Nonfiction

“A Highly Subjective and Sometimes Contradictory Alphabet for the Young and Aspiring Professional Writer” by Marc Spitz

A IS FOR:
Agents:
Your agent will sell your book to an editor at a publishing house and take a percentage of the advance. He or she is not your friend. Do not drink with your agent unless it’s a toast at your release party. Do not get to know their kids, their wives, and their ex-wives. In other words, do not mix your business and personal relationship and do not forget they are not doing you a favor by working with you (a state of mutual respect and trust is ideal and almost never happens, but often you can find a working imbalance). Make sure that your agent is well read and truly enjoys and respects your work and will fight for you and not gossip about you or trade his or her loyalty to you for a newer, hotter, younger writer or to get in better with an editor (probably a new, younger, hotter editor). Don’t borrow money from your agent. Don’t loan your agent money. Make sure he or she is well dressed. Morrissey (I will drop some names here,) once told me, in a very expensive hotel suite in Rome, that appearance is everything and while cynical, he is mostly right. Make sure your agent knows who Morrissey is. Make sure your agent knows who Morrissey is especially if you happen to be writing a book on Morrissey. If you happen to be writing a book on the Jack White, make sure your agent does not refer to him as Jack Black. It’s incumbent on your agent to be informed about your subject and not just the points of the deal. It’s not your job to teach them. The contents of a book proposal should be all they need and they should be familiar with the proposal. At heart, they are salespeople. Collaborate with your agent on a book proposal at your own risk. Remember your book should be your own and you will not have them around when you write it. Your agent should always pick up the bar tab or the lunch tab on the rare occasions when you do share a drink or a meal (again keep these rare). They can write that off more easily than you can and have been doing so longer. You do not owe your agent for every stamp he or she licks on your behalf. Stamps should be, like drinks, on them.

B IS FOR
Book smarts:
People will tell you have to constantly read and they may be right, but it’s not been my experience that you always have to have another writer’s book on your brain or your coffee table or your desk. They are often just fine on the shelf, impressing guests. Read for edification, read for inspiration, read for research but don’t read just to be a better writer (this is an unpopular opinion by the way). I believe you write to be a better writer and it’s more important to write a lot than to read a lot. Anything else is just peer pressure at the hands of people who enjoy reading more than they enjoy or are able to write. Some people are better at reading than they are at writing and so they will skew you their way. I happen to be better at writing so I am skewing you my way. I am a slow reader. I am now in my 40s and need glasses to read. Why not find again, a working balance, and sneak a pleasure read or a status read (a book everyone is talking about this season) in the middle of a your writing, not because you think that you must. You should not do this because of the risk of someone’s style bleeding into yours while you write but if you need an excuse, you can tell people you are afraid of someone else’s style bleeding into yours while you write. I like to read biographies if I’m working on fiction and fiction if working on a biography.

C IS FOR:
Confession
The late Jim Carroll who I never met but once saw read at NYU’s Skirball Center and at the St. Marks Poetry Project and pretty much idolized all through college thanks to the Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, and his album Catholic Boy, once wrote, ”All writers of confessions, from Augustine on down, have always remained a little in love with their sins.” – He was actually quoting the French poet Anatole France. I have never read any Anatole France. Confessional writing is more interesting to me than writing that shrouds dirty deeds but there are rules of thumb for and against it. If you ask yourself, “Should I really say this?” Say it. It’s probably strong if it haunts you. It’s probably brave and being brave has rewards. It’s probably the truth if it gives you pause. There are statutes of limitations for various sins that you can easily look them up on the web. Now when I say confessional writing, I don’t mean sharing your diary contents with the reader and I don’t mean kvetching. The reader is not your shrink or your priest and not responsible to heal you. Your narrator must sell these confessions; they must be entertaining and have purpose or keep them to yourself.

D IS FOR:
Drinking and drugs
We cannot pretend there’s not a long history of writers who don’t turn to alcohol and pills or powder or psychedelics. Artists feel too much. It’s just fact. And they think more than it’s healthy. I had a doctor who told me that I self medicated because I was a raw nerve with no armor who could not see a man with a scar on a subway and not wonder, “How did he get this scar? Did he injure himself in an accident, a fall off a bike, or was it part of a fight?” Drugs and alcohol can shut off that part of your brain temporarily but if you are a writer, you can never shut it off permanently, and know that this is also a gift. Get comfortable with the voice and don’t drown your brain salad in dressing. Alcohol is a depressant. Drugs make you boring. People who do a lot of heroin end up writing a lot about… finding heroin, being high on heroin, finding more heroin, going through heroin withdrawal, a friend dying from heroin, getting off heroin. When I mentioned it in my books, as I have in one novel and one memoir, I tried to get through that bit as quickly as possible because it’s well trod ground. As you get older you will find that drinking can sometimes mean a lost day of writing; a day long hangover the next day and an interruption of the process. If you are on a streak, remember that speech from Bull Durham do not mess with your streak by going to the bar. Stay in and work until you feel the power even out or dwindle. Then have a drink (but not a bag of drugs) and pat yourself on the back. Make these things markers, rewards, and part of the process and try to get back into the rhythm of daily writing within 24 hours of your well-earned break. One day off is fine. Two, you will find it harder to get back into a groove. Personally, I never related to the writers like Gay Talese who woke at dawn, put on a full suit and went to an office in their hope to write until five p.m. as if it was an office job. I wanted to be a writer so I wouldn’t have to get an office job. The only job is finishing your piece, whatever it is. Finishing is the goal, and by that I mean getting to a place where you can begin revision. Revision is the fun part, where the details get more vivid, the jokes get better, you think of a set piece that didn’t occur to you before or a good song to add to a scene. Revision is more fun than drugs are.

E IS FOR
Editors:
A bad or absentee editor can ruin a good book and a really skilled editor can save a bad book. If your heart isn’t in a book an editor can put your heart back in it but it’s not their job to do that so don’t count on it. It’s your job to keep your heart in the project. An editor, not an agent, is the most important person in a writer’s life, more so than a girlfriend or a boyfriend or even a husband or a wife. I don’t have kids but I have had editors who have had kids and I know that their kids are more important to them than I am, but if I had kids, my editor would still be more important to me. If he or she was a good editor, that is. Get a good editor and you have it made. There is no good writing without one. Your editor, unlike your agent, is also the boss. They essentially create the finished product; the thing that is on the shelf and in the hands of the reader. Read the books they’ve worked on. See if they’ve made the Bestseller list. Ask them what their favorite Elvis Costello song is. Get drunk with them at least once. Check them out but once you are committed, do not battle with what they do to your writing unless you are absolutely possessed to. Then pick your battles because most of the time you won’t win, and if it’s a good editor, most of the time you are wrong and they are right. Treat them with respect because they are working hard for you, and often after office hours when they’d rather be watching television or having dinner or sex, and they are instead, making you look better than you actually are. If you happen to suspect that you are stuck with a bad or dysfunctional or drunken or lazy editor at an otherwise good house, with your good book, you probably won’t be able to save it but if you know that you are on your own, sometimes that knowledge is helpful. You will know to go the extra mile and check your own work twice as much and then immediately begin your search for a truly good editor. Foremost, make sure your editor believes in you and enjoys their job as much as you do. Make your deadlines and don’t give them grief.

F IS FOR
Food:
Food is key too, always eat something before writing. That’s pretty self-explanatory. Even if it’s a Clif Bar. Sometimes you will wake up with an idea. It’s fine to get that idea down and even write a page or two before morning coffee or tea but don’t attempt anything too long without food. And if you are writing something long, like a book, you ultimately hate life and will eat crap or whatever’s around. You will order in Chinese food every night and you will have to lose all that weight or try to once the book is done and will look like shit in your author photos. Eat some steamed spinach with little pieces of garlic in it. That’s good stuff and more and more groceries sell it in neat microwaveable containers than when Dorothy Parker was in her prime.

G IS FOR
Graduate School Etc. Etc.:
I didn’t go. I sometimes wish I had. There are mornings when I wake up and see the Yale School of Drama application open on my laptop. Or an application to Julliard. I worry I might be a better playwright if I’d studied more, but you can also study too much, especially if you are pursuing the creative and not the academic disciplines (not that creative writing can’t be academic and vice versa but when I was in college, these disciplines as far as your thesis went anyway, were more divided). All I am saying is don’t feel like you have to continue and continue and continue your education in a formal way to get good. Move to New York City and get good instead. There’s your continued education and it’s probably a lot cheaper…or at least it used to be. Write and produce a play. There’s your postgraduate work in drama, and you might even make money and get press. Pitch something to a magazine and execute a well reported piece, then another. That’s journalism school. New York City will continue your writer-ly education. LA will not. Seattle will not. Portland will not. Chicago will not. Great cities all but… I’m sorry. It’s New York. Spend some time in London and in Paris but always end up in New York City when you are done. And remember if you learn too much, you’re only gonna have to unlearn it one day. I once had a serious girlfriend and aspiring professional writer who went to an Ivy League school and I had to help her methodically strip all the bad learning from her like the pigment from an impulsive dye job because she could not understand why she could write on campus but was unable to write here. “Because you learned too much,” I told her. “In a classroom.”
Learn just enough, but don’t rely on everything you’ve picked up here.

H IF FOR
Humility:
Be humble. Do not be a dick. Do this for the sake of your soul but also for the sake of your career. Once, during a reading in Philadelphia, I was surly to a Fresh Air booker while drunk and wearing sunglasses indoors. I’ve published five books since then and a few would have been perfect for Fresh Air, the very popular and influential NPR show on WHYY in that city, but I never got invited to do Fresh Air, I probably never will, and I don’t even remember what I said to this woman. I only know she did nothing to provoke it. I used to think in order to be “real” you had to have a bad attitude, and be an enfant terrible. I also used to make a point of telling people, especially my parents and blonde women, that I was a “genius.” Never declare yourself a genius. Even Oscar Wilde looked like an asshole declaring his genius. As far as critics and press and people who may become interested in you (and they will if you are good and work hard) keep your head. And if they snipe, or reject you, never ever keep a shit list. Waste of time. Do not plot revenge. Do not corner a foe and unload. My very first book was rejected by the guy who a decade later, bought my memoir when nobody else would. If you have a stroke of bad luck (this year after what I thought was a good interview that would spark sales of my book Twee, I got bumped from Weekend Edition) take it in stride. I wanted to give the booker a piece of my mind but I remained humble when my publicist said “this happens,” and soon, I got a half dozen different NPR spots. In the immortal words of Chrissie Hynde, “bad boys get spanked.” But I realize you cannot explain this to angry young men. I know doors must be kicked and hair must be pulled out sometimes, just remember, you are only hurting yourself as good as it might feel in the moment and as cool as you might think you look.

I IS FOR
The IRS:
Book publishers do not deduct your taxes from your advances and neither do agents, they just hand you big ass checks. The advance, ideally is there for the expense of producing a book. It’s not for you to spend, or even save but you will spend it. At least try to save some of it. You do not want to work for years on something and pour your soul into it to find out at the end of the day that your money is gone and you owe the city, the state where you live, and the US Treasury many thousands of dollars to which they will gleefully begin tacking on absurd interest and penalty rates. A lot of writers die in tax debt. Pay your estimates. Fortunately, advances are a little saner than they used to be but still remember not all that money is yours. Buy some shoes, have a nice dinner, then give Uncle Sam his due and get to work.

J IS FOR:
Jealousy:
Be happy for any good review a peer gets and make a point to congratulate them even if you want to strangle them and stare at their blue body while smoking a cigarette. If they tell you they just bought an apartment with their advance money and you are still renting, tell them you can’t wait for the housewarming. Jealousy will only make you miserable and spiteful and who knows? A trolley might hit them before they can even enjoy their good fortune and then won’t you feel bad.

K IS FOR –
Kafka:
Try not to romanticize writers who died miserable deaths at young ages after years of suffering. Franz Kafka, for example, was only 40 when he died of laryngeal tuberculosis in a sanitarium outside of Vienna, which essentially meant that he wasted away from starving because his condition made it too painful for him to eat and they had yet to invent intravenous nutrition. I used to think this was cool, party because it was in keeping with the kind of bleakness that many of his characters underwent, in other words, his death fit his words and his myth and then there’s the scene in Annie Hall where Shelley Duvall tells Woody Allen, “Sex with you is a Kafkaesque experience.” I no longer romanticize Kafkaesque experiences, medical, sexual or stylistically. Talented as he was, he most likely an undiagnosed schizophrenic who wanted most if not all of his work burned by his trusted friend Max Brod (who totally ignored his wishes, which Kafka probably suspected this anyway). Pain was not the source of his talent, it was a condition that he had in spite of his talent and it kept him from writing more or at least having a healthy relationship with his work. Simply, you do not have to suffer to be a real writer. Happily this myth has not been embraced by subsequent generations as much as it was by mine, Generation X but we really took it and ran with the idea.

L IS FOR:
Likeability:
Don’t worry about whether or not your reader likes your narrator. Have the courage to make him or her do despicable things if it is true to the story you want to tell. Not every hero needs to be a virtuous, feisty, sympathetic or even clean. And if your narrator is a version of yourself (and all narrators, all characters are in at least small ways versions of the author) remember it’s only a version, remind your mother and father it’s only a version and if you play this correctly, you can both experience things that you might never in real life, and create an interesting voice. Just for God’s sake, don’t’ waste a minute on worrying about “likeability” or even “anti-heroism.” Imagine a reader putting down a book and saying, “I don’t think I like this person,” then imagine them picking the book up again because they like not liking that person. That’s not the same as hate-reading. Today, it’s very fashionable to have what they call an “unreliable narrator,” but I’ve always been a fan of the opposite. I like a narrator who sees and shares things the way they are; usually my narrator believes he is the only sane person in a room, or a city or a planet full of mutants, in other words, huge assholes, but not without redemptive qualities. If you are worried about sales, remember, Holden Caulfield genuinely didn’t care if you liked him and Salinger sold a lot of copies of that one.

M IS FOR:
Menial tasks:
Stop and do a menial task after a point in the writing day. Some call it the shower principle, and it works. Do your recycling. Shave. Prep something to cook, chop vegetables for a stir-fry. Don’t watch TV, especially not 24-hour news channels or sports, and do not listen to music. Go to the snail mailbox. Checking your email is okay too, but just check it and delete the crap. Do not correspond. If you have a dog or a cat, spend some time with the dog or a cat. It’s good for a writer to have a dog or a cat, but nothing too exotic because then it becomes all about the dog or the cat.

N IS FOR:
Note Taking:
It’s anti-social, and literally dangerous if you do it with your iPod while crossing the street, and the auto-correct can be maddening and probably has software built into it to just fuck with you the more it senses you need it (mine once inexplicably changed horseman to Galliano). But always be making lists, and writing notes to you. I write more notes to myself than I speak words to other people, and I write more notes to myself than I think unwritten thoughts to myself. It means things are humming and you are engaged and the piece is coming to life. Form shorthand that works for you, instead of Ralph, just write R. Ask yourself questions about your characters if you are writing fiction, especially if you take handwritten notes, on napkins etc. but don’t feel pressured to answer them immediately. Just a question on a note taking device, a phone or a pad will be valuable. “Why does so and so want this?” “What is the process of cooking this dish?” “What does this neighborhood really look like?” Then fill in the blanks.
I keep a running separate word file, a sort of pool to deposit and later organize these notes. I keep the pool open alongside the main file. Sometimes I wake up in the night to write notes, which is better than waking in the night to smoke a cigarette. Don’t panic this too is a good sign. Your brain is popping. You are engaged. Get it all down, somewhere, and worry about sorting the major revelations from the minor fine tuning, the films you feel like you should see for inspiration or the sections that require full revisions at a later date. Forming a compulsive note taking habit will serve you well later in when your memory goes to hell around 40. Books, large pieces, play, they are really often the sum of two hundred ideas strung together and sometimes thousands of little digital or actual Post Its or cocktail napkins or weird sculptures or art installations. I’ve seen some writers’ walls that look very Silence of the Lambs basement-y. Usually a corkboard works fine, but if you need to build shrines do that it. Do anything that jogs the memory and keeps you from losing the good stuff.

O IS FOR
Overhearing:
Eavesdrop. Keep your ears open and do not be afraid to violate someone’s privacy by getting out a pen and writing something down immediately if you hear a perfect utterance on the street or in a bar or while on line at the post office. You will find something to do with it eventually and it will be special to you forever because it’s like finding a seashell on the beach or a ten-dollar bill on the street when you’re hungry for a sandwich. The people around you, the strangers, are there for you, and they speak to you whether they know it or not, they help you authenticate your environment. But don’t feel the need to use every quote. Hold onto a great quote you’ve overheard until that perfect moment when you can use it right. You can’t built a piece around a single quote no matter how precious or hilarious. It will cave in. Quotes are delicate. Preserve them like butterflies and handle them carefully.

P IS FOR:
Perhaps:
Never use the word “perhaps.” I mean use it if you want to but I hate that word. Make statements and observations and own them, don’t hedge, unless “perhaps” is part of a bit of dialogue from the mouth of a character that hedges. Know the story, know your characters at least by draft two, and there will be no need to guess. Tell the reader the way it really is, you’re not a fortuneteller searching the air. You’re the boss.

Q IS FOR:
Quiet.
Write quiet. At first. By this I only mean, don’t put on loud music until you feel you’ve worked your way into your piece. I know we all have a ten thousand song in the same place where we write but write something substantial first then reward yourself with some music. And keep writing with the music at about half volume. When not writing, use music to psych yourself up. In this case, I recommend maximum volume. “Jumping Jack Flash,” usually works, or “99 Problems.” Zeppelin. Really loud Be Bop. Maria Callas. I’ve also taken to making playlists for the old and new books I’ve worked on. One is over 11 hours long and the book is not even published. I might start making playlists for individual characters in my fiction and I usually give the actors in my plays mix tapes that means CDRs I made on my laptop. Not a real, hand decorated cassette, unfortunately.

R IS FOR
Reviews:
I’m name-dropping again but my friend and old Spin colleague Chuck Klosterman said if you believe the good ones have to believe the bad ones too. I don’t read them. It’s a choice. I realized years ago, when my plays would get reviewed that I would really learn nothing about myself or the way I write from them, all they did was give me a big head or an inferiority complex. If you reach the level where someone is writing a feature about you and your work as a whole, read it to learn about your work, but a review is too limited. The writer usually has a week and 300 words. That’s not to say I don’t read the Book Review Section of the Times where there’s a bit more value and sprawl. And I like to learn as much as possible from reviews of the new books and old books of other writers, just not my own. You have to figure about a way to know yourself and to keep going without them. And if it gets back to you that you’ve received a bad review, do not Google it, in fact, start something new immediately. And never, ever, ever respond to the critic directly, or Twee them. And remember, if you STILL feel shitty, you got a lot more money than they did.

S IS FOR
Spellcheck:
Someone invented it in your lifetime. Also editors hate it when you don’t use it. So do editorial assistants. If you write on a manual or electric typewriter, I don’t even know what to say. Keep a dictionary close at hand. And White Out, which I think gets you high if you sniff enough of it. See D for Drinking and Drugs.

T IS FOR
Trust:
When you finish a piece, it’s good to have at least one person you trust read it next and give you honest notes. This should be a person who you are not professionally or academically affiliated with, in other words, not your professor or your editor, yet. More than one person is fine but not too many. If you have at least one reader who you utterly trust you are ahead of the game. Don’t kill the messenger if they have issues. They are your trust-reader for a reason. Have a conversation; explain yourself if you disagree and seriously consider listening to them because they may know your work better than you are and are certainly closer in make up to the people who will be reading you in the future. This process should be quick so don’t give it to a surgeon or someone you met in a bar or someone about to go on a long trip or someone with seven children; but rather a pal who has already proven themselves to you; ideally a person who is also a writer. But he or she could also simply be a well read friend, an ex girlfriend or boyfriend, your mom so long as she’s not the kind of mom who likes everything you do unconditionally.

U IS FOR
Ulysses:
As I admitted in B for Book Learning I’m not exactly well read, but I own a copy of Ulysses and I am going to read it one day. I sometimes carry it with me. It reminds me to be ambitious; Joyce was ambitious when he wrote it and my ambition is to some day get through it. Ambition is key to this thing of ours. There’s a lot that will kill your ambition; the loneliness of writing, the repetition of having to do one book after the other because you are used to a lifestyle or the attention, or are in debt (see I for IRS). Ambition is there to remind you that you are not great yet. You are only, at best, very good, most likely pretty good, but you should always strive to be great (and never, ever, ever, tell anyone you’re a genius – even if you believe it). Even Oscar Wilde sounded like an asshole declaring him a genius, clever as the line was.

V IS FOR
Being a Vessel:
I don’t know if there is such a thing as muse. I have no imagination as a person and not much of interest to say in a salon or a gathering unless I’m drunk, so I like to think that since my characters often talk and talk and talk, something, a spirit perhaps, is putting the words there through me. When I write, with an eye towards finishing a large piece, I go into a trance and sometimes many hours will pass and it’s almost as if my eyes were closed the whole time then suddenly shoot wide open. This sounds a lot more cosmic and Jim Morrison-ish than it actually is. I know I’m typing. I just don’t know where the dialogue is coming from, or why I am deviating from an outline, even just a mental one (I’m not big on flowchart outlines, like I said, I have my process with notes… and the occasional shrine). When I come to, I realize that I have pages and pages and thousands of words, many of them not bad. See, musicians don’t own this. Neither do actors who play around with methods or techniques and make their discoveries. Or painters who throw paint at a canvas and suddenly it’s a thing like Jackson Pollock or Nick Nolte in that Martin Scorsese short. Writers can “jam” too and lose themselves for hours. So I like to think I am indeed, a vessel because writing is lonely and the idea makes me feel somehow less alone. But I often forsaken. The muse is fickle and just cause it lulled you into a lucky and hyper-creative state one day, it doesn’t mean that another day it won’t leave you with nothing but your fingers.

W IS FOR:
Wit:
Don’t put something in your piece just because it’s clever. Have the courage to not use the joke. I believe the best writing, fiction or non-fiction, is funny. Period. You can write about war and have elements of humor in it. You can write about sickness and death and have elements of humor in it. Do not be cheeky if you can’t be genuinely funny. Cheeky people are horrible. Just revisit O for Overhearing and hope you are sitting next to someone genuinely funny.

X
Is for X factor:
Most people don’t know why a book works or doesn’t work and nobody sets out to write a bad book. Don’t believe people who claim to have the answers. What’s hot is not. There is always an X factor that eludes agents, editors, publicists, marketers and most especially, writers. Fashion chasing will kill your soul. If books about Jane Austen characters fighting zombies or Presidents slaying vampires are selling, do not write one too. Don’t even blurb one if you are asked. Find your own thing and remember the William Goldman quote about Hollywood because it applies to publishing too, “Nobody knows anything.” Just be true to your characters, your sources, your voice and your vision and you will do fine.

Y is for
Years:
This shit takes years.

Z is for:
Zooey and Zoe
I was going to make z for Zeitgeist but I’m still not 100 percent confident whenever I use the word. It’s like I’m never fully comfortable calling Lil Wayne “Weezy.” I wanted to use Zooey Glass and the Zoe Kazan’s character in the film Ruby Sparks where an author invents then has an affair with his heroine, as examples to let you know that it’s okay to fall in love with your characters, to write a character that you want a reader to fall in love with. There is no shame in this. You should be in love with your characters, even when you do horrible things to them. If you are writing a non-fiction book, you will probably fall in love with your subject and if it’s good so will your reader. This is a process of seduction and don’t’ think for a minute Salinger didn’t want you to fall in love with Zooey, as batshit as she is. Be a matchmaker between your reader and your characters, be a friend, write for them, not to them, and know that one of the main reasons people read is because it’s a lonely place, here in the world.

 

Marc Spitz (1969-2017) was the author of the novels How Soon Is Never, and Too Much, Too Late and the biographies We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (with Brendan Mullen), Nobody Likes You: Inside the Turbulent Life, Times and Music of Green DayBowie: A Biography and Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue. He appeared in the anthologies: The Encyclopedia of Ex-esHowl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit and Rock N’ Roll Cage Match: Music’s Greatest Rivalries Decided.

Spitz presented this piece in 2014 as a talk at The College of Saint Rose as part of the Frequency North reading series., after which he granted permission to publish this piece. Photo: Marc Spitz, Los Angeles, circa 1992-93, from personal collection of Rone Shavers.

 


Photo: “Oh Hushed October Morning” by Courtney Bernardo

Nonfiction

“‘Don’t Let Me Down’:  Eleven Facts About the Beatles” by Joanna Penn Cooper

1.
It’s a warm day at some point in the mid-1970s, and I’m at the record store about to pick out the first album I’ll buy with my own money. I am five or six, and my grandmother has taken me “uptown” in Salisbury, North Carolina, to the record store on Innes Street. One of the family legends—a legend in my mind, at least—is about my mother being a child and going uptown with her own grandmother. Mamaw would dress them both up, and they’d wear white gloves, 2as you did. Here I am a little over twenty years later, probably not dressed up at all.  I’m wearing shorts or jeans, most likely. Possibly a sundress my mom made me on the sewing machine.  (Those mother-daughter sundresses are the only thing I remember her ever sewing.) Anyway, the fifties are over, and even the sixties, and here I am gloveless about to buy a Beatles record.  Before I go in, I ask Joe—my mother’s baby brother—which one is best, and he says, “All of them.” I feel momentarily at sea, as part of the fun was going to be impressing Joe with my purchase. But Joe walks away from us on the sidewalk to go look at bikes, and I must make the decision on my own, armed with the knowledge that there’s no wrong choice.  (Or is there?)  Finally, after some consternation, I buy Let It Be. The Beatles all look friendly on the cover.  Except John. Well, Ringo looks a bit fed up, as well, now that I look at it. Or maybe just tired.

2.
In an earlier, scene I’m even younger, maybe four. If I am four, Joe is nine. We’re on Gates Street in front of my grandmother’s house, standing by the curb. (Is this when I still call her Mama sometimes because Joe does?) He is having me say the names of the Beatles. I don’t remember if this is for his own amusement, or if he is having me do it for someone else, as a sort of party trick. “Paul, George, John, and Ringo,” I say, my preferred order. “No,” he says. “You’re supposed to say John, Paul, George, and Ringo.” I refuse. Paul is first in my heart and on my list.

3.
I am seven and Joe is twelve. We are sitting in the spare room watching a TV broadcast of Yellow Submarine. My grandfather is downstairs in what is normally the den, but he is on a bed in the middle of the room, dying. My mother and I are visiting from Knoxville, where she is a graduate student in psychology. She works in the animal behavior lab, feeding newborn mice to the two-headed snake. She won’t let me watch them eat, but I’ve looked at the mice, naked as thumbs, wriggling in their box. I don’t know how the occasion of the trip has been presented to me. Often when my mother had to give me bad news, she presented it as something that “could” happen, and I would be shocked when it did.  Before we went to the airport—which in itself was unusual, as it’s only a four-hour drive between the two towns—she had picked up some medicine at the pharmacy in Knoxville to bring with us to Salisbury. Now I wonder what it was.  Morphine? But why wouldn’t they have had that in Salisbury? The pharmacist was very nice to me and gave me a coloring book and some crayons for the trip, free of charge. I knew then that something strange was happening. I didn’t know the word for it, but I recognized what it was: pity.  Joe and I sit and watch, immersed in the world of the Blue Meanies and the acid-mild cartoon Beatles. And then my mom and grandmother are walking into the room, both crying a little. Before they can say anything, Joe is yelling, “Noooo!” and either rushing out of the room or toward my grandmother. I have to wait to be told before I get it. My grandfather is dead.

4.
My mom’s second husband plays the Rolling Stones loud.  Really loud.  I am in second grade, third grade. The sound is an assault, both for the sound itself and the self-centeredness of the act. This is not all that he was—he also brought me stacks of 45s from the record store where he worked. I had most of the hits of 1979-1981 in a box in my room. Steve Martin singing his novelty hit “King Tut”; Pat Benatar; “Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe. My tastes in pop music at this age were broad and ecumenical. But the Rolling Stones it takes me much longer to like. For years it was Beatles over Stones.

5.
When I am nine, I live with my grandmother for half a year. My mom is on the verge of divorcing her second husband, but I don’t know this, either. My grandmother is still in a state of stunned depression that I now realize was probably grief and tiredness. Joe has started high school and has grown to over six feet tall, seemingly overnight. Occasionally he will deign to speak to me.  He does let me scratch his feet with the letter opener, but I must stay on my end of the couch. One night after we are all asleep, someone bangs on the door loudly until we’re all awake. It is Mike, Joe’s friend from down the street. A guy with what I would now describe as an odd energy, Mike is a little older, but hangs around with all the kids. Now he is at the door late at night, weeping, hysterical, and demanding to speak to Joe. John Lennon has been shot.

The next day, Granny is peering out the front window at dusk to see if anyone has a candle out for John, muttering, “I lit one for Kennedy, but I’m not lighting one for him.”

6.
I guess it’s that same year that John starts to talk to me from the White Album poster? My mom and I are living alone in grad student housing, and I have the poster from her original pressing of the album in my room, next to my bunk beds. I’ve developed a number of strange compulsions. I count my syllables when I speak, tapping a finger surreptitiously against my leg as I do. There’s some equation about how many steps I have to do in each sidewalk square that I don’t even remember now. And not only can I not step on cracks for fear of breaking my mother’s back, but I can’t step on the dividing lines between sidewalk squares, either. John Lennon tells me these things, and it’s possible that John is the devil. I can tell by the way he stares out so intently from the poster. Also, I think I saw a hysterical teenaged boy say something to that effect in a Beatles documentary. When I finally admit some version of these thoughts to my mother, posing it as a question—“So, do you think it’s possible that John Lennon is the devil?  Can he see me from the poster?”—my mom brings a child psychologist to our apartment. He has me calm my mind and imagine that I am in a meadow of flowers. I find it embarrassing. Later my mom asks if I could see myself meeting with the psychologist every week. I’m alarmed, as I didn’t see that coming. I tell her I don’t feel that it’s necessary and I don’t want to. Nope. I won’t go. At some point, John stops talking to me.

7.
Years later, I will teach an essay to teenagers about the subversive power of Beatlemania[1].  The authors argue that for young Beatlemaniacs, the band offered a vision of sexuality that was “guileless, ebullient, and fun.” They suggest that part of the fun lay in the Beatles’ androgyny.  While commentators like Dr. Joyce Brothers saw the Beatles’ “girlishness” as providing a safe outlet for young women’s burgeoning sexuality, Ehrenreich, et al. argue that “the Beatles construed sex more generously and playfully, lifting it out of the rigid scenario of mid-century American gender roles, and it was this that made them wildly sexy.” Some girls, in fact, likely identified with the Beatles, not just wanting to be with them, but in part wanting to be them. Reading about these theories of Beatlemania, I think back to playing the make out game with Lisa, whose parents also lived in the graduate student family apartments. We listened to Sgt. Pepper, our favorite, and I would pretend to be Paul to her adoring fan.

8.
I find myself extremely frustrated with some boy at my dorm freshman year who acts like he can in any way school me on the Beatles. No. Another boy stands in front of my Beatles poster—the poster made up of four psychedelic portraits in a grid, which they may still sell at college bookstores—and tells me I really must try shrooms at some point. They take away your inhibitions and they’re just totally natural. My core of Beatle fandom is part of what gives me power over these boys and makes me feel not at all bad about showing them to the door when they became tedious. A core of knowledge, of desire all my own.

9.
Before I even reach high school, my Beatles albums are stolen by my mom’s third husband, upon the occasion of their break up.  When I receive my crates of records, along with my other possessions delivered from his house—no Beatles.

10.
I’m in my early thirties, and in a quasi-dating situation with a fairly odd guy in the Twin Cities. He’s at my apartment in late winter, and we’re watching a documentary about the early days of the Beatles. We learn that we both have a deep and abiding affection for the Beatles. Even so, our connection feels somehow removed. That is, we have one, but it is polite and never quite lands. Still, there’s something deeply enjoyable about a chill afternoon of remote, companionable shared Beatles fandom. Later, he will drive me to a used bookstore and run in to buy me a gift. He wants me to have the AA handbook in order to understand him better. I refuse to take it. At home in a drawer somewhere, I already have the one my biological father sent me.

11.
I’m between boyfriends in graduate school, driving around listening to Let It Be all these years later. I’ve bought it on CD, and I zip around whatever state I’m in re-encountering a deeply familiar album I haven’t listened to from start to finish in years. I’m making circles back and forth between the eastern states and those of the Midwest, looking for something (education, companionship, a connection to landscape). At one point, I listen to “Two of Us” and feel momentarily lost—there is no longer a “Two of Us”—before settling on a different feeling, the “two of us” as me and the Beatles, or maybe as me and some other, inviolable version of myself.

[1] “Beatlemania: A sexually defiant subculture?” by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs.

 

Lis Romine Tyroler
Lis Romine Tyroler

Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). Her work has appeared in South Dakota ReviewZocálo Public SquareOpen Letters MonthlyPositPoetry International, and other journals. Her digital chapbook of collaborative poems with Todd Colby, I’m Glad I Know You, was published by Poetry Crush. She is an editor at Trio House Press and lives in Durham, NC.

Nonfiction

“Brick” by William Bradley

It took us close to an hour, but I managed to knock the bat to the floor with the broom, causing a slapping sound that made my stomach tighten. Emily covered the animal with an upside-down garbage bin, which I then pushed, slowly, out the door and onto the side porch. We heard the bat fluttering about for a few seconds, then it got quiet. I hoped we hadn’t killed it—Emily and I are both pretty squeamish about such things. This was at around 12:30 in the afternoon on a Sunday. We’d found it—our second bat in less than a week— sleeping in our dining room light fixture.

We let the cats out of the bedroom, where we had isolated them so that they wouldn’t get in our way as we got rid of the invasive creature. I regarded Leroy, who for the last day or so had been acting strangely—hiding under the bed, jumping at the slightest noise or unexpected movement. Not his usual purring, attention-seeking self. He also had a strange bump on his neck that I worried might have been a bite from a bat. He’d had his shots, but we were late getting the annual rabies booster. In fact, we hadn’t seen the need—neither of our cats had walked outside our home since their early kittenhood— until we saw the first bat.

Emily’s period was late, too, and though we knew the odds were against it, we were both afraid she might have been pregnant.

The guy who called me back from the emergency veterinary clinic told me Leroy should be quarantined for ten days, but he added that if I brought the bat in to the clinic, they could test it and get back to us the next day.

“How do I get it to you?” I asked.

“Just kill it with a tennis racket or something and bring it in,” he said with a nonchalance that puzzled me. “Don’t touch it with your bare hands, though.”

I don’t really know anything about rabies, but I thought I knew that you couldn’t just beat a bat to death and then test it. But this guy was the expert, and I was clearly out of my element. So.

“We have to kill the bat,” I said as I walked into the living room after I got off the phone. Emily inhaled sharply and stared at me, mouth and eyes opened wide. I realized she’d misunderstood my pronoun use. “I mean, I’m going to do it.”

We don’t play tennis. I thought we had a badminton racquet, but for the life of me I had no idea where it was. Though we both workout, neither of us is really into sports, to be honest. So with no other weapon at my disposal, I grabbed the broom again and walked towards the door.

I stood beside the overturned trashcan for several minutes, occasionally tapping it with the broom. No sound came from beneath it.

The screen door from the apartment next to ours slammed and a moment later our neighbor appeared in the driveway beside the porch. He was a young guy—just out of school, a fire fighter and sportsman. Country boy, 15 years my junior. I told him about the bat, thinking he might have advice. I needed someone with expertise to tell me I was doing this right. And though I have a PhD in creative writing and probably know more about literary theory and avant garde cinema than he does, I knew in this moment that he was smarter than I.

“How you gonna do it?” he asked.

“I’m going to beat him to death with this broom.”

He nodded. I could tell this plan didn’t impress him. “If he goes flying, you’ll probably miss him,” he said, which seemed obvious once the words were out of his mouth. “Bats are hard targets. Here.” He leaned over, picked up a huge brick left over from one of our landlord’s recent construction projects, and handed it to me. “I’ll lift the bin, you drop this on him.”

“Will that… work?” I knew a brick would kill a bat, of course, but it seemed to me there was a right way to do these sorts of things, and this wasn’t it. I’m not a hunter—I haven’t even caught a fish since I was a kid—so I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about these things. But this seemed wrong. Savage.

He laughed. “Let’s just get this done. You ready?”

Turned out Emily wasn’t pregnant. The cats didn’t contract rabies—in fact, apparently the one-year vaccine is effective for considerably longer than a year, and bat bites don’t tend to leave bumps. But I didn’t know these things then. All I knew was that the cats we had found in our backyard and nursed back to health when they were sickly kittens—holding them in the kitchen, feeding them with eye droppers– were in danger. That my possibly-pregnant wife could be at risk too. I wasn’t thinking about morality or the naturalist writers I read in graduate school or phrases like “hegemonic masculinity” or “what a man’s gotta do.” I wasn’t thinking about the time in the tenth grade that I declared to my parents that I would never fish again, that killing animals was immoral. I just knew that everything I loved was threatened, that the only way I could be sure we were all safe was with that brick.

I certainly didn’t know that the animal’s head needs to be intact to test it for rabies—that what I was about to do was going to make it impossible for me to get the definitive answer I wanted, wasting my time and the life of a bat who hadn’t actually intended us any harm.

My neighbor lifted the bin and I saw the bat, on the ground, unmoving.

“Do it,” he said.

“Wait…” I said weakly. I very much wanted for this to not be happening.

He raised his voice. “You’ve got to do it now.”

And I did. I let the brick go—“Fuck that rodent,” I might have thought— and it landed with a loud thud. The brick was big enough that it covered the entire crushed body. That was a blessing. I was already feeling nauseous.

 

BradleyWilliam_photoWilliam Bradley is the author of the essay collection Fractals, recently released by Lavender Ink.

 

Nonfiction

“He Didn’t Shoot” by E.K. Gordon

Why Didn’t He?

The suspect was a black male running from the parking lot of a liquor store. He looked to my police sergeant father like a teenager. Maybe all he was fleeing was the screeching police car, or maybe he had been involved in a crime. Either way, when my father yelled “Halt, police” the teen didn’t halt; he scrambled up a high chain-link fence, spilled over it, and disappeared into his future.

Apparently police policy even back then was that running in a high(ish) crime area is a crime. My father was suspended for two weeks without pay–not nothing since our family of seven lived week to week and my mother didn’t yet work outside the home.

I can’t say I’m proud he didn’t shoot, because I don’t know why he didn’t shoot. Was it hesitation, fear, compassion, the ten commandments? Something else? As I watch the terrible video indictments of police officers, I wonder what stayed my father’s hand.

Maybe because he died at 41 and because he talked so little about himself, I’ve thought a lot about my father’s youth. His own father died when he was a small boy, and his widowed mother moved her large Scottish-American family from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Queens, New York–a very multicultural place, as it still is. My dad loved sports, was crazy for football. In Queens he played quarterback in a pick-up league and from what I’ve heard (from my albeit not necessarily objective mother) he was a sandlot star. He made friends with some of the African-American boys who also played. He spent time in their homes and they spent time in his. They knew each others’ mothers by name, ate at each others’ tables.

When he was 17 my father enlisted in the navy along with a football buddy, his go-to wide receiver. They boarded the bus together for the trip south to Quantico training base. At the Mason Dixon Line the driver told the blacks to get back and the whites to move up (this is early 1950’s). My father refused to move away from his friend and was put off the bus.

I had this just a few years back from a cousin who had it from a letter my father mailed from Quantico. Unfortunately for this story, the letter didn’t give the friend’s name or else my cousin didn’t remember it to tell me. Still, I cherish the image of my dad on the side of the road, duffel bag slumped against his leg, thumb out. I cherish it almost as much as I do the photo, one of a very few from his whole life that he saved, of him and this friend whose name I don’t know standing front to back in their service dress blues. Sailor boys. Crazy thin and goofy happy.

Here’s my theory, or maybe it’s just a hope: when his police training told him Shoot, when the system that fed and housed his family expected, no required, bullets, the fleeing suspect, the running teenager, looked a little to my father like a receiver going long for a pass.

Our experiences and friendships change us; they repair and right us. We can’t retroactively desegregate American history or give police officers memories that would humanize their policing (unless story telling counts, which I think it does), but we can change policies that are racist in intent or practice. One policy my story seems to point to, and which has been much discussed regarding Baltimore, is the requirement, or lack of a requirement, that police officers live and pay taxes in the cities they serve. West Baltimore sure isn’t policed by people who grew up in West Baltimore, or any place like it. When my father became a policeman, we were required to move into the South Florida town (Lauderhill) that had hired him. Although its police force was all white then, the neighborhood and schools were not. I thereby began a valuable multicultural education that left me willing and able to live in North Philadelphia, where the education continued. Too many white police officers in America are just plain illiterate. And the ones who aren’t need to step up big time. Yes it will be hard, but so is stopping blood flow from a punctured artery, or reconnecting a severed spine.

I would like to say my father stepped up big time, that his experiences made him a civil rights activist or at least a force for change at work, but I don’t know that. He may have had some good conversations, may have thrown the wrench into some back stage racism. He may even have served and protected all the citizens of Lauderhill. But I have no evidence. I have only that two-week suspension. It’s my inheritance. I receive it not with pride so much as relief, relief and gratitude that the question troubling me today is why didn’t he shoot, and not why did he?

 

GordonEK_picE. K. Gordon is an English adjunct at Northampton Community College. She represented New York City’s Urbana Slam Team at the 2014 Women of the World poetry slam and continues to read as a performance poet. Her work has appeared at Moonshot, PANK, Salon, SlamFind and elsewhere. She is the author of Love Cohoes and Walk with Us, Triplet Boys, their Teen Parents and Two White Women who Tagged Along, which won an Indie Book Award. Find her online at ekg3.com.

Nonfiction

“Time Space: Places They’ve Never Met” by Janet Dale

“Is it e’en so?—Then I deny you, stars!”
—Romeo and Juliet (5.1.25)

According to The Astrology Book: The Encyclopedia of Heavenly Influences by James R. Lewis, a birth chart (or astrological chart) calculates the position of various celestial bodies throughout the heavens as viewed from the Earth at the moment of an individual’s birth. And even though the legitimacy of astrology has changed since the discovery of physics and astronomy, many still believe that the position of the sun, moon, stars, and planets have heavy influence on an individual. These positions are calculated and charted both symbolically and in actuality similar to how longitude and latitude is measured.

In a simplified version of astrology often found in newspapers or magazines, it is the Sun’s location at the time of birth that is directly related to a “sign.” 

Sun in Scorpio at 26° 06′ | Sun in Taurus at 18° 27′

Positive characteristics often associated with Scorpio (his sun sign): focused, brave, balanced, faithful, ambitious, and intuitive. Negatives include: jealous, resentful, secretive, and manipulative.

Positive characteristics often associated with Taurus (her sun sign): generous, dependable, down-to-earth, patient, independent, and persistent. Negatives include: stubborn, self-indulgent, materialistic, lazy, and possessive.

Moon in Capricorn at 22° 07′ | Moon in Gemini at 13° 45′

It takes the Earth’s only natural satellite 27.3 days to complete one orbit, waxing and waning along its elliptical path. As it moves, the moon pulls at anything to bring it closer; the Earth is able to hold on to most things—except water. No matter where one is located in the world, together or apart, looking upward into the night sky the moon is shared.

Mercury in Scorpio at 09° 26′ | Mercury in Aries at 22° 13′

He was born in the top left hand corner of the United States, the lush verdant Pacific Northwest near the Canadian border not far from Vancouver. Her only trip to Canada happened nine years after that—visiting family near Toronto—more than 4,300 miles east. She was born closer to our neighbors to the south, in the Lone Star State, on the Army base he’d be stationed at when he turned 21.

Venus in Scorpio at 29° 10′ | Venus in Gemini at 14° 44′

Celestial navigators—such as mariners travelling by water—rely upon chronometers, sextants, almanacs, and other tools to traverse by stars and planets. They learn constellations then draw imaginary lines, calculating degrees, and angles in order to know where they are in the world.

In the Northern hemisphere Polaris (above the North Pole) is the most important point, while in the Southern hemisphere it is the Crux (above the South Pole). Only cloud cover can get in the way.

Mars in Scorpio at 14° 40′ | Mars in Leo at 11° 48′

Scorpius (Sco) is part of the family of constellations named for the zodiac. Antares—the brightest star within the pattern—is located near the scorpion’s “heart” and glows reddish. It lies within the Southern hemisphere and occupies an area of 497 square degrees. Apollo sent a scorpion to attack Orion for claiming to be a better hunter than his sister. To show displeasure at the quarrel, Zeus cast both the hunter and the scorpion into the heavens. 

Jupiter in Pisces at 08° 23′ | Jupiter in Cancer at 04° 26′

Taurus (Tau) is also part of the family of constellations named for the zodiac. Its brightest star—Aldebaran—functions as the “eye” of the bull, seemingly glaring at Orion who is located to the southwest. It lies within the Northern hemisphere and occupies an area 797 square degrees. After falling in love with Europa, Zeus transformed himself into a magnificent white bull with golden horns to take her away with him across the sea.

Saturn in Cancer at 18° 38′ | Saturn in Leo at 23° 49′

He intersected the muddy river at the Hernando-Desoto Bridge while driving a Cavalier cross country. Two years later after missing an exit on the Tennessee side, she would accidently drive a different Cavalier across the same bridge.

Cutting the country in half, the 2,340-mile Mississippi river begins at a glacier lake in Minnesota then runs south before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans.

Uranus in Libra at 29° 51′ | Uranus in Scorpio at 14° 12′

The Rhine is one-third the length of the Mississippi and begins in a glacier lake in Switzerland before running through five more countries emptying into the North Sea.

When visiting Germany, he boarded a sightseeing boat somewhere around Rudesheim to explore the river. She had taken the tour seven years earlier while living in Germany. They rounded the same rock on the eastern bank where the legendary Lorelei sat murmuring to sailors; throwing them off course.

Neptune in Sagittarius at 08° 51′ | Neptune in Sagittarius at 17° 42′

His first experience with ghosts occurred while driving one summer night north of downtown New Orleans. He said the absence of light made the sudden circus music playing among abandoned industrial building that much more eerie.

The next year after visiting the French Quarter, she wandered through a maze of above ground tombs and mausoleums inside both St. Louis No. 1 and Lafayette No. 1. Looking to connect to spirits, knowingly she experienced none.

Pluto in Libra at 08° 27′ | Pluto in Libra at 14° 28′

Her last experience with ghosts occurred while visiting a now mostly abandoned mental hospital located in the town where she attended graduate school. Despite the soaring summer heat that day, all she felt was freezing air when sliding a camera inside broken windows to take pictures.

He was in Georgia the year before, taking advanced training classes at the home of the Signal Corps about 83 miles away; another missed point of intersection.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 3.07.28 PM

 

DaleJanet_pic

Janet Dale’s work can be found in Zone 3, Really System, Atticus
Review, among others. She holds a BA in English from the University of Memphis and an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College. She has been a pharmacy technician, a reading teacher, and has worked on journals such as the Flannery O’Connor Review, Arts & Letters, and Wraparound South. Currently, she teaches first year writing at Georgia Southern University.

hybrid, Nonfiction, Poetry

Excerpts from “Flesh Graphs” by Brynne Rebele-Henry

30. I don’t know what to wear, so I tie sage around my left ankle, twists of garlic in my hair. I want to be Italian and edible. I add rosemary, thyme. Frying oils.

31. I brush my hair until it crackles onto the linoleum.

32. She could feel the remains of him seeping out of her, radiation, she can feel her back beneath the mattress and it reminds her of Stonehenge. Reminds her of the tea she’s left on her counter, steeping, the rim of black on the cup will be appearing around now.

33. He sprays the cologne on his face. Diffusion.

34. I wondered at the way her hair fell down in a clean black train, the tracks left on her face from yesterday’s binder. I worry that she doesn’t know my name or face, that she won’t recognize, still dawning over her new hips and breasts. I say my name to the sound her arms make against the subway rails: Benji.

35. The sad space girl Friday, the pseudo lesbian haircuts that sports moms flip backwards, too long nails though, Cheryl says, their mouths all dry and lipstick-chapsticked duo. Not enough velour, says I, with my chewed down wool, with my menthol smelling pockets, with my cuticles and nails so shot my fingers nudge through them.

36. My virginity gone to a buck-toothed rabbit boy in a truck with a sleeping bag in the back and a window broke from holes torn in it by angry women who want to be girls, he says. It didn’t feel like much but friction and after my thighs were rivers that blood made banks on. Next morning and bruise made sky from the seatbelt buckle.

37. Her body washes in, a tangle of seaweed and her grandmother’s fake sapphires. He is disappointed about the way her body is shaped. “I thought she was a whale.” We watch her arching her back, her eyes sand-coated magnifying glasses. Ambulances never occur to us, we say later, when the light is a funeral home disco in our un-made-up faces. We just wanted to see some mating whales, we say.

38. I lick the skin between her fingers.

39. His skin is a weathered hollow of chemo, the spaces where he is deflating. We don’t say anything about the liver spots, or the drowned white of his tremors. We just place toast inside our lips.

40. My girl’s hair is dead, and her lips are a fine yellow. Chapped nipples that I put in her throat, charred.

41. His belly falls over his belt.

42. My mother is disappearing.

43. He pushes his thumb down Mary Anne’s throat and says of it “Righteous.”

44. I slash the skin clean off my finger, plump like fruit I haven’t yet tasted. I put the tip of what’s left of my finger on a plate. Add lime, salt, pepper.

45. She brushes her oil-slick hair, polluted clumps, their follicles hail against the floor.

46. He says he’s just kissing invisible boys.

47. We exist in a state of vagrance, our skin worn colorless by trains and water and rails that don’t sit quite right on highways we don’t know the names of. Our mouths are the same texture, our eyes a slash of sand and cornea and no paydays.

48. He’s all blues baby daddy, cat on a hot tin roof, double lashes. He wants it all deep fried, and butter smothered with dirty sugar and maraschino cherries. His belt doesn’t fit right and he punches extra holes into the thick skin of it with his rusty bottle opener.

49. The conception was an exorcism and after we burned sage, I put my thighs over my head and chanted.

50. Lemons remind her too much of the bruises.

51. He slicks the eggs into his mouth.

52. The baby falls out every time she opens her legs, she tries to push him back in, this slippery disappearing child, she tries tight jeans, lying down until her spine makes railroads in the mattress. She calls for doctors, firemen, medicine witches, but she can’t find a phone, she tries to call them on rotten fruits, all that’s left in her cupboard.

53. I bite her lips, bright and red wax coated.

54. I’m shaking my hips and they all say of it: “That motherfucker’s Beyoncé.” They want to buy me shots, and I’m all “get in line bitches,” in my leather man-thong.

55. My belly’s bigger than my arms now, we run out of water five moons ago, Momma don’t talk anymore, and Daddy’s head went boom! when they come in with their sharp dust and guns, and all the animals want to eat me, says the leader, and our skin is falling off our bones, meaty no more.

56. We walked to the mall, stroked our fingers over things we couldn’t/can’t/ won’t/afford. After, he pulled me against his chest and bit my neck. Then he touched his middle finger against the space between my eyebrows, then drew a cross over my mouth and nose. Then he bowed and skipped away.

57. He pressed against her, concrete floor, a gun, maybe a knife, she doesn’t remember. Ten months later and she’s still bleeding. But they don’t say rape or victim, instead their mouths form: antibiotics, tea, sympathy casseroles.

 

Rebele_Henry-Brynne  PhotoBrynne Rebele-Henry’s poetry, fiction, criticism, and visual art have appeared or are forthcoming in The Volta, Revolver, PANK, Adroit, Souvenir, Ping Pong, and other magazines. She is assistant editor of Verse. Her work stems from being a young lesbian/feminist in a culture that simultaneously fears and obsesses over women’s bodies.

Nonfiction

“Adaptation” by Rori Leigh Hoatlin

For twelve years we attended chapel at the little rectangular school on Oak Street. We sang songs about God carrying us. We prayed for our enemies. We joined hands in unity.

There, we were taught that evolution didn’t exist. In a beautiful garden, humanity breathed life from the dust of the earth. Our DNA mirrored the image of God. We were designed, not at random, but through His inspiration.

Yet in science class, Mr. Reef knew we must learn about evolution. But he played it smart. He didn’t talk about Darwin or try to convince us we came from apes. He didn’t use the word “evolve” at all; he used the word “adapt.” We never learned adaptation didn’t exist.

He talked about the peppered moth. “Originally light in color, the peppered moth hid from predators on the bark of light-colored trees. But as the air filled with soot during the Industrial Revolution, the peppered moth had to adapt. The darker ones had a better chance for survival and thus had a better chance to procreate. This meant the light-colored moths died out, while the darker moths lived on.”

Mr. Reef showed us pictures of the moths on the projector. The stout bodies of wide-winged creatures looked like carved-up pieces of the birch trees in our school courtyard.

I think we knew he was teaching us evolution, but we didn’t protest because he proved small, incremental changes could occur in nature, and over time those small changes could add up to something bigger. We were just talking about moths after all.

I don’t know if Mr. Reef was trying to confound our faith. Or if he just wanted us to see the world from another angle. He probably figured we just needed this information to be functioning adults. There must come a point as a teacher where you learn there are indirect avenues that will lead you to the same spot.

I got an A on the test covering the peppered moth material. It was the first time since elementary school I received an A in science class. Here it was, proof that I too could evolve.

I’ve moved at least half a dozen times since high school and I still have that test. A memento from the small cracks that lead me away from that small town.

When I page through that test, I see I misspelled the word “evolve” a few times; I kept forgetting to put the “e” on the end. I suppose because he never said it, I didn’t know how to infuse it into my vocabulary. It’s interesting that I wrote it even though he never vocalized it. Somehow, on the day I took the test, in lead pencil, in penmanship somewhere between cursive and print, I wrote: “It is a great benefit for any organism to evolve.”

 

Hoatlin_Rori_Leigh_PhotoRori Leigh Hoatlin is a 2014 MFA graduate of Georgia College & State University. She is the summer director of the Writing Center at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, where she also teaches. She is also a 2013 Lake Michigan Writing Project Fellow and the 2015 Mari Sandoz Emerging Writer for the Story Catcher Conference in Nebraska. Rori has published essays in Prick of the Spindle, Superstition Review, and Tampa Review Online, among others.

Nonfiction

“My Father’s Lesson” by Cheryl Smart

 

Smart Cheryl Photo Accompanying
“Hey,” Sissy said, “do you remember the time when you were little and dad followed you through the woods to grandmother’s house?”

It’s June ’78, and I’m in a panic-driven sprint behind my older sister. I feel the cool splash of linoleum hit the soles of my feet as we race into our farmhouse kitchen, one final lunge to stop her before—

“Daddy, Cheryl’s afraid of the dark!”

“Am not!”

I mouth ‘I hate you’ to my sister behind my father’s back.

Daddy turns to me and I see his brow furrow, etching deeper marks onto his weathered skin. I’m ten years old, attempting to lie my way out of a bad situation.

“Is this true?”

I lower my eyes and study my bare feet, splotchy with the dust of the day’s adventures. No eye contact will give me the best chance of lying with conviction. I trace figure eight patterns onto the green speckled flooring with my big toe, and ready myself for a persuasive denial.

“No, Daddy.”

“So, you’re not afraid of the dark?”

The words bring shame. Up to this point, the only thing I’d been taught to fear was the prospect of an eternity in hell for lying. Fear was unacceptable; especially fear of the dark because it’s unreasonable. My lie is weakening but I’m fully invested in it, so I continue to deny the truth and shake my head no, I’m not afraid of the dark.  My father bends down to my level.

Eye to eye now, the lie slides off me.  Daddy catches it.

“See, Daddy. I told you. She’s afraid of the dark,” my sister says.

I plan to disown her and never speak to her again.

For the most part, she’s a loving sister. Just two years apart, we share a bedroom. She is patient and comforting at bedtime as I will not sleep until she completes ‘the routine’.  If the routine is neglected at lights-out, I whine or cry until she complies. If I can’t sleep, why should she?

“Closet! Check the closet.”

“I’m checking the closet. See? There’s nothing in here.”

“You have to turn the light on so I can see!”

“Fine. The light’s on. Look. No monsters. No boogeymen.”

“Look under my bed!”

“I’m looking.”

“Look under your bed, too! It could be hiding under your bed, crawl out from under there when you turn out the light, and get us both!”

“Both beds. I’m looking under both beds. There is nothing under either one of them.”

“Behind the door?”

“Nothing behind the door.”

“Okay.”

She tucks the covers around me all the way up to my neck.

“See? You’re safe.”

“Thank you, Sissy.”

Lastly, Sissy must make a run for it once she hits the lights because any creeping thing can materialize under our beds if our feet are on the floor longer than a few seconds in the dark.  Bed is the safe zone sort of like home base during hide-and-seek.

Sissy tells Daddy the whole routine. My cheeks burn red.

There is a lesson coming, I know, but I could never have guessed the lengths to which my father would go to toughen me up against the night.

“Daddy, No.  Please.”

There on our Tennessee family farm, there are no homes visible without a lengthy stroll.  This is the lesson. I am to walk around the lake, through the woods to my grandmother’s house, and back. Alone. In the dark.  An exercise meant to prove to me there is nothing in the darkness that can hurt me. There is no way I’m getting out of it.

I need shoes. I choose super-fast ones, knock-off royal blue sneakers with white stripes on the sides like the ones Starsky wears on Starsky & Hutch.  Daddy calls for me from the front porch.

“Go on now.”

“Will you leave the porch light on for me?”

“I sure will. It’ll be on the whole time. Your grandmother’s porch light will be on, too.”

I step off the porch, most certainly to end my young life, turn back, and look as pitiful as I can.

“Daddy, can I please, please have a flashlight?”

“Your grandmother will give you one for your walk back. Go on now. You’ll be fine. There is nothing out there that can hurt you.”

I don’t believe him.

I walk toward the lake, as slowly as a June bride saunters toward her groom, heightening anticipation, only I’m not anticipating—I’m scared as hell.  I hesitate at the place where the light from our porch goes dark.  It’s a clean line in the grass.  Here is light, I am safe here.  One more step, and the night will take me. I force one foot across that protective line, one foot in the safety zone, one foot touching down into nightmares. It’s just a dream. Nothing can hurt you in a dream.  It’s just a dream. I squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them, I’m still between good and bad, light and dark. I snatch my foot back out of the darkness, better not to straddle this place and that one. I force myself across.

I walk very quickly, as quickly as my small legs will take me.  I’m almost running when I hear something behind me.  I knew it!   I stop and listen but I’m too afraid to turn around.  Maybe it’s an animal.  I will my feet to move forward.  I creep along at first and then quicken my pace once more.  I hear it again. There is something following me.  I glimpse a shape not animal-like moving behind the trees. I knew it!  I run! It runs, too! I hear the thing moving faster to track me better. I yell into the night.

“You were wrong, Dad! There is something out here!”

There is something. I hear it through the woods and all the way around the lake. It’s only when I near my grandmother’s house the rustling stops. My grandmother is a Godly woman. Whatever is back there is from hell and wouldn’t dare go near my grandmother’s house. It’s a holy place.   Jesus is everywhere in that house. Her bible will be at her bedside table, the pages loosened from their binding because it’s been opened and closed so much, mostly opened, it’s hardly ever closed. There is a picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane in the living room above the couch. There are enough crosses to fend off a large coven of vampires if necessary.  Or witches. And there are handwritten scriptures tacked to the walls, refrigerator, mirrors – anywhere you need them. Psalm 23 is on the bathroom mirror so you can read it while you’re washing your hands. I don’t even have to look anymore…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.

I’m sobbing when I make it to grandmother’s. I throw myself into her arms.  I tell her there’s something out there, something straight from hell.  She comforts me and assures me it’s just my imagination.  I know she believes in the devil. Satan, Satan.  She talks about him nearly as much as she talks about Jesus. She’s a believer. She can believe in whatever followed me, too.  It’s then I learn about the limits to my grandmother’s supernatural belief system.  She hands me a flashlight.  My loving grandmother, as wicked as any hell-creature my mind could conjure up.

“You can’t send me back out there!”

Sadly, she says there’s no other way. She reminds me of my imagination once more, and then firmly sends me to my death. My own grandmother, with Jesus right there watching.  I’m flooded with righteous indignation. I tell her she is a child abuser, and child abusers go to hell.  She tells me she will be praying for me the whole way and that God will protect me. I don’t believe her.

“I don’t want you coming to my funeral because it’s gonna be your fault I died!”

I decide to put her on my list of family members to disown should I make it through this alive.  Disown:  Sissy because she did this to me, Daddy since he lied about there not being anything out here that could hurt me, and my grandmother—the child abuser.  I make sure she sees me stomping toward the lake.

When the glow of her porch light no longer holds me, I soften my steps. But now, Sweet Jesus!  I click on the flashlight and exhale a long and grateful sigh.  I walk fast again. I hear the same sounds from before behind me, but this time, I’m protected by the light.  I whip around and aim the beam into the woods.

“I know you’re out there!  Leave me alone!”

This is how it goes. I move faster, the thing behind me moves faster, I shout my bluff—You better leave me alone!  It works. The thing in the woods finally leaves me. Moments before I make it home, I hear it scurry off through the trees.

Miracle of miracles, I am home.  I walk in and hand the flashlight over to my father as proof I made it to grandmother’s. I say not one word to him. I’m tired anyway, and I know the less I say, the worse he’ll feel.  I go to my room and crawl into bed. My sister comes in not long after.  Happy to be alive, I decide I don’t hate her anymore. I probably won’t disown my father or grandmother either, although I won’t soon forget their betrayal. Sissy goes to the closet, opens the door, and switches on the light.

“Nothing in the closet.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I tell her. “Even if there is something in the closet or under our beds, I think it’s more afraid of us than we are of it.  So you don’t have to check anymore.”

“Okay.”

“You can tuck me in though.”

Sissy pulls the covers snugly around my body all the way up to my neck, and I push my arms back through the cocoon.  She smiles down at me, and then suddenly falls to the floor as if something has grabbed her from underneath my bed.  She makes loud strangling sounds and cries for help.

We die laughing.

§

Dad was killed chopping wood two days after Christmas ‘93.  A massive coronary at the age of fifty-six.  He was buried in the family cemetery there alongside the farm.  It was the coldest day of our lives.

It was raining.  Freezing, sleeting, and raining. I sat beside Sissy in front of daddy’s casket. Our friends and family gathered around us, more people than I’d ever seen at any graveside service.  On the way to the cemetery, I looked behind us at the procession. Vehicle after vehicle, I could not see the end.  Cars lined up on both sides of the road, and just kept coming. They hugged the cold off us the best they could. I see all those faces still.

Family and close friends went back to the farmhouse with us.  The Christmas tree was still up, graced with all the decorations mom had collected over the years.  Dad was a quiet man.  It was easy to imagine he was there in a corner of the farmhouse with his stein of coffee and a warm smile to let us know he was content.

We soothed ourselves in the remembering of tender moments. There was the time Sissy and I had a snowball fight and it seemed that snowballs began to fall on us from the sky. It took a while to wise up, but once we did, we snuck around the farmhouse to discover dad had been tossing snowballs over the roof onto us.  The three of us burst into a snow-brawl. There were other times even working the farm and another job away from home that Dad made time to play a little softball with us. Sometimes we fished the lake for bass. I like to think he enjoyed the life he had, although I know Daddy worked himself to death.

“Hey,” Sissy said, “do you remember the time when you were little, and Dad followed you through the woods to grandmother’s house to cure your fear of the dark?”

“Wait…what?”

“You know. That time I was mad at you for some stupid thing, and told Dad how afraid you were of the dark? Then he made you walk all the way around the lake to grandmother’s house, and back, while he crept through the woods behind you.”

That was him??  I knew something was behind me, I just didn’t think…of Dad.”

“I’m sure you imagined all sorts of monsters. Your crazy head.”  Sissy rolled her eyes.  “But no, it was Dad.”

“I’m glad I didn’t know that. The lesson wouldn’t have taught me anything if I had known he was behind me the whole time. I wouldn’t have been forced to face my fears.”

“Well, you faced them alright. I never had to check inside the closet or under our beds for boogeymen anymore after that.”

“I know. That part I remember.”

I took a moment to myself later that night.  I went out onto the front porch, turned off the light, and watched a half-moon glow shimmer across the lake. My eyes traced the route Daddy and I walked as we headed out for grandmother’s house that fateful night.

I could see him out there in the dark. Ducking behind trees, trying not to be seen, grinning at my false bravado.

My father’s lesson. It was a good lesson. I’m fearless in the dark now.

 

Smart Cheryl Photo SmallCheryl Smart is a second-year MFA candidate at the University of Memphis studying creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. She is nonfiction editor of the literary journal The Pinch. She has publications appearing or forthcoming in The Little Patuxent Review, Appalachian Heritage, Cleaver Magazine, Word Riot, Apeiron Review, Crack the Spine, and others. Cheryl is currently working on a collection of short stories and vignettes about her restless rural upbringing entitled, Homespun.

 

Nonfiction

“Aphorisms from Kosti’s Ramon” by Richard Kostelanetz

Having produced appropriate book-art homages to Guillaume Apollinaire (known to his friends as Kostro) and to Nathanael West (commonly called Pep), among others, I’d like to do likewise by another modern writer increasingly sympathetic to me—the Spaniard Ramon Gomez de la Serna (1887–1963), known even to strangers only as Ramon. More than a decade ago, with the assistance of an undergraduate intern named Martin Zotta, I produced Simultaneous Translations (Cornerstone Press, Arnold, MO, 2008), in which Ramon’s famously short, single-sentence texts appear directly above English translations typeset to be identical in horizontal length.

I first learned about Ramon in 1982 over lunch in Boston with Rudolfo Cardona, a BU professor who, after doing his doctorate on Ramon, produced the first book on him in English in 1957. Perhaps a decade later I came across an appreciative essay on Ramon by Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth, a popular professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who had also produced a book of miscellaneous translations into English. What was most striking to me about this essay was my discovery that it inadvertently described my own severely minimal fiction better than anything else known to me.

Not until I read a later book in English about Ramon, Rita Mazzetti Gardiol’s (1974), did I discover this sentence also applicable to me: “Because Ramon did not have the patience for a gradual building up of plot he preferred to write short plays, and even pantomimes, concentrating on the dramatic moment of truth, revelation, or decision that intrigued him.” Bingo. I own a hardback copy of Ramon’s Automoribundia (1948), which I treasure even if I cannot read it unassisted, if only for its title which I translate as “Autodeathography.” I gather that much like my own four-volume Autobiographies (1980, 2004, 2006, 2011), composed independently of my known about his, Automoribundia is not a continuous pseudo-chronological narrative.

Reflecting Ramon’s influence, this book has English imitations of his Greguerías that I gleaned from various sources (including Google’s Gremlins), often rewritten by me without referring to the original Spanish (which I can barely read), here intermixed with texts wholly mine that I think compliment his. Just as Ramon’s greguerías are charmingly fanciful, highly original succinct observations, so might be a few of mine. What is most remarkable about him (and perhaps me) is that, like other great aphorists, he’s never obvious, even about common subjects, which is to say that Ramon gave himself permission to see differently and, once empowered, he didn’t stop. Even while observing formal literary constraints, his mind seems unconstrained.

Sometimes I do what he did; other times, he writes me, especially after I’ve rewritten him to write like me, realizing the title of this book. Considering a multitude of worldly experiences, both Ramon and myself try to be light on our feet and swift with our fingers. When the pantheon of minimalist writers is constructed, may I please have a bust of me next to the one of him now in Madrid (recently visible in the Wikipedia entries on him in both English and Spanish).

§

A bicyclist can deck a pedestrian before the latter knows what hit him.

All professional athletes represent the survivors of many aspirations; likewise, all professional writers.

A spiral staircase is a cockeyed elevator.

Tough must be the woman who dresses to kill.

Solid roofs protect hearth’s secrets.

As individual tax rates approach 100%, we’ll all be equally poor, which is, of course, the aim of communism.

Certain institutions are able to manufacture money that no one sees.

When do fish sleep?

Cars are motorized oversized dachshunds.

Tents no less than more solid buildings stay erect until they fall.

Nothing is more natural to a rooster than fighting another rooster.

Water cleans everything dirty except dirty water.

Just as spring has followed winter and summer would follow spring, so autumn will follow summer, illustrating the dictum that Nature is 100% Reliable.

Death denudes life.

Man both begins and ends as a beggar asking relatives to put money in his piggy bank.

Elevators are floors ascending.

Clowns are God’s most generous comics.

Taxis move faster than buses until they get stuck in traffic.

So successfully different was the crook’s new identity that not even his dog recognized him.

Some religious devoutly praying remind me of rabbits eating grass.

Umlauts staple favored letters to a page.

Cheek-kissing epitomizes dead-end affection, usually promising nothing more than more cheek-kissing.

Accents aigu (acute) are left-handed salutes; those grave, right-handed.

Gallery exhibitions should display what ought to be seen but would otherwise be hidden.

Fresh air is free, if rare.

Be careful not to have thoughts that are devastatingly comic, as the brain is only lightly pasted together.

Farts represent shit trying to get out.

All vacuums get filled.

Dust on a bookshelf measures years ignored.

Rain cleans until it floods.

Some powders take longer to take than other powders.

Parks can be improved by humans to a degree that oceans cannot.

Bridges between thoughts these sentences aren’t explicitly, though perhaps implicitly.

Sleep inspires more than eating or exercise do.

In dreams I can retrieve a younger self.

The strongest books fly, often invisibly, from one reader to another.

Airplanes are lock-jointed birds.

The only person known to me to sleep in a bed with cats is Mrs. Katz.

Masturbation is a pleasurable deception.

All human wisdom compressed onto the head a pin would necessarily be devoid of bullshit.

Few manicurists do doornails.

When money disappears, we’ll all be equally rich.

Beside every surviving genius is a sub-genius advising him how to pay his bills.

A gun hot is scarcely distinguishable from a car tire committing suicide.

Large-handled steins go better than beer than water.

Whatever “shit” appears in print cannot be taken back.

Dildos promise fantasy fucks.

Refuse anyone else’s refuse.

Insurance isn’t necessary until you need it.

Shine whatever shoes your boss isn’t wearing.

A long sharp knife could bring the complex human machine to a permanent halt.

Myths rule where laws fail.

Self-confidence is indisputable.

Very beautiful women are better ogled than known, which is to say better flattered than fucked.

An amulet worn too often can prompt extravagant speculations.

Heat decimates ice without any opposition.

Avoid rooms that sardines would find spacious.

Cartography speaks in a parallel language, universally understood, of latitudes and longitudes.

In hysterical disputes silence can be more effective than words or fists.

Inspired would be a book necessarily read upside down.

Contented must have been the man who died without possessions.

In champagne bottles must be vials of explosives.

Nearly all young women posing totally naked look as fit and high-bosomed as other young women voluntarily wholly nude.

“Bullshit” doesn’t necessarily come from male cows.

Covens convene conveniently.

Professional résumés weave seductive fictions.

The best reason for faking your death is discovering what happens after everyone thinks you’ve gone.

Man who flies upside down has crack up.

Thunder represents trucks crashing in heaven.

Chickens gathered together establish a pecking order without human intervention.

Slow intercourse makes love last longer and slower intercourse much longer.

The stories he told went on and on and on and on….

Anyone seduced by a potential lover’s eyes is likely to be disappointed.

Acrobats amaze.

Cauliflowers are miniature snow-capped mountains.

These sentences have more play than most “plays.”

Beauty’s a bitch.

Books kept on a shelf, not discarded, grow wiser with age.

Objects gossip about us when our backs are turned.

Any sentence of mine any reader is welcome to make his own.

Don’t dispute shadows’ shadows.

Whoever was authorized to collect my money didn’t.

On the first page of a new book he found a word he did not know before.

Disregard police who don’t knock at your door.

Artichoke hearts ache.

A stitch in time saves nine, ten, and sometimes eleven.

Why do all male politicians seem to patronize the same haberdasher?

Crimes occurring only inside one’s head can’t be prosecuted.

She stole his best ideas to call them her own–even the idea of appropriating his best ideas to be her own.

Let here be fresh ketchup.

Staying asleep is more problematic than falling asleep.

In dreams are found forgotten truths.

Bribes are loaded pistols prone to backfire.

An inventive chef prepares edible paper.

Slam door silently.

They called her home Heathens’ Hearth.

Surrounded by one-way mirrors he could not see who was seeing him while looking only at himself.

In literature the sky’s no limit.

Disregard critics who don’t knock down your door.

Bare bears bear.

A quart in time saves nine.

Karen J. Orlin
Karen J. Orlin

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Directory of American Scholars, and NNDB.com, among others. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

Nonfiction

“Maintenance Record” by Vivian Wagner

Dad showed me how to change oil on the ’79 Ford Grenada before I took it to college. I got underneath the white car, scraping my back on the metal planks in front of his shed. I positioned the greasy pan under the oil plug and unscrewed it. The viscous liquid spilled over my hand into the pan.

“Is it done?” he asked from above. I could see his brown leather work boots and the hems of his gray herringbone coveralls.

“I think so,” I said, watching the last of the oil drip down.

“OK, put the plug in tightly and come back out.”

I scooted into the bright, piñon-scented light, my hand oily. He gave me a rag to wipe with. We took the filter off, screwed the new one on, and poured in five quarts of clear, clean oil.

§

Cars, trucks, motorcycles, tractors, generators, engines and motors of all kinds: these were my father’s life. He understood their inner workings, their moods, their problems, their solutions. He spent weekend afternoons peering under hoods and up into chassis, observing, guessing, diagnosing. When he didn’t understand what rattled or leaked or otherwise broke down, he’d pull out manuals and study them with the studiousness he must have once applied to mathematics textbooks in graduate school.

He always figured things out. He always fixed them.

§

My boyfriend Arun and I stopped at a gas station in Iowa, worried that the shiny red 2003 Toyota Tacoma we were driving across the country from California to Ohio, the truck I’d inherited from dad a few months before, was using too much fuel, perhaps had a fuel leak. Not knowing how to open the hood, we consulted the manual, and as soon as we did I saw my dad’s notes about maintenance he’d done on the truck, his handwriting cramped and almost indecipherable. They told a detailed, rational story of oil changes, new tires, battery charges, brake pad checks.

We popped the hood and looked around for some sign of a leak, but finding none, we got back on the road.

While Arun drove, I studied the manual, reading my dad’s notes, still looking for a sign.

§

When I was six I had a nightmare about a flatbed truck dad had bought from a government surplus auction. In the dream, he drove toward me as I stood immobile on our dirt road. It had, though, an empty driver’s seat. The driverless truck barreled toward me, the engine roaring, dust flying up on the road behind it.

My dad’s drinking binges, dizzying mood swings, and unpredictable temper terrified me. But I could never reconcile that father with the sane one, the one who donned a tie on Monday mornings, liked to talk about politics, taught me to change a car’s oil, fixed things that were broken.

§

I try not to think about the moment my dad shot himself, the moment that can’t now be fixed. I try not to see the deep red spreading over the carpet and underneath into the cool blue cement below.

§

My sister and I spent days cleaning out dad’s house, sorting through paperwork, office supplies, towels. Throwing things out. Taking trips to Goodwill.

In one closet, we found a stash of medications, bottle after bottle of the anti-anxiety medication BuSpar, which he had apparently stopped taking years before.

He’d told me once how much it had helped him. How when he felt the rushing, uncontrollable, frightening anxiety coming on, he just needed to take one, and everything would ease up. He would calm down. He could focus on living.

We threw out dozens of these bottles, all of them full.

§

A few months after getting the truck to Ohio, I showed my newly licensed son, William, how to check its oil and tire pressure. How to add windshield washer fluid. How to read the manual.

“What’s all that writing?” he asked.

“Those are grandpa’s notes,” I said, pausing, uncertain what more to say. “You’ll want to read those, too.”

 

Wagner_Vivian_Photo2Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, The Pinch, and other journals. She is also the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Music.