Some books and authors discussed in this episode:
James Joyce: Ulysses / Dubliners / A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Originally published in Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal
Mama believed what we heard that night was a rat. The incident happened in late August of 1950, right before I entered first grade and not long after Daddy returned from his construction job on the Island of Okinawa. He’d been away for an entire year. While he was gone, we moved from Georgia to a small town in the foothills of North Carolina. The name of the town was Quicksand and we settled right in the heart of it—close to the school, the dry cleaners, the grocery store and the Methodist Church. The white frame house we moved into had two bedrooms, a breakfast nook, a big backyard with two water oak trees and rollaway stairs that led to an attic.
Mama rarely threw anything away for fear Daddy would call for it and this included moth-eaten clothes, outdated detective magazines, broken tools, pieces of fishing tackle, empty tobacco tins, work boots, belts missing buckles, buckles missing belts, burnt out bulbs from flashlights and anything else a person could imagine. When we moved, she brought all that stuff along and stored it up in the attic. We learned later that the attic was rat infested. Whenever Mama pulled down the rollaway stairs, I would scamper up behind her. In spite of the fact that I knew rat flea bites could prove fatal, I felt it was worth the risk to search through the cardboard boxes scattered around. To my neverending delight, photographs, letters, receipts and report cards had found their way to the attic along with my sister’s old evening gowns, empty pocketbooks, run down high heel shoes and outgrown bathing suits. Some boxes held dark secrets. My Grandfather shot himself through the heart but I might never have known if I hadn’t discovered the yellowed newspaper clipping hidden at the bottom of Othermama’s jewelry box that she’d stashed up there for safekeeping. Our attic could’ve been fun if it hadn’t been for the rats. Mama was scared to death of them; nobody else liked them either. The previous tenants reported that some grew as big as cats and dogs.
We were still trying to get used to Daddy’s return home. He’d never had a lot of patience but it seemed to me like everything got on his nerves. We’d all gone to bed that night and the house was pitch black. I slept in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. Snuggled up to Mama (we slept together in a double bed), I was almost asleep when I heard shuffling noises coming from somewhere above.
“Mama?!” I whispered.
“Shhh!” she said. We waited but didn’t hear anything else. I was almost asleep when the noises started again. I heard what sounded like somebody walking across the attic in heavy shoes. I heard each footstep come closer and closer. Under the covers, I grabbed Mama’s arm. Suddenly, I heard breathing. Someone or some thing was standing by our bed.
“Mama? Daddy?” a voice whispered. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was my big brother Jake. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “I think somebody’s in the attic.” Daddy slept on a single bed not far from the foot of Mama’s.
“Hush!” Daddy whispered, “listen.”
“Oh my God,” Mama whimpered, “Could it be a rat?”
“If it’s a rat, he’s wearing Daddy’s old work boots,” Jake said.
For a minute or so the only sound in the house was the beating of my heart. Then the noises started up again. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Now the footsteps seemed to be right overhead. I held on to Mama’s arm for dear life.
“D.W., should we call the police?” Mama whispered. Daddy’s answer nearly caused my heart to stop beating.
“Cut it out! Cut it out!” He screamed. Daddy had the loudest voice of anyone in the whole world. He could’ve been an opera singer or perhaps, as Othermama suggested, a hog caller. Following his shouts, the footsteps stopped and I felt safe—whatever was up there must’ve feared Daddy, too. Daddy ordered Jake back to bed. Mama started to say something but Daddy said, “Go to sleep now, goddammit.” As far as Daddy was concerned, the matter was closed. Why did he have to yell? I wondered. Why did he have to scare the footsteps off? Why didn’t he go up to see what was going on?
The next day my other brother Ben and I scouted around the house looking for tracks. A hard summer rain had fallen the night before and the ground was still muddy. The only tracks we found below the attic windows looked like a small dog had made them. We showed the tracks to Othermama. Recalling a ghost story that Gaga, my paternal Grandmother often told, I said, “Maybe these are cloven hoof prints.”
“Yeah, maybe the Devil came to visit,” Ben said. Othermama threw back her head and laughed. She had a laugh that everybody loved—it came from somewhere way deep down in her round belly. “He doesn’t have to come visit,” she said, “the Devil lives here.” Ben and I didn’t laugh.
Soon after we heard the noises in the attic, Mama got the phone book and called an exterminator. He put poison down and told her that her worries were over. The next morning, neighbors started calling. Estelle Jordan was the first to phone. Othermama said, “Calm down, Estelle, I can’t understand a word…but why should I shut the windows?” Next, Lenora Boovy called, sobbing. Lenora was an animal lover—took in the town strays. She also took too many Goody Powders according to Othermama. She had been known to house as many as thirty-five cats as well as ten dogs at a time—in addition to cages full of love birds, hamsters, parakeets and anything else that needed a place to stay. Estelle and Lenora claimed they witnessed rats diving out our attic window. My sister Rosebud shrugged at the news.
“I can’t blame those rats,” she said, “nothing in its right mind would want to live with us.” But of course, we all ran to see. We were looking up at the attic on the west side of the house when something that could’ve been a squirrel with a long skinny tail appeared in the window. It seemed to pause a moment as if thinking before it leaped off the ledge. Everybody screamed and jumped back but Ben. My brother never seemed to sense danger and didn’t jump fast enough. The rat almost landed on his head. By mid-morning, Jake had hauled six lifeless bodies in the wheelbarrow to the garbage dump for burning. Estelle and Lenora wanted Mama to call the police but instead she called the exterminator and begged him to please, come quick.
Estelle and Lenora, followed by a small crowd of neighbors, gathered in our yard that afternoon to hear what the man had to say. Othermama brought out a pitcher of iced tea and served it with a tray of her homemade lemon drop cookies fresh from the oven. The exterminator, a tall, skinny man who wore thick glasses and a hearing aid, explained in a loud voice that the poison he used kills fast and makes its victims gasp for air. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of a trembling hand. “This beats all,” he shouted. “I’ve been exterminating for years—thirty-five years, and I never knowed rats to commit suicide.” We waited silently while he gulped the rest of his iced tea. “My advice,” the exterminator concluded, looking up expectantly, “is to steer clear of them windows.”
“Damn, I could’ve told you that,” a neighbor standing behind me mumbled. Then the exterminator added, “I swear, I think this country’s headed for another combustion.”
“What’s a combustion?” The same neighbor mumbled. After the exterminator left, Mama explained to those still standing in the yard stuffing themselves with lemon drop cookies that he probably meant we were headed for another “depression.”
Rosebud, who had dressed up in a pastel pink pedal pusher outfit with matching sandals to hear the exterminator speak, wanted to call the newspaper with the story but Mama made her put down the phone
“You just want to get your picture in the paper,” Mama said. “I don’t need a reporter sticking his nose in our business.” Othermama always had the last word where Mama and Rosebud were concerned and she said, “In the name of Almighty God, let the rats die in peace.”
Although Daddy didn’t allow us to discuss it, I couldn’t help but worry about the visitor in our attic. Questions haunted me. Why had it come? Where did it come from? What did it want? Did the thing eat the poison, too? Had it jumped to its death and been hauled away and burned? Or, had it escaped? I never told anybody—not even Mama—but I suspected that whatever walked in Daddy’s boots that night might still be alive—hiding behind a box in the attic or hovering in a dark corner—listening—waiting to make its next move.
Actress and writer Diane Kimbrell has lived in NYC for many years, but was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. A list of her literary credits include The Raleigh Review, The Green Silk Journal, The Battered Suitcase, Dew on the Kudzu, and Deep South Magazine. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she also attended Columbia University and was awarded six Woolrich fellowships in writing. She also attended New York University earning credits towards an MA in Drama Therapy. Her cat’s name (a magnificent Russian Blue) is Athena.
Image: Flickr / Freaktography
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Check out some books and authors discussed in this episode:
Various: Stories from the Twilight Zone
Slow Day at the S. A.
At first the two girls had considered using a paperclip. They found one while rummaging underneath the cash register’s drawer, but when they straightened it out it didn’t look sharp enough to work. Its point was flat, and there was the fear that it might suddenly bend at an awkward angle when they tried to push it through. Next they had thought that a thumb tack they had pulled from a cork board in back might do the job, but it was only a stubby point far too short for the task at hand. Later in the morning they debated using a ten-penny nail they had found in a tool kit neither of them could remember seeing before, but decided that the hole it would leave might take days to close. Finally, Kayla found a long hatpin stuck in the lapel of a stiff cotton nurse’s uniform and both girls decided it was the best they could do.
“This will do nicely,” Kayla said, as she held the end of the hatpin to the flame of her cigarette lighter to sterilize it.
Both knew it was important to use something sharp. The night before Rachel’s brother David had told them a story about a kid he knew named Jackson. They had made the mistake of mentioning their project to him on the back porch when his stories of college hazing died down. He had told it like a campfire story which gave the girls the impression that he was trying to scare them. For his part, David had considered it a warning and told it only in the hope that it would take the thrill out of their plan.
David described Jackson as a real emo wreck, the kind of kid who worked hard to look as if he was always on the brink of tears. The two had met at a summer camp held at a local state university for gifted and talented high school students. For the first month Jackson never said a word to anyone, and spent most of his time alone in their bare dorm room mulling over French poetry. He was working on a paper about Rilke or some other mopey poet for college credit.
Halfway through their program Jackson had become obsessed with “new tribalism,” and David was sure it was because of a girl. He stretched out his ear lobes until they held obsidian rings the size of quarters. He branded his arms with a lighter and coat hanger as research for the essays he was writing about scarification. The program heads wanted to send him home, but somehow he got a paper accepted to a conference in the city so they turned the other cheek and began to encourage him. David had stopped in the telling at that point to lend room for a dramatic pause.
So after he had lifted welts on his arms and stretched out his ears to the point of needing cosmetic surgery, David explained, Jackson got into piercing. He put a bone through the septum of his nose. No matter what he did, the graduate students working with them thought it was interesting and profound. That is until the chicken bone incident.
With space to pierce at a minimum, Jackson had tried to push a chicken bone through the loose skin at the bottom of his neck. The problem was that it wasn’t sharp enough, or that it was too flimsy, David wasn’t sure which. Regardless, the end result was that the bone snapped in two and came close to putting a hole in his trachea. They had to take him to the hospital, and the program heads had to explain to his parents that they didn’t stop him because they saw value in his journey. “That’s what they called it,” David had explained with amazement showing in his eyes, “His journey.”
“So what happened to the girl?” Kayla had asked between bubble gum pops.
“What girl?” David responded.
“You said he did it for a girl.”
“I don’t know if there ever was one,” David said. “Maybe he was just hoping. Besides, you’re missing the point.”
After the hatpin cooled, Kayla went to the bathroom to retrieve a first-aid kit that was lying under a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines next to the sink. When she found it, she skipped back to the front counter and flipped it open like a magician opening a mystery chest. She had hoped to find everything one would need for home surgery, but frowned when the white aluminum case revealed only a half-full bottle of rubbing alcohol, two cotton swabs, and a few elastic bandages. She looked at Rachel leaning on her elbows from the other side of the counter, and gave a smile.
“Looks like we will have to make do,” Kayla said.
There was no one in the second hand store, which gave the two girls all the time they needed. Sundays were the slowest days of the week so they were the best days to work. Without customers the second-hand store became their clubhouse. They would eat tofu hot dogs Kayla brought from home next to the register, and drink green tea out of bottles decorated with Aztec designs which her mother bought by the case. When their conversation died down they would dress in uniforms that had been donated and pretend to rescue one another. If no firefighter or mall security shirts had come in that week, they would have trashy fashion shows to amuse themselves, strutting up and down the long scuff-marked isles wearing prom dresses and wedding gowns which had long since served their purpose and been abandoned in the name of spring cleaning.
Cow bells hung from the front door and if they rang out a warning the girls would race back to the storeroom laughing until they couldn’t breathe. Then whichever one could compose themself first would walk out front and ask the customer, “Can I help you?” It was a game, running from invading customers dressed in sheriff deputy shirts that hung to their knees, but today was different. Today was serious.
“Are you ready,” Kayla asked, her hand reaching out for Rachel’s.
“Of course,” Rachel said, noticing Kayla’s manicure which today had tiny green butterflies floating against the purple painted field of each nail. The girls walked hand in hand to the back storeroom, which was cluttered with shipping boxes and plastic garbage bags filled with ratty undershirts, to begin.
Sitting on a bag full of packing peanuts, Rachel slid her skinny jeans down to her knees and leaned back onto the makeshift beanbag chair. The vent in the duct work above her blew cold air onto her face and rumbled like a milkshake machine. Looking down at her pale legs, she watched blue veins line across her thighs they way they do on the back of an old lady’s hand, and wondered if someone bleeds less when they are cold. Kayla stood in front of her, stripping the packaging tape off of boxes before throwing windbreakers and suit coats to the floor.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” Rachel asked.
“No, wait. Here,” Kayla said, pulling out a pair of dungarees with the knees worn through. “I want to test it first.” With the jeans in hand, she folded one of the legs into a thick denim target. Then she thrust the hatpin in to it and pulled it out quickly. “I want to make sure it’s sharp enough. It has to go straight through.”
“We forgot something,” Rachel said as she pulled her jeans back to her hips. A knowing look came across Kayla’s face, and she followed her friend back out front.
The girls walked to the front of the store singing a song neither of them could remember all the words to. At the front of the store they squatted down behind the long wooden counter, out of sight of the windows and the people on the street, next to a locked metal cabinet. Kayla took a key the color of old pennies from the cash drawer and opened the door to the cabinet. At the count of three both girls pulled on the cabinet’s handle until it slowly swung open with a musty sigh.
The steel shelves inside the cabinet where stacked with boxes that could have once held baseball cards. At one time they had been white, but in the stale sunless air of the cabinet they had become a tainted pale yellow. The end of each box was marked with a permanent marker so that it was possible to know what was inside each without opening every one. The girls pulled out each box marked “Jewelry,” and eased the door shut again.
Kayla sat cross-legged on the tile floor and opened the first box as Rachel scooted on her knees beside her to see what was inside. “Now you can’t leave this in too long or it will turn you green. They’re all fakes.”
“Then why do they keep it locked up?” Rachel asked.
“I don’t know,” Kayla said, “Maybe some of them are real. I don’t think they know one way or the other. They won’t miss just one any way.”
Kayla leafed through the plastic bags inside the box with a frown. The rubber jelly bracelets and glass beaded necklaces were not what she expected to find and were completely wrong for the job.
“This box is a waste of time,” she said. “Open the one over there.”
Rachel picked up the box that had been pointed out and found much the same thing. Gaudy necklaces coiled around each other like pink and peach colored sea snakes. Rings the size of drink coasters fell to the floor, their polished imitation semi-precious stones shaking lose from where they had been set. Parts of wristwatches, mish-mashed together like Erector Sets, scattered like dice. “This is hopeless,” she said. “They should keep this junk in plastic eggs instead of baggies. They belong in claw machines.”
“Don’t be sad,” Kayla said. “I think I found just the thing.”
Hunched over a new box that sat on her lap, Kayla pulled out a pair of earrings that dangled from her hand to the floor. “How about these?” she said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rachel replied as she watched the sunlight move from the windows above them down onto Kayla’s new highlights before finding the crystal in the earrings she held.
“Just kidding,” Kayla replied as she rolled her eyes, and it seemed to Rachel that Kayla could never tell when she was joking. Whenever she tried to be sarcastic or funny, her friend would yawn or get serious as if she was never sure how to take her, as if she had the same distance that her older brother had, the one which made her feel young and silly. It was this dead zone of experience Rachel worked so hard to cross, to prove to her friend that although she didn’t have the benefit of a Prozac mother who didn’t care what her daughter did, she could still surprise her.
“How about these?” Kayla asked, holding up a pair of stud earrings. She had an air of boredom in her voice. It was a tone Rachel had heard many times before from Kayla’s mother. Rachel had gone shopping with the two of them in the past and seen her mother use the same dissatisfied tone when modeling skirts or push-up bras. It was a voice that let you know the things you were doing, which should be enjoyable, were becoming a chore. Rachel had wondered why Kayla even bothered to shop with her mother since it always devolved into tedious plodding from store to store with bitterness brewing out of sight, but she realized it must have been the only time the two of them spent together. All Kayla’s stories involving her mother occurred at a mall, a salon, a cruise. Kayla had told her once that her mother liked having her around because she was still young, but it also had the terrible side effect of reminding her mother that she was not. “It’s not so bad,” Kayla had said. “Everything with my mother is a terrible side effect.”
Rachel took the earrings in the palm of her hand then lifted them into the sunlight. “No. Studs won’t work,” she said. “We need a hoop. Not too big though.”
“Like this,” Kayla asked with a simple hoop earring in her hand. “We only need one.”
The girls agreed and made their way back to the storeroom with only a quick glance over their shoulders to make sure that the bells hanging from the front door were still in place. For now they were safe.
In the storeroom the girls lifted cardboard boxes filled with work pants and baby clothes off a Smurf blue sofa that had seen better days. They stacked the boxes on top of one another around the sofa until they had made a wall which gave them the privacy the job required.
With the sofa ready, the two girls explored the furniture that waited to be moved to the front, grabbing every lamp they could find. They plugged each lamp into the wall until they found three with good bulbs which they moved to the top of the cardboard wall by the sofa. A desk lamp lit up followed by a standing floor lamp and a pot-bellied aqua marine table lamp until the sofa was awash in fluorescent light. Unfortunately the sofa belonged in a dim room as the light bulbs burning above it only accentuated every cigarette burn and unidentifiable food stain left behind by its previous owner.
“Gross,” Kayla said. “We need sheets.”
From shipping boxes marked “Bedding” the girls pulled baby blankets out onto the floor. They searched through rust-colored sheets and bleach-spotted flannel ones until they found a set that was snow white. These they draped over the couch which gave it a better, if less than clinical, appearance. “Perfect,” Rachel said. With their operating room complete, the two girls turned their attention to the instruments at hand.
Kayla took the initiative to insure that everything was sterilized before they began. From the houseware isle she took a cut-glass punch bowl and brought it to the back along with the bottle of the first-aid kit. She then rested the punch bowl on the floor and emptied the bottle of rubbing alcohol into it before dropping in both the hatpin and the earring.
“Now at least you won’t end up like Caitlyn did,” she said looking up at her friend who nodded. Caitlyn was a girl the two had known in middle school. Her strict religious mother had banned her from getting her ears pierced, so she had done it herself one night at a sleepover with a sewing needle. Unfortunately for her she hadn’t known to clean the needle, or was in too much of a hurry to consider things like that, and ended up with a fungus which turned her ears the color of orange creamsickles for almost a year.
“What ever happened to her?” Rachel asked as she stood.
“Who knows?” Kayla answered. “Let’s just let this sit for awhile.”
As she looked down at the pin spinning in the punch bowl, for the first time Rachel took in the fact that this was no longer a game. She had liked the idea, but wondered what the reality of it might bring. Steadying herself she resolved to go through with it, fearing that she would never live it down if she changed her mind. She would remain two steps behind everyone she knew for the rest of her life, and she would not let that happen. For once she would be the first, and girls like Kayla would have to follow her lead.
“I’m ready,” Rachel said. “I just want to go to the bathroom first in case.” Her friend nodded toward her from the floor where she spun the bowl around to watch the pin dance.
While Rachel sat in the bathroom she read the same issues of Teen People that she had a dozen times before. The shiny new feel was gone from the pages, replaced by creases and crude comments about the super thin models Kayla had written in the borders. The things Kayla had written in magazines had made her laugh before, but now only added to her anxiety. Was she doing this to be a friend or just to see what it will be like? Will she make me one of her horror stories, and hate me afterwards for being the first? No answers seemed to visit as she washed her hands in the sink and prepared for what was to come.
In the store outside, Kayla pulled a V-neck nurse’s smock patterned with hurt teddy bears over her tank top. The girls laughed as she was the first nurse either of them had ever seen with a nose ring.
“What do you think?” Kayla said as she mimed dusting the shoulders of her new uniform.
“That will do,” Rachel answered.
Since no one had bothered to visit the store all day the girls got brave. Standing on a step stool Kayla turned off the radio playing good times oldies and pushed in a mix tape she had gotten from a boy she was secretly dating who was in a college band. The boy who Rachel had never met was further proof to her that Kayla was far more advanced in life than herself. When the tape started to play Kayla turned the volume up as loud as it would go until it was nearly impossible for either girl to think.
“It sounds like a trashcan falling down a stairwell!” Rachel shouted as she covered her ears.
“Noise rock!” Kayla yelled back as she jumped around. “Don’t you know about it?”
After a minute the music became too much to bear for Rachel. She shut the power off with a sigh of relief then offered her hand toward her friend.
“It’s time,” Rachel said.
“This way,” Kayla answered with her arms around her friend still playing nurse. “I’ve been expecting you.”
In the storeroom the instruments were laid out on a clean white t-shirt that had a Red Cross emblem sewn onto the pocket. The hat pin sat next to a wash cloth and the earring which shined like new. Rachel took her place on the couch as her friend fished around in the pockets of her jeans for a treat.
“Take these first,” she says handing two robin egg blue pills to Rachel. “They always help my mother relax.” Rachel swallowed the pills dry and tried to relax herself into the cushions. Reclined on the couch with her eyes closed she could only hear the sound of her pulse and the rustling of her jeans moving down her legs.
Kayla became more of a nurse as she watched her friend’s chest rise and fall in steady rhythm of someone searching for peace. She adjusted the lights positioned above, and pulled on opera gloves she had found which would have to take the place of latex surgical ones for the day.
“Before we do this,” Rachel said, “I want to make sure I will be the first.”
“You will be,” Kayla answered, the tone in her voice softening. “I promise.” The girls discussed everyone at their school who had their belly buttons pierced, every person with a lip ring or surgical steel ball sticking out of their cheek, until they were satisfied that it was true.
“You need to take those off,” Kayla whispered as she pointed toward her friends panties. They said “Wednesday,” but she warned her a long time ago that no one was ever supposed to wear them on the right day.
“You’re right,” Rachel answered, then stopped with a new idea offering salvation. “What if we did my boob instead?”
“In Jamaica my sister says it costs almost two-hundred dollars to get your boobs pierced and that doesn’t include tip,” Kayla said. “You have to tip for everything there, even toilet paper.”
“We’re not in Jamaica,” Rachel said.
“OK, but a junior girl got hers done last week. I heard her mom signed and everything. Plus you don’t want to end up like Hunter.”
“What happened to Hunter?” Rachel asked.
“Well,” Kayla said scooting closer. “I’ll tell you.” Rachel watched her friend’s eyes turn white as grains of minute rice and her cheeks begin to glow as if she had a mouth full of juicy fruit. It was the look of pure delight she had every time she began one of her suburban horror stories.
“Hunter pierced his own nipple, but he went too deep or something,” she began. “It always got infected so he had to take it out. When he took it out it left this BB of scar tissue that looked like a third nipple, right? Well, one night he was picking at it when he was really high and it came off, but there was this string attached. He sat and flipped the string for awhile but it wouldn’t come off so he cut it. The next day he woke up in the hospital. It wasn’t a string after all, but some nerve that attached to his heart. He had a heart attack right? No lie.” Kayla smiled wider as she placed the white cotton “Wednesday” on the floor. Then she picked up the pin. “Try to relax.”
There was no way to get comfortable on the couch as every way Rachel moved pushed her back into a different spring or into the wooden frame. With the help of her friend, she lifted her right leg into position on the arm rest and began to breathe the way she was taught to in yoga class. Both girls fell silent as the echo of focused inhalations and exhalations filled the room.
Opera gloves moved onto Rachel’s thighs as the veins in her legs turned blue as ice packs, and the feeling of swallowing a snowball ran down the center of her body.
“Hold it.” Kayla whispered to the sound of her friend pushing the air out of her lungs. “Hold it.”
When the pin entered her, the snowball inside Rachel boiled away as her body became electrified. The moment had passed, and she had passed the test. From the floor Kayla stared at her friend with glassy jealous eyes.
“Promise not to tell,” Rachel asked when she could speak again.
“Of course,” Kayla answered. “See how much I love you.”
The two girls hugged one another as the bells from the front door rang out.
Michael Wayne Hampton is the author of three books. His criticism, essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications such as Atticus Review, The Southeast Review, 3AM Magazine, and Fiction Southeast.
In 2013 he won The Deerbird Novella Prize, and in 2012 his work was nominated for Best American Short Stories. In the past he has been a semi-finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, and a two-time Finalist for the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest. In 2014, he was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award.
In the summer we went camping at the hot springs in the desert and Kelley took her clothes off because my dad said it was beautiful for her to be naked in nature. Then my dad kicked off his shorts and strode around our campground, beautiful with a beer in his hand. I put on my American flag bathing suit. They laughed at me and my dad said I was just like my mom. I figured that was an okay way to be.
Kelley and my dad held hands a lot, looking at each other, kissing with their tongues. They’d smoke sweet cigarettes in the tent, smiling and holding their breath and then they’d laugh and laugh. I wanted to laugh too, but I didn’t understand what was so funny. We walked down to the edge of the hot springs where the water smelled like old Easter eggs.
After that summer my dad took me to their empty house where I ran from room to room, my footsteps echoing off the tile floors. There was only a hard mattress with tangled black sheets in the bedroom. My dad said it was called a futon. He showed me how his bedspread was like a giant pillow case and told me it was called a duvet, and that it was hand-blocked from India. He told me how Kelley had a lot of emotional baggage and so she had hang ups. He said he wasn’t going to enable her crazy-making any more.
The house was empty because Kelley had moved out and she’d taken all the furniture since it was hers before they lived together. My dad said he had left his real furniture with my mom and me, so now all he had was a futon and a duvet. He said things were hard for him because he kept losing things to his exes. Then he told me that he sure hoped I appreciated living in a house with furniture.
The next time I saw him he’d moved to a small apartment and painted the bathroom walls black to match his sheets, and planted pansies in the strip of dirt on the edge of his patio. There was a pinball machine next to the kitchen table that I wasn’t allowed to touch. He told me he was getting his head together, getting in touch with his needs and that he was getting honest. He talked to me about the importance of yogurt and the mind body connection. He showed me things he’d bought like granola and books about meditation. Now there was always a glass of orange juice and a bottle of vodka on the counter in his kitchen next to bags of pills that he said were good for him. The pungent smell of vitamins was everywhere. Mugs stained with Sanka were left in the kitchen sink.
I liked his apartment because I could roller skate on the smooth sidewalks around the courtyard. I went around and around until it got dark and I saw the lights go on in his window. When I came in from roller skating, he was sitting at the kitchen table in a brown velour track suit. The apartment smelled murky and heavy, warm and sweet like springtime. I thought that he’d been crying because his eyes were red. Maybe he was sad about Kelley.
The next day he took me to a record store on Melrose in Hollywood, and he pointed to a closed door in the back.
“Smell the pot?” he asked quietly, grinning and gesturing to the back room.
I couldn’t smell it and I kept saying, “I don’t smell it.”
And he laughed at me because it was so strong, how could I not smell it, and I kept saying I didn’t know what he was talking about.
All I could smell was my dad.
Erin Parker won her first Creative Writing contest when she was 11, and has been writing ever since. Her work has been published by Uno Kudo, Red Fez, Drunk Monkeys, Cadence Collective, Lost in Thought, Timid Pirate Publishing, The Altar Collective, Santa Fe Lit Review, Silver Birch Press and Lucid Moose Lit’s anthology Like a Girl: Perspectives on Female Identity. Erin was a finalist in the 2012 NGR Literary Honors contest, was nominated for Best of the Net 2014, and is an editor for Uno Kudo and JMWW. The Secret and the Sacred is her first book. Visit her online at erinkparker.com
Buy Apocalypse Chronicles from Almond Press to read the full story HERE.
The Rosebud (excerpt)
Every illumine thing hid in darkness. The blackout swept throughout the city like a disease of emptiness from which no one was immune. I looked up at the night sky from the office window and couldn’t even see the stars, or the moon. There was nothing, not even a falling satellite to signify that something had gone wrong in the world.
I never thought such a thing would have been possible, that the universe, or at least all visible machinations of it, could have just faded away without any fallout involved. It was like someone had just turned off the switch.
And it was gone.
I heard chairs spinning on their stalks, as people ebbed and flowed through doorways, pushing their way through the crowded darkness and panting with a maddening fever. Some people were trying to see things out of the office windows, but most were too alarmed to want to see the blackness that had graced the winter evening below.
The snow had been piled high in the streets, but it remained unseen and unlit by the absence of the streetlights. The only light inside the office came from the two candles that an older lady called Edna, had placed in front of the large windows of the office.
The faint, flickering light from the candles highlighted just how inaccessible the office floor had become, how silent the office seemed to fall once fear had bitten people’s excited tongues.
But of course there had to have been one voice to rise above the din of quietude, and that was Harold: a man of sixty-years of age and close to retirement. He wept like a little kid at first, pleading for salvation, pleading for hell to leave him alone, but even his cries were eventually silenced by the simple presence of Jacob by his side. I think everyone was pleased once he had quieted down, but then in the relative silence that followed, they had to contend with their own inner voices.
I saw Jacob approach me in the half-light that sat between candles. He placed his lips close to my ear and asked for me to follow him. Everyone else remained quiet, as if their lives were temporarily on pause, indifferent to the turning of the Earth and the spaces between us.
Not one of them followed us as we went out into the stairwell, and I think Jacob preferred it that way. I sensed he didn’t want to disturb the entire group, for he seemed much happier to leave them in their own separate terrors.
‘They don’t get it,’ he said as we felt our way along the wall, touching with the tips of our shoes to find our bearings.
I only nodded, for the darkness had taken my voice, but I felt he could see deep into my soul and sense my inner fears.
We continued to finger our way along the wall, feeling for the first step and the start of the railing. The air inside the darkness was no longer free moving. It felt like everything was frozen in place and our movement was against the world’s wishes.
To help us find our way in the darkness, we held hands as we moved along the railing. I occasionally knocked his foot, but the sound was muted and hollow.
I didn’t think the first flight of stairs would ever end. I counted every flight, knowing that there should have been at least twenty of them before we reached the ground floor. We didn’t say anything as we made our way down, but instead we let the darkness seep into us. When we did finally reached the last stairwell it didn’t feel like it was the true bottom, for it didn’t unburden me from the nightmare.
‘This is it then. I guess we better find the downstairs lobby,’ Jacob said coolly.
I held his shoulder as we edged along the wall towards where we remembered the door to be. The texture of the walls didn’t seem quite right, but then nothing seemed the same. I think Jacob sensed it too. Hollow sounds and tactile fingers were the only way to discover such a new and strange world.
And then a thought came to mind, ‘Jacob, why didn’t we take one of the candles from the office?’
‘And leave those people in even more darkness?’ He replied simply. I pinched his shoulder then, for I was annoyed that he had placed their need for the candle above our own. I saw us as explorers of a new world, and in that world nothing seemed right or wrong, but leaving the candle had annoyed me.
The door creaked on its hinges as we opened it up, but then once the sounds had hurried down the corridor, like sweeping dragons in flight, all that was left was an empty silence.
‘Is anyone there?’ I shouted, expecting to have found others congregating in the corridor that led to the lobby, but unless the silence was a message, there was no reply.
Once we had confirmed the lobby and corridor was empty, we felt the coldness closing in around us. I had felt the heat in the stairwell rising up like a demon phantom heading for the roof, but down on the bottom floor, it was as if all of the heat had been sucked out of the air. The only warmth I felt was from Jacob, but his skin was get- ting colder by the second. I visualized the foggy halos billowing from our panting mouths, unseen in the cold dark.
That is how I saw us, unseen but still existing, and in that thought I envied my work colleagues above. Their warmth would have warmed me much more than the faint brushes I felt of Jacob’s skin. I wondered if perhaps they knew the misery that was to follow us, and that was why they stayed where they were, sat around the two candles, like still bodies in a morgue.
‘Jacob where are we going?’ I asked.
He didn’t reply, as he was busy trying to imagine where the corridor ended, and whether we had already reached the lobby. It wasn’t until I heard the sound of four wooden legs momentarily being pushed over a marble-effect floor that I knew we had reached the chair where the guard normally sat.
‘We’re in the lobby now,’ Jacob said, though he whispered it through his teeth as if he was scared we were not alone.
‘We should find the exit,’ I whispered.
What I really meant by that statement was that I wanted to get outside, for I imagined by instinct that there would be light outside of the building, or at least some hint of it, and in my blindness I was frustrated and scared, emotions I could have always controlled in the past.
By reaching for a switch, I’d normally find light, by reaching for a candle in the darkness of a blackout, I would have been blessed with the faintest flickering version of it, and if all else failed, there would be the moon, or at least the faint outline of it trying to break through the clouds. But this was very different. Even though I craved the out- side and wanted to be away from the internal walls of the building, I also knew deep down inside that barring the candles, if any more could be found, none of those illumine things now existed.
The moon and the stars were gone, the streetlights had all failed, the backup generators across the entire city had not kicked in, batteries in cell phones were dead, lights on watches had failed, and car batteries must have been flat, for from the top of the building we had not seen any headlights roaming about in the darkness.
It seemed that every glimmer and glint associated with some kind of light source was gone. The waves of light, that used to be as common as the air we breathed, had simply become extinct in all things except the humble candle. In short it felt as if hell had clashed with heaven, and we were caught somewhere in between, experiencing the worst of both worlds.
‘What shall we do now?’ I asked.
‘Like you suggested, we find our way to the exit and get outside,’ he clutched hold of my hand and shook it as if to emphasize his point, ‘that’s at least how I dreamt it.’
I gripped his hand until I heard him whimper slightly under the strain.
‘What do you mean?’ I whispered. ‘Are you telling me you had a dream that this would happen?’
‘You don’t understand. I have dreamt of things my entire life, things that have come true over and over, from people dying, to important people being born. There are not many things that I haven’t conceived of in my dreams. It’s as if my dreams are the closed bud of a rose, and the truth is merely the opening of the flower, the reality sprung into life, a reality that was always there, a reality that was always going to happen unless the rosebud died.’
‘You mean you’re letting me think a thousand desperate thoughts about what has happened, and you knew all along?’
I could sense him shaking his head, or perhaps it was the strong inhalation and the desperate sound of his lungs expanding that made me aware of my mistake.
‘No!’ he said, ‘in my dream I saw this darkness, but in it there were glints of light, and the stars were shining, serving as a backdrop to the full moon. In my dream the world’s financial markets had crashed, and the Internet had been taken over by elite gangs. They had man- aged to take over the world’s economy.
‘That’s why I told you on the roof that there wasn’t enough paper. Imagine a world where criminals controlled the world’s electronic wealth. That’s why I accompanied you that day.
‘I had overheard people from your floor talking about your gam- bling addiction, and I figured if I had followed you I might just have stopped you from jumping, for I had an awful dream in which I was looking down at you from the top of the building. Your body had landed on a passing taxi and there was blood splattered everywhere. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, that your debts would have been meaningless in light of a world without money.’
I thumped the wall and felt my cold skin bruise in the darkness. ‘So why didn’t you alert someone, or do something to stop this from happening?’
‘Because the world wouldn’t listen, and not only that, I didn’t know how they would do it, I only knew that there was a possibility it could happen. But this isn’t exactly a financial meltdown, is it? No, this is something else entirely, something even more sinister.’
I slid down the wall I had been leaning up against until my buttocks touched the cold floor beneath me. ‘So you didn’t dream this scenario?’
‘Hell no, I didn’t dream this!’
I shook my head. ‘So the rosebud died.’
‘I guess so.’
We were silent for a while. The idea that he had dreamt of so many future truths seemed absurd to me at first, but in the thickening haze of my mind, and as the hours of unending darkness passed, I started to believe it might have been true. In a world cast into total darkness, it wasn’t hard to believe in the unimaginable, for that was just a word, and I realized in that darkness there was nothing so finite and absolute as to not be imagined.
As if everything else that had happened was not enough, I would soon find out that his presence would only accompany me for a few more seconds before he would be taken from my grip.
I felt him being pulled away by a force the likes of which I could never even imagine. All I could hear was his body sliding away from me.
Into dust, into obscurity, into silence, into darkness, were the short phrases that flashed through my mind.
P D Dawson has had his work published by Almond Press, Under the Bed, Beyond Imagination Literary Magazine, Earlyworks Press, Schlock! Webzine, and HCE: Here Comes Everyone Magazine. His stories have appeared in two books, both of which were published by Almond Press. One is Broken Worlds, a collection of dystopian stories, and the other, Apocalypse Chronicles, a collection of stories about the end of the world featuring his winning story “The Rosebud.”
The artwork featured with this story is by graphic artist and painter Allen Forrest, born in Canada and bred in the U.S. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas.
Books and Authors Mentioned or Discussed in This Episode:
Ben Nadler: The Sea Beach Line
Primo Levi: Moments of Reprieve / Survival in Auschwitz / The Periodic Table
Dino’s back was sore from sleeping on the hard subway seat, and even though he’d just started his day, he felt exhausted. The couple times he’d gotten into a really deep sleep during the night, a cop came through the car and jabbed him with his club until he sat up. Then, before he knew it, rush hour was starting and he had to get off the train. It was still mainly union guys, retail workers, and nurses when Dino exited the Union Square station, but if he had waited another forty-five minutes the trains would be packed full of white collar commuters.
Dino wasn’t sure if he had vomited the night before—he had blacked out—but he felt the burn of bile on the inside of his throat and figured he probably had. Either way, his stomach was empty now, and he needed to get some food in it. Not to mention a drink or two to get rid of the usual morning hangover. The dollar-store shades he put on when he came above ground did nothing to block the sun’s early morning rays.
There was an ATM at the supermarket on University Place where Dino could get his cash benefits. His case worker had gotten him a temporary $170-a-month emergency cash assistance grant, but this was the last month. He had forty dollars left on the account, and he needed to make it last as long as he could. He would take out a twenty, because he needed beer money and subway fare, and save the other half.
Dino also had a little bit of food stamp credit left on the Electronic Benefit Transfer card, and his plan was to buy a loaf of bread, some sliced American cheese, and some bologna while he was at the grocery store, and make some sandwiches to last the next couple days. He’d pack the sandwiches right back into the bread bag. They’d be a little sweaty by the end of the second day, but there were enough preservatives in the food that it didn’t really matter. He only had about ten dollars left in food stamps, but that would work. The store-brand sliced meat packages were pretty cheap.
But then again, it was Tuesday, so there would be a hot lunch serving at the Jewish Center in the afternoon. And there was a deli on Sixth Ave. which was willing to ring up four tall cans of Steel Reserve malt liquor as ten dollars of food stamp-approved groceries.
Dino swiped his EBT card at the ATM. He felt like a regular citizen. No one knew he wasn’t using a regular debit card. No one knew he didn’t have money in the bank. He typed in his pin code. It was his birthday, 71670, because he had wanted to make sure it was something he could remember. Forty-four years old. He was pretty sure he still had the whole forty dollars, but he had a vague feeling that he’d gotten another ten dollars from a cashier for booze when he was already drunk. He hit “View Balance,” and waited for the number to pop up on the screen.
“Your Available Balance: $200.”
Dino couldn’t believe his eyes. It must have been some kind of mistake. Well, of course it was a mistake. The state had issued a second $170 payment for the month. There was only one thing to do: withdraw the full $200 before they could take it back. There might be repercussions later, but this wasn’t later. And what could they do, dock his nonexistent future payments? Send the revenuers to an address he didn’t have to collect two bills? Dino was astounded at his good fortune. He giggled like a schoolboy at a peep show when the machine coughed up his ten twenties.
He wanted to buy himself a whole case of beer, and drink them one by one. He wanted to buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. He wanted to buy a three-foot meatball sub. He wanted to buy a sirloin steak with a double-order of mashed potatoes on the side.
First, Dino knew he had to go find Rita. She wouldn’t forgive him if he went off celebrating without her. But he knew better than to come empty handed. He went to the deli and got two egg and cheese sandwiches and two large coffees with cream and sugar. Then he went around to the liquor store, which was just opening up for the day, and bought a pint of Mr. Boston Blackberry Brandy. He could think about that case of beer later; right now he just needed the little something to take the edge off.
Rita was right where Dino guessed she’d be, in the little nest of benches in the southwest corner of Washington Square Park. Sometimes they spent an hour or two circling their regular haunts, trying to find each other, but today everything was falling into place. Rita was drinking from a paper coffee cup, and scowling at the college kids. Dino knew that the cup was filled with Steel Reserve, and that she had a twenty-four-ounce can of the stuff in a paper bag under the bench.
“Morning, honey,” Dino said.
“What the hell do you want, Dino? I mean, is there something I can do for you?” He came and sat down next to her. The bench looked in on another three, making a private square within the public square, and this time of year there was a full canopy of trees to give them shade.
“Nothing, Rita. I don’t want nothing from you. I just wanted, you know, to see how you’re doing?”
“I’m fricking tired. That’s how I’m doing. I thought we were going to sleep on the subway together last night, look out for each other. But your drunk ass disappeared at Herald Square. I didn’t get to sleep at all. I had to sit up all night, to make sure I didn’t get rolled or raped.” She looked over at him for the first time. “What happened to your eye? You mouth off to some kids and get your ass beat again? Whatever, serves you right.” He put his hand to his eyelid. It was sore to the touch and puffy, but he didn’t know why. Rita refilled her cup of Steel Reserve.
“I’m sorry, Rita. I know I act stupid sometimes. But you know I wouldn’t want something to happen to you.”
“Yap yap yap.” She fluttered her thumb against her fingers like an opening and closing mouth. “I’m tired of your crap. Go eat a bag of dicks.”
“I brought you some breakfast, Rita.”
He took the sandwiches out of the bag and handed her the one with a “P” written on the foil in black permanent marker.
“Egg and cheese. I got sweet peppers on yours, ‘cause I know that’s how you like it.”
“Peppers is fifty cents extra.”
“It’s okay. I got this money today.” He couldn’t help but grin as he showed her the bills. “Let’s spend it.”
“Did you steal that?”
“Nah. It just sort of, you know, fell into my lap.”
“Okay, Dino.” She smiled. “So let’s spend it. But do me a favor? Don’t use it to get drunk too fast. It won’t be fun. I don’t want you to ruin things like you always do.”
“Okay?” She’d been expecting an argument.
“Yeah, okay, I won’t get drunk today.”
“You really going to stay sober?” She still didn’t sound convinced.
“Yeah. Just for today. Today’s going to be a good day.” Rita stood up and tossed the rest of her Steel Reserve in a trash can, and took one of the coffees from Dino.
“What do you want to do first?” he asked.
“Honestly, I want to go to the Laundromat. I showered at the Y yesterday, but then I had to put on the same dirty clothes.” She patted the athletic bag next to her on the bench. “All my clothes are dirty. My socks, panties, everything.”
“Okay,” Dino said, “The Laundromat it is.”
Dino had stashed his own backpack at the used DVD store on Third Avenue where his buddy Kevin worked. Kevin was annoyed that Dino had left his bag for three days, instead of the agreed-upon one day, but Dino gave Kevin ten bucks for the hassle, and they were friends again.
Dino and Rita changed into their most ragged clothes in the Laundromat’s bathroom, and washed everything else. Dino free-balled it, and put his sneakers back on with no socks, so he could wash all his socks and underwear. They stayed in the Laundromat for the whole two hours. They couldn’t risk leaving their entire wardrobes unattended. Besides, it was easier and safer to hang out in the Laundromat than on the street. Out there, there was always someone to hassle them: a cop, or an NYU security guard, or someone Dino owed something to, or another street person who wanted something from them, whatever small thing they had. In here, you just had to pay your quarters, and then they left you alone. The Laundromat had big speakers mounted up on the wall, and the woman who ran the place was playing the classic rock station, songs from when Dino was a kid.
From time to time he went into the bathroom to take a few sips of the Mr. Boston, so he wouldn’t shake, but he didn’t drink so much that he got messed up. He got a pack of gum from the newsstand outside to cover his breath.
Dino and Rita changed into clean, still warm clothes, then folded the rest of their laundry, wrapped it in plastic trash liners, and packed it in their bags. The afternoon was hot and sticky. It wasn’t much fun to be out in, and they didn’t want to get their clean clothes all sweaty. They decided to go up to the movie theatre off Union Square, and catch a matinee.
When the man in the jacket and tie approached them in the lobby, Dino was sure he was going to throw them out into the street. But no, he just wanted to take their tickets. He ripped the tickets Dino had paid for, and smiled at them.
“Enjoy the show, folks,” he said, like he would to any other customers. The movie was something silly, an adventure about a regular schmo with an office job and a mortgage who finds out he has super powers. Dino wondered what it was like to be a regular schmo. There were some good jokes, zippy one liners between the superhero and the supervillain. Dino and Rita both laughed.
After the film, they went into a teenybopper store on St. Mark’s Place. Dino remembered when the street had been full of punk rockers, but now it seemed to be mostly rich Japanese kids with poser punk haircuts. Dino bought Rita some chunky plastic bracelets, and a necklace with fake emeralds. Rita knew the cheap jewelry was silly, but it made her feel pretty. She was pretty, when she smiled. Maybe not pretty like she’d been when they’d first met, nine years ago, but still damn pretty. Dino didn’t know what had happened over that time, if they had dragged each other down, or kept each other from falling down further. He hadn’t seen her smile for a long while, but she sure was smiling today. She insisted on buying a pewter skull ring for him. They walked by the bars on First Avenue, and Dino thought about throwing in the towel and drinking a couple pitchers, but instead he got them two chocolate egg creams from Gem Spa. They sat and drank them in the old brick cemetery yard of St. Mark’s Church.
It was starting to get dark. There was no way they were going to sleep on the train when they still had some money. Between those hard plastic seats, the cops giving you a smack and a ticket for stretching out and putting your legs up, and the hood rats trying to empty your pockets, or worse, sleeping on the train was hell. Sleeping outside was just as bad, now that the police enforced the midnight curfew on all the city parks. But Dino’s cash wasn’t really enough to get them a room in Manhattan, these days. There was cheap hotel in Staten Island where they crashed sometimes, and Dino had heard about some rooms you could rent by the night in the South Bronx, but neither of them had the energy to take the ferry or wander through the ghetto. There was a twenty-four-hour internet café on the third floor of a building in Chinatown where you could rent an easy chair by the hour and take a nap. Why not spend the night there?
Dino bought a twenty dollar metro card—which was worth it because you got the dollar bonus—and swiped them both in. The train ride on the local only took a few minutes. They could’ve walked it, but why walk when you can ride? The whole time, Dino thought about how happy he was to not be sleeping on the train that night.
They went to a dim sum place on Mott Street for dinner, because Dino wanted to get a whole bunch of plates on the table, and make it feel like real feast. He was especially happy to order the money bags. When the food came, Rita wanted to ask for a fork, but Dino insisted on showing her how to use the chopsticks.
“Where’d you learn how to do this?” She asked.
“Navy.” He rolled up his sleeve and tapped the anchor tattoo on his bicep.
“Oh, yeah. I forget you were in the Navy.”
“Me too, sometimes.” His discharge had been other than honorable, and he didn’t receive any benefits. “I was real young.”
“Did you sail to China?”
“I imagine that would’ve started a war if we had.”
“Oh, right.” They were both pretty up on current events. They spent rainy afternoons in the public library, reading newspapers. “Japan, then, maybe?”
“Just Hawaii,” he admitted. “But they got plenty of Japanese and Chinese food down there.”
They ate more than their fill, but there was still some food left on the table. They hated to leave it, but there was no way for them to refrigerate it, and lugging little pieces of meat and fish around on a warm June evening wasn’t a great idea. They were both tired, and decided to head over to the internet café.
It was five dollars an hour to rent a chair. That didn’t sound like much, but the man at the counter wanted six hours in advance, since he knew they were going to spend the night. Double that for two chairs, and the bill was sixty dollars. After he paid the man, Dino had less than twenty bucks left.
He went in the men’s room. He took the last slug of Mr. Boston, and threw the empty pint bottle in the trash. He’d made it last all day. He’d need more tomorrow, but he didn’t need anything tonight. He took the last few bills from his pocket, and tucked them in his sock He pissed in the urinal, then washed his hands and face with soap from the dispenser. When he came back out, Rita was already laying back in her chair with her eyes closed.
Dino sat down in his own chair next to her. The plastic upholstery could be sticky on your skin, but man, it sure was softer than those bucket seats on the subway. Dino reached over to hold Rita’s hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she let him take it. Their hands rested together on the chair’s big arm.
“Rita?” He said.
“Yeah?” She answered sleepily.
“Don’t you know, honey, that you’re my best girl?”
Ben Nadler is the author of the novel The Sea Beach Line, published this past fall by Fig Tree Books. His previous works include Punk In NYC’s Lower East Side 1981-1991, which was the inaugural volume in Microcosm’s Scene History zine series, and Line & Hook, a collaborative chapbook with the visual artist Alyssa Berg. More about Ben and his work can be found at bennadler.com
Image: Flickr / Bob Mical
Here at The Other Stories, we’re invested in our authors – that is, the authors we’ve featured in the past (and the ones we’ll feature in the future!). We hope you’re interested in seeing what the authors that we’ve interviewed have been up to, as the list below has some of our talented authors’ new and upcoming publications. Click through the links to find out more about the pieces!
Will Heinrich (episode 19): “The Deadly Comedy of the Israeli Border Patrol in the Cave of the Patriarchs” and “Finding Dark Humor in the Plight of the Feminist Artist,” published in Hyperallergic.
Jacob M. Appel (episode 26): Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, a short story collection to be published by Black Lawrence Press in August; The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, to be published by Howling Bird Press in November.
Anne Whitehouse (episode 36): “On the Osa,” first-prize winner of RhymeOn! 2016 sponsored by Loudoun County Public Library; “One Summer Day on the Number One Train,” a winner of the 2016 Common Good Books’ poems of gratitude contest.
[N.B. 2: Early yesterday morning a man born in the USA, where homophobia and transphobia are proudly incorporated into legislation, whose parents are from Afghanistan, which the USA has occupied since 2001, which has fueled the rise of the Islamic State, to whom the man pledged allegiance in a 911 call made after obtaining a permit for and legally purchasing an AR-15, while he was using that assault rifle to kill at least 50 men and women and wound 53 others at an LGBTQ bar in Orlando, Florida—a city in a country in which queer men (and people who’ve slept with queer men) are only allowed to donate blood of if they abstain from having sex with other men for a minimum of 12 months.
This was the largest mass shooting to date in a country that has seen over 1,000 mass shootings since a white man used, in addition to other firearms, a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle to kill 6 adults and 20 kindergarten students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012. To the Orlando victims and their families, several senators, congressmen, and state governors who have either accepted campaign donations from the NRA, or who support North Carolina’s anti-trans House Bill 2, or both, offered their thoughts and prayers.
The Other Stories’ Editor-in-Chief, Ilana Masad and I offer this interview. In it, Garth Greenwell speaks to the importance of calling himself a queer writer, saying, “I believe that it is the extraordinary power of the literary imagination to communicate experience across difference…in human, authentic ways that can be reparative, healing; that can heal some of the wounds of difference and of privilege.” In the wake of the Orlando shooting I wonder how that could possibly be true, and hope, desperately, that it is. — Gemma de Choisy, June 13, 2016
N.B. 1: I interviewed Garth Greenwell in Iowa City’s Prairie Lights Café on January 25, 2016—just after What Belongs To You had been released and one day before Greenwell left town to start his inaugural book tour. A week or so later, Greenwell’s praises were being sung from the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and pretty much everywhere else. I, meanwhile, was becoming very ill. I didn’t get much work done over the month and a half that followed. But as I transcribed bits of this interview, I had the pleasure of reliving the singularly delightful experience of talking with Greenwell. The man speaks exactly as he writes, with semicolons and parentheses in his voice. And though I hesitate to comment on anyone’s body, he did the impossible with his. Sitting across from me on a wobbly chair, Greenwell—long of femur, broad-shouldered, prone to gesticulation—bent and leaned and otherwise folded himself up until he and I were at eye level. This interview’s editor, Ilana Masad, has also seen him do this. It’s the damndest thing. It’s like watching someone bend under the weight of their own generosity. That’s what his book is like, and that’s what Greenwell is: Generous. — Gemma de Choisy, May 27, 2016]
In the world of literature there is a country called desire, where the winds change direction on the hour. The primary export is fantasy; the primary import, shame. In lieu of an official language there is only gesture. Border patrol is virtually non-existent (all may immigrate), but few ever leave. Many would like to, but the terrain is confusing and largely unexplored—people wander off and start to think of themselves in a brand new country, only to find that they’ve wandered back to the house they lived in when they moved first here, so long ago. Besides that, the exit visa process (if there even is one) is terribly ill-defined, and desire makes identities notoriously difficult to confirm. The air pressure here is much too strong. It is always too hot. And if denizens manage to recall where last they saw their sense of self, they often find it, upon retrieval, destabilized and diffuse—and yet, would you believe it? The country’s highest-selling postcard reads, “Wish You Were Here.”
Garth Greenwell wrote his debut novel What Belongs To You in the dark, very early in the morning, in Bulgaria. Greenwell moved there to teach English at the American College of Sofia, and says that before he wrote his instantly and universally acclaimed first book, he hadn’t written fiction. Pre-Bulgaria Greenwell was a writer of poetry, which is no surprise. His sentences are shaped by commas the way rocks shape rivers. They swing open semicolon hinges, inviting you inside What Belongs To You‘s glittering prose, and then promptly slam shut, locking you inside with the book’s nameless narrator, his paramour, and their many wants.
The story begins in a bathroom under the National Palace in Sofia, where the narrator pays a skinny hustler named Mitko for sex. Mitko fakes an orgasm, badly, and abandons the narrator on his knees in a stall.
As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sinkwater from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal…had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me…and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.
The first of the novel’s three sections won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was published as a novella, Mitko, prior to What Belongs To You’s release. That portion of the book and the subsequent two sections follow the two men into and through a relationship that is by turns sexual, fraternal, paternal, tender, antagonistic, and ferociously ambivalent. As it navigates sex, love, childhood betrayals, and various of other emotionally violent terrains, What Belongs to You does not ask, but declares: “How helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat.”
Greenwell lives in Iowa City, IA, with his boyfriend, the poet Luis Muñoz. In addition to writing essays for various outlets, he is working on a book that reprises characters from What Belongs to You, this time in short stories.
Gemma de Choisy: I want to talk to you about desire.
Garth Greenwell: Oh, good!
This books seems, in many ways, like an answer to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. Your narrator and Mitko could be “the lover” and “the beloved”—Barthes’ stand-ins for desirous and desired figures.
It’s so interesting you say that, because I’ve been obsessed with Barthes over the last couple of weeks. I was obsessed with him as an undergraduate, and I read most of the books—A Lover’s Discourse, front and center among them. I’m also reading a really brilliant book of essays by a poet, Brian Blanchfield, called Proxies. It’s amazing, really stunning. And Barthes is one of the guardian angels of that book, I think. I’m also reading Barthes’ book The Neutral, a collection of notes he made for a lecture course he taught.
I haven’t read A Lover’s Discourse in ages and ages, but when I read it, I read it so hard. I think it’s one of those books that loaded in my brain when it was forming itself. So I’m sure it’s all over What Belongs to You. I’m sure.
One part of A Lover’s Discourse that’s stuck with me (and that I see in What Belongs to You) is the section, “On Waiting.” He writes, “Am I in love?—yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits… The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”
I remember this! Yes, Yes.
That dynamic seems especially strong between your narrator and Mitko.
True. Mitko is always the one who bursts in. In a lot of ways, this is the person who occupies a position in society of extremely little privilege or power. One of his sources of power is that, that he is the one who gets to appear or disappear.
At one point, you mention another of his small but extreme powers: the power to be pleased.
Right. In fact I’d say that is the source of his power over the narrator. He can be pleased, or he can withhold his pleasure.
Which is as true universally of desire as it is of the marginalized world of Bulgarian male prostitutes.
And I hope that’s true of a lot of things in this book. This is a book about a particular relationship in a particular place that’s framed in a particular way, and the frame absolutely structures and affects the relationship between these two people. But I also think—and the narrator explicitly meditates on this at times—there are ways in which the strangeness or the particularity of the encounter accentuates aspects that the narrator believes (and I share his belief) are common to any relationship between two human beings.
One idea that has been really central to my life as a writer and as a poet (which I was before I was a fiction writer), is from William James in Varieties of Religious Experience. He gives a preemptive defense of his “extreme” method of using extreme cases as a way to claim that something is true universally. And he uses this wonderful metaphor where he says that the extreme case functions like a microscope in science. It accentuates one aspect in a way that makes it visible, that allows us to note characteristics that are common across experience.
That to me is kind of an intrinsic assumption of literature.
Mitko and the narrator are gay, and they’re in a place where that isn’t talked about openly—a fact that, towards the end of the book, is leveled as a threat. Which means that a kind of shame becomes part of the courtship dance. But I wonder, isn’t that part of desire in general?
I guess that’s one of those psychoanalytic insights that to me seems true. We don’t even have to think about psychoanalysis—we could say that the poets are right. Desire is importunate. One of my favorite poems is a little Greek fragment translated by Anne Carson. It says, “Love struck me with his hammer and doused me in a wintry ditch.” I think it’s Anacreon. And I think it’s just exactly right. And what I love about that little poem—and I always taught it to my high school students, because I think it captures the power of metaphor so well—is what it’s an image of. It’s an argument about love, and it’s an argument that love changes and shapes us, because it’s an argument about forging. It’s the image of a blacksmith pounding steel and putting it into water to fix its shape, and that to me captures something about the experience of Eros. It is shameful because, whether or not your object of choice aligns in the way the world tells you it should, it overcomes us. We don’t get to choose it. If you’re lucky, and it does align with what the world expects from you, maybe that can feel frictionless. But I think, for many people—queer or straight or however one identifies—we often desire things and people we shouldn’t desire. And there is shame associated with that, I would say, and a sense of violence against our sense of self, which so often depends upon a sense of mastery or control. Desire doesn’t let us have that.
That sounds like St. Augustine’s kind of love. The idea that love will conquer nothing. It only promises to change you. Love alters.
Absolutely. I love that you talk about St. Augustine, because The Confessions is one of those Ur-texts of my life as a writer, and just of my life as a human being. I think whenever people talk about the kind of writing that interests me most, the narrative/essayistic/discursive/digressive narration of consciousness, I think that all goes back to him.
Speaking of influences, you mentioned on Facebook that you’ve been reading Michel de Montaigne.
He captured a remarkable sense of intimacy with his writing, but there’s something else. There are some (myself included) who think that Montaigne’s writing feels as close as it does because he was writing each essay as if it were a letter to his dearly departed friend, Étienne de La Boétie. What you think of that?
It’s so interesting. Montaigne writes about sex a lot, but the only convincing writing about intimacy in his essays is when he writes about friendship. Thirty years ago people seized on those passages and used them to queer the canon, to claim Montaigne as a writer of queer experience and gay experience. And then there’s a big backlash against that and people say, “No, this is the rhetoric of romantic friendship, and homosexuality as a category didn’t exist then, so this doesn’t have to do with that.” And all of that is true and I think it’s facile to claim Montaigne, who occupied in his society the position of a patriarch, a pater familias, as a queer writer.
Whenever someone uses that argument, that this kind of intimacy was a common thing and that homosexuality as a category didn’t exist as an identity… Well, neither did heterosexuality. And yet, whenever people make that objection, there’s always a way in which they pull that writer back into the fold of these straight male writers. It’s just as false to say he’s a straight writer as to say that he’s a gay writer. In his great essay on friendship, he says that a great friendship requires argument, requires quarrel, like great sex requires scratching. I mean, I think he gives us a way to think about that relationship. I think you’re absolutely right, though, there’s no question to me. He starts the essays after de la Boétie dies, and I think the astonishing thing about that book is that it feels like it’s speaking directly to you with this incredible intimacy. The book filled the space opened up by Boétie.
And if he hadn’t died, then likely no essay. They’d have just talked.
Yes, yes. It’s been wonderful to live with Montaigne over the last few weeks (which I’ve been doing because of this Blanchfield book) and to realize how he is like Augustine. He’s the father of everything people are excited about in Knausgaard or Ben Lerner or in Rachel Cusk. This is all Montaigne! And Roland Barthes. This whole space of the neutral is precisely that space that Montaigne tries to occupy in his essays. That’s something that really interests me, because what I think they’re both trying to do is create a space in which thinking can happen dissociated from power. It’s a space that says, “I want to think but I don’t want to have to be right. I want to think, but I don’t want to quarrel.”
The burden of being correct, in other words. Or the trouble that comes with being so fixed on an idea that you cannot later change your mind, which is a very modern concern. This idea that integrity means having a long history of a static opinion—that’s not something that’s always been a credit to one’s character.
Not at all! And it’s deeply un-American, let us say. If we’re going to claim the great pragmatist insight—
—then we should, as is tradition, be reinventing ourselves—
—all the time! And we should be accommodating of change. I mean, for God’s sake, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself! I am large! I contain multitudes!”
Absolutely. Given this tradition of Emerson and Whitman, it’s horrifying that our public discourse now has become—well, the image that Barthes uses and the idea that he rejects is that of jousting. People are not trying to advance ideas or discourse; they’re trying to knock the other guy off his horse. So reading Montaigne in the [presidential] campaign season has been a really wonderful antidote, because he does open up this space for thinking to happen without that allegiance to being right. That’s the space of Barthes’ The Neutral, I think.
You’re very matter of fact about identifying as a queer writer. Why is it important to claim that for yourself?
It’s important to me for several reasons. I do believe—in a kind of hedged way, with airquotes—in the universal. I believe that it is the extraordinary power of the literary imagination to communicate experience across difference. In that way, I think the literary imagination is aligned with what Audre Lorde said about eros and about the erotic—and I do think the literary imagination and the aesthetic imagination are erotic—that eros can connect us across difference in human, authentic ways that can be reparative, healing; that can heal some of the wounds of difference and of privilege. I believe that about the literary imagination. I believe that because I feel it when I read literature from cultures and experiences entirely alien to mine. Literature teaches me something about myself. I believe in that. I also believe that the only way that happens is through this weird alchemy of the literary imagination; it only happens through the most minute attention to the particular. There’s no other way to get there.
If we disavow the particular, then we are allowing people to use words like “universal” to actually hide the particular experience behind straight white guys, or whatever position of prestige gets coded as the universal. And I think that’s deadly.
That I found Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story when I was fourteen years old in Kentucky saved my life, because it gave me an image of queerness that had dignity when I was living in a place where the only story I was told about myself was that my life had nothing of the sort. So in that sense, it is important to me that there exists an idea of a queer literary tradition, and it’s important to me that I acknowledge my debt to it as both a writer and a human being. And then just historically, I do think it’s true that there are affinities among books, and that queer writers and queer books are speaking to each other.
Now. The danger of claiming a queer literary tradition is that one might essentialize queerness or a style of queerness, and I don’t want to do that. I think one can claim that and say that these are historically constructed styles, but any identity, any community is historically constructed. And that doesn’t mean that those are not life sustaining.
Back to William James, then. The extreme being indicative of the ordinary.
Absolutely. I mean, there’s that wonderful old stoic idea of Terence’s: “Nothing human is alien to me.” And then Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure, God bless him, when he says, “I have the germ of all human iniquity me.” I do think that’s true. I think any human story—not by smoothing away or by looking away from the particular, but by attuning yourself as closely as possible to the texture of one experience—allows us to hear the human voice, to hear what’s common, what we share. We’ve been trained as a culture to hear that universal human voice in texts that come from a place of prestige and privilege. So no one says, “Isn’t it amazing that this story about these two unbelievably rich white kids in Italy can communicate to me in America right now?” No. We just say Romeo and Juliet is a universal story of love. Well, yeah. I agree. And so is Giovanni’s Room.
Bulgaria, in which you novel takes place is so finely and specifically rendered that it is a third character, and a participant in your narrator and Mitko’s romance. It makes their relationship, such as it is, seem more like a menage a trois.
The book, to me, begins and ends in Bulgaria. To me, Bulgaria is the main character. When I went to Bulgaria I’d only ever written poetry. I have an MFA in poetry that I got in 2003. And then I went to Harvard to get a PhD, also studying poetry as a scholar, before I realized I didn’t want that life. I left and started teaching high school and started writing poems. And until I went to Bulgaria I’d never written prose in anything other than a scholarly or critical way, and so something about Bulgaria—well, something about being a high school teacher and then something about Bulgaria—turned me into a prose writer and a fiction writer.
I think the spark of the novel came from the fact that I went to Bulgaria, this very foreign place, and I found these queer communities and queer spaces that reminded me very forcefully of the queer communities and spaces that I found when I was a kid in Kentucky at fourteen. And when I talked to my Bulgarian high school students who spoke to me about being gay, the stories they told me and their sense of the possibilities for their life just absolutely reminded me of being a kid in the American south in the early 1990s.
So that was a way in which there’s sort of foreignness and familiarity holding hands in this place.
When your narrator goes into the bathroom underneath the National Place in Sofia, his language skills aren’t fantastic but he’s able to communicate there in a way he isn’t above ground.
Yes, he understands the code there.
The third language of cruising.
And that I think is true of cruising places. I don’t want to romanticize them; they’re spaces where people treat each other in all sorts of bad ways. But they’re also spaces where people treat each other in astonishingly humane ways. So in that way they’re spaces like any other human space.
But they are particular in that they’re places where difference gets scrambled by desire. And this is another way in which I think desire is importunate and breaks all our rules. When you go to a place like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture or to an adult bookstore on Eighth Avenue in New York and you go to those back rooms, there are people of all races, all ages, all economic backgrounds. Not to paint those places as free of various kinds of cultural oppressions—they’re not—but anytime you have human interactions you have sparks of various kinds. You have connections of various kinds across difference, across privilege, and that to me makes them potentially radical spaces. A writer I admire very much, a queer writer named Bruce Benderson, has long made arguments about how crucial these spaces are and how crucial it is that queerness not be scrubbed of places like this, which are often spoken of with disdain. And he argues that these are spaces that are full of the potential for radicality, and I think that’s because of these ethical sparks that can happen across difference. That was just as true in Sofia as it was in Louisville when I was fourteen, and I think that makes them more to be cherished. There is this danger, I think, in the new kind of respectability of—we can say queerness, but I think it’s still predominantly “gayness.” But of queerness, too. We have Caitlyn Jenner now who’s teaching the world what a “well behaved” transgender person looks like. I’m glad that marriage equality exists. I think there’s a way in which the respectability of queerness has opened up new possibilities for queer life, and I think anyone who has an allegiance to liberation needs to see that as a win. But. There is also a danger that it is shutting down other modes and possibilities for queer life, and that it is shutting down precisely that radical potential inherent in these spaces that scramble our usual categories of identity.
One of the ways that What Belongs to You keeps the narrator and Mitko away from that, as you put it, “well-behaved” space is that their relationship deals with sex work, something that is still heavily stigmatized.
But as anyone who’s ever been involved with sex work knows, it is still a person responding to other people. Feeling isn’t absent simply because money is present.
That’s right, absolutely.
But there’s something else here, between your narrator and Mitko, that is often true of love that has anything to do with transaction, or in instances where love is not expected—for instance with the historically marginalized or the chronically ill—and that is that love is intensified, as is the fear of losing it, but it also can make love almost indistinguishable from gratitude.
I think you’re right. I mean, I think sex work is a really complicated phenomenon. And I think that it is a really ethically fraught and complicated interaction between human beings. One of the things that interests me about sex work, or about the relationship in What Belongs to You, is that it gives the lie to the idea that money makes things clean, that in some way money scrubs the human trace from labor and from the products of labor. I think shopping at Walmart is [also] a human exchange that we should be aware of as incredibly fraught and damaging, that there is human suffering there that we allow ourselves to imagine money has washed away.
What’s interesting to me about sex work in the novel is that it is a face to face exchange. In that sense, I think the narrator imagines in the beginning of the novel that money scrubs messiness from human interaction. He keeps repeating this word, like a refrain, “transaction.” As if that makes feeling easier! But it’s messy, like all human relationships.
In this particular case, the narrator pays for action, but feeling is inevitable.
Right. When you’re face to face, as opposed to exploiting someone from a distance, like we do just when we breathe in this country, you can’t ignore their humanness. You can’t insulate yourself from feeling.
The premise of sex work is that bodies can be made commodities. Actually, I think that’s the premise of capitalism. It’s very hard for that to happen in face-to-face exchanges. There’s a way in which personhood keeps asserting itself. Certainly for this narrator, but I think it happens on both sides. There’s no question that this relationship is formed and deformed and structured and framed by the transaction with which it begins, and that’s something which the narrator, especially in the third part of the book, has to confront. There’s no unpoisoned ground he can stand on in his relationship with Mitko. But! There are moments between the narrator and Mitko that, to me, seem full of the potential for authentic feeling. And when Mitko says to the narrator in the final section of the book, “You are an istinski priyatel”—“you are a true friend”—the narrator immediately qualifies that in his head and steps away from it and hedges it, but I think the book opens up a space of possibility where that is a true statement.
After their first interaction (transaction) Mitko leaves the narrator literally on his knees, and the narrator realizes he’s grateful for the rude abandonment because he’s been left alone with his sense of fantasy—the essential ingredient of limerence, wherein another person becomes a canvas onto which you project a whole new world. And that, more than money, seems to be the means by which the narrator makes a commodity of Mitko. But then, in the book’s third section, the narrator tries to care for Mitko when he takes ill, and he receives care from Mitko as well. There is a degree of trust that unhinges him, perhaps because he didn’t pay for it and so doesn’t know what to do with it.
I love that you point to that moment at the end of the first scene, their first encounter. I think that is where Mitko is least a person for the narrator. And he’s not available to the narrator’s fantasy in the same way at the end of the book. There’s a sort of real image that has supplanted the fantasy or imposed itself on the fantasy.
And that starts in the first section, when they go on holiday to the seaside and Mitko has the audacity to masturbate twice one morning while the narrator is out for a walk. That was an amazing assertion of self; Mitko refused to deny his own body’s desires for the narrator’s convenience.
Absolutely! He’s saying, “I’m a person, I’m a person.”
Tell me about writing Mitko. That novella, even though it became the first section of your novel, is so different from What Belongs to You.
Good! [Laughs.] I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote any part of this novel, and I had no conception of it as a novel until all three parts were written. It took a long time. Mitko was the first fiction I’d ever written. The whole book was written in Bulgaria, while I was there. It was written really sentence by sentence, clause by clause. I was feeling my way forward in the dark. And it helped that I wrote the book mostly physically in the dark, in the mornings before going to school to teach. I had run away from any sort of public career as a writer. Part of what made me leave Harvard was feeling like poetry was being turned into a profession. That to me is toxic. And in Bulgaria I found this place in which writing could be what it has to be, which is the most intense privacy. Being in this place, speaking another language, English itself became a kind of privacy, especially when I was working on this. I taught in English, but on breaks I would sometimes go days without speaking it.
I went years without showing a page to anyone. And so the novel emerged sentence by sentence, step by step. What I kept saying to myself, the only rule of writing fiction that I had, since I’d never been in a fiction workshop before I came to Iowa, was “be patient.” Don’t try to think ahead, don’t try to think about where the scene is going; instead just be true to this moment and observe it as closely as you can and allow the sentence to take you forward step by step.
In poetry I couldn’t do that, in part because I’d done so many workshops in poetry. In prose, I could trust the music of the sentence.
I think that’s where the feeling comes from: punctuation. Punctuation is musical. You can think about it in the same way one might while reading sheet music. When you look at sheet music you know when it will be staccato, you can see the adagio, you can point to the precise moment on the page when the music will make you feel like you’re in love now, now sad, now terrified. The second section of your novel, the middle section, is a solid paragraph, and for that reason it made me feel panicked to read it. It mimicked shock, which was perfect because the narrator was walking through Sofia in a fugue state after having received tragic news. There is no breath.
To me, what you say is exactly right. My first training in art was in music, was in singing. Syntax to me is exactly as you say, it’s a notation of emotion. There’s a way in which I think of syntax, of the texture of a sentence, as being like the musical texture in opera, say, where it gives you the emotion. I love that you say that, that’s all that I hoped.
A great deal has been made of your semicolons.
I love semicolons because they allow for a kind of expansiveness without imposing the kind of logical relationships that subordinated syntax imposes. Subordination is all about ranking, about making one experience primary and other experiences secondary. Semicolons allow you to suspend that hierarchy.
It’s a beautiful coincidence that they look so much like hinges. It’s difficult for me to separate punctuation from the very shape that it implies. They are the closest thing our [not Cyrillic] alphabet has to pictograms. I think about what em-dashes and colons look like, about what they tell people about the text that follows.
I couldn’t agree more.
You dwell in the world of poetry still, at least a little, right? Your boyfriend, Luis, is a poet.
He is, he is a wonderful poet.
A big time poet in Spain!
He’s a fancy poet, it’s true! I was just down in Chile for the first time and I had dinner with a group of gay writers. When I got there they were pouring drinks, and on the kitchen counter of this very fancy apartment they had laid out first editions of Luis’s poems.
I haven’t written a poem in probably six years . I really felt when I wrote Mitko, well—I just felt that it was better than my poems. It kind of demolished them in a way. I was able to access surprise in prose in a way that I hadn’t been able to in poetry, for whatever reason. So I haven’t written a poem since then. I still taught poetry and I read poetry, but I had gotten to a place where I wasn’t spending two hours analyzing a Shakespeare sonnet anymore. And then I met Luis! And Luis is astonishing. He’s astonishing for his own poems, and also for his knowledge of the canon of Spanish-language poetry, both peninsular and Latin American. He’s introduced me to some poets that just struck like revelations to me, especially the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda, whom I had never read before and who is a great gay poet.
The thing that really made me feel close to poetry again was translating Luis’s poems. Because this was very early in our relationship. Like, weeks into our relationship. I didn’t speak any Spanish. His English was not good at all. And so when we worked on translating his poems, we had to talk about every word in this very exhaustive way. I remember, we would have both of our computers open and we would have dozens of tabs open where we would see different examples of the use of a word, or images to express something, or videos to talk about a particular movement. And we would spend hours on a single line and he would talk exhaustively about what he was thinking or the particular, not meaning, but feeling of a word.
Wow. No wonder you fell in love.
That was falling in love with him. It was wonderful. When I worked on the English versions of those poems I was using all these muscles I hadn’t used as a writer for a long time, because I was thinking about form in a way you don’t think about form in prose. I don’t count syllables when I write sentences [in prose]. But I do in poetry. And I think about metrical feet. I don’t think about feet when I write a prose sentence. I write aloud, and I think about music, and I care a lot about rhythm, but I don’t think about feet. But working on Luis’s poems, I did. It felt wonderful. It made me feel closer to poetry than I’d felt in years and years. Luisiño.
At the end of What Belongs to You, your narrator has a boyfriend, R. I hear those two characters aren’t done yet.
That’s right. The container of this novel was not big enough for everything I wanted to think about in relationship to Bulgaria and in relationship to the experiences I had there—and in relationship to this narrator, too. The novel doesn’t really talk about teaching, for instance. There’s this relationship in the third section that’s very important, though we don’t learn much about it, with this guy named “R.” So the book I’m working on now is a collection of stories that very much fall into the interstices of What Belongs to You. It’s the same narrator, and about half of the stories are about R. and this relationship, and about that world that R. makes possible for the narrator, which is so very different from the world he occupies in the first section of What Belongs to You. It feels like a companion volume to the novel. It’s the same world.
Could you see it perhaps collected with What Belongs to You as a longer version of the novel, in the same way that the novel was a continuation of Mitko?
That’d be interesting. I don’t want to make any claims about the book I write after this; maybe I’ll write a fantasy novel, I don’t know. But I do love writers whose work feels like one enormous project. Proust feels that way to me, Sebald feels that way to me, Javier Marias feels that way to me. And I like that, that way in which there’s something artificial about putting covers around a particular group of pages. Well, that’s true and not true: in What Belongs to You I certainly tried to think about the novel as a form, and there are echoes and symmetries that I hope make it complete in and of itself. So I don’t want to say that it’s an arbitrary collection of pages. I don’t think it is. But! It does seem to me that there’s something kind of arbitrary about saying that this territory of thinking or of experience is complete, and now I’m moving into a wholly other territory. That’s not how life has worked for me, and it’s not how my mind works.
How do you write now? Do you still write in the dark?
That’s a really good question. The scary thing about having this book be published is that I feel farther away from a kind of sustaining writing practice than I have felt in years. I feel like I’m working a lot, but I feel very far from the privacy that for me is necessary for real writing. There’s a way in which publishing a book, to me, is diametrically opposed to writing. Publishing a book, I mean, it’s public. I have a publicist. I have to work on this public face, I’m going to go do these readings—and I want to be as good an ambassador for my book as I possibly can, I want to do everything I can to give this book a life in the world, but I know that between now and May I’m not going to be writing fiction. I know that I’ll have my notebook. I’ll be taking notes. Hopefully I’ll be stocking up the way that one does. I hope it will be a meaningful fallow period where ideas get mixed up and worked around. But I am beginning to think about when this very frenzied public phase is over, I’m going to have to do something to get back to that private space. I think that probably will involve going somewhere far away.
M. Leona Godin’s story is published in full at FLAPPERHOUSE. In our episode she reads an excerpt only.
M. Leona Godin is a writer, performer and doctor of philosophy. She received her PhD in Early Modern Literature from NYU’s English department and currently lives in Astoria, Queens. She has written and produced two plays: The Star of Happiness, about Helen Keller’s time on vaudeville, and The Spectator & the Blind Man, about the very sexy history of the invention of braille. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in FLAPPERHOUSE, Newtown Literary, Danse Macabre, and Quail Bell Magazine, where she is a regular contributor. Read all things Godin at DrMLGodin.com.