Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Flinging Themselves at Light by Brad D. Green

A gathering of the family today without a death. A rare occurrence. Normally it is a loss that pulls our shortly-flung ranks back to a home base. Not today. Just hot dogs and hamburgers and my-how-you've-grown or my-how-you've-lost. There is always more exclamation at the loss. That is what we notice. We notice that M- arrives without kids or husband in tow, alone in her round, yellow car. The brakes squeak as she stops next to my grandfather's old truck. The angular bones of her face scrunch up. She juts when she speaks, each sentence a punch, a cut, a kick in your gut. Her hips have grown larger, I notice. I try to notice the putting on as well as the taking off. A small black ball pierces her lower lip. That's M-.

There's also LA-, J-, S-, and A-, younger than M- by five or six years. All of them mid-twenties. Most have metal in their faces and live among concrete and glass. Pierced eyebrows and tongues. Splashes of color on calves, shoulders. They seem wild to me, that bunch, too open in their ways. I'm more pulled into myself, like an elbow on a cold day. I recall them all as toddlers that followed me around. Kids with locked knees, dumb with their motions, shy. S- fell asleep in my lap once, now she lurches about, making loud mention of her butt. They all seem so far away even though they are right here, glinting under the Texas sun.

My grandmother: a prune in a lawn chair. She makes these little laughs around her cigarette, the smoke oozing out between her fingers. With each of her laughs, she deflates. I never recall her thick with laughter, but I watch her now in her chair in front of the box fan, bored and somewhat puzzled by the children. She shrinks each time she exhales. Perhaps laughter is like an ovarian egg bundle-one only has so many to last a life and near the end the tank hollows.

There's also T-, who has HIV. Thin and brown. Shaved head. He wears a Bluetooth phone all the time on his ear. Looks like a Borg, only not bad-ass. He's constantly moving. Never sits. He smiles, but it's a motion like kissing a pane of glass. T- is an empty room, his movement an attempt to discover the edge of himself.

Others as well, parents of the metaled-out kids: J- and N- and D-, the last two my mother's sisters. My brother with his shorts on, black socks and balding head. Three or four more that I don't know, others pulled in by the youth. They move fast, as if they expect things to happen now. Perhaps it does for them. I suppose all the glass they live around reflects the world back to them, throws out the images they crave. I imagine M- there catching an image and stamping it to her lower back like a tramp. I reach down and fill my palm with dirt. M- looks at me with a face sour as a young raisin. I let the dust fall through my fingers. She doesn't understand. She flings herself at bright reflections in the glass, sees another lonely person there clamoring toward her.

Most of them suck on their cigarettes and sweat. T- walks around spraying Listerine on the tables to keep the flies away. He insists it works, but we all flick our hands about our faces, watch the flies launch from our hot dogs.

My grandmother's house. Thick with rock. Chalky with grout. It's stout, her house, the trim great inches of brooding wood, joined with angular black nails. She recently had everything redone. New paint. New appliances. A brutal ripping of memories from the house. Hardly anything of my grandfather left in here. One picture there, smallish, above the square TV that's barely watched. She chose colors that he wouldn't like, fast colors one finds curved around soda cans. New soft furniture, round pillows with tassels. The main room has been rearranged around the empty spot where my grandfather normally lounged. His chair is gone, of course, but there is obviously an area there, left wide and open, though his presence has been hushed elsewhere. Each seat in the room faces that empty gap.

The sun doesn't find its way easy in this house. At our house a couple of hours away, wasps sneak in through open doors and then fling themselves at whatever light they can sense, understanding that a motion toward that is possible escape. It's the same here with shadow. Shadow strikes out, arches along the wall searching for cracks and open spaces to flood; it mutes the color that's been flung everywhere. None of the plants in the house are real now that he's gone.

I sit here in the living room after lunch with my daughter. Everyone else playing horseshoes or wrestling. They have a love within them, these kids. They demonstrate it through collisions and wedgies. My daughter is ten months old and tired. I rock her and hum. I hum row row row your boat and twinkle twinkle little star. Slowly, she loosens in my arms. Like a bolt stubborn with rust, she seeks to hold her position to consciousness, but once broken free, she spirals off and is gone. People used to being around babies have a fragile motion when they see one asleep. The tattooed and spangled kids bustle about as normal, sheepishly offer apologies when she stirs. I wave them away. I want them out, so my daughter and I can sit quietly in the room with my grandfather's absence, a man she never met. She curls her little fingers around my thumb and vibrates from something she's dreaming. I wonder if it's that empty space. Has it reached into her? It felt like a startle, that shake she had, the stiffening of her right leg. That's when she grabbed my thumb.

I'm here, I whisper to her. Her hair stands straight out like she's been electrified. The spot on the top of her skull pulses gently. I'm here, I whisper again. She settles more deeply against me. I hold her, wrap what's strong about me around her. I close my eyes to shut out that empty spot where he should be. If I could breathe hard enough without waking her, I think that my breath would slide around the spot-or perhaps get sucked in. The room is leveraged around that loss. All the newness in this house is hollowed. M- feels it too. The loss camps with her; it's why she's scrunched up and sprung out. She hides in the reflections of other things, unable to discern the source of light. They all do. With my eyes closed, it feels as if the absence in the room is larger than it really is, that if I were to draw in too deep a breath, what the room lacks would loom into me.

Brad D. Green lives in North Texas with his wife and two children. He nurtures a strong dislike for skunks. Other journals kind enough to publish him are Johnny America, Side of Grits, The Shine Journal, and Grasslands Review. He'd be happy if you take a gander at his blog, Elevate the Ordinary.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

R.I.P. James Crumley

Damn it. I had to find out he'd died through Facebook. Not that I wanted a direct line, but you hate to hear about death that way, a casual note from people who knew him personally, especially when he loomed pretty large in your writing life. Here's one remembrance.

As that linked remembrance says, you can go along way toward learning to hook a reader by reading his openings, and his opening sentences in particular. My favorite books include The Last Good Kiss and the Mexican Tree Duck. If you think Dennis Lehane's stuff is cool (and it is) and maybe you also like the country noir stylings of Give Us a Kiss-era Daniel Woodrell, you can do no better than going to their daddy or granddaddy, James Crumley. Take my word for it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Chicken's Gotta Stand It, by Jim Parks

The dawn was frosty on Birmingham's south side. It was a late spring.

These were the days that would make or break me, days of decision, days of choosing between life and an ignominious early death.

I had made the hardest choice. I had chosen life, and, oh, baby, what a drag. That's what the bottle will do to you.

But I had made some friends, other gentlemen losers with some use for me.

I was sleeping in a small cave on Red Mountain, a steep slope up the street that leads to downtown from the city's south side. On the top, a heroic size bronze of Vulcan, the pagan god of smelting iron, an artificer in bronze and brass, surmounted the dizzying heights where the highway passes over into Shelby County and its suburbs studded with other classical water temples and woodland shrines dedicated to the faded past. Their educated knowledge afforded those who once shook the hills and moved the banks and railroads to produce coke and steel in the city's furnaces glimpses of what the south could be or could have been if given half an imperial chance, I suppose.

In the mornings, I could grab a bite to eat in a rescue mission maintained by a fundamentalist denomination. That morning it had been leftover fried chicken from one of the fast food outlets—half frozen, naturally, and thawing slowly.

A Yankee sitting at the other end of the table complained.

"I never heard of having fried chicken for breakfast!" He kind of shouted it. "I thought you boys down south here had your fried chicken and watermelon after church on Sundays, huh?"

An old boy with a lean and hungry face, a goatee and a drooping moustache, said, dead calmly, "Then I guess you ain't from the south, are you?"

"Nah, man. I'm from Michigan."

"Well, look here, boy, you in the south now. Hear?"


"I don't want to hear none of yo' Yankee lip about it, now. Eat your fried chicken and hush."

That did it. They were at each other like two wild creatures, fangs, claws and paws. I watched as long as I could stand it, then I made my getaway, scooping up another piece of chicken and wrapping it all in a napkin. It was a mighty ugly scene. This was no time to hang around.

Trekking back uphill, I stopped at the old Masonic lodge at Five Points, located in an old red brick mansion.

It was cookie monster day, the day the women sent their old men down with home baked oatmeal and chocolate chips.

I often went in there to swab out the johns, stock the coke machine, empty the ashtrays, mop the floors, run the vacuum cleaner. You know, stumble bum stuff.

Good way to start the day. God knows, I was grateful to get it.

To tell you the truth, I kind of liked that old house. The brick was of the grade known as fire brick, hard enough to line a furnace or a chimney. The joints between each one were barely an eighth of an inch wide—each one plumb, square and level. Its three stories perched on a knob over the street. I guess it would give you the picture of what they mean when they describe something as an "imposing edifice."

We maintained the fiction that some day I would petition the lodge for the mysteries of the craft, but as yet the day had not come. Nevertheless, we were all friendly.

There's something about those old boys that you just can't deny. When they can see a man is trying to make it, trying to work, they don't scorn him.

I knew enough to get lost when an awkward silence occurred. That meant they were going to review memory work, something that should not be repeated in front of one who is as yet uninitiated.

About the time I was finishing up and Buck gave me some chump change for my work, Charlie H_______ came in the front door, loud, laughing, throwing mock punches and protecting his nut sack from retaliatory grabass attacks from the brethren there assembled.

The best description I ever heard any of them give on Charlie was that he was just plumb eat up with it. Friends, he was plumb eat up with it.

When you looked at Charlie, you saw the essence of the personality of a Babe Ruth or a Mickey Mantle, maybe even old Ty Cobb with all the meanness gone out of him—maybe. I guess you'd have to get an estimate on that.

But definitely Dizzy Dean.

Charlie was a good old boy through and through.


Washed-up professional baseball pitcher and proud of it.

Now that he's dead, I guess I don't mind saying that I loved Charlie because he loved me. We just seemed to be brothers deep in our souls and in our hearts.

I guess I could tell you about the time Charlie went crazy and started talking Indian talk like old Mr. Hemingway, then switched to writing everything down in a little pocket notebook he would stick in your face if there was something he wanted you to know.

That didn't last long. Some of them got him laughing, and the next thing you knew, he was telling the kind of stories you would hear in a mining camp, a logging show, or on a fishing vessel.

Oh, Charlie was a trooper. But he liked to hoo-raw and grabass more than anything else. He lived for it.

One day, we had been in the Safeway getting the makings for guacamole. We'd been all over town trying to get some cilantro, which they don't have much call for in Birmingham, so we struck out on that.

But it was just after church and all these little old blue-haired ladies were waiting in line with us, giving us the fish eye.

Charlie said, "Let's act like we're drunk, man."

Why not?

Overhead, the music speakers were playing the plaintive warble of that country disco hit, "Looking For Love in All The Wrong Places" and Charlie suddenly jerked off his glasses and pulled his false eye out of its socket.

Then he burst into tears.

Now, here's this big old lunk—I'm sure he weighed over three hundred pounds because he was easily six-four or five inches tall and built like a bear—blubbered up and crying at the top of his lungs.

He said, "You know, Jim, I ain't got but one eye?"

I told him, no, I didn't know that.

Baloney. It was the first thing you noticed when you talked to Charlie. The missing eye didn't track the real one.

The truth was that he'd been sent down to the minor league just below the one he was playing in for the Los Angeles Dodgers and he was meaner than hell and mad at the world about it. He was supposed to be working on his stuff.

He brushed an old boy back twice. That's when the old boy stuck a line drive in his eye and his career was over.

The end.

Anyway, the little old blue-haired ladies by this time were totally outraged at this hoo-raw. He handed the glass eye to me and pointed to the empty socket, which he held open with the fingers of his other hand.

"Yeah, man, eye's plumb gone."

"God dog, Charlie, I had no idea," I said, trying hard to sound like this old boy on television who played a very dumb, very hillbilly Marine.

"You know what happened to me, Jim?"

"I give up, Charlie. What?"

"I got gonorrhea in it!"

There was a fresh outburst of tears. The blue-hairs began to stir and mutter their outrage.

"Ah was a'lookin' for love in all the wrong places!"

That's when all the blue hairs got out of our line, and we sailed through alone with our avocados and chips.


He sold mining equipment, which, he said, meant just listening to their bullshit and finding out what they wanted. From there, he said, the engineers and the bankers took over, anyway. That meant he travelled all over those mountains of northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, some over into Georgia—you know, the red dirt country where they get the coal and the iron ore.

Naturally, he worked for his brother-in-law, but he was okay about it. In fact, it made him all the better.

But it was a good day to run into Charlie. I mean, after watching those two act like a couple of animals where they had put something out at the back door for them to feed on and they had to bare their fangs and go animalistic—whew.

Who wants to be reminded of his true station in the world?

Charlie had a way of making you forget that.

Anyway, there he was, big as the side of a house and dressed in a sharp topcoat and wool suit, wingtips spit shined like mirrors, his old glasses polished like the chandeliers in the governor's mansion.

He glad handed me and asked me what was going on.

So I told him about breakfast, how it wasn't quite suitable for that Yankee's palate, and the like.

He threw back his head and howled.

"Well, the old boy from the south didn't tell him anything wrong, man. We eat fried chicken for breakfast around here. I've had it many a Monday morning and many a morning when there was a death in the family. It's what people bring after church or to funeral dinners. The hell with him if he can't take a joke."

At that moment, I flashed on a barn yard in a southern holler, on a farm, and realized that free ranging chicken was probably a good bet for eggs, for fried chicken, for whatever.

We got to talking—viztin', as he called it. He told me the damnedest story about fried chicken I ever heard.

You know, it's an old southern custom to kill a hen and have fried chicken when you know company is coming. Even when you don't know they're coming and just show up, folks do it because they want to. We're talking sliced tomatoes, fresh sweet corn, fried okra, mashed potatoes and gravy.

"Shut your mouth," Charlie said. He threw back his head and roared. He did a lot of roaring. It punctuated his conversations.

He said he was once on a sales trip way up a holler in Tennessee, about half lost and in no hurry, and he stopped in at a little crossroads store to have a Nehi and a Moon Pie.

"Hell, man, I was about to starve to death back in those days. It was right after my eye got put out. In fact, I ate so many Moon Pies my ass liked to gone into total eclipse."

Charlie liked to eat, even more he liked to talk about food and eating.

Anyway, back to the story of the crossroads store.

While Charlie was there, a widow and her son came to the store to get a few things. She told the man who was keeping store there to kill a chicken and butcher it for her. She had company coming.

You see, he didn't have much in the way of refrigeration, so he just kept the fryers and hens alive until they were needed.

So the old boy told his son to go kill the chicken and pluck it. They waited and waited. Then they waited some more.

Now, this storekeeper's son, according to Charlie, was obviously kind of retarded. He was barefooted and naked under his overalls and he had the kind of vacant expression many mentally challenged people affect.

Finally, the man called him and he came around to the front of the store with the chicken in his arms.

He was trying to pluck it, all right. The problem was that the chicken was still alive.

Exasperated, the storekeeper had told him, "Son, that chicken can't stand that."

"Chicken's got to stand it," the boy said. Charlie used those dull, uninflected tones to get the point across.

We all fell out laughing.

Why was that funny? You know, it sure as hell tickled all us old boys.

I don't know, but on that frosty morning in Birmingham when I, nearly naked myself, desperately poor and lost in a nation—and let's make no mistake about it, the south is still a nation, still defeated by war and deprivation—burst into hysterical laughter, joined by Charlie and a half a dozen other good old boys with nothing but time on our hands.

I guess we didn't know any better.

Jim Parks

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hi All

Busy times here. I wish I could say I'm having fun, but I'm not. Look for new content very soon, though. In the meantime, I ran across this poem that hits me where I live in its last few phrases, though the water where I grew up was hard, turned blue jeans green and whites yellow in the laundry, fizzed like pop and separated into two warm and evil-tasting layers, heavy like sawdust on your tongue except drinkable. I can close my eyes and taste it in my mind and know how far away from home I am, because the water here tastes clean and cold, like a rich man's.

Terrain by Crystal Wilkinson (from Appalachian Heritage)

the map of me can’t be all hills and mountains even though i’ve been geographically rural and country all my life. the twang in my voice has moved downhill to the flat land a time or two. my taste buds have exiled themselves from fried green tomatoes and rhubarbfor goats’ milk and pine nuts. still i am haunted by home. i return to old ground time and again, a homing black bird destined to always return. i am plain brown bag, oak and twig, mud pies and gutwrenching gospel in the throats of old tobacco brown men. when my spine crooks even further toward my mother’s i will continue to crave the bulbous twang of wild shallots, the gamey familiarity of oxtails and kraut boiling in a cast iron pot. i toe-dive in all the rivers seeking the whole of me, scout virtual african terrain trying to sift through ancestral memories, but still i’m called back home through hymns sung by stout black women in large hats and flowered dresses. i can’t say the landscape of me is all honeysuckle and clover cause there have always been mines in these lily-covered valleys. you have to risk the briar bush to reach the sweet dark fruit, and ain’t no country woman all church and piney woods. there is pluck and cayenne pepper. there is juke joint gyrations in the youngun-bearing girth of this belly and these supple hips. all roads lead me back across the waters of blood and breast milk, from ocean, to river, to the lake, to the creek, to branch and stream, back to the sweet rain, to the cold water in the glass i drink when i thirst to know where i belong.

Friday, September 12, 2008

No Reason Not To by Mary Akers

She’s got good days and bad days.

Sometimes the days pass right quick-like, and she’ll go for hours, pushing it down and forgetting. But eventually the thoughts slip back in, centipede-like, through a crack in her concentration. Then that bright pain hits inside her head, lighting it up like a lava lamp, and she has to shake it hard to make the pain stop. That helps some. Like looking away when the needle goes into your arm to give blood. Actually, Eileen feels as if she’s giving blood, or more that it’s being taken from her—drip, drip, drip—draining away her life. She imagines her body when it’s all over, skittering around the floor like used tissue paper.

Even sitting here, her favorite time of day, with Oprah spilling her smooth voice all over her guest like honey, Eileen can’t make her head quit.

Sometimes it’s Louetta Weeks. Lionel took Louetta to the senior prom. They were voted class couple. 15 years wasn’t too long for something like that to come bobbing back up like a corpse in a flood.

Sometimes it’s that new blonde, Tracy, in Lionel’s office. Eileen remembers how he sort of shoved them together at the office picnic, saying how much they had in common. Like Him? He’d enjoy almost getting caught, watching them sniff and search, and come up short at every dead end. Does Eileen suspect? Will Tracy blow his cover? Which path leads to the cheese?

Eileen knows what women think about. She knows Tracy watched her with the sharp eye of the other woman, thinking, so that's Lionel’s wife, no wonder he comes to me. Sizing Eileen up. Tch-tching over her dull brown hair, I-see-now-ing over her three children. They clamor for Eileen’s attention, tugging at her pants leg, tap, tap, tapping on her arm. And the other woman thinks why does he stay with her? And the baby cries blindly in the front pack, flailing his arms, while Eileen jiggles her body up and down, up and down, extending her hand, smiling. Nice to meet you.

These images keep Eileen awake at night. The one thing she never wanted to be was a fool. But there you go.

Lionel spent two weeks last summer on reserve duty in Panama. Maybe an exotic foreign hooker stopped him on the street. Gave him her business card from the brothel. Lured him with her long black hair, olive skin, red lips. Took him to a room in a local boarding house where she turned her tricks. It would have to be clean. Lionel might be unfaithful, but not in a dirty room.
His momma taught him better than that.

She wonders if they kissed.

Or was it when he got sent to Saudi for the Gulf War? Maybe a Brit, with a sexy name like Sam, who whispered her accented dirty words in his ear when they did it. Oh yes, Luv. Quite right. That’s the ticket. In bed they would call each other Sergeant and snuggle together, with knowing, throaty chuckles. “My wife,” he would say, not using her name, “has fat thighs.” And they’d laugh together. The ultimate betrayal.

Dixianna was three when Lionel was called up. Eileen hugged him good-bye over the huge mound of her belly while the baby kicked at him through the thin blanket of flesh. Mindy came early. Three weeks sooner than she was supposed to, two weeks after Lionel shipped out. So Tammy ended up in the delivery room with Eileen, holding her hand and praying while Baby Mindy squeezed herself out into the world.

Tammy’s husband Joe drilled with Lionel’s unit, but Joe wasn’t called up, on account of his back, so Tammy helped Eileen when she could. They organized a Christmas cookie brigade from Floyd Baptist Church so the boys overseas could have home-cooked goodies. They put up a hundred yellow ribbons till the sight of them made her sick. She wrote Lionel a letter every day to keep up his spirits. Morale was a sensitive thing and Eileen didn’t want to be the cause of him coming home all shattered and out of place like those Vietnam vets did.

She doesn’t remember that war, of course, except for summer trips to the beach with her family, passing trucks full of soldiers going down Interstate 64. For the big rigs she made a fist up, honk-your-horn sign, and for the soldier trucks a two-fingered peace sign. The truckers always honked, and the soldiers always answered her peace signs with their own. If she closes her eyes, she can still see them, hanging out the back of the trucks, grinning—green canvas flapping around behind them, hot asphalt slipping away beneath them. She thinks about them now, dying with a little girl’s peace sign in their heads.

“I’m not a writer,” is what Lionel said, but he did call from Saudi when he felt lonely. It was usually three a.m. in Virginia when the phone rang and the panic rose up in Eileen’s throat so she could hardly say hello. She was always certain it was The Call, but then there Lionel would be on the other end, laughing at her worry.

Usually he wanted her to talk dirty, wanted to get excited long distance. “Tell me what you’re wearing,” he’d say, with the echo of a pause as his voice bounced across the moon. Groggy and crabby, with the baby starting to wake, she’d struggle to find something to say, reach down deep to think of something that would get him going.

Eileen never could confront Lionel over the phone. She couldn’t handle the long, expensive silences that went nowhere. Actually, she doesn’t think she can confront him now, either. Maybe she just can’t deal with it. Anyway, she has to think.

Of course, thinking is about all she’s been able to do lately, and she finds herself doing stupid stuff like putting the fork in the trash and the napkin in the dishwater. Even Oprah can’t bring Eileen out of her funk today. She’s had the TV on for most of the show, trying to get uplifted, since Oprah promised her shows would be inspirational from here on out. But the show is about living with AIDS. Try as she might, Eileen just can’t get uplifted thinking about living with AIDS.

Eileen finished high school. She was class valedictorian, which ought to count for something. She isn’t dumb, but she can’t account for the way things have turned out. Before all these kids she used to be a working woman. If Lionel hadn’t swept her off her feet, she’d probably be manager at the Kroger’s in Christiansburg by now.

Lionel was so charming back when they were dating. He used to show up at Kroger’s the days she had to work late, and she’d see him at the back of the line, whistling, not looking at her. Then when he’d get up to the register he’d have some fancy cheese and crackers from the gourmet section, and a six pack of those wine coolers that were just getting popular. It was his secret message to her. Or he might buy a red rose and some fancy foreign chocolate. Lionel knew she’d get to thinking, and he was right. She’d get all hot under her apron. One time he bought a bottle of baby oil and a cucumber. She’d spent the rest of her shift blushing and fretting. She always did, though. If a lady bought sanitary pads or a pregnancy test, or a man bought hair color or Preparation H, she couldn’t look them in the eye when she told them their total.

Eileen can’t figure how things got this way with her and Lionel. Did she get to the point where she liked being taken for granted? Maybe she got satisfaction out of being The Woman With The Most Inconsiderate Husband, saving up stories until she could top the best of them. Like her 30th birthday when Lionel kept the kids and sent Eileen all the way out to Hooters in Roanoke with the other realtors and secretaries from his office. She was pregnant with Lionel Junior at the time, and big as a house, in no mood to party. Half the people there didn’t even know her name. The waitresses, in their cropped shirts and short shorts, bounced to the table with a piece of cake and sang and she was 30 and these strangers stared and clapped and told her to make a wish and asked her was Lionel coming and she chewed and smiled and tried to pretend that this was normal and okay with her, too polite to name a skunk. She drove home afterward with a sick pit in her stomach, parked the car with the lights off, sneaked out back behind the lilac bushes and vomited. Then she walked in to see Lionel’s eager face, first thing, so pleased with himself. He wanted to hear every detail of her fun evening. Then he wanted sex.

Lionel had never been what you’d call sensitive, but Eileen couldn’t have predicted his unfaithfulness. He was her husband. He said he loved her. She believed him. She had no reason not to.

Eileen remembers the time early in the marriage, right after Dixianna’s birth, when her Pap smear showed chlamydia, and she was called into the clinic for a private consultation. She thought it was a fancy word for a yeast infection, and just stared at the technician when he told her it was a sexually transmitted disease and no, you couldn’t get it from a toilet seat. In a daze, she drove to her sister’s to pick up Dixianna, her breasts leaking milk in big, wet circles on the front of her dress. Then she was so distracted she forgot to feed the baby and she had to stop right there on 221 at a Dumpster and nurse just to quiet her down. When Eileen got home and called Lionel at the sales office, she cried and told him she had an S.T.D., and it was shameful, that’s what it was.

But Lionel put on his calm, patient voice and explained it all away. Left over from our single days . . .false positives . . .what would it hurt to take the medicine, just in case? He was so sweet and understanding. He said he didn’t even suspect Eileen of being with another man, he trusted her that much.

Stupid now. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Was this always the way? You toss away the obvious until suddenly it hits you like a ton of bricks that you’ve been blind, deaf, and dumb? And at risk. This is the 90’s and Eileen has watched enough TV to know that she could die from what Lionel might bring home to her.

Faithful. Trusting. Stupid. Dead.

She glances at the TV and there’s a guest from Oprah’s audience standing up at the microphone. She says she’s a nurse who works with newborns who have AIDS. The nurse says they still don’t know if HIV can travel through breastmilk or not, so if a mother thinks she could be infected she shouldn’t breastfeed. Eileen can’t breathe when she hears that. She has to do something. She has to protect herself, her family.

She finds the bottles of formula from the hospital, pre-mixed, on the back shelf of the pantry. Then she opens drawer after drawer in the kitchen, pushing junk aside, looking for the nipples. Where could they be? Why was she saving so many twist ties? And how many fast food straws did she really need anyway? Trouble was, you just never knew when those things might come in handy. And as sure as she threw something out, then she needed it the very next day. Hadn’t Mindy needed that extra wire for her fairy wings? And actually, Eileen kept meaning to string Hawaiian leis with the kids using those straws like she saw in Family Circle’s craft section last month. Maybe even have a family luau.

Finally, there’s the nipple. She thinks she should sterilize it or something; but really, there isn’t time if she’s going to save the baby. So she screws it on and puts it quick in the baby’s mouth. He sputters and chokes, and bites on the damn thing like he doesn’t know what it’s for. She tries again and again, pushing it farther in, until he’s bawling and retching, and she’s crying, “Here. Take it. Take it!” over and over, but it’s no use.

Eileen pulls it out of the baby’s mouth. His face is all red-purple from crying and his little fists are clenched, flailing at everything and nothing. Eileen is shocked by what she’s done. She throws the bottle in the trash, nipple and all, and gives the baby her breast, sobbing and breathing in big gulps of air. He gets real still then and pauses mid-suck, staring at her, big-eyed, over the white mound of her breast.

Eileen knows what she must do, but the tasks ahead of her seem unbearable. More humiliating tests requested with a rushed explanation. Condoms. (Law, that’s embarrassing.) Confronting her husband. Deciding whether she can live with him, looking at his lying face for the rest of her life.

The rest of her life.

Even if he says he’ll give the other woman up, can she trust him? Eileen sees herself checking pockets, listening in on phone calls, calling hotel rooms late at night. She doesn’t want to be that woman, but she can feel a tendrilled mass growing inside her already. Malignant. A tumor of distrust.

When Oprah goes off, Eileen decides to call Tammy, who’s been through this with Joe twice before. All Tammy says is how the Good Lord meant for us to be forgiving and after she and Joe worked things out it made her love him even more. Eileen makes sympathetic noises over the phone, but hangs up as soon as she can. Secretly she thinks Joe is a jerk and Tammy is a fool, and vows not to call her again anytime soon. Joe got that 17-year-old waitress pregnant, for pity’s sake. Thank goodness the girl decided to have an abortion, now at least they only have to see her every Sunday after church when they eat at the Waffle House on the bypass. That’s punishment enough for Tammy. She could think of worse for Joe, though.

Then, since Eileen really doesn’t know about anything anymore, she imagines Lionel in the same predicament. What if he has an illegitimate child somewhere? She lets the magnitude of that sink in slowly, wallowing in the possibilities, the future scenarios, the confrontations. Then the TV lights up all on its own and there’s Sally Jesse Raphael smiling conspiratorially and saying, “Well, Eileen, I think you have a right to be angry,” while the audience applauds. A baby’s picture flashes on the stage monitor. “Lionel’s baby by Crystal” captions the photo. The audience boos and hisses Lionel in his plush red chair, Eileen on his left, girlfriend Crystal on his right.

And Eileen’s mother is the surprise guest on the show. She strides out from backstage, yelling, “Faithless bastard! Infidel!”

Somehow, these images are painful and comforting at the same time. Eileen is learning to let them flash through her brain until they are gone. She’s decided to go with it. Work through it. Ride the wave. It’s as if she’s on an amusement park ride, like the one at Lakeside she rode as a child. Cloud Nine. They strap you in and you spin and spin until you can’t even lift your arm or leg—a giant one of those things that spin your blood. Only she realizes too late that the attendant forgot to strap her in, and little pieces of her are flying off in every direction. She can’t stop them and she can’t get them back.

As a kid, Eileen would always imagine the worst possible scenario and make herself a plan. When she was eight, her parents took her to Virginia Beach. She held onto her daddy’s hand and walked the long pier out into the ocean. When she looked down through the wooden planks at her feet, she saw the waves below, rolling toward the beach, and Eileen knew with a child’s certainty that she would either slip through a crack or the whole pier would give way, leaving her to grab the biggest plank and hang on for dear life. So as she walked, she planned out in her head exactly what she would do, which plank she would go for.

When they drove over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, her sister Debi tried to hold her breath the whole way, but Eileen carefully planned how she would escape the sinking car after a big truck ran them off the bridge.

The baby has fallen asleep at the breast. She tries to dislodge his lips without waking him, but he shifts around and opens his eyes. When he looks up at her so trusting, Eileen has a moment of panic. He starts to squirm and she makes a quick decision. She’ll give him ice cream. It’s made from milk. All kids like ice cream.

He shrieks when she tries to set him down, so she shifts him to the other hip, puts two spoons in her mouth, grabs the carton with her free hand, and heads for the table.

Eileen is just hooking the straps on the high chair when Lionel comes in with Dixianna and Mindy. He says Eileen had better get her shit together. Wouldn’t he like to sit around all day eating ice cream? Maybe Eileen would like to go to work and support him for a change?

Over the buzzing in her head Eileen offers to fix him a bowl, but no, he has to go back by the office. He can’t stay.

“Can you drop the kids by Momma’s on your way out, then?” Eileen asks. “She’s gonna sit them so I can get some housework done.”

“I’m not driving. Wes is picking me up in five minutes.” Lionel is suddenly charming, chucking the baby under the chin, smiling, kissing Eileen on the top of her head.

Grateful for the kindness, she overlooks the fact that Wes has three ex-wives, a big black Harley, and a drinking problem. He’s been with Buffalo Realty about a month now, and he and Lionel have become best buddies. She’s pretty sure Wes made a pass at her the first time they met.

“Can I have your keys then?” she asks as she offers the baby her spoon with just a dab of ice cream on the end. “The Plymouth won’t start again.” Lionel drops the keys into her lap with an exaggerated sigh, and she’s sure the car would start if only she were smarter, thinner, better looking.

The baby sucks on the end of Eileen’s spoon, gives her a toothless grin and smacks his lips for more. He opens wide like a baby bird and Eileen spoons in a whole bite. Shocked by the cold, he holds his mouth open, makes a panicky noise in his throat, and shakes his head back and forth. He won’t spit it out though, because it tastes too good. Eileen laughs out loud and gives him another spoonful. Then Lionel starts laughing, which brings Dixianna and Mindy in to see what’s so funny, and pretty soon everyone is laughing.

The baby loves being the center of attention and keeps on being silly until the whole family is laughing wide open, gasping for breath, and Eileen cries, “Oh my God, stop. Stop!”

In the middle of it all, the phone rings. Eileen answers it with the laughter still in her voice, breathless. “Hello?”

“Hello?” a woman’s voice says in return.

“Yes. Hello.” Eileen chuckles, mugging for Lionel as he pantomimes the baby’s silly face for her, and she gasps, trying not to laugh, and thinks this is it. This is family at its best. They were still a family. No other woman could give him this. She sees it clearly in that frozen moment with her ear to the phone, Lionel ushering the girls upstairs, blowing Eileen a smiling kiss over his shoulder as he leaves through the front door.

“Hello?” says the woman again as if she can’t hear. “Hello?”

So Eileen says it slowly, “Hell-lo,” and the woman hangs up.

Connections are bad sometimes. Eileen knows this as well as anybody. It just seems odd that Eileen’s end was so clear, and that woman couldn’t hear. If it’s important she’ll call back.

Sure enough, not a minute later, the phone rings.

Lionel runs back in. “Forgot my wallet,” he says with a grin, taking the steps two at a time, bounding up them while Eileen watches him and lets the phone ring an extra two times even though she’s standing right there with her hand on the receiver.

“Hello,” Eileen says. She makes it a statement not a question, and she’s getting a bit annoyed. The floor needs mopping, after all. She doesn’t feel like talking to anyone.

Lionel has grabbed the upstairs phone before her and his voice echoes too loudly in her ear, “Eileen, it’s me. They hung up—wrong number or something. Anyway, I’m gone, Baby, okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” she says, distracted, then hangs up and waits for the third call.

When it comes, Eileen puts her hand on the receiver and says out loud to no one, “Answering the telephone—take three,” then lifts it up, pauses an extra moment and says, “Hello?”

It’s her again. After a long moment the voice says, “Is this Eileen Quesenberry?” The words are slow and deliberate.

“Yes it is . . .”

Another long pause. “And are you married to Lionel Quesenberry?”

“. . .Yes I am.”

Eileen thinks it could still be a salesperson. Please be a salesperson.

“All right, then,” says the woman, pronouncing each word distinctly, not running them together the way anyone from Floyd would.

The click of the receiver seems slow and deliberate, too, and Eileen stands there with the receiver to her ear, listening without breathing, hoping to find some clue in the stillness. She listens as hard as she can, willing the woman to come back on and be an old friend looking for Lionel, or a salesperson, or even a collection agency. She listens until there’s only an insistent beep, beep, beep, echoing in her ear and she could just scream.

The baby starts to fuss and squirm in his high chair so she puts the whole carton of ice cream on his tray and sticks two spoons deep into it. Let him play with that. She needs to think.

That woman’s voice, her words, her deliberateness. Eileen keeps trying to replay the calls in her mind, remember every word, dissect every nuance, but she’s winded, knocked off her feet, nothing to grab hold of, nothing to stand on, no air to breathe. All she really wants is some security, some surety, some steady love. Even the ability to admit to the inability to stay faithful would be something. The honesty might actually be refreshing. Perhaps she would smile and throw her arms around Lionel if he finally admitted to being a thoughtless, faithless jerk.

Instead of confessing, though, he always pulls out some explanation that sounds so logical. Or even better, he offers none, and pretends to be just as baffled as Eileen by the whole thing.

That’s really clever.

The more Eileen thinks, the more she’s certain what the phone calls were about, and the madder she gets until there’s this great burning anger inside her. If she raised her shirt, she’d see it glowing, illuminating her from within, her bellybutton a dark circle against the glowing, pulsing radiation of her anger, her hurt, her fury.

Lionel must thank his lucky stars every night. He got a woman without a brain. Does he think she doesn’t know? Oh, she could cut his thing off like that Bobbitt woman did and not even look back. Forget running down the street with it, she’d just flush the damn thing and be done with it. She wouldn’t want somebody putting it in a cup of ice and sewing it back on later.

Although, a Velcro attachment would be good. That way, whenever he left the house, she’d just say, “Oh Honey, you forgot again,” with a big toothy grin and then scriiick, off it’d come, and she’d lay it out in a cigar box until he got home. A big, fat stogie and she’d be in charge of it for a change. Teach it some manners.

Eileen’s stomach is boiling. She’s absolutely starving. She’ll never get anything done on an empty stomach. Cheesecake. That’s what she needs. Cheesecake to dull the ache, blanket the agony. The thought’s hardly registered before she’s in the kitchen dragging out the Sara Lee box. It doesn’t even matter that it’s frozen. Eileen attacks it with the fork, stabbing into each bite, launching it into her mouth rapid-fire. Her cheeks are bulging, and each swallow is really more of a contained choke, but things won’t get better until she sees the bottom of the box.

She uses the flat side of the fork after the cake is mostly gone, smashing the remaining crumbs through the tines, bringing them to her lips, greasy from the crust and the cake and the fury of it all. On the last bite she chews and chews until it’s mush. Still she chews, making up for all she swallowed whole.

Hanging on the wall in front of her is this Serenity Prayer her momma cross-stitched for her. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to blah, blah, blah. As Eileen reads it, she’s staring at it, licking her finger and pressing it into the crumbs, thinking, God, grant me the serenity to eat the things I cannot change . . .

The girls are at the door, coats on, fighting. The baby has ice cream everywhere. Eileen told her momma she’d have the kids there by 5:30 and it’s after that already. Cleaning is out of the question, unless it’s the mess of her life she can mop up, spray off, dust away. Instead she grabs the ice cream baby, pulls his shirt off, and turns on the tap while he fiddles with the sprayer. As Eileen grabs a dishrag the phone rings and she reaches for it, one arm towards the phone one arm towards the baby. She’s pretty sure who it is this time so she says, “I’m on my way, Momma,” and sets the receiver back in its cradle.

While she’s wiping his face, the baby figures out the sprayer and shoots a long arc of water down the front of Eileen’s shirt, then squirts himself in the eye and starts crying. She pronounces him clean enough, throws him into a diaper, and puts on his little red sleep suit and coat. She gives the girls the rest of a bag of cheese puffs to stop them from bickering, then loads everyone into Lionel’s truck and heads off to her momma’s house.

It’s early, but the winter sun is long gone, dropped behind a mountain, shrouding route 221 in eerie twilight. Eileen tries first her high beams, then her low, but nothing cuts through the strange half-light. Dixianna and Mindy fight over the cheese puffs, yanking the bag back and forth with loud crumpling sounds. The truck fills with noise. Eileen reaches over and turns on the radio to drown them out while the baby wipes orange fingers on his car seat. She starts to yell at him, but decides she has enough on her mind anyway, what with this stinking truck and its impossible gear shift that only Lionel can work without grinding and Lord she’ll be lucky if she doesn’t wreck the thing.

That’s about the time Eileen rounds the big curve at El Tenador, the old skating rink, and sees the deer, but doesn’t see it, too. As in, oh, a deer. Isn’t that nice. The buck ambles across the road and Eileen’s headlights catch him halfway across. He stands there, transfixed, frozen in the headlights. Eileen keeps driving, frozen in her thoughts. She tries to count the points of his antlers the way Lionel taught her back when they were dating and she pretended to like hunting just to be around him. Ten points? Twelve? She sees his haunches quiver as he stands there mesmerized, like in some part of his brain he knows he should run away, but can’t make his muscles work. Eileen is just deciding that she is The Deer in the Headlights, imagining the thud of his magnificent body against the fender, when Mindy screams, spewing orange spit everywhere.

Eileen yanks the wheel hard, hits a patch of gravel on the side of the road, and does a 180. The deer bounds away while the road dust dances in her headlights. The baby claps his hands and Mindy sobs while Eileen tries to make her shaking hands work the gearshift.

She drops the kids off at her momma’s without getting out of the truck. Dixianna carries the baby. Eileen’s momma stands in the doorway, silhouetted by the porch light. Her breath puffs out indignantly into the night air, casting its own long, disapproving shadow. Eileen lets the truck idle at the end of the driveway until she sees the kids safely inside.

She backs out, accidentally spraying gravel from the unfamiliar clutch, and heads back to the main road then turns onto the Parkway. The Blue Ridge Mountains could always clear her head. She drives to a scenic overlook and parks.

She could leave Lionel. But in such a small town she’d never really get away. She could make him jealous, hurt him like he hurt her, but that wasn’t really her style and anyway, who would want a Mother of Three? She could take a Greyhound bus to Charlotte, or New Orleans, or Tampa, and start a new life. That was tempting. But there were the kids to think about. She could pray for Lionel to change—Tammy’s solution. Or she could simply wait it out; she’d already been doing that for 10 years.

Eileen sits and stares at the lights in the valley below. They pulse and throb and beckon to her. Who would miss her if she were just to drive right off the edge of this big old mountain? It seems like an easy solution. So very, very easy. And restful. Except Eileen begins to picture the car flipping over and over, then devises a plan in her head for surviving the crash. Her mind interferes even in this.

When she realizes her fingertips and nose have gotten numb sitting in the cold, she starts the engine and heads back toward town. She pulls onto 221 near the sign that says Ray’s Rest. (The sign maker had run out of room, but it was more of a bar than a restaurant anyway.) Eileen slows to check out the parking lot. Just as she is almost past, she pulls into the lot, surprising herself. She sits in the truck until she musters enough of her new go-with-it attitude, gets out, and slams the door.

Then she stands there, suddenly indecisive. As she reaches for the handle to climb back into the truck, she hears her name called.

“Hey, Eileen! Ain’t seen you around lately. Where you been keeping yourself? You coming in?”

“Why Daryl Agnew,” she yells across the lot. “I wouldn’t miss the chance to play catch-up over a redeye. How’s that wife of yours?”

“Afraid you’ll have to ask my lawyer.”

“Well, now, that’s a shame. You just give me a second. I’ll be there directly.” Eileen slips off her wedding band and holds it in the palm of her hand, feeling the warmth of the gold. She hasn’t taken it off once since the day Lionel slipped it on her finger 10 years back. For effect she lets it fall through the air into the coat pocket she holds open with her other hand. There’s something satisfying in the extra flourish, and she pats the outside of the pocket for good measure.

Once inside, Eileen sits on a barstool next to Daryl. Ray gives her a nod. “Redeye?” he says, gesturing with the glass.

When she nods he pours a shot of tomato juice into a glass mug, then holds the mug on a slant at the tap, and the beer slides into the tomato juice, making a faintly orange head of foam. He slips a napkin under the bottom of the mug and sets it in front of her.

As Eileen reaches for her redeye she stares at the white place on her finger. It looks obscene, like a dead fish belly, and she thrusts her hand into her pocket. She locates the ring and slips it on awkwardly with her thumb and pinkie.

When she grabs her mug, it clinks against the glass.

Mary Akers' work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, Primavera, Xavier Review, Brevity, and other journals. She was raised in a rural, one-stoplight town in southwest Virginiawhich she will always call homebut currently lives in western, New York.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford is a poet I came to late in my life--like most of the poets I'm reading now--as I was casting around for something new to inspire me. I found first the collection of his work at the Alsop Review, then bought one of the two books I could find in print. Loved it, loved it all, irrationally and completely in the way I loved slide guitar, any slide guitar, when I first heard it.

Then I went berserk and paid a lot of money for a copy of the 2000 edition Battlefield in Which the Moon Says I Love You. I probably could have found it cheaper, but I get that way about my obsessions. It was a must-have book, in other words, and later on, last year I think it was, I picked up copies of the other books Lost Roads have kept in print. To say the least, his work has been revelatory for me, and I'll try to explain, briefly, why. First, here's an early poem, or at least a poem from his first book, Ladies from Hell. This will also prove I am neither critic nor poet, I fear, but that's my row to hoe, not yours. I just want you all to read Frank Stanford.

Hidden Water/Frank Stanford

A girl was in a wheelchair on her porch
And wasps were swarming in the cornice

She had just washed her hair
When she took it down she combed it

She could see
Just like I could

The one star under the rafter
Quivering like a knife in the creek

She was thin
And she made me think

Of music singing to itself
Like someone putting a dulcimer in a case

And walking off with a stranger
To lie down and drink in the dark

The first thing I noticed in a quick scan was a lack of punctuation. This drives me batty. I love this poem, don't get me wrong, but this really drives me batty, as it's one of the amateur tricks I've heard most. "I want people to get the rhythm on their own/I don't like punctuation/I'm a POET and I don't need no steenkin' rulez, bro." Does this lose anything at all by seeing the punctuation where it ought normally to fall? I think not.

The title--well, who knows what the title means? It's a poetic device meant to simulate depth. Another beginner trick. maybe. It's not just water, it's hidden water. So Stanford's got two strikes against him to begin with, in my admittedly impatient reading. I'm still willing to go on, though, into the poem itself, which is where the good shit is.

The first two lines are better than average: they present me with a somewhat unusual situation, girl in a wheelchair on a porch, ok-- and the lovely image of wasps swarming in the cornice. It's a detail that might get missed in another poet's observation--so many poems/poets seem to eschew or downplay natural detail in favor of philosophical abstraction or mere wordplay--and in this case the lines ground me fully in the world I'm about to inhabit for these fourteen lines.

The next stanza, the washing and combing of the girl's hair, is plain-languaged, completely without poetic flair, however you might choose to define that. Those are two complete sentences within those lines, esaily punctuated had Stanford chosen to, but the lack of punctuation begins to work for the poem here and against my initial prejudice. I read over it a couple times initially to be sure I hadn't missed something, and the non-rhythm, the adroit lack of breath-stop or other stop make me feel as if I'm in the hands of a poet with a rhythm all his/her own, and someone who's thought about why the words were placed in that way. It ought to be true of every poet, but I suspect it's not. I'm beginning to breathe with the poet now, trusting and hoping and waiting to see what will happen.

The next six words and two lines make the poem for me. Six simple words, unornate like the last stanza, but deftly placed in three-word lines, lead into the wonder and heart of the poem, those final stanzas. These six words can't prep you for what's to come and don't try, instead, they function more as an understated signpost, as if to say, you might think you know what's coming, but you don't. Language so simple as to be unpoetic, suddenly enlivened by expectation. That's how I characterize these lines, which bring us then to the meat of the poem.

The one star under the rafter
Quivering like a knife in the creek
Here is something new, an acutely observed image, the star spotted under the rafter (fine, but not revelatory or surprising, just good). But then, quivering like a knife in the creek. The movement of water over shiny metal, quivering. . .yes yes yes. Exactly. Beautiful, wonderful, great. I'm satisfied now. If I don't get anything else from this poem, I have an brainpain-cracking image that I can carry with me through the rest of my days. I have seen shiny metal in a crick, and this image looks right and more important feels right, the last bale in the corner of the mow. I am filled now for the duration of the poem and more, and if it gets better, as it does, I'll be fat and sassy and happy. I like fat, sassy, and happy.

I'll deal with the final three stanzas as a whole:

She was thin
And she made me think

Of music singing to itself
Like someone putting a dulcimer in a case

And walking off with a stranger
To lie down and drink in the dark
The first seven words/next stanza again unpoetic, simply an indicator, a bell for the striker of the next few lines to ring against for the remainder of the poem. "Music singing to itself" brings to mind other poems and works immediately, my whole history of reading and watching and seeing, for me, brought in by the next lines, and why I'll never be without a book in my hand. I think of Sexton's well-known poem Music Swims back to Me from ninth grade English, yes, and the sweltering summer of '92 when I read the first couple books of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time in the room I shared with my future wife's brother in their mother's home, and of my mother-in-law's recent death, and the poems we found among her journals when she died a month or so ago. I see the image of John Hammond Jr. playing a Robert Johnson song while sitting in an old boxcar, from the film In Search of Robert Johnson, and then the next two lines, lying down and drinking in the dark, which bring up first drinking Southern Comfort and cheap wine in a graveyard in Kutztown PA, and the woman I was with then, and how someday soon my eleven-year-old daughter will be out there in the land of half-soused and grab-assy young men like I was then, and the list could just go on. All brought back to me by the reading of this poem, which is not Stanford's best or most illuminating or complex, just one that does the trick for me of separating myself from where I am in the world while reading and putting me elsewhere. I want nothing else and nothing less from a book or a poem.

Monday, September 8, 2008

New Domain!

You may have noticed some kinks as we moved to http://www.friedchickenandcoffee.com. Sorry about that. Look for regular coverage to come soon.

Friday, September 5, 2008

None So Blind by Donna D. Vitucci

"You'll kill a plant if you touch it when you're bleeding," she told me. "Leaves will shrivel, fruit drop from the vine. Not just any blood. Mind me, I'm talking the monthlies."

Mama raised me up with superstition. In the way flowers strain to the sun, I grew in her direction of suspicion and doubt. Familiar shelter, all her spit-shine and country lore. As a girl who'd skipped her monthlies, too early for her own good at fifteen, I was dulled to shame by my error, so I caved to Mama's aggrieved face and capable arms.

"Learn from one who's been down that road," she said. Her pointer finger tapped her chest, hinting at a woman and a secret I'd not before considered. I glanced at the wedding band she wore.

She said, "We don't need people with their questions noseying in. Best to keep your condition under wraps."

Preston complained that Mama was holding me hostage, but don't you know her captivity appealed to me? Half the time I wanted Preston so bad my belly ached; the rest of the time I shuddered at what he and I'd set into motion. Such see-sawing made me sick. The doctor ordered bed rest my final months, he said Mama and I better enact a truce or there'd be hell, and extra hospital bills, to pay. The one time in her life she must have succumbed to outside demands. Our unsaid peace wobbled only when Preston rang from the National Guard and she disconnected his calls.

I reached out my arm and protested as she hung up the phone, "He just wants to offer whatever he can."

She arched her eyebrows. "I'd say he's labored over you enough."

Preston's ghost loomed in our doorway while what he'd given grew inside me, most tender of tender shoots. Along with my womb, he quickened my blood. We weren't marrying, but for me, there was no forgetting.

Mama wouldn't let us drive to the JP. She said, "You must be out of your mind, with that boy going over to the desert. You'd be wedding a corpse. Mark me."

Her prediction scalded me, and knowing how she banked on premonitions, I thought maybe this time she'd had some word from the other side, and so I told Preston, "Wait. Just let's wait."

Already on his way out of North Carolina, what could he do but lean into my plea and nod yes? He had a body language that superseded everything else the world threw at me.


"Cold hands warm heart," Mama said, chafing the bottoms of my swollen feet while I lay listless and lovelorn in bed, useful for nothing but the nursing to come. At my lowest, she sparkled her most cheerful.

She boiled the essence out of any root vegetable, turnips and rutabagas, in particular. Made the house stink for days, and only she ate it. God knows I had no appetite. What she didn't boil, she fried. Fried chicken, fried whitefish, fried oysters, fried pork chops with breading from crushed up saltines. In the refrigerator, a Crisco can held re-used grease she'd dip into.

I lay in bed, trapped by the fumes. Each day, some assaulting smell she brought to me on her skin: liniment, or Vick's Vapo-rub, Ivory soap, ammonia, scorched butter, moth balls. It took half the winter for our wool coats to shed the peppermint-dead odor from when she'd packed them away during summers. I worried my own child would suffer the shame of a smelly coat festering in his locker during winter school days. At dismissal, "What's that smell?" some kid would say, while he stood wriggling into stiff sleeves and mittens darned like socks. And, "Pee-you"
my baby taking it personal, the way I had.

When the time of my "confinement," as Mama termed it, reached its end, the hospital set me panicking for no other reason than antiseptic pinched my nose in the way moth balls did.

Nonsense, I know, but my mind linked moth balls with sterility. I waxed a little hysterical and they wouldn't give me anything for calming because of the baby.

After twenty-two hours labor, my hips were clearly not going to slide apart enough; they put me under, and cut. Mama acted like surgery canonized me. This was the one break in her lifelong relentlessness. To my maternity bed she brought daisies from the yard atop a wicker basket of belly bands to tie around my newborn's middle. "So his belly button doesn't pop out when he cries too much," Mama said. As if she expected me to let Luke lie there and wail, instead of grabbing him up to me every time he fussed and offering him my breast, which I alone could give.

Her eyes flickered while the baby latched on and my milk let down. "What?" I said. "It's what newborns cry for."

"That, or a changing," she said. She chipped at my motherly initiatives. We were back home, where she acted queen, and her words churned the bitterness in my abject heart.


When Luke, as toddler, suffered his grandma's scolding, she said, "A lie will black-spot your tongue. Boy, you remember I told you so." Half the time she wouldn't even use his name.

He gagged from hanging his mouth open too long, watching for his tongue to darken in my hand mirror off the dresser.

She gave me an eyebrow raised, implying, "See? He's got something to hide. Deceitful from the start."

She said, "You've got to be on watch with a child, or she'll pitch over to the devil's side with the first whiff of temptation."

"He," I said. "He."

I feared a little that Luke would grow up like me, lured by things requiring a lie: money left in plain sight, an open door, taste of fire. For me, the final blow had been the breadth of a man's shoulders, he and his warm proximity blotting out the sun. A sweet and final blow.

"Hell-bent," she said, "pure and simply."

Mama was the stake training my vine. I was tied to her, imprisoned or freed from my bed, ever directed by her strong will, twisted by choice not my own. I didn't have the gumption to get out from under her since my baby and I stayed with her while I worked at my GED. Once Preston returned from Iraq, I snuck out to him when I could with Luke, to let the daddy know his boy, to let me and him re-acquaint.

Doting on Preston and Luke, and faking out Mama when I had to, I didn't have it in me to seek employment, too. We survived on her social security and my aid for mothers with dependent children. I learned to complete all the government filings applicable. That alone took fortitude. Luke started stringing sentences around about the same time cancer robbed Mama of her voice box. "A babbling child can drive you crazy," I bet she'd say, if she could talk. And she'd declare me "slothful," watching me work a pencil on the forms across from her there at the kitchen table instead of accomplishing something more industrious with a cleaning implement or a yard tool in my hands.

When it got to the point she no longer walked, she rang a bell, the same bell she set beside me during my post natal recovery. I'd rung it into all manner of song and she'd still take her good natured time attending me. "Did I hear you calling?" she'd say, finally appearing, sweat on her brow and short of breath like she'd been running the laundry through a wringer when we both knew a perfectly good Whirlpool sat in the basement. Exasperated, I'd probably fallen into sleep by the time she showed up, maybe even wet myself. She'd cuss me up one side and down the other while she freshened my post-partum linens.

Now I changed the sheets. First her voice. Then her bladder and bowels. Working around a stubborn, unforgiving, voiceless woman—there's a difficulty. Faculties robbed from her one by one, you'd suppose she'd shrink with each loss, but she smacked me whenever I stood within reach. I ducked and dodged, finally got her bed proper.

I had help.

She couldn't talk but I heard her. What's he doing here, she wanted to know.

Luke's father, her most unwelcome guest, moved my mama's bones on the mattress. She was so weak she couldn't shrug him off as I knew she'd dearly love to. She saw Preston now anchored my vine, and her eyes blazed damnation.

"He keeps my knees from dragging the ground," I told her, still feeling like I had to make excuses but breezy in knowing she couldn't object.

The man beside me in this sick room stood stalwart to the very last. We held hands against the air, bad for breathing, pulsing erratic from Mama.

Knowing finally this was the time she couldn't fight and beat me, I said, "We have the Chapel of the Holy Spirit reserved second Saturday in April."

Maybe she thought I meant for last rites, but Preston and I were planning a wedding, with the sick room door clicked shut and her behind it, hanging on. Her eyes took the glazed and far-off look. I prayed aloud at her bedside to the angels she used to blaspheme. Her lips moved when mine did, the lines around her mouth engraved, her cheeks shiny over her bones. She was wearing her death mask and I wanted to let her know I would be all right.

I said, "Preston's here and he's staying."

She reared up like a cat in reverse, scariest thing I ever saw, her boney chest rising, her head deep in the pillow, neck nothing but tendons, her fingers gripping the sides of the fitted sheet. She could hiss, and she did.

"Yes, Preston," I said, stroking her down, hissing then myself. "Shhhhh."

She stayed rigid on the bed. Her drenched night shirt began stinking worse than usual. We didn't let Luke in until after the preacher and the doctor both pronounced it and the top sheet had been drawn. Then we sang hymns as families do.


After we married in the spring, Preston shouldered Mama's spade into the dirt where she rested, where I pledged to bury the seeds she saved. I shook them in their envelope, relishing them a little longer, with my boy, antsy as any toddler had a right to be, stomping my shoes.

"Quit your dancing," I said, holding Luke still by his slight shoulder.

Preston paused his work, cut the shovel's blade in the clay so the thing stood all on its own. He grasped the handle and stood tall—he might just have been stretching his low back, eyeing me with a need and judgment that shaved at the resistance she'd planted. We both knew Mama's every caution had become a flea trapped in my ear. He'd work no further, he said, until I released our boy.

Luke hop-scotched while I scattered seed by the handful. Preston enveloped him in a wrestler's hug, daddy and son shouting and cutting up in the over-watered graveyard grass, and I wanted to cross Mama to the both of them, but I froze, until Preston looked up from where he bent over Luke like a horse to his oats, and I swear, channeling a little of my mama's bite, said, "You got two strong legs. Now walk on over here."

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Donna feels very nearly southern, what with that Ohio River and Kentucky practically part of her back yard. On her mother’s side of the family every uncle and male cousin has been a truck driver. Before trucks they drove wagons, mostly ice deliveries to the bars in Over-the-Rhine, an inner city neighborhood in the heart of downtown Cincinnati.

Donna’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in dozens of print and online publications, including Natural Bridge, Hawaii Review, Meridian, Gargoyle, Broad River Review, Hurricane Review, Front Porch Journal, Beloit Fiction Journal, Storyglossia, Insolent Rudder, Turnrow, Night Train, Juked, Smokelong Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, and Ginosko.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Why I Send What I Do

Justin suggested in comments I talk a little bit about payment terms, as in why I sent certain books to the people I publish here, which seems like a good idea, as I've now finished packaging them for mailing tomorrow. Some submitters I've known quite well for years, others I know only by online association, others I really don't know at all. So I'm doing a little 'net research, and basing my choices for them on what they've written and what I can find about them.

First is Beverly Jackson. I've known Bev well since the late '90s online, we've published each other, and exchanged great swaths of email about our various projects and publications, so this choice was easy. I sent her Out of Canaan, a book I enjoyed a great deal, a collection of poems about growing up and growing wise(r) within a four-generation span of a Southern family. I know she's not reading poetry lately, though as you can see she's a fine fine poet, but I thought this book might be just her kinda thing. Hope you like, it, Bev.

Next up is Jim Parks, who I took three short-short stories from (so far). I know him only slightly, but he has stories behind stories behind other stories to tell, and I don't know if I've met anyone as serious about getting better as Jim. I know he lives in the southwest, and I know he was a journalist for many years. So I sent him Desierto, by Charles Bowden, a collection of nonfiction/journalism about the Southwest. I admire Bowden more than I can say for his maverick attitude--he's, uh, very male, in the Edward Abbey/Jim Harrison sense--and his sumptuous strung-out sentence structure (say that three times fast). I also, at Jim's request, sent a copy of my flash fiction collection.

Next is Dennis Mahagin. I wish he was still writing his blog,but he's not. Somebody kick him in the ass, would you? I know Dennis not all that well personally, though I've been reading him for years and he and I travel in many of the same cyber-circles with many mutual friends and an aura of respect for each other. I hope. So anyway, I sent him some fiction, Nothing Natural by Jenny Diski. How to explain this book? It's about s&m, yes, and about depression, sort of,and it's sexy in a sort of uncomfortable way, and I've not read much like it. And so in scanning my bookshelves to see what to send, I thought of Dennis.

Coming Soon: stories by Donna Vitucci and Mary Akers, more from Jim Parks, interviews with Silas House and Ron Rash, and all kinds of goodies I have yet to think of.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Jerry Reed Dead at 71

A sad day.

R.I.P., Snowman. Around the time of Smokey --linked as if you don't know it--seen below in the video accompanied by Jerry Reed's "East Bound and Down," like everyone else in the country, the Barnes family was into trucker lingo and Citizen's Band radio. While Mom and Dad hung out with Uncle Walt (not my uncle) and Mac, his wife, playing cards or shooting the shit, I would sit with their son Sid and draw pictures of the various tractor trailers we knew using washers and nuts to get perfectly round tires, and rulers for straight edges. Over those summers we must have filled reams of paper, every Friday night. My knowledge came from what my uncles drove, and I didn't always know what parts referred to what exactly, but I would watch Sid and mock up what he drew (he was a couple years older than me) and I was cool for assimilation. And I knew all the words to "Convoy" where he didn't, and that helped me fit in, too. I could probably still draw a cabover Pete if you forced my hand.

We would sit there and draw for hours--they didn't have a TV that worked--while the adults talked and drank beer and smoked, sassed around and told lies, and they would get so intensely into it that certain things like children would get ignored, and Sid and I would look at each other quick and slip outside to shoot BB guns at lightning bugs in the cool slip of the crick that ran through the gully behind their double-wide. When we got tired and sweaty we would quit and go back inside. Uncle Walt had a habit of picking up odd things and doing odder things, in his travels as truck driver and handyman, like bringing home old washers that sat gathering rust outside his house, bags of concrete, stray tile or shingles, even a set of what I later learned were lobster pots, though we were 300 miles from ocean, or the time he brought a monkey home for a ragged couple days, or the time he and no one else--not even my Ma--commented on the perfect loaf of turd the dog laid one night in the living room which everyone in the house steadfastly ignored. . . or the one time we went to a local gas-up.

Uncle Walt and Dad and a bunch of other men talked and swore and drank home-made liquor and wine and whatever beer was on sale, while in the near distance bearded old men with freshly painted engines and old Allis-Chalmers and Farmall tractors, all chuffing engines and adjusting belts while people watched. Children were everywhere and had carte blanche as far as behavior went, and 'it' went a long way toward explaining some things about girls, in my case, watching my teenaged brother and his friends slip off into the woods with red-head girls of their recent acquaintance to come back flushed and hitching at their drawers. But the incident I'm talking about involved a heated discussion about the size of some women's certain endowments and how they enhanced or did not enhance specific acts of love. I'm paraphrasing.

Uncle Walt, in the midst of this discussion, shook his big old gray head at the things said, sighed, pulled at his beer, and when the discussion reached a pitch, stuck his hand inside one of the two or three shirts he always wore and pulled out a very recognizable, but somewhat smudged, fake breast. 'Now boys, if she's got more titty than this, it's all a waste." 

Everyone broke up laughing and I wonder to this day why in hell Uncle Walt carried it that day. I mean, how could you know that subject would come up? I might admit to a fetish or two myself, but I don't carry the accoutrements with me to gas-ups, either, so I'm safe. Walt's still around--became part of the family through his nephew's marriage to my sister, in fact-- though I don't think he's a reader of this blog (yet) and he and my dad, for reasons unknown to me, don't get along now, but whatever. It's a thing I should find out for my own well-being and curiosity, this fake breast stuff.

That's the really interesting part of the story, but there's more to tell about how at night everyone up and down the mountain would sit around a CB radio and talk when a landline or visit would have been much easier and more private. I guess it harkened back for them to the days of getting easy gossip via public phone lines. I remember all our handles: I was Red Lightning, my sister was Pooh Bear, my brother Country Boy, dad Dragline, mom Dragonlady, the list could go on. A local kid got really into it and stole the Rubber Duck handle from the song Convoy and would sign off late at night with his call letters, "KHK9901, KHK9901, the Rubber Duck base." All around you'd hear the telltale double-click (chk-chk) of people depressing the handset twice in quick succession to tell the Rubber Duck that indeed, they had heard and acknowledged his sign-off. Then it would get quiet, and through my open bedroom window I'd hear the crick running, some crickets, the rattle of dog-chains, the occasional screech owl or car. I don't like to traffic in nostalgia normally--it's almost always an irreal emotional trap--but my kids here in Revere MA don't get that. Maybe they'll hear the fade of driveby radios and the melodic Arabic being spoken by the men next door as they gather on the deck and drink their coffee in the same way, but my fear is that they won't. I hope they're paying the kind of frenetic attention to life I was apparently paying to it in the '70s.

Though come to think of it, I might regret that. ;-)

Have some Jerry Reed, and be good.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Kindle or Something Like It by Dennis Mahagin

The girl who went
down on me while I tried to shave
standing over a sink at the Lonsdale
Hotel on Salmon Street
in Portland

Single Suites
By the Night Week or Monthly!

I remember
her round brown eyes,
and slow roll of shoulder
blade; her brow, wet
from the bath, all
that steam in there

and the heavenly dollops
of Barbasol lather falling
on her ponytail braid

like dogwood blossoms
on a mare's mane,

but I can't seem to pull
her name, I've been trying
to pull that sweet name
but it won't come

to me, I'm working the whole length
and breadth of memory, whittling it

down, slowly but
surely to either Shyla,
C.C. or Cherie.

It's bound to come
to me any second
now you can bet it's
fairly burning right
there on the very tip

of my tongue.

Dennis Mahagin is a writer from the state of Washington.
His PDF chapbook, entitled Bandini's Disco Usufruct, is
available for free download at Origami Condom.