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Archive for the ‘Creative Writing’ Category

Dysfunction Always Travels

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on April 5, 2017 at 6:45 am

John S. Maguire is a Telecommunications and FM Broadcast consultant living in Oklahoma City. He obtained a degree in English from Texas Christian University and at 53 years old went back to graduate school and obtained a Master in Fine Arts from Oklahoma City University. 

I didn’t sleep much the night before and awoke early to get ready. It was the first day of spring break of my first year in high school and it had been decided long ago that we would, as a family, drive to South Padre Island, Texas, one of the great southwest meccas of spring breakers, young and old. Specifically, everyone in my high school went to “Padre” for spring break. While I had been there before, this would be my first time as a high schooler and thus was particularly noteworthy, based on what was happening to the girls in my class. Their bodies had seemed to get slimmer, their legs got longer and some more important areas of their bodies were growing faster than I could keep track of. Daydreams of these girls and their new bodies shoehorned into tiny bikinis clouded my night and consumed my days as the date of our departure neared. Now that day was finally here and to say I woke up excited is not to fully explain what was going on in my body.

I hadn’t seen my father before I went to bed the night before and made the assumption that he was out drinking and would be slow to get up to pack the Ford Country Squire Wagon for the long 14-hour drive. I was wrong. He was up early, just after me, and when he saw me awake he yelled at me to come help him. I knew what he was calling me for. As with every other trip we had taken by car, I had to gather up all the bags that were packed the night before. I was one of the men in the house and that was what was expected of me.

As I gathered the suitcases, I pondered a question that has been asked since the first time man moved from place to place: Why do women pack so much more than men? I carried one suitcase after another out to the driveway as I saw my father mixing a screwdriver in the kitchen. He knew that it would take me fifteen minutes or so to get all of them out by the car, so he had time for a little hair of the dog. I reported back to him when I had them all ready for the pack and he swallowed the last bit of his drink, smiled and said: “Orange Juice, great way to start the day.” We both laughed as he led me outside to help him get the bags on the roof of the car. I handed each bag up to him as he placed them like puzzle pieces within the confines of the luggage rack. Sober, drunk or hungover, my father took great pride in packing the car. When he had completed packing for some trip or another he would always get down from the roof of the car to admire his work. It was, in fact, amazing that he could fit that much in that small of a space and have it be so well organized. The load on the car could not have been stacked better by the Egyptian pyramid builders.

“Who else could pack a car like that?” he stated proudly.

Next came the ropes.

“Son, go in the garage and get those tie downs,” my father told me.

We would be traveling on the highway and I was sure at speeds much higher than the limit of the law and possibly of the car itself, so the bags needed, no matter how perfectly they were packed, to be tied down.

I was there and back in seconds, wanting the praise of my father, but he was too busy mixing another screwdriver to get him through the tie-down process to come. After a quick chug of his drink he came back out and first tied one end of the rope to the front of the luggage rack and then, with my help, began to loop the rope though the railings from side to side until the rope was at the back end. He looped the rope twice around the back of the rack.

“Let’s leave the tie down loose for now as the girls might have some more to pack,” he said.

More to pack? More to pack? Were we going to tie granny’s rocking chair down so she could sit on the roof on the way to “swimming pools and movie stars”? The car already looked as if we were fleeing the dust bowl, but he was probably right.

He scurried back into the house for his third screwdriver. It was only 7:30 am. I followed him in and went to watch TV, as I knew, from experience, that it would be some time before the family girls would be ready. After about thirty minutes of TV time, I heard the rest of my family stirring and got up in anticipation of finally beginning our fourteen-hour pilgrimage to Padre Island for a week of sun, sand, and bikinis. In reality, it took another thirty minutes to get everything ready and in the car but finally we were driving out of our driveway, on the side roads and eventually onto I-35 toward the border of Oklahoma and Texas.

Once on the highway, my father handed me his prized doctor’s bag that held his whiskey, vodka, mixes, and glasses, asking me to pour him a small Chivas. I had been the “Keeper of the Bag” for a couple of years so I knew exactly what he wanted. A double shot of Chivas Regal scotch. He was ready to cover some ground and needed to get primed. I poured the drink and handed it up to him just as he accelerated far beyond the legal speed limit, finally feeling like himself again after the long night before.

First hour. First Scotch. At this pace it would not only be a long day, but night as well. I wasn’t concerned about our safety, as I had been mixing drinks for a while and had always arrived home safely. I assumed that he would not need a drink for a while so I dozed off to sleep, hoping that would make me stop thinking about the buxom bodies that would be wearing bikinis. Other than packing the car and mixing drinks, all I could think about was bikinis. It was hard to sit still in the cramped wagon, particularly as I had to shift positions regularly.

About an hour later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something fly by the back window. I focused on what it was as it slid down the highway and finally came into view. It was a suitcase moving as fast north as we were south. In fact, it looked familiar.

“It couldn’t be,” I thought.

It was.

It was one of my mother’s suitcases and the cars behind us were dodging it as if they were playing some weird game of bumper cars. The last car didn’t quite make its swerve fast enough and clipped the suitcase, causing it to open—well, more correctly, to explode, as clothes flew through the air. Some of my mother’s clothes landed on that car’s windshield and blocked the view of its driver for a moment. I saw him reach out his driver’s window, grab the clothes and pull them inside.

I was panicked. Should I say something or act as if I were asleep? In our family, “kill the messenger” was a sport and I didn’t want to be sacrificed. I quickly put my head down and pretended to sleep. Safety first, I decided. Unfortunately, I hadn’t closed my eyes longer than ten seconds when I heard a loud squeal from my part of the car. I guessed that my sister had seen the bag, so I acted as though I were just then waking up and asked her what was going on.

“All of our bags are falling off the roof!” she screamed.

I looked back and feigned surprise as I saw bag after bag fly off the roof and onto the highway. Some exploded on contact; others were hit by oncoming cars and exploded. Clothes of every sort formed a huge cloud on the highway. As my father looked in the rear view mirror he spilled his drink.

“Son of a bitch!” he screamed more at his crotch being covered in scotch than at the luggage flying off the roof. “What in the fuck is going on?” I continued to stare as each bag hit the highway. I was sure this would be the cause of a huge pile up, but the cars successfully negotiated the flying debris with little trouble.

When my father finally pulled over to the side of the road to assess the situation my mother was screaming, crying and shouting.

“My clothes are all over the side of the road!” she shouted, between her sobs and screams.

Somewhere, somehow, my father was always able to tune my mother out, that is until he wasn’t able to and then took matters into his own hands, literally. My father got out of the car, looked down the highway to see the bags and looked up at the roof of the car to see a tie-down rope flying loosely in the wind.

“God damn it, John!” he screamed. “You didn’t tie the rope tight enough and it came loose.” At that moment everyone stared at me. If they could produce fire from their eyes I would have been incinerated. My brain went into overtime as I searched my memory for what had happened when we were packing the luggage on the car. Then it came to me. My father had not tied the rope off since he didn’t know if everything was packed yet. Happy that I had figured it out and it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t considered that my father didn’t want it to be his fault either. I jumped out of the car to explain.

“Dad, remember when we were packing and you just looped the rope around the back rack to see if there was anything else that needed to go on the roof?” I asked.

“What? Don’t blame this on me, you son of a bitch,” he said as his left hand drew back, came forward, and hit me in the face. I fell on the ground as my cheek stung as though it had been burned in the sun for hours. I had become numb to the strikes but this time I wasn’t at fault. I knew I was right, but to go on would mean that this would get worse. I was so angry but couldn’t express it. All this emotion had to get out somehow so I started crying. That is how I dealt with my anger from that moment on. My father seemed to never hit me when I cried and it didn’t take me long to figure out the pattern.

“Now you get started down the highway picking up all the clothes you can find and bring them here. I’ll get the suitcases back to the car so you can repack everything,” he said. “Stop crying and get up and get moving.”

I got up slowly and started walking down the shoulder of the highway as cars whooshed by me at breakneck speed, some drivers honking and laughing as they saw the clothes and the suitcases. This was going to be embarrassing since I had to retrieve clothes belonging to my older and younger sister, as well as my mother. I was right to be concerned. The first piece of clothing I approached was one of my mother’s bras. I stared at it for a moment and wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. I knew then that this would be the first bra that I touched. Why did it have to be my mother’s? I grabbed it dutifully and went to the next. It seemed as though I were a magnet for undergarments; I soon had a handful of bras, panties and assorted underthings. I started back to the car with my first load and as I got close enough to the car for my sisters to see what I was carrying, they both screamed, ran at me, knocking me down and grabbing their panties and bras, leaving me with only my mother’s undergarments to place in the suitcase. If I wasn’t humiliated by then I certainly was now. I turned quickly to go back for more and saw that both sisters were on their way down the highway to get their own clothes so as not to risk my seeing their unmentionables. Fine with me. I would stick to the clothes and leave the rest for them.

As I arrived with my second load consisting mostly of my and my father’s clothes, I noticed my father sitting in the front seat of the wagon, car started and air conditioner on. He was pouring a drink, and I was pissed. All of this was his fault and yet I had to take the blame, risk my life on the shoulder of the highway and pick up clothes. I stared at him for a minute and then realized that I didn’t want another backhand so I turned to retrieve more clothes. After a couple of hours or so, and two drinks, we had finished collecting the clothes that could be found and had packed them back into their suitcases. My father stumbled out of the air-conditioned car, onto the hood, and up to the roof. I handed him up the bags and when I finished he tied them off.

“Get away from here, boy. You fucked it up last time. I’ll do it right this time,” he said just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Go sit in the car with the girls.” I did as I was told and wedged myself into the back vinyl seat. It was midday and getting hot so the vinyl had heated up and burned as I sat. My father got back in the car, mixed another drink on his own, not allowing me to mix it for him, put the car in drive, and we were on the road again. I lay my head down, pissed that I was blamed for something I didn’t do and tried with everything I had to remember the bikinis I had imagined on the beach and in the hotels and, well, just about everywhere, but all that kept coming to mind was the sight of my mom’s bra and me carrying it up the highway.

 

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Paul Goldstein About His Latest Novel, “Legal Asylum”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Law, Law School, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on March 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

AM:  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire? 

PG:  My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!

AM:  Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?  

PG:  I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.

AM:  In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?

PG:  One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.

AM:  Your book is funny.  Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?

PG:  I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.

AM:  You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero.  Why?

PG:  For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.

AM:  Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?

PG:  I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.

AM:  It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.

PG:  I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.

AM:  Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school?  I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education. 

PG:  My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.

AM:  Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book?  It’s provocative and suggestive.

PG:  I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example.  There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.

AM:  Thanks again for the interview.  Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?

PG:  It was a pleasure. Readers can buy the book at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Shop ABA.

Five Poems by Selma Mann

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

selma-mann

Selma Mann’s first book of poetry, Mourning Cloak, was published in 2013. She has poems forthcoming in Conclave, Red Dirt Forum and elsewhere. Her second book, Whimsical Warrior, will be released in spring 2017. An attorney by trade, her practice areas include land use and ethics. She reinvented herself as a poet in 2011 following a devastating series of losses. She resides in Newport Beach, California.

 

Alumna

I visited the large firm
where, as a fledging attorney,
I felt mercilessly forced
into the shape of a litigator,
a mold alien to my spirit.
I suspect my muse
miraculously maintained
my core,
guarding it,
until I could transform
to the person within,
urging me to seize
grief and enchantment,
as she patiently imparted
the language of the spirit,
enabling the alchemy
that translates my life
to poems.

 

Once upon a time

During my life as an attorney,
particularly as an ill-suited litigator,
which is not a sartorial comment,
I was repeatedly encouraged
to consider possibilities,
specters of catastrophic expectations,
labeling it risk assessment.
My outlook dwelled, quite comfortably,
in a community of like-minded colleagues and friends.
The process got a start in law school,
Socratic method sharpening analysis,
substituting questioning for assumptions,
even as it inexorably set aside my spirit,
any suggestion of miracles and magic.
Objective was to prepare for the bar exam,
tortuous final test,
orgy of ceremonial competition,
feeding frenzy of memory, analysis,
exhaustion and fear.

I innocently believed spending my day
pondering imaginary outcomes
didn’t leave a permanent imprint on my soul,
until my soulmate died.
Vulnerable and bereft, I surrendered to grief.
Fear insinuated itself among my thoughts
painstakingly disguising itself as logic and prudence
constricting me until I could hear only its hiss,
proclaiming omnipresence and reality,
as it barricaded connection and light,
assailed by visions of my own illness and mortality,
or, far worse, of those I love,
oppressed by weight of a future alone.

I wallowed in that tiny cell,
my world grew smaller,
until my muse illuminated a path
away from outcomes and the past,
grounded in the moment,
the journey within.
A floodgate of other memories poured over me
allowing my spirit to heal,
recalling life once upon a time,
when I was gifted with the magic of a soulmate.
The astounding privilege of raising two daughters,
time communing with second graders
teaching them to read, spell and compute,
even as they demonstrated more important lessons,
mastery over joy,
living in the present,
uncanny abilities to share their lives fully,
though our time together was defined to end,
nourishing my muse to survive her hibernation.

 

Moving on

It’s almost eight years
since the nightmare night
I came upon your lifeless body.
I’ve lived a separate lifetime
since that time,
changes building upon each other,
I learn to say “no”
to unwanted relationships,
swallowing guilt
for hurt feelings,
reluctant, against my will,
turn away from my career
as an attorney,
tripping over a calling as a poet,
unexpected passion in my path,
publishing a book,
seeing my poem/children fly
in lives of their own.
I notice men noticing me,
reminding myself that I get to choose,
suddenly aware of loneliness
lurking in my solitude,
feeling disloyal to you,
as possibilities of companionship
bring equal measures
of excitement
and disquiet.

 

Domesticated Monarchs

During my prior attorney-life,
I would not have believed,
however briefly,
in a domesticated butterfly.
Yet a magical Monarch
emerged from its chrysalis
as Donovan and I
watched, whispering,
inches away.
We carried the planter
to the garden,
on a mission of liberation,
but she remained in place
for several days,
undisturbed by our proximity,
as we hovered over her,
hoping she could fly.
The Monarch didn’t leave
until the anniversary
of the day my Love and I
were wed.
Little wonder I feel
a profound connection
to butterflies.
From time to time,
a Monarch in the garden
gracefully flutters to eye level
and remains, unperturbed,
as I stand transfixed,
within arms’ reach.
Could this be a descendant,
of the magical Monarch,
basking in my love and admiration,
feeling secure
in the safety of my garden,
predisposed to trust?

 

Arlington

Lives cut short
by war,
defending freedom
others’ greed for power,
gratitude mixed with tears
anger
sadness,
prayers for peace
echo,
whispers of wisdom
among leaves,
perfect order
blanketing chaos.

Review of “The Final Days of Great American Shopping,” by Gilbert Allen

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Short Story, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, Writing on November 30, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

With so many journals and genres available today, the dependable reviewer has a duty to warn off the noble optimists and advise the faint-hearted when a book is not for them.  Obligation thus requires that I caution readers:  Gilbert Allen’s The Final Days of Great American Shopping, a collection of short stories, is intelligent, nuanced, poignant, and distressing—and hence not for everyone.

If you’ve read more than one Nicholas Sparks novel this year, this book isn’t for you.  If you think Oprah is a guardian of culture, this book isn’t for you.  If you believe Fox News and CNN are edifying, this book isn’t for you.  If you think David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, and Sidney Blumenthal are men of letters, this book isn’t for you.  If you prefer Dr. Phil to Jung and Freud, this book isn’t for you.  If Joel Osteen inspires you in a way that Augustine and Aquinas cannot, this book isn’t for you.  If, in fact, any of the aforesaid are true of your case, you might just be the unwitting target of Allen’s satire.

Having dispensed with the stereotypes and requisite preamble, I own that this is, in some respects, a personal review.  Allen was my professor at Furman University and a man I continue to admire.  He cannot be blamed for the way I turned out, and certainly not for my politics.  But he is partially responsible for my love of poetry and aesthetics.

Allen, I recall, loved cats, as well as his isolated, sylvan home in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, which is far from his native Long Island, both culturally and geographically.  His spoken diction was always precise, as was the pencil-thin mustache that grayed above his lips.  Tall and skinny, with belts so long they could’ve wrapped around him twice, he spoke softly and carried a big pen.

He commits poems to memory.  I once heard him recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” to the tune of La cumparsita, a curious performance he allegedly repeats using other poems and tangos.  Ancient or modern, free verse or rhyming, short or long, poetry is his lifework, calling, and passion.  So, I suspect, he suffers, as honorable poets are wont to do.  His suffering will surely escalate as he decides how to mass-market this latest book—his first one in prose—that’s critical of mass-marketing.

The book depicts a self-indulgent American suburbia starved for money and materialism, where people try to purchase happiness and other forms of fleeting satisfaction while fixated on their own or others’ sexuality.  These 16 stories, told in chronological order from the recent past to the immediate future—and, at last, to the year 2084—are not directly about sex.  Yet sexual anxieties, appetites, and insecurities bear a subterranean, causative relationship to the acquisitive urge and cupidity that complicate many of the characters in Allen’s dystopian community, Belladonna, a gated subdivision in South Carolina, probably near Greenville.

Allen’s opening story is a complex portrait of loving and loathing, and the fine line between the two.  A childless couple, Butler and Marjory Breedlove, still in their early 40s, struggle to remain compatible as they degenerate into a life of stultifying domesticity, having suffered through three miscarriages and the abortion of an anencephalic child.  Butler is an insurance salesman and a beer-drinking baseball fan who will pull for an aging veteran against his own beloved Atlanta Braves.  Marjory, the silent, brooding type, obsesses over her luxuriant, blooming flowers, the fecundity and fertility of which contrast with her own barrenness.

Butler, as if to compensate for a sense of emasculation occasioned by his inability to sire offspring, sets out to install storm windows one Saturday morning while Marjory is off visiting her mother.  If Marjory cannot be gratified through sexual activity, he presumably reasons, then she’ll derive pleasure from his dutiful, manly labor.  A client has told him that storm windows are “easier than a second honeymoon” because they require just nine “screws,” so there’s little doubt that Butler’s chore is substitutionary: it fulfills the need for virile exertion that, we may assume, is not met through copulation.

The problem is, Butler procrastinates and leaves the windows leaning over Marjory’s flowers for too long.  Any boy who’s used a magnifying glass to burn ants would’ve known not to do this, but not Butler.  He doesn’t consider what might happen to Marjory’s flowers as he sets aside the windows to pursue booze and television.  He does, however, manage to complete the window installation.  When Marjory returns, he proudly reveals his handwork, announcing, “I did it myself.”

He’s not fully aware of what it is until Marjory, ignoring the windows, says, “My flowers.”  She stares at her garden as if peering into an “open grave.”  The florae that were adjuncts for her lost children, that were little leafy lives she had created and sustained, are now dead.  She can’t bear the loss.  Tragedy compels her to mourn on a closet floor in her nightgown.  It’s an intolerable image—her sitting there, grieved and defeated—that captures the sad inability of two people to live out their most primitive desires.

The seemingly banal agonies in this story of strained marriage are subtly and quizzically meaningful.  What is the significance, for instance, of Marjory’s decision to serve up a scrumptious breakfast for Butler while she munches on blackened toast?  Such a small gesture, but so gravely significant.

With moments like these, impressively numerous in such a short, short story, Allen achieves, I think, the right amount of ambiguity: neither Butler nor Marjory is the “bad guy,” and both seem thwarted from intimacy and happiness by forces beyond their control yet caused by their own deliberate action.  They mean well, mostly, but they’re the same poles on a magnet, destined, it seems, to repel one another.  Even their surname—Breedlove—raises interpretive puzzles, since breeding and loving seem foreign to their relationship.  Whether it’s their childlessness or an accumulation of small disappointments that causes their desperation and despair remains unclear.

Perhaps they recognize, as most of us do at some point, that they’ll never become the people their younger selves wanted to be—and that this, whatever this may be, is all there is.  Youthful aspiration is bound to become dashed hope, and once we’ve made ourselves what we are, there’s no unmaking us.

John Beegle, the protagonist of the following story who happens to have purchased health insurance from Butler Breedlove—each story is delicately linked—faces a different problem, or problems: a growing estrangement from his wife and the incapability to connect with his teenaged daughters, one of whom has grown increasingly flirtatious in proportion to her budding breasts.  John likes “to understand things, piece by piece,” but he can’t make sense of the females in his family.  They move so fast, and he so slowly.

This all changes when he discovers, in the garage of his new house, an “autogyro,” or small helicopter, circa 1961.  This antique machine remains operational, and the more John works on it, the more his daughters take to him.  He even revives his libido, surprising his wife with a “midday tryst.”  The restoration of the helicopter refurbishes his own spirits, and he eventually takes the perilous contraption for a ride, rising high into the air until he can “see everything.”  Like Frost’s wistful narrator who imagines himself climbing a birch tree up toward heaven only to be set back down again, John, hovering in the sky, “begins to dream of his landing, of his own house.”  He thinks of his family and his return to the ground.  Earth is, indeed, the right place for love.

The book is full of characters like these: the widowed Priscilla Knobloch with her twelve-year-old, one-handed daughter; Ted Dickey, whose numerous speed-dating partners represent different social ailments from materialism to decadence; the unnamed hick hair stylist who likes to rear-end Porsches (just a “love tap”) and talk about blow jobs; a thrift store worker and his wife, the menopausal Meredith, who start a non-profit corporation for religious “bedding”; Jorja Sorenson, a painter, and her husband, Houston, who collaborate on the sculpture of a fetus that draws the attention of none other than Marjorie Breedlove; and on and on.

Through these hapless, heedless figures and their goods, interests, and acquisitions—television, cars, homes, designer shoes—certain symptoms of our national condition are projected: greed, consumerism, profligacy, extravagance, melancholy.  It’s not overstating to say that, with these stories, Allen has tapped into our national consciousness and disorder.  The quintessential American, restless and without a past, energetic and democratic, his works and beliefs at once enterprising and derivative—that iconic, preeminently rugged and relatable laborer—has, in our imagination, transitioned from self-reliant and industrious, always ready to “simply, simplify,” to dark and pitiful, burdened by the wealth and joy that forever elude him.

Although Americans once envisioned a vast frontier of possibility, an unknown and ever-widening expanse of hope and promise, imbuing optimism and idealism wherever we went, we now, sketchy and insecure, stumble along looking for opportunities that don’t exist, endeavoring to remain perpetually young and verdant, as if gray hair weren’t a crown of glory and splendor.  We want what we can’t have and have what we don’t want.

Once we were Franklins and Jeffersons, Emersons and Whitmans; today we’re Willy Lomans.  Or Cher Horowitzes.  Or Gordon Gekkos.  Without guilt we can’t identify with Reverend Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne.  Without abstinence, we can’t appreciate the allure of Rappacini’s daughter.  As coddled, perpetual children, we don’t get Ishmael and Ahab, Frederick Douglass, or Jay Gatsby.  We’re so phony that we don’t understand Holden Caulfield anymore.

So Allen has done us a great service.  By mocking us and portraying our ominously recognizable and quotidian depravities, he’s exposed the warring desires to which we’ve fallen prey: extravagance and simplicity, envy and indifference, aspiration and defeat, conformity and revolt.  He’s a spokesman for the disenchanted and disillusioned, for those who still possess the poetic vision about which Emerson intoned.   He sees a double consciousness, a conflict of the mind, that drags us into woeful insipidity and angst.  If reading his book isn’t like looking reluctantly and masochistically into the mirror, or less figuratively into your own split psyche, then you’re delusional or dishonest, or perhaps—just perhaps—the rare exception.

These stories are harsh, biting, titillating, disparaging, and sarcastic, but they’re also funny.  Allen derides us, and perhaps himself, with humor.  He’s a sensitive man, and very quiet.  Who knew that, beneath his silent façade, there was a hilarious personality?

I did.  Because his poetry reveals that about him.

His first collection of poetry, In Everything, was spiritual and serious, a sort of Buddhist mystical meditation on Nature and Being.  As time went on, he eased up and relaxed.  He moved from the intensity of numinous experience to the comic realities of everyday life.

It’s not that his writing became lighthearted, upbeat, or shallow.  It remained pensive and complex and open to rigorous interpretation, sometimes even cosmic in scope.  Yet there was something more playful and satirical about it.  He came to enjoy social criticism as much as he enjoyed, say, the splendor of sentience and the complexities of the mind and soul.

This tendency towards the witty and quirky, as I have suggested, finds expression in The Final Days of Great American Shopping.  It’s evident in a pick-up line: “Would you like to go on a corporate retreat next month?  As my tax deduction?”  It materializes in unsuspecting places such as the urinal, where a man talks on his cell phone as he pisses.  It even surfaces in the epithet “Confederate Flaggots,” which implies a phallic fascination with flag poles that’s endemic among men “who dress up in nineteenth-century costumes to do unspeakable things to one another in public parks.”

But not every attempt at humor is successful: the narrator of the story “Friends with Porsches” speaks like a redneck, but not a real redneck—just a forced caricature whose colloquialisms and ungrammatical syntax aren’t quite believable as actual speech.

Allen’s sardonic, unpretentious fiction renders a society that’s abandoned the “errand into the wilderness”—as Perry Miller so aptly labeled the once powerful theme of American experience—for the errand into the shopping mall.  Although some of the technology that appears in his stories is already dated—most of the stories were first published before iPhones and iPads made the Internet and email a ubiquitous, hand-held phenomenon—one senses in their representation a renewed and profane scrutiny that’s both subversive and daring.

Are we in the final days of American shopping, as Allen suggests?  If so, is that an apocryphal singularity, the secular equivalent to the eschaton?

Maybe.  Shopping, for Allen, is, after all, much more than merely examining and evaluating retail merchandise with an eye toward a trivial purchase.  It’s systemic and magnificent, a fluid cultural sickness with no immediate cure.  Alike in severity to those idolatrous practices which demand prophetic ministry, it signals a coming destruction that necessitates oracular warning.  Shopping has become the lord and king of us all.

As for the other events of shopping’s reign, those which don’t appear in Allen’s book, are they not written in the records of the Internet, the annotations of our technology, and the annals of our digital media?  Allen buries shopping with its ancestors.  And he buries us, and our endless wants, with it.

“Fetish,” A Story by Amy Susan Wilson

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on November 2, 2016 at 6:45 am

Amy Susan Wilson

 

Amy Susan Wilson is author of Fetish and Other Stories, The Balkan Press, second edition, and of the forthcoming poetry collection Billy Ray. Her work has appeared in This Land, Southern Women’s Review, The Notebook, and elsewhere. She is Publisher, Red Dirt Press, LLC (www.reddirtpress.net) and Managing  Editor of Red Truck Review and Red Dirt Forum. A native Oklahoman, she holds degrees from The University of Oklahoma and Columbia University. Below is an excerpt from the second edition of Fetish and Other Stories.

It should have been a big clue that Jake had real-deal problems when I saw that his house was loaded up with pistols and too much toilet paper. You look in the kitchen cabinets for Campbell’s bean with bacon soup, some toothpicks or mustard, and all you see are those white rolls of Charmin. Try the screen behind the fireplace in the den—yep, loaded up with clean, dependable one-ply twenty-four packs.

Stupidly, I let all of this go.

I let it go that he had five cases of Charmin double rolls at the foot of his bed, brown bears dancing on each package as if in some state of religious ecstasy or just really glad to have their butts cleaned with something other than twigs and pinecones from the forest. Yes, I let all of this go.

Now the guns I understood. After all, Jake teaches gun safety protection at our Floyd Red River Technical College on I-40. And he is half owner of Jake and Pete’s Family Shooting Range just outside Floyd.

“These rifles, pistols, and such, are they loaded?” I asked the first time I went to his house.

“Just the ones I keep locked up in cases. All the guns in cases are kept in the hall closet or under my bed,” Jake assured. His hands were as thick as oak planks, his fingertips rough, calloused, as if he’d driven spikes into the railroad tracks during the nineteenth century. I couldn’t wait to feel his manly digits intertwine with my fingers.

Jake did not drink, so the guns seemed A-OK. He was a retired Oklahoma highway patrolman who owned a home with a foundation. He did not have a picture of John Wayne hanging over the fireplace in the den, and yes, Jake was twice divorced, but who isn’t these days? He was kind to his cocker spaniel, Boomer, his poodle, Sooner, and maybe even fed them too many Snausages because he loved those dogs so much. And as a big to-boot bonus, Jake could hold a conversation.

“Boomer just showed up one day,” Jake told me out on his backyard deck. That was the first time we grilled hotdogs. Jake would not let me do one thing to help. “You just keep still and look pretty,” he said.

“Yep, ole Boomer, he was limping in the middle of Dill Street by the north side of Mrs. Gundy’s house, so I put him in the truck and said, ‘C’mon, buddy, you’re living with me.’ Going on nine years now,” Jake said while grilling each dog so skillfully he could have been a TV chef on the Food Network channel.

Jake and I didn’t even leave his house that night. We talked well past 10 p.m., sitting on the backyard deck in his new yard chairs from Lowe’s. Crepe myrtles were outfitted with pink blossoms. I drank a Diet Coke with nothing mixed in it and laughed all night long. He even asked if he could kiss me. Wow, I have found one good man, one I can marry, not have to do much changing to, I thought while French kissing under the moon and stars and humidity. We could have the ceremony right here in his backyard. Reception too. Boomer could be the ring bearer; Sooner could give me away. Lavender bridesmaid dresses, matching lavender hats, dark purple pumps to offset each gown.

Looking back, what is really shallow of me but what really fooled me and sucked me in was that Jake not only could really kiss and talk, but he looked so normal, even handsome. He did not look like a toilet paper hoarder or a sexual freak. He worked out every morning from five to six at Family Fitness Aerobics Center here in Floyd, which is where I met him.

For a fifty-six-year-old man, he had the physique of a buff forty-five-year-old. He wore his black hair cropped short with short gray sideburns, and I was impressed that he worked out in his maroon University of Oklahoma T-shirt with sleeves, and gray Nike shorts, mid-thigh length. No tattoos or pinkie rings or gold chains or goatee or gray armpit hair hanging out of an orange tank top. No grunting like a constipated ape when lifting power weights. Oh, and his black twinkling eyes, so alert, alive, and radiating warmth.

Because he seemed so normal at first, I went out with him for a little over a month—the life cycle of a junior high romance, and this is okay in eighth grade. At fifty-two, and coming up divorced five years this August, I would have liked to have a bit more of a long-term relationship. I didn’t care about roses and candy, but just some little bit of long-term normalcy would have been nice. On the other hand, I count my blessings Jake and I only lasted five weeks.

“That’s why you didn’t notice the clues. I mean, he’s a closet toilet paper hoarder; he knew how to hide what he was hoarding,” my best friend, Patsy Lee, offers. “Then that sexual fetish freak-o thing sneaked up on you out of the blue. Nothing led up to letting you know it was going to happen, and really, no woman would have noticed the signs—not even Marg from CSI,” Patsy counsels. “And Marg notices everything.”

We are lounging in my new Barclay chaise loungers on my backyard deck at dusk and sipping peach zin. We watch two tweens amble down Emit Street while texting, one wearing a gray knit ski cap in the dead of July and carrying a boom box, a real retro deal these days with the kids. Patsy and I shake our heads, laughing. My purple petunias are the size of my fists—and if I buy one more gnome, gazing ball, or birdbath, my lawn will get major gaudy.

“Did you know Jake even had cases of toilet paper stashed in his little blue Ford Escort he parks up in his yard? You open the door, any of the doors, and rolls just cascade like rocks tumbling down a foothill at Lake Arbuckle. He didn’t have any TP in his Ford Escape, but that Escort was loaded like Fort Knox or the Charmin factory. TP in the laundry room, cases in that garage—even toilet paper stacked at the foot of his California king waterbed,” I whine to Patsy.

“How did that make you feel?” she asks, as if Dr. Phil himself.

I’ve known Patsy Lee twenty-two years. We’ve taught at Floyd Middle School together for that long, and she just lost her fiancé to Alzheimer’s thirteen months ago. Turned fifty-one alone last month, so I don’t tell her she sounds annoying when imitating the TV psychologist. She wants to get a master’s in counseling at Eastern Central University and become a bereavement therapist coach by the time she hits fifty-five.

“I am just so embarrassed,” I tell her. “There I was dating a hoarder of one ply and two ply TP, and I’m thinking, naïve me, that I’m going to be intimate with Andy Griffith straight from Mayberry. But no, the guy has a sexual fetish involving toilet paper. Here I am a certified middle school library media specialist in the Floyd School District, a 2003 Teacher of the Year nominee with two master’s degrees from Eastern Central University over in Adair. Lord, why did I get into the sack all naked—find myself almost letting him wrap me up head to toe like a mummy with TP?” I ask Patsy Lee.

As Patsy pours more peach zin, I explain, “I am usually a capable person. Did I ever tell you that I once steered a Cessna in the rain while my ex, Randy, puffed on his asthma inhaler? I do my own taxes without error even though I am a language arts person, not a math person. My people-detector is not really broken; it works well, usually, but not this time.” I sigh. I look down at my feet housed in my blue flip-flops, begonia-pink polish chipped off my left big toe.

Patsy is silent and touches my hand with an empathic therapy gesture, a technique she has no doubt learned in one of her ECU graduate counseling courses. The fireflies dart through the dark humid air, avoiding the bug zapper I won at Atwood’s. The moths draw to the purple glow of the device, and crisp radio static fries the dead night air.

“Remember when I spotted that shoplifter at Drug Warehouse and the security guard apprehended the Junior Service League-looking thirty-something gal who stole Aveeno, V8, and children’s Claritin? I usually spot weirdoes from a mile away,” I insist.

Patsy takes a big gulp of wine. “Well, you know Michelle Weaver, from around six years ago, in our ladies handbell group at church?” Patsy asks. “She was really smart. An Okataloa County Mensa member. But remember that new man, Peter, from Sunday school who said he had moved here from Denton? Wanted to get back to small-town living, lower property taxes? Well, he took her for steak at TJ’s Place then asked for five thousand dollars to invest in his prosthetic limb company. She gave him three thousand, then he left town as fast as he came. Flimflam. At least you didn’t get hooked into someone like him,” Patsy offers.

I stare at my neighbor’s clothesline, which they really use, then take in my larger-than-life, larger-than-the-Grand Canyon magnolia tree. It takes up half the north corner of the backyard. That tree, a miracle.

Patsy slaps a mosquito off her ankle. We switch from zin to Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper that we drink out of coffee mugs. Patsy likes the John Wayne one, and mine is the Starsky guy from Starsky and Hutch. At just 9 p.m., I have the yawns and am almost ready to hit the hay.

“So tell me one more time. When Jake got you all naked in bed he tried to wrap you in toilet paper like you were a mummy?” Patsy giggles.

I have been explaining this to her all day long. First on the phone, then she comes over to the house and I usher her into my den and explain all morning, then at lunch today at Cracker Barrel.

“Yeah, he tried to bind me up neck to ankles in toilet paper. I can’t make it any clearer. I was flint-skin naked, and no, he wasn’t drinking, neither one of us was drinking. While I was sloshing around on his waterbed, he whispers, ‘Hey, honey, stand up. Let me put something on you.’ ”

Patsy’s brown eyes bug out like pug eyes, as if she hasn’t already heard the story three times today.

“I thought he was going to put baby oil or lotion on my thighs. But he’s standing at the foot of the California king, and I’m standing with him, all naked of course. I see, in the glow of candlelight, he’s holding a toilet paper roll, the big double-size kind, and he begins to wrap my neck in the freaking toilet paper!”

“That’s just plain nuts!” Patsy exclaims. “Does he have a mental health history? I mean, not depression but hard-core insane stuff in his background?” Patsy blurts out. “This is as shocking as that sinkhole on Stanley and Tenth Street by Central Church of Christ—that sinkhole swallowing Mavis Butler’s blue Ford Fusion and her dog in broad daylight. Sinkholes starting to pop up in Floyd—now this toilet paper thing!”

This summer our Patsy Lee has been taking the courses Abnormal Psychology and Psychology of Human Aging at Eastern Central University on talkback TV at our tri-county area Red River Technical College. She is a sixth grade English teacher and unofficial detector of mental illnesses.

“So he just wanted to wrap you up like a mummy with that toilet paper?” She giggles again.

“Jake was breathing as hard as a blue heeler that had been herding sheep too long on a hot summer day,” I said. “He told me, ‘Baby girl, hold out your arms straight like two plyboards, hold them out like a Jesus cross. I’m going to make you my mummy-gal.’

“Oh gosh,” I tell Patsy, “His bedroom was so normal looking. The walls were painted beige, and there was a three-foot-long picture of ducks flying over cattails above the oak headboard. The tan wall-to-wall shag carpet was freshly vacuumed and the room smelled of neutral Febreze room deodorizer with a faint whiff of a Glade vanilla plug-in. Beige curtains, pine-green bedspread. Boomer slumbering on that brown football-shaped pet bed to the right of that glider rocker.”

Somehow, in the almost-dark of the bedroom, I ripped that toilet paper ring off my neck and found my shorts, tank top, and new Brighton purse all puddled on the floor by the glider rocker in the corner of the normal-looking bedroom by the normal-looking dresser.

“Got a yeast infection! Boy, how it burns!” I blurted. “Lots of pus squirting out to boot! Better book on home!” I said, butt naked holding my pink bra with sunny yellow butterflies imprinted on each cup.

“Huh?” Jake said, making a face like he’d just swallowed a horse pill that didn’t want to go down. “So, call me when it’s over? A few days from now?” he asked, the green candle still blazing a tiny stream of light.

“Will do, mister,” I said as I hauled ass into my granny panties, denim Bermuda shorts, and baby-blue tank top.

It was only 9:30 p.m. I had never really thought about it before, but I thought strange sex acts took place in the dead of night—not when the normal were eating spaghetti and watching a Netflix movie, or playing a little late-night Ping-Pong in the garage. I said the pus thing because I once read that a woman has to say something gross in order to stop a rapist from the act, even though Jake was not raping me.

Jake put on his shorts and walked me out to my little Grand Am like a perfect gentleman. He opened my car door and pecked my cheek before I sprang into the driver’s seat. Then he whispered, “If not you tonight, then another, sister.”

A shiver slithered like a black snake all the way down my spine.

“You just never can tell, can you?” Patsy says, eyeing the gnome by my birdbath, which carries a solar-powered lantern that glows in the dark. “Do you think he was one of those officers who played with women’s vulnerabilities when writing tickets? You know, sexually groped them if they looked illegal Mexican-like or too poor to pay a speeding ticket?”

By now it is totally dark, and people driving by Jake’s house over on Dill Street have no idea that he is a toilet paper hoarder and sexual foreplay freak, nor can they see all the rolls piled in that little blue Escort parked in his front yard.

“Have you thought of getting some counseling? I mean, you might feel better since it appears you now doubt yourself about men and suffer from self-esteem issues. The unexpected stresses the body,” Patsy offers, practicing her therapist-of-the-future voice.

“You know Patsy-Lou, I made a mistake any divorced woman could’ve made, and I will forgive myself for being an idiot. And dang, I’m lucky. All those guns carefully placed throughout the house, who knows what he could’ve done to me. Now I gotta go tinkle,” I say in my almost pissed-off tone, though I’m trying not to be mad at myself any longer.

I remember thinking I would never get over my divorce after twenty-four years of marriage, but I did. I’ll battle this, too. Randy found a girl on the Internet, an LPN from the Philippines in her late twenties. There he was, fifty-nine, looking like Grandpa Walton with Asian Mary Ellen.

In my Divorce Care Workshop over at Northridge Church of Christ on MacArthur, two other women were left for Internet mates here in just little old Floyd, America. Stopping for milk at Braum’s one day after work, I told myself, Look here, you’re not the only one to get left—you’re not so unique.

Five years later and I really am okay about it.

I tell myself now, Jo Anna Lizbeth Williams, you are not the only woman to encounter some strange guy during the AARP era; just let this go. Free your mind of him. You aren’t dead yet, and you’re only fifty-two.

“Sorry to be so self-obsessed today,” I apologize to Patsy as I slap a mosquito off my left elbow.

“Hey, I would’ve thought the guy was normal, too,” Patsy offers. “You know, Jo Anna, especially since he’s in Lions Club and heads up the lobster fundraiser for autism each July, who would have a clue about how weird he is? And you are truly blessed that he didn’t get rough.”

As I open the sliding glass door and walk into the house I think, Oh Lord, please let me learn to spot the weird men out there! And Lord, please let me not become a lady who wears Depends in middle age. These days, since the TP incident, I have to pee all the time, and I have hardly any ability to hold my bladder.

“Trauma, it’s trauma,” Patsy keeps saying even though I’m indoors.

Seated atop the new soft-flush toilet in my freshly painted peach bathroom, I turn the light off, the fan on. I pee in the dark and force myself not to look at the white two-ply roll.

 

Just for the Summer

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on September 14, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following poem first appeared in Images in Ink and, later as a reprint, in Red Truck Review.

“Just for the Summer”

They traveled from the cold forests and towns
of New England and Canada,
spent the night in hotels in Atlanta,
and did not consider
the family they did not have.
They rented Fords and Nissans
and loaded their luggage in the trunk.
They bought maps at gas stations
and ate breakfast in the car.
They sipped their coffee,
blared Bossa nova,
discussed congressmen,
and made faces at locals in rest stops.
They snapped photographs at the Florida border
and rolled their windows down in Crestview.
They pointed at the peaches, oranges, and cotton.
They opined about old black men, overhauls, and fieldwork,
pointed at tractors and trailers,
and prattled about pesticides.
They were many, but they were two in particular.

The two who arrived
and kicked off their shoes,
and filled their blenders with ice,
their cups with gin and rum,
and said, “to hell with sunscreen.”
They walked hand-in-hand down the shoreline,
these two, marveling

at the baby-powder sand,
he chasing crabs,
she waving off seagulls.
They watched the sun sink
until they mistook where they were,
and, thinking back,
embraced,
his arms around her once-little waste,
hers around his once-broad shoulders;
they became
one
in self-supplication, joined
in prayer to themselves.

It was not until the seventh hour
of the third day
of the second month
that the sadness broke in,
through the back window,
in the darkness,
and made off with joy.

He was told in his dream how he should awake,
she in hers how she should die.
On the day when the skies turned black,
and the waves pummeled the shoreline,
and the creatures stirred and scattered,
there they were, facing the darkness,
two people, vulnerable beneath the heavens,
remembering their future, forgetting their past,
knowing that they didn’t know
what cannot be named.
They stood nowhere
and for something not themselves.

When the winds swallowed them,
they could taste their souls in their mouths.

Five Poems by Simon Perchik

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Poetry, Writing on August 24, 2016 at 6:45 am

Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik is an American poet with published work dating from the 1960s. Perchik worked as an attorney before his retirement in 1980. Educated at New York University, Perchik now resides in East Hampton, New York. Library Journal has referred to Perchik as “the most widely published unknown poet in America.” Best known for his highly personal, non-narrative style of poetry, Perchik’s work has appeared in numerous books, websites, and print magazines, including The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry, The Nation, North American Review, Weave Magazine, Beloit, and CLUTCH.
You still land belly-down
though the mailbox has no key
—what you yank is an envelope

and your hand already in flames
—why now these patrols
waving the children back

while you gag on the gust
and what’s left from your hand
—why only in the rain

then headlong the way each step
moves closer to the sea
becomes those rocks that expect sacrifice

and where you can be found
terrorized by streets boldly in print
yours and theirs, waiting in the open

—you vomit as if its stench
could clog the wound all these years
between one letter and another.

 

*
Now that the sky is homeless
you make your own season
and each morning for just a minute

the snow is not mentioned
—even in summer you set aside
one window for tracks, covered over

and the wind hiding in bells
—you use this makeshift silence
the way a rifle is still aimed

with a deep breath and hold
—it’s not for long, your season
sets up and from its rivers

a blackness flowing, gathering
first as a rain that is not the sky
—it’s new for you, a sister-season

open and bleeding :a minute
rescued from the others
and at each funeral it shows up

ready to party, still young
though you cry out loud for a mouth
for the air that will not come.

 

*
What more proof do you need! jagged
left behind—a beautiful stone
torn to pieces and near its heart

a tiny rock half drift, half moonlight
that blossomed to become the opposite shore
—all these years in the open

though every wave still smells from stone
the way this sea from its start
was never sure, even now a doubt

splashing as your blood or throat
or better yet next time at breakfast
reach out with just your breath

and god-like touch the boiling tea
hold up the evidence, the first wave
and the emptiness it counted on.

 

*
Runners train by it, both my fists
and at the finish line
snap open the way each new moon

still unbeaten uses this flourish
to poke inside these stones
—you can’t hide much longer

and years mean nothing now
dropping back from exhaustion
dragging the dirt behind

—wherever you are I can find you
handful by handful broken apart
for just two fingers calling out

and in front the unyielding ribbon
suddenly dark I can snatch
the breath letting me through.

 

*
Battered though its wings
disappear under your eyelids
and more smoke—this lever

lost its touch, wants out :rusts
the way this wall is kept in place
pulled down on all sides

by old wiring and wrong turns
—always one slice that can’t be saved
though you wear gloves

yank the smoldering cord
so that still warm jacket
is torn open, lets the sun fall

as rain and later—this toaster
reeks from your head thrown back
to see if both eyes move

and the other slice the North Sea
pressing against your hand
for a little more time.

“Sojourn,” Part Ten, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on August 3, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.

 

That evening, they had dinner on the veranda of Neena’s house overlooking the beach. They drove through the narrow, dirt streets to a small villa a few blocks from the restaurant.

The front of Neena’s house was hidden behind high limestone walls; the back opened to the sea. A stray dog poked around near a rubbish pile on the edge of the road, chased the car, barking furiously as they passed. A sulfurous odor of sewer wafted their way and dissipated.  Neena unlocked the gate, then her front door, and showed them in.  The small living room was crowded with overstuffed furniture, spilling over with a haphazard array of trinkets, figurines, ornaments, and the air of something bygone. The carpet was threadbare and the curtains frayed at the edges. Neena sighed, straightened her shoulders, suddenly relaxed.

“Come,” she said and led them out onto the veranda to a table already set for dinner. “A traditional Egyptian meal!” she declared. “Even if Maman was French, I am as Egyptian as they come! And I have prepared the meal myself!  Green peppers and zucchini stuffed with rice, ground beef. And even moulokhiyah!”  The traditional Egyptian soup, Nabil knew, in a colorful ceramic bowel, and of course other smaller bowls of steaming rice on which to pour it, fresh pita bread cut in quarters, a rack of lamb, a bottle of wine, then another, this one red, and yet another, white.

“Local wine,” said Neena. “Not especially memorable, but at least our very own.”

She poured Joanne mineral water, didn’t stop talking, directing her words mostly to Joanne, who remained attentive.

“So quiet?” Neena said to Nabil finally.

“He’s often quiet,” Joanne said.

He said, “I’m still thinking about my reaction at the cemetery. I’m embarrassed about it. Everything here is so alien to me.”

Neena laughed and threw up her hands. “A man you don’t know holding a gun – even if he is just the night watchman and the gun a toy. Très compréhensible.”

Joanne nodded.

Nabil shrugged and said, “The driver mentioned to me there’s word the president will step down tonight.  Rumor is, he’s already left Cairo.”

“Maybe he’s in his beautiful palace in Alexandria,” suggested Neena. “Or the other one in Sharm el Sheikh.  Never enough, darlings.  Same goes for all his cronies and lackeys—palaces, cars, fancy clothes. A gang of thieves.” Abruptly, she rushed to the railing, peered out onto the darkened beachfront.  “Well, speak of the devil!” she said with a laugh. “Out for a stroll are you?”

Abu-Bakr emerged out of the shadows.  “Beautiful evening, no?” He said, leaning his bulk forward against the railing, smiling broadly.

“It certainly was,” said Joanne.

Nabil caught Joanne’s eye, an admonishing glance. Joanne leaned back in her seat, looked over her shoulder at the stretch of beach behind her and the few darkened homes that lined it.

“Such a coincidence,” said Nabil. He wondered how long Abu-Bakr had been lurking in the shadows. He pushed his seat closer to Joanne, threw an arm around her shoulders.

“Please. I do not mean to intrude. Just an evening stroll.”

“A beautiful evening!” declared Neena. “We spent the afternoon at the mausoleum.”

Abu-Bakr nodded and followed Joanne’s gaze across the beach front. “A beautiful country,” said Abu-Bakr wistfully to no one in particular. “I imagine you will be leaving us soon.”

“Too soon!” said Neena. “I don’t know what I will do without my new friends.”

“Zerouni kul-i-sana mara,” said Abu-Bakr.

Neena laughed.  “It is a famous song,” she said by way of explanation to Nabil and Joanne. “She is begging her dear friends to visit her even if just once a year.”

“I know the song,” said Nabil.

“Abu-Bakr, I would invite you to join us, but I’m afraid my friends might object.”

Joanne said, “No objection here. It is the very least we should accommodate for all this security.”

Abu-Bakr smiled again. “How considerate of you. Well, only if you insist.”

“Of course we insist,” said Joanne coolly.

Abu-Bakr gave a half bow before settling himself in an open chair across the table. He reached to accept a bowl of the moulikhaya from Neena, tore off half a loaf of the pita bread, dipped it into the soup and bit off a large chunk.

“Bil hana wa el shifa,” said Nabil.

“Thank you,” said Abu-Bakr. He smacked his lips and wiped them vigorously on a napkin. “You know more Arabic than I would have thought, for one gone so long. And the song, how did you know that?”

“My father used to play it,” said Nabil.

Abu-Bakr shook his head. Smiling almost to himself, he looked up at Neena. “Amazing, no? The way the world works. The father leaves only to have the son return, speaking the language, knowing the songs. Hah!”

“What’s so strange about that?’ said Nabil.

“Not strange. Not strange. Just fate. Fate. You try to get away. You get away. You move half way across the world, maybe you never return. Then years later, there is a return. The circle complete.” He spooned up the moulikhaya rapidly, inhaling it.

“My father immigrated to America,” said Nabil. “Not so unusual an occurrence.”

“Yes. Yes. I understand. It is a figure of speech only. Get away from Egypt, one’s past, a fresh start. It is an old story.”

He paused and regarded Nabil. “Please understand, the present is even more unsettled than the past, no? So many troubles.” He shook his head as if in distress. “Alas. The police can’t be everywhere.”

“From what I hear the police aren’t anywhere,” quipped Neena.

“Some would blame the police for anything, of course,” replied Abu-Bakr, unfazed. He took in Joanne and then Nabil. “Listen. You are the last remaining foreigners here.”

“We will be leaving soon,” said Nabil stiffly.

“Of course. That is expected. But all else, so unpredictable. As for your safety, I do what I can.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” said Joanne.

Abu-Bakr shrugged. “My dear, there is chaos in the cities. People shot dead in the street in Cairo.  Even in Alexandria. Alexandria – just a short drive from here!”

He stood up abruptly and turned to Neena.  “Your food is as delicious as ever, Madam Neena.”

Neena nodded an acknowledgement.

He trotted energetically down the steps. “Safe travels to both of you,” he said to Nabil and Joanne from the bottom of the veranda. “Maybe we will see you here again next year. A regular pilgrimage to one’s past, one’s home, I hope.”

They watched him as he moved past them down the beach.

“What a creep,” muttered Joanne.

Neena sighed and shook her head. “The poor fool. He’s been stationed here for years, keeping an eye on all of us and the tourists. Entirely forgotten by his paymasters. But still such a hopeless chien fidèle.”

“You sound deeply sympathetic, Neena,” said Joanne.

Neena smiled and shook her head. “How can I not be just a little? In the past he has proclaimed himself my protector. I think he is a small bit in love with poor old Neena.”

Joanne shook her head. “You deserve so much better than that.”

Neena looked at Joanne with mock deliberation. “Perhaps I could see it as my penance. A punishment of sorts. Tolerate his heaving and sweating and pawing in that way.” She threw her head back and laughed. “The dog image again!” She put her face in her hands, laughing even more, Nabil and Joanne with her.

After that, for a few minutes, they all sat quietly, a moment of tranquility settling in with the sound of the waves lapping the shore. Eventually, Neena stood and started to clear the dinner table. Nabil got to his feet to assist her, but she waved him down. “My guests don’t do my work,” she said, scolding. “Anyway, let’s go inside for coffee.

Neena emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with tiny cups and a brass kanaka with the Turkish coffee. She set the tray down on the living room table by the couch and poured the coffee, thick, black, an aroma of cardamom.

“You are too alone here, Neena,” Joanne proclaimed, resting her head on Nabil’s shoulder.

“That is why you must not leave. Ever!”

“What about your friend. The woman who used to come by the restaurant. Someone you grew close to. Whatever happened to her?”

Neena started to hand Joanne her cup but paused for a moment. “Will this be too strong for you, darling?”

Joanne shook her head. “It’s fine.”

“It was such a long time ago. But I have never forgotten. She was killed. A tragic accident.”

“An accident?” said Nabil.

Neena passed Nabil his coffee. She paused a moment and then settled herself in a chair across from them.

“Her husband said he was teaching her to swim. He said they got caught in the undertow.” She sighed. “I never met her husband. She talked about him.  She was unhappy. And of course I had grown to love her madly. It is my way, no. The desert always seemed like the safest place for secrets, but this town, this town…”  Her voice drifted off. “And my love always too loud.” Neena stopped and shook her head. “I knew she wanted to get away. She told me and so we devised crazy, desperate plans. Impossible plans – we would leave together for Alexandria, disappear there for a while, and then catch a ship across the waters to France or Italy or Spain.”

“Did you?” said Joanne.

“We didn’t get very far. Not very far at all. Not even out of town. He stripped her, shackled her to the bed. Left her like that the whole night. She called me after that. She said she loved me.”

Joanne leaned forward towards Neena. “Did you ever see her again?”

Neena shook her head. “No. Never.” She stopped, gazed blankly at the space in front of her. “There was a young boy,” she said finally. “One time she brought him with her to the restaurant. We sat in the dining room talking and the boy slipped into the kitchen, made friends with the chef, stuffed himself full of desserts and sweets. She was so upset when she realized what had happened. Then she was furious at me when I couldn’t stop laughing.”

Nabil stood up. He was suddenly tired of Neena’s company, claustrophobic in her cramped living room.

Will I see you again?” Neena cried. There was something wild in her eyes. “Will I see you? I must see you before you go.”

 

*

 

Nabil dreamed of a head of thick, black hair gripped forcibly under water. A sudden frenzy, a burst of movement, in a choppy ocean on a sunny day.  He woke gasping for breath, got out of bed and dressed hastily. The house was silent, in darkness. He called out for Joanne but got no response. Outside on the patio the beach stretched before him, a crescent of silver merging with the blackness of the sea. In the moonlight, he could see fleeting white caps in the distance, an illusion of still life rolling in the small waves that breached the shoreline. He peered again into the water, called her name as he rushed out onto the sand, searched for a shadow in the waves, and then scoured the moonlit dunes in the distance. Abu-Bakr’s words preyed on his mind.

“Joanne!” He was shouting now, his voice hollow, toneless, an echo.

“I’m here,” she called finally from somewhere on the stretch of dark shore.

“Where?”

“Here,” she called again. “Are you afraid? Don’t you recognize me? The faded cotton dress. Miles of nothing. I won’t move until you can see me.”

The End

“Sojourn,” Part Nine, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 27, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.
On the third evening they received a note from Neena by way of the front office. Nabil tore open the envelope – a smell of lavender, the writing in fountain pen, sloping unevenly in a loose cursive down the single page.

“Mes chers, il est  inimaginable to leave without seeing the cemetery. It is where worlds collided. What is left,” said Nabil reading out loud. He stopped. Shook his head. “I don’t trust her,” he said.

“She’s just a lonely old woman,” Joanne said.  “How can we refuse?”

They were sitting on the patio, a simple dinner of a green salad, a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese, half consumed, the sea a black vastness before them, a bite to the late evening air.

“We just say no.”

“One day that could be me. Alone on my father’s ranch. Chasing chickens across a dirt yard. Staring out onto miles of nothing.”

“Barefoot,” added Nabil.

“Of course, barefoot.”

“Faded cotton dress.”

“Yes and still pregnant,” said Joanne. “A very, very long pregnancy. A fossil.”

She paused for a moment. “What do you want to do Nabil?”

“I don’t know. I’ve not wanted to think about it.” He stood and started picking up their plates.

“It’s not a decision I will make alone Nabil. I could but I won’t.”

 

*

 

Chérie, I have missed you so,” Neena said.  Joanne climbed into the car next to her.  They embraced as Nabil climbed in on the other side.  Neena hugged him tightly.  Suddenly she groaned and said, “It’s only been two days, but it feels like an eternity. How quickly I have grown in need of your company. It is truly frightening. Mon Dieu!”

“Frightening,” Nabil said.

“Be nice,” Joanne said lightly.

The driver, oblivious, guided the gray Fiat down the long road to the highway.

Neena slipped on her dark sunglasses and said, “When you didn’t show the other night, I thought, oh dear, I have scared them away. I can do that you know. I get so involved in the moment I forget how uncomfortable I can make people. That’s why the desert suits me—fleeting contact—no chance for the crazy Neena to be too crazy. But then I got so sad. I thought, “But I may never see them again, never set eyes on their sweet faces again.”  She laughed and squeezed Joanne’s arm. “Or in Nabil’s case, never see those moody, black eyes.”

Nabil smiled briefly at her.

The driver, a withdrawn, gaunt man in his mid-thirties whom Nabil recognized as one of the restaurant workers, drove faster, speeding down the deserted highway, west towards Alexandria.

Nabil gazed out the window as they passed a desolate tract of land beyond the edge the town, a few limestone brick homes dotting the arid terrain, a man in a donkey cart urging the emaciated animal forward with a stick. On the side of the road, a child ran past an empty school ground, propelling a bicycle wheel ahead of him with a metal rod. Nabil leaned back slightly and tried to catch Joanne’s eye, but she was peering out her window as the driver slowed abruptly and edged past a parked row of military vehicles on the side of the road.  A cluster of soldiers in green fatigues stood idly by, one of them waving them forward with his rifle.

Shortly they turned off the highway onto an older dusty road for about a quarter mile to the cemetery and came to a stop at the edge of an empty gravel parking lot. Joanne stepped out of the car and stretched in the sunlight. Nabil helped Neena climb out of the backseat.

“Thank you, darling,” she said, pulling at her black dress. “I always wear black when I come to this place.”

The driver stayed behind smoking a cigarette by the car while they walked together down a gravel path to the front court of the cemetery. They climbed a broad flight of steps to the limestone mausoleum, some 200 feet wide, and then passed through three arches into the marble interior. There they were shielded from the sunlight and could look out at an unimpeded view of the immense cemetery and beyond that the desert. Their footsteps echoed on the Travertine marble floor.  Neena pointed out the bronze words memorializing the dead. And on the walls more names on Portland stone.

Below them lay the dead; row upon row of neatly spaced headstones, over 7,000 in all. From England and France, Poland, Greece and Australia. At the far end of the cemetery, Neena pointed out the towering Cross of Sacrifice.

They descended the steps into the cemetery proper. There was little vegetation around them, nothing but desert between the rows of headstones.  A breeze off the coast brought with it the sudden scent of eucalyptus and jasmine. Neena led them past the white-washed headstones. “There are other, smaller memorials,” she explained, “the Italian and German sites are a few miles down the highway. But this place is like no other. Le plus grand, le plus dévastateur.”

“All these young men!” she shouted over the wind. “Could they have ever dreamed they would end up here, miles and miles and miles from anything that resembles home?” She put her hands to her face, shook her head in expressive despair, the breeze tugging her simple black dress. She wore a scarf over her hair to protect it from the sand and wind.

Nabil noticed her sandals, noticed how pale her feet and calves were, fragile blue veins traversing the sides and back of the exposed skin, as if she had never been in sunlight. She stooped to pick up random litter blown there off the road, and he saw her suddenly as a homeless woman, one of the small army wandering the streets of San Francisco.

Joanne took Neena’s arm and they strolled back through the deserted, sprawling cemetery, bending to read the inscriptions, conversing in private, hushed tones.

Nabil noticed that the driver watched them from the top of the steps, leaning as if casually against the back wall of the mausoleum. The driver lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the golden light.  He caught Nabil’s eye and gave a half salute.  “Natural enough,” thought Nabil, but it made him uneasy. The sprawling cemetery was deserted. The hot wind kicked up dust devils in the paths between the maze of headstones.  Nabil shielded his eyes. A second man had joined the driver, this one dressed in a brown galabeya, a rifle strapped over his shoulder.  The two of them were chatting comfortably. The driver offered the other man a cigarette, struck a match for him, cupped his hands to protect the flame.

Beyond the cemetery, Nabil could see a thin, blue strip of coastline. Everywhere else was the vast, brooding desert, impenetrable. He knew how they all must appear—foreigners in a foreigner’s cemetery.

Joanne and Neena laughed, far away.  They’d walked as far as the Cross of Sacrifice.

Joanne waved.

Nabil glanced back up towards the mausoleum. The driver was not in sight. The man in the galabeya with the gun was alone, watching them.

“Let’s go,” Nabil cried out to Joanne and Neena. He started to run towards them. “We should go. We should leave now.”

To be continued….

“Sojourn,” Part Eight, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 13, 2016 at 8:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.

 

For the next two days they stayed in the hotel compound, cooked their meals in the beach house and ate there. In the late afternoon as the heat abated they made love before dinner and then again after, the windows to their bedroom pulled open, the smell and sounds of the sea wafting through.

“I showed you my past,” she said, propping herself up against the headboard. “I figured that gave me the right to barge into yours.”

“You were a little relentless,” said Nabil with a smile. From the beginning Joanne had pursued him with a self-confidence that at first alarmed him, but which eventually he accepted as emblematic of her. “You know, I had people vouch for your sanity.”

“Of course I knew that!” She laughed. “But I was sworn to secrecy; the Flemmings, the Castillos, Steve Pullman and his ridiculous fiancée who kept looking at me with this awful expression dripping with fake sympathy. Well, I honestly didn’t care what you thought. So polite. Reticent. Please. I grew up with a bunch of tobacco chewing rednecks. You think I was going to be so easily turned away?”

One Thanksgiving, he’d driven with her into that very epicenter of her childhood memory: Hooker, Oklahoma. They’d flown into Oklahoma City and then driven their rented car across miles of flat land, then rolling hills, plenty of scrub grass and red dirt, and finally funneling into the narrow strip of panhandle to her father’s ranch. The John Lee Casey homestead was announced with its own towering wood archway emblazoned with the letters JLC, and then Nabil was in front of John Lee Casey himself, all 6 foot 3 inches of him, Wrangler jeans and checkered western shirt and, of course, alligator boots and a silver belt buckle that looked like a weapon.

“Your father sized me up as if I was some exotic life form.”

“Well, you are.  And so’s my mother, because she’s from Tulsa. Anyway, he’d never seen an Ayrab before.”

“Imagine that!” Nabil laughed.

“Now he asks after you all the time.”

“You got laid under his moose heads and embalmed squirrels.”

“You got laid too, towel-head.”

Nabil had been given his own bedroom, graciously adorned with various hunting trophies and other memorabilia of formerly living creatures. Joanne had climbed into his bed and mounted him, and he had willingly bucked and heaved and groaned and came and yippeed his way into the early morning light, ascending on the glorious town of Hooker.

Far away Nabil thought he heard a muted thud. A faint boom.

“You had a home, a place to show me, my hillbilly,” Nabil said trying not to sound too serious.  But he was.  He was very serious:  “That’s the difference. There is no such place for me.”

“This is that place,” she said emphatically.

To be continued….

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