Interview with Karin C. Davidson

Karin Daidson

Mark Fabiano: Your short story Roadside Flowers plays with images, scenes, and details of beauty in common settings. You begin with this lovely image of Hoa holding flowers, and you weave her into the story in other scenes involving photography. What led you to this title and how does it aptly capture the pulse of your story?

Karin C. Davidson: Images sometimes begin my stories. In writing “Roadside Flowers,” a story that stands alone and is also a chapter in my novel-in-progress, I originally described this image in another chapter – in which a young soldier on a Greyhound bus holds a worn photograph of a little girl standing on a dirt road. I wanted to know more about these characters and this photograph, and so I followed their lead. The title came from the first image, Hoa waving wildflowers that she’d gathered from the roadside. Afterwards, I thought about how close the phrase was to roadside bombs; at least, my mind went there. It seemed an unconscious acknowledgment of the beauty and horror that are side by side in war. Perhaps that’s how it captures the story’s pulse, in that a soldier carries a camera and an M-16, then is ordered to shoot photos, rather than the enemy, and through his lens, war is bathed in bravery, fright, handfuls of flowers, generosity and innocence, duty, anger, artillery, mud, exhaustion, and death. Life, a little girl, a fistful of flowers seemed a good way to begin.

 

MF: Faulkner says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  Roadside Flowers, like many of your stories, takes this to heart, whether consciously or not, in that the story’s timeline is not a linear one. That is, time—past and present—fluctuates according to the needs of the story, which is told in a natural innate narrative impulse of the character James Williams. Talk about the decisions you CONSCIOUSLY made about representing time in this story.

KCD: TIME. Joan Silber’s books—The Size of the World, Ideas of Heaven, Fools, and of course, The Art of Time in Fiction—have taught me so much about time. I do struggle with time in fiction, but my CONSCIOUS decisions about time in this story—yes, I can tell you about those. The time frame is, of course, during the war in Vietnam—namely, the Year of the Water Rat. 1972. Already, in terms of the politics, the military operations, the ongoing destruction, and the reaction to this war, a lot had happened: escalation, the Tet Offensive, Nixon doctrine and Vietnamization, the ongoing U.S. anti-war and counterculture movements, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos months away, and the draft one year from ending. This is off the page, but in my mind, as I wrote the story. So there is historical time.

For James, there is personal time, in terms of how young he is, what he knows before his tour of duty and what he learns during his tour. He was raised in Florida in the 1950’s and 60’s, and he is really still a boy when he is drafted. So there’s the sequence of time of boyhood into manhood.

And in the writing, there is what Joan Silber—in The Art of Time in Fiction—calls Switchback Time, in which the story zigzags among time frames, from the time in which the story is told, the time in which the story takes place, and a time further back. All of these moments in time work together to “clarify and expand what a story is about,” somewhat like associative thought. And this is where James’ way of telling the story comes in, reflective, but not removed from everything that happens to him in Vietnam.

 

MF: On research. Not to demystify the artful treatment that this story accomplishes regarding the Vietnam war, nor your mastery and love of language, but could you speak about the kinds of research you needed to do in order to make this story true. Specifically, the dialogue between James, Shields, the CO and other soldiers.

KCD: Years of research. I’ve read actual military reports, books on the history of the Vietnam War, fiction, poetry, memoir, letters from soldiers. I’ve watched films—documentaries and feature films. I’ve spoken with Vietnam veterans, via email and in person, especially CAP Marines, who had worked in villages with the South Vietnamese Popular Forces toward pacification, rather than with companies whose orders were to search and destroy. I’ve studied photographs, from the archives of Life Magazine and Stars and Stripes, and from personal and museum and art gallery collections.

The war in Vietnam was the backdrop to my childhood, and by the time I was a teenager, I knew a lot of boys who had returned home, no longer boys. We didn’t talk about where they’d been and what they’d seen. Conversations never went there. Later, I had to wonder. But these friends weren’t around anymore to ask, and maybe they still wouldn’t have wanted to talk.

And so I turned to art, literature, archives, films, and Vietnam veterans—some of them accomplished writers—for answers. The visual of a photograph, a line of poetry, a passage in a work of fiction, a conversation with a veteran, or a letter from a soldier to his parents—these are the media and moments that inspired me to keep writing the novel. The dialogue of the soldiers came from these moments, trying to understand how orders deployed led to duty. Even in the midst of the confusion and devastation, one followed orders.

Roadside Flowers (Yellow Grass Field)

MF: Tim O’Brien’s narrator in “How To Tell A True War Story,” says, “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”  What is it in this story that you want the reader’s stomach to believe? Or better yet, do you think you accomplished a “stomach-truth” for a reader to take away? If so, what might that be?

KCD: When I write a story, I let the viewpoint character take the lead. In this instance, to understand James, I had to go where he was at this point in his life, someplace completely new, a land exotic and beautiful and terrifying, the farthest from anywhere he’d ever been. In creating a sense of place, in creating the character as deeply as possible, I hope I’ve created this kind of truth for the reader.

 

MF: From the very start and continuing all the way through “Roadside Flowers,” you deftly layer in brushstroke upon brushstroke of details, confirming Tim O’Brien’s dictum that “True war stories do not generalize.” In a sense, this is true of all great stories, not just ones about war. How do you choose which details to use in your stories and where to embellish them, in general, and in “Roadside Flowers” in particular?

KCD: Details! Sometimes I get too caught up in the details and have to pull back. That said, I think that one must imagine the particulars of setting, scene, and characters in order to create the believability, complication, tone, and momentum that story requires. Without details, there is no story. Choosing details is never random, but purposeful, careful, sometimes tipping the story into unexpected places. As the story progresses, the details increase, revealing all of those images caught in James’ photographic lens, magnified, cropped, blown into and out of perspective.

Recently, I’ve taken a break from reading war literature. I’ve been reading Lee Martin’s novels, story collection, and memoirs, incredibly thankful for his portraits of farmland and family, seasons and time passing. Wheat kernels, killing frosts, marigolds and zinnias, the worn arms of a rocking chair, the trace of a smile. These details— perfectly placed, lingered over, returned to—ground us, allow us entry into and passage throughout the story. Exactly what I hope my stories accomplish.

 

MF: What are your thoughts about women writing on war? War veteran and novelist Cara Hoffman wrote in a MARCH 31, 2014 NYT Op-Ed that “stories about female veterans are nearly absent from our culture. It’s not that their stories are poorly told. It’s that their stories are simply not told in our literature, film and popular culture.” Do you think that “Roadside Flowers” contributes a female voice about war despite the use of a male character? How does it and or how doesn’t it contribute to war literature in general, and women’s war literature specifically?

KCD: A complicated question and a good one to end on, Mark.

Regarding Cara Hoffman’s article, “The Things She Carried,” I will have to disagree with her premise that women veterans’ stories are “not told in our literature, film and popular culture.” There are many women veterans writing fiction, poetry, essays, scripts, and screenplays. Perhaps what Ms. Hoffman means is that female veteran writers are not granted the same consideration as male veteran writers. Another gender imbalance in the world of literature worth questioning, another VIDA moment.

Among writers of war literature, specifically those who experienced war firsthand as soldiers, men have certainly had more attention than women. Of these men and women, the list is long. The women writers who are war veterans, approach memoir, poetry, and fiction with the honest emotion and wherewithal that comes from having been there, from the drills of training camp to the dust and adrenalin of war zones. They see the picture in ways very different from their male counterparts, in ways that search and pause and consider, turning a moment over and over and realizing it still cannot be completely understood.

That said, sometimes I feel like an imposter. I’ve never been to war. The war in Vietnam came to my generation on the nightly news, in the body counts, from the protests, and in the midst of those who returned but seemed elsewhere. There was a fellow I knew who’d flown Hueys (the UH1E helicopters used then mostly by the Marines). He came home to New Orleans and couldn’t find work that matched his training. So he worked odd jobs, just making it. He had a lot of time on his hands, and he’d come around, always ready for a beer, and sometimes in the middle of a conversation, he’d stop and stare off into space. He had a great sense of humor, kind of down-home and dirty, with a huge heart. He’d grin and carry on, always looking for trouble, but never finding it in the way he had in Vietnam.

In writing about war, as a woman who has never been to war, I have company. And here I will call out names: Bobbie Ann Mason, Toni Morrison, Jayne Ann Phillips, Siobhan Fallon, Roxana Robinson, Mary Akers, and so many more. Write what you know doesn’t live here; write what you want to know, what you need to know does. So yes, “Roadside Flowers” contributes a female voice to war literature, and I imagine how it contributes, whether in the context of war literature, or specifically as women’s war literature, would lie in the readers’ reactions. If James’ experience lingers in their minds, makes them consider the bright and dark design of war, then perhaps that’s how.

 

 

Mark Fabiano’s fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Long Story, and elsewhere. He was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in Fiction for 2008. His scholarly work has appeared in Muses India: Essays on English-Language Writers from Mahomet to Rushdie, International Journal of Communications, FORUM: The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and Arts, The Facts on File Companion to the American Novel, The Facts on File Companion to the American Short Story, and others.He has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from George Mason University, an MA in English from Wright State University, an MA in International Affairs, Communications and Development Studies from Ohio University, and a BA in English from Ohio State University. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka., a setting for many of his stories and his novel, The Road to the Singing Lagoon. He has taught creative writing, literature, and more at various colleges for over 11 years.

Homepage Fall 2014

Cover3
All images appear in this issue courtesy of the artist, Mike Quesinberry.

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Fall 2014 “APPALACHIA” issue. We’re incredibly proud to present to you the wonderful and diverse array of voices in this issue, all complimented by the beautiful photographic art of Mike Quesinberry which he has graciously donated for this issue.

We’re featuring work from some of my very favorite Appalachian writers as well as hearing from an array of new voices. For the first time ever, we even have an audio file of a short story: Ann Pancake’s terrific story “Mouseskull,” read by the talented voice actor Gina Detwiler. We’re exploring the oldest mountains in North America and having loads of fun in the process. You should find a lot to enjoy in this issue. I hope that you will take the time to explore it.

Our January 2015 issue will be themed CAREGIVERS and our April 2015 issue will have the theme of WOMEN. Thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

Archive – summer 2014

Cover Image (Recent death)

summer 2014
vol. xi. no. 3

Endangered

Fiction


The Stars at Noon

By David Jauss

Squandering the Fellowship

By Jessie Hennen

Roadside Flowers

By Karin C. Davidson

Poetry


Recovery

By Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Breathing Without Air

By Leslie Nielsen

Sleight of Hand

By Mickey J. Corrigan

To His Wife

By Mark McKain

Starry Night

By Jillian Ross

Age of Consent

By Bill Glose

Essay


I Am Always in Transition When Disaster Strikes

By Vyshali Manivannan

Tips for Writing About Loss

By Jessica Handler

Minnows

By Lauren Jo Sypniewski

Shorts on Survival


Spelunking

By Danielle Collins

Just Enough Hope

By Toby Van Bryce

Reassurance

By Evelyne Lampart

Mouseskull

Mouseskull1

Listen to Ann Pancake’s wonderful short story MOUSESKULL as performed by Gina Miani Detwiler.

 

Ann Pancake grew up in Romney and Summersville, WV. Her first novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been (Counterpoint 2007), features a southern West Virginia family devastated by mountaintop removal mining. The novel was one of Kirkus Review’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2007, won the 2007 Weatherford Award, and was a finalist for the 2008 Orion Book Award. Her collection of short stories, Given Ground, won the 2000 Bakeless award, and she has also received a Whiting Award, an NEA Grant, a Pushcart Prize, and creative writing fellowships from the states of Washington, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Georgia ReviewPoets and WritersNarrative, and New Stories from the South. She lives in Seattle and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. “Mouseskull” first appeared in The Georgia Review.

Gina Miani Detwiler has a BA in English and Drama from Vassar College and studied Theatre Directing at Columbia University. She worked for several years as a theatre specialist and Entertainment Director for the US Army in Germany and has acted, written and directed for theatre companies in Colorado and New York.  She loves reading aloud to her kids and was thrilled to be asked to contribute to r.k.vr.y with an audio version of the amazing story Mouseskull. She’s written the novels Avalon, The Hammer of God, and the forthcoming Forlorn. www.ginamiani.com

 

Alternative Therapies: See “Juicing”

Alternative Therapies

You and I fight in the kitchen—juice splattering the walls,
kale flesh on the floor, ginger dripping down our vertebrae—

because I had taken too much Ritalin, but it’s fine;
the neurologist said it’s fine, it’s fine. And I am crying

over the dirty dishes in our old sink that doesn’t drain well.
Recycled saline, I say. But your fingers whisper small circles

behind my ears, singing bluegrass hymns over the train whistle
we hear every hour. It’s okay. It’s okay, you say, holding up

a straw to my deaf mouth. After, my teeth beet-tinted, I shiver,
so you run the shower hot because you know

how Solumedrol makes me cold and Interferon makes me cold
and IVs make me cold. You take off your clothes

and mine; the carrot juice washes off my hands like rot.
Then, you see the bruises— the space

between the skin and the veins pooling to shades of blackberry
and eggplant. You trace the holes.

I tell you how yesterday, I watched the blood spray out
at the sweaty nurse in the faded scrubs.

I keep seeing him jump back and goddamn,
forcing gauze so fast on the opening,

I thought I burned him. You’d never burn anyone,
you say, planting your feet to rinse the brine off us both.

 

 

 

Hannah Baggott, a Nashville native, is a poet of the body. She is pursuing an MFA in poetry at Oregon State University while teaching writing courses. She has received awards for flash fiction and critical writing in gender studies. Her work can be found in Tupelo Quarterly and other journals. Learn more at hannahbaggott.com.

The Survival of Uncle Peachy

The Survival of Uncle Peachy

For twenty-seven years my Uncle Peachy drove trailers of brand new automobiles from Detroit to everywhere else. He saw a thousand towns at twilight glimmering like stars dropped amid trees, but not a single person in a single house knew his name, nor he theirs. Wherever he stopped, a dog barked. The moon grew juicy, withered to a bow, rose over his shoulder, and kept her distance.

Peachy drove. His hands gnarled around the steering wheel. His bones rattled, resettled harder than before, and his eyes became flat as burnt coffee. He chewed over every joke, every good story, and tried to forget the voice of his first wife on the phone when suddenly his daughter was dying. “Shellie’s in the hospital. Where the hell are you?”

After his divorce he would fall asleep by remembering his mom’s hands putting pickled beets on his plate. He’d picture his dad planting corn after he went blind, knowing the field by feel, then mowing half of it down by accident. The old man cussed for an hour, then sat on the porch, his dog at his heel and his face turned toward the last splurge of July light.

During his second marriage, Peachy settled his wife Kendra and son Perry near where he grew up in West Virginia. He drove home on his way to Missouri just to hunt one morning with his son. Perry’s face seemed as guarded as a young man’s, but his piping voice told his correct age, six years. Peachy didn’t scold the boy when he cried because the pretty deer fell. He stopped himself from saying, “Eight point buck, kid.” Peachy held Perry and let him cry.

Later that year, near Hondo, Texas, Peachy was shooting pool and doing laundry at the Diesel Fried Chicken Truck Stop when he spotted a shriveled man sitting by the pay phone. Next to him the receiver dangled on its silver cord. The man stared through the green-tinged air at nothing. He’s smoke, Peachy thought when he touched the man’s hand, then called 911. I don’t want to turn into smoke.

“I’m staying,” he told his wife the next time he strode through the door.

“Good,” Kendra said, stirring spaghetti-os for Perry. “Now we can finish wallpapering the hallway.”

Peachy applied for janitor jobs at the grocery stores, Wal-Mart, Home Hardware, the paper factory, the lumber mill. He was 57, an Army veteran. Peachy gave every manager a handshake and a crooked grin, and said, “I want you to know, getting paid to push a broom will be easy street for me.”

Peachy got on the graveyard shift at the new Kroger’s. He claimed, “I wax them floors till they’re smoother than the highway to hell, or the driveway to the Governor’s mansion, same difference.” As late night Kroger shoppers rolled their carts down the aisles, Uncle Peachy maneuvered around them, hat over his eyes, chewing over an old joke or a new story he would tell someone tomorrow.

I was around my Uncle Peachy for a while when he first came back, the trucker settling down. He said, “I’m gonna feed my family. The world can go as crazy as it wants.” I thought his life wasn’t much to live for, compared to mine, because I was going to college soon. He’d been taught that as a man he fed his family, no whining. He’d decided that everything else was the craziness of the world.

Now, I’m decades past college, and it’s no small thing to get along day after day, year after year, and let the world be as crazy as it wants, with whatever miniscule difference I might make. Sometimes the craziness tears at me and reminds me of how a raccoon tore up my neighbor’s caged chicken, reaching its clawed hand in and pulling the chicken’s feathers and flesh through the wire little bit by bit. Sometimes late at night I think of Peachy driving the night roads, perched high up in the cab, the highway barreling through his heart, his heart a migratory bird, circling back toward home.

 

 

 

Laura Long’s first novel Out of Peel Tree is published by West Virginia University Press. She has published two poetry collections, The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems (2013) and Imagine a Door (2009). Her work appears in Shenandoah, Southern Review, and other magazines and she has received a James Michener Fellowship and other awards. She teaches at Lynchburg College in Virginia and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan.

Interview with Danielle Collins

Danielle Collins

Valerie Fioravanti: In your Shorts On Survival piece “Spelunking,” you deliberately shut off your lamp in the black of a lava tube. This feels like the makings of a writing metaphor. Is it?

Danielle Collins: In real life, I did shut off my headlamp to conserve batteries, and I felt the heebie-jeebies of being alone in a dark cave. This unsettling memory became a great building block as I wrote the piece. As an English major, I definitely see the symbolism of extinguishing my own light, and wow, wouldn’t that be an awesome metaphor to play with. . . but in actuality, it was a happy coincidence in my writing.

 

VF: I thought of it, at least in terms of writing metaphor, as courage to face the darkness. That’s present in the best of writing, no?

DC: Yes, I see what you’re saying. I think it definitely takes courage to face our individual fears lurking in the metaphorical darkness. It’s really challenging to take a step back from these fears and observe ourselves, to talk to ourselves and understand why we feel scared. I also think it takes courage for writers to put ourselves on the page, and then share that with the public. Readers are eager to identify with the piece and see themselves reflected back, and the best way this happens is when the writer is able to authentically share.

Spelunking (lava park)

VF: The setting, especially the line, “I could meld with these curtains of basalt right now,” suggests a connection with the natural world. Is that a theme in your work?

DC: You’re right, I do incorporate a lot of the natural world into my work. I write mostly creative nonfiction, and focus on my relationships, and the memories I bring to the page are often set against a backdrop of striking natural beauty.   I’ve written about beekeeping in Paraguay, about my grandparents in Appalachia, and about the natural wonders of the Southwest. I love traveling, especially to places off the beaten path, and this comes through in my writing. I also love photographing rural landscapes and forgotten spaces.

 

VF: Another line that struck me was, “I realize that a part of me wants to be free and alone, to disappear into this darkness — to retract like the lava in these tubes, leaving only a memory.” That desire for freedom speaks to me as a reader. Is this a thread you come back to in your writing?

DC: The desire for freedom is a common thread in my writings about certain romantic relationships. Looking back, I realize that in each of those relationships, we did the best we could – but I am left with this sense of frustration that I was unseen, when really want I want, and what most people probably want, is to feel cherished.

 

VF: Congratulations on publishing “Spelunking.” What’s next?

DC: My number one project is the writing of Surfacing, my in-progress memoir. Surfacing covers the eight-year period when I shifted from dating artists to becoming an artist myself. I am also finishing a braided essay about the relationship of my grandparents. This piece has evolved through many drafts and is almost fit for public consumption.

Another creative outlet for me is my website, JammieWalker.com. This site gives me space to blog, and to feature my writing and photography.

 

VF: What other piece in this issue of r.kv.r.y. would you recommend to readers?

DC: I enjoyed so many pieces, it was a rich issue. There is one piece that had such a strong voice, it still resonates with me, and that’s “Just Enough Hope” by Toby Van Bryce. He captures the confusion and longing that someone attending their first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting would likely feel. I appreciated that the narrator felt gratitude, rather than judgment, when he listens to people share at the meeting. Instead of telling himself he has nothing in common with the people in the room, he embraces their stories and finds comfort in their recovery. I was left feeling hopeful the narrator would find his way as well.

 

 

Valerie Fioravanti writes fiction, essays, and prose poems. Her linked story collection, Garbage Night at the Opera, won the 2011 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2012. Her nonfiction has appeared in Eclectica, Silk Road, and Jelly Bucket, and she is working on an episodic memoir of sorts.

Interview with Jessica Handler

Jessica_Handler

Mary Akers: Hi, Jessica. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. In your introduction to Braving the Fire: Writing About Grief and Loss, you write: “After you’ve survived the death of a loved one, an illness, a broken romance, the loss of a home,  country, or even a social structure, the story of who you are changes.” Wow. I really like that. It’s one of those truths that seems simultaneously deep and yet also obvious. I read your first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (and loved it), so I suspect you’ve long had a sense of wanting to explore and write about loss. But I’m curious: When did you realize that you wanted to help others learn to write about their losses? The two seem like very different animals.

Jessica Handler: When I was doing author events with Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, time after time members of the audience approached me privately to tell me that they, like me, were “an only one left,” and to ask not only about my process in writing the book, but what it was really like, emotionally and intellectually. I teach writing workshops, and I know that people struggle with the particular responsibility of telling their own stories of loss or trauma. I’ve been there, and I love to teach, so the two ideas came together naturally.

 

MA: Ah, of course. That makes perfect sense.

You talk about Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief in your book, and then you go on to add “renewal” as a sixth stage. Renewal seems like an important step in the process of healing. As you aptly put it, it’s a process of “building a bridge between who you were and who you have become.” Can you talk a little bit about what that bridge looks like for you? And, a related question, do you have multiple bridges?

JH: My bridge is paved with artifacts and actions that keep my sisters, my mother, and my father in my life. A bad day and I hear my mother encouraging me to enjoy life, to work in the garden, to pet the cat. I hear a song on the radio that reminds me of my sister Sarah and I sing along. A child’s picture book and I think of Susie. Social justice, and I act on my father’s behalf. All these people and interactions made me who I am now, and I try to keep that in perspective. And then there’s my husband, who loves me and keeps me grounded in the present and the future and our own past. He’s a bridge.

 

MA: I really like that you include analysis of and insights from the work of other authors in your book. How instructive/enlightening was it for you to contact these authors whose work you’ve admired and pick their brains?

JH: Wonderfully so! Some of the authors are writers who have been mentors to me and I know personally, and others I took a deep breath and reached out to, and every single person was generous and kind and insightful. Their insights helped verify my own thoughts and approaches. Despite our different personal experiences, writing styles, and levels of recognition, we had similar instincts and concepts about writing about grief and loss. And I learned a great deal from each of them. Those interviews were kind of a personalized master class, and I’m so grateful.

MA: Another thing I liked was the extended metaphor about the flame. The flame of grief and loss that burns through us, the way we have to be brave enough to put the hand back over the fire that has already burned us if we want to write about grief, but also the idea of afterward being “the keeper of the flame.” You are the keeper of the flame as the last surviving sister, and most of us who write are also keeping the flame in some form, or will be soon enough. No question, I guess, but would you care to comment?

JH: We’re the keepers of the flames of whatever’s gone behind us but has made us who we are, whether it’s the death of loved ones, the loss of a way of life, a home, a romance, or a way of being. That flame doesn’t always have to rage, but it’s like a spark, or a pilot light.

MA: In the first chapter, you discuss The Right to Write, which is an excellent guide to starting the process. As you know, I helped an older gentleman write about the time when he was five years old and watched his grandfather starve to death on purpose (in Siberia) so the children (my co-author and his younger brother) could have enough food. That was a very moving project for me, but I worried a lot about “getting it right,” especially since I wasn’t writing about my own experience. But I expect it’s just as easy to worry about “getting it right” when it is your own experience. Perhaps even more so. How do you satisfy your inner critic that you’ve gotten it right (or right enough)?

JH: I loved Radical Gratitude! My maternal grandfather was born in Siberia, so the book gave me some insight into his internal landscape. In a memoir, you’re getting your own story right, so some of what you have to honor – or learn to honor – is your recollection of an event, or your emotions or reactions to an event. These might not be another person’s feelings, but they’re your emotional or subjective truth. That’s the hardest to ‘get right’ because we naturally question ourselves as time passes, and that passage of time is part of memoir, too. That “right to write” means accepting that you want to write what you know to be true. This doesn’t mean that a memoir is entirely subjective. Our lives take place in the larger world, which means that facts are necessary. Those are objective truths, which are much easier to pin down; dates, weather, news events, and so forth, which can be corroborated with research. I love research, and devote a part of “Braving the Fire” to innovative ways to conduct research. That can also mean accepting that there will be things a writer will never know. How do you write about those things?

 

MA: Exactly! After we published Radical Gratitude, my co-author (a psychotherapist by trade) came up with this maxim: “What you choose to remember…and how you choose to interpret it…determines who you are.” I would say that also applies to the writing of memoir. Since we can’t write about everything, the selectivity serves to shape the book. Would you agree?

JH: I agree. I’m not a psychologist at all, but I know from personal experience that people remember things differently, or not at all. A memoir isn’t a tell-all that covers every moment of the author’s life, it’s merely a lyrical examination of an event that changed the author. Merely. :)

 

MA: And finally, if it isn’t too bold of me to ask a question that you have spent a whole book answering, what does “recovery” mean to you?

JH: Moving ahead, changed and aware and happy.

Interview with David Jauss

David_Jauss

Mary Akers: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me today, David. I loved your story The Stars at Noon in this issue. It’s such an interesting point-of-view to write from–that of a dying nun. What was the inspiration behind this story?

David Jauss: I grew up surrounded by nuns. From first through eighth grade, I went to a Catholic school where all the classes were taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. My mother was good friends with several of the nuns, so I saw them frequently outside of school too. I always found them mysterious; I wondered what made them decide to become nuns and wear their black habits and white wimples. I tried to imagine what they were like when they were young girls, and I remember looking around the room at my female classmates and wondering if any of them would grow up to become a nun and, if so, why. For some reason, I didn’t find priests mysterious, and I didn’t wonder if any of my classmates would become one. Priests seemed pretty much like other men, but the nuns didn’t seem like any women I knew. So I was curious, and of course curiosity is what precedes every act of the imagination. I should also point out that two of the nuns who were my teachers died, so I was curious not only about what they thought and felt as young girls but what they thought and felt when they died.

 

MA: Fascinating. I find nuns mysterious, too. They’re generally more progressive than priests and more hands-on within the community of needy people, aren’t they? The front lines of the Catholic Church, so to speak.

Your collection Glossolalia blew me away. I read an ARC (advance reader copy) and loved it so much I had to buy my own copy. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever done that. The stories are New and Selected. I know you had many stories to choose from. Can you talk a little bit about what the selection process was like?

DJ: First things first: thank you to the nth power for your very kind words. They mean a lot coming from the author of Women Up on Blocks and Bones of an Inland Sea, two books I love and regularly recommend to my friends and students.

Selecting the stories for Glossolalia was both easy and impossible. The easy part was eliminating the dozen or so stories I’d published that just plain weren’t up to snuff. The impossible part was trying to choose which of the remaining thirty stories to include. I felt a bit like Styron’s Sophie, having to choose which of my children would die. Eventually I took the coward’s way out and sent all thirty stories—nearly 500 pages’ worth—to Press 53. Ultimately, I have to give credit to Christine Norris, my editor, for the selections. She sent me a list of seventeen stories—250 pages’ worth—that she thought would work well together, and if I remember right, I made only one substitution. But she and Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher, said they wanted to publish the rest of the stories too. So there’ll be a second New & Selected Stories coming out, probably sometime next year, and it’ll contain a few things there wasn’t room for in Glossolalia, including a novella, plus several new stories.

MA: Ooh, I can’t wait! I hope you do another advance book tour. That was a lot of fun.

I’m always interested in who other writers read, but I know it puts them in an awkward spot to name names since many of their friends are also writers. So instead, I’ll ask (and find your answer equally as interesting) who did you read when you were 11 or 12?

DJ: I read virtually every novel Jules Verne wrote; dozens of books from the Landmark series about American history; Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters; numerous Hardy Boys mysteries; Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton series of sports novels, especially those, like Fence Busters, that were about baseball; a slew of biographies of famous baseball players; and a Catholic propaganda novel called Knockout, in which a group of humble Catholic boys take on a group of over-confident Protestants and whoop them one by one in every major team sport and then, in the final chapter, the captain of the Catholic team takes on the captain of the Protestant team in a boxing match and—well, I think you can guess how that turns out.

 

MA: How fun! And that’s a great list. One of the reasons I ask the question is because Ray Bradbury has said that he believes those preteen years are the ones during which writers form their lasting obsessions, either in terms of pivotal events in their lives or books they read at that age. Would you agree? And if so, do you see influences from those years emerging in your own work?

DJ: He may be right about pivotal life events but I think he’s wrong about the influence of books read at that age. I would hate to think that our literary interests and aspirations are determined when we’re preteens. Mine definitely weren’t. I see little to no connection between what I read then and what I read and write now. I still love baseball and I’ve written one story about a baseball player, though it’s far from being anything like a Chip Hilton story. I have no interest in writing or reading science fiction or mysteries or sports novels and only minimal interest in historical fiction. And if I read Knockout today, I’d be pulling for those poor doomed Protestants who not only have inferior athletic abilities but are headed to hell for eating hot dogs on Friday.

Although I read a lot as a kid, it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I read any author who influenced me in any crucial way. I had a Current Events teacher then (this was 1967) who was rabidly anti-Communist and who argued that the only way to avoid WWIII was to rain atomic bombs on Russia immediately. I couldn’t stand the guy, so I went to the school library, asked the librarian if they had any books by Russians, and she led me to The Brothers Karamazov. I had no intention of reading it—I merely wanted to prop it up on my desk to irritate my teacher—but one day in study hall I started reading it and before I knew it I was living in a whole new world, one full of very different dangers than the kind I’d encountered in the Hardy Boys or Chip Hilton stories or Treasure Island. I finished that novel with my brain on fire and my DNA changed, and I began seeking out other writers of by-god Literature. Of them, two that I read incessantly in high school—Hemingway and Salinger—have been among my most enduring influences.

The Stars at Noon (Frozen Feathers)

MA: You know, now that you say that, I think you’re right. Bradbury said it about events, not books read. I must have made that up to validate my early reading choices. :)

By the way, I really love that your introduction to by-god Literature came about as a way to spite a professor you despised. That’s brilliant.

You write and publish across all genres. I’m so impressed and awed by your list of publications. What haven’t you done? Or maybe I should ask: Is there something you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t done YET?

DJ: Oh, there’s a lot I haven’t done—I’ve never written a novel or a memoir or a play—but there’s not really anything I wanted to do that I haven’t done. All I really want to do is write better stories, poems, and essays. I’ve never felt any desire to write a novel and, to be honest, I don’t even enjoy reading novels all that much. Even the novels I most love strike me as full of inessential details, characters, and events, not to mention long dreary bouts of exposition. I like the idea of trying to convey the world in a grain of sand, not an entire beach. And I think it’s much more possible to achieve something akin to perfection in a poem or story than it is in a novel. Novels seemed doomed by their very length to fail. As Randall Jarrell said, “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” And I couldn’t possibly write a memoir—I have a very poor memory, and nothing too exciting or interesting has happened to me. And although I tried my hand at playwriting once when I was an undergrad, I’m too much of a control freak to want to write a play or screenplay and turn it over to a director and actors who’d bring it to a very different life than the one I imagined. So, for better or worse, I’ve found the genres that fit my temperament and aesthetic goals.

 

MA: A control freak, eh? I wonder if all short story writers have a bit of the control freak in them. It is such a deliciously containable form. I liken a novel to a great sprawling mural and a short story to a closely observed, meticulous sketch.

Margaret Atwood has said that a book is a form of brain transfer, that art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. Do you agree?

DJ: I do believe that art takes two brains to be fully realized, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the experiencer’s brain often prevents the work of art from being fully realized—and, alas, the creator’s brain often does too. But let’s assume a writer creates a successful story, one that supplies all the essential information a reader would need to understand it and feel the emotions the author wants him to feel. If the reader fails to notice key facts of a story, invents her own details, imposes his own experience and opinions on it, or extrapolates wildly from some detail to a conclusion that’s not supported by the text, I think the brain transfer is partial at best. An example: I once had a student complain that a character named Brian in a classmate’s story couldn’t possibly lift an oak table by himself because he was “scrawny and weak.” In fact, the character was described as a longtime weightlifter; the reader had failed to notice that fact and imagined the character to be like a particular Brian he knew, someone who was scrawny and weak. He was reading a story, yes, but not the one the author wrote.

One more example: after reading a poem about a woman walking down a hallway of closed doors in search of a quiet, peaceful room where she can be alone, one student said he thought the poem was about driving through Texas and trying to get a good station on the radio. The poet’s reference to turning a doorknob had led him to think of turning radio knobs. And, not surprisingly, he had not too recently driven through Texas and had trouble finding a good station to listen to. So yes, art needs two brains to be fully realized, but it needs two well-trained and attentive brains. The reader has to be as well trained in the discipline of reading as the writer is in the discipline of writing. And he has to resist the temptation to treat the work as a Rorschach blot about which any opinion or response is as legitimate as any other.

 

MA: This is so fascinating! (And a little discouraging, I must admit.) So…we bring our own experiences to the table when reading–or experiencing any art form–but apparently sometimes we bring TOO MUCH of our own experience and it leads to a gross misinterpretation of the work. How very interesting. (Why had this angle never occurred to me?) I feel like this concept also begs a couple of (rhetorical?) questions. How much of that misinterpretation is okay? Is valid, even? Where is the line? As artists, we have to accept that no one is ever going to get all of our references, but how much can we expect them to get without feeling cranky that they didn’t get it? Your answer makes a good case for the argument that we should write the books we want to read.

And finally, because we are a themed journal and I never get tired of hearing people answer this question, “What does ‘recovery’ mean to you?”

DJ: I think “recovery” is just a synonym for “life.” Some people may be recovering alcoholics, but all of us are recovering human beings. I think life is largely a matter of recovering from what we’ve witnessed or experienced, of finding a way to go on after life gives us a kick in the teeth. And for writers, “recovery” could just as well be a synonym for “writing” too. Writing is a way to recover (or at least try to recover) from the wounds life has given us. And, I’d argue, recovery from the past is possible only through recovery of the past: we have to go back and relive in a way the traumas we’ve endured, finding this time a way to reimagine and revise the past in such a way that we can deal with it. Whether we write in an overtly autobiographical way or not (and I don’t), we’re dealing with our personal wounds and trying to put them into a context that heals them. To return to “The Stars at Noon” for a moment: when I was in first grade, my teacher, Sister Aloysius, got sick and had to go to the hospital. The other nuns told us all to pray that she get well, and we did so, daily and fervently, because we all loved her. But she died. It was the first time in my life that someone I knew died, and just as important, it was also the first time I realized that praying didn’t necessarily get you what you want. I didn’t understand why I wrote “The Stars at Noon” until well after I’d finished it, but now it’s clear to me that I wrote it to do two things at once: grant my childhood prayer that Sister Aloysius live and make the fact that she died more tolerable by imagining that she wanted to die.

 

MA: Oh, my. Beautiful Thank you, David. It’s been a real pleasure.

The Beginnings of Sorrow

The Beginnings of Sorrow

Vandal Boucher told his dog Hark to go snatch the duck out of the rushes where it had fallen, and Hark told him No. In days to come, Vandal probably wished he’d just pointed his Ithaca 12-gauge side-by-side at Hark’s fine-boned skull right that moment and pulled the trigger on the second barrel (he had emptied the first to bring down the duck) and blown the dog’s brains out, there at the edge of the freezing, sludgy pond. But that unanticipated answer—any answer would have been a surprise, of course, but this was no, unmistakably no, in a pleasant tenor, without any obvious edge of anger or resentment—that single syllable took him aback and prevented him from taking action.

Vandal’s old man, now: back in the day, Vandal’s old man Xerxes Boucher would have slain the dog that showed him any sign of strangeness or resistance to his will, let alone one that told him no. Dog’s sucking the golden yolks out of the eggs? Blam. Dog’s taking chickens out of the coop? Blam. Dog’s not sticking tight enough to the sheep, so the coyotes are chivvying them across the high pastures? This dog’s your favorite, your special pet? You wish I would refrain from shooting the dog? Well, sonny, you wish in one hand and shit in the other, see which gets full first. Blam. Nothing could stop him, no pleading or promises, and threats were out of the question. But that was Xerxes in his prime, and Vandal wasn’t a patch on him, everybody said so, Vandal himself had ruefully to agree with the general assessment of his character. So when Hark said no, Vandal just blinked. “Come again?” he said.

No.

Well, Vandal thought. He looked out into the reeds, where the body of the mallard he had just shot bobbed in the dark water. That water looked cold. Hark sat on the shore, blinking up at Vandal with mild eyes. It would have struck Xerxes Boucher as outrageous that the dog should balk at wading out there into that cold, muddy mess, the soupy muck at the pond’s margin at least shoulder-deep for the dog where the dead mallard floated, maybe deep enough that a dog—even a sizable dog like Hark—would have to swim.

But damn it if, on that gray November morning, with a hot thermos of his wife’s bitter black coffee nearby just waiting on him to drink it, and a solid breakfast when he got home after the hunt, and dry socks—Damned if Vandal couldn’t see the dog’s point.

“Okay,” he said. “This once.”

He was wearing his thick rubber waders, the ones that went all the way up to the middle of his chest, so he took off his coat—the frigid air bit into him, made his breath go short—laid the coat down on the bank, set the shotgun on top of the coat, and set off after the mallard himself. The waders clutched his calves as the greasy pond water surged around his legs, and his feet sank unpleasantly into the soft bottom. He considered what might be sleeping down there: frogs settled in for the winter, dreaming their slick wet dreams; flabby catfish whiskered like old men; great knobby snapping turtles, their thick round shells overlapping one another like the shields of some ancient army.

They were down there in the dark, the turtles that had survived unchanged from the age of the dinosaurs, with their spines buckled so that they fit, neatly folded, within their shells; and their eyes closed fast, their turtle hearts beating slow, slow, slow, waiting on the passing of another winter. And what if the winter never passed and spring never came, as looked more and more likely? How long would they sleep, how long could such creatures wait in the dark? A long time, Vandal suspected. Time beyond counting. It might suit them well, the endless empty twilight that the world seemed dead-set on becoming.

Vandal didn’t care to put his feet on such creatures, and when his toes touched something hard, he tried to tread elsewhere. The pond bottom was full of hard things, and most of them were probably rocks, but better safe than sorry. He had seen the jaws on snapping turtles up close, the beak on the skeletal face like a hawk’s or an eagle’s, hooked and hard-edged and sharp as a razor. Easy to lose a toe to such a creature.

When he reached the mallard—it was truly a perfect bird, its head and neck a deep oily green, unmarked by the flying shot—he plucked its limp body up out of the water and waved it over his head for the dog to see. “Got it!” he called.

Hark wasn’t paying any attention to him at all. He was sitting next to the tall silver thermos and gazing quizzically at the coat and, cradled on the coat, Vandal’s shotgun.

~ ~ ~

“I told him to go get the duck,” Vandal said to his wife, who was called Bridie. Then, to Hark, he said, “Tell her what you told me.”

No, said Hark.

Bridie looked from her husband to the dog. “Does he mean to tell you no,” she asked, working to keep her voice even and calm, her tone reasonable. “Or does he mean he won’t tell me?”

No, the dog said again. It wasn’t like a bark, which Bridie would have much preferred, one of those clever dogs that has been taught by its owner to “talk” by mimicking human speech without understanding what it was saying. “What’s on top of a house?” Roof! “How does sandpaper feel?” Rough! “Who’s the greatest ballplayer of all time?” Ruth!

DiMaggio, she thought to herself. That’s the punchline. The dog says Ruth! but really it’s DiMaggio.

Vandal laughed. He was a big broad-shouldered good-natured man with an infectious laugh, which was one of the reasons Bridie loved him, and she smiled despite her misgivings. The dog seemed delighted with the turn of events too.

“That’s the sixty-four dollar question, ain’t it?” Vandal said. He clapped Hark on the head in the old familiar way, and the dog shifted out from under the cupped hand, eyes suddenly slitted and opaque.

No, it said.

Much as she loved Vandal, and much as she had hated his bear of a father, with his great sweaty hands always ready to squeeze her behind or pinch her under her skirt as she was climbing the stairs, always ready to brush against her breasts—glad as she was that the mean old man was in the cold cold ground, she couldn’t help but think at that moment that a little of Xerxes’ unflinching resolve wouldn’t have gone amiss in Vandal’s character, in this circumstance. She wished that the dog had said pretty much anything else: Yes, or better yet, yes sir. Even a word of complaint, cold, wet, dark. Afraid. But this flat refusal unnerved her.

“He takes a lot on himself, doesn’t he? For a dog,” she said.

“Talking dog,” said Vandal, his pride written on his knobby face, as though he had taught the dog to speak all by himself, as though it had been his idea.

Hark had begun wandering through the house, inspecting the dark heavy furniture like he had never seen it or the place before. Not exploring timidly, like a guest unsure of his welcome, but more like a new owner. Bridie thought she saw him twitch a lip disdainfully as he sniffed at the fraying upholstery of the davenport. He looked to her for a moment as though maybe he were going to lift his leg. “No!” she snapped. “Bad boy!”

He glanced from her to Vandal and back again, trotted over to Vandal’s easy chair with his tail curled high over his back. He gave off the distinct air of having won some sort of victory. “Come here,” Bridie called to him. She snapped her fingers, and he swung his narrow, intelligent head, looking past his shoulder at her.

No, he said, and he hopped up into Vandal’s chair. Bridie was relieved to see how small he was in the chair, into which Vandal had to work to wedge his bulky frame.

There was room for two of Hark in the seat, three even, so lean was he, slender long-legged retriever mix. Vandal nodded at him with approval. The dog turned around and around and around as though he were treading down brush to make himself a nest, in the ancient way of dogs. In the end, though, he settled himself upright rather than lying down, his spine against the back of the chair, his head high.

“Xerxes wouldn’t never allow a dog up in his chair like that,” Bridie said. And was immediately sorry she had said it. Vandal had adored and dreaded his brutal, unstoppable old man, and any comparison between them left him feeling failed and wanting. Xerxes, Xerxes. Will he never leave our house?

“Xerxes never had him a talking dog,” Vandal said. He handed the dead mallard to her. Its glossy head and neck stretched down toward the floor in a comical way, its pearlescent eyes long gone into death. It was a large, muscular bird.

“Not much of a talking dog,” Bridie said. She turned, taking the mallard away into the kitchen when she saw the flash of irritation in Vandal’s eyes. She didn’t look toward Hark, because she didn’t want to see the expression of satisfaction that she felt sure animated his doggy features. She wanted to let Vandal have this moment, this chance to own something that his father couldn’t have imagined, let alone possessed, but it was—it was wrong. Twisted, bent. It was a thing that couldn’t be but was, it was unspeakable, and it was there in her living room, sitting in her husband’s chair. “Not much of one, if all it can manage to say is no.”

~ ~ ~

Hark reclined in the easy chair in the parlor. The television was tuned to the evening news, and the dog watched and listened with bright gleaming eyes, giving every appearance of understanding what was said: Wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes and famines and troubles. None of it was good at all, it hadn’t been good in some little time, but none of it seemed to bother him in the least. He chewed briefly at his own hip, after some itch that was deeply hidden there, and then went back to his television viewing.

Vandal sat on the near end of the davenport, not appearing to hear the news. From time to time he reached out a hand to pet Hark, but Hark shifted his weight and leaned away, just out of reach. It was what Bridie had always striven to do when Xerxes went to put his hands on her but that she had somehow never managed, to create that small distance between them that would prove unbridgeable. Always the hand reached her, to pet and stroke and pinch, always when Vandal’s attention was turned elsewhere. And them living in Xerxes’ house, and her helpless to turn him away.

About the third time Vandal put his hand out, Hark tore his gaze from the TV screen, snarled, snapped, his jaws closing with a wicked click just shy of Vandal’s reaching fingertips. Vandal withdrew his hand, looking sheepish.

“No?” he asked the dog.

No, Hark said, and he settled back into the soft cushions of the chair, his eyes fixed once more on the flickering screen.

~ ~ ~

Over Bridie’s objections, Hark ate dinner at the table with them that night. Vandal insisted. The dog tried to climb into the chair with arms, Vandal’s seat at the head of the table. Vandal wasn’t going to protest, but Bridie wouldn’t allow it. She flapped the kitchen towel—it was covered in delicate blue cornflowers—at him, waved her hands and shouted “Shoo! Shoo!” until he slipped down out of the chair and, throwing resentful glances her way, slunk over to one of the chairs at the side of the table and took his place.

He ate like an animal, she noted with satisfaction, chasing the duck leg she had given him around and around the rim of the broad plate with his sharp snout, working to grasp the bone with his teeth, his tongue hanging drolly from the side of his mouth. Always, the leg escaped him. Each time it did, she put it carefully back in the middle of the plate, and he went after it again. From time to time he would stop his pursuit of the drumstick and watch Bridie and Vandal manipulate their utensils, raise their forks to their mouths, dab at their lips with napkins. His own napkin was tucked bib-like under the broad leather strap of his collar, and it billowed ridiculously out over his narrow, hairy chest. Vandal watched this process through a number of repetitions, his brow furrowed, before he put down his knife and fork.

“You can’t let a dog have duck bones like that,” he said. “He’ll crack the bone and swallow it and the sharp edges will lodge in his throat.”

Good, Bridie thought. Let him. The dog stared across the table at her, his face twisted into what she took to be an accusatory grimace. Hark had always been Vandal’s dog, never hers, and she had never felt much affection for him, but he had always seemed to her to be a perfectly normal dog, not overfriendly but that was normal in an animal that was brought up to work rather than as a pet. Restrained in his affections, but never hostile. Lean and quick and hard-muscled, with the bland face and expressions of his kind. And now he looked at her as though he knew what she was thinking—an image of Hark coughing, wheezing, hacking up blood on the kitchen floor swam back into her consciousness—and hated her for it.

Was there an element of surprise there too? she wondered. He hadn’t known about the bones. An unanticipated danger, and now he knew, and she could sense him filing the information away, so that such a thing would never be a threat to him again. What else was he ignorant about?

Bridie had never disliked Hark before, had never disliked any of Vandal’s boisterous happy-go-lucky hunting dogs, the bird dogs, the bear dogs, the coon dogs, all of them camped out in the tilting kennel attached to the pole barn. They shared the long fenced run that stretched across the barnyard, and they would woof and whirl and slobber when she went out to feed them. Dogs with names like Sam and Kettle and Bengal and Ranger. And Hark. Hark the waterdog, a little quieter than the others, more subdued, maybe, but nothing obvious about him to separate him from the rest of them. They were Vandal’s friends and companions, they admired him even when Xerxes fed him scorn, and they were kind to him when even she herself wasn’t. She didn’t fool with them much.

Something had come alive in Hark, something that allowed him, compelled him, to say no, and now he was at her table when the rest were outside in the cold and the dark, now he was looking her in the eye. That was another new thing, this direct confrontation; he had always cast his gaze down, properly canine, when his eyes had locked with hers in the past. He’d regained his earlier cocksureness, and the impression of self-satisfaction that she had from him made him unbearable to her.

Vandal was leaning over, working his knife, paring the crispy skin and the leg meat away from the bone. “Here you go,” he told the dog, his tone fond. Hark sniffed.

“If he plans to eat his food at the table like people,” Bridie said, “then he better learn to pick it up like people.”

Vandal stopped cutting. Bridie half-expected Hark to say No in the light voice that sounded so strange coming out of that long maw, with its mottled tongue and (as they seemed to her) cruel-looking teeth. Instead, he nudged Vandal out of his way and planted one forepaw squarely on the duck leg. He understands, Bridie thought to herself.

The plate tipped and skittered away from him, the duck leg tumbling off it, the china ringing against the hard oak of the tabletop. The dog looked perplexed, but Vandal slid the plate back into place, picked up the drumstick and laid it gently down.

Just as gently, Hark put his paw on the leg bone, pinning it. He lowered his head, closed his teeth securely on the leg—the chafing squeak of tooth against bone made Bridie squint her eyes in disgust—and pulled away a triumphant mouthful of duck. He tossed it back, swallowed without chewing, and went after the leg again.

“Good dog,” Vandal said. The dog’s ears flickered at the familiar phrase, but he didn’t raise his head from the plate. Bridie bit into her own portion. Duck was normally one of her favorites, but this meal filled her mouth like ashes. Vandal stopped chewing, leaned down close to his plate, his lips pursed as though he were about to kiss his food, his eyes screwed nearly shut. He made a little spitting noise, and a pellet of lead shot, no bigger than a flea, pinged onto his plate, bounced, and lay still.

~ ~ ~

After supper, as Bridie retted up the kitchen, Vandal sat cross-legged on the floor in the parlor, the shotgun broken down and spread out on several thicknesses of newspaper on the floor before him. A small smoky fire—the wood was too green to burn well, hadn’t aged sufficiently—flared and popped in the hearth.

Hark sat in the comfortable chair, and his posture had become—she felt sure of this—more human than it had been previously. He was sitting like a man now, a misshapen man, yes, with a curved spine and his head low between his shoulders, but he was working to sit upright. He looked ridiculous, as she glanced in at him from where she was working, but she felt no impulse to laugh. Was he larger than he had been? Did he fill the chair more fully? While she watched, he lost his precarious balance, slipped to the side, thrashed for a moment before righting himself again.

The television was on, the usual chatter from the local news, a terrible wreck out on the state highway, a plant shutting down in the county seat, a marvel on a nearby farm, a Holstein calf born with two heads, both of them alive and bawling, both of them sucking milk. Who could even take note of something like that in these times, Bridie wondered to herself as she worked to scrub the grease from the plates. The next day it would be something else, and something else after that, until the wonders and the sports and the abominations (how to tell the difference among them?) piled up so high that there wouldn’t be any room left for them, for her and for Vandal, the regular ones, the ones that remained.

A talking dog? Was that stranger than a two-headed calf? Stranger than poor old Woodrow Scurry’s horses eating each other in his stables a fortnight earlier? Every day the world around her seemed more peculiar than it had the day before, and every day she felt herself getting a little more used to the new strangenesses, numb to them, and wondering idly what ones the next day would bring.

How you use? They were Hark’s words, clumsy and laughable, coming to her over the din of the voices on the television. There was another sort of show on, this one a game of some type, where people shouted at one another, encouragement and curses. That thing, Hark said.

“So,” Vandal said, “you can say more than No.”

How you use that thing, Hark said again. A demand this time, not a question.

The shotgun, Bridie thought, and she dropped the plate she was washing back into the sink full of lukewarm water and dying suds and hurried into the den, drying her hands on a dishtowel as she went.

“Don’t tell him that,” she said.

Vandal looked up at her, startled. Just above him on the wall hung a picture that his mother had hung there as a young woman. She had died young. In the decades since it had been hung, the picture, it occurred to Bridie, had taken in every event that had occurred in that low-ceilinged, claustrophobic room. It depicted Jesus, a thick-muscled Jesus, naked but for a drape of white cloth, getting his baptism in the river Jordan. The Baptist raised a crooked hand over his head, water spilling from the upraised palm.

Vandal was fitting the barrels of the shotgun—which had been his old man’s but which was now his, like the house, like the farm—back into the stock. The metal mated to the wood with a definitive click. “Why in the world wouldn’t I tell him?

Bridie was at a loss for a cogent answer. It seemed obvious to her that Vandal ought not to impart such information to the dog just for the asking, but he didn’t share her worry at all, it was clear. How to explain? The dog looked at her with, she thought, an expression of feigned innocence. “A dog ought not to know how to use a gun,” she said.

Vandal chuckled. “He doesn’t even have hands. He has no fingers.

“So why tell him how a gun works?”

“Because he wants to know.”

“And should he know everything he wants to, just because he wants to know it?”

Vandal shrugged. Bridie felt heat flooding her face. How could he not understand? He thought it was terrific, the way the dog had decided to talk, the way he could sit there with it and watch television, the way it asked him questions, the way it wanted to know the things that he knew. He was happy to share with it: his table, his food, his house, his knowledge. He was treating the dog like a friend, like a member of the family. Like a child, his child.

“What he wants is to have hands. What he wants is to be a man. To do what you do. To have what you have.”

She caught Hark gazing at her intently, his eyes gleaming, hungry, his nose wet, his broad flat tongue caught between the rows of his teeth.

“What’s wrong with that?” Vandal wanted to know.

He is not your boy, she wanted to tell him. He is not your son. He is a dog, and it’s wrong that he can talk. You want to share what you have with him, but he doesn’t want to share it with you. He wants to have it instead of you.

The dog wrinkled his nose, sniffing, and she knew suddenly that he was taking her in, the scent of her. A dog’s nose was, she knew, a million times more sensitive than a man’s. He could know her by her scent. He could tell that she was afraid of him. He could follow her anywhere, because of that phenomenal sense of smell. In prehistoric times, before men became human and made servants out of them, Hark and his kind would have hunted her down in a pack and eaten her alive. Her scent would have led them to her. Hark’s eyes narrowed, and her words clung to her jaws. She couldn’t bear to speak them in front of the dog. She blinked, dropped her gaze and, under the animal’s intense scrutiny, fled the room.

Behind her, Vandal spoke. “This here’s the breech,” he said. The gun snicked open. “This here is where the shells go.” The gun thumped closed.

**Excerpted from Miracle Boy and Other Stories (Press 53).

 

 

Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in the mountains of southern West Virginia. He has published three collections of short fiction (Town Smokes, The Wrecking Yard, and Miracle Boy) and a novel (Dogs of God). His stories have appeared in Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, StoryQuarterly, Ontario Review, the O. Henry Award series, New Stories from the South, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He is the recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Literary Fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, a Michener Fellowship, the Nelson Algren Award, an Individual Artist’s grant from the Illinois Arts Council, and Britain’s Steinbeck Award. He is a professor in the English Department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.