From Bear to Grayson

By Margaret McNellis

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We were first matched during the waning end of July. It was two years since my heart was last broken by Bear, my former companion, since I last said goodbye, and that was after a relationship going all the way back to my youth, my college days, the beginning of a new era marked by war and recession, followed by the sort of growth that sees a person stand up and tell the world who they are. 

It was a new century, full of new promise, until that promise was stripped away by time and the machinations of politicians and terrorists and political terrorists and terrorist politicians, but we always had each other, my heart of gold waiting for me at home regardless of whether I went away to school, went to work for the day, or left for months or years at a time to live in apartments that dotted the shoreline like beach umbrellas, colorful but flimsy when the changing winds picked up, when one of life’s nor’easters came in fast and ferocious.

He saw me through my worst. He was there when I questioned whether or not I should drop out of college. Given the choice to work and pay rent or return to class, I chose the latter, but without the doo-wop intonations of Frenchie’s misogynistic guardian angel in a diner. I chose a major I enjoyed but one that would not bring me fortunes, as is so typical of the arts, and I’d say it’s unfortunate but that I enjoy the arts enough to bolster a perpetually bruised bank account. 

He saw me through finding a job. Leaving that job and finding another. Leaving that job and finding another, the tell-tale journey of a creator, one driven by imagination, trapped in a cubicle world, marked by watching the dips and drops and dives of the DOW Jones at the start and end of every day. We were like hopeful elves who no longer had shoes to cobble because shoes are made by machines now.

He saw me through the death of my father, the hollowing and hallowing realization that one half of myself is gone, gone from this life, gone to another life, or gone to some selfless oblivion. He saw me through that cancer, that growth in my father’s lungs, that growth that moldered in his body for weeks, for months, maybe for longer though probably not since it moved so fast. Fast like a tropical storm must have seemed decades ago before radar and storm tracks and presidents chucking paper towels at the newly homeless and hungry.

He even saw me through his own sickness and the decision to end it. The decision to send him to a different plane, a different life, to the rainbow bridge where he would somehow meet up with all our previous dogs who had aged out before him, because dogs go to the rainbow bridge now, not an up-country farm, not doggy heaven, not oblivion. Bear had a heart of gold until the syringe stopped it, until that breathless moment when I buried my face in his fur, against his barrel chest, now quiet, and wept for my father’s sickness, for his sickness, for my father’s death, for his death.

They weren’t the same, but they both hurt, and Bear died on my father’s birthday, eight months and twenty-seven days after my father died. He followed my father into the next existence, the next great existence, the way husbands and wives follow one another when their love is that strong. Though he was our whole family’s dog, my dad was his human.

Two years later, this past July, in the humidity and heat that never seemed to end, I decided it was time to sit beside my own dog again. My dog, my responsibility, a dog for whom I would be the main human, the one he clung to, the one he loved, because I would adopt him and show him patience and kindness, and spoil him with a reasonable abundance of toys and treats and train him to do cute tricks.

Not a few days after I started my search, I was matched. People wait longer to be matched to human dates who will try to get in their pants too soon, who will cheat on them maybe, who will drink too much, smoke too much, have a drug habit, lose a job and mooch, lie about being in more than one relationship, steal their money, steal their friends, steal their hearts. 

I was matched to a corgi-mix, a mix just like Bear but slightly different. Grayson is his given name, or as I call him, Lord Grayson, the Marquis of Wigglebutt (he wiggles his whole butt instead of wagging a tail). Wagging a tail is for dogs who don’t love you as much, for dogs who aren’t as excited to see you, for dogs who aren’t as grateful for a home with a bed, with food, with water, with treats, with a yard, with toys that belong to them and them alone, with someone to love them and train them and hold them and scratch their tummies. At least this is what Grayson thinks, I think.

But Grayson is breaking my heart, even though, like Bear, I think his is made of gold. He breaks my heart every time he fails to read another dog’s signals that it doesn’t want to play for the umpteenth time and he gets a nip or bite on his tail, his ear, even his face. It breaks my heart every time he lunges and barks at a friend or family member simply for walking into the house, walking near the house, daring to exist. It breaks my heart every time he loses himself because a car drives by, especially a white pickup truck, and I firmly believe there are more white pickups garaged on my street than any other street. It breaks my heart when he wriggles free of our yard, because isn’t it green enough? Big enough? Full of enough chipmunks? It’s safe, and he’s safe there, but that’s not enough for the Marquis.

Now we’re at a crossroads. It breaks my heart when he chews our shoes, when he pees on our chairs and floors, when he tugs on his leash so hard that his leash, which is padded, scrapes my skin like a carpet burn or a fall on asphalt. It breaks my heart that I can’t hold him when he freaks out because his bark already perforated my eardrum. It breaks my heart that not every adoption story is a happy one. Without progress, I’ll have to say goodbye to him, too. 

It breaks my heart that he only wants to fill mine, and I only want to heal his, but we’re separated by this gulf of the unknown, of his fears, of his past, this gulf that endlessly feeds the hurricane brewing beyond our horizon. The damage of such a storm is devastating enough to imagine. To live through it would drive me inland, away from the windy, watery coastline.

Margaret McNellis earned her MA in English and Creative Writing from SNHU in 2015 Her short fiction has appeared in several publications, including Dual Coast Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and The Penman Review. She is a graduate of the Mountainview MFA.

An excerpt from "Three-Fifths," John Vercher's "compelling and timely debut novel."

By John Vercher

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The following is an excerpt from John Vercher’s debut novel, Three-Fifths (Agora Books, 2019), a book about “a biracial black man, passing for white, who is forced to confront the lies of his past while facing the truth of his present.”

Robert awoke on his side of the bed. The expanse of the California king remained untouched, even after a year. They used to begin their evening in the middle, always with the best intentions of falling asleep, Robert the larger spoon. Amorous ideas sometimes kept them from falling asleep that way, often retreating to their cooler sides of the bed, connected at the hands. Other times, the futility of Robert finding comfortable “other arm” placement or Tamara’s impossible metabolism generating furnace-like heat kept them from remaining curled into each other. They laughed together at the hopelessness of it. But they never stopped trying.

After showering and dressing, he made his way downstairs. He padded barefoot, almost past the closed French doors to the dining room, then stopped. He pulled them shut as if to close in the divorce papers that sat on the table, like placing a lid on a jarred candle, depriving the flame of oxygen so it might flicker out of existence. Yet there they sat. Untouched and unmoved. Waiting.

He kept walking.

It was a slow shift in the ER. Mostly slip and falls, some of the city’s homeless seeking refuge from cold exposure. Nothing to necessitate the trauma team’s intervention. Robert had long ago abandoned the guilt of wishing for work, the gallows mentality that accompanied the enjoyment of his job. It was a necessity, a way to disconnect from the visceral nature of the task at hand. Still today, he wished for it for considerably more selfish reasons. Unoccupied, his mind continued to drift towards the paper on the table. How could she have already signed? Were they truly past all discussion? How had he earned such spite? Robert knew the answers to his questions and the need for distraction swelled.

Night came, and towards the end of his shift, Robert took the stairs to the ICU to look in on Marcus Anderson, the assault victim from the previous night. It had taken all the king’s horses and men to put him back together again. Titanium plates reinforced the shattered bone of his orbital, but he had lost the eye, the void covered by gauze and surgical tape. They pulled a number of splintered teeth and wired his jaw shut. The bleed in his brain caused increased pressure within his skull, so they removed a section of it. Robert pressed his lips together as his mind tried to fill in the negative space the craniotomy left in Marcus. God called him home in pieces.

It was unclear yet if he would survive. His EEG read dismally. If he did live, he would be in agony. He would eat his meals through straws for months. If he regained the ability to talk, his speech would never be the same. His driver’s license showed a handsome young brother with a winning smile. A plastic surgeon wouldn’t touch him without good insurance, of which his family had none. Lorraine had told Robert that when they visited. His mother’s hand had hovered over his face, not wanting to touch the bruising and swelling that would likely end as a ruin of scar tissue. Robert wondered if he and his team had saved the boy or damned him.

He thought of Tamara again. Thought about how they would have handled this as parents. Thought about the kind of mother she wanted to be, the kind she would have been. Maybe despite all the pain they felt now, they had, in some ways been spared.

Tamara didn’t want children. She’d said so on their second date over the best filet Robert had ever had. They’d eaten at Donovan’s in the Gas Lamp district. Her pharmaceutical company paid. She told him that children didn’t figure into her career plan so he should get that idea right out of his head. He spit his wine back into his glass. She smirked at him. “You didn’t know this was a date?” she’d asked.

“This isn’t the part where I tell you I’m not interested in your product and you give me free samples?”

“Well now that you have, I can officially call this a business dinner and charge it to the company,” she said. “But I would have gotten that out of the way on the first dinner with the rest of your practice.”

“I figured this was just your method of divide and conquer,” he said. “Picking us off one by one.”

“Who’s to say it isn’t?” She winked. “I’ll be getting your oldest partner in the sack tomorrow night. I love the smell of Bengay in the morning.” Robert faked a dry heave and she laughed. “Besides, if you thought this was just another pitch, would you really have had dinner with me?”

“You promised filet. I have school loans.”

“Fair enough.” She raised her glass. Robert clinked it with his. “No kids,” she said.

“You’re assuming I even like you.”

“You like me.”

John Vercher’s debut novel, Three-Fifths, launches September 10th from Agora Books, the new diversity-focused imprint of Polis Books. He is a graduate of The Mountainview MFA.

Gratitude and grief in Amy Hempel's short story collection 'Sing To It'

By Caroline Henley 

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Sing To It, Amy Hempel’s eighth book, is a gift to her readers, a collection of stories of ill-fated dogs, philandering husbands, and secretly taped conversations, set in a scattering of houses up and down the East Coast — houses that all happen to be in dire need of repair.

Hempel’s stories sit in moments of grief then breeze swiftly to moments of joyful appreciation for life’s minutiae. Hempel has said in past interviews that she’s drawn to such moments when small power shifts occur between two people. Sing To It plays with these transitions of power, with wisps of scenes that move from the narrator idly pulling twigs out of a pool drain to a shocking tale of child abuse and suicide at the neighbor’s. 

In “A Full-Service Shelter,” Hempel asks her readers to stay as late as a kill-shelter’s volunteers do and bear witness to the injustice suffered by the pitbulls on death row: “They knew us as the ones who worked for free, who felt that an hour stroking a blanket-wrapped dog whose head never left your lap and who was killed the next morning was time well spent.” The repetition of “they knew us as” contributes to a mounting tension and anger throughout the story. When the volunteer passes a homeless man who asks for the same compassion she shows the dogs, the story pans out into the wider world and that anger crumbles into helplessness. 

Hempel could easily leave us in these moments of despair, considering the darkness of the subject matter in each story, but mercifully tempers it in turn. In “Quiet Car,” she describes a confused elderly man who settles into a leather armchair, which had been abandoned in a back-alley. The police “were kind when they contacted the man’s son in another state. But this won’t go well, I thought, and chose not to follow the story.” Hempel is conscious of how hard she can push and pull the reader and curates a deft balancing act throughout these stories. 

Hempel’s orchestration is at its most dramatic in the final and longest story, “Cloudland.” In the book’s acknowledgments, she thanks author Chuck Palahniuk for leading her to the true crime story that inspired it, which he passed to her because “he could not find anything funny in it.” Hempel details the narrator’s awful discovery of what really happened at the “maternal home” where she birthed, then gave up, a daughter. 

Throughout her reckoning, she also teases funny anecdotes of daily life during the same time period: a saleslady tries to sell her two left rain boots, and she signs a petition protesting animal abuse at Mariah Carey’s upcoming wedding. Why vacillate between horror and these more peaceful moments? Hempel writes, “You want to be choosy about what you let into your soul when you are likely not long for this world.” Sing To It confronts the traumas of life head-on, but takes the necessary time to recover afterward. 

Caroline Henley is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she runs The Farm, a reading series for satirical and critical writing. She’s currently a student at the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Non-Fiction program.

Interview Assignment: Nadia Owusu discusses grief without borders

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What kind of grief follows the loss of the person who was not only your father, but also the only thing that was truly your home?

In Nadia Owusu’s essay “The Wailing,” included in the forthcoming collection A Map Is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home (Catapult), the cultural fragments of a young life collide when a father dies and a life is irrevocably changed.

Owusu answered several questions over email for Assignment about her essay and her writing as an immigrant.

Assignment: I think many writers with varying degrees of experience often question whether they're in the right place or the correct distance in time from to be "ready" to write about an event. Was there a moment when you felt you were "ready" to write about your father's death?

Nadia Owusu: I certainly understand that need for distance, but it isn’t a need I have, generally speaking. I write to understand: myself, other people, the world. I write through difficult times. That writing isn’t always good. It isn’t always writing I would seek to publish. But, it’s not like writing in a diary—this happened, then that happened. I ask questions of myself about what I am seeing, hearing, feeling. I try to make connections to my own past and to bigger histories. I try to contextualize. And I try to name the unknowns and the things that I am not ready or willing to look at. I’ve been writing essays like this since I was a teenager.

A: As someone who belongs to worlds that are separate yet overlap in some ways, how does language become both a bridge and a barrier?

NO: In a literal sense, language is one of the threads that ties my disparate families together. Everyone speaks English. This is a complicated gift. My Ghanaian and Tanzanian families speak English because of colonization. My Armenian family speaks English because they came to America as refugees fleeing the Armenian genocide. I lived in seven countries before I was eighteen and I picked up several languages along the way: Italian, French, Swahili, Spanish. I speak them with varying levels of fluency. Learning the languages of places where we lived was important to my family. We were interested in connection, in meeting people and places on their own terms and learning from them. I hated the feeling of disconnection that comes with not knowing the language. Growing up as nomadic as I did, there were so many other factors that made me feel disconnected from people and place. It is a great regret that I never learned to speak my father’s language, Twi. I am trying to learn it now.

A: How do you approach the struggle to articulate grief, something that seems to exist somehow either above or beneath language?

NO: Loss and grief are such universal experiences, but they are still somewhat mysterious. Grief is a straddled place between past and future, familiar and unknown. It is a thoroughly irrational kind of longing. We know that the person we love won’t be returned to us, but that is what we want. In writing about losing my father, I am trying to bring him back, even just for a moment, in a sentence.

A: Each one of your sentences, particularly in the concluding paragraphs of the essay, contributes to the raising of certain tension, a kind of manifest effect developed from sorting through the details of total loss. Was this something you purposefully developed during the revision process?

NO: Yes, I did think about tension as I was writing and revising this essay. In the revision process, I paid attention to how the sentences and details accumulated until that final moment of relief. I wanted the structure of the essay to mirror the accumulation of tension in my body at the time.  

A: Is the structure of this essay one that developed during the first draft or was it developed in revision?

NO: I had the general structure in mind. This isn’t always the case, but this essay came to me quite whole. My revision process was more focused at the sentence level.

A: The essay weaves together cultural, personal, and historical trauma with enough deftness to not get in the way of the flow of the narrative. What are the challenges of balancing these multiple tributaries that form your singular experience while maintaining clarity and rhythm?

NO: I see the world through all these lenses. In writing essays and memoir, I am very interested in how things came to be, in how the forces of history, politics, geography, philosophy, theology, and story shape the human experience. I often write about these things through my own body, but my story is also the story of my families, the places where they are from, the places I’ve lived, the people around me, the systems that shape our lives. I write from a culture of collectivism. Yet, balance is something I think about a lot. I often write far more material than I use. I go down many rabbit holes, get carried away. This is the fun part. The hard part is asking myself, of the horrible messy draft on my screen, what is this about? Then, I revise. I whittle down, and I ask myself again: what is it really about?

A: What is the best song on Graceland?

NO: You can Call Me Al is my favorite. My father and I used to dance in our living room to that one.

 

A: Since the stated goal of A Map Is Only One Story is to explore a complex idea of home, how do you feel your experience as an immigrant has shaped your sense of what home is?

NO: I don’t have a home in the sense of a place one can claim in an unambiguous way. I was born in Tanzania, but that was just because my father was posted there by the UN agency for which he worked. My father was Ghanaian, but though I visit often, I have never lived there. My mother is Armenian-American, but her family never lived in Armenia. Her grandparents came to America from Turkey. I am a US citizen, but I didn’t live here until I was eighteen. As a child, I never lived anywhere for more than three years at a time. I lived in Ethiopia, Uganda, England, and Italy. I have lived in New York for all my adult life, so it is a kind of home. But, when I think of home, it is mostly about the people I love.  Community is important to me. It’s what gives me a sense of home. I also know how incredibly fortunate I am to have been largely welcomed in all the places I’ve lived. My global upbringing was one of privilege. My father had a UN passport. I have an American one.  When I was growing up, families like mine called ourselves “expats.” It is a term that serves to separate immigrants by class, to create a sort of hierarchy. This hierarchy, the belief that some immigrants are more deserving than others, is deeply disturbing. My great-grandparents came here as refugees and made a home for themselves after overcoming enormous obstacles — violence, deaths in the desert, the loss of everything they owned. They made my life, with all its privileges, possible. People are fleeing their homes now for the same reasons my great grandparents fled theirs. It breaks my heart to think that so many are being denied the possibility of making a new home.

Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. Simon & Schuster will publish her first book, Aftershocks, in 2020. She is a 2019 Whiting Award winner and both faculty and alum at the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program.

Faculty Picks: Rebecca Schiff on short stories by Abigail Ulman, Tracy O'Neill on Marie NDiaye's novel of unknowing

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I know a book has gotten to me when I start texting my friends asking if they’ve read it. “You read Hot Little Hands?” “Have you by chance read Abigail Ulman’s story collection?” I want to discuss it and I want to discuss it now. I want everyone to know that in this world of James Bond remakes and tepid bestsellers, there’s a writer daring to say something new, to tell us what she sees, to describe things I’ve felt but haven’t yet articulated. In nine poignant, sexually frank stories, Abigail Ulman articulates what it’s like to be young and female so accurately that this book could almost be a primer. (A primer for what, I’m not sure.) Ulman’s stories have range—a twenty-two-year-old culture blogger decides to have a baby instead of finishing the book she’s under contract to write; a Russian gymnast’s visit to the U.S. takes a disturbing turn—but somehow they feel personal, too. I loved “Head to Toe,” in which two Australian teens get so bored with late adolescence that they go back to horse camp; and “The Pretty One,” a story that flips the conventional script of longing and obsession so that the fixated one is the female narrator, and the pretty one is a male bar-back with “black converse, tight gray jeans, a yellow T-shirt inside out, and a bunch of curly brown hair pushed to the side of his forehead.” A lifetime of descriptions of female beauty hadn’t prepared me for what it might be like to lust, along with the narrator, for a male object, to see how closely her crush is tied to the boy’s beauty, to understand exactly why she’s afraid to screw it up. I’d stumbled upon the female gaze, and I long to gaze with Abigail Ulman wherever she next turns her head. — Rebecca Schiff


As a kid, I never checked out scary films on trips to the local video rental store in Merrimack, NH, and I once told a man I was dating that watching a zombie movie felt, to me, like watching the two-hour cardio session of several people who'd not dressed for the occasion. Nevertheless, I find myself of late allured by a particular style of horror defined by a high-wire plot of unknowing. Recently, I began reading My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye (translated from French by Jordan Stump), who won the Prix Goncourt in 2009. The story of a couple who have become deplored by their small community without any seeming reason for it and who are shocked by the sudden appearance of a strange wound on the man's abdomen, the novel balances lucid prose with mysterious unease. Its conceit mobilizes and turns on its head our desire to find rationale for the infliction of cruelty, asking us to consider the everyday horror we enact as we mark and withdraw from others, and as we believe that the presence of horror suggests horror is deserved. — Tracy O’Neill

Rebecca Schiff and Tracy O’Neill are members at the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Non-Fiction.

Mountain Fall

By Derrick Craigie

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The world outside the car windows is splashed in October grays and late-fall browns.  The White Mountains are colored by rain and rattled with winds that promise the coming winter. The weather is not on our side. It’s been years since the three of us have been together in one place, and we’re here for my dad. We’re going to find Hawthorne Falls.   

“You ready?” I asked.

              “Yep,” Ryan replied as he settled into the passenger seat and fastened his belt.

              “Dad?”I looked over my shoulder to see my towering father pretzeling himself, grey beard, dark glasses, and all, into the backseat of the Honda Civic. 

              “Let’s go.”

              “Gentlemen, have you ever heard of Celtic death metal?”

              Ryan blinked.

              “I’m guessing we’re about to,” Dad said.

              I smiled, hit play on the car stereo, and cranked the volume as the lilting flutes, whirring hurdy-gurdy, and crushing guitar riffs of Eluveitie surged from the factory-standard speakers. I might be a dad now, but I’m still metal.

Traveling over roads that climbed the frequent, terrain-defining hills around the towns of Littleton and Bethlehem, our conversation is unforced and casual.  Ryan and I have been friends since we were 16. Now, 40 isn’t so far away. In high school, we bonded over 90’s action movies, brash humor, and not caring about “fitting in.”

According to the high school paradigm, it was a friendship that didn’t make sense. He was a high school basketball star and I was the kid that wore Star Trek t-shirts back before being a geek was cool, or even accepted. You got ragged on, insulted. Bullied. We understood each other as outsiders, and through a shared struggle with anger. 

The friendship lasted. Through college drama and into the responsibilities and shifting priorities of adulthood. We’re fathers now, each with our own family. The offbeat sense of humor is still there, just not when the kids are around.

              We leave the pavement behind, turning on to a sodden dirt road. The tires rumble and shake over the rough surface. My phone speaks, the omnipotent GPS directing us to the trail-head. My dad doesn’t say anything, I feel his disapproval. The man has an atlas in his head. Directions are not my strong suite.

              We find the Gale River trail-head and park. Mist hangs in the air. Ryan and I are both wearing nylon, quick-drying, hiking clothes. My dad managed to avoid wearing cotton. To protect himself from the rain, he puts on heavy, tarp-like motorcycle rain gear. I already know that stuff won’t breathe, and I start to worry. Overheating is a real risk.

              We strap our packs on and go. I carry spare clothing, food, a forest axe, a camping woodstove, and the gear to make tea on the trail. It seemed like a good idea when I was packing.  

              “You sure that won’t be too heavy?” Ryan asks.

              “Nope, left most of my heavy stuff at home. Should be good.”

              “But you have an axe.”

              “It ‘tis but a small one.” My British accent is bad.

The trees are black slashes against a shining carpet of yellow and brown. Water droplets spatter down throughout the forest, raising a staccato that accompanies each footstep, each breath. The parking lot disappears behind us. My phone is in airplane mode to preserve its life and grant us access to the GPS when needed. Graded roads and electronic tethers fade away and the northern forest envelopes us in its silent embrace.

              The trail is wet, but not yet a bog. The trees stretch above us, birch and maple and balsam, a patchwork of fall vibrancy that stands against the gossamer gray of October rain. The conversation flows, ranging from Ryan and me talking about our young families, bushcraft, and the plan for our ascent. Our familiar companionship breathed in the silent woods. 

              A few miles of trail covered and we reach the Gale River. The water strains against the banks and whips over the rocks. We cross, stepping on stones that still peak above the white foam and crystal rivulets. I dare to hope I don’t slip. 

              Map check: the river crossed, this is where we leave the trail. Upstream, hugging the river as close as the terrain will allow, is our next course. The falls are in this direction, somewhere through dense growth, above us on the mountain at an elevation of 3,000 feet.   

              There used to be a trail here, but it’s gone now, washed away in the 1930s by a hurricane and never restored. Other people have made their way to falls before us, and documented their travels on various websites. We knew where to go, approximately. What we didn’t know is that the latitude and longitude of the falls, as officially recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey, is off by one-half mile. The error had been dutifully perpetuated over the years. The red arrow on my phone, our primary navigation, was wrong.   

              Ryan stops, looking closely at the grass and dead stalks ahead of us. He points.

 “Look at how the ground dips down here, and rises there, all along this entire length. This is where the trail used to be.”

              Dad steps up next to us. “It breaks up further down, you can see this is where the river floods its banks, but I think you’re right.”

              I just nod and issue an agreeable Hmmm

              The course of the terrain pulls us away from the river, but we keep it in earshot. The brush turns into small trees, bramble, and assorted burs. The talking stops as we focus on finding secure footing through the undergrowth. 

I look back at dad, watching for heavy breathing or unsteady steps. He’s in decent shape, but he doesn’t do this regularly. 

Ahead, Ryan, has paused to check on us. The trek is marked by constant safety checks and excuses to rest disguised a pauses for conversation. There’s no planning or discussion around this, it’s simple rhythm. 

              We find our way back to the river’s edge, the terrain flattening out a bit and the growth opening up and allowing larger patches of sky to shine down. The forest itself seems to relax and not blanket the land so thickly here. Before us is a granite shelf, shaped a bit like the front end of a WWII tank. Angular and blocky. The river cascades down the face of the granite in sheets of white to the cacophonic symphony of its own decent. 

“These aren’t the falls, are they?” Ryan says.

              “Can’t be, they’re not tall enough, and we’re not in a box canyon like I’ve seen in pictures,” Dad replies. 

               “Funny story,” I say,” These are called Hawthorne Cascades. The falls are still a mile upstream, but a lot of people make it this far, think they’ve found the falls, and turn back.” 

We take some time to appreciate the cascades, resting our legs and drinking water.  Ryan and I snap pictures while my dad sits on a stone and simply takes it in. He mops the sweat off his brow. Somewhere along the way, he managed to catch the side of his rain jacket on a branch, and the tarp-like material tore wide open on the side. I’m a bit damp from the rain, but my nylon layers of quick-dry material are still keeping me fairly warm. Without saying much, I take my lightweight hiking raincoat out of my pack and offer it to him. “Here, this will breathe better and keep the worst of the rain off you. If those pants don’t hold up, I have actual rain-proof hiking pants.”

“What about you?”

“I think my legs will be okay, these pants shed water pretty effectively, and I have more layers in my bag, including another waterproof jacket. I’m good. Try it. Trust me.”

Satisfied that I’m not making a sacrifice, he accepts the jacket and stuffs his own into his pack. The rain has abated for now. We shoulder our bags, take one more drink, and ascend the bank along the cascades.  

Immediately above the cascades is a swath of bare granite, made slick by rain and the Gale River. Unconfined by any banks, the river spread itself thin and swift over most of the rock face, the center being slightly deeper as the rock is worn by centuries of erosion. This is one of the last open spaces we encounter on our trek.

At the top of this table the woods close back in and the river resumes its standard form.  We’re able to walk along the river’s edge on wide granite slabs that form ersatz steps. Orange leaves till cling to the trees. Deep pools and small cascades frequently manifest along the stream. Verdant moss covers the untouched stone. A fall here could break an arm or leg, but we can move quickly. We take the risk.

The stone steps run out and the water comes right to edge of the river bank. We climb back into the woods, but this is very different than before. Ryan, being the most experienced woodsman, takes the lead, I’m in the middle, dad brings up the rear. It’s impossible to see farther than 20 feet ahead. Branches and limbs crisscross in front me, scratching at my arms, slapping against my chest and leaving dark lines of soaking rain water along with flakes of bark and moss. The ground is no longer the ground. 

Large trees grow from the steep slope, and their roots stand above the rocky soil in a network of curling, thick tendrils. They support our weight, but leaves cover much of the area and hide little gaps that lead to steep drops. They wait for a single misstep that will allow them to swallow one of us right up to the thigh. Some of the gaps are big enough for us to fall into completely. Pitfalls, shadowed with decay and slashed by grey light bleeding between the roots.  These are ugly woods, and unforgiving of inattention. 

I pull out my phone and check the map. The falls are a red arrow a mile away. The river bends away from us. We can hear it, but it’s a dull roar threading its way through the stuttering rain. 

Dad looks over my shoulder at the screen. “Think we should cut a straight line to falls?

I nod. “Yeah, as much as we can.”

“We’ll probably have to move up and down the hill. It’s getting thicker ahead, but it might open up down there,” Ryan says and points to a wall of half-dead evergreens.

Putting away the phone, I take a drink of water, stretch my back, and say, “Let’s do it.”

We find the falls through sheer luck, despite the faulty coordinates. After pushing through sodden branch after sodden branch, traversing up and down the steep grade of the mountainside, we pushed down to the edge of the river, almost directly on top of the falls. We stepped out onto some rocks, only feet away from the edge. We couldn’t see how far down the drop went, but it was far.

“This has to be it,” dad says.

“It seems like it, but the map says the falls are still further upstream. At least another half-mile.” I show the screen to both dad and Ryan, pointing to the all-knowing red arrow. 

“Are you sure?” Ryan asks.

“I’m not, this certainly looks like the falls, but we confirmed the latitude and longitude in the phone before we came out here, remember dad?”

“I do.  Well, let’s see what’s upstream.”

I’m not proud of this part, that I trusted a smartphone over my own eyes and logic, but we wasted at least an hour trying to push further upstream. We didn’t even make it to the position indicated on the phone. At some point, a storm had blown down hundreds of trees on this side of the mountain, and we simply couldn’t press on further. 

It was decided we’d head back to what we were suspected were the falls. 

We should have trusted our instincts. Perched upon large boulders that sat in the stream, we looked up at Hawthorne Falls. Cascading from forty feet above, torrents of white water tumbled down granite steps in an endless hurtle towards a final destination. I don’t know if New Hampshire has box canyons, but it felt like we were in one. Gray and green stone rising on either side and the river cutting away from the falls through forested ground that sloped down to the water in converging lines. 

Leaning over to speak into my ear, the roar of the falls was constant.

Ryan deadpanned, “I hope this thing doesn’t flash flood. We’d be fucked.”

I laugh, thinking he has a point. After three hours of pushing through ugly, drenching woods, I’m not going to rush this.  Dad sits on one of the boulders, taking in the falls. He looks up at me, wiping his brow with a handkerchief that he always seems to have at hand. Ever since I was a kid he could produce one of those things like a magician. 

Catching his breath, he says, “I have wanted to do this for decades.”

“Any reason?”

“No, just something I wanted to do. Thank you for doing this with me.”

“Glad to. This is beautiful.”

If we were different men, we’d probably hug. I remember a time, back when I was in fourth grade, that he brought in the glasses I had forgotten at home. Right there, in front of the classroom, I’d wanted to hug him but held back. 

A year before that, my oldest brother passed from cancer. Lost in tears wrought by a pain that no one that young should feel, I wanted to crawl into the empty pit that opened up inside me and never come out. He held me. But that was different. Men from the North Country like to think they’re made of granite, but in earned moments of joy and loss, cracks appeared. 

And it was okay.

We stayed for several more minutes, filling our water bottles with filtered river water, taking pictures, and simply absorbing our surroundings. You could feel that not many people had been here over the years. I asked Ryan to snap the last photo, me and dad standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the falls behind us.

The rain picked up. We changed into drier gear, shouldered our packs, and climbed back into the woods. I looked back a few times, but the river disappeared quickly as the branches closed back in. I could still hear it, just beyond sight, accompanying us on our way back down the mountain. Ryan in the lead, me in the middle, and dad the rearguard. During the final stretch, when my bad ankles gave into fatigue and started turning on the rocky trail, my dad spoke up. “You okay?”

“Yeah, this happens sometimes. Just have to be careful.”

“You need new boots. That’s not good.”

“I’ll be okay. No worries.”

“I’m your dad. It’s my job to worry.”

Derrick Craigie is a graduate of the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

The Artist's Grace: Necessity and craft in Gabriel Axel's 'Babette's Feast'

By Krista Zobel

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The 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast” is set in a bleak coastal village in mid -19th century Denmark. The story revolves around two spinster sisters, daughters of a Puritan pastor now long deceased. The village is populated by the elderly devout remnant of the pastor’s dwindling flock. Their lives are as austere as the setting — grey, bleak, cold, devoid of anything to tempt the senses. As the years pass, the villagers become more cantankerous, constantly recalling each other’s small offenses, keeping petty grudges alive.

One day, a small boat comes to shore with a woman bearing a letter of introduction to the two sisters from an acquaintance of decades past. The woman, Babette, is a refugee fleeing the violence of the counter-revolution in Paris. She needs a place to stay. Buried in the text of the lengthy letter is this simple sentence:

Babette can cook.

The sisters can’t pay her, but they allow her to stay with them in exchange for her assuming basic housekeeping and cooking duties. Babette cooks their simple meals for the next fourteen years, exactly as they like to be fed. Nourishment for the body with nothing sensuous to interfere with the soul.

Then, one day, Babette gets a letter from Paris. A friend has been buying her a lottery ticket every year for fifteen years, and she has won 10,000 francs. It is a fortune – enough for her to return to Paris and resume her life there. The sisters are sad to think of her leaving but are also happy for her good fortune.

Babette asks one favor of them: Would they allow her to cook them one real French meal before she goes? They exchange nervous glances and reluctantly agree.

On the evening of the feast, a dozen guests assemble, one of whom is a French general visiting his ancient aunt who is a member of the parish. The meal is brought out, course by course, wine by wine, dish by elegant dish. The parishioners have made a pact to say nothing about the food. They are going to eat it out of politeness, but not enjoy it. They quote Scripture to each other to bolster their resolve as they devour a feast fit for royalty: “Take no thought for yourselves, what you shall eat, what you shall drink…”

The French general is the only one not in on the pact. He is not one of them. He is an outsider and has the capacity to appreciate what is passing his lips. He informs the others of the pricelessness and rarity of each type of wine, each delicacy. The villagers reply with comments on the weather, meanwhile their mouths full of Babette’s succulent masterpieces.

By the end of the meal, the general has realized who the invisible chef in the kitchen must be. He had heard years ago of a woman, the most famous and sought-after chef in Paris, who had fled during the uprising. He said her food was legendary. “It is said when one eats her food, there is no difference between body and spirit. Both are ministered to.”

At the end of the meal, the general stands to his feet, overcome, and makes a speech about grace. He says, “Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude... Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!” 

The villagers file out when the meal is over, pausing in the square to join hands in a smiling circle of friendship and sing a hymn together before parting ways and returning to their homes.

It is then that the sisters find out Babette is not leaving them. She has spent the entire 10,000 francs on that feast. She has no money and nowhere to go. Horrified, one of the sisters says, “You shouldn’t have given all you own for us.”

Babette answers, “It was not only for you.”

 

The first time I saw this movie, years ago, I saw that the feast was a metaphor for grace. Babette, at great cost to herself, was lavishing something undeserved and unappreciated upon those who had no capacity to recognize or receive it, purely out of love. But this time, years later, watching the movie again, I saw different things. I saw that Babette needed to cook that feast for herself as much as for the villagers. Her soul was languishing as much as theirs were, just in a different way, for different reasons. She needed to create.

The movie demonstrates the plight of the artist in our world as one who simultaneously occupies two realms. The artist lives both in the unbounded realm of possibility and in the much more limiting realm of pragmatism. There is a frustrating divide between what the artist has to offer to the world and what the world wants or expects to receive from the artist. This was Babette’s burden. For fourteen years, she hid away her extraordinary gift until she could bear it no longer. Babette tells the sisters, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” 

The movie also illuminates the burden the artist carries. The language of the film is heavy with spiritual undertones. The Frenchman describes eating Babette’s feasts as an experience akin to worship. It is transcendent. Completely sensual, yet always much more than that. Babette as an artist is something of an evangelist. With her extraordinary gift came a calling to bring both truth and beauty to the world. The truth she preaches with her cooking is that the body is not the enemy of the soul. The beauty in which she wraps this truth can be seen in the meticulous presentation of each dish in the meal. Too long have the villagers lived in the shadow of the lie that pleasure is sin and beauty is suspect. She knows the healing effect that the senses can have on the soul, and she knows how badly the villagers needed to be healed. The artist’s mission is to wed truth to beauty. That is the artist’s grace.

The movie makes it clear that the artist creates both for herself and for others -- never just one or the other. Because of the urgency of the calling to share truth through beauty, the artist cannot be content without both an outlet for her expression and an audience for her art. Given these two things, the artist needs nothing else. Given these, in the words of Babette, “The artist is never poor.”

On Character

By Terri Alexander

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Last Friday evening, I found myself reading in Harper’s Magazine a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Unexpected.” In the story, an aging, famous writer is attending a book event in her hometown when she is blindsided by the wrath of former classmates. In one conversation, a woman named Olive, or Olivia (the writer cannot remember), tells her, “You’re remembering wrong. In everything you write, you remember wrong.” And also, “That’s why you write such lies – to change the way things were, when you couldn’t change them any other way.”

The “all characters fictitious” legal disclaimer, boilerplate language for virtually all novels and story collections, states, in part, that “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” and gives license to mine our lived experience for material. From auto-fiction to science fiction, writers’ real lives frequently co-mingle with their work. However, we are taught that to use an actual person in a work of fiction is an ethical no-no. Characters, then, are built in the gray area between the real world and the imagined.  

            Joyce Carol Oates does not reveal to the reader to what degree, if at all, the author acknowledges her characters were based on people from her past. It prompted me to wonder if the protagonist had a psychological blind spot, as hinted at in the story’s title, or if her characters were less veiled than she believed. Another possibility entirely is that the characters were erroneously making it all about themselves when the famous writer perhaps didn’t have them in mind at all.

The reader also doesn’t know how much of Oates herself is represented in the main character. It can start to feel like a psychological jigsaw puzzle. As a novice fiction writer, I have some underlying fear that my stories make my own personal issues transparent to the professors, students, and editors who read my stories. Today, we seldom allow a work to stand on its own, but insist on considering it through the lens of its creator. How much of it is true? Who hasn’t read a work of fiction so compelling that we’ve flipped to the author bio for clues as to how much of the story could be based in fact?

Writers of fiction have a rare freedom to build worlds and characters without limits, and yet there is the frequently recited advice to “write what you know.” My best characters tend to be shaped by snippets I take from a wide sample of relationships, interactions, and observations from my own life. I get an uneasy feeling when I recognize that a character I’ve written is based too much on one person. If that person read the story, would she recognize herself in it? If the answer is yes or maybe, I’ve gotten too close to that ethical boundary. In a 1983 interview with the Paris Review, Raymond Carver’s advice was this: “A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”

            At the end of Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Unexpected,” the writer meets a former classmate who had a huge crush on her, and in fact still does. He discloses to her, “I’ve discovered enough of myself in your fiction to keep reading, and to keep hoping.” The protagonist is astonished at his words, and yet as the degree of his worship is revealed, she becomes more and more attracted to him, admitting to herself that he was meant to be her soul mate all along. In the last paragraph, the protagonist walks home with her admirer. Oates writes, “The sky overheard appears to be impacted with clouds, light comes from all sides, there are no shadows.” I finished the story and immediately googled, “Joyce Carol Oates personal life.” There was no obvious correlation, and I wasn’t surprised – the character in Oates’ story was completely alive on the page.


Naked

By Marjorie Frakes

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Washing my face was the worst part of every day. I'd stand at the mirror, admiring my effort, feeling fully myself, before splashing on water, soap, and/or whatever magical concoction I was currently trying. My effort, sometimes an hour's worth, swirled down the drain, and my naked, red, blemished face stared back at me. I denied ownership and flipped off the light.

            The causes varied. Helpful friends told me what I was doing wrong. They used a particular product and look at them. It was probably something I was eating. Stress, maybe. My favorite: the oft-recurring belief that it was punishment for vanity. I'd wanted to be beautiful probably from infancy, and this seemed a plausible and succinct way of letting me know that that was not part of the big plan for me.

            More important than clothing, my makeup bag became my arsenal and my armor. Mornings were terrifying. I'd get up early early early, especially if I was traveling, and hurry through my shower. Communal sinks were also terrifying, and I'd try for a corner spot, ignoring the beautiful faces at the sinks beside me, paranoid by their glances. Makeup on, I'd smile, but now a few more people knew my secret, and I assumed word would spread.

            A sentence in a book haunted me, and haunts me still. Subject, plot, and content have departed, but one sentence remains: a description of a minor character as "a woman with bad skin." How dare whomever? But that was accurate, I was sure. If anyone was going to remember anything about me, it was going to be that.

            I dated, by some miracle, though not much. And the highest level of intimacy I could offer was my naked face. Camping trips were not fun. One boyfriend told me I was beautiful "real", and I tried to believe him. Another encouraged me to accept myself, and I went out to breakfast one morning with a completely naked face. But I was cowered under a ball cap, and it wasn't quite the victory I (or he) had been hoping for. Also, my face was almost clear. I had my limits.

            Right before my wedding, I made my first trip to a dermatologist. "Yes, you have acne," she said, staring at my face, neck, and for some incredibly horrible and recent reason, chest. "Shsssh!" I wanted to say. I was prescribed topicals that burned my skin and bleached my towels. But it was an improvement. My portrait neck wedding dress looked stunning, and my skin looked acceptable.

            I ditched the topicals eventually. They hurt. I was accepted and loved and generally cushioned from exposing my naked face to anyone other than my husband. I used natural products and natural makeup, and most days were okay. On bad days, however, I noticed I held my head differently. I looked at the ground or tossed my hair (if it was long enough) in an attempt to distract. I was less talkative, and I tried to exit the conversation as quickly as possible.

            And my chest. How can I even discuss this? This, certainly, was some sort of wrath thing. It was a ploy to keep me buttoned to the top button, always. Google search: high neck swimsuits. No, this was not okay. During my annual checkup I told my doctor it was ridiculous and I was tired of pretending it was okay. I was thirty-six, because I am a very slow learner.

            Three years after this pharmaceutical panacea, I still don't love my naked face. I'm older now, with bags under the eyes and wrinkles telling stories. But my skin is soft and smooth, and the somewhat constant visitation of at least one blemish is forgiven, seeming almost whimsical. In this I'm lucky, I know. My chest is clear, and scoop necks, v-necks, and a low plunge are the balloons that celebrate this wonder. Please forgive me.

            I can still take an hour on my face, but now it's more likely to be a smoky eye. Made up me is me, and ever shall be. After a day of skiing, my husband and I remove our ski gear. "Dinner?" he asks. I look at my wide, naked eyes. "Gimme a minute," I say, reaching for my eyeliner.


Marjorie Frakes is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Faculty Spotlight: Katherine Towler

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Katherine (Katie) Towler is an author and creative writing teacher and currently a faculty member in the Mountainview MFA program. Her first book, Snow Island, was a a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title and her latest book, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth, was named a Best Book of 2016 by Entropy Magazine, Longreads, and Book Riot. She was kind enough to answer some questions about her books and her writing process, as well as give some useful advise for new writers.

—WL

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Like most writers, I was a reader before I was a writer, and it was being a passionate reader that made me want to be a writer.  By the age of eight, I was spending hours on the couch reading.  My younger sister complained throughout our childhood that she couldn’t get me to go outside with her because I never wanted to put down the book I was currently reading.  Books were my refuge and my friends, my transport to other worlds, my window on what was possible in life.  With a good book, I was never alone.  Books made me forget the things that plagued me as a child, like gym class.  When I started writing, I found that writing was a similar experience of leaving common life behind and being absorbed by an act that felt so vital and alive.  I started writing poems when I was 10 and shortly after that began carrying a notebook around with me which was a writing journal of sorts.  When I was 13, I declared I was going to be a poet when I grew up, though I turned out to be more of a prose writer than poet.   

 

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

An early book that completely captivated me as a young reader was Jane Eyre.  I still love the Brontes.  I am inspired by much of what I read, including the work of my students.  It is endlessly fascinating — and challenging and inspiring — to see how other writers create real worlds and compelling characters, and how they use words.  I learn from reading as widely as I can (poetry, fiction, nonfiction) and encourage anyone who wants to write to do this.  You can learn so much from reading different genres and writers whose concerns are far from yours.  To further answer your question, some of the writers whose work has most stayed with me over the years and guided me are Willa Cather, Henry James, Alistair MacLeod, Edna O’Brien, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Edith Wharton.  And then there are the poets and memoirists, but I’ll stop with this fiction list.  

 

Your debut novel, Snow Island, the first book in a trilogy, tells the story of Alice Daggett, a sixteen-year-old girl struggling with the sudden death of her father. How did the idea come to you? Also, how long did it take to complete?

In the late 1980s, I spent a couple of months one spring living on my own on an island in the center of Narragansett Bay.  The year-round population was 125 people and 300 deer.  It was a strange little isolated community.  I was captivated by the place — how quiet and empty it was, and how nothing ever happened (except the arrival of the ferry and the mail).  I was particularly intrigued by the people who had chosen to live there, many of them clearly drop-outs from life as most Americans know it.  Today things are different.  You can be connected to the world via the internet from almost anywhere.  It’s harder to get lost.  But back then, the isolation on the island was real and profound.

            One of the people who most intrigued me was the woman who ran the island store.  She was also the postmistress and the manager of the water company.  She was a tough character in her seventies who had lived on the island her entire life and had managed to get married and divorced three times without leaving the place.  I wondered what she was like as a girl and what it was like for her to grow up in this insular community.  She became the inspiration for my main character, Alice Daggett, in the first volume of the trilogy.

            I started out writing a short story about Alice as a teenager.  I planned to write a collection of stories that would span the 20th century and have a running theme of the different wars and how the island community was impacted by them.  Alice couldn’t be contained to a short story, though, so I turned her story into a novel and then, having drafts of the other stories still hanging around, turned them into the next two volumes of the trilogy.  It took me eight years to write Snow Island.  I wrote a bit faster with the next two volumes, but the whole project, including publication time, took nearly 20 years.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

 

What are some of the lessons you learned completing that first book?

Probably the biggest lesson I learned was that it takes as long as it takes.  Each book has its own life, each writer her own process.  I revised extensively, often chapter by chapter.  The craft books I read back then all advised writing a complete draft straight through without stopping, but I was unable to do this.  I kept going back and making changes.  I couldn’t go forward until I had revised the first chapters over and over, and then I often had to go back and revise them again.  My writing process was my dirty secret.  I was so obviously, it seemed, writing a novel the wrong way.  What I realized eventually is that there is no “wrong” way, there is only your way.  Whatever it takes to finish your book is what it takes.  I learned plenty of other lessons from writing that first book about pace and voice and dialogue and structure, but the most important thing I ultimately learned was to trust my own process.

 

Tell us more about that writing process. Are you an outliner? Do you have an idea of how the whole story will go or is your writing more open-ended?

 My writing tends to be more open-ended.  I don’t outline.  I carry the idea for a story around in my mind for a long time.  The shape of it keeps morphing and changing.  I have a plot of sorts, though mostly what I have are a setting and characters.  These come first for me.  My writing has always been strongly rooted in place.  I need a sense of place to anchor me imaginatively and a compelling cast of characters.  I need to know my characters as real and complete and believable before I can get them to act.  Plot tends to be the last thing I think about.  

            With nonfiction, it’s different, of course.  If you are writing a memoir, you have the outline of the story given to you, but you still need to uncover the real story.  Developing voice and character (your own and those you may portray in the memoir) is significant work that must be done with a memoir as it must be done in fiction.   

Your latest book, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship, is about your friendship with the late poet Robert Dunn, as well as a meditation on an artist’s connection to a place. What led you to write this book?

Robert Dunn was an unusual character who lived most of his life in Portsmouth, NH.  He rented a room in a house close to downtown from an elderly woman and did not own a car, telephone, television, or, when they came along, computer.  He was a brilliant thinker, a wonderful poet, and a voracious reader.  He sold his little hand sewn books of poems on the street for a penny.  I got to know Robert, to the extent that anyone got to know him (he was a very private and somewhat solitary person), when I moved to Portsmouth in 1991, living by chance in the house next door to his.  I admired Robert tremendously for existing so completely outside the system.  His life was performance art of a sort.  He was one of the most principled people I have ever met.  He owned next to nothing and chose to live largely without money.  This freed him to devote his time to writing and reading and thinking. 

            At the end of Robert’s life, when he was critically ill, I became involved in helping to care for him.  The choices he had made, which I had so admired in the past, looked different now.  He was isolated and had no resources.  He was forced to rely on others when he didn’t want to.  For some reason, he relied on me more than anyone else and essentially appointed me his next of kin in Portsmouth.  I went through an intense experience of being with him when he was close to death, thrust into the role of a family member.  After his death, I needed to write about this experience in order to process it and understand it.

            As the book evolved, it became a book about me as much as it was a book about Robert and our friendship.  I ended up writing about the choices I have made as a writer and how Robert challenged me in my thinking about those choices.  I wanted, too, to write about Portsmouth, a city that has changed so much since the early 1990s.  Robert was emblematic of the “old” Portsmouth, a rough around the edges port town that embraced characters like him.  I wanted to capture that Portsmouth, the place I so loved before money and gentrification took over in a big way.           

 

As a writing teacher, is there any advice you would like to give students, something that they should always keep in mind while writing?

Don’t be in a hurry.  Let the writing take the time it needs to take.  Build in time for the work to evolve.  This may mean writing a draft of a novel, then letting it sit for a year before looking at it again.  Time spent thinking about a piece of writing, or not thinking about it at all, just letting it quietly percolate somewhere in the back of your mind, can be as important as the actual hours at the desk.  Not writing can be just as important as writing.  You want your imagination to remain nimble, capable of going to unexpected places.  You want to be able to surprise yourself and the reader.  If you force the writing, if you push yourself to finish that draft because it simply has to be finished by tomorrow, you can become too cramped in your thinking and, hence, in your writing.  Do everything you can to free yourself.  Maybe this means taking frequent walks, meditating, doing yoga.  Maybe it means taking trips.  Maybe it means having other passions that completely absorb you, so for days or weeks you forget the writing entirely.  Whatever it is, pay attention to giving yourself and your writing the freedom to grow and change, to go anywhere, to be fluid, to emerge.  Allow yourself to be anyone on the page.   

 

K. Towler [credit: JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF]

K. Towler [credit: JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF]

Last thing: Anyone who knows you, knows you to be a dedicated birdwatcher. How did you get into birdwatching and what do you love most about it?

I started paying more attention to birds when I went to Florida for the first time about 20 years ago.  My husband and I signed up for a bird walk at a wildlife refuge, thinking, sure, we like birds.  The guide put her two thousand dollar binoculars around my neck and said, “I want you to use these.”  Smart guide.  She knew that if I saw the birds through those brilliant lenses, I would be hooked.  I was.

            Bird watching is very meditative.  You walk slowly and must train your senses to be acutely aware of what is around you.  You must listen for the songs and watch for the slightest signs of movement in leafed-out trees.  When I go bird watching, I forget myself entirely.  It sometimes feels miraculous.  My petty complaints are gone, my stupid preoccupations, my doubts and regrets.  The endless clock of life, the list of things to be done, disappears.  Birding is similar to writing in many ways.  It’s entirely absorbing, a “flow” state at its best.  But birding takes me outdoors, something I find increasingly essential for my sanity these days.  It’s an antidote to all that time spent in my head writing.  For me a perfect day contains both — a morning at the desk and an afternoon out walking and looking for birds.  This makes me something of a renegade birder, since the best birding is often at dawn, and birders pride themselves on being out by first light, but I can get out early on the weekends when I take a break from writing.  Spring migration is currently under way, and I am watching a Baltimore Oriole through my kitchen window.  What a creature of exquisite beauty.  The number and variety of bird species is staggering. There are over 10,000 species worldwide.  I will never get to them all, but I want to see as many as I can. 

In the Secret Parts of Fortune (Excerpt of a Novel)

By Kevin P. Keating

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For three consecutive nights someone with a fondness for fire and poetic spectacle has been burning the mailboxes on Île Saint-Ignace, one of the celebrated wine islands of the Great Lakes, and now, on the first Friday in September, twelve hours before the official start of the annual Barge Party, a dark tendril of smoke comes creeping across a cloudless summer sky, curling curiously around the old lighthouse, probing its copper weathervane, its obsolete lantern room and its great, pale gray blocks of fossiliferous limestone excavated a century ago from the abandoned quarry at the center, at the very heart of the island. In secret the perpetrator plants the seeds of discord, cultivates a diseased garden of strife, an unbalanced botanist who does his best work at that extraordinary moment just before sundown when tourists gather at the water’s edge to admire the fleeting bloom of soft colors above the blue burst of lake. He works quickly, too, using materials close at hand, easily obtainable, inconspicuous—a box of matches with long wooden sticks, a rag soaked in alcohol and stuffed into a wine bottle filled with motor oil and gasoline. Poor man’s grenade, weapon of protest, of resistance, of insurrection. With a skillful strike of a match behind a cupped palm, he ignites the homemade wick, and then with a smirk, a stealthy smile, a sideways sneer of sinister achievement, he disappears down a shady lane, some say on foot, others say on a bicycle, its chain well-oiled for a silent getaway, the tires inflated to the recommended pressure for maximum escape velocity.

            Since no one has witnessed these criminal activities, and since no one can say for certain whether the guilty party is male or female, much less know what the culprit is thinking, it is perhaps imprudent to use masculine pronouns, but most of the islanders insist the villain is a sociopathic teenage boy from the mainland, a canal rat, an undereducated punk with a terrible green glance brimming with class envy and testosterone-driven rage. Michael Bettelheim has seen his neighbors stomping out smoldering bundles of bills and the evening edition of The Observer, has heard them cursing in the streets, making ugly and unsubstantiated claims, leveling accusations, promising to deliver swift justice. In town and on the ferry, they offer him passively hostile frowns and, having worked their suspicions into convictions, turn their backs on him in what seems to be a ritual display of baronial anger. Cruel caricaturists, unapologetic snobs, they refuse to consider the possibility that one of their own prim and priggish children might be responsible for these crimes. The residents are beginning to panic and have planned an around-the-clock neighborhood watch. Vigilantism, reprisals, strategic counterattacks are no longer beyond the realm of possibility.

            On these pressing matters Michael says nothing and concludes nothing. He has successfully purged his mind of all toxic ideas, all neurotic nonsense, but now, while making the thirty-minute crossing aboard the General Zaroff from Île Saint-Ignace to the mainland city of Jolliet Harbour, he is forced to reconsider the precise meaning of the smoke. Its literal meaning is becoming increasingly clear to him, but its trajectory, its final destination, its ultimate outcome remains uncertain. Rather than dissolve in the prevailing winds and assume an ethereal and indeterminate form, the smoke, as it rises above the warty hackberry trees that crowd the island’s leeward side, only darkens as it inches closer to the mainland. It starts to look, at least from Michael’s vantage point, like a deep and brutal scar, as if the invisible incisors of some ravening, celestial beast has ripped through the protective layers of the earth’s atmosphere. Eternal night gushes from the angry wound. Can it be a minatory symbol, a promise of divine retribution, a hint that the time fast approaches when Michael, for his moral cowardice, for his inability to take meaningful action, will fall prey to some cosmic injury? The stakes have proven too high, too imponderable for rational calculation.

            He runs a hand along the hood of the army green jeep and tries to assure himself that life is good and the world is on its proper course. Heavily rusted and rough to the touch, the jeep, one of several in his uncle’s fleet of classic cars, is long overdue for a meticulous restoration. Michael strikes a match against the back of his boot and lights a cigarette, the last of his secret vices. He walks to the ferry’s stern and rests his elbows on the railing to take advantage of the unrestricted view from horizon to horizon. As he watches the gulls bank steeply in the sky, he feels a vibration in his back pocket. Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of his sobriety, and all day long his phone has been buzzing with messages from well-wishers, old friends, former bandmates, fellow dipsomaniacs on the mend, not to mention his degenerate cousin Horace to whom he hasn’t spoken since last year’s Barge Party. But what baffles Michael most is the amount of time it has taken for his mother to call. Burdened by a sense of filial duty, he closes his eyes and prepares himself for the usual tense conversation.

            He spins the cigarette butt into the churning wake and through a ring of smoke says, “Hello, Mom.”

            For a moment he hears only her raspy breathing, and with each passing second his mother’s menace seems to multiply. In her moody, churlish silence he detects a dangerous combination of self-interest and political paranoia.

            “Do you see the smoke, Michael? Can you smell it?”

            Her voice has a frightening, melodious pitch, as if she just finished screaming at some quaking subordinate, the head gardener maybe, a housekeeper, or possibly her own reflection in the endless dark depths of a cracked mirror.

            Michael fights the temptation to roll his eyes, a childish habit and one that his mother can invariably detect, even over the phone. She has a name for this power, Love’s Telepathy, and firmly believes she is in touch with invisible forces. She claims to possess a talent for reading signs and wonders, the out-of-season flowering of a tree, the unexpected infestation of water snakes on the pebble-strewn shore, the arrangement of Tarot cards on an oval table in a candlelit room, the macabre procession of gibbering ghosts in bad dreams, a crazy coil of black smoke unspooling above the lake. She feels no need to sift through the contradictory evidence or to keep an open mind about matters of guilt or innocence. For her even hard facts tend to be superfluous, and she can usually get her man, as it were, simply by concentrating on the crime in question and entering into the desperate and dangerous labyrinth of pure speculation.

            “So nice of you to check in, Mom. How are you?”

            But he knows, before she utters another word, that she has been drinking. Instead of her usual glass of Riesling or Pinot Noir, she has developed a habit of plundering the family cellars for bottles of ice wine. An epicurean pleasure, as she describes it, but in recent days her drinking has spread beyond the cocktail hours and the post-dinner nightcaps into high-noon lunchtime sloshes. Michael can picture the scene quite clearly in his mind, Ciara Campbell Bettelheim sitting alone at a corner table in the winery’s tasting room, pouring the syrupy liquid into a crystal cordial glass that she carries in her crocodile handbag. With all the solemnity of a private ritual, she taps her manicured nails against the sparkling flute, her fingertips stained with the blood of the grape, and admires the wine’s full body and lush color, the same decadent shade of amber as those well-bred island girls, perfect athletes, walking advertisements for the booming tourist industry, who frolic on the beach, kicking over sandcastles and playing volleyball. The Bettelheim Family Cellars produce some of the finest Cabernet Franc grapes in the region, so say the connoisseurs in their fancy culinary magazines, and Michael, in the days before his widely publicized downfall, was once the happy beneficiary of this modest bit of fame. 

            “Arson,” says his mother, “is such an egregiously cowardly act. What do you make of it?”

            He pretends to consider the question and runs a hand through his hair, neatly cut, edged and parted in a razor slash. His new corporate look. “I really don’t know…”

            “Well, I know, Michael. I know you’re not out of the woods. Not officially. Smooth sailing, that’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what we all want for you right now. A few more hours and you’re a free man. Until then you don’t need any more trouble in your life.”

            “There’s nothing to worry about, Mom. Nothing that concerns my interests, anyway. Or yours.”

            “You sound awfully sure of yourself. Has the word ‘saboteur’ ever crossed your mind? You do understand why I’m obligated to ask, why I’m compelled to ask? The police want to implement a curfew. They have direct orders from the chief to keep an eye on tourists, guests, aliens. Everyone on the island is a person of interest, residents and strangers alike. No one is above suspicion.”

            Unable to suppress a sardonic smile, Michael says, “That should be our family motto—nemo est extra suspicionis.”

            “Yes, darling, our family has learned so much from the Romans.”


Paradise on Edge (Excerpt)

By Arlene Quiyou Pena

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Jacob didn’t miss Port-of-Spain, the bumper-to-bumper traffic commute to his office at the bank, or the starched button-up shirts and ties that had come to define his orderly life. Now retired, he grew his hair longer and delighted in his daily walks to the sea. The sun was rising as Jacob reached the midpoint of the hill in front of Neville’s house. He opened the gate when he saw a lamplight in the window. The small house stood nestled between Tilly’s wild orchids, red ixora plants, and the vegetable garden at the back. The mango tree branches drooped with the weight of the ripe fruit as the sparrows feasted on the discarded ones rotting on the ground. It had rained heavily the night before, and the purple honeycreepers drank the dew off the leaves. Since Tilly had died a year ago, her husband, Neville, sat at their bedroom window, seldom leaving his home as the overgrown foliage threatened to devour the house.

            “Morning,” Jacob called out as he walked up the stone pathway. Neville’s head peered around the curtain of his bedroom window; he waved and then quietly pulled back out of view. Jacob had sat next to Neville in primary school and could recall the tall bony nine-year-old who made the girls laugh. Now the two men sat in front of the living room’s great bay window.

            “Hazel came by yesterday to check up on me,” Neville said. “Boy, when you going to marry her?”

            “What make you think she wants to get married?”

            “Women want to get married,” Neville said. “Only we men like to play the fool.”

            “Times change,” Jacob said. “You don’t see how these young girls treating the young boys today?”

            “You not so young,” Neville said. “And neither is she. You better be careful someone don’t snatch her up from right under your nose.”

            “Eh-eh, you trying to give me some competition?”

            Neville laughed. “At my age?”

            “Who you think you fooling?” Jacob said. “You had your eyes on her since you were sixteen years old.”

            “Sound like you jealous?”

            “Nah!” Jacob said.

            Voices from the garden diverted their attention. They looked out the window and watched as five young men dressed in ill-fitting clothing move through the garden like locusts.

            “What the ass is this?” Jacob said. The two men stood and hurried out to the porch.

            Neville called out to the approaching men. “Get off my property!”

            When Jacob walked down the front steps towards them, the young men, their arms loaded with vegetables and mangoes, ignored him and strolled past the trampled plants and out through the gate.

            “What kinda behavior is this?” Jacob shouted after them.  “We don’t tolerate stealing in Mari Village. Where you fellas come from? You want some fruit ask for it. Don’t steal!”

            After Jacob closed the gate behind them, one of the young men stopped and pointed a long stick at Jacob’s throat and squinted at him.

            “Man, the fruit rotting on the ground and you quarreling? I come from this island, just like you. So watch yuh self.”

            Jacob stared at the young man as he strolled up the hill to meet the others. He picked up a broken orchid plant with its tangled roots exposed and bleeding and recalled his neighbor’s recent complaint about hearing somebody in her yard the night before last. He didn’t know if these fellas were responsible for any wrong doings on the hill, but their brazenness exemplified an ugliness plaguing the island.

            “In our day, them fellas could never get away with that shit. We would’ve run them outta the village,” Jacob said. “Boy, what happen to us?”

            “We got old and tired,” Neville said. 

            Jacob felt uneasy as he continued down the hill toward the seawall. He walked along the beach away from the fishermen’s boats. He stopped and removed his khaki shorts, red faded tee shirt, sneakers, and walked into the sea in his bathing trunks. The water reached his mid-thigh as he stood on a sand bar. He thought of the young man who had pointed the stick at his throat. Was this the new heir to Mari Village? He shuddered. He raised his hands above his head and shouted, “I’m not old and tired!”

            But he had felt threatened by the young men. In his youth, he had avoided trouble, but when arguments escalated to fights, Jacob never backed down. He recalled a schoolboy’s scuffle with Neville where both of them had nursed bruises and hurt feelings. In the end, Neville had become his brother. Now, Jacob no longer recognized the island of his youth. He had stopped buying the newspapers. He didn’t want to read any more stories about murders or botched kidnappings.

            Enveloped in the cool water, he wondered what he had done with his time. He had no wife, and no children to whom he could pass on his history. He wondered what his life would have been like if Hazel had stayed in Mari village. He had held onto his memories of her during his marriage and divorce from Mona, and his relationships with Teresa and Camille. He remembered Hazel pale blue dress, and a satin bandeau that held her dark curly hair away from her face. It was at the church’s bazaar. Jacob had watched her from the side of the bandstand as he tried to summon his courage to ask her to dance. Her mother was in charge of the cake booth, and when Hazel wasn’t dancing with the young boys who sought her attention, she stood behind the table and moved in time to the calypso music. He had inched his way closer to the booth and looked into the glass cabinet at four large cakes - chocolate, coconut with cream icing, pineapple and cherries, and sponge. He glanced at Hazel and saw her looking at him. He had hesitated, unsure of what to do next. He recalled feeling the perspiration dripping down the center of his back. “Yuh want to dance?” Jacob asked. She looked over at her mother who had nodded her approval. He held Hazel’s hand and took her to the dance floor; the tone of her voice and her smile had enchanted him. Yet, within months after meeting Hazel, Jacob had heard that her mother had sent her to live in New York. He had seen her only once in the last forty-five years, a chance encounter ten years ago at a carnival fete where he met her husband. Now Hazel was back.

*

Four months earlier, when she returned to Mari Village for her mother’s funeral, he had arranged to meet at her home. He had arrived minutes early and sat in his car. He surveyed the house, which he had avoided after Hazel left. The curved coconut tree that had once stood at the entrance was gone, but Miss Myrtle’s precious vegetable garden bloomed. He looked into the rearview mirror, and wondered if his face revealed his lost years. He grabbed the bottle of wine he had brought for her and exited the car. He saw her on the front steps leading to the veranda and embraced her. He felt her body stiffen, and then she relaxed into him. He followed her into the house, and had expected to see her husband, but he sat alone with her in the kitchen as she prepared the dishes for their lunch. She looked lovely, he had thought. He traced the profile of her face, the fine lines on her forehead and slight creases along the side of her nose. Her beaded earrings brushed against her bare shoulders as she took the macaroni pie from the stove and place the dish on the counter. She told him that she was happy many of her mother’s friends had come to the funeral.

            “I thought I would’ve seen you there,” Hazel said.

            “I couldn’t get out of a meeting. I heard it was a good service.” Jacob hadn’t forgotten his humiliation when Miss Myrtle had asked him to leave her yard so many years ago.

            “How long you staying in Mari?”

            “A couple of months. I have to fix up the house before I put it up for sale.” 

            He followed Hazel to the veranda and helped her place the dishes of stew chicken, fried plantains, and raw cut vegetables to the table. He had stopped drinking alcohol, so she filled his glass with coconut water. They sat across from each other and talked about the changes on the island, her years working as a guidance counselor in Brooklyn with high school students, and his work in the village council.  

            “I remember meeting your husband?” Jacob said. “I forgot his name.”

            “Kenneth.”

            “Right.” Jacob nibbled on slices of guava cheese. “I thought I would see him today.”

            “We’re divorced.” 

            “Oh? How long ago?”

            “Some years now.”

               Jacob’s mind buzzed. He wanted to ask her more questions about the divorce, but Hazel had pushed her chair away from the table and took the dirty plates and utensils to the kitchen. He stayed on the veranda and watched the sea glittering like a sequined tapestry undulating in the wind. He thought of their last week together on the beach before she had left Mari Village all those years ago when they were teenagers. He had kissed her for the first time, awkward and curious. Now, he rejoiced in the death of her marriage and felt energized with the possibility of a new life with her.

*

Jacob felt the heat of the sun on his face now and dipped his head under the water. He saw Hazel’s house in the distance. He picked up his clothes from the beach and crossed the road. When he entered the house, Hazel handed him a bath towel. He placed his arms around her waist. The smell of the freshly baked bread reminded him of Christmas, familiar and reassuring. Jacob held onto Hazel, as if he could conjure up those missing years of their youth. He noticed an open suitcase on the floor in Hazel’s bedroom and her clothes folded neat on the bed.

            “You going on a trip?” Jacob asked.

            “Cassie’s wedding in New York.”

            “Oh yes, I forgot. Talking about wedding,” Jacob said. “Neville asked me when we’re getting married.”

            Hazel laughed. “Tell him to mind his own business,” Hazel said. “Besides, our relationship is probably closer than most marriages.”

            “Don’t know how you can say that,” Jacob said. He was changing back into his tee shirt and khaki shorts. “We don’t live in the same house. We eat breakfast and some dinners together, but then we head back to sleep in our own beds.”

            “So?”

            “You take off to New York for weeks at a time, and I don’t know what you doing. In my book, when you love someone, you get married and share your life with them.”

            “We’re still getting to know to each other.”

            “I’ve known you since you were fifteen.”

            “That’s a long time ago,” Hazel said. “We are not the same people.”

            “I never stopped loving you.” When she didn’t reply, Jacob kissed her on her forehead. “I have to open the store. Mrs. Graves is coming in late this morning.


Close Range

By Colleen McCarthy

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It was dangerous to like a guy like him. I did it anyway. Looking back, I can now recognize the moment I should have wised up, saw him for who he was, and ran. But I didn’t. Not then. (That wouldn’t come until many months later, when he abandoned me mid-PTSD panic attack at a party so he could go fuck some girl he had met at the pub.)

On the night I should have learned, we were in a friend’s small house on the lake—me, him, the friend, and some other girl whose name I never caught—sitting on two pleather couches the color of dark espresso. This house, covered in wood-paneling, with rooms full of cluttered nonsense from someone’s childhood (a toddler’s Strawberry Shortcake scooter, a stack of Disney coloring books, a binder full of Pokémon cards), was where I’d spent every weekend that summer, fall, and now late into winter. Because he was always there.  

            I sat still beside him on the couch, holding my breath. We were so close his thigh grazed mine each time he moved. Was he doing it on purpose? Then he leaned back, and I felt the weight of his arm as he casually rested it behind my shoulders. A subtle gesture, but a gesture.  

            While he talked, his arm around my shoulders, he would occasionally glance at me. When the conversation turned in a direction that he liked—toward aliens, or conspiracy theories, or, most especially, Justin Timberlake—he’d use his free hand to tap at my knee. Every once in a while, he’d turn to me and just smile. I felt like he saw me.

            An orange kitchen plate was laid out on the coffee table in front of us, lines already cut, as if it were cheese and crackers. A rolled up five-dollar bill hung carelessly off the edge of the plate. As I sat there, I mentally prepared and rehearsed several potential responses in case someone offered me a line: No thanks, I’m good; or, I don’t like to mix with alcohol; or (and this one I would deliver laughingly), I had my experimental phase in college. Nobody offered.

            The weight of his arm lifted from my shoulders and I watched as he scooted forward, perching on the edge of the couch. He grabbed the five-dollar bill and rolled it tight between his fingers before putting it to his nose. He leaned forward, snorted loudly. I could hear it over the TV, which was playing a Childish Gambino music video on YouTube. I watched as the rolled bill glided across the plate vacuuming up the line. Still sniffing, he threw the bill back on the plate and wiped his nose with the meat of his thumb.


“I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me.”


Later, he led me to the back porch where he lit a cigarette. I stood with my arms wound tightly around myself and watched as he exhaled thin curls of blue smoke that hovered in the frigid winter air before finally dissipating. He seemed to want to talk, so I listened. His voice was deep and smooth, a voice you could listen to endlessly. He told me a story about how that previous summer he’d been shooting his BB gun “in these very woods.” He said he’d been trying all afternoon to hit something—a squirrel or a chipmunk—wanting to prove to himself that he could.

            I followed his eyes as he stared into the darkness, as though I might be able to see the events unfolding as he spoke. He set his sights on a chipmunk frozen in fear. As he described it, he slowly lifted his arm, his middle and index fingers extended, imitating a gun. He closed one eye and jerked his fingers upward, mimicking the kickback it made when it fired. He stood like that for a moment, silent. He’d hit the chipmunk, he told me. With a mixture of dread and excitement, he’d strode over to see the damage he’d caused. The chipmunk wasn’t dead. He watched as the tiny creature struggled for breath, blood running from its wound. In that moment, he said, he felt regret and sorrow, and he wanted to take it back. He wanted to put the chipmunk out of its misery, but was unable to bring himself to kill it. To shoot from a distance, from the safety of the porch, that had been one thing, but to kill an animal at such close range was another game entirely. He said it was the most oddly beautiful thing he’d ever seen, how the sun reflected off the blood and pooled in a leaf.

            The ghost of a shamed-smile spread across his face and I almost felt bad for him. I should have known then; I should have walked away right there. But seeing how sad he’d looked standing there blinded me. He was a coward. He’d taken an innocent animal to the brink of death, then walked right up to it and hadn’t had the courage to end its misery. He let it suffer, watched as it struggled for its fleeting life. He’d found beauty in it.

            For months after, we’d step away from our friends to come out here on this porch. We would have quiet conversations alone. Huddled together against the chill, he’d tell me he was no good, that I was too good for him. He’d tell me that I shouldn’t like him, and then he’d ask why I did. He’d say this over and over and I’d tell him again and again that he saw me, and that that meant something. I told him I believed in him, I believed that he could be a good man, that he was a good man. He’d just been dealt a shitty hand.

Every time we had these conversations it brought me back to the night when I should have stopped liking him.  It took me back to when he tore his gaze away from the woods and looked at me. He wiped at his nose, dripping from the coke, and asked if it was running. I shook my head, no, and he smiled. “You’re sweet,” he said. “But you’re lying.”


Colleen McCarthy is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Pan

By W. Jade Young

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There was a logic in his belly that made everything he said the truth. He used it to build people into heroes, to make them feel glorious, to draw followers to his empty church. I fell into the rhythm of his tatta-tat cadence without noticing I’d begun to march. I was nineteen, he was older.

The first words I said to him were, “I will fucking cut you.”

This pleased him. He laughed from his gut and told me we would be friends.

And so, it came to pass.

His friends became my friends. He told me beautiful half-truths about them, made them gods. He told them beautiful half-truths about me, made me their equal.

 *

We were pretenders; it was our bread. We were actors and storytellers and fakes. We wrote backstories, wore costumes, painted faces, spoke in voices that didn’t belong to us. Once, twice, three times a month we were not ourselves. We were fairies or monsters or sorcerers or knights. We wielded swords made of PVC pipe that left black bruises for days, shot each other with 25-pound bows and padded arrows that left welts. We killed each other again and again.

I was always a different me, but he was always the same him.

 *

When we weren’t pretending, we were reliving our pretend lives. We ate dinner together, everyone, after we went back to being us. At dinner, he would spin our straw stories into gold, make us grander than we were. We knew they were lies and exaggerations, but who was harmed in the making of heroes? Who benefitted from the dulling of our adventures? The listeners were treated to the bard’s performance, and the heroes were made to feel invincible, infallible.

I began to love the other mes more than I loved the me I was. Those mes were daring; they were just, instead of just me.

 *

We took his words with us to other games, other groups, other friends, and told them for ourselves. They were never as shiny, but they filled us with warmth. We sprinkled the borrowed words like fairy dust on our same-old lives and thought happy thoughts.

He was Peter Pan. He taught us to fly.

We stopped searching for our own truths because his was all we needed. It was good to have someone as all-knowing so we didn’t have to ask any questions or form independent thoughts.  It was a relief to know my opinions were wrong, that he would help me form new ones.

He was fat, his truth-belly spilling over his belts. No matter the level of physical exertion, no matter the weather, he sweated through the pits and down the backs of all his shirts. The reason for this last was because of the incomparable pelt of thick, wiry hair that covered him from neck to ankles.

He had two girlfriends, both young, beautiful, smart, strong. They were girlfriends with each other, too. This, I was told, was polyamory, but whatever name they gave it, I never understood the physical draw he had. He was another Pan, old Pan—half-god, half-goat—patron of sexual energies and fucker of innocent things.

I never wanted anything more than his stories of me.

 *

I had seen the other side of him, the monster-man who whipped words around himself like a lasso and tied people wrist-to-ankles. They were deserving of his dark power. They were terrible or mean or damaged or misguided or weak or confused or easy.

He knew the tender places inside a person just by looking. He knew where the foundational fissure would be, where to place pressure so the structure came down with one strike. He left people dazed and wondering why they hated themselves and how he had known. They left less than human, stripped of their skin, bleeding disgracefully.

He told their stories, too. They were villains. They were conquests.

They weren’t us, so it was okay.

 *

It was sudden when the luster wore off, or else it was bitterly slow. We were give-and-take, he and I, ten years of together. We were colleagues, coauthors, roommates, best friends.

I had come to him already shattered by the one man who should have protected me above all else. I had been collecting shards of myself, trying not to cut my articulate fingers on my own sharp edges. I’d been a ghost, and he had performed my séance. He showed me the fractures in my own foundation and told me they were not irreparable. He helped pour concrete for a new one, helped secure beams, hammer in hand.

Sometimes I cry when I think of how much better he made me before he broke me.

 *

There is a depth of sorrow that, when you reach it, you stop being the same person. You make inhuman sounds. You make inhuman faces. Your body forgets how to move like you, your mind forgets how to think like you.

You descend into a singularity of every weakness, every inability, every flaw of your own character. The crying goes on for days, but feels like moments. You can’t remember the last time you bathed or loved or felt anything other than nothing. You are a mass of tears, held together by raw heartstrings only. Your soul evaporates, illusive heat-vapor on tarmac.

It leaves you only shards.

The blessed never know this. Me, I’ve known it twice.


W. Jade Young is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Assignment Pick

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Sometimes the better a book is declared to be, the harder it can be for me to get into it. Did the book win a prestigious award? Did it win all the awards? Is it the stuff of doctoral dissertations and first-year seminars? These are the books I will often struggle with, knowing all the time that I should love them. Love them. And usually, after laying them down time and time again, I eventually do fall in love with them, though sometimes begrudgingly. Meanwhile, give me a piece of pulpy entertainment, the kind of book with zombies on the cover, or flying saucers, or sexy women pointing pistols at something, and I will devour it down like it was hand-delivered straight from Domino’s.

               I realize this is a personal failing and that the fault lies with me. I blame it on a sugar addiction. (Another confession since we are all friends here: I also watch reality TV while still complaining, along with nearly everyone else, about its harmful effect on our failing civilization. "It will be the death of us all!" I'II say soberly, out with my friends—knowing good and damn well that as soon as I get home, I’m going to flip on Amazon and watch the first season of Temptation Island in its entirety.)

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Case in point: I recently picked up Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Middlesex, a multigenerational saga of an immigrant Greek family and the mutated gene coursing through it. I’ll admit I am somewhat late to the party. By the time I had a copy of it thrusted on me by a zealous friend super keen on me having it (“Will? Will, you have to read this. Oh my God!”), the novel was already well over a decade old, an award-winner, on too many top-ten lists to count, an Oprah book club pick and certified bestseller.

               The delay was only further magnified by me. First, by taking my copy and lovingly placing it on my bookshelf, where it stayed, unopened, for an embarrassing length of time. (I had to stop speaking to the friend who gave me the book after I finally couldn't take the constant Did you read it? Did you read it? questions, along with the inevitable disappointed glare when I admitted that I hadn’t—like getting an after-school dressing down from the exasperated elementary school teacher who knows there is more to you if you would just apply yourself.)

               And then, once I did pick it up, I got only a half chapter in before I put it down. Only to pick it up a few weeks later. Up and down. Up and down. I didn't like it. I just didn’t. I didn’t and didn't. And then one day, after 100 pages or so, I did. This is what I realized: It wasn't the book. It wasn’t too slow or too boring, and certainly not badly written. No, it was me. I had a prejudice against it. I would stand there, book in hand, thumbing the pages and thinking: too sprawling, too chaotic. Too weird.  What did I have in common, I bemoaned, with some Greek family in America after the turn of the century?

                Something finally clicked. The story of the family Stephanides: the siblings who fall in love; their escape from Turkish forces and the horrific sacking and burning of the city of Smyrna; their new life, raising children in Detroit during the height of Prohibition and the heyday of the auto industry—I found that I did relate. Their story is an American story—something that in today’s talk of walls and cages and whatever Tucker Carlson is tripping on on a nightly basis is well worth remembering. It is the story of World Wars and Great Depressions, the birth of a nation and the Nation of Islam—all from the viewpoint of one family’s immigrant eyes. It is a funny, thrilling, tragic read.

And finally there is Cal—our protagonist—first named Calliope due to a rare 5-alpha-reductase-deficiency that produced certain feminine characteristics, causing him to be raised first as a girl, then later as a boy. He is stuck between two worlds, two identities, male and female, immigrant and American-born. His struggle mirrors his family’s broader search to find belonging in this strange land, this equally sinful and sanctimonious, noble and notorious, tantalizing and terrifying country, where sometimes we can all feel like foreigners.

— WL

Remedies

By James Seals

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This morning I almost consumed the wrong medicine. In my pre-dawn drowsiness, my eyes failed to distinguish between bottles – ibuprofen, sleeping capsules, allergy pills – but luckily my hands remembered and recognized the incorrect bottle lids. I must take a 180 milligram dose of antihistamine twice a day to manage my inducible urticaria: pressure triggered hives.

During my master’s program, my skin became sensitive to everything: friction, sweating, cold, heat, sunlight, water. I had to visit a dermatologist, who explained to me that anxiety, pressure, strain (e.g., the stress of my MFA program) could trigger my symptoms, and I might have to live with hives for the rest of my life.

I sat there, taken aback at the prospect of having to spend at least $50 every two weeks on medicine, at the prospect of having to forgo participation in physical activities, and at the prospect of having to explain to my high school students, No, the rash on my neck is not a hickey, for the rest of my life.


 “As my mother aged, her anxiety became more of an issue. She developed this nervous habit of ingesting pills right along with her intended patient.”


I was saddened to be entwined in America's love affair of prescription drugs. In an August 3, 2017 Consumer Report article, Teresa Carr revealed that more than half of the population of the United States took prescription pills (four tablets of some sort) each day and that $200 billion per year was spent on unnecessary procedures and improper treatments. That declaration both alarmed me and made me laugh. It alarmed me because our healthcare industry is out of control. It made me laugh because this statement reminded me of my Filipino mother.

My mother might have caused the initial spike in the 1980s, which so alarmed those studying the increased use of prescriptions in the United States. My mother acted as family shaman, healer, witch doctor. She grew Johnny-jump-up, Feverfew, St. John's Wort, and other houseplants for medicinal purposes. Our poor Aloe Vera had been broken, scarred, and sliced as she attempted to repair her children’s rips, tears, and minor abrasions. She also believed in overmedicating her kids.

The very moment she heard a throat clear, my mother would be reaching for the purple stuff—dark berry-colored cough syrup she filled a clear-plastic measuring cup to the brim with, before hustling to the ailing person’s side. She made my siblings and me shoot multiple shots of this medicine even when none of us showed signs of illness. Because of her quick draw, my sisters and I often hid in our dark, musty closets the moment we heard our mother’s medicine cabinet click open. At Filipino parties, at the park, or in the car, Mother toted a white, plastic bag filled with multicolored liquids and chalky pills—just in case someone needed saving. My older sister and I called her bag the rainstick because every time it tumbled from a chair to the floor, the pills made the sound of a gathering thunderstorm.

It stormed a lot throughout my childhood.

As my mother aged, her anxiety became more of an issue. She developed this nervous habit of ingesting pills right along with her intended patient. She seemed to believe that the more she swallowed her elixir, the better her chances of thwarting any illness. So, instead of just watching me take shot after shot of the viscous, purple syrup, I would watch, wide-eyed and with an open mouth, as Mother threw back three or four shots herself before making me drink.

When we were young, my older sister and I began to take advantage of our mother’s growing obsession, especially when Benadryl became her lifesaving antidote. We began to fake illnesses on Friday mornings, in hopes of having another three-day weekend. Cindy coughed or I cleared my throat, and then we waited for the carpet-muffled footfalls of our mother dashing up the stairs, bottle already in hand. She would match us shot for shot, and it didn’t take but two or three to sedate my four-feet-eleven-inch Filipino mother, and after she fell asleep after 20 minutes or so, Cindy and I would just skip our bus—there being no one to force us to go.

 *

In that same Consumer Report article describing America’s prescription love affair, Teresa Carr also quotes a doctor who stated, “many Americans—and their physicians—have come to think that every symptom, every hint of disease, requires a drug.” I disagreed with this because when time came for my mother to receive her much-needed treatment for an irritation that started in her foot then traveled to her brain, no doctor provided her with any purple syrup or chalky pills or some other form of help.

In early 2000, my mother had a tingling sensation at the bottom of her left foot. After suffering with it for two years, she  finally went in for an examination. The doctors told her that the tingling was nothing more than a invention of her imagination. And when it moved to her hip, then arm, they again told her she was making it up. My mother soon developed vertigo, could no longer drive, and lost the enthusiasm for the life that she had exhibited each day when my sisters and I were kids. Her inability to move meant she could no longer grow her remedies, conjure cures, which meant she felt useless to her children. Mother lost her status as shaman. She didn’t believe she would be healed. And she didn’t know which doctor to turn to. So, she had people pack her bags, sell her house, and fly her to the Philippines, where she chose to waste away—Parkinson’s disease.

I have considered purchasing a pill box to ensure I take the correct medications. Still, so far, I have avoided buying one. Those clear, little cases remind me of old people, reminds me that I am starting to age. But I think the real reason I haven’t bought one yet is because it cannot replace my mother—my mother the shaman, the healer, the witch doctor—the only person who knew the recipes to the old remedies, the ones I now miss taking every day.


The Murder House

By Margaret McNellis

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In the fall of 2017, after only a few weeks of commuting between southern Connecticut and southern New Hampshire, my search for an apartment had transitioned from picky to desperate, and so, out of options, I expanded my search radius to include apartment listings within one hour of campus.

            It was advertised—in that disquieting vortex of yard sales, property listings, catfishing, and employment scams, i.e., Craigslist—as a one-room rental in a house of “artists.”

            I ignored my better instincts and emailed the landlady.

            She couldn’t meet with me right away, she wrote back, because she was traveling for a modeling job. I’m not sure what kind of “modeling” she was into, but alongside her Craigslist ad was a photo of her. In it she looked thin, but not skinny, had a hooked nose with deep-set eyes and blonde hair that fell all the way down to her calves. That hair creeped me out a little—but not enough to keep me from viewing a place that was only $500 a month, utilities included.

            We made an appointment for me to drive out and see the place later that week.


“The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. “


My last class ended early in the afternoon, but by the time I made it through the mountain pass, still looking for the address, the sun had already begun to set. Autumn leaves, awash in plumes of orange, red, and gold, swayed vividly in the day’s dying light. After a series of wrong turns and one boulder-sized roadblock that forced me to backtrack a number of times, my heckles were raised; it was like Google Maps itself was plotting against me, aiming to keep me from my destination. So, I bargained with myself that if night fell before I found the address, I would turn around and drive home.

            Twenty minutes later, I arrived. And there she stood before her house in the pale evening light, her waterfall of hair blowing loose and hanging down around her ankles. Next to her stood a man holding two open beer cans for some reason. He wore an old denim shirt streaked and stained with so much paint I wondered if any had actually made it onto the canvas, while his hair, thinning and gray, flapped about in the wind like bat wings. At least the ad had been right about the view; it was astonishing.

            The painter handed us his warm beers, mumbled something about smoking a cigarette, and moseyed back behind the house.

            My potential landlady welcomed me and talked about the place while with one hand she swept her hair up into a bun larger than her head. The house itself looked like two buildings joined together at the hip: one half covered in wood siding like an old cabin; the other half, more like the concrete barracks from a war movie.

            She took the can from me and opened a creaky screen door, bade me inside, and against my better judgment, I followed her. My first impressions: dark, with an overwhelming smell of cat urine, and why for the love of all that’s holy were there mattresses propped against the foyer wall? Stained mattresses.

            I now believe this was when I should have run.

            “We just let the cats go wherever they want, so watch your step,” said the woman who I had come to think of as Cousin Itt.  

            She showed me the kitchen—where a pot of beans, blistered and crusted both inside and out, sat on a long-suffering, multi-stained stove—and offered me a drink. The woman appeared friendly enough, but I was convinced if I consumed anything, I’d never leave, like a trespasser in Hades.

            “Uh, no thank you,” I said. She caught me trying to cover my nose and I pretended to stifle a yawn.

            She showed me the basement level where her lodgers—all single men in their fifties—resided: the artists, the cultists, the double-fisted beer drinkers and shared-spoon-black-bean eaters. The room for rent turned out to be a dark, concrete box with no windows. I believe it was formerly used for interrogations.

            “You’d share the bathroom at the end of the hall,” she said, pointing. There was another empty room, she told me, which was also available, though slightly more per month. I could have if I wanted. Its previous occupant had to leave “unexpectedly.”

            Next on the tour was the indoor pool. Fancy, right? Except it had no water, just an empty cement pit with a diving board and a mound of cat feces resting at the bottom.

            The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. I remembered a Law & Order episode where a victim was buried under a parking garage, in concrete. I imagined this indoor pit would serve such a purpose.

            The tour not yet over, she led me to her bedroom where her husband lounged bare-legged on the bed with their pair of Sphinx cats prowling about. His hair was short and dyed a severe black with what I guessed was a home kit or one of those aerosol spray-on cans. His laptop was propped up on his stomach. He didn’t speak.

            She bent over and scooped up one of the cats and nuzzled it. “I expect my roommates to oil my cats for me when I’m away on photoshoots.”

            “Oh, yeah, that makes sense,” I said. “You’ve got to keep your cats oiled.” I was planning my escape, if needed. First, I’d bum-rush Cousin Itt—I thought I could take her—then beat it downstairs before Dye Job could even get his computer off his belly.

            “They have a gown and tux,” she said, “for their wedding.”

            “Who does?” I asked.

            “The cats.”

            I blinked. “Right, well, I should get going,” I said in my don’t-mind-me voice. “People are expecting me.” I slowly began backing out of the room. “I told them I was coming out here and that it’s a bit of a drive, but they’re definitely expecting me.” No one in the state of New Hampshire knew I was out here. If I went missing, no one would know for at least a few days.

            Thankfully, she didn’t kill me. Her cats didn’t bite me, and I never had to oil them, or share a pot of black bean surprise. But I’ve thought of that property as the Murder House ever since I toured it—the murder house with its stained mattresses and breathtaking vistas—and decided to stop my apartment hunt and just cope with the commute.


Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Assignment Pick

Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto

A while back, I started getting these bad dreams where I would watch helplessly as my teeth tumbled from my mouth like loose coins. In these nightmares I would stand there in front of some fun-house mirror, staring in horror at my gaping mouth, my red gums.

What do I do, now? I would wonder. Do I go get dentures? I’m too young for dentures, aren’t I? Do I stop smiling? Stop talking? Start handing out cards with my name printed on them like an Ellen Jameson?

One of my biggest fears—besides going blind or getting hit by a bus while crossing the street because I’m bopping along to headphones and therefore not paying any attention—is losing my teeth. I am more scared of that than Cancer. Because my insurance covers cancer. I think. And I personally know someone who has spent nearly eighty grand to get that perfect smile.

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And it was with these thoughts and worries rattling me that I picked up Studs and Ida Terkel Prize-winning author Mary Ottor’s extensive exploration of America’s Dental System, Teeth.

In it, Ottor traces the long history of dental care in this country, why it isn’t grouped together with most health insurance plans, and the myriad hardships this creates. She takes us through infuriating tales of people suffering with tooth decay and loss and the ways bad dental care has affected their lives—more ways than perhaps you may have considered. A sobering look at how our system again lets many poor and working-class people down.

—WL

Coffin Fish

A short story by Laura Dennison

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The bed sheets are becoming the color of beach sand, and the musk in here spills out the door in a gust as soon as anyone opens it. Last week, my hair got thick and matted like coarse black seaweed. I pretended I was a mermaid, slick with oil, feet bound in the confines of a twisted comforter. But a knock on the door reminded me: mother, not mermaid.

               After months of reusing unwashed socks that radiated the stench of sweat and stale onion rings, Andy taught himself to do his own laundry. I pretend this is an achievement on my part—that I’ve eased my son into adulthood. But his white t-shirts are smeared with the indigo dye of his blue jeans now, stains I opt not to see. His socks may be clean, but his shoes track mud onto the crimson carpet of my bedroom. He’s swung open the door and stands, staring, looking more and more like his absent beanpole of a father.

               Whenever I see Andy when I’m this depressed, a bump the size of a walnut forms and gets stuck in my throat. The lump contains all the apologies I’ve offered for my illness before, and all the “I know, Mom, just shut up,” answers they’ve received.

Andy’s eyes dart from wall to wall.

               “Uh,” he stammers. There’s a white slip of paper in his right hand. “There’s a 10th grade science museum trip. Mrs. Stanford says I need to quit forging your signature, so here you go.”

               The walnut has had roughly enough time to dissolve.

               “Sure,” I say. I prop myself up in the bed and rummage through the used tissues and granola bar wrappers gathered on my bedside table, trying to find a pen. Andy hands me the permission slip and I sign it in a loopy cursive signature I barely recognize. The paper flutters in my shaky hand as I pass it back.

               “Thanks,” he says quietly, his voice flat. He turns to leave and shuts the bedroom door behind him.


“On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.“


I mourn for the science museum. Until Andy was 10, we used to ride the T into the city, where the museum sits along the Charles River, a dirty and chilly snake of water everyone in Boston loves regardless. On our first trip there, the summer before he started the first grade, Andy threatened to jump in the river because he wanted to swim. I un-clung his body from a metal railing and pushed the hair back out of his face.

               “You can’t go in that water,” I told him. “It’s dirty and filled with trash. Not even fish like to swim in that water.”

               Andy’s eyes got wide. He called it “the fishy-free pond” and, under the impression that the body of water could not sustain life, quickly walked away from it.

               Every year, we’d travel back to the museum. Andy loved to try to balance on the spinning, circular platforms that connect two subway cars together and pretend that he was surfing on some beach in California. He seemed like the lone person laughing on the green line. Back then, both our cheeks were still chubby—mine would push up into a rare smile as he staggered when the train came to an unexpected halt.

               At the museum, we’d move from exhibit to exhibit. There was a room full of playground equipment meant to demonstrate the properties of physics, where Andy and I would always ride on the seesaw. I still have a picture of him giving a thumbs-up next to a model T-Rex hanging on the fridge door. We would stare at the massive slab of a cut cross-section of a Redwood tree and marvel at how something could live healthily for so long. At the human health exhibit, Andy’s mouth dropped wide open when he saw a pair of charred smoker’s lungs on display next to their pink, sponge-like healthy counterparts.

               One year, as we made our way out of the museum, Andy looked up at me, his mouth stained blue from the rock candy I’d let him buy at the gift shop.

               “There was no exhibit in there about people who get the way you do,” he said.

               He was ten, and by then, I’d been in and out of hospitals enough times that Andy understood what was going on. When we reached the street, I held his hand tight, prepared to pull him away from any rouge MBTA busses.

               “Maybe there was no exhibit on people like you because your type of sickness doesn’t have to do with science,” Andy suggested.

               “Maybe,” I agreed, because I felt like being honest. All the medications and therapies seem like educated guesses at best. Andy’s soft fingers stuck out in between mine, and he wiggled them like tentacles as we crossed the street, attempting to break free from my grip.

*

When I haven’t left the house for a while, my thoughts tend to spin so fast they end up stuck together in a useless puree of unintelligible guilt and fear. After Andy’s footsteps have faded, I shut my eyes and put my head back into the dent I’ve created in the pillow. The hours pass and my spine aches from lying in one spot for so long, but flipping over to my other side seems to require more effort than I have. Sometimes I wonder what Andy might say if his friends ever ask what I do for a living. Maybe he answers “a potato” or “a lump of flesh,” or maybe he lies and says I’m a flight attendant always away on trips to Dubai, or a successful dentist busy working at the third practice I’ve opened. Almost anything has a better ring to it than SSDI check collector—diagnosis, treatment-resistant major depressive disorder with catatonic features.

               Getting better, as they call it, is tough. If I wind up in inpatient treatment, the only place Andy can go to is his Aunt Lorraine’ house. We share whatever familial fuck-up lurks in our brains, just in a different manifestation. The flow of vodka through her veins as Andy kills time on the X-box stays on my mind whenever I’m locked up in a ward. I swear, as I woke up from the anesthesia after the medically-induced seizure during my first round of electroconvulsive therapy, it was Andy’s voice:

               “No fair when you’re a fish!”

*

When I was doing better, I used to take Andy to the town pond, and we’d race out to the splintery wooden raft. I only let Andy win after every few races, so that when he did, it would be something special. But he’d poked fun of my one webbed toe since he could talk, and I’d always been a fish to him—much faster in the water than I was on land.

               Funny thing is, I feel like a beached whale for now. I’m spread out the discolored comforter like it’s sand, stripped down into my underwear, watching the way my stomach’s gone concave again from eating so little. My nerves make me sweat, though, enough that I could swim in the pool of it forming in my belly button. I spread my arms and legs out like a starfish and recall all the times Andy and I used to go to the water.

               I hold so close to those good years we had during his time in elementary school. I was with it enough back then to plan things. I’d pick a day, shave the bristle off my legs and bikini area, pack slices of watermelon and some bologna sandwiches in the cooler, and count out the pills I’d need to for the rest of the day and slide them in my purse. I stuck to the strict diet my new-ish MAOI antidepressant drug required and dutifully recorded three good things that happened to me each day in a journal I kept on my bedside table.

               Almost every time we would swim to the raft and I beat Andy, he’d shake the water off his face and call out “No fair when you’re a fish!”

               I would stick my tongue out and poke my left foot out of the water to put my webbed toe on display. He would laugh or start to splash me, and—like I always believe when times are good—I felt joy surge through me, thinking how I held the key to happiness in my son. How I’d never, ever relapse.

               Only I still sank.

*

Last I knew, Andy had a thing for owning pet minnows. It used to strike me as odd, since minnows die so often. But he keeps at it. Every so often, he’ll buy a new batch of fish at the pet store and bring them home in a clear plastic baggie filled with water. Whenever I trial a new medication that seems to only add to the long list of failures, I try to keep those little guys in mind. They’ve helped think like this: if you must die often, reemerge.

               I try to make that my mantra. I would love to go back to the water with Andy someday. I’d love to use a knife to cut into a juicy watermelon for both of us to share and not spend the whole time wishing I could plunge that knife into my own skin. And I need to keep the promise that I made.

*

The promise came about when Andy was only nine. The hospital stay was too long. He complained that Auntie Lorraine’s house smelled like cigarettes and said he wanted to see me, so for the first time, I let Andy come to the ward’s visiting hours. I took him to the spot in the cafeteria where they kept the packets of cookies, then brought him to the TV room and set him up with some coloring supplies and a mandala.

               Andy picked up the black and orange markers because it was close to Halloween. We sat mostly silent as I colored alongside him, but when he’d almost reached the center of his mandala, he put his orange marker down and reached for my wrist and gently tugged at the blue hospital bracelet I was wearing.

               “Mommy?” he said, after a short pause. He hadn’t yet switched to “Mom.” I held my breath, bracing myself to yet again come to find that children know more about what’s going on than we give them credit for. “Can you promise me something? And I’m not just saying this because Auntie’s house smells.”

               A staff member doing his routine 15-minute checks on each patient poked his head into the TV room entryway. He marked something off on his clipboard. My hair was clean for once, help up in a clip that had been deemed safe enough to avoid confiscation to the closet that held my shoelaces. My hands fluttered to flatten the loose strands.

               “Sure, honey,” I said. “What is it?”

               “You gotta promise, though,” Andy said. He looked up at me, his green eyes like spotlights, and extended a hooked pinky finger. I offered mine in return.

               “Okay. You promise that you will never, ever, ever, ever kill yourself.”

               He shook our pinkies up and down and I wondered if he could hear my heart beating fast under my thin cotton T-shirt. Of course, I wanted to believe that this promise would be easy to keep. I told myself the same thing when I first found out I was pregnant and truly believed bringing a child into the world to love would be more than enough to cure me of this disorder.

               “I promise, Andy.”

               On the back side of the paper I’d been coloring on, I wrote in blue marker—because black seemed too bleak—FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM. I drew a line underneath the words and signed my name, then folded the paper and handed it to Andy. He insisted I write the date down before he slipped the note into the back pocket of his jeans.

               There is no contract on earth I will ever honor more seriously, and there is nothing I’ve faced more difficult.

*

Some days, I swear the air has changed to something much denser and viscous. Today, though, the air has changed to water, and I can’t breathe. I start to panic, because I know that Andy and I can’t live in parallel. He needs air, but I’ve grown ugly slits like gills that seem to help me survive in ways I shouldn’t. The bed I’m in keeps sinking me deeper. With every placebo-like pill I swallow, the fear mounts—Andy’s fifteen, half time neglected, and living fine without me. His lungs are probably pinker and stronger. I can’t seem to believe there’s any science behind that, either.

Before my last hospitalization, I went to the ER, where I stayed for a few days until a bed in the behavioral health unit opened up. The TV mounted in the corner of the room was set to a nature channel. At night, I couldn’t sleep, so I lay awake and watched a documentary about the ocean floor. Apparently, scientists have been stunned to discover the presence of aquatic life near the pitch-blank bottom. These animals survive, but with gross adaptations. Their colloquial names are things like “coffin fish” and “vampire squid.” With time, evolution has made them into what seems like monsters. Their internal organs are their only source of light. They’re hideous, yet they still roam around in the darkness, surviving on whatever scraps they might find.

I realize now that I’m living on my ocean’s floor, grossly conditioned to survive. There is little human about me. I bore and birthed a child; I held him for the first time and cried tears of joy. I named him Andy, and then I cried alongside him when he wailed in his crib, requesting I bring him comfort. I grew cells to fetus to human being, hoping he would bring me comfort. There is no more demented a medicinal wager.

Andy’s father left with the excuse he’d be a bad parent. I chose to stay with the hope that I would adapt. I’ve morphed and continue to morph, but if life is a case of survival of the fittest, I’m worried there might not be enough time to learn to survive.

*

I sleep on it. It could be Tuesday but it might be Thursday. I never know anymore. There’s somebody over the apartment with Andy, though, and I’m relieved to find this helps propel me out of bed. I move to the bathroom and stare at my blotchy face in the mirror, pulling at tufts of tangled hair. From the hall, there is commotion—whispers, the solitary beep of the smoke detector, and a loud smack I later find is from the broomstick hitting the side of the wall. I listen to stifled laugher and watch as the sight of my own pale complexion captivates me. I don’t recognize myself, and my eyes look gray. I’m losing pigment like one of those deep-sea creatures.

               When the skunk-like odor of weed wafts under the crack of the bedroom door, I go to scold Andy, only my hand gets stuck hoovering above the doorknob, and I eventually decide to run back into bed. I don’t remember the last time I showered. My hair is seaweed, and my reflection doesn’t match how I feel—like one of those grotesque sea creatures, complete with claws and fins and tentacles sprouting from my sides. There’s one deformity for every time Andy skinned his knee and I wasn’t waiting inside with Band-Aids. There’s one for every time he brought back a quiz with an A on it, but I was too busy being buried under a stack of blankets to find a magnet to hang it up on the fridge and say congratulations. How is it right to tell my son what he can and can’t do when he’s the one who’s had to call the shots all along?

               From my spot in bed, I can still hear waves of words.

               “Dude, we should always come here to smoke,” a voice a bit deeper than Andy’s says. There’s a small coughing fit, then Andy talks.

               “We definitely can. My mom’s basically a vegetable. She doesn’t care about anything.”

               I expect to remain frozen, only something usual happens. Rage builds. A rare emotion. Of course I care about something. I care about what Andy does. I think that maybe I should get up and tell him his friend has to leave. Even still, my arms and legs seem glued to the mattress. I try to gather momentum. My right leg twitches. That’s it. I swallow back the tears and close my eyes.

*

After the apartment quiets, my body and mind finally decide they’d like to move at the same time. I get up slowly and pay a visit to Andy’s room, a space I’ve left undisturbed for months. It’s been hours since his friend left. Andy’s sitting on his bed and reading a magazine about mountain biking. When I enter, he looks up briefly but says nothing. On the wall, there is a new poster of a tan woman sitting on the beach wearing only a thong bikini. Her pink nipples seem to mock me.

“You can sit down, you know.” Andy’s words startle me. He pats at a spot next to him on the bed. “My sheets aren’t clean,” he says when I don’t answer. “But they’re probably cleaner than yours.”

               I take a seat at the very edge and look up at the single florescent twisty bulb lighting the small space. He needs a light fixture. He needs some more milk cartons for his stuff. Maybe some shelves up from Ikea. But who am I kidding. He needs a lot more than furniture.

               Andy sets down his magazine, dog-earing the page for a bookmark.

               “What’s up?” he asks, his eyes scanning me. With each mark of how unkempt I am,  he can evaluate, roughly, my level of depression. I can see the numbers adding up in his head as I attempt to articulate what I need to say. There are still some minnows swimming on the window’s ledge in a fishbowl. He’s even kept the glass clean. It’s incredible to me that a teenage boy would put so much care into something with such a small, fleeting life.

               “Do you hate me?” That’s all I manage to say, as if I’m one of his fifteen-year-old classmates, not his mother. The curls of his sandy blonde hair spill out of the sides of his baseball cap. He takes the hat off, puts it back on.

               “I never want to have a kid,” he says. The indent of the cap has left a semi-permanent mark on his head. He covers it back up and the ring is magically gone. “Not if I ever end up sick as you.”

               Of course, this is not the best thing to hear.  He could have said, “No, of course not. I love you,” or, “No, of course not. You’ve done the best you can,” or, “No, you’re my mom and I’ll always love you no matter what.”

But then I would know that he would be lying. Instead, he’s offered the truth as bait. I bite it.

               There is no way to say I regret Andy—the beautiful and forgiving being who has somehow sprung out of my own body. If this were a world where everything was as it should be, any one of these things would be more than enough to get me out of bed each day: the way he bobs his head with each step he takes, the way he writes the letter F just like me, the way that one bottom tooth juts out just a little too far.

               There is no way to say that having Andy was right. It’s an imperfect world. There’s the times we had to water down the powdered milk. The baseball games I missed because I was in the hospital. The dinners he had to make himself because I was too busy sleeping.

               “I’m sorry about how things have been,” I tell him. I know he’s used to it. I know he’s heard it before. But I need to tell him again. “Things will get better.”

               Andy rises to his feet. He reaches for a folder that’s sitting in a milk crate underneath the window with the minnows’ bowl. He opens the folder and thumbs through it until he finds a paper, which he unfolds and puts into my hands.

               There it is. FOR LIFE: ONE MOMMY. SINK OR SWIM.

               In my body, there’s a warmth that’s been absent for months. Instead of asking Andy if I can hug him, I reach forward and do it. He offers no objection. I haven’t felt his flesh for much too long.

               Andy is proof. If fish can do it, he can, too. The strongest survive. He’s adapted to live in the harshest condition. My grip is so tight, but his bones are stronger than I could imagine, and so are mine. So I squeeze him as hard as I can. There is still love here, even in the darkness.


Work Hard and Be Nice

By Sarah Eisner

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Ten-year-old Wilson tilted away from me on the two back legs of his chair and balanced there with the ease of a water buoy. He was studying, as I’d begun to notice was routine before he ate after-school-snack, the haphazard collage of our photos I posted to the bulletin board on the adjacent wall. I leaned toward him from across our kitchen-cum-dining room table.

After a moment he plunked down on all four legs and stripped off his favorite white Stanford tee, then seemed to focus on the image I never switched out: a year-old picture taken during a launch celebration at my office. In it my husband, Noah, my younger son, Ben, Wilson, and I are shoveling huge chunks of what looks like bright pink wedding cake into our open smiling mouths; in the background, my co-founder, my employees, my family and friends—nearly everyone I love in my Silicon Valley circle—are grinning at us, blurrily displaying teeth tinged pink with sugar and wine.

            “That was a good cake,” Wilson reminisced.

“It’s good I’m home now,” I said, mostly to myself, though I nodded at the premade burrito I’d managed to heat for him. He looked at me with his deep blue, diving pool eyes.

            “I kind of wish you had a job still,” he said.

“Why…” My stomach sunk and my voice caught, “…do you say that?”

Wilson looked down, poked the burrito, and then his neck lengthened somehow. We had surprised one another, but he was an honest boy. He gazed up at me. “Because then our whole family would be successful.”

“What,” I said, and I wanted to add, the hell did you just say? But I dutifully refrained.

Wilson was assessing my reaction, watching my shoulders, which had begun to droop. “Mom,” he said. “It’s not bad.” His regret was elephantine; I knew I should rescue him. He was ten, and a patch on his smooth white neck was beginning to flush cardinal. His collarbone seemed to curl around his sternum and cave his chest inward, as if in an attempt to protect his whole heart, and he glanced across the floor at his shirt, as if he just wanted to put it back on. But I was angry. Not at him, but at everyone.

“I mean your company was cool,” Wilson said. “I liked it. And Dad’s is cool too.” 

“I know,” I agreed. “But I like this, too.” And I did like being with him. But I hadn’t known it would feel so much like shame.

In the past 20 years, I’d studied engineering, traveled the world training men on Internet routing technology, and co-founded three companies. In the past 30 days, I’d been ousted from my own company, and learned that inhaling hot bacon and salty lard runoff as the sun rises on a well-deserved weekend morning is comforting and heady, but smelling residual animal fat coagulate like candle wax in the dirty glass jar by the microwave as the lunch hour approaches during what used to be a work day with nothing to do and no decisions to make is, for me, oppressive and dire.

This was not real oppression, and to use the word “dire” is too bleak. I had ample choice in the matter; I could afford to stay home. I also could have gone right back to my striving. And yet, I vaguely knew getting another tech job would just make things worse. I wasn’t yet sure why.

Wilson nodded. “Sorry,” he said. “Why’d I say that?” He duck-dived beneath the wave of tension I hated myself for having formed, and brought his face down to the burrito instead of lifting it up to his mouth. He took a bite, and I stifled a sob.

The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion. I had chosen it on a lunch break years ago and hung it in my home’s most visible spot like a cross.

I knew that we need to hold these values in at least equal measure; that success in life is about personal striving, but it is also more importantly about being kind. As an entrepreneur I was known mostly for my hard work: a limited virtue. Once home, I worried that I would be known only for being nice, although I so often felt pissed off at myself and unlikable.

“It’s okay buddy,” I said, thinking I’m sorry, Wilson. I could see that he knew I was lying and he didn’t like it. I wanted to tell him it was not a lie but a half-truth. What he had said was okay. But increasingly, I was not. Because although I so badly wanted to feel good enough, my gut said he was right. I was newly forty, and a failed entrepreneur. Without a title or a paying job, I felt as if aside from my life with my family, I did nothing. I produced nothing. I only consumed. This made me feel both worthless, and extravagantly self-centered. I was not enough for Silicon Valley, and motherhood was not enough for me.

Here is what I imagined Wilson innocently asked of me: Why don’t you have a job like Dad? I thought you were good at it. I thought you loved running a company. So tell me, Mom, if you’re not working and happy now, then what was it all for? What are you now?

“Come on,” I said, “eat.” Wilson had soccer practice in an hour and I needed him to feel strong.

I wondered how long that sign would haunt me. There was no fucking chance I was taking it down.


“The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion.” 


Optimism is our most positive word related to striving: the striving we do to satisfy needs or achieve. When we hear optimism, we think of things we hope for or desire: lasting love, pleasure, and the security of peace. When we hear optimism, we think of upward mobility, ambition, and grit: the requirements to cash in on the American promise of “the good life.” The good life: the ability to pause and be satisfied; to let go, and feel free.

“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” American scholar and cultural critic Lauren Berlant writes in her book “Cruel Optimism” (2011). “It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being.” These objects are not inherently cruel or harmful, Berlant explains, but become cruel when they actively prevent you from the very thing they promise to enable.

*

It’s possible that when Wilson said he wished our whole family were successful, he simply meant he wished our whole family were accomplished. But later, I began to wonder if it was something more generous, and also more alarming. I began to think he could see that I wasn’t feeling good, and he didn’t like it. But instead of saying he wished our whole family were happy, he said “successful.” Maybe he chose “successful” because achievement was what he identified with most as making me happy. Maybe the kind of extreme striving for success we worship in Silicon Valley today was already the main thing he’d attached to what would make him happy, and define him as good enough.

That is what scared me.

I asked my children to work hard and be nice, an ethos in which I will always believe. But what did that sign represent, and how might it send the wrong message or be connected to the Silicon Valley ethos of never-enough today?

*

The American mythology is: work hard and follow the rules and you can achieve “the good life” dream. But while we often equate this ethic with the optimistic sounding platitude “Work Hard and Be Nice,” and a moderate life, it’s worth examining where this ethic actually came from, and the fact that it often isn’t associated with doing particularly good work, or with being kind.

Manifest destiny legitimized the idea that God had ordained the white protestant male as worthy and good with a boundless right to pillage and conquer. This limitlessness inspired a long tradition of dichotomous either-or thinking. If you happen to be able to amass increasing land, power or wealth, you’re good. If you’re not, then you’re told you’re bad. But truly being kind—to ourselves, to our children, to others—requires being open to the fluidity between good and bad; it requires real compassion, and more than a single definition of what success, and “enough” means. The high moral code of Manifest Destiny was and is, instead, less generous, more circular: keep the momentum of white protestant imperialism going.

“Our national faith so far has been: There’s always more,” the American cultural critic Wendell Berry writes. “Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism.”

*

There are many different kinds of religion. There is the kind of religion you are forced to observe as a child and that makes you feel shame. There is the kind of religion that lights you up for God as an adult and makes you want to believe. There is the kind of religion—I am good or I am bad, I am this or I am that—like routine prayer inside your head. There is the kind of religion—Let Go and Let God—you adopt to try to ease I need this or I need that. There is the kind of religion that spreads across the cubicles, break rooms, and happy hours where you work, and there is the kind of religion you practice with your body on a mat, on a mountain, or in a pool. There is the kind of religion you openly reject as extreme or on the fringe, and then there is another kind of religion. It is the kind you don’t think of as religion at all, because it is all around you but not named.