Interview with Alan Toltzis

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In November, Alan Toltzis was invited to speak with Professor Cheryl Lester’s class on Jewish American Literature & Culture at the University of Kansas. The class read “Clearing Ivy” and submitted questions to the author; the students’ names appear with each question. Cheryl Lester is on the faculty of the English and American Studies departments at the University of Kansas and specializes in 20th-century US literature and culture. Recent publications have appeared in Fifty Years after Faulkner: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha; Critical Insights: The Harlem Renaissance; Critical Insights: The Sound and the Fury; The Faulkner Journal; Approaches to Teaching As I Lay Dying; Faulkner and His Critics; and A Companion to William Faulkner.

Hannah Feldman: What inspired you to write Clearing Ivy? Was it a specific location or genre of poetry that inspired it?

Alan Toltzis: I wrote the poem at the beginning of the year, when the idea of new-year resolutions was fresh in my mind. Like everyone, I have habits and I saw ivy as a metaphor for how a habit takes hold and how difficult it is to free yourself once it does. I’ve removed ivy twice—once when it was overtaking a fir tree and another time when it was climbing a brick wall behind a goldfish pond. Imagery from both instances worked their way into the poem. As for genre, I love renaissance poetry and this is as close as I can get to a metaphysical conceit.

 

Elena Pratt: What does the poem mean to you?

It’s a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how much we are at the mercy of our weaknesses. Even when you break a habit, you’re never the same because the habit has changed you.

 

Hannah Feldman: What is/was your process for writing this poem/poetry in general? How long did it take you to write this poem?

The main work for most of my poems takes place over a few weeks with some minor fine-tuning afterwards. I often use images I’ve carried with me for decades before they work their way into a poem. I work in books and write according to a plan or outline. So, while I knew this poem was going to be about a particular kind of endurance, it was just good timing that it coincided with the new year because it worked well with the idea of resolutions.

 

Alexa Schmidt: Do you start a poem with an intention in mind, or do you begin with a feeling and see where it takes you?

AT: For the poems that I’ve written over the last 3 years, I always begin with an intention in mind. However, once I start the writing, the poem can take me in different directions than I originally intended. Part of the finished work comes from the original intent and part from the power that the words and images have on me and the poem. A lot of the internal rhyme in my poems come from the power and influence one word can have on another.

 

Savannah Pine: In the other works we read, you use mostly use quatrains. Why do you use a different form with “Clearing Ivy?”

AT: Form always follows function for me. In most poems, the lines and stanzas come from the natural flow and phrasing of the language and the words at the end of a line always have special emphasis. A poem’s organization can have a significant effect on its meaning and should help the reader understand the work better telling the reader how the poet hears his own poetry. Occasionally, I write in traditional forms (villanelles, sonnets, quatrains, quintains) because that’s what the poem requires or because the form pushes the poem where it needs to go.

 

Alexa Schmidt: How do you decide where to break lines?

AT: Line breaks can come about in a few ways. They break where it is natural, in terms of meaning and phrasing. But for set forms, the rhymes and rhythms have a lot to do with how lines break.

 

Robert Curtis: You are clearly referring to nature taking over human structures as a form of slow ruin. You refer to the inevitable not having to happen quickly. That said, is there something specific you are referring to when you say the “inevitable”?

Yes, I often make parallels between nature and human nature. When something or someone has complete control of a situation or complete mastery over you, it can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants and for me that is very powerful. I think the line works because “inevitability” is such an abstract concept but it seems almost human in the poem because of the conceit.

 

Kit Rice: What do you attempt to draw from your audiences? What kind of reactions or emotions? What about for this specific poem?

Whenever I write, I try to make the language so precise that the reader can experience my exact emotions and experiences through the words on the page. The reader only the words on the page and my responsibility is to make sure that every word I wrote is the right word, nothing more and nothing less. For “Clearing Ivy,” I’d like it if readers can feel themselves being pulled decline and decay of their own personal habit and the struggle they have had pulling themselves free.

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Kit Rice: Did you intend for the ivy of this poem to represent anything in particular? It has the characteristics of many things (namely illness, time, and death). This poem had a fairly ominous tone to it. Can you speak to what inspired this poem?

It’s a metaphor for habit or vice. The way it sinks in and grips until it can take over your life if you’re not careful. I had a particular habit of mine in mind but it doesn’t matter what the habit or vice is because the feeling to giving in to a habit is universal.

 

Madeleine Moore: What is your writing process when composing a poem? Is it structured with a base idea that you build up and around, or more free flowing and spontaneous?

I wish my work more free-flowing and spontaneous but it’s just the opposite and I have to be careful not to overthink. I start with an idea that I want to write about, which for “Clearing Ivy” was endurance, willpower, and determination. Once I decide on the idea, I tend to experience the world through that particular lens and then I meditate on it. That process leads to a few words, an image, or an event that I am able to connect with the idea for the poem. From there, it’s a matter of the hard work—putting the right words down, refining, and rewriting until I’m satisfied.

 

Seth Miller: You make use of interesting line breaks and white space.  Do you think this tends to distinguish your poetry (at least the poems that make use of such devices) as a more visual than oral medium?  And sort of following on that – what about font, exact typesetting, coloring – do you care about these sorts of things, and are you ever slightly bothered by the choices a particular publishing venue makes?

I’m very sensitive to type and layout and think visually but the sound and rhythm of a poem must work too. The visual aspect adds another dimension. For instance, in my poem “Questions and Answers,” the first section is shaped like a question mark. But sound comes first and I read my poems out loud when I’m working on them.

 

Seth Miller: Your other poems seem to all have a link (though sometimes obscure) to religious ritual (parashiot, sefirot haomer, etc).  Is there anything religious to which “Clearing Ivy” alludes?

“Clearing Ivy” is from a series of 49 poems that are loosely based on a Kabbalistic concept that mediating on each of the 49 aspects of conscious human emotion, during the 49 day between the second day of Passover and Shavuot can elevate consciousness and awareness, refining the soul. The poem was written to correspond with a specific aspect of the emotion of endurance that has to do with willpower and determination.

 

Hannah Silverman: How would you say you’ve gotten your start as a writer? Did you start out as a poet, or did you evolve into one?

Purely by accident, I took a class in modern poetry at Temple University that was taught by Thomas Kinsella and then took a few other classes and workshops he taught. That’s the course that opened up poetry for me and I consider Mr. Kinsella to be the man who taught me how to read. I never stopped reading intensely, using the approach he taught me. To write a poem, you have to read.

 

Hannah Silverman: Which biblical figure do you identify with while writing? (In reference to the Noah poem, where did your influence come from?)

A handful of the poems in “The Last Commandment” are about Biblical characters. Instead of looking at their iconic nature, I think of them as everyday people, which led me to the examine things like the letdown Noah experienced after the flood. In “Elegy for Sarah,” I have lines about the private sorrow Abraham felt when Sarah died. And in “Spectra,” I focus at how Jacob, at first, missed seeing heaven in the story about Jacob’s ladder. Once I have the insight, I try to make it personal.

 

Hannah Silverman: Would you rather live in a dry heat, or frigid cold climate?

Give me hot weather any time. For me there’s no better feeling that heat sinking deep into me. It probably comes from hearing my mother say how the heat never bothered her. . . until our house got central air.

 

Interview with Christine Fadden

 

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Laurie Saurborn: One striking aspect of your poem “Dark Feather” is how it captures the movement of flight. Flight, or that which makes flight possible, is present in the spilt paint that curves “like a crow’s wing.” It is here in the spring, which will “land light / on those boulders.” As it meditates upon its subject, the movement of the poem is akin to circling, as if the speaker is a bird looking on all this from far above. Could you tell us more about how you came to write this poem, and how close or far you feel from the events it describes?

Christine Fadden: When I sat down to write this poem, it came quickly, which normally would signal to me: Don’t trust it! I know you poets—I’ve heard the stories of nights lost agonizing over the placement of a comma. But also, as a fiction writer, hell, I’ve been working on my novel since 2010. Writing must take time, right? 100 words or 10,000, we had better revise. I did very little revising with “Dark Feather”—I changed a verb tense or two, adjusted a few line breaks.

In a way though, I had been sitting with this material for months, mourning the loss of my aunt (the subject of this poem), and so maybe my sense that I just came to the page and blurted my heart out isn’t entirely accurate.

It’s interesting: I didn’t “circle” or strive for distance on purpose, and did feel the piece came across as perhaps too cold and blunt (i.e. “this is when you start dying”) when in fact, my aunt was the first loved one I lost as an adult—and grieving her brought me to my knees. I had lived with her fairly recently, in my early forties, while working on my novel.

The home she and my uncle opened up to me, sits on a quiet ridge in a rural town. The three of us spent lots of time in the backyard together (the front yard, where she fell, not so much). Either way, when I got the call that she had fallen and hit her head, I imagined one scenario. Until I could fly back east—it took me a few days to get a grip on what was happening even though I sensed immediately she’d never regain consciousness—details trickled in. Of course, details don’t help. They change nothing. But maybe the circling has something to do with those days in which I was trying to make sense of the impossible—a very active and healthy woman falls not from a great height, but down three stairs—and that’s it?

Maybe the circling is an echo of “No, no, no.”

My aunt was lifeflighted to Pittsburgh. Maybe that’s the angle I had to take—I’m in that helicopter; I cannot be on that ground, because of some deadening force it now contains.

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LS: I usually associate feathers with flight, and flight with flying (or running) away. But this poem maintains a tender, mournful attention on the “you,” as if creating a place for the absent loved one to rest. Was it difficult to revisit this event? Was writing “Dark Feather” a cathartic process?

CF: My aunt traveled the globe, but if she’s resting anywhere, it’s in one of her trees—or in the heart of one of the birds she fed, saved, or counted. More difficult than revisiting the event itself, is revisiting certain questions: Why, when she texted me four days before she fell, did I cut her short with an ‘I have to work now’ message? If and when I find an agent for my novel, will she know? (Damn it, I want her to know!) Did I ever directly say “thank you” for the time, space, and support she gave me?

My aunt gave me a place to rest, so that for whatever it’s worth, I could create. So yes, even if I am able to logically or artistically process the event itself, over time, those questions will always haunt me. I know it’s senseless to ruminate that way and I probably did thank her more than once, but I’m a writer—ruminating is one thing I excel at.

Forcing myself to fit just a portion of the pain onto one single page definitely was cathartic, but given the way grief waves move and mount, eventually I’ll need to hit a release valve again—somehow.

 

LS: Throughout the poem, careful details abound: Drunkard Joe, tomatoes, seed and suet. But the non-human primarily populates the landscape of the poem: the cats are okay, but Drunkard Joe is dead and there are no other people around. How did you decide what details had a place in the poem, and which did not?

CF: At the time of writing this poem, I wasn’t ready for these interiors—conversations over coffee in the kitchen, the human heart and all the ties back to so many amazing childhood summers and holidays. My uncle is like a father to me, and I didn’t dare tread on his suffering, or on that of my cousins or my mother.

I probably had to take the poem outdoors, not because my aunt died there, but because no matter the season, she did so much living there. She moved out there. I can only describe the details I included as shorthand to her soul.

 

LS: Among many other things, you are at work on a novel, you write short stories, and you work as a professional ghostwriter, editor, and writing coach. All to say, you write a ton of prose. Could you speak about how you manage to traverse the poetry/prose divide? Or do you feel there is a divide? Are there reasons you chose to address this event through poetry? Have you written about it in prose?

CF: I do read and write prose for a living, and interestingly enough, two of the projects I’m currently collaborating on are about death—sudden and assisted. Also, I just put my cat of fourteen years down. I’ve cried more in the past year than I have in any other and wonder if this is my time to learn some core aspect of grieving, or of love. I doubt very much I’ll write about the “Dark Feather” event, or any death-related events, in my own work in the near future—I need to get back to the hilarious! It’s too bad death is so rarely funny.

But the poetry/prose divide—yes, for me there (usually) is one. Always, the words we choose and the way we set them next to one another matter, but in prose, sentences have to pull the reader much further down the road. Even in some flash fiction, I think, sentences and paragraphs hold, cast, and propel a long arc; whereas, the words, phrases, and lines of poetry, to me, feel like piercing instruments. There is something, for me anyway, that is blunter about poetry. There’s no arguing with it, no denying it. I set out to write a poem when I need to put my finger in the socket. I want to wake up. I go to story to roll around a little and to dwell.

Now that I’m answering this question, I see I probably don’t want to dwell on the events of “Dark Feather.” I wonder, because the death was so sudden, how I would work it out as an essay or short story—and if I were to go there, wouldn’t the piece end up being more about my aunt’s life? Or about how her death has affected everyone—one year later? Hmm, you’ve given me more to process, about the grieving process and the writing process! Now we’re talking about content dictating form, and (again) about distance from the event. There are probably infinite ways to talk about distance, right? (I love that topic.) But, for now, I have no prose in me for this—it’s still too fresh.

 

LS: Another thing I admire about this poem—about your process—is that you take one detail from a shocking moment and use it as a way to enter an alternate reality, one where time vaults from past to present to future, one where your aunt is absent but her cats are taken care of and where the catnip still grows. As you wrote, were you surprised by something that found its way to the page?

CF: Yes: I did not see the streak of black paint on my aunt’s hand. I landed in Pittsburgh several hours after they pulled her from life support—did not get to see her (body?) one last time. My mom, her sister, told me about that streak of paint and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I didn’t see it as related to a feather, a crow, or flight, at first. The color black is heavy, grounding, and, of course, often representative of death—or maybe the warding off of evil. The crow carries a warning, or provides wisdom and a connection to the spirit world.

Maybe what surprised me is that by visualizing the paint, at first in motion, arcing, I set myself up to be able to transform it once it dried. That mark of death, on the hand of my aunt who really did so many good things with her hands, has somehow merged with something alive, wild, wise, and free, and therefore, is rendered slightly less terrible.

 

 

christine-fadden1Christine Fadden’s work appears in Cobalt Review, Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Gulf Coast, The Louisville Review, PANK, Joyland, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2014 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival Prize and the 2013 Blanchan Award through the Wyoming Arts Council. She lives in the Olympic Rain Shadow, beneath some trees.

 

laurie-saubornLaurie Saurborn is the author of two poetry collections, Industry of Brief Distraction and Carnavoria, and a chapbook, Patriot. A 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship recipient, her work has appeared in such publications as American Literary Review, storySouth, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, and Tupelo Quarterly. Laurie teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also directs the undergraduate creative writing program. She is currently at work on a collection of stories.

 

 

 

 

Our January Illustrator is Pat Zalisko!!

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I can’t even begin to express how thrilled I am to be working with Pat Zalisko on the January issue. I first engaged with her work when we were both fellows at VCCA and I’ve continued to be inspired by it ever since. And the rarest of the rare is happening for this issue–Pat is reading each piece of work and using the work as inspiration to paint and/or choose from her body of existing work. Pat is an avid reader and a prolific artist and we are incredibly fortunate to not only have her work, but to have her direct engagement with the written word. Someone, please pinch me.

Here are some samples to whet your appetite for the upcoming issue, which has a theme of SPARK.

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day-of-the-perigree-10-16Pat has wonderful childhood memories of painting intricate Ukrainian eggs, pysanky, one of her first creative experiences. This distinctly feminist art form was developed thousands of years earlier and has ritualistically been taught to Ukrainian girls and women. Born and raised in New York City, she was encouraged to pursue a practical career as an attorney.  She retired from a successful legal career and fully embraced her passion for painting in her new Florida environ.

Pat broadened her innate knowledge by studying in residencies, local universities and with select instructors such as Steven Aimone and Harold Garde, both of whom recognized her talent and commitment to creating art.

Over the past several years, her art has regularly appeared in major private and public collections in the United States and abroad.

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eileens-garden-9-16In the artist’s own words: “As I paint, I shift back and forth between intuitive and cognitive states. Intuitively applying paint and drawing elements on surfaces, often rapidly and without analysis, prompts powerful memories and perceptions. It is visceral — pure sensation, emotion, and memory. Then, shifting into the cognitive, I record and explore as I move between the emerging image and the instinctive application of paint and mark. ”

 

It’s Pushcart Time Again!

This time of year is always tricky. We love ALL of our authors and it’s tough to pick only six pieces out of the more than 60 that we publish each year. But it is also an honor and a delight to be able to make six writers very happy by valuing their fine, hard work.

After much deliberation, here are our 2017 Pushcart Nominations (in no particular order):

  • 1) “Fetal Decision,” a flash by Barry Friesen, published April 2016
  • 2) “The Talking Cure,” a poem by Sarah Fawn Montgomery, published April 2016
  • 3) “Weightless,” a flash by Glenn Miller, published October 2016
  • 4) “Care Packages,” a short story by Jerri Bell, published July 2016
  • 5) “Flame,” a short story by Chloe Ackerman, published January 2016
  • 6) “What to Do On a Day Like This,” an essay by Danielle Kelly, published July 2016

Congratulations all, and GOOD LUCK!

Richard Bader: On “Harmony”

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I sing in the choir of my local Unitarian Universalist church, and the seed for what became the story “Harmony” got planted not long ago when I was asked to sing a duet with a woman in the church I didn’t know very well. The song was a sort of Irish sea ballad, an original composition written by a church member who was Jewish. Our church at the time was in a period of conflict over some issue or another, and my duet partner and I were on opposite sides of the conflict. I suspect that much of this—the Irish song written by the Jewish member, the congregation in the midst of conflict—will bring nods of recognition from anyone familiar with Unitarian churches.

I approached our first rehearsal with some not-sure-what-to-expect wariness. Would the conflict spill over into our singing? Would there be lots of judgmental eye rolling when one or the other of us missed a note or mistimed an entrance? There’s a real vulnerability to singing, especially when you’re singing a duet or a solo, and we each had solo parts in the song. With a piano, you can press the key for C and be pretty sure a C is what you’ll hear. With a voice, there’s more room for error, and in our choir—and I suspect in all choirs—error is very much part of the learning process.

What happened surprised me. The vulnerability that I felt carried over into awareness of the vulnerability that my singing partner must also be feeling, and that’s practically the definition of empathy. Through the act of singing together, something had changed. “Harmony” is not even close to being a fictionalized account of actual events, but the story was for me a way to look at what might happen when music brings together two people who have no business being together.

After the story published I had the occasion to talk with a man who has devoted significant parts of his life to exploring the therapeutic benefits of music, in particular its benefits for veterans suffering from PTSD. It’s his belief that at the core of PTSD are three cognitive distortions. One: others are bad. Two: I am bad. And three: the world is dangerous. When you make music together, he said, it’s hard to hang onto the idea that the people you’re making music with are bad. Once that distortion falls away, then “I am bad” starts to collapse as well. And then the world starts to look like a less dangerous place.

He seemed delighted when I told him about singing the duet in church.

Contributors Fall 2016

Richard Bader
Richard Bader (Harmony) is a former a restaurant cook, whitewater rafting guide, and college communications director who now earns his living working as a writer and consultant for nonprofit organizations. He also sings in a church choir, though nowhere near as well as the characters in this story. His fiction has been published by the Burningword Literary Journal, SN Review, and National Public Radio. This is his third story for r.kv.r.y.


Digby Beaumont (Home Improvements) is an English writer. His flash fiction has appeared widely, most recently in Bartleby Snopes, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Camroc Press Review, Change Seven Magazine, Flash Frontier, Jellyfish Review, 100-Word Story, Cosmonauts Avenue and Olentangy Review. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. He made a living as a nonfiction author for many years, with numerous publications.

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Paul Beckman (Higher and Harder) was one of the winners in the Queen’s Ferry 2016 Best of the Small Fictions. His stories are widely published in print and online in the following magazines amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Matter Press, Metazen, Pure Slush, Jellyfish Review, Thrice Fiction and Literary Orphans. Learn more at his website and blog.

roy-bentley
Roy Bentley (Night Shelter) was born in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of four books and several chapbooks. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Blackbird, Shenandoah, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review and elsewhere—recently, in the anthologies New Poetry from the Midwest and Every River on Earth. He has received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the NEA (in poetry), as well as fellowships from the arts councils of Ohio and Florida. These days, he makes his home in Pataskala, Ohio.

sue-eisenfeld
Sue Eisenfeld (No Place Left to Hide) is the author of Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal and a contributor to The New York Times’ Disunion: A History of the Civil War. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, and many other publications, and her essays have been listed among the “Notable Essays of the Year” in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2016. She is a five-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a member of the faculty at the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing/Science Writing programs. www.sueeisenfeld.com.

christine-fadden
Christine Fadden (Dark Feather) work appears in Hobart, Louisiana Literature, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Gulf Coast, The Louisville Review, PANK, Joyland, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2014 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival Prize and the 2013 Blanchan Award through the Wyoming Arts Council. She lives in the Olympic Rain Shadow, beneath some trees.

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Joseph Finucane
(The Foot of Hamburg and South Streets, 1958) was born and raised in the Old First Ward of Buffalo. He is a retired writing teacher of thirty-nine years and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.This is his first published piece and the opening chapter of his nearly completed memoir.

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Claire FitzSimmonds (The Way She Is) lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Asbury University in 2009 with a journalism degree. She has dabbled in blogging, but “The Way She Is” is her first published fictional piece.

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Wendy Miles (Those Who Once Lived There Return) has had work anthologized and appear in places such as Arts & Letters, Memoir Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Hunger Mountain, storySouth, The MacGuffin and Alabama Literary Review. Winner of the 2014 Patricia Dobler Poetry Award, semi-finalist for the 2016 and 2013 Perugia Press Prize and a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she teaches writing at Randolph College in Virginia.

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Glenn Erick Miller
(Weightless) has had writing appear in The Citron Review, Red Earth Review, and Agave Magazine among others. He is a recent first-place winner in the Adirondack Writing Center’s annual awards and is currently writing a novel for young adults.

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Tom Saunders (Somewhere Else), has published a novel Inappropriate Happiness and two collections of short stories, Brother, What Strange Place is This? and Roof Whirl Away, as well as his poetry collection To the Boy. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, appeared in many anthologies, and is an ardent photographer in the UK where he lives.

dawn-surratt
Dawn Surratt (Illustrator) attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and graduated with a degree in Studio Art. After her father unexpectedly died in a tragic accident, she found herself gravitating toward working with grieving people and earned a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Georgia. The next 20 years she worked with Hospice patients–and this very sacred, intense work became the backbone of her photography echoing strong undercurrents of transition and loss.

alan-toltzis
Alan Toltzis (Clearing Ivy) is the author of The Last Commandment and the founder of The Psalm Project, which teaches poetry to kids in middle and high school. Recent work has appeared in Right Hand Pointing, The Provo Canyon Review, As It Ought to Be, Red Wolf, and Burningword Literary Journal. Find him online at alantoltzis.com.

rebecca-spears
Rebecca Spears (Breath) is a writer and instructor from Houston, Texas, author of The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press). Her work is included in TriQuarterly, Calyx, Crazyhorse, Verse Daily, Image, Relief, Ars Medica, Nimrod, Borderlands, and other journals and anthologies. Currently, she writes online posts for Relief Journal and serves on the board of Mutabilis Press. Spears has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow.

john-wojtowicz
John Wojtowicz (Aloha to Alcohol) grew up working on his family’s azalea and rhododendron nursery in the backwoods of South Jersey. He is currently employed as a social worker and takes every opportunity to combine this work with his passion for wilderness. Besides poetry, he likes bonfire, boots, beer, and bluegrass. He has been previously published in Stoneboat, Five2one, Naugatuck River Review, El Portal, and The Mom Egg.

“No Place Left to Hide: Meditations on a Shore House” by Sue Eisenfeld

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“Growing Into Truths,” Image by Dawn Surratt

1. The floorboards creaked, though none of us were home. A stranger—to us; she knew the shore house well—had broken in through the side door, stolen to the basement, and thrown a rope around a pipe just below the living room floor.

The house was built in 1929 with a cinderblock foundation, which is not often today’s method of choice. Most new houses are constructed entirely on wooden pilings, as was the newer sun porch out front, circa 1963. But the basement, like the tiny, single-level, cedar-shake cottage, was built based on codes of its era, back before the days of massive coastal development, back before the days when we had any real fear that the ocean could take the Jersey Shore away.

In 1973, Neil’s father decided to cut a hole through the living room floor and put a set of stairs into the basement, the two-car garage. In the decade earlier, he had already added a concrete slab floor to what was originally just sand and a cinderblock retaining wall that held back the dune outside. He had replumbed the pipes with little Neil’s help, bought a washer and dryer, and knocked down that back wall, shoving it farther into the dune, closer to the beach by 15 feet. In that extra space, he built himself a workroom to tinker with his fixtures and wires. He built a storage closet for linens and sunscreen and a storage room for bikes and boards, plus a small, enclosed, full bathroom with a stand-up shower that had sand in the floor paint for traction and when the garage door was open you could have the illusion you were showering outdoors.

When the stranger entered the basement—the garage—with its grey concrete floor and grey cinderblock walls, and the unfinished ceiling joists above, I’m sure she could hear the muffled ocean, could imagine its spray, could conjure all those summer days for one rental week at a time, or maybe two, when she sat out on the deck and read a book and picked crabs and drank white wine with her feet up, under the umbrella, with the dune grass rustling in the breeze. Yes, even the basement was filled with the lure of the sticky salt air of the shore, without even one window.

The police arrived at the house a day after her husband reported her missing. She had been diagnosed with uterine cancer, he had said. And she had been unable to bear children. He had strayed in their marriage, and she was suffering from depression. They were estranged from one another, far away in some other town. But he knew her well enough to tell the authorities that, even in winter, if she were to flee anywhere, she would flee to this house, which she had loved many times and had always loved her back.

 

2. In Arlington, Virginia, we braced for the storm.

Weeks prior, I had made plans to go to the shore house that weekend with my dad and stepmother from Philadelphia. It was to be a Friday-to-Sunday trip. On Wednesday, October 24, we looked at the forecast: simple rain. On Thursday, October 25, we debated our options. We wondered whether we would still enjoy ourselves if we couldn’t take our morning walks to the bay, that sepia stew of jellyfish and biting flies in the still air; our afternoon walks on the beach toward the mansions of Mantoloking in one directions or the ghosted face of the Ferris wheel at Seaside Heights in the other; if we couldn’t spend our nights spending our money out on the pier spinning some sort of wheel or shooting something up to win a stuffed animal and then stuffing gigantic triangles of Maruca’s pizza into our gut.

If I had been planning to go to the shore house just with Neil, we would have gone anyway that weekend, with what we knew then. We would have stayed in and listened to the ocean and to music and read books and watched the storm. Yes, we would have sat near the windows of the sun porch—all seven of them on three sides—and we would have watched the weather come in. We would not have turned on the TV because we’re not TV people. We would not have listened to the radio because we’re not radio people. If we had Internet service, we would have definitely logged on, but the connection might have been spotty. Maybe the police would have made announcements on a loud speaker, or maybe not. Without any year-round neighbors in shouting distance to warn us, we may have marooned ourselves in that house as the weather picked up. And when the lights began to flicker and the wind tore the first shingle off the side of the house and the ocean started eating away at what we thought was the ground, the earth, that solid yet moveable stuff that the deck and walkways were built on, it would have been much too late.

Instead, my dad and stepmom—wise people—suggested that it wasn’t worth all the hassle for a rainy-weather trip—five hours’ drive for me; them having to pack up again after having just been there on their own the week before, using up some of the empty days on the rental calendar. And so we didn’t go to the shore.

Neil and I did not watch TV because we don’t have cable, and we did not listen to the little, old-fashioned hand-held battery radio after our middle-of-the-night check-ins. The radar imagery we saw online of what happened was colorful, but so abstract. We did not see information or photos in the newspapers on that first day after the storm, or even the second, about the full extent of damage; they mostly published generalities and focused on our local Washington DC area and New York City. And so two days would pass before it would occur to me to seek information about how the tiny, eight-block town of Normandy Beach, New Jersey, fared in the storm.

 

3. I closed my eyes, and the surgeon slipped a scalpel into my face. In my mind’s eye, I could see the shape he was cutting: a half moon to the left, a half moon to the right. Then he cauterized the bleeding—fumes of burning-flesh taking hold in my nose—and took the segments of skin away.

They were working on the tip of my nose. I wouldn’t know at the time that future surgeries would take segments from my left eyebrow, twice, then from the nose again. My chest, my arm. Once from the leg. These were my souvenirs from my summers in the sun, the ones when my face puffed up like a blowfish from my second-degree burns, peach-colored and fuzzy too with skin peel, and the ones when I could put a hand to my chest or shins and pop like Rice Krispies the tiny, white water blisters that formed there. Bruce Springsteen never sang about what happens to all the beach bunnies at the Jersey Shore twenty or thirty years later: their leathery skin, white splotches, cataracts, skin cancer. This surgery aims to take the blemish away, but the scars and the memories are forever.

In 1973 and 1975, the years when Springsteen released “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run,” I was at least ten years too young for its words of teen angst. The 3” x 3” square, white-rimmed family photos from Avalon or Stone Harbor—a week or two each summer each year of my youth—show me in pigtails, with an orange-tinged visor over my face, and it’s the smell of Bain de Soleil, SPF 4, that I remember: island fruit punch and burnt sugar, a thick, meaty, orange paste. My mother and I sat together in our low beach chairs at the water’s edge near our hotel in our bikinis. Each time the water rose, I collected clams the size of orzo before they burrowed back into the sand.

By the early 1980s, I was wildly staring at cute boys from across the courtyard of our rented summer apartment or at the neighborhood hangouts of my best friends’ parents’ low-slung rental houses a few shores away, living out silent romances in my head. There, I was the girl bopping down the beach with the radio, blonde and bronzed in satin stripes, watching men watching me, poised on the boardwalk rails with the rattles and rings and greasy, fried, sweet scents behind them.

The love that was wild, the love that was real, strapping my legs around anything—none of that would happen during the years I wished it. It happened at the shore house with Neil, unsnapping my jeans under the floorboards in the basement, the aurora rising somewhere outside behind us. By then—after my doctor had warned me that basal cell carcinoma, like that on my nose, liked to keep the same company with melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer—I had mostly abandoned the sun, affirmed by Neil’s influence as an avid non-sunbather and the kind of man whom a tan did not impress. I did not even venture to the beach, except for walks. Instead, I luxuriated in being able to stay on his family’s oceanfront shore-house deck, jutting out deep into the dune grass and hovering over the crest of the dune with a panoramic view of the Atlantic under an umbrella—with a shroud of terry cloth over my entire length, with a book and a constantly refreshed icy drink and snacks from our stash in the kitchen. I could tuck inside to the sun porch for relief anytime I wanted, with windows wide open, piping in the metronome music of surf.

The shore house was my tether. It kept me from harm.

 

4. Neil always said we should sell the house. Though other siblings enjoyed the place with their kids, he and I didn’t use it much, as it was too far away. Any time we went, it always seemed to ensnare him in a D-I-Y home improvement project, eating up our few precious hours. And it didn’t hold childhood memories Neil wanted to relive: the youngest of the clan, being dragged there by his mother every summer, far from his hometown friends.

But it is a family house, owned jointly by the four distant siblings after the death of their grandparents, who had bought the house in the 1940s, and then their parents, who inherited it first. Global climate change, Neil would whisper in their ear whenever he could, at a rare family event, over an occasional email correspondence. But the idea never took. Even with the framed black-and-white photos in the sun porch that showed the storm of 1962, which tore off the original sun porch addition, projecting their wisdom down upon us as we lazed in that outermost room against the shore, inertia reigned, as it is wont to do.

It was a dark house with small windows, wood-paneled walls, and castoff antique mahogany furniture from fancy aunts. It was not a modern beach house, not a place of new-fangled things. It did not try to put on airs; to say, I’m better than you because I’m taller, wider, fancier, or closer to the sea. It was none of those things. It was old money, and old money does not brag. Old money buys one of the first houses in Normandy Beach, not to keep up with the neighbors, because there aren’t any, but because the air is good for lungs and the sea is easy on the mind, and because it is a slightly eccentric thing to do during a war. Old money was Neil’s maternal grandfather, a banker in Trenton, and when he bought the house, the beach now crowded with Spanish-tile- and faux Tahitian-thatched-roofed mansions was empty, flat as a surfboard against all horizons. From the kitchen window, Grandmother could see him coming down the road in his car from miles away.

Another thing old money does is not try to be young again, not sell out to the highest bidder. It understands that new, brown cedar shakes will go grey with time, salt will corrode anything that shines, and that, with dignity, old money will die on its own terms.

So the siblings—the descendants: unflashy, unassuming, middle-class—did not really consider (not now, not just yet, the time is not right) or agree on selling the oceanfront double lot for one-and-a-half million dollars or two, the lot made of sand dune so deep and vast they we never really knew—until all the sand was gone, like if we were to shave our furry cat and suddenly see its real, skinny form underneath—that the wood pilings holding up the front half of the house had stood in sand 12 feet deep; that the sand at that depth had once stretched more than 70 feet across the property. The house was scantily insured. When it was all over, the family would receive the amount that the tiny, old cottage alone without its oceanfront land was probably worth, for wind and rain damage (the policy did not cover flooding), calculated based on the depreciated value of the property lost. Checks disbursed stood in for commiseration, and correspondence between the four siblings mostly ceased thereafter.

Each year since the early 1990s, each sibling has had to pay a few thousand dollars in property taxes to the state of New Jersey. The tax rate on second homes in New Jersey is high, as is the benefit for those who make use of the place—and the risk. We paid for a constant stream of new shingles, shutters, and appliances; cleaning, construction, cable, and spotty Internet, and the opportunity to go whenever we wished. It was an investment, we reasoned when the payments came due; an always-open option, a future, and a family peacekeeping measure as well.

The giant, towering house next door, two stories higher than ours, which we dubbed “The Monstrosity,” looked down upon us, out the second or third story windows, and called our place “That Thing,” for its relative shabbiness. In mid-October, a week before the storm, the last time anyone inhabited our house, when my dad and stepmom used that fateful empty week for their autumn getaway, the owner of The Monstrosity casually mentioned to my dad that he’d like to buy our shore house land. He said he’d like to raze the building, pave the grounds, and turn it into a parking lot to give his guests from New York City more room for their cars.

 

5. On Wednesday, October 24, unbeknownst to any of us in Virginia, or Philadelphia, or possibly even in the various places where Neil’s siblings live, near and far from the Jersey Shore, Weatherboy—a news personality on Facebook—predicted that Hurricane Sandy would strike the northeastern United States with “brutal force,” “perhaps being one of the most catastrophic fall storms in the region on record.”

On Thursday, October 25, the day my dad, stepmother, and I definitively decided we would rather not spend the weekend at the shore in the rain, which was the weather forecast we had heard—whether on the radio, on TV, or the Internet, I don’t remember—Weatherboy wrote that Hurricane Sandy would bring widely scattered tornadoes, widespread destructive winds, and extremely high storm surges, on top of high astronomical tides.

“Residents of …New Jersey…should rush their hurricane preparation plans to completion as soon as possible—your life and property is at risk from a potentially historic storm,” Weatherboy reported on Friday, October 26, when I would have been making the five-hour drive, either alone to meet my dad and stepmom, or with Neil, had we been the travelers. I had not yet subscribed to Weatherboy, however, and none of us—which is unbelievable in retrospect but 100 percent accurate—had heard the dire predictions for the storm. “In the primary impact area,” Weatherboy warned, “people should be prepared to have no electrical power (and perhaps water, gas, and heat) for many, many days…Historic disaster unfolding,” he said. “Its trajectory onto the Garden State is a ‘worst case scenario.’”

And further: “Beaches will have life-threatening conditions for a prolonged period of time—do not visit nor stay near beaches!”

On Saturday, October 27, what would have been the second day of the trip that very nearly happened, Weatherboy announced that “Hurricane Sandy continues its forward march, gaining size and intensity as it does so… with a storm force wind-field of historic proportions.” It is the “second largest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic” at this time and is “on track to become the largest ever.”

Neil’s sister and husband and family, local to the Jersey Shore area, finally corresponded with us about the dire predictions, and on Sunday, October 28, descended upon the shore house to board up the oceanfront windows. On the same day, Weatherboy reported on Governor Christie warning New Jersey residents statewide to expect power outages lasting up to 10 days, with roads blocked due to downed trees and wires, and basic services “unable to function for a prolonged period of time due to power outages: gas stations, banks, and food stores.”

At the end of that day, the shore house stood dark and alone, abandoned, its future depending solely on Neil’s sister’s last-ditch storm preparations, a contractor in the 1960s for its sun porch re-construction, and some unknown builder in the 1920s who saw fit to locate a seasonal family cottage at the lip of the ocean—“frighteningly close to the water,” as a friend once told me.

“Brace for impact!” Weatherboy warned on Monday, October 29 and predicted that the storm would make landfall around dinnertime. Then the web site fell silent for the night, as if a hush had settled over the land.

 

6. If the stranger had picked Monday, October 29, 2012, to drive to her beloved shore house rental and hang herself in the basement, it would not have been a smooth transition from one life to the next.

She would have heard the surf alright, but it would have been rougher than expected. She would have heard the howl of the wind, felt the vibrations in the earth from the pound of waves, even through the concrete floor.

If she had gone out on the deck first, before her final gesture, for one last look at the landscape she once found so serene, she may have been scared for the first time at the shore house, scared to see the ocean coming ever closer to her sanctuary. Scared at the way her hair swirled around as if her finger were stuck in a socket, scared that the flagpole at The Monstrosity next door would fall. Scared to see the snow fence that once held back our big dune getting undercut by the water, starting to lean into the beach, then getting dragged away into the darkness.

If she stayed outside long enough, holding on to the rail of the deck to keep her steady, she may have begun to feel the deck move beneath her, like the rumble my dad and stepmother felt when they were at the shore house during the Mineral, Va., earthquake the previous year, an uncomfortable undulation, as if the deck were supported by rolling logs. The pressure and vortex of the wind may have begun to hurt her ears. The blowing sand would have stung her face.

At some point, she would have had to run inside because it would have been much too frightening to allow the storm to have its way with her, the uncertainty and chaos of it all, and if she had run early enough back into the house, she would not have quite have seen how the ground, the earth, that solid yet moveable stuff that the deck and walkways were built on, was melting into the sea like sugar crystals dissolving in hot water—right under the sun porch door. Looking out into the abyss, the new ground far below would have been like looking down from a high dive onto the bottom of a pool. The sea scoured the shore as flat as the highway onto the island, now busted and breached by the waves.

Perhaps she would have already been indoors when the wind lifted up the first of the roof shingles, tore off the first of the side cedar shakes, broke the first of the unboarded-up side windows, uprooted the first of the dune plants, scoured away the first of the side stairs, split the first crack into the concrete furnace-chimney, sprayed the first of gallons of rain water and sand into the living room, or heaved the first of six inches of the sun porch apart from the rest of the house.

Only one thing would have mattered, if she had been in the house that night: Was she in the basement, the garage, when the ocean—freed from the protective barrier of dune—laid out its thousands of pounds per square inch of weight and collapsed the cinderblock wall to allow the salt water through the foundation. Because if she were already in the process of arranging her final fate or already martyred, the ocean would have pummeled her like a deranged husband or waterboarded her to death.

But the stranger was not in the basement that night, had entered her own heavenly home years before. She did not get an earthy or on-the-way-to-heaven-ly view of the ocean’s lashing tongue pushing the washing machine and dryer out into the street, along with the bikes and boards and old lamps and fixtures and all of Neil’s late father’s old tools. She did not have to endure the indignity of wooden doors and sheets and towels and bottles of sunscreen gushing past her in a fast fury, with seaweed wrapping around her neck and legs. She’d never have to report that the Cadillac a neighbor had stored in our garage, to protect it while he wintered in Florida, was stripped by that ocean thief and abandoned in the middle of Ocean Terrace like a beached whale.

And she would never have to know that the bathroom with a cinderblock shower with sand in the paint to prevent slippage and a countertop that Neil and I made love on during the wild summer nights when I finally could be that bouncy, bronzed beach beauty I never was would end up in pieces scattered across the street in the neighbor’s yard.

The suicide would remain a private affair. If she had been there that night, the body may still have been attached to the pipe, waterlogged, for all the world to see—those few who stuck it out on rooftops or in fire halls, the rescue squads searching for survivors. The storm surge and record-high tide drove straight through that lower level of house, tearing a hole through it like a fist, leaving behind a floor-to-ceiling view from street to sea, an uninhabitable body of broken bones. A thread—golden, faded, or black—pulled forever from the fabric of our lives.

Years later, it sits there still; a wound still raw, a salvation waiting to be salvaged.

 

 

Sue Eisenfeld is the author of Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal and a contributor to The New York Times’ Disunion: A History of the Civil War. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, and many other publications, and her essays have been listed among the “Notable Essays of the Year” in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2016. She is a five-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a member of the faculty at the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing/Science Writing programs. www.sueeisenfeld.com

 

Homepage Fall 2016

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All artwork appears courtesy of the artist Dawn Surratt.

Happy fall! And welcome to our October 2016 “SPIRITS” issue. We’re honored to share the work of these fourteen 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 beautiful artwork of Dawn Surratt–work she has generously allowed us to use. We are also proud to introduce two new writers for whom this will be their first publication. As any editor will tell you, there’s a special kind of thrill involved in publishing first-time authors.

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, Dawn. You made each essay, story, flash, and poem pop just a little bit more.

Our January 2017 issue has a tentative theme of SPARKS.

As always, thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

“The Foot of Hamburg and South Streets, 1958” by Joseph Finucane

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“Ride” by Dawn Surratt

Summer starts with a sacrifice. The death of two small boys on a hot afternoon.

It’s how summer begins in Buffalo’s First Ward. I am seven.

Sometimes, a raft made of wooden factory pallets that were stolen from Barcalo’s capsizes underneath the lift bridge killing a boy of eight from Fitzgerald Street. Or an inner tube from an old Ford truck fails to hold its hot patch and a twelve-year old boy from Fulton Street dies a few short strokes from the Great Northern Elevators.

Or a Kentucky Street teenager slides down a three hundred foot sand dune and sinks beneath the shadows of the St. Mary’s Cement towers. Or a Pets’ 6th Grader slips while chasing a sewer rat with a slingshot and the boy falls into the Ohio Basin.

On this summer day, a flotilla of oil-drums bound together with poorly knotted sailor’s hitches, unknots and unlashes itself, sending four boys from Sidway Street into the gray waters. Their panicked friends watch from a shoreline perch. Others watch from perches within the rotting structure of the Ganson side’s wooden piers. I watch with my friends from the concrete dock that runs the South Street side of the river.

I am next to a bollard where a giant lake boat ties anchor.

A small boy screams.

His arms flail against the waters. His three friends try to save themselves swimming desperately to the Ganson side piers as their flotilla falls apart and drifts away.

All of them search for something concrete to hold onto.

One boy finds a steel bar and holds tight to the rung of a ladder embedded into the side of the pier. The second finds a mooring hanging from the side of an anchored tugboat. The third clings to a large wooden pile jutting from the river and becomes part of the crumbling pier.

The drowning boy finds nothing. He grabs at the waters around him. Thrashing and kicking. His hands empty. He knows he is going to die.

In some versions of this story, a miracle occurs. An older boy, who is fishing at the foot of Hamburg and South Streets, reacts without thinking. He drops his pole and dives head first. Unafraid. He swims against the river’s slow current, fighting its unpredictable eddies to reach the drowning boy just before the small one goes down for the fatal, third time. He reaches the drowning boy and grabs his small outstretched hand in the nick of time and becomes the newest “Hero of the Ward.”

A black-and-white photo appears in the Courier-Express and the Buffalo Evening News. A photo of a smiling boy holding his skinny fishing pole. Standing proudly next to the boy he saved. The small boy with his dirty blonde hair. A thankful little boy. Still wet. Still scared. A small smile on his tiny lips. Looking up in awe at his dark-haired savior.

The photo runs next to a half-page news article, proof of the boy’s uncommon courage. Of his selflessness. In it, when asked why he jumps to save a boy he does not know, the fisher boy mentions hearing Fr. Mahoney’s sermon about laying down one’s life to save another. And with this admission, the fisher boy becomes the next Ward’s legend. His story’s told from the pulpit, then door-to-door and face-to-face over beers at Whitey’s or Flood’s. His actions celebrated with smiles and knowing nods from elder Wardmen.

“Did ya hear about that fisher boy? The one who saved that Sidway Street boy?”

“I did. It’s what Ward boys do.”

“Slainte.”

It’s such a beautiful ending. Mythic and noble. And fucking unbelievable, if it weren’t right there on page 23 in the Courier-Express.

But, this is not that story. Rather, it is this one.

The story of the Ward on a late summer’s day on the day when boys aren’t heroes but simply stupid boys doing stupid, dangerous things that end in suffocating tears.

The one with a fisher boy who is too small and who swims too slowly.

The one with a still, small child who chills and cramps from the still, cold waters.

The one set on a deadly, fucking river on an awful, sunny day.

The one when both boys quit, knowing they can’t go on.

The one that spreads quickly through the Ward as it always does: “Some kids are drowning in the river.”

I was seven and summer was just starting. I had nothing better to do than to run when I heard the news. Screaming down Vincennes Street with my friends, a whole street of screaming and laughing mixed-breed banshees running to the river, to see for ourselves. And me shouting at everyone I see, “Someone’s drowning at the foot of Hamburg.” Laughing. Like it was the first day of Pets’ lawn fete. Or the day the travelling old gypsy took the picture of me dressed as a cowboy on his brown and white pony.

The old folks ask as we run by. “Who is it this time? Do any of ya’s know him?” We keep running and don’t answer. And our big brothers run, too, down to the foot of Hamburg and South Streets. First, in a panic. Then, in a frenzy. A frenzy broken by the voice of a young mother whose kids are crossing O’Connell Avenue without looking.

“Didn’t ya’s see that car coming? Do ya’s want to be killed, too?” There’s no time to lose. Mr. Travis, who sits outside his store in his chair, wants to know what’s all the commotion down on the other side of the Republic Street tracks? We don’t answer. We keep running to the riverfront.

Some of the fathers stop for a smoke. Between long drags, they look at the young faces running past, looking for the faces of sons or nephews or first cousins. Making a list. Then, with a flick of the middle finger, they send their cigarette butts bouncing off the sidewalks. Some butts spark. Some just tumble.

They join us in the chase. They race down Vandalia Street. They pour down Alabama Street. Down Tennessee Street. And Hamburg Street. And down South Street. Down to that fucking gray river. That killing gray river. That river where they make their living. Many of them are already thinking the worst since the worst always seems to happen in the Ward on the sunniest of first summer days. Each man dreading what no father can endure: the death of a foolish and reckless son. How will they break the news to his mother?

Some older women sit on their front porches and watch the racing crowds. They have seen this race far too many times. For far too many summers. They know the outcome. Knowing there is nothing they can do now. But pray. So, they sit and shake their heads from side to side.

And tssk. And pray. And then pray some more. Kneading their black rosary beads.

Some nuns from the convent walk quick-step to the foot of Hamburg and South. They want to run but are unable to do so in their long brown habits. Almost tripping. Led by Sister Richard Anne. Her red face plump and wet and worn. Her wimple stained from dust and sweat.

The Ward is there. Watching silently at the foot of Hamburg and South. Stunned and angry. And secretly relieved that it’s not one of theirs who went under. That it’s someone else’s child.

Some bless themselves. Others watch silently from the lift bridge. A silence that is shattered when one of the Skinners’ shouts, “Here comes the Cotter!” But, the ancient red fireboat’s too late. The boys have disappeared. And there’s nothing left for the city’s firemen to do but to set their grapples with its large hooks for the bodies and strain the waters with old fishing nets.

I can’t believe the things I saw. Was that really a boy’s outstretched hand? It was barely the size of a good fist. And where did the fisher boy vanish?  

I listen as a mother keens and a father curses Jesus Christ, Almighty.

Old Mr. Hooper says to no one in particular, “Don’t these god-damn kids know you can’t play with this river?”

Jimmy Boy shrugs “Shit like this just happens in the Ward.”

I can’t help myself. I stare at the spot where the boys went under. It is now a smooth eddy. Some boys who were watching from the piers are already bored and ready to move on. They pick up flat stones and skip them three, four, five bounces across the deadly waters like nothing has happened here this day. Pretending that it is no big deal even though they know it’s the biggest deal of all. Two boys are gone. Never to return. At the start of another long, hot summer.

A friend says, “Let’s go hang out in the Dell.”

I mumble, “Okay.”

We leave as a group. Survivors, this time. On this day, we spit and laugh and kick a Campbell’s soup can down the cobblestones of Hamburg Street until the can comes up dented and crushed. I kick the can one last time. It skips and tumbles crazily, rolling for a short time on its edge. My best friend stomps it flat. “That’s how it’s done,” he says, sailing the flattened can over the cars parked on the viaduct side of Mackinaw Street. It boomerangs over our heads before landing in the Dell near some older kids who are cupping their cigarettes so they don’t get caught smoking.

They talk around a small wood pile being built for the bonfire later that night. “Hey, faggots, who died at the foot of Hamburg?”

I want to say, “You bastards, ain’t you got no respect for the dead?” But, I don’t answer because I can’t. I don’t know the boys’ names. Instead, I walk into the Dell’s tall grasses. I hear crickets and see green and brown grasshoppers jumping. I see a praying mantis clinging to a large stick. I climb the viaduct to the train tracks where the hobos make camp and share information among themselves about who in the Ward is good for a hot meal.

The air is electric with the sound of cicadas. They buzz and then stop. Buzz and stop. Buzz and stop above us in the trees. One lies in the dirt near a railroad tie, covered with brown ants busily cutting it into small pieces. I look above the Ward and see the dark spire of Pets Church against the gray walls of the grain elevators.

The summer sun will set soon. It is already a red ball in the sky hiding behind the mills to the west. The sunset paints the grain silos pink and orange and violet and red. Then the streetlights come on, leaving just enough time for us to run and hide-and-go-seek throughout the parish.

We play relentlessly. Regardless of the deaths. Defiant and confused by the day’s events.

It is the time of black spiders. They take over the streetlamps and take over the front windows of Nunny’s store. Giant black spiders with round, black bellies whose webs fill with hundreds of sandflies from the lake. The largest and blackest one stops eating. He looks at me, then returns to his feast. I stare above the web at the strips of coiled flypaper hanging in Nunny’s windows. Each brown strip covered with a day’s worth of horseflies and bluebottles stuck to its glue. So many dead eyes. A few still struggle to escape the trap but I know they are doomed.

The game ends. I run home where Ma is sewing a tear in my sister’s white slip. She sees me and relaxes for the first time all day. She’s heard about the boys.

“Joey, can you put the thread through the needle for me?”

Ma can’t see small things like the eye of a needle. I thread it the first time.

“Do you know the little boy who drowned?”

“I don’t.”

“What about the boy who tried to save him?”

“I don’t know him either, Ma.”

“Joey, promise me you won’t never do something that stupid with Pootsie. Promise me.”

“I promise, Ma.”

“Cross your heart and swear to God, on my soul.”

“I cross my heart and swear on your soul.”

But, I’m lying and she knows it. Someday, I will make a raft and sail it on that river. And if it falls apart or if Pootsie should fall in, I will jump in its waters just like the fisher boy, without thinking, to try to save him. And Pootsie will do the same for me. Even, if we both drown. That’s what best friends do in the Ward.

“You’re a good boy, Joey. Go wash your hands and neck before you go to sleep. And don’t forget to wipe off your feet. They’re filthy. What do you do all day to get so dirty?”

I use the wet washcloth that Jackie used before she went to bed. It is gray when I start but brown and black when I’m done. Wheezy and Jackie are in bed. They are talking in whispers about some boys they like or think are cute.

Jackie tells me to move over and stop sweating on her. Wheezy says I smell like Paddy’s Sneakers or like Sylvester our runaway tomcat that Ma hates.

“Joey, did you brush your teeth? Your breath stinks like phlegm.”

I lie and tell Wheezy that I did.

“Don’t you breathe on me with that booger breath. And don’t you let out any farts. It stinks bad enough in this room already from Jackie’s farts.”

“Your farts are worse, Wheezy. They smell like rotten eggs.”

I say my nightly prayer. In the darkness after, I listen as Wheezy and Jackie tease each other more. I think about the two boys whose names I do not know. I keep seeing a small boy’s empty hand reaching up to God. Reaching for a miracle but we’re a miracle short today in the Ward.

“Why, God?” I ask. Why, if he believed so badly? If I believe so deeply?

I want to believe that you watch over me.

That you will save me in my blackest hour of need.

I want to believe because you were a poor boy, too.

But it’s hard. And I’m only seven.

 

 

Joseph Finucane was born and raised in the Old First Ward of Buffalo. He is a retired writing teacher of thirty-nine years and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.This is his first published piece and the opening chapter of his nearly completed memoir.

“Breath” by Rebecca Spears

breath
“Till the Clouds Clear,” Image by Dawn Surratt

The rimed windows provide a rounded geometry, the panes rimmed in ice-fern. We move chairs away from them, closer to a room’s interiors. We learn to love audiobooks, short stories on the radio—local readers from Des Moines, and Selected Shorts from Symphony Space. We grow to admire Isaiah Sheffer, our winter guide, who takes us away from the chill rooms and into the world of stories. We develop passions for Mouse Trap, Monopoly, Gin Rummy, Hearts, and Battle. We love baking. The oven is lit and live for hours, it radiates. My kids spend lots of time at the kitchen table to be near the stove, cutting out hearts or winter scenes for shadowboxes, working math problems and English grammar. We love three-season porches, especially on the north side of the house, and the west—the worst cold comes from the northwest, down from the Arctic and across Montana and South Dakota. The porches insulate.

Outside, frostbite is never far off, a ghost that scares us to run ahead. Yet I know of no cleaner smell than the keen, cutting cold. Exsanguination—a few days ago, a friend gave me the word for it. I‘d been searching for ways to describe the air on cold days and the experience of inhaling it. Exsanguination—the blood retreats from the vulnerable parts of the body, most noticeably the nose. This retreat allows the experience of a fierce beauty hard to replicate—when I breathe in the air, it fairly rings through my body. I imagine chandeliers, glasses clinking. On subzero days, the air carries more oxygen. It’s denser, and sustains a freshness I can only describe by what’s absent—the smell of hot tires on pavement, pungent animal odors, sweet organic matter. The short periods I venture outdoors in frigid weather, I hold my breath momentarily, then let the air spiral in, the frosty burn of midwinter in the lungs. Too much time in subzero temperatures complicates breathing–I know this—it causes the airways to constrict. My son has asthma, and he has to be careful in very cold weather. He always carries an inhaler in his pocket. We keep a nebulizer at home, a machine to help him recover from asthma attacks.

~

He waves at us from a screened porch, a familiar-looking man I barely know, a tall, thin man. His wire-rimmed glasses are round, gold moons. He has fair hair, maybe it’s white. My mother stands by him, a wraith in a white mask and hat and gown. Even her shoes are covered. She stands in place, sandwiched between him and an Adirondack chair. There are other men on the porch, sitting in a dozen Adirondack chairs. My brothers and I, our dad, my Grandpa and Grandma Spears, wave back. I look at my Granddad Thompson with a smile, half-expecting that we might have a real conversation. I imagine what it would be like to hug him, to have his arms encircle me. Instead, the scene is surreal, a tableaux, the porch is high up and faraway like a stage. I crane my neck until it hurts. My brothers and I are too young to really understand. I must be five, my older brother six, my younger brother, four—too young to comprehend that Granddad Thompson, my mother’s father, is in the final stages of tuberculosis, which will take him within the year.

I hardly know him, don’t remember ever seeing him before this, and I don’t know where we are exactly. Possibly the VA hospital in Temple, Texas. He’s a World War veteran, so the VA seems the most likely place, and Grandpa and Grandma Spears live in Belton, a small town nearby. Years later an old postcard image of the hospital and its white porches seems familiar to me. Is that where he once waved at us? I wish I knew. This is my one living memory of Granddad Thompson.

~

Some years ago, my daughter Claire brought home from school a paper with creatures on it in black outline. Round creatures with thin arms and legs. She’d colored the forms in primary colors and green.

–Tell me about these, I said.

–They’re snot-boys, she replied, wide-eyed, smiling, triumphal.

–Snot-boys?

–Yeah. You gotta wash your hands or you’ll get a cold.

–Oh, germs!

–Yeah, germs!

The protocols derived from germ theory are pragmatic, they work: wash your hands, cover your cough or sneeze, and wash your hands again, disinfect surfaces, air out rooms, don’t drink after others, repeat the hand-washing once more. The year many of us prepared for the swine flu pandemic I taught in a large, urban high school in the Houston Independent School District. The administration held more than one meeting for the faculty about the expected outbreaks, and officials put into effect some simple measures. Remind students to wash their hands, to sneeze into the crook of an arm, to stay home if they were ill. Then we teachers were handed over-sized bottles of hand sanitizer and a box or two of Kleenex to keep on our desks at school. Of course, I hardly touched the bottle after it had been out on my desk a day or two, because all the students had been touching the bottle. And inevitably, a dozen or so became ill with the swine flu. By luck, I didn’t catch it.

I am still teaching, and I’m not often ill. My own protocol—don’t put fingers in mouth, eyes, nose, ears, unless they are clean. Don’t touch students’ desk, except with a paper towel and sanitizer. Don’t touch anything that belongs to a student, in fact—except that I must handle their papers, at least, so I always wash my hands after a session of grading papers. I keep on hand vitamin C lozenges or Emergen-C or both, along with Echinacea capsules. Okay, does this sound a little obsessive? Maybe, but I’ve been following this regimen so long, I hardly think about it very much. Only in writing down these details, do I realize how careful I have been.

~

My mother, narrator of Thompson family stories, says that my Granddad Thompson came to live at our house when I was an infant, about six months old, and my brother Craig, two years old. Here is how the story goes, according to what I was told, and I have filled in a few details from my imagination:

My grandfather sleeps in my room, a pale blue room with organdy curtains and oak floors. On warm days, the window is opened to let in the breezes. Besides the Jenny Lind crib, there’s a roll-away bed against one wall. My mother’s been using this bed in the middle of the night to nurse me. Now, this is Granddad’s bed. If my mother is still nursing me, she will do it elsewhere.

I do not know how long he lives in my room, but because my mother uses the word lives, I have to assume he stays a while. Why do my parents invite him to stay? They are soft-hearted; they never shirk obligations; they honor their parents. Maybe he’s homeless. In photos, he looks frail. Maybe he’s in poor health because he is an alcoholic. Alcoholics, with their compromised immune systems, are at high-risk for contracting TB. Granddad looks kindly, benign, but when he comes to live with us, he is deadly. He has active TB, though my parents do not know that right away. At some level, maybe he knows he is ill, but he doesn’t know what the illness is, or the consequences.

In Waco, Texas, where we lived during that interval, a large VA hospital complex sprawls over many acres. Maybe at first my grandfather received treatment there. Built on five hundred acres in 1932, the campus contains twenty-five red brick buildings built in the Italian Renaissance style, with white stone trim and red-tiled roofs, to contain so much illness and suffering. Though its surrounding acreage has shrunk, the campus still remains an impressive sight by air, and even from Interstate 35 that bisects the town. Up close, I imagine the hospital complex looks bolder. Looking at old hospital postcards provides a window into the world I grew up in, in the 1960s and 1970s, where a lot of pre-World War II buildings dominated towns: Many gorgeous old structures, built on a human scale. Gabled schools with wide porches on the main level, and two or three storeys high. Wide staircases inside and out. Craftsmen houses with ample, shaded porches, wraparound porches, porches that served as exterior rooms, an extension of the houses themselves, porches for dining, relaxing, welcoming, saying good-bye.

~

An early, effective treatment for many TB patients involved rest in a warm climate and plenty of fresh air, along with not-so-quaint procedures, such as “pneumothorax technique” (collapsing a lung to let it rest and let the lesions heal) and “phrenic nerve paralysis” (to ease the diaphragm from a hacking cough probably. But disabling the diaphragm would also make breathing more difficult, no?) Often TB patients were housed in solaria, to capture light and warmth; the many windows could be opened to let in fresh air. Or the patients could be found on wide and sometimes multilevel porches, resting in beds or in “deck chairs,” like the Adirondack chairs I recall on the porch where I last saw my grandfather. This practice gave the patient exposure to the healing sun and clean, dry air. Actually, this was the only known early cure for tuberculosis, before the development of surgical techniques and before streptomycin and capreomycin.

Children with positive TB skin tests most often get the infection from an adult, whose coughs and sneezes contain much more of the mycobacterium tuberculosis, or Koch’s bacillus, than a child’s. Normally, most children exposed to someone with active tuberculosis are tested for the disease, with a tuberculin skin test. If the test results in a raised bump at the site of the injection, the child has been infected with TB, though the disease may lie dormant for a time. But any child under five years old will undergo a chest x-ray, even with a negative skin test. Very young children have a lower immunity than older children and adults. They must be checked over several months for signs of latent infection.

I’ve never had a positive skin test, nor did my brother. I have to guess that Craig and I were never in Granddad’s path when he sneezed or coughed. Did we ever take a course of antibiotics as a precaution? I don’t know that either, but I have a screaming recall of chest x-rays and being held down tightly. Even now, whenever I have to have to TB skin test for job purposes, I feel a tightness in my chest for days, waiting to hear the results of the test.

~

When I was a teenager, I took to lifeguarding in the summers. I loved to swim. I used to swim so much that my dreams often involved swimming underwater for extended lengths of time—and holding my breath. Often I’d wake myself up, out of breath. The last moment of dreaming, I propelled myself up to the surface, my heart beating audibly, gulping the good air. A mostly clear, rippling surface of water served as the matrix for my summer waking hours. I watched people swim. I swam. At night, some of us lifeguards would meet up, to climb over the fence of the public swimming pool and take a surreptitious swim. Swim some more. We couldn’t get enough of it. I became an expert at forward motion just below the surface. I could hold my breath for well over two minutes, if not longer. Sometimes I wished that I could just breathe in the water and take the oxygen from it, instead of rising to the surface to take in the air.

~

Christopher Koehler, in “Consumption, the Great Killer,” speaks of the romantic portrayals of TB in nineteenth-century literature and music, especially in the characters Mimi of La Boheme and Satine in Moulin Rouge. Their deaths are meant to depict something tragic, and beautiful. Yet, Koehler tells us, “the dying consumptive faced night sweats and chills, paroxysmal cough, spread of the disease to other organs of the body, and of course, the wasting away that led helpless bystanders to name the disease ‘consumption.’ ” Of course, these characters were also exposing others to their deadly disease. Before the advent of antibiotics, about eighty percent of TB sufferers succumbed to the illness. Twenty percent survived, however “romantically” or frightfully they recovered, to breathe new air into their scarred lungs, good air that traveled in blood cells through their wasted bodies.

Even though my grandfather lived in the era of antibiotics, he was not ultimately saved from tuberculosis. His lungs were weakened from smoking, his immune system compromised from alcoholism. Granddad was born into a wealthy family that became destitute in the Great Depression. My grandmother divorced him early because of his drinking. He’d fought in a world war. He’d seen a lot of hardship before he died in his sixties. And he died a hard death. As a child, my last memory of him on a porch, smiling and giving us a wave, was confusing. I wasn’t told that he was dying, that this would probably be the last time I would see him. The moment did not seem tragic then, just curious. Now I see him in my memory, half in sun, half in shade, with his semi-smile and weak wave, about to turn around and walk fully into the arms of his disease.

~

This past summer I had a small cabin built on some wooded land. The cabin is painted a soft green to blend in with the surroundings. There are sitting porches built onto the front and back of the cabin. I love porches, the fresh air, the wind through the trees. The wind in the trees imitates the sound of taking air into our bodies. Porches connect me to some of my strongest memories. Not only do I see Granddad Thompson waving from the hospital porch, I see my cousins and myself roughhousing on the big wraparound porch at Grandpa and Grandma Spears’s house. In Colorado, my brothers and their families relax on the front porch of our cabin some summer mornings until 11 am or noon, reading, talking, watching the hummingbirds, planning a hike. At my childhood home, there I am, a teenager, with my friends sitting on the front porch late at night, just shooting the breeze, laughing. And while we laugh, we fill our lungs with deep draughts of cool night air.

 

 

Rebecca Spears is a writer and instructor from Houston, Texas, author of The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press). Her work is included in TriQuarterly, Calyx, Crazyhorse, Verse Daily, Image, Relief, Ars Medica, Nimrod, Borderlands, and other journals and anthologies. Currently, she writes online posts for Relief Journal and serves on the board of Mutabilis Press. Spears has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow.