Category: Winter 2018 Issue (Page 1 of 3)

TCR Talks with Natashia Deón

By: Charli Engelhorn

Natashia Deón’s debut novel, Grace, was published in May 2016. A graduate of the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, Deón has received numerous awards and recognition since publication, such as a nomination for the NAACP Image Award and winning the 2017 American Library Association’s Black Caucus Award for Best Debut Fiction. Grace was also named a New York Times Top Book 2016; a Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016; and a Book RiotThe Root, and Entropy magazine Favorite Book of 2016.

Deón spoke with contributing writer Charli Engelhorn about Grace, life after publication, where stories come from, marginalization in America, literary culture, and the little things that make you laugh.

The Coachella Review: You were a busy woman before the publication of Grace—a criminal lawyer, a professor of both law and writing, a mother, a graduate student, a nonprofit founder. How has the completion of your first novel and ensuing publication and support added to your personal journey?

Natashia Deón: I’ve been thinking a lot about it and feeling so blessed and fortunate and grateful, and it’s all overwhelming. I think the biggest change is that I could do things before under the radar, and now not so much. I enjoy getting to know people personally; I love being around people, and it sort of changes the dynamics. I didn’t realize that was happening until a couple of months ago. People used to just ignore me, and there was always someone else to look at, but now it feels like they’re looking at me, and that’s strange. I’m still a teacher, I still take classes, I’m still a student, still a mom, still a lawyer who’s practicing. I’m still writing. But now people invite me to come and do things, so that’s the extra. But life for me looks pretty much the same as it did before the book except for that piece, which is confusing sometimes and disorienting.

TCR: Since publishing, you’ve had the opportunity to deepen your relationship with the literary world, serving as a judge for this year’s LA Times Book Awards and a delegate representing the United States. What does it mean for you to be recognized in this way, and how have these experiences added to your life?

ND: I feel so honored to be recognized that way—just to be part of this system and another part of the Los Angeles literary community. I’m not one to be a judgy person, but I feel like I have a great opportunity to contribute in some way, I hope, to this prestigious award. When I was an NEA judge last year looking at literary organizations, it was the first time I could see that being a judge meant I could make a difference to our community, because I got to choose organizations that meant something based on my experiences, such as supporting a program for caregivers who are writers. There’s a lot of big books out, and we get lists from all over, so when I’m looking at writing, I’m making the decision to look even further . . . is there something else? I’m also considering those books that have been chosen by other awards because if they’re good, they’re good, but maybe there is something that has been overlooked. I remember when Grace was out, you saw the same books on each list, so when I found out I’d be reading two hundred seventy-five books, approximately, I thought, wow, there’s a lot of opportunity to see something more.

The delegacy was in partnership with the University of Iowa. They have this program called the Lines and Spaces program, where they bring in writers from America to go to different countries. The U.S. embassy was having a twenty-fifth anniversary of their presence in Armenia, and they wanted a reconciliation project between Turkish students and Armenian students to deal with the ramifications of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish. We spent two weeks with the students working on what it is to move forward. It was really powerful for me to see something like that in a different culture and how small I am in all of it. To go somewhere else and have sort of a different perspective of their struggles changes the way I see things, and it gave me humility to go to a community I’ve never been in and say, “Hey, I’m here to help you with reconciliation,” because who am I? By the end, we were all best friends—it was like the end of a really good summer camp. I’m still friends with them all and still know what’s going on in their lives.

I didn’t know what was going on in Turkey, but more than that, it’s about not feeling connected. I was told we couldn’t talk about the Armenian genocide, and I thought, why am I here? As a black person in America, seeing how people want to move on from history and not talk about it, I know how that affects me. You know, with Grace, people ask, “Why do we need to keep talking about slavery?” Well, because we’re still in it. It just looks different. And slavery never failed. That’s the most incredible thing. It never failed, people just turned against it. It’s exactly what’s happening right now. We are repeating history as far as I’m concerned. History is still here. So, I said, I’m not going to do to them what people do to me in America. You’re going to have to send me home. They made an exception that I would be able to talk about it, and we were able to talk honestly and relate to each other. And the Turkish students—their ancestors are the oppressors—and they were so humble and gracious. They said, “We’re sorry,” without adding, “But it wasn’t me.” There was no extra, just we’re sorry. It was beautiful to watch. That’s what I value. There are people I would never know if not for writing. People I can’t imagine my life without.

TCR: In Grace, Naomi’s life and environment are developed so clearly through her sensations and observations that we are drawn in . . . her struggles become ours, her hopes our hopes. Where did Naomi come from, and how did you approach getting into the mind of this character and expressing her experiences of slavery and society during this historical period?

ND: Writing comes from all sorts of places, but I had a daydream, or I don’t know what it was. I was walking with my son down the hallway, and it was daytime. My son was an infant at the time, and I thought he was sick and was going to die, so that was my reality. The doctors kept telling me nothing was wrong, and it wasn’t until he was three months that he was diagnosed with this rare metabolic condition, where his brain can’t get rid of a certain chemical. There are only three hundred people in the world that have it, and it’s incurable and causes developmental delays and seizures. I used to carry him around the house all the time because I was afraid he was going to die alone. Which is part of the book . . . just being afraid for his life, and then all of a sudden, it was night in my hallway. I was standing in the woods in Alabama where I used to go all the time as a kid, and I remember the full moon being there, and there was a girl and she was running and I could hear her thoughts and her voice. She had on a yellow dress that had blood on it, and she was pregnant. She ran past me, and I remember when she ran past me, I could hear her. I was thinking, I’m still asleep, I never got up this morning, so I wasn’t afraid while I was in it because I thought I’m just dreaming. Then she got killed, and it was daytime again, and I was standing in my hallway totally freaked out. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before or since. I gave my son to my husband and said I needed to write down what I just saw ’cause something weird just happened, and I sat down and started writing it out, and it became the opening of the novel, largely unchanged from exactly how I saw it. I could hear her voice saying these things, but she had a much thicker accent, a Southern accent, so I had to lighten up the dialect and stuff like that, but who she is in the book is how I first met her and how I first sensed her as a person and a character. The rest of the book is the craft of writing, but I felt like I knew who she was because of that dream or daydream. I don’t have words for it, but that’s why she’s so real to me.

I did a lot of research about that time, but also my family is in that small town in Alabama where the book is set, and at the end of the civil war, they started the first church and never left. All my family is still in Tallassee, Alabama, except for us. When my grandmother came to live with us at the end of her life, she would remember things because her mother was six years old when she was freed as a slave. I also found a lot of information I didn’t know. Like, when the book was being shopped, I remember an editor said, “I think everything should revolve around the day slaves were freed,” and I said, that’s just not how it happened. When I would see the scene in my mind’s eye, wherever imagination comes from, I would literally see these slaves frozen on a battlefield—they wouldn’t move. So, I talked to my characters, that’s part of my process, and I said, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you happy and dancing, you just learned that you were freed,” but they weren’t moving, and I didn’t know what that would mean. It was only after I researched it and found out that the Emancipation Proclamation, the second one, came in the middle of the civil war, two years in. The slaves wouldn’t have been able to walk across battlefields. There was still another two years left in the war. And they would have had nowhere to go. So, it changed part of my book about them not leaving and not being able to, and you don’t learn that in the history books. We think we know so much about that time, and there are so many books, but I didn’t want to write something I had read before. I wanted to be surprised, and I wanted to tell the readers what I was surprised by. I wanted to retell the story so it could be more historically accurate.

TCR: The novel touches on the lives and experiences of other women during this era, namely Annie, a white plantation owner, and Cynthia, a Jewish Madame. Why was it important for you to weave the stories of these other women into the novel?

ND: Well, Cynthia is based on a real person I knew, who was a former prostitute and lived around the corner from me growing up. She terrified me, like I could never talk to her, but she was my mom’s friend, and when my father left, she was the one who came around with groceries and stuff like that. But she terrified me because we were super conservative, Christian old school, my mom was church lady, and here she comes cursing with her feet on the table. But she was always there for my mom, and on the day she died, I knew I wanted to honor her and all her history and complex feelings, honor her as a woman, because I started to admire her before she passed away because she was so strong. That’s where that line, “All women have different kinds of strong,” comes from. When I was researching the book, I did research on Jewish history in the south and discovered the largest population of Jewish people outside of Europe at that time was in Charleston, South Carolina, so I had this opportunity to legitimately put this character in there. With Annie, I wanted to put her in there because she represents to me white woman who are generally overlooked… just the patriarchy and how it affects all women and how mothering affects us. I wanted to show that everybody is affected by a system that promotes violence and dishonors or disrespects women and holds them as property.

TCR: Let’s talk a little about the title. No one is named Grace in the book, but many of the various meanings for the word seem to live under the surface of Naomi’s journey. What does the title signify for you?

ND: My novel had two other names before we rested on Grace. I didn’t know what the book was about, and the line about how Naomi would have named her good thing Grace if she had the chance, that was the last thing I wrote in the whole novel. My editor said, “Grace, that’s perfect.” I didn’t know that’s what I was writing about until it was over. Some people will say, “Oh, you have a theme to your novel; it has a point.” But I didn’t know that it was about grace, the theme of it or what I thought about it… it just became. Now, when I teach my students at UCLA, I teach them that your story already exists in the future, and there is a story it wants you to tell for it. We think we’re choosing the story, but it’s chosen us. I felt very much chosen that day in the hallway, this story chose me, and it wanted to be told a certain way and had its own message, so I didn’t know until that very last moment, after I had written it for seven years, that it had anything to do with grace. That’s the best part, when the story surprises you.

TCR: Your second novel, The Perishing, was recently acquired by Counterpoint for publication. This story is about a young black woman who finds herself in 1930s Los Angeles, another time of historical strife and significance for the black community. Since you haven’t had any more dreams or visions, what led you to write about life in that period of time, especially from the vantage of a young black woman?

ND: I didn’t have another vision, but I did have dreams while I was asleep, and I had a dream about a Chinese man—it was around late 1800s, and I was in Los Angeles, I don’t know how I knew, but there were adobe buildings and stuff like that. So, this Chinese man, who was a doctor, was murdered by this mob, and it was pretty brutal. I was a love interest of this man, not his wife or a prostitute, but I was with him at this inn, and I woke up and he wasn’t there, so I went looking for him and came upon this scene. I was told to run. I was so disturbed about this dream that I woke up and started researching it. I knew what streets they were on because I saw the streets in my dream, and then I found that there was the Chinese massacre in LA in the 1860s—it actually happened, and one of the people who was killed was a doctor, and that freaked me out, so I wanted to tell that story. Then, I had another vision that was similar, kind of further in the future, and I needed something—a time in history that was midway where I could tell both stories, so the character is going through time.

I also wanted the story to take place between the two world wars because I didn’t think there was a lot of information about sort of being in between. There are Great Depression stories, but my story is on the way out of the Great Depression, so I wanted to see what life was like for black people at that time. When we think about Hollywood, we’re not talking about the people who just live there every day, and I was curious about the history and moving into the Great Deal, which sets up what ends up happening to minority groups in Los Angeles and how they got sort of pushed aside and ghettoized when it was not like that before. In 1932, it was like a Beverly Hills for black people, but then something happened, so I wanted to know what it was, and through research, I figured out what had happened. Similarly to retelling the story of American slavery, I wanted to retell the story of Los Angeles and how South Central became that bad—it started in the 30s with the violence—and even what they are experiencing right now, this sort of resurgence.

TCR: Is there a correlation you’re examining between how black Americans and other marginalized populations are treated today with the worlds you inhabit in your books?

ND: I think the problems we are dealing with now are not new. We’re repeating the same problems over and over again differently because we haven’t solved them. So, I want to show how the past is the same as what we’re dealing with right now and how with all of our knowledge and maturity, we’re still doing the same things. We haven’t actually changed, we’re just answering the same questions wrongly still. Even with the good changes, I think we are going to run into the same issues all over again, just new people, new victims. A lot of the arguments I make in the book are the arguments people are still making today and not seeing, and we have a short memory span in America. I want to remind people, and hopefully we’ll find the answers through wisdom.

TCR: Let’s switch gears a bit. Your nonprofit reading series Dirty Laundry Lit focused on celebrating reading and writing in our culture. How did reading and writing shape your life, and why is it important for you to reach out and share those experiences with others?

I found that the writing community was so cliquish in LA. Every reading I went to was the same people . . . all white guys, maybe a token here or there. The events I went to that were for black writers, it was all black people, and the same for an Asian author; there was nobody else, and it’s not what Los Angeles looks like to me. So, when I created Dirty Laundry, I wanted everybody, all gender identities, ability levels, different income levels, different races, I wanted everybody who came into a Dirty Laundry event to see themselves on stage. To me, that’s what represents Los Angeles and what writing is about. When we tell our stories, we’re inviting people into our experience to help them see it better. I wanted to have a place for that. Especially for people who don’t consider themselves readers, I wanted them to fall in love with literature, with words, like I have.

TCR: Do you feel you’ve been able to see those goals realized?

ND: I’ve seen it in the communities, in the different communities. It was a different LA back then, I think—it started in 2010 and went through 2017—but I saw it realized because we were doing it, and I saw communities working together in ways I hadn’t seen before. We still have to be in our own pockets to gain strength to be able to go out there and not have to explain who we are and define words, you know, that’s important, too, but I saw change. The future is uncertain because to do an event is expensive and time-consuming. I would love to see it again, but some things just have their own time and serve their purpose, and I didn’t want to see us die on the line. Now, it’s time for new faces and new voices to come onto the scene. I never wanted to be one of those writers that occupies space, so I started The Table as a mentorship program to find new voices and empower them to get what I have so they can make their version of whatever this means to them, but hopefully it will still be inclusive.

TCR: What is the best advice you ever received about writing?

ND: Write as if no one you know will ever read it, especially if you’re writing sex scenes or things that reveal who you are.  

TCR: What book do you think everyone should read, and what is your guilty pleasure read?

ND: I guess the book I wish everyone would read would be the one they see themselves in or their experience or their struggle, the thing that makes them feel like they are different from everyone else. I hope they find that book. I was talking to Janet Mock, who is a transgender advocate, a beautiful woman, and I got to write her tribute for Pen America. I was so excited about this piece. I learned she had read Their Eyes Were Watching God and how it inspired her to see that a black woman could want things. She was in Hawaii at that time, and she hadn’t transitioned, she was just a kid, and she said she saw herself in it, and it empowered her to make the decisions she would later make in life. For me, it was Precious, which is strange, because it’s about a girl on welfare living in the projects in New York, but for whatever reason, I saw myself in that girl. It was the first time I thought I could do this. If Precious can make it, Natashia can make it. So, that’s the book I want everyone to read, the one where they can see themselves and be inspired by it.

My guilty pleasure read? I like silly things. There’s this book about compliments that just makes me laugh. It’s about when you run out of compliments, what do you say, like, “You look really good under these fluorescent lights, baby.” It’s dumb, but it makes me happy. Just to look and laugh. The world is so dark, and it’s nice to have something that says, I’m still alive and I’m human.


Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning reporter, a freelance writer and editor, and the current managing editor of The Coachella Review. She is a second-year student at UCR-Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. When she is not reading and writing, she can be found frolicking in the woods with the best travel dog in the world, Jacopo. She lives in Los Angeles.

Big Canyon

By: Leath Tonino

The canyon is big.  For the sake of this story, let’s call it Big Canyon.  Let’s call it Arizona.  Let’s call it August, a heat-blasted weekend, no plans.

My boss—crusty government biologist with a passion for prehistory and a back-of-the-hand backcountry knowledge—gets to reminiscing over black morning joe.  I jot zero notes, pretending I can commit his verbal map to memory.

Eleven of us.  Five cabins and three picnic tables.  A remote field station in the woods above the desert. 

Saturdays like this—for adventure. 

**

Hey, you lazy, sleepy sonofa… 

Mike is groggy but game.  Always game.  A proper buddy. 

And we’re off.  

Twenty miles by jeep, the warren of sandy tracks increasingly confusing, the pinyons and junipers sparse, then sparser, then gone.  We park the rig.  Take a piss at the rim.  Take it all in. 

How much water did you bring?

Some. 

Let’s do it? 

Indeed, my broski. 

With a gallon of sunscreen on our necks and arms, floppy canvas hats on our heads, we pick our way—step after careful step—into the cracked earth. 

Trails?  Yeah, right.  That’s why we’ve got bossman’s beta.  Follow X to Y to a spot where you’ll be able to glimpse Z.  Contour eastward.  Drop through pink sandstone ledges, maybe two hundred feet, maybe three hundred.  Once you’ve hit the bottom, turn left.  Hike the wash.  Scan the north wall.  Pay attention.  At the house-sized boulder, well, enjoy the shade but realize you’ve gone too far.

**

We’re lost, stumbling.

What did bossman say, something about one with red earrings, one with a long penis, one panel where gods parade among turkeys and sheep?  And spirals, didn’t he say something about spirals?  

We’re doing the heat—and done by the heat.

Shrike with hooked beak, perched nearby.  Phoebe with peachy belly, grayish nape.  Three ravens, six if you count the flying shadows.  In the bino’s dark tunnel, I almost feel cool, refreshed.

Really, though, what did he say? 

It’s not scary—being here, being in and with this wilderness—but it’s not easy, either.  Intense.  Intensity.  Afternoon gold hammering the mind flat, each blow telling us to turn around, return on a cloudy day, try again in winter.  Telling us Big Canyon is big and we are small, so very small. 

Yo, let’s keep going, huh? 

Yeah, I wanna find that panel.

**

It happens slowly, quickly, outside of time, inside the depths of time.  Inside geology.  Inside our parched, blistered, light-shot brains.  Inside the outside, the great outdoors. 

We’re stumbling until we’re stopping, standing, staring.  We’re alone until we’re not alone. 

A flipped switch.  Awareness. 

Peoples—human peoples, animal peoples, squiggly abstract peoples—everywhere. 

Unblinking.  Eyeless. 

We gaze and gaze.

** 

Hours have passed.  Mike has turned in for the night.  The stars are sparking overhead.  We’re drinking whiskey, feet up by the bonfire, me and my mentor, my crusty boss.

 So it went okay? 

Oh, totally amazing.  Your directions sucked—chuckle, chuckle—but eventually we found hundreds.  They were scattered, tucked into every nook and cranny.  Just needed a tweak of the brain to see ‘em. 

A special spot, eh? 

What I’m thinking is ravens, their shadows, the heat, the sandy roads, the soaring stone, the ancient stone, hands spreading pigment, hands reaching up, today and tomorrow, millennia past, the wandering, the stumbling, the thirst—how there’s no separating anything, no difference between the place and the experience of the place and that long penis we call art, that turkey we call image, that squiggle we call a pictograph or a god or a mystery or whatever. 

Tip the bottle.  Another snort. 

How to answer?

Yeah, a special spot, an awesome Saturday.

I thought you’d like Big Canyon.


Leath Tonino is the author of a collections of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (Trinity University Press, 2018).  A freelance writer, his work appears in Orion, The Sun, Outside, Men’s Journal, High Country News, Tricycle, and elsewhere.

Nicky Heads Home

by: Eli Ryder

November 2005

All Sara could remember about rock bottom was hopelessness, begging, and the rough smell of burnt hazelnut mixed with an unidentifiable herbaceous funk. She sprawled on the floor and locked eyes on the dirty hypodermic needle that lay six inches from her nose. If the floor sways just right, she thought, it’ll leap right into my eye. Then she slept.

 

December 2005

Sara laid behind the dumpster in the snow, crumpled and hollow, for so long that the cold left her stiff and slow. Not numb, though. She had hoped that the burn would turn to sore and the cold would drain whatever was left, but numb didn’t come.

Standing wasn’t good. Walking wasn’t better, but making sure she stayed upright distracted her from the pain. She could still feel him over either shoulder, a shadow just out of reach. He was a blur at the edge of her vision, and then he was gone. His voice echoed in her, deep and harsh, and she could smell rock bottom on her clothes. His smell.

She was still drunk. She stumbled, regained, and spilled out into the yellow light on the sidewalk. She felt the sideways burn of onlookers.

It was just a half-mile shuffle up the boulevard past sidewalk diners to the rough end where the storefronts were barricaded with rolling steel gates.

She stuck her key into a battered door between two of the gates, opened it. Inside, she flipped a switch and a sterile fluorescent buzzed on. The carpeted stairs swayed in front of her, and she braced herself on the brass mailboxes that lined the wall.

She lifted a foot onto the first step, and pain flared white. Each push to the next step torched higher, and halfway up the stairs she realized she was screaming.

Right about now, numb, she thought. Any time, numb. I’m waiting.

In the hall at the top of the stairs, she dodged sleeping addicts curled in front of locked doors, banging her shoulders against the walls. She started to feel shadows creep in at the corners of her eyes and pinched her forearm. The shadows shot back behind her, and she found her door.

Inside, she left a trail of purse and keys and torn skirt and shredded nylons, bra and top and heels, leading to the bathroom, where she slid into the cold tub and curled her hands under her cheek.

 

March 2007

Nicky had already spun the lid off the bleach when Sara slid into the kitchen. She snatched the bottle away, splashing a little on his face. Instinctively, he slapped the wet spot with a clumsy hand and spattered it around—his clothes, his eye, his lips—and then sucked in a belly full of air, shooting the bleach into the back of his throat.

Sara had time to wonder if skin stained and corroded the way his clothes would, and then Nicky was choking, gagging, screaming. She ripped him up off the floor and shoved his face under the faucet. Hold his eye open, don’t drop him, he’s squirming—

Nicky whipped his head away from the faucet, cracking against the divide between the basins. Sara gasped and went cold—what the fuck did I just do—and then he screamed again, eyes shut tight. She propped his eye open, praying the deep red there would rinse away.

Nicky threw up thick bile, choked, and kept screaming.

In the emergency room, waiting patients split their attention between their injuries and her tattered son. She held him tight to her chest, silently begging Nicky to forgive her, but the other patients’ glances burned fiery holes in her, rekindling her guilt. Nicky was close to nodding off, but the lump on his head from bashing against the sink was huge and she didn’t want to let him sleep. Every time she woke him, his screaming renewed and her heart broke a little more.

Nicky’s nurse had only just taken him when Sara heard a cold voice behind her. “You really should have latched all the cabinets.” A woman in a severe suit looked down at her from behind a clipboard.

“I have child latches on the cabinets. A baby gate, latches, and supposedly a childproof cap on the bleach.”

“And you took your eyes off him, left him alone because you ‘knew’ he was going to be fine?”

“No! I left him—”

“Left him. I have that part.”

“Goddamn, let me finish. I left him asleep in his playpen—the walls are higher than he is tall—and I went to the bathroom. That’s all. I came out and heard the cabinet door shut and he already had the damned bottle.”

“Really.”

“Fuck you. I’m doing this by myself, what the fuck do you know about it? Working,

taking care of a kid? Alone. It’s a miracle we have what we do—in the beginning, I had nothing, and now we’re good, we’re doing good. I own my place, I’m not taking handouts. I’m working—I run my department, I’m fucking working.” Sara’s voice echoed through triage. A few people stared.

“First, stop shouting. Not great for your ‘I’ve got it all together’ argument. Second, I’m just going to file the report. I don’t make decisions, your yelling at me will get you nowhere at all.” She paused. “It just goes in my report.”

Sara swallowed the threat and said nothing. Severe Suit stared her down a moment longer and then left. Sara put her head in her hands, trying not to cry through the stillness of the moment.

 

December 2013

Mrs. Nolan was a pleasant woman, always sweet on the phone, but Sara still couldn’t help sneering when she spoke. Something about her thick voice, like cloying honey, stuck weird in her ears. Sara’s mother would have said that voice raised her hackles, which Sara always thought was funny, picturing hackles like porcupine quills on the back of her neck that stabbed straight out when raised.

She felt the back of her neck, rubbed a little, making sure nothing spiked out.

Mrs. Nolan flipped another drawing to the top of the stack. “There’s this one too, which doesn’t seem so terribly bad, but in conjunction with the others—”

“There’s a theme, you’re saying.”

“Yes, a theme. And maybe not one that we should be concerned about, but we tend to notice patterns in these kinds of things.”

“Yes.” Sara flipped through the drawings. Each was a crude landscape, drawn in Nicky’s clumsy crayon hand. A set of rolling fields, corn rows, mountains, a beach, each scribbled darkly and barely recognizable. In the top corner of each, a waxy black sun, and directly under the sun, standing on whatever surface the landscape afforded, a black goat. It would have been indiscernible from a dog or cat, or bear for that matter, except Nicky had spiked two horns and a goatee on the heads in each drawing. Sara smiled—it really was just a stick figure, each stick scratched repeatedly into black grooves in the paper. But the horns, the goatee, they were delicate. Shaky, still, but delicate and precise. As though Nicky had been afraid to take as little care with them as he had the rest of the animal.

“At his age,” Mrs. Nolan said, “we normally see pictures like this, with family and pets. Very common actually, especially if the child is troubled about something.”

Sara felt a tug of sadness. She remembered her mother proudly displaying her crayon drawings of family on the refrigerator, remembered painstakingly drawing each yellow strand of hair in her clumsy hand and then convincing herself she had gotten it right. Why wasn’t Nicky drawing her? She made a mental note to plan some time off. She’d been busy with work, maybe too busy, she thought. They needed some family time, just the two of them.

“He’s fine. And we don’t have a goat.”

“No, of course not. I just wanted to bring them to your attention.”

Sara looked up and couldn’t see anything but real concern on Mrs. Nolan’s face. She stacked the drawings together and stood up, trying to shake the feeling that her hackles had spread like wings. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have a talk with him.”

Mrs. Nolan smiled. “If you feel that’s necessary. He’s a bright young man, sensitive too, and his acting out has calmed considerably.” Sara saw the concern flash into judgment for a moment, then return. “Not entirely gone, but we never expect perfection, do we?”

She’d been trying, and despite her territorial instinct that begged for her to punch Mrs. Nolan in the throat for pushing her nose where Sara thought it didn’t belong, she was grateful that her efforts were recognized. Happier still that Nicky might learn to get along.

“Thanks again.” Sara turned and left, not slowing when she passed Nicky in the hall and grabbed his hand. “Let’s go, kid. You. Me. Ice cream. And tell me about the goat.”

At home that night, Sara stood in the doorway of Nicky’s room and watched him sleep. His nightlight cast star patterns on the walls and ceiling. Sara never could figure out how the slow rotation of their positions didn’t make Nicky sick. He lay still, sucking on the neckband of his pajamas, the stars revolving around him.

Sara smiled at the image, but thought he might do better with others if he didn’t think of the world as revolving around him. She reminded herself to have her assistant replace the nightlight with something less astral. Maybe a yellow sun just plugged into the wall, something that didn’t move, something that didn’t so obviously indicate that he was the center of the universe. He was the center of hers, though, and she dismissed replacing the nightlight entirely.

“His name is Billy,” he’d said in the car. “Billy is my goat-friend and he’s been to all those places.”

“How do you know him?”

“He tells me about all those places, about the people there—but I can’t draw the people, just Billy and the places.” He split his attention between her and the world blurring by outside the window.

Hackles again. “How do you know him, honey? Why can’t you draw the people?”

Nicky smiled at the window, and Sara thought the conversation was over. Her back stuck to the leather, the heated seats suddenly overdoing their job. She thumbed the off button and flicked a finger across the car’s touchscreen radio controls, finding Nicky’s favorite Pandora station, and braced herself against the onslaught of Disney-themed Christmas songs. Sara watched him in the rearview, bobbing his head and conducting. She started listing in her head the night’s tasks, and then the next day’s, a habit she’d gotten into when she’d been given her first executive position.

She added bedtime stories to the list. He was sweetest then, when he was curled up and listening to her Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears voices.

“Because they’re in the hole, Mommy. Billy keeps them in the hole.” Nicky was still looking out the window, his voice barely hovering above the saccharine bounce of Disney tunes.

“The people are in the hole?” It was an odd thing to say.

“The bad people.”

“Where are the good people?” she asked.

“What good people, Mommy?”

 

November 2014

Sara’s eyes snapped open and Nicky was standing at the foot of her bed. Her clock’s red LED display shone on his face, his flat expression glowing fire in the dark.

“Jesus, Nicky, what’s wrong? You scared me.”

Nicky just stared, his breathing regular and smooth. Not a nightmare, Sara thought, not a bad dream.

“Do you need something? Water? Feeling okay? What time is it, honey?” She glanced at the clock. 2:59 a.m. Far below, the sparse sounds of the devil’s hour on city streets—the rare horn blaring, a siren or two—gave the only indication that anywhere outside the bedroom actually existed. She could scream and no one would hear, she thought. She shuddered.

Nicky didn’t answer, just stared, and Sara was smacked by a rush of cold. A puff of condensed breath shot out of his nose and he blinked. Sara looked down, saw that her breast had spilled out of her nightgown—so cold, if that nipple gets any harder it’ll break, she thought—and felt his eyes there. She covered herself in a flash. The air warmed, she couldn’t see his breath anymore, and he turned away. Nicky backed away from the foot of her bed, still blank, still staring. He turned away, and the clock’s red glow flared on his profile.

He was naked. He still had a child’s belly, but his shoulders and arms were the sculpted thin that hinted at impending adult dexterity. He was going to be strong, she thought, and then saw his erection. Impossibly large for an eight-year-old, and she thought she saw a gleam of pre-ejaculate jeweled at the tip. Her breath caught and she shivered, praying he wouldn’t notice and turn back to her.

His bare feet clomped on the teak floor in the hallway. He shut the door to his room behind him.

 

October 2015

Nicky stared out the window and Sara watched him, punctuating her phone conversation with questions he didn’t answer. The back of the limousine was wide enough that Sara could barely reach across the seat to touch his scraped knuckles, but she tried anyway. He moved, the smallest twitch of avoidance, such that he was just out of reach. She hung up the phone, counted to ten and reminded herself that personal time was part of what a CEO gave to her company, and turned to Nicky again.

“Honey, you can’t keep avoiding this. There aren’t any more schools we can send you to.”

Nicky didn’t answer.

Sara tried to make a note in her phone to book a vacation, just the two of them, but it rang again. Nicky looked at her and rolled his eyes, sinking his thin frame farther into the soft leather.

That’s something at least, Sara thought, something better than silence and a complete lack of acknowledgment. At least he noticed she was there.

They turned into the massive driveway that half circled the front of the estate. She gasped and dropped her phone.

Red and blue lights swirling from the emergency responders splashed over everything. They scrambled to put out the fire. Her hedges and the stone wall circling the property had kept the flames hidden, and the night sky obscured the smoke, but there was no hiding the blaze once inside the perimeter. The entire front of the sprawling colonial house was engulfed.

Sara looked at Nicky. His eyes glowed orange.

 

November 2015

Millie sat on the floor, hands covering her face, but she was unable to keep from dripping blood all around her. Sara stood frozen, unable to process what she had just seen—Nicky smashing his nanny in the face with Sara’s empty San Pellegrino bottle—and instead wondered how much the hotel would charge for getting blood out of the carpet.

Nicky’s shoulders jumped up and down, his hands were folded over his belly, and he barked and snorted deliriously. In a moment, he was doubled over with it, then down on the floor, rolling back and forth. Millie’s whimpers of pain ramped into growls of anger, and Nicky laughed harder. Millie stood, raging through her clenched jaw. She wiped her hands on her jeans and locked eyes with Sara.

“Fuck him, and fuck you,” Millie said, nose still bleeding. She snatched a towel from the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.

Sara looked down at him, then at the blood spattered on the plush floor, then back at Nicky. Still laughing, he took off his shirt. He dipped his fingers in the blood spangled around him and drew the familiar scribbled goat in blood on his chest. Nicky looked down at himself and chuckled.

Sara stared at him, searching, and eventually had to look away, unable to find a remnant of the child she loved in the unknowable monster in front of her.

 

December 2015

For the fifth night in a row, Sara closed her eyes and saw that bloody smear on Nicky’s chest behind her eyelids. Sleep might come, she thought, but that’s what I’ll see there.

Since the Millie incident, her dreams had been vivid and disturbing, but explainable. She watched her son smash his nanny in the face with a liter-sized glass bottle, and then draw with the blood. Perfectly understandable that she carried that around for a while, she thought. It had all but obliterated any of the positive memories that Sara clung desperately to. Those small moments when Nicky hugged back, when he looked her in the eye and smiled, when he expressed joy in her presence—at her presence—happened, they were real, but they had become ghosts just behind the terror and frustration that a violent child engenders.

The last few nights, though, her dreams were becoming darker. There was the smear, the glass, Millie’s curse on her way out—each dream it was something different. Most recently, Millie just spat in her face and hissed, but something else was creeping into the corners, becoming more and more tangible every night. Nicky had been especially difficult the last few weeks, scrawling black scribbles on every surface in his room, destroying everything that could be destroyed, and then sleeping in a hollow scooped into the wreckage.

She was locking Nicky in his room now. She was surprised at first that he didn’t protest, but these days she was grateful for any respite from the constant battle that sharing his space had become. She tried to tell herself that she was doing the right thing to protect Nicky from himself, even tried justifying locking him in as protection against the furniture that she just had her assistant order, but the weight of failure bore down on her and she couldn’t deny that locking him in his room was also a way for her to avoid dealing with the problem. If she didn’t have to fight with him, if she didn’t have to worry about his breaking bones on the furniture—if she didn’t have to look at him and see everything she thought she should have done better for him shining in his face—then she’d be fine. She was going to be fine.

Except for the dreams. She was cold again, hollow, and trying to stuff that ancient memory back into the hole from which it came, but every night the cold grew stronger, the hollow in her bigger. She barely slept at night, barely noticed the sterility of the empty rooms in the new house that they hadn’t yet filled, barely noticed the thick animal smell coming from Nicky’s room. In a daze, she submitted her Leave of Absence to the board and didn’t even register their surprise. She was already halfway home when they called to grant their approval, and she let it go to voicemail. There was nothing else in the world beyond exhaustion and the shadows that crept in when she slept, the shadows that whispered Nicky’s name.

Sleep did come, though. It was shallow, and she couldn’t tell whether she was asleep or not. There was just snow, and pain, and the whipping smack of gleefully administered beatings. She couldn’t see, but she heard the clomp of hooves and the snort of dead breath, and screams—so many screams—and the weight of shattered parents trying to piece themselves together after having their souls ripped away drilling right into her. She couldn’t breathe. The taste of spoiled meat and unwashed fur filled her mouth, she choked on it, and shot upright in bed.

Breathing in wasn’t good. Expelling wasn’t any better, but she had to empty her lungs. She choked out bristled hair in tufts and spat out sour saliva. She heaved in and out, begging the burn to fade to sore and then to numb. And then she heard him.

“Hello again.” His voice, deep and harsh, ground through her ears. He sounded like he was pulling his voice from the deepest parts of her bowels, where what she’d eaten bound itself up and refused to be voided, rotting and corrupting instead. “You’ve done well,” he said.

He was seated on the edge of her bed, his black suit blending into the dark so that his face seemed to float on the thick fear she was sweating out. He looked the same: angularly handsome, sharp features just barely inhuman enough to still be called exotic. He smiled, not showing teeth, and something tore inside her.

“You,” was all she could manage.

“Yes, me. Well, me and.” He glanced over his shoulder, daring her to look. She could only make out a silhouette: horns and titan-wide shoulders, wiry shags of fur, thick hooves.  She closed her eyes before she could see more.

“It’s time,” he said.

Sara let confusion crowd fear out for a moment. “Time?”

“Our bargain, Sara.” His thin smile didn’t waver, but Sara felt his patience wane. It was like holding ice, cold but present, then gone.

“You already made good on your end. I’m doing fine, we’re doing fine, I’ve got everything I need for as long as we’ll need it. I don’t need you anymore.” She started to cry toward the end, her voice shaking.

He laughed. “Sara, you sweet dumb girl. You owe. Not me.”

“What? But the alley—I let you—I paid, I paid you!”

“You offered your body, yes.”

“That was the deal!” Sara’s fear was taking over again, tinged with anger. “That was the deal.”

“Yes, it was. And we used your body. In the moment, that was for me.” He giggled. “For funsies. But what came after, that was for him.”

The silhouette emerged from the shadows. He was ancient, his beard thin wisps of brittle hair that kinked away from his chin. His eyes were clouded, his snout scarred and dry. His shoulders, still strong, hunched when he came away from the wall where he was leaning, and his back slumped down under the weight of unfathomable age.

The dark smell of impending death shrouded him, and when he came closer that shroud enveloped Sara too. Underneath that smell, Sara felt his exhaustion and its thin hold on his urges. To kill, to maim, to take—all barely held back by the little life he had left.

Nicky came into the room, chest again painted with that scrawled goat, erection pointing straight up. When he saw the beast, his eyes glowed red. Sara saw his posture change, his muscles twitch, and she screamed.

The black-suited man shoved his fist into her mouth, choking off the sound. She could barely breathe but managed to squeak air in through her nose. He still smelled the same, like burnt hazelnut and exotic, clinging aromatics. Nicky approached the beast, bolder with each step. It opened its mouth and growled. Generations of suffering pulsed in that growl. Her own voice swirled there, every word she should have said, everything she should have done. The bad people wailing their bad choices into a symphony, and Sara was the virtuoso soloist.

Nicky took it in, smiled, and then nodded.

“We’re going to go now,” the black-suited man said. “It’s been a pleasure doing business in you.” He giggled. “Sorry, with you.” He pulled his fist out of her mouth and stood.

“Wait—”

“I often wonder why everyone, every single one, tries to undo a deal,” he said. “You got what you wanted. You all always do, every time—too bad none of you think about what you’re asking. Tsk-tsk.”

Sara wanted to protest further, betrayal-fueled rage building in her, but then—Nicky was a monster, wasn’t he? A walking nightmare, inhuman and uncontrollable. She shook her head. He was her son, of course she loved him, and she refused to be relieved he was being taken.

The black-suited man giggled again. “No take-backsies, Sara. What’s done is done. And you did it well.” He winked at her. “I’d fair say you earned this, even. Every last bit of it.”

Nicky put his hand in the beast’s scraggly paw and Sara wailed.

Not for the nightmare she’d lived with, not for its disappearing, but for the son she knew hid somewhere in that monster child, stealing smiling glances at her from deep behind its glowing eyes.

The beast turned toward the door to the bedroom, and Sara’s screaming intensified. It stumbled, and Nicky shifted into the crook of his arm, keeping him upright. The black-suited man looked back over his shoulder.

“We appreciate his name,” he said. “You couldn’t have known, but it was a nice touch.” He winked, and they disappeared down the hall.

Sara’s sobbing drowned out their footsteps and the front door closing, but the man’s voice echoed long after they were gone, long after she stopped crying, and long after she cut herself.

She could still save him, the him that curled up for bedtime stories, the him that still knew the word Mother, and leave the demon around him in Hell.

She waited in the tub, the veins in her wrists open, for that old sour smell to mark the beginning of a new negotiation.


Eli Ryder writes dark fiction and teaches college English. His work has appeared online and in print, and he is a co-founder of www.automatareview.com. He stole his MFA from UC Riverside’s low-residency program in Palm Desert, and is an avid lover of all things twisted.

Hotels

By: Rachel Smith

The party was on a Thursday night. The guests came flushed with cold, carrying six-packs of Stella Artois. They unwound their scarves and lay their coats on Cici’s bed. As with all New York buildings in winter, the sixth-floor walk-up was overheated. Still, some guests kept their coats on. As each person arrived, Cici’s panic mounted. She’d invited women. Where were they? The work friends who had said they’d come? At half past seven, fifteen men stood in the tiny living room drinking. They threw glances her way as they talked to each other—about what? What could they have to say? None of them knew the others. She’d slept with them all.

Cici felt that they understood this. In the low, flickering candlelight, Brandon leaned toward Momar to speak. Steven drifted toward the window, tapping a pack of American Spirits on his palm. Frank and Hervé followed, reaching into their pockets. She glimpsed them from the open kitchen, where she was frantically browning meatballs. She saw awkward politeness in the way they moved across the room. But why be nervous? she asked herself, as she piled mounds of spaghetti on each triple-stacked paper plate. What could they say that would make it worse?

She delivered the food and moved among them, dipping into conversations, offering more beer. The apartment was deeply hot now and the last coats had been shed and tossed on the couch. She began to almost enjoy herself. The act of eating seemed to simmer them down. Then Luke came close and whispered, Sweetheart, I can’t compete, and dumped his plate in the trash. As he let himself out, he waved at her with his leather-palmed gloves. A sense of permission rippled through the room. Frank went to the bedroom for his coat. Hervé took his scarf from a hook on the wall. Soon the apartment was empty, candles burning down, a scattering of garbage. They were gone and she looked at the clock. It was nine.

 

How had it happened? she wondered again, three nights later, in the hotel room with Jean. He was a bulge breathing loudly beside her. She moved her legs and felt the milky soft sheets. To some of the men she’d barely mentioned the party, not even invited them. But mentioning a party was an invitation, she realized now. And she’d known that. Possibly she’d mentioned it out of fear no one would come. Or only two or three people would come. Some humiliatingly small number of people who would regret taking the train all the way up to 111th Street.

A clicking sound came from the gas fireplace in the corner. It was off now. Earlier she had lain on the thick carpet, bathing in its little heat. Jean always rented the Royal Suite when he came to the city—an indulgence she associated with his age—and the luxury made her feel spacious. It made her wonder if it was the squalidness of her apartment that had set her party up to fail. Whether a Chesterfield and a coat of Farrow & Ball would have changed the composition of the guests, made everyone drink more, and given the party that natural feeling good parties have. But this wasn’t about her apartment, she thought, turning over, pushing a pillow aside. It was about something more difficult. She had become one of those women who didn’t have friends.

Well. There were worse things. She was young. She probably had time. Light leaked around the cracks of the door to the bathroom and Jean’s shape was seal-like under the covers. She reached under and touched his arm.

Nn, he grunted. Cold.

Jean, she said, rolling onto her side.

Asleep, he said.

Why are you interested in me?

I was asleep, he said, opening his eyes.

That’s good, she said. You can go there again. But what made you interested in me? She was propped up on her elbows now.

He turned on his side to face her and said, Why are you asking?

I think I’m realizing something, Jean.

Well—he breathed and seemed to come more awake—I like being around you.

She fell back onto the pillows and thought about that for a moment. Or didn’t think about it, but felt it. The feeling was something like satisfaction.

I’m realizing—she said, and looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Jean? She nudged him with her fist. In the dim light, she studied the round outline of his face.

 

She half-woke when he left, before seven. Her alarm sounded at eight. The morning dark had given way to grey. Not light, exactly, but visibility. The room seemed to have been uncloaked. She stretched, cold under the sheets. The covers were heaped on the floor.

I used to go to the palace to meet with the son, he’d said at dinner the night before. He meant Baby Doc, Haiti’s president-for-life who’d fled to France in ’86. Half a decade, almost, before Cici was born. On a U.S. Airforce flight, by the way, Jean had said. They were in the hotel restaurant with its white tablecloths and dark damask walls. Jean had his fingers pressed on the base of his wine glass, his face lit with good humor. When I used to go meet with him, he said, twisting the glass a half turn, he would sit at the desk like a walrus in his beautiful suit. But he would never stand to greet you. You see, it was hot there, even in the palace. If he stood, you would see he was sitting there in bare legs and shorts.

Cici thought of this as she looked down the bed at her own thin legs. She’d lost weight when she visited Haiti, where she’d met Jean four months ago. She’d lost her period. The trip had left a spiritual mark on her, like a thin, white stripe on a plain beach rock. But whatever the mark was, she couldn’t talk about it. She couldn’t really say what it was.

She reached for her phone to text Jean and opened an unread message. In meetings until late my bird but done TODAY if things go well. There were three fingers-crossed emojis. Idea: would you like to go to Maine?

Reading this raised a vague tenderness within her. She thought of Maine as a place that had kept its wildness, a place artists liked to go to paint little boats against a sea that bled into the sky. It must have been three months ago that she’d explained her wish to go there. They were at a hotel in Washington, where Jean lobbied for his textiles. I know I have a romantic idea of Maine, she’d started out, in her matter-of-fact way. It was one of the first nights they’d spent together. He folded his newspaper and looked at her blankly. As she went on talking and got more into the thrall of her own thoughts, she’d said, But that’s the point of travel, isn’t it? Romanticizing? Isn’t that what gives you pleasure?

The memory embarrassed her now. It made her feel exposed. It showed something unguarded that she would have rather him not have seen. When they were together, she was aware of the outer life she presented. She tried to allow no opening, to control his impression of her. She thought that this made him like her more. But thinking of him now, when they were apart, she felt that her inner self was exposed—was always open to him—in some elemental way.

She texted: Maine! Yes. 

When she got out of the shower there was a reply: But can u take off work?

She dried her hands on a bath towel and typed back: Of course.

 

Light and fine as salt, snow drifted over the park. She jammed her fists in her pockets and snugged her coat tighter. Horses and carriages lined up on 59th Street and the drivers huddled together smoking. Cici turned out of the park onto the sidewalk. She walked close to a dun horse and touched its neck.

Ride for you? a driver called out. He moved toward her, dropping his cigarette in a puddle.

She shook her head. The horse flared its nostrils and she felt its wet breath.

Beautiful day, he said. Snowy day—though the snow had nearly stopped—Today half price.

I’ve read about your horses, she said, moving her fingers over the mane. They don’t get to go to pasture. Their stables are too small.

Your titties are too small, he said, smiling.

You can’t even see my titties, she thought, walking on. When she got to the corner she wished she had said that. And as she turned down Fifth Avenue and pushed the heavy doors open to the lobby and took the elevator to the 32nd floor, she was dogged by an indistinct sense of regret.

She went to the boss’s office and asked for the rest of the week off.

No, he said. His desk was polished and bare, nothing on it but a MacBook and a package of Red Vines. You’ve already taken more time off than we allow, he said, fixing her with a perplexed gaze. He pushed the Red Vines toward her, as though offering consolation.

She went to her cubicle and turned on the computer. But as she thought about it, she felt that it was unfair. She had worked there the six years since college, taking no extra time off until this year. Her trip to Haiti shouldn’t count, since one of the organization’s pillars was “service.” She’d gone there after the hurricane to volunteer. They’d written her up in the company newsletter. She looked down the hall and saw the other copywriters staring into their computers, wearing earbuds. She stood and took her coat off the back of her chair.

 

She had met Jean at the Oloffson, the hotel from The Comedians, with its grand, weathered approach: a cement path with tall palms at each side. White balconies with rows of thin, ornate balusters. Flat patches of grass shored up by cracked, pale walls. The hotel had a kind of weary elegance that had slipped into being something else, something more like fluky endurance.

She was supposed to be in the south, where the hurricane had blown roofs off—in Les Cayes—but hadn’t figured out how to get there. So she was here, in Port-au-Prince, blowing a hundred bucks a night on what amounted to an oddly thrilling vacation. In the day she wandered the streets downtown. She bought bottles of Coke out of ice-filled coolers. The vendor handed her a tall glass bottle and wouldn’t let her leave until it was empty and she gave it back. People climbed on their roofs to repair leaks from the storm, and in the narrow alleys power lines were clumped haphazardly along cement block walls. Children bathed in plastic tubs and sold Chiclets and called out, Give me one dollar! Women sold fruit and men sold cell phone chargers and batteries. Blan, they yelled at her. Hey, Blan.

She drank rhum punch at the hotel bar. She swam in the pool, the one where the dead man had been found in the Graham Greene novel. On the porch, at breakfast, she listened to conversations. The third morning, a man near her spoke rapidly in English and French. She heard the words compliance assessment and you knew they were Koreans. The man wore short sleeves. He picked up his water glass and set it down again, as though his speech were so important he couldn’t pause to drink. Across from him, a woman sat hunched over a flat omelet. When she got up to use the bathroom, she dropped her napkin on the ground.

The man rocked back on the rear legs of his chair and addressed Cici. I usually go to the Hotel Montana, he said. But there are some people you must always meet here.

Why? Cici asked.

He waved a hand toward the empty chair. She hates it here, he said. So I have the advantage.

The woman returned and took out her pocketbook. Non, ma chére, he said. He turned his cheek for her to kiss. As she walked off, the sound of her heels made the waiter, in his billowing white shirt, glance up.

Jean turned to Cici then and asked what she was doing there. She explained that she didn’t know how to get to where she was meant to go. That evening she was in a private car, with a hired driver, on her way to Les Cayes.

 

Cici walked up Fifth Avenue, weaving back through the stream of commuters. It wasn’t yet ten. She went to the bookstore. She was standing, staring blankly down the aisle before she knew what she wanted. The Comedians had given her her first idea of Haiti: a country doomed and fertile, with dusty streets and paintings in bright colors. The image wasn’t so far off what she had experienced when she went there. She wanted to revisit that now.

When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals… Something like comfort spread within her at the formal, rhapsodic sound of the words. And there, near the bottom of the first page, was a line she remembered underlining ages ago: There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives. The words had thrilled her. She’d been in college, in her tiny dorm bed, curled with her back to her roommate. She’d wondered if that was true—the point of no return—and if it was, when it would arrive for her, or if it already had, and those questions had made her life seem to unfurl into the future, full of mystery and consequence.

There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives.

The words seemed more like a trick now. They seemed meant to coax her into a false sense of things mattering more than they did. They seemed cheap. The comfort she’d gotten from reading the first lines turned over on itself and darkened.

But why cheap? she wondered, as she closed the book gently and tucked it under her coat, under her arm.

And here her thoughts became confused, because the truth was that she felt both things at once: the sense of mystery the words had given her before, and also this new suspicion of cheapness. And there was something else, something swimming below the surface of her thoughts that she couldn’t get at. She walked in the direction of the door.

Excuse me, a man said, as she passed the sale table. He put his hand on her arm.

She stopped. She felt her face outwardly compose itself and she smiled at him.

Sorry to bother you, he said, in a cautious way. But I bet you’re my daughter’s age. I’m looking for a gift.

She waited for him to go on. A violin concerto played softly, coming from the cafe. She thought he must be well past sixty, the same age as Jean.

What books do you like? There was helplessness in his voice, as though he’d already been there, scanning the shelves for a long time. I want to get her the right one.

Don’t get a book, Cici said, clutching the zippered edge of her coat. She watched his face crumple. Get her anything else.

 

The snow had stopped. The air was cold through her coat. She felt the hard brick of the book against her ribs as she walked toward the train. Only when the doors had closed did she move it to her bag. No one saw. There weren’t many people going uptown.

She opened the door to her apartment, everything in order but dingy, and felt for a moment that no one lived there. It smelled like the natural, bergamot-scented spray she bought online. She crossed the living room to the window, the one the men had used to smoke at her party, and worked it open. In the pocket of her coat, her phone sounded, and she took it out and saw it was a call from her job. She turned the phone off. She left the window open as she packed a suitcase, even as it got cold. For a moment she stood in the doorway with her coat and luggage and the inexplicable sense that she wouldn’t come back here. She turned the lights off. Then, as though to guard against that odd feeling of finality, she switched the one in the kitchen on. 

In the hotel room, Cici slept on the pale, striped couch until Jean came. She felt him moving around the room, heard drawers opening. Then he was in the bathroom clipping his nails. He was on the phone, ordering room service, when she opened her eyes. She stretched, arching her back, and when he saw her, his face changed. It gave him pleasure to see her wake up. 

Did you have a good nap? he asked, coming close to kiss her hair.

Yes, she said.

He went to the mirror and undid his shirt buttons with the usual attitude of vigor and purpose. As she watched him now she wondered if this quality was something he’d cultivated against the fact of getting old. It made her feel sympathy, and admiration. She pushed the feelings aside. They weren’t the ones she wanted to have.

I accomplished my goals today, he said.

Good. She swung her feet to the floor. Her legs were bare. She stood and walked around the couch and lifted her shirt to see her midriff when she passed the mirror.

You’re thin, he said.

So? she said, dropping her shirt again.

He turned his body to profile, showing his beach-ball stomach. I didn’t used to be so fat, he said, and smiled. He took off his undershirt and looked at it. These are good shirts, he said. He opened his suitcase and took out a plastic-wrapped package. Want one?

She stayed where she was, leaning against the wall, and put her hands out.

He tossed it in her direction. This is what we’re making in my factory now. 

What are you paying these days?

That’s why I like you, he said. You have a conscience.

She pulled off the plastic wrapping and let it fall to the floor. She held the shirt by its two shoulders and shook out its folds. 

Five dollars a day. Twenty-five percent over the minimum wage and five times what people are making all over the country. He said this in a salesman voice that irritated her.

Mm, she said.

Mm, he said, with a finality that made her feel she should not say more. He walked into the bathroom. She heard the shower turn on.

 

She picked up the plastic from the floor and took out the cardboard insert that clung to the inside of the shirt. The cotton had a new, slippery feel, and it smelled like chemicals. She ran the fabric over her arm. Presently there was a knock, and she pulled her jeans on and opened the door. While the girl set up their trays on the folding stands, Cici took cash from her purse. It was money Jean had left that morning for her to take a cab.

Thank you, the girl said, and Cici nodded. The girl asked if they needed anything else.

Cici shook her head and softly closed the door. 

She looked at the trays. The plates were covered, and—she put her fingers to them—hot. She lifted the napkin from the bread basket and took out a piece of baguette. She spread it with butter, and stood there, next to the table, eating slowly.

She says she’s hungry, the driver Jean had hired told her, as they moved through the slow traffic on the way to Les Cayes. They were watching a woman walk alongside the cars with her hand out and pleading eyes.

Many people here have need, the driver said. But we also have fakers.

You think she’s a faker? Cici said.

The driver shrugged.

A man in the car in front of them rolled down the window and yelled something.

The driver laughed.

What did he say? Cici asked. The woman had fixed her eyes on their car now and was thrusting her open palm at Cici.

Nothing, the driver said. He says nothing.

Cici handed the woman a coin.

Put up the window, the driver said, and she did. The car in front of them moved and he drove on, gathering speed.

What did that man say? Cici asked again, after they’d traveled a few bumpy miles. The driver smiled and turned his clear eyes to her. You want to know?

Cici nodded.

The lady says mwen grangou. I’m hungry. That man puts his window down and says, Go have a fuck. It will make you forget about it.

He turned the radio up and drove on.

Cici was eating another piece of bread when Jean came out of the bathroom. My factory got two contracts today, he said. He had recovered his jolly mood. One is a big label. We have not been working at full capacity since we opened. Now we will, almost. Oh, good, he said. The food is here.

Jean produced a candle from a small paper bag and lit it. He moved behind her and pressed his mouth to her neck. He pulled out her chair. Before he lifted the lids off the plates, he took her hand between his and rubbed it. The portions were small but he had ordered lavishly. French onion soup, mussels, filet, green beans.

You know, he said. Since the factory opened after the earthquake, we’ve created almost two hundred jobs.

Cici thought of her own job with a swell of resentment. You don’t mind spending money, she said, surveying the food. You could pay them more.

You liberals, he said soberly, you always use the same lines.

What are you, she asked, a conservative?

I’m an industrialist. I’m a business man. And—he picked up a steak knife—a champion of my country. Mwen grangou, he said, as he cut the filet in half. He spoke Creole, she understood, to show that he knew more than she did about his own people.

He began talking again after they had eaten for a while in silence. I went to a good private school, he said. We spoke French at home. We were raised to be—he waved a hand—cosmopolitan. By the way, they teach French in the schools all over Haiti. Only they don’t teach it well enough for anyone to come out understanding. He took a bite of bread and Cici waited as he chewed.

Our class went to an assembly in an outdoor arena, he said. This was with Papa Doc there, running the country—he pointed in the direction of the coffee table—like in your book. Terrible times. Though if you were not political, and not unlucky, you were not so desperate then as the people are now. I mean in terms of money. He cut the last green beans on his plate, picked up his water glass, and set it back down. When he spoke again it was with hesitation, as though she’d asked a difficult question. We sat in a row on bleachers. In front of us a man was blindfolded. The Macoute came out wearing their sunglasses, holding guns. Ten of them, maybe. They line up. There is no speech about the man, nothing. No sentence. Nobody coughs. This man is there, of course, for a political reason. But we don’t understand. We’re eight years old. I was wearing my navy uniform with shorts. He paused, then made his fingers into the shape of a gun. He looked toward the window, as though looking away from the image that had come into his mind. Can you imagine? he said. This was what we watched at school.

 

In bed, Cici pressed her body to his, touching the hair on his arms, the band of his cotton underwear. She couldn’t sleep. She had napped too long. She thought of the tent city in Les Cayes, where she had helped a mission group hand out water bottles and plastic toys. The local people had left her with varied impressions—resignation, friendliness, shock, dignity. They had warned her not to wear her flip-flops in the mud because of worms. The day before she left, she had wandered through the corridors, among the tents and tarps, snapping photos with her phone. As she reached a small clearing, away from the foreign workers, a man in a loose, sleeveless shirt had come up to her, slapping his chest and yelling in Creole. He took a rake that stood against the fence and waved it at Cici, heckling. He came close and backed away, dragging the rake over the ground. The only word she understood was white person, blan, but she saw what was underneath the words. It was pure—almost appealing—anger. And there was something sexual in it that confused her, something to do with power.

A woman in a Médecins Sans Frontières jacket stopped and stood beside Cici. He says, Look at me, she translated. Go ahead. Take my picture. Isn’t that what you want? Take it home with you. Take my picture when I’m—the woman searched for the word—in squalor? In her lovely French accent, the woman remarked, Next time you might want to ask.

Later, Cici stood with the same woman near a small garbage fire, and she said, You know what the problem is with this country?

Cici shook her head.

The corruption, the woman said. The elites. There’s money here. But it goes—she held her fingers up as though she’d taken a pinch of salt—to this many people. They rob their own country blind.

Cici thought of this now, in the bed, as she touched Jean. She had a rush of feeling that she tried to untangle. It had risen from his story of the execution. He had seemed sincere. But in that sincerity, she sensed something else—as though his feelings about it were rooted in something more personal than watching a man be shot. But who was she to doubt the depth of his feeling? It had made her suspicious. But why? She knew nothing about Haiti. Or business. Jean had only been kind. Yet she couldn’t dismiss the sense that he should not have money, being from a country that was so poor. She fell asleep wondering if there was logic in this, or if it was naive, or whether it mattered at all.

In the morning, he brought her coffee in bed. It’s a beautiful day for a drive, he said.

She looked to the window. The patch of sky between buildings was gray and there was a steady drumming of rain. Why are you so happy? she said.

Did you ever go to Cité Soleil? he asked.

She shook her head.

He shrugged. I thought maybe you had, because all the do-gooders like to go there. I used to have a factory there. But when the government changed, we started to have gangs. I kept operating, losing money every day, my workers being shot at, bullets coming in through the walls. Everyone lost their jobs. I had to close the factory down.

With the new factory, I’m useful again. And what happened yesterday, the contracts—people can rely on me. It will be the first time we’re on steady ground. He touched his hands together, then drew them apart. I feel a weight is gone.

Cici allowed herself to be swept up in Jean’s sincerity. She gathered the covers around herself and said, I like you.

Why, my bird?

I like the way you talk about what you do, she said. But—she felt herself speaking from someplace else, saying things that were possibly not true, yet at the same time were pleasing to say aloud—There’s a part of me that might say I like you because of your money. I like the hotels. The plates with the silver covers. The fireplace and the good sheets. It doesn’t take much, she said, for me to feel happy.

A wounded look passed over his face, but he quickly recovered.

He came close and put a hand on the side of her neck and said, We have our own reasons for enjoying each other. At my age, the enjoyment is what matters. The details matter less.

He turned his back to her and she felt as though something had fallen within her, as though he had won.

She put on the clean, chemical-smelling t-shirt he’d given her, and felt her own uneasiness as they hauled their suitcases down in the elevator and loaded them into the rental car. She knew better than to romanticize having nothing. And yet, she was cutting the pieces of her life down to nothing. No friends. No job. No money. She would go on the trip, she thought, and after that she would not see Jean. As they drove north in silence, with the windshield wipers flying back and forth, she understood the difference between them, and for a moment it eased her suffering. He had passed the point of no return, and she still had all the time in the world.


Rachel Smith’s writing has appeared in The AtlanticThe Seattle TimesThe Rumpus, and Brevity. She has been a recipient of the Wallace Stegner Fellowship and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives with her husband and dog in a cabin in the wilds of the North Cascades. 

Still Hungry

By: Isaac Gomez

The back room of a large building that looks like it once could have been a Walmart but very much isn’t anymore.

Aracely holds a clipboard in her hand.
Bianca is distracted by something.

They are both drenched in sweat.

ARACELY: I hope that all made sense.

BIANCA: It did.

ARACELY: Okay. Great.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

BIANCA: It’s hot.

ARACELY: It’s always hot.

BIANCA: Yeah but what they say, 107 today?

ARACELY: Something like that. It’s humid.

BIANCA: My sweat burns my eyes, are your eyes burning?

ARACELY: No.

BIANCA: Why are my eyes burning?

ARACELY: Headbands help.

BIANCA: Headbands don’t work for me. Thick hair.

ARACELY: Sure, sure.

BIANCA: Why don’t y’all turn on the AC in here?

ARACELY: It’s broken.

Beat.

BIANCA: Oh.

ARACELY: Yeah. This place hasn’t been used in . . . I’m not really sure how long it’s been.

BIANCA: But what about the, uh. . .

ARACELY: There are box fans.

BIANCA: Enough for everyone? 

ARACELY: Just enough.

A moment.
It’s hotter in the back room than it is inside.

BIANCA: Oh. Okay.

ARACELY: Yeah. They’re fine. I promise.

Beat.

ARACELY (CONT’D): Is there anything else I can help you with? Or . . .

BIANCA: Huh? Oh, no. I’m good. Thank you.

ARACELY: Sorry can I just— 

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

BIANCA: What?

ARACELY: You just keep looking at me like—

BIANCA: What? Like what?

ARACELY: Like you have more questions.

BIANCA: Oh. Sorry. Sometimes when I’m thinking about, well, nothing really, it looks like I’m curious or something when I’m actually not, like I’m not actively thinking about anything I’m just—

ARACELY: Thinking?

BIANCA: Yeah. Just thinking.

Beat.

ARACELY: Great. Well in that case, you can go now, bathrooms are /over there—

BIANCA: Did this place used to be a Walmart?

ARACELY: So you did have more questions—

BIANCA: I’m only asking ’cause it looks like a Walmart. /Like the colors of the walls and the size—it’s huge in here—I guess it makes sense that you’d put them in here, it’s just like Walmart . . . really?

ARACELY: Really? You think so? I think it looks more like a Target, or a Sears. Remember Montgomery Ward? Yeah, it’s definitely more of a Montgomery Ward. (beat) I didn’t put them in here.

BIANCA: Huh?

ARACELY: You said it makes sense why I’d put them in here but I didn’t put them in here. Why would I do that, do I look like someone who would do that?

BIANCA: I don’t know.

Beat.

ARACELY: Really? You don’t think so?

BIANCA: I don’t . . . I—

ARACELY: Okay then.

Aracely hands over her clipboard to Bianca.

BIANCA: What’s this?

ARACELY: Your new assignment.

Bianca flips through several hundred pages.

BIANCA: So many names.

ARACELY: Fifteen hundred. There are fifteen hundred names on that list.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

ARACELY (CONT’D): You’ll start at the top. Every kid gets a check mark for every meal. One tray per kid. They’ll come back for more, but there’s only enough for one tray per kid, so.

BIANCA: What do you say if they ask for more?

ARACELY: No.

BIANCA: I say no? 

ARACELY: Mm-hmm.

BIANCA: But what if they’re still hungry? They’re /kids.

ARACELY: They’re not kids. They’re young people. We prefer that language here.

BIANCA: Okay. . .

ARACELY: And you still say no. 

BIANCA: No.

ARACELY: That’s right. No. It’s the same in every language—at least the ones spoken here—except that weird native thing. If that ever happens to you, just have the Guatemalans translate, they’re usually pretty good at that stuff. Any more questions?

Beat.

BIANCA: No.

ARACELY: Good.

Bianca flips through the pages.

BIANCA: It’s all boys’ names, are there only boys here?

ARACELY: Yup.

BIANCA: But what about the girls, where’d they put the girls?

ARACELY: I don’t know. Not here.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

ARACELY (CONT’D): Lunch is about to start, so you should probably make your way back inside.

BIANCA: (tender; gentle) I can’t just say no. . .

ARACELY: Listen. I get it. It’s hard. You want to help, that’s why you’re here, it’s awesome. #MeToo. But we just gotta do what they say, okay? Follow the list, check off your boxes, and you get to go home at the end of the day knowing you made a difference in somebody’s life.

BIANCA: It doesn’t feel that way.

ARACELY: They’re scared. But it helps them feel safe when the first person they see when they eat is someone who looks like us. Someone who looks like them.

Beat.

BIANCA: Us? Looks like us? 

ARACELY: Mm-hmm. Hispanic.

BIANCA: I’m not Hispanic. I’m Mexican.

ARACELY: Okay, Mexican American, /sheesh sorry.

BIANCA: I didn’t say Mexican American. I said Mexican. I’m Mexican.

ARACELY: You from Mexico?

BIANCA: I’m from here.

ARACELY: Brownsville isn’t /Mexico.

BIANCA: Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

 ARACELY: Still not Mexico. That’s the border.

BIANCA: In Mexico.

ARACELY: Just cause it’s on the Mexican side, doesn’t make it Mexico.

BIANCA: Where are you from?

ARACELY: DF. México City. In México.

BIANCA: Of course you are.

ARACELY: Yeah. Of course I am.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

“Cuán Lejos Voy” (the Spanish version of
“How Far I’ll Go”
from the Disney movie Moana)
can be heard playing in the near distance.

BIANCA: Is that. . .

ARACELY: It’s Moana night. 

BIANCA: But it’s in—

ARACELY: Spanish. You are correct.

A moment.
Then: Bianca slowly takes the papers out of the
clip board and starts to rip them into pieces.

ARACELY (CONT’D): Are you fucking CRAZY?!

Aracely tries to grab the sheets from Bianca,
but Bianca rips faster and faster.

BIANCA: Gimme those! 

ARACELY: No!

Then, in a quickness, Bianca takes the strips of
paper and shoves them into her mouth.
She chews them and spits them out onto Aracely.

ARACELY (CONT’D): Oh my god, that’s disgusting! /You’re disgusting, do you know that?!

BIANCA: There! Now you won’t know, now nobody will know! There’s no way of knowing!

ARACELY: You think you’re so fucking smart.

Aracely pulls out a rubber stamp from her back pocket.

ARACELY (CONT’D): Rubber stamp. Permanent marker.

BIANCA: WHAT.

ARACELY: We’ve got backups for everything.

Beat.

BIANCA: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!

ARACELY: WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP. They’re watching MOANA FUCK!

BIANCA: Who cares about FUCKING MOANA?!

ARACELY: They do, okay?! I do! Just because you don’t give a shit doesn’t mean these kids don’t deserve some normalcy /in their lives—

BIANCA: Normalcy?! You call this normalcy?!

ARACELY: YES! I DO!

BIANCA: Where are the girls.

ARACELY: These fifteen hundred kids? Most of their parents have already been sent back, the likeliness of reunification is slim to none—

BIANCA: Where are the girls?!

ARACELY: The least we can do is give them fucking MOANA in SPANISH so they can forget for a fucking minute where they are and why they’re here—

BIANCA: WHERE ARE THE GIRLS?!

ARACELY: I DON’T KNOW! No one knows where the girls are, okay?! They just sent us here and asked us to be here and there weren’t any girls here and when I asked about them they told me to follow the check boxes and I checked for them myself and they weren’t here, okay, they just weren’t. (beat) I don’t know where the girls are. None of us do.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

BIANCA: My mom hopped on a caravan with my little sister back home in this tiny town in Veracruz just outside Córdoba. It’s called La PatronaThere was about fifty or sixty migrants making their way north, escaping El Salvador, Honduras y Guatemala. There aren’t just Mexican kids here, you know. People think that, but it’s not true.

They hopped on the caravan because the trains stopped running in México and they knew that was the only way to get to me . . . Soon as they got here, they took my sister and sent my mom back . . . I’ve been looking for my sister ever since. I’ve been up and down the border and . . . I haven’t seen her or . . . any girls . . . anywhere.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

ARACELY: I wish I knew where your sister was. But wherever she is . . . I’m sure she’s just fine.

BIANCA: Try telling my mom that.

Beat.

BIANCA (CONT’D): What if she’s still hungry? Will they say no to her too?

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

Beat.

ARACELY: I don’t know.

A moment. Moana’s “Cuán Lejos Voy” plays
louder and louder until it’s deafening.
It plays
and plays
and plays
blackout.

End of play.


Isaac Gomez is a Chicago-based playwright originally from El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. His play La Ruta will be receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company this fall. He is currently under commission from South Coast Repertory, the Goodman Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, The Theatre School at DePaul University, Writers Theater, Steep Theatre, and StepUp Chicago Playwrights. He is the recipient of the 2018 Dramatists Guild Lanford Wilson Award, an inaugural 3Arts “Make a Wave” grantee, a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists, an Artistic Associate with Victory Gardens Theater, among other honors and artistic affiliations.

Jaunty

By: B.W. Shearer

The little red apple
Sitting in a train carriage
Is having a free ride
And seems to be quite
Jaunty, except for one
Neat little bite
On its underside


Bruce Shearer is the award-winning author of many plays, radio plays, short stories, and poems both for adults and children. His plays have been extensively performed both in Australia and overseas. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, Liz; daughter, Emma; and son, Daniel.

I Didn’t Have That

By: Terry Barr

 

I used to imagine the Holy Ghost as a fog that slept in the rafters

of our church. I thought our music, surging, and shouting woke the

spirit. When It looked down and saw us, It was reminded of how

lonely It was, how much It loved the children of God. Like the wind,

the Holy Ghost wasn’t visible, but we could still feel Its power. It gave

those It touched the ability to speak in tongues, the word of God pouring

out of their mouths in garbled consonants and rolling vowels. This

happens most often to men as they shout with their backs stiff and

straight, their mouths a hollow that the Lord filled with song.

–Ashley Blooms, “Fire in My Bones”

My people were United Methodists, so docile and respectable that their rule was to stay quiet and, thus, reverent throughout the service even when the Black family who visited in 1970 showed up unannounced, even when they were escorted through the main and front left sanctuary door just as the 10:50 am service was beginning (We began ten minutes before the hour so as to get a jump on the local Baptists and beat them in line for seats at the best restaurant in town for lunch after Sunday service.), and even when they proceeded to participate in the entirety of that service, opening the purple Cokesburys set in the back of each pew, as we all did, and singing “The Church’s One Foundation” as if they really belonged here with the rest of us.

As if they were one of us.

They must have thought so, for just before the sermon, they even contributed real currency to the gilded offering plate that snaked through their and our midst, passed oh-so-politely by the church father-ushers in their vanilla suit coats.

Our church people took the “Black” money silently, but in the offices and back rooms afterward, or so I was informed later from my internal sources, our fathers truly united and hissed from their hollow throats the venomous words their tongues formed from their own decidedly learned beliefs.

Still, I have to ask: was it the Lord, or Satan, or perhaps George Wallace who filled our men’s voices?

Which of the three was it who caused our stewards to call to our preacher and help him understand that if he ever tried such a thing again, Holy Ghost or not, he would suffer not the little children to come to him, but the parishioners who would cast him and his wife out into the vacant lot of homelessness that had materialized a couple of blocks down Arlington Avenue. He would be black-balled from Methodism itself, or so I heard, if he ever dared to welcome a Black family to church again.

Our fathers, as I read in the New York Times yesterday, were certainly not alone in their decisions:

In 1958, the Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, who would go on to found the Moral Majority, gave a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?” He inveighed against the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, arguing that facilities for blacks and whites should remain separate. “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” he wrote, warning that integration “will destroy our race eventually.” In 1967, Falwell founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy — later Liberty Christian Academy — as a private school for white students. (Michele Goldberg, “Of Course the Christian Right Supports Trump,” New York Times, January 26, 2018)

We started a segregationist academy in the bowels of our church, too. One of the early teachers was our preacher’s wife. Someone, at least, learned her lesson. That academy moved after that first year to reconverted chicken coops in the western hills of town. These were, after all, the suburbs of Birmingham, circa 1969.

We were such a polite, servile congregation that the following Sunday morning, we recited the Affirmation of Faith, the Apostle’s Creed; sang the Gloria Patri and Doxology and some hymn I simply cannot remember; and collected another gilded offering as if the previous Sunday morning had never happened.

As if that day had been merely a blip, a momentary challenge to our order of worship, our collective appreciation of and voice to the Lord.

Our quietly reflective public voice to the Lord, spoken only in the responsive prayer portion of our service.

So, no, my people didn’t have what Ashley Blooms’ people did. We never spoke in tongues and would have turned away from the embarrassment had anyone in our Methodist midst, white or whiter, taken it upon themselves or, God knows, been filled with enough mystery to utter such spirit talk.

#

Despite our Methodist demeanor and my mother’s stern warnings, I did the unthinkable once I learned to drive and could, thus, engineer my own dates.

I went out with one of those Baptists.

I’ve told this story countless times: how when I approached dating age, my mother blessed me to go out with anyone I wanted to (she herself had married a Jewish man), as long as that girl wasn’t a Baptist. She might even have been more okay with my dating a pagan boy rather than a Baptist girl, for when my best friend “came out,” my mother was one of his most strident champions. She had no worries about my sexuality, though I am likely over-assuming here.

Despite her strictures, my attitude toward Baptist girls was, “Why would I exclude any girl from any pool that would consider dating me?” My mother’s religious biases were not my own. Of course, she never admonished me not to date a Black girl, since she never remotely considered that I would.

So, when my first Baptist girl let it be known through a mutual friend—a friend who just happened to be the daughter of the First Baptist church’s minister—that she’d appreciate my asking her out, I acted so cool.

I waited until I got home that afternoon to phone her, hiding in our darkened dining room to make this most important call.

We set our date for the following Saturday night. On that Friday night, our church decided to hold a lock-in for the youth group. The idea of spending a night in a cold, dark church didn’t appeal to me, but whatever standing I had with my peers did. I feigned as much excitement as an impious teenager could. On that night, though, nothing else about me was feigned: not my increasing nausea; not my getting sick in the basement men’s room; not my having to be driven home by my friend Freddy, my shame multiplying with every step; and, most of all, not the phone call I had to place the next morning, cancelling my date.

Everyone else thought my sickness grew out of the frozen fish sticks we gassed to death in the church kitchen oven. That notion made a certain sense and, if true, would have left me feeling more or less sound on Saturday. Yet, I woke with a fever and couldn’t keep any food down. I still wouldn’t recommend gassing fish sticks, but what I had contracted was a classic adolescent stomach virus.

I could hear the mix of disappointment and disbelief in her voice. My Baptist girl later confessed that she thought I simply wanted a way out of dating her. This was but one example of how well she didn’t know me.

I convinced her to put off our date until the following Saturday night—that I truly was sick, especially over cancelling our date. Finally the date arrived, and I remember we went to the Green Springs Four Cinemas to see Travels With My Aunt, starring Maggie Smith. I didn’t know then that the film was based on a Graham Greene novel, and truly, had I known, I wouldn’t have known anything anyway. It was a strange movie choice, and I still don’t know why or how we chose it. What did it matter anyway, since ten minutes after the film started, we began making out?

After the film, we made our way back to Bessemer and to the parking lot up behind the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness building on 4th Avenue where, within ninety seconds, my date managed to remove both her and my pants in one decisive motion. And then, through our relative fogs, I heard her say, “I’m on the pill to keep my periods regular. But I don’t want to have sex.”

Maybe my mother was afraid, then, of my dating Baptists because they were such fast movers.

In any case, I couldn’t translate the tongue she was speaking in. I was sixteen, a good Methodist boy, thrilled beyond belief that a girl would kiss me this ardently and would be so kind as to remove my pants. I considered this just an early stage of our relationship and decided to take her at her word. A few years later—okay, let’s say a full decade later—it occurred to me that she was most definitely speaking a language that I translated badly, or really not at all.

Undeterred by my slow motion, the following night she invited me to do something else I had never conceived of doing: go to Sunday evening service with her at First Baptist Church. Why shouldn’t I go, I thought? Isn’t this what boyfriends do? Besides, how different could the service be from all I had seen and known at my own Methodist branch?

Very different, it turned out, as while things proceeded fairly normally for a time—hymns, offering, very lengthy prayers—there came a moment that we Methodists term “The Call to Worship,” and which Baptists, I think, refer to as “The Time to be Saved.” On this night, at this moment in the service, a high school boy I knew, Phillip Ward, did what I had only heard rumors about before: he stood up in front of God and everyone and spoke in tongues.

Maybe he had the license to do so since he was our high school’s junior class chaplain. Or maybe he was truly filled by the Holy Spirit and grew that hollow throat. I don’t know, and the other thing I don’t know is how to translate or approximate what I heard him say in the thirty or forty seconds that followed. Maybe he used words like “meshugge,” “meghillah,” “shibboleth,” and “Cthulhu.” Maybe he was speaking Russian, since our high school offered such a course.

Every kid I knew, most vocally Phillip himself afterward, claimed that Phillip went into a trance while speaking in the tongue of the Holy Ghost. I didn’t know what to think, though my deepest suspicion was that he was faking. I don’t know whether my date agreed or not, but I do know that when we walked out of that sanctuary, she suggested we head back to the Jehovah Witness parking lot, where, again, she moved in completely mysterious ways.

We spent a few weeks dating, practicing foreign body maneuvers—maneuvers that never culminated because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, much less what she wanted. And, I have to confess, her touch wasn’t all that pleasant anyway. After all, what could she have known about pleasurable touching and caressing? She was only fifteen.

#

I was never filled with the Holy Ghost. Maybe I was too

young. Maybe I didn’t believe enough. Maybe I didn’t ask

for God’s spirit in the right way. I didn’t lift my hands when

the choir sang and rarely sang along. I kept my body close,

my hands gripped on the pew in front of me, my feet planted

solidly on the ground. No toe-tapping, no bouncing. . .

I wanted to dance like the others, but I didn’t know how

to unfold myself. I was afraid to be touched by the Holy Ghost.

–Ashley Blooms (75)

I didn’t have a spirit or body filled with the Holy Ghost, either. I have neither the conception nor the imagination of what that would be like. Feel like. To be touched by an angel.

Once, when I was twelve, my church invited a youth minister from beyond our congregation to witness to my Sunday school class. This was so uncharacteristic of my church, perhaps of Methodists in general, but I suppose someone there knew about fast girls and parking lots. There must have been ten or twelve of us, many of whom were my good friends outside of church and generally scoffers and doubtful posers about any religious experience. The youth minister had us sit in a circle, him included, bow our heads, and then he suggested that there was one simple thing we needed to do if we wanted to be filled by the Holy Spirit and have eternal life:

“Just raise your head and meet my eye,” he said.

At first, I wondered if such a thing could be real, but if being saved were this easy, why not do it? What could it cost? It didn’t matter that I had already been christened as a child, that I was a full-fledged member of the church with my very own Revised Standard Edition Bible, my name etched in gold on the cover. This was a booster, a guarantee. Supplemental insurance.

I raised my head. I met his eye.

I don’t know if anyone else did so because afterward, in the safety of our walk to the nearby bakery, we all denied even thinking of doing so. None of us tough guys would admit to the weakness of wanting to be saved. Maybe we feared that the touch we would get from whatever spirit might be available to us might actually move us.

I don’t know.

What I do know is what happened when I raised my head; when I met this twenty- or twenty-one-year-old minister-man’s eye. I had never seen or heard of this man before. But I definitely saw him then, when he met my eye, when he winked at me. And when he smiled, only for me.

I looked down quickly, and neither in that moment nor in any of the millions that followed, through the rest of that “lesson,” through the main morning service, or through our family’s traditional Sunday roast beef lunch was I filled with anything other than the deepest sense of “creep-out.”

I don’t know how it is that a twelve-year-old can know what he shouldn’t know, what, if all else is good and equal, he shouldn’t have to know. But in that moment, that time and place on the third floor of our church, I suddenly knew something I had never thought about before.

I don’t know why the spirit of the Lord is so often coupled with forbidden acts or desires; though, I’ve long sought these answers.

#

I thought of these scenes of my youth again, these uncomfortable, rebellious, and nominally religious moments, as I finished reading Ashley Blooms’ essay, “Fire in My Bones”:

I was afraid to be touched by the Holy Ghost. I was afraid

to be touched. I was afraid that no touch could be good,

because I had learned and was learning still that some touches

hurt…What I can’t forget: five-year old me, lying on my back

on my abuser’s cold basement floor, my breaths ragged as I

stare at the place where mushrooms grow from the dark

earthen walls. The stench of cold earth mixed with the mothballs

scattered in the corners to keep the snakes away. (75-6)

I wrote my own ending of sorts regarding the Baptist church of tongues, maybe regarding the guises of supposed holy men, too. When I was seventeen, I was invited back to that house of worship by my high school choir teacher, who was also music director for the First Baptists.

I had been taking choir as an academic subject ever since seventh grade, always with Mr. Fleming, our choirmaster. Who knows where he ranked as “effective,” as “motivating,” as “developer of young voices.” Over the years, he chose very strange arrangements for us: “Yellow Bird;” “Cantante Domine;” “When the Foeman Bares His Steel (Taranta-ra Taranta-ra).” He did try secular, popular tunes, too: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head;” “Windy;” “We’ve Only Just Begun.” There was also some song about Noah’s Ark, where, apparently, some “animal” in dialect asked “Who dat Chevin’?” Our zenith as a choir, or, rather, in our offshoot Boys Choir, was our performance of “Down in the Valley,” for which we received “1’s” at district competition and would have been invited on to state had some of our boys not been caught by the buses smoking.

Poor Mr. Fleming. He tried so hard. In ninth grade, he auditioned us for the spring musical, The Pajama Game. I have no idea what he or anyone else was thinking in 1971 about staging this musical. Most of my friends and I were listening to Santana, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull; others to War, Stevie Wonder, The Temps. Yet, we also clandestinely admitted liking AM hits, such as  “Teach Your Children,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Spirit in the Sky.” The Youth in Christ group at school even hosted Religion Emphasis Week, where at the start of each day’s assembly, someone would try to “rock us out” by playing “My Sweet Lord” or “O Happy Day.” But they omitted, sadly, “One Toke Over the Line (Sweet Jesus).”

I tried out on a whim for the chorus of Pajama Game, but I never practiced beforehand and didn’t realize that my audition song, “This Guy’s in Love with You,” was pitched too high for my voice. Fleming made me feel as good as any choirmaster could after my voice broke on the fourth line:

“Don’t worry, I have a good sense of your voice,” he said.

So, while I didn’t make the cast of that musical, (Fred Kiker, whose voice wasn’t any better than mine, did because he chose a song that fit his range: “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), Fleming didn’t forget me, either. I got a short trio-solo in “Down in the Valley” when I was a sophomore. And then, in my junior year, Fleming took a greater chance on me.

I was in the choir at First Methodist, and our choir director, Mr. Pinion, would occasionally stage Sunday evening musicals for our youth. It was a no-brainer in the sense that, at most, our Sunday evening service drew thirty parishioners. When we performed “Lightshine” at least we had a few more parents in the congregation. I don’t know if Fleming heard about our success; one of the rival Baptist churches in town asked us to perform at their evening service; though, we had to leave out any semblance of the choreographed square-dance number, since, usually, Baptists and dancing didn’t mix.

This is the point at which Ashley Blooms’ story stops me.

In her Appalachian Baptist church, when the singing started, the women swayed and stomped their feet to the rhythm of the hymns. Despite all they had seen, despite all that had been done to them, despite the handprints on their arms. I didn’t know that Baptists, especially women, could dance in church. After reading Ashley’s story, I wasn’t sure why they still wanted to—how they were able to pretend that what had happened to them hadn’t or, at least, how they kept the faith to ignore what had happened or get beyond it.

I guess no one told the youth minister at South Highland Baptist about what was going on in the mountains above us, the dancing, that is.

However Fleming heard about our performance, or if he did at all, he remembered me. Staging a new religious musical for First Baptist, Celebrate Life, he thought my high school baritone would be perfect for one of the three male leads. He also chose my co-Methodist best friend, a true tenor, and so “Go Methodists,” right? My innocent choirmaster let into the Baptist midst a closeted Methodist gay guy and me: a boy who didn’t believe in tongue-talk and who had decided to never again raise his head to meet the gaze of a would-be spiritual host.

For three successive nights we danced (!) and sang in the Baptist sanctuary, and in the ironies of Art and Religion and Life’s Great Celebration, my part allowed me to assume for one scene the holiest of Christian figures, writhing in mimed agony to the whipping perpetrated by the Romans just before they settled him for good.

I did the scene as faithfully as I could and then sung along with the chorus, matching eyes with several earnest Baptist girls (none being my fast date from the year before), who looked at me with a certain kind of fire as the musical culminated with,

HE IS ALIVE, HE IS ALIVE! HE IS ALIVE!”

I was never much of an actor, but in that moment, I understood the art of making others believe what you don’t. What I can’t.

#

But I can’t leave the story here, because I can’t let you think I am unmoved by the sacred, or at least by sacred music. In the days when I went to church begrudgingly but faithfully, I sang every hymn that was ordered, whether I was in the choir or on the eternal back row of church youth. Singing was the only part of the service that ever meant anything to me. Even when I was a kindergartner not wanting to be separated from my mother, I stopped crying long enough to enjoy singing “In the Temple.”

I didn’t cry for love of spirit in church, though, and the hymns, as beautiful as they often were, never moved me to rejoice or ask to be “saved.” Nevertheless, there have been two occasions when I have felt through sacred music something like a spiritual calling. They are strange moments, but then, isn’t that how the Holy Ghost works?

There is an episode of The Andy Griffith Show where early on a Sunday evening, Andy and Barney harmonize to “The Church in the Wildwood,” Andy accompanying them on his old six-string guitar. Maybe it’s the peace of their voices, the nostalgia of the words. All I know is that I want to be on that porch with them every time I view that episode: “No place is as dear to my childhood, as that little white church in the vale.”

The other moment comes in Junebug, the 2005 film directed by Phil Morrison. Centered on a North Carolina family and its prodigal eldest son, the film takes us one evening to a family night supper at the local Baptist church. The youthful preacher asks the son, George, to favor the collected with a song. George has apparently done this on many occasions in years past, before he escaped the church and his family. Together with two other sinners, he sings, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” to the tears and wonder of his mother, his sister-in-law, and his new outlier wife. I’ve seen the film many times and use it in my Southern Film class. Every time I show it, I have to turn my face from my students during this scene because they shouldn’t witness their professor crying, especially over a hymn. Yet, I do cry, and I wonder if it is only because of the refrain, “Come home,” or if it’s more?

In these moments, I’d like to be sitting with George’s family, and I wouldn’t wince if the preacher came over and blessed me.

Still, that’s not the same as believing. It’s just not enough.

Is it, Ashley?

For even though I didn’t encounter or experience your horror, or come close to your still-watered hopes, I nevertheless share your depths: “Maybe I was too young,” and “Maybe I didn’t believe enough,” either. And you could say, couldn’t you, that once I did meet the wink and the leer of a man whose tongue told me that’s “all I had to do to be saved.” I can fairly ask, then, am I saved or not? Is the intention good enough to countermand the actuality? But maybe I’m just playing with semantics, with hollow-throated and hollow-intended words. It’s feeling the spirit that counts, right?

I think more about these moments today, when self-proclaimed religious people want to give passes to the powerful despite their violations of sacred, moral, and constitutional norms. Despite their refusal to denounce those who brandish hate with tiki torches or, yes, enameled or wooden crosses.

It’s just like 1938 or 1967. Same as it ever was.

World without end?

And so, for whatever it’s worth, I am the same, too, as I’ve ever been: that traditional spirit—Holy, Sacred, full of mystery—just isn’t anything I’ve ever felt or had. Or truly believed.


Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Hippocampus, Wraparound South, Flying South, Full Grown People, Eclectica, and Vol 1 Brooklyn. He blogs at Medium.com/@terrybarr and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.

Lights in the Sky

By: Courtney Taylor

In Luis’ yard. LUIS and JACK, both seventeen, sit on lawn chairs at center. Behind Luis, on stage right, is a plastic flamingo. It is late at night in the summer. They sit looking up at the stars.

LUIS looks over at Jack, then looks away.
When Luis isn’t looking, JACK looks over at Luis.

After a moment, LUIS smacks a bug on his arm.

LUIS: Christ, the mosquitoes have been huge this summer.

JACK looks over lazily.

LUIS: My grandma said she thinks these are the biggest mosquitoes Florida’s ever had. I don’t know about that, but . . . You know. You never know.

JACK stares at him for a moment before starting to laugh.

LUIS: Are you laughing at me? Man, I’m trying to have a serious discussion.

JACK: That was, uh, that was really something. Thank you for that.

LUIS laughs.

LUIS: Screw you.

JACK: (squinting at the sky) You see anything tonight?

LUIS freezes.

LUIS: (slowly) Not really.

JACK: (rapidly) Me neither. And it’s a pretty clear night. I already checked about the chances of a thunderstorm or just like clouds in general—

LUIS: A meteorologist now. Add that to the list after UFO-specialist.

JACK: Should look good on the college app.

LUIS laughs.

JACK: (joking) You could put that on yours, too. We both saw the UFO, so. If I am, then so are you.

LUIS falls silent.
JACK looks up at the sky, impatient.

JACK: It’s like, the summer’s almost over. It’s stupid that we haven’t seen another UFO.

LUIS: I don’t know. I mean, we only saw one, it’s not like—I don’t know.

LUIS sits back in his chair, deflated a little.
He glances at Jack, trying to bring something up.

JACK: Yeah, but we’re out in your yard every night. I’ve spent all this time reading online about—

He sighs.

JACK: We should have seen something by now.

Beat.

LUIS: Amara called last night.

JACK: What?

LUIS: I know. I was like. . .

He breaks off and laughs.

LUIS: Do you remember how mad she was after the UFO thing? I thought I’d never hear the end of it.

JACK: I remember.

LUIS: Between her and my mom, it was like . . . Shit. You know? I mean—

JACK: (scoffs) Yeah.

LUIS: Of course you know.

Beat.

JACK: I think my leg’s falling asleep.

He gets up and begins pacing around.
While pacing, JACK looks over at Luis,
trying to bring
something up.

JACK: So, what’d she say then?

LUIS: (shook from his thoughts) What?

JACK: Amara. When she called.

LUIS: Oh. Oh, um, I don’t know. She wants to get back together, or something.

JACK stands by the plastic flamingo.

JACK: Are you going to?

LUIS: Well, my mom thinks I should.

JACK laughs.

JACK: She’s just glad you won’t be one of the alien freaks anymore.

LUIS laughs, turning to look at Jack.

LUIS: She’s never been so pissed at me in my entire life. (imitating her voice) Don’t go around telling people you saw a UFO, Luis. You think this is going to make you look smart? Everyone in this neighborhood is going to think you’re a complete fool.

He upsets himself as he speaks, slumping over in his chair.
JACK stops to look at him before he
continues pacing
the stage, crossing in front of Luis and staring up at the sky.

JACK: You know, I read last night—I was up till five, couldn’t even sleep, but like—did you know there was an alien sighting reported in Delaware this week? Like, what?

LUIS: Huh.

JACK: What even happens in Delaware?

LUIS: You were up till five?

JACK: Yeah. You know, I couldn’t . . . sleep.

Beat.

In the silence, LUIS begins shifting positions in his chair:
putting his legs over one arm,
over the other, both feet on the seat.  

JACK is still pacing behind the chairs, trying to look casual.

JACK: Are you gonna do it?

LUIS: What?

JACK: (frustrated) Get back together with Amara.

LUIS: (defensive) I don’t know. I mean, she’s hot. You liked her at the beginning of the summer.

JACK: Yeah, we both did.

They look over at each other for a moment.

JACK: You wanna get something to eat? Like . . . call for a pizza, or something?

LUIS: I’m not really hungry.

JACK: Dude, you’re like, never really hungry anymore. (teasing) It’s really ruining the whole pizza and alien-hunting thing we’ve got going on.

LUIS grows silent. JACK looks over at him, confused.

JACK: Hey, Luis, it—it was just a joke. I was getting hungry, it’s not—you don’t have to get weird. You look kind of—

LUIS: (spitting it out) Jack, I don’t think we should do this anymore. Look for aliens and all that.

JACK stops in his tracks, stunned.
LUIS gets up, coming to meet Jack at center stage.

LUIS: Okay, don’t freak out.

JACK: What do you mean, don’t freak out? This is—this is what we—

He shakes his head, trying a different tactic.

JACK: Look, we’ve seen a UFO at this location before, right? So I’d bet—I bet we’re going to see one again tonight.

Frantic, JACK jumps up, standing on top of his chair.

LUIS: Jack, what are you doing?

JACK: Look, it’s gotta be tonight, I know it. There’s something about this spot—like the perfect altitude, the perfect—

He jumps off the chair, frenetic.
A light flashes in the sky. JACK freezes.

JACK: Did you see that?

LUIS: (exasperated) See what?

JACK nearly explodes.

JACK: The sky, are you really—there was a light, just now, in the—

He approaches Luis.

JACK: I don’t get it. Do you not want to see it, are you just fucking—

LUIS: Look, we’re almost out of high school, right? Just one more year and we’ll be, like, adults. You know what my mom says, we can’t be running around like—

JACK: Are you gonna listen to everything your mom says? Forever? And then you tell me I need to act like an adult.

LUIS: You know what, I can’t reason with you when you’re like this—

LUIS starts to walk off.

JACK: When I’m like what? When I don’t want to—hey, wait!

LUIS turns back.

LUIS: I already told you. We need to get our shit together, for once. We’ve been the weirdos at school our whole lives, and now we need to focus on—

JACK: The weirdos at school? Do you hear yourself?

JACK scoffs.

JACK: (with spite) Hey, what did your mom say that’s got you so scared you’re running back to Amara and turning your back on me?

LUIS: Turning my back on you? Do you hear yourself? All this over some stupid UFO bullshit—

JACK: I don’t understand what your problem is. You and I are excited about something for once, doing something important, together, and you’re just gonna—

LUIS: It was a light in the sky, that’s it, you douchebag. You don’t need to act like some drama—you know what? I’m out of here. Get your chair off my lawn. I’m going to Amara’s.

He turns, walking out in the direction of the plastic flamingo.

JACK: Yeah, okay, run back to Amara. That’s the kind of shit you always do when you get scared.

LUIS turns back slowly.

LUIS: When I get “scared?”

JACK picks up his chair.

JACK: I’ve been dicked around enough for one night. When you’re done acting like a little bitch, give me a call.

LUIS, ignited, grabs the plastic flamingo from the ground.

JACK: (tired) What are you doing, Luis?

LUIS: What exactly do you think I’m scared of, Jack?

JACK: I don’t want to do this.

LUIS: I’m not scared of you, if that’s what you’re trying to say.

LUIS approaches, holding the flamingo tight in his hand.

JACK: (slowly, with meaning) You know that’s not what I’m saying here.

LUIS: Put the chair down, Jack.

JACK: Are we really doing this?

LUIS holds the flamingo like a bat for a moment.

LUIS: You wanted a fight, you got one.

JACK: I don’t want a fight, asshole. I just wanted—I don’t know, I thought—

LUIS: Put the chair down and fight me, then.

He waves the flamingo menacingly.

JACK: Man, get a grip for a second. You really think you’re gonna hit me with—

LUIS: You want to be a man for once, instead of some stupid pussy who thinks he can just—

JACK drops the chair, charging Luis.

JACK: Fuck you!

LUIS swings the flamingo; JACK dodges.

JACK: You want to hit me, bash my brains in with a plastic flamingo, that’s fine—

LUIS swings; JACK dodges, grabbing the flamingo’s head.
A light flashes in the sky overhead.

JACK: But if you think that’s gonna solve all this, then you’re dead fucking wrong.

They struggle for a moment.
JACK yanks the flamingo out of his hands.
LUIS stares at
him, blankly, breathing heavy.

JACK: Are you done? Or should I start swinging now?

JACK looks down at the flamingo in his hands.

JACK: I can’t believe you just tried to hit me with your mom’s lawn flamingo.

LUIS looks up at him slowly, cautiously, before letting out a laugh.

LUIS: She would have killed me.

JACK: Yeah, she fucking would have.

They look at each other for a moment.
JACK sets the flamingo down gently in LUIS’ chair.

LUIS: Did you see a light just now?

JACK: What?

LUIS: Before, when we were . . . “fighting.”

JACK: Yeah, some fight.

LUIS: I thought I saw something. Could have been heat lightning, I guess.

JACK: Yeah, I guess.

JACK smacks a bug on his arm.

LUIS: Why’d you even like Amara at the beginning of the summer? You barely know her.

JACK: I don’t know. Because you did?

LUIS tenses.
JACK picks his chair back up, setting it up in its original spot.

JACK: She barely knows you, anyhow.

Beat.

JACK: You’re not really gonna give up the UFO hunt, right?

LUIS chuckles.

LUIS: I don’t think I can now, you know? It’s what we do.

JACK looks up at Luis.
LUIS looks back up at the stars, turning away from Jack.

LUIS: I could have sworn I saw something, though.

Slowly, JACK walks over, standing next to Luis and staring ahead.

LUIS: (after a moment) I’m not really gonna call Amara, by the way.

JACK: Okay.

Beat.

LUIS lets out a long breath.
Then, suddenly and loudly, he slaps a bug on his arm.

JACK: Christ.

LUIS: Just won’t leave me alone.

JACK laughs a little. LUIS smiles.

LUIS: (starting to move) I should put the flamingo back on the lawn before my mom—

JACK grabs his arm. LUIS turns.
They lock eyes, and JACK draws him in closer, then stops.

Silence.

LUIS: (overwhelmed) I need to clean up the lawn, before. It’s the least I can do—

JACK pulls him in closer.
JACK looks at LUIS with intensity before glancing at the sky quickly.
He stops, his eyes widening. A spotlight falls upon them.

JACK: (looking at the sky in awe) Luis.

LUIS is gathering his courage, still looking at Jack.
He takes a breath. 
JACK turns to him, taking Luis’s cheeks in his hands.

It looks like they’re about to kiss when JACK
turns Luis’s head towards the sky.

LUIS looks up with a mixture of awe and fear.

JACK: We found it.

LUIS: Oh my god.

JACK: Just look, Luis. Look.

LUIS looks back at Jack.

Lights down.

End of play.


Courtney Taylor is a writer from Massapequa, New York. Lights in the Sky was first presented by Stony Brook University’s Theatre Arts Department and was originally produced by Stony Brook Pocket Theatre. Lights in the Sky has recently been produced by Stray Dog Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri, and by River’s Edge Arts Alliance in Hudson, Massachusetts. Courtney’s work has appeared in Weasel Press’s Vagabonds: Anthology of the Mad Ones, The Stony Brook Press, and The Shakespeare Standard.

If You Want to Get Along, Trapped in the Matrix, & One Too Many Incidents

By: William Doreski

If You Want to Get Along

A black police officer finds
the gun in his locker sabotaged
by a nail jammed in the barrel.
If he fired it on the range
it would burst and kill or maim him.
When he reports it, the chief
chides him for lacking humor,
assigns him to traffic detail
until he “learns to get along.”

If you want to get along, go along,
Sam Rayburn told Lyndon Johnson
in the forties when men were men
and women were appendages
and black men didn’t exist.
Reading about this attempted
murder diffuses my thinking,
and I return to my childhood
on my great uncles’ plantation.

Field hands picking tobacco
told me ghost stories fresh from
Jamaica, where spirits blossomed
in primary colors, and death
didn’t always stay dead enough
to satisfy honest mourning.
They taught me how to smoke
raw green tobacco leaf
and tie trick knots that later
would puzzle my fellow Boy Scouts.

Now the pale New Hampshire
July afternoons pass with mute,
middle-class decorum. Police
walk the streets, chalking the tires
of cars parked in two-hour spaces.
No one jams their guns with nails,
no one accuses them of failing
to get or go along. I miss
the fragrance of green tobacco
flexing through red Valley soil.                     

Does anyone bother flying
from Jamaica to pick the crop?
Or do immigration officials
deport them with their machetes
and flasks of high-octane rum?
The hills angle into mutual
embrace, the hot light flailing
at the edge of my vision where
dark figures mingle voices
accented just for emphasis
and to make the story true.

 

Trapped in the Matrix

You lure me outdoors to watch
fireflies dandle in sultry dark.
No stars or moon to compete
with the sparks that puncture
the gloom with mating displays.

Why do you need my witness
to confirm that fireflies ignite
themselves in honor of fireflies
all over the world? We lean
against the night instead of
each other, crickets counting
the hours to dawn, the snort
of a browsing deer a comical
exclamation to alert us
to layers of fear and contentment.

If I reached toward the grumble
of forest I’d first encounter
a phalanx of daylilies planted
when I still almost loved this place,
before the great impoverishment.
Daylight hurts like the memory
of more flexible structures, but night
inserts its stainless prongs and feels
for the organs most at risk.

I should have studied harder
and become the pianist my mother
envisioned striding onstage
to play music she didn’t begin
to comprehend. You should have gone
to medical school and practiced
the healing that would assuage
the cold that crawls over you
even in the steamiest moments.

But this level of destruction
has educated us so finely
we can feel the heat of fireflies
enlarging our pores, opening us
to the rumpling of continents
begun when the world was fresh.

One Too Many Incidents

In a daze, I fling myself
on the bad guy and crush him,
voiding an exoskeleton
toughened by years of felony.
Police stand by, applauding.
I leave the scene by driving
up a narrow road littered
with car parts gleaming and sharp
in the lowering yellow sun.
A drawbridge across a gully
not even canoes could navigate.
As I cross, it opens, dunking me
into the hold of a sunken ship.
I designed this ship in honor
of Leonardo, whose drawings
of fanciful contraptions inspired
the idea of a self-healing ship
that struck by bombs or torpedoes
would apply first aid and continue
its world cruise unimpeded.
It sank because it tipped over,
because of too much superstructure
for too little hull. I’m here
with the ghosts of the mimes I knew
when everyone was young enough
to find mimes funny enough
to imitate. They died of luck:
car crash, cancer, drowning,
boredom, angst, and suicide.
I escape the hold and climb the bank
and find a man reading Gibran’s
Prophet right there by the gully,
his face clenched with the agony
of bombast. That man is also me,
the ghost of me that arose
when I thought I had drowned,
The pain of reading that gibberish
salts through me like a serum,
and I toss the book in the gully
and walk away from as much
of myself as I can spare.


William Doreski has published three critical studies and several collections of poetry. His work has appeared in various journals. He has taught writing and literature at Emerson, Goddard, Boston University, and Keene State College. His new poetry collection is A Black River, A Dark Fall.

The Symphony of Sickness

By: Maia Evrona

I wheeze when I try to breathe,
and my nose is so stuffed up
it’s been transformed into an instrument
in my symphony of sickness.

My voice has changed: always weak—
a mangled flute—
now it emerges thick
from my sore and congested throat.

With my fever breaking, I can take off my socks
without my feet turning blue and hurting
with a pain that attacks and lasts like the sudden crash
and lingering vibration when cymbals clash.

What a switch! I am so acutely sick
that my chronic symptoms seem faded…
I like to pretend they’re only noticed
in between my ordered sneezes.

But the foghorn cough that came and went,
the throbbing migraines and creaking knees,
the sounds that sound louder than they really are,
clanging against my raw and beaten eardrums,

never did sound like this coordinated affair,
with its conductor so present and focused,
the musicians operating perfectly
on cue.

The symptoms that have droned on
and come and gone over the years,
sometimes louder, sometimes softer,
sometimes as only a memory
echoing in my ears,
have always felt like a cacophony,
so different from this
orchestra.


Maia Evrona’s poems, as well as excerpts from her memoir on growing up with a chronic illness, have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her translations of Yiddish poetry were awarded a fellowship in 2016 from the NEA and have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Kenyon Review Online, and other venues. She also loves to sing. Her website is http://www.maiaevrona.com/.

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