“American Epiphany, Part I” by Robert Boswell

she-drove-(American-Epiphan
“She Drove” by Peter Groesbeck

The hegemony of the domestic epiphany is unchallenged by the irrefutably frequent but characteristically flimsy foreign epiphany (rigorous epiphanies, like automotive mishaps, occur most commonly within twenty miles of the epiphanee’s domicile); however, for Americans in thrall, it is rare for the physical venue of the catharsis to be commensurate to the experiential phenomenon.

Tera is a failed academic and knows how to Latinate-up a sentence, how to wield the unwieldy phrase, how to turn tango into partnered bidirectional ambulation.

The weightiest secular kenotic incidents of American existence habitually transpire in strip malls (augmented by muzak soundtracks), at sporting matches (while seated beside adults adorned in giant spongy caps), or in garish hospital waiting rooms where, while the beloved is expiring in an adjacent room, Extreme Makeover cannot be shut off or turned down no matter with whom one pleads.

Tera is in that waiting room right now, witness to a forty-something woman at the Makeover Mansion saying she wants to flatten her jug-handle ears and de-flatten her pugilist’s nose. The woman looks a lot like a koala bear, and Tera cannot help but root for a successful metamorphosis. On the other side of the thin wall against which her vaguely purple chair rests, her husband breathes by means of mechanical pump. Electrodes taped to his chest translate the fragile rhythms of his heart into a language only an M.D. can decipher. The doctor will use cartilage removed from Koala’s ears to prop up her blunt nose. Tera’s husband will not live into next week. He may not make it to the morning.

Tera tries to concentrate on her laptop despite the insistent televised distraction. Her task is to explain the unexplainable, and there’s not much time.

Does the democratization of the American epiphany minimize its efficacy by systematically situating it in culturally debased locales, including, but not limited to, corporately franchised refectories?

She decides to revise the sentence.

I had a vision, she writes, in a fucking Hardee’s.

~

The toll road was direct and unwavering, without curve, detour, or intersection—so elegant in its ugliness that the Hardee’s island seemed a betrayal, like finding a caged animal in the wilderness. Tera entered the cage and ordered a slab of meat on a bun, a barrel of iced tea, a boat of fries. “I’m not that bad,” she was saying, talking on her cell from a plastic booth. This was the early days of cell phones, and it was roughly the size of her foot. “Just the front fender on the passenger side, but I can’t drive it, and I certainly can’t pick up Dmitry.”

That’s where you’re going?” The speaker warped Kenny’s voice, erasing the highs and lows, and yet she could have identified him after only a couple of words. Here was a new skill for the dying century, she thought, the instant recognition of vastly distorted things. Kenny continued: “You used to be a good driver.”

“I used to be a lot of things.” A list formed in her head: safe driver, faithful wife, honest friend. “What I used to be is beside the point.”

“Why are you calling me?” he asked. “There are a few billion people in the world who aren’t me.”

“I dialed everyone else in my book.” This was a lie, but he knew her tendency to exaggerate. It felt more like an offering. “You’re the only one who answered.”

Springtime in Kansas is brief, like the expanse of days a baby crawls: amazing when it finally arrives and over before you know it, summer vaunting in upright, sweat running down its pale thighs. This day, though, belonged to no season. The afternoon sky was the brown of upturned earth, as if the heavens had been recently plowed. Tera had pulled off the highway to answer her cell phone, but a boulder hiding in the grass bent the fender against the tire. The call was from Dmitry’s sister. Tera had let it go to voicemail and hiked to the Hardee’s.

“I’m the last person your husband will want to see,” Kenny said.

“He doesn’t know it’s you. He just knows it’s somebody, or it was somebody.”

“Buy you said—”

“I didn’t provide a name. I didn’t want him to hate you. Look, I’m already late. If you can’t do it…”

“You know I’ll do it.”

“I’m at that Hardee’s on the toll road. You know that Hardee’s?”

“Everyone knows that Hardee’s. Where’s your car?”

“It’s not in a ditch, exactly. You’ll see it.”

“You should have called me from your car. That’s the point of cell phones.”

“Just get here before I’m tempted to buy horrible food.” She let the phone clunk against the table and stirred her shot glass of ketchup with a wilting fry. The building stank of grease and despair and miles to go before anyone might sleep, as if the cushions in the stalls had absorbed the loneliness of the travelers who had cursed the greasy food as they stuffed it down.

The accident—if it was significant enough to be called an accident—had taken place an hour earlier. Tera’s first thought: perhaps it was a way to avoid the remainder of the trip. Dmitry’s sister could pick him up. But there were papers to sign, and she wasn’t sure they would release him to anyone but his wife. She had obligations to keep.

“You want a refill?” The boy’s face was freckled, chubby, and round. His colorful shirt held a narrow rectangular grease stain like a tiny grave. He scooped up the burger wrapper in a furtive gesture that conveyed nothing but shame—his or perhaps his recognition of hers.

“Sure,” she said, and he grabbed her sloshing tub of iced tea. Three months had passed since the night she officially drove her husband crazy. Dmitry had insisted that she was seeing someone else, no matter how expertly she denied the accusations. Earlier in the day she had taken the dog and walked to the park where Kenny waited in his car. By the time she got home, it was dark and she reeked of sex, and the dog was not only frisky but almost frenetic, and Dmitry said, “Tell me the truth or I’ll hang myself.” It might have sounded silly if not for the noose swinging from a ceiling beam.

“It’s a man from work,” she said, sticking to her strategy, which was deny, deny, deny, and failing that, lie, lie, lie. She worked in the mayor’s office, an organizer for the so-called great man. “You don’t know him,” she added. “He was only here for the election.”

“Tell me who it is,” Dmitry insisted.

She named a man she hardly knew, a consultant who had returned to Topeka, a person Dmitry would never see again. “Now take that down.” She indicated the noose.

He obeyed but didn’t sleep that night or the next. After four nights without sleep, he didn’t know who Tera was. He couldn’t dress himself. He wept in the tub. With the stay at the funny farm, Dmitry had officially climbed aboard the psychobabble express, a nonstop local with connections that could take you anywhere, including a much funnier farm where the gates were always shut. After the farm spat him out, he would be suspect. His colleagues who were now in agreement about holding his position for him, would shake their heads and speculate cruelly if a student complained or class went poorly. A trip to the funny farm to get well was like bathing in ink to get yourself clean.

The freckled boy plopped the cup before her. The specks on his face were allotted unfairly, with twice the density around his eyes, as if they were geysers. He had filled her plastic cask with Coke: half-tea, half-soda, an unholy mixture that tasted of sweetened mud. Before she could say anything, he swept past her, joining the others of his tribe—four portly souls in hideous Hardee’s uniforms standing at the window and staring at the sky: The Hardee’s Boys.

Tera realized she was the only customer in the place.

“If that’s not a twister,” said one of the Boys, “then I’m the next president of the United States.”

He didn’t look like White House material. You work a few campaigns, and you know.

~

Tera’s former lover flashed his lights, and she ran out into the parking lot. The wind was blowing and she let it lift her skirt, pushing it down a second too late and laughing. She was thirty-three and could get away with such things for only a few more years. Her advantages were on the wane. Of this, she was painfully aware.

She slammed the car door on the wind, smiling at him, her hand on her head as if it might fly away.

“This is crazy.” He wheezed out the sentence as if there were an arrow in his chest. “What am I doing here?”

“I asked you.” She gave him a lingering kiss. His cheek was as dry as the skin of a lemon.

“I suppose it’s efficient,” he said, rubbing his cheek and eyeing the fingers. “You can torture both of us with one stupid act.”

“Did you see my car?” she demanded. “It’s not like I was aiming for that rock.”

“I don’t see how else you could have hit it.”

“We should go. The wind is picking up.”

“Tornado warning,” he said. “Heard on the way over. Would’ve been nice to know before I drove into the middle of it.”

“You didn’t use to be such a whiner.”

The Hardee’s Boys turned their attention to her lover’s earth-brown sedan. How could they possibly be more interesting than a tornado?

“Don’t wreck my car,” he said, unbuckling, “and don’t leave me here.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “He has no idea it was you.”

“No hurry.” He raised a thick novel. “I’ve always meant to read Proust.”

“You have not.”

“Three months of nothing,” he said, pushing the door open an inch, “and when you finally call, it’s to pick up your husband.”

The wind caught the door and yanked it open. He hunched against the torrent and bent low to walk. The Hardee’s heads followed his serpentine approach.

Tera slid over and started the car. Hanging from the rear-view mirror was a disco ball that might have been a road hazard, refracting light everywhere, if there had been any noticeable sun. She had never driven the car, but she’d had sex in the back seat, parked on the street in front her house—Dmitry’s house, really, his before they married—and Dmitry was inside, asleep, she’d thought, but when she went into the bathroom to tidy up, he was there, shaving. She slipped out and went to the guest bath. She hid her clothes in the bottom of the hamper, in case he decided to come in and smell them.

All the lovers she’d ever had in this weird plot she called her life—teenage delinquents, twenty-something narcissists, a couple of college girls, men in their golden years, and Kenny—would never appear in the same police line-up. Each was a bup to her kiss, but her kiss had gone through a lot of changes. Which suggested her essential problem with marriage: the woman she was when Dmitry married her and the woman she had become were related, but only in a half-cocked manner, like the relationship between a cow and a burger.

Within the first mile, she realized she had a problem. The car was shifting on the road. Making it to the funny farm would depend largely on luck. But she was used to that and didn’t turn around. The sky turned a shade of green reminiscent of a baseball park—a too perfect green that really really really did not belong in the sky. She had put herself in mortal danger for spite. Three months earlier, she had broken up with Kenny for no reason but the sudden onset of shame. As soon as her husband was hospitalized, she cut her lover off. With Dmitry in the funny farm, Kenny’s tongue in her mouth carried a residue of vinegar. She wouldn’t have called him today but she needed a ride.

Or so she told herself.

The drive to the funny farm is something that she has carried around like a wristwatch, a little ticking reminder that she was once fearless and stupid and incomprehensibly vain, and that two men had loved her enough to ruin their lives. It mortifies her and she treasures it.

She punched buttons and her cell played the voicemail from Dmitry’s sister: If you take my brother out into a tornado, I’ll have you arrested. You hear me? His sister had never been what you might call welcoming. She was like a child who did not want to see her mother replaced by some mere person, only Tera was just a sister-in-law. Dmitry’s first wife had been the kind of stand-up gal to drink scotch on a bar stool, wearing a dress that was fashionable without being desperate, in smart heels that reminded you she was still a sexual being no matter her age. She had been a reporter for decades, and then she wrote restaurant, theater, and movie reviews. Dmitry had loved her in a manner Tera could not fully imagine, and his love for Tera did not approach it. Oh, he doted on her, but the dead woman had been his equal, his partner, his match. Tera was the pretty face and pliant body, the easy patch of road after the glorious, dangerous switchbacks.

The sky made a human sound, part moan and part sigh, and vaguely condescending. She kept driving.

~

Dmitry sat alone in the waiting room, his hands in his lap making a church with a steeple. The storm evidently had the staff hiding, yet Tera had made it easily enough. The only traffic had been the occasional tree limb, scuttling along. It had almost been amusing.

“I thought perhaps the weather had convinced you not to come,” Dmitry said, standing, gathering his bag. He had lost weight, which emphasized his tendency toward primness. His head was meticulously groomed but his skin was softening. When he pecked the cheek she offered, it was like the touch of wood. He kissed her again, experimenting at some length with her lips, a kiss with a persistent but uncertain agenda, like a bird pulling at gear from a rusty watch. No one burst through the doors to meet her.

There were papers to sign and forms to fill out, and it was absurd to drive in this wind, but it seemed like a fair trade: you may skip the humiliating, hateful paperwork if you’re willing to drive in a life-threatening gale.

Deal.

Besides, if he left without checking out, his sister could sue the funny farm and not Tera.

“I made potholders in a crafts class,” Dmitry said, eyeing a door to the interior, as if he might run back to get them. “Do you imagine they’ll mail them to us?”

She hooked her arm in his and they headed for the door. “You never showed me any pot holders.”

“They say things,” he told her. “Funny things.”

The wind lifted their hair and widened their eyes. They huddled and pushed their way through a dense invisible wall to Kenny’s car.

“This isn’t a car I know,” Dmitry said.

“I had a storm-related accident on the way over,” she said. “I called everyone in my book to get a lift. Kenny came and got me.”

“Kenny Giles?” he asked. “Reliable old Kenny?”

“The one and only,” she said. Kenny worked with Dmitry at the University. He had once been Dmitry’s student. Tera had been Dmitry’s student, as well, a graduate student in Sociology. She had thought she would write an important book about the economic whatsit driving the world market and the international incest and boo-hoo it engenders. But she discovered that her book had already been written, maybe a hundred times. Dmitry set the pile of books on his desk, saying, “Read these. These represent the barrier your dissertation has to surmount.”

It made a big pile, and instead of scrutinizing them, she seduced him, which was a lot less work. She pretty much had him when she started crying—not an act, and yet they were not wholly innocent tears, either. She could still feel that first embrace viscerally, the way clothing holds the smell of the body that has inhabited it. From the first time she saw him, she understood he was a lovely man. He had a way of introducing material in the classroom that was like setting a table. He would prepare an intellectual meal and have you describe the taste. The lessons, ultimately, were never about what you had consumed but the premises that led to your consumption. He was twenty-three years older than she, and his wife had died of cancer the previous summer. “This is in the first-person,” he said when he saw a draft of her first chapter. “Science is not written in the first-person.”

Kenny started the PhD program a couple of years later, a thin, thoughtful boy who moved his hips when he walked as if astride some great animal. He had been small and baby-faced through high school and was not yet accustomed to being attractive to women. They had the same birthday, Kenny and Tera, twelve months apart.

The car rocked in the wind. She and Dmitry were still in the parking lot, facing the funny farm. The place had a huge parking lot, striped by grassy islands, whose saplings knelt before the storm, their bushy heads rattling against the ground like repentant sinners. The storm-light cast no shadows and was hardly light at all, just a dim celestial reminder that darkness was coming.

“They said I could go home,” Dmitry replied. “I would like to go home.”

She turned the ignition, and the wind gave out, as if the gale had been the product of their hesitation. All around them, the tree limbs, mostly denuded now, settled in their familiar poses. A rolling white something tumbled to a stop, becoming a dumpster as it came to rest in a parking place, completely within the lines, as if there were a cosmic plan after all. Tera steered around it.

“We have to pick up Kenny at the Hardee’s,” she said.

“Housework is exploitation,” Dmitry replied.

“What are we starting here?” she asked. “A seminar?”

“That’s on one side of the pot holder—the first one I made.”

She pulled out onto the street that led to the highway. “I thought you said they were funny.”

“That is funny.”

~

The toll road was as wide and empty as the future. The wind had not left them, only fooled them. The storm moved indifferently about them, coiling them in its mad upheaval but leaving the car untouched. They were the last unopened box under the tree, and wrapped in the most salacious porn, but untouched because the box seemed to be empty; which is to say, she was afraid and her mind was racing.

And then every feature of the landscape distorted, as if the wind had made the light crooked, and a gate swing open in her head, a searing snap in the space between her ears, and they were witness to something as elemental as birth, something that defied any human name, a world where trees stood on their branches and walked like men, where a rusty farm implement—a giant thing like bedsprings armed with vicious blades—won the lottery and got to dance weightlessly and gracefully in the trembling sky. With the unlit Hardee’s sign in view, the car took to the air, spun around once, a lateral swirl, as if they were being stirred, and dropped to the asphalt, aimed approximately in the same direction they’d been traveling.

“Be careful!” Dmitry said, roused from some reverie. The whirling car had caused the seat cover to slip free and bunch under their legs like wrinkled skin, as if the storm had aged the car and she half expected to see the paint on the hood turn gray.

“The fucking wind picked up the whole car,” she said. “It wasn’t my driving.”

“The mistake I made…” He paused and she got the car going again, her heart beating in her throat, and she wished the wind would lift them again, shake them like a jigger of gin—anything but hear how she had betrayed him and cost him some share of his mind. “You have to think about sides,” he said. “That there are two sides to every issue.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“But one side obscures the other.”

“I thought I didn’t love you, that I’d never loved you,” she told him. “I was so disappointed in myself for giving up my studies, and I became convinced that I’d perpetrated this enormous ruse on myself by falling for you. I tricked myself into thinking I’d tricked myself. But when you became ill, I understood that I do love you and that has not wavered since.” Until I was on my way to pick you up from the funny farm and bonked my car against a rock and just had to see my old lover.

At the entrance to the Hardee’s, they could see Kenny and the Hardee’s Boys standing beyond the darkened windows, watching their approach.

“Home ownership is slavery,” Dmitry said, and Tera had a moment to think that he was utterly insane, gone. “That’s on the other side of the pot holder,” he explained, “but the words on one side show backwards on the other, and both sides became illegible.” He showed her a brief, wan smile. “Just like life.”

Whenever she thinks about being in that car, that crappy grad-student car, and watching the sky turn colors meant for the ground—brown and green and the black of topsoil—she pictures the hurled objects and recalls how, for a moment, they were lifted, she and Dmitry and that old Pontiac, and they became objects. They became the hurled. That moment is one that endures—what it means to be thrown forward into the future. To have that much direction is to be powerless.

 

“American Epiphany, Part II” concludes in the October issue of r.kv.r.y..

 

Robert Boswell‘s new novel is Tumbledown, forthcoming August 6th from Graywolf. He has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had one play produced. His work has earned him two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, a Lila Wallace/Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards was a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Award in Fiction. What Men Call Treasure was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Nonfiction Spur Award. Boswell has published more than 70 stories and essays that have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Esquire, Colorado Review, Epoch, Ploughshares, and more. He shares the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing with his wife, Antonya Nelson. They live in Houston, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Telluride, Colorado. They also spend time in a ghost town high in the Rockies.

Read an interview with Robert here.

“Real Work” by Andy Edwards

alone together alone (Real Work)
“Alone Together Alone” by Peter Groesbeck

Now he works in public administration, planning department—hospitals. After his tour in the Stan he got the degree and the job. A very good looking wife and a house not too far from bars appropriate to a certain level of presentation, a certain image projection. That’s all fine. Yet before this finer period there was the clinic at Bagram air base.

Porn and liquor smuggled through in Listerine bottles killed the off time. You just drill out that little nipple on the base of the bottle, leave the cap sealed and then you rinse and fill. Hot glue gun to replace the nipple. Those were the days. The nights were real work.

Over there the stars are overwhelming and so he’d go out early to the gate calls and stand around stamping his feet, look at the ridgelines far off. They’d call in from the perimeter and he’d watch the headlights and the dust trailing in the dark. The guards would clear the Afghanis before any medical personnel made contact. So in general the only issues in the contact were logistical.

Their trucks were old Toyotas that will run until the end of time. Rusted and patched with linens and 100mph tape and pocked with AK rounds. They looked like they’d already seen the end of time and returned. In the dark the native men acted like children. Turning over their dead in the US supplied rubber bags made no sense to anyone involved, but it was a regular occurrence.

It was the real work.

We’re 90 percent liquid. If you don’t let air get to a body the liquid doesn’t return to the atmosphere as it decomposes. The liquid should have its own name. Phrases such as body fluids just don’t cover the necessities of description. The smell is concentrated in the bag also. Our ancestors evolved instincts to be overcome by this smell, to run from it wafting on the breeze. The Afghanis got a few trinkets, a little swag bag of candy and transistor radios for turning the corpses over.

The real work is to haul awkward bags of fluid and bones that were once a body.

Get them in the Humvees somehow. Five or ten at a time and prop them on each other with the two ends secured so that shit doesn’t go spewing all over everything on the drive from the gate shack to the morgue complex. Accidents happen.

He’d ride in the passenger seat and think about the eyes of the men. Where were they going now but back into the desert and the mountains with their bags of candy and their bugged radios? They had no porn. They had hashish though didn’t they? Their eyes in the headlights of the vehicles were like those of goats somehow, passive only to a point.

As they make the mile back to the compound that smell coming off the bags is remarkable, but it’s the texture of the affair that seals it up so he’ll always, always remember it all. The way the fluid slops inside as they haul it at the ends. The way the long bones fold together in the middle like toothpicks in a ziplock.

He wanted to go Special Forces. To make the bodies rather than catalog them. To be special.

The real work is in storing bags of liquefied bodies in a room saucy with them. The masks don’t provide much relief. It comes through the vents into the admin office. It’s on your clothes until they go to the launders. And even then sometimes–somehow–it’s in the folds.

The bags are thick and black and the zippers are rated to 700 pounds of force. Bill me. Only, the rubber material, for reasons of olfactory chemistry and governmental finance seem to absorb, take on and seem to retain the smell forever. One Time Use, is stenciled on the exterior.

No shit.

Walking to the bar sometimes that smell is on his fingers, even though he just showered and changed into clothing befitting a well-employed young, urban man with acceptable tastes in propaganda and inebriants. It’s there and then it’s gone.

He thinks maybe it’s the sewer, but Portland sewers are deeply contained and serviced at regular intervals exceeding industry standards. It’s a good city. Even in the rain, the bars are very warm. He knows it can’t be the sewers and he knows it cannot be real.

No the real work is over. Isn’t it?

 

 

Andy Edwards is a writer and tracking instructor. He lives at the end of the Applegate Trail in southern Oregon.

Read an interview with Andy here.

“Craving” by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

helpless (Craving)
“Helpless” by Peter Groesbeck

On the day Ivy Auntie went missing, Sriya Polgoda wished, once again, for more help. Her husband, Dharmapala, was already doing much more than facility maintenance. In addition to shopping for the week’s supplies of rice, fruit and vegetables, he fed Joseph Uncle his morning rice broth spoon by spoon, mollified Miriam Auntie during her shouting spells, and coaxed Jit Uncle to use the bathroom regularly so he would not soil himself.

And of course, he kept an eye on Ivy Auntie. When she disappeared, Dharmapala tore down the lane in the Polgodas’ rusted motor scooter, teetering around the corner garbage dump with the tires screeching so loudly that Miriam Auntie ran into her room. He knew Ivy Auntie could have wandered onto the main road and been hit by a bus in the rush hour traffic. But he found her in the vegetable stall at the top of the lane, trying to pin a ripe tomato into her hair and asking to buy a wedding sari. Dharmapala settled her in a three-wheeler hailed from the main road, and followed the three-wheeler back to the house.

While Sriya was guiding Ivy Auntie into the house and toweling tomato juice from her hair, Dharmapala bathed three lotus flowers in filtered water and placed them before the Buddha statue in the foyer. He knelt in gratitude, chanting the five precepts. What motivated him was not the money they would have lost if Ivy Auntie had got lost or injured, or worse, killed. For Sriya, running a home for the aged was a way to make a living, but Dharmapala cared for Ivy Auntie and the other three mentally infirm patients as if they were his own family. When Miriam Auntie splattered her brinjal curry on the wall, or Joseph Uncle clamped his mouth shut during his feedings, Sriya sometimes had to retreat to keep her patience. But Dharmapala’s compassion never flagged.

After Ivy Auntie wandered off, Sriya cajoled Ivy Auntie’s brother, Mr. Peiris, into paying extra for a helper. She said they needed someone to watch Ivy Auntie in the daytime when the garden gate stood unlocked. Mr. Peiris found Sriya a helper. The helper was his cook’s cousin, a young woman named Anandhi. When Anandhi arrived two days later, Sriya noticed that her hands were broad and callused, that her neck was sturdy, and that she bore herself with confidence. She knew Anandhi would be capable. She did not pay much attention to the luxuriance of Anandhi’s hair, which fell to the bulge of her rump, or wonder why she left it untied. Anandhi’s eyes, which had whites as flawless as the inside of a coconut, looked sideways, but Sriya only noticed the determination in them. She was satisfied that Anandhi could handle Ivy Auntie’s recurrent tirades, and the tantrums Miriam Auntie threw when told to keep her feet off the dining table.

“We have been blessed,” Dharmapala said to Sriya at the end of Anandhi’s first week. Sriya, who was oiling her wiry hair after her bath, agreed, but she remembered what he’d said when she first mentioned wanting a helper.

“Craving ease is only going to get us in trouble, you said,” she reminded him, tying her petticoat strings around her stout waist.

“It is true, as the Buddha said, that craving leads to suffering,” Dharmapala said. “But our need was great. And now our burden is less.” He smiled at her in the mirror as he buttoned a clean shirt over his sarong. His teeth were still white in middle age.

Sriya secured the pleats of her cotton sari with a safety pin so they would not loosen when she lifted Jit Uncle’s feeble body off the toilet. “Take Anandhi to the market with you,” she said. “She can carry another basket.”

When she heard the scooter revving, she went to the front door. “Bring back a good hand of bananas and two papaws,” she called to Anandhi. She knew Anandhi could gauge when the papaws were ripe.

Anandhi closed the gate before looping the baskets over her arms and mounting the precarious passenger seat. She had to clasp Dharmapala’s waist to keep from falling. Her hair was still loose, a silk veil down her back. The wind would tangle it terribly, Sriya thought. She wanted to warn Anandhi to tie it up, but then the scooter burst away, scattering pebbles like confetti. Sriya pulled Ivy Auntie, grumbling, back into the house.

Soon, Anandhi offered to take the patients for a daily stroll down the lane. They could walk away from the main road, she said, to the temple at the Palwatte junction. They needed stimulation and fresh air. Dharmapala agreed. He would go along to help. Walking would strengthen Jit Uncle’s legs, he said. And Sriya would have a little time to herself, to rest.

The stillness in the house when they left each afternoon was bliss. One hour was all it took for them to wander, stroll and stumble to the temple and back. Sriya stood at the kitchen sink and watched the monkeys playing in the trees. There was no need to listen for crashes or shouts or falling bodies in the patients’ rooms. She took the vanilla bean from the tea tin, kept there to flavor the patients’ morning tea, and held it to her nostrils. She watered the crotons that were starving for the attention the patients sucked out of her. She listened to the breeze rustling the bougainvillea bushes. She rubbed coconut oil on her cracked skin. She stood outside in the failing light and admired the orange streaks in the clouds. One day, she looked for the American Godiva chocolates that Joseph Uncle’s nephew had brought when he visited Sri Lanka. Sriya unwrapped the silver foil on each and ate them all.

Then came the day when she noticed the flowers before the Buddha statue in the foyer. The edges of the araliya petals were brown, their sanctity spoiled. There was no moisture left on the pewter tray that bore them. It was Dharmapala’s task to wash fresh flowers every morning and proffer them on the tray. That had been his practice for two decades, since their marriage. Sriya threw the dead flowers away, leaving the tray empty.

That night, after the patients had been fed and put to bed, Sriya beckoned Anandhi. She noted the luster of Anandhi’s skin and the roundness of her hips. Anandhi’s hair gleamed. The daily strolls and weekly motorcycle rides had done her good. “We cannot keep you here any longer,” Sriya said. “You must leave in the morning.” Anandhi claimed innocence, but Sriya had nothing more to say.

In the Polgodas’ darkened bedroom, Dharmapala sat slumped on his side of the bed, his head in his hands. Sriya removed her sari and laid her head on the pillow. She hoped they would not lie awake too long; she knew Miriam Auntie’s shouts would wake them before dawn. Then there would be bodies to wash and heave and wrap in clean clothes, curries to concoct and tempers to soothe. There would be no time for rest.

 

 

Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer has fiction published or forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Quiddity, The Summerset Review, Notre Dame Review, Stand, Literary Mama, Epiphany: A Literary Journal, and other venues. In 2004, she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for a story that was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago, and teaches at Felician College in New Jersey. Her website is www.ruvaneeevilhauer.com.

Read an interview with Ruvanee here.

“Chasing Normal” by Catherine Dowling

she was always late (Chasing Normal)
“She Was Always Late” by Peter Groesbeck

In Ireland, in the 70’s, boys were everywhere, or at least it seemed that way. They crowded Saturday night dances and thronged youth groups, hiking groups, every kind of group. They struck up conversations on the street and hovered around the gate to my all-girls high school. While such plenitude made starting a relationship appear easy, there was a skill involved, a dance of enticement and feigned indifference that everyone knew was an act, but pretended to believe was real. It was a dance I never mastered.

I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t smart. I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at jokes that weren’t funny, or figure out when to lie about having other plans, and I didn’t know how to use meanness as a strategy. Most of all, I cared inordinately what a boy thought of me and believed without question that he didn’t think much of me at all. But I kept that to myself, corralled it into an enclosure for secrets that can’t be shown to the world. Like The Scarlet Letter I was reading at the time, they branded me inferior to requirements, itself a source of intense vulnerability and shame.

Somewhere between late teens and early twenties, the downhill rush to marriage began.  Boyfriend, marriage, children. That was the norm. That was the nature of the universe.  As a boyfriendless teenager, I was a little odd, a little to be pitied. As my husbandless years ticked by, I became ‘strong’ and ‘independent’, greatly admired by women who were relieved not to be me.  I listened to their well-meaning consolations – praise for my college degrees, my career, my travels in America, still a distant and exotic place back then. These were euphemisms for failure. At twenty six I was a failure as a woman. It seared to the bone. Despite my precocious feminism, I too secretly believed my life was nothing without a man. I longed to be normal, but believed I never would. And then, age thirty, I got married, just in the nick of time.

It didn’t matter that pain often lurked behind the façade of marriage. By the time you discovered this hidden-in-plain-sight secret, you were already married. You were in the cocoon of normalcy.  So what if there was a little suffering involved, and sometimes more than a little? Suffering is part of life, absorb it, corral it firmly and get on with living.

But, as my contemporaries and I reached middle age, something happened, something we didn’t see coming and wasn’t even legal when we got married: Divorce. It affected everyone randomly and indiscriminately; girls who snagged husbands early and those who married late. Twenty years and one marriage later, the cocoon abruptly split and spat me out into a world I didn’t recognize.

In this new world, women were everywhere, blossoming, post-divorce women. They seemed happy. I felt like I was breaking apart. I did the usual: changed my hairstyle, bought new clothes, took an art class. It wasn’t enough. I was suffocating so, when the opportunity presented itself, I moved to another country, a country famous for reinvention.

In my new home, I joined groups. I joined a faith group, a meditation group and a hiking group.  All women. I joined a writer’s group. Two married men and more women. I make friends easily, so I made wonderful friendships with women of all ages, but why wasn’t I finding a new relationship? Other women did, often just months after divorce. Once again I was out of step. My whole world had changed and yet nothing had changed at all.

“The internet,” one of my thirty-something friends sighed. She played with her phone for half a second and handed it to me. “Dating websites! Start with this one, it’s free.”

I filled out the profile, found a photograph I didn’t hate, and waited. My in-box filled up rapidly. So this was where the boys had gone. They were hiding in dating websites. I surveyed profiles. Then it hit me with the impact of an epiphany–in this medium I could choose. I could approach men, declare interest and it was ok, not forward, not slutty, normal. I felt liberated, powerful, optimistic for the first time in years. I liked this new world where there were no dances and I had at least some chance of success. I picked a man and sent a ‘smile’.

Michael responded immediately. Mid-50s, long divorced, he grew his own food. He had to be nice if he grew his own food. He also played guitar and wrote music. A 70s boy turned man. The future opened before me, shimmering with possibility. Then I got sick and couldn’t get to my e-mails for three days. And there it was–the furious, lashing out, what kind of a bitch are you, have a nice life e-mail. He thought I’d stopped communicating and this was the reaction. The back to nature 70s boy had picked up some baggage on the way to being fifty.

The depth of dejection I felt astonished and frightened me. But something was different. I couldn’t corral the emotion. When I was married, I had few friends. When marriage ended, friends seemed to appear out of nowhere. They knew better than I did what I needed most; to talk. So now, I talked about Michael and slowly a glimmer of logic, faint but real, penetrated my gloom. Michael had his own problems. It wasn’t all about me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t blame myself for losing this one.

A few weeks later ‘Bird Man’ (because he ‘liked to soar’) arrived in my in-box.  His profile looked promising but he was pushy about meeting. The Michael experience had been sobering.  Better talk first, I wrote. So we did. He was friendly and warm and liked to cook. He particularly liked to cook for his lady. Did I like to eat? He liked a lady who could eat. Hmmm…Maybe it was the way men talk in this new world. Bird Man lived on three acres in the mountains to the east of the city. He was a farmer, and a writer, and a political lobbyist and a CPA. Something didn’t add up.

“I’ve business interests in Canada too,” he announced. “I have to go to Canada next week. We could meet when I get back.”

“Eh…maybe.” I’d gone into this without an exit strategy, my skills of rejection as weak as my skills of attraction.

“Will you hug me when we meet, Catherine?”

Hang up, now! a voice in my head insisted. This voice was new, strangely decisive.

“I might shake hands,” I heard myself say and felt a distance open between us. I’d given myself space to reject instead of being rejected.

“Oh, Catherine, you’re so hesitant. You need to feel the edge of a real lover.”

Hang up, the head voice boomed.

“I like to sing. I’ll sing for you. Holy God we praise thy name. / Lord of all, we bow before thee…” I knew this one from eternities of elementary school choir practice. It was long.

“I have to go,” I blurted, “I’m meeting some…”

“I’m a poet too. Do you want to hear my poem? I wrote it for you.” He launched into something about two eagles soaring to an azure sky. The eagles lock talons and plunge together into their nest. “The eagles are you and me, Catherine,” he explained lest I missed that subtlety. “We’ll have our own nest, just you and me.”

Hang up, you moron, the voice screamed.

“Goodbye,” I said abruptly. Abruptly enough to be offensive. I felt no remorse. I felt good.

After Bird Man, I stopped replying to messages. I wasn’t willing to sever my lifeline to normal by ending my site membership, but I was also not willing to take another failure. About three months later Joe contacted me and something about the calm no-rush demeanor of his e-mail enticed me into a response. We e-mailed. We talked on the phone, him unhurried, me hyper vigilant for flickers of anger, or weirdness, portents of future rejection. There were none.  We arranged to meet for lunch.

“Not a date,” I told myself, “just lunch.” Why was I talking like this? The date had real potential. Why now did I so desperately want to cancel?

Joe was fun, a good conversationalist who also asked questions and listened to the answers. We had a lot in common and some interests we didn’t share. He was a calm, gracious, confident man who didn’t dance, who liked me…who wanted another date. The pizza we shared turned to paper in my mouth and, like a skittish steeplechaser, I reared up at the final fence. He asked again about dinner later in the week. I hedged, all stiff and secretly terrified but the terror wasn’t as well hidden as I thought.

“This is too hard for you, isn’t it?” he said. I nodded. “Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you need to be alone for a while. It’s okay. Everyone does.”

We hugged and parted company and I began the two mile walk back to my apartment. As I crossed the bridge, Joe’s words replaying in my mind, I came level with the crowns of the huge cottonwood trees that lined the riverbank. In the crystal light and thin air of the high desert, there’s nothing more stunning than the brilliant yellow of cottonwoods against an empty autumn sky. I ran my hands through the nearest leaves, each one an exquisite blending of yellows and golds. A month earlier they had all been green. Some still held a trace of their old color and no two were exactly alike. As they passed through my fingers, for the first time in my life, I felt the bubbling joy of being totally and completely alone. And it was beyond OK; it was wonderful. In this universe of infinite difference, I knew with certainty that there really is no such thing as normal. And it wouldn’t matter anyway if there were.

 

 

Catherine Dowling has a Bachelor’s in English and History with a minor in Psychology.  She holds a diploma in Rebirthing (breathwork psychotherapy) from the Association of Irish Rebirthers and is a founder and former chairperson of the Irish Rebirthing Psychotherapy Association and co-founder of the Federation of Irish Complimentary Therapy Associations. She’s also a former president of the International Breathwork Foundation, the networking body for breathwork therapists and supporters with members in over twenty countries. Catherine’s blog can be read here.

Read an interview with Catherine here.

Homepage Summer 2013

Harvest (Grimoire)
[All /images copyright Peter Groesbeck, used with permission of the artist.]

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Summer 2013 “SEXUALITY” issue. We’re incredibly proud to present to you the wonderful and diverse array of voices in this issue. Among the many fine pieces to enjoy, you’ll find an essay about stripping as molting, a serialized short story about a love triangle during a tornado, a poem about the lasting beauty of scars, and a Shorts On Survival piece about the “real work” of body recovery.

Our illustrator is the talented and generous Peter Groesbeck who graciously allowed us to select from his body of creative work to illustrate this issue. If you like what you see, please visit his website here.

Thanks again readers, for giving r.kv.r.y. a portion of your day; and thank you writers, for continuing to trust us with your fine work.

Our upcoming themes are “SHIPWRECKED” (the October issue) and “ART OF RECOVERY” (the January 2014 issue), which will be illustrated with the paintings of old masters (ekphrastic work welcome).

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

“Fecundity, Expanse” by Sasha West

god asks why (Fecundity, Expanse)
“God Asks Why” by Peter Groesbeck

Dregs in the hotel glasses, arranged in lines of song.
Skin cells on tub bottoms, my hair
on the brush, tangled in the trash, curled in the drain.
All day, he touched bodies and objects—fingerprints
on doorknobs, windowsills, and coins—obsessed
with the outside of gloves, books, crepe paper,
anything that could be bloated or ruined with water. We remade
the world in residue. I lived inside the constant pulsing
of my absent home, an uncommon and ever-present idea
of the recalled native land in the mind. When we stop,
I lie down in tall grass to form a silhouette.
When we stop, I lie for a long time in the edge of waves
until my body has been carved into beach. I leave my body
in the beach so it fills and empties. We made effigies
in ice, in weeds woven in grass, in peonies floating. When we began
to sleep together—in a  desultory manner at first
and then with great urgency, I let his come
leak out of me purposefully, with art
so that sometimes I left behind
a spot, sometimes a crescent, a harvest scythe.
I let the stains wax and wane with the month, the moon;
Every fourth week, the story bled.
Had you read our motel beds across,
like a comic strip, you would have seen us
making with our bodies a calendar,
situating ourselves physically inside a narrative of those days.

 

 

Sasha West has had work appear in Ninth Letter, Forklift, OH, Callaloo, Born, American Poet, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Her poems have garnered two Pushcart nominations, a Houston Arts Alliance Grant, Rice University’s Parks Fellowship, and scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.  She holds graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins and the University of Houston, where she was editor of Gulf Coast. She currently lives in Austin with her husband and teaches writing to the graduate students at UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Read our interview with Sasha here.

“Meat-Red Leaves” by Garrett Quinn

second temptation (meat-red leaves)
“Second Temptation” by Peter Groesbeck

You folded the photo of your husband into the inside of your left boot, the edges crimped and frayed, wet with mud and sweat. The last thing you wanted was Thomas finding it, ending the expedition early, leaving the Sumatra Island behind you on one of those tight, jostling planes, your shoulder bumping his with each turbulent shift.

“How much farther do we have to go?” you ask, the Nikon D300 and its various lenses inside the airtight case, tugging against your collarbones.

“Not much. We can’t,” he says. He turns to look at you, droplets swinging from his tight braid, glasses misted with condensation. You asked about the braid the first time you met him and he said it was a tradition from an Indonesian tribe. It showed virility. Then you attempted to say the tribe’s name, perfecting it, repeating it after him until it felt like he had prodded into the pockets of your mouth.

You had sex with him for the first time on a hammock outside the hostel, the palm fronds quivering from your movements. It had been seventeen days since you touched your husband. Then again on a cot beneath a mosquito net while a moth with the wingspan of your hipbones beat against the fabric. It frightened you—how easy it was the second time. That night a beetle squirmed into your ear and, with a thin twig, Thomas fished it out, digging so deep that you became dizzy, like when you pull your eye away from the viewfinder after you’ve been focusing too long. You held his thigh as he poked the paint splotch, abstract tattoo beneath your right breast. Your early twenties, you said, a phase, intellectual rebellion.

The machete swings from his hip and you can see how much the blade has dulled from the vines he’s sliced through. You realize that maybe there is no way back, that you’ve come so far the only thing left to do is trail his sweat-stained shirt until you emerge on the other side, in a land where no one speaks your language and no one has cheekbones as sharp as yours.

You smell it first, and you’re expecting a dead animal. This is the one thing you’ll remember years later—the rotting stench of the flower clogging your throat before you see it, the white splatters on its thick, meat-red leaves; the entire flower resting on the dirt, so big that it frightens you, that you feel like you’ll fall into the floral opening and Thomas won’t be able to pull you out. You’ll remember standing next to him, your breath caught somewhere in your esophagus.

Before your photographs are even published you will lose both men, so you’ll celebrate alone in a silent apartment with an eight-dollar bottle of wine. But here, you sweat so much you can feel it beneath your fingernails. Here, vegetation tugs at your elbows and your ankles and never lets you go.

 

 

Garrett Quinn is an MFA candidate at Wichita State University and is the fiction editor for mojo. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Barely South Review, Used Furniture Review, and various other journals.

“The Stick in the Big Boy’s Hand” by Jacqueline Jules

the path of pain (Stick in Big Boys hand)
“The Path to Pain” by Peter Groesbeck

I saw my little sister go next door
with the neighbor boy.
White sandals on her small feet,
short pink socks with frilly lace cuffs,
and blue flowered shorts
matching a cotton button-down shirt.
Mama always dressed us nice, even to play outside
on a slick June morning, two days into summer vacation.

Wet blades squeaked beneath my shoes
as I followed up the hill. Reaching the crest,
I thought, at first, she’d slipped,
seeing her prone in the dew,
her cheek pressed into the long grass
until I saw the stick in the big boy’s hand
and her bare bottom, pink as her lacy socks.
Only a naive nine myself,
I didn’t know what to do, who to tell, or how to stop
the stick in the big boy’s hand.

Forty years later, my little sister lies
with her cheek against the pillow,
her bottom still pink and bare, as she mumbles why
she can’t get dressed for the fourth day in a row.
“Too dangerous to go outside,” she insists. “The grass is slick.”
I watch from the doorway, not knowing what to do, who to tell,
or how to stop the stick, still in the big boy’s hands.

 

 

Jacqueline Jules is a Northern Virginia author and poet who writes for children and adults. Her books for young readers include Zapato Power, No English, and Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications including The Broome Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Christian Science Monitor, Chaminade Literary Review, Sunstone, Imitation Fruit, Potomac Review, and Minimus. She won the Arlington Arts Moving Words Contest in 2007, Best Original Poetry from the Catholic Press Association in 2008, and the SCBWI Magazine Merit Poetry Award in 2009. Visit www.jacquelinejules.com

Read an interview with Jacqueline here.

“Grimoire” by Kristin Camitta Zimet

plea(Cover Image)
“Plea” by Peter Groesbeck

don’t/ can’t/ should/ never/ bad:
These are the spells to bind
her ballerina feet to stubs,
stiffen her hips, seal her breasts
and snap her waist in two.
A sister’s or a mother’s mouth
babbles them behind her, so as fast
as they braid up her hair and zip
her dress, they disassemble her
into limp strings and gaps.
A toad tied to her headboard
shrills them, shredding her dreams.

The counter-spells cannot be hissed
but crooned. Words stuttered like a comb
through broken ends, then sidling higher,
stroking from the crown. Words slipping
silver baby spoons between her lips,
trickling half-heard chimes
into her ears, piecing her mirror
like a crazy quilt. Spells she has to say
herself, in chorus, every splintered bit
hunting its cricket voice into a crack,
say them for years, before they take:
do/ can/ may/ this time/ good.

 

 

 

Kristin Camitta Zimet is Editor of The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and author of the full collection Take in My Arms the Dark. Her poems are in journals including Poet Lore and Bellevue Literary Review. She is a photographer and nature guide in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Read an interview with Kristin here.

“Scars” by Anne Dyer Stuart

raking over our souls (Scars)
“Raking Over Our Souls” by Peter Groesbeck

Bumped up tracks
redder than the rest of you.
Rivers of corduroy worn like scarves.
Your little hurts.

Inside: sleek, unblemished.
Inside: the same you God stitched
together—hastily, in Heaven,
then threw down like a stone.

 

 

Anne Dyer Stuart holds an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her lyric nonfiction won New South journal’s 2012 prose prize, and her fiction received the Henfield/Transatlantic Prize from the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pembroke Magazine, Sakura Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Poet Lore, The Louisville Review, Third Coast, Midway Journal, Best of the Web, storySouth and elsewhere. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.

Anne is featured here.