Category: Winter 2019 (Page 1 of 3)

The Harrower

By: George Witte

A ditch parts husks of villagers.
Pale bodies heaped for prompt disposal, spent.
A boy approaches, fleeing hell,
suspiciously well-fed
(as commentators later note).
Bright eyes and healthy teeth
suggest the photo’s staged, composite hoax
where past and present tense
elide. What child
could pass through slaughter underanged?
And yet they do;
he did, and we must too.
That’s the path forgetful orphans
take, our parents gone before we knew
enough to harvest memory
against the day such cells
devour themselves. Riding air, we travel
light between this world and theirs,
reluctant guests, malinger
where they were.
___________ That boy:
He lived anonymous, a workingman,
identified through ledger notes
his captors kept meticulous,
each name a number, date, and means
of end. Not one
spared but he, whose record line
concluded blank and left
the question open. Nor when found,
now small-town widowed pensioner
and dogged by press could he recall
who framed and shot his one surviving proof
or where he wandered next or why
he seemed to smile or what,
before, he fed
upon.


George Witte‘s books are The Apparitioners, Deniability, and Does She Have a Name? New poems have been published in Hopkins Review, Nimrod, Poetry Northwest, and The Yale Review. He lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

TCR Talks with Catherine Chung

By: Kaia Gallagher

Writing about family and the search for identity, Catherine Chung has published two best-selling novels. Released to great acclaim in June of 2019, her novel, The Tenth Muse, is an intricately layered story about a female mathematician who tries to unlock a mathematical theorem while investigating the mysteries surrounding her identity that were buried in Germany during World War II.

Chung’s first novel, Forgotten Country, was awarded an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2013. It was also listed as one of Booklist’s 10 Best Debut Novels in addition to being recognized by the San Francisco Chronicle and Bookpage.

Chung’s short stories and essays have been published in The New York Times, The Rumpus and Granta. She was the recipient of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize in Poetry in 2009 and received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in Creative Writing in 2014.

While she was working on The Tenth Muse, she was appointed as a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She currently serves as a fiction editor for Guernica Magazine and teaches creative writing at Adelphi University.

After receiving a mathematics degree from the University of Chicago, Chung worked for the RAND Corporation. She earned her MFA from Cornell University.

In this interview with The Coachella Review, Chung talks about the themes in The Tenth Muse related to female empowerment, gender bias, and the role of women in the field of mathematics.

THE  COACHELLA REVIEW: The title of your book, The Tenth Muse, invokes a Greek goddess who rejects her divine heritage in order to tell stories using her own voice. Why did you select this title and how does it connect to the ways in which the female characters in your novel struggle to be recognized for their talents?

CATHERINE CHUNG: I really wanted this book to engage with and sometimes push back on the kinds of stories I grew up with. Some of the earliest stories I heard were myths and folktales—grand stories about how the world was formed and order was made, and stories about adventure and danger and what we’re allowed to do and get away with and accomplish. A lot of the female characters played the supporting character in the male’s journey: they were the romantic interest, the muse, the mother of the hero. Not always, of course: I found stories about Athena, the war-loving goddess of wisdom, and stories about Artemis the huntress who refused to take a husband and turned everyone who fell in love with her into animals absolutely enthralling. But it was clear in those stories that they were extraordinary, not just because they were immortal, but because their talents and passions were unexpected in part because of their gender.

I wanted the book to pay homage to them, to the gender-expectation-defying characters of my childhood. I wanted also to create a new story about a muse who rejects the expectations put upon her by her birth, and strikes off on her own, and for this muse to be an inspiration to my narrator. That’s why the tenth muse is there, and the book is titled after her.

TCR: In The Tenth Muse, you have incorporated stories about well-known women mathematicians with others who are fictional. How does this blending of real-life stories into your fictional account help enhance the story?

CC: I thought the real-life stories of these women mathematicians who overcame so much to pursue this totally unexpected passion of studying mathematics were fascinating. Mathematics doesn’t sound like something you’d marry to do, but Sofia Kovalevskaya married her tutor because he promised to take her to Germany to study. Sophie Germain posed as a schoolboy to get lecture notes. She taught herself languages to read math textbooks. It’s extraordinary, and important and humbling for me to remember, that before I imagined a character who would single-mindedly overcome immense obstacles to accomplish so much, that these women had already done so in real life.

TCR: Throughout The Tenth Muse, you have described the language of mathematics and the reason why mathematicians are drawn to work on still unsolved formulas. Was it your hope that more people would appreciate the beauty and mystery of mathematics?

CC: I grew up in a math family, so I’ve always been convinced of the beauty and mystery of mathematics. It’s been a bit of a shock the number of people who told me after my book came out that they’d always hated the subject. I had just sort of assumed everyone had a secret burning desire to think about and talk about how mind-blowing certain mathematical ideas are, like the idea of infinity and different sizes of infinity, or what makes a number imaginary versus real. This book was a bit of a love letter to those ideas and the people who live them.

TCR: The protagonist in The Tenth Muse faces significant gender bias as she attempts to become an academic mathematician in the late 1970s. Why did you choose to situate your novel in this time period? As someone who studied mathematics in college, do you believe the barriers for women mathematicians have improved since that time?

CC: She actually comes of age as a mathematician in the 1960s, and I think I chose that time for a number of reasons. First, she was born in America right after WWII which was important for the plot regarding how her American war veteran father and Chinese mother met, but also because I was really interested in the way that American science changed because of the tremendous exodus of European scientists and academics out of Europe and into America as a result of the war. I was also really interested in the way that education changed for women in the 1960s. Women weren’t allowed into most Ivy League schools until 1969. The Civil Rights movement and Title IX meant that was a time of such tremendous change and potential for women academics, who were given chances they’d never had. I do think the barriers for women mathematicians have changed a great deal since that time, thank God. At the same time, I think the barriers are still significant, maddeningly so.

TCR: The protagonist in The Tenth Muse, Katherine, shares your name (Catherine) albeit with a slightly different spelling. Are there other ways in which you have blended autobiographical details about your own life into the narrative?

CC: Not really! I feel like if you ask any Catherine-with-a-C they’ll tell you how different we are from the Katherines-with-a-K, and vice versa. It was partly an inside joke with myself, just because everyone assumed my first book was autobiographical, and I thought who would think this book about a math genius in her 70s would secretly be about me? It was also partly born out of another inside joke with myself. When I was a child I loved Anne of Green Gables so much, and she broke my heart by announcing in one of her books that she was glad another character was a Katherine-with-a-K because “a K is so much more alluring. A C always looks so smug.” And so I always had a lifelong fascination with these other Katherines, these alluring Katherines with their glamorous, incredible lives. So I thought why not write about one?

TCR: As the protagonist in The Tenth Muse, Katherine struggles to learn about her lost parents and to find her place in the world. Who are the other writers you admire who have also dealt with themes of “otherness” and disconnection?

CC: William Faulkner. Ray Bradbury. Alexander Chee. Virginia Woolf. James Baldwin.

TCR: In addition to your two books, Forgotten Country and The Tenth Muse, you are a poet and have also published a number of short stories and essays. What has been your experience as a writer in exploring these different narrative forms? Which of these narrative forms do you prefer?

CC: Poetry is my first true love, but it seems somehow I grew away from it as I grew older. I’m always hoping I’ll find my way back to its embrace (as a writer: I still read it, of course!). I worked on an experimental theatre project exploring the idea of Gretel from “Hansel and Gretel” with my friends the poet Lauren Alleyne, video-artist Tomiko Jones, and composer Sidney Boquiren—I don’t have a preference, I just want to always be working in a way that makes me feel the most free.

TCR: Could you share with us details about your next writing project?

CC: I’m working on a new novel I can’t say too much about, and I also just started working on a new opera “ A Girl and the Stars” with the composer Faye Chiao about a girl who, on a quest to save her home world from the ravages of an ecological disaster, finds her way to a new and dazzling, more technologically-advanced world amid the stars, where she is promptly arrested, and where she will have to make the case that humanity should be saved.


Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.

Women are Crewelwork

By: Barbara Daniels

A man thinks they’re made of chain
stitches, stiff appliqué. When
they enter a room, he smells

their blood. He rises at once and
leaves the room of a woman’s
body, her half-drunken hat,

the flounce of her skirt.
He’s scared of old women’s
hands like spatulas, legs

furrowed like corky trees.
He walks out to water.
Big Timber Creek pulls sand

toward the ocean, stirring up
filth. He reads its dark glossary—
purling, cabling, casting off.

The lip of a mushroom leers.
The sky exhales. He closes
his eyes and tries not to breathe.


Barbara Daniels is the author of Rose Fever, a book of poetry published by WordTech Press. Her second collection, Talk to the Lioness, is forthcoming from Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press, which previously published her chapbooks Black Sails, Quinn & Marie, and Moon Kitchen. Daniels’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, and other journals. She has received three fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

 

 

 

 

The Mortimer Chronicles

By: Mary O’Connell

Mortimer’s Magnificent Monday

It was my husband’s idea to make Mortimer both an omniscient narrator and a tender hooligan who drinks bourbon and frequents the Gentlemen’s Club by the interstate. I preferred a brooding Mortimer writing bitter, aspirational entries by the light of the moon: Dear Reader, Cursed be the maniacal God that made me a plush toy! Ah, Mortimer! Ah, humanity! Etc.

Mortimer is a toffee-colored teddy bear, the former star of a preschool literacy project called Book, Bear, and Basket. Each week a child in my son’s class took Mortimer home in an old rattan Easter basket and recorded his adventures in a loose-leaf notebook. The pages were preprinted with inane headings for each day of the week, and some freakshow parent with a flair for jaggedy, haunted house calligraphy had written The Mortimer Chronicles on the cover. The teacher sent the book, bear, and basket home with the preschool kids in alphabetical order. Our son Logan didn’t get his turn until late March, so we, the Wyckoffs, had many entries to enjoy.

Dear Reader,

Today Mortimer and Jonah folded used aluminum foil into shiny origami dinosaurs! At naptime, Jonah made a blanket for Mortimer out of an old cloth diaper; Mortimer really enjoyed the feel of recycled, organic cotton next to his fur. After a quick hibernation, Mortimer woke and helped Jonah and Jonah’s mommy make tuna casseroles to take to the homeless shelter. The delicious smells coming from the oven made Mortimer bear-y hungry! The Parmesan cheese bubbled to the top in the shape of a cross; Jonah’s mommy thought that might be because we were doing the work of the Lord. The Less Fortunate members of our community will soon have some yummy in their tummy! Oh, and we also read tons of books! A kidlitpalooza! When Mortimer asked why we read so much, we told him that it was because the Hinkle family chooses NOT to have a TV; big, big blessings everyone!

“Super-size my blessings, Jesus!” my husband hooted, dropping the Merchant Ivory accent he’d used for his dramatic reading.

It was Monday night and Logan was already asleep. Technically, my husband was helping fold the laundry, but he was taking extraordinarily long pauses to read from The Mortimer Chronicles; I had folded ten washcloths to his one. Mortimer was squashed beneath a couch cushion, his head poking out.

“Check it out,” my husband read. “Today I went to a peace rally at Pilgrim Park. I do not understand war, and sometimes I, Mortimer, wonder what is wrong with human beings.

He put the back of his hand to his forehead, stricken. “Sometimes, I, Greg, wonder why each and every preschool parent has to be such a total cliché.”

“So says the editor who keeps alerting us to grammatical mistakes,” I stage-whispered to Mortimer.

“Here’s a good subtitle: Tales of White Privilege. Also, I’m seeing a lot of viewpoint confusion. Is Mortimer or the child supposed to tell the story?”

“Obviously, the parents are writing from the viewpoint of the bear.”

My husband held out his hands to me, palms up, as if about to offer some great gift. “I nominate you to be our unreliable narrator!”

“There’s a surprise.” Already I had the image of Greg kicked back on the couch watching Steven Colbert next to an unfolded basket of laundry while I labored over writing this inane bullshit at the kitchen table. I certainly did not pause to consider my husband’s corporeal tenderness: his bony feet propped on the ottoman, his hands rubbing his face, the prickle and scritch of fingernails against a five o’clock shadow.

He cleared his throat dramatically and read: “Today, Mortimer and I skipped the art museum and went to the biannual Nordstrom’s shoe sale! I bought some hot pink Ugg boots! Mortimer said, ‘Lila, those boots will look oh so stylin’ with your Lily Pulitzer watercolor dress—’

“—Like, oh my God!” I gave up the ghost of resentment; I stuck out my chest and flipped my hair. “I so totally thought these were The Mortimer Chronicles, not Chicken Soup for the Soul of Sorority Bimbo Mommies from Hell.”

My husband flipped the page. “As Sid Vicious once said, now for something in an entirely different vein: Pippa enjoyed a sublime afternoon with Mortimer, playing violin and tromping through the apple orchard. And, then, Pippa, named not, as most assume, for Pippi Longstocking, but for Pippa in the Robert Burns poem—

“Pippa! There’s nothing especially poetic about that creepy little whiner in Van Gogh barrettes, and her mom’s this wheatgrass-and-Pilates crackpot who wears a T-shirt that says Mother by Choice.

“And yet, Pippa’s mother, the mother by choice, has sent forth the muse. Tonight I will take over the Chronicles; tonight I shall be the scribe!” He gave up the ruse of folding laundry and settled back on the couch to write, chuckling, and later completely cracking up, here and there, as he read it to me:

“Dear Reader, Logan was not named, as most assume, for the venerable Boston airport, but for the brilliant purple pancake syrup at IHOP called  ‘Loganberry.’  Logan (henceforth referred to as Loganberry) had a delightful day with Mortimer, blah, blah, blah, but now that young Loganberry has retired to his chambers for the evening, it is time for Loganberry’s parents to, in the immortal words of Missy Elliot, ‘ Get their freak on.’

Welp.

Mortimer’s Terrific Tuesday

 Dear Reader,

Today we had an unexpected guest! Time for a tea party with mugs of milk and boysenberry muffins!

Ode to the sweetly mundane: Greg worked on the taxes and I took Logan downtown for a treat. Clouds of whipped cream topped off our hot chocolates; tiny dark chocolate stars dusted the saucers. Bliss, bliss, bliss. We listened to the Smiths on the drive home, that ancient, dreamy magic of the sharp-chinned and sensitive Morrissey before he turned into a sweaty old racist: “Ignore all the codes of the day; let your juvenile impulses sway.” Greg loved to mock all the forty-something hipsters with their Smiths gear and tragic lack of self-awareness: “Slap on a MAGA hat with your Hatful of Hollow hoodie, and you, my aged friends, are good to go.” But I had once loved Morrissey like a brother—I have no actual brother—and was a bit more sanguine. “‘Nothing gold can stay,’” I always told my husband, as if Robert Frost had specifically predicted Morrissey’s anti-immigration screeds.

Logan and I were still a half block from home when I saw my husband pacing inside our lit garage.

When I pulled into the driveway, he yelled, “Call Michelle!”

I rolled down my window. “Michelle?”

“Michelle!” He flung his hands in the air, disgusted. “Jesus!”

Logan leaned forward in his car seat. “Michelle Jesus?”

“But I don’t know any Michelles,” I said.

“You pretty much have to know a Michelle. Because her son is having an asthma attack, and she’s on her way over here to borrow fifty bucks for an inhaler.”

When I unbuckled Logan’s car seat straps, I remembered. Oh, yes. Michelle was a woman in the Beethoven Babies class I’d taken with Logan when he was not yet a year old. The class attracted the stereotypes who enroll their infants in educational classes:  elderly mothers (see also: Logan’s mom), hippie chicks who carried their babies in cloth slings, suburbanites with Kate Spade diaper bags, and groovy young mamas with their ironical glances and extensive body art. And then there was Michelle. She smelled a little smoky and her son wore rompers patterned with monster trucks and American flags. But because I am forever on the lookout for the Lonely One, and because I refuse to pick my mom-friends based on the allegedly nonexistent American class system, I didn’t snub Michelle. I had been to Michelle’s house for a play date: she served homemade ginger snaps and there was a vase of fresh pink roses on the kitchen table, but she also had a jittery, loud husband who, at eleven o’clock on a weekday morning, was gorging on Kraft caramels and watching Judge Judy.

I hadn’t seen her in over three years, but in minutes there she was, knock-knock-knocking on the back door, blonde and cat-eyed and skinny. She was nice enough, quick to tousle Logan’s hair. “Hi there, punkin’ pie.” But Michelle’s own asthmatic son was not with her. My husband and I exchanged a nervous, neutral smile: Was the little guy chilling at home? Wheezing on his own? Mortimer, perched in his basket on top of the refrigerator, looked askance: This is bearrrry peculiar, people! And because we never seemed to have any actual money in the house—nary a greenback!—it was decided that my husband would drive behind Michelle to the ATM and withdraw fifty dollars from our account.

So Logan and I waited at home. I gave him a bubble bath while Mortimer watched from the towel rack, and then we popped popcorn and cozied up on the couch to write our entry. When I bit down on a hull and cracked an old silver filling, I thought, Fifty bucks, come back!

Dear Reader!

Tonight I went to a café with Logan and his mommy. The stars were out—real ones in the sky and in chocolate sprinkle stars in our hot chocolate! If happiness is warmth, then I am blazing. Mr. Mortimer is on fire, people!

I had mocked the other entries, so it seemed only right to give the Yus and the Zimmermans some enjoyment.

“Don’t forget about Michelle,” Logan said sternly. He looked very schoolmarmish in his chenille bathrobe. “That was part of our day, too. She was nice. She called me pie.”

And so, I started over in a wavering hand—a very eighteenth-century pen-and-parchment look—telling my tale of our delightful visit with an unexpected guest.

Mortimer’s Wacky, Wonderful Wednesday

“I didn’t even know her husband was with her until I was at the ATM punching in my code and I saw a tiny dragon head reflected in the Quik Cash screen. It was an iguana! The goddamn iguana was riding on her husband’s shoulder like a pirate’s parrot.”

The previous night my husband had arrived home too grouchy about his induction into “The First National Bank of Greg” to tell me about his little adventure, but now he was sweet Chatty Cathy with plasticine morning breath from his Invisalign. Logan was snuggled between us in bed, snoring softly, snoring beautifully, really—the heavy, honeyed breathing of the archangels.

“And the iguana was yawning! A slow-motion yawn, his jaw opening millimeter by millimeter. Her husband scratched the iguana under its scaly, iridescent chin and said, ‘Ivana Iguana is sleepy. She needs to start gettin’ to bed a little earlier.’”

“Poor Ivana Iguana! Did she even mention the whereabouts of her asthmatic child? I can’t remember his name—“

“Mama Bear?” Logan’s eyes were still shut, his froggy breath on my cheek.

“Good morning, my sweet boy!” Had anyone else ever loved me so dearly?

Well, yes. Someone had.

Logan said, “Papa Bear?”

Greg snuggled close to our son. “Baby bear,” he said, and then reached for me. We held hands over our curled-up son. Oh, that lost triune joy before showers and breakfast and hey, where’s my dinosaur folder and hey, I thought you were going to buy half-and-half, and hey, let’s go, let’s get moving, look at the clock.

Greg and I traded e-mails and calls all day, sharing free advice from friends and co-workers. The verdict was in: We had probably not helped an asthmatic child, but “enabled”—Aargh! The elbowy, new-age poison of those three syllables!—an adult with an addiction problem. Everyone was in clever agreement that they would not have given Michelle cash; they would have called her bluff by saying, ”Meet you at the pharmacy.”

But what did my husband and I know of addiction? In college our bliss was drinking black and tans and dissecting Bill Callahan’s lyrics; as adults we worked for a university press and enjoyed public TV. And my personal “Just Say No” piece de resistance? I’d been suckered by the revival natural childbirth movement and birthed Logan drug-free in a zinc tub at the Women’s Center.

Wednesday’s chronicle looked a bit drug-addled, though: My husband took another turn and wrote it in swollen, circular letters. He used pastel felt-tips, matte and sweet. His words were Jordan almonds.

Hey Kids!

Here’s a bon mot from my play pal Polonious Panda: Neither a borrower nor a lender be! Unfortunately, Logan’s mommy and daddy do not follow this wise counsel. But, hey, if old Mortimer bear ever needs fifty bucks for heroin or girlie magazines, he knows where to get it! Wheeze, wheeze! Meet you at the pharmacy!

 Mortimer’s Thrilling Thursday

It was early morning, the sky dark-dove gray, when Michelle called, wanting another fifty dollars. My husband stammered, “Um, well, huh, that’s …” and then offered up his panicked wax-museum smile when he mouthed the words, “It’s her!

I took the phone from him and whispered, “Michelle?”

“Hi sweetie! Thanks for picking up the phone! I didn’t want to just pop over—”

“What?” I looked at the digital clock:  5:17.  Outside, the newspaper delivery van revved up the street, headlights blasting our bedroom window.

“Listen, angel, I know it’s late, but I’m going to need another fifty dollars for groceries and, um …” She paused as if choosing the perfect word, and then sang it out, her voice canary-sweet and slicing the syllables. “Pet-ro-le-um.”

I stumbled out of bed with the phone in my hand and went downstairs to pace around the living room. “Look, Michelle, I want to be nice about this but—”

“—Because I’ll sign an I.O.U. I am more than happy to sign an I.O.U.”

“That’s okay. I mean, Michelle, this is actually kind of unusual, you asking for money, because we just had that one class together—I mean, I totally enjoyed that, we totally hit it off—but my husband and I can’t just hand out money, because we live on a tight budget—”

Michelle let out a constellation of tense giggles. “Heh, heh, heh! Is that why you have a Mercedes SUV?  Heh, heh, heh!  Because of your tight budget and all?”

I looked out the living-room window. The van I’d heard was not the orange newspaper delivery van, but an old white van idling in front of our house. I did not tell Michelle that it wasn’t a Mercedes she was seeing in our driveway, that our SUV was actually a Subaru Ascent. Softly, I hung up the phone.

Dear Reader,

It certainly makes for a long, melancholy day when one rises too early! I was up with the chickens and this stuffed bear is one tired cookie. How I would love to hibernate with my family, to empty my mind of all sorrows, both present and looming, and fall into the dark, sweet safety of sleep.

The sun rose, dolling up the house with pale lavender light. My husband and I ate breakfast and had the mother of all whisper-fights.

“You’re always too nice to people,” he hissed. “It makes you a freak magnet. It’s fine to be a one-with-the-people Walt Whitman­–type when you’re childless, but snobbery is a good thing when you’re responsible for another human being. I can’t believe you ever took Logan to their house.”

“Responsible for another human being, right! It was a play date when he was a baby! He was in my arms the whole time. And you’re the one that drove to the ATM to get her the money.”

He wolfishly went at his Nutri-Grain Eggos, lowering his face to the plate. Eventually I heard a guttural, syrupy, “Whatfuckingever.”

“Because,” I said, “we both thought we were helping a child with asthma, do you recall?” I jammed in a bite of waffle and was about to say, Furthermore, you’re the one who fell in love with the Subaru Ascent in black cherry with charcoal interior.

But then Logan raced into the kitchen in his space ship pajamas, holding Mortimer by the leg. “Waffles? Yum!”

Mortimer’s Freaky Friday

Logan was in his car seat, listing off his dinner requests. “Sausage and eggs. No, fish sticks and chicken nuggets. No, what I want is hot dogs. Hot dogs, mama!”

The road was bumpy, crumbling red brick; when I glanced in the rearview mirror, I saw Little Lord Atkin’s curls bobbing along—Oh, Logan’s spring-shine dark locks!

I was thinking of my son’s hair when I looked at my smiley-faced self in the rearview mirror. The last few seconds of my old life were spent noting the flesh-cross of wrinkles between my eyebrows—how it looked like the jaunty little x in Botox, and I was thinking that I should stop plucking and disguise it with my junior high unibrow, and I was also remembering that it was my night to cook, wondering if I could get away with grocery store hot dogs or if I’d need to make a special trip to the Health Mart for Soy Pups and whole-grain buns—Greg was always such a weenie about a proper, organic dinner. And so there I was, turning onto our street, thinking about the pink-skinned palette of easy dinners—Soy Pups vs. Oscar Meyer—when Logan said, “Mommy?  Mommy! Look at our house! Why is the door open? Why is the door open? Why? Mom?”

Dear Reader,

I went with Logan and his mommy to Vallano’s Pizzeria and ate scrumptious sausage pizza. We colored our dinosaur menus with waxy crayons and drank mug after mug of frosty cold root beer. The owner even plugged in the dusty old player piano so Logan and I could watch the piano keys moving all by themselves: Magic! We heard a rueful rendition of “Greensleeves” and then snapped to attention for “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Next, Logan’s mom said we could order dessert. Well, say a triumphant hello to Spumoni ice cream!

It was not in my husband’s nature to forget to lock a door. I stayed in the car with Logan and called the police on my cell phone. The dispatcher offered up increasingly absurd suggestions: “Has the wind perhaps blown open the door? Maybe one of the neighbor’s dogs nosed the door open? Did your husband go for a drink after work?”

“No, no, no,” I said, frantically daydreaming an entirely different husband, a rakish day trader buying White Russians for rummy blondes at the Jet Lag Lounge. Thinking me shrewish and paranoid, the dispatcher finally agreed to radio a call for the police to check our house. And then I drove to the pizza parlor.

Soon enough this would make me sound pretty bad: Was I really so hungry for pizza just then? The two detectives who questioned me later thought I might be the One. (They were not, incidentally, the chubby cop/foxy cop combo of TV reruns. Through the haze of my fresh shock, I thought, Bring me Jimmy Smits.) I explained that, when I couldn’t reach my husband at work or on his cell phone, I wanted to do something normal to calm myself.

And so, to Logan’s delight, we spent three hours at Vallano’s, joking around with the elderly waitstaff in their dandruff-dusted polyester tuxedoes, mowing down sausage pizza and spumoni ice cream, and quite purposefully omitted from the chronicle, also eating pastel bouffants of cotton candy and turtle cheesecake. I told the detectives that I left out the multiple desserts because I didn’t want to alarm Logan’s know-it-all teacher with my nutritional laxity. (The detectives exchanged a wary look that I found unprofessional.)

I turned my phone off; I wasn’t ready for an official update.

And yet I knew that I was leaving my old world behind: community potlucks and Montessori-school fundraisers and the League of Women Voters and all my shimmering, cruelty-free lipsticks. Soon I would care about nothing but Logan. Like the sickly bright refrain of an old Abba song, “I knew, I knew, I knew.” I did not spend the evening at the pizza parlor in purgatorial hopefulness. Already I was at the helm of the ship with my stomach full of stones. All I could do was hold my little boy’s hand and watch the shore disappear: Goodbye! Love you! Right from the start, I loved you! Living at the dorm—a Post-it note stuck on my door: Do you want to study later? It’s cool if you don’t. Whatever, Greg. I loved you loved you loved you loved you.

I already knew—not completely, not yet—that my shocked sorrow was not temporary or anecdotal, but in fact the stark and shitty landscape of the New World.

The fake flicker of electric candles lit up Logan’s face while he looped around the player piano singing, “‘Yankee Doodle went to London just to buy a pony. I am that Yankee Doodle Boy!’”

Mortimer’s Super Saturday

Dear Reader,

Simile is a crock of shit. Metaphor is pointless.

My husband’s murder was a sort of miracle, the horrifying opposite of the happiest day of my life: Logan’s birth. I spent the hours staring at my baby’s turnipy face and thinking, Today is Wednesday. On Tuesday, Logan did not exist in the world. And now he is in the world. Here he is in my arms. Happiness rose in my heart then, a Technicolor swell of lilacs, sweetness distilling and expanding with each of my baby’s soft breaths.

My husband was eating frosted brownies with his co-workers when he laughed at a joke and upended his dessert plate, staining his pants. He was home changing clothes when Michelle and her husband broke into our house through a basement window. They confessed to driving him to the ATM, where he withdrew two thousand dollars because, as Michelle would say in court, “We asked him to. He was really nice about it.”

They drove my husband out to the country.

My husband always hated the sound of gravel crunching under the tires, and I thought this terribly persnickety of him, although now it seems like pure premonition. Michelle, or perhaps her husband (which one? They have turned against each other. Surprise.), shot my husband and left him in a soybean field. Then Michelle and her husband drove on to an acquaintance’s house to buy more crystal meth. The acquaintance’s name was Destiny Frankenstein. (In court, the last syllable was, to my disappointment, pronounced with a long e.). I also learned a few things about Michelle’s life. She’d started out like me, a basic girl from the suburbs, before bad things happened to her and she sought escape in synthetic pleasure. She had been somebody’s baby once upon a time—somebody’s hurt little girl in pigtails swinging a lunchbox—before she became the agent of my husband’s doom. I worried that juror number nine, a young-looking twenty-one-year-old wearing a Jonas Brothers T-shirt and cut-offs, would feel a burst of sympathy for Michelle—as I had—and hang the jury, but Michelle was found guilty.

In any case, that knowledge belonged to the future. Saturday was the Day After, with the harshly apocalyptic horror of telling Logan, with a parked patrol car leaking oil Rorschach hearts on the driveway, with Mother Nature—the leafy super-bitch—not showing her respect, not showering us with blustery gray rain. Saturday was clear and lovely. Fresh. Sunshine from the kitchen window lit up the Granny Smith skins in the recycling tub next to the kitchen sink—ahhhh!—but lodged next to the tart and chartreuse brilliance of old apples was a baseball-sized wad of lint. My husband was an ardent recycler and stripped the lint trap of the clothes dryer daily. Because he knew this lint recycling made me want to stab myself, he did it on the sly, balling the lint in his fist—an eco-rat with his cheese. I dreamed up a postmortem greeting card embossed with swirled golden letters: Kudos on saving the lint!

I hadn’t slept on Friday night, and planned to keep a vigil on Saturday night and every night thereafter, believing sleeping would be disloyal to My Guy, as if I were a bouffanted Ronette and my husband a dozy Christ who might be resurrected by my fatigue. But Logan and I spent the night at my parents’ house, and my mother gave me two Valium. The first tablet left me in twilight hysteria, shocking myself over and over, sleeping for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch only to wake and not remember why I was in my childhood bedroom with my son in the canopied twin bed next to me, his arm curled around Mortimer Bear. Hey but, where’s… Hey, but where’s…

And so, I crunched up the other Valium. And then I fell and fell and fell into the slow-jawed yawn of the iguana.

Mortimer’s Sunny Sunday

More fun in the new world: I did not think to pull the college student manning the children’s department at Dillard’s aside and whisper the reason my son needed a suit, and so he asked Logan, “Whatcha gettin’ all duded up for, little man?” And in the dressing room, Logan clutched Mortimer and studied himself in the mirror—the pin-striped suit made him look like a beauteous shrunken stockbroker—and said, “Mommy, do we have to give Mortimer back, too?”

The fluorescent lights tinted the half-moons beneath our eyes a pale, Martian blue. From the speakers in the ceiling came the haunted, skinny voice of Karen Carpenter, singing, “We’ve only just begun.” I remembered the drunken freshman night I met my future husband, how he’d said, “You look like the lead singer of Bikini Kill,” and how my heart floated right up.  

My thoughts were a blur of come back to me, but I was the adult; I was in charge. So, I squatted down and kissed my son on the nose. “We’ll never lose Mortimer,” I cooed, by way of ineffective consolation.

“Yes, we will,” Logan said, pulling away. “Kendall Yu gets to take him home next week. It’s her turn.”

“Kendall is not taking Mortimer,” I said. Because, really, the world pretty much owed us a teddy bear. “Kendall will want you to keep Mortimer. Mortimer belongs to you now.”

“Really, Mom? Forever?”

I rebounded that magical word and shot it back to him with a fulsome smile, as if—there now!—our lives were sweetly settled, as if I were wearing a reindeer sweater and slicing pumpkin bread, fresh snow speckling the kitchen windows.

“And the basket?”

“Sure, the basket! Of course!”

“And the book?”

“Yours, baby. It’s all for you.”

And then I started swallowing all my ragged tears and Logan whispered, “You’re okay, honey. You’re okay.”

***

That night in his sleep, Logan said, “Dad!” with the brightest, warmest relief, then fell back into his agony of see-saw snoring.

I held him in my arms while I wrote a final entry in the Mortimer Chronicles:

Dear Reader, It must be acknowledged that Logan’s parents had a baby primarily for aesthetic reasons: they were getting old, forty almost, and feared becoming the childless couple with the folk art collection and NPR tote bags. Additionally, they saw the people yelling at their children at Pizza Hut and knew they could do a far better job. It was easy to imagine the longing looks they would get from the general public when they strolled their baby down the street, for their future parental selves would be soft-spoken and intelligent, kind and slim. Such crappy people deserve a bratty little Britannica Junior, but instead they got the sunshine miracle of Logan. One night when baby Logan was only a few days old, his mommy woke to find his daddy at the window. He looked radiantly happy standing there in the silver-blue moonlight, holding his baby.

My Dearest Reader, this is where we found our surprise happy ending: with you, Logan, with your baby face an open moonflower reflected in the windowpane, with Dad stripped of all his sour fears of sentimentality, stripped clean of his ironical composure, saying, “This must be heaven.”


Mary O’Connell has published a short story collection, Living with Saints, and two YA novels, The Sharp Time and Dear Reader. Her most recent essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Lit Hub and Longreads, and her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines. Her essay Writing the Monsignor (Longreads) was selected as a notable essay in the 2018 Best American Essays collection, and her short story Limbo! Limbo! (Idaho Review) received special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

The Brambles

By: Michelle Bracken

At thirty-three years old, I work for the local school district, and after nine years of teaching elementary school, I leave the classroom for an office position. I work in a department founded to serve the needs of second language learners, but the truth is, it’s harder than teaching.

The pay is better. The hours, too. I tell myself that I will have a greater impact on students, but there are days I miss the classroom: the sounds of a school, the tattles and stories children tell, the questions they ask, the way they run up and throw their arms around me. The light in their eyes—the hope. It’s unmistakable. That’s the one thing I’ve never had. As a child, I had no hope, just a darkness I could not escape like an albatross around my neck.

***

By the time I am eight, I have learned how to change a diaper, how to properly make a bottle for my baby brother, and how the threat of the hanger frightens my brothers and sister into silence. I’ve also learned that life is disappointing, and that even though my stepfather promises a visit by Easter, it will never happen.

I have learned that men are attracted to beauty, and that because my mother is beautiful, there will always be a man vying for her attention, and that sometimes we will come last. I have learned that my father is still in love with her, and that he believes they will get back together. I know this will never happen. Many things will not happen.

I will not be the smartest kid in my class. I will not have many friends. I will find it hard to relate to kids my age, and when the teacher asks us what we had for dinner last night, or what we did over the weekend, I will find it difficult to answer without feeling shame. I will not learn how to deflect until I am much older, but I have learned to be quiet and to mind my place. By the time I am eight, I have learned that if you say nothing enough, people will think you have nothing to say.

By the time I am ten, I have learned how to shop on food stamps, and find it ridiculous that it doesn’t allow funds for toilet paper. I’ve learned how to go without, that sometimes it feels better to eat nothing, that the emptiness in my stomach comforts the loneliness I carry. I’ve learned how to hide my body in oversized shirts and that the uglier I look, the less people speak to me. I make myself look how I feel: worthless, someone to be forgotten.

I am forgotten after school, left alone at the flagpole, watching mothers collect their sons and daughters, and I see the pity in their eyes. They ask if I need a ride, if everything is okay, and I have finally learned how to smile when all I want to do is cry. Yes, I tell them, yes, she’s on her way. She is always on her way. There is always something that must be done. A bill to pay. A child to take to the babysitter. A date. Cigarettes to buy. I tell myself these are all things to be done, that she must be on her way, that she has not forgotten me, that she could never forget. My mother is young, and I know she’s doing the best she can. But there are days I wish that she did better and that no one looked at us with pity.

My mother leaves us for a weekend getaway. She leaves us with a childhood friend of hers. This friend, she’s a drug addict, and we endure a hellish weekend. The worst storm that year—the streets are flooded, and it seems like the rain will never stop. My mother’s friend spends all the money my mother gave her on drugs and we spend that weekend sleeping in her car and sneaking into hotel rooms.

My infant sister has a fever and vomits all over my clothes. I sleep with her on the floor and try not to cry, try to believe that my mother will find us, that this weekend will end, and that one day my childhood will be normal, that I will not have to repeat this life, that I will not need to worry about such things as money and safety and whether or not we’ll eat that day. I make a wish that my childhood will be different, that instead of crying myself to sleep, I will sleep soundly, that my mother will tuck me into bed and read me a story. That never happens.

***

It’s my last year of college, and the university has required that all students complete eighty hours of community service. I live a mile from an elementary school, and since I have no car and no driver’s license, I have decided this is my option. I don’t know it yet, but I will make my career here. I will become a teacher. I work with third graders, and we sit at the lunch tables in the cafeteria and talk about writing. Their teachers have given us assignments, but I don’t care about any of that. I only care about what the kids have to say, about what they had for dinner, and about what they did on the weekend. I can see it in their eyes, a commonality. A childhood of poverty, trauma. That perhaps they want to say what no one has yet heard, what no one would care to know. 

Why can’t they just read?

They never do homework. 

I can never get the mother on the phone. She just doesn’t care.

These are things teachers say about their students, and though it isn’t all of them, their voices are loud, and it stings me every time. The tone. The lack of empathy. How everything is wrong and how it is everybody’s fault.

One afternoon, a young girl sits beside me while her friends play double dutch.

“Don’t you want to join them?” The day is beautiful. It’s not yet April. The sun warms the concrete wall against our backs.

“My mom has brain cancer.”

There’s a moment of silence between us, and even though there’s so much I want to tell her, all I can say is how sorry I am.

“It’s okay,” she says, “but I’m really going to miss her.”

We sit like that until the bell rings, and even though her eyes are wet, she smiles when she waves goodbye. I don’t know what I can do to comfort her or if I can comfort anyone.

***

When I’m twelve, my shoes have no shoelaces, and sometimes I sit in the closet of my bedroom. I share a room with my sister, and we have no toys. That year, my teacher assigns Where the Red Fern Grows, and I hate it. I hate every bit of it. I hate reading about how poor Billy’s family is and how his dogs die. I hate the sadness of it all.

My mother’s boyfriend is a man I cannot stand. We hate each other. He calls me a fat cow, but this is nothing in comparison to what he does to my brothers. To the belt he wraps around his wrist as he walks down the hall. To the steel boots he wears when he storms into their room. I hate how I do nothing and that instead of trying to save them, I cry myself to sleep, hoping that my cries will drown everything out. I cannot stand to know the pain my brothers endure, and even though I know this will affect them, that it will be something they always carry, I try to believe it won’t, that somehow it won’t tarnish who they have yet to become. I try to believe that like the novel, something positive will come out of all of this, that some kind of red fern will sprout from the brambles of our childhood.

***

When I am twenty-four, I teach reading to a group of fourth and fifth graders. I do not have a classroom, but a hallway. The custodian has sectioned off an area for me, bordered by tall filing cabinets and rolling cupboards. I tape motivational posters to the walls of these cabinets and treat our space as hallowed ground. We have classroom rules, rewards, and even a holiday party. Sometimes the students don’t want to return to their regular classrooms, and even though they are all considered to be reading far below grade level, the students all enjoy reading Bud, Not Buddy. It isn’t a book I assigned, but we found an excerpt of it in a textbook, and because they loved that excerpt so much, I buy them each a copy.

But that isn’t the moment that sticks with me. Mostly, I think of Raj. He lives with his grandmother, his twin brother, and their cousins. He often writes about football, and his handwriting is careful and precise. He isn’t a bad speller, nor a bad reader, just behind.

Once, I ask him about his grandmother and if he’d like it if she’d read to him. His eyes light up, and for the first time, I can see the hope. A little fire of hope. His smile is small. He looks away. “She’d never do that,” he says. “Says I’m too big for that stuff.”

Raj, a fourth grader, often got sent to the office. It seems as if all the teachers are afraid of him.  The principal, too. As I eat my lunch in the staff lounge one afternoon, the school counselor talks about him and another boy. The teachers talk about these boys all the time, all the trouble they cause. When asked what he thought would happen to them, the counselor nonchalantly replies: “On the street in two years, for sure. In a gang. Drugs, that’s what.”

***

When I am thirty, I teach third grade. During a poetry lesson, we analyze the lyrics of Beyonce’s “Halo.” It’s my attempt to teach imagery and figurative language, and when I ask them to consider who would be the halo in their lives, I’m only taken aback by Tyler’s response. Tyler says that his halo was his dog, but that someone has stolen his dog, and so now he has no one.

When he says this, the room is silent. There is no joke to be made, no laugh to be had, and nothing to distract. The class sits with his words and we play the song again and everyone sings.

***

Months after I leave the classroom for a district office position, I find myself at one of the toughest elementary schools in the city. I’m there for a student meeting. I attend several student meetings. I attend these meetings and discuss whether or not the student in question needs additional services because of a learning disability or because they are a second language learner. Mostly, it’s language.

This day, a fight breaks out, and the principal and vice principal rush out of the room, desperate to break it up. I follow and though I can’t see around the building, I hear the shouting and cursing and the adults yelling to stop it, just stop it!

A boy runs toward me, and though I can’t make out his face, I have a sense that it’s someone I know, and before I can make him out, he has wrapped his arms around me and keeps calling my name.

Nathan, a former student of mine, just holds onto me. He isn’t crying, isn’t shouting, just holds me, and when he looks up, he smiles. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” he says.

We talk about the fight, and I tell the administrators that I know him, that we have a good rapport.

“He’s always so angry,” they say. They say many other things. That he needs medication, that he destroys school property.

“That’s not like him,” I tell them.

And I go further. I ask if they know that a few years ago his youngest sibling died, that later he lived with his grandfather, and that recently, he too passed away. They did not know any of this. They shake their heads.

Nathan. When he smiled, I could see that he still had hope, that something still glimmered. But I wonder about him all the time. I wonder where he is and if that smile still surfaces, if his eyes still light up when he thinks of the future, his favorite meal, his favorite book, his favorite song.

***

Tyler is having trouble in middle school, and I make an appointment to see him. That hope in his eyes, it’s gone. His eyes are dark, and whatever fire was there has vanished.

“You’re here to see me?”

“Definitely you,” I tell him, and he gives me the tightest embrace. I can tell that he’s sad, perhaps lost, disconnected. His hug tells me all of this, that he can’t believe I’m even there. We sit in a nurse’s office, and we talk about school, his grades. The projects he has due, how he’s unhappy. Tyler is the oldest and has to take care of his younger brothers. He knows that I did the same with my family, and I get it when he says he’s tired.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” he says.

It isn’t. It will never be fair, and it’s hard for me to put into words what has taken me years to understand. The cards we are dealt, they’re unpredictable. Life isn’t fair for everyone, and for most people, it’s disappointing.

But I can’t tell this to a thirteen-year-old. I can’t tell him that it will take him years to get over it, that it will take him years to let go of the resentment. But I tell him that school will be his saving grace. Stay focused on that, I tell him, and that will be your ticket out. Your dreams, what you want in your future, it is in your hands.

Perhaps that’s too much for a seventh grader to understand, but I have to try. We talk for an hour, and when it is time to leave, he doesn’t want to say goodbye.

“This is it?” he asks.

This is it. I wish I could do more. I wish that I could make his problems go away and that I could give him the childhood we both wanted.

***

I cannot say that I know any better than anyone else, but I know what it is like to come to school hungry, to think of excuses not to go home, to wear the same clothes day after day. I know what it is like to grow up poor, tough, and sometimes unloved. That feeling—it gnaws at you, and there comes a time when all you want to do is scream, and if my students needed to scream, I let them.

Raj threw a chair at me, and he missed, and years later we saw each other again. He still had that small smile, and out of all the teachers standing outside the front of the school during dismissal, I am the one he chose to see.

He talked about his high school classes and how he was on the football team, and his life wasn’t perfect, but I could see that he was better, and that he still remembered whatever kindness I had showed him so many years before.

The brambles of his youth—they were no longer the same. And neither were mine.


Michelle Bracken is a former elementary school teacher who lives in Los Angeles. She’s a 2019 fellowship winner at theOFFICE,and a past participant of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the ZYZZYVA Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Litro UKThe Baltimore ReviewForklift OhioThe Superstition ReviewEmpty Mirror and elsewhere.

 

Ten Items or Fewer

By: Rachel Pollon

I scanned the generic bottle of acetaminophen, the supersize bag of adult diapers, the sleeve of plastic barrettes, and the travel-sized tube of hair gel. Then, looking up to make eye contact, I announced the total to the woman standing in front of me fishing through her handbag. Her cellphone was cradled between her left ear and hunched shoulder. She mouthed “Sorry” to me, then said into the phone, “Yes, I got them. Just keep him in the bath.”

Behind her a man coughed and asked if any other registers could be opened. I told him we were short a person this morning, that someone had called in sick. I pointed to the manager’s kiosk. “You can talk to him.” The man and another woman in line craned their heads to look, but the manager wasn’t at the kiosk, or in the vicinity, so they decided to stay put and take their chances with me.

I get the feeling people think I’m judging them for what they buy. I’m not. I’m noticing, sure, but not judging. I’m conjuring stories using the evidence supplied to me. It makes my day more interesting, and, honestly, it’s just in my nature.

The woman at my register found her wallet and handed over a credit card. I asked if she wanted a bag. She nodded awkwardly, her phone still attached to her shoulder. I could have told her it was ten cents extra, but because of the adult diapers for, I assumed, the person in the bath, and the acetaminophen, I imagined, for her, I kept it to myself and didn’t charge her. I have yet to hear that management is counting the plastic bags and figuring out their loss-gain averages. Fuck the management and fuck plastic bags. We’re all going to die strangled by them regardless of whether or not we charge ten cents.

I secured the woman’s acquisitions in the contraband bag and handed them to her. She said into the phone, “Unless I hit traffic, I’ll see you in twenty minutes. Sing to him, he likes it,” then smiled at me apologetically and mouthed, “Thank you.”

It occurred to me that she could have been speaking to a nanny with a toddler in a bath and had accidentally bought adult diapers, but it wasn’t my place to intervene. I was merely the gatekeeper.

The woman moved off and the man behind her took his place in front of me, slapping shoelaces, Triscuits, anti-fungal foot cream, and a sympathy card onto the counter. I was definitely going to charge him for a bag. Maybe I’d keep the dime. Drill a hole into it and wear it dangling from a chain, a reminder of my power.

I picked up the anti-fungal cream and said, “Delicious on a cracker.”

He smiled and said, “You must see some things.”

I pretended like I wasn’t glad for the camaraderie. He was just going to leave—why get invested?

The next customer had a boring, straightlaced look. Probably on her way to a midlevel job at a corporation that shits on the everyman for fun and profit. Possibly in Human Resources, wondering why she never applied for the positions she was trying to fill, watching the world go by while she sat at her desk, giving others opportunities she could have taken herself. She slid an unnecessarily expensive bottle of water in front of me. She must’ve been very thirsty to stop in only for that. Maybe she was casing the joint, plotting an illicit joyride to counter her anesthetized existence. I almost held up my hands in mock terror.

Just as I was about to scan the water, she stopped me and said she wanted to buy some scratch tickets. “Five dollars’ worth.”

Maybe the jolt from the almost impossible happening was what she was after.

“You must be a gambler,” I said. “Those are some unlikely odds.” I had some experience in this arena.

“We take our fun where we can get it,” she said.

I wanted more for her.

“Good luck,” I said. I almost slipped her an extra one. But if she hadn’t returned it upon realizing, I would’ve been disappointed by her dishonesty. Then again, maybe if she’d won, she’d have come back and shared her spoils with me. It was all too complicated and weighted. I couldn’t hold her responsible for the moral fabric of the human race. I was glad I suppressed the urge.

She didn’t want a plastic bag. She smiled and read my name badge. “Have a nice day, Ginger.” And even though she probably learned to do that in Human Resources school, it felt sincere.

Gary, the shift manager, came over to my register and told me he found someone to fill in for Amelia, the one who called in sick. “Carlos will be in in forty-five minutes.”

I was ambiguous about this development. I needed help—I couldn’t ring up the entire store myself—but the last time I saw Carlos, I’d broken off with him.

Carlos and I had been engaged in what you could call a confusing friendship. Both of us were married, so it was easy to feel like it wasn’t becoming what it was until it did. I wanted him to arrive in forty-five minutes. I needed backup, someone to field some of the burden. Which is what, I suppose, Carlos did for me in our relationship: offered support, lit things up, introduced ease. He was my human resource. I know, it seems too perfect that I’d bring it back around to that, but sometimes life works that way.

I’m not saying anything original when I tell you that it began innocently enough. And that I thought I was being nice to him, not the other way around. He was in a tough place, had just lost a steady, well-paying job, and this was one of three he was handling to keep his family afloat. He had a wife, a three-year-old son, and a newborn daughter named Felicity. I felt like that name said a lot about Carlos. His outlook. At first I was mostly just sympathetic to his situation. I’d listen. It’s not that his problems were more difficult than mine, but somehow hearing about his struggles offered me a reprieve. Empathy is a lifesaver that way. Over time we got to know each other better, and I’d offer to finish up his inventory stocking or count his register if he needed to leave early to get to his next job—whatever little things I could do to help.

When Carlos first found out that my husband and I were apart, he encouraged me to try to understand why Keith did what he did and to make sense of what happened so I’d make the right decision, so I wouldn’t have regrets. He reminded me that I married Keith for a reason and that that reason still lurked, however deep down inside.

Keith had been away for over a year, and he’d be back home in six months with time served, if he could keep up his good behavior. Good behavior was hard for him. It was as if he knew his life wouldn’t amount to anything grand and had to make whatever he could exciting, dangerous. Rules were there to be broken. Right and wrong were fun and games as far as he was concerned.

Early in our relationship I was completely under Keith’s spell. I was young, and he was a man who’d experienced life in ways that were mysterious and foreign to me. He got by doing odd jobs. He was a doorman at a bar—that’s where I met him—a handyman, made deliveries for a pharmacy, and cleaned pools. Occasionally I would go with him on his jobs. He’d either have me wait in his truck or, if he knew no one was home, I would join him. On pool jobs, he’d tell me to enjoy myself on a lounge chair, as if it was his to offer, while he scooped leaves and pine needles from the water’s surface.

One particularly hot day, after the initial cleaning but before putting in the chemicals, Keith told me to get in. I thought he was playing, but then he said to me in a most dead serious tone, “Go on. I want to see you in this pool.” It felt like we might never have this opportunity again, so I did it. I lifted up my dress so it wouldn’t get wet, hugged it against my chest, and stepped down onto the stair that allowed the water to envelop and kiss my upper thighs. We both liked it. Keith walked over to an alcove in the yard, opened up the mini refrigerator, and pulled out a bottle of rosé wine. He twisted off the cap and brought it to me.

“I don’t think we should,” I said.

“It’s fine. They won’t miss it. You deserve this,” he told me.

I stood on the step, twisting myself subtly to and fro, sipping from the bottle. There was only a hint of sweetness. It tasted refined.

Keith watched me from across the pool.

“Rosé is your drink,” he said. “Same as your hair color.”

I put the bottle up to my head. If my friends were there, we would have taken a picture. Keith didn’t do that. Evidence.

Our relationship continued like this—Keith setting the tone, me along for the ride—until his troubles inevitably caught up with him. You can’t skim off the top of life forever, taking what isn’t yours, without tripping up eventually and paying the price.

On the days we worked the same shifts, Carlos and I took our lunch breaks together. With the fifteen or so minutes left after eating, we’d take a walk around the block to get away from the fluorescent lights and the constant loop of popular hits from days gone by piped in over the sound system.

On those walks we existed in the present. We’d talk about what we wanted for our lives.  We talked about our families, of course. I think that helped us believe our relationship was virtuous. It was as though I gave Carlos a higher purpose in his new, less than ideal, employment situation. His words and teachings about forgiveness and loyalty were aimed at keeping my heart open to my marriage, but instead they opened my heart to Carlos. I don’t think that was his intention, but my need for love tapped into his inclination to give it.

Carlos told me about a sermon he’d heard. The priest talked about kindness, how kindness keeps you on the playing field. He said if you aren’t kind, you could find yourself untethered and alone, detached from society entirely. It was that sort of thinking that brought us together. A little kindness never hurt anyone, Carlos had said. I wasn’t sure if he was still quoting the priest or winging it.

On one walk, when we were making room for other people passing by, Carlos put his hand on my upper back near my neck. It was the first time I realized what was happening. I looked up at him reflexively and placed my hand on his lower back, almost for balance. We let go and moved on, but when we rounded the corner to the next street, the quiet block on our route, Carlos stopped, turned to face me, and said, “I’m sorry I touched you.”

“It’s all right,” I told him. “Things happen.”

“I’ve wanted to for so long,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And with that, he pulled me close. “I just want to hold you,” he said. He felt solid and vast, like a treasure chest buried at the bottom of the sea.

When we unfolded from each other, Carlos took my hand for the first time. Slipped his smooth, warm palm against mine, like a puzzle piece pressing into place. We held on like this until we reached the corner where people and traffic returned. Then we let go and walked the rest of the way, our hands in our pockets, side by side.

“Cleanup on aisle lines-have-been-crossed,” I thought about announcing over the store intercom when we were back inside. But, of course, I didn’t. I hung my jacket up in the employee locker room and went back out on the floor to begin the second half of my shift.

Gary opened one of the registers to help while we waited for Carlos. I was ringing up a customer who was causing a line to build because she couldn’t decide which scent of deodorant she wanted, when Carlos arrived. I tracked him as he entered through the automatic doors. He’d gotten a haircut. It was shorter than I’d ever seen him wear it. An elderly man on an electric scooter exiting at the same time almost drove into him. Carlos managed a quick spin out of the way, threw his hands up, and laughed, then looked at me from across the room and shrugged. Seeing him made me want to cry. The deodorant woman asked me my opinion, and though I was now firmly thinking about how I would miss spending time with Carlos, I indulged her. She put the Geranium Harvest up to my nose. Then the Raspberry Fields. They smelled artificial, like an off-brand lollipop. It was a no-win situation.

“What sign are you?” I asked.

“Taurus,” she said.

Having no real knowledge of astrology but thinking the idea of a new bounty ahead sounded nice, I said, “Get the Geranium Harvest.”

The rest of the morning passed quickly after I took over the ten-items-or-fewer register—my favorite. Though most shoppers tended to come in for fewer than ten items anyway, the people who chose this line moved with more purpose. I forgot myself in the customers’ needs. It was a relief, a sort of at-work paid vacation from myself. By the time the midday shift arrived for our lunch break, I’d surrendered. I felt light.

Carlos came into the break room seven minutes after I did.

“You want me to go somewhere else?” he asked.

“It’s fine,” I said. I moved my lunch bag to the side to make room.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said. “Our big pictures will lead the way.”

I considered what my big picture was. It was a blank canvas. I knew nothing.

We decided to share our bags of chips with each other, pouring them out on a napkin to combine and eat at will.

“Are you working this weekend?” I asked.

“I’m trying to pick up longer shifts at the restaurant, so hopefully not,” he said.

“Your hair looks good,” I said. I wanted to touch it.

“Thanks,” he said. “It was time.”

We ate in silence for a few moments, then Carlos said, “That corn chip looks like a shard of glass.”

I picked the shard up, inspected it, used it to draw an X over his heart, then put it in my mouth.

“Ow,” Carlos said, then popped open his Sunkist and drank.

On a normal day, we’d have headed off on our walk. But it wasn’t a normal day. I told him I needed to run an errand. He knew I was lying, but we were both okay with it.

Outside, the cold air hit my lungs like it was trying to erase me. I exhaled with the force of a move I learned in the self-defense class Keith insisted I take when he went away.

I noticed a woman in the parking lot walking toward me, waving. I wasn’t sure the wave was for me, but as she got closer, I realized she was Carlos’s wife, Estée. I didn’t recognize her at first without her children, but once she got close enough, her vivacious and unburdened self, traits I chalked up to her faith, shone through. It’s funny that they call faith believing, when really it seems to be a sort of against-all-odds-and-evidence deciding. A leap of decision.

“How are you?” she said, giving my arm a little squeeze.

“I’m good,” I said. “About to take a walk to break up the day.”

Estée explained that Carlos had forgotten his hat at home and would need it for his night job valeting cars.

What a nice wife, I thought. I wasn’t sure I would have taken my husband his hat. I might have let him suffer. Or assumed he’d acquire one somehow. Beg, borrow, or steal.

“Did Carlos tell you about the wedding we went to yesterday?” she asked.

“He didn’t,” I said.

“Oh, it was gorgeous. This church—floor-to-ceiling stained glass. And the ceremony was so heartfelt. I told Carlos we should renew our vows.”

A small part of me wondered if a small part of her was telling me this for a reason she didn’t want to think about.

“That’s a nice idea,” I said.

The concept upset me on a couple of levels. The obvious one, Carlos wasn’t mine to commit to. And also, I wasn’t sure if, given the opportunity, I would renew my vows with Keith.

“I told him we could have the kids there, you know? I think it would be really special.”

She then seemed to remember my situation.

“I’m a romantic,” she said like it was something to be ashamed of. I never understood why people apologized for their greatest desires, pretended they didn’t want what they did. As if that would protect them from disappointment.

“Me too,” I said.

She moved next to me on the sidewalk to get out of the way of traffic.

“I’ve kept you long enough,” she apologized. “Go.”

“He’s inside,” I said. “Last I saw, in the break room.”

“You’re an angel,” she said when we parted, and I wondered if she meant the kind that hovered in the sky, gazing down at us, looking for worthy targets, excuses to shoot their bows and arrows. Or something else entirely.

I headed off on my walk. I pushed out the cold air and breathed in a prayer I’d received in a fortune cookie once. “Don’t give up, look up.”

But instead I looked down and noticed on the sidewalk various pieces of trash. Collecting in the corners against buildings, hugging the sewers. You rarely catch people in the act of littering, yet here it all was. What if they were lost items, not discarded? A beige plastic bag flapped in the steadying wind, half wrapped around the leg of a bus stop bench. I pulled it loose and inspected it. It was blank. I took it with me and continued on, filling it with everything I could along the way.


Rachel Pollon is a native Los Angeleno. Her writing has been published in The Coachella Review, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Weeklings. Her work was included in The Beautiful Anthology and Teen Girls’ Comedic Monologues That Are Actually Funny. Her website is SeismicDrift.com.

Resting State

By: Maddie De Pree

I am half-watching it on my laptop while I eat. He is delivering the State of the Union, the Vice President sitting behind him. And then, in the middle of his sentence, both heads burst all over the Speaker’s white suit. She blinks, touches the spatter of blood on her face. Then, chaos—the Secret Service barrels into view as Representatives scream and duck under their seats. The cameras keep rolling, but the sound cuts out. Commotion and dead air.

I stare at my laptop for several seconds, waiting for something—an announcement, a noise—but the screen stays quiet and small. Looking at it, I have the uncanny sensation of watching bugs in a jar.

I turn to the cat, who is sitting next to me on the couch.

I think this may be a joke, I say.

He kneads a cushion with his paws.

I close the laptop then reopen it. I pace back and forth. And then, because I can think of nothing else to do, I pick up the cat, walk onto my porch, and stand there holding him in the cold. Gradually, other doors open—one by one, up and down the street—until we are all silhouettes in our doorways, looking out at one another in the dark.

Eventually, I call Lia, who picks up on the first ring.

Hey, I say. Can you believe this?

She pauses, and I wonder if she is standing on her porch too, breathing in the same Atlanta air.

Yes, she says.

***

I wake up to my phone vibrating with news alerts. Apparently the Speaker was sworn in late last night, but no one knows much more than that. A Vice op-ed reads, “I Don’t Know What The F*ck Just Happened, But I’m Honestly Kind Of Psyched.” The Washington Post simply reads, “What Now?”

The dean emails all of the professors to tell us that classes are cancelled for the rest of the week. I email my physics students and tell them that their lab is cancelled too. Immediately, a student responds: awesome!!!! I send back a thumbs-up.

After I drink my coffee, I spend an hour scrolling through Twitter. People have been making content all night—memes and threads, plus several accounts weighing in with their measured takes. Recordings crop up every twenty minutes, then get removed for violating Community Guidelines.

i didn’t see it, someone tweets. what was it like?

Like two water balloons full of red paint, someone replies.

***

I decide to drive into Little Five Points, though I haven’t been in over a decade. Unlike the rest of the city, it hasn’t changed much in that time—it has the same grungy storefronts, the same gum-covered telephone pole. In front of the Zesto’s, I see two people praying.

I park my car on a side-street, then wander into a vintage shop and sift through a bowl of soft plastic keychains. The sticky note on the counter says they’re from the 1970’s. I pick one up and read the words printed on its surface. HAVE YOU SEEN ME LATELY? And on the other side: I’M TRYING TO FIND MYSELF. 

How much? I ask the shop attendant.

Ten dollars and fifty cents, he says.

I toss it back in the bowl and walk across the street, into a store that sells crystals. The cashier looks up when I enter, then goes back to scrolling through her phone. She looks older than my students, though she’s several years younger than me. Apart from the two of us, the shop is empty. I turn toward her, then pick up a crystal and roll it over in my fingers. Quartz shot through with threads of gold.

I wonder if they’ll store the Speaker’s suit with Jackie’s, I say.

The cashier looks up from her phone. The walls are lined with plastic bins of stones, organized alphabetically: Black Tourmaline, Blue Lace Agate.

Ma’am? she asks.

They have Jackie O’s pink suit refrigerated somewhere, I say. The one from Dallas. With JFK’s blood all over it.

Right, she says, and resumes her scrolling.

As I walk back to my car, I think about a woman I dated in grad school—a New Age-y lesbian who was aptly named Sage. We were lying in bed one evening when she told me that the energy of my apartment was off. She said that too many intense emotions could create holes in a space’s aura. This, she said, was likely the reason for the off-ness.

I don’t think I believe that, I told her.

She shrugged and flipped onto her side, away from me.

You don’t have to, she said, and turned off the light.

I waited until she fell asleep, then cried. I remember sobbing raggedly in the dark, covering my mouth with my open palm to avoid waking her. I did this often, and to my knowledge, she never woke up. She was a heavy sleeper.

During this particular crying spell, she rolled toward me in her sleep and draped her arm around my waist. An unconscious motion, heavy and warm.

This is what I think of as I drive home. People dreaming, reaching for each other in the night.

***

Lia and I are on her back porch, drinking wine while wrapped in a blanket. Though it is midnight in early February, we are warm—Lia’s husband is wealthy, and he has paid for outdoor heating. But he isn’t around tonight. He’s traveling for work, and their five-year-old, Ollie, is sleeping inside. I lean forward and uncork another bottle of wine.

Can we just say it? I ask. Can we be glad that he’s gone?

I’m going to, Lia says. She pulls up Twitter and dictates a tweet while she types it with her thumbs: Rest in hell, piece-of-shit bastard.

She swallows a gulp of wine and hits send, then looks out at the dark. We sit there together, thinking in different directions. After a few minutes of silence, I speak.

Do you remember the fire in the dorms? I ask.

No, Lia says. She reaches for the bottle and tops off her glass.

It was sophomore year of undergrad, I say. Someone passed out and knocked over a candle. Our whole floor was burning.

Lia stops pouring.

Did that really happen? she asks.

Yeah, I say. Some firefighters pulled us out through a window.

Lia corks the wine and pulls the blanket tighter around us.

I don’t remember that, she says.

We lapse back into silence. Beneath the warmth of the blanket, I start to nod off. I can feel Lia’s body next to mine. Then, a noise: Ollie opens the sliding door and walks onto the porch in his footies, scrubbing his eyes with his fists. Lia straightens.

Honey, it’s late, she says. Why are you up?

Ollie stands in his pajamas and looks at the floor, one little fist still working away at his eye.

Sorry, he says. I thought I was asleep.

***

When I get home the next morning, I see the cat crumpled on my doorstep, stiff and bloodied and dead. I stand there, stunned. Someone has drawn a long gash from his belly all the way to his throat. The blood has soaked through the fibers of my welcome mat and stained the wood below. I step over the mess to get a garbage bag, then sob as I roll him in the mat and place the bundle by the curb. Inside, I text Lia: Someone gutted the cat. 

Jesus, she replies.

I run to the kitchen and vomit in the sink, then pour myself a glass of water to drink while I cry. The water is slippery with dish soap and I shudder. It makes my mouth taste sudsy. Too clean.

***

For the rest of the day, I do nothing. I walk around the house eating corn chips, then wrap myself in a weighted blanket that I bought on Black Friday. I sleep on the couch and reach for the cat, then cry when I remember that he isn’t there. I write an email to Lia and delete it. I stay up late and tweet, I am awake. Below it, someone replies with a GIF of a baby dancing.

In the middle of the night, I wake up with a thought that I haven’t had since childhood: I want to go home. But I open my eyes, and here I am.

***

We are on Lia’s back porch again, huddled under the blanket in the dark. I look over at her and see that she’s packing a bowl. She lights it and inhales, then hands it to me. We pass it back and forth until there’s nothing left to smoke.

My phone dings with a Twitter notification. Earlier, someone started a thread of the First Lady’s “best mourning outfits.” So far, it includes a pink skirt-suit and a white sheath. I thought it was funny, but when I showed Lia, she said it made her depressed. I stare at the notification until the screen goes black. Then I lean forward and look out at the trees, standing tall and alert in the cold.

What are you thinking about? Lia asks.

A physics experiment, I say. Young’s double-slit. It’s a basis for quantum mechanics.

Sounds complicated, Lia says. Her eyes are closed.

All you need to know, I say, is that a guy named Young fired a single particle and observed it going through one of two slits. Not both.

Uh-huh, Lia says.

But the particle showed evidence of having gone through both slits, even though he only saw it go through one, I say. It’s a breakdown of objective reality. It deals with what might happen rather than what is.

Lia snorts then moves closer under the blanket. I feel the high humming through both of our bodies, connecting us like a single thread.

It’s a big deal, I say. It means that there might be multiple outcomes for the same event. Multiple realities. But we’ll never know, because we can only observe our own.

Lia giggles.

Ha, she says. Double slit.

We sit together quietly after that. At some point, she tips her head onto my shoulder and leaves it there. I look down into her face, inches from my own. I touch the tip of my finger to the dark fringe of her eyelashes. She wrinkles her nose and smiles.

Hey, I say. Who would you sleep with? If you could sleep with anybody.

Hmm, Lia says. Maybe the guy who plays John Oliver.

You mean John Oliver? I ask.

Yeah, she says, and we laugh and laugh and laugh.

Somewhere in the laughter, Ollie appears on the porch. He says something, then says it again. He wavers before us like a mirage. We stop laughing, wipe the tears from our eyes.

What was that, Ollie? Lia asks. What did you say?

I said it smells like the woods out here, he says.

That’s right, honey, Lia says, and yawns. Ollie walks over and climbs under the blanket, between us. He curls up against Lia and buries his face into her side. She pats his head absently. I can feel his feet pressing against the side of my thigh.

What if the new president dies? Ollie asks. His voice sounds muffled beneath the blanket.

That won’t happen, says Lia.

But what if it did? he says.

I look at Lia. She looks back at me, then turns away.

We’d get another text alert, she says.

***

The next evening, Lia hires a babysitter and meets me at the bar. It’s hosting an unsuccessful karaoke night—a handful of people are drinking, but the only one singing is a pasty man reading off lyrics in a flat monotone. Since no one else is interested in the mic, the karaoke man performs song after song after song. By the time he finishes his fourth number, Lia and I are drunk, laughing, and talking about nothing.

After a few more drinks, I hear the karaoke man distantly speaking into the mic. Seconds pass, and I realize that the bar has gone silent. When I look up, I see the karaoke man glaring at us from across the room.

Stop laughing, he says again.

I look at Lia, then back at the man.

You two in the corner, he says, and gestures at us with the mic. You’re laughing at me. Stop laughing.

Jesus Christ, Lia mutters, then yells at him to piss off. The karaoke man blinks. Someone snickers. The bartender walks up and places a hand on his shoulder, says something into his ear. Someone even offers to buy him a drink. But no one can comfort the karaoke man: he is suddenly furious, inconsolable, and he storms into the dark alone.

After he’s gone, Lia and I split another drink. We make some more jokes, but none of them sound funny anymore, so we give up. Something has shifted in the air; the atmosphere has sobered, and people drift into the parking lot to go home.

Outside, we stand between our cars, huddled together in the dark. Lia has wrapped her scarf around her fists; she forgot her gloves at home, and her knuckles are red with cold. I take off my hat and pull it over her ears.

We could go to my place, I say.

Lia removes the hat slowly and hands it back to me. Beyond the stretch of the parking lot, cars whip by.

I can’t, she says. He’s getting back in the morning.

As I weave my car back to my neighborhood, I think about the haircut I got last week. I’m always nervous in salons, and this time was no different; I sat in the chair, flushed and sweating, as if the stylist had discovered everything about me and disapproved of what she’d found. For her, though, it must have been mundane—she covered me with the polyester cape, fastening it too tightly around my neck the way they always do. When she fluffed my hair loose, I stared at my reflection and imagined her cold fingers slipping through my hair and under my scalp, straight to the smooth, white curve of my skull. 

So, she said. Tell me what you want.

Images slide around me while I drive: ungraded tests, a car flipped onto its side. The body as an eggshell, the mind a runny yolk. And Lia: Lia in my kitchen, lying in my bedroom, prying me open gently, mouth moving in rhythm, saying I love you, I love you, I love you. 

Tell me, she said. Tell me what you want.

I pull over beneath a streetlamp and rest my head against the wheel. The light is too bright, and I close my eyes against it, feel the world glowing red through my eyelids. I picture the veins in my body as a map, a web of roads winding nowhere, the cars stacked bumper-to-bumper, moving too slowly to make any difference. I count my limbs and sigh. On some neighboring street, a siren sounds.


Maddie De Pree is an undergraduate student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including The Thing Itself, Mikrokosmos, and Zoetic Press’ Viable chapbook series. She is a Best of the Net nominee for her story, “Vidalia,” which was published earlier this year in The Gordon Square Review. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of PHEMME Zine (www.phemmezine.com), an online platform that publishes marginalized authors and artists.

Old Burying Ground, Brewster, MA

By: Jennifer Stewart Miller

anna Gray
aged aBout
4 MONTHES
DIED JANVARY
THE 15TH
1709/10

Anna, in this burial ground brimming
with imposing stones, your slate—

not much bigger than an iPad—
catches my eye: lunar gray, topped

with a winged death’s head the size
of a Barbie’s skull—writ so small,

the fearsome jaw and glare
diminished. By your side,

your parents, Susanah and John.
I didn’t come here for you.

But I look you up—the miracles
of search engines—and see I’m

descended from your brother, Lot.
So long ago, but maybe we share

a gene or two.
Sharks and jellyfish may outlast us,

and someday the stars will drift apart
and the earth go shudderingly colder

than the January day you died. Still,
I honor this desire to speak the names

of even the smallest dead—
to acknowledge your gravity, Anna.

No Ozymandias, you, no King of Kings—
But as the details chiseled on your slate insist,

you were here, and you were loved—
colossal facts.

It’s spring—sky blue, a warm breeze.
A red-winged blackbird sings hard for a mate

in a patch of wetland near the church. Spring,
which you never lived to see—

today your name flutters like a jarred
butterfly in my skull, Anna Gray.


Jennifer Stewart Miller holds an MFA from Bennington College and a JD from Columbia University. She’s the author of A Fox Appears: A Biography of a Boy in Haiku (2015), and her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart and appeared in Green Mountains Review, Harpur Palate, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Sugar House Review, and other journals. Her chapbook The Strangers Burial Ground is forthcoming in Fall 2019 from Seven Kitchens Press.

My Accent Makes Me Beautiful

By: Anthony Isaac Bradley

While browsing the supermarket snack aisle, I was told that the members of R.E.M., a band at its peak during my adolescence in 1997, were gay.

My high school peers declared this in the IGA supermarket. They meant both identity-wise and musically, which raised questions: Did this mean they all slept together? Or were they individually queer, with individual queer activities?

Side note: Imagine Michael Stipe and Mike Mills as lovers. Bill Berry and Peter Buck? How would this change the band dynamic? My mind turns in on itself.

These same acquaintances would later decree—in the same store—that one of our classmates was decidedly “queer.” With my ass still firmly in the closet, I had nothing to add, for or against. I listened, pretended to search for those Hostess carrot cakes that would cease production during my twenties. Still, I felt an interior ping. Their homophobia jumpstarted my awareness. I left the IGA with carrot cakes and my very own queer band.

***

Michael Stipe and Co. are My Queer Band (MQB), the first significant lifeline I was offered concerning my sexual repression, before I knew Bowie, before I understood why I was very into Tori Amos (“I just really like redheads,” I’d say, oblivious). Despite Stipe being cryptic in the media about his sexuality, I clung to MQB for years like no one else could encapsulate my wants. I flip-flopped from straight to gay, from gay to straight to bi to pan (currently!), but I kept songs like “Falls to Climb” or “Nightswimming” with me, despite my evolution. MQB is my through-line.

Even now, I find Stipe’s mumbly-before-Mumblecore, cynical-yet-hopeful lyrics relevant. Growing up in Stoutland, Missouri (population 155) required that you stare at your shoes. As Ice-T said, “Talk shit, get hit,” Or just be present, get hit. Being queer on a gravel road could end badly. Or at the Jack in the Box, where one local was beaten into a coma for his perceived sexuality after placing a take-out order (an oft-discussed story around my high school). Being cynical was my reliable illusion of control. Being hopeful about my future? Difficult, but just the hint of possibility in Stipe’s voice went a long way, as opposed to the nihilism of my other obsession, Nine Inch Nails. In hindsight, I think there was a good amount of hopefulness coming from Mr. Reznor, but that’s not what I needed from him.

A straight ally once told me that “Nightswimming” is the worst song he’s ever heard. Hates it. I’ve never asked for specifics, but he’s usually better at offering a motive for dislike, which leads me to detect a built-in revulsion of what could be defined as a “wuss song” (piano plus earnest yearning).

I just think an ally would automatically understand MQB, but rainbow bumper stickers on cars belonging to friends and teachers can’t solve every problem.

Though the subtext of “Nightswimming” might sail over the heads of some hetero listeners, the song’s merging of male body intimacy (in a queer-reading sense) and the anxiety of exposure/consequences (“The fear of getting caught/Of recklessness and water”[i]) is an earnest call that LGBTQ+ listeners will certainly recognize.

Getting caught wasn’t an option. Cruising in my hometown pre-Grindr was a thing to keep secret. Draping clothes across the bushes with someone of the same sex was never to be shouted about, or whispered as a melody, and certainly not understood unless you’ve done it (two straights caught in a pond or parked car doesn’t carry the same repercussions). Why take the risk, unless you have a death wish? My friends and neighbors were hunters who added camouflage instead of trying to lose it. Nature was for facing death, not love. My father shot deer. I shot glances. Either could end with a fatality.

Side note: I was (am?) possibly the last human being to accept the sincerity of “Everybody Hurts.” I cried. I still do. This isn’t my problem. I’ll stand on a car during a traffic jam and sing, “Don’t let yourself go,” without irony.[ii]

And with a Midwestern accent, of course.

Georgia-born Stipe can’t hide his accent either. In “Country Feedback,” it’s seduced into the open by the song’s musical arrangement. Being sensitive about my low-in-the-mouth delivery, I’m drawn to artists who can’t hide their authentic selves. Imagine my joy at the song “Falls to Climb,”[iii] where Stipe sings with earnest, “My accent makes me beautiful.” Except he doesn’t. I confess this essay was born from a mishearing of these lyrics. I mistook “actions” for “accents,” and I thought, Ah! There it is. Yet another reason why R.E.M. is MQB. Michael Stipe knows the weight of his accent, its history and signals.

Side note: MQB had to be R.E.M. It could never be Queen, because nearly everyone at the pontoon factory (my first job) would blast “We are the Champions” while asking me how much “sugar” I had in my gas tank. If you don’t speak the language, that means defective if queer. A busted engine. Funny or fruity.

Nearly everyone I spent time with back then let those slurs roll out on the regular. I did, on occasion. I had to blend in, and I had to consider that telling the truth to a close acquaintance could result in a parking lot fight. That’s how our fathers raised us, how the hundreds of nearby towns built on the same blueprints expected us to act. Tradition. That’s the word.

Oh, there’s an accent here, too. I hear slander with an accent no matter where the state line lies, even if there isn’t really a trace of one. When I paraphrase a slur, the accent comes with it. The rush of speech, a forcefulness with the opening enunciation—f-f-f—before the low rumble.

The accent sticks in my ear (only my left—the right is a poor receiver). My occasional dropped-down words and—let’s be honest—my whiteness, often made me a safe space for bigots and the like, an invitation for some to roll up and share. I like to think it was the tolerated intolerance of my small town, not necessarily anything I was giving off. Here’s a bit of cowardice: I often code-switched from sounding slightly rural to very rural so I wouldn’t get the shit beat out of me. Remember those gravel roads? I was told how so-and-so might be, you know (accompanied with exaggerated wrist bend).

Such-and-such was caught with another guy, therefore watch out. The agenda is real. My classmates confided in me, and so did my factory coworkers. Sometimes my family. My accent was proof of good old boy, but one way to make them think otherwise was to play MQB whenever possible. At work, parties, wherever.

Wuss. Queerbait. My accent makes me beautiful.

I hated it for years. I wanted to tear my vocal chords out and wreck them in a garbage disposal. Not all that surprising, as I was a devotee of self-hate before I began teaching. My students now chuckle at my pronunciation of certain words, the way they roll off my tongue in a barrel and land flat.

My accent makes me beautiful.

Side note: Stipe used to make out with his straight bandmates on stage to get a rise out of homophobes in the live crowd. Big points for that.

MQB was a way to say I’m queer long before I could in the literal sense. Stipe’s own sexual preferences didn’t become known to the public until years later, so I couldn’t know at the time if I was just projecting onto the band’s catalogue, but it was easier than trying to hunt down queer-ish materials at the local library. Most of the attendants wore camo or a cross around their necks, and besides, friends remain within earshot in a town this size. As much as these boys had my back, fear could’ve informed their decision to accept, or not to accept. If I couldn’t carry a book out, I could hide a song.

R.E.M.’s intent doesn’t matter, really, as they left enough space for my own interpretations and insecurities, open to every age (like a good MQB should). I wear lipstick with my Forever 21 jacket and hum “Near Wild Heaven.” On the lyric, “House made of heart, break it,”[iv] my accent says, Hello. This is when I message people that matter and spill, “I’m sorry, but I’ve been listening to MQB so I’m intensely emotional right now, and I just wanted to say I love you.” It’s important that they know not just how I sound, but where I stand.

[i] R.E.M., “Nightswimming,” 1992, track #11 on Automatic for the People, Warner Bros., 1993.
[ii] R.E.M., “Everybody Hurts,” 1992, track #4 on Automatic for the People, Warner Bros., 1993.
[iii] R.E.M., “Falls to Climb,” track #14 on Up, Warner Bros., 1998.
[iv] R.E.M., “Near Wild Heaven,” 1990, track #4 on Out of Time, Warner Bros., 1991.


Anthony Isaac Bradley is an MFA candidate at Texas State University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, and other lovely places. He’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives with his cat and the ghost of another.

Manhandled

By: Catherine Jagoe

The summer before you turn twelve, something changes. You don’t know it, but the forces of metamorphosis are being unleashed in your blood, your brain. You just know that everything feels charged. Even the air seems to vibrate slightly, as if humming out of range of human hearing. The sun is too bright, the grass neon green. On the way to the outdoor pool at the boys’ school where your father works, you pass distant male figures, incandescent in their cricket whites. The odor of manure mingles with the scent of roses and the reek of chlorine.

On the high street of your little town in northern England, there is a life-size cardboard cutout propped up outside Rowland’s, the chemist: the Kodak lady in a bikini, all white teeth, breasts and cleavage. You see her every day on your way to school. In a covered up, chilly, pale world, all that tanned skin is shocking. So is her flat stomach, so unlike yours, round with puppy fat.

The pink-brown circles of your nipples start to swell. You don’t like the conical bumps they make under your cotton undershirt. They’re not breasts. But they’re not flat, like before. At first they look like blisters, but eventually they become small mounds. They feel tender, like a bruise. Running around with this newly floppy, non-streamlined chest becomes less comfortable and sometimes painful. You’re the first girl in Mrs. Groves’ fifth-year class to wear a bra, although the swellings on your chest don’t look like the Kodak lady’s or your mother’s breasts, which you’ve seen in a nude photo hidden in your father’s sock drawer. “Playtex Cross-Your-Heart,” the boys chant mockingly. They know, of course. They see. Standing behind you in line, they take to snapping your bra strap painfully.

You know, but can’t remember how or when you learned, that there’s a topless model every day on page three of the Sun. You become uncomfortably aware of the girlie magazines—Playboy and Penthouse—on the top shelf at the newsagents down the hill. You try to avoid looking at them as you hand over the money for the Guardian you’ve been sent to buy, or the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars you love. You’re embarrassed to be in the same room as those breasts and the man at the counter. In their presence, you feel shamed and dismayed. Is this what you’ll become? It’s hard to imagine. This is what men want? Those appallingly large breasts are exposed and taboo at the same time. To you, they seem to blare like megaphones, but no one mentions them. They exist in a register beyond normal speech.

You’re tall and are occasionally mistaken for your mother’s younger sister. Once, when you’ve been sent to take your youngest sibling for a walk in her stroller, a woman stops to exclaim over your adorable little one. You’re covered in confusion—you’re only eleven. You stammer a denial, mortified to be taken for one of the girls who gets pregnant and leaves school forever. You’ve seen girls like that berating their whining toddlers at the bus stop. You don’t want to end up like them.

The wild land across the road that you loved to roam with your little brother is sold, and work begins on a new housing development. Now, walking past it, you quail as the construction workers look up and give wolf whistles. On errands for your mother, you have to pass a group of youths permanently stationed on the town hall steps, smoking, horsing around and guffawing. It feels like running the gauntlet. You can’t walk to the shops without passing them. They stare and elbow one another, mutter comments you can’t hear. At these moments, you long to be invisible.

This is the point when your inner self and the life of the world collide. The girl who writes poetry, reads a stack of library books a week, adores French, plays the piano, favors turquoise ink, has a crush on Jonathan Gowdy; the girl who loves swimming and hiking and baking Victoria sponge cakes; the responsible older sister who is passionate, tender-hearted, conscientious, and eager to please, starts to be accosted by the world, which sees only her outside. In your new female flesh, you’ve suddenly become visible, a blinking icon on the sexual radar screen. In this world, you no longer have any control over how you’re seen. You’re becoming aware, from what you hear and read, of how dangerous this being seen is, how much can be done to the female body against its will.

That summer a stranger appears one day while you’re walking alone on the canal towpath, three miles from home. Fat and pale, he lumbers toward you in trousers that seem to be falling down. You tense. There’s no way home except past him. He doesn’t try to touch you but stares fixedly in your direction. Your mouth goes dry, and your palms sweat as you squeeze uncomfortably by on the narrow, muddy path. Nothing happens, nothing at all, but this encounter marks a turning point in your inner life and stays with you for years. It’s your first taste of danger. When you get home, you tell no one. What is there to tell? You’re trying to act grownup. You’re learning the rules, absorbing the grammar of silence. There’s loneliness in this.

Another day, there’s a man loitering in the bushes on the other side of the swimming pool fence. He holds a small, dark thing in his hand, at crotch level. He says nothing, stares at you. Then he vanishes. You’re shocked and bewildered, but too embarrassed to tell the knot of ladies chatting nearby. So you don’t. You stay silent, trying to quiet the commotion in your mind, willing it to go away.

First blood: a rusty stain in the crotch of your underwear, the pink checked polyester ones that you like because they’re lace-trimmed briefs and not the waist-high, little-girl, combed cotton ones you’ve worn till then. But the blood doesn’t look red enough, not like blood at all, really—not what you’d been expecting. You see your mother trying to summon enthusiasm as you tell her, but she comes over as weary and inexplicably defeated. She gives you a package of Dr. White’s napkins and an elastic sanitary belt with hooks, and shows you how to attach them. You feel awkward with this new, bulky thing between your legs, sure it must show.

Your friend Janet, three years older than you, smokes in secret. That summer the two of you sneak out after dinner and stand under the apple trees with their small, hard, unripe fruit. You watch in nervous fascination as she draws the hot smoke into her, talking of boys, glib, knowing, self-assured. The two of you daub your eyelids inexpertly with purple Biba eyeshadow and apply the lip gloss you bought with her on a trip to London. You wet your fingers from a small black flask of Biba perfume with a yellow stopper and yellow flowers, rubbing it on your pulse. Some nights that summer, alone in your bed, you part your thighs, all ache and ignorance, and imagine being with a boy, full of wanting, but not knowing what to do about it.

The fair comes to town for the August carnival and sets up in an overgrown field, beckoning with its heat and noise, its music and colored, flashing lights. You and your siblings beg your father to take you there, dying to spend your pocket money. There are rifles you can shoot, aiming for the bullseye. If you hit it, you get a sad goldfish mouthing silent o’s in a plastic bag. There are screaming bumper cars and a manic merry-go-round you get sick on. You buy a stick of candyfloss the color of Pepto-Bismol, wound around a wand by a woman in a van who smiles as she leans down to hand it to you. It wounds the tongue like meltable wire wool, then dissolves into gritty sweetness, leaving your lips sticky and stained.

You try to throw rings over spikes to get a prize, but never win any of the stuffed animals or cheap jewelry. You eat a nasty, boiled, naked-looking thing called a Hot Dog for the first time in your life. You buy a toffee apple, glazed red with tacky, hard-boiled sugar, and bite through to disappointment—white, mushy fruit. You’re slightly dizzy with the smell of exhaust, bruised grass, hot grease, sweat and Brut.

Suddenly, in the crush of bodies, there’s a hand, too close and in the wrong place. A moment of shock and disbelief. The hand takes you out of the din of the fair and into a still and timeless place of silence. It has attached itself to your body, is feeling your bottom, cupping a buttock, squeezing and rubbing it, refusing to let go, as if it were fondling something it owned. Stroking the plaid fabric of the skirt you made yourself in home economics class, proud you can now use a Singer sewing machine. Your entire being flashes an SOS, electrified by not-wanting. You turn: a small, middle-aged man you don’t know leers at you. Almost in tears, you back away, furiously wishing you could spool back to before it happened. Later you shame-facedly mutter something about it to your dad, who balls his fists and growls, “Where is he?” Mortified, you beg him to let it go, not to make a fuss, desperate not to draw any more attention to your body. So you try to tell yourself nothing has been done. You say nothing to your mother when you get home and go swimming with the family that evening, willing the cold water to wash away the traces of that hand. But it’s not on your skin: it’s in your head, indelible.

You return to that moment at the fair because you want to understand the toxic cocktail of shame, silence, helplessness and fear you imbibed, one that gets infused into women from an early age. Already you knew—without being told—that being groped is an expected consequence of being a woman, nothing to complain of. You’d joined the world that ranks sexual assault, and trivializes certain kinds of unwanted physical contact. Yet being handled like that lodges inside you like a burr, painful and uncomfortable.

It’s your induction into life in a young woman’s body. Harassment in public places by male strangers becomes an omnipresent force in your daily life. The comments and looks on the street, in public places, ramp up. Unwanted advances can happen any time, on the most mundane errands—grocery shopping, going to the post office, walking the dog. From that year on, you inhabit your body differently. You feel like a magnet, a target, in a way you don’t want. Filled with a new wariness, you learn not to make eye contact; where possible, you seek to avoid situations that could trip the alarm now constantly armed within you. This is when you start losing your voice, when your chatty preteen self is edged out by someone more taciturn and watchful. You strive to come across as aloof, forbidding. You practice silence. You take to wearing baggy, concealing things. As a young woman, you want to be invisible.

You’re not. At eighteen, you take your first vacation without family, just you and four girls from high school, on money you saved from your first job, working in a department store. You take the train all the way across England and France, to a campsite on the Mediterranean. One night, your friends get more drunk than usual and disappear on the beach with guys they met at the restaurant. You stand on the beach in the dark holding their passports, shivering a little as the blood-warm sea advances and retreats around your ankles, alone and full of fear for them and for yourself. There are men loitering on the road above, staring down at you. Wherever you are on that trip, there are always men, aware of your presence, following your movements.

At nineteen, you become an au pair in Spain. England was bad enough, but in Madrid you feel as if you’re under siege. You can’t walk through a park, or read a book in public, or order a Fanta, or wander along the sidewalk without a male of some age sidling up and whispering obscene things in your ear, or simply pestering to be noticed. A friend from high school, who is working for a family outside Madrid, is raped when she tries to hitchhike into the city. As au pairs, you earn a pittance: you sometimes have to choose between buying a coffee or the bus fare. She tells you the details, but nobody else. Neither of you thinks to report it to the police. It feels too private and shameful.

At twenty-two, you spend three months living in France alone in a tent as an onsite rep for Canvas Holidays, a British camping firm. You love being in charge of a campsite, solving clients’ problems, living out of doors. Your job comes with a moped, and you use it to explore the Breton countryside, taking long trips, exhilarated by your freedom. But there’s always the question of men, being aware of where they are and what they’re up to, what intentions they might have. In your journal, you draw a symbol for a woman, like a horseshoe-shaped magnet. A vessel with a hole. Unstoppered, unsealed. No way to cap it from the world. Men want into your body. They and the things they could do have moved into your head permanently.

In Madrid, and later in Mexico City, you are groped by strangers on metro carriages so crowded it’s impossible to maneuver away from the hand probing between your clenched legs, trying to insert a finger into your vagina through your clothes. It’s impossible to know which of the phalanx of men around you is the culprit, you’re packed in so tightly. You shift and try to twist away to no avail, wanting to kick, stomp, scream, but afraid you might make things worse. You’re surrounded by men, any and all of whom could harm you even more. When released onto the platform, you emerge shaking with revulsion and fright. You wonder, now, what would have happened if you’d protested out loud in those carriages? Would the crotch grabbing have stopped? Would you have been safe?

You think about the man at the fair, the men in those trains, feeling you up. There’s something pathetic about their furtive, sneaky fondling. Groping signals male inadequacy as well as male power. It’s something one does when one can’t see. To grope, in its primary meaning, is to reach out blindly, to search with one’s hands for something one can’t see well, or at all. Men who grope can’t really see the woman they’re molesting as a whole person, whose consent matters. Intentionally or unintentionally, they remind women of their powerlessness, the precariousness of their safety and bodily autonomy. Because it’s so far from healthy, tender, loving touch, groping generates mistrust and fear.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, you find yourself explaining to your husband of thirty years that you can’t count the number of times you’ve been out hiking, biking or walking by yourself and felt fear. Not mild anxiety, but heart-pounding, clammy-skin fear—fear of being sexually assaulted. He is surprised. You just assumed he knew. You tell him about an incident this week: Walking deep in the labyrinth of woodland paths in the Arboretum, you smell cigarette smoke. You hear and see no one, but you remember the nearby dump where men in hard hats maneuver beeping trucks constantly. You’re alone. You freeze, then flee.

The statistics on sexual assault are daunting and support the wariness you learned as a preteen. One out of every six American women suffers attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Girls and women between the ages of 12-34 are at the highest risk for sexual assault. It makes sense, given this, that you’re more scared of encountering a man in a lonely place than a bear or a mountain lion. Because at some level, women know they’re prey, and are primed to live accordingly. The threshold is different for every woman, but it’s always there. When you move about alone, you find yourself weighing your need to do what you want, go where you want, and comparing it to the amount of risk you may run. The choice is sometimes stark: suffer fear, or consent to a constricted life. One friend has camped solo in the mountains in Turkey, an adventure you think was way too hazardous. Another has never walked alone through the Arboretum, “for safety reasons.”

Even your home is dangerous. All the evidence shows that women should be more afraid of the men they know than of strangers in the dark. At twenty-four, you get into a petty argument with your long-term boyfriend, sniping at him while sitting on the sofa at his parents’ house. Suddenly he punches you in the side of the head, hard, jarring your neck. You’re thunderstruck. This was never in the vocabulary of the possible between you. Your head spins. Nothing but the sound of the blow ringing, as if you were underwater, as if God had reached out of the sky and struck you with a hammer. But it seems a random aberration, so you forgive him. You stay together for another year. Then he comes home one night after midnight, drunk, and won’t explain where he’s been or why. Instead, he starts punching you. Two days later, you fly to the U.S. for the first time, on what is supposed to be a one-year fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wearing your bruises and your baffled grief.

Living in Wisconsin that year, 1986, you feel less scrutinized, freer to move around. Legs in particular seem largely desexualized. People wear shorts everywhere, not just on the beach. You don’t need to smarten up to go to the grocery store—you can show up in stained, baggy sweatpants, as if you were just schlepping around the house. Utility and comfort prevail over looking good. But despite the significant cultural differences about how to dress and act in public, the sexual fault line is still there.

As a graduate student, you’re pressed to go out on a dinner date in the country by a male professor over twice your age, on a day when you’re wearing a tank top and very short shorts. It’s in the nineties and you find the muggy heat unbearable. You just want to be cool—not figuratively, but literally. Lulled into a false sense of security by the culture of leg-baring here, you naïvely hadn’t seen your outfit as a come-on. You’re taken aback and repelled by his offer, and the thought of being alone in a car with him rings alarm bells. But you fear the consequences of simply saying no, so you hedge and agonize, and extricate yourself from the outing by leaving him an awkward phone message later.

You eventually acquire an American boyfriend, whom you later marry. Whenever he leaves on a work trip, you sleep poorly. In your thirties and forties, even in this ultra-safe Midwestern college town, you startle awake at the slightest noise when he’s not there, primed to hear an intruder. It’s not robbery that frightens you so much as sexual violence. One night you become so convinced there’s someone in the house that you barricade yourself in the bedroom with a chest of drawers, clutching the phone under the sheets, only falling asleep when the sky starts to lighten.

Now, as a married woman in your late fifties, you’re fading into invisibility on people’s erotic radar. You’ve morphed from “miss” to “ma’am.” The loss of fertility and desirability has, paradoxically, increased your confidence in public. Menopause has granted some welcome freedoms. You now feel comfortable wearing formfitting clothes, something you’ve avoided for four decades. You’re more secure and at ease in your own body, and in your sexuality, than you’ve ever been. But that doesn’t mean the alarm system has been disconnected.

***

It’s been a beautiful day, but it’s almost over. You’ve been working inside the whole time, trying to make a deadline. You urgently need to be back in your body, moving, out of doors. You set off on a one-hour power walk through the neighborhood, a loop you sometimes do with a friend. The return half follows the bike path, which was once a train track. The last section is built into a hill, so it’s perched high above the yards that back onto it on one side. On the other, it’s flanked by woods. Shortly after you set off, you note, with a twinge of anxiety, that it’s almost dusk; fall is shortening the days fast—sunset has come significantly earlier than a week ago. In the woods by Lake Wingra, the katydids are sounding their Indian summer rattles as you pass. They’re loudest where the vegetation is thickest, where the jewelweed next to the sidewalk is chest-high. The shades get darker.

You pass the halfway point of the walk and make the turn off Midvale Boulevard onto the bike path for the home stretch. It’s completely dark by this point. A few hundred yards in, the tinge of anxiety becomes a flood that drowns your enjoyment of the walk. There are no street lamps along this stretch past the cemetery; there are houses on one side but some way off, their inhabitants effectively out of earshot. You start upbraiding yourself for being foolhardy, ruing your own stubbornness for putting yourself at risk again. You remember reading the newspaper reports of the woman attacked on the bike path last summer; how savagely she was beaten after being pulled off into the undergrowth and raped. She was found just two feet from the path. She lay there, close to death, for hours before she was rescued. You clutch the house key in your pocket like a primitive weapon, resolved to use it if need be. “So much for taking back the night,” you think to yourself, grimly. You’re just a mile and a half from home. This shouldn’t be a big deal.

By now you’re close to panic. There’s a quarter mile to the next exit from the bike path, and you walk as fast as you can, your heart thudding unpleasantly—the way it did that day at the fair when you were a girl—and turn off, thankfully, onto streets with lights and houses. At least now there are people around, within shouting distance. You’re safe. Or safer. Until next time. Because there always is a next time. And you’ll be listening, again, for the step on the path behind you.


Catherine Jagoe is a British translator, essayist, and poet who has lived in Madison, Wisconsin for over thirty years. She has a PhD in Spanish Literature from Cambridge University and is the author or translator of seven books of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism. Her nonfiction has received a 2016 Pushcart Prize and a Notable Essay citation in the 2019 edition of Best American Essays, and has appeared in Ninth Letter, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Under the Sun and The Gettysburg Review. Her debut poetry book Bloodroot won the 2016 Settlement House American Poetry Prize and the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Edna Meudt award. She is a contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series. She is currently translating contemporary Uruguayan poetry and working on a book of essays about place and migration. Her website is www.catherinejagoe.com

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