Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

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American War
by Omar El Akkad
Published 2017 by Knopf
$26.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451493583

By Noah Sanders

If there was a time to write a novel about a dystopian future, now, if ever, seems the time. The American President is a former reality celebrity; the natural world, poisoned by its invaders, revolts against us; the Middle East has become a dusty hotbed of dictators and religious-zealots-turned-murderers; technology has eliminated privacy while pushing us further apart then ever before. The alternate futures of past science fiction seem always on the verge of becoming reality. A dystopian future no longer seems so far away. Former journalist Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is a book about what comes next, pulled from the hottest topics of our current geopolitical climate. It is a powerful feat of world-building, a beautifully written, if not wholly mind-blowing vision of a near-future that in El Akkad’s skilled hands pulses with unnerving potential.

The year is 2074. The world is succumbing to the effects of climate change; Florida has been flooded out of existence and the grand Mississippi River has become a sea. America is once again in the grips of a brutal Civil War, this time over the usage of fossil fuels. The South has become an impoverished wasteland, dotted with refugee camps, patrolled by revolutionary militiamen and supported by aide-boats from a distant, Middle Eastern empire. The Chestnuts are a poor, if not happy, family of Louisianans, knocked askew by a war that draws closer and closer to their riverside home each day. After the death of their father in a politically-charged bombing, the three Chestnut children and their mother relocate to Patience, Mississippi, a refugee’s tent city the average reader will most likely recognize from a CNN broadcast about Afghanistan. Within the walls of the camp, Sarat Chestnut—the family’s youngest—starts on a path of radicalized revolution that will pull her, and her family, through the fires of war, none reaching the other side unscathed.

El Akkad’s vision of future America is a grim one, because it predicts a shift in power, where the current geopolitical rules have been flipped, and a weakened USA has become fodder for a new reign of colonialism. Mexico has charged across the border, segmenting the country further, while a burgeoning Middle Eastern empire slowly invades through intermediaries and insidious care packages. The author spent years prior to this as a journalist embedded in the Middle East and the Black Lives Matter movement. This, combined with El Akkad’s gift of description, allows for the author to pepper his bleak, and often gruesome view of the future with moments of truly stunning imagery. American War, both because of its incredibly timely subject matter and the deep layering of the world Akkad has conceived, feels possible, as if our missteps in the real world could, potentially inevitably lead to a world very similar to the one described within.

American War casts a wide net in terms of what the author is trying to say, and though el-Akkad has said in interviews that he wasn’t trying to take sides, but rather discuss the universal appeal, and fallout, of revenge—at times the book’s inability to stand tall behind a specific idea becomes distracting. As Sarat, under the tutelage of the mysterious Albert Gaines, grows more and more radical, her viewpoints about the use of violence and death grow darker and darker. There’s times when El Akkad strays away from making a specific point, leaving a grey area of thought that, though intentional, seems unfocused. In a book as well-conceived and detailed as American War, even the slightest lack of clarity cracks the illusion El Akkad has so artfully pieced together.

As stark as American War gets, its characters and its storyline tread a well-worn path. Detailed and rife with elegant, at times lyrical imagery, the book still revels in the common tropes of Young Adult dystopian fiction. Though the book is always engaging and at best a thought-provoking road-map to a future America, it provides both in the recognizable and comfortably safe sandbox of genre fiction. There are no weapons-laden cornucopias or garish baddies, but to say that most readers have gotten lost in the story of a young girl who comes to lead, or in this case define a revolution, is an understatement. Likewise, El Akkad’s characters—Sarat’s sister Dana or her childhood friend Marcus—can feel a bit two-dimensional, well-conceived voice boxes for various political philosophies, but mouthpieces nonetheless. Simplified versions of deeper political thoughts, better suited for a younger audience.

Credit El Akkad’s abilities, that for the most part, American War is a gripping, terrifying peek into a future seemingly forecast on the front page of the daily news. It is rich, realistic world El Akkad has created, and though it sometimes slips into well-worn patterns, it is never less than riveting. American War is a book that will inspire thought, that does turn our current geopolitical situation on its head, allowing an opportunity at a viewpoint from the other side Americans are rarely given. More importantly the world El Akkad has created feels not real, but feels scarily possible, the true mark of great dystopian fiction.

Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

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Sorry To Disrupt The Peace
by Patty Yumi Cottrell
Published 2017 by McSweeney’s
$24.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1944211301

By Noah Sanders

The cover of the hardback edition of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel, Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, features a black and white waterfall serenely pouring down a rocky face. Removing the cover exposes the shockingly lime-green exterior of the book itself. Embossed across its textured cover is the standard disclaimer that this is a “work of fiction” and the characters within are “products of the author’s imagination.” It’s an apt metaphor for the book’s narrator, Helen Moran, a 32-year old woman, burying her questionable sanity beneath a combination of denial and coping methods. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace starts with Helen discovering that her adopted brother, Max, has killed himself. The news sends Helen back to her adopted home, Milwaukee, an unwanted private investigator seeking to learn the truth behind her brother’s death. Helen’s search is a slow, nauseating spiral of discovery, her erratic hunt for clues about her brother’s reasoning pushing her, and the reader, closer and closer to an understanding of herself. Cottrell places the reader within the mind of Helen, an unaware first-person narrator, and hidden behind the wall of her delusions, the book becomes a strange, sometimes comic journey, into the dark, weirdness of her self.

Helen Moran is an unaware narrator along the lines of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly or Hal in the opening chapter of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The world she describes is akin to the hall of mirrors in a dusty funhouse—everything’s there, but how it looks is just a bit off. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and Cottrell handles it ably. The closer Helen gets to Max’s reasoning behind his suicide—mentally and geographically—the crazier she acts out. Cottrell writes Helen as a tireless self-promoter, imbued with false confidence, plodding forward without rhyme or reason, smashing through anything that lands in her path. In her mind, nothing is wrong with her, everything she does is right, everything else is a lightly veiled attack against her. It’s difficult to like Helen—she spends a good deal of the book throwing up or pooping, hallucinates an Eastern European man, and is friendly only when it suits her—but like a good detective novel, we’re pulled along by the promise of the author throwing the curtain off the central mystery of Max’s death. In a way, this is a mystery novel: the reader wants to know why Max died, but as Helen’s investigation stumbles forward, it becomes clear that the true conundrum is Helen herself. “Behind every suicide is a door,” Cottrell writes. “If you open the door you might find things you wish you never knew.” There’s a comic ineptitude to Helen’s investigation. Even when “clues” are screaming up at her, she turns her head. She won’t go into Max’s room, and her only witnesses are a couple of Max’s old friends, most of whom have no interest in talking to her. Instead Helen spends her time lolling about the house, taking short walks, generally just thinking about Max and his role in her life, and hers in his. But, her poor investigatory skills are simply a smokescreen—some part of Helen seems to know that by searching out the answers behind Max’s death, she’s really digging into herself. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace is a detective novel turned inwards, the elusive suspect lingering in the shadows, Helen Moran herself.

There’s a general sense of unease to the book. Cottrell plays off the standard views of affluent suburbia—Helen’s parents are bland, sweater wearing knick-knack collectors—the author painting Milwaukee in the hues of Midwestern nostalgia as filtered through Helen’s tilted worldview. Everything feels slightly askew, everything feels vaguely sinister. It makes the setting and the characters outside of Helen hard to pin down, superficial in a purposeful way, the reader subject only to Helen’s far-reaching whims.

As much as Sorry To Disrupt The Peace subverts the tropes of detective novels, don’t expect any easy answers. This is Helen’s book, for good or for bad, and though her search for answers may show us what’s behind the waterfall, the resolution isn’t tied up in a neat little bow. The answers Helen seeks aren’t easy ones—why do people kill themselves? —and the book dwindles to a stop, with little sense of closure. But this isn’t a whodunit, it’s a story about a damaged woman trying to find herself. Loose ends are par for the course. Or, as Helen says, “The problem with an investigation is people will continue to investigate until they have found something, anything and only then, when they have found something, will they close the investigation.”

Review: One Of The Boys by Daniel Magariel

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One Of The Boys
by Daniel Magariel
Published 2017 by Scribner
$22.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1501156168

By Noah Sanders

In Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, One of the Boys, childhood is a bootcamp. The soldiers: two unnamed boys whisked away from their mother to New Mexico by their abusive, drug-addicted father. The steel-fisted drill sergeant, the father, imposes a strict set of rules and punishments, effectively drafting his own children into a malignant fraternal order of three. What’s sold to the kids as an adventure to start a life anew in a foreign land, quickly devolves into a somber fight for survival, as the father’s drug use and physical attacks escalate. Child abuse is a well-worn subject in literature, but Magariel manages, with brevity and stark beauty, to highlight anew the tenuous wants and needs that hold a family group together, no matter how broken. One of the Boys is, at its pitch-black core, a book about the power of parental love; of what it gives, what we’ll do to possess it, and the startling effects it has when it is turned against us.

There are no punches pulled in Magariel’s book. This is a story that starts dark and quickly slides into claustrophobic horror, punctuated by belt-whippings and the chemical reek of crack smoke. Our unnamed narrator, a middle school kid, and his high-schooler brother, have voluntarily lied to the authorities about their mother’s alleged pedophilia, and now live in a musty apartment complex in New Mexico with their sad, monster of a father. To start, both kids alternatively love and fear their father, and Magariel excels at showcasing the reasons behind both emotions. The father has painted their exodus from Kansas as a game, a mission in a war against their mother, with those who follow along allowed the greatest reward: to be “one of the boys,” This is childhood as gang initiation, the father extorting loyalty through intense physical abuse coupled with manipulation of the kids against each other. Magariel understands the supposed trust a child needs from their parent, and the father figure in One of the Boys uses it as a weapon, aimed at culling any sort of revolution.

The author furthers the fraternal feeling of the relationship between the two boys and their father. A rough-hewn form of hazing and ritual is constructed by the father, its intent to break them down, to sickly bond the two kids to each other and, most importantly, to their father. Things go poorly for the kids—the father wades deeper into drugs, his absence, and the onset of growing up, allowing the kids the freedom of mind to contemplate escape. Magariel creates a fascinating dichotomy: as the father falls apart, the kids must weigh their bettered chances at freedom against their inherent familial need to take care of him. The big decisions become theirs, the responsibilities of an adult, suddenly thrust into their hands. This is a book about family, though, and the author doesn’t allow the reader to forget, good or bad, our parents pass a little something along to all of us. As the father begins to suspect an escape, the narrator turns the manipulative tricks taught to him against his teacher, his father, exploiting his weaknesses to better their chances at freedom.

As bleak as the book gets, Magariel doesn’t let it slip into abject horror, allowing the boys some sense of levity, even during the worst of times. The narrator and his older brother form a bond under the dictator-like rulings of their father, manipulation or not. When the situation grows the most unbearable, the two turn towards each other, the author allowing a single scene of undiluted, child-like joy, and together, for each other, they’ll try and find a way out. The epilogue of the book pulls the reader back to the car ride on the way to New Mexico. In context, the scene seems bucolic, a family road trip to a new place full of inside jokes and good-hearted teasing. The boys are excited, ready for an adventure with dear old dad, the future, horrible as it will be, still full of possibility. “We are kids again,” Magariel writes, “just like he promised.” No matter how badly that promise will be broken, for a moment, Magariel shows us just how badly these characters, and in turn the readers, want to trust their parents, how much they want them, no matter the cost, to help shepherd them down the paths of their lives.

Review: The Vine That Ate The South by J.D. Wilkes

 

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The Vine That Ate The South
by J.D. Wilkes
Published 2017 by Two Dollar Radio
$11.99 paperback ISBN 978-1-937512-55-2

By Noah Sanders

The American road trip is a staple of fantasy literature. The journey between two points on a map, fertile ground for colorful characters to suss out their differences, revelations to be had, and unwitting heroes to face off against a bevy of a ghoulish horrors. The broad expanse of the open spaces between cities is an easy target for an author to aim their thoughts and opinions of the US of A. Musician-turned-novelist J.D. Wilkes’ Southern-fried debut novel, The Vine That Ate The South, a rip-roaring exploration of the power of legend and folklore, fits the bill nicely, if not a bit sloppily. The book finds a nameless, fatherless man-child obsessed with the legends of the South, and his green-toothed, Native American guide, Carver Canute, following the railroad spikes of the abandoned L&N line on a cornbread quest to discover the mythical Kudzu House of legend. The two men’s journey pulls them through the deep, dark of the South, where the titular Kudzu consumes all, women ride Great Danes for sport, albino spirit panthers stalk their prey, and shit-throwing demon men might just be hiding in the trees.

The Vine That Ate The South is, at its best, a page-turning delight, rife with Southern folklore. The ne’er-do-well duo at its heart, legend-seeking miscreants, on a mission to discover their homelands beating heart, and the secrets of their own familial history along the way. The narrator and his salty companion—a veritable encyclopedia of tall tales—are outsiders, pushed away from their past and the present by the onset of modernity. The unnamed narrator seeks more than just the discovery of the truth behind a campfire story, his quest is to become a legend in his own right; to become a part of the criss-crossing grid of myth that flows underneath the rag-tag, poverty-stricken climes of the rural South. In plotting their journey, Wilkes explores the battle between the old gods of story and legend and the all-consuming malaise brought about by technology-obsessed, preservative pounding, present day America. “Trite but true,” the narrator tells the reader, “technology has ostensibly solved most of our problems yet created entirely new ones to take their place.”

Wilkes’s portrayal of the South is chock full of toothless hillbillies, skin-and-bone meth heads and gun-toting isolationists, but the author’s love for his place of birth is clear. His prose is loving and familiar, honest in its depiction, but lacking in judgment or cynicism. These are people and places that Wilkes knows, and his writing makes even shit-tossing loonies seem like beloved, if not avoided, parts of an extended Southern family.

The heart of the novel is the legend of the Kudzu House—a place so consumed by the vine, that its owner’s skeletons still hang above it—and the power of legend itself. Folklore and myth leap off of nearly every page, but Wilkes never reveals if he truly believes any of them, including the Kudzu House, actually exist. Our characters spit stories back and forth, but never come to face-to-face (without the effects of mind-altering substances coursing through their veins) with any of the legends they’re looking for. Instead, Wilkes uses legends and folklore like religion: it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever seen its magic in action, giving yourself over to the belief in it, is just as powerful, just as potent a way of revealing our inner truths.

Wilkes has a lot to say in the short expanse of The Vine That Ate The South about the power of folklore, religion, technology, the relationship between the North and the South and on and on, and with every page seeming to feature an aside to some homespun tale, not everything gets enough room to breath. With Wilkes at the wheel of this rollicking road trip though, it’s easy to ignore the lingering flaws of the book. The deeper the characters push towards their destination, the weirder the book becomes, culminating in a hallucinatory final 60 pages involving talking skeletons, a river witch, the aforementioned albino ghost panther and a possibly possessed, shit-hurling hillbilly. The Vine That Ate The South isn’t—like the gap-toothed, Confederate flag waving South it holds so dear—perfect, but it’s always a good time, occasionally one brimming over with a clapboard type of rustic insight. It’s a Homeric odyssey soaked in chewing tobacco, dropped in a pocket pint of moonshine, and best consumed in one long delirious pull.

Review: Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

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Animals Strike Curious Poses
by Elena Passarello
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$19.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1941411391

By Noah Sanders

Animals Strike Curious Poses—the second essay collection by Whiting Award winning author Elena Passarello—is about, well, animals. Elephants, bears, the woolly mammoth, and more – each “immortalized by humans.” It is more than this though: this is a book about how our interactions with animals, have altered and invariably improved, our perceptions, our imaginations and our abilities to fathom the world. Passarello artfully explores how humans defined themselves through the wild spirits of animals, and how, over time, we redefined the relationship until the “animal life” became, “so dependent on humans that it [was] no longer viable alone.” Animals Strike Curious Poses is a quirky, adventurously penned book struck through with a dark idea: for all that animals have given us, we’ve given them the shit side of the stick in return.

Passarello’s essays sprint across the human timeline, touching down every few thousand years to relate another tale of how animal existence opened yet another door for human understanding. In, 39,000BP, the woolly mammoth Yuka kicks off the author’s far-reaching survey of man and natures neurological and artistic connection. “Before it became anything else,” the author writes, “the human brain was first an almanac of living shapes changing in the passing light.” We, as cavemen, recorded the beauty and ferocity of the natural world only in our grey matter the weight of all that retained knowledge eventually needing release, expression even. Leading to a caveman further up the timeline, charcoal in hand, drawing a mammoth in motion on a cave wall. Yuka becomes an impetus for art, for the very act of human creation.

Our entanglement with animals became more complicated as we ourselves grew more complicated. Vogel Starr, the beloved pet starling of a young Amadeus Mozart, inhaled his compositions and spat them back out through the garbled filter of a bird’s indecipherable mind. The strange squawks and croaks it instinctively produced pushing the composer past the boundaries of 18th century composition. Animals, knowingly or not, in art, science and beyond, have imprinted themselves across the human conscious. About Arabella, a spider who accompanied NASA’s 1973 Skylab III crew into space, Passarello writes, “The distance from a spider to the end of her six-inch silk tether is a man drifting on a sixty-foot umbilical. A man tumbling from end to end of a space station is a spider free-falling down a four-foot web.”

The latter half of Animals Strike Curious Poses strikes a darker tone, as modern humans find ourselves no longer content with capturing animals on cave walls, instead we capture, and contain the animals themselves. “Jumbo III” recounts the decades of man’s fascination with elephants, and their exploitation as circus acts. The elephant represents the wildness of exotic lands, but when, inevitably, the wildest amongst them turned against us, our only response was to showcase our control over their mortality. As the author jumps closer to the present, man needs more than even control over the physical beings of the animal world, we make them talk, we animate them, we shape them to our own whims. Near the end of the book, Passarello writes of her own interaction, and the guilt in her own enjoyment of a goat altered at birth so it could be shown as a unicorn. She writes, “I didn’t grasp, or refused to consider, what kind of subjection was possible— the various ways humans open up and alter other creatures.”

Passarello toys with the essay form to best represent each animal in its most prominent era, to which she succeeds to varying degrees. Her fantastic piece on Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution is told through the eyes of a 175-year old lovesick turtle. But, her essay “Jeoffry,” a confounding take on English poet Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, seems so amused by its own playful form, that the intent and meaning of the piece is lost. Passarello is best when she’s working loosely within the traditional essay form; her eccentric writing and fiction-like tellings of each animal’s existence livening up what could be dry facts, emboldening the philosophical themes that underlie her writing.

“Once, and for a very long time,” Passarello writes, “[animals] surrounded people and culture in a close circle that connected to both the everyday and the spiritual.” Times have changed though, as Passarello tells us, and our cultural reflections of animals are relegated to “neutered pets, as kept zoo creatures, or as ‘commercial diffusions of animal imagery.’” “Cecil,” the final essay in the book, is a barely a page long, a transcription of an interview between Dr. Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed the famed African lion Cecil, and The Associated Press. He says, “Obviously, if I’d have known this lion had a name I wouldn’t have taken it.” We created art because the wild nature of animals inspired us, and now, tens of thousands of years later, we’ve hidden that wildness behind cute names and stuffed representations. So much so that without the stamp of human nomenclature, animals have become nothing more than an acceptable trophy to hang on our walls.

 

Review: Shot-Blue by Jesse Ruddock

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Shot-Blue
by Jesse Ruddock
Published 2017 by Coach House Press
$19.99 paperback ISBN 978-1552453407

By Noah Sanders

Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel, Shot-Blue, feels like two novels loosely stitched together. They share a locale, and the author’s deep love of describing it, a handful of characters, and the lyrical strands of familial connection. These disparate chunks ostensibly live under the same narrative umbrella, but in both style and story they differ sharply to the detriment of the novel.

Both sections of the book take place on a smattering of islands on Prioleau Lake, a remote wilderness populated by a handful of weathered locals. The first section revolves around Rachel, a single mother and sometimes prostitute, and her son Tristan, an odd kid unhealthily tethered to his sole parental unit. They stumble around the islands, picking up odd jobs—Rachel sleeps with local boater named Keb for cash—just barely skirting by. The second section finds Tristan, now alone, half-feral and living alone on the island he once called home. When a group of developers arrive to turn the island into a tourist resort, Tristan is forced to work alongside a handful of mainland youth and in doing so, slowly emerge from his shell.

The first hundred or pages or so of Shot-Blue feel like an elegiac knot, a tightly woven mass of poetic landscape descriptions with a thin narrative threaded through the center. Ruddock’s writing ability is nothing to shake a tree limb at, and she paints the landscape of the isolated northern wilds as a character in itself. Rachel, and to some degree Tristan in the early goings, are ghosts of this forested, lakeside hinterland, damaged souls disappearing back into nature. As stunning as Ruddock’s descriptions are, their vague nature in the opening chunk make the characters slippery, the reader left to sort through the tangled knots of prose struggling for purchase.

This changes when Tristan is left on his own and his one time home is torn down to make room for a glaring tourist trap. Tristan is a child of the wilderness, and as it is razed to make room for what might be called civilization, he is grudgingly forced to succumb to this new world. With no parents, and nowhere to go, Tristan becomes a guide for the new resort. Without his mother to hang on to anymore, Tristan becomes wary friends with a roughshod waitress, Tomasin, who finds her own solace in his strange, quiet commune with the natural surroundings. Ruddock’s writing relaxes as she introduces more characters, and where the opening sections of the book feel almost like prose poetry, the second feels like an alternate universe camp story, with Tristan the nebbish dork who learns a few life lessons. There are jocks and cliques and the type of boozy games only dumb teenagers partake in, and at times it feels like pitch-black adaptation of Moonrise Kingdom or any other kids-at-camp flick. It is, of course, more than that; it is a story about reemerging from the grips of childhood, and the sense of loss that accompanies it, of discovering who you are and how you fit into the world. Each character, to varying degrees, discovers themselves on the tree-lined shores of Prioleau Lake, Tristan with the greatest intensity.

This is Ruddock’s first novel though, and you can feel it in how much she wants to do. She wants to write the lyrical environment novel as much as she wants to write the classic coming-of-age story. As beautifully as she’s able to write both, they feel disconnected, and the characters, and their individual storylines suffer because of it. Characters we were led to believe were important in the first half of the book, disappear without warning—Keb, so prominent early is barely a flicker in the later bits—and Ruddock fills their void with an overabundance of far less fleshed out new characters. She isn’t able to wrangle all of them, and as the book peters to an end, many of them are left stranded, without closure. As insular and claustrophobic as this book can feel, it doesn’t dampen the author’s ambitions. She may slip on the rocks of her own aspirations, but Ruddock is gifted stylist and with her skill, she can’t be faulted for reaching up towards the blanket of stars.

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

 

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Lincoln In The Bardo
by George Saunders
Published 2017 by Random House
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0812995343

By Noah Sanders

My first time reading Saunders—the opening short story “Victory Lap” from his outstanding short story collection The Tenth of November—its storytelling left me dazed, the literary equivalent of horse kick to the temple. “Victory Lap” doesn’t explicitly buck the standard structure of storytelling, it nudges it slightly off the beaten path, forcing the reader to assess and reassess exactly what they’re looking at. The characters in “Victory Lap” interact with the voices in their heads—of family, friends, an omniscient crowd of supporters—allowing the reader a chance to not only hear their inner monologue, but to be swept up into it like a riveting conversation. Saunders enjoys structural tinkering, and as almost all of Saunders award-winning oeuvre does, it usually works. With this in mind, the release of Saunders’ first ever full-length novel—Lincoln In The Bardo—brings with it a foot-thick crust of anticipation, even expectation, of how the novel will be dusted off in the hands of a master. As it turns out, Saunders’s choice in terms of upending the structure of the novel is his most ambitious one, and sadly, his least successful.

The story, set in the early 1860s in a decrepit cemetery—“the Bardo” (a Buddhist term for a purgatory of sorts)—finds then-President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie as The Civil War rages across the country. His ghost, tied to the earthly plane by his continued want of human existence, wanders The Bardo, accompanied and protected by a motley crew of other specters, each admonishing the true afterlife in hopes they’ll be granted return to their former existence.

Structurally, Lincoln In The Bardo is told in the form of a chorus. Every description, every transgression that litters the page, is done so through the direct utterance of a character or, at times, of a primary source. It reads, to simplify, like a play. Lincoln In The Bardo is, regardless of its period setting, a timeless ghost story that explores the ideas of collective grief, anger, and mourning and in this, the chorus structure befits it. We feel the pain of each individual ghost, but Saunders is able to pull the camera as far back as he chooses—in distance, time, or otherwise—to illuminate how their specific anguish ties into the greater pain a country devastated by war is afflicted with. Slavery and economic disparity and religion are all addressed, but instead of lengthy diatribes shoved down our throats, the splintered selection of first person narrators makes the reader feel a part of the continued experience of collective emotion, because, well, we are.

There is no doubt this is a George Saunders book. There’s an almost psychedelic humor that flows through it. Each ghost is afflicted physically based on what they continue to yearn for: so Hans Vollman—an unsatisfied lover—walks through purgatory with a constantly erect penis; Roger Bevin III, a paranoid, 18th Century gay man, has hundreds of eyes and ears, always on the lookout; angels seduce potential recruits with hazy visions of a heavenly plane suited for each. Though veiled in oddness, Saunders manages to imbue the characters—unsightly, mainly selfish ghouls at best—the setting, and the story with an underlying warmth. You like these ghastly spirits, you wish for them to somehow depart the grim middle-ground they’ve chained themselves to. As the book speeds towards an ending—a riveting, almost slapstick chase scene from stone tentacles—it morphs, revealing the humanist guts pulsing within. This is a gorgeous, inspirational book about how we must lean on each other to move forward from the horrors of life.

Unfortunately, to enjoy the characters and discover the beautiful, existence-affirming themes, you have to wade into the treacherous swamp of the book’s structure. Frankly, the chorus structure is distracting. The visual format of the book—speech, character name, page break, repeat—subjects the reader to page break after page break, with each break pulling you off the page and out of the story. It becomes particularly bad when Saunders uses reams of primary sources and essays alike to describe the setting and atmosphere of America as a whole. Saunders feels compelled to share the author and the full title of each piece, and flipping through these sections becomes more akin to reading the expanded bibliography of a piece of non-fiction. And to be frank, there doesn’t seem much reason to break the story into the chorus structure. Saunders, in pieces like “Victory Lap” has played with the idea of multiple, almost first-person-like viewpoints to much greater affect. The multiple voices creating an enjoyable cacophony unweighted by the boulder-like strain of format or structure. The most enjoyable moments in Lincoln In The Bardo fall during long monologues by singular characters, when the page breaks disappear, and you can lose yourself in the joy of simply reading; lose yourself in the illusion that what you’re reading is simply a novel.

It isn’t that Saunders has mistaken form over content, as that would imply that the book isn’t immaculately written—which it is. Rather, Saunders has managed to unintentionally obscure his own brilliant writing behind a smokescreen of structure. At his level, with his boundless talent, and with this his first published stab at longer work, the literary world would be remiss if he wasn’t pushing the boundaries of what writing can do. Perhaps next time, a bit more of a balance between pushing the form and telling a story can be struck.

Review: Sirens by Joshua Mohr

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Sirens
by Josh Mohr
Published 2017 by Two Dollar Radio
$15.99 paperback ISBN 9781937512347

By Noah Sanders

Novelist, Josh Mohr’s Sirens, a scathing memoir of his battle with drug and alcohol addiction, begins with the author sober, in his late 30s, a successful writer and a seemingly happy, responsible adult able to take to care of his family. Lying in bed with his wife, Lelo, and his daughter, Ava, Mohr is afflicted with a stroke, a near-death experience which drags him down into the murky tunnels of his life. “I’m thirty-nine now,” Mohr writes, “wondering if a look backward can make sense of who I am, what I am.” In gritty, angular prose, Mohr digs deep into his days of bleeding out in hotel bathrooms, of rolling drunks for pocket change, of ketamine addiction and lost weekends, circling his past in hopes he’ll better understand who he is now, who he’ll be later. Sirens is a memoir stripped of any padding; it is an honest depiction, at times painfully so, of a man trying to assess if what he’s been can ever come to terms with what he struggles to be.

The book is about drug addiction because that’s the bloated river of memory and hurt Mohr has to wade through, but he’s too good of a writer to let it rest there. Mohr deals with his inability to equate his sober life with his history of addiction. To survive, to move forward even, Mohr has compartmentalized his life into a variety of identities – drunk, addict, father, husband—each separate from the next. He moves through life fractured, incomplete, the weight of his former mistakes always threatening to pull him back. For every moment of sobriety, of ‘normal’ adult life he’s fought to achieve—his novels, his family, his tenuous health—Mohr flays himself open, revealing how his worldview is still steeped in the context of addiction. A surgery to prevent future strokes becomes a potential for relapse; a book tour for his first novel becomes a road trip through a bourbon-scented minefield; the daily travails of adult life becomes reason enough to dip back into whatever drug he can get his hands on.

Sirens isn’t about marveling at how anyone could survive the abusive physical and mental paces Mohr has put himself through; it’s about Mohr’s accepting himself and of his myriad parts, good, bad or otherwise. Over the course of 208 pages, Mohr accepts the flaws and frailties of his humanity, recognizing the loose patchwork of influences and life experience that defines us as humans.

Mohr’s daughter Ava, his most adult responsibility, shakes him the hardest. He recounts a story of Ava, like kids do, slipping his grasp and pitching over the edge of a staircase. And even though she’s fine, and Mohr’s actions to protect her are heroic, it becomes an acknowledgement of his failure, of the inability of a man with his past to keep a living, breathing child unhurt. “It scares me so much,” Mohr writes, “that she relies on me to survive.” But, she does, and to be the father he wants to be, Mohr has to come to grips with all the disparate parts of who he is, —“dirty laundry leper,” “alcoholic car-jacker,” “the criminal” —to come to the realization that for his daughter to know him, she’ll have to know all of him. But Mohr will have to get there first.

The writer never closes the door on his daunting issues—addiction or otherwise—but instead lays them out on the page, plainly visible for all to see. The writing of his memoir becomes a part of his recovery, an acknowledgement, that these aren’t obstacles to surmount and forget, but active parts of who he is at all times, regardless of his station in life. Even if he wants to forget the person he was, Mohr knows, or ends knowing, that without his past, he’s a hollow shell, floating backwards towards his darkest impulses. Sirens is the written equivalent of Mohr roughly stitching together his past and present, in the hopes that the future, for himself and his family, will exist because of it. Or as Mohr writes, “We are never just one thing. I was never only the heart defect, only the author or the junkie, or husband or father or professor or drunk. I wear all of these like layers of skin.”

Review: An Arrangement of Skin by Anna Journey

skin


An Arrangement of Skin
by Anna Journey
Published 2017 by Counterpoint Press
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 9781619028470

by Noah Sanders

The word “taxidermy” is one rife with images of dead, stuffed animals, moments frozen in time. When translated from Latin, it becomes “an arrangement of skin” the simple image of taxidermy now a messier, a gorier image of our human covering, rearranged, laid bare, revealing all that lies beneath. In the titular first essay of poet Anna Journey’s debut collection, An Arrangement of Skin, she writes of visiting famed Parisian taxidermy studio, Deyrolle. In describing the stuffed, dead animals she sees there, she writes, “I imagined each creature held a history inside it, the intricacies of a lived life, with its shifting landscapes and loves.”

 

Journey’s essays beautifully chart this idea: the stacking of histories that lay beneath our skin and the ability of art—poetry especially—to expose the layers and layers of experience, oftentimes morbid, that shapes them forward and back. The essays in An Arrangement of Skin cover a fascinating array of subjects—javelinas, wisteria, a tattoo artist named Captain Morgan—but the prevailing subject in every chapter is Journey herself, her history, her family, her friends and lovers. Each essay is a deep delve into her own past and those stories, those moments frozen in amber, that have piled atop each other to make her what she is today.

 

An Arrangement of Skin is bookended by essays on taxidermy—“Birds 101” and “Modifying The Badger,” Journey’s own taxidermy tutelage, used as thematic bookends. In “Birds 101” she remakes a simple starling, and her experience is one of merely capturing the moment, of using the gussying up of death to celebrate “the wonders, textures, and varieties of life.” The understanding Journey comes to is superficial in nature, a beginning, or as Journey writes of preparing the bird, “I opened it up and entered as if turning the first page of a story.”

 

“Modifying The Badger” finds Journey returning to the act of taxidermy, with the author and the reader now privy to her personal arrangement of skin. In recreating a boar raccoon, a more involved, laborious process, Journey discovers that capturing a moment is similar to the creation of poetry, or any art; she writes, “By conjuring a fantastic world in which this impossible form might exist… we’re offered a moment that testifies to the beauty, bittersweetness, and gravity of impermanence.” The dead animal is an object, as is a poem or a tattoo or a human being, and though we see these as singular caught images, they are merely a covering, a skin even, for the myriad experiences of life, contained within.

 

Journey is a stunning writer, clear and lyrical, her poetry background enabling descriptions of the most mundane experience to come tearing and frothing off the page. A starling’s skin is “wheat-colored chain mail for an airborne knight,” while wisteria is “flamboyant as a drag queen, wild as a psychedelic grapevine.” She crafts her own world so beautifully, with so much of her own history revealed that it is difficult not to tear through the essays like a pulpy thriller, always wanting to know what tidbit Journey will explore next.

 

Every essay focuses on an “object”—her cuckolded ex-boyfriend Carrick and his collection of stand-up basses or the story of Bluebeard—but the object that is best dissected, laid bare, is Journey herself. Her mother is the star of the essay, “The Guineveres,” a quirky, entirely morbid woman who uses dark stories to impress lessons upon her two daughters. But Journey pulls the curtain back, a taxidermist peeling back the skin, revealing the stories that shaped her mom: her years as a stage actor, a folk singer, a camp counselor, to name a few. In exploring her mother’s history, Journey is compelled to explore her grandfather’s history, the history of race relations in The South, the history and importance of folk music and field historians, The Lomaxes, and on and on. All of it now, her own shared history helping to shape the object that is the author. The book becomes an exploration of the idea of who she, the object explored, is, and how though she shapes our own stories just through thinking and living, in the end we are simply the continuation of every other story, great or small. If we are only able to remember in scenes, frozen moments, than Journey takes it upon herself to make us understand and appreciate the pulsing entrails of experience that beat below all of them.

 

An Arrangement of Skin contains a bigger idea though, about just how poetry or writing or words, hell, creation itself allows us to not only retain our memories, but to explore them, to find meaning in them, to dig deeper and deeper, no bottom ever in sight. This brilliant collection, shows us how the object, and the artistic interpretation laid across this object allows it, and the dangling strands of story and narrative that make it up, to stretch across time, generations, and family; to become something bigger—a single sliver of the greater public consciousness.

Dear Neighbor, by Alan Chazaro

FOR CHAZARO - DEAR NEIGHBOR - (from stockpile)


Dear Neighbor,

it’s no wonder we drive spaceships and eat
inside caves around here. Yesterday, a teenager

confessed to seeing his first murder. Said
the car pulled up his block and smoked a dude

quicker than his Black & Mild. I don’t know
why he told me this, standing at the bus stop

but now I’m telling you. I took out
my earphones and told him I could hear

the gunshots in my neighborhood, too.
He paused, his lungs a giant comma

of smoke, before offering his blunt. I told him I quit
a long time ago. He nodded, took two

deep hits, asked what I was
listening to.


About the Author: Alan Chazaro is a public high school teacher pursuing his MFA in Writing at the University of San Francisco. He is the current Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow and a graduate of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. Recently, his work received an AWP Intro Journals award and appears or is forthcoming in Huizache, The Cortland Review, Borderlands, Iron Horse Review, Juked, and others.

 

The Educator by Sarah Melton

FOR SARAH MELTON


An MFA right after undergrad and straight into a paid position. Not bad, right? But you won’t find my book in the storefront. No Pulitzer, not even a “Joel’s staff pick” sticker thrown on the cover. When I was hired I fantasized about National Book Prizes and intimate literary gatherings at George Saunders’ house. I pictured a big paycheck alongside evenings of writing novels. I didn’t expect long nights, weekends, and lunch hours sorting through twenty-somethings’ muddled thoughts about drinking on rooftops and dysfunctional families. I also didn’t expect that I’d enjoy it. When my students submit work it’s like they reach down into some messy space between their heart and their liver, grab whatever they can, and throw the viscera onto the page. I play surgeon and help clean up the blood. I make sure the organs are aligned, everything’s flowing in the right direction, then I sew it up and throw away the gloves. When I do my job well, I don’t leave a trace, and my students are grateful.

 

Carole’s writing, of course, rarely needs it. Sure, it’s rough in parts, but whenever a deadline rolls around, she starts whispering to me about mismatched socks strewn on the floor and the groveling hand of a clock. She writes about the penmanship of her brother’s grocery lists, the hem of her father’s pants hitting cement tiles on the way out, and I’m the one left gutted.

As I read her work, I picture her. I see her pull at the edges of her curly brown hair, the way she takes her sweater off and I want to be there. I’d bring her a coffee and watch her nose wrinkle as she writes jokes. Eventually, I’d get restless. I’d close her computer, pull her out of her chair and push her up against the wall. The day after class deadlines, images of her surge through me until I can’t take any more. I build up the courage to do something about it.

I plan instead of sleep. When I’m not working, I devour graphic novels and Billy Wilder films, so unless the woman is both a 12 year old boy and a 60 year old man (preferably in neither of those bodies), they’re not going to be wowed. When it comes to not waking up lonely, I’ve learned to strategize. I look up university protocol and find vague condemnations. Nothing that’s not maneuverable. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve wrapped my arms around warm curves, or had someone to watch Firefly with.

Every Tuesday at 4, I have office hours – she comes with specific questions. Is this sentence too long? How can I fix the pacing of my first paragraph? She arrives on time, the cutest grin plastered across her face. My desk, empty except for a small stack of papers, sits like a lifetime between us.

“I’m actually a bit busy right now, and don’t really have time to meet with you. Not that I don’t want to,” I tell her. She crosses her legs then uncrosses them, about to say “ok,” and leave. Just like that. I picture myself sitting there, paralyzed, my heart dribbling on the floor, watching as she stomps out, dragging her feet through the heart puddle as she goes. It would cling to the underside of her shoes, other professors would wonder how it ended up on clean carpets.  But I know what I’m doing. I recite my line exactly as practiced.

“So I was wondering if you might want to have a meeting tomorrow over lunch instead?” I look right at her.

The small freckle above the corner of her lip inches upwards and her face turns the pale pink of her nail polish. She doesn’t freak out.  If anything, she’s confused, which is fine. She isn’t sure if I’m suggesting lunch out of convenience or because I want to spend time with her. I’ve got her thinking about me. And her. And me and her together.

Her eyes search mine for an explanation, then scan the bookshelf for something else to focus on. My heartbeat bounces off the corners of the room but I only hear her soft, shallow breaths as she doesn’t say anything. Women love to make you wait. Then finally, she says ok. OK. Okay. I wonder if she is saying yes because she wants my feedback, or to be polite, or because she is picturing shirts on the floor. I suggest a time and place I’ve already decided on.

When I get there she is already sitting at a corner table. I like that she’s a bit over eager, like in class. At first she is more shy than in my office, and we eat to a soundtrack of small talk. I ask her about her life, her hobbies, I know she likes hiking from one of the pieces she turned in, and she steers the conversation towards her work. Fine with me, I could talk about writing all day. An hour later, there are papers thrown between us and she is still directing us towards craft. I make fun of the typewriter tattoo I got in grad school, and she laughs, her eyes lighting up as they meet mine in the crossfire of the joke. Since childhood, when girls learned to point out my pale arms, I’ve become practiced in confident self-deprecation. Before she leaves, I suggest we have lunch again next week,instead of office hours, and she pauses. But only for a short tiny minuscule moment, and she says “sure,” and I exhale.

Perhaps she is treating these lunches as a mentorship kind of thing, so I make my intentions clear.  “I admire your writing.” I tell her. “I’m obsessed with that piece about you and your ex.” That one really got me going, but of course I don’t tell her that. She doesn’t know how to respond so she acts like she doesn’t hear me.

At the second lunch meeting, instead of asking about sentence structures and paragraph lengths, she asks if the characters are likable, if she deals with loneliness in cliche ways. I steer the conversation into the ideas themselves. I slip in a detail about my sister who hates me, and how I feel insecure I’m not living up to my potential as a writer. Relationships, I know, are give and take.

“Do you have thoughts on the ending?” she asks about her last story. She sent it to me last night, my inbox spinning from zero to one and back to zero within 5 seconds. “I’ve re-written it a hundred times, and it always falls short,” she says. I suggest she takes out the last sentence, and shorten some of the others. I give her my ideas to fill the silence, and she smiles and writes them down. She does not realize her charm. I rest my hand on her shoulder and she flinches a little. Not upset or uncomfortable, she doesn’t move away from me, she’s just surprised.

As we meet for our third lunch date, it hits me. This is happening. This is really happening. I’ve laid the groundwork and I’ve actually gotten to this point, so now I have to take the final step.

“I like spending time with you,” I tell her. “I want to ask you something.“ She doesn’t smile. She was smiling and then her teeth jumped back behind her lips and her skin fell as loose as a 20 year old’s skin can.

I want to stop talking, but it’s too late now. If anyone is worth the suffering they cause, she is, so I finish what I started.

“The situation might seem weird, but I don’t think it should. Just act like you would with any other man approaching you in admiration.” Her eyebrows wrinkle and she struggles to keep her features in place. I act like I don’t notice. “I think we have great chemistry.”

I know to an outsider this might verge on unprofessional, but understand I don’t see her as my student. She is a fully grown woman. She looks 25 at least. And if she tells me I am being inappropriate, if she throws her notebook at me or cries or calls me an ass, I would apologize immediately. I would tell her to forget I ever said anything, and assure her that I could still be a worthwhile teacher. But she doesn’t. She sits in silence, and I know I have a chance.

“Maybe we can have some wine, and talk. Not about writing. Well, I’m always happy to talk about writing, you know me. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you pretty well these past months. You can read some of my work if you’d like. Watch a movie. You know, just spend time together.”

My guts roll around on themselves like my organs are a broken roller coaster. It’s like this every time I ask a beautiful woman for a date. Whether they’re interested or not, they become coy, just because they can. They smile sheepishly into themselves, and decide whether they will let you admire them a little longer, or will rip you apart like your lego sculptures, tiny bricks on the ground beneath their feet.

I have to remind myself that I’m not terrible looking. I’ve published an entire novel and several chapbooks of anecdotal vignettes and lyrical essays and some women find me endearing. Carole makes me forget these things. But no, I am not crazy to think she might be as interested in me as I am in her. To think she might even look up to me.

She bites her bottom lip, ripping a little of the skin off.  A drop of blood forms so I lean in to help, but she moves. Her spine cracks against the back of the chair and I think she might fall out of it. I asked too early, I should have waited. She could have made the first move. After we break the world record for awkward silences, she says she will come and she finishes eating and grabs her papers and leaves. I don’t mean to make her nervous, but she makes me feel that way too.

***

I sweep my floor, and then I mop it. I look out the windows, and then I sit down. I take out a couple books, ones she would like, and place them to look forgotten on the table. I get up and check the windows. Lakes form under my arms and leak onto my shirt, so I change into a new, loose-fitting outfit. I keep the curtains closed so she does not catch me standing there. I glance at my watch. That groveling hand of my clock. Ha. I pick up one of the books and try to take in the words. I let out the stomach I’ve been sucking in for 20 minutes.  

At 7:23pm she’s on my doorstep. I pour a glass of cabernet sauvignon and guide her to my couch.

Just relax. Both of us. Questions work well to get her comfortable. She answers them and does not sit still. I want her to talk but I wish she didn’t talk so much. Every silence that sneaks up on us, she rushes to fill by asking me something. When she finally pauses, I reach out slowly, deliberately, to brush the hair away from her eyes. Before my hand travels the chasm between us, she tucks the loose strands behind her ear. So I’m left sitting next to her on the couch, hand chilling mid-air like an idiot. Like I am doing a bad ET impression. I’m so close to ruining everything and my hand is practically at her face so I see no other option but to move it to rest on her cheek. From there, I lean in, and I kiss her. She squirms. She is restless, like me. Together, we are nervous writers in a dangerous world. I keep kissing her, and she starts pulling away. I know I should stop, but this is my moment. I finally have her, here, in my arms, like i’ve thought about every night. I run my fingers through her hair, then down her back and under her clothes and it’s better than my fantasies, better than the musical episode of Buffy, hell, it’s even better than seeing my book published for the first time.

I stop for a second and the eyes in front of me belong to a fox at gunpoint. I lean back, to take in this untouchable woman, and she begins to gather her things. With one hand through her coat sleeve she says “well, I should get going,” the distance between her and the couch, between me and her, increasing with each word. Did she think that was a goodnight kiss? I knew I was going too fast. I do not want to scare her away, so I go along with it. I can’t stop smiling as I walk her out.

I’d say it was a lovely night.

***

In class, nothing is different. I try to catch her eye and she stares into her notebook like Cirque du Soleil is going on in there. As much as I want a glance, a glimmer of a smile, I know we can’t let others catch on. Instead, I make my feedback as poetic as I can. A secret, coded, love letter. I email her for conferences to discuss her work – her writing has gotten noisy and abstract. I find her number in the college directory and call to ask why she’s been absent. She doesn’t answer. I try not to come across as desperate, but I don’t care if she has the power, I want her to talk to me.

 

Carole,

When can we meet again? I had a lovely time with you. I read your work over and over and I can’t wait to get to know that person more. Do you know how many girls in the class have crushes on me? But I only think of you. Allow me to make you happy. We could have something great. We can’t just leave things like this.

forever yours,

G.

 

I write her terrible letters. Truly awful stuff. I try to be poetic and it sounds false. I try to be straightforward and it’s cliche. Tender and vulnerable? Nope, just pathetic.  What kind of writer am I if I can’t even create a goddamned love letter? Carole obviously agrees because I get no response.

I look up this ex-boyfriend of hers. I find his first name from her story, and then I check facebook. I find a photo of her snuggling with the moron, Jack Fernagie, who could never deserve her. I look him up in college records and get his address. This information isn’t public, of course, but it’s not difficult to access. I start going for walks in the area. I learn he’s on the basketball team and studies chemical engineering. I do nothing with the information, except dwell on it. Why would she be with someone like that? She should be with an artist.

After making me wait out the distance of the universe, she gives me the time of day. In a curt email she tells me it was all a mistake. She is not interested. She asks me to forget it, to leave her alone. I know I’m a writer, but I can’t describe how that made me feel. Like a marching band trampling on my heart. Like an entire freaking parade jumping up and down on it. So I only send a couple more letters asking her to reconsider. I leave them with gifts outside her house.

***

Stan, the head of the department arranges a meeting. This happens often to talk about a new book or figure out class schedules, I think he sees a younger version of himself in me. But he addresses me with a sternness I’ve only heard him use once before, while dismissing a student accusing him of racism,  and I know it’s bad.  How did he figure it out?

The university can access my emails, but would they pay attention to random writing feedback between a teacher and his class? I step into Stan’s office, closing the door behind me. I ask about his wife.

“It’s come to my attention there may be something inappropriate going on between you and a student,” he says.

Carole told me herself how uncomfortable Stan makes her. Female students would want him fired for sexism long before they’d find a problem with me. He’s lucky if 2 or 3 stick around to be ignored in his workshops. Who does he think he is? I call him a jealous prick. No I don’t. I take a deep breath and smile at him, I hope it looks confident but not smug.

He talks a lot, which gives me time to decide how to respond.

“I will not have my department tarnished.” he says. “I have worked hard for my position and respectability. The students have been protesting the university’s handling of sexual assault for months. You know damn well we’re under a magnifying glass here. One misstep and we’ll be dealing with slanderous articles, pissed off alum and budget cuts. Don’t put me through that, George.”

I could tell him the things she writes in her assignments. Say that she was interested at first, but she changed her mind, and we’ve come to a mutual understanding.

“If a student goes public with accusations, at that point it will be out of my hands. We’ll have to let you go. For now, it’s just a concern, so what your step. It could be the difference between a meeting with the ethics committee and your job.”

I know to be deliberate. Another deep breath, I hold my hands in my lap to keep them still. I stay quiet. Whatever I say will be meaningless. I need Carole. She has to be the one to tell them what happened, to defend me.

***

I ask her, once again, to come over. If she speaks on my behalf it could save my job. The administration are not actually worried that these romances happen, but about negative press, so if Carole proves there’s not a problem, there won’t be.  She knows I’m not a bad guy, after all. She said so once in an email. But she doesn’t respond so I have no choice but to go to her house.

When she opens the door, she takes a step back, hovering, not sure what to do. But she lets me in and before I say anything, she apologizes. She says she knows I was only trying to be nice, but it was too much, and she got scared and she regrets it. Then I realize. It wasn’t my coworkers suspecting something – she reported me.  If I lose it now she’ll never forgive me. Any small glimmer of a chance thrown out the tiny, lego window that she’s already grinding into the floor with her heel. I focus on my breathing.

“Carole, are you serious? I like you so much. How could you do this to me?”

I take deep breaths, in and out, the way one does when the walls turn white and start to crumble. I mean to be calm, but writers are passionate people. I raise my hands and come towards her and I throw every word I can think of at her, emotions rising and being released, swelling in anger and then exhaled.

“I could lose my job, do you realize that? Take it back. Please. You came to my house, didn’t you? What did you expect? You know there’s something between us. And you don’t think this will hurt you too? You think employers will rush to hire someone who is going to seduce the boss and then sue them?”

I let go of her shoulders, realizing I have been shaking her. She’s so disoriented she can barely stand, her eyes have doubled in size and are wet. I reach out again to steady her, to stroke her hair, to calm her down. Before either of us realize what is happening, she grabs a knife sitting on the kitchen table and it flies through the air. She slashes it, without thought, in my direction, with little control over what her hand or the knife are actually doing.  And like that, my pinky falls. It bends a little at the joint when it hits the ground.

Not a metaphorical pinky or figurative knife. Not stabbing a broken, pathetic man in his feelings. If only. She stands for a moment watching it happen until her knees slam the floorboards and she exhales like there is no air left in her body. It is a full second before the pain registers and it’s the kind of pain of teeth being ripped out with pliers, of spoons removing eyeballs from their sockets, of a pinky being cut off with a kitchen knife, resting on sticky hardwood floors. In the midst of the action, the bottle of wine I brought was knocked over, the ground is stained with two shades of red.

She calls 911 but does not come in the ambulance. The doctors are able to re-attach the pinky, and tell me that once it heals it will be almost, but not quite, perfectly functional. Neither of us press charges. A doctor’s report is the only one filed – nothing with the school or police.

I think she feels guilty, but she doesn’t reach out. I wish things were different. I wish we walked away with memories of being goofy at the movies, of drinking and dancing in my living room. Instead, she drops my class, and takes a leave from university. It’s her loss, I tell myself. But I miss watching her freckle move as she talks. I know I am better than the mess she reduced me to, so I refuse to let her destroy me. I do pinky stretches and pinky weight exercises every morning before my first cup of coffee. I write a new chapbook – a series of sketches about fingers and fingertips, and it wins an award.


About the Author: Sarah Melton is a new writer who studied creative writing at Brown University. She used to write for the arts and culture magazine, Motif, but currently works at NPR Books.

 

Crow’s Eponymous by John Oliver Simon

FOR JOHN OLIVER SIMON - by Alison Moncrieff


Crow’s Eponymous

Crow’s eponymous caw’s caught raw in my craw.
Tell me something I don’t know, crow. Something rhymes
with nothing, nothing rhymes with orange. Your range
includes my backyard, you’ve made that crystal-clear:

The air embroils your articulate passage
galaxies hook tentacles to dosey-do
sidewalk and street run outward to morning
white spaces, uncharted, dragons on the map.

We’re down to squirrels, cats, humans and crows
sturdy collard and stubbornly red beet greens,
fleas, cilia, viruses hardly alive,

proteins, preteens, protons, strange and charming
quirks of quarks. Crow’s cry awkwardly cracks a croak,
a step or two up the ladder of language.

 


About the Author: John Oliver Simon is one of the legendary poets of the Berkeley Sixties who has grown by steady dedication to his calling. Published from Abraxas to Zyzzyva, he is a distinguished translator of contemporary Latin American poetry, and received an NEA fellowship for his work with the great Chilean surrealist Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011). He is President of California Poets In The Schools, where he has worked since 1971, and was the River of Words 2013 Teacher of the Year. His ninth full collection of poems is GRANDPA’S SYLLABLES (White Violet Press, 2015). For his lifetime of service to poetry, the Mayor of Berkeley, California proclaimed January 20, 2015, as John Oliver Simon Day. On May 14, 2016, the Berkeley Poetry Festival presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. He is currently resisting a voracious retropetitoneal liposcarcoma.

Artwork: Alison Moncrieff writes, makes art, and tends chickens & children (and now rats and rabbits) in Oakland, CA. She does her stitchy art on the go and in the quiet moments between her duties as an unschooling mom & learning facilitator. Hand sewing connects her to centuries of women who used the very same stitches she does and gives her a sense of how small she is in the scheme of things, which she finds comforting. All of it brings her joy, and she hopes to pay that forward. See more of Alison’s mixed media stitch collages here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/AliMoncrieffArt?ref=listing-shop2-all-items-count&section_id=19906188

First Down by Christina Gardner

FOR CHRISTINA GARDENER - by Alison Moncrieff


Brett Llewellyn comes to mind. On a clouded day, Brett Llewellyn stood on the field in the schoolyard. He was a freckled lanky boy with a conservative cut of red hair. He cradled a football, helmet-less. After a whistle, his red hair jostled as he dipped, faked left, and ran. He wore no team uniform—a light blue polo shirt. Blue flags flew behind him as he entered the end-zone. Grass, mostly crab and clover, upturned under his sneakers, while boys all around him with yellow flags dove. Still, he eluded them.

A few weeks later, a sign-up sheet appeared on the P.E. office door for fall sports. I decided to put my name on the tryout lists for the boys’ flag football team, knowing it wasn’t technically allowed at my parish Catholic school.

A group of classmates surrounded me as I wrote my name on the sign-up sheet hung on the door of the P.E. supply room.

“You can’t do that!” Chris R. shouted. “That’s the boys’ team. Can’t you tell you’re a girl?”

“Why would you want to play football?” Stephanie Clark complained with her popped hip of condescension.

“I want to play too,” another girl said, and she stepped up to put her name on the list.

I received other snickers and side-eyes for the rest of recess, but the controversy seemed to die down by the end of lunch. Kids have short attention spans for scandal, but though my classmates seemed to forget about the act, I didn’t. I was nervous. I had never played football before, but my intent was steadfast. I wanted to do something my school hadn’t allowed girls to do before.

Someone must have called my parents that night. Told them about what I did.

“Why do you want to play?” my mother asked at the dinner table.

“Because I don’t want to play volleyball,” I told her.

My father stayed out of it. He rolled his eyes, took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and went to stand on our back patio while my mother spoke to me.

I didn’t know how to explain it to her exactly, how to articulate what I knew intuitively; it wasn’t fair that we couldn’t just be allowed to play with the boys if we were equal to them. That if you taught that girls could do anything, you should let them do anything. I wanted to prove that I could. I wanted to make a change, make a difference. I wanted, at the very least, to call out what seemed so carefully unaddressed.

Mom kept on, “But you could get hurt, playing football, something could happen to your ovaries.” Which made me think her stupid. I knew enough to see the flaw in her anatomical argument. She had joked before with other moms before about how much smaller boys are than girls at that age. Boys have penises on the outside of their bodies, yet no one was concerned with damage to their reproductive abilities. I imagined a big girl named Angela towering over Brett Llewellyn on the field and accidently kicking him in the balls as she plucked the football out of his hands and ran.

But it was of no use. I was used to this shoddy logic, and there was no arguing with my mother when she took to this kind of explanation. I felt betrayed by her ignoring what was obvious.

To say I was passionate about football would be a lie. I had a sense even then that I was playing some kind of performance of a feminist. The appeal of the football team lay mainly in my unjust exclusion from it.

This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I’m not a religious person now, but I was a stone-cold Catholic then and Joan of Arc was my hero. She was my perennial choice for “Saint Reports.” As part of my presentation that year, I carried a cardboard flag and sword, donned construction paper armor, tied my hair up to mimic her shorn locks.

Glossing over every historical inaccuracy I know now, I presented to the class, “Joan of Arc was directed by God through three different saints to dress like a man and lead France to victory.”

I wanted to mimic more than her hair, I want to mimic her courage. If Joan of Arc could win a war in medieval France, couldn’t I could play flag football?

About a week later, there was a meeting called by the Arch Diocese to discuss if girls were allowed to play flag football at parish schools. Apparently, my school hadn’t been the only one with Catholic girls to ever have such a wild desire.

That whole week I had been hopeful. The two other girls that wanted to play seemed like an unlikely trio. Lydia, a small skinny pretty thing with too many brothers to pretend she was just small and skinny; Angela, the big girl we were all afraid to piss off but always picked first for teams; and me, bookish, enthusiastic, and generally a rule-follower.

I was called into the principal’s office to have meeting with my principal, Sr. Marie, an ancient nun, and our vice principal, Mrs. O’Donnell. The office was well-appointed compared to the rest of the school. There was a large blond wood desk and plush beige carpeting. Framed awards and photographs lined the walls. The room was dim, the slats of the wide mini-blinds were pulled shut. I had only ever been in there once before to deliver a note from my teacher two years before. In front of the desk, there were three cushioned chairs across from the door where Sr. Marie sat on the left and Ms. O’Donnell next to her. I sat in the chair across from them that was so much bigger than me, I felt I had shrunk.  

Mrs. O’Donnell was a stern lady, spoke to everyone with the same tone of voice she spoke to the class of kindergartners that she taught: drawn out words in the form of instructions, no elaboration, no explanations, no patience for discussion.

She began to speak and I can’t remember if she said anything before she said, “We know your parents told you about the Diocese’s meeting and it was announced that each school could choose what they thought was best. Sr. Marie feels it’s best, and I agree, that we will not be allowing girls to play football. If you’d like can still tryout for volleyball.”

I looked to the old woman on the left who was as small as I was.

“Why not?” I pressed, trying to be defiant, but slowly starting to cry, my response to frustration even now. I don’t whine or wail, it’s just that tears start to flow to my eyes and my voice starts to tremble, at best an annoying weakness.

I stared at Sr. Marie even as the other responded, “We feel it’s a matter of you getting hurt.”

I was crushed by their complete stonewall of my ambitions. My throat was thick with fear, but I told them what feels powerful even now.

“I’ve lost faith in you, in this school, and the church. I’ve lost faith.” I cried in front of these women, these gatekeepers. I hated them for watching me cry. I hated them for not reacting to what I was saying. They just stared and handed me tissues.

I imagined yanking off Sr. Marie’s habit, cutting off her pale blue dress with my left-handed scissors. I wanted to expose whatever matronly undergarments she wore. What right did a woman like her have in educating modern girls? I wanted her to feel the humiliation she was so desperately trying to avoid for herself and forcing on me.

Then there was her counterpart, Mrs. Donnell, such a loud and mean woman, always in some kind of blouse and long A-line skirt. I imagined even at that age that she had a giant mole, just above her vagina, and I wanted to stab it.

“Go wash your face and go back to class.” This was their only consolation. “Then send in Angela.”

That was all they could say for themselves. It seems weird that they had that meeting at all. I can’t imagine telling a child something like that. Why not leave it up to my parents to break the bad news? Let them figure out a way to put it easily. They could’ve made it seem like they had no control and we could’ve wallowed together in the unfairness of it all. Instead, I felt like I had done something wrong just for asking to be treated as an equal to my male classmates.

Maybe they wanted to fight the crusade head on, because I think what they saw in my desire to play football was a signpost of my bi-sexuality. Something I couldn’t even see back then. By denying me and other girls the chance to play football, perhaps they thought they could suppress what was ultimately inevitable. One of the other girls who wanted to play was queer as well. Maybe by just being myself, I was more of a threat than I could have known.

What I didn’t do was play football on the co-ed park team.

“If you really wanted to play football, you’d play wherever they let you,” my mother explained. “You’re just trying to be different.” This accusation has been repeated innumerably over the years, as if wanting to be different was universally a bad thing. She would tell me that for anything as small as liking a black choker—it was the 90s—to going to NYU for college.

In turn, rage was born out of the hypocrisy of the entire experience. We had girl altar servers and a woman principal, why not girls playing flag football? How could something so clearly unjust not be repaired? I didn’t understand why more adults didn’t see it my way, in a lot of ways I still don’t. The effect of this was that these people lost me to something beyond their horizons. I was transformed into a daughter that their world was too small to serve.

What’s important to know, what I realize now, is that it was a chorus of women—not one man—who stood in my way, trying to convince me not to want what I wanted. Perpetuating the patriarchal example that I’m sure had been set down in their own lives; how they rationalized that to themselves, I can only speculate. Maybe it was important to them to teach girls how to not step out of bounds. Perhaps setting the bar lower would protect me and the other girls from future disappointment. The sense of betrayal that rushes in when considering any of these possibilities mirrors so much of how I feel when I look at the news today. How are women still doing these things to each other?

I care so much for that little girl, my 11 or 12-year-old self. Wanting so much to participate in ideals and principles, and then learning that the world doesn’t much care for your ideals, even though that’s what those in control claimed to teach. I hold her bright ambitious body in my mind like you’d comfort any child. I grieve for that sense of idealism I no longer possess. What world would we have if we didn’t suppress those instincts?

The result is that I learned how to cast-off any rule that doesn’t serve me. I graduated from the small-minded world that likes to think I’m a prodigal daughter. Fled left for cities that drew me in and sent me soaring higher. There will always be obstacles; needing no permission, I fight them on my own—dipping, faking left, and running towards the end zone.

 


About the Author: Christina Gardner is a fiction and personal essay writer, living and working in San Francisco. Her work focuses on examining the female experience in the global corporate workforce. You can find her work featured on XoJane and the Minetta Review.

Artist bio: Alison Moncrieff lives in Oakland, CA and paints in her basement, which is just that side of water tight. Her painting style is probably called abstract or intuitive, involving right now mostly-empty dresses, unrealistic birds, common symbols & words. For Alison, painting is a visceral, playful thing. It brings her joy, and she hopes to pay that forward. She is currently working on the #paintfeelloveheal project (@alimoncrieffpaints on Instagram), a yearlong painting practice to grow a habit of creative production and to connect with people. For more about Alison’s painting, visit www.alisonmoncrieff.com.

Through with that by Kaitlyn Duling

FOR KAITLYN DULING - by Deanna Crane


Through with that

She says she dumped him just like this,
her back upright in the chair. The chair

against her shoulder blades. The chair
wooden. Its arms wooden. Outside,

the door of the U-Haul pushed up, he watched
its mouth slam open with less noise

than one might expect. Her, silent
and in the chair and considering the long

drive now behind them. The car radio too loud.
The thss, thss, thss of tires and how

the wind pushed on the side, the left
side of the car and the road kept going.

When he appeared in their front doorway,
it was their new house together, their one big

owned thing, and he saw and her in the chair
and What, I asked her, What was he supposed to think

was just about to happen? She told him the ride in the car
made clear their lack of love. He told her the house

was already theirs. She doesn’t remember what else
he told her, just the sound of the ceiling fan

she had switched on in preparation. The heat on her face
and the moisture there, the color red and its going redder.

Him, probably still standing for lack of a chair, for lack
of any close object but her back against it, the old one

with its arms and her arms upon them. There was a cold
in his cheeks as they realized together, his skin white

and flattened. Just like this, she said, and I noticed it,
that lack of color that happens, when it happens.


About the Author: Kaitlyn Duling currently resides in Pittsburgh, where she manages the Storymobile program at Reading is FUNdamental Pittsburgh. She is a graduate of the Program in Creative Writing at Knox College, where she studied poetry.  An Illinoisan at heart, Pushcart nominee, and winner of the Davenport Poetry Award, her poems have found homes in Denver Quarterly, Big Muddy, Ninth Letter, IDK Magazine, The Fourth River, Atlas and Alice, Catch Magazine, Wilde Magazine, and Naugatuck River Review.

Artwork: Deanna Crane

Driver Training Days by John Laue

FOR JOHN LAUE - by Allen Forrest


I

      What was I doing sitting in a car careening from lane to lane of the Golden Gate Bridge, my heart in my throat, while Mrs. Cerf, my driving student, freaked out? Maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of drama, I thought. Maybe I should have turned down the job.

         I’d had to find some way of making a living after leaving my job as an Advance County Planner before they fired me. A bad reaction to LSD had pushed me over the edge to the point I couldn’t do the required math.  Now here I was, in my first job after I could work again, teaching driving in San Francisco, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

         Mrs. Cerf, please stay in the center of your lane, I mouthed without much conviction, ruing my mistake of missing the last turnoff and letting her get on the bridge. So here we were, having to go all the way across. Because I was inexperienced, I didn’t grab the wheel with my left hand as I would have later, believing she might think me rude. I just sat helpless with nonsense going through my mind: Why does the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.

          It must have been beginner’s luck; we didn’t hit anything. As soon as we were able to turn off and park, I got behind the wheel and drove us back across, all the way to American Universal Driving School on Geary Boulevard. My first student had almost been a disaster, but I decided to keep trying. There was something appealing about riding around all day in the sunshine. And the instruction car had a brake on my side too.

         I’d majored in psychology at Cal. Perhaps there was a chance to use that knowledge with people who were under stress, some acutely so. And I’d be looked up to as kind of a guru of driving by some students; I liked that.  Plus my creative writing training at San Francisco State University’s graduate school might be useful too; I could write about my experiences.  Most of all, I needed the money. The amount I’d drawn out when I withdrew from Alameda County’s pension fund was almost gone.

II

         Talk about being looked up to, here was an example. I picked up Dara in the Marina District where her one-room apartment was located. She was a very good  looking Italian American of 23 with an olive complexion and dark hair. I was happy to teach such a nubile woman. And she needed instruction: she’d never driven before except for a few lessons in high school driver training.

         I took her all over the city, giving lessons in several phases of driving, but remember best the time I had her going north on the stretch of Divisidero Street that descends precipitously to the Marina District, the street featured in the popular chase movie Bullitt where both cars went airborne.  The street descends at a forty-five degree angle, but is intersected by several cross streets where it levels out in a sort of stepladder arrangement.

         We didn’t go airborne, but another dangerous thing happened. As we headed down the sharp incline, I said, Okay, Dara, put the car in second gear so engine compression will help us keep our speed down. That will save the brakes and make it easier to control. Dara reached down and, instead of second gear, moved that automatic transmission gearshift all the way into reverse. With my left hand I immediately shifted it back. After that the lesson went smoothly and I explained what she’d done.

          The next time I saw her, she said she’d told her boyfriend about the incident. Bob said he would have killed me if I’d done that to his car. He told me you must be a saint not to let that bother you! I feel very safe when you’re here. Thank you so much for putting up with me!

          For the first time I realized how much gratitude I could get for doing this, the only job I’d ever had where that might occur. Students’ thanks were like a drug to me.  And I went one on one with a variety of people, anyone who could afford the $15 to $20 an hour we charged. I enjoyed meeting people so this was an ideal job for me although I only got $5 an hour of instruction, not counting time spent driving to pick up students (which could be considerable). Being a driving instructor isn’t so bad. It’s a lot better than sitting in an office all day, I said to myself.

III

           As the first months went by, I successfully taught a variety of people, from teenagers to new widows. I reveled in the freedom it brought them, not minding that it was sometimes quite nerve racking (less so as I gained experience and became more willing to take control when need be).  When I thought students were ready, I took them to the Department of Motor Vehicles for their license tests and was proud when they passed.  

         My second unusually difficult student (after Mrs. Cerf who totaled 120 hours with other instructors and passed the driving test on her ninth try) was Chris, a diminutive dark-haired, female social worker who had seizures controlled by two drugs, dilantin and phenobarbitol. She’d begun instruction with my friend Rich Farmer, but had complained about him to the management (Rich was having mental health problems far worse than mine, and could say outrageous things). Knowing I had a degree in psychology, the office had assigned her to me.

         Chris’s problem was lack of alertness: she failed to notice hazards in time, probably because of the heavy drugs she was taking. She had a bad case of tunnel vision, seemed unable to cope with people and objects coming from the side. I decided to take her to Union Street in the Marina District, and other areas where there were many jaywalkers and cars pulling out of parking spaces.

         As the lessons progressed from ten to twenty hours, she kept making the same errors. I began to think she mightn’t succeed.  I wanted to find out whether it was worthwhile to continue teaching her, so I decided to keep a running count of the number of times each hour I had to use my dual brake. I taped a tally sheet to the dashboard, made a check mark each time she was in danger of hitting someone or something.

         What are you doing with that list? she asked. Are you trying to discourage me by using negative reinforcement (like me, she was well-versed in psychology)?

         I’m keeping track of the number of dangerous errors you make each hour, I replied. If they don’t decrease, we’ll know driving isn’t for you. I don’t want to waste your money by giving you scores of lessons when it’s obvious you aren’t improving.

         Chris desperately wanted to drive. She was in therapy and had discussed this with her psychiatrist who’d agreed she should take lessons. Almost every day she had to ride busses to different parts of the city to visit clients. She needed to drive, especially for the more distant assignments. I liked her so much, I’d have given her lessons for free if that were required, but the obstacle wasn’t money. After twenty hours of instruction and practically praying that she do better, I felt quite frustrated.

         The data on the dashboard wasn’t changing; every hour of instruction brought two or three possible accidents. Finally I had to tell her she should give it up. That was a sad moment for both of us. I wanted to take her for a farewell drink, but she couldn’t tolerate alcohol because of her medications. We hugged before I left for the last time. I learned a valuable lesson from my time with her: not everybody can drive even if they seem intelligent and I do my best to teach them.

IV

         Dave Hammero and I were fellow instructors at American Universal and grew to be close friends. He was a tall guy from Minnesota, Norwegian American, Norsk, as he put it, who  had been a high school basketball star. He was one of the best driving instructors I’d met, even intending to start his own school one day. Dave claimed that we were practically guaranteed not to have accidents in our own cars because of all we learned while teaching people. He was an exponent of The Smith System of driving that advised us to leave as much space as possible all around our cars.

         One evening, after a hard eight hours of teaching, I was on my way home to 40 Clover Street where I lived with my wife Sandy. Clover was a single block street and to get to it I had to cross Eighteenth Street which slanted down from Upper Market to the Castro District. I reached the stop sign and waited, looking left and right, then quickly gunned it to cross swiftly because I saw only a small opening.  

          As I reached the center, I heard a thump and realized, to my total horror, I’d hit a man’s scooter, winged a big white wooden box on the back. My heart was in my throat as I realized I could have killed him. I pulled over on the other side. That driver, a large man dressed in blue denim, had pulled over too.  I wondered if he were going to get physical with me. I fell all over myself apologizing. I was practically crying, embarrassed even more because I’d been driving a car with Driving School signs all over it; What an advertisement! I thought.

         He hadn’t been hurt and the box on the back of his scooter just had a little chip in it. One inch to the left could have sent him tumbling and been a fatal accident. I thanked my lucky stars it hadn’t been worse. I’d completely failed to see his little scooter coming down the hill; it probably had been hidden behind one of my car’s window posts.

         That day I learned Dave’s accident free assertion wasn’t true. After a long day of high alertness while riding with students, and coping with their errors, I’d felt relieved to get in my own car and drive myself home, thinking I could finally relax; nothing bad could occur with me behind the wheel. After the scooter incident, I realized I had to watch just as carefully in the driver’s seat as on the instructor’s side; otherwise I was an accident waiting to happen. Ironically, I’d talked to my students about fatigue, but had failed to recognize it in myself.  

V

         Occasionally a student would be so naïve he or she thought, since the car was automatic and had power steering, it would do things it wasn’t designed to do—like steer itself. The most flagrant example of sheer ignorance (or purposeful mistake) I saw was when I attempted to instruct a woman who told me she’d been a teacher in the Philippines, but hadn’t ever been behind a car’s wheel. Ms. Pugao, a woman in her early thirties was quite pretty, which I liked. She seemed alert and intelligent so I thought she’d be easy to teach.

        The first lesson I gave her was on a straight, divided road bordering Glenn Park. We were nearing John Glenn high school at noon. I wanted to stay away from the mob of students and cars pulling out, so I asked her to make a U- turn through an opening in the median strip.

         She exclaimed,  Something’s wrong with this wheel; It won’t turn all the way!

          I reached over with my left hand to assist her, but couldn’t turn it very far either. To my amazement I saw that, without my noticing, she’d put her seat belt through the steering wheel, pulled it to her lap, and buckled it (seat and shoulder belts were separate then). She’d been driving in this condition three or four minutes, and I hadn’t noticed.

         I had a set routine for new students: I’d explain what the different controls were for, assist them in getting the seat and mirrors adjusted; I’d ask them to fasten their seat belts, help them find the receptacle the metal tab went into; even, if necessary, go around to the driver’s side and open the door to do it for them. But I’d never imagined a student would do what Ms. Pugao did. I learned from that to expect the unexpected, as I’d been advised by the California Driver’s Handbook.  

         Later, when I thought about the incident, I recalled I’d mentioned to her I might write a book about my driving instruction experiences. Perhaps she made that crazy error to be mentioned; I had no way of knowing. But here’s your part of my story, Ms. Pugao, if, by some stroke of luck, you’re still alive after all these years, and able to read this.

VI

           Some of my teaching failures were due to cultural differences, language barriers, and other difficulties dealing with an international clientele. I lost one student, a Japanese businessman who spoke almost no English, because he wanted to stop in the midst of a downtown lesson to fetch his briefcase.   I couldn’t understand the name of the building he was trying to pronounce. Guessing at the building’s location, I inadvertently stopped at another structure three blocks away from it. As I sat there trying to make sense of what he was saying, he suddenly jumped out of the car and began running.  

           He ran down three long city blocks, then came flying back with his briefcase in his right hand. I apologized, but don’t believe he understood. Either he thought I was trying to cheat him because we were on the clock, or he felt too embarrassed to continue his training. He never called to schedule another lesson.  

           On other occasions, unexpected things caused students to quit. I lost Mrs. Becker, a comely sixty year old widow I liked very much (She gave me a German Stollen Christmas cake from The Sunset Bakery where we used to stop for coffee breaks), because I put the black Mercedes her husband had left her through a carwash.  That made hundreds of tiny scratch marks on the pristine finish. I hadn’t realized that her husband had always buffed the car by hand with a soft cloth. I apologized profusely, but that did no good.

           Actually I was rather relieved not to be teaching Mrs. Becker because she’d insisted on having the lessons in the Mercedes. She’d driven some many years before, but had left that chore to her husband when he was alive. She had a constant battle with nervousness. Usually I succeeded in calming her, but she’d occasionally lose it completely and  become immobilized. Once she froze in the middle of the intersection of Junipero Serra and Sloat Boulevards. The light turned green and she failed to go

             I said, in what I thought was a comforting, calm tone, Mrs. Becker, you have a green light. Take your foot off the brake, put it on the accelerator. Be calm and do this slowly. There’s no reason to panic!

            She said, They’re blowing horns at me!

            Me: Don’t worry about that; just get going!

            Every time a horn blows within hearing distance, many driving students think it’s for them. I call it beginner’s paranoia. But in this case the horns actually were for us. Finally that sweet lady calmed down enough for us to start again, releasing a stream of cars that charged like race horses coming out of the gate.

           Mrs. Becker’s incident was only one of many times driving students held up traffic. Quite a few older men and women I taught seemed to think going slower was safer; several came for lessons because they’d failed their driving tests by not keeping up with the flow. My job was to convince them to speed up. Once in a while, I’d get someone who just couldn’t endure going fast enough to blend with traffic. I’d do my best to convince him or her to give up driving. A few were issued special licenses that restricted them to slower surface streets.  

VII

             The most unlikely student I ever had was a woman with a condition called bradykinesia, a disability from an earlier accident that resulted in her doing everything very, very slowly. When I first picked her up, Mrs. Goldman, a well-dressed woman of fifty, requested that I drive her to Presbyterian Hospital so she could get a note from her doctor to present to the DMV. Otherwise, in her condition, they wouldn’t grant her a Learner’s Permit.  I don’t know what she said or did, but, after twenty minutes, she emerged with his signature on a note that said, to my amazement, she was capable of learning to drive.  

           Mrs. Goldman could walk with a cane, but she wasn’t very mobile. Everything took longer with her. Just signing her name at the Department of Motor Vehicles took her at least thirty seconds. She told me, I’m dee–terr–minn–ed to dd–rive!   I gave her ten hours of in-car instruction, during which I had to take control most of the time. It was obvious to me that she couldn’t be a safe driver.

         I tried to discourage her, saying she’d never be able to pass the driving test, but this didn’t faze her. Finally I refused to continue the lessons.  I said, Mrs. Goldman, I don’t want to waste your money. I’m sorry but I can’t go on with this! You and I both know you’ll never be able to drive safely. I let her off at her house with that message, thinking that would be the end of her futile attempts. She phoned our office and complained about me. The next week I saw her out for a lesson in a car from National Driving School, one of our competitors.

VIII

            Another surprisingly difficult student, Monsieur Sequin, a balding, heavyset French gentleman about sixty years old, told me he managed a hotel in the Tenderloin. I thought it amusing that he’d shout  Merde!(shit) every time he made an error. A typical adventure with him occurred when we were traveling down Van Ness Avenue and he suddenly turned left.   

            I said, Monsieur Seguin, I didn’t tell you to turn. Why did you do that?

           He replied, See zat car up zere?  

           Yes.

          He turned left!

          Three days in a row I attempted to teach Monsieur Sequin proper uphill parking techniques, taking him to a steep hill on a street adjacent to the Presidio of San Francisco. With all the hills in the city, this was a very important skill to learn, one neglected by many drivers, who could get a ticket for not doing it properly.  

          The first day, when I talked him through the maneuver, he did it perfectly; the second day in the same spot, he pulled over and parked as if we were on a level street. I said Monsieur Sequin, we’re on a steep hill. You have to turn your wheels out so you can back the right front wheel against the curb. That’s for safety: if you get bumped, your car won’t go down the hill.

           On the third day, in the exact same place I used to teach uphill parking, I pulled him over. Again, he didn’t secure the right front wheel. I said, Don’t you remember how we did uphill parking the last two days in this same spot?  

           He replied, Is this uphill?  

           It dawned on me:  Monsieur Sequin was senile and couldn’t remember anything from day to day. I finally requested that he quit attempting to drive.

IX

           Another person I asked to give up driving for safety’s sake was an 89-year-old retired Army general.  He said, I’m Major General Edwin C. Walker. I can drive perfectly well, but they flunked me on my test. That young examiner didn’t like officers. He was prejudiced against me!

           I wanted to believe his story, so allowed him to have a lesson in his own car, a Cadillac (with no dual brake). As he drove away from his mansion in the Seacliff area of the city, I noticed he was weaving slightly.

         Have you done your own driving?, I inquired. It had occurred to me that, like many high-ranking officers, he might have had enlisted men driving him everywhere he went.

         He said, I did plenty of driving. I had a policy of driving myself.

        We came to T intersection with a stop sign. I asked him to turn left onto Fulton Street, a four-lane thoroughfare alongside Golden Gate Park. I saw him move his head left and right, then he turned precisely into the path of an oncoming car. Luckily, that driver slammed on his brakes and did a desperate evasive maneuver, just missing us.  

         I’d been watching the general’s eyes and was certain I’d seen him look both left and right. Then I had an idea; I asked him directly, Do you have any vision problems?

        Oh, yes, he replied, I’m blind in my left eye, and have cataracts in my right.

        I said, Sir, I think you ought to have an honorable retirement from driving!

       This ramrod-straight fellow, who had lost his wife the year before, began sobbing. I got behind the wheel, drove us back to his house, spent the next half hour trying to comfort him, but reiterating that he shouldn’t continue attempting to drive. I was sorry for the old guy, but hell, he wasn’t safe.

X

              Most of the people who became my students could learn to drive up to my standards after ten, twenty, or thirty hours at the most; however, as one can see from the General and others, some were absolutely hopeless cases. I remember   them with some degree of fondness, mixed with a touch of regret. If they’d driven before, it was almost like giving them a death sentence to request they abandon their attempts.

           One man, a rabbi of a temple in San Francisco, was partially paralyzed from a disease he’d acquired in the tropics. He convinced me to take him in his own car. I usually didn’t do this, but thought he was a special case.

          He said, Before I got this disease, I was a good driver. I haven’t driven for a while, but believe I only need a brush up course now, so I can pass the drivers test.

         Before we exited the parking space, he hit the Chevy in back, then the Volkswagen in front. There was not enough damage to stop the lesson right there, but I was a bit shaken. When we were finally in the street, I held my breath till we could find a curb parking area large enough for him to make it in without a problem.

XI

             Once in a while I had some unexpected successes too. I taught one Japanese businessman almost entirely by pointing where I wanted him to go, pantomiming what he should do in parking, etc. He spoke no English and brought a thick Japanese-English dictionary he put on the dashboard. He only used it once or twice during his ten hours of lessons, after which he passed the driving test with an almost perfect score.

            A few people I taught struck me as dangerous, not so much as drivers, but personally. I took out one man who said he was half eskimo, from Alaska. Like many students he confided in me, but some things he said made me wonder what he might do if he didn’t like the lessons.

           Tommy:  I told that guy not to fool with me, but he kept it up, so I waited for him at the Trading Post with an axe. I split his skull wide open!

          There was also the woman who, when I appeared at her door, said, You’re the psychiatrist, aren’t you? You’ve been sent by my doctor and minister. I know you think I’m crazy!

           I said, Did you call American Universal Driving School for lessons? I’m your instructor.

          She answered, Now I remember. I did call them. But I know how to drive. All I want to learn is how to parallel park.

          In those days parallel parking between four stanchions was part of the state’s driving test. Many drivers didn’t pass because of this. When I took students to the DMV at the end of their courses, I had to wait while they drove out with examiners for their tests. I’d stand by the parking lot, watch my students and other drivers sometimes backing into and over stanchions as if they didn’t exist.  

           I gave Mrs. Goodale two hours of instruction, concentrating on parallel parking, during which she said, I don’t know what I’m going to do. They’re sneaking in professional ringers against my bowling team.

          She sounded like some of the people from therapy groups I’d been in, paranoid and delusional.  I wondered if she might be a hazardous driver because of that. I finally decided it wasn’t my job to determine her sanity. After all, I could be classed as mentally unwell also, having been through some serious psychological problems. Technically Mrs. Goodwin was an excellent driver; I was only there to improve her parking skills.

         Now, much later, after mulling over my experience with her, I’ve concluded she probably wasn’t as dangerous as some of the teenagers I encountered who acted like they were immortal and took serious risks. I especially remember Johnny whose mother insisted he take lessons even after he’d had driver training in high school. The first day out on his own he was showing off for the kids on his street and ran into a phone pole.

XII

            After Mrs. Goodale’s lesson, I was assigned to teach a woman who lived in an apartment house near Golden Gate Park. I found her name next to one of the many buttons in front, pressed it so she could buzz me in. I didn’t notice another young woman park her car, and come up behind me. She heard me pronounce the first woman’s name as I searched for it on the list of tenants.

              I was let in and took the elevator up to the third floor. When I got to my student’s apartment, the other woman was already there: she’d run up the stairs ahead of me. The two were in the doorway, having a very emotional conversation. The second woman, a blonde, was saying, How could you betray me like this? You told me I was the only one for you. Now you’re dating men! How can I ever trust you?  

           Tara :  (my student): You have this all wrong. Stop crying! He’s not a date. All I want to do is learn to drive. He’s going to be my instructor.

           Second Woman: You mean you’re not going out with him?

            Tara: He’s going to teach me to drive, that’s all. You know I’m loyal to you. I love you!

            Second woman: Don’t they have any woman instructors?

            Tara: I don’t know. He’s whom they sent.

            Woman: You had me worried for a while. I’m sorry I’m so insecure!

           Tara:  Come here, dear. Give me a big hug! (They hug and kiss).

           I think, All’s well that ends well!.

XIII

          At about that time I was sent to the Sunnydale Public Housing Project to pick up a student. When I got there, a young black woman was waiting for me in one of the identical apartments. Knowing it wasn’t the best place for me, a young white man, I thought I’d get her started quickly. As soon as we entered the car, I told her the lessons would be $20 an hour.

          She looked at me like I was crazy, and indignantly spit out, You mean I got to pay for this–with my own money?

           I said, Sure! The school and I have to get paid.

          She said, Well fuck that! exited the car and stomped back to her apartment.

           I wondered why she thought she could get lessons for free, then realized she was probably on welfare, used to the government paying her expenses and her children’s too, if she had any.

           Another awkward racial encounter took place when I taught Shania, a pretty, young black women to drive in the Western Addition, a predominantly black area. As we cruised down a street at the beginning of her lesson, a man on the sidewalk shouted at her: Get out of that car! You betraying your race!

           I guess he thought we were dating, despite the signs all over the car advertising our driving school. Or else he thought she should have had a black instructor. There were no black instructors, so far as I knew, in San Francisco at that time.

XIV

            Ginger, another student, was a middle-aged, white woman with blonde hair who lived on California Street, and worked in a downtown office building. At first I thought she’d be fun to teach, because she seemed friendly and intelligent. But I was taken aback when she began to ignore my commands

           A typical exchange with her went like this: Okay, Ginger, See the intersection we’re coming to? There’s no sign prohibiting a left turn, so we’re going to turn left. Here we are. It’s time to turn left. Turn left, Ginger! Why didn’t you turn left?

          Ginger: Because I didn’t want to!

           Me: I thought you wanted to learn how to drive. I’m here to teach you, but you have to obey my commands.

          Her: I don’t want to!

          Me: Really, Ginger, do you want to learn or not? You’re paying me a lot of money to teach you. If you don’t do what I tell you, you might as well quit.

         Her: The company I work for wants to transfer me to another office in San Leandro. But they say I have to learn how to drive first.

          I suddenly realized Ginger was taking driving lessons because the company had told her to and probably was paying for them. I believe she thought that if she passed the driving test, she’d be transferred against her wishes, so she was determined to fail. I played along with her for a few more hours; then stopped taking her. I don’t know what happened to her later, but hope she didn’t have to relocate.

 XV

              After I’d worked there for a year and a half, American Universal Driving School declared bankruptcy. I’d suspected the company was in trouble since we instructors had to race to the bank to deposit our checks while they were still good.    Once, after I deposited the school’s check in my account, several checks I wrote on that amount weren’t covered. I became very angry about this; Bank of America charged me a fee for each bounced check.   

             Another thing that angered me was, when I’d first been hired, I’d been required to put up $100 for a bond, so if I stole or lost the school’s money, the company would be reembursed.. That was supposed to be held in a safe account, returnable when I left. I applied for it and found that my boss, Paul Halula, had spent all the bond money trying to keep the company afloat.

            Finally the school was taken over by another owner, Bill Azevedo, of International Driving School. His old, brown Studebakers would frequently stall in the midst of lessons, refusing to start again. I had AAA Road Service Insurance, so I called them when this happened.

            Me: Hello.  I’m a member of Triple A and my car won’t start. Would you please send somebody out?

            AAA Person: Your name and number please.

            Me: John Laue, __________

            AAA  Person: I’m looking at your record. It says we responded to your calls seven times already this year. I’m sorry, sir. Seven is our limit. We can’t help you.

            My friend Dave Hammero got a job working for a North Beach Driving School whose office was across the street from Washington Park.  It was owned by a man named Roberto Vasquez we called The Mad Mexican because he had a reputation for trying to seduce all his women students. Dave told me there was enough work for me, so I switched to that school. I worked there several months, training many people from the North Beach District, mostly Italian immigrants, plus a few Chinese from nearby Chinatown.  

              Most of the Italians learned fast, so I averaged about ten hours a student. I really liked one young guy called Santo, who introduced me to choice North Beach places like the U. S. Café frequented only by Italians, and people in the know. The Chinese were another thing entirely. For some reason I never could quite figure out, they had more trouble driving than any other group. My Chinese students did live up to ideas some Americans have about Chinese drivers. I thought it must have been due to some cultural quirk I didn’t understand; I doubt it was genetic.

XVI

               Disgusted with our poor working conditions, too few students, and the lack of living wages, Dave Hammero, Rich Farmer, Ralph Johnson, and I decided to start a union, The Driving Instructors Guild. We met at my second floor flat on Clover Street, on the border of the newly famous Castro District, an area swiftly becoming known as a mecca for gay men. (I saw the last straight bar out of eighteen go gay right after that and met Harvey Milk in his camera shop too).  

             Although we put a scare into some of the driving school owners, especially U. Hale Gamel, who’d come from Arizona with the notion that he’d rule the San Francisco scene (He owned the largest school in the city before he fled back to John Birch territory), our guild wasn’t all that successful. Too much turnover among instructors existed for us to gain much of a foothold. My good friend Rich had a bout with craziness that sent him over the edge for a while; the rest of us got rather disillusioned, and our union folded.

XVII

              Roberto wasn’t giving me enough work, so I moved to National Driving School on California Street. That school was owned by an Englishman named Jim Vivian, a first-class cricket player who took much time off to play in tournaments all over the world. Jim, who also had a school for prospective truck drivers, was impressive in manner. He got contracts with three of the most exclusive private schools in the city, Catherine Delmar Burke, Sarah Dix Hamlin, and The Urban School.

              I taught the classroom portion (Driver Education), along with some in-car instruction for the first two, which were girls’ schools. When I asked students to create scrapbooks, and do similar projects, their work is still some of the most colorful and comprehensive I’ve ever seen by high school students. They were all children of wealthy, socially prominent families in the city, mostly well-behaved, a pleasure to teach. But I was still working for $5 an hour. Tuition for these schools was very expensive, but instructors got paid only a pittance, not nearly what public school teachers made.

              The Urban School was for both sexes, and seemed to be full of non-conformists. I remember giving an in-car lesson to a petite sixteen year old Japanese-American girl from there. She appeared quite shy, but when another car cut us off, to my great surprise, she asked, Shall I give him the finger? I heard that the school was having a minor scandal that week; two of the students had had sex on the roof, and been spotted by people in surrounding buildings.

XVI

             One of the first students I got from National Driving School was Maria, a Filipina who worked as a maid in one of the enormous mansions in Pacific Heights. She insisted I pick her up two blocks away from that residence. When I asked her why, she said, I don’t want them to know I’m taking lessons. I work six days a week. I only have half a day off and I’m on call then. I owe them a lot of money for bringing me here, and I have to work to pay it back.

             Hearing this and other things she confided made me believe she was an indentured servant, practically a slave of these super rich people who were exploiting her. I felt sick about this, but could do nothing to remedy the situation. She never did get her license, stopping after three or four hours of lessons. I believe her employers might have found out.

           While I was teaching Sylvia Dalton, another National Driving School student, we got rear-ended on Geary Boulevard. She saw a yellow caution light and panicked: instead of proceeding through (there was time), she slammed on the brakes. We stopped suddenly, but the driver behind us didn’t react in time.

           Students had the idea that when a light turned yellow, they’d better stop in a hurry.  I told them all about the point of no return, past which they should proceed through intersections, but many had trouble estimating it. I had no way to override their braking, so we had occasional close calls.

           The car’s rear end was smashed; however, neither of us was injured. After getting over the initial shock, Sylvia was very apologetic: Oh, I’m so sorry. I know I shouldn’t have done that. I’ll pay for the damage.

            I calmed her, saying, Don’t worry; it won’t cost you a dime; the school has insurance for situations like this. It’s not your fault that you’re just learning how to drive. But next time,  go through when the yellow light comes on unless you’re too far from the intersection.

               Jim had the car fixed by his special mechanic, a German, the same man who worked on Jim’s vintage Rolls Royce (with the license plate reading OWZ-ZAT?–typical Jim joke!).  That garage hiked the cost of repair sky high.

              Jim got a large insurance settlement that not only paid for damage repair, but also for much lost business. He claimed the car was out of commission for ten days, although it had been fixed in two or three. I thought this unethical, but didn’t protest, which would have been futile anyway. He gave me $100 from the settlement.

              Jim was also a yachtsman. A year after I left the school he died by drowning while bringing a boat to San Francisco from Southern California. Just past the Golden Gate Bridge there’s an area of very rough water called the cabbage patch that capsized his boat and dumped him into the sea. I heard he was too seasick to swim to safety.

XVII

              While working for Jim, I occasionally had students across the bay in Berkeley, and on the North side of The Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Although I did get reimbursed for the gas and tolls, I didn’t get paid for the time getting to where they were, but wasn’t too resentful; I liked the trips.

              I’ll never forget Mrs. Torchio, a diminutive Italian American widow of about sixty, whom I picked up at her house in San Rafael.

              Her: I can drive but I’m a little nervous on the freeway. I need to take this cake  to my daughter in Sausalito (a trip of about fifteen miles). If you ride along with me, I’ll feel safe.

             Me: On the way I can tell you some techniques for proper freeway driving. There’s no need to be nervous about that.

             We set off on Highway One with her driving her car, a late model Dodge, me in the passenger’s seat. Barely five minutes had passed when at sixty miles per hour she screamed, reached into her glove compartment, pulled out a bottle of bourbon and began swigging. No one had ever done this to me before. Although we instructors often shared stories, I’d never heard of this happening during a lesson, probably because most lessons were conducted in the company’s cars.

             After almost fainting from surprise, I got us off at the nearest exit, exclaiming, My God! Mrs. Torchio! Don’t you realize that drinking when you’re driving is one of the most illegal and dangerous things you can do? Why did you do that?

             I have diverticulitis! she mumbled.

            On the way back to San Rafael with me driving, I wondered what diverticulitis had to do with drinking and driving, but didn’t press her on the subject. Needless to say, that was my only lesson with her.

   XVIII

            Of course it could be dangerous, but I liked teaching driving. I enjoyed meeting students of all ages, coping with their physical and emotional problems, seeing most of them pass their driving tests and receiving their gratitude. Many were fascinating people, and we sometimes got close in more than a professional manner. But in some senses it wasn’t a very good job.

            In each school, the office had complete control of how many students we got, so we never knew how many we’d have from week to week.  Office people were supposed to distribute students fairly among instructors, but sometimes that didn’t occur, especially if you irritated managers, who’d tell the dispatchers to cut you off.  

            We were encouraged to be salesmen: the more hours we could convince students to take, the more income we, and the driving schools got. Some instructors tried to sell more hours than necessary, but I didn’t. My job, as I saw it, was to see that they were skilled enough to be safe drivers before they took their driving tests. I prided myself on my efficiency in getting this done.

            Voted one of the top five instructors in Northern California by the owners association, but frustrated with the job’s low pay, I took more graduate courses at San Francisco State University, earning a General Secondary School Teaching Credential, and a Driver Education Specialist Certificate. I did substitute high school teaching from 1970 to 1973 in several Bay Area schools, traveling to Redwood High on the peninsula, Novato High in Marin County, and others.

XIX

            Paul Halula, my old boss at American Universal, had become head of the Regional Occupational Program at Ohlone College in Fremont and gave me a weekend job there teaching prospective driving instructors as part of the adjunct faculty. Finally, in 1973, because I possessed the unlikely combination of Driver Education and English specialties, I got a permanent job at Watsonville High School in Northern California where I taught and counseled until retirement.

            If I had my life to live over, I don’t think I’d be a driving instructor for all of it. But even with the low pay, difficult working conditions, and our inability to know how much we’d make from week to week, I wouldn’t want to miss out on the better years.  

         I learned from each of my students. Making their acquaintance and being with them while they went through the trials and tribulations of learning to drive changed me for the better: it made me much more cosmopolitan (I taught people from over twenty countries), more patient with my own and other’s problems, and more compassionate.  Not only did these men and women give me a living, but because of them I grew up as a human being.   

            In the future driving may be obsolete with everyone chauffeured by satellite-guided cars.  If I’m around when that happens, I’ll be a little sad to see another skill we treasure going by the wayside. Without much of a stretch, I can imagine an era   when we’ve lost the ability to do most things for ourselves. Then if our systems break down, we’ll be helpless. But that’s not very likely, is it?


About the Author: John Laue, teacher/counselor, a former editor of Transfer and Associate Editor of San Francisco Review has won awards for his poetry and prose beginning with the Ina Coolbrith Poetry Prize at The University of California, Berkeley. With five published poetry books and one book of full length prose, The Columns of Joel Mobius, a guide for people with psychiatric diagnoses, he presently coordinates the reading series of The Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium, edits the online magazine Monterey Poetry Review, is a member and former Co-Chair of the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board.

Artwork: Allen Forrest has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books, the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements, creating emotion on canvas.

Website:

http://allen-forrest.fineartamerica.com/

Twitter:

https://twitter.com/artgrafiken

Portfolio: published works

http://www.art-grafiken.blogspot.ca/

Recent paintings available for sale:

https://plus.google.com/photos/105055604354853642879/albums/6006697142707400193?authkey=CKSXsqLakIfz5AE

Ode to Rob’s Closet by Abe Becker

FOR ABE BECKER - by Lorenzo Tianero



Ode to Rob’s Closet

It’s not that the job market for White
Ethnic Studies majors was hit particularly
hard when I graduated. It just felt like it.

Rotting in the privilege I learned about.
Lost in the tiny matrix of my dad’s couch.
The chicken-shit son come home to roost

all over his earned retirement until
Rob called offering you: Rob’s closet!
You were my prison cell sized horizon.

Your guilt-free cheap rent, room enough
for what little self-respect I had left. I had
already slept a few months in an actual hole-

in-the-wall of another friend’s hallway—awkward.
That led to my dad’s couch, a.k.a. nowhere.
You had a sliding door that closed   almost.

You were a poet’s dream-nest, closet.
Not a metaphor. ALL the metaphors!
For example: If Rob’s room was his

castle then I was his Moat Monster!
My job: to fart Rob out of nightmares!
Instead of failing to become my dad’s

dreams I just messed up Rob’s rest.
And I really think we got each other—
Rob and I had this two-way telepathy

where I could sort of see him, imagining
me—who I really was—jacking off to
when I was in you. Closet: where I told

shame to fuck itself while I fucked myself
discreetly as a Moat Monster! Closet
where my starving-artist swagger

rocked the least-bad moonwalk ever
across that little patch left bare…
I called that your midriff, remember?

Sexy Closet, I called you Babbling Nook,
rough drafts of a future in verse I bounced
off the Make-Love-To-The-Earth eco-sex-

poster I stuck you with…sorry if that hurt.
I hope my Cats-In-Hats calendar didn’t feel
tacky, piercing your already peeling skin—Sorry:

That was a pin pun. That wasn’t the worst one.
I mean…Is it cool I’m pretending we have some
sort of human connection? I’ve wanted to ask

every person I ever met that question
but never you, closet where I sobbed until
linoleum peeled, your floorboards waterlogged

with who I should be someday dissolving as
Rob sighed as if to say I’MTRYINGTOSLEEP!
Such peace in my Oakland cocoon until

the BART train screeched the grind through
Rob’s window. And with the chalkboard-scratch
of your door I opened to a new day knowing,

like you: I can’t carry a bedframe but I’m more
than just hanging clothes. I don’t make dollars;
I take what I’m afraid of and I make poems

that turn self-hate to more love every day since I moved out –
I’m in a room now with a window and doorknob
but I stay humble. I think about you: raised

ceiling, your gargantuan, jarring lightbulb
illuminating where nothing was worth seeing
before you showed me that home has to mean

hope, has to mean growth—wherever I find it:
a friend’s closet, my notepad, the road, alone –
Wherever I already am hiding is the only place

I have to go and try and live half
    as much as I did
in Rob’s closet.


Bio: Abe Becker‘s poetry has appeared in After Happy Hour Review, Melancholy Hyperbole, Yellow Chair Review, Cal Literature and Arts Magazine, and numerous other journals and anthologies. He is a Grand Slam Champion of UC Berkeley and a four time finalist of CUPSI, twice as Cal Slam’s coach and twice as a poet. He also won Group Piece Finals at the National Poetry Slam as a member of the city of Berkeley’s team. Abe is the author of two plays and the chapbook Saturday’s Lunch Entrée. He works with quadriplegic people as a caretaker and lives in Oakland.

Artwork: Lorenzo Tianero

THINGS WE SHOULD’VE SAID by Angie Walls

FOR ANGIE WALLS - by Lorenzo Tianero


It’s October, but I have no idea what day it is. I am still a ghost of myself. The sky is hopelessly black, with only a couple dim streetlights to shine the stairway up the hill to Lo Coco’s, where I’m meeting Pete. I find myself stumbling on the way to the restaurant, the one I know by heart but just can’t bear to show my face. Here, we had been happy once.

Pete is sitting at the table I would’ve picked, closest to the exit. I take my place across from him, preserving the wide-open distance between us, although this means I’ll have to lean in to be heard. He doesn’t say anything for a few minutes; I know he’s silently cursing me for being thoughtlessly late. He’d left messages for me all afternoon, but I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them until it was already past seven o’clock.

“You want some wine?” Pete says sharply, with his head is buried in the menu. I never liked the sweetness of rosé, but I let Pete order a glass for me anyway. His face looks pale, rough, and unshaven since I last saw him. My mind traces back to our last encounter at our friend Kelly’s wedding this summer, back when we were pretending we weren’t dead broke. I was playing the tired old charade of happy wife, and he was giving the toast about how to make marriage last. It was weeks later before I could bring myself to confess my deception to my friends, after I’d spent so long spinning this story of my enchanted existence.

There’s a little sip of watered-down whiskey he saves in his glass, refusing to get another. Out the corner of my eye, I can see his long fingers tracing the rim of the glass. I can tell he’s thinking, maybe about what to say next or whether to make meaningless small talk to fill the time. The failure in finding the right words, it’s always hanging between us. I think about the things we should’ve said in the beginning, when there might have been time to change.  

I feel so childish burying my hands under my legs, but I have to brace myself for what’s coming. The trembling in my limbs eventually subsides, my fingertips become

powerless and sweaty. Being numb is the closest thing to comfort, not much more than an ice cube for a broken bone. It was unintentionally cruel of him, and cowardly of me, to agree to meet like this. He made it look so effortless, leaning his arm on the back of his chair, taking his time. Pretending we hadn’t been eating here every Friday night the first year we got married, drinking and dreaming endlessly in each other’s arms. It was our best Christmas, ages ago it seems, when we had everything. He whispered the words “marry me” gently as a secret in my ear. We drank expensive champagne. He led me by the hand to his hotel room overlooking the bay. I fell into the deep satin sheets, the long days wrapped up in his gentle and beautiful hands, the calm of his heartbeat. I realized how easily I could slip into such a new and perfect life, rewriting my old one, just by saying yes.

“I’m tired, Amy. We have been talking around this forever, and I know you want to wait,” he pauses, waiting for me to meet his eyes for once. “Look at me. It’s time, we should get this over with.” I let the words rush over me in one crushing wave, trying not to show how painful it was to hear. He looks away, as if he’s taken back by his own abrupt words.

“I don’t know. I keep thinking that I can’t remember the last time I was ever happy.” Pete is leaning in close to me, his hand almost touching mine. Did he really say that? The darkness is swallowing me whole now. I can only sink into it without a fight. I think of the times Pete had been happy, all the good days when I’d look over at Pete, so I would know I wasn’t dreaming and he had been happy and in love too. If only I could find that precise moment, for the both of us, when our life together fell apart before it had really begun. Slowly, I glance up to see his face, the weariness that has replaced joy. I know he wants me to finally give in, but I can only muster the strength to walk away.

In my bed I lay on my back, watching the slow motion of the fan blades above me until I drift off. I dream about the summer we met. I was almost eighteen, pale-skinned and freckle-faced, with raven-black dyed hair tied on top with a rubber band. I was incarcerated in a small beach town with my vile parents, whose years of malice toward each other only spread like a disease in my adolescent years. I was sneaking out late every night to smoke cigarettes and get drunk on Malibu rum, while the rest of the town slept. We were the farthest from home, back in the Oklahoma panhandle, the last place on earth anyone would want to be. I’d had so many fleeting moments where I could just slip out in the dark to a new life, any life other than mine. Flat on my back, I instead covered myself with sand head to toe, helpless as the stars and the sky spun slowly around me. Pete was down the shore from me, strumming his ten-dollar guitar and letting the salty ocean water wash up to his knees. I closed my eyes, held my breath as he continued to play, so I wouldn’t disrupt this dream—a dream so pure and seductive, it made me all the more determined to latch onto a man I hardly knew.

***

It’s a few weeks later, when Pete is filling up my life with emails and voicemails again. I know him better than myself by now, and he’s not the sentimental type except when he’s writing. The first few start out very dry and factual, like a shopping list for separation, and I can’t see the point of responding. But he’s thinking about me, which is the closest inch of compassion to make me fall back into my old self. I poke cautiously, as I am curious to know what happened after he left me behind. Somehow he’s decided to take the deplorable teaching job with Robert at the Guitar Emporium, the first of many concessions he swore he’d never make. We’ll see how it goes, he says. I am at a loss on what I should say, shocked that he would tell me, of all people.  

I’m digging deep down in the bare cupboards of the apartment, there’s just some ramen and cheap canned tuna. My life isn’t all that changed since I was twenty-one, living in our tiny studio in northeast L.A. Except now that I’ve sobered up, I am waking up to a very different reality, stuck in the driest corner of the central valley close to the desert. The air is hostile and dry, and it’s so much worse than the dust storms back in Oklahoma. And between working fast food graveyard shifts and scrubbing toilets at the strip club, I barely piece enough together to pay rent.

It’s hard to imagine how we carried on for so many months, burying ourselves in debt so quickly after we left the east bay. With all our credit cards maxed out, we hardly had any friendships left where we hadn’t squeezed out every last favor, even if it was only five bucks. I figured it out first, but convinced myself that we had plenty of time to make up for our extravagance. Pete was playing odd jobs, hole-in-the-wall bars that paid his band in peanuts, but we were happy. He was writing again. Even if we had to scrape together every nickel and dime to make the life he imagined, I still couldn’t bear to leave his side. I can’t really say for sure which had burned us out of L.A. first—between the Santa Ana’s merciless winds, the brush fires that hit our block first that summer, or the creditors hounding us.

I don’t wanna fight anymore, Pete began saying all the time, after we had to head farther away from the coast, and into the brown, lifeless landscapes past the Sacramento Valley. He wasn’t a famous rock star yet, and I still smelled like french fry grease at the end of the day. The tips of his fingers got soft again, the calluses from years of guitar playing were practically gone. Once, I regrettably introduced him to my friend Robert, who had recently abandoned his rock and roll life to sell kids’ guitars at the Emporium in Modesto. I was desperate to find a single thread of inspiration to help him become himself again, but no matter what I said, I was pushing his dream away from his grasp. I didn’t have the nerve to ask about his guitar. Whether it was lost in the fire or he sold it at a pawn shop, I’ll never know.

Christmas comes back around, and it’s the worst one. Pete arrives at the apartment to take away his last few boxes, the few things we hadn’t managed to sell, have stolen, or lose in the fire. He’s here to call it quits, and I wish I could’ve seen that moment he first knew he’d be giving up on me. I manage to answer the door without falling apart.

“So what now?” I wrap my arms around my stomach, leaning in the doorway. “Where will you go?” My legs are weak again, and I don’t know how to fix this feeling that I am falling, with no ground below to stop me.

“I don’t know,” he says. I can tell he means it. He’s digging with both hands in a box filled with CDs, the Beatles at the very top. He goes for the white album, his favorite.

“Are you moving again?” I am watching how he turns the CD over in his hands, with incredible tenderness. I wonder if he still hears the music, feels it playing in his fingers after all this time. Hopefully, some things are too sacred to change.

“What do you want to keep? Maybe you should go through these first.” Pete is looking at me, when a rush of uncertainty suddenly hits him. “You want the Dave Matthews? Or The Doors?”

“Oh, it’s OK. Whatever, if you don’t have room for them.” I take one small step to get a closer look in the box.

“What about Pearl Jam?” He pauses for a long time. “I guess I don’t know what you liked.” I don’t know the answer either.

 


About the Author: Angie is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. Many of her stories explore contemporary themes of identity, isolation, and helplessness in the Midwest. She is the award-winning screenwriter and director behind “Redmonton,” a new web series inspired by her hometown, and has published stories in various journals including Cutthroat, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Helix, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Griffin, and Stirring. Her short story “Things We Should’ve Said” received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. In early 2017, she will be releasing a new book of short stories, Anywhere But Here. To learn more, visit her website at AuthorAngieWalls.com.

 

Artwork: Lorenzo Tianero

October 30th by Claire Scott

FOR CLAIRE SCOTT - (from stockpile)


OCTOBER 30TH

he steps into a crosswalk
carefully checking
the light is green
again
swinging a tennis racquet
hop-skipping across
eager to meet his friends
or
cane click-clacking
as his twisted body step-
stutters across the street
again
a car turns left
sunblind?
texting?
his body thrown
again
sirens blaring
bruises swelling
blood seeping
through his
brain

every October 30th
my son
with a cane?
with a tennis racquet?
steps into
the street
again

 


About the Author: Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has been nominated twice for the  Pushcart Prize. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Healing Muse and Vine Leaves Literary Journal among others. Her first book of poetry, Waiting to be Called, was published in 2015. She is the co-author of Unfolding in Light: A Sisters’ Journey in Photography and Poetry.

Escape Velocity by Rebecca Chekouras

FOR REBECCA CHEKOURAS - by Ryan Buell


I couldn’t let my husband know I was driving. One week from my due date, big as a manatee, I sped through San Francisco hoping to get home before he found out, but the closer I got to our apartment in The Mission, the more new construction choked the streets. In the few hours I’d been away my old, familiar route had become a maze of detours. I topped the hill at Liberty just as a man in a white hard hat and orange vest stepped into the intersection and raised a STOP sign. I hit the brakes. Hard. The steering wheel branded my chest and the lap belt scored my round stomach like a pill. I snapped back into the seat. A cement truck shifted into reverse, bleated for attention, and backed into the street. I ran my hands across my stomach; froze at the lesser chime of my phone pinging the arrival of a text.

No name. A number I didn’t recognize. I tapped just to burn off nerves. A sprawling hyperlink appeared and turned a half dozen times in the text box before it petered out in ellipse. Outside the shell of my car the cement truck pushed its churning rear-end up on gasping pistons and, grunting like an elephant, ran a shitload of wet slurry down the chute. I clicked the link. A video opened. The camera was trained to the windshield of a car as it drove through mountains at the tree line. No sound. Sunlight hit the glass and bleached the view to white but it came right back. The two lane road narrowed to a vanishing point. Above it all was pure blue sky. None of this meant anything to me. The camera panned to the passenger window. Speed smeared the trees to a green line. The camera pulled back and crossed a woman’s bare foot propped against the dash, her nails iridescent blue, and found the driver. My husband of three years looked into the frame and smiled. His cheeks pushed up the sunglasses I’d given him for his last birthday. James said something but there was only his mouth shaping silent words and his face crinkled with happiness. I hit replay over and over attempting to read his lips, lips that have been on my mouth, between my legs where amniotic fluid now stained a dark triangle. Ethan was born later that day, feet first, his arms above his head, screaming like he was taking the Kowabunga chute at Water World.

 

James said he would take Ethan and he did. I called for a taxi and stood in the round bay of our Huntington Park Victorian to watch for it, next to me the spinner I’d packed last night. No business clothes. Only simple cotton shifts, tees, and slacks; some eye-popping jewelry to jazz up summer evenings in the desert. And a canvas bag I once used to haul the many things an infant needs just to leave the house. James and Ethan stood on the corner below holding hands. At WALK, they stepped down. The window glass, scalloped by time, distorted the geometry of my husband and our three year-old. Watery and loose-jointed, they shifted shape and crossed the street.

The taxi pulled up. I grabbed my spinner, its handle snapped to attention, and shouldered the canvas bag that now held an iPad, phone, book proposal, wallet, keys, passport, ticket, and, finally, a contract with two blank spaces for signatures. I had one leg in the taxi and was about to fold to the seat when I caught the red square of Ethan’s jacket in the blue V of his father’s arm. I straightened up to wave. James pointed to the sky. Ethan’s upturned face followed. I dropped onto the cracked and sprung black pleather seat and pulled the door after me. The cabbie eased into traffic. I leaned forward, “SFO, International.” I glanced back but the park was already gone. I had an instant, desperate fear I’d left something behind. I tore at the bag; found my wallet and passport. Everything was where I’d put it. I fell back and hugged my possessions to my chest. The bag collapsed like a bellows and sent up a whiff of stale baby piss as faint as a radio signal from the edge of space.  

 

7:45 a.m. I found an empty bar in the Aeromexico terminal and took a seat near the beer pulls. Thought about calling home but shook it off. I’d been gone less than an hour. The barman clicked on the TV and set a cocktail napkin in front of me. I considered coffee, ordered a bloody Mary. My editor wanted Lupé Garza’s photographs to illustrate my book, Women at the Crossroads: Gender, Culture, Work. She’d given me a catalog of an early exhibition in New York. I knew almost nothing about Garza who, I discovered, had been notorious in the 70s; a darling of the club and gallery scenes and then, poof, she disappeared into the Mexican high desert, rumored to be near Los Huesos. If Garza had an agent I couldn’t find them. If she had a phone no one had the number. To satisfy my boss, I sent a fax general delivery to the Los Huesos post office. A week later an answer came thudding back through the old machine. Garza would take a meeting at her hacienda.

The barman set my drink in front of me and returned to the Real Madrid game on TV. I took a sharp, peppery sip and flipped through the catalog. The text offered only dates and places, no narrative or critique of the plates, all black and white on heavy stock. Meager shacks, working animals burdened to the point of collapse, dogs whose jutting, corrugated ribs cut ribbons of dark shadow into their flanks. Women looked up from their ancient work and smiled into the lens. Half-naked, sun-blackened children squatted in rain puddles and dragged a stick through reflected sky. Garza made no apology for her subjects’ lives and neither did they. Their easy, direct confrontation with the camera balanced the power equation—the one seen and the one seeing were equals in a fair exchange. I ran Garza through Google; churned up scores of the famous shot of her studio window reproduced now on everything from handbags to dinner plates. It’s an arresting image. On the near side of the broad plane of glass are the cameras and lens of an artist; on the other side, the Mexican high desert as alien as a distant planet of thin atmosphere and relentless heat; rock and cactus punched up from colorless moon dirt. A place only the fierce could endure. And behind the camera Garza, unseen yet so present in her work I had the feeling she stood at my shoulder and watched me search for her until my flight was called and I gathered my things.

Five hours later, the plane banked steeply and aimed for a runway no bigger than a stick of gum shoehorned into a mountain pass. I could never bear to think of the plane as falling. James always told me to get over it so I imagined instead the strip rising up to meet us. The tarmac slammed into the wheels. I was thrown forward. My hand pressed into the seat in front of mine until some ratio of gravity to momentum yanked me back.

 

I found my driver easily in the small terminal. Felipe, dusty jeans, a plaid cotton shirt, unbuttoned, sleeves rolled above the elbow, a beater underneath, and a wide-brimmed hat that hung down his back on a strap, was perhaps twenty. His family owned a business shuttling snowbirds to vacation rentals. He said Los Huesos was a two-day drive up rough terrain. We’d stay at a ranchero that night; arrive tomorrow in the late afternoon. He took my bags and led me to an open Jeep. We buckled in and he glanced over to me, his eyebrows knit into a single band of dark concern. “You got a hat?” I didn’t.

The asphalt road leading us out of the airport stopped at the gate in a clean, straight line an inch higher than the compacted gravel that stretched away to the bend of an ascending grade. The Jeep took the incline with ease. Felipe shouted to be heard above the wind. “Only a few pueblos from here to Los Huesos.  Old. Very small. Let me know if you want to stop.”

Wind and dust choked our conversation down to gestures and smiles. Occasionally, the pass flattened out and a cloudless sky cupped the plateau. We picked up speed until the next turn and we climbed again, a pattern we repeated for two hours until Felipe tapped my arm and pointed ahead to a dark smudge lining the road. We closed in on a couple dozen parked trucks so weather beaten light wouldn’t bounce off them. Felipe shouted it was the anniversary of the mission church and, therefore, the founding of the village. He said people came from all over to celebrate. I asked him to stop and reached for my phone.

We parked and walked in with a knot of recent arrivals, all families, the men in their good hats, pressed jeans and stiff white guayaberas, the women in ironed cotton dresses or long skirts. We scaled a slight rise together and a smattering of one and two story buildings on either side of a dirt road appeared. The church stood at the end of this main street. When we reached the village, several of our compañeros stopped walking and dropped to their hands and knees to merge with those already crawling toward the priest who waited alone for his flock on the stone steps of the church, his arms open and ready to enfold them. I opened the camera app on my phone and raised it, pointed it at the procession. Felipe’s touch landed light as a hummingbird on my arm.

“It is a penance, Señora. Between them and God.”

I nodded and moved farther up the street. I silenced the shutter and took a few discreet shots of the church. I thought perhaps with sufficient distance I could photograph the worshippers as an anonymous whole rather than individuals. I back pedaled and caught their line at an angle revealing both the posture of the penitents and their number. The shot was as good as I would get and I slid the phone into my jeans pocket. I walked around the back of the church mostly to duck out of sight and return, inconspicuous, to Felipe. Tucked away so that it couldn’t be seen from the street a satellite dish raised its patient face and searched the sky for satellites. I checked my watch still on San Francisco time. Ethan and James would be waking from their nap. I was trying to connect to a signal when Felipe came up behind me. I asked him for help but he said we had to leave. The light was slipping away and the temperature falling.

“Night will come fast. Do you have a jacket?” he said.

 

We gained the road and picked up speed. The sun fell behind the tallest peak and all color drained from the landscape. Visibility soon wound down to the reach of our headlights. The loss of horizon disoriented me completely. Suspended in an ebony void, a thousand ice-blue stars all around, a man I’d met only hours before barreled straight at nothing I could see. No signs, no railings. I kept my eyes on the dashboard to avoid the terror in the windshield. This entire adventure suddenly felt crazy. I didn’t even know where here was. We arrived at the ranchero and were met by a husband and his wife who wrapped me, shivering, in a blanket until water could be heated for a bath. At dawn, Felipe found a jacket for me and we again set off for Los Huesos.

 

We topped a long, slow rise, the last in the series taking us up Garza’s mountain. The vista flattened to a broad sweep of sky and ochre dirt. My faxed directions positioned the turn to her place about two miles into the plateau. The sun was directly overhead and strong enough to melt the horizon to quicksilver. I was excited to be in the teeth of the thing now; to arrive, to work the deal, to finalize the book that had taken me four years to write. I dug in my jacket pocket. I wanted a picture to show Ethan I’d traveled to the end of the earth and back to make the book he would hold in his hands, an object of weight and edges and corners. His mother’s work. My work. I snapped a picture but it was useless. The landscape couldn’t be contained within the tiny frame. I enlarged the image hoping to find some serendipity of composition that could support the narrative of this moment, the enormity of time and place, but the harder I tried the more my purpose eluded me. I dropped the phone and strained forward searching for the trunk road. A dark husk floated on the shimmering horizon, no bigger than a fly rubbing its veined wings.

We pulled nose-to-nose with a two-tone Ford pickup, the white abraded by sand to chalk and its turquoise faded. The door opened. A leg of lime green stretch pants slid from behind the wheel. A pink Croc reached for the runner. Blue-black hair gathered in a simple, red rubber band fell to wide hips. With a jump to the ground, a nut brown woman of indeterminate age birthed herself from the truck. Her demeanor, masked by mirrored aviator sunglasses, bore no trace of emotion.

I hopped from the Jeep, pushed my sunglasses up into my hair. “Lark Donne,” I said and walked toward her with my hand outstretched. Her sunglasses reflected back to me a crazy woman. Wind-whipped hair sprang from a face peppered with road dust except where sunglasses had preserved the white hollows of my eyes. I smoothed my hair. She nodded to me and spoke to Felipe in Spanish. He replied at length and I wondered as he settled my bags in her truck bed whether he spoke of me, either defending me or calling out my astounding lack of preparation for the climate or journey. I still wore his jacket and offered it back to him.

“Keep it. For night,” he said and touched the brim of his hat, first to me, then her, turned and climbed into the Jeep. A trough of anguished split my stomach. I still held my phone, the one artifact that connected me to the world I’d left, to him. I pointed the tiny blue eye at the Jeep and hit Record; stayed with it until the Jeep and driver were consumed by dust. I let go; watched until the rooster tail faded from view. I turned back. There was no one behind me. Sunlight glinted off the truck’s rust-pocked chrome. The passenger door swung open.

The road in consisted of two jolting lanes worn into scrub. I felt stupid for not asking my driver’s name before but couldn’t bring myself to ask her now. She gave nothing, not so much as a glance. I admired the landscape and remarked muy buen or linda as beauty demanded but she said nothing. Appalled by my desire to win her sullen approval I stopped talking.

 

The hacienda simply rose from the desert floor, a single story the same color as the dirt it was made of; no yard, no trees or shrubs. Only a double door of sun-pounded wood set back in a wall of baked mud. I was dropped in front. The truck, with my bags, crunched around to the back. I waited in the mark of my own shadow, seared to the bone by the same ancient star that had cured the adobe. I was about to call out when the door opened and a tall, slim woman stepped forward. She stopped half in, half out of the slanting afternoon sun and, perfectly bisected by light and shadow, raised her hand to her eyes. Her fawn dress was indistinguishable from her skin and at first impression I thought she was naked. She wore her snow white hair plaited and wound around her head.

“Welcome to my home, Miss Donne,” Garza said. Her high, thin voice rose and dipped like a swallow in flight. “Please, come in,” and she stepped aside to let me pass.

The hacienda was constructed as a rectangle around an interior patio open to the blistering sky. Beneath an arcade that ran the perimeter, a series of doors set at even intervals marked the individual rooms. The patio was surprisingly verdant despite its exposure. Clay jardinières, some tall, others low to the red clay tiles, were scattered around the arcade’s weather beaten timber supports. They lent shade to an arrangement of red, yellow, and orange blooms as broad and wrinkled as handkerchiefs. A fountain at center drew from a catchment Garza said was trapped in mountain caverns. “It was a deep drill, Miss Donne. Went on forever.” She ladled water into a shallow, earthenware bowl for me to rinse my hands and face and then motioned toward a pair of low-slung canvas chairs next to a Japanese table set with two glasses and a pitcher. The woman who met me appeared, in each hand a plate of sliced tomatoes, roasted corn, beans and rice. “Gracias,” I said to her continuing silence. Garza did not introduce her. I snuck a glance to my host. She seemed unperturbed. The woman walked back the way she came, passing from the bright sunlight of the patio to deep umber beneath the arcade. Light fanned around her feet when she opened the door. The door closed and swept the light in with it.

Garza ate, slowly, patiently. I mimicked her pace to be polite. James often remarked I ate like a refugee. When she finished, Garza set her plate aside and lifted the pitcher. “More tea, Miss Donne?”

“Please, call me Lark.” I wanted to establish a sense of shared purpose, of being on the same side in some endeavor that did not include her nameless assistant. I asked about her work to draw a circle around just us. “Maybe begin with your aesthetic? How it developed?”

The longer Garza thought the more self-conscious I became. At the bright ring of her voice the air rushed from my lungs.

“I shoot to witness, not shape or interpret. My aesthetic is to stay in the background where I can observe unobserved, if you follow my meaning. Invisibility is my passport. One can go anywhere on it.”

I waited but she said nothing more. Perhaps it was fatigue or simply a nagging fear of failure but I pushed. “Tell me how you became a photographer. What obstacles did you have to overcome?” I hardly recognized the woman asking these ridiculous questions.

“Learning to use the equipment,” Garza said. “I had to learn my craft like anyone else.” With that she suggested I rest for a bit and we could talk again after. She rose easily from the scoop of her chair. “Alma,” she called, and the other woman appeared.

 

Alma showed me to my room. The air had lost some of its burn and the shutters had been pushed open. The sun teetered on a far ridge and cast our shadows long on the floor. Both bags were on the bed. “I’d like to shower,” I said and opened the spinner. I expected Alma to leave. Instead she remained. Not in the doorway but in the room with me.

She ran her hand along the top of the canvas bag. “You are a traveler?”

“Yes,” I said. “Well, not so much anymore. Once. I want to again.”

“You know Mexico?”

“I’ve been to a few places. Oaxaca. San Miguel de Allende.” I sounded like every rube come to San Francisco and making a beeline for Fisherman’s Wharf and The Haight.

“Yes, but did you cross to the other side?”

Before I could ask what she meant, she turned and left; closed the door behind her. I sat on the edge of the bed. The sun hit me full in the face. I lay back, draped my arm over my eyes.

 

It was dark when I awoke chilled and disoriented; my clothes twisted all about my arms and legs. The house was quiet. I rose and went out. The patio was awash in the bone light of the moon. Indigo shadows splattered the floor and walls. I retraced Alma’s steps and pushed the door open. Outside, in the scoop of three low walls and a slanted half-roof, I could just make out a table and stove. Alma’s truck was parked there. A sharp tang of wood smoke threaded the clear, clean air and I followed it about a hundred yards out to a low building with a wide entrance cut into the side.

A double panel wood door mounted on a tractor rail and pushed back exposed much of the interior. A small lamp glowed on a long wooden desk under which had been kicked a pair of shoes and Alma’s pink Crocs. Clothes draped the back and seat of a chair. And there, on the wall opposite me, the iconic studio window framed not the hostile desert but the Milky Way thrown like a bolt of luminous cloth down the table of the night. Trapped in the glass, my own pale reflection grew larger with each forward step I took. The cameras. The lenses. All still there. I put both hands on the sill and leaned toward my own face. Hard to my right, Garza and Alma sat naked in a hot tub, arms stretched along the rim. Light danced up through the water and jumpy white polygons tattooed their skin. Alma’s hair bobbed on the surface like a net that had captured the pale fish of her breasts. She said something I couldn’t hear. Garza raised her head to laugh and saw me. I drew back, ashamed to be caught spying.

Alondra,” Garza called. Her voice came through the open door behind me. “Come join us.”

I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen or heard her. I left the studio and rounded the corner to the building’s blind side. A wood fire burned in a stone pit and sent up a fakir’s rope of thin, white smoke. On seeing me, Garza nodded to where the firelight faltered and yielded to infinite night. There, a wooden pallet sat on the ground, above it the glint of a metal showerhead atop a pole. Another ten yards beyond the shower, the silhouetted struts and bowl of a satellite dish. The fax. The road trip to a tiny encampment in the middle of Boom Fuck. I whipped back to the women who watched me and waited for my reaction.

I stripped and left my clothes where they fell. The shower seemed to draw from the hot core of the earth and I scrubbed off road dirt, careful to run my hands over every inch of flesh, into every crevice and fold unconcerned with what the Garza or Alma thought. Dripping all the way to the tub, I climbed in and sat directly across from Alma; returned her silent appraisal. Garza was quiet. Minutes passed before Alma lifted her hands above the water and slapped her palms together first one way then the other like a woman flattening a ball of raw hamburger. The slow smack of her hands carried in the thicker air of night. I almost believed Felipe was listening. The priest could hear it. That James sat up in bed, his head cocked to the window. I refused to look away. I disliked her and wanted her to know it. She let her knees fall open and the light shone on her. I stood abruptly. My hot skin steamed in the cool night. I climbed out, gathered my clothes, and crushed them to a ball I held between my dripping breasts. “Alondra,” Garza called after me as I walked away. “Meet me in the studio when you’re ready.”

 

I threw my clothes to the floor of my dark room, sat naked there, my mouth slack, my hands between my knees. I waited for my heart rate to come down, for my head to deliver some kind of instruction. I understood nothing of the last twenty four hours. My mind churned the same three scenes. James in the video turning to the camera and smiling. Felipe turning to me in the Jeep and saying, You got a hat? Alma’s hands slapping first one way then turning the other. The loop persisted. I couldn’t stop it said out loud, James’ smile, Felipe’s question, Alma’s hands over and over, convinced my chant erected a barrier between me and whatever lay crouched in my heart unseen, unknown. If I stopped whatever hid there would detonate. So I shivered and chanted and waited until other voices crowded my ear, angry voices growing louder. The voices then stopped abruptly and I did, too. I listened in the dead night. The explosive start of a gasoline engine. The spray of gravel kicked against a hard surface. I rose and threw on a white tee and linen slacks and rushed out. Skirted the blue shadows. Hurried into the kitchen. Alma’s truck was gone and beyond the enclosure the studio convulsed in orange light. I ran.

The fire. It was being fed. I rushed to the back of the building. Garza stood alone, face to the fire. Scores of prints lay scattered at her feet others blackened and curled in the pit. She bent and scooped up an armload; hugged the photographs to her chest. I raced to the shower. There wasn’t a hose or bucket. I could only go back and scoop-up hands full of dirt to choke the flames.

Alondra.”

I dug faster. It wasn’t enough.

Alondra stop.”

We stood side-by-side. My chest heaved with each breath. Garza threw what she held in her arms to the embers. Paper curled and smoked. Flames closed over everything. I stared at her, completely defeated. She would not return my gaze. After a moment she walked away. I guarded the fire until it smoldered.

 

I entered without knocking. Garza knew I was there but studied the several cameras arranged on the sill. Alma’s clothes and shoes were gone. Garza lifted an ancient Leica. “It’s the same one,” she said showing it to me. “Stand here.” She positioned me in front of the window and killed the desk lamp. I heard shutter clicks and the ratchet of winding film.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Your shirt.”

I reached over my head and grabbed a fistful of cotton between my shoulder blades. In one fluid movement the tee off and on the floor.

Garza half turned me and tilted my head. She dropped to a crouch. “The stars! A volcano shooting from your head.”



About the Author: Rebecca Chekouras has appeared in The Open Bar (
Tin House), Narrative MagazineCatamaran Literary ReaderEast Bay ReviewPithead Chapel, and Longridge Review, among other publications. Her story Free to Good Home, was shortlisted for the 2016 Glimmer Train emerging writer prize. Chekouras is a 2015 Tin House fellow and a fellow of the 2013 Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat. In 2014 she helped inaugurate The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She lives in an old ironworks factory on Oakland’s waterfront where Port of Oakland boom cranes line the western terminus of the storied Southern Pacific Railroad.

Artwork: Ryan Buell is a writer and visual artist. He lives in California.