Current Issue #59
Fiction:Joy Williams, Diane Cook, Diane Williams, Dale Peck, Seth Fried
They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs. Which means I can stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and smell his clothes. I can cook dinner for two and throw the rest away, or overeat, depending on my mood. Or make a time capsule full of pictures I won’t be allowed to keep. I could bury it in the yard for a new family to discover.
But once that work is done, the Placement Team orders me to pack two bags of essentials, good for any climate. They take the keys to our house, our car. A crew will come in, price it all; a sale will be advertised; all the neighbors will come. I won’t be there for any of this, but I’ve seen it happen to others. The money will go into my dowry, and then someday, hopefully, another man will marry me.
I have a good shot at getting chosen, since I’m a good decorator and we have some pretty nice stuff to sell off and so my dowry will likely be enticing. And the car is pretty new, and in the last year I was the only one who could drive it and I kept it clean. It’s a nice car with leather seats and lots of extras. It was my husband’s promotion gift to himself, though he drove it for only a few months before illness swept him into his bed. It’s also a big family car, which will appeal to the neighbors, who all have big families. We hadn’t started our own yet. We were fretting over money, being practical. I’m lucky we didn’t. Burdened women are more difficult to place, I’m told. They separate mothers from children. I’ve heard it can be very hard on everyone. The children are like phantom limbs that ache on a mother’s body. I wouldn’t know, but I’m good at imagining.
They drive me away from our house, and I see all the leaves that fell while I was too busy burying my husband and worrying what will become of me. The leaves, glossy and red, pile in airy circles around the tree trunks like Christmas-tree skirts. I see the rake propped against the rainspout. The least I could have done is rake the yard one last time. I had told my husband I would.
I am taken to a women’s shelter on a road that leads out to the interstate. They don’t let us go beyond the compound’s fence, because the land is ragged and wild. The night skies are overwhelmed with stars, and animals howl far off. Sometimes hiding men ambush the women scurrying from the bus to the gate, and the guards, women themselves, don’t always intervene. Sometimes they even help. As with all things, there is a black market for left-behind women, most often widowed, though, rarely, irreconcilable differences can land one in a shelter. A men’s shelter is across the road. It is smaller, and mainly for widowers who are poor or who cannot look after themselves. My father ended up in one of these shelters in Florida. A wealthy woman who had put her career first chose him. Older now, she wanted a mate. They sent him to her, somewhere in Texas. I lost track of him. The nearest children’s shelter is in a different county.
My room has a sealed window that faces the road and when I turn off my light I can see men like black stars in their bright rooms. I watch them move in their small spaces. I wonder what my new husband will be like.
There are so many handouts and packets. We have been given schedules and rules and also suggestions for improving our lives and looks. It’s like a spa facility on lockdown. We are encouraged to take cooking classes, sewing classes, knitting classes, gardening classes, conceiving classes, child-rearing classes, body-bounce-back-from-pregnancy classes, feminine-assertiveness classes, jogging classes, nutrition classes, home economics. There are bedroom-technique potlucks and mandatory “Moving On” seminars.
In my first “Moving On for Widows” seminar we are given a manual of helpful exercises and visualizations. For one, I’m to remember seeing my husband for the first time—we met at a new hires lunch—and then imagine the moment happening differently. So, for example, rather than sitting next to him and knocking his water onto his welcome packet, I should visualize walking right by him and sitting alone. Or, if I let myself sit down and spill his water, instead of him laughing and our hands tangling in the nervous cleanup, I should picture him yelling at me for my clumsiness. I’m supposed to pretend our wedding day was lonely and that rather than love and happiness, I felt doubt, dread. It’s all very hard.
But, they say, it’s helpful in getting placed. What I find funny is that since my husband died, as he was dying, really, I hadn’t thought about the possibility that this would be hard. I thought it was just the next step. My Case Manager says this is normal and that the feeling of detachment comes from shock. She says that if I can hold on to it and skip over the bewildering grief that follows, I’ll be better off. The grief-stricken spend more time here. Years, in some cases. Practice, practice, practice, she always says.
We’re each given a framed picture of a man, some model, and I take it back to my cell and put it by my bed as instructed. I’m supposed to replace my husband’s face in my memory with this man’s face while being careful not to get too attached; the man in the photo won’t be my new husband. The man is too smooth; his teeth are very straight and white, and there is a glistening in his hair from gel that has hardened. I can tell he probably uses a brand of soap I would hate the smell of. He looks as if he doesn’t need to shave every day. My husband had a beard. But, I remind myself, that doesn’t matter now. What I prefer is no longer of concern.
We are allowed outside for an hour each day, into a fenced pen off the north wing. It is full of plastic lawn chairs and the women who have been here awhile push to get chairs in the sun. They undress down to their underwear and work on their tans. Other women join an aerobics class in the far north corner. The fences are topped with barbed wire. Guards sit in booths and observe. So far I’ve just walked the inside border and looked through the chain. The land beyond is razed save for the occasional toppled rooty stump. Weeds, thorny bushes grow everywhere. This is a newer facility. Decades from now, perhaps young trees will shade it, which, I think, would make it cozier. Far off, the forest is visible; a shaky line of green from the swaying trees. Though coyotes prowl the barren tract, it is the forest that, to me, seems most menacing. It is so unknown.
On my walks I often need to step around a huddle of women from another floor (the floors mostly keep together, socially); they form a human shield around a woman on her knees. She is digging into the ground with a serving spoon from the cafeteria. It is bent, almost folded, but still she scrapes at the pebbly soil. I can’t imagine the guards don’t know what is going on. There are runners who try to escape at night. They think they will fare better on their own. I don’t think I could do it. I’m too domestic for that kind of thing.
Four weeks in, and I have gotten to be friends with the women on my floor. It turns out we’re all bakers. Just a hobby. Each night one of us whips up some new cookie or cake from a recipe in one of the old women’s magazines lying around the compound, and we sample it, drink tea, chat. It is lovely to be with women. In many ways, this is a humane shelter. We are women with very little to do and no certain future. Aside from the daily work of bettering ourselves, we are mostly left alone. I like the women on my floor. They are down-to-earth, calm, not particularly jealous. I suspect we are lucky. I’ve heard fights in the night on other floors. Solitary, in the basement, is always full. As is the infirmary. A woman on floor five who had just been chosen was attacked while she slept. Slashed across the cheek with a razor blade. The story goes that when the Placement Team contacted the husband-to-be with the news, he rejected her. There she was, all packed and about to begin a new life. When she returned from the infirmary with tidy stitches to minimize the scarring, she had to unpack and crawl into the same bed where her blood still stained the sheets. If she had been on our floor I would have changed the sheets for her. And I know the others would have too. That’s what I mean about feeling lucky.
Last week, our girl Marybeth was chosen and sent to a farm near Spokane. We stood in a circle embracing, laying our heads on each other’s shoulders, and Marybeth did not want to leave. We made her a care package; in our best handwriting we’d written out recipes on index cards of the things we’d baked together so she could always remember her time here if she chose to. She cried when we handed it to her. “I’m not ready,” she whimpered. “I still miss him.” A couple of us encouraged, “Just do your best.” When, eventually, the guard led her away we heard her trying to catch her breath until the elevator doors closed.
A window has blinked to life across the road. A man is awake, like me. He pads around his small room in pajamas—hospital blue, like ours. I want to be seen, so I stand in my window. He sees me, steps to his window, and offers a quiet wave. I wave back. We are opposing floats in a parade.
If we had been poor and I had died, my husband would be over there now waiting for someone to want him. How strange to worry about someone wanting you when we had been wanted by each other so confidently. Most people reach the age of exemption before their partner dies, and they are allowed to simply live alone. Who would want them, anyway? Ideally, you marry the man you love and get to stay with him forever, through everything you can think to put each other through, because you chose to go through it together.
But I had not prepared for something like this. Had he? Had my husband kept some part of himself separate so he could give it to someone else if he needed to? Was it possible I, too, had managed to withhold something of myself without even realizing it? I hoped so.
I look around my small, cinder-block room, painted a halfhearted pink, the desk too large for the unread library book on it. I had a picture of us hidden under my mattress. It was one of those pictures couples take when they are alone in a special place, at a moment they want to remember. We smooshed our heads together and my husband held the camera out and snapped the picture. We look distorted, ecstatic. One night, I fell asleep while looking at it; it fell to the floor, was found at wake-up, and was confiscated. I still can’t believe I was so careless.
In bed, I imagine my husband lying beside me, warming the rubber-coated mattress, beneath the thin sheet so many women have slept under before me. My scalp tingles as I think of him scratching it. We rub feet. Then I have to picture him dissolving into the air like in a science-fiction movie, vaporized to another planet, grainy, muted, then gone. The sheet holds his shape for a moment before deflating to the bed. I practice not feeling a thing.
A few women on other floors have been chosen and will leave tomorrow. I can smell snow in the air pushing through the small crack where the window insulation has peeled away. Late fall is now winter. When it is too cold, we aren’t let outside for activities in the pen. I would give anything to run through a field and not stop. I have never been the running-through-fields type.
From what I can tell, being chosen is bittersweet. I imagine many of us wouldn’t mind living out our days at the shelter in the company of women like ourselves. But then again, it wouldn’t always be us. Marybeth’s replacement was cruel and tried to start fights between us. She told me my muffins were dry. She squeezed one in my face; it crumbled between her fingers. She crept into sweet Laura’s room and cut a chunk of her long shiny hair with safety scissors. Laura was forced into a bob that didn’t suit her. Luckily, this woman was very beautiful and was chosen after only four days. We’re waiting for her replacement. Even though there is uncertainty in being chosen, it seems more uncertain to remain among the women, a sentiment I’ve also seen expressed in the manual.
Something very special has happened. I met my window friend. He came over with the other men from the men’s shelter for bingo. This happens occasionally. It keeps everyone socially agile.
Even though we wave across the road, when he walked in I recognized him instantly—the darkness of his hair and the general line of his brow. The nights we wave have become important to me. It’s nice to be seen by a man.
My window friend spotted me, too, stopped in the doorway and waved. I waved back and then we laughed. A tiny, forgotten thrill bubbled up in me.
He sat next to me. Close up I found him handsome. He clowned around, pushed the bingo chips off my board whenever I wasn’t looking. He was nervous.
He said, “I’m going to tell you ten bad jokes in a row,” and he did, counting on his fingers, not pausing for my laughter, which made me laugh through the whole thing. A guard watched us disapprovingly. We looked to be having too much fun. I guess it goes without saying that relations between shelter dwellers are prohibited. I mean, how could we survive together in the world if we have both ended up in a place like this?
At the end of the evening a whistle blew and the men began to shuffle out. Again my window friend stood in front of me and waved and I did the same. But this time he touched his open hand to mine and we pressed them together and smiled. I felt us quake like small animals that have been discovered somewhere they shouldn’t be and have no time to run, or place to run to.
The next night, after we waved quietly, I undressed in the window, the lights bright behind me. He placed his hands against the glass as if to get closer and watched.
Tonight, his light isn’t on and so we don’t wave, but, still, I undress in front of my lit window. I can’t know if he’s watching from the darkness, or who else is watching, for that matter. I loved my husband. I mourn his tenderness. I have to believe that someone out there is feeling a kind of tenderness for me. I’ll take it any way I can.
I’ve been moved to another floor. Someone from the men’s shelter reported me, and my Case Manager thought it best for me to occupy a room in the back of the building. Now I look out over the pen.
For days, I feign illness and stay in bed. I hear the groups of women doing their outside activities. It is a cyclical drone of laughing, arguing, calisthenic counting, and loaded silence.
When I do go outside to the pen, the women from my old floor give generous hugs and we try to talk, like the old days, but it’s different. There are new women. A couple of friends have been chosen and are gone. A new woman replaced me; she lives in my room and has a view across the road to the men’s shelter and my window friend. Her name is even close to mine. She told me that the women sometimes slip and call her by my name. She told me this to comfort me, with a sympathetic pat on my arm. But it doesn’t help. Is there any difference between us beyond a few letters in our names?
The women on my new floor are mostly concerned with escape. They are bullish. Their desire scares me. But there are two nice women. They don’t try to escape, or not that I’ve heard about. Our way out of here is to get chosen. So we swap tips from the different pamphlets we’ve read.
We don’t bake. Sometimes my old girls send down cookies, but they come a couple of days after their baking parties and so they are crumbly, stale; nothing like the warm, fresh treats I was so fond of. I’ve started throwing them away, but I won’t say anything, because I like that they still think of me.
The alarm sounds.
It sounds when someone runs.
Floodlights sweep over the field, then through my window. I hear the far-off yowling of dogs as they smell their way through the night, tracking some woman. Curiously, I find myself rooting for her. Perhaps I’m half-asleep but, peering out my window, I think I can see her. When the lights pan the wasteland between the pen and the forest, something like a shadow moves swiftly, with what seems like hair whipping behind, barely able to keep up with the body it belongs to.
There’s nowhere to hide before the forest line. The runner needs a good head start. I doubt she got it. They never do. And yet they always try. What are they looking for? Out there, it’s dark and cold. No guarantee of food or money or comfort or love. And even if you have someone waiting for you, still it seems such a slippery thing to depend on. Say my window friend and I ran. Would he love me outside of here? Could I ever be sure? I barely know him.
I picture myself running. My nightgown billowing behind me, my hair loosening from a braid as I speed along. Finally it comes undone and free. I hear the dogs behind me. I see the forest darkness in front of me. From across the field a figure races toward me. But I’m not scared. It’s him. My friend. We planned it. We’re running so that when we reach the woods we can be together. I feel hopeful to be running across this field, and then I suddenly know why they do it. They are running toward what they believe is best for them, not what the manual claims is best. It should be the same thing but it isn’t.
I find at the end of this fantasy I am weeping and so I write it down in a letter to my friend. I write it as a proposition, though I’m not sure it is one. I just want to know if he would agree to it. It’s another way of asking, if we weren’t both poor wretches, would he choose me? I don’t know why, but it’s important to me. Maybe I’ve changed. The manual says that in order to move forward we must change. But this change feels more like a collapse. And that is not how the manual says it will feel.
I open my window and the wind pinks my cheeks. I like it. The wind brings the smell from the field and even from the trees. It smells good out there, past where I can see. The dogs are silent now. The runner might have made it. I shake my head at the night. I know it’s not true.
My window friend is gone.
At bingo I search for him. I want to explain my absence, tell him I was moved, while discreetly slipping the letter into his pocket. I can’t find him. Another man follows me around trying to grab my hand; he whispers that he has secret riches no one knows about. Finally a guard from the men’s shelter intervenes, takes the man by the arm. I ask about my friend and it turns out he was chosen. The guard says he left a few days ago. I ask how many exactly. “Just two,” he says a little sheepishly. I’m destroyed. I say, “Two is not a few” and return to my room. It is painted a buzzing shade of yellow and I hate it. The desk is even bigger and emptier now that I’ve stopped pretending to read. The floodlights from the pen shine in my window at all hours.
The next day I slog to lunch, but I can’t eat. I stare at my crowded tray until the cafeteria empties. My Case Manager calls me in. Her eyebrows are raised, imploring. She opens a file and in it is the letter I wrote to my window friend. I can’t even muster surprise. Of course they would find it.
“I wasn’t really going to run,” I say. “It was just a fantasy.”
She pushes the letter to me.
I read it. My handwriting is looped and sleepy. The pages are worn. I wrote a lot, and reread it obsessively to make it right. Reading it now makes me blush. In the letter, I am begging. My tone near hysterics. I promise that we’ll find a house, unoccupied in the woods, abandoned years ago. That we’ll forage for our food, but that eventually we’ll find work, even though all the jobs are spoken for. I insist we’ll be the lucky ones. We’ll have a family, a house with a yard. He’ll have a nice car, and I’ll have nice things. We’ll have friends over to dinner. We’ll have a vacation each year even if it is a simple one and we’ll never put anything off if we really want to do it. And we’ll never wait for something we want now, like children. We’ll never fight over silly things. I won’t hold a grudge and he’ll say what he’s feeling instead of shrugging it away. I won’t be irresponsible anymore. I won’t buy bedding we can’t afford. And I’ll be more fun. I’ll be game. I won’t insist he tell me where we’re going when all he really wants to do is surprise me. I’ll never cook him things he doesn’t like because I think he should like them. I won’t forget to do small things like pick up the dry cleaning or rake the leaves in our yard.
Of course, I’m writing to my husband.
It reads as if we’re fighting and he’s stormed out, is staying on a friend’s couch. Here is my love letter, my apology: please come home.
I look up.
“Be sensible,” my Case Manager says, not without some kindness. “I can’t put your name on any list until you’ve shown you’re moving on.”
“But when do I grieve?”
“Now,” she says, as though I have asked what day it is.
I think of the man from across the road, my window friend. But I can’t even remember what he looks like. I try to picture him in his room, but all I see is my husband, waiting, in his plaid pajamas and wooly slippers. He shakes a ghostly little wave. I can tell from his shoulders he is sad enough for the both of us.
For a couple of weeks I allow myself a little moment. I scrape other women’s leftovers onto my plate. I eat the treats my old floor still sends, even though I don’t like them. I barter for snacks with some rougher women who somehow had it in them to set up a secret supply business. Now my pants don’t fit. My Case Manager finally intervenes and tells me to cut it out. She says even though we live in a progressive time it’s probably not a good idea to let myself go. She gives me some handouts and a new exercise to do that is, literally, exercise. “Get that heart rate up,” she says, pinching the flesh above my hip.
I know she’s right. We all deal with things differently. At night, some women cry. Other women are bullies. Others bake. Some live one life while dreaming of another. And some women run.
Each night a new alarm sounds, the dogs, the lights. In the morning I’ll see who looks ragged, as if she spent a futile few hours flying across the barren tract to the forest, only to be recaptured. I’ll also look to see if anyone is missing. I still secretly hope she, whoever she was, made it, and I feel twinges of curiosity at the thought of that life. But they’re just twinges. Not motivation. What I want, I can’t have. My husband is gone. So my future will be something much quieter. It won’t be some dramatic feeling in the wild unknown. There are other ways to be happy. I read that in the manual. I’m trying them out. My Case Manager says this is healthy.
Eight months into my stay, I am chosen. My Case Manager is proud of me.
“That’s a respectable amount of time,” she insists.
I blush at the compliment.
“The knitting helped,” she notes, taking quiet credit for suggesting it.
I nod. However it happened, I’m just glad to have a home.
My new husband’s name is Charlie and he lives in Tucson and the first thing he bought with the dowry was a new flat-screen TV. But the second thing he bought was a watch for me, with a thin silver cuff and a small diamond in place of the twelve.
My Placement Team takes me to a diner on the outskirts of town, where Charlie waits in front of a plate of pancakes. He has girlish hands but otherwise he is fine. The Team introduces us and, after some papers are signed, leaves. Charlie greets me with a light hug. He is wearing my husband’s cologne. I’m sure it is a coincidence.
I am his second wife. His first wife is in a shelter on a road that leads to the interstate outside Tucson. He tells me not to worry. He didn’t cause their broken marriage. She did. I nod, and wish I had a piece of paper so I can take notes.
He asks me how I feel about kids, something he certainly has already read in my file. I answer that I’ve always wanted them. “We’d been planning,” I say. There is an awkward silence. I have broken a rule already. I apologize. He’s embarrassed but says it’s fine. He adds, “It’s natural, right?” and smiles. He seems concerned that I not think badly of him, and I appreciate that. I clear my throat and say again, “I’d like kids.” He looks glad to hear it. He calls the waitress over and says, “Get my new wife anything she wants.” There’s something in his eagerness I think I can find charming.
I am not ready for this. But I’ve heard that someday I’ll barely remember that I ever knew my first husband. I’ll picture him standing a long way down a crowded beach. Everyone will be pleased to be on the beach. I’ll see something about him that will catch my eye but it won’t be his wave, or his smile, or the particular curl of his hair. It will be platonic, something I wouldn’t associate with him. It will be the pattern on his bathing shorts; bright, wild, red floral or, maybe, plaid. I’ll think something like, “What a nice color for bathing shorts. How bright they look against the beige sand.” And then the image will disappear and I’ll never think of him again. I’m not looking forward to this day. But I won’t turn my back on it. As the manual often states, it’s my future. And it’s the only one I get.
AT A PERIOD OF EXCEPTIONAL DULLNESS
Poetry:Craig Morgan Teicher, Sean Zhuraw, Caroline Knox, Charlie Smith, C.K. Williams, Anna McDonald, Lindsay Walker, Troy Jollimore, Joe Wenderoth
THIS WATER TASTES OF IRON
AFTERNOON IN BETHNAL GREEN
Features:Lacy M. Johnson, Allen Crawford, Maggie Nelson, Phillip Lopate, Tiffany Briere NEW VOICE
Tell me everything, he says. Start at the beginning. He does not mean the playground at the preschool with the rainbow bridge. Or the kitten tongue like sandpaper on my cheek. Or the potpourri simmering in the tiny Crock-Pot on the counter next to the jar of pennies in the kitchen. Though any of these could have been a beginning to the story I tell him. I want to see it, his little notepad, but he leaves the room to make some calls. No, I can’t call my family. No, not any of my friends. Nothing to do but to look at my feet, which are suddenly very, very absurd. Someone should cover them with shoes and socks.
He returns to lead me down a dark hallway, where every office is a room with a closed door, through a kitchen, where coffee brews and burns, out a heavy steel door to a parking lot, an unmarked car. A detective’s car. He gestures, as if to say, After you.
While waiting in the unmarked car on an unlit street in the dark shadow of an oak tree I realize that real cops are not at all like movie cops. Real cops are slow and fat. Their bellies, in various states of roundness, hang over their waistbands, cinched tight with braided leather belts. They do not converge on buildings with sirens blaring. They do not flash their lights or stand behind the open doors of their squad cars and aim their guns at criminals. These cops, my cops, do not wear uniforms. From the car, where I am sitting alone in the shadow of an oak tree, they look like fat men who have happened to meet on the street, who are walking together around the side of the fourplex toward the gravel parking lot, where they will find a discarded car tarp, a screen door flapping, all the lights but one turned off.
Just inside the door, they will find a dog collar, construction supplies, and a soundproofed room. I have told them what to expect. Meanwhile, waiting alone in the car under the dark shadow of an oak tree I start seeing things: no shadow is just a shadow of an oak tree. I press the heels of my palms hard into my eye sockets, sink lower into the seat. My thoughts grow smaller and race in circles. The adrenaline shakes become convulsions, become seizures, become shock. When The Detective returns, he finds me knotted into thirds on the floorboard: hardly like a woman at all.
At the hospital, The Detective leads me through a set of automatic sliding glass doors, not the main ones that lead to the emergency room, but another set, down the way a bit, special, for people like me. He leads me down a fluorescent-lit hallway, directly to an exam room where the overhead lights are turned off. A female officer meets me there, and a social worker who looks like she might be somebody’s grandmother. The Female Officer and The Social Worker team up with a nurse; The Detective disappears without a word. The Female Officer, The Social Worker, and The Nurse ask me to take off my clothes. They unscrew the U-bolt from my wrist. The Female Officer puts these things into a Ziploc bag named EVIDENCE.
Nice to meet you, Evidence.
The Female Officer takes pictures of my wrists and ankles. She speaks in two-syllable sentences: Oh, dear. Rape kit.
The Social Worker wants to hold my hand. No thank you, ma’am. She is, after all, not my grandmother. Her skin is loose and clammy. She asks what kind of poetry I write as The Nurse rips out fingerfuls of my pubic hair, spreads my legs, and digs inside me with a long, stiff Q-tip. Another Q-tip in my mouth for saliva. She scrapes under my fingernails with a wooden skewer and puts the scum in a plastic vial.
The Social Worker invites me to stay at her house. Or it is not her house, exactly, but a half-house for half-women like me. After the exam, The Social Worker gives me a green sweat suit in a brown paper bag. I’m supposed to dress in the bathroom. The clothes are entirely too large: a too-large hunter-green sweatshirt, a pair of too-large hunter-green sweatpants, a pair of too-large beige underwear. Like my mother wears.
The Female Officer doesn’t acknowledge that I look ridiculous when I emerge from the bathroom. She doesn’t acknowledge me at all. I know to follow her out the door, to the parking lot, her squad car. I know to hang my head; it’s the price for a ticket to the station.
The phone call wakes my parents out of bed. Mom answers; her voice is thick, confused. She says nothing for a long time. In the background, Dad gets dressed. Yesterday’s change jingles in his pockets. His voice buckles: Say we’re on the way.
The Detective follows me to my new apartment in the unmarked car. He offers to come inside, to stand guard at the door, but I don’t want him to see that I have no furniture, no food in the fridge, nothing in the pantry, or the linen closet, or on the walls. I ask him to wait outside. I call my boss at the literary magazine where I am an intern and leave a message on the office voice mail: Hi there. I was kidnapped and raped last night. I won’t be coming in today. I call My Good Friend’s cell phone. I call My Older Sister’s cell phone.
While I’m in the shower, the apartment phone rings and callers leave messages on the machine: My Good Friend will stay with her boyfriend; she’s delaying her move-in date. Of course she hates to do this, but she’s just too scared to live here, with me, right now. You should find somewhere to go, she says. My Handsome Friend’s message says he heard the news from My Good Friend. He’s leaving town and doesn’t think it’s safe to tell me where to find him. The message My Older Sister leaves says she wants me to come stay at her place, which sounds better than sleeping alone in this apartment on the floor.
I pull back the curtains and see my parents standing in the parking lot talking to The Detective. My father shakes The Detective’s outstretched hand. My mother covers her chest with her arms, one hand over her mouth, a large beige purse hanging from her shoulder. She’s brought me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a snack-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I’m not hungry, but the thought of wasting her effort makes my stomach turn.
I nibble the chips in the backseat of their car while they take me to buy a cell phone. They want to do something, to take action. With the fluorescent lights of the store, all the papers I must fill out and sign, and the windows wide open behind us, I feel dizzy enough to fall.
Driving to My Older Sister’s apartment, I watch the road extending behind me in the rearview mirror and try not to fall asleep. The boulevard becomes deserted intersection, becomes on-ramp, and interstate. The clusters of redbrick buildings give way to strip malls, to warehouses and truck stops, to XXX bookstores, to cultivated pastures growing in every direction: wheat-stalk brown, tree-bark brown, and corn-silk green.
My Older Sister meets me in the parking lot with tears in her eyes. Her hug is both desperate and safe. As she carries my bag up the stairs she says, You look like shit. Under any other circumstances, I’d tell her to fuck off. Today it’s a comfort. I do look exactly as I feel.
She isn’t able to get off work tonight, so she shows me how to use the cable remote, loads her handgun, puts it in my hand. It’s heavier than I would have imagined. She’ll work late tonight, but if I need anything, her next-door neighbor, The Sheriff, knows what happened. He might come by to check on me. Please try not to shoot him.
The whole time she’s gone, I watch the closed-circuit channel showing the front gate of her apartment complex. I sit in the dark with the gun in my hand and watch cars drive through the gate. I don’t know what I’m watching for, but I keep watching. A gray conversion van looks suspicious. I peer through a crack in the blinds.
I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. Even after My Older Sister comes home, offers me a beer, falls asleep with her arm around my body in the bed, I fix my eyes on the dark and wait.
Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment instructs us to imagine that a cat is trapped in a steel chamber along with a tiny bit of radioactive substance—so tiny that there is equal probability that one atom of the substance will or will not decay in the course of an hour. If one of the atoms of this substance happens to decay, a device inside the chamber will shatter a small flask of hydrocyanic acid, killing the cat. If it does not decay, the cat survives. It is impossible to know, with certainty, whether the cat is alive or dead at any given moment without looking inside the steel chamber, since there is equal probability of either outcome. And because both outcomes exist in equal probability, this creates a paradox: the cat is both alive and dead to the universe outside the chamber. These two outcomes continue to coexist only until someone opens the chamber and looks inside, causing those two possible outcomes to collapse and become one.
The form itself is simple: my name, the police records I am requesting, the case number, the dollar amount I am willing to pay for copying fees. These fees can be waived if the request in some way serves the public interest. I was the victim in this case, I write on the form. I can think of no way in which this serves the public interest, but I would like to see the files anyway.
A sergeant in the Public Relations Unit responds to my request within the week. After thirteen years the case remains open and The Sergeant needs to consult with the city legal advisor prior to making a decision, Since, you know, it involves a serious active case. Three weeks later, after speaking with the law department, as well as with the lead investigator, The Sergeant sends me a PDF file along with a polite offer of further assistance.
At first I decide I won’t open it while I’m at home—not while there is laundry to be washed and folded, not while there is food to be cooked, and children to be bathed and fed. I’ll wait until my trip to upstate New York in early summer. But then I spend whole mornings distracted by possibilities. Is the cat alive or dead? After two days, when my children are at school and My Husband is out of town, I open the file, thinking I’ll only look a little bit. Just a little. Just a peek.
The evidence file contains eighty-five pages of police reports, including an inventory of items collected from the crime scene: “chain,” “brown envelope with handwritten notes,” “two leather belts tied together,” and “film neg[atives].” It does not describe whether there are images on those negatives. It does not describe the results of any laboratory tests or the e-mails and correspondence I sent to and received from The Suspect, though they are mentioned. There are no facsimiles or transcripts of conversations I had with the prosecutors or the police. The file does not contain copies of warrants, though it lists the complete set of charges filed on my behalf.
The first half of the file contains reports of the same events during the same time period on the same day, each report from the perspective of a different officer, each report in part relating the story I told to one officer or another. The writers do not reflect. They do not sympathize. They express no pity or outrage or disgust. Each report simply records my story, but it is not my story, though it is the same version of the story I would tell. Almost word for word. Like something I memorized long ago and can still perform by heart.
And yet, as I read through the evidence file, I see things I don’t remember. Like how, according to the police reports, it was The Female Officer, not The Detective, who came out to meet me at the station, and The Female Officer also drove me to the apartment I’d escaped, and then to the hospital, and then back to the station. But in my memory, this role is so clearly played by The Detective, a man who looks vaguely like my uncle.
I try to remember my two fists pressed against the glass separating me from the two female dispatchers, the locked beige door to my left. I remember it opening, and I try to see The Female Officer’s face instead of The Detective’s face. I try to remember her dark-blue uniform, every corner pressed and in its place, the black belt with its gold buckle, the gold buttons, every hair on her head tied back into a neat bun. I can see the long hallway behind her. I can see the little notepad. And the office. And the black telephone. The carpet in the hallway is beige, darker in the middle than where it meets the walls at the edges. But when I try to see The Female Officer instead of The Detective the whole image starts to collapse, and then there is neither a female officer nor a male detective opening the locked beige door. There is no opening the door.
Until I looked through the police reports, I didn’t know that while I was waiting in the unmarked police car outside the basement apartment, one of the officers called the owner of the building, a man I knew as the bartender at our favorite dive downtown. He came to the apartment, maybe while I was waiting outside, and confirmed that he owned the building, and that his tenant, the same person as The Suspect, was a friend. After the landlord refused to tell the police where they could find The Suspect, and after he tried several times to call his tenant, he was arrested for obstructing a government operation. He was later processed and transported to the county jail.
I also didn’t know that, in the early days of the investigation, one of The Suspect’s former students showed up at the police department, admitting that The Suspect paid him $100 to help him build the soundproofed room. They spent an entire weekend working on it together. The owner of the building let them use his pickup truck to haul supplies and stopped by periodically to check on the progress. At one point he brought fresh watermelon and cantaloupe for them to eat. The student said he remembered that his former instructor had paid for everything with an envelope full of cash.
Until I looked through the police reports, I didn’t know that on July 5, the night of the kidnapping, The Suspect called the Mall 4 Theatres, asking if My Handsome Friend was working that evening. My Handsome Friend had told his bosses and fellow employees that some psycho might come to the theater looking for him, and asked them not to give out any information about him over the phone or in person, or to let on that he still worked at the theater. My Handsome Friend told police that for six months The Suspect had been following him, driving past his house and the building where he worked, because he thought we were having an affair. My Handsome Friend told police he believed that The Suspect might harm him. He didn’t know what The Suspect might do to him.
I also didn’t know that, after the story was reported on the news, people phoned in to the Crime Stoppers hotline to offer information they had about the case. One woman, an employee at a big-box hardware store, had helped The Suspect select glue for the Styrofoam he would later use to build what he called “a sound studio.” One man, who worked at a sound supply shop on the business loop, said The Suspect had asked him how to build a soundproofed room insulated enough to muffle a woman’s screams. For making movies, The Suspect had said.
According to the police reports, bank records reflect that sometime after 5:00 PM on July 5, 2000, The Suspect withdrew $750 from his checking account at an ATM only blocks from the building where I worked. Which means he may have gone to the ATM as early as 5:01 PM, moments before he approached me in the parking lot outside the building where I worked. Or as late as 11:59 PM, after he returned to the apartment where he had built the soundproofed room and discovered that I’d escaped.
Early the following morning, before I’d called my parents or returned to my apartment to shower and pack, before the nurse had finished searching the surfaces and cavities of my body for evidence, he withdrew another $750 from an ATM at a gas station at the intersection of two highways 150 miles away to the west and north by interstate. From that ATM he drove fifty-two miles south and parked his rental car on a street in the downtown business district of one of the few actual cities in the state, where it would be discovered by an officer from the Stolen Auto Division a month later.
On July 7, two days after the kidnapping, he purchased an airline ticket to León, Guanajuato, Mexico, at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. After arriving in Mexico, after passing without incident through immigration and customs, he walked to the ticket desk and purchased an airline ticket to Porlamar, the largest city on Margarita Island, just off the coast of Venezuela. He got off the plane in Santiago Mariño Caribbean International Airport that afternoon and withdrew $1,200 from an ATM. That evening, just before the bank froze his account, just before I learned to accept the weight of my sister’s gun in my hand, one final debit for $29.56 posted to his checking account, from a restaurant at one of the island’s resorts.
One police report describes how, on July 12, one week after the kidnapping, at 9:10 AM, The Suspect called his stepfather at his home in southern Missouri: a cabin just this side of a shack, the only building I remember now along the gravel road stretching across a heavily wooded hilltop, where it seemed a fresh buck was always swinging from a tree, the red gash of its belly gaping open. I remember eating stewed squirrel in the kitchen at a card table, loading the woodstove in the cramped living room, watching the clouds of my breath from a mattress on the floor in the only bedroom. I don’t remember seeing a phone. But it rang three times, the report says, before his stepfather picked up. He asked, Where are you? The Suspect wouldn’t say. They talked briefly about the case. Yes, I did get her, The Suspect admitted, but he denied the allegations of rape. If you want to call Lacy, go ahead, he said. His stepfather asked again, Where are you? The Suspect refused to say, but then started talking to another person near the phone in Spanish. At 10:00 AM on July 12, his stepfather called The Detective to report the call. He said The Suspect seemed very upset about the media exposure on the case.
In another report, The Detective writes how, on July 17, twelve days after the kidnapping, he and another officer came to my apartment to talk to me about the case. I told them that The Suspect and I met while I was a student in his Spanish class at the university. I told them that I had been trying to break up with him for some time, for lots of reasons, but mostly because he had raped me on more than one occasion. I told the officers that when I finally did break up with him, six weeks earlier, he did not take it well.
The Detective writes that I told him and the other officer that The Suspect had been arrested before, in Denmark. I remember telling them the version of the story I was told: he was married for years and years to a Danish woman, they had two children together, and after they split up, he took the children to the United States, forgetting to tell her that he was leaving the country. The report doesn’t mention how the officers looked at each other when I said this, how they might have wanted to ask more questions about this version of his story but didn’t. The Detective writes that I said that the man kept the children in the United States while his ex-wife called and called and eventually convinced him to come home. She told him she wanted to get back together. A trick, I told the officers. He was arrested as he got off the plane, and while he awaited trial, his ex-wife flew to the United States to retrieve her children. The Detective writes that I told them that the ex-wife has avoided The Suspect since that time. They have no contact. She gets no child support.
The next report in the file describes a fax The Detective received from his liaison at Interpol, who located a record in the Interpol Criminal Register. The Suspect was convicted in Denmark in 1995 of depriving parental custody rights to his ex-wife and received a suspended sentence of sixty days in prison. Earlier the same year he had been arrested for rape, though the crime was dropped due to lack of evidence. The Detective speculates in his report that the victim in this dropped case is The Suspect’s ex-wife, current residence unknown.
In the final police report, dated August 14, 2000, I am identified as Lacy Johnson: VICTIM. I read this and feel certain it is true. I see myself as the officers saw me: someone who phones the police station to report a suspicious number on her caller ID. I am a subject to be questioned, a story to be investigated, a set of illegal acts that were perpetrated by a suspect who has disappeared.
And yet, when I close the file, I remember how the truth is more complicated than this. I remember, for example, making choices. I look into his eyes while I undress. When it is done he apologizes and finds me something to eat. I tell him everything is fine, just fine, and stroke his hair while he cries into my lap. He begs me to come back. Outside, in the hallway, his rifle leans against the wall. At any moment, he may or may not kill me. I remember how the two possibilities can coexist: I’m both alive and dead in every room but this.
Things Past:Colum McCann, Stephen King, Jodi Angel, Kevin Barry, Cheryl Strayed
Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner mine our artistic and political history in a way that few contemporary novelists do. They are the descendents of DeLillo and Didion, but each has struck out on her own to stake claim on new fictional ground. Both writers’ work is characterized by their sharpness of language and their precise emotional registers, as well as their ambitious, politically charged themes. Spiotta is the author of three novels, Lightning Field, Eat the Document (a finalist for the National Book Award), and Stone Arabia (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Kushner is the author of two novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, both of which were finalists for the National Book Award.
Last fall, Kushner ventured east from her Los Angeles home and taught a seminar on Proust at Syracuse University, where Spiotta is on the faculty. On the occasion of these two great writers and thinkers being in the same place at the same time, we asked them to talk about process and cultural memory. Not only did they oblige, but they also went down a few surprising and inspiring avenues, including how to make a life out of one’s idiosyncratic strength and how to achieve “bravery from reading.”
Dana Spiotta: Can you describe your writing process? Where did you begin with each of your novels? How did you find your way into them?
Rachel Kushner: Because I’ve written only two novels, I don’t quite feel there is a system. Or maybe I don’t want to settle into the confidence of thinking there is one. The process was perhaps different with the first, Telex from Cuba, than with the second, The Flamethrowers. But there were elements of commonality. I’m drawn to images and seem to start with them. Or one. Something I imagine, a scene or detail, or even a photograph, something that has a charge of meaning that can’t be easily reduced. With the first book, I had gone to Cuba and spent almost a month there—just for a trip, not to write about it—and while visiting the newly renovated Castro family farmhouse, which is near Preston, a former American colony, I realized that the place had been recently painted the color that United Fruit painted all their company homes, a bright but chalky mustard yellow. I thought, Hmm. Perverse. The long answer to how Fidel’s revolutionary government could come to accidentally coat its leader’s boyhood home in the paint of the American occupier would probably require a whole novel. And yet I don’t get near trying to explain that specific thing in the actual book I wrote. Rather, I delved into the atmosphere that was imported and sustained by the Americans, the ways in which they witnessed and maybe sped up the oncoming revolution by their more or less colonial presence on the island.
With The Flamethrowers, I was thinking about New York City in the 1970s, the kind of classic image of the looters in the Bronx during the blackout of July 1977. And downtown at that time, the artists, the way their pieces were also sometimes a kind of looting, Gordon Matta-Clark breaking into an empty pier building and sawing a giant half-moon-shaped hole in it. So I started with that: New York as a blighted place of freedom and unpredictability. But very quickly, I made a kind of sharp left into what was going on in Italy in the 1970s. I was thinking of an image of one hundred thousand people pouring into the streets of Rome, also in 1977, just a few months before the blackout. And I had a photograph that I’d printed out and taped up, of a girl in theater makeup, singing, a playful act of defiance, countered by police with tear-gas canisters.
In short, I think, daydream, take notes, and, finally, try to find the tone. That can take a very long time. I don’t really move forward until I’ve found the tone, the register, of the telling. I’m sad to be reminded that the tone of both books took me quite a while to locate. But once it was located, then things moved along swiftly. There was no middle for me, somehow, with either of those novels. There was a long beginning, a rooting in the dark, and then a hurtling toward the end.
DS: We are very happy to have you teaching Proust in the Syracuse MFA program this fall. Can you tell me how your work has been influenced and inspired by Proust? I find I return to the novels that help me feel brave and take bigger risks. What does reading Proust permit you to do in your own work? Which other writers (fiction and nonfiction) do you return to for inspiration?
RK: It’s been a lot of fun and also a real honor being an interloper at your program. I like that idea, of getting bravery from reading, instead of from whiskey (which I don’t drink). It changes for me what writers and books I go to. For boldness, with The Flamethrowers, it was perhaps Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, and Gaddis—but specifically the first novel, The Recognitions, which for me is something singular and apart from his later work. With Telex, it was Duras, and Alejo Carpentier, and maybe Baudelaire and Genet. Also Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, which is crazy, on account of its long prologue. No one would get away with that now. We have absolutely no equivalent to Victor Hugo. Proust is always an inspiration to me, and teaching him has been exhilarating: it’s the only word that can describe the experience of rereading him as a teacher, the one who is supposed to walk into class with a structure, a theory, and help form a bridge between the practice of writing and Proust’s literature. His book is a wonderful laboratory on the formation of an artist, and as a rumination on the properties of art, and of genius, and, of course, on all the earthly stuff of daily life, jealousy, love, memory, egos, ambition, loss, the social world, Second Empire and turn-of-the-century France, and so on and so forth. I think when I first read him I felt inspired to take my time with each sentence, letting it flow to its needed length, with phrases that take little trips, become tributaries that then rejoin the main point, all in the interest not of indulgence but of precision, to render a truth that has an exact and full meaning. Sometimes language, rhetorically called into service, can clip or reduce, for its effect. With Proust, that never happens. The rhetorical structure is bigger, more complicated, initially more difficult to navigate than a lot of literature, because it is fully in service to meaning: it is meaning. In Proust, the sentence is never a trick of language.
He had an unparalleled command of language and an otherworldly gift at putting it to use telling the secrets about what it’s like to be alive. It’s hard to express all this briefly without sounding both corny and kind of reductive. He’s the master. The more I read him, the more convinced of this I am.
DS: Can you tell me about your early writing? Did you work on short stories? If so, what were they like?
RK: My early writing is poetry. Then the poems became prose and I decided to try to get an MFA in fiction, so I wrote “stories” in order to apply, and then when I went to Columbia, I worked on stories because that was what everyone else was doing, and I felt out of my depth and wanted to go along to get along. It’s probably not that simple, but it’s hard for me to think back, now, and recall ever wanting to be a writer of short stories. The goals, the arc, the structure, the pressure on the sentence, the need for an epiphany: I don’t relate to it even remotely. My earliest writing, from elementary school, is strangely not all that different from how I write now. There is something about the tone that is the same. I wrote a novel in first grade. It’s very short and has, you know, illustrations. It’s called, “The Richest Cat in Hestery” [sic]. It’s about a “plutocat” who flaunts his wealth and thinks he’s superior and goes around putting down the other cats. By the end of the book, needless to say, he is mauled and driven off by them. Maybe my endings are less predictable now. I hope so.
DS: Did you ever have a breakthrough moment in your writing? What helped you develop into the writer you are today?
RK: I guess finding the right tone for Telex was a breakthrough. There are parts of it—the prologue, and a late chapter in which an American social club is bombed—that were, initially, more like prose poems, and I decided, just . . . that’s who I am. I don’t have to approach the novel as other people do. Now that idea seems like, Well, of course. The idea is to use your secret idiosyncratic strength, just exploit the hell out of it, make of it a life, a synthetic reality. But initially, I did not have the confidence in myself to do that. Once you do do that, there is really no risk, I don’t think, of being overly affected by influence, because anything you read goes into the brew, the brew of one. A solipsism that takes in the world, but remains itself.
DS: You built The Flamethrowers with two primary intercut lines: a third-person strand in Italy that follows the fortune of the Valera family beginning in 1917 and a first-person strand that follows a young woman called Reno as she navigates the art world in 1970s New York. Eventually the strands come together in the Autonomist actions in Italy. How do you think these threads work together and why did you organize the novel this way? Did you have a clear idea of how they would connect as you wrote or did that emerge from the process?
RK: I’m realizing only in reading your question that the strands flow together in the late chapter in Italy. I didn’t think of them as doing that, for some reason. I started the novel with the thread of the elder Valera, his encounter with a motorcycle in Egypt and this “primal scene” of an erotic preoccupation being wound up with a machine, its mystification. I had that part of the book pretty thought out—the futurist who fights in World War I, then later becomes an industrialist. I didn’t know he would be the father of the boyfriend, Sandro, but pretty quickly, I realized that this was who he was, and in realizing it, I knew a great deal more about Sandro and what he was, what he was repressing. Adjacent stories in the novel sometimes gather as if by the tightening of a cord, suddenly, by their proximity one to the next. The final installment of the Valera story is Sandro’s, when he speaks, near the end. But the book is a bit more messy, as I see it anyway, than just those two threads. There is also Burdmoore’s chapter, and Ronnie’s chapter (one page, just his memoir titles), and the chapter told from the perspective of a slave laborer in the Brazil rubber forest. I reserve the right to leave everything a little ragged, as if it (“everything”) knows better than I do how to be a book. If I tuck in all the corners, make it too tidy, it strains for perfection without allowing for the real perfection of the irreducible. I’m not saying I achieved that. But one must have goals.
DS: Is the Italian futurists’ attraction to machines and modernity and velocity the same thing as Reno’s American affection for motorcycles and speed? If not, how are they different and why is this important in the book?
RK: Different, but related, perhaps. They cannot be the same, since they come out of different historical contexts, with Reno and the futurists of course alive in different segments of the one century. Valera’s and the futurists’ attraction to machines is, as you say, partly about modernity, a moment when the world was changing so drastically. Actually—I got this from Marinetti, really—it was a form of terror for them. Marinetti was horrified by the rapidly industrializing Milan. It was his nightmare and horror, and—let’s go full psychoanalytic—he overcame his terror by eroticizing and monumentalizing the very thing that was the source of his trauma. Then they all went off to World War I and half came back missing limbs, or as corpses. The early futurists were also really great artists. Machines and modernity had to be traumatic for them or they would not have been able to use them as such a source of inspiration, probably. The narrator has a natural interest in speed, sure enough. And there’s no reason to think it’s not related to Valera’s natural interest in speed, but hers is contextualized differently. But maybe riding a two-wheeled chassis with an engine is the same feeling for both. About the book, that’s hard to answer. It required the novel in order to explore that question.
DS: I read that you took two years to write Reno’s opening chapter. What did you want to do with Reno’s narrative voice? Did you have early versions that sounded wrong, or did you try it in third person at first? I read that you didn’t want her first person to be too “voicey.” You wanted an uninflected first person. What do you mean by “voicey”? Does her voice change after she goes to Italy?
RK: It took me a long time to find the tone of her voice, which was going to be the tone of the book, for the most part, so without it, I had nothing. It’s hard to explain what I wanted to “do with it” beyond use it as a vehicle for the telling. The tone for me is like . . . I’ll know when I hear it. And I was not hearing it. I tried and tried. I wrote the first long chapter of her in Nevada, and then on the Bonneville Salt Flats, for those long two years. I just told and told it and retold it. Yes, I tried third person. But mostly I was in the first. By “voicey,” I mean a spoken first person who speaks in a distinct or, oftentimes, an idiomatic way. I wanted her voice not to be spoken. To be more like her thought. So that her thought was the reader’s experience of her, and not her in a room, as a personality. I wanted her, also, not to speak much, so that the reader knew her as interior thought, and not, almost ever, as a performance, which is what people are when they speak. I didn’t consciously intend for her voice to change after she goes to Italy. But hey, maybe you’re right. Maybe it does. She is changed, to some degree, and she is withholding information from the reader, in a semideliberate way, and that puts different conditions on her telling.
DS: Reno’s attraction to Sandro’s success as an artist makes sense, but she is also interested in his money and class in a more ambiguous way. Although Sandro insists sex is not an exchange, Reno senses there is something she can get from him. She finds it hard to resist being “kept” and she is curious about leveraging her attractiveness to her advantage. Is she experimenting with different kinds of power?
RK: I see relationships, maybe in particular those that one pursues when young, as a particular kind of possibility: the promise of expanding the world, making it bigger and more dynamic. People are agents for that. Love is an agent for that. That was mostly what I was thinking of, the way that someone can come along and offer access to experience.
DS: I love the movies you describe in the book, particularly Barbara Loden’s film Wanda. It is a great artifact of the era, quietly subversive in form as well as subject. It is also a great meditation on female power/powerlessness. We get a long riff on Reno watching and remembering the film. Reno says it is a movie about being a woman and “not really caring” what happens to you. Wanda is driven to destroy herself and “because of her beauty, free to do so.” Did you see Wanda as a version of Reno? And if so, how? Or is Reno more connected to the filmmaker herself, who also plays Wanda?
RK: When I was growing up, my mother always told me that her favorite film was called Wanda. This was before VCRs, and that film never aired on television, too obscure. My mother had seen it in the theater in Eugene, Oregon, shortly after it came out, when I was about two (too young to see it). It was a revelation to finally see it. It’s a perfect film. It is totally profound and brilliantly acted and scripted and so gorgeously filmed, in 16 mm. You know all this, of course—just saying for the reader. Maybe I see Wanda as being a particular kind of woman who is separate from the world, deep inside herself and yet open to being subjected to the world in a way I relate to. And so I was after the creation of a female who could embody something of what it is about Wanda that I recognize.
From what I understand, Barbara Loden said the film was more or less autobiographical, not directly, but indirectly, in terms of her marriage to Elia Kazan. But I don’t think much on that. The film she created is so full of life, an independent existence, that I am tempted not to look beyond it to the frame of its making and maker. Wanda is real for me, in other words.
DS: Why didn’t you mention the title of the film? Did not naming it help to make it your own literary object? You use a still from the film as well. Tell me your thought process about how you approach films in the book. Is it unnamed simply because Reno is watching it on TV and doesn’t recall the title? Or do you withhold Wanda’s name in the same way Reno’s actual name is withheld?
RK: Hmm, very good questions. Yes, maybe it was just as you say, that not naming it helped to transform it into my own literary object. At least that was surely one motivation for that decision. But also, it’s somehow not my instinct to use much name recognition from the era in which I set the narrative, unless I see some formal, poetic reason for doing so. Like at the end I have a kind of riff on Jox tennis shoes because that word, Jox, is charged for me, from childhood, and it’s so strange. Jox. But often, I don’t want names or brands or period descriptions. I don’t know quite why, except that everything that ends up in the book has to kind of reverberate under the sign of the book. It can’t have its own separate signification, if that makes sense. On a practical note, as I think you suggest, my character would not have been focused on the name of the film. There is another reason, one that is more important, and yet I don’t know what it is.
DS: You give us an astute description of Karen Black’s cross-eyed sex appeal: “some breach in symmetry suggesting another kind of breach, in judgment or morals.” In Five Easy Pieces she plays Rayette, a woman whose fate is determined by her attractiveness to men (and by her name, I suspect). Again, you don’t mention the movie by name, but you do describe the scene in which the outmatched Rayette is cruelly abandoned by Jack Nicholson’s character. Rayette makes the mistake of caring, as opposed to Wanda’s “not caring” that somewhat liberates Wanda from the power of men. Reno sees these cinematic women clearly; she unsentimentally grasps the terms of a woman tied to a man. Yet she can’t help attaching herself to Sandro even though on some level she knows betrayal will come. Does she need this to happen, this disillusionment with men, before she can leave it behind? Why then the move to another man immediately after Sandro? Is it that she intellectually knows better, but the emotion of it compels her?
RK: I forgot that Karen Black’s character’s name is Rayette, so great. Her quintessential scene for me is when she spends the day crying and listening to Tammy Wynette. I relate to that, somehow. Just wanting something with total abandon. It is reckless and brave to want. Rayette wants. She is so in love with Bobby and honestly, hell, who wouldn’t be? He’s sexy and remote and intelligent and rebellious and he cannot give her what she needs: a perfect formula for the perpetuation of desire. I wanted the narrator to see clearly, as you say, but in terms of the decisions she makes regarding men, to me she is somewhat existential. She’s not overly invested in Sandro. She is simply young, and looking to experience her life. He activates it in a way she cannot. This, for me, is somehow less gendered than other people have interpreted it to be. I consider passivity to be a kind of radical bravery and “strong, active” people with agency to be something more, well, rigid, even as I don’t disrespect that. Not by any means. But releasing yourself into life, letting it have its way with you, is an education of a kind. That’s really all I can say about that without going too far, and having then to go further, in order to explain myself. Someday I might write a treatise about it. Or I might not. But I could.
Sandro is gone and the narrator is free to be a girl in the world again. She’s not actively deciding, “I need to have no relationships right now.” When you’re young, you go from one person to the next person, the way I see things and remember what it’s like to be young. You don’t decide, “I could use some downtime.” No. There is no downtime. There are bodies in space. People. Nights to fill, et cetera. But, on a factual level, she is not with anyone after Sandro in the book. She wonders about Ronnie, and is rebuffed. Nothing happens between her and Gianni. She’s his driver and accomplice of a kind—that’s it.
DS: Though she looks to others for help, Reno is deeply alone in the book. The men around her have an ease—an entitlement—about their place in the world that she doesn’t have, and the women often compete with each other for refracted male power. As with Wanda or Rayette or the main character in Anna—another film about an isolated, unknown woman that you refer to in the book—once the male gaze is gone, the woman loses her identity. How does this tie in to the idea of the Italian Autonomists in the last part of the book? Does power come from embracing being alone, even within a group? Is there a way to move from anonymity to a kind of autonomy? After all, Reno’s most powerful moments are when she is on her own on a motorcycle or carving her lines into a mountain with her skis.
RK: Wow, you really are an ideal reader. Beyond being a writer I admired so greatly before I ever had the chance to meet you, let alone . . . become friends.
Everything you say is somehow true. In particular, that the women in the book compete for refracted male power. Which is pretty dark, I suppose. I don’t believe that I intended to critique the era, or gender dynamics, even as I was doing those things, and directly. I think I wanted to be unafraid of extremes and of cruelty. I wanted the main character to navigate a world that starts to seem, for the reader, increasingly cruel. I wanted the main character to have nowhere to turn. It was simply an instinct. That was actually the way I was guided to build the narrative structure: by the end, there would be no place for her to turn. Life is like that, to some degree. You turn toward yourself, a lifelong relation you can count on. The women in Italy exist in a social space that is, I guess, objectively superior to what the narrator has encountered in New York, though the novel was not intended to contrast them as counterparts. But the women in Italy are pretty self-realized, just as they were in actual 1970s Italy. Italian feminism of that time has been the most lasting achievement of the movement of autonomia, without question. In terms of transitioning from one to the other, anonymity to autonomy, yes, perhaps. Certainly. But I’m not sure what that transition means, how it works. The anonymous woman is somehow a very charged idea for me. Autonomy as a social organization, a way of life, is probably anonymity plus care. It’s not allowed, under capitalism. But there is a longing for it. With the Occupy movement, these plodding and cretinizing questions kept coming up: What is the list of demands? What is the point? While the point was, to me anyhow, simply a question: Can people take care of one another?
DS: One of my favorite riffs in the book is about Reno’s job as a leader girl—a model for testing film color, whose image will be skipped if the projectionist knows what he is doing. She will disappear, essentially. Do you remember where that idea came from? What are the ways that you see it working in the novel?
RK: That’s a great way of putting it—that she’ll disappear if the film is loaded correctly by the projectionist. I don’t recall when I first learned about “china girls,” who appear on leader for color correction. But the artist Morgan Fisher made a film that is in part about them, called Standard Gauge, and I had a copy that I would watch over and over when I was first working on the book. Film processing labs in the ’70s in New York were a sort of fact of life for the conceptual artist. I was thinking maybe of Jack Goldstein, and of work he made in the ’70s—these short, perfect, strange little films that to me encapsulates the era. So I created a lab where I imagined artists like Goldstein would go to get their work processed (now, one can do it all on her computer, of course). And somehow, the namelessness of the narrator, her marginal status in the art world of New York City, fit with the absurdity of appearing on film, but unseen. Although it was not any kind of overdetermined meaning like that. She, like all of us, needed a job.
DS: Did you want to make a connection between different kinds of disappearing? The china leader film girls; Anna, the documentary film subject who disappears and remains unknown; Wanda in a bar among strangers; and Reno, who is never actually named, all experience various kinds of invisibility. It is erasure, in a sense, but it is also a kind of power. The fact that Reno is an unknown artist means that Reno can be almost anything. And her lack of a name gives her a kind of freedom that Sandro, with all the burdens of his Valera name, can never know. Her passivity can be viewed as a strategy for taking it all in, for making her way.
RK: I agree with all of this. Her passivity as a strategy, and the burden of a name. Not just a family name and the baggage it implies, but names, period. The specificity of performing the self, being a fixed identity for the reassurance of others, and so forth. I don’t know, it’s complicated terrain for me to explain this. When I was young, I would have these traumatic episodes of total disassociation. And I think that is natural, not psychosis. I think it’s a rebellion against the formation of the self as an occupied whole, one totality. About erasure, as I said before, there is something about disappearance and anonymity that is of great interest to me. I can’t say what. I just realized that a book that was an inspiration for the Italian parts of my novel is called Gli invisibili—The Unseen. It’s about the autonomists, and by the end, they are all in prison.
DS: I’m curious about Ronnie’s monologues, particularly the very long absurd one at the end of the book—a performance that mixes the real and the fake. I like that it resists an obvious relationship to the present action. I like that it goes on uncomfortably long. I like that I don’t quite know what it is doing there. Tell me about it. Does it work in the way that fiction is a lie that also reaches for a special kind of truth? Self-storytelling is also a way to disappear and yet assert yourself. Ronnie mines the way a person exploited—a prostitute, a kept woman, an actress, a cabin boy—can reconfigure his situation with the right story. “Who isn’t a slave?” he says, and he calls the ship Reno. Is it a message to Reno? A benediction?
RK: Wow, I love these statements. Yes—what Dana says. It’s so hard, as you know, to encapsulate the meaning and affects of one’s own novel. That long monologue of his was important to the book—I know that. I wrote it fairly early, and yet I knew that it could not appear early in the book. It is a late-stage, kind of metastasis of his charisma, his influence, over the narrator, and maybe over the reader, too. Otherwise, it’s just a long strange tale, and one would be compelled to wonder if it’s true or not. At the end, where it is, as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Its truth is in the fact of its telling. He is saying something, activating something true, about himself and about the other people in the room, by telling that story. I knew he was going to be a teller of tales and I have always been interested in at-sea narratives, Conrad, Stevenson, and the story of Robin Lee Graham, who sailed around the world at the age of sixteen. Maybe I was encouraged to do it when I reread The Savage Detectives while I was working on the book. Bolaño gets away with a lot. I wanted to push that direction, for myself, of erasing the narrator while she narrates, and have this other voice go on for as long as he needs to. Everything and nothing that other people say is a message for us. Their address is a vessel for our projection. The narrator is infatuated with Ronnie, more or less, over the entire arc of the book. When the miasma of attraction surrounds someone, it is very hard to know what is, and is not, “for you” in what they say.
DS: At the end of the book we don’t know what will become of Reno. We don’t know if she will be an artist finally or find a place in the world. She is not resolved. She does recognize that she was “the girl on layaway,” though, and she put herself there. The personal is swept up in something larger, the blackout. The very end also has a section close to Sandro and then the lonely moment in Italy that actually occurred before the blackout. Can you tell me about the decision to hear from Sandro? And the dyschronology? Did you have it another way at one point? How did you work it out? I think the last scene in Italy is very haunting, and I like how it comes back to snow. Can you talk a little about endings in novels and what you strive to achieve?
RK: About two-thirds of the way through the book, I knew how it would end. Not the entire series of events, but the final scene. I knew the feel of the final scene, and I knew it would be late in the day, at the bottom of the run-out into Chamonix, from Courmayeur, at the foot of Mont Blanc. A waiting. I had to get there, but I didn’t want to force any causality, in order to “stick” the end. It’s not gymnastics. You can’t just execute, and perfectly. Things you can’t predict must happen, in order to open out the full space of the novel. So I had to let things be in flux, and hope that I naturally ended up where I knew the book really needed to go. I guess I also knew there was going to be the blackout, since it was an early inspiration, an image of the era itself, the real one. About Sandro, that was a late decision. It was actually my husband’s suggestion. He simply said, Let’s hear from Sandro. I said, Directly? He’ll just suddenly, without explanation, speak? And he said yes, and the next day I wrote that whole chapter. It came easily, compared to much else, as if it was waiting to be written. In terms of time, the way the end unfolds, the resonant end point of the book is at the base of the mountain. Reno does go back to New York after, which we have already seen. But the revolving point of her narrative is that moment of waiting, and so it should be the moment of closure, or ellipses, a dot-dot-dot, even if we were already present for some of what followed. The effect of experience, of trauma, the recollection of time, these things are simply not linear.
DS: You seem to be as familiar with the art world as the literary world. What are the differences you see in how an artist conceives of herself and her project versus how a novelist does? I was recently reading an article about the late Mike Kelley, and I was struck by some of the iconoclastic/rebellious statements he had made about art and artists. Why is it that visual artists seem to take the obligation to “make it new” as a cri de coeur, yet young novelists don’t seem as willing to set fires? Does this point to some difference in the art world vs. the literary world? Maybe it is because visual artists are forced to make mission statements while novelists rarely are? Or is it because in most literary discussions the contents of novels upstage the formal concerns? Is part of it that we can’t really do anything purely conceptual or abstract because we have this connection to narrative? Do you think the novel is in some way more tethered to convention than other mediums are?
RK: Mike Kelley taught at Art Center with my husband, Jason. He was unique in being able to write so intelligently about his own work. He was a producer of both art and theory. But anyhow, as I’ve tried to say elsewhere, but maybe failed to give full nuance, I see art as operating, since the late nineteenth century, on a vanguard logic, by which the new must outpace the old, and continually, in a kind of everlasting oedipal struggle. You cannot be a relevant artist if you don’t read Artforum and go to galleries and look at what your contemporaries are doing. Art is a conversation, an homage, and a rebuke—always—of what came before it. Otherwise, it is naïve. It is “outsider art,” which is a world of wonder and a different kind of relevance, but it is not the (somewhat small, and closed) world of contemporary art. The novel is different on a lot of levels and for many reasons. The novel that destroys tradition formally looks something like an experiment, and it remains that: a novelty. The novel cannot dematerialize into gesture, unwatched performance, into nothing, as art can, and has. It remains a telling. It remains a book, written of sentences. Its newness then must operate in an entirely different way. Maybe part of this is because of narrative, as you say. It is a more conservative form than art or music. What is the John Cage of the novel? It doesn’t really exist, except you have someone like Kenneth Goldsmith, quite brilliant, but that work is almost not intended to be read. (I guess Goldsmith would be more like the “Disintegration Loops,” by William Basinski, if we are comparing texts to music.) We’ve had important leaps, of course—Modernism, for instance. Maybe the fact is we are still there, and that Faulkner and Woolf and Stein and Joyce and Proust are still radical literature. And in fact, most contemporary literature is a long way from that radicality, much less a contemporary analogue of it, in terms of aesthetic, formal “progress.”
Another difference between art and literature is that a writer can be in deep conversation with a seventeenth-century novel or with ancient Greece, with medieval poetry, and produce something “fresh” and “strange” and “unique.” A writer does not need to be in dialogue with her contemporaries. She does not need to destroy what came before in order to produce a work of originality. As I said above, more or less, the novel seems more conservative today than it did in 1922, when the Anglophone world was introduced to Proust, and to Joyce’s Ulysses, and to The Waste Land. If the logic of art is a linear trajectory of burn and rebuild, the novel is maybe circular, or zigzag, or it produces a psychotic pattern of no-pattern. Actually, I wish only for the no-pattern. I wish for a moment like 1922. Let’s be bold in our art, you and I.
Lost & Found:Stephen Sparks, Rebecca Makkai, Hugh Ryan, Micah Perks, Susan Rebecca White
I find it hard not to narrate my life in the ominous voice of the Dateline: Real Life Mysteries host. You know: “She stopped at the store for what she thought would be milk . . .” That man has mastered the peculiar blend of empathy and scorn that can come only from hindsight. We know that the poor sap shouldn’t open that motel room door solely because we’ve seen the photos of his bones. And we get this, and the narrator gets this, but we still shake our heads at the guy’s naïveté, if only because it makes us, for a few seconds, invincible. Nothing like that will happen to us, because we see the world in omniscient third.
To George R. Stewart’s credit, this tone of dramatic irony is utterly absent from Ordeal by Hunger, his authoritative 1936 nonfiction account of the Donner Party. And that is precisely what makes the book terrifying.
Stewart, the polymath author of over thirty books, is not remembered enough. His best-known book is the postapocalyptic novel Earth Abides, and one of his stranger legacies is that his 1941 novel, Storm, gave rise to the tradition of naming tropical storms and hurricanes. Ordeal by Hunger is still in print, and still has an audience—though one suspects many readers are (like I was) brought in more by the subject matter than by Stewart’s name as an etymologist and ecological writer, or his scholarly work at UC Berkeley on the poetic meter of ballads.
I picked the book up expecting horror, of course. I remembered the thirty seconds I’d caught of some Donner-related PBS documentary when I was ten. I knew there would be organ meat involved. How alarming, then, to empathize with these people so fully, to understand their desperation so completely, that by the time they consider eating each other, I was rooting for it.
Of all the decisions the eighty-seven travelers made, the one we can pinpoint as fatal was their straying from the established Oregon Trail to follow the newly blazed shortcut of an adventurer named Hastings. In Stewart’s narration, we know this is the wrong choice—the chapter heading, for Christ’s sake, is “The Trap Clicks Behind”—but he takes pains to justify their reasoning. I did not come out convinced that I’d have made a different call.
In a chapter called “Causes,” Stewart chastises those historians who would make themselves feel safe by blaming the Donner Party for its own fate: “I have found widely spread a tendency to blame the emigrants themselves, to consider that they . . . were a pig-headed, ignorant lot who thought they knew more about matters than other people did and who . . . brought upon themselves pretty much what they deserved.” In fact, he implies, the truly hubristic ones are those other historians, and us. We imagine ourselves savvier simply because we were born in a more enlightened age. This is how we can laugh at Columbus, roll our eyes at medicinal leeches, judge the Titanic crew. We would never be so foolish, we who ignore melting glaciers, we who Frankenstein our crops.
Stewart’s refusal to condemn the bad decisions makes it easier for us to recognize the myriad good ones. There was the traveler who, dimly recalling his Vermont childhood, reinvented snowshoes. There was the sacrifice of a man named Reed, who’d ridden ahead in exile but risked his life to return and gather survivors.
And then there’s the worst brand of decision, the one Stewart’s fair-handedness has primed us to internalize: the ostensibly good choices that actually make things worse. Tamsen Donner dresses her three young daughters in their finest clothes, combs their hair, and sends them off with two early rescuers. The rescuers carry them only a little way before abandoning the girls at the other part of the camp—still stranded, but now away from their mother.
I encountered this book when my oldest daughter was an infant and so I couldn’t help reading it as the World’s Most Horrifying Parenting Guide. That moment with the Donner girls confirmed something that What to Expect the First Year had not acknowledged: as a parent, you’re going to make horrible decisions—fatal decisions, even—that look wise at the time. That are wise, except for their ruining everything. You’ll accept a fabulous job in a town where your daughter has an idyllic childhood before meeting the wrong boy in high school, the one who will wreck her life. And how could you have known to choose differently?
Memory is inextricably bound up with hindsight—perhaps because the evolutionary reason we remember anything at all is so we can avoid our past mistakes. (Eat the red berries, not the purple ones. Don’t go into the cave where Grothgrad got eaten.) Learning from our mistakes is natural. Learning from others’ mistakes is natural too, even when we slip into judgment or schadenfreude. But the inverse of hindsight—doubting every decision because we anticipate the future regret of that decision—seems less helpful and more postmodern, the kind of thing we invent medications for.
When I was halfway through the book, I flipped out at my husband. It was December 23, midnight, snowing hard. In the morning we were flying to Connecticut, but he’d just learned that the roads to O’Hare might be closing. He wanted me to make the call, right then: should we drive to the airport now and camp there till morning or chance things at 9:00 am? He couldn’t have picked a worse time to ask me to decide about travel, snow, safety, and my child. I may have overreacted a tiny bit. (Okay, I screamed.)
Another of Stewart’s strengths is the gratifying weight he gives his account of the Donner Party aftermath. In the last chapters we see the survivors farming in California, plagued by notoriety. A supplement to the 1960 edition of Ordeal by Hunger includes a letter from young Virginia Reed to her cousin just weeks after her family reached safety. It extols the virtues of the California climate and includes this advice: “Don’t let this letter dish[e]-a[r]ten anybody never take no cutoffs and hury along as fast as you can.” Because Stewart allows us now to situate ourselves weeks and years later, to look back not just with hindsight but with the knowledge of what will happen next, everything that came before seems inevitable—or at least beyond second-guessing. This isn’t just the story of a disaster, but of how more than forty survivors got, improbably, to California, of how their lives were changed. Of how some of their descendants still live there today.
And who’s to say the Donner Party didn’t make the best possible choice after all? Even those who live to tell the tragic tale, even those who write the history books, don’t know what lay at the end of the other route. Tamsen Donner didn’t make it out alive, but—after all that betrayal, all those misguided decisions—her daughters did.
Near the end of the book, Stewart considers that first fork in the trail and offers this: “How did the emigrants arrive at this decision? They gathered first all information available about the two possible routes; then on the basis of this information they acted. No man can do more upon a similar occasion.”
And perhaps this narrative forgiveness is why I love the book, and why I ultimately find Stewart’s account less a warning than an absolution, a benediction: You choose your trail. The trap clicks behind. You forge on.