“Saint Jerry Wants a Medium Pizza with Half Pepperoni” by Sonya Huber

hearts entwined
Image by Kristin Beeler

My first call to a domestic violence shelter started with a bumbling request: “I don’t really even know what I’m asking for. . . He never hit me,” I said.

The legal advocate reeled off a spiel that sounded routine: Emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse are categories of domestic violence. That triptych list seemed as real to her as the specials at Pizza Hut.

I knew that list. I knew it for others and did not know it for myself.

In my pizza mind, the fragments of knowledge layered like pepperoni and olives on a tomato sauce sea, its crust barely containing the splattered chaos of ingredients. Like my high school days as a Pizza Hut waitress, the knowledge of feminist theory and women’s lives rested alongside and yet strangely separate from other pockets of knowledge.

St. Jerry Springer clocked in as kitchen supervisor at this Pizza Hut in my mind. He didn’t want to work there either, but he staffed the shifts and only paid “smart women,” the ones who did not tell secrets. The other ones, the talkers, were just looking for attention. Smart women earned degrees and wrote books. Smart women never got themselves into these kinds of situations. Smart women and smart men at smart conferences and schools invoked St. Jerry so consistently that he barely got a chance to rest and eat a slice.

I couldn’t get that Jerry-Springer-Invocation off my skin. It clung to me like incense, like the smell of Pizza Hut Meat Lover’s Pizza would adhere to my skin after each evening shift.

I still remember how to slice green peppers to stock the salad bar, twenty years after turning in my polyester apron.

Other women were smart were myself were stupid were somehow here.

I had told a man I loved him a thousand times. Those tiny curled sentences did nothing to stop waves of text messages, emails, phone calls, tricks, lies, mutterings, threats, and blunt words. St. Jerry hovered in the corner with little practical advice. I didn’t mind him. He actually understood; I lit candles maybe half to him and half to remind myself of warmth.

One night I put my son to bed and deleted a hate-filled voicemail. I curled into the couch like a ball of Kleenex, used up and frayed.

I can’t do this anymore. I’d do anything to make this end.

The thought faded, but the poison aftertaste made me stop. I raised my torso upright in the silent living room, sensing a new level of danger: the temptation to give up.

I reached for the phone book and flipped through tissue-thin pages. I found the number for the hotline and the shelter, circled it on the page, and then forced myself to write it in a notebook.

I didn’t want to do lots of things but I did them anyway. I cleaned up puke from the Men’s Room at Pizza Hut when I was sixteen. At thirty-nine, I could make a phone call. After writing down the numbers, following a string of digits to the decision, I could sleep.

I still dream of Pizza Hut. Twenty years later I have tables of squinting customers I cannot satisfy, nonsensical orders and buzzers and ticking clocks.

We talked. I got a case file. Jerry rode shotgun.

Months later I pressed the button on the call box and was buzzed in through the heavy metal door. I sat down in the advocate’s office and replayed the latest confrontation, looking for wedges in which to insert sanity, choices I could have made, pivot points for change.

I asked her what to do the next time, hoping for a threaded retreat through a mountain pass or a secret map.

“Call 911,” she said. “That’s what people do. If someone is bothering them and they don’t feel safe, they call for help.”

My mouth and eyes widened in a blank what?

“You’re probably thinking about all the times in the past when you could have called and didn’t,” she said.

After my appointment, I sat under the oval leaves of a large magnolia tree. “I’m a smart woman,” I said in quiet wonder. The words escaped my lips and traveled the mercifully short distance to my ears.

When all else fails, do the worksheets. I filled out the blanks in the safety plan and followed the directions. I stocked my car with identification and emergency supplies in case I needed to leave. And, finally, I keyed 911 into my phone. No drama, no failure, no Jerry.

I sat on my meditation cushion, lost for a moment in the orange flames that wavered above a cluster of votive candles. In front of me, a small print of a green-skinned Buddha sat in a frame I’d found at a garage sale. I did what I had learned to do in Buddhist classes: I felt my breath gently expand in my ribcage. I felt the air around my body against my skin. I tried to be here in this moment.

Behind me, a drum solo exploded. The drum set only fit in my meditation room. My four-year-old wanted to follow me, so when I meditated he played drums. The crashing waves of sound created a force field to repel my fears like a barrage of gongs ringing in a temple.

“Ma, can you fix the cymbals?” rang a high, sweet voice. I turned to see my son with wild blonde hair and a drumstick in each hand. I leaned over to adjust the brass-colored high-hat dinged with a thousand dents, each a record of a dissipated smash.

My son had arranged smooth rocks and a small set of sky-blue barbells in careful bunches around the metal feel of the drums. He had strung gold plastic Mardi Gras beads around the bass.

“Some people put this one there, but I put it over here,” he explained in a singsong as he touched the tall high-hat cymbal. “You can have it how you like it.”

I gave up on meditation and blew out the candles, but my son’s words looped in my head.

We can have it how we like it: such a hard-earned sentence. I release it as an invocation to St. Jerry, an aspiration to compare my longings to the color and texture and taste of my life as I live it, this exact darting day.

 

 

Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (forthcoming in 2011). She teaches in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Ashland University. More info is available at www.sonyahuber.com.

Read our interview with Sonya here.

“Race Change Operation” by Thomas Sayers Ellis


Image by Kristin Beeler

When I awake I will be white, the color of law.
I will be new, clean, good; and as pure as snow.
I will remember “being black” the way one
experiences deja vu, as shadow-memory-feeling.
Race will return to its original association with running
and winning, though I will never have to do either
(ever again) to prove myself Olympic, human or equal.
My English, by fault of gaze (theirs), will upgrade.
I will call my Mama, Mother and my Bruh, Brother
and, as cultural-life-insurance, the gatekeepers will
amputate my verbal nouns and double-descriptives.
When I grow my hair long I will favor Walt Whitman
more than Wole Soyinka. My pale, red neck will scare me,
a frightening irony of freedom. The Literary Party in power
will adopt me, saying “TSE is proof of our commitment
to (verse) diversity….” I am. Narrative poets will use me
as long as they can trust me, and Elliptical women
will want me in their anthologies but not as a colleague.
What will I do with myself other than prove myself,
my whiteness, and that blackness is behind me?
The poetry in my walk will become prose.
I will be a white fiction full of black-ish progression,
the first human bestseller, a Jigga Book Spook.
It will be like having tenure, my value will be done.
This is crazy, this lose-a-world way to whiteness.
What happened to “smiling,” to “playing the game,”
to being one of their favorites, to interracial marriage?
As a black, I won a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writer’s Award,
so imagine what I will win when I become one of them.
I can see it now, my MacArthur. Jungle eyes, a Guggenheim.
This might be the most racist decision I’ve ever made
but these lines, unlike the color line, were written to break.
I am tired of lines, of waiting, of lies, my bio full of prizes.
I want my own whiteness, to own then free (someone like) me
even if it means reintegrating another sinking ship.
I’ll be that Shine, defiant and drowned, dream alive.

 

 

Thomas Sayers Ellis co-founded The Dark Room Collective (in Cambridge, Massachusetts); and received his M.F.A. from Brown University. He is the author of The Maverick Room (2005), which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and a recipient of a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writers’ Award. His poems and photographs have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Callaloo, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001 and 2010), Grand Street, The Baffler, Jubilat, Tin House, Poetry, and The Nation. He is also an Assistant Professor of Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, a faculty member of the Lesley University low-residency M.F.A Program and a Caven Canem faculty member. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working on The Go-Go Book: People in the Pocket in Washington, D.C. A new collection of poetry, Skin, Inc., has just appeared from Graywolf Press.

 

“Learning How to Pray” by Cathy Smith Bowers

ghostly flowers
Image by Kristin Beeler

When I heard my brother
was dying         youngest
of the six of us            our
lovely boy         I who in matters
of the spirit
had been always suspect
who even as a child
snubbed Mama’s mealtime ritual
began finally to
pray          and fearing
I would offend
or miss completely
the rightful target of my pleas
went knocking everywhere
the Buddha’s huge
and starry churning        Shiva
Vishnu       Isis    the worn
and ragged god of Ishmael
I bowed to the Druid reverence
of trees       to water     fire
and wind          prayed to weather
to carbon          that sole link
to all things
this and other worldly
our carbon who art in heaven
prayed to rake and plow
the sweet acid stench of dung
to fly        to the fly’s soiled
wing        and to the soil
I could not stop
myself               I like a nymphomaniac
the dark promiscuity
of my spirit       there
for the taking       whore
of my breaking heart     willing
to lie down       with anything.

 

 

 

Cathy Smith Bowers was born and reared, one of six children, in the small mill town of Lancaster, South Carolina. Her poems have appeared widely in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. She served for many years as poet-in-residence at Queens University of Charlotte where she received the 2002 JB Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award. She now teaches in the Queens low-residency MFA program and at Wofford. She is the author of four collections of poetry: The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, Texas Tech University Press, 1992; Traveling in Time of Danger, Iris Press, 1999; A Book of Minutes, Iris Press, 2004; The Candle I Hold Up To See You, Iris Press, 2009. Smith Bowers is the current Poet Laureate of the state of North Carolina.

Read a review of Like Shining from Shook Foil here.

 

“Groceries” by Cathy Smith Bowers

gnome, ginger root
Image by Kristin Beeler, 2011.
(See also “The Brussels Sprout Rule” by Ali J. Shaw.)

I had a boyfriend once, after my mother
and brothers and sisters and I
fled my father’s house, who worked
at the Piggly Wiggly where he stocked
shelves on Fridays until midnight
then drove to my house to sneak me out,
take me down to the tracks by the cotton mill
where he lifted me and the quilt I’d brought
into an empty boxcar. All night
the wild thunder of looms. The roar of trains
passing on adjacent tracks, hauling
their difficult cargo, cotton bales
or rolls of muslin on their way
to the bleachery to be whitened, patterned
into stripes and checks, into still-life gardens
of wisteria and rose. And when the whistle
signaled third shift free, he would lift me
down again onto the gravel and take me home.
If my mother ever knew, she didn’t say, so glad
in her new freedom, so grateful for the bags
of damaged goods stolen from the stockroom
and left on our kitchen table. Slashed
bags of rice and beans he had bandaged
with masking tape, the labelless cans,
the cereals and detergents in varying
stages of destruction. Plenty
to get us through the week, and even some plums
and cherries, tender and delicious,
still whole inside the mutilated cans
and floating in their own sweet juice.

 

 

Cathy Smith Bowers was born and reared, one of six children, in the small mill town of Lancaster, South Carolina. Her poems have appeared widely in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. She served for many years as poet-in-residence at Queens University of Charlotte where she received the 2002 JB Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award. She now teaches in the Queens low-residency MFA program and at Wofford. She is the author of four collections of poetry: The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, Texas Tech University Press, 1992; Traveling in Time of Danger, Iris Press, 1999; A Book of Minutes, Iris Press, 2004; The Candle I Hold Up To See You, Iris Press, 2009. Smith Bowers is the current Poet Laureate of the state of North Carolina.

Read a review of Like Shining from Shook Foil here.

 

“Salsa” by Kim Chinquee

pink clouds
Image by Kristin Beeler

My mom, my son, and I went to dinner at a place called Margarita’s. My mom ordered herself a peach one.

I agreed to share until I remembered once waking to see who I’d called the night before, through the history of my cell phone, seeing a new picture, the screen saver. I thought it was my son in the picture. You couldn’t really tell who it was, laying face down in the kitchen. But then I looked in his room and he was sleeping. I looked in the mirror, looked again at the picture. It started to dawn on me, how things progressed, but it was mostly black out.  I still remembered the smell, my hair stuck from the vomit. My son said if I did that again, he’d never see me again, ever. That was just last year. Now, he’d just flown in, his first visit here from college.

We sat there, under the umbrella, eating chips and salsa. My son jumped over the rail, going to smoke in the lot. Two ladies said he must be an athlete.

My mom sipped her drink, and said maybe later we could take a drive to see her brother’s campsite. It would take an hour to get there. I asked her what we’d do. My uncle was completely pleasant. I told my mom I wasn’t sure. I remembered my son and me when he was little. We’d rent these silly movies. We’d drive to find a sunset. We’d color with our noses. We’d make a pie and put it on a doorstep. We’d turn up the tape and dance like hoodlums.

By the time the food came, my mom was on her second happy hour special. I got a seafood salad, skipping all the stuff like sour cream and the big fried shell. My mom got a steak meal, which looked better than mine. I don’t remember what my son got. It started to rain, and then my mom said the campsite was out of the question.

Finally, we all ran to the car, saying the last one there is a raincoat.

 

 

Kim Chinquee is the author of the collections Oh Baby and Pretty. She lives in Buffalo, New York.