Dilruba Ahmed is the writer of Bring Now the Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) and Dhaka Dust (Graywolf 2011), which won the Bakeless Prize. Ahmed is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and she holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.
FWR: In an interview with the New England Review, you stated that, “I’m interested in the ways that—particularly during difficult times—a seemingly small act can contribute to a greater purpose. And how those acts, even when they occur in relative isolation, can bind people together toward a common goal.” While I know this is a reflection on your first book, Dhaka Dust, I think this speaks to your writing in Bring Now the Angels, as well. Illness frames much of the text, as you reflect on “SickDad” and how cancer impacted your family with an eye towards the minute detail.
In the poem “Local Newspaper, Floating Photographer, Father’s Day Edition”, you describe images of vitality: “Describe your father. / Midnight scrambled eggs each New Year’s Eve. The insistence: ‘say yes to cake’ … Describe your father / Why do children keep growing, in their small and ignorant bliss?” Each of these small moments construct a man and a life, and by sharing these moments of specificity with your reader, you have brought us into this man’s life more effectively than broad strokes. In this movement from the broad (father; illness) to the keyhole (“pizza purchased for men searching dumpsters in Columbus”), did you find it easier to write about small moments? How did you find the lens with which to view these grander, binding moments?
Dilruba Ahmed: My new book, Bring Now the Angels: Poems, is an extended meditation on loss, both personal and public. In the personal realm, the poems mourn the many losses associated with chronic disease and terminal illness in the Western world. During a 3-year battle with multiple myeloma, my father lost his health, his mobility, and his typical daily activities. Some changes were sudden and dramatic; other losses accrued slowly.
The ripples kept growing. We experienced a loss of confidence in Western medicine, which both saved my father and destroyed him, and for me, in faith. The disappearance of our bearings and touchstones transformed the world into a place suddenly strange and unfamiliar.
The situation was painfully personal, but everything happened within a larger context. We witnessed firsthand the cost of being ill in America: the associated expenses, maltreatment, discriminatory practices, and reckless over-use of painkillers. Not to mention access issues to dialysis centers and the related questions about quality of treatment and quality of life. In each health care facility, for every deeply caring and attentive health care professional, there were physicians who were out of touch with their patients and the mission to heal. My family members and I experienced the corruption and carelessness of our country’s healthcare system even as a few shining stars gave my father the best possible medical attention he could have requested.
While small moments often sparked poems like this one, in my revisions I’ve tried to consider their larger contexts so I’m not just “zooming in” but also “panning out.” I’m making an effort to examine the layers surrounding personal moments by asking, “What are the social, cultural, and historical contexts relevant to this poem? Who has been represented here, and who has been erased?” Claudia Rankine has called for white writers to examine how the racist history of our country has shaped mainstream thinking about both whites and people of color—and our representations of both. From the intersections of my identity, there’s still work to do as well.
These questions have led to deeper revisions, as with the title poem of my new book, “Bring Now the Angels,” which began as a measured acceptance of a terminal diagnosis and the adjustments accompanying physical and cognitive losses. In subsequent revisions, I situated personal loss in more universal ways, focusing less on the diagnosis and more on the indictment of a society that permits the vulnerable to suffer under dismal conditions, with poor medical treatment and exorbitant costs. I revised from a first-person narrator to an oracular, choral voice that bears witness to maltreatment, misuse of addictive painkillers, and debt.
FWR: In the poem ” With Affirmative Action and All’ , you write, “in any given American town, / there is a room inside a room inside a room/ where thought shapes word shapes action”. Several of your poems, such as this one, or “Self-Guided Tour”, wrestle with what it means to be in America, and what America means in a globalized world. Did you look to other poets for guidance in writing about the political in our current state?
RA: Yes! I have many inspirations informing my poems – sometimes overtly, sometimes playing it the background like a poetic playlist.
In some poems in Bring Now the Angels, I was experimenting with W.H. Auden’s notion of “indirect communication” with the reader. Auden believed art couldn’t move people to faith, for example, but that it held power to show them their despair. My explorations led to poems such as “Choke,” which recasts “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer and an Indian farmer. In the poem, I envision the effects of large-scale corruption on the individual, with hopes of eliciting awareness. In “The Process,” I try to channel the distanced tones of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” to critique our shared complacency, hoping readers will realize our collective agency. In “The Children,” a poem meant to locate our heartbreak and humanity as immigration policies shift dramatically, I attempt to capture intimacies between parents and children in stark contrast to brutal family separations at our border.
One of the more overt influences on my politicized work includes Roque Dalton, a Salvadorean poet whose poem “OAS” holds both dry wit and bitterness. His work inspired my poem, “Self-Guided Tour.” More generally, Adrienne Rich’s writings frame my engagement with politicized material: “No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice… it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.”1 In my writing, my hope is to embody resistance on multiple levels. For example, “Underground,” attempts to situate the resurgence of American civic engagement, including my own. Striving for a global perspective, I tried to broaden my focus beyond conventional actions such as public marches and activist phone calls. I wondered how might I witness courage and agency that goes unseen—actions not necessarily recognized as resistance.
My musings resulted in a poem about private and public resistance by Afghani women under Taliban rule. I strove to represent the women’s resistance as not only fighting back, but also finding ways to thrive under threatening circumstances. By engaging with this material, I hoped to lend perspective to the present American challenge of political organizing among work and family obligations—actions that occur, for many of us, within an existence of relative privilege and freedom.
There are many, many poets who make up my playlist when it comes to politicized poetry, including Claudia Rankine, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Rick Barot, Ilya Kaminsky, Matthew Olzmann, and Elizabeth Bishop….
FWR: In this vein, the poem “Incident” has haunted me long after I first read it, with its juxtaposition of maternal love and parental violence. It also seems to read as an ars poetica, with the lines : “If I love my sons— / their sleep-ruffled curls… with even more ferocity/ and mindfulness, can I erase / the girl’s pain?” It also reflects back the love and pain that is so often built into relationships within families. Could you speak to this poem?
RA: One of the questions fueling Bring Now the Angels is related to witnessing the suffering of others, and the resulting sense of powerlessness to enact change. I think that, for those of us who may feel overly porous to the world’s violence and the distress of others, everyday living can quickly become very overwhelming.
With my father’s sudden decline and subsequent diagnosis of multiple myeloma and end stage kidney failure, in many cases there was very little I could do to alleviate his suffering. But through it all, I’d like to believe that the loving presence of family members provided a healing force. In my poem,“Incident,” I was grappling with both a sense of powerlessness over other’s actions, and the possibility that greater harm could result from any apparent response from me. Because this poem was based on an actual incident, the poem also speaks to the ethical dilemma of failing to act—by not attempting to intervene as a situation cascaded into violence, did I in effect participate in that violence? I, too, remained haunted by this incident and have been unable to reconcile it for myself, despite the risk of unintended consequences for the person I felt compelled to help.
And you are right: the poem could be read as ars poetica that both laments the seemingly ineffectual nature of poetry to create change in the world even while trying to recenter the speaker’s energies on mindfulness and deep love. In the end, the poem implicitly yields to the fact the speaker only has power to effect change in the realm that is most directly hers, acting from a deep love that could, perhaps, hold the potential to ripple out beyond the immediate moment. But ultimately, the poem consists of a series of questions for which there are no answers.
FWR: Much of this collection wrestles with grief. How did you approach this experience in your writing? Did the poems emerge organically, or did you sit down to write about loss? Were there poets you looked to?
RA: In an interview with Terry Gross, poet Marie Howe says poetry is “a cup of language to hold what can’t be said,” explaining that “[e]very poem holds the unspeakable inside…The unsayable…that you can’t really say because it’s too complicated…too complex… Every poem has that silence deep in the center…”2 Writing about grief was very much a process of finding ways to access those deep silences.
To convey my emotional truths about chronic illness and loss, I tried different approaches—lyric, narrative, and prose poems, with tones ranging from deeply intimate to the distanced language of form letters, medical records, and Google’s autocompleted phrases. Restlessness regarding form and content’s relationship led me to write ghazals, as well as poems with less conventional structures–including one governed by a childhood toy, the Viewmaster.
Many of the poems emerged in a flood of writing about one year after my father’s death. As daughter and as a parent, I’d struggled with my understanding of mortality without finding ways to authentically engage with it in my writing. When an old story about my uncle’s childhood snakebite assumed mythic proportions, I found that the use of parable finally helped me to unlock some related emotional truths. The result was “Snake Oil, Snake Bite,” one of the first pieces I wrote about my father’s battle with cancer. I knew then that I’d made my way to the poems that would form the new book.
Literary heroes in this endeavor include Marie Howe, Agha Shahid Ali, Carl Phillips, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Donald Justice…
FWR: I was struck by the shape of your poems. I am hoping you might speak to your process in a poem like “Vanishing Point” or perhaps your use of the ghazal form?
RA: “Vanishing Point” took on many shapes during my revision. In the end, I aimed for a shape to convey the slipperiness of memory and the general sense of unease. I will forever be a student of the ghazal form; this book represents my most recent efforts.
FWR: I always love to ask: what the poems or who are the poets you love to teach or share?
RA: There are many – Donald Justice, Elizabeth Bishop, Agha Shahid Ali, Ilya Kaminsky, Natasha Tretheway, Mathew Olzmann, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rick Barot, Ann Carson, Craig Santos Perez, Jenny Johnson, Adam Zagajewski…
1. “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman.” Introduction to The Work of a Common Woman: The Collected Poetry of Judy Grahn. Oakland, California: Diana Press, 1978; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Reprinted in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, pp. 247-58
2. Poet Marie Howe On ‘What The Living Do’ After Loss https://news.wbfo.org/post/poet-marie-howe-what-living-do-after-loss Originally published on October 21, 2011 10:23 am
As we approach the end of the year, we want to thank our writers for entrusting their work with us and our readers for helping us celebrate and recognize so many wonderful voices. In addition, 2019 has brought new changes to Four Way Review. David Lerner Schwartz will be serving as the new Fiction Editor for Four Way Review. Currently the writer-in-residence at St. Albans, his work has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, New York magazine, and produced by Red Bull Theater. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. We would like to thank Hananah Zaheer and K. K. Fox for the many years they have given our community and their work in celebrating fiction. Read our new fiction standards here and submit!
Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The Boy in the Labyrinth (U. of Akron Press, 2019). The Boy in the Labyrinth works in poems that utilize autism screening questionnaires, prose passages, and allegory via the Greek myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur to explore de la Paz’s experience in raising two neurodivergent children who fall under the Autism Spectrum. de la Paz is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press, 2012). He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry, and teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
FWR: The Boy in the Labyrinth functions as a type of katabasis, a descent into the underworld. This gives the manuscript structure, and, to me, a feeling of reading a novel. You write in “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth” : “I realized that I had been writing about my sons for several years in the form of this allegory”. When structuring the manuscript, did you treat it as writing a complete whole (like a novel)? Or did you find that emerging organically, after you had begun constructing the poems?
de la Paz: When I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems I had no intention other than to explore atmosphere and tone. The process of writing those specific sequences only started shifting right around my third year of generating more of them—I was probably thirty to forty poems into what wound up being almost one-hundred poems. As I became more conscious of my process, I became more intentional in implementing narrative elements. Threads of sequences have similar settings and characters, for example the boy in the sky became a character for a handful of poems. Additionally the opera house became a locus in a few of the poems. All of these disparate entry points into the world of The Boy in the Labyrinth created organizational issues. It wasn’t written as a linear narrative and yet I needed to convey to the reader a sense of forward movement. My restructuring of the collection began four years ago when I began to write the “Autism Questionnaire” poems. I saw the “Autism Questionnaire” poems as mile markers in the progression of the work. So I began structuring around them as though the book as a whole were a three-act play. I then layered the “Labyrinth” poems around them to suggest momentum/movement. And I also added the Greek Chorus elements to the work as a nod to the structure of the Greek Tragedy.
FWR: On this note, The Boy in the Labyrinth veers into different inventive forms and poetic structures, such as the “complete the sentences” poems or the use of the Autism Screening Questionnaire. Were there other forms you attempted to unlock these poems? How did you decide to utilize these structures?
de la Paz: The forms came to me organically. I was thinking about all things “diagnostic”, like SAT or GRE questions [and] how they’re expected to create an understanding of the test-taker based on an algorithm. The “Autism Screening Questionnaire” poems were something that I approached with a great deal of intention after having completed a series of intake forms for my middle child. And by intention, I mean critique. I wanted to quarrel with the form. There’s the expectation of the binary “yes/no” response to the form, but they’re a flawed tool, so I wanted to respond to the questionnaires from an emotional position rather than a diagnostic one. Once I started writing poems in that diagnostic structure, I felt the need to explore other structures. So you see a number of standardized test-like forms throughout the book with the “Story Problem” poems that close out all three sections. I imagined the “Story Problem” prose poems to serve multiple duties—to invoke diagnostic forms but to also highlight the challenge of my perspective as a neurotypical parent writing about my neurodiverse children.
FWR: Staying on the questionnaire poems, it seems to me that they suggest the imagery that you utilize in the episode poems, which take place in the labyrinth sections (self harm, unusual tastes, kinetic movement and soothing). I experienced that tension as a means of making sense of a neuro-divergent experience as a neuro-typical reader. We, as a reader, are experiencing the distortions of the boy in the labyrinth, whose “voice tries to pierce through the gloom… the sound of him spills its waves into a disfigured future.” Can you speak on this?
de la Paz: Yes, the “Labyrinth” episodes do highlight the moments in the questionnaire that are viewed as “deficits” to the neurotypical population. I wrote most of them as I was still learning and growing as a parent. It’s interesting, but much of the work in the episodes trace my development as a parent, so it’s a chronicle of my misunderstandings and in many ways, failure and flaw. The writing is asynchronous with who I am and who my children are now, so I must first acknowledge that. And what I’m very clear about now is that much of the work as I was writing explores this “disfigured future” but that future, as I had conceived of it, was the future of my imagination and not my child’s. As I was writing the “Labyrinth” poems, I was really writing about and for myself. It was a way of measuring time and comprehension and I look back on it now as an artifact. Certainly, I’m proud of the work that I had done but I am also aware of how it may be perceived by the neurodivergent populace. And so that voice that is trying to pierce the gloom is my voice trying to start a dialogue, both with my children and with other parents who may be as lost or fearful as I had been.
FWR: Reflections and refractions feature prominently in the work: geodes, light splashing off water, the appearance of the minotaur and his masks, the shadow boy. Are we, the presumed neuro-typical reader, the minotaur? Or is this an example of “the labyrinth turn[ing] in circles and [multiplying] its falsity”? An attempt, to quote another poem, “because a reference needs a frame: we are mother and father/ and child with a world of time to be understood”?
de la Paz: You know, the minotaur was always a character that troubled me. I always imagined myself to be the minotaur—the devourer of Athenian young. I imagined the monstrosity to be the task of taking on the story. The beast is as lost as the boy in my tale. I was always fearful that the monster would be misconstrued, so I took steps to move the monster and boy towards a reconciliation. I think, as well, that the “Story Problem” poems that mark the three sections are my way of saying that writing from my neurotypical perspective about neurodiversity is fraught.
FWR: We normally close by asking writers to share other writers or pieces that they love to teach or share. I wonder if, in addition, you might point to writers who influenced this work.
de la Paz: Sure, there were multiple. I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems after hearing the poet David Welch read from a new selection of work back in 2008. I believe those poems became the book Everyone Who is Dead.
Alison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon was a tremendous influence, namely the obsessive quality and interlocking nature of the prose poems.
Meteoric Flowers by Elizabeth Willis was something that I would refer to if I wanted to bounce around some syntactic shapes. I really enjoy that book and the shapes of its sentences.
I read a lot of Jennifer Chang’s book The History of Anonymity, again for the shapes of her sentences.
I also want to put in a plug for an extraordinary book of rhetoric by Melanie Yergeau. It’s a rhetorical analysis book written by an autistic author who is using queer theory as an analytical lens for disability writing. I also want to plug the work by Chris Martin and Mary Austin Speaker over at Unrestricted Interest. They make extraordinary chapbooks.
The summer I became a bird —the very week, in fact— the meatpacking warehouse across the street turned into a dance club.
At first, it was called “The Killing Room” and then, tall walls repainted to a sky blue, “Cielo.” I’d heard someone say that it had no ceiling, only skylights, and the idea of such a large space unprotected from night, gaping, open to sky whims and acts of weather, scared me.
Weeks later, when they hired a crow for a bouncer, I took it as a sign I’d never be a woman again. Maybe had never really been one. He was dark, of course. Black hair, black sunglasses, black t-shirt, pants and boots. Sometimes he wore a black jacket that glittered against the club’s light walls. He had a serious stance, a dignified attitude, and when I saw how seldom he smiled at the sparrow girls who strove to catch his eye, a part of me wondered if I even wanted to be turned back into a woman.
Before him, those first few weeks as a bird, I’d thought obsessively of skin, of limbs, possibly lost forever. I perched for hours at a time on the fire escape of the little West 12th Street flat that still belonged to the woman I’d been, unable to remember what I’d done to become this nervous little beast whose feathers shook in still air.
Now I thought only about keeping my tarsus straight while wrapping the hind toes of my feet firmly around the railing as the beats from the club raged on, for the first time, wanting to fly.
But I couldn’t. A sudden bird with a woman’s inherited fear of flying, I was still an outsider among the winged, watching other birds come and go, longing to be seen by the pigeons and blue jays, the rock doves and swallows, yet unable to connect. Some things had not changed.
As a woman, I’d been a normal girl working in an anomaly: a literary magazine with a wealthy owner and plenty of money. Our offices were on Broome Street back when Soho was considered a gritty place with real soul and I’d walk to work regardless of season, only stopping for coffee, convinced I was Mary Tyler Moore living a career girl’s dream, tossing my cap into the sky of a real city: tall, dark, mysterious, full of possibility.
I’d read and write and type my summaries, carefully writing the page and line numbers of passages I wanted the head fiction editor to notice on the margins of my reviews. I skipped lunch, left work at nine, walked back to the little West 12th Street apartment, as large as the four stories-high fire escape I now live in, to play out the lonely routine of undressing down to my panties, opening a bottle of wine and sitting by the window naked, reading and drinking until I fell asleep.
Once in a while, a boy would come over. Usually, he turned out to be a man who couldn’t stay the night and, in the morning, I’d do it all again.
All through winter and into spring, I’d known parts of me were disappearing, hollows being created inside a body needing less food with every passing day. Then summer arrived with skies the color of brushed steel (a sign I should have seen) and my skin turned sallow and dry and developed an ink-tinged translucence. I told myself it was just summer desiccating everything. But it wasn’t just that. The nightly wine glass became a craving for (stronger!) amber-colored puddles and I became that woman always longing to wet her beak in other people’s spirits. I was exhausted from surviving, afraid of getting out of bed, and lost so much weight; my arms like tired wings, drooped alongside my too-small body until my disease, surely already visible to everyone else, revealed itself to me.
When I didn’t make it in to the office at all, I was fired over the phone. I felt relief. Slight breezes had been tipping me over for months. Curt nods had sent me to hide in the women’s bathroom, crying uncontrollably, unable to care who heard me.
This was good, I thought. Things would change now. Maybe, during the day, I could peck morosely at translation work an editor-lover from my human days still scattered my way. At night, under a purple-gray ashtray of a sky, I could perch on metal and listen to the hip hop that spilled into the air each time the big blue metal club door swung open.
And when the door was closed, I could watch the crow hold court on the sidewalk, deciding who could enter and who would stay outside longer or forever, which I did, watching him for hours on end, day after day, reading him like a story, filling in the gaps with what was missing, and believing everything I added was the truth.
How much in common we had; how lonely we both were; how confused we’d been upon arriving in New York, the soot and smog making us feel small. He needed me, this bird that I’d become. I could save him. He was mine; had even taken to making signals and noises in my direction whenever the line thinned and there were more people coming out than going into the club. It was a sign and it isn’t wrong to believe in signs if you find yourself a bird without a soul in New York and signs are all you have.
Soon after, on a windy night, I heard the rustle of feathers, crisp and loud. A couple of sparrows were cat-walking past the line of geese, ducks, and the occasional early hen toward the club’s entrance.
“Hey, Aldo baby. This is my friend Annika,” one of them cooed, her wings lined in gold and tinsel, their leading edges sequined. She had a bright red, bow-shaped beak that I could see clearly from my post. Annika, wore tight pink Lycra pants and high heels and walked like a pelican.
Aldo. I savored his name, chirping with excitement at the discovery, relaxing my grip around the chipped metal fire escape railing. Aldo. A bird, lost like me, my find to love.
Then the wind shook cold, blowing me off my perch hard onto the windowsill. I searched for my crow. There he was. Smiling. Taking a good long look at the birds, as if he could decide their worth with his eyes. They were smiling too, coming closer to him, and I chirped louder, this time to catch his attention.
The wind blew and blew and I stayed where I’d landed, unable to get back up onto the railing, my dusty brown eyes fixed on Aldo. I wanted him to forget them, to be unaffected by their beauty, to know they were nothing. Or maybe I just wanted him to hear me, to help, to show me I had not been alone those happy nights thinking I’d been found. The wind kept blowing. I let myself lay against the concrete of the window ledge and closed my eyes.
When I was a woman, I wanted my men-crows to read poetry and have the ambition to become something, chefs, paramedics, street poets. Now all I wanted was for this bouncer to climb my rail along with the sun, his sharp black eyes up close and trained on my face. I pictured the muscles of his barrel chest under the black feathers that peeked out from the neck of his black t-shirt, strong and weighty and vibrating, and longed to be someone lying still beneath him. “What happened to you?” I hoped he’d ask, looking at me as intently as he’d looked at those birds on the sidewalk while I waited.
A new wind cut through the block making spurs jangle, sequins chime, and me open my eyes as I shook and almost fell through the rusty red slats of the fire escape, and, still, I looked for Aldo. Aldo taking off his sunglasses and ushering the birds into the club as they cackled excitedly, the door shutting behind them.
When he assumed his post under the glare of the lampposts, forgetting to do so much as look up, search for me, I knew he was no crow, his skin, like mine, a translucent brownish gray with dull and matted feathers, nothing black or shiny about him. He would never feed anyone as a chef, nor save a person’s life by reading a poem on a sidewalk. It would not occur to him to come up a fire escape with the first sun. I was still alone, needing to find my own way back onto the railing, desperate as I suddenly was for a puddle of amber to drink from.
Diaspora Sonnet 40
So much improvisation—the improvised way
I enter a room. The way I walk market aisles:
with purpose borne of worry. The tumult of cereal
packages, an array of landscapes crossed over
in a plane. I am flying above the patchwork of
mornings and feeling dizzy. Truly I am
making this up as I stay here. Morning into morning
into the next. Consecutive tiles worrying themselves
into the shape of purpose. I can’t tell you why
we boarded a plane many years past except
to say the plane was there and we needed another
“there.” I can’t tell you much about flying then except
that I was nauseous. Disorientation is its own
improvisation. A mind spins until it finds its foci.
Diaspora Sonnet 41
The word “home,” ensnared with thorns.
Gored by. A resident ache in the back
of my mouth. At any moment a shock
from teeth to the skull to say it. I’ll not
dwell too long in the angular and persistent
knife. What strikes me is how long I’ve held
my tongue back with incisors. Far too many
unsayable residences. Too much factual
want. In speaking, the balletic turn of
phrase to kindred who’ve not the common
language. Our regard for each other, stuck
in long pauses. Milliseconds into multitudinous
gazes. The sticky-notes pasted over this and that,
like “refrigerator,” “bed,” “brush,” and “door.”
I had been afraid of the cold silent body I held to my belly but when we at last reached the engine and clambered up the frozen metal ladder and into the relative warmth of the interior, the child jerked awake and began to wail, a thin, gasping sound that bit directly into my heart. Alive. The babe was still alive.
How long I had been outside in the blizzard I did not know; it could not have been more than five or ten minutes and yet I was shivering with cold. The baby’s parents were entirely soaked through, the girl’s lips a faint, pale blue. The young man had found the heater and stood before its orange filaments, rubbing his hands. His eyes looked wild, hair matted to the shape of his skull, teeth clenched down in his jaw. Jeans and a thin denim jacket. At his feet rested a shapeless knapsack, soaked through and dripping.
“Blanket up there,” I said to the girl.
She reached for it and when she made no move to take the child from me I nodded down into the well of my coat. “She’s OK,” I said.
Still the girl said nothing. Probably no older than sixteen or seventeen, her clothes utterly insufficient for the weather: a thin sweater, threadbare skirt, canvas shoes still caked with ice and snow. When she looked up at me through her lank hair, her hollow eyes spoke only of exhaustion.
“You’ll need to take her,” I said “I gotta get this thing moving.”
Only then did she step forward, hesitantly, as if unsure of what I meant to do, but she took the child. That warmth moving away from me.
Then I was at the controls again and the engine took up its growl and began to slide forward. Relief that it had not frozen to the rails. “Coffee in that Thermos there,” I said over my shoulder. Later I said my name.
“Tommy,” came the response from behind me. “And here’s May.”
The plow was moving and I had cranked up the engine to regain its speed, the whole machine vibrating with barely restrained fury. “You might all’ve froze,” I said.
“I think we did,” Tommy said.
As if in response, the baby resumed its mewling cry. I did not turn. “Girl or boy?” Beyond the window glass: the onrush of snow.
May’s voice was small and thin. “Jilly,” she said.
“Little Jilly,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Just Jilly.”
A child with a child, I thought.
* * *
After my crack-up, they took me off freight and assigned me to the plow engine where there was almost no chance I would see a single living soul on my runs back and forth across the pass. In the first years on the mountain, I could still sometimes see the girl I had killed, her body turning to meet the engine as if greeting a friend. Martha Evans had been twelve years old on the bright spring afternoon that my locomotive had dismembered her and although I knew—and had been assured over and over—that her death was in no way my fault, the vision of her continued to haunt me. I had lifted the pieces of her from beside the tracks and under the freight cars and had set them next to the locomotive in some approximation of her living shape as if she were a doll that only needed stitched back together.
In the weeks and months that followed, I wanted only to be left alone. It did not seem too much to ask and indeed my coworkers and dispatcher were kind enough to give me that much and to keep me employed when I probably should have been let go, my dependence on alcohol being such that I could not much be trusted around heavy equipment. And yet the plow had provided a way back for me, the locomotive’s handling requiring all my skill as an engineer and its blade producing an effect that was tangible and immediate. The way before was obscured by hissing snow and the great spreader blade did its work so that my path was marked by clean silver lines of track that extended on into the darkness, ready for whatever train was next to come.
My solitude had felt like penance at first, the little girl’s unconcerned gaze staring back at me from around each bend in the rails, but that too faded with time until my loneliness came to feel more like meditation than anything else, the blurred snow outside the glass swirling and the train invisible under its flow such that I oft felt as if I had become wholly untethered from the world of men. I could read the hidden topographies of that trackless snowfield as if all of it were part of my body: turns and twists and wildly descending slides and hard uphill climbs.
And then you. And everything to come after.
* * *
The headset lay crackling on its little hook and I placed it upon my head again, its pads against the flesh of my ears.
“What’s that do?”
Tommy had come up next to me and stood now strangely close in the tight space at the head of the engine, his finger pointed to the headset.
“Keeps me in touch with dispatch,” I told him. “How’d you get out there anyway?”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s kind of like my home office. Gotta check in now and then.”
He did not respond for a time. I did not know if he watched me or watched, as I did, the onrushing snow through the window. Then he said, “Got stuck on the road is all.”
“Isn’t the highway closed?”
“Weren’t on the highway.”
“On a side road?”
“You ask a lot of questions, mister,” he said simply.
“Just making conversation.”
Throttle back. The spreader vibrated and I brought it up and alongside. The forest seemed to roll out under us like a great wave and we upon it, barely in control.
“You’re dang lucky I saw you.”
“That was May. She was waving.”
“Lucky she did. I almost didn’t stop.”
At first I did not speak. Because of Martha Evans, is what I wanted to say. Instead I told him that I was not sure what I had seen. “Thought it was an owl,” I said.
“An owl?” He turned toward the back of the engine. “You hear that, May-May? He thought you were an owl. Hoot hoot!”
“Yep, hoot hoot,” I said. And then, loud enough that I hoped May could hear me: “Better get hold of something. We’re gonna get a little fast through here.”
“How fast?” Tommy said quietly.
“Fifty or sixty.”
“That doesn’t seem fast,” he said.
But then the hidden tracks pulled over the lip and the train tipped forward, the lights illuming a rushing flood of snow and forest, a whole topography of surprised motion. Tommy let out an audible gasp as we descended that wild loop.
“She all right?” I called to him. I did not take my eyes off the swirling window glass and when he did not answer I called to him again, the same words, the same question.
“Who?” he said at last.
“May,” I said.
“She’s fine,” he said but I do not think he so much as looked toward the back of the engine. The lever forward against the weight of my palm. Oh how I throttled into that deep dry powder like some great knife and how it flew, flew away into the darkness of the forest all around, the tracks clean and pure and silver in my wake and already the engine beginning, once more, to rise. The grace of that movement. The secret joy.
“Boy that’s something,” Tommy said. “How’d you get a job like this?”
“Kind of happened into it.”
“You already knew how to drive this thing?”
“They trained me,” I told him. “Didn’t know a thing when I started.”
“Lucky,” he said.
“Could be,” I admitted. “I just kind of stuck with it, you know.”
The train heaved against the uphill run. Edge the throttle forward. A bit more.
“You can run this all by yourself?” Tommy asked.
“There’s a rotary if it gets much worse than this,” I told him. “That one takes a whole crew. This one here’s pretty simple, really.”
“How’s that?” he said.
I gave him the basics then. To this day I do not know why; perhaps simply because he was there in the locomotive with me. It still felt a kind of miracle I had seen her waving hand and had stopped and had found them, shivering in the snow, a little family: man, woman, and child. I had taken the baby from her so quickly, an action totally without conscious thought, and had tucked it into my jacket in the blowing snow and had told them to follow. It had felt so cold against my chest, my belly. Martha Evans’ severed legs had been warm, almost hot. How her mother had screamed in the station office. I had sat there weeping in the cracked Naugahyde chair as the station manager tried to calm her but I wanted her to keep going, to break all the windows with her screams, to shake me to powder.
I placed Tommy’s hand on the tiller. On the throttle. On the brake. He asked what to look for and I showed him. The drift that might secret the great bulk of a tree within its frozen milky shape. The way to read the track. How to lean the whole engine into a curve so that the force of the plow continued into the heaving snow without cease. How to throttle back in a downhill run and when to throttle up for the momentum to ride the next rise.
It was then my dispatcher’s voice came through the headset. “Hang on,” I said to Tommy. “Dispatch this is Thirty-Two. I hear you, Donna.”
Her voice was a loud tinny squawk in my earpiece. She asked me how it was looking, the storm. “Looks like a blizzard,” I said.
“You hit eight-two yet?”
“Not quite. Just through Yaw’s,” I told her.
I glanced over at Tommy and found, to my surprise, that he was no longer staring out the windows of the train but was, instead, staring at me, his expression like a cold spear of ice running along my spine. What that gaze meant or might have meant I could not guess but for the first time I wondered who it was that I had welcomed into my engine. Donna was still speaking but her voice sounded far away now. Through it I could hear May’s voice, although it was not nearly so loud: “Tommy,” she whispered, “don’t do nothin’. He’s been nothin’ but kind. That’s all.”
There was a pause. Tommy’s face showed no emotion whatsoever, just that cold staring, as if the visage of an animal. Then May again, louder now: “Mister,” she called. “Just don’t say nothin’ about us. Please, mister. Just don’t.”
Donna, in my ear: “You still read?”
“Yeah, Donna,” I said. “Everything’s A-OK.”
A few more forced pleasantries and then I set the headset back on its hook. “What’s this about?” I said, trying to sound pleasant, trying to sound, that is, as if May’s words had not brought a tingle of fear to my gut.
“You just mind your own business.”
“You in some kind of trouble?”
“I said mind your own goddamn business.”
The baby had started to mewl again and now its voice spiraled up in a long howl of anguish.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy yelled. “You make her stop!”
May had begun bouncing the babe against her, her face leaning down to shush it, a kind of wild heat in her movements.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy said. “I’m warning you. You make her stop right goddamned now or I swear to God I’ll throw her right off this goddamned train.”
“OK,” I said now. “Let’s just take a breath.”
He swung at me so quickly that I had no time to react, the impact of his fist upon the side of my head swift and violent and without warning. I looked up from the floor into the space where he had been. Just before me hung the torn bare wires of the headset. My ears rung. Tommy and May were far away, across the open space of the car, Tommy shouting something and May cowering under the lash of his words.
I clambered to my feet again, peered out the window, lay my hands on the controls and then removed them again and turned to face Tommy and May at the back of the train. My heart clenched hard in my chest. A rivulet of panic.
“He doesn’t know anything,” May was whispering. “Please Tommy. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t.”
“He sure as shit knows something now, though. Don’t he?” He spun and looked at me.
I put my hands in the air. “Just minding my own business,” I said, although that seemed a hollow, cowardly claim after I had been struck and knocked down. When I turned back to the tracks, to the storm, my hands were shaking. So dark outside that the headlight beam was a cut hole in the shifting texture of the night. I tried to steel myself against what was to come but there was only my fear like a great avalanche cascading down through all parts of me at once.
After I had put Martha Evans’ body together I had crawled up into the engine and curled into the corner and fell asleep there. It was a strange response, I know. It might have been that I thought it all a dream and that I might trick myself into waking from it were I to will myself asleep. But I awoke to all manner of police and officials and it was no dream and never had been.
“Where’s this train go, mister?” Tommy had come up next to me again and put his face up near my still-ringing ear.
“Switch yard’s in Camperville,” I said. “I could get you there easy.” My voice sounded filled with stones. This was no dream either. I had learned that much at least.
“How far’s that?”
“After Camperville it goes on northeast.” Behind us the baby had taken up its crying again. I could hear May’s voice trying to quiet her, shushing, whispering, a muffling to the baby’s sound that might well have been her hand over that tiny mouth.
“How far?” Tommy asked me, his face twisting anew at the sound of the squalling babe.
“All the way across the country,” I said. My throat felt very dry.
“I don’t know what you’re asking me.”
But Tommy had turned and lurched away from me towards May, towards the baby. “Jesus Christ, May!” he shouted. “Give her here!” and then she was on the ground against the cold steel of the back wall and he was pulling the baby from her grip, her voice calling out to him, “No, no no, Tommy, no,” but he pulled and then the child was in his grasp, its screeching voice raised to a pitch that bent the insides of my hearing. He held the baby out before him as if it were a sack of flour and began to shake it, screaming all the while to shut its mouth, to be quiet, to goddamned be quiet.
I did not even know I was shouting until my voice closed down around that single syllable, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and the baby was in my arms once more, the whole of that transference accomplished with such rapidity that I hardly understood myself what had happened, what I had done, Tommy standing utterly still for a long strained moment before reaching around behind him to the hollow of his sodden back and producing from that place the pistol he now held out before him in the air. May’s voice was a quietness from many miles away: “No, Tommy. Please. Please don’t.”
God knows what the tracks might bring. The curve and then the last descent as the iron moved down towards Camperville. All hidden in the blur. And where had I left the throttle? The snow hissed and ran. The engine rattled. How strange to worry about the state of the tracks when a man held a gun to my chest, but so ran my thoughts.
“Goddammit,” Tommy said. His voice shook, his eyes shining with tears. “Wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“You’ll be all right,” I said, my voice quiet, almost a whisper.
The blanket had come partially unrolled and I tucked it around the baby as best I could. The child stopped crying in my arms. I do not know why.
“I didn’t mean to hurt nobody,” Tommy said.
The baby felt was warm and heavy. “You’re alive,” I said now, and I did not know if I was speaking to Tommy or to the babe.
“You don’t know,” Tommy said. He tapped the gun butt against his temple. “I got a temper,” he said. “I know it. And I wish I didn’t but sometimes May makes me so mad. And little Jilly there. I ain’t proud of it but sometimes she just goes on and on screaming like that. You heard her.”
I might have told him something now, that the baby’s bright, hard squalling was proof that she was going to survive and that everything was going to be all right in the end. But I could think of no words. There was an axe near the back of the engine. I could see it there, in its metal loops upon the wall. A tool box where I might grasp a wrench large enough to knock him unconscious. But I held a baby in my arms. Warm now and alive. Near the back of the train, May stood and wiped her eyes and watched us without comment. “You want her?” I said. I was speaking to May but it was Tommy who answered me.
“No,” he said simply. “I never did.”
“Tommy?” May said from behind him.
The pistol still hovered in the air between us. I could grab for it. Maybe I could. But the baby.
“Move on back,” Tommy said.
And I did, the baby warm and silent, the pistol following me along the sidewall of the engine. At some point he waved May away from me, away from the direction in which I was headed toward the rear of the engine, to the door that led out into the night.
“Open it,” Tommy said.
“Just open the goddamned door.”
May’s voice was quiet behind him. “Tommy, you can’t,” she said.
“Shut up, May.”
“The one at the bank was an accident. Anyone could see that. But this one ain’t.”
He whirled so quickly and with such force that it seemed as if she simply jerked backwards of her own accord, her head whipping back from the blow and her whole body crumpling to the floor.
“Don’t,” I mumbled. “Please. Look, I’m opening the door. Like you said.”
The cold was immediate, a sharpness that shot into the warm interior of the train.
“Now jump,” he said. “Do it, goddammit.”
I held the baby out towards him.
“No,” he said. “Jump.”
And then May seemed to understand what was happening. She did not rise. “No, Tommy. No!”
“Shut up! You can’t even keep her from crying.”
“But she’s mine!”
“I’m gonna count to three, mister,” Tommy said, “and you’d better jump before I get to the end or I swear to God I’ll blow a hole through you just like I done to the bank man.”
Behind him, May rose to her feet, her eyes wild. I thought she might rush for the baby, but she did not, her voice rising in a shriek that went on and on as Tommy counted out his numbers.
“Wait, please,” I whispered.
But already it was too late. When I jumped it was into black frozen air. I hit the snow hard and the impact blew my lungs empty. When I rolled to a stop and looked down into the gap in my coat, there you were, your eyes staring up at mine in the darkness.
“Tell me again,” you would ask me later, when you were seven and eight and ten. A kind of fairy tale spun between us. What I heard in my own voice was the story of someone unrecognizable to anyone but you.
What I know is that when I did not respond to the radio, Donna diverted my plow engine onto a spur and ran it into the gravel. It was found empty and the team that rescued me came on snowmobiles along the tracks. Tommy was shot dead in Nevada a few months later. I do not know what happened to May. I think if she were alive she would have come for you at some point but she never has and this is why I think she too is gone. I lost two toes from that long walk through the blizzard. I would have given more than that had I been asked.
But what I remember most of all, what I return to when my sleep is troubled and my mind filled with worry, is the black shape of the plow engine against the forest, the bright dots of snow streaming their shadows across the flat white blaze of the headlit night. There it is, my engine, my very own, moving away, moving away from me. From both of us. There as a shadowy glow. And then finally gone. What remains, for a time, is the sound, a kind of hum that fades into the wind and the trees and the hiss and shake of the blizzard. After that there is only darkness. So cold that it feels as if my breath might freeze a cloud of snow into the air. Quiet against my chest. And so still. The two of us afloat in the black of that night, following the one thing we can see: the twin silver lines of the rails. How clean they are. And, despite everything, how bright.
If the TV is on, it’s morning. I might have never noticed if I didn’t think it had spoken my name.
Good god good morning. It did not speak my name. No one did. I hear rustling in the bathroom and there is light coming from under the door. Warm yellow light that tints the edge of the carpet where it meets the tile floor.
The banner at the bottom of the TV catches my eye. The screen is impossible to read. The movement is simply out of control. It makes me feel sea-sick so I focus on the pictures.
“Honey, you’re going to need to go. The news is showing traffic. There’s so much construction.” I urge the robin from the nest, but he flutters behind the bathroom door, busily doing things that slow his departure.
My arm hangs off the bed. If I could reach something to throw I would. The wreckage on the TV is clear, and I feel like I can reach out and touch the cars, maybe detangle them, wind them up and send them on their way. A familiar van lies on its side.
“Honey. I think this van is Herman’s from down the street. It’s got to be. It even has the sticker on the back of the whole peace frog thing.”
My enabler comes out of the bathroom.
“You hear the kid crying, right?”
“I thought it was the TV.”
He shakes his head and walks out of the room. I didn’t hear the cries. I don’t know how he did. The bathroom door was shut and the fan was on. I can only imagine that it’s been crying since before he went into the bathroom. The little wails must be just the right pitch for me to not hear them. Like a dog whistle. I should give the child a whistle. I could probably hear that.
This face in the mirror is not mine. It has wrinkles and dark circles. I don’t have those things. The hair that hangs down and covers it is stringy and split. It’s thin. If it were any more runny and thin this body could just slink down the shower drain. I don’t think that would be so bad.
I choose one of the six orange bottles on the shelf and swallow a pill, re-inflate, regain my mass. My ghostly figure fills in and develops color and shape until I can see myself again. I do the basics, brush teeth, pull the hair out of my face with a scrunchy. I want to melt back into bed, but there are obligations. And expectations.
The door to the den is cracked and I push it with my slippered foot. It makes a sort of whinnying horse noise as it opens. The child is puddled on the floor watching movies on the IPad and I’m overcome with relief. I was afraid it would be watching TV. I drift into the kitchen. My husband looks up from the food that I didn’t prepare.
“Please put a shirt on.”
Quietly, I float into the bathroom and open bottle number two. This pill is a little larger, so I find the Diet Coke can from last evening on my nightstand and help the chalky domino tumble down my throat. I feel immediate peace, even though I know there is a half-hour delay before the effects kick in.
I emerge from the room a new person, and then turn back around to put on my bathrobe. Child is watching a movie. Good. Kitchen is vacant. Okay. Car is pulling out of the driveway. Everything is under control. I feel normal.
My list for the day sits on the kitchen counter. It is jotted on a notepad with a large orange cat looking uncomfortable and bloated. My husband’s made an interesting choice in using a green pen on the orange pad. The colors remind me of a jack-o’-lantern.
Has the child eaten? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t look hungry, and it isn’t acting hungry. The child is currently in suspended animation. I will have to ask it when the movie is over. I usually put the movie on a loop, hopefully my husband did too.
I’m ready for another Diet Coke. We made our Costco run yesterday, have tons of twenty-four packs. There is nothing else to buy for a week. We love to go for the samples and the colorful boxes in bulk. They never seem to bother the child, but the forklifts beep when they move around the store and sometimes I feel like they are dancing and spinning toward my demise. Like they lurk around corners waiting to beep at us and flash their yellow light as it twirls in circles.
The cabinet above the refrigerator is a reach but this is good for keeping the vodka away from the child. This is Yoga. The vodka handle is lighter. We will have to go to the store. My neck tingles with excitement. Fortunately, there is still enough for my morning Diet Coke. I crack open the can and pour out the first few sips into the sink, replacing them with the clear contents of the larger bottle. I swirl the mix and drop in my flexi-straw. It looks like a waterspout.
The child starts to wail. My husband clearly didn’t put the movie on loop. We will have to start our day.
Driving is not real. We are in the air, blowing down the highway like a lost leaf. Our flips and turns are punctuated with car horns. They are subtle; the insulation in the current model year is as comforting as a cave. We are spelunking. We climb into these crevices and then move them with pedals. I am an explorer, we are explorers. This expedition will take us places.
We stop at the coffee shop and I pull up an episode, hand the IPad back to the boy, and leave the car running with the air on. The barista is watching me. They have my coffee made for me by the time I get to the register and I slowly place an extra dollar in their tip jar. I wait a moment for their eye contact. In the car, the episode is still going. I want to give the boy some peace so I walk over to the outdoor tables and wait for conversation with the other moms. They look at me but don’t approach, so I get back in the car and watch them. They make big hand motions and have such wide eyes. They have such big shiny teeth.
Driving is so pleasurable. I alternate sips between my iced coffee and Diet Coke. Sometimes I feel like I make my best friends on the roads and highways. I wave at people when they let me over. I smile at them and see if they smile back. If they do, I try to stay with them for a while. Sometimes I see where they go.
Soon we are all stopped. I look around and see who I’m sitting with. The man to my left in the truck waves at me. Maybe I know him. I wave back with my mouth hanging open slightly and say “hey.” He is still waving, and I wave a little bit more vigorously, with more bend in my wrist. My fingers look like tentacles. I feel like a jelly fish. Now he is rolling down his window and I am excited. I run my hand through my hair and roll my window down. He is saying something and I hold my hand up to my ear to let him know he needs to talk louder. I wonder if he will notice my nice earring and well-proportioned ear.
“Your brake light is out!”
“Oh.” I nod. I smile a little. He smiles too. I have a new friend.
“This traffic stinks!” He has a dark mustache.
“Yeah. It does.”
Looking out on the gray hair of the highway with all of the little red dots like little lice, I have an uncontrollable urge to scratch and take a sip of Diet Coke.
“You should probably get that fixed!”
I wish he would stop being loud.
He’s now the accidental friend I’ve made while waiting to make a cooler friend. We sit for an uncomfortable amount of time with our windows down, inadvertently inhaling exhaust and looking over at one another occasionally with a smile.
Eventually I reach over and push the button to roll my window up while staring straight forward. He pretends to look at his phone, but I see him sneak a few glances here and there. I finish my iced coffee and placate my wailing child with a sip of Diet Coke and a feature length film.
After what seems like hours, we move.
We unload on the chipping pavement of the grocery store parking lot. Unloading is easy when you’ve forgotten to buckle the child up in the first place. I tell him he better not do that again.
The sky is gray with the sun peeking through in patches. The clouds look like jack o’ lanterns. God could be a Jack-o’-lantern, a giant Jack-o’-lantern with sunlight pouring out of his triangle eye sockets and laughing his big godly laugh all deep and baritone, looking like he wants to gobble up the whole city. He could have a few birds for sure, maybe geese. I don’t understand geese. It seems to me that they’re always headed north. Maybe they are confused, or maybe I’m turned around on which direction is north. We are spinning on a compass and I close my eyes for a moment to make it stop. These geese.
Every aisle holds potential. Proper shopping requires a visit to each aisle. We spend time visiting with the cereal. The monkeys and tigers, leprechauns and ghosts spread color and smiles in their reflections on the freshly polished floor. We walk on a rainbow and laugh. When the rainbow starts to fade and the tank with the lobsters looms it’s time for another dose. The tin box in my pocket holds fun shapes and sizes of pills, orbiting one another like planets. I dose up and the rainbow returns.
We slide like a bobsled through the freezer section, and end our run in a checkout line behind a mid-fifties bobbed haircut. She leaves her cart full of groceries in front of us and searches the store for an item she forgot. I learn of world events from the magazines at checkout. The faces of celebrities are Zen and I know that their yoga pants fit better than mine. They sit on mountains of honey that suck them in to the brine holding them in amber forever. They can be thawed when needed or wanted. Their teeth are what mine should be. The spiders in my hair climb down threads of stringy mess of their own creation.
“Ma’am, did you want to buy something?” The clerk is so smart. She has noticed something.
“Of course I do.”
“What did you want?” She is kind and soft, like a grown baby, cooing at me with her thinning lips, blowing kisses of comforting air with each puffed word.
My cart is empty, except for this child.
“I’ll have this balloon.” Am I speaking? I can’t tell. I’m waiting for the words to launch, I can see them as they slowly float to the clerk, whistling into her ear and stepping down the stairs into her skull. They register and her eyes light up with relief.
“It’s a really nice balloon.” She scans the dangling tag of the balloon.
I love her. I want to hold her and let her keep me warm in this cold grocery store. Her button says, “Beth.” I give her money.
“Thanks Beth.” I hold the “th” in my teeth and make a sound like I’m blowing up the balloon. Eventually the balloon even feels the breeze. It’s face says “I’m Sorry For Your Loss” and flutters giddily, showing its rear as it spins, “R.I.P.” I hand the string to the child, and push the buggy out the automatic doors.
In the parking lot, the child drops the balloon’s string, letting the heavy plastic tag tether it to the ground. It blows in the breeze and looks like it is walking. I get the child situated in the backseat. Then a voice surprises me.
“You dropped this.”
The thin man corners me between the open door and the car. The scent of fried chicken floats through the air. The words, “Stranger Danger” flash neon in my head and I paint him with pepper spray. With my door closed, the only noise I hear is the balloon as it rubs the child’s window. The balloon and the child squeak their desires. R.I.P. nuzzles the window, as does the child. They connect. There is no one parked in front of me and I pull away. The child scrapes its fingers on the window until the glow of the IPad paints its blank face again. Behind me, the balloon marks a pile of bones in the parking space.
For a moment, my heart beats, and I know that it is still there.
The lumber, I tell Patricia, will soon be a fence. I’ve hired a crew. We’re at the window. She’s pinching the mole on my neck. She asks, But Katrin, what about the cost? The fence will consume what remains of my settlement money, that sum secured by lawyers after I fled from the Fix. But for weeks I’ve told Patricia: There’s still plenty left. Our first night together, four months ago, she went from room to room of my new rental house, stroking the walls, asking, Would a coat of fresh paint kill anyone? She named an expensive acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Now she claims it’s indulgent to water the garden twice a day.
Tapping the glass, twilight outside, she frowns, says, I thought you liked those neighbor kids playing in your garden. We talked about this, Katrin, rash decisions, hidden plans…
So I tell her. Yes, I’ve enjoyed the kids’ company, two boys, two girls, shy at first, curious. Me waving them over, showing them the garden’s delights: honeybees, hummingbirds, daisies and jewel-boxes, squash, eggplants, toads. But last week, I tell her, I woke to wild shrieking. Late at night. Went to the bedroom window, figuring rabbit. In the Fix we heard similar sounds, but rats, the Man forcing his devotees to kill vermin with shovels.
From my window I surveyed the neighbors’ backyard: hedges, poplars, decrepit swing-set. And, spot-lit by moon, those four children. Linked arm-in-arm. Circling a fat, massive woman. Naked. Three-hundred pounds. One boy broke free, produced a stick, jabbed. The woman shrieked. Her head big as a pumpkin, sagging breasts, quivering stomach. The children took turns with the stick. Each time they jabbed, she shrieked. Upstairs, I gasped. Then, suddenly, they steered her inside, her backside rippling. A broad stain where she’d stood. I collapsed on the bed, remained there until morning. Then I forced myself up, outside, across the lawn. The stain was still there but alive: orange and black insects like boxelder bugs. But boxelder season wasn’t for months.
Patricia, at the window, looks horror-struck. Wants, probably, to say it was a trick of the moonlight. Or my past, the Fix, warping my imagination. I almost say, Don’t. Almost say, This is why I won’t tell you these things. Instead she asks, Maybe it was their mother? Their mother, I reply, is a tiny, wooden thing, flicks Marlboros into my yard, rants that Sikhs are really Arabs taking over the trucking industry—another reason for the fence.
I was once, I tell her, inside their house, the kitchen. A water-stained ceiling, mold-peppered baseboards, spongy linoleum. And a terrible smell: stale shellfish, rotting ocean meat. Those children looked dirty and spooked, hands behind backs, refusing eye contact. The older boy said, Our stepfather keeps barrels in the basement, water and plants, fish nibble the roots—their poop feeds the plants! I told them I’d never seen any stepdad. I covered my mouth, the stench unbearable—how did they live? Show me, I said, stepping towards the basement door. The children went wide-eyed. The younger girl whimpered, looked ready to scream…
Patricia cups her hand on my mouth. Says, Shhh. We kiss, tentatively, which means she’s worried what else I might say. We kiss again, which means it’s time for her to return to the city, for work. Next weekend? she asks. Then she says: Katrin, it was just hydroponics. That Fix stuff is over, long gone. You’re living real life. Another kiss. Stay, I hear myself say, drive back tomorrow, we’ll have gin on the patio, one last time before the fence goes up. I skim her thighs, tight against jeans. She sighs. Air fills my mouth. I don’t like it, she says, fencing yourself off… Then she says goodnight and leaves.
Soon I must tell her the settlement’s gone, spent on the fence, on five months’ rent and acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Spent on a bed and computer, on colorful clothes that would’ve been forbidden in the Fix. On replacing the house’s deadbolts, plus fees to the lawyer who helped escapees secure settlement money—a firearm, she told us, will bring peace of mind. No guns, I replied. Then pepper spray, she said, or a knife, at the very least a good white-noise machine. Twice, mulching, I’ve whirled around, pepper spray uncapped, to find a neighborhood dog sniffing the hedges.
Patricia cannot fathom: we escapees don’t want that awful cash, another reminder of the Man. Seized by the court from devotees’ savings he’d siphoned for years. Some escapees pooled their settlements to purchase an Airstream, move to Arizona, start a group-camp. This, to me, whiffed too much of the Fix. Instead, for weeks, I stayed at an interstate motel: men with orange teeth, Wonder Bread pizza, a scummy pool in which squirrels would drown. Then I rented this house, met Patricia online. I showed her the motel. My God, she gasped, why put yourself through that? Soon I nurtured a garden thrumming with peace, unlike the Man’s rat-infested “Jardin Infini.” My first night with Patricia, we opened the windows, huddled in bed, listened to wind. My windows, I whispered, my wind, my jardin. I started to sob. Thank you, I sobbed, over and over. Meaning: a miracle, Patricia fine with us laying there, fully clothed, almost touching. I can be patient, she told me. But what will you need? I replied, knowing that everyone, eventually, goes mad with need. (The Man once took away a woman’s child, craving her attention; the woman wailed away in Bunkhouse Four until someone told her to shut it.)
Patricia, that night, answered: Openness and, I suppose, honesty. Earlier, during dinner, I’d told her about the Fix. She stared, swallowed, asked, Was this, like, a choice? For a while, yes, I replied. Funny and fun, wild rules, people strange and beautiful as geckos. Then the Man purchased land outside town, moved us into coed pinewood hutches, and all the rules changed.
Home alone, Patricia gone, I go to the computer, open a browser, click on the link. My job—part-time teacher at the community arts center, six days a week—provides merciful excuse not to visit her in the city, amidst all those angry, leering people.
The broadcast now runs twenty-four-seven, even at night. A camera attached to a radio tower on a faraway coast: darkness, mist, wind booming off sea. During the day, milky sky, steel-blue water. Colorful houses line a thumb-shaped peninsula, a village called Tandquay. Within the year it will break from the mainland and become, claim geologists, a rapidly sinking island. The government has offered relocation funds in exchange for petroleum-rich indigenous land. The feed broadcasts the Tandquayans’ plight: sea-lashed peninsula, protestors with signs, lanterns at night. On the mainland a pack of counter-protestors, pickups glinting, hoist signs of their own—what could possibly be their position?
A nearby Ford factory has offered jobs to Tandquayans if the treaty is signed. Each morning two men climb onto a roof, unfurl a banner: SEND HELP! I donate one-third of each paycheck to help fund the webcast; Tandquayans should not be coerced into working at Ford. Once, during prime-time news—I nearly fell from my chair—a village elder stared into the camera and said, Even as an island, we’ll still fish and crab. His wife beside him added, We can cook cormorant thirteen different ways.
After work I log on, protestors huddled over portable stoves. At night, unable to sleep, I log on again, watch lantern-lights in fog. Patricia, if she’s over, flicks off the screen, says, You need professionally approved coping mechanisms. Not a mechanism, I’ll say. A peninsula, sinking. She dislikes when villagers wave at the camera and I wave back.
A webcast, understand, got us freed from the Fix. One of our requirements was the production of one-act plays the Man liked in lieu of television. His attendants roved the stage filming while we recited, women topless and body-painted, men in thin loincloths. The Man broadcasted the things online, some clandestine forum, for whom we never knew. Eventually something got reported—by who? to whom? Within months, those who wanted were rescued. Others stayed behind, loyal to the Man. His productions, we’ve heard, only grew grander.
Ben, fellow instructor at the community arts center, inspects my cupboard, makes a sound. Tugs out pack after pack of King’s Hawaiian Rolls. Says, We’ve talked about this. I tell him Patricia says the same thing: We talked about this. This is what it means to invite strangers into one’s life—you’re always talking about things, making unforeseen promises.
Those rolls, I tell Ben, are my one fond recollection from the Fix. Delivered once a week to our bunkhouses by the Man’s attendants—saved our lives, I tell Ben. Twice I’ve mailed boxes to the Tandquay P.O. with handwritten notes: These rolls got me through unimaginable times. I know they’ll help you—STAY STRONG, you’ll get your way. Love, Katrin.
The first time a villager waves an orange bag of King’s on the webcast, my breath leaves my body. I collapse. Patricia comes running, presses washcloth to my chest. This guy, I manage to tell her, one of the Man’s attendants, not the Man, made me watch awful videotapes, just he and I, said we’d make one someday. Back in my bunk, King’s Rolls eased my fear. After killing doves in the Man’s Jardin, they were the one food I kept down. Patricia, startled, eyed me, squinting as though glimpsing some far-away light. I didn’t dare tell her I mailed those rolls being waved now on-screen.
Might I sneak, I ask Ben, King’s Hawaiians to that fat woman in the neighbors’ cellar? Ben, like most at the community arts center—struggling artists, damaged locals, weirdos unable to hold nine-to-fives—actually believes such things are possible, obese women kept nude in reeking basements. Perhaps some at the center have survived just such situations. He asks, Why not phone the police? Tried that before, I reply, multiple times, a shady motel—the response you get when you’re off the mark isn’t fun. Some folks, I tell him, don’t want to be freed.
Ben dreams of staging an avant-garde play about the Fix, using students from the arts center. (Are there rules, I’ve asked, about what they can and can’t do onstage?) We meet twice a month to brainstorm a script—it’s healthy, he says, talking about it. (Most people say: You chose to get sucked in.) The production, I told him, must be webcast. Ben, seeing my face, acquiesced—good practice for the students. Didn’t ask, Webcast it where? For whom?
How long, Patricia asks, can I go on doing just this, teaching freeform discursive writing at the community arts center, $500 every two weeks, before I need a second job? There’s work, she says, in the city—I should move into her place, that polished-concrete loft in a repurposed sweatshop with coffee bar and gym, potted cacti in lieu of garden.
During the first meeting each six-week session, a student always asks, What does it mean? “Discursive,” I reply, or “freeform”? They’ll think and answer, Both. Someone exits, mumbling they wanted poetry, detective novels, yoga. A local café, Rodney’s, donates thermoses of pretty-hot coffee. We start each meeting sipping, describing dreams. The younger students, I realize, co-opt recent TV episodes; the elderly describe nightmares, or dreams about dinner parties. The form of writing we’ll practice, I say, draws from meditation and the Beats, from free jazz and new-wave architecture and what I’ve read on psychosis. Always, I say, nonfiction. It will help us through tough times.
An elderly woman recently whispered, She’s all of what, twenty-three? What could she know about tough times? Her name, I’d learn, was Art, short for Artesia. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out: Bitch, don’t worry about that. The mood in the room just died. I began packing up, to go wait for the axe. But Art erupted with laughter, echoed by the class.
The following week, over Rodney’s coffee, I read them my own freeform discursive:
KIDNAP CITY AND ITS MANY MUSEUMS
First thing after we escaped from the Fix, L and I borrowed her uncle’s car for a trip. Lived off gas station eggrolls, King’s Hawaiians. We shuddered for freedom, for safety, for one another’s company. Day three, we reached Utah. A strange town called Blandon. Blandon felt like autumn even in June—slanting sunlight, vacant streets, blizzard of cottonwood spores. We wandered downtown, shouting hello. Suddenly L gasped: the foothills were alive with people linked arm-in-arm, scouring the brush. We knew what that meant. A girl, we’d learn, had been snatched from her home. Beloved by all. Called Lolli by her mom, Binx by her dad. Flyers everywhere: MISSING: BINX JACKSON or MISSING: LOLLI JACKSON, photo of a girl amidst gushing light. Fourth to go missing in just sixteen years. We stayed overnight, told strangers our story. This did the trick: we got Walkie-Talkies, joined the search. Slept in a joint doubling as museum, the Blandon Museum of Route 22 Motor Lodges. There we learned of the town’s improbable number of historical institutions. During breaks in searching for Binx/Lolli Jackson, we visited the Museum of Blandon Settlers, Museum of Blandon Crockery, the Havenweep Pueblo, the Blandon Brush Pig Institute, the Official B and B Museum. Lastly, most remarkably, the Subterranean Baseball Hall of Fame, a mile south of town where the plains turned ragged with red rock. Its director, wearing tuxedo, explained that during railroad-building times the local Chinese took to caverns to escape heat. They discovered that now-famous chamber: one-hundred yards long, one-hundred yards wide, fifty yards high. They strung oil lamps and played baseball, seven to a team, that sport they’d come to love. So many Chinese were being shipped into town, the director said. A league was formed, round-robin tournaments. Before long, of course, railroad bosses had the cave dynamited… I asked if Blandon still had a sizable Chinese population. A question, the director replied, for the Museum of Persecuted Peoples. We planned to visit the following day. But that night our Walkie-Talkies crackled to life: a body had been found in a shack high in the foothills.
I lowered the paper. Odd looks. What’s this Fix? someone asked. Tsk-tsk, I replied. Why’d you and L split? This from a man named Griggs, resoundingly shushed. But when Lars Melroy asked, Where’s L today? they leaned in, expectant. Up north, I replied, co-director of a nonprofit, works with women freed from situations like the Fix. Welcomes them home, fights for fair settlements, gets them to speak—that’s what’s most important, L always said.
Someone asked, If she’s up there, why’re you here? I felt myself clench. Then I started to talk, unable to stop: The Man had a term for people like L, glory whores, but L’s not afraid. She’s doing good work. After Blandon we drove town to town, looking for clues, strange clothing, buildings in fields. But I quickly burned out. Unlike L, I couldn’t take any more—
Art thrust up a hand, interrupted: Underground baseball, how is that possible? Her husband, Eugene, sitting beside her, said, It’s baseball, anything’s possible. That’s right, I replied. Thank you, Eugene. Anything’s possible—this is the beauty from which we must live and write. We must scour for connections. Nonfiction only. Smiling, Eugene patted Art’s head.
Later, everyone gone, Art snuck back into the room while I tidied the coffee cart. She tiptoed up, whispered: I dreamt about you. Startled, I fell against cart, steadied myself, turned. Art clutched in two hands a small furry purse, a weasel-like head where zipper should be. Pine marten, she said, Eugene shot it last month. Sunlight stroked her leathered face. She would, weeks later, read an essay aloud, titled “If My Face Wears My Life Then My Wrinkles Flaunt Death,” her voice quavering, tears wetting flesh.
You’ve been treated, she told me, in a very harmful way. For a long stretch of time. Seen things. Been kept. She continued like this, statements of truth, suppositions of grief, until I was shaking. I finally said, Stop. You can’t keep it in, she said, you must seek help. She pinched the pine marten’s mouth, unzipped, said, Look. I complied. Inside were several conical creatures, ivory-colored, grinning, squinty-eyed. I’d seen these before—Billikens, they’re called. Art’s wrinkles parted with smile. Do you know what these are? she asked, shaking the purse, Billikens clacking. Charms, I replied. Do you know what these are? she asked, louder. I shook my head, whispered, No. For each person, she said, I’ve met rent by the world—by men, always men—I keep one in my purse until the person is healed. Or, in some sad cases, dead. Then she said, Touch. I refused. Touch! she demanded. So, trembling, I poked a Billiken and gasped: some sort of jelly, not ivory or stone. Art laughed, said: Rendered fat and gelatin. Creatures eat our apricots, pounds and pounds of apricots. Eugene shoots them, guts them, we don’t waste their insides. A smell wafted up. Please, I said, close it. Tonight, she said, I’ll add one for you. It will never get better, Miss Katrin, until you open your heart, dump out that shit.
Billikens, I’d learn, lack sacred origins, created by a Missouri schoolteacher, creatures she witnessed in dreams, marketed via magazines—the god of things as they ought to be. To gift them is to help others with life’s petty problems. Soon enterprising Eskimos sold them to tourists, fake walrus tusks, improvised myths. But what Art had suggested hardly seemed petty. Patricia, when I told her, looked aghast. Asked, Isn’t it time to find a real job?
Tandquayans, I’ve read, keep spirits pleased by plucking teeth from the dead, lacquering them, gluing them to houses, so that those oldest homes on the splitting peninsula—visible on-screen if you squint—are popcorned with molars.
The fence-crew arrives, bludgeons posts into earth, hammers up planks. The neighbor children shriek Miss Katrin, Miss Katrin! The crew boss, meat-red from sun, comes over, says, Get those kids under control. Not mine, I reply. Get those shitheads out of here, he shouts, or build it yourself! I ferry them into their kitchen. Don’t kill us! one girl cries. The stench is worse: gassy, sweetly fecal. I touch the basement doorknob. The older boy rips open a drawer like he’s going for knife, only to slam it shut. Stepdad’s got a pig down there now, he says. The children, when I say there’s no damned pig, giggle. If it’s a lady down there, I tell them, good boys and girls would let her go. The boy, giggling, says, Stepdad says we’ll eat the pig for Labor Day, if it doesn’t eat us first.
On day two, they finish the fence. I’m reading an essay by a man who goes by Goad—I’m Goad, he introduced himself, typed only Goad atop his essay, titled “Why God Made Mosquitos and Why I’m Going to Stop Giving Plasma.” The crew boss knocks on my door, unfurls a list of charges. Fine, I say, waving it away. Patricia will ask, to the cent, the sum, spoiling the pleasure of a backyard boxed in, protected from strangers lurking and peering.
The boss takes me out back, his jeans dark with sweat. It’s hot, sunspots strobing, cicadas and lawnmowers, snot-hocking fence-crew. The children, in their yard, scream. I panic, unable to see—but alas, this was the point. The boss, as though calming a pony, clicks his tongue, rubs a fencepost. Knotted, sap-stained, unfinished pine. It’s ugly, I say. He shrugs, says, What you pay is what you get. You’re right, I reply, wanting them out of my yard. I shout to his crew: Bravo, boys. The neighbor kids scream.
Patricia and Ben come for a drink. The first time they’ve met. Patricia eyes Ben, the fence, me. Mouths, How much? I lead her inside, hand on her back, tell her I feel fully safe, the fence worth the price. I’m glad, she replies. Maybe, Katrin, you can finally relax. Then she perks up, says she’s heard of a job—an office job, one town over. Not precisely what you want, she says, but stable, steady hours, with people who won’t need to know about the Fix…
Ben comes in seeking gin. For each one we drink he downs two, face swollen and pink. Under a plummeting sun we pick beetles from pepper plants. Ben, slurring, says the fence is too tall—how will I see those kids séance with the fat woman? Patricia stiffens, says, You told him? Later, many drinks deep, Ben will say he’s found our lead actress for the play, a girl from his classes—a haunted look, he says. I leap up, shouting I have something to show them, desperate to distract Patricia. (A play about the Fix, she’ll say, is unthinkable, the whole town will swear you’ve lost it.) I return with a box, the Billiken I ordered online, bringalaskahome.com. You’re supposed to bury Saint Francis upside-down for luck with house and home. But I like this Billiken better, plant it right-side-up, ivory tip peeking from soil. Make a wish, I say. Patricia, eyeing Ben, whispers, I wish he’d go home. But Ben, oblivious, taps the Billiken’s tip, asks, This from that island, the village you send money to? My stomach drops. I look to Patricia.
The kids, one afternoon, will scream a game. Inane chatter, sudden shrieking. So loud I nearly fall from my patio chair. In the Fix, during Mandatory Reflection, the Man forced us to sit with eyes closed, total silence, his attendants sneaking up to jab our ribs, grab our hair. Screamers got no dinner, or latrine duty, rat-bashing hours. L once asked the point of the game. Not a game, she was told. A challenge, meant to train the cunt out of you. For her question, two hours in the Mosquito House.
The children babble and scream. I drop Lars Melroy’s essay, “I’ve Traveled the County Feeding the Blind,” and creep to the fence. It’s that game, I realize, “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Only they shout horse instead of goose—Duck, duck, horse!—before erupting in howls. Then silence. Gentle babbling. Suddenly: Duck, duck… HORSE!
For three days they’ll play, unbearable screaming, until I’m ready to have the fence torn down. But on the third afternoon, heading out, I find police cars in the street, flashers on, the neighbors’ door ajar. That pitch-black, reeking interior. Everything quiet. I stand in the street, unable to move, until a team of grim-faced men emerges.
Patricia, of course, will soon tire of spooning, need something more than openness and probably-honesty. (Why worry so much? she asks.) Tonight she slides closer. I inch away. She pursues once. I inch away. Okay, she whispers, I get it. Whispers I’d be able to actually sleep at her place—her form-fitting mattress, her loft’s refurbished-industrial white-noise hum. I’d feel at peace, won’t waste my paycheck on that island, won’t need community center productions.
Later she finds me in the kitchen, groggy-eyed, wild-haired, my mouth stuffed with rolls. Peninsula, I tell her, not island, not yet anyway. She sighs, takes away the King’s. Says, Katrin, withholding’s just as bad as lying. She is, naturally, right—were I to tell her how much I’ve mailed to Tandquay, the sum total, she’d slink out of the kitchen, return to bed, be gone in the morning. Her father’s name is Pat. Patricia, at home, goes by Pat too. Her family collie’s Paddy, her brother Patrick. Kind, gentle people. They welcomed me last Easter like I was some milk-starved mammal. I enjoyed calling out Pat? from deep inside their house, having them all come running at once, even the dog.
One morning, soon, I’ll encounter an article. The coincidence snatches my breath. A problem affecting the Navajo Nation, isolated salt flats, arroyos, basalt canyons. First in New Mexico, then Arizona, then just beyond a Four Corners truck-stop. Herds of wild horses found dead in old stock ponds, sunken in quicksand. Dozens of heads sticking out from the earth, lips peeled back, milky eyes wide, muzzles stiff with terror. Dozens more onshore, sand-caked, sun-withered. The worst instance, south of Moenkopi, is seventy-nine, a mountain of corpses. One, incredibly, lived, half-sucked into earth, bucking its forelegs, bludgeoning the dead. The three unlucky men who chanced upon this horror were forced to put it down—four bullets, said the article, side of the head. If only she were human, one man stated, we could ask why. A photo: this man beside stock pond, husks of dead horses, bulldozer at work, tears soaking his face. I will want to read the article to Patricia, but she’s decided, that weekend, to remain in the city. I’ll want, like that man, to ask why—why flock to those pits? why follow others down? Something they smelled? Sounds in the earth? As it stands, the article concluded, teams are scouring the desert in search of more ponds, stringing barbwire to save beasts from themselves.
You were a room filled with paintings
of storms in the style of Turner
and each was gold—
end-of-day gold; gold
as you want me to be. Gold
as a sweet horse in a picture book.
Gold in that way, your way;
Gold when it’s lost,
how it seems more gold.
A girl’s tooth. That one you
saw in an elevator, took home
after. Fool’s gold.
Fool-me-once gold, come
twice gold. Your gold
chain as you hold yourself
over me, that rests in my mouth
like a horse’s bit.