TABLE OF CONTENTS
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS
We All Want Out of This Play
A Father of Young Boys Loses His Father
Cities Lit By the Waning Moon
Animals with Expression
What Matters is Not What I Do
What You Want
Meredith Sue Willis
Mr. Schnell Feels Red
If Things Hold Up
In John Cravens
In His Corn Fields Starving
In High School We Tried To Grow Corn and Felt Like Failures
Auditory and Visual Hallucinations Are Sing-Along Songs For When You Are At Your Most Catatonic
*08.18.07—Philadelphia Folk Festival
Karla Linn Merrifield
Day Out at Deception- Falls
What Nationality Are You
A Haiku and the Orchestral
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Sandra’s Backyard in Brooklyn
The Waiting Room
For the Daughters of Chernobyl
Rebecca Leah Papucaru
The Belles of St. Mary’s
I Have This Theory That I Hate
Aaron Bigler Lefebvre
Ah, Venice, Again
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS
We All Want Out of This Play
Brick, brick, brick:
I braid the horses down,
I shoot the fleet
of crows—they drop
like punctuation on the razed land.
I teethe the sheen off mercury.
The virtuoso in the sky who fills
me with vinegar does not sleep.
He made me cat-o’-nine.
Made me hurricane,
made me cursory,
made me hound.
Me born with a spoon
of blood at the mouth.
My junk heart a dark stain
Once the world’s script
is stripped of light
there’ll be nothing left
for the spade of me
to turn. My goal
is getting there
I’ve been doing cross-stitch at the hearth
day and night. I make a gulf of busy work.
I want neither walk nor lilac from him.
Gloss, be my name forever.
Wind, be my border.
Apples drop into my lap
from the gentle Lord in exchange
for I know not what. Untrue.
I know. I have asked him not to take it.
Carry your own damn baggage.
Carry your own damn baggage.
No tip on the horizon.
Under this cap I never take off:
a hole where the rightful top
of a skull should be.
The rest of me calloused shut
The Boy King
I am a human museum.
The story at the beginning of the world
is a jade I’m charged with holding.
Wet-nurses tried their best
to recompense the task in cream.
I’ve moved on to cutlery.
I can’t play outdoors lest a lion come
and skin me. All kings are the same
when it comes to trophies.
One day I’ll have a leggy one
of my own, says my vizier,
her cheeks red as if flayed,
and with a womb
that will turn our history
out again, in the form
of another boy,
so I’ll never die.
The Very Old Mother
This shoe has smelled for centuries and I am tired of scraping meal out of the toe bed and I am tired of nursing till the blood comes and I am tired of the insufferable needs of all these pale and frightened creatures—I have gone through thousands of apron strings I have cooked everything that moves for miles that is not my child for each child and I never even had the pleasure of conception (no masculine furred chest to break the monotony for the proverbial two minutes even)—the pure infants push out of me in nine month waves, but no Mary/Jesus stories, no thanks, just me with a shoe to bear where a cross would have been, and no-one wearing one like a charm at their throat.
You have no idea how it pains me, here in Rome.
I was a student of the man who invented flying
buttresses. It guts me to make filigreed
They’ve embedded jewels in my eyes.
Ophelia, the only named one
I fought like hell to swim. They try to make you think you prize yourself less than love and if that doesn’t work they sew lead to your hem.
The Fat Lady
The man I take for boss keeps telling me
patience, your turn will come—
if you try singing now
you’ll miss the role of a lifetime.
I could have been Evita already.
I could have been my own avian choir.
I could be filling up my lungs
as we speak I could be cresting.
You don’t mind if I smoke.
Time is irrelevant. I was a bastard
mutt my last life but this time
I name myself. I started this artistic
beret business. French, etcetera. I enjoy
neither the inattentive audiences nor
the energy it takes to torture
those hardworking shadows on the stage.
I cannot have the one woman I’ve ever loved
unless I keep her pinned to needlework
in scene three. The rest of the cast
was incidental. Don’t think ill of me.
When I die they’ll inherit
the whole world.
A Father of Young Boys Loses His Father
Spilled from my hammock in the middle of the night,
While the others rock in their cocoons,
And the hull heaves and creaks,
I am given the watch. I will brace myself
In the bowsprit, above the mermaid figurehead;
Let the salt spray sting my eyes
As we plunge and rise
Through bruise-blue swells and foam.
I am to look straight ahead at the sea, and if I see nothing,
Cities Lit By the Waning Moon
Many were nothing but hyperbole, founded on little more than a necklace of baby teeth or an archaic leather condom excavated from the desert. And yet, they are not unimportant. In one, the eyes of does are mined. Another is made entirely of a scaffolding used to pull stars out by their roots, a kind of urban renewal of the sky. They are always seen as if from a distance, always vaguely European
in name, things like Eustice or Salemica or Adil. A sclera-hued glare shines from their windows at night. The smallest of these municipalities is named Tesra. In it, as you read this, a tar-haired adolescent dangles her legs over the rim of a well, knocking loose the silt from her heels. And tomorrow, the residents of Bacona, Oregon will notice something off in the taste of their water.
Auditory and Visual Hallucinations Are Sing-Along Songs For When You Are At Your Most Catatonic
Many were nothing but hyperbole, founded on little more than a necklace of baby teeth or an archaic leather condom excavated from the desert. And yet, they are not unimportant. In one, the eyes of does are mined. Another is made entirely of a scaffolding used to pull stars out by their roots, a kind of urban renewal of the sky. They are always seen as if from a distance, always vaguely European
in name, things like Eustice or Salemica or Adil. A sclera-hued glare shines from their windows at night. The smallest of these municipalities is named Tesra. In it, as you read this, a tar-haired adolescent dangles her legs over the rim of a well, knocking loose the silt from her heels. And tomorrow, the residents of Bacona, Oregon will notice something off in the taste of their water.
if i die in five or six hours
i will immediately regret
all the cartoons on my TiVo
and rue my diet of seeds
cloned from pieces of fruit
prematurely ripened by
synthetic gas and imported
by airplane from plantations
in Belize to small bodegas
on the east sides
of eastern cities
on the east coast
is just a little too far
east for anything
Day Out At Deception Falls
I stand at Deception Falls, away from the falls a ways
and down the path, where water smashes a flat wall,
explodes into white foam, and hurries off 90 degrees,
water so fast if you touch it your hand will fly away
though the water looks no quicker than a casual creek.
Until it hits that rock, of course, and forms the foam.
This is the deception in Deception Falls, we were told.
I lean against the rail with my wife and my daughter,
thinking what it would be like to fall in, catch
in the current, not be able to swim, just tumble,
and go hurtling toward the wall, collide with the rock,
see my limp body somersault in the other direction,
head and limbs flailing, as a streak of blood is washed
by the loud river-surf.
This is supposed to be a day out,
a sweet moment with family we’ll talk about someday,
not a vision of suicide or possibly murder as a crowd
gathers around like human vultures in my imagination
to ask my wife and my daughter what they think of me
foolishly jumping into the raging current or perhaps
maybe I was pushed—and what about that argument
in the car, Mrs. Valvis, about James getting the banana
with the most brown spots, was that what made you kill?
It all comes at me like a pulp story.
It’s been the same
everywhere we’ve gone. In D.C. I see me plummeting
down the elevator shaft at the Washington Memorial,
though I’m not even sure that’s physically possible.
In New Orleans someone somehow traps me in a casket
as flood waters rise to drag the bones of the dead to sea.
I’m buried in the caves of California, hanged in Mexico.
I get crushed in Disney World and at the San Diego Zoo
there’s a place you can bring your unloved loved ones
to feed to the animals. In Denton Texas I’m abandoned
in the hotel room without clothes and without money.
Even at home, bending over an oven, I wonder whether
I will be shoved inside like the witch who held hostage
Hansel and Gretel.
Back at Deception Falls we move away,
step off the platform that looks over the raging river,
and hike down the path where the pine trees grow thicker.
I’m still alive, still on dry land with my lovely family,
not bloody decomposing fish food heading to the Pacific.
As quickly as the morbid thoughts come, they leave—
after all, why would anyone want to kill a guy like me?—
and I’m back to having an afternoon like anyone else.
My little girl sings “Home on the Range” for the 70th time,
and my wife is worried her shoes might not be the best kind
for this type of terrain, and even my thoughts are now normal,
free of everything but the next step, the clean green air,
and my petty plot to seize the yellowest banana next time.
She led me down a crooked stair
to the dank entrance and
held my hand while
we walked through the center
of a dead flow, walls tinctured
with green lights. Someone read
that the surface hardened
while its core burned hot.
I imagined the black glass knuckles
overhead, a fist of plowed furrows.
Though I couldn’t see its end
my eyes followed the trace
of wires roped from light to light
clipped up above the pitted floor
You came to a stop; I watched
your face turn green and then dark
as you examined the curved walls.
Did we stop to take photographs,
sit our baby down,
her knee covered with ash?
Or was something lost,
Robin’s tortoiseshell barrette
fidgeted through her fingers?
I cannot now remember.
When I walked down to the beach
of black sand with you,
we watched the snow-like plume
of poisoned steam dissolve into the mist
that rose and fell above us like a fine net.
The pent-up gas flew from the sea
Go ahead, now. Enjoy them. You’ve earned it. Forty-three
teardrops induced by the juice of a Meyer lemon, each
sheathed in glycerin, wadded in amber, coated in finest
Bolivian chocolate, wrapped in fourteen-karat gold leaf,
then bronzed: multiple layers of honest emotion, artifice,
tribute and gilt. Forty-three orblets, one for each time that
we’ve coupled; you know I keep track in my calendar-journal,
along with a battery of letter grades. (Suffice it to say that
we’re passing the class, but nowhere near valedictorians,
nobody’s saying farewell. We’ll both stay together for now.)
Where are you going? There’s dinner, a lamb roast with
salad, potatoes, and cake. I know you claim to dislike lamb;
you haven’t had this lamb, it’s good lamb. It’s not like it’s
ham, which you know I can’t eat, because of that picnic
from when I was five, with the bees and the badminton,
the blood on my shirt. I’d love to go out tonight, but it’s
your special day, not one of the most special ones, but still.
After we eat, we can stay home and watch that show dear
to your heart, a little too dear, with that tramp of an actress
you claim not to notice. The couch is, of course, off-limits
to you because somebody cannot cease twitching his pelvis.
I may even rub your feet, given you wash them off first,
fetid roots that they are. I’ll feed you my gift orbs like grapes.
Don’t chew them; just let them slide down into the darkness.
No worries. All things must pass, gradually. Think of me.
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday.
The Belle’s of St. Mary’s
In the beginning,
Mother bought crisp white shirts
bound with a dozen pins
to sheets of shiny cardboard
coveted for drawing.
I turned obediently as she
tucked the tail down
nearly to my doorknob knees.
Then she zipped the trousers
and pinched the metal snap,
and the elastic waistband cinched
the billowing fabric to my belly.
She turned the cuffs up once or twice
on pants and shirt alike, maybe
three years’ growth for stunted me.
Suspenders bit with tiny metal
snake-head teeth and held the baggy
avalanche of excess pants
from burying my Buster Browns,
their oxblood sheen and scuffless soles
fresh from the factory box.
A knitted clip-on tie and finally
a rich red blazer cutesified
with mock-collegiate insignia,
and I was sent to walk between
my elder brother and sister down
the half-a-mile to St. Mary’s School,
where towering women shrouded in black,
taught me how to march and speak
and shut up on command. Forgive me
if it seems too blatantly
symbolic, but at the end
of my first day I broke ranks
from a row of bewildered first-graders
and bolted across West Rocks Road,
desperate to get back home,
as a delivery driver on a deadline
jammed his brakes, rear wheels lurching
off the pavement, the teetering wall of steel and glass
screeching to a halt just inches shy
of my startled, frozen body. And then
the nuns descended on me, waving
fingers in my face, shrieking like tires
on asphalt, and doing their damndest
to brand my brain with shame and regret
Shoved against each other near the back
exit of the crowded bus, heater shot,
our coats touching, looking at her
I was able to put aside the cold.
An assault of sirens, flashing lights,
the jam, our temporary standstill. We crept
jerkily to the next stop, jostled us so
our faces almost touched. A wave of space
traveled down the aisle as people got off.
We moved apart, a slender gap of air
between us. Strands of her black hair
stayed stuck to my shoulder, a tether
I welcomed. She eyed an empty seat
but it was snatched up by a mother
and baby. A pack of teenagers hurried
on board, slapping us together closer
than before, our arms thrust forward,
a virtual hug. Another stop, and the back
door, flapping on its hinges, refused
to close. Cold air rushed in.
Outside, a deli, space at the counter.
“Coffee?” I whispered, her ear a breath
away from my mouth. “Soup,” she countered,
not skipping a beat. We edged out, expectant.
The trouble is how to eat yourself.
What I’ve learned is hunger is a thing moving, not just growing, but really moving. If a stomach gets hungry it shrinks into itself. This means the less of me. In theory, Simone Weil’s reconnection between God and God starts with the subtraction of I. This seems logical to me, except I don’t know if that would actually erase the hunger of me unless I died, which is what she did, which would refute the entire point. I do not believe death to be the only end of hunger. I search out another way. Jainists propose the opposite: death is its own hunger, causing more death, causing more hunger, so to avoid both, don’t kill and therefore, don’t hunger. I disagree. Death is inherent in life: life means deaths repeatedly: hunger in life is not answered by death. Cannibalism is the temporary fulfillment of one human hunger by swallowing another’s. That’s substitution
I’ve already tried.
Leaning across D’s kitchen counter, she brews a tea of lemongrass and rosebuds. Calls me over. I haven’t yet discussed with her my newfound hunger but my guess is she’s already aware of the situation. She has mirrors. She looks through the reflection until we see in each other what we haven’t seen in ourselves.
What Matters is Not What I Do
In the middle of the night he shifts, and I feel the hair on his thigh brush against my knee. I pull my own leg back, but I don’t think he felt anything. He doesn’t move again or breathe differently. When I’m sure, I roll slowly all the way to my side of the bed. I’m conscious of invading his sleep space. Strange I should put it like that, instead of the other way around, but that’s because it’s his bed, not mine. Stranger still when you consider we’ve just—well, a few hours ago, anyway—exchanged what you could call more obvious intimacies. But I can’t remember it, really, and I know I wasn’t that drunk. I see flashes of him over me, trying too hard, the streetlit window and silhouette of his head, but I swear I don’t know what he felt like inside.
His pillow is lumpy and too high, and I realize I’m cold. I reach back to pull a corner of the sheet over me, but it’s stuck, wedged somewhere tight in the tangle of his body. I try to pull it again and again, before I finally give up. I don’t know why I ended up staying. I knew the minute it was over, I didn’t want to. But I needed him to drive me home. And right after, he put his heavy arm across my waist and it seemed too mean, even for me, to remove it. He kept his arm on me for a while, and you would have thought it was then that I’d miss John, but that only happened after he released me.
He called me; John did, as I was getting ready for this other man. I saw his name on the screen and for a second I almost didn’t pick up. Then I figured, I have nothing to hide. Four months together is hardly a commitment, and besides, we don’t even talk like that. He doesn’t push me or ask too many questions. Sometimes I’m grateful for it. Sometimes I think he gets what he deserves.
We didn’t touch on any of that, of course. He just wanted to check in, see what I was up to, and my voice didn’t skip a beat when I told him I was going out. Which wasn’t lying—I don’t like doing that. More like leaving out the truth. I know it’s slight, but there is a difference.
In the beginning, I couldn’t fall asleep next to John, either. But I didn’t mind the way he held me. That was a surprise. Even after the first time, before the sex got really good, I started to move away, and he just slid his arm under my neck and pulled me in. I’m not really a cuddler, but I let my head settle into that muscled space between his shoulder and chest. I listened to the steady beating of his heart. Then, with his other arm, he reached over to place my palm in the center of his chest, and I felt its actual pulsing. It overwhelmed the sound and was different, more erratic, something alive under my hand. When we broke away to enter our separate sleep, it happened naturally, in stages, like the last steps of a dance. In the morning, the slow reversal as we found our way back to each other.
This happened more than once, but that’s the time I always remember.
I’ll admit I was starting to like him. I never thought that would happen. It’s not that he’s unattractive—I still have standards that way. But I don’t generally go for the “professional” breed and he was that, I could tell right off, from his banker haircut to his oxford shirt, buttoned up too high at the neck and tucked in with a belt, for God’s sake. Now I wonder if it’s the ones who aren’t my type that I should watch out for. One day you’re thinking, there is no way in hell, and next thing you know, someone has sliced right under your skin. That’s how it happens. You go along with certain things because it won’t matter in the long run anyway. It’s not even worth the effort of caution. I felt like that about John for the longest time, and then somewhere along the way, I messed up.
Then, and now. I’m in some corner of this city I’ve never been to, and I can’t quite piece together how I got here. It’s so quiet, I think the world will never wake up, but it must be close to morning because I see more light coming in. Or maybe my eyes are adjusting to the dark. I sit up a bit and look around. I can make out the shapes of things on the floor. My panties. Jeans inside out. They’re right next to me, and I want to reach out and turn them around, but I don’t want to make any noise. I don’t want to inhabit this room.
Soon I start to see the edges of it: the doorframe to my right, wide window in front of me, the blinds he finally closed, his closet to my left, clothes exposed and hung neatly, and I see him too now, he’s lying on his stomach, face pushed sideways into his pillow, toward me. If he opens his eyes right now, I’m not sure what I will do.
Except I want him to wake up. I want him to take me home.
Mr. Schnell Feels Red
Mr. Tokarchik tells us to paint our feelings, so I take a cup of red tempera and splash it across the white sheet in front of me. By the time I’m done, the other kids are calling me a painthog because there’s only so much red to go around and I’m keeping most of it to myself. But everyone else just needs it for the same crap they always paint whether Mr. Tokarchik tells us to paint our dreams, our feelings, or our favorite things. Ernest Williams always paints motorcycles; Sophie Pimpinella always paints butterflies; and Faith Greenspan always paints her name in big, puffy letters against a bright-blue sky: FAITH!
Everyone always paints the same thing, except for me, but that’s only because I never know what to paint. My counselor, Ms. Steinback, says that it’s okay that I don’t know what to paint because twelve-year-olds aren’t always sure of themselves. But she also said that I should at least try to paint something when Mr. Tokarchik tells me to because I’m part of the community, and the community cares about what I have to say. Which I would almost believe if not for the fact that Mr. Tokarchik always smiles like I’m an idiot whenever I try to tell him anything.
“It looks like Mr. Schnell feels red today,” Mr. Tokarchik says when he stops in front of my easel.
Everyone laughs when he says this, and I think about first position—legs spread, feet planted firmly on the ground, fists at my hips.
The Wing Chun Master can deflect any attack.
The Wing Chun Master is an army of one.
“At least Mr. Schnell isn’t feeling motorcycle today,” I say. “Or butterfly. Or FAITH!”
Faith Greenspan stops smiling and looks at her feet. One by one, the other kids stop smiling, too, and I imagine them all laying down their paintbrushes and springing into action. They’d be stupid about it, of course—putting up their dukes like boxers in a ring or going for high kicks like the phony ninjas
they’ve seen on TV. I’d pulverize all of them because the Wing Chun Master is spare in his movements, and the Wing Chun Master would no sooner kick an opponent in the face than stoop to punch an opponent in the foot.
“I apologize, Mr. Schnell,” says Mr. Tokarchik. “Can you tell the class how you’re feeling today?”
“Angry,” I say.
“Fair enough,” Mr. Tokarchik says. He’s standing behind me and looking over my shoulder, and I can smell the tuna salad he had for lunch. “I do notice, however, that your strokes are heavier at the top of your painting and lighter towards the bottom. Any thoughts on what that might mean?”
“I was running out of paint,” I say.
Ernest Williams laughs because he knows that this is the wrong answer. He has crooked teeth and gets tripped up when he tries to do long division, but he knows that if I had any brains, I’d play along with Mr. Tokarchik and tell him what he wants to hear. But I do have brains, and that’s the problem. I have more brains than Ms. Steinback and Mr. Tokarchik and Ernest Williams combined. Not that Ernest Williams adds much to the equation, but I’ve been tested, and the test said that I’m as smart as most adults and maybe smarter.
“I think it means he’s not so angry anymore,” Donna Tilson says.
“I think it means he’s working through his issues,” adds Roland Aldred.
“I think it means he’s afraid of terrorists,” Rachel Ludwig says.
“And hurricanes,” Vladimir Dimitri adds. “He’s afraid of flash floods and hurricanes.”
Donna paints rabbits.
Roland paints mermaids with giant breasts.
Rachel paints her fingernails.
Vladimir paints with his fingers because he likes touching things.
We’re all here because our parents don’t know what to do with us and because the government won’t leave any of us behind—not even Ernest Williams, who picks his nose and spits on the floor and set fire to his grandmother’s apartment one night when he tried to build a campfire in the living room. I know so much about Ernest because he’s my roommate. Our room is the size of a refrigerator box, and the walls are covered with photos of sexy girls on motorcycles. Every night, Ernest tells me that as soon as he gets his driver’s license, he’s buying a Harley and joining a motorcycle gang. I used to ask him where he was going to get the money for a Harley, but I stopped when I figured out that the best answer he could ever come up with was a punch in the arm. Ernest always laughed when he punched me, like he thought it was some kind of game, but I never punched back because I knew he’d only punch me again, and harder. So I started reading up on karate, and Ernest stopped punching me when he saw the books on my desk.
The Wing Chun Master never provokes.
The Wing Chun Master only defends.
That’s why no matter how badly I want to break Mr. Tokarchik’s
ribs with a single thrust of my elbow, I stand perfectly
still as he asks me what I think about what everyone else thinks of my painting.
“What about Roland’s idea, Arthur?” Mr. Tokarchik asks. “Do you think you might be working through your issues?”
“I think I was running out of paint.”
“Beyond that, Arthur. What is your painting trying to tell us?”
“Nothing,” I say. “It’s a painting.”
“Then what are you trying to tell us through your painting, Arthur?”
“I already told you. I’m angry.”
“And why are you angry, Arthur?”
If I could say the words, I’d take a cue from Rachel and Vladimir and tell Mr. Tokarchik that I’m angry because of terrorists
or hurricanes or that tsunamis really piss me off or that global warming makes me want to puke or that I hate when people assume I’m retarded because of where I go to school. Then Mr. Tokarchik would thank me for sharing and ask if anyone
had any suggestions to help me get past my anger. Then everyone would tell me to breathe and count to ten and ask myself what Jesus would do. Then Mr. Tokarchik would stroke his beard and ask if any of these suggestions worked for me, and I’d say they all made perfect sense and thank my classmates
for their help, and Mr. Tokarchik would be free to move on and ask Faith why she’s feeling so FAITH! today. But I can’t say any of that stuff, so instead of making up some phony reason for being angry, I unclip my painting from the easel and tear it in half.
“Does this mean you’re not angry anymore, Arthur?”
“No, Mr. Tokarchik. It means you’re at the top of my list.”
In fifth grade, my teacher asked me in front of the whole class how the ancient Sumerians used to write. Her name was Ms. Valderama, and all she wanted to hear was the answer
in our textbook: The ancient Sumerians wrote on clay tablets using long reeds. Then she’d move on to the next kid and ask what this style of writing was called, and the next kid would inform her that the ancient Sumerians wrote in a style called cuneiform. The only problem was that I couldn’t tell Ms. Valderama the answer. I don’t mean that I didn’t know the answer, and I don’t even mean that it was just on the tip of my tongue and I couldn’t think of it. What I mean is that I probably
knew the answer even before she asked the question because she was reading the questions right out of the book and I studied them all night with my dad, but even though the answer was right there, right in the center of my brain, something
inside of me wouldn’t let me say it. What I said instead was that the ancient Sumerians dipped sticks in poop and wrote on the walls, and it wasn’t until she nodded and moved onto the next question and the whole class started laughing that Ms. Valderama realized that what I said probably wasn’t the answer she was expecting.
“What did you just say, Arthur?” Ms. Valderama asked before
Tina Randolph could tell her that the style of writing I’d just described was called cuneiform.
“They dipped sticks in poop,” I said. “And wrote on the walls.”
I can’t really say why I was so angry at Ms. Valderama. All I know is that as soon as she asked the question, I felt like someone had reached inside of me and pressed all of the angry buttons in my head, and I hated her for asking such a dumb question.
When I told my mom what happened, her shoulders slumped, and she gave me the look that she always used to give me when I was four years old and would start to cry in the grocery store because she wouldn’t buy me a strainer or a pair of rubber gloves from the housekeeping aisle. It wasn’t a look of frustration so much as a look of heartbreak, as if my mother suddenly realized that I was rotten on the inside like a bad peach.
“I want you to apologize to her,” my mother said. “In front of the class. And I want you to write her a note on good stationery
and in your best handwriting promising Miss Valderama that you’ll never behave like that in her classroom again.”
“Ms.,” I said. “It’s Ms. Valderama.”
My father was still at work. When he got home, I told him what I did and asked if he also thought that I needed to apologize.
“It sounds like a good idea,” my father said. “You don’t want to get a reputation as the class clown.”
He was in his suit and tie. He was sitting on the edge of my bed and eating cold Beef Stroganoff that my mother left out for him. I was sitting at my desk and pretending to write the letter my mother asked me to write.
“But it was a stupid question,” I said. “Everyone knew the answer.”
“Sometimes we need to jump through hoops to get what we want,” my dad said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean you should answer all the questions your teachers ask, even if they’re stupid.”
“My teachers or the questions?” I said.
“Both,” my father said.
It was the kind of thing that my mother would have given him the look for saying, but she was downstairs watching television,
and I knew that my dad would only tell her that we’d talked and that I was going to apologize to Ms. Valderama for saying that the ancient Sumerians wrote with sticks and poop. But I never wrote the note, and when I went to school the next day, I didn’t apologize. Instead, I spelled everything wrong on a spelling test, and when Ms. Valderama handed it back the next day, she had written WHAT HAPPENED? across the top in big red letters.
I DON’T KNOW! I wrote back in even bigger red letters. AND I REALLY DON’T CARE!
That’s when I started meeting with counselors and learning
specialists who would show me pictures of men with ostrich
legs and ask me if I thought anything was wrong with what I was looking at. It’s also when my parents started reading
books on alternatives to traditional schooling methods and calling toll-free numbers for information on programs that specialized in reaching children with unique learning needs. A year later, I was in this place.
Mr. Tokarchik’s class is the last class of the day, and when it’s over, I sneak away from school and go to the strip mall for my karate lesson. The walk is a major pain because there are no sidewalks between where I go to school and the strip mall, and along the way there are two wooden crosses where drunk drivers killed people. On top of that, I have to walk past a regular high school on the way to my karate lesson, and since my school tries pretty hard to be just like any other, they both finish up at the same time, so all the regular high school kids are pouring out of the building whenever I walk by. They don’t say anything to me, but I get mad at them anyway because
the older kids are getting in cars and the younger kids are getting on buses or they’re getting picked up by their parents, and I know they all get to go home every night when all I get to do is go back to my room with Ernest Williams and his endless talk of motorcycles.
At the strip mall, I stand outside the karate dojo, which used to be a greeting card store, and I watch the students inside practice their moves. I know the dojo used to be a greeting
card store because the gold lettering on the door still says Hanson’s Greeting Cards. The lettering for the dojo looks like it’s made of electrical tape, and it spells out Karate and gives a phone number to call if anyone is interested in lessons. I called the number once and spoke with one of the karate instructors
there. His name was Sensei Melvin, and after asking him a few questions, I found out that they don’t teach Wing Chun karate there, which is why I never officially signed up for lessons. I also never officially signed up for lessons because my parents wouldn’t pay for them and because I knew that if I officially signed up, then I’d officially be a student, and I’d stop paying attention, and I’d start goofing off because I really hate school. But the main reason I don’t take lessons is that they don’t teach Wing Chun karate, so I just stand outside the dojo and listen to the kids shouting as they throw punches at the air.
The Wing Chun Master knows his limitations.
The Wing Chun Master works with what he’s given.
When the karate class starts, I walk back and forth in front of the big window and try to blend in with the rest of the shoppers in the strip mall. The problem is that there aren’t that many shoppers in the strip mall, and most of the people who go there are either there to stop at the liquor store at one end of the mall or to go to the post office at the other end, and the dojo is in the middle. Even so, I do what I can to make myself look like I’m there to shop at the vacuum cleaner store or the bookstore or the drugstore next to the dojo. When a woman walks past the dojo, I walk a few feet behind her so I look like I’m a kid who’s out with his mom but wants to look like he isn’t. Then I turn around and try to hide behind a pack of teenagers as I walk past the dojo again. If I had sunglasses, I could look sideways at the dojo and see what everyone is doing, and no one would notice what I’m up to.
I take a lot of mental notes when I walk past the dojo: how the kids stand, how they step forward when they throw their punches, how they shout. Some of these things are hard to figure out just by reading books, even books with illustrations. Even though they’re not studying Wing Chun and I have to look sideways to catch a glimpse of what these kids are doing,
I think I’ve learned a lot from watching their lessons. At night, I’ll usually come back to my room and practice everything I’ve seen. I don’t do the shouting, of course, because the counselors might come in to see what I’m shouting about, but I do all of the other moves while Ernest Williams tells me about the motorcycle he’s going to buy one day and the gang he’s going to join. I can join the gang, too, he usually tells me. A good motorcycle gang always needs a ninja, and if I need to, he’ll let me ride on the back of his motorcycle for a while until I can afford to buy one of my own.
“I’m not a ninja,” I tell him. “I’m a Wing Chun Master.”
“What’s the difference?” Ernest always asks.
“Bruce Lee was a Wing Chun Master,” I say. “And he was the best.”
Ernest thinks about this while I practice shifting from a casual stance to a defensive one. His teeth are so bad that his lips barely cover them. His eyes always look like they’re going to pop out of their sockets. The more he thinks about the difference between a ninja and a Wing Chun Master, the further his mind wanders from the topic.
“Maybe I could get one of those motorcycles with a sidecar,”
he says. “And when you get your own motorcycle, I can get a bulldog to ride with me.”
When the kids at the dojo start practicing their kicks, I try not to watch. Like I said, the Wing Chun Master will no sooner kick his opponent in the face than punch that opponent in the foot, so I go to the drugstore and buy a Zagnut bar. This is a good idea for two reasons. First, it gives me something to do until the kids finish their kicks. Second, it gives me an excuse for hanging out at the strip mall, and when I return to my post in front of the dojo, I make a show of how much I’m enjoying my Zagnut to prove that my main reason for visiting the mall today was to buy a candy bar and not to spy on the karate class. The Wing Chun Master has many faces.
The Wing Chun Master can dissolve into thin air.
Even after I’ve swallowed the last of my Zagnut bar, I pretend
I’m still eating, and I smile with satisfaction like someone who might be in a commercial for Zagnut bars if the Zagnut company ever advertised on television. Despite my best efforts
at blending into my surroundings, however, one of the kids in the class sees me and starts to laugh. My guess is that my smile is too big and goofy, so I try to hide it, but I’m too slow. Soon the karate instructor is asking this little blonde kid who can’t be more than eight years old what’s so funny, and the kid is pointing at me through the big window. The karate instructor says something to his students and bows before leaving them to practice throwing more punches at the air. It takes me a second to realize that he’s on his way out of the dojo to confront me, and by the time he opens the door, it’s too late to run. But that’s okay because the Wing Chun Master is ready for anything.
The karate instructor is a lot taller than his students but only a couple of inches taller than me. He’s an Asian man, and he’s wearing a white karate outfit, and I think about Bruce Lee even though the karate instructor doesn’t look anything like Bruce Lee. He looks more like my dentist back home, but even that isn’t a good description because I don’t think that my dentist could beat the crap out of Mr. Tokarchik as well as the karate instructor could—and definitely would—if Mr. Tokarchik ever told him to paint his feelings.
“Can I help you?” the karate instructor says.
“No,” I say, thinking fast. “I was looking for the greeting-card store.”
“It isn’t here anymore,” the karate instructor says, looking
over his shoulder at the kids inside his dojo. “It’s a karate studio now.”
“Dojo,” I say. “It’s called a dojo.”
I can feel the tension building like a spring inside of me. Any second now, the instructor is going to signal his students, and they’ll come swarming out the door, shouting, punching, and flying through the air. But the body of the Wing Chun Master is like a steel trap, so I’m calm and collected as the karate instructor interrogates me.
“You say dojo, I say studio. Are you interested in lessons?”
“I’m a Wing Chun Master,” I say.
“Ah,” the karate instructor says. “A Bruce Lee fan.”
“He was the best,” I say.
“Some people think so. If you don’t mind me asking, who’s your teacher?”
“Mr. Tokarchik,” I say, fumbling for a name. “I mean, Sensei
“I don’t think I’ve heard of him.”
“He’s new,” I say.
“Fair enough,” the instructor says. “If you ever change your mind about lessons, give me a call.”
He makes a move, and I spring into first position.
“Not bad,” he says. “Here’s my card.”
I take his card and walk away. My ears are burning, and I can feel the red pouring into my face like paint.
I’m walking past the high school again when someone says, “Look out for the ’tard.” ’Tard is short for retard, and it’s one of the kids from the football team who says it. He doesn’t say it like he means to hurt my feelings or make me angry or anything. He says it like no one ever told him that calling someone a ’tard is a rude thing to do. And when he says it, it almost sounds like he’s worried about me, because his friends are still tossing a football around, and he doesn’t want them to knock me off the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic. What bothers me, though, is that he must know where I live if he thinks I’m retarded, even though no one at my school is actually retarded. What bothers me even more is that I thought I could blend in with everyone here at the high school, but I obviously can’t. I obviously look like someone who doesn’t belong. But a Wing Chun Master knows how to hold his emotions in check. A Wing Chun Master never lets his emotions get the better of him, so I ignore the kids on the football team and keep walking.
Back at school, a police car is parked in the spot reserved for emergency vehicles, and I wonder if Andrea Martorano has been caught shoplifting again. It isn’t until I get back to my room and Ernest Williams tells me that I’m in big trouble that I realize the police car is there for me. Mr. Foley and Mr. Tokarchik came looking for me after class today, Ernest says, but I wasn’t in the room. Of course I wasn’t in the room, I tell him. I was out on business. When Ernest asks what kind of business I was on, I shake my head as if he wouldn’t understand. Ninja business, he asks, putting down his motorcycle magazine?
“I told you before,” I say. “I’m not a ninja. I’m a Wing Chun Master.”
That’s when I realize that my karate books aren’t on my desk anymore. When I ask where they are, Ernest tells me that Mr. Foley and Mr. Tokarchik took them.
“But they’re mine,” I say. “I bought them with my own money.”
“I said they could take them,” Ernest says. “They asked, and I said you wouldn’t mind.”
I could go into first position right now, but the senses of a Wing Chun Master are unusually sharp, and I can hear Mr. Foley and Mr. Tokarchik coming down the hallway with a third person, who I guess is the police officer. Mr. Tokarchik is telling
Mr. Foley that he didn’t mean to make such a big deal out of it—whatever it is, though it probably has to do with what I said to him in class today—and Mr. Foley is telling the police officer that I couldn’t have gotten far since I know that I’m not allowed off school grounds.
“It’s that stupid painting,” Ernest Williams says. “Why couldn’t you just paint something normal like everyone else?”
I’d say something to this, but I don’t have time. The only way out of the room is through the front door, and that only leads to the hallway, and the voices are getting closer.
“At least you could have told him that you were feeling red because red is your favorite color.”
I go to the window. Our room is on the second floor, and I can probably make the jump down to the ground because of my Wing Chun skills. The important thing is to bend my knees when I land.
“Keep your mouth shut,” I say. “And help me with the window.”
The voices are right outside our room now.
“Don’t be stupid,” Ernest says. “You’ll break your legs.”
“Not if I bend my knees,” I say, forcing the window open without his help.
“Why didn’t you just say you weren’t angry anymore?”
“Shut up,” I say.
“You should have just painted a motorcycle like everyone else.”
“You’re the only one who painted a motorcycle,” I say, sitting
on the windowsill but still facing Ernest.
“I’m just saying that you’re pretty stupid if you think anyone
here really cares about what you’re feeling.”
“I’m not stupid,” I say,
“Then why are you jumping out a window?”
“I’m not stupid,” I say again.
“Whatever,” Ernest says.
There’s a knock at the door, and I swing my legs over the ledge.
The Wing Chun Master is like the wind.
The Wing Chun Master will never die.
If Things Hold Up
My husband and I are on the tram heading toward Harvard
Square. We pass Mount Auburn Cemetery, where the trees behind the iron fence are bare and gray.
“This is too hard,” I say to Lucas. “I want to go back to the apartment.” Linking my arm through his, I move closer and lean my head on his shoulder. He is reading Murdoch’s Existentialists and Mystics. He struggles to keep from dropping the book.
“It’s better to go out. To do things,” he says. “It’s Friday evening—we haven’t been out for two months.”
“To try to forget, you mean.” I pull my jacked down over my belly.
He doesn’t raise his eyes from the book. “Linda,” he says.
A few passengers board at the hospital stop. A man and a woman sit down in front of us. She is pregnant. He puts his arm around her and whispers in her ear. I feel sick. I look down at my feet and study my dirty, scuffed sneakers. The door squeaks shut and the tram glides into traffic.
Lucas and I are older graduate students: he studies philosophy; I study English literature. We have been married, long enough to disagree about almost everything. But we both wanted a baby. For two years, there had been lovemaking dictated by thermometer readings, surgery, tears, pregnancy
tests, monthly bleeding. One afternoon, after an appointment,
I phoned Lucas, saying, “Hi, daddy, it’s mommy calling,” names we had feared would never be ours. Names I’m afraid we’ll never use again.
The tram turns into the Harvard Square terminal. Lucas puts his book in his knapsack. He holds my hand as we disembark.
The square is crowded. I stare at babies in strollers and backpack carriers. We walk past the Out of Town News kiosk. Shiny family magazines glint in the streetlights. We stop to watch a juggler listen to a jazz trumpet player.
“Bookstore?” Lucas says as he touches my arm. I nod, and we walk back to Wordsworth.
Lucas hurries over to the philosophy section. I feel uneasy standing at the entrance alone. The bright light hurts my eyes, and I feel weak. I walk with unsteady steps to Lucas. He already
has two books under his arm.
“You look pale,” he says. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“I want to leave everything in the nursery like it is,” I say. The nursery has been ready for months, decorated with curtains and a matching quilt sewn by my mother. Neatly arranged diapers
and creams and folded sleepers trim the changing table. Goodnight Moon waits on the rocking chair and the stroller in the closet.
“It’s too painful to see every day.” He stares at the book in his hands. I have never seen him cry.
“We’ll keep the door shut.”
Lucas closes the book. “Why don’t you find some books to look at.” He points over to the travel area. “Maybe we could take a trip,” he says.I want to hurt him. “Stop trying to solve the problem,” I say.
He looks pained, but I don’t feel any better.
I turn around and see pregnancy and childbirth books. I can’t help myself; I must go there. I walk over and pull a book off the shelf. I look up stillbirth in the index. I turn the page and read, “Spontaneous abortion after twenty weeks gestation; occurs in one out of one hundred pregnancies. Also, fetal death during labor and delivery.” My vision blurs as I look for a more detailed description, such as the paragraph that explains the imperceptible decline of fetal movement, the panicked visit to the obstetrician, the ultrasound detecting no heartbeat, the induced labor and delivery, and the silent birth of Elizabeth, four pounds two-and-a-half ounces. There is nothing about these things, nor is there anything about the nurse asking for the baby’s body to deliver to the hospital morgue, or the swollen leaking breasts, or the surreal new-mother-without-a-newborn wheelchair ride upon discharge, or the stunned drive around town searching for a cemetery with an infant section. There is nothing about the friend who offers to purchase a “preemie” christening gown for burial, or the shocked reaction of family and friends when they are informed
of the funeral. “At eight-and-a-half months?” they say in disbelief. “My God.”
I am startled when a bookstore assistant speaks to me. “Can I help you find something?” she asks.
“No thanks,” I look away. “I’m fine.”
“Let me know if there is anything I can do.”
I clutch the book and turn the page. This page doesn’t mention sympathy cards. It doesn’t mention six weeks of bleeding afterwards or the autopsy report finding no cause of death.
I look around. I’m alone. I return to the page with the brief stillbirth definition. I lick my finger and thumb, take hold of the page corner and pull it over and down, slowly ripping the page out of the book. I shove the book back onto the shelf, sit down in the aisle, and begin to tear the page into small pieces.
Lucas walks towards me.
I stand up and stuff the pieces of paper into my pants pocket. “I want to start trying,” I say.
“We’ve talked about this before.” He wants to use birth control for six months, the obstetrician’s recommendation.
“You don’t want one as badly as I do,” I say.
“That’s not fair.” Lucas moves away from me. “It’s not like buying a new bicycle.”
I say, “It’s my body.” I cross my arms. His face reddens, and I wonder if he is secretly thinking it was my womb that killed our baby.
“Let’s go home,” he says.
We read all the time. In our first-floor duplex, books are stacked on nightstands, on cement-block-and-board shelves, and on the floor next to the sofa. We have books in the bathroom
and books on the kitchen table.
Lucas prefers history, economics, sociology, and philosophy.
Until two months ago, I read books about pregnancy. Before that, I read books about infertility. Now, I should read books about stages of grief and pregnancy loss. I know this, and yet I pull one book off my nightstand to reread almost every
night. I remember we consulted this book together, hoping
that what I felt was typical, that the baby simply had little room to move.
For these two months now, I study the chapter describing
normal, slower fetal movement in late pregnancy. I look at each sentence, trying to find the clue, the word, just one bold declaration that the sloshing of a dead fetus in amniotic fluid can almost, but not quite, mimic the little kicks of a living one.
Later that evening, I lock myself in the bathroom and change into an outfit I wore on our honeymoon: a black lace teddy, hose, and high heels. I put on makeup, curl my hair, and spritz perfume behind my ears and knees. I pull the little pieces of paper from the stillbirth book out of my pants pocket and push them into my bodice. I leave the diaphragm in its case on the bathroom counter, and walk into the bedroom.
Lucas is lying there, reading. Books are stacked on his nightstand. I pose at the end of the bed, showgirl style.
After a moment, he looks up and stares. “I really don’t think this is appropriate,” he says in that calm voice of his.
I move around the bed and stand next to him. I pull out the bits of paper from my bodice and sprinkle them over his body.
He throws back the sheet, rolls out of bed, and says, “What the . . . ?”
I lean toward the nightstand. With both hands, I sweep the pile of books off onto the floor.
“Linda.” he stands between the books and me. “Linda.”
I lean over and whisper in his ear. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a bookstore.”
Lucas pulls me close and cradles my head against his chest. “It’s going to be all right,” he murmurs.
I want to believe him, but I don’t know how.
“Shhh . . . ” he says.
I write letters; I make appointments. I want a piece of paper.
An acknowledgement that I am a mother and Lucas is a father. I want to know why the Bureau of Vital Statistics won’t issue either a birth certificate or a death certificate for our baby.
Babies born weighing four pounds two-and-a-half ounces often live. Their parents get birth certificates. Sometimes they die after birth, and the parents get death certificates.
For us, there was a body, which was buried. There is a tombstone with a brass nameplate.
Our baby, it seems, is an in-between baby. There are no in-between certificates for parents.
Elizabeth does not count.
Bundling up in my coat and hat, I go to the library. I research
medical journals, obstetrical books, trade magazines. Money is spent on genetic research, I discover, but not on the causes of stillbirth. I record my sources on note cards, put them in a little brown plastic box. Experts do not know. It is one of those things.
Later, in our duplex, Lucas and I sit across from each other in the kitchen. The yellow Formica tabletop reflects the glare from the overhead light. Lucas reads a book while I search for bits of chicken in my noodles soup. There is no sound except the little whisk of turning pages and the heavy tread of our landlord upstairs.
“Maybe the fireworks caused it,” I say. “Or the cannon.” Lucas looks up from the book. He knows what I am talking about.
“Maybe tap water.” He squints. “Maybe fumes from the oil tank. Anything. Everything.”
I touch his hand. The windows are dark. The painted green cabinets, the stove, refrigerator, the sink, the beige and black linoleum squares, are all clear-cut, distinct, firm, tenable, while we sit like jagged shadows wavering in firelight.
Lucas is talking with his grandfather on the speakerphone. “I wish you had saved the name for the next baby,” the old man says. “Your grandmother would have lived on through her.”
I pinch Lucas’s arm until he looks at me.
“What would you have called her, anyway?” demands his grandfather. “Liz? Betty? Beth?”
I answer for Lucas. “We call her Elizabeth.”
Later, I find Lucas in the bathroom. He leans against the counter, his arms shaking, head bowed, the shower steaming behind him.
“He’s an old coot,” I say.
“Maybe he’s right.”
“Don’t do that,” I say. “She was always going to be Elizabeth.”
Lucas’s voice cracks. “Elizabeth.” He lifts up his head and moans. “Elizabeth.”
I stand with my hands pressed against the doorway. Water
vapor billows around us. I don’t know what to do or say. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. I try to touch him but he shakes me off. I close the door and walk into the nursery. I pick up Goodnight Moon and sit on the rocking chair.
I am terrified. Lucas is supposed to be the strong one. I strain to hear him, clasping my hands in my lap. The floorboards creak under the rocker. My heart thuds, and I’m wondering if things will hold up.
The young man and the girl were lying on bright colored beach towels in the early morning sun, alone on a narrow strip of pale sand near above the high tide line. Both were darkly tanned. Shade from large Chinese palms and catalpa trees stopped at the black volcanic rocks behind where their towels were spread. Now, neither of them had spoken very much, each trying to regain the equilibrium that they had had together before the accident. Seeing the pickup’s side mirror hit the bike rider still reverberated in them both, unsettling the feeling of security that they had found here their first days on this isolated part of the island.
“I’ve never even imagined anything remotely like that before,”
she said into the silence between them.
“It can happen in the blink of an eye,” he said. “The guy probably thought that he had a beautiful day ahead, digging on this lush life. Then suddenly, oblivion.”
“I wish I could stop thinking about it. I’m going to do my mantra until I can move all of that away from me. Then I’ll hold it off and never think of it ever again.”
The young man was almost five years older than the girl was, but she looked even younger. He often told her that too when she became piqued after being ID’ed again, her body lanky and seeming still almost adolescent, holding herself very naturally without any of the detached presence that she could easily assume. She dressed in an innocent-sensuous way, and acted unaffected by the attention that she usually got everywhere because of her good looks. The young man projected an intensity that she had thought was attractive and intriguing when they first met, now almost five months past. Sometimes lately, though, she saw an overshadowing of sudden
restlessness from him.
They lay still beside each other in the strong sunlight, the cooling onshore breeze blowing over them causing a faint rustle through the vines and honeysuckle behind the beach. A steady murmur came from waves that were breaking and running
out across the sand, feathering into quick rushes of foam that disappeared near their feet. They had been staying for most of a week at a cottage that overlooked the small cove, each day walking up the street to the beach to spend several hours there sunning and bodysurfing. And each day they had gone someplace in their rented red convertible. He always drove, taking them swiftly along the narrow winding highway, driving across the many one-lane bridges that spanned deep gulches: one day going to the Seven Sacred Pools to swim, then another day to the small church at Kipahulu to see the grave of a famous American. The day before the accident, they had gone beyond where the paved road ended to spend the morning at a small cove on the rocky coast below Haleakala
Crater. Alone there they swam naked in the surf. The next day near mile marker forty-two, they saw the bike rider killed in an instant.
“I have that Edith Piaf song in my head,” she said, calmer.
“La Vie en Rose? ‘Life in Pink?’”
“Yes, thankfully you brought it. Maybe it will blend away this . . . .”
She lay still, trying to have only the music in her thoughts. Then she said, “I hope we can go to Paris.”
She clinched her body tight in an involuntary shrug because
of the misstep. Lately when one of them spoke of a future together those imaginings had sounded hollow. She opened her eyes and looked toward the horizon.
“It’s entirely beautiful here,” she said, trying to leave the assumption of any other time together.
She could not see well into the brightness coming off the water, but if she looked toward their cottage, she could see the low green bluff that rose from the ocean where waves were breaking white against large black rocks.
“I’m trying to be perfectly content in this moment,” she said, carefully.
She held herself up on her forearms and turned to him and her untied bikini top dropped from her.
“You are utterly and absolutely beautiful.”
She smiled to him and lay forward on her towel, and said, “I want to start feeling happy again as soon as I can.”
In front of the small crescent beach there was no reef and the waves came in strong. The girl looked to the dark forms of surfers far offshore rising on swells and then disappearing into the waves’ troughs, lifting again on another swell. One of them stood on his board and started riding a wave, cutting back on the rolling face, balancing in front of the breaking curl. He came near to shore before he dove into the collapsing
wave. After he began paddling out, the girl rolled over onto her back.
“I’d really like to get high right now,” she said. “Right here, not thinking of anything at all.”
“Those guys building that house next to us could maybe get you some weed, some pakalolo.”
“They might set you up with the local police though.”
“Why would they? You’re being paranoid.”
“Haven’t you noticed how a lot of Hawaiians here seem to not like haole tourists too much?”
“I’ve thought we’ve been getting that older-guy-with-a-young-chick thing, like we do sometimes back on the mainland.”
“I’m not that much older.”
“But I look a lot younger than I am. That’s not what attracted
you to me is it?”
“Then what did?”
“Stop it. That sounds so common.”
She took a cigarette from the packet that lay on her T-shirt, and used the silver plastic lighter, then inhaled. She offered
the cigarette to him but he shook his head.
“Does it bother you if I do?”
“Want me not to?”
“As you please. I’m going in the water again.”
That morning they had watched the sun rise beyond the edge of the ocean as they sat next to each other on a rock wall that ran across the grassy point below their cottage. Hewn blocks of volcanic rock from an abandoned sugar mill lay strewn about there under the tall coconut palms. They had spoken of how fragments from memories of the bicycle rider being killed had been scattered through their sleep. They watched until the sun rose above the horizon, then they went back to the cottage that they had for three more days and had curiously intense sex with each other, the sunlight streaming through the open blinds and onto their bed and across them.
“It seems as if you’ve not been wearing anything, the way you’re so completely dark,” he said. He touched the concave of the muscles of her back and looked at the line of paleness left by her thong. “Dark everywhere except here.” He brushed his fingertips along where the faint line disappeared.
She rolled away, suddenly shy.
“I’d give anything if we hadn’t seen that,” she said, to deflect
“Being there at the exact moment—seeing that instant—was a one-in-a-million bad break. But as long as you’re wishing,
why not give anything if that had never happened?”
“Of course I wish it had never happened.” She stood and covered her breasts with her hands and left the room.
When she came back from showering she was wearing a big white towel. He lay propped up at the head of the bed reading, with their two pillows behind his shoulders. She sat on the side of the bed and looked out the open doors and across the lanai to the ocean. Surfers floated on their boards near where rollers first appeared far out from shore. Water dropped from her hair and spread across her shoulders and throat. He leaned nearer and gently pulled the towel loose and it fell away.
She looked at him directly and said calmly, “I want you to know that I know that you’re just screwing me.”
He blinked rapidly several times.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s the truth.”
“There’s more to us being together than only that.”
“Of course I’ve hoped so.” She shook her head in a small and confused reaction. “Forget it. I understand that it’s just what some people do.” She looked into the brightness. “There’s no need to talk about this—no reason at all.”
She looked as though she would cry.
“This is all because of the accident,” he said.
“No it isn’t that. I’ve felt bluesy ever since then, but I’ve thought about this before. Lisa said it to me when I told her that we’d decided to come here.”
He went out onto the lanai and sat at the table and lit a cigarette. She stood and wrapped the towel around her tightly.
Loud hip-hop music blasted from a small white pickup as it came slowly past the cottage; two Hawaiian children and a black dog were in the back. A motorcycle thumped by going the other way; the Hawaiian man riding it coasted it smoothly through the curve. A car passed with boys leaning out the windows looking at the surf and talking with excitement, pointing to the large waves.
“We’re at the center of the party,” she said.
He looked at the waves cresting and breaking and said, “At the beach yesterday I heard somebody say that there’s a typhoon southeast of here causing these big waves.”
She turned away and went into the closet to dress. She left the door open but she did not turn on the light.
That night the girl slept on the sofa under the front windows.
In the bed alone the young man could hear her flipping through the pages of magazines until he finally went to sleep. The next morning they drove back toward town to the small restaurant that was up a green slope from the highway. At the carry-away window, they both ordered macadamia nut French toast. He thought that a single order would be plenty for them both, but he did not say that. They ate at one of the wooden picnic tables in the open shelter. Small finches and waxbills flitted about and perched on the steel roof trusses above them. She said that she thought the Styrofoam trays their food came in were out of place, and that the insensitivity of using them was absurd in this natural place. At the front of a small barn down the slope a Hawaiian boy finished currycombing
a chestnut horse. They watched as he put a silver turnout sheet on the horse that covered its back and rump.
“I think I could stay here happily for a long time, if I could feel again as I did before the accident,” she said. “Could you?”
“And do what for work?”
“Not what you do now, obviously. But to live simply, this place might be good.”
“Fleeing the modern world isn’t what I want to do now.”
“Could you live in Paris?”
“I’d have to know the language a lot better. And it would take some effort and time to get licensed there. I think I need to be in LA, maybe Seattle.”
“They’re entirely different universes.”
“They each can be anything. I think I can find a place in either universe, coming down to one street; a single building; an office in that building; a cubicle there that I can call home.” He smiled seriously to her.
“Is that what you really want?”
“I’m breathing in—I’m breathing out, like the song says.”
“Like humans do?”
“Exactly. What else is there?”
“That’s no answer.”
She compressed her lips and looked at a waxbill on an empty table taking away a crust of bread. Light rain began quickly. They both turned to see their car with its top still down. They had not finished their food but he threw their Styrofoam
trays into a trash barrel, and then with the rain becoming
heavier they ran to their car. The girl got in at the driver’s side and they sat there in the rain while the top whined up and enclosed them. He leaned across and kissed her and she quickly put her arms around his neck and held him tightly. Then she started the car. She drove them back down the narrow
road. The horse was standing in the rain with its head down and rain splattered off the turnout sheet. They crossed the highway. Only a rusty white van was in the parking lot of the general store.
A haole man with a gray-streaked ponytail ran up the sale of her Tanqueray. He did not ask her for an ID, and he said nothing and did not look up at her as she paid him.
The girl drove fast on the road through the countryside back to their cottage. The sun was out again and the hillsides and trees shone rich with subtly varied greens. They saw a double rainbow over the ocean. At the cottage they put on their swimming suits. Then they walked beside the street toward
where concrete stairs led down to the beach. For the first time since they had come there the girl wore a bikini instead
of a thong. They could see that the beach was more crowded than on any of the other days. The girl went to the edge of the bluff and looked over at the waves breaking along the beach.
“These waves are too big for me,” she said.
He watched the strong waves sweeping onto the shore.
“We’ll be all right if we don’t go out too far,” he told her.
“I’m going back. I’ll read or something. I don’t want to go in the water with it this rough. Maybe tomorrow this all will calm down, and then everything might go back like it was when we first came here.”
She turned away and started walking back to the cottage. He watched her leaving, then he went on toward the concrete stairs.
If I can leave right now, she thought, and if I can make him believe that it’s only for right now—for a day or two—then he might stay. And maybe he’ll be all right about going back alone.
Do you realize how many if’s there are now? There are ifs and a might and a maybe. But what will you choose to do in all of this?
Now you’re sounding like him, she warned herself.
She looked at several surfers riding their boards on the large seas that the storm was bringing, and she remembered the happiness that she had felt on their first day here. Then a sudden feeling of hopelessness came over her when she recalled what had happened at mile marker forty-two.
She said to herself, I think the hardest part may be the taking in and carrying with you of everything that you’ve ever seen or done. It all may always be there, no matter how hard you try to hold it back and never to think of it ever again.
Ajay Singh had been working the cash register at DrugBox for almost a month when the temptation returned. A late afternoon lull forced him to notice the melodramatic pop tunes surging through the store’s broadcast system at an unforgiving
volume. Once his ears began to listen, there was no turning back. The loud soundtrack radiated from the ceiling in every corner, refusing to be ignored, somehow both arresting and awful. He scanned the aisles for Neil the manager, but his boss had disappeared. It was now pointless to surrender
to the temptation. The only way to get sent home early and escape the cacophony was to have someone witness his special gift in action. Without that, breaking the vow in an empty store would yield nothing but heartburn and a sore throat. The young clerk was trapped, his thoughts of getaway options overwhelmed by the histrionic voices swirling above, their prickly harmony punctuated by frighteningly jubilant synthesizers.
The gift first appeared in eighth grade. Ajay and the boys ran gym laps while Coach Klink loitered under the basketball rim, scanning a newspaper and blowing his whistle from time to time to remind them that he was watching. After half an hour, Ajay broke through a threshold of pain and exhaustion that he hadn’t thought possible. He gasped for air, his legs heavy and wobbling. If only I could do something to make this stop, he thought. If only there was some way to be sick and get out of this. Vomit suddenly sprayed across his gym clothes. He had not quit running, had not bent over at the waist, had not fallen to his knees. It came forth in one fell swoop without interruption. The noise stunned everyone.
Coach Klink held up a hand. Ajay saw the signal and stopped in his tracks, the vomit now dripping onto the gym parquet. The whistle fell from Coach’s lips and dangled on a black cord around his neck: “You boys see how Ajay is bustin’
his butt today?”
Everyone looked at the kid covered in vomit, astonished by the tone of praise. Ajay stood there in silence, staring blankly. He wasn’t sure what had happened, only that his mouth tasted like salsa and his chest hurt a little.
“Good workout, Ajay!” said Coach, mispronouncing his name—A.J.—like always. At the very first roll call, Coach had said, “Oh, ‘Ajay’ like A.J. Foyt the racecar driver.”
“No,” Ajay had said.
“Son, your parents named you after one helluva competitor.”
Ajay looked down at his gym shirt, the yellow tiger mascot completely concealed by vomit. He imagined the annoyance on his mother’s face when he brought home the uniform to be laundered. Should he just throw it away?
Coach Klink put his hand on Ajay’s shoulder, unfazed by the growing stench of bile. “Boys, A.J. has shown us what happens when you aren’t afraid,” he said, spinning him toward
the group. A few of the kids groaned as chunks splatted onto the floor. “He gave and gave until he could give no longer! And that’s why I’m sending him to the showers early today.”
Ajay walked toward the locker room, relieved. Somehow, his sudden fit of vomiting had been equated to a superlative work ethic, freeing him from P.E. And now he’d get the spray nozzles in the wash area to himself—before all the hot water was used up. At last, no running and no cold shower. The vomit wasn’t gross; it was wonderful. Behind him, he could hear the whistle prompting the rest of the class back to their laps, and a slightly wicked smile began to surface on his face before he repressed it.
As the weeks passed, Ajay learned that his particular gift was especially valuable and unique because he never had to rely on cumbersome tricks to trigger it into action; fingers weren’t shoved down his throat and the gag reflex was irrelevant.
For Ajay, the horrid act was merely like anyone else raising their hand in the classroom; all you had to do was think about raising it and BOOM, it was raised. Once Ajay decided to vomit, the physical response came in seconds. Thought into action.
After escaping gym class early, he began to search for other scenarios where his unique skill could secure both victory
and justice. There were, of course, its basic uses, like when he needed to abandon an unexpectedly challenging test at school and would get sent home sick. And there were the times the gift could simply clear out a crowded location. This came in handy for things like long movie theater or sandwich
shop lines. Any crowded place was his for the taking. He needed only to want it for himself and to be indifferent about who saw him do it. He wondered, though, if something more fitting for the gift was out there, something he had yet to discover.
Ajay stepped off the bus and sat down on the curb, opting not to walk home just yet. He watched the other passengers scatter in different directions, heading for the mid-century ranch houses spread throughout their neighborhood. It had been one of the first suburbs of Washington, D.C., but over the years, the sons and daughters of that initial wave had fled to newer, larger houses miles and miles away, unconcerned by the long drives that awaited them. A few of the original homeowners,
now grandparents, had remained. The rest were taken up by new Americans from other parts of the world, many of whom were like his parents, happy just to have a spot in this civilized environment. They did not need mansions.
He lingered on the curb, backpack in his lap, and watched the cars go by, occasionally glimpsing a strange face frozen in the midst of laughter. He’d been weighing the different responses
to his new gift. Most surprising of all was the notion that it somehow signaled to others an extreme work ethic. This baffled him.
He’d actually been warned about this strange American notion a few times in the past by his parents. They’d arrived in the suburb five years before he was born—leaving Chennai
to join a hotel opening in Colonial Old Town, near the very church where George Washington himself had once sung rapturous hymns. During a cold winter night in Room 237—with its bird’s eye view of those historic wooden pews—Ajay was conceived. Today, his parents still worked at the same hotel, having risen to management positions over the years, and every now and then, they would walk past Room 237 during an inspection and giggle together for a moment or two, recalling how they’d once snuck off during the night shift like star-crossed lovers.
From time to time, Mr. and Mrs. Singh described to their young son the phenomenon they had encountered in America: the so-called “work ethic” effect. This occurred, Ajay’s father
explained, when a manager valued an employee’s work ethic more than his actual work product.
“There will be days when the employee who looks like he is working the hardest is rewarded—even if his work is not the best.”
His mother agreed immediately. “If you accomplish the task with too much ease, then you will be discredited. You must instead appear as if you are the very epitome of exertion and struggle—for that is what they truly value.”
How his vomiting that day in gym class somehow correlated
with this work ethic principle—the exertion, the struggle—eluded him. From then on, though, whenever he saw Coach Klink, even those times when the man came into DrugBox, Ajay could sense in his face a look of respect. “A.J., if only I could get the rest of my players to fully commit themselves like you.”
Later that night, things were so busy behind the cash register
that a couple of fabulous hours passed when Ajay didn’t even notice the dreaded store music above. It wasn’t until well after dinner time when he began to hear the songs again and his sour mood returned. He tried to ignore the lyrics—something
about love and white lies and bedroom eyes—but they were too appalling. It became difficult not to speculate about a society raised on such songs. They seemed to make people feel alone and apathetic, their melodrama highlighting the pain instead of alleviating it. There was nothing “cathartic” about them, as Neil the manager had often claimed.
When the boss walked by this time, Ajay pointed at the stereo speakers in the ceiling.
“Can’t we turn this junk off?”
Neil stopped, fingered the traces of a new goatee on his chin. “What you fail to realize, Ajay, is that the company issaving hundreds of thousands of dollars with these songs you hate so much. They’re a big bargain, old enough to qualify for reduced royalties, but new enough that the customers know them.”
Ajay stared at him. “Mozart and Strauss and Beethoven . . . you can get all of their music for free! No royalties.”
“People don’t like that stuff.”
“They do, too.”
Neil pulled Ajay toward the snack aisle, where an abundance
of brightly packaged chips and pretzels and dried pork rinds made Ajay sometimes question the country’s prosperity. His boss approached a nearby customer in his early thirties who wore a baseball cap backwards. A sweaty grey T-shirt covered his black, long-sleeved thermal.
“Excuse me, sir,” began Neil, “just a quick DrugBox survey,
if you don’t mind?”
“Huh?” grunted the man. He seemed paralyzed by the dozens of microwave popcorn options on the aisle.
“How do you feel about Mozart? I mean, do you like his music?”
The man turned back to him, confused.
Neil hummed a few bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
“Is this a quiz? I mean, do I win something?”
Ajay stepped forward and suddenly blurted out, “You win better music in this store.” He forced a wide grin onto his face.
“You play music here?” The man looked up toward the ceiling and took off the baseball cap, as if somehow that would increase his hearing. “Oh, yeah, I guess you do.”
Ajay turned back to Neil, frustrated. “This guy doesn’t count. He’s clearly an idiot!”
Neil quickly dragged Ajay behind a cardboard display for GoNuts DoNuts.
“Hey, you can’t talk about customers like that. They might hear you.”
“I’m telling you, normal people—real people—like Mozart just fine.”
Neil held up his arms, shrugging. “Look, I know you think you’re helping.”
“Don’t underestimate the average person.”
“I’m not,” said Neil. “I’ve been doing this job for a long time. A lot longer than you.”
Just then, the glorious Kim Hardwicke walked down the aisle, about to begin her shift—Ajay’s favorite part of the workday.
Kim had been the only person who’d pronounced his name correctly right from the start. She attended community college during the day, but once confessed to him that she wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do with her life. He found this candor attractive, and the idea that she’d shared something so personal invigorated him. He’d tried to think of some secret to offer in return, but could only detail how annoyed
he’d gotten when his younger brother Vijay announced to the family that from now on he would answer to the name “Vic.”
Kim Hardwicke wore a smart ponytail, and as she moved with her confident, bouncy cadence, she tapped the manager
on the shoulder and said, “Hey, Neil, how about turning down this crap for once?” The manager was befuddled by her directness. Kim lightly winked at Ajay, then sidled past the two of them toward the back without waiting for an answer. Ajay and Neil stood frozen, neither realizing that they’d been staring.
“Okay?” Ajay finally said, holding out his hands. “So I’m not the only one who hates the music here.”
“Get back behind the damn register!”
Ajay wanted to formulate the perfect snappy comeback, but instead he could feel only raw anger at Neil and the idiots at headquarters. He was at the mercy of idiots. They were all around him. Idiots buying pork rinds. Idiots buying peanut butter-filled pretzels. Idiots buying jalapeño-flavored anything. Was the rest of his life going to be spent serving fools?
Ajay scanned the aisle. No one was around now. The other
employees were entirely out of view, and Kim was already buried in the back with the inventory. He and Neil were alone. Ajay thought about his gift and took a deep breath.
“Holy hell!” screamed Neil.
Vomit covered the floor in between them, reaching the edge of the metal magazine rack. Ajay closed his eyes and produced a second wave, spraying the ground loudly. This time, he caught the bottom corners of some comics on the rack, especially Middle Earth Heroes—collateral damage he could live with. He panted, having trouble catching his breath. His throat burned and his temples ached. That weird salsa taste returned.
Neil smiled, a look of patience. “Maybe you should take the rest of the night off,” he said, nervously. “And tomorrow, too. I don’t want this bug getting the whole store.”
Ajay turned and began unbuttoning his blue cashier’s blouse, carefully tiptoeing over the trails of vomit on the cream-colored linoleum. For two blessed days, he would be free of that horrid music. His only regret was that he’d broken his vow, his moratorium on the gift, at the beginning of Kim’s shift, not at the end. How stupid! In any normal circumstance, he would’ve been able to think things through and resist the temptation to escape like this, but the annoyances at DrugBox
outweighed the occasional sightings of the glorious Kim he would’ve gotten if he’d hung on and finished his shift. Just seeing her walk by was normally the highlight of his job, but tonight, somehow, that wasn’t enough. What’s wrong with me? he wondered.
Ajay sat in his room at home with a dry erase board and a set of markers, trying to generate solutions to the music problem at work. Earplugs were the only option he’d come up with, so far, and he knew they were an impractical solution
for any head cashier. Cashiers had more duties than just counting back change to the customers, and earplugs would cause trouble.
“What’s that again, sir, Marlboro Lights? Say that again?”
It was now the third time he’d left the store early due to the undisclosed “illness” which seemed to return the moment his music complaint was ignored. Ajay always checked both ways to make sure Kim Hardwicke wasn’t around to witness the act. He had to be certain she never saw it happen. If she did, she might run off and never speak to him again. What girl would? He imagined her voice. “You can barf on command?
How romantic, how sexy.” Yes, he had to make sure she never, ever saw it happen.
Earlier that day, Neil listened once more to a complaint from Ajay and then simply put his hands on his hips and said, “We’re not changing a thing. Live with it.”
The vomit shot forth this time with suddenness that momentarily
shocked both of them. Neil quickly retrieved a bucket
“Maybe it’s time you went and saw a specialist for that,” he said, beginning to clean the mess.
Ajay knew there was no medical treatment that could make him immune to the store’s rancid soundtrack playing all shift long, hour after hour until the weeks became months and then years. The difficulty now was in finding an answer that Neil could accept. He did not dislike Neil, and he did not consider him to be horrendously out-of-touch with the concerns
of his employees. Neil was a company man, though.
In the handful of jobs Ajay had worked during and after high school, he had learned to identify company men. They never laughed at jokes about the company, never made jokes about the company, and always seemed to have a rosy outlook about the workload or task in front of them. The company man never used sarcasm to describe the day, the customers, or the big bosses.
“I hope you realize that such a category is not limited to men,” said his father one night after dinner. The two of them had been putting away dishes, and Ajay took the opportunity to bring up his theory.
“Yes, I realize,” he said.
His father looked at him. “Is there something wrong with being a company man?”
“It seems unnatural,” said Ajay. “They never complain.”
“I see.” His father handed Ajay the shish kabob skewers. They’d grilled vegetables over an open flame that night, long a favorite of Ajay’s since the third or fourth grade.
His father moved to the metal wall hooks by the back door.
“Tell me,” he said, dutifully arranging the kitchen towels to dry. “How long is it that you have worked at one of these jobs? I mean the longest.”
Ajay thought about this for a moment. “Five months . . . the shoe store.”
“Is it maybe possible that you just haven’t gotten to know any of these people well enough for them to complain in front of you?”
Ajay watched him remove his apron, his weathered hands deftly folding the cloth. There were times when these discussions
with his father confounded him in a way that few other things could. He had no answer to this question.
His father shrugged. “Or maybe they think you’re a company
man yourself. Ever considered that?”
“They know I’m not.”
“Are you sure?”
Ajay thought about the rising amount of sick days he’d been using courtesy of his gift. “Pretty sure.”
“Well, Vijay has been at his job for almost a whole year. Maybe you should ask him how he does it.”
Ajay frowned. The thought of getting advice from his younger brother sickened him, and he was even more bothered
by the idea of his father suggesting it. It was as if the universe were turned upside down, and the righteous people were being punished.
Ajay stared at the dry erase board which remained devoid of solutions. The door whipped open, and Vijay stood there, surprised.
“What the hell are you doing home?” said his brother, annoyance
in his voice. “You’re supposed to be working.”
“You missed shish kabob for dinner,” said Ajay, calmly.
“So get out of my room.”
Vijay swatted the dry erase marker out of Ajay’s hand, sending it flying into the wall. It left a light blue dot before landing
quietly on the carpet.
“What was that for?” Ajay screamed. He stood up and moved toward his brother, who’d begun rifling through the closet.
“Your clothes suck,” said Vijay, a tone of resignation in his voice. “No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend.”
Ajay stared at his younger brother, who wore a white tank top, blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, black tennis shoes, and his hair greased into a ducky pompadour. Vijay had been looking more and more like he’d traveled from some strange, unknown part of Chennai which had been dipped into a fifty-year-old vat of American teenage hoodlums. It had started with the job at the auto parts warehouse on Route 1, a series
of self-imposed makeovers capped by the dinner table announcement about answering only to the name Vic. Vijay/Vic had become something too difficult to understand. Ajay walked over and gruffly pushed his brother away from the closet.
“Really?” said Vic, eyes widening in surprise. “You’re going
to fight me?” His voice was full of condescension.
Ajay had not thought of it that way, but as soon as the words were spoken, he knew it was true. He clumsily swung a fist at his brother’s face.
“Tool,” said Vijay, ducking. He backpedaled, grinning.
Ajay froze, confused. “Tool? What the hell does that mean?”
Vijay bobbed and weaved around him, back and forth in a half circle. “Virgin!”
Irritation washed through Ajay. It felt like a silly game, and he wanted it to be finished. He was not worried about the prospect of pain; this was not what bothered him. It was more the satisfaction that Vijay would derive from landing a blow, the grin of pride covering his face afterward. Ajay could not allow that to happen; it was that simple. He took a long, deep breath through his nostrils, and then he opened his mouth wide and let it all go.
His brother yelped as the vomit splattered the center of his white tank top. Ajay waited, expressionless, expecting Vijay to swing at him with his fists. But his brother turned and ran from the room, emitting a strange whine as he went. The noise continued up the hallway until Ajay could hear the kitchen screen door clanging. After that, there was only the sound of indistinguishable cursing from the backyard.
Ajay wiped his mouth and returned to the paltry solutions on his dry erase board. Another vow had been broken, the self-imposed rule never to use the special gift at home. He was not sure what this signified. The derision in his brother’s voice was to blame, and it worried him that he could not withstand
the criticism of a fool.
At DrugBox, the image of Vijay’s face, that tremendous look of horror as he was sprayed with the special gift, came repeatedly into Ajay’s head. He snuck out of the employee break area and entered the narrow corridor between the back of the pharmacy and loading dock. No one else was around. Ajay tiptoed over to an electrical box and located the cord for the corporate music player. It led to a giant automated digital rack which appeared to be playing song number 118, whatever that was. He knew only that its histrionic singer had been the last straw, spurring him into action as she whined about “cocktails, tattered veils, and psychic jails.” The digital rack was linked directly to the store’s broadcast system, and so Ajay unplugged the device and substituted his own iPod loaded with Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Handel—whatever he could find—all the way up to Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. He extracted a roll of black electrical tape from his pocket and sealed the connection to the stereophonic system.
After that, he cut a hole in the drywall with his blue Cub Scout knife and slid his portable song player inside.
Ajay nearly galloped down the narrow passageway as he headed back to the employee break room. Already he could hear the beautiful strains of Clair de Lune, that haunting piano which always reminded him of Independence Day with his parents, fireworks lighting up the Potomac River. His brother had been away, a summer basketball camp perhaps, or a rec center dance. He could not remember, and so he’d been free to enjoy the music that the adults enjoyed; his atypical teenage
taste no longer had to remain hidden. Boys who liked Brahms were not ridiculed by real people.
He strode into the store proper, with the song rambling upward, hitting its stride, the piano filling the once stricken stereophonic speakers with the kind of glowing life that they’d been invented for, and it seemed to him that everything wrong with the store was now gone, evaporated along with those odious pop songs which had plagued them all. He made his way triumphantly up the paper goods aisle, marveling ever-so-briefly at the remarkable sale on picnic plates, and then, just as the Debussy gave way to Sheep May Safely Graze, that fifth movement in Bach’s cantata, Kim Hardwicke suddenly
appeared before him, her ponytail still bouncing after an abrupt stop.
He was too happy to speak, and he did not even realize that he had a silly grin pasted across his face.
“What’s wrong?” Her green eyes seemed filled with warmth. She was the kindest, most beautiful woman he had ever met.
He looked up at the ceiling, the lilting rhythm of the aria flowing above. Emotion swelled within him.
“It is a great day,” he said.
“I know,” she smiled. “Neil gave me a promotion.”
“At last,” he said, grandly, though seeming not to hear her. He marched forward in step with the tempo of the song, “at last we can work like civilized human beings.”
He was focused on the bouncy rhythm of the aria. It made him think of children in colonial villages running toward the seaside, the spring sun warming their cheeks.
Kim followed him up the aisle, still somewhat energized, despite her confusing exchange with the head cashier.
“I’m going to be working up front with you,” she said. “No more inventory!”
He spun around, the news finally registering.
She nodded merrily. “Starting tonight.”
It seemed too good to be true. Everything was coming together, and now he wondered why he had waited so long to step up and exert himself. If only Vijay/Vic had insulted him sooner! The music was swirling above, Rossini, and it filled the store with stereophonic joy. What could be better than to learn on this occasion that the splendid, glorious Kim would be by his side from now on, sharing the bliss? At last, all was right in the world.
And then it occurred to him. Kim would be by his side from now on. That masterful beast Neil had dealt a crushing blow not unlike a lowly pawn taking a king.
“You heard the news?”
The DrugBox manager appeared from behind a rather large display of Funyuns, one of the American things whose appeal Ajay had never been able to grasp. Fried corn shaped like onion rings?
Neil stood there, his fingers absentmindedly tracing the rim of his new goatee. He was acting calmly, though unrepentant,
about his shrewd maneuvering. With Kim in Ajay’s sightline, and, more importantly, vice versa, things were going
to change. Ajay felt the elation draining from his body, the music above no longer the salve he had envisioned. It would not be long, he knew, before the manager noticed that the soundtrack from headquarters had been replaced, and once this happened, there were no options for Ajay remaining. With Kim standing there all the while, it’d be impossible to use his special gift to escape without alienating her forever, and the insightful, diabolical Neil had realized this.
“Are you ready to begin her training?” said the manager.
He gestured toward Kim, who stood there, attentive, her face filled with life.
Ajay nodded in silence. He lifted up the divider and led the girl behind the counter with its two front registers: one for each of them. They were sequestered from the rest of the store.
Neil grabbed a clipboard which had been sitting atop a stack of canned beer in packages of twelve.
“Oh,” he said, turning back around, “I forgot to ask . . .are you feeling better today?”
“Yes, better,” conceded Ajay.
“Good,” said Neil, and he disappeared with his clipboard.
Ajay wondered how long it would be until the manager finished the victory. As he listened to the music above, absent
of its usual hyperbolic lyrics about romance and love, he found himself woefully on edge, aware that an end to the sublime was coming, that Neil would return everything to the way it had been before and that escape no longer existed. As Ajay fretted about how much time he had left until the horror resumed, maybe minutes, maybe even seconds, he suddenly realized that Kim still stood there next to him, grinning as she awaited instructions. Her smile was beautiful.
Aaron Bigler Lefebvre
To get to the bridge, my brother Marshall, his friend George, and I traveled up a twisted stream, meandering at its own pace, no longer wrenched by the detonation of dams by lumberjacks. We had drifted slowly through flanks of lily pads and white and yellow blossoms upstream in a canoe with paddles, much like our entire Adirondack vacation. We passed through the days as they crumpled into a ball, like a used and discarded map. Rotate the balled map and the highlighted routes would lead to mismatched places. With a mind set to the mountain vibes, Adirondack memories run along twisted fern-laden trails and bending stream paths, time becomes unimportant—the movement of the sun and the moon serve as the instrument to knowing time. The names of weekdays disperse and exist separated by nothing but daylight and night. Feeling like a mountaineer turned back to some more primitive train of instinct, enlightenment without the typical noise of society, a woodsman without a care in the world so long as the woods don’t catch fire.
At the bridge, somewhere half way between the beginning and the end of the vacation, the only solid structure closing the gap on the null and void span of time, the three of us sat diving with our eyes into the glassy water of Lake Durant. The reddish water shifted under the planks and lake grass floated like ghost blades. George whittled a pine stick to a fine point with the gleaming machete he’d bought at the Long Lake General Store, while Marshall found his own stick, tied a red bandana around his head and ran back to the bridge.
“Avast ye!” Marshall cried.
George stood, machete in hand, and silently accepted the duel with a nod.
They sword fought, one with steel, one with forest pine. As they swung at each other, I watched, hoping George’s aim was good and that Marshall’s fencing lessons had paid off. Instead of being a buzzkill and asking them to stop before losing limbs to the water below, I etched a metaphor with their duel: a machined metal blade against wood, a murky reflection of the lumberjacks deforesting here a few hundred years ago.
Marshall’s abilities weren’t enough and the steel machete sliced his wooden sword in half. The loose half flung through the air and landed in the water, calmly drifting downstream towards
the dam at the other end. I watched it float and turned my attention to the floor of the stream. It was at least twelve feet deep. It was a phantom world I wouldn’t dare dive into. I knew there were fish down there, but was there any chance of lake monsters? Something legendary snaking its tendrils along the lake and stream beds below the bridge I stood on?
The wooden bridge was built in the vernacular style. Think of log cabins like the great Sagamore Camp: wood from the forests lining the lakes, logs of indeterminate pine species, built from the stream floor up, reaching the mountain air in a minimalist Lincoln Log fashion. Was there a legend of a monster in the woods or in the water like Bigfoot or Nessie? To avoid giving into childish nightmares, I thought of what I’d seen during my visit to the Adirondacks. Perhaps there was a more concrete legend or power that belonged to the Adirondack
Mountains. This place that I had a romantic connection with, was it real or just a glimpse of what it had been? Is it the myth and present feeling that defined this place, or would a pragmatic understanding of its history change the raw feelings
I’d associated with the Adirondack State Park and Lake Durant in particular?
Marshall and George chuckled and resumed their battle with a fresh wooden stick, not bothering to sharpen it. As Marshall’s old stick floated further off, I found I was too curious
to just live in the moment. Something about my instinctual love of the Adirondacks had suddenly become dislodged.
Before Lake Durant was a recreational attraction for campers, it was a center of business. When I went home after
the vacation and had the resources to explore it, I found the history of its past from two hundred years ago. In the 1800s forestry, among other trades like mining, was a premier business. The Adirondack Mountains held vast acres of evergreens:
cedar, hemlock, pine, and spruce. There was also balsam fir, which grew in forests unscathed by fires or men. It’s worth thinking that these sweet-smelling evergreens succeeded
years of logging that razed the forests. I could wander into the forest and stand under a balsam fir tree and inhale its sticky Christmas smell.
Each winter, before Theodore Roosevelt and the state of New York proclaimed the Adirondacks a state park, when the lakes froze, lumberjacks felled trees and dragged them down to the lakes covered in thick ice. The logs, easier to glide on the snowy ground, were stockpiled on top. When the lake ice melted, they filled with the light, buoyant evergreen trunks. Dams had been built for reserving the lake water for freezing and they blew them up. This was how they released the logs downriver each spring. They blew them up with dynamite, with very little caution and multiple injuries and several deaths. Once the dams opened, lumberjacks directed the trees along the river with peaveys, long iron rods with hooks at the ends. The logs found their way to the rivers and floated downstream for miles to mills, to be fashioned into boards and wood pulp.
Lake Durant, the lake whose footbridge we sat on, was owned by William West Durant, who used it for his lumbering company before the Adirondacks became a state park. William
West Durant was the man who contracted Sagamore to be built, the great Adirondack vacation home later owned by the Vanderbilt family. Like most structures in the Adirondacks, the footbridge included, it was fashioned from pine trunks and birch tree bark.
I hadn’t known any of this until the dislodgement at the bridge. When I was finally able to check out the history of Lake Durant, I found that it was called the 34 Flow. It was a man-made lake, dammed to ice up every winter.
Names reveal so much about places. Humans are creatures
of communication, and the symbolism that comes with a name can draw up a number of images. Lake Durant was a prettier way of saying that the lake was a fake and used by Mr. Durant to capitalize on the Adirondack forests. 34 Flow would be a more appropriate name still, but I can’t think of many vacation goers who’d be excited about spending their relaxing days and evenings roasting hot dogs near the shore of the 34 Flow. (“Oh, boy, I can’t wait to wake up and go for an early morning paddle around the 34 Flow.”) Industrial names, for me at least, bring up images of sludge, smoke, and bald land with nutrient-depleted soil. I wouldn’t really want to camp at the 34 Flow.
There was no Native American name for the lake because it was made for the lumber industry. Lake Durant and many others like it were scooped out of the area, permanently transforming
the landscape. Yet I, and many others like me, found this lake alluring and calming and worthy of tamping down our tent stakes.
I wondered what the Native Americans would have named an industrial lake. The name Adirondacks is Mohawk and describes
the people who lived there during the winter. It refers to the eating of the bark of the trees, because in the barren winter there is nothing else. And during the winters of the lumber
industry, there wasn’t even that. The lumberjacks share the name in some ways: the Adirondacks, the Tree Eaters.
On the morning of the first full day in camp, a mountain lion woke me early from sleep while the forest was still dark. When the sun lit the sky, I left my tent cautiously having heard what I thought were the scratching and paw thudding of a large cat, or a bear, or a band of raccoons. Maybe even squirrels,
amplified by the silence of the forest, jumping from trees and searching under the campsite table for food.
I emerged slowly, watching for the beast that woke me. Seeing nothing, I walked to the edge of the lake and crossed over a few stepping stones and logs to a large boulder twelve or so feet from the lake bank. I sat as the mists rose with the brightening sun. The other side of the lake was blurry at first, only a single row of pines stood visible, until the mist cleared and revealed the remaining rows layered behind the front-line trees. Eventually the stone faces of Blue Mountain were visible.
Concentrating on the lake, the place felt fresh, like a glacier
had passed by and rubbed an evergreen populated, lake-pocked world into existence. Cool, crisp, clean. It felt more like nature than anywhere I’d been before.
After my meditation, I returned to camp and woke Marshall
and George. Convinced they’d want to partake in the morning mists. I let loose that something had been prowling
around earlier. Marshall explained that it was probably just George snoring and rolling around in his sleep. George smiled and nodded.
I told them that it was hard for me sleeping alone in the tent, that paranoia of the sounds of the night grew worse.
My brother said, “At least you don’t have to sleep in a tent with George.”
But it didn’t change anything. Each night following I woke and listened to the sounds of snaps and crackles and rain dripping from pine needles to the rain fly of my tent, and I swore each day I woke that there had been a night prowler in the camp. I tried to tell myself that it was just George sleeping,
but my imagination wouldn’t let me believe those sounds came from him. My imagination poured out and produced toothy projections that walked around my tent, never letting me sleep.
A reoccurring theme emerged later that week, when we visited the Wild Center at Tupper Lake, where Marshall and George read about glaciers on a sign in front of a large wall representation of a one. At the exhibit the glacier shifted and nearly fell on me. Like any normal person with a fight-or-flight response, I jumped back in the cold air as an ice chunk fell to my feet. Water spouted from the gash in the glacier wall and the noise was deafening. The air was instantly cooled and became moist. Then it stopped, and I realized that the wall was robotic. My brother laughed as I tried to understand how I broke the wall. When I finally realized that I was frightened by mechanical fake ice, I accused it of cheap tricks and the glacier
shard moved back to the spot from which it split. I didn’t bother to stay and watch the wall break again.
I noticed that so much of what I’d experienced in the Adirondacks
had so far been a façade or misrepresentation of what I’d thought the Adirondacks were. It wasn’t wild after all. Everything defining the place was pointing to a big lie. I felt like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, seeing the Statue of Liberty, finding that I’d been home all along and that home as I knew it was gone.
The same evening we went to the Wild Center at Tupper Lake, we decided to go to Long Lake, where we dined at the historic Adirondack Hotel. Dinner there was a nice change of pace from our camping food that after two weeks of camping had begun to dwindle.
There was a wait at the restaurant and since it was raining no one minded, the bar had good beer on tap and we were in no rush to get back to our muddy camp. While the rest of the group sat inside with their drinks, I sat on the porch with looking out over flower boxes attached to the latticed porch railing down the long corridor of the lake shrouded by the cold rain that had moved into the area.
I was waiting for Marshall and George to return from the general store with a machete George had bought to win a bet against Marshall, a bet that he wouldn’t buy it. At seventeen and eighteen years old they weren’t old enough to drink and considering they were buying foot long steel blades to win bets, this was a good thing. But I was, and I had opted to indulge in Lake Placid Pale Ale from the hotel’s tap.
The beer’s name reminded me that a monster was supposed
to live in the waters of Lake Placid, also in the Adirondacks.
Placid could describe any of the Adirondack lakes. As far as I knew, the creatures closest to monsters there were sturgeon, an ancient breed of fish mixed between crocodiles and sharks, growing to several feet. They rarely surface and were thought to be extinct just a few years ago. We’d seen a few at the Wild Center. None of us had ever run into wild surgeon
during our stay, but we did see plenty of loons. The large black waterfowl with red eyes that could lend their nightly calls to horror films.
We had seen loons on the lake sometime before the night at the hotel. This was also the same time that the water of the lake was most placid. As dusk settled on the lake, smooth as glass, mirror-like with ripples from fish catching bugs at the surface, if canoeing, the depths became visible several feet down. The only monsters in the lakes were the shadows of dead trees under the water, growing up, never reaching the air, unable to be part of the forest’s reflections on the lake’s surface.
How far down in the water did each dead tree go? Some of them were upright from the lakebed. Maybe flooding had carried the full-branched trees into the lake, or maybe they’d been submerged for hundreds of years, drowned by the floodwaters of the lumberjacks as they turned their home into a reservoir. Here were the placid monsters of the lake.
They were the ghosts of the trees from around the lakes. I was finally able to steal a glimpse of the secrets below the water’s surface. The giant, gnarled-black hands reaching up, trying to grab at those above the mirrored surface wouldn’t show up in pictures of the state park. The 34 Flow too, like the lumberjacks, and being their bastard child, was a tree eater. The definition of Adirondack remained even when starving people and hungry manufacturers had gone. It’s stuck below the surface of the 34 Flow as long as the dam is kept in place.
After our sword battles on the bridge, we turned to new endeavors. Marshall and I went in search of the finer things we could find in the woods. They were dense and dark like an epic movie forest, seemed like they were full of magic. And if not magic, then say . . . spirit. Constantly the balsam fir trees filled the senses with that sweet pine, always breathing
a sense of enlightenment. I felt like a Buddha, as silly and spiritually sentimental as that can be.
Before the sword fight on the bridge, my brother and I explored the trail stemming from the footbridge leading to the dark forests with peat floors. We had hoped to hike further in, but we walked only a hundred feet until we were forced to stop because the previous night’s heavy rains had muddied the path. We looked up the trail, where the mud became an impassable bog.
“I love forests like this,” my brother said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He stated what I’d already sensed, “Forests that are old and dark, they seem ancient, full of magic.”
There were orange and white toadstools sprouting around a rotting stump in the midst of the trail. We were barefoot and I’d never felt a floor gentler on my soles, even if it were squishy and moist with mud.
“It’s so clean,” Marshall said, “just look around. Nothing but nature.”
Yes, clean. Full of dirt and mud, but purely clean as it should be.
I left him there to take it in. No longer trusting the illusion like my brother, I imagined that there had been lumberjacks walking on the moss around me once. The forest couldn’t be as old as Marshall had said, “old and dark, they seem ancient,” but it did still present the feeling an old forest, woven
through with vines, brush, fallen limbs and skeletal pines should.
There was no litter, except one item posted on a tree. As I walked back to the bridge where George lay, I noticed the letter in a resealable plastic bag that had been thumbtacked to a tree. My brother and George had already opened and read the letter, afterwards telling me it was nothing. It said something along the lines of “Hey (so and so) hope you see this letter. We’ll meet you up ahead.” Had the letter’s author not been the few hundred feet ahead that I’d just returned from? It must have been posted sometime before the rain made a mess of the trail. The letter didn’t look old, it was dry, but there was no way of telling if it had been there for a few days or a few weeks because as the bag was sealed. The letter gave me the impression that it had been left there for me to find. How many times had people seen it, read it and replaced it? Was there something about this place that stuck things in a timeless hole in space like the Bermuda Triangle? I really hoped that I wouldn’t mystically run into lumberjacks wandering around, only to tell me some absolute truth about the Adirondack woods that no one knew anymore. I would assume the lumberjack to be a hermit, if not a hallucination, insane and spreading rumors about the woods.
“These woods aren’t real, me and my Pa cut ‘em down years ago. This here lake was dug up and filled in when we put that dam up. This is what it looks like when trees have grown for 200 years,” he’d say.
I’d probably just walk away and ignore him, assuming he was carrying an axe.
I tacked the letter back on the tree, then walked back to the bridge where George lay in the sun, fiddling with his machete and pressing buttons on a cell phone from time to time, receiving enough reception to communicate with those outside the park. I just wanted to bathe in the warm sun on the bridge and not worry about anything but the vacation. I looked at the water again. Something was down there, taunting
me, trying to get in the way of my believing that Lake Durant
was a true preservation of the Adirondacks. Some letter addressed to anyone, posted on a tree and forgotten, giving directions along a path I couldn’t go down. I was being forced by the waters of the lake to rest peacefully on the bridge, lay across the bridge belly-down, let my fingers pull small currents
in the drifting water, staring into the shifting brown glass of the water with a reflection of myself against the blue sky.
Ah, Venice, Again
There’s nothing new to say, nothing more pleasing said Henry James, than to hear it said.
-from “Of Venice” by Robert McNamara
Everything has a beginning, a time when it wasn’t what it is. The universe was born out of the Big Bang, and before that there was no space, and there was no time. Our galaxy and solar system have a beginning. The earth has a beginning.
And you have a beginning, an origin point before which you were not anything at all. But one can hardly say this about Venice. Perhaps it is the one true exception, or rather it is exceptional, the exception’s exception, the city that was a nation,
the swampy mud flat that is a marble island, the dwarf that is a giant. And it has always been so. You can never come to the end of Venice, the way you can never come to the end of Shakespeare or Mozart. So why bother with this great theme, why tap out yet another story of this place out of time? Good point. But the point isn’t that anyone will say something new about Venice (certainly not me), but that its vastness allows everyone to say something.
I approached Venice from the north.
Before that, however, I was in the south, in Seville, Spain, teaching travel writing in my university’s study-abroad program.
It was all going swimmingly—our group kept hours in the university center for classes, then roamed the Spanish south on weekends, tossing in a rogue journey to Lisbon. It wasn’t until Semana Santa when all my students and colleagues
fled for northern climes (Paris, London, Rome), and I (what was I thinking?) hung around Seville like a starving dog. I did spend a few days with two Hungarian brothers who were two years into a six-year walk around the world (another story, really), and spied on the endless robed processions proceeding
through town, but otherwise I was feeling a bit pent up. A bad case of cabin fever blew in over me.
I couldn’t sleep. I had already watched a half-dozen DVDs on my laptop, read a wonderful book by Laurie Lee, and written
page after dull page in my journal. It was midnight, one night, maybe it was Thursday, when I found myself pacing back and forth in my little flat from the window to the door. What was I to do? I put on my shoes and grabbed a hand-full of cash. I thought I might walk about town to gas off, but I’m not a night person so much, not a city boy, not a barfly. I made a few turns around the cathedral, passed through the old Jewish quarter and across the tip of the Jardines de Murillo.
I hungered for something natural, a bright star overhead, a tree to sit under, an empty land out in front of me. All that was back home in the west. I made a nod in that direction, and did the only sensible thing: I bought a bag of potato chips and ate them all. I couldn’t make a habit of this, what with the dangers of chemical preservatives and high cholesterol. So, when my friends Carmen and John, along with their young daughter, Maria, invited me to join them on a trip to Venice, I saw some wisdom in saying “Yes.”
It was raining as I entered Venice from the north, the north I say, because if you take the shuttle bus in from Marco Polo International, step out into the Piazzale Roma on the north end of town, northwest end really, and it is raining, then the first thing you do is buy an umbrella. You’re going to walk to your hotel of course, wander is more like it, across the ancient city through ancient streets and along ancient canals, and if it is raining, then you buy an umbrella. My friends would be in late that evening, as we had booked different flights, and I had the entire day to myself. Oh, glorious! What would I do with it? What could I do? I bought an umbrella at the first kiosk I found, a spring loaded shade of a goodly size with a nice tartan pattern, red and black, a pattern I’d never consider if I were traveling in Scotland. But this wasn’t Scotland, and in the way that things are hip when out of place, I sauntered off through the rain.
The umbrella is an ancient tool, older than Venice herself. It likely grew out of Egypt some 3,000 years ago, as many things did, for royalty, as usual, a symbol of those beings living on a higher plane and over-shadowing the lower worlds—a “vault of heaven” over the pharaohs. In ancient Greece, the umbrella became associated with Bacchus, and the sexual reveries of his followers. It soon lost that symbolism and was used as a pedestrian shelter from sun or rain (call it parasol or umbrella). Later something very exciting happened. In 1177, so the story goes, Pope Alexander III blessed the Doge of Venice,
Sebastiano Ziani, with the honor of bearing his umbrella upon arranging a meeting with Emperor Frederic of Germany. So, I carried my umbrella boldly through the city, neither pope nor doge nor pharaoh, just an ordinary guy from Oregon, lifting it high over a sea of umbrellas, mostly tourists probably, a gangway of bright colors fustering down the narrow streets.
There are no cars in Venice, no bicycles either. The pace of Venetian life is at walking speed, slow and of the body, the feet and knees and quads, the hips moving in their gentle gate, the shoulders squared and the head up, an outward view, a bright and peaceful forward progress at about three miles per hour. We don’t know, don’t realize, how the speed of modern things—our cars and trains and planes, our iPods and iPhones and emails, our enslavement by the clock—takes us away from ourselves, hurries us along to death. In Venice, I felt alive and easy, happy and hungry, maybe even young, part of something larger than myself, like Big Bang all over again. I guess in summer the canals stink of mortality, a thousand
years of human refuse at slow decay in the black mud at the bottom. Yet on this day, the rain freshened the city and my sheltering sky. I was perfectly in my element—no nothing to do but saunter along, explore museums and buildings and waterways, have a coffee, gaze at people and their shoes, watch the clouds roll in, roll out, and the ancient waters of the black lagoon cover over the smooth Piazza San Marco.
My map foretold my way. I decided the Museo d’Arte Orientale
was just my style, and I might as well have a look at its companion, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna. The latter I breezed through as I thought I might, an expressionist this and that, a modernist such and such, a Dadaist doodad—I didn’t really get it. In the oriental collection I found weapons, any boy’s dream, spears and swords and daggers. I wandered the corridors with a dozen other dreamers slavering over those gleaming blades. I wondered, as anyone would, which one of these points, inert behind a glass casing, had pierced a man’s heart. But there was too much of it, and it wore on me, slowly, slowly, and so I turned to other things: scrolls and bowls, armoires and porcelain delicates, lacquerware, a row of instruments: the koto and shamisen. I guess some madman,
Prince Henry II of Bourbon-Parma, Count of Bardi, collected
all this stuff, some 30,000 items, on his travels in Asia between 1887 and 1889. Imagine setting out on a journey and carrying a museum home. Do I need to say it: “travel light, or don’t travel at all.” But then, the collection is one of the most important from Edo period Japan. I suppose we should say three “Hallelujahs” in praise of the wealthy and obsessed.
Enough of that.
On I went along the Grand Canal, headed for the Pescheria
and the Rialto Bridge, only I did not know it then. I didn’t have a guidebook, and had read virtually nothing about Venice.
That came later. I had but my little map, and knew only that I had to reach the piazza to find my hotel. Carmen, who was somewhere in the sky with John and Maria, was reading
Venice is a Fish by Tiziano Scarpa, and later I did too. By chance, as it turned out, I was doing it right. “The first and only itinerary I suggest to you has a name,” Scarpa writes. “It’s called: at random. Subtitle: aimlessly . . . Getting lost is the only place worth going to.” Amen.
I wasn’t so much as lost, but I certainly didn’t know where I was, and where I was turned out to be the fish market. It’s a produce market too, and maybe first, only who can deny the smell of the fish, and the great wet eyes ogling you from their briny ice beds. I cruised through the bustling aisles to survey
the goods, the fishmongers taking names and cutting off heads. The floor was slick with slime, and my shoes became like sliders on a curling sheet. I moved effortlessly, lilting along in a lope. Nothing much happened here except the surging energy and excitement of buying a dead fish, coupled with my awareness that people have been doing so in this very market for about a thousand years. When I reached the produce I became entranced by the shining fruits, the rounded hard mounds arranged like sins for the taking. I bought three apples, I don’t know which kinds, all different, and took one of them into my mouth without washing it. I was fascinated by the coconut pieces at various stands, broken at random and set up on little tiers with fresh water running over them. Why I didn’t buy one, I will never know.
At the Rialto Bridge I thought I’d reached a major monument,
and of course I had. Perhaps you are more worldly than I, so forgive me, but I knew nothing about this place, this point, this high bank of Venetian culture, apparently one of the oldest parts of the city. But I know about it now. The marble bridge runs up over the Grand Canal, a major point of crossing, where people pause at the pinnacle to have a look at the forever city down its main waterway. You’ll remember that Lord Byron loved this city too, and lived here in his self-exile from England, from 1816 to 1819. He called it a “fairy city of the heart.” He was famous for his prowess in swimming
(among other things), and passed under this bridge more than once. In his third famous swim he was in contest with an Englishman, Alexander Scott, and a blowhard, Angelo Mengaldo. I suppose Byron was a blowhard too, but on this day at least his lusty strokes spoke for him, outracing his two opponents over a distance of four and a half miles from the Lido up the Grand Canal. Only Scott was still swimming when they reached the Rialto, and after that Byron swam alone. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “I was in the sea from half past 4—till a quarter past 8—without touching or resting.” I suppose we might say three “Hallelujahs” in praise of nobles who are physically fit.
Gazing out from the bridge in the light rain, I found that the day was wearing on. I descended the other side, walking the smooth marble steps where, from the time of the bridge’s completion in 1592, countless shoes (and I imagine the number
is nearly uncountable) have worn away every imperfection
in the stone. It wasn’t too far or too long after when the light came tumbling in, the clouds parting in their seams, and though is sounds like I made it up, I stepped out into the Piazza
San Marco in the splendor of the midday sun.
Can you imagine it? At heart, I’m just “a mountain man trapped in a paved over world?” as I heard it, or at least, “isn’t it pretty to think so,” but I do give thanks for the beauty of the world’s cities I have seen. This is, as you’ll hear or read over and over if you visit, the only piazza in Venice, with its cornerstone the Basilica di San Marco and its five stately domes, consecrated in 1094. It was the private cathedral of the doges until 1807, when it finally opened to the city. Most buildings in Venice face the canals on which they were built, but the Basilica faces the center of the piazza. If you’ve seen other cathedrals in Europe, as I have—especially Saint Peter’s in Vatican City, Saint Paul’s in London, and the Cathedral of Seville—you may be tempted to pass this by, reasoning that if you’ve seen the three, you’ve seen them all. But have a look at the façade, the dazzling mosaics, and know that inside even greater splendor awaits you. All places of worship pale in comparison, except perhaps the sun setting on the Grand Tetons.
I sat down on a moveable gangway, used in the square to make a path when the water rises. The water was rising after the rains, and in places across the piazza floor it bubbled up from the underground and pooled. These gangways were for walking on, of course, but everywhere they had become benches for weary walkers like me. I sat down, the Basilica at my fore, the Torre dell’Orologio over my left shoulder with its two bronze Moors who strike a bell with great hammers on the hour, the ninety-nine meter high campanile over my right shoulder, and beyond that, statues of the city’s patron saints—Saint Mark and Saint Theodore—who show the way out to the waterfront and the sea.
This is where my story stalls, where I met this splendor at early afternoon and sat idle in the center of it for more than one hour. I really had no idea what to do next. I could sit here, perhaps, and take it all in. And so I did, but it was far too much, and it wore on me, slowly, slowly, I turned to other things. Scarpa is right again: “Too much splendor seriously damages your health.”
To repair that, I went for a walk, out between the two saints and up the Riva degli Schiavoni toward a park at near land’s end. I still had some five hours, maybe more, before my friends arrived, and I was in no hurry. So I wandered, as is my habit, up along the waters and out along the ways. I saw various lovely sights: statues forgotten in the trees, green grass and black waters, happy faces at stroll, the outline of San Giorgio Maggiore beyond the quay, a puppy straining against its lead. I returned to the piazza the way I had come, and crossed back over the footbridge whereon stood a collection
of teenagers smoking and laughing before the Bridge of Sighs. Then I did all that was left to do. I went up town a few streets to pay too much for food I could cook better at home, checked into my hotel, and settled in for a short rest. Ah, Venice!
At near 11:00 pm there came a knock at my door. My friends, obviously. “Hola!” and out I went with them, for they hadn’t eaten. This time, they paid too much for food that was modestly fair. Ah, Venice, again.
Morning in Venice is the finest hour. I woke before my friends and popped out to a little café on a corner, ordered coffee with milk. This wasn’t the sort of place you’d find a seat, in fact there were no seats at all, but little shelves scattered about the walls where you might set your cup for the three seconds you need a place to set it between the three seconds you need to drink it. I stood near a pillar on the outside
of the café. The place was jam-packed, lots of men and women in suits, nary a tourist anywhere. I felt not like an insider, but not quite like an outsider, so happy and welcoming were the baristas. I knew my friends would be up soon, so I returned to the lobby of the hotel.
From this point, let’s skip the boring parts of the day, and let me introduce you to my friends. John is a tenured professor of Spanish language and literature, specializing in the Golden Age. He’s an American, from the Midwest no less, whose boyish
good looks compete with his professional pragmatism. I like him well enough. Carmen is a Spaniard, a Galician to say true, and also a professor of Spanish language and literature. She is slight, like a willow bow, but she is mighty, like Toshiro Mifune. She knows something about everything, or everything about everything, take your pick. So usually when I travel with these two, we will make our way through a museum of this or a gallery of that, and all look to Carmen for answers. She has the kind of mind that holds on to everything she reads, so after taking on Scarpa’s book, we’re on the lookout for everything she read. The number one dish, for example, bigoli with salsa. The anti-pee devices in the street corners. The fact that the city itself is built on millions of piers, which are upside down trees, “larches, elms, alders, pines and oaks,” driven deep into the slime at the bottom of the lagoon. “How do you lay solid foundations on slime?” Scarpa asks. That’s how. Even the basilica is supported by such piers, which, and after all this time, have mineralized and turned to stone. So Carmen knows all this from her reading, and John now knows it from Carmen. Not wanting to leave me out, bless his heart, John lectures me on these points as we make our way about the city as if he invented Venice himself. But why, I ask, referencing
Scarpa’s title, is Venice a fish? Neither Carmen nor John seems to know.
We head south and west with the day, Maria complaining all the while of the great toll the walk is taking on her soul and body. She can be the hardiest of trekkers, as I once climbed a mountain with her in New Mexico, but today we drag her about the city from museum to café to museum, and she’s just about had enough. She does this little thing, because she’s eight years old and bored to death, where she steps in front of me, walks a few steps and trips me up. So I stumble to keep from knocking her down, regain my composition, start again, and walk now out on the edge of the four of us in the main stream of the crowd. She’s just not paying attention is all, and it’s not her fault. So, on we walk, and there she is again, tripping
me up, me tripping up, and finding a new space now to walk without knocking her down. Then it happens a third time, a fourth, and I realize the little rascal is doing it on purpose.
She loves this game. She mostly considers herself a Spaniard like her mother, so the game is, as I take it: “trip the American.”
“Look, Maria,” I say, trying to distract her. “You’re in one of the greatest cities in the world. Imagine all your friends back home who will never see such gorgeous palaces, such solemn
temples, such great works of art! And here you are seeing
them all, and you’re only eight.”
She turns and gives me her how-did-you-get-so-dense stare, looks back at the amazing city before her and says: “But they wouldn’t want to.”
We went our way through the crowds, headed for the Gallerie
dell’Academia, Carmen and I stopping here and there to consider various glass trinkets from Murano to take home to friends. For John, spending money is like bleeding. When Carmen stops near the front doors of a shop and says something
benign like, “Shall we take a look?” you can see in his ashen face that he is a dying man, the bloodletting so severe his head swoons and he has to turn in circles to keep from passing out. You would think John a saint, however, when even at such peril to himself, he opens the shop door to let Carmen pass. We finally reach the bridge over the Grand Canal,
both Maria and John near death’s door. I expect to see the ferryman waiting for them, but no, they’ve survived it, and we pass over.
This gallery is a must for anyone who likes art, so say the guidebooks, and so I’m optimistic as we go up the stairs into the first exhibit. It’s the usual splendor and beauty of famous galleries in Europe, and we walk about looking at one priceless
thing after another.
“Look,” John says, his excitement audible, “this is the lion of Saint Mark!”
As God is my savior.
“Look,” John says, “you can see how the angels are flying up to heaven here. Remarkable!”
And so let’s re-mark it.
“Look,” John says, “there’s a dog in this one. See it right here? A dog.”
And by god it is. John has a particular affinity for dogs in paintings, as he’s written an entire book on the subject, focused especially on that one painting in the Prado you probably
didn’t miss, but now don’t remember: Las Meninas by Velázquez.
“You see,” John starts in, “I like dogs in paintings. And now that I’m on to my next book, this stuff here is really important
to me. I’m writing about the ‘beast within.’ Do you follow me? You look at all these paintings, look at all this art, and there is this representation of ‘the beast within.’”
“I see,” I said.
“It’s really hard what I’m doing,” John says, trying to provoke
me, “because I’m inventing a new language to talk about it. We don’t have a language to talk about it.”
Had I any measure of dangerous spontaneity, I’d have doled out that wonderful line from the Brad Pitt movie, Snatch: “In the immortal words of the Virgin Mary: ‘Come again?’”
And then John does, without a prompter: “I’m inventing a new language,” he says, “a language that doesn’t now exist to talk about ‘the beast within.’”
“John,” I said. “I don’t understand. How can you be inventing
a new language? Do you mean the topic is unknown, or new, or obscure? What does it mean to invent a new language?”
“I mean I’m inventing a new language. We don’t know yet how to talk about ‘the beast within.’”
“Sure we do,” I say. “The idea has been around for ages. We’ve been talking about it for near forever. Vampires. Werewolves.
Tarzan. Isn’t it the oldest story in books? What about Enkidu? Besides, this beast within is really just a deep part of the mind. It’s the unconscious, where the dragons live. All those stories of heroes—Beowulf, King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings for pity’s sake, are just retelling the same old damn story.”
“Well, yeah, I suppose you can say that. But what I’m doing
“John,” I say. “It’s not new.”
“Yes it is.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Yes it is.”
You get the picture.
To be fair, John knows exactly what he’s talking about, and I have a nasty habit of 1) arguing for the sake of arguing; and 2) never admitting that I am wrong. So perhaps it was the saint in John again that moved him to accept the ignorance of his friend: “Let me explain . . . ,” he said.
Sometime later, Carmen cruises by with Maria at her arm and interrupts John’s focus by rolling her eyes as if to say: Really,
boys. Can’t you just shut up? You’re ruining my day. Then she turns back and says over her shoulder: “Really, boys. Can’t you just shut up? You’re ruining my day.”
“But Carmen,” John protests. “We’re having an intellectual
“Pull-ease. Just have a look at the art,” Carmen says. “This is gorgeous in here, and you two are talking about nothing.”
“It’s the place,” John asserts. “We’re inspired by the art!”
“Somebody help me,” Carmen says.
Our conversation goes on for a bit longer, carries on into the next gallery, John claiming he’s inventing a new language, me claiming he isn’t, until Carmen, so utterly disgusted, disappears
with Maria through the maze of rooms.
Half the day goes by, and we’ve moved halfway across the city, on into the galleries surrounding the piazza, the Museo Correr, looking on an exhibit of gargantuan paintings which are maps of Venice. They’re beautiful, and I like maps. Maria is utterly bored, and so exhausted she can hardly stand up. She crawls around on the floor picking at imperfections in the ancient tiles, lolling about in her lethargy. I’ve been carrying my umbrella all this time, and a security guard chastises me for it, the hard steel point which must not touch the priceless floor. Then she’s after Carmen for the same thing, and so we decide to head for the Caffè Florian, one of Byron’s favorite haunts, to bolster our energy.
Maria is now poised in front of a great map of Venice as Carmen calls for her to come along promptly, we’re leaving. The map shows the city from above, its outline and the outlying
waters. No wonder, you realize, that the splendor of Venice
and its great power arose from the sea. The city itself is stationary, planted in the black mud of the lagoons, while its navy and merchant vessels go anywhere and everywhere at all speed. Some of the world’s great explorers, don’t forget, are Venetians: Giovanni Caboto, Niccoló de’ Conti, and of course Marco Polo. And don’t forget the Festa della Sensa, or the marriage of Venice to the sea. Every spring, the mayor of Venice (the doge in the old days) rides a barge to the Port of San Nicolo where he flings a gold ring into the bouncing waves.
We don’t notice it yet, but it’s obvious, so stupidly obvious when we look at the map, that the shape of the city is, yes, kinda like . . .
“Ma-ma. Look!” Maria says. “Venice is a fish!”
At Caffè Florian, Carmen and I each pay thirteen dollars for a coffee with milk, and John and Maria choose a tea service
with little sandwiches light as air which runs about forty bucks. But since Byron did, we do too. Apparently Byron took his breakfast here, and I go about the café interior in search of his portrait. Established in 1720, Caffè Florian was already 100 years old in Byron’s day. I wonder if some of the furniture doesn’t date from that time. Did Byron sit in this chair, or that chair? Did he sit in my chair? Or rather, me in his? But then my modest family history rears up, and I ask: is one place better than another because someone who thought they were better than others ate there? I don’t find the portrait I’m looking for, so I return to the table for my coffee. It’s good, but not that good; I make better coffee at home.
What about Byron in Venice, anyway? I’ve read some of his story, and it’s sad and desperate and rounded by folly. He fled England on charges of incest and sodomy, never to return again. He loved Venice, it seems, and boasted carnal pleasures
with over two hundred women. He swam the canals home at night after carousing until the second cock. He was unusually productive, and life here seems to have transformed his artistry. He wrote much of his great poem Don Juan in Venice, and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Beppo, and Ode to Venice are all works set in and inspired by the place. Despite his grand adventures and endless exploits, in his private time, it seems, he loved his dog best, a Newfoundland he called Boatswain. In his poem “Epitaph to a Dog” (Boatswain died in 1808), Byron writes:
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
These are wonderful qualities indeed, and perhaps Byron aspired to them himself. But he was his own enemy in this, as any student of literature knows. We have in Bryon’s work, and the work of many others after, the Byronic Hero, a great talent ringed with admirable passions, but flawed in the grandest ways. The usual description goes thus: a distaste for society and social structures which includes an absence of respect for rank and privilege (both of which Byron possessed), thwarted by love, death, rebellion, exile, a dark secret past, arrogance and overconfidence, and a lack of foresight, all rolled into a poetic self-destruction. Ah, Byron!
Perhaps the most fascinating part of his life was his death. In 1823, he traveled to Greece to support the independence movement from the Ottoman Empire. After investing
a great sum of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, he planned to help the politician Alexandros Mavrokordatos attack the Turks at Lapanto. But he fell ill to fever, recovered, and fell ill again. The usual remedy of the day was a good bloodletting to exercise the poisons from the body. Covered in leeches and pierced by the doctor’s needle, he died on April 19, 1824. There was a great storm blowing afoul over his final days. Byron moaned and shivered, and came in and out of delirium. He muttered to himself in Italian and in English as the rain fell ceaselessly and the wind banged at the windows. As he realized his great life was flying off he came to desire the end. He wanted to die. A friend reports that he considered asking God for mercy, but then spoke clearly: “Come, come, no weakness! Let’s be a man to the last.” Not long after, he was gone.
I wanted desperately to resist the tourist’s silly love affair with the gondola, which was in its day the primary means of transportation in and out and around Venice. The city once supported some 10,000 gondoliers, but there are a mere 500 or so now, and most of them cater to tourists. You can take a traghetti, a gondola serving as a ferry, across the Grand Canal for minimal cost, but you can walk over a bridge too. I happened to be on this bridge or that as gondolas passed under, and looking down upon the sleek black boats, I saw fine couples enwrapped in each other’s company, a family of four, a single man or woman, an empty boat too. They came smoothly under me, the long lovely line of them cutting a brave path through the glassy water, the gondolier calling out to the other boats beyond his blind spot, pushing the gunwales
away from the canal walls with his foot. It did look, if I may say so, romantic, and quintessentially Venetian. I guess Byron had a private gondola and gondolier, as the wealthy and famous keep a stretch Hummer and driver these days. Would I ever have another opportunity? Unlikely.
And so it came to pass that upon passing a handsome young wheeler-dealer near the Rialto, Carmen stopped, was drawn aside by his angelic face, and struck us a deal. I don’t recall the price. It was expensive, but not offensive, and so we took it. John, though his veins were nearly dry, offered up his Euros, smilingly.
We got in.
“You speak Italian?” the gondolier said in English. He wore all black—black shoes and trousers, a black vest—but for his black and white striped shirt, the shirt you’ve seen in movies and so want to see on your gondolier. His face carried a stern look for the way his cheeks were drawn down by creases along each side of his nose. His arms were beautifully shaped, long and muscled beneath his snug sleeves, and his hands hardened by the soft-wood shaft of his oar. He had hair, you could see that, the peak coming in tight to the brow, but he wore it shaved, right down against the dark bone of his head.
“A little Italian,” John said. “Carmen speaks it best. No we don’t speak Italian” he said. “We speak Spanish.”
“Oh, Spanish,” he said, in English.
“But he doesn’t,” Carmen said in Spanish, indicating me.
“German?” the gondolier asked.
“English,” John said.
“Then I will speak to you in English,” he said, as he was already.
“Ah, this is Venice,” he said pushing off from the moorings. “For one-thou-sand years, this city has been alive! It should NOT be here. But it is here. Why is it here?”
He paused, adjusting his oar in the forcola. We looked at each other. Did he want us to answer? “Well,” John said. “I guess—”
“—it is here,” he said, “but it should not be here. This black lagoon. These canals and waters mean that no city should be here. But one-thou-sand years ago we built it. The Venetians built Venice! Out here on the Grand Canal you will see it for yourself. One-thou-sand years of architectural splendor! You will see it here.”
“Right,” John said. “But how did they build it? Who built it? Where did the labor come from?”
“We built it, of course,” he said. “We Venetians built Venice in this black lagoon. Why here?” he asked again. “How did we do it?”
“Well,” John ventured again, “it seems to me that—”
“—Out here on the Grand Canal you will see it for yourself. One-thou-sand years of architectural splendor! You will see it here. Just a moment. There!” he said, sweeping his hands out in front of him. “Venice! You see the different style of architecture
here. One-thou-sand years of Venetian history all here on the Grand Canal. Byzantine. Renaissance. Baroque. Functionalism.
Modernism. Post-modernism. Byzantine-Baroque. Baroque-Byzantine. Renaissance-functionalism-modernism. Post-modern-Baroque-modernism. Post-modern-modernism.
And Byzantine. It’s all here.”
“So you see this as a Byzantine city?” John asked.
“This is Venice,” the gondolier said. “Venice. It should not be here. But it is here, here in this black lagoon. It is because of this black lagoon that the Venetians built it. This black lagoon
protects the city. It is safe here, in these waters. You may think these waters are a problem. YES, they are a problem. But they are not a problem. You see, when the water comes up and floods the houses and shops, the people let the water pass. They get some warning, and move everything from the first floor to the second floor to let the water pass. The water must pass,” he said. “If water not pass, water destroy.”
We turned now onto the Rio San Giovanni Grisostomo, where we’d do a little loop back to the Grand Canal. We passed under a bridge by the same name and the hearty gondolier
called out in his deep voice to warn other boats of our coming.
“You see here,” he said. “This was the house of a very wealthy man. It is here because he let the water pass. When the water came, he let it pass. Water must pass,” he said again. “If water not pass, water destroy!”
On around we went, the canal narrowing, the houses and shops close on each side, Maria futzing with a decorative golden winged lion, then with the little knob on her seat; and John with his long arm around Carmen, me sitting opposite, starring into the murky waters. We came to a corner again and the Teatro Malibran, an important outlet for opera during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the crossroads with the canal which leads to the piazza, our gondolier called out again as we turned the corner to complete our circle.
“Ah,” he said. “Here used to be the great palace of a very rich man! It is still here,” he said, “because he let the water pass—”
I know, I thought. Water must pass. If water not pass . . .
In the morning, I would take the early vaporetto to Marco Polo to fly back to Spain, and after a few days more, back home to the American West. My friends would be headed by train to Pisa before returning to Spain, where they would stay on for the rest of the summer. We had the evening for a final hurrah.
Carmen, the intrepid, was on the hunt for a local place for supper, something out of the way and into the breach of real Venetian life. We set out on an explore down the Via Garibaldi and into the Arsenale. We happened upon a little place along that wide street, busy with mostly everybody in town, a place between places. Since we were not sure where we were going,
Carmen said, “We might as well have one drink.” And so we did, a beer and a few snacks, settled in among the local people. We roused and toasted to friendship, to the holy interlude
between then and after, to this easy moment without cares. What more could anyone want, really, but a moment, just a moment in Venice with his friends? It didn’t take long, and we were afoot again, wandering beyond the Arsenale and into Castello, God knows where, lost really, again, among the winding streets from this plaza to that, all of us feeling suddenly
hopeless but Carmen.
“I’m hungry,” Maria complained.
“I don’t think we’re going the right way,” said John.
“We’re not going to find anything out here,” I whined, certain
the universe was bent against us.
“How about here,” Carmen said in her unshakeable optimism,
as a little restaurant rose up out of nothing. “Looks like we can have the bigoli with salsa. I want to try that before we leave.”
Over supper we played a spelling game, in English thank goodness, as unlike my companions, it’s the only language I know. It’s so hard to be trapped inside one language when your friends command several more. But do I go around feeling
sorry for myself? Of course I do, when even Maria, who is a quarter my age, is fluent in two and working on a couple more. No wonder she trounced the lot of us at our game. I suppose we might say three “Hallelujahs” in praise of the young and cerebrally fit.
John and Maria turned in, while Carmen and I thought we might make a visit to Harry’s Bar. Everybody who is anybody, so the saying goes, finds their way to Harry’s Bar, and so being nobody at all, we found the front doors closed. Closed? It was just after 11:00 pm. Not quite the hours I was used to keeping in Spain, where, as John loved to inform me, this is the time most Spaniards are wondering what to have for supper.
It was stop and go. Stop and go. Stop and go, turning through the streets until we happened upon a bar with tiny bright lights and modern furnishings. It wasn’t really my kind of place, but as Carmen likes to say, “We might as well have one drink, no?”
She ordered a grappa and I a sambuca. When the time came for a second round, we each ordered what the other had had. Grappa, a kind of brandy made from pomace (the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes left over from winemaking), has a powerful kick, and this was but the second, maybe third time I’d ever tasted it.
“This grappa is really strong,” I said.
“This,” Carmen said. “This? We Galicians drink this from our mother’s breasts!”
Oh glorious, thought I, this really is a fairy city of the heart.
And what about this story? What of Venice? You can’t arrive at grand conclusions. You can’t capture it in a phrase or sentence. In an image or dance routine. You might do well enough to repeat what others have said. Maupassant: “Venice!
That single word seems to send an exaltation exploding
in the soul . . . ” Nooteboom: “a paradise of beauty that was driven out of itself because the earth could not endure so much wonder.” Mainardi: “There can be no better place than this.”
But even then, everything that has a beginning also has an end, a time when it will no longer be what it is. The universe was born out of the Big Bang, and it looks like it will expand outward forever until the stuff of it is so spread apart as to benothing at all. Before that, long before, our sun will run out of fuel. It will expand and expand and consume our little earth and the inner planets before collapsing into a white dwarf. You and all your precious things, your photographs and iPod, your favorite movies and coffee cup, your Ford pickup and backyard garden will vanish into the oblivion of black space. Not a remnant will remain, not even a memory of human life, as there will be no one left to remember. But take heart. One can hardly say this about Venice. Perhaps it is the one true exception, or rather it is the exception’s exception, the city that was a nation, the swampy mud flat that is a marble island,
the dwarf that is a giant. And it will always been so. You can never come to the end of Venice, the way you can never come to the end of Shakespeare or Mozart. So why bother with this great theme? As I said, its vastness allows everyone to say something.
Authors Bios & Q/A
In addition to providing a biography, our contributors answered the following:
1. What’s the nicest thing a stranger has ever done for you?
2. If you could rewrite the ending to any movie, what would it be and how would you change it?
3. If you were forced into exile, where would you go?
4. If you were trapped in a storybook, which one would it be?
5. Who’s your favorite tyrant/dictator?
6. What’s the one piece of literature every writer should own?
7. What’s the best thing you can buy for a dollar?
We hope that you enjoy their answers as much as we did.
Bert Barry is the International Outreach Coordinator at Saint Louis University. He earned a B.A. degree in German and a M.A. degree in English from Washington
University. He also earned a Ph.D. in English from Saint Louis University. He is devoted to the lyric poem, in all its countless variations.
1. Guide me to where I was going in Tokyo, Japan.
3. I would enjoy exile in France since that is the country from which my ancestors come.
4. I definitely would want to be in The Hobbit, though I would not consider that being, “trapped.”
5. I hate tyrants of every sort, but Alexander the Great has a certain charm.
6. No doubt about it—the Bible. It is essential to Western culture.
7. A strong cup of coffee—not everywhere, but still true in some hallowed places.
Laurel Bastian is the founder and coordinator of the Writers in Prisons Project, is the current Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and was a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship. Her work can be read in Drunken Boat, Puerto del Sol, Anderbo, Margie, Bellevue Literary Review and other publications.
1. Gave birth to me.
2. This one is difficult (mostly because I don’t watch many films). If there’s an ending I’ve wanted to rewrite, it’s because I also want to rewrite the whole dang movie.
4. Tistou of the Green Thumbs.
5. The weather.
6. Martin Buber’s I and Thou.
7. A mango.
John Buckley was born in Flint, MI and raised in the Detroit area. He has been ripening in California since the fall of 1992. Buckley lives and works in Orange County with his wife and teaches at local colleges and chases the poetic dragon. His work has been published in a few places.
1. While on public transport, several nice strangers have been trusting enough to share with me the stories of their lives. I wonder where those people are today.
2. I would include the final chapter from the book version of A Clockwork Orange. I don’t think it would improve the movie. I’m just curious.
3. I would go to the Philippines. My wife is from Manila and I like my in-laws. Many of the people speak English. I think I could find employment.
4. Pet the Bunny. Bunny soft!
5. Hitler. Hitler is the gold standard.
6. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, alternating every couple of semesters with Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. At least, that’s what I tell my students.
7. A hundred books for a penny a piece on eBay. You guys are covering the shipping and handling, right?
Kurt Caswell is the author or two books of nonfiction: In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University.
1. Waiting for food we had ordered, the waitress came by with a huge plate of various fried hors d’oeuvres. “We didn’t order this,” we said. “Right,” she said. “They sent it over.” She pointed to a group of local swillers at the bar. We raised our glasses to them.
2. I want to rewrite the ending of the Coen Brothers’ new film True Grit. Withholding spoilers, the flash forward did nothing for me. I would cut that final few minutes.
3. Lord no. I really do love living in the real world.
5. Sarah Palin. I really hope we don’t keep feeding and watering her into a position of power. Even people speaking out against her are making a case for her, because they help keep her name and madness alive. That’s why I’ll name someone else: Genghis Khan. He’s almost as cool as Toshiro Mifune (who is an actor, not a dictator).
5. May I name two? A History of Religious Ideas by Mircea Eliade (all three volumes); and The Riverside Shakespeare, predictable, but essential.
6. A stamp.
Richard Chiem (b. 1987) was the winner of the UCSD Stewart Prize in Poetry in 2009 and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has been published in Monkeybicycle,
Metazen, and is forthcoming in Pop Serial and Pangur Ban Party. He is currently working on his new novel, Blowing Up Los Angeles.
1. When I asked her for a cigarette, the stranger gave me her entire pack and she walked home with me and stayed the night.
2. At the end of Black Swan, I would add the entire film, The Red Shoes.
3. McMurdo Station in Antarctica located on the southern tip of Ross Island.
4. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984).
5. Kim Jong-il. His favorite basketball player is Michael Jordan and he loves movies.
6. The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka.
7. A double cheeseburger after a long workday and the meal would last as long as you want it to last.
John Cravens is an architect, licensed to practice in Hawaii where “Breathing In” takes place. He has had design responsibilities for international projects, and is now writing fiction full-time. His first novel, Swimmers in the Sea, was published in 2009. He is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and lives with his wife in Tulsa.
1. The kindness shown me by a family in Annecy, France when I was hitching south to Italy is one of the nicest things anyone has done for me.
2. If Kantor’s book-length narrative, Glory for Me, had been made into the film adaptation, The Best Years of Our Lives as it was written, giving the film a much different ending, a more realistic understanding of the trauma to an individual that is caused by war, it might have become better established through the years.
3. To be in the worlds contained in the pages of the Disney Storybook Collection is delightful freedom, no matter the age of the reader.
5. Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most productive creators to come close to that description for me.
6. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 (edited by Carlos Baker.)
7. Much of the best writing of the world is available for $.99 from Alibris online, some qualifying for free shipping. Or you can download most of the work by hundreds of writers for free from Project Gutenberg, and then send them a dollar.
Sally Lipton Derringer’s book manuscript was a finalist for Fordham University’s
Poets Out Loud Prize and the New Issues Poetry Prize. Her publications include The Prose-Poem Project, Poet Lore, Memoir (and), The New York Quarterly, and Tampa Review. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University and teaches at Rockland Center for the Arts in Nyack, New York.
1. I said my babies were beautiful.
2. I’d make it more ambiguous.
3. My apartment.
4. Little Women.
6. A blank spiral notebook.
7. One eighth of a literary journal.
G. F. Edwards was born in New York City; lived in ten states; attended eleven schools; graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Columbia University, Literature-Writing, 1999; traveled forty-six states and eleven foreign countries (mostly by thumb); worked a lot of jobs (dishwasher to rock musician); currently stuck in Vegas.
1. A burly black gentleman in an all night Mexican restaurant barked at the counter workers who were feigning ignorance of English: “Give me that phone! Can’t you see this man is bleeding to death?” They gave him the phone and the ambulance came for me.
2. King Kong would climb down from the Empire State Building before the airplanes came, kiss Fay Wray goodbye, and hijack a ship back to Kong Island, where he’d be restored to his rightful throne.
3. I’m in exile: I live in Las Vegas. But if I were to be deported, I’d prefer to be on an Aegean Island. Paros, perhaps.
4. Maybe Winnie the Pooh. Never owned the books but it looks like a nice place to live.
5. King Kong.
6. A Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
7. A taco bought with a dollar found on the sidewalk in L.A. when I had no money and nothing to eat.
Brett Gallagher is a quasar of lowercase sounds and constellations. He blogs at <asyourecognizeyourtransience.blogspot.com>.
1. Smiled at me in passing, even though they did not know me. Small acts go a long way.
2. I would snip the last five minutes of Synecdoche, New York and have that loop perpetually for the rest of my life to give me perspective.
3. Siberia, Patagonia.
4. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.
5. Sam Pink.
6. The Brothers Karamazov.
7. A shot of espresso.
Sara Hancharik is a graduate of Slippery Rock University where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Professional and Creative Writing. She used to hate poetry. An accomplished actress, Sara has put her love for the stage on hold to pursue her writing. She has finally found her place and is currently living her life the best way she knows how. An avid Pittsburgh Penguins supporter, Sara currently resides near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is working as a photographer. This is her first publication.
1. I was trying to get to Long Island from inside of New York City and my GPS was failing miserably. I had tickets to go see the Penguins play the Islanders, so time was of the essence. My GPS kept telling me to turn down one-way streets, so I pulled into a little bakery and went in shouting,
“I need a New Yorker!” A man giggled (he was the only one in the place who was a real New Yorker), pulled me aside and told me where I needed to go. He easily could have brushed me off as another tourist, but he didn’t. He made my heart smile.
2. Honestly, I’m not a huge movie person, but I hate that they don’t end up together in 500 Days of Summer.
3. A farm in the South of France with a vineyard and some horses. Oh, and this guy named Nathan.
4. Beauty and the Beast, hands down. No questions asked.
5. The Wicked Witch of the West.
6. The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
7. A stamp and a blank fifty-cent Hallmark card.
Meredith Hasemann-Cortes’ writing has appeared in many literary magazines including, most recently, Main Channel Voices and Third Wednesday. Her young adult fiction is represented by Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency. She teaches eight grade in East Hampton, where she lives with her husband and two children.
1. The nicest thing a stranger ever did for me was in Berlin in 1989. The hardware stores were all sold out of chisels and hammers and he let me use his to chip off some pieces of the wall.
2. just finished writing a screenplay, and the almost three-year process has been so long that I’d respect any ending of any movie.
3. I’d go to Ripton, Vermont if I were in exile. Actually, I already do go into exile there every summer with no phone or internet and only the bullfrogs and the moose for company!
4. If I were trapped in a storybook, it would have to be something Dr. Seussy. I’d love to talk in made-up words and rhyme, iambicize my visions all the time.
5. I’m not particularly fond of dictators.
6. Every writer should own a dictionary. And read it regularly.
7. The best thing I can buy for a dollar is a song from iTunes.
George Higgins is a public defender in Oakland, CA. His poems have appeared or will soon appear in Best American Poetry, Pleiades, 88, Poetry Flash, and The George Washington Review among others. His manuscript, There, There received an honorable mention in the Steel Toe Books open reading period January 2009.
1. A deli owner let me buy sandwiches on credit for a week while I was in law school.
2. That somehow the Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) and Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) characters in The Maltese Falcon could’ve worked things out.
3. A houseboat in Paris.
4. Middle Earth.
5. Henry VIII. He wrote poetry.
6. Keat’s letters.
7. Dexter Gordon’s “Night in Tunisia” via iTunes.
Richard Holinger lives in Geneva, IL, where he knows salons are held. Boulevard,
Flashquake, Southern Poetry Review and North American Review have published
some of his poetry, fiction, essays and reviews, respectively. His short fiction manuscript, In the Contemporary Mode, is looking for the right small press.
1. Open a door. That’s all I can remember. Sad, huh?
2. In The Deer Hunter—what a relief if DeNiro could save Walken.
3. I really don’t care, as long as it offered a desk with at least 20 lb. (minimum)
bond paper and a Montblanc fountain pen. Maybe Tours, France; I like its library that overlooks the Rhone.
4. Given global warming’s increasing tornado activity, the Third Little Pig’s house. In the present climate of things to come, and those to come, bricks are good.
5. Sarah Palin, because she’s also the best looking.
6. W. Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up.
7. Any of several varieties of trail mix at the Dollar Tree.
Chin-Sun Lee is a writer, designer, and graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing/Fiction at The New School. Her work has also appeared in Shadowbox. She lives in New York City, where she writes short stories and is currently at work on a novel.
1. I was lost in a foreign city once, and someone escorted me several blocks to my destination.
2. In No Country For Old Men, I’d leave it where the killer walks away with his broken arm. It’s stronger than the last scene, and expresses the same thing: you think there’s justice in this world—until you see there isn’t.
3. Mexico. The coast—not the border.
4. Probably The Wizard of Oz—she has all these amazing adventures but in the end, feels happiest at home.
5. Michael Corleone.
6. Lolita. Not an original answer, but oh so true.
7. It used to be a slice, but now a spin of laundry in the dryer seems like a good deal.
Aaron Bigler Lefebvre writes short stories and essays, and enjoys making handmade artist’s books. Originally from Pittsburgh, he now lives in Philadelphia, currently earning his MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University. He also works for the esteemed literary magazine (housed by Rutgers-Camden), Story Quarterly.
1. Refill the $12 flute of tequila I knocked over for free.
2. I’d completely rewrite M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. If water hurts the aliens, then why doesn’t our rather humid atmosphere kill them immediately
via breathing? And what, they don’t perspire? Must have some amazing anti-perspirants on their home world.
3. A log cabin in the Adirondack Mountains.
4. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
7. A pack of green army men from the dollar store.
Nathan Leslie’s six books of fiction include Madre, Believers, and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection (Hamilton Stone Editions, 2009). His short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. He was series editor for anthology,
The Best of the Web 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books). His website is <www.nathanleslie.com>.
1. Befriend me.
2. Indiana Jones journeys into the ark (also dispensing of the crappy sequels).
3. House arrest.
4. Tropic of Cancer and/or Capricorn.
5. Napoleon, for originality in headgear and sheer cajones.
6. A dictionary.
7. A composition journal.
Thomas Levy, a native of New Jersey, now resides in Southern California where he works as a web designer and automotive repossession agent. His work can be found in various publications including Pear Noir!, The Los Angeles Review, and Kill Author. For more information please Google Thomas Patrick Levy.
1. Gave me a bungee cord.
2. I’d make sure there couldn’t possibly be an awful sequel.
3. Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
4. A picture version of One Hundred Years of Solitude drawn with crayons by children.
6. Alcoholics Anonymous.
7. Two McDonald’s apple pies.
Joanne Lowery’s poems have appeared in many literary magazines, including Birmingham Poetry Review, Eclipse, roger, Cottonwood, and Poetry East. Her most recent collection is the chapbook, Scything (FutureCycle Press, 2010). She lives in Michigan.
I honestly cannot answer any of your questions except the storybook one: Having written a book of poems Jack: A Beanstalk Life, I’d like to live in Jack’s village to observe what kind of adult he grows up to be after his big adventure.
Matthew McBride has work previously published in/ forthcoming from Alice Blue, FENCE, Forklift, Ohio, Ink Node, Little Red Leaves, Meridian, Mississippi Review, RHINO, and Phoebe amongst others. He lives in Cincinnati, where is an assistant editor at the Cincinnati Review and Memorious. He co-curates, with Ruth Williams, the Bon Mot/ley reading series.
1. In 1998, when I was a senior in high school, my dog woke up one morning and couldn’t walk. It was winter break and I didn’t have school, so I had to, quite literally, carry him into the vet’s office. We didn’t have an appointment, and the receptionist told me it would be at least a two-hour wait (this was said to me while I was holding a forty-five pound dog in my arms). Upon hearing this, a woman who’d been waiting stood up and told the receptionist we could have her spot and she would take ours.
2. I’ll never understand why Grand Torino didn’t end with Clint Eastwood
kicking everybody’s asses. Yes, I realize the film is a revision of Eastwood’s on-screen persona, but so was Unforgiven, which ended with Eastwood shooting like thirty people (half of whom are unarmed) in a crowded bar. And, to top it all off, Eastwood sings during the final credits? I just felt mocked as a viewer.
4. Probably Harold and the Purple Crayon. Really, my academic career could be summed up in a twenty-page picture book titled Matt and the Dry Erase Marker.
5. Mark Zuckerberg.
6. Larissa Szporluk once told me every poet should read Piaget’s A Child’s Conception of the World. She was right.
7. A Pilot, V5 Extra Fine, Rolling Ball pen with the clear sides so you can see how much ink you have in it. I don’t think they’re sold individually, but if you buy a five pack, the breakdown for each individual pen is about a dollar. They’re definitely the finest implements in the contemporary
Karla Linn Merrifield, a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published poetry in over one hundred publications. She authored five books, including Godwit: Poems of Canada, which received the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award. Forthcoming are The Urn (Finishing Line Press) and Athabaskan Fractal (Salmon Poetry). She is reviewer/assistant editor for The Centrifugal Eye.
1. A stranger named Roger M. Weir sat down for a one-on-one meeting with me at the college where we both worked. Afterwards, all goosebumpy,
I asked a staffer, “Who was that man?” Neither of us knew he would, in a few years, become my husband.
2. I would have Larissa Antipova find Yuri Zhivago for one last kiss before he dies.
3. I’d spend fall and winter in Everglades National Park and spring and summer in Great Basin National Park
4. Aesop’s Fables. He knew what the animals had to teach us fellow animals.
5. George W. Bush. I survived his reign of stupidity.
6. The complete OED.
7. The last Honeycrisp apple (a small one) of the season.
Adam Moorad’s poetry and fiction have widely appeared in print and online. He is the author of Prayerbook (wtf pwm, 2010), I Went To The Desert (Thunderclap Press, 2010), Oikos (nonpress, 2010), and Book of Revelations (Artistically Declined Press, 2011). He lives in Brooklyn. Visit him here: <adamadamadamadamadam.blogspot.com>.
1. A stranger paid my girlfriend’s cab fare once—$40!
2. Barry Lyndon—I would allow B.L. to keep his leg (which was amputated).
3. The Catskill Mountains.
4. The Cat in the Hat.
5. Julius Caesar.
7. An everything bagel.
Debra Nicholson grew up in northwest Ohio in the 1950s. The journey to this first publication includes living in Boston, Mexico City, and Washington, D.C., four undergraduate schools in eleven years, three graduate schools for two Master’s degrees, a marriage, a divorce, three children, and several unsuccessful attempts at pet ownership. (Don’t ever give up!)
1. There are no strangers in my world.
2. Scarlett and Rhett would get back together—they deserve each other!
3. The Isle of Iona, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.
4. The book I am currently reading.
5. The refrigerator.
6. Any book that gives them life.
7. Anything chocolate!
Heather Palmer’s works include the forthcoming Complements: of Us (Spork Press), Charlie’s Train (the2ndhand) and the e-chapbook Mere Tragedies (dispatch litareview). She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she worked with Janet Desaulnier, Rosellen Brown, and Jesse Ball. A persistent influence is Jacob Wren’s Unrehearsed Beauty. Find publications at <fictionsandthelike.blogspot.com>.
1. Once Jesse Ball traded me a chocolate bar for The Disastrous Tales of Linus and Vera. He’s not a stranger, but that should count.
2. I wish Anna Karina wouldn’t have died in A Woman is a Woman. I loved the scene before the last scene though—with the philosopher. Everyone says the opening scene is the best in the film, but I swear that conversation with the philosopher is film history.
3. France or Iceland.
4. Roald Dahl’s characters always go through the wringer but end up nicely placed at the end. Specifically, George in George’s Marvelous Medicine.
5. Does Gertrude Stein count as a tyrant?
6. Besides Franny and Zooey and Cane and Personae and anything by Fanny Howe, The Diaries of Franz Kafka.
7. Dark chocolate. Oh, you meant one dollar.
Rebecca Leah Papucaru’s poetry and prose have been shortlisted for a number of awards in Canada, including Arc magazine’s Poem of the Year. Her poetry has been anthologized in the 2010 edition of The Best Canadian Poetry in English (guest editor Lorna Crozier, series editor Molly Peacock), and in the Headlight Anthology of Emerging Writers. In Canada, her poetry has appeared in Prism International, The Antigonish Review, Acta Victoriana, and Existere, while both her poetry and prose have been featured in The Nashwaak Review. In the United States, her poetry has appeared in The Orange Coast Review, The Emerson Review, Kestrel, Ozone Park Journal and Caesura: the Journal of the Poetry Center San Jose. In Ireland, her work has appeared in Crannóg.
1. Atamaca Desert, Chile: travelling from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, I met a miner who helped me carry my bags, and invited me to his house for afternoon tea.
2. Love and Death—perfect movie, but the last scene should take place at the village idiots’ convention. Maybe a roundtable or workshop?
3. Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, Toronto Island, Toronto.
5. Don’t mess with the classics—Idi Amin Dada. My mother’s nickname for my tantrum-prone younger sister was Lil’ Idi.
6. Anything by Jean Rhys. She conveys more in a sentence than most writers can convey in a chapter. Or an entire novel.
7. Currently, one Canadian dollar can be exchanged for 99 cents USD. So I guess I’d buy one of those.
Kasey Perkins is an English M.A. student at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO where she hosts poetry slams. Her poems have been published in Lumina, SLAB, and Monkey Puzzle. She is currently teaching freshman composition at Truman and writing a chapbook based on the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
1. Randomly gave me a coupon.
2. I would rewrite the ending of Titanic so it would be more in line with that one crazy Italian cartoon version. The one with the rapping dog.
3. Somewhere on the coast of France. Good food and nice beaches!
4. Are You My Mother?
5. Hitler. You have to admit, the guy could give a speech.
6. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. It teaches you that you can put a novel spin on any situation.
7. A hot fudge sundae from McDonald’s . . . or anything else on that menu.
Derek Pollard is the co-author with Derek Henderson of the book Inconsequentia
(BlazeVOX, 2010). His work appears in American Book Review, H_NGM_N, Pleiades, and Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, among numerous other anthologies and journals. He is Managing Editor of Barrow Street Press and is on faculty at Brookdale Community College.
1. A woman let me have a used copy of the New Directions edition of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat which she had for sale at a makeshift sidewalk stall near Washington Square Park in San Francisco while I was living on the streets there.
2. I would restore the proper ending to any film adapted from a novel or other literary text in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason(s), altered that text’s ending.
3. This is an incredibly fraught question.
4. Trapped? I often search out a place in storybook narratives.
5. Tyranny (in any form) is appalling to me.
6. That list is perhaps endless. I myself often look to the various editions of Leaves of Grass for instruction and companionship, for a lasting generosity. The same is true of the Tao te Ching.
7. For a dollar, one can often only buy a fraction of one’s desire, at that moment or otherwise . . .
John Repp’s most recent collections are Big Conneautee (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010) and Heart of Joy (March Street Press, 2009). Individual poems have appeared in recent issues of Poetry, Freshwter, Pinyon, and Court Green.
1. Guided me to the correct bus in Murcia, Spain.
2. I’d restore the original ending of The Magnificent Ambersons.
3. Milan, Italy.
4. Where the Wild Things Are.
5. Rufus T. Firefly.
6. Anna Karenina.
7. Any local newspaper.
Marc Shuster is the author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, which is due in May from The Permanent Press. He teaches English at Montgomery
County Community College.
1. My wife and I were looking for la Grande Mosquée de Paris, and an elderly gentleman stopped to give us directions. If not for him, we’d still be wandering the streets of Paris.
2. At the end of Seven Pounds, Woody Harrelson would get Will Smith’s hair instead of his eyes.
4. I was trapped in a storybook for eight years. They ended up calling it Decision Points.
5. Montgomery Burns.
6. The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville.
7. A 24 inch four-prong steel retractable claw. I’ve been eyeing one at my local dollar store for months now.
Paul Siegell is the author of three books of poetry: wild life rifle fire (Otoliths, 2010), jambandbootleg (A-Head Publishing, 2009) and Poemergency Room (Otoliths, 2008). Siegell is a senior editor at Painted Bride Quarterly, and more of his work may be found at <http://paulsiegell.blogspot.com>.
1. Save my life.
2. I’d make it so I never actually saw it.
3. Capri, Italy.
4. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.
5. Evel Knievel.
6. The photo albums of their ancestors.
7. Hershey’s with almonds, large size. But only on Tuesdays.
Kelly Talbot has edited hundreds of books. After serving as an in-house editor for Wiley Publishing, Macmillan Publishing, and Pearson Education, he now works as a freelance editor. His writing has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Georgetown Review, Hawaii Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and dozens of literary journals.
1. My wife agreed to go on our first date. It transformed my life.
2. I wouldn’t change the end of a movie. I think corporate executives should refrain from doing so as well.
4. You are asking me to choose where I would want to be trapped? I choose not to be trapped. Seriously.
5. Siddhartha Gautama. He figured out the right thing to do pretty early on.
6. The Elements of Grammar and The Elements of Style.
7. Fresh fruit.
Bill U’Ren served as dramaturg for the play, Pest Control, which debuted in Los Angeles at the NoHo Arts Center. He has published nearly forty short stories in magazines such as Chicago Review, Michigan Quarterly and The Minnesota Review. His fiction has won Barthelme and Cambor Awards and has been anthologized in Killing Spirit (Viking Press). He also has worked in film adaptation since graduating from UCLA, where he wrote Box 100 for Columbia Pictures. He currently teaches writing at Goucher College.
1. Patched my flat tire for free.
2. I would alter the ending of Reality Bites so that the Lainey character goes off alone, instead of choosing the obnoxious, oppressive poet over the soulless, calculating businessman.
4. Go, Dog. Go! I love the open-top cars they get to drive.
5. Enver Hoxha, who else?
6. The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook. If someone ever ties you up with a rope, you should take a deep breath and hold it. That way, when they leave the room, you can exhale and the ropes will be loose enough to escape.
7. Two postage stamps.
James Valvis lives in Issaquah, Washington. His work has appeared in Atlanta Review, Crab Creek Review, Eclectica, Hanging Loose, Nimrod, Rattle, Slipstream, and is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, H_NGM_N, Los Angeles Review, New York Quarterly, PANK, River Styx, Verdad, and elsewhere. A poetry collection is forthcoming from Aortic Books.
1. Gave birth to me.
2. Hamlet lives and goes on to open a deli.
4. An Aesop fable
5. My to-do list
6. Elements of Style.
7. These days? A quarter.
Robert Watson teaches Shakespeare at UCLA. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker and other journals, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His latest book is Back to Nature, which received prizes for the year’s best environmentalist study of literature and best book on Renaissance literature.
1. Forgave myself.
2. At the end of Inception, Dorothy Gale wakes up and wonders whether it was all just a dream.
3. The Tinder Box.
4. The Emperor of Ice Cream.
6. Moby Dick.
7. A ripe nectarine—”the best fruit ever made.”
Philip Wexler lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where he also works for the National Library of Medicine. He has had over one hundred poems published in magazines over the years and continues to seek a publisher for a book-length manuscript. He has read his work publicly in the Washington, D.C. area.
Tom Williams is the associate editor of American Book Review. His novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice, is forthcoming in 2011 from Main Street Rag Publishing,Co.
1. Pointed at the money/phone/iPod that had dropped from my pocket.
2. Every John Hughes movie: the teenage protagonist would get lectured and grounded and her or his driving privileges would be taken away.
3. Ireland. Specifically, a pub in Ireland. Any pub.
4. Goodnight, Moon, so my son Finn could see me.
5. Pinochet. Just like saying that name.
6. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.
7. Two Max Bet spins from a quarter slot machine.
Meredith Sue Willis teaches writing at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional
Studies. Her fiction has been published by Scribner, HarperCollins, Ohio University Press, and West Virginia University Press, among other publishers. Her latest books are Out of the Mountains: Short Stories, and Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel.
1. Clapped when I gave a workshop or speech. Strangers are much easier to please than, for example, family members.
2. A whole slew of action movies: I’d make the villains die once and stay dead. It’s so tiresome when they keep coming back and trying one more time to defeat the hero.
3. Home to West Virginia.
4. I didn’t have a lot of storybooks when I was a child, but I had an aunt who had a collection of old cartoons from the first half of the twentieth century. A lot of New Yorker cartoons, and others.
5. I’ve always been fond of Fidel, who, although he has certainly been a dictator in terms of political expression, has also seen to it that poor Cubans have far better health care than the poorer classes in the U.S.
6. If their native language is English, they should have a one-volume Shakespeare, a King James translation of the Protestant Christian Bible, and a one volume anthology of the best poetry—all to enrich and deepen their language, whether they are poets or journalists or novelists.
7. A bottle of water in the train station in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-MingdÉ has two forthcoming chapbooks, Bistre Junction
(Firstfruits Publications) and In Memoriam to a Marionette: Caudate Sonnet of the Year Ad Interim (Silkworms Ink). Based in Singapore, Desmond has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books, several pro bono for nonprofit organizations.
1. I received a full blessing from Father Hesburgh after I spent nearly two hours reading him that day’s issue of the newspaper.
2. Wonder Boys. When Grady is putting the finishing touches on his newly-inspired novel, he’s ditched the cruddy-grubby bathrobe and is wearing that Marilyn Monroe jacket. For kicks, for keeps.
3. Bhutan, where I can learn some nifty slate carving. Or hike up to Taktsang
Palphug Monastery for that once-in-a-lifetime visit.
4. Richard Scarry’s Just For Fun, a quaint 1973 children’s book by Golden Press that I took around with me when I was little.
5. Napolean in Animal Farm, because he’s fictional. Or Orwell’s Big Brother, which Mark Crispin Miller made even more haunting and menacing with his essay “Big Brother Is You, Watching.” Reminds me of Bentham’s Panopticon.
6. I should choose something by Dostoevsky or Melville or Goethe. Or a living author like John Banville. Ian McEwan. Junot Diaz. Matt Bell’s How They Were Found has received rave reviews. Or yes, Paul Harding’s fabulous novel Tinkers. But I’m going to settle on Maurice Blanchot’s densely opaque The Space of Literature, translated by Ann Smock.
7. Cotton swabs for my ears. What a wonderful feeling—such a simple but important invention.