Snow Globe by Monica Wesolowska

B. Ellis Williams_ For Snow Globe


From his hospital bed, he could not feel the heat of the day, but he could see the wind tearing the last, wrinkled leaves from the silver branches of a tree and bending the top of an evergreen beyond. He thought he should ask her the day.

“Tuesday,” Helen said.

But what he had meant was the date.

Beyond the evergreen, three palm trees bent in unison beneath a blast, then sprang up, brushing and slashing at the sky with their fronds, and then he remembered. Almost time for her holiday bash. Was that it? In fact, there was Santa, a man dressed as Santa, napping on the hospital lawn across the street. She would be amused by that. “Santa,” he said, lifting what felt like his arm but turned out to be no more than a finger to point in that direction. But perhaps Santa wasn’t the right topic after all. He wished she had told him the date.

“Jesus,” Helen said, not looking at the Santa. “This is no time for jokes.”

“Name’s Harold,” Harold mumbled. It was an old joke, a reflex; if he had the strength, he might tease her that Jesus might be the guy in the next bed, but Helen suddenly stood and went to the window. She’d been sitting for hours, for days, next to his bed it seemed, but now she was standing with her back to him. What day was it anyway? he wondered. From the nibbling pain at his side, he knew he needed to straighten this out fast.

“Goddamn it,” Helen said, “I’m only doing this for you.”

Too late, Helen realized she should have smiled at him when he made that old joke about Jesus; turning back from the sealed window, she tried to smile at him now and was embarrassed to be caught by the wife at the next bed. Always there were visitors there, hovering, a wife, a sister, children, grandchildren, always ready to give Helen a sympathetic smile as if they were all in this together. The man there had been given a month to live, she’d overheard the wife telling a visitor that, as if one could ever know how long someone had left. “It’s warm out there,” Helen said at last. “Bone dry. No snow at Tahoe. It’ll be a smooth ride up.” She returned to her chair by his bed. “All I’m asking is a day or two, Harold. We can drive back whenever you want. We can leave your family up there and come back to the hospital. Just put yourself in my shoes, Harold. I’m just trying to do what’s best.”

She tried to smile again, but now a nurse was in the way, rushing in and bending over him, saying, “Hello, Harry.” Yesterday Helen had reminded this nurse that Harold was still a doctor in the hospital and should be addressed as such but here she was again, saying, “Of course, Harry,” almost giggling with helpful pleasure as she adjusted something on his drip. Yesterday, this nurse had also tried to talk to Helen about hospice, and Helen had roundly told her off for losing faith in Harold’s recovery.

“She looks fourteen,” Helen said bitterly as soon as the nurse had left off fiddling and drifted to the other bed. “You’d be better off with me. We’ll set you up…” When Harold looked as if he were about to speak, Helen stopped, but then he didn’t so she went on, “We’ll set you up in your La-Z-Boy. We’ll bring it to the head of the table.”

Again Harold tried to speak. “The catheter,” he began.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey about that,” Helen said triumphantly. At least Dr. Carey had agreed with Helen on this. “Traveling to the cabin is fine. She’ll set you up with a portable catheter, make you comfortable. She said champagne is fine, brandy butter, it’s all fine. She said this party is just what you, just what we need to lift our spirits.” She laughed hollowly and then waited.

For some reason she did not remind him about the unveiling of his mother’s gravestone. It was the party afterwards that she wanted him to come for, she wanted the relief after the unveiling of a party in his mother’s winter cabin. The relief of his mother being gone. A year she had been dead, a year it would be, the day after tomorrow. For a year Harold had planned the unveiling, and for a year Helen had imagined the party afterwards, the party when finally she would have Harold all to herself. The first holiday party in years where his mother would not be there, poisoning the fun, making them nervous about what she would do next to grab their attention, smashing a champagne glass, swallowing a silver charm from the pudding, her charisma, her wit suddenly going too far, leaving her naked in the snow singing something from Carmen while Harold tried to pull her back inside.

Harold looked past Helen, out the window at the wind in the trees. “You go…” he said. He was thinking of a time when he was young and had a kite. A summer on Fire Island. He and Bill and his mother together. The kite was gray with pink ears.

Helen laughed again. “I’m not going without you. I’m doing it for you. You’re just being stubborn. Think about it. Bill and Ruth are bringing all eight kids, even Shoshana. Shoshana is interrupting her junior year abroad to come. Maybe she’s in the air already. How long does it take to come from Israel? You can’t let your brother collect his family from all the corners of the globe and then refuse to budge because of a catheter. I don’t buy it.”

When Harold still said nothing, she looked back out the window at the tossing trees. It was unnatural, she thought. After thirty-two years in California, she still found the seasons wrong. Today the wind was actually warm, a warm wind that refused to let the cold of winter start. She wanted to take that blue sky and shake it, shake it like the snow globe Harold had given her just a few weeks ago for her collection. To get you into the holiday spirit, he’d said, in his generous way. He hated Santa, he hated Christmas, he hated blind Christian hegemony – together they’d moved away from any semblance of the religious practices of their youth – but every year he’d given her a snow globe for Christmas because he understood her nostalgia for the joy of childhood holidays. They’d gone to a play that night, getting out their season tickets without looking at what was on, but when the play turned out to be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’d insisted they leave at intermission. She’d never seen the play before and all he would tell her was that the madness of it continued, that it had something to do with having children or with not having children. He’d given her the snow globe afterwards, in the car, straight from the bag from the store where he’d bought it earlier that day. Go ahead, he’d said, play God, shake it. And when she’d shaken it, it wasn’t snow that lifted up but a flurry of little kites with tiny tails. It was something entirely knew to her collection. As good as the one with umbrellas falling around the Eiffel Tower. He’d kissed her warmly in the car. Then he’d told her about his diagnosis, that the cancer had already spread, though he wouldn’t tell her more.

“I’ve already ordered the beef from Magnani’s,” she said unsteadily.

His eyes rolled from the window to his morphine drip sailing at the top of its pole. The kite had belonged to him but Bill had flown it, and it got caught in a pine tree, and his mother had made them leave it there, stuck in a tree on Fire Island, because she was in one of her moods; and when he asked months later if Santa could bring him a new kite, she’d yelled at him because they were Jewish and Santa didn’t come to their house. He should tell Helen about the kite. He’d never told her that story about his mother and the kite. He used to call Helen, “my sweet kite,” he used to tell her that he’d hold her to the earth while she sailed free above him. He opened his mouth to speak, but a little mouse stopped him.

“But you can weigh in on the side dishes,” Helen went on, regaining her footing. “I was thinking mashed potatoes but then I saw a recipe for potatoes mashed with parsnips. They have nice parsnips at the Berkeley Bowl. We haven’t had parsnips since…”

The mouse had little pink ears like his kite, but it had real teeth and claws, and it had finally eaten through his skin and was inside now, trembling and gnawing.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey,” Helen tried again. “I’ve got the equipment…”

Now that one had gotten in, he could feel a stream of them slipping in. He could feel them in his veins, his organs, nibbling, gnawing. His liver, his kidney. He had to tell Helen something fast. Why couldn’t he remember? The words. Were they leaking out the mouse hole? At the mouse house, Helen’s face loomed and he knew he had to say something, to convince her that she would be fine, that she had never needed him as much as she thought, and he felt his mouth moving and thought he said, “Helen.”

But Helen had turned from him to the commotion around the next bed.

The man there wanted to get up. “Where’s my Gucci bag?” the man asked.

“It’s right here. Everything’s okay,” his wife said soothingly, and then they surrounded him, two teen-aged boys, a girl of six, a skinny young man with a tie on, lifting his tubes, swinging his legs to the edge of the bed, closing his gown in back, heaving him up and into his wheelchair. Helen though it was ghastly. But at last they were setting off, all of them attached in some way, wheeling his oxygen, holding up a tube, jingling like a sleigh – his wheelchair had been hung with bells and holly – and as they passed, the wife said to Helen, “Harry started that, calling their catheter bags Gucci bags which is a hoot, your husband’s a hoot. Thank God Robert’s had Harry, that they’ve had each other to laugh with at the end, you know?”

“God better have a sense of humor,” the man called Robert said to the young man with the tie who was pushing his wheelchair.

“Robert said he’s not going to heaven unless Harry gets in,” the wife said to Helen.

“Damn straight. If humor doesn’t count for something, I’m not sure how I’ll get in,” Robert said and lifted his hand to swat at the bells attached to his IV pole.

The wife looked back at Helen. “Don’t listen to him,” she said. “I have full faith that we’ll all be reunited some day, all people, no matter what we believe,” and she smiled her sympathetic smile at Helen again, before turning with her family out of the room, the sound of their sleigh bells and laughter slowly fading as they moved together down the hall.

In their absence, Helen heard the silence of the room, a sickening silence, a whirring, a ticking, as if mice ran in the walls. In the cabin, sometimes, there were mice. They ate a tunnel through the bread one year. If Harold refused to budge, she’d have to deal with the mice herself, and sit at the head of the table, carving roast beef with the candles all lit, and say what? They would ply her with questions, and what would she say? Harold had always been the healthy one, the tough one, the stoic, ever since her parents’ funeral, all those years ago, Harold, not even married to her yet but flying all the way to Milwaukee to sit there at the wake like a tough Midwesterner, trying to cheer everyone. She saw again the foil-wrapped lasagnas and cakes left overnight on the porch by parishioners. Snow all over everything. No, too early for snow. That was her grandmother’s funeral, most funerals it seemed; at her parents’ there’d been rain, of course, that week of torrential rain, blamed for the car accident. So much rain that snails left their trails on the foil-wrapped food left on the porch, which Harold pointed out, making her laugh, everyone laughing, the house full of stunned, wet, laughing Midwesterners who were nice. Just so nice, Harold had said, even though he’d feared being in a room with that many Catholics. “Take comfort in your parents’ faith, Helen,” Father Marek had said, Father Marek who’d been a young priest when he’d first passed through the parish, when she was a teenager and susceptible to crushes on young, Polish priests. “Our Father,” Father Marek had nudged her, “who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” and she had tried with him for a minute to find comfort in thinking of our Father, all hallowed, up in heaven until Harold reminded her that there were other ways of finding comfort.

Making love on her parents’ bed, for instance. That had been comforting.

“Ignore them,” Harold had said, when her cousins caught them coming out of the bedroom and called her crazy. That’s what he always said. “Ignore them.” He didn’t care what other people thought. He didn’t care about having children. People always blamed the woman, but he was the one. That was the deal. No children. Children only brought out the craziness in parents, he said, and she had believed him; she had believed that it was better to love only each other. But now? How could she bear her own holiday party, all the children tearing her beautiful wrapping paper to shreds, ravishing her roast beef, Bill sidling up to her to say as he always did, as if this were a revelation, that his mother had been wrong, that Helen wasn’t a crazy shiksa after all? Would she have to stand there, trying to feel complete, while Bill stood there smirking about his generous, fecund, respectable life? No, this time she would say…

“Is it time?” he asked.

“For what, dear?”

“It’s time.”

“You’ve got to come. You can’t do this to me,” she said.

It was time. He wanted more morphine, but it wasn’t time yet. Was it time yet? There was a family of mice named Bill and Ruth, and Shoshana, and Bill had eaten almost all his insides out but where was his mother? His mother needed to be here. He needed to make sure that his mother was all right. Had he not promised? To live a long life since there would be nothing after death. Or was that Helen whom he’d promised to stay with until the very end?

“You promised,” Helen said, not knowing what he’d promised anymore. As his eyelids fluttered, she realized the damned nurse had given him more morphine in his drip when he didn’t need it yet. They should give it to him only when he was in pain. He would tell her when. With morphine, he couldn’t tell her anything. With the morphine, he was drifting away, further each time, leaving a rope, a string, a thread between them. She had told him when he came around, last time, that she wasn’t ready for a thread. They had not planned for a thread. If he would just say yes, just nod, she could whisk him away from all this, get him alone. So he could remember why he needed to stay here for her.

“Please,” she said, “just tell me what you need.”

He struggled, his face a mass of struggling wrinkles. “My kite…”

“Your kite?” she asked.

After a while he said, “I want…”

“Yes, just tell me what you want.”

“Bill.”

“Do you want to see Bill?”

He said something that sounded like “fly.”

“Do you want to fly to Tahoe? Would you like that better than driving?” she asked, unable to stop herself. When he said nothing more, she followed his eyes to the window. Outside, beyond the whirring of the room, the wind had stilled and the trees stood to attention, as stiff as plastic trees beneath the blue-domed sky.

 


Author Bio: Monica Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. Named a “Best Book” of 2013 by The Boston Globe and Library JournalHolding Silvan is forthcoming in German and Polish. A long-time teacher of writing at UC Berkeley Extension, Wesolowska has published both essays and fiction in many other venues including The New York Times. Read more at www.monicawesolowska.com

Artwork: B. Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

 


 

Under These Stars by Tony R. Rodriguez

Review by Charlene Carusounder deez


Under These Stars
By Tony R. Rodriguez
Published 2014 by Beatdom Books
$12.99 paperback ISBN 9780956952585

Under These Stars is a novel by Tony R. Rodriguez that follows a young writer named Sarah as she embarks on a solo road trip across several states after getting in serious trouble at her job. Sarah is conflicted and boozy. She works for an online journal conducting interviews but she has aspirations of becoming a famous and respected writer. Anything but a heroine when we are first introduced to her in an office in San Francisco, she sits in front of her boss,  awaiting his pronouncement of punishment for getting a wildly successful underage author drunk during an interview.

Afterwards, Sarah makes up her mind to drive alone around the country visiting friends and write a memoir about her trip, leaving behind a fragile relationship with a serious young man named Theo. Theo pleads with her not to go on such a long trip without him. He fears it will ruin their relationship. But she leaves anyway, anxious to begin her new adventure, but stops short of breaking up, even though she admits to herself she probably doesn’t love him.
Sarah experiences life like she drinks alcohol, in gluttonous gulps. At first, the result is a lot of throwing up, both literally and virtually, with insipid regurgitations on Facebook, where she is recording her trip. She uploads an endless stream of Instagram pics and posts verbal snapshots, “Jack-In-The-Box is good,” while staying silent on her suspension from work. She counts the number of “likes” each of her posts inspires. She puzzles over which filters to use to edit her pictures. Sarah tells the reader she limits her use of Twitter to sharing her movie reviews in inspired tweets, proudly admitting she has 12,000 followers.

The story spirals in brief scenic chapters punctuated by Facebook posts and philosophic riffs. Rodriguez’ narrative skill is on display as Sarah flits from thought to thought and place to place at a frenetic, fevered, alcohol-soaked pace that mirrors the rapidity with which this reader turned each page. She pours out pages of her memoir. Pours down drinks. Soaks in movies. Forever bar-hopping. The only constant for Sarah is the music. All her travels are propelled by wonderfully chosen songs. She specifies with precision each song and artist and album she plays while driving toward her next destination. It is the only time she seems to listen. She plays the album by The Naked and Famous “Passive Me Aggressive You,” twice, and their single “Youngblood.” She listens to “There’s a Girl,” by Dressy Bessy, and Tennis’ retro sound in the song “South Carolina.”
Rodriguez beautifully renders images of the land to conjure a vision of conflict and tragedy with passages like, “Near the Mexico border, two countries lip-locked in geographical tension.” He crafts unforgettable moments from sentences laced with unexpected verbs as in Sarah’s reaction to the desert landscape, “Farther and farther, I see the land continue to vampire the sparse life out of the scenery and beyond.”

Before long, Sarah’s trip takes her to an unexpected destination, herself. Rodriguez captures in devastating detail the challenges of being a young woman in today’s world through Sarah’s revealing interactions with females from her past. He deftly manages to build the conflict between his characters so that each friend she meets is a puzzle piece: a fractured part of her history, a glimpse of what she might become. Sarah struggles to build a relationship with herself amid the chaos of memories, desires and fears that she previously resisted or denied. Each encounter shakes up Sarah’s deluded sense of self. She begins to perceive something in her life is lacking, but she can’t identify what.

After a drunken, blacked-out night, in circumstances that disturb her, Sarah decides her problem is alcohol. So she takes a detour to Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by the night sky of the title.   She spends time in sober contemplation. Instead of sharing all her thoughts, she tells the reader they need to experience their own private revelations in such a place. Sarah decides to cut her trip short. She has found a new direction.

Using a concept learned in college, Speculative Realism, as her model, she rewrites the second half of her memoir in the language of what if, an experiment in the intersection of philosophy and literature. Through Sarah, Rodriguz explores the interaction between creativity and reality, where the text itself acts on the reader, provoking new actions rather than simply evoking emotional meaning—art that sparks.  The experiment is certainly successful. After finishing the book, the story impelled this middle-aged reader to re-read the novel while playing each carefully catalogued song to accompany the text. A male writer who has created a young female protagonist that makes an older woman want to take a road trip with them both, is what speculative realism in literature must be about. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali: whatever Speculative Realism means, if it’s good, Under These Stars, is that.


 

The Wes Letters

Reviewed by Amber Parker
wes letters


The Wes Letters By Feliz Lucia Molina, Ben Segal and Brett Zehner
Published 2014 by Outpost19 | San Francisco
$16.00 paperback ISBN 9781937402648

The Wes Letters is an epistolary novel, or more simply: a collection of letters addressed to the famed film director, Wes Anderson. These letters are penned by three friends – Brett, Ben and Feliz – a trio of artists/grad students, quirky and neurotic. The story begins when Brett meets Wes Anderson on a train moving through New Mexico but expands into something unexpected. And from that moment—a discussion of literature between sips of wine—a story unfolds. It’s a language-driven story that travels first across the US—by train, plane and bus—from the Midwest to San Diego, until finally ending in Finland’s Bear Forest. Ultimately, it’s a story that isn’t really about Wes Anderson at all.

Wes Letters is a chronicling of musings and imaginations. It’s absurdly funny (they consider breaking into Anderson’s home to steal his toothbrushes, asking him to help paint their apartment, celebrity therapy by way of Snoop Dogg/ Lion, “Moonrise Condom,” etc.), somewhat confessional, and, at times, deeply personal. It’s a mix of self-reflection and philosophical meditation. It’s an evaluation of changing technologies, multiple media platforms, celebrity/recognition, and the general state of the modern world and how we project ourselves into it. It’s also about traveling and place (physical and emotional), loss and connection—“writing to you calms me because the further I type the more real you become,” writes Feliz. Wes Anderson is the constant and is what keeps readers grounded, even though he never actually responds. He is the “black hole” into which they confide their deepest thoughts and memories: “I am specifically writing these letters to forget, or to replace memory with stories, shifting sand and perhaps some magic,” says Brett. Rather than losing their most intimate thoughts into the void that is “Dear Wes,” we are on the other end, listening and understanding the pain of remembering and what it means to forget/be forgotten.

A novel as personal letters reflects a sort of realism, and it helps that the authors’ first names match those of the three narrators, which verges on a kind of “collective memoir.” The epistolary style is unique to each narrator, and perhaps that’s a nod to Anderson’s own distinct narrative and visual style in filmmaking. It’s also written as stream of consciousness. I particularly loved the story’s vividness, the precision and intensity of language, especially in Brett’s hybrid letter/poems. The sound sensations he creates are incredible, almost haunting (for some examples, read entries: “AIR SPACE,” “CHICAGO,” “INSOMNIA,” “MIDWEST,” and “SNAG.”).

Memory and place are key motifs in this novel. Memories were strewn together anxiously, brilliantly fragmented, offering a fracturing of time. The two year timeframe in this novel is easily tracked through events, technology, and thanks to Feliz, by specific dates/hours/minutes. But most striking about Wes Letters are the darker, private moments – the poignant glimpses of fragile humanity, most often revealed through Brett’s letters. I’ll not forget the memory of his dying friend, Eddie, the memory of his grandfather (a man with a “6-minute memory loop”) triggered by a bus ride, and the section about his mother’s brain cancer. The results are breathtaking imagery, language and emotion: “In the sunshine I forget to miss people,” Brett says.

This novel is also about writers/writing. Oftentimes the narrators are too critical of themselves, but that’s something I (and any other writer) could relate to. “Too scattered perhaps, not enough of a cohesion,” Brett writes in his final entry: “LOCATION SCOUT AND TENTATIVE ENDING,” but I disagree. These three perspectives are collectively strong because the stories elegantly entangle themselves, creating cohesion. The structure also lends to that cohesion because it keeps everything together in a neat framing device. One could argue that the story lacks plot, an arc, but they address some of these “faults” throughout (and who says we need any of that?). Brett even defines the reasoning behind it all: “I just feel that location, and the assembled relationships between interiority, is what matters most to me at this point.” At one point he describes himself as without character, that he is just “settings and moods,” which I thought summed up perfectly how Wes Letters is written.

On the other hand, I believe that there is character development. Readers get to their cores; we understand them by the memories they choose to share. Their stories are relatable, not isolating. Anderson-haters and non-writers alike can enjoy this novel because it speaks to our generation, a generation of ambitious and creative types, as well as a universal feeling of anxiety and despair. I think, too, that Wes Letters might be saying that life isn’t like a Wes Anderson movie; there are no “happy solutions.” Life is “about what makes us weep. The molecular emotions. The little accumulations. All those repeated rememberings…placeholders,” Brett says. It is a story about forgetting (or replacing, rewriting) memories, but it is also a story about remembering and being memorable. I think that’s something all of us can identify with, which is why the journey we take with them is unforgettable.