Review: Catalina by Liska Jacobs

Catalina


Catalina
by Liska Jacobs
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374119751

By Noah Sanders

Expectation is what dooms Catalina for me as a reviewer. The book trumpets itself as an “LA Noir”—a seedy, white heat sort of genre that proclaims murder and sordidness in equal measures. And yes, Liska Jacob’s book is a tar-black tale of adulthood gone wrong, but it never reaches the fever pitch of what I, or any fan of the genre, would deem “noir.” Instead Catalina bends towards “emotional noir”—all the inner psychological weight and concurrent desperation, the shitty decision-making and save-your-own-ass motivation, without the violent climax. Liska Jacobs propels the reader forward with pithy descriptions and a main character with a set of morals burnt by rejection and rampant pill popping, upping the ante by surrounding her with a cast of supporting roles equally damaged by the inevitable emotional traumas of adulthood. Yet the build—and Jacobs has an enviable skill at creating dramatic tension—amounts to almost nothing, no big finale, no grisly death, just bad people doing bad things.

Elsa Fisher has been fired from her job at as an assistant to the Head Curator of New York’s MoMA. With an enormous severance package in tow, she abandons New York—with a stolen scarf and pharmacy’s worth of pills as her luggage—and returns to the setting of her youth, Los Angeles, for a reunion trip to Catalina Island with long abandoned old friends. Told from Fisher’s perspective, this is a story about being unable to come to grips with the average responsibilities of adulthood. Fisher is many things—a pill-popping alcoholic, a dark and selfish soul, and a woman who buries her pain in the arms of a rotating cast of men—but Jacobs writes her smart and aware of her own undoing. She’s the self-proclaimed black sheep of her friends having divorced Robby—a bitter UX designer jealous of his friend’s riches—and absconded to the coast. Her friends have followed a straighter line—seemingly normal relationships, the hopes of having children, high paying jobs—but Elsa’s inner turmoil seems to draw out their own inadequacies, their own substance abuse issues, their own chafing at the bit of getting older. As the group boards the boat of Tom—a middle aged millionaire who acts as a crystal ball for their own sad, rancorous futures—and heads for Catalina, the booze flows and the tenuous bonds of their lives unravel in tandem.

Elsa starts at the bottom. She’s stumbling through life after an ill-advised affair and her subsequent firing from a dream job, throwing down Vicodin and Xanax like their breath mints and washing them down with booze at all hours of the day. She’s an emotional wreck, but a manipulative one who uses her looks and intelligence to get by. Yet, with Elsa already playing tourist at rock bottom at the beginning of the book, Jacobs really has nowhere to take the character. She drinks and fucks and makes increasingly bad decisions while watching her friends do the same, revealing their true natures aren’t too far off from hers and that’s about all.

Jacobs is trying to make a few points in the book: the affects of life’s tiresome plod, the even shittier effects of the events that shape us, and how all of us, no matter how bright we shine, contain a darkness just waiting to claw its way out. But her characters are thin stereotypes—the predator-like rich guy, the frat-boy turned old and sour, the unhappy mom-to-be and the preening Los Angeles fitness buff—with only Elsa given more than a cursory glance into their motivations. Instead the characters quickly shrug off any defining descriptions and each one—sans Tom, who’s a prick from the get-go, the book’s sole, weak stab at an antagonist—slowly become slight, ill-defined versions of Elsa herself, consumed by the murkiness inside.

The writing in the book screams “noir” with compact, terse language filled with Elsa’s cynical descriptions of her touristy surroundings. “Moms in floral cover-ups watch children with sand toys, digging away,” Jacobs writes of a crowd of tourists on Catalina, “while dads mingle at the tiki bar, watching the many flat-screen TVs.” It isn’t bad writing and it serves the purpose of highlighting the distance Elsa has placed—with drugs and general malaise—between herself and the real world. Like the characters in the book though, it never changes. It’s crackling and weighed down by Elsa’s bleak worldview for the full length of the book and at some point it all just bleeds together into a whirlpool of drugs and poor decision-making.

In the end, Catalina is all forward momentum without any destination. Jacob’s writing—propulsive to say the least—baits the reader with the idea that “something” is going to happen. That these broken souls, scarred by money and life, will go to Catalina and the very worst of their darkest urges will materialize in the violence and death “noir” is famous for providing. Instead, the book floats along on mean-spirited characters sinking lower into themselves with no real climax ever dragging them to the surface. Even Elsa, the horrendous foundation of this collection of awfulness never learns anything about herself other than, “this is who I am and this who’ll I continue to be.” It’s the grimness of noir, without any of the reckoning. Catalina is a frothy tease, a whole lot of bad behavior without anything to be said about any of it.

Review: The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

River of Consciousness Cover


The River of Consciousness
By Oliver Sacks
Published 2017 by Knopf Books
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0385352567

By Wesley Cohen

In January 2015, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Dr. Sacks had already written his memoir On the Move, which was published in April 2015. He shortly finished a book of essays about his thoughts on life and dying, Gratitude—this after twelve previous books on migraines, autism, ferns, phantom limbs, hallucinogens, and music, among other topics. In August 2015, Oliver Sacks passed away, and Gratitude was published posthumously the following November.

And yet, after collecting his life story and his thoughts on living, Sacks chose to write another book, published only now: The River of Consciousness. What subject was so important to Sacks that he couldn’t bear to leave this book unwritten?

As it turns out, everything. The River of Consciousness begins with an essay discussing Darwin’s botanical studies, before moving on to “Speed,” which borrows from H. G. Wells and William James to consider the perception of time in professional athletes, in people with post-encephalopathic catatonia, how time shifts under the influence of drugs, and even the experience of time for insects and plants. Sacks goes on to investigate the consciousness of earthworms and jellyfish, accidental plagiarism, hearing loss, and colorblindness.

Although Gratitude was meant to be Sacks’s final offering, his “posthumous gift” to readers, the dominant sense in The River of Consciousness is that of awe. Sacks approaches his various subjects with obsessive detail and nearly childlike curiosity, laying bare the wonder of each topic. Nothing is too distant, too old, or too small for Sacks’s careful attention. The descriptions here—of a young Oliver borrowing his cousin’s camera to photograph the “time-blurred wing beats” of a bee, of the communication habits of octopi and facial recognition in wasps—are specific and enchanting. Reading these pages feels like an antidote to cynicism and overwhelm, as long as the reader can look away from her Twitter feed long enough to settle in. Again and again, Sacks demonstrates our great fortune to be alive, to explore the natural world, to have sight and memory and health. Even when these fail, there is beauty and mystery to be found: in the book’s most personal essay, “A General Feeling of Disorder,” Sacks describes his brutal recovery from a procedure intended to extend his life by a few months, but also describes his joy when his exhaustion lifts, “a physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania.”

The River of Consciousness also spends time with Sacks’s heroes, mainly Darwin, Freud, and William James. Readers learn of these famous scientists’ less-known pursuits: for Darwin, his decades of botanical study, for Freud, his research in neuroscience. Throughout his career, Sacks was beloved by his readers for his compassion and personality while writing on neurological research and the experiences of his own patients. Whatever the book, Sacks shows up in his own work as a full, complicated, real person, charming readers into following him through hospital wards and into jungles. Here, Darwin and Freud enjoy similar treatment, expanding from archetypes into men with struggles and obsessions and stories. Sacks references other scientists constantly, as well as writers and artists from Wagner to Rebecca Solnit. The bibliography for this book is nine pages long. If The River of Consciousness is to be taken as a message or a gift for Sacks’s readers, then it is an abundant and expansive one, as each essay contains numerous reading suggestions, a road map to future discovery. The world of science, Sacks shows, is not a stodgy institution but a network of hopeful and fallible actors.

Common themes from Sacks’s previous work run through The River of Consciousness: the perception of time, language, creativity, and imitation. But unlike his past books, which often take up a specific topic—say, the intersection of neuroscience and music in Musicophilia—and exhaustively present every side to the reader, these essays explore their subjects and then set them down. There is no one theme or argument in The River of Consciousness, although topics, examples, and quotes may show up in one essay to be repeated in a new context a hundred pages later. In this sense, The River of Consciousness reads as a brief catalogue of its author’s favorite people and ideas, the things Sacks wanted to touch upon a final time before leaving.

The River of Consciousness feels a bit like a goodbye to the world, with all its wonder and history and unanswered questions, and an inheritance for those of us who remain. Perhaps, after making a gift of his gratitude, Sacks wanted to give his readers the gift of his passion as well, to lay these essays out in front of us and say here are the things I loved, here are the things that enchanted me, and to leave them for us to admire, to wonder at, and perhaps to pick up and explore on our own, now that he is gone.

Review: Vacationland by John Hodgman

Vacationland


Vacationland
by John Hodgman
Published 2017 by Viking
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0735224803

By Noah Sanders

John Hodgman has always seemed an artist overly consumed with his own fake identity. From his days as a PC to Justin Long’s Mac to his preening caricature on The Daily Show to his three books of fake facts, he’s played the part of an effete, impeccably dressed, highly opinionated nerd to the tee. It isn’t that Hodgman hasn’t nailed the character—one wouldn’t be judged for believing his on-screen persona to be his actual one—more that there has been a distancing lack of substance beneath the bespectacled facade of the character he’d created. Vacationland is a memoir of Hodgman’s past and present life in the overgrown backwaters of western Massachusetts and the windblown coastlines of rural Maine. In writing about his own life, Hodgman relinquishes the hold his self-created character had on him. His laconic musings on his life expose a truer, wiser, more poignant aspect to the author without sacrificing the wry, observational humor he has become so well known for. This is a book ably toeing the line of nerd-laced whimsy and the surprisingly sage wisdom of a mid-40s hipster, a book that hums with the melancholy rhythm of the inherent sadness to be had in the inevitable onset of age.

Vacationland feels as if Hodgman is coming to grips with his own descent into middle age. The first half of the book focuses on Hodgman’s childhood in the small, ramshackle cabin in Western Massachusetts the author and his family inherited when his mother passed, up through his college and post-college existence. Each, slightly self-contained chapter finds Hodgman progressing the narrative of his own existence—an educated, slightly pretentious rule-following nerd turned, well, older, more famous slightly pretentious, rule-following nerd—while exploring the lessons learned in his younger life and how they have affected who he has become. In “Mongering” the author digs into his post-collegiate life working as a temp at a publishing company, tearing the covers off proofs of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Hodgman, as most college grads are, was rife with idealism as he stepped into the real world, stuffed with the belief that regardless of the mundane nature of his life, he was making progress. “As I stamped each page away,” he writes, “a growing sense ate at me that I was no longer becoming something, but ending up as something.” Mixed amongst the humorous asides, fictional conversations and blatant nerdery, Hodgman finds space to convey this sort of everyman wisdom without it ever feeling like he’s spewing platitudes. Instead the wiser, less humorous aspects of the book give the reader a foothold into a rounder, more real, more human version of the author hereto yet revealed.

The essay “Vacationland” finds Hodgman lowering all of his comedic defenses, brushing aside his forays into the nuts-and-bolts facts about boat-building and the history of Maine and discussing his mother’s death. The author’s cynicism never flags in the piece: “What more is there to say than it was traumatic a moment that breaks your life in half? That you never heal from it, and it blankets your life in sadness and fear forever? Not much, except for this little bit.” Hodgman’s mother passed from lung cancer at the age of 59 and “Vacationland” tracks the way her passing altered the course of his life. His descriptions of his last days with his mother are heart-breaking without being mawkish. “Slow death keeps you busy with chores and distractions” he writes of these final months. When she’s gone, he confesses, “There is no peace in dying, but there is peace when it’s done.” At the time of his mother’s passing, Hodgman was concluding his seventh year at a literary agency. His mother’s death pushed him to realize that his latent goals of being an author needed to come to the surface. “After a few weeks of caring for my mother at home,” he writes, “I noticed that none of my clients missed me. I was not essential to their lives at all.” As sad as the short piece is, it also shows what Hodgman is capable of when he abandons his comedic tendencies entirely. This is a heart-wrenching bit of writing, but one that glows with an inspiring warmth learned only from experiencing one of life’s great, inevitable sadnesses and the ability as a writer to pass that warmth forward.

Hodgman is a funny man, and this book is never lacking in humor. It is one of the book’s many charms that Hodgman is able to weave so effortlessly through the darker moments of his life while peppering them with his own gin-fueled adages and his particular brand of self-effacing humor. And it needs to be this way. From reading Vacationland, it’s evident that Hodgman is much more than the character he’s created, the character he’s hidden behind for so much of his professional life. Humor and book smarts are his natural impulses, but beneath this sheen of laughter and intelligence is a deep well of wit and emotion. A well Hodgman is able to tap, to distill into a book that offers advice and history, humor and sadness, poignancy and poise; a book that captures Hodgman in full.

Review: The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name by Philip Harris

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The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name
by Philip Harris
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$12.00 ISBN 978-0-9994471-0-9

By Noah Sanders

The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name—the new chapbook by Bay Area poet Philip Harris—is as much a collection of short poems as it a piece of portraiture. It feels as if Harris is writing himself into existence using the overlapping spillover of moments from his own life, his mother’s life, and her mother’s life before as his medium. The author—half-white, half-Mexican, and gay—uses singular moments of his life, and of those who came before, to showcase his own part in a complicated cultural upbringing and how it birthed the complex human he has become. Named Felipe Juan by his mother’s Mexican side of the family, Harris grows up straddling two different worlds, his footing never solid as he navigates the path forward. His coming to terms with own homosexuality further adds even more to his internal life experiences. As an adult, though, Harris is oftentimes seen as just being white and it isn’t that The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name seeks to refute that, but rather to plunge beneath the surface, exposing the intricacies of Harris himself and of the average human experience.

In the opening section, Harris’ mother asks him if he thinks Gloria Estefan is “cute,” probing her young son to see if he might be gay. Harris writes, “I don’t know yet about systemic racism, internalized homophobia, heteronormativity, internalized racism, oppression, gender politics.” He just wants to be a kid that fits in and to do so he tells his Mexican mother that, no, Estefan has that “ugly Mexican look.” It is a small, uneventful memory, but Harris wields it as a the harbinger for what will come. On the surface this is a simple moment but by pulling it gently apart Harris reveals the want and the need to assimilate ourselves into normative culture and the pain caused in doing so. There is no lack of small pains in the book; a woman at party tells Harris’ mother she’s lucky for marrying a white man, for “marrying up.” “Another offense to file away,” Harris writes, “Another memory to play over and again.” In his own life, Harris recalls the first time someone called him a fag, the loss of his virginity to two men in a public sauna, the dropping of his Mexican surname to appease a pregnancy magazine editor—the through line of pain spiraling from his mother all the way up the generational ladder.

There is a richness to The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name that belies its slim size. The author, in what has to amount to less than 10,000 words, spins not only his own story, but those of the individuals and the culture that formed him. This is Harris’ story, but the only way to tell it is to fill in the detail, to draw the portrait of where and who he came from. Harris writes with a wistful nostalgia at play—these are lyrical explorations of single moments that gently lift from the page—but Harris grounds his more poetic tendencies with the textured grit of reality, simple and small. A ventilator is “loud, breathing God’s wind into” the small lungs of his dying grandmother; he describes his great-uncle Papa Juan as a man who, “hugged hard, his gold jewelry catching the sun as he handed me a twenty dollar bill.” He describes the Mexican spirit La Llorona—a woman who steals children—as a “woman dressed in all white, her hair flowing in the absent winds of Southern California,” seen as he “looked at porn alone in the thin hours of the morning.” In doing so—colliding lyricism and reality—Harris deepens the picture of himself—a poet who grew up eating freshly slaughtered and grilled lamb in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a human being splayed out across a spectrum of varied experiences. The language, rough and delicate within the same sentence, enriches his personal narrative, becoming as much a part of his story as anything else.

In forming a picture of himself far beyond superficial descriptors, one of layered cultural narratives and generational tradition and trauma passed down through the family, Harris seems to be saying that the identities we push forward into public are never so simple. Instead, Harris, and all of us, are layer upon layer of experience, culture and connection pushed outwards through a specific perspective. Regardless of how he is seen, he’s much more than meets the eye. As Harris himself writes, that though his friends see his “passable” whiteness he wonders if they will ever know the person who “listens to mariachi music and cries, or feels at home in mini-mall salons with women speaking only Spanish, or hears his abuelita’s laugh in every crunch of a fried tortilla, or who used to bullied for being gay.” He wonders if they’ll ever know him.

Review: A Natural by Ross Raisin

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A Natural
by Ross Raisin
Published 2017 by Random House
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525508779

By Noah Sanders

It is understandable if a reader is apprehensive of picking up Ross Raisin’s newest novel, A Natural, because of its superficial description as a “sports book.” A Natural sells itself in its first hundred or so pages as a book that in near claustrophobic fashion, details the grinding routine and oppressive masculinity that define professional sports at the bottom of the barrel, specifically the low leagues of professional, English football. This is a world akin to politics, where every word spoke, every seat taken, every conversation kicked up places you in the hierarchy of your team, for better or worse. The more skilled you are, the better you’re loved, but emotional attachment is a flash in a pan, every friendship just injury away from dissolution. Raisin’s novel addresses these issues but his goal as the book stodgily sallies forward isn’t to pull the curtain back on modern, English football. The author picks apart the common perceptions of masculinity—both in sports and in everyday life—using the drab canvas of small town soccer as a launch pad.

Tom Pearman is a talented, 19-year old striker who’s lost out on a contract from his hometown Premiere Academy and drifted South, ending up as a wing for a low-league football outfit struggling to stay relevant. Pearman is skilled but as the book begins he struggles to find his footing or make friends within the tightly knit group of aspiring soccer professionals. He lingers at the edges of social gatherings, avoids his loving family, and on the field shies from using his prodigious talents. His introversion seems warranted. The world of professional soccer in Raisin’s hands is a plodding struggle, a grim injury-laden series of practices and games that brooks no concern for what the future might hold for an individual. The culture inherent in the sport is one of toxic masculinity where nothing is excepted but utmost effort and athleticism wrapped in the traditional stance of tough-guy posturing.

Though A Natural is ostensibly about soccer—and Raisin spends a lot of time describing pitches, matches, the sweaty muscles of young athletes, etc.—it’s more so a coming of age story about a shy introvert with a secret. Pearman’s struggles to “fit in” with his new teammates are heightened by the fact that he’s gay, a one-way ticket to being ousted by the world of professional sports. Pearman isn’t exactly interesting, but it doesn’t seem as if Raisin wants him to be. Instead he seems a product of the football atmosphere—any of his edges worn down to nothing and then buried under a game face and want of being the best. Underneath it though, Pearman’s an emotional mess—struggling to find footing in the inconsistent limbo football manages to push him into while hoping his innate sexual urges, lustily described by Raisin, can be contained, shoved down into the grey morass of his emotions his football life has created.  At 19, Pearman has only really done one thing—play football—and as he begins to mature emotionally, the push and pull of competitive sports doesn’t provide him with the answers to the big questions of his life anymore. When he starts a face with ruddy-faced Liam, the team’s groundskeeper, the urge to play professional ball and the urge to just be who he is collide, spinning him further into his own self. He’s different than the testosterone spewing football dudes he’s spent his entire life with—he’s gay, shy, halfway between traditional sporting masculinity and the emotional security he yearns for—but he’s unable to bring together the quickly dividing strands of his new life.

The book isn’t an easy one to just wander into. Raisin spends the first hundred or so pages flatly laying out the stakes of low-league professional soccer and the portrait he paints is a dreary, even boring one. The beginning of this book is a trudge through quicksand, with Pearman’s severe introversion allowing only a laser-focused view from the cheap seats. Yes, Raisin does spend too long setting the mood and the atmosphere, but when the story starts to pick up, when the secrets are revealed and the cogs of the narrative start turning, the reader, knowingly or not, is immersed in this stolid world. There’s a low-level thrill in seeing Pearman, and his team, succeed (and fail) and even more of a rush to see the main character start to shakily pull himself from his shell.

There’s a real fear as the book nosedives towards the reveal of Pearman’s sexuality and his relationship with Liam that Raisin might dip towards the soap-operatic, but the author never loosens his grip on the narrative. What could be portrayed in dramatic terms instead becomes a textured look at a redefinition of self in a world where redefinitions are rarely allowed. Raisin paints his world in drabs greys and greens and though Pearman’s stab at acceptance of his own sexual orientation flares brightly amidst the somber backdrop, the novel isn’t sidetracked by a need for a theatrical reveal. As the events of the book play out, Raisin keeps to blunt descriptions and a moment-by-moment feel that, though stripping the novel of any high highs or low lows, allows his characters to interact realistically with the events at hand. As the novel begin,s Pearman is a soccer player with a secret and as it lumbers toward a conclusion this doesn’t change—his own true self just becomes more acceptable. If the opening hundred pages seem aimed at the crushing mundanity of barely professional sports, it’s for a reason: Pearman’s self-discovery, his small growth as a human being feels enormous in the world it builds, the shadow it throws. If you’ve come to the book for the glitz and glamour of professional football, you’ll be disappointed. A Natural is a coming-of-age story that comes to fruition on the shadowy edge of a harsh sports culture and as that it succeeds.

Review: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977887

By Wesley Cohen

From the start of her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado demonstrates that she understands the power of stories, their place as both a tool and a weapon.

In the first story, “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator tells the reader about having sex with her boyfriend, “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.”

Later, in “The Resident,” a different storyteller is asked about the protagonist in her novel-in-progress, a thinly veiled autobiography: “Lydia filled my glass to the brim. ‘Do you ever worry,’ she asked me, ‘that you’re the madwoman in the attic?….And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well?’”

The women here consider their womanhood at arm’s length, weighing the appropriate archetypes—the slut, the aging mother, the mad lesbian—but they never fall comfortably inside a category. Like real women, they are self-aware, and acknowledge that how one’s story is framed is often just as important as what happens in it.

The stories, too, defy categorization. They take strange forms, they fade from reality to dream to myth, they twist in the reader’s hands and transform from one paragraph to the next.

Watching Machado work is an absolute delight. Story structures and techniques that might feel gimmicky or undeserved in different contexts land perfectly. Machado delivers surreal elements and plot twists with complete authority, and her characters feel so well drawn that it’s impossible to resist being pulled into their worlds headfirst.

Just as some of George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December use futuristic and fantastical elements to riff on the more horrific facets of contemporary society, Machado borrows the language of fairy tales to illustrate the horrors of womanhood, with ghosts, doppelgangers, headless women, and girls gone invisible.  But these stories are slippery, and they use magic and horror to unexpected ends.

In “Eight Bites,” a faceless, body-shaped mass appears in a woman’s basement after she has gastric bypass surgery, a grotesque symbol of the weight she’s lost, but instead of angry, the form is mournful, even maternal. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” an epidemic of “fading” is turning young women into bodiless phantoms, and a simplistic metaphor for female silence or weight loss seems close at hand. But the story pivots and focuses instead on the narrator’s relationship with a woman who’s fading, her struggle to support her girlfriend as she vanishes. Even when roaming misty forests or possessed by ghosts, these characters feel deeply human, flawed, and self-aware, and their fears and desires are urgently real.

Machado plays with story form throughout the collection to great effect. In “Inventory,” the story is a list of the narrator’s every sexual experience; “The Husband Stitch” includes absurd stage directions for a reader to perform the story aloud: “Give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.”

Of these formal experiments, “Especially Heinous” is the most impressive. The sixty-page story, which originally appeared as a novella in The American Reader, comprises 272 entirely imaginary episode summaries for Law & Order SVU. Just pulling off this sort of structure is incredible, but Machado tells a story that wouldn’t work in any other format, layering rape on murder on abuse until the weight of all these crimes, and all these stories, presses on the reader with new power. That these summaries are also filled with fantasy, humor, absurdism, and even hope is a testament to Machado’s extreme skill.

This quality—that Machado muddies the horror and darkness of Her Body and Other Parties with moments of romance, eroticism, and hope—is another joy of the collection, and ultimately what keeps it from being a beautifully executed bummer. The narrator’s daydream of queer domestic bliss in “Mothers” is particularly stunning, a utopian vision rarely explored among the hypersexualized depictions of women-loving women in popular culture.

Her Body and Other Parties is a stunning debut that takes the fabulist short story to new heights. Feminist horror lovers and short story fanatics should run, not walk, to their local bookstore and bring these strange stories home.

Review: Catapult by Emily Fridlund

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Catapult
by Emily Fridlund
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1946448057

By Noah Sanders

Emily Fridlund’s new book of short stories—Catapult—plays in the sandbox of transition. Her characters are mired in the midway point between what’s occurred and what happens next, attempting (and mostly failing) to try and suss out just how to take that next step. Sometimes it’s puberty, sometimes it’s the jagged end of a relationship that’s gone on just a few years too long, regardless, her characters swim in the cloudy waters between two points, reaching out for one shore, while the other slowly fades behind them.  

Fridlund writes about transitions—emotional, physical, even geographical—but more so about the state of transition. Her characters seem stuck, mired in the midst of a life change but unwilling or unable to seal the deal, to move forward. The story “Catapult” starts with this line from a 14-year old girl halfway between puberty and not, “That summer I was reading vampire books, so when Noah said no to sex, I let myself pretend that’s what he was.” The story, about that murky grey area between pure childhood and the onset of adolescence, follows its two leads over a summer spent between kid-like ambitions—time travel, building a raft—and unfulfilled sexual desire. Its main character, a girl who’s abandoned her friend group and escaped what may be a troubling family situation, is cresting into pubescence, but still clutching the simpler ideas of both childhood and faith. She and Noah, a devout Christian struggling with the concepts of science, lie in bed entirely naked, not touching, just talking, exploring ideas instead of their own physicality. It is a lovely, heart-breaking portrayal of that last moment when we mourn the childhood slipping through our grasp, but still yearn for whatever it is the future might hold.

Fridlund is particularly interested in the grey areas between moments. Her stories take place in borderlands between suburbs and the wild, and feature characters held back by their pasts but stumbling inevitably towards the future. In “One You Run From. The Other You Fight” a long-term couple—Nora and Sage—skeptical of the normalized structures of relationships (babies, marriage, etc.) skirt from one event to another, mocking the worlds they’ve avoided so far. The author adeptly portrays a relationship stretched too far, the passion long gone, but the fear of moving on, too much for either to participant to grasp. Only when they arrive at a party with no host in a strange hinterland somewhere between the boxy housing of suburban living and the wilderness that’s been beat back, are they able to see where they’ve come from and potentially where they are going. It is in these boondocks—emotional or otherwise—where the true face of Fridlund’s characters claw their way to the surface.

Each of Fridlund’s stories reads like a novel compressed and though it does work—both “Catapult” and “Lock Jaw” are stellar pieces—occasionally the author reaches for too much. It may be backstory or character motivation or just plot points scattered along the way, but there is an abundance in many stories that reads as clutter rather than atmosphere. Too many narrative threads, too many one-off plot additions shoot out into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Even when Fridlund’s stories overextend, her writing is always spot on. She describes a mosquito’s face as, “like an important utensil”; an elderly dog is “only slightly more animated than an eroded boulder.” Fridlund’s writing—deft and observant, pockmarked with little bursts of joyful description—will pull you forward, even if the outcome isn’t always as satisfying as it might be.

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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We Were Eight Years In Power
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published 2017 by One World
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525624516

By Noah Sanders

You may feel slightly irked that the newest release from massively popular intellectual and memoirist (and comic book writer) Ta-Nehisi Coates has a collection of his already published essays from The Atlantic. For a variety of reasons, you should not be. Even if We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy was just a re-purposed cash grab, a bound assemblage of Coates’ greatest hits from the distinguished magazine over the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, there would be cause for celebration. Coates is a rare intellectual who can, and will, take weighty issuesreparations, America’s historical dependence on slavery, the lesser aspects of Barack Obamaand translate them into palatable essays without losing the fire at his core. Agree or disagree with the points made within this collection, Coates is a writer, and thinker, of immense skill and intelligence. Following his train of thought as he reports, and opines, on the treatment of blacks in America since the time of Roanoke runs the gamut between utter disgust with the country we live in and slack-jawed marvel at Coates ability to make it, strange as it sounds, a pleasure to read.

What pushes We Were Eight Years In Power beyond a dry collection of essays though, is Coates himself. To commemorate the re-release of these pieces of writing, Coates has penned eight original pieces (one for each year) that chart the author’s growth as both a writer and human during the Obama presidency. The new pieces read like commentaries on not only the essay that follows, but Coates himself, his thoughts on writing, his expansion as a thinker, his grappling with newfound fame. They read like DVD commentaries if composed by a MacArthur Grant winning author. Coates, as is his way, doesn’t spare himself or his writing in any way. He tears himself asunder time and time again, exploring what went wrong in his essays, what he wished he’d hit upon, with the travails of youth prevented him from getting on the page.

In “Notes on Year One,” the thought piece before “This Is How We Lost The White Man” (Coates’ essay on Bill Cosby and Black Conservatism), he writes, “In every piece in this book there is a story I told and many more I left untold, for better or worse. In the case of Bill Cosby, especially, it was for worse. That was my shame. That was my failure.” In doing so, Coates places himself as an engaged participant and recorder of American history in the making. The reader watches America grow and contract as we watch Coates do just the same. The essays, impressive as they are, become almost sidebars for the journey of Coates himself, as both human and writer. The memoir pieces create a sinew previously unexplored, a second layer of personal connection to the author, that allows us to see the through-line of Coates’ thinking. It doesn’t seem that revolutionarycommenting on the pieces you’ve previously written in hindsightbut We Were Eight Years In Power speaks volumes for the inclusion of an author’s reflection on his work in collections such as these. As the reader ingests Coates’ critiques and contextual placements of his own work, the pieces seem to pull apart and reform, perceived entirely different in their new context.

There are two main sides of Coates as a writerthe memoirist and the intellectual. Where his essays can tend towards statistical interpretation and flat-out reportage, in his booksThe Beautiful Struggle and Between The World and MeCoates chooses emotion over cold, hard fact, leaving the statistics and statistical interpretations of his essay work on the shelf in favor of wrenching, poetic, emotional release. It’s clear that Coates’ longer pieces stem from the same throbbing intellect that his essays do, but in them, Coates isn’t held back by the restraints of reportage and the wider palette allows him to show how the world his essays paint was one he lived in, was one which personally affected him and his loved one. We Were Eight Years In Power allows the reader to digest the complex ideas of his more academic pursuits, but with Coates as a personal guide. If his books lead us through his life in the face of rampant racism, and if his essays lead us deep into the crevices of his enormous intellect, this book gives readers the best of both worlds.

Review: The Missing Girl by Jacqueline Doyle

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The Missing Girl
by Jacqueline Doyle
Published 2017 by Black Lawrence Press
$8.95 paperback ISBN 978-1-62557-983-6

By Wesley Cohen

In her interview for Speaking of Marvels, Jacqueline Doyle describes the fascination behind her new fiction chapbook The Missing Girl: “For a long while I was haunted by stories of abused or murdered or missing girls.”

The Missing Girl feels like the product of a haunting, an author’s obsession: the collection is claustrophobic in its focus on sexual violence against girls and women. The language is immediate, spare, and aggressive.

Plenty of authors share Doyle’s obsession—“Girl” books are having a heyday—and the fascination with missing girls has already been thoroughly probed. Nonetheless, The Missing Girl’s flashbulb stories feel fresh.

Perhaps it’s “My Blue Heaven” that takes the most novel approach to the oft-described murdered or missing girl. The story inscribes a narrative around Molly, a teenage girl murdered by her adult lover, by weaving together perspectives from her best friend Lizbeth, her male murderer Vern, his wife Edna, and the clerk of the motel where Vern has sex with Molly and then kills her.  Together the many tellings of Molly’s death show the way that this missing girl becomes a symbol, a story, an absence held up and examined from every angle, and shows how outside the archetypal pair of perpetrator and victim, man and girl, there are often other people standing, watching, complicit.

“Something Like That,” is another standout piece. Instead of a girl gone missing, here it is the men who are obscured, blending together as a young woman lists off the attacks and indignities of girlhood. The story has a terrific rhythm and momentum, gathering speed without paragraph breaks and with minimal punctuation:

They said I was lucky nothing really happened, not like the girl down the hall who dropped out. And I guess nothing really happened, at least not compared to high school, when I thought I was in love, at least he said he loved me, and then two of his friends showed up when we were making out in the back seat of his car, and they did things to me, and all three of them laughed and called me a slut. Everyone at school was calling me a slut that year.

Throughout, the stories pinball back and forth between the perspective of the victim and the perpetrator, the abused and the abuser. The effect is dizzying, “He said, she said” writ large.

But in a collection that sets out to explore the phenomenon of The Missing Girl, and is specifically dedicated to missing girls, it’s difficult to account for the stories that continue to erase their experiences and perspectives, as their bodies, uniformly blonde and pale, are disappeared from street corners and into strange cars and silent woods. While Doyle achieves a fascinating narrative effect from sharing victims’ perspectives alongside those of murderers, kidnappers, and rapists, showing these missing girls only through the eyes of their attackers, outlined by male memories and projections and desires, feels like yet another way these girls are made missing.

Through these stories run veins of obfuscation and disbelief, with victims and perpetrators alike lying about their stories, leaving out crucial details, or forgetting what has happened. Time and trauma wear down these narratives into collections of images, disconnected, whose contexts are unclear.

The chapbook’s final offering, “Nola,” is its most rewarding. Here, the narrator is a woman, not a girl, and she looks back on a crime she may have committed against another girl when she was still a child. Doyle doubles down on the uncertainty that makes her previous stories so unsettling, but allows her characters to break out of the adult-male-perpetrator/female-child-victim matrix, letting the crime—the protagonist tying up her friend Nola in the woods as part of a game and then leaving her there—take on more complexity, and letting the narrator exist as a more complete character. Unable to find proof of Nola’s disappearance online or figure out whether Nola ever made it back home, the narrator, now a grandmother, is haunted by apparitions of Nola on the street and dreams of her each night.

Like “Nola”’s narrator, readers of The Missing Girl can expect to find themselves haunted by these stories for days after they set the chapbook down.

Review: A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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A Loving, Faithful Animal
by Josephine Rowe
Published 2017 by Catapult
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1936787579

By Noah Sanders

Josephine Rowe’s outstanding debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, follows a poor, Australian family marred by the pain inflicted on them by a now non-existent father figure. The father, Jack, is comparable to a natural disaster, a powerful hurricane perhaps, leveling everything in its path, before evaporating into nothing. There is a sense of aftermath to the book—the 160 mile winds have faded, the roofs have been torn off and now all that’s left is for those who’ve survived to survey the damage done, to reflect upon what happened and how they got there, and to try and figure out how to move on. Rowe places the story in the hands of the women left in Jack’s wake—the daughters, Ru and Lani, and their mother, his wife, Evelyn. There is a fluidity to the time, the reader stuck in the present with these damaged characters, but sent forward and back to see just how far the effects of their father extend into their lives; just how long it took for him to really jump into the deep end. It is a devastating piece of literature crafted by an exceptionally talented writer who tears the lives of her characters asunder and then charts their path back together.

The book starts after Jack has departed once again, this time for good, from his wife, two daughters, and brother, Les (Tetch). There is a sense of shock in the early chapters, each of them charting the effects of the departure through the eyes of another family member. They loll between locations and people, drinking and smoking, fucking and fighting, trying to find a foothold in the aftermath. Trying to see what the landscape looks like, now that they may have received the all-clear. Rowe buries a sense of happiness in her characters, pockmarked by the sadness of not only their father leaving, but of the scars—physical and mental—he’s left them with. As Evelyn says, “Jack’s voice there, in her head. He’s poisoned everything.”

There’s no love lost between the characters, at least on the surface. Jack’s abusive presence has forced them against each other, survivors in a jungle, survival instincts humming, everyone looking out for only themselves. Underneath it though—and Rowe exposes the deep darks and high highs that exist beneath her character’s tough, sunburnt skin—the family clings to whatever they still think is good in their lives. For Jack, it’s Belle—a family dog torn apart by a panther before the book starts, the catalyst for his departure—an animal loyal to him. “That was something,” he says, “To be someone’s best thing.” In his absence, the rest of the family struggles to define if anything is still their “best thing,” if their experience up to now hasn’t damaged them so greatly that there is nothing left to give. Some of them flee, some of them nest, all of them, slowly, start to heal. The author doesn’t allow her characters to be solely victims, she digs in deep into what drives Evelyn—born into wealth—to stay through the countless beatings, the destitution, the general downward arc of her life, and what her decision does to her and to her daughters.

Rowe is, and this can’t be said enough, a remarkable writer. Her prose is a mixture of Denis Johnson’s tough guy prattle and the deft, character painting of Stephen King. These are seriously fucked up people, and Rowe has no problem putting that on the page, of scraping away at their sorest spots to slowly expose them to her readers. What Rowe is able to pack into such a short book (162 pages) is incredible—she builds a broken down world filled with living, breathing humans in what some authors would call an opening act. Her writing is somehow both visceral and dreamlike, alive but floating in a state of sustained shock. “Then there’s only the three long strips of road, paddock, sky, waving like a tricolor flag,” Rowe writes, describing Ru’s bike ride into the desolate land around her house, “and it’s as though no time passes, like sleeping without dreams or dreaming awake, until the road runs out in crooked star pickets and snarls of wire.”

Each character gets a chapter—Ru, the youngest daughter, gets two—including Jack and this is the only bump in otherwise seamless book. By giving Jack a chapter—the destructive force at the center of the book—Rowe takes away some of the power of the characters left to figure everything out. Instead of a reflection of pain and abuse we get in early chapters with Ru and Evelyn, Jack’s harsh description of the war and of his romance with his future wife seems an intrusion. It pulls the focus on how to move forward and places it on why they need to, which in a book as harsh and merciless as A Loving, Faithful Animal can be, there’s absolutely no need. The character that’s formed through the eyes of those he’s damaged is much more powerful.

This is a small flaw though in an otherwise incredible piece of work. Rowe has managed to take one of the great tropes of literature—the shattered family—and inject it with a blast of edgy, searing emotional fire. If it was only her writing that was as good as it is—and it is phenomenal—this would be a book to devour in a sitting, every word slowly savored. But her skill at description and setting is merely the gift-wrapping for a book that quietly, yet savagely, paints a picture of what it’s like to survive, and what it takes to continue doing so.

Review: Five-Carat Soul by James McBride

9780735216693


Five-Carat Soul
by James McBride
Published 2017 by Riverhead Books
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0735216693

By Noah Sanders

In the Author’s Note for James McBride’s new collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul, the author writes of the inspiration for the quintet of chapters that makes up the book’s closing story, “Mr. P & The Wind.” He writes of taking his nephews to a zoo in a “major American” city, and how the story was crafted with his “horrified” family in mind. After reading “Mr. P & The Wind”—and any number of the other stories in the book—one might assume that it was not only inspired by his nephews, but written with their fledgling age group in mind. There’s a simplistic blandness to “Mr. P & The Wind”; its fable-like tale of “thought speaking” zoo animals toes the line of superficial allegory (the zoo is like prison, the animals like prisoners) but never seems to want to draw any conclusions from said allegory. This is a problem that spans the entirety of the book. McBride—a National Book Award winning author—plays in the arena of weighty ideas, but for the most part the short stories contained within span a grim spectrum: the ideas spread too thin with too little focus, or beat into the reader’s brain with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

There is some surprise in reading a piece of Mr. McBride’s work—the author is a beloved literary staple and an award-winning one at that—and finding it so underwhelming. To be frank though: this is an underwhelming collection. It feels slapped together, an anthology of short pieces as written by an author uncomfortable in the medium, over an entire lifetime of writing. Five-Carat Soul doesn’t feel like a collection crafted to show off a writer’s particular skill, rather, it just seems to be the shorter work he had collecting dust in various cabinets, finally brought to light.

“The Fish Man Angel”—a story that could’ve been titled “How Mr. Lincoln Wrote The Emancipation Proclamation”—quite literally tells the story of a grieving Lincoln, hiding in a stable while his coachman Simmie, tells a story to his confused son. While Lincoln cowers, Simmie speaks of his wife and the “fish man angel” that helped her to get pregnant and how his final words to her, “here … thenceforward … forever-more … free” inspired the President to compose his most famous speech, just a few weeks later. Shrinking down the inspiration for the most famous of all of the most famous president’s speeches to a single moment of clarity isn’t outright a bad idea, but McBride draws such a linear connection between a sad Lincoln, a mean stablemaster and a cheery, if not bumbling, coachman, there’s a feeling that more is coming, that a greater idea will be touched upon. It never happens. It isn’t fair to judge an author on the expectations of its reader, but time and time again in Five-Carat Soul, the stories gleam with the dewy sheen of lofty ideas, but never dig deep enough to make them matter. Instead McBride seems content with writing folksy, under-developed yarns that aren’t hard to read, but come off as decently written throwaways.

“The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” starts off brilliantly—a lonely toy collector finds the train set of his dreams—but after drawing the reader in, lays down an elementary thematic structure (we’re all different from who we purport ourselves to be) and then neatly ties the disparate narrative elements together. Nearly every piece feels this way. “The Moaning Bench” tells the tale of four people condemned to hell and the boxer who fights for their freedom. “The Christmas Dance” is a straightforward story about a promise made in war that McBride struggles to add tension and mystery to. There just isn’t much layering to any of the ideas inherent to this collection. They are exactly what they are on the page, and sadly, it just isn’t enough.

It’s not all bad. The four-part “The Five Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” recounts the lives of four boys in a destitute neighborhood called The Bottoms. Mr. McBride nails the tone and the interactions of pubescent boys, adding a gritty warmth to the down-and-out world he creates. Here, the folksy tone of McBride’s writing succeeds—the nostalgia layered over his strong points about race, class and poverty adding a needed roundness to the work the rest of the collection lacks.

Mr. McBride is, from his critical reception and the awards he’s amassed, a talented novelist. A writer able to not only write a gripping piece of fiction, but to imbue it with a deeper, oft times darker subtext. Here though, in the realm of short stories—fickle beasts that they are—he feels out of his element, stripped of his humor and charm, struggling to invest his work with the wise, nostalgic elegance he’s so well known for.

Review: Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander

9780525499978


Dinner At The Center of the Earth
by Nathan Englander
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524732738

By Noah Sanders

Near the end of Nathan Englander’s fantastic new novel, Dinner At The Center of The Earth, when the varied threads of his story are colliding, erupting and unraveling, the author writes, “The paths of life, they are infinitely weaving.” Dinner At The Center of the Earth is a story that ricochets through a decade of the historic, ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but zooms down to a basic, near microscopic level in the context of history: the simple relationships between two people. Though set amongst a truly tragic scenario, the book can only be called historical fiction in the loosest terms. This is a story about the power of a relationship, the ripple effect that the connection between two people—real or imagined—can send sprawling into the world, forcing history’s hand as it does. Englander is able to show not only the shifting morals inherent to a conflict between two opposing forces through his small cast of characters, but to show, that under the umbrella of history, are the teeming masses of individuals, all of them seeking a way forward, whatever that may be.

By drawing the focus away from the major events of the Israeli/Palestine conflict Englander is making the point that as much as history is pushed along by major battles, assassinations, and moments that we can fill textbooks about, at its heart are small moments, minuscule events and the connections between two people. It is these events, buried beneath the slow spreading sand dunes of history, that fade from sight, but it is these experiences that drive, well, everything. Englander’s books focuses on a selection of characters whose lives, and actions, run parallel to the greater events of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians over the last decade. A former spy sits in a black site cell; a Palestinian businessman teaches a man to sail; a guard eats dinner with his mother; a woman watches the leader of Israel slip slowly into the grips of death—each of them has their beliefs, each of them has taken sides and their actions have effected the greater political picture in small, and enormous ways.

Though the cowl of history always rests on Englander’s characters, there are large stretches—Z (the spy) and his romancing of an Italian waitress, the relationship between Ruthi and her son (the unnamed security guard)—where the author allows history to take a back seat, and the pure connection between two people rises to the surface. The relationship between Farid (the Palestinian/German businessman) and Joshua (his billionaire sailing student) is based entirely on two men in need of companionship, men tossed about by war and economics who have, by chance, landed at a small boating club in Berlin. Nothing is ever as it seems in Dinner At The Center of The Earth, and Englander never makes it seem any different: these are spies and politicians and the assorted rabble that gets drawn to them.

But Englander’s great gift, and perhaps the great message of this book, is his ability to make you believe, against all better judgement, that these relationships are real. That the emotion simmering at the heart of each—love, loss, want, lust—isn’t the product of espionage, but the product of natural human need. That even though the reader knows, absolutely believes, these character will betray each other in the name of greater causes, Englander convinces that their emotional connections are real. In wanting these basic human emotional satisfactions, the characters of Dinner lose sight of the concrete objectives of spy-craft and politics, economics and reality. Human need as great and blinding, and often times the producer of terrible consequences. As Farid says to Joshua as their friendships comes to a spectacular, history-altering end, “I am calling so that you understand, what has already been put into motion did not have to happen. What already cannot be stopped was started because of this, because of you.”

Dinner At The Center of The Earth is a book full of betrayals, and paranoia, all of it derived from our most essential, most necessary aspect of being human: the relationship. This isn’t a dour book though, instead in the annals of history, Englander is able to show that amongst the horrific arc of time, relationships emerge, small and beautiful, even between two world powers whose knives have laid at each other’s throats for nearly a century. The titular “dinner” Englander invokes is one between a former Israeli spy and a Palestinian politician, in love separated by politics and war, hopeless symbols of the conflict. “Our issues,” the politician says, “They’re insurmountable, far beyond our hope.” Englander allows their narrative threads to touch once more though in the dust-soaked tunnels beneath Israel, bombs exploding above them, candles flickering. It is a small moment, as all of them in the book are, with enormous implications. As if Englander in dissecting the relationships at the heart of any conflict has found not only the cause, but the cure.

Of Age by Kwan Booth

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Your hands are cuffed behind you and your world is turned sideways as you lay cheek to concrete beside the door of D’s two-toned Dodge Aries. The police helicopter spotlighting your right of passage. Your big night. The first time that it happens to you.

Shortly before you’d been leaned back in the pleather seat of D’s brown hooptie, blasting The Friday Night Mega Mix as you made the usual rounds around your small city. Now there are flashing lights and neighbors huddled on their porches, clutching 40’s of OE and fanning themselves against the muggy ass Virginia night. Watching as you’re baptized into an all too familiar congregation.

You both knew that blowing the horn at the cop car was a dumb idea as soon as D did it, as soon as the foul sound ripped from his rust bucket and hung in the air between the cars like a fart.  

You knew that on the wrong night the distance between life and death was no further than the space needed to pull a trigger.

That the distance between the truth and what made it into the police report could be as wide as the river flowing through the middle of the city. And just as likely to hide skeletons beneath the murky surface.

There was ongoing beef between what really happened and the official statement and you could rattle off the names of heads who’d been caught in the crossfire.

You knew to tread lightly. 5-0 were as regular as roaches in the hood and heads got hemmed up all the time for crimes no more serious than breathing. You knew this. These truths had been ingrained in your heads and re-enforced like scripture.

But you were 17, and it was the summer after graduation. And there were prom photos and college acceptance letters for your mothers to brag about on their bus rides to work in the morning.

Your days are all 100 degree scorchers and sweat. Your nights all possibilities and adrenaline. Your world revolved around debates on east vs west coast MC’s and lies about the girls you’d smashed after church service on Sundays.

Dumb ideas were as common as blackheads and as necessary as Air Jordans and lunch room freestyles.

And to be fair, you’d been sitting behind those two cop cars for like a whole 5 minutes. How hard would it have been to just pull one of their fucking cars to the side of the road and let you pass?

They weren’t doing any kind of debriefing. There were no updates on suspects or incident reports. You saw bared teeth and laughing as they ignored the glare from your headlights. Two cops shooting the shit. Neither even bothered to look your way as their dirty black and whites blocked both lanes on the narrow street like grimy glaciers.

After the horn and a long pause the cruiser in front of you had slowly moved to one side and D inched past as careful as a pallbearer, as solemn as a funeral.

You let out a huge exhale as you rounded the next corner and pulled in front of D’s house. You don’t mention what just happened. You knew you’d just escaped something dangerous and don’t  want to rouse the demons you were sure you’d just narrowly slipped past.

But you were black. And you were also in The South. And you knew that escape had never been as easy as running away and pretending the monsters didn’t exist.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the approximately 30 seconds it took you to go down two blocks and round the corner to sit idle outside D’s 4plex was also the exact same time that it took to call in reinforcements from what seemed like every single police station in a 3 county radius.

One second you’re taking measured breaths and venturing nervous relief, the next you’re thrown to the ground and handcuffed. Guns drawn, an army of officers searching your car and radioing in your social.

They are running your pockets and looking for reasons. They’re asking you questions and taking no shit. They are teaching you important lessons for the future and they expect those lessons to stick.

You feel what happens when your hopes and dreams are knocked out of you like the wind.   

D learns the timbres of his mother’s wails and memorizes her mask of panic as she watches her son become a statistic.

After what seems like forever you’re lifted up and released. The officer who’d moved his car for you earlier comes over and removes the metal restraints from each of your wrists personally.

He is all smiles and laughing while he uncuffs you, with no mention of a citation or court summons. His point had been made. The lesson had been learned.  Order had been restored.

“Ya’ll boys be good now.” he says as he slides into his driver’s seat, the shotgun tucked back into the wrack behind him.

And for the first time you feel true weight of the shackles he’s left you with, tightening and squeezing and making it difficult to catch your next breath.

“I’ll be watching” he says driving away. His headlights fading, the night withering and dying around you.

 


About the Author: Kwan Booth is an award winning writer and strategist focused on the intersection of media, technology and social justice. He spends his days at a big tech company teaching people how to make money on the internet. At night he writes fiction, articles and essays that often detail the dangers of big tech companies and the ridiculous ways that people try to make money on the internet. It’s strangely satisfying. He’s the editor of the anthology “Black Futurists Speak: New Black Writing” and his journalism and creative writing have been published in anthologies, journals and news sites including The Guardian, Fusion, “CHORUS: a literary mixtape”, “Beyond the Frontier: African American Poets for the 21st Century”, the Journal for Pan African Studies and the Oakland Review. His awards include a Sigma Delta Chi Award from The Society of Professional Journalists and a Pushcart Prize nomination for fiction. He recently joined the board of directors for Nomadic Press and has developed media projects for organizations including the Knight Center for Digital Media, The Kapor Center for Social Impact, The National Conference on Media Reform and The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. More info at Boothism.org

 

Preparing the Dead by Meg Yardley

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Preparing the Dead

                                                            for Jamie

To prepare the dead I dig out
one purple rubber glove
from under the kitchen sink.

The city of Oakland will take her body only
for sixty two dollars payable in person
between the hours of nine and eleven a.m. on a weekday.

Yesterday she was clinging to a sapling,
dark slit eyes in sharp pale face,
babies climbing over and under.

Today her belly quivers under my glove
as I draw her up. Wisps of hair, tough feet
sliding into a garbage bag. Sweet dusk

coming down over our heads. Your eyes are red.
Stripping off the glove, I put arms around you.
We too are bureaucrats of death:

for lack of an animal control officer
we let her die. From the deck
we could not see her pouch caught on a hook

in the tree (a hook we did not place
and did not remove). Holding fast, she weakened.
Tomorrow two of her babies will die

huddled in the rain even under
the cardboard shelter you laid out.
You’ll have to tell the children.


About the Author: Meg Yardley lives and works in Oakland. Her writing has appeared in Rattle, Hanging Loose, Leveler, AMP, and others.

Love in the Digital Age by Elison Alcovendaz

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The morning the silent agreement began started much like the last 1,095 mornings of the Peabody marriage. Beth woke up at 5am to her internal clock, rubbed the crust out of her eyes, showered, ironed, then kissed Jeff on the cheek as she went off to her job as a news anchor. Jeff had always been a light sleeper. Every morning, when Beth slid off the bed as light as a ghost, Jeff had already been awake for an hour but kept his eyes closed until he felt the familiar coldness of her lips on his cheek, heard the steps down the stairs, the garage door opening, the garage door closing.

Jeff was a novelist. He wasn’t sure if his wife’s lips really were that cold or if he had invented a metaphor for the state of their marriage. He made a comfortable living making connections like that, though his last novel had been a failure. After failing to sell half of the initial printing, and even worse e-book sales, his publisher warned a similar showing would mean the axe.

This led to the silent agreement, which Jeff considered to be one of his best ideas yet. After another quiet lasagna dinner followed by a couple of DVR’d sitcoms, Jeff rose from the couch and suggested to Beth that they not speak to each other for an indefinite period of time. Something about needing to save his words for his new book, to get back on track, to reconnect with the war and sex-filled historical romances that had made him a New York Times bestseller in the first place. No talking, he said. To Jeff’s surprise, there were no questions, no tears. Beth simply stared and nodded. They agreed to start in the morning.

It was 7am. Jeff slid on his slippers and walked across the hallway to the den. He plopped into the leather chair and flipped on the computer. The word document appeared just as he left it: empty, the cursor blinking at him from the corner of the page. Outside, the late winter rain fell, hard and cold. He wondered if Beth brought her umbrella. He minimized the screen and checked his instant messages. She always IM’d him when she arrived at work. I’m here and safe! she’d say. Or: write well today! She was signed on but hadn’t messaged him. He set his fingertips on the keyboard and stared at the blank Word document on the screen.

 

At 8am, Jeff went downstairs. A plate of runny eggs and soggy bacon strips awaited him on the kitchen counter. He dumped the food into the trash compactor and microwaved some old pizza. Beth had never been a good cook, yet the first thing she’d wanted when they moved into the house was a new kitchen. For weeks they stood side by side, laughing as they swung their sledgehammers through the rotting wood cabinets and the particleboard countertops. Soon they were building a new front porch, retiling all the bathrooms, repainting all the walls. Building their future with their own hands. In the evenings, bodies aching and coated in dust and sweat and paint, they rolled around on the carpet with no breath for words.

Jeff tossed the box back into the refrigerator, grabbed the TV remote, and clicked on the morning news. A close-up of Beth’s face appeared on the screen: light green eyes, pink lips, a pale face made paler by powder. Jeff thought she looked spectral. She reported that one in five divorces could now be attributed to Facebook… a symptom of the new world, where relationships could be forged and broken by a few words on a status update… She said this with dimmed eyes, glancing at him in a way he’d almost forgotten, as though attempting to reach him through the screen. He changed the station and flipped through the channels for a while. Then he turned the TV off and went back to his computer.

 

At 11am, the doorbell rang. A UPS driver stood in the rain with a package for Beth. The deliveryman was young and muscular and carried a large Amazon box on his shoulder. There have to be at least thirty hardbacks in there, Jeff thought. Beth detested the Kindle and refused to get one. Jeff shut the door and struggled to set the heavy box on the dining room table, wondering what would happen if he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and sliced open the box. Nothing, probably. Beth would most likely break their silent agreement and tell him about all the wonderful new authors she’d discovered. Then she would go on talking, first about the affair between the meteorologist and the cameraman, then about how her father was doing much better in the new convalescent home, then about how her back pain was really starting to worsen. He decided he didn’t care what was in the box.

Back upstairs, Jeff checked his phone. Noon had come and gone, and usually he would’ve had three messages and a voicemail from Beth by then. Hope your day is going well, she’d say. Or: Keep writing! He punched HELLO? into the text box then erased it. She was probably busy with an urgent story. A ten-car pile-up. A hostage situation. The death of a celebrity. Something.

Jeff set the wireless keyboard on his lap but no words came.

 

*

Two hours later, Jeff signed onto his Facebook account and checked Beth’s page. A year ago, the station had insisted she make a public Facebook page, and since then strange men sent her Facebook messages and posted thinly veiled sexual comments. Every time Jeff would express his displeasure Beth would say it’s harmless and kiss him on the cheek and call it a day.

There was one new comment on her news feed, some steroid-freak named Dirk who stood shirtless in his profile picture thanking her for her constantly honest portrayal of the news. Beth responded with a quick thanks, he rejoined with a no really it’s amazing work you’re doing, she answered with a I really try and appreciate the compliment, and then he said you’re beautiful, and she responded with a ☺, and after that, Jeff stopped reading.

He stared at Beth’s thumbnail picture. It was one of his least favorites, a stoic, official, in-the-photographer’s-studio snapshot the station used on their website. She had been voted the second hottest newswoman in Sacramento by a local online magazine last year, but that was a long time ago. There had been a time when he couldn’t see a picture of her without getting aroused, but that time was unreachable, and he no longer felt guilty about wanting to masturbate more than he wanted to put in the work required to get Beth into the necessary romantic mood.

He took the keyboard off his lap and set it on the desk, leaned back his chair, and clicked back to his Facebook page. He had fans too, mostly middle-aged mothers who connected with his ill-fated heroines. Sometimes Jeff liked to scroll through their pictures and photo albums and concoct fantasies, some of which ended up as scenes in his books. There was one woman in particular, Julia from upstate New York, whose profile photos were filled with cleavage-revealing shots. They had emailed a few times, and though they never spoke, Jeff thought of Julia’s soft voice as he scrolled through her Facebook photo album with one hand while he stroked his penis with the other.

Twenty minutes later, after signing onto a live webcam show, then watching various orgies on a porn site, then going back to Julia’s photos, then closing his eyes tight and trying to recall Beth in the early days, when they slept naked and talked dirty, Jeff glanced down at the still limp penis in his hand and cursed at the computer.

4pm. Jeff checked his phone again. Nothing. At that time Beth was usually sitting in traffic, Bluetooth in her ear, complaining to him about how she should be on the nightly news team. Jeff googled traffic information. All freeways were relatively clear for a rainy day. He checked her Facebook page. He checked his email. Then he moved his chair to the window and watched the cars roll up and down the street.

 

5pm. Jeff dialed the station. A man answered. Jeff listened to the noise in the background, of people shouting across a room, but none that sounded like Beth. The man said hello a few times, uttered a curse word, and hung up the phone. Jeff listened to the dial tone, and when he was tired, put it on speaker to drown out the rain.

 

At 7pm, the garage door opened. Jeff quickly pulled up an old story to replace the blank screen. He tiptoed to the door and nudged it completely open, so she would have no excuse for not seeing him. He listened to the clacks of heels across the tile, the creak of the closet door opening, the familiar crack of Beth’s knuckles. Jeff banged on the keyboard, writing nonsense, so she could hear him working, so she would know he’d been right, that the juices were flowing again. He turned his ear towards the open doorway in anticipation of her footsteps, but he only heard her pressing buttons on the microwave and the familiar voices of a TV sitcom.

 

At 10pm, Jeff tiptoed to the hallway and leaned over the bannister. The lights were off in the living room, though the muted TV sent flashes of stale color across the dark walls. He could hear her in the dining room. He stood there for a while, waiting for her to pop out her head and smile. What would he say? Hi honey, how was your day? Or: who’s that Dirk asshole? He cleared his throat once, then louder. No movement. He walked to their bedroom, slammed the door. Ten minutes later, he opened it again and stomped across the hallway, stopping at his previous spot. Still nothing.

He stood there for half an hour. The same commercial played three times. A car alarm blared outside for a few seconds then died. He grabbed his phone and checked her Facebook page again. In the last two hours she’d made one new status update: Leftovers for dinner. Yum. Five likes. Was this a message for Jeff? That he should’ve made dinner? He hadn’t thought about it, but maybe he should’ve. Leftovers are the best, he commented. He stared at his phone, watching other people comment, waiting for her response. After half an hour, she’d liked every other comment but hadn’t touched his.

 

11pm. Jeff rocked back and forth in his chair, staring at his phone. He’d texted her three times. He shut off his computer and tiptoed to the bannister again. He hadn’t seen it before, but there was Beth’s phone, sitting on the coffee table, flashing in discord to the changing hues of the television. What was she doing? For a moment he thought about yelling, but he realized he’d never done that before, and maybe she would take it as a sign of disenchantment, or that he was a hypocrite for breaking their agreement. He thought about what he would say if she suddenly appeared on the steps, looking up at him in the way she had on the television, an expression he could no longer interpret. Maybe if he just said I love you, she’d forget the last year, forgive his aloofness, ignore the nights he preferred to hunch over his laptop instead of listening to her little complaints, eschew the general malaise that had settled on their marriage like mold. Jeff decided he would go downstairs.

He stepped lightly on each step, attentive to each creak. The carpet felt old and crusty underneath his feet. He reached the bottom and stopped, turning towards the dining room. From his vantage point, he could barely see the back of her body, her hair tucked into the crevices of an old hoodie. If she was aware of his presence, she made no acknowledgment. Her breathing remained slow and constant. He thought about coughing, making a sound of some kind, but she looked at peace or deep in thought, and he didn’t want to disrupt her or make her think he didn’t value her alone time. Did she want to be alone? He wondered if it had been her the whole time. No. It had been him.

He slid his phone into his pocket, then walked across the foyer and watched her from across the family room. She did not turn around. On the table, the Amazon box lay flat and folded. Beside it, in five neat piles, were thirty hardback editions of his latest novel, Love in the Digital Age.  The story followed two lovebirds in an online-only marriage—they shared an online bank account, ran an eBay business together, communicated and made love via video chat—and over the thirty years of marital bliss, never met in real life. Apparently the bodiless state of human relations scared Jeff’s readers.

One copy lay open in front of her. He stood there for nearly an hour, watching her read his words, lick her fingers, turn the page. She bent her neck side to side, rotated it in small circles, and he remembered how she would lean her head towards him when he would massage her shoulders. He listened to her bones crack. He studied how her knee bounced up and down under the table. She turned another page.

 

At midnight, he walked across the family room and stopped right behind her. She raised her head, and in the reflection of the window in front of her, they stared at each other. Her eyes looked different then they had on TV. Pulsing. Alive. And Jeff Peabody knew then that they still knew each other. He began to say many things—Beth, I’m sorry, I love you, Beth—but she raised her finger to her lips, so instead he swallowed his words and wrapped his arms tightly around his wife.

 


About the Author: Elison Alcovendaz‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Gargoyle Magazine, The Portland Review, Psychology Today, and other publications. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State and sometimes blogs about Justin Bieber and other important things at www.elisonalcovendaz.com.

Answering the Demand to Renounce Mostafa by Tamer Mostafa

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Answering the Demand to Renounce Mostafa

 1.

Do not assume my declarations are disingenuous,
that I have neglected the chronicle of records
and an epithet chosen for revelation.
This conviction inscribed in permanence
is existent, under the flaws of my practice,
the admission of failings skimming naked
like a wrinkled film of wax over a date’s skin.

2.

My father’s emigration began with a stage name
accommodated to a Western spelling and motif,
a mold of typecast formulas guised in his shadow,
anticipating the first film of night to surrender,
prostrate in salutation to this                  our soil.

3.

He was convulsed back to nativity, its wet heaviness,
the revival of deprivation, a fidelity for the familial.
They have not forsworn me, a memento of vicarious lore
natant through a cyclical undercurrent.

4.

There are others, universalities favored to reasoning,
the enmity of absent names from the optics of impotence,
a “Miracle Baby” dependent on rubble turf.
His name is Mahmoud, our emblem for unanimity
serenading the hands that hold him      those of wounds.

5.

I have been assumed access to this working microcosm,
my achromic skin a mute password to doorkeepers
deadened by an archival recognition of supremacy,
the progressive panic of a tempered power.
And I, with cryptic oriental vitals, will be revealed
testifying their sedated handwriting in ivory.


About the Author: Tamer Said Mostafa is an-always proud Stockton, California native whose work has appeared in nearly twenty various journals and magazines such as Confrontation, Monday Night Lit, and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change among others. As an Arab-American Muslim, he reflects on life through spirituality, an evolving commitment to social justice, and the music of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.

Execute Eric Smith by Bill Carr

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The euphoria didn’t last long. In fact, it was the most fleeting euphoria of Eric Smith’s professional career. He’d just gotten off the phone with the Algogenics marketing manager. Build price: $0.79. License fee: $3.97. Retail: $5.99. Not the greatest margins, Marketing had said. But we’ll sell a ton of them.

Which is exactly what Eric had been claiming for E-retrieve all along. No more stolen cars. No more lost cars. No more lost keys. No more stolen or lost anything. Of course he hadn’t pitched exactly that to the development VP. Significant reduction in theft and loss. Should retail for almost one-fifth the cost of the original find-my-keys tile, with over ten times the capability.

So why this sense of foreboding? Everything had been going incredibly well. He’d met the love of his life, granted she’d been discovered on the second time around. Good relations with his ex. A beautiful and talented daughter who remained devoted to two parents who discovered after fifteen years of marriage that they didn’t really like each other. No financial worries. A rent-controlled, Upper East Side apartment that most New Yorkers would kill for: two bedrooms, two baths, living room, full kitchen, and, as Val liked to call it, the “everything” room: a vaulted-ceiling, twenty-by-thirty-foot room, serving as an office, conference room, and gymnasium, with a picture-window view of Manhattan and a 150-inch flat-screen TV, called a telescreen, on the wall. Always pleasant in the apartment regardless of the season, with a state-of-the-art centrally located climate control system, adjustable by the tenant for each room.

So tell me, Eric said to himself, what is the problem? There is no problem. Normal letdown after a huge success.

Chimes. His daughter Valerie on the telescreen. He clicked connect.

He had to admit he felt a little like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the starship Enterprise when looking at that huge screen. At least the visitors were friendly.

“Hi, sweetheart. How are things in sunny California?”

“It’s sunny in Sunnyvale. Not so much here.”

The background was her office at Teraffic headquarters in Palo Alto, not her home in Mountain View. She was beautiful, just like her mother. Dark hair, dark eyes, beautiful smile. He’d never quite figured out if she was also headstrong like her mother. She certainly wasn’t with him. But what was her personality like at work? He couldn’t tell. They never discussed anything about work.

Maybe that was one problem. Father and daughter, both successful product developers, and unable to talk about their work experiences. At least not until announcement. Be careful what you put in an email. When you delete them, they don’t go away. Were telephone conversations monitored? You just didn’t know.

After getting the MBA from Stanford, she got so many job offers. She chose Teraffic, the big West Coast networking company. After three years there, her yearly salary was higher than he’d ever made.

“You’re in the office today,” Eric said.

“Had to come in for a presentation. And you’re at home in the everything room?”

He smiled. “Everything, if you don’t mind occasional rearranging.”

“Dad,” she said soberly, “you look a little pale. Why don’t you try to get out more?”

“Well, you know I work completely at home now.”

“But you don’t even get out on weekends,” she persisted. “You know, here at Teraffic, if you work at home, you don’t have to be working every minute.”

“I know.”

“Why don’t you give Mitch Rayburn a call and play some tennis in the park? And think about coming out here for a while. The air is very good out here.”

“I will, sweetheart. I promise.”

After they disconnected, he realized she was right. He had trouble recalling the last time he’d left the apartment. It was over to Kristin’s place, but that might have been three weeks ago. A recent survey found that more activities were performed at home than ever before: work, entertainment, exercise, medical checkups. Maybe he was being paranoid, but in his case it seemed every time he went out, even if it was just over to Madison Avenue to pick up some groceries, he invariably developed some bug two days later that took two weeks to get rid of.

The thin, craggy, tanned face of Mitch Rayburn appeared on the telescreen. Working at home also. Mitch was one of those wiry people with boundless energy. They’d been playing tennis on and off for about twenty-five years, ever since their families met. Both couples had moved from Brooklyn to the city after the kids were grown.

“Hey,” Mitch said, “how are things at the Utopian Arms?”

“Confining,” Eric replied. Mitch and his wife Linda were one of the few couples to make a sustained effort to socialize with him after the divorce.

“Want to hit a few?” Mitch asked.

“Exactly my intention.”

“Meet you at the park in half an hour?”

Eric paused. “Problem is I don’t have time to get to the park and back. I have a meeting at two. How about some SuperPong?”

Mitch frowned. Eric knew he really didn’t like Pong. But Mitch agreed.

“King Pong it is,” Mitch said.

“Let me just move some stuff.” It didn’t matter. Indoors or out, he never got more than a game or two off Mitch.

He had the sofa bed on casters so it could easily be moved sideways against the wall and out of the way. Special tennis slippers so the downstairs neighbors didn’t complain. Sensor-equipped racquet. All set. Serves were okay because both players had high ceilings.

The avatar of Mitch wearing a white tennis shirt and black shorts appeared on the telescreen on the other side of a net. Mitch started a rally. The ball came at you almost as if you were on a real court. Sensors on the racquet calculated the pace of the ball, its spin, where it would hit on your racquet, and the direction, pace, and spin of your return shot. At last. Video games for the older generation.

“You really like this better than a game outdoors?” Mitch called out.

“No way,” Eric replied. “I just prefer the tennis slide-step to the treadmill.”

During a break, as both players sat in their desk chairs in their home offices, the screen showed their avatars seated by the side of the court as if during a changeover.

“Did you have any water damage from Hurricane Karl?” Eric asked.

“Just some stuff I had stored downstairs. How about you?”

“Nothing. I think the tenants here are getting overconfident. Some feel the flooding wouldn’t dare reach East 82nd Street.”

“They may be in for a rude—or wet—awakening.”

“I think you’re right.”

As play resumed, a horsefly settled on the rim of Eric’s racquet. He waved the racquet, but the fly wouldn’t budge. “Damn,” he muttered, turning the racquet face down and taking vicious swipes at the air. “I’m having enough trouble with my strokes without close-up spectators.” The bug flew off, but was right back as he prepared for the next point.

“Your game’s not on today,” Mitch said, at the next changeover. “Better off playing outdoors.”

“There’s this fly that’s been driving me crazy.”

Mitch feigned amazement. “A fly? That’s the lamest excuse I ever heard.”

“Did you think I was doing my world-famous interpretation of John McEnroe attacking cups on a watercooler?”

“It did cross my mind.”

A quarter to two. No time for a shower. Maybe one of the benefits of isolation. He said good-bye to Mitch and clicked the Meeting of the Minds 2.0 icon on his desktop. A hologram of a conference room, with table and chairs, appeared to his left. Holograms of his team began filing into the room. His own image greeted them at the door. Janice, always bubbly, greeted him. Robert, the best designer he’d ever had, looked dour as usual. He hated meetings, in person or via hologram. Each participant could control his own actions via his laptop. It was like making a collaborative movie on the fly.

“Okay,” Eric said. “Let’s get started.” He had to admit he was looking forward to announcing the good news.

Bud Crowley’s image filled the telescreen.

“Rick, can you excuse yourself for just a minute? I’ve got to talk to you.”

Bud Crowley. Heavyset, balding, late fifties. Seated behind his office desk. Crowley didn’t like working at home. He preferred a corporate environment. They’d worked together for twelve years. At Algogenics, Crowley was first line when Eric was a software developer. Crowley made him lead developer. When Crowley made project manager, Eric became first line. They’d always had a good rapport. Adjacent levels of the hierarchy must support each other. Crowley had an excellent reputation as a development manager who could get projects out the door, on time and under budget.

“Can’t I get with you in an hour, Bud? We just began this meeting.”

“It’s important, Eric. It won’t take long.”

He sent Robert his notes. “Robert, take over for me, please. Just follow the agenda on your laptop.” Good managerial strategy. Let the guy who hates meetings run the meeting. Especially with good news.

The hologram disappeared. On the telescreen Crowley looked edgy. Still wearing the ever-present vest. “I need to schedule a mid-year with you,” Crowley said.

Did you really interrupt my meeting for that? Wait a minute.

“A mid-year what?”

“Evaluation.”

“Evaluation? I just had one four months ago.”

“That’s why it’s called a mid-year, Eric.”

Chills ran up Eric’s back.

“Bud, mid-years are for people about to get the boot.”

“Eric, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I really don’t know what this is all about. There’s a new VP of development, and he wants mid-years.”

“Did you get a notice for Callahan?” Callahan was the planning manager, the weakest of all Crowley’s first lines. Crowley had spoken to Eric about replacing Callahan and returning him to staff.

No response.

Eric felt his anger rising. “Did you get a notice for any of your first lines? Did Jameson get one for you?”

No response.

“Eric, you know, even if that happened, I could not share that information with you.”

But there was a time when he shared all information like that. When Eric still worked at the corporate offices, Crowley would review with him who had to go in response to the latest round of cuts. He remembered Crowley escorting some poor slob who had worked all his life for Algogenics back to the guy’s cubicle. One hour to clean out your office and surrender your badge. Everyone else trying not to look, their expressions like they were attending a funeral. “This is tough on everyone,” Crowley had whispered to Eric as he passed by.

“Can you show the notice to me?”

“Eric, you know I can’t do that.”

“Can you at least give me some idea of what the issue is?”

Reluctantly, Crowley studied his desktop screen. “It doesn’t say much. There’s one interesting word, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Goddamn it,” Crowley exploded, “if anyone’s monitoring this call, and they probably are, I could be shit-canned myself for telling you this.” Crowley slumped back in his chair. “I’m sorry, Eric. That was a poor choice of words.”

“What’s the word in the notice?”

“Associations.”

It was Eric’s turn to become furious. “Valerie,” he muttered. “Let me tell you something. If someone’s concocted a story that I’m leaking confidential data, I will sure as hell file a wrongful dismissal suit. Val and I are painfully careful about never discussing anything about our projects. We can’t even have a normal father-daughter conversation. ‘Did you work on anything interesting today, Dad?’ ‘Can’t tell you that.’”

“Calm down, Eric. It’s not your daughter.”

“Then who is it?”

“I honestly don’t know. We’ve got a little time before the review has to occur. How about trusting me to get to the bottom of this.”

Eric turned off the telescreen, monitor, and computer. Not sure whether the quiet was good or bad. He sat at his desk, leaning forward, hands on his chin, watching the blank screen.

His smartphone vibrated. He clicked on the computer and the telescreen. Kristin’s image appeared on the telescreen. No sense in telling her yet.

“Eric! What’s wrong?”

So much for concealment.

Wisps of blonde hair down the sides of her face. Soft, soothing. So different from Meredith, who was glamorous and intense.

“It’s probably nothing, Kris. Crowley called before and said he had to schedule a mid-year evaluation for me.”

Did she have to go through that bullshit? Probably not. She was a tenured associate professor of sociology at Columbia.

“Don’t you usually do pretty well at those?”

“I do. At least I did. I just had a real good one four months ago. But mid-years are usually for guys on probation.”

He really didn’t want to say canned, fired, given the boot. And he realized how much he needed to be with her tonight.

She looked worried. “Eric, that’s bizarre. There must be some mix-up. Did you ask Crowley about that?”

“I did.”

“We’ve got to talk about this,” she said quietly. “I’m coming over tonight.”

“Don’t come over, Kris. You’ll just have to go back uptown tomorrow. I’ll be okay.”

Maybe it was just a mistake. A transposition of serial numbers. Effuse apologies tomorrow. How could you think it was you?

“Eric, listen to this,” Kristin said. “Maybe this is fortuitous. Instead of class, we had a speaker today.”

But the way Crowley described it, a mistake seemed unlikely. New jobs were really hard to find now. How could he afford to stay in this apartment? He’d get a severance package for sure. How long would that last? He’d have to move in with Kristin. Well, that’s what they said they both wanted. Solve the problem of living apart.

“Did you ever hear of Sterling Davis?”

Sterling Davis. “It sounds familiar.”

“He’s the publisher of the Sentinel.”

Of course. New York Sentinel. Good reporting, little advertising. Not a major player in publishing.

“He’s very, very interesting,” Kristin said. “I mentioned your name to him after the talk. He knows all about you. And he wants to meet you.”

“I’ll get him on the telescreen.”

“That was the good news. The not-so-good news is that he wants to see you in person. He said he’d be available tonight at five.”

* * *

The offices of the New York Sentinel Publishing Company were in a gentrified section of the Lower East Side, not too far from the New York City Tenement Museum. The building was brick and glass, located near the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge. Eric heard that apartment rentals in the area were closing in on $3,000 per month, although the steep rise had abated somewhat as a result of the latest flooding. Three thousand a month, Eric mused. In the early twentieth century, with the mass immigration from Eastern Europe, tenements used to rent for $10 a month.

The layout for the New York Sentinel Publishing Company seemed normal enough, with the presses hidden behind a reception area, and the news and editorial areas on the second floor. The only abnormal thing was the location of the office of the publisher. A receptionist directed him one flight down.

As he descended the carpeted staircase, Eric realized he had no idea what this meeting was about. The secretary with whom he’d made the appointment simply said, “We’ll see you at five.” Maybe he should have tried to get more information from Kristin. But he had the feeling that was all the information there was.

This pretty much had to be a job interview. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have something in reserve, something temporary, in the event of a worst-case scenario at Algogenics. What would I do at a newspaper? Probably write a technology column. I could handle that. Best not to mention the situation at Algogenics. It’s been a long time since I went for a job interview. Always easier to get another job while you’re still employed at the old one.

The lower level of the New York Sentinel publishing offices had a small reception area with no one there. The room was furnished in various levels of brown: tan carpet, dark mahogany desk, and walnut paneling on the walls. Secretary must have gone home, Eric thought. Through a half-opened door to the main office, he saw floor-to-ceiling bookshelves cluttered with papers and books; there was a large black man seated behind a desk and reading a report. Among the papers and books on the desk was a black computer monitor. Eric quietly approached the entrance. Above the doorway was a sign with large black block letters: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Not very welcoming for job seekers, Eric thought as he approached the doorway. This was going to become nothing more than an amusing adventure to talk about with Kristin. The shelves on the far wall contained mostly books on the upper shelves, and stacks of reports and old newspapers on the lower ones. Piles of other papers were on the floor surrounding the desk. When the man behind the desk rose to greet him, Eric saw that the Sentinel publisher, Sterling Davis, was even larger than he’d imagined—about six-foot-seven, but with a soft, rounded face. Davis wore a wine-colored warm-up suit.

“Mr. Smith, I presume,” Davis said, looking down from glasses perched on his nose. He extended his hand. “Right on time.”

Eric shook Davis’s hand. “I had no trouble getting here,” he said. “The sign above your door stunned me a little.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Davis said. “We’re moving part of our operation upstate. Some of our senior editors have complained about having to give up their plush New York apartments.”

“Well, my apartment is utilitarian but not plush,” Eric replied. Stupid thing to say. He hasn’t even offered me a job yet. I’m not even sure this is a job interview. Change the subject. Quickly.

“Kristin—Professor Meyers—thought your presentation today went quite well.”

Davis smiled. “Ah, Professor Meyers at Columbia. Lovely woman. Now, is she your wife?”

There was no good term to describe their relationship. “Partner,” Eric said. He wanted to make a joke about their not getting married because neither wanted to give up their rent-controlled apartments, but decided against it.

“I thought the talk went well,” Davis said, “in spite of the usual harassment.”

“From students?”

“Not the students. Horseflies.” Davis studied Eric. “You look intrigued.”

“No, I mean there must be an infestation of them,” Eric said. “It’s very unusual for them to get into our apartment building. Yet earlier today, to get some exercise before a meeting, I played some indoor tennis. This horsefly just settled on my racquet and wouldn’t get off.”

Davis smiled. “I can understand that, although your situation is a bit different from mine. You’re so squeaky clean that the handler probably got bored, and tried to goad you into using your racquet as a flyswatter.”

“What?” What was this guy talking about?

“It wouldn’t have worked. You can’t swat the damn things. If you trap them they’ll self-destruct. Poof, like matter meeting antimatter. I actually managed to disconnect the receiver on one before the handler could send the signal.”

Puzzled, Eric stared at Davis.

“NAV 5,” Davis said. “And that’s not a mutual fund price. Nano Air Vehicle 5.”

“A drone?”

“Exactly. But they can’t hurt you. They’re just there to snoop.”

“You’re saying the government is using drones to spy on its own citizens?”

“Oh, not the government,” Davis said, “although I wouldn’t put it past some congressmen doing it in return for large campaign contributions. Besides, the government has largely become a bunch of fund-raisers. They spend most of their energies trying to get elected. They don’t have time to devote to legislation. So who do they hire to write the laws? Companies like yours. No, I suspect the little emissary perched on your racquet was from your own company.”

Eric seriously considered the possibility that Davis was nuts.

“But let’s get down to business,” Davis said, leaning forward. “I’m going to make you a job offer.”

An offer, Eric thought. After a very brief interview.

“I appreciate that,” Eric said. “But, you know, I’m still employed at Algogenics.”

“Mr. Smith—Eric—can I call you Eric? I’ve been accused in the past of being insensitive. I can be the diplomatic Davis or the straightforward Davis. Which do you prefer?”

This was definitely the weirdest job interview Eric had ever experienced. “The straightforward Davis,” he said.

“Your job at Algogenics is finished. Kaput. History. I feel guilty about that, because I’m probably the cause.”

“That’s impossible,” Eric said, before realizing that this could be a trap. “I mean, there was some mix-up at work, but that was before I even met you or knew anything about you.”

“Tell me, in this ‘mix-up,’ did the word ‘associations’ come up at all?”

Eric could not believe what he just heard.

Davis looked genuinely concerned. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes the straightforward Davis is not appropriate.”

“No, no,” Eric rallied. “But how did you know that?”

“It’s not complicated. They’ve got horseflies, but I’ve got human contacts.”

Eric tried to remain calm. “Let’s assume you’re correct. Let’s assume I’m about to get fired. How is that your fault?”

“Associations,” Davis replied. “Your company, and virtually all other major companies, have a morbid fear of associations. I give talks on what is really going on in the world. Professor Meyers is one of my biggest supporters. And Professor Meyers happens to be your partner.”

To Eric, it just seemed too bizarre.

“Look,” Davis said, “let me give you some background on what we’re up against. Our institutions began as instruments. At least, that’s what Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton’s old sociology professor at Georgetown, called them. They were entities created to fulfill a societal need. Weapons manufacturers who produce arms that enable the country to defend itself. Oil and gas producers to provide the country with energy. Doctors to keep people in good health. Banks to help companies get started and individuals to buy a home. Unfortunately, at some point, these entities deviate from their original intent and take on a new primary goal: their own survival. At this point, Quigley claims they become institutions, and once their survival seems assured, they strive to become more powerful, subverting their original purpose. Arms manufacturers don’t care how many innocent people get killed, as long as their companies sell more guns. Gas and oil producers don’t care how much they pollute the air and water, as long as people buy more of their offerings. Health maintenance organizations care less about the welfare of their patients and more about increasing their profits. Banks develop complex schemes to bilk other institutions and individuals out of their money.”

“It’s almost like you believe they’re alive,” Eric said.

“Quigley didn’t think so, and neither do I. But in their struggle for survival and then to become more powerful, they certainly exhibit lifelike characteristics—with their life-blood being money. The problem is because they are so gigantic and indistinct to us, their bodies—their corpus—are difficult to deal with. Especially when they incorporate us as their cells. The sad part is we created them as corporate structures, with the idea of their protecting us as individuals. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. We’ve created these primitive behemoths who shit all over the globe, corrupt our democratic institutions, and really don’t care whether we live or die. We are all just another cell that can be replaced.”

Davis turned to his desktop monitor. “Take a look at this,” he said.

A scholarly-looking paper entitled, The Growing Sophistication of Corporate Scams: from S&Ls, to Enron, to Goldman Sachs, appeared on the screen. “It establishes a link between financial scandals centered around sophisticated financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations,” Davis said. “I show it to you because this paper had about as much effect on the public psyche as the exposés I ran in the Sentinel.

“The problem is, how many people read and understood this? I think my own post-2008 analysis in the Sentinel did better as far as readership was concerned, but both were after the fact. Each scandal occurs, worse than the one before. Sometimes the perpetrators are sent to jail, sometimes not. The institutions don’t care. These cells can be replaced. Governments struggle to recover. New regulations are put in place. Gradually the economy does recover. Then the most interesting phase occurs. The industry starts calling for less regulation. They can’t function with this stifling oversight. The economy is growing too slowly. It should be expanding faster. That marks the birth of the newest phase of financial disaster. The problem is we’re always playing catch-up. And that,” Davis said, “is where you fit in.”

Ah, Eric thought. The exciting climax to this interview.

“We need a program that, information-wise, keeps us ahead of the curve—very similar to the way the FBI tries to stop terrorist attacks before they happen. This program must be able to handle multiple streams of input data and alert us to impending financial disaster—a kind of economic warning system. As you may gather, I have a wide range of information sources. Usually their data is quite accurate, but sometimes not. Financial reports from various government agencies tend to be more incomplete rather than inaccurate. They get only what the financial industry wants them to see. Your software must enable us to determine what is the truth.

“A starting point is a recent article by a financial analyst named Paul W. Ackerman. Its title is ‘The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters.’ Unfortunately, copies of this report have been disappearing from the cloud—and even from personal computers.”

“Really?” Eric said skeptically.

“That seems to be the case. But I have a printed copy, and I’m making duplicate copies upstate.”

“Is that where I’d be working?”

“Yes. The air is much better there, and I have an expert team of exterminators to handle the horsefly problem.”

Eric smiled. Corporate information drones? I don’t know.

“Here’s the offer,” Davis said. “Both you and your partner would be very valuable additions to my company. Even though when I spoke to her she deferred to you, I think she’s interested. I can’t quite match your salary at Algogenics, but I can pay her more than she’s making now. As for E-retrieve, I’m sure you’re aware that everything you’ve developed belongs to your company. You will get a small monetary reward for your accomplishment, which I’m willing to match as a sign-on bonus. Think about it, discuss it with your partner, and let me know.”

They shook hands as Eric rose to leave. “One more thing,” Davis said. “I would not try to get the Ackerman report off the Web just yet. I should have my printed copies available tomorrow.”

In the cab going back to his apartment, Eric tried to make some sense of what he had just experienced. Sterling Davis is an evangelical kook. Kristin seems to have a lot of respect for him, but Kristin is a hopeless idealist. That’s one thing I love about her. I’m intrigued at how much information Davis has access to. But I’m also intrigued about the case of the disappearing report.

In his apartment, he found the low hum of his computers and the air-conditioning relaxing. It was seven o’clock. Should give Kristin a call. First, let’s see what I can find out about Mr. Ackerman’s report.

He used the desk monitor. Let’s see. “Paul Ackerman tsunami financial disasters.” Well, there they are. All sorts of links. Try one. Hmm. “404 message not found.” Try some others. All the different variations. “Oops! Page not found.” “You 404’d it, gnarly dude.” The links were all there, but the content was gone.

Of course it may not exist in the first place, he thought. Time to break out my own mega-browser. Not that much better than standard browsers, but it does have the ability to access remote crannies of the Internet. The name I’ve given it, Eric_Smith, is somewhat narcissistic. Let’s give it a try. Execute Eric_Smith.

He saw one entry that he hadn’t seen before in the list of links, and clicked on it. Voilà! There it was. “The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters,” by Paul W. Ackerman. He clicked on “Print.” Pages started spewing from the printer on the small table next to his desk.

He grabbed the first couple of pages and started reading. Powerful. Really powerful stuff.

“Mr. Smith, this is an emergency. Please turn off your printer.”

He had no idea where the voice was coming from. He looked around the apartment. No one there. He looked toward the door. Locked. This was New York. You always locked your apartment door. His monitor still showed the print window. He hadn’t turned on the telescreen, and it was still blank. He physically disconnected the system speakers.

No effect whatsoever. “Smith, this is an emergency. Turn off your printer!” The tone was more urgent.

A man was in the room, not on the telescreen, but in front of it. If someone were sent to break into his apartment to prevent his printing a sensitive document, Eric expected that person to be a cross between someone from the Mafia and an FBI agent—fiftyish, dark suit, dark glasses, muscular. This person was muscular, but younger. Early forties, no glasses, light tan sport shirt and dark brown slacks.

“I don’t understand,” Eric said. “How did you get in here?”

“I’ll explain that later. Now turn off that printer!”

The man, so realistic, still had a gossamer quality. “Hologram!” Eric realized. The unannounced accompaniment to Meeting of the Minds 2.0. He can’t hurt you, and he can’t actually do anything, Eric told himself. It’s just light and air. That’s why he tries to scare you into aborting that print. Still, it’s best not to challenge him.

“Smith! Turn off that goddamned printer!”

“All right. All right,” Eric said, rising from his chair. The print had to be almost complete. “Oh, shit,” he muttered, stumbling forward toward the printer table. The flop hurt him more than he expected. As he tried to get up, he heard a deafening crack, like lightning had scored a direct hit on his apartment. The room went dark, all humming sounds ceased, and smoke began to fill the room. He staggered toward the door, unlocked it, and stumbled into the smoke-filled hallway.

All his neighbors were in the hallway, stunned looks on their faces—shadowy faces he could not recognize. Some pounded on the elevator button; others started streaming toward the stairwell door. Smoke alarms squealed all over the place. A siren sounded from outside. Strangely, the exodus was orderly—no real panic. What the hell caused this? “Probably some knucklehead left his stove on. They should kick him out of here before he gets us all killed.” The descent down the stairwell was almost robotic.

Call Kristin when I get out. Is it all right if I spend a few nights at your place? She may just want to cast our lot with Davis. This may be a first. Driven from homes for reasons other than accidents, natural disasters, or military madness. He felt fortunate knowing he had somewhere to go. He studied the faces around him. Probably true of everyone else—for now, anyway.

 


About the Author: Bill Carr’s short story “Exquisite Hoax” was published in the Scholars And Rogues online literary journal. His work has also appeared in Menda City Review and The Penmen Review. He has had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. He received his master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College and currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism.

Artwork: Deanna Crane

Warmth by James Croal Jackson

Untitled


Warmth

I want to fold the dog
into an origami pipe
smoke it
and forget this
was ever a dog

later I will want
this dog nestled
next to me
asleep
fire lingering

instead I
fold creases
into blanket
wrapping
out the cold

I can’t shake
but for what
it takes
to sleep
through dawn


About the Author: James Croal Jackson‘s poetry has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Rust + Moth, Isthmus, and elsewhere. His first chapbook is forthcoming from Writing Knights Press. He is the 2016 William Redding Memorial Poetry Contest winner in his current city of Columbus, Ohio. Visit him at jimjakk.com.

Boy on a Rope by Julia Poole

Untitled


 

Powell woke to the sound of knocking. Disoriented, his eyes flicked around the murky room. He zeroed in on a lava lamp, the source of the empurpled veil covering everything. His body detected the comfort of a mattress, the softness of a blanket and comforter. Mouth dry, the sweet taste of alcohol-laced fruit punch lingered. He licked his upper lip. Strawberry. No, cherry.  Kristina’s lip gloss. Techno music reverberated from a room below. Booming bass matched the throbbing in his head. The room smelled of perfume, pot, and sex. Familiarity. Powell sat up, reached for a box of tissues on the nightstand. A couple of used condom wrappers – one chocolate flavored, one ribbed with lubricant – lay amongst a pile of wadded tissues on the floor at the side of the bed. After wiping his belly, he dropped the sticky clump, adding to the pile.  

Knocking resumed, louder, urgent.

“Hey, whoever’s in there…time’s up already,” said a guy from behind the door, voice pleading. Powell imagined a girl clung to him, hands playfully feeling him up, giggles turning into groans, maybe her tongue tickled his ear.

Powell stood, pulled on underwear and jeans. Nothing new on his phone. He flipped through a few birthday messages from yesterday. Seventeen. Fuck, he was old. No message from Lauren, Powell’s twin. He tried recalling last year’s message. Some funny shit about how she had struggled hours to make his passage into the world easy. “Happy BD, lazy ass! Party w/me tonight?” Lauren always reminded Powell she was the first-born by two minutes. He swallowed hard, twice, and put the phone in his jeans pocket.

Twenty, maybe twenty-five, minutes had passed since he had closed and locked the bedroom door. He spotted Kristina at the end of the bed, topless, curled up like a kitten, purring atop a furry blue pillow. Crouching low, Powell gently brushed long, blond strands from her face that reflected a soft purplish glow. She looked pretty good. The contour of neckline, flushed cheeks, delicate hands with slender fingers that worked him a bit quicker than he liked. Her breath warm against his skin. Green eyes, attentive, accepting. He liked the way she looked at him with approval. Voice soft, asking what he wanted, telling him she wouldn’t go all the way. Apprehension vanished. He no longer thought it foolish to be in a bedroom with a stranger just a week after Sonja had screwed him over. No guessing, no frenzied, awkward race to climax typical of hook-ups. Instead, a weird sensation, one that rushed through him the way he imagined currents traveled through wires. It was like that. Electric. Blistering. An unexplainable awareness, like she connected to him – Powell, the person, not just his body. The urge to accept this unspoken invitation overwhelmed, but it disappeared after he came and she withdrew her hands and mouth.

Strange, that feeling. It filled something absent, an emptiness. No, wrong word. It was bigger, vast, something that affected everything. Epic-void. Was that one word or two? Since Lauren’s death it was as if a part of himself no longer existed. Briefly, with Kristina, that spirit, that something was alive again.

Powell straightened and adjusted his jeans.  Not a stunner, Kristina, but unblemished, attractive enough. Yes, his friends would agree, she was attractive. A comforting realization. Like eating Mom’s chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven, filling him with warm. yummy gooiness. Calm. Peaceful. Satisfaction. He couldn’t remember the last time Mom had baked.

The guy in the hall pounded and shouted, “Get the fuck out!”

Startled, Kristina opened her eyes, legs unfurled. She propped herself up and for a second appeared unaware of her surroundings, fearful, ready to pounce. Her vulnerability was tangible, refreshing. Averting Powell’s gaze, she covered exposed breasts with one hand while fumbling through pillows to locate her bra and top.

Powell turned his back. The space in the bedroom now seemed smaller, confining. Air stagnate. Too hot. He resisted the urge to fling the door wide. Instead, he cracked the window and breathed. Autumn coolness. City noise. The fryer smell of a nearby restaurant. More door thumping, muted. The sound grew louder, the rhythm faster, a husky groan, and a high-pitched pant. God, couldn’t they wait? This house was Tyler’s. A guy Powell knew from playing lacrosse. A few days ago, Tyler posted the rager on Facebook. Everyone welcome. Parents out of town, probably in the Hampton’s. He wondered whose bedroom this was. The lava lamp perched atop a desk strewn with pamphlets from Planned Parenthood, Environmental Defense Fund and PETA, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a stick of pink deodorant, a few Hershey’s kisses and crumpled up foil wrappers. Draped on the desk chair was an Obama t-shirt, inscribed Hope below the presidential candidate’s red, white and blue striped face. Tyler must have a sister. Bohemian. Probably a tree hugger. Maybe Tyler’s sister was the girl grinding with the guy on the other side of the door.

Above the desk, a poster hung on a slant. Powell tilted his head and read aloud, “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

“Kurt Vonnegut,” said Kristina.

“Yep.”

Powell’s stomach growled, a reminder of his earlier plan to meet Max tonight. It didn’t seem fair to leave Kristina so soon after hooking up. Such a consideration had never crossed his mind before. There had been lots of party hook-ups – blow jobs, hand jobs.  He often listed hook-ups in chronological order. Tallied faces and bodies, pleasing images that frequented his dreams. The race to fill every moment of the day with something had left Powell exhausted.

The hallway bonking intensified. The door jolted. Hinges rattled. Powell piped up, “We’ll be right out.” Too late. The bam-bam crescendo ended with one freaking intertwined moan. Animalistic and uncontrolled. Sounded like every post-coital scream he had heard. A sly smile curled. Whiffing out sexual acts from behind closed doors was an instinctive gift that began years ago, when, as a child, he used to sit, sometimes huddled in a blanket with Lauren, to listen to his parents screwing in the shower. A frequent occurrence given Dad’s healthy libido and Mom’s propensity for cleanliness.

Powell decided Kristina would never act so whorish as the anonymous girl in the hallway. At least, this was what Powell wanted to believe. Kristina’s sexual experience was of no consequence. He imagined a future moment with his arm wrapped around Mom when he reassured her that Kristina was a virgin. Mom would believe it, just like Mom believed Powell’s sexual experience consisted of a few PG-rated make-out sessions. When Powell turned fifteen, Dad had supplied him with a box of condoms. The good kind, Dad whispered, speaking with that tone of voice that declared he knew what he was talking about.  Only the best for Powell. Life broken down into a few simple rules. Sex was an experience not unlike getting the oil changed on the Mercedes every three thousand miles or drinking a dry Pinot Gris with salmon salad. The box of condoms, unopened and probably long expired, laid in the bottom of his underwear drawer. Mom followed the rules and expected others to do the same. Mom seethed about Powell’s transgressions – he knew by the exaggerated sighs, the cupboard slamming, the way her lips pursed forming a thin, pink line – but she never spoke harshly to him. Never argued about the late hour he returned from parties or questioned his study habits. Never mentioned the wet dream underwear messes. She provided Kleenex and hand lotion on his nightstand and picked up the cum-filled balls of tissue from his bedroom floor, sometimes yelling at Cheetah, the scruffy mutt terrier for carrying the stinky wads around the house.

Powell looked over his shoulder and caught sight of Kristina smoothing out her hair and sweater. She tugged on a loose string of yarn, but it wouldn’t give. To conceal it, she twisted the string around her index finger. Her attempt to right what was out of place seemed innocent, almost sweet.

“Parker…just wanted to say…that was nice.”

So she wasn’t the smoothest person. Powell could live with that. The positives outweighed the negatives. Kristina would make a perfect first girlfriend. It was a moment they could look back on someday, laugh together, like it was an amusing part of their story, one just beginning, one he hoped lasted a long time. He tossed her the tissue box. “Better wipe your face.”

 

Powell hustled from the NYC West side home toward the Lincoln Center subway stop. Sprinting by Church of the Blessed Sacrament, he heard the pipe organ, thunderous and low, playing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” He thought of attending St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he was a child and how freaked out he was by the sound of the organ. Even more frightening was the ringing of the bells. Grandpap tried to calm him, tried to tell him the bells were holy, blessed. He said the bells had names like St. Joseph and St. Michael. Powell had envisioned men stuck inside the bells. He screamed. Mom carried him from the pew leaving Lauren on Dad’s lap looking sad and confused. It wasn’t the first time the twins were separated. It wouldn’t be the last. It was months before Powell could sit through mass without shrieking, and only later, with Lauren’s hand in his, would he avoid a fuss.

Powell sidestepped to avoid a pile of dog shit. He always left Cheetah’s poop on the sidewalk or on the grass in Central Park, where he knew the dog preferred taking a dump but he rarely took the time to walk her there. He was pushing it, breaking the poop law. Fact was he took pleasure from getting away with breaking rules. He didn’t know anyone who didn’t. Who would admit such a truth? No one he knew.

Powell skipped down the steps into the entrance of the Lincoln Center subway station, swiped his MetroCard as he had done a thousand times before, pushed through the turnstile and paced the platform waiting for the downtown train. A few people – goth teens, middle-aged couples, and a few shady-looking characters – stood around or leaned against the mosaic wall. Powell loved that mosaic. The Nefertiti-like goddesses and lithe dancers formed by small, brightly-colored tiles. The gold ones shimmered in the otherwise dank tunnel. Powell imagined Kristina as his Queen Nefertiti and the words flowed:

How did it come? Feeling attracted from the first look on.

Be united, though free, like each other, though free!

He repeated his inventive prose aloud. Poetry, his secret passion. He remembered one night lying under the covers, rubbing the silk trim of his red blanket. The nightlight glowed, spreading a fan of honey-gold against the wall. Grandpap hummed as he entered the bedroom, the edge of the mattress dipped when he sat on it. Gray stubble dotted his chin, and he smelled of pipe tobacco, smoky and sweet. He cradled a poetry book, thick, the spine cracked in several places. Grandpap pushed the horn-rimmed readers up his nose and read, his voice soothed and rolled like faraway thunder:

I was in the darkness;

I could not see my words

Nor the wishes of my heart.

Then suddenly there was a great light –

“Let me into the darkness again.”

Who was that poet? Keats? Frost? The downtown train approached. Powell smiled, waiting to hop on the train.

At Columbus Circle, Powell transferred to the C Line. Plenty of seats on the train. He slid into one and closed his eyes. Doors shut. The train chugged forward. “Next stop, 50th Street,” said the bored conductor’s voice. Powell reviewed Saturday night’s events thus far. It started with swigging his parents’ vodka to get an early buzz. If Mom knew, she expressed no disapproval. Arrived at Tyler’s home on the Upper West Side an hour after the party started. Grabbed a drink, thanked Tyler for inviting him. Surveyed the plentiful array of girls. Powell considered himself above average in the looks department. On a scale from 1-10, a solid 8.0, maybe 8.25. He always targeted girls for hook-ups who scored a notch lower – never lower than 7 and never, ever above. Stunning babes were almost always stuck-up bitches who didn’t put out with guys like Powell. No use pining over what he couldn’t have. Number 7 girls, thankful for the charming, attentive interest of a Number 8, put out in the hand and blowjob department.

Next stop, 42nd Street, Port Authority.

He had spied Kristina chatting with a small group of girls. She wasn’t as tall as Powell liked – he didn’t look good dancing with short girls – but there was something about her, the way she laughed like she meant it, the rhythmic motion of her hands when she spoke, a flair for the dramatic, he didn’t quite know. After grabbing a fresh drink, he entered their conversation. Learned the girls were sixteen and seventeen, from the same school as Tyler. Within 15 minutes, Powell coaxed Kristina to a corner of the dining room. Engaged in small talk. Fetched her a fresh drink and inched closer. She was unattached, hinted that there was someone interested, played volleyball, a vegetarian (surprise, not a vegan), liked Coen brothers and Wes Anderson movies (who didn’t), Broadway shows, English Lit, but math and science not so much. Her style was a bit frumpy: oversized sweater, cheap boots, too much drugstore perfume. She emigrated from one of those funky sounding Russian countries when she was eight. Her English perfect, he detected no residual foreign accent. Mom would hate her. Kristina lowered her chin, looked up at him as if he were the only person in the universe and batted her eyelashes splotched with too much mascara. Powell made his move, his favorite part of the hook-up prologue. He brushed a kiss across her cheek, and she snuggled closer. His arm snaked around her shoulder. A few playful tugs and she nestled into his embrace, melting. He whispered in her ear, his rugged nose nudged her cheek. Body heat merged, lips locked, tongues danced. Unspoken negotiations over, Powell led Kristina, giggling and tipsy, to an upstairs bedroom.

Afterward, they exchanged phone numbers. For Powell, uncharted territory. Not typical modus operandi, but a necessary step if he wanted to see her again. They hugged and kissed before parting. Reckless, kind of exciting, dizzy-like. Shit, when was the last time he felt happy? He couldn’t remember.

Next stop, 34th Street, Penn Station.

Powell shifted, spied a piece of lint on his jeans and picked it off. It was possible, hell, why not? He imagined a future when he and Kristina trusted each other well enough to say anything. Intimacy on a whole new level. Free to say whatever you wanted. Knowing you would be heard, understood. The way Lauren always treated him. Hadn’t she known how much she meant to him? Hadn’t she trusted that sometimes his words meant nothing, that teasing her was just a joke? He teased because he loved and trusted her.

Indescribable trust. That’s the quality he most wanted in a girlfriend. It was part of the epic-void. It was a quality he thought he had shared with Sonja. A line by Neruda came to mind: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” A lie, all of it. There had been no love with Sonja, and if he lived a hundred more years, he wouldn’t forget. Powell grimaced and looked at his watch. One block to the Starlight Diner. He was fifteen, maybe twenty minutes late. Max would be waiting. The train screeched, jerking to a stop. His headache ratcheted a notch higher. Powell stood by the door, and before it opened completely, he dashed through, next climbing the stairs two at a time.

 

“She wants me to bang her,” said Powell. He had taken a seat in the booth across from blond, blue-eyed Max, who, as usual, looked tidy. Clean-shaven. He wore slim jeans and a black t-shirt. Slouchy clothes were too hip-hop. His hair, Max’s crowning achievement, was styled with just the right amount of gel to appear like you could run your hand through it without spoiling the look. Hair nirvana. Max swept bangs off his forehead and sighed. He pulled a few paper napkins from a dispenser and placed them elegantly in his lap and tapped his fork on the Formica tabletop further adding to the cacophony of thrumming in Powell’s head. Countless drinks aside, Powell blamed the hanging lime green lights that stung his eyes like lasers.

“Where’s our server? I’m starving,” said Max. He picked up his phone and scrolled. Powell hated when Max ignored him. There was a lot about Max that Powell felt pissed about, the new friends he chose to hang with, his new habit of smoking cigarettes and joints, the way he spent much of his time alone. Truth was, Powell envied the way Max chose to do nothing as if being alone took no thought at all, like breathing, eating or whacking off. Powell worked hard filling every day to avoid being alone. He equated alone with the possibility of the epic-void opening beneath him, sucking him into the abyss. Since Lauren’s death, being alone was fucking hard work.  

“Back to Kristina. She wants me. Isn’t it great?”

“Surprised you know her name,” Max sniffed, rolling his eyes.

“Hey, I never let a girl blow me unless…”

“Unless you know her name. I know, I know.”

“I’m serious. I’m going to grant Kristina’s wish. She’s the lucky one. My first. I’m gonna do it with Kristina.”

Blow jobs and hand jobs were just making out. It meant having real sex. It was a rite of passage, a decision to take seriously and remember with a smile for years to come. No more hook-ups, no time wasted finding somebody to do something with, no more loneliness. Max had done it last summer with a girl he’d met at summer camp. The sketchy details left Powell doubting.

Max waved to a waitress busy wiping a counter. Looking at Powell, he said, “I don’t get it. Why mess around with the party hook-ups of the world when you’re so tight with that senior, Sonja? Heard she loves dicks,” Max’s eyes narrowed. “Even one like yours.”

Sonja.

Powell didn’t tell Max everything. Some things you don’t say aloud. Like how Powell thought Max a pussy for letting his mom cut his fingernails.

Sonja.

Like how Powell masturbated while watching Penelope Cruz movies.

Sonja.

Like when Powell, invited by Sonja, showed up at her house last Friday night after hanging at an Oktoberfest party where he downed vodka shots because it took too long to get buzzed from drinking beer, so drunk he couldn’t feel his sneakers touch the black and white marble tile in her family’s foyer and she kissed him, and he kissed her back, fantastic, like shooting up with 4th of July sparklers, and the solitude faded, disappeared. They ended up in her bed, clothes on the floor. She giggled, said she had never seen one like it and started licking. Powell told her he loved that, please don’t stop. He was on his way to getting the best blow job of his life with the hottest-looking girl.  They were friends. Powell trusted her.

That’s the way it could have ended. Should have ended.

But Sonja inched higher, body slithering over him until her eyes, hungry, greedy stared into his. Chocolate with flecks of bronze that glowed. Those eyes. He hadn’t seen that look before. She slid atop what she had been kissing. No accident, she closed her eyes, stole control and shut him out as if he were no longer there. But Powell was there. He felt a surge of adrenaline. His heart raced, like the time he stole a Prada scarf from Saks and a security guard followed him, nowhere to run, but Powell kept cool and walked out, escaped. There was no exit from Sonja. He tried turning, attempted to brush her off, but she wasn’t drunk like him. Her hands clamped down on his elbows, hard, her weight and determination crushed. He groped to speak but he was too fucked up, mouth dry, words shriveled. Everything moved too fast. His dreams of having sex for the first time, his way, the way he had dreamed about doing it a thousand times, died. Sonja’s groans grew louder, quicker. The bed spun. Powell fixated on the round ceiling light, dimmed, which reminded him of the moon and his speck of existence on Earth, because if he closed his eyes he would fall into a dizzying spiral, the epic-void yawned wide. Uncontrolled pleasure couldn’t mask the humiliation of being used. Fists clenched, he fingered the smooth ridge of scars that crisscrossed his right palm. This moment was real, like when he smashed the bathroom mirror after Lauren died. His eyes moved slowly from the ceiling to Sonja’s face, and he watched as she fucked him like she was proud of getting everything she wanted. Powell came, and it was a relief because, at last, he knew she would be off him and in his mind, he screamed, Stop, get the fuck off, you didn’t ask, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.

Sonja.

There’s a price for not saying words aloud. What if I had been sober, what if I had told her what I wanted, what if I had said no clanged like a gargantuan church bell rung by a boy, inexperienced and naïve. There weren’t any saints in that tower. Only Powell, weak, hands grasping, burning and chafing as they slipped on the prickly, thick rope. Powell no longer heard his thoughts. Max’s face snapped back into focus.

Smells, a comforting mixture of coffee and grease, hung in the air. Top 40 tunes floated from ceiling speakers. Taylor Swift sang about some guy. Sweet love gone sour. Same crap. The waitress arrived and poured coffee. Powell listened to Max give his order: gyro, no onion, tzatziki sauce on the side, fries, extra crispy, diet Coke, no ice.

“I’ll have two packs of aspirin, a cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake. More coffee, too, please,” said Powell.

“Sure thing,” said the waitress.

Awkward, the lack of conversation with Max. Powell uncrossed his legs and planted both feet on the sticky linoleum floor. He wanted to kick a hole into it. He wanted to bury himself. Maybe he’d drag Max with him. Maybe there, secreted away, he could tell Max what had happened and not be judged. How could he explain what he didn’t understand?

Powell surveyed the people in the restaurant, a compulsion he shared with Mom. And there she sat, he couldn’t believe it – Sonja, sitting in a booth with her besties near the front of the restaurant. How could he have walked right past her? His heart pounded as if it were trying to bust through his chest. He checked his watch and breathed. Powell imagined Sonja’s entrance: her hair styled the same as the others, long, sleek, parted down the middle, shaking her mane as if to say, Hey, look at me, I’m here, I look good, I’m hot. Sonja, her perfect breasts shimmying with every slinking step, her perfect pink lips framing perfect white teeth. Sonja, her ass sashaying just so in her perfectly fitted jeans, flopping into the booth with a bounce. Sonja’s eyes locked on Powell. Grinning, she tossed a quick wave. Her tribe stared at him and laughed. Powell acknowledged them with a nod.

Max droned about some dumb Netflix movie. A waitress wearing tight yoga pants zipped passed. She carried a tray loaded with breakfast food – eggs, bacon, waffles with melting dollops of whipped butter – and dinner food – cheeseburger with fries, matzo ball soup, liver and onions with boiled potatoes, and a gyro so loaded with fixings a large toothpick barely held the sandwich together. Wearing yoga pants was a privilege, not a right. After a second look, Powell decided she was privileged. He imagined Kristina in yoga pants, embracing her, his hands squeezing her ass.  

Max, Kristina, yoga pants, there was no diversion big enough to eliminate thoughts of Sonja. Gorgeous Sonja. Funny Sonja. Smart Sonja. She was a full nine, bordering on nine and a half and Powell had felt flattered by her attention. Sonja, older, savvy, a person plunging into adult life with all the confidence he wished he displayed. The intimate conversations, the way Sonja detailed her many sexcapades. She favored beefy, athletic types, liked experimenting with positions and places. Powell had listened, fascinated by every tryst. He dreamed of having sex with her but realized he didn’t stand a chance – too skinny, young and inexperienced. Mom said, “That Sonja, what a delight. Beautiful and so polite. Comes from the right family. You two have so much in common. Why don’t you ask her out sometime?” How could he have missed it? A proclivity for virgins, Sonja was like an express train barreling down tracks. He should have known. He should have kept his pants on. Hadn’t he tried? Not exactly. He said yes. At first. But hadn’t he said no? Powell seethed.

The waitress brought the food. Powell ripped open the aspirin packets, popped the four pills into his mouth and swallowed. The pounding in his head paled to missing Lauren, the ache constant, no matter what he did to fill the hours. Powell wanted to tell Max how much he missed Lauren, how sorry he felt for yelling at her that day. Stop complaining about your weight. Cut out the bag of chips you scarf down every day, and you’ll be fine. Repeating the awful words to Max wouldn’t change a thing. Like reverberating bells, Powell would forever hear those final words.

Max finished the gyro and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Half the cheeseburger and most of the fries remained on Powell’s plate. His headache reduced to a dull throb, Powell gulped the last of his coffee, lukewarm, bitter. Loose grounds grazed the bottom of the cup.

“You boys want anything else?” said the waitress.

Max and Powell shook their heads. For the last ten minutes, Powell had hoped Sonja and the girls would leave. They hadn’t. Sonja gestured a hearty come-on-over. Powell looked away and caught his reflection in the mirror that hung over the booth. The profile of his nose looked big. He feared, later in life, his nose would appear grotesque. The way old men had shrunken faces with gigantic noses and cartoonish ears. He noticed a few stray hairs, dark and pointy, the beginning of a unibrow. He made a mental note to pluck them later. He smiled, and for a moment Lauren’s image blurred into his. Tell me everything will be fine begged Powell. She dissolved. Alone again.

Powell estimated the walk to Sonja’s table would take fifteen steps, eighteen at the most. Dad advised proper asset management. Know your risks. Don’t overestimate your potential for gains. Evaluate losses. Most importantly, plan and execute with confidence.

Powell pictured himself moving, one foot after the other. The diner was quiet. Half of the tables were empty. The door bell twinkled. Four guys wearing Rangers gear sauntered in and took seats at the counter. Hockey game must have finished at Madison Square Garden. The men’s subdued demeanor signaled a loss. No surprise. Powell ran his hand through his hair and stood straight. Head high, he breathed. Be cool. Max faced the front of the diner, waved at the girls and walked. Powell followed, eyes locked on the door.

Sonja had posted on Facebook how great Saturday night had been, mentioning his name, crazy bitch, how he was like an erupting volcano. Powell responded with some positive shit he knew she would like. Thanks, Sonja! Great night! Fanjizztastic! A few days ago, in the school cafeteria, Powell had met Sonja and said, “Let’s be friends. No sex.” Whatever it took to get himself back from her, to get far, far away from the sad, pretty thing in front of him named Sonja. “Too bad, we get along so well,” she said, “could be a nice way to celebrate your birthday.” Her fingers, cool and soft, stroked his forearm. She whispered, “I know what to do, you know, to not get pregnant.” Smiling, she blew a kiss and walked away.

And now, Powell heard Sonja giggle. He wished he didn’t know her laugh so well. He fingered the scars in his right palm. He hoped Kristina would answer his text, the one he planned to send after he left the diner. She really was attractive. He imagined a time, soon, he hoped, when Kristina would spend the night with him in his bedroom. If she were a serious girlfriend, Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind.

Max stopped at the girls’ booth. Powell stopped, too. Sixteen steps. The voice of Lady Gaga crackled “Poker Face” through a damaged speaker. Powell looked at the girls. Their words and giggles pelted like freezing rain: went-to-Connor’s-party-you-shoulda-been-there-it-was-so-hype-Jack-did-a-bong-hit-Alice-puked-on-the-carpet-she-was-so-turnt-haha-Maranda-hooked-up-with-a-college-guy-you-shoulda-been-there…

Powell concentrated on the reflection in the window. He saw Sonja and the girls and Max talking, laughing. He saw a peek of Sonja’s fuchsia bra as she leaned across the table and flirted with Max. He saw himself, smiling and joking, elbows pinched, unmoving, a man suspended, like the suspended luminosity of the green lamps in the diner, like the suspended moonlike glow of the ceiling lamp in Sonja’s bedroom, like Lauren’s suspended hair floating above her submerged body in the claw foot tub. Like the boy in the bell tower, bells smashing metal on metal, deafening. You’re so difficult. I hate your drama. Why can’t you be more agreeable, like Powell? Mom’s last words to Lauren. Staring deeper into the reflective mirror, Powell sensed this could be the beginning of a fall into oblivion, an unknown place where Lauren may be, where the coveted and elusive something may exist. Fearful, he leaned, slipping. Yet something rose – a blaze of light, searing, but at the same time – calm, Almighty.

Max nudged Powell’s arm. Powell blinked and searched for the dazzle of light. The reflection had vanished leaving night’s muted darkness and the soft glow of a street lamp, the post of which appeared tilted like a car had struck it. Something had been there. My light. I saw it. A surge of relief enveloped Powell.

“I said, see ya around,” said Sonja. The girls laughed.

“Yeah,” said Powell. Like fucking never.

And then Powell was through the door, inhaling deep, the city’s oxygen pure and new.

Powell and Max walked east on 34th Street toward Penn Station.

“God, that Sonja is screaming hot. Remind me again why you don’t want to be with her?” said Max.

“I think she likes sex too much. I’d rather take the lead with someone like Kristina.”

Max nodded; he didn’t question. It felt like the old days when he and Max understood each other and life seemed predictable, almost easy. Powell’s strides were long and quick. His body relaxed as the distance widened from Sonja. Everything about tonight meant something. First, Kristina, and then the light, and then moving past. Powell felt empowered by an unexplainable peace. It was the same self-possessed calm that blanketed him as a child when Grandpap tucked him in at night and recited poetry. Grandpap said poems were as good as prayers. Powell was a whiz at memorizing. Once he heard a poem, he could repeat the lines word-for-word, even though he didn’t understand them.  

Powell and Max waited for the light to turn at 9th Avenue. A bus cruised through the intersection. A poster on the side of the bus advertised: “West Side Story – See the Broadway Revival of the Leonard Bernstein – Stephen Sondheim Tony-awarding winning show!”

“Stephen Crane,” said Powell.

“Who’s Stephen Crane?”

“A poet. Grandpap loved his poems.”

Max nodded. The walk light appeared. Crossing 9th Avenue, Powell wondered if Kristina had seen “West Side Story.” Even if she had, maybe she would go with him. He typed a message to Kristina, pressed send and out it traveled into the epic-void.

 

 


About the Author: Julia Poole is a speech-language therapist and writer of fiction, memoir, and essays. She has published in MOON Magazine, Dime Show Review, and Motherlode – Essays on Parenthood. To learn more, visit her website at JuliaPooleWrites.com