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Ghosts of Bergen County: An excerpt

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Set in New York City and New Jersey on the cusp of the financial crisis, Ghosts of Bergen County is a literary mystery with supernatural elements. It is a tautly paced and intricately plotted story in which collective burdens manifest into hauntings.

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Prologue

There were no witnesses except the woman who’d been up all night, had consumed two beers and three vodka tonics before switching to (and sharing) the playwright’s Scotch, and she (the witness) could remember the morning only in snatches, like the digital stills and clips that cycled through her computer’s screen saver. There was the club where she’d met the playwright. There were her friends leaving the club. There was the playwright tucking his loose curls behind his ear. There was the playwright in the stairwell of his building. There were the vents, condensers, and fans, the mechanical infrastructure on the roof, looming like the lunar module on the surface of the moon. There was the sun coming up over Chelsea. There was the playwright on the pavement below. And one other image, which came to her in the early afternoon, when she woke in her bed, naked, her dress and underwear bunched on the floor: the playwright, leaping from the gravel rooftop to the parapet that framed it, gilded and smooth and almost shining in the morning light, leaping the way an acrobat leaps from one tightrope to a higher tightrope, arms spread, for balance not flight. And it was this last image she trusted least, because it was the clearest and sharpest, as though it had never actually happened, as though she remembered it only from the dream she’d just dreamed.

Chapter Three

It was still light when Ferko arrived home. The house was quiet, the mail strewn on the dining table. “Hello,” he said, under his breath, to no one. There were catalogs and cheap envelopes with cheap printing, windows through which his name was misspelled, glossy postcards from realtors and remodeling contractors. He placed it all in the recycling bin that held paper. The bin was full, so he took it out the front door to the barrel beside the porch, half hidden by the hemlock.

The house was new, a Cape, wood-framed, with cement siding and a porch with gray planks and white columns and a wood swing that hung from chains, affixed to the beadboard ceiling with hooks like small anchors. Mary Beth had loved the porch the moment they’d first parked at the curb on a May afternoon, in front of the lone remaining tall oak from the woods Woodberry Road had replaced. She’d wanted an older house—pre–World War II—but this one did the trick. She sat on the swing and made room for him, and he joined her and swung, their feet drawn up off the floor, while their agent fiddled with the lockbox and then with the key.

Now the bench was empty. He sat on it, then regretted doing so. He should be inside, saying a proper hello. The porch was his after dark, after Mary Beth had gone to sleep. He’d sit in the shadows, with the porch lights out and two bottles of beer in a bucket of ice. He’d sip the beers over the course of an hour, while the evening bugs sang and the occasional car coasted past, its radio muffled, while dogs walked up and down the sidewalks on leashes, their masters mostly silent, though sometimes coaxing, the way a parent might coax a child.

He was comfortable by himself, drawn to the quiet. So was she. It was a bad recipe, they’d joked when they first got together and recognized how alike they were. They’d met through mutual friends—party folk, a core group of extroverts who’d gone to Yale and functioned, in those days, in New York City in Y2K, like a star, throwing off heat, pulling others into their orbit. Neither Ferko nor Mary Beth were extroverts or had gone to Yale, yet here they were, attending the same rooftop party in the West Village. Later they adjourned to a corner bar, where Ferko, feeling magnanimous and tipsy, bought a round for the denizens, a couple dozen or so at that wee hour, including the complete strangers who happened to be there, and this discreet bit of generosity—buying a round for the bar—pulled these strangers, in that moment and for the next hour or two, into their orbit as well. Truth be told, Ferko had always wanted to stand beside a bar and announce loudly that the next round was on him, to receive the backslaps and the glasses clinking against his own, and he’d done a quick estimate, before committing, of the numbers in the narrow room and figured this was as good a time as any. He hadn’t yet spoken with Mary Beth at this point, but he’d noticed her, a new face, and if Mary Beth hadn’t yet noticed Ferko, she did so now. She told him weeks later, when they were alone together for the first time, shoulders touching in the back of a cab between one party and the next, his gesture was generous. She was impressed.

It was a risk, they both knew, given their introspective natures; they needed others. When their others moved to different cities and suburbs, Mary Beth and Ferko moved here, to start a family, a new star, a new orbit.

He stood and steadied the porch swing and went to see if she was asleep or awake.

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Posted in Excerpts, Fiction, Tin House Books

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In the Massif Central

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From the Faith issue, an excerpt from Michael Helm’s forthcoming novel After James, out from Tin House Books in September 2016.

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Since the summer Celia turned twelve her father had taken her on expeditions. He led teams of interchangeable members, opening plague pits in London, coring ice in Siberia, hose-blasting permafrost in the far north to find perfectly intact, extinct creatures, while some grad student who’d pulled the duty to look after her demonstrated the care involved in brushing and screening soil for the tiny bones of long-gone lizards and birds. Three Junes ago they revived the practice for the first time since she left for university. Now he was summering in France, living alone in the Cévennes. A team had come and gone. Once a week he visited friends in a lab ninety minutes away in Montpellier, but most days he spent in the mountains, on foot.

She’d been fifteen hours in transit from Vancouver, had slept maybe two. In final approach she looked down at morning in Paris, bright city, oddly flat. The Eiffel Tower, so small in person, like a male movie star. The high-rises of La Défense seemed like just the beginning of a vision, dream interrupted, sketched out and half realized at a safe distance to the west of the old realities, the beautiful districts, proportioned, ornate, storied in the richer sense.

On the TGV she fell asleep at three hundred kilometers an hour. He met her at the train station in Montpellier. The smile, a little bow, the avid blue eyes. He was lit with a kind of chemiluminescence. Something just below the skin held differently. “You look good, Dad. Great pigmentation.” He said he had something exciting to tell her. They drove through a landscape of hard plains, rock outcroppings, sudden sheer faces. His hands cupped the steering wheel, left wrist curled at eleven o’clock, right at three, then to the stick shift and back. As he spoke he glanced at her repeatedly. His long jaw worked the lines. He said he had a map of the unexplored cliffs and he’d been investigating as he could. The hikes were physically hard—was she in shape?—but his joints liked the climate. He could still balance on a foothold, still scramble on loose ground. Several days ago for three hours he’d cut a path across the least accessible of the promising rock faces and emerged above a tree line. After a minute along a barely navigable ledge, he came to a deep, uncrossable crevice, and there on the other side, a cave mouth.

“There seems to be no research on this cave. And it’s perfectly protected. If it opens up, if it doesn’t just run to a full stop in the dark, there could be thousands of years of artifacts inside. Tens of thousands. Neanderthals and humans lived around here at the same time. I’ve been waiting for you. Tomorrow we’ll climb with a ladder.”

He looked at her and the car drifted to the shoulder, corrected.

“Okay, sure. Exciting.”

Her body thought it was still in Vancouver. She used to trust her body, its distant early warnings and blunt reminders, but lately it had struck its own secret agenda and lost its sense of humor. It would arrive properly rested in a day or two. Until then she’d have to float around on her own, a hovering face, talking and smiling, waiting to close its eyes.

“They died off very suddenly, the Neanderthals. Twenty-five thousand years ago, in Gibraltar, staring at the sea. They weren’t crossers of oceans. Leaps of faith didn’t occur to them. Whereas Homo sapiens, well, here we are.”

Here they were. She’d imagined her arrival, an embrace, an almost wordless greeting, and a slow gathering of the moment. Now she was here and there’d been no arrival. He might have waited to tell her about the cave. Maybe he was afraid of recognizing her, or of failing to—she was aging, changing, about to enter important years for a childless single woman with a career—and so he’d put something between them that they’d have to pass back and forth. Now she’d wait a day before getting around to life updates, a brief romance come and gone, a health scare come and gone. She supposed she wouldn’t tell him about an unwanted pregnancy come and gone. Or at least a surprise pregnancy, and given the precautions a bit of a mystery one. It seemed to have come and gone on its own, as if it had nothing to do with her, or as if she had failed a test of grace. Not that she believed in grace or even really understood what it pretended to be.

The next day after breakfast they tied an aluminum ladder to the roof of his Suzuki Swift and set off into the mountains. She followed their route on a map covered with his printed additions and notes as they drove on the edge of La Vallée du Terrieu. He’d marked the names of each peak—Montagne d’Hortus, Pic Saint-Loup—each perched chateau, but as they climbed on ever narrower roads the names fell off until finally the doubtful path disappeared from the map and became only a track through a field that ended in trees. Above them the forest climbed steeply to the base of an immense, white vertical rock face. He studied the approach routes. From the trunk he took their supplies, shrugged into a small backpack. He gave her a coil of rope. He untied the ladder, put it over his shoulder, and led the way into the trees. There was little underbrush but the climb was steep, improvised, awkward, and soon they were too spent to speak, though they had said very little that morning anyway, and before long Celia was sweating in her unbreathing layers. Four times at intervals of thirty or forty minutes they stopped to rest. At one point, bent over with her hands on her knees, she looked up to find him resting the ladder vertically, taking her in through the rungs. Continue reading

Posted in Excerpts, Fiction, From the Magazine

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Six Ghost Stories

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In a crucial scene about two-thirds of the way through my novel, Ghosts of Bergen County, the protagonist, Gil Ferko, confronted with the ghost that lives in his house, wonders what she wants. He then dismisses this thought: “She played a role. That was all.”

Ghosts in literature are often treated like hybrid elements: part character, part plot device, part setting. It must be this way, it seems, because literature, in almost all cases, is about people—living people—who are trying to carry on. In a ghost story, the living typically try to carry on with the help of (or in spite of) ghosts. These ghosts are sometimes the product of past wrongs, which often have some bearing on the story and the characters that populate it.

Below are six examples, representing some of my favorite ghost stories.

 

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Beloved (novel), Toni Morrison: “124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.” Extreme trauma and the brutal legacy of slavery produce a frightening, angry spirit

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The Graveyard Book (novel), Neil Gaiman: Set in a city graveyard and its surrounding neighborhood, this novel for young people—one I read with my kids when they were little—features benevolent spirits and malevolent mortals.

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The Shining (novel), Stephen King: This list would feel incomplete without King, and The Shining is his scariest ghost story. An empty, secluded hotel, a spooky child, and a flawed, wounded protagonist are the ingredients for the horror that ensues.

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“Stone Animals,” (short story), Kelly Link: Setting again is prominently featured when a family moves from city to exurb to find they’re out of their element on a property teeming with wild rabbits, surrounding a house that may be haunted.

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“Ghost Story,” (short story), Margo Rabb: Here’s a ghost story without the supernatural, where spirits inhabit the ineffable void left when loved ones die.

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The Sixth Sense, (film), M. Night Shyamalan: Though there are better movies about ghosts—Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others comes to mind—you can’t beat The Sixth Sense for its exploration of the demands that ghosts make upon the living.

 

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Dana Cann was born in Santa Barbara, California, and raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. He’s worked in commercial banking, corporate finance, and restructuring. His short stories have been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Florida Review, and Blackbird, among other journals. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife and their two teenage children. Dana teaches fiction workshops at The Writer’s Center. Ghosts of Bergen County is his debut novel.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Ghosts of Bergen County: An Interview with Dana Cann

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Set in New York City and New Jersey on the cusp of the financial crisis, Ghosts of Bergen County is a literary mystery with supernatural elements. It is a tautly paced and intricately plotted story in which collective burdens manifest into hauntings. Here, Dana Cann chats with his editor Meg Storey about his debut, self-doubt, writing with empathy, and haunting his characters. 

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Meg Storey: What was the initial impetus for writing Ghosts of Bergen County?

Dana Cann: The idea for this novel began, as many of my works begin, as a dream: a friend and I take heroin, shoplift in a mall, and are chased by store security. It felt important, this dream. After a couple of false starts, I discovered Ferko, a private-equity misfit whose daughter was killed in a hit-and-run. The scene based on my dream occurs about a quarter of the way through the novel.

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MS: You write about heroin addiction in a very empathetic way. How did you approach writing about drugs and addiction?

DC: One of the fundamental requirements for a writer, I think, is to have empathy for the people he or she writes about. Unfortunately, empathy is hard to find in a lot of media. All one needs to do is turn on the television or go on the Internet—any channel or site with talking heads, sound bites, or memes—to find a lack of empathy. It’s why books are more important than ever, even as these same media sources tell us that books are less and less relevant.

Ferko’s decision to use heroin is an impulsive one, which makes it interesting. As I was writing I knew I had to get to that scene early in the novel, yet I dreaded writing it, afraid I’d get it wrong or couldn’t pull it off. My self-doubt as a writer dovetails nicely with Ferko’s self-doubts.

When I first set out to write a novel about characters who use heroin, I had a difficult time getting past the junkie stereotype. Then I read Ann Marlowe’s memoir, How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, where I found fully functioning people who happened to use heroin. This revelation helped immensely.

MS: In the novel, ghosts haunt places rather than people. Is there a reason you chose to set the story in the places you did?

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DC: Ghosts is set during the summer of 2007, just before the financial crisis, in Manhattan and the New Jersey suburbs, in about equal parts. Manhattan, of course, is a fantastic place. I’ve never lived there but I’m convinced I did in a past life. The city has always felt manageable to me, and I’m always surprised, given its size and surface chaos, how ordered everything is, how everyone has a role to play and plays it well. At least that’s my impression as someone who’s visited a couple times a month over many years.

I’m a product of the suburbs, and many of my stories are set there. Most of the suburban scenes in Ghosts take place in one of the few undeveloped spaces that suburbs offer—a small stand of trees that buffers one developed area from another. There’s a riff that runs through the novel about silence and negative space. These remaining stands of trees, it seems to me, are the suburban equivalent of negative space in a visual composition, and it’s no coincidence that the ghost, Amanda, and Mary Beth are drawn to such a place.

MS: Do you believe in ghosts?

DC: I’m a spiritual person, though not in an organized religion kind of way. I believe in a higher being, and I believe we’re all connected in ways we don’t, or perhaps can’t, fully understand. I believe that that connectedness extends in infinite directions, including between past and present.

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Posted in Interviews, Tin House Books

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We Learn To Be Human

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From our current Faith issue. 

For you Portlanders (or those with private jets who fly around the country for literary events), Alicia will be reading this Thursday at our Holocene party

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WE LEARN TO BE HUMAN

I attended the online seminar on shame

it helped for a minute

more importantly I’ve been loving

the goddess for a long time and these

hiccups in my groin are a sign

she’ll be there when it’s time

it could be next week it could be

a month you started as a seed

and now in a white t shirt

you go to bed I’ll meet you

when I’m done we learn to go to bed

to put on eyeliner we learn to be human

when we don’t get what we want

you too started as a seed my son and now

I feel your fingers curling against my

center from the inside

like a fern dear son I want every flower

you ever plant to blossom

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Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, composer, performer and Torah teacher. Her poetry book, DIVINITY SCHOOL, won the 2015 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. Alicia tours internationally with her band, Girls in Trouble, an indie-folk song cycle about the complicated lives of Biblical women. A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, her one-woman chamber-rock opera, was named one of Portland’s best theatre performances of 2014 by the Willamette Week. Alicia lives in Portland with her husband and their two small children

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Shit from the Sea

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“This book means a lot to me, I want you to have it,” my mother said, handing me a small, beige paperback. It was a slender volume, on its cover a picture of a gauzy, beach; a frothy lip of surf curled back to reveal a group of perfect shells nestled together in the wet sand beside the title, Gift from the Sea. “I offer it to you, I guess, as a kind of explanation.” I took the book from my tall, square-shouldered mother and went back to packing my trunk. I was leaving for boarding school in the morning. It was 1978 and I was fourteen years old.

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My mother was a deep reader and a gifted writer with a sense of occasion. One of her parenting tropes was pairing perfect reading material to big life events. For example, when I got my first period she bought me the Complete Poems of Anne Sexton so she could read aloud to me “My Stringbean, My Darling, My Little Girl” in our family therapy session. We were there to parse my parents’ messy divorce and my even messier reaction to it, but unfortunately, the therapy didn’t work. My parents continued to feud and I became more angry and unruly, until finally Mom drew the line and found a prep school willing to admit a girl with bad grades in late August. I took the book from my mother and packed it in my trunk with my Snoopy doll.

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In the early 1950s, Anne Morrow Lindbergh spent two weeks alone on Captiva Island in the Gulf of Mexico beach-combing and writing. She used the seashells she found there as metaphors to parse themes of marriage, motherhood, love, and solitude. The book was a huge bestseller and, in many ways, the harbinger of the self-help/inspirational tidal wave of publishing that was to come. Without it, Oprah Winfrey might still be anchoring local news and chicken soup would only be for colds. By the time the 20th Anniversary edition was published in 1975 we were living in an I’m Ok, You’re Ok world and my mother was merely executing the mandate of the “Me Generation” by getting me out from under her Espadrilles.

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I read the book studiously in my dorm room between classes, underlining passages and taking notes, trying to pass this test, to do something or be someone that would make my mother want me back. Instead, I found a call to aproned, girdled, put-upon hausfraus to slow down, throw on a pashmina, take a walk on the beach and find simplicity, solitude, and gentle caring for their own souls. It’s not Lindbergh’s fault I didn’t connect with her book. I was simply too young for it. What could I have known about the conflicts between marriage, motherhood, and selfhood? I didn’t even have a fully formed sense of self to lose yet. In the margin I wrote, “Observing the day like a shell.” It’s a writerly note; I understood metaphor, but not the workings of my mother’s complicated heart. Reading and annotating that book was my final, fruitless act of loyalty as her daughter. The following three decades were ones of estrangement between us.

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I grew up and made an adult life without her—but oddly, one that looked almost exactly like hers: two daughters, a faltering marriage, a fledgling writing career. I was forty-six and falling apart— a Gen X Lindbergh—when I fled my family to take refuge on an island in Puget Sound to write and reflect in solitude.

I left the slog of domestic life to reclaim myself in the form of memoir. I threw my yearbooks, notes, and letters into a duffel bag, and as an afterthought, I tossed in the very copy of Gift from the Sea that my mother had given me thirty-two years before.

I took up my residency in an idyllic little cottage down the road from the romantically-named Useless Bay for three whole weeks. I anticipated dazzling creative productivity. But when I got there I was seized with paralyzing fear and found myself unable to write a word. So instead I re-read Gift from the Sea. I read it in a few hours, crabbed up on the window seat of my cottage. It made a lot more sense to me now, but there was something in it that felt deeply threatening. When I was done I was stirred up and stormy. I decided to head out to the beach for some fresh air.

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Puget Sound is no Gulf of Mexico. The beach debris isn’t the quaint sea-drift of Lindbergh’s tropical Captiva Island with its adorable channeled whelks, moon shells and argonauts. All the gallimaufry of the Pacific gets shoved down the gullet of the Straight of Juan de Fuca, which pukes it into Puget Sound which then horks all that gack up onto the sands of Useless Bay. The shoreline was a riot of driftwood tangled up in seaweed and fishing line. The sand was studded with broken sand dollars, razor mussel shells and shining scales of still-jagged beach glass. The tide recoiled from the shore, leaving a pamet of wet, rippled sand and shallow tide pools that glistened in the weak afternoon sun.

I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my jeans. It was early March and I was bundled up against the snap of the wind. My feet looked pale as mollusks as I waded into the tide pools, remembering how I would wade behind my mother on Cape Cod, digging for fiddler crabs — “fidderwidders”—to put in my red bucket. Looking for beach treasure was my mother’s fondest joy. I never felt closer to her than when she was showing me something beautiful and glistening in the palm of her hand.

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The psychic clouds gathered. Wanting to channel my inner Lindbergh, I picked up a nondescript white shell that looked like a toenail and tried to find an inspirational metaphor for my life, but when I looked inside myself all I saw was a gyre of garbage. I tossed the shell aside.

Further down the shore I came upon a massive ship’s door that had washed up from some far-away foundering. I hopped up on it and my weight didn’t even budge it. Only something as soft and terrible as the tide could have lifted it and dropped it here.

From my perch I saw a woman with a dog come down the beach, the lab’s tail spiraling with joy, a salty stick in its mouth. Another beach-comber stopped and said, “Beautiful dog,” giving the dog a pat. The woman said, “She’s a good girl,” and they went their separate ways. But those words—she’s a good girl— hung in the air and shucked something deep inside of me. I let out a yelp of pain and suddenly I was sobbing, deep, wracking sobs that hurt my chest and stopped my breath. I had been holding back an ocean of tears for thirty years. I didn’t know it then, but it would take me seven years to weep them all out.

♦ ♦ ♦

I walked in the dark back to my cottage. I was thinking about Lindbergh again, wishing I hadn’t picked up that book. I let myself in the door, switched on the light and picked up the book. It opened to a random page where a lonely, lost girl had once underlined in purple pen: We are all, in the last analysis, alone. And this basic state of solitude is not something we have any choice about.”

This was the rancid sea slug at the center of Lindbergh’s beautiful, whorled book: this idea that somehow separation, an embrace of solitude, is the path toward joy. For me, it was the source of my life’s greatest anguish. Gift from the Sea gave best-selling bonafides to my mother’s notion that she was an island, an island too small for the two of us. Thanks to this goddamn book, I had been cast away.

I left the Island to go home to my family, but I had changed, and I began dismantling my life. Seven years later, I was divorced and living with my daughters when my mother called to tell me she had cancer and not long to live. I reeled her in from her island in New York to come die in my home in Los Angeles. In the three months we had together, I came to see that she and I were both castaways, her mother had been an island as well. Her solitude was an adaption, and Gift from the Sea was a literary benediction for a hurt so deep she could never admit it was there, even as she passed it on to me. As soon as I understood that, I forgave us both.

On her deathbed my mother looked at me and said, “I never should have sent you away.” It was all I ever wanted to hear, even though in many ways it was too little, too late. I used that lifeline to hoist myself back on her shore, gasping for air. I put as much of myself on the margin of her mattress as I could without hurting her now fragile body. “Mommy, all I ever wanted was you,” I said, laying my ear against the shell of her breastbone, listening to the tide go out.

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Erika Schickel is the author of the 2007 essay collection, You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom. Her essays and reporting have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, LA Observed, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Anthem Journal and several anthologies. She is currently finishing her second book, a memoir called The Big Hurt. She lives and teaches writing in Los Angeles. 

Posted in Essays, Lost & Found

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Little Girl

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She slept with men who only wanted to play Settlers of Catan. She slept with law students who had framed copies of the Constitution on their bedroom walls. She slept with sound architects, sound engineers, and the second baseman from her softball league. She hardly ever slept. Sometimes she took a pill, but often she lay awake next to a sleeping man, trying to read the Bill of Rights in the dark, then called a taxi and went home. She liked riding in the back of a taxi at night. It felt private, even with the driver up front. She liked recognizing the streets closer to her building, and she liked the deli where she sometimes went to get money to pay the driver. She’d grab a can of condensed milk, a hairnet. She wasn’t sure what for.

The men never called. They sent her smiley-face permutations and pictures of their cocks, but not one had called her since the year 2004. That man had met her at a flash mob in a department store, then looked her up in the last phone book the phone company ever printed. She had lived in a different building then, had withdrawn cash at a different deli, and needed a landline to communicate with parents who didn’t trust cell phones yet. She and the man dated for five months, but things never got as good as figuring out that he had found her in the phone book.

She slept with men who were sober for no reason. She found this more alarming than if they had once been alcoholics. She slept with recovering alcoholics, suffering workaholics, and a heroin addict who wanted them to have the same spirit animal. The heroin addict was writing a memoir about overcoming heroin addiction. Having a deadline for his memoir had stressed him out so much that he had started using heroin again.

Some of the men carried condoms in their wallets, like it was the fifties. It was not the fifties. One day, it would be the 2050s, and she would have to do this all over again in a retirement community. In between, she’d get married, get widowed. She’d miss him, but would be grateful for all the years they’d had together. Where was she going to meet her future late husband? At work? At work, she’d met an anthropology professor by the copy machines who called her “little girl” in bed. She was thirty-two. But he was even older. He didn’t like what she had been photocopying, a text by a continental theorist whose opinion of history most straight men considered misinformed. Her students handed in papers about the theorist’s work that began, “This story confused me at first.” She didn’t sleep with her students. They were too confused.

She slept with a man who didn’t keep any food in his house. He was a used-book dealer, and there were piles of signed first editions in his oven. Another used-book dealer had hair on the shaft of his penis and a panic attack in her bedroom. Used-book dealers, she decided, were the worst. She liked books, but she didn’t care about the edition. New things were okay with her. Everything got old soon enough anyway.

She slept with younger men. She didn’t really have a choice. Men her own age were busy going bald, acquiring bald offspring. Men her own age had jobs like “head of school,” “program facilitator,” and “lawyer.” She tried to be excited that the men she slept with were younger, but she was just as excited if they were older, or the same age. Her body acted the same no matter who touched her. It had been that way since college, when she’d slept with a man who didn’t take his sweater off during the act. She’d found it a nice break from skin. He had later transferred. Some of the men she slept with had studied abroad, some had taken time off, but all of them had gone. Her body valued education.

Her body valued her body. She took long showers, ate avocados, stretched while chanting in Sanskrit, and slept her way through the phone book. There was no more phone book, but she had names in her phone, first names only: Davids and Adams, Lukes, Sams. She’d get a message at night—What are you doing right now?—and go. What was she doing? Sometimes she didn’t know exactly who was messaging her and it would be a surprise when she got there: which David, which Sam. Some of the buildings had elevators and she enjoyed the anticipation on the ride up, the soreness on the ride down. What happened in between almost didn’t happen. She’d wind up back where she started, walk into the street, and hail a cab.

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Schi_9781101875414_jkt_ap1_r1 9781101875414 copyREBECCA SCHIFF graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program, where she received a Henfield Prize. Her stories have appeared in n+1, Electric Literature, The American Reader, Fence, and Guernica. She lives in Brooklyn.

From the book THE BED MOVED by Rebecca Schiff, copyright © 2016 by Rebecca Schiff. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Poetry Month Gems

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April is National Poetry Month, so we thought we’d check in with our staff for some poetry recommendations. Where better to start than with Matthew Dickman, our Poetry Editor:

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Matthew: I can’t stop reading work by Khadijah Queen. Her poems are dynamic, ecstatic, and important. Copies of her books Fearful Beloved and Non-Sequitur are never on my bookshelf because they are always on my coffee table, my bedside table, or in my backpack. If you want to have a light shined on your soul, or have your heart opened up to the truths of this world, Queen’s work will do just that. In moments of doubt about the future of poetry or the importance of of poetry I pick up this poet’s work and am reassured, am made to feel brave about the future for all of us.

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Emma: Peter Gizzi’s “How to Care for a Small Bird” reassures my skittery heart like few poems can. I read it first when I was in college and trying to write poetry of my own, always about spiders and worms and the rims of jelly jars, maybe a kind of overcorrection after having written many poems in high school that wanted to be about the biggest things. Poetry seemed to me then best when it was a deft lens, taking me very close to some nuance, something minute, literally and otherwise, without being precious. This last part was always the kicker, and what this poem more than manages even as it approaches that most delicate of all things: a fallen baby bird. I think often of the poem’s last two stanzas, and the way this bird’s vulnerability, its insufficiency, seems also to be its grace.

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Rob: I keep returning to Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems over and over and over. Not simply for the joy, wonder, and weirdness of her lines, but because I can’t figure out how she makes poems like “Timberland” and “Mariposa and the Doll” work. How does shift time and tone so effortlessly? I don’t care. I keep reading, keep falling into a state of awe. If Ruefle starts a cult, I’ll be the first in line.

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Meg C: Lately, I’m talking up Melissa Broder’s fantastic new collection Last Sext every chance I get, but an old friend from my waitressing days back in Milwaukee recently rolled through Portland on her current mission as a traveling poet. These days, Jessica Lakritz is working on a visual poetry project called Sex on Sundaze, which involves transcribing her work on people she encounters to showcase cultural diversity—and also similarities—that all humans share. As she says: “Sex on Sundaze is meant to combine two beautiful worlds—the sensual physical world of the human body and the expansive and spacious interior world of poetry. The idea is that poetry might be wider reaching if shared on this medium that we all naturally share.” Jessica often goes out and about in Barcelona, where she currently lives, with #SexOnSundaze written across her face, and says that type of guerrilla marketing is how she gets the most new traffic to her sites. A couple from Berlin even contacted her, when they were planning a visit to Spain, in order to schedule a special shoot, so the project is picking up pace and widespread interest. Take a look at her beautiful words and images, and maybe even be inspired to create your own, as she calls it, “#wordporn” some Sunday soon. Here’s a shot from her Portland visit: http://sexonsundaze.com/the-lovely-illusion/

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Cheston: I’ve been reading (and relishing!) Natalie Diaz’s fantastic debut, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I realize I’m like the last person to arrive at this sad and harrowing and deeply moving party, but I’m so happy I have. It’s been such a treat to spend time in Diaz’s words, to be enriched by their sensitivity and depth.

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Jakob: Diane Seuss’ collection, Four-Legged Girl, is raw and fluid. Her lines are full to bursting with detail—“Their drab mouths, their teeth in a jar, their dishes and glassware / the color of the amber that traps mosquitos”—but they never feel dense. Instead, there’s a directness that is intense and intimate. From “Oh, I’m a Stone”

There was no relief from being
human and so I turned to stone
and now there’s no relief
from being a stone. I didn’t
choose to be a stone.

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Tony: Maureen McLane’s poems in the new Tin House, along with her wildly-yet-still-not-sufficiently-lauded collection This Blue, make me wish I could do for her in this space what she did so beautifully in her genre-bending book of memoir and criticism, My Poets: that is, extol and exegete the poets that shaped and possessed her. Instead, I’ll just clumsily point you in her direction. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than McLane’s celebration of poetry (then tie one on with “R&B” and “Against the Promise of a View.”)

Of course, we couldn’t leave our interns out of this conversation. We rely on them, after all, to recommend new and exciting poetry to us, and to remind us what’s always going to be amazing:

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Grace: I love how Eileen Myles’ uses the short line in “Movie” from the collection Sorry, Tree. She uses simple words in an interesting, unexpected order and her poems always read as little slices of honesty. I love the sounds of the lines

I said lemon slope
about your
hip

and how they begin to turn the poem away from a person and toward a meditation on writing. Because she doesn’t use punctuation, her poems can be read in many ways and this lends to their wonder.

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Bianca: Let’s be real: it’s nearly impossible to settle on a single poet or poem in a time of young, flourishing literary virtuosos (Ocean Vuong, Erika L. Sánchez, Peter LaBerge, J. Scott Brownlee), so I bring Rattle to the open bar, an eclectic, contemporary landscape of poetry that legendary Timothy Green and Alan Fox manifest in a quarterly magazine. Each issue is wish-bone wide with poems that are accessible and sweetly addictive. With Poets Respond every week, an Ekphrastic Challenge every month, the unprecedented Young Poets Anthology, and a wallet-puffing annual prize of $10,000 for a single poem, Rattle proves to be a chief contribution to the best poetry today and for armfuls of years to come. Its mission to publish and promote poets solely on the quality of their work and regardless of prestige gives Pulitzer Prize winners and unpublished writers the chance to be treated and presented as literary equals. Because of this, Rattle readers have the pleasure of witnessing the first creations of upcoming writers while experiencing the latest work of established poets (like Dorianne Laux, a personal favorite of mine). In essence, poetry is the hard liquor of literature, and I choose to douse myself in Rattle.

Posted in Desiderata, General, Poetry

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A Reverie of Small Details: An Interview with Kim Brooks

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Kim Brooks’ debut novel, The Houseguest, may be set in the days before the United States entered World War Two, but it is a powerfully prescient work that deals with some of the most controversial issues of today – specifically the crisis of conscience around taking in refugees who are fleeing genocide. Her characters – from a young rabbi who becomes increasingly desperate to save the European Jews seeking safe harbor to a suburban family man who wants to ignore the war and his own memories of violence until he takes up with a charismatic Polish-Jewish actress who has lost everything – approach the Holocaust from a unique vantage-point, that of American Jews. I talked to Kim about her research process, writing about “capital I-issues,” and learning to reserve judgement when crafting her characters.

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Laura Bogart: The Houseguest addresses the Holocaust from a perspective that hasn’t been fully represented before—that of American Jews. Your characters have varying degrees of awareness about the crisis in Europe. Some of them, like Max Hoffman, the rabbi, become desperate with a need to take action; others, like the Aurer family, comfortably ensconced in small-town Americana, prefer to ignore the crisis (until, of course, it shows up on their doorstep).What made you interested in writing about these particular people at this particular point in time? Where do you see this book fitting in among other works about the Jewish experience of World War Two?

Kim Brooks: Fiction never begins for me with an idea or a conscious intention. For me it almost always begins, and began this time, with a mood, a feeling, a sort of agitated curiosity more than any clear idea. The mood or curiosity in this case was that it was 2007, I was pregnant with my first child, our country was entering the final stretch of George W. Bush’s second term in office, and the world basically seemed an all-around horrible place, impending doom on every horizon. I was under-employed at this point, so I spent a lot of time just lying on my couch, being pregnant, and reading stories on the internet about war, destruction, worldwide suffering, and encroaching, catastrophic climate change. I wanted to stay informed, so I kept reading. Sometimes I’d cry when I read and sometimes I’d feel nothing at all, just numbness. But there was always this strange mix of caring, compassion, helplessness, and rage— the four things mixed in different proportions. I found that I wanted to write something about that feeling, that combination of empathy and impotence. But I didn’t want to write about myself, lying pregnant on the couch. My grandmother had passed away not long before, and I began to wonder if she had ever felt something similar when she was my age, in the early forties, reading about what was happening to Jews in Europe. She would have been almost exactly my age at the time, and her parents had come to this country just a year before she was born— so they still had plenty of connection to this world, this culture being swept away. I thought, what would that be like, to be in that position? What would it be like to be a Jew in America, safe, removed from what was happening, filled with anxiety and dread, wanting to do something and not being able to do anything, feeling both lucky to be removed from it all but also somehow unjustly privileged to be spared? I think many American Jews have felt this at one point or another, this kind of survivor’s guilt, the historical accident of our existence. I wanted to explore that feeling. So much has changed in the past seventy years but I suspected that feeling, at its core, had stayed the same.

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LB: There are, obviously key historical events that you cover in this book, such as the timeline of the Nazis’ advancement across Europe and the attempted evacuations of Jewish refugees; however, the time period is also conveyed in such a reverie of small details, like it would be like to take a train ride in Chicago, or how it would feel to try and sleep in a tiny room in Poland right before the Germans invade. Can you talk about your research process? What specifically did you research on the macro and micro-levels, and what sorts of sources did you use? Did you find yourself overwhelmed, at times, with the breadth of material you were finding? If so, how did you overcome those feelings? When did you know/decide that you had to put the research away and start writing? How did you integrate research into the writing in ways that felt natural and organic as opposed to simply dropping in period detail just to show that you knew it? Which historical fact/detail did you find that surprised you the most? Is there a moment of research integrated into writing that you’re particularly proud of?

KB: Well, at first I did no research at all. The writing started on a personal, familial, relational level. I was writing about this family in Upstate New York, how their family life changes when they take in an odd refugee woman. I’m sure these pages were filled with anachronisms and inconsistencies, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to figure out who these people were, how they talked to each other, the texture of their inner lives. All of that got me like 30 pages of material, and then I was completely stuck. So I started reading some random stuff about the general time period, and I sort of stumbled upon two books that became very important. Or actually, I stumbled upon one, my husband gave me the other. The first was a book called Stardust Lost, and it was about the history of the Yiddish theater in America. It came as a revelation to me that there had been this entire culture and art form and all these larger-than-life figures whose work has been so thoroughly forgotten. The second book, the one my husband gave me, was The Abandonment of the Jews by David Wyman, a book I feel like every person in America should read. Over the course of roughly 600 pages, it recounts in excruciating detail the various and profound ways that American foreign policy and also (and most surprisingly to me) American Jewish organizations failed to respond in a meaningful way to the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe, all of the missed opportunities, the way that petty rivalries and political alliances impeded rescue efforts. I shouldn’t talk too much about this because, you know, I’m not a historian. I don’t really know anything about this subject besides the little bit I’ve read. But what I did read ignited my imagination in a powerful way. There was one part in particular, about a right-wing Palestinian named Hillel Kook who, under the name of Peter Bergson, came to America and started a lobbying effort to raise a Jewish army. Even in these rather dry, historical books, he leapt off the page at me, seemed like such a complicated, strange, tormented and passionate character. It wasn’t so much that I started writing about him. It was more like he charged into the book. Or, I should say, a character loosely based on him charged into the book. As far as the research whose integration pleased me the most— well, I was pleased to find I could write scenes around these advertisements that Bergson’s committee ran in various newspapers. He had an idea that the problem he faced in getting Americans involved in the refugee crisis was not one of apathy but of a lack of mobilization, a failure of anyone to come along and frame the problem to the public and sell it and present it in its proper proportions. So he collaborated with artists and writers and they raised money to run these advertisements in major newspapers, ads that would say things like “HOW WELL ARE YOU SLEEPING?— 4,000,000 JEWS REMAIN IN HITLER’S PATH.” This was something bold and new and shocking. There’s a line of dialogue in the book where the character based on Bergson thinks something like, “why not sell the refugee problem the same way Chrysler sells cars or Camel sells cigarettes?” I was able to tweak the sentiment and steal it, which made me very happy. As far as research on the micro-level, the answer is simpler. I did almost none. I mean, I did read some newspaper articles, a few letters and journals, but very few. I don’t really know any way to research my way into what it’s like to be riding a train to Chicago or making love in a hotel room in 1941. God, I wish I did. I just had to imagine, make it up, then, in revising, go through and fix all the things that were obviously wrong.

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LB: Since the novel is driven by characters who are grappling with very profound ethical questions—are they their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and if so, how responsible are they?—did you feel pressure to make the characters’ dilemmas speak to broader cultural and moral issues? I’m thinking specifically of the synergy between the refugee crisis in your book and the current debate over whether the U.S. should accept refugees from Iraq and Syria. If not, then how did you tamp down any pressure or expectation that the novel should treat its characters’ issues as global capital I-issues?

KB: I think there probably was a draft early on where I was very excited about the reading I’d done and I tried to make the book an exploration of capital I-issues. This was probably the worst draft and the one that most terrified my readers and made them think I’d really lost my mind. This is not to say I dislike books that have ideas or that engage with ideas. Those are my favorite books and they’re the ones I want to write. But for me, the ideas have to emerge from the characters themselves, the situations in which they find themselves, their psychological quests and contradictions, their fears and desires and inner-conflicts. But what I find is that if I’m moving through this territory with any intensity and authenticity, the ideas about the world or issues of the world emerge naturally. I mean, we’re all living in the world. Whether you’re writing something that takes place in 1941 or 2016, I don’t think you can write about a character honestly and meaningfully without also, by extension, writing about the world and the Issues of the world that character inhabits. Continue reading

Posted in General, Interviews

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Bloodline

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The loneliest feeling, she said on a day

when the sky was clear, is watching an airplane

fly away,

 

and in the middle of Valentine Texas

a single machine mends

railroad tracks,

cracks splinter form

 

while buzzards string

red remains over gravel lanes.

 

Before, she created still-life with oil paint

and after she drank while wrinkles set.

 

The horizon is only purple mountains and lone

windmills, when desolation surrounds

will it eventually

entrap?

 

A pecan orchard sits heavy on this desert land,

if it is pollution that makes the sky

shades of pink

then I want that inside my lungs.

 

All dirt trails branch like veins into strangers

homes. We will finish alone.

If creeks ever existed atop this sand

then each left with the Mexican wolves.

 

Her spine fell westward

with her mind

and she forgot our names,

we try to reconcile our anger.

 

Cacti survive droughts

then burst fuchsia flowers,

what a hope,

could anyone do any better?

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Amanda North grew up in El Paso and currently lives in Austin, Texas. Her poems have been published in The Learned Pig and Yew Journal. She was a scholar at the 2014 Poetry at Round Top festival and is currently seeking publication for her first collection, We Are All Mad Here. She teaches in the English Department at Texas State University where she also received her MFA.

 

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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The People in the Castle

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This month, Small Beer Press releases The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories from the legendary Joan Aiken. We’re delighted to bring you this double dose of strange magic: the title story from the collection, and Kelly Link’s introduction to Aiken. 

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In 1924, Joan Aiken was born in a haunted house on Mermaid Street in Rye, England. Her father was the poet Conrad Aiken, perhaps most famous now for his short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and her mother was Jessie MacDonald, who homeschooled Joan and filled her earliest years with Pinocchio, the Brontës, and the stories of Walter de la Mare, and much more. (Her stepfather Martin Armstrong was, as well, a poet; Joan Aiken’s sister and brother, Jane Aiken Hodge and John Aiken, like Joan, became writers.) Aiken wrote her first novel at the age of sixteen (more about that later) and sold her first story to the BBC around the same time. In the fifties and sixties, she worked on the short story magazine Argosy and from 1964 on, she wrote two books a year or more, roughly one hundred in all. She wrote gothics, mysteries, children’s novels, Jane Austen pastiches, and an excellent book for would-be authors, The Way to Write for Children. Her first book was the collection All You’ve Ever Wanted, followed by a second book of short stories More Than You Bargained For—stories from these collections were published in a kind of omnibus in the U.S., Not What You Expected, which was the first book by Aiken that I ever read. Her series of alternate history novels for children, a Dickensian sequence that starts with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has stayed in print, I believe, almost continuously since she began writing it, although I still remember being told by her agent, Charles Schlessiger, that when he delivered The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to her publisher, her editor asked if Aiken would consider sending them another collection instead. (Well: the world is a different place now.) The “Wolves” sequence is bursting to the seams with wolves, exiled royalty, sinister governesses, spies, a goose boy, and plucky orphans—and, of course, the eponymous wolves. The Telegraph said of Aiken that “her prose style drew heavily on fairy tales and oral traditions in which plots are fast-moving and horror is matter-of-fact but never grotesque.”

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Many many years ago, I had a part-time job at a children’s bookstore, which mostly—and happily—entailed reading the stock that we carried so we could make recommendations to adults who came in looking to buy books for their children. (Our customers were almost never children.) I reread the still ongoing “Wolves” novels and then began to track down the Aiken collections that I had checked out of the Coral Gables library to read as a child—collections whose titles still enticed: The Far Forests, The Faithless Lollybird, A Harp of Fishbones. When, eventually, I moved to Boston, I got a job at another bookstore, this one a secondhand shop on Newbury Street—in part so that I had a firsthand shot at hunting down out-of-print books for myself. I can still remember the moment at which, standing at the top of a platform ladder on wheels to reach the uppermost shelf to find something for a customer, I found Joan Aiken’s first novel The Kingdom and the Cave as if it had only just appeared there (which it probably had. The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop’s owner, Vincent McCaffrey, bought dozens of books each day).

And now, of course, it’s quite possible to find almost any book that you might want online. (The world is a different place now.)

I recently spent a long weekend in Key West at a literary festival where the organizing theme was short stories. How delightful for me! There was much discussion on panels of the challenges that short stories present to their readers. The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into—novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain kind of moral fortitude to properly digest. And yet it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space. In contemporary short fiction, sometimes it’s the language of the story that transmits the live-wire shock. Sometimes the structure of the story itself—the container—the way it unfolds—is the thing that startles or energizes or joyfully dislodges the reader. But: it does sometimes seem to me that for maybe the last quarter of the previous century, the subject matter of literary short fiction was somewhat sedate: marriage, affairs, the loss of love, personal tragedies, moments of self-realization. The weird and the gothic and the fanciful mostly existed in pockets of genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, children’s literature) as if literature were a series of walled gardens and not all the same forest. We had almost nothing in the vein of Joan Aiken’s short stories, which practically spill over with mythological creatures and strange incident and mordant humor. And yet at the time when she began to write them, in the 1950s, when Aiken was an editor at Argosy as well as a featured author, there were any number of popular fiction magazines publishing writers like John Collier, O’Henry, Elizabeth Bowen, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl. Magazines have smaller circulations now; there are fewer magazines with circulations quite so broad; and yet there are, once again, many established and critically acclaimed—as well as new and startlingly brilliant—writers working in the fantastic mode. The jolt that this kind of writing gives its reader is the pleasure of the unreal in the real; the joyful, collaborative effort that imagining an impossible thing requires of such a story’s reader as well as its writer. It seems the right moment to introduce the stories of Joan Aiken to a new audience.

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The particular joys of a Joan Aiken story have always been her capacity for this kind of brisk invention; her ear for dialect; her characters and their idiosyncrasies. Among the stories collected in this omnibus, are some of the very first Joan Aiken stories that I ever fell in love with, starting with the title story “The People in the Castle,” which is a variation on the classic tales of fairy wives. “The Cold Flame” is a ghost story as is, I suppose, “Humblepuppy,” but one involves a volcano, a poet, and a magic-wielding, rather Freudian mother—while the other is likely to make some readers cry. In order to put together this omnibus, we went through every single one of Aiken’s collections, talked over our choices with her daughter Lizza, reworked the table of contents, and then I sat down and over the course of six months, typed out every single one. I’m sorry that we couldn’t include more—for example, two childhood favorites, “More Than You Bargained For” and “A Harp of Fishbones,” but there was a great pleasure in reading and then rereading and then transcribing stories like “Hope” in which a harp teacher goes down the wrong alley and encounters the devil. And “A Leg Full of Rubies” may be, in its wealth of invention, the quintessential Joan Aiken short story: a man named Theseus O’Brien comes into a small town with an owl on his shoulder, and unwillingly inherits a veterinary practice, a collection of caged birds including a malignant phoenix, and a prosthetic leg full of rubies which is being used to hold up the corner of a table. Joan Aiken is the heir of writers like Saki, Guy de Maupassant and all the masters of the ghost story—M. R. James, E. F. Benson, Marjorie Bowen—I can’t help but imagine that some readers will encounter these stories and come away with the desire to write stories as wild and astonishing and fertile as these.

In 2002, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts invited Joan Aiken to be its guest. I went in order to hear her speak. She was so small that when it was time for her to give her lecture, she could not be seen over the podium—and so finally someone went and found a phone book and she stood on that. She talked about how her stepfather, Martin Armstrong, had been impatient in the morning at the breakfast table when the children wanted to tell their dreams. Other people’s dreams are, he said, boring. And then Joan Aiken proceeded, in her lecture, to tell the audience about a city that she visited in a series of recurring dreams. She said that it was not a city that existed in the real world, but that after walking its streets for so many years in dreams, she knew it as well as she knew London or New York. In this city, she said, was everyone she had ever loved, both the living and the dead. We all listened, riveted. Did she talk about anything else? I don’t remember. All I recall is her dream and the telephone book. –Kelly Link

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The People in the Castle

The castle stood on a steep hill above the town. Round the bottom of the hill ran the outer castle wall with a massive gateway, and inside this gate was the doctor’s house. People could approach the castle only by going in through his surgery door, out through his garden door, and up a hundred steps; but nobody bothered to do this, because the castle was supposed to be haunted, and in any case who wants to go and see an empty old place falling into ruins? Let the doctor prowl around it himself if he wanted to.

The People in the Castle

The doctor was thought to be rather odd by the townspeople. He was very young to be so well established, he was always at work writing something, and he was often quite rude to his patients if they took too long about describing their symptoms, and would abruptly tell them to get on and not beat about the bush.

He had arranged his surgery hours in a very businesslike way. The patients sat in rows in the large waiting room amusing themselves with the illustrated papers or with the view of the castle, which filled up the whole of one window in a quite oppressive manner. Each patient picked up a little numbered card from a box as he arrived and then waited until the doctor rang the bell and flashed his number on the indicator. Then the patient hurried to the office, breathlessly recited his symptoms before the doctor grew impatient, received his medicine, dropped his card into another little box, paid for his treatment (or not, after the National Health Service arrived), and hurried out by another door which led straight back to the main castle gateway. Continue reading

Posted in Excerpts, Fiction

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Departed

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My husband Jack worked at the steel mill. The smell of diesel and sweat followed him home every afternoon like I once did, three years ago. He tucked his hands deep in his pockets the first time I saw him, so that I wouldn’t see the black half moons that wove under his fingernails.

Ashamed, he told me later.

Of what, I murmured into the back of his neck, taking in the smell of Farfield from his skin: Go-Jo soap, gasoline, and the mill. I grew up in Farfield. I visited the mill for the first time when I was seven and helped my dad scrub the grease out of his ragged hair when I was even younger. Blackness was a part of every man’s life in this town, much like the sins that transpired most nights, after the lights shut down, when I was curled into bed and my father was curled around another woman behind the shadowed trees of Foster’s Park.

Later, Jack told me that he scrubbed his hands raw that night. I can see him standing there, hands clasped around his small sink, feeling exhausted and ashamed in his apartment filled with books. He had rows and rows of them, like a tenuous second skin.

♦ ♦ ♦

The first time I stepped foot inside his house—our hands wound together, his sweat trapped between our palms—my eyes fixed on a tiny rip in the hem of my dress.

He kissed me.

I laughed.

He laughed too, the feel of his breath on my neck and the tiny clicks my fingers made the only sound as they slid down the spines.

I love his laugh. His mouth twitches up and his eyes drop down to meet mine and his whole body shakes. Sometimes I picture him laughing at the mill, shaking with such intensity that one day, when the power line above his head broke and sparks began to fly, the snake-like wire was drawn to him, dancing to the sound of his laughter. But then I picture him afterwards, like a broken wind-up doll, laughing and laughing on the ground, while everyone else at the mill stood in a circle and watched as the smell of diesel and depression overtook them once more.

♦ ♦ ♦

One month and then Jack was out of the hospital. Pressed against him, I could smell lavender soap and dead flowers. We walked slowly from the car to the front door of our apartment, his hand weighing down my shoulder. I’d gotten off early from my shift that day and bought one of those cold metal canes for him. That and some sunglasses.

He tried them on, and then he gently set the glasses beside him and frowned, his lips pressed together as he thought.

“Let’s get out of here, Gale. Just let go.” His lips were, thin, pretty, and so very close to the white foggy eyes that wouldn’t stop staring at me no matter how quiet I was.

♦ ♦ ♦

Back in our bedroom, I leaned in, arms resting on his legs, to kiss him. But then he looped his arms around my back, and said, “You’re beautiful,” his voice deep and rough, like the red earth that ran in cracked waves outside of Farfield.

“You can’t tell,” I replied, closing my eyes and running a finger from the corner of his eye and down his cheek.

His hands shook when he settled his fingers, like birds perched on a wire, on my face. They travelled slowly; criss-crossing over my skin, showing me that the face he saw in his mind was still there, imprinted on his fingertips. Up and down they went, tracing the outline of my lips and my nose like paintbrushes until finally his fingertips rested on my closed eyelids. We both sat there like that, darkness seen by darkness, for a long time. It was as if he was trying to carve out something that was lost, while I was still right there.

“I want to go.” His glassy eyes stared past my shoulder.

“I could read a book to you. Tell me which one you want and I’ll get it for you.” I stepped away from him and went to the wall of books across the room. “John said he’d drop those checks by.” I looked at his clean hands and then added. “They all miss you.”

“Gale.” He got up without his cane and stepped towards me, dust from his books rising into the air from the sudden jerk of my hand.

“Do you remember our first date?” I said.

“We should go find a house somewhere in Denton,” he said.

“You hid your hands.”

“I could find a job there, Gale.”

“Why were you ashamed?”

“There’s nothing keeping us here. You understand that, right? Nothing.”

“It was just dirt. You didn’t need to hide it.”

“Gale….”

“Please put your glasses on. I can’t think.”

His fingers wrapped around the black glasses and he set them down. His eyes closed, the wrinkles on his face deepened, elongated.

After a while I stepped out of the bedroom, leaving him there with his glasses and his darkness.

I sat in one room of the apartment, my back pressed hard against the sofa, while Jack sat in the other, both of us counting moments by the clicks of the fan. Jack was waiting for me, waiting for some small sound, so I got up. But he couldn’t hear me, because the mill’s horn, signaling lunch, blew long and hard through the very walls of our house.

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Mckenzie Hightower is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. She recently attended the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and the New York State Summer Writers Institute this past July. Works from her unpublished short story collection, “We All Walk Away, But We Do Not Leave” have appeared in Bull Magazine: Men’s Fiction and are forthcoming in 30N. She has just accepted a Fulbright Student Fellowship and will be teaching English and creative writing in Poland for the next year. 

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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The Divine Magnet: Melville’s Letters to Hawthorne

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This month sees the release from Orison Books and editor Mark Niemeyer of a collection of Herman Melville’s letters to Nathaniel Hawhthorne, under the title The Divine Magnet. The ensuing epistolary bromance covers a range of topics, and in his introduction to the book, novelist Paul Harding pays a particular attention to faith in the lives of both writers.

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Most writers stand in awe of Herman Melville. Melville’s prose fills the English language to near bursting. It is righteous, huge, thunderously beautiful, and delivered with the gusto of an Old Testament prophet. It obliterates every tame writing workshop rule by which any scribbler has ever felt tyrannized. Who, for example, has ever objected to Moby-Dick being written in first person omniscient?

Best of all, Melville’s writing is gracious—large-spirited and noble because each of his magnificent sentences—all creation hung up from pole to pole, spinning on its axis, generating vast, gorgeous electro-magnetic fields of meaning—is devoted to commemorating the humblest lives. As he writes to Nathaniel Hawthorne in one of the following letters, he is “a mortal who boldly declares that a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington.”

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Close your eyes and fan through any of Melville’s writings—the book at hand; Moby-Dick; the South Seas tales; one of his later, somewhat overcooked works, like the bizarre Pierre; or The Confidence Man. Stop at any page. Stab your finger at any sentence and you will find the universe stretched across God and the devil, grace and cursedness, hope and despair, humanity spiraling and striving in between, and Melville in its midst, applying his genius to rescue the most hapless souls within from oblivion. Nearly every word Melville wrote can be read as recognition of the unfortunates fallen by the wayside or tossed overboard.

In other words, Melville’s writing is supremely democratic. If the thief in jail or the swabbie clinging to the topmast shroud of a whaler is collared to the very fiat lux of this universe, it means that he belongs to this existence as much as any king, judge, or admiral. That swabbie can trace his ancestry back to the original particle from which we all exploded, all came forth, our earth an ark on the floodtide of dimensions, coming to teeter on an Ararat peak in our little bandwidth of existence, our single, tiny family huddled together on our tiny, fleeting planet, warmed by our tiny star, and he a fully vested citizen of such majesties.

If my metaphors sound particularly cosmic, they are attempted under the inspiration of Melville. It is this very kind of inspiration that Nathaniel Hawthorne, in person and in his collection Mosses from an Old Manse, gave Melville in the middle of trying to wrangle his white whale into its most monumental expression. In his famous review of the Mosses, Melville spends much space comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, in precisely the democratic spirit I’ve been describing. At the same time, he happened to be writing a book that is today held in a degree of reverence nearly equal to that reserved for Shakespeare. A difference between Melville’s attitude to Shakespearean greatness and ours is that he claims it for a peer and in doing so gives himself the courage to attempt it for himself. He makes such genius accessible to the ambition of any person at all who might wish to attempt it. Continue reading

Posted in Essays, Excerpts

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Lost & Found: Noh Anothai on Karl Adolph Gjellerup

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We tend to imagine works awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature achieving a sort of immortality: the books are read (or professed to be read) by intellectuals and the au courant worldwide, and their authors enshrined in an elite canon. Yet it could be that few in the Western world have heard of Danish-born novelist and playwright Karl Adolph Gjellerup, much less his “legendary romance” Der Pilger Kamanita (“The Pilgrim Kamanita”), for which he co-won the prize in 1917. But come to Thailand, where the novel was translated in 1930, and you might think it were the product of native genius: the text is excerpted for high school curricula and listed on the Ministry of Education’s top 100 books all Thais should read in full. Flipping through a collection of watercolors based off of classical Thai literature and painted by artists under royal patronage, I see Vasitthi, Kamanita’s lover, seated on a white lotus blossom amid more standard scenes from Thai epics and dramas. Kamanita was the first novel I completed cover to cover in Thai, and until I discovered the excellent, if dated, English translation by John E. Logie (better than the Thai and available for free online), I knew it solely within a Thai context, as a Thai artifact, with scant background on its author or what it might have signified in its own place and time. But how did a book written by a little-known European author near the turn of the last century become so deeply embedded in the psyche of a Southeast Asian kingdom?

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Like Hess’s more famous Siddhartha, Kamanita sets an original story against the backdrop of the Buddha’s latter years. Its landscapes, both mundane and extramundane, are populated with personages already familiar to readers reared on tales of the Buddha’s lifetime. On earth, where the first half of the novel takes place, the towns and villages of northeastern India are abuzz with talk of the radical new Teacher, who leads his followers among such historical cities as Rajagriha and Kosampi. The rural trade routes and jungles beyond are terrorized by the infamous bandit Angulimala, who wears a garland, or mala, of his victims’ shriveled thumbs around his muscular neck. In the book’s second half, pure souls are reborn encased in lotus blossoms in Sukhavati, the “abode of bliss,” where apsara strum musical instruments and the ever-blooming Parijat tree grants memories of past lives. The world of Gjellerup’s novel thus presents no challenge to readers from Thailand, a predominately Buddhist nation. Scan one of the sprawling murals depicting the Buddha’s cosmos in a Thai monastery, and in the small corners reserved for scenes of everyday life I almost expect to glimpse Kamanita and Vasitthi beneath the shade of an ashok tree, declaring their love as only late nineteenth-century lovers can.

Kamanita’s name suggests “one led by desire,” and it is the evolution of this desire that drives the story. First, it is romantic desire for Vasitthi, the daughter of a wealthy household who pledges a mutual oath to meet him beside “the heavenly Ganges,” the Milky Way, should they ever be separated. But after Kamanita is captured by bandits from Angulimala’s band and Vasitthi married to a rival, his desire transforms into an obsession for accumulating material wealth. Finally, terrified of, and yet half-wishing for, Angulimala’s robbing him out of house and home, and fired up by rumors of the Buddha’s solution to the question of human suffering, he abandons his domestic life and becomes a pilgrim. He is determined to meet the Buddha and accept his teachings, and thereby gain rebirth along the heavenly Ganges, there to reunite with Vasitthi in never-ending bliss.

It’s here that Gjellerup’s work not only weaves Buddhist material into compelling fiction, but reaches points of Buddhist philosophy largely ignored or even out of the ken of most Thai Buddhists. In his desire to be reborn in heaven, where he can continue partaking in sensual pleasures, Kamanita’s ultimate goal is that of the average layperson, whose focus on Buddhist ritual is more often than not for the betterment of his or her material circumstances in the hereafter.         Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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Improvisation without Accompaniment

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Improvisation without Accompaniment

In the field, the tractor spins its giant wheels.

How fierce defiance is, or seems. Mechanical

in a sense: our pistons firing to set aflame

some teepee of longed-for brush, this being

hope’s kindling. Just once, I’d like to witness

beavers constructing a dam made of last spring’s

windfall, dead limbs crooked and bent. I’d like

a roan horse, a wide-open pasture to ride across.

Laughter. A bottle of cheap wine. These acres

of heartland filling up with snow and snow and—

for our next trick, what will be expected of us?

The chromosomes divide with such precision.

This is the part where the origin myths diverge.

Give me something gold to grapple with: three

apples to juggle, a scrap of paper to fold

into a dove. I have seen pigeons nesting atop

the steel beams in the station, as the trains arrive

and depart, come and go. All I want to do is sit

on the porch at evening, in a pinewood rocking

chair, and watch the desert sun melt over

the hills. But it is this notion of now that gives me

trouble. There is no parachute, and that is sad.

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Matt Morton’s poetry appears in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He has received the Sycamore Review Wabash Prize for Poetry, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He serves as associate editor for 32 Poems and is a Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.

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Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Little Sarah Bernhardt

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For years I wore what my mother called costumes. By the time I was thirteen I worked selling over-dyed WW II German military clothing on Melrose Avenue and spent my earnings on second-hand clothes. I didn’t call them vintage; they were thrift store clothes—veiled pillbox hats, rhinestone earrings, elbow-length gloves—the best of them bought in charity shops supporting ladies auxiliaries.

My most beloved source was a little bungalow tucked beneath eucalyptus, with a picture window framing the star-nippled Amazon of the Ivar Theatre strip club (immortalized by Tom Waits in “Emotional Weather Report”: “It’s cold out there. Colder than a ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theatre on Saturday night”).

I knew the shop’s spotty opening hours by heart, but it’s gone now, as is much of the Hollywood I grew up in, the so-called industry having cannibalized its own glamorous decrepitude and spit out a pile of Disneyfied bones.

At that time, though, Hollywood Boulevard was a haunted trail of crumbling pagodas and footprints of the dead, where hustlers, junkies, wig-hatted crazies, and ancient, natty, could-have-been starlets waited under stark sun for buses that likely as not would pass them by. I loved it.

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I planned my outfits each night before performing arts school. If the theme was turquoise, I’d wear every turquoise thing I owned: hand-painted circle skirt, 40s pajama top dotted with sleeping kittens, Lucite earrings embedded with tiny sea horses. If I didn’t have turquoise shoes, I’d spray paint cowboy boots on our front lawn.

My closet was stacked high with shoe boxes inscribed with the characters invoked by each pair: Girl Scout (regulation loafers), Barbarella (gold lame boots), Fred Astaire (squeaky wingtips), Beatnik (pointy flats), Hysteric (battered orthopedic), Blanche du Bois (pale silk mules), F. Scott (two-toned), F. Nightingale (nurse’s whites), W.P.A. (seam-toed oxfords), Theda Bara (Victorian velvet jeweled slippers), Mrs. Robinson (leopard heels).

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My mother called me her little Sarah Bernhardt, and although she once favored an andro-glam mix of Bowie-circa-HunkyDory and Janis-circa-Pearl (glitter platforms, velvet hot pants, feathered halters, octagonal granny glasses, Ziggy Stardust shag), although she once dressed me in happy face and peace-patched jeans that her mother took from the laundry and buried in the trash, she now was uneasy about my costumes.

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Sartorial soul sister Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens breaks down her revolutionary costume for filmmakers Albert and David Maysles like so, “The best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today. Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono, so we had quite a fight.”

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My mother instituted a Four Accessory Rule. Lipstick counted. Two and three decades later she apologized for attempting to tame my bohemian spirit. Both times I quickly assured her said spirit had prevailed: I’d simply stuffed my handbag and completed my ensemble as I walked to school.

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Is this story about my love of flash, my equal distain for authority, or the way I axiomatically protect those I love from my sufferings, large and small? Or all of these things?

You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape.

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Kim Wood’s writing has appeared in Out Magazine, McSweeney’s and on National Public Radio. She has received grants from the Jerome Foundation and is a MacDowell Colony fellow. She is working on a book, Advice to Adventurous Girls, based upon the unpublished archive of a 1920s motorcycle daredevil. Her documentary film on this subject has screened internationally in festivals and museums including Sundance and the Guggenheim, where it double-billed with an episode of ChiPs.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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My Jesus Year

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A week after I turned thirty-three, I was listening to cello music on internet radio, contemplating that this was my Jesus year, when my roommate called to say she’d found this dog wandering alone, tagless, no collar, by the Hudson River. She’s sweet and friendly my roommate said. What should I do?

Don’t bring her home, I said. Take her right to the shelter. But my roommate had logistical reasons for coming home: no purse, no cash, needing to change her shoes. So, that day, I got a fuzzy little mutt with one crooked ear.

Later in my Jesus year, Mom called to say Dad had pain in his legs. They weren’t married anymore. Dad lived in Los Angeles and she lived in Alexandria, Virginia. But he treated my mom like she was his mom, and handed her the difficult vulnerable parts of his life that his friends wouldn’t hold for him. Mom claimed she didn’t love him anymore. But who would do that for someone they didn’t love?

The pain turned out to be blood clots.

Phlebitis, no biggie, they’ll put him on blood thinners, Mom said. She phoned me twice a week because she worried I’d get murdered living in Newark.

Aren’t blood thinners basically rat poison? I said.

Really, Theresa, she said. I do not need the negativity.

Mom, I got a dog, I said. Her name is Lily. She’s so snuggly. She’ll lie on her back on my lap and let me scratch her belly.

How are you going to look after a dog? she said. Dogs cost money.

Now who’s being negative? I said.

But it was true I’d been experiencing mercury in retrograde or some other planetary disruption. This arrangement with my roommate should have been temporary but I couldn’t move in with my boyfriend because he refused to stay on his meds.

I was lightheaded and dizzy and needed to walk barefoot in cool grass and absorb the earth’s energy and photosynthesize the sun. Since there was no grass near me, I purchased an earthing-grounding mat on the internet. It cost a hundred dollars and never arrived. I argued with someone on the phone who claimed the package had been signed for, which meant it was stolen off my porch.

Instead of an earthing mat, Lily came into my life. At night she crawled under the covers with me. Sometimes, in the morning, she suffered seizures. I pressed my palms on her quivering body, laying on of my hands to relieve the afflictions of this dog, who was not the baby I’d probably never have.

I never anticipated that in my Jesus year I’d be massaging human bodies at a movement salon in Manhattan. The commute from New Jersey was long. Sometimes I massaged eight clenched people in a day and by evening, my left shoulder hurt so bad the pain radiated into my neck and jaw, and numbed my face.

The phlebitis didn’t recede. Blood clots formed in Dad’s arms. Like beads on a rosary, he said. Mom told me I should visit him so I used the money I’d been saving for my spiritual trek to Nepal.

He was diagnosed with a rare cancer caused by a tumor that had originated somewhere else in his body and spread to his blood. They didn’t know where the tumor originated so they called it an occult tumor. So much for rosary beads, I said. It’s the occult. The situation had a name: Trousseau’s syndrome. Nothing to do with my mental baggage, he said. I think he means emotional baggage, Mom told me when I mentioned it. Either way, I read about the syndrome on the internet. There was no hope.

So, there she is, Dad smirked when the taxi dropped me off from LAX. He couldn’t bear to display true happiness because it would make him vulnerable. He was living at his friend’s house in Sherman Oaks. I’d never met his friends. I had never visited him before because he was too busy for guests. I can’t entertain you, he used to say, and I took the hint.

His friend had an extra bedroom with flowered wallpaper that used to be her daughter’s before her daughter got married, so I stayed there. Dad’s room was off the kitchen pantry in the back, adjoining a small bathroom. He slept in a rented hospital bed. His friend worked as a personal assistant to a movie star whose name I was not supposed to mention, and at 4:30 every afternoon she came home from work and started drinking gin-and-tonics. Lord have mercy, she would say after the first one. Other friends came over to play poker in the evenings but Dad didn’t play poker anymore. He went to bed early so I retired to my room where I watched the flowers on the wallpaper unfurl their petals. The house was huge, with several bathrooms. I tried to use each of them in turn.

Dad was dying. I suggested acupuncture, cranial sacral therapy, reiki, and any modality that might release his negative energy and let the healing in. He said I was in denial. People die, Theresa, and there’s nothing you can do about it. He was undergoing chemotherapy even though it made him sick. Pot brownies were the only food he could stomach, so I baked batch after batch and we ate them together. In the afternoon, we’d sit on the sofa and stare wonderingly at our hands, those veins, those fingers, the miracle of opposing thumbs. I was staring at my hands the day Lily was run over by a car. I saw a golden shimmer like an aura around my fingers when the phone rang and it was my roommate, hysterical.

Then Lily barked her timid polite little bark outside the window and I said, Dad, Lily’s here, see? She wanted to meet you. But Dad had stopped breathing.

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Laura Catherine Brown’s first novel, Quickening (Random House), was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover selection. Her short stories have appeared in fiction anthologies with Overlook and Seal Press, and forthcoming at Bellingham Review. Her work has also appeared in The Fiddleback, Monkeybicycle, Numéro Cinq and Paragraphiti. She has been awarded residencies at the Djerassi Foundation, Millay Colony, Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in New York City where she’s currently writing another novel. Visit her at lauracatherinebrown.com or on twitter @lauracbrown.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Benjamin Rybeck, Brazos Bookstore

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Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week we stopped in with Benjamin Rybeck of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas.

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Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?

Benjamin Rybeck: People ask booksellers this question sometimes, and I wish I had a better answer: If you tell people that, as a young man, you fell in love with Hemingway, you get a lot of eye rolls. But growing up, I was, first and foremost, a movie geek, and so when I found The Sun Also Rises, it felt, well, cinematic: lots of dialogue and action, not much interiority (even though isn’t the book written in first-person? who the hell ever thinks of Hemingway for “interiority?”)—and, perhaps most importantly, short as hell. (Probably falling in love with this book began my lifelong preference for short books—you can read ‘em in a day and feel like you’ve accomplished something!) With The Sun Also Rises, though, I never much related to Hemingway’s whole masculine deal—and in most of his other books (I don’t like many of them, honestly), this sense of masculinity feels like a glass jar the work sits in, preventing me from actually touching it. What I loved—and still love—about The Sun Also Rises was how the whole damn book turns on that one last scene, that one last moment. The entire novel seems tough and agile, but then, on the final page, you realize how sad it is, how much has gone unsaid. Still, to this day, what provokes me most about my own life is how much seems to go unsaid.

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THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?

BR: My first thought? I’d like to spend the day with the version of Richard Nixon in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning—but does that say something fucked up about me? Also, I’m not sure what we’d do, so let’s chuck that notion. Maybe better, I could spend the day with Henry Perowne from Ian McEwan’s Saturday, or Mrs. Dalloway from whatever that book is called, I forget the name. We would simply go around town, running errands. I need to get better at running errands—most days I simply do not get shit done—so maybe I could learn something? Of course, neither character has a terribly good end to his/her day, so I’d bail before the bad stuff went down.

Another thought (if I can pick somebody from outside fiction): I’d like to hang out that Harold Pinter character. You know the one: the sinister young man who enters a home, speaks elliptically, plays mind games. Hell, man, somebody’s gotta shake me out of the comfortable, bourgeois existence of book selling…

THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?

BR: Ha! How honest can I be here, and how badly can I get myself into trouble? (I kid, I kid… )

It has changed my relationship in ways both good and not-as-good—or, at least, ways that make me less happy. I’ve been a bookseller for not long, less than two years. Before that, I came from an academic background—an MFA in fiction, several years teaching writing, long afternoons drinking beers and shooting the shit with other aspiring authors—all of which is dangerous in the hands of a haughty, pretentious dude like me. Hang mostly with writers for years, and watch your talk get abstract and poetic real fast. When I first started at Brazos Bookstore, hand-selling books to customers, I would say things like “the formal experimentation of this book recalls _______” or “the language plays with _______” or “the author explores the theme of ________,” and rarely would I accomplish more than making the customer scratch her face and then ask for the location of the bathroom so she could climb out the window as though escaping a bad date. Then, I started listening to my fellow booksellers (smarter than I, all), and they said things to customers like, “This is book is about a mom and son who reunite to go rob a bank, and it’s fast-paced and visceral,” and customers would snatch the book and run to the register. Turns out people care about story! (Who knew?) The good way that being a bookseller has changed my relationship to books is that it has made me fundamentally aware of the people who buy books, who read books—and what those people tend to look for—and of course, any writer who isn’t, ultimately, thinking about what s/he can do for the reader isn’t going to get very far. Continue reading

Posted in Bookseller Spotlight

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The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: An Excerpt

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It’s a long story here.

—MINERVA PEREZ, NEIGHBOR

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Midway through my first year as a newspaper reporter, I walked through a two-story apartment building in Brownsville, Texas, where a poor young couple had murdered their three children. My assignment was to write about the local debate as to whether the decrepit but historic building should be demolished. It sat on a cor­ner on the outskirts of Brownsville’s downtown, just a handful of city blocks from Mexico. There, tropical birds effortlessly crossed into the United States from points south, while human travelers traversed international bridges or paid coyotes to hustle them sur­reptitiously across the Rio Grande. Yet, even among the quotidian dramas of the border, the deaths of Julissa, John Stephan, and Mary Jane were not merely reported—they were communally grieved.

When I interviewed people about the murders, some cautioned that the crime was a black hole that held nothing within. Heinous crimes are like that, people said. They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in our world. To venture close to an entity so dark and try to wrest value from its depths was not only foolish, it was dangerous: a black hole withholds and mangles all it consumes and devours anything wan­dering too close to its invisible mouth. Yet, the same people who compassionately issued this warning also told me, often at length, of all the crime had come to mean in their lives, how it had challenged their beliefs or fortified them. How it continued to flicker as a figure on the edge of their peripheral vision, moving out of range when they turned to see it head-on.

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That the victims were children, that the father was from Browns­ville, that an explanation seemed always out of reach, had caused people to question their understanding of their community, their spirituality, the values they held as universal. As they reckoned with these questions, they necessarily reconfigured the world around the shape of the crime in its wake.

As I began to visit the building with increasing frequency, I noted a cloud hovering overhead—an accumulation of meaning more dense and persistent than I’d ever intuited. It signaled that there was more to this story than the simple details, the dates and quotes and analysis that a reporter usually assembles. The cloud was heavy with palpable ambivalence, an existential dread about what had happened here and how it had burrowed through and ruptured the landscape, leaving damage that had yet to be completely mea­sured. I began to realize that, if I wanted to comprehend this city, a place layered with unwritten history that seemed to lie naked and obscured in the same instant, this story was key.

I had never before been drawn to tragic crimes. Like many people, I pushed them out of mind when I could. It was easier to box them up and store them on a mental shelf of humanity’s worst moments. Media cover these stories for a while, until the case is closed and the criminal is punished. Then, more often than not, the stories retreat into the background, at least on a national level. For the cities that survive them, what changes? Something must change, even if the dif­ference is unnoticeable on the surface. People continue with their lives, having families and teaching their kids. They fall in love and break up. They get degrees and jobs and build new homes. As for the criminals, I figured they still eat and sleep and talk and think.

John Allen Rubio, the father of the children, had become an infa­mous figure in Brownsville, known by all three of his names. He was both a product of the city, born and raised, and seemingly its com­munal enemy, guilty of an act almost too terrible to make sense of. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, lost, and was sentenced to die. After winning an appeal, his second trial took place seven years after the crime. Again, he was convicted and was given the death penalty.

When I started writing to John, I didn’t expect him to respond. But he wrote to me for years. He told me about his childhood, his depression, and the three children who died that night and early morning. I never fully got used to those envelopes from the Polunsky Unit, sitting alongside the bills and catalogs in our mailbox. John’s answers to my questions were candid and conversational in a way I found captivating. He was a confessed killer, but his personality leaped from the pages, undeniably human, full of ideas and memo­ries. In my mind’s eye, I could see the curtain at the edge of the pro­scenium being tugged away. A construct of this man’s life had been built by headlines and court documents, but it was complicated, pre­dictably, by his reflections, his language, his version of that life.

After that first tour, I fell into the building’s orbit. I’d drive by on my way home from work and pause for a long moment at the stop sign out front. Later, I would park and walk around the perim­eter slowly, cataloging its every corner and blemish and frailty. The cloud lingered here, whether the sky was dense with fog or crisp and blue. Someday, John and the building would be banished from the earth. It felt as if everything were disappearing, or about to, until all that would be left was a sad story with no meaning.

There had to be meaning; it hung morosely overhead. I could feel it following me, leaving a damp film on my skin when I got home.

I began to compile evidence about what had happened on East Tyler Street and its aftermath and sort through it. The collection came to include more than just the testimony and confessions from the murder case. Much of what I considered evidence was tangen­tial: a house where John lived as a boy, the moral claims of the district attorney who prosecuted the case, the arguments made by people in the neighborhood for why the building should be destroyed. Confounding questions emerged, ones I’d never before considered, which couldn’t be resolved by searching a database or conducting a few interviews. Like the algorithm marked in chalk on a mathemati-cian’s blackboard, or the brew in a cauldron, it seemed that if the correct elements were fused, they would deliver the answers.

As I was compiling this collection, a letter from John arrived. It contained a request—for a comic book. His birthday was coming up, he said. He would be thirty-two, nearly ten of those years spent in prison as he went through the appeals process. I imagined him, as I often had over the previous year, sitting in a cell I conjured from Hollywood, wishing for a simple gift, a fleck of life as the days dimmed to black.

The comic was called Rosario+Vampire, Season II, Issue 9. It would be easy and inexpensive to send, and John told me he’d con­tinue writing and answering my questions either way. The phrasing of the request, “Would it be wrong for me to ask you a favor?” struck a chord. Yes, I wanted to reply, this is not how the journalist-subject relationship works. But I’d never interviewed a person on death row before. I might be one of his only connections to the world beyond his cell.

I often felt grateful to John during the time we corresponded. I had hundreds of questions, and he did his best to answer them, sometimes breaking responses down into several letters to get to the whole list. I imagined he got something out of the exchange; there wasn’t much else to occupy the twenty-two hours he spent alone in his cell each day. Maybe it made him feel important to know some­one was interested in the intricacies of his life story, his opinions, feelings, and memories. Still, he remained justifiably cautious as he wrote to me.

I have never spoken to any media member since this thing all hap­pened and I will be frank and say that the reason that I have not is because it would not matter what I say be it true or false it will always be printed in a way that will make me look like more of a monster taht I already look as. I do not trust any media at all but I will give you a chance to show me if I have been wrong about my view on this because I can not blaim you for what others have done and said about me.

Beyond the implicit terms he was laying out—I won’t prejudge you, don’t prejudge me—John also made two explicit requests in that first letter. He asked me to convey his words the way he meant them. He also told me to ask no questions about the crime itself, though in later letters he began to volunteer that information as well. Maria Angela Camacho, his common-law wife, who was also convicted for her part in committing the murders, was serving three concurrent life sentences and would be eligible for parole in 2045. She did not respond to my letters.

My correspondence to John was businesslike. I asked him lists of questions and thanked him for writing back. I didn’t talk about myself or try to create a meaningful relationship. I didn’t want to give John the impression that I was trying to get him released or get his sentence changed. False hope seemed the cruelest currency.

But when he asked for the comic book, I wondered if I wasn’t being cruel in a different way. When I spoke to people outside the world of journalism, I watched their expressions change when I mentioned it. They regarded journalism’s ethical rules skeptically, like the intolerant and rigid laws of a fundamentalist religious sect. The comic book might not be a symbol of manipulation. Instead, giving this gift to John could be an act of uncomplicated compas­sion. Maybe it didn’t merit so much debate.

A month passed and another letter arrived. This one was filled with newspaper clippings—puzzles and articles with little cartoons in the margins. One article showed a picture of a baby beluga whale being fed from a bottle. Above the headline John wrote, “So sweet dinner time yum yum. Just a baby. Jesus is great.”

In the letter, John said the comic book had arrived and he didn’t know whom it was from: “I really did not want to ask you for anything it is just that I reeeaally wanted this book and now I do. If it was not you this is acquered!? Well, who ever did send it I am very happy.”

It wasn’t from me. I’d never made my decision. Continue reading

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Tonglen

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Let me suggest that whoever says “Where did I go wrong?” does not really want an answer. It’s one of those rhetorical questions asking for empathy, not a detailed reply. In fact, it asks for agreement that you are not the one to blame. You did your best, all things considered. And if you are a mother, you especially don’t want a bullet-point list of your parenting history to show you when and where you might have behaved differently so as to get a better result with your offspring.

No, the question directs attention to your plight, not your child’s. I’m suffering here because my son is caught in addiction. I’m sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/disgusted. I’m numb, flattened, and I don’t know what to do. It’s a question that is never more futile than when you’re trying to get it through your head that your child—now an adult in chronological age only, perhaps—has hit the meth wall. The one at which he no longer knows the difference between truth and lie, between right and wrong or organization and chaos, between self-preservation and certain demise.

Privately, these are the first things I consider when my son hits that wall: Is this my fault? What might I have done differently to usher him into wholeness? Why is he so hopelessly derelict? Where did I fail him? I ask these questions as if any of us has a direct line of admonition we can use to guide children into making the right choices and behaving in the most positive ways on their own behalf. We don’t, and they don’t. And none of it makes any sense in hindsight.

Who am I in his life now? Once I was his primary source of nourishment and love, his matrix, his guardian. He turned away and obliterated it all with methamphetamine. He removed himself from me and everyone else. I want to hate him for this trespass. I want to scream at his selfishness, contacting me only when he needs something, and then turning away again. I want to rage against his blatant disrespect—for himself and everything I hoped he would be.

But I don’t, not completely.

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There is a Tibetan practice called tonglen. Buddhists do it in order to remind themselves that in life there is suffering. Everybody suffers, everyone experiences pain. Maybe we even come into this life with our own karmic dilemmas and proceed to act them out, sometimes compounding our own grief. Even we long-sacrificing mothers do. Compassion is called for, but we are not typically compassionate with each other right out of the primordial chute.

As one who appreciates the Buddha’s teachings, I recognize this basic state of suffering for what it is: attachment to wanting life to turn out a certain way. And I suspect that as long as anybody suffers, we all do. How can I think that my specific sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/ disgusted feelings are any more intense than anyone else’s? How can I possibly wish for the safety and well-being of my sons and daughters without also being concerned for all sons and daughters? We are in this together, whether we realize it or not. And as singularly devastating as it is to face my son’s wrecked life, I’m not unique, I tell myself. Everyone suffers.

Tonglen practice challenges perspective in this way; it trains us to get out of our small selves and be concerned with others. It works like this: You breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out relief and compassion. You start with yourself by naming your own personal desperation on the inhalation; then you name some compassionate form of relief on the exhalation. You go on to another individual—the president, for instance, or your addicted son—and continue to take in their suffering and extend to them the end of suffering with each breath, in and out. And if you are feeling magnanimous, you practice this technique on a grand scale, inhaling the suffering of all humankind and exhaling wishes for the end of suffering to all.

Why stop there? The earth is thrashing in bio-systems failure, it seems. Breathe it all in—the smog, the poisoned water, the dying trees. Send out a cleansing, restorative breath to the very planet under your feet, the one we seem to be hell-bent to destroy with our ignorance and our greed. Suck the life out of all the evil ever committed everywhere, and return absolute love and redemption on the release.

I try this. I start with myself.

Continue reading

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Lost & Found: Navtej Singh Dhillon on Khushwant Singh

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The village to which my parents and grandparents belong nestles in a seemingly insignificant part of the world. Khanpur is home to a few thousand people who eat and sell what Punjab’s fertile land yields. It is just a few hours’ drive from Pakistan but bears no trace of a shared past. Occasionally on summer days military jets zoom across the sky and children run outside their homes in the hope of seeing more.

Like many Indian immigrants growing up in Britain in the 1980s, I visited the birthplace of my parents frequently and stayed there for long periods. Though Punjab was the epicenter of the sectarian conflict, rarely did I hear stories about the 1947 Partition, when the Subcontinent was cleaved into two nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. My grandmother mentioned only a few times how the family house, the first brick dwelling built there in early 1900s, had been a refuge for our Sikh relatives who fled Pakistan.

Behind that house was a mound, an elevated dirt patch that belonged to our family where the boys and girls would go to play. That was where Taj lived, the village bachelor known for the quality of dung cakes he made, which were used in ovens throughout the village. It was a job my grandmother had given him. It didn’t carry much status—it wasn’t akin to working on the farm or taking care of buffalos. But what little he earned provided him with a roof over his head.

Over time, as an adult my visits became less frequent, and on each trip I would notice the ways village life changed. Brick rooms slowly replaced mud huts, financed by the steady trickle of remittances sent from families like mine living abroad. In addition to dung cakes, Taj carried gas cylinders for fire stoves. Though the village economy changed, there were few improvements in Taj’s life. He continued to live alone, in a mud hut, on that elevated dirt patch. I would see him out and about near the mound with a deeper bend in his lanky frame.

Once I graduated and embarked on a career in London, my new responsibilities didn’t allow for long visits to Khanpur. It was then that I turned to Khushwant Singh’s celebrated novel Train to Pakistan, first published in 1956. It tells the story of Mano Majra, a fictional village lost in the remote reaches of the frontier, where Muslims and Sikhs live peacefully. By the monsoon of 1947, more than a million people across states such as Punjab and Bengal have been slaughtered and millions more are on the move. Northern India is afire, but so far Mano Majra has remained peaceful.

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The village Singh describes bears an eerie resemblance to the one I know. Mano Majra has three brick buildings, one of which belongs to the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. A railway station distinguishes the place from surrounding villages. Life ticks to the rhythms of morning and evening Delhi-to-Lahore trains. It is when the cattle are rounded and the meals are cooked.

The plot revolves around three characters: Juggut Singh, Iqbal, and Hukum Chand—archetypes representing force, intellect, and power. Juggut, is a towering figure with a hard exterior known for petty crimes. But he is capable of redemption and we see this in the way he loves Nooran Baksh, a Muslim weaver’s daughter. Their relationship, a secret and forbidden for it crosses religious boundaries, is the only thing that anchors Juggut. Iqbal, is an urbanite and a socialist who is visiting the village to mobilize grassroots support for the socialist party of India. In the early parts of the book, the reader doesn’t know Iqbal’s surname, creating ambivalence as to whether he is a Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. Hukum Chand, the village magistrate, is a debauched figure with an insatiable appetite for young women and alcohol. His position lends him considerable authority but he is gravely unprepared for a new tumultuous era.

Love across religious lines is the cardinal sin and also what might in the end save the village. Every night Juggut and Nooran rendezvous by the green fields. One such night Iqbal disembarks at Mano Majra train station. “It is after seeing the world that one feels how backward we are and one wants to do things about it. So I do social work,” he tells the priest shortly after arriving. During long strolls in the village he laments the state of his country. Abandoned animals foreshadow human deprivation: “A mangy bitch lay on her side with a litter of eight skinny pups yapping and tugging at her sagging udders.”

Night and day as metaphors have a special place in Singh’s plot. Bad things happen only at dark. The day is when life returns to normal. One late evening, armed robbers come to the village and murder the moneylender. The murder is pinned on Juggut and he is arrested. Iqbal is amongst the first in the village to ask if the murder of a Hindu moneylender is a religious hate crime. Iqbal, too, is arrested for spreading his socialist ideology. In prison, Juggut and Iqbal form a relationship. “I hear we have our own rule now,” Juggut asks Iqbal. “Yes, the Englishmen have gone but the rich Indians have taken their place,” Iqbal says.

It isn’t long before communal violence strikes Mano Majra. One morning a ghost train arrives from Pakistan loaded with the dead bodies of Sikhs and Hindus. The mythical sanctity of dawn itself is violated: “When they woke up in the morning and saw it was raining, their first thoughts were about the train and the burning corpses. The whole village was on the roofs looking towards the station.”

What happens next is in large part shaped by the reactions of the three main characters. Hukum is confused and paralyzed when he is informed of a plot by villagers to derail a train and by killing passengers, turning it into a cargo of Muslim corpses. Singh shows how the political and intellectual classes prove impotent when base human instincts are unleashed. Even Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t appeal to the nation’s senses, and Hukum after all is a less perfect man. Hukum asks the sub-inspector what happened to the two men who were arrested for the murder of the moneylender. He releases Juggut and Iqbal, one in search for his love and the other in the quest of a more perfect country. How, the book asks, will the characters ally themselves? That question determines the fate of the village.

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Soon after reading the novel for the first time, I remember asking my father about Partition. Taj, he told me, was a Muslim. His mother was amongst the few who had refused to resettle across the border.

The next time I returned to the village, I visited Taj’s home. Even he now lived in a brick room with a tin roof. He was old, and his hands had lost their agility. I asked him if he had relatives in Pakistan. Proudly, he showed me letters he still received, inviting him to visit. He was a child when his mother had refused to join the foot caravans heading west. Time passed and they never left. But he was too old to travel now. He never married because there were no Muslim girls left in neighboring villages. But he did have a request for me, he said, and the next time we would meet, he will ask me.                                            Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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Uta’s Escape

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Two days before the synchronized swimming nationals, our Flyer vanished. I don’t mean she didn’t show up to training, and I don’t mean she left the pool through a door and didn’t re-enter the door. In the ninth hour of training, we threw Uta Franke into the air and Uta Franke did not land.

The only person who was not underwater at the time, apart from the Flyer herself, was our trainer, Olivia. She sat in her usual spot, the fold-out chair beside the stainless steel ladder. Olivia says her eyes were averted from the pool because she was reaching for the stop button on the stereo. We hadn’t executed the barracuda position in time with the music, which was an unforgivable fuck-up two days before a competition, and she’d seen six-year-olds execute a smoother barracuda, and at this rate she might as well take twelve dogs from the shelter and throw them in the pool and they would still out-barracuda us, and—why not—look better in turbo swimsuits too. This is what she claims she was thinking that instant, when she banged stop.

I was the last one to touch the Flyer. My teammates and I had formed an underwater platform to launch Uta into the air for her dazzling spin and split combination. I was the topmost part of the platform, the shoulders Uta used for the jump.  Naturally, it fell to me to explain her disappearance. But what could I say? Did her feet feel a little different that time, the umpteenth? Did her toes dig in to my skin a little more or a little less than usual, before she hurled herself into nothingness?

The first murmur among the team was that she’d drowned. After nine hours in the pool, two in the gymnastics room, it wasn’t implausible. Maybe her heart gave out. Maybe she passed out from a concussion; the twelve of us never swam far from of each other, a kick in the head wasn’t uncommon. But a drowned body would still be in the water. We checked! All twenty-two goggled eyes scanning, stupidly, the blue empty corners of the pool. Miranda, one of the lifters, even ducked under the floating walkway to make sure. It felt like a game of hide and seek, a little naughty because it was a little fun, since we still thought Uta would turn up.

“Drain the pool!” Olivia cried to no one in particular. She was hefty, broad-shouldered, with a bellowing voice you couldn’t say no to. It would fill the pool through the underwater speakers, along with the clack of her brass pipe against the ladder, her do-it-yourself metronome. One-two-three-four-one-two-three-four-split-those-legs-or-I’ll-do-it-for-you-two-three-four…

The technicians drained the pool.

Uta really, truly, wasn’t in the pool.

If not in the water, then, maybe she was somewhere in the air? It was ridiculous, we all knew it, but we had to check all possibilities. The way you check your pocket for your keys just one more time, even if the last three tries yielded nothing. I imagined Uta’s arms and legs dissolving midair during a spin, the molecules losing their bonds, getting sucked into the monstrous vents high up in the ceiling. Olivia had the technicians check those, too: “The girl is quite small.”

Authorities of all kinds swarmed the arena. Fire chiefs, police officers, paramedics shuffled around the empty pool, first responders looking for something to first-respond to.

The team fell into a state of muffled giddiness. We peeked under floor mats, shook out our gym bags. We pressed our fingers to our lips to keep from smiling. Uta had done what each of us had fantasized about during our years of training, even if the fantasy only lasted a second or two. Elize had tried it once, last season. After vomiting at Olivia’s feet, she propelled herself to the bottom of the pool, pressed her head against it, and refused to resurface. We looked to Olivia for instructions—it was forbidden to touch the bottom—but she shook her head. The girl would have to come up for air eventually, and after a full three minutes, she did. Training resumed.

The evening of Uta’s disappearance, no one spoke in the locker room. We heard only the squawk of latex caps being peeled off scalps. We eyed each other, not without suspicion, as if our bodies held some sort of clue.

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Maria Reva’s work includes short fiction and opera libretti. She was a finalist for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. Ongoing projects include a collaboration with City Opera Vancouver, The Lost Operas of Mozart, set to premiere in October 2016.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Transactions

Flash Fidelity

When I was twenty-two and single, I worked behind the counter at a bakery. Customers would point at pastries in a case, and I would hand them those pastries, my hand sheathed in a thin vinyl glove. Sometimes they pointed at a particular pastry—the biggest cinnamon roll, for instance, or the darkest croissant—and I would have to move my arm slowly until I reached the right one.

When I went home my apartment was empty, except for two cats who avoided me. One of them hid under my bed and the other one cried until I let him outside. I slept alone every night for over a year.

There was an older couple who visited the bakery every Saturday and always came in holding hands. Sometimes the wife leaned into her husband as he pointed to the slice of pound cake he wanted. They seemed to be aging unevenly. Though she was lovely, with auburn hair piled loosely atop her head, she looked like somebody’s grandmother, while he still had swagger. I concluded that she was lucky to have him.

The following year I took a job waiting tables. I worked the breakfast shift and tips were terrible: two quarters left next to an empty cup, one dollar next to an egg-streaked plate.

One morning the husband came in, alone. He sat by the window and when I came to take his order, his eyes traced my body. I was wearing a black skirt with white socks and I became suddenly aware of my bare knees. He asked my name, and I told him, though some part of me wanted to keep it for myself. He left me a five-dollar tip for a six-dollar breakfast.

For months after that I crossed paths with him everywhere—in the bookstore, on the sidewalk, at the bar. Though I avoided him, he always he spotted me, even from a distance, and always he called me by name and spoke to me as if we had a history, as if he had touched me in all my tender places.

I am thirty-eight now and my bare knees no longer interest men, but my body is in demand. My children fight over my lap. In the middle of the night my toddler summons me and I leave one shared bed for another. I don’t run into the husband anymore, but I often cross paths with his wife when I run on a trail through the forest near my home. She is on her morning walk. Her posture is straight, almost regal, and she looks just as she did sixteen years ago, her hair pinned to the top of her head with a silver barrette.

I nod as I pass, unsure if she recognizes me from the years she handed me bills from her purse, the years that I poured water for her tea, the years that my gloved hand reached for her husband’s cake. As I pass I imagine her body, ample and soft, receiving pleasure beneath clean white sheets. This is the thing that I wish for her—pleasure—as I continue to run down the trail, alone and sweaty and breathless.

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Jennifer Berney is a mother, writer, and teacher. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in The Manifest Station, Brevity, and Cactus Heart, among other places. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner and two sons.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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Looking Shapes the Woman: An Interview with Mona Awad

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We as a culture have perhaps never before talked more about the body. Yet this conversation spins again and again through the same rhetorical loops: the body-positive marketing couched as affirmation, the girl power slideshows, the call for all women to feel beautiful that points back to the failure of all women to be treated as such.

Enter Mona Awad’s fantastic new genre-bending fiction, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which escapes this doublespeak. Awad’s book turns our attentions from the diluted and universal to the powerfully specific in this story of how one woman is shaped by her shape. Sharp, perceptive Lizzie, Awad’s eponymous “fat girl,” sees her social powers wax and wane as her weight and sense of self evolve over the course of the book. Awad’s writing is white hot, and deserves to be invoked alongside Gaitskill in its observation and cutting humor, its literary pleasures. It’s impossible not to care for Lizzie: not a talking point, but a sweet, calculating, hurt person—that is to say, a real woman, who leaves that scarequote-worthy cliché miles behind. Mona and I conversed via email earlier this spring.

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Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: From its title inward, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl takes on the dual project of showing us how much who Lizzie is perceived to be is determined by her body, and of truly seeing this girl in all her particularity. To me, this is precisely what makes this book great: Lizzie is a singular, incredibly human character. Which came first, Lizzie or an interest in writing towards a bigger conversation about women’s bodies?

Mona Awad: That’s a great question. Probably, I would say they came roughly at the same. I think I first started with the image of a young woman in a dressing room staring at a piece of clothing she already knew wouldn’t fit while her mother and a saleswoman waited outside. She actually sort of appeared to me during a long car ride in Utah. She wasn’t particularly specific in terms of her exact body size and her physicality. But I knew this was a woman for whom body image was a deep struggle. I knew this was a woman who saw herself as a fat girl, and that the term itself was a loaded and complicated one for her. Who and what were shaping that way of seeing herself? And then a number of other images came to me: that same woman having lunch with a friend, having sex, out with her mother. In each of these scenes, this notion of herself as a fat girl was playing itself out differently, being reinforced differently. And I knew I wanted to explore all the ways in which that notion of herself as a fat girl had affected her life–especially her relationships–and the way she was in the world. That was when the idea of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl came to me–I wanted to challenge and complicate all of the assumptions, images, and simplifications that come with this term, to explore how “fat girl” isn’t simply a question of flesh—it’s a far more dynamic, psychological and relative state than this, one that can hold contradictions, is internally and externally constructed.

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EKH: What were the most surprising things you discovered about Lizzie over the course of writing the book? Were there parts of her psychology or choices she makes that you couldn’t have anticipated?

MA: She was crueler and harder at times than I thought she would be. She was certainly less of a victim than I expected. She was also more obsessive than I initially imagined. I think the story in which she becomes fixated with a larger woman after she herself has lost weight was a story I did not anticipate writing. But I also think it was an extremely important confrontation for Lizzie to have—this is a woman who is happy in her own skin and Lizzie still isn’t. I also was very surprised to leave her where I left her at the end the book. But I was committed to portraying her with as much honesty as I could and to leave her anywhere else would have felt false.

EKH: Lizzie has a terrifying, powerful line early in the book in which she wishfully imagines herself older and thinner and says, “I’ll be hungry all of my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.” What do you make of this choice that Lizzie sees for herself? Is this dichotomy between happiness and eating always so extreme, or only so as seen from Lizzie’s teenage vantage?

MA: Yes, I think that sentence definitely betrays something of Lizzie’s overall psychology and certainly her teenage one. One thing I really wanted to explore in the book is the dynamic relationship between perspective and body image, the space between how we see ourselves, how we imagine are seen by others, and what might actually be happening. I think the first story/chapter in the book, in which Lizzie says this as a chubby teenage girl, sets up those tensions and those disconnects. It also prepares the reader for the stories to come and for the mind, the eyes and the body that they’re going to inhabit throughout the course of the book.

EKH: Lizzie’s insecurities make her vulnerable to the dubious, exploitive friendships of other girls like Mel and China. It’s satisfying, and I think also very perceptive of you, to see how Lizzie is also able to capitalize on the role she’s been cast in by dint of her weight. My favorite section of the book is probably “Your Biggest Fan,” in which we realize Lizzie is seeing not one but a number of needy, aspiring songwriters, all of whom assume she’s otherwise desperate for affection. Can we talk about that? How does Lizzie manage to leverage other people’s assumptions about her in her favor?

MA: “Your Biggest Fan” was definitely a very pleasurable section to write. Each story is titled after a different way that Lizzie believes she is seen or imagines she is seen by others. Ways that she resents. Ways that are simplifications. Ways that box her in as a victim which I then attempted to complicate or trouble and even subvert throughout the course of the chapter. In this chapter, I think the notion of herself as a victim of this self-obsessed musician gets subverted. He also becomes her victim in the end—in part because he needs her just as much as she needs him and his need gets used against him. We often get pinned into certain roles because of other people’s needs and weaknesses. There is real power in realizing that. And Lizzie does. Being seen as a “fat girl” isn’t necessarily a branding or a stamp of victimhood. It’s far more complicated. Certainly it can be that, but it can definitely also be a position of power too. When we use other people’s less than flattering assumptions about us (especially the ones we resent) in our favor, we challenge those assumptions. Ultimately, Lizzie is neither a victim nor a hero of her own story. She is both, often simultaneously, and I think that is what makes her human. Continue reading

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On the Couch with E. M. Cioran

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This unlikely conversation took place in Santiago del Cuba. We (Andrew and Clancy) were on vacation with our families in Havana when we were invited by two tarot card readers, bluff cigar-smoking local women who spoke French, to meet a “very old crazy Frenchman who tells prophesies,” and who, according to them, scavenged fish and octopi on the bay in that hot, clamorous city on the southeastern side of the island.  One of the tarot readers had a nephew there she wanted to visit, and we had a car and an outsize interest in prophets. We looked at each other with excitement: “A Cuban Jodorowsky!” Our wives and children declined to join us. 

When at last we found the man on a garbage-strewn beach, he was sitting in filthy clothes on a couch with three legs and no cushions, cooking pencil-sized fish over a fire. His hair white and wild, he looked to be at least a hundred years old, and, casting each other questioning if hopeful glances, we sat down to watch him suck the meat from the bones of the tiny fish, snapping his fingers when he was through with each one. After a time, he began to regale us with stories of Paris, insomnia, the coming apocalypse, and despair—and Andrew, his interest overtaking his impatience, at last asked him: “Have you ever read E.M. Cioran?” “I am Emil Cioran,” the man replied. “Are you from the police? Or are you priests? My father was a priest…” He fell into inchoate babble then, but we opened a beer for him and his lucidity seemed to pick up with the wind. Soon we became convinced that this was, in fact, the great Romanian philosopher—or his ghost come back to life on that desolate bay with the black water at our feet. The conversation lasted long into the night. We have offered just a part of it here . . .

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Clancy: Emil, you say that we moderns have discovered hell inside ourselves and that is our good fortune.  How could that be lucky?

EMC: What would have become of us if we had only hell’s external and historical representations?  Two thousand years of fear would have driven us to suicide.  Saint Hildegard’s description of the Last Judgment makes one hate all heavens and hells, and rejoice that they are only subjective visions.  Psychology is both our salvation and our superficiality.  According to a Christian legend, the world was born when the Devil yawned.  For us moderns, the accident of this world is nothing more than a psychological error.

Andrew: Right, and that depresses me on two levels, even as it gets me off the hook for Hell-Hell.  If there is indeed an error to our world, if existence is some sort of mistake—or even if it’s only the case that we sometimes experience it that way (as I do)—I want us to take the error very seriously, perhaps even—dare I say it?—sacredly rather than secularly.  At the very least, I sometimes hunger for there to be a massive “mistake” that is outside of us, bigger than us; I long for life’s scary cruelty and inexplicable indifference and just general madness to be ontological, cosmic, rather than personal and selfie-ish.  What about you, Clancy?  I’m desperate to know if you ever have this longing, or even see the situation this way at all.

Clancy: The good fortune, the happy accident, is that having hell inside ourselves gives us, if not control over our hellish situation, the possibility of reconciliation with our hell, and perhaps even the opportunity for liberation from it.  In one of The Buddha’s early sutras, he talks about “the two darts”: the first dart is the pain of physical or mental suffering, the pain of birth, old age, sickness and death, the pain of so much of our emotional experience, the pain of our “selfie-narratives.”  I remember once, when I was still in the jewelry business, a Swiss watch wholesaler was in my office and he looked at me quietly and said: “What is it, Clancy? Internal dialogue driving you crazy again?”  That’s the first dart, which is the internal hell that we’ve represented externally.  Our salvation, which is also our psychological error and the world that we all live in, is the second dart: how we respond to the first dart.  The second dart is one we throw at ourselves.  It is the crying out of protest at the first dart.

Cioran

EMC: A cry means something only in a created universe.  If there is no creator, what is the good of calling attention to yourself?

Andrew:  Great—our session has hardly begun and I already feel superficial, trapped in psychology and a meaningless, uncreated world.  I feel ashamed! Continue reading

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