Review of Say So

Say So
by Dora Malech
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
November 2010
88 pages

Say So by Dora Malech is a tumble down the language rabbit hole.

It takes you into a world of wordplay that is more than mere playful language. These poems are serious business and will gather your senses until you are absorbed into their consciousness. When Malech titled her book, Say So, it was a signpost to her readers because that is exactly what she does in this, her second full-length collection of poetry.

Malech sets the obvious against the hidden and blends them into a musicality that peels away layers until the reader feels as exposed as the /images in her poems. The wordplay trickles in and around the words like a meandering tributary that opens up into a vast river of /images that rushes through to her readers.

Malech’s speech is straightforward and at times raw. She  begins her poems with a searing openness that both beckons the reader and grips like a vise. Some of the titles in this collection include:

“Oh Grow Up”
“Lying Down With Dogs”
“Note To So Sorry For Self”
“Them’s Fighting Words”
And, my personal favorite: “Goodbye I Love You.”

But these beckoning titles are only a part of the story. Malech takes everyday speech and weaves it into a rhythmic and melodic song. In “Love Poem” she  juxtapositions opposites until they tell an intimate story:

“Get over it, meaning, the moon.
Tell me you’ll dismember this night forever,
you my punch-drunking bag, tar to my feather.
More than the sum of our private parts, we are some
peekaboo, some peak and valley, some
bright equation (if and then but, if er than uh).
My fruit bat, my gewgew. You had me at no duh.” (5)

The combination of positives and negatives within the play of everyday words gives her readers an insight into the duality of love and relationships in a clever, tongue-in-cheek fashion.

But as one reads this collection, one sees through to the heart of this duality. There is something much stronger being expressed within these seemingly playful lines. This is evident in poems such as “Pop Quiz”:

“Twist of lime or twisted arm? Lent hand or footsie?
All the crossword puzzle nouns can’t help me now—“

This ominous beginning only deepens as the poem continues:

“Tactile error means wrong cheek to cheek.
I’m wetting my unicorn suit. Can’t blame this mess
On longwinded weather, cyst, or whiskey dick”

Until we come to the end and are left with a final line of strength and defiance:

“Throat closed for repairs, I gag a bit, allergic
to the peanut gallery: “Its your fucking heart, man.”
I pledge a lesion, draw a spine in the sand.” (47)

Malech’s poems have many voices in this collection: some are sad, some sarcastic, some are funny with a sneering backhand; but, no matter the subject, this collection will sing to you. It is definitely best when read over and over. Keep Say So on your bedside table for those sleepless nights when you need something to remind you that the world is indeed an amazing place filled with contradictions and beauty hiding in very strange places.

 

 

Joan Hanna was born and raised in Philadelphia. She has a BA in Writing Arts from Rowan University and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry and Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University. Her poems have appeared in Common threads, Modicum, the premier issue of Glassworks and the 15th anniversary edition of Poetry Ink. Joan is a reader for River Teeth and writes reviews for Author Exposure and Poets’ Quarterly.

“The Darning Needles” by Diane Hoover Bechtler

Darning Needles
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

When a marriage fails, people eventually begin saying, “It’s time for you to move on.”

Why do they say that? A marriage is not a building to be vacated. I don’t want to move on. Why would I? Does Nessie want to leave his loch? Was Dorothy really happy when she returned to Kansas or in her sleep did she mumble, “There’s no place like Oz, there’s no place like Oz”?

~

I don’t know how to mend things. A hole has appeared in my favorite cashmere sweater – the one he bought me from a boutique we discovered in Rome while we ambled through the warren of streets at the bottom of the Spanish steps. We were happily lost most of that day until we stumbled upon the familiar Trevi fountain.

We each made a wish and tossed coins into its water, thus assuring our return to Rome. I don’t know if the legend means we return together or apart. Perhaps the legend doesn’t know. I certainly don’t. After tossing the coins, we skipped away, laughing and holding our stuffed shopping bags, the sweater nestled in one.

I rummaged through a small sewing kit given to me years ago by a flight attendant–needles, some thread, and a couple of clear buttons. I didn’t remember sewing supplies in my condo. My subconscious must have packed it away. The job of mending the hole needed something more than a plain sewing needle. I thought of my vintage darning needles. I pulled them from the vitrine and tried to remember how to darn. I could not remember. I went back to my plain steel needle. I connected the ragged edges of the hole, but they didn’t fit neatly together. The result was an ugly knot.

A woman at the alteration shop clicked long blue fingernails on white speckled Formica and examined the garment.

She said, “Honey, that thing will have to be rewove. I imagine it will cost you a couple hundred bucks. Maybe more. If you don’t want it sewed like you got it, you best throw it away. Go buy a new one.”

I wanted to protest, “This is a piece of my history. It’s not from the local department store. It’s from Italy, a country I may never see again despite throwing coins in fountains.”

But I said nothing. I just left and took the sweater home, folded it sleeves-inward, wrapped it in tissue, and cradled it in the bag for Goodwill. Another woman may not care about the damage. For me the hole is so large that I fall through it into an alien and hostile world, where teapots break in poorly packed boxes, tiles drop from walls, and where I reach for a familiar cup and it isn’t there.

As we divided personal property, my last months with my husband blurred. Summer came and I signed papers giving him the New York apartment. Flowers faded. I sold my vintage Mercedes. Halloween happened. I gave him the airplane. Leaves turned red and gold. I gathered my personal things from the vacation house. Thanksgiving arrived. I shopped for condos. Christmas came. My husband ran off with the Ferrari and Tina. Isn’t there always a Tina or Dixie or Trixie? A snowstorm hit. I moved during it. I measured time by gas and frost. The act of packing my art collection has vanished from my mind. I can’t recall the first time I saw my new condo or picking out the counter tops and carpet. I talked to Mel, my therapist, because it was strange that I couldn’t remember the last weeks I spent with my husband, a man I adored.

Mel explained, “It’s called the ‘battered child syndrome.’ “A part of you knew whatever was coming was going to hurt really bad.” As he talked, his jaw clenched and he chewed his words. “For self-preservation, your mind went somewhere else. Your brain shut down.”

I shook my head, “But my brain shouldn’t have had to go away. He and I shouldn’t be apart.”

On the many trips between the house that now belonged to only my husband and the condo that belonged only to me, I passed the same woman.

She stood on a corner holding a cardboard sign that has become too common. In block letters, it said, homeless, hungry, need work, need food, have children. After a few days of passing time and time again, I stopped seeing her. She was just another landmark.

I remembered the sweater. I rolled down my window and handed her the sweater and a twenty.

The darning needles were from my grandmother and my childhood. She taught me how to darn, a skill that has fallen out of fashion. It is easier to throw things away and buy new ones.

I also have my grandmother’s pedal sewing machine. Because I could not mend the sweater I sewed a sackcloth robe to wear while I sit in ashes.

 

 

Diane Hoover Bechtler lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, Michael Gross who is a poet with a day job and with their cat, Call Me IshMeow. As well as writing short work, she is working on a novel about a likable character who strives against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Queens University where she graduated summa cum laude and subsequently earned her MFA. She has had short work published in journals such as The Gettysburg Review, Thema Literary Journal, Everyday Fiction, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Read an interview with Diane here.

“Dancing on the Rhythm Bus–One Night after Leaving The Pyramid Club, 1991” by Kyle Hemmings

Dancing
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

He keeps shining a pen light into my eyes, this big muscle dude with a green gown. I have a vague sense that I’m in the back of an ambulance.

He asks me my name. But he’s already called me Mickey. So I say, Mickey, Mickey the SuperFag, Mickey, the kickass club dancer. I mean the best, the best, the …Muscle dude says “Mickey, Were you trying to kill yourself?”

I close my eyes and imagine myself sucked through this endless internal vacuum, the same one that probably bore me without the need for a mother with womb and scar. I was born a whore. But Muscle Dude keeps shaking me, refusing to let me fall onto the safety net of endless falling. I tell him “Yes,” just to shut him up.

“Mickey,” he says, “What were you taking? Amyl nitrate?”

No, I tell him, just some barbs, yellow bees, and he called it a “Friday Night Special.” I start to fade out again.

Muscle Dude keeps shaking me.

“He called it a Friday Night Special?” he asks.

“Yeah, he called it that.”

“He…?

I fade away.

I wake up. He’s still shaking me.

“What’s a Friday Night Special?”

“Something to take if you never want to see Saturday.”

“I mean what’s in a Friday Night Special? Mickey, talk to me.”

“Everything. It’s got everything. Every night of the week.”

The boom of his voice fades, or maybe me dropping deeper and deeper. I only want to be swallowed by this slow blackness of endless sleep.

~

The next day I can’t recall at all, a waste, like the flash of twenty years of my life, faces that pass you like comets in some erogenous unnamed zone of night, but they got me in some isolation room with my wrists in leather restraints. I’m still so tired, only wanting to escape this broken shell of a body.

Just to think: Only two nights before I was a greased banshee with some serious moves. I scored some great tips.

The shrink is cool and all, smooth-toned with the ability to elicit button-down conversation. He starts by asking what happened before the ambulance arrived. I tell him I can’t remember everything. But this guy, I mean older, picked me up at The Pyramid, said he was in love, said his name was Mr. Stiff himself, and he stuffed my g-stings with some pictures of the true father of electricity.

At his place on Loisada, we took a shower, but he was too drunk to get hard or anything. Occasionally, one of his geisha boys came out to grab a grape soda, and behind closed doors I heard some giggling, some strange talk at the volume of moon walking.

In fact, Mr. Stiff referred to them as his Moonies. I said You mean Moonies as in Rev. Moon? No, he said, my Moonies, precious as twin butterflies. These butterflies only dance in moonlight.

Later, Mr. Stiff drowned me in heavy conversation that I could not put together, the bits and jagged glass edges, and he kept prodding me to take more pills from this flower bowl in front of us, its sides flaring out like so many lips, so many strangers I have hurt.

Eventually, Mr. Stiff broke down and said I reminded him of his son, that he had one somewhere, kept sending money to the mother until his mail got bounced back with a Return to Sender. And I was starting to get groggy, and Mr. Stiff kept saying, Don’t you remember the times we . . . or how I used to walk you home from . . . and before I passed out, I remember him saying to please call him daddy, that he didn’t mean for me to drown alone, and I can crash at his place as long as I like, he never wants me to leave.

And I remember saying something about how my mother became a virgin after she had me, which was a joke I sometimes told at the club to loosen up some jaded been-there-been-everywhere fool, and then right before I hit the carpet on my knees, two of the Moonies holding hands came out and said almost in unison, “Is he alright?”

The sound of their voices echoed in my head until it reached the pitch of a siren.

So I’m telling the shrink that it was all just a fluke, that it’s just one hazard of the line of work I’m in. You meet golden bulls who’ll lick your hand and sometimes you meet raging boars who try to trap you up in a tree. That’s all that happened. But I have to dance. I have to go back to the club. Dancing is what I am when I don’t look back. When I dance, nothing can catch me, turn me to stone. It’s when I’m still that life becomes a motherfucker.

 

 

Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has upcoming work in Decomp and in Lonesome Fowl.

“Winter” by Donna Hunt

winter
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

I will not wake up today. I will not get out of bed. I will stay cocooned in sheets.

I will not eat, answer the phone, check email. I will spend the day watching soaps on channel 5 and imagining every piece of lint on my carpet is actually an insect. I will get up 27 times to check. It will never be an insect. I will be startled by the shadows my glasses make and decide that being able to see is not that important. I will nap. I will read Anne Carson. I will worry that I am turning into Emily Brontë. I will spend an hour prying underneath my fingernails. I will reconsider using the phone but will not want to talk to any of the 108 people in my phonebook. I will listen to Johnny Cash but for only 20 minutes because he will make me cry. I will spend another hour imagining how glamorous my life could be if I lived in Québec, or Nebraska. I will take a shower because I need an excuse to change my clothes. Then I will make tea because there will be nothing left to do. I’ll stare at the table. I’m not sure how long.

 

 

Donna Hunt is a Pushcart nominee, and her chapbook The Coastline of Antarctica is forthcoming this summer from Finishing Line Press.Her poems are under consideration for the Yale Younger Poets Anthology, and she was recently awarded a four-week full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center.Her poems have appeared in Diagram, Prime Number Magazine, The Cleveland Review among others.She received her MFA at Queens University of Charlotte, and is currently teaching at CUNY.She has a poetry podcast available from itunes.

Read an interview with Donna here.

“Cold Weather” by Dora Malech

Cold Weather
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

Now scribbled letters from the ghosts I know the best—men built from bones of contention, women from hair matted against the drain, the horny linguist who eyes the tongue, sad starlet muttering stage directions, spectral ex-girlfriends wielding their housecats, hirsute ghosts of coaches past declaring you run until I’m tired. I don’t reply, can’t raise their spirits with this silly alphabet, A standing splay-legged, B in her padded bra. Instead, gnawed pen, gooseflesh and a mad dash to the photo booth, urge to verify my face, gray litany of grins and grimaces. Meanwhile, riddles—what is the sound of one hand pinned behind your back?

Yes, I’m scared the dead will make their problem mine, come pop my heart, that party favor fashioned from a length of red balloon. At night I pray for growth but not growths, that’s swell not that’s swollen, trains every hour on the hour, no lightning but fireworks, lit fuse and a lightening sky. Alone, I whisper encore, whisper anchor, flash familiar shadow puppets at the wall, same laughing dog again, again. Good luck, they say, with blood and breath and what the air scares out and what the earth beats from your body:  piss, bejeezus, stuffing, tar.

 

 

Dora Malech is the author of two collections of poems, Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011) and Shore Ordered Ocean (Waywiser Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Yale Review, Poetry London, American Letters & Commentary, and Best New Poets. She has been the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, a Glenn Schaeffer Poetry Award, and a Writer’s Fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Augustana College in Illinois, Victoria University in New Zealand, and Saint Mary’s College of California. She lives in Iowa City. “Cold Weather” was first published in Chelsea, and appears in the collection Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011).

Read a review of Say So here.

“Hopeless in St. Henry of Uppsala” by Mindela Ruby


Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

At chicken o’clock I set off on foot, having quaffed Jolt all night so as not to oversleep right through the sex meeting. People who write me off as a hopeless, organ-grinding tramp should see me now, arriving early at St. Henry of Uppsala for 12 Step.

Not my peppiest or at all sure how to act, I stage my entrance into Community Room 2 with eyes cast low. The chair I pick is near the window. As others take their seats, I feel their attention bushwhack me. Who’s the new girl? The fatty ass punk in the thrift store hound’s tooth skirt –what’s her frailty?

Displaying a chink in the armor’s not my thing. Still, the longer I’m forced to wait for the program to start, the more violently my heart lub-dubs. As the chest contractions hit panic speed, I tell myself, Remember why you’re here: my employer (and well wisher) didn’t fire me, even after “stealing” her car. Instead, she says that if I get in the 12 Step pink, her old Nissan will be mine.

Gain back Sada’s trust and snag her ride? Blowing this sweet a deal would be a stupiculous move.

Besides, my sex life’s hit rock bottom. Of that I am damn sure. All I’m good at lately, other than getting stone cold rejected by heartless dudes, is going cruising for a bruising. The thrill of that’s long gone.

Will sexaholic meetings help? No guarantees. What is a safe bet is that these folks are gonna make me talk about myself. Blather seems to be what self-help is about. Like Sada’s grief workshop at this church, where they unload sagas of sorrow and cheer each other on. I lift my chin and suck hard at air, to not turn blue with fright.

Eight others are present so far. We all wear jackets in the unheated room and look like a pack of bears. I’m shivering and sweating.

For gratifactual distraction, I think of my music promoter kingpin pal (and secret object of desire). When I called Stoney yesterday, he told me our bass player’s dad is sick. She’s visiting her parents, this flounderous fish tale goes, and no one knows when she’ll get back, and Up the Wazoo’s not rehearsing. Or so Stoney and the girls in the band would have me think, if I’m gonna get paranoid about them, and maybe I’d better. Johnny Rotten once said it best: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

On a cue I’ve managed to miss, a man’s lisping voice across the room gets the proceedings underway. “God give uth grayth to akthept with therenity the thingz that can’t be changed.”

One chair over sits the runt who squeezed a rubber squeak-toy in the toilet stall when I accompanied Sada to this church. The toy squeezer isn’t acting like a hyped-up toddler today. She’s quietly pursing her lips during the prayer, but she’s definitely the chick from the can, ‘cause she’s wearing the exact same size-four gray shoes with matching laces. I stare at them as the prayer ends.

Amens erupt, a chorus of confidence, though, if you wanna know the truth, this room’s a far cry from inspiring. The floor is worn to ribbons. The paneling droops. The chairs have seen better days. The one grace note of the excursion struck on my way in, when the church biddies at the refreshment table offered me free coffee. While I tanked a couple of cups, they explained that they’re a Black ministry of Evangelical Lutherans, and St. Henry of Uppsala was a bishop in Finland who got canonized.

Overdosed on caffeine, I’m Too Far Uppsala to capiche whatever point they were making. At any rate, “introductions” have begun, and my glands sweat in hyperdrive as the participants state their names and the gist of why they’re here: “Tarik, Fred, Roxanne…internet sex, physical abuse, romantic escapism,” details that fly faster than bullets in a shoot-out.

“I’m Dales,” a guy in front of me says, “a sex addict who can’t get through a day without ten to twelve ejaculations.”

I grin and digest his sentiment effortlessly. A hush descends like a thought of death. Everyone stares at me. My turn? I’ve got zippo! No handle that neatly justifies my presence. The blood in my lower extremities defies gravity and whooshes up to my face. It’s all I can do to sputter, “Pass” to get everyone’s attention off me.

Someone laughs. I can’t see who. My engorged head hangs between my legs. Introductions end.  The topic “internet addiction” generates cross talk, but I hear only smatterings between heartbeats that in my head sound like, “Get out, get out, get out.” When I rise and follow these dictates to the exit, no one laughs or speaks or tries to stop me . Even the coffee peddlers in the hall ignore me shambling past.  I’m hopeless. Everyone at St. Henry’s knows it.

 

 

Mindela Ruby is a former punk radio deejay and current community college professor. Her fiction has appeared in The Binnacle, Emprise Review, Literary Mama, The Medulla Review and Boundoff audio journal. This piece is an excerpt from a completed novel.

Read our interview with Mindela here.

“Daylily” by Sarah M. Wells

Daylily
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

I tuck away my secrets
in my tepal until
it is time to trumpet
every petal and sepal,

calyx open, throat laughing.
I may be a common
daylily, but today
I will unfurl, wave

my stamen and declare
myself Hemerocallis—
it is mine, this day,
this beautiful day.

 

 

 

Sarah M. Wells is the author of the chapbook, Acquiesce, which won the 2008 Starting Gate Award from Finishing Line Press (March 2009).  Poems by Wells have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry East, Measure, JAMA, Literary Mama, Ascent, Nimrod, Christianity & Literature, Poetry for the Masses, Rock & Sling, The Fourth River, The New Formalist and elsewhere.  She has received scholarships to attend the Key West Literary Seminar and the West Chester Poetry Conference.  Wells is the Administrative Director of the low-residency MFA Program at Ashland University, where she also serves as Managing Editor for both the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.  She lives in Ashland, Ohio with her husband, Brandon, and their three young children, Lydia, Elvis, and the “bun in the oven,” Henry. Visit her blog for more information: http://driftwoodtumble.blogspot.com.

Read more about Sarah’s work here.

“Ashes” by Virginia Williams

Ashes
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

We brought Ben’s ashes home on a sweltering Thursday in July, six and a half months after his sudden death on a bleak midwinter’s day.

As with many days of that year, Simon and I were quiet on the drive to and from the funeral home, lost in grief for our stillborn child. The unspoken question between us—what now?—would remain unanswered for months, long after we placed Ben’s ashes in the room that would have been his, closed the door and tried to leave the pain inside.

The night he died we fought over a small, stupid thing that had been festering for months. I went to bed angry; Simon went to the basement to resolve the problem – a utility sink blocked up with accumulated household detritus. We woke up mad the next day, too proud to apologize or admit how silly we’d been. It was the day before New Year’s Eve, 2003.

Thirty-nine weeks and four days into pregnancy, I was tired, ready to bring my baby home and be done with aching hips and heartburn. I wanted to meet this new little wonder who was coming to change my life. Outside, it was cold and gray, mirroring my exhaustion; inside, Charlotte, our three-year-old, had an ear infection and fever, and, much as we wanted Ben, we were nervous about bringing a second child into our lives.

That last morning, I stewed in the doctor’s office, angry with Simon, annoyed by the doctor’s slight delay, wishing my regular OB weren’t on vacation. I didn’t notice that my boy wasn’t moving. Blind to everything but myself own self-righteous annoyance, I was confident Ben wasn’t going to arrive anytime soon.

When I finally got to the exam room and on the table, Dr. Todd, a doctor new to me and my pregnancy, rolls out the Doppler heartbeat monitor. He smears cold jelly on my stomach and places the microphone on my belly. Static. He tries again, and still, nothing. He asks where we usually hear the heartbeat, and I indicate the right side of my belly. He tries again. Nothing. My heart starts to beat a little faster.

Dr. Todd remains calm and tells me he thinks the Doppler machine has been dropped on the floor a few too many times, and runs off to retrieve another. We try again. We wait. And nothing.

But then, very faint, is a rapid heartbeat. Dr. Todd says he thinks it might be my heartbeat, and checks my pulse. It is, indeed, my heart racing with fear.

I look at him and say, “Please tell me not to panic.”

He says nothing.

Dr. Todd keeps trying with the Doppler, then says, “I’m going to send you over for an ultrasound to see what’s going on.”

I think that’s when I knew that Ben was dead. I don’t let myself believe it; I tell myself I’m going to have an emergency C-section after the ultrasound and start planning a phone call to Simon.

As I walk out of the office, the receptionist calls out, “Have a Happy New Year.” I think, “If you only knew.”

In the ultrasound room, I lie down yet again while a technologist puts gel on my belly and runs her wand over my protruding stomach. I hold my breath and stare at the ultrasound screen, at my perfect little boy, looking desperately for something, anything, to help me decipher what is happening.

Another doctor enters the room; Dr. Baird is young, with long brown hair, about my age. She briefly looks at the screen and reaches out to grasp my hand. “How are you feeling right now?” she asks.

“I’m feeling pretty scared.”

“I’m sorry to tell you,” she says softly, “but he’s gone.”

And this is when my world stopped.

~

Minutes later, someone leads me down the hall to a small room used for moments like this. There is a box of tissues on a coffee table, some pamphlets on grief, a sofa and two standard medical office armchairs, a side table and telephone. One window looks out onto a cloudy December day, traffic moving past, people bundled up against the cold waiting for the bus. I cannot fathom the world that is carrying on outside this place when I need to tell my husband Ben is dead.

I dial our phone number, wipe away my tears and tell Simon, calmly enough, that I have bad news.

But I don’t know how to tell him the next thing I must say. I gulp for air like a fish on dry land and gasp it out: “The baby died,” and burst into tears once more.

Normally unflappable Simon falters. “What should I do? What should I do?” I instruct him to phone our neighbor and ask her to watch Charlotte. I tell him where to find me in the hospital, begging him to get here soon.

Sobbing, collapsed on the floor, I phone my friend Patty. She’s not at work, but doesn’t answer at home. I phone my friend Sandy at her job. No answer. In desperation, I phone Patty again. Miraculously, she answers. She is home with her children and parents-in-law, and after I say hello, my voice breaks again.

“Patty, the baby died.”

And I cry. She insists on coming to me immediately, her composure a brief respite from the agony of unrelenting sorrow.

Unable to make more calls, I wonder why I didn’t know that Ben was dead. Dr. Todd and Dr. Baird come check on me, help me up from the floor and into an armchair. I ask them how I could not have known Ben was gone, but they have no answers. “I don’t care what you think you did or didn’t do,” says Dr. Baird, “Whether you missed a prenatal vitamin once or ate something you shouldn’t have: you did nothing wrong.” It doesn’t help. For now, I am too stunned to be rational; my heart is twisting itself into knots. It was my job to keep Ben safe, and I failed.

Shortly after Simon and Patty arrive, Dr. Baird returns to talk about what happens next. Our options are few: Doing a caesarean on a mother whose baby has died is too risky, she tells us. Labor can be induced, however, and she suggests we go home, get some rest and come back in the morning. There is no way I can go home and sleep while my baby lies dead in my belly, so we arrange to return that evening, after we’ve found someone to look after our daughter. Once our plan is set, we get up to leave.

Walking down the white hallway in the glare of fluorescent lights, in some bit of cosmic cruelty, all we hear are the heartbeats of other women’s babies. There are doors on either side of us, with other pregnant women, unknowing, unconcerned, bathed in the joy of their particular miracles. Patty and Simon, on either side of me, keep me from dropping to my knees and succumbing permanently to my grief.

~

Just before six o’clock that night, Patty drives us to the hospital. I remember strange and ordinary things from that night: I picture Patty in her winter hat and coat, hugging us goodbye, watching her minivan pull away. The night sky is beautiful, deep and dark. Before I turn to go inside, I catch a glimpse of stars and wonder if Ben is up there too.

~

On the building’s second floor we try to remember where to check in. A young resident sees our confusion and points us toward the Labor and Delivery doors. Thankfully, he doesn’t make any of the polite exchanges many might in this situation: “Good luck” or “Congratulations.” Maybe he sees the sadness on our faces, maybe he knows.

Once we are settled in our room, we are assured that we will be given as much privacy as possible for as long as we are there. A nurse asks me an extensive list of questions to help pinpoint why our baby died: do we have a cat, and did I clean out the litterbox while pregnant? Did I eat rare meat or raw seafood? Is there any family history of birth defects? The answer to all is no. We can think of no reason why our son is dead.

Later, the nurse takes twelve vials of blood from me, which will be tested for various disorders. I have an IV of Pitocin, an IV for fluids, an IV of antibiotics to treat a strep B infection. Another needle is inserted into my spine for an epidural, which helps the physical pain, but there is nothing to be done for my mental anguish. The epidural, however, doesn’t completely take, and they kindly give me another narcotic drug, one I would ordinarily have refused. It eases my fear and anxiety, but can’t cut the ache in my heart.

Throughout the night, Simon and I alternately sleep (another blessing of the epidural is that the numbing of the contractions allows me to rest), read, and cry. And I think, maybe, just maybe, Ben isn’t really dead.

Around 5 a.m., someone tells me it’s time to push. The doctor is called, the nurses return to hold my legs and Simon holds my hand. It is quiet in the delivery room, somber. Through the night I’ve heard other women down the hall, shouting as they push their babies into the world. I am scared of what we might find when Ben is born. Is he deformed? What will he look like? Why did he die?

Unlike a regular delivery, no one offers me a mirror to watch the baby arrive. They don’t ask me to hold my legs, nor do they have Simon help. I am positioned so that I cannot see whatever might emerge below. And I am grateful for that.

I push when I am told, and, at 6:01 a.m., Ben is – what? What should I call this process of birthing, his delivery into the world? There is no word for this. How, I will later wonder, can we be given a death certificate for someone never, officially, born?

Minutes after his birth, I push out the placenta and the doctor cries, “Look at that. There’s a knot in his umbilical cord.” Dr. Todd shows us a perfect knot, pulled tight. “He must have wriggled himself around, probably weeks ago, and then last night pulled on his cord and died.”

“Did it hurt him?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”

I burst into tears, and wail out to the room, “I want my son. I want my son.”

Simon pulls me close, and we cry.

~

Sometimes it feels like Ben was just a dream, a shadow that passed across my life, like the shadow of an airplane over my backyard on a bright summer’s afternoon. But the effect of a shadow never lasts as long as the effect of this child in my world. I will spend the rest of my life longing to go back to him, to the day he was born.

My world turned to ash that day seven years ago; all I knew, all that I held on to, flaked away and crumbled into dust. I built that world up again, but the solid core has weakened, the edges are soft. Those ashes I hold in my hand and heart; my son’s ashes, in an urn, sit now in my living room. Neither is palpable, but they hover invisibly, like wisps of smoke after a candle has been extinguished.

My world has not ended, but I have learned how much can be lost, and how quickly. The question—what now?—no longer lingers in the air. The answer was in what we were doing all along: we just go on. Slowly, the pain recedes, changes us, and becomes forever part of who we are.

 

 

Virginia Williams’ essay “What No One Tells You” was published in the anthology They Were Still Born: Personal Stories About Stillbirth, in November 2010 by Rowman & Littlefield. She has worked as a columnist for ClubMom.com, an online community with over two million members, contributed articles to the Absolute Write e-newsletter, the web site WeddingChickie.com and worked as a Buzz Blogger for Prevention.com. Williams blogs about parenting after a loss at http://www.landofbrokenhearts.blogspot.com, and is currently at work on her first book.

Read our interview with Virginia here.

“The Pugilist” by Kevin Jones

The Pugilist
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

The grass I’m lying on is wet and hasn’t been cut in several weeks judging by its length. There’s a small bug slowly crawling across one long, flat blade and I watch, fascinated by the fact that something could move so carefully, so unaware of the chaos all around it.

This insect lives contently in a universe of its own. I am vaguely aware of movement behind me. I sense, rather than hear, people shouting from above me. I pay no attention; I am happy to watch the bug make its way through its little world. Everything is quiet. Still. Like the world is holding its breath for one small moment.

Behind the bug the background is a blur; my glasses were knocked clean off of my face with the first hit Marco landed.  I can only focus a few feet in front of me. Now, lying on my stomach in the grass beside the bus stop, the morning dew seeping through my coat, I am content to lie here in this sudden and surprising silence for the rest of my life. No more teasing. No more going to the bus stop and waiting in fear to see if Marco is going to walk to school or ambush me near the oleander bushes at the intersection where the other kids wait for the bus. A small gallery of children that has become a loyal audience for my daily hazing.

Last week Marco was sick and didn’t come to school and the other kids were actually disappointed that I was left alone. I made a joke about it, the first step on a long journey toward a sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humor. “Sorry guys,” I said. “No show today.” I smiled at them like we were all buddies.

Buddies.

These kids who had never once helped me out while I was pushed around the street like a rag doll. Never ran and got an adult from the neighborhood when this bully, this giant kid who was old enough to be a sophomore in high school but had failed so many grades he was still in middle school, pounded me day after day.

They are bored.

And I am the show.

And this is the way of my world.

And today I have had enough. Today, I am finally tired of sneaking back into my house without my mother seeing another black eye, split lip, or random abrasion that I try to explain away as a playground injury.

A particularly rough game of touch football at PE.

A bathroom door that swung open at an inopportune moment.

But never a bully.

My mother will not know what to do about a bully.

Her idea of how to handle things will be to report it to the school. To call the sheriff’s department and file a complaint. Worst of all, to go to the bully’s house and talk to his parents in an attempt to “sort things out.”

Things that will only make my life worse. My teasing more intense. The image of my mother holding my hand and standing next to me at the bus stop with the other kids, this image, it’s beyond horrible.

And she’ll do it too.

I secretly confided in my stepfather, a career military man who, although not a great thinker by any stretch of the imagination, had a certain masculine philosophy that seemed appropriate at a time like this.

“You’ve got to fight this asshole,” he told me one night after I admitted that my cut lip was not from getting hit in kickball.

I blinked in astonished surprise.

“Red,” I said (He was Red to everyone who knew him. I didn’t find out his real name for years. I’m not even sure my mother knew it when she married him). “This guy is huge. He’s fifteen or something.”

“Get a stick,” he said.

I just blinked again.

“Or a rock, or a brick, whatever,” he said. “What I’m saying is, get an equalizer. If the guy is bigger than you, get something to take away that size advantage. It doesn’t matter how big a guy is, if you bash his head in with a stick, he’s gonna go down.”

“Something like a knife?”

“No. Never ever use a knife.” He was adamant, and I remember thinking that this was odd. What could be a greater equalizer than a knife?

He went on. “And if he tries to use a knife, just tell him you’re going to take it away from him.”

The idea of me and my skinny body telling anyone that I was going to take a knife away from them seemed absolutely ludicrous, but I didn’t mention this to my stepfather.

“What I’m trying to tell you is, even if you get beat up, it’s better than being afraid to go to school. It’s better to fight your enemies than to run away. Don’t ever run away from trouble. Be a man and fight for yourself, or you’ll never be able to look yourself in the face.”

This was not only the longest piece of advice Red ever gave me, it was also one of the most profound.

It’s also how I ended up on my belly on the side of the road.

Another Northern California weekday. Forty degrees or so, light fog, and a pack of twelve year olds waiting for the bus in their Lacoste polo shirts and Levi’s Jeans. I arrived in a pair of blue, threadbare corduroy trousers (one of four I owned) with very visible hem marks from where my mother lowered them at the start of the school year. This was her way of saving money. Buy pants that were several inches too long for me and then just “let them out” as the year went on. As a child my body grew up, not out, and I was able to wear my clothes for as long as my mother was willing to patch up the knees and elbows of my middle school wardrobe.

I made my way to the bus stop each morning, the corduroy zip-zipping as I walked down the hill towards the intersection below my house. No one else wore pants like mine. The other kids had designer labels and shopped at the mall for their clothing, and they weren’t hesitant to let me know it.

Marco began picking on me at the beginning of the school year and I never found out why. I was a small, skinny kid, but that was hardly unusual at my school. I wore glasses, but this too was not unique. I was poor, but so was he. If I was going to psychoanalyze the situation I’d say that he was beating up on me in order to fit in with the other, more affluent kids in the neighborhood, only he wasn’t. Marco treated me like shit everyday he was there, but made no effort to talk to the other children at the bus stop.

Even at school, he hung out by himself. Occasionally, someone would report that he was “smoking weed” with some older kids from the high school out behind the large dirt circle that served as the school’s track and field course. But never was it apparent that his punishment of me led to any sort of social advancement.

Marco was huge for seventh grade. Not only had his parents started him late in an attempt to “make him bigger for sports” a not entirely uncommon event in my neighborhood, somewhere along the way he had seen fit to fail a grade or two. Thus, at fifteen years old he towered over the rest of the kids waiting for the bus like an ogre. He couldn’t have looked more intimidating if he tried. He was the perfect bully; straight from central casting. His hair was cut, if it could be called that, into a shaggy, jet black mullet that perpetually hung in his eyes. He wore an olive drab fatigue jacket year round, beat up and dirty with US Army tapes still above the pocket, blue jeans stained with motor oil, and black motorcycle boots that he stuffed his enormous feet into. He looked like a cross between a heavy-set Joey Ramone and a Mexican wrestler and he scared the shit out of me.

But today I have had enough.

Today, when Marco pushed me at the bus stop, I turned around and hit him in his eye as hard as I can. I had to stand on my toes to do it, or maybe I just jumped up when the time came, it’s not really clear anymore. I’m not sure what I thought would happen. In all of the movies that I’d seen, the bully went down like a stone when the victim finally stood up to him. I imagined Marco clutching his eye, collapsing on the ground in pain. Perhaps, in my more dramatic pugilistic fantasies (and there were, admittedly, several of these) blood spurted forth and my attacker permanently lost the use of his eye.

Of course, none of these things happened in real life.

In real life, Marco took a small step back and gave me a surprised look.

Then he threw me to the ground like a rag doll and began kicking the shit out of me.

Somewhere during the journey from standing erect to huddling in a fetal position on the ground my glasses had flown off. I could feel kicks hitting my ribs and shoulders as I lay there, but also something else.

Relief.

I had stood up to Marco, and now, in my seventh grade logic, he would see that I wasn’t going to take it anymore and leave me alone. He wouldn’t have any choice; bullies don’t pick on kids who stand up for themselves. This was the irrefutable law of every television After School Special.

Faintly, in the distance and between the kicks, I can hear a low rumbling noise.

Salvation.

Delivery from pain.

The School Bus, hallowed be thy name.

The one rule held amongst all suburban children, regardless of their social status, was that all mayhem stopped when grown-ups arrived. Especially teachers or other school employees. The bus was no exception.

The blows stop and I hesitantly get to my feet. I can see a big green Marco-blur moving towards the intersection where the other children are forming an orderly line. I can feel hot salty tears covering my face that I don’t remember crying. I am waiting for my face to swell up, my legs to give out. For someone to tell me that my nose is covered in blood.

None of this happens.

The show is over.

It’s time to go to school.

Someone touches my arm.

A girl that I’ve never seen before is handing me my glasses. They’re wet, and one of the arms is bent, but they are otherwise unharmed. I stammer out a thank you but when I look up she is gone. I carefully straighten them out and place the gold rimmed teardrop shaped lenses on my face. My mother suggested these frames when I started wearing glasses a year earlier because they “looked like something a motorcycle rider would wear.” My guy who lives across the street from me is a motorcycle rider. He spends all day working on his bike in the front yard, shirtless in faded jeans. Old, blurry blue-green tattoos cover his arms like a disease, their original shapes lost to time. Sometimes I wonder what they mean, and how this skinny, weather-beaten man ended up in our moderately safe suburban neighborhood of used American cars and weekend Nerf football games.

My stepfather says he’s a dirtbag.

I wipe water from my face and blink a few times to clear my eyes. My world is a bit clearer, my body starting to ache. My head still buzzes with what has just happened. The rest of the world moves on, but something in me has changed. Slight, imperceptible right now, but growing.

I walk over and stand behind Marco who is last in line for the bus. We shuffle forward, inching towards the open door of my savior, big yellow #31. I can hear the offbeat tic-tic sound of the windshield wipers, like an irregular heartbeat, as it starts to sprinkle. My jacket is already soaked from the damp ground where I was tossed. There is dirt on my sleeve, and my trusty blue cords have a rip in one knee.

In what seems like a dream, I grab Marco by the sleeve and lean in close so that only he can hear me. I don’t know why I do this, only that I have an intense need to confirm what I feel here, now, at this moment. That things have changed. Things are different. I can feel him tense up, but I know that he won’t do anything with the bus right here.

I say, “We’re done now.”

I say, “This is over.”

I have no idea where this is coming from, I only know that it’s true.

Marco turns and looks down at me, and I notice that his left eye is red where I hit him.

“Nothing’s over,” he says. He points a finger at his hurt eye. “If this turns black, I’m going to kill you.”

“We’re done Marco. It’s over.”

My body is shaking and I want to cry but I’m too young to understand that this is adrenaline and it’s normal. I’m twelve years old and I think that I’m weak because my voice is shaking so hard that it sounds like I’m freezing to death while I stand here.

Marco faces away from me and we get on the bus. I used to worry about him picking on me during the ride to school, but not anymore. My worst fear was getting into a fight with him, and now I have. I am concerned that his eye might turn black, and that he will get mad again, but part of me also hopes that it does. A kid can say that nothing happened at the bus stop, that he didn’t lose the fight, but every child knows that the kid with the black eye is the one who got his ass kicked. If people at school think that I kicked Marco’s ass, that won’t be such a bad thing.

I would like to say that all of the kids on the bus are looking at me differently now. I would like to say that they all have a new respect for me that wasn’t there before, but I can’t. I am still the poor kid who shops at Woolco for his school clothes and has patches on the knees of his corduroy pants. I am the one who wears polo shirts with a tiger on the pocket instead of an alligator or a man riding a horse. I am the one whose mother trims his bangs once a month and calls it a haircut.

I am the one who hit Marco in the face and gave him a (possible) black eye.

The bus driver (who also looks like he might be a motorcycle rider) gives Marco and me the once over and then shuts the door.

“You want to sit up front behind me kid?” he says.

There is a long moment where the only sound in the world is my breathing and the Steve Miller band singing “Abracadabra” from the driver’s radio bungee corded to the dashboard. Marco has already sat down and stares at me from a few rows back. He sits by himself, like he does everyday. He looks angry, but that’s the way he looks all the time, and I’m through being afraid every day.

I look back at the driver, slouched in his chair, smoothing out his whispy blonde moustache. I can see a pack of cigarettes poking out of the pocket on the olive drab fatigue shirt he is wearing. There are military unit insignia and name tapes on the shirt in all of their proper places. Army units. I wonder briefly if our driver was in Vietnam but he looks too young. I am only twelve and a boy and war is still something romantic and misunderstood to me, something I will later learn is fought by boys not much older than I am now.

“No thanks,” I say. “I’m okay.”

I make my way back to an open seat near the emergency exit, my ribs starting to throb and my glasses crooked, a stupid grin on my face.

 

 

Kevin Jones’ work has been featured in The New York Times, Ink Pot, and the anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten  Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program. He lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast where he teaches writing and literature.

Read our interview with Kevin here.

“Slow Hand Antigua” by Dennis Mahagin


Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

It was after hearing your solo
in “Strange Brew” when everybody
started calling you God, and who
could argue? Later, the 80s brought
curlicue lines of killer powder
to an already full plate, conjuring
filigrees for a deadly wrought iron gate
like in the movie Omen II
before it impales
the priest… Styptic pencils, prying
open bloodshot eyes, vodka flasks
in toiletry kit, gig bag, soft leather
case, carrying it, carrying it.

After hiring Nathan East to play bass,
you cleaned up, and bought a plantation
in the West Indies for placing addicts
in anesthetic freeze to stem withdrawal
symptoms in lieu of deities and detritus,
until icicles formed at the anus cracks
of these addicts, long-cock stalactites
the color of faded amethyst. I remember
a December dawn, wracked by chills,
cramps and terror (the usual
withdrawal) — writing you a letter,
the gist of it not even much sincere,
asking if I might come to this new
clinic; God, I sent you

that pathetic note via post office
address in Antigua which I copied
from an article on your career appearing
in Creem Magazine. Sometimes I wonder
what became of that letter: Was it stuffed
in some duffel, packed off to a landfill,
or museum specializing in Pathos and
Cultural Oddities? It’s like something
out of Melville; or what Nietzsche
said about “the things that don’t
kill you.” Well, I lived through

the 90s, and into a new
millenium, and yet I’m not stronger…
Mr. Friedrich told a white lie when he laid
that one down, a platitude for deep thinker’s
decorum in a form letter, sent out to assuage
shame, guilt and doubt that might gnaw
through a man’s guts, or even
drive him nuts.

Still, if you could bottle
the kind of luck, that’s been visited
on me? Might call it recovery, or else
one soporific side-stitch analgesic
sponge for Christ’s cross-top
agony, time lapse for when it can’t
get any worse, then it does: Overkill
and Aftermath. Antigua in every city.
E.C., I forgive you the final fifty three
bars of Layla; how indulgent, simply
goes on, and on, and on and on …
reminds me nobody’s God.
Time is all; my letter
lives.

 

 

Dennis Mahagin is a poet from eastern Washington state. His work has appeared in many literary venues, including Exquisite Corpse, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Absinthe Literary Review, 42opus, 3AM, Slow Trains, Clean Sheets, Juked, PANK, Thieves Jargon, Keyhole, and Night Train. Dennis is also an editor of fiction and poetry at the online zine called FRiGG. A collection of Dennis’ poetry, entitled “Grand Mal,” is forthcoming in ’11 from Rebel Satori Press.Visit DM on the Web: http://fourhourhardon.blogspot.com

Read our interview with Dennis here.