TABLE OF CONTENTS
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS:
Poets and Criminals
Goddamnit, that Hurts
The Shivering of Leaves
A Moving Lunch
A Moment of Rest
So Now You’re Dead
Where Have You Been, Katerina Zoshchenko
Remembering the Farmers Forced Into Factories
A Marble Shoots Through the Center of Memory
Morning Greeting in New Orleans
Okay You Sumbitch,
The Circumference of Oranges
Carol V. Davis
Canoehead: Fallow (Following Flood)
Lori Anderson Moseman
After Snorkeling at Molokini Crater
Gail Rudd Entrekin
The First Snow
Back to that Silent Evening
Anne Harding Woodworth
Another One Dead
What a Loving Man Thought of Matters
Daniel M. Gallik
Cycles of Song
Faith and Testimony
When I Was Twenty-One
The Maltese Beercan
John M. Edwards
Robert L. Foreman
China’s Prophet of Freedom: The Poet Huang Xiang
The Name on the Door
CREATIVE NONFICTION CONTEST WINNERS
First Place | Gravity, the Pull
Second Place | How I Ruined My Reputation on the Res
Dorothy Blackcrow Mack
Third Place | The Mad Whittler
The World Divided—Nigger
Yuliana M. Kim-Grant
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS
A beekeeper, gone blind, she could smell disease
and the Queen. The woodworker, a bit arthritic,
learned about bees from her, every sting a cure.
When she died, he crafted a box for her ashes
and was asked to execute her will. She’d left money
in books, thousands of dollars between pages he blew
with an air hose, the compressor thumping the floor.
He thought of her often as he handled the bees and
one day, pulling a comb from a hive and trembling,
he thought of an uncle he used to bring to the doctor—
he’d sat next to him as the doctor explained and
the old man shook. The woodworker’s tremor is new,
and is not fear. The bees are calm, but he’s aware
of the smell she taught him: it is not the Queen.
Poets and Criminals
The ear is there with its ranch apparatus
listening while shoeing
and eyes that saved an image of the murderer
till they shot them out
These are beliefs of poets and criminals
and we are a hardened lot
Though the fear of discovery persists
we listen to ingots cooling
and time them with our watches and fret
till the horses forgive us
A Marble Shoots Through the Center of Memory
We spoke, two mirrors facing one another,
“shovel straight to the heart.”
I slept in a bow tie for a week straight
to see if my dreams could become more proper.
I wrote a paper in your bed entitled “Where Light Leads.”
You said it is behind us, spiraling and oscillating.
The last time you used the word oscillating
was to describe a Haitian painting of a wedding dinner.
The floor was checkered cream and crimson.
I wanted to lick the characters into floating existence. Those idle speculations
about the disciplinary system of Santa Claus
or the polytheistic nature of culture
made me tap on a hollow log to see if insects would emerge.
I referred to the bedroom as the room with angles.
Which was wrong of me
I’d like to remove that statement
right now. Call it a volatile vertex, or urgent intimacy. No room
deserves measurement if it contains rays of desire.
Don’t end on desire.
Morning Greeting in New Orleans
My grandmother’s grave is concrete,
a box above the ground at the dawn
because water likes to seep inside, I
never understood that and
I wish she wasn’t up here,
still like a whole thing
I can talk to.
put her away.
Okay You Sumbitch,
git over here where I kin see you.”
He gestured with a shotgun barrel.
I was knee deep in the hay
where I had slept last night.
I waded out to the barn’s door.
Behind him were his wife, four
kids, and a spotted hog. The sun
took my eyes down a peg or two
which I was hoping would pass
for humility, a game I played
of religious facsimiles. He pointed
the gun straight up and pulled
the trigger The ringing caromed
back and forth across my ears
like the marble in a pinball machine.
“Show the kids what a peckerhead
from the city looks like. Dance!”
I just stood there. His wife began
wailing. The kids started jumping
around. “Shoot him, daddy, shoot him!”
The last farm where I slept over
I took a pitchfork through the leg.
I could barely walk, much less
dance. Two farms ago a kitchen
knife cut tendons out of my arm.
I couldn’t even gesture. When I
ran, my arm hung so loose
it flapped against my body.
I had to tie it to my waist
with shoelaces And now I was told
to dance? I sat down on the spot
and drooled The hog came nosing
around me I sliced his throat
open with my fingernails. “Is that
dance enough for you?” I said.
“Yes,” they said, “yes, yes, yes.”.
Daniel M. Gallick
What A Loving Man Thought of Matters
My girl told me I owned
Some Zen-like jests. I
Said to cram it in a kind
Way. She laughed and left
Me for another man, one
Who understood looks but
Was not looking. I
Cried for a millisecond.
Then laughed about my new
Girl. A grocery store
Stocker from New Jersey
Who never ate a thing
Other than the wind. Her
Name Windy. Immediately,
She kissed my whatever. I
Smiled. Then she kissed
It again. This time I did
Not smile. Asked her to
Leave for a coast. She
Promptly left for Michigan .
I asked both girls what
Was the matter. Zen-girl
Said nothing except I don’t
Know. The Heinens’ model
Said, I know who you were,
Not who you are. I lifted
My skirt, peered, then said
I want to be Michigan.
Dirge for a Young Country
— A Lament for the Terrorist Attack on New York ‘s Twin Towers
In a dream
New York ‘s two great pointers are severed
The pain pierces me to the bone
Ships traveling the centuries about to sink
And I seem to face a horrible death by drowning
The twin skyscrapers
Are two masts
Abjectly teetering, hopeless
Are two antennae, newly broken,
That desperately call
To heaven for help
Under the clear sky Upon the Earth
Oh God, Oh God, Why, Why
Are You so completely silent
In the twin towers’ savage destruction
My body within their massive forms
Collapses at the same time
They were “murdered”
And I am strangling
They suffer an attack
And blood flows like water from my gaping wounds
Their bones and sinews of steel bend and break
My whole skeleton.
What the towers have lost of themselves
I am now the less
They are leveled flat
And I am crushed to dust
I tell you loudly
I am the skyscrapers,
Proud pinnacles of earthly construction
New York ‘s landmark is the same as Beijing ‘s
Landmark, Tokyo ‘s, Paris ‘s, London ‘s
The symbol of American civilization
Any American’s misfortune disappearance
Is the misfortune disappearance and death of
All the people of the world
Everyone’s life is equally precious
Equally precious is everyone’s life
On the Earth Beneath the clear sky
Oh God I find
Posted along New York ‘s streets pictures of
More than 5,000 missing people
Every one of them is a missing relative I’m searching for
Every picture that stares at me is
I am the father of a child who
Lost a father,
The husband of a wife
Who lost her husband,
A mother who lost the child of a mother
Twin wings of smoke and flame
It is the smoke of fires burning
Every person on our planet
The two towering lute strings
That resounded across the skies
Have snapped within my body
And so within the bodies of all of you there is only
A living world has crashed down
Into the stillness of the oozing blood
As though the great King of Terror descended from the sky
The centuries-old prophesy of Nostradamus
Has been fulfilled
Remember this day Remember this day
In a memorandum on the history of mankind
Record this date
Remember this day Remember this day
The darkest moment of cosmic time
—— September 11, 2001——
Oh God, Oh God I have faith in you, I call you to appear
Be with me Be with these silent votive candles
All things on Earth that once have died must forge their way
back through the bloody muck
Under the clear sky Upon the Earth
To go on living Forever and forever
SEPTEMBER 20, 2001
In New Jersey sunroom
Translated by Andrew G. Emerson
On my body are two guitar
One is the Yellow River
One is the Yangtse River
They are tightly strung on my back
Thrumming now two vibrant words in my
China! China ! China !
With every strum
Inside my body
A tide surges
The roar of its churning waves
Blasts out the silting stars of
That fill my body
To the brim
Goddamit, that Hurts
Mr. Gaynes sidesteps past me through the doorway. He doesn’t stay in the kitchen long; as soon as I sit down at the table in the adjacent room he’s standing next to me. My heart beats like a fist in my chest.
“How you doin’?” I touch the ribs on my right side, by instinct. Tender, but better every day. He puts his hand on my shoulder. We haven’t looked each other in the eye since I came home from Rutgers two weeks ago and we had the confrontation, but I look him in the eye and he looks back. He wants the best for me, like any father, no argument there.
“Did you sign up?” Mother asks, setting three phone books on the chair at the head of the table.
“Well . . .”
She picks up Mr. Gaynes and sets him in his customary place, chin above the table. Mr. Gaynes is 3-feet-6. He’s still wearing a jumpsuit with “AHI” on the left breast – for American Home Inspection – and a tape measure, razor knife and six-way screwdriver on his belt.
“All kinds of bleeding around the perimeter,” he says, “and that’s the least of it. U-valve issues, and the jalousies . . . anything but waterproof. A sieve, more like it. A mess. A good looking number, but a mess. These postwar houses . . . I don’t see much pride. If the product’s flawed, the customer deserves to know. If they don’t know, they’re going to find out, and they don’t want to find out $300,000 later. That’s where I come in. My integrity,my credibility.”
“That’s why you’re the No. 1 home inspection company in America ,” Mother says, bringing in the roast.
“Imagine purchasing a home and finding out the pipes are screwy. One day you go to take a shower and splat, rust on your head.”
“Yuk,” says Mother.
“Or the roof leaks. Who do you blame?” He adjusts his belt. I get the feeling the sale got blown. He doesn’t like doing that. It makes him fidgety, chatty, regretful. He wants everyone to make money, if possible, but he has to do what’s right for AHI, for him, and for his customers. “You should be able to trust your home. If I tell you the plumbing is good, or the roof’s got 20 years, that should mean something.”
“It does mean something,” Mother points out.
“Father?” Mother asks.
Mother helps him off his seat. He speed-walks to the bathroom.
“Use the step-up!” Mother tells him, then to me: “He forgets sometimes.”
Mr. Gaynes returns to a roast, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, a pitcher of water, and Sis comes down from her room. Sis got a new chin for her 18 th birthday, a strong, jutting chin, like a middle linebacker, but no cleft, she was adamant about that.
“Eleven days,” she says, looking at Mother.
“You’re going to be so beautiful,” Mother says “Even more beautiful than you are now.”
“I’m nervous but excited.”
“You’ll be fine,” Mr. Gaynes says.
“Atlantic City !” Mother says.
Sis is headed to Baltimore for a beauty analysis, then one year at the School of Cosmetic Reconstruction , or SCR, around the corner from the Tropicana. We’re all guessing they burn off that mole over her eye and get into the feet and ankles and turn them inward just so, instead of outward. Sis is pretty like Mother, that classic, virginal, milky look of Raphael, but she walks like Charlie Chaplin and they could suck about 15 pounds of fat off her back. You can really see it in a bathing suit. The chin was a gift from Mother and Mr. Gaynes. The rest gets paid with her settlement money. She was in a pretty bad accident.
“It’s gonna be so strange,” Sis says. “A 6-footer.”
“Or close,” Mother says. “Depending on the risk. It’s easier to make someone shorter as opposed to taller. That’s what the doctor says.”
“They told me 5-10 at the least,” Sis says.
“The boys won’t be able to take their eyes off you,” Mother says. “You’ll be a beautiful bride, even more beautiful than you are now.”
“Your mother was a beautiful bride,” Mr. Gaynes says.
“Or they’ll make me a showgirl,” Sis says. “They place a lot of girls.”
The food makes the rounds; Mr. Gaynes is barely visible behind the mashed potatoes.
“I can’t get over it,” he says, feeling the texture of the table, like a blind man reading braille. It’s a Dalton trestle with a hand-carved alder base with mortise and tenon joinery, he points out. Planked top. Panels on either side, which allow for drop-in leaves, extending the length to 110 inches, big enough to seat 10. A sun valley finish in mahogany stain. Mother bought it with her raise. It has to be one of the finest tables in all of Camden . Our house is one of the finest on the north side, Victorian, good-sized, a couple of rooms that get about as much foot traffic as a collection agency.
“You bought the rest of everything,” Mother tells Mr. Gaynes. He gets jobs because home buyers like an inspector who can fit into scuttle holes, lofts, those kinds of places. Two more bone fusion procedures and he’ll reach his goal of 3-feet-3. He gets the fusions done on his days off but it’s worth it; he gets 30 percent more jobs than when he was 5-7.
Mr. Gaynes arches his back and lets out a sigh. “Back problems,” he says. “Gone, gone.”
He talks about his past, his follies, retiring to Cape May , on and on, circling back to his work at AHI, which we’ve all seen firsthand. The realtors respect him. They fear him. He finds things. A house keeps no secrets from Mr. Gaynes.
“Marcus, answer your Mother’s question. How did it go at AHI?”
“Yeah, tell us,” Sis says.
“Don’t pester,” Mother says.
“He can’t do anything,” Sis says.
Mother corrects her: “The pictures are very nice.”
Mr. Gaynes tells the story of how he went into home inspection because real estate was booming. “That’s capitalism,” he says. “If you pay attention and you’re willing to sacrifice, you can do better than your parents did, see? Dad was a copy editor . . .”
Baltimore Sun!” Sis says, like she’s answering a question on a game show.
“Your Mother’s family lived on the south side. Ate donuts for dinner, because that’s all they could afford.”
“Atrocious,” Mother mutters, pouring a glass of red.
“It’s your turn,” he says to me. “But you have a problem.”
Mr. Gaynes sees the soul as physical, like a heart or spleen, possibly doubling as a kidney or liver. He’s pretty sure it’s in the stomach area, which is all well and good as long as it’s kept in its place, he says. But when it gets too big, when it expands beyond its place . . .
“Mine swelled up in my 17 th and 18 th years and about ruined my future,” he says. “You have to get it early or it takes over your body, like a tumor.”
Everyone knew early on about the problem. You know it when someone’s got a large head or ears that stick out or buck teeth, and a sentimental soul marks you the same way. I sketched winter landscapes, dream sequences, caricatures of teachers. I talked to my family through handmade puppets, some of whom they came to like, like the dim-witted Carl Stegner. I read Chaucer and James and Dennis, which isn’t too terrible except it came at the expense of schoolwork, housework, important stuff, caused me to lag, made me strange to those around me, then I’d lash out or weep or go to my room to draw or puppet.
I’m 23 years old and feel soft and dreamy, like I haven’t shed my baby fat, though all my friends have grown up to be lean and hungry, like cats prowling around the marketplace.
The first time Mr. Gaynes worked my gut was when I came home with a bad report card from Mrs. Peterson’s third grade class. He sensed the tumor eating away at ambition, gave me two sharp karate chops and he was right, I did better on my next report card. After that, he observed from afar until two years later when he caught me puppeting in the garage when I was supposed to be in class and he should have been at work.
There were maybe a dozen whippings like that, and he had allies in family, teachers, pastors and coaches; they all seemed to be conspiring to shape me. They gave me a pretty good working over, but I’ll say this about Mr. Gaynes: He always felt badly afterward, always explained why he did it.
Now that I’m home for the summer, with useless degrees in philosophy and literature, and this AHI deadline coming up, I’ve noticed he’s coming at my solar plexus more often, in a more concentrated way. The last one bruised ribs but didn’t break them.
“Time to make a choice,” Mr. Gaynes says. “You can go government or you can go business. Government is business without risk, business is government without restraint. You can make more in business, but government gives security. Take your pick.”
“Your brother did well in government,” Mother says, pouring her second glass of wine.
My eyes shift to a picture on the mantel, between the potpourri and a pewter cat. My brother is an urban planner in Boston . They reshaped his eyes so he could read maps easier, opened them up so they take up most of his face, like a badger’s. He makes six figures at least.
“Yeah, Jerry made it big in government,” Sis says, working the solar plexus, but more subtly than a fist or karate chop, which brings the puppet, an eloquent, obstinate bird named Condescending Jackass, out from underneath the table.
“He’s not contacted AHI. He’s neither applied nor inquired about applying,” the bird says. “The idea of going under the knife frightens him.”
Mr. Gaynes’ fork clanks against his plate.
“But the deadline,” Mother says.
“Call him a coward . . . all those instruments, lights, doctors. They sweat above the eyes, you know, like they’re concealing something.”
“You’re not a coward,” Mother says.
“The cutting and slashing, my god, he dreamed he was a cake.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Sis says.
“He’s not a cake, not even close. A good case of the heebie jeebies, you could say.”
“Aw.” Mother’s sympathetic.
“The scars. We haven’t even talked about the scars. He’s not a stone, you know, he has a mind, a heart . . .”
Mr. Gaynes fixates on a place on the table, like he’s trying to burn a whole in it with his eyes.
“The whole thing upsets him. He won’t do it, can’t. There are choices in life, yes? One can choose for oneself. He’s not a tree, is he? To be sawed into pieces. We can agree on that, can’t we? That he’s not a tree, but something different? That he’s not a birthday cake?”
“Why does he talk like that?” Sis wants to know, scowling at Condescending Jackass.
“He’s waiting word from the Philadelphia Sketch Club. He’ll be an artist, maybe a welfare case. The former will hold and even thrive, the latter will give way in time. He’s sorry it didn’t turn out the way you planned.”
“Sketching club?” Mother asks.
“Stupid,” Sis says.
“It’s paid for through the first semester by his work at the Whitman House and several well-received puppet events, held in the garage.”
“They’re paying for that?” Sis says.
“Capitalism! I thought you’d be proud!”
“I’m disappointed in this,” says Mr. Gaynes. Mother pours her third glass of wine.
“As for practical affairs, he’ll find work at the Museum of Art, or Rodin, or watching over that diminutive bell.”
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am,” Mr. Gaynes says.
“He’s been studying DeCosta, Desiderio, Bo Bartlett . . .”
“I don’t understand this,” Mr. Gaynes says.
Sis points at either me or the puppet, I can’t tell. “Why does he have to talk like that?” And Condescending Jackass, who is known for a violent temper, bites her hand.
“I’ll have you know that not only will he be famous but you’ll be famous,” he tells her, touting my half-finished masterpiece, which depicts a shirtless boy with a muscular stomach suffering blows to the midsection, only to rise above the mob. The working title: “Goddamnit, that hurts.”
“He’ll be in the louvre and you’ll be mired in Camden , the most dangerous city in the United States , more dangerous than Detroit , for god’s sake. Who puts a prison in the middle of a city?”
A pall settles over the table.
“I’d be an ingrate if I didn’t thank Mother, on behalf of the artist. Your work was his first inspiration. It’s a shame you didn’t stay with it. He loves you more than he can say.”
“I think I can get to 100 words,” she says, placing her hands on the table and air-typing.
Mother used to type 70 words a minute, but she peaked out. She wasn’t going to type any faster with stubby hands, so she agreed to the procedure. Now she types 90 words a minute. She can reach the keys easier. She gets a 5 percent raise for every 10 extra words she types. She’s self conscious about her hands, until she gets two glasses of wine in her, then she’s not self conscious at all. One night she invaded a ballgame down the street, showed the boys how she can palm a basketball using her thumb and middle finger.
“It helps with gardening,” she says. “I can dig deeper.”
“On behalf of the artist . . .” Condescending Jackass raises a glass.
“You should call him selfish jackass,” Sis says.
“Thank you to Mother for his hand and his eye and the human leniency,” he continues, “and no thank you to everyone who is not Mother. That extends to city proper and society at large, which I refer to in the singular, a collective tyranny which seeks to smash to insignificance what exists in the human faculty that does not comply or consent.”
Sis can’t stand it any longer; she flees to her room. Mother pours another glass of wine; she’s a half a glass away from not having to worry about crying. Mr. Gaynes, standing on his chair, holding a phone book overhead, tries to come down on the puppet with all of his force but feet and phone book slip from his grip – the book splays on the table, to an advertisement for shoes – and he starts talking about double glazing, cripples ,balustrades, egress and standards of practice , but he’s a phone book down, I can’t see him anymore, just the hands feeling around for the meat.
“Grandma!” Alli’s squeal broke into her grandma’s thoughts. At the same moment, Grandma was jolted by the sudden absence of television. “When is Mommy coming home? My show is over and I’m hungry.”
While Alli absorbed the delights of Sesame Street , Grandma had just tidied up a bit. Alli’s room was painted strawberry milkshake, and the curtains were strawberry fields. The room was filled with all the six-year-old stuff. It was certainly too much stuff. There were Cabbage Patch dolls, Care Bears and Rainbow Brites as well as a complete menagerie of stuffed animals and Beanie Babies. Mixed in were games from Mouse Trap to Uncle Wiggly, Disney World paraphernalia, and, on the shelf, among the Super-heroes, were a few lovely books: Miss Rumphius, When I was Young in the Mountains, Little House on the Prairie, Goodnight, Moon, and The Child’s Garden of Verses . Grandma giggled to herself picturing Miss Rumphius making the world a better place by scattering those lupine seeds all over the countryside. “I wonder what Alli will do to make the world a better place? Does she ever get filled with wonder at things the way I did as a child? Her world is so full of television and fast food and busy-ness and clutter. Does she have any time to dream and to discover who she is? Well, anyway, her mother is right; there’s no time for nonsense if you’re going to survive in this world.”
“What are you doing with my toy box, Grandma?”
“Look, Alli, under all these dolls and your paints and markers and coloring books, there are a pile of little things mixed in with the dust and the Cheerios. What are these Cheerios doing here anyway, and where did you get all this junk?”
“Oh at McDonalds and Burger King and Oh, look, Grandma, here is the motorcycle guy that was in my Kinderegg last Easter!”
“What is a Kinderegg?”
“It is wrapped in pretty paper and has a chocolate egg inside. And inside of the egg is a yellow and orange thing and inside the yellow and orange thing is a toy.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Nothing. I put them in the toy box.”
“That reminds me of the beautiful egg I got one Easter when I was a little girl. It was made of snow-white sugar with pink, green and yellow icing flowers. There was a round opening at one end, and when you peeked inside, there was a world of little things. Inside the egg was springtime and sunshine and bunnies and chicks and hills of green, sweet grass where everything was so happy and good. I felt like I was a tiny fairy flying into this magical world.”
“What did you do with the egg?”
“It broke. I cried because the tiny world inside was so beautiful and I wanted to get inside and I believed I could get inside in a way. Do you know what I mean, Alli?”
“Grandma, let’s go jump in the leaves!”
“That will be fine. You jump and I’ll help make the pile.” Hand in hand, they entered the vibrantly-colorful, blue-sky day.
“Oh, Alli, aren’t the leaves beautiful! I don’t believe there has ever been an autumn as lovely as this one.”
“Grandma, let’s see who can find the prettiest leaf. Here’s one! Here’s another! Here’s one even prettier! I don’t know which one is the prettiest. They are all pretty. Look how the sun comes through the tree. It looks like the tree is on fire.” Her eyes were bright and radiant as she looked with excitement and trust deep into her grandmother’s eyes. Her face lit up with a heavenly light. “Grandma! Do you feel it? It’s like being inside the sugar egg. Now take my hand and let’s jump together and we’ll be in the magic place. Ready! One! Two! Three! Jump!”
The Shivering of Leaves
There’s a resuscitation form, another for meds, lists of daily activities and nurses, a lot of nurses. I admit Mom to the nursing home on a Friday, return to our small lawn-dead house and, room-by-room, close all the drapes. A few beers in, I find an ice pick wedged in the back of the utensil drawer beneath a pile of receipts. With enough leverage I force the tip through and strike Formica, piercing a hole through my upturned palm. A dull throb drips to my elbow as I lift my hand, amazed.
In the emergency room a doctor parts a pink curtain, revealing a grin filled with thin teeth. “Someone slip at the party?” he says.
As far back as I can remember I’ve never been in his sort of mood. My hand is blood-wet and heavy, and my pinkie twitches from a wad of ace bandage with a burgundy stain in the middle.
“There are guns in the house,” I say.
“Sorry?” The doctor’s grin momentarily wilts. He’s the ugly type; close-up, under florescent lighting, his pockmarked neck looks like magnified cake. He presses various points on the back of my hand, circling the small hole to gauge my response.
“How’s that feel?” he asks.
As usual, I can barely feel a thing. “I can’t feel anything,” I say.
“Luckily, no nerve damage,” he says, tapping my hand.
“Nothing severed,” he goes on. “The pick passed through without nicking a single bone. Looks like time will heal the wound.”
I want to bounce from the table and call him a liar. I want to enlighten him by saying that damage sinks into the skin, it burrows into bone, and it lingers. But I don’t know if he would understand.
Instead, the doctor acts the part he’s been cast and he scribbles me a love letter. He holds the script out of reach, dangling it as though it’s a prize.
“For when you do feel something,” he says.
And as always, there’s not an answer to the Jim question as I wait in the pharmacy, but something resembling a plan abuts a teetering wall in my mind. There’s no easy way to put it: the past few years I’ve been cataloguing ways to torture my ex-step-father (electric shock, red ants, water-boarding, et cetera) and as a result I’ve developed the periodic habit of collecting objects in the kitchen and considering their usefulness in the chance it happens. Lost hours, lost wages—finally I lost my job at the site by attending to Mom twenty-four-seven. With the bone-crushing loneliness that now awaits me at home, it seems the right time.
In the pharmacy, my number scrawls across a digital callboard. Inside the men’s room I carry several pills away, and outside the summer’s heat is strangulating. Each notch above ninety-eight intensifies the smell of the world. My car upholstery reeks of plastic. I merge onto a wide boulevard lined with sagebrush and float home on a chemical wave.
Drapes, blinds, doors, I shut them all, sealing myself in. Dusk bruises the sky and shadows grow long down the hall. I turn on the TV, the stereo and the air-conditioning, and bury myself in bed.
Mom’s bedroom is across from mine. The single bathroom we shared until five weeks ago. Five weeks ago a cherry burst inside her skull. Mom’s knees buckled in the kitchen, the rest of her tipped, and her forehead snapped violently against the counter. I rushed over and witnessed a dark mouth opening above her eyebrows.
Three specialists dressed in hospital pajamas stood huddled like a team in the I.C.U.’s antiseptic corridor. Down the hall, I stared blankly at my last link to family through a small square window. White pillows unfurled like wings behind Mom’s shoulders and stitched across her forehead was the path of a tiny bird.
Eventually, the captain broke from her team to deliver the news.
“Cerebral vascular accident,” she said, flipping a page on her clipboard. My stare must have said something. “In other words,” she said, “we’re looking at a massive stroke.”
At one point in history, Jim was a cop.
“Forced by his department into early retirement,” Mom told me. “But he doesn’t like talk about it.”
Mom met him somehow, through someone, when I was ten years old. He lived in Las Vegas ; we were in Reno , and so weekends they’d rendezvous at a midpoint on the map. “Camping in Tonopah,” she’d call out, dragging a sleeping bag out the door.
Sometime soon after, Jim bore down on us. He sank into the sofa with an ashtray fidgeting on his knee. He was a sad, powerful, broken man, and he acted toward those near him in that sad, powerful, broken way by pinning us under punishing thumbs, smearing dirty fingerprints across glasses, walls, our tongues.
There’s little use recalling the hearts Jim punched out of our chests, it’s enough just to know that after the marriage, separation and restraining order, he moved out and directly into a duplex a half-mile away, which remains his largest taunt of all. In his wake he left shattered heirloom teacups and a silence so loud it hummed.
After their divorce, as if in penance, Jim claimed salvation in Jesus Christ. Christmastime he would place gift-wrapped bibles in our mailbox, the attached cards awash in false miracle. Then one season, as I noiselessly presumed, his presents stopped. Mom struggled to find beauty and love again, and in one small way she succeeded. She began to buy and sleep with guns. And around the house I made myself unimportant, quiet as a plant, mesmerized by Mom’s wild laugh but terrified of her every decision.
These days, I’ve learned to accept that Jim’s relocation wasn’t because he liked us but because Reno is desert, the town possesses the same amber tints as Las Vegas , and all along he knew deserts were a good place for endings.
I work my fingers gently with a rubber racquetball but my hand remains useless. I fail, though I try, to make my fingers kiss.
Under the faucet, the skin around the wound quivers. A yellow mucous scab has begun to ingest the bandage’s gauzy fibers.
I’ve never followed orders well, and I don’t take the painkillers as prescribed. By the end of the first week the orange pill bottle is empty. The itch begins under a fingernail and resurfaces as a vague ache in my palm. I swab the prescription bottle for residue and brush it into my tongue. I need a refill, but No Refills says the bottle.
And, “No refills,” says the nurse behind the emergency room desk.
My ugly doctor passes through the floor. I call him over and hand him the hollow bottle.
“I’m beginning to feel something,” I say, lifting my grotesque hand. “Something is there. I need more of what you gave.”
“It’s a schedule two narcotic,” he says. “I suggest non-habit-forming acetaminophen. I certainly don’t want to encourage unsafe habits.”
Walking through the nursing home it’s impossible not to pass through air pockets that taste of gas station toilets, and in the painted-white cinderblock dining room there’s a dripping sound.
Mom’s hand, like mine, is deformed; hers is a frozen claw. But it’s her face I don’t know what to do with. Her drooping cheek looks like someone has laid a hand there, only to rip it down toward hell.
I flip the feet supports on her chair and maneuver Mom into bed. The head nurse is always telling me I can’t do this, help Mom, transfer Mom, that there are licensing and liability issues….
One slur followed by another, Mom says, “Thanks, Pickle.
This is her nickname for me.
Even though Mom is younger than most of the residents, she isn’t the saddest in the place. Bewildered eyes drift throughout the home and look shoved into faces accidentally. Spiders could crawl across noses without a twitch, and shaky hands reach out to me whenever I pass. Walls are posted with green construction paper street signs and on the backs of wheelchairs the activity lady has affixed laminated, hand-made State of Nevada license plates with every resident’s name, age and room number stenciled into them. Traffic slinks.
One visit, an old woman who I’ve seen speaking to door handles steers her wheelchair into my shin, blocking my exit.
“Right of way,” I say to her.
Her stringbean finger points to a potted fern next to the door. “Is that your father?” the woman asks.
My violent daydreams sharpen with each visit. My fantasies find inspiration from toothless mouths but most of all from Mom’s melted-wax face. Ruin is woven into her every gesture. She never remarried; happiness found a way to lock her out. Something delicate and expressive was stolen from her after those years with Jim, and now she’s resigned to live among the living dead, unable to walk, trouble with swallowing, and pooling in urine. While, of course, Jim—older by a half-decade, overweight, a smoker—walks, breathes and exists.
A half-mile from our home, Jim occupies a red brick duplex mothered by a grouping of oaks, sharing leftovers with a rangy old black and white border collie. I don’t know what consumes his mornings, afternoons or nights, but I disapprove of all of it. It’s incredible, but it’s true: parked in his driveway sits the same model Buick, down to the color, as Mom’s. A short time after her purchase, his magically appeared in his driveway.
Off east I-80, a few hours drive from Reno , an isolated dirt road spills onto a dried lakebed that fans out for miles. I visit in Mom’s car, memorize the way in. It’s a good place to feel empty. Steep cliffs feed the flat lake bottom with rocks that the wind has the power to move. Each carves a separate groove into the earth. From a distance, squatting on a bluff, I’m a lonely bystander to thousands of rocks with thousands of tails on a slow race toward the horizon.
Mom’s bed feels right and I relocate rooms. Nights, I raise her blinds for a clean shot of the eastern sky. It’s an excellent view with limitless access to long stretches of nothing. Steeled against the headboard, lights off, I watch airplanes and satellites blink inside a blanket of black. I count seconds before the next blink happens but many times it never comes.
In Mom’s top bureau drawer, shrouded in underwear, there are two Browning nine millimeters, one .45, a small .22 with a blue finished barrel and a twelve inch Bowie knife, sheathed, with the price tag wrapped around its serrated grip.
I’m brushing my teeth one morning with the drawer cinched open, absorbed by the guns and the visions they bring, when a sharp pain hits. My arm jolts and a dab of toothpaste lands on one of Mom’s bras.
The wound is red and weepy, like a cried-out eye, and it’s hot to the touch. It doesn’t help that I’ve been working in the garage and blackening the doctor’s bandage with oil stains.
“You’re infected,” the doctor tells me. He doesn’t look happy to see me. Pink streaks decorate his tired eyes and he appears to be in a rush. He writes orders for two more scripts—painkillers, antibiotics. And like before, he holds them from me.
“Follow directions this time,” he says.
On the kitchen counter, next to my toolbox, I gather pliers, duct tape, stereo wire, screwdrivers, a long coil of coaxial cable, a soldering iron, three-inch nails and a mallet. I rearrange their order but grow increasingly frustrated. The items refuse to fit into a general plan. The method lives outside me, blurrily present, buried in my blind spot.
Jim likes Good Times.
Good Times smells like plywood and ashtrays. It’s located in a strip mall boxed in by a hair salon and a burrito joint. I’ve gotten drunk there many desperate nights, and both Jim and I know the bartender, Terri. When you order from Terri, she places a bottle on the counter and next to it a tall glass, not a shot glass, and invites your pour.
On more than one occasion, I’ve recognized Jim and Jim has recognized me. During these times we keep glued to our seats for the remainder of our drinks, or I’ll pop up for a round of darts and across the room there will be a flinch, or vice versa. For me the response is out of fear and, I admit, a small measure of fascination. It’s the same for him, too, I suppose. Everything since he last knew me has elongated, fattened with muscle, and grown tired of waiting for memory to fade.
* * *
Vicodin draws out sparkles hidden on the corners of the china cabinet, and I’m drinking when I place the call. It’s late, past midnight , I guess. I’ve been up thinking about a night with fists when the hazel drained from Mom’s eyes and she slashed at Jim’s throat with a shard of bathroom mirror he’d punched into hundreds of pieces.
“Is this Jim?”
“That’s right. This is Jim.”
“You were a son of a bitch,” I say, and I hang up.
I can’t recall, a few years ago perhaps, Mom phoned from the employee lounge at the Shop-N-Save.
“What are you doing there?” I asked.
“He’s here,” she said in a low whisper. “Jim saw me from the other end of the aisle and he started walking. A nice girl let me use the phone in the back.” Her tense breathing came in bursts. I calculated the number of years since their divorce: nineteen. She was still afraid; Jim still prowled.
“Just leave the store,” I said.
“I can’t, Pickle,” she said. “Listen, I want you to open the top drawer of my bureau. I want you to get in your car—”
The line went silent. I cradled the phone and a tremor began in my knee. Hours later, Mom left the employee lounge under the supervision of the manager, who assured Mom he’d escort her to the Buick, make sure her tires found the road just fine.
* * *
Four, five pills a night I begin to idle in front of Jim’s house, listening to the shivering leaves. Not long after Mom’s transfer to the nursing home, I follow him to the dog park. With a slight limp Jim shuffles around his Buick, opens the back door, and his dog tumbles out. The pathway winks at me, crushed glass mixed in the cement, and I trail the worn-out pair as far as the fence line.
Jim sits on a bench, crosses his legs, and wraps a black leash around his hands, binding them. I expect his hands are more like brittle twigs than the solid branches I remember from my childhood throat.
Eventually, Jim looks over, and nods. It feels like betrayal, but I nod back and we share a moment of excruciating intimacy. In those brief few seconds I want to feel overcome, crushed by tenderness, but instead I stand as always: dry, everything inside eroded to pebbles.
For a while we watch his slow dog creep around the brush, sniffing. Jim’s glasses have grown thicker and his midsection rounder, and he moves unrushed, as though wanting to consume as much time as possible. Still, he owns the same pinched face, the same acne pits at his temples, and his thinning white hair looks like a puffed dandelion before a storm. He’s tall, and he walks like a tall man, stooped, stooping to pick up dog shit.
* * *
Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays I visit Mom, usually weekends as well. Mom befriends the activity lady, Janice, and when Mom isn’t busy wheeling after Janice we watch afternoon talk shows, play blackjack, sit.
But there’s boredom in her stare, a look of sterility. On one occasion, I sneak in her .45, laced into my belt, and I lift my T-shirt to show it off. I know immediately I’ve struck the right note because the side of her face that works hardens in surprise and her eye flashes to white.
It’s difficult to imagine how it must feel confined in her chair, seeing how it cuts her body into thirds. For safety reasons I don’t understand, there’s a raised hump near the entrance of her doorway, and wheeling from her room to the hall is a trial of will. One afternoon, I watch as she tries to propel herself over the hump. Her wheels rock back and forth, back and forth, until a breath of guilt enters as I see her wheels stop.
Brushing a hand through my hair, I study Mom through a vivid opiate mist. A frayed purple bathrobe ends at her knees and warm sunlight cuts through the curtains, illuminating her dry scaly legs. Time and air and warmth unwrap her. Dead skin peels back and reveals dots of pink flesh, like a baby’s, just underneath.
I pull Mom’s Buick into a free space at the strip mall. Jim’s dog suffers in the rear of his car, struggling for breaths. I curl a finger through the cracked window and stroke the dog’s coarse nose. His eyes are milky, blinded by age, and for a moment I imagine that the poor thing probably misses gazing at clouds.
Jim sits alone, hunched over a beer, inspecting himself in the mirror behind the bar. A fine line of smoke rises from his cigarette and then writhes as he exhales into its path.
“Two glasses,” I say to Terri. She produces them along with a bottle. I drag over a stool.
“I’m sitting next to you,” I say, and he knows.
Whiskey bites the back of my throat, and before Jim has the chance to touch his glass I tip it over the lip of the bar. Liquor floods his lap. A little surprised, I guess, he looks down at his crotch as I unzip my jacket pocket, tickling Mom’s Browning.
Jim lifts his eyes from the gun and says, “Hold on. Let me finish my drink.”
He walks bow-legged, pinching his wet jeans, and follows me outside. I ask if he’d like the dog along and Jim says, “Sure.”
The dog hops from one Buick and into another and I ask Jim if he wants the wheel, since he knows this make of car so well.
“No, that’s okay,” he says.
It was that time in life, I guess, and I’d developed an obsession for obliterating my brain with drugs in the basement with friends. One particular winter night—we were maybe fourteen—Edgar, Ronnie and I sat cross-legged in the mildewed darkness, examining each other’s pulsating faces, when a sound snapped at us. We watched a pair of snakeskin boots pass by a window high on the wall.
After racing upstairs, we swung open the front door and discovered a memento left by Jim. Propped against the railing was a long-forgotten Sears portrait of our two-year-long family. Cold air bit into my lips and my friend’s faces gave off the soft glow of streetlamp halos. In my state, Edgar’s eyes melted down his cheeks in strings. Edgar lifted the gold-framed portrait and, in his state, howled at the razored-out faces. There were other times, of course—the slashed tires, the clipped phone lines. And once, on a high school raid of Mom’s closet for spare cash, I uncovered shoeboxes filled with clip-outs from Hustler exploding with genitalia and strange threats Jim had been mailing all along.
“A match against a house.”
“Scissors on a vein.” And so on.
We drive east into the desert on I-80. Finally, the wound has shown signs of healing. It’s a tender mass of fluid and skin, and driving with the hand is difficult. With my fingertip, I caress the soft pit in the middle. I’m surprised to find a heartbeat in it.
Jim’s lungs, when he coughs, sound like sticks breaking.
“Whatever happened to that case,” Jim says, “your case I read about in the newspaper?”
After all these years, after decades of silence, and of all things, Jim wants to know about Christie, a girl I once knew, and for Christie I ended up in Sacramento, hot-wired an eighteen-wheeler, and drove it back to town and parked it in front of her apartment. The girl liked candy, it was Valentine’s Day, and I delivered her forty feet of it.
I keep it short. “Probation,” I tell him.
We soon discover there aren’t many more words between us out here, and the long drive eats away the afternoon. We hit dirt road, the toolbox rattles in the trunk, and at one point Jim pops the glove compartment and he sees Mom’s .45 bouncing on the car’s registration and insurance papers. He quickly closes it.
The road dips into the dry lakebed, and I kill the engine. Jim opens the back door and lets his dog roam the hot dead earth. In the trunk, I find an alloy rim and fill it with water from a bottle. Jim gently scoots his dog toward it.
“He’s been a good friend,” Jim says, kicking his boot heel against a large rock. I follow its groove across the hard-crust basin. Its trail disappears at a cliff.
“Dogs are nice for things like that,” I say.
Together we survey the desolate terrain. I know what must be done.
“You know all that, what happened years ago,” Jim says. “I don’t want any more horror.”
“Well, now,” I say. Mom’s Browning slips snugly into my pocket. I also know what I could never do.
“Stand over there,” I say to Jim. When he’s far enough from the car, I brace the door and slam it on my wrecked hand. It’s not what I want: I hit wrist. And I can tell at once it’s not enough for him to understand.
Jim’s neck tenses to wire and his hands go up. “Wait,” he says.
I don’t. With my hand bracing the hinge, I slam the door again and the sting shoots deep into my lungs.
The more intense the pain, the more astonishing everything becomes. Wind cries through my ears. Out of the corner of my watering eye, I see a rock budge—I think it moves. Jim wraps his arms around his chest, crumbles into a ball, and for the first time I realize we are surrounded. On all sides, everywhere we look, mountains grind to dust.
So Now You’re Dead
So now you’re dead. I’ve often wondered how I would feel. I’ve seen those television ads for funeral parlors. There’s one, with a daughter talking about her father, while an old home movie shows a grinning man standing in front of a classic convertible. He was the best father a little girl could have, the daughter says.
I flinch whenever I see it.
I used to imagine you dead, and I would picture the freedom. I would picture how I would suddenly become smart, and lovely, and how I would grow strong.
You’re dead now, but I’m still waiting.
I remember loving you. Even after the whippings. You were my father, and you were large, and your voice rang in a baritone. I would listen to your voice, and it would make my back shiver.
I was a naughty little girl. That’s what you told me. I remember one of the first times that Mom was in the hospital. I knocked over a plant, her favorite. I was throwing a ball in the living room, just up and down, catching it in what I thought were steady hands. And then it bounced off my fingers, went into the plant and knocked it over. There was dirt on the floor, and Mom hated dirt. We both knew it. I began scooping it up, trying to put it back into the pot, and you came into the room. I remember crouching, huddling my body over my knees, and closing my grimy hands into fists. You talked to me in that voice and you removed your special belt. Everything goes dark after that. But I do remember how the sun coming in the window made your eyes and teeth shine, and I remember the way your hair fell forward as you leaned over me.
I can remember loving you.
I remember another time, when Mom was in the hospital again. You gave me a bath. Even though Mom was letting me take baths by myself, because I was eight, and I was old enough. You said you had to make sure I was really clean, or Mom would worry in the hospital. I stood up in the tub, and you took the washcloth. And you washed me. You cleaned me good. You touched me there, there, and there. I felt something, I didn’t know what it was. It was sharp and clear, and it rocked my whole body. I grabbed your shoulders and spread my legs, and you cleaned me until I sank to my knees in the tub.
We looked at each other then. You pressed your hand against me, and you smiled.
Then you took a plastic cup and dumped water over me. The water had grown cold and I began to shiver. You told me to get out, to go straight to bed. I wanted my snack, the snack I had every night at nine o’clock . Three cookies and a glass of milk. But I toweled myself dry, and I went to my room.
When I was in bed that night, I thought about that bath, and I thought about your hand and the washcloth, and how it had felt. I wondered if you would come into my room, if you would make me feel that way again.
I hoped you would.
Then I reached under my pajama bottoms and I felt there, to see if I could make that feeling all by myself. And I discovered that I could.
I was only eight years old, Dad.
It was so much better than the whippings.
Later, you told me that you would never touch me again. You told me that no one would love me, that I would always be all alone, and that no man would ever want to touch me. You told me about how fathers sometimes touch their daughters, to teach them, to show them the right way to be with a husband. It was like getting a daughter ready for her first dance, you said. But then you told me that not even you, my father, could bring yourself to touch me. Not after that one time.
And if you couldn’t touch me, you said, then no one else would either.
I wondered about that one time in the tub. I wondered what I’d done wrong. I was so alone. And I was so scared. At eight, being alone is a frightening thing. It’s frightening now, too.
I tried to get you to love me. You said you liked long hair, so I ran away the day Mom was taking me to get my summer pixie. You liked music, so I tried to sing, even though my voice was never as special as yours. And sometimes, on nights when you laughed and smiled, I would straddle myself on your lap, and try to give you a hug, while I pressed my body into your thighs.
You would shove me off.
Somewhere in there, I stopped loving you. Or I tried to.
I guess I showed you, didn’t I? Losing my virginity at thirteen. You found me reading those dirty books you kept in a paper bag by the kitty litter, in that cabinet where you also hid your magazines. You picked up the whole bag and dumped the books in my lap. Read them, you shouted at me. Then you’ll learn what goes on between men and women. It’s your only chance.
My only chance.
So I read those books, and I took that knowledge, and I went out and found a boy, and fucked him. He was seventeen.
And it hurt.
It wasn’t like what went on in those books. I haven’t found anything yet like what went on in those books. Though I’ve looked. Because you were wrong, Dad. Men do touch me. Whenever I want them to. It’s not that hard.
But you were right about my being alone. I am alone, and I don’t like it much.
Sometimes, at night, when I’m home from work and the news is over, I still reach under my pajamas, and I think, there’s got to be more than this.
And I think about being held. I think about being warm, and about being whispered to, and about fingers pushing my hair away from my forehead.
It doesn’t have to be like in those books, Dad. I don’t want it to be.
So now you’re dead. Mom told me that you’d gone peacefully, sitting in your favorite orange chair, listening to music, with a crossword puzzle on your lap. Your hands were folded, and your pen was capped, and your head had fallen back. When Mom came in, she thought you were looking at the ceiling.
You went without any pain, she said. And I thought, too bad.
At your funeral, I thought about that night in the bathtub, spreading my legs for you, and that slow sink into the cold water. I thought, this is not what a daughter should be remembering about her father. And I thought about that television ad, where the daughter says, He was the best father a little girl could have.
I shouldn’t be thinking that either.
So now you’re dead.
And even though I’m crying, I’m so glad.
Where Have You Been, Katerina Zoshchenko?
York College, CUNY Adult Education Outreach Program, Fall 2005 “Writing the Self” Prof. Julia Addams Dept. of English
This month’s “homework”: do these four writing assignments in order, allowing yourself as much time and space as you think necessary:
A) Write a brief autobiographical sketch, emphasizing how you came to be the person you are today.
B) Write a character sketch, based on an actual person.
C) Describe a scene or site; try to evoke the five senses in your description.
D) Write a brief but complete fictional short story, with a conflict\resolution and a clear narrative voice
I was born Katerina Ana Zoshchenko on March 16, 1922 in the state of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, on a cattle ranch twenty miles from the nearest town. My father had fled to Brazil from the Ukraine for “political reasons”; I never really found out what those were. He had been a young University student at Kiev when he had to leave; he came to Santa Catarina, not to find work or land, but for personal safety. He had cousins in Brazil and so that was where he fled. They found him work on the ranch, but he never liked life in Brazil, said it was “uncivilized,” though that was where he met my mother, also Ukrainian but much longer in Brazil and more fluent in Portuguese. They had three children before me, two girls and a boy; I was the last child born in Brazil. At age four I left the ranch life forever when my father, yearning for a return to city life moved us all to Brooklyn, New York, USA. My mother lived long enough to have two more children, both boys, but she died when I was only ten, from cancer, they say, but I think as much from missing her family and life in Brazil. I know I spoke Portuguese as a little girl, and I remember my father telling me I used to love to go for walks around the ranch and to go to church on Sundays in an old buggy, but I myself cannot remember any part of the land of my birth or a word of my first native language.
I do remember Brooklyn, though. We grew up in East New York, a vibrant part of Brooklyn back then, though now it’s a horrible slum. I remember being poor but always having enough to eat, and clean clothes; I remember how happy we were when we moved into a house with indoor plumbing. I remember enjoying the simple pleasures that we all enjoyed back then: a double feature at the movie house, for fifteen cents, an occasional show in Manhattan, trips to Coney Island or to Jones Beach. I remember my father, anxious to keep us aware of our heritage, driving us to the Ukrainian church in Willimantic, Connecticut to help make what seemed like tons of piroghi for the monthly fund raisers. Life was less complicated then; I mostly was a happy girl. Of course, I was very sad when my mother died, but mostly I enjoyed every part of my youth. Besides, I was out of the house by nineteen, when I married Sal Frangiapane; I’ve been Kitty Frangiapane ever since.
After high school I got work as a secretary at the Rheingold Brewery; my two best freinds, also secretaries (we had all gone to the same “Commercial” high school) were Italian girls, Maria Perazzo and Angie Tramontana, and since we liked to do everything together, I started going to church with them in their parish, Saint Fortunata. That’s where I met Sal, twelve years older than me and already a widower with a young daughter. Sure, he was handsome, sturdy, with straight black hair and a well-groomed black mustache, but what got to me was the gentle way he handled little Teresa, his three year old. There was so much love in his eyes when he begged her not to cry during the Consecration, and gently walked her out of church when she couldn’t be persuaded to quiet down. We wed less than a year after we met.
We had two children of our own, Sal Jr. and Nancy. Sal Jr. is an executive with the phone company and lives in Vermont with his wife and three children; Nancy is divorced but does well as a single parent. Nancy has two girls; the younger one, Sharon, is married two years and just made me a great grandmother last August. I see Nancy maybe once a month; she lives over in New Jersey. Sal Jr. has me over every Christmas in Vermont.
My husband is dead now almost twenty years. We had just bought a condo (when nobody knew what condos were) here in Howard Beach. The neighborhood in Brooklyn had started to go downhill, plus this place seemed like a good investment and the right size for us once the kids were out of the house. But Sal died suddenly and I had to come up with a life on my own. I’d always been active in church and done some volunteer work, but now I needed a real job. I was lucky enough to find work as a receptionist in a dentist’s office only four bus stops from my home; I worked there more or less full time for seventeen years. The last several years I have spent much of my time alone, praying my good health will keep me out of a nursing home. I try to keep busy by going most days to our local Senior Center, where I go for lunch if I like what’s on the menu (I’m on a low-salt diet) and to play cards. I go mostly for companionship, but I don’t really feel that close to anyone I see day to day. When I stop to think about it, I spend my average day just trying to find ways to get through it: talking to acquaintances, playing cards, watching TV, reading a little, and before I know it I’m one day closer to seeing one of my children or grandchildren.
Thinking about life, I sometimes wonder where all the joy of simple pleasures has gone. My arthritis, my high blood pressure, my weakening vision, these things help keep me aware that I’m not young anymore, but, I’m not crazy; I know we have to age. But I wonder, when I look at old photographs, or now when I put words on paper, if I was really awake enough to appreciate all I once had, all of my remembered life, a happy dream, so much nicer than the life I am now living. If I were to write down every fond memory, I would fill more than one book, but if I try to sketch only where I seem to be now in my life, it can all fit too easily in a few short pages.
Salvatore Giovanni Frangiapane was born and raised in Brooklyn, the fourth of nine children of immigrants from Naples. He never finished high school, but he made an excellent living in construction. When we would go for a drive somewhere Sal would point with pride to any number of buildings in New York or New Jersey that he had had a hand in building. Sometimes it seemed to the children that their daddy had raised all the buildings in Kennedy Airport singlehanded.
Sal had a wonderful sense of humor, a constant twinkle in his dark brown eyes. But he was also a religious man- an officer of the Knights of Columbus, later a lector at Sunday mass, and always a prominent part of the planning for the Feast of Saint Fortunata at our church. Sal was good at getting other people to work well together because he wasn’t bossy. Whether as a foreman on a construction site or the person in charge of a Las Vegas night at Saint Fortunata’s, he could joke and tease people into all doing their fair share.
He was always good to our children, only stern if he absolutely had to be. He was good with children in general. Every time he’d see one of his three godchildren he wouldn’t say goodbye without giving them a dollar, which was a fortune to those boys back then. They also loved seeing him because he would tell them funny stories, laugh at their jokes that didn’t make sense, or, as they got older, find out how they were doing in Boy Scouts or Little League; they couldn’t help loving him.
Sal Frangiapane was a good husband. His first wife died of leukemia and left him with a beautiful daughter, Teresa. He married me, a naive girl of nineteen, and was always a gentle and sweetly considerate spouse. Unlike many of our friends, he never forgot a birthday, always took me out for our anniversary. He called me his “little Brazil nut”; he longed for retirement, so that we could spend more time together, do some traveling maybe, for the very first time in our marriage. But one day we were driving to visit one of his cousins back in Brooklyn; we were on the Belt Parkway, a busy and narrow highway near the water; he was pointing out a huge ocean liner, when he suddenly decided to pull over on the shoulder of the road. He said something was wrong. He died right there, in the car, from a coronary, before the ambulance could even get to us.
We didn’t even have time to exchange an “I love you,” but the last thing Sal did, realizing something was wrong and pulling over while he still had control, he did for me, to save me from harm. All these lonely years later, living here in Queens in the place that was to be for us alone, I often miss his deep-toned laugh, the sparkle of his eyes still so in love with our lives together, and, God forgive me, I sometimes wish we had gone together, wish that he hadn’t had that last chance to be so considerate.
Early in September, the feast of Saint Fortunata was celebrated by the mostly Italian-American congregation of Saint Fortunata’s Roman Catholic church. Virtually all the parishoners had some role to play in the ceremonies in honor of their patron saint.
At the end of the 11:30 Mass, which was filled to overflowing, the various men honored with the assignment of carrying the gigantic statue of Saint Fortunata out of church, began to assemble in front of the statue. (She was more than twice as tall as any of the men, on a marble pedestal as wide as a kitchen table, a young dark-haired virgin, dressed in blue and light grey, which many outsiders mistook for a statue of our Blessed Mother.) Fifty men in alternating shifts of ten were needed to carry the huge statue; they would hoist her onto a platform, and carry the saint above their shoulders by means of long iron rails. As the men paraded through the streets with Saint Fortunata, from Linden Boulevard to Montauk Avenue and then back towards the church by way of Liberty Avenue, all the various church-related groups would follow with their banners: the Holy Name Society, the Rosary Society, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic War Veterans. As the statue made its way past the people who watched from either sidewalk, some would come up to the men with paper money, which the men would take and pin to the long blue ribbons placed on the statue for that purpose.
When Saint Fortunata finally found herself once again before the doors of her church, the time for the final ceremony was at hand. Two young boys, dressed as angels, were elevated high in the air by means of ropes and pulleys, one from each sidewalk, to a meeting point above the parishioners in the middle of the street. The two would cry out: “Silenzio! Silenzio!” When all fell silent, the two would recite a prayer, also in Italian, in honor of Saint Fortunata. After this prayer the more secular festivities could begin. A large bag, also suspended in the air, was torn open and a flock of pigeons took off still higher into the heavens. Hordes of people, all dressed in their Sunday best, let out a cheer, hugged, shook hands and went on with the feast. To one side a greased pole competition took place, with a variety of men and boys entertaining the crowd with their attempts to make it to the top of the slippery pole to capture the many salamis, pepperonis and other delicacies awaiting the winner. Street vendors sold pungent Italian sausages, both “sweet” and “hot” in bakery-fresh Italian bread; fried dough “zeppole” with confectionary sugar crisped the air with their flavor. Local restaurants, especially along Liberty Avenue, sold pasta and pastries and beverages to suit any taste.
Each year any member of the parish would consider it an important honor to play any part in the feast day. Mothers would pray that their sons might become angels for a day; today men still brag about helping to carry their saint through the streets. But these mothers and fathers cannot pass these once living traditions on to their children. There are no Italians left in the parish of Saint Fortunata; they have all since moved on to other neighborhoods, both above and below the ground. The feast no longer fills the early September air with prayers and the laughter of young and old. The chipped and faded statue of a young girl is now grown old, and sits in a church where no one really knows or honors her or even speaks her language. But Fortunata waits with a saint’s patience, for luckier days, for a time when she can once again be out in the late summer air and celebrate her day in the safe and happy streets.
I am in a bed that is not my own. I see to my left another bed and in it a woman I do not recognize, pale and forgotten. I try to call to her but no words come out. I begin to get my bearings and notice a buzzer on the side of the bed. I ring it over and over and just when I am about to give up a haggard and impatient woman appears:
“What is it now Mrs. Frangiapane?” she asks without compassion.
“I’m sorry, nurse,” I say, “but where am I? I don’t know where I am.”
“Where are you? Where are you? When are you going to give it a rest?” she demands. “You’re in the Sunshine Senior Home, where you’ve been since your children stuck you here three years ago, that’s where you are!”
I start to scream, “No, no! It can’t be!” and that’s when I awake, drenched with sweat, to find myself disoriented, heart beating rapidly, in my bed, at home, alone.
I’ve been having this dream for over three years now. During the day I assure myself I’m being silly. My children love me and I am in pretty good health for a woman over eighty. But what if something were to happen? I keep frightening myself with that thought. Children these days, even good ones like mine, can’t be expected to nurse their parents full time. If I can’t take care of myself, they will have no choice but to put me somewhere, and then I’ll almost never see them. And then I’ll wish I were dead or that I were just still dreaming.
I was born on a cattle ranch in Brazil in 1922. We moved to New York when I was four; I do not remember a word of Portuguese. Today I had the strangest dream. I was standing in the doorway of a ranch house, shouting to someone outside, in words that sounded something like this:
“Onday voshe sta? Vemprar denthrow orah.”
There I was shouting words in a language I did not understand, if it even was a language, to no one I could see.
Last night I saw my husband, dead now these twenty years. I asked him if he missed me as much as I missed him, and if he were waiting for me anxiously in heaven. He told me he had come to warn me not to expect to be reunited. I was his second wife; his first had died young. In heaven they had been reunited, as was proper. If there was a place for me, it could not be with him. “What about the children we had together?” I pleaded. “What about our lives together?” I implored. He could only smile sadly; he said nothing more.
When I awakened I realized quickly that it had been a dream, but wondered well into the afternoon whether the message itself might be real.
I am sitting in my recliner at home; it’s my favorite chair because I can sit down without fear of not being able to get back up. But suddenly I find myself again at the ranch. This time the words I guessed might be Portuguese come from inside, but I am now outside, a little girl again, hearing my mother call:
“Onde voce esta, Katerina?
Vem p’ra dentro, ora.”
And suddenly I understand the meaning of the words:
“Where are you, Katerina? Come inside now.”
Just as suddenly I understand the significance of those words, words called out to me by my mother almost eighty years ago, locked in a language suddenly re-opened to me. I understand that soon it will be time to come inside, to come back home. Her words, her waiting, comfort me so much that when I awake from the phone ringing I am not overly disturbed to discover that it is my son, making his weekly call to me (which I know now must be one of his last) to the Sunshine Senior Nursing Home, where I have lived, dreamed and awakened for the past three years.
My first three-cheek kiss came at work. On the day I arrived in Switzerland, a manager I’d met in the U.S. walked across the Swiss branch office and gave me three pecks – left cheek, right cheek, and left cheek again, back where he’d started. They were deft and air-brushed, neither lusty nor lingering. I angled my face in the proper direction each time, but thought the ritual was over by the second. I started to pull away, until my boss smiled at my mistake.
“Three times,” he said.
“Two is for Holland ,” I said, remembering a Dutch friend’s greeting. I leaned against a desk and tried to look nonchalant.
“And Germany and France ,” he said. “Three times here.” He took me on an office tour, the three-cheek kiss planted and forgotten. It was a formal greeting in black and white, a gift to the traveler on her first day at work. I followed my boss and nodded while he explained the sleek office phone, but thought about the three-cheek kiss instead. The habits of this place, my home for a year, would come to me. I’d do better next time.
I glance from Aaron to my apartment. The more we packed, the more bare its walls and sides became. Two hours ago, I’d been confounded by brown boxes, a bulging bookshelf, and too many shoes. Despite vows to live simply, my books and boots had multiplied like rabbits over the past year working in Switzerland . Looking back at Aaron, I notice that he’s arranged my books into a pretend castle, creating walls of German guidebooks and poetry. I purse my lips and ask where my efficient, productive boyfriend has gone.
The listing book tower means I’m now the organized one; the bottle of wine I’d opened out of guilt was to blame. Stifling a sigh, I gather the castle of books and scoot them into a waiting box. I can’t be irritated. After almost breaking up a few weeks ago, getting annoyed seems out of place. Besides, he’s helping me pack.
Aaron stares for a moment at the place where his castle had been. He turns to me, blue eyes considering the hardwood floor of this fourth-floor studio, and shares an apologetic smile. “Is there anything to eat?”
I cut bread and thick cheese slices, knowing we’re better off with food. It calms my irritation and slows his wine buzz. We munch and survey boxes full of my past year here. I have to give him credit; there isn’t much left to be done.
“Not bad, hmmm?” He raises his arm like Vanna White in a beaded gown to showcase the packed boxes.
“Really good,” I say. “Thanks for your help.”
“Sure, what are Freunds for?” Aaron says, using the German word for boyfriend.
I hang onto it for a moment, liking its sound and not knowing if our romantic relationship will survive outside Europe . In the aftermath of work and wine, lingering here, just the two of us, is tempting. I look at my watch. We have a housewarming party to go to.
“We can meet Maya there,” I say, reasoning to myself more than Aaron. Maya, a friend and co-worker, had talked about the party last week. I know she wants to not only see Christian’s new place, but to meet his new roommate.
“Sure,” Aaron says. He sets his wine glass on the table and slouches in his chair. He doesn’t care what we do, although at this moment, I wish he did. Dark brows lounge over his eyes, while his lips make a confident arc. I can almost understand why Maya’s aunt compares him to Tom Cruise at every get together.
We sit at the table and don’t make any move to get up. Relaxation has its perks, even in a boxed-up apartment without its usual Monet posters, rows of boots, and guidebooks that open up to other countries. I look outside at the familiar gray clouds.
While I’m moving out in a few weeks, my Swiss co-worker Christian is moving into a new place. While I’m flying back to America in time for Jill and David’s wedding, Aaron isn’t – he’s continuing his ex-patriot journey and staying another year, maybe two. I sit a moment and think about my decision to take one of the marketing jobs at company headquarters, wondering if I’ve forfeited friends and romance for opportunity.
“Let’s go,” I say, grabbing our coats before doubt squeezes harder. With my year in Switzerland finished, my bosses had asked me to come back. Besides, in the wake of a near break-up, it didn’t make sense to stay here with unrealistic hopes in mind. We walk downstairs to the company car I’d borrowed for the weekend. Down the hill toward the main road, the neighborhood store has a window full of boxes to match my own. The elderly couple who ran the store, having retired, are closing it. I sigh as we pass by the dark windows once filled with rounds of cheese and fresh bread.
The drive to Christian’s new place isn’t far. Aaron makes jokes to keep me from worrying in general, about the store, leaving for America , or the wet roads. “It wouldn’t be Switzerland without rain,” he says. “You’ll miss it more than me.” He winks as the tires whoosh through a puddle. I smile at him, one Seattle native to another.
We park next to Maya’s Fiat wagon and wander around the large white apartment complex, dodging indecisive spring raindrops. Dark-haired Maya and her blonde sister Gabi wave at us from under an awning. “This place is huge,” Maya says, reading the nameplate by each doorway as she walks to meet us.
I look around at the tri-level building, which reminds me of American apartment complexes. Maybe this is the kind of place I’m going back to, a modern high-rise with an elevator instead of stairs. I force a smile. No more sneaking around past the Swiss laundry room curfew, I promise myself, or having the same laundry day and time each week.
I spot our co-worker, Christian. He leans his tall frame outside, looking at us from a few doors down. “Come on in. You’re the first ones here.”
I glance at Aaron to see if he’s caught the irony of this. In the end, we’d figured out Swiss punctuality and timing, even for parties. No longer black and white, this place has turned a comfortable gray. Inside the doorway, Christian gives me a peck for each check, left and right. I position my face to the left again, ready for the third.
* * *
“The three-cheek kiss is trendy,” Maya said. Inside a dark bar with colored lights, techno music thumped between our words. After a few months in Switzerland , hanging out with Maya and her boyfriend Romeo was an easy ritual. Still, we didn’t use the three-cheek kiss on each other.
“It’s impractical,” Romeo said. “It takes too long to leave someplace if you have to kiss everyone.” He stretched his legs so the tips of his vintage cowboy boots peeked from beneath the table.
I grinned, remembering a crowded tram in Zurich with a group trying to say goodbye to one another. They struggled to keep up with who had been kissed, tangling up their hair and mixing backpacks. It took a few minutes before everyone finished their pecking and crowded out the door.
“There’s more handshaking here too,” I said, thinking of two young women who clasped thin white hands at my bus stop. I tried to imagine shaking hands with Maya after a day at the office.
Romeo shook his head. “It’s kind of strange to see two teenagers shake hands. I don’t know if that’s right either.” He frowned into his beer.
I lounged on black cushions in the window seat. With greetings in such a wide range of formal to intimate, I didn’t know which to pick. I’d probably made mistakes already. I turned toward Maya. “How do you know when to shake hands or kiss?”
She sipped from her wine and set down the glass in front of her. “You figure it out.” The waiter came by, and she motioned for three sparkling waters. “After a while, you don’t need either.”
Inside Christian’s new apartment, Aaron shakes hands with the host. “I’m getting something to drink,” he says, following Christian’s urging. I watch Aaron slip into the kitchen toward the bottle-lined counter. After pouring a glass of red wine, he sits down on one of the couches, turns to the woman next to him, and starts speaking German.
Maya, having already received her three-cheek kiss from Christian, stands by the coat closet. Gabi and I wait next to her. Maya smiles up at our host. She looks even more petite next to his lanky height. “We’d like a tour, please,” she says.
Christian laughs. “We’re still unpacking, but okay.” We follow him down the hallway.
The doorbell interrupts. Like an alarm clock, it signals the start of the party, with most guests arriving on cue to its buzz. “Just show yourselves around,” Christian says, sounding relieved to abandon the tour of his unfinished quarters.
Gabi, Maya, and I look around a bedroom lined with rollerblades and men’s shoes that must be Christian’s. We slip into the adjacent bedroom, which like my studio is filled with nondescript boxes. It’s hard to tell what sort of person lives there. I look at Maya. “Have you met his new roommate?”
She shakes her head. “No, but I saw her in the kitchen.” She looks around at the boxes again, then back to me and Gabi. “I think they’re just friends.”
Gabi and I scan the belongings for clues to see how Maya knows. Maybe she’d seen them together earlier and caught some nuance I’d missed. I wonder how Aaron and I appear to people who just meet us – friends, or something more.
Maya, Gabi, and I walk back to the living room and sit together on one of the white couches. Maya looks over at the loveseat across from us and nudges me. Aaron sits in fixed conversation with a red-haired woman. I stare at her hair a moment. Its color is a trendy red that falls close to cabernet.
Despite her hair, the woman has a quick smile and eyes that glitter. They stay locked on Aaron’s, even when I glance at her. Although I didn’t understand at first, I now see the reason for Maya’s nudge. I stand up and crouch near Aaron, touching his arm. “Doing okay?” I ask, giving the magenta-haired woman another look. She doesn’t return it.
“Yeah. How about you?”
“Good.” Our relationship defined, Aaron and I don’t need to sit together all the time or exchange three-cheek kisses. Like Maya and Romeo, we’ve moved beyond the ritual, saving three-cheek kisses for ceremony.
The magenta-haired woman stands up and starts talking to another guest. I sink back into the white couch, holding my drink close so I don’t spill it. Aaron unfolds himself from the loveseat to get some water, and I whisper to Maya. “He’s fine.”
Maya raises an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything. She and Gabi rise as one from the couch and follow Aaron into the kitchen. I sit down next to Karin, another co-worker, who gives me a three-cheek kiss and introduces me to her new boyfriend.
* * *
On a Zurich tram, I watched two men in tailored black exchange a three-cheek kiss. They returned one another’s pecks with unhurried confidence. From the back of the tram, I clutched the metal pole ahead of me and tried not to stare. Their version of the three-cheek kiss was more romantic than most I’d seen.
I shuffled through my German workbook, but those kisses kept taunting me. Maybe the three-cheek kiss had a hint of sensuality that I’d missed. It wasn’t black and white this time or even familiar gray, but something more dizzying.
I saved the question for happy hour. Amidst the cushions of our favorite bar, Gossip, I ordered white wine for me and Maya while Romeo worked on his beer. I raised my voice above the music and rushed the words, nervous they’d blare out in a pocket of silence. “Is the three-cheek kiss romantic?” I yelled.
“It can happen,” Maya said. She played with her napkin as the music bounced between us. Romeo, who sat across the table, took a swig from his beer and stared at a menu of appetizers.
Maya turned to me. “Romeo once had a woman take advantage of the kiss.”
He squirmed on the cushions, but I nodded so she’d keep going. Maya and Romeo’s relationship was solid, built on friendship and eventual romance. I couldn’t imagine a three-cheek kiss rattling them.
Maya centered her glass on a napkin with a muffled thud. She looked from Romeo’s face behind the menu to my locked gaze. “The third time, she planted a kiss square on his lips.”
“I didn’t know she was going to do that,” Romeo said, letting the menu fall back onto the table. He rolled his eyes to dismiss both the woman and her kiss. For him, at least, there hadn’t been any expectation behind it.
Maya sighed. “Sometimes women are horrible.” She picked up the menu and flipped it over before meeting my eyes across the table. “That woman had more than goodbye on her mind.”
“Where’s Aaron?” Maya prods my side again. Even discrete Gabi searches for him with careful scans of the room. I get up from the couch to escape more poking and grab a few crackers along the way. Maybe Maya is right, and I should’ve checked on Aaron sooner. While I know people here, he doesn’t.
But it’s okay to mingle at parties, I tell myself. It doesn’t help to be jealous. What’s with the magenta hair anyway? It’s supposed to be red, but ends up looking like the red wine we’d sipped at my apartment. Thankful, for once, of my dishwater blonde strands, I bite into a cracker.
In a corner of the room, Aaron and the woman share the same loveseat as before. Thin cheese rinds line the table edge, along with empty wine glasses. I start walking toward the table, but slow down to make sure I’m not imagining the magenta-haired woman oozing across the cushions, or her pale arm curling around his end of the loveseat. Aaron stares into space, neither enraptured nor disinterested. My thoughts crumble as I approach.
“How about next weekend?” the woman asks. Her words trail as she notices me. Aaron mumbles something I can’t hear.
“Hello,” I say.
The magenta-haired woman stands up. “I should go.” The height we share forces our eyes to meet. She wears a white shirt that makes her hair glow brighter. Her lips, shiny and purple-red, crease into a thin smile. “Good to see you.”
She leans in close. I freeze like a spooked horse, ready to squeal and run. We had never met. We didn’t even qualify for handshaking. Before I can bolt, the magenta-haired woman gives me one air-cheek peck and a quick second. I flinch and draw back, but she persists with her final, purple peck.
The magenta-haired woman switches from Swiss German to English as if to placate me, purring from fresh lipstick. “In Switzerland , we kiss three times.”
She turns to Aaron, who stands in shock between us. Bending toward his pale cheek, the woman languishes three kisses – left, right, left – each peck more promise than goodbye. “ He knows how it’s done,” she says, winking and scooping up her purse. Her hair and lips drift toward the front door, washing us in a final blush.
We say nothing. I want to sit, but shift from one boot to another instead. I ball up a napkin and turn to Aaron. “What was that?”
He puts a hand to his forehead and smoothes back his hair. His words slur a little. “I don’t know. She just talked about how snowboarding was her life, and that maybe we should go sometime. It was weird.”
I frown out the window. The woman thought Aaron and I were friends. Even to a stranger’s hopeful eyes, our relationship appears uncertain. I try to laugh off the memory of the woman’s hair, but its brightness still blinds. All I can see are cabernet lips and hair reaching over to brush my cheeks in moves designed to insult, smooth over, maybe both. Her ownership of the kiss reminds me Switzerland won’t be my home much longer.
While Aaron looks for our coats, I replay her kiss in my mind and give it a new ending. When the magenta-haired woman bends her head to kiss me, this time I stand back with my hand held straight between us. “In America we do this three times,” I say, and then spin around in perfect balance. The woman watches with lips agape as I aim three kick box thrusts her way, not touching but coming close. I grasp Aaron’s arm, and we exit the party in a flourish.
But there aren’t many people left to flourish in front of, not that we felt like it. Early as we’d arrived, Aaron and I had also stayed late. Maya and Gabi had already left. Aaron hands me my coat, and I thank our host. I don’t remember giving Christian a three-cheek kiss good-bye.
We drive back to Aaron’s apartment in Zurich so we don’t have to trip over boxes at my place. Maya and Romeo call, inviting us to the movies. We don’t join them. I want to spend these last days with friends, but the recent kiss plays in my mind instead, blocking out any distractions that a larger screen might offer.
Aaron sits in a chair with a magazine, turning the pages with smooth calm. He’s moved beyond the kiss, and knows I haven’t. His eyebrows furrow together over the pages. “I’m going to bed,” he says.
I sit on the couch in the living room, sifting through his roommate’s books. I think about joining Aaron but don’t follow. He’ll fall asleep too quickly, and I’ll lie there even more awake, twisting the sheets into sweaty knots.
I envy more than Aaron’s easy sleep. He’ll awaken to translate another Swiss day, gray with rain or purple with snowboarding. For him, the one who’s staying, there’ll be more fondue and friends to meet, maybe the promise of new romance. Turning book pages, I stare at German words and read in quiet. Their familiar form and cadence are easier to grasp than illusive sleep. I stay up late, lost in colored kisses until it’s time to go home.
When I Was Twenty-One
Once I met a girl on a train who wanted to have sex all the time. It was the thing she was most interested in doing. She was the caretaker of the 1770 House Inn which was closing for the fall, and since the owners were upstate, she had the place pretty much to herself that September; and the town basically closed up too. I could do it whenever she wanted for as long as she wanted. We stayed drunk most of the time. I had graduated from college and did not know what to do and since the pub in the basement was ours getting drunk and chain smoking Old Golds and having sex with this thirty year old woman seemed to make perfect sense. I got a job painting mansions on the ocean. It was a good job because you could be drunk and smoke and not worry about anything. The boys and me played a lot of ping pong in one summer mansion in Amagansett. It was good to work and screw and smoke and not give a damn about anything. The radio only picked up an easy listening station which was okay with me, especially when they played Jackie Gleason. There was no T.V. We were nobodies in the town. I had an old Peugeot bicycle. She had a 1963 Saab station wagon from her ex-boyfriend who was 42 and some sort of music business executive that did a record with Stevie Wonder and she had her name in the album. I guess we lived like that until some time after Thanksgiving; and the minute I started to get attached to her (which was really dumb and she was smart enough to know this) we were through. Besides, she was not interested in college boys. And to tell you the truth, after a while she stayed in her ratty white bathrobe, strummed her guitar all day, smoked cigarettes, ate nothing but A & P apple pies from the box, and quit taking showers. (We saved the Old Gold coupons and had a pretty good pile of them by the time we split up.) The Inn had no central heating. She went to New Jersey to see her mother. She said she’d be back but we both knew she wouldn’t. I kept fires going in the fireplace, slept on top of the blankets so I never had to make the bed. I slept in my clothes. Electricity and water were shut. No one knew I was there. I went to the frozen beach and drank at night and stared at the stars and waited.
Cycles of Song
“Sometimes you just need a point of reference to gain clarity,” Professor Banker offered. I stared blankly, wondering how pessimism could be taught through such a wide, honest smile. “Camus teaches us to make the most of a ludicrous existence.”
As I slice bananas into my oatmeal, listening to the melody Bird sings, I become moved by the beauty of her gentle tone; so much so that I want to join in. Unfortunately I never learned how to whistle properly, so my lips purse into a circle and I blow out warm air. Attempting the high-pitched feat, I am only met by a steady stream of disappointment, accompanied by the hollow sound of failure.
Bird (whose name came from an otherwise creative boyfriend) lives within the pale blue lines of her cage. Her home is adorned with beads and tassels that she pecks at with apparent joy. This decadence may seem like a good idea; something for her to do. After all, Chris and I could not fathom parenting an unfulfilled Parakeet. What we didn’t realize, however, was that we may have been introducing a far greater challenge to her life by decorating her cage so flamboyantly.
Every three weeks or so, a cycle begins. She cuddles up to her beads (most often the purple ones with the hexagon shape) and ducks her head down under them so that they weigh heavy on her delicate back. From here she lifts her blue butt high into the air and bobs up and down in a rhythmic motion that, if I catch, I yell at her for. She stares past me through a small black disc-shaped eye, probably wondering why all the fuss. Then, she resumes her joy.
A week or so after each encounter with the beads, three to five pink eggs will appear at the bottom of her cage. At this point Bird becomes less friendly and rarely sings in her sweet song. She begins fanning her tired body above her eggs and gyrating for hours on end to keep them warm. Until, eventually, she comes to the realization that her shiny lover is no replacement for the real thing. Beads know nothing of how to father, and as Bird realizes this, she takes on a defensive, un-singing persona that threatens to peck your eyes out if only you change her water dish in the wrong manner. Her demeanor stays this way until; ultimately, she takes her anger out on the very source of her discontent. Her pointed beak goes to work on the paling pink eggs and her fury is released as they break open to sheer nothingness; a symbol of her inadequacy. Then, a week or so passes before I catch her with that butt hiked up once more.
Professor Banker’s voice rings in my ears as I watch Bird now. She told us that Albert Camus believed all of life to be absurd. People live to push a perpetual rock up a perpetual hill until they die. I remember sitting in class, my ears filled with the heavy air of un-acceptance. I went to that class with more apprehension than anything else during such lectures. I would shift in my seat as my professor spoke, curling my lip and biting it, looking upwards toward the pocked white ceiling, then outward toward the window. The lecture was defeating and meant that most people’s lives were purposeless. Camus taught that freedom lies within our mind. Herein lies our ability to add purpose to our lives, I understood, but was that enough? Not for me.
As Bird’s cycle varies from determination to pain, she ultimately ends up in a state of destruction and forgiveness. Her cycle always seemed disheartening, but nothing compared to the pain I inflicted when I decided to “quit torturing her” and remove the beads from her cage. I was met with anger. Bird began to peck at her empty cage voraciously. She squawked a high-pitched rant at my audacity.
The marketing agency that packaged the beads as “Endless Parakeet Entertainment” may not have had a love affair in mind, but Bird has in fact found unwavering entertainment. One could even venture to say she has found purpose within their shiny appeal. They would have to be replaced, and I did so with little trepidation.
The Name on the Door
I’m not sure who perpetuates the idea that coming out is a one-time shot. It’s not like the confessing homosexual busts down the door, a memo is sent around the world, and it’s over. It started when I was seventeen, and has happened about twice a week for twenty-one years. That’s approximately 2,184 times. So far. At this rate, if I live to be eighty, I’ll have come out of the closet 6,552 times.
The first time, I was a senior in high school, and I told my best friend.
I said, “Umm, I’ve totally got a secret.”
She said, “Like, duh, you’re gay.”
I said, “Oh my God!”
She said, “I’m so sure! I’ve known you since 8 th grade.”
And then we went to the movies. To see “Flashdance.”
I’ve always envied the visible minorities in America . Black people don’t gather their friends around to announce they’re black. Mexicans never send their parents a letter telling them they’re Mexican. Asians don’t need to agonize over their families’ misconception that they’re really Puerto Rican. Being a minority without any apparent genetic features holds no advantages—it just allows you to build your own closet.
I used to wish all homosexuals were born pink. I was young then, and didn’t fully understand the clichéd stigma of that color. But now I do, and I’m aiming for gay-mocha. If heterosexuals would stay out of tanning beds, a pair of eye goggles and three twenty -minute tanning sessions could quite possibly eliminate the closet altogether.
But that will never happen. So, the fear of being ostracized will continue for gay teenagers, and hiding their sexuality will seem like a viable option. It did to me. I started college wanting to keep my attraction to men a secret. Instead of seeking out people like myself, I joined a fraternity, and slapped two Greek letters on my chest to convince the world I was straight.
That is, until someone I knew in high school ran into someone I knew in college. It was the 34th time I came out, but the first time I’d been outed.
No one ever outed me to my family, and no one in my family ever asked. They assumed I was straight, while I played along. It took the first man I fell in love with to convince me I needed to end the charade. I was thirty. But you don’t live for three decades wondering who won’t love you anymore, and then open yourself up easily. It’s why growing up I turned bitchy. And funny. If I could make you laugh at a distance, you wouldn’t ask any questions.
I told my parents in a letter I never meant to mail. A letter that was my way of getting down on paper everything I’d say to them if I could, which I couldn’t. They were my 1,248 th and 1,249 th times.
I had joined my boyfriend in South Beach for a vacation. I brought the letter to show my progress, and get him off my case. To prove my sincerity, I went so far as to address an envelope. And stamp it.
I read it to him. He liked it. We went out dancing.
On the walk back to the hotel, I was in heaven. Palm trees, sand, stars, a big-blond-boyfriend-with-muscles. Actually holding hands in public in the gayest place in America.
He pulled out the letter, shoved it into a mailbox, and kissed me.
I bit his lip, and tried to yell. But it came out sounding pathetic, more like a question. “Crap?”
I don’t love musicals. I think the gay pride parade is embarrassing. I get self-conscious when the effeminate man in church reads the petitions. If the man of my dreams is a flight attendant, I won’t date him.
I don’t know my dress size. I’ve never worn panty hose.
I never pick up, or hug, a child unless the parent suggests it first.
Those were my thoughts the next morning as I stood in front of the mailbox trying to will the letter back out. To this day, I want the people I love to know these things about me, and I hate that.
I was back from South Beach for a week and a half, and the phone kept ringing. It wasn’t my parents. I didn’t expect a party, but being ignored was a surprise.
“Hello.” I always answered with a planned, fake ease.
“Have you heard from Mom and Dad?”
“No! Quit calling me.”
Although I appreciated the enormous support I was getting from my sister, my two brothers, and the rest of the people in times 1–1,247, it just didn’t matter. My parents’ opinion mattered. Very much. I am theirs.
By day ten, with no mail mentioned by my parents to anyone, I’d given up. But the phone hadn’t. It rang.
I said, “Hello.”
He said, “Jimmy, why haven’t you called me?”
Dad? Shit! I thought. Wait, call you?
I said, “I figured you’d call me.”
He said, “I called you last week and left a message with your receptionist.”
Receptionist? Shit! I thought . My receptionist was on vacation last week! The most important call of my life, and some temp didn’t give me the damn message!
I said, “I’m sorry, Dad. I never got the message. I would’ve called you back right away.”
My father told me that he loved me. He’d suspected. But knowing would still take time to accept. He told me that my mother loved me too. But she was surprised. And needed a few more days before she’d call. He then confessed that the prospect of me being childless made them sad. Finally, he asked if I was still going to mass—leaving unspoken their Catholic angst about gays being sent to hell.
I’d played out the possible scenarios enough times in my head to have expected all of this. But there is no adequate rehearsal for this kind of conversation—for either side, I assume. Though it was much harder to hear out loud, I respected my parents’ reactions, and disappointment. I’d had thirty years to come to terms with my sexuality. They’d had ten days.
When I hung up the phone, the relief I’d hoped for didn’t show. It never does. No matter how many times I come out, I can’t get used to swallowing the guilt of having misrepresented myself to people I love. What I hope they understand is that in loving them so much, my fear of their rejection made me do it. The first time I met my future sister-in-law’s family, I got them thrown out of a bar. We’d been partying all afternoon by Wrigley Field, and I got drunk. After excusing myself from yet another round of shots, I dashed into the restroom. Ladies’ room. I didn’t pay attention—which according to the bartender, you must do near the hallowed walls of America ‘s favorite heterosexual pastime. Something about the police shutting down the bar if I got caught, which I disputed by shouting that I always use the ladies’ room in the Manhole. No matter what the sign says, isn’t a toilet just a toilet? Don’t we all get in there and do the same thing?
I prefer to use the women’s restroom, actually. There are more stalls and the lighting is better. In a gay bar, the term “women” is loosely defined and the name on the door is meaningless. It’s a culture that views all gendered words as interchangeable. Standing in line you’ll see boys dressed like boys calling each other “girlfriend,” girls dressed like boys calling each other “sister,” boys dressed like girls looking for their “husbands,” girls dressed like girls in silence. Sometimes you can’t define who’s what by looking or listening. How do you police that?
I’m not sure what the bartender accomplished by banning me, my family, my future sister-in-law, and her family for my indiscretion. None of them seemed to care. But the confrontation had yanked me from the closet for the 1,456 th time. Faggot. Sissy. Queer. Child molester. I bought a book called 15,000 Baby Names . And Dr. Seuss’s Oh, Baby, The Places You’ll Go : A Book To Be Read In Utero . I picked them up for one of my best friends—who was pregnant with her first child—on the way to grab some dinner. My parents had always hoped that I’d marry this friend. Now , she and her husband have my place in my parents’ display of family wedding pictures. Well, that’s not exactly true. I am on the table. A picture of me, by myself, at my brother’s wedding.
I was browsing through the baby name book while I ate my chicken salad sandwich, when the handsome, friendly, straight couple next to me asked when the baby was due. “May 1 st ,” I replied. Which was true. Then, they asked me if I’d picked any names. I paused.
“Faith, if it’s a girl. I’m not sure, if it’s a boy.”
I understood it was technically wrong to pretend this baby was mine, but I’d lucked into a moment of pride I never thought I’d get. Total strangers were happy with the idea of my impending fatherhood, and I liked it. The 1,977 th time was going to have to wait.
“Can I make a suggestion for a boy?” the man said.
Hmm. If someday I’m blessed enough to be a father, I won’t care if my son is called Astor. I won’t care if my daughter is called Faith.
Names are just letters.
This is how I see it. After I die, when I get to the gates of heaven, God will ask me to account for my life. I will come out of the closet for the 6,553 rd and final time. The time I’m most confident about being accepted. The time I get the relief I have waited for…
“Yes, Lord, I did love men. I was how You made me.”
China ‘s Prophet of Freedom: The Poet Huang Xiang
On 24 November 1978 , in the heart of Beijing , on Tian An Men Square, I encountered the longest wall poster I had ever seen: ninety-four giant sheets of paper ran seventy yards alon g a high wooden wall. From the top of an embankment, they stared down at the mausoleum of Mao Zedong. A thousand people filed along the embankment reading them, wholly absorbed by their message – a set of poems, each one of which was political dynamite. The most explosive, The Fallen Idol , began:
“The tyrant of this era has fallen
From the pinnacle of unrighteous power
From the tip of a rusty bayonet
From the buckled backs of a generation
And within billions of gasping bleeding souls
He has fallen
He is dead”
The tyrant was not named, but any Chinese could see that the poet was writing of Chairman Mao, whom they had been forced to worship as an idol, and who had “moved billions of people around/ As though whipping billions of tops”. The poem was dated 9 September 1976 , the day on which Mao had died. Two years on, his successors were still trying to immortalise him by honouring his corpse, and whitewashing his record of horrendous misrule, yet here was a poem denouncing Mao to his embalmed face – and declaring that he was dead, quite dead, and that all he stood for was either dead, or dying.
Never before in the three decades of Communist rule had anyone in mainland China dared to challenge the regime in this way. And this was only one of some nine poems posted there, most of which showed a total disregard for the central tenets of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, which had been given the status of holy scripture.
The sequence of poems began with the Song of the Torches , which tells in a vision how a spiritual army will liberate men and women whose feelings have been deadened, whose spirits have been confined, and on whose mouths “there is carven a hopeless despair”. These are the opening lines:
“Underway on the far-off horizon
A-sway in the dark azure sky
Is a luminous legion, an army
A mute-flowing fire
That lights up the long-curtained windows
And flows into doorways long shut to each other”
The river of fire illumines, purges and baptises. The poem ends thus:
“Mankind is baptised in this wondrous fire
The World is transformed in this wondrous fire
In its flames the decrepit and old is destroyed
While a new world, all bloody, leaps forth from the womb.”
It had been written in August 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. How many in China then had dared to believe that one day a new world would leap from the womb of the old?
The third poem, I See a War, also written in 1969, denounced the ideological war waged ceaselessly by a totalitarian regime to control the minds and spirits of every individual. It began:
“I see a war, an invisible war.
It is being fought in everyone’s facial expression
Being fought in countless loudspeakers
Being fought in the persistent terror
expressed in everyone’s eyes”
With image after image, it described the myriad manifestations of totalitarian dictatorship: in every home, in primary school books, in mass-meetings, in the gestures and words of every actor on every stage, and in “soldiers patrolling the lines of my poems, to search into everyone’s conscience”.
“In face of this terrible unprecedented attack
I see sexual relations in decay
The living with psychic disorders
Schizophrenia burgeoning, individuality destroyed”.
But the poet had hope: he ends the poem with this assertion:
“Human nature does not die, conscience does not die, the people’s freedom of spirit does not die”.
In a fourth poem, The Great Wall , written in 1972, the poet had used this ancient barrier between China and the rest of the world as a metaphor for the dictatorship that the poet believed to be ultimately doomed. The Wall speaks, thus:
“I am laid out between man and man
Separating this group of people from that
They want to pull me down, destroy me…
In order to pass on to their descendants for the first time a legacy of science and democracy”
As the poem progresses the Wall emerges as a metaphor for Mao Zedong himself, again not named, and still four years from his death at the time of writing.
In a fifth poem, The Fire God, the poet returns to the theme of liberation of man, but this time man is freed by God rather than a spiritual army. This was a flagrant heresy when it was written, in 1976. Mao had denied the existence of God, while he himself still enjoyed the status of a demigod.
“Oh, Fire-God, I know you are already approaching me
Under the jet-black heaven I listen silently for your foot-falls,
My heart is listening excitedly, exulting,
You have come
To shatter the bastions of superstition, the inner courts of
To sweep aside the sundered walls of a toppled faith
Ah, you are this fire’s Prometheus”
God liberates man from a dictatorship whose time has gone, tears down the intangible Great Wall that has isolated the poet’s homeland from the world and his fellow-citizens from each other, restores trust between men, and establishes freedom, truth and democracy. This God is not a crude deus ex machina , but a spirit who reaches deep into the human psyche.
These five poems from which I have quoted amounted to some 540 lines in Chinese. They bore the title The God of Fire Symphony . A full reading of them shows that they are informed by a philosophy and a faith that are rich, deep and subtle; they are far from being simplistic tracts. The poet had written them over a seven-year period beginning in 1969 when the Cultural Revolution was at its height. All traditional cultures and all true faiths, whether of Chinese or foreign origin, were under physical and moral attack, and their adherents were being persecuted, in many cases to death. Idolatry and xenophobia were the order of the day. Mao Zedong had launched and was leadin g a n undeclared civil war. Terror reigned.
If the police or Red Guards had discovered such poems at that time, it would have meant instant imprisonment, beating, and almost certain death, for their author. The crowd amongst whom I stood on Tian An Men Square that November morning did not share their thoughts with me, a diplomat in the British Embassy in Beijing .
Who, I asked myself, had dared to write them? What kind of Chinese, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, would proclaim his faith in God, and personal freedom? Who would write in terms that resonated with the Christian gospel, and the prophet Isaiah? How had anyone acquired the kind of education that would equip him or her to write like this? Who would know about Prometheus? In twenty years of socialist realism, how had anyone nurtured such an imagination, and become a master of poetic structure and rhythm, often cumulative in their effect, that cannot be judged from the fragments quoted here ? Only later, much later, would I find answers to these questions, but the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party had already taken steps to find out as much as it could about the author. Six weeks’ before these poems appeared on the vast Square, they had appeared in smaller format in a narrow alley in Beijing ‘s central district, and had created a first sensation. Recognising their importance, the Communist Party had ordered the security files of the poet and his friends to be flown from their home city to be studied in Beijing .
Among the facts on those files would have been the following. The poet, whose name was Huang Xiang, had been born into a landowning family in Hunan province in south-central China in 1941. His father was at that time a young General in the army of the anti-communist President Chiang Kai-shek. Shortly after the Communists gained control of the mainland in 1949, and established there the People’s Republic of China , General Huang had been executed. Young Huang Xiang was brought up first by his paternal grandparents in Hunan province. Then at 15, with the help of an uncle, he moved to the capital city of Guizhou , a poor and remote province in south-west China , where he found work in a metals factory. His first poem to be published appeared there in 1958, when he was 17, but his non-conformism and his class background told against him and he was soon expelled from the official All-China Writers’ Association.
His file would have shown that, in the following year, he was sentenced to three years’ hard labour for having had the temerity to set off, without official permission, in search of freedom in the even poorer and more remote province of Qinghai , on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. It would also have shown that he had been sentenced to a second three-year term of forced labour in 1965, because he was guilty of having been born into a landowning family. Perhaps it also showed that in 1966 Huang had profited from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to escape from labour camp, and had found work in a knitting mill, to earn his keep.
What it would not have shown is that at the age of 10 Huang had begun to educate himself in the work of some of the world’s great writers and thinkers when he discovered, in the roof of the family home, a cache of books and notebooks brought back by his father from his university days in Japan.
Nor would the file have shown that, as the Cultural Revolution raged on, and Huang worked quietly in the mill by day, he wrote poetry by night, and, on evenings when he was not writing, he often met with a group of like-minded friends to share his writing with them and listen to theirs. He found the peace and privacy he needed by making his home in the tower of a Roman Catholic church that had been abandoned by its persecuted congregation at the start of the Cultural Revolution. The gatherings with literary friends took place, astonishingly, in the home of one of them whose family had been leading merchants in the city before the Communist era. At these gatherings, Huang would astound, move and alarm his friends by reciting with passion his politically explosive poetry.
Other poems that he read to them described the degradation and brutalisation he had undergone. In a poem entitled Wild Beasts , he described how the beatings and persecution he had suffered in labour camp and elsewhere had made him feel and act at times like a wild beast:
“I am a wild beast hunted down
I am a captured wild beast
I am a wild beast trampled by wild beasts
I am a wild beast trampling wild beasts”
He protested that “this age viciously seizes me…its feet stomp on the bridge of my nose, tearing, biting, gnawing, gnawing until a barely a bone of me is left.” The Chinese words he used for tearing, biting, etc. convey the sound of flesh being torn, and of a wild animal uttering ferocious sounds as it sinks its teeth into a victim. In another poem of this period, Song of Life , Huang expressed his outrage when his son died of pneumonia at the age of nine months because he was denied proper medical treatment on the grounds that Huang had a “bad” class background. Huang tried to kill his work-place supervisor who was responsible for the denial of treatment.
The poems Huang read to friends during this Cultural Revolution period show that he kept his spirit free while hundreds of millions of his compatriots had theirs enslaved. In one of the darkest nights of the twentieth century, he kept alive within himself his capacity to hope, his faith in a living God who would empower man to free himself from tyranny, and his belief that goodness can never be entirely erased from the heart of man. As his friends listened to his impassioned readings, they realised that this hope, this faith, and this belief were flames burning within him, flames that set him on fire, spiritually, making of him a human torch, which burned as a lamp of freedom and of enlightenment.
After reading of The Song of the Torches , his host declaimed these lines, impromptu:
“You are not a poet
You are a fighter
You are not recitin g a poem
You are a cry from the soul
Writing in a man’s ink-blood
The eternal yearnings of mankind”
As order was restored after the worst chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Huang’s spirit calmed. Then a new period of political instability, before and after Mao’s death, gave him and his friends hope that they could fight and win greater freedom, not just for themselves personally but for all China . By the autumn of 1978, two years after Mao died, the political balance in China was swingin g a way from Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, towards Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao had struck from power shortly before he died. Deng’s two-year struggle to return to power and become the supreme leader was succeeding but would not be complete until December. In the meantime, he and his allies wanted him to be seen as a liberator. As a result, China was enjoyin g a moment of freedom without precedent since 1949.
Huang and his friends seized the moment to come to Beijing, to display his most political poems without official permission, and to take an equally bold initiative on the organisational front: after pasting up his poems on Tian An Men Square, they held a short ceremony there to proclaim the founding of the Enlightenment Society, whose aim was nothing less than the far-reaching reform of Chinese society. This was the first non-government and non-party, civil association to be created in China since 1949. They distributed copies of the first edition of the Society’s equally unofficial magazine, also called Enlightenment , which was devoted to their writin g a nd to their ideas on reform. These were further audacious challenges to the regime. The response from the public was electric. In the days that followed, the Democracy Movement was born. Many other groups of human rights activists sprang up and a bare brick wall of a Beijing bus terminal burst into life as Democracy Wall, as people plastered on it posters bearing their grievances, hopes and demands.
Two months later, on 1 January 1979, Huang displayed on that Wall an open letter to the then President of the USA, Jimmy Carter, calling on him to put the issue of human rights in China on the international political agenda, the first time a citizen of the People’s republic of China had dared to appeal publicly to a foreign statesman to intervene in its politics.
In March 1979, Deng Xiaoping and his allies, having gained a firm grip on supreme power, cracked down on those who had been leading the demands for democracy in China . Huang was arrested and sentenced to a further period of “reform through labour”. But later in the year he and his fellow leaders of the Enlightenment Society were summoned to Beijing by the Secretary-General of the Communist Party who tried to persuade them to give a public endorsement, in the presence of the international press corps, of the policies of Deng Xiaoping. How should they respond? They believed that Deng would open China to the world, put an end to internecine class struggle and establish much economic freedom, but retain for the Communist Party a monopoly of political power; under his influence China would be half-free. They refused to endorse Deng’s policies. So, Huang was returned to prison until the following year, and the Central Committee banned publication of his works.
By the time Deng cracked down on the Democracy Movement, my posting to the British Embassy had run its course and I had moved to California , to write a book about the struggle for the succession to Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, and to explain how and why Deng had won. I devoted half a chapter of my book to Huan g a nd his poems. But, apart from his name, I knew little about him, except that his home was in Guizhou . For the next twenty-five years I neither heard nor read anythin g a bout him.
Then, in the summer of 2003, I put his name into Google and found a trail that led me to discover what he had done since his poems had confronted the corpse of Mao. His fortunes had waxed and waned as the political pendulum swung to and fro between rigid cultural dictatorship and periods of relaxation. At times, he was able to excite crowds by public readings of his great “public” poems, which are written for declamation. For brief periods he could campaign for human rights, and help bring a bout a resurgence of the democracy movement on Tian An Men in 1989. At other times, he was gao led for such actions, until he had been imprisoned six times for a total of twelve years. The ban on publication of his works was essentially maintained, denying him a wide public, and depriving him of feedback from critics. But his spirit was never broken. He was sustained in part by the inner faith evident in his poetry, but also by aspects of Chinese tradition: for thousands of years, Chinese poets have had a role as prophet-priests who interpret a puzzling universe to their fellow men, and who are prepared to sacrifice their liberty or even their lives for the truth.
Other Chinese poets took refuge in silence, in political subservience or in that timid, fuzzy language that earned them the sobriquet of Misty poets. Huang Xiang denounced the Misty ones in forthright terms, and challenged the public to contrast his poetry with that of the highly respected veteran Ai Qing, who had surrendered his artistic freedom to the Communist Party since 1949. He himself continued to write with undiminished force, vitality and passion. His body of work expanded until it covered a range that is extraordinary: from heroic public poems to the most tender of intimate love songs, and from rational analysis to those written in the grip of violent emotion that – during hours or even days of uninterrupted writing – took him to the brink of insanity.
In jail in the late 1980’s he wrote the most tender and lyrical of love poems to his young second wife, Zhang Ling. Upon release, his energy burst forth in a suite of poems of a very different kind. These expressed his passionate response to great fellow artists: a musician Beethoven, and from modern times a painter, a dancer and a poet: Van Gogh, Isidora Duncan and Pablo Neruda. The poem on Beethoven has musical qualities and structure, and that on Van Gogh is a verbal equivalent of Van Gogh’s painting.
Under Deng Xiaoping, the dictatorship of the Party was moderated from totalitarian to authoritarian. Huang Xiang could read more widely and in the 1980’s he read both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The ban on travel abroad was relaxed, and in 1993 he was given permission to visit the United States ; his wife was denied permission to accompany him, presumably to restrain his utterances while abroad. Nevertheless, Zhang Ling urged him to stay in America , so that he could get his work published. He relished the freedom but observed that Chinese writers in exile there were cut off from the soil that nourished their art. He had no wish to share their fate, and returned home.
Soon afterwards, a leading Chinese publishing house judged the political climate propitious to the publication of a major collection of Huang’s prose and poetry. The publisher completed the first print run, and was on the point of distributing books to retailers when a telephone call from “on high” led it to abandon the project. This convinced Huang that his only hope of getting published was to go abroad. Three years later, a new invitation to visit America came, and by this time the Communist Party was keen to see dissidents to seek voluntary exile. In 1997, he moved to the USA . Zhang Ling was allowed to go with him.
He brought with him a corpus of prose and poetry amounting to about three million words. Some of it he had succeeded in hiding from the authorities during the totalitarian years (wrapped in plastic bags and covered with wax to look like candles, or secreted in the loft of the church where he wrote them), and some he had recreated from memory, after their destruction. In the years following his arrival in the USA , Overseas Chinese publishers recognised his importance and brought out much of his work, in Chinese for their market. One émigré Chinese scholar wrote a critical biography on him, in Chinese, and another started translatin g a semi-autobiographical novel, an epic of 20 th century China , to the writing of which Huang devoted most of his time in exile. In China , although a few poems appeared in anthologies, the ban on his work remained: scholars who wrote about him or taught his work to their students were silenced or harassed, and an editor who bravely tried to publish his collected works came close to success but finally failed and lost his job.
How was Huang received in those societies that are the homelands of the values of science and democracy for which he has staked his all? With indifference and neglect, for the most part. Those scholars to whom we look for guidance in the understanding of Chinese culture and politics greeted Huang Xiang’s work with a silence that is deafening, and may have led China ‘s rulers to conclude that their writ runs on the campuses of American and British universities. But then one day a mutual friend introduced him to a man who many years before had learned Chinese in the US Navy. Andrew Emerson had forgotten most of the Chinese characters he had learned but was willing to revive his knowledge to translate Huang’s poetry. Mrs Emerson persuaded Huang to collaborate when she told him her husband had the soul of a poet.
For the next five years Andrew Emerson earned his living by runnin g a small business by day, and gave much of the rest of his time to the translation. As he approached the age of seventy, he burned the midnight oil, unpaid, until the first-ever volume of translations of Huang’s poetry into English was ready for publication. It was published in the spring of this year by The Edwin Mellen Press, of New York , under the horrendously cumbersome title of “A Bilingual Edition of Poetry Out of Communist China by Huang Xiang” . It contains some 180 pages of Huang’s poetry, spanning the period 1962 to August 2002. Jeffrey Kinkley, Professor of Chinese History at St. John’s University , New York State, wrote an authoritative Preface to the book, the first essay of a professional sinologist devoted to Huang.
The joy of Huang and his translator at seeing their work in print was great, but was soon marred by tragedy: in late August Emerson died, the victim of an unexpected heart attack. His work of translation will stand as a fine memorial to his labour of love, for which he may have paid by an untimely death.
Emerson’s admirably clear translations allow the English-speaking world to see Huang Xian g a t his full stature. His task is eased by the fact that Huang’s writing belongs for the most part to that genre of Chinese poetry that lies between prose, on the one hand, and poetry as we think of it, on the other. He seldom uses metre or rhyme, and his themes are often public rather than personal; one of his contemporaries has called him “the Walt Whitman of China ”. Emerson has found equivalents in English for Huang’s masterful handling of the characteristics of the Chinese language. He has found ways of reflecting the whole range of Huang’s poetry, from the tenderness of the love lyrics written in gao l, through the passionate intensity of Van Gogh , to the prophetic power and cosmic scope of the Fire God Symphony . (This poetry is often cumulative in its effect, and cannot be judged from the fragments quoted in this article.)
Although the Symphony was inspired by China ‘s history and the suffering inflicted by Mao, Huang never uses Mao’s name and the word China appears only in two minor ones. The names are not omitted out of political caution, but because the poems transcend the boundaries of time and nationality. They are as true of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany as they are of Mao’s China . Yet what poems from Stalin’s Soviet Union , or Hitler’s Germany , can rival the Symphony in its denunciation of a totalitarian system and the tyrant who leads it, or its affirmation that goodness can never be rooted out of the hearts of men? What poet in the free democracies of our age has written as movingly on the great themes of dictatorship and liberation, and of the spirit of God bringing light into the darkness of fear and suspicion? Huang is more than a free spirit of rare courage, and more than a great Chinese writer. He is a poet of universal value.
This book is not just for those who appreciate good writing, and those who care how men defy oppression. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand how China – and therefore our world – will evolve. In the 26 years since Huang Xiang pasted up his poems in Beijing , China ‘s economy has sustained a rate of growth faster than that of any country in history – it has multiplied seven times. But political reform has not yet matched economic reform, and China ‘s political structure is the greatest unresolved strategic issue of our time. This book shows with a force unique in the English language how deeply religious faith, cosmopolitan cultural values, and aspirations to freedom and democracy can take root in the mind of a modern Chinese.
I believe that, within ten years from now, the Chinese people may well win the right to elect their government. If so, the first democratically elected President in China ‘s history will stand on the Gate of Heavenly Peace to take his oath of office. A few steps away from him, I see a group of men and women whose words and deeds have hastened that day. Among them, wild of eye and passionate of voice, stands China ‘s prophet of freedom: the poet Huang Xiang.
Authors Bios & Q/A
In addition to providing a biography, our contributors answered the following:
1. What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
2. How do you take your coffee?
3. Who were you in a previous life?
4. Who or what is your greatest influence?
5. What is the worst film you ever paid to see?
6. What is the best thing you can buy for a dollar?
7. What is the worst present you ever received?
8. What is your favorite word?
We hope that you enjoy their answers as much as we did.
Barry Ballard’s poetry has most recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Connecticut Review, The Apalachee Review, and Puerto del Sol. His most recent collection is Plowing To The End of the Road(Finishing Line Press, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize). He writes from Burleson , Texas . (email@example.com)
- Those horrible old black and white “B” flicks.
- Early in the morning only. I hate the stuff.
- I was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin’s
- Jurgen Moltmann, a friend, an influential theologian, someone who turned me around after Vietnam
- Too numerous to list. Remember Item One.
- A kiss at the state fair.
- The lie of up-trending stock
- Dialectic (weird)
Joe Benevento is a Professor of English at Truman State University and co-editor of Green Hills Literary Lantern. He has published two books of poetry, Holding On and Willing to Believe, and has a third forthcoming, My Puerto Rican Past . He is also the author of the novels, Plumbing In Harlem and The Odd Squad , and has had poetry, short stories and essays in over two-hundred different placed, includingPoets & Writers , Bilingual Review and Wisconsin Review . He lives in Kirksbille , MO with his wife, Carol, and their three children, Maria, Joseph and Claire.
- Watching The Three Stooges, though I don’t really feel guilty about it.
- I hardly ever drink coffee, but will occasionally go for a cappuchino at Bruno’s Caffe in Greenwich Village , close to where I used to go to school (NYU).
- Al Jolson
- Groucho marx
- There are too many to list.
- A small napoleon.
- A silk sweater that smelled badly.
- Bogavante (Spanish for large lobster)
Eliza Bishop ‘s work as a poet and essayist has appeared in “The Susquehanna Review,” “The Martin Luther King Day Junior Writing Awards,” “The Sloping Halls Review,” and “Can We Have Our Ball Back.” She continues to write because “the page with a poem is always invisible; it is not it that we see.”
- Foot massage
- Spash of milk, dash of sugar
- Black wolf
- Gaston Bachelard
- The title has left my memory
- Striped knee-high socks
- No present
An attorney and a writer, James Charles Crowley works as in-house legal counsel for Chicago State University . He is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois . He received his M.A. in creative writing from DePaul University , and is presently working on both a collection of essays and a novel.
- Watching “The Biggest Loser” marathons
- Once a month, at Burger King, with cini-minis
- Frida Kahlo
- 80s Pop Music
- Spice World
- A sheet of Thomas the Train stickers for my nephew
- A plastic ice bucket, from a priest, for my high school graduation
Carol V. Davis’ poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, New American Review, etc. Her first chapbook was Letters From Prague (1991). She spend 1996-97 as a Fulbright scholar in St. Petersburg , Russia , where a full length collection, It’s Time to Talk About… was published in a bilingual edition. A new chapbook, The Violin Teacher was published in 2005, from Dancing Girls Press, Chicago. She is an instructor at Santa Monica College , CA. She spent fall 2005 in Russia on a second Fulbright.
- Red licorice
- With milk
- Woman in Russia
- Russian literature
- Luckily I’ve forgotten
- Not buying, saving for travel
- A porcelain tehochke
Corrine De Winter has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, Corrine De Winter’s poetry, fiction, essays and interviews have appeared worldwide in publications such as the The New York Quarterly, Imago, Phoebe, Plainsongs, Yankee, Sacred Journey, Interim, The Chrysalis Reader, The Lucid Stone, Fate ,Press, Sulphur River Literary Review, Modern Poetry, The Lyric, Atom Mind, The Writer, The Lyricand over 800 other publications. She has been the recipient of awards from Triton College of Arts & Sciences, Writer’s Digest, The Esme Bradberry Award, The Madeline Sadin Award, The Rhysling Award, and has been featured in Poet’s Market 1995-2004. Ms. De Winter is a member of HWA (Horror Writer’s Association) and is a resident of Western Massachusetts . De Winter is the author of 7 collections of poetry & prose including Like Eve, The Half Moon Hotel, and Touching The Wound , which sold over 3000 copies in its first year, and the latest “The Women At The Funeral”, winner of the 2004 Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in poetry.
- Breakfast at 3:00 in the morning
- Cream and sugar
- A nun, I’m told. A girl whose lover was lanced through the heart
- Conrad Aiken
James Doyle’s book, Einstein Considers A Sand Dune (2004), won the Steel Toe Books contest. Doyle is married to poet Sharon Doyle and has poems coming out in Poems & Plays, The Briar Cliff Review, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review and Xavier Review.
- Suspense novels
- Equal and Pream
- Neanderthal hermit
- Sacred books
- Patch adams
- Bus ride
- Ventriloquist’s dummy with one eye dangling out
Sharon Doyle recently retired from raising five children and teaching English in high schools and colleges, and is enjoying writing after a long hiatus. She lives with her husband in Fort Collins , Colorado . She has recently been published in Mona Poetica, Nimrod, descant, The South Carolina Review, and Cimarron Review.
- Dark chocolate, Dove Bars
- Four cups, at a Time with Wal-Mart’s “Pream”
- Queen Victoria
- Classical music
- The Prince of Tides
- Bottomless cup of coffee
- Mother Teresa bobblehead
John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). His
work has appeared in Salon.com, Grand Tour, Escape, Islands, Condé Nast Traveler,
Endless Vacation, International Living, Trips, Big World, Coffee Journal,
Literal Latté, Lilliput Review, Poetry Motel, Parnassus, Kit-Cat Review, Richmond
Review, Artdirect, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and
North American Review, among others. He has just written a novella, Move, and is
now working on a travel book, Fluid Borders. He is currently the editor of an
imaginary zine called Unpleasant Vacations: The Magazine of Misadventure.
- Three times a day
- William the conquerer
- Bruce Chatwin
- Titanic (the most overrate film in history)
Gail Rudd Entrekin lives in Nevada City , California , and teaches English and Creative Writing at Sierra College . Her books of poems include Change (Will Do You Good) (Poetic Matrix Press, 2005), You Notice the Body (Hip Pocket Press, 1998) and John Danced (Berkeley Poets Workshop & Press, 1984). Poetry editor of Hip Pocket Press since 2000, she edited the anthology Sierra Songs & Descants: Poetry & Prose of the Sierra in 2002. Her poems have been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies.
John Fitzpatrick was awarded 2002 and 2004 poetry residencies at Vermont Studio Center . Since 2003, his poems have received the Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, Birmingham-Southern College , AL , and honors in City Works , Mad Poets Review , Confluence , Taproot Literary Review , and Clark College 2004 Writers . Other poems appeared or will be forthcoming in The Mid-America Poetry Review, The Cape Rock, Asphodel, Plainsongs, California Quarterly, Kennesaw Review, Yalobusha Review, Luna Negra & others . His 2000 New York University Doctor of Philosophy degree dissertation in Arts and Humanities dealt with poet as creator and reader responder, with poets Barbara Unger and Michael Burkard participating in his research.
- Day dreaming
- Black – I grew up on a farm that had a few cars but every adult member of my family drank their coffee black! Their reason? One got the true taste of the coffee bean that way!
- An American Indian
- Thoreau for his love nature and for his leaving his moral conscience in this daily life.
- An apple nut muffin from the local Bread Alone as my treat to me for a morning of writing
- Someone else’s gift still wrapped but with original nametag removed replaced by my name and given to me as if wrapped especially for me
Gail Folkins, a doctoral candidate in creative writing at Texas Tech University , writes nonfiction and poetry. Her recent publications include an essay in an anthology titled Horse Crazy and a scholarly article in Lifewriting Annual. Her nonfiction manuscript Dance Hall Revival is under contract with Texas Tech University Press.
Cara Ford received her BA in English from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, and her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh . She is an academic advisor and teaches Humanistic Studies at Saint Mary’s College.
- South Park
- Anais Nin
- Stevie Nicks
- Legally Blonde 2
- Medium Frosty at Wendy’s
- Break-up e-mail on my sister’s birthday
Robert Long Foreman comes from Wheeling , West Virginia and currently teaches at Ohio University . Some of his scholarly work is forthcoming in the Frontenac Review . This is his first creative publication.
Daniel M. Gallik has had poetry and short stories published by various online journals plus Hawaii Review, A.I.M. .( America ‘s Intercultural Magazine), Parabola , Nimrod , Limeston ( U. of Kentucky ),The Hiram Poetry Review , Aura ( University of Alabama ), and Whiskey Island ( Cleveland State University ). Daniel’s first novel, A Story Of Dumb Fate is available at publishamerica.com and soon will be at Cleveland area Border’s Bookstores.
- My wife realistically. All other women mentally
- Blacker than black
- Some gaseous element – Neon?
- Ezra Pound
- Rocky V
- Calgary Export Ale
- Gift card to Wal-Mart
Roger Garside is a former British diplomat, who served twice in Beijing, first during the Cultural Reveolution and later, 1976 – 79, during the struggle for the succession to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, a story that he told in coming Alive: China After Mao (McGraw-Hill, New York, and Andrew Deutsch, London, both 1981).
Kathie Giorgio’s recent writing credits include stories in Fiction International, Quality Women’s Fiction, Oyez Review, Jabberwock Review, Karamu Review, Bellowing Ark, Reed Magazine, The Binnacle, Zuzu’s Petals Quarterly, Licking River Review, Thema, The Goblin Reader, and Artisans. In the near future, stories will appear in Eclipse and in the premier issue of Broken Bridge Review. Her stories have also appeared in such magazines as Buffalo Spree and Passager, among many others, as well as in Papier Mache Press’s last anthology, Generation to Generation. She holds her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and her MFA in Fiction Writing from Vermont College . She teaches creative writing to adults and children at several local colleges and universities and online for Writers’ Digest, as well as privately. She is also the director of AllWriters’ Workplace and Workshop, LLC.
- Chocolate malt spiked with Bailey’s Irish Crème.
- Someone whose memory was fully erased
- Ellen Gilchrist and John Irving
- Hotel New Hampshire
- Milky Way Midnight candy bar
- Pink night gown with a stuffed fuzzy teddy bear stitched to the chest
- Something you wouldn’t want to print
Brian Holderman, who works under the guise Cloud8, is a Pittsburgh based graphic artist and painter known for work that blends his illustration and hand drawn typography with traditional graphic design. His work has been exhibited throughout the US , including the Andy Warhol Museum and Giant Robot San Francisco.
- One more beer .
- The Transporter
- A six pack of powdered donuts
- Knuckle Sandwich
Evelyn Ibarra was born and raised in Minnesota . She lived in Berkeley , California for seventeen years working as a model maker, economist, and city planner before finding poetry. She currently lives in Los Angeles where she works as an architect and is completing a PEN USA Rosenthal Fellowship.
1. Ice cream
2. Without coffee – I don’t drink it!
3. A fish
4. My mother
5. Fortunately, I’ve blocked them all out!
6. Everlasting Gobstopper
7. No present
Rich Ives has published fiction and poetry in Iowa Review, Northwest Review, North American Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Verse and many more. He teaches creative writing at Everett Community College and is a multi-instrumentalist lately concentrating on Dobro and fiddle.
- Left-handed scissors
- Joe Venuti
- Joseph Cornell
- Guitar picks
- Teddy bear coffee mug
Allison Joseph lives, writes, and teaches in Carbondale , Illinois , where she’s on the faculty at Southern Illinois University. Her latest books are Imitation of Life and Worldly Pleasures .
- Watching Degrassi: The Next Generation on the N
- Don’t drink it. Prefer tea – Iced or sweet
- Lorraine Hansberry (I wish!)
- My grad school teacher, Yusef Komunyakaa and my husband, Jon Trubble
- Cats and dogs. Or was it Cats vs. Dogs? It had talking animals and Jeff Goldblum.
- Some stamps
- I can’t say for fear of offending the giver…
Yuliana Kim-Grant grew up in suburban Philadelphia . She received her BA from The George Washington University and her MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from Emerson College . She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and young son.
- Krispy Kreme doughnuts
- Lots of milk, one small teaspoon of sugar
- A Korean empress
- My mother
- Autumn in New York and The Fifth Element
- Time on a parking meter
- Ugly pajamas. Also a wooden chair that was sold as art, but was more kitsch than art.
Jennifer L. Knox currently resides in Columbus , Ohio . She works as a freelance writer, artist, and bookseller. She is currently looking toward a graduate program in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Quiz & Quill’s Sweet Nothings Issue , Spring Street , and received honorable mention and publication in the 2005 ECC Literary Competition .
- Obscene amounts of Turkish food
- I’m in recovery, but when I lapse I take it with lots of cream, lots of sugar.
- Victoria Woodhull
- My parents, equally
- The green-ticket items at the thrift store (on Tuesdays anyway)
- Underwear in the wrong size
Paula Lambert was a resident fellow at the Virgina Center for the Creative Arts in 2005 and in 2004 was the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individiual Artist Fellowship in creative nonfiction for her autobiography Silver Girl: Story of a Suicidal Mind. She has published a number of stories, poems, and essays in such magazines as The Hawaii Review, The Wisconsin Review, other voices, The Awakenings Review, Ohioana Quarterly, Phoebe (she wont he 1995 Phoebe Fiction Prize), Zone 3, and others. She received her MFA in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1994 abd her MFA in Creative writing (Fiction) from Bowling Green State University in 1996.
Lyn Lifshin’s recent prizewinning book (Paterson Poetry Award) Before It’s Light Was published winter 1999-2000 by Black Sparrow press, following their publication of Cold Comfort in 1997. Another Woman Who Looks Like Me will be published by Black Sparrow Lyn Lifshin’s recent prizewinning book (Paterson Poetry Award) Before It’s Light was -David Godine in 2005. (ORDER@GODINE) Also recently published is A New Film about a Woman in Love with the Dead , March Street Press. Her newest books about the short lived beautiful race horse, Ruffian: The Licorice Daughter, My Year with Ruffian, and The Daughter I Don’t Have . Arielle Press will publish Poets (Mostly) Who Have Touched Me, Living and Dead. . All True, Especially the Lies summer of 2006. And Presa Press will publish In Mirrors . For interviews, photographs, more bio material, reviews, interviews, prose, samples of work and more, her web site iswww.lynlifshin.com . She is working on a new collection of selected poems.
- Buy clothes I don’t need.
- no clue
- not sure
- Dances with Wolves
- Sun shower
Martin Lindauer has published widely on psychology and the arts, including “The Psychological Study of Literature” (Nelson-Hall) and “Aging, Creativity, and Art” (Springer). His short fiction, essays, and memoirs have been published in The Jewish Magazine, Poetica, and elsewhere.
Richard Luftig is a professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University of Ohio. His poems have appeared in many journals in national and international journals in the United States , Japan , Australia , England , Canada and Europe .
Dorothy Blackcrow Mack has taught at I.I.T., U. Michigan, Oglala Lakota College , and Linn-Benton CC. Contributing editor at Calyx . Her orks are published in Alabama Literary Review , Folio , Fireweed ,The Literary Review , Savannah Literary Journal , Shaman’s Drum , Side Show , Spa , Sun , andZYZZYVA . First Place, Poetry, Pacific Northwest Writers1994; First Place, Essay, PNW 1998, First Place, Essay, Willamette Writers 1999. Poem “Wind Cave II: Time of Emergence” was nominated in 1996 for the Pushcart Prize. She recently moved to Depoe Bay to write full-time, turning her experience of marrying a Lakota spiritual leader and raising a sacred herd of buffalo into a memoir, Belonging to the Black Crows.
- Latte, café au lait (French style in a bowl)
- (see my three lifetimes bio)
- The land wherever I live ( Rio , Cape Foulweather , Badlands )
- Some werewolf flick
- Nothing. (best things are free, like a sunny day)
- Dog turd key chain
Shari Mastalski defines Slippery Rock’s non-traditional student. She is completing a BS in Applied Science having received an AAS in Horticulture and Landscape Design from Oklahoma State University in Oklanhoma City . Mother of Shawn, a Penn State senior, and Erin , pilot and artist, Shari lives in Butler with her entrepreneur husband Frank. She is pursuing both theater and dance minors, weaving together the visions and pursuits of a lifetime.
1. Only my husband knows my favorite guilty pleasures.
2. I rarely take coffee but I love hot decaf with raw sugar and real cream or a touch of Bailey’s Irish Cream.
3. In a previous life I was a visionary, artist, barrier breaker, teacher, and gardner.
4. My greatest influences are my amazingly-original, multi-faceted parents; my heart-changing, earth-moving children; and my star-hitched, intensely-loving husband.
5. Worst film was some stupid Santa Claus movie I forget the name.
6. The best thing for a dollar is a package of cosmos seeds.
7. The worst present was a silver-plated, heart-and-arrow-shaped trivet.
8. My favorite word is Yeshua.
Lori Anderson Moseman is the author of two books of poetry ( Cultivating Excess and Persona) and a chapbook ( Walking the Dead). Currently, she teaches poetry for CUNY in Queens . She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an MFA in Electronic Arts for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Doctor of Arts from University at Albany . Her poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, Passages North, Colorado Review, Bathyspheric Review, 8T3, Terra Nova, Phoebe, 13 th Moon, and The Little Magazine.She lives in Brooklyn as well as along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania . She is an active member of the Upper Delaware Writers’ Collective.
- Double chocolate muffin in the morning
- With a double chocolate muffin (and cream)
- a fork (perhaps a pitchfork) (one can never be certain)
- Dinner table discourse
- Double chocolate muffin
- Mr. Potato-Head (a busted one, from the gutter) or shampoo and a pyrex butter dish (wrapped together)
Carol Nolde grew up in Jeffersonville , New York , in the foothills of the Catskills, on a dairy farm that was originally owned by her great-great grandfather. She is a graduate of the State University of New York at Albany and the Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury , Vermont . She studied writing with Alfred Corn and Marie Ponsot at the poetry center of the 92 nd Street Y in New York City . For several years she continued to meet regularly in NYC with writers under the direction of Marie Ponsot. Her poetry recently anthologized in Knowing Stones: Poems of Exotic Places and in the second edition of Love Is Ageless-Stories About Alzheimer’s Disease . She and her family live in Westfield , New Jersey , where she taught English and creative writing and for many years was an associate editor for Merlyn’s Pen , a national magazine devoted to the work of teenage writers.
- Eating a fresh bagel with lots of butter after weighing in at Weight Watchers
- Fresh ground. Strong… with milk, no sugar
- I don’t know about a previous life, but I’ve been many people in my present life!
- In my daily life I frequently recognize my grandmother’s influence. In writing, my greatest influence is Marie Ponset
- I’ve walked out of a few after only fifteen minutes of viewing, but I’m afraid I have not allowed myself to remember their names
- The New York Times
- No answer
- I love the sound of the word Chatelaine. Recently challenged myself to write a poem about it.
Diane Payne teaches English at University of Arkansas-Monticello, where she’s faculty advisor for Foliate Oak ( http://www.uamont.edu/foliateoak ), a literary magazine that is currently seeking submissions. She is the author of the novel Burning Tulips, and has
been published in hundreds of literary magazines.
- Eating too many chocolate cookies
- With steamed milk
- A very sneaky dog.
- Old friends that aren’t around anymore
- French Kiss
- Big candy bar that fundraisers sell for band
Allan Peterson’s manuscript All the Lavish in Common won the 2005 Juniper Prize and is forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press in 2006. An earlier book, Anonymous Or won the Defined Providence Press competition and was published in 2002.
Recent print appearances: Prairie Schooner, West Wind, Bellingham Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Natural Bridge . Recent online: Chapbook, “Any Given Moment” Right Hand Pointing.com; Perihelion, Stickman Review, Marlboro Review, Tar Wolf Awards: Fellowships from the NEA and the State of Florida
Carlos Ponce-Melendez ‘s poetry has been published in The Poet, The Texas Observer, Small Brushes, Voices Along the River, Reforma, Attention, Blue Collar Review and elsewhere. He wrote a book “Platicas de mi Barrio,” Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, Tempe 1999. He also wrote two children’s books; Ay Mi Espalda, Scholastics, New York , 1998 and Baja Gregorio Baja, Scholastics, New York , 1998.
- Reading a good novel instead of writing a bad one.
- I like strong espresso with good friends
- Probably a tropical fish
- Too many to choose one
- The Wizard of Oz frightened me when I was a kid but now I love it
- Hope. I buy postage to send a query letter.
- A used gum
A native of southern New Jersey who currently lives near the bluffs overlooking Presque Isle Bay, John Repp is the author of Thirst Like This (University of Missouri Press, 1990), The Fertile Crescent (Cherry Grove Collections, 2004), Gratitude (Cherry Grove Collections, 2005), and six limited-edition chapbooks of poetry and short-short fiction. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and Residency Fellowships at Yaddo, the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the Centrum Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso, he teaches writing and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, works in the Arts-in-Education Program of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and lives in Erie, Pennsylvania with his wife, the potter Katherine Knupp, and their son, Dylan.
- I have no idea
- Too many to name
- The Bo Derek Tarzan
- A ping pong ball
- I have no idea
- Every single one.
Brady Rhoades writes short stories and poetry. His work has appeared in Antioch Review, Appalachia Review, Cold Mountain Review, Red Rock Review, Slipstream, Timber Creek Review, Visions International and other publications. He lives in Southern California and works as a city editor for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
- Cheese. Cheddar cheese. On saltine crackers. I can eat fifty easy.
- Plenty of cream, a spoonful of sugar
- A Caribbean turtle
- Voltaire, Vallejo, all the dogs I’ve known
- It had to do with bees and starred Peter Fonda
- A newspaper
- A Beatlemania record
Arlene Sanders has won many awards in writing contests, including Honorable Mentions in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition and the E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Awards. She won first place inByLine Magazine’s New-Talent Short Story Contest and was a finalist in the Future Writers- USA First Annual Short Story Competition. She has a B.A. in English and belongs to Phi Betta Kappa. Arlene is an Appalachian Mountain writer, born and raised in the South. She has a story forthcoming in Mindprints,has completed two short story collections, and is working on her first novel. She welcomes comments on her work at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Filling the bathtub with hot water—then pouring in Chanel No. 5
- With a handsome man—and a smile
- The King James Bible
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (well, I didn’t see all of it)
- A wonderful old post card from Paris : “Having a wonderful time, wish I were there. P.S. I love you.” In French.
- Found at a garage sale by a friend who had no idea what it was: a battered old copy of Mein Kampf, signed by the author
Judith Scheffler received her B.S. in technical writing at Carnegie Mellon University as well as two technical degrees. She worked for AT&T in techinal writing and then switched to information echonology, becoming an executive in 1989. In 1998 she took early retirement and started her career in creative nonfiction. She is the editor and author of one of the essays in a collection of nine essays that women employees of AT&T/Lucent Technologies wrote about their careers during the Feminist Movement and Information Revolution. Beyond the Corner Office—Essays by Nine Women published by AuthorHouse in early 2004, received an award from the Florida writer’s Association, became the featured book of the month on boomerwomenspeak.com, and is now available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. Her essays have been published in the Summit Observer in New Jersey , the Rangeley Highlander in Maine ,Penwomanship Magazine , on BoomerCafe.com and in AT&T in-house and IEEE technical publications. She is not working on a memoir of four incredible years of her life with the working title My Magic Mountain —Making the Most of a Second Home.
- Half decaf, half-caffeine, very strong, with enough milk to make it warm brown
- An execute at AT&T and Lucent technologies
- My mother
- Dangerous Liaisons
- To provide for needy children
- My mother gave me my first copy of Best Loved Poems of the American People . One day I made the mistake of complaining that I couldn’t find my book and my husband bought me a second copy. In a strange way that book became my worst present. I’m a glutton for romantic words and go around with things floating in my head like “brave Alice and laughing Alegra, and Edith with golden hair.”
Dan Skiar teach writing at Endicott College where he tries to get his students to write in a natural and spontaneous way. Some journals he’s been published in are Poetry East, Square Lake , Rhino, bowwow, The Village Rambler, Mid-America Poetry Review, Riverwind, Plainsongs, Atlanta Review, Barbaric Yawp, and The New York Quarterly.
- Red wine
- I drink green tea
- I was a black jazz drummer the band called when the regular drummer couldn’t make it.
- My two sons and the movie The Bicycle Thief
- I can always find something good in a movie even if it’s just the horses or a dog.
- Paint brushes
- A set of plates with rainbow trout gasping for life
A long time resident of Vermont and Professor of English at Castleton College, Joyce Thomas is the author of one collection of poetry, Skins (Fifthian Press 2001), and one nonfiction work, Inside the Wolf’s Belly: Aspects of the Fairy Tale (Sheffield Academic Press, England, 1989). Her poetry has appeared in various small press publications and anthologies, including the most recent The Poets’ Grimm: 20 th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales , ed. Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson (Story Line Press, 2003).
- Grade B horror flicks
- Disguised as tea
- A French Resistance fighter in WWII
- Shakespeare, for love of language, characterization, and sustaining vision
- No answer
- York Peppermint Patties, a good dog bone
- A tin of smoked snails
- Moth (among some 1000 others)
Don Waters’ stories can be read in Zyzzyva , Fiction International , Grain, Night Train and Southwest Review, where he was awarded the 2005 McGinnis-Ritchie Award for Fiction. Most recently, he producedDENNIS , a collaborative concept album featuring the work of writer Dennis Cooper, visual artist Amy Sarkisian and fourteen bands and musicians. He lives in Oakland , Calif.
- Horror movies
- Lots of cream, a little sugar
- Thomas Chatterton
- Every book by Don Delillo
- Forrest Gump
- Anything with a Christmas theme with my name it.
Anne Harding Woodworth ‘s poetry has been published in many journals including Painted Bride Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Potomac Review, Antietam Review, and is forthcoming in Tiferet and the Canadian journal, The Antigonish Review . Her work appears at several sites online. She is the author of three published books of poetry, and her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post , and in various anthologies. She has an MFA in poetry from Fairleigh Dickinson University , where she received the Director’s Award. She is a member of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Poetry Board, Washington , D.C.
- Occasional lapses into political incorrectness
- Black unless it’s at a Jilly-Lub or on an airplane
- Perhaps a gnat, but would prefer to have been Sister Clare
- Conan the Barbarian
- Small packet of gummi bears
- It Takes A Village
Huang Xiang is one of the greatest poets of 20th century China and a master calligrapher. He has been described as “a poet on fire, a human torch who burns as a lamp of freedom and enlightenment.” Mr. Huang, born in 1941, was frequently imprisoned and tortured for his lyrical, free-spirited poetry and advocacy of human rights in China . He and his wife Zhang Ling, also a writer live in the U.S now. Their story has been featured in the PBS documentary
“A Well-Founded Fear”, and WQED documentary “ City of Asylum : An OnQ Special Edition”.1. n/a
2. I like to take my coffee with my beloved.
5. Dong Fang Hong (The Sun Rises in the East) IT was made during the Cultural Revolution of China.
6. A cup of hot tea
7. Don’t know aobut worst, but the best gift I ever received was my first anthology in English.