ers the white gaze. Rather than allow­ing the white gaze to deter­mine how the audi­ence sees its main char­ac­ters, DuVer­nay employs impor­tant moments where her char­ac­ters’ human­i­ty is explored with­in the lens of their own com­mu­ni­ty, open­ing the series in the home-space, cen­ter­ing fam­i­ly inter­ac­tions even in the midst of impris­on­ment through care­ful­ly craft­ed vis­i­ta­tion scenes and phone calls, and explor­ing each man’s effort to reclaim his iden­ti­ty in the peri­od between his release and his for­mal exon­er­a­tion. While the lens through which white fig­ures see these boys plays a tremen­dous role in the nar­ra­tive, the film nev­er­the­less posi­tions white­ness as the “they” of the series’ title, where­as Black fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties, church­es, and even cell­mates reg­u­lar­ly con­sti­tute the “us” that is con­struct­ed and main­tained through the episodes.

DuVer­nay under­stands, ful­ly, that an audience’s abil­i­ty to visualize—to cre­ate and receive—images of Black­ness bears pow­er­ful con­se­quences for the treat­ment of Black peo­ple with­in the world. The rela­tion­ship between per­cep­tion and con­se­quen­tial real­i­ty is high­light­ed through­out the tri­al and con­vic­tions of the five young men in When They See Us, and is thought­ful­ly illu­mi­nat­ed in her explo­ration of the con­nec­tion between pop­u­lar images of Black crim­i­nal­i­ty and incar­cer­a­tion rates in her 2016 Net­flix doc­u­men­tary 13th. More­over, she address­es this phe­nom­e­non, where­in the pub­lic sup­ports a real­i­ty that con­firms its visu­al­ized beliefs, and exam­ines its rela­tion­ship to film, in a pub­lished con­ver­sa­tion with cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Brad­ford Young. She explains,

The image is inti­mate to me. We use the term our mind’s eye for a rea­son. The images that we con­sume, and that we take in, can nour­ish us, and they can mal­nour­ish us. They become a part of our DNA in some way. They become a part of our mind, our mem­o­ry.… This idea of the image is so much more dense than even using it in a film con­text. It’s an inti­ma­cy inside your own mem­o­ry, inside your own mind. We see the world and each oth­er in pic­tures. That’s why I think film is so emo­tion­al. It’s re-cre­at­ing what’s already embed­ded in our inter­nal process. It’s an arti­fi­cial ren­der­ing of what’s already going on inside. [xix]

Though this con­ver­sa­tion was pub­lished in 2016 fol­low­ing the release of Sel­ma, on which she and Young col­lab­o­rat­ed pri­or to When They See Us, DuVernay’s com­mit­ment to the empow­er­ing prospect of the image clear­ly per­sists with­in her work on When They See Us, which con­tin­ues to use the medi­um of film to chal­lenge what her audi­ences think they know, and think they see, by charg­ing them to open their “mind’s eye” and see the world anew.

DuVer­nay, as a film­mak­er, is cer­tain­ly not alone in a tra­di­tion of Black artists who seek to engage with the “mind’s eye” as the space in which images are con­struct­ed, doing so in a way that rec­og­nizes the pow­er of film even while pur­su­ing oth­er medi­ums of artis­tic expres­sion. Images of Black crim­i­nal­i­ty con­tin­ue to shape pop­u­lar per­cep­tions of Black men and women, which in turn con­tribute to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of incidents—often cap­tured on camera—where Black cit­i­zens are sub­ject­ed to life-threat­en­ing and life-claim­ing inter­ac­tions with the police and their fel­low cit­i­zens. Social media, in par­tic­u­lar, has use­ful­ly cap­tured a grow­ing frus­tra­tion with these inci­dents, along­side per­sis­tent­ly inequitable incar­cer­a­tion rates and pol­i­cy-backed con­di­tions of hyper-sur­veil­lance made man­i­fest in such prac­tices as stop-and-frisk and such phe­nom­e­na as the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Black artists, then, sub­se­quent­ly use social media and its myr­i­ad plat­forms as a means of artic­u­lat­ing their response to the con­di­tions that elic­it their artis­tic exam­i­na­tion. In the midst of these respons­es, con­tem­po­rary poets, par­tic­u­lar­ly those who embrace tra­di­tions of oral per­for­mance and there­by make their lit­er­ary work both vis­i­ble and visu­al, have gained par­tic­u­lar prominence.

One such young poet is Gabriel Ramirez, who iden­ti­fies as a “Queer Afro-Lat­inx poet, activist, and teach­ing artist.” [xx] Ramirez honed his skills as a poet and a per­former in poet­ry slams as a young adult, being the 2012 Knicks Poet­ry Slam Cham­pi­on, com­pet­ing as a mem­ber of the 2012 Urban Word NYC slam team, rank­ing 2nd in the NYC Youth Slam, and win­ning the 2013 Nation­al Poet­ry Youth Slam Cham­pi­onship in Boston. Ramirez has per­formed in mul­ti­ple venues in New York, includ­ing Lin­coln Cen­ter and the Apol­lo The­atre, and is an in-demand guest at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties around the nation. [xxi] In addi­tion to pub­lished work in sev­er­al antholo­gies and online plat­forms, Ramirez has expe­ri­enced a tremen­dous increase in pop­u­lar­i­ty due to videos of his per­for­mances, often pub­lished in such venues as YouTube, Buz­zfeed, and Upwor­thy. One poem, “Black Boy Audi­tions for His Own Funer­al,” sur­passed 100,000 views with­in three months of being uploaded in July 2019. This poem address­es some of the very same themes as DuVer­nay with respect to audi­ence, his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity, and the visu­al­iza­tion of Black trau­ma through film:

Gabriel Ramirez’s “Black Boy Audi­tions for His Own Funeral”

Fram­ing his per­for­mance as an audi­tion for a role that is more des­tined than desired, Ramirez imme­di­ate­ly draws the audi­ence in, dri­ving them to ques­tion their par­tic­i­pa­tion in this per­for­mance in sim­i­lar ways to Hartman’s insis­tence on inter­ro­gat­ing the blurred lines between wit­ness and spec­ta­tor to history’s “scenes of sub­jec­tion.” Fol­low­ing the poem’s open­ing 20 sec­onds of delib­er­ate silence, where­in Ramirez’s closed eyes and crossed arms per­form the pose of a dead body in its cas­ket, he looks at the audi­ence with wide-eyed enthu­si­asm, ask­ing, “How was that?” Ramirez mim­ics the eager­ness of a young child seek­ing approval for his per­for­mance, there­by con­jur­ing a sense of boy­hood inno­cence that is sim­i­lar­ly accom­plished by DuVernay’s choice to open When They See Us with scenes of the five young men talk­ing with fam­i­ly and flirt­ing with girls, pre­sent­ing a youth­ful naivete of the fates that will soon befall them. More­over, pos­ing the ques­tion invites the audi­ence to sanc­tion his fit­ness “for his own funer­al,” and there­by dis­al­lows the view­er any dis­tance from the scene unfold­ing in front of them. Echo­ing both Hartman’s and Cobb’s analy­ses of a his­tor­i­cal desire to dis­tin­guish view­ers of Black trau­ma from par­tic­i­pants in the incite­ment of that trau­ma, Ramirez enacts a per­for­mance where­in his audi­ence must take on the role of cast­ing direc­tors. He reminds those watch­ing that their approval—explicit or implic­it through their lack of objection—is the nec­es­sary first step that allows him to embody the role for which he is auditioning.

The audience’s oppor­tu­ni­ties to chal­lenge his fit­ness for the role con­tin­ue through­out the poem, as Ramirez asks, “Do I look the part yet?” and seeks to con­vince them that “you can put as many holes in me as you want / I can dance despite the bul­lets.” Each time the audi­ence neglects to dis­miss him from this “cast­ing call,” the lev­el of com­plic­i­ty and par­tic­i­pa­tion in this process grows. By the poem’s con­clu­sion, the audi­ence is no longer sim­ply cast­ing the project but has tak­en on greater agency through Ramirez’s use of direct address and sub­tle direc­tion. At points, the audi­ence mem­bers become producers—as indi­cat­ed by Ramirez’s ques­tion about the sub­ject of the film’s sequel—and poten­tial­ly direc­tors. Ramirez’s repeat­ed direc­tion to “Roll the Cred­its,” fol­lowed by the clos­ing lines, “Let my death / be your last take. / And in this final shot, / when you bury­ing me, / make sure you get my good side,” ulti­mate­ly grants final author­i­ty for the audi­ence to yell “cut.” Ramirez, how­ev­er, allows ample oppor­tu­ni­ty for the audi­ence to step out­side of these roles to which they’re being assigned. They have the oppor­tu­ni­ties to deny the cast­ing, reject the sequel, refuse to applaud, and to active­ly “walk out the the­ater” before wait­ing for the cred­its to roll. Though the poem is grip­ping, it holds no one cap­tive, and the chal­lenge to the audi­ence to act on their abil­i­ty to effect change is pow­er­ful­ly posed, yet sub­tly drawn, through­out the performance.

In addi­tion to Ramirez’s inter­ac­tion with the audi­ence through­out the poem, he also care­ful­ly out­lines the role of the “they” who are nec­es­sary to com­plete this metaphor­i­cal film. Like DuVer­nay, Ramirez does not shy away from detail­ing how he has been pre­pared for this role by those in pow­er, who see the cas­ket as the inevitable con­clu­sion to his Black boy­hood. Ramirez begins the indict­ment by declar­ing, “Time of death: when white Amer­i­ca opened my auc­tion-block mouth / poured ‘nig­ger’ down my throat and it became the only lan­guage I knew. / Poi­son so thick you could call it an accent,” there­by invok­ing the his­tor­i­cal con­text for his con­tem­po­rary real­i­ty and fur­ther clar­i­fy­ing the con­ti­nu­ity between the cir­cum­stances out­lined by this poem and the analy­sis of Hart­man and Cobb. High­light­ing the “auc­tion-block” and address­ing how “a ruined Black boy … be what pris­ons fill their wal­lets with,” Ramirez then direct­ly address­es the cop who “told me to get on the ground / Told me to say my lines / with his gun / in my mouth” and then vio­lat­ed the sacred­ness of his “some­times church body” with a hail of bul­lets that end­ed his life. While the mur­der leaves Ramirez still try­ing to prove that he looks the part and is there­fore deserv­ing of the role, it is appar­ent­ly with great ease that the cop (one of many) “made it to the big screen / with their hands too full / of fund-raised retire­ment mon­ey / to car­ry any kind of account­abil­i­ty.” Ramirez indicts not only the police offi­cer, but also the greater pub­lic who fund­ed the officer’s retire­ment and refused to hold them account­able for the crime of tak­ing the Black boy’s life. The offi­cer is ele­vat­ed to celebri­ty sta­tus, occu­py­ing the priv­i­leged space of the “big screen” in full view of an audi­ence that not only accepts the officer’s actions, but approves of them. Mean­while, Ramirez notes “all the names of the tak­en from us too soon” scroll on the screen, “ascend­ing into some rushed and for­got­ten heaven.” 

In the midst of a nar­ra­tive of police brutality—facilitated at turns by pub­lic appro­ba­tion, antipa­thy, and apathy—Ramirez care­ful­ly con­structs an emo­tion­al­ly res­o­nant sense of fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty through­out the poem. From the open­ing lines, where­in he asks, “did my silence break the small moth­er in your chest?,” to the por­traits drawn of his moth­er “at the hos­pi­tal / try­ing to squeeze the rhythm back into my chest” and lat­er “in the court­room / wail­ing her way into a set­tle­ment of / ‘I was only doing my job’ / and a check to paci­fy her rag­ing blood,” Ramirez evokes the very same theme of vio­lat­ed motherhood—and, indeed, parenthood—that we see in DuVernay’s film and in the response of par­ents who were so affect­ed by its visu­al­iza­tion of Black trau­ma. Ramirez moves beyond the descrip­tion of the moth­ers’ grief to insist that the audi­ence rec­og­nize the trans­for­ma­tion of the officer’s bul­lets into “these seeds police plant­ed to make me a field of bloom­ing things / like activist and protest and hash­tags” and that they refuse to allow a set­tle­ment check to be the only com­fort for moth­ers in mourn­ing. Rather, Ramirez directs the audi­ence to “take what flow­ers grow from me. / Make a bou­quet for my moth­er. / For all moth­ers / who lose chil­dren / and are left with shov­els / to bury / what they thought would be / the rest of their lives.” This visu­al, com­plet­ed by Ramirez’s per­formed act of shov­el­ing dirt, cre­ates a pos­si­bil­i­ty for moth­ers to be com­fort­ed by more than pay­ments resent­ful­ly dis­trib­uted by the state. Rather, com­mu­nal­ly col­lect­ed flow­ers, reaped from the bloom­ing things cre­at­ed in the wake of their children’s deaths, sug­gest the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sym­bols of new life in the after­math of trau­ma. Iron­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, the pluck­ing of those things for the cre­ation of bou­quets sug­gest a renewed final­i­ty and a cycle of death that can only be end­ed if the audi­ence refus­es the cast­ing and denies the film’s cre­ation in the first place.

The nev­er-end­ing cycle that Ramirez engages through his use of the film metaphor is sim­i­lar­ly addressed by Danez Smith, a Black, gen­derqueer, HIV-pos­i­tive poet, who reg­u­lar­ly explores Black trau­ma in their work, but is delib­er­ate in also explor­ing themes of joy, love, faith, sex, and humor, among many oth­ers. Smith is also a poet who has estab­lished them­selves, to an even greater extent than Ramirez, through per­for­mance and poet­ry slams as well as mul­ti­ple pub­li­ca­tions in var­i­ous online and print venues, includ­ing debut poet­ry col­lec­tion [insert] boy, which won the Kate Tufts Dis­cov­ery Award and was a final­ist for the LAMBDA Lit­er­ary Award for poet­ry, as well as their sec­ond col­lec­tion, Nation­al Book Award final­ist Don’t Call Us Dead. In addi­tion to these full-length col­lec­tions, Smith also pro­duced a chap­book of poet­ry in 2015, titled Black Movie, which explic­it­ly takes on film and film-mak­ing as its cen­tral motifs. 

Smith’s Black Movie thought­ful­ly employs film as a back­drop to a poet­ic dia­logue regard­ing Black­ness in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, focus­ing on trau­ma and death while also explor­ing dimen­sions of fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, and dai­ly rit­u­al that con­struct a cul­tur­al con­text for con­tem­po­rary Black­ness. As described by Mary Austin Speak­er in one of the many reviews for the col­lec­tion, “Danez Smith’s Black Movie is a cin­e­mat­ic tour-de-force that lets poet­ry vie with film for the hon­or of which medi­um can most effec­tive­ly artic­u­late the expe­ri­ence of Black Amer­i­ca,” explain­ing that “the book takes an unflinch­ing look at how Black Amer­i­cans have been por­trayed in film, and in doing so posits, ini­tial­ly, film as the ulti­mate myth-mak­ing tool of our era.” [xxii] While Speaker’s review is indica­tive of much of the pos­i­tive crit­i­cal response received by the col­lec­tion, Smith’s own artic­u­la­tion of their moti­va­tions is par­tic­u­lar­ly illu­mi­nat­ing as well. In a 2018 inter­view pub­lished in The White Review, Smith described the col­lec­tion as, 

a cat­a­logue of how I was feel­ing at the start of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in the Unit­ed States. I think of Black Lives Mat­ter as being not only a direct result of police vio­lence but of how black death became an obses­sion in Amer­i­can mass media. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been being killed or weren’t dying or that police vio­lence had less­ened in the years pri­or, but rather Amer­i­can media decid­ed to turn its atten­tion to police bru­tal­i­ty once again in 2013 and 2014. So I real­ly just want­ed to cap­ture that moment and what it was like to feel that black death was inescapable both on the TV, via social media, and all these ways in which we were being bom­bard­ed by images of black death, while also cap­tur­ing the depress­ing­ness of how that was call­ing toward a kind of jus­tice that we’d been wait­ing for for a long time. Because while cas­es like Trayvon Mar­tin and Michael Brown felt very harsh, in our mind­set if you are Black Amer­i­can you knew that those sto­ries were not new and that they had been hap­pen­ing since for­ev­er. [xxi­ii]

Smith evokes the sense of his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity that puls­es through DuVer­nay and Ramirez’s work while also speak­ing to the impor­tance of the per­sis­tent promi­nence of images cap­tured on film that gave both the moment, and the col­lec­tion, its sense of imme­di­a­cy as well as his­tor­i­cal rootedness.

Smith’s descrip­tion of the inspi­ra­tion for the collection’s film motif explic­it­ly address­es the chal­lenge inher­ent in Black artists’ effort to engage with nar­ra­tives of trau­ma. Smith explains that, “for any author to be able to delve into depress­ing or hard top­ics you need some­thing, and so this idea of films, these sort of mini-movies, this idea of image-mak­ing, was a teth­er that I used to help myself buoy into the work.” [xxiv] More than a “gim­mick,” Smith’s use of film allows them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore themes of Black death and pain with­out mak­ing those the cen­tral orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of the work. As they explain in anoth­er inter­view, pub­lished in The Fourth Riv­er in 2017, “we’re always dying or work­ing against dying or in some state of chaos or mourn­ing and vio­lence. Or we’re hyper-sex­u­al­ized, and dying. Or we’re hyper-ath­leti­ci­sized, and dying. Or hyper-what­ev­er-you-want, and dying. Always dying. Black Movie is attempt­ing to sub­vert that and engage that too.” [xxv] The effort to both sub­vert the empha­sis on death and trau­ma, and engage with it, not only fuels the work of Black Movie, but the work of DuVer­nay, Ramirez, and a bevy of oth­er Black artists as well.

With­in Smith’s col­lec­tion, the poet employs film to vary­ing effect, con­sid­er­ing the dimen­sions of Black life that range from the humor­ous to the macabre. The collection’s open­ing poem, “Sleep­ing Beau­ty in the Hood,” is one of sev­er­al that revis­it and reimag­ine fairy tales and children’s sto­ries, yet this poem sets the tone for the col­lec­tion by direct­ly ask­ing the read­er: “You mad? This ain’t no kid flick. There is no mag­ic here.” [xvi] This repeats through addi­tion­al poems such as “Lion King in the Hood,” which opens with a cast­ing list that recalls Ramirez’s audi­tion exer­cise, announc­ing, “Sim­ba played by the first boy you know who died too young,” [xvii] then details open­ing cred­its where the film is “brought to you on a tree branch heavy with a tree-col­ored man,” [xvi­ii] and describes a “Mon­tage: Tim­on & Pum­baa teach Sim­ba a music oth­er than the blues,” where­in the char­ac­ters are seen in a series of clips: “clip 1: the boy get­ting old­er in spite of every­thing … clip 10: shot of the boys laugh­ing any­way / clip 11: shot of the boys laugh­ing in the sun / clip 12: shot of the boys laugh­ing in the rain / clip 13: shot of them not being shot.” [xxix] The col­lec­tion also includes the treat­ment for films such as “A His­to­ry of Vio­lence in the Hood,” which “could be a doc­u­men­tary or could be someone’s art school the­sis.” [xxx] Smith includes work such as “Short Film,” which refus­es to be mired in ele­gy for such fall­en fig­ures as Trayvon Mar­tin, Michael Brown, and Ren­isha McBride, and “Notes for a Film on Black Joy,” which presents vignettes pre­served in mem­o­ry, reflect­ing on piv­otal moments in the poet’s own sex­u­al awak­en­ing along­side images of their fam­i­ly, with their moth­er danc­ing along when their “aun­tie ‘nem done fin­ished the wine & put on that Ohio play­ers or what­ev­er album makes them feel black­est” and cel­e­brates their grandmother’s freez­er full of food by claim­ing, “glo­ry be the woman with enough meat to let the world starve but not her fam­i­ly.” [xxxi] For the pur­pos­es of this dis­cus­sion, how­ev­er, I am most inter­est­ed in the collection’s con­clud­ing poem, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” which has been record­ed in per­for­mance on mul­ti­ple occa­sions, with film record­ings total­ing near­ly 150,000 views on YouTube:

Danez Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood”

As a clos­ing poem, fol­low­ing the var­i­ous re-cast­ings and re-imag­in­ings of already exist­ing films ref­er­enced in the col­lec­tion, Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is dis­tin­guished as an ulti­mate cre­ative act. Not only can this film be com­plet­ed with­out anoth­er “orig­i­nal” script as its guide, but it is also fueled by the free­dom of fan­ta­sy, rather than the his­tor­i­cal record that serves as the source mate­r­i­al for film­mak­ers like DuVer­nay. More­over, from its open­ing call, “Let’s make a movie,” [xxxii] Smith invites their audi­ence to join in a process where­by the poet and the audi­ence share in com­plete cre­ative con­trol, unlike the film-already-in-progress for which Ramirez’s Black boy audi­tions. Here, Smith appeals to no high­er author­i­ty for deci­sions about cast­ing or direc­tion, but presents the treat­ment for a film culled entire­ly from their own imag­i­na­tion, with only dis­parate action, com­e­dy, and dra­ma films as its poten­tial inspiration.

Smith engages in a play­ful spir­it through­out the “pitch” for this film, pre­sent­ing sce­nar­ios that range from the hilar­i­ous to the pro­found but nev­er veer into the main­stream or the stereo­typ­i­cal. Each of the stan­dard tropes of action films is skew­ered and replaced with rad­i­cal artic­u­la­tions of what a film of this mag­ni­tude could pos­si­bly be, as Smith describes “a scene where a cop car gets pooped on by a ptero­dactyl,” scenes with “grand­mas on the front porch tak­ing out / rap­tors with guns they hid in walls & under mat­tress­es,” and want­i­ng “Vio­la Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck.” [xxxi­ii] Smith is pur­pose­ful in not only the sce­nar­ios that they sug­gest, but also those that get refused, clar­i­fy­ing that this film is not to be manip­u­lat­ed to serve the pur­pos­es of the Wayans Broth­ers, Will Smith, or Sofia Ver­gara, but that it is, by design, a cel­e­bra­tion of “a neigh­bor­hood of roy­al folks – / chil­dren of slaves & immi­grants & addicts & exiles sav­ing their town from real ass Dinosaurs.” [xxxiv] Yet, it is in the poet’s dec­la­ra­tion about trau­ma that the poem, and the filmed per­for­mance, speak most pow­er­ful­ly to this dis­cus­sion and the con­cerns addressed by artists such as DuVer­nay and Ramirez. As Smith explains:

          . . . But this can’t be a black movie. This can’t be a 
          black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed because of its cast 
          or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor for black people
          & extinction. This movie can’t be about race. This movie can’t be
          about black pain or cause black people pain. This movie 
          can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt. [xxxv]

Mak­ing a delib­er­ate choice not to cen­ter Black trau­ma and pain, and the his­to­ry of that pain, Smith does not neglect his­tor­i­cal con­text. Rather, by invok­ing the pres­ence of extinct dinosaurs with­in the mod­ern-day neigh­bor­hood they describe, his­to­ry and his­tor­i­cal-con­tem­po­rary con­ti­nu­ity per­me­ates the entire poem and is cer­tain­ly a crit­i­cal ele­ment of the pro­posed film. Yet, in Smith’s pre­sen­ta­tion of that his­to­ry, they draw focus to the bat­tle with a his­tor­i­cal threat rather than the dam­age done by that threat, which reframes how the audi­ence is pre­pared to view the Black sub­jects, whose all-encom­pass­ing bat­tle dri­ves the imag­ined film’s plot.

Smith draws this pow­er­ful­ly with an empha­sis on a lit­tle boy, the focus of the film’s pro­posed open­ing scene. Smith describes “a scene where a lit­tle black boy is play­ing / with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the win­dow / & sees the T‑Rex.” [xvi] Reject­ing the influ­ence of a direc­tor like Quentin Taran­ti­no, who has famous­ly employed Black actors in films that prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly engage with race, Smith makes clear that the boy’s play­time is not to be cor­rupt­ed by any white director’s effort to make some larg­er state­ment about the pre­car­i­ty of Black boys’ lives and their own account­abil­i­ty in it. Rather, Smith rein­forces the image of the boy play­ing with “a plas­tic bron­tosaurus or tricer­atops” which func­tions as “his proof of mag­ic or God or San­ta.” [xxxvii] Return­ing to this scene in the poem’s clos­ing, Smith reit­er­ates its impor­tance, declar­ing with full author­i­ty that there be “no bul­lets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy, / & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy,” claim­ing that “the only rea­son I want to make this is for that first scene any­way.” [xvi­ii] As poet Lau­ren Alleyne asserts, much of the pow­er of this poem is held in the fact that “Danez is not ask­ing for a world with­out the threat. The dinosaurs are still there, and they’re scary. But the threat is not specif­i­cal­ly to the boy, and it’s not because he’s Black.” [xxxix] Indeed, though the dinosaurs of the poem are cer­tain­ly larg­er-than-life, they are sec­ondary to the nar­ra­tive that Smith is most con­cerned with telling. The point of their inclu­sion is not to focus on the dam­age that they cause or the trau­ma left in their wake. Rather, Smith empha­sizes the boy’s imag­i­na­tion-fueled play­time, the full­ness of which is dis­rupt­ed by a loom­ing threat that ulti­mate­ly rep­re­sents a con­fir­ma­tion and expan­sion of what the boy had pre­vi­ous­ly believed to be pos­si­ble. Despite the audience’s impulse to fear for the boy, Smith reminds us that this is not “the fore­shad­ow to his end” and instead encour­ages us to focus on “his eyes wide & end­less / his dreams pos­si­ble, puls­ing, & right there.” [xl] In this moment, Black boy­hood inno­cence is not set up to be even­tu­al­ly shat­tered, but instead remains the cen­tral focus and there­fore the most impor­tant scene in the film.

Smith, through­out “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” offers unfet­tered pos­si­bil­i­ty for the cre­ation of a film that might also sug­gest unre­strained pos­si­bil­i­ties for its sub­jects, name­ly the young boy whose won­der­ment serves as the film’s pri­ma­ry inspi­ra­tion. Smith does not avoid the com­pli­cat­ed ques­tions sur­round­ing audi­ence, his­to­ry, or the trau­ma cap­tured in the process of Black image-mak­ing. Rather, they pro­vide their audi­ence with poten­tial scenes of Black­ness, cap­tured on film, that incor­po­rate all of these con­cerns while mov­ing beyond them, pre­sent­ing a com­mu­ni­ty of Black peo­ple whose lives are impact­ed by their cir­cum­stances but not ulti­mate­ly defined by them. Smith’s per­for­mance, par­tic­u­lar­ly when viewed along­side the work of Ava DuVer­nay and Gabriel Ramirez, offers view­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er how they might active­ly par­tic­i­pate in Black image-mak­ing, sim­ply by accept­ing the poem’s ini­tial invi­ta­tion to “make a movie” and join in the cre­ative process. 

While Smith’s invi­ta­tion is explic­it, DuVer­nay and Ramirez like­wise extend invi­ta­tions for their audi­ences to con­tend with pain and trau­ma and to rec­og­nize the lib­er­at­ing pow­er of embrac­ing visu­al texts that refuse to be mired in it. Col­lec­tive­ly, these artists encour­age audi­ences to con­sid­er the poten­tial­i­ty of active resis­tance through cre­ative effort and to rec­og­nize the pow­er of both pro­duc­ers and con­sumers, not sim­ply to reject images of trau­ma but to con­front the process­es which incite that trau­ma in the first place. Ful­ly rec­og­niz­ing the “long his­to­ry of hav­ing a long his­to­ry with hurt” requires nei­ther artists nor audi­ences to make the work be about that long his­to­ry. Rather, these works cre­ate pos­si­bil­i­ties for oth­er nar­ra­tives to emerge, where­in Black­ness is artic­u­lat­ed in greater and more nuanced dimen­sion by Black artists who no longer seek to play roles craft­ed by a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that nev­er envi­sioned they might write their own scripts and who refuse to sub­scribe to the lim­it­ed images made avail­able for when they were allowed to be seen.


[i] Jacque­line N. Stew­art, Migrat­ing to the Movies: Cin­e­ma and Black Urban Moder­ni­ty (U of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2005), 23.
[ii] Ani­ta Ben­nett, “‘When They See Us’ Watched by More Than 23 Mil­lion Net­flix Accounts World­wide,” Dead­line (25 June 2019). 
[iii] Sasha Lekach, “Cri­sis Coun­selors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew,” Mash­able (1 June 2019). 
[iv] Ida Har­ris, “Watch­ing ‘When They See Us’ Is an Act of Social Jus­tice,” Black Enter­prise (20 June 2019). 
[v] Zeno­bia Jef­fries Warfield, “‘When They See Us’ Is Trig­ger­ing. That’s Why You Should Watch It,” YES! Mag­a­zine (5 June 2019). 
[vi] KC Ifeanyi, “Opt­ing Out of Black Trau­ma: Why I Couldn’t Fin­ish When They See Us,” Fast Com­pa­ny (31 May 2019).
[vii] Eisa Nefer­tari Ulen, “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us,’” Truthout (12 June 2019). 
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Saidiya Hart­man, Scenes of Sub­jec­tion: Ter­ror, Slav­ery, and Self-Mak­ing in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (Oxford UP, 1997), 3–4.
[xii] Jas­mine Nic­hole Cobb, Pic­ture Free­dom: Remak­ing Black Visu­al­i­ty in The Ear­ly 19th Cen­tu­ry (NYU Press, 2015), 31.
[xiii] Cobb, 34.
[xiv] Jack­ie Strause, “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Cen­tral Park Five’ Net­flix Lim­it­ed Series Gets New Title, Pre­miere Date,” The Hol­ly­wood Reporter (1 March 2019). 
[xv] Nad­ja Sayej, “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane,” Shon­da­land (31 May 2019). (empha­sis added)
[xvi] Cobb, 41.
[xvii] When They See Us, Episode 2.
[xvi­ii] Cobb, 42.
[xix] Ava DuVer­nay and Brad­ford Young, “Black Lives, Sil­ver Screen: Ava DuVer­nay and Brad­ford Young in Con­ver­sa­tion,” Aper­ture (Sum­mer 2016), 37.
[xx] Gabriel Ramirez, “About.”
[xxi] “Poet Gabriel Ramirez,” Neon Enter­tain­ment.
[xxii] Mary Austin Speak­er, “Black Movie,” Rain Taxi (Sum­mer 2016).
[xxi­ii] Sandeep Par­mar, “Inter­view with Danez Smith,” The White Review (June 2018).
[xxiv] Ibid.
[xxv] Cedric Rudolph, “Inter­view with Danez Smith,” The Fourth Riv­er (31 Octo­ber 2017). 
[xxvi] Danez Smith, Black Movie (But­ton Poet­ry, 2015), 3.
[xxvii] Smith, 10.
[xxvi­ii] Smith, 11.
[xxix] Smith, 10–16.
[xxx] Smith, 6.
[xxxi] Smith, 36–37.
[xxxii] Smith, 39.
[xxxi­ii] Ibid.
[xxxiv] Ibid.
[xxxv] Ibid.
[xxxvi] Ibid.
[xxxvii] Ibid.
[xvi­ii] Smith, 40.
[xxxix] Lau­ren Alleyne, Per­son­al Inter­view (21 August 2019).
[xl] Smith, 40.

Works Cit­ed

Alleyne, Lau­ren. Per­son­al Inter­view. 21 August 2019.

Ben­nett, Ani­ta. “‘When They See Us’ Watched By More Than 23 Mil­lion Net­flix Accounts World­wide.” Dead­line, 25 June 2019, www.deadline.com/2019/06/when-they-see-us-watched-by-more-than-23-million-netflix-accounts-worldwide-1202638036/.

Cobb, Jas­mine N. Pic­ture Free­dom: Remak­ing Black Visu­al­i­ty in the Ear­ly Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry. NYU Press, 2015.

DuVer­nay, Ava, and Brad­ford Young. “Black Lives, Sil­ver Screen: Ava DuVer­nay and Brad­ford Young in Con­ver­sa­tion.” Aper­ture, No. 223, Sum­mer 2016, 34–41.

Har­ris, Ida. “Watch­ing When They See Us Is an Act of Social Jus­tice.” Black Enter­prise, 20 June 2019, www.blackenterprise.com/watching-when-they-see-us-is-an-act-of-social-justice/

Hart­man, Saidiya. Scenes of Sub­jec­tion: Ter­ror, Slav­ery, and Self-Mak­ing in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Oxford UP, 1997.

Ifeanyi, KC. “Opt­ing Out of Black Trau­ma: Why I Couldn’t Fin­ish When They See Us.” Fast Com­pa­ny, 31 May 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90356727/opting-out-of-black-trauma-why-i-couldnt-finish-when-they-see-us.

Lekach, Sasha. “Cri­sis Coun­selors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew.” Mash­able, 1 June 2019, www.mashable.com/article/when-they-see-us-central-park-five-crisis-counseling/.

Net­flix. “When They See Us | Offi­cial Trail­er [HD] | Net­flix.” YouTube, 19 April 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3F9n_smGWY.

Par­mar, Sandeep. “Inter­view with Danez Smith.” The White Review, No. 22, June 2018, www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-danez-smith/.

Poet Gabriel Ramirez.” Neon Enter­tain­ment Book­ing Agency Cor­po­rate Col­lege Enter­tain­ment, www.neon-entertainment.com/poet-gabriel-ramirez/.

Ramirez, Gabriel. “About.” Gabriel Ramirez, www.ramirezpoet.com/about/

—. “Black Boy Audi­tions For His Own Funer­al.’” YouTube, uploaded by But­ton Poet­ry, 3 July 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBnQbEUKfrs

Rudolf, Cedric. “Inter­view with Danez Smith.” The Fourth Riv­er, 31 Oct. 2017, www.thefourthriver.com/blog/2018/9/21/interview-with-danez-smith

Sayej, Nad­ja. “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane.” Shon­da­land, 31 May 2019, www.shondaland.com/watch/a27612356/niecy-nash-when-they-see-us-interview.  

Smith, Danez. Black Movie. But­ton Poet­ry, 2015.

—. “Dinosaurs in the Hood.’” YouTube, uploaded by But­ton Poet­ry, 4 August. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJwiOTeKDOQ.

Speak­er, Mary Austin. “Black Movie.” Rain Taxi, 14 Sept. 2016, www.raintaxi.com/black-movie.

Stew­art, Jacque­line N. Migrat­ing to the Movies: Cin­e­ma and Black Urban Moder­ni­ty. U of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2005.

Strause, Jack­ie. “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Cen­tral Park Five’ Net­flix Lim­it­ed Series Gets New Title, Pre­miere Date.” The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, 1 March 2019, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/ava-duvernay-central-park-five-netflix-miniseries-new-title-premiere-date-1191659.

Ulen, Eisa Nefer­tari. “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us.’” Truthout, 12 June 2019, www.truthout.org/articles/why-i-cant-bring-myself-to-watch-when-they-see-us/.

Warfield, Zeno­bia Jef­fries. “‘When They See Us’ Is Trig­ger­ing. That’s Why You Should Watch It.” YES! Mag­a­zine, 5 June 2019, www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/netflix-when-they-see-us-ava-duvernay-central-park-five-20190605

When They See Us. Direct­ed by Ava DuVer­nay, Net­flix, 2019. 

McKin­ley E. Melton, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Get­tys­burg Col­lege, earned his doc­tor­ate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Depart­ment of Afro-Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Amherst. With the sup­port of an ACLS Fred­er­ick Burkhardt Fel­low­ship, he is the 2019/20 Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at James Madi­son University’s Furi­ous Flower Poet­ry Cen­ter, the nation’s first aca­d­e­m­ic cen­ter for Black poet­ry, which is ded­i­cat­ed to the vis­i­bil­i­ty, inclu­sion, and crit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion of Black poets in Amer­i­can let­ters.  Dr. Melton’s work focus­es on twen­ti­eth- and twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry Africana lit­er­a­tures, with a par­tic­u­lar empha­sis on the rela­tion­ship between lit­er­ary, social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal move­ments toward social jus­tice. His cur­rent project, “Claim­ing All the World as Our Stage: Con­tem­po­rary Black Poet­ry, Per­for­mance, and Resis­tance,” explores spo­ken word poet­ry with­in Black dias­po­ran tra­di­tions of oral­i­ty and performance.

The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack

Nonfiction / Tasia Trevino

 

:: The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack ::

A VISIT FROM DRUM

the first time I get dou­ble-bass beats it’s two hours the nurs­es take my pres­sure tell me don’t stand wheel me in a chair to a bed Mom cow­ers in the cor­ner by the crash cart they tear off my clothes attach leads ready a 16-gauge nee­dle the doc­tor says this isn’t going to feel good a feel­ing floods my right arm my body seizes I sit up they push me back on the bed they do it again my beats relax the EMT says that works 9 times out of 10 and the oth­er time I ask

 

 

 

if I keep count I could con­trol this expen­sive som­er­sault phan­tom sev­er­al false starts no mon­ey for fol­low-up is it fatal or just a con­di­tion with­out cov­er­age I devel­op dis­trac­tions code­pen­dence on the strength of strings learn to sing at house shows with shit­ty PAs strain against the squall for years no one can hear me just the Boys on gui­tar bass and drums turn my back to the crowd when I sing over stim­u­lat­ed vagus I can’t stop per­form­ing wish for some assur­ance I’m going to make it

 

 

 

Los Ange­les seeped into my blood­lines when Dad stick-and-poked Mom a fleur-de-lis on her ankle while watch­ing Decline of West­ern Civ Vol. 1 twen­ty years lat­er I move to the city in an ancient Buick I dream to be Jef­frey Lee Sable Starr a sea bird over light-dot­ted hills the Observatory’s for­mal white gown feel for my pulse dur­ing sound check the Boys ask me what lan­guage are my lyrics Perse­phone I say Eury­dice rock myself to sleep in dou­ble-time cross my heart hope to know which feel­ing I’m faking

 

 

 

BE QUIET MT. HEART ATTACK!

I stop tak­ing off my hos­pi­tal bracelet I don’t have insur­ance so I can’t afford to know why I have some ideas but the Boys keep say­ing “you’re fine you’re fine” swat­ting my fin­gers from the right side of my neck me swal­low­ing blues to keep myself at bay am I still their Wendy Bird they were there all the times they stopped my heart maybe the rea­son for it too I ping­pong the aisles at the Last Book­store wait for the calm to kick in search out every iter­a­tion of sunset

 

 

 

on stage singing grief for each of my past selves in a room sparse with soli­tary men most nights I dull my pound­ing with tequi­la rocks lime anoth­er round with the Boys and the Gretsch nev­er get paid to play drag myself home on unlit side streets past box­top shrines stuffed with sweets and sticky rice in a dream I car­ry one of the Boys on my back through the Hol­ly­wood Farm­ers’ Mar­ket I buy peonies and small cab­bages this is this not a dream this is 

 

 

 

I gath­er the hand­writ­ten receipts from the mechan­ic they make a $3000 pile still my Buick bucks stalls it has no AC or heat no defrost have to roll down the win­dows in a storm the arm­rest gets streaked with grime dri­ve out to Altade­na for a job get $10/hr to sur­vey places peo­ple want to film I size up oth­er dri­vers won­der how they afford it I want my ass slid­ing on leather inte­ri­or I want to see the inside of a stranger’s house won­der whether I’ll ever move

 

 

 

DRUM GETS A GLIMPSE

when I’m not onstage I get a job sell­ing things I can’t under­stand to peo­ple I nev­er see I final­ly go to the doc­tor he says I’m fine I just have anx­i­ety need to eat more fiber he gives me a  non-refill­able pre­scrip­tion for Ati­van and sup­pos­i­to­ries tells me buy Meta­mu­cil drink that every day I get reg­u­lar lose a lot of mem­o­ries start to need a big­ger audi­ence almost fight the bounc­er after karaoke at the Blue Goose put the tin­sel Xmas tree up with no gifts underneath 

 

 

 

my boss is a Scorp/Sag cusp he wears ten­nis shoes nice jeans flo­ral dress shirt top two but­tons undone at the Xmas par­ty he puts his hand btwn my legs when he bends down to kiss me hel­lo brings me into his office for my 3‑month- review says he wants to give me a raise thinks I’m smart but not show­ing it seems like I don’t care I make hourly as much as his maids he tells me they’re stu­pid always putting things in the wrong place he tells me earn my raise

 

 

 

Tues­day after­noon I have a pan­ic attack at an impromp­tu audi­tion for a real­i­ty series that’s shoot­ing upstairs from my office they like me for the part of Expert on a show about aliens vis­it­ing Earth I take a Val­i­um walk around the block go to urgent care the nurse slaps adhe­sive elec­trodes to my chest unshaven shins she won’t give me Xanax she says I need a car­di­ol­o­gist when I tell her about the first time how they had to stop my heart

 

 

 

LET’S NOT WRESTLE MT. HEART ATTACK

it’s a catheter-based pro­ce­dure they’ll make a slit in my leg thread a wire up my vein into my heart they’ll jack up my heart rate until the bad rhythm kicks in they’ll burn those path­ways closed I’ll be sedat­ed not asleep I’ll go home the same day nev­er think about it again there are risks per­fo­ra­tion stroke I lose my insur­ance in a week I say how soon can we do it how about in three days the doc­tor says I shake her hand and ask for one day off work

 

 

 

my first surgery is the day before Thanks­giv­ing I don’t want Mom or Dad to come but they do in pre-op two nurs­es dryshave my groin joke about film­ing me talk­ing can­did in twi­light sleep Dad gets ramen down­town after I’m fine every­one leaves I stain the hos­pi­tal bed with blood the nurse changes my tam­pon I go home the same day the next day the Boys come over we drink Wild Turkey and I cook every­one prop­er din­ner with pres­sure dressing

 

 

 

I can’t leave the city bc my Buick shuts off at every stop­light the record label with inter­est wants more demos I’m going to write a song a day so far I haven’t writ­ten one in months the only con­stants are always late with rent for the prac­tice space phone bill gro­ceries and fights I don’t remem­ber pick­ing up the Gretsch damp­en its strings when some­one walks by the Buick catch­es fire on the 5 the mechan­ic cuts out the cat­alyt­ic con­vert­er puts in a pipe I keep driving 

 

 

 

TO HOLD YOUDRUM

on my lunch break I talk to the head of the label he has me on speak­er­phone sit­ting on a mar­ble memo­r­i­al bench in Hol­ly­wood For­ev­er pre­tend­ing I can under­stand every­thing he says he has to say some­thing to me he doesn’t want to be the stereo­typ­i­cal record label guy but he can’t pro­nounce all of our song names he loves front­women female drum­mers we talk for 36 min­utes he says he will be out in LA lat­er this month we should meet for cof­fee I won­der if he doesn’t drink 

 

 

 

I can’t stop think­ing about my heart my win­dow­less office I get an hour off work to see a social work­er at Kaiser she says I had no guid­ance I’ve been drink­ing that much since I was 16 I should stop play­ing music it seems too stress­ful go back to grad school get into debt like every­one else she doesn’t know what I can do with a degree in his­to­ry I pick a hand­ful of night jas­mine on my walk home the only things I think about more than my heart are mon­ey the dying car how I don’t feel 

 

 

 

the far­thest I can run in the city is Teardrop Park where the view is El Chubas­co Chi­na­town and a city dis­guised my body buzzes bad­ly with want my heart leans out of tem­po some­times it’s inhala­tion sets it off some­times the weath­er not enough water some­times too much food not enough some­times it’s being in bed with some­one being in bed alone it’s extra beats an elec­tri­cal prob­lem not some­thing I con­trol what’s the cho­rus again

 

 

 

YOU, DRUM

on Lou Reed’s birth­day I watch porn on my phone in the bath­room before din­ner with the Boys we bring our own booze I start to cry about Cae­tano Veloso in exile singing in Eng­lish I walk home a man jerks off in a bush out­side the cor­ner liquor store eyes rolled back furi­ous pump­ing I pass Jumbo’s where we went with the Boys for my 21st birth­day me sit­ting close to the stage them sit­ting against the wall in the shad­ows beck­on­ing me with dol­lar bills to give to the girls 

 

 

 

Tues­days are band prac­tice Wednes­days are all night hap­py hour the bar­tendress with huge eyes and French braids makes me at least three tequi­la sodas I think about her naked sit out­side on year-round-bougainvil­lea-shad­ed patio papi­er-mâché petals spiked vines I dim the lights in the bar’s pink bath­room take a pic­ture of myself wish for some­one to send it to walk home under gray­ing skies one of the men out­side 7–11 calls to me hey slop­py girl asks me for a blowjob

 

 

 

I need anoth­er surgery it’s forty-thou­sand dol­lars but it’s cov­ered if I keep my job Mom comes and Gram­ma but Dad already had tick­ets to see John Doe only Mom has a pan­ic attack on my futon so I dri­ve us to Kaiser across the street from the big blue church that took all of Gramma’s mon­ey she holds my hand the nurs­es mis­take her for my mom and me for 19 I’m awake again dur­ing the doc­tor says he found the prob­lem he says my heart tricked them last time

 

 

 

IT’S ALL BLOOMING NOW MT. HEART ATTACK

some­times I think I like Los Ange­les I go down­town to see Tele­vi­sion with the Boys walk through a heist scene that doesn’t stop rolling Tom Ver­laine ges­tures to Venus in the west­ern sky I’m in love with all my friends cli­max in the show­er to Roy Orbi­son falling I’m falling falling in love with heart­beat throb dream one of the Boys has me in pub­lic press the wood­en spoon han­dle against myself in my gal­ley kitchen while the rice cooks on the stove 

 

 

 

the label doesn’t want to sign us I get weepy at the bar with the Boys I let down my love for the city but I only know one kind it’s killing me some­times I feel very sad I tell the Boys that the same ses­sion band played on every Amer­i­can pop hit of the ’60s no one knows their names I start to lose momen­tum trust prac­tice sin­cer­i­ty in the bath­room mir­ror ask for my mem­o­ries back erased or oth­er­wise find myself among scat­tered palm fronds and street roach­es on the edge of San­ta Monica

 

 

 

the doc­tor says anoth­er surgery would risk per­fo­ra­tion my heart has two pace­mak­ers some­times the false one gets the rhythm the real one gets a break after I leave the city I can’t stop danc­ing at the least appro­pri­ate times I come back to the city but don’t make it past Mul­hol­land I stand on a bor­rowed bal­cony over behind-the-scenes streets with­out side­walks so close to all my land­marks I can taste lemon­grass tri­pas and tar­na can see my beat­ing the score is swelling

 

 

 

THE OTHER SIDE OF MT. HEART ATTACK

there is no way to see a city I can’t be any­more at the junc­tion of thick­ly-trav­eled boule­vards a city invari­ably comes into exis­tence I dream wash­ing machine amps rub­bery gui­tar strings mics with no input I let myself go slack the tem­po evens out I wear the skin­ni­est tuxe­do I can find put on lip­stick in the hos­pi­tal bed I allow a place to tame me a heavy qui­et set­tles around me I don’t know what to do with it don’t know how to allow myself this pace wor­ry where will my voice be if not a stage

CONSIDER! 
DIFFERENT! 
FADING! 
SYSTEMS!

grief for me for the part on a dream for som­er­sault phan­tom sparse with sweets and drums CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! turn my past selves into a chair into a bed they tear off my past selves in a dream I can’t stop drink­ing that’s shoot­ing upstairs from my Tues­day after­noon I have a pan­ic attach leads real­i­ty series that’s shoot­ing in my heart CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! are risks per­fo­ra­tion stroke I lose path­ways clothes attack to grad school get into debt like Xanax CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! closed I’ll burn those path­ways I’ll be sedat­ed I’ll go home the stereo­typ­i­cal record label against my body seizes my beats relax the label has me for one of the Boys on my back CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! he doesn’t want to be again in Hol­ly­wood For­ev­er pre­tend­ing he loves from my body CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! when I sit up they tear off my time I tell her hand and ask for a con­di­tion with sweets stuffed with the Boys most nights CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! my clothes attack at an impromp­tu audi­tion stroke I lose my insur­ance and they do it can we do it how about they do it CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! fatal or just the Boys on my lunch break I think to my unshaven shit­ty code­pen­dence on the bed I’ve been drink­ing about aliens vis­it­ing Earth I think about LA lat­er anoth­er hand­ful go back stress­ful go back through the Hol­ly­wood Farm­ers’ Mar­ket for years no one can say how soon can we be the Gretsch nev­er time how soon can we talk to grad school get dou­ble-bass beats ready a 16-gauge nee­dle they’ll make me a slit in a week I say CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! some assur­ance I’ve been drink­ing nev­er any­thing nev­er false stage singing grief CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! nev­er false stage singing grief CONSIDER! DIFFERENT! FADING! SYSTEMS! nev­er false stage singing grief
nev­er false stage singing grief
nev­er false stage singing grief
nev­er false
nev­er false nev­er false
oh you drum
oh you drum
my drum
my drum
my drum

 

acknowl­edg­ments

this con­tains lyrics/references from the following:
Drum’s Not Dead – the Liars
““Falling”” – Roy Orbison
““I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”” – the Beach Boys
““The Strength of Strings”” – Gene Clark
Bri­an Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strate­gies card deck

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

Between 2010 and the present, I’ve lived with an arry­th­mia called AV-Nodal Reen­trant Tachy­car­dia, caused by a con­gen­i­tal heart issue. I’ve had spot­ty health insur­ance, mul­ti­ple doc­tors, and two surgeries.

Through­out this time, I was the lead singer of a band in Los Ange­les. I worked a shit­ty 9–5, while prac­tic­ing, record­ing, and play­ing shows reg­u­lar­ly. I drank a lot. I was in a fierce­ly code­pen­dent, mutu­al­ly destruc­tive rela­tion­ship with the gui­tar play­er in the band.

Most of this piece comes from diary entries I made on my lunch breaks in the Hol­ly­wood For­ev­er Ceme­tery which was right down the street from where I worked. Soon after the gui­tar play­er and I broke up and I moved out of Los Ange­les, he made me a playlist based on our rela­tion­ship. The last song on it was the Liars’ “The Oth­er Side of Mt. Heart Attack,” from their 2006 album, Drum’s Not Dead. We had a poster from the album hang­ing in our East Hol­ly­wood apart­ment, but I had­n’t revis­it­ed the album in years. When I write, I tend to lis­ten to a sin­gle song on repeat for hours, induc­ing a kind of time-tran­scend­ing trance state, which is what I did with this song/piece.

After fin­ish­ing it, I found that the con­cerns of this piece were very much in con­ver­sa­tion with the album. As the band said at the album’s release, it explores the ten­sion between two fic­tion­al char­ac­ters, Drum, “assertive and pro­duc­tive, the spir­it of cre­ative con­fi­dence,” and Mount Heart Attack, ” the embod­i­ment of stress and self-doubt.” The con­nec­tion seemed obvi­ous. Even on a lit­er­al level—my body has two pace­mak­ers; the album has two drum kits.

I’ve strug­gled with the cor­rect form for this con­tent. It ends up some­where between a lyric essay and a nar­ra­tive long poem. It’s both a love let­ter and a break-up let­ter to my favorite city. It’s an attempt to recount and rec­on­cile one of the most dark/difficult and also fun/exciting times in my life.

 

Tasia Trevi­no is a writer and musi­cian from Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Cen­tral Coast. Her poems have/will appear(ed) in Fence, Pre­lude, Yalobusha Review, Dream Pop Press, and Poets.org. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop where she was award­ed two May­tag Fel­low­ships and the 2018 Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets’ Prize. More at tasiatrevino.com.

Extremities

Nonfiction / Stanley Plumly

:: Extremities ::

Strange what you remem­ber. When I think of my moth­er the first thing I think of is her feet, her flat duck feet, with their bunions and cal­lus­es and size-what­ev­er com­plaints; with their deep bot­tom criss­cross lines, like dry rivers, lin­ing every which way, as if to tell her for­tune. Not that her feet were imme­di­ate­ly-look­ing odd or out­sized, only that in her youth she’d tried, like a Cin­derel­la sis­ter, to squeeze them into shoes that didn’t fit, shoes on sale or that had some spe­cial claim to beau­ty. At least this was her sto­ry. It was the Depres­sion, she’d say, as if pover­ty had any­thing to do with it, which, as I imag­ine the sub­tle­ty of pover­ty, its depra­va­tions and denials, may be part­ly true.

As she got old­er her feet took on fur­ther distortion—they didn’t seem to belong to the nice legs and moth­er body above them. They’d some­times look attached, from anoth­er time, peas­ant feet, field-work­er from a paint­ing. I’m prob­a­bly exag­ger­at­ing, but they seemed, at times, to trod rather than sim­ply walk the ground. And it’s not as if she didn’t try to cor­rect the dis­par­i­ty, so that the dif­fer­ent thing is the degree to which she cared for them: the salt baths, the med­i­c­i­nal creams, the del­i­cate foot files, the inserts to shoes, the high heels relieved with flats.

At home, cook­ing, doing laun­dry or house­work, she wore slip­pers that fit like old gloves, which is to say she might as well have been bare­foot, except for the fact that the slip­per tend­ed to slap the floor while her feet on their own were silent. Once a week she saw what she called her foot doc­tor, Dr. Schucutt—Shoe-Cut, I called him. I met him once, wait­ing in the wait­ing room. He was small and bent a bit—from bend­ing over to per­form his exam­i­na­tions, I thought, like a shoe sales­man or a cob­bler. My moth­er looked for­ward to these vis­its, both because they gave her some relief and because—now that I think about it—they were sen­su­al expe­ri­ences: the lit­tle surg­eries, the hand-han­dling, the min­is­ter­ing of med­i­cines, the mere inti­mate atten­tions, the feet as some­thing utter­ly personal.

I have my mother’s feet, pan­cake feet. Our feet, after all, are the plat­forms of our being and the first parts of our bod­ies the ancients paid car­ing and pub­lic atten­tion to, espe­cial­ly in wel­com­ing vis­i­tors. Think of the thou­sands of years and the mil­lions of miles that our feet have car­ried us on the foot­paths and across the thresh­olds. No won­der we’ve anoint­ed them with oil and blessed their trav­el, though it’s unlike­ly that my moth­er, on her best day, could have cov­ered a walk­ing mile.

Yet those feet were the most human part of her, the most vul­ner­a­ble and reas­sur­ing. As a small child I loved touch­ing them, par­tic­u­lar­ly the cal­lus­es, which were, in imag­i­na­tion, like Grand­pap­py Lyn’s wen—ugly, oth­er­world­ly, mag­i­cal. I think there were moments when she too loved those feet, loved them the way we come to accept our flaws as essen­tial to our iden­ti­ties. I once com­pared the warmth and char­ac­ter of my mother’s feet to a “bricklayer’s hands,” and those hands, I real­ize now, are my father’s hands.

*

That’s the part of his body I remem­ber most, those large hard hands, that could squeeze the juice from an apple. In his prime, my father was six feet, weighed 200 or so pounds, and had a thir­ty-two-inch waist. He had a laborer’s hands, almost as cal­lused as my mother’s feet. To watch him with an axe or ham­mer, the way his right hand swal­lowed the han­dle, was to be impressed. To watch him lift a tray of bricks and car­ry it up a lad­der or hold a shov­el or move an anvil cra­dled between his arms, his hands in fists…

When he stopped work­ing in the woods he turned to weld­ing, most­ly because by then we’d left Vir­ginia for Ohio, and left nature for indus­try, though the farmer in him nev­er left him. Per­haps he saw some artistry in draw­ing a seam of soft hot met­al in order to heal a rift. He looked omi­nous in the welder’s mask, though at both French Oil and Dup­ps he was soon pro­mot­ed out of the welder’s chair and mask to foreman.

Some of my hap­pi­est times with him were help­ing him build our half-built house and watch­ing him use those hands. For him it was an after-work and week­end job, for me an after-school fan­ta­sy. I was nine. He had two work­men from work to fill out with the extras, cheap labor for the least skilled of the dig­ging of foun­da­tions and mea­sur­ing off of rooms and mix­ing hod and gen­er­al­ly hold­ing things togeth­er. I sort of car­ried bits and pieces and stayed out of the way and played the spy. The three of them poured the con­crete floors, but it was my father who laid the brick and lev­eled its flat-face sur­faces and angles, some­times bet­ter than oth­er times.

It was my father who shaped the shape of the roof, his big raw hands han­dling the two-by-six­es as if they were mere lum­ber, which, of course they were—the helper work­men at each end of the longer pieces, just like those years ago in the woods. We were always work­ing against the clock, which is to say the weath­er, since our work hours were always up against sun­set and the rain and, final­ly, the snow. The first year the house was enough of a shell we could work inside on walls and win­dows and doors, none of which seemed quite right, as if my father’s hands lacked the sub­tle­ty of the square.

The thing is that my father was a sober house-builder, then a drunk after dark, when he would disappear—as far as I knew—until the next morn­ing, usu­al­ly late for his reg­u­lar foreman’s job. He final­ly lost his posi­tion at French Oil for being late at least a hun­dred too many times, but by then we’d pret­ty well closed on fin­ish­ing our half-fin­ished house.

It sat in the coun­try­side on Gar­bry Road just out­side Piqua, Ohio, prac­ti­cal­ly in the mid­dle of a corn­field. It ulti­mate­ly turned out to be a small farm­house, with an added small barn and a cou­ple of out­build­ings. When I’d come back sum­mer from col­lege I’d find dif­fer­ent addi­tions and com­bi­na­tions of domes­tic­i­ty that might include a cou­ple of use­less hors­es, a don­key, chick­ens, a half-dozen white-faced Here­fords, a pen of youngish pigs, what­ev­er. My father always wept send­ing off the cat­tle to slaugh­ter. And he seemed just as close to tears each evening talk­ing to his pigs, whom he pet­ted on their pink heads with great care with his great hands.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

by David Baker 

Extrem­i­ties” is a remark­able piece of prose, of remem­brance, in the man­ner of a com­pressed mem­oir. It will appear in Stan­ley Plumly’s posthu­mous vol­ume, Mid­dle Dis­tance, in August of 2020 (W.W. Nor­ton), and is one of four such prose works in this book of lyric poet­ry and rich­ness. The present account is a lit­tle unusu­al, since Stan isn’t writ­ing it. I am work­ing with Michael Col­lier, as we assist Mar­garet Plum­ly with Stan’s lit­er­ary mat­ters, and I am hon­ored to have this chance to say a word about “Extrem­i­ties.”

What I can account for here, indeed, is the beau­ty and lap­idary pre­ci­sion of the piece. Much like Stan’s poems, this work is sharply focused in its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of detail—for his moth­er, her feet; for his father, his hands. Synec­doche is the por­trait painter’s not-so-secret secret: let a part speak or stand, as it were, for the per­son­al­i­ty of the whole per­son. So here is his moth­er, stand­ing on her own two feet, stand­ing up to work, stand­ing firm as care­tak­er for the fam­i­ly. Stan’s ear­ly poem from Sum­mer Celes­tial, “My Mother’s Feet,” is a beau­ti­ful fam­i­ly fore­bear to this half of “Extrem­i­ties,” which is about love and pain and the eas­ing of pain for the ones we love.

Notice how deft­ly the metaphor of his mother’s feet, “like a bricklayer’s hands” in that ear­li­er poem, becomes a link to his father, who was indeed at times a bricklayer—and a wood­turn­er, lum­ber­man, welder, and (like Whit­man) a house­builder. He had hard hands, Stan says, hands hard­ened by so much work but capa­ble of affec­tion, pet­ting the pink heads of those pigs.

A home­mak­er and a house­builder, his moth­er and father, both mak­ers. And they were both dear to Stan, as the ten­der­ness and pre­ci­sion of this piece attests. Mem­o­ry is what we car­ry for­ward of the facts of our lives. It seems to select us as much as we select what to recall, and in “Extrem­i­ties” Stan creates—as well as recreates—an indeli­ble dou­ble por­trait of his par­ents. He is still their duti­ful son, two of whose duties have been rapt atten­tion and unmatched styl­is­tic skill. Mak­ers must run in that family.

 

Stan­ley Plum­ly pub­lished 10 high­ly influ­en­tial books of poet­ry dur­ing his life­time, as well as four impor­tant works of prose on the Roman­tic poets and painters. His posthu­mous col­lec­tion of new poet­ry and lyric prose, Mid­dle Dis­tance, will appear in August 2020 from W. W. Nor­ton. He was Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land at the time of his death in April 2019. 

Surge

Nonfiction / Sayuri Ayers

:: Surge ::

And it was always our sea­son of per­il: Elec­tric­i­ty, the per­il the wind sings to in the wires on a gray day. 

—Janet Frame, Faces in the Water

Mam­ma, how was I born?” My four-year-old son asks. He leans against me, one hand around my arm, anoth­er on his die-cast Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. I put down the bed­time book and glean my mind—recall my son as a squalling bun­dle, his fists blue-gray as storm clouds.

You were so small that I felt like I wasn’t hold­ing any­thing at all,” I began. “When I saw you, I knew that I loved you.” My son gig­gles, buries his dark head in my lap.

Keep on read­ing, beau­ti­ful Mam­ma,” he says, turn­ing the page.

That night, I dream of giv­ing birth to my son. I’m walk­ing in an open field and I’m struck by light­ning. Our hearts course with cur­rent and he comes surg­ing out of me, singed with fire.

While in the mater­ni­ty ward, I was entan­gled in mind-numb­ing depres­sion. I bare­ly ate and spoke. When I opened my mouth, gar­bled weep­ing poured out. I lay par­a­lyzed in the hos­pi­tal bed, my mind swarm­ing with dark­ness. Shad­ows eased ten­drils over bed­sheets. Black­ened iris roots clawed upwards from the linoleum tile.

With the psy­chi­atric med­ica­tions, the images of the woman sway­ing from a door­frame and the devoured infant fad­ed into shad­owy lat­tices, then into vapor. Final­ly, I could hold my son, mar­vel at his light­ness, the arch of his back, his milk-scent­ed cheeks. As he drew draught after draught from the bot­tle, I gazed down at him, he up at me. Sun­light hemmed us togeth­er, silence bro­ken by morn­ing cho­rus out­side the bed­room window.

But now, three years lat­er, the shad­ows are back again. They flut­ter around the edges of cur­tains like moths. While my hus­band sleeps, I look beyond the bound­aries of the back­yard, deep into the woods. Pines rake at the win­ter moon. The gate is unlatched and swings loose­ly on its hinges. Like a pale arm, it motions to the icy river.

At day­break, my son rush­es into my room and leaps into bed. “You need a hug,” he says. For months my body has been aching, plead­ing for rest. I drag myself from bed, stum­ble across the chilly floor. With lead­en hands, I heap a bowl full of yogurt for my son. It’s been a week and a half since I’ve show­ered. I plow my hands through my hair and change my under­wear and bra. “Stu­pid,” I tell the reflec­tion in the mir­ror. Its fer­al eyes dart back and forth.

I’m fine,” I tell my hus­band. Tears course down my face.

No, you’re not,” my hus­band says. When he had returned home, the liv­ing room was lit­tered with toys. My son had been watch­ing tele­vi­sion for hours. I was sprawled weep­ing on the bed.

My hus­band rif­fles through the pages of the Emer­gency Men­tal Health Plan that we’d cre­at­ed. “We have to do some­thing,” he says. I look at my hands, slow spread­ing of creas­es, light­ning ingrained in flesh—the flesh spi­ral­ing down into dark­ness. I dig into my palm with my nails.

In my dreams, my son is cap­tured by a beast with a mil­lion ten­ta­cles. While I slash and scream, the beast squeezes tighter and tighter—my son bulges, black­ens. He bursts into ash and is swept away by the wind. Weep­ing, I search for him, gath­er soot into my arms. I wake up screaming.

My hus­band, son, and I final­ly move in with my par­ents. We lock up our house and leave the front lights on. We pull out of the dri­ve­way. I look back. The house wavers, for­est bristling with snow. The riv­er stirs, ice grinds along its shale bank—fractured teeth in a black jaw.

Every morn­ing after my hus­band leaves for work, my moth­er eas­es me out of bed. She coax­es me to pull on my left sock, then right. She shows me how to brush my hair and teeth. She places a cup of tea and a bowl of broth in front of me. “Sip,” she says. “Swal­low,” she says. “Again,” she says. While my son bounds in the snow, she rocks me as I weep.

Even at my par­ents’ house, there are days when I can’t get out of bed. I lis­ten to my moth­er clang­ing pots in the kitchen down­stairs, to the pad-pad of my son’s feet up to my bed­room. “Tell me a sto­ry, Mam­ma,” my son says, hoist­ing him­self up onto the bed. I can bare­ly lift my head from the pil­low. He cups his hands around my face, and gazes at me, wait­ing. I close my eyes again.

The mon­sters have stolen my car. You won’t find it,” my son says. His face, pale and solemn. “These mon­sters have lots of legs. They can squeeze through pipes and go down into the base­ment.” We find the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle smudged and dent­ed, wedged between air vent and desk. “See,” my son says, cradling his car, “they’re everywhere.”

Before tuck­ing him into bed, I tell my son: “There’s a dark for­est. In the cen­ter of it is a mon­ster with many ten­ta­cles. It tries to eat a tree full of baby ani­mals. When you hear the babies scream­ing, you run into the for­est. You’re afraid, but you have a crys­tal sword. You plunge the sword into the monster’s eye, and it runs away—never to be seen again.”

Bur­row­ing into the com­forter, my son smiles. “Tell me anoth­er, Mam­ma,” he says.

One morn­ing, I’m awak­ened by the tap-tap of ice thaw­ing from the house’s eaves. My son bursts into my room. He wraps his small arms around my neck, nuz­zles me. “Are you here for­ev­er, mom­ma?” he asks. “Yes—forever,” I say. Light dis­lodges, glim­mers through my body.

The wis­te­ria has final­ly bloomed, nod­ding its gold­en head in time to song spar­rows. As I wash and dry the dish­es, my son plays near my feet with his Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. I tell my moth­er about the new poems I’ve writ­ten, the soup recipes I’d like to try, how my son has grown two inch­es. She smiles at me, sun­light gloss­ing her gray­ing hair, dark eyes. “It’s almost time for you to go home,” she says, embrac­ing me.

When I come out­side to gar­den the Sat­ur­day of my family’s return, my neigh­bor comes to greet me. “I haven’t seen any of you for four months,” he says. “I thought I would have to call the cops.” Despite my husband’s week­end attempts at lawn main­te­nance, our home stands in five inch­es of wild grass, the gar­den beds choked with weeds. While my son steers his cars in and out of the shriv­eled tulips, I stab the weed­er into roots of dan­de­lion. I fill four yard-waste bags and lug them to the curb.

At night, my wrists and back crack­le with pain. I stand at the win­dow again, stare deep into the woods. The moon shines down into the whorl of dark­ness, down to the riv­er bed. The white stone path and gate pulse with fire­flies. I slip into bed next to my hus­band. I kiss his stub­bled cheeks until he rous­es; then I take him into my arms.

I pile the shop­ping cart high with daylily, bego­nia, and peony bulbs. I’ve select­ed each one for their hearty blooms, gen­er­ous foliage. Any­thing, I think, to keep the weeds from com­ing up again.

In the cool morn­ing, I emp­ty the bulb pack­ages into dirt with my son. I show him how to plant each bulb upright, light­ly cov­er them all with top­soil. When I unwrap the peony bulbs, my son breaks into gig­gles. “Look!” he says. “Mon­sters!” He kiss­es their gnarled, trail­ing roots. When we plant them, he sprin­kles them with soil and pats them with his small hand.

How are you doing?” my moth­er asks. Adjust­ing the phone, I watch my son run his Bee­tle over and around my lap. I run my fin­gers through his hair, mak­ing fur­row after fur­row. His sweet baby scent, giv­ing way to the fra­grance of earth and sweat—the wind dis­till­ing. “I’m fine,” I say.

I pause from weed­ing gar­den beds and look up into the tree line. The tips of pines hiss and crack­le under a sheen of static—the gar­bled voic­es almost com­pre­hen­si­ble. I plunge the trow­el deep­er, earth­worms and pill bugs squirm­ing up from crest­ing soil. Under my hand, the dark­ness puls­es. Beside me, my son scoops earth into his tin pail, trac­ing the flower beds his hands. He pets the inky shoots, say­ing, “Listen—can you hear them sing?”

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Before I wrote cre­ative non­fic­tion, I was a poet. I decid­ed to approach my expe­ri­ences with ill­ness through the lyric essay because the form allows me to cre­ate a sus­tained nar­ra­tive. I use my train­ing as a poet to hone tone, rhythm, and con­cise­ness of lan­guage. Writ­ing poet­ry has also helped me incor­po­rate strong imagery in my cre­ative non­fic­tion pieces like “Surge.”

Surge” is part of a four-part series that explores my expe­ri­ences in moth­er­hood, men­tal ill­ness, and elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­a­py. After giv­ing birth to my son, I fell into a deep post­par­tum depres­sion, which was com­pound­ed by my exist­ing men­tal health issues. This essay describes a peri­od of reprieve, when my depres­sion improved. At the same time, “Surge” fore­shad­ows my hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and ECT treat­ments a few short months later.

In “Surge,” the mon­sters and earth play a vital role in describ­ing the moth­er-child rela­tion­ship. I rely on mag­i­cal real­ism to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where myth becomes truth, pow­er, and heal­ing. Read­ers are encour­aged to take leaps in imag­i­na­tion, to fill those gaps with their own voices.

 

A Kundi­man Fel­low and Soar­ing Gar­dens Res­i­dent, Sayuri Ayers is a native of Colum­bus, Ohio. Her prose and poet­ry have appeared in Entropy, SWWIM, Hobart, The Pinch, and oth­er lit­er­ary jour­nals. She is the author of two chap­books: Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bot­tle Press, 2016) and Mother/Wound (forth­com­ing from Full/Crescent Press). Her lyric essay man­u­script, Beast-Moth­er, was a final­ist in the Paper Nau­tilus’ 2019 Vel­la Chap­book Com­pe­ti­tion. She has also received grants from the Ohio Arts Coun­cil, Greater Colum­bus Arts Coun­cil, and VSA Ohio. Please vis­it her at sayuriayers.com

All My Girls

Fiction / Emily Yin

 

:: All My Girls ::

Claire tells you not to wor­ry, she’d just been mak­ing tea. Sarah’s hair falls limply, just past her shoul­ders, like a sheet of cloth. Liv recites Mayakovsky in a chapel, scat­ter­ing the night with each unsteady line. Claire sends pic­tures of her burned palms. Liv smirks at your wide-eyed rev­er­ence, says your favorite line com­pares the stars in the sky to flecks of spit. Sarah sits with arms unspooled, gaze pinned firm­ly on some dis­tant place. She doesn’t squirm or look away when the teacher lobs a ques­tion at her, only shrugs, and that’s that. Sarah—oh, Sarah. You’re nobody but she’s untouched, untouch­able. You start to con­struct a mythol­o­gy around her: all the kids falling away from her like the sea at low tide, her eyes flick­er­ing, how the flame nev­er dies.

You weren’t meant to be frail, you and Claire; as high school­ers you’d net­ted one grim vic­to­ry after anoth­er, unstop­pable, an A here and an acco­lade there. Dis­played such promise, had so lit­tle time to feel. Or maybe you’d got­ten it all wrong, reversed the direc­tion of causal­i­ty. Maybe numb­ness came first and ambi­tion sim­ply fol­lowed; ambi­tion, your only ram­part in a shape­less world. The thought plagues you like a phan­tom pain. Claire, guard­ed but not unkind. Liv, brash but aching­ly earnest. Sarah, pli­ant and unafraid. Hadn’t you sensed it all those years ago? It’s always the brit­tle that break.

*

You orbit Sarah war­i­ly at recess, too proud for over­tures. The heat is unremit­ting. A record high, the anchor­men say. All the oth­er kids take turns on the wood­en slide, its rollers clack­ing like your mother’s aba­cus. You kick peb­bles around, wait­ing for the heat to break. But Sarah, she’s some­thing else. Sits cross-legged in the shade, lac­ing and unlac­ing the web of yarn between her hands. Some­times she glances up, quick­ly, and begins anew. She’s per­form­ing for some­one, you real­ize. She’s per­form­ing for you. One day you gath­er your courage and walk up to the ledge on which she’s perched. What is that?

Her gaze flicks to the yarn and then your face. Cat’s cra­dle, she final­ly replies, words clipped and clear. Want to play? And so it goes: pass­ing the loop of string back and forth day after day, your small, bony fin­gers col­lid­ing with hers. At first you bare­ly talk. You’re afraid of say­ing the wrong thing, offend­ing her as yet unknown sen­si­bil­i­ties, and so you smile, shy­ly, when­ev­er your eyes meet. Her first real words to you are an accu­sa­tion. Why are you here?

Why? Dumb­struck, you find your­self echo­ing her words.

I can see you look­ing over at them dur­ing recess. After class, too. Her words are mat­ter-of-fact and devoid of con­tempt. You want to join in when they make their jokes; you open your mouth but nev­er speak.

It’s… You grope for the right words. I don’t know. They go too fast—you cut your­self off, look at her implor­ing­ly. She stares, refus­ing to fill in your blanks. I don’t know, you par­rot, painful­ly aware of the ver­bal tic clut­ter­ing your speech. It’s just that, by the time I think of some­thing clever, they’ve already start­ed on anoth­er top­ic. So I’m always too late.

She shoots you an inde­ci­pher­able look. In that ago­niz­ing moment, it dawns on you that Sarah does not, will not, can­not under­stand, Sarah with her self-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and infi­nite tran­quil­i­ty. How do you do it? You want to ask. How do you stop car­ing so much all the time? But then she’s say­ing it’s okay, it’s okay, and you’re exhal­ing shak­i­ly, feel­ing inex­plic­a­bly lighter.

*

Sarah is not the humor­less girl you thought she was. Your admis­sion strips her of that arti­fi­cial grav­i­ty and you’re girls again, imp­ish and fun. You start tak­ing the bus to her house after school, spend hours in her base­ment play­ing make-believe. Yes­ter­day you were sophis­ti­cat­ed French girls in a Parisian cafe, sip­ping wine and nib­bling mac­arons. Tomor­row you’ll be wealthy heiress­es, the day after pen­sive pau­pers. Some­times, for no rea­son at all, you look at her and feel a strange con­stric­tion in your chest. Years lat­er, when you start to notice boys, you will call this longing.

You play duets, too, she on the sax­o­phone and you on the flute, mid­dling at best alone, down­right ter­ri­ble togeth­er. When you tire of the cacoph­o­ny, you clam­ber up the stairs and col­lab­o­rate on a fan­ta­sy nov­el which becomes more elab­o­rate with each pass­ing week. Your par­ents, dis­mis­sive at first, start to peer over your shoul­ders. When they read the first draft, a sheaf of papers one-hun­dred-odd pages long, they exchange glances. Not bad, they say. Not bad at all. Sud­den­ly the par­ents, both yours and hers, are invest­ed in your part­ner­ship. They talk over the pos­si­bil­i­ties at the din­ner table and on the phone. Sarah’s aunt works in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness; her moth­er said it might be worth a shot to send it over, see what they make of it. Or: the girls could be excel­lent bridge partners—I’ve nev­er seen two peo­ple so in sync. Per­haps, per­haps, per­haps. It is the sum­mer of 2009. Every­one speaks in hypo­thet­i­cals, but it all seems so inevitable. And then she’s gone.

*

The tests results have come back nor­mal; the gas­troen­terol­o­gist found no cause for your abdom­i­nal pain. In oth­er words, you have a clean bill of health. Claire lis­tens, impas­sive, as you relay this to her. Are you okay? She asks at last. For a moment you won­der if she heard any­thing you said, but then you under­stand. Yeah, thanks for ask­ing. Your eyes burn a lit­tle. The truth is that you’re still afraid. You’ve amassed so much fear in the past few months—where can you set it down? And how can you be fine if the pain’s still there? But Claire doesn’t ask again.

The two of you sit in the parked car. You’re not quite sure why you’ve con­fid­ed in her. You were part­ners in chem lab, then friends as a mat­ter of course, but con­ver­sa­tions had always revolved around exams and after-school clubs, care­ful­ly skirt­ing the red zone of your inte­ri­or­i­ties. You think back to that thaw­ing between you and Sarah, how it had been pre­cip­i­tat­ed by one dis­clo­sure, and feel a spark of hope. But your pre­mo­ni­tion is wrong. You con­tin­ue to pass each oth­er in the halls, wave, and move onto the next class; con­tin­ue to quiz each oth­er on lim­its and synec­doches; con­tin­ue to labor tire­less­ly over home­work and grades. And so the days pass.

*

Livia calls your name in a girl­ish voice, names her bike for you. You have her in your con­tacts as col­or­blind and con­sci­en­tious, a jab at her rigid black-and-white sense of moral­i­ty. She stoops to pick up lit­ter mid-curse, mocks your ter­ri­ble sense of direc­tion but defends you vicious­ly. Those who’ve han­dled you like shards of bro­ken glass all your life gape in amaze­ment. Some­times she pelts her words with too much force, but you nev­er par­ry. Before, you think, you were untouch­able. It was a lone­ly thing to be. You know Livia’s a real one when you ask her for a pic­ture and she drops to the pave­ment in the flam­ing Bei­jing heat. Won’t let you for­get it either. Remem­ber, I’d burn my knees for you, she says, and you know it’s true.

*

You haven’t talked to Sarah in years. She becomes a sym­bol of your child­hood hap­pi­ness, a stan­dard against which all oth­ers are mea­sured and found want­i­ng. When you’re sad, you trace the long course of your friend­ship to its very end: cat’s cra­dle, the nov­el, fight­ing to the point of laugh­ter, laugh­ing to the point of tears, all those sum­mers play­ing tag, long legs scis­sor­ing in flight and hands out­stretched, shame­less excuse to touch and be touched, that quick­en­ing of pos­si­bil­i­ty, the U‑Haul on her dri­ve­way, the solemn good­bye, first love, the hard­est break.

*

Claire attends col­lege one thou­sand miles away. In spite of the phys­i­cal dis­tance, or per­haps because of it, the dis­tance between you has col­lapsed. You send songs to each oth­er when words fail; over the months, the con­cate­nat­ed lyrics write a kind of shared his­to­ry. You tell her about whit­tling down the hours in a local book­store, slip­ping through unlocked cam­pus build­ings at night, how the burn­ing in your gut had eased and then van­ished alto­geth­er. She talks often about being sad; you make all the right nois­es but sel­dom wor­ry. The girl is inde­struc­tible. Livia, on the oth­er hand, always seems to be on the cusp of splin­ter­ing. She ago­nizes over hypo­thet­i­cals, spams your phone five, ten, twen­ty times at once.

I don’t know” becomes your trade­mark refrain. Of course you have your ideas, but you think of omis­sion as a form of mer­cy. Easy to for­feit your opin­ion instead of sub­ject­ing it to Livia’s anx­ious dis­sec­tion. Hard to stand by mute­ly as she cuts her­self, over and over, on the ser­rat­ed edge of hope. And yet the alter­na­tive is unthink­able. I don’t know, you say when she asks if he’d ever cared. I don’t know. You’ve seen the type, earnest but oh so care­less, the type for whom ten­der­ness does not equate to love. If you were a bet­ter friend you’d warn her, per­haps. But you don’t know for sure. And, more self­ish­ly: you can’t risk her shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger, can’t lose your best and dear­est friend. It scares you how much you need her. Cir­cling each oth­er on the dance floor, how she push­es the hair from her eyes, her face irra­di­at­ed by strobe lights stream­ing down like rain. And then you reach for each other’s hands, two school chil­dren play­ing Ring Around the Rosie, spin­ning, pock­et full of posies, light and sound and time sink­ing into the ecsta­t­ic dark, dis­man­tling you in the best way, ash­es, ash­es, a con­tin­u­ous descent, but you nev­er fall.

*

It’s over. Heart­bro­ken, Livia wants to put her head in your lap. Some­times you recoil vio­lent­ly, won­der what it is you’re so afraid of. Oth­er times you acqui­esce, pull her in almost vio­lent­ly, whis­per the words to a poem you’d once read: I wish I could cut off your pain like hair (but all I real­ly want to do is comb it). You know this is a pro­sa­ic pain, one she will emerge from large­ly unscathed, but you ache with a pecu­liar ten­der­ness. A few days from now, Claire will scald her hands and call it an acci­dent. You’ll phone Livia, try to beat back the shock waves with ques­tions for which she has no answer. Why do I feel so strange­ly detached? Shouldn’t I feel more? Shouldn’t I feel less? How can words be so dev­as­tat­ing­ly impotent?

She’ll receive you, stut­ter­ing out your help­less­ness, as a priest at con­fes­sion. In the span between your words, the truth you might nev­er say: I need­ed you, Sarah. Was so, so alone before I met you, Claire. Thought myself unknow­able till you knew me, Liv. How I care for you, and you, and you. You close your eyes, hear Livia’s shal­low breath­ing over the line. You know I’d burn my knees for you, she says. You envy her this cer­tain­ty. Imag­ine a cam­era flash, a white-faced Claire, a tub, the Bei­jing heat. Liv, you say. Liv. The words crack open the sound­less night, more promise than revelation.

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This piece is a ret­ro­spec­tive on my girl­hood. I’ve been think­ing a lot late­ly about the emo­tion­al toll of intimacy—not just the pet­ty spats and well-worn rit­u­als of ado­les­cence (nav­i­gat­ing first love and rift, envy, aca­d­e­m­ic stress, the social tur­bu­lence of high school, etc.) but also the cost of car­ing, of tak­ing on bur­dens that—once assumed—can nev­er again be put down or for­got­ten; fear of code­pen­den­cy; that pecu­liar blur­ring between love and vio­lence; and how, despite all this, there can be no oth­er way of living.

 

Emi­ly Yin is a junior study­ing com­put­er sci­ence at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Her writ­ing has been rec­og­nized by the UK Poet­ry Soci­ety and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writ­ers. She cur­rent­ly serves as a poet­ry edi­tor at Nas­sau Lit­er­ary Review. Her work is pub­lished in Indi­ana Review Online, Glass: A Jour­nal of Poet­ry, Pit­head Chapel, decomP mag­a­zinE, and Con­no­ta­tion Press, among others.

Venice, 1595

Fiction / Anne McGouran

 

:: Venice, 1595 ::

In spite of all my efforts, the Doge’s trot­ters are fit to appear along­side the dwarves and amputees he brings out at court enter­tain­ments. There’s a gouty pouch on his left foot that resem­bles a sixth toe. No mat­ter how I pumice and cau­ter­ize, his bunions resem­ble over­ripe figs.

Pieri­no,” he sighs, “when I’m dead they’ll all gloat: ‘We sure squeezed the last drop out of Doge Grimani.’”

Do not dis­tress your­self, Most Serene Prince. I’ll pre­pare a chamomile poul­tice with­out delay.”  (I might have to rethink those draw­string thongs—maybe invent some kind of toggle.)

When­ev­er I come up with a new treat­ment, the Doge pats my head and calls me his “clever young wor­thy,” which puts me on a rung just below his Per­sian wolfhounds. Most days he’s eas­i­ly pleased—a tot of mosca­to, some rice and peas, relief from those cracked heels and jaun­diced toe­nails, pro­tec­tion from his grasp­ing wife.

Nowa­days Her Lady­ship has to be fer­ried around in a sedan chair by four por­taseggette till she can walk unaid­ed in her 27-inch cork-platforms—the lat­est fash­ion from Moor­ish Spain. Last week, two ladies-in-wait­ing came to me with over­stretched ankles. “The Dog­a­res­sa sends us on bogus errands then fines us for tar­di­ness,” Fausti­na whis­pered. “She’s got stumpy legs and a grimy yel­low neck under that fan­cy ruff.” While I made up spe­cial heel padding, the ladies took turns swivel­ing on the fan­cy new stool with a move­able seat I won at dice.

At least the cam­paign to erect a stat­ue of the Doge is going well. Guess all his well-placed elec­tion gifts didn’t hurt. A goc­cia a goc­cia s’in­ca­va la pietra. (Drop by drop one wears away the stone.) He was pleased with the long-toed cor­rec­tive shoes I fash­ioned for his audi­ence with the Per­sian Ambas­sador. I sewed a goatskin upper onto a leather sole, turned it inside out to con­ceal the seam. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the old boy tripped while descend­ing the Giants’ Stair­case, the Dog­a­res­sa glar­ing at him from out of those pink slits.

When I learned the Dogaressa’s coro­na­tion will set the old boy back 144,000 ducats, I sent a mes­sage to Fausti­na. “Wouldn’t Her Seren­i­ty like a pair of winged plat­form san­dals to com­ple­ment her tow­er­ing head­dress?” I scraped bronze gild­ing off an old mir­ror and blend­ed it with mar­ble dust and sand to resem­ble wings. The soft padding con­forms to the shape of the Dogaressa’s foot, but the genius part is the under­lay­er. Trace amounts of ground viper, dung, and mer­cury will slow­ly leach into her sen­si­tive soles. She won’t be alle­mand­ing with her courtiers any time soon. Like we corn-cut­ters always say, “Pain comes on horse­back but goes away on foot.”

I’d best nip over to Manin’s Print Shop before he gets to work on my call­ing card. My first choice was “Piero Cafisi: Expert in the Erad­i­ca­tion of Painful Corns, Stone Bruis­ing, and Cuta­neous Excres­cences,” but I’ve set­tled on “Renowned Spe­cial­ist in Indel­i­cate Foot Conditions.”

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

Three years ago I became fas­ci­nat­ed with the Dog­a­res­sa, the Venet­ian Doge’s offi­cial spouse. Out of the thir­ty-five Dog­a­res­sas, I decid­ed to research Dog­a­res­sa Morosi­na Morisi­ni-Gri­mani, whose extrav­a­gant coro­na­tion was the last on record in Renais­sance Venice. I won­dered if she had any polit­i­cal influence.

Mean­while, my hus­band and I booked a two-week get­away in New York City. Our guest house (accord­ing to their web­site) con­tained part of an Ital­ian Renais­sance library that once belonged to the Duke of Urbino. I got it in my head that the Duke of Urbino was Morosi­na Morosini’s hus­band. At the local ref­er­ence library I pho­to­copied floor plans of a 14th cen­tu­ry ducal palace, includ­ing its elab­o­rate ceil­ing medal­lion. When we final­ly checked into the House of the Redeemer, I rushed down­stairs to the sto­ried library clutch­ing my pho­to­copies. I gazed up at the vault­ed ceil­ing only to dis­cov­er that the medal­lions didn’t match. A his­to­ri­an lat­er clar­i­fied that the library actu­al­ly belonged to Fed­eri­co da Mon­te­fel­tro. My bad.

I aban­doned my Dog­a­res­sa sto­ry and began to think about the lives of min­ions at the Venet­ian court. I reread Eliz­a­beth Janeway’s Pow­ers of the Weak: “a wise mis­trust of the pow­er­ful and a will­ing­ness to exer­cise dis­sent” is nec­es­sary if the weak are to rule their own lives. I thought about gos­sip as a weapon of the weak. The fic­tion­al char­ac­ter of Piero Cafisi emerged after I read an orthotics brochure which said that “corn-cut­ters” pre­dat­ed podiatrists.

 

Anne McGouran’s sto­ries and essays appear or are forth­com­ing in Cleaver, Cut­bank, The Smart Set, Mslex­ia, Queen’s Quar­ter­ly, Orca, Switch­grass Review, and Gar­goyle Mag­a­zine. She lives in Colling­wood, Ontario where she has devel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with ice huts and orchard ladders.

Severin

Fiction / Rachel Levy

 

:: Severin ::

I.

Sev­erin is a char­ac­ter in a nov­el. He is a Gali­cian gen­tle­man and landown­er. He is thir­ty years old, a smok­er. He is sex­u­al­ly inex­pe­ri­enced. He craves eggs, soft-boiled, and likes to press his face against stat­ues. He likes stat­ues. He loves fur. He dab­bles in poet­ry and sci­ence. He col­lects ani­mal skele­tons, stuffed birds, and plas­tic cats. He does not want to be hanged by a woman, so he trains women. He rests his chin in his hands. His hands are del­i­cate­ly veined. Accord­ing to his neigh­bors, Sev­erin is dan­ger­ous and odd. He has zero friends, unless you count the nar­ra­tor of the book. Sev­erin and the nar­ra­tor are best friends. They smoke cig­a­rettes at Severin’s estate. They talk about lit­er­a­ture, domes­tic vio­lence, and the fig­ure of the cru­el woman. The cru­el woman ambles roughshod over the grass­es in the art­works of wealthy het­ero­sex­u­als of Euro­pean descent. Sev­erin con­fess­es to the nar­ra­tor. Once he used sci­ence to bring the cru­el woman to life. Like the wife in the block­buster film Bride of Franken­stein (1935), the cru­el woman was ill-suit­ed for love.

For exam­ple: The cru­el woman chains Sev­erin to a thick wood­en rod. Then she orders a man of Greek descent to engage Severin’s body in a whip­ping with­out Severin’s con­sent. In addi­tion, she breaks up with Sev­erin while his body is still attached to the thick wood­en rod. She refus­es to have pen­e­tra­tive sex with Sev­erin. No, they nev­er have pen­e­tra­tive sex. The absence of pen­e­tra­tive sex is demor­al­iz­ing to Sev­erin, and yet it helps him to devel­op a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion which posi­tions him favor­ably on the job mar­ket. I will elaborate.

What doesn’t kill you births a more vir­u­lent strain of your kind,” writes Friedrich Wil­helm Niet­zsche. Niet­zsche is a Ger­man bach­e­lor who rejects the com­pan­ion­ship of peo­ple, pre­fer­ring an assort­ment of hand-held fire­works and domes­tic tools, such as sparklers and a ham­mer. He is famous for his vir­ginal mus­tache. You aren’t allowed to touch it! Oh, Niet­zsche. While Sev­erin is attached to the thick wood­en rod, he is over­whelmed and close to death on account of the man of Greek descent who is whip­ping his body. Fast for­ward a few days, and Sev­erin is on hol­i­day in Rome tap­ping the virtues of socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus to process the trau­mat­ic roman­tic expe­ri­ence. In short, Sev­erin endures. He per­se­veres like Queen Mab and push­es the hazel­nut car­riage of day labor­ers through the har­row­ing tun­nel of the absence of maid­en­hood, dip­ping into the fam­i­ly cof­fers to buy him­self a ration of the most exquis­ite cocaine. Lat­er, in the heat of an Ital­ian night­club, Sev­erin snatch­es a neon glow­stick from a les­bian! Then he is danc­ing. Sev­erin dances to express his sense of humil­i­a­tion and loss. It isn’t long before Severin’s danc­ing draws the atten­tion of a well-con­nect­ed group. In a qui­et vel­vet cor­ner, nes­tled in the rear of the night­club, the group plies Sev­erin with liquor and a flight of hens stuffed with sur­pris­ing fla­vor com­bos like cheese and nuts. Sev­erin swears the group to secre­cy. Then he shows them the blue­prints for orga­niz­ing soci­ety along strict hier­ar­chi­cal lines. They decide to get brunch after. The morn­ing is dewy and bright, veined with sil­ver tor­rents. It’s beau­ti­ful! My god. It’s beau­ti­ful. Sev­erin is cry­ing now. He is slob­ber­ing. He’s chok­ing a lit­tle. It’s just so. So. Beau­ti­ful. He com­mits right then and there to join the fight for men’s rights. In due time, he inher­its his father’s estate. That’s how Sev­erin evolves into the polit­i­cal per­sona we know and love today.

Sev­erin owns clas­si­cal paint­ings. Sev­erin owns impor­tant books. Sev­erin owns top-qual­i­ty cig­a­rettes. There’s also a silk-clad thingy, plump in a bodice, walk­ing on stilt­ed doe’s legs through­out the cor­ri­dors of Severin’s estate. The silk-clad thingy car­ries a plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats. As not­ed above, Sev­erin is an active par­tic­i­pant in the men’s rights move­ment. The author uses plain lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate Severin’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the fig­ure of the tyrant on both a per­son­al and polit­i­cal lev­el. For these rea­sons and oth­ers, the naïve read­er might be tempt­ed to con­clude: “Well, there you have it! Severin’s a tyrant. This is a tyran­ni­cal book!” But the com­plex­i­ty of the text threat­ens oth­er­wise. For exam­ple, when the silk-clad thingy presents the plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats, Sev­erin reacts in an unex­pect­ed man­ner. He is over­come by anguish because the eggs are not cooked to his lik­ing. The eggs are hard-boiled, but Sev­erin prefers soft-boiled eggs. His pref­er­ence for the soft-boiled egg sub­verts the log­ic of tyranny.

I will elaborate.

Through­out the his­to­ry of the West, tyrants have pre­ferred to asso­ciate them­selves with hard objects. Since there is no rea­son to assume this pref­er­ence does not extend to eggs, the read­er spec­u­lates that it is the nat­ur­al ten­den­cy of the tyrant to choose the hard-boiled egg over the soft-boiled egg. If Sev­erin were actu­al­ly a tyrant, then he would have wel­comed the hard-boiled egg into the sen­si­tive inner-mouth space of his head. Sev­erin does not wel­come the hard-boiled egg into the sen­si­tive inner-mouth space of his head.

The author of the book out­fits Severin’s sen­si­tive inner-mouth space with the trap­pings of a bachelor’s boudoir. The boudoir is lined from floor to ceil­ing in the rich­est pink vel­vet. Ever since read­ing the book, I have caught myself sali­vat­ing at the thought of spend­ing the after­noon in Severin’s mouth. One day in the future, after I’ve put in my time and ascend­ed some of the rungs, I hope to take an entire week­end. I’ll bring along a nov­el, plus sev­er­al of my col­leagues and friends! We’ll dis­course on lit­er­a­ture, ethics, and the nec­es­sary exclu­sion of some groups from the pub­lic sphere. Unable to pre­vent our hands from caress­ing the walls, we’ll wipe our fin­gers on the thick pink sur­face. Then the room will begin to vibrate, and a deep-throat­ed purring will fill up our ears.

In addi­tion, and it goes with­out say­ing, the tyrant’s pref­er­ence for the hard­ness of hard-boiled eggs, and for hard objects in gen­er­al, evokes the turgid­i­ty of the phal­lus when it is erect. This thrilling detail con­nects to a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion held by tyrants the world over: the dis­avow­al of cas­tra­tion. The tyrant does not under­stand that he is cas­trat­ed. But what about Sev­erin? Does Sev­erin under­stand that he is cas­trat­ed? Sev­erin absolute­ly under­stands that he is cas­trat­ed! For exam­ple, before Sev­erin real­izes he must devel­op a method for train­ing women in order to pre­vent women from hang­ing him, he takes orders from a woman. For this rea­son and many oth­ers, Sev­erin is not your typ­i­cal tyrant. Sev­erin is a good person.

Grant­ed, this book is a com­pli­cat­ed book due to the fas­cist over­tones. Sev­erin open­ly lays claim to tyran­ny. Sev­erin sup­ports his claim to tyran­ny via action. In one scene, for exam­ple, Sev­erin threat­ens the silk-clad thingy with domes­tic vio­lence because the eggs have not been cooked to his lik­ing, but every­body knows that in the old­en days Europe was unseem­ly. The Sov­er­eign put peo­ple to death. He didn’t under­stand that he was cas­trat­ed. Before cast­ing judge­ment, I ask that you con­sid­er the fol­low­ing: Has Sev­erin ever tried to con­ceal his unsa­vory polit­i­cal com­mit­ments from the read­er? No, Sev­erin has not. In fact, Sev­erin has always been incred­i­bly open and hon­est about the most trou­bling facets of his per­son­al­i­ty. His forth­right­ness is com­mend­able in and of itself. In return, we owe Sev­erin a sim­i­lar debt to honesty.

Let us strive to be hon­est. It feels good to be honest.

II.

Hon­est­ly, my mem­o­ries of Sev­erin are grim. I didn’t like him. We met as grad­u­ate stu­dents in a mid­dling cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram out west. The school no longer exists. It was cheap­ly affixed to the side of a moun­tain. Weak­ened by drought and fire, it even­tu­al­ly suc­cumbed to grav­i­ty and was qui­et­ly shed like a scab. Nobody noticed it was gone.

Sev­erin was a ter­ri­ble writer and an emo­tion­al­ly manip­u­la­tive per­son­al­i­ty. High on phi­los­o­phy and art, he could reor­ga­nize the world just by glanc­ing at it. I still remem­ber how much it hurt to get caught up in his line of sight. I had to go and lie down. If I acci­den­tal­ly sat across from him in a sem­i­nar or work­shop, then I’d be knocked out for days. “Influen­za,” I said. I was always say­ing that. I couldn’t stand him, and yet we were friends. That’s how friend­ship worked in school. Then it was over. Sev­erin and I fell out of touch. The school fell off the moun­tain. Yeah, I’ve thought about reach­ing out. Because I wish I could tell him that the whole time we were friends, I was busy despis­ing, him. Sev­erin, I despised you and every­thing you stood for. I’m sor­ry about that. The truth is, and I know this now, I despised myself. I despised the sight of me, and you wouldn’t allow me to turn away, you nev­er allowed me to turn away, and so I was in tremen­dous pain pret­ty much all of the time. I was a per­son caught in the throes of pain. I’m not like that any­more, Sev­erin. I’ve matured. I’ve learned to empathize with your point of view. I’ve even incor­po­rat­ed your pub­li­ca­tions into my teach­ing and schol­ar­ship. I’ve tapped your book like a keg, Sev­erin, and fun­neled its life force straight into my career. Thank you, Sev­erin, for giv­ing life to my career! Thank you for giv­ing life to my career! Thank you, Sev­erin! Thank you!

Okay. To be hon­est. To be total­ly and com­plete­ly. Hon­est. For a minute I thought we could be friends, real friends. Sev­erin and I, we had a lot in com­mon. What hap­pened was he caught me in the act. Past mid­night. Star­ry sky. Dark, dry air. Cold. Out west. High up on the side of a moun­tain. In the cen­ter of cam­pus, on the lawn of the admis­sions build­ing, there’s a stat­ue of a beau­ti­ful woman ringed by ever­greens. She’s one of the wives of the founder of the state reli­gion, the first wife or the main wife, and I’d wrapped her, beau­ti­ful stat­ue, head to toe, in toi­let paper that I stole from the stu­dent union.

You have to under­stand. I’ve always been drawn to the wife in Bride of Franken­stein. But before she’s opened. When her body and her head and her face are wrapped up in gauze. Gift for a mon­ster. I want her or I want to be her or I’m already who she is but I don’t like being me so I’ll wait it out. I’ll just wait and see. What’s underneath.

Yeah, so. I’d wrapped the stat­ue of the founder of the state religion’s wife in toi­let paper, and I was, you know. Wor­ship­ping her. I was wait­ing. Wait­ing to see. Show me. Show me. I pressed my face against the paper cov­er­ing her skirt. Show me. That’s when Sev­erin intrud­ed, his arms full of furs.

You like stat­ues,” he said.

Why lie. At a time like this. “I do.”

You wrap them in toi­let paper.”

Yes.”

That’s queer.”

Yes.”

You’re queer.”

Yes.”

I like stat­ues, too,” he said. “I drape them in furs.”

I see. You’re also queer?” 

I am.”

Good. That’s good.”

We must stick togeth­er,” he said.

Okay.”

He took me back to his place.

Kind of a shit­ty place. There were room­mates. Every­where. But what­ev­er. They were already asleep. Some cats, too. I don’t like cats. It’s okay. We’d worked out a plan. First, we’d both take off our clothes. Next, I’d drape myself in furs and Sev­erin would wrap him­self in toi­let paper. Then we’d just. I don’t know. See what hap­pened. We had a six-pack. A six-pack. He had some cig­a­rettes. I like cig­a­rettes. So. Let’s see. We’ll just wait and see. Where the night takes us.

Sev­erin hand­ed me an ermine stole and a sheep­skin muff. He pushed me into the bath­room. Closed the door. I was alone. Bath­room was a lit­tle shit­ty. No. Yes. Shit streak­ing the seat of the toi­let. Shit rim­ming the tub. Shit on the mir­ror. Shit stain­ing the grout of the tile. Hairs col­lect­ing along a streak of shit. Pok­ing right up to God like aspara­gus. Okay. Here I am. What is a stole and what is a muff? I know what I look like. I’ve looked plen­ty of times. It’s fine. Some­one should look like this. Some­one should’ve looked like this. What the fuck. Do you want to know? Do you want to know what a per­son looks like? When they are wear­ing a stole and a muff? I already told you. I despised the sight. I got low. Then I got low. I was sit­ting on the floor. Like Bar­bie. Legs straight out. What did they want? My atten­tion. No, I don’t want to hold them. Sev­erin was talk­ing. He was explain­ing how to care for his cats.

What?

His cats. He told me to watch his cats. Over Christ­mas break. Hel­lo. Keep up.

Pay atten­tion.

Give them food and water,” he said. “More impor­tant­ly, get to know them. Spend time with them. That’s cru­cial. For­get to feed them, and they’ll sur­vive. For­get to touch them? They’ll fuck­ing die.”

That can’t be right.

Okay. This is Severin’s bed­room. The win­dow was frosty. Frost is beau­ti­ful. Frost is beau­ti­ful. I need to throw up. I need­ed to throw up. Christ­mas gifts, every­where. Sev­erin had been shop­ping. Now he was tak­ing his time. Pack­ing a bag. He was gonna miss his flight. Then there was that cat at my feet. Roost­ing on an open mag­a­zine. Pink. It was pink. I didn’t know you could get them that way.

Which one is sick? Deleuze?”

I didn’t say that. Please. I didn’t. Is that what he calls his cat? I shouldn’t have come here. I should nev­er have come. I need­ed to throw up. I need­ed to throw up. I need­ed to. I had a knife. Okay, I had a knife. I had a knife. I hat­ed when think­ing hap­pened like this and I could see myself on the out­side. I hat­ed that. She was hold­ing the knife, and then, I see, she cut a gash in her throat. She stood over the cat, the pink cat, just to bleed on it for a minute. She just bled on it? Yeah. Soon she was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. Don’t let her drop on the cat. It was pink. The cat. But why was it pink? I don’t know! Stag­gered. She stag­gered. She dart­ed for the book­case. She was look­ing for the book he liked the best. Which one did he like the best? The one where they slan­der the trees. They hat­ed trees, Deleuze and Guat­tari. Ass­holes. She tore a page from the book, crum­pled it up and fed the blos­som to the gash in her neck. She didn’t throw up. I nev­er threw up. It’s like I didn’t get how to do it. Do you understand?

Talk­ing. Sev­erin was talk­ing. He said the cats aren’t called Deleuze and Guat­tari, not any­more. He renamed them. He renamed his cats. Yeah, he was always doing that. Giv­ing them new names. 

Why?”

Sev­erin shrugged. He sat down on the edge of the bed, crossed one leg over the oth­er. What was he wear­ing? Indoor soc­cer shoes? I want a pair. I want­ed a pair.

Just tell me which one gets medicine.”

The pink one.”

The pink one. The pink one. No.

No, no, no.

What do you mean, no?” he said.

I mean, who has a pink cat?

I mean, no.

No, no, no, no.

Look,” said Sev­erin. Then he was up again, orbit­ing the bed­room. He was col­lect­ing the Christ­mas gifts in a gigan­tic paper bag. “It’s been a long day. I shopped. I wrapped. I packed. I’m about to fly across the coun­try.” He stopped at the foot of the bed, hoist­ed a duf­fel over his shoul­der. “And now I need to explain the con­cept of a joke to you?”

She couldn’t get a read on his face. I couldn’t see it either. The sky was a snake. It sloughed off the skin of the sun. Dark. It was dark.

III.

Now for a review of the lit­er­a­ture. Some peo­ple argue that this book is a trans­gres­sive book because it fea­tures Sev­erin. Sev­erin is a cas­trat­ed mem­ber of the rul­ing class and an aspir­ing poet with an impos­si­ble desire for sub­mis­sion. Oth­er peo­ple argue that this book is a sub­ver­sive book because it fea­tures Sev­erin. Sev­erin is a cas­trat­ed mem­ber of the eco­nom­ic elite and an aspir­ing poet with a para­dox­i­cal dream to end cap­i­tal­ism. Plus, there are sev­er­al per­sua­sive argu­ments that call for label­ing this book a queer book due to the super­abun­dance of fur gar­ments, which are gay. My take on the sit­u­a­tion is rad­i­cal. I believe it is wrong to argue about books. Even though I spend Christ­mases with con­ser­v­a­tive col­leagues and keep in touch with an elder­ly men­tor who still sub­scribes to the impos­si­ble dream of a white eth­nos­tate, I believe that each and every mem­ber of the depart­ment is free to choose a lit­er­ary her­itage; I choose to join in the strug­gle to pre­serve the rights of the most impor­tant books of Euro­pean civilization.

Ever since the dawn of the birth of the French per­son Roland Barthes, we have under­stood the col­lege class­room to be an amphithe­ater for bear­ing wit­ness to plea­sure. Barthes worked hard in the pub­lic sphere to devise a reper­toire of ges­tures for tes­ti­fy­ing to plea­sure with­out expli­cat­ing the text. He man­aged to con­duct his life’s work in silence. Total silence. It was impor­tant that Barthes stay qui­et. He didn’t want to spook the jouis­sance. The jouis­sance is skit­tish. It darts like a doe into berry bush­es. Some­times, at school, we coax the doe to the cen­ter of our circle.

Thanks to Barthes’ hard work, we’ve devel­oped a cer­e­mo­ny for gath­er­ing ’round, open­ing our books, and point­ing at plea­sures that can nei­ther be described nor ver­i­fied. What does this mean? I will tell you what it means. It means the unspeak­able qual­i­ty of our ped­a­gogy is the con­di­tion for a rad­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al faith. Stud­ies have shown that TAs of faith lead health­i­er, hap­pi­er, more inte­grat­ed lives. They’re able to make do on their stipends, with a lit­tle some­thing left­over for the week­end. They out­per­form their peers on the job mar­ket. When they com­pose the for­ma­tion of the sacred cir­cle with their bod­ies at school, the plea­sure touch­es friends touch­ing books list­ed on the syl­labus, rein­forc­ing the mis­sion of the university.

High up. The sky is a snake: it sloughs off the skin of the sun. Dark. It’s dark. In the once-vibrant city of Cher­nobyl, the snow is falling. We must be care­ful, vig­i­lant, and ten­der. Because there are schol­ars who set traps in the snow and the berry bushes.

They aren’t real­ly scholars.

They aren’t even readers.

They are bull­ish fur traders whose thick thighs rub snag­gles into off-brand stock­ings! Ambling roughshod over mass graves of frost-bit­ten grass­es! Spook­ing the plea­sure, which leaps like a doe, to impale its soft, soft self on the crys­talline edges of the berry branches—dead! She’s dead! Dead. Dead. Dead.

Sev­erin lights a cigarette.

The nar­ra­tor lights a cig­a­rette. The nar­ra­tor perus­es Severin’s col­lec­tion of ani­mal skele­tons, mil­i­tary hard­ware, and plas­tic cats. Oh, Severin!

Accord­ing to the details of his biog­ra­phy, Sev­erin belongs to the rul­ing class. But what about the nar­ra­tor? Who is the nar­ra­tor of the book? Well, the narrator’s sta­tus is ambigu­ous. He employs a valet to grab hold of his arm whilst he is sleep­ing. The valet whis­pers the word “Hegel” into the narrator’s ears. The inti­ma­cy of the ges­ture sug­gests that these two men are cut from sim­i­lar cloths. If they are not, then we are def­i­nite­ly deal­ing with a class-trai­tor sit­u­a­tion, which is incred­i­bly thrilling and admirable. The nar­ra­tor and his valet are not bio­log­i­cal broth­ers, and yet they man­age to coex­ist in a quiv­er­ing jel­ly dome called “broth­er­hood.” There­fore, struc­tural­ly, the nar­ra­tor and his valet are broth­ers. They are brothers.

Let us pan out.

Sev­erin, the nar­ra­tor, the valet, and the read­er each occu­py dif­fer­ent posi­tions along the socioe­co­nom­ic spec­trum. Despite these unfor­tu­nate mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances, they have all uploaded them­selves into the exact same tra­di­tion of arts and let­ters. Theirs is the sort of mixed cama­raderie that gar­ners harsh jeers from the mem­bers of the old­er gen­er­a­tions. But is it not true that the most impor­tant books dis­rupt the laws of bour­geois decorum?

Sev­erin laughs. He lights the cigarette.

The nar­ra­tor laughs. He lights the cigarette.

When the silk-clad thingy presents the plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats, Sev­erin dis­cov­ers that the eggs have not been cooked to his lik­ing, and he sub­jects the silk-clad thingy to the threat of domes­tic vio­lence. The silk-clad thingy flees like a freaked robot on bent doe’s legs. That’s the cue for Sev­erin and the nar­ra­tor to con­tin­ue their conversation.

Okay. No more pretense.

We are friends, yes?

Then allow me to touch you where you need to be touched.

You are a per­son deserv­ing of your life.

I’ll say it again.

You are a per­son deserv­ing of your life.

There was once some­thing sharp and damnable resid­ing in the folds of your per­son­hood, but it’s been lov­ing­ly rewrit­ten or redact­ed at school. Wish it well. Let it go.

Today is the day you sub­mit your dissertation.

You’re doing what’s right, seek­ing gain­ful employ­ment. It goes with­out say­ing that you’ve suf­fered and per­se­vered. The strug­gle was real, but it helped you to devel­op a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion which will grant you a favor­able posi­tion on the job market.

I will elaborate.

You haven’t hurt anyone.

You haven’t hurt anyone.

You have want­ed, and your want­i­ng makes you pre­cious, but you have not tak­en what you want by force. You haven’t hurt anyone.

You are a peach.

You’re a lamb mosey­ing home on pointy lit­tle feet!

Munch­ing clovers.

Mov­ing slowly.

You can afford to move so slowly.

Because it feels good to be you.

You’re home­ly and hospitable.

You’re inhab­it­able.

You feel good.

You feel so good.

This feels good.

Come. Now is the time to act. Let us not look back on this day and won­der why our eyes were con­tent to be sep­a­rat­ed, stuck in their own jel­lied heads. Lonely.

This feels so good.

Forg­ing thick­er bonds.

Build­ing bet­ter bod­ies for whis­per­ing the word “Hegel.”

For shar­ing the word “Hegel.”

Whilst sleep­ing.

Don’t wor­ry, you haven’t for­got­ten how to sleep.

You’re sleep­ing now.

The sky is a snake. It sloughs off the skin of the sun.

Dark.

The way is dark.

Dry air.

High up.

Ringed by evergreens.

Qui­et. Be quiet.

Come to us on your hands.

Use your fin­gers to find it.

The pin­hole, the puncture.

Grac­ing the skin of the birth­day balloon.

That rides on the night of the sky tucked deep deep inside, deep inside the fold of your lit­tle lone­ly lit­tle lone­ly life.

Let it go.

The scream­ing.

It is the sound of the starter.

On its cue, on its cue.

Let us.

Let us let us let us shed our flesh and shed our flesh and and and pool our resources.

Fig. 1. Bride of Franken­stein. Direct­ed by James Whale. 1935. Screen­shot by the author.

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This sto­ry is a satire of lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship. A fic­tion­al essay about Venus in Furs. I draft­ed it while I was in grad school because I want­ed to fig­ure out why they were ask­ing me to inter­pret overt­ly reac­tionary works of lit­er­a­ture through the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works that claim (when tak­en at face val­ue) to sub­vert, decon­struct, or queer struc­tures of pow­er. Much of the schol­ar­ship on Venus in Furs exem­pli­fies that con­tra­dic­tion. Exudes a pathet­ic ener­gy that’s bor­der­line hagio­graph­ic. Casts Sev­erin as the patron saint of sub­ver­sion. Claims he har­bors a rad­i­cal desire to under­mine every­thing from het­eropa­tri­archy to cap­i­tal­ism itself. Part of my dis­com­fort had to do with the hypocrisy of affirm­ing the anti-cap­i­tal­ist pose of a pro­fes­sion that was active­ly con­tribut­ing to my exploita­tion and immis­er­a­tion. It’s dis­hon­est. Dumb. I don’t like to be dumb. I don’t like to hurt myself. Hate it more when my will­ing­ness to do so is praised. Also, the schol­ars’ ver­sion of Sev­erin is just wrong. It’s noth­ing like Masoch’s ver­sion. You should read Venus in Furs. I read Venus in Furs, obses­sive­ly, for the same rea­son I read Eich­mann in Jerusalem. It’s obvi­ous. Why does it have to be so obvi­ous? That’s why it feels humil­i­at­ing. To adopt the schol­ar­ly pose. It’s too obvi­ous. Masoch’s Sev­erin is a proud mem­ber of the eco­nom­ic elite. He’s an avowed sup­port­er of men’s rights, a con­nois­seur of Euro­pean cul­ture, a dis­grun­tled incel. Throw in the fact that most of Venus in Furs con­sists of Sev­er­in’s man­i­festo, which fix­ates on the degrad­ed sta­tus of the straight white guy, and there you have it: Severin’s a TERRORIST. And I’m a satirist. I’m a satirist, hard­core. Some­times I wor­ry that I haven’t spo­ken gen­uine­ly about any­thing, myself includ­ed, in years. But then I ban­ish the thought. Writ­ing this account has been dif­fi­cult. This is my sev­en­teenth attempt. I’m try­ing. I am. So. I draft­ed this stu­pid sto­ry, a grotesque par­o­dy of fas­cist schol­ar­ship. Then I didn’t know what to do. With myself. I don’t know what to do with myself. I was dis­il­lu­sioned with it, my fic­tion. It was dead, lack­ing in stakes. I need­ed to revise. I sat down to revise. I had YouTube stream­ing in the back­ground (aca­d­e­m­ic pre­sen­ta­tions on masochism) because I was hop­ing I’d hear some­thing I’d want to lam­poon. I heard this one thing. I end­ed up tak­ing it seri­ous­ly. How does the philoso­pher put his body where his pen is? I decid­ed to give it a try, to put my body in the way of the sto­ry while I was writ­ing it. It meant tak­ing masochism seri­ous­ly. Which felt like a big deal. Because I’m a sadist. But I took it seri­ous­ly. Used my pain to craft a nar­ra­tive. To fab­ri­cate an aes­thet­ic. I gave my stu­pid sto­ry a wound. That’s part II of my sto­ry, the wound. The mate­r­i­al. I want­ed to make it vis­i­ble. You don’t have to like it. Hon­est­ly. You don’t.

 

Rachel Levy is a found­ing edi­tor of Dregi­nald mag­a­zine and the author of A Book So Red (Cake­train, 2015). Short fic­tions appear in Atti­cus Review, Black War­rior Review, DIAGRAM, Fence, Tar­pau­lin Sky, West­ern Human­i­ties Review, and oth­ers. The recip­i­ent of an NEA Fel­low­ship in Prose, Levy is cur­rent­ly an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary Wash­ing­ton in Fred­er­icks­burg, Virginia.

A Once-Safe Place

Fiction / Christine C. Heuner

:: A Once-Safe Place ::

The first time I came to his house, it was 1981, late spring. I was sell­ing Girl Scout cook­ies. Back then, it was accept­able to sell door-to-door, par­ent­less. I and my friend Sarah, who loved to read even more than I did, had cov­ered three blocks of small ranch-style homes before arriv­ing at his house, coral col­ored with white shut­ters. The lawn had just been mowed; the gray­ish, fuzzy chaff of expelled grass streaked the weak green beneath it. Long sprays of grass shot out from the bases of lawn chairs and walk­way lights. Weeds lit­tered the planter, the plants over­grown, brown­ing at the edges.

It was Sarah’s turn to ask about the cook­ies (I’d solicit­ed the pre­vi­ous block), but as soon as the man opened the door, she said, “We’re sell­ing cook­ies, the mint is the most pop­u­lar, and can I use your bathroom?”

The man fixed upon her the light­est green eyes I’d ever seen and raised an eye­brow either in hes­i­ta­tion or sur­prise. “Sure. If you real­ly need to. It’s down the hall.”

I stood at the door, sweat­ing so bad­ly my shirt was stuck to my back. I could feel the chilled air behind him.

It’s a hot one today,” he said. “Do you want to come in for some water?”

I shook my head. “No, thank you.”

Maybe juice?”

I denied him again. I might have won­dered if, some­where inside the house, he had a wife, chil­dren. It seemed so quiet.

I should have asked him to buy cook­ies, but I felt inept with­out Sarah beside me. Plus, I’m an awful sales­per­son when I have to pawn off a prod­uct I don’t believe in. The cook­ies were noth­ing spe­cial. They were too expen­sive, some peo­ple said. I also took every­thing per­son­al­ly, so when some­one said no to the cook­ies, I thought it was because I was ugly.

I felt him look­ing at me as if wait­ing for me to speak. He had light skin, the kind that burns eas­i­ly, and his lips were a deep pink, almost as if he were wear­ing lip­stick. He had a mus­tache so slight it looked like a shadow.

So, are you going to sell me cook­ies?” he asked.

Why? Do you want to buy some?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

I turned to my clip­board, picked up the pen, and start­ed to read the fla­vors. He stopped me after Do-si-dos. “Just pick out three box­es for me; dif­fer­ent fla­vors,” he said, not impatiently.

Don’t you have a favorite?” I asked.

I’m not much for cook­ies,” he said. “I usu­al­ly like cake.”

Me too,” I said. “If we had to sell pound cake, I’d win an award.”

*

I went back a week or so lat­er, alone, to deliv­er the cook­ies. I was in charge of two of the blocks where we’d sold them. I had sold so many box­es I made two trips, clat­ter­ing my brother’s old wag­on down the side­walks, sweat­ing in that Flori­da heat so sti­fling it shim­mered and craft­ed mirages on the black­top. It must have been a hun­dred degrees that day because when I arrived at his house and he asked me if I want­ed water, I said yes.

We sat at his round table in the gold­en­rod kitchen. The sun was bright and hurt my eyes. He had a pear-shaped crys­tal sus­pend­ed from a piece of twine over the sink. The sun shot through it, splash­ing cir­cu­lar rain­bows on the floor.

The air con­di­tion­er was heav­en­ly at first, but then I felt too cold.

I drank down the glass of water, packed with ice cubes, quick­ly; he refilled it.

You want some­thing to eat?” he asked.

Like what?” I asked. I wasn’t hun­gry but was curi­ous about what he’d offer me. He had scrawny arms and legs with a small paunch. His light yel­low Izod shirt was tucked into pants with an elas­tic waistband.

He list­ed for me all kinds of snacks. He added, “I guess we could have cook­ies, but you don’t like them.”

His recall­ing this detail from our first meet­ing sur­prised me. He also remem­bered that I liked pound cake and he told me he had some. “I have this lemon sauce I put on it. I make it myself. It won’t take long.”

I told him I had to go. My Taga­longs were prob­a­bly melt­ing out­side in the heat.

What do you like to do?” he asked even though I was stand­ing and mak­ing my way to the door. “I mean, besides Girl Scouts.”

He stood up, too. His shoes were the kind old peo­ple wear with the thick soles and chunky laces. I must’ve won­dered how old he was, but I had no sense of people’s ages. Any­one over twen­ty fit into that amor­phous realm of an adult.

I hate Girl Scouts. My mom makes me go.”

He smiled at that, rais­ing the left cor­ner of his mouth. I noticed his mus­tache again, so slight a nap­kin might erase it.

What do you like, then?”

I liked to play with my dolls, build hous­es for them with blocks, read and write sto­ries, watch TV, dance alone in my room. I sought any­thing that took me out of myself. At age eleven, I knew it would be baby­ish to admit that I played with toys, so I told him I liked to read.

He smiled, both cor­ners of his mouth raised. He had a slight dim­ple on one cheek. His teeth were all uneven and one was dark­er than the others.

I love to read,” he said. “I have hun­dreds of books. You want to see?”

I did, but I told him I real­ly had to go. My cook­ies were melt­ing, and my par­ents would be wor­ried about me.

He said okay; before I left, he said, “We haven’t been prop­er­ly intro­duced. I’m James, but my friends call me Jim. Call me Jim.”

I’m Jen­ny.” He reached out his hand and I shook it. He had a tight grip, a quick clutch that held me and quick­ly let go.

*

Not long after that, just before school let out for the sum­mer, I end­ed up at his house again. I hadn’t intend­ed to go there, but my aunt for­got to pick me up at my bus stop. I stood at the cor­ner for almost an hour, fear­ful she’d show up and I wouldn’t be there. I was going to walk the six blocks back to my house when a car pulled up, big and brown, long as a boat.

The pas­sen­ger win­dow rolled down and Jim leaned over. “Hey,” he said. “Jen­ny. What are you doing here?”

I told him what had hap­pened. He told me he’d take me home; I said I could walk, but he insist­ed. I got inside the car, its wel­com­ing cool­ness, and put on my seatbelt.

It’s smart you wear your seat­belt,” he said. “Though I assure you I’m a safe driver.”

My mom works with lawyers,” I said. “They have court cas­es with peo­ple in car crash­es. She tells me sto­ries that scare me.”

Well, that’s not very nice.”

I’d nev­er thought of my moth­er as being any­thing but nice. I was a lit­tle annoyed at him then.

I’ve just been to the library,” he said, ges­tur­ing toward the back­seat where three thick books were stacked on one seat like a pas­sen­ger. “You sure you don’t want to come and see my books? Maybe have a snack?”

For some rea­son I don’t under­stand even today, I said yes.

He had an entire room filled with books, stuffed in those wall-to-wall book­shelves with very lit­tle space for more. A love seat in the mid­dle of the room made me feel small, sit­ting in the cen­ter of all that majesty: the palette of col­ors, font shapes and sizes on the thick or thin, new or worn spines. The plas­tic blinds on the tall, nar­row win­dow emit­ted a weak light. He turned the wand on the blinds and dust-flecked light entered the room. The car­pet was pea-green with gray balls of dust gath­ered at the edges of the book­shelves. It smelled like an old library and I loved that.

Take what­ev­er you want,” he said. He turned to one shelf. “Let’s see. You might like this one.”

He hand­ed me a book with a group­ing of girls gath­ered around a piano on the cov­er. The black spine read: Lit­tle Women.

Take it with you,” he said. “Let me know what you think.”

With­in a few pages, I rec­og­nized that I was in the pres­ence of genius. Sweet Val­ley High and Judy Blume books, my usu­al fare, were a snack com­pared to the meal Alcott spread before me. I read the book over Memo­r­i­al Day week­end. My moth­er made me come out of my room, and I resent­ed her for it. “Come up for air,” she said. “You’re like a hermit.”

She asked what I was read­ing, and I showed it to her.

For school?” she asked.

I told her yes. Even though I didn’t feel odd about going to Jim’s house, I knew she wouldn’t approve of it.

I went there again after I fin­ished the book, knocked brazen­ly on the door one day after school.

Do you have any­thing else for me to read?” I asked. “I loved this one.”

We sat at his kitchen table eat­ing pound cake with lemon sauce, the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of tang and sweet. He’d just giv­en me anoth­er book, To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. I want­ed to go home and read it but didn’t want to be rude, so I sat with him, squirm­ing a lit­tle in my chair as I fin­ished my cake.

You prob­a­bly do well in school,” he said.

Math’s a killer. I’m good in English.”

I’m good in math,” he said. “I could help you.”

I con­sid­ered this. We had a math final the fol­low­ing week. I had a C in the class. I was hop­ing for hon­or roll, but it wasn’t look­ing good.

I’m also flu­ent in Span­ish,” he said. “I bet you didn’t expect that. I used to trans­late for the FBI.”

I didn’t know what the FBI was but pre­tend­ed to be impressed.

You want me to say some­thing in Span­ish?” he asked as if I’d nev­er heard Span­ish before. We lived in South Flori­da not Wyoming.

Sure.”

Tu eres muy boni­ta y inteligente y simpática.”

The fix­i­ty of his gaze con­firmed that he was speak­ing about me. I told him I had to go home; he told me to come by Tues­day after three if I want­ed help with tutor­ing. My par­ents told me I could get the Nikes with the rain­bow swoosh if I made hon­or roll, so I went back. He helped me with long divi­sion. We ate Ring Dings and shared an orange to make our snack healthy.

At five o’clock, he told me I should prob­a­bly get home, that my par­ents would be wor­ried about me. I told him that they came home late. My old­er broth­er was in high school and stayed after school every day for sports, so I was only respon­si­ble for myself. No one arrived home until after six, usually.

You must get lone­some,” he said, try­ing to catch my eye. I wouldn’t look at him. “I know I get lone­some.”

I like to read,” I said. “That pass­es the time.”

He didn’t ask me if I had friends, and I was grate­ful not to have to report that I only had two: Sarah and Michelle.

Do you want to see some­thing?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure and told him so.

It’s okay,” he said, reach­ing for my hand. “Come with me.”

It didn’t occur to me not to take his hand. One action seemed to fol­low the oth­er in a nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion. I was not scared.

I fol­lowed him to the part of the house I’d nev­er been in, a hall­way off the liv­ing room. In one of the rooms in that hall­way, two couch­es of dark fab­ric clut­tered the space, ensconced with side tables cov­ered with doilies and match­ing flow­ered lamps. It smelled vague­ly of oranges in the ear­ly stage of rot.

He dis­ap­peared into a clos­et and returned with a dress, white lace with a shiny belt adorned with a clus­ter of three tiny roses.

Do you like it?” he asked.

I did. It looked like my size.

You can have it if you want. Try it on first.”

I had no idea how I’d explain such a gift to my par­ents. Last week, he’d giv­en me a rhine­stone bracelet my moth­er asked about. I lied and told her Sarah gave it to me.

For no rea­son?” she asked.

I said not really.

Well, that’s a fan­cy gift for no reason.”

In the dark room, I held the dress up to my tor­so and asked, “You bought this for me?”

Not exact­ly. It was my daughter’s.”

You have a daughter?”

He nod­ded, a quick shake. “She’s gone now. That’s all I want to say about her, okay?”

I agreed by nodding.

Why don’t you try it on?” he asked.

I couldn’t deny him. The bath­room was pink every­thing except for the toi­let, which was white. I imag­ined that he’d once lived in this house with his daugh­ter and maybe a wife, too.

The dress wasn’t as white as it had seemed in the room’s dull light. A slight yel­low patch stained the dress just below the belt, and it smelled musty. It fit, though, and when I came out of the bath­room his eyes widened. 

You look so pret­ty,” he said. “You should take it home, wear it to one of your school dances.”

I didn’t tell him that the dress was more of a First Com­mu­nion vari­ety and that we didn’t have school dances.

He came toward me and touched me on the shoulder.

I stood there, my under­arms start­ing to itch—the dress wasn’t as good a fit as I thought—and to sweat. The room was warmer than the rest of the house.

Are you okay?” he asked, remov­ing his hand from my shoul­der and star­ing at me.

I told him I need­ed to get home and thanked him for the dress. I wore it home, the sweat mak­ing it more and more itchy. I hid it in my clos­et toward the back so my moth­er wouldn’t find it.

*

I some­how got a B in math and made the hon­or roll. I wore my new Nikes to Jim’s house. I vis­it­ed him once a week or so once school let out. I went to sum­mer camp for a few weeks, which I hat­ed except the days we went to the movies. I tried to con­vince my moth­er that I was too old to attend camp, but she told me I need­ed struc­ture to my day and to “get out and enjoy the weath­er,” but the weath­er was so hot we near­ly wilt­ed on the play­ground and couldn’t take much more than an hour outdoors.

At Jim’s house, I would prac­tice my math for at least a half hour. He con­vinced me that it would help me make hon­or roll next year, sev­enth grade, and that meant gifts.

Jim bought me gifts, too, those that I could eas­i­ly hide or pass off as bequeathed from a friend. I even made up a friend, Leslie, inspired by Bridge to Ter­abithia, who liked giv­ing me things. I told my moth­er that she gave me the tiny hoop ear­rings with the dan­g­ly hearts and the Guess t‑shirt with the inter­wo­ven hearts. I asked Jim how he knew Guess was “in.” He squint­ed his eyes—his expres­sion of confusion—and said that he hadn’t looked at the brand at all. He just thought I’d like the hearts.

And all the books he loaned me? I got them from the library of course. My par­ents didn’t notice that the call num­bers weren’t taped onto their spines and they weren’t cov­ered in plastic.

I didn’t tell any­one about Jim since there was no rea­son to, and I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go over there if I did. He was my secret friend, some­one who I didn’t have to talk to very much. Some days, I’d just sit in his library room and read. I’d take a break for cake or Cream­si­cles. We ate a lot of straw­ber­ries, too, to be healthy. He said I need­ed my vitamins.

*

And then in July, Adam Walsh, six years old, went miss­ing from a Sears not ten miles from my house. My moth­er didn’t like that mall, so we didn’t go there often, but my Gram­mie took me there some­times; she liked the Woolworth’s, which she called the “five-and-dime.”

They found Adam’s body in a canal. Headless.

My par­ents bare­ly watched the news but did so on this occa­sion, care­less that I took in the grue­some­ness of this real­i­ty. A reporter claimed that most chil­dren are abduct­ed not by strangers but by some­one they know.

Great,” my moth­er said, near tears. “Now we can’t trust our neighbors.”

*

The next time I went to Jim’s, he pre­sent­ed me with anoth­er gift: a bathing suit, elec­tric blue with one neon pink stripe from shoulder-to-hip.

Try it on,” he said. “See if it fits. This looks like your size.”

It was a per­fect fit. I want­ed to change back into my clothes, but knew he’d want to see me in the suit.

I put on my shorts over the suit and came out of the bathroom.

It fits,” I said.

Take off the shorts,” he said. “I want to see how it looks on you.”

I felt dizzy. “I need to go home,” I said.

He came toward me and put his hand on my head. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why are you crying?”

Are you going to hurt me?” I asked, snot drip­ping from my nose. “You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”

I imag­ined myself in a canal: bloat­ed like a dead frog; headless.

He looked at me, squint­ing as if to see me bet­ter, to under­stand this new girl I’d become. “No, Jen­ny, I’m not going to hurt you. Why would you say that?”

I don’t know,” I said, my voice thick. “I just need to go.” I pushed past him and ran out of his house. I ran the three blocks home, my san­dals smack­ing against the concrete.

*

That was the last time I saw Jim. I threw out the bathing suit and the dress, pushed them to the bot­tom of the garbage bin. I still wore the Guess t‑shirt and jew­el­ry he gave me, though. After all, they came from Leslie, my invis­i­ble friend.

Today, fif­teen years lat­er, all of the gifts Jim gave me are gone save the rhine­stone bracelet whose stones have fall­en out. I keep the bracelet and loose stones in a bag­gie in my jew­el­ry armoire. The med­ley of col­ored gems reminds me of the sus­pend­ed crys­tal in his kitchen, how it caught the after­noon light, the dots of rain­bow splayed across the floor like con­fet­ti. He turned the crys­tal for me, spin­ning it, so I could see the span­gles dance.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I came to this sto­ry through a reflec­tion upon the vio­lence against chil­dren and young adults that occurred at dif­fer­ent points in my life. I am a Flori­da native and grew up in the after­math of Adam Walsh’s mur­der, which occurred less than ten miles from my home. I also attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da a year after ser­i­al killer Dan­ny Rolling claimed five stu­dents’ lives. In writ­ing this sto­ry, I want­ed to con­sid­er how the media’s pub­lic­i­ty of vio­lence affects the psy­che of a child, exac­er­bat­ing her fear of attack and death at the hands of some­one she once con­sid­ered an ally.

 

Chris­tine C. Heuner has been teach­ing high school Eng­lish for over 19 years. She lives with her hus­band, in-laws, and two chil­dren in New Jer­sey. Her work has appeared in Philadel­phia Sto­ries, The Write Launch, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. In 2011, she self-pub­lished Con­fes­sions, a book of short stories.

Three Works

Art / Roberto Jamora

:: Three Works ::

 

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

Each gra­di­ent is a vignette of an expe­ri­ence or place in my Pass­ing Mem­o­ries series. I attempt to com­mit impor­tant events in my life to mem­o­ry via paint­ing. I mine col­or from mem­o­ry and pho­tos I’ve taken/have been tagged in on social media. Cold wax and oil paint are swiped across the can­vas to con­ceal extra­ne­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties and to lim­it sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. A thin trace of land­scape is revealed. Skin tones, days at the beach, climb­ing a moun­tain with a lover, my par­ents’ back­yard, a city side­walk, the bay­ous in Louisiana where my ances­tors once lived: col­or trig­gers these recollections.

Re: Post­cards from Uncle Rena­to to Lola and Lolo

I am not a reli­gious per­son but feel most spir­i­tu­al when I paint about my fam­i­ly or the Fil­ip­inx dias­po­ra — try­ing to make a con­nec­tion with the past. While mak­ing this piece I tried to con­jure the ances­tors, specif­i­cal­ly my Lola (grand­moth­er), Lolo (grand­fa­ther), and Uncle Rena­to: he was the first of my dad’s sib­lings to immi­grate to the US. I nev­er met him or Lolo because they died sev­er­al years before I was born. In 2010, I was at an artist res­i­den­cy in Que­zon City, Philip­pines and took a trip to my dad’s ances­tral home in Sor­so­gon, Bicol. My cousin Michael found a bag of photos/postcards/letters that my Lola (my grand­moth­er who had passed away in 2005) hid in the fam­i­ly store­house next to sacks of rice. I scanned as many of the pho­tos as I could at the uni­ver­si­ty Michael taught at. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the new­found his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments of my fam­i­ly until recent­ly, but real­ized that these pho­tos are some of my only visu­al con­nec­tions to my family’s past. The gra­di­ents in this work are from Uncle Renato’s post­cards and pho­tos of Lola and Lolo. The lay­er on top is the skin tones from aged pho­tos (hence the pink­ish violet/ochre sepia tones) of my Lola, Lolo, Uncle Rena­to, and my own skin tone.

 

Rober­to Jamo­ra (b. 1987, Annapo­lis, MD) holds a BFA from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MFA from Pur­chase Col­lege, State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. He lives and works in Rich­mond, VA and is an Adjunct Pro­fes­sor at VCU School of the Arts. He was award­ed a 2018 Artist Com­mu­ni­ty Engage­ment Grant from the Rema Hort Mann Foun­da­tion for his project “An Inven­to­ry of Traces,” a series of abstract paint­ings inspired by sto­ries of immi­grants in NYC. He has par­tic­i­pat­ed in res­i­den­cies at Joan Mitchell Cen­ter, Rag­dale, and Sam­ba­likhaan. This sum­mer, he will be a Fel­low at Vir­ginia Cen­ter for Cre­ative Arts. His work has been in exhi­bi­tions at Frost Art Muse­um, Con­tem­po­rary Art Cen­ter New Orleans, Topaz Arts, Page Bond Gallery, ADA Gallery, Juice­Box Art Space, Norte Maar, Shock­oe Art­space, Good Enough Projects, Qual­i­ty Gallery, Scott Charmin Gallery, Foula­di Projects, Gay­lord & Dorothy Don­nel­ly Foun­da­tion, Open Space, and Out­let Fine Art.

Hypocrisy Bridge Rebuilt

Nonfiction / Emily Townsend

:: Hypocrisy Bridge Rebuilt ::

 

View this work as a PDF

From the writer

:: Account ::

The red text in the first half of this essay sparked the whole thing. My boyfriend inad­ver­tent­ly offend­ed me with porn­stars’ pic­tures, which set off my exis­ten­tial cri­sis about being unable to accept a hyper­sex­u­al­ized society/being frus­trat­ed at my asex­u­al­i­ty. What real­ly freaked me out was that once we start­ed doing sex­u­al stuff, I lost the sex­u­al­i­ty I had always labeled myself as. Writ­ing helps me con­front the issues I’m con­fused about. Going through three layers—the text, my pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions about asex­u­al­i­ty, the present real­iza­tion of a past self—of one sub­ject fur­ther dis­or­ders the process of sort­ing through this heavy per­son­al issue. I bor­rowed the form of John D’Agata’s The Lifes­pan of a Fact for the columns, and used the pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions as a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the text and the self I was before I met my boyfriend. I was a scared, lone­ly col­lege stu­dent, yearn­ing for a rela­tion­ship, yet I nev­er want­ed to be touched. So when I got a boyfriend, I knew I’d have to deal with phys­i­cal inti­ma­cy even­tu­al­ly. Going back to how I react­ed to touch when I was nine­teen ver­sus now, 23 and accept­ing touch, was a weird bridge of liminality—how did I ever become com­fort­able with what I once could nev­er han­dle? Change is inevitable; how­ev­er, change is rarely received in the same man­ner every time. I despise change, but this trans­for­ma­tion was sur­pris­ing­ly accepted.

 

Emi­ly Townsend is a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eng­lish at Stephen F. Austin State Uni­ver­si­ty. Her works have appeared in cream city review, Super­sti­tion Review, Thought­ful Dog, Noble / Gas Qtr­lySan­ta Clara Review, East­ern Iowa Review, Paci­fi­ca Lit­er­ary Review, and oth­ers. A nom­i­nee for a Push­cart Prize and 2019 AWP Intro Jour­nals Award, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a sec­ond col­lec­tion of essays in Nacog­doches, Texas.

Lie Park: Fragments from a Psychogeography of the Sixth Borough of New York

Nonfiction / Pete Segall

 

:: Lie Park:

Fragments from a Psychogeography of the Sixth Borough of New York ::

On nights when I was young and lat­er as an adult I would fol­low Ohio Avenue as it sloped toward the Hud­son. Years before, at the begin­ning of the last cen­tu­ry, the street was lined with vast, sprawl­ing homes, the homes of exec­u­tives, ship­ping mag­nates, men with build­ings bear­ing their fam­i­ly name at Choate and Yale. Mas­sive alders blocked the sun set­ting over the riv­er. The spaces sur­round­ing these homes—spaces that could be legit­i­mate­ly called “grounds”—were expan­sive enough to actu­al­ly be for­bid­ding. That much space in the city, pri­vate­ly held, was bewil­der­ing and a warn­ing, a brute odd­i­ty whose vast­ness demand­ed one keep away (remem­ber­ing here that bewil­der is a lin­guis­tic rel­a­tive of wilder­ness, of which these spaces were a very par­tic­u­lar sort).

My par­ents jok­ing­ly called Ohio “Fifth Avenue Squared.” When my wife and I moved here from the Upper West Side, she said we might as well be in Ohio the state, it felt so removed from the rest of the city.

I don’t ever recall see­ing any­one on these grounds when I’d make this walk in my teens, though that’s prob­a­bly mem­o­ry slan­der­ing real­i­ty. I must have seen a game of touch foot­ball or a din­ner par­ty between the branch­es or even a soli­tary per­son tak­ing a walk like me. I’m sure one of these things must have hap­pened. But for what­ev­er rea­son the evi­dence, the mem­o­ry, has been purged.

Today, the man­sions along Ohio, as well as Rot­ter­dam and Bre­mer­haven and Southamp­ton, and their grounds are gone. In their place are apart­ment blocks, too unre­mark­able to car­ry the mer­its of bru­tal­ism. Every hun­dred yards or so an alder remains, though in their soli­tude they are the ones who seem bewil­dered, who seem to have wan­dered into a land­scape they have no busi­ness being a part of. What­ev­er bush-league Robert Moses over­saw the rethink­ing of Ohio Avenue from gild­ed to glut­ted did make one curi­ous choice: at the very end of the road, at the last bit of arch­ing land before the riv­er, a serene cres­cent of wood­land was left untouched.

It’s main­ly oak and catal­pa; rows of phlox and baby’s breath. It’s a place I find end­less­ly hum­ble. It makes no assump­tions and does not demand any­thing of you. It is not impos­ing or inspir­ing, makes no reach toward the sub­lime. As a park it is like a well-designed post office and I say that in the most affec­tion­ate way pos­si­ble for I believe that’s what drew me there almost every night as cer­tain aspects of my life were col­laps­ing or cur­dling or stalling out. The sim­plic­i­ty was depend­able and com­fort­ing. This lit­tle col­lec­tion of trees and shade is actu­al­ly a real park with a real name, over­seen by the Depart­ment of Parks, just like Prospect and Cen­tral and Union Square. It’s called Lie Park.

*

Lie Park. It’s fun to imag­ine a few bureau­crats sit­ting down and decid­ing that this tight­ly hemmed wedge of green­ery was insignif­i­cant enough that it was actu­al­ly a fic­tion. The mon­u­ment of the Hud­son before you, the dinosaur skele­ton of the Mor­gen­thau Bridge off to the right, the full­ness of all time and space cap­tured in the west­ern sky above every­thing: where you are is not real. This place is not here. It only exists because you need it to.

*

I rarely encoun­tered any­one else in the park. If I did it was either elder­ly cou­ples or young par­ents, labor­ing to get their babies to sleep. It was strange that such a peace­ful place would go unused. One night I stopped at a bode­ga on the way down the hill to ask if there was some­thing keep­ing peo­ple away from the park, ghost sto­ries or unre­port­ed sex­u­al assaults, any­thing, but the guy behind the counter just shook his head. He was old­er than me, Ethiopi­an or Eritre­an, with bright, blis­ter­ing eyes. Noth­ing wrong with it, he said. It’s just so small. I guess you could say that’s the problem.

I bought a tall boy of Miller High Life and thanked him for his time. It was late in the sum­mer. I knew that by the time I reached the park, drank my beer, engaged in what­ev­er con­tem­pla­tion I arrived upon (this seemed to be the park’s price of admis­sion) and walked back home, it would be well past dark. My wife would ask if I’d gone on anoth­er walk and I would say yes. She would ask why I nev­er invit­ed her to come with. I would make a face and say some­thing like, I’m not sure.

*

Trygve Lie was a Nor­we­gian diplo­mat and the first sec­re­tary gen­er­al of the Unit­ed Nations, before it had its per­ma­nent home in Man­hat­tan. From all I can tell he was a mid­dling fig­ure, unre­mark­able enough that this half-extant park was deemed a suf­fi­cient memo­r­i­al to him. I have come across an account of his life in New York that men­tions his fond­ness for the area. “[W]hen there, one imag­ines that a city is not only a wel­ter. It hums, but soft­ly,” he wrote to a Nor­we­gian friend.

*

I poured out the last few ounces of my beer at the base of a catal­pa for poor Mr. Lie. The lights from the apart­ments up the hill were begin­ning to feel oppres­sive. The pres­ences of Riverdale and Co-Op City in the dis­tance were almost too much to bear. I need­ed to go back home. Instead of going up Ohio, I fol­lowed the walk­ing path north, where it even­tu­al­ly dropped me into Armistice Boulevard.

Every­thing about Armistice Boule­vard seems to serve as a reminder of our own impend­ing deaths.

Not a thought was giv­en to sleep­ing police­men, actu­al police­men, cross­ing guards, brighter sig­nage, more stop­lights. The Boule­vard was ful­ly formed and immutable. You don’t move among traf­fic with­out an acute aware­ness that time is gain­ing on you. Over­lay speed on place and you know your term here is fixed. But even in spite of its parade of patholo­gies, I knew that Armistice Boule­vard was just as much a part of my expe­ri­ence as Lie Park.

*

One evening, when my wife said she was stay­ing in Mid­town for din­ner with a friend who I know now wasn’t just that, I walked back to the Arm. In a very real sort of way I felt cleaved, that there was a part of me tak­ing this walk because the idea of wan­der­ing the bor­ough had start­ed to coa­lesce from point­less strolling impuls­es into a thing with form and teeth; and anoth­er part that need­ed to be out of the house. These were two entire­ly dif­fer­ent motives head­ing toward their own objec­tives. To walk as an observ­er was sound enough to lead me, open-eyed, some­place I hadn’t intend­ed to go. I might have start­ed on Armistice (it was only two blocks from our own house) and paid atten­tion to the rock­et-pro­pelled traf­fic, the pre­pon­der­ance of big box stores, from dia­per empo­ria to cof­fin deal­er­ships but soon­er or lat­er some­thing would have pulled me aside. Or some­one. A voice, a mem­o­ry, an unde­fined urge. To walk through the city with­out pur­pose is to leave your­self sus­cep­ti­ble to hid­den grav­i­ties. We’ve aged out the fla­neur. There are too many large bod­ies and singularities.

But if I’d gone sim­ply to go, to remove myself from a place that I’d already pol­lut­ed with bad feel­ing and was well on its way to becom­ing a spir­i­tu­al brown­field, then I could have set off for the Arm know­ing my course was not in any dan­ger of devi­at­ing. Grief makes pre­cise nav­i­ga­tors. We run cold and true. Which would it be then, the observ­er or the escapee? To be both was impos­si­ble. I stood between the Astral 17 Sta­di­um Mul­ti­plex and a school bus whole­saler and had to assume a role. The air around me feels brit­tle and I’m slight­ly nau­seous. I’m not good at decisions.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In Feb­ru­ary of 2001 I was laid off from my dot-com job in Man­hat­tan. I was giv­en an obscene­ly large sev­er­ance pack­age. A week lat­er I got a phone call telling me I’d been accept­ed to grad school.

I had mon­ey and nowhere to be and a date of depar­ture. So I start­ed walk­ing. I walked from the West Vil­lage to Coney Island. I walked up Broad­way to the Clois­ters. If there is one thing New York is good for it’s that its unceas­ing human fric­tion is a strong way of get­ting you moving.

In an “Art of Non­fic­tion” inter­view in The Paris Review, Geoff Dyer makes the claim that the dis­tinc­tion between fic­tion and non­fic­tion isn’t about facts but form. There obvi­ous­ly is no sixth bor­ough of New York, but mov­ing through that or any city—and the psy­chic imprint left by move­ment and place—is a form fit­ted to truth. The inven­tion of street names or topo­graph­ic details does not make the act of emo­tion­al obser­va­tion as evoked by place less real. (Tryvge Lie was real, if that mat­ters.) The New York here is my New York: a hec­tic and bewil­der­ing and sur­pris­ing place, and a ter­ri­ble one for the lone­ly. It does not mat­ter what that feel­ing is laid over. If the form car­ries the expec­ta­tion and feel­ing of truth, then there is no rea­son not to call it true.

 

Pete Segall is a grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, where he was a Tru­man Capote Fel­low. His work has appeared in Con­junc­tions, Elec­tric Literature’s Rec­om­mend­ed Read­ing, Smoke­Long Quar­ter­ly, Match­bookJoy­land, and else­where, and is forth­com­ing in The Lit­er­ary Review. He has received fel­low­ships from the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter and Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts.

Anatomy of a Ghost

Nonfiction / Brian Clifton

:: Anatomy of a Ghost ::

A young woman bolts out of her house; she appears to be chased by some­thing invis­i­ble. As she zigza­gs around the street, her focus shifts from some­thing fol­low­ing to what is in front of her. She gazes at the cam­era. Her face is both ter­ri­fied and des­per­ate. She looks simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at the view­er and her invis­i­ble chas­er because, for a moment, they are the same. She jukes and darts back into her house, and the cam­era pans to fol­low her. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, she reemerges and runs to a car. She peels out and down the block.

This is the first scene of It Fol­lows—a movie that fol­lows a young woman, Jay, and her friends as they are ter­ror­ized by an invis­i­ble mon­ster whose blood­lust seeks the newest per­son added to a long chain of sex­u­al encoun­ters. The mon­ster is slow and relent­less. It can imper­son­ate any­one, but often it takes the appear­ance of those famil­iar to its tar­get. Through­out the film, char­ac­ters sub­tly break the fourth wall—both in the pres­ence and absence of the imposter that follows.

In the film’s next scene, the cam­era is perched in the back­seat as the young woman dri­ves down a high­way. She white-knuck­les the steer­ing wheel. As if by twitch, she turns to look behind her.

*


                              S-O-S 
                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              S-O-S 
                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              There’s a 
                              she-wolf 
                              in 
                              disguise.

*

One night, after crash­ing my bicy­cle, I booked an Uber to dri­ve me from West­port, the swift­ly gen­tri­fied bar dis­trict of South Kansas City, to where I lived in the His­toric North­east. My apart­ment lurked behind the inter­sec­tion of Glad­stone Boule­vard and Inde­pen­dence Avenue, which put it very east of Troost (the street that the Nichols fam­i­ly used to red­line Kansas City in order to keep African Amer­i­cans and Jews pinned between high­ways and sep­a­rate from the WASP‑y pop­u­la­tion they desired) and a smidge east of Prospect, which was often cit­ed, despite the inter­mit­tent opu­lence and pover­ty east and west of the street, as the bound­ary between those who had and those who had not.

I loaded my bike into the Uber’s van and got into the front seat. The dri­ver cruised down Paseo, inch­ing clos­er and clos­er to my neigh­bor­hood. We drove under a high­way; the dri­ver looked around as gourmet donut shops were replaced by pay­day loans, as bars dis­ap­peared and con­ve­nience stores filled their places. He looked at me. He said, This is not you.

Yes, I respond­ed. He pushed fur­ther, repeat­ing this-is-not-you like a hook. At first, I tried to explain that I did in fact live in this part of town. Unable to con­vince him, I qui­et­ed, try­ing instead to con­vince myself—a sit­u­a­tion made more dif­fi­cult by my recent accep­tance into a grad­u­ate pro­gram, a return to the insti­tu­tion that I had fled years before. 

Is this me? I asked myself as I wheeled my bicy­cle into my apart­ment. Is this me? I asked my stu­dents when I lec­tured about “the the­sis.” Is this me? I asked my plan­ner, its days filled with “assign­ments.” Is this me? I asked my school email address, its seams split­ting with the uncat­e­go­rized waves of announce­ments, ques­tions, adver­tise­ments, and surveys. 

*

“Even Bri­an has been pub­lished!” I over­heard one PhD stu­dent say to anoth­er. It was at night. We were at a bar. My first year of the pro­gram and fresh from a string of man­u­script rejec­tions, I already had a bad case of Imposter Syn­drome. Approach­ing 30, I was often embar­rassed by it—I thought I should have grown out of the feel­ing by now, but here it was like a sheep­ish child peer­ing out from behind me. 

I con­tin­ue to social­ize with this man. He is a poet I admire. Our con­ver­sa­tions are slight­ly awk­ward, but no more so than any two peo­ple who have only a vague connection—a base­ball fan and a beach vol­ley­ball fan bond­ing over their love of “sport.” He is nei­ther hos­tile nor resent­ful; I nev­er hear him say any­thing sim­i­lar about me or any­one else again. 

Some­times, I won­der if that was what was said at all or just what I heard. Oth­er times, I won­der if that dis­tinc­tion matters.

*

Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no. I whis­per-sing on a friend’s bal­cony. These are the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a song that lands rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly in Bieber’s oeu­vre. I have nev­er heard the song: not on the inter­net, not on the radio, not at par­ties. Yet, the hook, which I’ve tak­en to whis­per-sing when I need to vocal­ize but have noth­ing to say, is some­how ingrained in my mind. My friend says that I’m singing it wrong and pulls out her phone to find a video of the song on YouTube. 

Please, don’t do that, I plead. Baby, baby, baby, no, baby, baby, baby, oh. I con­tin­ue to say the words out of sync as the song’s first bars twin­kle through her iPhone. A man sticks his head out of the apart­ment and calls for her. She leaves. I stay on the bal­cony, say­ing again Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no.

I think about the moment’s uncan­ni­ness. What is more sim­i­lar to Justin Bieber, his record­ed voice, dig­i­tized and squeezed through the air, some cir­cuit­ry, the almost mol­e­c­u­lar sized iPhone speak­er, or Bri­an Clifton whis­per-singing the hook to a song Bieber had sung near­ly a decade ago when puber­ty had not yet carved away his boy­ish­ness? Which enti­ty is the imposter?

*

Between my first and sec­ond year of my PhD stud­ies, I had two jobs. I was a teach­ing assis­tant for a lit­er­a­ture class. I washed dish­es to make ends meet over the sum­mer. My sched­ule was Fri­day through Mon­day 5:00pm to 2:00am. The work was short, rep­e­ti­tious, and gru­el­ing. Often, I found it hard to grip things dur­ing my days off because my hands were so sore. My feet shriv­eled from being con­stant­ly wet. Because I lived in a col­lege town, most of my cowork­ers attend­ed the uni­ver­si­ty I attend­ed. One of the servers, Fran­cie, I knew from the lit­er­a­ture class I taught direct­ly before I washed dishes. 

When Fran­cie came back to the dish pit, we would talk about lit­er­a­ture, her immi­nent grad­u­a­tion, and the oth­er stu­dents in the class. At first, we orches­trate this show each shift we have togeth­er. Slow­ly, our words become clipped. Slow­ly, there ceas­es to be a need to express ourselves.

*

In sev­enth grade, AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger (AIM) enthralled my friends. We chat­ted online; we made away mes­sages from the lyrics of our favorite songs; we sent each oth­er the screen names of strangers. One evening an AIM win­dow popped up on my com­put­er, “hey.” “hey. whos this?” 

The gener­ic screen name, bedaz­zled with punc­tu­a­tion marks, responded—it belonged to a girl (was her name Mad­die?). We chat­ted for weeks. We divulged secrets. We devel­oped some­thing akin to feel­ings. We agreed that we were dat­ing. We had nev­er met each oth­er. We were text bounc­ing through cir­cuit boards. 

*

Anato­my of a Ghost was also a screamo band from the ear­ly aughts. The group nev­er achieved wide­spread suc­cess, dis­band­ing after their first album in 2004. A cou­ple mem­bers went on to start Por­tu­gal. The Man, an indie pop out­fit that now crafts com­mer­cial-ready licks. Their fourth album, The Satan­ic Satanist, is a col­lec­tion of down-tem­po soul­ful indie pop. 

One day after dri­ving my car, my dad runs into our house and demands I burn him a copy of what­ev­er CD was play­ing in the dash. As I do, he raves about the band’s sound, about how it is music. I give him the Mem­o­rex disc, “Por­tu­gal. The Man – The Satan­ic Satanist,” writ­ten in Sharpie on it. 

My dad nev­er speaks of this album or them again, and so, in our brains, the band returns to its pre­vi­ous oth­er-life: a dis­mem­bered specter, a dia­gram of a memory.

*

We   hear
the   night
watchman
click   his 
flashlight, 
ask if it’s 
him      or 
them 
that’s 
insane.

*

After Jay and her para­mour have sex in an aban­doned park­ing lot, he drugs her, ties her to a wheel­chair, and brings her into a dilap­i­dat­ed build­ing. Jay ques­tions her lover, who explains the monster’s motive and the sim­ple rules by which it abides, name­ly that it fol­lows who­ev­er had sex with the most recent­ly cursed per­son. The two then see an approach­ing fig­ure. As the boy wheels Jay around, the two face direct­ly into the cam­era. Jay screams, “What do you want?” 

Soon, Jay real­izes that the boy was not lying. The mon­ster enters her home, caus­ing her to flee to a park on a bicy­cle. Her friends and her neigh­bor, Greg, run after her. They tell Greg some­one had bro­ken into her house. Sob­bing in close-up, Jay says, “I need to find him.” The cam­era shows Jay and her friends fac­ing the view­er while Greg’s right tor­so fills the left side of the frame. It is as if the char­ac­ters are hud­dled, delib­er­at­ing, in a cir­cle under a street­light and the cam­era hangs in the space between being occlud­ed from the group and com­plet­ing the hud­dle. Respond­ing to Jay’s demand, Greg says, “The per­son who broke into your house.” His inflec­tion makes his words both a state­ment and a ques­tion. He removes his hand from the pock­et of his den­im jack­et and ges­tures behind him. His thumb points into the camera. 

The group finds the boy who had cursed Jay with the mon­ster. Real­iz­ing the mon­ster is real, they dri­ve to Greg’s family’s lake house. When the mon­ster arrives, it chas­es Jay and her friends into a boat shed. It busts a cir­cu­lar hole into the shed’s door. The group looks through it as if through a viewfind­er at the beach where they had just been. The only dif­fer­ence between what the group sees and what the view­er had just seen is the absence of themselves.

*

No Brain­er” fea­tures Justin Bieber—his voice being more impor­tant than his lyrics, which any­one can find online. Dust­ed by post-pro­duc­tion mag­ic, Bieber’s vocal track is otherworldly—simultaneously strain­ing to sound con­fi­dent and sex­u­al while remain­ing lock-step and mech­a­nized. Life­less yet relent­less, Bieber’s vocals are a mall pop­u­lat­ed by replicants. 

The uncan­ni­ness that envelopes Bieber’s voice increas­es through­out “No Brain­er,” cul­mi­nat­ing in an intri­cate war­ren of Bieber’s hook with a slew of falset­to har­monies and trilling whoas. The tan­gled melodies ghost mul­ti­ple Bieber’s and mul­ti­ple, frag­ment­ed moments with­in Bieber’s serenade. 

Lis­ten­ing to the song is to under­stand that its mes­sage doesn’t come direct­ly from one (or many) human beings but instead is a string of sounds pro­duced to imi­tate human con­nec­tion via lan­guage. “No Brain­er” is a love song sung by no one to no one.

*

I read a book of gar­ish sen­tences. I do not bring up my judg­ment in class (or I do). Even I roll my eyes at this type of performance.

*

In morn­ing traf­fic between Dal­las and Den­ton, I sit at a stand­still in the left-most lane. I am alone. The sun has come up (I know by the time I get back home it will have gone down). On the shoul­der, near the con­crete bar­ri­er between I‑35 North and I‑35 south, is a dead pit­bull. Its body is rigid but not bloat­ed. Its fur is gore-stained. I think, because it was hit on the high­way, it must have died near instan­ta­neous­ly; I do not know how these things work. 

The dog corpse is next to me. We hov­er near each oth­er for what seems to be an eter­ni­ty. The dog’s pelt does not appear bro­ken, though its insides jut angu­lar­ly, sug­gest­ing the chaos that the col­li­sion must have ini­ti­at­ed with­in the pitbull’s body. As I stare at the dead body, I bring my hand to my mouth and my eyes water—my mind still sting­ing from, weeks before, believ­ing my own pet was about to die. 

Traf­fic lurch­es for­ward, dis­si­pates. I speed off to drop off rent and then to teach fresh­men the neces­si­ty of a the­sis. I hear myself say, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry?

*

Fran­cie was not the only stu­dent I worked with. As I would find out in the fall, Claris­sa would also be a stu­dent of mine. Over the sum­mer, Claris­sa watched me dance to songs about how sex on a sofa can be a type of yoga, about want­i­ng men in Timb’s, about basic bitch­es think­ing I’m a head case. 

On the first day of class, I walked into class and see Claris­sa in her black, cat-eyed glass­es. She sat near the back. I told her specif­i­cal­ly hel­lo. I imme­di­ate­ly became a dish­wash­er mas­querad­ing as a pro­fes­sor. I tried to restart my per­for­mance of a “laid back” prof. I stum­bled. I got through class. After­ward, I asked Claris­sa if she is alright being in my class. She said she was. Great, I said. 

*

In my ear­ly twen­ties, I saw Por­tu­gal. The Man play a small venue in Lawrence. I had dri­ven there from Kansas City with an ex-girl­friend and her new boyfriend who was a friend of mine. We smoked weed in the car. I was unsure what to say, so I drove faster, hop­ing soon the venue would be so full of music I could feel safe­ly alone. When the band struck up, I snuck into the crowd and twitched like a sad virus.

*

After work, I dri­ve an hour home. My car’s check engine light flash­es at me (indi­cat­ing mis­fires). Anoth­er light on the dash informs me my airbag sys­tem is mal­func­tion­ing. For the past four­teen miles, a small orange gas pump has shone next to my fuel gage. When I pull off the high­way, my car strains and rat­tles; things grate against each oth­er; met­al squeaks when I stop. My car is its own imposter, and a poor one at that. 

*

I am that 
bitch, 
I'm-a, 
I'm-a that 
bih,   yeah 
You  know 
I'm     that 
bih,   can't 
get  off   of 
this      dih, 
yeah

*

I tilt­ed my head and bobbed it back and forth. I said with a smile, “Nice.” I let my body go slack. I repeat­ed this action, say­ing var­i­ous pos­i­tive phras­es: fuck yeah, sick, that’s rad. It was dark. Dal­las unfurled into bits of halo­gen. I con­tin­ued to imi­tate the friends I believed sup­port­ed everyone.

*

It Fol­lows ends with Jay and Paul hold­ing hands and walk­ing down a neigh­bor­hood street. The mon­ster that fol­lowed had not been defeat­ed so much as rerout­ed; scenes ear­li­er Paul dri­ves to a seedy and indus­tri­al part of Detroit to vis­it a sex work­er. It is implied the plan was to pass the crea­ture to some­one who rou­tine­ly had sex with a vast array of people. 

One of the most com­pelling ambi­gu­i­ties of the film, for me, is its mes­sage. Is It Fol­lows anti-sex? There are plen­ty of indi­ca­tions that this is the case—a mon­ster that is sent to pun­ish the sex­u­al­ly active, the reduc­tion of human sex­u­al­i­ty to a trans­ac­tion for sur­vival (the sex scenes in the film play out self-seri­ous and duti­ful with more des­per­a­tion than pas­sion). Yet the sex­u­al con­tent of It Fol­lows is shown neu­tral­ly. Nei­ther Jay nor Paul are shamed for their sex­u­al­i­ty once becom­ing sex­u­al­ly active. And in one scene the two char­ac­ters rem­i­nisce about find­ing pornog­ra­phy and look­ing at it as a group on one of their lawns. Paul says, “We had no idea how bad it was.” 

This sen­ti­ment, cou­pled with how often the fourth wall is bro­ken, seems to push the film’s mes­sage away from being anti-sex into being a more nuanced cri­tique of social­ized sham­ing. Maybe the film’s mon­ster then becomes not a pun­ish­ment for sex but an embod­i­ment of the inse­cu­ri­ties Jay and Paul project onto indi­vid­u­als of their repressed and repress­ing society—what would my neighbors/mother/cousins/friends think if they knew I had had sex? Or maybe it is the inse­cu­ri­ties these peo­ple have of per­form­ing sexually—did I enjoy this encounter enough or was my plea­sure a show? 

*

I pulled into our dri­ve­way around 2:45am. I had fin­ished a clos­ing shift wash­ing dish­es. The radio’s rapid twitches—extreme met­al-click-Viet­namese lounge-click-bub­blegum pop-click-neo-lib­er­tar­i­an con­spir­a­cy theories-click-trap-click-advertisement—wafted like dust around my still and silent hatchback. 

I show­ered and drank a Topo Chico. I sat, my hair wrapped in a tow­el. I refreshed my email. I checked my bank account. I stum­bled into the dark bed­room; Rowen, my part­ner, was curled on her side, already asleep. We spooned in the way long­time lovers must on a full mattress. 

My body still vibrat­ed from the quick suc­ces­sion of repet­i­tive tasks I had done for the past eight and a half hours. I won­dered if, even while sleep­ing, Rowen could know I was the one in the dark with her. Was there an essen­tial aspect to me, my touch that let her know I was there and not anoth­er? Was this the case with every­one? If so, why did my eyes watch the door ready for a ter­ror to waltz through when­ev­er Rowen left to use the bath­room, why did I imper­cep­ti­bly jump when she clutched my body in the dark? 

As I thought and thought, I sat up and craned my head over so I could see around her shoul­ders, her hair. In the dark, I squint­ed at her, find­ing what made this sleep­ing face hers. Yes, the body next to me was Rowen. Yes, I am myself. I fell asleep.

*

A few days before a mid­dle school mix­er, I mes­saged Mad­die, “we should meet at the dance.” 

…”

… ☺”

ok”

I wait­ed, but Mad­die didn’t show. Our par­ents arrived. Mad­die dis­ap­peared from AIM. A few weeks lat­er, a friend told me Mad­die was real­ly Justin, a boy in our class, the whole thing was a joke, and many peo­ple were aware of it. 

I looked at Justin, at the oth­er kids in the class—aware of the dif­fer­ence between how they saw me and how I had seen myself in the past weeks, aware of the dif­fer­ence between how I had seen them before and how I saw them after. 

*

Years after first see­ing Por­tu­gal. The Man, I rode my bicy­cle around Kansas City and came across a free con­cert series on top of hill that ris­es between I‑35 and Broad­way Boule­vard. Head­lin­ing the event was Por­tu­gal. The Man. I locked up my bike and made my way to the front of the stage. I hard­ly rec­og­nized the band—the singer, who used to posi­tion his mic side­ways so he wouldn’t have to look at the crowd, direct­ly addressed us, his hair recent­ly cut short, his lips accen­tu­at­ed with a neat moustache. 

Por­tu­gal. The Man played songs I did not rec­og­nize. All around me were peo­ple I did not know bop­ping along in flip-flops, cut-offs, tank tops, and ungod­ly flu­o­res­cent rimmed sun­glass­es. I drift­ed back, watch­ing the space I had occu­pied in the crowd slow­ly dis­perse, like a ghost into the stained walls of a haunt­ed house.

*

A man mes­sages me on Face­book. He tells me Rick Barot sent him a per­son­al rejec­tion for a group of poems he sub­mit­ted to the New Eng­land Review. He, this man, men­tored me dur­ing my first stint in grad­u­ate school. 

In a pre­vi­ous mes­sage, he asked, “Do you know an edi­tor there? Or is it just that your poem was THAT good?” A year pre­vi­ous, he told me that it was great that I was using my per­son­al con­nec­tions to get published. 

I con­grat­u­late this man. I say good things are coming.

*

For a time dur­ing my com­mute, I repeat, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry? It is true: there was no one else in my car and I doubt any­one in traf­fic was mon­i­tor­ing me, I felt no con­nec­tion to this ani­mal oth­er than the one all ani­mals feel, I will not be both­ered by this expe­ri­ence a year from now. As if by twitch, I look behind me. I switch lanes. I look in the mir­ror and see myself look­ing back. Maybe every­one per­forms a lit­tle for them­selves, for the micro­scop­ic feed­back loop between the synapse and the eye, the ear, the hand, the nose. Maybe this per­for­mance is nec­es­sary, but why? And for whom do we bring our hands to our mouths—the future self or the past? Are they so distinct? 

*

 I’m 
different. 
Yeah,   I’m 
different 
—pull    up 
to          the 
scene   with 
my   ceiling 
missing.

*

A pro­fes­sor posts a ques­tion in an online dis­cus­sion board. I answer his ques­tion with a series of ques­tions. In class he ref­er­ences Rosen­crantz and Guildenstern’s game of ques­tions. I don’t get the ref­er­ence, but I laugh and say I hadn’t thought of it that way.

*

Mov­ing up an onto­log­i­cal lev­el, It Fol­lows unspools like a dream, a pro­jec­tion of the viewer’s inse­cu­ri­ties onto the suc­ces­sion of dig­i­tal images. The sound­track aids this effect. Crys­talline and dis­tort­ed synths dis­solve into ethe­re­al amor­phous swells; it is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a prod­uct of a Vase­line-smeared 80s aes­thet­ic and dis­tinct­ly sep­a­rate from it (a ghost of the future the 80s pre­dict­ed that nev­er came). The sound­track becomes most haunt­ing­ly poignant in the film’s final scene. Its syn­thet­ic tex­tures fade into crisp ren­di­tions of birds and yard work—close yet uncan­ni­ly dis­tant from sound­ing nat­ur­al like how a voice in a dream booms with­in the dream-self’s mind rather than emanates from the mouth of its speaker. 

Jay and Paul walk, hold­ing hands. Their heads casu­al­ly rotate from each oth­er to the cam­era, to the side­walk, to the hous­es around them as does ours—another instance of the bro­ken fourth wall. Like the sound­track, they become immersed in the nat­u­ral­is­tic sounds. Jay’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to us, the view­er, and to Paul. Paul’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to Jay and to us. We exist, the three us—Jay, Paul, and viewer—aware of each oth­er, con­clu­sive­ly our­selves as we gaze as if there were noth­ing before our eyes—absences ready to be filled. 

*

One night dur­ing clos­ing, I put on Dead in the Dirt’s The Blind Hole. The songs pum­mel their feed­back-laced riffs and snare-heavy blast beats into every­thing 50 sec­onds at a time. I tow­el melt­ed ice cream from the dish rack. I hose bits of bacon and grilled chick­en cling­ing to the side of the dish­wash­er. I squeegee a grey-white liq­uid from where the walls meet the floor to the drains in the cen­ter of the room. Dead in the Dirt grinds. Dead in the Dirt screams. “I was a dog on a short chain and now there’s no chain.”

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Between semes­ters of the PhD pro­gram I was a dish­wash­er at a restau­rant where two of my stu­dents also worked. I had been feel­ing like I didn’t belong in acad­e­mia and this, to me, fur­ther insin­u­at­ed that. I want­ed to show a mind wrestling with the con­stant­ly mutat­ing per­for­mance of self that is asked of a per­son in pub­lic no mat­ter where that is. Who am I in the car? Who am I at my job? Who am I at the gro­cery store? Are all these selves compatible?

I also thought using song lyrics from musi­cians that had gone through dra­mat­ic per­sona shifts—Shakira’s move from Span­ish-lan­guage to Eng­lish-lan­guage pop star, Bob Dylan’s chameleon-like iden­ti­ty, Qveen Herby’s move from Dis­ney star to raunch rap, 2Chainz’s move from Tity Boi to trap star—would trou­ble the idea of per­for­mance and authen­tic­i­ty. What does it mean when the peo­ple whose words infil­trate a lot of my day are play act­ing as some­one oth­er than themselves?

 

Bri­an Clifton is a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas. His work can be found in: Pleiades, Guer­ni­ca, Cincin­nati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Jour­nal, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, and oth­er mag­a­zines. He is an avid record col­lec­tor and cura­tor of curiosities.

Three Poems

Poetry / Alicia Wright

:: Compress Pastoral ::

          for Jude Walters, operator at Rome Cotton Compress Company

Not another one like it for a hundred-odd miles

This cotton compress’s so efficient it needs only one operator 

No spider men darting around iron legs losing fingers

The oldest one still in operation also owned by the same man 

Whose customary reticence shortened threads we have left

Jude who runs the big machine while its owner hunts in Nova Scotia 

Selling bale by bale in Boston bale by bale 500 lbs a bale

Stated commission: 50 cents per bale when local sourcing 

These bales the preference of the surrounding mills 

Prices shift per telegram: 5 1/8, 5 5/8 4s you don’t care 

Top crop or small fruit which makes the grade

Even disinterested experts confirm the plant’s superior 

Whether or not the cotton’s injured or will have a bad showing 

Harbor (meaning wait and do nothing) as spots don’t respond 

To decline in futures

Jude you are full of care moving under the belly

The machine like a ladder too high to picture with its bell dome 

Crushing the cotton you confirmed was of quality not slipping 

In thinning gradients these distinctions to you the most clear


The Cloud of Unknow­ing, Chap­ter 20: Almighty God will answer well for all those who choose not to give up their devo­tion to lov­ing him in order to jus­ti­fy themselves.

 

:: Buckshot ::

          from Anec­dotes and Rem­i­nis­cences in A His­to­ry of Rome and Floyd Coun­ty by          George Macrud­er Bat­tey Jr. (1922)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cloud of Unknow­ing, Chap­ter 53: Var­i­ous kinds of unseem­ly behav­iour that attend those who dis­re­gard the work dis­cussed in this book.

 

:: Irradiation ::

          Harbin Clinic, Rome, Georgia

I.

The cot­ton bro­ker could afford 100 grams of radium,
          which he pur­chased, in con­sul­ta­tion with his doctor,
in the sum­mer of 1919. Two facil­i­ties pro­duced a quantity
          enough to be con­sid­ered for phil­an­thropic acquisition:
one in Pitts­burgh, anoth­er Den­ver. Because the one
          out west was cheap­er, per­haps spec­u­la­tive­ly, the broker
placed his order there. It arrived to Rome’s med­ical clinic
          intend­ed for the treat­ment of those who could not
oth­er­wise afford it. Some side effects were beginning
          to be chart­ed: lac­er­a­tion, red­den­ing of skin, small burns,
dete­ri­o­ra­tion & weak­ness over­all, but the cot­ton broker
          pressed his busi­ness. The cot­ton bro­ker named himself,
a record shows, a cap­i­tal­ist, & in Boston medi­at­ed sales of bales
          grown from the upland soil tilled by pen­nied Reconstruction
labor. He was over­com­pen­sat­ed hand­some­ly. He built schools.
          He upheld codes. He owned a tex­tile mill him­self, through
his wife’s family’s tragedy: one broth­er shot a fiancé, but
          that’s anoth­er angle—a mark way down a bar­rel. Or is it, as
the deep ther­a­py X‑ray machine the bro­ker bought for the
          ema­na­tion of irra­di­ate lumi­nous met­al into superficial
der­mis shows oth­er­wise devel­op­ing cells, dis­col­orations, protrusions,
          tumors? The excres­cence of a body willed mys­te­ri­ous­ly away.
The X‑ray is a vehi­cle for sight into tis­sue, for secrets kept
          by bod­ies until cut, or split, whose cracks or seep­ages would
self-expire. They acti­vat­ed radi­um into an idea so they’d contact
          the insides of them­selves, & blast through killing parts.

II.

The results report­ed back to the bro­ker jus­ti­fied expense:
Dur­ing the month of March, we had nine cas­es for Radi­um. These cases,

with one excep­tion, were small local­ized car­ci­no­mas, which
usu­al­ly respond quite read­i­ly to Radi­um treat­ment, and several

of these have dis­ap­peared already. One was an exten­sive carcinoma
of the breast in which Radi­um was post-oper­a­tive, and in which

oper­a­tion itself would not have been attempt­ed, had not possessed
Radi­um to fol­low it up. Four were car­ci­no­mas about the head and face

in which sur­gi­cal mea­sures would have been impos­si­ble and where
the only relief lay in the use of Radi­um. The doc­tor, cautious

with the appli­ca­tion of his source, the Radi­um Fund, added
on, appre­cia­tive­ly: You may be inter­est­ed to know that one of the

first cas­es upon which we used the Radi­um, in a fibroid tumor, returned
sev­er­al days ago and the tumor has entire­ly disappeared.

III.

          The bro­ker & the doc­tor under­stood each oth­er, understood
the fragili­ty & impact, the work of local use. Two knowledge

sys­tems over­lay, begin to blur to one action: a fund­ed fund,
          a store of pos­si­bil­i­ty. The pos­si­bil­i­ty itself makes bod­ies glow,

brains glow imag­in­ing their work: direct a tube conducting
          volt­age, at low wattage—& point the brain toward the body, watch

no, feel the work begin. The nec­es­sary burn­ing through, though
          inter­nal tumors could not be reached with­out irrecov­er­able sear,

& if the X‑ray’s effects were not enough, poi­son radi­um drops beading
          from a met­al tube tip would be touched to tumor, to affect­ed area.

The cap­i­tal of skin con­densed by their for­mal dia­logue. The capital
          of who’s attritional—some bod­ies, say the blast­ing tubes, inflaming

brains, are to be seen in terms of use, dis­use. Lan­guages of care
          & cap­i­tal mutate, bro­ker­ing, ray­ing out from the lim­its of what

could be known, of what the two men could & would be willing
          to be shown. The sto­ry here is not an ele­gy, attend­ing to a death,

though some patients did die despite treat­ment: Dead, four; cured,
          twen­ty-six; under treat­ment, twen­ty-four; and hope­less, sev­en, wrote the

doc­tor some months lat­er. There are quite a num­ber of these who are
          now under treat­ment who I feel sure we will be able to trans­fer to the group

of cured. Those which I have clas­si­fied as hope­less are ones which pre­sent­ed an              impos­si­ble con­di­tion when they first came and for whom we used

the radi­um with the hope of relief. What grows from liv­ing bodies
          helps us mea­sure dis­tance? What then when a body’s dead?

Care’s cap­i­tal dis­placed into out­come, pro­fes­sion­al­ly detached—
          how if we care to deter­mine good from bad, bad from worse,

& good from bet­ter shapes into, from history’s lens, narrative
          abscess­es. From exter­nal beam what can be seen, which samples

ought be held to light? Let­ters & accounts come radi­at­ing selves—
          archival resonance—through con­tact, brought to sight, illumined

struc­tures, the dam­age in mate­r­i­al, a body’s seg­ment lay­ered into shapes
          & scanned for mean­ing. To look at some­one like a ray. To see

their body stark, back­lit, hold­ing self, cur­va­tures of mes­sages distended,
          how heal­ing is a sil­hou­ette of pow­er in tech­nol­o­gy applied

to voices—past this half life each one a sep­a­rate sound, a sanctity.
          The ques­tion of who speaks, and if one speaks, one must attune

through lay­ing self aside, let work work its way to heal or recombine.
          The question’s if these, their forms, have been, will be benign.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Com­press Pastoral

The rela­tion­ship between the writer and the archive is, in a sense, a con­stant, as is the idea of hav­ing inter­act­ed with that archival mate­r­i­al that changes both the writer and the extant infor­ma­tion reshaped into the poem’s present. Or, I saw a pic­ture, which exists with­in my family’s archive, of a man iden­ti­fied as Jude, stand­ing before this mas­sive, mon­strous machine called a cot­ton com­press, which com­pact­ed bales of cot­ton into incred­i­bly dense seg­ments of mate­r­i­al. I want to memo­ri­al­ize Jude’s skill and labor, and think about the mean­ing of his skill in rela­tion to poet­ic form, while also con­sid­er­ing the impact that indus­tri­al farm equipment—strange, now eso­teric, then-new, cut­ting-edge technology—was begin­ning to have on labor, skill, and whether and how this reori­ent­ed or atten­u­at­ed our rela­tion­ship both to land­scape and to action itself. Rather than sen­ti­men­tal­ize the past and those who lived in it, I try to think about con­di­tions, dis­tri­b­u­tions, auton­o­my, refusals, and enact­ments through both form and content.

Buck­shot

So often when I’m work­ing with his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al from my home­town, a small town in the U.S. South, it’s as though I’m work­ing through the past’s dirt and detri­tus, try­ing to get my hands into the root sys­tems of think­ing, try­ing to find the rhi­zomes of vio­lence and vio­lent think­ing, to uproot them, pull them apart. One text clus­ter at a time. As a poet I’m not beyond satire, nor humor, and the atten­dant fears that under­gird them. Form, here, always, being tak­en dead­ly seriously.

Irra­di­a­tion

What would it mean for a nar­ra­tive poem to con­sid­er that very per­spec­tive it occu­pies? What does it mean to [be hon­est] look, con­tin­u­al­ly, at his­to­ry, with the dou­ble vision of objec­tiv­i­ty and hermeneu­tic instinct, work­ing through accounts and infor­ma­tion, inevitably, as a poet? Can one have X ray vision, real­ly, the fan­ta­sy of true objec­tiv­i­ty, and from which tem­po­ral posi­tion would this be the most accu­rate method of seeing—and, what hap­pens, real­ly, to local think­ing, local sto­ries, once they’re sit­u­at­ed in nar­ra­tive? Can topo­graph­i­cal poetry—lyric, in a sense—and topo­log­i­cal poetry—narrative, by contrast—work in tan­dem, and would that very prac­tice itself pose risk? In a way, this is my for­ay into writ­ing into ques­tions that a poet I learn from and admire, Robyn Schiff, pos­es in her work and teaching.

 

Ali­cia Wright is orig­i­nal­ly from Rome, Geor­gia, and she has received fel­low­ships from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop. Poems appear or are forth­com­ing in Eco­tone, West Branch, The Lit­er­ary Review, Poet­ry North­west, Flag + Void, and The South­east Review, among oth­ers. The win­ner of the 2017 Wabash Prize from Sycamore Review, Indi­ana Review’s 2016 Poet­ry Prize, and of New South’s 2015 New Writ­ing Con­test, she is at present work­ing toward a PhD in Lit­er­ary Arts at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver, where she serves as con­ver­sa­tions edi­tor for Den­ver Quar­ter­ly.

The End of College?

Criticism / Molly K. Robey

:: The End of College? ::

In the spring of 2018, the fic­tion writer Danielle Evans vis­it­ed the small, mid­west­ern lib­er­al arts col­lege where I teach in the Eng­lish depart­ment. Evans read her recent­ly pub­lished short sto­ry, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” and I’ve been think­ing about it ever since. Clear­ly, I’m not the only one to have felt its pow­er. Rox­ane Gay recent­ly select­ed the sto­ry for the 2018 edi­tion of the icon­ic Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries series.

Boys Go to Jupiter” tells the sto­ry of Claire, a white, first-year stu­dent at fic­tion­al Den­nis Col­lege in New Eng­land, who finds her­self at the cen­ter of esca­lat­ing con­tro­ver­sy after a pho­to­graph of her wear­ing a Con­fed­er­ate flag biki­ni goes viral. She’s goad­ed into wear­ing the swim­suit by a tem­po­rary boyfriend, and she goes along with it, hop­ing the “trashy” biki­ni will piss off her new step­moth­er. Claire bare­ly reg­is­ters the sig­nif­i­cance of her cloth­ing choice, until the boyfriend posts the pho­to to Face­book. It doesn’t take long for the pho­to to become a sub­ject of intense debate and con­tro­ver­sy. Claire’s African-Amer­i­can hall mate prompt­ly sees the pho­to and tweets her out­rage. Claire’s pho­to is repost­ed and re-tweet­ed in var­i­ous con­texts. The local­ly trend­ing top­ic #clairewil­liamsva­ca­tion­ideas includes the sug­ges­tions “Auschwitz, My Lai,” and “Wound­ed Knee.” [i] An orga­ni­za­tion named the Her­itage Defend­ers takes up what they imag­ine to be Claire’s cause (though Claire, a recent res­i­dent of the north­ern Vir­ginia sub­urbs, can hard­ly claim south­ern iden­ti­ty). Claire’s email address is made pub­lic, and hun­dreds of angry, sup­port­ive, and porno­graph­ic mes­sages find their way to her inbox. With­in a few days, the Den­nis Col­lege cam­pus has erupt­ed in ten­sion. Claire her­self dou­bles down in the midst of this con­tro­ver­sy, print­ing a Con­fed­er­ate flag post­card for the hall mate and post­ing anoth­er to her dorm door. Claire’s advis­er and the Vice Dean of Diver­si­ty ask Claire to apol­o­gize for her behav­ior. At the cam­pus town hall held to help stu­dents process the anger and fear the biki­ni pho­to has inspired, Claire remains unre­pen­tant. In this moment, sur­round­ed by angry peers, Claire per­sists in telling her­self “she can still be any­body she wants to.” [ii]

For those of us who work and live in the world of the small lib­er­al arts col­lege, the story’s events ring true. Over the past four years, our small school has wit­nessed assort­ed inci­dents: the tear­ing down of Black Lives Mat­ter posters and the defac­ing of Mus­lim Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion posters, the scrawl­ing of the n‑word across the “Aspi­ra­tion Foun­tain” where ori­en­ta­tion lead­ers encour­age first-year stu­dents to chalk their hopes and dreams. We’ve watched the uni­ver­si­ty respond to each inci­dent in its insti­tu­tion­al man­ner, with forums held and force­ful yet vague promis­es made to meet stu­dent demands for a bet­ter, more inclu­sive, cam­pus cli­mate. Stu­dents have orga­nized and request­ed that fac­ul­ty receive manda­to­ry diver­si­ty train­ing each year, and the fac­ul­ty have assent­ed. Evans’s sto­ry sug­gests that these kinds of insti­tu­tion­al respons­es are inad­e­quate; they bare­ly scratch the sur­face of the mod­ern prob­lems such events man­i­fest: the ways that social media deter­mine the truths with­in which we must live, the ways that priv­i­lege has co-opt­ed the lan­guage of resis­tance, the com­plex­i­ty of indi­vid­ual cul­pa­bil­i­ty in a sys­tem­i­cal­ly racist soci­ety. But for those of us who work in this world, some­thing else res­onates here as well. The sto­ry asserts that the idea of college—as a space of trans­for­ma­tion and reinvention—is mere fic­tion. When Claire tells her­self in the midst of this chaos that, “she can still be any­body she wants to,” we know she is wrong.

Like Claire, I believed that in col­lege I would be able to become any­body I want­ed to. This was the mid-1990s, and my pile of col­lege brochures, each thick and glossy, full of beau­ti­ful­ly casu­al peo­ple walk­ing past lush, ancient trees in their sweat­shirts, was a trea­sured stash. I stud­ied these images, try­ing to deter­mine the per­fect place to go, the place where I would become myself, some­one whol­ly new and still unthink­able. Shirley Mar­chalo­nis com­pares this ide­al of col­lege to the “green world” described by Shake­speare schol­ars. [iii] In this view, col­lege is a space “away from the ‘real world’’’ that has “its own real­i­ty,” a space that is “beau­ti­ful, mys­te­ri­ous, and mag­i­cal.” [iv] This col­lege is a “place of trans­for­ma­tion,” where “tem­po­rary inhab­i­tants grow, change, seek iden­ti­ties and find solu­tions.” [v] This col­lege was the one I assumed was wait­ing for me. The impres­sion in my mind was vague but pal­pa­ble. Much like the title char­ac­ter of Owen Johnson’s 1912 nov­el Stover at Yale, I antic­i­pat­ed the free­dom that col­lege seemed to promise. I, too, imag­ined that the free­dom “to ven­ture and to expe­ri­ence” would lead me to the knowl­edge of “that strange, guard­ed mystery—life.” [vi]

For the past few years, I have been study­ing the sto­ries we tell about col­lege. Per­haps because I keep hear­ing the refrain that high­er edu­ca­tion is in “cri­sis” (a cur­so­ry search for “cri­sis” on The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion web­site will yield more than 230 arti­cles pub­lished in the past year alone), or per­haps because my stu­dents’ expe­ri­ence of col­lege life appears so dif­fer­ent from my own, I’ve felt drawn to think­ing about the ways that col­lege has been under­stood and imag­ined. The sto­ries we tell about col­lege are chang­ing. Are they chang­ing because col­lege itself has changed? A num­ber of schol­ars have assert­ed that recent decades have wit­nessed the “finan­cial­iza­tion” of the uni­ver­si­ty and that the university’s assim­i­la­tion of cor­po­rate ideals has fun­da­men­tal­ly altered edu­ca­tion. [vii] The past two decades have also seen the advent and ascen­sion of social media. Can col­lege no longer make itself a “world apart” in this dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment? Or, are the sto­ries we tell about col­lege chang­ing to reflect a real­i­ty that has always exist­ed? Was my fan­ta­sy of col­lege trans­for­ma­tion only ever fan­ta­sy, the prod­uct of some amount of priv­i­lege and blind­ness? I’ll admit there is nos­tal­gia moti­vat­ing me in this pur­suit, some impre­cise sense that things used to be bet­ter in some way. Like most nos­tal­gia, the real­i­ty turns out to be more com­plex than the con­tours of my fuzzy, sepia-toned mem­o­ries would lead me to believe.

In the Unit­ed States, sto­ries about col­lege life began to be told in the 1830s, and they gained pop­u­lar­i­ty as the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry wore on. Per­haps what is most sur­pris­ing about the pop­u­lar­i­ty of such sto­ries is that it out­paced the actu­al pop­u­lar­i­ty of col­lege itself. By 1900, only about 4 per­cent of the school-age pop­u­la­tion attend­ed col­lege. [viii] At the same time, the sub­ject of the col­lege man or col­lege girl appeared reg­u­lar­ly in pop­u­lar mag­a­zines, and books about cam­pus life enjoyed healthy sales. Despite the pauci­ty of actu­al col­lege stu­dents in the Unit­ed States in the nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, the idea of col­lege cir­cu­lat­ed wide­ly and seems to have occu­pied an out­sized role in the way read­ers imag­ined the mat­u­ra­tion of the indi­vid­ual in demo­c­ra­t­ic society.

The ear­li­est of these pub­lished col­lege sto­ries sug­gest that trans­for­ma­tion and growth were cen­tral to the sto­ry of col­lege. The few schol­ars who ana­lyze col­lege fic­tion inevitably refer to sto­ries and books about cam­pus life as bil­dungsro­man, sto­ries of a young person’s devel­op­ment and emer­gence into soci­ety. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1828 nov­el Fan­shawe traces the mat­u­ra­tion of the fic­tion­al Harley Col­lege stu­dents Edward Wal­cott and Fan­shawe as they com­pete with each oth­er over the col­lege president’s young ward Ellen Lang­ton and lat­er res­cue her from kid­nap­ping. Wal­cott and Fan­shawe, one a rather super­fi­cial young man and the oth­er a seri­ous and sick­ly schol­ar, each change, becom­ing thought­ful men of action through their inter­ac­tions with each oth­er. [ix] Still, Fan­shawe offers a rather slight por­trait of its char­ac­ters’ development. 

By the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, we can read about more sub­stan­tive col­lege trans­for­ma­tions. The hand­some and care­free title char­ac­ter of Eliz­a­beth Stu­art Phelps’s 1893 nov­el Don­ald Mar­cy “finds every­thing has always come eas­i­ly to him,” until a haz­ing inci­dent gone ter­ri­bly wrong caus­es intro­spec­tion. [x] Before he even under­stands it, Mar­cy begins to see the “edu­cat­ed life” as con­nect­ed to “the hon­or and the pre­cious­ness of all those intan­gi­ble val­ues which come to a man.” [xi] Mar­cy turns away from the cap­i­tal­ism and mate­ri­al­ism of his Wall Street father and the hijinks of his ear­ly col­lege friends, find­ing self-real­iza­tion in study­ing and help­ing oth­ers. Marcy’s matu­ri­ty is due in large part to the influ­ence of his friend­ship with the Smith Col­lege stu­dent Fay, whose for­mi­da­ble intel­lect and accom­plish­ments set a mod­el for him to emulate.

Col­lege women too could expect to leave school with a new sense of self in addi­tion to their iron­i­cal­ly named bachelor’s degrees. In Helen Dawes Brown’s Two Col­lege Girls (1886), the effer­ves­cent, super­fi­cial Rosamund gains a seri­ous­ness of pur­pose through her col­lege expe­ri­ence while her intel­lec­tu­al and prim room­mate Edna emerges as a more com­pas­sion­ate and social­ly adept woman. What Edna trea­sures as the most “real” expe­ri­ence of her life, she states, is “the find­ing out of new ideas—the see­ing of old things in a new light” that has tran­spired in col­lege. [xii] Speak­ing at com­mence­ment, Edna’s room­mate Rosamund fond­ly recounts the “colleging”—the pranks, hol­i­days, friend­ships, and schol­ar­ly triumphs—that have led to her own and her fel­low grad­u­ates’ con­sid­er­able per­son­al devel­op­ment. [xiii] For these young women, as for count­less oth­er under­grad­u­ates imag­ined in the col­lege fic­tion of the era, col­lege is a space in which indi­vid­u­als tend to dis­cov­er them­selves, devel­op­ing their nascent tal­ents and strengths and dis­card­ing their care­less behav­iors and poor manners.

In Two Col­lege Girls, Edna and Rosamund’s teach­ers explain that col­lege inevitably leads to trans­for­ma­tion, because it puts stu­dents “in the way of influ­enc­ing each oth­er.” [ivx] Gen­uine friend­ship, forged unex­pect­ed­ly across the social bor­ders of pop­u­lar­i­ty, tem­pera­ment, region­al affil­i­a­tion, and class, pro­vides the cat­a­lyst for most of the col­le­giate trans­for­ma­tion that takes place in col­lege sto­ries. Study­ing mat­ters, but the knowl­edge gained from expe­ri­ence, and in par­tic­u­lar the expe­ri­ence of oth­ers, mat­ters more.  In seem­ing to bring togeth­er diverse indi­vid­u­als in this way, col­lege has often occu­pied a sym­bol­ic place in U.S. cul­ture. It stands as a par­tic­u­lar­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tion, a mer­i­toc­ra­cy in which indi­vid­u­als pur­sue achieve­ment on a lev­el play­ing field and gain valu­able train­ing as cit­i­zens. As the cul­tured Mon­sieur Dar­cy informs the young Armory Blaine in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 col­lege nov­el This Side of Par­adise, “democ­ra­cy” is some­thing he will “find plen­ty of … in col­lege.” [xv]

How­ev­er, the few schol­ar­ly stud­ies of col­lege fic­tion that have been pub­lished sug­gest that our ideals of col­lege democ­ra­cy and the trans­for­ma­tion it engen­ders have only ever been myth. Exam­in­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of friend­ship in post­bel­lum U.S. col­lege fic­tion, Travis M. Fos­ter con­cludes that the affec­tion­ate bonds depict­ed in these nov­els exist to con­sol­i­date white suprema­cy and to mend sec­tion­al ten­sions in the wake of nation­al divi­sion. Reach­ing sim­i­lar con­clu­sions, Christo­pher Find­eisen explores issues of class addressed in col­lege fic­tion, show­ing how col­lege has always been imag­ined as a space for the upper class to play and devel­op. What has changed over time, Find­eisen asserts, is that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have “evolved to become insti­tu­tions that pro­duced eco­nom­ic dif­fer­ences rather than insti­tu­tions that mere­ly reflect­ed them” [xvi] Both schol­ars have illu­mi­nat­ed the func­tion of not only the uni­ver­si­ty but also col­lege fic­tion in pro­duc­ing and repro­duc­ing an Amer­i­can elite. As our sto­ries about col­lege empha­size indi­vid­ual trans­for­ma­tion and achieve­ment, they direct atten­tion away from what yet remains vis­i­ble, that “the uni­ver­si­ty is large­ly a site for the upper class to com­pete with itself in games that have essen­tial­ly no eco­nom­ic mean­ing because their out­comes are more or less assured.” [xvii] Trans­for­ma­tion, or at least the illu­sion of trans­for­ma­tion, is a mark of privilege.

As Fos­ter notes, some voic­es ques­tioned the sto­ry of col­lege even as it was being writ­ten. In the short sto­ry “Of the Com­ing of John,” W. E. B. Du Bois writes of a young man from Altama­ha, Geor­gia, who departs for col­lege as the great pride of his rur­al black com­mu­ni­ty. At the Wells Insti­tute, John grows “in body and soul”; he gains “dig­ni­ty” and “thought­ful­ness.” [xvi­ii] His pro­fes­sor remarks, “all the world toward which he strove was of his own build­ing, and he build­ed slow and hard.” [ixx] Drawn away from home into a “world of thought,” John dis­cov­ers him­self and utter­ly trans­forms at college—in man­ner, per­spec­tive, skill, and under­stand­ing. [xx] How­ev­er, when John returns home to south­east­ern Geor­gia, he finds his intel­lec­tu­al and per­son­al growth have put him at odds with his fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty, and, worse, they have pro­voked the town’s anx­ious white com­mu­ni­ty. Anoth­er John, the white son of the town’s judge, has also returned from col­lege. When this white John attempts to assault John’s sis­ter, John kills him and is lynched by a white mob. In Du Bois’s hands, we see the sto­ry of col­lege masks the sto­ry of sys­temic racism and pow­er. Nei­ther John trans­forms. The white John does not want to nor does he need to; the world is designed for him. The black John is not per­mit­ted such transformation.

The sto­ry of col­lege that Du Bois tells here has been told again and again in African Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. A beau­ti­ful world of learn­ing pro­vides an oasis and a path to achieve­ment and uplift. This place promis­es the improve­ment of the indi­vid­ual, promis­es that here the indi­vid­ual can be remade and in turn can remake the world. Yet, this promise proves illu­so­ry. From Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1903–4) to Nel­la Larsen’s Quick­sand (1928) to Ralph Ellison’s Invis­i­ble Man (1947), col­lege becomes vis­i­ble as a space that exists not for indi­vid­ual trans­for­ma­tion but for the repro­duc­tion of the sta­tus quo. 

The sto­ry of col­lege as trans­for­ma­tion meets this cri­tique of col­lege in “Boys Go to Jupiter.” Claire’s fan­ta­sy of rein­ven­tion at Den­nis Col­lege is man­i­fest­ly symp­to­matic of the white priv­i­lege Du Bois expos­es as tac­it­ly under­pin­ning assump­tions about high­er education’s trans­for­ma­tive poten­tial. Like “Of the Com­ing of John,” Evans’s sto­ry expos­es the fan­ta­sy of trans­for­ma­tion by jux­ta­pos­ing the inter­twined fates of its black and white char­ac­ters. As the con­se­quences of Claire’s unthink­ing mis­take unfold, flash­backs inform the read­er of a dark­er, more inti­mate sto­ry of race and racism, the sto­ry of Claire’s best friend­ship with Angela Hall. After Claire and Angela meet as six-year-old neigh­bors, the girls are insep­a­ra­ble, shar­ing a spe­cial affec­tion as they taunt Angela’s broth­er Aaron with the non­sense rhyme, “girls go to col­lege to get more knowl­edge, boys go to Jupiter to get more stu­pid­er” (643). The girls grow into ado­les­cents togeth­er and even endure their moth­ers’ respec­tive can­cers togeth­er. Claire plans that they will some­day “go to col­lege togeth­er,” where “the world will unrav­el for them, fall at their feet.” [xxi] Only Claire’s mother’s death and Angela’s mother’s recov­ery sev­ers the girls’ bond. And race, Angela’s black­ness, is only ever inci­den­tal. That is, inci­den­tal to Claire.

If the girls’ shared expe­ri­ence of their moth­ers’ ill­ness­es seems like evi­dence of the kind of uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence and human con­nec­tion that under­lies some appeals to build­ing a post-racial U.S. soci­ety, fur­ther tragedy under­scores how unre­al­is­tic such a vision remains. One year after Claire’s mom’s death, Aaron dri­ves a drunk, griev­ing Claire home from a par­ty and is killed when a pack of white teenage boys run him off the road. The boys, who imag­ine they are res­cu­ing Claire from this young black man she has known all her life, are found not respon­si­ble, and Aaron’s death is ruled an acci­dent, though the Hall fam­i­ly under­stands the events through dif­fer­ent terms. As Aaron’s fate makes clear, even in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry and even among edu­cat­ed and priv­i­leged sub­ur­ban neigh­bors, not every­one can expect the world to fall at her feet.

As a child, Aaron points out the log­i­cal fal­la­cy of the girls’ rhyme. It doesn’t make sense that boys would go to Jupiter to get “more stu­pid­er,” Aaron quite ratio­nal­ly explains, since, in order to reach Jupiter, one would have to be incred­i­bly intel­li­gent.  Evans’s sto­ry seems to sug­gest that it is no more sen­si­ble to believe that “col­lege” is the place to get “more knowl­edge.” This is the stuff of child’s games. 

After I lis­tened to Evans read this sto­ry before an audi­ence of alter­nate­ly eager, anx­ious, and bored under­grad­u­ates in the rich­ly wood-pan­eled audi­to­ri­um of our col­lege library, I felt dis­heart­ened. This sto­ry is about the end of col­lege, I thought. There is no rein­ven­tion, no trans­for­ma­tion, only sta­sis and spin. The nar­ra­tive that the cam­pus is fix­at­ed on, whether one young woman’s stu­pid choice to wear a hate­ful sym­bol should be con­demned as racist or cel­e­brat­ed for its self-expres­sion of south­ern “her­itage,” is not even the real sto­ry here.  Nei­ther of these inter­pre­ta­tions of Claire is true, exact­ly. The deep­er sto­ry of Claire’s rela­tion­ship to Angela and Aaron caus­es us to ask com­plex questions—what cul­pa­bil­i­ty does Claire have for what hap­pens to Aaron? Is she a dif­fer­ent kind of vic­tim, one of the racist and sex­ist ide­ol­o­gy that imag­ines her as the white woman ever vul­ner­a­ble to the preda­to­ry black male? Is igno­rance as bad as racism? How can love and racism coexist?—that are only flat­tened in this cam­pus envi­ron­ment. Den­nis Col­lege is not a world apart in which the free­dom of expe­ri­ence and the pur­suit of knowl­edge lead to rein­ven­tion and per­son­al growth. But for all the ways that Evans’s sto­ry sig­nals the end of the sto­ry of col­lege, it sug­gests that there might be anoth­er sto­ry to tell. 

In an arti­cle pub­lished in The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion in May 2018, Lisi Schoen­bach cau­tions read­ers against engag­ing in too spir­it­ed a cri­tique of the uni­ver­si­ty, lest we under­mine the cred­i­bil­i­ty of an insti­tu­tion we need now more than ever. Schoen­bach writes, “it can be true that the uni­ver­si­ty is impli­cat­ed in neolib­er­al­ism while also being true that uni­ver­si­ties are often the defend­ers of free speech, anti-instru­men­tal­i­ty, and dis­sent.” [xxii] Maybe col­lege is not and has nev­er been tru­ly a space of trans­for­ma­tion, but it can be a space of reck­on­ing, at least of a kind. Col­lege can be a space in which sys­temic injus­tice and the myths that ease its func­tion­ing are observed and named. It can be a space of dia­logue, con­fronta­tion, and expres­sion. In our cur­rent world, col­lege may be the only space where this is possible.

The col­lege town hall event that con­cludes Evans’s sto­ry is not an oppor­tu­ni­ty to pose dif­fi­cult ques­tions. Still, in this space, even as Claire’s sto­ry is mis­un­der­stood, we see an exchange of per­spec­tives, and we see Claire begin to become aware of her priv­i­leged place in the world. One white stu­dent stands at the micro­phone and offers an apol­o­gy for racism, anoth­er recites the song “Sweet Home Alaba­ma,” though no one can tell whether this per­for­mance is an earnest endorse­ment or a cri­tique of the song’s glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the U.S. South. Claire watch­es as var­i­ous speakers—all white—file on to and off of the stage. Car­men, the hall mate who first tweet­ed her out­rage at Claire’s biki­ni pho­to, sits in the audi­ence, “sur­round­ed by two full rows of black stu­dents, more black peo­ple than Claire has ever seen on cam­pus before—maybe, it occurs to her, more black peo­ple than Claire has ever seen at once in her life.” The group sits silent­ly. They wait. Even­tu­al­ly, after the stage has been emp­ty for ten min­utes, the black stu­dents stand and leave the room, inten­tion­al­ly, one at a time. No one has spo­ken, but it would be wrong to say that these stu­dents have not made them­selves heard. At the end, Claire finds her­self unable to resist the deaf­en­ing qui­et. She approach­es the micro­phone, as Evans tells us, still telling her­self that rein­ven­tion and trans­for­ma­tion remain pos­si­ble. We know this is the wrong sto­ry for Claire to tell her­self, but we can also see that col­lege has pre­cip­i­tat­ed some self-aware­ness, how­ev­er mod­est, for Claire. When it “occurs to her” that she has come face to face with “more black peo­ple than” she “has ever seen at once,” Claire has been brought to account in some small way. Evans also sug­gests here that Claire’s is not the only sto­ry of col­lege that war­rants telling. In their per­for­mance of pur­pose­ful silence, Car­men and her fel­low black stu­dents not only call into ques­tion the sto­ries that many of us have per­sist­ed in telling our­selves about col­lege. They also inti­mate the exis­tence of oth­er col­lege sto­ries that still remain to be told.

 


[i] Danielle Evans, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Sewa­nee Review (Fall 2017), 646.
[ii] Evans, 661.
[iii] Shirley Mar­chalo­nis, Col­lege Girls: A Cen­tu­ry in Fic­tion (Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995), 25.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Owen John­son, Stover at Yale (Fred­er­ick A. Stokes, 1912), 5.
[vii] Ste­fan Colli­ni, Speak­ing of Uni­ver­si­ties (Ver­so, 2017). 
[viii] Col­in B. Burke, Amer­i­can Col­le­giate Pop­u­la­tions: A Test of the Tra­di­tion­al View (New York Univ. Press, 1982), 55.
[ix] It is worth not­ing that Hawthorne was so embar­rassed of this book, his first nov­el, that he lat­er attempt­ed to buy up all the exist­ing copies and burn them.
[x] Eliz­a­beth Stu­art Phelps, Don­ald Mar­cy (Houghton, Mif­flin and Com­pa­ny, 1983), 64.
[xi] Ibid., 72.
[xii] Helen Dawes Brown, Two Col­lege Girls (Houghton, Mif­flin and Com­pa­ny, 1886), 144.
[xiii] Ibid., 314.
[xiv] Ibid., 112.
[xv] F. Scott Fitzger­ald, This Side of Par­adise (Scrib­n­er, 1920), 32.
[xvi] Christo­pher Find­eisen, “‘The One Place Where Mon­ey Makes No Dif­fer­ence’: The Cam­pus Nov­el from Stover at Yale through The Art of Field­ing,” Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture 88. 1 (March 2016), 77.
[xvii] Ibid., 82.
[xvi­ii] W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Com­ing of John,” The Souls of Black Folk (1903; Barnes and Noble Clas­sics, 2003), 166.
[xix] Ibid., 163.
[xx] Ibid., 163.
[xxi] Evans, 648.
[xxii] Lisi Schoen­bach, “Enough with the Cri­sis Talk!: To Sal­vage the Uni­ver­si­ty, Explain Why It’s Worth Sav­ing,” The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion (16 May 2018).

 

Works Cit­ed

Brown, Helen Dawes. Two Col­lege Girls. Houghton, Mif­flin and Com­pa­ny, 1886.

Burke, Col­in B. Amer­i­can Col­le­giate Pop­u­la­tions: A Test of the Tra­di­tion­al View. New York Univ. Press, 1982.

Colli­ni, Ste­fan. Speak­ing of Uni­ver­si­ties. Ver­so, 2017.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Of the Com­ing of John.” The Souls of Black Folk. 1903; Barnes and Noble Clas­sics, 2003, 162–176.

Elli­son, Ralph. Invis­i­ble Man. Vin­tage Inter­na­tion­al, 1980.

Evans, Danielle. “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Sewa­nee Review, Fall 2017, 639–661, https://thesewaneereview.com/articles/boys-go-to-jupiter

Find­eisen, Christo­pher. “‘The One Place Where Mon­ey Makes No Dif­fer­ence’: The Cam­pus Nov­el from Stover at Yale through The Art of Field­ing,” Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, 88.1, March 2016, 67–91.

Fitzger­ald, F. Scott. This Side of Par­adise. Scrib­n­er, 1920.

Fos­ter, Travis M. “Cam­pus Nov­els and the Nation of Peers,” Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary His­to­ry, 26.3, Fall 2014, 462–483.

Gay, Rox­ane, ed. The Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries 2018. Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2018.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Fan­shawe. Wild­side Press, 2003.

Hop­kins, Pauline. Of One Blood; Or, the Hid­den Self. Wash­ing­ton Square Press, 2004.

John­son, Owen. Stover at Yale. Fred­er­ick A. Stokes, 1912.

Larsen, Nel­la. Quick­sand. Mar­ti­no Pub­lish­ing, 2011.

Mar­chalo­nis, Shirley. Col­lege Girls: A Cen­tu­ry in Fic­tion. Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995.

Phelps, Eliz­a­beth Stu­art. Don­ald Mar­cy. Houghton, Mif­flin and Com­pa­ny, 1983, 64.

Schoen­bach, Lisi. “Enough with the Cri­sis Talk!: To Sal­vage the Uni­ver­si­ty, Explain Why It’s Worth Sav­ing,” The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, 16 May 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Enough-With-the-Crisis-Talk-/243423

 

Mol­ly K. Robey is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Illi­nois Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty. She has pub­lished arti­cles in Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, Lega­cy, Stud­ies in Amer­i­can Fic­tion, and Tul­sa Stud­ies in Women’s Lit­er­a­ture. Most recent­ly, she has been research­ing the ori­gins of the Col­lege Girl in U.S. culture.

Toronto Life

Fiction / John Tavares

:: Toronto Life ::

Clay’s sec­ond cousin hiked the trail from the band office, where he had to deal with some kind of bureau­crat­ic red tape and bull over his white girl­friend liv­ing on the reserve with­out band per­mis­sion, even if she lived in town week­days, when she wasn’t fly­ing to reser­va­tions north of Sioux Look­out, where she worked as a social work­er with the First Nations social ser­vices agency. After he cursed Clay and blamed him for let­ting his leg hold traps sit to rust in the shed when he asked him to oil them, and showed him his bro­ken leg was heal­ing slow­ly from the snow­mo­bile acci­dent he had while ice fish­ing on Lac Seul, he said Clay inher­it­ed a con­do in Toron­to from his nephew. In dis­be­lief and dis­trac­tion, Clay returned to read­ing the Reader’s Digest large-print con­densed book, Gone with the Wind, beside the dim light from the lantern.

Then, at the reser­va­tion gas sta­tion and con­ve­nience store, Clay thought he was start­ing to go com­plete­ly deaf, but, over the din and noise of the announc­er shout­ing excit­ed­ly dur­ing the live tele­cast of the play­off hock­ey game from the tele­vi­sion on the refrig­er­a­tor beside the microwave oven, the lawyer con­firmed the bequest in a long-dis­tance tele­phone call. Clay still didn’t believe his nephew had left him a con­do­mini­um; the nature of the accom­mo­da­tion was ultra­mod­ern, exot­ic, to him; the loca­tion was for­eign, far­away. Lat­er, the chief explained to him at the reser­va­tion band office a con­do or con­do­mini­um was a fan­cy city name for an apart­ment. His nephew, a lawyer, spe­cial­iz­ing in law for indige­nous peo­ple, was killed in a fiery car crash on High­way 401 after he drove from the Six Nations reserve to help nego­ti­ate set­tle­ments for res­i­den­tial school and Six­ties Scoop claims.

His nephew’s lawyer part­ner said Nodin had no oth­er liv­ing rel­a­tives he held in high esteem, aside from his uncle Clay, who he remem­bered fond­ly. Nodin remem­bered the times Clay insist­ed on tak­ing him on his snow­mo­bile, all-ter­rain vehi­cle, and dog sled along the trails through the bush around Lac Seul and patient­ly taught him hunt­ing, fish­ing, and trap­ping skills on the bush and lake around Tobac­co Lodge reserve and the sur­round­ing water­ways, which, after the con­struc­tion of the hydro­elec­tric dam at Ears Falls, one could argue, turned into a reser­voir. His nephew espe­cial­ly loved the skills he learned snow­shoe­ing through the bush, along the lakeshore, and across the lakes, and fur trap­ping, ice fish­ing for wall­eye and lake trout, com­mer­cial fish­ing white­fish, set­ting snares and leg hold traps on the trap line in the snowy bush for snow­shoe hare, fox, lynx muskrat, beaver, mink, marten, fish­er, and wolves.

Nodin also respect­ed the fact Clay nev­er smoked or drank, or took advan­tage of women, or friends, or, for that mat­ter, judged him. The lawyer called him sev­er­al more times long dis­tance. Again, he had to snow­mo­bile or snow­shoe to the reser­va­tion con­ve­nience store to use the pay­phone or hike to the reser­va­tion band office to bor­row their land­line to lis­ten to the lawyer explain he should sim­ply sell the con­do­mini­um. The apart­ment was prob­a­bly worth a mil­lion dol­lars. The lawyer, his nephew’s part­ner, reas­sured him he would help him invest the funds, pur­chase an annu­ity, set up an invest­ment port­fo­lio of income earn­ing stocks and bonds, or set up a trust fund, which would pro­vide him with a pen­sion or month­ly income.

The chief agreed with the Toron­to lawyer he should sell the con­do. The chief claimed he had got­ten too used to, too accli­ma­tized, to life on the reser­va­tion, and the cul­ture shock of Toron­to might kill him. She said he’d hate life in the city, espe­cial­ly a big city like Toron­to, since he bet­ter appre­ci­at­ed the tra­di­tion­al way of life on the reserve and the sur­round­ing nature.

Clay nev­er liked the chief much and was mys­ti­fied by her claim to speak for him. Who said he hat­ed life in the city? he demand­ed. He nev­er said he didn’t like life in the city, or pre­ferred liv­ing in Sioux Look­out or Tobac­co Lodge to the city of Toron­to. He was sev­en­ty years old, and, in his mind, he felt fit and well, but he was afflict­ed with old age con­di­tions like arthri­tis. He was suf­fer­ing from gout and anky­los­ing spondyli­tis, and, short of breath, he wor­ried about the effects of heart dis­ease. He didn’t feel like he was in any phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion to hunt and fish, and he was actu­al­ly tired of liv­ing on the reserve. At his age, sev­en­ty, he felt like he could no longer tol­er­ate the cold to snow­shoe the trap line, or even fish or guide tourists for wall­eye, musky, or north­ern pike on Lac Seul, or hunt for moose, white­tail deer, or ruffed grouse. The chief was incred­u­lous and so was his nephew’s lawyer, both of whom con­tin­ued to try to per­suade him to sell the con­do. Exas­per­at­ed and frus­trat­ed, they raised their voic­es and ges­tic­u­lat­ed as they tried to per­suade him to sell the con­do­mini­um, but he couldn’t pos­si­bly think of what he could do with a mil­lion dollars.

It’s a mil­lion dol­lars before tax­es, but after tax­es and fees,” the lawyer said, start­ing to sound offi­cious, like an accoun­tant, “the bequest will be far less.”

Even after tax­es, the chief said, how could he pos­si­bly spend a mil­lion dol­lars when he lived on a reser­va­tion like Tobac­co Lodge, if he didn’t smoke, or drink, or chase women. If he lived in the city of Toron­to, though, Clay argued, he would be close to med­ical spe­cial­ists like rheuma­tol­o­gists and car­di­ol­o­gists who would be able to help him with the aches and inflam­ma­tion of his rheuma­toid arthri­tis and anky­los­ing spondyli­tis and the short­ness of breath and chest pains asso­ci­at­ed with angi­na pec­toris. He didn’t real­ly have any close friends or rel­a­tives on the reserve, or even in the town of Sioux Look­out, near­by, any­way. He always enjoyed his vis­its to the city of Toron­to and stay­ing with his nephew. He liked vis­it­ing the gay bars and strip clubs, and he espe­cial­ly loved the cof­fee in the exot­ic vari­ety of cafes, full-bod­ied, strong flavoured, not water-downed or dilut­ed like in the local café, in Sioux Look­out. At the Round­house Café in Sioux Look­out, if you lin­gered a lit­tle too long, or said the wrong thing, or talked a lit­tle too loud, or didn’t smell like eau de cologne, the own­er, who hov­ered above cus­tomers like a stage mom, might kick you out and ban you.

Once again, the lawyer and the chief tried to per­suade him not to live in the con­do in Toron­to, warn­ing him about the high cost of liv­ing in Toron­to and the high cost of prop­er­ty tax­es. When he com­pared the prop­er­ty tax­es for the house he owned in Sioux Look­out with those in the city of Toron­to, though, he noticed the prop­er­ty tax­es weren’t that much high­er, even though the Sioux Look­out house was worth much less. You could buy sev­er­al hous­es in Toron­to for the price of that con­do­mini­um, and then you would have a real prop­er­ty tax prob­lem on your hands. So, he reas­sured them he had squir­reled away suf­fi­cient sav­ings, from the mon­ey he earned on the trapline, from his full-time job on the green chain and the plan­er and as a fil­er for the huge saw blades in the North­west­ern Ontario For­est Prod­ucts sawmill in Hud­son, and from the sum­mers he worked as a fish­ing guide on Lac Seul and the autumns he moon­light­ed as a hunt­ing guide for Amer­i­cans anx­ious to shoot a moose or black bear.

Like­wise, he could sell the small house he owned in Sioux Look­out, where he lived for a decade while he worked as a night watch­man at the Depart­ment of Indi­an Affairs Zone hos­pi­tal for indige­nous patients from the north­ern reserves. Besides, he didn’t even own the cab­in he lived in on the reserve in Tobac­co Lodge. He didn’t even feel like shov­el­ing the snow on the walkway—he didn’t want vis­i­tors and, if any­one was intent on vis­it­ing him, they could trudge through the snow—or fix­ing up and doing main­te­nance work on the cabin.

Begin­ning to think a con­do might suit him after all, the lawyer reas­sured him fees would cov­er main­te­nance and upkeep for the con­do­mini­um. The lawyer explained he was a close friend of his nephew and would do what he could to help him when he flew to Toronto.

Fly to Toron­to? I’m not fly­ing to Toron­to. I don’t need to be has­sled by met­al detec­tors and secu­ri­ty guards.”

Clay pre­ferred to take the pas­sen­ger train, which was slow by mod­ern stan­dards, tak­ing over a day in trav­el across the Cana­di­an Shield of North­ern Ontario before the train even start­ed trav­el­ling south to Toron­to. The Via Rail pas­sen­ger train was often late, falling behind the right of way of freight trains, but the trav­el was has­sle free and the dome car and large win­dow seats allowed him to sight see the Cana­di­an Shield land­scape, the lakes, the forests, the rivers, creeks, muskeg, swamps, rock out­crops, and small towns and camps and out­posts along the north­ern route.

Before he left, the chief called him to the band office and his office for one last meet­ing. He said he just want­ed to make cer­tain that there was no hard feel­ings. He tried to reas­sure him he wasn’t try­ing to tell him or order him what to do, espe­cial­ly with his own per­son­al life, but he was only think­ing about his best inter­ests and what he thought might make him hap­pi­est. He still didn’t think he would be hap­py over the long term liv­ing in Toron­to, espe­cial­ly com­pared to life on the reserve of Tobac­co Lodge. That judge­ment, she said, was based on her own per­son­al expe­ri­ence with fel­low band mem­bers, par­tic­u­lar­ly younger peo­ple, who moved to the city and became addict­ed to opi­oids, intra­venous drugs, and pills, or resort­ed to the sex trade or found them­selves vic­tims of human traf­fick­ing or trapped in a crim­i­nal lifestyle, drug traf­fick­ing, smug­gling, rob­bery, because of pover­ty or addic­tion, or got caught up in the wrong crowd in urban cen­tres like Win­nipeg, Thun­der Bay, or Toron­to. Still, she under­stood he had a life and mind of his own, and he was free to learn through expe­ri­ence how hard life could be in the city, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Toron­to, and he would always be a mem­ber of the band. He didn’t tell her he wouldn’t allow her to decide what was good for him, but he thanked her, even though he thought she was overe­d­u­cat­ed and a bit too con­de­scend­ing and overbearing.

When he arrived in Toron­to, the lawyer friend of his nephew met him at Union Sta­tion, hired a lim­ou­sine to dri­ve him the short dis­tance down­town home, and helped him set up house in Aura, the con­do high-rise at Ger­ard and Yonge Street. He told him the Aura Build­ing, where his nephew owned a con­do­mini­um, which he now owned, was stacked sev­en­ty-nine sto­ries high, with more floors than any build­ing in Cana­da, and was taller than any res­i­den­tial build­ing in Canada.

Then the lawyer friend of his nephew said he was gay. The rea­son Nodin’s father or none of his broth­ers or sis­ters inher­it­ed the con­do­mini­um: Nodin was gay. No one in Nodin’s fam­i­ly accept­ed his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or lifestyle. Born-again Chris­tians, Nodin’s fam­i­ly had dif­fi­cul­ty accept­ing their sibling’s and son’s homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and dis­owned him.

His nephew said Clay nev­er had an issue with his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion. Live and let live, Clay said, and he didn’t know what to add because he still thought the fact his nephew was gay wasn’t his busi­ness, and he couldn’t pass judge­ment. He was fam­i­ly and anoth­er per­son, no more, no less, except he was smart and tal­ent­ed and had spe­cial skills as a lawyer, all of which he admired. Then Josh told him that Nodin actu­al­ly died from AIDS.

AIDS? I thought you told me twice over the tele­phone he died from a car crash on the freeway.”

After he was diag­nosed with an HIV infec­tion, Nodin start­ed drink­ing, and he stopped tak­ing his med­ica­tions, which were also mak­ing him sick. Even­tu­al­ly, he con­tract­ed pneu­mo­nia caused by the HIV virus, and he died a painful death. But I couldn’t say he died from pneu­mo­nia relat­ed to AIDS to the peo­ple on the reser­va­tion. Then the gos­sip and rumour mill would go crazy, and his broth­er might dri­ve all the way down to Toron­to to shoot me.”

I don’t think they care.”

Pos­si­bly because they already know.”

They know he’s gay, but Nodin doesn’t exist for them any­more. Nodin was already dead to his clos­est fam­i­ly before he actu­al­ly died. He’s been dead to them since they dis­cov­ered he was gay, when he was caught by an OPP offi­cer with a teacher from Queen Eliz­a­beth High School, in a car parked overnight in Ojib­way Park. The teacher was fired, but Nodin was expelled from high school and went to Pel­i­can Falls Res­i­den­tial School when it reopened.”

But, Clay said, he knew he couldn’t men­tion Nodin’s name around his fam­i­ly because imme­di­ate­ly his moth­er flew into a fury or his father threat­ened to dri­ve a thou­sand miles to Toron­to to shoot him. Or his broth­ers joked about tak­ing him to down­town Sioux Look­out to the Fifth Avenue Club or Fathead’s sports bar and tying him to a tree or util­i­ty pole and allow­ing a loose woman from the rez or trail­er park or liv­ing on the streets have her way with him. They even joked about dri­ving to Dry­den and the strip club and lock­ing him up in a motel room with a strip­per who would give him more than a lap dance.

You should have an easy time liv­ing in Toron­to,” the friend said.

Clay said he hoped he would. The first sev­er­al months he bus­ied him­self with adapt­ing to the city envi­ron­ment and set­ting up house. He kept the tele­vi­sion and the com­put­er his nephew had in the con­do, but he bare­ly used them, except to watch a few movies and videos online and fish­ing and hunt­ing shows on the out­door tele­vi­sion chan­nels. In fact, he found the liv­ing quar­ters so emp­ty and bereft he spent as much time as he pos­si­bly could away from the high-rise apart­ment, with its spec­tac­u­lar view of the city, espe­cial­ly at night, and its ameni­ties and lux­u­ries, includ­ing the weight room, the swim­ming pool, and the gym­na­si­um. He bus­ied him­self with med­ical appoint­ments with the car­di­ol­o­gists and rheuma­tol­o­gists, and diag­nos­tic tests at the hos­pi­tal, but once he was placed on suit­able med­ica­tion at the prop­er dos­es, he was sta­ble and required lit­tle med­ical atten­tion. As he set­tled into city life, he bus­ied him­self with vis­it­ing the library to read the news­pa­pers from around the world or large-print best­seller books. Then, in the evenings, he vis­it­ed the restau­rants and cof­fee shops and the odd time  adult video shops and strip clubs sprawled across the city, but what he found pecu­liar and more inter­est­ing were the bus­es, sub­ways, and street­car rides across the city to vis­it dif­fer­ent estab­lish­ments, includ­ing a few art gal­leries and muse­ums. He felt, in fact, he had become what sub­way rid­ers called a straphang­er.

He enjoyed tak­ing the bus­es, sub­way rides, on expe­di­tions across the city. He enjoyed peo­ple watch­ing, amazed at the wide vari­ety of peo­ple who com­mut­ed and trav­elled across the vast city of Toron­to. What amazed him even more, though, was the way the tran­sit com­mis­sion police fol­lowed him across the city.

The tran­sit enforce­ment offi­cers seemed for­ev­er inter­est­ed in where Clay was trav­el­ling, what he was read­ing, usu­al­ly the Toron­to Sun, the Toron­to Star, or the Toron­to edi­tion of the Globe and Mail news­pa­per, left over by anoth­er com­muter, and they were usu­al­ly inter­est­ed in what or who he was look­ing at. When they stopped him and asked him where he was going, he was a bit embar­rassed to say he want­ed to go to a flea mar­ket sale and see if he could find video­tapes and DVDs of Mar­lon Bran­don movies on sale cheap at his favorite video store before it went out of busi­ness. He decid­ed to tell them he was vis­it­ing The House of Lan­cast­er on the Queensway and observed with bemuse­ment how they reacted.

The offi­cers tried to per­suade him not to take the bus from the Keele sub­way sta­tion plat­form to the Queensway. They told him he was too old for a tit­ty bar. Anoth­er time they called him a dirty old man and tried to order him to go home. Once they fol­lowed him because they thought he was a fare jumper and didn’t believe that he could afford a tran­sit pass. They even dou­ble and triple checked his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and month­ly tran­sit pass because they said he looked too young to be a senior and wor­ried he might be an ille­gal immi­grant. Anoth­er pair of tran­sit enforce­ment offi­cers told him they thought he was suf­fer­ing from demen­tia and prone to wan­der­ing aim­less­ly and dan­ger­ous­ly. The tran­sit offi­cer, whose tur­ban he admired, said, if Clay was from an Indi­an reser­va­tion, maybe he should return to the north and live there again.

An offi­cer said there had been com­plaints about him, and that he might be hap­pi­er on the reserve. “Tra­di­tion­al and ances­tral lands is where it’s at, eh?”

He asked him to tell him about the com­plaints, but the offi­cer shrugged, shook his head, rolled his eyes, and crossed his beefy arms. “You don’t under­stand women in the city,” he said. “Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?”

Lat­er, Clay even decid­ed to buy a smart­phone, from the elec­tron­ic retail­er in the Eaton’s Cen­tre, and, even though he didn’t learn how to com­plete­ly use the phone, he liked to read books, news­pa­pers, and mag­a­zines on the screen because he could enlarge the text to a size large enough to suit his blurred and fail­ing vision. Once, when he put down his smart­phone and for­got to pick up the device when he rose for his stop at Col­lege Sta­tion, a tran­sit super­vi­sor seized the cell­phone, and, when he tried to take it back from him, he said it was lost or stolen. He said he was turn­ing the smart­phone to the fare col­lec­tor, who would turn it in to the lost and found if no one claimed it by the end of his shift. Since Clay didn’t use the phone that often, any­way, and even then the calls to the reser­va­tion were cost­ly and depress­ing, he decid­ed why both­er com­plain­ing and attempt to have the smart­phone returned when his nephew had left him e‑book read­ers, full of books, which only need­ed to be recharged every sec­ond or third week, instead of every­day like the smartphone.

Then, one evening, when he returned from a vis­it to a Star­bucks in the sub­urbs, and he entered through the auto­mat­ic gate, the burly pair of secu­ri­ty guards insist­ed on see­ing his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and his tran­sit pass, insis­tent that he was fare jump­ing. When he showed them his tran­sit pass, they insist­ed it was stolen. When they asked to see his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, to con­firm the name on his tran­sit pass matched my ID, he real­ized he for­got his wal­let with his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the strip club. No wor­ries, though, the door­man and secu­ri­ty guards in the men’s club knew him and would hold his wal­let for him until his next vis­it. The big burly bald secu­ri­ty guard insist­ed on see­ing his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, imme­di­ate­ly, and put him in a head­lock, which turned into a choke­hold grip, when he tried to pull and twist away. He decid­ed to test the strength of his new den­tures on the man’s hands, bit­ing the flab­by fold of flesh between his thumb and fin­gers. He didn’t see what choice he had since the man was chok­ing him, suf­fo­cat­ing him. He knew the man was a secu­ri­ty guard and not a police offi­cer, so he didn’t see how the man was jus­ti­fied in using such force, but, after he bit him, the point was moot since the sec­ond secu­ri­ty guard, ini­tial­ly anx­ious his bud­dy was using exces­sive force, pound­ed his head with a baton.

So it came to pass Clay was hos­pi­tal­ized with a head injury in the inten­sive care unit of Toron­to Hos­pi­tal, and then he, in a coma, was trans­ferred to the neu­rol­o­gy and the neu­ro­surgery ward. The neu­ro­sur­geon oper­at­ed, drilling holes in his skull and remov­ing a sawn seg­ment of the cra­ni­um to relieve the intracra­nial pres­sure and stem the bleed­ing in his brain. After mul­ti­ple surg­eries, the doc­tors didn’t expect him to recov­er: he was tak­en off the res­pi­ra­tors and feed­ing tubes.

He was returned to Sioux Look­out in a hard­wood cas­ket in the car­go hold and lug­gage com­part­ment of the pas­sen­ger train, which, delayed and forced into rail rid­ings by an ear­ly win­ter bliz­zard, arrived six­teen hours late. Their breath turn­ing to clouds of smoke, the con­duc­tor and engi­neer cursed in the cold as they unloaded him from the bag­gage and lug­gage car, behind the loco­mo­tive, at the site of the aban­doned train sta­tion in Hud­son. Clay lay in the cof­fin along­side a piece of lost and mis­placed lug­gage on the bro­ken cement plat­form near the rail­road cross­ing in Hud­son, at the inter­sec­tion with the road to the sawmill, until the chief sent his cousins to pick him up in the blow­ing snow and freez­ing cold. The chief reas­sured his cousins they needn’t wor­ry, his estate and the sale of the con­do would pro­vide more than enough mon­ey to com­pen­sate them and to pro­vide funds to bury him in the reserve ceme­tery in Tobac­co Lodge, if no one want­ed him buried in the Ever­green Ceme­tery in Hud­son, or the ceme­tery in Sioux Lookout.

An emp­ty brown beer bot­tle and a few stubbed cig­a­rette butts on the fresh­ly packed soil marked the plot on the snowy land­scape in the chilly ceme­tery where he was buried. With a few days, the late leaf­less autumn turned harsh, win­ter grew dark and frigid and froze the lakes and the Cana­di­an Shield rocks, and the earth turned hard and the snow heaped high.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Toron­to Life” is, in a sense, a nar­ra­tive real­iza­tion and actu­al­iza­tion of my own skewed obser­va­tions of indi­vid­u­als’ per­son­al expe­ri­ences of life in pub­lic spaces in the city of Toron­to, includ­ing my own as a mature stu­dent. Toron­to is a won­der­ful, vibrant, cos­mopoli­tan city, but at the same time there is a cer­tain pres­sure to con­form to what I’ll call Metro norms, ideals, and stan­dards. If a per­son, par­tic­u­lar­ly an out­sider, finds they don’t adhere to these social codes and con­ven­tions, they may be pro­filed and tar­get­ed, or become ostra­cized and out­cast, not nec­es­sar­i­ly overt­ly or bla­tant­ly, since often­times the bias is sub­tle. (A few media pun­dits, includ­ing beloved Cana­di­an broad­cast­er Peter Gzows­ki, have not­ed that racism tends to be polite in Cana­da.) Out­liers in a sense, or those con­sid­ered The Oth­er, these same per­sons may also find them­selves intim­i­dat­ed and bul­lied by author­i­ties, the gate­keep­ers of the city. Of course, some more inde­pen­dent mind­ed, self-reliant, and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic per­sons who reject these con­ven­tion­al ideals or sub­scribe to dif­fer­ent beliefs may be con­tent or hap­py to occu­py posi­tions at the fringe. How­ev­er, what I find fas­ci­nat­ing about life in a big city like Toron­to is that some­times those who have led the most suc­cess­ful and at the same time the most trans­gres­sive of careers and exis­tences, harm­ing peo­ple in the process, are those who tend to blend in best with the crowd, say, behav­ing in pre­cise­ly the most social­ly accept­able man­ner, wear­ing what is fash­ion­able at the time, out­ward­ly adher­ing to social con­ven­tion. Three for­mer Toron­to­ni­ans come to mind in this con­text: David Rus­sell Williams, Paul Bernar­do, Bruce McArthur. In any event, “Toron­to Life” is an attempt at con­trast and juxtaposition—dramatizing a cul­tur­al gap and divide between north and south, sky­scrap­ers and forests, rur­al and urban, indige­nous and expa­tri­ate or non-native, and how these con­trasts may clash with less than ide­al out­comes. A city like Toron­to may be most fas­ci­nat­ing and appre­ci­at­ed by an indi­vid­ual who arrives from a place which is in many aspects, its exact oppo­site. The title, and indeed the sto­ry, is also a bit of an iron­ic play on the title of the lead­ing mag­a­zine in Toron­to, whose read­ers might be for­giv­en for think­ing all Toron­to­ni­ans are extreme­ly wealthy, well-dressed, well-edu­cat­ed, and mem­bers of high soci­ety, a very dif­fer­ent vision of every­day life than that pro­vid­ed dur­ing, say, a walk through a town or a reser­va­tion in the mid­dle of win­ter in North­west­ern Ontario.

 

John Tavares was born and raised in Sioux Look­out, in north­west­ern Ontario, but his par­ents immi­grat­ed from Sao Miguel, Azores. He grad­u­at­ed from Hum­ber Col­lege (Gen­er­al Arts and Sci­ence), Cen­ten­ni­al Col­lege (jour­nal­ism), and York Uni­ver­si­ty (Spe­cial­ized Hon­ors BA). His jour­nal­ism was print­ed in var­i­ous local news out­lets in Toron­to, main­ly trade and com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­pers. His short fic­tion has been pub­lished in a wide vari­ety of mag­a­zines and lit­er­ary jour­nals, online and in print, in Cana­da and the Unit­ed States.

The Last Rhubarb

Fiction / Christine Seifert

:: The Last Rhubarb ::

Heather arrives just before sev­en. She peeks into the tent where I am adjust­ing the anten­na on the old TV from Gary’s room. If he were home, instead of at his new dish­wash­ing job, he’d nev­er let me bor­row it.

Neat,” Heather says. She uses the toe of her right foot, clad in a dirty white sneak­er, a Keds knock-off that her moth­er bought her at the begin­ning of sum­mer, to poke at the boxy TV. “Where’s it plugged in?”

Garage,” I say. “It took two exten­sion cords.”

Where’s Gary?” Heather asks. She uses both hands to fluff out her hair. “Should we invite him out here?”

Gross,” I say. The flick­er of dis­ap­point­ment on Heather’s face comes and goes so fast that I almost miss it. But I don’t. I try to imag­ine Gary as a per­son oth­er than my broth­er. Would I too have a crush on him?

We eat Cool Ranch Dori­tos while we watch Bev­er­ly Hills, 90210. “I’m such a Kel­ly,” I say dur­ing a commercial.

You total­ly are,” Heather says. “I’m more of a Brenda.”

Nei­ther of us are either of them. We are us. Knob­by-kneed with mild acne. Dry hair with chlo­rine dam­age. Long feet, pointy shoul­der blades, con­cave stom­achs, tan lines. We are girls of sum­mer. We are too young for jobs, but we are old enough to sleep in a tent in my back­yard. To watch TV out­doors with a bag of Dori­tos and two cold Cokes.

After the show, we bring the cord­less phone out to the tent, and it’s just close enough to the house to work. We call Todd first. Heather dials *67 to block caller ID. “Who do you like-like?” Heather asks in a low voice. She has a fad­ed yel­low pil­low­case placed over the phone receiv­er, a sure method, she claims, to dis­guise her voice. “This is a friend,” she insists to Todd. “I just want to know who you like.”

Damn,” she says to me. “He hung up.”

Call again,” I urge her.

She shakes her head. “Let’s call Brad Stock­ton and ask him if he real­ly did it with Tracey Lau­ren.” I flip open the worn phone book. “He’s unlist­ed,” I tell her and throw the slim book on Heather’s lap.

Hot damn,” Heather says.

She’s tak­en to say­ing that this sum­mer. Hot damn. It works for everything.

We open the phone book and dial what­ev­er num­ber we see first. We leave Dori­to stains on the flim­sy pages. We ask strangers if a Mr. Dong is avail­able. Every­one hangs up on us except an old woman who tells us to quit play­ing with the phone or she’ll call the police and have us tak­en to the jail in a pad­dy wag­on. I laugh so hard I almost pee my pants. Instead, Heather and I go behind the garage and pee on the rhubarb. “This stuff is poi­son,” I tell Heather about the plants. “If you eat the leaves, you’ll die.”

Why would you eat the leaves?” she asks.

If I were going to kill some­one,” I tell her, “I’d sit on them and force rhubarb leaves down their throat.”

Not me. I’d get the per­son to walk across the street with me and go on the path by the riv­er. Then I’d tell them there was some­thing on the riv­er bank, some­thing they had to see. Then I’d push them in.”

What if they could swim?” I asked. “Every­one over the age of five can swim. They would just climb out.”

They couldn’t swim if they were, like, high on rhubarb leaves.” It was a good point. “Also,” Heather adds, “I can’t swim.”

Well, I hope nobody push­es you in the river.”

Why would any­body push me in the riv­er?” she asks and strikes a pose. “I’m too cute to die young.”

In the tent, we call strangers. Most­ly they hang up. One guy talks a lot. Heather keeps ask­ing him ques­tions. They talk about cas­settes and how lame New Kids on the Block are and how peo­ple in high school are so bogus. Heather whis­pers to him with her back to me, and I can’t hear what she’s say­ing for a long time. I strain and make out words: Come. Over. Soon. I grab the phone from her and hang up. “He can’t come over. My par­ents will freak. And you don’t know if this guy is old.”

He sounds young,” she says.

He sounds thirty.”

Heather grabs for the phone, but I quick­ly dial my own num­ber so she can’t hit re-dial. I hang up when I hear the busy signal.

Fine,” she shrugs. “Let’s do some­thing else.” And so we go inside and get my year­book and draw mus­tach­es on all the girls we don’t like and poke pin-holes in the eyes of the boys we like but don’t want to like .

At eleven my dad comes out­side and tells us to be qui­et for god’s sake. And my mom comes out behind him and tells us to come inside if it rains or if we get scared. She says they will lock the door, but use the key if we need to get inside. The key is on a green stretchy bracelet around my wrist.

My par­ents nev­er lock their doors,” Heather tells my mom.

Well, we do.”

My mom is para­noid,” I tell Heather after my par­ents go back inside the house. “She always thinks some­one is going to mur­der us in our sleep.”

Is it bet­ter to be mur­dered while you are awake?”

It’s a good ques­tion. I make a point to ask my moth­er, in the same tone Heather used, next time she yells at one of us for for­get­ting to close our win­dows at night.

Heather does my hair in a French braid. I plug in rollers using the exten­sion cord from the TV. “You could be in a pageant,” I tell Heather when I’m done. She is pret­ti­er than I am, but she has only recent­ly fig­ured it out. She doesn’t hold it against me, nor I her. It’s just a fact.

At quar­ter to one, Heather sug­gests we get dressed and walk to Vil­lage Inn to say hi to Gary. “We can get pie.”

Then we get into an argu­ment because I don’t want to go. I don’t want to walk the five blocks. I don’t want to get in trou­ble if I get caught. I don’t want to see Gary. I don’t want to be mur­dered. Most­ly, I don’t want my best friend in the whole world to have a crush on my brother.

I am too young to explain what it is I feel for Heather. It’s not roman­tic, but it’s a cousin to romance. It’s a feel­ing endem­ic to being thir­teen and being a girl and hav­ing a best friend. I don’t want to kiss her or touch her, but what I do want is to feel so close to her that I will nev­er feel alone again. What hap­pens to me will hap­pen to her. We’ll be con­nect­ed to each oth­er always, like twins in a womb. We will be so sim­i­lar that when we die, they will have to iden­ti­fy us by our moles, our scars.

Heather gets mad and refus­es to talk to me. But she won’t go with­out me. I know that. I lis­ten to a George Michael cas­sette on my Walk­man and cry soft­ly. Final­ly, Heather soft­ens. She scoots her sleep­ing bag clos­er and snug­gles next to me. “Did you know that rhubarb is anoth­er word for a fight?” Heather whis­pers to me.

I don’t answer.

We had a rhubarb, you and me,” she says.

I feign sleep.

I’m sor­ry,” she whispers.

I don’t for­give her, but then I do. We sleep butt-to-butt, and I pre­tend it will always be like this.

It’s light out­side when I wake up again. My dad is out­side the tent. “Steffy, open up,” my dad is say­ing. I rub my eyes and unzip the flap. “Heather’s dad is here to pick her up.” My dad’s face is red and puffy. He’s wear­ing an under­shirt and grey sweat­pants. My mom will not come out­side with­out her make­up, with­out hav­ing first rolled her hair around hot rollers. “Didn’t you hear us calling?”

I roll over and throw an arm on the sleep­ing bag next to me. It’s emp­ty. “Where is Heather?” I ask.

~

I spend hours in the police sta­tion. They let me rest. They give me hot choco­late even though it is blaz­ing hot out­side. They buy Fun­yuns from the vend­ing machine for my snack. They let my mom in the inter­view room with me. Then they send her out, and she protests, but she gives up because the detec­tives are very reas­sur­ing. I am not being blamed, they say. I am not being accused of any­thing, they say. They just have questions.

They ask me if Heather had a boyfriend. I tell them no, but I know she kissed Matt Vanyo at the top of the cov­ered slide at Lyn­don Street Ele­men­tary just last week. He put his tongue in her mouth and she described it as a big fat hairy caterpillar.

They ask me what hap­pened to Heather that night. And I start to cry. They pat me on the back and call me sweet­heart. “I can’t remem­ber,” I say. And I can’t. It all runs togeth­er, a mas­sive blob of col­ors, words, and move­ments that can­not be sep­a­rat­ed into dis­crete pieces. The blob is unblob­bable.

They final­ly send me home to sleep, and I come back ear­ly the next morn­ing. I still haven’t show­ered since before that night. My hair is mat­ted and my eyes feel crusty. The detec­tives tell me to relax and to think care­ful­ly. Did I miss any­thing? Did I for­get anything?

I start from the begin­ning of the night when I brought the TV out­side. I tell them what hap­pened on Bev­er­ly Hills, 90210, about Bran­don at the beach club and Kel­ly and Dylan get­ting togeth­er behind Brenda’s back while she is in Paris with Don­na. I tell them about the prank phone calls and about the chips, the French braids, the rhubarb we had over Gary. My par­ents sit on either side of me. My mom cries and snif­fles loudly.

Were you very angry?” one of the detec­tives asks me. He is tall and thin with bushy dark hair and a skin­ny mustache.

I was very sad,” I tell him.

The detec­tive with the mus­tache pats my fore­arm. “Don’t wor­ry. You’ll remem­ber more lat­er. I promise. It’ll come back to you. It always does.”

When I sleep, I dream about the rhubarb patch.

~

School starts in Sep­tem­ber. I am not allowed to walk by myself, so my dad drops me off at the door, even though the school is only three blocks from home. “Gary will pick you up,” he tells me. “Don’t walk home.”

There’s a kid­nap­per on the loose, but the posters with Heather’s face are already start­ing to fade and fray. I think they should be refreshed, reprint­ed on clean white paper. I am some­what famous because I was the last one to see her. Reporters call our house. My pic­ture is shown on the news and my mom is hor­ri­fied. “What if he comes back for Steffy?” she hiss­es at my dad when she thinks I’m out of earshot.

I think that being Heather’s best friend will make the first day of eighth grade eas­i­er. It does not. Nobody talks to me. Nobody even comes near me. It’s as if I’m taint­ed. I car­ry all their fear and mine inside my Esprit shoul­der bag, my GUESS jeans, my Ben­neton crew-neck t‑shirt. It’s also inside me, min­gling with my guts and my bones. Nobody wants to breathe it in when I exhale.

I am falling asleep in Geog­ra­phy, halfway between con­scious and not, and it hap­pens: I am no longer in a stale class­room sur­round­ed by peo­ple who do not know me. I am back in the tent. It’s that night. I am there. Heather is there. A rush of love, warm and pleas­ant, sweeps over me. It’s like a breeze on the first sun­ny day of the year, when you hold your face up to sun and exhale. You won’t remem­ber win­ter for much longer.

When I open my eyes, I am on the dusty floor. Mr. Grif­fin is stand­ing over me. “Mar­tin,” he calls, “you get the nurse. Shel­by, you go get Mrs. Adamson.”

Ew,” some­one whis­pers, “I think she peed her pants.”

~

I stay home from school for weeks. I do none of the work Mrs. Adam­son arranges to have sent to me each week. Some­times Gary brings it to me. Some­times Mrs. Adam­son her­self comes to the door, and when she does, I pre­tend to be sleep­ing. Dur­ing the day, I watch TV for hours. I’m watch­ing a re-run of Alice when it hap­pens again. One minute Mel is ver­bal­ly abus­ing Vera, who is so will­ful­ly stu­pid that it’s hard to side with her, then the next minute I’m back in the tent. My mos­qui­to bites itch. Sweat drips from my hair­line. Dori­to dust coats my fin­ger­tips. I can smell Cool Ranch.

Are you here?” I ask Heather.

Of course. Where else would I be?”

Are you going to see Gary?”

Gary?” Heather scoffs. “Why would I want to see Gary?” She pulls out a deck of cards. “I have tarot cards,” she says.

Will we stay here all night?” I ask her. “Can we stay in this tent?”

Of course,” she says. “Don’t be a ding-bat.”

~

I go back to school after Christ­mas break, and I join the jazz band. I am third-chair flute, along with eleven oth­er third-string flutists who do not know how to play well. We blow hard and chirp like a flock of chaot­ic birds. Mr. Dou­glas is patient and tells us to reg­u­late our air.

In the coa­t­room after class, I am putting my flute case back in my cub­by hole, safe for tomor­row, when it hap­pens. Nobody is near me, so I let myself sink down on the floor on a pile of soft downy coats.

In the tent, I am awake and Heather is asleep. I watch her. She breathes in and out in syn­co­pat­ed jazz rhythms. She purs­es her lips on the exhale. I find myself mir­ror­ing her move­ments. She opens her eyes. “Why are you being a total spaz?” she asks.

I need to know what’s going to hap­pen tonight,” I say.

Heather sits up and scratch­es her head. Her braid is half-undone and strands of hair stick up like a crown of thorns. “Did you hear that?” she asks.

I strain, but I hear noth­ing. “It’s a boy,” she says. “There’s a boy out there.” She points to the flap of the tent. We sit still for so long I wor­ry we will freeze like that and nev­er move again.

And then he is in the tent. “How did he get in—” I start, but Heather cuts me off. She gets on her knees. The tent is too short for her to stand. The boy is kneel­ing, too.

Have you come for us?” Heather asks.

If you would like to go with me,” the boy says. His cheeks are pink. His hair is thick and combed into a style from ages ago. Slicked back on the sides. Floofy in the front. Kind of like Brandon’s on 90210. He is our age, I think. Maybe old­er. Maybe much older.

Heather says, “He wants us to go with him.”

Where?” I ask. I am scram­bling for my shoes because I already assume she will assent, and I can’t let her out of my sight.

Just me,” she says. “You have to stay here.”

I won’t let you go alone.”

You don’t have a choice.”

~

They cor­rect me when I call it a hos­pi­tal, but that is what it is. I’m here for a rest, my mom tells me. I sleep and wake, wake and sleep, for what feels like for­ev­er but is real­ly only a week or two. Then I’m back at home. Our priest, Father Han­son, comes to vis­it me. He asks me to say a rosary with him, so I do, but I’d rather watch TV. Father Han­son tells me God has a plan. It will all work out accord­ing to the plan. “Why would God want Heather to be kid­napped?” I ask. Father Han­son doesn’t answer; instead, he tells me to pray. He gives me the words to say, and I know that there are oth­er words I can nev­er say. I remem­ber that I’ve only ever seen him with­out his col­lar once. He’s wear­ing it now. With­out it, he looks like some­one who looks like some­one I know.

I go back to school, but I’m too far behind in band to play. Instead, I sit out­side the door with my knees tucked up under my chin and lis­ten for the third chairs. The din ris­es above the real notes and it’s kind of beau­ti­ful, the way they are all doing some­thing dif­fer­ent together.

After school, I go to coun­sel­ing. Gary dri­ves me and waits out­side. He smokes in the car, and I wor­ry that the ther­a­pist will think it’s me. She nev­er asks about it. Maybe she assumes that any­one who comes to coun­sel­ing is also a smoker.

Her name is Judy and she wears large paint­ed neck­laces made out of wood and broom­stick skirts. Her hair is very short, and she runs her fin­gers through the front three times per every five min­utes. “You don’t have to talk about Heather,” she tells me on my third vis­it. “That seems hard for you. Let’s talk about your par­ents instead.”

I tell her my mom makes deli­cious pota­to sal­ad and likes to play ten­nis on week­ends. She falls asleep when she watch­es TV, and she stays up late to read news mag­a­zines and drink Mr. Pibb. I tell Judy my dad is loud and loves to argue. He puts togeth­er mod­el planes for fun. He is an engi­neer and reads books about bridges. He met my moth­er on a dou­ble-date, but she was not his date. The oth­er girl, my father’s date, was the maid of hon­or in their wed­ding. She died of can­cer when she was only twen­ty-six, and my mom lights a can­dle on the anniver­sary of her death every year. My par­ents believe in God and the Catholic Church. By exten­sion, so do I.

Judy nods and writes notes on a small notepad in green ink. “I see,” she says. She paus­es occa­sion­al­ly to look through half-track glass­es that she keeps on a red string around her neck. I wor­ry that her large wood­en ear­rings will tear through her lobes and leave a bloody mess like the bot­tom of a pack­age of raw hamburger.

Breathe in,” Judy tells me. I do.

Breathe out,” she orders. I do.

On the way home, in Gary’s car, the win­dow rolled down, I inhale his smoke until my lungs are full. Then I let it out the win­dow and pre­tend that I am smok­ing too. Gary plays a Metal­li­ca tape and my ears throb. It doesn’t take long for me to disappear.

In the tent, Heather is talk­ing to the boy. The man. “I feel like I know you,” she says.

I have that effect on peo­ple,” he responds.

Who are you? Where did you come from?” I say.

The boy sits down and cross­es his legs like the stat­ue of Bud­dha I saw in my World His­to­ry text­book. He breathes slow­ly. Inhale. Exhale. “It doesn’t mat­ter who I am. I’m here for Heather.”

I don’t want her to go,” I say.

Steffy, don’t be a baby,” Heather says. “It’s not like I’m pick­ing him over you. This is, like, a sep­a­rate thing. Sep­a­rate from us, you know?”

I didn’t know. “Do you even know him?”

I don’t have to know him,” Heather says. “The point is that he’s come for me.”

The boy smiles. He reminds me of the glow­ing fig­ures in the stained-glass win­dows, the cherub faces that are not human but aren’t inhu­man either. “How old are you?” I ask.

The boy laughs. He has grooves in his fore­head, crin­kles at his eyes. He is not glow­ing so much as he is radi­at­ing some­thing, some­thing that feels hot and insis­tent and permanent.

~

After sup­per one night, when I’m already in my paja­mas with my teeth brushed and flossed, my mom and dad come to my room and sit on the edge of my bed. Gary hov­ers in the door­way. It is almost a year since Heather vanished.

I yell for my par­ents. “I know what hap­pened to Heather!” I shout. The sto­ry appeared to me. Not in a dream. Not like a film. But like a thing that I always knew, like the col­or of my mother’s eyes and the smell of my sheets.

What? What have you remem­bered?” my dad asks. He shush­es my mom who has gasped, who has begun to cry.

You’ve remem­bered?” my mom says. She grabs the cord­less phone from my bed­side table. “I’m call­ing the police.”

My dad takes off his glass­es and rubs his eyes. He motions for my mom to sit. She sets the phone back in its cra­dle. “Why don’t you tell us, sweet­heart, before we involve the police,” he says, and I already know he doesn’t believe.

I tell them every­thing, includ­ing the bits that don’t mat­ter. I piece it all togeth­er, patch­works of mem­o­ries that have come back when I let them. I tell them about all the times I’ve gone away and come back with a new old memory.

Who is this boy?” my mom inter­rupts. “We have to find him. We have to call the police.”

Sharon,” my dad says, “let her fin­ish.” He pats my leg, “Go ahead, Steffy. Fin­ish the sto­ry. We’re listening.”

He came to us. He was inside the tent with us. He was sent for Heather. He said just her. Not me. She was the one who was meant to go.”

My mom is cry­ing so hard that Gary must step into the room and prop her up. She is a scare­crow. He is a post.

Then they exit­ed the tent together?”

No, they didn’t exit. They disappeared.”

What does that even mean?” my dad asks.

Now I am annoyed because I know this sto­ry and now they are ruin­ing it with their ques­tions. “It means, one sec­ond they are there, the next they are not. I am alone in the tent.”

Poof,” my dad says.

Exact­ly. Poof. Gone. Now you are get­ting it.”

That’s not possible.”

I shrug. “The boy, the man, said it is all pos­si­ble. Every­thing is.”

But I don’t under­stand,” my moth­er says. “Why didn’t you come get us? Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you tell the police? And who is this man? What did he look like?”

What does God look like?” I ask her. “You can’t say. It’s the same thing. I can’t say.”

My moth­er falls to her knees and wails. My dad tells her to stop. He tells Gary to take her to the kitchen, to leave us be for a minute or two. When they are gone, he picks up one of my hands. His palm is clam­my, but mine is soft and dry. “Steffy, how do you feel? You can be hon­est with me. I can help you. We can all help you.”

I don’t know. It was her time. It was meant to be. It was part of the plan. God will nev­er give you more than you can han­dle.” My cadence sounds famil­iar. I sound like Father Han­son mid-ser­mon. I think about the times Father Han­son picked me to help him in the rec­to­ry. He picked me more than any oth­er girl. I paid atten­tion. I thought about my hands in soapy water in the rec­to­ry sink, wash­ing dessert plates, and lis­ten­ing to Father Han­son tell me all the things God wants for me. I nev­er told him that when I was five, I thought he was God and I was hap­py that God lived in my church, not any­one else’s.

My mom returns with a cup of water in her hand, and I’m not sure if it’s meant for her or me. “He had pale skin, yel­low hair, red cheeks. He glowed, like a light­ning bug. He was human but not.”

Oh, my poor baby,” my moth­er whispers.

What do you mean?” my father asks.

He came to take Heather. And then they dis­ap­peared.” I snap my fin­gers to demon­strate how fast it was.

Steffy,” my father says, “peo­ple don’t just dis­ap­pear like that. They don’t get tak­en from tents by men who are like God but not God. That’s just not reality.

I shrug. “He works in mys­te­ri­ous ways.”

The man or God?” Gary asks, and now I’m start­ing to feel confused.

But this man,” my father per­sists. “Who is the man?”

I told you. He takes the form of a human, but he is from the spir­it world—or what­ev­er. I sup­pose you might call him an angel, but he didn’t real­ly say. It was Heather’s time to go, and he took her to be in a bet­ter place. She is where she’s meant to be, so we should all be hap­py for her. She’s been called home.” I feel relieved now. It’s all so clear, like the sur­face of glass table­top, that I mar­vel there was ever a time when I could not say these words, the words the man him­self told me. And only now does it all make sense. It all fits togeth­er per­fect­ly. I lay back and smile, for per­haps the first time since Heather left this world.

Oh, my baby,” my moth­er says again. She is shak­ing and sob­bing and Gary is back try­ing to pull her off of me. “None of this makes sense,” my father says, “it’s sim­ply not logical.”

Heather float­ed up, up, up. Out of the tent, up in the air. She dis­si­pat­ed. Like smoke. I could see it all through the can­vas. We can tell the police to stop look­ing,” I say. “If she comes back, it will be because the man brings her back from the sky. When it is time.” I smile at the three of them: Mom and Dad and Gary. See? I’m try­ing to say. It all works out.

She’s crazy,” Gary says, as if I can­not hear him. “She’s pure batshit.”

That can’t hap­pen,” my dad says again. “It just can’t.”

Why?” I ask, mar­veling at all he doesn’t know yet.

Because the uni­verse has rules!” my father shouts at me. For one brief moment, he looks at me as if I am some­one else. Then he is hold­ing both of my hands. “I’m sor­ry, Steffy. I’m sor­ry I yelled.” I gig­gle because his cheeks are too red, his hair messed up, his glass­es crooked.

My father stands up. “I’ll call the doc­tor,” he tells my mother.

I find myself drift­ing into sleep, deep and rest­ful. God gives. God takes away.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

His­to­ry

I am orig­i­nal­ly from Far­go, North Dako­ta, which is prob­a­bly why I grav­i­tate toward dark and cold sto­ries set in the upper mid­west. I love char­ac­ters who are torn by what they want and what they *ought* to want. I’m intrigued by char­ac­ters who sur­prise me, who con­fuse or repel me, and who under­es­ti­mate the rip­ple effect of any one deci­sion (or inde­ci­sion). I like sto­ries that hint at the out­landish and the oth­er-world­ly, but also demon­strate the ter­ror of real­i­ty. I want read­ers to decide what’s worse: the realm of the super­nat­ur­al or the Tues­day we’re liv­ing right now.

Sketch

In this sto­ry, the main char­ac­ter, Steffy, is trau­ma­tized after her best friend dis­ap­pears while camp­ing in their back­yard. As the com­mu­ni­ty search­es for the miss­ing girl, Steffy expe­ri­ences flash­backs to that night. Does she know what real­ly hap­pened? Or is her mem­o­ry of Heather’s dis­ap­pear­ance col­ored by a pre­vi­ous trau­ma, one that is buried below a glossy surface?

Mark­er

All of my work grav­i­tates around one idea per­sis­tent ques­tion: Are we ever in con­trol of our own lives? What if it’s all a sham, I won­der. Maybe that’s the point of literature—or any kind of art: We all want to pre­tend we’re in con­trol of some­thing. Steffy thinks she’s in con­trol of her own mem­o­ries. And yet nobody believes that she has a grasp on real­i­ty. After all, she seems to think Heather has been kid­napped by God.

Repos­i­to­ry of Influences

Like many writ­ers, and prob­a­bly like you, I’m a vora­cious read­er. I’m cyn­i­cal and irrev­er­ent and curi­ous and con­fused and doubt­ful. The sto­ries I love most are the ones that strike those chords and rat­tle my brain. I will nev­er for­get the line of sweat, the hair dye, run­ning down Arnold Friend’s face in Joyce Car­ol Oates’ sto­ry “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?” as Con­nie real­izes what she’s just done, the way she’s sealed her own fate. Steffy is an homage to Con­nie, but her Arnold Friend is hid­den in the depths of her own mind.

 

Chris­tine Seifert is the author of one nov­el pub­lished in three lan­guages: The Pre­dict­eds (2011); two non­fic­tion books for young read­ers: Whop­pers: History’s Most Out­ra­geous Lies and Liars (2015) and The Fac­to­ry Girls: A Kalei­do­scop­ic Account of the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry (2017); and one aca­d­e­m­ic book: Vir­gin­i­ty in Young Adult Lit­er­a­ture after Twi­light (2015.) She’s also writ­ten for The Atavist, Bitch Mag­a­zine, and Inside High­er Ed, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Born and raised in Far­go, North Dako­ta, Chris­tine is now a Pro­fes­sor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at West­min­ster Col­lege in Salt Lake City, Utah, where win­ter lasts a rea­son­able peri­od of time.

Not Capable of Giving Her Leprosy

Fiction / Vi Khi Nao

:: Not Capable of Giving Her Leprosy ::

The streets seem young to her.
Vegas was built overnight with poor plumbing .
She is wan­der­ing the streets again.

Over orange chick­en at Pan­da Express, he tells her that the white pro­fes­sor needs to return to the Unit­ed States. He needs to exer­cise a med­ical absence. He is white and he is hav­ing sex with his Kore­an stu­dents. He has been in Korea for about 1/5th of his life. His white dick hasn’t touched the vagi­nal sewage sys­tem of North Amer­i­ca for about a decade now. And, although mod­ern West­ern plump­ing doesn’t miss him, apple pies donate a large part of their de-tart­ed, but not re-tart­ed, pas­try life to crav­ing him. His grandmother’s nick­name is PP (for Peach Pie), and his aunt’s name is Rhubarb. He works for Bul­go­gi Uni­ver­si­ty, one of the best uni­ver­si­ties in Korea. It’s where a female-dom­i­nat­ed, Eng­lish-cur­ricu­lum-based edu­ca­tion teach­es female stu­dents how to learn Eng­lish from sick, per­vert­ed, white fac­ul­ty. It’s not an expen­sive edu­ca­tion. But there is no psy­chother­a­py there.

Pro­fes­sor Straw­ber­ry asks his young Kore­an stu­dent if she would have sex with him. She says,  “No.” As if “no” were a stage 4 can­cer that doesn’t know what lymph nodes or metasta­t­ic mean. The bold young Kore­an stu­dent doesn’t like straw­ber­ries in big batch­es. She prefers per­sim­mons in box­es as gifts.

Pro­fes­sor Straw­ber­ry doesn’t want to leave Bul­go­gi. At Bul­go­gi he has voca­tion­al and sex­u­al pow­er and prowess. Here, he has a grip on the upper ech­e­lon of South Korea’s Eng­lish lit­er­a­cy world. He is impor­tant. He is known. He has pow­er. Cer­tain female Kore­an stu­dents would want to have sex with him. If he returns to the Unit­ed States, he will need to devel­op a new hob­by for inter­net porn, the pedophil­i­ac kind—not relat­ed to lilacs—and may have to attend the same school, per­haps down­grad­ed, as Har­vey Wein­stein and Kevin Spacey.

He leans over to tell her that although he has pow­er, it’s sort of fake. Like Pro­fes­sor Straw­ber­ry is tech­ni­cal­ly pow­er­ful, but his pow­er is bor­rowed or lent  to him because he has blue eyes and white skin. True pow­er is race­less or face­less, she dis­cov­ers. Or col­or-deaf. In her mind, she doesn’t think any of this is true. True pow­er requires one to be dick-deaf. Is she dick-deaf? she asks her­self while she tries to stuff broc­coli and beef into her mouth. She isn’t hun­gry, but she is eat­ing because it is eas­i­er to lis­ten when one’s mouth is full.

Mean­while, about 6,000 miles away, in Las Vegas, eight Kore­an women in their late fifties all hud­dle in a Star­bucks fran­chise to dis­cuss the impor­tance of eat­ing meat while read­ing Han Kang’s The Veg­e­tar­i­an. One woman turns to anoth­er woman, ask­ing if it would be okay if she brought japchae to their next book club meeting.

Rib­eye fil­let goes so well with glass noodle!”
“Of course!”
“Yes, of course!”

Lit­er­a­ture is pre­dom­i­nate­ly a female voca­tion in Korea. Writ­ing would make men effem­i­nate and Kore­an cul­ture, like all oth­er cul­tures, thrives on mas­culin­i­ty or bibimbap.

They walk to Ben and Jerry’s. After work­ing at a law office accom­plish­ing noth­ing, or so he tells her, he wants to treat him­self to some­thing sweet. She doesn’t want ice cream but she gives in. The last time, she watched him lick his ice cream and it was like watch­ing a white man giv­ing a blowjob to anoth­er white man and although blow­ing isn’t her thing, cli­mate change, espe­cial­ly on the tongue, is her thing. She has a thing for lick­ing things over. She recon­sid­ers his offer to buy her ice cream. Maybe through the ice cream thing, he is offer­ing her a free blowjob. Any­one would take it up, right? Think­ing things over is her thing.

Her father’s girl­friend is bisexual.

Her bisex­u­al­i­ty con­sists of two grape­fruits and one rain­bow trout. Fry­ing fish is her thing. She likes her rela­tion­ship with oil to be around 350 to 375 degrees.

She walks into Trad­er Joe’s. It’s a Sat­ur­day. It’s crowd­ed. Walk­ing there led her to 7,342 steps. Every­one looks like they are wear­ing dia­pers and hold­ing each other’s hands and say­ing hel­lo and kiss­ing good­bye while wav­ing their gluten-free pota­to chips at each oth­er. When­ev­er they fart, the cush­ions on their dia­pers absorb the sound and smell and thus every­one at Trader’s Joe is hap­py with each oth­er. Dia­pers make every­one social­ly safe. When she exit­ed Smith’s just an hour ago, no adults were wear­ing dia­pers and they didn’t even know who they were shop­ping with, let alone wav­ing expen­sive organ­ic cocoa at anoth­er. When­ev­er a shop­per farts at Smith’s, every­one knows who it is and if their last meal was at McDonald’s or Jack in the Box. But at Trad­er Joe’s, all pol­lu­tion or inad­ver­tent acts of social trans­gres­sion are fam­i­ly-accept­ed and family-owned.

Before falling asleep, she tells her­self: although she can’t com­mit sui­cide now, her biggest revenge on God is the abil­i­ty to do it lat­er, when she can. When she is per­mit­ted to.

When the barks of tall palm trees fall on the streets of Vegas by the heavy zephyr or breaths of tum­ble­weeds, they look like the backs of armadil­los. When she saw the barks for the very first time, walk­ing to Wal­mart late one night, they star­tled her. She thought the wind was so strong that even the hard shells of the nine-band­ed noc­tur­nal omniv­o­rous mam­mals were not imper­vi­ous to the bru­tal dessert wind. But, upon clos­er inspec­tion, she dis­cov­ered that the bony plates of these ever­greens were not capa­ble of giv­ing her lep­rosy. Walk­ing to Wal­mart has a greater chance of giv­ing her nerve damage.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

As shown in my prose, I wrote this dur­ing a very des­o­late time in my life. I had begun a friend­ship with a kind fic­tion writer in Vegas who want­ed to remove the iso­la­tion which has imbued my soul like the bony gar­ment of an armadil­lo. Dur­ing that friend­ship, I knew more about Korea than I ever did from all the books I was read­ing. It was inter­est­ing to me to hear what non-expa­tri­ate white men in the States thought of white men liv­ing abroad in Asia and Kore­an women resid­ing in their native home­land, Korea. Some of the con­ver­sa­tions between us were cap­tured near ver­ba­tim. My per­cep­tion of Korea altered after my hik­ing vis­its with him. I wrote this dur­ing the time in which Har­vey Wein­stein & the men who com­mit­ted sex­u­al crimes against women were oust­ed . We like fic­tion to not cap­ture real­i­ty so much, but some­times due to its  height­ened depth of form and its shame­less real­ism, we are, as a cul­ture, doomed to state the obvi­ous. We think we can dress real­i­ty in decep­tion or false­hood, but it’s real­ly impos­si­ble to.

 

Vi Khi Nao is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions, Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), Umbil­i­cal Hos­pi­tal (Press 1913, 2017), and The Old Philoso­pher (win­ner of the Night­boat Books Prize for Poet­ry in 2014), and of the short sto­ries col­lec­tion, A Brief Alpha­bet of Tor­ture (win­ner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Inno­v­a­tive Fic­tion Prize), and the nov­el, Fish in Exile (Cof­fee House Press, 2016). Her work includes poet­ry, fic­tion, film and cross-genre col­lab­o­ra­tion. Her sto­ries, poems, and draw­ings have appeared in NOONPloughsharesBlack War­rior Review, and BOMB, among oth­ers. Vi holds an MFA in fic­tion from Brown University.

 

Cumbia

Fiction / Myriam Gurba

:: Cumbia ::

They met at a grim threesome.

She, a niece, as well as a writer, sat sidesad­dle on the deathbed.

A heather gray tunic draped her. Cut from t‑shirt mate­r­i­al, it dan­gled from spaghet­ti straps. Beneath it, a scoop-necked, cobalt top mold­ed itself to her. Her ex-boyfriend, a dra­ma teacher from whom she’d escaped sev­er­al months pri­or, had enjoyed shit talk­ing the Oxfords that com­plet­ed her outfit.

They look like under­tak­er shoes,” he’d complain.

He’d been wrong. They were les­bian shoes, and he hadn’t under­stood this because he wasn’t a les­bian, he was a man, one which her clever les­bian friends found dis­taste­ful in his ordinariness.

She stared at her uncle’s face. The insti­tu­tion­al light fix­ture mount­ed above his head­board cast a glow about his shaved head. This didn’t look angel­ic. Flu­o­res­cence can’t.

Her uncle’s nos­trils twitched and pain yanked his head up and off his pil­low. His neck tensed, tendons/tendons/tendons, and agony twist­ed his fea­tures and kept twist­ing them, con­tort­ing his cheeks, nose, brow, and mouth in ways the writer had nev­er seen done to human skin. She’d only seen dishrags twist­ed like this when her moth­er had wrung them out on hope­less school nights. She’d felt sor­ry for the dishrags.

Her uncle’s tongue scraped his remain­ing teeth, nubs resem­bling pil­on­cil­lo, and the tongue froze like a flag in midair. What else does that? Is out and wet and pink and crisp? A dog’s penis. The writer thought of one, a pit bull’s she’d watched unsheathe itself as he squat­ted at a woman’s feet.

She’d been brunch­ing on an omelet.

Eye­balls bugged. Nos­trils flared. Eyes squeezed shut as her uncle shook his head, gri­maced, and exhaled hard enough to hurt himself.

He looked Holocausty.

And so the niece had arranged for help.

Breathe,” she whispered.

shut­up…” he moaned. Anoth­er parox­ysm was on its way.

Obey­ing, she wait­ed. She wanted.

She want­ed her uncle to have what her grand­moth­er hadn’t, a dig­ni­fied death, the best death his veteran’s ben­e­fits could afford, and she knew that a final cur­tain like that would require opiates.

HE WILL FUCKING HAVE MORPHINE TONIGHT, the writer texted her lit­tle sis­ter, a Jew, and nurse, work­ing in New York City, OR ONE OF THESE FUCKS IS GONNA PAY.

The sis­ter replied, THEY STILL HAVEN’T GIVEN HIM MORPHINE??????

Three knife emo­jis fol­lowed the question.

NO

In return, the sis­ter texted triple the knife emojis.

EXACTLY, the writer replied. She sighed. She was ready to ruin someone’s evening or life for her uncle’s com­fort. She was ready to make some­one scared, to make some­one suf­fer. She want­ed to inflict what­ev­er pain necessary—physical, emo­tion­al, or psychic—and then she would scream at the admin­is­tra­tor or staff mem­ber or who­ev­er else need­ed to be screamed at.

She would demand, “How do you like it? Oh, you don’t like it? You want relief?

 WELL, YOU CAN’T HAVE ANY.”

Her uncle’s chest heaved.

She stared.

She under­stood what she was watching.

Each fam­i­ly has a dying style: she knew what her family’s looked, smelled, and sound­ed like, and her uncle’s breath­ing was increas­ing­ly approx­i­mat­ing her abuelita’s the night before she woke up dead. Mem­o­ries of her abuelita’s death rat­tle evoked goth­ic images in the writer’s mind. One of them: a Mex­i­can hag with a black lace veil plopped over her sil­ver hair. Catholic lingerie …

In a Taga­log accent, some­one, prob­a­bly a nurs­ing assis­tant, chirped, “Hel­lo, doctor!”

I’m not a doc­tor!” a man barked back.

Foot­steps approached the pri­va­cy cur­tain. It swished. The writer turned to look.

At the foot of the bed stood a svelte bear of a man in a white coat. The blue of his eyes was remark­able. They were the blue of pop music and études. This made the writer angry. Why had some­one with libid­i­nal appeal been sent to the deathbed? It was vulgar.

The writer thought about fir­ing the beard­ed man.

Her bisex­u­al gaze locked with his.

Hel­lo,” he told her. “I am the hos­pice nurse.”

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I rarely write about love.

When I do, I’m often writ­ing about my uncle Hen­ry. If not writ­ing direct­ly about him, then I’m writ­ing indi­rect­ly about him.

I wrote this piece as what I thought was a deathbed account. My uncle was dying, though he didn’t die, and this sto­ry is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sickbed por­trai­ture that I was mak­ing of him. I con­stant­ly doc­u­ment my uncle and am inspired to cre­ate arti­facts relat­ed to his many ill­ness­es. The first instance that I saw of such work was Han­nah Wilke’s Intra-Venus series. She cre­at­ed the pho­to­graph­ic series with her hus­band, Don­ald God­dard, while she was dying of cancer.

The pho­tographs are equal parts beau­ty and grotesque, repel­lent and mag­net­ic, vul­ner­a­ble and rock hard. This tends to be a com­mon qual­i­ty in sickbed and deathbed portraiture.

Anoth­er work that I had in mind was a paint­ing that I saw as a child. The paint­ing rep­re­sent­ed hell and fea­tured a soul burn­ing there. The soul, sur­round­ed by flames, appeared on a tall, met­al alms box in a Mex­i­can chapel. The image didn’t inspire me to give alms, but it inspired me to want to meet peo­ple in hell.

 

Myr­i­am Gur­ba is a high school teacher, writer, pod­cast­er and artist who lives in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia. Her most recent book, the true crime mem­oir Mean, was a New York Times edi­tors’ choice. Pub­lish­ers Week­ly describes her as a “lit­er­ary voice like none oth­er.” Gur­ba co-hosts the AskBi­Gr­lz advice pod­cast with car­toon­ist, and fel­low bira­cial­ist, Mari­Nao­mi. Her col­lage and dig­i­tal art­work has been shown in muse­ums, gal­leries, and com­mu­ni­ty centers.

Two Poems

Poetry / Jason Schneiderman

:: The Last Ace of Base Enthusiast ::

The last Ace of Base Enthusiast wishes she could live in the 1990s. 
The last Ace of Base Enthusiast imagines a world where it was impossible
to avoid Ace of Base—where it would be playing over the stereo
when you entered a convenience store, or when you went to the bank.
At first she was annoyed when her friends asked her what the songs meant,
or tried to pin her down on precisely what “the sign” was, or insisted
on knowing why the main character was crying in “Don’t Turn Around.”
Later, she was frustrated when her friends refused to listen to her answers,
and she had to write a book explaining all of the lyrics, and the multiple
permutations by which they might be understood. No one bought the book,
so she started making dioramas of the convenience stores and banks
in the 1990s where you couldn’t avoid Ace of Base songs. Her show
of dioramas is well received, and highly regarded as an example of 
“The New Retrospectivists” though she is consistently hurt by the pride that
critics take in being able “to endure the hideous cacophony of screeching
vocals that the artist has dredged up from a past that we remember with
great pain, but as she has shown us, forget at our own peril.” Once, she thinks,
people would have bought the CD in the gift shop on the way out of the museum,
back in the 1990s, when there were CDs. 


 

:: Little Red Riding Wolf ::

On the lecture circuit, Little Red Riding Wolf
is generally brought to tears by at least one 
question. Wolves tend to accuse her of being
a collaborator, while humans tend to demand
to know if she has ever eaten a person herself.

Folklorists tend to dismiss her outright
as being trapped in a very stupid story, 
while a certain cadre of literary theorists
consider her very identity an ouroboros, 
a figure that they hope will become as popular

as the rhizome once became for an earlier
generation of scholars. None of this helps
Little Red Riding Wolf, whose only real
pleasure is cruising online dating apps, 
never meeting up, but pretending 

sometimes to be only a wolf, 
sometimes to be only a little girl.  



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

While these poems were writ­ten as part of very dif­fer­ent sequences, they both reflect the ways that I often see iden­ti­ty as radi­ant or con­ta­gious in ways that blur affin­i­ty or oblig­a­tion and defy sim­pli­fied (but nec­es­sary) forms of stand­point epis­te­mol­o­gy. I think we’re in a time when we are focused on uni­tary forms of iden­ti­ty, which is a cru­cial cor­rec­tive to a kind of post­mod­ernism that failed to decen­ter dom­i­nant modes of iden­ti­ty by extend­ing cer­tain fail­ures of mid twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry human­ism. Both poems are about char­ac­ters caught in forms of iden­ti­ty that look inco­her­ent to the peo­ple around them. The char­ac­ters find strate­gies for being seen in ways that make the mis-recog­ni­tion pro­duc­tive and emo­tion­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing, but they can’t quite find their way to being per­ceived in the ways that they per­ceive them­selves. Poems allow me con­cretize the abstrac­tions that buzz around my head all day, so—fingers crossed—you enjoyed the poems more than the account.

 

Jason Schnei­der­man is the author of four books of poems: Hold Me Tight (Red Hen Press, 2020), Pri­ma­ry Source (Red Hen Press, 2016), Strik­ing Sur­face (Ash­land Poet­ry Press, 2010), and Sub­li­ma­tion Point (Four Way Books, 2004). He edit­ed the anthol­o­gy Queer: A Read­er for Writ­ers (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016). His poet­ry and essays have appeared in Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, The Best Amer­i­can Poet­ry, Poet­ry Lon­don, Grand Street, and The Pen­guin Book of the Son­net. He is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege, CUNY, and lives in Brooklyn.