Interview with Leah Kaminsky

Leah Kaminsky

Paul Zakrzewski: Your story Keep Smiling Mary K is a conversation, but one in the form of an internal dialogue between the narrator and a fitness instructor she sees on the TV. Meanwhile, her husband is absent, and the narrator may or may not have once spotted the fitness instructor in a Lebanese Café. But no conversation ensued. Can you say why your narrator seems so isolated?

Leah Kaminsky: I am interested in the idea of immigration being a sort of mini-death, a giving up of the self, of all that is known and comfortable and safe. The narrator is an ex-pat, who has transposed herself not only geographically and culturally, but has also left the sanctuary of a peaceful country and entered into a war-zone. In Australia she would have been free to be friends with Mary K from Lebanon, but now, she can only connect with her through the fitness instructor on the TV screen. She knows there is a like-minded woman across the border, a mother of children, in a hostile country, who she will never meet.

 

PZ: r.kv.r.y. is a journal dedicated to stories on the theme of recovery. Ostensibly, your narrator wants to “recover” her pre-pregnancy body…but clearly her heart’s not in it. To your mind, what’s the real thing she can’t or doesn’t want to recover from?

LK: She can’t recover from loss. The loss of security, self, home. She has crossed into the territory not only of war, but of marriage, immigration, motherhood – and she has never before had so much to lose. She has changed intrinsically because of all these experiences and can’t recover her innocence or naivete. So, the loss of weight, recovering who she was, is almost impossible now, as it is perhaps for those traumatized by war to recover from such a heavy burden of their collective past.

 

PZ: Leah, I’ve had the great pleasure both of reading a draft of your nearly completed novel, about a terrible day in the life of a physician in Israel. I’ve also heard you speak in public about “pain in literature.” In Keep Smiling Mary K, the voice of a TV aerobics instructor wants to be helping viewers. What is it about the uses (or abuses) of health professionals that interests you?

LK: Health professionals, like the fitness instructor in this story, can be proscriptive and reductionist in their approach to illness and well being. If you don’t listen to the narratives behind a patient’s concerns, you cannot hope to empathize or help in any meaningful way. You risk coming into the consultation with a preformed idea of how to conduct the interview and have the patent’s symptoms fit into a certain pro-forma.

Language is the first thing to be lost when it comes to pain and often you need to look for non-verbal clues. This is equally important when it comes to helping a patient express physical or emotional pain. Literature often uses fresh metaphors and narrative to help give voice and expression to pain. The truth is often in the subtext of what’s being said inside the consultation room.

Keep Smiling Mary K (Still Life with Anole)

PZ: Can you talk to me about how this particular story evolved for you? Was it always a “short” short story?

LK: Yes. It fell out onto the page just like this when I was living in Haifa, not long after the Gulf War. I had just moved there and was nursing my first child while watching TV. At the time the best shows were broadcast from Cyprus and I stumbled across a show called ‘Christian Aerobics’ – the idea for the story was born.

 

PZ: When I read your last line I thought of all those wonderful last lines I love in literature. The tricky switch of the pronouns in the last line of Virginia Woolf’s Death of the Moth”: “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” Then there’s the echoes of “weight” at the end of your story. Talk to me about last lines, what they’re supposed to do, what they can do.

LK: Perhaps they need to be like the final chord in a symphony, leaving the reader with the echo of the words in her head, long after the orchestra has left the stage and gone home. Some last lines are narrative crescendos, but I prefer stories that leave the reader with a diminuendo, that resonate long after she has closed the book.

 

PZ: I’m planning to launch a new blog where I interview writers I like on their “brilliant mistakes.” So you get to be my inaugural interview. Can you tell me about a particular mistake that led to an important insight, approach, or subject matter? A mistake that had a big positive impact on the way you approach your writing?

LK: Soon after I met my husband he introduced me to Israeli author David Grossman. We met in a café in Jerusalem and I told him I was nervous about moving to Israel because I was a writer and didn’t know any Hebrew. I asked him if I was making a career mistake. He told me there is no better place on earth for a writer to live – you just need to step outside your front door and there is always a story waiting there for you.

What I didn’t know then is that for the next ten years my writing career would be on hold, even though I’d learn the language, work and bring up children in Israel. But I couldn’t write creatively in Hebrew and there were very few opportunities to publish in English there – I think it was even frowned upon as a sign of not wanting to integrate into Israeli society in those days. I kept a journal all that time, but really thought my career as a writer was over.

When I moved back to Australia with my family after ten years, the words started to flow again and the experiences of living in Israel deeply informed my writing. David Grossman had been right about what he said; perhaps he wasn’t aware that the opportunities for writers in English when I lived there were narrow. At the time I thought moving to Israel would mean I could no longer be a professional writer, but I can see now how it fueled my muse in so many ways. Was it a mistake? No. I wouldn’t be the writer I am now if I hadn’t lived in such an edgy and colorful place for so long.

 

 

Paul Zakrzewski is a writer, teacher and literary curator who specializes in helping others to shape life stories in essays and memoir. He is the editor of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (Harper Perennial) and his essays, features and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and elsewhere. He’s currently earning his MFA in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he is at work on an essay collection about second generation Holocaust identity, secrets, and hiding.

“On Hauntedness” by Matt Hart

On Hauntedness (image)
“Collecting the Wild I” by Suzanne Stryk

Looking back through the history of poetry, many of our great writers have been described as haunted (Coleridge, Berryman, Plath, etc). If not haunted by actual ghosts (or witches or demons or God), they were at least haunted by their own desires, contradictions, inconsistencies, successes, and failures.

Haunted poems (whether or not they are written by haunted poets) fuse with our imagination and become something well beyond the sum of their parts. But how does one define hauntedness as it relates to poetry and language? What’s the difference between a poem we read and like and one that becomes fused with our imagination in a way that unsettles and prods and cajoles us? How does the transference happen? How does a poet connect with his or her reader in this intense way? Is there some key to making a poem more haunted? Ambiguity? A missing puzzle piece? Automatic writing?

To explore these questions, we’ll examine a few works for their hauntedness and see if the ghosts of these poems translate into something we can use in our own work—something useful to “haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights.”

First, I’d like to propose and consider a few definitions. Hauntedness is the manifestation of the thing behind the poem (or poet) that makes it impossible, that makes writing a poem a nearly supernatural act. (By impossible I mean something like: irreducible to a set of articulable, rational gestures, motifs, or reproducible machine parts.)

Hauntedness is the most important, unsayable, unpinnable (to the butterfly wall) piece of what relates the poem to the poet. It is “that quality of witnessing something that eludes description— glimpses, the idea of seeing something elliptically,” says poet Matthew Guenette, and he believes childhood memories are a good example: “…one kid hitting another with a brick; something dangerous ducking in and out of the trees in the woods across the road; a ghostly reflection in the windows on my mother’s porch a few weeks after my stepfather’s death.”

So hauntedness in literature could be the perceptible presence of an absence, the Frankensteined breath in the poem’s structure that leads us to its ontology, the metaphysical building blocks of its reality, the ghost in the machinery that makes it alive.

“Hauntedness,” says poet Nick Sturm, is the “breath of life behind the words.” It is the witch behind the craft. Robert Bly, in his essay, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” puts it this way, “A human body, just dead, is very like a living body except that it no longer contains something that was invisible anyway. In a poem, as in a human body, what is invisible makes all the difference. The presence of poetry in words is extremely mysterious.”

We can’t get to the invisible foundation of being, which is why we need poems in the first place. With poetry we have to fill in the blanks and imagine new ones. We have to “live in the gaps and walk or dance along the cliff edge in the dark” (Alexis Orgera).

As writers—working and reworking the same subject, the same form, the same set of aesthetic concerns—we never quite get to the meaning deferred, never quite say it right or exhaust its possibilities.

The really interesting thing about this sort of failure is that it’s existential. Trying over and over again to say the unsayable is a clear indication that we aren’t dead. I write, therefore I am. I read the same poem for the two hundredth time, and even though I’m unsettled by it, even though I never quite get it, my failure—the missing piece of the puzzle, the mystery, the disquietude— points the way toward a next time. I begin again. I’m in shock or in awe. I am ALIVE! Poems that boil down to a clearly connected set of finely machined parts aren’t nearly as interesting. As Dean Young puts it, “[In poetry] We’re trying to make birds, not birdhouses.” So as readers and writers we’re trying to get at what animates the bird, the music in its heart.

Hauntedness ranges backward into the past and forward into the future. I am the ghost of my own future self—and eventually the self that was and is no more. Time passes, life happens, we get old. The owl comes to take us. The house settles in an inexplicable way. No more dog. To be haunted, then, is a quality of existence, since as far as I can tell, the dead don’t haunt the dead, only the living. Therefore, if you’re haunted by something, you’re still breathing. It’s one of the ways of being sure you’re still not NOT (at least not in any significant sense), because you have a consciousness, a “you” to write home to.

~

A man has reached middle age when he is haunted by his youth and also by his death.

~

As poets we have an opportunity to capitalize on both the loss of the past and the dread of the future, as a way to turn both into something cathartic and hopeful in the present. But hauntedness is the unsettling quality of all this, our recognition that life, meaning, the whole wild mess of nonlinear, non-rational bullshit is impossibly irresolvable.

Of all the poems I’ve read and liked, perhaps 50 have become fused with my imagination, entangled with my life, my writing, and my teaching to the point that they define me in ways that I probably couldn’t identify or explain. How does such a transference of spirit—an entangledness of writer, poem, and reader—occur? It occurs in defiance of rational thought, of our knowing better—or knowing at all.

The poems that stick with us are the ones we never entirely figure out. They are unsettling and electrifying. They radiate, rather than delineate, meaning. At the heart of every haunted poem is a mysterious something, a living, strange and unfathomable—even supernatural—secret. Their energy never dissipates, and they come to resemble not just poems, but POETRY.

POETRY: the language of ghosts that activates and conjures the ancestry of words via non- rational imaginative play, music, association, and rule breaking. This galvanization of the otherworldliness of language is the spirit of what we do as writers and what we encounter and hold onto as readers.

~

To write a powerful poem is to cast a powerful spell, and to read one is to come under its influence, to be haunted by its charms and/or its curses. Poems catch us with the incantatory witchiness of words, of sound as much as sense. “The slightest loss of attention leads to death,” said Frank O’Hara. And yet, as readers and writers, what a thrill to be so taken. The suspense is killing me. Let’s look at a poem.

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
by Noelle Kocot

Here in this room I slept in
As you lay dead and alone
After you died, while I, superstitious
Peasant, slept, slept through
Phone call after phone call from
Detective after detective, finally
Waking to Daniel’s simple and beatific
Damon’s dead, and me waking up
Lizzette, breaking the news,
Making arrangements like a cop
Or fireman, taking a few minutes
To say I love you to the morning sky,
I still have never let anyone see me cry.
Never having been one of the fully
Living, I live, half of me in
A cornfield filled with skyscrapers,
Half of me in that place we are
Before we’re born and after we die.
Tonight I was outside thinking
Of that holy drunken terror
Jackson Pollock. Fuck you, moon,
He’d shout and cry. A big dog
Came running up to me and his owner
Shouted, Jackson, come back here.
You my teacher, died unknown
And there’s nothing for me to do
About it right now except to write
Your legacy no matter how inept
I can be. My phone rings.
I slide across pink ice to get it.
The splotched cat returns home.
When I asked you for a sign,
The fireplace doors shattered.
You are a dead musician who died
Alone. I wait to go to you,
Smoking and breaking curses under
The Jackson Pollock fuck you moon.

 

In this poem, Kocot recounts the moment of being told about the death of her husband, the composer Damon Tomblin (who died tragically, unexpectedly, in 2004). The thing that’s striking immediately here, beyond the explicit absence present in the memory of her loss, is the presence of the absence of togetherness via Death, the great separator, “Here in this room I slept in/as you lay dead and alone/After you died, while I, superstitious/ Peasant slept through/Phone call after phone call.”

When she finally wakes, “to Daniel’s simple and beatific/Damon’s dead” her world has changed, and she breaks “the news” to others, as later in the poem she smokes and breaks “curses.” To wake up alone, a widow, is for Kocot to suddenly live as torn apart, “half of me in a cornfield filled with skyscrapers,/Half of me in that place we are/Before we’re born and after we die.” And there the surreal collision/juxtaposition of the rural and urban landscape is compared and contrasted with a sort of liminal in-between-ness. Before we’re born and after we die is significantly nowhere. Kocot relates the experience of being everywhere and nowhere, at once.

Everything is connected—even her thoughts of Jackson Pollock to a dog named Jackson that just happens to run to her as she’s thinking about the artist, and later her sliding “across pink ice” to answer the phone (now an echo of the previous call, the only one that will ever matter, the one that changed her world permanently). Kocot is haunted by her own life in the face of Damon’s death. The thing she longs for isn’t to bring him back from the dead (she’s too smart for that); what she longs for is her own death. “Damon’s dead” and “I wait” to go to him beneath a “Jackson Pollock Fuck you moon.”

That ending (like all endings) is haunted. Endings mark the conclusion of something—“that’s all there is and there ain’t no more.” Is the “Fuck you moon” full and round or a middle finger sliver? And what of the notoriously cantankerous painter having, as it were, the last word of the poem, after muscling his way in via the speaker’s thoughts, and then eerily, coincidentally embodied in the body of a runaway dog? Yeah, this poem ends badly, beautifully. It’s an elegy— a tragedy—presided over by an angry-artist-moon.

Poetry often operates on the basis of malfunction. The poet misuses language extraordinarily— associatively, connotatively, figuratively—to create aesthetic affect, to cast (or be cast within) a magic spell of words—where meaning exists in metaphorical/imagistic terms.

~

Translations are haunted by their originals.

~

Every word is haunted by its own etymology. Its historical origins linger connotatively. These origins color the atmosphere of the language while remaining largely invisible. One doesn’t need to know, for example, that the word “haunt” derives from an old Norse word heimta meaning “to lead home, to frequent,” and yet these meanings are present in contemporary usage as a trace, an echo, a ghost. Every word is haunted by its past uses, and is also itself a haunting, a visit from the past into the present.

Poems deploy, destabilize, and explode the meaning(fullness) of language, creating fields of connotation, ambiguity, and metaphor, while playing on the history of words in the service of multiple possibilities. These are the ghosts of every line, every sentence.

Words are also haunted by other words, which in turn are haunted by still other words, and all of them are haunted by other languages, and language is haunted by human utterance as longing (a desire to meaningfully mean). This is art.

Words can even be haunted from the inside in ways other than connotation or etymology, for example: the “hunted” in “haunted,” the “error” in “terror,” the “owl” in “bowl” in “fowl,” even the “beasts” in “breasts.” This inner machinery of language becomes part of its associative atmosphere. Which leads me to…

 

A MOWN LAWN
by Lydia Davis

She hated a mown lawn. Maybe that was because mow was the reverse of wom, the beginning of the name of what she was—a woman. A mown lawn had a sad sound to it, like a long moan. From her, a mown lawn made a long moan. Lawn had some of the letters of man, though the reverse of man would be Nam, a bad war. A raw war. Lawn also contained the letters of law. In fact, lawn was a contraction of lawman. Certainly a lawman could and did mow a lawn. Law and order could be seen as starting from lawn order, valued by so many Americans. More lawn could be made using a lawn mower. A lawn mower did make more lawn. More lawn was a contraction of more lawmen. Did more lawn in America make more lawmen in America? Did more lawn make more Nam? More mown lawn made more long moan, from her. Or a lawn mourn. So often, she said, Americans wanted more mown lawn. All of American might be one long mown lawn. A lawn not mown grows long, she said: better a long lawn. Better a long lawn and a mole. Let the lawman have the mown lawn, she said. Or the moron, the lawn moron.

In this piece, Davis unpacks the associative etymology of a “mown lawn” via anagrammatic play and wild association, reminding us in the process (because process is often more important to Davis than narrative, character, scene, etc.) that well-groomed tidiness may be a front for the absence of substance. What haunts the ghostly narrator is pretense and the image, presented by a well-kempt, mown lawn, that all is well. The surfaces (as many American suburbs and the dysfunctional inhabitants therein attest) aren’t a reflection of the depths, or a reflection of anything at all. Davis’s lightly heavy-hearted critique of good clean American values suggests that good clean American values are often a series of moronic postures, a wasteland of appearances masquerading as success, prosperity, equality, and good neighborliness. The lawns are mown. To mow is to moan.

What Davis sees in the phrase “mown lawn” is the presence of possibility, a series of shadows in the grass of language itself—ones that can be sussed out by moving the furniture around, exposing all the dust bunnies.

~

Words on the page are haunted by the margins, by the periphery, by white space.

To be a poet is to tap into the shadow sides of us: obsession, memory, habit, personal history, value, belief, DNA.

The spirit comes rushing through the doorway into our hearts. In the beginning was the word. It’s all contained in the words.

The opposite of hauntedness is sobriety.

~

There is a concept called “poetic dictation” which Jack Spicer wrote about in the 1960s that posited (essentially) that anyone writing really good poems is merely a receiver, a medium, taking down as best as he or she can transmissions from what Spicer referred to variously as spooks, ghosts, and Martians. As he put it “[In poetry] …we are crystal sets, at best.” This reference to the old do-it-yourself crystal radio kits implies that poets need only tune into the invisible static and interference of the universe and take down whatever is overheard. Poems, it implies, don’t come from inside the poet, but from outside. The great aesthetic crisis, then, becomes how to capture as accurately as possible what those spooks, ghosts, and Martians are trying to tell us.

A related and more useful notion is the idea that sometimes one has to get out of the way of the poem—to pay attention to what it wants and needs to be rather than what we want it to be. Practically speaking, this is a matter of seeing where the poem leads us in the process of writing as opposed to sitting down to write a poem about grandmother’s sock drawer, the metaphorical meaningfulness of peonies, or paradise lost. One way to write a poem is to look inside yourself; another is to listen with your face against the ether. Both prospects seem pretty terrifying. In one you hear voices; in the other you have to make them up.

~

To be haunted is to be entangled with an image, idea or event so completely that one is transformed—imaginatively rewired to it and through it. The demonstration of the inherent hauntedness of language is (capital P) Poetry.

Hauntedness occurs (and reoccurs) at the level of the word, the poem, the writer and the reader. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Even form is haunted and enlivened by its previous uses.

Imagine Ted Berrigan’s masterpiece The Sonnets without the sonnets of Shakespeare, Sidney, Keats, and others that came before it. The family tree of the sonnet—its ancestry—haunts Berrigan’s every word. And, weirdly enough, now Berrigan’s sonnets haunt (and inform our reading of) Shakespeare, Sidney, Keats and others.

~

The opposite of hauntedness is Wordsworth.

~

Literature is full of haunted and haunting people, places, /images, and ideas. They stick to us like a second, inspiriting skin and reoccur at the strangest times, in the most unpredictable ways, often when we’re “alone with the alone” as James Tate might say (and did say, but I don’t remember where—it haunts me).

Hauntedness relies on memory, especially memories that are fundamentally traumatic or mysterious in terms of what they mean in relation to who we are in the present. Haunting memories are shifty, significantly insensible, irreducible, and indelible. To be haunted is to be forced to confront again and again an impossible-to-make-sense-of image imaginatively. Logic fails us. We are haunted.

 

I SEE A LILY ON THY BROW
by Dean Young

It is 1816 and you gash your hand unloading
a crate of geese, but if you keep working
you’ll be able to buy a bucket of beer
with your potatoes. You’re probably 14 although

no one knows for sure and the whore you sometimes
sleep with could be your younger sister
and when your hand throbs to twice its size
turning the fingernails green, she knots

a poultice of mustard and turkey grease
but the next morning, you wake to a yellow
world and stumble through the London streets
until your head implodes like a suffocated

fire stuffing your nose with rancid smoke.
Somehow you’re removed to Guy’s Infirmary.
It’s Tuesday. The surgeon will demonstrate
on Wednesday and you’re the demonstration.

Five guzzles of brandy then they hoist you
into the theater, into the trapped drone
and humid scuffle, the throng of students
a single body staked with a thousand peering

bulbs and the doctor begins to saw. Of course
you’ll die in a week, suppurating on a camphor-
soaked sheet but now you scream and scream
plash in a red river, in a sulfuric steam

But above you, the assistant holding you down,
trying to fix you with sad, electric eyes
is John Keats.

 

“I See a Lily on Thy Brow” is one of the most haunting poems I know. It is written in second person, and essentially begins with “you” in 1816 getting a “gash in your hand unloading/ a crate of geese.” But you have to keep working, because, the poem tells us, you’re poor and fourteen, and as a result the gash becomes infected and eventually gangrenous and so needs to be amputated if you’re to have any hope of surviving.

This poem graphically depicts the squalid living (and dying) conditions of the poor during the industrial revolution, and it is also a reference to and a reminder of the fact that John Keats was a student of medicine, studying to be a surgeon, and part of his training was as a surgical assistant at Guy’s Infirmary in London. “I See a Lily on Thy Brow” isn’t really about “you” at all, nor your soon-to-be phantom limb, but about Keats’ poetic sensitivity and sensibility. The speaker is unflinchingly, clinically descriptive until the doctor starts to saw, at which point we are rushed forward into the shock and awe of irreparable loss.

Poems remind us of things we’ve lost and of how lost (and sometimes found) we are. As Young notes in his brilliant discourse on poetics The Art of Recklessness, “The highest accomplishment of human consciousness is the imagination and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” Through empathy we find our feet with the world, connecting the self to the other viscerally, “suppurating on a camphor-/soaked sheet […]/plash in a red river of sulfuric steam.”

In the end, what the poem says more than anything else is that John Keats was a human being capable of intense feeling and sensitivity, including pain, suffering, love and all the rest of it— which is to say that the poem, like a lot of poems, is a little (history) lesson about our common humanity that comes to us via the demonstration (on Wednesday) of a poignant series of disconnections (the limb from the body, the poet from the surgeon, 2013 from 1816, me from you and you from me and Dean Young from John Keats!). The poem operates on us literally, palpably—to make red life stream in our veins—without the benefit of anesthesia.

~

Phantom limbs:

~

THIS LIVING HAND, NOW WARM AND CAPABLE
by John Keats

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

 

John Keats wrote two of the weirdest poems in existence in his “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (The beautiful woman without mercy—which is where Dean Young’s title “I See a Lily on Thy Brow” comes from: “I see a lily on thy brow,/With anguish moist and fever dew;/And on thy cheek a fading rose/Fast withereth too.). Most scholars now believe that Keats never intended for “This Living Hand” to be a complete poem. As a result, our reading is haunted not only by our not knowing what Keats intended for the piece—since most of the time we don’t really know what an author’s intention is—but also by our deliberate persistence in reading “This Living Hand” as one of Keats’ truly haunting later works. Every reading we give it is a mistake.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read “This Living Hand” as a poem, only that when we do we’re probably bringing more to it—investing it with more sad electricity—than Keats ever did. To him it seems the poem was a body part—a fragment—a disembodied reaching hand— a monument to the witchery of poetry. The poem is a testament to both the alchemical ability of poetry to change language into life, experience, and feeling and to the idea that the best poems are the result of that quality in any great artist. Keats referred to it as Negative Capability (which, funny enough, might also be a mistake): “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” No matter what Keats intended, we are fortunate to have the power of “This Living Hand” to haunt our days and chill our dreaming nights.

~

Hauntedness is hiddenness. It requires that we be in the dark about something—that we remain unable to resolve the phenomenon or experience that unsettles us. Something hidden is potentially terrifying, because we can’t attend to it—can’t plan for it. Poems that haunt us often create a situation or an atmosphere of hiddenness, a sense that the most important thing is not in the poem, but hovering in the atmosphere of connotation and possibility created by the language beyond the page.

THE FEAR
by Robert Frost

In Frost’s poem “The Fear” from his 1914 book North of Boston, he hides almost everything, ratcheting up the poem’s tension and strange ghostliness to a Twilight Zone pitch. He provides only enough narrative puzzle pieces to make us wonder what the hell is going on, but not enough to give us a clear sense of the various characters, their motives or the reason for their strange behavior. As a result, we make assumptions about both the couple who are the poem’s protagonists and the man from nowhere wanting “nothing” who is (potentially) the poem’s antagonist. The facts don’t add up—not for the reader or the characters. To further confuse us, Frost drops in odd details—suggestive, but ambiguous—and casts them in shadow and darkness. The only light in the poem comes from a lantern, which in the end clatters and goes out, leaving the woman (and the reader) alone in the dark.

In “The Fear,” Frost has provided the basic plot of a thousand slasher movies: couple shows up at old abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere; psychopath appears and kills everyone. As the drama unfolds, one gets the sense that there’s a lot the poem isn’t telling us, and it’s exactly this withholding of information that gives the poem its terrifying, eerie power.

What is the “business” the woman alludes to? Who is the “he” that she implies has come to spy on them or sent someone else to watch? The paranoia becomes palpable. And yet, why is the woman so anxious for Joel to “go in—please”? Is the couple having an affair? Is the woman trying to escape an abusive relationship? Joel could be her brother. We only know that the woman and Joel seem very nervous about being found out. And what happens to Joel in the end? Where does he suddenly disappear to, and why does the woman drop the lantern?

We can make guesses, but the poem is unresolvable. Essentially Frost creates a dramatic abstraction, a gauzy scene reduced to an outline—a paper yet to be written, a lecture yet to be given—which is terrifying. It’s quite literally a ghost (of a) story, disguised as a poem.

~

A poem without a ghost is a dead poem, or even worse it’s just the facts. Just the facts: (Are there are ever just facts)? What use are bald facts in literature? One is always looking for what’s more than meets the eye. Perhaps I’m being prescriptive. I like puzzles—ones with missing pieces, ones I can’t figure out.

~

And now, to end things—and why here?—when this could go on, and happily ever after. To live “happily ever after” is also an ending—a presence becoming an absence. Sometimes it stays there, hanging in the air and thus becomes a haunting thing. Sometimes it goes into the void, which isn’t very happy at all.

~

In this case, “The End” is to stop typing or talking, to undo this voice (whatever it is) using language in a living way to make of it an object, a trace of what was, a sound fading out completely, or, if I’m lucky, expanding forever exponentially.

~

“The End” precedes a ghost, so I avoid it. “Parting is such sweet sorrow” etc. Also scary: the soul/mind from the body.

~

A longing is always haunted. Unrequited is always haunted.

~

“A lack long after”—Pianos Become the Teeth

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“(now again)”—Sappho

~

So an ending is always a haunting thing in that it stops something breathing and makes of it a corpse. It’s an event, one worth mourning and celebrating. And while it’s true that endings often make way for new beginnings, they also allow the dust to settle. We get to remember and re- imagine what has already been (but which isn’t any longer) and to wonder where it’s gone, to consider what it points to, and to sometimes, nevertheless (never-the-less), be startled by the feeling of its absence as a presence.

~

Now. What can we make of the dust?
Matt Hart is the author of four books of poems, Who’s Who Vivid, Wolf Face, Light-Headed, and Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless, as well as several chapbooks. A fifth collection, Debacle Debacle, is forthcoming from H_NGM_N BKS. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Big Bell, Cincinnati Review, Coldfront, Columbia Poetry Review, Harvard Review, jubilat, Lungfull!, and Post Road. His awards include a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band TRAVEL.

Read a conversation with Matt Hart here.

“Advent” by Randon Billings Noble

Advent. Private Devotion

“Private Devotion” by Suzanne Stryk 2001

The first Christmas Grandma spent with us she haunted our house like a pink ghost, creeping around the borders of rooms, unexpectedly opening bathroom doors, rifling through cabinets for peanuts or aspirin, finally settling into the center of the couch to watch whatever game show we had turned on so she would watch too. Her smell trailed after her – slightly bitter and liniminty — trapped beneath the same rose-colored sweat suit worn day after day and washed with too much fabric softener. When she broke her usual self-imposed silence it was a surprise, especially when she would interrupt our conversation and warble how beautiful the service was, as if her husband’s funeral, which had taken place only days before, were a regular Sunday morning ritual. Now that she was alone, with no Grandpa to distract us from her growing dementia, it was harder to not to see it.

The next Christmas was worse — we knew what was coming. By then nearly every week my father received a large manila envelope from Florida with his full name scrawled across its front — Grandma’s mail. She sent him everything she didn’t know what to do with, not only bank statements and phone bills but also postcards of missing children, glossy packets of coupons, catalogs for lingerie, for bird feeders. When we called, she confused us with relatives from the other side of the family. Sometimes we came home to arguments she had with the answering machine, hearing Dad’s voice and not understanding why he didn’t talk back to her. He would call and explain, trying to force his words through her haze, but the clouds never lifted, and in a month there would be another blurry message full of hurt and confusion: Why won’t you talk to me?

So the third Christmas I hid. When my exams were over and my papers turned in I ran away from New York and took a train to Rutgers. There was a boy there, a warm shape to lean against and hide behind for a few days. When I arrived, however, there was no hiding — he was in the middle of both a party and a head cold, which meant that I spent the first part of the night letting a plastic cup of beer grow warm in my hand and the second lying awake on the floor of his room while he sprawled selfishly across the twin bed above me, unconscious from cold medicine.

In the morning I asked him to drive me home, the trees lining the highway dark gray yet iridescent like bird feathers, and by the time we pulled into the driveway I had almost forgotten what I had been hiding from. I just knew that I was going home, home to Mom and Dad and tea in the morning and TV in the evenings and car rides to the grocery store and all the offhand talks we’d have over the kitchen counter or down the stairs that somehow said everything in their thoughtless, careless way. But as I opened the door and let loose my usual ‘Hi, I’m home!’ I knew she was there, could feel the change in the house, the guilt closing in because I wanted to keep what we had, just the three of us, ours.

And then one Christmas she didn’t come. She stayed in her Florida nursing home, too frail to travel. And then, early one December, she died.

I was older then, and had lost some of my heartless innocence. When I saw my grandmother in her casket, wearing deep pink lipstick and a jewel-toned jacket, I smiled. She looked like herself – her old self – the lady who had played Scrabble and drizzled icing over pound cakes and took me swimming in a high-tide ocean at the Jersey shore. I held her hand, now cool and hard, and tried to tell her how sorry I was about the way I resented her for the last few years of her life, for an illness she could not fight, even if she had been aware enough to want to.

Then it was Christmas again. Now her absence was more simple: it was complete. She was not alone in Florida. She was not with us but without us, living on a separate plane of fallacy and confusion. She was in a cemetery twenty miles away, untroubled by the way a faucet worked, or a calendar, or a sitcom’s plotline.

On New Year’s Day I woke up back in my apartment in the city, the windows looking east down Twenty-Third Street, away from my parents’ house and the now-empty guest room, towards the bright windows across Seventh Avenue, where the heavy gray clouds moved westward across the sky.

 

 

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist.  Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; Propeller Quarterly; HER KIND, a blog powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts; Brain, Child online and elsewhere.  Winner of a Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan and the Linda Julian Non-Fiction Award from Emrys Journal, she has been a fully-funded fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and will be a resident at the Millay Colony in the fall of 2013.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

Read a conversation with Randon here.

“One Day a Year” by Kevin McIlvoy

One Day a Year. green_evolution

“Green Evolution” by Suzanne Stryk 2010

One day a year, but only one, Smoothie and The Tailor talk about the past. They buy a Proto-burrito and a small Styrofoam cup of refried beans at Proto’s Eateria, and they eat in the back of the bus. They talk about the news, about their paper sales, their regular customers – as much as they can remember. They talk about the look of the new automobiles inside and out. They sing together a little. The Tailor is Smoothie’s oldest living friend.

For over twenty years Smoothie has been bundle captain on the Route 9 bus in Las Almas, New Mexico. He distributes the newspaper bundles to the street vendors, and he troubleshoots for them. He chooses new members of the team whenever that must be done.

His first full day on the job was November 22, 1983.

~

The fare machine tumbled his fifty cents.

“Are you sitting here?” he asked the elderly woman, the sole passenger, because she had rustled mysteriously, had glanced at him in unsettling readiness as he sat down near her in the front of the bus.

“I’m always here,” she answered. She removed her red vinyl shoulder bag from between them: the zipper closed around the nose of a gun barrel. “Bee. Two e’s,” she said. Her chipped nails were painted pale-sky blue. Her shining lipstick was Vaseline. Her damp hand went inside his, weakly gummed and gripped him.

“Where to?” he asked. He actually wanted to know. He wished he had asked differently.

“Going to hell,” she said. “You going?”

One: where she was. Two: who she was. Three: where she was going. Four: what she wanted to know. In thirty seconds she had told him all of that.

The blackening sunspots under her eyes and on her temples were not at all attractive. Her short silver hair and her small ears were severely compressed against her head by a scarf. Her black eyes were gold-flecked. Old leopard are the words that came to his mind. Later, he would write them down. He was a man who wrote things down. Long after, not knowing how they mattered, he would throw them away.

As the bus departed from the Mesilla Valley Mall, the doors made the hydraulic sound he liked on buses, probably because he had that sound in his memory, and it reminded him of how many years he had ignored public transportation. He had owned a car and known people who owned cars. He had rented a house when he had a job, when he was in circulation, had friends and still made new ones.

Bee said, as if to the bus driver, “Lord, look at him,” and he was on the bus alone with her, so he looked at himself reflected in the opposite window. He should rinse his neck and face in a sink. He should slap the dust out of his black jeans, get a belt or rope to hold them up better. He should, he thought, recite the verses of his colorful tee shirt: that would – it always did – make him happy.

Heart-Healthy Nutritious
Supreme Smoothie!
Mineral-Infused Vitamin-Maximized
Supreme Smoothie!
Mouth-Watering Invigorating
Supreme Smoothie!

Out the window beyond them was more of the radiating New Mexico desert heat, the white match-head of afternoon light during the day and the icy wind at night. At Lenox & Elks, a stooped old man boarded, sweatshirt on and hood drawn close around his face. “Firey!” he said to Bee who said, “No lie,” and said, “This here’s Smoothie, our new Captain.”

Now Bee grinned, and the old man bent down to get a close look, and spit-laughed a stinking spray directly at Smoothie. Smoothie thought it must have been that he was funny, that something about him was humorous. He said, “Do you always ride this bus?”

The man’s face retreated a little into his hood. “The bundle bus. Bee’s bus,” he muttered.

Bee said, “Show Smoothie some respect.”

Talking through Bee to Smoothie, the bent man said, “Him? He’s our new Bundle Captain?”

Smoothie said, “I don’t –“

Bee said, “He –“

“Today?” the man asked.

“Today,” she said.

Smoothie knew he could not add to or improve upon this kind of conversation. Once, it would have made him anxious to be talked about or at. In order to be rid of that, at thirty-eight he had been prescribed an anti-anxiety drug. The drug worked so well he was able to tell the unwelcome truth to his family members, to old and new friends at the newspaper production offices where he worked. He found that all of them thought he was a good man right up until the time he was actually an honest man. The drug released him from trying so hard to free others from their curses. It made him turn himself in for his own crimes. It made him run at blind cliffs of self-recognition. When he owed, he knew how much. When he fell, he saw how far. The drug was The Supreme Smoothie. It had taken only three years to sail him from what felt like the center of things to an unassignable destination.

~

Bee said that they were right on time for a call from The Super. When they pulled over at Telshor & Del Rey and stopped in front of the Shell, the pay phone was ringing, and she made him come with her to take the call.

She stretched the steel phone cable so she could stand in a wedge of shade from the building. She listened to The Super, she pushed at the nylon shroud of her scarf and scarf knot; she said back to the person on the other end of the phone line: “I name the day.”

The black shade seemed to have bowed her upper body towards the ground. She cupped the phone to her ear, her other hand to the other ear. Smoothie thought he saw her cower. “Smoothie is his name,” she said into the phone, and, “Well, you will soon enough.” She handed Smoothie the phone. “Say hi.”

“Hi,” said Smoothie.

“Route 9,” said the other person in a tin-bell voice, “a good route.”

Bee took the phone back. She stepped into the light, the silver phone cable and the handset glinting. She hung up, and they returned to the bus. He remembered his mother’s voice, so much like the voice of Bee’s boss. She had been the last of Smoothie’s living relatives to die.

~

A woman in a knee-length paper-thin dress boarded, carrying a water-filled gallon and a cardboard sign. U Buy I Sing U Don’t I Sing.

That steaming sound. Departing.

Bee, who knew her of course, introduced him as Smoothie.

Her sign facedown in her lap, the woman asked, “Is that name the truth?”

Smoothie said she could count on it.

She greeted the old man as “Tailor,” and took the seat next to him, offered him her gallon. She had to punch his arm to keep him from draining it.

“Give a crush,” The Singer said to The Tailor who tightly grasped invisible oars as he puckered up, and they leaned toward one another in their small imaginary boat, and kissed so hard they slurped.

The Singer sang, not nearly loud enough. The Tailor and Bee sang softly with her, “All at once am I several…

The bus driver probably sang, but in any case, some bass crept in. It could have been the bus driver.

When they were done and the bus was accelerating again, the group seemed to appreciate Bee’s honest assessment of it as unjustifiable songicide. They applauded her, and Smoothie joined them. Bee opened her purse, raised it and swung it in front of her so that it seemed like a small puppet making a bow or curtsey for her. She sat.

“He’ll do,” said The Tailor.

“He might,” said The Singer. “Starts tomorrow?”

Bee said, “That’s the plan.”

Smoothie could not fathom how Bee had chosen him. He looked the part; it was the opportune day; his need seemed the greatest: this is what he later speculated.

He was offered a handshake from The Tailor, and, from Bee a pat on the shoulder, and, from The Singer the gallon, which he refused. She unsuccessfully offered again. She rummaged in her dress pockets, stood up in order to rummage deeper. She hooked what she was fishing for but only fingered it, only looked into the pocket, without withdrawing her hand. “Got it,” she said.

“Good,” said Bee. “Little gift?”

The Tailor leaned forward, gave Bee the on-the-downbeat signal of people in a band.

The Singer offered Smoothie an unwrapped glycerine suppository in silver foil.

The object mattered to her. Its bubble was triple-coated in space-age plastic; its crenelated foil backing was embossed, compounding its mystery and communicating its worth with a holy invocation: EDILGYSAE. Smoothie could see how it mattered. It was cool to the touch, and it smelled of warm silverware drawn from a soapy sink.

He accepted.

It was time to accept.

Now The Tailor asked, “How long?”

“Hard to say,” Smoothie answered. He held the silver-cloaked bullet up to the light. How long have I been homeless? he thought. It had all begun three years ago; he had landed on the streets two months ago, or weeks, or even less. He decided he wouldn’t answer The Tailor until he could remember.

“It found me,” said The Singer. The gray tip of her tongue moistened her lower lip. “It did. It did.” Smoothie could almost imagine the unlikely path; some teenage driver would think how funny that would be as payment for a newspaper; some doctor would offer it with confusing instructions.

Smoothie gave the suppository back, for which she was grateful. It could have traveled to her from galaxies eons away. She held the suppository package near her face and read it wth the dessicated bark of her fingertips, her transfiguring strangeness emerging into full view.

At the Flea Market stop Temp and Tech, dark-skinned twin brothers, Smoothie’s age or a little younger, or fifties, or late fifties, introduced themselves.

~

Tech and Temp were found in the Valley View Elementary dumpster, dead from exposure, on December 7, 2001. In 1989 The Singer’s daughter boarded the bus, told them The Singer had died two days earlier on September 11, from undiagnosed cancer. They had never met her, though they knew of her. She asked for a crush. Her voice, familiar to them all, verged on song. She got off at Telshor & Del Rey. The driver, at sixty-three years of age, would die of stroke on the Route 9, at Roadrunner & Foothills, Veteran’s Day of 2000: a lasting sleep after a drive-thru meal at Proto’s. Bee took her own life on November 22, 1983.

~

Tech and Temp carried twelve newspaper bundles on board. They sat atop the two high piles like Rumplestiltskins.

“Our new Bundle Captain,” said Bee.

“He’s ugly, ain’t he?” said Tech.

“Correct,” said Temp.

Tech and Temp received a crush from The Singer, and she forgot herself and gave them another, forgot herself and gave another, longer, to The Tailor. And then there was soft off-key singing, “Can you hear a lark,” and everyone, including Smoothie, singing, “in any other part of town?” And The Singer, fanning herself with her signage, grinned at him.

And Tech said, “Loverly,” and Temp said, “Es verdad.”

Inside him, Smoothie braked. His thoughts pedaled backward – better at that than moving forward – and he counted the crew members: Tech, Temp, The Singer, The Tailor, Bee, the driver, and himself.

His first day on the Route 9 bus. His first day as bundle captain. He asked, “What day is it?”

The bus stopped at Mesa Grande & US 70. A woman with an almost-newborn, those tiny hands reaching out of blankets, stepped up into the bus, glanced at all of them. She stepped off.

Smoothie thought the baby in those rosy blankets had sounded like it might say something. It didn’t have words, but it had emitted a wordsome gurgle. The Tailor looked like 2 AM and The Singer a little before. The brothers, perched side by side atop their bundles, stretched out their legs next to each other, clock hands in the minute-past-midnight position. Their worn khaki pants were the same country club color of marigolds.

“What day is it?” he asked. His first hour ever completely surrounded by the crew. He asked them all, “What day? Tell me.” He was too embarrassed to ask what year, what month.

“Eighty-three – November-twenty-two,” said The Singer as if that was an answer. Her face was crusted with sunspots at her temples and jaws, the same as Bee, as The Tailor, Tech and Temp. The brothers had swept-back white hair and very full identical fu-manchus; they breathed through their blistered mouths, blowing yellowing white moustache hair outward.

Smoothie stared because he wanted to stare. On his meds he acted and, in fact, was like the human a human might think he was. He stared at their lean jaws and slack, squamous necks and heads, and at the unlit jewels of their eyes.

They stared back, baring what teeth they had left. He said, “You call me ugly?”

“We agree on it,” said Tech. Temp nodded, with conviction.

Bee said, “You really are. But –“

Temp said, “Plain fact.”

“Homely,” said The Singer.

The Tailor said, “All your life, I bet,” and seemed to size up Smoothie for a custom ugly suit.

The driver raised his hand, though he had no question. He was pointing at the sign above the windshield: DO NOT TALK TO THE DRIVER WHILE THE BUS IS IN MOTION.

Bee said, “Unanimity,” evidently pleased that her crew could be so accurate. Smoothie remembered a half an hour earlier when she had handled her purse that certain ventriloquist way.

“He’s ‘homely,’ then,” said Tech. “We agree?”

Definitely. The driver might have said it, Smoothie couldn’t be sure.

The driver had stopped the bus at Roadrunner & Morningstar where no one came on but where the fare tumbler loudly chewed the coins, and the inadequate engine hmmphed and huffed under the bus hood.

The doors steamed shut and the STOP sign near the driver retracted like a wing stump or a gill. When the driver’s shrill-sounding wide turn emptied all the brightest light from the bus, Smoothie asked, “Will you tell me what time it is?”

“No,” said the driver. It was him. Or it could have been him.

Bee told The Singer to fan Smoothie, though he doubted if she meant for her to fan so hard, circulating the diesel and gasoline exhaust that perfumed them all.

Smoothie said, “Put that down. And don’t look that way at me: I don’t want a –“ he caught the switch in her expression – “crush. And –“ she was already humming – “no song, okay?” Already, the words were coming, “Are there lilac trees—“

“Is that your whole damn repertoire?” he asked.

A man, unnaturally tall, a spotty thin gray beard furring his chin and neck down to the bottom of his throat, leaned over Smoothie. He had come from nowhere. His shaved head was shiny and smelled of oranges studded with cloves. He kissed Smoothie’s forehead. “Plenty of time. ‘s early.” He did not move. Smoothie could pull away but. Smoothie could wisecrack, he could be rude, but.

The man said, “’s almost one in the afternoon, Captain.” As if Smoothie had been awoken from a pirate nap, his head still far inside his pillow, his closed hands warm under it. As if a dream had placed him on a bus with steam sounds, with a motor coughing and coins clinking and his mother’s singing voice fading.

The gray man had been the last on, but he was the first dropped off with his bundle of newspapers at the westernmost part of town, the stop at Roadrunner & Morningstar.

Smoothie thought he heard Bee say, “No one will pick you up at 7:10,” but he misheard.

Later that evening – promptly at 7:10 – everyone on the bus called out to him, “Grayman!” He boarded.

Grayman was fifty-one. He was as old as he would ever be.

He took Smoothie’s elbows into his hands. He took Smoothie’s forearms, firmly took them, pulling him forward. Grayman’s ears and eyelids and brows and temples were sunburned almost black. For the longest time, he did not let go.

~

At 6:50, before they picked up Grayman, they picked up Tech and Temp at the Flea Market. Tech reported that he and Temp had sold almost fifty. He reported it to Smoothie. Smoothie, flustered, said, “Well. Well.”

“God bless,” muttered Tech.

~

Before them, at Lenox & Elks, The Singer boarded. “Poor sales,” Bee said, not quite loud enough to be heard. “Always, poor sales.” Bee nodded at the facedown sign. “The singing.”

The Singer shared the water bottle and good crushes all around. 6:40

~

Before her, The Tailor – “Good location,” said Bee, “Telshor & Del Rey” – climbed aboard at 6:30. He jingled his change-maker and held up his coin-stained wooly palms, and everyone high-fived him, Smoothie and Bee last.

~

Bee and Smoothie had spent the day at what was his new, his destined location, Loman & Telshor, where she showed him the ropes as she had been shown by her predecessor.

Hardly believing where he was now, Smoothie wondered where he was then.

~

On that same day in ’63, he was nineteen years old and at a job interview for copy reader at the Las Almas Sun-Times.

The interviewer, a very old man, shoulders bowed, back bent, had him sit down. He waited for the young man to settle before telling him the news about The President. He explained he had over forty years in at the Sun-Times. It was done. It did no good to hope it wasn’t. Drawing typed questions from a clean manila folder, the man then tried to interview Smoothie. At that time in his life, Smoothie had a name. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember his full name: the answer to the first interview question. The old man’s eyes and Smoothie’s filled with tears. The two felt as if the bones and muscles and the skin of their faces could not hold. Tears poured into their throats.

“Impossible,” said the interviewer, instantly not a stranger at all.

Smoothie tried. He could not speak.

~

He remembered thinking that the interviewer was right. To be flung from the world as if you were a word crossed through: impossible.

 

 

Kevin McIlvoy lives in Asheville, NC. As “mcthebookmechanic.com” he offers mentoring, manuscript editing, and writing workouts. His work has recently appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Graywolf Press published his most recent book, The Complete History of New Mexico and Other Stories.

Read a conversation with Kevin McIlvoy here.

“His Son” by Marc Larock

His Son.Earthworks-(Polyphemus)-det
“Earthworks–Polyphemus” by Suzanne Stryk (detail)

You’ve got money problems, my accountant tells me. You’ve got too much money just sitting in the bank doing nothing.

What do you suggest I do?

Retire, fall in love, and buy a vacation home in Tahiti, he says.

So I tell him: Thanks, Dave. I’ll think about it.

Fact is I don’t think about it. I don’t think about it at all. That’s not my life. I’m sixty-one years old and divorced. I live in a one-bedroom apartment on the seventeenth floor of a twenty-floor apartment building in downtown Boston.

My apartment is sixteen hundred square feet, overflowing with antique furniture. The spoils of my marriage. What didn’t fit in my apartment or go with my wife ended up in a storage unit across town.

My front door doesn’t open all the way. That’s because I have three chests of drawers lining the entrance hallway. No room for them anywhere else. I have two armoires in the bedroom. One’s empty and the other isn’t. There’s not really enough space for the antique German king-sized bed in there. I don’t care because I don’t sleep in the bedroom. I sleep on an old sofa I purchased at an estate sale two years ago. It’s paisley and ugly, but it’s comfortable. And that’s what I care about now. Comfort. I sleep with the TV on, the sound off. I usually fall asleep listening to some jazz CDs, something mellow. Cymbal and snare as soft as mouse footsteps over fine paper, liquid piano, distant fade of trumpet, something that makes you think you’re disembodied, underwater, floating.

I made a rule two years ago: No more than four bourbons before bed. Just enough to fall asleep. No hangovers. I don’t need that. Just sleep. Sleep, alone in the dark.

I work at a law office, I do contracts, I work as much as I can. I bill forty, fifty hours a week. I used to be full-partner, now my name’s just on the wall in the waiting room. Younger guys bought me out five years ago. They let me stay on. I don’t make the big decisions and that’s fine with me.

My ex-wife got remarried last year. Her name’s Gayle. His, Ron.

I go into the office most weekends. I take extended lunches. I go to a nice seafood restaurant nearby. There’s a waitress there: Holly. She’s pretty. Working her way through Northeastern as a communications major. She’s blond and tall and has a perfect figure. Perfect. I leave her big tips. Sometimes thirty or forty percent. She flirts a little, she doesn’t need to flirt, but she still does.

I don’t want to come off as the dirty old man. So I don’t ask her many questions. I don’t want to know she has a boyfriend. I pretend to read the Wall Street Journal. I pretend to care about the world while I eat. She works every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday at lunch. Friday evenings at dinner. I take lunch late and say I want to sit near the window, so I can sit in her section. I pretend to look out the window. I can see her reflection in the glass as she cleans off the tables behind me.

What do you do? she asks me one Saturday afternoon as I pay my bill.

I’m a lawyer, I tell her. I tell her my son works at my firm. I tell her: He’s taking the whole show over in a couple of years. That’s when I’ll retire to Florida with my wife, Gayle. He’s hard at work back at the office right now. Works right through lunch most days. He’s more ambitious than I am. He’s about your age, I say. I’ll bring him in here to eat with me next time.

She smiles and blushes and tries to change the subject. I never forget that smile. I think about it when I’m half asleep in the morning, when it’s still dark out and the room is silent and I might fall back asleep.

Truth is, my son Jeremy never worked for me. Last time I saw him he loaded what he called his life into the back of his friend’s car. He gave his mother a kiss and a hug. She was crying in the front yard, telling him not to leave. Then he got into the car and he drove off with his friend. I watched all of it from his bedroom window. Then Gayle turned and looked up at me. I knew she would leave too. I punched him in the face earlier that day. He told us he was gay. He told us he was moving to California. He told us that he never had a chance to live a gay life and that’s what he wanted to do in California.

That day was the third time I punched him.

The other times. Once when he was fifteen and he came home with a pierced ear. The second time we were walking in the park near our house. I told him about hard work, about getting into the right schools, and what it takes to be a success. He was seventeen years old and he told me he never wanted to be like me. He called me a loser.

That’s it. He left and never came back. He stayed in touch with his mother through e-mail.

I think about that stuff now and it makes me want to drink. My doctor tells me I can’t drink as much I used to and he tells me to cut back. Something wrong with my liver. So, I don’t think about that stuff.

Not thinking is a habit. It’s a way of looking at my life. Sometimes I look at myself as I lie on my sofa at night, trying to sleep. A rumpled-up blanket covers my legs. I look down at my legs and I think they might not even be there. From this view it wouldn’t make a difference. Same view, legs or no legs. I think: that’s how people with no legs get by, that’s how they don’t go crazy. They look down and from a certain view their legs might as well be there.

So, you take another drink and close your eyes and you fall asleep thinking you’re a whole person again. I’ll bet that’s how it works.

~

One evening, I’m working late at the office and Gayle calls and says that Jeremy was in a car accident. Her voice is shaking and electrified. Jeremy is in the hospital, in critical condition. That’s all she knows. She’s on her way to the airport with Ron. So, that night I pack and I get on a plane and fly to L.A.

I drink on the plane. I sit there and I try not to think. I can’t sleep. It’s early in the morning. Pure black outside. A dull roar – the steel-grinding sound of turbines – crushes everything inside.

I start to remember. It’s almost ten years ago now and Jeremy tells me he’s gay. He sort of teeters there for a while after the blow, like he’s numb. I’m standing there, fists clinched. He’s standing there trying to re-focus. I think: He’s going to lunge at you and then you’re going to push him against the wall and get him in the stomach. I look at him. He just stands there. I think he might fall over. He doesn’t. He never looks at me. He never lunges at me. He just looks stunned and then walks out of the room and goes upstairs and shuts his door and packs. I go fix myself a drink and try to think about a case I’m working on. No good. I hate him at that point. I want him to hate himself. I wonder if he does. I wonder if that would make me happy. I think so. I fix another drink. I’m drinking alone in my study, doors closed, and then I want to kill myself for hating him the way I do.

Now I’m on a plane. I think about that day. All of us in a big house behind closed doors. That was my fault. I shake my head and mutter something to myself. The guy in the seat next to me hears it. I don’t care.

The flight attendant walks by. I order another drink.

~

I get to L.A. and take a taxi straight to the hospital. I find the I.C.U. on the hospital directory. I wait in line in front of the reception desk. Ron sees me. He’s been waiting there for me. He hugs me. I don’t hug him back, not really. I only put my arms around him in a perfunctory sort of way. Gayle’s in the bathroom, he says. She’ll be out here in a minute. We’ve been expecting you for some time. Christ, I’m so sorry about this. Thanks, Ron, I say.

I don’t ask Ron how Jeremy is. I don’t want to know. Then I see Gayle. I look at her face.

Now I know. I see it. It comes to me as she walks towards me, unspoken.

~

Gayle wants to go with me back to Jeremy’s room. We walk down a long corridor and finally get to his room and she makes right for him. I just stand there in the doorway. I can’t bring myself to walk into that room. Gayle starts talking to him, crying. He’s unconscious. Tubes are running over him. His neck is in a brace. His head and face are bandaged. I can’t even tell that it’s him. Even his legs are bandaged.

There’s a shrill sound filling the room. It’s like, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep… Except really fast. I know that’s the sound of an E.K.G.

I walk across the room to the window. I get to the window. It looks out over L.A. It’s morning. The whole town is gross and brown and greasy looking. The traffic is bad and I can see cars jammed up on the streets below. I see all these people crawling around down there like filthy little bugs. I think that if the window could open, I could hear them yelling at each other in ugly voices.

I lean forward and put my forehead on the windowpane and it feels cool and clean. When I look down, I see all those little bug-people walking around down there in the streets. It looks horrible and chaotic. After a few seconds a helicopter flies over the hospital. I look up at it. It’s a little solitary shape moving fast through that big yellow L.A. sky. The sky that’s the color of pee and almost makes me sick to look at it. I just stand there, watching it go until I can’t see it anymore.

Pretty soon, Gayle notices the E.K.G. and says she’s going to find the doctor or somebody to try to get his heartbeat under control.

Now Gayle is gone. She’s off down the hall looking for the doctor.

I take a good look at him. I walk over to his bed. My lips move and I hear my own voice and I say, Hey there, kiddo. Those stupid words tumble from my mouth like words spoken in a foreign language I’m not very good at. He’s still. No response. He didn’t hear me. Thank God.

I listen… All I hear is, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep

I sit down on his bed, right there, right next to him. I see his arm there beside him. I touch his arm with the backs of two fingers. Skin I haven’t touched in years. Then I put my hand on his arm. Then I hear it: Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep… beep… beep…beep…beep…beep… Of course it startles me. I take my hand away and then I hear that beep, beep, beep, beep sound real fast again.

I’m scared, more scared than I’ve ever been in my whole life. And I’m thinking that if he would just give me that again, just one last time, that’s all I will ever ask for, from anyone. Do it for me, just one last time. That’s all I’ll ever need.

So, I put my hand down on his arm again, on his forearm there, like I did the first time. I listen. Then, after a few seconds, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep… beep…beep…beep…beep… Just like before, the sound like tides. Wow, I think to myself.

Just listen to that. Wow.

 

 

Marc Larock received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his M.Phil. in philosophy from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  He teaches philosophy at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Read an interview with Marc here.

“Uma and Parvati in Philadelphia” by Judith Beck

Uma and Parvati.Weaving Light
“Weaving Light” by Suzanne Stryk 2011

From between her legs something shot past, riding on a rush of blood and pale yellow fluid. When the flow ended, it was flaccid, inert; only the current had given it life. The nurse wrapped it up, took it away so fast I had to follow and ask, “What the hell was that?”

I was young, working alone—my resident, at his lover’s house, had left orders not to be disturbed. The nurse was an older woman of great girth and nimble poise. The patient was older too, older than me by a decade. Unlike so many in our hospital, she wanted the baby floating still and silent inside. You could when a woman wanted a child and knew hers was lost. You could tell by the ragged way she breathed, the way she gave in to the pain.

I was glad my patient wasn’t roomed with women whose babies were alive inside them, women with monitors strapped on tense bellies, clucking attendants coming to check printout strips or bags of oxytocin dripping slowly. Not always in our charity hospital, but often enough, those lucky mothers had men with them, husbands who wiped their brows, held their hands, and sweated as much as they did when it was time to check how much they had opened up.

This father was staying away or perhaps he didn’t know she had come in four months early. Perhaps he could sniff disaster from miles away. Maybe he didn’t care. We put his absence out of our minds; with her to care for there was scant time to fret about him.

It was only midnight and already seven in labor—three of them less than sixteen years old. I hadn’t yet gone to examine what she’d delivered but I had seen enough to give the woman a shot, something strong to make her sleepy. Just enough but not too much—I wanted her awake before the end of shift so we, the nurse and I, could tell her.

The nurse returned. I told her about the sedative; she charted it in her notes. The woman’s slumbering made the nurse nod, made a small smile crease the burnt-butter smoothness of her face. She had me help change the linens, remove the soiled pads, tuck the blanket under the woman’s chin and pull the side-rails of the stretcher up.

The nurse was mopping the floor when I left to check on the other patients. Everyone was doing fine, even the pregnant children, though there was one who didn’t understand what was happening. Her own mother didn’t seem to think she was old enough to know.

There was a fresh pot of coffee and a box of candy at the nurses’ desk. I grabbed two cups, filled them and stuck a handful of chocolates in my pocket.

We met, as if by design, in the utility room, where bedpans were emptied and linens were hampered, and specimens waited in trays of blood for the pathology runner on his rounds.

“Where is it?” I asked in a whisper, handing over her coffee.

She shushed me though it was just us and a stink or two and sad yellow-green tiles. Glancing at the closed door, she unwrapped the crinkly blue plastic bundle that lay on the table. “This is why I didn’t want that poor child to see what came out of her.” The gauze underside of the pad stuck softly; she had to jiggle it slightly to avoid tearing what was underneath.

The nut-brown fetus rolled out onto the table. Four little perfect arms, four little perfect legs, and two eyes wide apart on one flattened head, frog-like atop the torso. The body had failed to separate, the head to fuse. A monster in miniature, a conjoined twin too distorted to live even in its mother’s womb.

I looked at the nurse and she looked at me, the warmth of us steaming up the little room. The hierarchy dissolved; we were no more doctor and nurse, experienced and raw, but comrades-in-arms, glad to have the company of the other. It was the middle of the night, when you feel most alone, like the last woman on earth.

“She can’t ever see that thing. You know that, don’t you, baby?” the nurse said to me. She didn’t have the power to make that happen.  I did.

I nodded.

In the long gray hours of the morning the nurse called me back to the woman—drowsy but moving under her wraps. “Doctor, what was it?” she asked.

I drew in my breath. “A boy, born way too early, born dead.”

“He was my first.” She didn’t ask to see him, didn’t cry.

“You needn’t worry about him, honey,” said the nurse, stroking the woman’s hand.  “We took him away, made sure he was comfortable. Made sure he was all right.”

“Thank Jesus,” our patient said. “The Lord must have been with him.”  She closed her eyes, drifting off in a haze of morphine. I was called away for another delivery and then another. I knew the nurse checked on her, circling back as often as she could. She was discharged in the morning; I never saw her again.

For more than twenty years I’ve thought about that night and that nurse, now a decade dead. How she stirred a woman’s faith, cooled her brow with water. I thought about that most when I was pregnant, feeling faint fluttering and wondering about what was swimming inside me: A disc curling to cover a raw spinal cord? Two bright eyes migrating–as they should–toward the front of a child’s face? Limb-buds–ends flattening like seal flippers, tissue dissolving to expose ten little fingers?

And when clinging to faith was difficult and normal hard to envision, I found I had forgotten how to believe. I sat in my rocking chair, felt my baby growing and longed for my nurse to say everything was all right.

Even if it was a lie.

 

 

Judith Beck is a physician in California. At present working on a novel, her previous publications, in print and on the Web, have included honorable mention in Best American Essays for “Button Up Your Overcoat,” published in Prairie Schooner.

“Jury Duty” by Len Joy

Jury Duty Eclipse 1998

“Eclipse” by Suzanne Stryk 1998

Prologue

The last time I served on a jury was in 1977. I was an alternate. For two weeks I drove to felony court in Harvey, Illinois and listened to testimony in the case of the State of Illinois v. Melvin Thigpen. Mr. Thigpen was charged with abducting a high school girl from cheerleading practice, driving her out into the country, where she was raped, thrown into a ditch and shot three times.

The state laid out their evidence. For two days we heard testimony from police, evidence technicians, and medical professionals. Some of the witnesses were clear and precise, others fumbling and inarticulate. The evidence was delivered without emotion or drama. On the third day we heard from Carly Simmons. She was the victim.

Carly was poised and soft-spoken, but her voice carried, perhaps because it was so quiet in the courtroom. She had given the police artist a detailed description of her assailant. The sketch that the artist created bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Thigpen.

Carly described how she had been grabbed in her high school’s parking lot, held at gunpoint, and driven off into the country. She described the nubby texture of the car’s upholstery and the paisley pattern of her assailant’s nylon shirt. She explained in extreme detail how she was raped and then dragged from the car and thrown into a ten-foot drainage ditch. As she lay in the muddy ditch, she heard a gunshot and felt a burning sensation in her side. Then two more shots. One bullet hit her in the thigh and one grazed her neck. She played dead, and after several seconds she heard the car door slam and the sound of spitting gravel as her attacker drove off.

When she had finished testifying, the State’s Attorney asked if the assailant was in the courtroom. Carly looked at the defense table, raised her arm, and pointed to Mr. Thigpen. Her face betrayed neither anger, nor hate. She was not afraid. She was serene, triumphant. She had survived and now she had her day in court. That was thirty-five years ago.

The next five days of the trial were taken up with procedural arguments and we spent much of the time in the jury room, not discussing the case. The defense took one day to present their case and we listened to impassioned closing arguments by both sides before the judge gave us his instructions. The jury was escorted back to the jury room and I, as an alternate, was sent home, like one of those Survivor contestants who don’t make the grade.

The next day I called Ron, the foreman of the jury and an insurance adjustor for Allstate who I had lunched with on several occasions during procedurals. He told me it had taken them three hours to find Melvin Thigpen guilty on all charges. There had been no dissent among the jurors, except towards Ron who insisted they go through all the evidence before they voted.

For weeks I checked out the local news to see if there was a report on Thigpen’s sentence, but there was none. I figured I would never learn what happen to Melvin Thigpen.

Ten years later I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal on career-development in prison. In their lead they featured an inmate in the Joliet Correctional Facility named Melvin Thigpen, who was serving fifteen to twenty years for rape. The Journal writer reported that Mr. Thigpen had become an accomplished watercolor artist.

 

Jury Duty – The Notice

Last month I received a notice from the court that I had been selected for jury duty again. In the intervening years I had been called several times, but was never needed. Just as well. I had bought an engine remanufacturing business in Arizona, which consumed all my time. It would have been difficult to be stuck on a jury for two weeks.

But my work schedule these days is more flexible and I wouldn’t mind serving on a jury in Skokie or even in the Loop. The notice indicates I’ve been drafted for criminal court on the southwest side, thirty miles from home. When I call in the day before, a recording tells me that if my last name starts with the letter D through M, then they want me. So I cancel my Friday activities – spin class and a personal training workout – and figure out when I need to leave the house to make it to the courtroom by 9:30 a.m.

 

The Questionnaire

Jury notice includes a questionnaire, which we are to fill out and bring with us. They want to know such things as age, occupation, marital status, age of children, whether we have ever been convicted of a crime, or been a party to a lawsuit, or whether we have any family in law enforcement. And the last question is whether we or any member of our family has been a victim of a crime. I have to think about that.

When I had the business in Phoenix, we were the victims of crime every week. Our plant was in a rough industrial neighborhood. Scavengers would scale the razor-wire fence and dump our valuable engine cores so they could steal the wood pallets. Most of our employees were honest, but like any business, a small percentage was not. Our trusted core buyer embezzled $50,000 and one of our financial managers falsified borrowing certificates.

Those weren’t trivial offenses, but they are nearly forgotten. What I remember from those fifteen years is the murder of Alma Hernandez.

Alma was eighteen years old. She had just started working for us as a piston installer. One day in August her ex-boyfriend came by during the morning break and asked to see her. When she met him in the parking lot in front of our office he shot her in the head and then made an insincere effort to shoot himself, but missed. One of the customer service reps rushed to Alma’s aid, but she died before the paramedics arrived. There were over a hundred employees at Alma’s funeral.

I know it was Alma and her family who were the victims of that crime, but her murder touched everyone in the company. Even so, I decide it doesn’t qualify as a crime against me or my family so I check the “No” box.

 

The Commute

There are six million people between me and the Criminal Court building. Half of them are on Interstate 94. It’s a one-hour drive if I leave at 6 am, but then I’d get there before the building opens. I roll out of my driveway at 7:30. It takes ninety minutes, but I’m sitting in the Jury room by 9:10. I’m the third juror to arrive. The lady at the front table takes my questionnaire and hands me a sheet of paper identifying me as part of Panel 3. I take a seat in the back behind the vending machines, next to the window.

 

The Vending Machine Challenge

I’m ten feet from the coffee machine. I know the coffee will suck, but it smells really good. The machine is complicated. There are different sizes and the usual choice of sugar or cream-like substance or decaffeination. There are a bunch of options for flavoring the coffee with hazelnut or maple or chocolate so it won’t taste so bad. I just want black. The coffee is hot.

A few minutes later, a stout black woman, who has squeezed into jeans several sizes too small, approaches the snack machine. She stares at the selection of chips and cookies and candy and looks very confused. Finally she turns and mumbles something at the professional-dressed young lady who is tapping on her laptop at the table next to me. The woman stops tapping, but doesn’t look up. “I don’t know,” she says. She sounds unnecessarily harsh, and maybe she realizes that because then she adds, “Sorry,” but the other woman has already turned back to the machine.

I look for someplace to perch my coffee so I can help her, but then I hear the sound of Doritos falling from their hook into the bottom of the machine. Vending success achieved, the woman ambles back to her seat.

 

The New Yorker

I have two dozen unread novels on my Kindle and I’ve brought five magazines, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. I could be sequestered for a year and not run out of stuff to read. All I really need is The New Yorker. It has everything. I always check out the short story first. As I’m thumbing through to the story, I see an article about a convicted hit man serving a sixty-year sentence.

It’s a typical New Yorker feature. About twice as long as it needs to be, but fascinating. The hit man is candid with the reporter. He describes his crimes in great detail. He worked for drug dealers who hired him to kill other drug dealers. He just walks up and shoots them. Several times. Other than the fact that he has committed, by his count, a dozen murders, he seems like a nice guy. Good family man. Doesn’t do drugs or alcohol. Loyal to his wife. Devoted to his five-year-old daughter.

 

The Call

At 11 a.m., a young man in a wrinkled suit stands at the front of the room. He delivers a speech that sounds memorized. He thanks us for showing up and plays a video about what to expect if we are called for a trial. My panel is called. They line us up in two rows, like a kindergarten class, but instead of marching us to our courtroom we are told to go to lunch and report back at 12:45.

 

Act of Kindness #1

I opt for the cafeteria on the second floor, grab a roast beef sandwich, chips, and a lemonade. The woman from the vending machine is two ahead of me in line. She has eight dollars’ worth of food and hands the cashier four crumbled one-dollar bills. The cashier, a pleasant-faced white-haired lady tells her she needs more money, but the woman just frowns, confused. The cashier hesitates, then smiles and waves her on through. She tells her she will take care of it, but the woman doesn’t hear her.

 

Act of Kindness #2

The lady in front of me gives the cashier an extra dollar. “For that woman’s bill. That was a very nice thing you did,” she says. The cashier thanks her.

 

The Courtroom

After lunch we’re escorted to Courtroom 206. It looks like a small chapel, with stone walls and windows on the west side. It’s bright and cold and the acoustics are bad. The judge tells us we have been called to serve as jurors in the trial of William Bancroft and Ronnie Washington. The two men have been charged with first-degree murder. The judge explains that Mr. Washington will have his own jury, but for some of the testimony both juries will be present.

The judge introduces the bailiff, the court clerk, the stenographer and the three state’s attorneys – two men and a woman. The judge introduces Mr. Bancroft and his two attorneys. The defendant, when introduced, turns to the jurors (we’re seated in the gallery) and says, “Good afternoon.” He’s a young black man. Good looking and fit. He wears a dark suit with a white shirt and tie. He looks more professional than the two male state’s attorneys, who both have a stubby, rumpled Chicago-pol look. Actually, he looks a little bit like the hit man in The New Yorker article.

Bancroft’s lead attorney looks like Linda Hunt, the diminutive actress who plays the boss on NCIS: Los Angeles. Hunt always plays smart characters and I find myself thinking that Bancroft has a good lawyer.

 

The Judge

The judge is affable and also sort of rumpled, but robed, which helps. He acknowledges the room’s poor acoustics, then does nothing to help us hear him better. He talks fast and has an unusual cadence so it’s hard to realize he’s asking us a question until he finishes and says, “Anybody have a problem with that? Okay, no hands, no questions. Moving on.”

He asks us to stand to be sworn in. A juror raises his hand. Glasses, salt and pepper short-cropped hair. Earnest. Sort of a bookkeeper look. “Your honor, no disrespect, but I can’t take an oath.”

The judge sighs. “Can you affirm?”

The man repeats that he can’t take an oath.

“Whatever,” the judge says. He is clearly annoyed, but moves on to his next order of business, which is the pep talk.

 

The Two Brians

The judge tells us a story about two Brians. One, we’ve heard of, Brian Urlacher, and one we’ve never heard of, Brian Anderson. Long story short, one day the judge is watching television and sees Brian Anderson get off a plane returning from Iraq. He’s a triple amputee and his message is, “Life is good.” The judge tells us if Brian Anderson, with all he has endured, can have that kind of attitude, then we jurors have no reason to complain about the inconvenience of spending a week on jury duty.

It’s a good point. Perhaps he might try to slant it a little more positively. After all, none of us have complained or raised any problems (other than the guy who can’t take an oath). It takes the judge ten minutes to tell us the story. When he finishes I’m still waiting to learn what happened to Brian Urlacher. I decide not to ask.

 

The Lottery

There are sixty jurors in the two panels. The judge shuffles the questionnaires and picks fourteen. I’m the third juror called. There are eleven women and three men. When the recording asked only for jurors with last names from D to M, I wondered how that might affect the jury pool. None of those great Chicago names that start with Z or W or X are in our pool. But the fourteen of us called are a cross-section of Chicagoland. We are Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Black, East Indian, Hispanic; employed, unemployed, retired; a tattooed biker, a white suburban dude (that would be me), a PTA lady, an insurance adjuster, and a legitimate blonde babe wearing tight-fitting jeans with lots of holes in the thighs.

The judge interviews each candidate. If we are married, he wants to know our spouse’s occupation. If we have married children he wants to know what their spouses do. He asks what we watch on television, how we get our news and what we read. No one has been the victim of a serious crime, although the biker had a cousin murdered twenty years ago.

The judge asks me what kind of work I do. I tell him I’m a writer. I figure this is not the time to share my angst over whether I should call myself a writer or say that I’m TRYING to be a writer. He asks me what I write and I tell him I’ve written a novel about a minor league baseball player. He asks me who it is, and then he says, “Wait, you said it was fiction. Never mind.” So I miss the opportunity to plug my book. Then he asks me what I’ve been reading. I suppose technically I should reveal that I’ve been reading about the hit man from Detroit who looks like the defendant. But I don’t. I just say fiction and the judge moves on.

The woman who had trouble at the vending machine is one of the fourteen selected. He asks her if she has ever been on a jury. She huffs something that sounds like it might be yes. He asks her if she reached a verdict. She doesn’t say anything. He frowns at her for upsetting his timetable. “Did you listen to testimony and decide whether the defendant was guilty or innocent?” She still doesn’t say anything. Finally he concludes she was just in the panel but had not been selected. I think he’s probably right, because I can’t imagine anyone accepting her as a juror.

We are given a ten-minute break while the judge and the attorneys go into his chambers to discuss us.

Thirty minutes later we’re back in the jury box waiting for the judge and lawyers to emerge from the judge’s chambers. The judge instructs us to follow the clerk to the jury room and says the clerk will read a list of those who will be given a check and dismissed. Those not called should report back to the courtroom at 10 a.m. on Tuesday to begin the trial of Mr. Bancroft.

My guess is they will keep everyone except the biker, vending machine lady, the black woman who said she read the bible every night, and maybe the Indian woman who ran the mini-mart with her husband.

Biker dude is the first name called. He smiles and wishes us all a happy week as he takes his check. The next name called is the blonde with the nice jeans. I have to admit I’m a little disappointed—she could make a good character if I write a story about this experience. The bible-reader goes next. And then the clerk calls my name. She hands me a check for $17.20. I feel like I’ve been fired. Vending machine lady makes the cut.

I am disappointed, but after two hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-94, I start to feel a vague sense of relief. Someone – from the defense or the prosecution – decided I wasn’t a good choice to sit in judgment of William Bancroft.

I think they’re right.

 

 

Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois. His novel, “American Jukebox,” about a minor league baseball player whose life unravels after he fails to make it to the major leagues, will be published by Hark! New Era Publishing in 2013. His blog, “Do Not Go Gentle…” chronicles his pursuit of USA Triathlon Age-Group Championships. In June 2012 he completed his first Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

**Note: All the names were changed, except for Melvin Thigpen’s.

Read an interview with Len here.

“A Lobotomy” by Petrina Crockford

A Lobotomy. Chestnut-sided Warbler.pg

Chestnut-sided Warbler (Small Lives Series) by Suzanne Stryk, 2004.

In the psych hospital, my roommate Gina told me she could cure me of all my diseases. She stood in our little white room with the window and the bars over the window and said: Like your cynicism, your bitterness, and all of your not-believing. It was snowing outside.

I believe in things, I said. I crossed my arms. What don’t I believe in?

Unicorns, apple pie, world peace, and happiness, she said, like she had rehearsed the answer. Her hair hung over her forehead.

Not real, stupid, impossible, and non-existent, I replied. I gave one finger to each point. (I gave world peace the middle.) All variations of the same thing, I said. Or, theme, I didn’t say.

Are you being ironic? she said.

Yes, I lied.

See?

She came forward to where I sat and laid her hands upon my head. I let her rub them all around. Her hands smelled like oranges. She pressed her thumbs into my eyes, for a better grip, and I saw an explosion of stars and purple shapes, all of them a variation on the last thing I saw outside, before I came to this hospital: a homeless man, shirtless and cold-looking, walking up and down between rows of traffic. He held a sign in his hands. I AM HOMELESS I NEED FOOD, the sign said. The cardboard was wet with snow. The cars drove past him, haughty with their non-believing, and though the snow cast a glare across their windshields, I could see the people in the cars were haughty and non-believing, too. This floated inside my eyes, the homeless man’s nipples exploding into stars.

Mm, Gina said. Interesting.

That’s enough, I said. I was beginning to see my mother.

Lie down, said Gina. Lie down. She pointed at the floor and tapped her foot. Lie down because there’s nothing to be scared of.

Who said I was scared? I said.

Beneath her hair, Gina’s eyes were a new kind of wild. Not Dixie-cup wild, but truth-wild, like she was using those eyes to dig through me. I thought then that Gina—Gina who saw dragons on the wall at night—was the sanest person I knew. Truth-dragons. I lay on the floor.

Don’t be scared, she said. Shh, she said.

I closed my eyes. I let her do it. I felt her sitting behind me and then she laid her hands across my forehead. They were heavy slabs of flesh, warm and clammy.

Shh, she said. Stay still and everything will be all right.

She took her hands away. Cold air blew above my face and shadows moved across my eyelids. Something banged against the floor.

Don’t open your eyes, Gina said.

And then I heard it, the sound coming like from behind her teeth. Gssshhh, I heard. Gssshhhh . . . the noise continuous and loud, except sometimes the noise broke like an engine revving up—Gsh, gsh, gsh—before it became a long, drawn-out gsssshhhhhssshhhh again.

Are you ready? she said. The noise stopped and then it started. I felt what must have been her finger in the center of my forehead, hard, pressing harder.

Yes, I said. My voice cracked. It could have belonged to someone else.

 

 

 

Petrina Crockford was born in Del Rio, Texas and raised in California’s Central Valley. Her fiction has appeared in the Feminist Wire and is forthcoming in Meridian. She lives in Baltimore, MD.

“Hiding from Breast Cancer” by Stacy Lawson

Hiding from Breast Cancer. Little Wing

“Little Wing” by Suzanne Stryk, 2005

Home Breast Exam

I handle my breasts in the shower more than an adolescent boy touches his penis. I pretend that I am just washing. I make a round sweep with soap from the outside of each breast to the center, a gentle squeeze of the nipple, up under the armpit and down the side. This is my version of a no-stress home-breast exam. I reason if I wash daily, I’ll notice any lumps, bumps, or changes. Will I?

 

Stage Fright

Before awareness, there’s a dawning, a sliver of a line between not knowing and knowing—enough space for a dim light to seep in and expose a threat not yet seen, heard, smelled, or spoken. I can’t remember when I first heard the words breast cancer. I’m guessing that it was discussed in whispers before I had breasts or even breast buds. Maybe it was when Phyllis, a close family friend, died from metastatic breast disease when I was ten. I don’t remember anyone telling me that she was sick or that she was dying or that her sickness started in her breasts with a cluster of cells that turned into a lump; this was well before mammograms became a yearly event.

Odd, when you consider that I grew up with a one-breasted bubbie. My mother’s mother lived to a well-ripened age of 91 with a lone plump breast that dangled to her waist and sat opposite a red- and white-scarred flatland, and, yet, I never connected my grandmother’s missing breast with Phyllis’s death.

I recall my grandmother leaning over a white industrial bra and dropping her long breast into the deep cup and nonchalantly tucking a beige pad into the other side. I never asked after a second breast, and no one mentioned that she had once had two. Now, breast cancer would be obvious, but 45 years ago, there were no pink ribbons, pink rubber bracelets, breast cancer walks, postage-stamps, tins of tea, and bottled water screaming out grave statistics.

Back then, breast cancer wasn’t discussed in stages that sounded algebraic—Stage 0, 1, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, 3C, and 4, or more typically as Stage 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4. Stages are a shorthand way of discussing severity and survival with few words: Stage 0-1: Very good odds. Stage 2: A little worse but very doable odds. Stage 3: Serious. Stage 4: A life sentence with no cure possible.

I wonder if my grandmother’s cancer was staged as doctors refer to the process now. Would she have been a Stage 1 or a Stage 2? Before the mid-60s, mammograms didn’t exist; any lump or bump was biopsied. Clusters of abnormal cells were studied under the microscope. My 84-year-old mother wonders if her mother had cancer at all.

When I was eight or nine, I had a Barbie doll, a Stacey doll, my namesake, or so I wanted to believe. She was a top-heavy straight-haired platinum blonde who couldn’t have been further from my Russian-Jewish genes. Stacey, like Barbie, was sexy if you were into plastic. She was manufactured from 1968 to 1971, which coincided with my infatuation with top-heavy dolls, and measured an impossible 39-18-33—a body that appears naturally only once in every 100 000 women. It’s hard to believe that Barbie, the ultimate shiksa, was created by a Jewish woman, Ruth Handler. (Handler had breast cancer and invented right and left prosthetic breasts. Makes sense. We wouldn’t wear our left shoe on our right foot. Yeah, Ruth!)

Alas, my physical blueprint is closer to a matryoshka, a Russian stacking doll, than to a Barbie. I wonder if dolls will ever be made with a single breast to reflect the reality that some little girls and boys will see when their mothers or grandmothers disrobe in front of them.

 

Once Upon a Time

In Egypt around 1600 bce, breast cancer, described as ulcers of the breast or tumors, was first detected. Centuries later, doctors began to understand the circulatory system and linked breast cancer to the lymphatic system, the sprawling super-highway of lymph nodes (key agents for infection control), which runs throughout the body. In the 18th century, scientists discovered that this super-highway could also spread disease like a reversible lane on a modern freeway. William Stewart Halstead performed the first radical mastectomy, termed the Halstead radical mastectomy, which involved the removal of the pectoral muscles, all breast tissue, and the underarm lymph nodes; this was supposed to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading. Halstead radical mastectomies were routinely performed until the 1970s, when Rose Kushner was diagnosed with breast cancer and refused the one-stop biopsy and mastectomy surgery that had become standard practice. The journalist challenged the invasive, disfiguring surgery, which had been used for 70 years with no scientific evidence to back up the practice.  She made breast cancer into a political issue and pushed for legislation that would offer women choices in treatment. She pushed for coverage of annual mammography by Medicare. She pushed for more dollars for breast cancer research. Her work lead to the change in protocol from the Halstead radical mastectomy to the modified radical mastectomy

Kushner figured out that not all breast cancers are equal. Could my bubbie’s breast have been spared? Was this a matter of your breast or your life, ma’am?

Science and medicine march forward at an unnervingly slow pace, and we wait, holding our breath, having few other options.

 

Patricia Calderon

Patti was my best friend from age 12 on. Sex-crazed boys at the Turkish synagogue where we hung out on Saturday afternoons teased her mercilessly for her large breasts.  She wore high-neck t-shirts and sweaters, careful never to show cleavage until she was nearly a middle-aged woman. She refused to hide behind frumpy blouses like the other girls with unseasonably large breasts. Behind her back, the boys came up with a long list of breast terminology­—twins, tits, sisters, headlights, hooters, coconuts, casabas, cantaloupes, boulders, berthas, melons, and knockers­—while they made smacking sounds with their mouths and squeezing gestures with their hands. “Vavavavooom!” They’d explode when Patti or another amply developed girl came into view.

Who knew then what her future would hold?

 

Offerings

On the same day that my younger son, Shiah, was born, my friend Bobbie’s sister, Tina, died of breast cancer. Tina had offered up both breasts to the stainless-steel surgical altar a few years earlier to no avail.

At three-days old, Shiah was the color of a watery-yellow bruise. He was diagnosed with severe jaundice, which required another hospital stay for treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit. While he was laid out like a plant in a light box­ until his bilirubin count dropped to a normal level, he drank far less milk than I produced.

I pumped my breasts every few hours, placed the bottles of milk in the pockets of a flimsy hospital robe, and smuggled the liquid gold into the maternity ward where I skirted around the nurses on my way to visit my friend Johanna who had just given birth to her fifth child. Smiling, I pulled out my still-warm milk and offered it to her. Johanna had had a bi-lateral mastectomy, both breasts removed, four years earlier during pregnancy. Her third son was delivered early a few months later, so Johanna could undergo aggressive treatment for aggressive breast cancer.

Five days after Shiah was born, Patti’s mom called. Patti, of large-breasted fame, at age 42, was on her deathbed in Manhattan. She had been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in her late 30s. Her medical team had urged her to have a complete mastectomy. She had opted to have one breast removed and take her chances.

A few days later, Patti’s mom called. Patti had died. I was sitting cross-legged on the couch, nursing Shiah, talking to my in-laws and my husband. Noah was next to me, his shirt flipped-up while he nursed his doll named Baby.  I shook and sobbed uncontrollably. I wiped my nose with my sleeve and tried to pass Shiah to Steve, but Shiah was clamped to my nipple, not yet finished with his afternoon tea.

 

Who Knew that We knew?

Rachel Carson began writing Silent Spring, her epic environmental book, in the late 1950s. It traced the path of the chemical agent DDT through the food chain to humans via land, air, and water. She concluded that DDT was causing cancer and genetic damage. Her book was serialized in the New Yorker in 1962, a year after I was born, two years after Patti was born. Initially, no one was interested in Carson’s work despite the fact that she was a highly respected author. Her ideas were so out of line with the prevailing knowledge that they were dismissed as if Carson had lost her way, if not her mind.

Shortly after Silent Spring came out, Monsanto, the multinational agriculture biotech corporation, and the producer of the herbicide Roundup, published a parody of Silent Spring called Desolate Winter, which aimed to discredit Carson’s work. Monsanto asked what would happen in a world where bugs, famine, and disease ran amok because of the elimination of DDT and other pesticides. Did anyone in the Press question Monsanto’s motives? Where were all of the other scientists who knew better? Was there other conflicting research that was hidden or stifled? Did money change hands? Was the threat of cancer so little known back then that it didn’t ring any alarms? How many times has the same scenario unfolded since then? How many dissenters, like latter-day prophets, have tried to get our attention and failed? Rachel Carson died at age 57 in 1964 after a long battle with breast cancer.

From 1960 to 2003, the rate of breast cancer rose 181%. According to a 1993 study by the National Cancer Institute, “breast cancer is strongly associated with DDE (a form of DDT) in the blood.” In the early 70s, DDT was banned in the US; decades later, traces are still found in the environment, the bloodstream, and breast milk.

Because of the many changes that must occur to make healthy cells cancerous, breast cancer can take up to 30 years to develop. Why did it take science decades to conclude what Carson knew in the early 60s? Who knew that we knew so much back then?

My personal list of breast cancer tolls and loses rolls continuously like credits at the end of a movie. My mother-in-law had ductal carcinoma in situ a few years after Shiah was born. In April 2007, two friends, Anna and Little C, were diagnosed with breast cancer. Three more breasts removed. In 2008, my friend Sarah got a call after her mammogram. She had calcification sites. A biopsy followed. Thank God no breast cancer, but because she has dense breast tissue, she will likely repeat this cycle many more times. In 2011, my friend Em was diagnosed with HER2, an aggressive form of breast cancer. Soon after it was my friend Ren. Now, my dear friend Gee is recovering from a lumpectomy. My friend Maggie is waiting for the results from her surgical biopsy after having 2 mammograms, an ultrasound, an MRI, a needle biopsy and then the surgical biopsy. She waits. We wait.

Consciously and unconsciously, I recite the Hebrew phrase from my childhood, b’li ayin hora, literally translated as “without an evil eye,” an incantation that I use to protect my two small breasts and all breasts. I know far too many women whose shirts lie against flat chests, dented chests, foam, silicon, or saline. I wonder who declared this war on women.

 

No Matter what You Call It

Four years ago, Jules, one of my favorite students, came to a yoga class I was teaching for cancer patients, survivors and their caregivers. She wore a pin that said, “Not yet dead,” from Monty Python’s show Spamalot, which she had seen in Las Vegas with a group of women who were living with metastasized breast cancer.

Many of my students have or have had breast cancer.  The stages and diagnostic names sound industrial and mechanical, as if named by an engineer in a steel plant: ductal carcinomas in situ, lobular carcinomas in situ, Paget’s disease, ductal and lobular carcinomas, inflammatory breast cancer, angiosarcoma and cystosarcoma phyllodes, estrogen-negative cancers and triple-negative cancers. Breast cancer, the catchall phrase, oversimplifies the highly variable disease, the treatment options, the side-effects, the variety of outcomes and chances for survival, recovery, and recurrence.

Jules has lived with metastasized breast disease for ten years. In 1999, she was diagnosed with Stage 2, a diagnosis that she thought meant she’d be fine after treatment, but it didn’t work out that way. Three years later, she had a sore leg, which felt like a pulled muscle. An x-ray showed extensive bone metastases in both of her femurs. An MRI revealed she had metastases in her skull.

When Jules arrived to class with her Monty Python pin, we wanted to laugh and cry in the same moment. Jules spoke our fears when she said, “I sometimes wonder when the other shoe will drop.”

 

Reaping and Sowing  

Washington State is known for apples, asparagus, airplanes, wheat, timber, coffee, computer genius, marijuana, and BREAST CANCER. According to the Center for Disease Control, women in Washington State (me) have the highest rate of breast cancer in the nation. Typically, we delay childbearing (me) or skip having children altogether. We drink more alcohol (not me). We absorb less vitamin D due to lack of sunshine, and more of us use hormone replacement therapy to beat back the effects of menopause­—all of these factors are known or thought to increase the risk of breast cancer.

Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jewish women (me) have a higher rate of breast cancer than the general population. Five to ten percent of all women with breast cancer have a gene-line mutation gene. The genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 when normal and healthy protect breast and ovarian cells by being tumor suppressors and ensuring genomic integrity. Genes, made up of thousands of DNA letters that run down the DNA double helix, can become delinquent, dangerous, and deadly with the deletion of a single DNA letter.

Long, long ago, when Jews were called Hebrews and wandered in tribes through ancient Israel, DNA letter 185delAG was accidentally dropped; but unlike a stitch in knitting, we’ve not been able to pick it up, and it’s been a deadly error. Translation: Women with the BRCA1or BRCA2 gene have up to an 82-percent chance of developing breast cancer by the age of 70.

A few months ago, I went to the doctor for a sinus infection, and for a dreaded round of antibiotics. My doctor rifled through my chart as though looking for something she had lost.

“I don’t see your last mammogram here.”

“I had one last year with my annual.”

She turned a few more pages and said, “You haven’t had one since two thousand and eight.”

“Shit! Are you sure?” I was stunned. How could I of all people have missed even a single mammogram? I looked at my doctor thinking she had misread my chart.

“Really” I asked again.

She nodded. “Really, two thousand and eight.”

Women and some men will continue to be diagnosed with breast cancer each and every day and each and every year. I see breast cancer in part as a collective karmic return for environmental misuse, arrogance, lack of awareness, and greed, but it’s also an opportunity for change. As we pollute and defile our world or watch others do it, and pass it off as an unavoidable complication of modern life, we suffer and rack up negative karma. Karma is the cause and result of our actions. Think of it as a self-perpetuating loop that can be stopped if we take action. To believe that things have to be the way they are, to believe that we have no choice, to believe that we are stuck with what we have, is to live without hope.

 

 

Stacy Lawson is a yoga instructor and writer living in Seattle with her husband, two sons, and dog. She is the founder of Red Square Yoga, a by-donation studio focusing on therapeutic yoga. Stacy’s work has appeared in Under the Sun, Drash Northwest Mosaic, The Seattle Star, and Sunday Ink: Works by the Uptown Writers.

“Christmas Cactus” by Ann Goldsmith

Christmas Cactus.Sanctuary
“Sanctuary” by Suzanne Stryk 2007

A year ago, the Christmas cactus
sashayed in with its pink and
white party hat crowning the long
stems like ecstatic shrimp.

When the blossoms fell off,
each with its soft pink pod,
how bereft the stems looked,
jammed so closely they must be
strangling one another at the roots.

Removed to the patio in May
for repotting, my cactus rested
through October untouched
except by wind and sun,
mostly green, but barren,

surely dead—like some fake plant
pre-tinted with indelible dye.
When autumn days drew down,
it returned to the living room,
light as paper but still mostly green—

except for pink fins
pressing out in November,
month of my birthday,
from every suddenly laden stem.

Two days in the house—and
air schools of shrimp
took to the warm currents,
crowning the whole head
for an entire week!

Now it is December,
winter before us,
but spring still so new
I can rinse my hands in it.

 

 

Ann Goldsmith‘s second book of poems, THE SPACES BETWEEN US, appeared in April 2010. She won the Quarterly Review of Literature’s Poetry Prize for her first book, NO ONE IS THE SAME AGAIN. Goldsmith holds a doctorate from the University of Buffalo, where she taught English for ten years. She has also served on the faculties of D’Youville and St. Trocaire Colleges, and worked as Western New York Coordinator for ALPS, a statewide poetry-in-the-schools organization. She has served as poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution, and taught writing at Buffalo’s Trinity Center, which granted her an Excellence in Teaching Award. Her recently completed book of poems, WAITING AT THE TURN, is looking for a publisher.

Read an interview with Ann here.