Lisa Boardwine (Illustrator) is an artist living and working in Grundy, Virginia. She is a Signature Artist member of both the Baltimore Watercolor Society and the Virginia Watercolor Society. Her artistic process for the work in this issue involves building up many layers of paint to form a “history,” then peeling or excavating through the layers to reveal what’s underneath.
Suzanne Burns (Peeling an Orange and The Hospital) writes both poetry and prose. These two poems appearing in the April issue of r.kv.r.y. appeared first in her full-length poetry collection, Look At All the Colors Hidden Here.
Bethany Hunter (A Fundamentalist Girl’s Guide to Cussing) is a recovered fundamentalist who adheres to the old adage that writing is cheaper than therapy. She writes for and about the girl who needed to know she wasn’t that weird and even if she was, she’d have good stories to tell later. Her first essay, “Barbie’s Going to Hell,” was published by The Furious Gazelle and “Behind the Pulpit” is upcoming this spring in The Other Journal.
Chris Jansen (Detox Unit – Day Zero) grew up in a notorious shithole called Albany, Georgia. H has been a nursing home janitor, a paramedic, an IT guy, and, up until recently, a very dedicated heroin addict. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear. He has a degree in molecular biology from the University of Georgia.
Kirsty MacKay (Common Blackberry and The Panamint Range) is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable.
Patricia O’Donnell (The Blue Rigi) is the author of the newly released novel, The Vigilance of Stars. Her other books include the novel Necessary Places, the memoir Waiting to Begin, and the short story collection Gods for Sale, which won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Her short work has appeared in many places, including The New Yorker. She is a professor of Creative Writing in the University of Maine at Farmington’s BFA Program.
Bryan D. Price‘s (Sabine) poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Manhattanville Review, Menacing Hedge, Portland Review (online), and Posit. He lives and teaches in the suburbs of southern California where he writes about time, memory, utopia, and its opposite.
Mark Putzi (The Worm Hunters) received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1990. He has published stories in Jazz Street, The Cream City Review and Wilderness House Literary Review. In 2015 he married for the first time. The family pet, Willow, is an internet star and a highly accomplished tortoise shell cat.
John Riley (There is No Point) has published poetry in Mojave River Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Connotation Press, Dead Mule, Better Than Starbucks and many other journals and anthologies. He works in educational publishing part-time and is a full-time nanny to his beautiful granddaughter Byl.
Whitney Curry Wimbish (Night Fishing) is an American writer living in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by MIROnline, and has received honorable mention in two Glimmer Train competitions. Her journalism/nonfiction has been published in The Baffler, The Financial Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review.
Thank God things are quiet. I guess it’s medication time everywhere in the hospital, the same way it can be Christmas everywhere in the world. All the mental patients of Cottage C are lined up at their own medication room. They may be crazy, but no one is crazy enough to skip meds. There is the same weird half-light as last night, the same chairs lined up around the open dayroom, which reminds me now of a sad, empty dance floor; a lonely disco ball throwing fake starlight around the room would not seem out of place.
Behind the glass wall, I see the Tear Woman sitting on the edge of her cot, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her gray WELLESLEY sweatshirt. The only other patient who hasn’t disappeared into the medication room is the regal-looking man in designer pajamas, still sitting there like a monument in front of city hall, staring into space. With his strawberry beard and refined features, he looks like a lost professor. His broken, one-eyed eyeglasses still sit precariously atop his aquiline nose.
Like the professor, many of the other patients here look almost normal, but there’s always one crack in the egg, one weird tattered edge that sticks out, as if they are struggling mightily to contain it, yet the madness is bulging inside them like an overstuffed suitcase. [In case you’re wondering, you can easily spot crazy people in the wild because they are crazy about accessories. Especially hats. Weird hats, glasses, mismatched gloves = crazy. Don’t even get me started on shoes.]
I slink around the dancehall, a curious wallflower, a tourist in the strange country of insanity which lies just over the border from Detox. I spot a battered bookcase against the wall and I’m magnetically drawn to the leaning-a-little shelves.
Books. Reading. Books have always been my anchor in troubled times. When I was a depressed and lonely teenager seeking answer in religion, Jesus didn’t help me, but reading the Bible did.
I finger through the paperbacks, picturing myself a scholar in the professor’s library, grateful to be able to gently peruse something rather than be behind that glass wall like the Tear Woman, crying into a cup.
The books are in even worse shape than the patients. I assume they only put bland, inoffensive stuff in here because they don’t want to trigger a reaction in some brittle psychotic. Or maybe it’s just that nobody gives a shit. The collection is mostly science fiction and fantasy novels that pre-date the 1980s. Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie. The few that still have covers show fanciful 60s-style artist’s concepts of moon colonies, astronauts with crew cuts. Robots. Monsters. Most of the books are yellowed, torn in half, or drop a few pages when I pick them up. The only book that looks brand new is a paperback copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I grab Best Science Fiction of 1974 even though I don’t know if I’ll ever read it. It’s a pacifier. It’s a book. It’s something to clutch in my hand and walk around with, like the memory of my former life.
By now the Suboxones are starting to dissolve under my tongue and I’m afraid of what they will do to me. I hold the science fiction book to my face, as if focusing intently on the text, and discreetly spit the pills between the middle pages, and walk back the way I came, pushing the heavy metal door open with my shoulder as I hustle through the dark hallway back over to Detox with the book tucked under my arm. I feel like I’m getting away with something. I have some control now. Addicts love to get away with things.
I pass the medication room, noticing the last of the junkies are at the window. I feel like a shoplifter. I pass Jonah-the-Joker in the hall, tossing away his own medication cup.
“Hey, do you know anything about precipitated withdrawal?” I ask, with my book full of Suboxone tucked under my arm. “I mean like, is it over in a few minutes?” I’m asking this like I’m asking how bad cancer is.
Jonah’s joker-mask dissolves into a look of concern. He shakes his head. “Hours, homey. That shit lasts hours,” he says, and shuffles down the hall after Lindsey, the cute blonde. I hear him calling after her, “And how was your medication tonight?” in a voice as smooth as top-shelf whiskey.
Back in my room I sit on the bed and open the book. The half-dissolved pills have left a chalky paste on the yellow guts of the pages. “The sentinel passed Jupiter on its way to Io while Captain Danby slept in his cryochamber…”
I close the book and look around. I open it again.
I’m worried about everything as usual. The combination of tranquilizer and anti-seizure meds I’ve been given has blunted whatever feelings I am capable of feeling and left only a shape-shifting dread where my soul should be. The opiate withdrawal, as inevitable as the sun coming up, has not been as vicious in its return; I’m still frantic and terrified, but so far I’ve received a small dispensation. A little grace. Yet I know there is no way to cheat the dopegods. They were always watching, waiting for one little slip-up to rain down pain and misery on mortal junkieflesh. Vengeance is mine saith withdrawal.
I sit up and flip to the chapter containing my pills. They’ve turned into four clumps of stuck-on moondust.
Given a choice between taking something and not taking something, addicts will always choose the taking. Every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s just Tylenol. We are frantically empty. There’s a poem by Galway Kinnell which says ”that enormous emptiness / carved out of such tiny beings as we are / asks to be filled.” But that poem is about love, about the need for human contact, not drugs.
I fold back the pages of Best Science Fiction of 1974 and scrape the Suboxone moonlumps into my mouth. It tastes faintly sweet. I press the book close to my face and tongue the last of the powder off the pages, the moldy, decaying-book smell burning in my nose and lungs.
My thirsty cells drink again, as if straight from the mouth of a wild red poppy, and I see the world, the actual physical world, transform in front of me. The harsh light of the hallway is suddenly a warm glow beckoning me to life again. My dry veins fill with warm saltwater, the waters of the sea from which we were born. Though it’s still mercury-lamp gray in here, I know the sun is out somewhere in the world above me because I feel its rays penetrating down, down through the ceiling and walls of the hospital, down to hold me close and keep me safe in its warm embrace. It feels like going home. It feels like love.
Now my strength is returning, my limbs loosening. I’m no longer shot-through with terror and anger. I can’t believe it—I’m really high! My problems seem manageable now. It’s like an actual answer to prayer, a love letter back from God. I hear talentless, awful Bob Marley singing in my ears—“…every little thing / will be all right.” My heart pumps the beautiful warm blood inside my chest. I think of Yeats: I am blessed and can bless. Yeehaw fuckos, your boy is high!
The tattered and dry-rot science fiction book is a lot more interesting to me now. I leaf through it, amused, smiling to myself. I wonder what will happen to brave Captain Danby when he gets out of that cryochamber! What a wonderful book with a wonderful author about a wonderful place—the moons of Jupiter—which I must remember to visit sometime on my next swing around the universe.
I hear the bell do its ding-ding dance again. It’s time for…who cares what it’s time for, I’m up for it! I shuffle out, doubly happy at being high and at my good fortune at being high in this terrible place. Haha, screw you, friends and family and coworkers. I do what I want. I don’t have consequences. I’m that fucking special. I’ve always been that special.
“Dinner time,” calls the sour-faced woman. Her nametag says Pamela, but in my mind I call her Nana because she has a busybody grandma thing about her. Her bitterness doesn’t bother me now. “Thanks for calling us to dinner, Pamela,” I say, a gentleman’s gentleman. I think about a happy time in New York while I was sitting at Bemelmans Bar, waiting for my friend Tracy to join me for dinner. “Would you have Ellis make us an Old Cuban?” I ask her.
Nana is not amused. Because she isn’t high and I am, and I am a junkie and I bet she is too, or she was before she got caught. “Just regular dinner,” she says, without looking at the annoyance.
This is the first time I’ve been calm enough to take interest in who my fellow Detox-mates are. I don’t know enough yet to tell the new people from the old—“Old” being anyone who has been here for a couple days. The veterans.
We shuffle down to the end of the hallway, children following our Nana.
I’m standing next to the surfer kid, a tired-looking middle-aged presumable housewife with a tiny frown permanently weighing down the corners of her mouth, a trembling-at-middle-age ex-sorority girl who looks beat up but a little too good to be here, and there is a new zombie, a plump little daddy’s girl with a pink shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops, like she just came from the yoga studio. Jonah the joker is standing next to Lindsey, the blonde nymphet with the green-stars-and-moon tattoo behind her ear, who is looking into a small hand mirror and adjusting her lipstick.
People talk about the fragility of civilization, how a war or natural disaster can turn us into primitive animals. It turns out Detox does this too. Everyone looks tired and sick and desperate except for Lindsey and a tall guy with long dark hair and a white v-neck t-shirt pulled tight over his rippling, fatless physique. I notice a gold football-shaped St. Christopher medallion shining in the deep valley of his chest.
With his boiled-corpse skin, Jonah looks no better than the rest of us, but he seems to be driven by some inner reserve of social energy. “Cassie dear,” he calls to the sad-faced housewife, “when we gonna turn that frown upside down?”
“Pauline, you have to stop smoking,” he says to a pudgy zombie with wavy brown hair down to her ass, who looks like she just abandoned her register at the Gas ‘N Go.
“Oh gaaawwwwd, not noooow, Jo-naaaah,” she whines back at him, her smoked-through voice sounding like she just got done crying buckets or is about to.
He turns back to me. “Chris, you met Scotty-too-hottie yet?”
“Me?” Other than Nana no one has spoken directly to me in hours and I feel invisible. Addicts often think they are invisible.
“No, the other junkie named Chris standing behind you.”
I limply shake Mr. Handsome’s mighty, handsome hand. He looks like he belongs in a body wash commercial instead of a Detox chow line.
“You look pretty together, man,” I offer to this giant among us. He shrugs and shakes his handsome locks. He could easily be cast as Jesus in a Bible movie, if Jesus was also ripped and huge.
“Oxy, man. Oxy,” says Jesus.
Nana’s enormous keyring is swinging and turning in the lock. She cracks the heavy door open and we pour out into the sunset. This is the first time I’ve been outside so I take note of the grounds for potential escape routes. We are surrounded by a dense forest of trees that goes along the perimeter of the hospital grounds and up to the ridge rise. I can’t see a road or any real civilization from here. I guess they have to keep us mental patients hidden away so we don’t frighten any sane people.
The cracked cement sidewalk makes a hard left turn and slopes down back under the building we just came from. A large magnolia bows along the walkway, its branches bent low under the burden of its sweet-smelling blooms. Our little group follows Nana as she walks with her keys jangling out of one pocket and a small walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. We are silent except for Jonah, who never stops talking.
“Okay, hurry up people, I want to eat. Come on Cassie, vamos Eduardo, Scotty-too-hottie, go long.” He grabs a pinecone and hikes it like a quarterback in the shotgun. “Get open, Scotty. Go long, I said.” Scotty laughs and catches the pinecone pass behind his back. This is silly stuff I used to do when I was a kid, but I’m still glowing from my high so I laugh at the class clown too, grateful that someone is bringing life to this death house. Nana walks ahead of us and doesn’t even bother to look back. I guess she sees idiots all the time. The walkie-talkie on her hip crackles.”Cshhhhhh….10-4. Dr. Hush to admissions…Dr. Hush…cshhhhh.”
Jonah hikes another pinecone and drifts back in the pocket, scanning ahead for the pass rush. “Dawgs are in an I formation,” he growls, ”He’s looking for his receiver. Scottie get open!!!”
“Y’all need to quit plaaayying,” cries Pauline, in her weepy baby-voice. “Y’all are gonna get us Doctor Huuuu-shed…” Kerph, kerph, kerph, cough.
“What’s ‘Doctor Hushed’?” I ask.
Cassie the depressed housewife perks up. “That’s when you cause trouble. ‘Doctor Hush’ is code for all male staff members to wherever you are.”
“And then you get the booty juice and they put you in a rubber room,” says Jonah.
Oh. I’m not sure if that is horrifying or attractive right now. At least you get a shot.
We reach the end of the walkway at another set of security doors that lead to the cafeteria, which is tucked underneath the main building. It reminds me of a dream I had once where I was in a swanky hotel in Manhattan but was stuck in the kitchen, which was in the basement. In my dream, food came and went through holes in the wall, but I couldn’t eat anything, just look at it.
“It’s nice to be outside,” says Cassie through her tiny frown. “The magnolias are pretty.”
This seems more like a wish than an observation. I’ve never seen the beauty in flowers. They just seem like monstrously swollen genitals to me. When I look at the natural world all I see is suffering, decay, and death. I’ve always thought the love of nature was a form of mental illness. Stockholm syndrome. But this is a mental hospital, so…
“Yeah, it’s nice,” I say.
We make a single-file line going into the cafeteria. The smell of dinner cooking, the hollow ringing sounds of kitchen workers banging pots in the steamy air—this is all reassuring. Someone is expecting you and they have made you something to eat. We file up to the counter where a big bitter-faced woman scowls at the assembly line of junkies.
Jonah throws his tray down, still laughing at his own football antics. “And how are we doing this evening, Miss Gayle?”
At the site of Jonah her bitter face breaks into bloom like the magnolias outside. “Pretty good baby, pretty good.”
“Your grandson do okay?” he says to her now-beaming face. How does he know her? How long could he have been here?
“He did fine, Jonah, passed all his studies.” I’m not sure if he really cares or is just doing this to get an extra dessert. It doesn’t really matter though, does it? Jonah grins and takes his tray, now heavy with side dishes and desserts, and moves down the line.
“Hi Miss Gayle!” I say. In my mildly intoxicated state I think I can imitate Jonah’s bouncy joie de vivre. She frowns again like I’ve insulted her and drops a square, gray meat-ish patty on my plate. You ain’t Jonah. I take my tray and move on. Just like airport security, the only unforgivable sin in a mental hospital is holding up the line.
The cafeteria is small but airy. Even though it’s in the basement, the ceilings are high, likely designed for summers in the South before efficient air conditioning. Spiky, star-like fixtures dangle from the beams in what must have been imagined as a “space age” look back in the 60s. It reminds me of the decaying science fiction where I hid my Suboxone. I think how everything in the world that was once futuristic and full of promise is now hopelessly dated. Even me.
The seating area is a set of Balkan nations. On the far end there is a long table that looks like it came out of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. There are young kids, teens and even younger, sitting with a strawberry-blonde minder in too-tight jeans who looks barely older than her charges. The only way I know she’s staff is the keys on her lanyard and the walkie-talkie attached to her hip like a barnacle.
Seeing kids here is depressing, even with my chemically reinforced happiness. There’s a tiny African-American boy with huge square-framed glasses and a basketball-themed shirt that’s so long it looks like a dress, holding in his small hand a hamburger that’s bigger than his little round head. There’s a husky, fat-faced kid with red cheeks and his head cocked to one side in a hangdog expression that looks like pain and malice simultaneously. I recognize the ugly demeanor of every bully I had in middle school, and though I am a man and he is a boy, I hate him. There’s a young girl with straight black hair and black clothes and little red lines all up and down her arms that at first I think are cute little smiley sticker tattoos, but when I look closer I see they are razor cuts, and not just a few, but a dense red rose-thicket of wounds. She holds a cardboard milk carton in one of her razored arms and laughs next to a fat girl with curly hair and braces who is wearing a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with four fiery gold letters: L-O-V-E.
Chris Jansen grew up in a notorious
shithole called Albany, Georgia. He has been a nursing home janitor, a paramedic,
an IT guy, and, up until recently, a very dedicated heroin addict. He
currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he teaches boxing and cares for a
disinterested guinea pig named Poozybear. He has a degree in molecular
biology from the University of Georgia.
school is tough on everyone. Middle school in Arizona is especially tough on a
chubby fundamentalist girl who wears long skirts every day and can, at first
glance, be mistaken for a teacher.
eighth grade, John D. asked me if I cursed. I let him know that I did not.
Still suspicious that the fundy girl was that innocent he pressed, “Do you
curse in your head?” I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) lie any more than I should cuss,
so I conceded that yes, I did curse in my head.
friend, Nicole, a fellow fundamentalist, had the perfect solution, fake cursing
(slightly more hardcore than Mormon cursing), and she was more than happy to
show me the ropes. “Don’t be such a bench!” “Funk you!” There was even lifting
your ring finger as a faux bird. It was the height of rebellion.
Summers in Arizona are about as close as one can get to hell. There are jokes about how hot it is: “go to hell” someone says, “I’m already there” you reply; and you get to tell your friends and family in other states that you live in hell adjacent, just north of hell or in a little suburb of hell called Arizona.
The one that never gets old is, “Hot enough for you?”
Laughing it off shows how tough you are at surviving inhumane temperatures while silently agreeing and pondering your location choices. It can easily be 110 degrees in the shade and yet you’ll walk an extra fifty feet just to park in it. It may be a dry heat, but dry heat doesn’t prevent second degree burns when poolside.
Arizona and its climate provide a great opportunity for doomsday pastors to remind their congregations every Sunday, “If you think this heat is bad, just think about how hot eternal damnation is.” To this day, that statement pops into my head whenever I burn my hands on the steering wheel or scald my fingers on the seat belt buckle: only hell is hotter.
It was on one of those exceedingly hot days that I was in the backyard feeding the semi-feral, neighborhood cat that had adopted us. While standing on the patio, I spotted a creature that terrifies me to this day: a black carpenter bee. Research tells me they are one inch long and do not sting unless molested. I disagree. They are six inches long and armed to kill from ten feet away. When I saw this supposed gentle giant of the bee world, a phrase came out of my mouth that was shocking even though I was alone. It was, “Oh, my gosh.”
I was nine and had just said my first curse word. Disappointment followed shock; how could I have let the Lord down? I immediately asked for forgiveness, there in the blasting heat, a bag of cat food in my hand. “Jesus, I am so sorry, please forgive me. I’ll never say another bad word again.” Appeased, I went inside where the air conditioning and bee-free environment soothed my guilt-ridden soul.
I’m pretty sure I stayed true to my word through the rest of elementary school. Third through sixth grade wasn’t especially taxing and growing up in a majority Mormon area, rough language wasn’t even on my radar. Not that it wasn’t there, but the company I kept was interested more in friendship bracelets and Big Stuf Oreos.
In high school I came into my own. Seeking sophistication and hoping to sound like an adult, the word that would define my freshman year was bastard. Everyone was such a bastard, I would say as I flipped my uncut waist-length hair over my shoulder. I felt safe enough to use it around my friend Amber (also a fundamentalist, but open to scoring cool points). She said it wasn’t that bad of a word, but that I shouldn’t use it in front of my mother.
My mother was (and still is), without exaggeration, the judge and jury of the language court. “Awesome” is only meant for God’s creations. “Butt” is a no-no. “Gosh” is obviously a hair short of taking the Lord’s name in vain, as are “gee” and “golly.” A proper and acceptable exclamation would be, “Well,” prefaced with a tsk of the tongue and then dragged out for a few syllables, “Weeeellll.”
When I was little, I remembered her saying “rats” fairly often, as in “Oh, rats, I forgot to get bananas at the store.” Later she felt such a strong conviction about proper language she even repudiated rats; too close to meaning shit, I guess. In an emotional and heated exchange with my mother I once let her know something was such crap. She demanded to know when I had started cussing.
During high school, my parent’s marriage fell apart. No one thing was to blame for it. Perhaps it was the small church congregation they pastored growing smaller every Sunday, taking their much needed tithes with them. Maybe it was that my parents married too young and grew apart. It could have been my mother’s lack of sympathy or understanding for my father’s lifelong struggle with depression; her commands for him to just get up out of bed only added to his paranoia and anxiety. More than likely it was his extramarital affairs.
At home, my father wandered around the house muttering to himself, having imaginary exchanges with my mother, cursing her up one side and down the other, laying into her for years of frustration and disappointment. I would invariably walk by the bathroom and see him, in a cloud of citrus scented room spray, surrounded by the gold foil shell wallpaper, leaning over the shell-shaped sink, glaring at himself pointing in the mirror. Those mutterings didn’t have much clarity, so most of what I would hear were the staccato pulses of “uck and unt.” The words sounded mean and dirty but his secret mutters kept me safely in the innocuous curse word territory.
My home now a place of tension and silence, I invited myself to dinner with any friend that would have me. On an especially emotional day of general teenager-ness and family upheaval, I shared a dinner of McDonald’s cheeseburgers with my two best friends. They stared at me in bewilderment while I ate and then asked about my recent commitment to be a vegetarian. “Fuck it,” I said taking another bite, though it probably came out sounding like “fughgit.” I didn’t hang my head in shame and I didn’t have that nagging feeling in my chest the way I had when I was younger. I said the granddaddy of all cuss words and I was okay with it.
there my confidence grew. Things were shitty. People were motherfuckers,
assholes, asshats, shit-for-brains and total dicks. A month after I graduated
from high school, my parents finally divorced; they had promised each other to
be miserable until then. My mother and I moved out of our house and into a
third floor apartment where she became an emotionally distant roommate that I
saw in passing. I spoke to my father as little as possible. Life was totally
fucked up. “Vulgar” words gave me an emotional outlet. It was a way to reach in
and give my feelings the words I hadn’t figured out how to give them. I was
depressed goddammit, confused and heartbroken that my family was no longer
than two decades have passed, and in that time I have grown and matured. I’m
not a foul-mouthed adult who can’t identify and express emotions; most of my
cursing now comes after insult or injury, primarily the latter, and I’m just as
likely to use a more creative turn of phrase. Unfortunately, my father isn’t
around to read the latest research that shows cursing is actually a sign of
high intelligence and dropping an “F bomb” really can relieve pain and stress. My
mother remains uptight and ever careful to never offend the Lord. She probably
thinks evil scientists are doing the devil’s work by encouraging cursing. I
just wish I could have participated in the study. My cursing was modified after
becoming a mother and the “F word” became flibbertigibbet or fluffernutter or
whatever nonsense word eased the pain or frustration of the moment. My daughter
is a teenager now; I don’t need to sensor myself anymore. She hears me and
rolls her eyes when someone cuts me off in rush hour traffic, “Fuck you and
your piece of shit car, asshole.” Science backs up what I’ve felt to be true
for a long time, now: a little cussing can be good for the soul.
Bethany Hunter is a recovered fundamentalist who adheres to the old adage
that writing is cheaper than therapy. She writes for and about the girl who
needed to know she wasn’t that weird and that even if she was, she’d have good
stories to tell later. Her first essay, “Barbie’s Going to Hell,” was published
by The Furious Gazelle and “Behind
the Pulpit” is upcoming this spring in The Other Journal.
Towards evening we ran about
in our hooded sweatshirts and held our hands over our heads complaining. We had
crushed a dozen or so just-opened buds with the bees still in them. Then it
came time to celebrate because the sun was low and our spirits were struggling
to burst out of our bodies. As the mist of evening descended upon us, we
watched the last glorious red rays color the edges of the clouds. We made fog
trails with our hands. We listened as the older kids walked up and down the
street when all we could see of them were the lit ends of their
At night, we threw nuts at
the nest the squirrels had made in the old tree. Hardly looking at one another,
we fidgeted in front of the T.V., while the sprinkler produced an artificial
thunderstorm in our back yard. I often wondered why they didn’t simply move to
another yard where they’d be safe. For I knew they were aware of me. They felt
my voice, even in whispers. The
methodical pound of my footsteps echoed in their hearts like a drum. Sightless,
I was sure they could yet envision me: processional, head bowed like a hooded
monk, directing my beam of flashlight along the ground. Some darted for cover
instantly when detected, but others — the martyrs — stretched themselves out,
basking, fully glistening in the light.
I would inspect the
cans of dirt for moisture. We would divide into two teams. My brother Chuck and
I, on our hands and knees, would comb every inch of grass in the back yard. We
could hear our younger sister and Tommy in the front yard, laughing,
There were hot
and cold regions, lush greenlands where the nightcrawlers congregated with a
disproportionate thickness, and arid deserts which contained only the odd
sociopathic worm. We worked silently:
many times we pushed down the impulse to cry out when our efforts were rewarded
with a capture. Afterwards, we compared lengths and thicknesses. We tried to
sex them, always settling on females being the fattest because of the likelihood
they were pregnant. We discussed fat or wiggly or both to determine which of
these attributes would produce the best lure.
We did not ask God to deliver a big fish: He punished selfishness with
foul weather and knotted lines inside our reels. So we asked God for lucky
worms, for worms the fish could not resist eating. Then it was up to us to land with our skill
from among the many fish, the biggest.
We took a knife and cut holes into
the plastic lid of our coffee can—we remembered always the time we had not done
so by mistake—and set the can in the basement beside the pumpkin, which had
ripened to a spectacular yellow-orange, awaiting Halloween dissection. From
inside their metal confines, they emitted prayers to my father, imploring him
to stay away, until at three in the morning he overcame their will, crashed up
the stairs and into the bedroom, awakening me from a nightmare, and fending off
my mother en route to the bed. I was on fire again, the Lightning Bolt Man from
General Electric summarily cornering me in the attic where the yellowed Polish
newspaper in my hands lit with a flash as I awoke. The next day they rejoiced
and dug back under between rows of green beans and radishes while my father
slept it off, his socks half dangling from his feet. “No you didn’t!” shouted
Chuck, “Eat this dirt you lousy worm!” as he tripped and pummeled me when he
saw the empty can with its lid beside, full of triangular breathing holes. They
were the culprits, these holes allowed the worms to beseech my father’s
tardiness. I laughed because I knew we’d fish another
time. It never hurt when someone hit you, only afterwards. That afternoon, I
went between the houses where the snapdragons grew, took it out on the bees. I
watched them curiously, buzzing erratically back and forth, finally lighting on
Mark Putzi received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee in 1990. He has published stories in Jazz Street, The Cream City Review and Wilderness House Literary Review and poetry in many small press magazines. Since 2012, he has worked as a retail pharmacist in Milwaukee. In 2015 he married for the first time. His wife, Sharon Nagel has published two mysteries in collaboration with her co-writer Jocelyn Koehler under the pen name Juneau Black. The family pet, Willow, is an internet star and a highly accomplished tortoise shell cat.
In every story
Clarissa began, or even thought of, someone had recently died. There was no
other story for her: someone loved, someone irreplaceable, had died, and how
did one go on? She told herself it wasn’t because of Jared; it was because
everyone dies, and how can one write anything that doesn’t acknowledge that?
For Jared, dying was rich in comic possibilities. He had the worst sense of humor; no joke was too corny for him. “Treat each day as if it were your last, and one day, it will be.” They were jokes he would have told their child, if they’d had one. So he told them to Clarissa, daily, to her anguished moans and protestations: “What’s brown and sticky? A stick.”
Clarissa flew overnight from Boston to Dublin. She faded during the long line going through Customs, twisting through the cavernous, windowless room. She caught a bus to Monaghan, and finally a taxi to the artists’ residency. She was here for two weeks, a trip funded by the university where she taught, to finish a novel. The estate house, in Gothic Revival style, was impressive; the grounds green and rolling down to a tidy lake. Her head swam as the Director showed her around the place, rushing her past the artist studios, making jokes in his Irish accent that left her bewildered. When she made it to her room, she collapsed.
After a time of staring at the posts of the four-poster bed, feeling all the mistakes of her life, including the decision to take this trip to Ireland; her failures in her professional life; her personal unworthiness, and the sense of loss and aching loneliness at the center of it all that she tried not to look at head-on, she fell asleep.
When she woke, it was nearly time for dinner. She opened the drapes and stared at the well-tended gardens in light constantly shifting from clouds moving overhead: early roses, lavender, and lilies. She showered, put on her black dress, and brushed her long brown hair. Maybe there would be single men at dinner, devilishly handsome Irish men or Brits, intrigued by an American woman. She leaned close to the bathroom mirror, drawing a fine dark line around her eyes.
There was just one man at dinner, a white-haired man who sat next to her. He was the husband of the woman across from Clarissa. Painters, they each had a studio in the building that used to be the stables. The man leaned in to Clarissa to hear her speak in a way that reminded her of her father. His wife leaned forward to talk with Clarissa, once reaching across the table to touch her hand. Later Clarissa struck up a conversation with a dark-haired, intense young woman sitting next to her, an essayist from Dublin. The wine helped Clarissa feel loquacious. In this setting, no one knew of her failures, losses and mistakes, or that the novel she was working on was going nowhere. She told the woman, whose name was Siobhan, about her tenure-track position at the state university in the Midwest, and about her two close male colleagues. “They’re both very well-published,” Clarissa said. “And they’re friends.”
“Oh, dear,” Siobhan said, in a way that made Clarissa feel she understood more than Clarissa said; understood something of the paternal tone of the older colleague, and the mild flirtatiousness of the other. Clarissa didn’t want to complain about these men; they were her friends and colleagues, and it was important to keep positive in the workplace. As her mother used to remind her, no one is perfect. “Not even you,” she would say, looking pointedly at her daughter.
There was just one person who thought Clarissa was perfect, and he was gone.
In the morning
Clarissa stared at her fingers, resting on the laptop’s keyboard. Left index on
F, right index on J, waiting to be told to move. The novel waited on the
lighted screen, truncated, partial, and longing. She’d started writing about a
young woman who wanted to be a gymnast, but the story shifted until the young
woman was older, and had lost her lover in a fire. Clarissa thought this turn
might be a bad idea; it seemed obvious to write about a woman who had suffered
a great personal loss, but it was all she wanted to write. It was the
experience she knew best. Her fingers hesitated on the keys. She wanted her character
to grieve, and then fall in love again, and discover she was loved in return. The
thought made her embarrassed. Surely that wasn’t enough to write about; surely
she needed a darker, more complicated vision.
Three fat flies buzzed at the window in front of her, trying helplessly to get to the garden. The window was closed but she saw it could open at the top, with a lever pushed straight out. Standing on the chair, then climbing onto the desk in her bare feet, Clarissa pushed the window open and secured it. Climbing down, she took a piece of paper from the desk, and pushed its edge gently against one of the flies. She finally got the fly to step onto the piece of paper, and remain there while she climbed back on the desk and tapped it out the window. “There you go, dummy,” she said. She climbed down and back up again with the next fly, and the third. Standing on the desk, tapping the paper out of the crack of the open window, she watched the fly zoom away into the overcast sky, then looked down to see a man, standing in front of her on the garden walk.
He turned away with a smile, embarrassed to be caught watching. From his position on the sidewalk it would have been hard not to notice her, standing full-length in front of the window and reaching up. Still, it had been worth the effort to stop hearing their anxious, desperate buzzing. She sat back on her chair, pushed it up to the desk, and looked at her keyboard.
None of her characters died of cancer, which is what her fiancé died from; she chose more dramatic deaths. Fire, or car crashes, or suicides; something sudden, rather than the slow, sad slog that had been the approach of Jared’s death. She hadn’t really known he was going to die, even though she should have known, until all of a sudden it was time to call his parents. She had never found the right time to tell him that, when he got better, she wanted to try for a child. It was what he’d wanted, all those years, a decision they disagreed on that kept them from settling on a date for a wedding. She was in grad school, then starting a stressful new job; where was there time to be a mother? Then, when she felt ready, he was dying, then suddenly their story was over.
She didn’t want to write a character as stupid as Clarissa had been. She wanted her character, Amanda, to be perceptive, intuitive, and courageous. She wanted someone to fall helplessly in love with Amanda, and for Amanda to fall in love also, after she finally determined the man was for real. Like Jared had been for real. It had taken a long time for Clarissa to finally believe that, and to trust.
There were new people
at dinner that evening: a couple of women who were sharing a cottage and
working together on a play, and the man who’d seen Clarissa at the window.
Shaking her hand, he said, “I’m so sorry about earlier. I couldn’t help
watching; I thought you might fall forward through the window, and I would need
to be there to rescue you.” He had gray streaks in his dark curly hair and a
bit of softness around his middle. Clarissa thought he was British, but he said
his accent was originally Australian. “Tempered by years of living in Dublin.”
His name sounded vaguely familiar, Dillon Burnham. He asked her name, and what
she was working on, and saw him search his memory for any trace of her.
“You wouldn’t have heard of me,” Clarissa assured him. He sat next to her at the table. Throughout dinner she was aware of him, of his arm close to hers. She talked with one of the playwrights. Carol and Isabel were from Belfast. Carol talked about the community theater she worked with, the plays she’d written, their progress on this one.
Clarissa knew she should talk of her own work, but she didn’t want to; it felt private to her, wrong to discuss. Instead she asked more questions of Carol, and nodded thoughtfully, pretending to listen.
Clarissa slept deeply,
waking only once when she opened her eyes to darkness, forgetting where she
was, what this room was, what this building was. For a brief moment, she
thought Jared might be lying next to her in the house they used to live in
together, and reached to feel for him. It wasn’t until she was standing in the
dark room, feeling the walls, that it came back to her: she was in Ireland, at
the Artist Residency. That was her desk, that was the door that led to her
In the morning, she was glad she didn’t have to talk to anyone when she helped herself to the food set out on the counter; she was not a morning conversationalist. Jared was more energetic in the morning, but had learned to save conversation, and especially jokes, until later. That was one of the things that it takes time to learn about a person. She didn’t know if she could ever do that again: take the time to adapt to someone, to their snoring, for example, and have them take the time to adapt to her. She thought of the things she did that used to annoy Jared: take too long to leave the house when they were going out, always remembering one more thing she needed, or a last-minute change of shoes. They were getting over these minor irritations, finding ways to reach their affections around the things that irritated them, and Clarissa had just begun imagining what it might be like to have a child with this man, when he became ill.
But for that short time their relationship had been a success for Clarissa, a flash in her life. So brief, it seemed now, the five years they’d been together; a gasp, a kiss, a moment, and it was over, Jared gone as if he’d never been.
Clarissa took the time to look up on her laptop poems by Dillon Burnham. He was quite accomplished, with several well-reviewed books and a major British award. It was strange to be reading the words of someone who was in one of the rooms next to her, just beyond a wall. The language of the poems was vigorous, with exact, unsentimental observation of nature. She particularly liked one that came around to the subject of death, and the loss of the loved one’s eyes. She thought the writer of that poem must understand loss. It helped her move back into the novel; she imagined Amanda remembering her dead lover’s eyes. Clarissa made those eyes gray, the same color Jared’s eyes had been.
At dinner Clarissa sat
between the two playwrights. They were a couple, she presumed, thought she wouldn’t
have guessed that either of them were gay. Carol had curly red hair and Isabel
was tall and thin, graceful, with long blond hair. Isabel took an interest in
Clarissa’s work, asking her what it was like to teach creative writing in the
Clarissa was aware of Dillon Burnham at the other end of the table, glancing their way. After dinner, Carol and Isabel stood and apologized for leaving: “Back to work!” Carol said, dropping her napkin on the table.
“She’s a rough taskmasker, she is,” Isabel said, and followed Carol out the door. Dillon moved to sit next to Clarissa, bringing his bottle of wine with him. He filled Clarissa’s glass. “Cheers,” he said, and raised his glass. “How’s the writing going?”
“Let’s not talk about that,” Clarissa said. “I read some of your poems,” she confessed.
She watched a faint pink spread up the sides of his face. “Oh, no,” he said.
“They are quite beautiful.” She couldn’t remember the name of the poem, but said “My favorite is the one about the eyes.”
He raised his glass again. “Here’s to the writing of Clarissa, of which she doesn’t wish to speak. May her characters suffer a better fate than her namesake.”
He was referring to the heroine of the novel by Samuel Richardson. That Clarissa was abducted and raped, but fought for her virtue to the end. “My parents had not read that book,” she said, “Or they might have thought twice about naming me.”
“It is a beautiful name,” Dillon said.
Outside the glass doors, the evening was soft and gray, bushes shaking in the wind. “Would you walk down by the lake with me?” Dillon asked. They filled their glasses and walked down the gravel path to where the lake shone, one white swan drawing lines across its surface.
“This is simply ridiculous,” Clarissa said. Dillon looked at her. “All this.” She gestured with her wine glass. “The building, the lake, the grounds. Ridiculously beautiful,” she said.
They stood by the water, watching the swan cut the lake in half with a smooth line. Dillon taught literature at Trinity, and played the cuislenna, an instrument he described as a small Irish bagpipe, but he didn’t mention a wife. Clarissa kept thinking of the eyes of the poem, and of a pair of gray eyes she couldn’t forget. She wanted to tell him of her sorrow, and see if he had something similar to share. Jared’s death had occurred just nine months ago. Long enough to grow a baby, if she’d been able to do that. She stood tense, and instead of saying anything about eyes, blurted out, “Did you hear about the black swan that walked into a pub?”
“No . . .” Dillon said, turning to face her.
“The bartender says, ‘Hey, I named this pub after you!’ The swan says, ‘What, Dave?’”
Dillon chuckled politely. Clarissa felt a flush of embarrassment. What had gotten into her? After a quiet moment he said, “The lake is just the color of a Turner watercolor, don’t you think?”
Clarissa bit her lip, searching her memory for Turner’s watercolors. When she confessed that she didn’t have a clear image of Turner’s paintings of lakes, Dillon said he would show her one. He wanted to go fetch his computer now, but she said no. “Tomorrow,” she said. “Eleven o’clock. We’ll meet in the kitchen.”
They said good night in the darkened kitchen. Clarissa impulsively reached over and took his hand. He was so kind, his eyes looking down at her warmly. “Good night,” she said. “It was a pleasure.”
He took her hand to his lips and gave her thumb a quick kiss. “Dear Clarissa,” he said. His low voice rumbled through her. She slipped away to her room without saying anything else. There would be tomorrow to talk.
In her room Clarissa lit a low lamp and looked at herself in the mirror. The evening had gone well, except for that ridiculous joke about the swan. In bed, she lay in the darkness, smelling the faint scent of laundry detergent on the sheets, feeling the sensation of her hand being brought up to his lips. As she was beginning to drift off, she heard a familiar voice say, What do you call a fish with no eyes? And the answer, Fsshh.
In the morning, Clarissa
looked up more of his poems, but she refrained from looking up Turner’s work. A
few minutes before 11:00, Clarissa wandered into the kitchen and sat casually
at the table by the glass doors. The room was empty but for a staff member
wiping up the floor with a mop. Clarissa poured herself another cup of tea,
added a drop of cream, and sat back at the table.
She heard a door open in the hallway, footsteps, and the white-haired man she’d met her first night shuffled into the kitchen. He waved, then went out the door and down the gravel walk. The day was overcast again, though a suffused light came through the clouds. She could see figures down by the lake, people walking, but she couldn’t make them out, then their heads dipped below the rise of the lawn.
At 11:20, Carol pushed open the glass doors and entered the kitchen, her red hair wild around her face. She went over to the coffee machine and pushed the button for espresso. “How’s it going?” she said to Clarissa.
“Well enough. Is your work going well?”
“It has been, yes. Isabel seems to have taken off . . .” Carol glanced down toward the lake. “Taking a walk, I guess. Oh well, I need a break too. My husband is waiting for a phone call.” She sipped the espresso. “Don’t want him to think he’s forgotten, now, do we?” Behind her, the couple walking by the lake came into view again, this time close enough for Clarissa to see that it was Isabel and Dillon, walking slowly, thoughtfully, deep in conversation.
Back in her room,
Clarissa looked up the painter J.M.W. Turner on her laptop. His paintings
seemed to be mostly of the ocean, many of them set in Venice; only one reminded
her of the lake at all. It was called “The Blue Rigi,” and was an image of a
Swiss mountain, Mount Rigi, as seen from Lake Lucerne. The gray and blue colors
were similar to the colors of the water last night. The painting reminded her
She opened a new file. Jared’s eyes were gray, she wrote. They reminded me of a smooth gray stone. When he opened them in the morning, he would make a joke. He would be sick, about to vomit, knowing he was to die soon—and he would make a joke. A terrible joke, but a joke nonetheless. “How does a train eat? It goes chew, chew.”
She would write Jared alive on the page, for herself if for no one else. There was no more of him left in the world, no child with his smile. She would recreate him, breathing, making stupid jokes for her, Clarissa, just to get her to smile. Dillon Burnham wasn’t what was important to her life. She would smile when she created Jared again on the page, smile when she remembered his terrible, terrible jokes. What did the finger say to the thumb? I’m in glove with you. She would write about the way he tried to pretend he didn’t feel too bad, even as he grew pale, and the pain made him pant for breath. He did that for her. She would write about his death, how she told him to close his gray eyes and rest, not knowing he would never open them again. She would spend this entire residency writing Jared alive again, and then letting him die, and when she was ready—when she was good and ready, not a moment before—she would say goodbye.
Patricia O’Donnell is
the author of the newly released novel, The Vigilance of Stars. Her other books include the novel Necessary Places, the memoir Waiting to Begin, and the short story
collection Gods for Sale, which won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Her short work
has appeared in many places, including The New Yorker. She is a professor of Creative Writing in the University of
Maine at Farmington’s BFA Program.
I am as unmated as a stray,
liberated by flight and put to bad use—floating beyond the back of beyond. This
is not unlike the outer space that follows good breathing. It has been a year
without a recognizable kitchen, without the gurgle of the cat fountain, without
the wet sound of the radiator interrupting all good sleep, without the steep
drop from the bedroom window, without crosstalk in bed. Unmoored, I am trapped
without your night voice. The half kitchen with electric griddle is no
travesty, but it reinforces bad habits: hardly standing, drinking too much,
eating from the cold cases at the liquor store. Against all good advice I take
to the streets for air. I go to buy cigarettes. Flags pop in the wind. I sit
against a chair fastened with a bicycle lock to a parking meter. She tells me I
am saying Angela Merkel’s name wrong. She is laughing. She does not want to
talk about politics. The look is one of remorse. We are silent before the sound
of a fistfight moves like a storm across the asphalt. We are in its path.
Bryan Price’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Manhattanville Review, Menacing Hedge, Portland Review (online), and Posit. He lives and teaches in the suburbs of southern California where he writes about time, memory, utopia, and its opposite.
A woman floats on her back in the Sandy River under a rare Oregon sunshine. The layers of gray have given way to blue skies. The sun says to all the people below, “I’m still here!” She stays afloat with an occasional fluttering of her fingertips and, perhaps, some kind of buoyant dreaming. Growing along the opposite bank are thick and wild stream-fed blackberry bushes. The fruit dangles over the river. The underbrush rustles from waxwings and robins and meadowlarks that feed on the berries. The woman rises slowly from the water in her green bathing suit, noticing. As she carries no basket, she just takes a plump fruit and pops it into her mouth. She tastes fully, raising her shoulders with pleasure, and then reaches for another. With the sun warming her face and the water cooling her ankles, there is no craving for whipped cream for the berries, just the sweet taste of instant gratification. She is like a large water bird surrounded by the things that she needs. As she turns back to the water, you can see blackberry stains on her fingers, her lips, and her chin. The water reopens to her and washes her hands and face gently. She resonates joy like a laughing Buddha and goes to lie down on the sand; anyone watching has learned something without even having had a talk with the bather about her philosophy of life. The past is a phantom and the future never comes, or, perhaps—the fruit is ready; are you ready for the fruit?
Kirsty MacKay is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of the South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable. She also enjoys leading poetry strolls through parks, discussing the works of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Alice Walker.
I awoke at about 4 a.m. with salt-water-swollen eyelids. My comforter was ruffled up around my neck; its ridges looked like low-lying mountains. I imagined Death Valley’s ranges as black with blue streaks in their fissures. Maybe I was in a windswept valley, surrounded by clay hills. I was frozen in my bed, only breathing. To stir meant relenting to a new day without Marie. Frozen was safer. I was not yet able to say infidelity or dissolution. For now, there was only kick-in-the-gut mornings and crying on people’s wicker furniture until they edged me out.
I had really wanted to go to Death Valley in the spring of ’05 for “the Bloom of the Century.” The New York Times had promised a “Technicolor Season,” due to massive rains in Southern California. However, sometime after planning the trip but before departing for the desert, Marie told me she was falling for someone else. I screamed at her over the phone to cancel because if we went on this trip, “We would be like divorced people on holiday!”
She said, “I stand to lose around $600.”
“Cancel! I don’t care anymore!”
So the morning I woke up in my illusion of darkened hills embracing me, I was still debating on going it alone. I even researched whether a bus goes from Las Vegas into the national park. I had done things alone before. Five years prior, I moved up from California to Oregon to be with Marie in Portland. I had a sick moment of picturing myself heart-broken in Las Vegas trying to find a bus out of there.
I stared wide-eyed at some realities of my life as the contours and colors of my bedcovers defined themselves in the morning light. I needed my family, my friends, my acquaintances and familiar street corners. I needed my mother to make me a cup of tea and my father to put the tearing grief into exact words and help me to detach.
Marie arranged for her ticket miles to be claimed later. She re-routed my own ticket to my parents’ house, at a penalty. I spared my heart the telescopic mirage of having while not having—traversing a valley of poppies and primrose with a woman steadily disappearing in plain sight. I missed the Hundred Year Bloom and surfed the net instead for wildflowers of the Mojave Desert. I yearn to go to Death Valley National Monument in person and see a Mojavea breviflora in the flesh.
Kirsty MacKay is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of the South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable.
twin sister had died a modest death, not the spectacular one friends and family
feared, or privately expected. An aid worker traveling the world should perish operatically,
from the sudden outbreak of civil war or the contraction of a rare deadly virus.
Yet Ariel died during a work meeting when she leaned too far back in her chair
and fatally struck her head. Abel’s parents phoned him at his own job to
deliver the news, and for several long moments he stared out the window,
waiting for the words to resolve into meaning. In that period of shock his
thoughts drifted in and out of arguments he’d had with Ariel over the years,
and it occurred to him that he finally had proof his job ensuring regulatory compliance
at Deloitte was indeed the better career. Here were comfortable chairs made to
lean back. Here was a floor that could hurt no one, covered as it was with a
plush carpet. He thought, miserably, that for once he could have said what she
did every time they argued about career choices: “I win.”
was a year later when Abel arrived in Cambodia. He’d put off the trip in order
to receive several vaccinations, including one against Japanese Encephalitis,
though it was unlikely he’d contract it, and because he wanted to avoid the
rainy season, and because he had always been afraid to fly, and because, most
of all, he wasn’t sure if he could do it alone. His bravest moment in life had
been accepting an internship in New York City immediately after graduating from
the University of North Dakota. It was his first offer and he wasn’t sure he’d
get another; He had been terrified to walk the block and a half between his
apartment and the office for at least half a year. The internship turned into a
job, and since then, his only trips were back home to Grand Forks. He’d never
visited Ariel at any of her postings, though she visited him at least annually.
plane touched down at 9 p.m. and he hired a motodop, as recommended by his
the man asked. “French?”
Abel said. “Or American.”
Comedian. You speak Comedian.”
wished he was the kind of person who could seize the moment and extend his
half-hearted joke into a playful exchange. Instead he named his guest house and
handed the man a printout of the address written in English and in Khmer. Through
the busy city center the man bobbed and weaved, and Abel held him around the
waist, as he saw was the custom for men and women alike. The driver’s body was relaxed
and safe. He delivered Abel to the right address and Abel clutched his backpack
to his chest as he watched him go.
was hot. The lane was quiet and pockmarked. Vines strained against the tall
cement fences. The heavy air smelled of jasmine and garbage and bore the sound
of a million tiny wings.
it jetlag or something else that woke him at dawn? He wandered out to the porch
and saw for the first time what Ariel must have seen every day, early riser
that she’d been. A watercolor sky. Thickening haze. Trees and tall grasses wet
there at the far end of the porch was Ariel herself, sitting in a wicker chair.
She wore shorts and a sleeveless shirt and was pouring cream into a glass of ice
coffee. It moved through the liquid like it was alive. Another glass sat on a
low table in front of a second chair.
wanted to scream in her face. Pour out his tears. Embrace her and never let go.
But the setting was so calm, her posture so relaxed, that the impulse
evaporated. In its place: a pointless flicker of hope.
pushed a list across the table. “Can you get me this stuff?”
curvaceous Khmer script was indecipherable to Abel.
but – ”
to Orussey and then go to Tuol Tom Poung.”
can you just – ”
want to see something?”
reached into a backpack. When she turned back she was wearing the wooden mask
of a demon. One eye was closed and slashed across the eyelid, the other wide
open and bulging. From bright red lips poked two fangs.
stared at her.
shimmied and wiggled her fingers. “Ooooooo,” she said. Then louder, leaning
“According to folk tales here, if you shake your bare ass at a ghost, it will get scared and go away. Isn’t that great?”
laugh was genuine. “Would that work on you?”
Ariel took off the mask.
stood at the curb to hail a tuk-tuk and another guest house resident came to
stand beside him, a white woman in a white linen dress with a white leather
purse and a big floppy straw hat. Abel fidgeted and hoped she would leave him
“It is so, so hot out, isn’t it?” she said. She retrieved a fan from her purse and thworped it open with a flick of the wrist. She held it before her face and waved it with a fussy little motion.
so nice to see another expat here,” she said. “I’ve been here for a year now,
smile was a closed door. He scanned the traffic.
going to love it,” she said. “It’s so pretty, there’s a ton to do. Oh – there’s
an expat party every second Tuesday at Sunny’s, so that’s coming up and everyone
goes. You should come!”
No tuk-tuks, no motodops, no taxis.
see, what else. We hang out on Street 140. Check out Pontoon Bar. It’s a bar on
a pontoon. Buy some lotus seeds and feed the monkeys as soon as you can. It’s
so fun. And make sure you get a pair of shoes made. All the expats have some.
They make them exactly to your specs.”
Abel did not want to do any of that. He wanted to see what his sister saw in her last days, just a glimpse, maybe understand finally why she kept travelling so far from home. And then he wanted to leave. But suddenly he also wanted something else, some way to dispel the welter of anger he was surprised to feel. He met the woman’s eye after a beat.
keep saying ‘expat,’” he said. “What do you mean, exactly?”
know, someone who moves here.”
woman looked at him blankly.
from El Salvador, then,” he said. “Nigeria.”
woman cocked her head. Abel pressed on. “You mean white, no?” His voice rose. “White
people are so fucking special, so they get the special word.”
never really thought about it.”
never thought about it,” he said. “Cool.”
don’t know what you’re getting so mad at me for. I’m trying to help.”
had never picked a fight with a stranger before, but it wasn’t fair this lady
got to be here instead of Ariel, who had made fun of words like “expat” and
phrases like “friendly fire.” He reached for the worst thing he could think of
and ignored the tightness in his chest. “Well you should try harder.” He willed
his voice not to crack. “Because otherwise what good are you.”
of spices, of vegetables, of freshly butchered meat. A vendor of deep-fried insects
and tiny flattened frogs, tossed in oil and salt and eaten one after another
like potato chips. A stall of hot peppers whose proprietor wore thick rubber
Abel wandered towards the back and found a series of food stalls around a big fire pit that filled the space with smoke. He greeted a vendor and pointed to a plate of food someone else was eating. With quick precision she produced another of the same: a wide eggy crepe filled with bean sprouts and leafy greens. It hung over the plate and he took a bite of one edge, as he would have a plain slice. The woman was looking past Abel at the next in line, so he moved on to a communal table and pretended not to understand when a table of English-speaking men asked where he was from. Two of the men had broken off from the others.
the beer garden, these girls – ‘Beer Girls’ – they come up and give you a
massage, and if you give them more money, they’ll do more,” one in a suit said.
man, that’s awesome,” the other said and raised his hand to receive a
first was distracted by his phone. “Wait – sorry bud,” he said. “I gotta head
back. You go on without me.”
the embassy works you guys so hard.”
was waiting again in the early morning and Abel handed her the sacks of
groceries. He passed her the list, each item ticked off.
she said. “Now we can get started.”
food came together like magic, neat cabbage-leaf parcels of minced pork and
herbs, tied with a length of lemongrass.
on balance, ‘aid worker’ is kind of a misnomer,” she said.
made a face. “What are you talking about?”
worker’ sounds nice, but it’s kind of bullshit.”
you worked for the UN,” Abel said. “That’s no joke.”
kind of is.”
guys went around, giving people money and stuff. That’s good, that gives people
security. When you’re secure, you’re happy!”
hands were busy. The cabbage rolls multiplied by the hundreds. “There’s more to
it than that.”
list. A different market. In the morning he found this one outside the center
of town, near the Japanese Embassy. Rougher. Smaller. The tarps covering the
outermost stalls were frayed around the edges and whipped the air. A storm was
rapidly gathering in a sky that minutes before had been clear. The street
Abel bought a plate of food and sat on a stool to watch the rain fall in sheets. A tiny girl approached and extended her hand. Six years old? Five? She was dressed in rags and held a baby on one hip. Its arms hung limp and its mouth was open.
she said in English. She patted Abel’s arm with a bird’s fluttery staccato. She
shifted the baby to her other hip. Abel dug into his pocket and held out a
dollar bill, worth many times over the local currency. She hesitated before
taking it. “Please,” she said again. Abel thought back to his guide book; he
was meant to turn away now to show he would give no more. The girl stood by his
side for a long moment. A man from behind the counter glanced at Abel and
handed the girl a skewer of meat, the same kind stacked high on Abel’s plate. The
man spoke a few words to the girl and for an instant her too-adult countenance
transformed as she smiled. Another child appeared and the two took turns eating
and holding the baby. Its head lolled back.
enormous pot simmered on the stove. Noodles gleamed in thick brown sauce. A
whole fish was fried and golden, its skin slashed into diamonds. The kitchen
smelled of freshwater and wood smoke, of oil and ginger and sweet grasses and
Khmer Rouge wiped out the country’s whole culinary tradition,” Ariel said. “And
now people are trying to remember the old recipes.” She was issuing statements
like this, one after another. “Did you know there was a big rock scene here
before the KR?” Her face was obscured by steam. “Did you know the country was
once a matriarchy?”
sent Abel out twice more. Two more days of heat and humidity and grit in the
folds of his skin. He went to the killing fields and stared at a tower of
skulls. Afterwards he heeded his intense desire to stand barefoot in the fine
dirt, to physically feel the earth beneath him more intimately than he could
with shoes. He ignored the sidelong looks of other tourists.
you’re hungry,” Ariel said that night. “Dinner’s ready.” There was a long table
that stretched forever, laden with endless plates of food. The Cambodian ones
came first, followed by those of a dozen other nations, everything beautiful
and enticing, valuable in a way Abel could not precisely explain. They sat
facing each other and Ariel stretched her arms wide to indicate the bounty. She
folded her hands in prayer and closed her eyes. “Dear God,” she said, and
frowned. “Actually, what am I saying, it’s just us here.”
they were young, Ariel would always say “this is what heaven must be like”
every time they went to Whitman’s Candy Store in Fargo, and in adulthood, she
transferred the ritual to restaurants. When she visited Abel in New York for
their 30th birthday, she said it of a fancy uptown hotspot Abel
chose in the hopes of pleasing her. But she would have said it of the corner
diner. And now, here, in this dreamstate or purgatory or whatever it was, she
said it again, and for the first time Abel did not think the phrase was
sentimental nonsense. And then the forces at work transported him backwards in
time, and he saw himself in the year since Ariel died, checking off his to-do
lists, saving his money. He saw himself come straight home from work, night
after night after night, double-lock his door, and sob.
the morning Abel had coffee in the guesthouse café and watched fellow travelers
discuss what they would do that day. Shopping figured heavily into their plans.
Massages. High tea at the big fancy hotel. The dollar went so far here. They
lamented the city’s poverty and promised to make donations. They considered
visiting the genocide museum and decided against it. It was, after all, awfully
grim for a vacation.
wandered the streets without aim, around a wat where monks in orange robes played
Candy Crush on their cell phones. He bought noodles from a food cart, tried to
squat low to the ground and eat like the locals, found he could not. The beef
and egg and chilies and fresh greens were straightforward and nourishing.
nightfall Abel walked past a throbbing party and saw it was Sunny’s. Today was
the correct Tuesday and the enormous outdoor garden was packed. The party was
sweaty, loud, and it stank. He walked on and soon found himself along the Tonle
Sap River. Past the Foreign Correspondents Club and its own hectic gathering. Past
motodops. Past taxi girls dressed up and waiting. They walked expertly over the
gravel in their stilettos. Abel crossed a causeway to the dark silence of the
river’s other side. He stood on the shore. Let his eyes adjust. There ahead, the
silhouette of a long canoe. The figure within flung a net wide and it slapped
the water. He pulled it in. Repeated the motion. The sound was clockwork, a
hand measuring time. The boat passed beneath the bridge. Then it was gone.
Whitney Curry Wimbish is
an American writer living in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by MIROnline, and has received honorable
mention in two Glimmer Train competitions. Her journalism/nonfiction has been
published in The Baffler, The Financial
Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review.
For a week I sit by your bedside
while nurses come and go, medicine
to clear the alcohol from your blood,
your bones, rising and falling,
your thin finger, now bony, sheathed
at the tip in a steady red beat
to monitor how well you breathe during sleep.
Mostly, you sleep. Hardly touch
any food I try bringing while your wife,
moved south with all of your things,
feigns concern on the phone, while women
you dated, sexted, who knows what
after she left, text you as I hold your hand
until I block them all for my peace,
my family thinking I am such a good friend
to never leave your side while we fight
on and off about your indiscretions
but never about your drinking.
As you sleep your way to sobriety
I cry into tuna salad in the cafeteria downstairs,
a larger scoop given to me each day
by the man behind the counter who wants to know
if I need a punch card, I’ve been there so long.
I try to pray my Catholic prayers into
your Buddhist heart—
we both carry around a lot of beads—
but the hospital chapel sits closed for repairs,
a leaking roof, the worst storm in years
I drive day and night and day through
just to watch you sleep.
Suzanne Burns writes both poetry and prose. This poem is in her full-length collection, Look At All the Colors Hidden Here.