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When I used to demand things of my first love, when I was unhappy
even in his arms, he would say, Mi fascista.
Because I would say, It has to be this way.
He was full of affection.
In enneagram, I am an “individualist” (4) with a streak
or wing of the “achiever” (3).
He disliked when I burned candles, which I did when he was out.
Our studio was cramped. He could reach into the “kitchen” for silverware
from his chair at the “dining” table (it was a card table)
and with his other arm select a book from the shelf by his desk.
An artificial red flower grew from the balcony railing
on a strip of wire coated in plastic.
A hummingbird would sometimes attempt to patronize it.
This was so pitiful it made me weepy.
My first love laughed (the one time that he saw it).
If he returned from class and candles had been burning
he would say, Gatita. Que mal.
I did not see what was wrong.
He had no understanding of what one stood to gain
by inviting the other worlds. His parents were doctors
and I loved him so much I did not want to spook him by explaining.
Kayla Krut is a Zell Fellow at the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poems have recently appeared in a Perimeter, the Berkeley Poetry Review, and the Brooklyn Review. She is from San Diego, California.
Morgan Parker‘s much anticipated poetry collection is out today, and we’ve got the tunes to go with it. Here’s Morgan’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé-inspired playlist (and the current soundtrack to Tin House dance parties). From Louis Armstrong to Kendrick Lamar, and from Lady Gaga to Queen Bey herself, it’s five hours and 51 minutes of greatness.
Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books, 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize. Her work has been published in The Paris Review, Poetry, The New York Times, The Nation, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. Her poetry has been anthologized in Why I Am Not a Painter, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, and Best American Poetry 2016. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellowship. She lives with her dog, Braeburn, in Brooklyn, NY. With Tommy Pico, she co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series, and, with poet Angel Nafis, she is The Other Black Girl Collective.
I was living in Paris a few years ago when I happened into a prescient gig: videotaping interviews with adult children of child survivors of the Holocaust in France. For background, the professor overseeing the project urged me to reread The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. Reread The Lost? I had never heard of it. When my used copy arrived in the post, I buried it in my procrastination pile. Although I felt engaged by the interview project’s driving question — how do families construct their narratives? — I assumed The Lost would read like the dozens of Holocaust stories I listened to when I was a kid: as predictable and linear as dominoes.
I was a child of the 1980s, when Holocaust survivors and their stories of escape emerged as a force in the cultural consciousness. Back then, I had no idea the prevalence of these accounts was a new phenomenon, ushered forth by Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah, the nine-hour long documentary breakthrough. For me, hearing such stories was routine and, I can now admit with requisite shame, boring enough to induce eyerolls. As far back as 1982, my Hebrew school teacher, G’veret Cohen, welcomed our second grade class with her firsthand account of jumping off the train to Auschwitz — at your age! — and surviving the war in the woods. She retold her story in front of the entire school every spring, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, when she would bring survivor friends to share their stories. At age seven, all I saw was a parade of old people with Polish accents recounting similar-sounding tales. Inglorious, and true.
Nearly 30 years later in Paris, my project supervisor, an éminence grise of Holocaust research in France, asked on a third occasion, for my thoughts on Mendelsohn. I relented. From the opening line, I was hooked: “Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that I’d walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry.”
The Lost is the story of Mendelsohn’s search for the wartime fate of six of his relatives in Poland. Specifically, he wants to know how and where and when they died in the era of the Nazi scourge. From this premise, Mendelsohn crafts an adventure story of such humanity and momentum that as I read, it didn’t matter that I knew — or thought I knew — the ending, that his relatives would perish, somehow, because they were Jews living in Poland in the early 1940s. What compelled me was Mendelsohn’s ability to locate a new, gripping and intimate way to tell these narratives. Instead of recounting the past, he creates an original event, spelled out in the book’s subtitle: A Search for Six of Six Million.
My interest was not just literary or historical. It was personal. Twenty years earlier, my little brother was killed in a car crash. As much as I wanted to write about him, I felt stymied by the ordinary circumstances of his death. In the two decades before and since, the statistics for teenage boys killed in automotive events in the U.S. have remained as consistent as the country’s apathy about fatal car crashes.
I still feel a measure of shame making an association between my brother’s random, very American death and the targeted, off-the-scales killings of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, I was stirred by Mendelsohn’s example of how to tell such a story. By marshaling multiple genres — reportage, memoir, travelogue, textual analysis, archival research — Mendelsohn fashions a family history of such varied texture that he rescues his relatives from the anonymity of the mass graves.
As a boy, Mendelsohn adored his grandfather and his prolific, if not always truthful or complete storytelling. “He could go to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk and come back with an amazing and dramatic story to tell,” he writes. Young Daniel is especially fond of the stories of their large extended family and their lost way of life in Bolechow, the Polish city where his family lived for 300 years before the Nazis and their accomplices killed all but 48 of the original 6,000 Jewish inhabitants. Always absent from the narrative is his grandfather’s brother, Shmiel, and Shmiel’s wife and four daughters. These are the “six” of the book’s subtitle: “Out of all this history, all these people, the ones I knew the least about were the six who were murdered, who had, it seemed to me, the most stunning story of all, the one most worthy to be told.”
To young Daniel, it wasn’t just the stories but the way his grandfather told them that captivated. For one thing, they were funny, so funny that a great-aunt once peed her pants at the dining table. There was more:
“When my grandfather told a story, he wouldn’t do anything so obvious as to start at the beginning and end at the end; instead, he told it in vast circling loops, so that each incident, each character he mentioned, had its own mini-history, a story within a story, a narrative inside a narrative, so that the story he told (as he once explained it to me) was not like dominoes, one thing happening after the other, but instead like a set of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, so that each event turned out to contain another.”
The description arrives early, and it’s an explicit roadmap into Mendelsohn’s own storytelling strategy: a lingering over details, seemingly irrelevant facts, and ancillary anecdotes — these are the Chinese boxes — until the connections between the fragments, all the little things that make life interesting, gradually sharpen into focus as the story narrows, burrowing deeper into the devastation than readers may have believed possible while demonstrating how the Holocaust continues to mark those who had no direct experience of it. Continue reading
It was a kind of turning. For months it waited for the right conditions—a full moon or a drought—before waking up. Lodged under skin and muscle, it slept there with its feet braced against the bottom ribs. Sometimes it woke up for a minute and kicked at all the insides until shit poured out, but it could wait a long time.
Outside, it was raining. Big conifers tipped each other over, turning up roots like fans. Water snakes made homes in hollowed-out logs, and faces fell off mountains in whole sheets. When there were no more giant trees to build with, everyone paddled west into the mountains, portaging over hills and housing developments on stilts.
First it ate the appendix, and then the gall bladder. It ate in its sleep, chewing slowly, gums against gums, and sucked the pink slip down so hard its whole face dimpled. It got bigger as the moon got bigger, pressing up to the sternum, its elbows hooked back into the coccyx. It was round and white and its veins ran blue-black across its forehead. Anyone could watch it growing from the outside. Next it ate the left ovary and the fallopian tube (it liked them so much), and grew some more.
The wetness of it was surprising, and that it didn’t come all at once. First it was a foot with round opal toes. It wriggled out to test the air and refused to take a breath of pearl fluid and blood before it got its head out. First it was only toes, and then it was legs, too. Long legs. And then feet and legs and a pumping chest getting ready for the breath but refusing to take the breath. And then the whole thing, sliding out on a cord tethered to the body. At first the cord looked just like an intestine, but it wasn’t an intestine. When the whole thing was out it breathed and screamed and crawled on top of the body until the cord tore off. It stayed with the body. Once, when it got dark, before the stars blinked out, it tried to climb back in. First a small opal-nailed fist, and then two, but it couldn’t fit its head into that warm and darker space.
The moon came closer than ever and the mountains woke up, too. They coughed up islands that floated into flooded valleys. They shook open gorges. Now the rain let up for most of the day, but poured for hours every late afternoon.
It could never fit its whole head back into the body so it made a home outside of the body, a nest lined with hair in the hollow of the belly. It lodged its feet under the ribs and lay back, legs stretching and contracting as the lungs breathed. It sucked its thumbs and watched sky.
Meg Pendoley‘s work has appeared in Cleaver magazine. She lives and works in Philadelphia.
Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below. He had been among the shelves all afternoon, thumbing through the secondhand books from front to back, pausing at folded-over corners, or where the text had been underlined, flicking through the pages to persuade them to offer up what might be hiding between the leaves. The cup of tea that Viv had brought for him had cooled, forgotten on the window seat. At about three o’clock he had picked up Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, a book he recognised and thought he might already own. It had fallen open, and there, tucked between the pages, he had been surprised to see a folded sheet of thin yellow paper with blue faint lines.
Trembling, Gil had sat beside the cup and turned the book sideways so he could open the note without removing it. One of his rules was that the things he found must never be taken out from their original location. He lifted both the book and the piece of paper up to the rain-streaked window. It was another letter, handwritten in black ink, and when he squinted he could read the date—2nd July 1992, 2:17 PM—and, under that, his own name. The text below that was smaller, and the writer had paid no attention to the lines provided but had allowed their writing to slope downhill, as if they had written it at speed.
He patted the breast of his jacket, swapped the book to his other hand and dipped into the inside pockets, then tapped the sides of his trousers. No reading glasses. He moved the letter nearer and farther away from his face to bring the writing into focus, and leaned closer to the window. The light was poor; the storm that had been forecast for Saturday had arrived a day early. When Gil had locked his car in the car park beside the Jurassic Crazy Golf playground, he saw that the wind had wrapped a plastic bag around one of the front claws of the Tyrannosaurus rex, so that the creature appeared to be about to step over the wire fence on its way to do some shopping. And as Gil had walked along the promenade to the bookshop, the wind had gouged troughs in the grey sea and flung the top edges of the waves towards the land, so that now, standing amongst the old books, he could taste salt on his lips.
A blast of rain rapped on the window, and that was when he turned to look out and down to the narrow street below.
On the pavement opposite, a woman in an oversized greatcoat stood gazing along the road. Only the tips of her fingers showed from the ends of the sleeves, and the bottom hem came almost to her ankles. The coat was a dirty olive colour from the rain—the cast of the sea after a shower—and it occurred to Gil that his daughter Flora would know the colour’s proper name. The woman pushed a strand of wet hair off her face with the back of her wrist and turned towards the bookshop. The gesture was so shockingly familiar that Gil stood up and was unaware of knocking over his cup of tea. The woman tilted her heart-shaped face to look up, as if she knew Gil was watching, and in that moment he understood that the woman was his wife; older, but without doubt, he thought, her. The rain had flattened and darkened her hair, and the water dripped off her chin, but she stared at him in the same defiant way she had when he’d first met her. He would have known that expression and that woman anywhere.
Gil slammed his palm against the windowpane, but the woman turned away and stared along the street again, towards the town and, as if she had seen the person or car she was waiting for, strode off. He hit the window again but the woman didn’t stop. He pressed his cheek sideways against the cold glass and saw her for a moment more before she was gone from view. “Ingrid!” he called, pointlessly.
He snapped shut the book he was holding and, clasping it to his chest, hurried down the stairs, then to the front of the shop and through the door. From behind the till Viv called to him, but he kept going. Outside, the rain pasted his grey hair to his forehead and soaked through his jacket. The street was empty but he marched along it, every two or three steps breaking into a trot. By the time he reached the high street, Gil was puffing and struggling to catch his breath. He stood on the corner and looked up the hill. The pavement was empty. In the other direction, towards the sea, some tourists hurried, the squall bowling them closer to the water. He limped after them, scanning the people ahead for the large coat and glancing through the steamy windows of the café and the bakery. He weaved around a young woman with a buggy and, ignoring a stab of pain in his hip, crossed the road at the corner without checking for cars. He was on the promenade, eight feet or so above the beach. In the distance, a man walked at an angle against the gale while an ugly dog jumped and snapped at the wind—too fierce for May, more like an autumn storm. Gil slowed but continued to shuffle, head lowered, along the promenade until below him the sand ended and the breakwater boulders and the massive concrete blocks began, wet with leaping spray. The rain flew in his face and the wind buffeted him, pushing him into the metal railing at the edge of the walkway, tilting him over it as though he were being passed from hand to hand in a violent dance. Between the rocks, about a dozen paces farther along and below him, Gil thought he saw a jut of olive and the whip of lifted hair.
“Ingrid!” he shouted, but the wind took his words, and the woman, if that’s what he had seen, didn’t even turn her head. He continued along the promenade in her direction. Twice he stopped to lean out over the railing, but the angle and the height of the walkway—together with how she was hunkered down—meant he lost sight of her. When he judged that he must be above Ingrid, he tipped forwards over the railing again, but now couldn’t even see her coat. He put his head and torso in the wide gap between the top and bottom bars, and, with the book in one hand and the other on a vertical post, Gil inched his left leg over the lower railing, swivelling it awkwardly so his foot remained on the lip of the promenade, while he negotiated his right over the bottom rail. When he was on the other side, he clung on to the wet post with his free hand and cantilevered his body out, but his left foot in its leather brogue slipped.
It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be, and then he thought about whether, if he survived this fall, he should ask his children to promise to make a pyre of his books when he did die, and what a sight that would be. The fire, a beacon announcing his death, might be visible as far as the Isle of Wight. And Gil considered that if today was the 2nd of May 2004, which he thought it probably was, it meant Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly, and he also thought how he should have made it clearer that he had loved her. All this went through his mind while he fell between the rocks, and then there was pain in his arm and bursts of light in his head, but before the blackness swallowed him up he saw the book open beside him, its spine cracked in two.
Soon after the 2016 US election I spoke with a celebrated writer and dear friend who expressed being “exceedingly triggered” by the 45th president’s apparent victory. “I knew he would somehow win,” she said, “because my life has been continually shaped and distorted by the greed and ignorance of men like him, in positions of power, taking everything they can get, whatever they want, whenever they want. What am I, what is my very life, if not a projection of and product of the desires of such sick men?”
If I am to be part of a solution to the crisis in which all Americans are now and have perhaps long been mired—a legitimate political, personal, psychological and spiritual emergency—I know that I must, wherever possible, fend off madness and abuse with dialogue that is true, empathetic and open-handed. Indeed, I believe it is urgent that we all try our utmost to do so. And I understand that doing so will not always feel righteous or comfortable. In fact, this essay opens up a dialogue that I have been avoiding for years, and my silence, rooted in shame, as it so often is, has probably cast a shadow wide enough and dark enough to hide new hurt to others, caused by the same madness and abuse I could have called out years ago. I failed to do so. There is a kind of clarity of purpose, however, that comes alongside the horrible irony of seeing a former abuser, a narcissist and a self-proclaimed “expert” in all he does, a charismatic leader who often told me he was “the kind of guy who gets elected for things,” celebrated for his involvement in a “Writers Resist” event. Over and over again he made me promise not to write about him. It’s a promise I’ve broken many times—most explicitly now. What is perhaps most breathtaking about the myriad supportive responses I usually hear, not only about him but also about the second writer and teacher I will describe, below, is how many responses I get go exactly like this: “I’m sorry. Me, too.” It’s no wonder such men would rather I say nothing, write nothing. In tentatively reaching out, I’ve learned I’m not alone. But there may be some of you out there who still think you are.
When I was working on an MFA I had a predatory, exploitative teacher who, over the course of a year of email and coffee meetings and a few beers, convinced me he loved me; who told me we were going to move to Europe together and write letters home to friends, casually mentioning each other until everyone understood we were together, whereupon we’d marry; who eventually called me names, hit me; who locked me in a closet; who cut me with glass. I was 22 when I met him. He was older than my parents. He is a much beloved and celebrated storyteller. A teacher, a mentor, a master of the craft. He humiliated me so thoroughly in every imaginable way that memories of the time, over a decade later, still stop me in my tracks.
He introduced me to whiskey, to his wife, to his children. The more despicable behavior I was talked into committing, the more certain he could be of my silence, both then and forever afterward. He made fun of me and called me piggy whenever I ate—anything—no matter how small the bite, until I started calling myself piggy, too (slowly but surely, over the course of two years, I adopted all of his language until even everything I wrote sounded like him). Over a decade later, I still cannot trust my body. Sometimes, he wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom by myself. Sometimes, he made me go with him to the bathroom. This man repeatedly told me that whenever in my life I’d hear the sound of my own breath, that would be him whispering to me. Can you imagine? When I’m walking, running, cooking, kissing my children, in bed next to my husband, meditating alone in an empty room.
When I finally broke free and, a year afterward, went on to get a PhD, one of my new teachers asked me to attend a prestigious writing conference with him. He asked me to come not as a fellow or scholar, or colleague or even student of any kind, though I’d already completed two Masters degrees and published half a dozen stories by this time. Instead I was to be the nanny to his children. I declined; he responded that he’d find some undergraduate who would be thrilled for the opportunity. In class a couple weeks later, he explained the fairly mundane and easy-to-grasp concept of subtext by asking everyone to imagine that I was getting married, but that ______, a fellow student in our class, was at the ceremony, and that I was sleeping with him, too. After class I burst into tears and went straight to student counseling. Talk about being “exceedingly triggered.” I started keeping records, and sharing them with everyone I trusted. Was I crazy? Was this crazy? Was I wrong to feel so continually threatened and unsafe? How convenient for teacher #2 that teacher #1 had destroyed my ability to trust my intuition.
At required one-on-one meetings afterward, this new teacher: 1) opened up an otherwise empty desk drawer to reveal a single Hershey’s Kiss, which he gave me ceremoniously as a “reward” for writing a good story; 2) told me an early draft of my first novel was “so good it made [him] want to sleep with me.” Unmistakeably recognizing, at this point, a road I’d already been down, and with the support of another faculty member, I reported him, removed him from my committee, and finished the degree without his assistance. I was sorry to do so. He, unlike the aforementioned, was truly a gifted teacher and writer. And again, a much beloved and celebrated storyteller. The university determined that none of this had been sexual harrassment but rather, as he’d explained to them, and they explained to me in a private conference weeks later, just his way of complimenting and supporting me. “Let’s just forget any of this ever happened,” he suggested. Continue reading
At the Shiva, people tell me I’m lucky.
They say they know someone, who knew someone, who met a woman in the meat aisle, whose fingers they grazed while reaching for the number dispenser. Who looked up horrified. Whose eyes flashed, not with, I didn’t mean to, but with something like wonder electrified.
A woman who said:
I haven’t felt someone else’s touch in a long while and would it be okay if I left my fingers here? If I left them here just a little longer?
Could you maybe just read aloud your grocery list or keep nodding into your cart? Is there a baby in that basket stroller or is that a dog? Whatever it is, if something’s breathing in there, stirring in there, could you just stand here a little longer? Can you pretend to talk to me? I can pretend to listen. If you want me to, I can really listen. Artie never really listened.
If you want me to, I can wrap the chicken breasts you ordered in even thicker butcher paper so the breasts won’t stick. I have some here, right in my purse; it’s no trouble. I’m touching your hands again, I’m sorry—I don’t really mean it though, it’s quite lovely. I’m just reaching for the chicken. It’s a funny thing, chicken. We have an awful way of turning them into an insult while also popping them in a deep fryer and organizing holidays around eating them with dipping sauces.
Artie could’ve been a chicken. By that I mean he was a fan of anything that could be coated in oil and grease and then slathered with butter. Anything except his women of course. Women were meant to be small. Women were meant to have legs that go on and on, kind of like you do. You’re lucky, you know. To just look like that. Most women don’t just look like that. But looking the way you do isn’t always enough—I see you’re getting dinner rolls. You picked out the packaged brand, the one with all the seeds and grains. I hope you don’t mind, but I think you’d be better off with the doughy knots from the bakery counter. If you have someone at home, I think he would like those. It’s important to know what he likes.
If he isn’t happy, one day he might say: Marlene, I’m heading in for a shower. And you might say: Alright darling, I’m off to the grocery store. Later we can cook together.
Only when you come back with the diet pills they’re always going on about on the television, and some low sodium turkey to fool Artie with, to try to reverse what the doctor said was heading for his ticker, well, Artie may be gone. By which I mean: your someone may be gone. He may be gone for good, with the car, with his clothes packed in, with half of your money—more than half of your money if you’re really being honest with yourself. Without even bothering to pack any photographs.
Or Artie could be dead at the bottom of the tub. His body could be slimy and wet, and he could be lying there, just waiting for you; hoping you brought him the good stuff from the store, but you didn’t bring him the good stuff from the store, you brought him the healthy garbage that makes him grumble, the healthy garbage that’s only meant for your consumption. The healthy garbage that turns into real garbage when you find wrappers from McDonalds in the trash and the untouched quinoa patty you seasoned for over two hours right underneath it. What I mean to say is, if you aren’t careful, if you don’t choose your bread right, you might lose someone.
If both rolls cost the same amount, why not get the tastier option? There’s no sense in trying to change him. What’s the sense of health without happiness? Life is about the tiniest things. It’s really the small things about Artie that I miss. Not the ones we photographed, not the ones we posed for or planned out. The time we licked chicken skin from our fingers and went at each other—really went at each other, right there on the sofa. I don’t think we did it again like that, I think that time was special. We were slimy and oily and he kept clutching at me, and I know there were parts of me that were saggy, but he didn’t try to smooth them out, he didn’t try to erase me, he let those uneven bits stay. I was just me that day and Artie was Artie.
At the Shiva, they say: Think about Marlene. All mothers get old. All mothers get grey. You’ve only lost your past, what if your present went away? What if you kept going to the store hoping to come home to someone who was already long gone?
I say: To my mother, I was Marlene. I wasn’t any of the things she needed me to be.
But they’ve already moved on from me. They know someone who knows someone, who met someone else, who has something else to say.
Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB Magazine, Washington Square, The Offing, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Recently, she was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She has an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University.
‘Multi-stranded’, ‘polyvocal’, ‘perspective-shifting’ – call it what you will, but to my mind, a novel that consists of various narrative strands braiding together to form a glorious, elegantly-crafted whole, will always be best-described as an ‘Interweaver’.
I have just published my first ‘Interweaver’, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, and I decided to take the plunge with this structure for two very different, but equally-important reasons. The first is quite simply that all my favourite novels are ‘Interweavers’. I’ll get on to my Top 5 in a moment, but just generally I have always thought there is a richness and a complexity to those books that appeals far beyond any singular narrative. I like getting inside a range of people’s heads; I like seeing different sides of the same story, and the gaps that inevitably exist between the alternative versions; I like guessing how all the individual strands are going to coalesce (or not) by the end.
The second reason I opted to write an ‘Interweaver’ is far more practical. Since my novel is based around the history of the Jewish community in Ireland – a community I knew almost nothing about before I started writing – I did a lot of research (far too much research, in fact), and was then tasked with figuring out how the hell I was going to include all the amazing stuff I had unearthed. So I thought ‘OK, I’ll have one strand that starts in 1901, one in 1958 and one in 2013, that should do it.’ And lo and behold, my first ‘Interweaver’ was born.
Before I did anything else, I spent ages constructing a very detailed plan, knowing that architecture here was going to be key. I then alternated between the strands as I wrote – the last thing I wanted was for one to be stronger than the others, or to develop an obvious preference between the three. That said, somewhat inevitably, I developed a massive preference – and indeed, whenever I gave early drafts to my best friend (and first reader) the question I would always lead with was: ‘Who’s your favourite? Who’s your favourite?’
Invariably, she chose the same as me. It might have been a testament to our perfectly-aligned tastes, but I was certain it spoke volumes about the other two strands. I didn’t sleep for weeks.
The more I wrote and redrafted, though, the less I thought of the three narratives as separate, and the more they grew entirely interdependent. From a plot point of view, each one was necessary to move the overall story forward. Also, the recurring allusions and references meant that more and more layers began to develop, a kind of texture or depth that added to the sense of it being a single, unified whole.
When it came to sending it out to publishers, however, I was terrified again. I kept imagining they would call me up and say ‘yes, we’d like to take on your book, but only if you just write a whole novel based on one of the character’s stories.’ And what would I do? Obviously getting this novel published was my ultimate goal, but was I really ready to unpick the tapestry I had spent so many years stitching together? Could it even be done?
Fortunately, they wanted the whole lot. They still thought one strand needed more work than the others – which I dutifully did. And then ironically, all the reviewers have been most critical of the one I thought was the strongest. Murphy’s Law! I guess it’s just an ‘Interweaver’ occupational hazard – readers will always have preferences; will always be sad when one voice goes shtum and another pipes up (and hopefully glad when the opposite occurs).
During the editorial process I was also told by a senior industry figure that different markets actually react very differently to ‘Interweavers’. So for example, a French readership will be happy to read for ages without a single clue of how the separate strands are going to link up, whereas an American readership will want some kind of hint pretty much from the start. It turns out there were more occupational hazards than I realised!
But whenever I got stuck, I turned to my favourite ‘Interweavers’, which hail from Ireland, America, Ghana, Australia and the UK (and plenty of other places in between). Each one does things a little differently, but each one totally blows me away with the combined force of its multiple voices; its finely-tuned harmony that echoes in the skull long after the pages have been laid to rest.
- Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Colum McCann has always had a thing for ‘Interweavers’, but no two of his books are ever quite the same. In Dancer (2004), he uses a kaleidoscope of different (and largely contradictory) perspectives to conjure a deliberately frustrating and elusive ‘portrait’ of the Russian Ballerina Rudolf Nureyev. In this way, the novel’s form complements its more general exploration of the fleetingness of celebrity culture, as well as the fluidity of personal and sexual identities.
In McCann’s second best novel, This Side of Brightness (1998), he jumps back and forth across almost ninety years, using the spatial dichotomy of the newly-built skyscrapers and the underground tunnels to add a further layer of balance to his split family narrative.
However, it is McCann’s best-known work, Let the Great World Spin (2009), that is my absolute favourite ‘Interweaver’ – and indeed, my favourite novel – of all. It is set over the course of a single New York day (August 7th, 1974, to be precise); the day that Philippe Petit tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers. McCann’s Irishness and the book’s quotidian format have inevitably invited comparisons with Ulysses, however here we do not follow one man as he wanders around a city, but simply watch one man as he walks back and forth on a metal trope, much to the delight and despair of the diverse cast of spectators below.
It is amongst these spectators that we find the brother of a lapsed Irish monk, dreaming of home; a posse of long-suffering prostitutes, touting for work in the Bronx; a bereaved mother on the Upper East Side, struggling to hold it together; a photographer riding between subway carriages, capturing flashes of graffiti in the dark. These lives begin to intertwine in ways far beyond their shared spectacle, such that the man on the wire eventually takes on a more symbolic resonance, representing instead the precariousness of life, the fine line between creation and disaster; the beautiful and the awful.
McCann has admitted there were originally a number of other characters in his New York cacophony, which he was ultimately forced to cut. And I like the idea of him having to really work at getting his ‘Interweaver’ just right; having to negotiate the countless occupational hazards and make sacrifices accordingly.
The novel’s final chapter jumps forward to 2006, tracing a continuity between past and present – one of McCann’s favourite tricks – as the character, Jaslyn, reflects on the human impulse to survive: ‘The world spins,’ she says. ‘We stumble on. It is enough.’ The line still gets me every time.
I wasn’t officially banned from the Winchester Public Library in the spring of 1976, but for a few weeks, I stayed away. Mrs. Barger, who worked the checkout desk, had discovered me on the back stairs after hours with one hand dangling a Newport Light and the other inside Billy Doyle’s jeans. She knew and respected my three older sisters, and though I suspected she wouldn’t rat me out, I couldn’t face the judgment that was sure to be coiled upon the old lady’s face if she saw me. So I sent my mother to get Travels with Charley for my ninth-grade Steinbeck project. By accident or by ruse–I’ll never know– Mrs. Barger sent her home with Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt.
The book’s breezy conceit–eccentric elderly woman plucks her virgin nephew from his life tending dahlias and off they go to exotic ports of call–was the perfect foray into Greeneland and I was beguiled by the author’s literary charms. By the time I sat down with The Comedians, five books later, I still loved the tableaux of colonials clinking pink gins while rebels plotted in the shadows, but what got me into the tent isn’t what kept me there. I allied myself with Greene’s autobiographical heroes–men at once bound to, haunted by, and estranged from the Catholic Church, whose teachings run through their veins. At fifteen, I wasn’t really much of a sinner, but like Billy Doyle and pretty much everyone else I knew in suburban Boston, I was a Bad Catholic. Saddled with the twin encumbrances of lust and guilt, yet fully knowing what was right and holy, I took a sharp left away from catechism and what the nuns had tried to impart. Like lepidopterists or Francophiles, conflicted Catholics have a way of finding each other, as if to share the burden of juggling transgression and confession while trying to live a life. It is the constant tug of these extremes that only a person doused from birth in sacramental incense and holy water can fully comprehend, and one best endured in similar company.
The Comedians isn’t Greene’s most Catholic novel–that is probably The Heart of the Matter. But narrator Mr. Brown’s Jesuit upbringing is always at the forefront of his brain, whether in his frequent remembrances of his first (and only) fuck with the married teacher twice his age, who picks him up at the betting tables in Monaco where he was a seminary student, or in his guilt over his own guiltlessness in the arms of his present-day lover. “‘Man has but one virginity to lose,’ and I lost mine that winter afternoon in Monte Carlo,” Brown, the owner of the Hotel Trianon, ruminates in another casino, this time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on the night he meets Martha Pineda, the young wife of a fat South American ambassador. Even when he collects his winnings, Brown can’t dodge the shadow of the Catholic priests who raised him, as he discusses whether ambassadors–then husbands–are necessary evils.
“‘You believe that evil is necessary?’” he says to the cashier. “‘Then you’re a Manichean like myself.’ Our theological discussion could go no further, for he had not been educated at the College of the Visitation, and in any case the girl’s voice interrupted us.” The “girl” being the married woman with whom he’s about to sleep.
Brown strays and adheres simultaneously; he conveys that being a Catholic means that although you will never shake your history or the rituals that constitute its core and backbone, you’re also doomed to pursue sin, no matter what the cost. But he isn’t talking murder here, just sex. As a teenager, what wasn’t I to admire in this? I could think of no bigger turn-on than a person for whom seduction always prevails. The Greene hero knows he is damned, but he also knows that sensual pleasure is what grounds us in this short life, and anyway, there is absolution (or at least personal accountability) in the confessional. Greene was the most masculine of writers–all that whiskey, all that sweat-drenched lovemaking with either younger women or married ones or both–but I am convinced he really wrote for us ladies. Greene’s characters are troubled by their own detachment from women but they still respect them. The author gives them brains, and never condescends to the prostitutes in the brothels the heroes frequent in back alleys from Saigon to northern Argentina. In the Haiti of The Comedians, as usual, such women are smarter, braver, and more politically switched on than the johns. Greene wrote for men who like women, but also for women who like men–especially unencumbered loners who take big risks, are always in the mood, and, sexier still, are tortured Catholics. Continue reading
Recipe: How to Become an Immigrant and an Exile
Listen. Do you hear ghosts? Connect them to the sound of a canoe
on Indian Ocean. Listen to that tape of familiar beats that has weathered
foreign seasons. Sukus found in Salsa. Fela Kuti meets Masekela
in Appalachia. Do not inhale the coal fumes. Hold a memory.
Commit sins of transportation. Bite the past. Spit broken teeth
and colored blood that will chart global awareness. Learn
to say fuck without flinching. Seduce anarchy of the mind and try
to order schizophrenia in realms just outside the touch of your black
hand. Image coming at you. Color it in Old English and an accented
haiku and see what you win. If lucky enough, if you are one those
lucky cigar smoking sons of bitches, play the lottery and you might win
the lady’s hand. Do not try to break the chains that bind her feet.
Hold her. Touch an image of her that is a mirage of you. Laugh
and say she is crazy to forget with you. Sip your beer gently.
Light up, let the sizzling seeds pass from your lips to hers. Watch
the smoke and its promise, it will turn you onto possibilities
of the night–Smile. Ghosts. As a child voices sang in my sleep
and then took to life. I dueled them with screams that were hushed
with threats of tranquility. I stole Don Quixote’s sword and found
a horse in my bouncing bed and would have won the battle
but for the doctor who found malaria where there was none. Pills.
Silent duels. And so when the police with guns and big black coats
came for my father, it must have been a dream I dreamt. That
night–pills with no water but morning tea still found a newspaper
damp with dew. Swords thrust, truths as righteousness of strength
bouncing horses and Marx–it could all have been a dream. Learn
to stay up late and talk of classes and footsteps. Not of classes
but of labor at the nearest Micky D’s. Dance to old rhythms Continue reading
We are thrilled to announce that Tin House is curating Dear Reader, the writing residency series with an epistolary twist, for Ace Hotel New York this 2017. Each month, a writer selected by Tin House will spend one night at Ace Hotel in Manhattan, penning a letter to an imagined audience. On a surprise date the next month, the letters will be laid bedside in each room, to be found and read by unsuspecting hotel guests.
Kicking off the 2017 series is Garnette Cadogan, brilliant essayist, author of “Walking While Black,” editor-at-large for Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Garnette’s letter will “drop” on an unannounced day next month, but first he talked with Tin House about the glories of the epistolary form, writing for his best and worst selves, and the literary importance of kitchen counters.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
What better correspondence is there than one which makes you rip open each letter—or click open, if, like most people, email is the way you exchange letters (but, oh, the tactile joys you’re denied!)—excited at the things you’ll learn? Things you learn not only about the person writing, but also about the world, about yourself, about things you didn’t even know you’d ever have any interest in. If there’s charm and humor and brilliance and affection and playfulness in the mix, all the better. I guess, then, that I’d love to correspond with Virginia Woolf, who could be all these things and more. (I would, however, tell her to hold back on the Bloomsbury gossip; and I would hope that my criticisms of her snobbishness toward the middle-class and my stronger criticism of her more inexcusable intolerances wouldn’t make her stop writing. If so, I’d just start corresponding with George Orwell, whose life was so full of varied adventure and who had so many wise things to say about books and politics and life in general, that I would only send him letters that said “Tell me more, Eric.”)
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I map out my writing in the loosest way—by writing a word cloud. I jot down the themes, questions, and problems that most intrigue me. (This is why I always begin my writing on paper; my first drafts are a bunch of words and a few questions, with lines drawn between them). I write down words that remind me of people or scenes or stories that I’d love to explore or introduce to readers. And then I start searching for a way in: I fuss over the beginning, treating it as a skeleton key that will unlock the rest of the piece. Once I know how to begin I feel confident that much else will fall in place. I then write the opener, and pull back to write a word cloud for each successive paragraph, moving from a neighborhood of words to a pathway of paragraphs.
And I’m never sure where I will go. Not true, actually—I always know where I will go before I begin writing, but I never want to end up there at the end. If I follow the route I had seen in my mind’s eye, then I feel that I have learned nothing; my writing, at the least, should be a process of discovery. Writing should teach me something new, should open doors that lead to interesting new places. This is why in the early stages I plan very little beyond putting down the ideas, moods, and characters that interest me—I’m reluctant to shut down the side routes that lead to fascinating destinations.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I am drawn to questions that demand patience and thoughtfulness. As I pursue these, hoping to discover stories and ideas that reveal how fascinating and irreducibly complex our world is, I hope that I’ll please myself at my most curious, most thoughtful, most compassionate. And in doing so, I pretend that I am a stand-in for an audience of thoughtful people. But I also imagine myself at my worst—impatient, lazy, obnoxious—and try to write to move this version of me to listen to the best me. So, I try to be a spectrum of readers and hope that, in satisfying the various versions of me, I’ll say something that will enrich to a variety of readers, including some not ready to give me a fair listening. But I am sometimes—too often, really, when I write— my own worst critic. When I can’t turn off Mr. Hyper-Critic, I imagine that my dear friend Becky Saletan—as good a reader as you’ll ever encounter—is my audience.
And I’m always surprised by the people who are drawn to my work. Without exaggeration, I am surprised by anyone who is drawn to my work. I’ve roamed around my own head and seen the detritus in there; since my writing is me trying to shape something coherent out of the rubbish that often passes for my thinking, I’m always taken aback when a reader tells me that my words were worth reading. Until I can read my work with the objectivity that Becky does, I’ll be constantly surprised—but it’s not such a bad thing that I’m grateful for every reader who has taken the time to read my work (including those who don’t like it but took the time to read to the end).
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
It seems perverse to wish that a book that is well-known (in the United Kingdom, that is; far too many in the U.S. are unaware of it) were much better known by many more people, but I’m convinced that not enough of us have read Robert Macfarlane’s marvelous The Old Ways, a book he rightly describes as being about “landscape and the human heart.” It’s a beautiful—yes, that’s the word!—book about the joy and richness of encounter, the value of friendship and companionship, the beauty of nature and people who find themselves attracted to it, the importance of attentiveness and its role in deepening compassion, and the fundamental need for us to wander and wonder. Maybe one day I’ll stand on the street corner with crates of this book and hand them out to everyone who passes, shouting “Read it today, I beseech you!”
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
The only rituals that accompany my writing are ones that need to be quashed. After all, they are rituals of procrastination: talking to friends; reading good books on related topics; nightwalking during which I turn over ideas in my head (and, alas, turn away from my desk, to which I ought to chain myself). I have no ceremonies or requirements that accompany my writing, except that I need to have pen and paper (in any form—napkins, concert programs, even cereal boxes; I don’t write on a laptop until I have most or everything down on paper).
I do have preferences for my writing, though—the most important of which is that I love writing on a kitchen counter. I do my best work writing on a kitchen counter. In my dream office, my desk is custom-made from a kitchen counter.
The jester spider (Venenum beatus) moves sufficiently fast that we cannot perceive it. As humans have proven too large for it to digest, the jester spider always flees before a foot can tread upon it in the backyard or a finger can corner it in an old work glove. Sometimes, however, it will mistake a sleeping human as a stable hunting ground—preying on other arachnids, mosquitos, and house centipedes, which are drawn to the warmth of our skin and the blood beneath. If the human shifts, this will occasionally provoke the jester spider to defend itself. The ensuing bite causes no pain and leaves no identifying marks. It is also, without exception, fatal.
Death by jester spider venom proceeds through four discreet stages. The immediate effects consist of several nights of deep and often dreamless sleep, with little to no tossing and turning. Victims wake feeling refreshed, with a general feeling of heightened well-being, though this can be interspersed with episodes of sadness or mere contentment. Scientists have determined that this mistaken embrace of one’s own secure vitality is a result of the venom manipulating our parasympathetic nervous system. Often people in this stage refuse to believe that they have even been bitten, and will go so far as to deny the very existence of the jester spider, despite all evidence to the contrary.
After an indeterminate amount of time—in some cases, years after the victim has been bitten—this initial response is replaced by the second stage of poisoning, characterized by periods of light to severe depression. Trouble sleeping, constipation, excessive and disturbing dreams, and headaches often occur and are usually falsely attributed variously to side effects of medication, allergies, breakups with long- or short-term partners, multiple cloudy days in succession, or the fear that achieving one’s life goals will not necessarily ensure a decent living or personal fulfillment. Interestingly, children bitten by the jester spider, no matter how young, almost never reach this stage before puberty. Tests exploiting possible short-term antibodies have, however, failed to produce a viable vaccine.
It is during the second stage that sightings of the jester spider most often occur. Usually the victim sees the arachnid during normal REM sleep. Typically the spider appears disguised as a former boss or deceased relative, during dreams of tests unprepared for, of loved ones murdered. The awake but unfocused mind will sometimes experience a “negative sighting,” marked by shadows seen to move just beyond the visual periphery, skin-crawling responses containing no apparent stimulus, or a strong feeling that the victim wanted to say something but is unable to remember what it was. However, these various sightings are by no means guaranteed, and in fact many victims of jester spider bites remain asymptomatic throughout the first two stages.
The third stage, on the other hand, manifests in nearly every victim. The body, sensing it might not survive the effects of the venom, implants in the conscious mind the desire for procreation. While the infected individual rationalizes offspring as innately joyful and even necessary to human fulfillment, the body instinctively operates on the collective-unconscious theory (since scientifically verified) that jester spider venom cannot be sexually or vertically transmitted, and that offspring might therefore be a means of surviving, in a sense, the otherwise lethal bite. The production of art and architecture can similarly appease this instinct, as can the creation of any business or charity that may continue on after the individual has perished. In controlled laboratory settings, third-stage victims have attempted to found entire religious sects.
Individuals who reach the fourth stage without succumbing to one of the many cancers, heart ailments, or lapsed-focus accidents resulting from jester spider envenomation now begin to manifest a unique form of cellular degeneration known as scurraeism. Hair loss, muscular atrophy, breakdown of joint cartilage, varicose or “spider” veins, and various moles, wens, and liver spots are only a few of the forms scurraeism can take. Frequent urination is a vain attempt by the kidneys to excrete the poison, which by now has become undetectable by any medical means, having essentially merged with the body. By the end of this stage, the venom has entirely assimilated the organism, so that a human victim is no longer, strictly speaking, human at all, but is instead a near-perfect replica of a human, composed entirely of scurraeitic tissue. This might account for Capgras Delusion as well as the pervasiveness of “undead” myths across countless cultures throughout human history.
At last, after as many as eight decades, the completely envenomed individual can no longer continue to function and all circulatory, respiratory, and metabolic operations cease. In articulo mortis, the victim will invariably perceive a final pneumatic ejection from the failing corpus, proceeding upward toward an immense light. This is often accompanied by the sensation of being enveloped in the embrace of deceased loved ones, angels, or some other form of religious psychopomp, and of being guided or returned to a matrix of eternal connections with the whole of humanity and the universe. Scientific possibility and spiritual immortality have now been reconciled by the jester spider venom. With this final consolation, the individual succumbs.
As the body ceases to function, pheromones are released. These pheromones often trigger a concentrated stage-three response in nearby individuals, most notably those who share a portion of the victim’s DNA. Statistics have shown that in up to 80 percent of cases, the resulting creative endeavors mirror the victim’s final images of the sublime, most often via metaphor. Thus the lethally poisoned victim transcends into the aesthetic beyond. As for the unbitten, the best we can hope for is life.
James Will Brady (Scriptus vulgaris) spends his days embracing the third stage of envenomization, completely oblivious to its destructive effects. He lives in Iowa, with an amazing First Reader, in a house filled with very helpful spiders. He probably does exist.
Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read advance copies of Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, the U.S. debut of acclaimed Irish author Ruth Gilligan. Spanning the twentieth century, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan interweaves three narrative voices to tell the unknown story of Ireland’s Jewish community. It’s an ambitious, revelatory portrait of the migrant experience, what it means to belong, and how storytelling can redeem us all. After our Galley Club members finished the book, we asked for their thoughts—here’s what they had to say.
Ruth Gilligan is a novelist, journalist, and academic from Ireland, currently living in London. A graduate of Cambridge, Yale, East Anglia, and Exeter Universities, she contributes regular literary reviews to the Guardian, LA Review of Books, Irish Independent, and Times Literary Supplement. Her latest novel is Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, published in January 2017 by Tin House.
Every night as I lay in the scut of my Montague House bed, I tried to picture my mother’s face. Not as I had seen it last, soggy with tears the day she gave into my father’s demands and left me here alone. Or even white with terror up on the shul balcony the day of my bar mitzvah—the day I stopped speaking and this whole mess began. But just Ima, smiling, fresh from the shower so that her lovely blond hair was free from its headscarf, her skin mottled a pinky hue from the water’s heat.
Each night I savored the image, the single thing that kept me going these days. Only, the longer I stared at it the less it looked like my Ima at all, the face distorted with time and doubt and fear until, really, it was nothing more than an approximation, an estimate. Like a thesaurus for people, abstracted so many times ’til the original just doesn’t make sense.
I love you.
I strongly like you.
I, strongly similar to you.
I, with large muscles . . .
So close to being lost altogether.
From outside the window I could hear Tourette’s Tony shrieking at the Scrabble board.
“SCROTUM! SCROTUM! SCROTUM!”
It would be a decent eleven pointer, in fairness to the lad; could even change the O for an E and do “RECTUMS” instead, better and cruder yet. But I suspected Tony didn’t actually have the letters for either word, or even the blanks.
It was four o’clock on an anemic-looking Tuesday afternoon, which at Montague House meant games hour, the weekly bit of craic amid the gloom. The sessions were closely supervised to ensure no one tried to shove a dice up their arse, or slit their wrists with an ace of hearts—better again, a joker, if they were feeling particularly ironic—but while the rest of them acted the bollocks with counters and boards, I was down on my knees and hands in the muck, crawling beneath the protrusion of the common room bay window, praying to God I wouldn’t be seen.
I had never really been the outdoorsy type—my hands much too far away to coordinate with my eyes—so the sweat of the crawl alone was a killer. But with the added terror of being caught, my chest was relentless—needed a few blanks of my own to calm the bloody thing down.
I paused to pant. The stones were digging into my kneecaps, a vicious impale like a gnashy set of teeth. But I carried on despite myself, dragging my body under the ledge, my face so close to the dirt my nose might scrape a rut that looked like the trail of a snail. Or no, I spurred myself now, why not like the trail of an IRA officer penetrating a British base? Or an Israeli soldier invading Sinai back in ’56? Or like an un-bar mitzvah-ed mute off to meet an old Jewish cripple for Tuesday afternoon story time?
I rolled my eyes but they saw only mud. I remembered Alf once told me it was better to be buried on your front, to make sure you were a gonner, like.
Of course, Alf himself never seemed to bother with any of this cloak-and-dagger shite; always just wheeled into our meetings from round the front of the house, casual as you like, as if the whole thing were above board. To be honest, I half suspected Sister Frances just sneaked him out, then covered up his tracks, the pretty nun still caught on some daft bit of softness for the grouch.
We had managed a couple of get-togethers a week out here in a forgotten part of the garden—about all that was feasible, given the constant vigilance of the place. Apart from games hour there were the ongoing sessions with Doctor Lally (“Maybe your voice box is in a sort of a coma, lad?”); the priest’s visit (an obese prick named Father Dwyer who wouldn’t so much as acknowledge my existence); the weekly shower hour (“’Scuse me, but why is your knob missing a bit at the top?”); the nits check (a new one they had chucked in as an excuse to shave off our skulls so we all looked the same). And apart from the hectic schedule, there was the added restriction that Alf refused to meet on Friday evenings or Saturdays, always surprisingly strict in that regard. “It’s the Sabbath, you gobshite. Thou shalt not create—didn’t you pay attention in cheder at all?”
Even though I wanted to point out that, actually, I didn’t create a thing out here, only transcribed the words exactly as I heard them—my side of the unlikely bargain.
The secret garden was most likely the remains of the Montagues’ old potting shed. When I arrived I wiped the clumps off my knees and began to yank at the rocks in the corner until, finally, I had uncovered the thing I needed.
The jotter was the same as the ones we had had at school. A dull, piss-yellow color; a sketch of a Martello Tower on the front, as if to encourage every gobshite in the country to become the next James bloody Joyce. And actually, I thought, didn’t he once have a wank over a retard himself?
I opened the book and took out the pen that had been wedged in against the spine. The ink was already running low—Alf would have to nick us another one soon. Or how about getting one of those quills like that Rabbi Loew lad we learned about in cheder? Apparently he would just dip the nib of it in ink, close his eyes, and let the words come down from above; scrawl out predictions about the massacre of the Jews until, unbelievably, the things came true.
And maybe if I had that quill I could do the opposite now—write down what I saw and somehow make it untrue again, and then speak.
And get out of here.
And see my Ima.
“Jaysus, Shmendrick, you look more like a convict every day with that bleedin’ hairdo!” Alf rolled himself in with a growl and a spit. “Fucker of a day, isn’t it?”
I looked at him and nodded. Charmed.
His regulation shirt had been buttoned the wrong way up, his slacks at least two sizes too big so that his leg stumps were absolutely swimming in them. Or maybe it should have been drowning. From what I could gauge the flesh ran out just at the knee, which was kind of ironic given my own slacks had been lopped off exactly there, my shins permanently exposed to the world.
“But come here to me, like,” he said now, straight to the business of the thing. “This can’t be a long one, all right? Apparently Monica the Mutt is on the warpath today, so we’d better leave a clatter of time for getting back to tea.”
Dutifully, I began to flick through the jotter’s pages, looking for the next blank.
“Come on, come on.” Alf had wheeled himself in so close I could feel his breath on my forearm, drying the mud into cracks. “Where were we?”
Until it appeared, the last line I had written. I tilted the Martello Tower so he could see:
From the first time I saw her I plied her with questions, needing to know every bit.
It had been four days ago, that smear of poetry. Four days and how many years? How many lifetimes?
But Alf wasn’t waiting to find out. “Yeah, that’s right, Shmendrick, absolutely plied her with questions. I just wanted . . . well Jaysus, I just felt this need, like, to know her; to have every last piece.”
With one palm beneath the jotter I clenched my fingers round the pen. Muck dropped from my nails, little pips like a fall of extra punctuation. Or, really, like a dot dot dot for everything I knew was about to come.
The story itself was just a love story, once you got to grips with it, though that was easier said than done. At first Alf ’s memories had come out arseways, a gnarly mess almost impossible to follow, but by now I had found the shape of the thing at least; the bones.
For a while, I sleep with a man from Uzbekistan, because he’s as far from the person my mother would choose for me—a Lutheran, Minnesotan farmer—as possible. We make polite conversation. He says his brother is a private investigator of murders, his favorite dish is horse meat, and his mother wants to arrange his marriage. He asks if I like Ellis Regina. I do. So does he. We listen to her as we lay together. He has a giant airbed instead of mattress and bedspring. It has a tiny hole in it—he doesn’t know where. The nights I stay over, I wake to our bodies tipped together into a great valley in the mattress. It’s not his body I mind in those moments—his is not an unpleasant body. I hate that I can’t move, hate facing then the helplessness that comes when my weight and another’s are trapping us together that way.
He brings me apples from the cafeteria. We’re both working through grad school, both as tutors. We work in separate rooms, and sometimes he’ll send me a Facebook message. I left you something in the breakroom fridge. It’s an apple. Every day, an apple. Sometimes many. An apple when I leave his apartment in the morning. An apple at work. An apple if we go for a stroll in the evening. Bitter, bruised Empires. Granny Smiths. He brings me dinner sometimes, too. Breaded fish fillets, soggy sandwiches.
This becomes the routine. I go to Rustam’s in the evening. He plays Portuguese jazz and dims the lights. He presents me gifts from the cafeteria. I dutifully eat. Sometimes he eats with me. Usually he just watches. He gives me red wine. We make small talk. Crawl onto the airbed to watch a movie. Wait thirty minutes to give the pretense credibility, at which point Rustam closes his laptop with great deliberation to say “We’ll have to finish it another time.” Then sex. He snarls, his lip rising off his gums. He messes with the music mid-thrust, his breathing heavy to the popping of the IPod’s volume being adjusted. Morning, I wake in a dip in the bed. Unless Rustam wakes to help balance the weight, I cannot leave. Without his help, I cannot move.
After a month or two of this, on a walk at night, we stop at the playground of a Catholic school. I ask him what this is, what we’re doing. I’m frustrated that no matter how much time we spend together, I feel no closer to him. We create an absurd cartoon. He says, well he really isn’t looking for anything serious right now. He just likes spending time with me. I think that means he likes the sex, or maybe he’s lonely, wonder if that’s me, if I’m lonely.
I wonder at my unplanned expression of doubt. This whole business should be fun, freeing, and I like it when he speaks Russian or Uzbek to me—I enjoy not understanding the language a man is speaking to me, because then I think he’s saying whatever I want him to say.
A poet once told me an apple is never just an apple. Continue reading
My grandmother had a mechanical wall clock powered by weights. To wind it, she pulled down one of the weights, and for the next twelve hours, the clock ticked off the lengths of the chain as the counterbalance forced it back up.
When I spent the summers with my grandmother on the Karelian peninsula, my privilege was to wind the clock, as long as I managed to do so precisely at eight oh five in the morning and in the evening. The evening winding was also my bedtime. Having wound the clock, I said good night to my grandmother and left her on the veranda, mending clothes in her chair under the clock. I lay in bed behind the thin wall, trying not to pay attention to the mosquitos buzzing over my head and focusing instead on the sound of the chain’s movement. My grandmother claimed that she didn’t need much sleep. Sometimes I woke in the gray dusk of the northern night and, peeking from under my blanket, watched as on the high bed across the room grandmother lay with her arm raised in the air, killing mosquitos.
My grandmother often let me sleep in past the morning winding. I woke up to the clock ticking with a renewed vigor, the echoing sound driving home the idea that I’d missed something important. The floor by my grandmother’s bed was littered with the bodies of mosquitoes. My grandmother was outside, tending the vegetables. Only the severest thunderstorm could keep her inside by day. There was work to be done, so much work. I tried to hide from it. I sat in grandmother’s chair and read until she came in to get me.
We had twelve hundred square yards of potatoes, radishes, apples trees, raspberries, and currant bushes to care for, and she couldn’t do it alone. But always in September I returned to Petersburg, to go back to school. My parents borrowed a car to come and get me. They collected the sacks of potatoes and the jars of jams and pickled vegetables to take to the city. Finally, time came to say goodbye to grandmother.
This is how I remember my grandmother: in the chair under the clock, one of its weights low, nearly touching her hair, and the other riding high, reaching but never quite making it to the edge of the clock. To this day, wherever I might be traveling in the world, when in the evening I notice eight oh five strike on my computer or phone, I think about grandmother, how she has to get up and pull that weight down herself.
Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author; born in St. Petersburg, Russia, she calls San Francisco her home. Her third book of stories was published in Russia in 2016. Her English-language fiction has appeared in World Literature Today, Epiphany, Narrative Magazine, Santa Monica Review, J Journal, and other print and online publications. Olga serves as a co-moderator of San Francisco Writers Workshop. She was a proud recipient of 2010 Tin House Scholar Award.
Freebird is out now from Graywolf Press.
Jon will be reading this Friday (January 20th/7:30) at Powell’s City of Books.
You could always get unmarried in life. You could switch jobs. You could get fat and turn around and get thin again. You could change your haircut a thousand times. But there was one thing you couldn’t ever change, and that was being dead.
No, death was the great and ultimate threshold of human experience, the one-way door through which no one ever returned. You could swap houses, you could make water into ice and back into water again, but being dead, that was the one irrevocable, un-changeable state.
Curtains for you, Shane Larson, Ben thought.
In ten minutes, the curtains would be drawn once and for all on Shane Larson’s life, and there would be no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Perched on the roof of Palm Canyon Resort, his rifle cradled against his chest, breathing slowly and methodically, Ben waited patiently for the next pivot point of his own vengeful life to arrive. You could never stop being dead; nor could you ever bring someone back to life once you’d greased them.
His eyes remained fixed on the third hole of the Indian Canyons golf course, framed over the white lip of the resort roof. He’d chosen the Palm Canyon for its slight elevation; it was the only three-story building near the perimeter of the links. The third hole was not his favorite choice—he might have preferred a higher number, if only for the drama of letting the tournament play out—but overall the third hole was acceptable. There were at least three exit routes nearby, paths going north and south along South Palm Canyon Drive, and a vast, empty scrubland -stretching west into the mountains. Plan A was to evacuate on the street using the pickup truck he’d stolen the night before, joining the flow of traffic, finding his car downtown, making the trade and drifting quietly away. Plan B was to evacuate on the street by foot, melding with the street traffic and reconnecting with his car and continuing on as per Plan A. And Plan C, should he need it, was to flee into the mountains. The nest itself was very solid. He could see the lima-bean green abutting a glittering pond at the end of an alley of palm trees. He could see a swath of the mountains sheltering the valley from the wind. He could see an immensity of cornflower-blue sky extending into infinity.
This was a beautiful place to exit the world, Ben thought. Shane Larson was a lucky man in that regard. He would exit the planet in sunlight and fragrant desert air, surrounded by adoring fans, or at least admiring fans, or at the very least people who recognized him. He would avoid all the suffering of the elder years, the decrepitude and disease. He would not slowly wither until his mind was soft cheese and his family didn’t know what to do with him. He would go out in the greenery of the Indian Canyons golf course without a moment of pain. Or maybe just one very brief moment of pain. Depended on how well the shooting went today.
Ben had arrived at the Palm Canyon at three in the morning, wanting privacy for the scaling of the wall and the choosing of precisely the right spot. The resort-goers had been sleeping, and he’d nestled in under the star-throbbing sky. He’d seen the sun rise over the San Jacinto Mountains, the wind-planed clouds turning pink and orange and the dome of existence gradually filling with color. He’d heard the desert birds awaken, including one strange type that made noises like R2-D2, greeting the day with a funny, computerized bleep-bleep-bloop song.
Over the hours, the human world had come to life. The golf course had picked up employees. The tournament spectators had trickled through the front gate in their BMWs and Lexuses and hybrids, claiming parking spots with smooth self-confidence. From the sidewalk, the voices of the men floated in the air, talking about all the petty garbage of their privileged lives. From the pool area, the squeals of the children had begun. Ben had overheard numerous complaints about wives, lawyers, neighbors, contractors and subcontractors, many grousing complaints relating to people’s own revolting wealth. He’d overheard at least a dozen men he would have gladly killed if only their deaths would have meant anything to people. But he’d waited stoically for the one man he’d come to make an example of, Shane Larson.
Doom on you, Shane Larson. Doom on you for all your lies.
It was my birthday, and Sunny Dee drank with me in the park. She and I cracked Mad Dogs in four unwholesome colors, camouflaged the industrial-grade wine in a Big Gulp cup, and stashed the empties under the oak by Waller Creek. We had kissed once, alone at a middle-of-the-night bus stop. “Wanna make out?” she’d asked, and while bread trucks and rubbernecking taxis crawled by, we sampled each other like cooks slurping spoonfuls of sauce. That was after her old man had sprinted into the alley with a psychotic yelp, disappearing with my backpack and the last four beers, so I credited our indiscretion to justifiable, friend-on-friend revenge. I wanted him at my party that Mad Dog afternoon, and we looked, but couldn’t find him. Back in jail, we figured, and the drinking commenced, just the two of us. Sunny Dee didn’t ask to make out. We didn’t slurp, or slither, or cop a quick feel. We sat, sipped from the same straw, and didn’t talk much except to wonder at the heat and puzzle over why the wine wouldn’t get us drunk, why nothing was strong enough anymore. I bought us one more bottle and that was it for the cash. “Happy birthday,” Sunny Dee said, and I gave her the last blue swallow.
Barry Maxwell is a 56-year-old native of Austin, Texas, and a student at UT. His work has appeared in venues including Split Lip Magazine, Crack the Spine, the Mud Season Review, and Pithead Chapel. Barry gave up Mad Dog and homelessness a few years back, though he still celebrates birthdays on Facebook with Sunny Dee and her old man, and has since founded the Street Lit Authors Club, providing books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s homeless community. (Visit streetlit.org or barrymaxwell.net for info.)
I’m always a little angry. There is a punching bag hanging in my garage. I’m not one for the footwork but I hit hard. I can’t lift myself into the rafters, but I do sit-ups on a piece of plywood the size of a folding chair. The more stress, the higher I pull my hair. I am in an MFA program that required me to move to rural Illinois where last summer, nearly everyone in our program left. I stayed. Sat on my porch and waited. Now it’s September and still so hot in Southern Illinois, the open door won’t assuage the humidity, nor ease the swell of bug bites that welt and rise before free weights roll back into cooler corners.
I was never one to engage with violence. Never got mad. Even as a kid, my classmates would say mean shit just to see what it would take for me to break, but nothing ever worked. I didn’t justify my anger until I started writing and realized I had a lot to be angry about. Even when I went through two weeks of court-ordered anger management after a DUI, I lied to myself and assumed it was a mistake. I left it so far down, I forgot it had been reaching up to me like a limb I refused to use. I was naive. I was mad for my naiveté. I was mad for staying quiet, for living blind with my tongue tied.
The first UFC event I watched was a Ronda Rousey fight. Blue computer screen in the dark. She was beautiful. She scared me. I was both frightened and attracted to her. The frustration I was feeling in my writing workshop was mirrored by the shamelessness in a knockout. The precision and months of training it takes to throw a good hook. And the cheap shots— it eased my tribulating heart to go home and watch fights with a straight face until I didn’t miss my family. Until I got my sex drive back. Until I wasn’t ashamed for having one in the first place.
I throw red solo cups at my friend John in the English offices. I tell him we need to work on our precision while he punches them out of the air, balancing on a skateboard left by a negligent student. My friends and I are hurting; I know it from the poems they write. We wear it on our faces. I originally started watching fights to relate to my pain-faced friends. Now I watch them to heal. What does that say about me besides I live through battles?
Last winter, my cohort went to St. Louis for a poetry reading. After the venue, we walked past a restaurant with a stand-up chef—my height. I don’t remember tackling the chef but I brought him to the ground. Somewhere along the way I became rowdy and untamed. I never had a lot of friends. If you aren’t in some kind of agony, I can’t relate to you. As I get older, the friends I have phase out to those who are in pain and those who aren’t.
I’ve been gifted with brass knuckles to help me write. Initially, I used them to punch my legs, curious about my own strength. Then I slept with them on my right hand when I lived alone.
When I wear them, I’m holding a hand. It’s comforting and a little sad. I need that legitimacy. Continue reading
I don’t know the people I live with very well because we rarely talk beyond one-sentence exchanges, so when I walked down the stairs and saw the Mrs. and Mr. in a hot tub, I thought it couldn’t get much worse, but it did because she didn’t have a top on. So I said, It’s cold outside. Not in here, he said, and I agreed. Later on a man called the radio station furious that he had to change the live streaming channel because of all the jazz. He said no one should have to call and complain about this. He doesn’t want to be a jerk. He doesn’t want to be making this call. For the past three months he’s had to change the station ten times more than usual. Who is in charge? Stop playing so much jazz. Stop playing instrumental music. I can’t stand it. Finally, when more than two people say thanks for coming, I inevitably start to think it sounds weird. Is it because I wore two different shoes and only realized it when I got home? Everyone has had more than one occasion of being at a party and realizing you’re not staying the night and you’re the only one not staying the night.
Mara Beckman holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She lives in New York City and is working on a collection of short stories.
“I can’t eat,” I’ve been saying for months. “I’m too nervous,” I said at first. After the election, I switched excuses: “My stomach is in knots.”
Really, I can eat. I did it once, last Saturday – started and couldn’t stop. It was cheese. Smoked Manchego. Comfort food. Soft food. Given the chance to bite too hard, I suspected I’d grind my teeth to dust.
The next morning: black coffee and air.
“I think certain women are more beautiful than others, to be perfectly honest.”
“A young and beautiful piece of ass.”
“You’d fuck her, wouldn’t you? I’d fuck her.”
“There are basically three types of women.”
“They let you do it.”
“There has to be some form of punishment.”
The last time I punished myself, the impetus was heartbreak. “Why don’t you want to work this out?” I asked. I needed to know everything. I needed access to the empty wells in his heart so I could refill them.
He said, “I just can’t.”
A lie, of course. But I understood – we lie to keep doing what we want to keep doing.
“Eat,” my friends probed.
But I couldn’t.
I’ve had enough therapy to name the source: When I was twelve, there was a boy who took off my clothes while I told him no. He kissed me in a way that made me gag. He broke the hook on my bra. He squeezed my breasts. I’d been the first to develop breasts. The boys were always discussing my breasts. He poked inside my vagina as if searching for a fork in a drain. We were watching Saint Elmo’s Fire. I have no idea what that movie is about.
When blood tests revealed mono, people laughed: “the kissing disease!”
I tried to tell. I’m sure I did. I’ve never been the quiet type. But I guess I told the wrong people because I can’t recall a response.
He told people, too: “I scored.”
For six weeks, I was too sick to eat. Too sick to move. In bed, my period came on like a scream. No maxi pad could absorb it. My mother kept changing the towels beneath me. The princess and the pea. The princess bleeding out like a soldier. I returned to the size I’d been prior to puberty, prior to the night a boy broke my bra, prior to owning a bra that a boy could pick like a locker-room lock.
“You have the best body now,” was one thing I heard.
There is a problem when millions grieve at once: Each individual grief goes untended. Who cares whether one woman eats when thousands of women are sick to their stomachs? A woman is in danger of becoming so thin, she slips through the cracks. A woman might become so thin, she’ll be pushed through the cracks. A woman might become thin enough to squeeze herself through the cracks.
Such a short road between diminished and gone.
A decade ago, an older male relative tried to fuck me. When I refused to return his calls, he left death threats on my voicemail: “If you don’t call me back, I’ll kill you,” he sang. Who knows why he was singing. I told my parents. They didn’t say much. I was well into my twenties; maybe they thought I should fend for myself. That winter, I nibbled high-fiber cereal that made me shit. Nothing for lunch. Wine for dinner.
When that relative got engaged the next year, my parents bought plane tickets to his wedding.
I was home for some holiday, screaming, “How could you?”
My mother showed me her palms as if I might shoot. My father, protecting my mother, I guess, told me to “chill out.”
I saw more wrinkles on his face than I’d ever seen, more exhaustion in his posture. The slang felt incongruous: chill out.
Maybe I’m trying to be thin so no one calls me Miss Piggy. Maybe I’m trying to hide. Maybe I’m flailing for some semblance of control. Maybe I don’t think I deserve the space that is clearly reserved for men. Maybe I’m regressing, reversing, returning to a time before my body was a woman’s. Maybe I’m punishing not just myself, but those who love me who voted for Trump. My parents voted for Trump.
Another fast: I was infatuated with a man who inserted sex toys into my asshole. When I told him how much I hated it, he told me I’d learn to love it.
I know. It’s just an eating disorder. Or “disordered eating,” as I’ve been taught to say. But when women can’t choose what to do with their bodies, they find a way to choose. In prison, the Suffragettes waged hunger strikes. (Then the men in charge force-fed them.)
“Rosie O’Donnell is disgusting.”
“Arianna Huffington is disgusting.”
“Unattractive both inside and out.”
“The face of a dog.”
“Unsexiest woman alive.”
“You have to treat ‘em like shit.”
I’ve gained weight in every relationship. It’s the middle chapter – long after the falling in love, but before the falling apart. I get comfortable. I feel safe. I see no reason to punish myself. But after the breakup, I cringe to think that anyone saw me naked like that. Now and then, I run into an ex and always want to apologize.
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, of the New York Times column Going Off, and of a forthcoming nonfiction book. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Paris Review Daily, Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, and elsewhere. She won the Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own Foundation. She tweets from @dianaspechler.
“I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.”—Lucia Berlin
Call me impatient, call me lazy, but I’m tired of reading backstory. I want the frontstory—if I may—to do the narrative work. Info-dump is, I think, the best way to make a story go cold, which is why I so often turn to authors who pen extra-short short stories; not flash fiction, necessarily, but fully-realized five-pagers that crackle with life played out almost entirely in the present action. Think Denis Johnson à la Jesus’ Son. Think Lucia Berlin.
In Berlin’s “Angel’s Laundromat,” for example, the narrator sits in a plastic chair as her laundry tumbles through a public washing machine. She notices a man in the mirror—also sitting in the Laundromat—studying her hands. Suddenly she sees herself anew, and Berlin lets us in on her striking double-consciousness: “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” This spare and circuitous self-characterization is the lifeblood of the story. Without plunging into flashback or extraneous anecdote, Berlin brings to the surface her protagonist’s personal history, and she does so in a way that is recognizably human and complex. Not only do we learn that this woman has children, has had many lovers, has tended a lifetime’s worth of flowers, but we also begin to understand something of her psychological process—this is a highly attentive character who uses small details to build a greater mosaic of self-understanding. We might even intuit a touch of neurosis, a hypersensitivity to ordinary existence. Her hands’ supposed scars and wrinkles and blemishes come to her—and to us—laden with meaning. They signify.
Of course, this sentence presents a conundrum when considering the classic creative writing mantra show don’t tell. Is Berlin showing or telling? In one sense, she’s merely telling. Without actually setting anything in motion, she gives the reader a little factsheet: now we know a few things about this character’s love and home life, her status as a mother. We don’t see a teething baby biting her hand. We don’t see her cracking knuckles as she stays up late awaiting some unruly lover. We don’t see her toiling in a thorny garden. Instead, we see her—at most—staring at her hands and rather abstractly plunging into a process of existential metonymy.
And yet, the line is so evocative that it does, in fact, show us these things. Maybe we don’t tangibly see—watch—Berlin’s protagonist crouching in a garden, but we certainly feel the action’s lurking history. The power lies in the syntax; “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” Could see. The word choice is purposely at once distant and close. Here is the notion of ability, the idea that memory is there for perusal if only the protagonist wants to indulge it. Her backstory, then, is available for inspection even if it doesn’t necessarily invade the present moment in the form of a secondary scene. If, on the other hand, the protagonist uttered that she saw these things in her hands, Berlin’s choice not to launch into flashback would feel deceptive because we, as readers, would be set at a remove. This would be telling not showing, the character ultimately surveying a hidden and inaccessible world. Instead, Berlin weaves this backstory—that entire mysterious life—into the fabric of the present. She is simultaneously precise and approximate, and the details of the protagonist’s life come to the forefront of the present action without taking any historical detours.
Still, to some this might seem a throwaway line. The story, after all, focuses primarily on the man doing the staring. From the very first sentence, the narrator tersely and fragmentarily directs us toward the story’s alleged subject: “A tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt.” We are thereby encouraged to fixate on him. But it’s really her—the narrator’s—presence that commands the story, and she expands in the peripheries until, finally, she easily dismisses the man at the end by saying, “I can’t remember when it was that I realized I never did see that old Indian again.” We’re left to realize that we’ve tracked the wrong character. And the only thing left to do is look back down at our narrator’s hands and recognize that they hold the real story.
Taylor Lannamann holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review and The Paris Review Daily. He is currently at work on a novel.
In Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (on shelves February 7), Ingrid writes letters to Gil about the truth of their marriage, then hides them in used books from their library. Carefully collected over the years, these books are filled with “left-behind photographs, postcards, and letters; bail slips, receipts, handwritten recipes, and drawings; valentines and tickets, sympathy cards, excuse notes to teachers—bits of paper with which he could piece together other people’s lives, other people who had read the same books he held and who had marked their place.”
Inspired by Swimming Lessons, we went to the experts in unexpected ephemera and well-loved books—librarians—and asked them to tell us the most interesting thing they’d found in a library book. Their answers delighted, disgusted, and exceeded our wildest expectations. It was hard to pick our favorites, but here they are.
A few takeaways: novels pair well with bologna, don’t even try to get a secret code past a librarian, and our books tell more stories than perhaps any of us realize.
What’s the most interesting, memorable, or just plain weird thing you’ve found in a library book?
**Winner** A taco, perfectly preserved and pressed like a flower in the middle of a book. It was so slim you wouldn’t know it was there until you opened the book. —Amanda Monson, Bartow County Library System
**Winner** I am a first generation immigrant from Russia. My senior year of college, at least the last semester of it, I had to write a senior thesis. I had gotten permission to write a historical fiction, a creative piece but one that would demonstrate my impressive researching skills. So, I chose to write about Soviet era Russia, primarily the political and religious oppression that existed. I was very familiar with this topic, having arrived in the U.S. as refugees due to the fact that our family was persecuted for our religious beliefs. I scoured the internet for books on the topic; I had to dedicate an entire bookshelf to those books. One little book called “Konshaubi: A True Story of Persecuted Christians in the Soviet Union” by Georgi Vins. Georgi Vins was a big name in our community. He was expelled from Russia, along with a few other dissidents, in 1979 in exchange for 2 Soviet spies. As I flipped through this very humble book, I landed on a page of photos. On one of them, I noticed three familiar faces. My grandfather, grandmother, and uncle’s. My grandfather served four 3-year sentences (total of 12 years) in the Soviet prisons for his involvement in the Baptist church. My uncle served 3 years. My uncle had just died that February. It was so shocking to see his face and the faces of my grandparents. I showed my mom, and she cried when she saw her parents and brother. It was, and still is, the most memorable and interesting find in a book. —Violetta Nikitina, Union County Public Library
**Winner** A letter in a sealed, stamped envelope that had never been sent. I decided to mail it. —Christina Thurairatnam, Holmes County District Public Library
Sonogram pictures of a developing baby. —Chantal Walvoord, Rockwall County Library
A piece of bologna! It was in a children’s picture book, so I think someone was snacking while reading. —Joy Scott, Steele Creek Library
Bologna. —Helen Silver, Spanish River Library
Bologna. —Kate Troutman, Calvert Library
A patron found a handwritten note which he took to be a threat on the life of then Vice-President Al Gore, reported it to the FBI and members of the Secret Service showed up at my office. —Teresa Newton, Lawrence County Public Library
Divorce papers. —Sarah Lilly, Robbins Library
The mix CDs David #1-4 were made quickly, compiled by an old friend of my dad’s. We played them at the wake and funeral, in the car on the way to the cemetery. Mama and I wandered through those days after his sudden death as the dazed hosts of a series of bewildering parties. I was seventeen, and she was wailing. It was helpful to have a ready-made soundtrack. One less logistic.
These songs—“She Talks To Angels” by the Black Crowes, “Angie” by the Rolling Stones—reflected my dad in some ways: the man his friend mourned, and the regret of aging rock and roll bands. At the funeral, Mama and I took our places in the front row of chairs, and the first strains of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas drifted over the assembled.
I was instantly mortified. My friends and I had just seen the comedy Old School at the movie theater. In one scene, at the burial of an elderly frat pledge who died in the midst of a KY jelly wrestling match, Will Ferrell sings “Dust in the Wind.” He warbles to the overblown finish, then chokes out, You’re my boy, Blue! You’re my boy.
I couldn’t help myself. I turned backwards in my chair and dissolved into laughter. A few rows back, one of my friends, welling up, mouthed for me to shush. I only laughed harder. I shook.
Beside me, Mama shook, too. She whimpered, crying out loud in the way of children and dogs. We were the only noise in that cottonmouthed Indiana funeral parlor. She looked at me, her eyes all blue sky and flood. She gripped my shoulder and cried harder.
I never said, Dad would know this is corny. That he would remember the original late-’70s music video: the band’s absurd ruffled shirts, the self-important strings, the Jesus fros, the yodel of Nothing lasts for-EV-er but the earth and sky… That I had come home after seeing Old School on a Friday night and told him he would love it. That he would laugh.
I never told Mama that I wasn’t crying. But when we got home, I made David #5, my first mix. It ends with “Baby Blue” by Badfinger and opens with “Good Riddance” by Green Day, a band our little family had loved since my dad brought home Dookie. He’d told me to listen to the tinny drum sound, told me I’d get why it was cool. In the car we sneered the lyrics at top volume: It all keeps adding up / I think I’m cracking up / Am I just paranoid or am I just stoned? I was eight, and it was my first record.
Over the years, I burned dozens of CDs for Mama, the titles carefully lettered around the hole at the center. When I was twenty-nine, Mama got engaged to a man she’d known since high school. In addition to the toast and table arrangements, she assigned me the job of wedding DJ. I loaded my iPod with hundreds of songs, the Mama and Jim mix, not only for the ceremony and reception, but to play for her throughout the day. The right songs could keep her calm, could cement a memory or bring back a better one. It was one less logistic. I carried around a soap dish lifted from the wedding hall to serve as a makeshift speaker. I vowed to anticipate the just-right song to play in any given situation. That meant no “Dust in the Wind”—no songs at all from the David mixes.
The afternoon of the wedding, as we stuck final flowers in the centerpieces, the electricity went out all over town. Never mind the lights—we still needed hair and makeup. In a hotel out by the highway that had somehow escaped the blackout, Mama perched on the edge of the bed. She swung her leg and drank cheap Chablis. I cued up “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon while she checked her phone again for messages from well-wishers and with news about her friend Kimmie, who was in the hospital and too sick to make it to the wedding. Kimmie had been at the wake. Kimmie with her black bob and rolling laugh, too loud in the dim, carpeted room, handing Mama a Bud Light from a soft cooler. In the background, Lennon sang his worry of neglected love—It’s been so long since we took the time—and buoyed it with bouncing doo-wop. Lennon was Jim’s favorite, and any reminder of Jim soothed Mama those days.
The teenaged stylist fluttered over my cheeks and eyelashes and I asked what Mama thought. I was trying to distract her, but she was already distracted. I remembered six years earlier, when she and Kimmie were both offered promotions that would require them to move across the country. Both of them flew out to interview, looked at condos, tried to imagine new lives in a new city. I didn’t tell her I wanted her to go. I didn’t tell her that I was twenty-three and collapsing under the weight of her gaze. Our grief reflected back and forth like an infinity mirror. I just said that it wouldn’t be “starting over,” but a chance to look forward.
In the end, Kimmie took the job and moved across the country. Mama stayed.
Mama’s phone rang. It was Jim, calling to say that the band claimed they couldn’t learn Al Green for the first dance. I told him not to worry—it was the wrong song anyway. The first dance had to be to “Here Comes My Girl,” from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes. Mama has always insisted that she can’t dance, but this beat is easy to find and sway to. It’s a talking blues, and it’s a romance: Yeah man when I got that little girl standing right by my side / You know I can tell the whole wide world to shove it! For sixty-year-olds who’ve worked hard and lost so much, it’s a love song that rebels against suffering. The chorus swings like a meteor shower.
By early evening, the guests arrived for the ceremony. Mama got word that an usher delivered a corsage to my grandmother and seated her at the designated family table. The problem was: It was the wrong grandmother. It wasn’t Mama’s mother. It was my dad’s.
So I played “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb, a song I’ve always thought sounds like Mama. She took another drink, said oh my, my and pulled at the corner of her eyelid. But then she grinned, listening. Growing up, “Sunny” was one of her nicknames, for her penny-colored hair and her fizzy disposition. She snapped her fingers and mouthed, Sunny one so true. She loved the way he says it. I was in the makeup chair, talking with my eyes closed, when Mama’s phone buzzed again. I was trying to get her to recognize how the marimba-like riff of “Sunny” is ripped straight from the James Bond theme song, saying, See? Hear that? — when she cried out.
Kimmie was dead. In the mirror, the stylist’s fingers in my hair, I watched Mama’s bright blue eyes obscure in middle-distance, watched her mouth go ragged. In the air around us, Bobby Hebb was still cooing, but Mama bawled No. No. Then she stood up and staggered out of the room.
The last song on David #5 is “Baby Blue” by Badfinger. When I was sixteen, my dad once left Badfinger’s greatest hits album on my bedside table. I was angry with him that day, as I often was then. His note explained that Badfinger showed more songwriting depth than the Beatles. Who knows what they could’ve become if Pete Ham hadn’t killed himself, if they’d gotten a better break. It was his kind of apology.
After ten minutes, Mama hadn’t come back. I went sprinting down the hotel hallways. Jumping down the stairwell, I thought I could hear her somewhere nearby. Her sobs grew louder, resounding in the space. I sheared the corner, swinging into the lobby, and saw her there in the middle of the room.
Mama whimpered. Hotel guests waded around her wreckage.
But she was in Jim’s arms. At some point, she’d called. He came. He whispered in her ear, he held her hair. He said, better now. He said, baby.
I walked up beside them and pressed a hand to her back. Her eyes were closed. She clasped my sleeve in two fingers then turned back to Jim. I went upstairs and put on my dress.
There would be other disasters. I forget to eat at the reception and white wine makes my blood rush. The speakers blare too loud, and both of my grandmothers hold their ears. Inexplicably, during dessert, the band plays “Dust in the Wind.”
When it’s time for the first dance, the band has not, in fact, learned “Here Comes My Girl.” So I send them on a smoke break and plug in my iPod. The drumbeat build-up, the chiming piano. Mama and Jim hold each other and dance, moving lightly in the space. The chorus breaking open, a cascading guitar. They keep their eyes on each other. They mouth the words. They grin. And she looks so right, she is all I need tonight. They stroll around the floor, their fingers touching. And even though it isn’t my job anymore, I keep watching from among the amps and wires. I laugh, then I laugh harder, then I stop.
Katie Moulton‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Day One, Ninth Letter, Post Road, Quarterly West and other publications. Her work has been supported by scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, OMI International Arts Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Indiana University, where she earned her MFA. A music critic for Voice Media newspapers since 2009, she currently lives in Oakland.