TABLE OF CONTENTS
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS
The Place In Between
The Blurbs of Eric Demp
Small Town Fusion
Funny, Cry, Happy
Death of the Monolith
Request for Refund
In The Garden
Jane Rosenberg LaForge
3 or 4 Days
Rosemary Brown, Friend of Dead Composers
The Man his Mother Knew
The Displacement of Dreams
Eva’s Catalog of Household Objects
Wedding Day Liaison
Accidentally on Purpose
slither and crawl
Dr. Genghis Chang, the Eye Machine, Meets Agnes Pincus
Dancing with Green Bees
Karla Linn Merrifield
Aunt Jemima’s Revenge
P.H. in Paris
Exhausted from Sex
Grandpa Tom’s Cane
Kindle Didn’t Start a Fire
Kim Allen Niesen
The Underlying Truth
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS
That’s what we called Mr. Cummings, the only one
who stpped at the corning stop sign. Grim face
clenched above the wheel, he drove late afternoons
to the town beach parking lot. On cold days he ran
the engine, the window cracked to breathe out
cartoon world balloons of cigarette smoke
packed with dark, hollow whistles, an emptying
of more than he took in that shook his shoulders
and cracked the plaster-filled holes in his memory
where portraits once hung and brass curtain rods
led the sway of white drapes with the morning.
He stared past seagulls culling trash, fishermen
on the jetty, across the water and through the sunset.
We knew his wife was dead, his only son Billy in jail
and the gray shades drawn in every window
never caught his passing. We didn’t trick-or-treat
there, just threw rocks over the snarl of cedars
and ran when the gutters clanged. When his car
pulled away, a handful of cigarette butts remained
like teeth after a cremation, a rock cairn marking
a treeless tail or an owl pellet broken open,
the compressed bones, a clot of fear
that never saw the shadows in the trees
or what’s bound to wash up—a sneaker,
a stroller, a six-pack, still chilled— and last week
a dog, a golden lab kids poked until their mothers
slapped their hands from the sticks and marched them
back to pails and sand castles, the children
looking behind for the dog to shake
the maggots off and run for the tennis ball
you sometimes catch, if your eyes drift
long enough, bobbing between the waves.
We don’t need the alphabet
to hold the knowledge, to perceive
the sky will snow, the way
the air will tell us almost
everything. Even sleeping lilacs,
before they drift scent across
the drooping porch, do not depend
on L or any spelling to be
heavenly or distant promise
dreamed by the decaying stair.
As for books, they are largely
varied and amazing arrangements
of letters out of line,
yet perfectly mated
to mean the woman, drifting,
leans over her listless cooking
or the man’s heart eats itself
out on the table. We can
know this even if the words
don’t say Inevitable
or Grief. The patient alphabet
waits abstractly to connote more
so we might speak without it,
as lovers wrestling with body
language come to a truth
on their own, mouths,
all of them, engaged in fine
interpretation, gender to gender,
in silence understood separately
but together wholly known
wihtout a manual, the letters
making love, or the volume of any
encyclopedia’s description of what
mouths are capable of doing. Are children
chanting A, B, C unnecessarily,
their parents wonder. Aren’t we born to glean
lovers’ etymology, the suggestion
of lilacs, the gradual decline
of stairs knowing only descent?
Snow, warning a heavy blanket, knows
the deep northeaster’s bound to drift
before the story’s over. The man
keeps the feeling in his bones,
lays the book aside and turns
the lamplit woman, lately
having read the children to bed,
urging her speechless, translating
her under his tongue.
The Place In Between
His car a carcass of creases and dents, of side-swipe tattoos, of metal sheathing scarred by untimely brake-slams and slow-reflexive swerves, because at ninety-two, nothing is automatic any longer, the past riding his bumper hard, clouding his windshield, stealing the air from his tires. But he wants me to know how careful he’s been, even the accdient before this one wasn’t his fault; the road’s so dark in the hills at night. Even his insurance agent said these things can happen to anybody. And this time, he was just about to park in his driveway when he heart this funny crash (his car uncoupling the stones in my fence) and immediately he applied the brakes, which for some reason didn’t work (he was airborne by then, and falling). He says, I guess there must be a poem in it, and I think he’s right. I saw it in his cartoon-like stare, as he took in, not my bleary window or the road he left behind, but the place in between, a gasp too narrow for gravity of will, where the black oak’s branch grazed the side of his cheek and he thought by God’s hair.
3 or 4 Days
lose a brother
or get hauled by an ambulance
after a car demolishes yours
& you might be awarded
3 or 4 days of others actually
listening to you
offering kindness & otherwise
competition had them
sex partner acquisition
artistic prowess or that good old game
of which of us is
but after your 3 or 4
you are left
again to be either
a shark or a bonito
of course death affords
a last stint of common courtesy—
unless it earns you
the bum’s rush
A yellow-green upside down crown surrounds
And embraces the fat purple monach,
Steadily reigning for three months,
In an instant the blackberry is overthrown.
…instead of my nose
it was my boobs that grew.
But I hid my womanhood
until it hued like paint
on snow, dripped
from my ears you pierced
to make a girl out of me, curls
in my hair like Goldilocks,
lock-jaw dumb about my donkey ears,
blind as a cat to my ugly duckling,
but I sprouted my swans…
…and when my boobs were done,
it was my butt that grew.
Disguisted girl-self lie
grew to a whopper—
of an ass—I couldn’t make go away.
Spun straw-skinny from a bale of hay,
except my rumples and my stilskin,
better for little boys to see me—
little pigs want their houses blown in.
…but when my butt was done
it was my mouth that grew.
The mouth of a whale, dark
inside, I wished upon stars
awaited blue-haired fairies
for that one day my prince
will come, unhood
my little red-riding, break
from the belly of the big bad, wolf, break
from the hungry whale, break
from the oven, follow my glass slippers
to the City of Catchfools
where a man made a woman out of me.
Eva’s Catalog of Household Objects
Of intense interest to Eva
Cheese graters for what they produce
Ice cube dispensers
Frozen baby carrots
Queso or cheese
The unacceptable vacuum cleaner
With its seizure of territory
A sewing table alcove
Cushion of throw rugs
Doorknobs of necessity easily
Turned by paw
On top of the refrigerator
Enameled blue blucket
Haped with her stuffed toys
Environmentally minded she checks
Regularly the paper, cans, bottles
To be recycled
slither and crawl
in the deep night—i can forgive—most everyone
you wake me up—hungry, asleep-ish
worried you’re gonna lose me with this indifference routine
below misery, below sea level even
in a town where there are signs everywhere—small gestures
i worry that these arms aren’t really you
and why you do this, and this, and this (when the clocks don’t care)
it snakes in like that
whole days of useless
tomorrow keeping secrets like a crab
we’re told to hunker down
get it right by so many seasons
to get up each day for life’s little ‘and then’s…’
but isn’t the mere act of showing up enough?
dredging ourselves from the thunderous deep?
moving our batch of worms from one room to the next?
and it struck me again—just like that
(those clever boys freeing spiders from the pool)
that “aren’t we all just a mystery to ourselves?”
Dr. Genghis Chang, the Eye Machine, Meets Agnes Pincus
Under artificial light, the anesthetized patient lies face up on a table, the theatre of operations.
Her inverted eye peers inside the mysteries of her brain on an anamorphic voyage to Northern and Southern hemispheres, recovering things past and imagined.
Her retinas reattached, the cornea reshaped, the cataract of blind
thoughts removed, her once narrow-tunneled vision opens wide.
Enigmas resolve all ambiguities and she sees, even in the dark
passageway, each leaf of Beechen green; she sees among the leaves what she has never known.
Maybe she glimpses lemur-like genes, groggy myopic squints
spawning in planetary slime and fern-green complacency.
Yes, surely, in the immensity of time, she leaves the primordial swamp behind and gazes skyward.
Suppose, then, at that very moment, the insect-flowered world pops,
and she hears thousands of wisteria pods.
Yes,pods, like wings in flight, seeding throughout the universe.
She has struck her head among the stars.
Enraptured, Anges has a new slant on things.
The reawkaened Anges stirs and rises from the operating table like a runaway vagrant, meeting Dr. Genghis Chang eyeball to eyeball, hers clear blue, his with dollar signs.
Aunt Jemima’s Revenge
The Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co. has announced a recall of several varieties of Aunt Jemima’s pancake and waffle mix for possible salmonella contamination.
—United Press Syndicate, March 5, 2008
Finally, she’s got her revenge for decades
of obsequious headscarves and blackface
appropriation, flapjack slavery and erasure
from the histroy books. She’s no longer
your slave, your anonymous kitchen help
minstrelling through another day with a
happy-face smile, a cakewalk grin. She
has you right where she wants you: feverish
and glassy-eyed, head in the toilet, pleading
for redemption from your own evil.
As a kid, you loved her plump black face
on that bright red box, not knowing she
meant anything other than those fluffy
sugary cakes from your mother’s suburban
skillets, not knowing in vaudeville days,
a white woman with an Italian name
played her sooty-faced in burnt cork.
Later, you learned the first black Aunt
Jemima came straight off a Kentucky
plantation, hired to bring the World’s Fair
1893’s most startling invention: powdered
hotcakes in a box to a grateful, hungry
nation. But you never thought she’d turn
on you this way—after all, you knew
February was Black History Month, and you
helped your eleven month old scrawl
his “Why Martin Luther King Is My Hero”
essay. Why now, you moan, stomach
bucking like a darktown strutter, brain
swimming with unholy visions: Uncle Ben
brandishing Ginsu kinves, Charlie Chan
and Betty Crocker swinging nunchucks,
sticks going straight for your head.
Why not now, she replies, never too late
to learn what real food tastes like
coming back up, sardonic grin no longer
the grin of a woman’s who’s spent
a lifetime making your breakfast
without you ever once offering to make hers.
“That’s what I mean,” I said. “Go to Zhengzhou with that girl, and you’re dead.” Tao Yu was the Chinese name of the girl at the front desk, and her English name was Smile. She was a sophomore and a member of the university’s Elite Debaters Team. She worked twenty hours a week in the foreign faculty dorm. It was against the rules to show a foreign teacher that mugshot. She showed us because Calvin was regularly (and in clear violation of his contract) inviting Smile to his foreign teacher flat and taking off his twenty-year-old student’s clothes. The photo wasn’t clear. The arsonist was just a boy and had high cheekbones, thin severe lips. The problem with the whole situation was that Smile had a boyfriend, and that boyfriend was a student in my class. Even worse, and in spite of Calvin’s denying there was any connection, I was convinced against all reason that Calvin’s recklessness had somehow summoned the arsonist. I told Calvin the thing he had with Smile shouldn’t concern me.
Calvin and I arrived with the other teachers in Guoren City at the end of August. The university gave us one week’s rest to get over jet lag and put us up in flats just inside the university gates—real gates, with guards and chains at night. Cameras recorded when foreign teachers entered or exited the building. At eleven o’clock, every single night, a smaller gate was locked over our building’s main entrance. All the other doorways were permanently chained closed at all hours. Desk workers meticulously logged who visited which foreign teacher.
Calvin’s solution? Seduce a gatekeeper.
In reality, and to be fair to Calvin, Smile wasn’t completely innocent. She was as tall as Calvin, about five feet six inches, and her black hair streaked down around her face and hung a few inches below her chin. Her skin was just a shade darker than Calvin’s, and she couldn’t have weighed more than one hundred pounds. I was with Calvin the day Smile asked if she could visit his room. It was allowed, as long as students signed their names in the log as well as the time they went up and came back down. She wanted, she said, for him to listen to a speech she would record and submit for the provincial
speech competition. I was sitting on the couch in Calvin’s flat when Smile arrived that evening. She brought a friend, a roommate, whose English name was Rose. Rose wore jeans that hugged her hips and plopped down on the couch beside me. Soon she was reciting her speech for my response.
As for Calvin, he’d been sitting in a chair when the girls entered, and Smile knelt down on the floor and recited her speech, just slightly leaning towards Calvin’s legs, on her knees. She’d worn a jean skirt and boots that came up to mid-calf. I caught Calvin checking out Smile’s body while she proclaimed in a Chinese-British accent what the 2008 Beijing Olympics meant to her. Smile dumped her Chinese boyfriend, my student, at some point during that week before classes started. His English name was Darren. I know it happened because Darren wrote about it in the diagnostic essay I made all students write the first day of class. His first paragraph read: Resently, my girlfriend moved out of our apartment because I am not richer or handsomer. But loving my girlfriend is like loving a wife, so I very loving my girlfriend. At night and on the phone I should follow her to let her be safe.
I walked down the hallway and knocked on Calvin’s door that evening. I wanted to show him this paragraph. When he opened the door, the lighting in his room had changed. Calvin had turned off the florescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling. He’d bought a lamp, which he’d placed in the corner of the room. The lamp was directed down, making a sort of spotlight in the middle of the living room floor. Shadows darkened almost everything else in the room. I walked in and sat down on the couch. It smelled of cologne. “What can I do for you?” Calvin said, running his fingers through his blond, Russian hair. I handed him the diagnostic essay Darren had written. That Smile had been living in an apartment off campus (against university rules) with a boyfriend was, Calvin said, news to him.
“What should I do?” he asked me.
He slumped down into a chair, his eye sockets deep with shadows.
“Get back to work,” I said.
“Just stop the whole damn thing before it’s out of control.”
“Yeah,” he said, and chewed his bottom lip.
He gazed quietly across the room. One day in early September, just a few weeks into the semester, Calvin sent me a text message, inviting me to dinner.
“Sure,” I wrote back. Half an hour later, he knocked on my door. Smile was with him. I was in the middle of commenting on one hundred essays and wouldn’t have agreed to dinner if I’d known it was to create a front. We moseyed down the hallway. “Hitting those papers?” Calvin said. Smile wasn’t looking, so I glared at him. “Aren’t you?” Calvin, infuriatingly shy like a boy, squinted his eyes, retracted his neck slightly, and laughed. They weren’t holding hands, but they walked swinging their arms and bumped their fists together as though by accident. Once we got down the stairs and were out on the campus street, the evening air swept over us, with the noise of traffic and the voices of the people around us. The sun had gone down, but a milky-gray soup of coal dust and smog shifted overhead and blocked out the light of the stars and moon. Calvin sidestepped behind me and came up on my other side. I was walking in between my colleague and his studentgirlfriend. We headed towards the gate. A guard wearing along, brown-gray coat and a police hat with a badge on it smiled at me as all three of us walked out onto the Guoren City street. Vendors crowded the gates. An old man selling popcorn, a woman selling hand-sewn cushions for shoes, and another selling small candied apples impaled on sticks all called for us in Chinese.
We snaked around a tremendous lot of bicycles for rent and headed down the street. Taxis, buses, and three-wheeled carts scurried by in every direction. The drivers and pedestrians shifted together like river rapids. The lines in roads and traffic rules meant nothing. The rule that governed movement was the principle of mutual harmony. As long as nobody wrecked into another car or person, all was well. In the fall, hanging strips of clear plastic formed restaurant entryways. I swept aside these strips as we walked into the place where we’d have dinner. Smile sat first, against the wall, and Calvin sat across from her. I moved to sit down beside him, but he stopped me. He used a mock polite voice and grinned, boyishly, outstretching a hand to the beautiful Smile.
“You’re not going to let a young lady sit alone, are you?” Calvin said.
Smile blushed and giggled. I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps it was my stupid desire
“Of course not,” I said, using the same chivalric register. I eased down next to her. We ordered plates of dumplings and another plate of sweet and sour chicken. The waiter brought us cups and filled them with hot water. Chopsticks rested on saucers in front of us. While the waiter was setting up our table, my student Darren burst through the strips of plastic that kept out the wind and plopped down at a table beside us. He glared at Smile. Calvin reddened, and Smile shrank in her seat. Darren ordered something, then dipped his napkin into the hot water the waitress had brought. He was rubbing his napkin over the length of each of his fingers. From a coat pocket, he fumbled for something and pulled out a green winter cap. He put the hat on and slumped back, wiping down
Smile stood up and stormed out the front door, Darren following. Darren was shorter than Smile and had a thin, messy moustache. He never looked at me. The sound of Smile and Darren shouting, just outside on the street, came in through the hanging doorway. I leaned forward over the table towards Calvin.
“What the fuck!” I said.
“How crazy is this, man?” he said, shaking his head and leaning back in his chair.
“He must’ve been waiting for us,” I said, “outside the building.”
In my imagination, Darren was leaning against a wall across from our foreign faculty flats, his hands in his pockets, perhaps pacing, gazing up at the windows and wondering in which apartment the foreign teacher was diddling his girlfriend.
“Quiet,” Calvin said.
He pointed behind me. A young man sat with the back of his chair almost touching mine, alone at a table. I didn’t recognize him, but he picked up his plate and, stepping across the restaurant aisle, sat down across from Darren’s empty seat. The skin on his face was thin, grayish and peeling, like he’d been burned. Here’s what the arsonist did. It happened in late September, a couple weeks after my student Darren busted us having dinner with his former girlfriend, and one week before Calvin was going to run away to the city of Zhengzhou with Smile.
The arsonist slunk onto campus, perhaps walking in as if he were a student. Before he torched the three dormitories, only one guard stood by the main gate. One guard couldn’t check student IDs. Anyway, so many carts and people came and went on the campus, bringing food to restaurants or supplies to the construction crews on south campus, where they were building the new swimming pool, that the arsonist must’ve entered the campus that evening without anyone challenging him. The principle of mutual harmony. He walked down the middle of campus, class buildings on either side, and moved towards the hill, probably drawn by the sight of the pavilion.
The pavilion capped the hill and overlooked everything on campus. It had the Chinese style tiled, swooping roof, with open sides that harnessed breezes. The arsonist climbed
up that hill and huddled in the pavilion alone on a bench. All around him, lovers had scratched their names into the wood in Chinese characters. The arsonist lacerated his characters into the wood of the bench he sat on, but that didn’t help authorities track him down. The arsonist used an alias. Where he should’ve written his family name, he slashed in the character for fire.
When it was 6:30, and most of the students would be having dinner, the arsonist scaled back down the hill and headed towards the cluster of dormitories on east campus. He walked into the lobby of the first one, a girls’ dorm. Cameras caught him running up stairs and trying door handles until finding one that was unlocked. Inside, he would’ve found nothing but kindling. With eight students packed together in one dorm room, clothes and papers and books would’ve sprawled everywhere. It would only have taken a spray of lighter fluid over the floor and students’ bunk beds and a flip of the cigarette lighter to birth the blaze.
It must’ve been the same process, all in a feverish dash from dorm building to dorm building, for the arsonist. In the end, from three dorm rooms, bodies of flame throbbed
out windows. The first week of October, with the campus still on lockdown because of the fires, Calvin and Smile went to a hotel together in Zhengzhou. They left in the morning, and I enabled their flight.
Calvin knocked on my door a few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on my couch, with my coffee table before me laden with stacks of student papers. The door was unlocked, so Calvin stepped in. He was wearing a winter cap even though it was still fall, and he’d hooked his backpack onto his shoulder. He looked thinner in the face. Hollow grooves had formed on either side of his nose and down through his cheeks.
“Damn,” I said.
“You been screwing yourself skinny.”
He laughed quietly and blushed. His feet were soundless on the floor. With stealth, he closed the door behind him. He jerked his head back and seemed to snarl. “What’s
that smell?” he asked. The garbage bin overflowed with tea
leaves and plastic bags that held greasy street food wrappings.
“You really got to clean your room,” he said.
He ran his toe over the floor. The tip of his shoe left a clean streak in the dusting of coal that covered everything, came in through the windows and under the balcony door.
“Come on. I’ll buy you breakfast.”
Outside the gate, where taxis lined up waiting for students, Smile had gone down first to negotiate a price with a driver. I stood outside our building with Calvin until he received the text message. From just fifty feet away, Smile sent the message telling him the taxi was ready. “Let’s go,” he said, and he lifted his shoulders slightly, repositioned the bag on his back, and headed for the front gate. He ducked into the opened taxi door and had closed it by the time I’d reached the passenger side. Through the bars separating the front of the cab from the back, Smile and Calvin beamed at me while cuddling with each other. They dropped me off a mile down the road, outside a place that made pancakes. Calvin slipped me six Yuan for the taxi cab back. In spite of being used again, I waved at Smile and Calvin as they departed. Calvin wrapped his arm around Smile’s neck and pulled her in. At that I gave them the middle finger, which they never saw.
For the next three days, working nearly twelve hours every day, I wrote comments on student essays. Calvin dashed off text messages from Zhengzhou, usually in code.
“Three times this morning. :->,” for example.
Or, “Afternoon delight!”
Then, “A picture’s worth a thousand thrusts!”
I turned my phone off. The search for the arsonist continued. Police officers wearing white, World War I-style helmets patrolled the streets outside the campus. Two guards loomed on either side of the steady shuffle of students entering or leaving through the main gate, and a Chinese guy (“Joseph”) from Beijing, the guy who was in charge of the foreign faculty dorm (actually, the guy from the Party who monitored foreigners), was staked out at my building’s front desk, chain smoking cigarettes.
Officially, the fires from the week before were flukes. Two of them started in students’ computers. The two students had left the computers on, unsupervised. Both buildings had experienced power surges at the same time. The third fire started because a student left on a hot plate, which the student shouldn’t have had at all. Still, security was tight, and no student could visit any foreign teacher until authorities apprehended the arsonist (an irresponsible rumor, who never was), whose mugshot, if you asked the university’s Chinese administrators, didn’t exist at the front desk. Because I’d turned off my phone, my student Darren sent me an email message. I hadn’t checked my messages in days because I’d cramped my back over students’ writing. It read: You were not available to visit today. Can I know you some time today to talk about my writing?
When I read this email, I turned on my phone and realized the disaster Calvin had dragged me into. Calvin had sent me messages, asking for my passport number. I called him to ask what the hell was happening. Nobody answered. Calvin’s phone was off, so I flipped through the other text messages I’d received. Most of them weren’t from Calvin but from Darren. In total, Darren had sent me fifteen text messages over the last few days. The worst ones were the most recent. Can we meet in the pavilion on campus?
[From: Darren 11:21am 4/8/07].
Actally, I am in Zheng Zhou. Are you here?
[From: Darren 11:32am 4/8/07].
I know your here. I am outside your hotel. Can you come? [From: Darren 12:01pm 4/8/07].
Ha ha! only joking. You are not in hotel. You have a new room? I am at my parents in Zheng Zhou. please meet me! Actually theres something I need to explain. [From: Darren 4:11am 5/8/07]. While I was going through these messages, Calvin
“Where’ve you been?” he asked.
“Your phone was off,” I said.
“That’s because your student keeps calling.”
“That doesn’t follow,” I said. “Logic’s all wrong.”
“Look professor, can you give me your passport number?”
Somewhere beyond Calvin, Smile was shouting, probably at Darren on the other end of her phone.
“Go to hell,” I said.
“Already there.” Calvin was quiet for a moment, and Smile shouted, sobbing now.
“Please,” Calvin said, his voice lower, “don’t burn me, bro. I forgot my passport in my room. Can’t you just read your number off for me?” “That’s a lie. You’ve been checking in under my name this whole time. Darren found you. He was outside your last hotel.”
“How do you know?” Calvin said.
“I’ve helped enough,” I said. “I’m through.”
“Wait,” he said. “Please.” He breathed deeply. “What should I do?”
“Pack up your shit and get back to work.”
For a long time, only Smile berating Darren through her phone, somewhere in the hotel room in Zhengzhou, came through the line.
“Yeah,” Calvin finally said.
I leaned forward on my couch, planted my elbows on the coffee table (cleared of unread student papers), and clasped my head in my hands. The local Chinese officials published the cause of the fires, and meanwhile they dubbed the arsonist the real cause, but even that answer wasn’t quite right. I know why the arsonist did it: the arsonist had finally realized the lie behind the rule that no rule mattered as long as nobody hurt anybody else. Sitting in the pavilion, high above campus, the arsonist had perhaps brooded over the fact that, because of his poor family (poorer, anyway, than the kids whose parents could afford to pay American teachers), he might never get married—whereas a male American teacher could swoop up almost any Chinese girl he wanted. Calvin and Smile were proof. Anyway, these are the thoughts that might’ve occurred to me if I were him, at that age, out of work in China. The principle of mutual harmony went only as deep as manners, he would’ve concluded, and his fire, as simple and quick as jealousy, would blaze that lie into alarming clarity. Calvin and Smile were supposed to get back to campus at nine o’clock that evening. At least that’s what Calvin wrote me in a text message. My plan was to set it up so that Darren witnessed Calvin and Smile coming onto campus. I would be standing alone outside my building, and Darren would know that, all along, I’d been in Guoren. I sent Darren several text messages. “I’m in the pavilion,” I wrote at first. Then, “All right, I’m outside my building right now. Come know me.” Finally, I tried calling Darren instead of texting, but he didn’t answer. I left a message on his voice mail: “It’s your writing teacher. I’ve been in my room this whole week. The emergency with the fires was the reason Joseph didn’t let you visit my room. Are you there? If you’re there, come now. I’m here in Guoren City. I never left. Why don’t you answer? It’s impolite to ignore a teacher.” I stood outside my building that night starting at eight o’clock.
I stood in clear view of everybody walking past. All the students, the guards, everyone would’ve noticed me outside, and the word would without fail get back to Darren. Even Darren’s agent, the guy from the restaurant, would know. That same guy was now watching me from across my building. He was leaning against a store front, his hands in his pockets. I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. It didn’t matter, I thought. He could tell Darren I’d been waiting here. At nine o’clock, I moved closer to the gate. Taxis slowed and stopped out front, but Smile and Calvin were in none of them. At 9:30 I turned and ran back into my apartment building, past Joseph smoking cigarettes, who jotted my name down in the log, and up to Calvin’s room. I leaned forward and placed my ear against his door. Nobody was moving inside, so I stepped back. I walked to the end of the hallway and switched off the light. Only light coming up from the stairwell illuminated the floor enough for me to make my way back.
Alone in the dark, with nobody around me, I kicked in Calvin’s door. It was the cheap kind any bathroom in the States would have, but the sound of splitting wood exploded throughout the halls. The door was hollow and broke right open. I ran inside and closed the door before another teacher could see me. A chunk of wood around the door knob had splintered off, and the door barely went back into the frame. Once I was inside, my feet swished over student papers. The place was covered with them, essays heaped over one another on his table, notebooks and clothing strewn all around the floor like someone had ransacked the apartment. I walked the length of the flat and entered the bedroom. The curtains were drawn, closed to hide the tremendous amount of sex Calvin and Smile were apparently having. The bed was empty. The bedspread and sheets were twisted up and hanging onto the floor. While I was inside Calvin’s room, I got a phone call. It was him.
“Where the hell you been?” I said.
“Outside the gate.”
I jerked my head at the mess of student essays all around me.
“Where’s Smile?” I said.
“Just walked her home.”
I stepped towards the busted door.
“Oh,” I said.
While I walked down the corridor towards the stairs, Calvin talked on.
“How crazy was it?” he said, laughing like a boy. “The whole hide-and-seek thing. You should see the photos we got though. Now those are crazy.” At the end of the hallway, I reached around the corner to flip the light switch but stopped. Immediately in front of me, hidden partly in shadows, stood the guy with the burned face, Darren’s friend, who’d been standing across from my building an hour earlier.
Calvin shouted into the phone. “Oh my God. Smile!”
“What’s happening?” I said, speaking to the young man in front of me. A paper sack dangled from his hand.
“He’s got her backpack,” Calvin shouted. “The camera.” “Who?” I said it to the young man in front of me. He was wriggling his lips and holding the paper bag in his fist.
“Your student’s out of control!” I stepped aside, away from the light switch, and backpedaled from the charred young man, towards the stairwell. The young man watched me the entire time. At the bottom of the first set of stairs, I slipped my phone into my pocket and ran. Joseph wasn’t at the front desk. He was in the side office on the telephone. I snaked around the last banister post and headed towards the exit.
As soon as I got outside, up ahead, on the other side of the main gate, Smile was scratching at Darren’s face. Darren violently jerked loose her backpack and trotted away. Behind them, Calvin helplessly followed. He looked around, but I was hidden, back behind. Smile was in between Darren and Calvin. She shouted at her former boyfriend. It happened right in the middle of the sidewalk. Darren dangled her backpack from his arm and was backpedaling. He was saying something to Smile in Chinese and enticing her to make her choice. I know what my choice could’ve been. I could’ve dashed in, talked my student into handing over the bag, and the camera inside, but I didn’t. I stood still in the dark while, up ahead, store front lights blazed over the affair. At the same time, behind
me, in Calvin’s room overlooking the street, those same streetlights glared against the glass as if flames devoured curtains.
“So I’m out on a date tonight. One of my more arrogant gentlemen callers has invited me to dinner, and as a kind of foreplay to the prime rib, I decide to compliment his tie. He thinks it’s a coded message, takes me for a walk along the downtown street where we pass a lingerie shop with a name like Aphrodite. Or maybe Circe.
He crows about the display of sexy dainties draped across the mannequins in the window, says he’d like to see me wearing one. I wink at him, but don’t otherwise respond. Nevertheless, my attention is attracted too. Not because this is a man I would ever ache to model for, but because there
Well, an hour passes and we’re at the restaurant where he’s perfecting his cocksure demeanor. While he promotes himself with his millionaire’s boasts, I get him to fork over a hundred dollars for my “favorite charity.” By now, we’ve shared a little talk and a little tease. (He: What word would you say best describes you? Me: How about I whisper it to you later?) We’ve split an appetizer, sipped our dry martinis, have finished our soups and our salads.
I’ve also finished pretending to attend to whatever is being said. And I decide I want to go back to that lingerie shop and buy myself a corset. I’m thinking about that big bill burning a hole in my pocket when the waiter comes around again, and I ask him to please delay my entrée while I visit the powder room. (Why we call it that, I don’t know, although during my disco days, I did dab my nose at the mirror.)
But I bypass the loo and sneak out the door and back down the street, where I find a corset that suits me. I take it into the fitting room and take off my dress and my bra. The garment has little hooks in the front, laces up the back. I need help to get into it. And even as I consider that I’m too big for a thirty-four, I call the salesgirl off the floor. She arrives on a cloud of perfume.
“What do you think?” I ask, moving into the light.
“Perfect,” she says, as she pulls the leather laces tight.
“And surprising too. I never would have suggested hot pink for a redhead.”
So I buy the damn thing and shove it in my bag and return to the restaurant, where ol’ Foghorn has been waiting with the waiter and another bottle of wine.
“Well, what’s the word, lady?” he clucks, as I ease into my chair.
I smile at him, lean across the table, and whisper an answer that seems fair. “How ‘bout Foxy?”
We whisper to one another or stare at the floor, waiting. The forty of us barely fit in this small white room. Though jet-lagged, we are awake and jittery, trying to figure out what time of night it is at home. Out the window, the air is hot and smells of seawater; it has made our skin salty, our hair frizzy. A door opens behind us and the room falls silent. I turn as a dark tan Aboriginal man struts past to the center of our folding chair semi-circle. Almost naked, he wears only a breach cloth and paint. White dots and lines cover his dark body, defining muscles as they glide and squirm under his skin. His upper left arm is encircled in white paint rings; I can’t tell whether they are separate or a spiral.
Without introduction he raises the long, hollow didgeridoo to his parted lips and blows. A great vibration fills the small room and I grip my chair tighter, squeezing my knees together until they turn white. I hold my breath until my lungs burn. Now the sound is a hum, a drone, filling every corner. Up and down, the buzz stretches and tightens. I hear the whine of bees, or a car motor, far away then zooming past. People clap. People exhale. The sound opens the room wide.
I remember sitting in that white room, my friends fading into gray periphery. While watching, I tried to quietly imitate the Aboriginal man’s continual breath, picturing the loop of air recycling, blue and ethereal. Instead, my stunted breaths evoked the memory of climbing on the dogwood tree next to my house when I was ten. It was a short tree, with one long, low branch that I often sat on just because I could. On one such climb, after a rain, my slick sneakers slid down the wet bark. It happened so fast. I grabbed frantically at the branch, but ended up stunned on my back with bark under my fingernails and no air. That’s what my attempts at circular breathing felt like—empty lungs.
I was at Girl Scout day camp the first time I realized I wanted to visit Australia and New Zealand. It must have been a day on travel or other cultures because we were looking at oceanic guidebooks with glossy pages of turquoise water and coral reefs, Ayers Rock rising red from the flat outback, the white curves of the Sydney Opera House. I remember sitting on a splintery bench in the picnic shelter next to the pool full of loud, sunburned children and trashcans buzzing with yellow jackets. As everyone else opened their crinkled brown lunch bags and pulled out bruised bananas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I turned pages, running my fingertips over bright colors, entranced. I’d never wanted anything so badly before. I was fourteen.
That was August. In October I received a letter from People to People, a student ambassador program that sends American high school students in matching polo shirts all over the world to learn about new cultures. Somehow I had been nominated, the letter said by a teacher or a government leader, though no one I knew had ever heard of the program. There would be a group of forty students leaving from my area the coming summer, a three-week trip to Australia and New Zealand. I applied immediately, writing the necessary essays, getting forms notarized, and raising money. Each People to People excursion had an educational focus; the purpose of this trip would be to study the unique flora and fauna of both countries. I checked out every relevant—and not so relevant—book in the Johnson City Public Library and holed up in my bedroom to read.
In the spring, all of those accepted met as a group once a week to learn about traveling, immersion into a new culture, and each other. Because I was homeschooled, it had been a while since I’d spent more than a couple hours with so many people my age; three weeks was a long time to be away from home. I was nervous, filled with anxious energy, shy about knowing so little of the world.
We are in a circle on the floor of Northside Elementary’s library and I know only one other person, Alicia—we went to science camp together three or four years ago. This weekend’s assignment was to bring three interesting facts about Australian or New Zealand culture. Those around me whisper to one another, looking behind them at rows of children’s books. Most of us have never left the country. I try to remember my three facts, try to picture the words on the index cards in my bedroom. Glancing around the room, I’m pretty sure no one else bothered with index cards. I wanted to share facts beyond the obvious, so I had read an obscure but intense book about Australian exploration. Now I finger the pages, wondering if it is even possible to fit all of the drama into short phrases.
The circle begins. With halfhearted shrugs and fingertips mussing the carpet, one by one these new acquaintances rattle off facts in bored tones. “They have wildlife indigenous only there.” “They eat mutton.” “They began as Polynesian communities.” I feel my chest tightening, my stomach churning. My words—about the failed Burke and Wills exploration, miscommunication between adventurers, and surviving and dying in the outback—will not fit here. I’ll stick out before I’ve ever left Tennessee. Leaning over to Alicia, I slide my book under my crossed legs and ask her for three facts. “It is the smallest continent,” I hear myself saying. “Many farmers raise sheep.” “James Cook is supposedly the first European discoverer.” And then it is no longer my turn.
If you had asked me back then, I would have told you that culture was everywhere but home. Like accents, I could hear anyone’s but my own. African culture. Australian culture. European culture. Culture was exotic. I knew American culture existed, but it was in bigger cities with subways and skyscrapers, or quaint Midwestern towns where everyone knew everyone else, not in my rural corner of northeast Tennessee. I needed to travel to experience culture. While other places had beautiful architecture, my neighbors lived in tiny frame houses, fixed-up barns painted blue, or, in one case, a school bus with black curtains. Cultured places had delicacies. We had deviled eggs. Cultured places had museums of art and history and science. The first museum that comes to mind in my area is the Hands On Children’s Museum about a half hour from my house, though it does have a pretty awesome indoor slide. People came to our corner of the country to get away from culture, to get lost on trails carpeted in pine needles and tulip poplar leaves, to see rhododendrons burst into sticky pink and white blooms on the Roan Mountain balds. I wanted to leave the winding back roads and experience Culture for myself.
When I got my chance, flying halfway around the world, the differences and similarities captivated me. Having never been out of the country before, I had no idea what to expect and I promised myself I would take in every moment, I would constantly be aware of the fact that I made it. By the time we landed and filed into a Sydney airport lobby, I had already forgotten this promise, instead wondering why a new guy friend was paying attention to another girl. I barely remember riding around Sydney our first day. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open after the twenty-four hours of flying. At first—except for traveling on the opposite side of the road—Sydney seemed like it could be any city in the U.S.: tall buildings, people milling around, traffic. And then I caught a glimpse of the Sydney Opera House.
We were across the Darling Harbor from the majority of the city. As we got out of our tour bus at an overlook, I saw the AMP Tower and then, down and to the right, the Opera House’s smooth lines. It took my breath away. It’s a beautiful building, of course, but its curved white outline against the cloudy sky forced me to realize how very far from home I was. I was actually in Australia. We all gathered in front of the overlook so a professional photographer from Boomerang Photos could take our picture. Behind a People to People sign reading 15 June 1999, all forty of us are standing in four rows with the Opera House behind us, small and white across the harbor. I am in the front row wearing my staple purple zip-up jacket, my name tag around my neck, my mind trying to wrap itself around my location.
After a day or two in Sydney, our group drove just north to a small town called Tamworth. We were told we would each be staying with a college student and their family. I worried whether a college student would be annoyed by my fifteenyear-old presence. I was assigned to the Rees family: Sam, Meridie, and their daughter Emily. When we met, I realized Emily was not college-aged at all; in fact, she was barely older than me. It took me days to figure out that high school to Australians is referred to as “college.” After unloading my bag in their back bedroom, which had been Emily’s brother’s room—he was off at university (their college)—Emily called all of her friends and had me talk to them over the phone.
“You have to hear her accent!” she would say, shoving the phone to my ear. “Say something.”
Overwhelmed and still a bit jet lagged, I said, “Hi, my name is Rachel.” Giggling ensued from the other end. One boy said I sounded cute. How could they not hear how much cooler their accents were? Mine was so plain with hard r’s, while their vowels stretched and yawned.
Emily then gave me a tour of downtown where we met up with my friends and their host students. On our way we compared vocabularies. She talked about my lack of fringe and laughed when I explained that we call them bangs. She asked if I wanted chippies, and was surprised I called them fries. As we crossed a bricked crosswalk, Emily stopped in the middle to tie her shoes. Horns honked impatiently.
“They have to stop for pedestrians and they hate when I do this,” she giggled. The palm trees lining the street were filled with pink cockatoo-looking birds. She said they were galahs and were pains in the butt because they poop everywhere. I told her the only birds equivalent in my area are crows and they aren’t nearly as pretty.
“And those palm trees,” she said, “they brought those in from somewhere to make the street look more tropical, but this is Tamworth for God’s sake. It’s much too cold for them.”
She was wearing a heavy sweatshirt even though it was sixty degrees out. “This isn’t cold,” I said. She laughed.
We’ve just met and I only remember a few of the eight or so new names, but I can’t stop smiling. Half of us are American. All are teenagers. We are in Tamworth in the furniture section of a place like K-Mart or Big Lots except next to the couches and armoires are bins of framed and matted calligraphy prints about “Mum.” Even back in Tennessee my friends and I wouldn’t dare hang out in the furniture department, wouldn’t dare to put ourselves in a situation where we might be fussed at by adults. Every time an employee passes, I hold my breath for a second, waiting for him or her to boot us out of the way of paying customers. My mother would kill me if she knew I was here.
I’m sitting on the far end of a very soft couch, careful not to touch anything if I don’t have to. One host girl, who has just come from some dance performance as evidenced by her exaggerated makeup and tight bun, has her boots on a footstool. I’m afraid a store employee will bark at us and I keep asking Emily if it is all right for us to be here. She nods and waves a hand in dismissal. I’ve only been in her house for a day, but I can’t picture her parents getting upset. They seem to mind their own business.
Quiet, listening, I watch those around me, forcing myself to remember each second of this experience, reminding myself to always be aware. Emily tells a joke, and I lean forward on my section of the couch to hear every inflection of her accent.
When I first came back from the trip, I tried to live as the Aussies and Kiwis do. I ate cereal out of a serving spoon as my New Zealand host family had done. I asked when we were having “breakie” in the mornings. I called fries “chippies.” I drove my parents crazy talking about how tiny kiwis are in the States every time we walked through the produce section of Ingles grocery store.
“In New Zealand, they are the size of softballs,” I would say. I even talked my mom into taking mashed pumpkin—a dish I had near Wellington—to Geography Day at a homeschool meeting. Later that evening, we ended up dumping the orange contents of the still-full Crockpot in the back of the Target parking lot.
I had never been one to curse, but after being around Australians and Americans who did all the time, the words seeped into my vocabulary. I think it began on the night of Emily’s school dance. I only went to school through third grade; after that, my parents began homeschooling me, so a school dance was something out of a book or movie. Especially a costume dance. A “medieval disco.” I soon learned that a disco did not necessitate bell bottoms or a disco ball. It was simply a dance. My host was a fairy; I went as myself, having packed no alternative.
As Sixpence None the Richer’s song “Kiss Me,” came on, I wandered into the courtyard where a group of students, both Australian and American, had gathered. I recognized Reid. He lived about forty-five minutes from me back home and seemed almost as quiet as I was. I stood beside him, listening to the conversation.
“What’s the worst cuss word you guys have?” one of my friends asked. Motherfucker, someone whispered.
My parents were shocked when, once home, I liberally added damn or shit in conversation. I quickly outgrew that habit. For the most part, my parents weren’t excited about the little bits of culture I tried squeezing into my life, and by extension, their lives. Or at least they didn’t understand how much I had wanted to be influenced by this new way of looking at life. It’s not that the people I met and the families stayed with were so very different from my own. It was more about suddenly becoming aware of options outside my little world in Tennessee. Of seeing what life could be. I had seen the other
side of the planet and found a new side to my own identity in the process. I just wanted to show that.
I am hyperventilating. The wet suit they put on me is too tight and smells of someone else’s sweat. I try to think back to the pool in Tennessee where we practiced with snorkels and goggles. I did fine then, but I forgot to expect the obvious—deep water, waves, salt. My lungs are climbing up my throat
to stay dry. But I came halfway around the world to see this, dammit, I’m not getting back on that boat yet.
I focus on my hands gripping the metal ladder leading down into the dark blue water. I can do this. Behind me is a now-familiar voice. Reid. “You’re doing great,” he says. “Come on out, I want to show you what I found.” Gulping air, I let go of the ladder and feel myself sink into the warm waves. Turning onto my stomach, I push my face beneath the skin of the water and, after a long hesitation that burns my lungs,tentatively breathe through my snorkel. It works! Through my goggles I see Reid’s boney ribs then his face as he slides underwater himself. Smiling around the mouthpiece of his snorkel, he motions for me to follow.
Below me the coral rises. Now I understand why they call it table coral; it is like swimming above a tabletop, two feet from the surface. I feel Reid swimming next to me, guiding me. Parrot fish that shine the full rainbow of colors swim through my shadow. I see anemones, sea cucumbers, and zebra looking fish. The water is bright teal, like postcard beaches. We stop and tread, watching bubbles emerge from a clam with a fuzzy, green mouth. Then I feel Reid’s hands against mine, his fingers between mine. I almost forget to breathe—a boy is holding my hand. Pulling me to the left, he points. Between rocks I see a royal blue tentacle. Slowly, the tentacle grows, pushing coral and rocks away until the full starfish is visible. Reid’s grip tightens. A royal blue starfish.
I can’t say I didn’t want the romantic overseas tryst, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it. Before we ever left, Betsy, of the chosen forty, had a party at her house to give everyone a chance to mingle outside of the elementary school library. I don’t remember much from that night even though it was the first real party I’d gone to without parents. The evening was calm enough, but romances began early.
Reid was the guy I didn’t notice until we were already in Australia. Perhaps because he was my height—and I am 4’11’’—I avoided the jokes that had already begun. But he was cute and nice and had a calm, but raspy voice. The boy was fit—he had a blackbelt in karate and the abs to prove it. He kept his hair buzzed so that it was difficult to tell the color. He had piercing green-gray eyes.
The whole being-around-boys thing was new to me, though I had been through enough school to have crushes who had no idea I existed. After I started homeschooling, I still had guy friends I thought were cute, but being around a boy all day long is a different experience. Years later I would think how my hormones stole Australia and New Zealand from me. Instead of admiring the orange and blue crusted sulfur springs at New Zealand’s Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, I worried why Reid chose not to stand with me through the tour. I faintly remember the bumpy four-wheel drive trip up the side of a hopefully dormant volcano, instead recalling the way another girl focused all her attention on Reid, petting his buzzed hair. Now I see that those moments have become an unavoidable, and just as beautiful, part of the landscape.
His hand is on my thigh under the table, intertwined with my own hand, feeling each finger individually.
We are in a large hotel ballroom having a bush dinner of traditional New Zealand fare: emu sausage,
barbecued kangaroo. The sausage is greasy, but the kangaroo is tangy and delicious—until I realize
what it is. Everyone is dressed up for the first time on the trip. Everyone looks stunning. I can’t
concentrate on the food or the conversation because of the warm feeling sliding through my body, disabling my brain, my mouth. This is new.
Bonnie, sitting across from me at our round table with its clean white tablecloth, clears her plate and excuses herself to the restroom, as she does with every meal. I barely notice. Reid rubs my fingers harder as he says, to no one in particular, “I’m worried about her.”
Alicia, without looking up from her plate, says, “Don’t judge. You don’t know what it’s like.” At first I don’t understand what they are talking about; my head is still in the cloud of Reid’s hand. I’ve never encountered an eating disorder before, never thought about someone I know being affected by that. Reid glares at his plate. I tighten my grip on his hand, and though I don’t know if I should, I quietly say, “That doesn’t keep us from worrying.”
I’m not sure why that memory sticks out to me the way it does. When I think about Bonnie, that night is what comes to mind. Nobody I know is happy with their body. But until that point, I’d never met someone that unhappy. In reality, I probably just wasn’t aware of it. Bonnie made me aware. I’d begun to realize that I’d never eaten three meals a day with people outside my immediate family before. Despite all of the extra-curricular activities I was involved in, I was a sheltered child. This trip blew the cover off. I was exposed, and it was uncomfortable at times.
Part of why that memory is so clear all these years later has something to do with my response. I feel guilty for saying we were worried. Not because I wasn’t worried—I was, and scared for Bonnie, too. I couldn’t imagine making myself throw up after every meal. What I feel guilty about is putting in my two cents to back up a boy I had known only a few weeks, instead of listening to Bonnie in a hotel room with just me and Alicia. I felt guilty for putting the “us” in that sentence, for feeling the need to defend him, or at least claim his side when something else needed to be said. I’m still not sure what that something should have been. I hadn’t even noticed the pattern.
I’m not sure what to expect. The People to People group from Oregon that we ran into earlier in the week said the Maori chief welcomes every guest by touching noses. It sounds extremely intimate for strangers. As we pull in, I see immediately that the Marai—the village temple—is breathtaking; everything is created out of an intricately carved, deep red wood. We aren’t allowed to take pictures of the Marai’s inside, the Maori—native New Zealanders—believe a photograph captures the soul. I snap a photo of the outside while I can, so I don’t forget the color of that wood against the green of the landscape. Inside, the walls are carved from floor to ceiling; the Maori chief sits in a chair at the far end of the Marai, waiting for our arrival. One by one, we file forward and greet the chief by gently touching his nose. When it is my turn, I lean in and smell earth. His nose is greasy against mine.
That evening, as we wait for dinner—roasted chicken and potatoes—to cook in underground pits, we sit on the floor in front of the tribe’s historian as he recites the story on the walls, which is passed down orally from one generation to the next. We hear of seven canoes sailing from Polynesia, each carrying a tribe. They land on the shore of New Zealand. The historian follows his tribe’s genealogy from one of those canoes through time. I trace carved lines on the walls and columns with my eyes as he speaks, wishing I could run my fingers over the emerging faces, hands and feet. Every surface is covered in this story.
After dinner in a nearby dining hall, the men and women of the Marai perform traditional haka dances for us. The men stomp with their legs spread wide, their hands on their upper thighs, like sumo wrestlers. They wear only a woven, grass skirt-like kilt. As they dance, their eyes roll and their tongues stick out. They grunt and stomp to the beat in unison. Andthen the women take the stage with woven tops and the same kilts, their Umbro shorts peaking between the strands. They use strings with balls on either end, poi, which bounce and spin off their bodies and around their arms.
At the end of the performance, a tribe leader explains it is the chief’s wife’s birthday. Wanting someone to sing her “Happy Birthday,” he points at Reid. With a red face and a shrug, Reid climbs the stairs to the stage where he is directed to kneel on one knee at her feet, while holding her hand. Everyone is laughing, enjoying themselves.
I had a hard time sleeping in the Marai. All forty of us were there together, lined up in cots next to blood red walls with smooth, carved curves that I was afraid to touch. Lying there in the darkness, I tried to remember the history, tried to recall some of the names the historian had told us. Instead I tasted the green soup, the most amazing soup I’ve ever had, and pictured Reid up on stage. I smelled the chicken roasting in bags in the rich earth and heard the conversations at dinner. In the dark of the hall, whispers rose from various cots, but I lay silent. The wall would not give me names, so I focused on the smell of the chief as I greeted him, the moment our noses touched, until I fell asleep.
Most of what I remember from the visit to the Marai is sensory. Without a camera to frame memories, my mind picked up on different details. I can still smell that dinner cooking underground and taste the saltiness of the mysterious green soup. I see the deep reds of the Marai surrounded by evergreen trees and grass that crunched under my sneakers as I stepped off the bus. I hear the grunt of the dancing, and the hum of the poi zipping through the air. Perhaps it is better not to have a camera; I remember more from that overnight than I do about a lot of the trip.
It’s our last night and I am sitting on my hotel room bed trying to write in my journal. I’ve been so bad about keeping up with everything and now I’m surrounded by pamphlets, trying to remember everything we’ve done over the past week. There is a knock on the door; it is Reid. The group leaders are strict about guys being in girls’ rooms, so we stand in the doorway, fidgeting. Alicia turns on the television. She comments again about how fancy it is that we have a towel warmer in the bathroom while flipping through the channels. Reid puts on chapstick and I wait in silence, letting him think through his words. Behind me, I hear Alicia suck in air as she lays the remote on the comforter. Glancing over my shoulder, I see she’s found a porn channel. I’m embarrassed and my face shows it. Reid holds my cheeks,
raises my eyes to his. They are so green it is distracting.
He clears his throat, puts on more chapstick. “Will you go out with me?”
My first kiss was in the middle of the night on a 747 over the Pacific Ocean. It was messy and awkward, as I imagine most first kisses are. Everyone around us was asleep in uncomfortable positions, wrinkling their trademark red People to People polo shirts. I was glad no one was awake to watch. Reid excited me, but I was sad. Being so removed from my life in Tennessee almost made me forget I had to go back. All night, I kept a careful watch on the little plane emblem scooting along the dotted line on the big screen at the front of the cabin as it moved closer and closer to California, ending the trip. And so I let Reid kiss me.
I wouldn’t see my friends for a long time; in some cases I would never see them again. But with Reid, I had a guarantee; he’d be around for a while. He had been with me on Bondi Beach in Sydney, he had ridden the luge in Rotorua, he sat beside me on the eight hour train ride all the way up New Zealand’s northern island. He’d experienced the magic of this place, he knew the people I now held dear. I guess I felt that by dating him I could steal a bit to take home.
The relationship ended three months later over the phone. I’d seen him maybe twice since we’d been back. We sent letters back and forth with funny memories written in the margins, but I lost interest. I couldn’t lie to him anymore. What I wanted was Australia and New Zealand; Reid just wasn’t enough.
There is a rhythm to the Aboriginal man’s breathing, and I watch his stomach muscles move in and out. Just when his lungs are nearly empty, he breathes in through his nose, so the sound never stops. He is completely in control, lost in the motion. The white paint rings on his biceps bulge as he holds the long wooden tube, breathing into it. The sound of the didgeridoo flows until there is no room left. I feel the buzz in my head, in my chest. The vibration is different from anything I’ve ever known—I want to exist in the sensation, live in its ripples. Something inside me shifts.
For years I dreamed I went back. It would be so real—on the bus looking out at the perfectly sculpted trees, at Bondi Beach watching people surf, in the water snorkeling over blue starfish, or horseback riding through the bush. And then I would wake up confused, in my own bed in Tennessee, disappointed and tired. I often pictured the places I had been, and spent hours pouring over my photo album and souvenirs, trying to remember every detail of all twenty-one days.
Nearly ten years later, most of what I remember fits in the four-by-six confines of those photo album pockets. Small, still shots of an earlier self with a koala bear at a wildlife park or friends on a chair lift. For the most part, I look happy, energetic, uninhibited, innocent. Sometimes, though, since I’ve seen those images over and over, I feel like I’m looking at someone else’s memories. I was just a child.
I still have the purple zip-up jacket that I wear in nearly every image, but I’ve thrown away the fanny pack. I have no idea where my Sydney Hard Rock Café shirt went. When I flip through the album, it seems like a dream that I have to reach for to remember. But each picture recalls small forgotten moments like trying to order a cheese pizza, the argument over make-up, the cold pumpkin soup. Sometimes the sounds come back too. I hear people’s voices, or laughter. I feel the buzz of the didgeridoo.
After the Aboriginal man’s performance, he let the guys in our group have a go at the didgeridoo. The girls weren’t allowed—it could make us pregnant. Leaning against the back wall, I scoffed at the boys’ attempts, but didn’t dare question tradition. Instead, I wondered what the smooth wooden tube would feel like in my hands. How heavy it would be. Whether the buzzing hum would tickle my lips. It was longer than I was tall and was painted like the man’s body, white stripes and dots and zig-zags. I could see nicks where the wood had been carved and worn patches where the man’s hands rubbed the paint off. The sound still vibrated in my head. He had never stopped breathing, the buzz of the didgeridoo sustained.
“That’s where the bullet stopped,” Mr. Black says.
“So it’s still in there?” I ask.
“No, no, of course not. The bullet was removed during the autopsy. The swelling is called a temporary cavity,” Mr. Black replies.
“Why is it there?”
“Because when someone is hit with a bullet, the bullet brings all sorts of debris with it, like germs and dirt, and this causes the wound to get infected.”
I am thirteen years old and I am having a conversation with the undertaker about the bullet wound in my grandfather’s head. My grandfather, Art, looks the same as he did when I saw him for the final time last Thursday—save that his lips are sewn together, his eyelids are glued shut, and that he is lying in a casket. Mr. Black, the undertaker, is telling me all these things when I ask him about the lump in my grandfather’s right temple.
“So that’s why it’s all puffy?”
“Yes, if you look close,” begins Mr. Black as he points to the wound, “can you see that it is sort of purple?”
I put my hands on the edge of my grandfather’s casket and lean in to see the wound. I crinkle my nose as I try to get an extreme close-up of what Mr. Black calls the “temporary cavity.” I don’t see anything purple underneath the gallons of make-up, but I don’t tell Mr. Black that.
“Well, see, your grandfather pulled the trigger at pointblank range and the bullet came in very hard and very fast, ripping all the veins and arteries and nerves, causing the
wound to bruise and swell,” Mr. Black explains. He looks me
in the eye through his large, thick glasses like my teachers do
when they think I understand.
“Oh,” I reply.
“Now your grandmother is a different story,” Mr. Black says.
“What?” I ask, distracted as I examine—almost touch— the side effect of the last thing that went through my grandfather’s brain.
I wonder, what would happen if I touch it?
“Come over here, Tony, I’ll show you,” Mr. Black says as he carefully crosses the room, making his way past the horde of flowers to my grandmother’s casket. I am too frozen by my sudden impulse to touch my grandfather’s wound to hear him. Still leaning over my grandfather’s body, hanging on to the casket with my feet dangling above the floor, the pointer finger on my left hand draws out like a lightning bolt getting ready to strike a weather vane.
Quicker than lightning, I touch it.
The thunder booms in my head.
I look around the room. Mr. Black and I are the only ones in the parlor and he is gently obsessing with my grandmother’s hair. The rest of my family is waiting for my father to arrive out in the foyer. No one saw me. I want to touch it again. . . .
The first couple pages of the book are stale and damaged and contain only a few images, all of which have succumbed to the inevitable decay of time. I delve a little further into the historic find and discover that some pages in the middle have been protected from the onslaught. “1932: Art and Jr.” reads the caption of the first recognizable photo.
Arthur Edgar King Jr. was born in 1928. He is four years old in this photo, and he is grabbing onto the back of his dad’s pant leg as the both of them stand outside in the snow, posing for a picture. This picture is the first image that I have seen of my grandfather since I was thirteen. My cat rubs its cheek against my knee and purrs as I recall my grandfather’s face in the casket and mentally compare it to the photo.
I am twenty-two years old, and I am flipping through a faded photo album that contains pictures of no living persons. I discovered it this afternoon after my cat got stuck in the top of our storage closet and knocked a bunch of old boxes over as she tried to escape. Tiny brown spiders crawl out of the binding as I open its cover and turn its pages; this is probably the first time these little creatures have ever seen light. Who knows how long the album has been hiding in the deep sleep of closet storage?
As I get closer and closer to the middle of the album, the pictures become clearer, the dates more recent. One picture stuns me—there is no caption except for the date “1946,” but it looks like me and an old friend in our navy uniforms lying in a bunk in the belly of a ship. I look happy, even invincible. I have no idea that in 60 years, my grandchild will stumble upon this photo and wonder how the story of such a young and hopeful-looking young man would end with a .22
“1955: Art, Louise, and Becky.” I am getting nearer to the end of the book now and I stop. My grandfather is in good shape and is standing proudly in his bathing suit; it is easy to tell that he worked in a steel mill for thirty years after a stint in the navy. He and my grandmother, also stunning as she stands proudly in her one-piece bathing suit, are smiling, standing on a beach somewhere with their first daughter, Becky (who died before she was twenty-one due to an allergic reaction to penicillin). My Aunt Becky is standing in between my grandparents as they each are holding one of her hands. Without thinking, I gently place my finger on my grandfather’s right temple—no lump.
Mr. Black is done fiddling with my grandmother’s hair and he calls me over to her casket to examine her bullet wound. Grandma Louise looks like she always has, pretty but aged—a hint of sadness in the circles around her eyes. There is no “temporal cavity” this time, as with my grandfather.
“Your grandfather’s bullet came in from point-blank range, as I had said before,” Mr. Black begins, “but with your grandmother, it wasn’t as close, so there is very little swelling around the entrance and exit wounds.”
“Exit wounds?” I ask, trying to remember if I had heard this phrase before in any of my vocabulary lessons.
“Yes, the ballistics of it doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Black begins, with his arms crossed, his left hand cradling his chin, “I don’t understand how the bullet did not pass through your grandfather’s head at such a close range.” He looks at me and shrugs his shoulders in confusion.
I shrug back.
“Your grandmother’s wound was clean, though, and the bullet came out the other side.” Mr. Black takes his hand from his chin and points to the corner of my grandmother’s head, above her right eye.
I lean in over her body, my feet once again dangling off of the floor. Up close, I see what Mr. Black is talking about. In the very centers of each of her temples there are wounds the size of shirt buttons.
“The weapon used was a .22 caliber pistol. This pistol is weak enough that when a bullet passes through a target, there is typically no swelling,” Mr. Black explained. I think this is his way of trying to help me deal with the situation. I pay close attention, aware that if my parents were listening to this conversation, Mr. Black would likely be out of a job.
“Well, Tony, I have some other business to attend to,” he says, probably realizing it too. “If you need anyone, your family is outside waiting for your father to arrive.” My first lesson in “ballistics” appears to be over as Mr. Black quickly leaves the parlor. I don’t reply, as I am too focused on staring at my grandmother’s face, thinking about what Mr. Black meant by “exit and entrance wounds.” I touch my grandmother’s temples. Nothing. No thunder this time. I let go of the side of the casket and drop to the floor.
I am thirteen years old and I just touched a dead person. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about; my friends told me that if I ever touched a dead person that their ghost would
come and haunt me forever. I’m not too scared, though, because I remember my grandfather always telling me that when he died I shouldn’t be frightened, because he would never come haunt me, anyways.
On my way out of the parlor I turn around and view bothof the caskets from the center of the room. They are far apart, each one beside opposite walls. The distance doesn’t make sense to me—my grandparents always wanted to be close to each other. Almost every time that they were together, they were close. They would take me to movie theatres and hold each other’s hands, even as they suffered through all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. But now, on the last day that I will ever see them, they are not together and this frustrates me. I leave the parlor with a huff and go out to the foyer and wait for my father.
I am twenty-two years and I remember the story of my grandparents’ death as I look at one of their old photo albums. The tragedy happened on one of those clichéd July days that are too perfect. It had all the ingredients of such a day: birds chirping, bees buzzing, friendly neighbors shooting me a wave as I pedal past the police cars and fire trucks and an ambulance next door in my grandparents yard. . .what? I recall biking up our driveway to find my father leaning against the wall of the garage, with his head between his legs. I had never seen him do this before.
“Dad, what is it?” I asked.
“They’re dead,” he said.
My father paused, trying to think of the right words to say so he wouldn’t make my grandfather look like a murderer.
emsp; “Your grandmother asked your grandfather to do something. He loved her, so he did it.”
“What did he do?” I asked my father.
“He shot your grandmother, then shot himself,” my father answered. He is a very factual man—kind, but abrupt.
I remember this scene with my father as I flip through the rest of the old photo album. The last few pages are blank, the cheap plastic holding non-existent pictures crackle, grunting like something hungry and desperate for substance to fill the void. I look down at my cat, still sitting in my lap, purring, and looking up at me. I touch her nose and she rubs her face against my finger. She is simple; all she wants from me is to love her, to lend my hand whenever she needs it.
When I get up to put the photo album back into storage, a few old pictures fall out of it. I must have missed these before. As I pick them up, I notice that the pictures are newer, almost artful. The caption underneath one of them says “1960: Ronny and Us.” It was of my dad when he was very little, in almost the same exact photo and pose as the picture I found with my Aunt Becky and my grandparents.
I sit back down with my cat and open up the album to a blank page; placing the newer photos in the old blank spaces. There are more pictures of people who are still living—my dad, a few of my aunts and uncles, and a few older cousins. But there is one image that I keep for myself. It is a plain image, one of just my grandparents standing in front of the house that they used to live in. My grandfather has his arm around my grandmother, and she is tucked into his body, gazing up at him, beaming like a school girl at her first crush. She must have given my grandfather a version of this look right before she asked him for the last time to pull the trigger.
She fell ill in the spring of 2000 and had asked my grandfather several times to lend her his hand. Treatment after treatment failed and in July, my grandmother asked her husband one more time. She wanted to leave, but not without him. He wanted to stay, but not without her. My father found them holding each other’s hands.
The cat playfully bites at my hand as I pull it away from her face. She is young and frisky, pawing at my hand like a toy as I move it back and forth in front of her. When I close the album and set it down, she jumps into my lap and looks up at me with her blue Siamese eyes. As I rub her ears and stroke her back, she flicks her tail to and fro and I notice, for the first time, near the tip, a spot of gray hair about the size of a shirt button.
Authors Bios & Q/A
In addition to providing a biography, our contributors answered the following:
1. What’s the best thing you can buy for a dollar?
2. Your favorite childhood TV show was . . . ?
3. If you were a professional wrestler what would your name be?
4. What is your favorite opening line in literature?
5. If you were going to kill someone softly with a song, what would the song be?
6. Who is the most evil celebrity?
7. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
We hope that you enjoy their answers as much as we did.
Jeffrey Alfier lives in Tucson, Arizona. His publication credits include Broken Bridge Review, Blue Earth Review, Forge Journal, Red Wheelbarrow, and Santa Clara Review. He is author of a chapbook, Strangers within the Gate (2005), and is the editor of San Pedro River Review.
1. A favorite and elusive song from iTunes.
2. Rawhide. Does that make me an old bastard?
3. Effort Boy. They derisively called me that in the sixth grade, but at fifty-four years old, it’s just something charming now.
4. “See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt”—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
5. The ever-nauseating, “Hey Jude,” one of those Beatles songs Bob Dylan said were nice but didn’t say a damned thing.
6. Whichever male one my girlfriend secretly loves.
7. Lima beans with corn oil . . . you’d have to ask my mother.
Kim Allen-Niesen is a recently retired lawyer. She practiced estate planning for eighteen years before deciding to start a new career in writing. She is co-founder of Bookstore People, a blog that reviews independent bookstores, books and literary topics.
1. Jolly Rancher Watermelon candy with a Coke is still one of my favorite treats. I used to be able to get both for fifty cents, but can no longer.
2. The Waltons. I wallowed in how much they loved each other and how kind they were.
3. Book Broad.
4. Just like everyone else who ever read, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I know, common. Actually, I think it’s the only one most of us remember after hearing it over and over again in high school English.
5. Anything by Barry Manilow. Wouldn’t you rather die than have to listen to it?
6. Evil is an interesting choice of words, stupid would be easy, but evil takes more creative thought than is usually required by a celebrity (I would know I live in west LA). Maybe Sumner Redstone because his disregard of anything but himself seems to top even the worst of the bunch.
7. Sea cucumber. My husband was practicing his Chinese and ordered our food and that’s what we ended with. Now he only orders in English.
Brian Biese’s work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Poor Mojo and Space Squid among others, and he is the author of the chapbook I Imagine the Stars Wish That Too from Dogzplot Books. He is currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he lives with his wife and a kitten.
1. One dark-chocolate Jack Daniels truffle.
2. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
3. Captain Tryhard.
4. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it”—C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
5. A whistling rendition of the sadder parts of the original Star Wars soundtrack.
6. Ben Affleck.
7. Chinese candied crabs.
Brian Brown is a historian and photographer of endangered folkways and architecture in the Georgia Wiregrass region. Recent poetry appears or is forthcoming in Vain, Santa Clara Review, Velvet Mafia, Roanoke Review, Falling Star, and Town Creek Poetry. Please visit him online at <vanishingsouthgeorgia.wordpress.com>.
1. Draft beer in a really seedy bar.
2. Little House on the Prairie. There, I said it.
3. Dirt Road Cowboy.
4. “I am always drawn back to the places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.”
5. “Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker.
6. George Bush.
7. Grits at a Denny’s in Rochester NY. It’s a Southern thing, best left to Southerners.
Marqus Bobesich received his BFA from York University majoring in visual arts. His poems have appeared in Farmhouse Magazine, 3 AM, Word Riot, and The Cherry Blossom Review. He now works in Toronto as an actor and musician <myspace.
1. All of the clothes I’m presently wearing.
2. Gilligan’s Island. You don’t hear the word “lagoon” enough anymore.
3. Miles Long. Oh wait, that’s my porn name.
4. “And with that one kiss Gustav surmised that she had done very little traveling, despite her battleships for feet and lips like airport bruschetta.”
5. Something about an anvil. Dropped by a coyote.
6. See question # 5.
7. My pride. Oh, and cow tongue.
Rob Burnside is a retired fire service officer currently working as a custodian. He has a BA in Art Ed from Wilkes University (Wilkes-Barre, PA), and has been writing—primarily poetry—for fifteen years. He has two grown children: Alison, a graphic designer living in Vermont, and Keith, a Philadelphia architect. He began writing poetry to his wife when their marriage began to fall apart and he had no other suitable means of communication.
1. A Kit-Kat.
2. My Three Sons.
3. Ravishing Robbie the Runt.
4. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born”—J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
5. “Danny Boy.”
6. Dr. Phil.
7. White pizza.
Robin Caine’s work has been published in Quick Fiction, Yemassee, and Opium,
with a story forthcoming in the Bryant Literary Review. “Funny, Cry, Happy,”
included in this issue of SLAB, was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction
competition. Currently, she is in her last year of graduate school at the University of
South Carolina, pursuing her MFA in fiction writing.
2. Today’s Special.
3. Little Lightning.
4. “A screaming comes across the Gravity’s Rainbow”—Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
5. “Everybody Hurts,” by R.E.M.
6. Jonathan Safran Foer talking about his novel, Extremely Loud and
7. Twinkie Surprise.
Alex Cigale’s poems have recently appeared in Cafe, Chiron, Colorado, McSweeney’s and elsewhere. He was born in Chernovtsy, Ukraine and has lived in New York City since 1975, apart from six years in Ann Arbor, MI, where he earned an MFA at the University of Michigan and won a Hopwood Award. His translations of contemporary Russian poetry have been published in the anthology Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry, and elsewhere.
1. The first thing that comes to mind is one hundred wheat pennies. That’s all they are worth and each one’s got ten thousand stories, which makes a total of one million by my calculation.
2. Russian television came on for a few hours in the sixties: one channel, exercise mornings, cartoons afternoon, nightly news, maybe a movie and a sport event, evenings. My favorite was Nu Pagodi! (I’ll Get You!) blending Road Runner and Bugs Bunny.
3. Vlad, “The Impaler”?
4. That would have to be Tolstoy’s line about all unhappy families being
unhappy in their own way (Anna Karenina; though I far prefer anything
5. “Eleanor Rigby” (or any other song from that album Sgt. Pepper is lonely! Sgt. Pepper is lonely! Sgt. Pepper is lonely!).
6. I specifically avoid demonizing human pathology, wary of Nietzsche’s admonition about fighting monsters (also Tolstoy’s: Do no violence to resist evil), defined as the greatest harm to the greatest number, Mao. As Arendt’s banality, the criminal Bush.
7. I’m afraid this is not terribly adventurous; from a Russian-Jewish childhood I acquired a taste for shkvarki, goose skin fried in its own fat with onions, beef tongue, and cock’s comb, though I haven’t in dulged lately. Other than that, just frog legs and escargot, as far as I can tell.
Dorothy DiRienzi has published in Friends Journal, Poetry Midwest, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Passager, and MO: Writing from the River. She is the recipient of a residency at Norcroft; first-place runner-up at the Tucson Poetry Festival, 2005; semifinalist, 2008 St. Lawrence Book Award. She has been an editor and indexer for 38 years and currently works in that capacity at Arizona State University. She obtained an MFA in Creative Writing from ASU in 2008.
1. A hamburger.
2. Howdy Doody.
4. “It was a dark and stormy night.”
5. “Is that All There Is?”
6. Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa County, AZ.
7. Raw oysters.
Ronna Edelstein is a part-time faculty member of the University of Pittsburgh’s English Department. She works as a consultant to its Writing Center and teaches a section of Freshman Programs. In addition to SLAB, her work (fiction, nonfiction) has appeared in First Line Anthology, The Road to Elsewhere, Ghoti Online Literary Magazine, and Quality Women’s Fiction. Since May 2007, many of her personal narratives, essays, and poems have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
1. A Powerball Lottery ticket; seeing the “not a winner” message keeps me grounded.
2. The Lone Ranger. I liked that the “good guys” always won.
3. “The Edelgizer” because my students always called me Edel.
4. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow”— Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I love this line because it connects the Boo Radley and Bob Ewell strands of the novel; the first line also gives Lee a way to share her two basic themes—stand in another’s skin to understand, not judge, that person, and it is a sin to hurt the innocent (to kill a mockingbird).
5. “Holding to the Ground” from William Finn’s Falsettoland. Trina, the character singing the song, reminds us that life constantly changes and often leaves us floundering without rules or a foundation, but we can still “hold to the ground” if we just stop whining!
6. I do not like to label anyone as “evil,” but I do believe that the celebrities who live selfish lives without doing anything for other people are not nice. I label those celebrities as the Paris Hiltons of the entertainment world.
7. The strangest thing I have ever eaten is a fish whose head had not been cut off. The dead eyes seemed to look at me with anger, fear, and resentment. I took a few bites, felt guilty, and went right to dessert!
Lindsay Ehrisman is a history major at San Francisco State University. After she graduates, she plans on getting her teaching credentials, and of course continue writing where ever life takes her. She lives in San Francisco, Ca. This is her first time being published.
1. A cup of coffee. I’m addicted!
2. Full House.
4. “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.”
5. “Who Let The Dog’s Out”—The Bloodhound Gang.
6. Miley Cyrus. She looks possessed. The power and influence she has over young kids freaks me out!
7. Cow testicles.
Joseph Goosey writes poetry. Unfortunately, some of his work can be read in Exquisite Corpse and his first chapbook is available via Poptritus Press. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida for reasons untold.
1. Either a Wolfgang Puck Signature Coffee or a Wendy’s Doublestack.
2. TMNT, of course.
3. Boss Hogg.
4. “It began as a mistake.”
5. Anything by R.Kelly.
6. Carlos Mencia.
7. Some kind of disgustingly delicious foie gras sorbet item.
Jonathan Greenhause pays his debts by working as a Spanish interpreter/translator, and he incurs them while writing poetry. For those seeking him out, he’s unlikely to be found at shopping malls, and he’s not yet fodder for boot-soles:
check out dilapidated fishing shacks alongside unpronounceable rivers. His poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications throughout the
country and internationally, including The Bitter Oleander, Bryant Literary Review, Interim, ManyMountains Moving, and Rattle.
1. Half of whatever it was I used to be able to buy.
2. The Twilight Zone.
3. What you mean “if” you were a professional wrestler?
4. “Call me Ishmael.”
5. Something with a catchy refrain.
6. Is Adolf Hitler a celebrity yet? Does he have his own Reality Show?
7. A very large bag of fresh, stir-fried crickets. (Yes: They were
Ian Haight has been awarded translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literary Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation. He is the cotranslator
of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Ho (White Pine, 2009). His poems were awarded the John Woods Scholarship, and were selected as finalists for the Pavel Strut and SLS fellowships. Poems, essays, and translations appear in
Quarterly West, Writer’s Chronicle, and New Orleans Review.
Dustin Harbin is the fourth product of a carpenter/seamstress union, with all which that implies. Which is to say, a ton. He publishes the weekly strip DHARBIN! at <www.dharbin.com>.
1. So many possibilities. Until they changed the formula of Juicy Fruit gum six years ago, I would have said a pack of Juicy Fruit. These days it just falls all to pieces after just a half-hour. I used to be able to put a stick of Juicy Fruit in on the way to work and spit it out before bed. Failing great long-lasting chewing gums, let’s say Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” from iTunes. Preferably the version on the “I Like Jazz: Duke Ellington” collection, which was one of my very first jazz tapes in high school.
2. All of them! A-Team, Knight Rider, Good Times, and I Love Lucy. TV was golden in the 80s.
3. La Profesora.
4. “You must expect to be in several lost causes before you die”—Carl
Sandburg’s poem, “Breathing Tokens.”
5. “In A Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
6. All of them!
7. Another person’s loogie for five dollars in the smoking area in high school. Still turns my stomach to remember.
Lisa Harris is a wildlife biologist who lives in Tucson, Arizona with two daughters, seven cats, two dogs, one aquarium, and eight desert tortoises. She writes to maintain her sanity. Sometimes it works. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Motherwords, Desert Dog, Tail Winds, The University of Chicago Alumni Magazine, and numerous scientific journals no one reads. Her website is <www.Lisaharris.org>.
1. Three tamarind ice-cream cones from a street vendor in Nicaragua.
2. Lost in Space.
4. “Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw”—T.S. Eliot.
5. “Everything” by Marie Osmond.
6. George W. Bush.
7. Raw quail eggs over caviar—you had to be there.
Paul Hostovsky’s poems have won a Pushcart Prize, the Muriel Craft Bailey Award from The Comstock Review, and chapbook contests from Grayson Books,
Riverstone Press, and the Frank Cat Press. He has been featured on Poetry Daily,
Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. His first full-length collection, Bending the
Notes, is available from Main Street Rag.
1. An hour.
2. F Troop.
4. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
5. Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
6. Wile E. Coyote.
7. A poem.
Allison Joseph lives, writes and teaches in Carbondale, Illinois, where she’s part of the faculty in creative writing at Southern Illinois University. She serves as editor of Crab Orchard Review, director of the SIUC MFA Program in Creative Writing, and director of the Young Writers Workshop, an annual conference for high school-aged writers. The author of five collections of poetry, she has received awards and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council.
1. A bag of Smartfood popcorn is probably my best recent purchase for 99 cents. I’ve loved that stuff since college.
2. Wonderarma, which was a local NYC-area television program. It had a great theme song, “Kids Are People Too.”
3. My wrestler name would be “Lady Sonneteer,” and I’d defeat all my opponents in 14 seconds.
4. “Sundays too my father got up early”—the opening line of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” A beautiful poem about faith, silence, and commitment.
5. I’d spare the world my singing, out of mercy for the ears of others.
6. Paris Hilton. Way to make Barbie look relevant.
7. Chicken feet. I love ‘em—if you are in St. Louis, ask for them at Lu-Lu Dim Sum on Olive. Tasty!
Anthony King will have a BS degree in creative writing from Slippery Rock University if he is able to survive literary criticism. With his Siamese cats, his guitar, and a wood furnace, he lives in the strange sort of twilight zone that exists between Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania. He spends most of his time adventuring and volunteering in strange places, hoping to garner some unique material for future work.
1. The Back to the Future theme from iTunes.
2. Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
3. The Discombobulator.
4. “Well, when I had been dead for about thirty years, I began to get a little
anxious”—Mark Twain’s Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.
5. “Sussudio” by Phil Collins.
6. Paul Reubens.
7. Raw blood pudding from a Welsh butcher.
Marsha Koretzky received her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2008. Her work has recently been nominated for Best New American Voices and published by the Dos Passos Review.
1. Um, right now, about 27 cents?
2. Kung Fu, of course, although my brilliant but annoying sister swears it was Lassie (Hi, Rhona!).
3. Haven’t you learned anything from Kwai Chang Caine? Well, come to think of it, he did whale on someone in every episode. Okay then, how about “The Pillsbury Doughgirl?”
4. “They say it’s just a small thing, but you know different.” Yeah, but seriously “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe”—Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.
5. “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” Pogues version.
6. Donald Trump. You-know-who (think Shaolin priest) would never have hosted The Apprentice.
7. My ex-boyfriend. With some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Robert Kramer currently teaches art history at Manhattan College in New York City. He has been a Fulbright Scholar and a Swiss Government Scholar. He has also a widely published poet, playwright, literary critic, and translator of European literature. He was formerly an officer in the United States Army Chemical Corps.
1. Three kiwis.
2. The family had no television when I was a child.
4. “Warum gabst du uns die tiefen Blicke.”
5. Any one of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.”
6. George Bush.
7. Alligator burger (quite good!).
Catherine Lazure studied illustration at Parsons School of Design, Fine Arts at various colleges before that, and grew up in Montreal. She has vivid nursery school memories of making pasta collages. She is a frustrated poet and loves printmaking
1. A bag of marbles at the 99 cent store. They look great in an old peanut butter jar.
2. Get smart. I idolized Agent 99—Smart, sleek, sexy, cool, sharp, breezy and sizzling.
3. Snow White, a nod to the soda pop I drank as a kid in Montreal—our version of cream soda. People would go to lunch counters and order, “Une Snow White et une Mae West.” The Mae West was our version of your Ring Ding.
4. “Alcools, A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancient”—Apolinaire.
5. “Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don’t know if I can take it, ‘cause it took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no!” A baked Alaska would add to the bathos.
6. The Jolly Green Giant, king of canned vegetables. Although I’m not sure anybody knows who he is anymore. Possibly a has-been.
7. One of my own creations at age ten. After watching The Galloping Gourmet (aka Graham Kerr) I was wildly inspired to concoct something. I randomly picked ingredients off the kitchen shelves, stirred and baked, and, voila, there it was. But what it was, was unknowable. My mother asked what I had made and I proudly declared, “Brownies!”
Jane Rosenberg LaForge lives in New York City. Her poetry has been published most recently or is forthcoming in Noun Vs. Verb, The Ottawa Arts Review, Tipton Poetry Journal and Makeout Creek. She has also published fiction and literary scholarship online and in print.
1. I once saw a guy shoplifting and getting away with it at a 99 cent store. Does that qualify?
2. The Prisoner.
3. Catwoman of Doom.
4. “In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is
done in watermelon sugar”— Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar.
5. That depends on the definition of “killing someone softly with a song.’’ I could use “Summertime’’ from Porgy and Bess, or “The Lemon Song”
by Led Zeppelin.
6. Ben Stein.
David Luomareceived his MFA from the University of San Francisco. He lives in California with his wife and son, and works as a psychiatric nurse in a hospital for mentally ill criminals. This is his first story to be published.
1. Today, a half gallon of gas.
2. The Twilight Zone.
3. I’m thinking Thin Blade because anything more threatening is far
4. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to
know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and
how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that
David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you
want to know the truth”—J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Stunning
how it characterizes the narrator.
5. Cream’s “Strange Brew.”
6. Gene Simmons, not for any moral reason, but for his bass playing.
7. I tend to shy away from the more adventurous foods, so all I can come up with is a cactus burrito—but I did swallow.
Roberta Marggraff holds a Master’s in Arts and Literature from Wesleyan University and currently facilitates an academic seminar in Writing through Literature at the University of Connecticut at Waterbury. Favorite places where her work has
appeared are Poetry, Poem, Caduceus, the Small Pond magazine of literature, and The Lullwater Review. She is a member of the Connecticut Poetry Society.
1. Something worth more than $1.
2. The Mickey Mouse Club.
4. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
Word was God”—The Gospel of John 1:1.
5. Any song that’s not from my heart when I’m singing it to someone.
6. Bart Simpson.
7. I’m told I’m “strange” for eating cold cereal with fruit juice on it rather
Karla Linn Merrifield has authored three poetry books, including Godwit: Poems of Canada(FootHills Publishing) and is poetry editor of Sea Stories <www.seastories.org> and poetry book reviewer for The Centrifugal Eye <www.centrifugaleye.
com>. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and 2009 Everglades National Park Artist-in-Residence.
1. A chocolate bar—preferably dark chocolate.
2. Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, which I consider the source of my wanderlust.
3. Killer K.
4. “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparell’d in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream”—Wordsworth’s “Ode-Intimations
of Immortality Recollected from Early Childhood.”
5. Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.”
6. Rush Limbaugh.
7. Sea urchin (icky spongy texture!).
Caroline Misner was born in a country that at the time was known as Czechoslovakia. She immigrated to Canada in the summer of 1969. Her work has appeared
in numerous consumer and literary journals in Canada, the USA and the UK, most notably The Windsor Review, Prairie Journal and Dreamcatcher. An excerpt from her latest unpublished novel has recently been nominated for the Writers’ Trust/McClelland-Steward Journey Anthology Prize. She currently lives in Georgetown Ontario where she continues to read, write and follow her muse, wherever it may take her.
1. The best thing I can buy for a dollar is an ice cold Dr. Pepper on a hot
day. Very refreshing!
2. My favorite childhood TV show (and possibly the best show ever) was,
and still is, Gilligan’s Island.
3. Killer Carrie, The Stomping Queen
4. “You do not do, you do not do,/Any more, black shoe/In which I have
lived like a foot/For thiry years, poor and white,/Barely daring to breathe
or Achoo”—Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Ooooooo! I can just feel those
5. “City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie. I’ve written an entire novel with
that song in mind.
6. Heather Mills—famous for being famous and ruining Paul McCartney’s
7. Sushi, sashimi, anything Japanese. Japanese cuisine is an exercise in
taking the most disgusting part of a sea creature, wrapping it in seaweed
and eating it raw.
Bob Mustin has been a North Carolina Writers Network writer-in-residence at Peace College. A former editor of The Rural Sophisticate, a literary journal based in Georgia, he has seen his work published in numerous print and electronic venues.
“Grandpa Tom’s Cane” won the 2007 North Carolina Writers Network Rose Post Award for Creative Nonfiction.
1. A large pack of M&M’s
3. The Mountain Mauler.
4. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its
own way” Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
5. Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.”
6. Evel Knievel—he made us think we too might be able to do those crazy
7. Fried rattlesnake.
Justin Nicholes got an MFA from Wichita State, is Fiction Editor at Our Stories, and has appeared in American Poets Abroad, Dark Sky Magazine, and Karamu. His debut novel, Ash Dogs, was recently published (Another Sky Press, 2008). He
currently teaches writing in Xinzheng City, in the Henan Province of China, and has almost finished his next novel.
2. The Muppet Show.
3. Kanye West.
4. “All humans by nature desire to know”—Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
5. The Muppet Show theme song.
6. Kanye West.
7. Dog & duck blood.
Suzanne Ondrus’s poems can be seen in the online journal Frigg’s January 2009 edition. Her work has also appeared in Colere, Ohio Writer, Revue Review and Gently Read Literature. Currently she is at the University of Connecticut pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies, focusing on West African women writers and poets. She got her M.A. from Binghamton University and her M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University. She’s fluent in Italian, German and French and
has worked in Benin, Russia, Burkina Faso, former East Germany and Italy.
1. Two Lindt milk chocolate truffles.
2. Little House on the Prairie and The Munsters.
4. “Caro amico ti scrivo.”
5. Something by Puccini.
7. Orchids, pansies, and nasturtiums.
David Prodell lives with his family in Burlington, Vermont. He has had poems published in The Connecticut River Review, Oberon and The Anthology of New England Writers. Many of his poems take their inspiration from the people and places of Long Island, New York, where he lived and worked before moving to Vermont.
1. Any amount of coffee that a dollar can buy, which, in most cases, is
2. Warner Brothers’ cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.
3. The “Red Tarantula.” Though balding, I still have some red hair, and I’m
tall and lanky with long arms and legs.
4. Can’t say I have a favorite opening line, but, the primary inspiration
for me to write poetry has been the poems of Ted Kooser, and for the past several years, his weekly email column, “American Life in Poetry.”
5. “Feelings” by Gemini. Not that I listen to this song, but I typically want to kill myself when I hear it.
6. I’m not a follower of the tabloids, but all celebrities who court and play up their celebrity status are evil. However, I applaud those celebrities who punch out the paparazzi.
7. The supposed “custard-like” inside of a Thai or young coconut. It has the texture of a tadpole and, I can only imagine, tastes like one too.
Greta Pullen lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to New Mexico in 2002. Her book Lost and Found Café was published by Neuma Books in 2005. She has contributed to several anthologies including: Looking Back to Place, The Harwood Anthology, and Metamorfosis. She is the Senior Librarian at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
1. Baking soda.
2. The Ed Sullivan Show.
3. La Chula.
4. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano
Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”—Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
5. Something by Neil Diamond.
6. Rush Limbaugh.
7. Huitlacoche (corn fungus).
John Repp’s most recent collections of poetry are Fever (Mayapple Press, 2007) and No Away (Pudding House, 2007). Individual poems have appeared in recent issues of Poetry, Court Green, The Journal, and Rhino. Rachel Rosolina is in her final year at West Virginia University obtaining an MFA
in Creative Nonfiction. She currently works at the West Virginia University Press as
a production and editing assistant, where she helps publish books about everything from Appalachian History to Medieval Studies.
1. A box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers from Dollar General.
2. Punky Brewster.
3. Probably Rachel “Mighty Midget” Rosolina, since I’m 4’11.”
4. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany”—John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany.
5. “Dear Old Friend” by Patty Griffin.
6. Carrot Top is pretty scary.
7. I ate “Chirping Chex Mix” once. Mmm . . . dried crickets and Chex.
Lauren Schmidt is a high school English/Art History teacher in Eugene, Oregon.
You can find her work in editions of Audemus and Ruminate, where she was a finalist for the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Contest.
1. The best thing I can buy for a dollar is a highlighter.
2. I don’t remember watching much television as a child but I loved the movie Annie and watched that way more than anything else I can recall.
3. The Hulklet.
4. “Groping back to bed after a piss”—Philip Larkin’s poem “Sad Steps.”
5. I would just put on whatever song that tops the current 40—that ought to do it.
6. Don’t most people find most celebrities pretty contemptible? Paris
Hilton comes to mind.
7. Cow tongue. I still have nightmares.
Ariel Smart met and married Gordon Smart who gave her a room of her own to write after many years of financial struggle. She and her husband have two red standard dachshunds, Rudy and Dolly. She has a lovely daughter, Dena, son-in-law Grue, and a granddaughter, Zoe.
1. Certainly not The Wall Street Journal.
2. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
3. Gorgeous Georgia.
4. “All happy families are happy in the same way. All unhappy families are
unhappy in a different way” (loose translation).
5. “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.”
6. Killer Penn.
7. Sour grass.
Gia Sola has been passionate about writing since the 4th grade when she sold her book reports to fellow students. She went on to study business at NYU and psychology at The New School, and then pursued a successful career in the
corporate sector, writing riveting reports and crafting crafty speeches. She now lives
on California’s central coast where she gives her time and talent to the non-profit community, while turning her creative focus to fiction.
1. The best thing you can buy for a dollar is a small blind at the
2. You can’t trip me up and guess my age with this one, because I Love Lucy has been playing in syndication for decades—ever since I watched it live as a kid in the Fifties.
3. If I were a professional wrestler, I’d be Fiona: The Furious Filly (“nobody can rope her”).
4. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”—Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. A line which also captures the times we’re living in these days.
5. Guess I’d “kill” with the song by Annie Lennox, I’ve Tried Everything (“ooh, you’re a loser now…”) It’s soft, sort of.
6. The most evil celebrity would be O. J.
7. I’m not as adventurous as my friend, Frizou, who ate raw—and still warm—monkey brains during a ceremony in Peking in the 80’s. The strangest delicacies I’ve ever digested were insects—deep fried and chocolate covered.
Suejin Suh is orginally from Long Island, New York. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at New York University. Her works have been previously published in The Flask Review, The Fifteen Project, the Ottawa Arts Review, Spot Literary Magazine and The Smoking Poet. She is currently teaching English at
Chungbuk National University in South Korea.
1. Cartoon Socks.
2. Family Ties.
3. War Orphan.
4. “The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was”—Chang-rae
Lee’s Native Speaker.
5. “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.”
6. Bender (Futurama).
7. Deep fried starfish.
Henry Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist whose work has appeared in such publications as the Gettysburg Review, Foliate Oak, Quay, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. He lives on the coast of North Carolina with his chow dog Fred, and is presently writing a memoir about his forty years in the mental health field.
1. A toy gun, then you can hold up a pizza parlor and eat all the pizza you want.
2. The Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and other future luminaries. The young people won’t know anything about this.
3. Prissy Boy.
4. “It was the best of times, the worst of times.” Charles Dickens was
5. Anything by Snoop Dog or Ricky Nelson.
6. A tie between George Bush and the ghost of Richard Nixon.
Jeanne Wagner is the winner of several national awards, including The Francis Locke Award, The Macguffin Poet Hunt, The Ann Stanford Prize, and the 2009 Briar Cliff Review Poetry Award. Her poems currently appear in Spoon River, Smart206ish Pace, the South Carolina Review and New Millennium. She is the author of four poetry collections, including The Zen Piano-Mover, which won the 2004 Stevens Manuscript Prize.
1. You can still buy something for a dollar?
2. Topper. This really dates me. Also shows an early obsession with ghosts.
3. The Mite.
4. “Isn’t the nature of a happy family as mysterious and intriguing as a new species?”—War and Peace.
5. “Killing Me Softly.”
7. Bonnie dog food. I did a Taste Test on it when I was about seven. (No.
Mark Wisniewski is the author of Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman and All Weekend With The Lights On. More than 200 of his poems have appeared in magazines including Poetry and New York Quarterly. He’s won a Pushcart Prize, and work of his has appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008.
1. An apple.
2. The Munsters.
3. The Wire.
4. “The first thing I remember is being under something.”
5. “The Little Drummer Boy.”
6. Rush Limbaugh.
7. A wheat penny.
Shellie Zacharia teaches in Florida. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Opium, Keyhole, The Pinch, Washington Square, Potomac Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Now Playing, is forthcoming from Keyhole Press.
1. A cup of coffee.
2. Little House on the Prairie.
3. The Firefly.
4. “The beet is the most intense of vegetables”—Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug
5. “Buckets of Rain.”
6. Hmmm . . . evil? This one stumps me.
7. Tempeh pizza – but I like it. Or maybe wasabi peas – I like them too. Marjorie Zettler holds a BSc(Hons) in Genetics and a PhD in Cardiovascular
Physiology from the University of Manitoba, and a MPH from the University of Manchester. She works as a clinical research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. She currently resides in Indianapolis.
1. A roll of SweeTARTS.
2. “The Bugs Bunny Show.”
3. I asked my best friend to help me with this one, and she said, “No
way, Jose.” That seems as good a name as any for a professional
wrestler . . . “No Way Jose.”
4. “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when
caught by her charm”— Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
5. “What a Good Boy”, by the Barenaked Ladies.
6. It changes all the time, but thankfully Michael K keeps me in the know.
7. Hmm . . . I tried caribou one time; is that strange? Probably not for a
Jim Zimmerman is currently a clinical psychologist in private practice. In a previous life he was a songwriter and performer. He is the author of numerous articles, papers, and songs, and author and editor of a volume on adolescent suicide.
1. A favorite book of poetry at a yard sale.
2. Rocky and Bullwinkle.
3. Doctor Doom.
4. “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
5. “I Know You by Heart” (sung by Eva Cassidy).
6. Mel Gibson.
7. Chocolate-covered ants.