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My grandmother had a mechanical wall clock powered by weights. To wind it, she pulled down one of the weights, and for the next twelve hours, the clock ticked off the lengths of the chain as the counterbalance forced it back up.
When I spent the summers with my grandmother on the Karelian peninsula, my privilege was to wind the clock, as long as I managed to do so precisely at eight oh five in the morning and in the evening. The evening winding was also my bedtime. Having wound the clock, I said good night to my grandmother and left her on the veranda, mending clothes in her chair under the clock. I lay in bed behind the thin wall, trying not to pay attention to the mosquitos buzzing over my head and focusing instead on the sound of the chain’s movement. My grandmother claimed that she didn’t need much sleep. Sometimes I woke in the gray dusk of the northern night and, peeking from under my blanket, watched as on the high bed across the room grandmother lay with her arm raised in the air, killing mosquitos.
My grandmother often let me sleep in past the morning winding. I woke up to the clock ticking with a renewed vigor, the echoing sound driving home the idea that I’d missed something important. The floor by my grandmother’s bed was littered with the bodies of mosquitoes. My grandmother was outside, tending the vegetables. Only the severest thunderstorm could keep her inside by day. There was work to be done, so much work. I tried to hide from it. I sat in grandmother’s chair and read until she came in to get me.
We had twelve hundred square yards of potatoes, radishes, apples trees, raspberries, and currant bushes to care for, and she couldn’t do it alone. But always in September I returned to Petersburg, to go back to school. My parents borrowed a car to come and get me. They collected the sacks of potatoes and the jars of jams and pickled vegetables to take to the city. Finally, time came to say goodbye to grandmother.
This is how I remember my grandmother: in the chair under the clock, one of its weights low, nearly touching her hair, and the other riding high, reaching but never quite making it to the edge of the clock. To this day, wherever I might be traveling in the world, when in the evening I notice eight oh five strike on my computer or phone, I think about grandmother, how she has to get up and pull that weight down herself.
Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author; born in St. Petersburg, Russia, she calls San Francisco her home. Her third book of stories was published in Russia in 2016. Her English-language fiction has appeared in World Literature Today, Epiphany, Narrative Magazine, Santa Monica Review, J Journal, and other print and online publications. Olga serves as a co-moderator of San Francisco Writers Workshop. She was a proud recipient of 2010 Tin House Scholar Award.
Freebird is out now from Graywolf Press.
Jon will be reading this Friday (January 20th/7:30) at Powell’s City of Books.
You could always get unmarried in life. You could switch jobs. You could get fat and turn around and get thin again. You could change your haircut a thousand times. But there was one thing you couldn’t ever change, and that was being dead.
No, death was the great and ultimate threshold of human experience, the one-way door through which no one ever returned. You could swap houses, you could make water into ice and back into water again, but being dead, that was the one irrevocable, un-changeable state.
Curtains for you, Shane Larson, Ben thought.
In ten minutes, the curtains would be drawn once and for all on Shane Larson’s life, and there would be no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Perched on the roof of Palm Canyon Resort, his rifle cradled against his chest, breathing slowly and methodically, Ben waited patiently for the next pivot point of his own vengeful life to arrive. You could never stop being dead; nor could you ever bring someone back to life once you’d greased them.
His eyes remained fixed on the third hole of the Indian Canyons golf course, framed over the white lip of the resort roof. He’d chosen the Palm Canyon for its slight elevation; it was the only three-story building near the perimeter of the links. The third hole was not his favorite choice—he might have preferred a higher number, if only for the drama of letting the tournament play out—but overall the third hole was acceptable. There were at least three exit routes nearby, paths going north and south along South Palm Canyon Drive, and a vast, empty scrubland -stretching west into the mountains. Plan A was to evacuate on the street using the pickup truck he’d stolen the night before, joining the flow of traffic, finding his car downtown, making the trade and drifting quietly away. Plan B was to evacuate on the street by foot, melding with the street traffic and reconnecting with his car and continuing on as per Plan A. And Plan C, should he need it, was to flee into the mountains. The nest itself was very solid. He could see the lima-bean green abutting a glittering pond at the end of an alley of palm trees. He could see a swath of the mountains sheltering the valley from the wind. He could see an immensity of cornflower-blue sky extending into infinity.
This was a beautiful place to exit the world, Ben thought. Shane Larson was a lucky man in that regard. He would exit the planet in sunlight and fragrant desert air, surrounded by adoring fans, or at least admiring fans, or at the very least people who recognized him. He would avoid all the suffering of the elder years, the decrepitude and disease. He would not slowly wither until his mind was soft cheese and his family didn’t know what to do with him. He would go out in the greenery of the Indian Canyons golf course without a moment of pain. Or maybe just one very brief moment of pain. Depended on how well the shooting went today.
Ben had arrived at the Palm Canyon at three in the morning, wanting privacy for the scaling of the wall and the choosing of precisely the right spot. The resort-goers had been sleeping, and he’d nestled in under the star-throbbing sky. He’d seen the sun rise over the San Jacinto Mountains, the wind-planed clouds turning pink and orange and the dome of existence gradually filling with color. He’d heard the desert birds awaken, including one strange type that made noises like R2-D2, greeting the day with a funny, computerized bleep-bleep-bloop song.
Over the hours, the human world had come to life. The golf course had picked up employees. The tournament spectators had trickled through the front gate in their BMWs and Lexuses and hybrids, claiming parking spots with smooth self-confidence. From the sidewalk, the voices of the men floated in the air, talking about all the petty garbage of their privileged lives. From the pool area, the squeals of the children had begun. Ben had overheard numerous complaints about wives, lawyers, neighbors, contractors and subcontractors, many grousing complaints relating to people’s own revolting wealth. He’d overheard at least a dozen men he would have gladly killed if only their deaths would have meant anything to people. But he’d waited stoically for the one man he’d come to make an example of, Shane Larson.
Doom on you, Shane Larson. Doom on you for all your lies.
It was my birthday, and Sunny Dee drank with me in the park. She and I cracked Mad Dogs in four unwholesome colors, camouflaged the industrial-grade wine in a Big Gulp cup, and stashed the empties under the oak by Waller Creek. We had kissed once, alone at a middle-of-the-night bus stop. “Wanna make out?” she’d asked, and while bread trucks and rubbernecking taxis crawled by, we sampled each other like cooks slurping spoonfuls of sauce. That was after her old man had sprinted into the alley with a psychotic yelp, disappearing with my backpack and the last four beers, so I credited our indiscretion to justifiable, friend-on-friend revenge. I wanted him at my party that Mad Dog afternoon, and we looked, but couldn’t find him. Back in jail, we figured, and the drinking commenced, just the two of us. Sunny Dee didn’t ask to make out. We didn’t slurp, or slither, or cop a quick feel. We sat, sipped from the same straw, and didn’t talk much except to wonder at the heat and puzzle over why the wine wouldn’t get us drunk, why nothing was strong enough anymore. I bought us one more bottle and that was it for the cash. “Happy birthday,” Sunny Dee said, and I gave her the last blue swallow.
Barry Maxwell is a 56-year-old native of Austin, Texas, and a student at UT. His work has appeared in venues including Split Lip Magazine, Crack the Spine, the Mud Season Review, and Pithead Chapel. Barry gave up Mad Dog and homelessness a few years back, though he still celebrates birthdays on Facebook with Sunny Dee and her old man, and has since founded the Street Lit Authors Club, providing books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s homeless community. (Visit streetlit.org or barrymaxwell.net for info.)
From the pages of our current issue, Issue 70, Julia Cooke offers an appreciation of Rebecca West’s 1956 novel.
I had been recently proposed to when I read Rebecca West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier. One paragraph of the book, which deals with an English gentleman returning home from the Great War to a wife and grand home he no longer remembers, caught me. The couple sits in a particular attitude on the lawn, he napping, “his face undarkened by thought,” and she, watching over him, “mournfully vigilant.” West’s narrator remarks that their pose “means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time.” “That,” she continues, “is a great thing for a woman to do. I know there are things at least as great for those women whose independent spirits can ride fearlessly and with interest outside of the home park of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us. What we desire is greatness such as this which had given sleep to the beloved.”
The previous owner of the used copy I’d bought had underlined the passage, and I stopped and reread it. I recognized that pose, hyperbole notwithstanding. I recognized it in the professionalized femininity of urban America and its bloggers of easy meals and hipster housekeeping, their frequent implications, with a man at the edge of the frame, that a woman’s job is still to make her husband’s life comfortable. I’d always felt as outside of that pose as West placed herself, and as vaguely condescending toward it, too. I—as West was—am a restless, ambitious woman with not enough patience for perfection in the home park. For the first time, I felt that I understood what my future husband was relinquishing in choosing me over another. A partner of mine was gaining many things in marrying me, I knew. I’d never before read anything that explained what he might be losing in any way I really understood.
All of this is to say that when I picked up The Fountain Overflows, I knew what I loved about West’s writing: her spare way of tracing a character’s interiority, anchoring meaning to a revelatory gesture, and her keen eye for how femininity functioned in a world increasingly aware of a diversity of female desires.
Though Fountain sold well when it was published in 1956, reviews were mixed. West had published over a dozen books at that point, much of them criticism and biography. Fountain is a semiautobiographical mishmash without a gripping plot—or any plot at all, really. The (male) reviewer for the New York Times Book Review wrote that its world is “a fussily feminine one” and that it “lacks entirely the diamond brilliance, the fierce intelligence and the incisive vigor of an obviously superior mind that we have learned to expect in any book by Rebecca West.”
Maybe its world is fussily feminine, or maybe the reviewer was peeved that West’s “diamond brilliance” had turned, after forty years, again toward family life. The book is certainly populated with memorable women. Its characters are real, so unpredictable and unique, that when I first read it I felt as if the narrator, Rose Aubrey, and her twin sister, Mary, their mother, Clare, and sister Cordelia and cousin Rosamund stood spectrally at the foot of my bed, putting on a play in animated tones. For the weeks that I read the novel (slowly and quickly: in an airport, on a plane, before bed, in morsels) I felt as if someone had snatched a veil off the relations of most of the women I knew and so I read with an alacrity entirely disproportionate to the plot.
Rather than a narrative arc, Fountain contains a portrait of the Aubrey family, anchored by a gambling journalist-intellectual father who can’t keep money in his pocket and a neurotic pianist mother with a genius for accepting people as they are. The Aubreys move through England in the first decade of the twentieth century and we observe what befalls them in a rambling, pre–Ferrante Fever trilogy (West wrote two sequels, but died before revising them) of family and women and accidental relationships and poverty and success.
If the women in the novel are any indication, sixty years of feminism have not changed much about women, at least in the ways we criticize and intimidate and admire one another. See Cordelia’s simpering music teacher, arriving at the Aubrey house to convince Clare that her musically inept but obedient and beautiful daughter is in fact a rare talent: “There could be traced in [Miss Beevor’s] costume a reflection that . . . it was probably wise to appear before such an eccentric woman as my mother with some slight advantage of the sort given by elegance.” How many times have my clothes been armor against the other women in any given room?
Or see Cordelia, dismissed by Rose and Mary for her lack of musical prowess, playing music not for its joy but for the reaction it engenders: “She would deform any sound or any group of sounds if she thought she could thereby please her audience’s ear and so bribe it to give her its attention and see how pretty she looked as she played her violin.” The diversionary tactics beautiful young women use to garner praise—and the inevitable acidity of pointing them out—are the same today as in West’s time.
Various bit characters penetrate the arc-lessness of Fountain, and not all are women (for example, Mr. Aubrey’s sad, wealthy patron, Mr. Morpurgo, and his “dark brown eye shining like a fried egg when it is not quite cooked”). The best are, though. My favorite is Aunt Lily, a loud spinster whose combination of naïve kindness and sentimentality wavers into a “greasy and posing self-consciousness . . . But there was never any doubt that here the false merely overlaid the true. We had got accustomed to the idea that Aunt Lily had formed the vulgarest image of herself as having a heart of gold, and often wrote herself atrocious lines to be said in that character, and delivered them like the worst of actresses, yet had in fact a heart of gold.”
Okay, so West is a snark. Her skill is more condensed in hauteur than in admiration. But Clare is staunchly warm, forgiving, sensitive. She is utterly devoted to her husband, but in her independence of thought and action, she is entirely her own person, too. What is most skillful about West’s character development is how Clare’s warmth incrementally burns off her neuroticism over the course of the book, like sun blazing away a fog. West gives each of these women ambivalence and unpredictability, nuanced and continually honed descriptions. As in life, each time Rose meets Miss Beevor or Aunt Lily or cousin Rosamund, each woman is the same and different: an action will shift, very slightly, Rose’s perception of the woman in question, and those shifts accrue. By the end of the book the characters are all so very changed from when we first met them.
In a way, The Fountain Overflows corrects the false dichotomy implied in The Return of the Soldier. Of course independence doesn’t nullify my ability to love and support my partner; my initial reaction to that passage reflects my own insecurity more than a sweeping truth. A relationship isn’t defined by a single action or pose. Neither is a literary character. West has made me more attuned to pacing, to the accumulation of gestures and actions and reactions in both relationships and books. I thought I knew something about character development before, but I guess not. Now I’m learning.
It might, though, just be called growing up.
Julia Cooke‘s essays and reporting have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, A Public Space, the New York Times, and Threepenny Review.
I’m always a little angry. There is a punching bag hanging in my garage. I’m not one for the footwork but I hit hard. I can’t lift myself into the rafters, but I do sit-ups on a piece of plywood the size of a folding chair. The more stress, the higher I pull my hair. I am in an MFA program that required me to move to rural Illinois where last summer, nearly everyone in our program left. I stayed. Sat on my porch and waited. Now it’s September and still so hot in Southern Illinois, the open door won’t assuage the humidity, nor ease the swell of bug bites that welt and rise before free weights roll back into cooler corners.
I was never one to engage with violence. Never got mad. Even as a kid, my classmates would say mean shit just to see what it would take for me to break, but nothing ever worked. I didn’t justify my anger until I started writing and realized I had a lot to be angry about. Even when I went through two weeks of court-ordered anger management after a DUI, I lied to myself and assumed it was a mistake. I left it so far down, I forgot it had been reaching up to me like a limb I refused to use. I was naive. I was mad for my naiveté. I was mad for staying quiet, for living blind with my tongue tied.
The first UFC event I watched was a Ronda Rousey fight. Blue computer screen in the dark. She was beautiful. She scared me. I was both frightened and attracted to her. The frustration I was feeling in my writing workshop was mirrored by the shamelessness in a knockout. The precision and months of training it takes to throw a good hook. And the cheap shots— it eased my tribulating heart to go home and watch fights with a straight face until I didn’t miss my family. Until I got my sex drive back. Until I wasn’t ashamed for having one in the first place.
I throw red solo cups at my friend John in the English offices. I tell him we need to work on our precision while he punches them out of the air, balancing on a skateboard left by a negligent student. My friends and I are hurting; I know it from the poems they write. We wear it on our faces. I originally started watching fights to relate to my pain-faced friends. Now I watch them to heal. What does that say about me besides I live through battles?
Last winter, my cohort went to St. Louis for a poetry reading. After the venue, we walked past a restaurant with a stand-up chef—my height. I don’t remember tackling the chef but I brought him to the ground. Somewhere along the way I became rowdy and untamed. I never had a lot of friends. If you aren’t in some kind of agony, I can’t relate to you. As I get older, the friends I have phase out to those who are in pain and those who aren’t.
I’ve been gifted with brass knuckles to help me write. Initially, I used them to punch my legs, curious about my own strength. Then I slept with them on my right hand when I lived alone.
When I wear them, I’m holding a hand. It’s comforting and a little sad. I need that legitimacy. Continue reading
I don’t know the people I live with very well because we rarely talk beyond one-sentence exchanges, so when I walked down the stairs and saw the Mrs. and Mr. in a hot tub, I thought it couldn’t get much worse, but it did because she didn’t have a top on. So I said, It’s cold outside. Not in here, he said, and I agreed. Later on a man called the radio station furious that he had to change the live streaming channel because of all the jazz. He said no one should have to call and complain about this. He doesn’t want to be a jerk. He doesn’t want to be making this call. For the past three months he’s had to change the station ten times more than usual. Who is in charge? Stop playing so much jazz. Stop playing instrumental music. I can’t stand it. Finally, when more than two people say thanks for coming, I inevitably start to think it sounds weird. Is it because I wore two different shoes and only realized it when I got home? Everyone has had more than one occasion of being at a party and realizing you’re not staying the night and you’re the only one not staying the night.
Mara Beckman holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She lives in New York City and is working on a collection of short stories.
“I can’t eat,” I’ve been saying for months. “I’m too nervous,” I said at first. After the election, I switched excuses: “My stomach is in knots.”
Really, I can eat. I did it once, last Saturday – started and couldn’t stop. It was cheese. Smoked Manchego. Comfort food. Soft food. Given the chance to bite too hard, I suspected I’d grind my teeth to dust.
The next morning: black coffee and air.
“I think certain women are more beautiful than others, to be perfectly honest.”
“A young and beautiful piece of ass.”
“You’d fuck her, wouldn’t you? I’d fuck her.”
“There are basically three types of women.”
“They let you do it.”
“There has to be some form of punishment.”
The last time I punished myself, the impetus was heartbreak. “Why don’t you want to work this out?” I asked. I needed to know everything. I needed access to the empty wells in his heart so I could refill them.
He said, “I just can’t.”
A lie, of course. But I understood – we lie to keep doing what we want to keep doing.
“Eat,” my friends probed.
But I couldn’t.
I’ve had enough therapy to name the source: When I was twelve, there was a boy who took off my clothes while I told him no. He kissed me in a way that made me gag. He broke the hook on my bra. He squeezed my breasts. I’d been the first to develop breasts. The boys were always discussing my breasts. He poked inside my vagina as if searching for a fork in a drain. We were watching Saint Elmo’s Fire. I have no idea what that movie is about.
When blood tests revealed mono, people laughed: “the kissing disease!”
I tried to tell. I’m sure I did. I’ve never been the quiet type. But I guess I told the wrong people because I can’t recall a response.
He told people, too: “I scored.”
For six weeks, I was too sick to eat. Too sick to move. In bed, my period came on like a scream. No maxi pad could absorb it. My mother kept changing the towels beneath me. The princess and the pea. The princess bleeding out like a soldier. I returned to the size I’d been prior to puberty, prior to the night a boy broke my bra, prior to owning a bra that a boy could pick like a locker-room lock.
“You have the best body now,” was one thing I heard.
There is a problem when millions grieve at once: Each individual grief goes untended. Who cares whether one woman eats when thousands of women are sick to their stomachs? A woman is in danger of becoming so thin, she slips through the cracks. A woman might become so thin, she’ll be pushed through the cracks. A woman might become thin enough to squeeze herself through the cracks.
Such a short road between diminished and gone.
A decade ago, an older male relative tried to fuck me. When I refused to return his calls, he left death threats on my voicemail: “If you don’t call me back, I’ll kill you,” he sang. Who knows why he was singing. I told my parents. They didn’t say much. I was well into my twenties; maybe they thought I should fend for myself. That winter, I nibbled high-fiber cereal that made me shit. Nothing for lunch. Wine for dinner.
When that relative got engaged the next year, my parents bought plane tickets to his wedding.
I was home for some holiday, screaming, “How could you?”
My mother showed me her palms as if I might shoot. My father, protecting my mother, I guess, told me to “chill out.”
I saw more wrinkles on his face than I’d ever seen, more exhaustion in his posture. The slang felt incongruous: chill out.
Maybe I’m trying to be thin so no one calls me Miss Piggy. Maybe I’m trying to hide. Maybe I’m flailing for some semblance of control. Maybe I don’t think I deserve the space that is clearly reserved for men. Maybe I’m regressing, reversing, returning to a time before my body was a woman’s. Maybe I’m punishing not just myself, but those who love me who voted for Trump. My parents voted for Trump.
Another fast: I was infatuated with a man who inserted sex toys into my asshole. When I told him how much I hated it, he told me I’d learn to love it.
I know. It’s just an eating disorder. Or “disordered eating,” as I’ve been taught to say. But when women can’t choose what to do with their bodies, they find a way to choose. In prison, the Suffragettes waged hunger strikes. (Then the men in charge force-fed them.)
“Rosie O’Donnell is disgusting.”
“Arianna Huffington is disgusting.”
“Unattractive both inside and out.”
“The face of a dog.”
“Unsexiest woman alive.”
“You have to treat ‘em like shit.”
I’ve gained weight in every relationship. It’s the middle chapter – long after the falling in love, but before the falling apart. I get comfortable. I feel safe. I see no reason to punish myself. But after the breakup, I cringe to think that anyone saw me naked like that. Now and then, I run into an ex and always want to apologize.
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, of the New York Times column Going Off, and of a forthcoming nonfiction book. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Paris Review Daily, Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, and elsewhere. She won the Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own Foundation. She tweets from @dianaspechler.
“I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.”—Lucia Berlin
Call me impatient, call me lazy, but I’m tired of reading backstory. I want the frontstory—if I may—to do the narrative work. Info-dump is, I think, the best way to make a story go cold, which is why I so often turn to authors who pen extra-short short stories; not flash fiction, necessarily, but fully-realized five-pagers that crackle with life played out almost entirely in the present action. Think Denis Johnson à la Jesus’ Son. Think Lucia Berlin.
In Berlin’s “Angel’s Laundromat,” for example, the narrator sits in a plastic chair as her laundry tumbles through a public washing machine. She notices a man in the mirror—also sitting in the Laundromat—studying her hands. Suddenly she sees herself anew, and Berlin lets us in on her striking double-consciousness: “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” This spare and circuitous self-characterization is the lifeblood of the story. Without plunging into flashback or extraneous anecdote, Berlin brings to the surface her protagonist’s personal history, and she does so in a way that is recognizably human and complex. Not only do we learn that this woman has children, has had many lovers, has tended a lifetime’s worth of flowers, but we also begin to understand something of her psychological process—this is a highly attentive character who uses small details to build a greater mosaic of self-understanding. We might even intuit a touch of neurosis, a hypersensitivity to ordinary existence. Her hands’ supposed scars and wrinkles and blemishes come to her—and to us—laden with meaning. They signify.
Of course, this sentence presents a conundrum when considering the classic creative writing mantra show don’t tell. Is Berlin showing or telling? In one sense, she’s merely telling. Without actually setting anything in motion, she gives the reader a little factsheet: now we know a few things about this character’s love and home life, her status as a mother. We don’t see a teething baby biting her hand. We don’t see her cracking knuckles as she stays up late awaiting some unruly lover. We don’t see her toiling in a thorny garden. Instead, we see her—at most—staring at her hands and rather abstractly plunging into a process of existential metonymy.
And yet, the line is so evocative that it does, in fact, show us these things. Maybe we don’t tangibly see—watch—Berlin’s protagonist crouching in a garden, but we certainly feel the action’s lurking history. The power lies in the syntax; “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” Could see. The word choice is purposely at once distant and close. Here is the notion of ability, the idea that memory is there for perusal if only the protagonist wants to indulge it. Her backstory, then, is available for inspection even if it doesn’t necessarily invade the present moment in the form of a secondary scene. If, on the other hand, the protagonist uttered that she saw these things in her hands, Berlin’s choice not to launch into flashback would feel deceptive because we, as readers, would be set at a remove. This would be telling not showing, the character ultimately surveying a hidden and inaccessible world. Instead, Berlin weaves this backstory—that entire mysterious life—into the fabric of the present. She is simultaneously precise and approximate, and the details of the protagonist’s life come to the forefront of the present action without taking any historical detours.
Still, to some this might seem a throwaway line. The story, after all, focuses primarily on the man doing the staring. From the very first sentence, the narrator tersely and fragmentarily directs us toward the story’s alleged subject: “A tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt.” We are thereby encouraged to fixate on him. But it’s really her—the narrator’s—presence that commands the story, and she expands in the peripheries until, finally, she easily dismisses the man at the end by saying, “I can’t remember when it was that I realized I never did see that old Indian again.” We’re left to realize that we’ve tracked the wrong character. And the only thing left to do is look back down at our narrator’s hands and recognize that they hold the real story.
Taylor Lannamann holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review and The Paris Review Daily. He is currently at work on a novel.
In Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (on shelves February 7), Ingrid writes letters to Gil about the truth of their marriage, then hides them in used books from their library. Carefully collected over the years, these books are filled with “left-behind photographs, postcards, and letters; bail slips, receipts, handwritten recipes, and drawings; valentines and tickets, sympathy cards, excuse notes to teachers—bits of paper with which he could piece together other people’s lives, other people who had read the same books he held and who had marked their place.”
Inspired by Swimming Lessons, we went to the experts in unexpected ephemera and well-loved books—librarians—and asked them to tell us the most interesting thing they’d found in a library book. Their answers delighted, disgusted, and exceeded our wildest expectations. It was hard to pick our favorites, but here they are.
A few takeaways: novels pair well with bologna, don’t even try to get a secret code past a librarian, and our books tell more stories than perhaps any of us realize.
What’s the most interesting, memorable, or just plain weird thing you’ve found in a library book?
**Winner** A taco, perfectly preserved and pressed like a flower in the middle of a book. It was so slim you wouldn’t know it was there until you opened the book. —Amanda Monson, Bartow County Library System
**Winner** I am a first generation immigrant from Russia. My senior year of college, at least the last semester of it, I had to write a senior thesis. I had gotten permission to write a historical fiction, a creative piece but one that would demonstrate my impressive researching skills. So, I chose to write about Soviet era Russia, primarily the political and religious oppression that existed. I was very familiar with this topic, having arrived in the U.S. as refugees due to the fact that our family was persecuted for our religious beliefs. I scoured the internet for books on the topic; I had to dedicate an entire bookshelf to those books. One little book called “Konshaubi: A True Story of Persecuted Christians in the Soviet Union” by Georgi Vins. Georgi Vins was a big name in our community. He was expelled from Russia, along with a few other dissidents, in 1979 in exchange for 2 Soviet spies. As I flipped through this very humble book, I landed on a page of photos. On one of them, I noticed three familiar faces. My grandfather, grandmother, and uncle’s. My grandfather served four 3-year sentences (total of 12 years) in the Soviet prisons for his involvement in the Baptist church. My uncle served 3 years. My uncle had just died that February. It was so shocking to see his face and the faces of my grandparents. I showed my mom, and she cried when she saw her parents and brother. It was, and still is, the most memorable and interesting find in a book. —Violetta Nikitina, Union County Public Library
**Winner** A letter in a sealed, stamped envelope that had never been sent. I decided to mail it. —Christina Thurairatnam, Holmes County District Public Library
Sonogram pictures of a developing baby. —Chantal Walvoord, Rockwall County Library
A piece of bologna! It was in a children’s picture book, so I think someone was snacking while reading. —Joy Scott, Steele Creek Library
Bologna. —Helen Silver, Spanish River Library
Bologna. —Kate Troutman, Calvert Library
A patron found a handwritten note which he took to be a threat on the life of then Vice-President Al Gore, reported it to the FBI and members of the Secret Service showed up at my office. —Teresa Newton, Lawrence County Public Library
Divorce papers. —Sarah Lilly, Robbins Library
The mix CDs David #1-4 were made quickly, compiled by an old friend of my dad’s. We played them at the wake and funeral, in the car on the way to the cemetery. Mama and I wandered through those days after his sudden death as the dazed hosts of a series of bewildering parties. I was seventeen, and she was wailing. It was helpful to have a ready-made soundtrack. One less logistic.
These songs—“She Talks To Angels” by the Black Crowes, “Angie” by the Rolling Stones—reflected my dad in some ways: the man his friend mourned, and the regret of aging rock and roll bands. At the funeral, Mama and I took our places in the front row of chairs, and the first strains of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas drifted over the assembled.
I was instantly mortified. My friends and I had just seen the comedy Old School at the movie theater. In one scene, at the burial of an elderly frat pledge who died in the midst of a KY jelly wrestling match, Will Ferrell sings “Dust in the Wind.” He warbles to the overblown finish, then chokes out, You’re my boy, Blue! You’re my boy.
I couldn’t help myself. I turned backwards in my chair and dissolved into laughter. A few rows back, one of my friends, welling up, mouthed for me to shush. I only laughed harder. I shook.
Beside me, Mama shook, too. She whimpered, crying out loud in the way of children and dogs. We were the only noise in that cottonmouthed Indiana funeral parlor. She looked at me, her eyes all blue sky and flood. She gripped my shoulder and cried harder.
I never said, Dad would know this is corny. That he would remember the original late-’70s music video: the band’s absurd ruffled shirts, the self-important strings, the Jesus fros, the yodel of Nothing lasts for-EV-er but the earth and sky… That I had come home after seeing Old School on a Friday night and told him he would love it. That he would laugh.
I never told Mama that I wasn’t crying. But when we got home, I made David #5, my first mix. It ends with “Baby Blue” by Badfinger and opens with “Good Riddance” by Green Day, a band our little family had loved since my dad brought home Dookie. He’d told me to listen to the tinny drum sound, told me I’d get why it was cool. In the car we sneered the lyrics at top volume: It all keeps adding up / I think I’m cracking up / Am I just paranoid or am I just stoned? I was eight, and it was my first record.
Over the years, I burned dozens of CDs for Mama, the titles carefully lettered around the hole at the center. When I was twenty-nine, Mama got engaged to a man she’d known since high school. In addition to the toast and table arrangements, she assigned me the job of wedding DJ. I loaded my iPod with hundreds of songs, the Mama and Jim mix, not only for the ceremony and reception, but to play for her throughout the day. The right songs could keep her calm, could cement a memory or bring back a better one. It was one less logistic. I carried around a soap dish lifted from the wedding hall to serve as a makeshift speaker. I vowed to anticipate the just-right song to play in any given situation. That meant no “Dust in the Wind”—no songs at all from the David mixes.
The afternoon of the wedding, as we stuck final flowers in the centerpieces, the electricity went out all over town. Never mind the lights—we still needed hair and makeup. In a hotel out by the highway that had somehow escaped the blackout, Mama perched on the edge of the bed. She swung her leg and drank cheap Chablis. I cued up “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon while she checked her phone again for messages from well-wishers and with news about her friend Kimmie, who was in the hospital and too sick to make it to the wedding. Kimmie had been at the wake. Kimmie with her black bob and rolling laugh, too loud in the dim, carpeted room, handing Mama a Bud Light from a soft cooler. In the background, Lennon sang his worry of neglected love—It’s been so long since we took the time—and buoyed it with bouncing doo-wop. Lennon was Jim’s favorite, and any reminder of Jim soothed Mama those days.
The teenaged stylist fluttered over my cheeks and eyelashes and I asked what Mama thought. I was trying to distract her, but she was already distracted. I remembered six years earlier, when she and Kimmie were both offered promotions that would require them to move across the country. Both of them flew out to interview, looked at condos, tried to imagine new lives in a new city. I didn’t tell her I wanted her to go. I didn’t tell her that I was twenty-three and collapsing under the weight of her gaze. Our grief reflected back and forth like an infinity mirror. I just said that it wouldn’t be “starting over,” but a chance to look forward.
In the end, Kimmie took the job and moved across the country. Mama stayed.
Mama’s phone rang. It was Jim, calling to say that the band claimed they couldn’t learn Al Green for the first dance. I told him not to worry—it was the wrong song anyway. The first dance had to be to “Here Comes My Girl,” from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes. Mama has always insisted that she can’t dance, but this beat is easy to find and sway to. It’s a talking blues, and it’s a romance: Yeah man when I got that little girl standing right by my side / You know I can tell the whole wide world to shove it! For sixty-year-olds who’ve worked hard and lost so much, it’s a love song that rebels against suffering. The chorus swings like a meteor shower.
By early evening, the guests arrived for the ceremony. Mama got word that an usher delivered a corsage to my grandmother and seated her at the designated family table. The problem was: It was the wrong grandmother. It wasn’t Mama’s mother. It was my dad’s.
So I played “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb, a song I’ve always thought sounds like Mama. She took another drink, said oh my, my and pulled at the corner of her eyelid. But then she grinned, listening. Growing up, “Sunny” was one of her nicknames, for her penny-colored hair and her fizzy disposition. She snapped her fingers and mouthed, Sunny one so true. She loved the way he says it. I was in the makeup chair, talking with my eyes closed, when Mama’s phone buzzed again. I was trying to get her to recognize how the marimba-like riff of “Sunny” is ripped straight from the James Bond theme song, saying, See? Hear that? — when she cried out.
Kimmie was dead. In the mirror, the stylist’s fingers in my hair, I watched Mama’s bright blue eyes obscure in middle-distance, watched her mouth go ragged. In the air around us, Bobby Hebb was still cooing, but Mama bawled No. No. Then she stood up and staggered out of the room.
The last song on David #5 is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger. When I was sixteen, my dad once left Badfinger’s greatest hits album on my bedside table. I was angry with him that day, as I often was then. His note explained that Badfinger showed more songwriting depth than the Beatles. Who knows what they could’ve become if Pete Ham hadn’t killed himself, if they’d gotten a better break. It was his kind of apology.
After ten minutes, Mama hadn’t come back. I went sprinting down the hotel hallways. Jumping down the stairwell, I thought I could hear her somewhere nearby. Her sobs grew louder, resounding in the space. I sheared the corner, swinging into the lobby, and saw her there in the middle of the room.
Mama whimpered. Hotel guests waded around her wreckage.
But she was in Jim’s arms. At some point, she’d called. He came. He whispered in her ear, he held her hair. He said, better now. He said, baby.
I walked up beside them and pressed a hand to her back. Her eyes were closed. She clasped my sleeve in two fingers then turned back to Jim. I went upstairs and put on my dress.
There would be other disasters. I forget to eat at the reception and white wine makes my blood rush. The speakers blare too loud, and both of my grandmothers hold their ears. Inexplicably, during dessert, the band plays “Dust in the Wind.”
When it’s time for the first dance, the band has not, in fact, learned “Here Comes My Girl.” So I send them on a smoke break and plug in my iPod. The drumbeat build-up, the chiming piano. Mama and Jim hold each other and dance, moving lightly in the space. The chorus breaking open, a cascading guitar. They keep their eyes on each other. They mouth the words. They grin. And she looks so right, she is all I need tonight. They stroll around the floor, their fingers touching. And even though it isn’t my job anymore, I keep watching from among the amps and wires. I laugh, then I laugh harder, then I stop.
Katie Moulton‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Day One, Ninth Letter, Post Road, Quarterly West and other publications. Her work has been supported by scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, OMI International Arts Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Indiana University, where she earned her MFA. A music critic for Voice Media newspapers since 2009, she currently lives in Oakland.
On the last day of February 2016, a leap year, a man was executed in the dark recesses of Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His crime was the 2011 assassination of the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, had been Governor Salman Taseer’s bodyguard. Qadri was motivated by the Governor’s support of a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy. Taseer had publicly criticized Pakistan’s ambiguous blasphemy law, a weapon in the hands of the country’s Sunni majority. For this, he met his death. After the shooting, Qadri did not run or hide; instead he proudly proclaimed the righteousness of his act.
Assassinations are, by nature of their horror, their sudden and stunning infliction of death, seismic events. In the case of this assassination, the horror did not end. As Qadri was arrested and a murder case registered against him, hundreds of thousands of men took to the streets to protest his being charged as a murderer. The man had done the right thing, their leaders, scions of Pakistan’s many Islamist groups, proclaimed from the stage. The riled up and rage soaked crowds that pulsed through the streets demanding Qadri’s freedom agreed. And it was not simply the uneducated, the easily angered or the ignorant that supported Taseer’s murderer. At Qadri’s first court appearance, hundreds of lawyers, supposedly enlightened men suited in the white and black that Pakistani courts require of advocates, festooned the man with rose petals. So it was for every single court hearing after, the rabble on the streets and the supposedly educated in the courts united in support of an avowed killer.
Political comparisons are inherently approximate, but nevertheless necessary and even instructive. In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, American liberals betrayed a sense of apprehension that felt familiar to me from the time I spent in Pakistan during those years. The rage and anger of Trump rallies, their open denunciations of tolerance, their garish greed for dominance and, beneath it all, their strategic use of desperation as a means to whet the poor against the weak, bore more than an incidental resemblance to rallies that have raged through Pakistan in the past decade. These Pakistani processions of rage railing against America and its incursions, demanding the executions of Shia Muslims, inaugurating pogroms against Pakistani Christians, rely crucially on the same paradigms of hatred and exclusion, of populist pandering that have been witnessed in the United States in the past year and a half. Exchange hatred of China and Mexico and Muslims for a hatred of America, India and Israel, add railing against the “unpatriotic,” the wink and nod to intimidation of minorities, and you have a skeleton strung of the same bones, if of different flesh.
Pakistani liberals paid a price for a nation instigated to hate them; consider them the inauthentic, insufficiently Pakistani and smugly elitist. Anti-intellectualism was sold as virtue and imbued with the heroism of bringing down the avaricious elite that cared nothing about them. The actual elite, padded by armed guards, offshore accounts and European real estate holdings, did not suffer. It was the scholars, the lawyers who insisted on defending those accused of blasphemy, the activists who insisted on staging rallies, however small, for love instead of hate, that paid the price.
Those who did not die had to hide. In the years following Taseer’s murder, literary festivals had to become small, quiet affairs to avoid bomb threats. Concerts could not take place in large venues for the same reason. Then in 2015, an activist named Sabeen Mahmud was killed on the way home from the small literary and creative arts space she maintained. That space, “T2F,” a rented room on the upper floor of non-descript building, had hosted activists from Baluchistan who were protesting the state’s human rights abuses against indigenous Baluch. When her killer was caught, he confessed that he had murdered her because he did not like what she had to say. There is a video of the evening at which he made up his mind. In it, he sits among the audience at an event at T2F. The topic that day was urban sustainability.
The United States, of course, is not Pakistan. Its civil society and institutions, one hopes, are robust enough, its democracy old enough, to withstand an onslaught of illiberalism. There is, however, a terrible and similar cruelty at play when the poor are promised a magical reversal of their misfortunes if they agree to hate enough people. American liberals, like Pakistanis at the outset of their own country’s move to the right, seem in the aftermath of their electoral cataclysm uncertain and self-doubting. Some seem so crushed by electoral loss that they seek to disavow the platform that made them better, if not the victor. Calls to end identity politics, to move away from the concerns of minorities and toward a more effective pandering to white majorities, ring out on social media and in political columns. To hear them and read them is almost more frightening than the grim November night that has occasioned the conversation.
On this last fact, Pakistani liberals may have some small but hard-won lessons to offer their American counterparts. Even with death hanging over their heads, Pakistani newspapers have continued to publish challenges to the blasphemy law, to Islamism, to misogyny. Pakistani singers still appear on stages that may be bombed. Pakistani lawyers squeeze into courtrooms ringed by angry mobs, and a whole lot of others, teachers and professors, try to underscore that the narrative of intolerance that dominates is not the only one, nor the right one. Being outnumbered has not deterred them.
The days after Mumtaz Qadri’s execution this February were also dark ones in Pakistan. Many thousands took to the streets, angry that their “hero” had been put to death. A video of him, cherub faced and singing a religious hymn into a cell phone camera in his prison cell, went viral. Watching so many so enraged and so opposed to the values of religious tolerance, rule of law, and democratic governance, provokes deep desolation and even dissolution. But this same moment of uncertainty can also be one of realization and resolve, a time for blunt assessment of the work to be done. Pakistani liberals have faced that moment, persevering sometimes, splintering at others. It is now America’s turn. If American liberals look beyond their borders, they will find many friends who can understand the despair of their present, but also point them to the possibility inherent in the future.
Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon, 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan and writes the Read Other Women series at the Boston Review. You can follow her at @rafiazakaria.
We’ve all said it: 2016 is a year we’d mostly like to forget. But for all that was grim and all that we lost these past months, our faith remains steadfast in the ability of art not just to say what needs to be said, but to bring us back to our humanity and our best selves. These are the voices, muses, stories, and sources of inspiration that gave us hope in 2016. We’ll carry them with us as we take on 2017, wiser and kinder and ready for the fight.
Elissa Schappell, Tin House Editor-at-Large: I worshipped Bowie and still mourn him so it may sound strange to pick Blackstar as a bright spot. But it was. Blackstar is about being Bowie at this moment in his life– a dazzlingly intimate, elegantly subversive work of genius about grief and dying and resurrection. It is Bowie, as ever, making his art his life and his life his art and doing it right there in front of us–writing the end of his human story for us, because he knew as much as he needed to make that music we needed it to mourn him. Such an extraordinary gift. It blows my mind.
Thomas Ross, Tin House Assistant Editor: We all have our little rituals to get us through the year. I make time once a month, six months a year, to read the latest issue of Saga, a space opera comic book published by our new neighbors in northwest Portland, Image Comics. (Can you see us, Image Comics? We’re waving!) The book relies as much on the emotional dynamism of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s characters as it does on artist Fiona Staples’s delirious, gorgeous art. This year’s arc has been especially moving, from the tragic death of an already dead ghost to the nebulous redemption of a robot villain (fueled by poignant images on the TV he has for a head), and I can’t wait to see how Vaughan and Staples will break my heart next year.
Tony Perez, Books Editor: What a shitty year for narrative movies. While there were a handful I’d go to bat for—Green Room and The Invitation were exemplary genre exercises, Christine an excellent character study, Love & Friendship a genuinely funny, costumed surprise (and, OK, I’ve yet to see Moonlight)—little else managed to grab or hold my attention. Luckily Dana Spiotta came through to sate my cinema-starved 2016. Innocents and Others is about a competitive but complicated friendship, phone phreaking and proto-catfishing, what it means to make art, and what it means to tell stories (the opening one—an affair with an unnamed Orson Welles—is alone worth the price of admission). Usually reading about fictional art is like hearing about other people’s dreams (interesting if you can read between the lines and make some projection about their insecurities). Spiotta creates these fully formed forgeries that not only further her plots and reveal her characters, but make me worry that—after a few too many Christmas Party eggnogs—I might slip up and claim to have seen them. I had more fun reading about Meadow and Carrie’s pretend films than I did watching this year’s real ones. Continue reading
From the current issue, Issue 70, comes a poem from Christopher Soto.
Two hundred Indian women killed their rapist on the courtroom floor of Nagpur in 2004. When Police tried to arrest lead perpetrators // the women responded “arrest us all.”
In this windowless room // where he poured acid & stole money // arrest us all
In this windowless room [shut like the gut of an ox] arrest us all
Gored & gorge are words to describe a wound Gorgeous // the opening
Of a blade inside his chest Gorgeous // black galaxies, growing
Across his skin, we threw rocks & chili pepper
Arrest us all
On the railroad tracks // where he murdered our sisters & left their dead bodies
On the railroad tracks // where black ants began // biting crowns into
Calves // The world is spinning and we’re // falling from its bed
How could we mourn? He kept killing // & threatening // & raping us
Arrest us all On the red puddle // on the white courthouse floor
Arrest us all We sawed his penis off // & tore his house // to rubble
Look // the streets are swarming // in protests [welcome home]
The night is neon & buzzing like bumblebees
We never wanted to kill // only to stay alive // &
We waited like virgins // for the gentleness of strangers // to help or empathize.
Christopher Soto aka Loma is a poet based in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently working on a poetry manuscript about mass incarceration. For more information visit christophersoto-poet.com.
Enjoy this dip into our archives for a poem from American master James Tate, from Tin House #19: Lies.
Cornell was a great wit and raconteur. He had an effortless natural grace that made us feel we were all clever. He never sought to be the center of attention, it’s just that we could never wait to see what he would say next. His wife, Priscilla, couldn’t take her eyes off of him she was so proud. He turned out book after book, always bristling with intelligence. We all felt so lucky to know him, to claim him as a part of our inner circle. Without warning, he died one day. His family, about whom we knew little, insisted that the funeral be a private affair. We felt cheated, of course, not being able to say goodbye. He was buried somewhere far from here. Priscilla wasn’t answering the phone. We all just wandered around in a daze, not really wanting to get together. Cornell wasn’t even cool in his grave–wherever that was–when rumors started circulating about his affairs, not just one or two, but perhaps dozens of them, or even hundreds. His whole life seemed to be an intricate web of lies, and not just to Priscilla but to all of us. Beneath the surface of the charm, there must have been one scared, panicky animal, always planning his next deception. I ran into Gwen downtown. “How’s Priscilla taking all of this?” I asked. “She’s moved,” she said. “She doesn’t want to see any of us ever again. Too painful.” It all seemed so sudden. And then the charges of plagiarism hit the papers. The article cited endless instances of pure theft, and his life’s work was discredited, his honor lay in tatters. There seemed to be a kind of awful joy taken in this work. His old friends in town could barely speak of it. “Did you see that article?” “Yeah, yeah.” I never took his books down from the shelves to look at anymore, and eventually I removed them and stored them in a box in the garage. It wasn’t long before the rumors and the articles stopped altogether, and then it was as though he had never existed. And, yes, Cornell had more life in him, more good cheer and warmth and brilliance than anyone I have ever known. I had no way of reconciling what had happened to him, what a swift, harsh vengeance had struck down his memory. I had a picture of him on the mantel, holding his glass up high, toasting the camera. We know now that he was a man of many dark secrets. Maybe his name wasn’t even Cornell. Maybe he’d never gone to school. Maybe he wasn’t even a human being. Maybe he was just a piece of tumbleweed that had taken on flesh for a while before blowing on, and he’s laughing still. I guess no one ever knew him, but, nonetheless, we all loved him. I was getting all choked up just thinking about him and staring at the photo on the mantel when the phone rang. It was Emory. “Listen, Alex, you’re not going to believe this, but I think Cornell is alive.” “What?” I said. “I was in the city this weekend and I think I saw him. He’s grown a mustache and dyed his hair black, but I’m sure it was him. He was eating lunch in this little Italian cafe with this really good-looking babe,” he said. “I don’t believe you, I mean, it must have been some kind of mistake, just some guy who looked a little like Cornell,” I said. “It was him all right. I recognized the laugh and the gleam in his eye,” he said. “Did you speak to him?” I said. “Oh no, he was no longer the Cornell that we knew. He was someone else altogether. I watched him a moment, then waled on,” he said. We said goodnight. It didn’t matter to me one way or another if he was dead or alive. Some of us had been touched by magic, and, later, people wanted to tell you it wasn’t magic but a bunch of lies, you want to ask them, Who are you? Show me your bona fides. I stared at his photo until it faded from view, and there was nothing left but ust flowing across the prairie on a cold night such as this. And then I went to bed.
James Tate (1943 – 2015) was the author of of over twenty books, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion,
The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems, and The Ghost Soldiers, and was the recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
1. THE UNBORN
Ms. Hansen-Knudsen was the most beautiful woman on earth, so her second-grade class was not surprised when the two chicks emerged fuzzy and so plump, and calm-seeming, and sunshine yellow: perfect. For a time their little chirps floating out from the pouch Ms. Hansen-Knudsen made in her blouse were enough to put everyone in the class in an ecstatic trance, but there was the problem of the third, unhatched egg. The specter of stillbirth was so unwelcome in the bright and clean classroom of young Ms. Hansen-Knudsen that a few of the most gallant boys in the class conspired to dispose of the unhatched egg without disturbing their beautiful teacher. But it all went wrong for these boys, and indeed for the whole class. Archie was caught with his searching hands inside of the incubator, and Ms. Hansen-Knudsen became, in her angelic way, upset. This is only to say that she expressed disappointment, and everyone felt the growing pains of the lesson they were learning. But she also took away the incubator and the two live chicks and the unhatched egg and brought them to her home. The unhatched egg was a different type of egg, which took longer to hatch, and when it did hatch it was a duckling that emerged. It was a filthy gray color, and standing next to the two spherical tiny chicks it looked buffoonish and slow-witted. But Ms. Hansen-Knudsen preferred it on account of the feet. It had the most harmless, charming webbed orange feet, whereas the chicks’ talons implied the spiky horrors they would grow into. Ms. Hansen-Knudsen kept the duckling for a while longer; the chicks, she fed to her cat.
2. THE EARLY LATECOMER
On the first day back from winter break there was an unremarkable amount of snow, and a two-hour delay was called. Two-hour delays made everyone feel wretched because they didn’t have the virtue to be school days or the guts to be snow days; they were days without moral character. And when the second-graders of Ms. Hansen-Knudsen’s class arrived at last, they learned that two-hour-delay-days were Trojan horses for new and unexpected enemies.
Thomas was new to the county and he didn’t get the alerts yet, so he didn’t know about the two-hour delay and he came to school on time. So did Ms. Hansen-Knudsen, who often came early to prepare her classroom for its daylong sacking by her class. So she took the opportunity to create an intimate bond with the new student, who spent two hours helping her with the sacred, opaque, adult tasks of teaching, such as going into the copy room to make copies, and preparing overhead slides.
When the second-graders of Ms. Hansen-Knudsen’s class were introduced to Thomas, they were open-minded. But when Ms. Hansen-Knudsen told them that she and Thomas had already spent the morning getting to know one another, all their minds closed at once, like so many exits from a room where a bad thing is about to begin. They began to fantasize about all the cruelties they would visit on this boy, who was small, probably born late for their year. The girls would lash out with physical insults and then retreat into surliness. The boys would blame misbehaviors on him, to turn Ms. Hansen-Knudsen sour. The girls would spread rumors to their mothers, to be brought up in serious adult places. The boys would invite him to copy and then give him wrong answers. He would atrophy, and fall into a depression, and his work would suffer, and then instead of coming anywhere with them he would be held back. And he would loom, hulking, among the next second graders, his held-back brain swelling inside the body of a third grader, like the giant duckling, too huge to be believed. A humiliation, perhaps, but perhaps a miscalculation: for what punishment couldn’t be borne for the sake of getting Ms. Hansen-Knudsen all to himself for another year, while the others were forced on?
3. THE UNBORN 2
They lived in terror of pregnancy and when it befell her they blamed themselves, for stinking of fear. There was no change in her shape yet when she told them all and slotted a letter into each of their take-home folders. Everything was going to change for the worse. They wanted to hurt it, but it lived within the borders of Ms. Hansen-Knudsen. They wanted to make her stop liking it but it touched her from the inside.
They counted out the months and saw that when it arrived, they would all be gone. It was the sickening relief of learning, as they would in Earth Science, that it will be a billion years before the Earth falls into the sun and perishes, nothing we need to worry about. What a relief, maybe, to die of something else besides that. Was that right? Or had they been tricked into craving the slow sludgy summer, away from her shifting moods? They watched Ms. Hansen-Knudsen spread the chalk dust around on the board. They were as good as already incinerated, watching her palm pass over her widening self.
Maddy Raskulinecz lives in Baltimore, where she teaches writing at Johns Hopkins. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Guernica, 3:AM, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter: @littleraskul.
This has been a tumultuous year for us all, and Melissa’s Yancy’s own life has seen its share of momentous changes. Her debut story collection, Dog Years, won the University of Pittsburgh Press’s Drue Heinz Literature Prize, she received a coveted NEA fellowship, and also gave birth to her first child.
In the midst of our disastrous election, I had the pleasure of chatting with the LA-based author about recalibrating when it rains all at once, healing rifts on the left in Trump’s America, keys to a successful workshop experience, amplifying marginalized voices, and more.
Luke B. Goebel: Congratulations on your recent NEA and Winning the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. And the baby! And being married! And your first book! What does it feel like to have it rain so hard all at once? Are you floating, drowning, swimming, or slogging?
Melissa Yancy: My friends are excited—I feel like I have dozens of parents rooting me on.
From the outside, it must look nice. A close friend recently told me how happy he was, how he didn’t feel any of the schadenfreude he might have if this had happened ten years ago (although he said schadenfreude—the joy in someone else’s misfortune—he meant the suffering in someone else’s joy, which some people call gluckschmerz, a word Charles Baxter made up). It’s yet another upside of failure, or should I say protracted apprenticeship—people are happier for you.
Let’s just say that in typical circumstances I’m the kind of person who can’t remember her phone number. I’ve heard that having a child can cause permanent neurological changes. I now get all my homonyms confused—is that normal? On the plus side, I have no mental space left for anxiety.
LG: I understand that feeling, the anxiety and the staying busy staving it off. How about now with the election of Trump and everything else?
MY: I’ve joked that my son didn’t want to be born because I’d watched too much election coverage (I went to 42 weeks and he still wouldn’t come out), but of course, that’s deeply unfunny when you think about it. I was hospitalized for severe pre-eclampsia a few days after he was born—the treatment is a 24-hour magnesium drip—and I remember the fog of surgical recovery, the hormone bomb, the leaking milk, the ache from the magnesium and the thrum of television news in the background. I tried watching other channels, but anything unpredictable—an image of a baby, or violence, or a sentimental television commercial—was more than I could handle. I watched election coverage because I already knew what was happening and the punditry was all on repeat.
I read and watched an obscene amount of election coverage over an 18-month period, but as the election wore on, it started to feel like a Chinese finger trap—the harder we pulled, the tighter the trap became. That’s not a metaphor about coming to the middle. It was just easy to see that no arguments were hitting the mark. People couldn’t even sway their own spouses. I think Obama came closest to finding it the most effective critique when he said we don’t look to be ruled—I thought that, if nothing else, would appeal to the sense of self-reliance and individualism. But when some people heard I alone can fix this, they seemed to think, this is what it would be like if I got a shot to be President.
LG: Not to plug the house of tin, where we will run this conversation…but you attended the Tin House Summer Workshop a few years ago and studied with Anthony Doerr. What was it like to work with him? Care to talk about workshopping as practice for writing, education as a writer, and as cultural phenomenon? Is social media just one great workshop?
MY: By all means, let’s plug the house of tin. I’ve often credited that workshop as a turning point in my work. The faculty are second-to-none, and the week is set up to maximize your experience—workshops, exceptional craft lectures, readings, partying. Even the food is good.
The funniest part—a story I don’t usually tell—is that in my workshop there was a guy from my graduate program, basically the guy who’d slept with all my female friends. On the first day when we did introductions around the room, he realized he knew me, said he thought he used to date my friend. I responded, I’m pretty sure you used to date all my friends. The class just looked at us like, ooh, drama! Not sure that got me off on the right start with Anthony Doerr, but he forgave me. And the guy ended up bedding the girl in the room next to mine, so not much had changed. That’s another plug—Tin House, you could get lucky.
Our newest issue has hit the newsstands. Here, from its pages, we are pleased to present a poem by Ruth Madievsky.
How does the tongue know how do the fingers
know the leg the cunt
the cable running from eye to nose
this feeling like an empty illuminated office
where a stockbroker
is eating out his intern how does the mind know
which stories not to share at parties
in what organ does loneliness reside
loneliness a wool blanket
a seizure of light
the secret handshake by which the woman
who feels like a throw dart knows
what the man who feels like a safety razor knows
the knowing that one thing
suffocating another does not mean they touch
that eventually everything even loneliness atrophies
and still there are autopsies
that read like book reports there are lemons
that can’t grow seeds
what do the inessential organs know
and is it different from what the body
at the bottom of the lake knows
if everything was once ocean
why aren’t there shells beneath our feet
Originally from Moldova, Ruth Madievsky is a poet and fiction writer living in Los Angeles. Her debut poetry collection, Emergency Brake, was published by Tavern Books on Valentine’s Day 2016 as their 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection.
In case you missed it, Issue 70 was released late last week. Here with an introductory note from the past is our editor, Rob Spillman.
As I am writing these words before the election, I do not know if the United States has elected a madman who has the potential to scorch all life from our planet. What possible value can art and story and poetry have in the face of such pending insanity? Everything.
Jo Ann Beard’s harrowing story “The Tomb of Wrestling”, brutal and beautiful, about a woman facing an intruder in her rural home, contains enough life and heart to power us through the next ten elections. Jim Shepard takes our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, specifically our decaying rails, and makes art from the raw material. Thank you Jim and Jo Ann and all of the storytellers. And thank you to the poets at this time, at all times. Walt Whitman, in the Song of Myself, wrote, “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Thank you, Rae Armantrout, Chaim ben Avram, Shayla Lawson, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Miller Oberman, Tommy Pico, Christopher Soto, Gerald Stern for your untamableness, your irreducibility, your mysteries.
We hope that the barbaric yawps contained within these pages reflect our times and are also timeless, that they capture what it is to be alive now, and for those of you reading in the future, that the words resonate with you as well.
Issue 70 features fiction by Jo Ann Beard, Antonya Nelson, Jim Shepard, Michael Andreasen, Rebecca Makkai; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Shayla Lawson, Tommy Pico, Gerald Stern, Christopher Soto, Miller Oberman, Chaim ben Avram; an interview with Mark Leyner; and Lost & Founds by Sam Lipsyte, Julia Cooke, Steve Almond, Jess Pane, Teow Lim Goh. It’s available online and at your local bookstore!
An excerpt from Los Angeles in the 1970’s: Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine (edited by David Kukoff)
Any good craftsman carries his tools.
Years ago they were always at the ready.
In a car. In a knapsack.
Claw hammers, crisscrossed heads,
thirty-two ouncers. Wrenches in all sizes, sometimes with oil caked on the teeth. Screwdrivers with multicolored plastic handles (what needed screwing got screwed).
I had specialty types: allen wrenches,
torpedo levels, taps, and dies.
A trusty tape measure.
Maybe a chalk line…
In the 1970s, I labored within industrial Los Angeles—in a steel mill, a foundry, a paper mill, a chemical refinery, and in construction. I had skills: truck driving, mechanics, welding, carpentry, smelting, piping, down, and dirty. When people think of the city, they generally don’t conjure up steel mills or auto plants. The images tend toward Hollywood. Glittering lights. Marquees. Sunset Strip. More like beaches.
Los Angeles is that, but it’s also the country’s largest manufacturing center. Today it leads in aerospace, defense, and the so-called creative economy—movies, music, fashion, design. It has the largest commercial port in the US: the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors.
I’m now part of that creative economy, the current official poet laureate of the city with fifteen books in poetry, children’s books, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I cofounded and help run a cultural space, bookstore, and small press called Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
But in the 1970s I was an unlikely working class hero (I was more likely a working class fool). When union-negotiated consent decrees in the 1970s brought African-Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women into the higher-paid skilled jobs, previously dominated by white males, the Bethlehem Steel Plant in southeast Los Angeles hired me for their “repair gang.” Prior to this I labored in unskilled drudgery. The year was 1974. I had just married my “high school sweetheart,” who received her diploma only two months before the wedding. Less then a year after, we had our first child.
I recall donning my hard hat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, and mechanic’s uniform, and staring at the mirror. I felt as if my life had purpose, direction, longevity. This job had rotating shifts, including “graveyard,” often double shifts (sixteen-hour days), and great pay, particularly with overtime.
The plant’s nineteenth-century equipment was brought over from back east around World War II, when LA also boasted fabrication, assembly, or refinery work in auto, tires, garments, canneries, shipbuilding, aerospace, meatpacking, oil, and more. We had GM and Ford plants, Firestone and Michelin, Boeing and Lockheed. This industry drew workers of all ethnicities from the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the Southwest, and Mexico for what were largely well- paid, mostly union jobs with pensions, health benefits, and a taste of blue-collar stability.
Despite being miles removed from the industrial powerhouses of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like, in LA you could follow much of this industry from the northeast San Fernando Valley, to the Alameda Corridor north of downtown, down to the Harbor. Whole towns with names like Commerce and Industry thrived.
But in the mid-1970s, deindustrialization began to hit throughout the country, picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor-saving devices became labor- replacing. Major industries also sought cheaper labor markets in the South, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, and such— impoverished areas with little or no regulation, down to dollar-a- day wages, and low living standards. Then during the first Reagan administration, the worst recession since the Great Depression exploded in 1981–82 and the unemployment rate went to double digits. Only the 2008 recession cut deeper.
Homelessness became a permanent feature of American life.
We all know about the Rust Belt that traversed through states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Los Angeles may not be considered part of the Rust Belt, but the impact was the same. As plants closed, the two most industrial cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—were known as the “gang capitals” of the world when drugs, guns, and gangs became key to a new, largely illicit economy.
Mass incarceration, which heightened in the 1990s, turned into its own “industry” arising from the crisis. In California alone, the state went from 15 prisons with 15,000 people in the early 1970s to a height of 34 prisons and up to 175,000 prisoners in the 2000s.
The places I worked at during the height of industrial might in the 1970s went down—Bethlehem Steel in 1981, and at St. Regis Paper Company, National Lead Foundry, Chevron Chemical Refinery at various times… I can go on and on. Some three hundred big mills and plants were gone by the mid-1980s. Forever. And with it, any illusion of stability.
What needed screwing got screwed…but only figuratively. In the literal sense, it was far less constructive.
I don’t want people to forget the City of Angels as a City of Workers. My decade or so in that time, that industry, were extremely meaningful to me. At the same time, we can’t go back fully to that kind of work. Instead the city, the country, and the world is crying out for something new and momentous—aligning our governance, our economy, our environment, and our culture to the possibilities of the new technology as well as the creative potential in every person, family, and community.
And, again, Los Angeles leads the way…
I often met other travelers, their tools in tow,
and I’d say: “Go ahead, take my stereo and TV.
Take my car. Take my toys of leisure.
Just leave the tools.”
Nowadays, I don’t haul these mechanical implements. But I still make sure to carry the tools
of my trade: words and ideas,
the kind no one can take away.
So there may not be any work today,
but when there is, I’ll be ready.
I got my tools.
In 1954, Luis J. Rodríguez was born in El Paso, Texas. He grew up in Watts and the East Los Angeles area, where his family faced poverty and discrimination. A gang member and drug user at the age of twelve, by the time he turned eighteen, Rodríguez had lost twenty-five of his friends to gang violence, drug overdoses, shootings, and suicide. He wrote two autobiographical accounts of his experiences with gang violence and addiction, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone, 2012), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Curbstone Books, 1993), winner of the Carl Sandburg Award of the Friends of the Chicago Public Library.
His books of poetry include My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004 (Curbstone Books, 2005), winner of a 2006 Paterson Poetry Book Prize; Trochemoche (Curbstone Books, 1998); The Concrete River (Curbstone Books, 1991), which won a PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence; and Poems Across the Pavement (Tía Chucha, 1989), which received San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Book Award.
He is also a journalist and critic and the founder of Tía Chucha Press, which publishes emerging, socially conscious poets. In May 1998, Curbstone Press published his first children’s book, entitled América Is Her Name. In 2014, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodríguez as the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Rodríguez currently resides in California and manages the Tía Chucha Cultural Center in San Fernando.
All Photos by Luis J. Rodríguez
Translated by Edward Gauvin
from The World of Paul Willems
I was in what they call the 18 Days’ Campaign. Eighteen days of war is, of course, not a lot at all, but for me it was a very intense time, of which I retain a very vivid memory. I was called to active duty in September 1939. Near the Albert Canal at first, not far from Herentals, and then to Liège, where I found myself on May 9, 1940. I was in the mounted artillery. During my days of compulsory military service, I had a horse, but upon being called to active duty, this horse metamorphosed into a bicycle. As I was on leave that night, I’d gone into town with a few fellow soldiers and dragged my heels about going back, lingering a bit in the cafés and streets. It was nice out. At dawn, I returned to the heights of St. Nicolas, where the army had requisitioned me a room. It wasn’t very far from my company’s command post. On my way back, I saw a light on there and went to investigate. They told me a very serious alert had been sounded, that something significant was underway, and I should go put on my combat uniform. So I went and got ready and packed my bags, thinking that this alert was probably no different from the others. Fifteen minutes later, I stepped outside and saw in the clear blue sky—it was a splendid morning in May—hundreds of planes flying high above, seeming to shimmer with light. In the distance, detonations could already be heard, and I realized that we were at war.
Very soon, within half an hour, everything had come to life, soldiers were arriving from all over. Instead of dispatching us to our post, which was toward Seraing—we’d have had to cross the Meuse—we were told to beat a retreat because the Germans’ first thrust had broken through our frontlines and the army had to regroup farther back. An hour later, as we were readying to leave Liège, the German planes appeared, much lower than those we’d seen at first, but they didn’t drop any bombs. When the infantry saw the planes, they fired at them with their rifles.
Just then, I felt—I think many people had the same feeling—a kind of wild joy, as if at that very moment I found myself freed from the weight of all my life had been up till then, as if an absolute freedom had suddenly risen up before me. Perhaps the world was about to explode, perhaps everything would be destroyed, but at that moment everything was still intact, and the only unmistakable thing was the total availability of the present moment and our total ignorance of what would happen an hour later. And all those soldiers firing on those planes seemed overjoyed: naturally they knew it would do no good but they were in an incredible state of exaltation, one that however had nothing to do with courage or fighting spirit. And I said to myself: this is it—finally, everything’s going to blow! I didn’t know what was going to blow, but still, the feeling of exaltation was there.
And the retreat began. I’d been given a priest’s old bicycle; it still had wooden rims, and on the rack I carried the manuscript for my first novel, Everything Here Is Real. The novel wasn’t entirely finished yet, and at the time, it was the most important thing to me, much more so than being mobilized, or the war.
That first day of the retreat was still fairly dangerous, because the Germans had started bombarding the roads. But I was not—at least not that day—directly threatened. I beheld from a distance those infamous Stukas diving down at forts, and the detonations were very violent, but it all seemed unreal. And so we fell back all that day, and through the night, too, until one in the morning, on foot, on wheels; we weren’t going very fast, of course, since the roads were mobbed with refugees and the whole army pulling back. At around one, we came to a halt in a small garden, I can’t remember where anymore. It was spring, there was a wonderful smell of flowers—wisteria, it was. We could hear the endless rumble of carts going by, but inside that garden, where we were to await our platoon, I was very happy. I felt simply wonderful. And since I had a little flashlight, I dove into Everything Here Is Real and revised certain passages. I hadn’t a thought for sleep. The curious thing is that I could’ve worked on the book the night before, the ninth, but since we weren’t at war yet, I’d gone out drinking with friends instead, and it wasn’t until the night after that I felt the urge to work, amidst that tremendous tumult, just as one world was sliding by, when we felt ourselves invaded.
Since Kurt didn’t relate well to living things, his sister Val got him an Aquabot for his birthday. It arrived from Amazon in an oversized box that held an ordinary glass fishbowl, a green plastic shark and an extra card of button batteries. “Activates when submerged in water,” the directions said, so Kurt filled the bowl, dropped the fish in and carried it to the coffee table. Seconds later, he was enjoying a wine cooler and chips while the robotic shark dove up and down, swam laps and explored his world with apparent eagerness. After another cooler, Kurt called Val and waited for the beep. “Good present, I like it,” he said. In fact, he liked the Aquabot so much, he went online to search the company’s other products. Turned out, they made several, and over the next weeks, he ordered their electro-magnetic ant, spider, larva and scarab, all functional without the water and each capable of different tricks. His favorite, the larva, wriggled along his kitchen floor, swerving on its micro-robotic wheels when it detected obstacles with its infrared sensor. Next best was the hyper-charged scarab, which scuttled furiously in one direction, then took off in another, bouncing off walls and flipping over when it landed on its back. They were plastic, sure, the larva deep, dark blue, the scarab a lurid red, but they were lively and entertaining, till their batteries ran down.
Kurt, a retired widower who’d driven a bus for thirty years, bought a few for every room, appreciating the activity and the company but of course keeping this to himself. Who had to know? He lived alone, his sister Val in another state. He wasn’t friendly with his neighbors. Only once in a while did he take his pets outside, if, say, he felt like grilling on his hibachi.
One day, stepping onto the patio, he left the slider open and two scarabs shot out, disappearing under rose bushes, where he could hear them stalling and spinning. “Just sec,” he said. “Hold your horses—” loading wienies on his grill. Before he was through, one of the bugs seemed to free itself and scampered toward him with animated glee. “Why you little—” It wasn’t the bug, though. It was a cat, who’d somehow managed to leap his fence and find the toy. Black and white, it studied him briefly like a maître d’ in a tux. Then, with a weird grumble in its throat, it gathered itself and sprang at the scarab. The scarab dodged it. The cat crept flat along the ground and pounced—the scarab scuttled sideways. After a few minutes, when his meat was crisp, Kurt sat down to watch them fight it out.
This cat was not like other cats. It didn’t meow for food. It didn’t rub against him for attention. It just wanted his bugs.
All afternoon they stayed outside, Kurt changing the batteries when the toys ran down. At night, he collected them and invited the cat in. The cat accepted, but coolly, stretching first, as if to emphasize that no promises were being made. Kurt opened an extra can of tuna. When the cat paced beside the door, he let it out, leaving the door open for it to let itself back in. Before bed, he set two larvae squirming across the kitchen, and the cat played till it got tired. Right there, curled on a pile of dishtowels, it conked out.
In the morning, Val called. “You okay? I’m worried about you, Kurtie. Why not move here to Minnesota?”
Kurt tucked the phone under his chin and poured Cheerios for the cat and himself. The cat ignored the food and whacked a scarab into the pantry, pursuing it till Kurt heard them crashing around amid Coke cans and tumbling boxes. The cat skidded back into the room. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said.
Spotting the Cheerios, the cat trotted over and sniffed, then sat down to wash itself.
“You’re not lonely?” Val asked.
It was hard to fool this guy. For instance, with the Aquabot. Kurt had carried it to a counter and switched it on, expecting the cat to go wild.
The cat studied him. That’s a fish? Don’t make me laugh.
Did it wink then? He thought it did.
“Not really,” he said.
Los Angeles writer Susan Heeger has published fiction in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Good Housekeeping, Brain, Child and Pinball. “Aquabot” is part of a story collection she’s working on with LA illustrator and graphic designer Simon Steiner called Animals Like Us, in which animals help humans solve problems, fall in love, improve their characters and find peace.
Even the greatest literary triumphs of a small language often suffer the fate of a shipwrecked heroine lost at sea: If by extraordinary luck and effort she manages to briefly catch our attention, we soon lose her in the tide, she is again disappeared and remembered only by her loved ones.
So it is that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Death and the Dervish, one of the best novels in the rich Serbo-Croatian literary tradition, has passed by largely unobserved. Unless you have a personal or professional interest in the Balkans, it is very likely you have not encountered the masterpiece or its author, Meša Selimović.
For those of us with the good fortune to be acquainted with his works, Selimović’s novels are often personal and affecting. Set during Ottoman times, Death and the Dervish grapples with heavy subjects: loss and injustice; guilt of the survivor and the unrepentant perpetrator; consciences stained by a lack of moral courage. These themes resonate especially strongly with we many who, in our various ways, experienced the catastrophic destruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though I’ve since argued that such a historicized reading can impede richer interpretations of Death and the Dervish, I, too, first experienced the novel as a portrait of Bosnian psychology.
In Death and the Dervish, the brother of a Sufi dervish is thrown into a fortress for unknown reasons. The dervish attempts to intervene on behalf of his brother but his slow and indecisive measures stand little hope of success. The plot of the novel is drawn from the tragedy of Selimović’s brother, Šefkija. An officer in the Partisan resistance during World War II, he misappropriated bits of furniture in the wake of the liberation of his home town, and was summarily executed for the offense. There were people who thought his brothers didn’t do enough to save him.
While he was still just a tall child, the body of my brother became his own inscrutable fortress. Suddenly and without any apparent precipitating cause, he lost an awful lot of weight and grew increasingly weary and jaundiced. A kid at school asked him what was up and noted that he looked like Big Bird from Sesame Street—an excellent joke, my brother thought. The doctors finally diagnosed him with primary sclerosing cholangitis—PSC—a rare liver disease. He received his first liver transplant at 15, his second at 24. In the next three, five, or ten years, he will require a third transplant, someday likely a fourth, and so on. By the example of our father, a concentration camp survivor who coped with his traumas with stoic magnanimity, or from some other incomprehensible, bottomless reservoir of strength, my brother has faced his own mortality with more dignity and courage than some of us have confronted hair loss. He sometimes explains his illness as having “won” an unfortunate genetic lottery and accepts his condition—and a dizzying accompaniment of complications that encumber his health and daily life—with extraordinary equanimity and capacity for pain. To this day, I haven’t heard him complain once. Continue reading
I hear breathing, a dry broken noise like fabric dragging on rough wood. On the wall in my hospital room, something shimmers in the afternoon light. It is my father. I sit up and avert my eyes and he becomes more defined, as if he is meant to be seen from the far side of the eye, where apparitions live.
The air is mineral-heavy, like it might rain inside the room. A sharp, sweet odor deepens around me—garbage and rotten apples. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I collapse forward, close my eyes, and hold my breath against the smell—but I can’t hide from the sound, a dry struggle to breathe. My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.
My parents throw a party in the big house on Park Hill in Yonkers. Grown-ups gather in the living room and there is a lot of talk and laughter, a record playing low in the background, Rosemary Clooney singing about the mambo.
My brother and I are the only children at the party. I am four and Jerry is five. My baby sister, Tracy, is still too small to be out of the playpen.
“Look, Mommy!” I say and dance side to side to the mambo song. The ladies laugh and clap.
Cigarette smoke drifts overhead toward the kitchen, blown by two fans set in open windows. Everyone is sweating. Two ladies take turns leaning their faces and bare necks close to one of the fans.
“Cheers, Vincent!” a man with rolled-up sleeves says to my father, who is holding a bottle and pouring more into their glasses. “And where is your mother-in-law this evening?”
“That great doorfull of a woman?” my father asks, and the man laughs boisterously. “Be glad she isn’t here, Emmet, she’s got a tongue that could clip a hedge.”
Someone takes the needle off the record and asks my father to sing “Nell Flaherty’s Drake.” My father stands:
He could fly like a swallow or swim like a hake
Till some dirty savage, to grease his white cabbage
Most wantonly murdered me beautiful drake!
Everyone smiles and claps.
“To grease his white cabbage . . .” my mother echoes, then bows her head and laughs, her eyes wet.
“Sing the part about the pig!” Jerry cries out.
May his spade never dig, may his sow never pig
May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a flail!
People raise their glasses. My mother says my father’s name: “Vincent,” and it sounds like the noise dimes and pennies make when he jingles them in his pocket.
“My uncle Michael never sang that one,” my mother announces to everyone, “and he knew them all. He and my father were off the boat!”
My father, who is standing in front of the screen door, takes his handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the dampness from his forehead. “Romantic Ireland is dead and gone,” he says. “It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
Thunder sounds just then and everyone cheers. Behind my father there is a sudden downpour.
“Ye brought the rain, Vincent!” Emmet says.
I go to my father and stand at his leg. I touch his freckled forearm and he puts a big hand gently on my shoulder, nods slightly at me.
“Thank God!” cries one of the ladies who had been standing near the window fans. “This should cool things off.”
I am still a child when I find out that neither of my parents has actually ever been to Ireland and I wonder how they can love and miss a place their ancestors left before they were born. Yet somehow I understand. And even though I am young, the idea of Ireland fills me with an inexplicable nostalgia, as if it belonged to me once and I somehow lost it.
Nanny does not like our house in New Mexico. It is in a development on desert land just off the highway to Albuquerque. New houses are being built around it; construction workers yell at each other in Spanish between the deafening sputter of a power saw.
I like visiting Nanny in her room, where she sits on a chair most of the time with her door ajar, smoking Salems. She gives me Mounds bars and Hershey’s Kisses, sings to me, “I love you, a bushel and a peck! A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” She calls me sweetie and tells me what a good girl I am. She praises my drawings and tapes them to the wall under her crucifix. I can close my eyes when I hug Nanny and feel the hard drum of her heart against my arm, and traces of my mother are there.
We four kids stand in a little group in front of the house. Dad holds the Brownie box camera at his stomach and looks down into the window at the top, where he sees us reflected. Then he snaps.
Jerry says that the camera has an eye that’s just like a human eye because the lens turns what it sees upside down. Dad taught him this, he says.
Later when the camera is on the kitchen table, Jerry calls me over to look at it.
“It came from the East,” he says. “It’s older than me and you.”
I peer down into the square window, but all I see is a faceted chamber made of thick glass.
Jerry says, “When you press the click button, the camera remembers.”
“It has a memory?” I ask.
When the Brownie box camera is left for weeks high up on the bookshelf in the living room, I wonder if it is my father’s eye and memory that are in there, separated from him.
Dad has bought Mom a new camera. It is small and held to the eye, not to the chest or stomach like Dad’s Brownie box camera. Mom’s eye and the camera’s must be in synch. It sees what she sees.
I watch her on the lawn, watering the trees. After she turns off the hose, she crosses the street and holds the camera to her eye. She does this a few times, and then backs up a little farther.
Later, she comes in, removes the film, and drives away to drop it off for developing. I get the camera and take it outside, cross the street, and stand where she had been standing.
Is it the height of the trees she’s charting? When we first came to this house, the ground was unplowed, unirrigated desert land, dry and hard. My mother worked it until it was rich and black, the hose and sprinklers on for long hours every day until water ran over the sidewalks and down the sloping street. She planted gardens and a lush lawn, a willow tree and poplars that have grown into giants. In the dry desert neighborhood, our house is enclosed in its own forest of shifting shadows.
I’m sitting at the table trying to write a paper for school when I sense that something, someone, is lying very still on my mattress. I know it is a she. The air feels silky with this fact. She does not want to hurt me. She doesn’t threaten me.
I sit frozen, unable to move, and as if to snap me out of my paralysis, the refrigerator in the kitchen shifts on and hums, a low, steady rumble.
I know who she is. I stand, but I won’t look at her. She is me, deflated and tired with her eyes closed, lying on her back under the covers. I would go to her and smooth her hair and tell her that everything is all right, as if she were a younger sibling, except that I might discover that she is cold, that she is not breathing. Or even worse, she might be cold, not breathing, and then suddenly open her eyes.
When I leave Inisheer very early in the morning to visit the other two islands, turf fires burn along the shore. We lift sail in a good breeze just as the sun arrives, the gray overcast weather utterly gone. I can see in every direction. The horizon to the west is endless, without a definite demarcation between sea and sky, and the mainland to the east, cliffs and lowlands, beach and rocks.
We soon dock at Inishmaan, which we tour on foot, a small group of us led by a tall, long-limbed Galway man named Michael Slattery, who asks us to call him Mick. We pass limestone cottages issuing smoke, fragrant of both earth and kelp. Curious children watch us from doorways. Indolent cows graze in fields congested with wildflowers.
Mick tells us that the three islands have four or five dark-haired families said to be descended from seals, and that less than a decade before, the local priest drove a witch from these shores.
After viewing gravestones defaced by weather, druid altars, and prehistoric forts overgrown with moss and lichen, we go on to the big island. Walking along roadways in the brightness, I search for signs of Laura, but she is nowhere to be seen. Mick remarks that the island is curiously empty of tourists for such a fine day.
I take out my map of Ireland and draw a tiny dot on the north point of the northernmost Aran Island. This is where I am in the world right now, ocean all around me. I look toward Galway Bay to the east, its circle of water washing into the Atlantic, where my grandfather and uncle Michael set sail for America.
Regina McBride is the author of four novels, including The Nature of Water and Air (a Barnes & Noble Discover Book) and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City and teaches creative writing at Hunter College.
In 1940, Irish novelist Francis Stuart traveled alone to Nazi Germany, leaving behind his wife and children. Stuart lived in Berlin for the next five years, two of which he spent making radio broadcasts for Irland-Redaktion, a German radio program that broadcast Nazi propaganda to Ireland. Stuart’s best-known novel, Blacklist Section H, fictionalizes this experience. Stuart’s legacy remains controversial today. Many Irish critics admire him as one of the most important Irish writers of the 20th century; some cannot forgive his Nazi ties. Despite this controversial status—perhaps because of it—little is known about him and his motivations. Most of his books are now out of print.
I first encountered Blacklist my junior year of college and spent the following summer tracing Francis Stuart’s path through Ireland and Germany. I also went to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, where I read Stuart’s diaries from the war years. Everything I learned added depth to the novel and made me question the roles and responsibilities a writer faces as I think about what kind of writer I want to be. The stakes of these questions seem almost as great in our time as they were in Stuart’s. What will art in Donald Trump’s America look like? What should it do? Although flawed in many ways, Blacklist Section H is a significant attempt to navigate and figure out what public work artists can and cannot do.
Stuart’s protagonist in Blacklist, H, believes that “nothing short of the near despair of being utterly cast off from society and its principles could create the inner condition conducive to the new insights that it [is] the task of the poet to reveal.” H’s conviction that poetry and literature come from a place of exile mirrors the foundation of the real-life Stuart’s interest in Nazi Germany. Stuart believed that he needed to go to Berlin to unlock a hidden part of himself, a dark yet essential part of his being, deeper than political belief. Throughout Blacklist, H repeatedly expresses his desire to be despised, as he struggles with his own apathy toward other people.
Although Stuart was in his 40s during the war, I like to think of Blacklist Section H as his bildungsroman. He spent his twenties and thirties in Ireland building his literary career and his family with Iseult Gonne (a prominent figure in Dublin’s literary elite). As his personal life began to fall apart—largely because of his own insecurities—he focused more and more on seeking the ineffable, mystical space that H yearns for in Blacklist. Even though he was 20 years older than I am now, I identify with Stuart’s stumbling attempts to combine art and politics while dealing with the difficulties of his personal life. What political responsibilities does a writer have and how should we as readers respond to a writer who held offensive or dangerous views? Ignoring their work seems almost as bad as venerating it. We may not be in a World War, but our political reality also demands art that takes responsibility for the world it comes out of.
Figuring out what Stuart did with this responsibility is complicated by his own attempts to erase all negative evidence from the war, which is ironic because of H’s belief that society’s scorn will elevate his art. In journals from the end of the war, Stuart often wrote that things were going badly “for us” or that “we” might face difficulties, a clear indication of the degree to which he had mentally and perhaps politically aligned himself with the Germans. Many of these lines have been edited; Stuart (usually in a different pen, possibly many years later) has crossed out the “us” and “we” and replaced these first person pronouns with more objective terms like, “the Germans.”
Early in H’s days in Berlin, he gets sent to Frankfurt to speak with a British prisoner of war who is a fan of his novels. Captain Manville asks H why he came to Germany—“siding with the enemy,” he calls it—and H replies that “The situation I’ve involved myself in, however disastrous for my reputation, and perhaps because it is disastrous, gives me a chance of becoming the only sort of writer it’s in my power to be.” H doesn’t fully endorse societal alienation until after he is settled in Germany. Bound to this choice, H attempts to make the best of it; perhaps being in such a place might be good for his career. At the end of the chapter, H muses, “Though being branded as a Nazi by those from whom most of his readers would have to come, scarcely argued well for his future, no matter how his work developed.” Living in Germany and being relatively apolitical doesn’t make Stuart a Nazi, . Stuart, who fled to Berlin because of personal insecurity about his work and his marriage, bet his literary career on the premise that public revulsion would transform his writing. And it did, but maybe not in the way he hoped. Continue reading