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A friend of mine died last month. We weren’t particularly close, but I liked her a lot—we’d have coffee near Union Square every so often and she’d talk about her budding music career and I’d talk about my long-gestating novel. I tend not to enjoy unifying conversations about art that include me. I admire the obvious external talents of actors and singers and basketball players more than the writer’s drudging isolation and, karaoke daydreams aside, I don’t crave the immediacy of reaction that performers chase. But my friend’s genuine enthusiasm for what she called “our craft” was infectious and I always got a creative jolt out of seeing her. She was too earnest, too well-liked, too attractive, to have ever generated evident self-consciousness.
A year ago, my friend found out that she had a really dire, painful kind of cancer. She spent the rest of her life enduring a sequence of atrocities—bone marrow transplants, hotel stays near the Mayo Clinic, experimental treatments that gave her a false sense of hope, multiple resuscitations. Hers was the kind of suffering that eventually pushes you into a null state somewhere beyond empathy. Gradually, I got used to the idea that she would soon disappear. Each text was a bit more valedictory; I was more relieved with every one of her email replies.
When we know someone is going to die, hope dwindles as a matter of course. Reality steadily evaporates the well-spring of optimism. We can and do pre-mourn for people who are still alive, and the pain manifests as a single scoop of a sine wave: very difficult at first, even worse at the end. If it was tough for me, a mid-level friend at best, I can’t imagine how her boyfriend dealt with her decline. They hadn’t even dated that long before she got sick. He’d only had a smattering of weeks with the beautiful, talented person I’d known for a decade. But he stuck by her, quitting his job, suspending his life.
My friend and I were talking on the phone a couple of months ago (I never saw her in person again after the diagnosis) and I asked about her relationship, expecting to hear the usual cancer boyfriend platitudes. Honestly, I was looking forward to them. There’s a reason clichés become clichés. But instead, she said that she was seriously bored of him and was considering breaking it off. She even laughed about it. I was shocked. It wasn’t just the scars and the baldness and the imposed isolation. My friend was 99.9% sure going to die—how could she not wait it out for what would be, best case scenario, half a year, so her boyfriend, who had been so good, wouldn’t have to live on knowing that the woman he’d most loved had dumped him while she was terminal?
But then: who’s a deathbed really for? So many of life’s passages, the graduations and the weddings, are really meant for other people to bear witness to our change. But the body shutting down, the last connections to reality severed—should that be a private experience for the patient or a public transition for her loved ones? Now me, I’m someone who believes in nothing. You end and the universe that’s yours ends with you. So I understand why my friend didn’t want to spend her last days with someone she’d lost interest in. Why waste time on him when she could share a little more love with her loved ones?
My friend died before she could go through with the break-up. After all of that slow suffering, it happened fast. Her boyfriend couldn’t make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye. Of course, I’m glad she didn’t end up dumping him. And I’m changing enough details that I hope he’ll never find this. But I don’t know—as always with her, I was compelled to write something after we talked. I laugh whenever I think about the ballsiness of it, of her. I most appreciate the way she told me. It was as casual as sitting on a Union Square bench with iced coffees in the summer watching skateboarders whirl round: “I don’t quite think it’s working, but I’m not sure why.” And it’s a retroactive revelation of why I was so drawn to her; she never did have time for false narratives.
Adam Dalva is a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA Program, where he was a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellow. He was an Associate Fellow at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. His work has been published in The Millions, Public Books, Lumina, and elsewhere. He is also a dealer of French antiques.
I met Tony Tulathimutte over drinks one afternoon. We’d followed each other on Twitter and, on a rare social impulse, I thought I’d chance getting to know him better. Online, he was funny and incisive in his commentary. In person though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my delight, we spent our time surprisingly in-step with a minimum of lit-scene gossip and a maximum of day-drinking.
Reading Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016), it’s hard not to see Tony in his work. The novel is thoughtful and sly, at turns eloquent and hilarious and caustic. It follows the post-collegiate years of four friends on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. There’s Linda, the failed writer; the transient autodidact Henrik, the socially conscious Cory, and Will—the book’s one Asian character, whose racial neuroses borders on obsession. What astonishes me most about Private Citizens is the way these characters become so much more than their labels. Together and alone in the young urban landscape of San Francisco, they learn to create meaning in a world that keeps insisting they have none.
Tony and I met again to talk about Private Citizens last December at Black Forest Brooklyn Biergarten in Fort Greene, where we discussed—among other things—writing, race, and self-loathing.
Bill Cheng: Private Citizens is actually your second book. Can you talk about your first book?
Tony Tulathimutte: I wrote a story collection, which I didn’t bother trying to publish as a book. Except the novella, I drafted all the stories in undergrad and when I put them together I was unsatisfied with them. There was this unwashable stink of shame surrounding them because I suspected I was being a good boy. I’d never written an Asian character, except in one case where I retro-jected Asianness onto the character way after the fact. I know a lot of novice Asian writers who had this problem, they think, “Well, I grew up around mostly white people and so it makes perfect sense for me to write about them.” It’s a way to rationalize internalized racism and justify what you’re really doing, which is trying to dodge the burdensome label of an ethnic writer, an Asian writer.
BC: In some ways, you try to address that with the character Will. On the face of things, Will is a lot like you: he’s Thai, went to Stanford. But what makes Will different from Tony?
TT: The name. (Laughter.)
Once time I had my roommate send me a piece of my novel while I was at work. He said, “Sorry man, I just opened your computer and I saw a bunch of notes open. I just wanted to remark that I did see on top of this file, a huge bold text equation that says ‘WILL = ME – WRITING + GIRLFRIEND.’” That was sort of a joke to myself, but what I wanted was not to give myself any wiggle room, abstracting characters away from me because that’s what I thought good writing was.
BC: What did framing Will that way do for the writing?
TT: It removed the checks and balances from my psyche. When I have these sort of insecurities or desires ruthlessly indulged I imagine I would become a kind of a monster.
What I didn’t want was to write the kind of novel people write when they set out to make a big statement about a racial experience. In the attempt to give a voice to people of their race, they often end up over-generalizing. There’s this total overreach. What I did in this book is very specific. If people are going to identify with the experience of Asian-ness this character has, it’s going to be in this heavily qualified way, just because in spite of the many stereotypical traits I deliberately saddled him with—short, angry, tech savvy, girl-troubled—you find that he’s nothing like most people, Asian or otherwise. I’d be hard-pressed to compare anyone to Will, even myself, in spite of him sharing my biography. In fact he doesn’t resemble me any more than the other three characters.
BC: Let’s talk about them. Most of the action is set in those years after college, when they’re each deeply invested in their individual lives and those bonds aren’t as present.
TT: I don’t know about you, but in New York I barely see my closest friends. Everybody I know has a lot of banal obligations that take them away from regular day-in, day-out exposure to the people who’re closest to them.
If there’s one thing I am concerned with, it’s the experience of our fantasy life vs. our real life. That, when your friends are not there, you’re still thinking, “What would Jenny say about this? What would Alice say if she saw me doing this?” Even though they’re not actually there, nonetheless their influence is present.
In this book, the characters are deeply involved in each other’s mental lives, even more than their actual circumstances. Everything Henrik does is a response to breaking up with Linda. Everything Linda does is to move beyond Henrik. Linda has informed Will’s resentment of women. And Cory is constantly comparing herself to Linda. So there’s a skein of relationships that are operating even when one character is just sitting there alone. Continue reading
In another life you might hear the song
of your neighbor clipping the hedges, a sound
oddly pleasant, three coarse dull snips,
three thin branches thumping softly as death
onto the closed doors of the mown lawn.
You might get your every dark wish: chocolate plums
for breakfast, mud swelling up between your toes
as you brush green scum from the face of a pond
with a stick, gold carp flying like flocks of finches
through azurite blue, a copperhead with a minnow
struggling in its mouth winding away from you.
In that hush you might hear the gods
mutter your name, taste diamonds of salt
melting on your tongue. You could lie there
molten and glowing as a blade hammered to silver
by the four-billion-year-old middle-aged sun.
In another life you might slip under canal after canal
on a coracle boat, look up to see river light
scribbling hieroglyphs on the curved undersides
of each stone arch. You might hear
an echo, the devil’s fiddle
strummed just for you, and you might sing, too,
unbuckle your voice. You can’t speak
the meaning of being, the nurses can’t help you,
beautiful as you are with your plasma eyes,
beautiful as they are in their mesh-blue protective booties,
their sugary white dresses, so starched, so pressed.
Your deepest bones might ache with longing,
your skeleton draped in its finest flesh,
like the lush velvet curtains that open so slowly
before the opera begins.
Dorianne Laux’s fifth collection, The Book of Men, winner of The Paterson Prize, is available from W.W. Norton. Her fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of Awake; What We Carry, a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Smoke; as well as two fine small press editions: Superman: The Chapbook and Dark Charms, both from Red Dragonfly Press.
Aries—A harsh wind blows on the ram this year and heavy wool socks are strongly recommended. Hot potatoes work well too, and yelling at your delinquent daughters, who will pierce their tongues after the first Virgo moon.
Taurus—Get a tape recorder and repeat after me: The snap pea habit has got to stop. A rotten pod has your name on it, Taurus, and three tiny round fuckers are laughing it up.
Gemini—Two pairs of hands and you can’t do a fan dance? Frankly, I have no advice. You might have bathed babies, painted holiday eggs, but instead you leap naked and never touch.
Cancer—Let’s face it, Crusty, we never got along. You were always so complacent about all those visitors. Especially Alma. Guess your own future.
Leo—Shake your fulgent mane, for this year you’ll find love. Or at least good lighting for the long hall, the one you papered so carefully last summer. Italian jellyleaf, a fakir’s green.
Virgo—For far too long you’ve acted like a dryad, mossing your titties, diving into brooks. The sylvan life ends this year, Virgo. When the mists start rising, you’ll see your own feet.
Libra—You will like your short new wife. She will make you stew. She will plump her little bowl of a bottom in the pot-shaped seat of your rocking chair.
Scorpio—You’re not so bad. You’re not even that ugly; you just need different hair. Go to Charcot Street and ask for Clemm.
Sagittarius—Stop shooting cans. Stop shooting bottle caps. Stop shooting rats. I can’t believe you’ve named that stupid blue pistol. Throw it away and have a baby.
Capricorn—Enough with the herring. You’re a goat, for God’s sake, and it’s time to eat trash. When Pisces enters the second house, you’ll nip a piece of ass with sequins on it.
Aquarius—All you needed was a kiss, you said. You will need a year to wash it off.
Pisces—The pins are in a jar. The jar is in the drawer with the trim and missing socks. You will use the pins to make a six-yard sampler, roses and squares, alpaca wool. For your son’s funeral. You’ll wrap him in it twice.
Jane Avrich is the author of The Winter Without Milk, a collection of short stories. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Story, and other journals and have been nominated for The Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Born and raised in New York, she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and her master’s from Columbia. A teacher for thirteen years, she currently teaches English at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn and lives in Manhattan.
A passionate sailor, striving writer, and unwilling movie star, Sterling Hayden lived a picaresque life in which his nascent internal struggles were compounded by the American century in which he lived. The chief literary artifact of this extraordinary existence, Hayden’s mid-life autobiography Wanderer, published in 1963, distinguishes itself amongst its genre through its formal imitation of the tumultuous, singular life of its author.
Born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1916, Hayden spent his youth rootless, searching with his mother for stability after the premature death of his father. In adolescence, he discovered and quickly came to love sailing.
Against the warnings of his mother and, frequently, his fellow sailors, Hayden took to the ocean as a teenager, working on any boat that would have him. By his early twenties, he had traversed the Pacific several times, weighed anchor in Cuba, Tahiti and Florida, and risen to the rank of first mate. Hayden adopted the leathery captain of a trans-Pacific pleasure cruiser as his mentor, and spied in that man’s boat a template for the career he hoped to imitate.
An almost unbelievable confluence of chance interrupted Hayden’s plans. A “tall youth, with bulging forearms, and a faraway look in his eyes,” Hayden cut an impressive figure. Spying potential in Hayden’s looks, a friend recommended that he try to get into movies, as a way to make money in between his voyages at sea. Wary of both acting and the entertainment industry, Hayden nonetheless agreed to give it a shot and spent a miserable interval in New York failing to gain traction in the worlds of either theater or cinema. He was on the cusp of returning to the sea when an acquaintance wrangled him an audience with Edward Griffith of Paramount Studios, who not only liked Hayden, but selected him immediately for entry into Paramount’s star-making apparatus.
During the next decade, Hayden developed a prominent career as a film actor, even as his distrust for Hollywood ossified into outright contempt. “There’s nothing wrong with being an actor,” he later wrote, “if that’s what a man wants. But there’s everything wrong with achieving an exalted status simply because one photographs well and is able to handle dialogue put in one’s mouth by others.”
He averaged a salary of $150,000 a year and enjoyed sizable, and to his mind unearned, celebrity. Though he longed to cut and run, Hayden’s weaknesses—for money, for women, for booze—kept delaying his escape. By the early 1940s he had become a movie star, and he hated it.
World War II added another unlikely chapter to Hayden’s saga. Under a pseudonym, he ditched Hollywood to serve in the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor organization to the CIA. A desk jockey in neither spirit nor practice, Hayden spent the war working as an undercover agent, executing missions that included parachuting into fascist-held Eastern Europe and running the German naval blockade to deliver supplies to Yugoslav partisans. He came away from the experience with a hard-won admiration for Yugoslav revolutionary Josip Tito, an exacerbated drinking problem, and the conviction that the Army, like the Hollywood system, the government, and the workaday world, was bullshit.
Like many intelligent youths of iconoclastic tendency, Hayden for a period considered himself a Marxist. A clique of Hollywood leftists introduced him to the philosophy in the 1940s, and though the political convictions failed to stick, they left a trail of evidence thick enough to put Hayden at risk when Senator Joseph McCarthy began treating Hollywood to anti-Communist purges in the early 1950s.
Fearing for his freedom, Hayden opted to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He named names. The Feds let him walk, to a chorus of congratulations that he dismissed as “jingoistic drivel.”
He starred in more lousy movies; he married and divorced; he fought with his wife for custody of their children. He drank. By 1959 he had had enough. With a schooner purchased on loan from Paramount, and a tenuous legal claim to his four, elementary-school aged progeny, he set sail for Tahiti. His crew of soft-handed dreamers he had assembled from a want ad. On deck, he drank freely. Though he had planned to finance the voyage by making a documentary about his exploits, once at sea he ignored the $5,000 worth of camera equipment sitting in his hold and began to write Wanderer. Continue reading
They sat on the linoleum floor, the two of them. His watch was the only thing moving. Through the small window above the sink the rising sun was bleaching the room white. The sound of a garbage truck, a man calling his dog, newspapers hitting doorsteps. Her long, bare legs were out in front of her, knees like turned down saucers. He loved her legs. Something he’d miss. Their backs on the kitchen cabinets, his arm so close to hers. They were tired, but more thirsty. A glass of water would change things, she thought, if he would just get up and get a glass of water.
Libby Flores is is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine,The Rattling Wall, CODA Quarterly, and FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. She is the program manager at PEN Center USA’s Emerging Voices Fellowship.
The legend you’ve heard is true. A woman did live in this eyesore house and her sister did chop her cleanly in half with a sickle. They had quarreled for two years before the older one built the house next door, the front door facing the younger’s place, as if to say: Here is my face: spit in it, if you can reach. For years they lived as neighbors, never speaking, avoiding contact with each other, growing old in San Francisco until the younger turned twenty-six and old Daddy died and left her sister more than half. And then it happened: The “farming accident” in which she, the younger, chased her older sister through all twenty-one rooms, backed her into the parlor, sliced her body clean in two. There sure was a lot of farming that needed to be done at Bush and Octavia.
This is what we know about the older one:
She collected pigs, the murdered one. She had a pet pig named Mrs. Schwartz she took out walking on a leash like a dog.
She never liked to be alone. Is this why she comes back to visit?
She did not like the smell of wine or any sort of spirit, so if you happen to be celebrating, don’t stagger home on this block, find another street, unless you want to see that face, the Victorian woman, not yet thirty, drifting unquietly up and down the sidewalk. You may ask yourself, What kind of revenge is this? You call this justice? This eternal floating?
Look at this. I happen to have the key to the parlor. When I point it toward the house. (Hold my hand, it’s not a trick, it’s not the wind on this still night.)
See that? It turns.
Anne-E. Wood is a fiction writer. She has a BA in Dramatic Arts and English from Macalester College and an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University. Her collection Two If By Sea won the 2006 Michael Rubin Award. She has taught writing at San Francisco State University, Rutgers University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Gotham Writers’ Workshop and in homeless shelters, juvenile halls, public schools, and community centers all over the country. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she is at work on a novel.
Come hone your craft and get inspired with our Tin House Craft Intensives in Brooklyn! Master the micro-essay with Ann Hood in Flash Essay. Discover what you know about what you don’t know with Darcey Steinke in The Writer’s Journal. Plumb the depths of your writing’s mysteries with Alexandra Kleeman in The Unknown. And see things anew with Adam Wilson in You Down with POV? Yeah, You Know Me!.
Are you intense? Now accepting applications.
It’s a book
full of ghost children,
where dead means
or not wanting
to be known.
Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.
when one thing changes
while another thing
remains the same.
“seen by humans.”
Rae Armantrout‘s books include Next Life, Up to Speed, and Versed, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent book is Itself (2015, Wesleyan University Press).
I find it by accident, pressed between two large volumes on the shelf. Though it has been over twenty-five years, I recognize it instantly: a mere sliver of a book, about half the size of an American trade paperback, with tan card-stock covers smudged from handling.
This is my copy of Yukiguni—in English, Snow Country—by Yasunari Kawabata, the first novel I ever read from start to finish in Japanese. I hold it up to my nose, breathe in the musty smell, and feel a terrible mourning for the loony stupidity of my youth. The feeling is so strong and so complicated, so full of what the Japanese call mono no aware, the sadness of things, that I can only stand there with the thin little volume in my hands, half wishing I hadn’t found it, half wanting to put it back.
Over the years, I’d come to think of myself as a failed student of Japanese: too soon frustrated, too easily distracted. But turning the pages of Snow Country, I am startled by the sheer amount of work I put into reading it. Notes are scrawled everywhere, in a childlike Japanese handwriting, and they contain almost no English. Rather than use a Japanese-English dictionary to look up the words I didn’t know, I’d limited myself to a regular Japanese dictionary and gotten the definitions in Japanese, which meant that here and there I was forced to branch off and define a word in the definition, too—again, without resorting to English. It was a purist’s semi-delusional procedure.
But then consider that I marked up my copy of Snow Country in a suburb of Tokyo, while living in a little six-mat room smelling sweetly of new tatami. I was a nineteen-year-old Japanese lit major who had never been so far from home, and I was both terrified and elated—the terror and elation sometimes hard to tell apart or disentangle, because I was also in love with everything around me: the local shrine with its stone steps and red gate, the trains clacking past, the smell of roasting chestnuts in autumn, the silvery drill of the cicadas at night. Of course, I fell in love with every woman I met, including my landlady, a widow in her sixties who would invite me in to eat red-bean cakes and watch the sumo matches on her black-and-white TV.
I channeled all that desire and that sense of being lost into learning Japanese, as if it were possible to slip into another life through another language. My notes focus only on grammar and vocabulary, the literal meaning of each sentence, but they seem to ache with an unspoken yearning. I didn’t simply want to understand the book: I wanted to be a part of the culture that had produced it, wanted to dream its collective dreams and share its secret codes—wanted to belong.
I probably don’t have to point out the absurdity of this wish. Japan was a pretty insular place back then, ambivalent about the outside world and uncertain about outsiders. Little kids would run from me on the street or, conversely, ask to touch my skin. There was no possibility of forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese, that I already had a history, a personality, a language, and a culture of my own. I couldn’t be somebody else, even if I didn’t like who I was.
But then again, don’t we ask for doomed and hopeless things from books all the time? Looking at my notes, I feel that incredible emotional hunger come back to me, and I realize that Japan showed me what books are truly for: they are laboratories for our contradictory desires. Continue reading
Meg Storey: The Sleep Garden takes place mostly within an apartment complex called “The Burrow,” but a few characters do not exist in this space. Why did you choose to extend the story beyond the Burrow?
Jim Krusoe: The Sleep Garden is a combination of two elements. At first, all I wanted to do was to find an isolated stage a few characters could inhabit, a place that would let me learn who they were, and I thought of an underground dwelling that would be called “The Burrow.” But then, the whole time I was picturing them wandering around, doing this and that, I couldn’t stop thinking about the myth of Jason sowing dragon’s teeth, how he watched them spring up out of the ground as armed men. And this image of warriors born, fighting, then dying, all in a moment, seemed terrible and mysterious because, I guess, it is. It was only after I had fully populated the Burrow that I realized I also needed characters who lived outside the Burrow, ones who live in our world, to make a connection between the two places. It was this second set, the outsiders, who became the other half of the story of the dragon’s teeth.
MS: How did you decide on the vignette-based structure of the novel? What was it about this structure that appealed to you?
JK: I like it when books don’t reveal themselves all at once. Sometimes I think of The Sleep Garden as a collage that takes place over time so the connections between the parts aren’t always instantly apparent. In that way a reader can make his or her own connections, has to make a jump—as we jump when reading poems. Also, as with poems, the spaces between the sections become the great repositories for everything that is left unsaid but is still important.
MS: One character, Raymond, is obsessed with ducks—why ducks?
JK: It so happens the very first poem I ever learned was “I Saw a Ship A-Sailing,” which ends with a duck saying the words quack quack. At age three, I thought this was the funniest thing I had ever heard because it was duck language but, of course, was human language, too. Then, many years later, my son’s first word was duck. More to the point, I find a kind of innocence built into ducks; their round bills seem benign compared to the pointed beaks of other birds, and their webbed feet are the opposite of talons. Ducks are brave, too—not that they know it—flying those long distances through all kinds of weather. They make me happy.
MS: In this novel, you juggle different writing styles, from prose to letter writing to screenwriting. How did you decide which style was appropriate for different parts of the narrative? For example, there is the surreal, slightly absurd sitcom called Mellow Valley. Why did you want to include a sitcom?
“Walter fired Polly,” Marsha said. “Because she wouldn’t let him kiss her.”
“Well, I wouldn’t let him either,” Sally said. “Good for her.”
“He caught her near the supply closet. Not a very original thinker.”
“I wonder if he really had hopes. Do you think he expected she would? That might mean that he got away with it once. Do we get paid today?”
They stopped there. When they got paid it was with with those hand-written checks, and they ran as fast as they could to his bank to cash them. There was never enough money to cover all the checks; sometimes only the first check drew money. But they were students working at anything they could get. It was hard to find jobs for a couple of hours here and there.
They came to work the next day only to find the office dark. Marsha and Sally stood outside the door, shifting from leg to leg. “They’ve picked him up, I’m sure of it,” Sally said. “He must owe everyone. I’m tired of answering the phone and saying he’s not here. And for some reason it feels worse when he tells me to say he’s out of the country.”
Marsha shook her head. “He’s his own country. When he’s not in the office, he’s officially out of the country.” She paused and considered what she’d said. “I got that mixed up somehow. I’ll figure it out later.”
They waited for an hour. At that point, the office secretary, Alice, showed up. “Ah, you haven’t heard?” she asked, though how they would have heard anything was beyond them. “He is dead, that man, he died from a knife wound. In the street. I keep the books so I know there’s no money to pay you; whatever there is must go to bury him.”
Marsha and Sally showed their shock and amazement, as was only proper, then went to a café to drink coffee and share a pastry. “Which one of us killed him, do you think?” Marsha asked. There were two other part-time employees.
“One of us?” Sally asked, dismayed. “You really think one of us would do it?”
“I hope so,” Marsha said, and took a sip. “I’ve been imagining it for months but it was only wishful thinking.” She put her cup down. “One of us is very brave.”
Sally shook her head. “And what makes you think it wasn’t just a random mugging? It happens all the time.”
Marsha sighed. “Where would be the justice in that?” she asked, sounding depressed. “I’ve been waiting for justice on lots of things now. For years and years.” She looked down at the crumbs of her pastry.
“Oh,” Sally said, thinking about it. Marsha had had bad luck all her life, all kinds of bad luck. And, really, it was generous of her, allowing someone else to feel the satisfaction of revenge. She pursed her lips and tilted her head to the side. “You know,” she said, “I really think it must have been Penny. It just makes sense. He insulted her and then he fired her.”
Marsha’s smile was enormous. She slapped the table lightly. “Let’s take her to lunch, just to say we know and we’ll never tell.” She began to go through her pockets and took out all the bits and pieces of money she had.
Reluctantly, Sally did the same. “We won’t get the final paycheck, you know,” she said unhappily. “Alice already told us. I can’t really afford anything.”
They paid for the coffee and pastry and put down a minuscule tip.
“Maybe not lunch,” Marsha said, after counting their combined resources twice. “But we’ll buy her a coffee. Just to show that we know.”
“And that we approve.”
“Of course we approve.”
“I really like Penny,” Sally said. “I’ve always liked her.”
“Really?” Marsha asked. “I found her annoying. She whistled.”
Sally nodded. “And she is, after all, a murderer.”
“The first killing is the only hard killing, I think.”
“Ah,” Sally said, putting an end to the question of coffee. “Ah.”
Karen Heuler writes both literary and speculative literature. Her stories have appeared in over 80 magazines and anthologies, from Alaska Quarterly Review to Kenyon Review to Weird Tales. She has received an O. Henry award, been a finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. The New York Times called her first short story collection “haunting and quirky’; Publishers Weekly included her second collection, The Inner City, in its Best Books of 2013 list. Her fourth novel, Glorious Plague, concerns a simply beautiful apocalypse.
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. Up this week is Shawn Donley with Powell’s Books .
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Shawn Donley: I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and like many small towns it was very inwardly focused. Books like Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days are what initially opened my eyes to the greater world and in the process created a life-long love of both travel and literature. I can still remember hopelessly trying to convince my Mom to let me spend summer vacation following in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
SD: There are so many memorable characters in literature (Humbert Humbert, Rabbit Angstrom, Patrick Bateman). They aren’t however, the kind of people who you’d really want to hang out with. I’d rather spend time with someone who is amusing, yet harmless, highly educated, but lacking in ambition. So a perfect day for me would be a bumbling tour of New Orleans with Ignatius Reilly. We’d wear matching green hunting caps and indulge in many Dr. Nut sodas and Paradise hot dogs.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
SD: One of the great joys of bookselling is recommending books to others. Before I started working in a bookstore I never thought much about other people’s tastes, only in cultivating my own. But now after having spent the majority of my adult life surrounded my books, I ‘d say that recommending titles to friends, family, customers and acquaintances gives me as much pleasure as the reading itself. I’m rarely more than a few pages into a book before my mind starts thinking about who else would enjoy it.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
SD: My favorite book of 2015 was Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. He’s a lifelong surfer and a long-term staff writer for The New Yorker. Through this combination of talent and skill he is able to explain convincingly why so many surfers become obsessed with this sport. Finnegan writes especially well about the difficulty in balancing a consuming activity with the demands of work and family. You don’t need to be a surfer to enjoy Barbarian Days (though it may turn you into one).
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
SD: While most everyone has read The Little Prince at some point in their lives, few people I believe are aware of Saint-Exupéry’s other masterpiece, Wind, Sand and Stars. The book recounts his life as a pioneer aviator, flying harrowing airmail routes across the Andes and the Pyrenees. Both National Geographic and Outside magazine have chosen it as one of the best adventure books of all time. It is a book that perfectly captures his view on how to live a passionate life without compromises.
Shawn Donley is the New Book Purchasing Supervisor with Powell’s Books.
January 20th, 2000, The Netherlands
Believe it or not, nobody objected. Not one of us stood up in the bedroom and said, “Don’t kill him.” Neither did anybody else in the house for that matter, the cleaning lady, the unobtrusive nurse. We all accepted my father’s fate with eyes wide open and mouths shut. Imagine us grateful, if you can.
It was logical that the undertaker never made a fuss. He was accustomed to death and more, made a living from it. For him to say, “Don’t kill him” would be counterproductive. The minister would have objected, surely, if we had invited him that day. But the minister had only been welcome the previous day or the day before that—in the end I lost track. The man of God had come into the bedroom to bless my father’s second marriage, which hadn’t taken place in a church. My father’s second wife, a lapsed Catholic, imagined that the blessing would somehow console (save? validate?) her after her husband’s death. And perhaps it did. Who knows what luminous thoughts hold back the dark?
On a different day, before or after the blessing, my father picked out his coffin. Nobody objected to this either. An emaciated, bed-ridden man, fifty-three years old, flipping through folders, demanding prices. Strange, yes. Unjust, of course. But we accepted the situation, because taking control of his death sparked something inside my father we thought had long died. Now we saw he was not beaten. Not yet or not anymore. There was a niche, however small, in which he could be in charge, making decisions. As we planned the brief future together, we tried to match his manner by remaining light-hearted and rational. There would be a small-scale cremation and a large-scale memorial party. We would have balloons and mimosas! (But not with fresh orange juice or real champagne for that would be a waste of money.)
“All these sweet people,” my father said, “what a shame I can’t be there.”
Without too much effort, I could see my own mouth in his.
Naturally, our victory was short-lived. At the hour of truth, nerves ran every which way, but they ran invisibly. As nothingness approached, we kept our cool. We waited like Blue Helmets, peacekeeping soldiers, searching for meaning in the absurd. We wanted to fight but where were our weapons? I remember sighing under the weight of missing words.
The doctor arrived on time. She put her black bag on a wicker chair and explained the process calmly. First this, then that. We nodded like apt pupils. Two types of drugs through intravenous injections. Sleepiness. Breathing would cease and eventually the heart. Objections did not exist; they were wiped off our planet along with our hopes for his survival. Did anyone offer the doctor a cup of tea?
We took our places. The wife pulled up a stool and claimed her husband’s head. She would share the head and the left hand with their twelve-year-old son. I formally requested my father’s right hand and climbed on top of the marital bed. My brother made do with a foot. As did my grandmother. She would object years later, softly and confused, though not about the foot. When her son was already ill, she had lost her daughter to cancer in the U.S. She had witnessed the slow, bitter demise from wakefulness into morphine coma. Was her son’s speed date with death any better?
Yes, grandma, I would tell her, it was better. He was in pain, physically and mentally, and he wanted out. Not wanting to be cared for like a baby. Not wanting to be rushed to a hospital for an emergency. Not wanting death to carry him off when we weren’t there. And we were there, remember? Wanting what he wanted. We could have objected, I suppose, we could have said, “Don’t kill him” but we knew he would have died anyway. Our objection would not have changed the inevitability of his death. Only the hour.
With all of us in place, holding his limbs, stroking his hair, the doctor asked my father a question in a gentle yet clear voice, the voice of an angel. “Are you ready?”
We are free to choose yet not free to avoid choice.
Yes, he was ready. But wait. Don’t forget the glasses. He took them off and put them on the side table. It was the last thing he did before he said he loved us. The glasses were smudged. They would not need to be cleaned.
Time slowed, stood still, took up again, and having lost its relevance now, it was anyone’s guess how much of it went by. Let’s say: the moment lasted a while.
Did we look at each other or at the instruments the doctor took out of her bag? Did we stare into the dying man’s eyes to witness his fall into timelessness? After my father closed his eyes, I kept mine on the artery in his neck, and watched how it pulsed and pulsed, slower now, and weaker, but with a discernible beat, until his heart finally stopped.
Again, nobody objected.
We sat there quietly, in grief and gratitude, as though killing someone was the last gift you could grant that person in life, and of course it was.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels. Her prose in English has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, Hobart, Folio, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. She has recently finished her first novel in English. She lives in Paris, but you may find her find her at @clairepolders or http://www.clairepolders.com.
I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted for a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.
Lesser championed are Jansson’s novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical beings but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting her 1972 novel, The Summer Book—a slim volume with a muted, pastel cover with the silhouette of an island in its center—on display at a local bookstore, I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot.
The opening chapters have a flash-fiction feel: they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother is dead and her father is relegated to the background.) The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:
The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea, were glistening. The air seemed very light.
“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”
“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”
The funny thing about Jansson’s books is that while they contain a darkness, the prose is light and spacious. Emotionally, philosophically, the words have weight, but they flow through your mind with ease. The same is true for the psychology of the characters. There is a heaviness to their inner workings, but Jansson manages to create levity through her use of dark humor. Continue reading
None of the dolls could sleep.
The braided rug dreamt of being
a traveling companion.
The snow stopped, briefly,
on its way past the window.
The mother and father did not
touch each other, but each felt
they could hear laughter coming
from China, and the child felt
knocked by the earth,
and though she was blind
and would always be blind,
one day she would tap blindly
with her white-tipped stick,
wearing orange high heels.
Mary Ruefle‘s latest book is Madness, Rack and Honey, a collection of essays on poetry.
My wife still wouldn’t leave her room so I had to take the afternoon off to bring Buster into the vet. At home the dog was hungry and all the lights were off. There were two more sympathy cards in the mail. I threw them away. Buster was tearing ass around the house and wanted to play so I had to tackle him to get him into his crate. He cried and cried.
It was Buster’s one-year check-up. The vet breathed hard through his mustache and prodded my dog everywhere. Buster sat still for once. “You’ve got a healthy little guy,” the vet said. “Weight good, heart and lungs good, teeth good, everything good.”
“His actual birthday is tomorrow,” I said. “How would you celebrate a dog’s birthday?”
The vet leaned down and said, “Happy birthday Buster!” right in my dog’s face. To me he said, “Maybe an extra treat. Maybe a new toy. However you’d like.”
“What I mean,” I said, “is how would you celebrate it in a way that the dog understands?”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” the vet said.
“I want him to get it,” I said. “I want him to know it’s his special day. A lot of things never make it to their first birthday.”
The vet shook his head. “Dog’s aren’t so good at understanding things like that,” he said.
Buster threw up in the car on the way home but not too much. I cleaned it off the seat while he chased a bee around the front yard. Jesus Christ dogs are dumb. I knew it was stupid to want to celebrate a dog’s birthday but a first birthday is a big deal.
The next day I bought a marrow bone and a new rope toy at the pet store. I let Buster chew the bone into little pieces in the kitchen. “It’s your birthday,” I told him. “You’re one year old today.” I wanted to make him understand so I got down next to him and looked into his eyes. He stopped chewing the bone and looked at me. “You’re one year old today,” I said. I heard Julie shift in bed upstairs. You’re one year old today. One year. One year boy. One year.
Ian Denning‘s work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Washington Square Review, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle, is at work on a novel, and tweets at @iandenning85.
The taxidermist will mold, skin, gut, preserve, reassemble, and mount a creature, usually with the goal of making it look the way it did when it was alive. The final product can serve a variety of purposes—amusement, utility, education, and in terms of taxidermied pets, nostalgia: it helps preserve emotional connection. Carey McHugh manages the language equivalent to the art of taxidermy. The poems that make up her debut book, American Gramophone, restore life to the long dead and permit us to view, up close, these foreign and often dangerous animals, people, places, memories, or experiences. In “And Now, the Educated Hog,” McHugh writes, “You could say it was an adjustment. Like a tree/ uprooting inside me. Like being bricked up/ in a silo. Even the sun put me to sleep. At first/ I was content without a knife. Then, I couldn’t walk/ across a field without dreading roundworm.” Each poem is meticulously assembled and tightly sutured, as is the entire book; reading American Gramophone is akin to visiting a forest diorama in the Natural History Museum and standing at arms-length before a lynx, mid-kill.
In early December, Carey (who is, unsurprisingly, obsessed with taxidermy) came over to my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. Over a few glasses of wine, we discussed her startling new book.
Robert Ostrom: Talk about the process of writing this book.
Carey McHugh: I started writing it in graduate school, and it has appeared in various permutations throughout the decade. For me, the process of putting a book together involves rearranging it and sending it out and getting a bunch of rejections and then rearranging it again and sending it out and getting a bunch more rejections and thinking, “Alright, maybe if I pulled this poem and put this one in, that’s going to be the lynchpin. Now it’s gonna get accepted!” So for a while I was stuck in a revolving door of poems, which I think I once advised you never to do.
RO: What is the oldest poem in the book and which one is the newest?
CM: The oldest poem is probably “The Ferrier.” I think the newest one is probably “Seafaring to Tracheotomy” or “And Now, the Educated Hog.” Those two came around the same time. “Self-Portrait as Shedding” is really old. “Somnambulist” is old. It’s weird to go back and still see those. In fact, I tried to take the “Somnambulist” out because it just seemed ancient and dusty.
RO: How do you feel about it now?
CM: I feel ok about it now. It took me a while.
RO: So does it sort of settle?
CM: More like congeals. Like an aspic. Like, put it in a fridge, or put it between a cover, you know, and then you think, alright this is a thing. And now I can’t change it, so it feels like it was always meant to be this way.
RO: Talk about the title. How did you come up with it? Were there other possibilities? Did you send it out under other titles?
CM: I sent it out for many years under the title Aviaries and Asylums, which is now a four-part poem in the book. And I sent it out with this title because I was thinking, “What’s holding this book together? It’s birds and madness. And I thought, well, in “Aviaries and Asylums,” there’s this strange community that’s somehow been locked up, imprisoned. And early on I was writing a lot about insane asylums that had been built in the late 19th century, early 20th century and abandoned. I think I was watching a lot of Ghost Hunters at the time, and they always go to these abandoned sanatoriums and it terrifies me. That shit scares the shit out of me. I’ll watch when I’m alone and I can’t stop.
RO: Why do you watch it if it scares you so much?
CM: Because I want to see if they make contact with the other world, ok?! I just want to see it! And every episode they’re like, “Ah ha! I saw movement! It could be a human spirit or a rat.” And I always think, “Oh this time they’re really gonna find a ghost.” So I’m kind of obsessed with those old abandoned buildings, and at the time I was thinking about asylums and captivity, and I liked the idea of writing about it.
RO: Why do you like that?
CM: Disease and mental illness are unexplainable in some ways. I’m thinking of it, specifically, in the context of “ye olde” medicine and how people didn’t understand the science behind it. It must have seemed like a connection to another world. It’s shocking and unpredictable—is it demonic possession or is it genetics? It must have been terrifying and outlandish to have gone through life facing a mental illness at that time, or to have been a doctor having no idea what you’re dealing with.
RO: I also think, at least in the poems, it serves as a metaphor, representative, if a little exaggerated, of a common state. Those extreme examples can be an easier way to talk about our own feelings.
CM: Right. It’s like our current state, but heightened. Continue reading
The Visit of the Royal Physician, which I cannot stop reading, sometimes even long enough to eat a yogurt, begins like so:
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.
Why do I find this opening line—an unvarnished statement of fact regarding an obscure historical episode—so thrilling?
Ah, let me count the ways. First, because it contains a potent and nearly invisible irony: the man called upon to heal an ailing monarch winds up murdered by his patient. Second, because the reader naturally ponders how and why this gruesome event transpires and is therefore left in an exquisite state of suspense. Third, because the author, the Swedish novelist Per Olov Enquist, has established a narrative style unburdened by the pervasive modern compulsion to gin up the action by plunging us into frenzied scenes of court intrigue. We get history distilled to its essentials.
When he wants to highlight an event of particular importance, Enquist writes simply, “Here is what happened.” The effect is oddly incantatory.
So. Here is what happens: Struensee is summoned to Denmark because the teenage king has been driven mad by corrupt minders, systematically terrorized “to develop powerlessness and degradation for the purpose of maintaining the influence of the real rulers.”
The German doctor helps stabilize Christian and fosters his interest in the nascent principles of the Enlightenment. Struensee soon acquires enough power to issue edicts on behalf of the king, who prefers to spend his time frolicking like a child.
Two decades before the French Revolution, the “filthy little country” of Denmark becomes an unlikely torch amid the “reactionary darkness” of the church. Struensee sets about abolishing cronyism and torture, funding hospitals, and granting common Danes unprecedented freedoms, including the right to copulate in parks once reserved for nobles.
At the king’s urging, he begins to spend time with the young queen, a lonely and spirited Englishwoman named Caroline Mathilde. Enquist captures the rhythms of their courtship with a delicacy that befits the couple’s perilous circumstances. (It’s a capital offense to touch the queen, let alone bed her.)
If you need proof of just how seductive Enquist’s prose is, check out this scene, in which the pair transform a private reading of Ludvig Holberg’s philosophical tract Moral Thoughts into incredibly hot foreplay:
“Touch my hand,” she said. “Slowly.”
“Your Majesty,” he said. “I’m afraid that . . .”
“Touch it,” she said.
He went on reading, his hand sliding softly over her bare arm. Then she said:
“I think that Holberg is saying that the most forbidden is a boundary.”
“A boundary. And wherever the boundary exists, there is life, and death, and thus the greatest desire.”
His hand moved, and then she took his hand in her own, pressed it to her throat.
“The greatest desire,” she whispered, “exists at the boundary. It’s true. It’s true what Holberg writes.”
“Where is the boundary?” he whispered.
“Find it,” she said.
And then the book fell out of his hand.
Holberg, we hardly knew you!
Struensee enjoys a few months of prosperity. He sits at his desk, issuing humane decrees. He soothes the king. He makes love to the queen and soon impregnates her.
Then it all falls apart. The dowager queen and a canny religious fanatic named Guldberg conspire against Struensee, who lacks the political guile, and the will, to go after his enemies. The military kidnaps the king in the name of purifying the realm, places the queen under house arrest, and imprisons Struensee.
There is no cinematic intervention. Struensee’s reforms are rescinded and he himself is publicly beheaded, drawn, and quartered. Enquist reports these events without sentiment. The book’s hypnotic power resides in his quiet determination to lay bare the tortured inner lives of those embroiled in the drama.
Struensee is revealed as a well-meaning coward, the king as an unloved waif imprisoned by his court, and Guldberg as a self-loathing zealot who converts his illicit sexual impulses into a pious crusade.
The lone figure to emerge from the saga with some semblance of self-knowledge is the queen. “She had felt a unique pleasure when she understood for the first time that she could instill terror,” Enquist writes. “But [Struensee] did not. There was something fundamentally wrong with him. Why was it always the wrong people who were chosen to do good?”
The broader question is whether noble ideas alone are enough to improve the world or whether bloodshed is the necessary price of such improvement.
On the one hand, the novel is a celebration of the “Struensee era.” Even as the royal physician’s head is cleaved from his body and left to lie upon a bloody scaffold in a public square, Enquist assures us that the ideas he advocated will endure in the world.
But the scene that haunts Struensee himself as he awaits his fate tells a more complicated story. Here is what happens: At the height of his influence, the royal physician decides to take the king on a tour of the countryside, so that he can witness the conditions under which his subjects actually live.
At dusk, they happen upon a severely beaten teenage serf seated on a wooden trestle. The king, recalling his own abuse, panics. Struensee jumps out of the coach, hoping to secure a pardon for the boy. But a mob of peasants approaches and he grows frightened. Enquist writes, “Reason, rules, titles, or power had no authority in this wilderness. Here the people were animals. They would tear him limb from limb.” It’s a moment of abject personal revelation. Struensee has only the purest of motives, but deep down he mistrusts the very people he is trying to save.
The lesson is a bitter one. Reason alone will never tame our savage impulses. Moral progress cannot be issued by fiat, or legislated. It must be enforced at the price of our own valor and conscience and flesh.
Consider the case of America, a land born of war, and liberated from the sin of slavery only at the price of half a million lives. Even today, the basic tenets of the Enlightenment—scientific reason, tolerance, justice—are routinely subverted by a democratically elected ruling class, happy to exploit the tribal grievances and paranoid superstitions of an ignorant and indentured population.
And because I am crazy in this particular way, I find it impossible to read about Struensee without thinking of another enlightened neophyte who came to office promising change only to be stymied by the feverish obstruction of his opponents.
Am I suggesting that President Obama will need to declare war on the reactionary forces of our country to enforce sensible economic, social, and environmental policies? Yeah, with considerable sorrow, I am.
But the genius of Enquist’s novel resides ultimately in its ability to locate moral struggle not only within the upheavals of history but also within the private torment of the soul. “Was that what a human being was?” Struensee wonders. “Both opportunity and a black torch?”
The ultimate war is the one inside us.
Steve Almond spent seven years as a newspaper reporter in Texas and Florida before writing his first book, the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal. His non-fiction book, Candyfreak, was a New York Times Bestseller. His short fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and his most recent collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. Almond writes commentary and journalism regularly for The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. A former sports reporter and play-by-play man, Almond lives outside Boston with his wife and three children. His most recent book is Against Football.
The BECU parking garage with the small set of stairs we ollied down across from the church our fathers made us attend, where the middle-aged pastor whom I loathed and admired had said Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” When the cops pulled in, lights flashing silently, we fled into the rainy night, our wheels clacking over the seams of the sidewalk, trucks slashing water near us.
The planter we ollied over on the sidewalk outside IHOP at 2 a.m., where the woman studying engineering at UW found us studying a stream of ants packing pancake crumbs into a pinhole. She said we looked like her little brothers and she led us back to her apartment to sit on a rooftop over Lake Washington, listening to KEXP, while the garden lights of software engineers turned the water’s edge expensive colors. She got sarcastic when we didn’t swallow all of the prescription drugs she handed us. Doug Martsch said, “Wiggly days, wiggly nights.”
The sculpture of a broken obelisk we waxed the edge of in Red Square, where the cop car surprised us so we sprinted carefully over the slick bricks, boards under our armpits, until we found the hedge near the road where we crouched for an hour in the dripping leaves. We giggled, knocking our shoulders into each other, until they neared, they circled, they stopped (how did they find us?), their harsh light scanning through what hid us only barely, until you rose and burst through the other side and disappeared into the dark. I squatted, dizzy, doomed, until the gray-bearded man grabbed me out and handcuffed me to scare me and shouted at me for my name until I gave it to him and he shoved me free to where you waited on the porch with your father’s cigarettes for us to share.
The enormous, multi-level UW parking garage that plunged down like catacombs, like a tomb, where we escaped in the week after your mother had ordered your father out of the home for good, so we locked ourselves in the TV room downstairs while your mother strolled the halls with a cereal bowl held before her like treasure. I’d bought new ceramic bearings with my birthday money. We bombed down four levels until a pebble took my board out. We sat together on a parking block next to an empty parking booth where we watched the blood leave the wound in the heel of my hand. I asked you if you’d spoken to your father and you laughed and said no.
My bedroom in a home thirty minutes from yours, in the suburbs north of the city, where doctors or professors lived, at the edge of a ravine coyotes stalked, no sidewalks, few cars, freshly painted verandas, streets free of trash. After school, tender with worry for the world ahead, I locked my door and set my board against the wall and slipped under the covers and set my headphones over my ears against the noise of rain on the window. I wanted a darkness to quiet every thought.
The parking lot behind the video store where I landed my first kickflip. The hill by Ravenna Park where we flew. The tennis court where you caught your foot on the net and broke the bridge of your glasses. The bank under the bridge where we sat and talked to the Krishna proselytizers you made fun of. The Safeway parking lot the adults chased us out of. The gas station the adults chased us out of. The covered parking lot of the Washington Mutual they chased us out of. The middle-school basketball court they chased us out of. We rode pawnshop boards through empty parking lots, long after the day’s commerce had quieted, but they chased us like we had something of value.
Joe Aguilar is the author of Half Out Where (Caketrain). His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Okey-Panky, The Threepenny Review, and The Iowa Review.
It so happens that Michael Woodcock, whose painting St. Joseph’s Day appears as the cover of The Sleep Garden, also designed the cover of my first book of poems, a lifetime ago. It’s my hope that what follows will let others know how important he was to me and to everyone who knew him.
Awhile ago, in 2013, on Easter, after finishing dinner and observing it was still light outside, I decided to take a drive to the small hospital where my old friend Michael Woodcock lay dying. When I’d visited Michael a few days earlier, he’d drifted in and out of consciousness, but I thought this time there was a chance he might be able to say a few words, or listen, nod, or something. If not, I told myself, at least I’ll see him. The place Michael had landed, courtesy of some cost-effective insurance plan, was called a hospice but it didn’t look like any hospice I’d ever imagined. It was just a shabby, ordinary room in an extended care facility (a de facto hospice in itself, I guess), with the walk to his room a gauntlet of drooling ancients, abandoned, confused, or asleep in their wheelchairs in doorways and along the sides of the halls. Worst of all—at least to me—the staff, the nurses and the aides, had no idea who Michael was, what a remarkable person was passing away in their midst. I wanted to tell them, but of course it wouldn’t have helped.
I got to his room to find Michael in bed, lying on his back like an upturned boat. Always a big man, as his liver ceased to function, he had grown larger more full of fluid and his skin strained to enclose it all. He was unconscious, with an oxygen mask over his face, struggling to breathe, but at least, as far as I could tell, he was out of the terrible pain he’d been in earlier. His gray beard poked out the sides of the plastic mask like mattress stuffing and his eyes were shut. His wife said hello. She had been there for two weeks straight, sleeping in the bed next to his, feeding him, touching him, and she looked very, very tired. After a few minutes she asked if I would be there long enough for her to run home—about ten minutes away—and take a shower. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
So she left and I sat holding Michael’s hand, watching him breathe. His breaths weren’t the rasping last breaths of the dying I had heard at other times, but they weren’t regular ones, either. There would be a breath, and then a pause just long enough for me to worry, and then he’d breathe again. Strangely, I found myself relaxing. It was enough just to be where I was, with him, and, for a change, words were unimportant. I’d brought a book to read to him, but realized that in order to turn the pages I would have to let go of his hand, so I just sat and held on, and listened to him taking in and expelling air. After a while his breathing got easier, and it seemed to me that somehow, even though he wasn’t conscious, I was helping him. Then his breaths got so easy I couldn’t even be sure if he was breathing at all, and I removed the oxygen mask to check. There was nothing. I felt for his pulse, and there was nothing there as well. His eyes had opened, so I shut them and kissed his forehead. “Good-bye,” I said, called for a nurse, and about that time his wife walked in, and she spent a long time crying. Continue reading
My Great Uncle Adolphus had a pet duck named Patrick. Patrick was insecure, needy, foul-tempered, and brilliant. Not just brilliant for a duck either, my Great Uncle would say. Patrick possesses a keen mind. He has a deep curiosity about everything under the sun and a bracing skepticism! Patrick would hiss at us whenever we went to visit. He would laugh nastily when we mispronounced words or displayed lazy, unoriginal thinking. When we left there was always duck poop in our shoes. The price of genius, Great Uncle Adolphus would say, smiling proudly.
After my Great Uncle Adolphus’s death Patrick came to live with us. We were not Great Uncle Adolphus’s closest relatives and I have never been sure why he selected us to look after Patrick. I was six, maybe seven. Patrick was delivered in a gold cage big enough for a medium-sized elephant. It was just Mother and I at home so it must have been a week day. I was eating cottage cheese when the delivery men knocked at the door. I preferred cottage cheese served in a shiny blue aluminum bowl and it was best with a sprig of parsley on top. Patrick sat in his cage with his bill tucked tightly to one side of his breast, completely still. Mother and I watched him closely. He was breathing heavily, a deep, shaky inward breath then a long, whistling exhale that stopped and started partway through. It was the saddest noise I had ever heard. “He is an unpleasant creature,” said Mother. “But he is ours. He’ll have your room now. You will sleep on the couch from now on.”
Patrick never recovered from the heartbreak of Great Uncle Adolphus’s death. We tried to cheer him up. We remembered how he had loved to mock us because of our lack of intellectual rigor. So we put on shows in front of his cage acting as stupid as we could. I would recite the multiplication tables but make serious, ridiculous errors. I would sing the alphabet song but get the letters mixed up and give up in a show of frustration. I would list the countries and capitals but I would say crazy things like the capital of Tanzania is Baltimore and the capitol of Iceland is Madrid. Father and Mother would discuss philosophy but instead of saying Aristotle and Heidegger they would say Donald and Goofy. Nothing worked. Patrick remained unmoved.
Then one day the sound of Patrick’s labored breathing stopped. We made arrangements for Patrick’s body to be laid to rest beside Great Uncle Adolphus’s. I got my room back and I felt joyful about that, which in turn made me feel guilty. I told Father that I hadn’t loved Patrick, not really. Neither did I, said Father. But your Great Uncle Adolphus did.
Years later I found out that Great Uncle Adolphus died of heartbreak. Patrick had started seeing a dull mallard named Mathilda, and Adolphus found out about the affair in an embarrassing manner. It was a tragedy for all concerned. Or, since I don’t know what became of Mathilda, I can’t say it was a tragedy for her. Perhaps it was merely a minor embarrassment in Mathilda’s world.
It’s funny how memory works. Years after Patrick’s death I still think about the price of genius. And I still find myself checking my shoes before I thrust my feet in, on the lookout for the foul stench of that brilliant duck.
Mark Hoadley‘s recent work has appeared in Word Riot and KYSO Flash. He is co-editor of the online poetry journal The Maynard. Mark lives in Vancouver, BC where he writes memoir, poetry and fabulist fictions, sometimes all at once.
Where are we?
How did we come here?
Where are we going?
And anyway, who lies sleeping here with us?
Wherever that is—
I mean—wherever we are.
To begin: the Burrow is a low mound that rises out of the ground. It rests on what would be, if not for the Burrow itself, a vacant lot on the edge of town, though not the farthest edge. On one end of the lot, on the west side of the Burrow, and far enough away so there are no drainage problems, is a small pond. What kind of pond? Picture a body of water about the size of a supermarket parking lot, with stands of cattails, frogs, tadpoles, and such, plus various insects, both on the water and flying above it. This pond grows larger in spring and in summer shrinks to the size of, say, a convenience store parking lot. In the fall and winter it stays somewhere roughly between the two extremes. On its eastern shore is a tree, possibly a cypress, but possibly something else entirely. A sad fact about the people who live in this town is that nobody knows much of anything about the names of trees.
Still, like so many other things in the world, this particular burrow is more than its name implies. This burrow has people living in it. It has five or six tenants, depending on how many of its apartments are rented at any given time, because, as you probably guessed, the Burrow is really an apartment building, and although it isn’t called “the Burrow” in any formal sense—it’s never had any formal name at all—it was the Burrow’s neighbors, the very same ones who can’t seem to tell one tree from another, who called it that back when it was first constructed. So to this day, whether out of affection or derision, “the Burrow” is how people, including those who live inside it, refer to the place. And while it’s true that some of the children in the neighborhood say the Burrow is scary, no one offers any specifics. It’s the kind of place that children like to pretend is scary on principle. It’s part of being a child, and certainly that doesn’t stop those same children from playing in the pond next to it when school isn’t in session, albeit giving the Burrow a glance from time to time to make sure there’s nothing frightening rushing toward them from it as they play.
So picture a mound of dirt with things growing out of the top, plants, new shoots, weeds, but having a front door, and you are picturing the Burrow.
Meanwhile, inside the Burrow, Jeffery is thinking this: Suppose a person spent his whole life being way ahead of the curve, was Überbrilliant, far in front of every other person in the world who was also working on whatever problem this first person was working on, so incredibly advanced, et cetera, et cetera, that those in his dust were totally blind to the fact there was even anyone out in front of them? They would look, of course, but all they would see was a big dust cloud, without having the slightest idea what was causing it. And correspondingly, when the genius, or whatever you want to call him, looked behind, and squinted through the dust of his own making, those others weren’t visible.
But then, Jeffery thinks, one day, maybe thirty or forty years after this genius first embarked on his journey and the dust from the cloud settled, he happened to look back once again, and this time, because there wasn’t any more dust at all, he could see for sure there was nobody following him. There was only an empty plain, or road, or stage, or whatever you want to call it. In other words, whoever had been back there trailing after him must have taken a whole different path, or several different paths. So there he was—wherever “there” was—completely alone. But here’s the thing: out of all those people who, a long time ago, were working on the same idea as he was, nobody cared. Every one of them had moved on to other projects, much better and more timely ones, and as a result, the genius was not ahead of anyone anymore. He’d been totally forgotten and whatever he might have done, whatever he did, meant nothing. Zero.
And as for this supposed genius, what word would Jeffery use to describe him?
Jeffery is in his midthirties and has hair the color of untoasted whole-wheat sandwich bread. He’s still in fairly good shape because he exercises every day—squats, sit-ups, push-ups—right next to his bed first thing every morning. Though he’s starting to develop a little pot on his stomach, it’s not unusual for his age. He tells himself he needs to lay off the starch, but hasn’t gotten around to it. It’s not that big a deal.
Also: in addition to the problem with identifying their trees, none of the town’s inhabitants seem to be able to pronounce the name of their own town, St. Nils.
That is, they can and do pronounce it in one of two ways: Saint Niles, like the river, or Nils, which rhymes with pills, but it appears they have no idea which one is correct.
The fact is, it was Raymond who inspired this idea of the alleged genius-person-so-far-ahead-of-everyone-else to pop into Jeffery’s head, and Jeffery’s first Raymond-as-a-genius thought came when he was smack in the middle of Raymond’s living room in the Burrow, sitting on Raymond’s couch surrounded by a humongous number of decoys: on wall shelves, on tables, even lined up along the baseboards. Raymond had carved each one, and now, apparently, he waited for some mysterious future event to move them out of there. In addition to the finished decoys there were also several piles of lumber for future decoys. There were also open cans of paint leaking fumes and smelling up the place—not a bad smell, but, well . . . paint, and of course Raymond was living in the middle of all this.
Then Raymond sat down on the recliner opposite the couch and made it recline by means of a lever on one side. Next, he took off his right shoe, propped his right foot up on the part of the recliner that had turned into a little platform, and allowed his left foot, its shoe still on, to rest quietly on the rug.
So while it was clear that Raymond had a vision, Jeffery still had a hard time working out precisely what vision that might be.
Is he a genius or a complete idiot?
And, for that matter, what would you call Jeffery for thinking all of this?
And yet there is something troubling about the Burrow, something hard to name, maybe something about the low shadow it casts on the vacant lot around sunset, or maybe the smell of its walls after a November rain, so maybe the children—bless them— are right to keep their distance.
Because Raymond is a big guy, and gentle, and his head is big and gentle, too, with dark brown hair like burnt whole-wheat toast, and frizzy, the kind of hair a person might want to lean their own head against if he or she were tired, but if they did they would be disappointed because what they would be leaning on would be Raymond’s skull, which is very hard. As hard as a wooden decoy, a person who leaned his or her head against it might be thinking.
Meanwhile: outside the Burrow, new shoots of trees, new wood, reach out of the ground, toward air, toward sun, toward something they can’t actually see, something they have no way to be sure is even there.
What was Raymond’s reaction to Jeffery’s explanation of the dust cloud and the person making it? It was to settle deeper into his recliner and shut his eyes. Finally, after about five minutes, Raymond spoke. “Like jets,” he said, and proceeded to peel a Band-Aid from his finger and stare at the cut underneath, which Jeffery thought probably came from making decoys—a sliver or a slip of the knife. The skin beneath the Band-Aid was pale and puckered, not like skin at all, but more like those Styrofoam pellets people use for packing.
“Are you okay?” Jeffery asked. “And what do you mean, ‘like jets’?”
“How far can/will the elegy stretch?” Amy Gerstler asked our workshop participants this July. “Are there limits to what conventional or unconventional elegy can mourn, memorialize, honor, metabolize, question? Are there angry, comic, upbeat and/or love elegies? How about some stealth elegies?”
In her quest to find out, Gerstler examined poems from Terrance Hayes, Li Young Lee, John Berryman, Anne Carson, as well as considered the wealth of the possibilities for various elegiac incorporations in our own work.
Recorded in the Reed Chapel during the 2015 Summer Workshop, we give you Amy Gerstler’s lecture on the uses of the elegiac.
Author of over a dozen books, including the collection Scattered at Sea, which made the 2015 National Book Award Longlist in Poetry, Amy Gerstler resides in Southern California.
As a young reader, I had a fascination with stories of the American South. Maybe it was because of my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Clark, a Georgia native who taught To Kill a Mockingbird, and whose black-rimmed glasses and gray pixie cut made her look very much like the author. Or maybe it was because the South—with its “y’alls,” its grits, its Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons—seemed exotic to me, a Jewish girl from suburban Detroit.
Years later, I was excited to discover that my own family had a Southern past. At eighteen, my great-grandfather, Dave Spickler, left the Indiana farm where he and his mother had lived after emigrating from Poland. He’d planned to seek his fame and fortune in South America, but he only made it as far as Mobile, Alabama, where he spent the next decade as a bookkeeper in a lumberyard.
Ever since my grandmother related this forgotten chapter of our family history, I’ve wondered what it must have been like for Dave to live in the Deep South in the early 20th century. But thanks to Roy Hoffman’s 2004 novel Chicken Dreaming Corn, it’s no longer difficult to imagine.
Hoffman is part of a small but proud tribe of Southern Jewish writers. Growing up “as a Jew in the Bible Belt, I was in a minority,” he wrote in a New York Times essay. “I was often the only Jew [people] knew.” His family’s insider and outsider status is a subject he explores in this book, which garnered Southern literature’s unofficial seal of approval: a rare endorsement from Harper Lee herself.
Chicken Dreaming Corn is based on Hoffman’s grandparents’ journey from the shtetls of Romania to the storefronts of Mobile—and it’s a delight to read. The title comes from his grandmother’s Alabama twist on a Romanian Jewish expression, referring to the yearnings of ordinary folks for lofty, possibly unattainable goals.
The novel centers around Morris Kleinman, who lives with his wife and four children above his shop on Mobile’s Dauphin Street. When the novel opens in 1916, Morris has called Mobile home for some years, and he’s part of an international crew of merchants from Cuba, Poland, Lebanon, and Greece. He’s developed a modest but comfortable business selling everything from two-tone lace-ups to checkered skirts, making what he calls “a living, not a killing.”
Hoffman paints a vivid portrait of the Kleinmans’ lives—and how they retain their own customs, while becoming part of the fabric of the South. Morris and his wife Miriam keep kosher, pray daily, and go to a small synagogue that seems forever in the shadows of the town’s majestic cathedral. At the same time, the family mixes Southern with their Yiddish, marks down merchandise for “Good Friday Specials,” and hums marching-band melodies at the Confederate veterans’ parade.
What impressed me most wasn’t simply Hoffman’s ability to portray the Jewish experience in Mobile in this particular era, but his capacity to transform a specific story into a universal one. Although I came to the novel with a desire to learn about my own roots, the Kleinmans could be any immigrant family in America. Hoffman’s indelible characters ask questions that are fundamentally human: What do we owe our parents who have sacrificed for us? What does it mean to lead a good and honest life? What is love? How much do we need to be happy? And finally, what is the meaning of home? Continue reading