“Jesus didn’t walk on water,” I say. “You know that, right? It was ice. Read an article said it was a cold snap and there were chunks of ice right there in the Middle East.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she says. She massages my knee, gives me a peck on the check. “It’s okay, he’ll forgive you for saying that.”
“How about a job instead?”
10,000 envelopes sit in white boxes stacked on the floor. We’re pulling them out one-by-one, sliding the blue and orange Mountain Brook Resort mailer into each one, applying the address sticker. I’m on flyer detail. She gets the stickers—easier job. We save the sealing for the end.
“We’re working right now,” she says. “We should be grateful.”
“Grateful for what exactly? We’re envelope stuffers.”
“It’s something. It’s good for now. It’s money in the bank as long as we don’t make a bonfire.”
“Correction,” I say. “It’s cents in the bank.”
Knee massage again with a hint of sarcastic tickle. This means she wants me to shut the fuck up. But nicely.
It’s not a bad motel exactly. It’s just a bit crumbly—like a coffee cake version of a real motel. The bathroom seems relatively clean for a dive. We heard it was better than it seemed from the outside. For our seventh motel in the past two months I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack.
At five I’m done with the stuffing. We count 6,550 completed, which equals $65.50 for the day. Minus $43.24 and dinner (Wendy’s), we may save ten or eleven dollars.
“Every bit counts,” she says. We’re eating hamburgers.
“No it doesn’t,” I say. “We may as well be indentured servants.”
Losing 1760 Willowcrest wasn’t the worst thing in the world. At least at that juncture the mortgage monkey was off our back for good. Regret is the real demon. I’m sitting on the “comforter” on our queen-sized, looking at the purple and blue and red swirly pattern on it, trying to decide (1) who came up with this hideous monstrosity and (2) why did the White Crescent Motel choose this particular hideous pattern rather than any of the other possible (less?) hideous patterns at their disposal and (3) was there a committee?
A committee is exactly what I needed back in 2008—some team to save me (and us) from myself. Instead, we bought at the peak and suffered like chumps. We’re not unique.
It didn’t help that I was a “consultant.” People used to toss that word around gleefully (almost Frisbee-like), with a sense of braggadocio. “Consultant” equaled someone giving two shits about what you think and paying for it. Now we realize it means jack shit. Consultant might as well equal “freelancer.” I got nothing. Nada.
We’re in a routine of getting our “continental breakfast” gratis in the little “breakfast nook” of the White Crescent. This means de-thawed mini-bagels and spotted bananas with a side coffee so thin you can see the bottom of the Styrofoam fucking cup that may or may not include non-dairy creamer (I’m afraid to investigate the makeup of that). Occasionally White Crescent splurges for individually wrapped min-muffins—the kind you find at 7-11 next to the donuts. Or sometimes they spring for some orange colored version of orange juice (but it’s not Tang and it’s definitely not orange juice—just orange dye and sugar). We snag a couple extra bagels and cream cheese samples for lunch.
I like to get down there by eight to avoid the ruckus; she’s not in a hurry and likes the social scene—as it were—at any rate. Seven days in and she’s everybody’s best friend. I don’t care. Give me my preservatives, food coloring and paltry caffeine injection and let me hole back in my room and stuff envelopes until my fingers bleed and my wife scolds me gently for using the Lord’s name in vain (while in the next breath mentioning that he will forgive my sin, He being the God of all compassion and understanding—good to have him on my side).
We need to purchase some plastic gloves before we run out of Band-aids. My fingers are in tatters.
I’m hacking and coughing so much whatever dust mites or whatnot that are causing this are receiving the workout of their lives—climbing into (and then rapidly finding themselves expelled from) my respiratory system. This gives me serious pause. She’s on both knees in front of the calypso comforter praying for a respite (for me) from the allergens. When we run the window fan it helps.
I have yet to find my bloody lungs splayed on the comforter. Things could be worse. As a sidebar, I’m sure these are not the only disgusting body fluids which have been sprayed all over this comforter. I’ve read the articles. We might as well take a wad of used toilet paper, smear it all over the toilet and sleep on that. And yet, we still used the comforter anyway, like morons. We’ll probably get Ebola from this blanket.
“I wonder if….” She starts.
“It’s too late for this,” I say. At eight thirty my middle-aged brain is fried and I’m ready to disappear into myself. It’s eight seventeen.
“There’s nothing wrong with Pennsylvania,” she says. “We can stuff there, too.”
“I like it here,” I say.
“You don’t sound good.”
“It’ll ease up. It could be stress. Stress makes it worse.”
We have the weather channel going in the background. The screen is showing images of drought staining the Midwest—a big blotch of dryness.
“We could start anew,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with a clean start.”
I don’t respond. I lean back into a stack of three pillows and close my eyes. I regret every stupid meaningless lunch and flat screen purchase and asinine music download and trip to the Outer Banks. I recall one particular dinner at this expensive Italian place in the city. We just kept ordering appetizer after unnecessary appetizer, bottles of wine, lavish desserts—all of it. Why? The bill came to something like $680 for four people. It was something else.
The coughing has subsided with an assist from the maids (we tipped them $20 with the promise that they vacuum everything three times over, please, pretty please).
She has taken to visiting Earl and Kitty in 237 and or Bud and Jocelyn or Aunt Dot—this is what Aunt Dot calls herself, at least. Or having them over to our room.
We didn’t know White Crescent Motel had the reputation for collecting castaways. In school I was Phi Beta Kappa. That meant something to me then. The underground is news to me.
Earl and Kitty come over and they drink a twelve pack of whatever cheap brew is on sale at the Kwik-E-Mark down the block. Then they run their mouths. Kitty says she lives for drinking. This strikes me as possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
They were both in real estate.
I tell her it’s exhausting having Earl and Kitty over, but she thinks the two of them are just lost souls in need of guidance.
When she pays for them at night she asks the Lord if they could please cease and desist with the alcohol consumption. I ask her if she thinks her prayers are going to make a whit of difference.
“It can’t hurt, can it?”
We come from opposite perspectives on this.
But and Jocelyn are depressives, which gives me hope because at least they have wised-up. They have little to offer conversationally, however. When we run out of things to talk about (which is often fifteen minutes in) they sing for us. Gospely/bluesy songs. Sometimes Jocelyn plays the banjo in accompaniment. She was a lawyers a few years back. He was an accountant. Now they do spot temp work, when they can get it.
And they live in this shit hole, too.
Aunt Dot likes to dispense advice.
“You two should quit it,” she says, referring to the envelope packing. “Go to Littleton, Arkansas. That’s where the new Dowdell plant is going to be. Get your roots in the ground there and pretty soon you’ll have your life all over again.”
Aunt Dot doesn’t care for the others. She wears flowing ex-hippie wear and fifteen bangles on each wrist. Her hair looks like kelp.
“She’s an old soul,” she says of Aunt Dot.
“She’s an old something,” I say.
I have so many paper cuts on my fingers they are entirely wrapped in tape and Band-aids. I look like a boxer. All for one cent per envelope for Mountain Brook Resort. As we stuff the envelopes I wonder how many recipients of their flyer (A) Read it and (B) Think their free-weekend sounds like a good fucking idea or (C) Care about a trip to middle-of-the-swamp Florida. I’d say .001 percent, if MBR is lucky. And this .001 percent most likely consists of the senile or schizophrenic who don’t know any better. The whole thing stinks—it’s either a total scam or a cult or a drug thing, or maybe all of the above.
Goddamn, I think. What am I doing? I just want to sleep.
“Don’t you worry now,” she says. I’m half-asleep, face pressed into a pillow. “I believe in us. Everything is going to be fine.”
Somehow, despite the saccharine tang of all of it, she still does make me feel better.
“Holy smokes, if you weren’t propping me up who would?”
She’s patting my back.
I married Sister Theresa.
I look around at the tacky motel art.
I once had a great job and house. Now, nothing.
When I walk I walk slowly, as if it were 500 degrees outside. I’m filled with dread.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I guess you’d be left to the wolves in your mind.”
“How can you possibly retain such optimism? How do you do it?”
She smiles and shrugs and cuts the lights. She knows I know it was a stupid question, though she’d never call it that. She hums to me as I drift off, patting my back.
“It will all work out,” she hums.
I’d love to vanish—disappear to some obscure country where the creditors can’t touch me. I used to believe I had to live in America otherwise I wouldn’t be “in touch” with what’s going on. Now, everything is online anyway. And America isn’t America any longer.
I just want a better me.
She doesn’t believe in divorce, as if divorce were some kind of mythological creature—the Loch Ness monster or Abominable Snowman.
I don’t hold anything against her. I’m simply ashamed of our situation. It would be easier if I didn’t feel responsible.
We stuff envelopes for hours in near silence. I wouldn’t call it inspiring. I’m tired after an hour, but I keep going. Every finger is bandaged and I still keep going.
When I’m not stuffing I notice I move even slower, as if burdened by heat stroke.
I have a recurring nightmare that I will die with a stack of envelopes in between my legs, a flyer in each hand. What a joke.
They’re all there—Bud and Jocelyn, Aunt Dot, Earl and Kitty. Also some newbies—Salvadorians and Hondurans who are unsure if they are going to attempt to return back to their home country or seek another paltry gig in some other town. It’s bad here.
I’m tired of eating potato rolls and spotted bananas.
When she’s asleep tomorrow I’m going to make my move.
We’re sitting there eating our toasted bagels with jam and drinking Styrofoam cup after Styrofoam cup of weak coffee. It’s better than nothing.
There’s a guy who says he knows of a warehouse which is hiring down route 56 all the way out near the chicken farms. He says the pay is pretty decent, all things considered and that it’s guaranteed for three weeks, minimum. They have rush orders to fill. They have cats in the basement—and a cafeteria.
From my position this sounds incredible.
I smile at her as she chats up her friends and I hold her hand under the table. I squeeze it. She must know in her heart of hearts how I feel—how dismal it is right now for me. How I had to pawn off my comic book collection just to scrounge enough money to be where I am now.
I’m looking out the window. It is hot and dusty and dry still. We live in a rain shadow. I can’t remember the last time it rained. If I could live in the shower stall I would.
She’s on her knees, her hands clasped on the bed. She’s mouthing words of prayer. I know she’s desperately thinking of me.
She opens her eyes and stands, says we should get going to breakfast.
“Go on without me today,” I say.
She gives me a quizzical look—it says both that I need the energy and that I should be more social. Even if she doesn’t say it, I know she wants me to reach out more to the others. “Reading out” is about the last thing I’d like to do.
“Bring me back some stuff, okay?”
The door clicks behind her.
I wonder if my mother was alive how things would be different. I bet I wouldn’t be so clingy. I bet I would’ve left a long time before.
That night she’s reading next to me. I can barely close my eyes. All I can think about is what’s next. I pretend to read an old National Geographic someone left in the room, but all I can do is look at the pictures.
When she eventually snaps the reading lamp off I listen to her breathing slow. When I know she’s asleep I place my arm over her torso, I can feel her warmth. I stay in that position for a long time. And then I lift my body.
Nathan Leslie’s eight books of fiction include Madre, Believers, and Drivers. His book of stories, Sibs, was published by Aqueous Books in 2014 and his novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years. He is currently fiction editor for a fiction anthology, Shale. He also has a collection of flash fiction coming out soon with Texture Press. His website is www.nathanleslie.com
The Chesapeake Writers’ Conference at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is in its fourth year, and we are excited to have three great faculty members returning—Liz Arnold (poetry), Matt Burgess (fiction), and Patricia Henley (fiction). This summer we will welcome conference newcomer Angela Pelster-Wiebe to teach the creative nonfiction workshop.
Join us on Maryland’s Western Shore—five minutes from the Chesapeake, ten from the Potomac–for a week of craft talks, lectures, panel discussions, and readings, as well as daily workshops in fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. It is possible to receive college course credit for the work you do at the conference.
Enrollment is limited; applications are accepted on a rolling basis.
For more information, visit http://www.smcm.edu/events/chesapeake-writers-conference/
The One-Hour MFA (in fiction)
By Michael Kimball
Publishing Genius Press, 2015
The One-Hour MFA (in fiction) is a bold statement to make on the cover of a book of writing. All of us MFA graduates are sensitive about the time and effort we put in to obtain our degrees.The insinuation that we could have just read a book is one that makes my eye twitch. Wait. It’s not an insinuation. It’s a statement. A deliberate value judgment.
Of course, Michael Kimball has written seven other books and he has no MFA. With a track record like his, and with the quality of prose he produces, it’s wise to listen. And One-Hour MFA is as fun and well-written as it is educational. He’s on to something.
An eBook to be released on July 7th in 15 free chapters – like a semester – at Real Pants, and sold as a pocket-sized book by Publishing Genius Press, One Hour MFA doles out useful, applicable nuts-and-bolts style advice to writing fiction. Inside the book is, of course, “Learn by writing” but it’s sandwiched between valuable dissertations on syntax and assonance, lengthy explanations on outlining, distinctions between character and plot and (a favorite) the importance of revision, “It must mean something that the end of the revision process, for so many, comes down to commas (and disgust).”
You could read this book in an hour, but mastery and application takes much longer. It might be wise to read each chapter twice and then apply concepts in the space of an hour and repeat the process fifteen times. This is not the book for casual writing enthusiasts who want to learn to write a novel in an hour, or even a week. Each chapter, though short, is filled with meaty concepts and explanations that are deceptively challenging. But the tools are there. Learning to write fiction is hard, time-consuming, and requires education to fully grasp some of the more advanced concepts. Kimball does a wonderful job of giving this education and explaining difficult ideas in layman’s terms. For example, what does he mean when he’s discussing “acoustics” in the arena of writing? He’s not talking about amphitheaters.
According to Andy Devine, “Words have acoustical qualities that resonate with being human.” Well, thanks for not very much, Andy. But what does Kimball say?
Working with acoustics is recognizing the recurring sounds and using them to rewrite the sentence. Maybe the first word in the sentence has a long-o sound in it and the sentence will feel finished if it ends with another word with another long-o sound in it, say, smoke. Maybe the fact that that sentence ends with a hard-k leads to the next sentence beginning with another hard-k sound, so the consonants run together and there isn’t any space between the sentences, not even really a pause, and then all of a sudden the narrative speeds up in a way that feels thrilling and then maybe there’s a fire and the house burns down.
Did you see what Kimball did there? How he used the sentence he was writing to explain the concept he was writing about? It’s slick and illustrative.
Stephen King’s On Writing has a wonderful section that talks about his writing schedule, of grueling hours a day spent writing and re-writing. To Kimball, writing is, “…trying in a basic way to get from one sentence to the next sentence.” It’s the day-to-day process of continuing after it’s stopped being fun and started being work. For those looking for an easy way out of learning to write, this book isn’t the book for them. There are tricks of the trade to be let in on, but no cheat codes because “Getting the material down is the hardest part…”
Actually sitting down and writing is one of the most commonly cited reasons for getting an MFA. And those reading books on writing are likely looking for a magic bullet. But, as Kimball tells us, there is no secret. There’s different ways of tackling the same problem and what works for one person, may not work for the next. Kimball can give the answers that work for him; he doesn’t use outlines, for example, but he admits they’re viable for other people. He says, “The key is to make those choices for yourself, whatever they may be, and to use those choices to create original fiction.”
There are always choices to be made. What does it mean to have an MFA in writing? You might learn sentence level mastery, or how to meet deadlines and motivate yourself to work or you might learn the foundations of writing by reading the masters. You may become experts in syntax and grammar and understand how to use words like a poetic wordsmith. Are those all contained within One-Hour MFA? Check, check, check, check and check. You don’t need an MFA when you can read Kimball’s book. The most important factor in becoming a writer is finding the discipline and motivation to write every day. Many with MFAs don’t have that and many without do. There’s an entire section in One-Hour MFA about discipline and practice. If there’s one section to harken to, that would be it. And it’s a lovely chapter, full of sage advice.
Is there anything that isn’t captured by reading One-Hour MFA? MFA programs deliver instruction, workshops (for what that’s worth) and the connections that are formed by interacting with other writers constantly. And while that information isn’t captured in the book, it is out there in the world, free if you look for them. Is that difference worth tens of thousands of dollars? Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s worth nothing that One-Hour’s publisher, Publishing Genius is run by an MFA grad. So is the writer of this review. What does that mean? Maybe we both think that other options are worth pursuing. Michael Kimball sure does. An MFA is a wonderful luxury, but is it necessary?
All an MFA means is that you have mastered skills necessary to get into and pass an MFA program. It doesn’t mean that MFA grads are writers. In the same vein, reading The One-Hour MFA (in fiction) won’t make you a writer, but it will mean that you’ve been given a fantastically comprehensive and easy-to-understand guidebook. A primer. It’s up to you to internalize, practice and master the skills therein. One Hour gives you the tools to write well, but it’s up to you to pick it up.
Exquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.
Middle Age at Midnight
by Timothy Green
was a carnival
in the beaks
of the crows
on the log
of his nose
on the face
not his face
but his father’s
Along the Third Rail
by Katherine DiBella Seluja
His mouth, a carnival. Of squalor, he knows plenty.
This life of Snicker-bits and fries from the bottom of the bag.
His head, a tilt-a-whirl of pigeon feathers and rat.
Long hours in the tunnel,
lines in his palms, only a gypsy’s daughter could read.
An ability to strum and a crooked smile,
his missing teeth never bother the tourists.
Small change always appreciated, daily commuters know him by name.
Frieda tosses a Krispy Kreme and Jared
gives up the end of his moo goo gai pan.
His favorite slogan CAN’T GET OFF THE FERRIS WHEEL in pencil
on cardboard is lucrative.
On a good day, a bottle of Colt 45 and a hot dog.
On dark days, a bed of crumpled paper towels
the men’s room floor the 5-o’clock express
rattling across his molars.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Timothy Green has worked as editor of Rattle since 2004. His book of poems, American Fractal is available from Red Hen Press. He lives in the mountains near Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
Katherine DiBella Seluja is a poet and a nurse practitioner. Her experiences of illness and healing inform much of her writing. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Katherine’s work has appeared in Adobe Walls, American Journal of Nursing, Barefoot Review, bosque, Right Hand Pointing, and Santa Fe Literary Review, among others. Katherine has Nursing Science degrees from Columbia and Yale University. She can be found at katherineseluja.com.
Publishing Genius (PGP), the small press run by Adam Robinson, has always excited us, from the broadside project that launched the press in Baltimore in 2006 to Everyday Genius (a daily online magazine that closed its doors in 2014), to Chapbook Genius (e-books that could be printed out and assembled into books), to the actual press (which gave us Shane Jones’ Light Boxes).
And now we are just as excited about Robinson’s new ebook arm, Ebook Flights, available through all major digital media distributors. Described by Robinson as “like a wine tasting or flight of beer, EBook Flights come in batches.” The flights range from 10,000 to 20,000 words, and each batch will feature three books by three writers. Authors in the first batch include Gabe Durham, Lily Hoang, and Bob Schofield.
The conceit of the series might be found in the explanation offered by Robinson of how the ebooks may be read: “If you’re flying from, say, JFK to Dulles, you might just purchase one flight in the series. But if you’re going all the way to LA, you can dig into all three.”
Ebook Flights are set to depart on July 1, and if they’re chosen and collated with the same care Robinson brings to all his projects, we plan on being roundtrip customers.
We’re so very thrilled to announce that poet M.L. Brown has been chosen as the winner of The Claudia Emerson Poetry Chapbook Award, for her chapbook titled Drought.
Contest judge Sandra Beasley, author of Count the Waves and I Was the Jukebox, offers this citation for her selection of Drought:
“Containers crack, / no longer hold—” opens “Lamentation,” one of the key moments in M.L. Brown’s stunning Drought. What kind of containers? “[P]ickle jars, row boat, / mother’s arms.” These poems dance between absence and presence, erasure and invocation. I cannot call them elegies, because they’re brimming with the bright particulars of a life in motion. But just as a bee’s death can be embedded in its sting, ache often hides within ecstasy.
This publication celebrates the legacy of Claudia Emerson (1957–2014), a beloved Virginia poet and mentor to many. Emerson believed in poetry’s ability to parse even the silence. She would have appreciated Brown’s attention to syntax and origins of language, her soundscapes, the resonant endings. Although nothing can amend the loss of Emerson’s distinct voice, the jmww chapbook series is dedicated to sharing her vibrant legacy.
Many congratulations go out to M.L. as well as to two finalists—Chen Chen and Noah Stetzer—who were honored by Sandra as runners up, for manuscripts respectively titled Set the Garden on Fire and Because I Can See Needing a Knife.
We also would like to express our appreciation for the many outstanding manuscripts we received from all contest entrants. In addition to the winner and finalists, semi-finalists we would like to recognize are:
Nick Admussen, Nancy E. Allen, Michelle Bitting, Mark Jay Brewin, Jr., Aaron Brown, Colleen Coyne, Iris Jamahl Dunkle, Cornelius Eady, Doug Fuller, Piotr Gwiazda, Lesley Jenike, Vandana Khanna, Kathleen Kirk, Laura Kolbe, Jeffrey Ethan Lee, Jon Loomis, Carley Moore, G.H. Mosson, Jessica Pierce, Terry Savoie, Suzanne Simmons, Jenna Kilic Somers, Keli Stewart, Monica Wendel, Amie Whittemore, and Harold Whit Williams.
Thanks again to all, and many thanks to Sandra for her dedication in judging the contest, and to Kent Ippolito for his graciousness in allowing this work in Claudia’s name. We’re excited to be publishing Drought as a follow-up to our first poetry chapbook, Jessica Poli’s Glassland, and as the first part of a series that has so much meaning for us.
-Ashlie and Jen
All the People
by Stephanie Barber
InkPress Productions, 2015
When I began reading Stephanie Barber’s All The People, I was eating a rice bowl in a Korean joint on Charles Street and outside a guy was busy jotting down notes on the cover of a paperback bible. He would glance up at the roof of the restaurant, then back down to the bible and write something. He did it over and over. Also, a man with an eye patch and Velcro sandals pacing the sidewalk and watching what was going on across the street: twin babies getting bounced on the hips of two middle-aged women. The women were talking to the cops about something, probably the guy with the eye patch, and gauging by how the man and two women kept catching each other’s stare, it all seemed like a real serious situation. So at the end of each story I was reading, I’d come back to these scenes out the window. Everything kept unfolding in the most opaque of ways, and I just kept thinking there could be no better backdrop than all these opaque ways spilling all out and around. These could be Barber’s People out the window.
In her author’s note, Barber describes her collection of 43 short, short stories this way: “I have been imagining these as many small novels. Hoping the spare portraits would blossom into full grown stories in the readers imagination…”
I see it—what she means: spare portraits. Each page a separate fleeting voice, sometimes in first person and sometimes in third. Each story a snatched moment of the Peoples’ time. Barber gives equal attention to the voices of the young and the old and the rich and the poor and those girls who like lip-gloss and those who don’t—voices laden with self-consciousness and aggression and sensuality and regret and the dragging of heavy or light daydreams or night dreams and so, so often loneliness.
Like the portrait in the frame, each story sits contained as a single paragraph tidy on its page’s white space. But, beyond this smart visual these small stories are anything but tidy. These voices might be visually tucked in tight, but their internal chaos and friction is leaking and busting out at you. The paragraph of each story serves as a small stage and on these small stages the People share with us what pain throbs most heavy in the heart, what quickens the pulse, what keeps hurt hurting and hunger for love hungering on. Or, sometimes, it’s just the passing of a day on the stage. Just another swish of blood through the pumping heart. Just some lugging around of minutia as the People tell you about working the concession stand or the trouble with keeping one’s focus in ballet class or that awful feeling of desperately wanting the smell of submarine sandwich out of the air mattress. In all these ways Barber gets the People to do that blossoming she hopes they will do.
Let me go back for a minute to the physical book itself, because All The People, as an object, deserves its own praise. If you know Ink Press then you know that the physical book—the paper and typesetting and typography that bring the manuscript to life—is something this publisher doesn’t take lightly. Since 2012 Ink Press has been turning out beautiful handmade multiples, 14 total releases to date, often relying on repurposed materials (in the case of All The People, it’s covers made of collected cereal boxes) and always staying true to the concept they conceive. One of my favorite things about Ink Press is their penchant for understated elegance and subtle pops. With this book this takes the form of a neutral colored cover, a simple graphic of an empty chair, and then a peek of the cereal box inside, making each book one of a kind.
Reading All The People I kept thinking of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life, even though, admittedly, I haven’t read that one in a while. I remember that book as its own menagerie of portraits; a whole complimented by its parts. Like Anderson, Barber’s internal dwellings, the squawks of the heart and the gut and the head, trump plot. But while Anderson’s voice comes from a single town in Ohio, Barber’s come from a more elusive place. Some representation of the dark nooks, the pain of living and growing and being, of any of us, all of us.
If each story could be some small novel, as Barber suggests, then each sentence could open its own chapter. Like this sentence: “I thought if only I could have blue eyes I would get to finally, finally relax my body after about a million years of fighting gravity.” Some sentences are 4 words and some 143. These are sentences weirdly knitted; reflections on ragged, internal dialogues. Sentences swirl in their own direction, each confidently taking its own path. And like this sentence, too: “Regressing is like time travel in what you used to know or do.”
Despite how distinct each portrait is—each sentence—there is something consistent to the language of Barber’s People. Something steady and loose, and sing-songy. Like, the reoccurring word cuz. Barber’s world is one where kids and middle class women alike will take to their stage and glue together their messages with cuz. Barber takes on the delicate act of pushing something universal along in these stories, but not at the expense of individual voices. Tricky. Made me think, unlike when we are self-consciously saying it out loud to each other, maybe when we are all in our heads, our voices are not so far from each other, not so different after all.
And I want to make sure to note there is comedy in these pages because life is funny and Barber is funny. Comedy can be sad and sad can be comedy. It makes life better, actually. Barber has unlocked the code to all that. Sometimes we laugh at things we probably shouldn’t be laughing about. It’s horrible, but haven’t we all? There is comedy when a stripper working the day shift, gets drunk and says things like, “I just grab that weenie.” Barber reminds us, sometimes you just have to laugh.
I think maybe Barber’s heart breaks over everything and all of us. I think maybe her heart laughs over everything and all of us, too. This book feels like a well-tended to gift of that, both its physical form and what spills out from the cereal boxes. A loving gesture for all of us.
by Tracy Borman
2014, Atlantic Monthly Press
Writing a compelling biography is a high art form. This is why I treasure the works of able authors such as David McCullough (John Adams), Richard Ellmann (Oscar Wilde), and Jean Edward Smith (John Marshall: Definer of a Nation). Their tasks can become even more daunting when their subject lived hundreds of years ago and research material is scant at best.
That’s why a new first-rate historical biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s most Faithful Servant, by British author, Tracy Borman, is such a treasure. Her tale is set in mid-15th century in England, in the age of the Tudors, and before the British launched their massive global and imperial empire. It’s full of riveting narratives of heroes and villains, reminding me of Will Durant’s classic Story of Civilization.
In one sentence, Borman’s book is about the political intrigues of the Court of Henry VIII. Its star player, the Henry Kissinger of his era, is Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith. Like Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, the brainy Cromwell knew how to exercise the levers of state power in a cutthroat setting on behalf of his often demented King. Life, limb and property were at risk if you ended up in the gunsight of Master Cromwell.
Cromwell was born in the village of Putney, near London, in 1485. His father had a rough edge to his character. In addition to being a blacksmith, he was also into brewing ale. He got caught for “watering down the beer,” on forty-eight different occasions! Cromwell, later in his amazing career, admitted that he, too, was a “ruffian in his younger days.”
Putney was way too small for the ambitious, self-educated Cromwell. When he was about 18 years of age, he made his way to Italy and joined an expedition to serve a short stint in the French army. After that mostly dreary experience, he ended up working in Italy for a Florentine’s merchant banker, Francesco Frescobaldi. He then moved on to the Netherlands, where he became a successful “cloth merchant.” The next important venue for the daring Cromwell was England’s capital city – London.
Cromwell’s rise from the underclass is close to unprecedented. Europe had been “an extraordinary training ground for him.” In his mid-30s, he became a lawyer in London and a later, a member of the Parliament. His legal and mercantile skills, political savvy, and international connections, brought him over time to the attention of a quintessential Court insider – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
Like Cromwell, Wolsey, was a commoner. He had battled his way to the top of the clerical ladder to become the King’s “closest confidante,” in a court dominated by landed gentry, blue bloods, and wannabe aristocrats. When he couldn’t, however, obtain a divorce for the monarch from his then wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, he fell out of favor. Cromwell not only replaced his mentor in 1532, but he got the King’s marriage annulled, so that he could marry his conniving mistress – Anne Boleyn.
For nearly a decade afterwards, the wily Cromwell was literally “second only to the King” in power in the realm. He became very rich and had all kinds of titles bestowed on him. Cromwell married and had three children as he began his climb to fame and fortune. Sadly, his wife, Elizabeth, and two of his children had died in 1528, in an “epidemic of sweating sickness…which decimated London.”
Cromwell knew the impetuous King, becoming more obese everyday, lusted after not only women, but fortune. He promised “to make him wealthy,” and indeed he did. The duo conspired successfully to target the immense riches of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK. It was estimated that its “600 or so monasteries,” then held “two-third of the nation in land and estates.” It was a huge robbery pulled off under the cover of naming the King the supreme head of the English Church and supposedly “reforming” the institution.
There is much more lethal chicanery in this book. As Cromwell, daily growing more ruthless, moved to do away with Sir Thomas More, (a future saint) and Anne Boleyn. Hundreds of Catholics, who opposed the emerging Protestant church, were also executed at his instigation.
Borman has done a masterful job bringing a villainous henchman, Thomas Cromwell, and the blood-stained court of Henry VIII, center stage.
Bill Hughes is a photojournalist and author. His book, Saying ‘No’ to the War Party, can be found at http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000079633/Saying-No-to-the-War-Party.aspx
She’s staring into the pool, like the light might change and she’ll see her son on the bottom, tiny bubbles escaping his mouth, his face distorted by the water to look the way he did when he was a baby again. He’s run away, angry at them both for divorcing.
“I ran away too, the day my parents divorced,” she tells the blue tiles on the bottom of the pool. “Got pregnant that day.”
“Bubbles,” says the water.
“Bubbles,” she agrees.
And the husband of a few years she’s freshly sown by the way? People in his circle say mean things about him these days, and dislike spending too much time with him, but if he knows or cares he doesn’t show it. Since the separation he’s been imposing on them all. He farts in their guest bedroom en suite bathtubs, and burps when he sits in the passenger seats of their white BMW 5.5s. “I used to have one like this,” he says, talking cars. “Gave me problems with my asshole, I don’t know why.” People laugh at his jokes, but not as loudly as he does, and they hope he’ll talk to somebody else but he never does. His jokes are not jokes, they’re just normal sentences with extra fucks and arseholes, a bit like the nightclubs he sometimes frequents.
He wasn’t always like this, though. Once, he was romantic and lovely.
“I went to a bookstore,” Bubbles told him back in the wooing days. Her accent (Brazilian) was strong, so sexy too, and he loved it. Loved her. “One of the places on Charing Cross Road? I asked for a book by Chickens. I said, ‘I want a book by Chickens. I don’t care which one. Chickens.’ And the man in the store, he said ‘Chickens? We don’t have any books by chickens.’ I said, ‘but darling, you must. Chickens, the famous London writer. I want a Chickens book, please.’”
Farts-and-arseholes smiled, before she reached the end of the story, and told her he had great expectations.
And before frequenting, before romantic and charming, when Farts-and-arseholes was a boy, not much younger than her son? He came home once to find men’s handprints on the walls, and he put his own hands up against the prints and watched them swallowed whole. He scratched at the paint until it was mostly gone, leaving him with the colors of the rainbow under his fingernails. They’re still there, somewhere.
He’d always been a good stepfather, for everything else he’d been bad at. Her son loved him like a real dad, hell, he was his real dad. She’d never forgive him for that.
The wooing phase. He called her smart, sexy, and a jukebox, always making music in his heart. Told her she was bonny, too. “Bonny?” she repeated. It was a new word for her, and she loved the way it leapt from her tongue. “Bonny bonny bonny,” she said. She reminded him of that once, and he laughed. “Playboy bonny,” he said, spoiling it.
A day near the end. The contents of a casserole dish in the bin, and pizza in a box on the table. She said she couldn’t cook with him watching over her. Chicken and a white sauce in the bin, flecked with spots of green and red, mingling with satsuma peel. She’d already taken her half of the pizza away, and what remained was presumably his.
He ate some, and squished the rest into the wall, dragged it across and let it fall to the floor for her to find in the morning. A low point. In the night he’d worried about the boy finding it. He should’ve gone then and cleaned up the mess, but he didn’t.
Another low point. Outside a club, in an alleyway, on a “business trip.” A man punched him again. Kicked him too. Stamped on his face. The hooker joined in, kicking him in the ribs. They must’ve planned this all along, waiting for him to follow her down here, where it was discreet. How nice that they could work together on something.
How would he explain this to Bubbles? In the end, he didn’t have to. She saw his black eyes and looked away, never asked him what had happened. Already she knew she didn’t want to know, and not long after that she suggested he move out.
Now, Bubbles lays on the bottom of the pool, her dress pregnant with chlorinated water, her top losing color and showing her bare breasts, the nipples large and sad. She’s still such a beautiful Brazilian woman. She comes up to breathe. “I need a time machine,” she says. Like everything else that happens these days, it scares him and thrills him the same. This afternoon she divorced him, not long after that her son ran away, and then she called him and asked him over to talk. “I need a time machine.” She doesn’t say what for. It scares him, but thrills him too.
“Me too,” he says. “We have so much in common.”
She saw him once, standing on the balcony overlooking this pool, people swimming in it many floors below. He was spitting over the edge. Rhythmically spitting, every thirty seconds, until at last he realized she was standing behind him watching.
She didn’t ask, but he told her anyway. “No reason.”
On a day approaching the divorce, her son said, “Most butterflies die after laying eggs.” She tells this now to Farts-and-assholes. She’s in the water. He gets in the water too, and stands a respectful distance away, whatever the appropriate distance is to stand away from the woman who divorced you that afternoon.
Their son comes back, reddened eyes, shaking. He goes to the opposite end of the pool, far away from them both, and dives in.
The ripples in the pool touch them all.
Christopher James lives, works, and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has been previously published in print and online by Tin House, Camera Obscura, Smokelong, and many others.
Because one death belongs to us all
“…but often the shadow seems more real than the body.”
—Tomas Tranströmer, “After a Death”
in this small Appalachian town,
we prefer metaphor: suicide becomes love;
a bullet ricochets; and even after the death of reason
something lives where the impression of a body
that could have been sleeping, the grass, pressed down,
springs into commitment:
Whatever else happens in the story,
buckled roots of oak, horn-white, and
bees drowning in sour mash,
entire bridges of stone—hand-carved
and large as church foundations—
collapse where Scott’s creek inseminates The Hocking.
And as if riding a rail car west to the yard,
closed and quaint with local history,
someone will get it right,
why someone else chose to leave us.
And drunk, how we gesture understanding:
You can’t see what disappears, but after a death,
you feel the birds sift through you.
Reading by Streetlamp on Governor Ave.
Because it’s hard to love, the streetlamp hums.
Because it’s hard to see, all those beautiful bugs
beating with their bodies the light back in,
a bat’s attracted.
He feels. He feeds.
And light would be light, could he see.
How smart, though,
to feel the lamppost without touching it?
Is it that it’s warm beforehand?
But then, having been felt,
scanned up and down, not touched—
how this touches me now—
on my sectional couch in broad book-light.
How does it feel to be tumbling back
to the cirri incurious bat
into whose shape?
So he skeets up, edging to the left
to meet the ingenuous flutter,
his blind date. How does it feel
to be love flirting back?
from the Latin meaning “little calendar”
—for Dennis, after his suicide
“Little clock,” little “weather glass,”
pot marigold, “referring to the Virgin
Mary,” unnatural bloom of December,
goes to seed one stalk at a time, as if marking time
were the main business of a flower,
clinching its little fists,
refusing at first to let go,
each soul carcass dark,
microscopically ridged, curled
like the finger nail of the dead
child that it might deliver
the passage of time, this time,
less vainly, more rivetingly, or
reinventing itself, self-seeding
this particularly orange morning
taking care not to brown or burn at dawn
in the fallen frost.
Third time this year it’s made the rounds,
seed to stalk to flower and back to seed,
redundant as self love, but different:
—day 261 of living
since that inevitable turn
for the worse, that might become the present
tense of an orange flower tinged in red:
this one, whose petals skirt a little,
at a stadium on the Ohio River
I don’t love this river, same as I don’t
love this game, the middle
lull, innings four through six,
when the jerky, syncopated rag I was beginning
to settle into
measures of idleness I could steer
a barge through—and it dawns on me
I’m afraid that this boredom
is actually the stillness
pretending to be a dark mirror.
I learn to pay attention. Foul balls
hit their mark, fans who’ve lost focus,
and Bench gestures telepathic
calls, while the batter stands ready
(he thinks) for something significant
and tragic as love across the Moors.
Who can know? It’s like Algebra in French
or shoveling coal in a tug boat.
feigning pity, so She invented
the seventh inning stretch, to prepare me,
I guess, for game’s end, to get my blood
to fill my lungs with a song that begs
to be “taken out” when I’m already there,
makes me shake off the sun and stand
because it’s going to start now,
the excitement; This is it. We
are preparing for the end.
Trees cast their lines, bad calls, frayed ends,
as we coast downriver, rapids
around the bend; the relief
pitcher steps onto the mound,
and though the whole stadium
hangs on his first pitch,
I imagine he’s going to balk,
chancing a pickoff at first.
So what if he throws a strike?
Here in the stands
of Riverfront Stadium,
on the far side
of seven, starting to trust, I
learn fear, unannounced.
It’s Borbon for god’s sake;
could I want? Still,
so much I don’t get: the shame
I’ve known of residual doubt,
even Christ earned it,
his first step out,
such murky water,
a dozen men heckling as they place their bets.
Then, someone close by
starts to chant, the organ chords
building a ramp to the arc
of laughter. I’m learning
it’s okay to join, small
as I am, ignorant,
and completely off pitch.
Jane Ann Fuller has been published most recently in Shenandoah, Waccamaw, and Steinbeck Now. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and teaches in a rural college in southeastern Ohio.