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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….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 6, 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.

 

The Australian took his chances at the airport. The German couple decided at the last moment to go with him. The Chinese tour group was gone, too, piling into a minivan which appeared one morning outside the hotel lobby, the driver cross-checking the names with a printed list on his clipboard.  Even most of the vacationing locals packed up and headed home, although a few families remained in the beach houses on the hotel grounds. Nabil would pass them as he walked along the stretch of beach leading up to the hotel proper, hearing fragments of Arabic. There remained a scattering of families from around Egypt, the parents drinking coffee quietly on the small patios overlooking the beach, watching their children play by the shore.

Every afternoon Nabil  saw more army convoys rumbling west down the highway; at night he and Joanne heard the percussive whomp whomp of military helicopters overhead, and the shriek of fighter aircraft flying low. In their isolation, these random bursts of mechanized rage were Nabil and Joanne’s connection to the unrest in the cities. The country was in turmoil; the police had disappeared from the streets; in every major city the violence was escalating. Cell phone coverage was intermittent at best, the Internet cut off entirely. Joanne got through to the American embassy in Cairo and requested advice. She was informed that if she could get to the consulate in Alexandria, perhaps something could be done to get her out of the country. But there were no guarantees beyond that. The prospect of making their way into Alexandria seemed terrifying especially to Nabil. He imagined them caught up in the tempest, their American passports a liability, his place of birth an added vulnerability. The thought that he could somehow be separated from Joanne only heightened the anxiety. They agreed to wait things out. Another week of vacation ahead of them, after which they could reconsider. An eerie quiet had settled over the resort premises. A skeleton crew of staff remained, and the service dwindled to non-existent. In the hotel proper the halls were deserted. When Nabil and Joanne wandered through one morning, the marble foyer echoed with their footsteps.

They availed themselves of long walks on the beach. In the distance the white sand dunes merged into the expanse of desert. The sky was a diaphanous blue and unyielding. By midday the glare of the sun was blinding. As they ambled west across a stretch of dunes, away from the shoreline and further into the desert, a lone hawk circled overhead, hunting, unnerving Nabil, escalating the feeling of emptiness around them.

Joanne laughed at his trepidation and said, “I’m entirely at peace with this isolation.”

“It’s the plains in you,” Nabil said defensively. “Space for the sake of space. But even you left.”

“I loved the space,” she said pensively. “I hated the emptiness. I’m not empty here. I imagine you as a little boy. It’s incredible to me that you were once here.”

“I don’t remember much.”

“You choose not to remember much.”

“I told you what I remember. One day she was here, the next she was dead. I was a kid. I remember a funeral and sometime later, weeks, months, I’m not sure, leaving. Flying across the world to a new country. All this put to rest. No pictures saved. Nothing.  A clean break. What would you remember of your childhood without stories and pictures?”

He pulled up suddenly.  His eyes scoured the empty skies as the screeching of a fighter jet somewhere in the distance shattered the still air.

To be continued….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on June 29, 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.

 

At the end of another of these evenings—there were no other evenings to be had—Neena invited them to linger. “A nightcap. Just the three of us,” she said.

Abu-Bakr had left earlier than usual that night, exclaiming loudly that there were signs the unrest was spreading and he had to attend to business, and then he strode military style out of the bar. To which Joanne had quipped within ear-shot, “Working. Imagine that.”  But with him gone, both Joanne and Nabil could relax and enjoy their moment with Neena.

Behind the bar, Neena poured Nabil a scotch, a cognac for herself.

“Just mineral water for me,” said Joanne.

Neena tilted her head, eyed Joanne for a moment. “I have noticed this before, but now I am sure. My dear, you are pregnant.”

Nabil smiled, nodded.

“Mon Dieu! Félicitations! Mabrouk!””

“Thank you,” replied Joanne stiffly.

“Not exactly planned,” added Nabil.

“A little complicated,” Joanne said.

Neena made a face and shook her head. “How complicated is it? The process well understood, no?” She laughed, said, “Ah oui. Je comprends. You are not together, really together in that way. Not married.”

She poured Joanne’s mineral water. “No alcohol. The hardest part about being pregnant,” she said. “But I still adored it. How far? Can’t be too far?”

“Just barely,” said Joanne. “A few weeks only.”

“My daughter. She is in Canada now. She came back many years ago after her father died, for his funeral. Agreed to see me. Briefly.”

Suddenly the glass panes in the doors to the terrace rattled as if they might shatter in their frames and there was the roar of fighter jets overhead, low and deafening.

Joanne cried out and Nabil gathered her in. For a moment they both looked to the ceiling.

Neena slumped in her seat; her face sank in her hands. “Who knows what will happen,” she said, when the jets had passed. “Will it be better? True, everywhere across the country it is terrible. Getting worse. No freedom. No future. But here in this small corner of the desert we drink, we sing, we dance. A small victory. My only victory.”

Joanne watched her closely. She had told Nabil that she liked Neena. She saw in Neena something of her own restlessness. She reached out and touched Neena’s hand. Neena responded, immediately taking Joanne’s hands in her own. “You could leave,” Joanne said. “Your daughter in Canada. How lucky she would be!”

Neena, who had been taking in Joanne with a warm gaze, threw back her head and laughed. “My daughter would not be feeling lucky,” she said. “I am too careless for her. She is like her father. He comes from a family of masons. They all love laying one perfect brick on top of the other. Careful does it. Careful does it. Doesn’t really matter what is being built, just as long as it’s straight and strong and the pieces all fit perfectly and the mortar isn’t making a mess. No unseemly edges. I am too unseemly.”

She stopped and shook her head, her face suddenly lit up with the urgency to make a point. “Did I tell you my mother was from Paris? I kept in touch with a few relatives there. And yes I thought at one point I might go there. I did in fact. Not for long though. I came back. You think you are from somewhere. Convince yourself of that. But not really. Suddenly you are just where you are. I caught the plane to Paris in Alexandria. I hadn’t been back to Alexandria for a long time, but each time I return I hardly recognize it. No. Seriously. It just keeps getting worse. I keep thinking how can it get worse? How can it get more crowded, more polluted, dirtier, more open sewers, more grime everywhere? How? But it does. It always surprises me. A talent really. An amazing gift for decline. So then I was really excited to leave. And when the plane took off, I said finally out of here. Gone. And I land in Paris and there is cooler air, cleaner streets, order, a beginning and end to the day. Each morning I get up in my little rented apartment. I make coffee, but it isn’t like the coffee I know. It isn’t mud. I tell myself I am sure I can find my coffee. I just have to look and find an Arab or Turkish store. In Paris they must be everywhere. Outside the streets are cleaner, there is no dust, no open sewers. El dinya nadeefa. Al aalam nadeef. No donkey carts pulling an open carriage with wares. But people hardly look at you as you walk past them. And there is the texture and smell of metal everywhere, steel, the glint of it, sunlight distilled to nothing, sharp as a knife, without warmth. That is what starts to strike me. The night rolls in. The lights go off. Each person in their own small cubicle. Their own prison. Isolement. That’s when I start to miss this place. Miss the desert. The smells, the merging of night and day, of water and sand, of past and present. I returned. Je suis revenue. Alone. Hina fee beity. Home.”

Joanne shifted in her seat. “I can see why you love this place,” she said. “Besides, with the restaurant you have no time to feel lonely.”

Neena brought her hands, which had been flying about, back to her lap. “The restaurant is failing. It has been for too long. No one cares anymore about the battlegrounds and the cemeteries. Those that did are themselves dying. I imagine them fading away in nursing homes all over gray Europe. Mon Dieu—but there were so many good years!”

“Your husband,” said Nabil. “How about him? How did he feel about this place?”

“My late husband. No. We lived apart for many years before he died. He stayed in Alexandria, with my daughter.”

A wave of irritation swept over Nabil. “So you just moved out here. One day you said, “I’ll leave my husband and daughter and move to the desert, build a restaurant.”

Joanne threw Nabil a hostile glance, but if Neena took offence at his words she didn’t show it. “You must understand some of this,” she said. “This not belonging. Then also perhaps I was not meant to be a wife to any man.”

She took the empty glass from Nabil’s hand. “Another?”

Nabil shook his head. She walked their glasses to the sink behind the bar.

“But I did not always feel alone here. One summer, soon after I started the restaurant, I met a young woman.” She had her back to them, rinsing the dishes. “She was from Alexandria. She used to stop by the restaurant every summer she was here with her family. She spoke French, which was nice. She was beautiful and lonely and there was a certain understanding. An attraction we couldn’t deny. We became close. I would look forward to the summers just to see her. We’d exchange letters the rest of the year. She wouldn’t let me visit her in Alexandria, but here, here it was different. She hated this place, and I was her reprieve.” Neena stopped, smiled, shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Stories. Too many stories. I could keep you up all night with them.”

Nabil stood up suddenly.  “It’s late,” he said. “We should go.”

Neena regarded him for a moment. “Not so late, Nabil. Mais bien. I’ll see you tomorrow night, though,” she said, then added quickly, “and please, please the cemeteries. You can’t leave without seeing the cemeteries.”

To be continued….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on June 22, 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.

 

Nabil stood by the French windows and gazed out onto the beach. “We’ll stay put for now,” he said. “We’re safe here. Who knows what it will be like in Alexandria.” He imagined the airport shut down, the pressing crowds at the terminals.

“I don’t know,” said Joanne. “We’ve come all this way. We can still travel around like we’d planned. The whole country can’t be shut down.” She paused. “Besides, who knows when we will have this time alone together again? Just the two of us.”

Nabil said nothing.

“Nabil. You know we’ll need to decide soon,” she added hesitantly. “By the time we get back to the States.”

Nabil nodded. His eyes tracked the turbulent wake of a police motor boat, flag fluttering furiously in the head wind, as it cut through the waters off the hotel, then disappeared behind a swathe of massive sand dunes along the coastline.

They were at Neena’s every evening, something to occupy the long nights. They had come to recognize the few remaining tourists from the resort.  Abu-Bakr would always swagger in late, perch on his barstool and survey the scene. He never touched alcohol, just ordered a steady stream of coffee, tea, and water.  Neena made her grand entrance, the same every night, stopping by each table, lingering with Nabil and Joanne. At the end of one evening, struggling to sustain the mood amid her dwindling clientele, she set up a microphone at the far end of the bar, and sang along with Edith Piaf, Frehel, Jacqueline François, Gilbert Bécaud. She had a nice voice, swayed to the music as she sang, and seemed to lose herself for a while. By closing time she was clearly drunk, steadying herself against a chair, propping her wispy frame against the bar, pouring another glass of her favorite red wine.

But both Nabil and Joanne looked forward to the nightly stroll to Neena’s, the sun low on the horizon, the searing white bleakness of the desert in midday now transmogrified by the setting sun into a tumultuous blaze of red and orange, and a turquoise hue coalescing in the distance.  And once there, his first drink ordered, Nabil would feel the weight of the day’s anxieties lift slowly.  He was secure in the cool depth of the bar. Even Abu-Bakr – his way of imposing himself into their midst – ebbed into the shadowy recesses of the bar.

“This is what happens when you stay and stay and stay, so long that you can’t imagine leaving,” Neena confided to Nabil and Joanne. She was tearful, her face distorted in the dim light. “I am going bankrupt. Soon I will have nothing! Nothing!” She said this holding her arms out to them, a moment later clasping her hands to her chest, a broken sob escaping her lips, her head hung despondently.

“My dear Neena! What’s all this?’ said Abu-Bakr, dislodging himself from the bar stool and pulling a seat up to their table. “Why the tears. Always tears. Then too much laughter. Then tears. It is always one or the other with you, no?”

“The country is on fire,” she snapped at him. “And what are you doing? You the big police chief. You and your friends who got us to this point.”

“We each do what we can. Why I am here every night, no?” replied Abu-Bakr curtly. “Keeping a close eye on everything. Everything! Keeping chaos from swallowing us up. Making sure no trouble-makers hiding here or there. Provocateurs. Destroyers of our country.”

Joanne laughed out loud. “Really?” she said. “That’s your job? That’s what you’ve been doing?”

Nabil glared at her and shook his head sharply.

Abu-Bakr smiled. “We adapt with the times, no? Just like our friends in America. They dance with us when the times are good, waltz away when the times are bad. Proclaim their innocence. Always their innocence.”

Neena shrugged, stood up abruptly, and said to Abu -Bakr “Vous m’ennuyez!” Then she brushed past him. She changed the CD.  Tempo now fast and furious.

“The Gypsy Kings.” Joanne exclaimed happily. “Bamboleo. I love that song,”

Abu-Bakr rose, held a fat paw out to her. “So a dance?” he asked. “Nothing cheers old Neena up like the sight of good friends dancing.”

“I think we are all too tired for dancing,” Nabil interjected.

Joanne didn’t respond; she kept her arms folded in front of her.

Abu-Bakr ignored Nabil and persisted, “Or are you afraid? Will you run away?”

Joanne stared at him.

“Maybe another time,” said Nabil.

Joanne laughed, rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said. “Why not?”

She swung past Abu-Bakr, and he turned on his heels after her, caught up to her and pulled her close  He tried to spin her around the small open area in front of the bar, moved jerkily with her across the floor, his glistening face almost touching hers. She rested her hands gingerly on his shoulders, avoiding the two large stains soaking his shirt.  Like a songbird on the back of a lunging rhinoceros, Nabil thought.  He started to get up, but Neena waved him down, took it upon herself: “Let her go you buffoon!  Dégoûtant! She’s drowning in your sweat.”

Abu-Bakr pulled up short, let his hands fall off Joanne’s waist and stepped back. He turned to Joanne, palms up, and offered an exaggerated bow.

But Joanne glared at him, turned on her high heels, and strode straight to Nabil.  “Air,” she said.

“Perhaps I am not a good enough dancer,” said Abu-Bakr as he followed Joanne back to the table. “I am, as they say, self-taught.”

“You are, as they say, a fool,” said Neena sharply. “Take her out to the terrace Nabil. A nice breeze. Away from all this.”

“Let’s go,” said Nabil. He tried to put his arms around Joanne’s shoulders, but she shrugged him off.

On the terrace, in the moonlight, Nabil turned his back to the sea and leaned against the wooden railing. He said, “That fat fuck.”

“Oh please,” Joanne said. “I could give a damn. Just with all of you sitting around it felt like a spectacle.”

She turned away from him and clicked to the end of the terrace. Nabil followed, stood behind her, neither close nor far.

She peered out over the Mediterranean, white caps out there.  Finally, she said, “I don’t mind staying here.” She held herself tight. “I don’t mind one bit. I don’t need to go anywhere else.”

“Let’s see how things go,” Nabil said.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“Maybe there will be trains out of Alexandria and we can get to Cairo. Figure things out from there.”  He put a hand on her waist.

She shook her head, brushed windswept hair from her eyes. “It’s just fine with me to stay for now. Can’t imagine that it’s any better anywhere else.” She took a deep breath and peered out at the water that was dappled in the moonlight.  “Let’s go back in.”

In the bar the German couple was sitting at a table in the back and talking with worried intensity. The Australian hiker had dozed off in a corner, his sunburned legs and scruffy boots stretched out in front of him, his chin on his chest. A small contingent of Chinese tourists had stood up from their table to leave. Neena was nowhere in sight.

Abu-Bakr was sitting on his stool at the bar and waved them over. He looked at Nabil and then Joanne, a contrite expression on his face.  “I’m very sorry. Very sorry. I did not mean to upset. Truly. Please sit a while” The television was broadcasting images from Cairo, where traffic was moving smoothly across the Kasr El Nil Bridge. At the bar, Nabil placed himself between Abu-Bakr and Joanne.  “Nothing about the protests?” Nabil said.  “Never a word.”

Abu-Bakr laughed. “This orchestrated coup against the government will never work,” he said. “They like to bark; they like the sound of their own barking. When did you say you were last in Egypt?”

“I left when I was ten. A long time ago,” said Nabil.

“Yes, you have been gone too long. You don’t understand Egyptians anymore. I, sir, have lived here my whole life. I have been in this town for more than two decades! I know police work and I know people. These people you see demonstrating on television, it means nothing. Anyway, believe me, people are fundamentally cowards, even here in Egypt. They say a lot of things. Yes, sometimes they even do things. Sometimes terrible things. Then they run away. They pack up, they take their daughter, their son, whomever, and they run away. Sometimes to America, no?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at,” replied Nabil.

Abu-Bakr adjusted his rear in the stool, which groaned, and he gazed past Nabil at Joanne, who was sitting stony faced. “My dear Joanne, my dear, All-American Joanne.  I am not the enemy. Please understand, I speak the truth. We here are complacent. Of course we are. We have been tamed by the whip, by poverty, by the centuries, by the cattle prod in the rectum. We are a hollow shell of a people, the detritus of history. There is nothing we won’t accept. Beat us and we will crawl. Yell and we will scuttle away.”

Joanne waited a few beats and said, “I think that’s pretty pathetic.”

He yawned and stretched his arms out in front of him. He seemed pleased with his monologue.

“Well,” Nabil said.  “It’s getting late.”

Abu-Bakr looked at Joanne and a sleepy smile crept over his face. “You are a believer, no? You believe in human energy, in the transformative ability of the human spirit, in the capacity of man to alter his fate and the course of human events. A can-do spirit! Manifest Destiny! The western frontier! How precious. How American. Here we have been slogging the same slice of narrow terrain for thousands of years. That is our frontier.”

The cleaning lady came out from the kitchen carrying a large rubber container for the dirty dishes. Abu-Bakr waved her over. “An example,” he said to Joanne.

“No,” Nabil said. “That’s enough.”

“But please,” Abu-Bakr said. “It is important I make things clear.  Mounira—come over here.”

Mounira approached hesitantly, a wavering smile on her face. “What! You think I am going to bite?” Abu-Bakr said to her. “You speak a little English, yes. I just have a question for you.”

Mounira nodded.

“My friends here are visiting from America. You know USA! USA! USA!”

Mounira nodded again. “They want to know the way to the Statue of Liberty. You know the famous one I’m talking about. Where is it exactly? Down the highway somewhere?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Before Marsa Matrouh?”

“A few miles before. A couple of towns before.”

“Thanks Mounira,” said Abu-Bakr. “Now that wasn’t so bad!”

After she left he turned to Joanne and said, “See what I mean. Statue of Liberty. She has no clue. Just, yes sir. Absolutely sir. Anything you say sir.”

“That’s absurd,” said Joanne. “She’s probably thinking you are an idiot. She’s humoring your stupidity.”

In the shadows by the kitchen entrance, Nabil saw Mounira staring back at them.

Abu-Bakr wagged a finger at Joanne. Under his breath he chanted: “USA!  USA!”

“That’s enough,” Nabil said.

To be continued…

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