Submissions that are on the featured section of the front page

What Did Noah Do For a Living?

https://arkencounter.com/

Kentucky’s 510 ft. Ark Encounter.
Pine, not the customary gopher wood.
$40 adult/day. Unlimited 7 day combo
$99, zip line included.

“The Souk” gift store.
1st deck’s snack stand.
Ararat Ridge Zoo: ride a donkey/camel.
Rainbows light up the Ark.

Spend the night onboard.
Girls on deck 2. Boys on deck 3.
Chaperones $42 apiece:
2 male, 2 female (of course).

Purchase your bag of dirt for $10.
Creation Apologetics will explain
fossils, petrified wood, coral.
Study it at camp!

How to feed onboard animals?
Conveyor belts.
How to pack enough food?
Pelletize.

The Hills of Ojców When I Was Small

Jan Lechoń and his lover lie side by side, like two question marks, on a bed of saffron sheets. Jan Lechoń’s lover faces the wall (faces away from Jan), head on a pillow of straight hands, knees pulled up, legs crossed at the ankles. You will come with me? Jan asks, running a finger slowly along his lover’s spine. He runs the finger in an out of each vertebra, starting between the fragile scapulae, left right left right, cervical curve, atlas, axis—a river of spine, a slow leaf slaloming stones. You will come with me, to hear him speak? Jan knows his lover is awake. He rounds a stone halfway down the run and goes back up river.

The bed is pressed into a corner of the room. Old wallpaper of abstract geometric quatrefoils like four-petaled flowers of pale gingerline covers the walls. The window, near the head of the bed, is of six large panes of glass, the kind of glass that shows the swirls and imperfections of its making. Two curtains, color of silt, can be slid along a rod. The curtains are pulled shut and carefully clipped closed with three clothespins of cottonwood. A droshky resounds softly on the cobblestones like an alliteration and disappears like the distillation of a dream. In the corner of the room, to the left of the window, stands what the French call a bureau en dos d’âne. Its flap is lowered, is neatly covered with two rectangles: one a sheet of writing paper half covered with Jan’s neat handwriting, the other a volume of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Collected Works: 1909–1919, open to a poem entitled “Sorrow.”

Jan Lechoń is turned toward his lover’s back. They are two question marks on a saffron page. There is a distance between them, the length of a forearm, so that he may run his finger down vertebrae of skin. The only light is from a candle on a nightstand next to the bed. Clothing in disarray is scattered on an old Polish rug, with a field of numerous, irregular, varicolored (white, yellow, orange, green, etc.) compartments of floral scrolls, on a ground of silver and gold.

Yes, Mayakovsky is coming. Tomorrow. And the day after, or the day after that, the poets of Warsaw will enter the dark streets, glistening beneath the streetlights, will go to rooms of smoke to hear the great man read his words of revolution.

Concave convex concave convex. One stone two stone three stone four. . . .

The stones should be flat and of intermediate size, Zygmunt said, picking one up and discarding it with a backhand flip. Here is a perfect one. He leaned low and held the stone between his index finger and thumb and let it fly spinning. Plip plip plip plop. Four splashes! they both yelled together. Jan watched expanding circles and imagined the back of some mythical giant rising to the surface. His stones would wobble and splash only once, but Zygmunt’s would fly fly fly and make beautiful monsters. Plip plip plip plip plop. Five!

They wandered together along the shore with sticks from a hornbeam tree. Zygmunt said the sticks would lead to buried treasure. Light fell from the trees and embroidered the air. Farther down this path was a limestone stack called Maczuga Herkulesa (Hercules’s Cudgel). The tower of dark and lichened rock was narrow at its base and widened at its rounded tip like a bulb. Jan had once watched the men climb with their ropes, their bodies bronzed and taut and gleaming in the Polish afternoon. He wanted to go up there and rest at its cornice, spread himself flat in the warmth next to the sun, and never leave that place. He could barely wait until he would be old enough to do these things.

Cutleaf waterparsnip, small white flowers. Creeping buttercut, golden-yellow flowers, glossy like little semaphores. Moneywort, yellow flowers like little cups, which indeed also looked like small coins. Nettle leaf, with their stinging needles. This is why some people call it stinging nettle, he said to Zygmunt, who did not want to stop and study the greenish flowers in what Jan’s botany book called “dense axillary inflorescences.” Zygmunt’s stick was pointing in a different direction. Jan picked several of the pale yellow flowers of the cabbage thistle and kept them in his hand in a small and eventually sagging bouquet to bring back to his mother.

Field mustard for example, he says, has four yellow-gold petals. Hydrangeas also have four petals. As does, very appropriately, the wallflower. The brassicas, he says, of the cabbage family were once called crucifiers, for obvious reasons. What reasons? Jan Lechoń’s lover asks drowsily and perhaps reluctantly in the demi-light. The wallpaper was cut poorly near the molding and has come loose at the seams and begun to fold out like an old book left in the rain and now drying. Thoracic curve. Lumbar curve. His finger a slaloming leaf. River of spine. Like a cross, he says. But I am tired and want to sleep now, Jan’s lover whispers in the growing darkness.

The room has grown cool. Jan reaches and pulls from the foot of the bed a loosely knit blanket the color of pewter, through which their skin shows in daubs of pale pink, pulls it up to their waists. But will you come with me? he asks.

The windows are closed and the curtains are tightly drawn, but he knows that beyond them is nothing but beautiful space. Everything seems to me enigmatic and vast, he once wrote in a poem, like the hills of Ojców when I was small 1. He touches and the muscle near the spine quivers like a horse’s withers.

Later they entered the water and held hands. There were several points along the way when they would stop and the water would sting with its coldness: First the ankle, at the small hairless bones. Then the knee. Then the private part. Then the navel. Then the nipples. Do not let go of each other, his mother yelled from the shore, looking up from a book of poetry.
Of course, she did not know. No one knew, not even he.

Limestone cliffs rose from oak, beech, and fir forests and settled around them like quiet spectators as they took careful steps deeper. Hold each other tight! The stones were sharp and hurt his feet. As the water deepened he held Zygmunt against the gentle current and Zygmunt held him and Jan could feel his breath against his cheek and smell tree bark and oakmoss. The water stung like nettle leaf. Slow striations of clouds doubled and held still even as the water passed their bodies, and he wondered what trick of perception could create this great paradox of feeling and sight, this convergence of movement and stillness. Do not let go! she yelled from the shore, looking up from Mickiewicz.

A cave not far from here is called Łokietek’s Cave and is said to have sheltered King Władysław I Łokietek. The king, so the story goes, escaped the Bohemian invaders by finding a secret passage into the cave. A spider concealed the entrance with a thick web. Jan wanted desperately to enter the cave, but some said it was too dangerous, and Zygmunt, his best friend, was afraid of both spiders and the dark. One cannot enter this cave alone, he knew.

The heat was leaving their bodies so they held each other closely, enshrouded in the glowing clouds. Dissolve us like the seas, he would later write. Blend us with the air in blue infinities 2. A flower of the water forget-me-not came slowly floating past, blue petals, yellow center with white honey guides, and Jan reached out and plucked it from the liquid and placed it behind his own right ear.

When they got too cold they turned and left the water. Bitter dock, with its small greenish flowers already changing to red, grew along the edge of the river. The flower of the St. Benedict’s herb has five bright yellow petals. The name ground elder comes from the superficial similarity of its leaves and flowers to those of the elder (Sambucus), an unrelated plant, so let us call it bishop’s weed, he wanted to say to him, with small white flowers in umbels, little parasols for the beetles and flies. Some other boys came down from the main path with a badger they had killed with rocks. Two black stripes over its eyes. Its tongue lolled. Jan and Zygmunt stepped to the shore, Zygmunt laughing, rivulets of water like something melting, molten and illuminated, falling onto St. Benedict’s herb, bishop’s weed (beetles, flies, scurrying). Their skin was covered with small leaves and a gossamer of tree pollen.

Concave convex concave convex. A leaf slaloming stones. Skin smooth and hairless. Jan’s lover sighs and moves slightly closer to the wall. The leaves of the golden-saxifrage are hairy on the lower parts of the plant but smooth and hairless above. Why did they kill it? Jan’s lover asks, just as Jan had once asked his mother. If she answered he cannot remember. Why must he leave? he later asked his mother, after Zygmunt went home with his father, disappearing down the horse track in a cloud of dust. He had tears in his eyes. She looked up from her poetry. This is how things go, she said, with no poetry at all in her voice. He had let the forget-me-not fall falteringly from behind his ear and settle among the colored rocks at the shore. He imagined running into the darkness of the caves, imagined climbing limestone stacks like the men with ropes. This is how things go, he says to his lover, and then he whispers:
Tell the firemen:
on burning hearts you climb with caresses.
I’ll do it.
From tear-ridden eyes barrelsful pump.
Let me escape from my ribs for a start.
I jump! I jump! I jump! I jump!
I crashed back. You can’t jump out of your heart! 3

There was a first love once, long ago, but he did not know it then, and it was only after he left, only after he felt his gut open up, with nothing at all to fill it, that he knew it, and really it was a long time after that, as he sat alone under one kind of tree or another thinking of Zygmunt’s leaving, that he understood, that he could put a word to it: Miłość. Love.

Nowhere near sleep he counts vertebrae like sheep. Left right left right. Five stone six stone seven stone more. The shape of the spine starting at the neck is concave convex concave convex. Lumbar curve, sacral curve, coccyx. The candle gutters. His finger runs a circle and hesitates. He whispers the words and then he asks again, Will you? Will you come with me? But Jan Lechoń’s lover has gone to sleep, his shadow flickering and dying on the wall, his breath slow and even like passing clouds.

 

On Quitting Coffee

That awful fall of 2016 needs no introducing. But we all have our associations with it. My sister had just then learned she was pregnant for the first time, and I sensed the political calamity registered as little more than background chatter against her joy. For me, though, November truly did feel like the end of the world. Antarctica was melting. Markets would fall. There would be war. I would lose my job.

The season also offered personal indignities: Our family’s planned year abroad in Auckland, for example—cause of the sweetest expectation—was suddenly postponed until 2020. The two popular histories of New Zealand, along with a dozen other regional texts piled beside my fainting couch, were now hollowed of their significance, reduced to miscellany.

Most consuming, though, was the cancer diagnosis a friend was dealing with. I’d been visiting Dan in Manhattan every month or so, and to keep our mind off the inevitable, we’d direct our attention to politics, both before and after the election. Subjects such as: the Democratic analytics effort and the purported genius behind it, Elan Kriegel, the columnist David Brooks and whether he was a genuine seeker of truth or a captive to his ideology, the Republican repeal-and-delay tactic on Obamacare, and where Mike Pence and Paul Ryan fit on the spectrum from opportunism to callousness to evil.

Compared to Dan’s situation, the nagging health problem I was fending off didn’t merit even a footnote. Well, maybe actually it did merit one—because, around election time, I thought I shared a condition with Hillary Clinton: seasonal allergies that had morphed into pneumonia. I was quite pleased with this self-diagnosis until my doctor dismissed it. It wasn’t pneumonia, he assured me. But this illness—a daily menace about which I refuse to impart further details—was the thing that convinced me once and for all to quit coffee.

Even in light of this medical situation, I still might have kept on drinking coffee had it not been for my brother-in-law, Michael, who on Christmas morning in the Boston suburbs announced that he’d be taking a black tea, not coffee, and that he’d been off coffee for two months. His announcement carried the force of a blow—of truth. His health profile, I had to concede, was not dissimilar to my own. To not follow his lead would be to demonstrate the cravenest weakness of character.

My brother-in-law, I’d noticed besides, had better dietary discipline than I did. But he had also been a far more prodigious coffee drinker—subsisting, before he’d quit, on a four-shot iced espresso that he’d nurse over the course of the morning at work, whereas I was having a single, solitary coffee, which I’d also drink over many hours.

That Christmas morning, I spilled out the remaining ounce or two of coffee into the sink, inhaling its weakened fragrance first, as I had been doing over the past week at home in upstate New York.

My first day of true quitting was a few days later, during my flight to Los Angeles, where various siblings, including Michael, would be congregating for New Year’s week. My flight had required a three-thirty a.m. wakeup, so I spent much of the journey sleeping, unaware of any coffee-related headache. Yet despite taking a Tylenol while flying over the Grand Canyon, the headache eventually came anyway, as I rode with my sister-in-law’s new girlfriend, Natalie, her boxer, Henry, in the backseat, on the freeways south from LAX to Irvine.

In the tea- and kombucha-filled days to come, I didn’t terribly mind not having coffee. Drinking coffee with relatives in a suburban house, even an elegant aerie of a suburban house like my sister-in-law’s, was not a particular loss. This, I guess, you could call utilitarian coffee drinking. And as California exerted its salutary effects, coffee didn’t seem like such a big deal anyway.

It was only after we returned to wintry upstate New York that I found myself engaged in that most ironically pleasing of exercises: meditating on what exactly I’d lost. In those dreary coffeeless days, reading about coffee and its journey across the Mediterranean turned out to be an infinitely absorbing antidote. Thinking about coffee was self-reinforcing. It was caffeinating. Begin in Yemen, around the 1400s, when coffee was first consumed as a beverage by Sufi mystics, “evidently [giving] them a certain nimbleness of mind, which they were keen on cultivating during their night-time vigils and symposia,” according to the historian Cemal Kafadar; then travel northward into the Arabian Peninsula, where the term marqaha emerged to denote the coffee high, or “coffee euphoria”; and detour west to the primitive coffeehouses around Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This bitter beverage, taken boiling hot, faced but ultimately eluded various bans tied to an interpretation of Quran verse 5.90–91, the one that forbids Muslims from consuming alcohol.

In these early years, I learned, respectable Middle East society generally condoned coffee-drinking for ritual purposes but worried about its consumption in coffeehouses, which were inhabited almost exclusively by men. In cities such as Baghdad and Istanbul, cafes could be sites of musical performances by women, opium eating, and varieties of erotic titillation, such as by the “pretty boys, richly dressed” who, in one description, were employed as servers. Later on, a posh coffeehouse culture developed, with the venues often situated scenically along waterways. To get a feel for how grand it could be, have a look at the artist Antoine Melling’s early nineteenth century engraving Interieur d’un cafe publique sur la place de Tophane. There you’ll see affluent Istanbul patrons seated on cushions along the perimeter of a spacious salon, with a fountain at its center and floor-to-ceiling windows affording a view onto the Bosphorus.

Coffee arrived in Europe in about 1615, sold in a row of shops on Venice’s Piazza San Marco to elite customers—an image first put in my mind by the legendary Welsh historian Jan Morris, who glibly misreported the date as 1583. Sailing westward, it reached France via Marseilles in the 1640s. The Marquise de Sevigny, a Parisian aristocrat letter-writer, was among those perplexed by whether the drink carried health benefits or risks. “Coffee,” she mused, “makes one person fat and someone else thin.” Apparently the addition of milk and sugar dispelled the skepticism of many, even as at least one contemporary Arab commentator claimed that adding milk to coffee could cause leprosy.

All this played out against a series of bold, repeated, ultimately failed Ottoman attempts at Western conquest—in Vienna in 1529; in Lepanto, on the Greek coast, in 1571; and again in Vienna a century later, in 1683. The armies were turned away, but coffee, whatever its perceived taint of “Mahometism,” flowed in the shops and cafes and among the street vendors of Europe.

I’m not sure what it was like to drink coffee in upstate New York when our house was built, in about 1838, but I did come across a passage in the novel Winesburg, Ohio, set some decades later and not that many hundred miles away, in which coffee was said to be roasted “on Friday afternoon, preparatory to the Saturday rush of trade, and the rich odor invaded lower Main Street.” Here, the languid youth “Tom Foster appeared and sat on a box at the rear of the store. For an hour he did not move but sat perfectly still, filling his being with the spicy odor that made him half drunk with happiness.”

***

The attribute that unites all coffee drinking is as an intensifier of experience—and I was especially susceptible to this. As I contemplated my own coffee-drinking past, I saw that I’d be bereft of this intensity in any number of settings. The greatest loss, perhaps, was coffee amid the picturesque. Like, for example, in Melling’s Istanbul. Or in my personal experience: A Nescafe in Rabat, Morocco. A cortado in the Sarajevo old market. With breakfast, seated outdoors on a cool Sunday in September, at a converted church in Berlin.

But I also had a place in mind right in my hometown: the coffee shop on Cayuga Street, in a lone three-story brick building as if in a stage set, hardly any indication of the name of the establishment, just a neon “Espresso” sign in the window, the outdoor seating, the creek flowing by on a diagonal. Sunlight on fall afternoons, that kind of thing. The day of my wedding, at Diana’s grandmother’s farm about ten miles north of town, I’d been enlisted to give a tour of my alma mater to some guests, but about two-thirds the way through, I let the group disperse and snuck downtown to Cayuga to practice a song for the reception with my friend David. We sat outdoors, it was seventy degrees and clear, as I remember it, an eternity from the gray winter weekends on which I’ve been writing now. The song, which we’d heard together at a festival in Texas, had the following chorus: “Time, time, time / you ain’t no friend of mine / No, no, no / No reason, no rhyme.” And one of the verses: “In a work of art / You’re just a mixed up part / Singing out of tune / Confessing love too soon.” To whom was I singing, I’m not sure, but it surely wasn’t my betrothed. I was indeed a flawed groom. But the performance later that night was a success, and the chorus was pretty enough to grant me some absolution.

David’s relationship with coffee, I should say here, was not unconflicted. He would quit for a few months here, impulsively renounce drip coffee there, but altogether spend large amounts of time in cafes and always return to the habit. Some years earlier, when David was doing his graduate work in Chicago, I was in a phase of supreme wandering, having just returned from several months in Jerusalem, where I’d begun dating a French woman. Not wanting to settle for New York, I decided an open-ended stay in Chicago made sense. The Midwest sounded so anonymous and cleansing. I arrived in the Loop on a warm August morning, having taken an overnight Amtrak from Buffalo. David met me with a flamboyant gift—maybe a bouquet of flowers, or a wig—and drove us in his red Volkswagen down Lakeshore Drive for Hyde Park, the district Barack Obama still represented as a state senator. At Bonjour, a French bakery in a strip-mall plaza on Fifty-Fifth Street, we dined on morning rolls and coffee. That’s where he told me that his new girlfriend had chided him for getting the hazelnut because it wasn’t manly. She was an art historian with a husky voice and dyed red hair. I knew that relationship wouldn’t last three weeks, and it didn’t.

From my subsequent dalliance with Bonjour, I learned something else about coffee drinking: that even unexceptional venues could be anointed by association. Bonjour offered about seven varieties which you could pump for yourself. Those pleasant months in Chicago, nine in total—during which I earned close to nothing—I would read and write until four, sometimes five in the morning, then phone my girlfriend in Jerusalem, before calling it a night on my three-inch-thick mattress. I’d sleep till noon, work on a memoir-editing project for an hour or so, then walk the three blocks, by the supermarket, to Bonjour. Drinking a coffee, sitting in the window, eating an apple “slipper,” watching pedestrians against the gray cold, I’d consider Chicago—city of progress, the American city, muse for Saul Bellow, line of high rises against the lake. Bonjour was the deepest-rutted coffee routine I’d developed to date; it was indispensable to my functioning. (My roommate, and the baristas, noticed this.) Afterward, I’d have lunch at some Asian place toward the lake, then walk back to my room. Sometimes in the evening, David and I would drive the several miles to Filter, across from the Flatiron building in Wicker Park, a part of the neighborhood that felt like a gateway to the West. After a stack of pancakes, I’d get an espresso and edit or perhaps write with manic focus. Yet altogether, that Chicago year’s whole experience, that outer-cusp-of-youth, issued from the August day I arrived, when David picked me up and drove us toward Hyde Park for that first coffee, which was followed by a swim in Lake Michigan at the Point, in view of the skyline.

The Filter experience, the espresso at night, linked to another I struggled to resist. Coffee as vice. Coffee at diners. Coffee consumed to excess. I’m told that my parents’ abstinent views on alcohol and meat eating and other relatively commonplace activities have distorted my perceptions in this area. And when I first began trying out coffee in my early twenties, availing myself of the Keurig at my Boston workplace, a publisher of health newsletters, I became so preoccupied with the obvious transgression associated with coffee—the caffeine lift—that I simply couldn’t understand how the government allowed it. A colleague put to rest my concerns: coffee was different from alcohol, she explained, because coffee doesn’t break up families.

(Hearing this, Diana interjected, “But your quitting might break up ours.”)

The ethos of the diner coffee drinker was brought to mind recently when I discovered, in a drawer, an uncollated, unbound travelogue by an unknown author, probably picked up a decade ago at some bookstore, maybe even the used bookstore in Chicago across from Filter. Why I had kept this literary artifact all these years, I do not know. I can’t remember if I knew the author personally or not. But the writing, accompanied by droll sketches, perfectly conveyed that sense of youth in search of meaning.

At Ohm’s cafe in Mandan, North Dakota, the writer reports: “The place is full of railroaders and wannabes . . . I ask for some French toast and I sip my coffee and I stare at the coal train idling on the tracks out front.” And, in Toronto, waiting to travel to Chicago: “At about 4 a.m., I finish my millionth cup of coffee and I decide to head back to the train station.”

I’d been feeling a resurgent existential unease in those weeks of the new year, carried over from the fall, political and personal both. Before falling asleep, I’d skitter from topic to topic—basketball scores, bank account balances—failing to soothe myself. But that travelogue cheered me up and nearly restored my inner direction, perhaps even as if I were drinking that coffee in Mandan, North Dakota, and watching the trains and feeling the awakening of personal narrative, the intense concentration, like I had in years past during my own travels.

The daily urge for coffee, though, hadn’t dimmed. My health might have been 40 percent better after quitting, but I was probably 45 percent less happy. I missed the transaction at Cayuga, not to mention the pastry, followed by the two hours of elevated thought the caffeine delivered—the expansive, if fleeting, sense of a future. When I occasionally ordered a tea at the café, I felt embarrassed for not being able to partake of the more satisfying group ritual of coffee drinking.

While visiting Dan in New York, I intimated I’d be open to relapse to recapture our old magic, the formula for which was brunch at an upscale place, where we’d discuss art, ambition, family dynamics, women we’d known. As those brunches neared an end, we’d accept a refill, and the three o’clock intervals that ensued were some of the most optimistic of my adult life. Now, with his illness taking its course, Dan and I would sometimes skip brunch out and eat granola and smoothies in his apartment, on the twenty-sixth floor of his high rise on Twenty-Sixth Street. To neutralize the extra bitterness caused by his medications, Dan now drank his coffee with several spoonfuls of sugar, whereas previously he’d taken it unsweetened. (A few months earlier, following a ketogenic diet aimed at slowing the disease, he had drunk that trendy butter coffee, with no sugar, which I struggled to stomach.) As for my proposition, Dan, a therapist—and an addiction specialist at that—was clear: “I’m not going to enable that kind of behavior.”

As happens with these sorts of stories—quitting stories—this one came to a crisis. It was a Friday, four weeks since I’d had a coffee. Diana and I had just dropped off our son, Eli, at school and were heading to Cayuga. I had been planning vaguely to break the streak—to have a coffee. Why continue to deny myself this one daily pleasure? In a Tolstoy story I’d been reading, the protagonist finds ultimate comfort in his routines: his card games but also in his morning coffee with newspapers. Perhaps that was the fate of adults. Solace in routines. But at the corner of Seneca and Cayuga Streets, I asked Diana what she thought, and she said, “Why don’t you wait a while longer? Then when you have the coffee it’ll be easier not to fall back into the habit.” I agreed. I got a green tea—she a cappuccino—and we drove home for the workday.

Whereupon I learned a possibly useful lesson. My brother-in-law—and so many other sensible people—had told me that tea actually provided a steadier lift than coffee. Michael, too, admitted to pining for coffee. He wasn’t planning to quit forever. But in this jasmine tea from Cayuga—resteeped once over the course of the day—I found myself buzzing. Productive and happy. And I thought, fine, those tea bags from the co-op which I’d been using were just too weak. Later in the day, still aloft, I concluded that I’d just have to buy those mesh tea bags, the ones from Cayuga—and I could add local honey for an incentive, which anyway was said to deter allergies, the gateway to my earlier misfortunes.

So this must have been it. The problem was solved, the attachment cut. I had found a replacement source of pleasure, and I had accepted it. But in the weeks to come, the longing for coffee persisted, especially on those cold dark mornings before taking Eli to school. Plus, my attachment to the tea revealed itself to be impermanent; I’d barely make it through a few sips of the second cup. I didn’t really like tea. More than that, though, certain mornings at the café—overtaken by an espresso being pulled—I’m not sure why I felt my heart break.

 

This Could Be Anywhere, I Could Be Anyone

I leave the store after a small, middle-aged domestic thrill: A good deal on bathroom rugs ($14.99 for two). As soon as I walk across the parking lot to my car, I know I’ll return them tomorrow. I don’t need them, but I need something. I weave through the lot and see a teenager and his girlfriend sitting in a car not talking. I hear the beep-beep of someone else unlocking their trunk. When I find my Honda squeezed between two minivans, I wonder what the hell has happened to me. I want to change something, but I need to get home in time to make dinner for my family. I feel tired just thinking about it. My small excitement about rugs is undone. Maybe it’s the heat rising from the sea of asphalt that does it, or the box stores with too much to sell me, the redundancy of it all. This place is so vast and ordinary, it makes me numb. This could be anywhere. I could be anyone.

I exit the parking lot and make a left onto Joppa Road. My mood is so changeable these days. My husband tells me I’m too sensitive but I disagree. I pass the Eudowood Towers, a place I’ve passed a million times, but it surprises me that I notice it today. I was there many years ago, I remember now. I get in the far lane to make a right, then turn on the radio. There’s a song playing that I rarely hear. I turn the sound all the way up. Thirty years have passed and I still know the words. “My world is your world,” I sing as if this time in my life has never left me. It’s 1987. I nod to the strum of the guitar. I feel it, then see it, a glimmer of my former self. Like that, the confluence of sound, place, and mood opens a space inside me, a memory that I’d forgotten.

I see myself sitting on the floor in some man’s apartment. I was nineteen years old and stoned. The room was filled with the heaviness of aftershave and tension. We were in the brick Eudowood apartment building with thin metal railings. I could see the pool three stories below through the sliding glass door.

I wasn’t alone. There were several of us. We were sitting on a shag rug around a glass coffee table: Me, Max, Brain Rot, and Danny Defredo—boys I knew from high school. There was also an effeminate man I didn’t know. This was his apartment. It was decorated with obelisks of jade. Carved jade. A jade collection. This jade man was on the edge of the sofa, leaning in. We were drinking his beers. The jade man drank something else in a crystal glass. He had dipped himself in aftershave and was purring.

He was talking about the jade, going on about the obelisks that the Ancient Egyptians, called “tekhenu.” He told us how valuable each piece was, how much they cost and where he got them. Brain Rot—whose real name was Brian Rotter, but he was dyslexic and the nickname stuck—made jokes about dropping a jade phallus and watching it shatter. Then he made a tent out of his shirt and pretended to smuggle a pyramid out of the apartment. He said this loud enough for the jade man to hear, and the jade man, with a gold bracelet dangling around his wrist, smiled and picked up his favorite pieces to show us, big polished rocks that were green and grey, some black, yellow, and orange. I asked questions even though I was stoned and couldn’t really follow the answer. The more he explained the density and toughness of jade, its energy of luck and protection, and its history as a weapon before it was a gem, the more I realized it didn’t matter.

I was hungry and I wanted to leave.

I thought that if I pretended to like jade or some of his Southwestern art hanging on the walls (he told us the worth of that, too), he would give me another beer or some food. But he didn’t look at me when I spoke and shifted on the sofa so his back was turned to me. I could tell he didn’t like me, this jade man, and I didn’t like him because of it. He was plying the boys with alcohol and annoyed that I was there at all. It was as if he was competing with me, though I had no interest in winning. His tone changed when he talked to Max, Danny or Brain Rot. There was something hopeful and proprietary in the jade man’s demeanor. He treated these boys as though they were exotic creatures that he was dying to pet.

These boys: To me, they were ordinary. Brain Rot, with his pocked face and heavy five o’clock shadow, was the guy who drove us there. He drove us everywhere. He drove like he was just happy to be along for the ride, even though he was steering. I knew him the longest because we had gone to elementary school together. After my mother ran off when I was in the fifth grade, his parents told him to be nice to me. It was a begrudging friendship if that’s what you want to call it. We never talked about it

In high school, I hung out with him and the other guys because I didn’t trust the girls who partied like I did. I tried to be tougher than I was, but I also developed an early habit of crushing on boys who ignored me. It was Pavlovian, how much I wanted attention from people least willing to give it. This was back when I was so desperate to be loved that I said yes when I really meant no. It got worse in my twenties and thirties. I’d go anywhere and do anything for alcohol. I blacked out with strangers with no way to leave and got into all kinds of trouble. I learned in retrospect that people don’t feel bad about using and discarding drunken women, then judging them for it. But before those years, I hung out with these boys. I went wherever Brain Rot was driving. We were aimless about grabbing burgers and cruising around all night, drunk and high. Brain Rot let me tag along, and maybe it was out of pity that he protected me. He’d make sure I’d get home, prop me against the door and ring the doorbell. Then he’d leave before my father found me folded in half on the front stoop.

This is painful to remember, though I can’t stop it. It’s as if this memory wants me to unravel it. I’m still singing the song—“When you’re down, it’s a long way up; when you’re up, it’s a long way down,”—but what I sense now as I drive on the beltway is that something wasn’t right that night.

There was a reason we walked up three flights of concrete steps and rang the bell, a reason we filed into this middle-aged man’s apartment. Max told us that the jade man swam at the Eudowood Towers pool where Max was the lifeguard. He said the jade man was cool and had invited Max to stop by anytime. Cool meant he would let us drink. But Max was anxious. His knee shook, springy with energy, while the jade man talked. Max knew something. He was waiting. I realize now that it was for a transaction, an exchange of some sort or certain words to be spoken.

The jade man moved past his interest in gem stones to talk about people at the pool whom Max knew. Max nodded. The jade man scooted closer trying to keep his attention. Max didn’t mind, or maybe he was used to people wanting to be near him. He was sun-bleached and golden, the kind of guy that girls followed, a lacrosse boy with a baby face. He was also the first boy I ever kissed, really sucked face with, back when that was a thing people said. I remember I was in the ninth grade and we’d been listening to side one of a Journey album in the dark with other couples who were also making out. “So you said you’re lonely; well my friend, I’m lonely, too.” It was the sole reason for the party in Laurie McAllister’s basement. Now, as a forty-nine year old woman, it strikes me as odd that Laurie’s parents were home at the time, that they turned off the lights at the top of the stairs so five sets of teenagers could be together in the dark. My date with Max resulted only in a soggy chin and tired mouth. I’d had to take the rubber bands out of my braces so our tongues wouldn’t get caught. Nothing remarkable happened that night beyond mild embarrassment. Any lingering attraction or awkwardness was eventually replaced by the fact that we liked to get high. Which is how we wound up in the jade man’s apartment listening to him laugh in a mean way about a leathery woman named Carol who drank Bloody Mary’s out of a plastic thermos.

Danny Defredo sat next to me on the floor. His head drooped. He was possibly more stoned than I was. He’d been away for a while because he’d gotten into trouble with heroin, but that night he was back. Danny didn’t say much and no one asked him where he’d been: rehab or jail. Still, I felt an old tingle of energy between us, an understanding, even though he was wasted. He scooped peanuts out of a cut glass bowl on the coffee table while we waited for the jade man to stop talking. Danny used to be my boyfriend at some point in high school for maybe a couple of weeks. I’d had my first orgasm while he and I were dry humping on somebody’s basement sofa. At one point, he’d told me he loved me. It scared me.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow move. There was someone in the kitchen. Another man in his forties moved partially into view and stood at the sink. He was making himself known now. He coughed. Then he ran the water. He opened a cabinet and closed it with a small slam. He did it again. He banged a knife on the counter. I wondered if he’d been in the kitchen the whole time and why he didn’t join the rest of us in the living room. Finally he called the jade man’s name. The jade man paused. He’d been telling us the story of how Bloody Mary Carol had fallen into the pool, but he turned and said, “What.” It wasn’t a question.

The kitchen man made a ‘come here’ movement with his head. Whatever he wanted to convey with cabinet slams, he was unwilling to say out loud.

Finally, the jade man got up and went into the kitchen. There were some low whispers. I couldn’t make out what was happening. “It will be fine,” the jade man said to the kitchen man. “Trust me.”

“It’s not right,” I thought I heard the kitchen man say. “Make it fast.” No one else seemed to notice.

When the jade man came back into the room, he had a wad of something in his hand that he pulled from his pocket. He sat on the sofa and moved his hand toward Max’s pocket, tucking it in. Max didn’t flinch. The jade man took a swig from his crystal glass. He moved his leg so that it briefly brushed Max’s leg and then he said, “Sorry,” even though it didn’t seem accidental. The jade man had a deep, thick tan and a tight chest that I could see from his low-buttoned shirt. I’d say now that he’d shaved his chest, but at the time, I knew nothing about the way men kept themselves.

I also realize that the jade man must’ve had a crush on Max. I doubt any one of us realized it. It was the 1980’s and we didn’t know much. Brain Rot, Max, Danny and I had gone to a rural high school where everything seemed foreign and unreachable. An evening in suburbia at Eudowood Towers was a night on the town, practically. We were nineteen and just beginning our lives. AIDS had exploded and people were scared witless of gay men. There was a lot of discussion in the news about saliva. It strikes me how little we knew.

The real reason we were at the Euodowood Apartments, of course, was because of coke. Max was either buying it or selling it. This, too, I realize in retrospect. The guys used to leave me out of conversations, to protect me—or themselves—from my drunken lack of discretion. Maybe there were other reasons we were there. Maybe Max liked the jade man more than he let on.

Danny and Brain Rot finished their beers and asked for more. The jade man said he didn’t think he had any more. He called into the kitchen and the kitchen man opened the refrigerator, then closed it. He didn’t answer. I eyed the glass cart that had liquor bottles arranged on top. I wanted something. Any one of those liquids would’ve been fine with me. But the jade man didn’t offer.

That, I think, was the catalyst for our departure. Or maybe there was no more reason for us to be there. Business was done and we didn’t have to pretend anymore.  I don’t remember anything else from that night. I wonder, now, as a woman old enough to have children the age of my nineteen year-old self, how often Max visited the jade man and if he ever went there by himself.

*

This, all of this, comes back to me in an instant. I’m still driving on the beltway and the song is still playing, and then I remember the first time I heard it.

I was sitting in Danny Defredo’s car in the mall parking lot getting baked. The car was filled with smoke and Danny was playing a cassette of Love and Rockets. I loved it. I used to love Danny. Our problem was, we never loved each other at the same time. We sat there in the car, me and Danny, and stared out the window at the other cars in the parking lot. I still know where we were parked, though I remember hardly anything else from those days. We didn’t say much. We hadn’t seen each other in a while because he’d been away again. But when we bumped into each other at the mall, it seemed inevitable that we’d get stoned. “I only have a few minutes,” Danny said. But we got really, really high and listened to the music and watched people walk to and from their cars, groups of friends headed to the food court or arcade, and moms carrying bags from Sears or JC Penneys. It was a hot afternoon but we had the windows rolled up. We sweated. The sun was deep golden, the color of late August. Eventually Danny said, “I should go to work now.” I said, “O.K.,” but neither one of us moved. Maybe five or ten more minutes passed and Danny said, “No, I should really go to work,” as though I’d offered him an alternative. It was like we were waiting for something to happen, something between us to emerge or something to reveal itself through all the smoke. Something.

I let him go. I got out of the car and walked to my own car. The music still played in my head. “It’s all the same thing. No new tale to tell,” the chorus repeated. This seemed so profound to me at the time. I’d never heard it before and I wanted to own it, to hold it inside me while everything around me, even the summer, passed by.

I got out of my car. I walked back into the mall. I was still massively stoned. Everything and everyone was a haze. It was as if my eyes were slightly crossed and everyone else was part of universe I was just visiting. I floated down the corridor toward the music store. I remember I bought the Love and Rockets cassette and also asked about The Cramps but they didn’t have it in stock. I walked back to my car and clumsily unwrapped the plastic. I stuck the cassette in my car stereo and turned it up. I smoked a cigarette. I waited. I wanted the same feeling that I’d had in the car with Danny, the feeling of being on the verge. I wanted to be on the verge of something big. I wanted the music to find me, to transport me to some plane of possibility. I smoked another cigarette.

It wasn’t the same.

My high was evening out to a dullness. I felt empty inside. I didn’t know where to go to get what I wanted. I couldn’t even name what it was. I played with a turquoise ring on my finger that I’d gotten at the beach that summer. I’d paid $10 for it, which seemed like a lot at the time, though it was worth nothing. I stared at it with the music playing and got lost trying to follow the bumpy lines and crags in the stone. The lines were like paths on a tiny blue island. Some of the lines dead-ended, but one of them went all the way around. I was afraid it would crack in half.

*

I was almost home now. A new song was playing while I waited for a light to change. I stopped drinking when I was forty, but not before much humiliation: Some DUIs and time in handcuffs, the judge in court lecturing about “people like you,” the whispers of my co-workers when I lost a good job. I felt worthless. And yet, I still looked young and very suburban. People who look at me now can’t tell the difference.

One man I dated said, “You were a train wreck,” after I told him part of my story. (A man who showed me his plastic margarita glass collection on our first date to impress me, no less. Who is the bigger train wreck here? I wondered. There were other people who asked, “Why? Why did you always have to drink so much?” as if knowing the answer would’ve stopped me.)

This life, these memories are a knot I’m still unraveling. Other women I know have different stories, maybe not even drunken ones. But they were still beaten down in other ways. It started for all of us when we were young.

I got married to a man with children in my forties because I wanted to be safe and maybe have some value to someone. None of them understand me, though. I’ve turned into a middle-aged woman buying bathroom rugs and driving my Honda across town in rush-hour traffic. I’ve become someone who looks like I would never know what it means to be completely baked. They probably don’t even call it that anymore, that’s how suburban I’ve become. I play tennis, for Christ’s sake. I am that woman walking across the parking lot that my younger self was watching through the hazy windshield of Danny’s car, someone I would’ve barely noticed.

Danny Defredo and I never saw each other after that, though a girlfriend of his, a tall girl named Collette with curly hair, told me later that he’d always been in love with me. I don’t know if this was true, or if it was something twenty year olds say to each other to pass time. When you are that age, you think you will remember it all perfectly, that what is happening, the nuances are so important. You don’t realize that you will forget things like Colette’s last name or how you even knew her, or when you dated Danny and why you broke up, or how he became the guy with track marks on his arm that everyone avoided unless there was no one else. At that age, you don’t know that memory is malleable and that certain things lose their sway. You don’t know that you will forget.

I’m told Danny died with a needle in his arm in a shooting gallery somewhere on North Avenue. I don’t even know if they call them shooting galleries anymore. I don’t know the names of things that used to be my former life. Danny Defredo died and I don’t know how old he was—maybe twenty-four? I don’t remember when I found out, except that he was already dead for a few years and it occurred to me that I had missed it.

As for Max (the golden Adonis, which is what the jade man had called him), the last time I saw him was at a wedding more than a decade ago when I was trying to stop drinking. His face was red, ruddy, he was puffy and had a beer gut. Spit formed at the corner of his mouth. He drank a lot and laughed at his own jokes. His wife was there. She said, “Show her a picture of our daughter!” This was before cell phones. Max pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He opened it up and flipped to a picture of his dog. “My daughter is ok, but this is who I really love,” he said. His wife hit him in the arm. “You shouldn’t say things like that. Why do you say things like that?” They fought like that the whole evening. Max showed me a picture of a yellow lab, then he flipped to a picture of a young girl with a bow in her hair. I said something like, “What a cute kid!” but what I was thinking was, “My god, you look terrible.” A few years later I read about him in the paper. He’d gotten in trouble with another guy for embezzling and writing false receipts for a construction outfit. He owed a lot of money.

I have no idea what happened to Brain Rot. Our friendship does not span distances or time.

I know now that if I had not gone back to college that fall, if I’d kept riding with them and had gone back to the jade man’s house, if Danny Defredo and I had stayed together in his car that afternoon, I might not be here. I had a several more years of it, of course. My life morphed into a middle-class drunkenness, like Bloody Mary Carol at the pool. Back then, I thought the hell of all hells was to be a housewife in suburbia. But here I am. Somehow I didn’t die, but I didn’t learn the easy way, either.

I turn the music up as loud as my car stereo will go. I sing. I sing as loud as I can. I haven’t forgotten. Now and then I yearn for more. Most days it’s not so bad.

Insistent Animals

Like livestock, we walk the steel maze
to our impersonal deaths, admit design

is a murderer; there is no exit that doesn’t
reduce us to beast, just our bodies’ meat

dragging us down. Afraid of your dwindle
toward dotage, I want longevity like

the Laysan albatross. Her courtship spans
nearly a decade before offspring, but still,

she takes care to nudge her mate off the nest,
still has the will to gently peck his bottom

like some kind of kiss, then spends three
seasons at sea to remember him better.

I am alleging I love you like this world
won’t parch, your face won’t ever blanch.

Home

Home, boy / Home, boy / Everybody needs a home.
– Iggy Pop

I.

The very rich may differ from the non-rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story, and not just because they have more money, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in a story of his own. The very poor differ from the non-poor, and not just because they have less money. Degrees of wealth and property ownership largely determine how lives are lived. 

Perhaps some places prompt reflections on such matters more than others. In Detroit Hustle, Amy Haimerl describes her experiences of becoming a homeowner in a city going through bankruptcy proceedings. A white person from elsewhere who’s able to marshal hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate an old house in a very poor, predominately black city is, as she acknowledges, unusual. Her memoir chronicles her and her husband’s efforts to create a home for themselves while being respectful of their neighbors and conscious of the very different circumstances of most of their adopted city’s fellow residents. 

My experiences of buying and fixing up a house in Detroit differed in many respects from Haimerl’s but also caused me to contemplate the ways financial resources (among other things) shaped my interactions with my surroundings. Unlike Haimerl, I grew up in Detroit (though, like her, I did spend several years in Brooklyn); when I bought a house I was returning to my hometown, not navigating new territory. When my wife and I first saw it, the house practically announced a personal connection, decorated as it was with memorabilia from the nearby university where my uncle played basketball in the 1960s under the coach who had lived in the place that became ours. Unlike Haimerl’s, our house had not sat vacant for years or been stripped. The coach’s widow had lived in it for half a century, and after we bought it following her death, her daughter found a photograph of her father and my uncle in the arena a few blocks away. If the animal-loving Haimerl felt she’d found the house to buy when she saw a cat walk across its roof, I thought I’d found the right house when I discovered this family association. (I later learned that my uncle had visited his coach’s house decades earlier.) Unlike Haimerl’s, our house was inhabitable; it had plumbing, electricity, a boiler, radiators, and a water heater. It did need a lot of work, though, and for some of the big jobs (a new roof, a new driveway, new windows) we turned to professionals. According to Detroit Hustle, Haimerl relied on contractors for all renovations and repairs. My wife and I, in contrast, did as much as we could – removing wallpaper, repairing plaster, and painting as well as minor electrical work and some plumbing – ourselves (with much help from my handy father).

Despite all these dissimilarities, however, Haimerl and I did have this much in common: we could both afford to buy and renovate an old building. Even if Detroit houses at the time had seemingly low purchase prices, as anyone who owns an old house can attest, remodeling and maintenance are not cheap, especially if the building had been basically abandoned, like Haimerl’s, or somewhat neglected, like ours. (The previous occupant of the house we bought was ninety and bed-ridden when she died in it; it’s understandable that she might not have been fully on top of the place’s upkeep.) As Haimerl describes in her book, it would have been essentially impossible to get a mortgage loan at the time we bought houses in Detroit; all deals were cash deals. My wife and I were able to draw on our savings, as were Haimerl and her husband, but they also needed loans to pay for their (much more extensive) reconstruction effort. Neither she nor I bought a house that had been foreclosed. (Hers had been previously purchased by a couple who had wanted to move into it but ended up being taken elsewhere by their jobs.) Even if we didn’t directly benefit from someone else’s financial misfortune, we did belong to a somewhat small group. While perhaps not the very rich (an even smaller group in Detroit), we were certainly not the very poor (a rather large group in Detroit). We had incomes and willingness to spend large amounts of money to transform old buildings. We chose to put more money into our houses than we’d be able to get out of them if we chose to sell anytime soon. We were different. 

Not so different that we could spend all the money we wanted to immediately and painlessly, as mogul Dan Gilbert apparently can when snapping up downtown skyscrapers, but different nevertheless. Our resources were not unlimited – Haimerl had to borrow money from family and then pay it back upon finally securing a bank loan after the appraised value of her rehabbed house increased, while my wife and I spread our various projects over the course of a few years instead of making all the changes we wanted at once – but they were considerable, at least in comparison to most other Detroiters. We could afford to make choices that might not be financially prudent simply because we decided to live in a city where houses were simultaneously extremely cheap and outrageously expensive. Haimerl’s $35,000 house ended up costing her about $400,000, no small sum in a city where, when she bought in 2013, the median sales price for a house was less than $20,000. 

II.

Whatever characteristics might set me apart from my neighbors, I’ve never felt at home in any of the other cities I’ve lived the way I have in Detroit. Familiarity is surely part of the reason. We bought a house not far from the one where I grew up and where my parents still lived (and not all that far from my uncle’s). The living room of my parents’ house was where my wife and I got married, in a ceremony performed by a judge who still lived down the street when we moved back to the city. Despite a long absence, I still had friends in the area – some who, like me, had departed and returned and others who never left. I still knew my way around the streets where I learned to drive decades earlier. All of the schools I’d attended in the city were still open, and although I’ve never been an exemplar of school spirit, I know other Detroiters witnessed all the schools they’d attended disappear, which they found disorienting and sad. (One of my former schools did close soon after I returned to town.) 

Familiar faces and landmarks alone do not make a place feel like home, however. I did live long enough in another city to make friends, establish routines, learn how to navigate its streets (and subway tunnels and bridges) and become more or less settled. We never owned property there, but we did consider buying. Yet plenty of people feel at home without ever buying a house or apartment; a deed does not make a home. Being a native doesn’t do it either: lots of other people in that other city grew up elsewhere, and they belonged there as much as anyone else. Though we didn’t know our residency there would be temporary (if lengthy), I’m not sure it ever really felt permanent either, and I was not sorry to leave. 

In many ways, the city we moved back to was very different than the one we’d left: far fewer people lived in it than once had, resulting in neighborhoods with many vacant homes, even as certain parts of the city were hugely transformed by new development. Not too long before we left, my wife and I lived in an area without a lot of options with regards to restaurants, so we were thrilled when a place opened just a block or so from our apartment. In addition to offering food and drinks, this café would regularly display the work of local artists, and the first piece of art we’d ever purchased came from a show there. When we came back, that area had become rather trendy and was filled with restaurants and shops. Not far away, a building that previously housed a bare-bones art gallery and an unlicensed after-hours joint (a “blind pig,” in local parlance) now boasted a popular bakery and boutiques that not only served the neighborhood but attracted patrons from the suburbs – folks not likely to have been seen in that part of town years earlier. Yet that place where we ate, drank, and purchased a photograph long before was still there, and still mounted art exhibits, and we again became regulars. Even with all the changes, much that was recognizable remained.

The restaurant’s patrons and employees always have been a diverse lot, as should be the case in Detroit: inside it looks like the city in which it’s situated. This might seem like an unremarkable thing to anyone unfamiliar with the city, but Detroit inculcates an awareness of race in all but the most oblivious (whom some might quip tend to live in the mainly white suburbs surrounding the mainly black city). If all or most people in a place in Detroit are white – something I don’t remember happening much when I was a child but discovered did sometimes happen after I moved back – it’s immediately noticeable. When I remarked after having dined at a new restaurant where everyone – both the customers and the workers (except perhaps for the dishwasher or others out of sight) – was white, that it just felt wrong, a (white) acquaintance replied that, as long at the establishment made no overt effort to exclude black people, then he saw no problem. To me, though, there is a problem. I can’t help wonder what makes a restaurant in city with Detroit’s demographic make-up draw (and hire) absolutely no black people. What about such a business makes members of the city’s black population feel unwelcome? I know it made me feel like I was in some outpost from another city; that is, I didn’t feel like home to me. And something about the place must signal to black residents that it is not intended for them – because what are the odds in a city where more than eight out of every ten residents are black that no black person would be visible? It certainly doesn’t feel accidental. And it definitely doesn’t feel right. 

It’s not just a matter of economics. Sure, Detroit’s poverty level is no joke, but to suggest that all black Detroiters are poor – too poor to patronize an upscale eatery, which would thus need to attract a suburban (i.e. white) clientele – would be absurd. I’ve been to equally pricey restaurants where my wife and I might have been the only white people on the premises (which makes sense, statistically). Even if they put no “Whites Only” sign hanging above the door, the owners’ decision to have an all-white staff sends a message about who they are comfortable with – and who they’re not. 

After living in Brooklyn, I lived in Portland, Oregon, for a few years, and if I wanted to be exclusively in the presence of white people I would have stayed there. 

III.

If home is where one has roots, then there’s nothing like deracination to make one appreciate those roots. It can take leaving your hometown to actually see and appreciate it. Moving to country where you’re far from fluent in the main language and where, when you arrived, you knew no one can be an overwhelmingly positive personal experience – as it was for me when I did it for a period in my twenties – but a profound sense of disconnection is likely to accompany it. For me, relying on English-language news sources meant I might have been informed about major stories of the day but knew little about what was happening locally. Even if I had been more aware of what was happening politically in the city where I lived, I would have little input regarding it, since I couldn’t vote there. Even after I figured out the transportation system and could find my way around town, virtually every turn of a corner yielded a new discovery rather than the reassuring familiarity of home. 

From such an experience, you recognize that home’s not merely a shelter (for I had that), or where you have family (for my wife was with me), or the place for which you carry a map in your mind (because you can develop more than one of those), or where you speak the language (because you can, theoretically anyway, learn a language anywhere with enough time). That’s not to say it’s some indescribable abstraction. 

If you’re lucky, as I have been, then home is nothing more (or less) than where you want to be. (And it makes all the difference if you can afford it.) 

Interview: Pamela Winters

 

Pamela Murray Winters’ first full-length collection of poetry, The Unbeckonable Bird, was published by FutureCycle Press in 2018. Her poems have appeared in Fledgling Rag, Gargoyle, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Gettysburg Review, Beltway Poetry, and numerous other journals and anthologies. She received an MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was awarded a 2017 Maryland State Arts Council grant for her poetry. She’s a lifelong Marylander but a new resident of Bowie.

Congratulations on the publication of your first book of poems, The Unbeckonable Bird. It’s a terrific collection, really—rich, witty and insightful.  Also your work offers a wide range of subject matter. There are several themes interwoven throughout this collection. I’m wondering if you can highlight a few that stand out to you.

Well, there’s music: the making of it, the reaction to it. There’s observing and being observed—the poem “Watching Game Shows” is one of the oldest poems in the book, from when I was beginning to think about the implications of being seen by a camera or an unseen audience of indeterminate size. That’s something that’s almost de rigeur in our culture now, but the tension of innocents on ‘50s TV is visible and nearly palpable; they’ve never been looked at like that before.  

Another theme is desire, even greed. The “me” in this book is the me who spent, and spends, much of life missing out on things because of fear or deprivation or other demons and therefore revels especially gleefully in whatever falls out of the one-armed bandit. It was a hard moment, about a year ago, when a trusted mentor accused me of being “greedy” as a poet. He might have been right! Too many words, too many images, too many lists. I know where I came from, so I know why I’m greedy.

I have a very deep belief in God, and I’d like to think of the book as being spiritual, but I suspect that’s not the way a lot of people would see it.

Greed and grace, I guess?

Who are some of the musicians and poets who help inspire your work?

When I discovered Richard Thompson’s work, in my late 20s, I began to feel like things within me were aligning a certain way, like I’d found some part of myself. I won’t drone on about this; I wrote a blog post for Charles Jensen that goes into it in a whole lot more detail (https://charles-jensen.com/2011/08/04/pamela-murray-winters-on-richard-and-linda-thompsons-shoot-out-the-lights/). 

A few things I love about Richard: he’s not afraid of the dark, of the deep deep dark, but there’s always a belief in the light. “Hard on Me” is a brutal song about, possibly, an overbearing father, but there’s one point when he sings, “Hard on me / Like they were hard on you.” He moves away from that, but it’s this wholly unsentimental, un-lampshaded moment of empathy that elevates the song. He’s also one of the first musicians who hooked me with music that wasn’t necessarily beautiful: a voice that could moan like old machinery, some seriously demented guitar. It felt real to me. I wasn’t raised by musicians or with any intention of being a musician. I was raised with everyday music as everyday life: hymns, silly little songs, whatever my father might whistle. Some part of me perceived music as more like walking than like dancing. That didn’t really hit home until I started to listen to Richard.

I love low voices. Richard’s isn’t that deep sort of bass, but it has a sonorous quality. Norma Waterson. Joan Armatrading. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Maggie Roche. Hearing the Roches sing the Hallelujah Chorus on “Saturday Night Live,” way back in the day, was another cell-altering moment. I still begin a lot of my creative-process workshops with their recording of the song.

I always loved Emily Dickinson. I think I was a bit in love with the Emily image in my youth, maybe more so than the poetry itself, because I was a ridiculously romantic and introverted teenager. I outgrew some of that. Anyway, Emily’s odd word choices, her cosmos-ranging mind, and her nettle-like humor—a beautiful sting—meant, and mean, a lot to me. Later, in what I think of as my second phase of poetry, I was really taken with the work of Adrian Blevins. She’s from the same part of the country as my mother, near Roanoke, Virginia, and there’s something in her naturalistic loquacity that feels really right to me; it gave me a sort of permission to indulge myself in words. David Wojahn’s Mystery Train, which contains a number of poems inspired by pop music, was revelatory and also led to my decision to attend the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I got my MFA. Then there’s Deborah Digges, my requisite “favorite poet.” She can be both elegant and fearless. Her poems are intelligent and rich, and they have tiny roots or fingers that just dig in. I did my critical thesis on her work for my MFA. Vesper Sparrows and Rough Music—twin pillars of brilliance. Eh, that sounds pompous. She’s just really good.

Music is so immediate—the listener is really confronted by a song unless he or she leaves the room or presses “stop.” Do you ever find yourself, as a writer inspired or, on the contrary, daunted by this kind of immediacy?

A couple of Februaries ago, I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, in a theater on the cruise ship, listening to a concert by the North Mississippi Allstars, when I found I had to leave to write. I whispered something to my husband and slipped out, and I went back to our cabin and wrote two poems: “Born in Deep Ellum” and “Relinquish.” The first was inspired specifically by what was happening onstage immediately before I left, and the second had been percolating over the previous few days of a really wonderful vacation with Rob on the Cayamo music cruise.

If I really loved music, wouldn’t I have stayed? But at that moment, my need to create took primacy over my need to hear more of a really spectacular set.

How many of me—people suddenly leaving—would it have taken to affect Luther and Cody Dickinson and their friends up on that stage? How did I matter to their music? (What does it mean that it is only this very moment that I thought to wonder whether they’re related to Emily?)

I was once backstage interviewing Richard Thompson (sorry, I know) before a show in Oregon when he had to step out for a sound check or something. Here’s what I did, alone in his dressing room. (1) His guitar case was open, and empty, and I took a photo of the inside of his guitar case. (2) I ate two of the strawberries on the food table. He had offered them to me earlier, so that was OK. (3) In retrieving the strawberries, I saw a note, open, on the table, next to a plate of cookies. I read the note. It read something like this: “Dear Richard: Please enjoy these cookies. I am here because my husband Mike was your biggest fan. He bought the tickets for this show. He died two months ago. I hope you’ll play his favorite song, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning,’ in his honor tonight. Sincerely, Mary.”

I don’t know whether Mary knew this, but there is seldom a concert where Richard doesn’t play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Although he changes his set list along the way, from time to time, he was almost certainly going to play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” anyway.  And he did play it. How was the world changed by Mary’s note? Would she hear it and think Richard had granted her request? Would he feel different playing the song, maybe thinking of Mike and Mary? Was her request fulfilled no matter the intentions behind the result?

I don’t think I’m answering your question very well.

I can be hit by a poem upon reading it, or upon hearing it read, but seldom does anything, even poetry, move me like music. I imagine we have different sorts of receptors for art; God knows I know a lot of people who are unmoved by poetry, and musical tastes differ.

I would like to be able to do as a poet what certain musicians and painters do—something beyond words. Something that involves tones and colorations—it’s not impossible in poetry; it’s just a whole lot harder to do. 

This is your first collection of poems but you have been quite active publishing in magazines and reading your work at readings for years. When did you know that you had a collection of poems you wanted to share with the world?

I was a serious-to-a-fault poet in high school and college—really, so terrified of the world that I got in my own way—and I somehow lost my faith in poetry after that. I’d dabble in it here and again, but it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I went back to it in any real way. Then I felt like I had to make up for lost time, so for years it was a matter of trying to hit the right spot between rushing things into print that I wasn’t quite sure about, or with a publisher I didn’t really respect, and trying to be as brilliant as humanly possible and holding out for a big-deal publisher and probably choking on a burrito and expiring upon a heap of unpublished poems. 

I was writing from, let’s say, 2006 to 2016 before I really tried to put a book together. I take that back—I actually have two small, self-published chapbooks that enjoyed a blessedly minute circulation. I found that as soon as I finished them, I hated half the poems in them, and that made me wary of rushing into anything. And I had a creative thesis as part of my MFA in 2015, but, as with the chapbooks, I was sure right away that this was not a manuscript I was ready to stand behind long term.

I got to a point where I had enough good-enough poems, and then I worked on making them better, and then I found (after a few unsuccessful attempts) a really good publisher, Diane Kistner of FutureCycle Press, who liked what I was doing. FutureCycle had published my friend Melanie McCabe’s second book of poems, What the Neighbors Know, and that’s where I got the idea to submit there.

In case the timeline is useful to anyone: I started sending out copies of an earlier manuscript, on a very limited basis, in 2016. I sent out a version of the book that became The Unbeckonable Bird in the spring of 2017—just as I’d come out of several months of major depression—and got an acceptance within 72 hours. The book came out about 14 months later.

Can you talk a bit about the title of your collection (The Unbeckonable Bird) and the wonderful cover art?

As with so much of my artistic life, the title has its origin in Richard Thompson (I know). Around the time I was looking for a title, I was having some kind of discussion on Facebook, probably about a recurrent dream in which I’m trying to get to a Thompson concert and can’t find the venue or my tickets, and this friend—who happens to be a childhood friend of Richard’s—commented, “Ah, Richard—the unbeckonable bird!” Having no idea what he was talking about but loving the word “unbeckonable,” I asked for more info and found out about Lawrence Durrell’s poem “Echo,” which presents music as a sort of unbeckonable bird. (My spell-check is still redlining “unbeckonable,” by the way.)

The artwork on the cover is called “The Taxi.” It’s a woodblock print by Olivia Moore (https://www.etsy.com/shop/PoofyDove). The image is of a nuthatch who is delivering passengers to their home in a sweetgum pod. I love that the piece has its own weird little story. I don’t know Olivia, but I know she’s a Christian, and I expect that she and I are both taken with this dream of deliverance from an uncertain world on the wings of something greater. 

Your collection includes a few prose poems. When you sit down to write how or when do you know if the given poem will be a prose poem or if you will write a more “traditional” poem?

The biggest influence in getting me to wherever I am as a poet from wherever I was 10 years ago—let alone 40 years ago—is my longtime teacher Stanley Plumly. He’s got this group of students who’ve worked with him for 5 or 10 years or longer; we meet up whenever we can. He’s got strong opinions about things like form. Between those ideas and the concepts I learned in grad school, I’ve got good underpinnings.

But—and I know this isn’t much help—when I sit down to write, it takes whatever form it wants to. Sometimes, and I blame Stan, I’ll start thinking, “This could be a sonnet.” Often, and I’ll blame or credit Stan for sure, I know to lop off the beginning or the end—he’s a big believer in “start in the middle, end in the middle.”

“Dave and the Wolverine” became a prose poem because there was just so much of it. A manic excess. It suited what I knew of Dave Carter, who I interviewed a number of times before his sudden death at 49 and who was a pure creative. He talked about his songs beginning as parts of dreams and how he’d get on his bicycle and just pedal out the songs, effectively—his whole being becoming a sort of engine for the art. This is not to say that a free write should become a poem or song without editing, but with what I wrote of Dave one day, thinking about a dream I had not long after his death, I couldn’t conceive it as anything but a prose poem. Same with the two vignettes that became “Two Texas Folk Films”—one of which, probably coincidentally, is also about Dave and his partner Tracy Grammer. These were all somewhat effervescent language poured into a straight vessel.

You have lived in Maryland for years. Do you think there is something inherently Maryland-y about your work?

Although I was born in D.C., my parents were living in Takoma Park when I was born—why didn’t they just go to the hospital down the road?—and I’ve lived nearly my whole life in Maryland except for a few years in northern Virginia. When I moved back to Maryland, I was surprised by how subtly familiar it seemed. That Maryland accent, which is still thick in the more rural areas, was part of it. 

Maryland doesn’t have the stereotypical associations of other places. I imagine my work would be different if I’d been raised in New Jersey or California—I’d be fulfilling or reacting against such stereotypes. Because of its diversity, Maryland has been called “America in Miniature.” (That is, I’ve heard that it’s been called that. I’ve never heard anyone call it that.) We’re also a place that’s neither quite north nor south. So there’s a stealthy, hard-to-pin-down quality about Maryland.

I’ve worked as an election judge on a number of occasions in both Maryland and Virginia. I love the attitudes at the polling places in southern Anne Arundel County, where I lived until recently. (Lots of male voters in shorts, even in November!) I was horrified at the results of the 2016 presidential election, and in the days afterward, I kept flashing back to my fellow workers at my polling place, a selected bipartisan group, upholding what we perceived as small-d democratic values. I hated the result—my precinct went solidly for the “winner”—but I couldn’t hate the people. I still can’t hate the people.

My perception of Maryland includes a wry sense of humor and a basic decency.

A lot of my sense of Marylanders, those people in coats in the parking lots going from point A to point B because that’s how life was, went into my poem “Maryland Yellow.” It, and a number of other poems in the book, now that I think of it, came about in late 2016 and early 2017, when I had a very serious episode of depression. (The election, while it didn’t help, wasn’t the cause; I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life.) The visit to the City Winery in New York that inspired the Joni Mitchell poem was for a last-minute-scheduled Richard Thompson (I know!) concert about 10 days after the election. Then the job interview mentioned in that poem. I think I visited the Building Museum with my friend Jesse around that same time, just before I really began to have trouble just getting through the day. I was just grabbing onto whatever would help me, as John Irving put it, keep passing the open windows.

You are a wonderful reader. As a poet what do you get out of reading your work in public?

Thanks! I always have to tell the story of how I burst into tears at the podium and ran from the room at a reading I was supposed to give in college. That story is self-abnegating or self-aggrandizing depending on how you look at it, I guess.

I learned to read when I was very young, and in kindergarten, the teacher had me reading to my classmates and was impressed that I could hold the book, open and facing the audience, and look down on it and read upside-down. She wanted to move me up a couple of grades. My mother, wisely, wouldn’t let that happen, and it’s a damn good thing, because although I was also tall and could have passed for a second- or third-grader, I was nowhere near that in emotional or social development. I was just a good reader.

But I was a ham. I’ve got poems about “tap-dancing” in my room to “Give My Regards to Broadway”—I was pretty much that Gilda Radner character Judy Miller when I was a kid. So there was this tension between my extreme shyness and my desire to be heard that, once I got my equilibrium, has made reading exhilarating.

Three days ago, I tripped and fell, face-first, on the sidewalk a block from a reading in Chevy Chase. I mopped the blood off my face, pointed out the injuries to everyone I saw so they wouldn’t assume I had something contagious, and did the reading on what I imagine was a wave of adrenaline. It made me feel almost badass.

Now, that said, I think my best poems, or at least the ones I like best, tend to work a lot better on the page than as performances. It can be frustrating. Some of my stuff demands multiple exposures before it really works, and I still don’t know how you get people to sit down for that in the first place.

Tell me about your new work, if you can. What have you been up to lately?

I’m well into a second manuscript. I workshopped it with David Wojahn at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in August 2018. It’s not well-sequenced yet—we had to submit a workshop manuscript, so I pulled together whatever I had that seemed ready, and I’ve been writing a lot this year, so there was a lot. There are more poems about music, unsurprisingly, but I aim to get more in there about my childhood and family and about my experiences with mental illness. The fact that writing such poems is difficult for me to do, or to do well, suggests to me that that’s what I need to be doing.

There are also two sets of poems that will probably be standalone chapbooks. One is about my longtime love affair with New York City and my ongoing mild adventures with the friends I have there, who are superannuated bohemians with day jobs. (“There are dozens of us. Dozens!”) Another is about Andy Warhol. I never expected to write about Warhol. A month after I got my MFA, my husband and I went on a driving vacation that included the Warhol Museum, and I just started writing Warhol poems like mad. A lot of them go back to an incident at a long-ago job: I worked in the library of a modern art museum when Warhol died, and there were people who were jubilant over his death. That’s been marinating in my mind for a long time, maybe around questions of sincerity and intention in art. I dunno.

I’m also working on poems about the Fruitlands community, a utopian plan by Bronson Alcott that went dreadfully wrong. Louisa May Alcott writes about it wonderfully in Transcendental Wild Oats: “About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away.” I mean, what would Bronson have worn to his philosophical discourses if his wife Abba hadn’t sewn the hairshirts?

To Climb Green Trees

The sidewalk is sterilized white.
I could eat off its sunlight.
People creep along it like spiders

who could shrink in the heat, leave
this world without their dark webs
I watch this from a window

in an air-conditioned room, a screen
in front of me telling me who is dead,
from bombs, from guns, knives, stars.

I don’t want this knowledge.
Instead, I wish to climb green trees,
where every leaf knows what to do,

bud further upward, branches’
octopus arms reaching for the sun,
catching what it can in its growth.

Hazard

Down to the rotting
forest floor, little shocks
of sun, panty-pink,

slip below crowns
of simple-leaved trees.
Green ousts peach,

claiming branches. Layers
of duff drift beneath trees’
heart-murmur utterance,

under the dieback,
witches’ broom, sad trinity
of cloud, tree, cloud.

A filth fly passes through
the low charnel house
of decomposing brushwood.

It’s a fuel bed, ready
for wind, hazard, erasure,
and the true red of flames.

DIFFERENT

On Saturday morning, 12/21/63, a date with no prime number unless you count the 2 in 12, the 2 in 21, or the 3 in 63, Richie, my thirteen year old brother, and I, at age eleven, acting on our instinctual understanding of the privilege of seniority as our parents corralled us into the back of their Ford Falcon, claimed the thrones of the window seats by forcing Alan, our protesting and crying seven year old brother, between us. With my mother telling my father when to go faster, slow down, and shift lanes, they drove us into Manhattan from our home in Queens for allergy shots.

Plumes of smoke wafted through the air as my mother chain smoked Marlboros in our hermetically sealed vehicle. My brothers put on a big show: they coughed, gagged, gasped, and raising their voices above the Singing Nun’s Dominique, pleaded, “We can’t breathe! We’re suffocating!” My mother forbade the lowering of any window. Since it was the cusp of winter, she said, “It’s cold,” but we knew from experience that if it had been summer she would have proffered, “The wind makes too much noise,” and during the other seasons used either or both excuses, or just said “no,” and if the protests continued, hollered, “Shut your mouths.”

I sat silently because I was “different,” and I don’t mean “different” just because I was weirdly smart. Several weeks after I turned ten, I overheard my mother on the telephone use that word to describe me and concluded that was what the doctors, who gave me puzzles and anatomically correct dolls to play with and asked me all kinds of questions about how I liked my family and others, must have told her. Instead I did what I always did when we took trips in the car: I studied the different license plates, searching for one with only prime numbers after ranking each letter based upon its alphabetical order. I had found one two years earlier when we traveled to a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Montreal. It was on a car with a New York license plate that read: WCE2357. My mother had been putting on her face in her pocket mirror, smacking her big red lips together when I spotted the vehicle. She said she saw me smile, but I don’t think I did.

As usual I lost my ability to focus on license plates when I saw Manhattan looming in the distance. Separated on all sides by water, it seemed a foreign land that was not meant to be accessed. My mother said, “The bridge,” we took the Van Dam Street exit, and I waited and worried. It didn’t matter which way my mother told my father to enter the city; the 59th Street Bridge, like the London Bridge, might fall or the Midtown Tunnel could be washed away and I would drown in the murky depths of the river. When we crossed the threshold of the two-level bridge, I closed my eyes and went inside myself, beyond skin and skeleton, to the blood vessels, where I rode the current of a vein to my heart, then coursed along an artery to an extremity and switched back to a vein, while amplifying the comforting, steady thrums of my heart until they drowned out the metallic buzz of the car as it shimmied over the bridge’s steel grates.

My mother guided my father west and south and selected a parking spot, and we exited the car next to an office building that held its own in a towering row. I hated that I was the second shortest boy in my fifth grade class, and as I walked to the allergist’s office beside buildings that morphed into classmates with glassy eyes that shined down at me, I felt more like a dwarf than I did on a school day. I kept my composure and looked at their faces, quickly turned away, and when I raised my head they were buildings again, and I feared that their cold, grey steel had pierced the heavens and it was only a matter of time before the sky ruptured, collapsed, and smothered me.

When we entered the doctor’s office, I sat next to Richie and my mother plopped down beside me. My father talked to the receptionist and settled on the chair next to my mother. While my brothers and I waited for our turn with the allergist, my parents and Richie read magazines they removed from a table that separated us from a man and woman about the age of my grandparents and Alan took a little car from a box of toys beside the table and drove it on the carpeting while humming like a car engine.

My mother started to cry, and my father, with moist eyes, squeezed her hand. Richie looked at them and wiped a tear from his cheek. Alan, steering his car in imaginary traffic, was oblivious. With curiosity I looked at the covers of their magazines. My father’s was the Saturday Evening Post. The issue was titled “John F Kennedy In Memoriam A Senseless Tragedy.” It had a picture of him in a jacket and tie above the dates 1917 to 1963, neither a prime number because the sum of the digits in 1917 is 18 and 18 is divisible by 3, and 1963 is divisible by its two prime factors, 13 and 151, although 1917 includes the prime numbers, 7, 17, 19, and 191, and 1963 the 3 and 19. My mother’s said, “Kennedy and His Family in Pictures by the Editors of LOOK Magazine.” It had a photograph of JFK sitting beside his standing son, the son’s left hand resting on his right shoulder. Richie’s was the “JOHN F. KENNEDY MEMORIAL EDITION” of Life Magazine.

I glared at each of the covers, despising the Kennedys. I had been in class when the principal announced over the P.A.: “President Kennedy has been shot and killed. Let us bow our heads and observe a moment of silence.” But there had been no quietude; instead my teacher and classmates burst into sobs as if they had been an enormous balloon of sorrow that some evil monger punctured with a pin. I had looked around, as an outsider, on the edge of discovering what being different meant, at the commonality of their expressions, feeling nothing for them or for the dead president.

On the evening of the death of the President, my parents had cried while watching the news and commiserating on the phone with family and friends. “Poor Jackie. What will she do now?” “Little John. Such a cute boy. His father taken from him.” “You know how little girls love their daddies.” “Did you see it? Cronkite removed his glasses.” “She’s a strong woman. She’ll be okay.” Richie, and even Alan, had shed tears. I had sat apart and stared at them, wondering how I could share their genes, their blood, yet not be of them, and instead be so different I might have been an alien from another planet. So what, I thought. Why did it matter that he was dead? Or that she was a widow? Or that their kids had no father? What did that have to do with me? Or my father, mother, and brothers? Or our extended family and friends? Or my teacher and classmates? The moon would sink, the sun would rise, there would be a new day, a new president, the country would continue to be and so would we. No matter how long I pondered these questions, I didn’t know why these things mattered to so many people. That night in bed I had my first inkling of how I was different: their feelings extended beyond their own skin to others and mine didn’t.

After a while, as I sat beside my family at the allergist, their silent sorrow screamed at me, “You’re different. A freak!” and my hatred of the Kennedys extended to my parents and brothers. To calm myself, I pictured the prime numbers in ascending order, first the 2, then the 3, 5, 7, and 11, and it wasn’t until I reached 211 that I was okay again and knew what I had to do.

I removed the issue of Life Magazine, which had a cover photo captioned, “Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John Jr. wait to join procession to Capitol,” from the table, opened it to a random page, waited a few seconds, sniffled, wiped my eye, and commented with all the sincerity I could muster, “This is so sad.” My parents, in unison, raised their heads and looked at me. My mother opened her mouth to speak, but her lips merely trembled. My father squeezed her hand again, and as my mother shook her head, he said, “Yes, Jeff, it’s a terrible thing when a person dies and leaves a family behind; it’s a bigger tragedy when it’s the President because his family is the entire nation. We’re grieving because we’ve lost someone important to us. Remember how sad you were when you lost your protractor until we bought you another? When a person dies, shared sorrow is the only meaningful currency; no amount of money can bring a person back to life.” Then he continued to read his magazine. My mother stared at me awhile longer, but I pretended not to notice while I feigned reading.

The receptionist said, “Mrs. Fece, the doctor will see you now,” or that was what we heard, and the woman opposite rose, nodded her head to the man beside her, and followed the receptionist into an adjacent room. In my family we didn’t poop, shit, take a dump or crap or do number two, a deuce or doodoo. We defecated, and what came out wasn’t poo or ca-ca or a turd. It was stool or feces, and so when we heard the receptionist say, “Mrs. Fece,” I looked at Richie, who struggled to contain his laughter, and Richie looked at me, and in a whisper that must have been heard by my mother because she stared at me again, but this time with narrowed eyelids, I said to him, while pointing my head in the direction of the elderly man, “He must be a fece too.” Alan, still on his knees beside the little car, lifted his head and alternately sniffed the air and held his nose while he scrunched his face and dispersed the air in front of him with waves of his free hand. The three of us burst out laughing.

After Richie, Alan, and I received our shots, we and our parents exited the building. When I stood beside the Falcon beneath the gigantic office buildings that pierced the heavens, I wasn’t afraid the sky might fall. Instead I remembered my brother’s and my laughter, which the car’s metallic roar repeated minutes later as it shimmied over the bridge’s steel grates on our return trip to Queens. That evening I heard it again in my parents’ chuckles as they watched Hootenanny on television.

When I went to bed, I thought about what my father had said at the allergist’s office. If shared sorrow was the only meaningful currency when a person died, in a different circumstance, like when a person answered to the name, Mrs. Fece, another currency might be meaningful. Perhaps shared sorrow was one side of a coin and shared mirth the other, and sometimes I was the same as other people. I fell asleep imagining I twice flipped a coin in the air. The first time it landed on heads, the second on tails.

In the morning, at breakfast, beside my plate there were two shiny quarters, one dated 1949, the other 1951, both prime numbers, each of which I saved. I looked at my father, then my mother. “You know?” I asked.

My father smiled. He said, “Of course. Now go on, eat your eggs.”

My father died on 6/12/12, a date without any prime number. It was a very bad day.

Captain Marvel Goes Down in Gigolo Hall of Fame

When my wife of these last thirty-nine years kicked me out of the house and I quoth “for being a dipshit” the week before the fourth of July, I holed up in a little camper on the other side of town just so I wouldn’t have to lay eyes on the heifer. “What’s wrong with you?” she demanded to know, the spray of her saliva hitting the lenses of my pilot’s sunglasses like matrimonious shrapnel. I told her that honestly I thought I was having one of them midlife crises things. She did one of the most comical double takes you ever heard of before giving me the stankface, “You can’t have a midlife crisis! You know why? Because you’re already old! Your daddy died in his fifties and you’re almost about retirement age even if you already done the quit working part! You’re lazy too!” I couldn’t argue with that since it was mostly true but I be damned if I was going to let the old woman call me old. I was two years her junior! 

She had been mad ever since I came back from Iraq where I worked for a government contractor called “Deepwater, LLC” bossing a bunch of Mexicans to paint stuff with the cheapest white paint known to the industry. If I stuck it out for a year, my contract said I was going to get $100,000 and boy did I need it. However, they made me go home after 4 months because the military downsized and withdrew not unlike my testicles on that fateful morn. One day me and my paint crew woke up to discover that Uncle Sam left us high and dry and ripe for execution. I about up and pissed myself when I saw how lonely that little circus tent out in the middle of nowhere was. We was a regular Trojan horse with an impressive wall around us without so much as a slingshot for self-protection. If them ISIS had known we were in there all alone I imagine I’d be talking to you without a head attached to my body. So I didn’t get all the money I planned seeing as to the short duration, and this is what Gladys was really mad about. I’d gone through tens of hundreds of dollars at the L’Auberge Casino Hotel upon my return to Louisiana. It was real sweet for how long it lasted because I was a high rolling terror at black jack and roulette.

The trailer was right across from a school with one of those black and orange “For Rent” signs on it. The old bat didn’t say much but the rent was cheap and the little camper trailer would have been the Taj Mahal in a KOA campground full of them but being in this neighborhood of fine brick, ranch style houses was irritating to some, my new landlord, Judy, apprised me. I thumbed out some cash from my fat money clip and then she begun to get real chipper like she’d been sipping the sherry with Justin Wilson—the Cooking Cajun himself. 

“Ooh, what do I call you Mister?” 

Well, I suppose she thought I was older than her because she wanted to call me mister somebody but I told her the same thing I used to tell the grade school children in my neighborhood years ago, “You can call me Captain Marvel.” I don’t go in for all that Mr. Ray bullspatter. She kind of frowned when I said that but she snuck another glance at my wad, which I retired to the front pocket of my Dickies. I could have said, “Ray Landry, Dahlin.” Pour it on real thick too but instead I just stuck with Captain Marvel. She clucked to herself, handed me the keys, and waddled back to her nice brick dwelling after she stuck the money in her bra where I’d seen her put her cell phone a little earlier. Cash money covers a multitude of sins, not to mention identities. She walked off real slow like there was something I wanted to look at. She called over her shoulder at me, “Next month’s rent is due at the first of the month, Mister Captain Marvel.” I wasn’t about to hither to her thither. She could cram that to whence it came.

It was lucky for me that there was a good ole boy across the road name of Mr. Glenn who was originally from Texas. He was an old guy and rode his imitation Hoveround everywhere. That thing could flat get it too. The only time he climbed off it was to plant azaleas in his yard or to take a leak. I don’t think he was old enough for WWII but he had been in the military, Korea maybe, and he talked about being stationed in Hawaii when he was young, except when he said it it had an “uh” on the end instead of an e sound. I don’t know how you’d spell it but looks like it would be something like “Hawai-uh.” He’d been a boss for construction crews and such when he a younger man. It was plain to see he’d been a helluva man when he was younger. A real John Wayne type. When he’d get irritated he’d say, pardner too. Except the way he said it it came out “pad-nah.” He ran up and down the street watching over what happened except when he had to go to the doctor or some place for dialysis. He was near blind and one time the power ran out on his scooter and he sat out in the middle of the street saying, “Help help!” He wasn’t in too good of shape these days.

Now, Mr. Glenn’s wife was a real ring-tailed tooter. She said her name was Angie but I knew that wasn’t her real name. She was from some foreign country. I made out to figure just where she was from and I’d ask Mr. Glenn all sly-like, who looked me square in the eye and said, “Florida.” Now, I was in an awkward situation, torn as I was between my curious nature wanting to know where she was from and him not wanting to tell me. “Naw sir, I mean, where is she from-from? Where her people from? “Florida,” he said again and one eye twitched open a little further like that crazy look Clint Eastwood likes to get before he shoots some punk. 

One day they flagged me over just as I was leaving the trailer for my morning constitutional to give me some homegrown blueberries. They both called out to me, “Mr. Captain, Mr. Captain!” Anyway, she let it slip her family was going to be visiting from the Philippines. Speaking of flags, they liked that I hung out the red, white, and blue on the metal flag holder attached to the trailer. Let people know what’s what. Mainly, I would sometimes get overwhelmed by a powerful feeling of patriotism when I’m drunk but it seems to dissipate as I return to sobriety. Angie herself had a strong accent but she let it be known that she didn’t like foreigners coming into our country. 

Staying up all night watching infomercials for erectile dysfunction, real estate sales, and vitamins makes a person start to wonder about the future. I decided Captain Marvel needed a whole new persona or outlook on life so the first thing I did was jump in the truck and head to the Goodwill to see if I could find a white or powder blue Seersucker suit with hopefully a little mint green bowtie. Why, I could see myself drinking one of those root beer and ginger ale drinks and speaking with one of those cute Georgia southern accents everyone loves so much in the movies. My old persona was played out and it was high time I became someone new anyway. Hell, I might even shave because it hit me that what I really need to find was one of those sugar mamas to keep me in the style I had not grown accustomed to instead of that other heifer with her stretched out tramp stamp mean-mouthing me all the time. Barring that, not being able to acquire the Seersucker, I’d just stick to my kind of natural rockabilly look I’d painstakingly developed throughout my fifties. I was blessed with the natural sideburns for it and that says a lot.

On a Friday night, I made sure I looked tight in my fifties garb for the senior citizen dance since I hadn’t any luck finding the seersucker. Even slicked my hair back. I was sure to find me a sugar mama in that lot. Bring on those ‘old money’ or nouveau riche saber-toothed cougars! I pulled up into the parking lot and a few people were outside smoking cigars in Hawaiian shirts and a couple were sucking hard on those electronic cigarette dealios. All the men had white hair, or no hair, except for a couple that were busy fooling themselves with dyed jet black hair or a toupee here and there. Not that I don’t have my fair share of white hairs myself but I knew that compared to these duffers I’d look like a teenager. Hell, I still looked young. I’d been carded a number of times into my late forties because I was blessed with a baby-face by God above. He knew I’d always be poor so he made me goodlooking instead.

“What’s shaking, Jackson?” I asked one old man who was staring at me like he’d just seen me on an episode of 48 Hours. 

“You sure you’re old enough to go in there, young man?” One old-man with a thin, well-oiled mustache laughed like he’d just told the most hilarious joke of all mankind.

“They been asking me that my whole life, Jeeter,” I said.

“Oh well,” the mustache man said, “there ain’t nothing in there but women so old their titties are full of sawdust.”

“That’s all right,” I winked. “I came to play hot potato with all the gals I can.”

The whole group of them guffawed and tittered at that one.

These men were of a certain age and disposition that allowed them to call a bra a “brassiere” and not make a funny expression afterwards. 

“Do you jitterbug, junior?” A lady with white-hair piled up like blue cotton candy asked. 

“I ain’t bragging,” I said. “But I do it all. I’m what you might call a full service swinger. I can do the mambo, the watusi, rumba, and even macarena if you insist.” 

I’d taught myself these dances by answering an infomercial with VHS tapes. The kind with the three easy payments you always hear about. I made two of them anyway before I changed addresses. I’d get teenage gals, bored housewives, and latter day Lolitas to practice with me when I lived in the Flip Flop Apartments. I watched all these Cuban guys dancing with beautiful women, and I do mean WOMEN all night long so I decided I was a fool not to teach myself these dances.

Another old gal shrilled, “He’s all yours, Frieda!”

Frieda about come unglued with giddiness I’d never seen in women half her age owing to the Shakespearean innuendo of my words. I thought men-o-pause made them halting and old biddy-like but not this one—she was a genuine saber-toothed cougar. She wasn’t like some of them younger women I knew. You know the kind that are always bored with life and give you those constipated looks when you hold the door open for them. ‘I know what you’re after,’ their evil eye looks say. Now a woman like Frieda has a lot to give, and she ain’t through giving it all yet. She’d already been through that aforementioned stage of females who think they’ve done seen it and had it all and don’t want none of it no more. She’s ready for a young man to keep up with her. I just hoped she had the pocket book and matching bank account to cover me. My disability check hadn’t come in yet and when it did I’d have to unhook my old lady’s claws from it or she’d have spent it up in a minute. In another year, I’d be able to partially retire. I didn’t want to mess around and die and not know the sweetness of retirement. For now, if I couldn’t make my life as a gigolo take off, then I’d have to think of another get riche quick scheme. And, I only call it a schema because I felt like time was shooting out the ass end of an hour glass like the proverbial sands on that old soap.

I’ll be damned if Frieda didn’t pay my $5 cover charge for me. Visitors had to pay a $5 and anyone under 62 had to pay an additional $4. The Pearly Gates Senior Center dance hall looked like a roller rink on hardwood floors. There was a giant disco ball hanging from the ceiling to boot. A gaggle of assorted canes and walkers was standing against one wall while the dancers themselves were on the floor groovy dancing, line dancing, Cajun dancing, two-stepping, twisting, and disco dancing. It was a regular dance free-for-all. Dancing with the Stars made everyone feel like they could dance and would look like a star doing it at Pearly Gates. My partner said she wanted to jitterbug but I found out what she really meant was a kind of less vigorous, bastardized version called the rock-n-roll. This all worked to my favor because I doubt I could have flipped her rather large posterior through the air and not come unbalanced myself and ended up with my own broken hip, mashed cloven foot, or worse yet, hospitalized. It wouldn’t do for either of our reputations if one or both of us ended up with broken hips. 

I saw the hopeless faces of the women lined up in their cushioned chairs. As we boogied down past the table of these elderly vixens I heard, “That’s a good looking man! Is he an actor?” 

Next another one countered with, “Yeah, but what’s he doing with that slut?” 

After we had rock-n-rolled for 4 songs straight Frieda said she needed to catch her breath and disappeared to the lady’s room. I took out a handkerchief and mopped at the sweat on my brow. That woman could plumb get after it on the sawdusted parfait. Next thing I knew, a lady who I believe referred to herself with unlikely moniker of Oleta leapt in front of me and then hitched at the waistband of her green hotpants. Her enormous twin peaks, stuffed as they were in the bedazzled blouse, were monumental and thankfully immobile though she tried to convince me she’d been like that since age fourteen. “No sag, just fact!” She told me her name meant “winged one” though I found it unlikely she could get off the ground with those puppies and, of course, I had to let her know that I was Captain Marvel to one and all. She introduced me simply as “The Captain” to the raucous cheering section, which upped my desirableness I must admit, who were ravenous for new man flesh. Just one glance at all those dance veteran faces let me know I was being seriously objectified. 

“He’s a baby!” One old gal cooed.

Another said, “He’s a dreamboat!” This immediately made me think of the theme song to the Love Boat television show for some reason and I began to hum it to myself.

Now, I’d never been much of a Romeo as a young man. Women my own age seemed unmoved by my pale skin, hazel eyes, and jet black hair I’d known come from a strain of Comanche Indian in my family, females given white-sounding names but it was obvious. Two of my elder brothers, who had already messed around and passed into the happy hunting grounds or some place a tad warmer, even had that red complexion to their skin and were right tall sons-of-bucks. All that being explained, older women than me had always loved me! Now, don’t ask me why. The more unrealistic a relationship could possibly be, the more likely they were to give me the eye. Love, exciting and new. I whistled a bit here but I think women who are a little older appreciate and trust a whistling man. At least, this is the conclusion I came too after relieving myself of spiked red punch every twenty minutes or so. The male geezers of paradise all walked in whistling, doing their business, washing their hands (some) so much so that it seemed like a bird-calling convention. The echo in that particular lavatory had an echo that was custom-made for whistling jeeters and bebop rock-a-billy crooners alike.

Anyhoo, some of the gals give that come up and see me sometime look even when they weren’t exactly aware of it.  So then Miss Oleta 23 skidoos me out to the dance floor for some serious Cajun two-stepping. It seemed like the peanut gallery was an impenetrable chorus but I found that once one of their number was whisked onto the dance floor by a dandy male that they then became fair game. For now, they were hooting and hollering about what a whore Miss Oleta was! It was nothing for these retired ladies to share a pit stop in the restroom one minute and then refer to her dancing friend thusly, “Look at that uppity bitch!” Unless, of course, she was dancing with another woman. That was just okie doke. Those babes who had only recently retired, to the septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians were as googly-eyed over men as high schoolers at their first pep rally. 

This surprised me at first, but Miss Oleta, like her sister-in-arms before her, seemed to not register the catcalls and insults of her sister-coven, but instead she radiated a dreamy countenance of ultimate romance that Disney would be hard pressed to duplicate in one of his princess movies. She let it slip somewhat ungracefully that she’d once been the Soybean Fair Queen of Audrain County. She sat in a convertible Corvette and waved to the crowd sitting up on top of the seat. “It’s hard on your ass,” she whispered in my ear. Real insider stuff and more I heard about fair queens and tractor pulls galore.

I observed my original mark, Miss Frieda, returning from the lady’s room with a slow dawning expression of betrayal. I began to back that ass up right to the table like the bravest lion tamer you ever witnessed considering I lacked chair, whip, and pistol when it came to the ferocious ladies. I danced with hind-end so far out and away from Miss O that one would have thought I was afflicted with some horrificent spinal disorder. I couldn’t honestly say these were the kind of men and women you hoped died choking on their own vomit because I consider myself a populist in this regard. I wasn’t here to enjoy myself. This was business. Bidness. A matter of economic survival. I needed me a retired baby mama. No baby, just mama. Capiche?

Miss Frieda cut in between myself and Miss O. She foxtrotted me off to the center of the dance floor and told me how handsome I was. Her eyes were green without a hint of hazel and yet her pupils were shaped more like a cat’s eye than any human I’d ever seen. She used those eyes to hypnotize me and I didn’t even notice the clawings of Oleta on my back but would bear the bloody scars of a wolverine afterwards. 

“My third husband always told me I was beautiful before sex but afterwards he’d say my conversation was a bore and I needed a personality transplant,” but almost as proof that this was untrue she kind of lowered her hands so they were resting on my hindend. “You don’t think I need a personality transplant, do you hon?” She tapped me a couple of times to insure that I was empathetic to her plea.

“How long ago was that, Miss F?” 

“Hmmm, I’d say that was about 1974.”

“Before my time,” I winked.

“Shut up!” She roared. “You’re such a baby and I’m keeping you all for myself. I refuse to share another man with Oleta Beard! You know, she takes hormone replacement therapy?”

I shrugged. I assumed that was a bad thing.

“I’m 110% natural woman,” Frieda said. “A young man like you should be able to appreciate.”

“I am very, very appreciative,” I thought I was rubbing her ass cheek but it turns out I’d been buffing up her luxury designer handbag for the last couple of minutes. It ought to shine now.

“You like that old thing?” She asked with a smile on her red, too red, lips.

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” I made my best innuendo eyes at her.

She laughed and beat on my chest like an old-time actress pretending to be in distress. 

“You’ve have those sexy lined eyes I love so much,” Miss Frieda said. “But you have to be careful your whole face doesn’t collapse in ten years or so. That happened to my second husband just before he died.”

I said, “I have just the right amount of gray in my hair that everyone loves,” repeating that line from the commercial somewhat doubtfully.

“Oh, of course!”

We were dancing still but all this talk was throwing off my timing. I didn’t even know what kind of dancing we were doing anymore. She had thrown her arms around my neck so that her forearms touched my neck and she cast spells with her hands and fingers. My hands were on her hips and we moved back and forth, more or less in time with the music that seemed to have gone back to the Big Band era. And now, Miss Oleta came up behind me and synced her body to ours so that now we were dancing a lascivious threesome and I was the meat in this geriatric grinder. I couldn’t see Miss O’s face but if Miss Frieda’s was any indication I’ll bet it was full of violent shades of green eye shadow.

The next thing I knew Miss Frieda had thrown me in the floor and I was covered in sawdust and grime from spilled drinks that had become a kind of paste. The two, formerly ladies, were going at it in a row that ole “Hands of Stone” himself would have been proud of. From my vantage on the floor I wasn’t about to take sides, I just wanted to see a good fight. I have to say now I can’t understand why girlfriends from my teenage years sometimes tried to provoke fights between me and some other dude. It’s wonderful for your self-esteem to be fought over. On the other hand, I was all about the payday than the romance so this was a somewhat awkward detour from my nefarious plans.

“He’s mine and I love him!” Miss Frieda said.

“Love! Yeah right, heifer!”

Slap and grab. Left-right, left-right! I hadn’t seen this much action in or out of the ring in years. Miss O’s upper plate popped out onto the dance floor and then the bout was over. Miss Frieda stood there with her wig hanging over to one side. Miss Oleta was holding her teeth looking for something to dip them in and another gallant fellow came over with his glass of ginger ale to oblige. She sighed and stumbled away as if she’d forgotten all about her love for yours truly. Miss Frieda fixed me with a disgusted look. I guess she expected me to wade in and fix her rival with a right cross. 

“Oh, I know your kind, sonny!” Miss Frieda said. “I see who you are! You’re the love ’em and leave ’em type.” All this, despite the fact that no loving had officially transpired. Not only that, but I hadn’t left yet. It could have been one of the blows to her head had shook something loose too.

The chorus of women at the table now all looked at me with anger and lust. I knew I had to get out of there before they tore me apart. No doubt that as soon as I left the Pearly Gates Senior Center I’d go out in the Gigolo Hall of Fame. Despite the fact that I hadn’t successfully gigolo’d anyone or received payment for my services. 

I ran out the back door. I wasn’t about to be crucified for this kind of love.

The Liars’ Asylum – Review

The Liars’ Asylum by Jacob Appel
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

“The Liars’ Asylum”
Short Stories
Black Lawrence Press, 2017
16.95, 180 pages
978-1625579751

The eight stories that make up Jacob Appel’s The Liars’ Asylum are like eight episodes of Seinfeld on steroids, zany plots involving feckless characters whose motives are never so pure, often questionable. All of the stories are narrated in the first person by a variety of protagonists ranging from teenaged girls to men in their sixties, from schoolkids to psychiatrists; from Maia in “The Summer of Interrogatory Subversion,” living with her divorced mom, just turned eighteen, “transforming me overnight from adolescent to liability,” to Leo in “Picklocks to Oblivion,” a man whose job is to transport severely disabled people in a medical van.  They take place in different locations from New England to the Mid-Atlantic, with a couple of the stories set in the provocatively named Virginia town of Oblivion.  

In one story, the seventy-eight-year-old mother of the narrator’s wife is impulsively marrying a man over thirty years younger than she, a pet store owner, in a ceremony that will take place in the pet store. Her daughter tries to intervene.  In another, Laurie Jean, a fourteen-year-old girl, is recruited by her Aunt Jill to help Jill, forty-eight, snare a man she is interested in by going to work for him in his business of creating realistic synthetic flora for theme parks. In yet another, told by the aforementioned Leo, a sexpot out-of-work actress, Janine, his girlfriend, tries to get Leo to perform a mercy killing. All very bizarre situations but just plausible enough to be compelling in a Jerry Seinfeld bizarro-world sort of way.  All of the stories involve people having (or not having) affairs, all related in the confidential, confessional tone of somebody getting something off his or her chest.

But the truly admirable thing about these stories is that the resolution to the plot always comes as a sort of surprise, whether it’s Leo pulling the plastic bag down over Janine’s head in “Picklocks in Oblivion” instead of the paralyzed victim’s (though not killing her) or the girl Maddy, the teenaged narrator of “When Love Was an Angel’s Kidney,” coming upon her mother having an affair with a man who is not Maddy’s father, and the conclusions each reaches.

The title story, which anchors the collection, is narrated by one of the psychiatrists, Ian Shaddock, and may stand for the whole in the sense that the people in these stories are not always honest and seek some sort of justification – some sort of asylum – for their behavior. In this story, the narrator works in the psychiatric emergency room of a hospital. One morning he arrives at work to find a handful of people who have been infected by a “truth storm.” They confess secrets to dear ones that they should keep to themselves – sexual improprieties, financial shenanigans – as if they had Tourette syndrome and cannot help themselves. Marriages are ruined, jobs lost. These bouts of confession only take place after the patients have been caught in the rain, though Shaddock is convinced that the rain is not the cause.  Meanwhile, his wife Vicky desperately wants a baby that Ian is not so keen about having, and he falls for a social worker at the hospital, Marlena. These are his own secrets, his own lies. How he resolves these before the judge of his conscience is the magic of this tale.

Magic is indeed at the heart of these stories, how they are resolved (or not), whether it’s the lifelong secret of Esko Virtinen’s sisu in “The Frying Finn” or Rebecca Hertz’s unresolved feelings about her suicide high school Physics teacher decades later when the teacher’s daughter tracks her down to interrogate her in “Prisoners of the Multiverse.” As Marlena observes to Ian at the end of “The Liars’ Asylum,” “Like I told you, mystery is sexy….” The mysterious is the magical. And it’s sexy.

Appel’s writing is vivid and the voices of his narrators are compelling. Leo observes about Janine, after she’s revealed the plan to euthanize Dr. Bingham, the paralyzed patient they are transporting: “She slams the metal blade of her seatbelt into the buckle, as though cocking a shotgun….”  In the story, “Good Enough for Guppies,” when her daughter Sheila reacts with horror to the idea of her mother actually getting married in a pet store, Glenda retorts: “What’s wrong with a pet store? It’s good enough for guppies and swordtails.”  Or take Marlena in “The Liars’ Asylum” describing her past: “I was a born-again Christian for a couple of years, and then I played the mandolin in a bluegrass band. Mostly, I managed to hurt people a lot….”  Laurie Jean about her Aunt Jill in “Bait and Switch”: “I had sudden thoughts of dipping her Xanax in rat poison.” Moments of insight casually tossed off with the breathtaking skill of a seasoned storyteller. This is a truly delightful collection of stories.

Our Fine Old Flat Chested Gal

March 14, 1983

Dear Sir or Madam:

Forgive the vague salutation. I could not determine the current president of the IBTC, so I am hoping this letter reaches the correct party. 

I want to share with you the story of my grandmother, who would have been a staunch supporter, probably a lifetime member, had she known about your group.  

I want to tell you how she could have used your help. 

I am sure that after you hear her remarkable history you will agree to induct her as an honorary member posthumously. It would have meant so much to her and her equally dainty descendants.

Please advise me as to who should receive the details of her biography and I will forward them gratefully.Warmest Regards, 

Ann Keebler-Gladstone

#

June 2, 1983

To Whom It May Concern:

Unfortunately, we are between presidents at the moment and will swear in our next leader at the end of the month in a tasteful (members only) ceremony at our headquarters, The Dome. You may know it as the “little yurt” from the media, or more playfully as the “breastquarters” from our longtime supporters.

In the meantime, as I am sure you will understand, we are fully occupied with the necessary preparations for this important event.

While we are in this transitory state, our resources are limited. 

We will contact you after the next term has begun. 

Sincerely,

Melinda Carriage

Interim President, IBTC

MRC/rb

#

August 10, 1983

Dear Interim President Carriage,

It has been two months since our last correspondence, a copy of which has been provided. 

I trust your new president is faring well during the transition. 

I realize you and your new leader have hard jobs: officiating functions and performing countless administrative tasks while simultaneously appearing proud of your organization, even though that may be difficult, even humiliating, at times. 

I am still hoping to obtain honorary membership for my dear grandmother Gigi. 

Please let me know the proper channels to follow so I can move the process forward. 

Much gratitude to your organization and its fine work. 

Warm regards,

Ann Keebler-Gladstone

Encl: (1)

#

November 3, 1983

Dear Interim President Carriage,

It has been three months since my last correspondence. I have included a copy for your reference.

My hope of obtaining a posthumous membership for beloved grandmother Gigi has not yet faded.

 Perhaps if I share some of the details of Gigi’s life, you may feel compelled to kindly expedite her membership. We have an upcoming family reunion in February of next year, and it would mean so much to the clan to share this honor publicly with the people who love and admire her most. 

Grandmother Gigi’s bright smile was her calling card. In her hometown of Glenford, Massachusetts, her body’s slim, straight profile was much admired when she was young. During the 1920s, when figures such as hers were fashionable, she turned heads and had her pick of partners for dances or walks on the boulevard. She was desired not only for her “bee stings” (her words), but for her kindness and generosity. The Gladstones supported a community hospital and were well known for its considerable endowment (unlike dear Gigi). 

Gigi was, in fact, well known for her parties and salons. I do not have copies of the guest lists, but I have been told they featured Glenford’s elite, the leading thinkers of the community, including the deputy mayor and the author of a regional cookbook which was in print until 1937. 

She was so well known in certain circles that a local swing band popularized a number especially written for her: “Our Fine Old Flat Chested Gal.” Perhaps you remember it? 

I have attached the sheet music for the IBTC archives.  

 She liked to fool people. This was part of her charm.

In our family, there are many tales of how Gigi successfully disguised herself as a youth, as long as she didn’t speak and kept her hat low and a scarf over her face, and her hair tucked away. She spent hours in saloons, on her secret “spy” missions as she called them. I am sure she was just listening for mentions of her own name, of which there were many.

After half a dozen of these adventures, she no longer donned the costume and would not reveal why. Her cousin Amory suspected she had been found out, for she avoided certain streets for the rest of her time in Glenford. 

Her brother Wilfred had a different opinion about what he called her “sinister exploits” but I choose not to reprint them here. During one such “incident” all of the handkerchiefs went missing from the house, only to be seen in the pockets of what Wilfred called “Lotharios” over the following months. As Gigi explained it in the family lore, these men had shown her a great kindness over the years, and she wanted to offer them a small token of appreciation. 

I do not share Wilfred’s opinion, but prefer to think of my grandmother as a true pioneer who, in entering public drinking establishments unaccompanied, broke barriers for women, secretly.

I do have a treasured photograph of Gigi in her heyday on the Glenford Green, a community park with many bushes, a gazebo, and a medium-sized fountain. Here, all of the town’s citizens, regardless of class, mingled.  

Apparently, my grandmother was fond of this place. After her saloon adventures, she would spend hours in the park reading books. Her parents were puzzled by this as her own book collection was scant and they never saw her reading at home. She explained that she checked them out of the library and returned them on the same day, according to a letter her mother wrote to a friend in 1927: “She is an intelligent girl, spending many afternoons on the Green, improving her mind. Her father often jokes that she has gone through the library catalog twice. I am puzzled by the state of her clothes after many of these excursions. They are sometimes torn, filthy or (forgive the indelicacy) soaked through with sweat. I do not know how reading could have caused this, but she assures me that she often chases squirrels for exercise in between chapters.” 

I find her pursuit of knowledge, combined with healthy exercise, is strong evidence of a well-rounded personality. 

There is so much more to tell, but obviously, assisting your new president fulfill duties is of the utmost importance, so I will close here. 

As I mentioned, her family had money, and so her hi-jinx were mostly tolerated. After all, she was Gigi Gladstone. 

I hope this letter has interested you enough to hear more. She did much to help our country (with the love and financial support of her family) despite her “scant endowment.” She was lucky to have been born when she was, come to think of it. Perhaps she would not have had so much fun in another decade. 

Please do let me know what the next steps are to receive membership for dear Gigi, a true hero to our country who used her small blessings as a remarkable service to the US of A – this information I can send in a separate letter, if you are interested to record it as part of her membership application. 

Regards,

Ann Keebler-Gladstone

Encl: (2)

#

November 12, 1983

Dear Ms. Keebler-Gladstone,

It has indeed been a busy few months! We have laid the groundwork for numerous projects which have been made possible by the generous support of both members and the general public.

With the help of our Platinum Club donors, our assets are growing. We are working with craftsmen, a landscape architect, and a plaque master on the initial designs for:

  • An official marker to be erected in The Plains, Virginia, at the birthplace of our founder Fanny Surrey 
  • A pool near the “little yurt,” which in its reflection of The Dome will create a pair of equally appealing symbols, one flat and one not – truly a clever representation of the beauty in all sizes that the IBTC champions
  • A small plaque to be placed at the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce (above what is now the door to the utility room) marking the first secret meeting of our group in 1949

We, like Gigi, have struggled mightily and overcame many obstacles to build an organization to raise awareness and acceptance for women who are large in spirit, if nothing else.

We have included the application packet here, along with other information we hope you will find interesting, including information about remembering the IBTC in your estate plan and making a monthly donation on a convenient schedule. 

Please do continue to let us know of Gigi’s illustrious history. 

Perhaps a small scholarship in her name can be established so that Gigi Gladstone can continue to contribute to our nation’s success long after she has moved on to her great reward.

Our new president tendered her resignation last week, citing exhaustion. Once again, I will be the temporary commander of our stalwart vessel.

We look forward to hearing from you. 

Most sincerely,

Melinda Carriage

Interim President, IBTC

CC: Morty Minkum, Membership Committee

Ann Smalls, Giving Fund 

Mark Tippett, Facilities

Lulu Morgan, Grants and Awards

B. B. Tatum, Estate Planning Coordinator

Candice Snide, Friends of the IBTC

Encl:(6)

#

December 3, 1983

Dear Interim President Carriage, 

I was delighted to receive the membership application and the accompanying materials about the many outreach/fund raising events and the upcoming capital campaign. Your group certainly does keep busy!

I will complete and submit the application soon. 

However, I did promise that there is more of Gigi’s story to tell, and I will include a few more chapters of her life here. I hope you will add them to your archives, so that her history can be documented in some official capacity. I am certain that after learning more about my grandmother, you may even waive the application process altogether. 

I have related Gigi’s charmed life throughout the 1920s, but after the crash her curvy sister Gilda, who looked well fed and strong, attracted all the attention. She was tall, kind, and slightly dim, always wanting to please. As a service to our returning naval heroes, she began spending time at the dock, welcoming home many sailors who were tired and shorter than she by providing an ample bosom upon which they might rest their heads. She was much admired for her charity at the dock, offering her “pillows” for exhausted deserving brave men who had spent all day scrubbing decks. 

This was a service that Gigi could not provide. 

She had been told for much of life that her boyish figure was coveted by men and women alike, but with the country’s descent into desperation, no one liked to be reminded of want. 

Gigi could have been twisted by bitterness and jealousy, for surely it is a trial for a woman once pursued to find that she is suddenly skipping away from nothing. But instead, Gigi spearheaded a new program she hoped would assist struggling citizens during this difficult time: The National Hope Chest. 

She asked for donations of pillows of a certain size, and, along with a friend whose former fortune was made in the garment industry, designed a simple harness to hold the pillows in line with the heart. She then offered these tools to the small-breasted women of the northeast and, using her sister Gilda as an example, spread the word that all females must do their part to support the troops. Petite women now could benefit from the boost of their augmented physique. Some say that the program was just as important for these dainty ladies as for the men to whom they offered succor.   

Gigi was hailed as a hero by the press and by the boys who so looked forward to coming home. Citing a tightening of the belt to sympathize with the struggling masses, generals and commanders often cut tours or missions short to give themselves and their men a most deserving reward.  

Unfortunately, our enemies were watching and (wrongfully assumed) recklessness on the military’s part. All they saw were brave men emptying their hearts and becoming weak when a slightly taller woman offered her services as a resting place for the patriot.  

Unbeknownst to Gigi, her program, while founded to support and strengthen our nation’s defense, was having the opposite effect to the outside world. 

But my poor grandmother had more serious problems, as the Gladstone fortune had, like so many of their friends’, been sucked away to nothing. For both the nation and the house of Gladstone, things were getting desperate. 

The few family photographs from that time show that the Gladstone women’s once magnificent hats could no longer be refeathered for the season, and now sat on their heads like damp owls. Gigi’s father’s scowl was deeper than normal because of his dwindling fortune, no doubt. 

But he had also grown to resent what he saw as the inappropriate attention both of his daughters attracted. He can be forgiven, I suppose, for not having the long view. He could not see how the sisters were giving women opportunities. They could now use their bodies to comfort strangers, a right that, as I understand, had been denied decent women until Gigi’s time. 

I must stop the story for now, as I am sure this is more than enough evidence to grant Gigi membership in the coming weeks. Perhaps our family can look forward to toasting to our dear grandmother’s acceptance into your fine organization over the holidays.

Warm regards,

Ann Keebler-Gladstone

#

February 12, 1984

Dear Ms. Keebler:

We were intrigued by your last letter and hope that your family was able to recover from the misfortunes suffered by so many of their generation. 

Unfortunately, at a minimum, we do require an application from all those who seek membership, and, of course, the application fee. Our general policy has been to induct only those members who could travel to The Dome for a swearing-in ceremony – an event, our members often tell us, they will remember for the rest of their lives. 

Perhaps after her application had been approved, you can travel in her stead. 

Morty Minkum

Co-chair, Membership Committee

IBTC

MMM/rb

#

February 12, 1984

Dear Interim President Carriage, et al:

How unfortunate that we did not hear from the IBTC before the holidays. 

However, our family reunion is but a few days away, and I wanted to send you the rest of dear Gigi’s story in the hopes that you will consider granting our beloved grandmother the place she deserves in your organization post haste. Unfortunately, I am pressed for time here and have not been able to complete the application, but surely you will be swayed after hearing how Gigi diminutive figure helped to save the country and regained the fortune that has sustained our family for many years and that will continue to buoy us along the future’s uncertain seas. 

After Gigi’s sister Gilda met her husband, a short but determined fellow with a permanent kink in his neck as a result of her stalwart comfort, she became a new model for women in the National Hope Chest program. Its participants no longer used their contraption to the benefit of our fine military men, but as a means to lure potential partners, and to eventually land “the whopper.” This method was effective and the ranks of the program’s participants rapidly thinned. 

Once the marriage was final, these new wives assumed the harness was no longer necessary, as their husbands surely were now devoted to their undersized assets. 

Sadly just as a wave of weddings had served to dissolve the NHC, in the next five years a new wave of broken homes was the result. These abandoned women, many of them mothers, came to be known as Gigi Brides and among their joyless ranks was Fanny Surrey, founder of the IBTC.

So now my grandmother had a new challenge: to give these women renewed hope and a way to earn a living. 

Meanwhile, a wealthy industrialist named Keebler, who had been able to ride out the Depression with most of his fortune intact, was looking for a lucrative way to help with the war effort as America joined in the noble fight to rid the world of horror and mayhem (as has continued to the present day). 

The troops needed everything, from pickles to blasting caps, and many resources to produce the goods. 

While pickles did appeal to Mr. Keebler, the meager profit available from such a venture did not. Eventually he settled on submarine customization. 

This project seemed doomed from the start, as installing the sub’s enhancements proved a challenge. Mr. Keebler’s hires struggled to maneuver in the vessel’s tight spaces. Most men who sought the work, despite having suffered from want, found themselves stuck and were quickly overcome by the panic of the claustrophobe. 

Gigi learned of the industrialist’s predicament when the headline appeared in the local paper “Grease Used to Free Panicking Submariners.”

Gigi realized she could supply all of the petite employees Mr. Keebler would need.

As family lore would have it, Gigi used her tomfoolery again and disguised herself as a potential hire wearing Wilfred’s last good pair of work boots, which ended up covered in grease by day’s end (and for which he never forgave her). But ultimately, it was for a good cause as she managed to insinuate herself into submarine spaces that no others had ever reached. Apparently, her disguise fooled no one. She was clearly a she.

As the foreman marveled, she wiggled and shimmied with such success and confidence that the entire group of job seekers forgot why they were there. 

As luck would have it, Mr. Keebler approached the job site at this moment and wondered what had captured the attention of this large group of men.  

From what I have been able to piece together, my grandfather saw my grandmother first when her petite derriere popped out of a port hole. He was taken with her moxie and her diminutive size and developed an instant affection for her.  

Gigi knew a man of quality when she met one and so it did not take much wooing for him to win her. 

So, Gigi found herself in the happy position of being married to a millionaire before she had quite gone to seed. She was able to offer many of the Gigi Brides an honest living as Keebler employees (or “squeezers” as they were nicknamed for their contortions). 

Mr. Keebler did adore his wife, and she gave him a son, my father, to carry on the Keebler name. Out of respect for the Gladstone’s well known generosity, he hyphenated my father’s last name. 

Keebler Submarine Adjusters, Inc. went on to make millions over its long operation, which extended for two decades after the war was over.  

When her husband died, my grandmother inherited the Keebler fortune, along with the company that bore her husband’s name, which she promptly sold to devote the remainder of her life to enjoying herself. And she certainly did that. 

In certain (lamentably dwindling) circles, she is still fondly remembered.   

I must close as there is much to do for our reunion, only a few days away. We will use the grand ballroom in Wilfred’s place, now occupied by his niece and her husband. Wilfred also lived a happy life, by the way. His fortune was made in handkerchiefs.

Please contact me as soon as possible with the (hopefully!) good news about Gigi’s membership. We especially hope to share it with my mother, the widow of Gigi’s only son who, regrettably, is in sharp decline. It would surely brighten her last days. 

Regards, 

Ann Keebler-Gladstone 

#

February 20, 1984

Dear Ms. Keebler-Gladstone,

It seems our letters of 12 February crossed in the mail.

We were unable to locate a telephone number for you using directory assistance.

The IBTC is delighted to inform you that we called an emergency session of the membership committee and have awarded Gigi Gladstone membership at the Platinum level, which entitles her (or in this case her descendants) to all full privileges and benefits. This exclusive group is comprised of our most admired members (one of whom is a state senator who prefers to remain anonymous). 

Please find attached a certificate stating her award which your family members can proudly display at your reunion. 

One of our representatives will be in your area in the coming weeks and can arrange a small ceremony at a location of your choice. We hope that your mother has rallied and can attend. 

At the ceremony, it will be a delight to meet you and your family so we can brainstorm ways to honor your grandmother publicly. Surely the new Heritage wing at our breastquarters (not yet under construction) should bear her name, and this impressive memorial can become a reality with your family’s generous support.

We are also in need of facilities support at the breastquarters, as the Official Fanny Surrey HVAC system has recently given out. 

We look forward to hearing from you about these and other ventures. 

Welcome to the IBTC family!

Melinda Carriage

Interim President 

IBTC

cc: Rebecca Sned, Co-chair, Platinum-level Membership Coordinator

Marie Longfellow, Undersecretary of the Undersized; Official Archivist

Morty Minkum, Membership Committee

Ann Smalls, Giving Fund 

Mark Tippett, Facilities

Lulu Morgan, Grants and Awards

B. B. Tatum, Estate Planning Coordinator

Candice Snide, Friends of the IBTC

#

April 10, 1984

Dear Interim President Carriage,

We were pleased to receive the materials about Gigi’s posthumous acceptance into the ranks of the ITBC at the exclusive level. 

Our family reunion was a success, though slightly marred by the disappointment that we could not claim an acknowledgment of her many accomplishments from your organization in time to share it at the gathering.

Mother departed this earth on February 20, the day your last letter was mailed. She has been buried in the family mausoleum, next to her beloved husband of 40 years. This fine marble monolith is also the final resting place of Gigi, who we hope is delighted in being reunited with her devoted daughter-in-law in the great beyond.

Along with this sad news, we must also regretfully but respectfully decline membership for dear Gigi. This was my mother’s deathbed request for being so shunned by the IBTC. I tried to change her mind (as I am sure you were simply overwhelmed with all of your fund raising projects), but as her eyelids descended for the last time she whispered her last words regarding your organization, which I do not wish to repeat here.

Such being the case, we must also decline your kind offer to meet us for a ceremony.

Best of luck to the IBTC, 

Ann Keebler-Gladstone 

#

April 20, 1984

Dear Ms. Keebler-Gladstone,

We were disappointed that your family has declined your grandmother’s membership, for surely she deserves this great honor. Ms. Snide of the Friends of the IBTC had been planning a welcoming weekend for your family which featured an awards dinner with an open bar and the reading of an elegy to Gigi Gladstone composed by our poet-in-residence (a three-time winner of the Bartley Farbus Award for Enthusiasm in the Arts). 

In preparation for this event, our archivist, Ms. Longfellow, has been researching Gigi’s history. We have found two photos featuring your grandmother accompanying your grand father to the annual Submariner’s ball at the White House, copies of which have been attached. We have also had them restored and framed, and are shipping them by separate post.

More good news: The IBTC is excited to inform you that we have named Gigi Gladstone as this year’s recipient of the Triple D in Spirit award. Lucky winners have a small bust carved in their likeness that remains on display in our hall of heroes in perpetuity.

We hope you will reconsider your decision. 

Most sincerely,

Melinda Carriage

Interim President 

IBTC

cc: Rebecca Sned, Co-chair, Platinum-Level Membership Coordinator

Ann Smalls, Giving Fund 

Marie Longfellow, Undersecretary of the Undersized; Official Archivist

Candice Snide, Friends of the IBTC

Harold R. Rosenthal, Attorney at Law

Grace “Cookie” Landon, Membership Recruitment

Encl:(2)

#

May 29, 1984

Dear neighbors, friends and correspondents,

We are moving and are sending this sadly impersonal letter. 

However, after this brief explanation, we hope you will understand why we had to share our big news in such a regretfully anonymous manner. 

The Fundación Apreciación de Mama of Central Costa Rica (the Breast Appreciation Foundation of Central Costa Rica) has purchased property adjacent to the world-famous Rancho Maravilloso and has invited Gigi’s descendants to the opening ceremony of Gigi Gladstone park, which includes 40 acres of gardens, ponds, walking trails, a gift shop and restrooms with innovative, state of the art, environmentally-safe plumbing. 

We have decided to remain in Costa-Rica, as the Fundación has kindly invited us to be docents in the Gigi Gladstone museum and to live on the property as long as we’d like – at no charge! We have accepted their generous offer and will be out of the country by the time you receive this letter.   

This was not a hard decision to make, even though other offers to honor Gigi have been proposed by at least three admired organizations in the last few months. We appreciate the sudden interest shown in our relative’s charmed life – but the Fundación went above and beyond to win our hearts. 

We will be closing up Gladstone manor for an indefinite time, though our staff will remain to maintain the grounds. 

We will send our new address by post to our friends and extended family sometime in the coming year. 

Again, apologies for this mass letter, but we couldn’t wait to share the news of our exciting adventure with our dear friends, professional contacts, and those who have shown interest in Gigi’s story. 

If you are ever near Rancho Maravilloso, please stop by and enjoy this beautiful tribute to our most deserving grandmother, truly a pioneer for small chested women everywhere. 

Here’s to Gigi!

Warmest wishes and kindest regards,

The Keebler-Gladstone family