Interview with Stephen G. Eoannou

Steve Eoannou

CD: The common thread in your short story collection, Muscle Cars, and in “Slattery’s Ghost” are engaging, flawed men struggling through life. This is not unique, yet your stories most certainly are. How did you develop your taut, unflinchingly honest voice? In your creative process, which comes first, character or plot? 

SE: What comes first is something real, a nugget of truth, a fact quirky or interesting enough that gets me thinking that a story can be built around it. I read a newspaper article about migrating geese taking over a local park and “Culling” was born. Ted Williams’ head is really frozen and sitting in a canister in Arizona. How bizarre is that? My parish priest was killed when I was sixteen and it was traumatic so “Slip Kid” was written decades later. I had just finished reading Jimmy Slattery’s biography and was fascinated with the multiple sightings of his ghost haunting his favorite bar and staggering down Chippewa Street. I knew I wanted to write about that and even came up with the title—“Slattery’s Ghost”—before I had either a plot or a main character. Once I stumble over or remember something that makes me curious, character comes next. What kind of guy would want to shoot all those geese with a World War Two rifle? Who would drive cross country to steal Ted Williams’ head just to bury it in Fenway? Who shot that priest five times in the back and why? Who would be interested in Jimmy Slattery ninety years after he was lightweight champ? The stories and the voices of the characters emerged when I was trying to answer those questions.

 

CD: “Stealing Ted Willams’ Head” is one of my favorite stories from Muscle Cars. This overwhelmed-by-normal-life protagonist agrees with his buddy’s plan to steal the head of famed baseball player, Ted Williams. But, like with many of your protagonists, plans don’t work out. Talk about the genesis for that character and the quirky scheme to take the head.

SE: I used to work out at this gym in North Buffalo and in the locker room there was a black-and-white photograph of Ted Williams hung on the wall. His swing was perfect. I’d admire that picture every time I went to work out. I vaguely remember reading about how his head had been cryogenically frozen after he died, but I didn’t recall the details. I found the articles online and it was all so macabre and sad. Teddy deserved a better fate. Actually, he deserved to be rescued but by whom? I was thinking about that the night I went to my high school reunion. At some point during the night, I realized I had just finished the same conversation with a guy that I’d had with him thirty years earlier. I started eavesdropping then on the conversations around me and heard old arguments like which Tripi sister was hotter and who had the coolest car back in the day. I felt like I had one foot in the present and one in the past and it struck me that that should be exactly the predicament of the guys who want to steal Teddy Ballgame’s head. Both characters are stuck—one in the past and one in the present–and they need an adventure like driving two thousand miles to steal a head to get them moving forward. I went home that night and started working on the story. It’s one of my favorites in the collection.

 

CD: What has been the most surprising thing about your life as a writer?

SE: The most surprising thing to me is that I have a writing life. Writing is humbling. I had three failed novels and a drawer crammed with rejection slips before I began to publish on a regular basis. I think I averaged about a published story every eight years until not too long ago. It’s hard to keep trying when the rejections are pouring in and there’s no support or encouragement coming from any quarter. There’s a great deal of self-validation and satisfaction with each story that’s published and each invitation I receive to give a reading or to teach a class or to give an interview like this one. I love the network of writers that I now have in my life and the people I’ve met—bookstore owners, editors, publishers, readers—who love books and reading and writing. I feel very fortunate to be a small part of it.

CD: Also, as a writer, what is your Kryptonite?

SE: Time. I fight against it every day, and it always wins. There are not enough writing hours in the morning before I have to go to my paying job. There are not enough editing hours at night before I have to sleep. Getting up at 5am to write has gotten more difficult over this past year, and I think it’s because I’m older. I have a sense of urgency now to get words down on paper because time is going so quickly. It doesn’t help that I write slowly. People always say you have to ‘make’ time to write. Well, you can’t make time. We’re stuck with the twenty-four hours we got. I can’t create an extra hour so I can revise. What I have to do is steal time. I steal from my nine-to-five job. I steal from time with my kids. Workouts are cut short or skipped all together. I’m stealing minutes at lunchtime and on breaks to polish sentences. I have a buddy who writes screenplays. He grew tired of Chicago winters and not having enough time to write because of his real estate job so he quit his old life, cashed in his 401K and headed to Hollywood. There is no Plan B. I’m rooting for him. He stole back the whole 24/7. I hope he writes something magnificent for all us time thieves nickel and diming are way through our manuscripts.

 

CD: Which writers inspire you? 

SE: John Irving was the first writer to inspire me. He was the one that made me want to be a writer in the first place. I remember finishing The Hotel New Hampshire when I was in high school and wishing I had written it. I loved how Irving could make me laugh until I realized how sad it all really was and then the laughter stopped. It was like a slap coming right off the page. I then discovered William Kennedy and Richard Russo at about the same time and loved the sense of place in their novels. They were New York writers like I wanted to be, not New York City writers. I wanted—still want—to write about Buffalo the way Kennedy writes about Albany and Russo writes about Upstate New York. Their turf just isn’t the setting for their work. It becomes a character as fully developed as any other. It took me a long time, too long, before I realized that my home town, my neighborhood, is filled with stories waiting to be discovered and told. My writing went to another level when I finally realized this and began mining in my own backyard. “Slattery’s Ghost” is a good example of this. I knew Slattery was a South Buffalo fighter and light weight champ in the twenties and that my Dad had thrown him out of his restaurant in the forties when Slattery was washed up and an alcoholic, but I didn’t know anything else. I read his biography, Slats by Rich Blake, and realized that Slats was such a Buffalo guy, a legend, that I wanted to write about him and his life and somehow weave it in to a present-day story. I was very pleased with how the story was constructed and that it found a home at r.kv.ry. How cool would it be if that story inspires a young writer out there to take a swing at writing a story of their own? If it does, I hope that writer lets me know so I can buy them a beer. I’m still waiting for Russo and Irving to buy me that first round.

 

 

Carla Damron draws on her experiences as a southerner and a social worker in her writings, including the literary novel, The Stone Necklace (2016), and three mystery novels, Keeping Silent, (2001,) Spider Blue (2006) and Death in Zooville, (2010). Damron’s short stories have appeared in literary collections and journals such as Marked by WaterSix Minute FictionMelusineIn Posse Review and Fall Lines. Damron received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2011. In 2016, she was honored to have The Stone Necklace selected to be the “One Book, One Community” read for Columbia, SC. Read more about Carla at www.carladamron.com

 

Interview with Terri Muuss

terri-muuss

Mary Akers: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today, Terri. I loved your poem Write to Save Someone. I’m wondering, has writing always been your first artistic love? If not, what was it and how did you transition to poetry/writing? 

Terri Muuss: Actually, acting, theatre and directing have always been my first loves. I came to acting quite young and naturally. It will always be a huge part of who I am and how I see art in a larger sense. Much of my poetry is born out of a theatricality I possess from being onstage these many years.

That being said, poetry was always sort of waiting in the wings for me. When I was in tenth grade, my best friend was a beautiful person and poet. I spent long days at her house after school as I had no inclination to go home to my own dysfunctional house. There, she read and wrote poetry in front of me and it certainly inspired me to use it as an avenue for expression. Later, during senior year, I had a teacher hand me a packet of poems by e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that she thought I would enjoy. That packet sent me on a journey of reading as many poets as I could. Still, poetry was off to the side while theater took center stage.

It really wasn’t until I was faced with the trauma of my past and of putting myself together that writing became both a therapeutic tool and an artistic passion. To better understand the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Mostly poetry but also monologues. At the end, what I’d constructed was a one-woman show skeleton that became Anatomy of a Doll. I performed the show throughout New York City and then the country at conferences and in theaters. Even then, I didn’t identify myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a performer who just happened to use my writing as a script. When Veronica Golos (my friend, mentor and a gorgeous poet who’s won numerous awards) began taking an interest in my work and started editing it in a poetry workshop she led out of her house on the Upper West Side, I started to see myself in the context of being a poet and poetry as a vocation. I think the form of poetry works well to showcase the dissociation that comes with abuse much more than prose does. Veronica is still my editor, having worked on both Anatomy of a Doll and my book, Over Exposed.

But the biggest transition from actor to writer happened during my marriage to poet Matt Pasca. He’s always seen me as a writer and, before I even claimed that identity for myself, always pushed me to go deeper, to write more, to get better, to submit my work. Through our marriage I have grown as a writer and come to see myself as a poet.

 

MA: You write a lot about painful events and speak openly about them. Most people wouldn’t be able to do that. Where does this ability come from? What has been the reaction from friends and relatives about this openness?

TM: Many people have said they’ve seen me as courageous because I share the truth of my childhood sexual abuse, subsequent rapes, addiction and my recovery quite publicly. I have to acknowledge that this is the way it is perceived by other people. For me, however, it’s born out of necessity and so it’s never felt or seemed like courage. I have lived my life according to the 12-step saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I know that what I keep inside me, what I feel shame about, what I try to hide, will destroy me from the inside. Giving a voice to my pain and shame and grief and mistakes gives me back my power, my joy and my life.

I’ve also grown to see that if I’m hiding the fact that I was sexually abused, I am sending myself and others the message that it was somehow my fault or that there’s something for me to be ashamed of. I’ve come to understand that what happened to me was not anything that I should be ashamed of. I was the victim so why should I be ashamed. I’ve also come to understand that the sexual abuse and the rape and the violence are a part of me but they are not the entirety of me.

Lastly, if I can help someone (with my story) to recover, let go of their shame, and move into survivorhood, then it is all more than worth it. As social worker and researcher Brene Brown states, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” I choose let go of secrecy and to douse my shame with empathy, and empathy for the world must begin with me.

Friends and relatives have been overwhelmingly supportive, although for some of them, it took a period of adjustment and listening that gave birth to deeper understanding. I surround myself with people who are willing to be empathetic, courageous, vulnerable, and honest with both me and themselves. I consider myself very lucky to have a wide circle of supportive people in my life.

write-to-save-someone_georgeave

MA: Are you very involved in a poetry community? Have you initiated any events? What advice do you have for readers who might be trying to do the same?

TM: I’m a licensed social worker and the macro version of social work is community organizing. The first rule of community organizing is to listen to the community. Too often, people come into a community with their own expectations and demands. They try to foist onto a community what they want to see the community have. If you’re really trying to build community, through the arts or otherwise, ask questions and be willing to hear the answers. The community might not want the same things you want for them but if community is your ultimate goal, you need to let its members be your guide. Too often in the poetry community, as in other communities, people set up an event that mirrors the kind of poetry THEY want but disregard what the community is really is looking for. Finding the right venue, format and publicity are integral to success.

My husband Matt Pasca and I run an event in Bay Shore, NY called  Second Saturdays at Cyrus which has featured poets and an open mic night at Cyrus Chai & Coffee Company. The event is successful, in part, to our long-held connections in the writing and poetry scenes on Long Island and New York City, which allows us to feature very talented poets of different backgrounds. Every day there’s a poetry event somewhere in NY but usually the poetry sounds like poetry of whoever’s running it and the poets performing look a lot like them. Second Saturdays is the opposite as it showcases both the diversity of NY community and their poetry. This is one reason it is almost always standing room only. My husband, Matt has 20 years’ worth of teaching in the high school here and a deep investment in the community, and we’ve used that to let the community be aware of this space as a safe place to come and share art, community and poetry.

I would recommend to anyone trying to build a community that it’s so important to have collaborators in any community venture. Without them, burnout is a real factor. You need to be able to share the workload, bounce ideas off of each other, and laugh together to elevate stress and keep it going!

 

MA: Do you have any books out? What is next for you? 

TM: I have two books out currently. Over Exposed is my memoir, told in both poetry and prose. Grabbing the Apple is an anthology of New York women poets that I coedited with M.J. Tenerelli. I work with a group you called the Poets of Well-being (made up of Susan Dingle, Maggie Bloomfield, Nina Yavel and I). We are all social worker-writers who are in long term recovery (we have over 100 years of sobriety between us). You can find the group on Facebook. As a group, we travel to conferences and venues to showcase how writing can be a therapeutic tool for helping others overcome addiction and abuse. We facilitated a workshop at AWP in Minnesota, at the Expressive Therapies Conference in NYC and were even invited to the 2016 NASW conference in DC. Next, I am deep into work on a new poetry manuscript with the working title “God’s Spine” which works to  showcase poems around the theme of finding beauty, recovery and spirituality within ourselves and in the beauty of connection with others.

“Shoalwater” by Anders Carlson Wee

shoalwater
“Shoalwater” by Pat Zalisko, 6′ x 10′, oil on canvas

Waves grind the shoreline and darken into pools.
Crabs shuffle sideways, lost in the washed-up eelgrass.
Seagulls spit littleneck clams to the rocks
and don’t even eat the shattered bodies.
They fly as high as the clouds and wrap talons
in the wind. But this kind of love isn’t rare.
When I dream about my brother he disappears
if I look. He wears a bird-bone bracelet,
but I only know this by feel. Even his hair
is something I imagine. His nose occurs solely
as contours. I walk down the beach
and throw stones at the oncoming waves.
This is the best we can do. We leak every time
we are opened. Out just beyond the waves,
love says the same of itself. We can only witness
the implication, only feel for the shape.
Love is a pigeon nestled beside a dead pigeon
at night in the wet corner of a warehouse.
Blackness and the texture of feathers.
The thud of a body surrounded by hollow.
Love is a clamshell’s first touch against rock,
whatever tenderness can be found in that contact
before the crack. It’s been years since I was last
out on the water. The night sky tightens
like that familiar mouth. Clouds hide their bulk
on the backsides of islands. Each wave is real
the way his body is real. Made of something
not itself. Something bigger. Call it water.
Call it wind. Call it tendon-flexing of the moon.
Each wave lifts as he lifts, crashes as he crashes.
Love exists in the way seagulls hold still
in the wind. The way crabs carry pieces of clam
through the moonlight and vanish sideways into sand.

 

 

Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Fellow and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Prize. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Best New Poets, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Narrative Magazine, which featured him on its “30 Below 30” list of young writers to watch. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award, Blue Mesa Review’s Poetry Prize, and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he was runner-up for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His work is currently being translated into Chinese. He lives in Minneapolis, where he’s a 2016 McKnight Foundation Creative Writing Fellow.

“Shoalwater” first appeared in The New England Review.

 

Contributors Winter 2017

e-kristin-anderson
E. Kristin Anderson (Velvet, Velvet, Velvet, Knife) is co-editor of Dear Teen Me. Her next anthology, Hysteria: Writing the female body, is forthcoming from Sable Books. She is currently curating Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture for ELJ Publications and is the author of eight chapbooks including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray Pray Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), She Witnesses (dancing girl press), and We’re Doing Witchcraft (Hermeneutic Chaos Press). She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com and tweets at @ek_anderson.

typewriter
Izaak Bacik (Black Ice) is a 22-year-old student pursuing degrees in sociology and creative writing at UNCA who predominantly focuses on poetry and short creative non-fiction pieces and essays centered around identities as autistic and transgender. This short essay deals with surviving coming off of drugs in order to begin gender transition.

anders-carlson-wee
Anders Carlson Wee (Shoalwater) is a 2015 NEA Fellow and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Prize. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Best New Poets, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Narrative Magazine, which featured him on its “30 Below 30” list of young writers to watch. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award, Blue Mesa Review’s Poetry Prize, and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he was runner-up for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His work is currently being translated into Chinese. He lives in Minneapolis, where he’s a 2016 McKnight Foundation Creative Writing Fellow.

leticia-del-toro
Leticia Del Toro (Alive at Lampedusa) has had work appear in Huizache, Mutha Magazine, ZYZZYVA and Palabra magazine among others. Her honors and awards include a Hedgebrook Residency for Women Authoring Change, a fellowship from the New York State Summer Writers Institute, participation in the Voices of Our Nations Arts program, a 2015 finalist for the Maurice Fiction Prize for the collection “Café Colima” and attendance at Bread Loaf 2016 as a Rona Jaffe Scholar in fiction. She is a California teacher, arts activist and mother with roots in Jalisco, Mexico.

stephen-eoannoujpg
Stephen G. Eoannou‘s (Slattery’s Ghost) short story collection, Muscle Cars, was published in April 2015 by The Santa Fe Writers Project. Stories from this collection have appeared in Best Short Stories from the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest (2013 & 2014), The MacGuffin, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. He has been honored with two Pushcart nominations and an Honor Certificate from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an MA in English from Miami University. Eoannou has taught at Ball State University and The College of Charleston. He currently lives and writes in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

cate-hennessey
Cate Hennessey‘s (Shoveling Snow) essays and reviews have appeared in or forthcoming from Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Southern Indiana Review, PANK, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. A recent finalist for the Arts & Letters Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction, she has also received a Pushcart Prize and been noted in Best American Essays.

terri-muuss
Terri Muuss (Write to Save Someone) has had poetry appear in numerous journals including Paterson Literary Review, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Apercus Quarterly, Atticus Review, Stirring, Long Island Quarterly, and Red River Review. She is the author of Over Exposed (JB Stillwater, 2013) and the one-woman show, Anatomy of a Doll. Anatomy of a Doll was named Best Theatre: Critics’ Pick of the Week by the New York Daily News and has been performed throughout the US and Canada since 1998. As a licensed social worker, Muuss specializes in the use of the arts as a healing mechanism for trauma survivors. She is married to writer Matt Pasca and her two ginger-haired boys, Rainer and Atticus were former Ellen Show Presidential Experts. www.terrimuuss.com

liz-prato
Liz Prato (Covered in Red Dirt) is the author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories (Press 53). Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, and Subtropics. She is Editor-at-Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country. Liz is currently working on an essay collection that examines her decades-long relationship with Hawai‘i, using the prism of White colonialism.

mary-lynn-reed
Mary Lynn Reed (FINE) has had work appear in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, The MacGuffin, Whistling Shade, Jellyfish Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Maryland.

jeff-rose
Jeff Rose (Lighting Up) is a published short story writer and essayist and was the first humorist for the ITV television and F1 magazine partnership where he wrote a weekly column on one of his early loves, Formula One Grand Prix racing.


Kristen Scarlett (Aposematic Mimicry) is a writer from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cape Fear Living Magazine, and East End Elements, and she received second place in the SCCC Creative Writing Award for College Writers in 2015. Her hobbies include fancy teas, existential crises, and musing with her cat, King Charles.

noa-sivan
Noa Sivan (Two Cats) was born and raised in Israel and is currently living in Granada, Spain. She is a graphic designer and a writer. Three of her pieces were published in 2005 in an anthology edited by award winning Israeli author Yitzhak Ben Ner. In 2013 Sivan published a digital book of micro stories called “Semantic Satiation,” that was translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan. In 2016 she started writing in English. Her stories were published on the Jellyfish review, Eleven Eleven and FRiGG. Sivan’s first story, “Plaza Trinidad,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

erica-bodwell
Erica Sofer Bodwell (Aubade in Which Grace Appears) is a poet who lives in Concord, New Hampshire. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Fat, Minerva Rising, White Stag, APIARY, The Fem, Coal Hill Review, PANK, HeART and other fine journals. Her chapbook, Up Liberty Street, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in February 2017.

haley-yelencich
Haley Yelencich (On Transmutation) was raised in rural Michigan and grew up in Chicago, IL where she obtained a B.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia College. She currently lives in New Orleans where she writes, draws, and sings to her cat, Shark.

 

“Write to Save Someone” by Terri Muuss

write-to-save-someone_georgeave
“Georgia Street” by Pat Zalisko, 48×48, Acrylic mixed media on canvas.

Say something about the blade, the shine under
the opalescent moon.

How when you moved it
like a see-saw back and forth in your fingers
it caught fire, sent a pearl of light to dance
on the ceiling above you.

Say something about how it mesmerized you

for a second
& made you forget
your plan.

Say something about having a plan.

Say something about how you cried
& felt nothing.
your breath—

how it stilled in your throat,
how you breathed
like a master yogi—

Say something about irony.

Talk about the razor between your two
still fingers, held like a lover’s
eyelash to blow away for a wish.

Say how you took it at first
& moved it above
your wrist, sawing
the air for practice.

Say how you let it kiss your skin—
how you let it whisper a salted ocean breeze,
how you began the dance of trajectory
though a vein you didn’t know had so much
ocean inside.

Tell how you began—
a creator—to birth
the wet, sticky foal
that is your heart.

 

 

Terri Muuss is a licensed social worker, writer, actor, director and motivational speaker. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Paterson Literary Review, Apercus Quarterly, Atticus Review, Stirring, Long Island Quarterly, and Red River Review, and five anthologies, and she has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes in poetry. She is the author of Over Exposed (JB Stillwater, 2013) and the one-woman show, Anatomy of a Doll. Anatomy of a Doll was named “Best Theatre: Critics’ Pick of the Week” by the New York Daily News and has been performed throughout the US and Canada since 1998. As a licensed social worker, Muuss specializes in the use of the arts as a healing mechanism for trauma survivors She is married to writer Matt Pasca and her two ginger-haired boys, Rainer and Atticus were former Ellen Show “Presidential Experts.” www.terrimuuss.com

Read an interview with Terri here.

“On Transmutation” by Haley Yelencich

on-transmutation
“Hrabove 7-14” by Pat Zalisko, 38×38, Acrylic on canvas.

Look. My wall is cracking open. The ancient plaster is splitting, creating a fissure from ceiling to hardwood, sending pieces of yellowed paint sailing to the floor. Look at the dark divide grow—how the wall crumbles to chalky dust as it separates. Hold on … do you see it? Right there in the middle of the chasm. It’s a book bound in buckram cloth … I think it’s for you. Metamorphoses: Book IV is written on the spine. Reach in. Reach in. Do you know that story? I have a decaying memory of it. What does it say?

But wait. Let me tell you a story that I just remembered. It may disintegrate before you bend that antique binding, and it may be important.

~

I was nine when I cautiously watched an uncle of mine from the swing set that was placed in a clearing of the woods that surrounded my childhood home. He and my sister were standing near the house, away from the others, and I watched her discomfort as he wrapped his arms around her and reached for the back pockets in her light cut-off jean shorts. She shrugged him away. It was her thirteenth birthday.

Grasping onto the snake-like chain that was covered in blue plastic, my body casually wavered back and forth, but my mind walked around them. I saw his thick mustache move above his thin upper lip, and I heard him tell her that if she wanted her birthday card she would have to let him put it in her back pocket. Otherwise, she wouldn’t get the money that waited inside.

My eyes turned to ice and my stomach turned to stone as she stood frozen. He put his heavy arms around her, and slipped a white envelope in the back pocket of her jean shorts. Hate raged through me and shook the tree tops.

This was our initiation.

~

Oh, but Metamorphoses … I only remember a little of it. Ovid, right? There are three women who weave stories of immobilized love—women who reject Bacchus as a god and are punished for their lack of worship.

Their burdensome fabric consists of a woman who has sex with the sun and is buried alive because of it, while another, who is in love with the same star watches the golden light stream from the sky and beat on the grave until she silently transforms into an inanimate plant. In between those strands lives a girl who prays to be with the boy she loves until she melts into him, losing her independent identity.

But wait … you’re not paying attention.

Why do you act so disinterested? Don’t you think that this is important? This is what we’ve clothed ourselves with, the leaden stories we’ve worn for years and years and years. These are our heavy uniforms, the words we cover ourselves in, the things that drag us down.

~

Let me tell you about something you might find more intriguing. Outside, over there somewhere, I left a friend’s house on my way back to an apartment that I rented. It was nighttime and winter. The city lights stained everything in hues of orange and purple, including my diaphanous breath that dissipated into the frigid air.

It wasn’t too late, but it was late enough. I trudged past an alley that was lined with trash cans and peppered by three men who seemed quite a bit older than myself. As I walked past, I glanced sideways at their silhouettes, outlined in a subdued burnt orange, shining violet light irradiating from between their arms and legs. And at that same moment, they spotted me.

There are moments where we can see ourselves, and very quickly I saw myself for what I now was: a young woman in an old ill-fitting peacoat and sluggish boots with holes wearing in the soles, walking alone at night. I was, from outside myself, unknowingly an invitation.

The men walked out of the alley behind me. I kept my pace, quietly counting down the blocks until I would reach the train. One of them hurled some words at me, which I ignored. I could hear them laughing, but I refused to look. Back straight, head high, with my heart trying to tear out of my body, I walked. Counting three, two-and-a-half, two.

My hands were in my pockets, and I hoped that they would think that I was holding onto something sharp, when finally one of them threw, in a sing-song voice, a phrase that actually hit me. Out of the purple gelid air in a sweet melodic tone came the words—with the last two drawn out for dramatic emphasis: “We’re going to rape you.”

I knew that he thought he was joking by the way he crooned it and by the way his friends laughed, but I, alone, in my cumbersome boots and jacket-one-size-too-big, also knew what happened to women like me in situations like that, and finally my pace, every so slightly, quickened to reach the train station.

As I sank onto a seat in the fluorescent-lit train car, I looked up to see that a different man was hovering over me, holding onto the bar in-between where I sat and the door. He was staring, and he would not stop.

~

Are you watching as the split in the wall grows, as the dark line snakes and weaves around the window-frame and the doors? I’ve watched this wall crumble only a few times, and never as much as right now. This will have to be a big repair.

Do you know how to fix a plaster wall? It helps to know what lays underneath, because if you simply cover the gash it will reappear at some time or another, often when you least expect. Inside the wall, beyond what you can see, behind the paint, the outside color and solidity, are laths of wood that hold the whole thing together. Somewhere in there lay strips of wood layered on top of each other that the plaster rests over and creates the wall that you see. In order to prevent future cracks, you have to reacquaint the plaster with the laths. You have to recognize the invisible laths existence, and then affix what is visible to them. That’s the only way to make sure this thing stays whole.

~

I used to know less about walls and more about what goes on out there, but certain events recurred at such an alarming rate that I decided to abandon my mindless exterior explorations and turn indoors. You see, it happened again on a different night on my way to the same apartment that I’ve mentioned before. I was standing outside of the building and talking to a friend on the other side of a phone because I didn’t want to lose her on my way up in the elevator. I wrapped my arms around the loose-fitting white tee-shirt that I was wearing—(this, if you’re not aware, is a detail that many people may find important)—and watched as drops of rain cut through the luminescence of the light in the lamppost above me.

Again, three men somewhat older than myself approached me. Again, they were laughing amongst each other. Again, I acted as if I was unaware of their presence. But this time was different, and not only because of the rain or what I was wearing or who the men were. This time, they surrounded me. This time, one of them leered over me and repeatedly asked, “How much? How much?” despite my best efforts to ignore them all into non-existence. This time, one of them wrapped their fingers around my arm and dragged me towards him.

“Don’t touch me!” I heard my voice cry from someplace deep within. It seemed to have stemmed from my stomach and shot up through my throat, sprouting higher and higher into the damp night. My friend, somewhere further away in the city and on the other side of the phone, expressed her helpless alarm.

Two of the men stepped back, but the other reached towards me again. A rage, one that I was not altogether aware had been germinating within me, shook my every limb. As it grew, I felt myself become lighter and lighter. I could feel my face contort and my self transfigure in fury. The city seemed to spiral around me. I thrashed the man’s hand away and shouted, “Get the fuck away from me!” For a moment, he paused, and my hand clenched into a fist at my side. I watched as he slowly backed away. My whole being was alive and twisting in and around itself. Every particle was sparked with indignation.

But then all three were laughing. And as they walked away from me the last one said, “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

~

To reject a person is often a troublesome and hazardous thing. The three women weavers in Metamorphoses know just how difficult defiance can be. They refused to refer to Bacchus as god and, as punishment, their threads were transformed into tangled vines and their bodies were turned into those of bats. But – pay attention – their resistance was the cause of their metamorphosis. And the result was not as unfortunate as some would like you to believe; their thin membranous wings carried them away.

Do you know who else you’ll find in that book? She is not exactly a character as much as she is a memory. Perseus, the protagonist, only refers to her existence to explain how he destroyed her. He only tells her story to relate how she came to be worthy of execution.

Medusa, he recalls, was not always a horrid monster that stalked through the fields with her hair of snakes and fatal stare. Once, she was beautiful, and Perseus deduces that this was the direct cause of her rape by Neptune in Minerva’s temple. (Today, they might say that he “had to” do it. That he “could not help himself.”)

As a punishment for desecrating her temple, the male poet Ovid tells us through the male hero Perseus that Minerva transformed Medusa’s alluring hair into an angry nest of snakes and cursed her so that any potential suitor would turn to stone after setting his eyes on her. Minerva then set Medusa’s image on her breastplate to fill her enemies with fear.

Through Perseus’s words Medusa is woman, desecrator, monster. She was one part of an aggressive sexual act – the victim – and so we will punish her for centuries. We will push her away into the fields, angry and afraid of her, and we will leave her there to her fate and death.

Meanwhile, Neptune will be free to rule the seas.

~

You see, I stay within these walls because it’s comfortable. I can safely stand right here and watch the tree branches cut across the sky like wrinkles in an old woman’s face. I can watch the sun bathe over them. I can watch them slither in the wind. And I can dream that one day I’ll see what they see. These walls may separate occasionally, but I can always patch them up. I can always fix what happens inside of them. But out there I may find myself in a situation that I can’t get out of, one from which I may never return. People have ways of grinding you into the ground. It may be a fault of mine, but I much prefer to sit up here in this room with you—the person I’ve let in.

~

He was someone that I did not feel thoroughly comfortable with, but I was more uncomfortable with being alone. My insecurity did not arise from any feeling of risk or hazard, but instead from feelings of inadequacy. You see, I was young, and still unlearning the things that I had been taught by uncles and strange men.

He was physically non-threatening and had a soft voice. His dark eyes shone a light from deep inside. He was well-liked and friendly and a little bit shy. We were interested in the same things—art, books, oddly beautiful things. I was unsure if I was good company, but I knew that I was good enough.

He invited me over, and I took the train an hour away from where I stayed. I calmly watched as the electric lines cut across the starless night sky, and wondered where exactly I was going. When I arrived at his apartment I discovered that there were four other people living within it, so he invited me to watch a movie in his room where we might be more alone, and conclusively, more at ease. His room was sparse with various little trinkets set upon the windowsill and a bookshelf, and his desk was littered with sketches and books. I don’t remember what movie he turned on, but I do remember discussing and agreeing that we would unquestioningly not sleep together that night.

Soon, the lights were off and his arms wrapped around me. We rolled over each other and our mouths pressed together and other things happened that sometimes happen in dark bedrooms when you’re nineteen and twenty-something or older or younger—things that happen no matter how old or young you are, or what you look like, or who you are, or where you’re from. These are the things that take place in all of our lives to certain degrees whether we like them and want them or not.

After these things that I was OK with transpiring had occurred, I heard him reach into one of those shining little trinkets. Then the sound of his long fingers fumbling with the plastic wrapper of a condom reached my ears. I sat up. “We agreed we weren’t going to do that,” I reminded him.

I don’t remember whether he seemed tense or tranquil, serene or excited. I don’t exactly remember what he looked like in that moment, other than the blue light of the TV screen shining over his thin frame. I don’t remember what I anticipated, or even if any solid thought was traveling through the folds of my brain. What I do remember are the words, “I have to fuck you,” emitting from his mouth and his hands pushing me down and burying me into the mattress. I remember the sounds outside the door. I remember not saying anything, and not feeling much at all.

~

Sometime before, the sky moved slowly. Slunk back on the hill by the house and slurping sun-soaked iced tea and orange slices, I watched the occasional car as it barreled down the dry dirt road, kicking up dust. The sky steadily drifted away, skimming the tops of the trees where the leaves swung and saw things differently.

The house that I grew up in was surrounded by oaks and maples, but there was only one tree that I could climb – only one branch that I could reach on tiptoe in my jelly shoes and hand-me-down sundress. Tiny calves flexing. Small fingers reaching. Pulling myself up as my feet clambered one over the other on the shaded ground. I needed to be further up and away. I needed to hide in the tree-tops, be swept up into the clouds. I dreamt of scaling to the top and flying off into the wind, weightless and free. But one day the only branch that I could reach broke off of the dying trunk, and I snapped awake. I realized then that it would be a difficult time trying to get all the way up there with everything else trying to keep me on the ground.

~

It all reminds me of the time when an older cousin of mine found me playing on the floor in our grandparent’s bedroom. A soft winter light streamed into the dark room as I leaned intently over a colorful toy of some kind. I suddenly felt a dense weight fall over me, and a heavy hot breath blow into my ear. He had bent over and wrapped his arms around my small frame constricting his large arms tighter and tighter until I felt suffocated.

“Let me go!” I shouted. My body was pushed so that I was hunched over myself. My knees pressed into my chest. His body held me down, crushing me towards the hardwood floor. He laughed and said something in a teasing manner, but he did not let go.

“Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” My arms jerked behind me in attempt to hit him in the stomach, and still he laughed. He pressed me further into the ground, and still he did not let go.

~

And there was another time, one much later, a different “he” held me down on his rich friend’s expensive couch as they drank in the next room. “You think you’re so strong,” words seethed from gritted teeth. Golden light dripped into the room from the hall, and crept upon his face, distorted his drug-addled features. An overpriced clock ticked from above. “You think you’re so strong.” He held my arms down to my side, and hate streamed from his eyes as I struggled to get out from underneath him.

How did it happen? Did something spark through his mind and transmit behind his eyes so that he could see what he was doing? Or did he fall into a sudden stupor? The latter, it seems, is more likely. Although I can’t recall exactly how it ended, I know that it did so abruptly. And the next moment, I was waking up from an uncomfortable sleep with his body laying calmly next to mine.

~

I can see that you think this is excessive. You seem to be in a state of disbelief, but I promise you that stories like this are alive and flourishing and they do not stop just because you wish them to. I understand if it makes you uncomfortable, but I do not apologize.

For too long we’ve heard the story of the woman or girl as seductress or femme fatale or succubus, no matter how young, and it’s come time that you and I and everyone around us begin to listen to other stories. They’ve been trying to be heard for years and years, but somehow they get buried underneath other words. The tales and myths that have blanketed us for centuries are old and tired—and the interpretation of them is often the same. It’s time to listen to new yarns, and perhaps the myths that we do know would do well to be reexamined and told from a different perspective.

Take a look at that book that you hold in your hands, the one that you found hidden in the walls. The story of Medusa might’ve been transmuted while in there. Instead of a young woman who is punished for being raped, a plot-line that we sadly still allow both in fiction and reality, you might find someone different. It will still be Medusa, and she will still have serpents as locks, but you might find the reason for transformation different.

Neptune still commits his crime against Medusa in Minerva’s temple, and Minerva still witnesses that crime. But instead of reshaping Medusa’s image out of wrath and anger, Minerva changes her appearance in order for her to express and exert her agency. Minerva gives Medusa the means to protect herself from others who would commit the violent act she experienced (and by now, I hope you agree that we can surmise that there would be others). The gaze of misguided men and potential male aggression is now stopped and turned against them.

In this way, we will no longer treat the assault survivor with hatred and disgust but as living beings, and recognize the power that they innately have. And we will no longer allow each other to be held down, but we will turn those who like to bound us to the earth into stone.

~

I’ve watched this wall so many times. White light hits the plaster and exposes its rough features, every bump and wrinkle. White light shines from the curtain-less windows where, outside, beautiful trees reside. More and more are being planted each day by strong hands and even stronger voices, and we can watch them grow.

Don’t worry. I have not given up the idea of one day living in those top branches, where things are viewed differently. The women who weaved their stories rejected the old male god and they flew away. They were rid of him and they flew.

 

 

Haley Yelencich was raised in rural Michigan and grew up in Chicago, IL where she obtained a B.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia College. She currently lives in New Orleans where she writes, draws, and sings to her cat, Shark.

 

Homepage Winter 2017

two-cats-11-16
All artwork appears courtesy of the artist Pat Zalisko.

Welcome to our January 2017 issue with the theme of “SPARK.” (Hmm, last January’s issue was FLAME–clearly I want to warm up the winter issues.) There is something about the onset of winter that I accept–and even embrace (at the start of the season at least)–but I don’t know that I have ever celebrated winter. Winter feels like a necessary part of the changing seasons (I’m an environmentalist after all, I get it.) but it feels more like something to hunker down and endure while waiting for the arrival of spring.

This marvelous issue, however, I do celebrate. I’m honored to be able to share the work of these fifteen talented authors and grateful to be allowed to present their fine work to you, our readers. And each piece of writing has the further good fortune of being paired with the outstanding artwork of Pat Zalisko–in many cases, work she created in direct response to reading the work it illustrates. This type of direct engagement is so rare and special. I think of it as an artistic cross-pollination of sorts–the two genres combining to make a third, beautiful-and-interactive artful object.

As always, this issue exists, thanks in no small part to my devoted editors and readers who make my job so much easier, and to the contributors who have trusted us to showcase their work. Also, thanks for the gorgeous artwork, Pat. You made each essay, story, flash, and poem pop just a little bit more.

Our April 2017 issue has a tentative theme of DISLOCATION and for July 2017, SPECULATION.

As always, thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

“FINE” by Mary Lynn Reed

fine
“FINE 11-16” by Pat Zalisko, Acrylic on Canvas

You have so many things to rant about you can’t figure out where to begin so you decide to just jump in like this typing without stopping Just now you were thinking about acting Not acting like an actor but acting like a survivor That’s what survival is right it’s just acting Here I am standing on this ledge and I should jump I should really jump but then someone comes around the corner and says Hey, how ya doing, how was your weekend, and then you’re talking like everything is cool and you’re telling this guy about a movie you saw without mentioning that you wept through the whole thing clutching a beer and a tub of popcorn with the windows open listening to the pack of raccoons that lives in the woods behind your house the pack you have nightmares about sometimes the nightmares that usually involve burglary and danger and fear but Yeah that movie was great and the actress was amazing She should have won that Oscar she was really robbed You just don’t see great acting like that anymore and yeah thanks You have a good day too Hello Hi yeah it’s a beautiful day Yeah everything is just fine Yeah I can’t wait to get started on the next thing The next really important thing we all need to do Let’s get to work let’s get that thing done because that’s why we’re here This place is the best and we are all doing Just Fine.

 

 

Mary Lynn Reed’s fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, The MacGuffin, Whistling Shade, Jellyfish Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Maryland.

 

Interview with Wendy Miles

wendy-miles

Gary Short: Your poem “Those Who Once Lived There Return” appears in the “SPIRITS” issue of r.kv.r.y quarterly, and indeed there is a ghostly quality to the poem. I’ve noticed a sense of things and people absent but seemingly present in other of your poems. How would you describe the territory, both literal and metaphorical, that your poems inhabit? Do you think of your poems as haunted? What places do you write from?

Wendy Miles: I think about both concepts—territory and haunting—quite a bit. I’m interested in the reverberation of past events—memories, personal histories—and how objects are imbued with spirit. That’s one thing that draws me. When I talk about “Those Who Once Lived There Return,” another poem of mine called “Float” seems necessary in the conversation because in these two poems I feel enveloped by reverberation—while in a specific landscape. One reason I’m so pleased to have “Those Who Once Lived There Return” published in r.kv.r.y is that “Float” was also accepted, but I got Mary Akers’ e-mail the day after “Float” won the 2014 Patricia Dobler Award. So that poem doesn’t appear here, but it was the breakthrough I needed in order for “Those Who” to exist. When I finished “Float” I was in residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (one of my favorite places). I was in my room for the night, on my little twin bed. I had the last few lines—which contain the word “love”—and I remember deleting the second “love” and then saying to myself, No, this poem is love. And I put the “love” right back in there.

The next day I printed it off and drove it to the post office, which was the postmark deadline. And it won! The marvelous poet Yona Harvey picked it! She said she found in it “delight.” To my mind, she found the love. Not a cliché but the real source that insisted its way into that poem. And for me that poem is also a place, and since its creation the only time I’ve gotten back to that place is with “Those Who.” It feels sort of magical, really, though I risk credibility saying a word like that, don’t I? In any case, Mary was kind enough to create the “Spirits” issue upon acceptance of “Those Who Once Lived There Return.” My initial thought was, These aren’t spirits but ghosts. I told myself, It’s just semantics, Wendy. But maybe not. To me, the word “spirit” connotes something happier. I was spirited away, She shows great spirit, that kind of thing. And ghosts, well, ghosts linger, don’t they? Ghosts drape themselves across furniture in empty rooms. If my poems are haunted, then hopefully they are also haunting. Does one condition create the other? Hopefully.

I often incorporate “true” events into my poems—in ways that reinterpret and shift and resettle the events—in different places, rooms, pastures, abandoned houses, yards, and so on. My mother told me once about a cat being lifted off the ground—carried away—by a hawk. And you can see what happened to that little story in the poem. It got shrouded in light and magic and it settled here. Speaking of light and magic, I just love the accompanying artwork by Dawn Surratt.

those-who-once-lived

GS: You had a discussion on the NPR affiliated show Prosody last year. The interviewer, poet Jan Beatty, talked about leaping language and images as an evocative force in your poems. Could you could talk more about the notion of leaps in your poems?

WM: By recognizing “Float,” Yona Harvey gave me such a gift. By featuring me on Prosody, Jan Beatty gave me a gift as well. These are both wonderful, powerful women and poets—they know the depth and breadth of such recognition and encouragement—especially for women over the age of forty. The interview wasn’t rehearsed, and when Jan mentioned poetic leaps, I thought, Wow. So this is what it means to have paid some dues. For some time I’d been trying to move away from straight narrative into a more associative type of poem, and any gains I’ve made have been long sought and hard won.

About nine years ago I began to think of some poems as already existing—as sort of hovering out there in all their beauty and insistence—with my task being to puzzle them out, to put together scenes, dialogue, bits, moments, memories that I already recognized as “poem-ly” or “poem-ish”—to link them in ways that brought out their best features. Now that I think about it, it’s very visual, each time like making a still life. And it’s intuitive. I try to balance reading other writers and studying craft with my own intuition. I don’t think I’ll ever feel I’ve paid enough in “dues.” I’m not that confident. But the poems are confident. Does that even make sense? Yes. Of course it does.

 

GS: What are you working on now? You mentioned some self-portraits. Would you talk about that?

WM: The self-portraits. Yes. It seems I’m doing a series of them. I’m not sure how many there will be, and I didn’t set out with a series in mind. The first one sounded fun to try, and the result enticed me so much that I did another and another and so on. They feel like a natural progression from the work I’ve been doing with atmosphere. So I place a woman—or a girl—in a setting. There’s a bit of a Hansel and Gretel echo to me, but safer. The female’s perspective in these poems is at turns playful, curious, lonely, but her sense of “knowing” is always substantial. Portraits are usually as much about the environment surrounding the figure as the figure herself. Anyway, that’s what I’m up to now, and I’ll see where the poems go—where the figures want to dwell. I’ve joked, saying, Who do I think I am—Frieda Kahlo? But we know, don’t we, that if we’re lucky, a figure observed over time discloses some secrets. If we’re even luckier, with each look, that same figure also entices by holding things back.

 

 

Gary Short is the author of three poetry collections: Theory of Twilight, Flying Over Sonny Liston (which won the Western States Book Award), and 10 Moons and 13 Horses. He has been a Stegner fellow at Stanford and a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has received a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Gary teaches fall semesters at the University of Mississippi and has a home in Panajachel, Guatemala.

“Slattery’s Ghost” by Stephen G. Eoannou


“Slipping On Chippewa Street” by Pat Zalisko, 48″ x 88″, acrylic, mixed media on canvas

It was after midnight when they admitted my old man. He was in the hospital bed closest to the door. A curtain partitioned the room even though the window side was empty. They had raised the bed, propping my dad at an angle to make it easier for him to breathe. Oxygen tubes were tucked in his nostrils and every few minutes he’d touch them with his fingertips. His eyebrows would arch when he felt the plastic as if discovering the tubes for the first time. Outside, a relentless February wind howled.

“How far did we drive tonight in this weather, Johnny-Boy?” my Dad asked, his voice soft, tired.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as I stood by his bed. Buffalo General was a mile-and-a-half ambulance ride from his house. “We didn’t drive anywhere, Pop. You’re in the hospital.”

He touched the oxygen tubes, raised his eyebrows. Surprised.

A monitor was clipped to his fingertip; sensors were taped to his chest. He couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and thirty pounds—a buck thirty he would have said—almost a featherweight. A screen mounted above his bed displayed his vitals—oxygen level, blood pressure, heart rate. All low numbers.

“How come you picked such a crappy hotel, Johnny-Boy? I got money.”

I smoothed his white hair into place. “We’re still in town, Pop. You’re in Buffalo General.”

Finger tips. Oxygen tubes. Eyebrows.

The hospital gown hung loose on him. The broad shoulders were gone, his thick chest a memory. His skin was almost translucent, the back of his hand already bruising where they had inserted the IV port. It was hard to believe this was the same man who had once thrown Jimmy Slattery, the former lightweight champion of the world, Buffalo’s greatest boxer, out of his restaurant. He had bum-rushed him by his collar and belt, tossing him out on Genesee Street, and watched him belly slide across the icy sidewalk to the curb. Slattery’s drinking buddies, other once-dangerous men with flattened noses and cauliflower ears, had yelled at my old man, saying he can’t treat the champ that way, that he should show him more respect. My old man had yelled back in Greek, cursing them and their Irish mothers, and went back to his grill. This was after the war when my old man was hard and lean from marching across Europe with Patton and Slattery was a drunk, his fighting days long gone, just another bum who bothered waitresses late at night.

It was one of my father’s favorite stories to tell back when he still told stories. If there were others listening around his age—my uncles, my mother, all gone now—they would add their own Jimmy Slattery story: how he had danced on his toes and fought with his hands down decades before anyone had heard of Cassius Clay; how he would have filled out and taken Dempsey’s heavyweight crown if it wasn’t for the bottle; how handsome he was with his dark hair and crooked Irish smile.

A nurse came in then. She was pretty with caramel skin that contrasted with her light blue scrubs. Her dark eyes were tired from a long shift but still flashed when she smiled and asked my father how he was feeling. She had a sweet face with soft features and deep dimples, the kind of face you wanted to see while propped in a hospital bed, while propped in any bed.

“What’s the maid doing in our room so late at night, Johnny-Boy?” my Dad asked. “I didn’t call her.”

“Pop,” I said, hushing him, and then apologized to the nurse.

“That’s all right,” she said, her lips pressing into something like a smile. The light in her eyes faded, the dimples disappeared. “Everybody’s tired. You should go home before the weather gets worse. Get some rest. Let him sleep.”

I nodded. I had calls to make in the morning: to the priest; to my sisters spread across the east coast, telling them to come home despite the storm; to Debbie, my ex-wife, living a thousand miles away on the other side of town.

“I got to go, Pop. I’ll see you in the morning.” I bent to kiss his head.

“You get your own room?” he asked. “You next door?”

I looked down into his eyes, pink rimmed and watery, a new vacancy seeping into the irises. I kissed his head again. “Yeah, Pop. Right next door.”

I didn’t go home.

I found myself skidding down Chippewa Street, the roads icing from sleet. I slowed to a creep as I passed the bars: Bada Bing, Bacchus, Bottoms Up, their neon calling me. Seven hundred and eighty-six days had passed since I last had a drink, the same number of days since Debbie had left me, as if sobriety would show her I had become a changed man, a better man, someone worth returning to. My tongue rolled thick and heavy in my mouth. I took my hand off the wheel and curled my fingers as if a lowball glass was already snug in my grip, smooth and cold against my palm. I could almost hear the ice cubes rattle.

I needed to call my sponsor.

I pulled to the curb in front of where the House O’Quinn, Slattery’s favorite bar, had once stood. Katie, the last bartender there before it was sold and gutted and transformed into a trendy Italian bistro, had told me about Slattery’s ghost—how the cleaning crew and day manager had all claimed catching a glimpse of the prizefighter hunched at the end of the bar only to have him disappear when they turned to look dead-on. Or how customers who sat on his old stool would complain of an icy chill and ask her to turn down the air conditioning. She told me other stories, too, ones she heard from cops and cab drivers and early-morning deliverymen, all swearing they saw Slattery’s ghost staggering down Chippewa Street with his arms outstretched like an aerialist trying to keep balance.

I didn’t call my sponsor.

I called Debbie and listened to her recorded message assuring me she was sorry she’d missed my call, that my call was important to her, that I should leave a message at the tone. I hung up and wondered if she didn’t answer because someone was lying next to her or if she was just long past taking middle-of-the-night calls from me. As I slipped the phone into my pocket and swung from the car, my breath fogging the frigid air, I made promises: I’d only have three drinks, only beer, I would not call Debbie again.

I went inside and ordered Scotch.

The new owners had kept the old oak bar with the brass foot rail that ran along the east wall. That may have been the only thing that Slattery would have recognized if he still haunted the building. Pine floors had been ripped out and replaced with laminate that looked like wood. The natural wainscoting and doorframes had been painted over with a black matte to match the new high-back bar stools. Light fixtures of the same dull color had replaced the original brass ones and were suspended from the faux tin ceiling. Tables in the darkened dining room were covered with white tablecloths; a vase centered on each held a single red rose. I wondered if patrons still felt a chill when they sat at the far end facing the entrance or if that had ended when Slattery’s barstool was hauled away with the heart pine floor and everything else they had torn from the place.

“The kitchen’s closed,” the bartender said, setting the Scotch on a cocktail napkin in front of me. He was short and stocky with mean, narrow eyes and didn’t look like he smiled much.

I nodded.

“And this is last call.” He said it like a threat as if he was looking forward to throwing me out by my collar and belt and locking the door behind me. There was no one else in the place. “Drink up.”

I nodded again, certain other bars on Chippewa closed later.

A flat-screen TV was mounted between two tiered shelves lined with bottles behind the bar, the shelving painted the same dismal matte. A basketball game from the west coast flickered without sound and I imagined squeaking sneakers and the leather-against-wood dribbling ball. I looked everywhere—at the bottles, the ball game, out the front window onto frozen Chippewa Street—everywhere but at the glass in front of me. The Scotch remained untouched but I could feel the rim touching my lips, the whiskey’s first bite, the heat in my throat, then my belly, then spreading through me, melting everything. If I take that drink, my eyes will close and when they reopen the world will have reverted to the way it had been seven hundred and eighty-seven days ago. Time travel, I thought.

Magic.

A man about my age, maybe older, entered the bar and cold air rushed in with him before he shut the door. The temperature must have dropped as the sleet had turned to snow. His cheeks were pink from the wind and dark circles bagged under his eyes. He pulled off his wool watch cap and his static hair stood at angles. I turned back to the bottles, to the ballgame, to the shelves.

“Last call,” the bartender snapped, angry, I guess, that another customer had wandered in when he wanted to cash out for the night. “We’re closing soon.”

The man stomped snow from his boots and headed to the end of the bar without answering. He must have lost his balance when he passed because he bumped my shoulder and muttered an apology; I would have spilled my drink if I had been holding it, the amber staining my jacket cuff, a waste of precious drops. He, too, ordered Scotch.

I felt the man staring at me, studying me, but I didn’t turn. The last thing I wanted was to talk. Then the phone was in my hand and I pressed redial and heard Debbie’s voice thanking me again for my call.

“Slipping?” the man at the end of the bar asked.

Now I had to turn. “What?” I set the phone next to my glass, wondering which I’d pick up next.

“You slipping?” he asked again.

“I don’t know what you mean, friend.”

He didn’t wait after the bartender slid his drink to him; he picked up his glass and drained half in a single gulp. I swallowed hard watching him, my Scotch still filled to the brim in front of me. I felt so tired then, as if weariness, thick and heavy, was sludging through every vein. I tried to remember the last time I had slept. My old man, so unsteady on his feet and confused, had been getting up every hour to use the bathroom, and I’d gotten up with him to hold him upright, to make sure he got back to bed without falling, to change him and mop the floor tile if he didn’t make it in time. This had gone on for weeks. My eyes burned as if all the moisture had been seared off days ago.

“I know you,” the man at the end of the bar said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. One eye squinted as if steadying me into focus. “I know you.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said, and it was my turn to study him. His cheeks and nose weren’t reddened from the weather. Broken blood vessels mapped across his face. The lowball glass shook in his hand as he set it down. “From where?”

“Saint John’s Grace,” he said, nodding, certain. “From the meetings in the basement.”

I didn’t recognize him, but I hadn’t been to a meeting since my old man had started to fail. Maybe he did look familiar, one of those guys who stood in front of the old church on Lafayette Avenue smoking cigarettes and drinking thin, Episcopalian coffee during breaks. I don’t remember him getting up and telling his story: how he had awakened parked on railroad tracks, or in a different city, or in the back of a police cruiser covered in blood. Or hearing of his broken marriages, or broken children, or lost jobs, the same sad stories we all told. No memories surfaced of him confessing to the lies he had whispered to himself or others, or the violence he inflicted on those he said he loved. Still, he may have been one of the guys in front of Saint John’s Grace, hunched to the wind, talking about anything—football, movies, the weather—anything except how much he wanted a goddamn drink.

You slipping?” I asked.

“No,” he snorted, and lifted his glass in a wretched toast. “Way past that, brother.”

He finished his drink and his body shuddered as if a door somewhere behind him had opened letting in the icy wind. I reached out, my hand hovering above my glass ready to snatch it but grabbed my phone instead and checked for missed calls, certain I had shut off the ringer at the hospital. The phone was on, the volume set to maximum. There were no messages. I set the phone down, the screen facing me, just in case.

The man tapped his empty glass against the bar to get the bartender’s attention. “Another,” he said.

“I already called it,” the bartender answered, his voice sharp. “That was the last one.”

The man tapped his glass louder. “Another.”

“Look,” the bartender said, his voice rising as he walked towards him. His face and slit-narrow eyes darkened. “I told you it was last call when you came in. Last call means last call. If you’re done, leave.”

Bastard.

The man showed him his empty glass as if it was piece of crucial, convincing evidence. “Another.”

The bastard reached under the bar and pulled out an old wooden billy club, something I hadn’t seen since my old man had sold his restaurant. He, too, had kept one under the counter for late-night customers who wouldn’t listen. The nightstick even looked like my Dad’s with the same ribbed handle and brown leather strap. The new owners must have found it under the bar and kept it. It’d probably been hanging there since Slattery spent his days at the House O’Quinn drinking to forget all he had lost and what little remained for him to lose.

The bartender slapped the baton against his palm—wood against skin, wood against bone. “Get out.”

“I just want another drink,” the man said. “This is a bar, isn’t it?”

“I said get out. I’m not telling you again.”

“Get me a drink. It’s your job.”

The bartender smashed the billy club against the oak-top, the sound cracking across the empty restaurant as if it had come down across skull. The man jerked backwards almost tipping his stool.

“Hey.” I grabbed my Scotch and slid to my feet. “It’s all right. He can have mine. I don’t need it.” A memory flashed of me as a teenager and my old man lecturing me on the difference between a want and a need. I set the drink next to the man’s empty glass. “Everything’s fine.”

The bartender pointed the nightstick at the man. “Finish it and get out.” He aimed the billy at me. “You, too.”

I raised my hands showing him my empty palms, surrendering, proving there was nothing up my sleeves.

“You’re a good man,” the drunk said, and reached for my drink. Debbie would have differed.

I pulled some crumpled bills from my pocket to pay for the round and a white chip fell to the floor. My sobriety chip, the Desire coin, the one they give you for being sober for that first awful twenty-four hours. I bent to pick it up before it rolled away. I had other chips at home—silver, red, blue—thirty days, ninety, a year, but I only carried the white one with me.

The bartender stood across the bar from us, the billy club in his fist, waiting for the man to finish the Scotch. I zipped my jacket; the prick must have already turned down the thermostat for the night. I watched the man down the drink, glad I had given it to him, wishing I hadn’t, my guilt increasing every time he swallowed. The bartender snatched the empty glass as soon as the man set it back on the cocktail napkin and pointed to the door with the nightstick.

“Get out,” he said.

The man grabbed my arm and steadied himself as he slid off the barstool. He wavered a moment and took a deep breath before releasing my sleeve. I didn’t say anything to the bartender when I left—there was nothing to say—and only slowed to scoop my phone from the bar; I hadn’t missed any calls.

Outside the wind drove the snow at a slant into our faces, my cheeks pelted by tiny bits of ice. I turned from the wind. Chippewa was already covered in white—the sidewalks, the icy street, the parked cars—giving the false impression of purity, of cleansing, of grace. I shoved my hands in my pants pockets, the chip, the same color as the snow, tight in my grip.

“I’m going to Bacchus,” the man said, slurring a bit, and nodded across the street to the cream terra cotta building that probably hadn’t changed much since Slattery had haunted Chippewa and the bar there had been called The Calumet Club. “You coming?”

“No,” I said, squeezing the chip in my pocket so tightly I’m sure it left an impression. “Early day tomorrow.”

The man nodded, turned and stepped into the street just as a car was turning left onto Chippewa from Franklin. The driver, startled that the man had stepped from the curb, slammed his brakes but the ice beneath the snow stole the tires’ grip and he skidded toward the man. I grabbed the man by the collar and jerked him back to the sidewalk as the driver fishtailed passed. It happened so fast. I saw it in slow motion.

The man turned to me breathless and smiled showing no teeth, no light in his eyes. “You saved me,” he said, then crossed the street without looking either way again.

I hadn’t saved anything—not him, not my father, not my marriage. I gripped my white chip and headed to my car.

The next morning, I called the priest and my sisters; Debbie still wasn’t answering. I brushed snow off my car and chiseled ice from the windshield. At the hospital, I signed forms—Medicare, HIPAA, Do Not Resuscitate. A different nurse, ginger-haired and freckled, maybe a year out of nursing school, told me they would soon be moving a new patient into the window-side bed. It didn’t matter. I had spoken to the doctor. They were transferring my father to the Hospice floor that morning.

I opened the curtain that partitioned the two sides and let sunlight flood the entire room, hoping it would warm my old man. I moved to the window still holding the white Styrofoam cup of thin, now cold coffee and looked down on the city. Brilliant sunshine reflected off snow-covered roofs, the sky a cloudless blue backdrop, the storm having moved off to the east. From twelve floors up I could follow Delaware Avenue past Chippewa, past Lafayette Avenue and Saint John’s Grace, and guess which was my father’s street, but I was facing the wrong direction and Debbie’s new neighborhood, new life, was far from view.

Movement flashed from the corner of my eye and I turned toward the hospital bed. My father, eyes still closed and somewhere beyond sleep, had stretched his arms to his sides like airplane wings as if he was about to take flight and was waiting for the wind to lift him. Or maybe he was dreaming of the old days, of his restaurant, of The Calumet Club and The House O’ Quinn, of Slattery’s ghost weaving down Chippewa Street like a drunken aerialist, reminding us in his own way to keep our balance, to steady ourselves, to try not to fall.

 

 

Stephen G. Eoannou is the author of Muscle Cars, a short story collection published by The Santa Fe Writers Project. Stories have appeared in Best Short Stories from the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest (2013 & 2014), The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and have been honored with two Pushcart nominations. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an MA in English from Miami University. He currently lives in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

Read an interview with Stephen here.