An Interview with Yiyun Li

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Yiyun Li is the author of two story collections, two novels, and, most recently, a book of essays called Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. When I read her novel Kinder than Solitude, I was just beginning to take writing seriously, and the psychic familiarity of her characters spooked me – they were instantly recognizable. At the same time, I realized that I’d never expected to experience this at such close range when reading fiction in English. We spoke over the phone this spring about melodrama, the boundaries between languages, and defying representation. 

 

 

Yvonne Yevan Yu: After reading Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, I was struck by the amount of dialogue between you and others, from two-way conversations with living authors to your marginalia on writers’ old letters and journals. Was there a book that first inspired you to write in response after reading it?

Yiyun Li: I would say William Trevor’s short story collection (The Collected Stories). The first volume came out years ago. I think it was the book that made me think: “Oh, I want to write myself.” I think sometimes we have those dreams of yes, we’re going to write, but we don’t know how. We know there’s a way there but we don’t know where it is, and I think for me that book showed me the direction.

YY: What did that direction look like for you?

YL: There’s a tendency when people look at literary lineage to look at the author’s country of origin. In an old interview, Trevor said he was always asked about James Joyce. Another Irish writer, John McGahern, also said every time he was interviewed he was asked about James Joyce, and he was really funny, and said that other than my being Irish, we really share little in common. And with Trevor’s lineage, he came from Chekhov. I love Chekhov’s stories, and I sort of just made a decision: that is where I want my stories, or I want to be that kind of storyteller.

YY: When you say old-fashioned, are you talking about differences in voice or character?

YL: If you look at, say, Jane Austen, or even the 19th century writer, they do have their voice. If you read Chekhov’s stories, you won’t look at each story and say, oh, this story is about Chekhov. It’s more about Chekhov looking at people he’s interested in. There’s a story about Trevor eavesdropping on these people he’s interested in. I’m sure everybody has egos, but these writers don’t have much ego; it’s almost as if they are transparent in the story. And that’s what I mean by old-fashioned.

YY: How do you eavesdrop on your characters?

YL: I strongly believe my characters lie to me. That they lie to everyone. Every time I teach, I bring in the research down in Boston somewhere, that as grownups we lie every ten minutes. We tell so many lies in the course of a day that we shouldn’t be surprised. We’re so used to lying that we don’t think we’re lying. But I think that characters do the same thing as we do in life; they hide themselves a little. If a character tells me everything about himself or herself, I’m sure that’s not an interesting character, and I would lose all my interest. I think eavesdropping is really sort of a lie-detecting process: you just ask characters questions and make them uncomfortable. Put them in situations that they would not choose, if they had a choice. Sooner or later, I think if you tell a lie, it leads to another lie, sometimes it just cracks, and as a writer you just catch those cracks, and then you can start from there.

I look at my dog – if he’s happy, he’s happy. If he’s not happy, he shows his unhappiness. But we protect ourselves much more than animals. And I think animals only protect themselves from real dangers, like predators, or natural disasters. We protect ourselves from both real and unreal things. Part of what we’re protecting ourselves from is friction in life. We’re imagining friction when we think a person’s going to think a particular way. Between protecting and presenting ourselves, we get a lot of complexity in character.

YY: It seems that our fears, or our characters’ fears, are fiction in a lot of ways.

YL: You’re right. I’m more curious about when these things are fiction than when it’s not fiction. In other words, say we have a character running away from an earthquake in California. That’s real. An earthquake is non-fiction. If a character survives or endures all this pain from an earthquake, the reactions are real; they’re not fiction.

But I’ll give you another scenario. We lived in California, and earthquakes are big things there, they’re on everybody’s mind. When our children were younger and in grade school, at the beginning of every year, you would send a care package with one stuffed animal, some food, a family picture, and a note saying: “I love you.” Which is fiction! There’s no earthquake.

That to me is a much more interesting situation – you’re saying goodbye to your children in a hypothetical way. It’s really just a projection of a future when some catastrophe would happen. What interests me is the second scenario – it’s what could have happened, rather than what already happened. It’s a situation that has more potential in fiction.

YY: In relation to characters lying – you mentioned public and private languages in one of your essays, “To Speak Is to Blunder.” To me, your characters personify the tension between public and private. How do you approach these two languages in a character? How do you work that into their emotions, and how one influences the other?

YL: You’re absolutely right in that I’m always interested in the countless intersections between a character’s private and public language. I believe that for every single moment, a character lives in multiple moments. A character doesn’t just live in this moment – it’s like an accordion, collapsing all these moments into just one moment. We’re unaware about that in life all the time. When you walk down the street to get a cup of coffee, sometimes you’re just thinking, “I’m walking down the street to get a cup of coffee, but what I’m really thinking about is that girl from high school who’s this and that.” And these moments are really fleeting in our real lives, and then our minds go somewhere else.

I do think that if we follow our mind all the time, it’ll just be a mess. A character does that too, and a fiction writer has the luxury and responsibility to really just look at the one moment. Auntie Mei (“A Sheltered Woman”) is sitting there rocking a baby, but it’s not about rocking the baby. It’s about all the babies before, and all the babies coming, and her own mother and grandmother. They’re all collapsed into that one moment.

YY: That boundary between languages has so much to do with time.

YL: I’m infinitely interested in time. Time in fiction, especially. Think about music, for instance, as real time. If you hear a note, you remember that note when it’s gone, but in writing you can recreate that note just as it happened the first time. In writing you  manipulate, or manage, time in a different way than in music, or in painting, or in movies. To me, in writing, you have all the luxury and freedom to do whatever you want with time. In a Grace Paley story, you can let eighteen years pass in one sentence. Then one moment can last five pages. Again, it’s like an accordion. You can collapse all the time into one moment.

It’s close to what Hemingway calls the “tip of the iceberg.” You can’t experience every second of that character. How much real time do you show? Auntie Mei is sitting there taking care of a baby, but she lives elsewhere in her memory. Sometimes she really lives in the moment, but she’s actually living in the future about running away with this baby. You always move the character around a little in time, even though the character is in real time.

YY: In Dear Friend, you say that melodrama is “absolute loyalty to the original moment.” In workshop these days, it’s often considered a critique when a piece of writing is melodramatic. How do you think about that as an element in fiction?

YL: I certainly understand where that critique comes from; on the other hand, I really don’t understand. I go back to what Elizabeth Bowen said about fiction. She said that when you write fiction you’re really putting the lid on the pot, on life, that so much pressure is built up under the lid – and that’s when you have a story. When you put that much pressure on people, melodrama is innate within everyone. But if you take the lid off, the drama flows out like fireworks. That is uninteresting drama to me. And I think sometimes I do also say to my students, I think this is unnecessary drama, and I mean that they took the lid off, letting the thing go, and it’s a big production. When I talk about melodrama, maybe I am talking about whether it’s language or feeling. You have to put pressure on it, it really bears the pressure.

YY: I wanted to ask you about audience and language. When you write, do you think of your audience?

YL: I don’t think about audience. I think about two specific readers. When you think about an anonymous audience, to me that’s just…on the days when you don’t feel secure, you’ll be able to create all these critical voices around you, right, and I don’t think I need that. I’m also not interested in hearing the chorus of what they want, or what they want to hear, or what they don’t want to hear. I’ve chosen two readers, and for specific reasons. If they like my writing, I’m happy. And I think that’s enough for me.

I think publishing itself is a different thing from writing, and I separate them completely. The publishing side is business. The joy of writing is really with writing. And I let that joy stop after the story finds my two readers. And I just don’t think about the rest of it, because it’s too much to think about.

YY: Do your readers surprise you?

YL: One of them is my longtime editor friend, who does surprise me. She would criticize my writing in a brutal way. I remember I showed her one time I thought, when I was working on Kinder Than Solitude: “That’s a beautiful passage.” She wrote next to the passage, “BS.” And she said, “It is BS, you need to go back.” That’s the kind of trust you have to give to the reader, when she says it’s not right, you have to do it again. And I would do it. As for my other reader – I’m working on this character who’s an old, highly uneducated woman, and she caught me and said, “Oh, she reminded me of Hamlet!” And I said, “What?” And then I realized she has a point. And those are the best comments, because they really point out things that I’ve missed when I’m just writing.

YY: You wrote that often you’re a part of another person’s memory, and when you are, they’re often able to have the last word about their idea of you. Readers are constantly doing that, including me, to you, to writers; our memories making claims on that person’s writing. I was struck by the moment in the book when you were at McGahern’s gathering: it felt like utopia to me, that there’s this robust community of those who understand where he’s coming from, and maybe agree with his telling.

You say that “his life was lived among his people, his books written among his people,” and I can’t help but contrast that with some of the responses from your readers, especially Chinese readers. How do you write about place and history, especially when the memories of those places are contested? I was really struck by the line: “Writing as one’s private freedom will always be disloyalty.” How do you wrestle with that idea?

YL: Say you have ten American writers writing about New York City. They may come up with ten versions, and I don’t think people will contest that one is the real version of New York, and the other nine are fake. But if you’re a Chinese writer writing in English about China – this goes for other countries, too – people start to say: which version is the authentic version? It’s a ridiculous question, because I think every writer comes from where he or she comes from, and we’re writing about memories, we’re writing about our private memories, and one person’s memories can be totally different from another person’s, and it has to be, otherwise the world would just be one place.

McGahern is a very interesting example to me, that he wrote in a way that’s so transparent to his readers, to his people around him. But he has a long life story: he was exiled too, for many years, from Ireland, even though now they love him. Again I think each writer has to take some way, to have to follow a road. So people will say this and that. To be “disloyal” is to say that I’m not going to let anyone stop me from what I want to do. And I’m not going to join any crusade or any propaganda, or any agenda, and do things that they want to do.

So those are two very important things to me when I write. That sense of disloyalty as a writer comes from Graham Greene in one of his letters. And I really agree with that generation of writers post-World War II, as they were talking about having to stand up to all this historical pressure to be loyal, to be representative. No, we don’t represent other people. I resist this pressure that I have to represent something.

YY: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I often feel I’m having a conversation with your work, so this has been wonderful.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Little Fishes

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“Put you in the piss tank and flush you too!”

Mandy. Five years old, half awake. She stands in the kitchen in her cloud-print PJs, curly brown hair bunched up on one side.

Gramma Jean at the table lights a Kool. “What did she say?”

“Piss tank,” says Pete by window. He’s twelve, dark-haired like his dad but has the Kolnik-side gray-green eyes. Outside, the February sky has just started to lighten. He can make out the tree line, the snow-covered pastures, the beef barn.

“She ain’t said that in a while,” he says. “Nightmare, I guess.” When he turns, his sister is scowling at the floor.

“Who were you talking to, honey?” asks Gramma. “I think you’re still sleeping. She tilts in her chair and pulls Mandy toward her.” The girl puts her forehead to Gramma’s fat shoulder like she is trying to tip her over—or force her back to her own house.

Pete checks the weather app on his phone. “S’posed to warm up. More than yesterday even. Like fifty.”

“Good,” says Gramma. “Enough with the storms and the deepfreeze. Your daddy’s snowman still down by the woods like some peekaboo thug.” She rakes her fingers through Mandy’s tangles. Her own hair is silk-straight with a few strands of gray at the temples.

“Go back to bed, Mandy,” says Pete. “It’s Saturday. Unless you want to do my chores.”

“I’ll take her upstairs,” says Gramma. She stubs out her cigarette, pushes up with a grunt. She wears a green sweatshirt from Spoon Lake Casino and the pink long johns she sleeps in. “Petey, oatmeal’s ready.”

He eats at the counter where the coffeemaker sat. The eight-cup Krups with the milk frother feature. The Krups is buried under snow in the yard. The Latteccino 2-in-1. He remembers the ad from the Kohl’s catalog his mother taped to the fridge way back in November, waiting for the perfect sale.

Pete texts his friend Arlo from school. The Kramers live in Beamer ten miles away. They moved to the area a year ago from Milwaukee. Dentist dad, realtor mom. They have a cedar-wood deck and a view of the lake. Arlo has had three different phones since they moved here. Nice ones. One he dropped over the side of boat when his family went sailing on Lake Michigan.

An unopened bag of coffee beans sits beside the toaster. It escaped the fate of the Krups and the grinder. Gevalia Kaffe. The package is egg yolk yellow and shiny-tight. Looks out of place on the cracked laminate between the dented toaster and empty Ball jars. Like it was ordered for a holiday no one here celebrates.

 

*     *     *

 

Two months before, the sale Cathy had been waiting for coincided with the first winter storm of the season at the start of Christmas break.

When she and Pete dropped Mandy at Gramma’s, the late-morning sky was already gloomy and the air had a bite of dampness. No pending blizzard was going to stop his mother once she’d made up her mind. Or a stuck car horn that set off for some reason halfway to Kelton. Like all the forces of the universe were against them. Cathy tuned the radio to an oldies rock station and turned the volume high enough to almost drown it out.

Sleet flew at the windshield, and the blacktop started to whiten. Pete played Limbo on his battered PlayStation, doing worse and worse each game. Coming into Kelton, Cathy switched off the radio and shouted over the wail of the horn: “You won’t have to bug us for a phone anymore! Target’s got a sale! It’ll be for your birthday and Christmas!”

Their car drew stares in the Kohl’s parking lot, since the horn did not turn off with the engine. Like his mother, Pete pretended nothing was wrong. Buying the Krups took no time at all. What took longer was Cathy’s flirty conversation with a tall blond man shopping for space heaters. She introduced him to Pete as Doug Duken, someone she worked with at Hayworth Insurance. Pete had rarely seen her so bubbly.

While they waited to get the car horn fixed, they ate at Taco John’s across the highway and watched the driving snow. They stopped at Petco to pick up Mandy’s Christmas present. A three-gallon aquarium and accessories. The fish would have to be a later purchase, but they looked at what the store carried. Glowlight tetras, clownfish, some brown, crispy-looking sea horses. Mandy’s tank was for cold water fish like the tetras.

At Target, finally, Pete chose his phone from the sale selections while Cathy stood by, tapping her credit card on the glass display case and sighing repeatedly. That she put the gift in her bag after purchase meant that Pete would have to wait until Christmas to get it.

She said nothing on the drive home. Flying, swirling white all around. Steady on, she cut down the middle of the road. Occasional vehicles bloomed into view, then glided past as Cathy inched over.

 

*     *     *

 

“Lyle asleep yet?” Pete asks, rinsing his bowl in the sink. Outside, a band of pinkish yellow grows above the hills. The snow on the pastures has a purple tint.

Gramma Jean doesn’t answer. He knows she doesn’t like “reporting” on her son.

“I heard him bumping around all night. No wonder Mandy got nightmares.”

“Eaves are dripping,” she says, coming up beside him. She has a scalpy smell Cathy used to mention. “If the temperature crashes, we’ll have glare ice. Better salt the front steps and the hill path.” By which she means the walk to the barn.

Pete keeps quiet. He should get all the chores because Lyle is socked from a three-day binge?

“And put on a sweater. T-shirt and coat ain’t enough.”

“It’s warm out.”

“Don’t argue. The fluctuations is what get you sick.”

Pete climbs the stairs as quiet as he can, as much as an old farm house will let him. His dad’s door is cracked a few inches, the light on. Pete’s room is at the end of the hall past Mandy’s and the rifle cabinet. He grabs a hoodie from his closet and heads down the hall again. The boards squeaking.

Lyle’s door opens. “Hey. Come here. Where you sneaking?”

“The barn,” Pete mumbles, not looking back. He is almost to the stairs.

“Come here I said.”

Lyle wears only a T-shirt and boxers. And mismatched socks, one black, one gray. His dark hair is clippered shorter than usual but he hasn’t shaved in the three days he was gone. He looks tired, his cheeks shallow gullies down the side of his face.

“I want to show you something on my computer.”

His room smells like beer and BO. Nothing of Cathy’s is here anymore. Magazines and snack bags litter the bed. Lyle’s clippers and sunglasses sit on the dresser with a crop of beer cans. And a little brown bottle the size of Pete’s thumb. Lyle left it in the den once, or one like it. Before Pete had the chance to look inside, Cathy snatched it up in a huff. Arlo said it was meth for sure, though there wasn’t a single way he could know.

The computer sits on a wiggly card table wedged between the bed and the dresser. When Gramma came to fix meals and babysit, Lyle brought the PC up from the den, since she sleeps on the couch the nights she stays over. Which are most since she and Grampa are fighting again. On the outs, she calls it.

Lyle sits at the table. He smiles at Pete like he’s doing it to show off his teeth. “What’s up, Cricket?”

Pete hasn’t heard that name in a while. The way Lyle says it puts a claim on him. Or who Pete used to be. Or who they were together.

“We ain’t hung out in ages, have we, Cricket?” Two ashtrays sit on one side of the table, both crammed with butts. Pete hears a text come in on his phone, the cartoon sound of three balloons popping. Lyle’s smile goes cold, then comes back with a vengeance, that stretch of wet teeth. “Well, buddy, we got kinda-sorta a problem here.” He turns to the computer.

This could be one of his jokes. When he’s jacked up like this, it’s hard to predict. A grid of images shows on the screen. He clicks on one with the mouse. It’s a closeup photo of a Guernsey bull. He points at the animal’s jaw. A shiny red bump has worn through the hair. “See that?”

He flips to the next pic in the search. The head of a Holstein cow or heifer with what looks like a honeycomb sticking out through its cheek.

“Gross,” says Pete.

Lyle cocks his head like a puppet’s. “You are so right.” His voice is a fake kind of thoughtful. “You nailed it, man.” He clicks to a different tab on the browser, a page of text titled Livestock Diseases. He points to a bolded medical term. “So how would you say that, Cricket?”

Pete sounds it out. “Ac-tin-o-my-co-sis?”

“Wow,” says Lyle, looking up at the ceiling. “He did it again. Amazing.” He turns back to the photos. A pair of hands in blue latex gloves holds a dead deer by the antlers to show its bloated cheek to the camera.

“Lumpy Jaw,” says Lyle. “What farmers call it. Lumpy Jaw Syndrome. It’s a fungus that does it, man.” He grits his teeth like his own jaw hurts.

Next is a cow skull with a mass of noodle-like bumps at the tooth line. Lyle hooks an arm to Pete’s waist. “Wha’cha think, sports fan?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seen enough?”

Pete feels a tug at one of his belt loops. “Yeah,” he says. A star-shaped cookie cutter sits on the table. Why it’s there makes no sense. Or the fishing rods in the corner that are usually kept in the shed.

Again the tug. “Positive? Say you’re positive.”

“Positive,” says Pete.

His dad looks up, eyes crafty, pushy. “Okay, then. Go down to the barn and take a look at your Audrey. Check her face good. Then come back and tell me what I got to do.” He knocks a cig from his soft-pack of Camels.

“What do you mean?”

“What I said, Cricket.” Lyle’s arm drops. His eyes swing away, wet suddenly. His lips pinch and turn down at the edges.

Pete backs toward the door. “I’ll look.” Lyle’s crying is worse than his bullying or temper. When he gets soft and muddy, when he’s tired like this.

Pete checks his phone on the stairs. It’s Arlo with news about an ice-skating party in later that day. Pete texts him back for the time and location.

Besides dripping eaves, another sign of the warm snap is a gift from the cat on the porch. A broken-neck shrew seeping blood from its mouth. All five of Miss Betty’s last litter got trampled by cows. She’s not showing yet, but is sure to have another batch by summer.

Everywhere, the surface of snow has a glaze. Yesterday’s rain and the overnight freeze put a thick crust of ice on it. With the snow cover shrinking, the stuff in the yard isn’t hidden as much. Pete can make out the shapes of the rowing machine and the box of books just off the front walk. A corner of the fish tank sticks out of the white. And the seat and front legs of a dining chair. The one Cathy used. Why Lyle threw that out was just crazy. Even Gramma said so. Pete can’t see the Krups. It is somewhere between the crabapple tree and the sandbox. Or at least the machine part of it. The carafe went another direction.

 

*     *     *

 

This time of morning, with the sun just up, Cathy would be sitting in the dark kitchen, watching the Krups go through its cycle. The blue ready light, the gentle hiss and gurgle, the smell that rose in the house like a tide.

Only twice did Pete witness the whole ritual. Both times he watched her grinding the beans, filling the basket, and placing her mug just so on the counter, covering—he realized later—an ugly burn mark on the laminate. The first day she brewed to the eight-cup capacity. Just to make sure it could, she told him.

With his room directly over the kitchen, Pete woke every morning to the chirr of the grinder. When the furnace was off, he could hear the floor creaking under her feet. Sometimes he’d hear the marimba ringtone on her cell and muffled chitchat.

The mug she used was large and lopsided and a color she called cobalt blue that had coppery drips down the sides. It came by UPS the same day as the grinder. That night Pete and Mandy were assembling the tree when Lyle called them into the kitchen. “Check this out!” His eyes had the fidgety, battling glint they’d had off and on since summer. “Look at this thing she ordered. Jesus. I could crap a better mug than this.”

Cathy plucked it out of his hand. “A master potter made it,” she said, as if to some invisible person. She cleared a place for it in the cupboard. “Can you put the lights on the tree, Lyle? The kids’ll want to be decorating, and it’s a school night.”

In the den, instead of laying the strings of lights on the branches, Lyle wound them around the trunk. He tried at first with the branches on, then yanked them all out and started over while Pete and Mandy pretended not to watch him. He moved from the couch to the floor, turning the trunk as he bound the cords to it. He jammed the tree back into the stand. Plugged in, the lights made a thick bright column. He fit the branches into their slots with a lot of grunting and swearing, then left to play cards with his house-builder friends.

From then on, it seemed to Pete, everyone was waiting for something to happen. Things would be normal, then Cathy would fix a new recipe for supper and sit silent and teary-eyed at the table. Or Lyle would sleep in the den for two nights. Or sit in his truck for hours chain smoking and listening to music.

The day after Christmas, in the afternoon, Pete overheard him ask Cathy for a cup of her “la-dee-da” coffee. She was playing Qwirkle with Mandy at the table. “I thought you didn’t like coffee,” she said, and he answered he’d never had hers. “I only make it in the mornings, Lyle,” and she added sort of under her breath—though Pete could hear her from the mudroom—“Like you need caffeine.”

So Lyle was brooding the rest of the day and camped out in the den after evening chores so that Mandy was afraid to go look at her tetras and watch the stream of bubbles in the tank like she had most of Christmas, with Lyle beside her a lot of that time, just as fixated, and keeping her from adding too much fish food. While the tree blinked its column of lights.

 

*     *     *

 

The wide, windowless aluminum barn was built by the people who lived here before. The mass of snow on the roof is shrinking, and the runoff drips onto the snowbanks below.

Pete steps through the side door into darkness heavy with the steam of animals. He feels for the row of switches on the wall. The fluorescents above him flicker into life. The light reaches weakly down the length of the building, over forty-two head of cattle, some standing.

The entryway is crowded with bags of milk replacer, the calf bottle sterilizer, bins of starter grain. An old metal cabinet keeps fly-kill and medicines. Miss Betty sits expectantly at the milk dish. The old gray tabby has a croak-like meow and is missing the tip of one ear. From a bag of milk replacer, Pete puts a half scoop of powder in the dish, adds water from the spigot and mixes it with his finger. Slash and Nitwit have snuck in from somewhere. Pete watches all three heads in the dish and tries to not think of the pictures Lyle showed him.

Everything around him sounds normal. The low, lazy groans of the cows, the scatter-plop out the backend of somebody. Pete’s job is to feed the calves and young heifers, like Audrey. She’ll be kept for breeding and Pete will get half the money from any of her calves they don’t keep.

He flips the switch that opens the big sliding door at the end of the barn. Several cows turn their heads. Their puffs of breath show in the bright, early light. The whole place is filthy, not a spot of clean straw anywhere on the floor. Lyle should have been here to take care of this. All Gramma says when he goes on a binge is he needs more construction jobs to keep him occupied, or how life is especially hard on him now, though she never mentions Cathy.

A few cows lumber toward the door and fresh air. The herd is Herefords and a few Angus steers. Pete lugs a pail of starter grain to the calf pen. As he scoops it into their buckets, he sees Audrey walking up to the pen. The splotch of brown around her left eye makes her distinct from others of her kind.

“Hey, girl.” He thinks she’s jealous of his time with the calves. “You don’t got Lumpy Jaw, do you?” Her black eyes shine. She bats her white lashes.

Pete checks her muzzle and jaw for bumps. He doesn’t feel any. No open sores. As he strokes the ridge of her back, he hears a laugh from the entryway. Grampa Don wears a backpack and carries a stack of gallon-sized buckets.

“How’s it going, Professor? This your new sweetie?”

Peter Professor, Mandy Munchkin. Lyle is Lunkhead. Gramma Jean is just Jeanie—or Jailbait, from the time she got busted stealing a car when she was a teenager.

“Ha ha,” says Pete.

Grampa steps into the quartering area. He limps a little from his stroke. He has a face of creases all directions and glum-looking hound dog eyes. He looks nothing like Lyle. He makes his way between cows and poop slicks.

“How’s Jailbait doing?” He leans on a corner of the calf pen and chuckles.

Pete wonders what their fight is about. Last time was over the player piano, which had never worked as far as Pete knew. It belonged to Grampa’s family and Gramma sold it without telling him. So he chopped down her clematis plants. That was a June-to-August fight.

“Do you see something wrong with my heifer?” Pete asks. “Dad says she’s got Lumpy Jaw Syndrome.”

Stooping down, the old man gives Audrey’s head a once over. His eyebrows rise, rise higher and plunge. “Well, I hate to tell you…” He shakes his head, deep-frowning like Mandy. “Professor, I think your heifer— What’s her name?”

“Audrey.”

“Well, I think your Audrey is turning into a cow.”

Pete waits for the loud laugh. When it comes, the calves edge away from their buckets and Audrey stalks off like she’s embarrassed by such a lame joke.

“I don’t see nothing either,” says Pete. “I think he was kidding. Stuff he showed me online was scary. Cows with their cheeks all bulged out.”

Grampa looks toward the door to the feed yard where a lone Angus has ventured. It slowly manages the ice and snow on its way toward the one accessible salt block.

“You gonna help me with tapping, Professor?” He means the maples. Last year they tapped more than fifteen trees. The sap cooked down to barely two gallons of syrup.

“Do you think the sap’s running?”

“Of course! With this weather. I just hope we ain’t lost too much.”

“I got to put down some hay first.”

“You running this farm single-handed? Where’s Lunkhead?”

Pete shrugs.

“I’ll give you a hand after tapping, Professor.”

Miss Betty leaps up to the side of the pen. She keeps her balance for a few quick steps then jumps down again.

 

*     *    *

 

Lyle made the snowman two days after Christmas. A bitter cold day. That morning had started for Pete with Cathy pulling him out of bed before sunrise to help her carry the fish tank to the bathroom.

In the den, the tree lights were set to shimmer so the room had an underwater look of its own. Lyle sat watching TV on the couch. He turned his head away when he saw them. Cathy took Pete by the wrist and led him across the room. The aquarium cover lay on the floor. As they lifted the three-gallon tank from its stand, Lyle glanced over as if he’d just seen them and stuck out his tongue like a little kid would.

In the bathroom, they emptied most of the tank water into the toilet. The tetras washed out—plish, plish. The pee smell confirmed what Cathy had told him. Some sand washed out with the water. They put the tank in the mudroom and Pete went back to bed.

He woke in the daylight to shouting downstairs. “Put you in the toilet and flush you, too!” He could hear Cathy clearly through the floor. “No! Take it out! Just take it outside!”

Mandy was sitting at the top of the stairs, her blanky around her, licking the edge of a cherry PopTart. Pete sat beside her. Lyle appeared at the foot of the stairs, his coat and boots on. “Mandy! Sorry!” He was crying, sniveling. He looked crazy. “Let’s build you a snowman. Right now, Mandy-pants. Get your coat. We’ll go out and make a big one, okay?” She turned to Pete and hid her face in his shoulder. He could feel her breath through his T-shirt.

 

*     *     *

 

The snowman stands about seven feet high. Grampa squints up at it, his lips twisting one way and another, like he is making an official assessment. “S’posed to be some kind of mutant?” Pete takes a pic with his phone. This is the first time he’s seen it up close. Looks a bit like one of those Transformer figures or the cave troll from The Lord of the Rings. Two humps for shoulders, bumpy arms packed onto the torso, head like a giant fist, massive legs. The surface is shiny and hard.

Grampa kicks at a leg and winces. “Like rock.” He gives Pete the stack of pails to carry. They start through the woods. Crunchy snow and low brush. Jays and crows make a racket overhead. They see tracks of deer and what Grampa says a timber wolf made.

“It’s a coyote,” says Pete.

“Well, ain’t you the wildlife expert.”

Less than ten steps into the woods, Pete sees a flash of orange ribbon. Last year, they marked all the maples they tapped. New holes will have to be drilled. At the first one, Grampa takes out his cordless and fits a bit in. Through the snowbound quiet comes the rat-a-tat sound of a woodpecker. Might be twenty yards off or a mile.

“You seen your ma lately?” asks Grampa, as casually as if he is asking the time.

“Nope.” Pete takes off his gloves. He’s sweating. He checks his phone. Nothing from Arlo. Fifty-two degrees.

“Just wondering. She came back that once, Jeanie told me.”

Pete hears the words repeat in his head. The woodpecker stops. “She did?”

Grampa Don makes a face like he just broke a tooth. From his pocket, he pulls out three metal spiles. “I guess you weren’t home. Hold these.” The spiles are odd-shaped tubes about five inches long with little hooks on the bottom for hanging the pails.

Grampa squats by the tree. He places the bit in a crease of the bark and drills in a few inches. He makes two more holes spaced a good foot apart. The sap starts to bead right away. One by one, he takes back the spiles and forces them into the holes with his fingers.

“Who was there?” Pete asks.

“Where?”

“Who was at home when she came? Gramma?”

“I guess. She’s the one told me.” He pulls a hammer out of his pack and taps the spiles in tight. “Thought you knew.”

It takes them longer to get from tree to tree through the snow than to drill the holes and pound in the spiles. The sap is running. Pete can hear steady drips in the pails they have already hung.

The fourth tree is a soaring black maple with a clump of dead leaves near the top. “Squirrel hotel,” says Grampa, pointing with the drill.

“Where is she?” Pete asks.

“No clue, Professor. She got folks in Iowa, don’t she?”

Pete thinks Cathy is living in Kelton with the man they ran into at Kohl’s. Doug Duken. He dreamed he saw them at the Strich County Fair making out in the livestock pavilion. Cathy’s hair was piled on top of her head like she wore it in her senior prom photo.

“She got spark,” says Grampa. “I don’t begrudge her getting out of a rut. Admire it kind of. You don’t like hearing that.” He crouches at the base of the trunk, touches the scars of two old tapping spots as if gauging the mood or health of the tree. “My ma ran off a few times. Should have made up her mind and stayed off instead of confusing everybody concerned. You get me?”

Pete hears a text come through on his phone. It’s not from Arlo. Lyle has sent him a photo. Another sick cow, its gums bared with metal clamps, yellowish goo spilling over the teeth.

In an hour, they are trekking back though the pasture. They keep to the original path they had forged through the snow. To the north, another stitch-line of coyote tracks arcs across the pasture. Animals light and fast enough to keep from breaking through the crust. The harsh winter has made them especially bold. Two of the neighbor’s goats got eaten. The Madsens lost a heifer.

At the barn, four or five cows are gathered at the salt lick. Out of habit, Pete looks for Audrey. He doesn’t see her, but she might be hidden behind one of the steers. She likes being out in the sunlight.

 

*     *     *

 

“I promise,” Cathy told them. Slipping things into a giant leaf bag while Lyle was building the snowman. Pete and Mandy sat on her bed. Every minute or so he’d go to the window to make sure his dad was still at it. Why he was making it down by the woods was a question Pete knew not to ask.

“I just have to get settled,” she said. “I’ll come back for you both, don’t you worry.” She looked at Pete. A lock of blond hair fell over her face. “You understand, don’t you? You see how he is.”

She didn’t have many clothes to take since there was a big load of laundry in the washer right then and it was clear she wasn’t going to wait for it to finish. She picked some things from the drawers in her bureau and tossed them into the bag. Next was a dress and shoes from the closet. And her pillow. Then she strode down the hall to the bathroom.

Pete took a photo of the bag on the floor. Even with the pillow, it was less than half full. He sent the pic to Arlo and told him Cathy was leaving.

Mandy sat close to him, watching his fingers.

“Dad peed in your fish tank. That’s what happened.”

“My fishes? Why?”

He took a pic of her, too. “Just because.”

She grabbed at his phone, but he snatched it away, laughing. She punched his thigh. He shoved her off the bed.

“Stop it!” Cathy had returned with some jars and bottles, her hair drier. She dumped them into her makeshift suitcase. “Now listen. Stay here till I’m gone. Mandy, your hair. Pete, brush her hair, would you?” She gave them quick hugs and was off down the stairs, the bag bumping softly behind her.

Pete heard her on her cell in the kitchen. “Your son is out of control, Jean. One of you needs to come over.” Her voice was calm, the words placed out like she was reading a speech. “I’m telling you there’s nothing I can do anymore.”

Grampa drove over from Chiqua on his lunch break. Lyle was back in the house by then, red nosed, red fingered. Pete had already told him what happened. “Did she now?” was all Lyle said, though he repeated it several times. By the time Grampa got there, Lyle was sitting in the den with Mandy. They had opened a box of Swiss Miss singles and were eating the powder straight out of the packets. Mandy’s lips were ringed with cocoa. Grampa sat on the couch by Pete. The Weather Channel was on, a big patch of green sliding up from Nebraska. “Another storm,” Grampa said. Minutes passed. Lyle took out his flip-phone and speed-dialed a number, his foot tapping fiercely at the carpet. From the kitchen came the marimba ringtone. Pete felt the wall of his stomach go thin, the way it did when he had to climb the rope in gym class, got halfway to the ceiling and couldn’t look down.

The phone—which Cathy had left in the cookie jar—was the first of her things Lyle chucked, though he broke it in pieces before he tossed it outside. Sometime in the night went the bed doll collection and the dining chair. The next morning he threw out her books plus anything of hers she had left in the bathroom. Yet the Krups stayed where it was for two weeks. The Krups and the grinder and the bag of Gevalia in their perfect line on the counter. Like he was daring her to come back for them. Then one night he asked Pete to hold the door open as he carried them—machine in one hand, carafe in the other—out to the front steps and lobbed them out into the yard.

 

*     *     *

 

Gramma Jean takes two cans of Sprite from the fridge. “I saw you with all them buckets, Donny. Nobody’s interested in reliving your youth.”

“It ain’t that,” Grampa snaps. “Be a shame to waste all that sap, and it’s a good activity for the kids. What do you care?”

Gramma thumps the cans on the table. “Well, aside from the fact that it ain’t your land, I hope you’ve carved out some boil-down time, because my hands are full. I’m just saying. And that job gets everything sticky, so you’d better be ready to clean up after.” She looks at Pete. “What?”

“Nothing,” he says.

“Your dad ain’t asleep, F-Y-I.”

“Where is he?”

“In the den with Mandy. Didn’t see you salting the hill path, mister.”

“Later,” Pete grumbles. “It’s not gonna freeze tonight anyway.”

Back in the mudroom he hangs up his coat. The house feels different now. Traces of Cathy’s visit. She must have taken stuff that he hadn’t noticed. Her spring jacket is still in the closet. And a pair of her sneakers. Her raincoat is gone but she might have taken it with her the first time.

He sees that Miss Betty has snuck into the house. With her morning kill, too. Crouched between Lyle’s snow boots, she gulps the shrew down whole. Cathy never let barn cats indoors, called them flea buses.

“Hi, Pete.” Mandy stands in the hallway. The Strawberry Shortcake sweatshirt she is wearing is really too small for her now.

“What ya doing?”

“Checkers.”

“He acting okay?”

She eyes the cat in the corner. “Miss Betty’s not supposed to be here,” she whispers.

Lyle calls from the den. “Come and finish the game! You’re winning!”

Mandy huffs a Gramma-like sigh and obeys. Pete follows. The Christmas tree winks on, winks off. No other house in the world, he thinks, has a tree up in February. His dad is lying on the floor, raised up on one elbow in front of the checker board. He’s wearing a clean white T-shirt and jeans. Still the mismatched socks. He looks up. “Got something to tell me, Cricket?”

“About what?” Pete was hoping he had forgotten.

“What we talked about. What I got to do.”

“There’s nothing to do. She don’t have it.”

Lyle scratches his chin, the beard stubble. “Who don’t have what?”

“Audrey. Lumpy Jaw.” Pete looks toward the tree. “Grampa don’t think she’s sick either.”

Lyle taps a finger on the edge of the checkerboard. “Oh, Donny’s an expert on livestock diseases?”

“No. But anyone can see she’s okay.”

“So some miracle cured her and she ain’t sick no more?”

“I guess so.” Pete knows this is not the right answer. He hears Lyle lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke from one side of his mouth.

“Let’s get this straight. She was sick, you’re saying, but not now.”

“Yep.” Too late for him to step out of the trap.

“Well, maybe the swelling went down temporary, but it’s going to flare up again.”

“I don’t think so.”

“That’s a pretty big risk, don’t ya think? You want all our beef to get Lumpy Jaw?”

“No.”

“Then tell me what I got to do, Cricket.”

Pete looks at his dad. He’s not going to cry. Or picture Audrey being shot in the head. He thinks of the snowman down by the woods. A crowbar would bring it right down.

Lyle is smiling now, his eyes beaming. “You stick to your guns, kid, I like you. Mandy! Come here and finish this game!”

She walks up to the board but just stands there, hands tucked up in her sleeves. “I’m tired of playing,” she says to her feet.

“But you’re beating me, Squirt.” Lyle slaps his palm on the carpet. “Sit!”

Grampa walks in and plops down on the couch. “You winning, Munchkin? Is that what he said?”

Mandy scowls. “’Cause he’s letting me!”

“That’s one thing I never did,” says Grampa, directing the comment at Lyle. “That’s no preparation for life. Nobody lets you win.” He picks up the TV remote, flips from weather to golf to a cooking show.

“That’s why he had to force us to play,” Lyle mutters. “Till he got beat.” Lyle shouts toward the hall: “Right, Ma?”

Gramma Jean comes in with a beer and a cig. “Right, what?” She rubs her arthritic knee.

Lyle looks up at Mandy. “You got me now, Mandy-pants.” He taps out the move that will take his last men. “Three hops with your king and I’m grass.”

“You put ’em that way,” she says quietly. “It’s not fair.”

“See?” says Grampa. “Even Mandy knows you don’t cheat to lose.”

On TV, a beautiful woman in a dark blue apron cuts a tomato into very thin slices. Copper pans and stone counters around her. Cathy used to watch this show and ones like it.

“Mandy!” Lyle thumps the carpet again. “Let’s finish!”

She kneels beside him and takes his black pawns—one, two, three. Then she hops up and strides over to Gramma, head down.

“What is it, baby?” Gramma pats the back of her head. “You won.”

“Not in my house,” says Grampa.

Lyle rolls over, his back to the floor. Stares at the ceiling. “First time I beat that old booger, god damn but he couldn’t believe it. So we played another game and I did it again. Remember that, Ma?”

“I don’t think I was home,” Gramma says. “I was cleaning resorts all day in the summers.”

“It was winter, Ma. Right about now. So the old man starts saying I’m smart, I’m so smart, maybe I’ll get to college someday. ’Cause I beat him. ‘You’ll go to college and show us all what’s what.’ Ain’t that what you said, Donny-Dad?”

Grampa twitches a shrug. Eyes on TV.

“I was Pete’s age,” says Lyle, sitting up, his T-shirt speckled with dirt from the carpet. “The whole day went by and Donny’s all quiet. Drinking. And I could feel him just plotting. But supper came and bedtime. Nothing.”

“Oh, that time,” says Gramma, still rubbing her knee.

“So next morning I go to the john and in the mirror I see this blotch on my forehead. Black letters, P-H-D wrote there in marker. Man, that’s how he got me. While I was asleep!”

Gramma rips out a laugh and stands straight. “God, it stayed there for days, didn’t it? How could you do such a thing, Donny Trivett?” She limps toward the couch and eases down beside Grampa. “Lyle eating his breakfast so mad, just a-boiling, his forehead practically bloody from scrubbing.”

Grampa sits stone-faced beside her. “I don’t drink no more,” he mumbles.

“You people are shits, Lyle hisses.” Turns to Mandy, to Pete. “Those people!” He points to the couch. “Pathetic. Look at them! They’re the freaks!” His eyes glaring in his patchy red face.

“You calm down,” says Grampa. “You’re the one all buzzed up and ridiculous. You should stay in your room when you’re zooming like this. No wonder Cathy split. And the way you threw all that stuff out was stupid. The chair, the rower. Look, Jeanie, he ain’t even listening. He’s off in some zone. The fool zone.”

Which he is. Picking and swiping at the grit on his shirt.

Gramma has cuddled in next to Grampa. She strokes his thigh like whatever their fight was about is old history.

“Just needs to wind down,” she says. She sits forward to grind out her cigarette. “Kids, there’s baloney and cheese in the fridge. Make a sandwich. Go on. Son, why don’t you go upstairs and stretch out?”

Lyle rises enough to notch his butt on the couch arm. Drags a hand over his face. Then he stands and walks toward the hall, kind of ambling. Black sock, gray sock. Gramma follows like she thinks he’ll knock something over.

“Munchkin!” says Grampa. He does Mandy’s favorite trick with his eyelids, flipping them inside out with his fingers.

“Ewww!” she squeals and climbs up beside him.

When Pete hears Lyle’s feet on the stairs, he ventures into the hall. Gramma’s voice comes sharp from the kitchen. “Don’t you dare, you!”

Miss Betty is sitting by the fridge, hunched up, choking. She chucks up a lump of wet fur. “For God sakes She must have snuck in with you guys.” She cleans the mess with a few paper towels.

“Gramma?” says Pete.

As if she knows his question already, she takes her time standing up.

“Did Mom come back once when we were at school?”

She rolls her right shoulder like it hurts. “Who told you that?” She frowns at the wad of towels in her hand. “Someone with a big fat mouth, the old gummer.”

“You never said nothing.”

“And what would the point of that be?”

“So you were here?”

She turns her head back and forth. “Uh-uh.”

“Dad?”

“I guess. He told me they talked on the phone beforehand. She’d called.”

“When? What day?”

She drops the chomped-up shrew in the trash. “I don’t remember, Petey.”

“Was it recent?”

“No, back in January. Look. You know I hate what she did, don’t you?” Gramma turns to show her most serious face, so wits’-end tired Pete looks anywhere else. At the counter. Out the window. Two grosbeaks in the crabapple tree.

“Mandy!” she yells. “Get in here and tell me what you want on your sandwich!”

“Do you know where she is?”

“I don’t. And don’t ask your Dad. It’ll only upset him. You see how he’s acting.”

“Disgraceful,” says Grampa from the hall. He has his coat on and is zipping it up. “Disgraceful is how he’s acting. I don’t blame her one bit for cutting.”

“Why don’t you shut up?” says Gramma. “Your mouth is flapping all over this morning. Are you off?”

“Got the noon shift.”

“On Saturday?”

“Ramirez cut his hand in the planer and they asked me to fill in. I’ll stop back for supper?”

She eyes him for a second. “Well, get me a cabbage and three pounds of hamburger. And salt the damn walks before you go, Donny. Somebody was shirking his duties this morning.”

 

*     *     *

 

Lyle isn’t sleeping or even in bed. He is looking out the window, a hand on each side of it. He taps his fingers and bobs his head like he hears music playing.

“Dad?”

The fingers stop. The head lowers. “What?”

Pete comes into the room a few steps. “Mom,” he says. “After she left, did she come back at all?”

Lyle’s head starts bouncing again, his right hand slapping a rhythm on the casement. “What a rocking tune!” he says. As if he’s wearing invisible headphones.

Pete looks at the clutter on the bed, the floor, the card table. The gyroscope screensaver moves on the PC. A box of rifle shells sits on a corner of the table. It had probably been there before and means nothing. No more than the cookie cutter.

Lyle starts whisper-singing, his breath coming through the shapes his mouth makes. Whatever song he is singing he stops. “Once,” he says. “One time she did.”

“When?”

“I don’t know, man. After Christmas. You was at school.”

“You saw her?”

“No way. She called and asked me not to be here. Said she had to get a few things. I says, ‘Like your Krups?’ And she asks all meek-like if it was still here. ‘Sure is,’ I said, come get it, sick of looking at it.’ Don’t know why I let it sit there at all, staring at me every damn day.”

“But you threw it in the yard,” says Pete. “I saw you.”

“That was after, man. After she came.” Lyle, pushing back from the window, turns. “So I left like she asked. I wasn’t gonna at first, then I thought, shit, I don’t want to see her, thinking I better not fucking be here, man.”

Pete watches his dad coming toward him, eyes lit. He veers off toward the bed, kind of staggering. Pete hears Grampa’s truck in the driveway. The engine turning over, turning over, starting.

“And what do I see on my way out the door? One of kitty-cat’s presents on the step. A red squirrel she must’ve caught in the barn. Just a small thing, all crumped up and flea-bitten looking.”

He plops on the edge of the bed. A magazine slides off. Outdoor Life. His face goes blank. He stares at the carpet.

“Red squirrel,” says Pete.

Lyle nods just barely. “Oh. Yeah. Dead Red. So I pick him up, I go back inside and guess what? I stick the little fucker in that damn coffeemaker and I brew her eight cups of gourmet rodent.”

Lyle’s eyes snap to Pete’s. A defiant yet tortured sort of light in them. Jaw working. He looks like he might start to cry. He flops back on the bed, on newspapers, potato chip bags. He brays out one string of laughs, then another, snorting between. “We got her!” he shouts at the ceiling. “We got her so good, didn’t we?”

 

*     *     *

 

The ice left on the front walk is pocked with salt holes. In the yard, the aquarium juts up from the snow, sunlight trapped in a dirty glass corner. “Look!” says Mandy. She climbs over the ridge of shoveled snow. She’s wearing the cap with the panda ears on it Grampa gave her for Christmas. She tries to pull the aquarium free, first with her mittens on, then without.

Gramma told Pete to take her down to the woods to show her the snowman and the maple tree buckets. “So your daddy can settle down,” she said.

“Pete!”

“Just leave it, Mandy.”

A few feet from the tank lies the box of accounting books from the tech school Cathy went to. Cardboard flaps all soggy. The sandbox is still buried but he can make out the shape of its frame. The rowing machine sits near the crab apple tree, most of it visible now. The Krups close by. He thinks he can see the top of it hiding just under the snow.

A text from Arlo comes through. The skating party is at the Jilek’s from two to four today. Pete responds that he’ll be there if he can get somebody to drive him.

He climbs the snowbank, stomping footholds as he goes. The Jileks live almost to Chiqua and Gramma will bitch about gas. Had he known, he could have asked Grampa to take him.

Reaching what he thinks is the coffeemaker, he raps the mound of snow with his boot. Sure enough. He rubs the grainy ice from its shell. He is tempted to open the lid, to prove Lyle was telling the truth.

“Come on!” says Mandy. “Let’s go to the woods!”

Gravel shows though parts of the driveway. Pete can practically hear the snow melting. He can smell it, too, like a dew in his nose as he walks. Snow and diesel and barnyard.

He moves along the pasture fence in the path he and Grampa made. Mandy walks on the crust of ice. She hasn’t once fallen through. Looking toward the barn, he sees more cows have wandered out.

“How warm is it now?” Mandy calls from behind him.

Pete checks the weather app. “Fifty-six. Wow.”

“It’s spring!” She holds her arms out for balance.

“It ain’t spring. Ain’t even Easter.” He looks up Chicago. “Guess how warm in Chicago?”

“How should I know?”

“Fifty-nine.” He checks Pittsburgh, where his mom’s brother lives, Uncle Vic. “Forty-seven in Pittsburgh. That’s way east.”

“Pissburgh?” says Mandy. She giggles.

“Denver is two below. That’s what’s coming, Mandy. It moves in a line west to east.”

“Pissburgh!” she shouts and drops through the snow to the waist. She gapes around her, tries to push herself up by the crust, which keeps breaking. Pete laughs. By the time he gets there, she’s happily tramping around in her wallow.

Early that morning, the snowman looked worn but still tough. Like he’d survived one battle and was ready for the next. Now he doesn’t seem so eager. His slump is more certain. Only the barrel legs look solid, but not in a supportive way. More like they’ll just stick around after the rest has ka-plooped.

“Dad made it for you,” Pete says.

Mandy steps close. Reaching up, she touches a hard lump of bicep. “He did?”

For a second, he almost reminds her. She can’t have forgotten that scene on the stairs. Instead, he looks into the woods and listens. No woodpeckers. No sap hitting plastic.

“It’s melting,” she says.

“Yeah, and it’d crush you flat if it fell on you. Break your neck. You’d be paralyzed.”

“No way!”

“Come on,” he says and starts into the woods. He imagines an ambulance van in the driveway, snow banks washed with red and blue lights. Like when Mr. Eckert had a seizure in art class and they carried him off in a stretcher. Only he wasn’t bleeding, just dumped a bowl of wet plaster on his lap and sat crooked in his chair. But Mandy he knows would be busted all over. He pictures the blood running out of her nose, her arms and legs bent the wrong way. She moves her shoulder a little on the stretcher, so at least he knows she’s alive. While Cathy waits at the van, her North Face coat zipped clear to her chin. Lights flash on her tear-streaked face.

The buckets on the nearest maple hold an inch of sap. He picks a flake of bark out of one and licks the watery sweetness from his fingers. If the snow in the hills has melted enough, the creek to Star Lake will be running. He hears a branch crunch under Mandy’s boots. Then a gunshot, far-off, and its echo. He looks through the trees toward the pasture. A second shot punches the air.

“We got to get back!” Running, he listens for more rifle shots, but all he can hear are his boots and his breath. Half-way through the pasture he stops to catch his breath. Behind him, Mandy is taking the trail at least. Up ahead at the barn about a dozen cattle are gathered in feed yard. More of them would have bolted out if the shots had been fired inside.

He starts again through the broken snow, a side stitch hooks in. Gramma Jean is standing at the fence a good ways past where they entered the pasture. She’s waving them toward her, away from the barn. Pete has to stomp a new path through the snow. When he reaches the fence, he’s panting as hard as his grandmother, who obviously ran the whole way.

“I want you two in the house,” she says. “No accidents. Guns are getting a bad enough rap.”

Pete ducks through the lines of barbwire, steps through. “Where is he? I don’t see him.”

“On the other side of the barn, I think. He spotted some coyotes. Says he did, anyway. I’ve never seen them out in the daytime.” She shakes her head, still straining for breath. “I think he’s just shooting crows.”

Two back-to-back shots ring over the hills. Pete looks for Audrey “Was he down in the barn?”

“I don’t know. Here’s your sister. Getting some exercise, hon?”

“What’s wrong?” asks Mandy. She’s flushed and sweating.

“Nothing, honey. Precaution is all.” They help Mandy step through the fence. A panda ear gets snagged on a barb. From the driveway, Pete can see Audrey just outside the barn, waiting her turn at the salt block.

“Not a thing wrong with that rower,” says Gramma, pointing into the yard. “I’m gonna put an ad up online. Pete, you can help me. Your boots are full of mud, Mandy. Stomp some of that off on the steps.”

Pete makes straight for the Krups. Crouching, he pries open the brew basket lid. The red squirrel is there, curled up, about five inches long, plus the tail. Dead red. Fur slicked over the scalded corpse. He pulls out his phone and takes a few pics. Its eyes are black slits.

“Get in here, Pete!” Gramma shouts from the steps. “I didn’t run clear to the pasture so as you can get shot up here!”

In the mudroom, he takes off his boots and coat. He can see the tree lights blinking in the den. He sends one of the squirrel pics to Arlo and says he’ll explain at the Jilek’s.

“She lost a mitten!” Gramma calls from the kitchen. “Try to remember to look for it later when you go down to get the cows in, okay?” He hears her lighting a cig.

 

 

*     *     *

 

Pete stands at the kitchen window as Gramma Jean cleans the counters. Instead of clearing whole sections like Cathy would do, she moves one or two things, wipes where they sat, slides them back, and continues. Including the bag of Gevalia.

Finally, he sees his dad on the hill path. He’s moving slowly, the rifle crooked loose in his arm. In his rush to get out of the house to shoot coyotes, he didn’t bother with coat or jacket. He looks like a fugitive. Some sci-fi bandit or bounty hunter dropped here from a warmer dimension. Miss Betty tracks a few feet behind him, careful to keep a distance. When he slows, she slows. When he stops, she stops.

“He’ll come in now,” says Gramma over Pete’s shoulder. “He’ll sleep. Looks like he’s ready to fall over, don’t he? I’m ready to take a nap myself.”

Pete knows that he won’t be seeing Arlo today. He watches Lyle standing in the driveway, listless, undecided. He looks at the yard, at the house, no expression at all. Just stands there. The cat, too.

In the distance, the blanket of snow on the barn roof has shrunk to half the size it was in the morning. It splits suddenly, the lower third breaking off from the rest. Pete watches it slide toward the edge of the roof. It stops and hangs there. It will drop any second. It will fall off in parts or together.

 

 

Michael Hawley’s short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, The New Yorker, Post Road Magazine, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. You can find more of his work here.  

An Interview with Lisa Ko, Author of ‘The Leavers’

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Lisa-Ko-Bartosz-Potocki_2MB

 

Lisa Ko is the author of the much-acclaimed The Leavers, which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. The novel follows the story of an undocumented immigrant woman and her child in the U.S. – a story that feels both timeless and poignantly relevant to the contemporary discourse about human migration and race. Ko’s work has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and (once, a long time ago, in an issue far, far away) The Brooklyn Review. 

I was lucky enough to speak to Ko about The Leavers, justice, her future projects, and the illustrious state of New Jersey.

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AC: Deming, the protagonist of The Leavers, is a complex character. He’s not a model minority by any means: unanchored by the disappearance of his mother, Polly, he’s a college dropout with a gambling problem who alienates his friends and vexes his adoptive parents. It can be frustrating as a reader to watch a character who you’ve grown to love sabotage themselves the way Deming does. Can you talk about why it was important to let Deming be complicated, and specifically about the choice to make him a gambler?

LK:  Deming’s journey, like Polly’s in many ways, is really one of self-acceptance, and finding the ability to live on his own terms, rather than the expectations placed upon him by others. He’s experienced so many upheavals in his childhood, and so he wants to please his friends and his parents, but in trying to do so he ends up disappointing them. He thinks that finding out the truth about his mother’s disappearance will give him a sense of peace and resolution, and that ends up being true in some ways, but self-acceptance ultimately has to come from himself and not just from outside validation. A gambling problem seemed to fit his personality and his desire for risk, as well as the novel’s themes of chance, luck, and fate.

AC: Have you thought at all about what happens to Deming after the end of the book? I am curious to know what you think he would be like as he ages.

LK: I haven’t thought too much about it as I feel the book ends on the note that I wanted it to, but I do think it ends with Deming in a much better place, and that he’ll be able to make less destructive choices and be more true to himself as he gets older.

AC: One of the most admirable things about The Leavers was the discomfort of Deming’s adoptive environment. How were you able to depict this so accurately?

LK: Thank you! I did want to center the point of view of the adoptee, rather than the adoptive parents. I also wanted to write with an awareness of the social and political contexts that Deming’s adoption takes place in – and as you said, even when everyone has good intentions, certain complications can remain. While drafting the novel, I read and listened to the stories of transracial Asian adoptees. I’m conscious of the responsibility you have when you’re a writer writing about an experience that isn’t yours, and I wanted to do the work to treat these experiences with respect.

AC: You’ve noted elsewhere that the book was inspired by a 2009 New York Times piece about a mentally disabled woman, Xiu Ping Jiang, who was held in a immigration detention center for a year and a half. There are so many horrible stories of lives destroyed by immigration policy – what drew you to that story specifically? Can you describe a bit what your research process was like?

LK: I haven’t met Xiu Ping Jiang, and though Polly’s circumstances are only very loosely based on hers, I am deeply grateful for her for inspiring the novel. I think what drew me to her story at first was that we were the same age and both ethnically Chinese. But class privileges allowed my parents to migrate here legally from the Philippines on student visas, because U.S. immigration policies favor “educated” immigrants. As a child of immigrants, I’ve often imagined other ways my life might have been, if I had grown up in another country or not been born in the U.S. I did a good amount of reading and interviewing in my research, but at some point I also had to let go of these real-life stories and let the characters live out their own lives.

AC: The characters of The Leavers are fairly apolitical. There is a section in which Polly recounts the story of her detention, but even in that the descriptions focus on her fellow prisoners and deplorable conditions rather than on bureaucratic systems or government agents. There are probably many reasons for this, but could you talk a little bit about why you made this choice?

LK: Part of the process of writing the book was figuring out what the story was. While earlier drafts were motivated by more explicitly wanting to raise awareness about these issues, I realized that the actual story was about the characters and the choices and actions they make and take while being affected by deportation and detention.

AC: Immigration has always played an important role in the U.S. Questions of who gets to stay or not, who we consider a citizen or not, and whether or not the U.S. actually lives up to its promise are more or less always relevant. But The Leavers does feel like a truly important book for this political moment. The book is certainly critical of U.S. immigration policy and the “U.S. is best” ethos, but it doesn’t feel heavy-handed; the book is more interested in following its characters and letting readers draw their own conclusions from their lives. Did you ever find it difficult to avoid didacticism or moralizing in writing about a topic that is so hotly contested today? If so, how did you overcome that? Are you involved in any immigration activism?

LK: Initially, I was motivated to write the novel by my own anger about these unjust immigration policies. So the earliest drafts were depicting the injustices that happened to the characters. But that doesn’t make for a story, since the characters are just having things happen to them, rather than making decisions and acting in their own lives. The story started to come together when I realized it was less about the external circumstances of my characters and more about their internal journeys: their search for home, family, and belonging.

Activism has always been a part of my life, and not only as a writer. I believe that we all have a responsibility to stand up to injustice, whether it’s through changing values – and writing and storytelling can certainly be a part of that – or supporting those who are directly impacted by injustice, or doing resistance work both within and beyond electoral politics.

AC: Can you talk at all about the development of the project? How many different versions you went through, and how the project transformed over time? Polly’s story even without Deming is rich enough that it could be a standalone novel.

LK: I knew going into the writing process that I would have a mother and a son who would be separated. The novel was originally Polly’s story, but I found myself increasingly drawn to her son’s story as well. I wrote a number of different drafts as I tried to figure out what the best way to arrange scenes and chapters, until I landed on the present-day plot of Deming searching for his mother.

AC: The Leavers felt a bit like a love letter to New York. Some of the most beautiful passages in the novel occur in New York – Deming’s childhood in the Bronx, his reunion with an old friend in Sunset Park, Deming watching a New York sunrise after a night of debauched gambling, Polly going for long lonely walks through the city. What do you love about New York? And I know you grew up partly in New Jersey as well – do you think you’ll ever write a love letter to the Garden State?

LK: I love so many things about New York, but mostly that it feels like home to me, even when I’m complaining about the crowds and high rents and subways (though maybe that griping is also part of being a New Yorker!). It’s where I feel most like myself, where I have family and community. I’ve written about New Jersey in my short fiction, so we’ll see if I return to writing more about it in the future.

 

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Good news for hardcover haters: the paperback edition of The Leavers has now arrived.

 

Lovely Madness

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Ariella Carmell is a third-year student and writer at the University of Chicago. She has had prose and poetry published in Maudlin House, Spry, Words Dance, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Souvenir, Cleaver Magazine, Burningword, Alexandria Quarterly, and other places. In the past, she has also been named a 2014 Foyle Commended Poet of the Year and a 2015 and 2016 winner of the Blank Theatre Young Playwrights Festival.

Lovely_Madness

The Spiral Path

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The Spiral Path

When it is three-dimensional or four how can you follow one,

you ask. Think of a mountain road, up an ideal mountain
too steep to climb directly. So you find the road that’s

been paved before. It circles, rises, narrows to the
summit a perfect apex with a perfect point that
you can reach and do by following the spiral

path. You stand and look in all directions:
down, out, up and see the road you’ve
just ascended. You follow it with
your eyes, a second time, ex-

panding while descending,
while you are not moving
at all, standing, sweetly,
breeze-bussed
at the top.

Notice:
for
this
second
journey
you
don’t
move:
Look
up
and
do
the

same
in the
reverse.
Imagine
stars beyond
the clouds. Where

would you like to go?
This third excursion for-
ges a new path never hewn
before. When you go at last
on foot, by bike, or in a car, as

you prefer, and resume daily life
in country, suburb, city, or on your
island, yours is now a soul that has
been, if but briefly, on a spiral path. You

may forget and proceed as all must in other
ways. Or turn a page if you’re reading a book,
click if you’re somewhere online, or blink if you’re

listening to someone standing before you, still and a-
live, and embark on another spiral path, with me. Since this

spiral’s three dimensional or four how can you follow one—

An Interview with Phil Klay

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Phil Klay is the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. He’s a graduate of the MFA program at CUNY Hunter, and a Marine Corps Veteran who deployed to Iraq. I met Phil a year after I left the military and returned to New York City. Phil is part of a network of veteran artists and writers who set me on the path of my own writing career. I interviewed Phil over the phone from our respective homes in Brooklyn.

D: You won the National Book Award for Redeployment, and you’ve written for the [New York] Times and other outlets about foreign policy and conflict, so I think everyone has this expectation of you as a conflict writer. Why do you write war stories?

 

P: For a variety of reasons—it’s currently what I’m most interested in, what I’m most knowledgeable about, what I’m most passionate about. That seems like a fairly good reason to write that sort of thing. I don’t think of myself in that way, but when there’s something happening politically that has to do with foreign policy or has to do with the military, or civil-military relations, or any of the things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about, that tends to be when I’ll be most inspired to write something or to kind of look in to learn more about that subject, so I can add to the discussion. I’ve spent a little more than a decade at this point thinking about war and conflict and reintegration and storytelling narrative around those ideas, so it’s not particularly surprising that’s what I’d write about.

 

D: You weren’t a grunt on the front lines, you were a public affairs officer. I’m wondering how that experience mediated the way you wrote each of your characters in Redeployment, because each character, and each story, seems to have a great deal of empathic imagination and compassion.

 

P: I wasn’t writing autobiographical fiction, obviously. I’ve always tried to be pretty up front about that. The fact that I was in Iraq as a Marine gets highlighted, so there are some people that want to read autobiography into the collection. I wasn’t relying on my own personal experiences. I was relying on research and interviews and just a lot of reading and thought and discussions and arguments with other veterans. It wasn’t me trying to say I didn’t have the veteran’s story – I had the veteran’s story. In the process of being in the military and exposing myself to that kind of research, the process of engaging with a lot of stories of a different Iraq [as a Public Affairs Officer] and ideas of Iraq and the war from very different angles, made me forget the goal of having one narrative about the war, even from just the U.S. side.

In a way that gave me a certain amount of freedom, but at the same time, there was this sense that you’re trespassing. People are protective of veteran experiences, this sort of “insider status” is very important to people, and there are different gradations of that. I was a public affairs officer. I was a pogue. I was a guy who was not in combat or doing anything like that, and when you’re writing from inside an experience that’s central to people’s identity – which war experience, which involves a strange mixture of pride and sometimes a lot of pain, often is – you’re trespassing in a certain way by writing these stories.

So there was a question of whether I had the right to tell the stories, and I quickly decided that I did not, that I didn’t necessarily think anybody had the right. Certainly you see on cable news a controversy that involves veterans, or politicians trying to use veterans for political purposes. You’ll see some kind of veteran on screen trying to claim the veteran perspective on everything, or how the issue of the NFL protests can only be either understood or articulated by veterans. And so I became skeptical of these claims about storytelling, and decided there wasn’t a right way to tell a story. There are certainly a million wrong ways to tell a story, and I could only justify myself by doing it well.

 

D: I think a lot of young fiction writers struggle with this question of having a right to inhabit a character outside of themselves. Can you talk a little bit about your process? Obviously a lot of research goes into it, and we all do research as writers, but I’m really interested to hear about precisely how you tackle this issue.

 

P: The funny thing for me is that, when I write something that’s more autobiographical in terms of the non-fiction that I’ve written, I do research as well. That kind of goes along with this sense that I have that you don’t necessarily have a right to your own story. You’re sort of getting other people’s perspective that will further your understanding of who you are. I don’t think that you come to terms with what you’ve been through by taking the deep sort of Upanishadvian look into the interior self and connecting with your authentic experience. I think you come to terms with the meaning of what you’ve been through over time as you figure out not just what it meant to you, but what it meant to other people, and how people can relate to that.

What was the question again? I kind got off on a tangent.

 

D: You mentioned the right to tell a story and that, in a sense, no one quite has the “right” to tell any story, and you’ve done so successfully by inhabiting experiences other than your own. I think a lot of people want to know what that’s like: to get in the head of a state department official or a front line grunt or a recently returned veteran who struggles with mental illness.

 

P: I’ve talked about doing research and kind of understanding that these experiences are sacred to people in different ways, and being conscious of that and being conscious of that fact that you’re sort of trespassing. Part of it is figuring out a rich sense of the material you’re working with. And yet at the same time, there’s this way in which in order to write fiction well, you also have to have a kind of anarchic spirit.

Because your job, ultimately, as a writer, and surely as a fiction writer, is not to tell what it’s like to go to war. Certainly in my book, I try to show twelve guys that have very different takes on what it’s like to go to war, and that’s just not even necessarily a representative sample of the military as a whole. It’s not meant to be a compendium of military experience, either. So you’re not trying necessarily to stay true to what you might read in a memoir or interviews, you’re kind of searching for whatever is most interesting about the human experience that your research and your imagination is leading you to, and then finding tools within reality to put those things under pressure.

I also found that if I did a little bit of research – if I knew seven things about being a chaplain in Iraq – I’d put all seven of those things into a story. But if I knew a lot of things about being a chaplain in Iraq, I would feel more free to invent. I would feel confident that I could invent something and either it wouldn’t be obviously wrong, or that I was going to invent something that I felt was wrong, but knew enough about my subject to justify it. There’s a respect for experience. You’re positioned as an interloper when you’re writing fiction – or memoir, for that matter – because every memoir includes other characters that probably wouldn’t agree with your perception of them.

But then there’s also this kind of freedom and ability to chase down what’s most interesting or troubling, or what most threatened your ideas. And that’s where fiction comes alive: when you find things you don’t expect, and when you sort of take the raw materials of life and push them into a very strange place. If you know what you’re trying to say before you start and you write the piece and it says what you were originally trying to say, you’ve probably failed.

 

D: I think you and I are both in this really interesting position, you in particular: these are really dire times, and you’re writing at a moment when the country is experiencing not only a great deal of political turmoil, but also the longest American war on record, sixteen years. I think there’s always been this argument over what art is supposed to do, what the utility of fiction is supposed to be, of the lack thereof.

I’m wondering what you feel the power of fiction might be, because we have this relatively new genre of about a hundred years worth of war literature that precedes both of us, and we still have wars.

 

P: Expecting war literature to end wars is a tall order. I don’t think anybody goes up to a crime fiction writer and says, “But has crime fiction ended murder?”

But war literature does hopefully inform us and make us sort of smarter about it, both at a political and interpersonal level. Really good fiction does inform and change the culture, but I think that any kind of rapid responses are far too much to expect.

I don’t expect to write anything that’s going to radically change military policy. I think that the accumulated work of a lot of people, both veteran and civilian, operating in this space does help us to become smarter as we muddle our way through this rudderless foreign policy with huge human costs. The most that you can expect is to put your shoulder to the wheel. That’s your task as a writer and as a citizen, to do that. The incentives for war are going to be there whether we write or not, and the incentives that inhibit us from having a more coherent and thoughtful military and foreign policy are still there. I think that the best you can do is hope to make people a little bit wiser and more thoughtful of the human dimension and the costs.

 

D: It’s interesting, because when was a kid I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I remember reading Slaughterhouse Five, and Catch-22, and Dispatches, and all these great works of literature, each of which told me that war is terrible. Undoubtedly, there’s some thirteen-year-old kid who’s read Redeployment or Spoils by Brian Van Reet. Or War Porn, or Girl at War, or any of the really great novels to come out of the past few years, and still felt compelled, as I did when I was a kid, to eventually join the military.

 

P: I think that’s perfectly fine, right? Frankly I’m glad that somebody like you – who not just read all that stuff, but had the kind of mind that wanted to read that sort of thing – was in the military.

I was talking to a friend whose significant other is in the military. My friend was freaked out by the Trump election, because she’s very liberal and was worried not just for the country but also on a personal level. She thought: ‘Here’s this person who doesn’t seem to have any kind of respect for military values, any kind of thoughtfulness or foresight, and this person is going to be the Commander in Chief.’ One of the things I said to her is that, on a purely selfish level, it’s one of those strange things where I’m glad that guys like her significant other are in the military, because we need people like that.

We need people with perspectives like yours and with the experience that you bring to be able to inform us. You don’t just want a military composed of people who are not, who have not, exposed themselves to the kind of works that are more critical of war and of military culture. My hope is not that the book will prevent somebody from joining the military. I think it’s a fine and honorable thing to serve in the military. My hope is just to increase the store of intellectual tools that you have while you’re in it.

Before I went into the Marine Corps, I had a teacher, the poet Tom Sleigh, who’s a fantastic poet. He has written about war, including a great book of poems that recently came out, Station Zed,  and has done some really good journalism as well. He made me read Isaac Babel, and he made me read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and he made me read all of Hemingway’s short stories, and David Jones’ In Parenthesis, and Céline’s Journey to the End of Night. His goal in that was not to get me to not accept my commission. It was to make me as well-informed about the kind of moral questions that I might be exposed to or see other people encounter, and I’m grateful to him for that.

 

D: The other part, and this is something that I know you’ve talked about a good deal, is that the military is a small minority that is part of a larger political system, part of a citizenry that also needs to be involved. You’ve talked about the civil-military divide a great deal, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding how civilians should interact with the art, or about civic responsibility in the arts.

 

P: I’ll tell you what I don’t think it is. I think sometimes there’s this attitude where people feel like, “I’ve come back from the war, I’ve got the truth to deliver to civilians, and they need to listen to what I have to say about war because I’ve been there.”

That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that it’s your job, as a citizen, whatever avenue of national concern it is, to interact with something outside of yourself, to be informed about issues important to the national concern, and then be empowered to intelligently argue back, to form your own opinion. War is not a thing to whom a veteran is a subject. It’s something that we all have responsibility to.

Even if you did serve overseas, your experience is inevitably going to be one very small perspective on this giant thing. If you served in Iraq in 2003, that’s radically different than serving in Iraq in 2004. If you were in Fallujah in 2006, that’s radically different from Baghdad in 2009, let alone what job you were doing.

The task is to basically understand what else is out there to know, to understand the limits of your own knowledge. You need to have a discussion with a little bit of humility, but also with the ability to push back against claims that are made by veterans, by civilians, and by policy makers. It’s to engage in a serious way.

 

D: You’re speaking of writers inhabiting uncomfortable or unfamiliar spaces. One of the best books to come out of the war was probably Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

 

P: Perfect example. That book is brilliant. It is very smart about the war experience, very smart about this strange place of civilian-military relations, with that odd kind of sacred cow that we turn our veterans into. Ben Fountain is a civilian, but he did his research. He was thoughtful, but he also felt empowered to write a strong, and often deeply and powerfully satirical, book.

There’s a wonderful scene in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate where there’s a Soviet general who’s talking about Stalin and the Russian war experience. And the general says, “We only have War and Peace because Tolstoy was a veteran and only somebody who had been there could have written with such brilliance about war.” And another official says, “Excuse me, Comrade General, Tolstoy didn’t take part in the Patriotic War.” And the general just refuses to believe it.

Sometimes being on the outside of an experience can help you. It can help you see things that people inside don’t. Just because you’ve been through something doesn’t mean you’re necessarily the final arbiter of what that experience means. We understand this idea in a more personal sphere, right? If you’re having trouble with your significant other, and you go to your wise friend to complain about them, sometimes that wise friend is going to be like, “Actually, you’re the one being an asshole here.”

We’ve already talked about seeing veterans on TV, watching some jerk speaking on behalf of all veterans, and it’s just like, “Who is this tool?” A friend of mine was interviewing some Navy SEALs and one of the SEALs turned to him and said, “You know, the thing about being in a community where you’re supposed to be a silent professional is that you end up getting represented by the biggest jerks you ever worked with.”

 

D: Do you have any advice for civilian writers who want to tell stories about conflict, especially recent conflict, given all this protectiveness around the subject matter?

 

P: I will say one thing, and this is kind of advice for vets, too. In America we have this kind of canon of war literature. It’s a canon that tends to be white, male, front-line soldiers. There’s a lot of books that have been written about home that don’t necessarily get included in that canon, but of course they’re certainly war books. They’re written by civilians, and taken from a different angle.  When you read books about war that are not kind of within that canon, it often opens up really interesting possibilities for you.

One of the books that was influential for me when I was writing Redeployment was this book called Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer. It’s set during the Suez crisis. I don’t really know how to describe it; maybe like if Evelyn Waugh was writing about Egyptian society during the Suez crisis. The two main characters are basically Egyptian hipsters: they’re well-educated, they’re from wealthy families though they don’t have money themselves, they’re reading books.

It isn’t really considered a war story, but there’s a wonderful scene in which a friend pays for the two main characters to go to Britain. They meet a woman on the bus there and she’s very excited, saying, “Oh, you’re Egyptian. My son was just in Egypt” – meaning her son was a British soldier invading the country – “and he’d love to meet you.” The Egyptians, being hipsters, think this is amazing, so they say, “Yeah, totally, we’ll meet that guy.”

The son is a genial, not particularly well-educated British Tommy, who winds up being solicitous to them, but also unknowingly telling racist barracks gossip to them, like, “You have to look out for those wogs because they steal.” He’s not really connecting that he’s delivering the racial slurs to the people that the racial slurs are about. And they start to kind of cruelly torment him, and feel very righteous in doing so because of who he is and what he’s doing in that situation. It’s a very strange, funny, and also kind of hateful scene. It’s very different from the typical returning soldier image that you encounter in most war literature.

There’s a lot of books that occupy that space. Andrea Barrett, for instance, writes stories about scientists after and during World War I. There’s a wonderful short story of hers called “The Ether of Space” about a sort of famous physicist who’s trying to hold out against and argue with Einstein because he still wants to believe in ether. It becomes clear during the course of the story that the motivating factor for this is that he is caught up in all this post-World War I spirituality, and he experiences things that become very important to him because of the death of his sons during that war.

There’s a wealth of war literature that we often don’t consider war literature as such because we tend to focus on that which is about or by front-line, generally male, generally white soldiers. Considering that is useful; it opens up new ways of looking at [work not considered war literature], and understanding the contours of the work, and genre conventions that you don’t see until you read something that is indebted to them.

Beyond that I would say just what I was saying before – that the subject matter is yours as much as it is anyone else’s, as long as you put in the work to make it yours. If it’s a veteran writer, I would say, “Don’t assume that the work is yours just because you lived it,” because that can lead to unreflected work.

 

D: We’ve been talking a lot about war literature from the past, but I’m wondering what you think is missing from contemporary war narratives from veterans or civilian writers. Or maybe a better question is, what stories haven’t been told yet?

 

P: I don’t know. But this is just it: there’s so many stories that haven’t been told yet. So in a way it’s not about what’s missing, or I can’t say what’s missing. It’s more that I have this sense of knowing how much more there is to be told.

I’m curious to see what the best writers in the U.S. are going to do. The war’s not going to stop. We’re still fighting. There’s probably guys right now who are going to be writing this, probably unfortunately kids in high school right now who are going to be writing great war literature about the wars going on when they’re grown. We’ll see.

I sort of wondered what kind of strategies and ideas are going to come about that I haven’t considered, would never have considered to write about? Because it takes a great writer thinking deeply about what’s missing to write it.

The story I think about is Joseph Heller reading The Naked and the Dead and realizing okay, that’s been done, putting the novel that he was working on to bed, and then years later coming up with Catch-22 and writing about war in a very different way that was, for that time, exactly what was needed.

 

D: When that book came out, we were experiencing a lot of seemingly unrelated, but truly systemic, political turmoil. Years and years, even generations later, folks are still writing about conflict. The poet Ocean Vuong, for example, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose work of course I know because I’m Vietnamese.

 

P: By the way, his nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies is good and has a lot of really smart things to say about war fiction. He also discusses a lot of the work that has been done, including some work that didn’t receive the attention he did. This goes to what the political import of fiction is, right? I don’t think anybody reading him was only thinking about Vietnam, in the same way that people reading Joseph Heller weren’t thinking about World War II. Fiction provides us with the kind of tools to reconceptualize how we think about our present.

 

D: I know you interviewed Ken Burns about the new Vietnam War PBS documentary. I think it’s a great primer for folks that aren’t well acquainted with the war. I wasn’t surprised to Phil Caputo and Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes in the documentary. There’s a collection of poems written by Yusef Komunyakaa that Matthew Komatsu mentioned in his article, “The Uncomfortable Whiteness of Contemporary War Literature,” and I was really sorely disappointed that Yusef didn’t end up being in the documentary. Maybe he was interviewed but wasn’t featured.

Of course you’re in this great position. You’ve spoken about this before, but could you discuss your perspective on whether or not there’s a responsibility on the part of the O’Briens and the Marlantes and the Caputos of the world to lift up voices like Komunyakaa’s?

 

P: I would say this: for myself, to the extent that I have any kind of thought formed, it’s certainly important to try to expose people to other writers from vastly different perspectives, whether it’s a writer of color, military or civilian, occupied or occupier. Even just trying to urge people to read books like Frankenstein in Baghdad, which is a fantastic book by an Iraqi writer. It’s not a matter of it being an obligation, it’s being interested in other people who are writing within the same general framework or topic that you’re interested in, but from a radically different perspective.

I think the word responsibility sort of suggests that there’s this kind of “eat your spinach” quality to it, like a task that you have. But that’s not really the way that I think about it. It’s something that you would be doing, and the reason you do it is because it improves you and is related to the whole reason you started writing in the first place, because these things are important and deserve to be thought about in a rich, complex way, and in ways that are currently not much talked about. Anybody who’s offering a kind of valuable corrective, or view counter to that of most heard voices, deserves to be highlighted, and that’s going to be useful and a joy for you as well.

What you need to do is realize that outside perspectives are not so different, not so alien, to you. All the books I loved growing up are about people from radically different societies. Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg is as different from today as anywhere in America, as any place I have lived, and yet what he described was deeply meaningful.

Oftentimes it is the people who are operating in these spaces that are ignored who often have the most interesting things to say. That’s part of why I think reading war fiction that isn’t considered war fiction, or that comes from the sorts of voices that we tend not to associate with war fiction, is valuable and fascinating. Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches was a revelation, and so was reading Wallace Terry’s Bloods – a great book.

 

D: We’re talking a good deal about the situation of conflict and war literature, and a lot about the political dynamics of it. You’ve mentioned a lot of your influences, even some past professors. What kind of craft advice do you have going forward for young writers? What helped you when you were starting?

 

P: We already talked about reading widely. Aside from that, I think there’s a certain arrogance that comes with writing, like, “I have something to say that everybody needs to read,” but there’s also a kind of humility that you need in order to do it well. When you’re reading your work, you need to learn to be more interested than defensive about your mistakes. Take an interest in your own errors, because they have the most to teach you.

Other than that? Finding good friends to critique your work. I rely heavily on friends to provide edits, or to talk with. Even just, “I’ve seen you on Twitter talking about some stuff, and I thought that you might have some interesting things to say about ideas I was thinking about.” I think there’s this image of artistic work as this incredibly precious, isolated expression of the authentic soul or whatever, but it’s not that at all. It’s hard work, and it benefits greatly from really smart people being able to make you smarter, by being able to engage with them.  

 

D: I think the first time I saw you speak you mentioned something by a philosopher who said that books are essentially long letters to friends.

 

P: Thick letters to friends. That’s Sloterdijk, he’s quoting the Romantic poet Jean Paul. I love that idea. Of course the reason I love this is that you’re supposed to write back, right?

 

D: Is there anything that you’re working on right now that you want to talk about, or are free to talk about?

 

P: I’m working kind of slowly on a novel about the U.S. involvement in Colombia post-9/11, so we’ll see how it goes. 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Legendary Wolves; In Memory Of Peter Stumpp’s Daughter (Redux)

by

Emma Johnson-Rivard is a Masters student at Hamline University. She received her undergraduate degree in Film Studies at Smith College in Massachusetts and currently lives in Minnesota with her dogs and far too many books. Her work has appeared in Mistake House, Moon City Review, and the Santa Ana River Review.

Legendary_Wolves

Beeswax

by

Beeswax

 

This is the first time that I have cried in a long time, and I realize more than I ever have before
what a good person Tom is. I am glad that he told me off. I did treat him like I was being his
counsellor, and I am so damn worried about impressions. Why am I so confused.
—From my mother’s diary, September 9th, 1977, not long after returning

to Reed College for her junior year.

I want to go back to my mother’s college self,

sit next to her as she cries with her back against the dresser,

the mug of tea in her hands spilling over, as I open the shutters

of every window in the room, let light spill on her still

full head of hair, on her nails that haven’t turned

purple and brittle. I want to go back

to hug her, to be her therapist and tell her

that nobody should tell off somebody they love,

because love isn’t a one-sided conversation.

Love is a conversation about how to take care

of each other after surgery, after your guts

have been spilled on the table, and you look

like an Oompa Loompa, covered in iodine,

swollen from trauma, and your love still finds you

and takes your orange, blood-encrusted hand in his. It’s the holding

of your mother’s hardened arm as you stand at her bedside, watching

over her waxen figure as its stench fills the room,

all rotten eggs and peat moss, and you refuse to open more

than one window, even if it means the smell will linger in the bed

where you will sleep for the next week as you plan her funeral.

That night, instead, you light a beeswax candle from your childhood,
all honeycomb pink. You let it drip down the base and melt into her bedroom floor.

Oh, wondrous day!

by

Rachel Joseph’s short stories and plays are published in journals ranging from North American Review to Kenyon Review Online. Her novella “The Man in the Trees” was a shortlisted finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition. Additionally, she was a finalist for the 2017 Arts & Letters Drama Prize, a semi-finalist for the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Award, and a finalist for the Black Lawrence Press 2017 Hudson Prize. She is an assistant professor at Trinity University.

Joseph_Oh_wondrous_day_submission

‘The Third Eye Counts’ & ‘Fly Trap’

by

The Third Eye Counts

 

 not at all. It rolls, unfocused and lashed
shut, worm-white, unbidden by you
in some place like the black void
of a frying pan. It hides
though it may not want to. After all, who bothers
with an eye not yet accustomed even to
soft lights and the harsh knowledge
of where you might live in a year? The buildup
of strength to use it is monumental. Unworth
the effort. Can the whole project
immediately and leave alone
any thoughts of eyes, though the memory of
raking your finger over the edges
of whites will not dissipate from you
so easily, and neither will the
brief wetness you rubbed off on
your thumb, worried. You resent
having this forbidden surface on your own
body, even at this scale, like two planets
you may not set foot on. Your own body resents
you back, or at least this is how you
interpret the discomfort of
putting in contact lenses. Let alone
the difficulty of teasing apart with
your oafish spirituality a third
for scrying. Women in France used to
black their teeth with coal and ash,
thinking only of sugar, unashamed that their smiles
led nowhere. You too can sink your boats
in the bath, leave pockets
sewn shut with lint, run a catheter from
under the flower-beds straight
to the gutter. Your soil is so dark that
only its adornment of white dots
keeps it being anything, barely.
It looks lovely in front of your
clapboard house. So do you. You sleep
with your good eyes shut and grope through
the world even while the dream
comes to you, unwilling to wait.
You have heard your soul has
crawl spaces. You may find in them
nothing at all.

 


Fly Trap

 

When Casey’s lover leaves her,
she finds a small paper
napkin crumpled
on the floor of her living room
is like a mild toxin
in the brain.
Or in the back.
Only a little rot. One good
thought of a plant, a succulent
owned by a friend, is enough to
drive it away, fend blight
up the veins and back
into the bean;
but there it is again, in the kernel
caught between tiles of
a sidewalk, or in the deep-colored hats
sold from out of dark
and musical dens walked by
on Fulton Street. No, it is in
her subway line—but not the car
at total rest, or at full speed
screaming past her on sacred missions
into the midnight tunnels. It is the subway
slowing down at her fingertips,
sliding past to open
the doors, yawning slack as a
lily in the morning,
breathing crowds out
against the damp cement;
it is a longing for a lily
that would not just as soon
close on her hand
as open for it.

Machtig Prachtig / Mightily Marvelous

by

Born in the Netherlands, Tamara Stoffers is an artist who has long been fascinated with Russia and the Soviet Union. As the artist puts it: “[The USSR’s] typical visual language in architecture and art feels nostalgic to some and is still relevant to others. I compose my images from old books concerning the USSR, cutting and pasting to create new situations…By digging through archives without a preconceived plan, I subconsciously find visual connections.” You can find more of her work here.

'Mightily Marvelous', 2017, collage

‘Mightily Marvelous’, 2017, collage

ROSA STRUGGLES: ADAPTS AND CONQUERS

by

Envision the type of pathos that describes the true meaning of the Rose. It seems surely as if the Rose has come to mean more to us in a neurobiological or perhaps neuropsychological system of being, than a mere flower, a biologic entity evolved primarily for the propagation of a plant, a very complex method of propagation of course! It is one method of nonmammalian sexuality that we perceive as compellingly beautiful in an almost universal form of attraction. This rather simple organic arrangement of leaves, petioles, petals, and sepals on a stem weaves a powerful attraction over the lives of millions of lovers, brides, gardeners, artists, and of course, the frail, the desperate, and lastly the dead who lie in serene fellowship with the Rose’s final message to humanity. Imagine, if you will, the wounded lover (whose incandescent emotions have been snuffed out by caustic reiterations of their lover) who now waits in self-enforced solitude for a brief message, a word, a whisper from he or she who inflicted the sorry wounds. And then—a ring or perhaps a knock at the door (or an intimate finger taps tenderly against the window glass). The unknown mysterious face is seen through the tear-streaked glass bubble of the peephole bored like a primordial insect through the middle panel of the door. Who is this who dares to come to the sobbing shell of love, a love which has been stung, lacerated by harsh, vindictive words? Ah. A uniform? Ah. Yes, yes, O yes, a solitary delivery person. It is certain now; an exhaustive search while pasted against the soiled brass peephole confirms this: a florist’s truck parks deliciously in the driveway. Joy. A hand belonging to the reddened, still lachrymose eye flings open the door, both hands now stretch forward clutching hungrily at the serious-faced delivery man as he offers the long slim box to the gravely saddened one. An impractically long, esthetically appealing slim, white and pure box is held up for inspection like a knight’s sword might be held up for a king’s opinion. Approval is instantaneous. When the taped-on lid is fumbled with, almost savagely dismembered by anxious hands trembling with anticipation there, lying against the soft cushions of green tissue is the One. The single One Rose of a brilliant red, red the red of crushed lips, of flushed cheeks, of a single drop of purest lover’s blood! The healing is almost instantaneous as the disconsolate one embraces the Rose against the love-tormented breast. The heart is eased, tears halt immediately, and relaxation ascends through every wracked and weary muscle. Peace and pleasure again reside in the human body. Dopamine is delivered in dollops. Addiction quelled until the next delivery.

Screen

by
'Screen' 16 x 16 inch Oil on linen 2016

‘Screen’ 16 x 16 inch, oil on linen, 2016

'Majority unconscious minority subconscious sparring with jabs of consciousness' 60 x 80 inch Acrylic, charcoal, gouache, graphite, painter's tape, oil, watercolour on foamboard 2013

‘Majority unconscious minority subconscious sparring with jabs of consciousness’
60 x 80 inch Acrylic, charcoal, gouache, graphite, painter’s tape,
oil, watercolor on foamboard 2013

 

 

Shinto Imai was born in San Francisco, California on October 30, 1981.

He holds a B.F.A. in Painting from Rhode Island School of Design.
He lived and worked in New York City from 2008 to 2016.
He currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.

You can find more of his work here and on Instagram.

Cristina

by

There was something about Cristina that I liked right away. I was embarrassed to admit how quickly I calculated her looks and their probability of arousing my husband, but maybe such estimations were inevitable and instinctive. Sizing up Cristina was easy. She was chubby, with a pretty face, and wore nondescript outfits such as jeans and a white t-shirt. I was sure my husband would see her as asexual.

She came to work for us at the end of the summer just over a year ago, after we discovered our former maid had been stealing my jewelry. The interview and hiring process were rushed and we took Cristina in without careful scrutiny. She had arrived in the U.S. eight months before we met her, after divorcing her husband in Guatemala. She had two children, to whom she sent a third of her check every month. We were lucky, as she proved to be hard working, respectful, and calm. She seemed to stabilize every room she entered, her hands deftly sorting out all disorder in the background. When she first walked into our large living room, she looked around in bewilderment.

“Such lovely things!” she exclaimed, wide-eyed. I found it hard not to be flattered by her. We had just redecorated the downstairs and I was proud of how it turned out. The dining room was ensconced in a lush wallpaper of red and gold, and the dining room table was dark wood, the edges of which were also lined with gold. The living room was more eclectic. We had experimental sculptures, such as a great winged bird made out of silverware, and green velvet couches. She went from room to room, amazed, and stared for a long time at a painting over the fireplace of a snowy road leading to a cozy house, lit from within by orange light, smoke trickling out of the chimney.

I had begun working from home earlier that year and, as I was still getting used to budgeting my day into chunks of productivity, I was relieved to leave all the housework to the maid. My study was next to the kitchen, so I could sometimes hear the various tasks being completed in the other room, such as unloading the dishwasher or mopping the kitchen floor, and would feel a pang of guilt for not helping and for having the luxury of spending the day doing my own work, editing manuscripts for children’s books.

Eight years prior, I had made the career choice to work every day at the publishing house. This decision meant less time with the children, and what emerged seemed a more professional relationship with them. They approached me rationally and would state a need they had, listing all the reasons they felt they should have, or be able to do, a certain thing, and then I would or would not grant permission. My recent decision to work from home was a last-ditch attempt to see my kids and bond with them before they grew up completely. Cristina became excited when she learned I published children’s books and I gave her some to send to her children in Guatemala. They could still look at the pictures, even if they couldn’t read or understand the words of the story.

 

Cristina moved into the little apartment above the garage, and, except for her two days off a week, she became a member of our household. That was the year my son fell ill with mono and had to stay at home for almost two months. To keep up with the expenses of a maid, my husband began working longer hours at his firm, in the hope of being made a partner.  I rarely saw him, and when I did, he was exhausted and would eat and usually go straight up to bed.

My son’s room was down in the basement. He had requested that we allow him to move there when he was ten years old. At the time he seemed so certain it was the right and necessary thing, so we had given in and let him do it.

Now he was fifteen, and I would go down into his den of sickness and find him reclining, surrounded by movie boxes, tissues, and empty bowls as he lay in the main room of the basement. His bedroom was off to the right and was the darkest room in the house. It had a little rectangle of a window on one wall that gave a view of tangled ivy. I was discouraged from going down there, because the place made my stomach turn—it was forever in disarray, and I couldn’t quite scold him for it because he was sick, so I would half-suggest he do things such as open a window or pick up his tissues. He would mutter some reply, and then I would go back up the stairs.

Before Cristina, I found a porn magazine once while I was making his bed. The place seemed more and more to be a territory best left alone. His body was growing at a monstrous rate, and his voice, after two years at a higher pitch, had settled into a deep, masculine tone, an almost musical bass. He was turning out to be strikingly handsome. Instead of descending the steps to his room, I would call to him from the top of the stairs and ask him to come up to the first floor if I needed to talk to him about something.

I sent Cristina down to my son’s room three times a week to clean. She became an expert in knowing his needs. She would put his favorite candy in little bowls on the coffee table, would make him smoothies, and bring him rented videos from the store down the street. My eleven-year old daughter would go down there and the three of them would often watch movies together after Cristina had finished her work. Cristina seemed to have a way with children. I could hear them laughing from the kitchen.

 

One day, I ventured down to check on my son. A strange red light cast dark shadows on the wall by the couch.  After commenting on the red bulb casting its eerie glow, I learned Cristina had brought him three different-colored light bulbs, one red, one green, and one blue. Cristina explained to me later that these were to put in his lamp by the couch to change the atmosphere if it got too dull or gloomy. This did not surprise me, as I had recently learned that Cristina had an active interest in craft-making.  She had shown me some Christmas ornaments she made in Guatemala, and I found this hobby of hers to be cute and endearing.  It was one more piece of evidence that she was safe, a good influence for my children. On some level, you could call her an artist.

I fell one step behind all that was happening, and actually began to prefer it that way.  She seemed to have a knack for maternal care, while I had always felt I was missing that feminine grace. I would peer down over the side of the staircase to the basement and see my son lying on his back, bathed in red light, his mouth flung open in a dazed dream state, and then return, puzzled, to my study.

I came down one morning to find that my daughter had slept on the basement couch. She was so deeply asleep that I had to shake her shoulder to wake her up. She was in a state of bliss when she awoke, her face relaxed and her eyes glowing.

“What is it, Mom?” she asked me, but she kept drifting back to sleep as I talked to her.

We found out several days later that she had somehow caught mono from spending too much time down there, although I had no idea how.  I had always thought mono was only contagious through kissing.

The place soon came to feel like some drug den with its psychedelic lighting, old, smelly couches, and heavy-lidded eyes gazing at me from the darkness.  Cristina seemed to know how to handle all this, as she would breeze in and vacuum, add flowers to the table, disinfect the bathroom, and crack open the windows.

I began to notice, as the weeks went on, that Cristina became more casual with her chores in the rest of the house. I noticed that the living room had not been dusted or that only the center of the room had been vacuumed. She began taking naps in the afternoon and would emerge from her room still sleepy and mutter a half-greeting to me as if I weren’t even really there. But the basement was always kept spic and span. She even cleaned the terrarium of my son’s snake without my having to give her instructions about how to do it.

After dinner, Cristina could be found downstairs with the kids. She would help them every evening with their homework, which I picked up once a week from their school, or giggle as they watched silly American movies. She looked to them to fill her in on all things American. The sheer number of mindless movies the three of them rented to “catch Cristina up” on all the ones she had missed living in Guatemala must have cost me and my husband at least twenty dollars a week.

I overheard her helping my son with his environmental science study of glaciers. Maybe help is the wrong word—she tested him on things by holding the book with the definitions, or asked him to explain concepts to her so that he would drill the material into his head. It was not within her ability to teach him anything about this kind of subject. I was sitting on the top steps to the basement, hidden from view, listening to their chatter.

When I wasn’t working, I found there wasn’t much else to do in the house except for checking out what the kids and Cristina were doing. My husband was becoming more and more of a ghost in our home, and when he was there, he was plagued with exhaustion. He rarely interrupted me in my study if I was up late working. I always suspected that he found my work meaningless. When I would tell him about the latest book I was editing, he would smile and listen with the kind of uninvested enthusiasm you would assume when listening to a child tell you about an illogical but amusing game she made up to play with her imaginary friends in the backyard. His eyes were often slightly glazed over, from exhaustion, from disinterest, or for some other reason. So, on this night, I took a break and sat on the steps.

I could hear Cristina and my son talking on the other side of the basement. She expressed particular pride when she saw a huge photograph of the Andes Mountains in his textbook. The photograph was from Chile, and she had seen pictures of it from a wealthy cousin of hers who traveled there on her honeymoon.

“My cousin, Gloria, stayed at the most fancy hotel you ever seen. It had a pool and each room had a patio looking out on the street. You kids should travel when you get older and see these places. There’s nothing like seeing new places to open up your minds. Remember that.” I thought about my own honeymoon to the Hawaiian Islands, the sheer luxury of the hotels my husband and I had stayed in, places that would undoubtedly shock Cristina with their decadence. Of course my kids would travel; my husband and I had already brought them to several countries. But how could I have the heart to tell her this. Let her think she at least had this advantage over them, of counseling them and imparting experienced advice.

“Read to me about the volcanoes and glaciers,” she said excitedly in her thick accent.

My son began reading aloud from the book, pronouncing the words slowly and with an earnestness that I was unused to hearing from him:

“Glaciers move in several ways.  One way, sliding, involves the large tongue-shaped block of ice, hundreds of miles thick sliding over the lithosphere, crushing the rocks of the uppermost region and dragging them as they inch along. These rocks then become glacial till. Glaciers severely distort the land they cross. They carve out valleys and then retreating glaciers produce a hilled effect where flat land used to be.”

“Sweetie, thank you for telling me this.” She laughed. “So the golf course next your house, those hills is from an old glacier.”

“Maybe,” he chuckled a little flirtatiously.

“What you going to do with all this knowledge?”

“Probably nothing,” he said and yawned. “This is a photo from Japan of Mt. Fuji.”

“Okay, read that part.”

“An eruption column collapses only after enough isostatic pressure from underlying gases and magma pushes up on it. There are three types of lava: basaltic, andesitic, and rhyolitic.  Each lava type erupts differently”—

“This is for what class, geology?”

“It’s for the geology section of the class, environmental science,” he said carefully, educating her. I found this whole exchange to be amusing and sweet, but also irritating. She must have known on some level that textbook writing wasn’t meant to be read aloud.  I found myself wondering if her naiveté was somewhat of an act.  No one could be that innocent and interested in these mundane things.

***

The next night, I found Cristina carrying two cardboard boxes from the storage space to the main part of the room.  A movie was on and both kids sat in a daze staring at a ski chase scene. Cristina had her hair down and wore green leggings and a white sweatshirt, the fabric of which was covered in fake pearls. She motioned me to come over to where they all were.

“Come, come, sit, Mrs. Mitchell,” she said, taking control of the situation. I walked over, smiling sheepishly and my son slowly moved his legs to make space for me at the end of the couch, never once taking his eyes off the screen. Cristina leaned over and opened one of the boxes in front of her, took out a dozen or so Styrofoam balls, and lined them up on the carpet. She took out two tubes of glue and a device with a cord that resembled a pastel gun. She set it in front of the Styrofoam balls. Then she walked back to the storage space, out of view. I tried to focus on the movie but couldn’t help wondering what Cristina was up to.  She returned a minute later with armfuls of dried flowers, and then plugged the pastel gun into the wall and stuck a tube of glue into it.

Slowly, my daughter rose and came to sit at Cristina’s feet, still watching the movie out of the corner of her eye. It was as if she moved to cues that were invisible to me. They all watched the movie. Cristina watched it standing up.

Cristina picked up the glue gun and stared at the tip for a minute. The glue was apparently hot enough. As she stuck the tip of the gun into a Styrofoam ball, it made a grinding and crackling sound, and a string of glue trickled down onto the newspapers lining the carpet. She pulled the gun out and looked at us. My daughter was staring up at her with rapt attention.

“Pick some flowers you like,” she told my daughter and then reached down and lovingly petted her head. She waited, ball in hand, while my daughter crawled over to a pile of flowers and selected a clump of little yellow blossoms and what appeared to be dried violets, as well as a handful of green moss. My daughter stuffed these into the gluey craters and they stayed where they were, making up a bumpy and colorful layer. The pair kept going until only a few white bald spots remained and the last flower heads were placed in their spots. Cristina closed her eyes and held it to her chest, a third flowery breast.

“That is gorgeous, Cristina,” my son said with exaggerated kindness. I couldn’t tell where he’d learned to compliment things as gorgeous. If he was serious or was just trying to be respectful.

“Where did you learn to make those?”

“In Guatemala, we grew up making these as well as many other things with dried flowers. This is presented as a gift often to new brides. I am showing your daughter how so she can make them.”

I stood up and carefully maneuvered around the floral mess. The flower balls were ugly and I cringed to imagine my daughter using up her time with such nonsense. But maybe this was what little girls were supposed to do. I had no right to interfere.

Unable to concentrate on my work, I decided to go upstairs and take a bath. I went up to my room. My laundry lay in a heap on my bed, unfolded. Normally, it was all in neat little piles, respectfully placed near the edge of my bed. There was a pile of dirty towels outside the bathroom as well. Cristina had failed to finish her chores.

Once in the bathroom, naked, I sank into the hot water. I realized there were no clean towels piled on the rack. I held up my book and tried to concentrate on the story before me, but was unable to focus. I thought about how things might have been if I had simply put aside my career and been an available mother. I would have been a part of the neighborhood network of moms, who dress in fancy sweatpant outfits and pull up to the curb in cars loaded with groceries and field hockey sticks, smiling, reassuring. As it was now, I was awkward around my children, unnatural, and it was dawning on me that it might be too late to regain a critical connection. I thought of the four of them down in the basement, watching a silly movie and laughing, making crafts and telling mindless jokes.

I was startled by a little knock on my door. I sat up a little bit in the bath and defensively covered my breasts with the arm holding my book and placed the other hand over my crotch. It was probably my husband, come up at last to see me. I removed my hands.

Cristina poked her head into the bathroom and then entered with a stack of purple towels.

“I realized I had left you with no towels,” she said. She placed them on the shelf above the toilet. “I am so sorry,” she said, so genuinely that I felt moved. “Mrs. Mitchell, we would love to have you come back down when you’re finished,” and then she smiled and left the bathroom. I felt a sting of sadness. I laughed a little—it was absurd. A year ago, I would have been outraged if a cleaning woman had waltzed into my bathroom while I was naked, but something unidentifiable had changed and I did not feel that way.

After my bath, I went downstairs and made myself a cocktail, orange juice with a shot of vodka. I couldn’t bring myself to go down to the basement. I took the drink into my study.

I finished my drink and went back into the kitchen to pour another. I decided against turning on the overhead lights, but instead maneuvered around the kitchen by the glow of a tiny nightlight near the stove. I moved quietly and sat at the table, which was built in a glass alcove overlooking the yard. The moonlight coming in through the window was bewitching. It shone on the green marble table in front of my outstretched hands that rested on the surface. As if she sensed I was up there, Cristina came into the room. She startled me. She reached instinctively for the overhead light, but then thought better of it and sat across from me.

“Can I have one?” she said, motioning to my half-empty cup. She must have been able to smell the bitterness of the vodka in my glass when she sat down.

“Sure, of course.”

She made her drink and then returned to the table.

“How are things going for you here?” I asked

“This job is perfect for me. Your children are very good to me, Mrs. Mitchell. You are very generous and treat me the best of any job I had.”

“Do you ever miss your husband?”

“No, no, not really, to tell it the truth.  He was a real sour puss.  He was all things bad for a woman—weak, unemployed, sometimes hitting me, you know. Plus, he was very boring! Nothing like Mr. Mitchell.”  She laughed, leaning forward onto the table, and I couldn’t help but laugh with her. “Divorce was good,” she said. “Thank God for it.” In the half-light, she looked shockingly pretty.

I thought of what I could contribute, and excitedly remembered Peter, my other possible choice for a marriage partner. “I was engaged to someone else before Mr. Mitchell,” I said. “He was hot-blooded, or hot-tempered, whatever the expression is. I sometimes wonder what things would have been like for me if I had ended up with him. He was kind of wild—extreme moods, and passionate, so passionate. Mr. Mitchell is so different from him…more grounded, stable…” I said all this, looking down at my hands, relaxed, and then stopped when I looked up and saw the look on Cristina’s face. It was blank, unpitying. She remained silent for a little while, studying me. Had she misunderstood what I said, mistranslated it?

“You don’t know how good you got it,” she murmured softly, as if she had momentarily forgotten I was there, her face expressionless, her gaze set on some distant point. A cold sensation spread through my chest. Then, seconds later, her face snapped back into action, smiling and warm.

“I’m sorry,” she said, getting up and taking her glass to the sink to rinse it.  “I guess I sound jealous.  Ugly, ugly stuff,” she said.

 

I woke up in the middle of the night, alcohol still buzzing in my blood. As I passed the basement door, I heard giggling, and stopped in my tracks, heart pounding, listening. The sound ceased immediately. I leaned my head in closer. An eerie silence followed, and then a tiny moan. I felt a spinning sensation in my head as I walked down two steps into the basement, soundlessly, and then peered over and saw two shapes huddled under a blanket on the couch.

I would kill her when I got to her. That bitch had slipped from her room and come down here after I went to bed. Unable to control myself, I darted down the stairs and ran at them.  They shrieked and I saw the face of an unknown girl, huddled under the blanket with my son.  I stopped a few feet from them, my eyes bulging, breathing hard.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

“Who is this?!”

“Lisa, my girlfriend,” he said, his arm wrapped around her as if I would harm her. Incredulous, yet relieved, I laughed. He must have let her in the side door after we had gone to bed. I had never seen the girl before. I’d had no idea he had a girlfriend.

Standing there, bewildered, I kept looking from one to the other in an idiotic fashion. Finally, I composed myself. The girl looked as if she might cry.

“We will talk about this tomorrow,” I said and left the basement.

 

Cristina had the next day off and took the bus to the mall to do some shopping. She was out of the house before I came downstairs, so I didn’t have to see her. In the morning “Lisa” had vanished, and my son came up for breakfast, his eyes sheepish, watching me move around the kitchen. Since it was just the two of us in the kitchen, I spoke up. I had decided to surprise him and be cool.

“From now on, have Lisa come in through the front door, no secrets.  Also, invite her to dinner this week.  I’d like to meet her in a more appropriate context.  You are technically no longer contagious, but I hope you haven’t given her mono over the past few months.”

“That’s it?  I’m not in trouble?”

“No.  And if you do as I say, I won’t tell your father.  Also, no sex for now, okay?  You’re too young.”

He nodded and ate his cereal hungrily, relief evident on his face. He really was devastatingly handsome—that square jaw, those sharp features.  He was going to be a treasure for girls.  My own husband paled in comparison to my son. Where had such a creature come from? He hardly resembled either of us. Probably some distant relative in the male line, whose genetics were surprisingly perfect, had exerted his code into my egg and formed such a masterpiece.

“Did Cristina know?”  I said.

“Yeah.”

“She met her, didn’t she?”

His silence was all I needed. There was a tight feeling huddled at the base of my throat, a knot of pain, and I knew if I spoke, that it would cause my voice to shake. For months, Cristina had been leaving the basement when his other guest arrived. I could see her winking at him, glad that I was being fooled. Who knows what could have occurred?  Maybe they had already had sex?

I imagined my son quietly moving his body over this tiny girl in the red light, Cristina in her own room on the other side of the house, pleasantly aware of the activities taking place in the basement. I could see her bathing in her bathroom, thinking about my son, smiling to herself about one thing or another, thinking about her no-good husband and her emaciated little kids running around barefoot somewhere in Guatemala. Her own mother took care of them, and God only knows what condition they lived in. How comfortable she made herself in our house, traipsing around with her ridiculous flower balls and fancy candies for my son. For what woman would not find my son handsome, I mean my God, he looked like Michelangelo’s David for Christ’s sake. I hardly knew him and there he was, beautiful, glowing with light next to me, in that perfect transitional spot between boy and man.

Of course my son had a girlfriend, whom he took under blankets at night—this was the only result that could have come about.  Why had such a thing never occurred to me?  Where had I been for the past year not to notice all of the changes?

 

Cristina began cleaning the house more fervently, sensing that some shift had occurred. She made her Cinco de Mayo dinner, a decadent display of meat and cheese dishes. I met the timid Lisa at dinner one night and liked her well enough.

I decided to take some time off from work.  I slept in most mornings and then spent the afternoons with the kids.  It was May and school was almost out anyway, so there was no point in their returning at the end of the semester, even though they were almost fully recovered from their mono. We went on a picnic one day and the kids brought along their schoolwork, and I, a novel to read for fun.  It was an awkward day, we hardly spoke, and I only in brief philosophical stints. For some reason, I was only able to produce random, reflective conversation, instead of the quick, playful banter they could get from Cristina. I knew it pained Cristina to be excluded from these trips; her days were empty without the kids.

I took them shopping for summer clothes, and then to a movie at the mall, an outing they enjoyed much more. During the movie, I forced myself to smile for their sake, but it was awful from start to finish, a thriller set in Beijing with a lot of rap songs. I clutched the popcorn bucket and tried to exude warmth while they cackled and chatted next to me.

 

The very sight of Cristina’s things in the house was daily wearing down any desire I had to see her face.  Her keys on the counter, huddled as they were on the plastic key chain that said “Miami” in orange script, were little reminders of her that pained me. I had started going into her room on her days off and would stand there and stare at her neatly organized things: the photo of her two children as they stood hugging each other in front of a waterfall, her prim blue Bible, sitting beside the bed, and the various crafts sitting on the desk by the window—a little yellow hat she knitted, and of course, the multi-colored flower balls.

I began doing a lot of the housework and convinced my husband that it was too much of an extra expense to have a live-in cleaning woman. We decided he should be the one to tell her.

I was outside pulling weeds when she came out to find me, tears streaming down her face.

“I never expected this. Why now? Why not just cut down my salary a little? I could stay for less,” she said.

“We just can’t afford it, Cristina.  You know we love having you here.”

“That’s not true,” she said and stopped midway, hesitating. “It’s as if…” she paused again, crying, her hands gripping her chubby thighs. “You hate me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said.

“Admit it,” she blurted out, “you hate me!” Her voice had risen to a shrill tone, and I would have taken great satisfaction from saying nothing and letting her continue to grovel, her desperate voice echoing around the empty yard, but I looked up at her instead.

“Fine, I hate you” I said, and it was the truth.  Her awkward clothes, her simple nature, her presence in my house and her ability to get along with everyone in my family except for myself were hateful to me.  Her desire to marry herself to us for good was hateful to me.

 

Summer kicked in weeks after she had left. It was surprising to me how quickly my husband and children forgot her. They seemed undaunted by her leaving and accepted it without much explanation. Perhaps she had not been so beloved after all. We went to the beach on the weekends and stretched out in a line of four bright towels on the sand. I often thought of her and wondered where she was and what she was doing. We hired a new woman to come twice a week to clean the house. She was a stout, elderly woman, uncharismatic and straightforward.

In the fall, my son returned to high school and was soon immersed in it. My daughter entered seventh grade. I went back to working at the office. We were all soon busy with school and work.

I was the only one who still remembered her. They had never truly cared for her, it turned out, after all the time she put in and all the admiration she held for them. I briefly thought about trying to find her and rehire her, but the impulse vanished as quickly as it had come. I knew that the moment had passed for such a thing, for clarity or forgiveness, what Cristina herself might have called redemption. In the end, I was just her employer. It was nothing personal.

 

Taylor Larsen is the author of the debut novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, which released in July of 2016 (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster). A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction writing, Taylor currently teaches fiction writing for Pace University, Catapult, and The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the co-editor of the literary website, The Negatives.  Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Joyland, The Brooklyn Review, and Windmill: The Hofstra Journal of Literature & Art. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Bustle, Literary Hub, The Negatives, and Women Writers, Women’s Books. Taylor will be EJ Levy’s Peter Taylor fellow at The Kenyon Review Writers Conference in the summer of 2018.  Originally from Alexandria, Virginia, Taylor currently resides with her family outside of NYC. 

L.A. Play

by

Singer Joy is a playwright and composer who splits her time between New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Singer has produced her own written work for the stage independently and the Sacred Circle Theater Company. Singer has also written music for stage productions.

L.A. Play is a movement-and-poetry piece inspired by Los Angeles flora.

 

L.A._Play