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Let It Fly: An Interview with Ted Thompson

In the well-to-do, Connecticut commuter town where Ted Thompson’s debut novel takes place, things tend to happen like clockwork: from the trains pulling into and out of their stations, to the holiday party invitations that appear in mailboxes each year. The place is nicknamed “The Land of Steady Habits,” after all. But what happens when someone goes off script? What does a middle-aged man do when he refuses to live the life that’s expected of him? If this man retires unexpectedly, leaves his wife, moves out of the house he’s worked so hard to afford and away from the family he’s worked so hard to support, who does he become? This is the premise of Thompson’s heart-rending, highly compelling, and gorgeously written first book:The Land of Steady Habits.

By happy coincidence, I was able to meet Ted in Westport, Connecticut—the commuter town where he grew up—to discuss his book. Though New York City is just a short train ride away, the town feels bucolic. Stately renovated farmhouses sprawl along the roads, separated by enormous lawns, long driveways, and lovely stone fences. As we drove, Ted pointed out the house where Martha Stewart once lived, and then the charming downtown Starbucks that used to be a strip club. These incongruities—the suburb that is also rural, the tasteful decorator who is also a criminal, the former-nightclub that now houses a global coffee chain—seem integral to the fabric of the place. Though it initially appears flawless, the town is in fact much more complicated, and interesting, below the surface—a truth that The Land of Steady Habits explores with both humor and insight.

 We finally parked at the handsome private academy where Ted attended middle school and set one of the novel’s scenes. He hadn’t visited the school in seven years, and as we walked up and down the snowy paths surrounding the place, he marveled at how much had changed: the traffic guards at the gated entrances and exits, the new sports fields and lower school buildings, the modern home now marring the school’s (still-stunning) view of Long Island Sound. Since his days growing up in Westport, Ted lived for several years in Iowa City (where he attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and now resides in Brooklyn with his wife and dachshund. He is a product of this Land of Steady Habits, but also a keen observer of its idiosyncrasies. Most importantly, with this tremendous debut, Ted Thompson has proven himself a daring and talented new voice in American literature.

LIZ WYCKOFF: How did the idea for this novel come about?

TED THOMPSON: It started as a story a long time ago. I think it was in the period when I had graduated from college and I hadn’t yet found a job, when I was sitting at home, trying to figure out how to be an adult and what to do with my time. I had started a lot of stories, but this was the one that I couldn’t figure out how to end. I started obsessing over it, as if it was a puzzle that I could solve. And then it sort of evolved from there to a workshop instructor telling me it could get longer. I called it a novelito for a long time, which is a form I invented. And then finally in grad school I got around to having the guts to call it a novel.

LW: Do you think you considered that it could be a novel before grad school? Or did you really not let your mind get there until you’d worked on it for a while?

TT: I remember showing an early draft of the story to a friend and her saying, “It seems to me this is your first novel.” I said, “No, no, no way!” I remember thinking: No, I’m going to write something ambitious. This isn’t ambitious enough. I had this young man’s idea that a first novel should be some grand statement, some sort of noble declaration of myself in the world. In a way, this novel was so far from my life as a young person that it felt like an exercise, more than anything else.

LW: So much of the book, I think, is about the concept of home—several different characters run away from their homes, and some are also trying to build homes in new places.

TT: That’s something that’s emerged through drafts and drafts and drafts. I was always interested in thinking about this particular place as its own society with its own set of assumptions and rules. There’s an impermanence built into the way that it functions as a commuter town. People don’t stay here. They come and they raise their kids and they leave. It’s just too expensive or it’s not practical to pay the property taxes or whatever it is. So, it becomes this kind of way station. At least, it did in my experience. That’s what I was toying with, and it came through on the page as people running away from home or looking for home or trying to find permanence in a place.

LW: Also, a lot of characters are running away from expectations, trying to create their own paths instead of falling into the paths that have been laid out for them.

TT: One of the things that’s fun for me as a fiction writer is taking characters out of their expected roles and watching how they behave, once the mores have been stripped away. It’s fun to write about a suburban commuter town because those roles are so clearly defined. So, writing scenes in which the characters can kind of break from their roles is partly just me entertaining myself.

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Posted in Fiction, General, Interviews

Comments: 2

Your Weekly Forecast: Stephen Colbert

“All weather is sin-related. Lust causes thunder, anger causes fog, and you don’t want to know what causes dew.” ―Stephen Colbert, I am America (And So Can You!)

Posted in General

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What We’re Reading

Liz Lampman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’m reading, better yet wrestling with, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. This meditational essay addresses Wiman’s own struggle with understanding the purpose of Art and of Faith within the context of his long battle with cancer. Wiman’s approach, not surprisingly, is both broad and deep, and he offers wisdom from Wallace Stevens to Simone Weil to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Gerard Manley Hopkins and countless other prominent voices. I picked up this book at my mentor’s suggestion, and I continue to read it because it calls into question the imaginary barrier that’s been erected between the way that Art and Faith attempt to understand mortality and other, even more pressing, matters of the soul.

Sophia Archibald (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of many classics I didn’t get around to until recently. And boy, have I been missing out! The story details a series of misfortunes of one Ignatius J. Reilly in New Orleans, simultaneously the most loathsome and lovable character in literature. The only thing motivating this perverse thirty-year-old—living with his mother but educated with a master’s degree, and the vernacular to prove both—to gain employment is his competitive correspondence with Myrna Minkoff in New York City, the equivalent of a ‘lover’ for our abstinent protagonist. I haven’t laughed out loud at a book in a long time, and with this one I can’t stop.

Victoria Savanh (Summer Writer’s Workshop Intern): In Portland the sun has been making brief appearances, and I’ve been spending more and more hours reading beside open windows and on sidewalk cafes. I’ve fallen under the spell of Joy Williams’s State of Grace recently, staying out reading it till sunset. Bound to her father in an intense, lurid relationship, the narrator Kate attempts to escape through college, sex, and marriage. Haunting and strange, the stream of consciousness narrative is so captivating that I often forget I’m holding a solid book in my hands. I’m strung along as she jumps from image to image, snapshot vignettes steeped in murky encounters and filled with repressed urgency. I close this book each time almost in a state of mourning. Simultaneously, perhaps naturally, that’s accompanied by an overwhelming sense of peace. “And things were always out of my hands. I have always been grateful for that.”

Miles Jochem (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I have been wandering through the semantic labyrinths of Tom Blood’s The Sky Position. Not a text for the traditionalist, this winner of the 2007 Oregon Book Award is disconcerting, off-centering, and altogether intriguing. Be prepared for nouning verbs, verbing prepositions, and impossible fantasies set in the dark, liminal spaces above and below the normal use of language. But within the manic, surreal verses (ex: “ . . . but then the nevering in our dawn that sheets over as dragons/ in the under will where whales spawn to black dark butterflies/ and the bags unpack to our momentary sensation . . . ”) there can be found pathos, humor, a profound sense of wonder in the face of reality, and a lovely playfulness that takes advantage of a wide range of poetic devices. This is poetry at its furthest remove from standard prose and narrative, and Blood rejoices in the liberty of his medium. This book will shatter your conceptions of what words mean and do, and force you to accept and enjoy, if not always understand.

Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): As someone who has dedicated a good portion of my life to the on-the-move pursuit of place and culture, I’m fascinated by the idea of what is left behind. Aren’t we all visited by the ghostly memories of old friends’ quirks, vague recollections of booths at favorite diners, the frustration of not being able to remember the name of those flowers that can turn inside out to make ladies in ball gowns? It was this curiosity that drew me to Ann Eichler Kolakowski’s poetry collection, Persistence: Poems of Warren, Maryland. The book is dedicated to Kolakowski’s grandmother who, at the age of 103 when she died in 2006, was the last known surviving resident of an underwater town.

For over a century, the town of Warren, Maryland was a thriving community until some sneaky folks (picture some real moustache-twirlers here) sold the town to Baltimore in a secret deal. As you might expect, the townsfolk were not thrilled about this, so the sale was delayed for about 12 years, but come 1921, all of the 900 residents had been kicked out and the town was flooded and gone forever.

Based on newspaper clippings, photographs, anecdotes, and her own imaginings of the folks of Warren, Maryland, Kolakowski weaves Warren back together, single-handedly, fascinatingly, restoring the image of the town her grandmother called home as a girl.

Posted in Desiderata

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Dizzy

Flash Fridays

On our walk to preschool lately we’ve been passing the carcass of a headless bird, just lying there on the red-brick sidewalk, rotting.

The first time we passed by the dead bird, my preschooler called it a “dizzy bird.” I thought she called it dizzy because its head was missing, but after further reflection I thought maybe it was because whenever we play Ring Around the Rosie she gets dizzy and falls to the ground, dead-like. Whatever the reason, I decided I didn’t want her to have the wrong idea about that bird.

“It’s not dizzy, darling: it’s dead,” I said. “It’s a dead bird.”

“Why is it dead?” she said.

“I don’t know why. Maybe a predator killed it or old age or something else. Somehow, though, it died. So it’s dead. Not dizzy. That bird is dead.”

I pushed the double stroller that held her and her younger brother further along our route and watched the back of her head. I imagined that I could see inside her head, that I could see tiny people, homunculi-like, responding to my words, using some sort of elaborate computer system that cross references incoming information against a collection of memories, experiences, and known words and concepts, trying to piece together what “dead” meant, and coming up with nothing out of all that young knowledge. So I tried to help.

“It’s not…” I said, and I paused, grasping, looking for a way to say something that would help make it make sense to her. “It’s not living anymore. Sort of like the bird went away, but left its body behind. I guess the best way to explain it is that living things eventually stop living, and when that happens we say that they are dead.”

Killed, died, dead…I wanted to take those words back out of fear that she’d ask me if one day I was going to die, or if one day she was going to die. I hadn’t yet thought out how I’d answer those questions when they eventually—when they inevitably—did come. Fortunately, during the remainder of our brief walk that morning, she didn’t follow-up.

• • •

It’s been three weeks since we first saw the dead bird, but every day on our walk to preschool, without fail, the carcass is still there, broken and waiting for us. My one-year old son hasn’t displayed any signs that he’s even noticed the bird, but my preschooler, from the moment we leave the apartment, she starts talking excitedly about how we’re going to see it.

Today as we approached it, she shouted, “There it is! There’s the dead bird, daddy.”

“Yes,” I said. “I see it.”

“Why is it still there?”

I pushed the stroller just past the dead bird so it was out of the children’s line of vision and stopped to look closely at the battered carcass. A wing, with splayed black and bright yellow feathers, was nearly severed from the rest of the weathered and shrinking carcass. Little gray bird feet were curled in the way that dead feet curl in. It was a decaying mess. But odd as it may be, the thought that occurred to me right then and there was, What beautiful feathers.

“I don’t know,” I said, pushing forward. “I don’t know why no one has moved it yet. That’s a good question.”

• • •

After preschool my daughter’s teacher, Ms. Patricia, said, “Tara and I had a conversation today about a dead bird…”

“Oh yeah,” I said, “Well, for the past few weeks on our route to and from here there’s a dead bird that’s been lying on the sidewalk. She seems pretty interested in it.”

“Ah, I see,” Ms. Patricia said, nodding, as though I just helped her solve the puzzle of the day. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what she was talking about, but I sensed it was something like that.”

“Yeah, it’s been there awhile,” I said, looking at my daughter, who seemed to be paying attention to a game a couple of her classmates were playing. “Maybe I’ll bring a plastic bag tomorrow and, if the bird’s still there when we walk past, I’ll pick it up and throw it away.”

“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea,” Ms. Patricia said.

 • • •

On our walk home, as we approached the dead bird, my daughter turned around in her stroller seat, looked at me.

“Daddy,” she said, “I don’t want you to throw the dead bird away.”

“Oh,” I said. “And why not?”

“Because,” she said, pausing, checking in with the tiny people at central command. “Because I don’t want you to throw it away.”

“Okay, darling,” I said, thinking that her request seemed fair enough. “I won’t throw it away.”

We moved closer to the dead bird.

“Daddy,” my daughter said, covering her feet with her backpack, “I don’t want the dead bird to get me.”

“The dead bird won’t get you, sweetheart,” I said. “Don’t worry. It definitely won’t get you.”

“And don’t throw him away. Okay?”

I didn’t understand why she didn’t want me to throw away the dead bird, or why she was afraid that the dead bird would get her. But, once again, I thought, fair enough. “Okay,” I said. “I won’t throw the bird away. I promise.”

“Burr!” shouted the one-year old, pointing up at the sky, where a blue jay was flying overhead, screeching.

“Yes, Jackson,” I said. “That’s right. There’s a bird.”

The blue jay soared higher and higher, up above and then past a group of oaks, out of view.

The three of us, with our varied misunderstandings, experiences, and perspectives, with our collective yet incomplete knowledge, we carried on. A moment later we quietly strolled past the dead bird, toward home.

 

Peter Wittes stories have been published in ARDOR and Hobart (web). A native of Illinois, he now lives near Washington, D.C. with a philosopher, two children, and a handsome dog.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

Comments: 4

Tin House Reels: Sarina Nihei

Sarina Nihei’s Love-Hate Relationship is a story sent from the non-verbal, netted unconscious but is beautifully drawn by a conscious hand.

The thin pen drawings in this film —colored-in with what looks like magic markers—launch a child’s story. But the color scheme, with its browns, yellows, and reds, feels bruised by the stories of human beings, and emotions are sunk in a family trauma that plays out in scenes of oral fixation: An old man offers up the door code for home with his tongue, a half-naked couple threateningly suck a cigarette in the hall, a mother slugs from a wine bottle even though a glass is handy. Mom— her lipstick, her rouge, and her fiery hair, all in red—gives her son a last oral fix he seems too young to drink, a coffee that overflows. Pain seems swallowed, and talking heads march over the pages of books like they do in The Play of Independent Heads (a previous film from Nihei).

Nihei’s brand of visual storytelling is likely to make more strictly verbal writers long for the freedom of animation: her pictures speak her insides with immediacy. Nihei said that a teacher in college liberated her style: “There was an encouraging professor called Mr. Katayama, who sadly passed away when I was in the third year. He encouraged students to do hand-drawn animation rather than working digitally because the students in the graphic design department at Tama Art University had been through tough entrance exams for design skills. He wanted to see how the art students who didn’t know about the technical aspects of animation could own their brilliant imaginations. He showed us art animations from all over the world, which was fascinating for me. He didn’t teach us to animate or to build up a story. We could do whatever we wanted to make by our hands.”

The result is a short story distilled into hand-drawn images with the power of a Rorschach test.

Sarina Nihei is an animator and illustrator who lives in London and is currently completing her MA in Animation at the Royal College of Art.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in General, Tin House Reels, Videos

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Like A Beggar: A Conversation with Ellen Bass

Over the past two years, I have followed Ellen Bass through her publications in Tin House to the pages of the New Yorker and countless other journals. I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with her over the phone recently, as we discussed a wide range of topics: repetition, heart, invisibility, the god of atheists, the first peach. Speaking in a melodic voice, with an ebullience that would transcend any telephone line, she left me with a line that I have come to again and again as the weeks have gone by: It’s really the poet I turn to and who reminds me that I am not alone in this.”

Kendall Poe: I saw today that you had studied with Anne Sexton.

Ellen Bass: I did. At Boston University. Getting a chance to study with her was life changing. She was an absolutely wonderful teacher. When she gave readings she was flamboyant and dramatic, but as a teacher, she was thoughtful, respectful, supportive—really engaged and interested in her students. She wasn’t flashy.  She was really about teaching and the students. I think she loved teaching. She was just great.

KP: Being a good poet does not necessarily mean being a good teacher. That’s nice to hear about her.

EB: That’s a long time ago. Young women were not encouraged in the same way they are today. Even though Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser and others had broken a lot of ground for women’s writing there was still more attention paid to the young men than to the young women. I had a rough time with some of the other teachers who were committed to revision by deletion. It felt like the only comments I got were, “Take this out.”

My poems weren’t good. There’s no doubt about that. But instead of teaching me how to go deeper and get more precise in ways that would be richer and more evocative—just stronger poetry, it was just, “Cut this, cut this”—until what little life it had was cut out of it. I was very discouraged my first semester. Then the following semester I started to work with Anne and she said, “No. No. Write more. Expand. Extend. Fill it out.” Really, without her I might have given up.

KP: That’s definitely a function of the teacher that I have appreciated—helping you or guiding you to a fuller expression of an idea. When I first started writing I took a few poetry workshops and I read The Poet’s Companion co-authored by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio.

EB: Such a wonderful book.

KP: And from your most recent collection Like a Beggar—what was the title of the poem?—“Women Walking.” It’s a very endearing portrait of two poetry teachers. Have you thought about writing a guide?

EB: No. Of course everybody thinks about it, but no I am not going to do it. I think that at this point in my life, I am going to just focus on writing poems. And there are so many great guides that already exist.

KP: I had this teacher who emphasized that in poetry there were only morning poets and night poets. One or the other and they could not understand each other. In conferences they would come up to ask one another, “Are you a morning poet or are you a night poet?” Does this theory apply to you?

EB: (Laughter) I am a morning poet, but I want to explore the night more. I think I am missing out too much on that experience. But being a morning person, I don’t feel like I can’t understand the poets of the night. I love them too—maybe even more.

KP: Interviewers often ask about authors’ morning routines, whether it is a fiction writer or a poet, you find that they are very specific about their morning routines. Like, I get up. Floss my teeth in bed, comb my hair to the right.

EB: When I was younger, I had more of a routine. I would try to get to my writing as early as possible in the morning. I think I had more of an appreciation for or a need for structure and regularity. The older I get the less I think about it in that way. Of course you need a certain amount of structure. You need to get your tush in the chair or else you are not going to have anything on the page. But it’s more irregular for me now. It would be wonderful if I had no other responsibilities and I could write every day, and I guess that theoretically I could. Many poets, William Stafford, sat down to write every morning. Look at his productivity. It’s overwhelming. But as time goes on I become a little more accepting of the way it seems to work for me. I don’t like to ever be away from writing for too long, though.

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Posted in Interviews, Poetry

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Life is a Combo Platter: an Interview with Craig Lucas

 

It was one of those unexpected 65˚ days in mid-March and I was sitting outside the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan, considering the many great playwrights whose work has graced the stage inside, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neil, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard. How appropriate, I thought, for Craig Lucas to now be among that historic list. Mr. Lucas’ prolific body of work has been seen on Broadway three times: Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, and The Light in the Piazza. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and has been nominated for the Tony twice. His new play Ode to Joy, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, opened at Cherry Lane February 12th and has been extended until April 19th.

Ode to Joy is about addiction. But it is also about unconditional love, forgiveness, making amends, and, as Mr. Lucas writes, “Joy, motherfuckers. Joy.” As someone who has been open about his own battle with addiction, there are plummeting depths in this story that are not for the faint of heart—or stomach. But there is a glimmer of hope, of humor, that shines from the round opening of each character’s [played by Kathryn Erbe, Arliss Howard, and Roxanna Hope] personal oubliette. With heartfelt honesty, Mr. Lucas discussed the process of writing this piece, as well as the influences that drive him forward as a theater artist.

 Sarah T. Schwab: “Ode to Joy,” produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is about addiction. In a recent interview with the New York Times, you said that you had originally suggested that this play was your own “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but it ended up “changing things for you.” Can you discuss the process of writing this piece, and what changed in your life?

Craig Lucas: When I began writing this play, I was on a sabbatical in Florida for a yearlong Hermitage writer’s residency. I thought, “If I’m going to tackle something scary, then maybe this is the time to do it.” I knew I was going to have plenty of time to steep myself in a certain amount of contemplative preparation and thought. It’s very difficult to write about things that are close to you, because the personal meaning of certain events might outweigh what might be universal; how [Eugene] O’Neill managed to tell a version of his family’s history is a mystery to me. Very soon upon being at the writer’s retreat, I realized I couldn’t do that. I have to make up a number of components to a story in order to be able to enter it. I’ve only ever written one thing that was purely autobiographical, a one-act play called, “What I Meant Was.”

So, I started by writing a seduction scene between a [male] widower and a slightly younger woman and it turned into about an hour-long play. Then I set it aside and I started to write about the woman and her relationship with to another person, which was a female, and I realized I had a play about someone who had been in a heterosexual and a homosexual relationship during a 15-year period. I was thinking a lot about painters and their process, and I was trying to imagine how she might engage with her work and maintain a commitment to it through troubled relationships. The play became funnier and funnier the more I worked on it, and the funnier it got, the truer it seemed to get. I soon realized that I didn’t have anything remotely in the ballpark of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” It appears to be my place in life to write these things that sometimes deal with very shocking, or upsetting, or challenging circumstances, and to see within that the comic potential, along with the more serious aspects. Maybe that’s something with the way I was raised, or the way I experience life. It’s a combo platter: that the farcical and the tragic, the witty and the sorrowful are often intertwined and juxtaposed. Separating them out feels artificial to me.

STS: Some critics have described the play as a “romantic comedy.” Others have called it a “traumatic comedy.” However you decide to define it, I think you can agree that there is a fair amount of suffering in the play. Some artists believe that great suffering is the stuff of great art. Do you believe that to be true?

CL: I think it depends what art and what artists you’re talking about. For instance, I think there are great visual artists, where what’s communicated to me, anyway, is not essentially about suffering. I think it’s possible to be a visual artist and perhaps a composer and to have work that is about serenity and beauty and kindness, whereas with the narrative arts, without conflict, without loss or the threat of suffering, it’s hard to maintain interest in the story. We don’t go to plays to see how young lovers fall in love, meet no obstacles, get married and have rewarding, healthy lives and brilliant children all of whom do wonderfully in the world without ever suffering any losses or setbacks. I don’t think that’s what we look for when we’re looking for narrative. I think if the worst loss one has ever encountered in life is not having gotten on the team for the Ping-Pong tournament, then perhaps you have to imagine greater sufferings to create a compelling narrative. I’d be thrilled to see someone defy that rule, but I don’t know that one could. When we’re watching narrative, we’re viewing it with our perception of suffering. So, you could write a dialogue that went on for 20 minutes in which no one appeared to conflict at all, and we would read into it the subterranean understanding that there was conflict. That’s the nature of how we invest in stories, I suspect. Continue reading

Posted in Interviews

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Siamese Cats in Brocade Jackets

Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Published by Black Balloon Publishing

I’m in Lisbon. I arrive a day before the others, after the miraculous feats of bravery I had to pull off in Bulgaria to get here. The hotel is gradually filling up with lots of writers I don’t know. We’re about to take off on a two-month train trip around Europe in an attempt to start seeing ourselves as united.

I miss the sign-up for the organized tours of the city, which have been booked up by all the Westerners.

From the first instant I know that I’ve lived here at some time. I know everything. I want to see two things: Fernando Pessoa’s café and the ocean.

I stumble across the first immediately. Accidentally. A dark, long café, with heavy mirrors in Baroque frames. I imagine how Pessoa loved sitting in the very back under the clock, eaten up by anxiety. Now in that spot a tiny old man is asleep, pen in hand.

The city is soft, light, perched on seven hills, with little streets, Moorish white houses with green windows and blue doors and lattices, which slice through pale female faces, their gazes fixed on the street outside.
In front of the doors, there are Siamese cats dressed in little yellow jackets edged with brocade, tied up in front of the entrances like dogs.

As a prank, someone has turned all the buildings with their bathrooms inside out. The walls with their cheerful tiles perfectly weather the rain and the tourist’s caress—cold, glazed with an Oriental cleanliness that pushes me toward the ocean stretched out in the valley below. It turns out to be the Tagus River.

Pessoa’s café is on the peak of one of the seven hills, more modest than the rest. It is sufficiently steep, tormenting one little streetcar, which, once it has finally clambered up, immediately flips its backside into the air and disappears toward downtown. Like all idiot tourists, I take my picture in a poetic pose in front of the bronze Fernando, who has sat down once and for all on his favorite square.

It isn’t mine, though. I set out to look for it. At the last moment I hurl myself onto the streetcar and we flip up our backsides on the way down.

God, how it judders along, coming a hair’s breadth from the corners of the buildings, constantly sideswiping some dark magenta bushes, while inside I feel like I’m at a wedding—flowers go flying, snug little aunties in black chatter away and dangle their short, fat little feet shod in neat black shoes.They examine the day as if it were a bride, trading impressions. On the Lisbonites’ faces, you can discover traces of all the world’s cultures—here an Indian peeks out, there an Arab; the Caucasian has imposed itself on the face, yet the body possesses the grace of an African. At one point the streetcar stops. Some car is parked on the tracks. We wait. We check out the groom. A conversation starts up. The group is cheerful.

A weekday. Around 11:30. They’re laughing. The driver sits calmly up front. Now and again he, too, adds something to the party in the car. How funny could it be? We’ve already been sitting here half an hour. Behind us other likewise out-of-breath streetcars have lined up, other cars, too. Outside, policemen pass by. Nobody notices anything out of the ordinary.

At a certain point, a frightened Indian jumps out of a store across the way with a huge beach umbrella in his hand, tosses his new acquisition in the car, and frees up the tracks. Applause bursts out, the aunties are worked up, their eyes are glittering, the ceremony is in full swing. As we set off, one policeman carefully grasps the Indian by the elbow and presents him with a ticket.

The streetcar shakes me off on the highest hill with the fortress precisely on the spot I will return to over the two remaining days, because. Because this turns out to be my hill.

How should a city be explored? Where should you begin? Maps, guidebooks. Yes, that’s the way. They prescribe museums. But since I’m already way outside any type of itinerary, I sit down by a green wooden kiosk at the foot of a gigantic cypress, get myself a beer and a sandwich, and turn the delicate stool in the direction of the river above all those pale pink rooftops. The wind in Lisbon is broad and generous like the overflowing river-ocean. Now here in this place, that refrain about l’insoutenable legerete de l’etre floats up again, such lightness, and a place for fado opens. Music about sorrow and the unbearable beauty of being. Then Jeremy Irons appears from around the corner. Tall, lean, drawn, with two thin brackets between which lips are stretched, outlined with the thinnest moustache in the world. The singer on my hill. They’re working for me in this city, I say to myself, and am all ears, because fado is sung softly.

The next day at the same time. He is singing again. I hold him with my gaze, he’s a little pale, he points at his throat, explaining with a gesture that his voice isn’t in great shape today.

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Posted in Essays

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Your Weekly Forecast: Cormac McCarthy

“In the spring or warmer weather when the snow thaws in the woods the tracks of winter reappear on slender pedestals and the snow reveals in palimpsest old buried wanderings, struggles, scenes of death. Tales of winter brought to light again like time turned back upon itself.”- Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

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What We’re Reading

Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Recently I reread Endless Love by Scott Spencer, reminded by the latest Hollywood version of it that it is a strange, fascinating book about the ripple effect of an affair between two teenagers, David and Jade, on their families and lives even years later. You never experience the affair in real time, only as told in flashbacks by David and by other characters.  For me the draw is trying to get a handle on the affair itself and why it gathered such intensity, on trying to understand the experience of Jade, who though she returns and appears in these pages seems forever an opaque wall to David, even though he is sure he loves her. David’s own state of mind is a puzzle in itself—he is so articulate in his obsessions that you think he must have just been a little unhinged and young in the past, but no, he still is. I’ve returned to this book a couple of times over the years, and it is always fascinating to see whom I identify with each time. I don’t think Jade ever feels fully knowable, but I also think that is because of who is telling the story and cannot see her accurately, and so in the past as I read I often zeroed in on her. But this time I thought much more about Anne, Jade’s mother, whose experience of her daughter’s disastrous first love evokes a complicated mix of envy, vicarious excitement, frustration, and discomfort. I’ll probably pick this book up in 20 years and think, “The undepicted grandparents! How have they reacted to all this, for god’s sake??”

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): This Friday, I find myself in that delectable liminal space between books. After work, I get to go home and muss through the five stacks of books next to my bed in search of this weekend’s reading. Where to begin? Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, barely pried from the hands of a friend who wanted but didn’t want to lend it? Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air, passed along by another? On Deception, gifted by me to my dad and then sneakily borrowed back, a collection of Houdini’s writings about the con of magic and the magic of the con? My Kind of Place, the Susan Orlean travel anthology I found at long last summer at Powell’s and then loaned to my mom, and which has finally orbited my way again? And what about the fact that I’ve never read Wuthering Heights? With this kind of abundance of good writing in the world, the project of picking is nearly as nice as reading.

Lance Cleland (Workshop Application Magnet): Look, nothing is going to make you read After Claude by Iris Owens more than her author bio, which is as follows:

“Iris Owens (née Klein) (1929–2008) was born and raised in New York City, the daughter of a professional gambler. She attended Barnard College, was briefly married, and then moved to Paris, where she fell in with Alexander Trocchi, the editor of the legendary avant-garde journal Merlin and a notorious heroin addict, and supported herself by producing pornography (under the name of Harriet Daimler) for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press. Back in the United States, Owens wrote After Claude, which came out in 1973. A second novel, Hope Diamond Refuses, loosely based on her marriage to an Iranian prince, was published in 1984.”

Game. Set. Match. Read!

Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): Lying on a beach in Miami, I read Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead. It wasn’t until I was almost finished that I realized the irony of lying in eighty-degree sunshine in a tourist-laden spot while reading about a woman traveling across Antarctica in search of anyone who may still be alive. And yet, for me, The Brief History of the Dead was perfect beach reading: the ocean reminds me that I am just one small part of a much larger existence and that there are things that lie beyond our shore and that there must be things that lie beyond our world. Brockmeier’s novel posits one possibility for what lies beyond: when we die, we go to a city and live another life for as long as there is someone on Earth who remembers us; when the last person who knew us dies, we disappear. After a plague has swept the world, the sole survivor, Laura Bryd, is the keeper of the souls left in the afterlife city—everyone she ever knew, from the blind man she would pass in the lobby of her office building to her parents. Alternating between the stories of the characters in the city and Laura’s journey in Antarctica, this beautiful book insists on our reliance on others; we exist because of and for others, both in this life and whatever comes next. I just hope the city of my afterlife has a beach.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): Now that baseball season has started back up, I find it’s pretty easy to sit on the couch and read while my Boston-raised roommate calmly unfurls a huge sail of unrepeatable and grossly specific insults at the Yankees. Recently I read on that couch “Female Killers,” from Karate Chop, the odd, slim collection of Dorthe Nors stories, out from Graywolf. There was something about the story—in which an unnamed male protagonist sits at the computer after an unnamed woman has gone to bed, feeling guilty for looking not at pornography, but at sensational stories about female murderers, before logging off and “going up the stairs to her”—that reminded me of the cool, aloof way my roommate sits alone and curses his rivals. Nors’ prose is similarly without pretense, and seems to well up unbidden from the page, the way Fucking Yankees seems to come from the Red Sox cap across the room, not the guy under it. Nors’ stories are brief and exploratory, not creating meaning, but allowing the story to assemble meaning. They start and end in a way that ignores time. My roommate doesn’t hate the Yankees because he’s from Boston, it’s just that they’re the fucking Yankees.

Posted in Desiderata

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Remains

Flash FridaysHOUSTON

It wasn’t a city meant for walking, but she walked. Typed the address of the clinic into the hotel computer. Swiped a card and printed two pages of directions. Seventy-eight cents. Everything broken down into increments. Point two miles down the service road. Stay straight for another point three. The concrete gave up the night’s hoarded heat.

The straight line went straight to the shoulder of an on-ramp, swirling with empty cups and plastic bags. Cars so close the trash jumped into the air. She thought of that cartoon teapot, the cups and clock, the sexy feather duster and her candlestick man. The trash fluttered down, switched position, showed off. At your service! A driver laid on his horn: one long sound that startled the directions out of her hand. She went back the way she came.

He was pacing the lobby. They got cell phones that afternoon and waited in a FEMA line and rescheduled the appointment for the following week. He rented a car and drove and held her hand in the waiting room.

When she was better they went to a shrimp boil in the courtyard of someone’s cousin’s apartment complex. Folding tables buttressed by foam coolers. She stood with strangers and reached into the pile of things to eat. Damp newspaper, boil mix and garlic tingling her cuticles, a warm lemon wedged in her palm. Potatoes, half ears of corn, fat shrimp in thin skins. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. It was dark back there. They ate without looking or talking. They sucked the heads dry. The pile of food got low and it was too dark to tell who said it first—Houston, we have a problem—they all said it, put the phrase on repeat, a murmur that never stopped being true, not even when the next pot was drained and they were called again: eat.

 

BIG BOX

She got tired of waiting and found work. She wore a blue apron, spent $14 at the Wal-Mart on the other side of the same plaza for a pair of khaki pants. Stood in the greenhouse as long as she could to breathe the sweet stink of soil and wet rubber and leaves. Celery green sage green celedon. Ceylon. Iced tea sweet tea cubed coned shaved syrup. Sno-cone. Home. Stood in the greenhouse until she got sent back to her assigned aisle.

In the break room she opened her wallet to pull a dollar for the machine. Shirley from Kitchen Cabinets stood beside her, glugging water into a paper cone cup. Shirley gasped and stabbed a fingertip at her driver’s license. New Orleans? Shirley said it like a question and a prayer. Shirley said she’d had no idea that she was working with one of them, one of the displaced.

She punched the machine.  Tore a packet of chocolate peanuts with her teeth. Well you do now.

 

MACHINES

The candy machine at work. The swipe of the card at the register. She got used to the hum of the hotel elevator. Sixth floor. The room was paid up ‘til the end of September.

The room had a dishwasher. The night after the appointment they smoked Winstons into the fan over the sink and ashed in the coffee mugs. The next day they walked to buy more cigarettes and beer and ripe avocados. When they came back the bed was made and the dishwasher was running. She had never had one before, and never since.

They found a group on the Internet to do it for them. Clear everything out. Get rid of the whole mess. She thought it would be easier that way. They went back and everything was gone. The refrigerator, the window unit, her tools, his shelves, their photographs, winter sweatshirts, summer tanktops, the washing machine. The thought of a stranger opening the rotten lid of the machine and seeing their moldy underwear made her sick to her stomach. She hoped they were kind, that they took pity on her. She hated any chore with two parts. Switching wash, drying the dishes. It was a hard time to realize that she was lazy, but there it was. She liked to bring a plastic bag to the hotel desk and pick it all up the next day: clean, dry, folded.

 

THE OLD HOUSE

It was empty when they got there, and empty when they sold it off. She liked to think of it as always empty.

In the smallest room, a single picture of a sailboat used to hang opposite the window. The water line ran around the room at the height of her waist. She liked to imagine that this is where the baby had gone. Had taken the boat and ridden the flood waters somewhere far, far away.

The mold bloomed in the bathroom, teal and gray. She liked to think of that living lace eating the house from the inside, swallowing the empty walls and windows and floorboards, licking the place clean.

 

COLORADO

Where his family lived. Where they went after Houston. Where she nodded when he told her what he would tell his mother.

Lost.

Like the baby was a handbag she’d left in a taxi.

 

A LONG TIME AGO

He was a bookseller and she was a landscaper.

She rode her bike to his shop one summer afternoon when she was done spraying plants with her long hose and selling potted flowers and petting the big yellow labs that lay in the shade of the nursery. In the back of the shop, he repaired old books. She closed the door behind her and waited until he looked up. He wore goggles and a paper mask, his fine hands in powdered latex. She unbuttoned her shirt to keep him from speaking. Her arms and neck and face and calves were honey-brown. Rosy freckles like baby’s breath across her sternum. Pale breasts and belly. She covered her navel with her hands. She imagined his breath echoing warm inside its paper shield.

 

Caitlin Corrigan will earn an MFA in fiction from Rutgers- Newark this May. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Necessary Fiction, selfiesinink, Monkeybicycle, The Nervous Breakdown, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Fables and The Pedestrians: An Interview with Rachel Zucker

While it is not a big secret that I admire female poets, it was geometry, not gender, that first drew me to Rachel Zucker’s work. Along with a deliciously catchy title, Zucker’s third book, The Bad Wife Handbook (Wesleyan Poetry), was published long and horizontally, the distinct shape of the book a perfect match for her use of language, which is playful, authoritative, and full of memorably long lines.

Her new collection, The Pedestrians (Wave Books), is filled with images of place, the wild, motherhood, and marriage, but it’s also much like a well stocked pantry of “food for thought,” specifically: dreams and myths. It is no surprise then that the book is split into two parts: “Fables” and “The Pedestrians,” and in both, the reader is immersed in the outskirts of everyday life.

At the end of the day, sometimes all we have is thought and language. Sometimes our home, or more specifically, our city gnaws at us. In “The Other City,” Zucker writes, “She realized/ that this city, so unlike her city, was exactly like her city and/ that everyone in her city was exactly like everyone in this city/ and that they were all animals and that animals can only be animals.”

One of the true pleasures of the collection is the way Zucker channels both the everyday, pedestrian life, but also delves into the life of our unconscious, with its tug and pull on truth and illusion. In this, The Pedestrians is anything but monotonous.

Leah Umansky: In a lot of ways, your writing about Manhattan reminds me of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book I cherish. This is seen especially in the first fable, “The Old City.” In your book, Manhattan is also layered, as is the speaker. There is a wilderness inside her as a woman, much like Clarissa Dalloway.

You say: “ …she realized that this city, so unlike her city, was exactly like her city and/ that everyone in her city was exactly like everyone in this city/ and that they were all animals and that animals can only be animals.” (9)

Cunningham says: “ You know the story about Manhattan as a wilderness purchased for strings of beads but you find it impossible not to believe that it has always been a city; that if you dug beneath it you would find the ruins of another, older city, and then another and another…” (14)

Rachel Zucker: I read The Hours years and years ago and don’t remember anything about it except that I loved it. I’m thrilled by your comparison! I am interested in the way that Manhattan is very old and very new at the same time. Other major cities don’t feel quite like that. The European cities that I’ve been to feel much more attached to the past than New York feels to me. But New York also isn’t in love with “pop” the way I imagine Tokyo is (although I haven’t been there and might be completely wrong).

LU: Let’s talk about the physical makeup of the book as it’s broken up into two parts: Fables and The Pedestrians. How do these parts speak to each other?

RZ: These are really two separate books. I always imagined they would be published separately and had once hoped that Fables would be published with illustrations. The writing of both books overlapped and both of them are autobiographical and therefore there’s a lot of overlapping content and concerns. When Wave suggested publishing these together, I wasn’t sure at first but eventually really loved the way the two books talk to each other. I think it’s a better and more interesting collection with both books in one than it would be if they’d been published separately. Also, frankly, I can’t sell this many books to the very few people who are interested in buying my books.

LU: How did the “Fables” come about? They feature many animals, but in a non-traditional sort of way. There are jackdaws, hedgehogs, bees, and snakes among others. What I love about them is the way the speakers reside half in the fable and half in real life. She’s a “jackdaw,” yet her husband has a “snaked tongue.”

RZ: I started writing Fables over the summer. We were staying in Scarborough, Maine where they have a fabulous public library. Every few days we’d take out a bunch of picture books for our youngest son. I checked out a few different collections of fables and was thinking about the fable as a form and trying to figure out why I didn’t like it, especially the way the stories collapsed into the “moral” at the end. At the same time, I’d bought this notebook that had boxes on each page. I decided to write some of the morals into these boxes—things like “slow and steady wins the race” or “one good turn deserves another” or “it is not only fine feathers that make fine birds”—and then write little descriptions about my life around these boxes. I was playing with the interaction between this set destination and what came before. I was also thinking a lot about the role of animal in the fables and my own relationship to animals (especially as a life-long New Yorker in a more rural environment).

LU: Interesting. Well, how are the fables not traditional fables?

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Posted in Interviews, Poetry

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The Understory, An Excerpt

One

Many years ago, in a deli, I found flaky white bits floating in my self-serve coffee; the milk, sitting all day in a bucket of cold water, had turned sour. Since that day I have never drunk my coffee anything but black. Yet I look for those tainted curls every time: I pour, peer inside to reassure myself, then top it off.

Even here I am bound to my habits. I pour, pause, bend to my mug. All at once Joku is standing next to me at the end of the buffet table. He looks down, as if he too suspects that something is wrong with my drink. I move the mug away, toward me, and by the time I have accomplished this I’ve forgotten my most recent action. Did I already look inside? I think so, but it nags at me that I don’t know for sure. The glass coffeepot, suspended above the mug, is beginning to hurt my wrist. Joku is watching me now, and I become even more flustered and uncomfortable. To look twice is not good, not the way things should be, but I decide it is better than failing to look at all. So I glance in, confirm that the surface of the coffee is black and pure, then finish filling the mug and replace the pot on the electric hot plate. Joku moves off, toward the metal trays of kidney beans and homemade bread and peanut butter.

Normally his staring wouldn’t rattle me so much. I have grown used to it. He watches me in the dining hall, during chores, as we file into the meditation hall for zazen. He is so open about it, does not spy or hide. His head turns as we pass in the hallways. Without a doubt the abbot has asked him to keep tabs on me. For what if I am mentally unbalanced, a troublemaker? But today was different. Today Joku came so close that he nearly touched me.

He was the first person I met here, with the exception of the secretary. I was dirty from the night in the park and the day on the bus, and the red itchy blossoms on my neck and arms tormented me. Warily the secretary invited me in out of the snow, but I stayed under the eaves next to the large oak door with its brass doorknob while she ran to see what was to be done about me. It was only on the last leg of the trip that the snow had begun. When I’d left Manhattan it had been spring, but now, three hundred miles north, it was winter again, the land knocked back into dormancy. The sun was setting and I watched the spruce and firs below the hill sink into darkness. Then a small man in a dark robe came to the entrance. He had a broad, intelligent face and wire-rimmed glasses. I guessed him to be ten years older than I was, around fifty. “Mr. Ronan?” he asked. “My name is Joku.” He flung his hand toward the open door, indicating that I had been received, admitted. His gesture was too big; the back of his hand hit the door, made a leaden thud.

He led me through the simple corridors—unsanded beams, white plaster, flowers set in a wall alcove. I pictured Patrick passing through these hallways and wanted to reach out to touch the walls that he might have touched, but we were moving quickly and I did not want to call attention to myself. We arrived at a small office and the monk introduced me to the abbot, a tall man with a long, elegant head who sat at a desk bare of papers. The monk withdrew to the side of the room but could not seem to make himself unobtrusive. He shuffled, coughed, knocked over something on a table.

“Are you interested in our practice?” asked the abbot, resting his arms upon his desk. I had not expected him to look and sound so perfectly American. His voice had a Yankee timbre, the elegant head a Yankee frigidity. I answered that I didn’t know. I repeated what I had said to the secretary, that I had no home, no place to stay. I waited to be asked for more details. But the abbot only handed me a folded piece of paper and told the monk to find me a bed. And so I was taken to a room with four bunk beds and given a pillow and a small rough towel. Looking at the beds, I could already feel the nearness of the bodies that would lie in them tonight. Snow drizzled steadily outside the window. The fire under my skin brought water to my eyes and I slapped heavily at my arms, then pushed up my sleeve to show the monk that there was a reason, that it wasn’t craziness. His eyes widened. “What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing contagious,” I assured him. “An allergic reaction.”

“I will find something for you,” he told me.

The room was empty and quiet; the whole building was quiet. I looked at the paper the abbot had given me. It spelled out the abbey’s policy on nonpaying visitors. Short-term residencies would be permitted in exchange for twenty hours of labor a week. A list followed; I was to check off any areas in which I had special skill. Cooking. Computers. Communications. Gardening. And so on. Across the list I scrawled the word none. Then I erased that—better to appear useful—and put a check mark next to Gardening.

The monk came back with a crumpled tube. “Tch, tch,”  he clucked as I patted the ointment on. A strange, sorrowful little noise. I sighed as the cool salve penetrated the skin.

“We rise at four,” said the monk. “Just follow the others.”

“My name is Gorse, actually.”

“Pardon me?” He stopped at the door.

“I said Ronan but that’s not correct. My name is Gorse, Jack Gorse.”

“Mr. Gorse, then. Pleased to meet you.”

I was afraid he would hold out his hand. The fleshiness of a handshake has always repelled me, hands slickly moist or hot like a furnace. But he only bowed, Buddhist-style, his thick palms pressed together. He told me to make myself comfortable, and added that the others would be back in half an hour. The lights would be turned out at nine.

It felt good to have a bed. I fell asleep before the others returned.

Pamela Erens’s first novel, The Understory, was a finalist for both the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her widely-acclaimed second novel, The Virgins was a New York Times and Chicago Tribune Editors’ Choice. For many years she worked as a magazine editor, including at Glamour. She lives in Maplewood, NJ.

 

Posted in Fiction, Tin House Books

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Darkmouth Strikes Again

Flash Fidelity

We come to know we will die and that our particular deaths remain mysterious. When and how will we die? How much will we suffer? How much will those around us suffer? What will the moment be like when we stop breathing? And what happens afterwards? The latter two questions we cannot fathom the answers yet we continue to raise them as we witness those we love and do not love and those we know and do not know die before we die. These questions are like prayers we repeat not so much to receive answers but to express our uncertainty, our vulnerability. Ask our mothers. They will tell you about human fragility.

 

I don’t mean to bother you, don’t mind me, no rush at all, it’s not worth your time at all, pay me no attention, pretend I’m not here, I’m invisible, only passing through your field of vision momentarily, a blip, without a trace, you won’t even notice, I’ll never bother you again, I promise, pretty please, don’t be upset, please forgive me.

 

I would not hang myself because I do not tie knots or handle ropes with ease, I would not shoot myself because guns scare me, I would not jump off the top of a tall building because I’m afraid of heights, and I would not throw myself in front of a moving vehicle because I do not want to hurt anybody else. I am adept at swallowing pills. I can even swallow three or four at a time, without water. You really have to find something you’re good at and focus on doing that.

 

My son rolls marbles across the hardwood floors, and because our house slopes slightly to the south, the marbles roll beneath the couch, in a far corner of our house, and I gladly move the couch to pick them up. I suppose I could tell my son to stop, or ask him to help me pick up the marbles but I feel delighted by watching my son’s face fill with wonder as he rolls each marble then watches it disappear to this unknown place, an early brush with what he cannot see but knows is there. You are the cloud.

 

My son stood watching the other children. His teacher asked if he’d like to help her build a house out of wood blocks. He couldn’t, he had work to do, he told her. His teacher suggested his work could include helping her to build a house out of wood blocks. My son’s reply: —My work is thinking.

 

What is the shape of sorrow? Is it like a spiral curling inside itself or a vortex drawing its contents to some unfathomable center or the sea moving in gentle, laving waves, or creeper waves, or destructive and debilitating waves, or perhaps sorrow is shaped like a ghost, always there, never there, shaped like a sob, a convulsion, a howl, a wet towel, a hard smack on Formica, a raised fist arising from regret or thwarted desire or truth in shadow (bewitching erection!), or perhaps sorrow is shaped like a bowl holding only so much, closed at the bottom with nowhere to go, open at the top for pouring fourth, emptying, up-filling. Whatever its shape, sorrow is capacious, seemingly without end, capable of terrifying overflow and upheaval and slowly swift deterioration. Like America.

 

I can imagine my son’s ascension on this Earth. I see his devotion to the many people he loves and is loved by. I see his ardent passion for whatever he chooses to fill his days. I see his love for his spouse and children and pets. I see his particular loneliness, the loneliness of an only child, his desire to surround himself with a crowd of people, his struggle to stay with that crowd. I see his grief over the loss of his mother. I see him carrying that grief like a walking stick. As an old man he pays close, particular attention to his grandchildren. Why can’t I dream such things for myself? Does my father hold such dreams for me?

 

The leash lasts longer than the hand that releases it. This mug from which I drink lasts longer than the two fingers curling through its handle. The chair on which I sit, the table at which I write, this yellow lamp light—all lasts longer than me. The green corduroy against my skin, the gray suede shoes and the socks with holes in the toes, the Band Aid covering my blister. Dustbuster Plus. The wedding band lasts longer than the finger it encircles, and the silicone implants last longer than the breasts they fill. Mobile devices, applications, dotcoms, screen savers, beach homes, bank accounts, cars, snowmobiles in ramshackle shed, shovel with rusted head. The window into the cow’s digestive tract. The recording of the bells chiming at every hour lasts longer than the clock tower. Pompoms last longer than the cheerleader. His cock ring. Her vibrator. His little plastic trophy. Fernando-Valenzuela rookie card lasts longer than Fernando Valenzuela. The recorded voice lasts longer than the actual, the canvas lasts longer than the painter, the photograph, the film, these words. Our bodies live in decay. We are finally together.

 

Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University and show:tell, The Workshop for Teen Writers & Artists. His memoir, Wedlocked, was published by Hawthorne Books in April 2013 and received the Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. His chapbook, Darkmouth Strikes Again, is being published by Future Tense Books, this spring.

Posted in Essays, Flash Fidelity

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March Gems

Desiderata

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): March saw the end of the first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s deliriously excellent HBO drama True Detective. I’ve been trying to fill that void in my Sunday evening with FOX’s new incarnation of Cosmos, which reaffirms my faith in Neil DeGrasse Tyson and even has me reevaluating the cultural value of Seth MacFarlane. The sprawling, beautiful first episode, in which Tyson mapped the history of the universe to a calendar year, pointing to the very last few seconds of the very last day as the birth of human life, gave me what I think are permanent goosebumps. If I someday have children, I know I’ll show them both Tyson’s Cosmos and Carl Sagan’s original series, if only so I don’t have to try to explain any of those heady concepts myself.

Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): March has been a particularly good reading month. With any luck, and bit of backroom dealing, Tin House’s list of forthcoming books will be a few titles longer this time next week. Beyond the submission pile, I had the pleasure of reading Kiese Laymon’s brilliant debut novel, Long Division, and Leslie Jamison’s ungodly good collection of essays The Empathy Exams: Essays. But the book I’ll carting with me this weekend to the Peppermill’s sad-sack sportsbook, where I’ll be throwing away my hard-earned money on longshot prop bets and Jalapeno Poppers, is Timothy Lane’s Rules for Becoming a Legend. When I max out Cheston’s credit card on that Baylor-Dayton-Tennessee parlay, at least I’ll have a good basketball novel to curl up with.

Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): While standing behind our booth at AWP in Seattle, I heard a lot of good-sounding pitches for fictional novels, but I also heard a lot about The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, which I picked up and read in almost one sitting and finished well before Tony Perez, who is a desiderata-blocker of the first order and from way, way back. Perhaps the best recommendation I heard all conference, though, one that edged out an intriguing nonfictional novella, was for Annie Baker’s The Vermont Plays. Seriously. Trust me. Some of the best fiction I’ve read in years and years. Funny/sad/hurty/smart. So, so good. Also read a harrowing, queasy-making story by Adam Johnson that the rest of you will have to wait until June to read (in our Summer Reading issue) but which is going to nail you all to the floor and maybe even flick a few boogs at you.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): My two happiest cultural indulgences this March were both delightfully food-related. The first is the perfectly-wrought, bittersweet little confection of a film, The Lunchbox. Set in Mumbai, The Lunchbox builds its epistolary romance of sorts around the city’s famous dabbawala services, substituting delivered lunchbox tiffins for enveloped love notes. Ila, an overlooked housewife, seeks to win back her neglectful husband’s attention by cooking daily lunches of ever-more-delicious food. When the meals start getting sent to a widowed businessman instead, Ila and the businessman begin a correspondence through the returning boxes, all at last licked completely clean. If you think you know where this is going, you’re right and you’re not; the relationship that unfolds is particular and tender and lands someplace beyond the trajectory I foresaw. The film’s completely wonderful all around–and as an added bonus, clearly mandates that you order liberally from the movie theatre concession stand before watching.

My second pick of the month is Bread and Butter, the new novel by our own Michelle Wildgen. I am neither chef nor true foodie, but I love any work done passionately and with precision and finesse; I loved Bread and Butter, then, in its meticulous portrait of life in a restaurant kitchen of the highest order, and in the grace in the execution of the book itself. And as with The Lunchbox, the real story here is not about the food, but about the relationships it mediates, the bonds its expresses and sometimes breaks. Wildgen’s depiction of the intertwined lives of Bread and Butter‘s three restaurateuring brothers is every bit as satisfying as the book’s decadent meals. I’d prattle on, but I don’t want to embarrass Michelle on her own turf.

Diane Chonette (Art Director): Although the bulk of our “TV time” for March was spent rabidly re-watching the first 3 seasons of Game of Thrones, there was the Guanajuato Mexico WRC rally to squeeze in, too. I can’t help but root for the underdogs in these races where literally anything can happen—including dodging surprised cows along the race route. So while the impervious French rally leader Sebastien Ogier took the crown, it was his countryman Thierry Neuville who won my applause by limping his overheating Hyundai back to the garage with the aid of an enormous bottle of Corona. Well played sir!

Posted in Desiderata

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The Red Kimona: An Exclusive Film Review from The Believer

From now until the end of the month, Tin House and its beloved, smart, and good looking literary sibling the Believer are offering up a joint promotion where for only $65, you’ll get a year’s subscription to both magazines (Subscribe today! Here!).

To help milk this for all we can celebrate this unique partnership, we decided it might be fun to swap domestic partners blog content for a day.

Be sure to click over to the Believer’s Logger to read a poem from Bianca Stone’s ripping new collection,  Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books).

Over on our side of the fence, we are thrilled to be running Kathleen Rooney’s film review of The Red Kimona, which appears in the current issue of the Believer.

 

 The Red Kimona

Directed by Dorothy Davenport and Walter Lang

Central Question:
Can a silent-film car chase anticipate proto-feminist values?

A social-conscience movie billed in its opening sequence as a “startling human document,” the 1925 silent film The Red Kimona tells the true tale of the fall and redemption of a sex worker and murderess named Gabrielle Darley. Underage and unloved by her family, Gabrielle is seduced by a blackguard who lures her to New Orleans, where he forces her into prostitution. Upon learning of his impending marriage to another woman, she follows him to Los Angeles and shoots him dead. An anguished trial ensues, during which opportunistic society lady Beverly Fontaine takes up Gabrielle’s cause for its reflected notoriety. To even her own shock, Gabrielle is acquitted, but finds herself friendless, penniless, and with nowhere to go and no honest means to capitalize on her celebrity. She reluctantly accepts the invitation to stay on Fontaine’s sumptuous estate, where the socialite exploitatively parades her in front of her wealthy female friends, a gaggle of limousine liberals avant la lettre who use the misfortunes of the underclass to demonstrate their own high-mindedness while doing very little to help anyone concretely.

At first it seems like writer-producer Mrs. Wallace Reid—in reality Dorothy Davenport—is poised to deliver a knight in shining armor in the form of Fontaine’s humble chauffeur, Fred. When Gabrielle loses her benefactress’s support and finds no one willing to hire a woman with a criminal record, she makes for the train station to head back to New Orleans, where the only avenue open to her would seem to be more prostitution. Fred learns of her plight and rushes to the station to stop her, and here the film does something surprising even by today’s standards: he doesn’t catch her. Gabrielle returns to the red-light district; once there, though, she finds she can’t bring herself to return to her old degraded ways and, through a series of twists, winds up scrubbing floors in a city hospital. On beautifully written title cards, she asserts that she wants to “do some useful work—earn my redemption.”

The failure of Fred’s chase indicates an understanding on Reid’s part that was well ahead of its time: that a movie in which a heroine is corrupted by a bad man and redeemed by a good one has no significant moral content, because the heroine has no agency. (Fred eventually does track Gabrielle down at her new workplace, but only months later, and he is about to depart for the western front of World War I, so the possibility of their one day being together is anything but certain, certainly not what “saves” her.) Gabrielle Darley does not merely have attitudes, as is too often the case with female characters in films: she makes choices, and The Red Kimona allows her to experience their consequences.

This is stunning compared to subsequent films with prostitute protagonists. BUtterfield 8, for example, the 1960 film starring Elizabeth Taylor as a high-paid call girl, also culminates in a climactic chase in which her love interest literally drives her to her death in a ridiculous crash. Taylor’s character has just refused her wealthy lover for the last time and is preparing to leave Manhattan for Boston to begin her life anew; her death, of course, denies her this option, whereas her lover, though he is essentially a murderer, gets to go home to his wife, who forgives him without question.

Or take 1990’s Pretty Woman, which also concludes with a passionate pursuit: although Julia Roberts’s down-on-her-luck Hollywood prostitute has asserted her desire to move to San Francisco, earn her GED, and start over independently, Richard Gere hops into his white limo, red roses in hand, and climbs her fire escape to convince her she will be happier freed from the burden of making her own choices. From their passionate kiss, we are given to understand that she agrees. And in Mighty Aphrodite, Woody Allen’s 1995 retelling of the Pygmalion myth, Mira Sorvino’s hooker with a heart of gold does not even have the ambition to give up whoring, yet Allen’s sculptor swoops in and convinces her to do so.

In each case, our prostitute protagonists wind up with their agency permanently foreclosed upon. In contrast, The Red Kimona gives us a chase scene in which the party trying to escape is never even aware that she’s being pursued: she is fleeing something larger, namely the prurient assumptions of polite society regarding her “fallen” state. Yet Gabrielle’s is the most breathtaking getaway of the lot, and at its end she winds up as free as we’ve ever seen her.

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press. Her debut novel, O, Democracy!, is forthcoming, in April 2014.

 

Posted in General

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Chute

Flash Fridays

“You’re apologizing to garbage,” laughed Carlos.

She couldn’t help it. It was automatic for her to apologize for everything. For stupidly cleaning her two rings and leaving them in the kitchen on a paper towel that she later accidently tossed down the garbage chute. For asking Carlos, the building handyman, to let her rummage through the compacted garbage. For ruining Carlos’s Saturday morning.

Earlier, she’d stood at the compactor-room door, calling Carlos’s name over and over. She’d felt like Brando calling Stella. Carlos must have had his headphones on, and couldn’t hear her over the crunching and whooshing sounds of the compactor. She’d hoped to find him before he started compressing the garbage. She envisioned her diamonds in tatters, like sharp confetti. How could she have been so stupid and thrown out the rings? She cleaned them every week, like a ritual.

Finally, Carlos heard her knocking and opened the door with his friendly smile. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you with the compactor on.”

Her shoulders sagged. “I guess there’s no use looking, now that it’s been compacted,” she said.

“Nothing is impossible,” he said. “Give me a minute.”

When he called her in, he had carefully arrayed the garbage in sections across the basement floor of the building. “I think, given the timing, when you said you tossed it down the chute, you should start over here in this pile,” said Carlos.

Wearing yellow plastic dishwashing gloves she’d brought from her apartment, she began to rummage tentatively through her neighbors’ garbage: coffee grinds, diapers, mysterious and unsightly orange scrapings and mush. The fumes were fierce and she tried not to gag. When she rejected a pile, she’d apologize to it and move on.

“Oh, look, someone didn’t recycle.” She held up a plastic bottle and showed Carlos.

“Who was that? Let’s check.” Carlos sounded upset. She found a ripped piece of an envelope nearby, with an apartment number on it.

“Oh, 11E. That’s Mrs. Walsh. I’ll have a word with her!” said Carlos. They both laughed out loud.

“Let’s judge the neighbors!” she said. “Maybe this could be a new game. Or reality show. But let’s face it. Who am I to judge? I’m on my hands and knees on a sunny day, looking for my engagement and wedding rings in a pile of garbage. And holding you up. I’m sure you have a ton of other things to do.”

Last night her husband Sam had been all excited about a salmon recipe he wanted her to try. He had seen it on some cooking show, and was talking about how it kept the fish moist without albumin, the white foamy stuff, forming on the top of the fish. He was convinced the secret was in the broiler timing and the foil wrapping. She had mistimed the salmon, and tried to quietly scrape the albumin off the top of the fish while he was watching the baby and TV. She was hoping she hadn’t overcooked it. Sam would be so disappointed. But he had loved it. She’d done something right. He’d been so furious at her last weekend for taking all those photos of red-haired cadets who turned out not to be his son Kevin, her stepson. How could she tell? Who knew there were so many carrottops at West Point graduations? It was from a distance. They all looked like Prince Harry to her.

Earlier in the week a neighbor on their floor had been shoving his garbage down the chute, his head hidden by the open door to the tiny chute room. He must have heard her walking down the hall, and he silently reached out his hand to take her garbage without showing his face. She was grateful he didn’t look at her, since she’d just smeared Carmex across her lips and had her hair up in a clip. She was wearing, right out of the box, a newly arrived sweater she had admired on her sister, who had then sweetly bought the same one for her online. It looked awful on her—since her coloring was completely different from her sister’s—and she wondered why the color was called “silver lake,” since it was more of a faded green suburban-house-paint shade. It was too big on her but that was fine, since she still had some baby fat. She wondered why she was having all these moments involving garbage with men other than Sam. What did it mean?

Now she was rushing to accommodate Carlos’s schedule, and hoping beyond reason to find her rings safe in the cheerfully pink-and-gray-patterned paper towels she liked so much she overstocked them—going to different DUANEreade drugstores to find them.

“Did you say the paper towels had pink in them? That’s good. Look over here.” Carlos steered her to a new pile. She examined the debris closely.

Her heart raced. Could it be she’d find them? What were the odds? The paper towel disappointed, although it did have a pink pattern in it. No sign of diamonds anywhere.

She hated the basement. Despite Carlos’s quest for cleanliness, it was a dirty city and she’d spotted rodents, periodically, on the way to the laundry room. She was relieved Carlos stayed with her during the garbage review, thinking his presence somehow protected her from small creatures.

Now, if only he could protect her from Sam when she told him the rings were lost. She snapped the gloves off her naked fingers and headed home.

 

Nancy Ford Dugan lives in New York City and previously resided in Michigan, Ohio and Washington, DC. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize the past two years, her short stories have appeared in various publications, including Cimarron Review, Passages North, The Minnesota Review, Epiphany, The Alembic, and The MacGuffin.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Elizabeth Davis

“Animators document the change to objects over a length of time,” says Elizabeth Davis, this week’s Tin House Reels featured artist. She defines animation simply: as the art of motion; and it gives her a wide range for play. Davis animates objects of all sorts, making her stories out of various toys: projecting light onto fabric, building zeoptropes, and shooting stop-motion films of clumps of hair moving around on a table, as in her film Glabrous.

“Animation means learning techniques so that I can bring different media into time and motion, and it does not stop with my pen or my computer. Technology is a tool, but I am also interested in the texture of real things—watercolor, hair, cut-out pieces. I miss those textures when I only work digitally.”

Her appreciation for tangible life is evident in her film The Fisherman. Davis uses black ink in uneven lines, sets sketches into spotty motion, and leaves her film silent, which amplifies an intimacy with her hand-drawn sketches. The creative play of free-form drawing can help shape her storyline: “While I was working out the motion I let whatever seemed natural happen. The small fish swimming around the man is a great example of that; I started drawing the fish to fit one sequence but they took on life and became a nice breath in the film.”

Elizabeth Davis is a sophomore at the Kansas City Art Institute, pursuing a BFA with a double major in Animation and Art History. She is studying to be an art historian and wants to “to critically look at animation and film as a fine art,” to establish its context in the history of art. She otherwise moves objects around in other artful ways when helping to run the community-based urban garden at KCAI called Home Grown.

You can view more of Elizabeth’s work here.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in Tin House Reels, Videos

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On Madeleines and Memory

There is an undeniable connection between food and memory. One taste of a familiar, yet long forgotten food can transport you back in time to places that no longer exist. In Swann’s Way, a simple madeleine serves as a bridge to the past. As the narrator struggles to catch hold of the memory that begins to form when the tea-soaked cookie hits his tongue, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my own experiences with the petite shell-shaped sponge cake.

My mom has always been filled with big ideas when it came to baking. An avid collector of recipes and gadgets, she seemed prepared to embark on whatever culinary journey she desired. But when it came time to try a new recipe, she found herself caught on the cusp, overwhelmed with fear that her creation might be a flop. This fear is rooted in real experience: she once doubled the ingredients of an angel food cake. It rose out of the tall cake pan, growing like a creature in a horror film. Not only were the ingredients wasted, but there was no cake for dessert, and she was left to clean the charred batter from the sides and bottom of the oven.

About twenty years ago, she ordered a madeleine pan from a catalog, raving about the madeleines that her mother used to bake. My grandmother at first followed a Julia Child recipe, but then branched out to other varieties: chocolate dipped, orange flavored, and a traditional vanilla. When the pan arrived, my mother was delighted. As a child, I was excited by the scallop shape, tracing my fingers along the grooves. But as quickly as my mother had talked herself into splurging on the pan, she talked herself out of actually making the cookies. “All those grooves could be a problem,” she worried. “They might burn and stick. Besides, I’m not even sure about this recipe…” And with that, the pan languished on the shelf for another ten years. Soon it was 2003, and I suppose I tried to talk her into giving the madeleines another try. I have no memory of it, but the thick stack of recipes printed from the internet, all with the dates and long URLs, indicate that in the early aughts, she seemed ready to tackle the madeleine.

But it was not meant to be, and the pan continued to sit unused, still in its plastic sheath and now bundled with yellowed recipes, for another ten years.

Upon reading Proust, and his powerful description of the madeleine as a device of memory acquisition, I realized that I was the sole shot that this pan had for ever being used. When I called my mother to ask about the whereabouts of the mythical madeleine pan, she hemmed and hawed, claiming that she might never be able to find it. But it was actually in plain sight, resting upon the cookie sheets that she used quite often. For years, she had moved the madeleine pan every time she reached for a cookie sheet, but had no memory of even seeing or touching it.

Armed with the pan and a stack of ten-year-old recipes, I decided to harken back to my grandmother, and used Julia Child’s traditional recipe. It was probably the very recipe that my grandmother followed, though now shining from an iPhone screen, rather than in a worn and splattered cookbook.

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Posted in Carte du Jour, Essays

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Devilled Smelts & Violet Soufflé: In the Kitchen with Alice B. Toklas

In Chapter Nine of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, “Little-known French Dishes Suitable for American and British Kitchens,” there are more than fifty recipes including one for devilled smelts, a fish dish made with two kinds of mustard and anchovy paste, and a violet soufflé dessert doused with a substantial tablespoon of Kummel, a clear liqueur flavored with cumin, fennel and caraway seeds. Reading through the two recipes, both seem much more suitable to other people’s kitchens instead of my own, since my limited cooking skills don’t go a lot farther than the end of a soup spoon.

Although the two recipes are brief in length, they seem long on kitchen savvy—or maybe that’s just the way I read them. From the opening line of the devilled smelt recipe, it seems a bit complicated: “Clean, remove fins, wash and dry six smelts.” The washing and drying parts could probably be done without a lot of cooking smarts, but removing fins without some sort of shield or trident sounds potentially dangerous. Toklas must have been too busy cooking during the early decades of the twentieth century to worry too much about it—poaching bass for Picasso, whipping eggs for Francis Picabia, preparing countless dishes for Gertrude Stein and generally feeding a large portion of Paris.

In her own words, Toklas says that the Cook Book, published in 1954, is a “mingling [of] recipe and reminiscence,” and the reminiscing part seems less trouble-free for me to follow than the recipe part. After reading recipes, lingering over the grocery list, organizing kitchen utensils, imagining how the crockery would be filled with phantom perfectly prepared dishes—maybe even dabbling with the idea of ironing a table cloth—there’s always the critical part of actually getting down to cooking, when kidding around is over and it’s time to do stuff in the kitchen. That’s when it gets tricky for me. Maybe there could be some sort of consolation to be had in Toklas’ response to the hullaballoo about her succès de scandale recipe for hashish fudge, when she purportedly said, “What’s sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander. But it’s not necessarily sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen.”

And there’s a lot of fowl in the Cook Book, including over twenty recipes for chicken. The one for “Chicken in Half Mourning” is probably a pretty accurate portrait of how poultry would fare in my kitchen. (Although the section of the recipe where you add in enough Madeira wine to immerse the chicken seems like a directive I could get behind.)

It’s springtime—open the windows, leave your cares, soufflé your violets, devil your smelts and serve.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim
 (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHourThe Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.

Posted in Aperitif

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A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies

 

 

1 /

Everyone gets to die. Not everyone gets to find love first.

Some people don’t even get to look.

This novel is about a moody fellow who got to do all three. His name was Moody Fellow.

Moody looked for love for a long time before he found it. He looked in some, not all, of the wrong places and in quite a few of the wrong ways. It didn’t make things any easier that, from the beginning of his search to the short-lived sweetness that marked its end, he was a terribly—and we do mean awfully—moody fellow.

But enough ado. Let us begin at the beginning.

 

2 /

There was a tremendous rupture of some kind, totally unprecedented, or else it was a rerun of something that had happened many times before, maybe somewhere in space, except no, this rupture created space, at least this time around it did, space and everything in it.

Eons later, a girl kissed Moody Fellow.

I like how scrawny you are, she told him, snapping her bubblegum. That’s why I kissed you. Can I borrow your math homework?

Okay, said Moody.

Moody was twelve years old and didn’t know much about life. He thought the girl would give him back his homework when she was done with it. If you were as pretty, he reasoned, as this girl was, with her blond hair and everything, why would you need to be dishonest? But this thought was interrupted by another: He’d been kissed! Not on the lips, but still, it was a thing that had never happened before, at least not to him, and now that it had, he felt like the king of all creation.

Take as long as you need with the homework, he said, handing it over.

The girl flashed him a smile and took off down the hall. She never kissed Moody again, or spoke to him, or gave him back his homework.

It made him mad that she didn’t give it back. But he didn’t tell anyone he was mad.

 

3 /

Moody’s second kiss foisted itself upon him four years after the first. It happened on a Wednesday, in the wake of algebra. The bestower of the kiss was an awkward girl Moody’d been informed liked him, as in liked. He’d been avoiding her, but now here she was, upon him in the hallway. His main concern as she leaned toward him pursing her anemic lips and squeezing shut her eyes, which when open were slightly crossed, was to make sure no one who mattered witnessed the event. Those who mattered numbered three: Moody’s best friend, Tall Jim; his second-best friend, Jorge, an exchange student who was Moody’s doubles partner on the tennis team; and, three, the girl on whom Moody at that time had a crush, a skinny girl with explosive hair, an extensive collection of brightly colored miniskirts, and a name that doesn’t matter anymore, though it did at the time, quite a bit, to Moody and, presumably, to the girl herself, else she wouldn’t have changed it after graduation. She had the locker next to Moody’s, and one of the reasons Moody liked her so much (in addition to how he was struck speechless, though not literally struck, by her amazing limbs, all four, and not literally speechless either) was that although she could outpeck him in terms of the social pecking order, she always, when the two of them happened to be at their lockers at the same time, had a friendly word for him. And not always a mere word—sometimes they had actual conversations, the sort in which views were exchanged. Moody learned, for instance, that this girl believed the space-time continuum was like a many-colored soap bubble, its colors constantly shifting, which seemed about right to him, god how he wanted to kiss her. When they crossed paths elsewhere than at their lockers, she ignored him. It was as though she too were struck speechless, but not in a good way.

While he scanned the hallway for the three who mattered, Moody managed to angle his face away from the approaching face of the awkward girl, so that her lips would meet not his lips but, say, his cheek or, as it turned out, his jawbone, or rather the skin that kept it mercifully from view. She didn’t seem nearly as awkward from close up, he noticed as he turned away. There was a mole-like blindness as she came at him with eyes closed that stirred within him something tenderer and less sure of itself than pity would have been. Whatever it was, it wasn’t desire, as the girl saw clearly when she opened her eyes to the post-kiss universe. The ache she felt was no less painful for being something nearly everyone who has ever lived has experienced.

I have to go to history, Moody said.

I’m sorry, said the girl.

You’re okay, said Moody, not knowing what he meant by it but knowing he intended it as a kindness. Then he hurried away, relieved that those who mattered hadn’t seen.

 

4 /

Around this time, Moody explained to his piano teacher that although it might be true that other people needed to practice the piano in order to get good at it, he, Moody Fellow, did not intend to approach music in quite that way.

I’ve noticed that, said his piano teacher, a short, solid woman who was six decades Moody’s senior and had heard this kind of thing before.

I want to play by pure feeling, Moody said. I want to play by inspiration, you know, in the moment.

Moody meant what he was saying. He thought people like Beethoven had been struck by the lightning bolt of pure musical feeling and had created beautiful music on the spot, while still warm from the lightning bolt. And he wanted to be the same way when he played Beethoven. Surely the great man deserved no less.

I’m not here to teach you musical feeling, said Moody’s piano teacher. You have that already. I’m here to teach you how to work.

Moody didn’t want to work, at least not at music. He worked at tennis. It didn’t occur to him to try to play a tennis match based on pure, in-the-moment feeling, with no preparation. No, what had made him the second-best player on his high school team, behind his doubles partner Jorge, were the thousands of hours he’d spent on tennis courts, endlessly running, hitting ball after ball to different spots on the court, with different spins, at different speeds, with different goals in mind. None of this seemed like work to Moody, for he loved every moment of it. He loved the sounds of the game—the pock! of the ball being struck, the squeak! of a player’s sneaker as he or she abruptly changed direction. He loved the sport’s Euclidean geometry and the way it was a contest of wills. He was, he would later think, both physically and psychologically addicted to tennis. He didn’t see why anyone else wouldn’t love it too, for instance girls. In a sign of how poorly he understood those fair and mysterious creatures, he thought he was more likely to win girls’ admiration by scooting back and forth along the baseline, getting every ball back deep with topspin, than he was by performing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which, because he rarely practiced, he couldn’t play very well.

In tennis, love equals zero. But although our teenage protagonist lost his share of tennis matches, that is not what we mean when we say that, before he died, a moody fellow named Moody Fellow found love.

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Posted in Fiction

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Your Weekly Forecast: Ernest Hemingway

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Posted in General

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What We’re Reading

Kenzie Halbert (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): My recent introduction to A.M. Homes has stuck with me as one of my favorite reads of the new year. May We Be Forgiven focuses on the complex paternal bond between the protagonist and his successful yet insane brother George. The first thirty pages of the book are so rife with action, that it was at times overwhelming. In the midst of chaos, Homes continued to draw me in through her language, and I couldn’t seem to look away.  If I’m being honest, I was skeptical about how the rest of the book would keep my attention when it seemed like the remaining 400 pages would have to be solely devoted to cleaning up the catastrophic events of the first few chapters. To my pleasant surprise, the rest of the book is just as, if not more, engaging than the introduction as Homes examines familial bonds, mental illness, adolescence, and mid-life crises. It was a gift to be guided through the uniquely tumultuous journey of the protagonist by such a beautiful writer. Homes is committed to the honest portrayal of the darkest parts of her characters; she left me waiting for the protagonist predictable demise, but surprised me again with an ending so fitting that I was sad to see it come to an end.

Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): At this year’s AWP, in panel after panel, I heard presenters mention Spork Press. So, when I came across a few friendly-faced guys behind their booth in the book expo, I stopped to take a look. All of their books are hand-crafted by these same nice folks out of their office in Tucson. To be honest, it was Saturday, the last day of the conference, and my brain was a little (a lot) glazed, so I put zero thought into the book I selected and bought from them. I was delighted, though, when I unpacked all my swag at home and began to flip through the thoughtfully-designed pages; I’d ended up with Colin Winnette’s Animal Collection, a totally quirky and wonderful book of fiction that runs a gamut of experiences all based (both literally and metaphorically) on the theme of animals. Even though I was exhausted after driving home from Seattle following an extraordinarily long few days, I made it through half the collection that first night. The next morning, I couldn’t wait to dive back in and finish. I went back to my favorite chapter, about baby cheetahs, and followed my fiancé around the house, reading it to him out loud. It’s the kind of collection that is surprising, curious, and smile-inducing. It is also weird and made me nod a lot in perplexed agreement. It’s the kind of collection that makes one, as I ended up doing, want to find out what else Colin Winnette has written, and to order it right away while still chuckling about the Naked Mole Rat’s troubles at Cheron’s Dine and Eat.

Victoria Savanh (Summer Writer’s Workshop Intern): Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. These stories take place in the same world as her brilliant novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, faerie-crossed England. Each tale is charismatic and whimsical, often paired with dark, menacing undertones, much like the world of Faerie. Clarke’s enchantingly crafted Austen-esque pastiche is also a pleasure in itself. Among a few of the delightful things to be found in this collection: appearances made by Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Mab, a Rumplestiltskin retelling, and a tribute to Neil Gaiman. Enjoy it as a companion to the novel or as an introduction to Clarke. And now (anxiously awaiting!) there’s the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell mini-series to look forward to.

Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I was at Powell’s, preparing for an overnight flight to Hershey, Pennsylvania this week and couldn’t say no to Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies. Maybe it was the mutually simple and bold cover, maybe it was the fact that the book jacket called upon similarities to two other favorites of mine, Philip K Dick and Jorge Luis Borges, or maybe it was just the delightful taste of Marcel Theroux’s name on my tongue; regardless, it came home with me. My discovery of the words inside has been no less thrilling than my encounter with this book on Powell’s shelves. The narrator is humble yet assertive (impressive, considering he is an academic), and there are equal parts mystery, fantastical plot detail, and simply beautiful prose. Theroux writes, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and so presents us with a world of magical realism, where dead men can appear at our doorstep and die again. I’m relishing every page of Theroux’s artful craft, and I’d highly suggest you do, too.

Posted in Desiderata

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When the Rain You Asked for Comes

Flash FridaysYear I turned foreman, a guy I used to know by Cocaine Tommy calls me up and asks can I get him a job. Says he needs a fresh start after a 180-day bit in the Big Muddy River so he can do right by his kid. Can I give him a chance?

So I did. I always liked that scraggly jailbird, and anyway we apprenticed together and used to be tight. And he did try to do right by his kid as far as I could tell. Sam, her name was. Six years old. We’d see her all the time because her Meemaw—the mama’s mama—would swing her by every Friday for Tommy’s three hours’ unsupervised. Jane, that was the Meemaw’s name, took care of Sam since the mama couldn’t.

She was a tough old lady, that Jane, but kind. Right before Memorial Day, she let Tommy take Sam for a long weekend as a reward for keeping out trouble. I remember because she dropped off Sam on a Thursday night.

“Don’t you call sick,” I warned after Jane drove away. “Tomorrow’s a work day.”

Tommy tousled Sam’s stringy hair. “I ain’t calling sick. It’s gonna rain.”

Above us the sky showed nothing but blue.

“How you figure that?” I wanted to know.

“Sammy, baby, we’re going to show Mr. Jerry here how to make a rain turtle.”

“A turtle, Daddy?”

“Rain turtle, baby. We’ll make it from pebbles—and it’s got to be actual rocks, not dirt—then draw a circle around it with a twig off a tree, and then spit on the top while asking the Great Spirit for rain.”

At “Great Spirit,” Sam giggled. Tommy grinned. He said he learned the trick from Sam’s Peepaw before he died, and the Peepaw learned it from some type of Indian back in the Great Depression.

“Oh, and we can never forget where the turtle is, baby. That’s the most important part. You have to knock it over when the rain you asked for comes.”

Tommy and Sam made their turtle beneath a sapling on the side of our garage, and sure as shit, the next day I had to call it in for rain. Damned thing netted Tommy a four-day weekend. At work that next Tuesday, as a special fuck-you to me, he wore a T-shirt he picked up at the Fox River Family Fun Fest. “Friday Fishing Derby,” it said. “Rain or Shine, We Cast the Line.”

 

Two things happened after that. First was drought. Brutal heat and dryness. Not a drop of rain for weeks and weeks. Second, Tommy got back together with his old lady. Said they were going to do it right this time, get their acts together. Goal was to get Sam to live with them by fall.

I was happy for them, but addicts are volatile and two in love explosive. Wasn’t long before Tommy started coming off the rails. Sloppy work. Frequent lateness. Some bullshit about needing a more reliable car. After a few months, I could hardly recognize the guy. He lost weight and packed on grease and filth. He looked his worst when I found him on his hands and knees one afternoon looking for what he said was a lost bag of weed.

“Back to work,” I remember telling him. “We’ll track it down later.”

“Come on,” he pleaded.

“‘Come on,’ what? Little bag of grass? I’ll give you some of mine after work.”

“Look, I’m just really freaking about getting caught, OK? Like one of these kids around here finds it and tells their parents or maybe worse the cops?”

I laughed. “Like the cops will care.”

Tommy tucked his chin to chest and whimpered.

“Goddammit, Tommy, what’s wrong with you?”

“Sam, Boss. I can’t fuck this up. Jane is super-pissed about me and Suzy, and so is my bitch P.O. They’re not going to let us see Sam any more, OK? I’m dying. Suzy’s dying. Every night that woman cries for her baby.”

“After the job, Tommy.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Listen, if your kid is so important, maybe you shouldn’t be smoking at all.”

“You’re right. You’re right.”

“OK then. Jesus.”

“Just help me find the bag.”

I remember clenching my fists and thinking hard about the Polish brutes in the day labor pool out by Army Trail Road. “Look, Tommy,” I told him. “I’ll help you, but you make the choice: we finish up the day first, or we look now. We do it now, I want you gone as soon as we find it.”

Tommy nodded vacantly. “OK.”

“OK, what?”

“OK help me find the bag.”

So we looked. Stupid thing showed up in some mulch near by where he thought he lost it. Tommy snatched it up before I could check it out, but I doubt it was buds he had in there.

I never saw Tommy again after that. Years later, though, I did bump into Jane. On a rain day, matter of fact. Terrible storm, it was. Sheets of rain crashed down on cars and trucks, and I had to pull into the Olympia Grill on Route 59 to wait it out. Jane worked the smoking section—empty but for me—and we had ourselves a real nice chat. She even showed me a picture of Sam all grown up. Two full sleeves of tattoo ink covered her arms. Beautiful work, too—not at all like the blurry blue jailhouse scratching on the neck and chest of her old man. At first I thought it was blossoms and berries she had on there, but looking closer I saw it was tackle. Oversize fly-lure showstoppers on her shoulders, and brightly colored spoon lures, spinners, and bladed jigs trickling down.

According to Jane, Sam rented a chair at some high-end salon near the country club in Aurora. Said I should stop by some time. She’d turn my white hair blonde again. Give me highlights. Bring out my eyes.

 

Big Hark is a writer from Chicago.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Edwin Rostron

Visions of the Invertebrate, this week’s film at Tin House Reels, is a dance of geometric shapes set to electronic sounds, a collaboration between artist Edwin Rostron and musician Supreme Vagabond Craftsman.

Working with a musician opened up possibilities for Rostron’s storytelling: “Supreme Vagabond Craftsman and I wanted to make something where his music and text came first, and the visuals followed.” This turned into a cross-genre dialogue. “He gave me recordings; I started animating. I showed him the drawings, and he gave me more sounds. It continued like this until it reached a natural conclusion. I like something unnatural and artificial in electronic sounds, and I wanted to connect with that sound through straight lines and movements.”

Rostron creates motion that could more easily be approximated with animation programs, but he chooses the labor-intensive process of drawing each frame because it allows him to dissolve the thinking mind into visual art: “I didn’t use the programs that I could have used to move the shapes–it is all drawing after drawing. There are 12.5 different drawings per second and thousands of separate drawings in the whole film. I draw one shape, put it on a lightbox, and redraw it again, moving it a little further in the direction it’s going, making it slightly bigger or smaller if it’s changing shape.”

“While I could achieve motion more easily with software, I wanted to not know what would happen next; I wanted to draw the next tiny change and the next tiny change but never consciously know where it was going. This is my ‘thinking through doing.’”

The final stages of his creation (you can better understand this painstaking labor by watching the test video for Visions) include an almost masochistic erasure of the meticulous work he has done by hand: “I artificially flat photoshop-color it to make it ambiguous as to how it was made. I guess this is pretty perverse! I was originally going to have it more ‘dirty’ with the smudges and creases of the paper more visible (like they are in the test) but when I saw my work with the bright flat colors, I much preferred it.”

“It’s hard to for me to explain I guess, but this film could only ever have been made in the way I made it.”

Edwin Rostron earned his B.A. in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University and his M.A. in Animation at the Royal College of Art. He has taught Animation at Kingston University, worked in galleries, and has done other freelance work to support his art. Edge of Frame, his blog, is an exploration of experimental animation that features interviews with animators who inspire him.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

 

 

Posted in Tin House Reels, Videos

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