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Darling Nova, Melissa Cundieff’s full-length debut, won the 2017 Autumn House poetry prize. She earned her MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poem Hurt Music was published in Issue 10.
FWR: Your poems seem to be interested in the limits and constraints of language, whether the closing stanzas of “Paradox” –– “when the heart is just a lonely muscle/and language/just a tongue not knowing, not even touching/another tongue” –– or “In Media Res” –– “I once imagined my life differently/ but no one hears, so I say it again, and again/ until the words turn to ice, clear and contained”. These seem to speak to the desire of many women (myself included) to be heard, to feel as if their voices matter. Could you expand on this?
MC: I think of language as the holiest muscle, because it enacts and performs transformation — private, political, creative. That no one is necessarily listening, though, is an important reality. It’s important to remember that I’m sometimes my only company. And I don’t mean to sound severe, but I suspect this is so important because when something needs to change, when it’s truly time, the words to start that change must be heard. They should be as plain as still objects on a table.
FWR: I’m struck by how the places you describe in your poems then informs the conversation about each poem. “Romance at the Abandoned Mine”, for instance, enacts the echoing of tunnels (and the lines “Sometimes, even God wants to say yes/ before he says no” have reverberated in me for weeks). How does place influence your work?
MC: I think the God line I wrote in “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” tries to speak to the ethics of wanting to not only linger in a relationship or a meaningful sexual experience, but to also linger in the earthly place where it took place. I wonder if some version of myself and of that person I was with are still there, continuing on. I hope so, because we were happy, and we didn’t yet know what would happen to us.
So, place influences my work because of whatever my experience of it was. I think place or landscape serve as our most significant hauntings — in particular, the specifics of the light or the air do. Perhaps my most complicated grief is the one I feel for my childhood home. Not for my childhood but my childhood home. I like to imagine that it still exists exactly as it once did, and I’m there, inside my own life’s prologue, and my young mother and father are as well, and we’re all immortal in our orange kitchen, Winston cigarette air, encased by the greenery and wet air of Irving, Texas. I wonder if that house, which still stands but I’m sure no longer resembles the interior of my childhood home, is as haunted by me and my young, beautiful parents as I am by it. It certainly wasn’t always a perfect place, but its walls mean to me that I was born and ferried first via a car and then by my mother’s arms to the rooms that would shelter me for eighteen years – which is not everything, but it is profoundly mysterious and somewhat excruciating, especially now that I’ve grown older and made many mistakes, now that my mother’s bones hurt her and my father will die soon, now that I have children who live inside their own childhoods.
FWR: Several poems are elegiac, particularly “Remainder”, while still resisting any attempt to aggrandize or idolize a loss. Matt Rasmussen’s collection Black Aperture comes to mind, but did you look to other poems or poets for guidance on those poems?
MC: I admire Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture very much. It’s a beautiful book. Proper elegies are foundational to me; I think a lot about death and its metaphors. And you’re right, I try not to idolize loss. I do try to talk to my disappeared. I try to impart that I survey what’s left behind and sometimes feel consumed by it. Larry Levis is a person I turn to when I write those poems. I don’t understand how he wrote the poems he did. Each and every one of them is of another world. The way he travels so distantly to return to something as bare and reduced as, “My father is beginning to die. Something/ Inside him is slowly taking back/ Every word it ever gave him” (from “Winter Stars”). His poems taught me to (try to) push language into the tall weeds, to borrow its limitlessness, but they also taught me to exhale (inside a poem) — those moments that floodlight the inflexible truth that some of us are alive and some of us are not.
Larry Levis’s Elegies and the poems for his father in Winter Stars don’t only grieve the dead or dying but make something like primordial leaps to communicate with and through them. I try to do the same — it’s a way of not idolizing loss and death but certainly a way of confronting it and even giving it a heartbeat. But yeah, it’s consuming work, a consuming process, to stare at a landscape emptying itself of the people we love. The quiet, exhaustive energy that goes into doing so needs to be communicated and offered up like a currency.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you work with the mutability of time, such as the poem “The Conqueror, 1956″, or “Burning Hair”. To me, the folding and play of time reinforce the destruction and creation associated with cycles: “when the vase breaks against the driveway the shards will reflect the blue/ scattered eye that sees clearly when one thing shatters into many”.
I was hoping you might speak further to this?
MC: Forgive me for quoting the musician Joanna Newsom now when the epigraph to my book is also a Joanna Newsom song lyric, but: stand brave/time moves both ways (from “Time, As a Symptom”). I guess I think of time as a thing that we must intellectually, physically, and creatively endure, and, like Newsom suggests, that endurance involves courage.
Maybe more significant to me, though, is memory as the fruition and uniquely private demonstration of time, and what I think requires (almost parasitically!) fortitude. I think this because it makes us feel and confront very potently our lives thus far lived. Nostalgia, too, is powerful in its great difficulty to be stymied, and it’s through nostalgia and memory (to my mind) that “time moves both ways.”
Memory, in this case my memories of childhood, is wonderful and vivid though not without trauma. Memory, more so than time, reminds me simply that time is passing. And we all know what that leads to. So, when I allow myself to sink into remembering, it’s a way of confronting the past and future, my beginning and then my end — whatever that will be, whenever it happens. And maybe memory isn’t a parasite, maybe I’m a parasite to it. I think it must be one or other though, right? All that energy of remembering or being remembered must drain from a great source.
Furthermore, memory isn’t even remotely reliable; it both guards and abandons the past; it entails multiple versions of and revises what has and has not exactly happened; its nature is to be both vivid and scattered; it always enters the room with a knife in its teeth. It’s so fractured and multitudinous that I often feel consumed by it, and so writing about memory requires writing about time, as well. Drawing often unexpected connections between the past, present, and future is to exist in all directions, is to both create and destroy our own ghosts, is to make living memories, which is what I hope my poems partly are.
FWR: Is there a poem you love to teach or share?
MC: To name a few: Adrienne Rich’s “Power”, Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Salvation”, Trey Moody’s “Dream with Gun and Five-Year-Old Daughter”, Hayan Charara’s “Mother and Daughter”, Norman Dubie’s “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont”, Roger Reeve’s “Cymothoa Exigua”, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City”, and Cara Dees’ “Vigil Hemming In”.
On the day after Hazel died – it was a Tuesday afternoon in early March – George stood at his woodworking bench, whittling a bowl. He pressed the piece of yew down, and used a bowl gouge to scoop a smooth sliver of the pinkish-white wood so that it curled upwards and away, falling to the bench. He did this repeatedly – he tried not to think of anything else, not Hazel, not the empty house – and then, tired of that singular motion, he reached for sandpaper and ran it over the burrs and birds-eyes until the wood was warm and smooth to the touch.
George looked through the window, out on to the loch, where the water was as flat and as grey as slate. On the loch’s far shore, lying low across the hills Beinn Bheàrnach, Beinn a’ Bhainne, and Beinn Taladh, was a bank of cloud that made the hills seem like stubs that ended only a few hundred feet up. These were the hills that George and Hazel had looked at every day of the 43 years that they had been married. Peat and granite and died-back bracken were George and Hazel’s winter-time palate; these were the hues that stayed with them through the darkest months of the year, until April when the first of the dog violets reared their purple nodding heads.
Hazel hadn’t been well, but despite the pains that tore at her bones, and then the operation just before Christmas, she had been out in her garden every day. A few weeks after the operation, even, she had pulled on her wellies, got her gardening gloves down from the hall shelf and wrapped her purple rain jacket about her. Concerned, George had watched her through the long window at the back of the house climb carefully up the steps, clutching at the wooden rail, and enter her labyrinthine vegetable garden. He had watched as she had become smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing behind the poly-tunnel, just a purple speck on the hillside, a trowel in her hand.
Now white wood shavings curled on George’s fleece jacket, and flecks of wood dust sprinkled his arms and shoulders. He didn’t bother to brush himself off. When the light grew dim, he switched on the overhead strips, which flickered and growled to life. He would stay out here until he saw his tools in double; only then would he go inside the empty house.
The next afternoon, the minister called in to visit. George watched him drive up the road in his faded Ford Cortina, and then they sat in the living room where the stove glowed with coals. George served him tea and some Ginger Nut biscuits which Hazel had bought at the Spar Shop just Saturday. The minister had mild Parkinson’s disease, and his hands shook, the tea cup rattling on the saucer. He spilled a little of the milky tea on the beige carpet, both of them pretending not to notice. George didn’t mind; he just wanted the minister to leave. He wasn’t ready to talk about Hazel.
The minister offered his condolences. “Thank you,” George said, and then looked at the spot on the carpet where the tea stained brown. He asked if Hazel had left any wishes for her funeral, any specific requests – cremation, burial, that kind of thing. “We hadn’t expected her to die,” George said, thinking how cruel to be taken, after everything they had been through, by a stroke. He got up to stand at the window.
From there he looked out onto the edge of Hazel’s vegetable garden, which staggered in wild, overgrown terraces up the hillside behind the house. Neither George nor Hazel knew exactly how many acres the garden covered, because as demand for Hazel’s produce across the island had increased, so the garden had stretched out into their land at the back of the house. From the outside, the garden looked nothing more than untamed gorse bushes and rowan trees, trees that Hazel had planted when they had first moved to the house because in local lore they were thought to ward off witches. But on entering, and following the muddy path up the hill, the garden stretched out into large areas planted with every kind of vegetable that could grow in the island’s short season.
Raised beds were planted with leeks, spinach, kale, squash and kohlrabi, beds that sat alongside fruit cages, potting sheds, and a poly-tunnel which in late spring brimmed with sweet peas and, in summer, with strawberries, runner beans, trailing tomatoes. Up higher were whole sections reserved for root vegetables – crops that in summer burst their green tops through the rich loamy earth, and in autumn delivered creamy white offerings of parsnip, potato, turnip, Jerusalem artichoke, roots that kept them going through the cold dark months of winter.
From up here, Hazel had often told George at the end of a long day of work, she could look out across the house, the fields that surrounded them, and beyond to the loch, the hills, and the islands beyond theirs. From here she could be reminded that they lived on an island, because it was so easy to forget, an island that they had chosen randomly off the map all those years ago, its very virtue being that it was disconnected from the rest of Britain. She said that she felt reassured, when she was looking out on the sea that kept them apart from the mainland, that this would stop the rest of the world from encroaching upon theirs.
George now stared out at the rowan trees that bordered the garden, clasping his hands behind his back, his fingers picking at an old woodworking cut on his thumb. Behind him, the minister fidgeted and shook. George wondered what he was going to do about the garden. Keeping it up had been Hazel’s job, not his.
“You’ve been standing there for five minutes,” the minister said kindly, and George turned to find him still sitting there.
“The garden,” George said, then trailed off. The settee springs creaked as the minister prepared to get up. “If it’s cremation you choose, it will have to be a mainland service,” the minister said. “Or there’s burial in the village, of course. It’s a lot to think about, and so soon. Perhaps you will call me when you’ve had time to consider?”
George nodded heavily, his mind darting to when he had seen Hazel in the hospital, just two days ago, after the doctors had said she was gone. He blinked the image away, and right then, through the window, he thought he saw a movement through the trees. He looked closer, squinting his eyes, straining to see through the silvery branches if what he thought he had seen was real. A pair of eyes looked back at him, white and wide, and then another pair, and then another. He saw a flash of tawny hide, a glimpse of cream, the sharp points of antlers. Deer, George started, and the Minister looked at him quizzically.
“Never mind,” George said, and then rushed the Minister to the door, hoping he hadn’t been rude.
“You’ll be in touch about things?” the minister said, “and of course, if there’s anything.”
When the minister had set off in his car, down the steep driveway towards the sea, George went upwards, towards the garden. There, he saw how the deer had got in: a fallen strut had left a gaping entrance to Hazel’s garden, and the fence had been trampled. The deer might come out on their own, but it was unlikely. He would need to fix the fence, and he would need help to get the deer out. He couldn’t do it alone.
Early the next morning, frost glinted on the tufts of shoreline grass, and herons stood still and long-legged at the water’s edge. George looked out from the window in the living room, and then picked up the phone to call his neighbour, Karl the farmer, and ask if he had time to come over.
The deer were still in the garden. George had watched them from the living room window as they destroyed an elderflower bush, the bush shaking in great waves as it succumbed to the violent nibbling of teeth. Now George felt a kind of weariness that two cups of coffee hadn’t shaken, a deep tiredness that had lain with him all throughout the sleepless, cold night and had risen with him at the blue hued dawn. It was a tiredness that loomed over him so that he felt if he didn’t keep working, it would crush him.
He was finishing up a slice of Hazel’s sourdough bread when Karl’s truck pulled up outside the house, his two sheepdogs, Ailsa and Aidan, turning circles in the truck bed.
“Hello, mate,” said Karl, eyeing him cautiously. He held out his hand, across the pile of condolence letters that littered the doorstep.
“Karl,” said George, shaking his hand, looking down at the letters. “I’m okay.”
“Whatever you need,” said Karl, and George nodded.
Karl was younger and taller than George, broad-backed, big-boned, carrying a head of bright blond hair. His face glowed red above the neck of the Guernsey sweater he always wore. George and Karl had been neighbors for going on 25 years, when Karl had taken over managing the farm on the Ashworth estate, and had moved to the cottage four miles along the road. The Ashworth estate stretched as far as George and Hazel’s house, and continued on the other side, so George had seen Karl come down on his quad bike, or in the truck if it was blowing a hoolie, twice a day, every day for the last two and a half decades.
George stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him. The cold air stung his nostrils. Hazel loved this kind of weather, the ground still hard but spring somewhere nearby. She loved the white stillness of frost and the long evenings when a stew simmered on the stove, when she and George would play Scrabble together, which Hazel usually won. Hazel had always been good with words, ever since school where she had won the spelling competition. That was when George had first noticed her; they had both been thirteen.
George led Karl around the side of the house to the garden.
“Part of the fence fell,” said George, pointing to the gap. “This was her department. I haven’t been round here since,” he paused, “the operation. Before Christmas.”
“I see,” said Karl. “Can you get a new section of fence up?”
“I can get some posts,” he said. “And some new wire fencing.”
“When do you think you’ll have it ready?”
“Tomorrow, maybe. By the weekend for sure. I’ll have to go to the town for supplies.”
“Okay,” said Karl.
“But the deer,” said George. “There must be five of them at least. They’ve been watching me.”
Karl nodded. Over the years, Karl had become a feature in George’s life, if not quite a friend then someone George could count on. Hazel had sold her produce every week at the market, sixteen miles away in town, so she knew nearly everyone. But George rarely went away from the house, unless to fit a door he had made or sell his turned wooden objects. He was fine without friends; he had Hazel, and he had his work.
But when Hazel had got sick at the start of the winter, Karl had begun dropping in every now and again after he’d fed the sheep, offering Hazel and George lifts to the ferry for hospital appointments in Glasgow, picking up medicine for them from the town. Karl’s wife, Mandy, might send along a cake or some bread, and recently Karl had shown up on his quad bike with a fallen branch of rowan wood from the estate. He had asked Mr Ashworth’s permission to take it to George to turn bowls with, and Mr Ashworth had said, given the circumstances, that this would be fine.
These were little things, but where they lived, they made all the difference. During Hazel’s sickness, George realized, he had come to rely on Karl and Mandy in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
Karl and George stood now, looking into the garden, until they saw movement, a swaying of branches, the snap of twigs and the flash of red between the shades of greens and greys.
“I see them,” said Karl. “Little pests.”
“I don’t know how long they’ve been in there,” said George. “Hazel, she hasn’t been out here since, well – ” His shoulders hunched and his chest caved, as if he were folding in on himself.
“It’s okay, mate,” said Karl, reaching out a hand and placing it gingerly on George’s shoulder. George raised his forehead, pulled back his neck, sucked in a little air.
“Since Saturday. She was fine on Saturday. She was out here on Saturday.”
“Well, it sounds like they’ve had enough of a feed,” said Karl. “What say we get these rascals out of there? I’ll get Ailsa and Aidan from the truck and see what we can do. How does that sound?”
While George and Karl were out in the garden trying to get the deer out, the minister left a message on George’s answering machine.
“It’s Reverend Paul,” said the message, which George listened to later on that night. “From the church.” He asked if George might call him, or if he might come round again, to discuss the arrangements. George had listened to the beeps that followed the message and then had pressed the delete button.
George and Karl were unsuccessful with the deer. The sheepdogs did their best to round them up but every time one of the dogs cornered one, the deer leapt away into some further reach of the garden. Karl and George stayed with it until around lunch time, when Karl said he had to go and see about the cows.
“Of course,” George said. “You be getting along.” He tried to say it in a way that didn’t make Karl feel bad. Even so, Karl shifted awkwardly from one rubber-booted foot to the other and offered to come back another day if the deer still hadn’t left.
“If it’s no bother,” George replied, trying not to sound relieved.
“It’s nae bother to me at all, I want to help,” Karl said. “You’d do the same for me, right, mate?” George dipped his head, a heavy nod of agreement.
As darkness fell that Thursday afternoon, George went out to his workshop. He pressed the light switch on the wall, and the caged strips flickered to life. The bowl he was working on lay on the bench, its corners cut, its insides gouged, its surface rough with the scoops and turns of his tools.
George had been woodturning for as long as he had been married to Hazel, 43 happy years as a husband and a woodturner. You couldn’t rush either one if you wanted to do them right. George had learned about wood from his father, growing up in the New Forest, where his father had taken George on his wood-seeking trips around their house. By the time George had left school, at fifteen, he had learned to love wood with the same passion that his own father had.
George earned his money from making doors and gates for people, kitchen cabinets, those sorts of useful things. But what he rose for every day, was to turn discarded, forgotten pieces of wood into beautiful bowls, platters, vases, objects that would live in people’s houses for years, maybe even be passed on to the next generation. He wasn’t good with books, or words, or spelling, like Hazel had been, but he was good with his hands and he had the love of wood buried deep within him.
George looked out of the dark window at his own reflection staring back, and then at the row of tools clipped in hooks along the wall. There was the red handled chisel his uncle had bought him when he had turned his first bowl, the saw, 40 years old, a new blade bought on Amazon just one month ago. A bradawl, the rubber grip long since turned sticky but the blade still up to the job, which he had bought in an old man’s yard sale on their first holiday together in 1976. A jack plane that Hazel had bought him for his twenty-second birthday, the same year she briefly went to work at the Clydesdale before deciding an office life wasn’t for her and took to gardening full-time. A sliding bevel square, one of many tools left to him by Jack, who used to farm next door. The froe that George had bought himself, the gimlet he had found. The rasp, the spokeshave, the twybil; a brace, a broadaxe, a bucksaw.
George ran his hand over the blades and handles now, ending with the set of Sheffield steel bowl gouges his father had left him when he’d died. George had spent nearly his whole life with these tools, each one so precise, existing for one single purpose only. He looked once again up at the window out of which he could see nothing, only his own ghostly reflection. What would his purpose be, now that she was gone? What would he be?
Lying on one end of the bench was the piece of rowan that Karl had brought to him from the estate. It had been sitting there, gnarled and knobbled, waiting for him to do something with it, but with everything that had happened – the operation, the slow recovery, and then, this, Hazel’s death – George hadn’t got around to even splitting it open. He had no idea, and could not tell from looking at it, what was inside, what colours and patterns he would find when he eventually laid it out and cut it through with the saw.
But he had the urge to touch it now, to rub his fingers over the bark, and then he wanted to take the branch in his hands, and he did, feeling the weight of it pull on his arms. Then, it were as if his body were acting on its own, and the deer, Karl, the minister’s visits, even the fact that Hazel wasn’t inside cooking dinner, all of that became a kind of haze to which George was now numb. He took the branch over to the saw table and laid it down in front of the circular blade. He pulled on his safety glasses, stretched his fingers into some gloves, and flicked the switch on the side of the saw. The jagged mouth of the blade roared, a blast of sawdust-speckled air gushed upwards onto his face. The teeth began to pierce the rough skin of the wood and the noise drowned out the darkness that had permeated George’s mind. Just the rowan, the blade, and the devastating cut of metal on wood.
George shut off the saw and laid the two pieces of wood down on the workbench, blinking the dust from his eyes and taking in the colours before him. Cream and copper, tan and taupe, specks of auburn and swirls of russet, freckles of chestnut and honey and peach. He swept off the dust, and then licked the tip of one of his fingers and rubbed a little saliva into the wood. Along with the growth rings that he expected, the wood also contained patterns that snaked in one direction and then in the other, the lighter-colored sapwood on the outside spiralling inwards towards the deep treacle-tinged heartwood at its core.
George ran his hand over the wood once more, taking in the brightness of the colors, and then he watched as they began to fade, as the air in the workshop oxidized the wood. It was as if their lights were going out. The colors lost their brightness, the wood lost its shine. It would never be the same piece of wood again.
The week lumbered on, bringing with it an entourage of lady-callers, women who lived on the island, many of whom people George had never even met. He had made the mistake of letting one of them through the door, early on in the week, and then they had talked on Facebook, probably, or at the post-office, and before he knew it, they all wanted to come in.
They brought cakes, mostly, but also soups, stews, trays of flapjacks, an apple strudel, a multi-coloured chilli plant from the village shop, all of which lay abandoned on the shelf inside the porch where in April, Hazel would have been laying out trays planted with seeds, ready for outside sowing in June. When the women knocked at the house, he didn’t answer, and so they cupped their hands to the window and then pressed their faces into the aperture their hands created. Then they would decide he wasn’t there and back away, leaving their offerings inside the porch.
Eventually, someone brought George a bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, even though he hadn’t had a drink in God knows how many years. The bearer was new to the island – a blow-in, locals called these people – and had no idea that George had promised Hazel a long time ago that he would never touch another drop. George snaffled the whisky into the pocket of his woodworking jacket and took it out to the workshop. He didn’t bother with a glass.
There was an old leather armchair in his workshop, and he sank back into it, rested the bottle on his knee, and looked up at the rafters. He let out a sigh. Then George twisted the top off the bottle, put it to his lips, and glugged at the amber liquid, wincing and enjoying the pain as it slipped down his throat. The whisky burned the back of his tongue, and gouged tears of surprise from his eyes because he had not tasted whisky in so many years and now he remembered how disgusting and how delicious it was.
He thought of Hazel, and of her garden, and of her windowsill which should be covered in trays of seeds but instead was covered in trays of brownies and other things he would never eat. He tugged at the neck of that bottle and forced himself to swallow the whisky, and after a few minutes of drinking his arms felt light, as if they might lift of their own accord, and his head was woozy, and then he couldn’t remember why he was sitting in his workshop at all. With the confusion came a momentary, welcome relief.
But the feeling that had been plaguing him since Hazel had died, the weight that hung around his shoulders, that dogged him in the house and followed him when he went to bed and when he got up in the night to go to the toilet and when he finally rose to deal with the day, the immense and stupefying weight of her absence still clung to him, and even though he was drunk and he felt like throwing up everything that was inside him, still it was there. And the thought that it would never leave, that Hazel’s absence might for ever hang around his neck, was, even in his drunken discomfort, also a strange kind of relief, because at least that meant that he would always feel her close by.
When George woke up to a hand on his shoulder nudging him awake and Karl looming over him, he didn’t know where he was. But by the light coming through the windows, he could see that it was morning. His head was raging.
“You okay, George?” said Karl.
“Just give me a second,” said George, who felt sick and mortified by what Karl had seen. “I was just…”
“Yes,” said Karl, who ran his finger along a knotted branch of ash that lay drying on the racks, looking away so that George could gather himself, straighten his jacket and kick the bottle underneath the chair. “I came about the deer,” said Karl.
George had forgotten about not getting the deer out yesterday, and felt immense gratitude for Karl having come round. They went outside to Karl’s truck, where the sheep dogs snapped and twisted in the back.
“You okay, mate?” Karl said, eyeing him closely.
“I’m getting there,” said George, who had now been without Hazel for four whole days, the longest they had been apart for twenty or more years. “I’m not really sleeping,” he ventured. His head felt as if it were bursting.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Karl “Mandy says do you want to come over for tea?”
“Aye, maybe one of these days,” said George, who would have loved to eat a meal at a table with someone else. He had been surviving off sourdough bread and cheese, which he nibbled at while standing up at the kitchen counter, too afraid to sit down alone. “Maybe later,” he said, worried that too much warmth would crack him. “I’ll let you know,” he said, knowing he probably wouldn’t.
The sheep dogs, Ailsa and Aidan, pressed their muzzles against the grill at the back of Karl’s truck.
“How about them deer?” said Karl, “are they still up there in your garden?”
“They’ve taken out the rowans,” said George.
“Oh dear,” said Karl, knowing Hazel had planted them. He twisted the handle on the tail gate and the dogs piled out of the truck, panting and dangling their long pink tongues around the rims of George’s boots. “Come,” Karl snapped at the dogs. To George he said, “let’s see what we can do, shall we?”
The deer took fright when the dogs appeared, and scattered to every corner of the garden. “You stay by the gate,” Karl shouted, following the dogs with his whistles and clicks up through the paths that wound from each part of the garden to the other. “They might come out,” he shouted, his voice fading as he went further away. Then Karl was gone, only his red jacket visible in flashes.
In actual fact, Hazel had told George when she had gone for her operation before Christmas that, should anything happen to her, she wished to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the garden, Hazel had said, underneath the rowan trees. George hadn’t wanted to talk about it but Hazel had insisted. “Just in case,” she had said, holding his hand in bed the night before she was due at the hospital. “I just want to know that we talked about it.”
George’s head was still thick with the whisky that he wished to God he hadn’t touched. The feeling of having broken his promise to Hazel was enough to make him realize that it was the last time he would ever drink again. He heard a shout from the top part of the garden, somewhere up near the brassicas, then he heard the dogs barking, and then a scuffle of hooves around the perimeter fence as two white-faced stags came trampling down the hill towards him.
“Look out!” shouted Karl, whose head was just visible above a clump of gorse bushes. George was momentarily fixated by the way the animals leapt towards him. One of the stags had just a small pair of antlers but the other was an eight-pointer, maybe a ten. Its haunches undulated as it ran. A fine drizzle had begun to fall on George’s face and it seemed as if the drops were falling on someone else’s skin entirely. The two stags were nearly upon him, undeterred by his presence.
“Let them through, George,” Karl shouted, “stand back.” The stags made directly for the opening in the fence. All George had to do was to let them pass. They streaked by in a flurry of fur and bone and hoof.
“Well done, mate,” said Karl, who had come down the hill towards him. “I’m afraid we’ve got trouble with that young fallow, though,” he said. “She’s tried to get through the deer fence, and I think her leg may be broken.” A fine layer of mist had settled on Karl’s face too, and the two of them, bedraggled and damp, look out at one another beneath rain-soaked hair.
Karl came back that afternoon after milking and shot the injured deer. It had been a young one, its leg mangled by trying to jump over the fence, its antlers small but perfectly formed. They laid the deer on plastic sheeting in the garage, split it open from end to end and removed the gralloch which Karl plopped into a bucket, the kidneys and intestines trying their best to slip through his fingers. He left the head on a tarpaulin, and took the feet for his sheep dogs to chew on. Together they hoisted the body up onto a hook in the roof beam, put there for such a purpose. George would skin it for its meat once it had bled dry.
Afterwards, they sat in the house and George lit the wood-burning stove, resisting the urge to ask Karl if he wanted to play Scrabble. George produced the apple strudel, and together they ate it and drank a pot of tea. “Have you decided what you’re going to do about the – ” Karl paused, “about Hazel. About the funeral?”
George sipped at his tea, and said, finally, “Yes.” He knew what had to be done, and tomorrow he would call the minister. “Hazel wanted to be cremated,” said George. “She wanted her ashes scattered underneath the rowans. They’ll grow back, won’t they?” he asked.
When they had gone up to free the deer from the fence, and found its leg broken and the deer weak having wrangled all night, they had found the garden in a state of destruction. The beech trees’ lower branches had been bitten to the core, the purple sprouting, kale and other winter greens were flattened and snapped, stems bleeding white, open to the sky. The potato patch was churned with cloven-hoofed prints, and the rowans were naked, stripped of their bark, the sapwood within shredded and torn as if an angry clawed animal had been trying to get its guts out.
George had run his hand along the trunk of one of the trees, once smooth and silvery, now rough against his palm, like strands of old rope. George didn’t know if the rowans would survive another year, but Karl had suggested he call James the farrier, who was good with trees, to see if he had any advice. When Karl finished his tea, George didn’t offer him any more. They said goodnight at the door, and George heard the truck bounce down the lane to the road, the dogs whining from their cage in the back.
In the garage, the deer hung from the hook. In the stark glow of the strip lights, the deer’s hide shone bright, tawny with patches of cream, specks of brown, hazy spots of auburn faintly visible. The head lay on the tarp still, and the deer’s eyes were closed now, its lids pressed shut against its face. But when Karl had taken a rifle and nuzzled it up against its struggling head, its eyes had been wide open, bright with fear and pain, the eyeballs engorged, straining through its own scull. George had hardly been able to bear it, though he knew that this was the kindest thing to do.
“Best to put it out of its misery,” Karl had said, and then he had pulled the trigger. The fawn was killed immediately, its body slumping against the fence where its leg had been caught, but for a few seconds, its muscles had twitched and its eyes had gone on blinking, the nervous system firing impulses even though its heart had stopped. George wasn’t religious, or even spiritual, but he thought, for a moment, that he might have been able to see something pass from its eyes, something fade, before the eyes stopped blinking and the muscles ceased to shiver.
George closed the door to the garage, turning his back on the deer. It would still be there in the morning, and a few days later when George would skin it and carve up the meat for the freezer, taking a parcel along to Karl and Mandy. George went back inside the house, past the trays of cakes, to the table where the phone lived. Holding the receiver, he dialed the minister’s number, and waited for him to pick up on the other end.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now calls Novi home. A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. His full-length collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
FWR: How do you protect your time and foster your writing?
TB: Like many poets now, and throughout history, I work a demanding weekday job, so writing can sometimes feel nearly impossible for me. With that said, I do dedicate early Saturday and Sunday mornings (or any off days) as “writing” time. Writing is in quotes, because in these sessions, I make no promises to myself that I have to write anything at all—and, to be frank, sometimes I don’t write. There may be times where I do nothing but read essays or books by other poets or fiction writers. (Oh! One of my obsessions as of late are essays on fashion—have you read The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan?) If you were to pop in on me, you might even see me looking at YouTube videos of other artists—either performing or talking about their disciplines. Where I am getting at is this: the act of writing for me encompasses a lot more than the physical act of writing.
Right now, I am in New York for a theater run—something I do often. Yes, I am gaga over musicals and plays, and get gooseflesh anytime someone starts talking about Audra McDonald, but all of this too is a part of my process. Watching other artistic disciplines feeds me. Not so much the subject matter of their work—although that is fair game for me as well—but I am more interested in their materials. For the past couple of years, I have been going to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Here, the plays and musicals are performed in repertory—so many shows are going on at once. You will see one actor playing two, or three, different roles in different shows. I love this, because to me, and my poet brain, it always leads me to rhyme and the shapes of rhyme. When I am watching occurrences like this happening, something seemingly minor to most of the audience, I am thinking how can I translate this into a poem. Of course, I can’t ever pull it off when I mean to pull it off—I’m too slow for that. Ha! It takes a while for the idea to sink into my body and, it always seems, out of nowhere I pull it off without thinking about it—or maybe I am thinking about it? I don’t know.
FWR: I’m struck by this image of actors playing multiple rows in multiple shows. It makes me think of the moving between forms and personas, how the self can be fractured and recast (in a poem like “The Bug”, for instance).
TB: Bifurcation is a frequent kind of transformation that takes place in my work. Many of my poems are in first person singular, so I often challenge myself to see what happens when that gets split off into two entities sharing the same space. “The Bug” complicates the first person by allowing that other man to speak through him halfway through the poem. What better way to explore a kind of love than through possession? And going back to your mention of form—in my chapbook there are many received forms that resist the conventions of those forms. These too act as a kind of fracture and recast, but moreover it goes back to my love of bodily transformation and how that allows me to divorce a body from its intent.
FWR: Can you speak further to finding inspiration in different art forms? (and considering those explorations part of the act of writing!)
TB: Of course, as writers we should first be lovers of reading, but other art forms too have much to teach us. In 2017, I was one of 18 recipients of a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. Each year, there are two groups of nine artists chosen from two rotating categories. This time around the categories are Literary and Visual Arts, but everyone is doing all kinds of work: art criticism, sculpture, mural painting, collage, quilting, dance, and more. The fellowship comes with a pretty large amount of money with no-strings-attached, but that has not been the highlight of my tenure. The best part has been getting to dig into the work of the other fellows and, in one case, getting to sit in on a session. I just think writers limit themselves if they are only looking toward their own discipline for techniques or new ways of thinking about stuff. The dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones teaches me just as much as the poet Carl Phillips.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you play with syntax in many of your poems (“The Black Umbrella”, for example). It seems to not only allow for a reveal and revision of information, but also to suggest greater possibility in the memory of a poem. Along the lines of structure, I’d love to hear what you were thinking while arranging this manuscript. How did you decide when to echo back to a previous poem or image, or when to expand upon an idea?
TB: Matthew Olzmann, the killer poet and a dear friend of mine, was—thank goodness—my editor for What Are We Not For. The manuscript I submitted to Bull City Press, structurally speaking, was close to the final arrangement, but Matthew encouraged me to meddle with the linearity of the structure. I mean, the narrative of the collection is pretty linear right now, but some of that echoing you are hearing is due to Matt’s suggestions. One of the most obvious examples is what happened with what I call my doggie suite of poems—poems for which you all graciously gave a first home: “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” In my mind, that was the order of these poems and that is how they appeared in the initial manuscript. Matthew and I decided to break up the suite and rearrange them, so that they call out to each other across the book while informing the poems immediately around them.
Another choice I should talk about is where the title poem falls in the collection—it’s the penultimate poem. Matt deserves credit for this choice as well. At first, I had this poem so obviously seated at the center of the book. Poems, when putting a manuscript together, are really fractals building toward a single larger version of themselves—that’s what this chapbook is up to as well. Just as each poem is aware of where its volta sits, so too does this collection. “What Are We Not For,” the title poem, acts as a turn of revelation in the collection. “What are we not for,” that phrase, because it is the title of the book, gets teased out for much of the book—it is at once: a dare; a mandate; a question; a resignation. It is not until the penultimate poem that the collection realizes what it has been up to all along.
FWR: Speakers are bodied and performed in a way that responds to assumptions about race and gender (“the black boy/lurking in our imagination” from “There is Always a Face to Tend To”). Yet, there is also this movement away from the body, both as a means of protection (“Our bodies are museums/ Our bodies are objects in a museum A thing a thing” from “The Lynching of Frank Embree”) and a refusal to be limited to the body’s confines. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this.
TB: The bodies in these poems are always in danger—or at least I mean them to appear that way. These gestures of transformation, or the botched attempts at transformations, are markers of a larger exploration (I think—how can one really be sure) that my work as a whole seeks. Transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent. My poems mean to explore the breakdown between a body’s intent and the gesture that intent manifests. It’s why the poems in this collection are interested in race, gender, and sexuality. Well—all of that and the fact that I am a Black gay man negotiating all of this stuff. In the case of Frank Embree, I mean the speaker to be victim and assailant at once. He, and his kind, has suffered at the hands of men who look like Frank Embree, so he is enraged. He is also troubled by this rage, because it is, also, directed to himself—inheritor of Embree’s body. I like to think that no one, not even me as creator, is protected in my poems.
FWR: When you say, “the bodies in these poems are always in danger… transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent” —firstly, I love this. And, I think it speaks to two correlated ideas, the first being that destruction can allow for transformation (the cliché of the butterfly and all that), even if that transformation is happening in the witness. The second thing I think of is the push between identity and the gesture, how performance might codify identity— for better or worse.
TB: When I say transformation allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent, I’m thinking in terms of how, at last, a body can reveal itself to be meant for another way of being than one those outside of that body anticipate.
As a Black gay man living in Michigan, I often get the silly phrase “You don’t read as gay.” When, in my mind, I am so very gay. There is a disconnect happening between my choreography and how my postures are being seen. And look at all of the police murders of Black folks that are happening: blackness being seen as a threat that must be stomped out. Little Trayvon in his hoodie being gunned down by Zimmerman, because he thought the boy looked suspicious. Or, in my neck of the woods, Renisha McBride, a Black woman shot while knocking on a door for help. It should not be a surprise that my poems want to sit inside of that disconnect between gesture and intent.
FWR: The play between sensuality and sexuality, particularly with regards to expressions of masculinity/manhood, is threaded throughout the text. I see the movement as poems ease from inertia (the experience or suggestion of pleasure) to urgency (wanting, acting on sex). I read it as a desire to reclaim space, in spite of the stereotypes and violence associated with having a “body/dark and big as history”.
TB: Yeah, okay, sure: that is one way one might look at that patterning—it is there of course. But, I must say, I’m not sure if that reclamation of a Black space, or that redefinition of some view of Blackness, was at the fore in my mind. I’m probably repeating myself, but I’m really interested in this breakdown between intent and the gesture that intent brings forth. This misfiring between intent and gesture is how we arrive, often, at points of pleasure and violence. So, yes, I am thinking about this Black body I have inherited, but I am also thinking about this gay body I have inherited at the same time. This is why, for example, right after “The Lynching of Frank Embree” there is “Aaron McKinney Cleans His Magnum”—a poem around Matthew Shepard (whose death scared me further into the closet in undergrad). And in the reference to Shepard’s murder you are to hear echoes of Pinocchio (another “wicked” boy) and his plight. This is not to say that the book is an erasure of Blackness—you are right; it is there—but it is complicated a bit (or at least I mean it to be).
FWR: When you say “he [the speaker] is troubled by this rage”, is there also the element of society’s denial or suppression of Black anger? An awareness that whiteness expects a Black body to hold his/her feelings without release?
TB: That self-inflicted rage of which I speak comes from a kind of shame. The conversation that is happening in this poem has to do with the speaker and his relation to his own black maleness—and the inherent history with which that comes. Any conversations about the role of whiteness is in the periphery or gets superseded by what is happening between the speaker and the image of Frank Embree. That is why, for example, the admission “yes, white” appears in parenthesis; why the speaker’s thumb tip print sits over the image of the lyncher’s brim. The speaker in the poem is challenging what he can say and do and in what space—the boundary between the room of the gallery and the private room in which a porn film is playing is fractured.
FWR: To shift gears, is there a poem you love to teach or share?
TB: C. Dale Young introduced me to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book The Orchard while at Warren Wilson. Now, I am not going to lie, I bought that book a couple of years before getting into Warren Wilson and it sat unread on my bookshelf. (Bad poet, I know.) Let me tell you: when I finally read that book for the first time it unhooked something in me. It’s hard to just tell people to only read one BPK poem, so I often suggest they read The Orchard, but then I tell them to pay close attention to the title poem of that book. The images in all of her poems, but in that poem especially, fidget; they refuse to remain static on the page. Specifically, she does this with similes that I always have a hard time explaining to people, because they think I am talking mixed metaphors or something. (It’s not—I swear!) Watch out for the fucking dog in that poem! Just in the first few lines, the dog is said to be like a horse. Then, without warning, the poem calls it “the horse.” I hate poems, including mine, when there are gestures toward figuration that are only a means of comparison or ornamentation. No, figuration should and can do more. In “The Orchard,” and many other of BPK’s poems, figuration is how the poems keep pushing forward. I was so sad when I heard she passed away. What a loss.
FWR: Thinking ahead to when Four Way Books will publish your full length (and congratulations!) and considering what you say about the ordering of your poems, I was wondering if you might speak to what the process is like moving from a chapbook to a full-length manuscript. Will you be pulling many (or any!) poems from What Are We Not For over? How does the process of revisiting those poems change the way you see them working in conversation with each other?
TB: Thanks—it’s all exciting and scary for me at the same time. Actually, that is my everyday temperament; excited and scared. Ha! Martha Rhodes has been such a huge champion of my work and then there I am like, “Who? Me?” It’s still very early in the process, but I am told things are going to get a little crazy in the next few months for me. At first, I did not want to pull anything from the chapbook, but as the concept for the new book is working itself out, I am seeing that a few poems will be making cameos. Then there are these new poems that will totally recast (there is that word again) those old poems in new ways. That is probably my favorite part of this process is seeing how the old poems gossip with the new poems.
TWO POEMS by Kerrin McCadden
LAUGHTER IS CLOSE by David Rivard
THREE POEMS by Alyssa Beckitt
THREE POEMS by Jessica Hincapie
THINGS THAT FOLD by Karisma Price
SUMMONS by Jess Smith
TO MY CHILD BEFORE SHE ARRIVES by Brian Simoneau
LAMENT FOR SOME OTHER SAIGON by Sarah Audsley
AS THE FOG ROLLS IN, NIGHT FINDS ITS FOOTING by Luther Hughes
“This is How I Remember Her” by Blas Falconer
I am spending the morning with the poetry of Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, who died in May of this year.` Born and raised in Los Angeles, Claire received her B.A. in English from Loyola Marymount University, an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Virginia, her M.A. in literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. A full-time instructor at Houston Community College, she lived with her husband, Raj, a scientist specializing in HIV/AIDS research at Baylor College of Medicine; their young daughter, Vidya; and their three cats. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Shadow Mountain and Bear, Diamonds, and Crane.
Both poetry collections intimately address the experiences of first-, second-, and third- generation Japanese Americans in the 20th century. Specifically, the poems revisit the internment camps of World War II and, among other subjects, ensuing and often more subtle expressions of xenophobia. Of Claire and her poetry, Kimiko Hahn writes, “she draws us into a personal history that happens to be a part of American history and subsequent reparations. Here is a socially-conscious writer whose issues of war and passion bring us back and then forward again.” This is how I remember her and her poems.
Terzanelle: Manzanar Riot
This is a poem with missing details,
of ground gouging each barrack’s windowpane,
sand crystals falling with powder and shale,
where silence and shame make adults insane.
This is about a midnight of searchlights,
of ground gouging each barrack’s windowpane,
of syrup on rice and a cook’s big fight.
This is the night of Manzanar’s riot.
This is about a midnight of searchlights,
a swift moon and a voice shouting, Quiet!
where the revolving searchlight is the moon.
This is the night of Manzanar’s riot,
windstorm of people, rifle powder fumes,
children wiping their eyes clean of debris,
where the revolving searchlight is the moon,
and children line still to use the latrines.
This is a poem with missing details,
children wiping their eyes clean of debris—
sand crystals falling with powder and shale.
Claire and I met in graduate school at the University of Houston. Petite in size, but large in spirit, she was not one to be pushed around. She was exceptionally smart with a clear and distinct perspective of the world, one she seemed to trust intuitively, wholly. She doled out love and fierceness best with her unique sense of humor. Once, she brought a voodoo doll to poetry workshop. When she perceived that our discussions were becoming less than constructive, she placed the doll on the seminar table in front of her, gently reminding us why we were there, reminding us to respect one another, regardless of our differences.
A couple of years ago, Brenda Hillman encouraged a group of poets to let what makes each of us uniquely us be reflected in the poems, to not let those quirks be buffed out in revision. In regard to both subject matter and style, Claire knew this all along. I’m reminded, reading her poems, how much of Claire came through in her work. Her personality seems embedded somehow in the lines and the way that she approached the historical, the collective.
I remember times I wanted you to die—
when you hit Mama
with your slippers, threw
fish knives at our brother,
locked yourself in the bathroom
and swallowed pills.
Sister, I’ll call you sister
because I never liked your real name
Where are you taking me?
Coffee and books.
The Novel Café
is open until 2 a.m.
Inside, we talk over
ice cubes and espresso.
I sip lemon water again.
the last crumb pebble
from a strawberry biscuit.
Downstairs, you flip through
Crime and Punishment. I browse through
Matisse and Edvard Munich.
I place the Red Odalisque
next to Anne Sexton,
The Scream near Robert Lowell.
At home, you warm
your flat fingernails against
a cup of hot chocolate, get up,
go to your room wearing
an oxygen mask. I clutch
a crumpled picture
of you, Sister, tugging my hair
as we huddled together
on cushions, in red and blue
kimonos. In the morning
I grind Jamaican coffee.
You appear with braided hair
and desert wildflowers.
I rename the sky after you,
I name the tears of our childhood,
As I raise two young boys, I see more clearly than ever how we are all imprinted with our own personalities, our own interests and perspectives, and this was so obviously true with Claire. Claire was Claire all the way through, and the poems demonstrate her spirit: wise and passionate. These days, with xenophobia and denial and fear on the rise throughout the country and the world, when our lives depend on the brave speaking out, reminding us where all of this might lead, we need Claire and her voice more than ever.
Origins of an Impulse
I can’t tell you how it happened, just that
it happened after wet concrete, a shade
more salmon than pink. Brown ants
hurried with the current claiming bread
crumbs. It happened after the seeds of
interest spilled through me, after the garden
unfurled its roots, I learned to tie shoelaces
and spell “sand,” “glass,” “sage,” “tar,”
“paper,” “apple,” and “orchard,” after
my cousin died, never aged. It happened
after my sister and I stood on the left side
of the plaque, after a dusty breeze flinging
sand in our eyes and hair blew our coarse
strands to and fro in mid-air, messing up
our parts, our usually straight hair. It happened
after the sand irritated, tickled the unbaked
spaces between our toes, our feet pressed
into the foam of our flip-flops. It happened
after my mother gave me a typewriter, sky
and light blue, some ink ribbon. I wrote
how much I loved her. It happened after
our neighbor poisoned our dogs, mailed
postcards calling us “Shits” and “Japs,”
after one dog died. I wanted to dig its body
from the ground. It happened in grade school
when classmates said I had the nose of a gorilla;
in high school, when a classmate pressed
her nose with her hand, mocked the flatness
of mine. I gave up yellow, my favorite color,
started a lifelong love of lavender, wrote of
my mother’s face in my face, staring at me,
her disdain when I dyed my hair red. It happened
with the anger of an electric typewriter, a dark
screened computer during college. It happened
when I saw my mother’s face in my face,
when I saw her face in my niece’s face
It happened with love, the impulse to write.
Hahn, Kimiko. Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way Books 2008.
Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, Claire. “Amber Falls.” Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way
——-. “Origins of an Impulse.” Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way Books 2008.
——-. “Terzanelle: Manzanar Riot.” Shadow Mountain. New York: Four Way Books 2008.
“This is How I Remember Her” by Blas Falconer
Contributing Editor Vievee Francis talks with the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“IN FOREST PRIMEVAL, winner of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Vievee Francis summons a wilderness — equal parts the wilderness of America and the wilderness of the interior — that takes us off center. I know and love that particular North Carolina wild that Vievee has described, having lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains myself for a stint, too. Vievee and I have both since left those mountains, and during our conversation, which took place during her weeklong residency at Claremont Graduate University, we laughed about living in a place where there might be snakes on the porch or stinkbugs nestled in the curtains. That is, a place where that wild thing in the world and in the self feels nakedly present and abundant; one has to face it. And it is so, in this book: a segue from Vievee’s vivid persona poems, those extraordinary masks, into an articulation of her own personhood — a speaking of the black female body, this marvelous, terrified, joyful assertion of her name in a broken country that would otherwise un-speak it.”
Read at LARB.
Posey woke me up that first morning in Jaconita. She stood next to the bed in her underpants, clutching her princess nightgown in one hand and her Mother Goose blanket in the other.
“Mommy. It’s hot.”
I reached out and touched her round face. Warm. Too warm? I couldn’t think. We’d gotten in late last night and I was sleepy.
I looked around at the pink walls, the ceiling fan whirring overhead, the French doors that opened out onto a patio. On the wall hung a print of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Oriental Poppies,” their petals red and orange, their centers deep purple. There was an O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe and I wanted to go. I’d never been to New Mexico before and I wanted to see a kiva, I wanted to see everything.
“Where are Daddy and your sister?”
“Fleur is eating. Daddy is outside. Grandpa is grumpy. Grandpa got mad because I don’t have any clothes on.”
I felt a familiar thrum of anxiety. Fly eleven hundred miles to Albuquerque, rent a car, and drive an hour and a half in the pitch dark down unpaved roads, so that the child’s grandfather can get mad at her.
“Grandpa gets mad for no reason,” I told Posey. “You stay away from him, okay?” I got out of bed and she toddled after me into the bathroom, dragging her blanket. I was going to launch into an explanation of why Grandpa was so fucked-up, but thought better of it. She was only four.
When we came out of the bathroom there was Bernard in jeans and a black t-shirt. He was tossing the pillows off the bed. One by one they sailed and hit the floor with a thump.
“I lost my hat,” said Bernard. He reached under the covers and felt around for a moment, exclaiming “Aha” as he produced the offending red knit hat. Then with an air of triumph he placed the hat on his bald head.
This spectacle was for Posey’s amusement but she only gazed listlessly at the floor. Bernard looked at me for explanation.
“Fever,” I said. We had been married for six years and had mastered the shorthand required to deal with frequent child situations.
Bernard went to find the thermometer while I sat in a wing chair next to the French doors. I beckoned to Posey and she wilted into my lap. I thought I would melt from the heat of her. Her brown hair was damp. Her entire body was hot to the touch, as though the fever would consume her from the inside out.
Bernard knelt next to Posey and turned on the thermometer. He brought it to her ear, and in a moment we peered at the screen. It read 103.5.
I thought I must have read the numbers wrong. We had only just gotten to Jaconita. How could she be sick already?
“Well, look at that,” said Bernard. “You have a fever, little girl.” His voice was deep and soothing. It was a good voice for a father. You didn’t want the father of your child running around yelling hysterically when she had a fever. You wanted him calm, decisive.
I remembered something the pediatrician had told me. “Bernard, the fever is too high. Just Tylenol won’t bring it down. We have to give her Motrin, too.”
Bernard nodded. He disappeared into the bathroom and fumbled among the luggage. I sat there looking out the French doors and just then I saw Bernard’s father walk by. He was looking at the ground and muttering to himself. He had done the same thing at our own house in California just a few months ago: He paced up and down the sidewalk, around the backyard and the side yard. Sometimes he walked around the block, picking up trash off the street. He collected cans and bottles for recycling, too. He’d take a garbage bag with him, and only come back to the house when the bag was full. When he had amassed several of these bags he would drive to the giant recycling center in west Oakland and stand in line with the homeless and dispossessed, getting cash for his bottles and cans. I imagined that the other people in line looked more or less like him– unkempt, clothing dirty, shoes worn down at the sole – although his situation was completely different from theirs: He had a full bank account, investments, a paid-off house, and a veteran’s pension. I knew he found those dispossessed people contemptible, yet he was willing to stand among them for an hour or two. And when he came back to our house he would comment, pleased, that he’d made $50, sometimes as much as $75. He had been a child during the Great Depression, something that a person never got over.
I did not mind these excursions of his – I myself was better off when he stayed outside. Inside my house, he hovered, he micromanaged. When I left the refrigerator door open for ten seconds he ordered me to close it. “You’re wasting energy!” When I used a can opener, he told me I was doing it all wrong. When I dialed the telephone he demanded to know whether the call was local or long distance. And was I was dialing direct, or using a long-distance code? “Use my phone!” he yelled. “It’s cheaper!” Nothing escaped his notice. He behaved this way with everyone in the family, and they all tolerated it. I was the only one who resisted.
While Posey languished in my lap, I smoothed her damp hair off her forehead. From inside the bathroom I heard the sound of zippers, the rustling of plastic bags. When we traveled with the children, Bernard enthusiastically packed bottles of children’s cough syrup, antihistamines, fever reducers, wet wipes, Band-Aids in all shapes and sizes. He was the original Boy Scout, I would tease, and he would reply: “Eagle Scout, thank you very much.” I didn’t tease him now, though. I was glad we didn’t have to drive to Santa Fe hunting for a pharmacy.
Bernard emerged, shaking a plastic bottle. He poured a teaspoon of orange liquid into the plastic dosing cup. Posey watched suspiciously and then she arched her back and twisted away from me.
“No, Mommy!” she wailed. “I don’t like it!”
I held her tightly. “I know, sugar,” I murmured. “But the medicine will make the hot feeling go away. Now be a good girl and drink it.”
Posey gave me an evil look. Then she sighed. She took the cup and drank it down, wincing theatrically.
Outside, Bernard’s father stalked past the French doors. He appeared to be going in circles. In the stifling dry wind, around and around he walked.
In the kitchen, Bernard’s niece opened the refrigerator.
“Ooh,” she said. “Cookie dough.”
Maya was eighteen years old, and six months pregnant. She ate constantly. She was not married, and this was a scandal in the little world of the family. To the grandparents, what she had done was unthinkable. Hazel had told us that the baby’s father was from Mississippi. “We’ve never met him,” Hazel whispered. Then she added gleefully, “And I don’t think we ever will!”
Maya had flown to New Mexico alone; her father would arrive tomorrow. She was staying in a separate wing of this huge, rented house. It was so huge that we could all stay here for a week and tolerate each other. That was the idea, anyway. The adobe villa went on and on, with its sprawling courtyards, its five bedrooms and bathrooms, its two living rooms, its vast dining room whose table seated twenty. It was absurd.
Maya took the roll of cookie dough out of the refrigerator and slit the package open with a knife. She sliced off a hunk and took a big bite. Then she looked sheepish.
“Oh god, I’m so rude. Would you like some?” She held the roll out to me and Bernard.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“I’m good,” said Bernard. “But you enjoy that.”
Bernard’s father came into the kitchen as we were talking. A former Green Beret, his shoulders were broad, his arms huge. He saw Maya and recoiled visibly. Then he saw what she was doing and his eyes widened behind his thick glasses.
“Maya!” he sputtered. “Your grandmother bought the cookie dough for the children. The little children. You are not a child!” He waved his finger in the direction of her swollen belly. “You’re, you’re…Oh, crap.” He turned and rushed from the room.
Maya shrugged. “My mom says that grandpa is like really messed up because in the old-timey days his family didn’t have any money. You know, like he buys stale bread and stuff and his shoes are all old and gross?”
There were so many possible responses to this that I found myself unable to choose one. Also, I was wondering where Bernard’s father had gone. Maybe he’d resumed his patrolling of the perimeter of the house. Still, I reasoned, he would not have heard what Maya said even if he had been nearby, because he was quite deaf. He had to turn up his hearing aids or he missed the gist of most conversations.
“Maya,” Bernard said. “You’re eating for two so don’t worry. I’ll run to the store and replace that….what is it? Cookie dough?”
“Aww,” Maya cooed. “Thanks, Uncle Bernard! You’re so cool. I wish my dad were as cool as you. But that ship has sailed, right? Ha, ha. The cool ship.”
Hazel came into the kitchen then. She was a round woman in blue polyester, and it was she who had organized this family vacation, including the extravagant villa. She was determined to bring the family together.
Hazel eyed the open roll of cookie dough but, thankfully, ignored it.
“Well, I think your father is cool, Maya.”
Maya nodded. “You’re sweet, Grandma.”
Hazel turned to me then. “Baby Fleur is outside playing. Where is Posey?” Her tone was vaguely reproachful.
“She’s sleeping, Hazel. She has a fever.”
“Well bless her heart, isn’t that a shame.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bernard’s father hovering near the doorway.
Hazel changed the subject now. “Whose turn is it to make dinner?” she asked brightly. “I’m not going to do it. I’m on vacation!”
Bernard’s father spoke from the doorway. “You’re always on vacation,” he scoffed. “You haven’t worked in twenty years.”
Hazel put on her most unnatural smile and I could see that she was gritting her teeth.
“We’ll make dinner,” offered Bernard. He was the peacemaker. I was just about to object when he pulled me aside.
“I’ll do everything,” he murmured. “Don’t worry. You just take care of Posey.”
Bernard and I retreated to our bedroom to check on Posey. She would awaken soon because the fever reducers were about to wear off. I lay on the bed, speculating about how much sicker she was going to get, and whether her sister would catch it, too. I mentioned this to Bernard.
“I think Posey has altitude sickness,” he said.
“I looked it up. Jaconita is at 5,728 feet. She is having a reaction to the elevation. It’s very common.”
“Our vacation is making her sick.”
Bernard snorted. “Yeah. But it’s not contagious. If Fleur was going to get it, it would have happened already.”
I made Bernard open his laptop and show me that altitude sickness was a real thing. Then we discussed calling a doctor, and we decided we probably didn’t need to do that as long as we could keep the fever down. We watched Posey sleeping. She lay peacefully on her back, looking beatific. She was always perfectly still when she slept, waking in the exact same position in which she fell asleep.
Bernard nudged me. “Listen,” he whispered. “I was thinking of going to the big flea market tomorrow. Saturday. It’s only on the weekend.” He watched me uncertainly. I would be the one to stay home with Posey. It went without saying.
“Okay,” I said. “You get tomorrow.”
Bernard looked surprised. Had I really folded so quickly? He looked at me cannily. He had made a selfish demand, and I had met it. Now the next move was mine.
“I want to go to the O’Keefe Museum.”
“Of course,” he said. “We could even go together. On Sunday.”
“If you can get Hazel to watch the children.”
“Done.” Another marital negotiation, concluded.
The doorknob turned and Fleur appeared, holding her stuffed otter. She was two years old.
“Posey is sleeping,” I whispered. “Close the door, baby.”
Fleur closed the door with exaggerated care. “Shhhhh, Mama,” she admonished.
Bernard opened one eye. “My mom might go to the flea market, too. And Maya.”
They would all go, then. And we did not talk about it, but it was understood that Bernard’s father would stay, too. He hated outings.
That evening Bernard made spaghetti. Hazel sat outside under an umbrella and read a romance novel. Maya watched a movie in the other wing of the house. Posey lay curled up in an armchair, watching cartoons. She was fully medicated, with only a slight fever, but she was too tired to run around. Meanwhile Fleur raced around the house and the outdoors, as healthy as ever.
I was applying a cold washcloth to Posey’s forehead when I heard Bernard’s father yelling at Fleur.
“Calm down! Go do something productive! Read a book! Goddamn kids are out of control.”
Furious, I dropped the washcloth and headed to the living room. Bernard emerged from the kitchen, holding a wooden spoon. He saw the tension on my face and the forward motion of my body and he raised one hand to stop me. “I’ll handle it,” he said. A moment later I heard him admonishing his father. “She’s two years old, Dad. She can’t read.”
“She is not hyperactive. She’s a toddler, and you can’t treat her that way. If I catch you doing that again, I’ll take my family and leave.”
While I was standing there listening, Fleur came flying into the room. She flung her arms around my legs, sobbing. I knelt and she buried her face in my neck. There was no end to the misery Bernard’s father could inflict. We had paid for our own airline tickets and rental car so that he could have the luxury of bullying his grandchild.
I remembered then something that had happened three years earlier, in Texas. Posey was fifteen months old. It was the day before Christmas and I’d just learned that I was pregnant. I told Bernard, but no one else. I didn’t know how I would handle another baby so soon. I felt overwhelmed. The five of us – Hazel, Bernard, Posey, my father-in-law, and I – were walking on a small pier, on a lake. The pier had no railings. Posey and I were holding hands, and she let go so that she could look at some ducks. She ran ahead of me toward the water. When my father-in-law saw that I did not restrain her, or even tell her to come back, he just about blew a gasket. “What is she doing?” he hissed loudly at Hazel. “She’s a terrible mother! The baby is going to drown!” But I knew my child. Posey wasn’t the type to run into traffic, or into a lake. She just wanted to look at the ducks. My father-in-law’s fury compounded upon itself as he waited for me to collar my daughter, to scream at her. Instead I approached her quietly and listened while she told me about the ducks. Inside I was seething. My father-in-law’s criticism was aimed at me alone. How dare he, I thought. He cannot tell me how to raise my child. But it was more than that. I had the awful realization that soon my child would be his target, too. My children, rather, for by this time next year I would be a mother of two. I took Posey and rushed back to the car.
Now here we were in Jaconita and my father-in-law had proved me right. Even baby Fleur had to watch out for him.
Before bed that night, Bernard took a Valium. “Really” he said, “there is not enough Valium on earth for this vacation.” Then he fell asleep and snored loudly all night. I lay awake worrying about the girls. I heard Posey moan in her sleep and I rocketed out of bed and laid a hand on her forehead. But the fever was lower and she was deeply asleep. Then I checked on Fleur. In the dark I had trouble finding her forehead because her feet were on the pillow.
By morning I was exhausted. I felt as though I hadn’t slept at all. Everything seemed fuzzy and hazy. Bernard gave Posey some Motrin, and he took both girls out to the kitchen for breakfast. Then everyone ran around getting ready to leave for the flea market, while I made a cup of coffee.
“It’s a bummer that you can’t come,” offered Maya.
“I know,” I said. “It’s killing me, actually.”
“A mother’s work is never done, Maya,” said Hazel pointedly, as if hoping to give Maya a glimpse of her own future. But Maya seemed not to hear. She was searching the refrigerator for cookie dough. Hazel put on her most disapproving look, her lips pursed, her brow furrowed, but the girl didn’t even notice.
Hazel tried again. “Maya, a young woman in your condition shouldn’t–”
Maya rolled her eyes. “Grandma. It’s a craving, okay?”
Posey came in, crying about why couldn’t she go to the flea market, too. Then she pitched a fit right there on the kitchen floor.
“I don’t want to stay home!” she shrieked. “I hate fevers! Fevers are mean!”
Bernard kissed me goodbye. “Take a nap,” he said. “Posey can watch a movie. And remember, we’ll go to the museum tomorrow.”
Everyone filed out to the car and I stood there watching, wishing I could go. Still, I had a plan for Posey that would get us both out of the house, if only briefly. How could a house that large make me feel so claustrophobic? I could hardly stand it.
Back in the kitchen I sat on the tile floor next to Posey. Her blanket was draped over her head. She was so small that I could see only her toes sticking out.
“Funny thing,” I said. “Did you know there is a swimming pool here?” I spoke casually, as though it were nothing.
Posey lifted up the blanket, revealing her tear-streaked face.
The pool was fifty yards from the villa, down a dirt road. It was near the safety of the house, but far away enough to qualify as an outing. Outside it was hot and windy but I didn’t care. I’d been stuck inside that dark room for two days. Posey was glad to be outside, too. She walked along the dirt road in her red swimsuit and sneakers, pointing at trees and the wide blue sky.
The pool was encircled by a low iron fence, with a gate. There was a sign that said “No Trespassers” in large red letters. Posey pointed at it, wondering, but I told her, as temporary denizens of the villa we were allowed to use the pool. Inside the gate we found pretty yellow flowers growing like weeds, pushing up through the cracks in the concrete. Paper flowers, Bernard had told me, native to New Mexico. They thrived under dry, harsh conditions.
The pool was small, not large enough for a real swim, but still we had it all to ourselves – we had seen no other people since the family had left. Leaves floated on the water, which we quickly discovered was very cold. The cold was made worse by the stiff wind. Still, Posey wanted to get in the pool and I let her. This was our paltry vacation, such as it was. Soon enough her fever would go back up, if this really was altitude sickness, and in five more days it would be back to preschool for her and Fleur, back to work for me and for Bernard. So I sat at the edge of the pool and watched Posey splashing. I tried to be optimistic. It was just as well that I had not gone to the flea market; I did not have to deal with the family and I had my daughter to myself. I shut my eyes against the sun and the wind, thinking of real vacations on tropical beaches. I imagined that I was reading a magazine and drinking a glass of white wine. I tried to relax.
Half an hour later we walked back to the house. Posey was happy now, but also wet and tired. She spotted a hill of red ants and screamed. She was sure that the ants were going to chase her so she ran, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Then she tripped on her shoelace and fell into the dirt, weeping. I carried her the rest of the way to the house.
The house was silent and there was no sign of Bernard’s father. I kicked off my shoes and the tiles felt cool under my feet. In the bathroom I stripped off Posey’s dirty swimsuit and felt her forehead. It was a little warm, but I looked at the clock and knew I couldn’t give her Motrin yet. I had to wait another two hours. I ran a bath and Posey climbed in obediently and sat perfectly still while I washed her hair.
“I’m tired, Mommy.”
“Me too, baby doll. Let’s take a rest.”
When Posey was all combed and dried I dressed her in a clean t-shirt and underwear. We sank onto the huge bed and I watched her fall asleep. I felt exhausted. I closed my eyes.
I awakened suddenly to a high-pitched cry. Posey was not in the bed, but her t-shirt was there. I grabbed it; it felt damp. Her fever must have shot up while I was asleep. I stumbled out of the bedroom in a panic, thinking she must have done something to anger her grandfather.
I found Posey in the living room with the vaulted ceiling. She was wandering around the large room in her underwear, mumbling, her face flushed. My father-in-law followed close behind, wringing his hands.
“There’s something wrong with her!” he cried.
I rushed forward, gathering up Posey’s hot body. Jesus, she was hot. How could one small body contain so much heat and not burst into flames?
“We’re in the world,” she said. “Mommy, we’re in the world.”
I knew right away that medication wouldn’t bring down the fever fast enough. I rocked her gently, trying to think what to do. Then my eyes fell on my father-in-law, who was pacing anxiously.
Bernard had said for years that the only way to deal with his father was to give him a task. “He’s a military man,” Bernard would remind me. “He’s a soldier. He needs to be told what to do.”
“It’s the fever,” I told my father-in-law. “You’re going to help me. I want you to run a cold bath.”
He stared at me, uncomprehending. “What?”
It took me a moment to realize that he had turned down his hearing aids. The old man could not hear me. He lived among people, but could not stand to listen to their stupid talk. I pointed at my ear. “Your hearing aids,” I growled. I watched him comply clumsily and I hated him then. I hated his bullying ways and his obstinacy and I didn’t care if he knew it.
I repeated my instructions about the bath. I spoke clearly and loudly but he hesitated, looking helpless and afraid. I had an overwhelming urge to slap him. I didn’t have time for this. There was no time. “Go!” I shouted. “Now!”
He rushed away, startled into action. I looked down at Posey, lying inert in my arms. Her face was pink with fever. She gazed through me.
“Mommy, I see birds flying, little paper birds.”
“Birds,” I echoed. I carried her back through the dining room, feeling as though I was watching this scene from above. Like it was someone else’s life, but it wasn’t. It was my life. I’ll bring down the fever, I told myself. She’ll be fine.
I had never felt such fear.
First I retrieved the thermometer from the bedroom. In the bathroom the water was running in the tub – my father-in-law had done that much, at least. He stood there awkwardly and watched while I set Posey down and took her temperature. For once he did not instruct me or berate me.
The little screen read 104. I felt my stomach drop and a hollowness in my chest. I showed the thermometer to my father-in-law. “That’s pretty high,” he said.
“I need all the ice from the freezer. In a bowl. Find a big bowl.”
He left the bathroom and I pulled off Posey’s underpants and lifted her into the bathtub, my hands on her burning hot skin.
“I want you to sit down now, baby,” I murmured.
Posey looked down at the water doubtfully.
“The water is going to cool you off. You feel hot, don’t you?”
“I’m tired, Mommy.”
“I know, baby. But Mommy needs you to sit down.” I summoned all of my will. Get her to sit down first. Get her to sit down first. Jesus, if you bring the fever down I won’t complain ever again, I will be everlastingly patient with my children and my family.
Posey sighed. Then she held out a hand to me. I took it, and she eased herself into the water.
“Good girl. I want you to lie down now. Your body needs that cold water.”
Posey did not resist. She lay down and leaned against the end of the bathtub.
I turned off the tap and my father-in-law appeared, carrying a stainless steel mixing bowl. He looked at me expectantly. I had to tell him to do every little thing, he could figure out none of it for himself.
“Put the all the ice in the bath,” I said. “I’m going to find the medicine. But you have to stay here. Do you understand? Do not leave her.”
I was only going into the next room, but I was worried about how clueless he was.
“If you leave her, I’ll kill you. Do you understand? None of your theatrics now. ”
He nodded obediently, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
I stood up and backed toward the doorway.
In the bedroom I threw open the curtains and light flooded the room. She’ll be fine, I told myself. I just have to find the medicine.
The Tylenol was on a bedside table, but the bottle of Motrin had gotten knocked off and was under the bed, along with the plastic dosing cup. I couldn’t reach the cup, and had to go around to the other side of the bed. I’ll give her Motrin first, I told myself as I felt around in the darkness. Finally my fingers closed around the sticky cup.
Back inside the bathroom, Posey lay in several inches of water, ice cubes floating all around her. My father-in-law knelt next to the bathtub, watching her dutifully.
I took the bottle of Motrin and shook it hard and poured it into the plastic cup. My fingers trembled so much I almost couldn’t hold it. I wished that I had had the sense to call a doctor yesterday, when it first occurred to me. Now it was Saturday and I was stuck here with a sick child and a crazy old man and there was no one to give me sound advice.
I got down on my knees and my father-in-law moved over to make room for me. I felt no rancor toward him. As big a man as he was, he seemed so small now.
Posey lay in the water, her brown hair floating, her body perfectly still except for the slight rise and fall of her chest. I put my hands under her armpits and slid her up to a sitting position.
She gazed over my shoulder. “There are birds flying in this room, Mommy. The birds don’t have feathers. The birds are saying lie down, lie down in water. Yellow birds.”
My throat constricted and I thought I would cry. I swallowed hard. “I see the birds, too, sugar. Yellow birds.” I brought the cup to her lips. “Drink this.”
She tipped her head back and drank. I allowed myself a moment to feel relieved. Posey looked at her grandfather then, as if just noticing him. She smiled her most disarming smile and she seemed luminous, a creature from another world.
The old man gazed at her in wonderment, as if he had never seen his granddaughter before, as if she were an angel complete with wings and a halo. The mixing bowl sat on the floor, empty. I would give Posey some Tylenol in a few minutes, then take the bowl back to the kitchen. I would check to see that my father-in-law had refilled the ice cube trays and put them back in the freezer. I would sit here until the fever went down.
In the office, coworkers Sabine and Michael sat quietly at their cubicles. In the office, there was flux. For example, sometimes the temperature waffled between tropical and arctic, and the managerial staff also ran hot and cold. Sabine sat with Michael on her right and Melissa, who had been hired before her and always wore earbuds, on her left. Their collective boss, Heidi, was going through a divorce and sometimes had outbursts, and at these times Sabine and Michael turned toward their keyboards and screens. Melissa either did not hear or pretended not to.
Sabine had lied to get the job. She didn’t know anything about making slide presentations or spreadsheets.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi had asked in the interview.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine had replied. Her response seemed to go over well, though she didn’t really know what a pivot table was. It had to do with spreadsheets, she knew that, but why or how? No clue.
It didn’t matter to her, lying. She’d lied to get her last job, at a coffee shop. It was just a job. In that interview, she had said, I prefer medium-body roasts with a strong finish, when in fact she had no idea what she preferred. None of it was life or death. It was not like she was pretending to be a doctor.
The coffee shop had taken her through college, roughly—she didn’t actually graduate—and she had enjoyed working there. She liked learning how to properly grind the beans and then tamp the grounds. She enjoyed negotiating the old, fussy espresso maker, and she enjoyed pulling the shots into warm mugs. She did not enjoy steaming milk because she believed her coffee was good enough not to need milk, but she still steamed with aplomb, until the foam coated the back of a spoon. Occasionally, if she was hungry, she could admit that milk-steaming be damned, she did enjoy a very dry cappuccino. Yet, usually she was not hungry.
After she dropped out and the semester turned and the coffee shop teemed with new freshmen, with their textbooks and their hope, bonking against the regulars at their usual tables, she understood she couldn’t stay because she wasn’t either of them. She was their barista, not their peer.
On a break one day, Sabine used the community computer to begin contriving a résumé, inventing nearly all of it. Besides the freshmen, she had two other groups of clientele: the consultants and the writers, and she drew her inspiration from them—from the consultants, a bullet-pointed skillset; from the writers, a sense of hope that if she could just get it down, the next line (always the next line) might be perfect enough to nudge her whole life forward.
Besides, it seemed like all the two groups ever did was type, and she could touch type. It was the writers she admired more. Some had a few published pieces, and all had books in various stages. She liked their dreaminess, the way they made it up as they went along, even if most of them tipped poorly.
And it was the writers who, when the city entertained zoning a chain coffee shop only a few blocks down, hosted a rally and showed up with pithy signs, and it seemed to work. The chain did not appear in the neighborhood. Maybe, even, Sabine’s job was saved.
The coffee shop had responded by opening up for more readings. Instead of just the Tuesday open mic that had been a standard since well before Sabine’s time, every other weeknight and alternating Fridays gave space to the writers, and so she heard the way they fabricated, and she heard the way they frequently could not separate these fabrications from their own lives.
She understood them a little more as she worked on the résumé, as the project stretched from just one break to two, to three, to a whole month of breaks. Sometimes she thought she was judging them a little harshly. At other times she thought if they would spend less time drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, they’d get more writing done.
At their readings, their abundant, repetitive readings, the short-shorts and prose poems would echo from the cheap, poorly adjusted microphone and ping against the espresso machine, so that no matter how carefully they had constructed their sentences and stanzas, it all sounded like clatter. Sometimes she recognized the stories from her customers’ lives, like the time Penelope (photo essays) and Raul (short-stories with an emphasis on temporalization) had ended their eight-year affair at the corner table, the best table, there by the window and overlooking the bay (slideshow by Penelope, captions by Raul). There was the time Jane (nonfiction) and her teenage daughter Chrysanthemum (free verse, contemporary haiku, and hybrid poetry) thought they had been evicted, but it turned out to be okay; it was only that they were both stoned and were at unit 401 instead of 501, and they didn’t understand right away, as their world filtered through a slow pot swirl, that the notice tacked to the door was not for them, because it was not their door, not their furniture inside when they jiggled the handle to get in so they could quickly round up what they could carry. The mauve sofa in 401 jolted them to realization—(verse and live gong by Chrysa, reading by Jane):
What a difference
Just one flight up those old stairs
Makes for us, Mother
She thought of them as she used one of the built-in templates from the word processing software. She had started by putting her name and address at the top, but sometimes she retyped it; in fact she had retyped it probably a hundred times, just so she could feel the action of her fingertips on the keyboard, feel like she was working.
Of course she had noticed the writers always changed what happened, trying for pith or drama. The consultants probably did too. She didn’t know what they did at their jobs, but she saw the spreadsheets, the charts, and she had taken enough statistics, worked her butt off for a B- even, to understand that there was as much interpretation in data as in trouble and love.
(Cool blue light under the door
My home. Mother’s home.)
And Penelope’s Polaroid photos, grainy and off-color because she bought old, unpredictable film to save money and then coated the prints in Mod Podge to seal them up and scanned batches at the library, paired with Raul’s minimalist narration, actually worked well, Sabine thought, but it was nothing like them as a couple. As a couple they did not have the gritty tension of mixed media. As a couple they were boring, and each had complicated coffee orders, and they argued about whether it was okay for Penelope to say she was vegetarian when she was actually pescatarian.
“Fish are animals too, Penelope,” Raul would say.
“But no one knows what it means,” Penelope would answer.
“I know what it means,” Raul said.
“But you’re vegan. Of course you know. Most people consider eating only fish to be vegetarian.”
In her time at the coffee shop, Sabine heard a hundred variations on this argument, and a hundred times she had assured Raul that she never put his almond milk into the dairy steamer, even though she did it all the time.
“Catholics maybe think this, the Lent thing,” Raul would say to P, “but don’t put your religious industrial complex in this space. Fish have eyeballs. Broccoli does not have eyeballs!”
And one series on their slides, during their reading/presentation, did address this. A corn with human ears. Eyes on potatoes, on beans. A radicchio styled to look like a vagina. P’s vagina. Kiwi fruit as Raul’s balls, avocado as another man’s larger balls.
By the time the readings started, the consultants were always gone. They finished work at two or three, snapping their laptop cases shut, packing up their messenger bags, and padding out into the street in their colored tennis shoes, headed to their condos for a night of Netflix or other Wi-Fi-enabled activities.
On the community computer, Sabine listed her college, and she listed her imaginary skillset.
Later, she would ask Raul to proofread it and P to offer some suggestions for design flair (lines at the side, Sabine’s name in cerulean blue). Chrysa changed her objective so it read:
Making coffee now
But looking for my big break
Call, not pull, the shots?
It took her longer to ask one of the more regular consultants to take a look, and while she didn’t know a thing about him but his coffee order (doppio) she believed that he would offer her the ruthless critique she needed.
“Too many words, too much color,” he said, while looking at his phone. “Sentences aren’t helpful. Just use bullets and tabs. Everything must have a result,” he said. “And listen, what’s your number? I’ll text you a list of words you have to work in.”
“I have a pen,” Sabine said.
“I’d rather text,” he said.
She recited her number, and he sent the text, and she stared at it for a while. Velocity. Synergy. Demonstrable. Actionable.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
At the community computer, she deleted Chrysa’s objective, P’s blue lines, and Raul’s semicolons. She did so a little guiltily, ignoring the advice of all the people she liked best.
Demonstrable experience in enabling synergy with actionable approach to departmental velocity.
“Good,” the consultant said.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“That’s fine. Meaning isn’t really the point. It’s not art, it’s just a résumé. I’ll text you a couple of places I know are hiring.”
She submitted. Then she waited. Then she started getting calls.
At the first interview, she did very poorly. She was dressed wrong, and her hair looked messy.
For the second interview, Sabine blow-dried. Her head felt bouncy, and when paired with the gray twinset she’d found at a secondhand store, she thought she could pass for the type of person who held a desk job. Her boyfriend, who she shared the apartment with, said she looked like her mother.
“What’s your greatest weakness?” the second interviewer asked.
Sabine correctly recognized this as a place where she should tell a lie. “My greatest weakness is that I am sometimes too truthful,” she said.
“Can you relate that characteristic to this role?”
“No,” Sabine said. “I cannot.”
“Okay,” the interviewer said. “Well, that’s truthful, but not really what I’m looking for.”
On the third interview, with Heidi (nervous, distracted Heidi), Sabine wore the twinset, blow-dried, and texted the consultant. What do I do if I don’t know the answer to a question? Dodge, he replied.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi asked.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine replied.
When she got the offer, she was shocked at the salary, at the number of vacation days. Health and dental and vision. She ran her tongue across her teeth and imagined how much smoother they would be with two annual cleanings. She squinted—she didn’t need glasses, but she could get some anyway.
Her boyfriend was not impressed.
Her boyfriend’s name was Ryan, but he preferred to go by Sebastian.
Sabine didn’t care what he went by, since she’d spent her whole life having the pronounced e of her name dropped.
He was still piddling at school, in a studio program. The program was actually competitive, but Sabine honestly could not pick out his installation art from any of his peers’. At the shows, there was string, a lot of string, and there were nails and scraps of denim; there was salt everywhere, salt making gallery floors slick and prematurely aging the finishes. Tempura paint. Oil paint. Paint from organic vegetable dyes. Once, just after the offer, her boyfriend needed a pint of blood, but he was scared of needles so he made it from boiled beets.
“It’s too purple,” Sabine said, peering into their only large pot, roiling on the stove. Now and then a hunk of tuber would pop to the surface. “Maybe add turmeric? The yellow might balance it out?”
“Purple and yellow make gray,” he said, and she could tell he was trying to keep his voice calm. “You’re selling out.”
“I’m not,” Sabine said. “I just can’t do the coffee thing anymore.”
“You used to make the most beautiful bird-scapes,” he said. He was wistful as he stirred the pot of desiccated beets. He threw in a handful of beet tops, a neutralizing green.
It was hard for her to describe to him why she’d quit the bird-scapes—her word, which she did not point out he was appropriating, for the canvasses she outlined nature scenes on and then filled in with feather. When she’d first started, in high school, the project had seemed very pure and she had spent hours collecting fallen feathers, but as time went on, it was easier to purchase in craft shops or on eBay. After one spin through the washer at the Laundromat, crammed into an old pillowcase and washed on hot, her bagged, store-bought feathers were ragged enough to pass for having been found on the forest floor.
And at first she’d only used pine tar or other kinds of pitch and sap to affix the feathers to her hand-stretched canvas boards she’d cut herself with a manual saw, but as time went on, she wielded a hot glue gun against whatever hangable surface she could find on sale. There just wasn’t time to do it all—work and school and scavenging. At the very beginning of her junior year, she’d landed a solo show, but the only piece that had sold was the worst of all of them—synthetic down pasted to a bed of rayon and glitter in a cheap attempt at Starry Night. She priced it at $2,345.67. The ascending numbers, simply a random way to price, were meant to be a marker to anyone who actually cared about art, because she was embarrassed of the piece, but the enormous eighteen-by-twenty-foot canvas filled the space for the other works she didn’t have. She was even more humiliated that someone wanted to buy it, and absolutely deflated when she cashed the check, even though it got her current on rent.
Still, her boyfriend had been impressed by her take, and he delighted in its irony.
Now that she had spent more time at a proper office, and more time with her coworker Michael, she thought about it differently. Consecutive pricing, she could have called it, the string of ascending numbers. It could even be a way to bid. Start with five, and go from there. $5.43; $54.31; $543.10.
Her boyfriend didn’t know Michael, but that didn’t stop him from not liking him.
He would never say his name, only “that guy.” That guy you sit with, that guy you work with, that guy—wait, why are you having lunch with that guy?
At the office, she and Michael didn’t talk about art so much, though Sabine thought about it as she worked through her slides, through her tables. At first, she knew so little, she was constantly at the help files, and she wished Raul and Penelope and Jane and Chrysa had a nicely tabled instruction set detailing exactly how to proceed.
She’d heard Penelope and Raul had patched things up, and Chrysa was doing a series of observations:
Oh, it’s so stable—
You at your screen. What about
The rest of your life?!
Sometimes she looked up and Michael would be looking at her, and then he would look away, though Sabine would not. Once, after a long weekend, the elevator opened to the twelfth floor and Michael was just outside the door. He’d been in early, was headed out for coffee.
And there was a pull there, in the way he looked at her, the way he touched her shoulder.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, but she was not fine. The spot on her shoulder was burning. This was what Ryan/Sebastian had seen before she’d seen, the way she wanted to pull Michael to her. She wished she’d worn something different than her same rumpled twinset and black pants.
Then they were exchanging places, she stepping outside of the elevator and he stepping in, and then the doors were closing and he was whooshing through the building, past the debt collectors on floor ten, the engineers on six.
She imagined him descending, swiftly, away from her. She depressed the button on the elevator, to call the next car, but the elevator was taking forever, and she didn’t know where, exactly, he might get coffee from; there were many places and among many other things she didn’t know about Michael, she didn’t know which shop was his favorite.
Sabine turned from the elevator bank and headed for the stairs. At eleven, she passed Melissa, earbuds snug, slim thighs hiking the flights. At seven, a group of workers arguing. By the time she burst through the lobby and into the street of her downtown building, Michael was long gone. A light rain had started, and she spotted Heidi, sheltered by a polka-dot umbrella, crossing the street. Even though at home Sabine and Sebastian/Ryan talked a lot about feelings, she didn’t think she could explain this feeling to him, how all she’d really have to do was wait for Michael to come back, his latte steaming, but also how it seemed impossible to wait. How she liked Heidi but didn’t want to talk to her in this moment. How the way the steam rising from the manhole covers and the cars splattered with just a few sparse drops seemed inexplicably and terminally sad.
How, when she looked at the sidewalk, the concrete dark with dirt and damp, there was a single feather, and how, whether fallen from the sky or loosed from a scavenging pigeon’s wing, as much as she wanted it, Sabine simply could not bend, could not pick it up.
The night I try to kill myself a boy
is shot in the shoulders at the gas
station next to my apartment.
I don’t flinch. I lie
on the rubber of my bed that keeps
the bugs away and stare at the black
poles holding the bunk bed together.
The mice play sought and found
in the shoe closet filled with all size 10’s.
What miracle can I conjure tonight?
I sleep till dawn and the spirit that wants me gone
slaps my eyes to rise: Through the kitchen window,
the dark clouds are yoked with life.
I know the sharp knives in my home
but draw the thin butter knife because
I don’t want a mess for my mother to clean,
I don’t want her to weep as she dips
a rag in Clorox and stains the floor to reverse
its memory. My burial must be neat.
I trace the peak of the blade across the linea
negra on my stomach; the one to appear
only when I am pregnant. I am yet to meet
a man: how do I leave this earth with ease?