Thursday, December 29, 2011

Earlier this year—just a few months ago, actually—I did a calculation regarding my aging mother, my very old dog, Kate, and my old cat, Memphis. Accounting for human years, dog years, and cat years, they were all in their late 80s. There is grief, and there is anticipatory grief, and I experienced some of the latter when I reckoned up the numbers.

I should rush to point out the problems with an implication that the grief over the loss a pet can be equated to the loss of one’s mother, or any person close to us. Rather, I will write that the calculation had me thinking about grief when it occurs in clusters.

I’m not going to write here about my mother, who died in September. I’ve done that already, elsewhere and am glad I did. Instead, I want to write about the love of pets. My love of pets.

(Careful readers of Right Hand Pointing, the online journal I founded and have edited for nearly 8 years, will recall (and be amused) that I specifically exclude writings about one’s pets in the submission guidelines. Fate, and Cortney Bledsoe have intersected to hand me a little punishment for that callousness.)

We decided to have Kate euthanized in November. She was old and suffering and was helped in life and into death by her fine veterinarian. Sad, indeed, but, you know, a long life, etc.

I’m writing this at 3:00 a.m. as Christmas approaches, awake because of a dose of night air and adrenaline. Here’s the story. Memphis, the cat, is 17. She’s got renal insufficiency. Lately she’s been walking around the house, crying loudly and in an unfamiliar way. It’s the sound I can only associate with a feline in heat, and I’m confident that she’s not in heat. I took her to the vet today and he assured me he could find nothing to lead him to believe that she is in pain. Her crying, he said, was probably the result of a touch of cat dementia, maybe some transient discomfort. Otherwise, he said, apart from the kidney problems, she appears in decent shape for an old cat. I drove her home and let her out of the car to spend a little time in the unseasonable warm we had today.

We have family with us for the holiday and they brought their dog Louise. Great dog. Louise had just slipped out of the house through an unlatched door and we didn’t realize she was in the yard. She went after Memphis, as her species is prone to do, and it was a terrifying thing to see. I was sure Louise was killing Memphis. My daughter and I finally broke up the fight. Memphis looked completely dazed and traumatized. I brought her in and put her under observation. When she seemed settled down and unhurt, I let her out to pee in the yard. She never leaves the yard. Hours later, she was missing. I walked the neighborhood before bedtime with a flashlight.

At 2:30 a.m. I woke. Still, she was not on the porch. Unheard of. I got dressed, backed my car out of the driveway and searched the neighborhood. I had a bad feeling. I feared she had died from internal injuries or that, traumatized, she had run away. As Christmas approaches in a few days, I feared we would all be anxious and grieving. I felt guilty for not keeping her away from the dog. For not returning her immediately to the vet. For letting her outside after the fight and then again, later, to pee.

The climax of the story is anticlimactic. When I pulled up in the driveway, feeling miserable, there she was, petitioning for reentry. I scooped her up and I thought about our love for pets. Actually, what I thought was "I love this cat."

A few years ago I was in Boston visiting Harvard and attended a Mark Doty reading at the Harvard Bookstore. It was from Dog Years, his wonderful book about the dogs that were his companions during the loss of his lover to HIV/AIDS. During the Q&A a man said, “Here’s what I don’t understand about you dog people, or you cat people, either. You get the pet. You develop this bond. The pet lives a relatively short life and dies. You go through this grief. And then, what do you do? You get another pet and go through it all again.”

We all chuckled, but not Mark Doty. He thought for about two seconds and said, “The agreement to participate in this life is a pact with grief. Isn’t it?”

My mother’s body lies in Grant County, Arkansas. Kate’s ashes are—I don’t know where they are, actually. Memphis sits with me on the couch, interfering with my ability to operate the computer mouse by nuzzling my mouse hand, looking for me to scratch her chin. In nine days, New Year’s Day.

* * *

Dale Wisely is the founding editor of Right Hand Pointing and also co-founded and co-edits White Knuckle Press (digital chapbooks of prose poems, and the new journal (topical poetry, Day job: He has been a clinical psychologist for 30 years and currently serves as Director of Student Services at Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama.

Monday, December 26, 2011

I might've been 5, 6. Dad was 3 sheets to the wind. I remember him standing in the southwest corner of the living room holding a beer, grinning with his cap pushed back. There was a knock on the door, and Uncle Wheelbarrow came in, dressed as Santa Claus. He was carrying a glass of something dark and evil-smelling. I imagine it was bourbon because that was a favorite drink of my father and his friends. Mom had her arms crossed, and, as Dad got a chair for Uncle Wheelbarrow, declared she was going to bed. She made a brief argument that it was time for me to go as well, but Dad repelled this attack, and she steamed away to bed.

"Come sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas, little boy," Uncle Wheelbarrow said. I didn't want to. Before, I hadn't wanted to go to bed, but now, I'd have given anything to be out of there, even if it meant going to bed early on Christmas Eve.

"Come on, Boy," Dad said.

I sat on Uncle Wheelbarrow's lap. His bear was coming off. He still held the glass of liquor, and it sloshed and spilled on his leg, making him curse: "Sit still!" I was terrified. There was no novelty in this, only confusion about the rules of a game I didn't understand. Uncle Wheelbarrow leaned over me, his hot breath in my ear. "Tell Santa what you want for Christmas."

Here was something every child understands: when the strange man in the red suit asks what you want, it's time to unleash the greed. I listed some things--I don't remember what, exactly. The last thing I said was a Nerf football.

"Football?" Uncle Wheelbarrow roared. "What's wrong with you? Don't you want a woman, Boy?"

I may have started crying; whatever happened, Dad deemed it no longer funny, and I was sent to bed.

* * *

Again, maybe I was 6, though this was a ritual we repeated every year. Christmas Eve, my sister and I snuck into our brother's room and stole his longest socks. We raided the kitchen for treats -- oranges, almonds. Julie had managed to acquire candy bars, so we stuck them in. We drew pictures for everyone and put those in, as well, until the socks were full. Then we hung them and waited for Christmas morning.

Dad's best friend, an old army buddy named James Kennedy, gave us giant trash bags full of presents when we were younger. It was like manna from heaven: toys, games, never clothes, culminating in a box full of quarters he'd saved all year. This was our college fund. Christmas morning while Dad was working, Julie and I would sit on the floor by the tree counting quarters. There was usually a couple hundred dollars worth. When the bank opened, we'd take it all and watch it slide through the change counter.

* * *

Christmas Eve, I'd come home from college to see a girl I used to go out with. I went to a party with her, but things went bad. I went home and slept on Dad's couch until he woke, after dawn, then I headed out, back to college, ahead of a big storm. I made it to Ozark when I hit the ice, slid around backwards, and careened off the road into a tree. I managed to get the car back on the road and limped along until a patrol car came and pointed out that my axle was bent. The policewoman gave me a ride to the station after the car was towed. An old convict fed me Christmas dinner -- turkey and stuffing. The cop took me to a motel where I spent the next two days until my friends, who were stranded along various parts of the interstate as well, could come. Arkansas was frosted with a blanket of ice. I read Flannery O'Connor, and an ex-girlfriend I'd dumped called to check on me.

* * *

Last night, I played with Ellie in front of Jillian's parents' Christmas tree. Jillian and her father played a duet in the other room -- Jillian on violin, her father on piano, while I dive-bombed Ellie with a stuffed-chicken. She squealed and laughed every time I brought the stuffed animal close to her and reached for it in anticipation, until, finally, I made it nuzzle her head. Then she would squeal with joy. As the music was played, Ellie turned and stared at the tree. I couldn't help kissing her head.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I emailed my buddy Marko Fong:

Cortney asked me to write about something that gives me joie de vivre – something interesting, something I am passionate about, something that blows me away. And now I am paralyzed! Joie de vivre? Passionate? Positive things? Interesting things? What does this have to do with me? You have said my stories are about outsiders. My blog
posts are about TV (and I am pretty snarky, not really positive) and second person! What is interesting about second person? I mean, to normal people? Your Literary Country Club laughs at second person! What am I passionate about? …. What blows me away? Just picking something and labeling it "this blows me away" is scary –someone is going to say, "THAT is what blows you away? What is wrong with you?" Like a Rorschach test. I always hated those, for that exact reason. "What do you mean, you see a bear with a huge penis?" And positive? Who, me?

So far I have come up with: My shower curtain. It is not my shower curtain any more – it got all moldy and I replaced it years ago, but I really liked it and realizing
I liked it was a kind of turning point, that I could have something that just pleased me, it did not have to be "art" and would not change my life in any way but would offer me some measure of enjoyment or comfort once in a while, like when something bad happens and you lie on the couch and someone is there to put a quilt over you and bring you a cup of tea, it will not fix the problem but it is comfort. But…passionate, joie de vivre, blows me away: a shower curtain and a cup of tea?

Science. I just happened to be watching a PBS Nova episode on fractals tonight. Right there, I have lost just about everyone - six people in the country watch Nova! And I do not understand fractals at all! But the thing about the coastline – the smaller you make your ruler, the longer the coastline gets, and if your ruler is infinitely small, the coastline is infinitely long. And the old space as a rubber sheet thing. Infinity. Infinity plus one. Imaginary numbers. I do not understand these things at all, but they are SO COOL! But does it make sense to say "I love this even though I can not explain it enough to tell you what it is"?

"Different Trains" by Steve Reich. A modernist musical composition from the 80s, using a string quartet and a tape of trains and spoken voices of Holocaust survivors - I fell alseep with the TV on one night and woke up to this, it was a documentary musically commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on PBS again – see, Auschwitz and PBS, how can you put those into a "joie de vivre" post? - and how he was a kid in America travelling back and forth between
his divorced parents in NY and LA and if he had been in Germany he would have been riding very different trains. It gives me goosebumps just to write that. But how to convey that so it means something to someone else? What do you think I seem positive and passionate about? Or does the very idea make you giggle like it does me?

And Marko said:

"…your blog persona is a very happy individual, constantly probing the world for clues about something, I think. It is interesting that you mention almost no in person interaction with other people, but it's also fascinating to see how all these different things stimulate your imagination, and make you examine the world."

Maybe that is it, that is what blows me away, figuring things out! Why do I like looking at my shower curtain? How can a coastline possibly be infinitely long? How can music hurt in a way that feels so good? Is there more to second person technically than the pronoun "you"? This last thing is in honor of my Second Person Study, now a 16-part exploration of second person including two texts on narratology (and a third in the works, and trust me, I have to take it one sentence at a
time) and several second-person and person-and-a-half stories all of which was generated by my observation that I have never read a bad published second person story yet so many people seem to hate it and warn against the evils of writing second person.

I do not think I will ever figure these things out, but I will have fun trying! And there are so many more wonderful enigmas to think about!

* * *

Zin Kenter lives, writes, reads, and plays in Maine, and is currently
contemplating the following: DSL, cable, or landlord-provided wifi? Is
this the year to try the Jacques Torres Buche de Noel? Heifer
International, UNICEF, or the Preble Street Resource Center, or an
even split among them all? Come visit at A Just Recompense
(, where Zin sometimes blogs.

Monday, December 19, 2011

We were given a lot of children’s books before Ellie was born, which is awesome, but it means that we have books we probably wouldn’t have chosen, ourselves. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; we’ve discovered some great books this way, for example, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for. But the messages of some of these books isn’t quite so benign. Such as:

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Mike Mulligan is a working class guy who just likes to dig using his steam shovel. He "digs a little faster and a little better" when people are watching and appreciate him, which is a wonderful sentiment. Unfortunately, the march of progress kicked Mulligan in the face, and he was replaced with gasoline-powered machines. In a last-ditch effort to remain useful, Mulligan digs the basement for the town hall, but boxes himself in and can't get out. So they leave him there and build the town hall around and above him. The book presents this as a happy ending, but how can it be? Mulligna is trapped in a cellar, away from the watching, appreciative eyes of people who once made him 'dig a little faster and better.' He is useless, now, relegated to the basement where progress can continue without anyone having to see this cast-off relic from the past. As I was reading this story to my daughter, I was aghast. It's a terrible message for kids.

A book with a much more positive message on the treatment of the working class is Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. The story goes like this: the cows are cold out in the barn, so they refuse to give anymore milk until the farmer gives them electric blankets. Then the chickens get in on it. The animals communicate by typing messages on an old typewriter, hence the title. The book balances silliness with a valid message about respecting others and being grateful to others for the work they do for our benefit. It also has a funny twist I won't spoil.

Here's one that surprised me: The Polar Express. I didn't remember this book at all, even after reading it. I have to admit, I was excited about it until I read it. The story is, basically, it's Christmas time, and these kids hop a train to the North Pole. They're warmed up with stories about Santa giving them stuff. When they get to town, they encounter a multitude of elves gathering to hear the great fuhrer Das Santa speak. Seriously, I felt chills reading about these interchangeable elves practically worshiping this unapproachable Santa. The scene has all the warmth and joy of an SS rally. One of the kids is given a gift, which keeps him faithful all of his life. Everything about this book is lacking in anything one would want to associate with Christmas. The children are greedy. Santa is treated like a totalitarian ruler. The whole thing left me feeling dirty.

A much better book about giving would be, of course, The Giving Tree. This is quite possibly the greatest children's story ever written, from the point of view of a parent. It perfectly sums up the relationship between a parent and child. I challenge anyone to read this book without sobbing like a kitten.

I've discovered lots of other great books, of course. The books of Rosemary Wells and Mercer Mayer are my favorites right now. One thing that bothers me about these books is that the anthropomorphic creatures in them wear shirts but never pants. But that's a post for another day.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jessy Randall: Now let's discuss pizza bagels. What I particularly like about the pizza bagels available at multiple Twelve Corners venues…

Daniel M. Shapiro: We should start the blog with "Now let's discuss pizza bagels," no preface of any kind.

JR: So to continue, what I particularly like about the Twelve Corners pizza bagels is that you get a little bit of flavor/teeth-glintiness of tinfoil in some bites.

DS: Indeed.

JR: Not all bites, but some, because it's not like you're going to be able to remove all the tinfoil, because you are HUNGRY…

DS: You become a sort of trashcan rat for it, as if your life depends on getting every tidbit of cheese.

JR: And also you have only 18 minutes to get to The Bagel Shop or Murray's and back to school.

DS: Right. You're not going to go without cheese on account of foil.

JR: Which is pretty much my philosophy of life. So which are better, Murray's or Bagel Shop pizza bagels, and why? Obviously they are both GREAT, in the way that Shakespeare, etc. are GREAT…

DS: But this is probably too obscure—writing about food that was sold at a place that doesn't exist anymore. Or maybe that's the point: We love things that don't exist anymore.

JR: Well, the Bagel Shop is still there and I got a pizza bagel there in recent memory.

DS: Murray's was just the best, though. Bagel Shop didn't have a chance.

JR: What made Murray's better? We need concrete details here. We're not just fluffing around on our unicorn butterflies here.

DS: Burning hot—perfect for when you're freezing your ass off.

JR: Yes, you can eat them with mittens on, which probably also leads to the tinfoil situation.

DS: The bagels stayed crunchy; never soggy from sauce. The cheese overran the bagel, thus forming the tinfoil bond.

JR: OK. I am in complete agreement. Also, the macaroni salad there had little bits of black olives chopped up into it, which was really good, and you couldn't even tell what it was. I finally asked. I don’t think I ever would have figured it out otherwise. But let's return to the pizza bagels; we don't want to get off topic.

DS: You're telling me, but I didn't mention macaroni salad, did I?

JR: At this point we should insert Anna's recipe for pizza bagels.


JR: Did you try it? It totally works. My kids loved them.

Anna Primrose Bendiksen’s Recipe for Pizza Bagels!

Essentially the first step is to make garlic bread out of the bagels, but without toasting them as much as you would for garlic bread. This is how I do it. Crush some garlic together with a bit of kosher salt (I do this with a mortar and pestle but a garlic press would work) and mix into olive oil, then brush all over the bagel halves. Bake at 400 degrees F for about 5-8 minutes, or until barely browned. There are a couple of ways to make pizza sauce. Aage's way, which is more involved than mine and better when you're making a whole pizza, I think, is to sauté some more crushed garlic in olive oil and add a can of pureed or crushed tomatoes when the garlic is about to brown. Add pizza seasoning (Penzeys is very good) and simmer. My way—this is especially good for pizza bagels—is to take tomato paste and add a touch of crushed garlic and a lot of pizza seasoning. No cooking involved. At this point you have the makings of a very easy party menu that kids and teenagers especially appreciate. Lay out bagels, sauce and toppings and people can make their own. Place on a rimmed pan (the bagels, not the people) and bake, again at 400 degrees, until done. The whole wrapping-in-foil thing is something I do afterwards.

JR: Are we done with pizza bagels at least for now? Can we move on to Country Sweet chicken wings? Or is that too much Rochester and we need to mix it up a little? And is it true that someone from Brighton High School once drove 27 hours for Country Sweet and was that person Steven Kotok?

DS: Maybe the whole blog entry will be about loving Rochester.

JR: No, because that's boring ... right?

DS: Probably.

JR: I would have thought writing about food in general would be boring to the people who aren’t actually eating the food, just hearing about it. But then, there's the Food Channel, and so many food books and so on, so it seems you don't have to have the food in front of you to enjoy thinking about it.

DS: Steve might've driven from Minnesota, but it wasn't just for Country Sweet, I'm sure.

JR: I feel like someone drove a very long way, had some, and then drove back, maybe stopping to sleep but that's it. The story is apocryphal. We have no proof of it. It does, however, point to the allure of Country Sweet. And let me tell you, there's no point buying the sauce in a jar. Sorry Mom, I know you gave me a jar as a present, but it's just not the same. Part of the taste of Country Sweet wings is the plastic seat beneath your butt, the fluorescent lights, the slightly-sick look of everyone at your table. I think Daniel Pinkwater has a passage in the Alan Mendelsohn book that describes a similar eating venue (I don't want to call it a "restaurant"). I could dig up that quote and we could quote it. Oh, at some point in this discussion we should talk about made-up food in books that you've always wanted to eat, cuz that's literary.

DS: Have you seen Defending Your Life? The Albert Brooks movie?

JR: Yes, but I'm not sure why that is relevant. It was in Mother that we learn of the protective ice covering on ice cream.

DS: Because there's a scene in it where Brooks is eating with Rip Torn. There are several discussions about how some people in Judgment City use more of their brains than other people. Rip Torn eats this little tidbit of something, and Brooks nags him; he wants to try a piece. But Torn uses some large percentage of his brain, and to dumber people, the food tastes like crap.

JR: Literally like crap? Or just bad? What does the food look like in the scene? Maybe we can link to a youtube video.

DS: I think it's kind of small and nondescript, whereas regular people get to eat as much regular food as they want. I love the idea that smart people like crappy tasting food, or that if your brain isn't developed, you think it tastes bad. Kris and I are always quoting from that movie. One of my favorites: Brooks goes to a club, and there's a comedian on stage. Of course, all the people in the audience are dead, so the comedian's banter is odd. Plus, he's not funny at all. He asks Brooks, "How did you die?" and he says, "On stage—like you."

JR: I tried to read Albert Brooks's novel 2030 , which takes place in a future where health care has pretty much bankrupted everybody. It made me so depressed I had to stop. But the good thing about that was, I COULD stop. I’m allowed to stop reading a book if I want to. Anyway, that thing about smart people having different taste in food, that must come from things like caviar or fine wine, foods that don’t taste very good unless you “develop your palate” or some such bullshit. I'm sure we could make a list of foods that are bad when you're a kid and good when you're an adult and vice versa. Like, Spaghetti-Os are good when you’re a kid, and disgusting when you’re an adult (though Ross often eats the kids’ leftover Spaghetti-Os, which is just gross). Or seltzer water. I thought seltzer was horrible when I was a kid, but on the other hand, I remember when I lived in New York City I overheard a little kid in a stroller ask his mom for some seltzer. So maybe if you grow up in New York City you automatically have a more sophisticated palate.

DS: Stinky cheese, gorgonzola.

JR: I would have spit out seltzer in horror until the age of probably twenty. And here’s this kid, little enough to be in a stroller so three or four at the oldest, asking for it.

DS: I don't really like seltzer, even now.

JR: I also remember hearing a kid in New York whining "I want lo mein!" the way non-New-York kids might whine "I want chicken nuggets." But! We are being positive! We are talking about things we love! And I do love New York, and I love Eli's Bread in New York, those long loaves that are really chewy and oniony like a bagel crossed with a French baguette. It’s the sourdough onion bread in this catalog:

DS: I like quail. Kids don't eat quail.

JR: On another topic, but still things we love, I'm listening to Etta James right now.

DS: I listened to her album Tell Mama about 79 times in a row last year.

JR: She 's making me like the song "Stormy Weather" again. Should we talk about the Pittsburgh salad?

DS: I don't love those, though. I haven't even had a Pittsburgh salad.

JR: Okay, how about just the Pittsburgh habit of putting fries in things and on things. Don’t they put fries right on top of hamburgers? And a Pittsburgh salad has fries in it?

DS: Well, they do love fries here. At the ballpark, you can get a giant plate of fries with chili, cheese, jalapenos, etc.

JR: Celie asked me today, "Guess what I'm going to have to eat at my birthday party?" (Her birthday is months away.) So I made some guesses that were all wrong. I asked for a hint. She said, something that goes with fries. I said: hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches? Uh ... what? The answer was dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Of course. Changing the subject, the best pizza is Giordano's in Martha's Vineyard. The best donuts are at the top of Pikes Peak. The best iced coffee is at the little coffee nook in the student center of Colorado College.

DS: Mineo's pizza, about 3/4 of a mile from here, is the best.

JR: No.

DS: People have it FedEx'd to them everywhere.

JR: If you say so. Someday I will visit you and Kris and find out. A very good topping on pizza is thinly cut eggplant, fried in breadcrumbs.

DS: Eggplant?

JR: Yes. I think we might have had it while you were here. From Borriello Brothers? It looks like rectangles of sausage, but it's eggplant, and it’s really good on super-skinny-crust pizza.

DS: Ah. I just remembered something:

JR: That I'm right?

DS: How I judge the quality of a restaurant. I use the same dish across multiple restaurants, the dish that should be good at any decent place. For example, I judge Mexican restaurants by enchiladas.

JR: My decider for Mexican would be chile rellenos. But that probably wouldn’t work, because different places do it so differently. But on the other hand, since that’s definitely what I’m going to order, judging by the chile rellenos would work for me.

DS: I judge donut places by jelly donut. Some say glazed would be a better choice, but I disagree completely.

JR: That's all wrong. I don't like jelly donuts. Oh, speaking of jelly donuts, I'm reading Fat Men from Space to Celie right now, and she totally wants to get a tooth radio.

DS: You would have to have someone else try the jelly donut then.

JR: Yes, I'd have to bring along a ringer. Will would do it.

DS: Dunkin' Donuts basically sucks, in part because their jelly donut sucks. It's harder to be sure that they suck if you try just their glazed.

JR: When we were on the east coast for a vacation, we saw so many Dunkin’ Donuts shops that the kids had a game where they tried to hold their breath between them. This was not actually possible, but gives you an idea of how many there were. We don't have Dunkin’ Donuts in Colorado.

DS: I can walk to one in 3 minutes, but I prefer to drive to the place that has red velvet donuts with icing.

JR: The best donuts, besides the plain ones at the top of Pikes Peak, are the blueberry cake donuts from the Donut Mill in Woodland Park. They are only available ... I was about to say "seasonally" but that would be nonsense. They are only available sometimes.

DS: Right. But you haven't tried red velvet ones with icing.

JR: What is the big deal about red velvet?! WHY DO PEOPLE GO SO CRAZY FOR RED VELVET? It doesn't taste like ANYTHING. It's like eating AIR that has a lot of calories.

DS: It's damn good. It tastes like cake. And yes: I tried the jelly donut first.

JR: It is a complete WASTE of a dessert, a description I normally reserve for flan.

DS: No. It tastes like donuts, in a donut.

JR: No. Red velvet SUCKS.

DS: Right. And blueberry cake is super special.

JR: Godiva had a red velvet flavored truffle. Worst truffle they ever made.

DS: Well, it doesn't make sense to make a red velvet truffle.

JR: We're getting too negative, talking about flan, yuck

DS: This place also has a donut filled with chocolate buttercream.

JR: I was about to say something so grandpa-ish like "I remember when donuts were 35 cents!", but I will refrain from saying that.

DS: Assuming chocolate buttercream doesn't taste like nothing to you, it's really good

JR: Chocolate buttercream is not nothing! Can you name my reference? M.... Mo....

DS: Mötley Crüe.

JR: Moo… Moon....

DS: Moonstruck.

JR: Yup. "Our marriage is not nothing."

DS: Mötley Crüe said that too.

JR: So anyway, what else are we going to expound upon? I would like to praise sauteed brussels sprouts with walnuts. I would also like to put in a word about the combination of beets and goat cheese. Also, we should have a lettuce-off. Radicchio! Arugula! Endive! MACHE!!!

DS: Arugula is inedible. It’s the weeds I pull out of my back yard.

JR: Have you had mache? It's a type of lettuce. It's seasonal (like the blueberry cake donuts). It's very soft.

DS: I will pass.

JR: It looks kind of like bunches of clover. It's very delicious, with a mild flavor. Is there any lettuce you would enter into the lettuce-off? Or am I going to have to run this whole thing myself?

DS: I am not inspired by lettuce, even if it's seasonal.

JR: Perhaps it would be appropriate at this juncture to link to my poem “The Lettuce Connoisseur,”

DS: I think this blog should be called The People's Cort, by the way.

JR: Bud Cort.

DS: They were showing Harold and Maude at one of our theaters recently.

JR: I would gladly cook dinner for the Bud Cort of Harold and Maude and serve it through a strangely sexual sculpture.

DS: I expect not to be invited.

JR: You can distract Maude!

DS: Bud Cort was good in Brewster McCloud, too.

JR: No, he wasn't. Wait, am I thinking of the right movie? Is he a creepy monk?

DS: No. He's basically Harold.

JR: OK, what movie am I thinking of then? Was there a movie of The Chocolate War and he was in it? Yup.

DS: I never saw that.

JR: Don't bother. When this Etta James CD is over, I'm going to bed.

DS: Food is too broad a topic. Maybe we could just write about making pies. Or something more specific than everything.

JR: We could talk about making pies. The trouble is, I don't make my own crust, and that is shameful. But I still make pies, and nobody here complains, so shut up!

DS: The difficulty of making your own crust is overrated, even if you do it the way the crazy lady in my book does it. She suggests that you press foil into the pie pan, press the crust into the foil, bake the crust, freeze the crust, remove it from the pan (by lifting out the foil), remove it from the foil, and put it back into the pan before filling it. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually brilliant. Nothing will ever leak through the crust. Ever.

JR: Amy also says making the crust isn’t that hard. But no matter how easy it is, it’s harder than using the refrigerated kind of pre-made crust, and much messier.

DS: True.

JR: If I use refrigerated crust, I might make as many as two pies a month. If I had to make my own crust maybe there would be one pie per year

DS: There are pies I've refused to make because they're too easy.

JR: Well, that is just perverse. Do they taste bad if they are made easy? Is this a question for the ages?

DS: It's just boring.

JR: I see, you make pie for the joy of making pie, the challenge. Whereas I make pie because it causes Ross and Will to get those swirly-eyes that cartoon characters get.

DS: If I'm making it at my mother-in-law's house, I'll do it based on whatever she has. But on my own, I won't do pumpkin pie, or maybe I'll get the pumpkin without any of the spices in it.

JR: I am on my last Etta James song now.

DS: Which album?

JR: At Last! (It has the exclamation mark.) I say I'm listening to a CD but actually I'm listening to iTunes now that I have uploaded the CD, which came from the library.

DS: Try Tell Mama soon. It is my favorite southern R&B album, done in Alabama, even though most of her stuff was made in Chicago.

JR: I will.

DS: There's even an odd version of "I Got You Babe" on it; almost decent.

JR: !

DS: My favorite song on there is "Just a Little Bit." "Security" is another good one.

JR: I sang "Respect" for the kids this morning because they were squabbling and wanted to tell them to treat each other with respect. Celie got really wide-eyed and was like "sing that again!"

DS: Good.

JR: And then she asked if I'd just made that song up. So, that tells me I need to work on their music education.

DS: "Do Right Woman" is on Tell Mama. I think every female singer recorded "Do Right Woman" around that time.

JR: I love “Do Right Woman,” so I will get that CD from the library next.

* * *

Daniel M. Shapiro is a schoolteacher who lives in Pittsburgh. He is the author of three chapbooks: The 44th-Worst Album Ever (NAP Books, forthcoming), Trading Fours (Pudding House Press, forthcoming), and Teeth Underneath (FootHills Publishing). He is the co-author of Interruptions (Pecan Grove Press), a collection of collaborations with Jessy Randall. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Chiron Review, Gargoyle, RHINO, Sentence, and Forklift, Ohio. His poetry website is

Jessy Randall is the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College. Her stories, poems, poetry comics, and other things have appeared in Asimov's, McSweeney's, Mudfish, Rattle, Sentence, and West Wind, and her collection A Day in Boyland (Ghost Road, 2007) was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. She has a new collection, Injecting Dreams into Cows, forthcoming from Red Hen in 2012. With Danial M. Shapiro, she is the co-author of Interruptions: Collaborative Poems (Pecan Grove 2011). Her website is, and she blogs about library shenanigans at She lives with her family in Colorado Springs.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When I was fourteen or so, my mother started having fits of dementia, brought on by Huntington's disease. The fits started with her moaning as though she were in great pain. None of us could figure out what was causing it. She was more or less healthy, aside from the obvious. The first time was at night. She started howling around two a.m. My older brother and I were home and both came running to find my father sitting on the edge of the bed holding her hand, perplexed. Eventually, she fell back asleep.

It was a haunting noise. Inhuman and suffering, it sounded like a damned soul in some Bosch painting. It lasted for a few weeks and then just as suddenly stopped. We couldn’t find anything wrong. Neither could the nurses who came to check on her. We decided it was a phase.

She had several phases. Early on, she ate onions with everything. Onions with peanut butter, onions in her ice cream, she would cut a whole onion up and eat it raw. During another phase she watched the local ABC affiliate on TV exclusively, which was broadcast from the same town where she’d gone to college. She would get out of bed, turn on the TV and stare. Once, the antenna went out, and we couldn’t get reception for a couple days. On these days she would rise, turn on the TV and stare at the static for a few moments, then turn it off and go back to bed. I once tried to change the channel, and looked up to find her charging me like an enraged bull, her walker swinging after me as she pushed me out of the way. This was more surprising than painful, and after she changed the channel back, she sat back down and proceeded to stare out the window.

The moaning phase was the most disturbing, though. I couldn’t stand it because there was no way to appease her. She howled until her voice gave out or she fell asleep. Whenever it started, I left. Sometimes she stood at the door, her moans echoing out over the hills. Coming home from school, I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at our house, dreading what I might find inside.

One Saturday, I left her standing at the door, until she finally gave up and went back to watching TV. I was walking down the hill from my house when I came upon my cousin.

My cousin, one of the ones I'd gone to the Baptist church with, had heard the call and was to become a preacher. In going to youth group, I’d always felt uncomfortable around him. I viewed him as my better, because of the call, and in general because he was older and his family was more well-off. But his apparent sincerity was embarrassing, like a religious hall monitor, or the kid left in charge of taking down names when the teacher steps out of class.

His mother rented out a trailer on a plot of land just down the hill from my father’s house, though it was vacant at the time. It was part of the family land, an area consisting of stock ponds, pasture for cattle, and steep ridges that I liked to walk.

He was coming out of the trailer, which they were remodeling for a new tenet, when I met him.

“How are you?” he asked. "Haven't seen you in church lately."

Maybe he saw it in my eyes, but obviously I wasn’t doing well. He reached into
his car and pulled out a Bible.

“You know," he said, "even if it seems like no one else does, Jesus loves you. You have to accept Jesus into your heart. That way, nothing can hurt you. Nothing is stronger than our savior.”

I was shocked that he would preach to me, but at the same time, he struck a chord. Maybe this was what that whole religion thing was about, I thought. I had been going to church all my life, but I hadn't really ever felt anything spiritual. In Sunday school, I was much more afraid of the preachers' wives than of hell. And in church proper, I was mostly just bored, and a lot of what the preacher said seemed not only dense, but insincere. More often than not, they talked about tithes and how we should give money. Everything else seemed to be an abstraction I couldn't get my head around. I didn't see how any of it applied to the real world. It had never touched me.

My cousin talked to me about the story of Job, and said that sometimes God tests us; sometimes we have to suffer, but it doesn't mean that He isn't there, watching out for us. My eyes began to tear. It made sense to me. I understood, suddenly, what I was supposed to have been feeling all those Sundays.

As my cousin talked, I felt something open up inside me like a cramping muscle suddenly loosening. All of the neglect, the frustration, the anger, the unfairness of my life flowed out of me.

“Will you accept Jesus into your heart?” he asked.

I could hear the water of the stock pond lapping against its banks behind us. A train passed on the far side of the pasture. It was like the whole world was listening.

“Yes,” I said, staring into his face.

“Will you accept Jesus into your heart?”


“Then be saved.”

I felt a warmth enter my body, replacing the void left by the exit of my anger, my
fear. A smile spread over my face and I no longer felt the tears on my cheeks. Everything was warm and safe. Everything was going to be all right.

He talked to me for fifteen minutes or so and then looked at his watch.

“I have to go. It was good talking to you, Cortney. You should come to worship with us tomorrow,” he said.

"I will," I said, as he got in his car.

What a good preacher he’ll be, I thought. I felt better than I could remember
feeling. Jesus. Jesus would help me. I started back up that steep hill.

I felt strangely content as I climbed. I almost looked forward to going back home, helping Mom until my father came home. This was how I was supposed to feel, at least, and I tried very hard to feel it. I knew that it would be well after dark before my father stumbled in drunk. Who knew when my brother and sister would show up. But Jesus would be there.

Mom was getting worse and worse. She’d been falling down for no reason lately, her muscle coordination less and less reliable. She hadn't left the house in months. She could hardly do for herself anymore. Lots of days, if it wasn’t for me cooking, she wouldn’t have anything to eat. Life was getting hard, and it was turning me bitter. I begrudged her the time I had to spend caring for her. I hated being left there, alone with her, and I felt guilty for my ill feelings towards her. And friends? Try bringing someone into the house who didn't have to be there. See what he would think of us. The last one lasted for a little over an hour before she chased him out, screaming. The whole situation was too big for me to make sense of. But now Jesus would be there. He would help.

With every step I felt stranger about the whole thing. When I stepped in the door, my mother saw me and started howling again. I tried to calm her down. I tried talking to her, asking what was wrong, but she only howled.

I checked the TV but it was on her favorite station. I made her a sandwich and offered it, but she pushed it away. I tried ignoring her, going into another room, but she followed me. As the minutes passed, I became more and more agitated. I started yelling at her.

"Shut up!" I yelled. "Shut up!"

She stopped for a moment, but only a moment.

I played music and screamed back at her.

"You won't beat me," I said. "I can overcome this." And she kept howling, following me around and howling until finally, back in the living room I pushed her away from me. She fell onto the couch and was shocked into silence.

I was appalled at myself for having pushed her, but at the same time, it had made her quiet. She tried to stand up and slipped awkwardly back down onto the couch.

There was a photo on the wall to her left from her and Dad's wedding. In it, she was smiling, sweet and pretty in an open and easy way. Her hair had been blond and long. I remembered all the old photos my sister and I used to go through in Mom's photo albums. Some of the styles were so dated they were almost funny. In some, she had big piles of hair shaped into beehives and waves. Others were more tasteful. She'd always been pretty. People acted like she was a movie star; something about her was too good to be here. Now on the couch, her hair was matted and dirty, greying and cut short for convenience.

I stepped towards her to help her up and she flinched. It shocked me and I went into the bathroom and locked the door to get away from her, and from the shame over what I'd done.

I remembered when I was a child that my aunt and cousins had invited me to birthday parties. They always gave the other kids presents so we wouldn’t feel left out, but they were always cheap things wrapped in nice paper with elaborate bows. I felt, then, hiding in the bathroom, as though I’d been given another elaborately wrapped gift, but when I unwrapped it, I discovered that there was nothing but box.

After a few minutes, my mother came to the bathroom door and banged against it with her walker. I kept quiet, hoping she would go away. I thought back on what my cousin had said earlier and knew that he had lied. Jesus wasn't there. There was no one in the house but me and her. If I was wrong, if Jesus was there, it didn't matter because it did me no good; all he was doing was watching. She’d believed all her life, and what had it got her? But she wasn't cursed; she was just a sick woman. Genetics had made her that way, not anything else. There was no devil, no savior, just a door that couldn't keep out the sound of her screaming.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What Thou Lovest Well Remains, With The Possible Exception Of Fire Maidens Of Outer Space

Deep down, to this day, I love sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the movie curtains to swing aside. A huge screen is revealed and the lights slowly dim. Then life springs onto the screen—big, bright images—but more than images—this is what comes alive before me—a world made of light. I can’t call this solely a love of movies, not exactly. The whole theater is part of it. Even today, though there usually aren’t curtains and the screen is not that big, every time I go to see a film, I feel it is saving my life.

So I thought I would try to respect that primary, primal movie-going experience, and capture a small part of its phenomenology. This is how I’m going to do it.

I was lucky to live a couple of blocks away from a big old theater—the Westmont—in south Jersey—where 50 cent matinees played every Saturday at noon. Two movies, cartoons, previews. Most of the movies I’ve seen there, I’ve seen only that one time. Here is approximately what I remember from three of them (Note: I (emphatically) do not recommend these movies. They are probably explodingly awful pieces of dreck. But some part of them lodged in my brain and filled me with awe. Go figure.)

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

The set up: Astronaut guys go to a moon of Jupiter or Saturn and find girls in tunics and one old guy.

What I remember, more or less: The main thing with this movie is the use of one of Alexander Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances (the Gliding Dance of the Maidens), also known as Stranger In Paradise by Al Alberts and The Four Aces. I have a hazy impression of fire maidens dancing around an altar or temple-y thing to the tune. But my only big visual takeaway from FMOS is the monster. This was a tall guy in a black leotard and what I remember as a really messed up monster face, all contorted flesh and uncombed hair. That sounds like a beatnik but it wasn’t. Specifically, I remember how the monster gained entrance to the-whatever-it-was palace, temple, city. The (let’s say) palace is surrounded by an electrified fence, which the monster is afraid of. This keeps him at bay. Then (as I remember it) he sees one of the astronauts getting around the electricity by putting a ladder over the fence. The monster pushes a tree over and against the wall and sparks fly and the electrified part of the wall shorts out. Then he climbs over wreaks havoc. People get killed. But I was thinking “I am totally going to get over an electrified fence someday with that little trick.”

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Goobers (never Raisinettes), Sugar Babies (never Sugar Daddy).

What’s great about Fire Maidens of Outer Space? Aside from the title, that music. And, slightly, the cheesecake tunics the fire maidens dance around in. If you’re about 10 years old, male, and had lived a sheltered life by today’s standards, it was totally “Hotcha!”

Voyage to the Seventh Planet

The set up: Boy I still cannot tell you what the fuck this movie is about. I remember the poster had a giant rat-bat-spider on it that played a really minor role in the movie, and that’s about it. I gather it was about a crew of astronaut guys who land on the seventh planet. The seventh planet is, according to my count, the hilarious-to-13-year-old-boys Uranus. Which may be why it wasn’t called Voyage to Uranus (snicker). I think it started on earth, maybe with an ominous “What the hell is going on out there on Planet 7?” But, like a lot of these memories, I could be making that up.

What I remember, more or less: Not much. Astronaut guys land, getting out of their aerodynamic spaceship. It seems the Seventh Planet is basically a big Christmas tree farm. Weird, creepy, uncanny things happen, and they leave.

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Hershey bar with almonds, Mr. Goodbar, Jujubes.

What’s great about Voyage to the Seventh Planet? There were a few indelible images or scenes which, looking back, felt like some really disturbing surrealism was going on in this movie. I suspect what I thought was crazy, dream-like surrealism was probably total technical and artistic incompetence wedded to a $25.75 budget, but there you are.

So, at some point the crew reaches some kind of barrier and one of the guys puts his hand through it. It gets stuck and when they yank it out it’s frosted, blue, and frozen solid. AAAAGGGGHHH! You know, that could really happen in the cold reaches of the outer solar system. Then there’s the giant rat-bat-spider, which even then seemed to be both an unconvincing puppet and an utterly terrifying nightmare come to life. But the really indelible image that I took away from Journey to the Seventh Planet is the main alien: a super-brainy, mind-controlling blob. It looked like a bubbling vat of chunky Bolognese sauce, with an eye in the middle. Even now, I can’t look at a pot of tomato sauce coming to a boil on the stove without flashing back to the mind-controlling alien of Uranus (snicker). And how do I explain that to people? I don’t explain it. I don’t mention it, ever.

Giant from the Unknown

The set up: Alright, I couldn’t even remember the name of this one. I had to figure it out from googlizing vague descriptions. Giant from the Unknown is in black and white. A [giant] conquistador is brought back to life from suspended animation. He’s covered in mud and is wearing one of those conquistador helmets. He gets thrown over a waterfall at the end. The Giant from the Unknown (wouldn’t that be Spain though? I guess The Giant from Spain (I adore you) didn’t cut it), has a lot of outdoor filming in what is obviously really uncomfortable working conditions for the actors.

They’re out in the mountains and forest somewhere in northern California. It’s cold, it’s wet, there’s snow on the ground, all of which is palpable to me sitting in the theater.

What I remember: Pretty much the above, and possibly not even that much. I don’t remember any of the plot, any of the characters except for “el G. from the U.”, or much else. And yet the scenes of the damp hills splattered with snow and a couple of images still feel totally gripping. Again, the general incompetence, lack of continuity, plot holes, incoherence and low budget of the production is both why I don’t remember more of it (Hey, I remember ALL of Jason and the Argonauts) and also the origin of its allure and hold on me.

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Sno-caps, Boston Baked Beans.

What’s great about Giant from the Unknown? A lizard or frog jumps out of a rock when a scientist breaks it open. A fucking living reptile and/or amphibian, people. I had a discussion about this scene at school sometime after seeing the move. Was this fifth grade? Maybe. Anyway, we boys decided that this could totally really happen, because there’s a real scientific name for it: suspended animation. In fact we were sure it had happened somewhere, so the movie was based on scientific truth and real facts! To which: whoa. And, as above, the wet, dingy landscape and cold was an unintentional cinema verite background that chilled me.

There’s more, lots more: The Werewolf, mole men, giant grasshoppers, giant snails, westerns. Also The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Great Escape, Project Crossbow, Goldfinger, Dr. No, Cheyenne Autumn, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and onward and upward. Movies are a mother to me.

You know what else I love. Waffles.

* * *

Michael Gushue co-curates the floating Poetry Mutual Reading Series in Washington, DC, runs the micro-press Beothuk Books and is co-founder of Poetry Mutual/Vrzhu Press, a poetry incubator that sponsors events, publishes books and builds community among writers and audiences. His work has appeared online and in print, most recently in the journal Gargoyle and the online journal Locuspoint. His books are “Gathering Down Women,” from Pudding House Press and “Conrad” from Souvenir Spoon Books. You can hear him read some stuff and talk to Grace Cavalieri on The Poet and The Poem ( He lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Baptist church was the biggest building in my home town, except for the rice dryers out on the highway. People said the church had been an impressive building years ago, before they'd renovated it. Now the brick was covered with a gaudy white layer that looked like a bunch of pebbles cemented together; four stories of this that seemed to swell at the top, leaning over the elementary school next door like a wedge of brie standing on its point.

My father was an atheist who lectured us about how NASA had sent rockets into space and never seen heaven. Though it didn't seem so at the time, his rants were more directed at making us think for ourselves and not be bogged down in the fear and ignorance he saw around us. He associated Christians with the lowest common denominator; the people who feared black cats as minions of Satan, and lived in a sort of expectant fear that any day now, the world would crumble into ruin and everyone but them would be lost.

But my mother was a devout Christian and insisted that we attend church. My father's only victory was that he refused to go himself. So, thanks to her fear for our souls, every Wednesday night my sister and I went for service, and every Sunday morning I was lumped in with just under a dozen children of the richest and most affluent people in town and forced to go to Sunday School.

One of my earliest memories of Sunday School is of the collection envelopes. Every week we had to bring one, a thin little envelope printed with heavy black lines on which our parents could print their names, address, and the amount they were donating. A box sat in the corner with a slit in the top, and at the beginning of class, we all lined up under the hard eyes of the two preachers’ wives who ran the class.

“Very good,” they would say as we dropped in our envelopes. “Now go take your seat.”

And we went and sat in the chairs in the center of the room, the girls with their dresses flattened neatly over their legs, the boys fidgeting in their khakis.

Once, I was running late and forgot my donation. Being so used to the ritual, I automatically lined up with the other children and approached the donation box.

“I don’t have a donation envelope,” I said, realizing suddenly what had happened. “My mom forgot.”

“Are you sure?" One of the wives said. "I know for a fact that you were told to take home donation envelopes. Well, you can use a new one. Fill it out yourself. I can’t believe you’d waste church money like that.”

I was confused and ashamed. "I don't have any money," I said.

She glared at me. “So you just decided to spend it on candy? Did you stop by the store on the way here today?”

“No,” I said.

“Turn out your pockets,” she said.

The room stopped en masse to stare at me. She searched my pockets and found nothing.

“Well,” she said. “You must’ve already eaten it.”

I sat quietly in a chair, a little away from the other kids. None of them looked at me for the rest of the class, and I was glad of it.

I tried from then on to always remember my donation. Once, some months later, a similar situation occurred, but I had fifty cents that my father had given me to buy supplies at school. So I quickly grabbed an envelope, filled it out, stuck the change in, and took it to the box, aware the whole time of how much heavier it was than usual, since it had change instead of paper bills, of the way it clinked when I dropped it in. I sat through the rest of class terrified that they would call me out but nothing was said.

Class was often conducted in the form of a question and answer session in which the preachers' wives asked questions and watched us struggle for a while until they stepped in and answered. The questions were about Bible readings that I was too lazy to do. I didn't read the Bible at all until many years later.

“Cortney," they might ask, "why were Adam and Eve banished from the Garden?”

To which I might reply, “Because they were naked?”

“And how did they come to know that they were naked?”

I paused. “Because they were cold?”

I would then be sent to sit in the corner, no longer participating with the class. That would have been a fine reward if it weren’t for the lecture that preceded it.

“Really, Cortney, I don’t see how you can think this is funny,” they would say.

“I don't.” Which was true. Nothing could've been less amusing.

“You mean you don’t know? You really don’t know why Adam and Eve were forced to leave the garden? How can you not know that?”

I didn’t dislike sitting in the dunce chair. Being forbidden from participating in class meant that I could relax. Staring at the rest of the class from outside was supposed to be a punishment, but I enjoyed it. It was more interesting to watch the preachers' wives yelling at kids than it was to be yelled at. The children of the richest parents, for example, were never yelled at. They were rarely asked questions, either. Occasionally, one of them raised a thin arm and volunteered an answer and that was enough. It was the poorer kids who were singled out, though of these, even the poorest wasn’t wearing the dark blue Wrangler jeans from Wal-Mart that were all my family could afford. The rest of the families at least made the effort to look well-off, which meant getting their clothes from the mall in Jonesboro, a forty-five minute drive. Mine was considered doomed and damned; too lazy to make the effort.

Once, while exiled to the dunce chair, I found myself staring at the wood grain door. It was a simple, old hollow door that had weathered many grubby children’s hands. It would’ve looked fine in a home, but in the austere setting of the church, it was out of place. I was bored, and my eyes kept coming back to it until I realized that within the grain, I could see the vague outline of a man’s head. He wore an expression of sadness, and I felt suddenly uncomfortable, thinking this. I stared at the face for a long time, tracing the details of the eyes and mouth with my eyes, and tuning out the noise of the class. It was calming, and for once, when Sunday School was over, I felt glad. It was a kind of art, making a face out of the patterns of lines. I had seen faces in doors before. I started doing it everywhere, looking for images and patterns within things; trying to see the world around me differently.

I considered telling the preachers’ wives about the face, but I didn’t know how to explain it to them. They might not see it, and they would probably accuse me of not paying attention. Or worse, they might see it as a sign. There was a house on the other side of town in which someone claimed to have seen three crosses through the frosted glass of a door. Cars lined up for blocks for the next few weeks as people came from every state to witness what they considered to be a miracle. My father said that he'd talked to the man who installed the door, and he had said that you could see all sorts of things in those kind of windows because of the way the glass was frosted.

"One woman thought she could see her dead cat in her door," he'd said.

* * *

During the summers, my aunt volunteered me to go with her two sons to Baptist youth camp and to the youth group. I don’t remember much about the camp except that most of the time seems to have been spent in a swimming pool. I couldn’t swim, which left me stranded in the shallow end alone because all of the other kids could demonstrate their prowess well enough to be allowed in the deep water.

I remember the youth group as being a sort of Sunday School for older kids. We were led by teenagers, who arranged games and mostly just killed time. As soon as we left the car, my cousins lost interest in me and I was left to myself. Soon after I started going, it was decided that we would have a water balloon fight. To do this, we all had to bring balloons, and we all had to wear shorts. I didn’t own a pair of shorts. My father wasn’t particularly thrilled about this whole church thing, and dishing out money to buy shorts I would wear one time was more than he was willing to do.

“Where are your shorts?” they asked when I showed up in jeans.

“I don’t have shorts.”

“Everyone has shorts,” they said.

“I’ll just wear pants.”

“No, you can’t wear pants. You’ll ruin them.”

“It’s just water,” I said.

“And it wouldn’t be fair to let you throw balloons at the other kids when they
can’t throw balloons at you. I guess you just won’t be able to participate. I’m sorry, but we did say to wear shorts.”

And so I sat inside the air-conditioned church and watched the other children being pummeled by the older kids, out in the summer heat. There was an old refrigerator inside, and I found some sodas and drank one.

* * *

It was understood that when one reached a mature age, around ten, one could leave Sunday school and begin attending regular church sessions. This required a baptism, as I had never had one.

I was terrified of baptism. The elder preacher was a thin, fading old man, his heavy white head was large and round as he leaned out over the parishioners and mumbled damnation. I knew that he would drop me. I would drown in the baptismal pool. This was a common fear. My sister waited until well into her teens to be baptized. She wouldn't admit it, but I was certain this was because she was afraid.

Perhaps you’ve seen Baptist churches in movies or on TV. In those churches, the preachers sway, choirs sing, old ladies get up and run around, dancing with the spirit. Baptisms happen in rivers. The preacher stands, holding against the tide, while the faithful wade out and are dunked, cleansed of their sins, and everyone sings. There was none of that here. We used a tub beside the pulpit. Rivers are dirty and there are never enough places to park.

On her day, my sister, draped in a white robe, was led out before the audience. She was fourteen and nearly as tall as the preacher. He asked her if she renounced all sin. She said yes, and then he grabbed her and dunked her backwards into the water. His arms shook and she went down fast. He struggled to lift her out of the water, but he was having problems. The tub was narrow enough that she could grab the sides, and she was able to push herself up and out. He stared at her, and the congregation started singing while someone handed her a towel. That was enough for me. Regardless of the fear for my soul, I remained unbaptized.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

On Something I Love: The Poem as Friend
by Joseph Ross

We met in a basement classroom. I was an eager ninth grader when this poem and I became friends. William Butler Yeats’ “When You Are Old” lives very close to my heart and it never strays far. I have loved this poem like a dear friend, ever since I first read it as a high school student.

In twelve perfectly crafted lines, Yeats offers us a most tender love poem, a darkly contemplative whisper from one lover who has died, to the remaining lover who lives. Yeats begins by gently placing us in an intimate, domestic moment and leaves us gazing into an eternity of memory and space, beckoning us to remember.

The poem opens in a quiet experience of solitude. A widowed lover sits alone, before a fire, with the fatigue that life and loss sometimes give. The lover is urged, by the companion who has already gone in death, to “take down this book,/ and slowly read,” and to remember. The absent lover beckons the living one to recall youth’s beauty, to recall the changing passions that came earlier in life. But mostly, the deceased lover pleads with the living one to remember the most honored compliment: that “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”

Can there be a more honest and abiding love? In the midst of ever-changing human emotions, the only love that truly anchors us through life is the love that honors our traveling selves, our changes, our sorrows. It is easy to love the fresh and attractive one. But it takes a decision to love a person who is changing, who knows and names the sorrows of the world and who wears them in the skin. At the heart of this poem, a deceased lover simply asks the living one to remember.

The poem’s final stanza takes us on a dizzying trajectory. The living lover bends down to stir the “glowing bars” in the fireplace, and from there we fly to the “mountains overhead” outside this quiet moment, and then farther still, into the vastness of space, where “Love…hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

This poem has been my friend for many years because it is true. We are all pilgrims and we all change. In the flurry of our wanderings, we yearn for someone to love us, not in spite of our changes, but because of them. This love requires intention and practice. It is an act of the will over time, not of the moment. I have been fortunate to find this kind of love in my life. Yeats’ poem instructs me to nourish and cherish it.

I also love the places in this poem. I can sit before a fire, in silence, and stare into its flames and embers for hours. The delicate quality of flame contains a rare beauty and energy. Similarly, I can stand outside at night and stare into the black forever of space sprayed with stars. In those moments, you know your place, your perfect smallness.

That William Yeats was a genius, I take as doctrine. He wrote “When You Are Old” as a relatively young man, in his late twenties. This poem was part of his second collection of poems titled “The Rose,” published in 1893. Yeats’ love life has been widely commented on. For most of his life he passionately loved Maud Gonne, who would reject his love in favor of the Irish revolution. Later in his life, Yeats loved and married Georgie Hyde-Lees, with whom he had two children. Perhaps “When You Are Old” prefigures that more mature and stable love. Some years ago, I stood at Yeats’ grave in the Drumcliffe churchyard, in County Sligo, Ireland, and thanked him for the friendship of this poem.

Regardless of how this poem emerged from Yeats’ life, it has found a permanent place in mine. Its quiet truth can calm and settle me when I am anxious and scattered. Its lean craft can focus me when I am uncertain. I can often hear this beloved friend, this poem, reminding me to remember.

* Photo of Yeats by George Beresford

* * *

Joseph Ross is part of the vibrant Washington, D.C. literary community. His first book, Meeting Bone Man, will be released in March/April of 2012. His poems appear in many journals and anthologies including Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Full Moon on K Street, and Drumvoices Revue. He co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib. He has read in the Library of Congress' Poetry-at-Noon Series and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He directs the Writing Center at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at

Monday, November 28, 2011

She is motion on two legs with drool, babbling, and a wicked smile. She is both wave and particle. She bounces from person to person like a pinball, leaving a trail of laughter and destruction. She is a little over one year old and named after an SUV.

Our house is full; fifteen or so of my wife’s cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends have come for Thanksgiving. They are my family, now, and are in my home, and this little girl squeals and laughs as she rips Kleenexes apart and scatters them on the floor like confetti, pulls DVDs from their cases and jumps up and down on them, chews the business end of a fireplace match and runs headlong towards the stairs for which there is no baby-gate, yet. Her mother, all of twenty years old and a young twenty, at that, is texting her new boyfriend on the couch, oblivious.

The little girl’s aunt and uncle who are both younger than the mother, sometimes catch her before she careens down the stairs or out the door, but they are equally intent on card games, eating or looking things up on their iPones. Another teenaged cousin who I haven’t seen in years takes over duties towards the end, and keeps the little girl from breaking her neck, though it's clear she and her own mom are less than thrilled that they are now the gate-keepers for a one-year-old ferral child.

My wife alternately tries to feed the kid the homemade food she's prepared especially for the littlest kids and tries to convince her cousin to put the little girl down for a nap in the pack'n'play set up away from the noise for that very purpose, but is unsuccessful on both counts, so she doesn’t eat more than a few bites of banana and a mouthful of applesauce in something like seven hours, and has no nap at all.

I’m watching my own seven month old, who is being passed around like a new toy. I try to keep an eye on the little girl, the living epitome of unchecked energy, but then someone catches her and I lose her, thinking she’s safe, until she breaks free again and I see her streaking toward the open back-door. All of us are watching her with one eye, but none of us is watching with both. My daughter starts to fuss, and as I move in to take advantage of this and whisk her away from the ruckus, I nearly collide with the little girl. She stops short with a smile and a dirty face, reaches for me, and, as she probably has to every male in the house, asks, “Daddy?”

Fifteen months ago, my wife and I nearly adopted that little girl. This was before my wife knew she was pregnant. Her then eighteen year old cousin was single, unemployed (though she might’ve had a part-time job if she'd wanted it), a college drop-out, and one of the most sheltered children I’ve ever met. I’m not being mean, here, simply honest. At eight months pregnant she’d been dumped by the child’s father, a significantly older guy in the military who’d rather spend his money on expensive toys and his time elsewhere, but who insisted on naming the kid after the SUV. My wife and I had been trying to have a kid for a few years, at that point, and were towards the end of a hail-mary attempt when my wife’s cousin called in distress over her situation.

She said that if she was going to give her baby up to anyone, it would be us, but she needed time to think about it. We felt something like Sartre’s characters in “The Wall,” waiting through the night for the firing squad. We talked it out between ourselves while we waited. We thought: here’s a kid who’s screwed up her life but could still make good. She could walk away and start over. Then again, raising a kid could be the best thing for her. It could be a crash-course in growing up, which she desperately needs. On the other hand, let’s be realistic: What does she know about the kind of hard work and sacrifices this would require? But what did we know about them either?

We tried to be logical. There was no way we could afford a kid just yet. I was training in a new position and, once I had that, gunning for a promotion, but I wouldn’t have it for another year. We had a plan, and that plan required our hail-mary to pay off, sure, but we didn’t expect to actually have a kid for another ten months or so. But here was opportunity tapping at our door. And we knew we could make it work, somehow.

When she called and said she’d decided to keep the baby after all, my wife waited until she got off the phone to break down. We both thought this might’ve been our last chance, but what could we do? It wasn’t our decision to make. We had to respect it and be supportive. We hoped for the best. We hoped she would take advantage of this opportunity, dig in, and do right by her soon-to-be child. When my wife found out she was pregnant a few weeks later, our course was set. But still, in the back of our minds, we wondered: what if?

While the family was in town for Thanksgiving, we had the opportunity to see several approaches to parenting. By far the most developed kid was a teenager, "Martin," whose single mother kept him in line (some would say nagged him constantly). But it was obvious this kid would have a future. It was obvious that his mother understood that the work of being a parent often means acting in opposition to your kid/s' wishes or natural inclinations. Kids test boundaries. It’s tiring to push back, but a lot of the time, you have to if you want the kids to develop positive habits. Another cousin, "Mandy," meanwhile, talked about sneaking out the night before and partying. Martin was sullen during this conversation, feeling left out. He didn’t understand how much his mother was doing for him by making sure he was left out, of course. Being a parent means being unpopular sometimes. Mandy's mother, on the other hand, didn’t even chastise her daughter for sneaking out to spend the night with her boyfriend. She simply grinned, apparently at the horrible joke that her other teenaged daughter was well on the way to having a baby of her own, just like her sister.

There is a lot of pain in this family, and it tends to manifest in self-absorption of one kind or another, which, of course, could be said of most of us. What that means in real life is some non-engaged parents. If I were unkind, I could say that some of these folks were too busy looking for their own gratification and ended up ignoring their children. This is the greatest fear I have about my own parenting. But perhaps that’s the difference; being aware of this means I can be proactive in preventing it. I don’t mean to sound conceited or arrogant. I’m not perfect; far from it. I’m deeply flawed. And if it wasn’t for my wife, I would be much more so. One of the first things I did when my wife became pregnant was start to see a psychologist. This wasn’t because I was depressed about having a kid; it was because I had a ton of issues and I didn’t want to screw my kid up. I didn’t have good models for parenting because of various circumstances, so I look around at other people, and I try my best to figure out what works. And seeing how these folks acted towards their kids, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

I may well still screw up royally. But I hope I don’t, and I plan to do everything in my power to keep from it.

After everyone left, my wife and I talked about the little girl and everything else I’ve been writing about. “They’re good people,” my wife said. And it’s true, I’m sure. The teenaged mother isn’t actively bad; she’s just a kid who happens to have a kid and is completely unprepared for it. Her mother is freshly divorced and trying to have some fun. Everyone has their own hell, and it’s easy to judge when you haven’t lived with the fumes. We’re too close to the situation to have any real perspective, and I’m sure we exaggerate what we don’t see and take what we do see for the worst. But seeing that little girl running wild while her mother ignored her and her immediate family only stepped in when she became a nuisance, we couldn’t help but wish that her mother had said yes, all those months ago. But there’s not much we can do about it. There’s always going to be horror outside the door. There’s nothing to be done about that. What’s inside the house, that you can affect.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Court Merrigan is a writer and world travelor. I was first drawn to his stories by the strong sense of place, which is familiar, and at the same time, often exotic. He blogs about writing and life here.

Me: Describe your writing for me: what is a “Court Merrigan story”?

Court: I take characters, bottle them up in a shitty situation, shake well, then minutely record the results.

Me: How important is sense of place to you, as a writer?

Court: Phenomenally important. I normally start with a place, usually even before a story idea, or even a character.

I lived in East Asia for a decade, so a lot of what I'm writing is set in real or imaginary places there. But I'm also from an unknown region of the country called Wyobraska, whose dust and wind bubbles in my blood. Its long empty spaces run through pretty much everything I've ever written.

Me: Have you found that teaching affects your own writing?

Court: Well, I don't teach writing, so not in that sense. I will say that a classroom does offer some insights into how people act under pressure, though. I also have learned a lot about how to be professional from teaching. When you step into a classroom, it doesn't matter how you feel; you have to put on a show that gets your content across. Getting up to write each day is much the same. You have to do it - or at least try to do it - no matter how you feel.

Me: Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?

Court:Now that our ten-month old is (finally!) sleeping through the night, I'm back to getting up at 4 or 5 and getting a few hours of writing in before the day job. I also write as much as I can on weekends and holidays but I've got kids and long ago promised myself that I'd put down the pen when one of them toddled into the room. Turns out, they toddle into the room a lot.

Me: As a blogger and writer, myself, let me ask: how useful do you find blogging to be for a writer?

Court: It has been fantastic for getting to know other writers. Unless you've already got a big name, I think it's pretty unthinkable that you wouldn't have an online presence as a writer, where people can go to read more of your stuff. For example,

I track all my rejection on the blog and archive them on a Failure page. This has been tremendously cathartic for me. I find that once I blog about a rejection, I never think about it again.

Having said that, writing quality blog posts is a lot of work. I don't put nearly so much effort into them as I did when I was starting out. I post pictures. I don't write nearly as many reviews as I should.

Me: I’ve noticed that you’ve placed some excerpts from your novel manuscript at various journals (Fried Chicken & Coffee, decomP, and Midwestern Gothic). Can you tell me a little about this novel?

Court: In common with many others, I've been semi-obsessed with the apocalyptic for some time now. I think it has something to do with growing up in the Reagan-era 80s, the nukes piling up, plus the stack of truck-stop pulp fiction I read as a kid, mutants warring in a seared nuclear wasteland &c.

These days, though, nuclear armageddon, zombie apocalypse, a world-searing pandemic - those seem to me less likely scenarios for the end times than a slow free-fall into barbarity from our present peak of effortless interconnection. What happens to ordinary folks, to the sons and daughters of ordinary folks, when their world winds down around them? When the infrastructure of the infinitely wired past remains before them, untouchable?

So I took 4 kids, abandoned by their mother, left defenseless by a weak alcoholic father, threw them in that cauldron, and saw how far they'd go to stay with each other. Pretty far, I discovered

I finished the novel a little over a year ago and immediately sent it out to a slew of agents. Didn't get much response, so I divvied the manuscript up and started sending excerpts out. Rusty Barnes, Jason Jordan, and the folks at Midwestern Gothic were good enough to pick three of these up. A few other pieces are circulating which I hope will see the light of day, too. I'm hoping that with a few credits such as these, the manuscript might attract a little more interest this time. Here's hoping!

Me: How has being a father influenced your writing?

Court: As I type this, I figure I've got about more 10 minutes to work before my oldest gets up and needs fed and watered. Kids hem you in, no question.

And yet it is wonderful to be interrupted by by a slobbering 10-month old.

I'm one of those who willingly retreats for whole days into the sanctuary of your head. My kids won't allow me to stay there that long, though. I am thankful for it.

Me: Who are your biggest influences?

Court: Among the dead: Hem, for being source of nearly everything. I haven't read him actively in years, but can still quote whole paragraphs from memory. Faulkner, for showing me how language can be pushed its utmost extremes and still tell a story. And Nabokov, for being an absolutely inimitable exemplar of what beauty looks like on the page.

Among the living, I was thrown for a loop last year when I read everything Scott Wolven wrote. That guy has inherited the mantle of Hem and cross-pollinated it with some Cormac McCarthy and Leonard Elmore ("If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it"), resurrected the muscle and guts to heartbreak and noir. A couple of favorites of his you can find online:

"Everything Tastes Like Whiskey"
"News About Yourself"

Will Christopher Baer's vastly underrated Kiss Me, Judas also showed me some of the lyrical possibilities inherent in "genre" fiction. Same with Daniel Woodrell.

I'm also a devoted student of Lorrie Moore. She's heartbreakingly funny.

Me: Who’s writing the killer fiction these days? Who will history remember?

Scott Wolven, for sure.

And there's Frank Bill. This guy is a true original. I can't peg his literary genealogy. I'm not sure he has one. He's got a book out now; here's a couple great ones online:

"The Need"

Brad Watson, who lives down the road from me in Laramie, is writing short stories as well as anyone living.

Roxane Gay is doing some really really fascinating things with the short story form. She's on her way to great things, I'm sure of it. Check out the use of Venn diagrams in this one: "Between Things"

Other writers I follow around the internet are Brad Green, Matthew C. Funk, David James Keaton, Marc Horne, Paolo Bacigalupi, Stephen Graham Jones, Keith Rawson, David Cranmer, Rion Amilcar Scott, Tamara Linse, and Rusty Barnes.

No idea who history will remember; I'd like folks to think will be reading Controlled Burn, by Scott Wolven, but more than likely it will be something by George RR Martin on account of his selling a bajillion copies.

Me: What are you working on now/next?

Court: I have four short stories to finish - three crime-ish, one science fictionish - and then I really want to get back to this novel I started more than a year ago. I have one chapter and a whole lot of research done. Now I just need to devote my early mornings to finishing the damn thing.

It is going to be a fantasy novel set in a time and place that, so far as I know, is as yet unmined by literary fortune-seekers. That's all I can

Monday, November 21, 2011

Here's an excerpt from my young adult novel Sunlight...


Sol woke to his father's voice singing along with some Oldies station on the radio. Sol had been listening to music but dozed off, and his earbuds had slipped out. They whispered softly from his chest where they'd fallen and he turned them off. His father's voice was low and quiet and tinged with sadness even though he was singing a happy song. It sounded weak, compared to how Sol's mother's voice used to sound. She sang constantly when she drove, though the radio was rarely on. Usually, she sang the old-fashioned songs people sang in choir class and in church. A lot of them didn't make any sense, though some of them had a weird kind of undertone, as though once upon a time, they'd meant something, but people had forgotten what, so that all that remained was the tune, with no real power. Kind of like elevator music.

Sol had always liked her voice. Whenever he heard anyone else sing those songs, they sounded hokey, silly, grown people singing kids' songs. His own voice sounded weak and embarrassed when he sang along with a rock song, as though it wanted to hide. But she was able to infuse the words with a feeling and intensity that made them sound better than they really were. She did that with everything. Even saying Sol's name, she could make him sound better than he felt like he was. He heard her voice, drifting up from memory:

I've got a friend in Baltimore,
Little Liza Jane
I've got a friend in Baltimore,
Little Liza Jane.
Oh Little Liza, Liza Jane,
Little Liza Jane.
Oh Little Liza, Liza Jane,
Little Liza Jane.
I've got a friend in Arkansas,
Little Liza Jane...

He lay, feeling the motion of the car rocking him, and listened to the voice in his memory for a few seconds before opening his eyes. It was the first time he'd woken peacefully in weeks.

Outside the car, it was all sunlight. A brilliant, blinding brightness covered everything. Sol blinked and imagined he could feel the warmth from it, though his father had the air conditioner on. On either side, fields of sunflowers stretched as far as Sol could see. Their green stalks strained up towards the sun. Some of them looked as tall as people, and on top of the stalks, their heads were fat with yellow petals on the outside and a dark eye in the center, as though they were watching the car.

"Are you back with us?" Sol's father asked.

"Almost," Sol said. "Where are we?"

"Almost there," Sol's father said, turning to Sol. "See those sunflowers?"

"There are lots of them."

"Those are Dan and Jill's. They grow them for bakeries and processors all over the country."

Sol watched the dark eyes of the flowers flow past, wondering how they stood, with all that weight on top and only a thin stalk to hold them up. He imagined people with giant black faces and yellow hair standing straight out around their heads, which were so big, the people kept falling down. It made him laugh, until he wondered if there was more, here, than just sunflowers. There was something his mom used to say, and it came to him, then, in the didactic voice she used with her students: pretty is boring if that's all there is.

His father slowed and turned onto a gravel road that split the sunflower field in half.

"I think this is it," he said.

"You don't know?" Sol asked.

"I haven't been here in awhile."

"What if it's not? Don't people shoot trespassers here?" Sol asked. He looked around, nervously.

"You watch too many bad movies," his father said.

"You don't watch enough."

Sol could see a house ahead, rising out of the yellow and black sea of flowers. It was a big white square, two stories tall, full of windows.

"Isn't this the house from Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Sol asked.

"No, that was in Texas." His father glanced at Sol.

"You know what I mean," Sol said.

"I don't want to know what you mean," his father said. "This is a nice place, Sol. It's where your mother grew up. Different isn't bad. It's just different."

Sol didn't answer. At the mention of his mother, something caught in his throat as though he hadn't drank any water in hours.

They pulled up to the house and stopped. Sol's father turned to look him in the eye.

"Will you do something for me?" he said. "Will you give it a chance? It's just for ten days, and I'll be right over in Little Rock, less than two hours away, if something happens. You're fifteen, now. You should be able to handle this."

"Sure," Sol said. His father watched him with a worried look. But beneath the worry was something else, as though his father were about to shatter like a plate dropped on a hardwood floor. It made Sol uneasy. "But Dad," he said, carefully "as soon as I see a chainsaw, I'm out of here."

"Deal," his father said, still too serious.

"And if I see anybody strange in a hockey mask..."

"I'm with you," his father said, his face finally relaxing into a grin. "I never liked hockey, anyway."

Sol allowed himself a smile.

Aunt Jill was short and husky with curly, dark hair. She was tanned a golden brown and wrinkled like an overripe pear. Sol could see the resemblance to his mother in her face, her eyes, especially, which were warm and dark as though they kept a great secret, and the skin around her nose, which wrinkled when she smiled and reminded him of a rabbit.

"The spitting image of your mother," she said. "How old are you, now, 15?"

"Yes ma'am," he said. “Old enough to get married in four states.”

“Well we’ll have to keep you away from Missouri,” Uncle Dan said.

Uncle Dan was stocky, a full head taller than Jill. His arms were long and dangled like an ape's with thick muscles that looked as hard as tree branches. His legs were short and stout and he stood hunched over, as though hiding his height. He was tanned a darker brown than Jill, his face stern as though he smiled only with great effort. He had a ring of gray hair on the edge of his head and a bald dome in the center and wore a bright cap Aunt Jill had woven to keep his head warm though it looked out of place on him.

Sol hadn't seen either of them in a couple years, and he didn't really remember much about them. His father told him he'd been to their house before, but it was unfamiliar. Time had become strange like that for him, though; even that morning seemed so long ago he could barely remember it.

After the re-introductions and exchanges of hugs, Uncle Dan helped Sol and his father unload their suitcases and carry them upstairs. He gave them a tour along the way. The house was a big square with a porch all the way around the front and sides. The front door opened to a living room with stairs along the wall. The wall above the stairs was covered with pictures of children Sol didn't recognize, and lots of old-timey black and white pictures that were probably of Sol's long-dead ancestors. The furniture looked handmade, which, Sol knew from his many outings with his mother to Amish markets, meant pricey. Or maybe Uncle Dan had made it.

Upstairs, a hall split the house in half, with rooms on either side. They each had their own room. There was a bathroom in the back corner, and a couple other rooms. Downstairs, the living room led to a kitchen, with a TV room on one side and a laundry room on the other.

Back in Baltimore, Sol lived in a townhouse, which was about half the size of this house, if even that. On the way back to the car, Sol asked his father where the kids in the pictures were, and his father said they couldn't have kids.

"I guess those are foster kids," his father said.

“You “guess.” So you’re not sure,” Sol said. “It could be kids they’ve gathered up to sacrifice to Cthulu on the Winter’s Solstice. They could keep them chained up in the basement.”

“What?” His father said. “Sol, what are you talking about? No one is chained up in the basement.”

“The attic, then.”

“Sol,” his father said. “No one is sacrificing anyone to...whatever you said. You
definitely watch too many movies. ”

“Cthulu is from a book,” Sol said. ”By H.P. Lovecraft.”

Sol’s father studied him. “When I was your age,” he said. “I was so busy trying to get laid, I didn’t have time for books.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Sol said.

“I didn’t say ‘succeeding.’ I said ‘trying’,” Sol’s father said, sending Sol back inside.

The house smelled fresh and clean, and all the windows were open. Sol took another suitcase upstairs. Through the screen in his room, he could see a wide yard with a garden near the house that curved around the back and a swing set standing empty, with two swings swaying in the wind. Sol went to the bathroom to wash his face, and through that window, could see the back of the house, with more garden, and a path that led to a barn and another small building beside it. Past the barn were a field and a stand of trees Sol could barely make out. Back in the hall, it was so quiet that he could hear the creaking of the swings and voices downstairs. He listened hard, but couldn’t hear any whimpers from the attic or the basement.

Sol was starting to get the feeling he was going to be very, very bored there. His music would only go so far. His father hadn’t wanted him to bring any video games, though he'd snuck in a couple things, and he was pretty sure they didn't have anything like that on the farm. In the TV room, he saw an ancient, clunky-looking computer sitting at a desk in the corner, but it looked like there were probably a couple squirrels inside on a treadmill powering the thing, so you had to put acorns in it to make it work. The more he thought about it, the more depressed he became. It's just ten days, he reminded himself, but it didn't really help. Ten days of being away from his cyber-friends was a lifetime.

He crept down to find everybody else and heard his father's voice.

"He doesn't seem to have any friends," he said. Sol heard the usual clink of ice cubes in a glass that meant his father was drinking.

"How's he been doing, since..." Aunt Jill's voice trailed off. "The funeral?"

"Distant. Withdrawn. Quiet. Not fitting in at school.," his father said. "But he's been like that ever since we moved him into a public school, really."

Sol’s fingers curled into a fist.

"He's always been quiet," his father added. "He'd rather play a video game or read than talk to people."

“That’s because people suck,” Sol said to himself.

"At least he reads," Uncle Dan said.

When he did talk, Sol wanted to say, the other kids hardly ever understood what he was talking about or got his jokes, so he just kept quiet.

"He's just so passive," his father said. "He just lets the world pass him by."

Sol's mom had always said that he let life happen to him, instead of seeking out new things on his own. That was why she'd put him in public school, so he'd have to explore new things and get out of his comfort zone, whatever that meant.

"Growing up is hard," Aunt Jill said. “Especially with what he’s going through.”

Ha, Sol thought; it was a nightmare. He ate his lunch surrounded by kids he barely knew who chattered away at the top of their lungs. They all had their own cliques: jocks, potheads, nerds. Even the loners had a clique. And the word got around that he'd been in private schools, so kids thought he was stuck-up. One mouth-breathing Neanderthal had called him a sissy and a rich boy, and said he would meet Sol on the front steps after school to fight. Sol spent the whole day dreading it and finally forced himself to go to the steps at the allotted time, but the other boy didn't show. Sol had hoped this would be the end of it. Far from it. The next day, the boy spread a rumor that it was Sol who hadn't shown up, and he was labeled a chicken.

His mom had told him that high school was a phase, that these things didn't matter in the long run, and when it was over, he'd never look back. But that was years away. He was stuck in the now, when it did matter. Now, she was gone. And he still had three more years of high school to dread. And it wasn’t like he could just tune out. Sol knew that his one shot at getting out of the herd was getting into a good college, so he’d have some options.

"It's hard fitting in to a new school, Jim," Aunt Jill said, cutting through Sol's thoughts.

"I don't think he wants to fit in," his father said. "I mean he gets the grades; I just wish I could find some way to bring him out of his shell."

Sol cleared his throat loudly and went into the kitchen with the others, just as his father drained the dark liquid from his glass. He greeted Sol with a shy grin, his face flushed. Sol made a point to check his watch, and his father looked away.

After unloading the car, they ate what Uncle Dan called a 'country dinner': mashed potatoes made from real potatoes, home-baked sunflower rolls, chicken fried in sunflower oil, fresh vegetables from the garden; all the ingredients they'd grown or raised themselves, Aunt Jill told them, except some of the spices, and the flour, which they'd bought locally.

"What about the chicken?" Sol's father asked.

"We uh ‘harvested’ it this morning," Uncle Dan said.

Sol's father glanced at Sol.

"What?" Sol asked, looking from his father's face to his Aunt and Uncle. He replayed the conversation in his head. "What do you mean 'harvested'?"

"They mean they killed the chicken and cooked it," Sol's father said.

"What?" Sol asked, "Why?"

"So we could eat it," Uncle Dan said. "For the special occasion of your visit."

"You mean you really killed it?"

"Yes," Aunt Jill said, "I mean we really killed it."

Sol's face dropped into a look of horror. "Is that legal?" he said.

"Uh-oh," Uncle Dan said, holding his arms out to be hand-cuffed. "Lock me up. Chicken killer."

Aunt Jill laughed. "Yes, Sol. It was our chicken to do with as we wanted."

"But, you killed it? I mean," Sol paused, unsure if he wanted to finish the question, "how?" Sol asked.

"Well, first you need an ax," Uncle Dan started to say, but Aunt Jill cut him off.

"Not at the table," she said. She turned to Sol, "it was quick and humane," she said.

"Humane?" Sol said, shaking his head at the word.

"Just don't think about it," his father said, selecting a drumstick. He passed the chicken around and Sol watched everyone else pile their plates high. Uncle Dan took a bite and Sol's stomach lurched like he was going to be sick. When the plate came around, Sol refused it.

"Have some salad," Aunt Jill said, putting some on Sol's plate. He picked at it, but his stomach wasn't in it. Everything smelled like the chicken, even the salad. It smelled so good it made his mouth water, but all Sol could think about was that poor chicken who gave its life for them. Harvested, they'd said. It was like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." He could hear the others chewing and smacking their lips. His stomach flipped like a light switch from queasiness to hunger. He was starving but he felt guilty for being hungry, and even though everything did smell and look good, he stuck with the salad, but still ate little.

After dinner, they went out onto the porch to relax. Sol's stomach murmured, and every time he thought about it, he felt guilty again, so he tried to ignore it. Finally, Aunt Jill went inside and came back with some fruit and nuts and cheese on a plate and handed it to him. Sol wolfed it down thankfully.

"He's not concerned over the feelings of that apple," Uncle Dan said.

"Hush, Dan, let him eat," Aunt Jill said. “It’s not his fault.”

They were quiet for a while and Sol put his earbuds in again and listened to music until he noticed everyone laughing at something Uncle Dan was saying. Sol turned the music off and listened himself. He didn't know what the big deal was; Uncle Dan was just telling stories about things that had happened on the farm or in town recently. But pretty soon he found himself drawn in. Most storytelling Sol had heard was just kids bragging about stuff that probably hadn't even happened or telling dirty jokes that weren't funny anymore once you knew what the words meant. Uncle Dan's stories were different. He was funny, but he didn't tell a story just to get to a punch line. He was like a musician playing an instrument, crafting the details like notes, paying attention to each one. Everyone listened as though it were a concert, and when he finished, they sat in silence again.

"That was funny, Uncle Dan," Sol said.

"Thankee," Uncle Dan said. "Better than a video game?"

"No," Sol said. It made his Uncle laugh.

“It’s real life,” Sol’s father said. “Real life is better than games.” His face was flushed red, and he was slurring his speech. Aunt Jill and Uncle Dan watched nervously.

“Then why do people play games?” Sol asked.

“Because they can’t handle the real world,” Sol’s father said. He looked right at Sol when he said it, so there could be no doubt who he was really talking about. Sol felt himself blush.

“Everyone needs a little escape now and then,” Aunt Jill said. “That’s what we’ve been doing by listening to stories, escaping.”

“There’s a lot of difference between talking about things that really happened and playing a video game,” Sol’s father said. “That’s pure escapism.”

“What would you call drinking alcohol?” Sol said. “Is that ‘pure escapism’?”

Sol’s father got a nasty look on his face.

“Jim,” Aunt Jill said. Sol’s father looked at her, angrily. She shook her head. Sol was surprised when his father clamped his lips together and didn’t respond.

"Well, I'm wiped," Uncle Dan said. "I'm going to bed."

Everyone followed him up, silently. Sol didn’t realize that he’d been shaking until he got to his room. It took him several minutes to stop, and when he finally crawled into bed, he realized he'd left his music downstairs.

He lay listening to the wind and the noises of the night, which were surprisingly loud. There were lots of bug noises, crickets and things he couldn't identify. He was in a world of half-sleep, randomly thinking about things that had happened that day.

Even though his Aunt and Uncle seemed okay, he definitely didn't want to be there. He'd had it out with his father for weeks about coming.

"We're committed," his father had said. He taught sociology at the University of Maryland, and he'd taken one summer term off from teaching in order to attend a conference in Little Rock, which left Sol stuck. So he'd arranged for Sol to stay with his Aunt and Uncle in Arkansas.

"I didn't ask you to do that," Sol said. "You should've asked me what I wanted."

"Well, it's too late now. It's a done deal. They expect us to come."

"You go. I'll stay here."

"Okay Sol. You want to know the truth? That's exactly why I didn't ask you. Sometimes we have to do things that we don't want to do but that are in our best interest. Remember when we had to force feed medicine to your pet rat? She didn't want to take it, but it was in her best interest to take it. It was difficult and painful but it had to be done. And after a couple times, she just laid back and took the medicine. And she got better."

"She died," Sol said.

His father glared at him. "A year later," he said. "Of old age. She was three. That's a healthy age for a rat."

"So going to Arkansas and living on a farm for two months is like giving antibiotics to Daisy how, exactly?"

"Sol, I don't want to argue with you about this. And I don't have to. We're going. That's it. End of discussion."

Sol slammed his bedroom door so loudly he knocked pictures off the wall in the living room. He heard them thud to the floor, which made him feel a little better. Then his father cursed loudly which made Sol feel a lot better.

* * *

Sol woke. For a moment, he didn't know where he was, then the feel of the strange bed reminded him. A new noise had joined the crickets. It was a rhythmic squeaking and a kind of rubbing sound. He'd been dreaming about the squirrels he'd imagined in the computer; someone was making them work really hard and their wheel was squeaking. Now that he was awake, the noise was still going. It sounded kind of like the noises you heard from other beds at boys’ camp. He didn’t want to think about that.

He found his cell-phone and flipped it open. The clock said midnight, and local time was an hour behind Baltimore time, so it was eleven. Too late to be swinging. Maybe it was a bear, scratching itself against something like they did in the zoo. He remembered his mom saying that Arkansas used to be called the bear state, but now most of the bears were gone, except up in the mountains. Was he near the mountains? Sol didn't know. He'd slept through most of the drive. What he remembered was flat land as far as he could see. It didn't seem particularly mountainous. Maybe not a bear then, maybe a deer.

He flipped his cell phone open and used the light to find his wallet by the bed. He flipped that open and dug out a photo of his mom. It was a head shot, showing her open smile and plain, sensible, teacher's hairdo, and clothes. It was the only picture of her Sol had. His father felt that Sol was clinging to the past too much, so he'd taken all of the other pictures and put them away in a box.

"We have to move on," he'd said. "It's been almost a year. You can't sit in your room all day looking at pictures." Sol didn't mention the picture he knew his father kept in his dresser drawer. It didn’t really matter what he said; he’d learned that lesson.

Sol had printed this picture off the website for the school. He stared at it for a long time, then he found the other picture behind it and looked at that one for a long time too. If his father knew Sol had this one, he'd have been even more upset.
Eventually, Sol fell asleep, and dreamed of swinging on the swing set, going higher and higher, almost to the top of the house while a bear with a bald patch and a bright red hat pushed him. On top of the house, Sol could see Daisy, his pet rat from when he was a kid. She was doing something with her back to him and didn't see him, and he couldn't tell what. Sol wanted to jump off the swing and onto the house, where Daisy was, and see, but every time he swung higher, the house grew higher, so he couldn't quite make it. Then a deer came up, singing like Sol's father had been in the car, and said it was his turn, and Sol had to get off.