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Issue 26 Non-Fiction

Novelist Duff Brenna reviews Jack Marshall's The Steel Veil. Contributing Editor Thomas E. Kennedy discusses "Words Under the Sky." Robert Gover shares an excerpt from his autobiography. And did we mention prose from Steve Davenport, Nancy Agabian, and Richard Reiss? All that and more in this, our 26th issue.

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Issue 26 Non-Fiction: Reviews
The Girl Who Threw Butterflies

This issue contains an interview with Mick Cochrane by Jean Westmoore of The Buffalo News. Cochrane's superb all-ages novel The Girl Who Threw Butterflies, was featured in Perigee's 24th issue.

If you are a Perigee donor and have access to our archives, remember to revisit the excerpt "Hardball," from The Girl Who Threw Butterflies, in our 24th issue's fiction section.

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America/Armenia/Angelina by Nancy Agabian

One good thing about living in Armenia for a year was an escape from U.S.-manufactured celebrity gossip. A tiny country, where many people know each other's business, Armenia has no shortage of home-grown gossip; the place can thus feel claustrophobic to most Armenians. Here in large America, in the bigger cities, it is easy to become anonymous and avoid the judgments of small-place eyes. But there are still imprisoning kinds of gossip.

Participating in American culture necessitates closely following pop culture so that you can be hip. I just started watching 30 Rock because my brother told me it was funny, and it is one of the few shows that I can watch for free on the internet without complicated and illegal downloading procedures. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is around my age, and she and I both wear glasses and were nerdy girls in high school who didn't fit in and thus sought comfort through the offerings of the teen media, which was much more innocent in the eighties: Tiger Beat and top 40 radio and MTV when it broadcast videos. Because of the demands of her job, she has kept up with pop culture much more than I have, and I sometimes do not know the current references on the show. If you want to get the joke, you must know the reference. To be an American, culturally, you must be constantly engaged with what the celebrities are doing, like Rihanna getting beaten up by her boyfriend, and Kim Kardashian sunburning herself, and people from the show The Hills doing all sorts of shenanigans that I can't bring myself to decipher.

The production of culture as commodity is obviously a capitalist phenomenon. In order to sell as much culture as possible, it is geared to the lowest common denominator, hence the trend in celebrity gossip that fictionalizes love relationships and breakups. The stories also have to be incredibly timely in order to move more product. Up-to-the-minute reference in popular culture goes deeper than general appeal, though: it makes us feel as if we are a part of something. Anyone studying basic advertising knows that it attempts to create a message that taps into people's higher level needs and desires—to feel loved, to be part of a community, to have a purpose in life, to find an identity.

American television has been delving deeper into these desires as a way to attract and maintain viewers. Hour long dramas carry over from week to week so that viewers become invested in a character's life, as if she or he were a friend. Friendship is a major staple on reality programs and fictional sitcoms and dramas alike.  People follow the relationships among the judges on American Idol, and they gradually learn about the singers' lives and watch them enact their personality quirks through competition. The common reality show practice of eliminating one participant per week mocks the harsh postmodern urban reality of friends dropping easily from your life; if I live in Brooklyn and you live in Queens and you decide to end our friendship, we are practically guaranteed to never run into each other again, our neighborhoods just a few miles apart but an interminable subway journey away. Sitcoms and dramas are based on groups of friends living in a big urban metropolis, but unlike you and your friends, they live close together and they interact in person. You feel like you could be a part of their circle as you watch their conversations and physical encounters in their living room which faces yours.

Before I went to Armenia, I had a habit of watching repeats of sitcoms every single evening: Friends or Sex and the City. I thought of them as friend supplements; I had a wide network of friends and several even lived within walking distance of my home so we could stop by each others' apartments. But I sometimes needed a little more friendship feeling, which these shows provided. In that daily dose, I received plenty of propaganda, especially from Sex and the City. Though I liked watching women talking openly (and absurdly) about sex, there was way too much emphasis put on clothes and shoes. Ads for Weight Watchers interrupted the dating drama. I put up with it because most of my friends were in couples, and I hadn't had a sexual partner in a long while; the show gave me an outlet to work through my dating failures and my struggle to conceive of myself as a sexually appealing person, topics which I was too proud to share with my coupled friends. But I couldn't escape that the image of an independent, sexually liberated woman came in a very specific, and skinny, visual package.  Intellectually, I knew it was all bullshit, but I couldn't help being intuitively swayed; I liked Sarah Jessica Parker's witticisms and Cynthia Nixon's sarcasms, which were crafted and edited as much as their fashions, a seamless fabrication of personality and appearance.

So I found myself constantly aware of my appearance whenever I went out, glancing at my reflection in the subway's glass windows. I could never match my image to the "perfect" ones I had seen on tv; I felt like I was in prison.  Inspired by Lucy Grealy, I put away my full length mirror and tried my best to avoid reflective surfaces. But I couldn't avoid other people; in the appearance-obsessed world of New York, where the fashion industry is quite influential, even individuals walking down the street look like celebrities.  New York, like L.A., is a city where people come to become something special.  So many transplanted New Yorkers want to feel that they have unique and recognized personalities.

And when we find we don't, we feel like worthless pieces of shit. Luckily, the celebrity gossip media mill will create a backlash against celebrities, tearing them down and revealing them when they are at their lowest points as a form of public humiliation, e.g., Britney with a bald head and an umbrella lashing out at photographers during her custody battle. I found myself reading trashy celebrity magazines, rationalizing that it was purely a form of escape. But although TV shows, films and celebrity gossip are escapist, they also form a complex mechanism around how we form our own identities, feeding our desires and insecurities. In our addictive culture, the media—with its references, quick turnaround, visual persuasion and destructive tendencies—is one more substance to abuse.

So when I went to Armenia (on a Fulbright to teach and to write), I was happy to escape the cycle. There were hardly any means to view U.S. tv, film or celebrity media. When I turned on the tv, I sometimes found American films (like that bizarre Arnold Schwarzenegger/Emma Thompson movie in which he plays the first pregnant man), but they were dubbed in Russian. There were two movie theaters in Yerevan, the capital city where I resided, but American films were only some of the films that screened; Perfume and a stupid Cameron Diaz movie were showing, but these weren't the films that people generally wanted to see and they weren't promoted in the media. There was more buzz around art house films and international film festivals.

Because of the small size of the city, I soon found a boyfriend, introduced to me through a friend. In Armenia, you really do feel special, especially as a foreigner, because it is such a small place (of three million souls in the entire country, the size of Maryland). Most folks appreciate anyone who has made the effort to get there, and they pride themselves on their hospitality. Though I only wrote in English, I was recognized as a writer in a way that I could never experience in New York, my work being read by many and receiving undue accolades. I soon made friends through my partner and alternative artistic circles. Because restaurants were out of the realm of most people's budgets, we invited people over for repasts any time of day; Armenians like to stay up all night. We often visited people in their homes as part of an easy cycle of friendship and life. I discovered that the hospitality I had known in my Armenian grandmother evolved from a deep cultural framework. She never felt comfortable in restaurants, which I always attributed to her pickiness with food, but I now realized in Armenia that food made by strangers would have had no reference for her; she needed to place that food in a context, among people she knew and loved and jabbered away with. In Armenia, food was a way of relating, not just something to be purchased and consumed for its own sake. Similarly, friendship also had contextual value, and it didn't need to be supplemented by media representations of community.

In general, Armenians had a group commitment to each other, an unspoken agreement to be friendly like one big extended family as a given of the culture. College students worked with each other in the same small groups through four years of classes together. A weekly writers' meeting convened for two hours then lasted through dinner and then coffee at one cafe and then coffee at another cafe after that.  Bartering vendors on the street would call me "sister". Encounters between old people and young people invariably brought out diminutives from the elders and expressions of "granny" or "uncle" from the kids, even if no one was related. My needs and dependencies changed in this environment, where everyone put togetherness at a higher priority than work and career. It was easy to be with friends, even, as my husband pointed out, those you didn't necessarily like that much. Though it could be a burden to be expected to spend time with certain people, I loved the ease with which Arman and I could be with friends whom we could drop in on, or arrange to meet within an hour, or run into on our nighttime walks through the city.

Sometimes I would hear about U.S. celebrity gossip through blurbs on my Yahoo email account. Anna Nicole Smith died that year, which I spent some time thinking about. But I entirely missed the Oscar hoopla. My husband and I would rent films or buy DVDs at flea markets, but our offerings were limited. I read a lot more, especially during the cold winter months when the city turned into an ice storm. My thoughts and concerns were about the people around me, and I needed little distraction. It's true that I was in a brand new place, where everything, from the way the bus drivers operated to the beauty of the countryside struck my interest, but even if I had wanted to escape, there weren't many means; escapism just wasn't nearly as much a part of the culture as it had been in the U.S. And I liked my life better that way.

So when I came back to the U.S. I made a concerted effort to keep out the bad shit. I didn't get a tv. I turned my back on newsstands. I met my friends for dinner instead of movies—when I could. After a year away, my friends had changed—some had left the city, others had become parents—which limited my access to them.  My Armenian boyfriend—now my husband—took up a large part of my life, limiting my time for friendships too. I slowly re-connected with some friends, but many others slowly slipped away. Eventually, I found myself sneaking peeks at internet gossip sites. At first it was innocent, but now, two years after returning to the States, I feel imprisoned, as I had when I glanced at my image in subway windows. I find that I cannot go to bed until I have looked at these sites exhaustively. The celebrity I am most obsessed with: Angelina Jolie.

First I must admit that Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt originally struck my interest several years ago when they married because I thought she had made a mistake; I had heard through Hollywood friends that they smoked a lot of pot—not unusual behavior for celebrities of their stature since they couldn't just go out to the movies or dinner without being hassled, so they had to do something for recreation. But Jennifer wouldn't have reached this stature if she hadn't married Brad, and he seemed like a bad influence on her. I too had been involved with addicts, with "bad boys" for whom I maybe changed my behavior a little too much.

When Angelina broke up their marriage, I further identified with Aniston, since a couple of years before I had been dumped by a guy who immediately started dating someone whom he'd met while he was still with me; it wasn't long before he committed himself to marriage and babies, to leave me completely single. Instead of working through my feelings by watching a fictional tv series like Sex and the City, I got sucked into the celebrity media's fabrication of the love triangle story.

But as the years have progressed and the media continues to shove all three of these figures into the spotlight, my attention has shifted to Angelina Jolie. In the absence of friends and tv shows and with new, greater pressures in my life, I started to look up Angelina on the Internet: not her films, but her interviews. There's a long interview on Inside the Actor's Studio. She was on Ellen once. I've seen her make brief appearances on the Today Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Charlie Rose. There is a terribly awkward and defensive interview with David Letterman when she was very young.  She spoke to Barbara Walters a few times, and cried to Oprah the first time she went abroad as a UNHCR Good Will Ambassador. I've even seen fuzzy images of her hanging out with people smoking heroin in a NYC apartment, while she picks at her lips. The most interesting thing about her, unlike Jennifer Aniston, is that she has changed so much over the years. At first she was a defensive and odd outsider, then transformed to a more intelligent, observant, edgy, actor, and now she's a stable, mature, and maternal world figure who wears neutral colors and heels and speaks in a deeper, smoother voice, though she professes she is the same punk kid with tattoos that she ever was.

So I have become obsessed with the question of who she is now. How can she star in stupid action movies, act in genuinely reputable films, take care of so many different kinds of children, travel all over the world to learn about the plight of refugees, and satisfy Brad Pitt sexually? How the hell can one person do all that? And not have an ego, as she seems (or tries) to project? Most frustratingly, I can never know the answers to these questions, to discover the real person underneath the image. To make matters worse, she recently filmed parts of Salt in a friends' apartment building, and she bought a motorcycle for Pitt from one of my friends' husbands, which somehow gives me the delusion that I am fated to one day meet her in an elevator or on the streets of Queens. My fantasy: I would be kind to her and her children, and she would be thankful.

Angelina isn't exactly a role model, because I am embarrassed that I am interested in her. Aren't there a million better places where I could put my attention? Must I have a celebrity point out that there is suffering in the world? I know it firsthand from my own Armenian family's history, my time in Armenia, and my students, who sometimes recognize the importance of writing about their own pain. Immigrants and the kids of immigrants, many of them don't want to go to those difficult places. They are in escape mode. I try to teach them books about children discovering their parents' struggles or their own cultural identity, but they often don't want to engage, and I get frustrated, turning into a touchy and burned out teacher lugging home an oversized backpack on two subway trains and a bus.  Angelina, on the other hand, swoops into remote camps, looking beautiful, calming refugees with her smile or a touch, crying when they say or do something that moves her. When I am kind to Angelina, I realize that her humanitarian work is probably the best way she can actualize her life; as a very visible actress (again, like Jennifer, being more visible because of coupling with Brad); it is an available means for her to make a difference, albeit a very over the top and ambitious way of doing so. But when I can barely keep up with my life of trying to help 50 students a semester, deal with my husbands' moods as a result of relocating halfway across the world, try to promote my memoir of which only a few hundred have sold, and do my own writing, I just want to find some dirty little piece of human truth about her.

Recently, I came across some gossip that Angelina wants to adopt an Armenian baby. At first I was excited, fantasizing that I could advise her on raising an Armenian American kid. Then I was resentful: Armenia isn't so bad that Angelina needs to rescue one of its children!  One reason Angie wants to adopt from Armenia, it was reported, is because there's a lot less red tape; this contradicts everything I have ever heard about how difficult it is for Americans to adopt from Armenia, given that it's such a small country that tries to hold onto as many citizens as possible. An official at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs soberly said that Jolie and Pitt would have to go through the same rigmarole as any other adoptive parents, but then added, “They give me great hope as I have heard that they take good care of adopted children."  Sure, with a big kickback, she'd be happy to sell a baby to the Jolie-Pitt family. I went on to read how corrupt the adoption system is in Armenia. And yet, I still felt the urge to put a notice about the rumored adoption on my Facebook page: "Hey, Angie wants to adopt one of my people!"  Now I needed a celebrity to validate my homeland? I had reached bottom.

After 3000 words of sorting through this crap, I don't feel as ashamed. In the eighties, women were so intrigued with Madonna that many had regular dreams about her, and Camille Paglia theorized about her as a feminist icon. Angelina is similar in that she takes up so much room in our collective unconsciousness, and now Naomi Wolf has theorized on her as a feminist icon, too. But where Madonna was obviously and admittedly obsessed with herself, Angelina seems to honestly want to do good for the world. She is not downtrodden by the impossible situations that she has witnessed; instead they obviously feed her, and she is convinced that she can make a difference, or she wouldn't keep flying to remote countries to visit refugees and advocate for them in our media.

I try to teach people that their voices have power, but it's difficult when your own voice feels marginalized and you don't think anyone would ever want to read anything you write about the tiny country that holds your interest, or when a conventionally beautiful white woman gets more attention than, like, people of color who struggle and strive and thanklessly toil at human rights in third world countries. I want to seek my own knowledge and feel confident in my true path, but it gets increasingly difficult for me to place my attention on what is real. And this is why I value my husband; he hasn't been poisoned. He seeks out movies and books and music that he honestly likes, not because they define his identity or have been forced on him by corporate media. I have seen films and heard music that I never would have experienced if it weren't for his clear insight.

Angelina claims that she hasn't exposed her children to any of her films. She tells a story that Maddox was surprised that she could do a cartwheel, since he thought of her only as Mom. Her kids know nothing of her career besides her voice in Kung Fu Panda. At least, this is her story: the poor children seem to get photographed whenever they go out in public, so they must know that something is up. But the point is that Angelina obviously values her children's lack of awareness of her celebrity. Maybe Angelina too has trouble focusing on what is real. She too is obsessed with her own image, posing with lips pouted in magazines, showing off her cleavage, pushing a grocery cart at Stop-n-Shop in high-heeled boots and a skirt; you never see her out in public in jeans anymore.

The New York Times wrote an article purporting that she was actually very media manipulative, calling a photographer to take photos of her on a remote beach with Maddox and Brad Pitt when he had just separated from Jennifer Aniston. It's a sad day when even our more lofty institutions engage in celebrity theory. The truth is that whatever games she has played, she too is a victim of the media, as are we. She harms us with violent action films, even if she uses her salary to help victims of violence; she seems to disdain anyone interested in her celebrity, but it's the only reason she has been given such access as a Good Will Ambassador. So her example may not inspire charitable giving or generosity or a look at what is real as much as people's fascination with her. When asked in an interview if she were concerned about her beauty fading, she said no, because she was going to slowly retire in a couple of years. It was an interesting reply: no critique of Hollywood's emphasis on appearance rather than talent, and no expression of wanting to change the situation for older women, but an easy acceptance of the system. She also once complained that for her father's generation, dealing with celebrity was about 20% of his job as an actor; for her it's 80%. And yet she keeps taking offers to appear on the cover of magazines, and Pitt willingly gives "private family photos" to W.

Sometimes to subvert all the crap I imagine Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie as a couple. It's actually not so far-fetched; Angie has said she is bi, and I once heard that Brad and Jen were both gay. I think Aniston was similarly trying to subvert her image when she joked in one interview that in reality they were all friends and hung out in the Hamptons while she babysat Zahara.

Perhaps it's a feminist fantasy. Brad Pitt is obviously a dum dum. It's been over four years but Jennifer is still known as the one who got dumped. Angie has hooked up only with other actors, a serial monogamist who finds lovers on her film projects.  So how independent and self-directed is she? I think she tattoos herself as a rejection of her conventional beauty. If my body looked exactly like the media's standard-issue paper doll, I would feel like I had succumbed, given up ownership and lost myself. Celebrity is not so much about being special, but losing yourself to everybody else's control.

Of course, this is true not just for objects of celebrity, but their viewers who keep consuming them.  The more we try to escape our lives, the more the celebrities wish that they were normal, like us. I will try to remember this paradox as I turn to look away at my small place.

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Biographical information: Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak: Poems and Performance Texts, and Me as her again, a memoir and 2008 Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is working on a nonfiction novel about her time as a Fulbright scholar to Armenia. She lives and teaches in Queens, NY.

Four Generations of Men by David W Berner

Three men and a little boy stand together. The boy appears bewildered and uncertain. Two of the men smile awkwardly; the way people do when they are coaxed to grin for a camera. And the man in the middle, arms folded across his chest, appears he wants it unmistakably known that he has no interest in being part of the picture-taking process at all.

This Kodak snapshot sits in a wooden frame on my bookshelf, taken when I was six years old with a film camera one technical progression prior to the Polaroid Instamatic. The setting is the living room of a relative's home in front of the fireplace. A plastic poinsettia ornament hangs on the wall in the photo's background, so it is Christmas. The photograph captures four generations of men—my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and me. A few years after my dad died, I found it inside the drawer of a credenza in my parent's family room stacked along with dozens of other faded and cracked photos. Considering the remarkable moment it recorded, the intersection of the lifetimes of fathers and sons, I was puzzled that it hadn't been framed and displayed in a place of prominence. When I asked my mother why, she unfolded a story that had been kept from me for forty-five years.

When my father was in high school, his father left his mother. Walked out. But he didn't simply disappear, move to another town, or run off with his secretary as if he were a character in the clichéd tale of a man who finds himself in bed with the woman who navigates his phone messages and business calendar. Instead my grandfather moved into a house just down the street, another home in a quiet suburban neighborhood, so he could be with the woman he said he loved, the mother of my father's best friend. My dad would go to bed at night, staring at the ceiling, knowing his father was sleeping with a woman he saw nearly everyday working in her garden, at the grocery store, sitting in the pews at the Catholic church just a mile away. This was the woman who gave my father a bottle of Coke to cool off during a hot summer day when he and his friend, her son, had returned from an afternoon of delivering the daily newspaper to the homes on my dad's paper route. This was the woman who waved hello to my father when he'd walk home from school, when he'd ride his bike past her house on a Saturday morning. Now, he did everything to avoid her. If he saw her on the street, he'd duck between the houses. If he saw her at church, he'd stand in the back by the confessional and leave before she did. If she were sitting on her porch in the old wicker chair puffing her cigarettes, he would walk through the backyards to keep from her sight and steer clear of the peppery smell of her Parliaments, the same brand his mother smoked.  Dad had to drop out of school to work as a carpenter on a homebuilder's crew to support his now fatherless family. He never again played high school football and lost the time he once had to paint and sketch. My father had been a talented artist. Directly on the walls of his bedroom, he had created pencil drawings of marshes and lakes with ducks and loons flying above them. When his mother would repaint the room she would paint around the artwork, leaving the originals untouched. And in his dresser drawer, Dad kept dozens of charcoal sketches of Jackie Gleason, boxer Billy Conn, and Mickey Mouse. My father never again spoke to the neighbor woman, never again spoke to his best friend, and never again spoke of his father.

In the photo, Dad is the one on the far left smiling because the cameraman told him to. He does it convincingly, his dignity fueling the emotion on his face, masking harbored bitterness. Wearing a gray Bing Crosby-style cardigan and a red open-collared shirt underneath, Dad stands with his shoulders back and his head up, his eyes looking directly into the camera's lens. See, Father, I didn't leave MY son. I would never leave my son. I'm not like you. On the far right, alone in his own presence, stands my grandfather. He's the one smiling awkwardly, the right corner of his mouth turned up, the left turned down in a contorted grin. His shoulders slump, his white dress shirt is crisp, his maroon tie taut against his collar, a tiepin pulling it tight against the shirt's center placket. In his shirt pocket rests a pair of glasses, habitually removed from his face when someone calls for a camera. His salt-and-pepper hair is combed straight back from his forehead, the way he had worn it for decades. And in the center of the photo, standing like a reluctant six-foot high barricade between my father and his, is my great grandfather, the tallest in the photograph. His arms are crossed over his chest and his eyes look, not at the camera, but defiantly away from it. Turn-of-the-century wire rim glasses rest on his long, thin nose, his white hair is combed straight back like his son's, and his white pocket square peaks out just right from the chest pocket of his milk chocolate colored suit coat, the same suit he wore when he played the piano at the silent movie house in town, taught weekly music lessons, and attended Sunday masses. A decades-old suit that still fit. 

Whoever was on the other side of the lens unflinchingly coaxed these three men into standing together for this unlikely photograph. This is a moment we may never see again. It's family history. Why don't you all get together for a picture? How wonderful. Those on the other side of the camera were uninformed of the family back-story, or boldly ignored it. No matter, the reality was that none of the men had stood together like this before, physically or emotionally, and no matter the opportunity, the holiday, or the history, the camera fails to disguise the layers of bitterness, shame or contempt.

The fourth in the photo, standing directly in front of my great grandfather, is a child. It's me. A little boy who has been pulled and pushed by the photographer into this implausible collage. Come on. Get in there. Stand in the middle. That's it. Straighten your collar. Put your hands by your sides. That's your grandfather, you know? Your great grandfather, too. How about that? There were certainly many relatives around that day, enticing this group to pose together. It was the holiday season, a celebration of family. Those keenly aware of the discord may have believed it was time to forget the past and openly call for a truce, but I'm also confident there were others who knew nothing about what these men carried like anvils in their hearts. No one is getting any younger. This may be the last time they'll ever be in the same room together. Anyone have a camera?  Or maybe it's simpler than that, more innocent. Maybe someone was simply thinking of me. The grandchildren should have this photograph. There's something so special about having all these men together, fathers and sons. It will be something they'll cherish forever.   

Some fifteen years after the photo was taken, a phone call came to my parent's home. And, as was customarily the case at our house, my mother answered it.

"Gloria, this is Norman's old friend from high school."

It was my father's childhood companion, the teenage boy who grew up with my father's dad, my grandfather, living in his home, sleeping with his mother.

"Is Norman there?"

Dad was home, but my mother lied, instinctively protecting my father from what she sensed could be difficult news.

"Please tell him that his father is in Memorial Hospital. He's not doing well. He only has a few days left."

My mother didn't answer.

"Gloria?"

Rubbing the corners of her eyes with her left hand, she pulled the phone away from her ear, pausing to steady herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm so sorry."

"And Gloria, there's one other thing." My mother could hear the caller inhale, a preparatory inward breath. "He's asking for Norman."

"Asking to see him?"

"Might there be any way Norman can get here?"

Again my mother paused, taking her own inward breath. "I don't know. I ... honestly ... don't know," she said, hesitating over each word. "I think I would have to talk to Norman about it."

The mother took down the hospital's address, the room number, and the name of the nurse on the floor in case it was needed. The phone call lasted less than two minutes.

Later that same day my mother told my father. He quietly listened, never saying anything, only looking away from her eyes to floor and back again to her. For two straight days, as his father was fading away in a metal bed of white linens in the sterility of a hospital room, Dad gave no indication of what he might do. Never asked for advice, never talked about it, never telephoned the hospital, the nurse's station, or his old friend.

On day three, something changed.

That morning, Dad drove himself to Memorial Hospital. My mother told me he took the elevator to the fourth floor and asked the nurse where he might find his father. He stood outside the open door for several minutes, listening. The television hanging from the wall near the foot of the bed was tuned to what he believed was an old western movie, the volume just loud enough to detect the sound of gunfire. All Dad could see was the foot of the bed, a curtain drawn to conceal the man lying there.

"Can I help you?"

A voice called from behind him. He turned toward it.

"I'm a friend of the family," a young man said, reaching out his hand to shake my father's.

 Dad didn't recognize the man, nor did he ask for any details of identity.

"I'm here to see my father," Dad said.

The man hesitated, puzzled by the words.

"I'm Norman," my father added.

"Oh. Yes. Norman," he said. "Let me check on your father. Tell him you're here."

Less than a minute passed before he returned to the hospital room doorway.

"Go ahead in," the man said.

Dad did not hesitate or second-guess his appearance. He walked into the room with a steady stride, turning around just for a second to be sure the door was closed behind him.

In the hallway on the other side of the door, nurses with clipboards and metal carts moved up and down, in and out of adjoining rooms. The phone rang at the nurses' station, and through the intercom system came the request for the on-call doctor to report to the medical records office. A deliveryman held a blue vase of daisies and asked a nurse's aide where he could find the room of the man whose name was printed on the attached card. And through the speakers on the wall came the soft sound of music, an orchestra's simple rendition of the Beatles' Nowhere Man.

My father never talked about those fifteen minutes inside that hospital room. Never revealed what was said, discussed, or argued. There was never a word to anyone about apologies or blame, and never a suggestion of why he made the final decision to visit his father's deathbed. Dad was as silent about his father after his death as he was before it. And on the afternoon when the funeral home laid out my grandfather's body, Dad asked to attend on his own. His visit lasted only minutes. Dad signed the guestbook, knelt at the coffin to say a silent prayer, and left the viewing the same way he arrived, alone. 

The old photograph remains on my bookshelf, the colors muted with age, the grainy visual texture more evident.  Not long ago, I placed another photo next to it. It's a more recent one with truer colors and a sharp resolution, a photo of the digital age. The image is of my father standing chest-high in a swimming pool of chorine-clear water, holding my oldest son when he was five-years old, both bare-chested with droplets of water on their shoulders and foreheads, their sun-touched faces just inches apart, and both smiling without anyone insisting they do so.

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Biographical information: David W. Berner is an award-winning journalist, writer, documentarian, and teacher. His most recent book, Accidental Lessons—A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed, was published by AEG/Strategic in February, 2009. His essays and reporting have been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, and his broadcast work has been aired on National Public Radio, the CBS Radio Network, and public radio stations across the United States. David is an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, teaching writing, audio documentary, and radio narrative. www.davidwberner.com, www.accidentallessons.com.

Jack Marshall's The Steel Veil Reviewed by Duff Brenna
This review originally appeared in South Carolina Review
 

Jack Marshall is the author of 11 books of poetry and a memoir, From Baghdad to Brooklyn, covering his formative years in Brooklyn, New York. He is the son of Jewish-Arab parents. His father came from Baghdad, his mother from Syria. Marshall grew up speaking both English and Arabic. To know the man one only has to read the poems, but to know the well-springs of the poet the memoir is invaluable.  Marshall was discouraged from becoming a poet. One wonders how he managed to overcome the influence of a father who strictly believed that "Jackie" should find a job and "not continuing following your career of poetries and other miserable career that will drive you to poverty and sickness and loss of mind; what will be left to you only mental hospital." The father says that his son should "Keep these notes ... of mine as a bible. I say again use these notes as you would read a bible."

The father's letter was never sent. Marshall didn't read it until years after the old man died, but he always knew how his father felt. The lack of support Marshall experienced growing up in his particular kosher home might easily have crippled his love of the arts and his ambition to be a poet who would make his mark. A lesser talent would have folded, but Marshall absorbed all he could from his environment and the people populating it, turning much of it (if not all of it) into poetry that is as precise as the verse of, say, Thomas Hardy in "The Man He Killed" or T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," or Robert Lowell (especially the spare Lowell of Life Studies), or the apocalyptic W.B. Yeats of "The Second Coming."  The essence of these influences is summarized by Marshall himself when he says at one point in his memoir:

"This innate ability to compress the gist of one's experience and immediately express it concisely speaks to an inborn talent ... the effect of which takes for granted that time is not on our side and so it is to one's advantage [to write words that convey] the most meaning carried by the least means ... agile, abbreviated."

The quote above tells us exactly what Marshall's poetry attempts to do, carry the most meaning using the least means. From collections such as The Darkest Continent, Bearings, Sesame and now The Steel Veil one can see Marshall at his most agile and abbreviated. The Steel Veil expresses the innate sense that Marshall has for an economy of words, which, to paraphrase Isaac Babel, pierce the heart by putting the period in just the right place. One sees this ability over and over in Marshall's word selection. In poem after poem packed with clean-eyed clarity the words are weighed for their ability to carry their worth in creating a fine, almost imperceptible balance with all the other choices made in each line as it comes to us. This inherent faculty is illustrated throughout The Steel Veil. The poems "Civilty," "Dimming," "Apologies to the Spider," Late Prescription," Convergence," "Old man," "The Steel Veil," and "Weather Report: Baghdad Burning" provide dazzling models. The Steel Veil is lush with the very themes that haunt us as we make our way through life from cradle to grave: family, love, loss, aging, illness, death, political wrongdoing, the incongruities of the quotidian, evil and goodness, justice and injustice, the place of God in our lives, the beauty of friendship of caring of kindness.

"Civilty" presents a conversation between "Jackie" and a cousin he had had "a boyhood crush on but hadn't seen/ in decades." Jackie's sister, Renee, is dying of cancer. She and the cousin were best friends years ago, but the cousin can't muster the courage to visit Renee now. The cousin wants to remember her as she used to be, "Like when we were kids, you know?" Jackie is "running out of civilities" and tells the cousin, "It's o.k." And the poem ends thusly:

The trees across the way are winter-thin;

their bare tops tossing in a wind

 

this moment memory is made, cast

on a mote in a sky cold and vast.

"Civilty" illustrates the delicacy and care used in Marshall's choice of language and his skill at putting the period where it will do the most good. Take any word out and the poem is diminished, the overall effect changes. And where is there room to add a word without ruining the rhythm, the impact?

"Dimming" tells us "There is a glacier, grown slowly as hair,/ dissolving faster than our thoughts/ run past."  Each of us is a self-of-the-moment and liable to vanish. The same possibility threatens our planet, the "global dimming," "the red rim on the blackening tin twilight is riding." We are all caught in a narrowing of time, living to fail, failing to live as we move inexorably towards a predestined dimming.

"Apologies to the Spider" is about connections and how easily, often inadvertently, we break them, or think we break them. The spider's web is accidentally broken, swept away by the narrator of the poem. To the spider the spiral web may be a galaxy. It catches seeds and bugs and wings and all sorts of tiny flotsam, mimicking in its own way our galaxy corralling stars and planets and whatever debris floats between them. We are connected to all of it, connected to the spider's web, connected to the cat's "cobweb-whiskers snagged in mist-gray/ hedges where webs are thickest" and

We move,

each on our separate frequency,

on a trellis of nerve—

ends through which impulses cross synapse,

or fall in the gaps.

"Late Prescription" takes on the Nietzschean theme of God being dead, only with a bit of a twist: "God is death." His calling card is cancer. God is a thief "who cancels our many/ small debts with one/ big theft." The poet turns to his poetry hoping, almost begging, to "Write what heals ... on the heels of what wounds." "Late Prescription" is another poem to Renee, Marshall's sister. It tells us of the helplessness that we all feel when confronted with a loved one's inevitable death. There is no writing our way out of it as the loved one ebbs toward the condition of being "less than silence" and everything becomes scrambled and grotesque and confusing. We avert our eyes. We turn our backs. The helplessness, the sorrow, and the longing in Marshall's poignant rendition are palpable. The subject is heartbreaking, but the poem is beautiful in the way that Yeats's poem "Easter 1916" is beautiful. In both creations we note that "a terrible beauty is born."

"Convergence" captures the chain of being occurring within families, how a child returns a look that is the image of a long dead grandmother and "two faces fold into one." In the poet's vision instigated by the child's face he is "beamed up," ... "in a loopy overlap of parallel planes, down/ to the tell-tale dimple in the smile." As long as this child is alive the grandmother lives too, and on and on eternally children joining the world carrying their forbearers within them.

After youth and age, daydream and debris,

we're the sheer

slip shaken off

from the shoulders of a sultan's daughter.

In "Old Man" we are confronted with the anguish of fathers that "Becomes an indignant solitude whose chart/ Is the cardiogram of a broken heart. " The narrator notes the father's "Face crisscrossed chock-/ Full of lines as a butcher's block." The eyes are filled with a loneliness of pride and regret that "I will not live long enough to fathom or forget."  The poet sees what old age has done to the father, given him "a row of baited/ Snares the years denied any savor to." The realization comes to us that we all end up with time as a task and a weight and that there is no call for us to follow our fathers, but we go anyway.

The title poem, "The Steel Veil," gives us a sketch of our current political and domestic trials where "Spreading along with the wind/ out of the president's mouth,/ desolation, even where there's no dying/ going on." Daily we are faced with the results of road rage and fraud, speculation, price wars, pollution. Sands of the deserts float on "seas of oil." Children are bombed with rations or dynamite depending on the luck of draw. Why is this so? Because the steel veil is a veil of empire.  As Joyce says in Ulysses, "It seems that history is to blame." He also says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." History to us is "increasingly incredible/ news is increasingly/ credible nightmare."  Our hearts, our minds, our spirits are not wide enough, deep enough, vast enough to take it all in. Nothing human is deep enough and never will be. "The Steel Veil" pulsates with a deep, heartbroken rage at what the powers that be have wrought in the first decade of a 21st century waging war and slaughtering enemies. Yes, slaughtering the guilty but also the innocent.

The finely modulated rage of "The Steel Veil" breaks even more into the open in "Weather Report: Baghdad Burning," where "the heavens rain/ Human beings like living torches/ Onto the billowing street." Baghdad is burning as the poet writes his memoir ("memory's fiction"), remembering his father as he, the poet, thinks about the father's birthplace burning.  Surreally the father "stands in a pressed suit against a night/ Lit red with rockets." The stanza ends and the poet muses on his own advancing age that is slowing him down, making the words harder and plainer "Than when I was a wooer, woollier, windier."  The rest of the stanza sums up the ways of the world we're living in:

Even nightingales run out of luck

After building their nest and, singing,

Give their best, only to have crows

Take over, caw and clatter, and leave

Behind their fecal matter;

Only to have (with all due contempt),

Instead of a savior risen,

A president who belongs in prison.

There are possibly a million good poets living on this demanding, challenging, and distressing planet, good poets capturing all that their talent is capable of giving as they etch the days and nights of a failing species, giving us its lows, but also giving us its highs. There is humor, there is rancor and rage and love and insights that can pivot a closed mind 180 degrees, enlighten it, broaden its horizons. These are the gifts of the poets. They give us reasons not to regret that this place will one day know us no more. And they also give us compelling reasons to continue putting up with this interesting mess we've created in our own country and elsewhere. We need their words. We need to be told what we're facing, what has gone before and what lies ahead if we don't change our ways. Good poets do this for us. Few do it as brilliantly as Jack Marshall does it in The Steel Veil.

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Biographical information: Duff Brenna is Fiction Editor for Perigee.

Born in 1936 to Jewish parents who emigrated from Iraq and Syria, Jack Marshall grew up in New York and lives in California. He is the author of the memoir From Baghdad to Brooklyn and several poetry collections that have received the PEN Center USA Award, two Northern California Book Awards, and a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle.


No Apology for Happiness by Steve Davenport

I know this guy. It was thirteen years ago when he first set some words and gunpowder next to metal casings with the intent of being a truth-teller, a dangerous artist, a maker of things that do harm where harm needs doing. If you had asked him back then, he wouldn't have been able to name specific targets. He had no enemies. He woke up happy; he went to sleep happy. Not the bubbles of giddy nor the flatness of smiley faces, each day the same. His happy was deeper than those, more contoured, and he knew it. Still, he also knew its rep, that happiness gets in the way, that it's bad for art, that it doesn't do enough harm to do any good.

Tonight the word is Art.

Tonight the word is Happy.

Tonight the word is Harm.

So there he was, every few days crowbarring the side of his head open and shaking the awful content out onto the table. Bricks, nails, some gasoline-soaked topsoil, a whiskey bottle, a barrel of crude oil, a Molotov cocktail, a handsaw, shards of glass, barbed wire, another broken marriage, prison bars, a tavern, a switchblade outside a tavern. Over the next few years he packed casings with the words and the gunpowder, tamped in the awful content, crimped the casings tighter than drums, and loaded them into small rockets made for a bazooka he then built and calibrated so finely it would bruise his initials on the night air when fired.  One night, not too many years ago, it did just that when he carried it to the roof and lit up the sky with himself.

Tonight the word is Self.

Himself, myself, same self.

Tonight the word is Bomb.

The word tonight is Me.

As in I. As in I drive in rectangles above a lake of gasoline carrying news about a friend's cancer.  Overpass Girl's cancer. As in I drive and drive and I have this friend from childhood who has this cancer and I am making myself angry, layering it on top of my hard-wired happiness. I, I, I, I as in the straight lines of road and railroad track and refinery fence and levee, all of it forcing a script of right angles I trace and retrace with the wheels of this beater van because I have no choice, the engine clicking like synapses firing tiny holes in my brain pan. As in I drive at the end of a hard rain and feel the water table lifting the lake and smell the fumes rising out of the ground, through cracks in foundations. As in I do nothing but bear witness, locked here in my consistent state of good cheer, turning left through the old neighborhood, one block east to west, up and over a set of tracks, turning left at the town's one tavern onto the main drag, turning left at the next stop sign, left again just over the tracks, and back down the few blocks to the old neighborhood. As in trace and retrace, turn and return until I pull over in the gravel behind a building, turn off the engine, slump down in my seat, sip mash from a flask, scribble ink in a journal, word, word, me, me as in I, as in I sit there and talk to myself about damage and sketch a happy guy in a beater van sketching an angry guy in a beater van, all of it cupped in my navel, wrinkled palm of Narcissus, the innie into which I turn as I crimp more casings. Happiness and Cancer, the likely targets.

I as in homonym of Eye, as in antonym to outward-turning Eye.

Omphaloskepsis.  Navel-gazing. If that's what I'm doing, so be it. I carry news I can't shake, and it's turning me inward at the risk of turning me away from what I've come to focus on. Overpass Girl. I sit and I sketch and I sip. I'm a hand drawing itself. I'm a hand writing the C word, under which I print its mantra in capital letters. AGGRESSIVE. INVASIVE. METASTATIC. I am trying to stay on task. In my journal I ink the initials like tattoos or bruises.

A.I.M.

Cancer aims to bruise its initials all over my friend. All over. In. My friend. Cancer aims to take Overpass Girl one piece at a time. All I can do about it is write. So I take a sip and I write the word "Dickel."  As in George. As in Tennessee Sour Mash. As in Old No. 8. Got to be the black label or it's not No. 8. And it's got to be 8 or it ain't right. A working man's whiskey, though Dickel has always used the Scottish spelling, the e-less whisky, to make its boast that Dickel's as good as Scotch.

Yes, Scotch. Pantalooned connoisseurs, bounce lively off my liquor truck. I wear the black label like a uniform, like a union card. When Old No. 8 began disappearing from liquor stores a couple of years ago, Overpass Girl used a family connection and a gal pal driving her metallic-purple semi to smuggle three or four tax-free cases from Pennsylvania. When that supply dwindled, Overpass Girl found some cases in Florida and Tennessee while on vacation. Thanks to the trunk of her car and a delivery to my door, my liquor cabinet is once again a black-label beauty. Eight bottles wide, four deep. There's beauty in sameness. Fidel Castro's wardrobe. Johnny Cash touring in black. My address is Whisky Eden.

Now the word is Paradise.

Now the word is Shame

for what I'm feeling here in my van. My happy up-and-over to Overpass Girl's getting drug under.  Up-and-over's my natural chemistry, the way I move through good and bad. I don't take my father's advice—ain't no hill for a high-stepper, son—because I think it good advice. I take it because I have no choice. My blood runs happy. With or without Dickel. I start the engine, tear a poem from my journal, wad it into a little ball, put it in my mouth, and pull back onto the road running along the tracks. I feel good. I have no choice. I suspect I'm lined with dozens of tiny slow-release, self-replenishing endorphin bombs that keep me this way, that keep knocking me from one thing to another.

A few days ago Overpass Girl, minus one breast already, was sedated for a biopsy. The night before the procedure, she sent me an email with a subject line borrowed from her favorite novel, Holy Book of the Beard. "Spit in the face of cancer" is Helga's advice to her daughter, advice that her daughter shares at her mother's wake.  In that email Overpass Girl told me there's a letter in a trunk. For me.  Heat-seeking with my name on it.

Tonight the word is Trunk.

Is Letter. Is Truth-Telling.

Is No-Escaping.

A letter for me, to be opened one day, right in there with letters to her grown children, her husband. A letter to be sent if and when. Another bomb. If and when. The letter in the trunk, the letter with my name on it, insignificant in comparison, yes. Nothing like the If and When. The C-Bomb. I understand that. Still.

Tonight I drive. I break the pattern of straight lines and right angles over Gasoline Lake and head up the Great River Road. I stop occasionally to look at the dark, choppy water and write. I don't think the Mississippi River can do anything Gasoline Lake can't in the way of miracles, but I sit here in my van, scribble lines for poems in the shape of bullets and bombs, rip the pages out, tear them in twos and fours, make spitballs of them. I carry a print-out of an email she sent me.

Doctor called me just ten minutes ago. ... He wanted me to know that the lesion on my lung was not cancer. ... He figured I stayed awake all night worrying. I didn't. I slept like a baby. (Drugs are great.)

I will be losing another body part at some point. A decision I've been putting off. The one remaining breast. Sort of sickens me, but who was it that said it's not the parts that matter?  I guess they served their purpose, nursing children and nursing men.

I will do something that spits in the face of cancer. I will write things that spit-bomb it. I will crimp more casings and light up the sky with myself at the Hyde Park Arts Center later this week.

I make that wild claim in a blog entry. An ex-student who works in Chicago writes to tell me she can't make the reading. She writes also to talk about Gregory Corso's "BOMB."

You remind me of the time we read Corso's poem in your class, one line per person. I did a version of that when I started teaching, and the kid whose job it was to say "BOOM" brought in a giant drum just for the occasion. He would say BOOM and hit the drum, or just hit the drum really hard instead of saying BOOM, but either way it was very powerful. Powerful enough to spit-bomb death? I don't know. Good luck.

She means it, but good luck with that is what she's really saying. Uh huh, sure, if you say so. I do. I say so. I will spit-bomb death. And I will fail because words fail. Writers tell us that over and over. I will also fail because death's as hard-wired to life as happiness is to me. I look at the river and I'm swept downstream, all the way to Louisiana and a summer job in 1979. I'm punching my time card and leaving the chemical plant in Geismar for the twenty-minute drive to my parents' home in Baton Rouge. I'm falling into the backyard pool, a jug of iced tea at water's edge. I catch myself. I'm sitting here at the confluence of the Illinois and the Mississippi, and I'm derailed once again by this happiness I can't escape long enough to stay on task. That doesn't mean I wouldn't bang a drum if I had one. It does mean I might not bang that drum as long as I should. And how long would that be?

One thing I know: Overpass Girl is lonely. Even when she's feeling good, her parts cooperating or the drugs making temporary miracles, she's there with that body of hers, in it, looking for those initial-bombs carved into her tissue, her organs, A.I.M., some days seeing those initials everywhere, mets to the liver, mets to the brain. No way out of the loneliness BOOM except a total cure and enough time afterwards to believe it's real. A miracle. Back to that bomb. Miracle-bomb. Failing that, a stay. Five more years. Ten.

The word tonight is Time-Bomb.

Grab the carving knife, Surgeon. It's almost time. Lymph nodes? Those, too. Dig in. Deep.

I periodically crowbar the side of my head open and pour awful content out onto the table. Natural-born happiness doesn't negate a real life. I can pour my awful content into casings, crimp them shut, and make a bomb as small as a spitball or as big as the sky at midnight, lit. I can explain what I'm doing, how I'm failing. I can blame it on the happiness that keeps me from staying on task, from doing the kind of harm someone less happy might do. A dangerous artist, a truth-teller, a maker of things that have an effect. I can aim my spit-bombs at Cancer, do my best to blow away Overpass Girl's bad tissue, erase all those ugly initials carved inside her, the ones that are there and the ones that will be. I can also sit here in my beater van, hide from that trunk and the letter with my name on it, drift with the water to the gulf, sip Old No. 8 from my flask, pour some self-pity on my good cheer, watch the two separate, my happiness rise.

Or I can address you directly, load my bazooka with a letter of my own. Put your name on it. An apology not for my happiness, but for the failure of words, anyone's, to scrape flesh clean. Maybe you'll walk out of work one night, a long shift of helping others with cancer, and the sky over the hospital's tallest point will light up with poems about pills that lift and drop you, about pain, release and return, about the dirt we come from, the bottom land and the terracing up to fields and creeks going the way of steel rods, mesh, and concrete walls for highways that keep people moving over us and past. Maybe the sky will stay quiet that night, you'll slide into your car, and there on the passenger seat will be a small package, a sheaf of pages tied together with twine and marked with your name. For Overpass Girl.

Maybe your nose or your ears will draw you to it, the smell of a fuse burning slowly or a tick tick tick. Something. You'll know what to do. You'll drive in the old direction.  You'll head for the overpass, yours because they put it where your ground used to be, yours because it's waiting for a couple of cans of spray paint and your initials, O. G., writ large across it. You'll drive under that overpass, all that concrete, and continue for a couple of miles to the Nest, that place you go for bacon and coffee. There you'll untie or cut the twine and see the inscription.

These words tonight BOOM

are Spit-Bombs.

That stuff I said about our hearts making morphine? I am, as you said, in need of none, floating, happy. No apology.

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Biographical information: Steve Davenport is the author of Uncontainable Noise (poetry) and two chapbooks, Murder on Gasoline Lake (an essay) and Nine Poems and Three Fictions (available free on-line and in The Literary Review's Summer 2008 chapbook issue). In addition to "No Apology for Happiness," which appeared earlier this year in Northwest Review, his recent publications include a story in The Southern Review and a scholarly essay about Richard Hugo's poetry in All Our Stories Are Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

End of the Sixties, Excerpts from an Autobiography by Robert Gover

On our way to Palma de Majorca in December 1969, we changed planes in Madrid, where I was immediately separated from my wife J'Nelle and baby Bryant and surrounded by smiling soldiers with automatic weapons. I was so startled by this, I thought at first it must be some kind of joke. The officer in charge was grinning and telling me in Spanish-flavored English to be not afraid. He explained that this unique greeting was staged so that Spain could please the US Government and keep American tax dollars flowing to the Spanish military, in the last days of the dictator, Francisco Franco. They politely confiscated my typewriter, 8 mm movie camera, still camera and notebooks.

By the time we landed in Palma and put into the Fenix Hotel, I was hot to move on to somewhere else, anywhere else—but not until I'd retrieved what the Spanish Government had taken from me. However, yet another surprise was in store. We were collared by a reporter and photographer from the Balearic Islands newspaper, Majorca being one of this group. The resulting story was a warm welcome to Spain—where, I should add, my novels had been banned. The last thing authoritarian regimes want their people reading is "political pornography," as my work had been called by Michael Korda, editor of Simon and Schuster. Jack-off pornography was okay but political pornography was a no-no. The reporter who interviewed me acknowledged this in a wink-and-a-nod way, and said that all Spain was now waiting for the passing of the aged Franco—the walls of their Psyops  prison were crumbling but had not yet come down.

Literary fame is not the same as the high-visibility fame of movie stars and other celebrities. Books address the mind, movie stars the eyes. It's like the difference between poetry and dance. The literary arts are transmitted from mind to mind via silent words on paper. Most famous authors move about without being recognized. But the photo in the Balearic paper of wife, baby and me elicited smiles and nods from locals in Majorca. This was during the Vietnam War when Americans were generally given the cold shoulder by Europeans. I changed my mind about fleeing the Franco regime. I wanted to learn more about Spain, which had ironically become a haven for all kinds of political and artistic outcasts and iconoclasts. We found a neat little apartment in what had been an ancient Arab watchtower on the north shore of Majorca, near the town of Deya, where one of my all-time favorite writers lived: Robert Graves.

We met while out walking the narrow paths along rocky cliffs over the Mediterranean. I did not want to show up at his door and intrude on his time, as many others did—I knew from experience that such intrusions could be irksome. When we met out walking, we chatted like new neighbors getting acquainted. He owned three houses, two for ex-wives and one for himself and his present wife.

Early one frosty morning, I went downstairs to fetch fire wood from what had been a stable under the watchtower apartment. When I flung open my front door I was hit by blindingly bright lights. The lights went out and I found myself standing beside the towering Robert Graves, wearing his wide-brimmed hat. A German TV crew was doing a story about him. "They put me in front of your door," he explained, "because it looks like a place a writer would live."  We both laughed. The German director was not amused. He wanted me to fetch my fire wood and be gone so he could continue his shoot.

I made friends with a guy described as "a radical rabbi," a war-protestor who'd also felt the need to get away from US Government monitoring. J'Nelle and I spent charmed Sunday afternoons at the home of this rabbi and his family, listening to him read his translation of a long and melodious poem celebrating erotic love, done as an exploration of the psyches of lover and beloved.

I also met a half-French, half-Vietnamese painter nicknamed Michele Vu, who was gay and kept a stable of gay boys. On the north shore of Majorca, telephones were nonexistent so ex-patriots usually dropped in on each other unannounced.  One afternoon, Michele Vu arrived with about five of his boys and we sat around smoking hashish and chatting. By evening, we were all hungry and too stoned to do much about it. J'Nelle and I had not been to the market lately so we didn't have much food, but Michele Vu went rummaging through our cupboard and managed to cook up a huge soufflé, which he served on a super-sized platter. Everyone scooped up a portion by hand and we ate without plates or utensils. Vu's concoction melted on the tongue like cotton candy but no matter, it was the thought that counted. We then walked up the hill to his house and played bocce till daylight faded.

From the stone and cement deck of our watchtower-apartment, we had a view of the Mediterranean and, directly below, the swimming pool of a hotel frequented by European tour groups. We amused ourselves by noticing how the French, when they gathered around the pool, chatted quietly in small groups, went exploring alone or as couples; German groups liked to sing together, loud and lusty; Brits liked to horse-play by pushing each other into the pool. J'Nelle cooked up tasty dinners which we ate by candlelight on the deck and called "mock elegance," sometimes while playing music from the Broadway musical "Hair."  When we went out together with our baby in a papoose carrier, market ladies, waiters and gas station attendants enthusiastically greeted Bryant as "El Rubio" and made a fuss over him. It seemed everyone loved babies in Majorca, and wanted to make them feel welcome in this life.

I felt safe there most of the time, although I was careful who I befriended. To get to our apartment, you had to leave a paved two-lane and bump down a very rocky dirt road. At night, Guardia Civil soldiers stationed themselves at the junction and questioned anyone they didn't know, before allowing them onto the rocky lane. The other approaches to our place were through the hotel next door, or up a steep cliff from the sea, then zigzagging up terraced vegetable gardens along a rocky path—not an easy thing to do at night with guard dogs on the prowl.

It was the officialdom of Franco's Spain that created a downside. A Majorcan guy shot his American teenage beloved in the leg with a shogun for "cheating"—her affections had turned toward another. She'd been a dancer but after that shot would dance no more. As he'd done this in a jealous fit, the local law called it an accident and did not prosecute. Two gay guys who had been in the original cast of "Hair" were rousted out of their home in the wee hours by Franco's police, brutally roughed up and put on a plane back to the USA. Drugs of all kinds permeated the ex-pat community. One French film director injected an energy booster into his penis in an attempt to impress the object of his affections.

We got acquainted with an interesting couple who lived on the island of Formantera.  He was from Liverpool, she from Chicago. Once a year he traveled to a remote village in Morocco and made hashish from their harvest of marijuana plants. He'd spent about a decade wandering North Africa and had picked up a special knack. We had to take a ferry from Majorca to Ibiza and another from there to Formantera, then walk a few miles to their home—once we passed an elderly couple in a stonewall-enclosed field thrashing wheat by hand. Our friends lived in a small, thatched-roof house dating back centuries, and had an outdoor medieval oven. We had cherries and peaches on hand, and walked into the nearest village to buy cheeses from the "Cheese Lady"—sheep and goat as well as cow-milk cheese. With these ingredients plus wheat flower, we baked pies in the ancient oven, which was amazingly clean and efficient. After stuffing ourselves, we smoked and made music using drums and stringed instruments he'd collected from his travels through Africa. We'd begin by fooling around with rhythms and melody ideas, catch a combination we liked and stay with it till it flowed into another melody and rhythm. Our patterned "noise" would not pass for conventional music but it transported us. By dawn we felt connected to primal forces. There were moments when I thought I could settle down on Formantera forever. It was as far away from the modern, money-driven civilization as I've ever been; it expanded the mind to experience how countless people had lived for many centuries. On the other hand, I knew I would soon miss urban life. 

Till my typewriter was returned, I glided in a kind of suspended animation, driving a rented Fiat into Palma to buy news magazines and learn the latest from the USA. I joined a health club in Palma and got into an exercise routine. That helped ease the stress, but I felt information-starved so much of the time, I finally decided I'd rather take my chances in Paris or, better yet, return to California. I wasn't sure when the insurance policy on my life would expire, or if the publishing company would continue it, but we were hurried in our plan to return to the States by Spanish police hassling the wife of our Jewish friends. Seems she wore a mini skirt to the food market, an affront to proper attire. The police told the rabbi he was welcome to stay, but his wife had to leave Spain. They'd been living on a monthly stipend sent from the States and Spanish censors had held up their last two checks. They were broke. We bought them tickets to Copenhagen and flew there with them.

When we reached the hotel in Copenhagen, I was sick. The desk clerk called an emergency number and a doctor got to our hotel room about the same time we did. I knew the water from our tank in Majorca was polluted and we'd stopped drinking from the tap till the landlord could fix it, but I'd brushed my teeth using that water and come down with poisoning. A poisoned rat had climbed into the tank and died. The doctor gave me a shot and came to our room at least once a day for the next ten days, till I was completely recovered. When I asked what the bill was, the doctor waved me off, and when I offered to pay him a gratuity for his kindness, he said, "Oh no, that would be insulting. Our healthcare system is for everyone."

Last I knew, the rabbi had taken a job lecturing to university students in Denmark. 

As we got off the plane at JFK Airport, we were arrested. Seems someone had "dropped a dime" and some hashish was found in my pockets. The Customs agent was also incensed by J'Nelle's nursing our baby. He ordered her to stop and buy a bottle and formula, which she could not do because he also ordered our baby taken from us and held by the State, and sent us to the Queens County House of Detention. We were jailed for only one night. It took two weeks of bureaucratic torture before we got our baby back. We were permitted to see him at one point, which only aggravated the situation—Bryant screamed and we cried but were not permitted to touch him. I was allowed to call a lawyer, who said he'd need $50,000 to take the case. I was ready to pay any sum when I got word from another lawyer—this one a friend of J'Nelle's in New Orleans—who said he would connect us to a lawyer in Queens who would take the case for $5,000. I hadn't been in a jail cell since I was a kid running away from the orphanage. Back then, it had been something of a hoot, but now it was a gut-wrenching experience as imprisonment was morphing into what would soon be "privatized" into one of the USA's major industries, profiting from the imprisonment of a growing underclass of African Americans and "drug offenders" of all races. I was wracked by guilt for subjecting J'Nelle and our baby to this horror.

While we were out of jail and awaiting New York State's release of our baby, I had a meeting with Bernard Shirr-Cliff, editor of Ballantine, and showed him a novel I'd been working on in Spain, titled Tomorrow Now Occurs Again. It's about Big I and little me, soul and ego, exploring a mythical place called All Damnation where Big Money is the God and all are devoutly religious. Big I and little me are given a tour of this mythical land by the Rat Doctor, overseeing the scurrying activities of critters toiling on Damnation's Big Plantation, a kind of sea-to-sea factory, where "I am them and they are me and we are all together."  I thought I might publish it separate from the three-book deal with Pocket Books, for I figured it would be called "experimental" and deemed un-commercial, but I was surprised by Bernie's reaction: "If you don't want to spend the rest of your life teaching in a university, bury this thing at the bottom of your trunk and forget it."

If I'd known what the future held, I might have opted for a job teaching creative writing in a university. But back then, I saw myself as a commercially successful writer who visited universities to do "appearances."

For much of that painful interlude in New York, waiting for the return of our baby, we stayed at Dan Rosen's apartment on the east side of Central Park. Dan had been the road manager for various acts—notably Bobby Dylan and Bill Cosby—and his apartment became the meeting place for friends from far and wide. It occasionally became an orgy scene: "Take off your clothes and stay awhile."

After extracting our baby from the state—no simple thing, for they wanted to virtually kidnap him and put him up for adoption—we picked up our car from Dan Greene. He had replaced me as political reporter for the Annapolis Capitol in 1960 and was now feature writer for the National Observer in Washington, DC. During the tumultuous sixties, Dan's house in Bowie, Maryland, had been headquarters for scribes from out of town—Lennox Raphael, Hunter Thompson and many others. Dan made it his business to get acquainted with major players in the Movement, and introduce fellow writers to them. I met Abbie Hoffman and others through Dan.   By the seventies, we had become close friends, sharing each other's trials and tribulations. Eventually, we would visit Oyotunji Village in South Carolina, nicknamed "Voodoo Village," and each write about it—Dan for the National Observer, me for Playboy Publications' Oui Magazine.

Later, when I returned to New York for the trial (the case against J'Nelle had been dropped), the judge all but dismissed the charges by giving me self-supervised probation. As the case was being heard, the judge made it known that he'd read one of my novels, The Maniac Responsible, and admired it. After the trial, the Customs Agent involved was enraged and gave me a piece of his mind. He was still in a fury about J'Nelle breastfeeding, thought that was a sin against God and America.

The law suit mounted by Elliott Kastner in 1964 had been won, finally in the early seventies, in the New York State Supreme Court. I joked that legal fees had amounted to the price of a few Mercedes. I wanted to tell Abe Friedman that I should have taken his advice and dealt with Kastner's legal attack as a mugging, paid him off and been done with it. But I was too late, for Abe had returned to the Great Mystery. I visited his firm, Bernays and Eisner, to pick up the brief that had won the case. Abe's demise left me to deal with his smarmy assistant, who told me I should get a job as a waiter, for my career as a writer was done. Previously, this guy had been a sycophant. Now he delivered insults with a glint in his eye and glee in his voice, declaring me an unschooled writer of "four-letter words," and saying such "filth" went out with the "hippie sixties."  He was chest-thumping proud of the brief he'd written to win the case—after it had slowly oozed its way up the ladder of billable hours to the State Supreme Court. He wanted my thanks that Universal Studios would pay the final round of court costs for both Kastner and me.

I would get other such comments as the future unfolded.

"You wrote a little book that became a big bestseller. It went to your head and you became a drug addict and alcoholic. End of story."

 "I'm surprised you were taken seriously back in the early sixties—your novel was less than two hundred pages, the plot was thin and so were the characters." 

"Your book undermined our traditional values, so we can hardly expect critics to include it among the best of Western Culture, can we."

"That novel was controversial when it first appeared. Since then, the controversy has been won by the conservatives, and they hate that book."

"You made a very good living as a writer for ten or fifteen years. Now it's time to get another job."

All that remained of the sixties by the mid-seventies was reckless sex and recreational drugs, a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as conservatives adroitly regained censorship control of the "free market of ideas." We were entering the "me me" generation—free enterprise for the poor, monopoly capitalism for the rich; government of, by and for the big corporations; a move afoot to punish the "sin" of systemic poverty by destroying Welfare, assuring a future when the foundation of the economy would disintegrate, although that would not manifest till control by rightwing conservatives peaked with the marketing of unregulated Credit Default Swaps and the real estate bubble burst in 2007–08.

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Biographical information: Robert Gover is the author of One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, a satire on miscegenation that became an international bestseller in 1961-1963. In 1965, Pocket Books editor-in-chief Herb Alexander paid a record advance on a three-book deal and mounted a massive promotion for Robert's fourth novel, Poorboy at the Party. The book was featured on the cover of Publishers Weekly Magazine, an indication it was expected to be a number 1 bestseller. Then, suddenly, Robert learned that Herb had been "handed his head" by Michael Korda, editor of Simon and Schuster, when the two companies were merged. Korda then sent out notice that publication of Poorboy at the Party had been canceled so reviews of it—most had already been written—were to be trashed. Months later, Korda sent out notice that publication had not been canceled, but rather postponed. The number of hardbacks in the first edition was cut by 95% and the book came out to no reviews.  Publication was so quiet, even Robert—living on the West Coast at this time—didn't know when the book officially appeared. And he could no longer reach his old editor and friend, Herb Alexander, by phone. As far as Robert knew, Herb had totally vanished. Poorboy at the Party did not make the New York Times bestseller list, so it was labeled a "complete failure," in view of the record advance Alexander had paid for it. Robert realized that he was now a corporate liability alive and worth $8 M dead, for his life had been insured by Pocket Books for the life of a three-book contract. Even after the publication of Poorboy, Robert continued to receive advance payments on his next novel, according to the te rms of the contract. All this prompted him to move, with his wife and recently born son, to Majorca, Spain. The following excerpt begins with that move.

Words Under the Sky by Thomas E. Kennedy
Thomas E Kennedy, Photo Credit Dorthe Nors Thomas E. Kennedy. Photograph by Dorthe Nors.

Today is Words Under the Sky day in Copenhagen, and you are one of eighty poets gathered in the King's Garden to read nonstop for three hours. You arrive just before starting time and join the milling crowd of word-casters, greet the smiling Lisbeth Heckmann, co-creator of the event with Lonnie Krause, say hello to a couple of familiar faces, and set off across the big park to find a good reading spot. You pass clots of people, picnickers, soccer players, loungers, a thirty-strong group engaged in a jumping, twisting, hopping, head and back thumping pillow fight on the grass which is strewn with white feathers. Something slaps you in the back, and you turn to see a bear of a man in shorts and wife-beater, thick hairy shoulders rolling as he leers at you like the class bully who has just found a likely victim; fat pillow dangling at the ready he speaks into your face, saying, "Hel-lo!" You tell him you are an unarmed UN observer, which seems to confuse him so he goes off looking for another victim while you proceed in your quest for the right spot.

You pass another group of thirty who appear to be conducting a hug marathon, everyone hugging someone, then switching and hugging another, hug switch hug switch ... . Spotting a couple of sweet ladies you wouldn't mind exchanging hugs with, you wonder if this activity is by invitation only, but you are already enrolled in the Words Under the Sky event so you keep on searching, four bottles of cold Tuborg clinking in a plastic bag at your side, your fold-out chair slung over your shoulder along with a satchel of poetry translations you have prepared for this day.

At last you find just the right spot toward one edge of a broad level grassy expanse near a sculpture of the goddess of grain which stands beneath the vast umbrella of an ancient enormous copper beech tree (a famous Copenhagen tree—called "the old redbeech" where people meet and picnic and marry) behind Rosenborg Castle. You fold out your brand new red canvas with blue-piping folding armchair with its bottle slot in one arm, and with the bottle-opener blade of your trusty 27-year-old Swiss army knife, you pop a cold Tuborg, light a Petit Sumatra small cigar, the package of which informs you that smoking can kill and damage seed quality as well as reducing fertility, which is fine with you because you are not looking to knock anybody up. You sit there happy as the yoke in an egg, facing the gentle 70-degree sun, and you wonder how to get started reading, and  in your head  you hear Bunny Berrigan blowing "I Can't Get Started" on his great trumpet, and you think of the beautiful Signora whose arms you were so fortunate to be in just one week ago, and you wish she was here, perhaps sitting on a spread-out blanket on the grass, leaning back stiff-armed on the flats of her hands, head tilted, one blue eye squinted against the sun, blond hair curling at her elegant neck, smiling for you and you alone, but you content yourself with the memory of her, now six-thousand miles away on the Jersey shore where you have just returned from, and the record changes in your brain, now Stan Getz is blowing "Tonight I Shall Sleep with a Smile on My Face," written by Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington, and you know you are a lucky clam to possess this memory of the Signora in all its piquant and sweet details cuddled in your brain where all that jazz has established a colony, and you remember then that you are supposed to be reading poetry aloud here today for three non-stop hours and admonish yourself to get started pretty soon because you should have begun eighteen minutes ago, but first you want to sit in the sun just a little while longer and think about the Signora's kisses while the sunlight caresses your face, and the jazz colonist in your mind has now decided to go further with the Getz and starts selecting Brazilian stuff, starting with Samba da Uma Nota, and three black kids of about twelve  wander past in tempo with the music, looking back over their shoulders at you, whispering and snickering, and you wonder what you look like in their eyes, old white dude in a plum blue silk shirt, white silk Stetson cap backwards on his head, shades and a beer and cigar, seated in a red canvas folding armchair and smiling into the sun. They must think you are one weird old white dude. Then a woman walks across the grass wearing a colorful flowing robe and carrying a very long and solid walking stick. She glances at you and you think you might know her or would like to know her, she looks like she has just walked all the way from Nepal and is carrying wisdom in her gaze, but she moves on before you can catch her eye, and the mind colonist has now chosen Sá Danco Samba, and that is the great Joao Gilberto singing to Getz's tenor played in alto range smoother than the Chinese silk of your shirt—who needs a damn Ipod?!—and you probably ought to start reading now, but it is so peaceful here with the sunlight and the gentle air and fragrant green smell and the jazz and the Signora sitting there on the grass gazing at you with her blue Italian eyes and honey-colored hair, same color everywhere on  her gorgeous dancer's  body, and you have to clutch your heart a bit to hold it in place, and now the colonist has put on Desafinado, and without the words leaving your mouth, you speak to the Signora, saying something far too corny ever to say in reality. You say, Thank you, dear Signora, for making me feel alive again after the year of spiritual death I have just wandered through. The Signora pretends she doesn't hear and doesn't say anything, but you see how the blue light in her eye flares just a bit. She doesn't mind that you said that to her, and now the jazz colonist has gone over to Billie Holiday backed by Ben Webster's classic tenor doing "Body and Soul," and the Signora smiles a smile that makes your heart go pit a pat remembering, just as someone calls out to you.

Photo Credit Dorthe NorsPhotograph by Dorthe Nors.

You look and see approaching across the grass your fellow American expat, the very hip criminologist Dave who just got back from a month in the states. You jump to your feet to shake his hand, so glad to see him, and he asks if you're going to read today, and you say, "Absolut!  But first a beer."  He pulls a can of pivo out of the rain-jacket slung on his shoulder, each of the six pockets of which has another can, and the two of you talk, and you introduce him to the Signora and tell him about how she necromanced your dead heart, and you tell him when you were in Manhattan the week before that, you heard his friend Kelley sing jazz at the Silver Leaf Tavern on 36th Street and she was great. And Dave tells you about his adventures in Big Sur and Las Vegas and on old Route 66, passing through ghost towns, and in LA where he and his family visited Torrance High School, the home of Buffy the Vampire Killer because his 10-year-old son Axel is mad about her, and then you remember the bag of wine gums you have in your pocket and give them to Dave to give Axel to eat in the movies later where Dave has promised to take him.

And then your Danish novelist friend Z rolls up on her bicycle with clinking bottles of ice cold beer in its basket which she distributes and she asks if you're going to read today, and you say, "Absolut!  But first a beer."

And then the woman in flowing colorful robes with the long stick who has walked all the way from Nepal to bring wisdom to Denmark is approaching, and Z calls out, "Carolina!" and explains she is one of her former students—Carolina—who is also an accomplished violin player as well as a violin maker, and you think how you could see that there was something very special about her just by looking at her. Soon your group is joined by two others who are friends of Carolina—Marianne and Jörn—and Jörn mentions the enormous ancient copper beech tree off to the side and how if you want to get married you can get an official from the town hall to marry you under that tree, you don't even need a special permit or to pay an extra fee, and you say, "Goddamn I love Denmark!" and "I want to get married under that tree."  You ask Carolina if she would marry you, even just pro forma, under that tree, suggesting you could annul the marriage next day, and she looks at you as though you are totally insane and says she is already married, but Z's eyes flash, and she demands to know why you didn't ask her first, and you say, "Because I was certain you would say no—how much rejection can a man take?" and "Will you marry me under that tree—we could get it annulled the next day if you wanted and we wouldn't even have to consummate," and she says, "Yes! Let's do it!"  So you both agree to pencil it into your calendars.

Then there is a new round of beer bottles, and you ask Z if she is going to read, and she says no, but she cajoles Carolina into standing up and reading, her manuscript balanced on Z's cycle basket, a poem which is lovely and sad and then another about family which is belly-laugh funny so finally you get up out of your red canvas armchair and read your translation of Dan Turèll's "Last Walk Through the City," and you all speak wistfully about the great Dan Turèll, dead sixteen years ago at the age of forty-seven, and lift your bottles to him and his widow, Chili.

Then it's four and Words Under the Sky day is done, and Dave leaves to take his son to see District 9, and you and Z and Carolina walk over to the Coal Square, the two women rolling their bikes, and on the Coal Square, down in the half-basement bar of the White Lamb, est. 1807,  you eat three unspecified sandwiches with big glasses of cold draft served by a primly pretty smiling barmaid, and you talk about creativity and violins and wolves and how when you play music and when you write and when you paint it is a gift from somewhere that you have to accept humbly and never feel that it is you because you are only the instrument of it.

Photo Credit Dorthe NorsPhotograph by Dorthe Nors.

Then Carolina has to leave, and you all hug goodbye and you are glad to see that she has decided that, after all, you are okay, and you and Z order another round and smoke and talk, and you decide to introduce Z to the Signora, who has been sitting invisibly beside you all along, and you tell her how the Signora has resuscitated your heart, even if the two of you live six thousand miles apart, and Z is happy for you.

Then the music is beginning, "happy jazz" played by a bunch of old dudes even older than you, and one of them, a Welshman, does a solo in which he produces music by rhythmically slapping his own face repeatedly while holding his mouth open in such a way as to turn it into a sounding box and then he applies drumsticks to his necktie which turns out to be made of stippled tin, and then is tap-tapping his drumsticks on everybody's glass, getting a kind of melody from the various levels of beer, and singing, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!"

New cold drafts arrive from the primly pretty smiling barmaid, and the White Lamb is jamb-packed by now and people are dancing, and then the band is playing "It's Two O'Clock in the Morning," and it is two o'clock in the morning, and you and Z support one another up the three steps of the White Lamb to the Coal Square and across to the North Station taxi rank where a driver fits a frame to his rear bumper and lifts Z's bike onto it, and the two of you hug and smile, and she says, "Safe home?" and you say, "Absolut!" and you drive off in different directions each in his or her own taxi, she north, you east.

At home, you pour a vodka rocks which you know full well you will never drink, but it makes you miss the Signora a little less to have it by your side, and you start to read a long poem by Bill Zander entitled "Gone Haywire," but soon realize the wiring of your brain is not optimally conditioned at the present moment to read poetry.  So you go over to your computer and close one eye to check your email and your heart lifts to see a message from the Signora sent with difficulty from the tiny screen and keyboard of  her cell phone, and it says "thinking of you  deepest affection signora c," and although you really ought not drink and mail, you cannot refrain from sending a message six thousand miles across the ether, over mountains and oceans and rivers, to the Jersey shore, right on into the Signora's cell phone, and you say "I miss you terribly and hope that is not terrible of me to say," and add, "Goodnight, sweet Signora. With my deepest affection ... "

And you crawl into your bed, switch off the lamp and lay your head on the pillow and stare up at the ceiling and feel yourself drifting into sleep with a smile on your face.

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Biographical information: Thomas E. Kennedy is the author of The Copenhagen Quartet, which consists of four novels about the souls and seasons of the Danish capital, where Kennedy has lived for over 30 years. He has written 20 books. Kennedy's stories have been published in more than 100 literary venues. He has won the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart, Gulf Coast, and European prizes, the Charles Angoff Award, a National Magazine Award, and the Frank Expatriate Writers Award. In 2008, New American Press published his Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America. He is a Contributing Editor of Perigee. In March 2010, Bloomsbury USA and UK will publish his new novel In The Company Of Angels, (read the Publisher's Weekly review on Perigee's blog) to be followed by another in 2011.

The Blood of Children by Allen Learst

I have photographs of my son, but not many. In one he is squatting in a field stretching back to the wood line behind the farm. It's the end of summer and he's wearing a blue shirt and blue jeans. He's hunched on his knees, I think, because he likes to hide from me, though he's in plain sight. His hands are clasped in front of him, as if he's just concluded clapping. He looks old and wise beyond his years and he's only two. His legs are too short for the long walks we take to the edge of the woods, where maples, beech, and yellow birch begin.

The field has been fallow for a long time, maybe twenty years, and in that time spruce and hemlock have grown in the open places. To me now it seems like disappearing space, the way innocence or naiveté is lost with the passage of time, filled in with adult concerns.

In 1974, when our son was born, neither of us could have known he would die two years after our divorce. I didn't know Kathryn would be viciously attacked by a man named Danny Rouse in Wichita, Kansas; we didn't know he would brutally murder our son asleep in his bedroom two days before Halloween.

There is one picture of Jason in footy pajamas. He's sitting on my lap. It was Christmas, 1976. Our floor was littered with toys. I don't see them in the photograph; I see them at the blurred edges of memory. There are plastic farm animals in a farm set, with a farm house, barns, and corrals to keep the animals. Near the stove I see a toy with a wheel, an arrow that rotates.  When he turned the arrow to a picture of an animal and pulled a cord, the toy said, "I'm a cow. Moooo." When he learned to talk, he took small items in his hand and said, "Put in there," and he placed things into a box or a pail. His voice a chant, a mantra. Put in there. Put in there.  My wife and I laughed and mimicked him because we were long-haired hippie kids.

My son was murdered at the end of October, 1979. It's difficult to say these words: My son was murdered. It's even more difficult to write them, to see them on the page. This is the first time I have tried to write them. The words won't allow themselves to be shaped by metaphor; the words to describe my son's death cannot be fashioned by lyricism. I am reminded of Pablo Neruda's "I Explain a Few Things," his poem about the Spanish Civil War, which reveals the inadequacy of metaphor:

... the blood of children

flowed easily, like the blood of children.

Any figure of speech intended here fails because the blood of children cannot be likened to something without trivializing the blood of children, and I cannot imagine the blood of my own child.

Kathryn's mother cannot talk about that night, not since my father received the news of Jason's death and called Roger, Kathryn's father. When Roger answered the phone and talked to my father, he said, "I can't tell my wife that."

I see the baby in his high chair. Behind him I see the snow that fell past the kitchen window, and Kathryn with a spoon poised at the baby's mouth. On weekends when we didn't attend classes or go to jobs, we waited for the baby to wake up; we put him into his high chair, perked a pot of coffee, and started our day.

We'd moved from Detroit and rented a small farm house in Skandia, Michigan, from Wilho and Hannah Salminen. Wilho was a retired National Forest timber cruiser, with high apple cheeks and wispy eyebrows. Hannah spoke Finnish to our malamute. I didn't understand her, but the dog melted under her hand and stared at her face, as if someone finally spoke a language he could understand.

It's the language of the penal system I don't understand, when every three years a letter comes to me and Kathryn from the Victims Notification Program: Inmate Danny Rouse scheduled for parole board hearing on September 12. Each time, we write letters to the parole board to remind them that our family has grieved for twenty-six years; we write letters for our aging parents, who sign them. I include grisly details, hoping the parole board, the people without names, will not forget my son and the victims of this crime. I cringe at phrases like release programs, weekend passes, minimum security facilities, model prisoner. I'm skeptical of recidivistic programs designed by criminal justice bureaucrats. I want them to experience what we have, but I know this is impossible.

Right now I live in Mankato, Minnesota, but it doesn't really matter where I live because each year at Halloween, when I'm walking my dog with my wife, Diana, I think about what Kathryn told me, about how two days before he was murdered Jason was excited to Trick or Treat, dress up like a cowboy—six shooters and holsters, snap-button cowboy shirt, and hat. When I tell my wife that Halloween doesn't work for me, she says, "I know," as we pass scarecrows, carved pumpkins, fake cobwebs in trees, and in the windows of porches, ghosts that haunt the neighborhood kids who remind me of my son.

There is a photograph of me in 1976. I have long hair past my shoulders; my son sits in my lap. Behind us is a small, decorated tree we cut from the field behind the old farm house. We are both smiling. It was below zero, and from our living room window we could see snow-laden spruce and hemlock stretching to another farm a quarter mile farther east on Michigan Highway 94. That winter, Kathryn's present to me was a pair of Vermont Tubb snowshoes, and the day after Christmas I put them on and walked along Nelson Creek, which flows north to the Chocolay River and Lake Superior.

When I came out of the woods, Wilho Salminen was plowing our driveway. I went into the house and saw the cat, Solomon, with his head under the stove. Jason pointed to him and said, "Keeeat." From our living room I watched Wilho push snow away from the garage and bank it next to the house for insulation against freezing pipes. Hannah came into the house and unwrapped a loaf of freshly baked bread for the two hippie kids and their baby. She spoke Finnish to the dog. She watched out the window, waited for Wilho to signal her to follow him home in the truck, emergency lights blinking behind his Farmall tractor.

There are details I remember about Jason, but what troubles me is how they lose their definition, their sharp edges, like snowy winters when the landscape is blurred. I have photographs of him, gone since 1979, four years after my marriage to Kathryn and two years after our divorce, but the images I have from memory are like photographs lost in the process of moving from one place to another, the edges torn and tattered.

We move around, and new people and experiences take precedence over the old; memories get filed away and more difficult to retrieve with the passage of time. I often wish I'd been blessed with a stronger memory, wish my images were more acute, more defined. I've heard, though, that a photographic memory is more of a curse than a blessing. I've heard that a person with such a memory recalls in detail all the wrong done to him or her, and perhaps feels regret and guilt more intensely.

Kathryn has the kind of memory I'm talking about, and it seems to me it's often equated with intelligence. Kathryn's quick wit and aptitude are impressive. When I coaxed her to play violin, which wasn't often because she shied away from public performance even though she'd been a second chair violinist with the Mt. Clemens Symphony Orchestra when I met her, I loved hearing her play. The sound of the instrument filled the old farm house; it may have had something to do with the hand-hewn logs, covered long ago with 2 x 4s and sheetrock, something to do with the solid and natural, or with the nearest neighbor being a quarter mile away, or with the snow Wilho banked against the foundation to keep us warm.

There is a photograph of Jason in my father-in-law's apple orchard. I don't have it, but I've seen it. It reminds me of Roger, who sat beside me in the old, blue Dodge Dart I'd driven from the Upper Peninsula to Mt. Clemens, where my son is at a funeral home. Roger and I stare forward. We don't see the windshield's glass or the car's dashboard, or each other. We look for something beyond, as if we are trying to make out in the distance what we can't describe. Several yards in front of the car is a three-sided shed filled with bushel baskets next to a gravel road leading to Roger's apple orchard. There are makeshift shelves and a counter made from 2 x 8s stretched across sawhorses. Pumpkins form the backdrop. Most of the baskets are empty, stacked inside one another. A few have apples in them, but they've lost their apple sheen. It's a week after Halloween. The apples are done ripening. The trees are bare, and their pruned branches give them a tidy, symmetrical appearance where they wrap around Roger's and Cynthia's home. From the back of their property, you can see a tall, white-bricked smoke stack, and block letters to form the words—Mt. Clemens Pottery—down its length.

We have rolled the windows down in the car, and though it is the first week of November, there is a warm breeze. Roger smells like apples. My hands are cold, my mind numb. I'd just returned from the Swartzkoff Funeral Home in downtown Mt. Clemens, where I asked the funeral director when my son's body would be ready. I want to see him. Since we've decided this will be a closed casket viewing, I want to see my son before he's buried in the Mt. Clemens Cemetery. "The body is downstairs, almost ready," the funeral director told me. "You can come back at five o'clock." I think, His body's in the basement, and I tell Roger, in a manner more like a question than a statement, that I will return to the funeral home.

Roger grew up in Maine, so a lot of words end in a sound like r when he tells me about one of his uncles who was a mortician in rural Maine. Roger is a good storyteller, a retired Air Force man. He was stationed in North Africa during World War II, and when he finished more than twenty years in the military, he took a job as a postal carrier. Then he bought a worn-out apple orchard and brought it back to life, turned a hobby into a profitable enterprise. He is a practical man who likes to keep busy.

He tells me a story about his uncle, who performed his mortuary skills on the dead in the small community where they lived when Roger was a boy. Roger said his uncle never gave a moment's thought to what he believed helped the living bury their dead, until he performed what funeral practitioners call "restorative art" on a close relative, a brother perhaps, or one of his sisters killed in an automobile accident. My uncle, Roger said, was never the same man after that; he withdrew into himself, became morose, the image of his deceased loved one etched across his mind. "Remember your son the way he was," Roger tells me. "Remember how I took him into the orchard and together we spliced a branch to a young apple tree. A week later we returned to the tree, and your son said, 'Look Grandpa, the tree has grown together. Look,' he said. 'Look.'" When he got out of the car, Roger turned to me and said, "I'm not trying to tell you what to do."

These details are what I remember, what I imagine about living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula before my son died. I cannot imagine what happened on that rainy October night in Wichita, Kansas. My imagination is inadequate to Kathryn's experience. The horrifying moments before and after she was left for dead and crawled to a neighbor's for help are burned into her memory, not mine. It's possible to imagine anything. That's what I tell my writing students, but there are images you would rather not create. You can create a mythology for yourself, which we all do in some form or another because we are all storytellers who envision what we think happened to us until we are confronted with a perspective not our own. In the hospital, Kathryn was told by a detective that our son didn't suffer, but he didn't tell us his death would cause suffering. We already knew.

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Biographical information: Allen Learst has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in Alaska Quarterly Review, War, Literature and the Arts, Chattahoochee Review, The Literary Review, Hawaii Review, Passages North, Pisgah Review, and Ascent. "The Blood of Children" first appeared in Water~Stone, and was mentioned in the 2008 Pushcart Prize XXXII, and was a notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin Colleges-Marinette.

Therapy by Richard Reiss

Let me tell you about my wife. She is pretty, she is smart, and she is gliding ever so gracefully toward the unfathomable age of fifty. Twenty-four years ago, when we first began our less than perfect journey together as husband and wife, she would often ask me why I chose to marry her. It seemed an odd question for a new bride to be asking her new husband, but then again we were and are one of those opposite poles couples. You know the kind: she be the Ying - I be the Yang. The strength of our marriage and friendship were those things for which we complemented each other, not necessarily the things we had in common. I, of course, was a little rough around the edges. And, she, naturally, was a bit more genteel and refined. There was also the whole love thing, the indefinable bits of magic and scents and allure which centuries of philosophers have yet to finger precisely. So why did I marry Paula? The truth is that there were many non-sexual, non-love, long-term and pragmatic issues that I, as a twenty-eight-year-old man fast-tracking his career with the Boy Scouts of America, felt compelled to address. What she had, what I coveted most in her being, were those practical qualities entirely foreign to my DNA. The pretty piece was good, but the smart piece was better. I had absolutely no faith in my personal gene pool. I had never considered myself to be much of a thinker.  Yet if I was ever to breed, I felt compelled to pass on a genetic code that highly improved upon my own.

In addition to her intellect, I must say that I greatly admired Paula's discipline. She had gone from high school to college to graduate school to completing her Ph.D. without ever taking a break to get high or drunk or laid by some guy whom she gladly forgot before filling her bowl with cereal the next morning. Early in our courtship, I often caught her studying, reading and doing academic research.  What the hell was that about? These were wholly foreign notions to my educational experience. My education consisted of the slippery path of least resistance in which the slightest amount of attention to the smallest amount of detail miraculously sufficed to get me in and out of college. So I said to myself, this is a woman I could breed with. This is a woman who would not bore me. This is a woman whom I could trick with my bad poetry and faux love of nature. And she would see that in twenty years I might be interesting, too ... maybe.

So we wed. A beautiful day ... a blushing bride ... a proud Momma and Papa ... a hint of hyacinth in the air as I smashed the glass and kissed the bride and dreamed of free sex and little babies and baseball games and love.

Several years later we tried to make a family. Unfortunately, it didn't go as planned, enduring as we did an awful and ugly period of miscarriages and misery leading to the glorious adoption of our magnificent son, Gabriel. And then—wonder of wonder, miracle of miracle—Paula gave birth to Ethan and Elijah, and all of a sudden we were a family of five. Our suffering had once and for all met its demise. At least, that's what we thought. But happiness, especially our happiness, continued to be an elusive bastard. Gabriel, the prophet, the angel, the illumination of our lives, had begun to transform into something dark, unreasonable and unmanageable. By the time he was fourteen, we had completely lost control. Our lives became a nightmare of fighting and cursing and where is he now and what has he done and how could a God that loves anyone (including us) do this to two kind and wonderful people, such as we were.

So my wonderful wife, my brilliant wife, my—dare I say—soul mate, had an epiphany. She had come to the actualization that we were the problem. That if we were fixed, then the nightmare that we lovingly called Gabriel would follow suit. How, you might ask, did a woman of her intellect arrive at this breakthrough revelation? Was she choking on an olive when it came to her? Was she blow-drying her hair, imagining herself on a secluded beach, naked and uninhibited, when a swarthy young buckaroo approached her and said, "It's you." Or did she see these words early one morning, floating in her organic milk and Alphabets cereal. The letters, shifting as if a higher power, a deity that spoke to her but not to me, were sending her a message. And it was those two words, again and again and again, "It's you. It's you. It's you."   And despite her frantic attempts to eat the words, despite the chewing and the mouthfuls of cold cereal, and the crunching of i's and t's and o's and u's, the words continued to emerge from the depths of her milky bowl, rising to the white rippling surface. "It's you."

If only our lives were driven by such imagery then perhaps we could better appreciate the awful gestalt of our being. It would have been good to know that there was a magical presence guiding us, leading us, even torturing us. But no, our lives were driven by a randomness that was less than the wind but more than a sneeze.

Paula's revelation was a combination of practicality and desperation. Her Ph.D. and her gut and her license in clinical psychology led her to put her faith in a man she had just met. She was attending a conference that had something to do with a variety of modalities for treating aberrant youth. Of course, the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about the conference was that I should be leading it. I've only alluded to our nightmare, but without a doubt I was the father of the Emperor of youthful aberrant behavior. Knives, drugs, booze and sex were four words that aptly described what I was living through with Gabriel. Yet the conference organizers had other ideas. They wanted presenters who had successfully dealt with aberrant children, not just experienced them. They had no interest in a suffering father who wrote pithy vignettes about the ultimate destruction of his son.  

One of the presenters at the conference was a man named Dr. Chaim Goldberg, who very much impressed Dr. Paula Kaplan-Reiss, who wanted nothing else in the universe than to help and understand the wayward boy, Gabriel. What can I say about Dr. Goldberg? He was big. He was black. He was Jewish. He was adopted. He had a theory about fucked-up kids. He said that trauma begets trauma and that traumatized parents unwittingly traumatize their children through often indiscernible acts, including acts of kindness, but mostly acts of neglect and misunderstanding. The blame, therefore, was really on the grandparents or great-grandparents or even great-great-grandparents, who traumatized their children who traumatized their children who then (big surprise) traumatize their children, too. They were the parents who swallowed the dog to catch the cat, who swallowed the mouse to catch the spider that wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her. They swallowed the spider to catch the fly, they swallowed the fly, I don't know why—I wish I knew why they swallowed the fly ... perhaps to die? How ironic then, that many of these fly and spider eating parents had been traumatized by the actions of their children, actions that they unknowingly caused as a result of their own trauma at the hands of their own parents who no doubt were traumatized by their own parents generations ago.  And the poor violent child, what is his or her fate? They hated Mom and Dad.  They hated us (me and Paula to be specific) because, in our case, we never got over our infertility. And since we never got over our infertility, (even though we had two biological children) we never accepted our adopted son.  This, on top of seventeen generations of trauma, had made us the worst parents since Genghis Khan, who, as I am sure you know, ate his children. Yet there was hope. According to Dr. Goldberg, these acts of violence and anger can and would stop once we, the parents, understood our own trauma brought upon by our parents (or others) who were of course traumatized by their parents (or others) going all the way back to the days of Jesus on the cross. Dr. Goldberg said that 99.9 percent of all traumas resulted in fear and caused anger, and that 99.9 percent of this was passed from one generation to the next.

Now comes the good part; he was coming to my house. He was coming to my house with his dreadlocks and his Midwestern ease and his sympathetic face and his Black-Jewishness for a three-day all-expense paid romp through our subconscious minds. Praise the Lord! And praise the most important God of all: the American dollar. Can you say $6,000? Say it again like you mean it. Say it to Him who does not speak to me, but might be speaking to her. Say it to the bank that just approved my loan. That's six thousand naked buckaroos in the sunshine of Dr. Goldberg's wallet.

What can I say?  An epiphany knows no boundaries. He was coming all the way from Kansas to New Jersey. Giddy-up.

Dr. Goldberg was in my house. He was sitting on my patio reading a book about marketing that I gave him. I asked him if he liked the book. He said it's pretty good and goes on to tell me how someday he hopes to franchise his therapeutic centers. He didn't say so, but I can tell from the way he talked, imbued with a confident nonchalance, that he would like to be the king of family therapy. Wendy's.  McDonald's. Burger King. Therapy King. I'd like a little detachment therapy today. Hold the Freudian slips.

 We planned to begin our first session as soon as the kids left for school. I began by asking Dr. Goldberg a question. "How old are you?" I asked.

"How old do you think I am?" he responded.

In my head I was thinking he was thirty-something. But that's not the point, was it:  how about a straight answer?

I asked him another question: "Do you have children?"

He paused for a moment, turned his head to the east, no doubt looking for divine guidance from Jerusalem, ancient home to the ancestors of his adoptive parents, and said, "Do you think it's important that I have children?"

 I wanted to kill him. We hadn't even begun but already I was having a visceral reaction to this congenial fellow. What did I know about him? He was from Kansas, where, no doubt, he was the patriarchal leader of one of the three Jewish families in the entire state. That was, of course, providing that his parents had not left or died. I mean we're talking about Kansas, right? Not exactly the Torah-belt.  And his parents named him Chaim, and he was the first black Chaim I have ever met or will ever meet in my life. I was waiting for him to tell me that his brother's name was Moishe. That alone would have been reason enough to shoot myself, hoping that he'd give Paula a full refund. How did a black man named Chaim (with a brother named Moishe) stay alive in Kansas? Someone was protecting him. It was He who does not speak to me? The punishment continues.

Gabriel spoke to me that morning before he left for school. He said, "What the fuck is he doing here?"

I said, "He is for us, not you. Go away."

"I hate him," said Gabriel.

We began.

The first thing we did was remove a large coffee table from the living room and take it into the dining room. That created a large open space on the floor. Next we removed the cushions from the two matching sofas and placed them in the space formerly occupied by the coffee table.

Dr. Goldberg said, "Paula and Rick, I want you to lie next to each other on the cushions." 

We lay down.

"Now, I want you to roll on your sides and face each other."

We rolled to our sides, Paula to her left and me to my right.

"Now, I want you to close your eyes and embrace." 

We closed our eyes and embraced.

He said, "Rick, do you feel safe in Paula's arms?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Paula, do you feel safe in Rick's arms?"

"Yes," she said.

And then I heard a noise. It was a miniature gong that Dr. Goldberg brought with him to begin our session. He struck it three times with a small cotton covered mallet and said, "Paula and Rick, the ancient Tibetans ... "

(Okay, all I can say was that it was so hard, I mean really really super really hard for me to,  A) not laugh uncontrollably, and B) not stand up and slap Dr. Jewish Black Man From Kansas, and ask for an immediate and full refund. Not that I have anything against Jews, I am one; black men,  I am not one; or people from Kansas, which I drove through on a trip from West Virginia to New Mexico with a dozen Boy Scouts on our way to climbing Mount Baldy at the Philmont Scout Reservation in the Southern Rockies. What did I remember about Kansas? It smelled really bad from the twenty-seven million cows that occupied most of the state, and the obvious lack of an appropriate bovine septic system. Otherwise, I am sure the state is full of delightful and enlightened people.)

" ... believed that upon hearing the sounding of the gong one's mind opened to new possibilities. Rick, are you open?"

"Yes," I said, trying my best to maintain the solemnity of the moment.

"Paula," he said, "Are you open?"

Nothing. "Paula," he said again. "Are you open?"

Still nothing. I opened my eyes and looked at Paula. There was a tear trickling down the side of her face. Her cheeks were bright red.

"Paula," he implored for a third time. "Are you open?"

"Yes," she blurted out.  "Yes, of course," she spewed, as her entire body shook. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" she said laughing uncontrollably, quivering in my arms, tears pouring out of her eyes, flowing like the river Jordan, which two millennium ago was the source of all life to the ancestors of the adoptive parents of  Dr. Kansas Jewboy Blackman and his Buddhist cousins.

“Yes! Of Course!” she said, still laughing, still shaking in my embrace.

And then she stopped and was calm. It was an instant transformation, as if someone or something or He who speaks to her but not to me, slapped her on the ass and said, knock it off, it was your idea to hire this guy!  Her face was serene and tranquil. She was caught in a zephyr, floating away to a place where life was sweet. She closed her eyes and relaxed her body and pressed her moist tear-stained cheek to mine.

I wanted to go with her, but first I wanted to laugh like she had just done, deep and loud and guttural, acknowledging not only how ludicrous this was, but how perverse too.  What in the world was Black Jew Kansas Adopted Buddhist Man and his Ph.D. doing in my house?

Here we go.

"Rick," he said, "we're going to start with you. I want you to think back. Think back to your earliest memories. What do you remember?"

This was easy; I had done this before. I had this conversation with friends and siblings and even my parents. I said, "I remember that when I was two we went to Florida by train. I remember seeing a man wrestle an alligator. I remember the glass bottom boats. I remember the train broke down and the passengers, including me, got off the train."

And then I felt something against me. There was a pressure on my body and I realized that Dr. Goldberg was kneeling beside me and leaning into me. His hands were pressing against my back, not in a gentle way but as if he were supporting his own weight against my body. He was heavy. He was a big man. He looked like a full-back and if his arms were to suddenly give out from under him, the force of his body falling on mine would surely cause me harm.

"Rick," he said, "do you feel safe?"

"Yes," I answered, "I feel fine," although clearly my breathing has become heavier as a result of his body leaning into mine.

"It sounds like a nice family trip," he said.

"I think it was," I answered.

"Let's move forward. Was there anything about your childhood that bothered you?"

Wow! Did I really want to do this? Did I really want to go there? Did Dr. Black Jewish Adopted Buddhist Fullback with or without children need to know this? And where would it take me? Perhaps someplace dark or hidden—a repressed memory that when actualized would open a vista of possibilities, freeing me from the burden of my miserable past and enabling me to create a new life of blissful contentment.  Why not? I had already paid the son-of-a-bitch.

"I was picked on," I said.

"You were picked on?" he repeated a bit joyfully, like he has just realized how wonderful it is to catch a snowflake on your tongue. "Why did people pick on you?"          

"I was fat. I got picked on a lot," I said.

Paula said nothing.  Her job was to hold me tight and keep me safe through the sad journey of my life.

He leaned into me more. I think Paula was giggling, but I kept my eyes closed, determined to see where all this is going.

"That must have hurt," said Dr. Goldberg. "Who picked on you?"

"Everyone," I said.  "Everyone picked on me. Bullies picked on me and beat me up. My father made fun of me because I was fat. And the gym teacher was always riding me. Once he slammed me into a locker because I couldn't do a push-up."

And then, I don't know why, maybe it was the safety of being in Paula's arms. Maybe it was the weight of Fullback Jewman Buddhist Shrink, or maybe, like the Grinch, my heart opened up and all the little Who's in Whoville filled my very being with joy. But whatever the reason between me and Paula, or me and Dr. Goldberg, or me and the fella or feller that sends messages to my wife via her cereal but never to me, I just let go. And for no particular reason, other than the obvious sadness of my wretched life, I slowly but surely began to weep like a baby.

Paula squeezed a little tighter. Dr. Goldberg pushed a little harder. He asked me, "What did you want?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Come on, Rick. What did you want?" he asked again.

"I really don't know," I repeated.

"Yes, you do," he said in a commanding voice. "Now tell me. What did you want?"

"I wanted them to stop. I wanted them to go away. Why were they doing this? I never did anything to anybody," I said, as the tears poured from my eyes and my voice trembled, choking on the gargantuan lump that was forming in my throat.

"Why do you think they picked on you," he pressed on.

"I really don't know.  It was horrible," I said, as tiny salt-water puddles gathered in the places where my cheek pressed hard against Paula's face.

"Why didn't you fight back?" he asked.

"I was too afraid," I said. "I think I'm still afraid."

"If you were there today," said Dr. Goldberg, "what would you say to them?"

By then the words were hard to bring out. I was drenched in sweat and tears and the heat of the two bodies surrounding me. Paula was clinging to me and Dr. Goldberg was on me like a cat that has just pounced on a big fat rat.  

"Stop it!" I shouted.  "Just go away!  Leave!... Me!...Alone! Why can't you just leave me alone?"

And they did. I felt Dr. Goldberg pulling away. Sensitive Dreadlock Buddhist Jewman Doctor Fullback Therapy King was gently easing off me as my breathing returned to normal. I open my tear-filled eyes and looked at Paula. She eased her clasp around me.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm okay," she said, sounding a bit confused. "How are you?"

"I'm great," I said. "That was a little weird."

As I rolled to my back and sat up, there was the King of all Therapy still sitting beside me, smiling slightly, with a bit of a smug I-told-you-so look on his face. I knew what he was thinking:  Ka-Ching! No refund here. But wait!  What's that? He was crying too. Give me a fucking break!  He must have thought I was a cold heartless bastard who turned his boy into a beast. He must have thought he would never break through the icy façade that is the dark aura that surrounds me. Yet he did, and he joined me in my sadness, my revelation, my coming to grips with all those years of being bullied. I guess it was supposed to make me feel good that he cried with me, but I think I resented that too.

So, okay, I was tortured as a child. So what? It's not like this was some huge hidden secret that I never dealt with. I did deal with it. I grew up. I moved on. I got old. Was this the source of Gabriel's anger? Come on. There had to be something else, something innate, a disconnect that we had yet to put a handle on.  This theory of his was too simplistic, and the fact that on top of everything else, Dr. Goldberg turned out to be the Barbara Walters of family therapy did little to convince me of the value of my personal cry-fest with or without the mighty Nile flowing from his eye sockets.

In the end, I drove Barbara Blackman Rastafan Jew back to the airport. We did a couple of more sessions, minus the tears, in which no great revelations came forth. For Paula, it was so much more than merely disappointing. In three short days she learned to despise Dr. Goldberg. She never bought into the whole lean-on-me process, and in fact, when he asked her during therapy how she felt as he pressed against her, she said that she felt like there was an anvil on her back. A deep thinker might say the anvil was Gabriel, but surprisingly the blacksmith and his anvil and his Torah and Ph.D. and his middle journey from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cow covered plains of Kansas, never took us there, not once. The anvil was him, and the hammer would still torture us no matter what we did or didn't know about our own personal traumas and those of our ancestors. Sparks were a-comin'. Oh, Lord, they were a-comin'.

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Biographical information: Richard Reiss is the Senior Vice President for University Advancement at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His memoir, Desperate Love, is scheduled for publication early in 2011 with CavanKerry Press.

Mick Cochrane on Baseball, Butterflies, and his New Book by Jean Westmoore

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This interview originally appeared in The Buffalo News
 

The Girl Who Threw ButterfliesBuffalo author and Canisius College professor Mick Cochrane writes beautifully crafted, heartfelt novels about people who endure what should be mortal blows and somehow survive with grace and spirit.

That he manages to be very funny at the same time is somewhat of a miracle.

Cochrane, a St. Paul, Minn., native and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius, has just published his third novel, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies, which is set in Buffalo and features a girl with a talent for throwing a knuckleball pitch.

Cochrane cites many inspirations for this book, which is geared toward young readers: "Reading dozens and dozens of baseball books as a kid; playing sandlot ball with my sister, a fierce competitor who never threw like a girl; learning in high school to throw—very badly—a knuckleball; seeing Ila Borders, the first woman pitcher in men's professional baseball, as a member of the minor league St. Paul Saints ..."

Cochrane will read from the novel and sign books at a reception celebrating release of the novel at 7:00 pm Thursday in the Grupp Fireside Lounge on the second floor of the Richard E. Winter '42 Student Center at Canisius. Copies of the book will be available for purchase from Talking Leaves Book Store.

Here, Cochrane makes some observations about the book:

What inspired you to write for what publishers call "middle-grade" readers?

An editor who read "Sport," my second novel, told me he thought I would be good at writing for young readers. He said he was looking for good books about kids —no special requirements for subject matter or style. This story about a knuckleball-throwing girl had been kicking around in my head so I thought I would give it a shot. Writing this book felt just like writing my so-called adult novels, exactly as challenging, exactly as rewarding.

Was it difficult to find the voice of a 13-year-old girl?

I think the key to writing from the point of view of a young person is that you have to be willing and able to remember what it felt like to be young. I seem to be able to do that.

The novel has interesting things to say about communication between parent and child, as Molly feels pressured to be the perfect daughter. Do you think parents know how to talk to their kids?

It's hard for parents to talk to their kids, I think, and probably even harder for parents to listen to their kids. They may say some things parents don't want to hear. ... One of the preoccupations I see in all my fiction is the difficulty of communication, period, how hard it is to find words for what's in your heart. In baseball, Molly becomes fascinated by different kinds of wordless communication: the signs and signals, the scorekeeping, a complicated secret handshake between teammates —she discovers you can even express yourself by spitting. That's one of the appeals of the game for her: It frees her from language.

You dedicate the book to your sister, Sue. Can you tell us a little about her?

She is my older sister. When I was little, she told me and read me stories. She even drew me illustrations to accompany my favorite books. She's one of the most creative persons I've ever known. She's a family court judge in Minnesota now, a great mother, a cancer survivor, a voracious reader, an amazing musician. She's my hero. Without her love, support and inspiration, I don't think I'd ever have written a book.

Is baseball still the game you loved as a kid?

I don't love reading about steroids and multimillion-dollar contracts, but I still love what Molly loves about baseball: "the sound and smell of it, the leather and wood, the grass and dirt, the story and surprise in a good game." And I still love playing catch.

Are there any players out there now who can throw a knuckleball pitch?

Tim Wakefield! He played for the Buffalo Bisons in the early '90s and has had a long, distinguished career in the major leagues.

Can you throw a knuckleball pitch?

Sort of. Not really. We all fooled around and tried, but no one really could do it.

What can you say about Buffalo as a setting for a novel about grief?

Molly's mother hates Buffalo because it's so gray: depression-on-a-stick, that's what she calls it. Buffalo's weather and economic woes serve as a kind of counterpoint, I suppose, to the emotional grayness of the opening of the novel. But no matter what her mother says about Buffalo, it's home to Molly. It's where she's from and part of who she is. I think she identifies a little with the city: Both are scruffy underdogs. Personally I'm fascinated by how some people from fairly bleak landscapes may still flourish imaginatively: The Beatles came from Liverpool, Bob Dylan grew up on the Iron Range in Minnesota. I think Molly may be one of those people.

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Biographical information: Jean Westmoore has been the children's book reviewer at The Buffalo News since 1986. She is editor of NeXt, The Buffalo News' youth section, and previously worked as a copy editor and an assistant city editor at The Buffalo News. She has a bachelor of arts degree from Oberlin College and started out in journalism as a copy editor and reporter at The Niagara Gazette.

Mick Cochrane is the author of The Girl who Threw Butterflies, Flesh Wound, and Sport, which was a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. He is a professor of English and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. Visit Mick on-line at www.mickcochrane.com.

Old School Bush by T. Nicole Cirone

One summer, you find yourself reunited—and eventually in bed—with your college sweetheart. You are 36 years old and have been happily divorced for several years now, maybe because you've been thinking about the college sweetheart ever since you met up for lunch while you were still married and on business in the foreign country where he was living at the time. You must also note that you were lovers again after college, until he chose his career in the foreign country over you, and even though you never forgave him for that, you understood—yes, you always wanted to support him in his work, which was of international scope and worth every penny of his $150,000 Harvard education. But all of this is only backstory, as the real story begins this particular summer, in his bed, when you are exploring your now thirtysomething bodies—and neither of you has aged badly, really—and when things really start to heat up and he touches you there ... but won't go down on you. Now, you have noticed in the past few years a few strands of silver sprouting among the once-silky bouquet of curls that twined around that warm, sweet place that every guy wants in. But you never gave it much attention. The garden gate, overflowing with tendrils and vines that was so inviting but so exclusive. Most who wanted in your garden never got beyond the gate. But he did— and if your memory and your journals, in which you kept detailed accounts of your encounters, served you correctly, he'd never been shy about it before. Perhaps you might even use the expression "with gusto." Yet, here you are, in his bed, in a passionate embrace, and not only will he not go down on you, he says, in a lighthearted way, "Maybe its time to shave."

Immediately, you think of an Italian girl you went to Rutgers with, who was the talk of the department when she walked on the balcony in just a towel, displaying for all the world her nether regions, which one male student (who just happened to be in the room and who had once asked you to take a shower with him so he could shave your legs) called "old school bush." So now you are lying here with the college sweetheart, and all you can think of is the Italian girl wearing the towel that covered her old school bush, and you say, "Are you serious?" And he says, "Well, yes, I think it's time." He smiles and says, "I think you'll like it. We could do it together. That could be fun."

You wonder what it is about you that has made now two men want to shave you. And you've seen Sex in the City and so know all about Brazilian waxes, but at the time that you saw the show, you were sexless in the city and had no need or desire for a waxing of any kind—probably hadn't thought about what you looked or felt like down there in years because your husband stopped having sex with you when you stopped talking to his parents, and you didn't have much opportunity to consider the fact that you were still a woman, for heaven sake. A young one. In her sexual prime, no less.

So, you excuse yourself from the college sweetheart's bed and go into the bathroom, and since you are still naked, you figure you ought to have a look. And when you do, you wonder just when someone put that Brillo pad between your legs—because you are now all gray there and gray hair feels ... like gray hair. "No wonder he didn't want to put his face in it," you think, and are momentarily convinced that perhaps the college sweetheart's honesty has saved you from a potentially embarrassing situation in the future, when you will one day have a real sex life—with him or maybe with someone else.

But then you wonder if he finds you repulsive—because that kind of joke isn't funny, especially when you are in bed, and then you think of the scene from St. Elmo's Fire, which you may have even watched with college sweetheart once, when Wendy and Billy are kissing, and he reaches up her skirt and touches her girdle and says, "What is this, your scuba suit?" And you think that even though Billy says "You're allowed to have fun when you're screwin'" it isn't fun to point out a woman's flaws in bed—certainly not while you are in the throes of passion, and you wish you could say what Wendy says, "I don't think we should see each other anymore." But you can't, because you are a sucker for this college sweetheart and always have been, so you decide to go back to bed and resume what it was you were doing before his unsavory remark.

Only now he is wearing his boxers, and you feel like Eve before God, aware of your nakedness and now self-conscious of the scouring-pad fig leaf you're sporting, so you put your pajamas on and climb into bed next to him. "So," he says, with that same smirk, "Do you want me to shave with you?" And you say "I'll think about it." But what you really mean is that you will think about what you are doing here, in his bed. And you will think about whether or not he will have this opportunity again. And you will maybe think about whether or not you ought to wax or shave your now-gray pubic hair so that you won't have to face this issue in the future, and you will certainly think about researching what men want when it comes to that because this could be a matter of individual taste, after all—though you think that you can't do this research on your computer because it's not really your computer, it belongs to the company you work for. So you think about looking for a new job that pays you enough to buy your own computer so you can do such research without fear of being caught and fired for inappropriate use of technology. And then you think in the meantime about buying a copy of Cosmo, which you haven't bought since college, probably, because you now have to think about relearning how to have a sex life. And while you are thinking about all of this, he is already asleep and his arm drapes over you slightly and you begin to think about whether, at this stage of your life, you want any of this at all.

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Biographical information: T Nicole Cirone is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the MA program in English at Rosemont College. Her publication credits include poetry published in Red River Review, Philadelphia Stories, the Philadelphia Stories "Best of" Anthology, and Bucks County Writer. She lives in Upper Darby, PA with her daughter and cat.