the undergraduate literary magazine of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
© Cellar Door 2007 All rights reserved Cellar Door, the undergraduate literary magazine of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is published twice annually and welcomes submissions from all undergraduate students currently enrolled. Guidelines for submission can be found online at www.unc.edu/thedoor. Cellar Door gratefully acknowledges the generous financial support of the UNC Student Government, the Blanche Armfield Fund in the Creative Writing Program, and the Department of English Gift Fund.
volume XXXIV issue I
Editor-in-Chief Poetry Editor Fiction Editor Art Editor Business Director Distribution Manager Poetry Staff
Daniel Cothran H.L. Spelman Megan Rolfe Sally Lee Agata Pelka Elizabeth Garrett Walker Sarah Archer Hannah Bonner Noah Brisbin Zena Cardman Michelle Hicks Mitch Conover Anh Duong Chris Monaghan Aspen Price Liz Turgeon Fiona Matthews Rachel Moltz Sarah Smith Katie Anderson Mark Bowen Colin Keil Colin Lalley Lindsay Oliver Paige Schildkamp Marianne Gingher
Juliana Daugherty Brittany Wofford Parfait Gasana Travis Smith Chad Barton Allison Harrison Andrew Dally Andrew Chan Samantha Deal Iimay Ho Stanton Kidd Erin Stoneking Daniel Wright For My Father, Going Deaf at Fifty Six / 9 Saint Michael’s Day / 10 The Appeal of Cities / 20 Store Receipts / 22 The Electric Towers / 29 The Excavators / 30 Liver Mush / 33 Beside You on the Train / 34 Walking a Poem / 44 Something About the Crabs at Fort Fisher / 45 The Grandson Recalls His Guilt / 46 Giving You the World / 48 Stanley County / 50 Bodies: The Exhibition / 52 Double at Livorno / 68 Cinquains for Your Body / 70 A Lament for My Removed Cyst / 82
Detgen Wardle Kate Mabe Katy Bales Ariel Rudolph Sam Need Adam Edgerton The Divine Madness of Enid Irving / 11 Wings / 17 The Curator / 24 Pretending You Were Right / 37 The Irascible Ian Ivy / 59 When the Swamp Dries Up / 73
Emily Jane Wall Anna Paschal Timothy Jarman Denver Carlstrom Amy Jicha Scott Kosmecki Carina Cortese Emily Hammond Griffin Kenemer Adam Kaynan Kay Loeven Amy Olsen Roxanne Shabani David Mikush Skin Deep / 8 Falling / 16 Sweet Tooth I & II / 32 Hunger / 19 Setting Sun / 21 Water City Exposure / 72 Honey / 23 Gussy / 67 Wave / 28 Cemetery Trees / 31 Upon Entering the Bathroom / 36 Innocent / 43 Appliance Picnic II / 51 The Accordionist Blessing / 58 Fast and Bulbous / 69 Tree Fingers I, II, III, & IV / 80-81 Spanish Women / 83 Canvass / 71 Stare / front cover
Daniel Cothran Reynolds Price / 53
Hazmat, which was nominated for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. He has written two books of criticism, including Twenty Questions, and has edited more than twenty others, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. From 1996-2003,
McClatchy served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He currently lives in Stonington, Connecticut, teaches at Yale, and edits The Yale Review.
J. D. McClatchy is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently
Steve Almond is the acclaimed author of the short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, as well as the New York Times non-fiction bestseller, Candyfreak. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Almond has worked as a journalist, contributed to numerous literary magazines, and served as an adjunct professor of creative writing at Boston College, where he infamously resigned in protest when Condoleeza Rice was named the commencement speaker in 2006. His latest work, a collection of essays titled (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obessions, was released in September. He is currently living outside of Boston with his wife and daughter. Juan Logan is an associate professor and the director of graduate studies in studio art at UNC. Logan completed his MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Since then he has been featured in over 250 solo and group exhibitions across the US in venues such as the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Colorado; Chicago Cultural Center, Illinois; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, WinstonSalem, North Carolina; and The World Bank, District of Columbia. At Chapel Hill Logan teaches painting and other studio arts. Susan Harbage-Page is an instructor and the director of the Allcott Gallery. Page’s photography and photo-based installations explore the changing identities of women in today’s culture. Her recent exhibitions include The History of My Life Written Across My Body, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem; Revival, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Colorado; Misconceptions and Mixed Blessings, Bryan Art Gallery, Conway, South Carolina, 2005 and Terms of Endearment, Eyedrum, Atlanta, Georgia, 2005. Her work has been exhibited in Bulgaria, Italy, France, and China, as well as throughout the United States. At Chapel Hill, Page teaches photography and digital photography classes.
First Second Third Juliana Daugherty For My Father, Going Deaf at Fifty-Six / 9 Daniel Wright A Lament for my Removed Cyst / 82 Andrew Chan Giving You the World / 48
First Second Third Detgen Wardle The Divine Madness of Enid Irving / 11 Sam Need The Irascible Ian Ivy / 59 Adam Edgerton When the Swamp Dries Up / 73
First Second Third Emily Hammond Upon Entering the Bathroom / 36 Emily Jane Wall Skin Deep / 8 Amy Jicha Honey / 23
Emily Jane Wall
xxxiv.i fall 2007
FOR MY FATHER, GOING DEAF AT FIFTY SIX
It’s terrible, the way the vowels go first, like fruits rotting on the ground, each softening until only the sticky scent is left where it fell. Between us, words come apart at their seams: my voice the scrap of threadbare cloth, my father the seamster. It’s strange work, this stitching, but he grafts and mends endlessly, while syllables unravel at their edges and then vanish. Soon I am half-mute, murmuring in ghost-tongue. Whole sentences swell from my throat and then evaporate, words swallowed by the air like stones dropped into water. How meticulously he labors, still—how precise each stitch and seam, each knot shut like a tiny fist. But always the little story crumbles in his hands: words slipped from their delicate fabric, threads spun back to fibers, thinning into nothing.
SAINT MICHAEL’S DAY
Daybreak: moon as still as a saucer of milk. In the garden, we were dreaming of autumn: a merciful emptiness, the great flat sky like the yellowed page of a book. It was still early, but neither of us could sleep. We talked a little, the morning growing lighter, the whine and stutter of cicadas rising sometimes above your ruined voice. By then the word was dull, easy to say. Cancer: like the name of a beautiful city we had seen too many times. It seemed then, as it often did, that you had gone away and left another in your place, a stranger watching me impassively. A child with eyes the color of dusk, swallowing light, dead but for the slightest flicker of fear. What do you want? I said, and you said Everything. I could not look at you. Elsewhere in the garden, a red bird was wrenching earthworms from their quiet beds.
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THE DIVINE MADNESS OF ENID IRVING
Enid Irving is seventy-eight and too thin. She has never been in love. She is losing her hearing and now things are abrupt when they finally hit her ear: OH, she exclaims, THERE IS A SOUND! The words appear behind her eyes and they look like: OH, THERE IS A SOUND! Enid has a cat named Chrysanthemum. He has a bell-collar around his neck to keep him from killing birds. Once she woke up in a cold sweat (terrible nightmare, in it she died!) and fumbled in the darkness to find him—calling HERE KITTY KITTY KITTY—and take off his collar because WHAT IF I DIE AND YOU ARE LEFT WITHOUT ANY FOOD AND ANY WAY OF CATCHING? Two days later Chrysanthemum deposited a dead bird on her back porch and Enid’s hand fluttered to her chest and she could not stand it, that poor broken bird body, and so she put the collar back on. On Thursday Enid goes to the grocery store. She leaves at five thirty and tries to be back at the house by eight, at the latest. Rarely does the trip take her past seven. One evening she is seized with the need to tell the girl at the register: ENID SPELLED BACKWARDS IS DINE. The girl looks at her blankly and blinks twice. WHAT? she says, looking at Enid curiously. ENID SPELLED BACKWARDS IS DINE. She pauses. MY NAME IS ENID. OH, says the girl. THAT’S NICE. Enid can’t hear her. WHAT? The girl does not repeat herself.
OH, Enid says. OH, BUT I WISH I COULD READ LIPS. Enid takes her change and pushes her cart toward the doors but just as they are sliding open she turns around and says: ALSO, I HAVE ALWAYS HATED THE MONA LISA. Everyone watches her as she turns and walks out of the store. Enid talks on the phone to her niece who lives in Europe and speaks languages Enid likes to listen to but cannot understand. ARE YOU UNHAPPY? asks her niece. I AM NEITHER UN- NOR HAPPY, responds Enid. ARE YOU LONELY? I AM NEITHER UN- NOR LONELY. When Enid hangs up the phone Chrysanthemum curls himself into her lap. She has spent hours on her pink carpet, pushing chocolates into her mouth and reading the musty art books she has owned since she was young and pretty. (She forgets that she was ever pretty. She remembers only that she was once young.) She lingers most on the High Renaissance and there are stains on those pages: a tea-ring halo over Judas’ head in The Last Supper, a lipstick kiss atop Michelangelo’s name on page twenty-six, tear stains blurring Mary’s marble fingers in the photograph of Pietà. She was sixteen when, in a fit of modesty, she drew a forest green fig leaf over the place where the colossal legs of David join his trunk. She tried to smear away the green with a spit-dampened finger, but to no avail. Instead the statue looks as if the boy-hero’s skin is diseased, or as if there were some terrible streak of irregularity in the stone. The Sistine Chapel she revisits again and again. To her it is a marvel of complete and perfect beauty. She dreams of lying on its floor, with or without the crowds, what does it matter, as long as the art is there, arcing over her head, the prophets with their wise eyes, the serpent with its shining apple, the light and dark splitting into sun and moon and, above all, the giant, magnificent God extending a fingertip to the leanbodied Adam, all of them styled in perfect contrapposto, stretched limb for stretched limb, clouds billowing, angels singing and sighing, a rapturous orgy of creation. She misses most being able to touch her toes. Once she could go so far as to rest her forearms on the floor, her hands gently clasping the bends of her elbows. There are many things of her youth she misses: 1. climbing without aches 2. her limbs before the shaking
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3. 4. 5.
believing she would not die alone memory everyone who has died.
She has not painted since before the shaking got so bad. Her hands tremble so that when she reads she cannot hold the book, but must sit at a desk and press the pages to the table even as she squints her eyes and strains to see. Sometimes she pulls all of her dresses from her closet and drapes them across the bed. She has organized them a hundred different ways: by color, by size, by button-orzip, by skirt length, by sleeve length, by formality, by age, by neckline, by preference. Now she always and only wears her favorite dress, a blue-and-white flower print that goes to her ankles and buttons down the back. It has a cotton collar that was once clean and sleeves that go to her elbows. Underneath she wears a lace-bordered slip, red stockings, and her old brown shoes. She wears no rings, and she has never been fond of watches. Enid sleeps in a twin bed in a wallpapered bedroom. Chrysanthemum sleeps curled up to the left of the bedpost. Enid sleeps on her back with her arms folded over her stomach. Before bed she sits in front of her mirror and braids her long white hair and ropes it around her head and secures it with long bobby pins that she pushes in so hard her scalp begins to throb. When she was young she wanted to paint the ceiling of her house as her own Sistine Chapel. When she worked at the factory there was not time, but now she has retired; she does nothing but think and loll all day. The paints and brushes are left over from years ago when she used to fill countless canvases, canvases that were first bright white things with wooden-slat spines but became, in her dreaming hands, bright bursts of beauty and color. She had thought once she could be a Famous Artist, but that had never come to pass. She decides that she will paint the ceiling. She imagines what she will paint, formulates the image behind her eyes: It will be God pulling the rib from Adam. To her mind, that is the most important thing to have ever happened. Her brushes have brittled in the time she has spent away from them. She soaks them in hot water to limber up the fibers.
She pulls the brushes from their warm bath and pushes them against her palm. They feel sleek and new against her skin, as if years have not elapsed since their last use, as if she had not put art away for over a decade. She has no ladder. Instead she gathers boxes, all of the cardboard boxes in her house, the boxes from Christmas presents she bought even though she had no one to give presents to except her niece in Europe who did not celebrate any holidays and refused any gifts, even chocolates. Also the boxes from her refrigerator and washing machine. The small boxes are still full. She fills the big boxes with little boxes to keep them sturdy and she stacks them all atop and alongside one another, like building blocks:
Enid’s Stair-Step Pyramid, On Which She Paints
Adam she paints with golden hair and smooth skin, the best she can with her skull pressing into the top of her spine and her hand tremoring from the strain. God she paints as her father, a man with blue eyes and a darkly shadowed jaw. She is almost finished and she has decided there should be blood trailing from Adam’s split skin and the rib should leave a path of crimson. She stands in her kitchen mixing shades of red. ACK, says Enid, I WILL NEVER GET THE RIGHT COLOR. Her lips are a tight line of frustration and she has narrowed her eyes and she pulls a knife out of the kitchen drawer and cuts a deep gash in her palm, and then she climbs up the boxes—shakily, and with a towel wrapped around her bloody hand—and dabs at the ceiling and gives the floating rib a trail of crimson, a stream of blood behind it. ACK, says Enid, THE BOXES ARE SO WOBBLY TODAY. But she stays on top of the pyramid, paints the rib the color of polished ivory, ignores the pain in her palm. All at once she is finished. Her smile is a warm, shining thing.
xxxiv.i fall 2007
And then she bends slightly to itch the inside of her ankle and at the same moment Chrysanthemum jumps atop the refrigerator box and a tremor goes through the stack and the pyramid goes tumbling and Enid falls heavily to the floor, her eyes open the whole way. When it is over she is on the carpet and her body is twisting in ways that a body should not twist and there are parts of her she has suddenly forgotten because she cannot feel them. Her eyes are bright and there is a smear of red across the skirt of her dress. She can taste blood in her mouth. She cannot control her breathing, and her heartbeat has never felt so strange. She exhales a soft, catching sigh. IT IS A SHAME NO ONE IS HERE TO SEE THIS, she says. IT MUST BE A VERY BEAUTIFUL DEATH. She is staring up at her ceiling and because of what she sees she is able to smile past the pain of dying alone: Adam, his eyes closed in the soft ecstasy of sleep, a trail of blood seeping from his side, the warm ooze creeping through the fingers of the God-hand, attached to God Himself, who billows and glows, and gropes with his other hand in the darkness for whatever dust and dirt he will use to fashion the queen of his new world. The split in Adam’s side is not so much a wound but an indentation made of love—perhaps even a crisp bite of lust, Eve’s white teeth into the apple—the blood burns with passion, but no pain. In Enid’s flickering brain she can see the rest of the scene: the shaping of Eve (hips, breasts, thighs, ankles, wrists), the meeting of the two beings, their innocent lovemaking in the warm, fragrant air, their quiet love deep in the garden, their future of terror and tragedy, the future of all humankind wrapped up in their solitary ecstasy, embodied in their two-soul entwinement. IT IS NOT SO MUCH, she breathes, BUT I AM PROUD OF IT.
Anna Paschal FALLING
xxxiv.i fall 2007
There was no telling now how many butterflies he had eaten. His thicket was full of wings; there were wings on the ground, in the branches, under leaves and between the thick roots of the redwood tree. Perhaps when he first landed in the forest he had been in awe of the butterflies. Perhaps he had watched them dart from flower to flower and smiled. But he had not known he would be starving, and that soon he would care less about their wings and more about their thick bodies. If anyone had seen the plane fall from the sky—if anyone had looked upward and thought: oh, a plane, and then: is the plane on fire?—that person had not searched the forest for survivors. No one had seen the little red dot that was Sam in his parachute falling away from the flames. Or perhaps someone had seen Sam, for an instant, but thought it was an optical illusion; one of those spots of light that linger after looking directly at the sun, or a light bulb, or a burning plane in the sky. Either way Sam was in the forest now, and he was eating the butterflies. They were easy to hunt—Sam was a pilot, after all, and he understood flying—and their paths could be quickly intercepted by the net he made out of grass and fibers. At first he only looked at them. He looked closely at the fuzz on their wings and their unbelievably accurate symmetry. He saw the colors and shapes and the little veins. Eventually, however, he began to notice the bodies. First he noticed the astonishingly large ratio between body and wing size (nobody could build a plane proportioned like that) and then he noticed the detail of the bodies themselves. The butterflies groped along with their antennae out like a blind person’s cane. Their middles were reminiscent of the caterpillars they came from. When Sam first pulled the wings off a butterfly (it was a yellow one) he thought about the caterpillars. He thought what it must be like for the caterpillar to wake up after sleeping and find itself shut up in some sticky tube. Did it remember making the cocoon? Did it even realize that it had been sleeping at all? Did it feel somehow exactly like being born, and in that sense, was it familiar? Then the caterpillar would break out and think: I am different—I do not feel like a caterpillar anymore. The wings would
take some getting used to, but when the butterfly realized what they were for, that was a moment Sam could understand. He had been thirteen when he flew his first plane. He knew what it was like to leap suddenly into the air, to right oneself, to gain control and perspective, to see the wings out flat to either side and think: ah, so this is what
they are for.
As he pulled the yellow wings off, he whispered to the squirming butterfly: “Hush now, you remember, don’t you? I am just making you how you were before. Don’t you remember?” He left the wings on the ground, cooked the caterpillar-turned-butterflyturned-caterpillar, and ate it. There was no sense in pretending he ate the butterflies out of pure hunger. He was hungry, but he ate other things. He enjoyed the butterflies. At first he thought it was their taste—they were somehow sweet—but later he realized that what he enjoyed was ripping off the wings. “You think you can just wake up one morning and decide to fly?” he would ask. Sam remembered the crash. He remembered losing control and plummeting and thinking: I guess now I am dying and then thinking of the parachute. He remembered floating down into the redwoods—it was a miracle he landed—and how as he descended he disturbed the butterflies and sent them fluttering up. In reality there had only been a few, and he had loved them, but in his memory (perhaps made inaccurate with hunger) there were hundreds, and he hated them all. He hated them because they had simply grown their own wings. They had sprouted them out of their very sides while they were sleeping. He hated them because they flew upward—they rose out of the leaves and the roots and flew upward even as Sam sat on the ground, his red parachute deflated and dragging in the dirt, reminding him how he had fallen.
xxxiv.i fall 2007
Timothy Jarman HUNGER
THE APPEAL OF CITIES
In the Manteo graveyard, these old salts brine in a ground so unsubstantial the stars wheeling above can press their light into each empty, pickled socket. The white headstones a forest of stumps. Words condense in the cool night; the day’s conversations running into sound waters, resonating from the bones like a tide among the phosphorescent jellyfish surrounding the island. And the wind pulses between houses—closed fists— wind tunneling those between spaces, pushing you towards the sea that you’ll join one day, if you stay.
xxxiv.i fall 2007
Denver Carlstrom SETTING SUN
Literature for the masses that dissolves into crumbled litter; just digit and letter in matrimony joined by a cryptic litany of needs. Only a machine ink stained transcript— with sales turned to perishables. Cold tiled aisles, metallic shelves echoed through the iron bar codes. Yet some organ pulsates within, wishing to rend apart item and price: a human voice, a human moment, a human hand— the creased sides, the cashier’s name, the thank you for shopping.
xxxiv.i fall 2007
Amy Jicha HONEY
GARDEN OF GLASS
Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph descended from a long line of Bohemian glass artists. People who saw their work said they had never seen its like before, it must be in their blood. They spent most of their time making jewelry and went on to make models of marine animals for scientists, but they had not made flowers until they were commissioned to do so by this museum. – Courtesy of the Harvard Museum of Natural History
*** Margaret Barton paced the rows of glass cases at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The usual midday rush hit the museum. All eight of the visitors browsed the glass flowers exhibit. Margaret took a deep breath. “Please don’t lean on the cases,” she repeated for the tenth time that hour. There were signs on every other section of each of the fifteen rows reminding visitors of the rules: “Look, don’t touch,” “Don’t put objects on the cases” and “Don’t put your weight on the rickety legs of the ancient exhibit stands. These models are all made of glass! Thank you very much.” Still, Margaret couldn’t blame the guests for wanting to be close to the treasures, children with snotty noses pressed up against the glass and adults peering down at the intricate designs and wondering who was patient enough to devote their lives to a glass flower garden. ***
As the Blaschkas’ fame grew, they were approached by the first director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, George Lincoln Goodale, who visited them at their family farm in Dresden in 1886. At first, the father and son team was reluctant to leave the family business, but Rudolph changed his mind when he considered the fiscal benefits. He convinced his father and in 1890, they signed an exclusive contract with Goodale and promised to create Harvard’s blooming glass menagerie. The pair spent most of their time pulling, crinkling and occasionally blowing glass tubing and plate glass into the shape of blossoms, petals, stamens and pistils that came
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together to create works of art twice as intricate and twice as beautiful as the jewelry crafted by their forebears.
*** Margaret’s pale skin is littered with worry lines. The dark chestnut hair of a younger woman is interrupted by the occasional strand of grey. Her light eyes haven’t seen the sun in her seven years of working at the museum. She didn’t have a choice. She had her father’s gift, they said, that tenacity of purpose and ability to submerge herself in these inanimate objects that through her had, if not life, at least importance. Like her father before her, she gets to work at 5 a.m. to adjust the temperature, moisture and light levels throughout the exhibit. Before the doors open to the public, Margaret applies Windex to every single glass case personally. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Ha. She lowers her lips almost touching the glass as she breathes out and wipes away a steamy smudge. That’s the closest she’s come to a lover’s kiss. ***
Leopold and Rudolph had completed seventy-five percent of the hundreds of pieces in their “garden” in the first four years of the contract, which was more than Goodale could have hoped for. The work took a backseat to family, however, when Leopold fell ill and eventually passed away in 1895. Rudolph was left to fulfill the promise that he and his father made to Goodale five years prior.
*** The climate control inside the cases rivaled that surrounding King Tut’s mummy. Too little moisture and the organic pigment covering the glass would separate from its host. Too much moisture and the coating would work loose and decompose. Too cold and the glass would become brittle and shatter. Too hot and the stamen and stems would melt like the slowly flowing glass windows of an ancient church. Too much light and the pigment would fade and lose its species-specific color. Too little light and visitors couldn’t make out the intricate designs of the pistils and petals. But all Margaret’s endeavors didn’t thwart time and the elements completely. Catalpa bignonioides was among the oldest of the flowers and cracks, peeling and evidence of former repairs revealed that fact. Some of the models were damaged by a degenerative process called delamination; this peeling back of the layers of glass was noticeable on the large leaf of the catalpa and a cross-section of its ovary. The organic pigment had dried, shriveled and shrunk, pulling the glass apart. Margaret spent much of her time alone with the naked flowers, their timeworn twigs, berries and blossoms displayed for all to see. Late into the evening when the crowds had gone, she abandoned her sense of responsibility and became a child with her nose against the glass smearing the immaculate surface that she had worked so hard to clean that morning. And again her hot breath fogged the transparent partitions. “Daddy, why would anyone bother making these?” a child asked. “It seems like a waste of time to me. Why didn’t they just build them out of plastic?”
“These were made a long time ago, sweetheart. They didn’t have plastic then. Plastic has only existed…” Margaret thought of the questions and comments she’d heard from visitors earlier in the day when they first looked upon the hand-crafted flora, some familiar, like buttercups and cacti, but most of them strangers in an alien landscape contained in one large, still room. “…like I’m on LSD, you know, like the Beatles when they wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” a man said. “Cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head,” he sang to the woman beside him. “Oh come on, you’re making a scene. I’m uncomfortable already. These things are almost… lewd.” The pistil of the beta vulgaris (the beet) resembled a breast with three nipples and two bulbous forms hung off its stamen like the sagging testicles of an old man, flanked by two petals that spread out like a handbar moustache. The visitors had watched a plant peep show, the same one Margaret watched every night. In the next case, a pollen grain was multiplied up to 1000 times its natural size. After being deposited by a bird or insect that rubbed up against the stamen of another fertile flower, pollen swims down the female pistil, much like human sperm down the fallopian tube. But Margaret couldn’t think about that. She was allergic to plant sperm. Even the thought of pollen made her feel that her skin would break out in hives; she didn’t linger at that part of the exhibit. All around the room, stamen emerged like tridents from the gentle petals, like violent weapons of reproduction. The limonium trichogonum, or sea lavender, was strapped for combat with five stamens surrounding a single pistil ready for its insect mistresses. But the flowers remained still, the pollen and their stamens frozen in time waiting for a release that would never come. The protection of the glass and the ability to defy time came with a price. But something was alive inside the confines of the museum’s fortification. A bee flew in through an open window on the third floor. It traveled down the stairwell to the first floor, down the hallway, through the exhibit of stuffed birds and the exhibit of the evolution of the horse, through the gift shop, into the main lobby of the museum and into the garden of glass where Margaret was contemplating the beautiful ovaries of the cypripedium reginae. He landed on Margaret’s shoulder and she shooed him away, dislodging bits of yellow dust from his feet. Margaret felt a little tickle in the back of her throat that she was too mesmerized to care about. But the sensation rose up her esophagus and into her mouth, nose and ears. She closed her eyes, leaned back and put a finger under her nose. “AH…” Conflict avoided, she thought, removing the finger. ***
xxxiv.i fall 2007
Rudolph completed the remaining quarter of the collection of glass flowers, but without his father’s guidance, the task lasted another fifteen years. Rudolph became a recluse obsessed with recapturing the beauty of the creations he and Leopold had created before his father’s death. He barely ventured out of his workshop for fear of losing his momentum and any artistic spark. He had his meals brought to him and worked well into the night before falling asleep at his desk, his grizzled graying beard his only pillow. But even his compulsive attention to detail couldn’t bring his father back.
*** The fateful yellow powder lingered and Margaret sneezed with such force that she lost her balance and fell on the case in front of her, shattering the cypripedium reginae (the showy lady’s slipper) and the tufted marshallia. She took out the entire row as the fragile legs of the exhibit stands gave way after years of stress. The clear glass of the cases mixed with the pigment-tinted shards of the former flowers that might have been immortal. Margaret picked herself up off the ground and looked at the carnal carnage that lay before her, but she didn’t really see it. The spell was broken. She turned and walked past the broken leaves and blossoms. She went straight out the front door without pausing to think. She unfastened the butterfly clip in her hair and let her hair cascade down her shoulders. She stretched her arms out by her sides, squinted up at the sun and took a deep breath, converting oxygen into carbon dioxide. Below her in the grass, a taraxacum officinale bloomed. The pollen grain floated down.
Scott Kosmecki WAVE
xxxiv.i fall 2007
THE ELECTRIC TOWERS
like steel skeletons some god set down in rows, meaning to sheathe them with sinew but forgetting. Men string lightning in shallow parabolas on their bolt-braced arms. Ranged on this field, hollow girders and latticework past the horizon, their strange geometry is like a repeated question I can’t answer, a rune I can’t read— just angled ribs and insulators like spine-discs, cables crackling with voltage stretched between crossbeams, down to the next switchyard, then, the next town.
The excavators, which only work at night, have gone and left their digging buckets in the mud. Still dark this morning as I walk, the streetlamps and the sun cast a dim orange glow. Feet half-stuck in the sucking wet earth, I try to lift the buckets up by their ridged sides, up and onto the concrete, but those torn-off metal mandibles do not want to be saved. I do not want to be saved: here at the bottom of the day I will sink and sink through the mud that looks like the surface of Mars in the orange light, yield myself to the bulk that does not yield to definition.
xxxiv.i fall 2007
Carina Cortese CEMETERY TREES
Anna Paschal SWEET TOOTH 1 & II
xxxiv.i fall 2007
Ree-Ree takes a black log out of the fridge— they call it poor man’s pâté, ebonized foie gras, only with more head meat, and the liver comes from pigs, not ducks fattened up in accordance with French law. She takes a knife, measures out portions thick as her thumb, which flop onto the counter as she presses the knife through. She flattens the mealy gobs between her hands; black veins well up in the wrinkles of her palms. The grease makes wet popping sounds as each one is lowered into the gaping mouth of the unwashed skillet. They begin to spasm when she turns up the heat. After they have curled up a bit, she turns to the table and slides the skillet toward me; it clinks past the Mason jars of preserves and almost topples the bowl of grits. My cousins clamor for the steaming patties, grabbing two or three at a time, and shove them into their mouths like clods of dirt. The last one is for me, she says, picking it up and turning it over with grackle-colored fingers. I tell her I never touch the stuff unless it is in accordance with French law.
BESIDE YOU ON THE TRAIN
I stare at you, the reflection of your freckles in the window among falling leaves, small town after small town. Between here and there we have hours of toward to pick at brambled conversations, to lurch and chug and ride the rumblings. Instead I read aloud your favorite book: The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The goldfinch seeks a thorny perch, burrows happily into the seed, and scatters fluffy thistledown like confetti.
Could I ever eat so lightly?
In the museum you dragged your gaze past all the paintings except Picasso’s Man with a Guitar— your hands shuddered. I searched the portrait for something I recognized, a fist? a face? but only saw your eyes darting on the glass amidst a confusion of frets and muted hues. You preferred to be serotonin-starved than numb with pills. To make you laugh I shoved chocolate in your mouth when the guards weren’t looking, licked your spit off my fingers.
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III. Now you put your head in my lap as I whisper of flight, my lips so close to your ear I imagine you feel the feathered wings, the goldfinch rising in you, Alleluia— But a sudden tremor— a train, head-on, passing us by only a thick pane, a few inches of condensed shadow and roar— I hold my breath, watch, car by car, blurred rust erase the view of trees. Then I see you watching me, not the darkness between or the weight that shakes; so we live a narrow survival.
UPON ENTERING THE BATHROOM
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PRETENDING YOU WERE RIGHT
Oh, shit, was all I had time to think in the second it took for the front end of the Camaro to slide left on the cinderblocks, teeter for a moment, and then crash down on me as the bricks turned over. And then I thought, Oh, shit, again when I realized that Alyssa had been right again and would find some sick humor in the fact that I’d been pinned here. “Honey, that car’s gonna tip over on your face if you don’t put something else under there,” she said one day to my feet sticking out from under the car. I made a face since she couldn’t see me and I didn’t say anything. “Evan?” She leaned down awkwardly with one hand on the ground and the other circled around her white pants to keep the hems out of the dirt. “What?” “Did you hear me?” “Yes.” “Are you going to do something about it?” “No.” “Why not?” “Look.” I pivoted my leg and kicked the frame rail. The Camaro quivered a little but settled. She said, “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” and turned and went back to the house. That was the problem. Half the stuff I did, she wished I wouldn’t do. A few weeks after that, she flung all her things into the back of her El Camino and left. And now, here I was, alone, with the Camaro on top of me. I checked myself. I had managed to turn my head to the right before it landed, but the axle assembly had cleaved my collarbone and smashed my ribcage on my left side. All the parts rattling around inside of me that were supposed to protect me had turned into weapons instead, sharp little knives. I thought about my options. I tried pushing up on the car, which was a stupid idea, but only because I had stupid options. I remembered the cell phone on the ground
behind me. It was one of those things Alyssa had forced on me, even though I swore I’d never use it. I did use it every now and then to call Anthony’s Auto from under the car, which was a lot easier than going back in the house, where Alyssa would yell at me for tracking in grease or oil. I fished behind me with the wrench I’d been using, but could only touch the round edge of it, pushing it further away. I told you I wouldn’t use it, I thought. Even when she wasn’t here, she failed me. I tried to yell. But when I did, I couldn’t draw enough air to make a sizable sound. I could see the road just past the house, and the occasional car going past, but neighbors wouldn’t think twice about my feet sticking out from under here. After all, word was that Evan Coffey was always under his car, night and day, and that’s why Alyssa left. I almost laughed when I thought about it, that my dead body could rot under the Camaro for days before anyone realized I’d been gone a mighty long time. They’d just say, “Look, Alyssa must’ve been right—there’s Evan Coffey under his car again.” And again. And again. Then I thought about my daughter, Sarah, but she wouldn’t have any business being out here. She lived about three hours away in Charlotte with her husband, Chad. She was a sweet girl, but a lot like her mother, and she thought I was in the wrong when Alyssa left. “Daddy, why’d you do it?” she’d asked. “Sarah. I didn’t. Your mother left me.” “That’s not what Mama says.” “Well, Mama’s not always right. Mama left because Mama thought I was one big failure.” “No, Daddy—” “Yes. I don’t think I’ve ever done one thing she was proud of. Except planting those damn tulips in the front lawn.” Yup, she was mighty proud of them tulips. “Daddy.” Sarah sounded frustrated. “I think maybe you just assumed that and always went on the defensive. I think—” “What do you think? What, are you a psychiatrist or something? I mean, really, what the hell do you know? You don’t even live here now!” Sarah was quiet, and I’d immediately regretted what I’d said. “No, Sarah, okay, maybe you do have a point.” There was a small sound like a ragged sigh, the kind of sigh Sarah makes when she’s crying, which isn’t often. Now I really regretted it. “Sarah…” “Daddy,” she said, “I don’t think I really want to talk any more about this right now.” And we didn’t. And we still haven’t. *** It’d been over an hour. My left side, which had hurt surprisingly little right off the bat, was now searing with pain. Every movement and every breath made it feel like it was shifting around nails that had it pinned to the ground, and I felt more and
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more collapsed, like organs that had initially put up a fight had given up. I touched my torso with my right hand, and right away wished I hadn’t. Some bone shard had punctured the surface of my skin, and I was covered in warm, sticky blood. That knowledge, more than anything, made me feel faint. Slowly, reluctantly, I was coming to the realization that I could die here. And that I probably would, if I didn’t get help soon. First I thought about how neat it would be if I ended up on one of those shock shows, you know, Rescue 911 or something like that. And that would’ve been a funny thought, except I realized that to be on Rescue 911, somebody has to call 911. So then I started counting the rust spots I could see on the bottom of the car. That got boring fast. So then I started to think about my funeral. It’s something everyone’s done before. You know how it is. You get to see all the people you know together, crying for you, praying for you, caring about you, missing you. They all have tears streaming down their faces, they all deliver loving eulogies, they all chip in for your tombstone and come back often to lay flowers on it and stare at it and think of you. And every single person realizes how wrong they were and how much they wish you were here today so they could tell you that they were wrong. But that’s only when you’re alive and well. When you could actually die, you imagine what things would actually be like. Not many people can show up. Your friends have busy lives and live too far away. Two people there are truly, deeply sad, but they’re too dried up for tears. Two other people, maybe the same people, are mad at you for dying, for leaving all your problems and complications and your sad little trail of debris. And the rest… Well, the rest stand around gossiping about you, about your sad little trail of debris, about your house and car and job and wife, about that time Uncle Evan farted at the Thanksgiving dinner table, about your drinking habits, about your debts, about how it was probably suicide, because, you know, they say Evan Coffey wasn’t a very happy man. (As if dropping a Camaro on yourself is an efficient way to finish yourself off.) For people who don’t know you, it’s nothing that defines you but everything that accuses you. And then you realize, nobody knows me. This realization was so sharp, so sudden, so painful, that I passed out. *** When I came back to, before I opened my eyes, I had the weirdest, stupidest thought that I should have gotten a dog. You know, one of those dogs that senses before someone has a seizure, or smells the leaking gas and herds you out of the house, or one that would throw itself in front of a car to flag down help for you. The whistling Lassie music would play, and my collie would bark until someone came, and I would be saved. But then I realized that I probably would’ve found some nasty pitbull at the shelter to keep hunters off the land. And this mean dog would’ve gotten mad that it didn’t get lunch and would’ve chewed off my exposed legs.
I opened my eyes. The horizon looked skewed and very far away, like things look when you’re so sick and feverish that you can hardly move. And the strip of sky and grass I could see from under the car was the wrong color, the way it is after you’ve been laying out in the sun too long with your eyes closed. I felt woozy. I shifted my right hand, and the ground under it was wet. For a minute, I thought it was motor oil, and then I realized it was blood. I passed out again. *** When I woke up this time, I realized that if I slipped out again, I might not come back. But at this point, I wondered if I cared. The pain was absolutely excruciating, no longer dulled by my immediate shock, but soon likely to put me back into shock. Every part of my body that wasn’t numb was pure agony. Bone splints sawed my muscles and lung. My blood beat so hot and hard that it felt electrified, and it shot fast shocks down every vein. The fingertips on my left hand jerked and twitched on their own. Every part was sending out mayday messages, but there was no control center to receive them, to give them instructions and comfort them. And I felt so cold. This is the point in movies where the main character’s life flashes before his eyes in warm sepia tones and everyone talks with a cheesy echo and a lousy tear-jerker classical soundtrack behind them. But it’s not like that. Not at all. I mean, you would at least expect to relive all the good moments and regret that you wouldn’t have more. Really, it’s hard to remember those. It’s hard to remember anything you ever did right, even though you spent some thirty years of marriage pretending you were right. It’s hard not to think that you took the wrong road at every fork you reached. It is the deepest sense of regret I’ve ever had, an extended, horrible imagining of what could have been, and an equally horrible reminder of what was, like the sense that you finally realized your compass was pointing south this whole time. By now, I felt like I was drowning. My flattened left lung went from a pitiful wheezing to a rasping to nothing at all. My right lung gasped for oxygen. As if I wasn’t helpless to begin with, now I was drowning in air. I felt like I was having some kind of argument with God. God, please, I’m out of gas money, but I know where I’m going now, I really do, I won’t run out again, I promise, could I please just have a little more? But God said, Nope. End of the road, son. I was really starting to crack. My forty-nine years on this Earth amounted to nothing. Each day was like some little bead strung on a line until all I had was a big, ugly, useless necklace. No. Each day was like a link in a chain attached to a collar around my neck. I’d been wandering around toward something I couldn’t see, maybe something I didn’t even look for. But now... Looking death in the face, I see everything I should have
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done, everything I wanted to do, everything I missed. It’s all in focus, and I lunge toward it like a dog toward the open gate. But my chain is too short. I was given too few days. I’m snapped back into the yard. I’ll give Death that. It sure makes things clearer. I felt so cold. I couldn’t breathe. So this was all I had to my name. A Camaro, a trailer, and a big, long, ugly trail of nothing. My obituary would be brief, matter-of-fact, probably written by Sarah, not Alyssa. “He was a loving father.” Not a word about being a husband. Over thirty years of marriage. Not that being a father is something that I would ever have thrown away. Sarah is the best thing that ever happened in my life. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, and she married a man who loves her, even if I don’t like him very much. But fathers hardly ever love the man their daughter marries. Never good enough. Jesus, it was cold. The color was starting to drain out of everything, so I kept my eyes shut. And I tried to think about every moment in my life that was good. Even the ones with Alyssa. About that night when the three of us had sat out back and watched a meteor shower and then lit a fire and toasted marshmallows. Then, after Sarah had gone to bed, I sat in front of the fire with Alyssa in my arms, and she told me she loved me from here to the moon and back. And about how I’d met her in high school, and how I told her after we’d kissed for the first time that she was the only girl I’d ever truly, deeply loved. I guess that was why I’d snatched her up so fast. Maybe my life wasn’t a total ruin. Just a partial one. So damn cold. I opened my eyes. I was having trouble focusing now. My eyes were like wheels of a car that wouldn’t turn in the same direction. That’s not good for binocular vision. I was starting to feel almost giddy. Like, well shit, it doesn’t really matter now, because I’m leaving it all behind. More like sick giddy, like I’m on a roller coaster to the center of the earth, and it doesn’t matter if I fall off the roller coaster because I’m toast anyway. Hell, where was I headed? It was more or less up for grabs. Whip out your Magic Eight ball. Six feet under? Probably. Hell? Maybe. Heaven? Try again. A breeze picked up, and dry leaves and cigarette foils and Burger King wrappers stirred around the car and skittered underneath it. The chill from the wind made my whole body tense and quake. The door of the tool shed near the car banged open, and the two French doors leaning against it fell over and smashed in the driveway. Good riddance, I thought. Alyssa had bugged me to get them after Sarah, when she was little, ran into a glass table and got splinters of it in her arm. I thought Sarah had probably learned her lesson, but Alyssa had packed up every glass bowl and ashtray in the house and asked me to replace the sliding doors with safety glass.
I got them, but never put them up. Anytime I’d start a project, Alyssa would remind me of “those doors” and tell me I’d never finish it. And hell, she was right about half the time. At one time there had been a third door, but one day when I had trouble replacing the Camaro’s water pump, I’d chucked a wrench at it. Cracks spiderwebbed out and the entire pane shattered, but the film on it kept the pieces together. I’d never seen something broken be so beautiful. I never finished replacing the water pump. Alyssa was right again. The smashed doors in the driveway cast up a cascade of tiny rainbows that sparked along the underside of the car. They winked and disappeared into crevices like they were trying to get out, then reappeared. It made me dizzy, the way seeing too many stars at once can make you dizzy. I remembered the day Sarah had run into the table. She came running to me with trickles of blood down her arm, crying and yelling. I remembered the look she’d given me, desperate and hopeful. For that one moment, I was the only thing she was looking for, the only thing that could help her, the only thing she needed. And that was the only thing I needed. That one look. Maybe that was what Alyssa needed from me. I felt like I was starting to drift away. In a movie, this would be where the cameras would pan out from the scene and violins would swell, showing Evan Coffey and his Camaro and the smashed doors, shattered but held together. And then someone far away would get a phone call and bad news. At least there was someone to get that phone call. At least there was one person in the world who would get that phone call, one person who would care, who would run into the woods and shake their fists at the sky and scream. Maybe there were two people like that. I closed my eyes.
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Griffin Kenemer INNOCENT
WALKING A POEM
I think I understand better now, after trying—and in failing— to write this poem for you, Mother. Between pouring drinks and giving up, your poem and I left for a walk. That patch of woods at the town’s edge, growing smaller every year, where the paths are not long, but narrow and winding enough to feel lost, I walked it there, like a master walks his poorly trained dog, untethered— knowing he will return, but not when. I heard him rustling, howling through the trees. I never saw the sound but walked further thinking about my poem, and if he came back, whether to praise him for returning or punish him for taking so long. And I watched my shadow growing longer on the path and the shadows of trees overtaking my own and the new houses and the places where new houses will be in a year. Until he trotted back to me, nothing in his mouth but a dangling tongue, gazing up at me the way poems always do, amber eyes swirling with change, and I knew (him being a poem-dog and myself being delusional) there was nothing to say about it. And when you call, and we talk about television, and smell the alcohol on each other’s voices, I think maybe it is something like that but probably not at all, and we hang up, and I pour you another drink.
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SOMETHING ABOUT THE CRABS AT FORT FISHER
scuttling through the grey mud under the blanched wooden bridge, rising from puddles to whisper versions of the stories told by plaques and tour-guides— a claw: strong, heavy, sharp; a crab: holding it up to us, above his head, struggling, an impossible animal dissolving back into the muck, and in the pictures we developed invisible as any other ghost.
THE GRANDSON RECALLS HIS GUILT
Even as a child I knew someday you were going to die, and I carried the knowledge like the kind of guilt only prophets can possess when embarrassed by their privilege. In front of the mirror every morning before strolling me off to school, you were gelling my hair, wrestling down the defiant black spikes I inherited but hated. I was oblivious to how much illness your actions were being pushed through, but I was predicting the power you would have when you were finally less than material, picturing your storybook soul: how it would fly through me, congeal into a conscience the width and strength of one strand. Everyone wants a magic friend pleading their case on the other side. But when you died, I gasped as if to suck you back into this life, at least until I could save you as I had always planned to. But God knows where it is you got to. My friend at church asked, “Was she saved?” and I confessed you were Buddhist. He said, “I’m sorry but that’s just stupid.” I sat down in the pew and thought about your joss sticks burning columns of scented smoke; the yellow papers I helped you fold burning in heaps outside your Taiping home; our clothes smelling of un-Christian spices; plates of jackfruit and rambutan
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placed before yellowed photos of the departed, statues of spirits. I could have snatched them from your hands, smashed them on the floor, and warned you: Ah-ma, that’s idol worship! When my mother comes in to tell me she caught you on the porch, a praying mantis with eyes as vacant as yours were at the end, she is holding you in her cupped hands. We find ourselves kneeling, putting our lips on your jade-green arms, keeping you under the glass next to the cross, murmuring thanks to Jesus.
GIVING YOU THE WORLD
From the crook of my arm, you follow my hand sweeping across our Orlando estate. Your pudgy fingers in a film of saliva pinch my neck. May I confess I made you in hopes of living this precise moment, and that all the mornings spent preparing this kingdom for you with my sweat are suddenly, obviously, worth it? The entrance is tall as I dream you will be, and flanked by porcelain elephants carrying potted plants. Above is a thin gold frame encasing our surname written in red calligraphy that’s taken me years to perfect. When I was ten, your grandmother asked the herbalist to teach me how to write it (she was illiterate), so he folded my hand over the pen, pressing out strokes like petals cautiously unfolding a name that’s a thousand years older than Christ. And there it stood as if it had a spine: that elfin ear, that shuttered window, the tough split tail, like an animal of history hovering at the gates. It’s all been thoroughly researched. The stone floors of the courtyard are the same as the cold gray stone at the Guangzhou family temple. Lacquer work sparkles in glass cases on the grass; ivory tusks, savaged with holes, from a distance look frail as cobwebs, but up-close, you see, they are carved through carefully with mountain lovers curtained in foliage. On weekends we let the tourists come in, we give them a stage performance, and the food stands sell them stuffed bread smooth as a baby’s cheek. Our restaurant coughs out smells of shao mais and snake porridge,
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and loudspeakers play nonstop hits of Hong Kong pop, the clack-clack of our language, sputtering to its end, sweetened by a rich, nostalgic baritone. And this is, at last, what we wanted, our receding histories in eyefuls, made touchable for our sons. Can it be you will want it? I grab your hand and move it in the air, the ear, the window, the tough split tail, again and again forever, so you’ll never have to want it.
We used to sit on the octagon picnic table with strings tied to sticks, pretending to fish. It never occurred to us to pretend to catch anything. Those afternoons the heat seemed to rise up from the sweaty grass, and I was amazed at how it blurred the horizon and left the flat land like ripples in Cousin Lane’s pond. I don’t remember shoes, just the cool cement porch under my feet and the wet watermelon against my face, slop of juice and seeds dripping down onto your old clothes. A scent I can’t describe and have yet to catch since then. The weeping willow branches watched the infinite front yard, barely swinging their heavy green hair with the rare breeze. When you told me how it took root from a twig my mother grabbed so many years before and gave to Papaw, just then I plucked a twig to give to your daughter, my mother, wanting to see that green hair fly in the mountain wind.
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Adam Kaynan APPLIANCE PICNIC II
BODIES: THE EXHIBITION
Inside-out boy holds hands with his skeleton, they pull against each other’s weight as if to twirl, the boy’s splintered calf muscles stick out into the air like thick square tongues. A foot cut off at the ankle sits alone in a glass case, plasticized tendons dyed a bloodless red; the toenails, unpainted, dirty yellow. A woman in thirds: tops of breasts and stomach, innards, butt and backs of thighs, lateral slices standing in a row as if waiting in line. The man in the white coat says the bodies are from China, and I am suddenly glad she has no face. Only some of the bodies were unclaimed, the scientist explains, and they were confiscated. A piece of Chinese government property stares at me with brown glass pupils. The master dissectionists could not manage his eyes.
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2007 Thomas Wolfe Prize Recipient, Reynolds Price is also a novelist, biblical scholar, poet, and Duke University professor. From essays to novels, poetry to plays, Price’s work covers a lot of ground, and he has been well recognized for it. In 1986, he won the National Book Critics Award for his work, Kate Vaiden. He has also received a William Faulkner Foundation Award and was selected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has written more than thirty books, including Blue Calhoun, Vital Provisions, The Good Priest’s Son, A Long and Happy Life, and A Whole New Life. This last work, a memoir detailing his survival after being diagnosed with spinal cancer, is the work that inspired the following interview.
P R IC E LAUGHTER, PAIN, SUPERSTITION: TALKING MEMOIR WITH REYNOLDS PRICE
What’s your latest joke?
Gosh, well, I never plan them. They either occur instantly or they don’t. In fact, I asked my agent about that a few years ago because she always had a joke for the day. And finally I said, “Harriet, how do you make these up? How do you have a fresh supply?” And she said, “Because I have a friend who works at the greatest joke factory in the whole United States—the New York Stock Exchange.” She said those guys on the floor that you see streaming around like little ants, they’re not bidding on stocks, they’re making up jokes. I’ve made up those bad jokes like kids make up, but I’ve never made up a joke as a grown person. Like most people, I’ve known in my whole life 10,000 wonderful jokes, but I can’t remember a single one of them. Once I’ve told three people, it’s like an etch-a-sketch—it’s instantly erased. So I wish to God I could tell you how I made up jokes. The majority of people couldn’t tell a joke if you had six pistols at their temple, and then there are these people who are natural wits, and I’m very far from being a first-class natural wit, I’m probably like a B, B- natural wit, but that’s better than being a C or D- natural wit. But it’s a huge help in life, I’ll tell you—it’s got me through some very tight passage-ways in my life, especially for those months I was sick.
People use faces and body language to tell jokes. How can writers make up for not being able to use body language?
I’ve had people say to me, “Reynolds, you’re one of the world’s funniest people when you’re in the room, but there’s not a lot of humor in your fiction,” and I think it’s true. I’ve often sat there on page fifteen and thought, “Gosh, I wish I could say something funny right now.” Sometimes I can do it by trying to have a character who’s thought of as being likeable because everybody likes to see a funny person coming in, at least for a short period of time, provided he’s not some Robin Williams who’s going to be so manic that you want to throw him out a window after four minutes with him. Steven Spielberg, the composer, is a friend of mine, and another friend of mine is James Taylor, and James and I’ve written a couple songs together. James sent me a cassette tape of some melodies on the guitar for which he had no words, he said, “If you can give me any words, it’d be wonderful!” And I would sit there and play them over and over and over, and I couldn’t think of a damn thing, and I said to Spielberg, “I can’t do this—how on earth can you do it? And he said, “You imagine a character and then the character has to say to say something through that music.” So I tried—I still couldn’t do it. I didn’t try as hard as I had to. But I’ve always thought that was an interesting suggestion—I’d like to go back and try again. Pain—which is the more difficult to convey—pain that’s more physical or emotional? Physical pain is almost impossible to convey. You can say, “My feet were burning as though I were walking over volcanic coals” or something like that, but it’s still extremely difficult, I think, to come up with something that’s even vaguely original if you’re trying to do that. Emotional pain, depression, melancholia, great loneliness—I have always found those easy to convey because I suppose they can be so much more tailor-made to an individual character. If you say to me, “I’m in terrible pain,” I don’t have the faintest idea what you mean. And if you say, “Well, imagine putting your feet in boiling water—my leg hurts me that badly,” then I think I’ll probably get some emotion. I remember when I first started teaching I would say to students: if we both put our fingers on a candle flame, we could say this really hurts. Neither of us knows what the other means, unless one of us jerks their finger away, or screams and puts it in our mouth, or something like that—there has to be a sort of a physical coefficient to it. Those kinds of emotion or physical reaction can be awfully difficult to deal with in fiction, prose fiction, or prose.
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What is the best aspect of pain? I wouldn’t say there are any really good aspects of it—I’d say if you’re a writer you can try to console yourself with: “Well, at least I’m being exposed to one more aspect of human experience that I may never have been exposed to.” Because of having spinal cancer and having had four very elaborate spinal surgeries back in the 1980’s, I have severe spinal pain 24-7. I take pretty powerful drugs that can shave off about 20% of it, but only about 20%, and so very slowly over those last 23 years, I’ve accustomed myself to having that as the basic weather of my life. People say to me, “Are you in pain?” and I honestly say, “I wasn’t until you mentioned it.” If you do have any condition in your life that’s less than ideal, you can park it somewhere, but then people draw your attention to it. They say, “Why do you look so depressed today, Daniel?” and you say, “My God, I meant to commit suicide at noon and I forgot.” Should a writer have more experience with pain than the typical reader? I don’t think that’s a requisite at all. I always used to tell my writing students on the first day of class: “Be aware of one absolute certainty about everyone in this room: you are legally blind because there’s a phenomenal amount of your life and of the world around you that you absolutely don’t see.” I was once on a committee with Clint Eastwood—he’s not a friend of mine, I don’t know him at all—but he and I were on a committee for the National Endowment for the Arts, and we had to walk from a building on such-and-such a street in Washington DC; we decided to walk because it was such a pretty day. Clint Eastwood is a phenomenally handsome man; he looks even better than the Clint Eastwood in the movies. As we walked along there were all these federal employees sitting on the steps of buildings, you know, having their sandwiches, and I wanted to say, “This is Clint Eastwood!” Not one single person so far as I could see recognized him, just because they were talking about how miserable they were last night or the bad movie they saw on TV or something. The only people I know who are very observant tend to wind up writing. Writers accumulate so much sensory information that they have to sooner or later unload it—disburden themselves of it. I remember a friend of mine who was a psychiatrist, and he said one of the absolute things that he always finds about highly creative people is that they have phenomenal memories. He thinks that one of the reasons that they become writers or composers or whatever it is, is that they suffer the need eventually to start getting rid of all this stuff. It may well be the reason I started writing when I was 14—writing ghost stories and horror stories. I didn’t tend to come up with the kind of adolescent poems that most people write like,
P R IC E
“I’m the world’s most miserable person—nobody loves me, I am the loneliest man in Rudolph County, KY.” I came up with these horror things, and then I gradually worked into something slightly less horrific. You mention omens a number of times—to what extent do they guide your writing and other parts of your life? I’m superstitious. I’ve gone sort of lunatic on the subject of that. My father, if we were ever riding along and a totally black cat ran across to road, or what looked like it, he would say that you break the charm by throwing something away. He would take out his match book and throw a paper match out the window. What he should have done was given up smoking because then he wouldn’t have died of lung cancer, which he did, so the matches were his omen, not the cat. In A Whole New Life, I mention that when I was being driven to the hospital for spinal cancer, I think I saw, it was a black bird of some sort. What was it, a crow? You also talk about how a self-respecting Roman… Well, it was the day in which Durham, NC had a total eclipse of the sun, and I remember turning to the friend who had driven me to the hospital, Betsy Cox, and I said, “No self-respecting Roman would have ever gone in a hospital on a day like this.” Which is absolutely true, but I would have, and guess what? Two days later they found out I had spinal cancer. But I had also seen several crows that day. Which wasn’t common, and I thought, “Oh, blackbirds, this is not a good idea.” Also on the subject of spirituality: what has been people’s reaction to your spirituality that isn’t churchy? I’m a fairly traditional Christian, I just don’t see the need to run it through churches, which always seem to me to get almost everything wrong. I don’t know if I mentioned it in A Whole New Life or not, but I went to church loyally as a boy and loyally as an undergraduate at Duke, and this was in North Carolina. I never once, repeat, never once heard the word “racism,” or racism being deplored when it was the single largest problem, not only in the South, but in the whole United States, and still is. And the churches off talking about something else! So I could honestly say that invariably, traditional churches get it wrong. So I just go without it. I don’t think I’m an especially good human being. But you know, I’m interested in the teachings of Jesus and try to be conscious of them in my life; it’s worth thinking about because there’s no narrative in the history of Western civilization that’s more influential than the Gospel of Mark, which is the oldest Gospel. If you can name a story that’s had
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more effect on human beings than the first gospel ever written, then I would be happy to hear your candidate. I’ve tried to think of millions of candidates at home, and I couldn’t think of anything else. So many people never actually sit down and read a gospel, or even hear somebody else read one. Have you ever regretted publishing too much (or too little) about someone? No. Not yet. I’ve published two volumes of memoirs, and I had a very tough family—not tough in a bad sense, tough in the sense of very strong and resilient, and you had to do an awful lot to offend or hurt any member of my family. In A Whole New Life, the cancer memoir, I did have to write at some length about my radiation oncologist, who was an extremely frigid person. It was a man at Duke Hospital, and I didn’t want to reveal his name, so I called him the “frozen oncologist,” which is what he was. When I published the book, a mutual friend of his and mine, a woman who’s on the staff at Duke Hospital, came up to me and she said, “Dr. X is awfully unhappy to have the role that he has in your book.” And I said, “Well the role is exactly a description of the kind of position that he was at that time in my life.” And she said, “You do know that his wife has Multiple Sclerosis?” I said, “I didn’t know that.” I said, “I had spinal cancer and he treated me in the way that he did.” So we left it at that. I don’t know if she ever went back and told him. But for all eternity, he’s the frozen oncologist in my mind. I’m not out to hurt people in my books, and I know very few people whom I think of as evil, in fact I really have thought a lot and I think I think I’ve only ever known one evil person—I’ve known some bad people, I’ve known some just fuck-ups, which the world is full of, but I known but one evil person, and I’ve never named that person out loud because maybe he was not as evil as I think he was. I’m too nice a guy. Sorry, we’re running out of time. Do you have any quick advice for young writers? My advice is to read, read, read, read, read. Reading is falling off in America for all sorts of reasons. TV used to be the standard culprit, now there are many other culprits, but every good writer that I’ve ever known is a compulsive reader. And you know, I started reading as soon as I could—in first or second grade—and I’ve been reading tremendously ever since. Probably the first thing I would ever say is to be sure you never stop reading, and read very challenging stuff—don’t just read what’s your kind of fiction or poetry or whatever.
P R IC E
THE ACCORDIONIST BLESSING
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THE IRASCIBLE IAN IVY
1. Ian Ivy’s head exploded Tuesday morning about 15 minutes before recess. It popped like a balloon and not like a melon. The class mourned in silence in a powder blue room with two large bay windows. They told the police it was too much orange juice, but Juniper Jones knew the truth. 2. The Saturday before last, she and Ian had been sitting in the food court at the mall. Orange neon lights the color of dental fluoride offered chicken nuggets with a miniature action figure of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Juniper was hungry, but she disguised it well. Her parents were lobbyists for the seafood industry who dressed up every day in red power ties and smiles. She had an affirmative way about her that caught people off guard. Juniper was meeting Ian for a meal. He offered to buy her a happy meal, snatching a couple of singles out of the breast pocket of his Gap Kids polo and flipping them across the table. George Washington’s face spun in a perfect arc, casual, beautiful, symmetric, monetary. They were young. They were wild. They were unsupervised until 4:30. They were almost 8 years old. Some said Ian had left his mother’s womb wearing a leather jacket. Some said that the tattoo on his upper bicep was in permanent marker. It was widely known that he had broken a kid’s clavicle in kindergarten for stealing his key lime green crayon when he wasn’t looking. Ian loved to draw pictures of plant-eating dinosaurs, and he filled in their skin color with that key lime green crayon. No one ever told him that dinosaurs were not pie colored. He wasn’t the sort of person you corrected with aesthetic qualms. When he was younger, Ian’s parents had sent him to the special class in the trailers behind the cafeteria. Doctors said he had ADHD. His parents, gullible academics from a nearby community college, described it as the absolute conquest of the id.
Juniper would have used different words to describe Ian: words like perfect, and rugged, and untamed. Words fit for a boy wearing denim jeans and a cowboy hat. In her eyes, Ian was always coming home from a long day of manual labor. He was always wearing a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and failing to communicate his emotions at crucial moments in their relationship. His clothes were always dirty, and he would come home every night at sunset like a furious tornado that needed to be calmed down, washed up, and fed dinner. Ian didn’t know that she felt this way. He didn’t own a red flannel shirt. He thought it would be fun to work in the dirt—but as a paleontologist, not a cowboy. He had never considered the future, and until the week before at recess when she had given him her cup of pudding and asked him to meet her at the mall, he had never considered Juniper. But as she would attest, they had been in the same class since kindergarten, and she had been in love with him since three Tuesdays ago, when she had dropped her pencil in science class. When she reached for it, a foot in a scuffed up red tennis shoe kicked the pencil away. It wasn’t a malicious kick. And it wasn’t a cruel face that she found when she raised her big green eyes to consider the foot’s owner. It was Ian’s face, and it was calm like an ocean that’s not really that sentimental a couple of moments before thundering up and down and shipwrecking a fishing boat and killing a couple of sailors on it that had kids, and wives, and parents back home. He shrugged his shoulders at her. Juniper would never forget this moment. Ian forgot the moment immediately. It was not the first pencil he had kicked, nor the first venturing look he had thwarted with complete indifference. He didn’t have friends, and he didn’t hang out with girls. He had kissed Sally Sue in kindergarten after he had tripped her in the hallway, but he had gotten in big trouble so he didn’t do that anymore. But unlike the other girls who had at one point or another ventured an alluring glance at the irascible and highly distractible boy in the back right corner of the powder blue classroom, Juniper knew how to get what she wanted. Her parents were lobbyists after all. Perhaps more importantly, she had an older sister who talked too loudly in the kitchen when she was on the phone with her friends. So she started eating lunch close to Ian, who always ate alone. She noticed that on Fridays his mother would pack him a vanilla pudding with chocolate swirls, and she noticed that he smiled every Friday when he saw it, like he had completely forgotten the Friday before. So the week before this Saturday, she had asked her parents to include this special brand of pudding on their shopping list. She gave it to Ian on Tuesday, which was exciting for him because it was three days earlier than he was used to. Then she said he had to come to the mall with her on Saturday because she had another gift she wanted to give him.
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Ian agreed, but did not consider reciprocating the gift. His head hurt a bit after their first encounter. Before Juniper, his life had been simple and full of desires that were immediately acted upon. Now he had plans, something he had never had before. But the promise of another gift of equal stature to the pudding was too much to resist. So he watched three less cartoons this Saturday morning, and smiled when Juniper’s dad came by to pick them up in his sports car which was the color of red wine. “Ian, I want you to kiss me,” Juniper said. She had just taken a bite of her hamburger, and there was still some ketchup on her cheek a little bit to the left of her lips. It was cute. And she was cute, in Ian’s opinion. So he leaned over to kiss her. “Wait!” She jumped back in her chair. “What are you thinking? I’m not just going to kiss you like that,” she said. “You have to like, do stuff for me beforehand.” Juniper’s sister had taught her much. Ian was bewildered, so he didn’t say anything. He thought about running away. Things were going just as Juniper had planned. “You know what I love?” she asked. “Dinosaurs.” This was a non-sequitor. Now Ian was totally confused. He also loved dinosaurs, but he had just been thinking about kissing, and he didn’t like to think about kissing and dinosaurs at the same time. Juniper had done her homework well. Another awkward silence followed. Ian felt like someone had just poured molasses over his brain. Juniper suggested that they relocate, so they went to the arcade to play some video games. Juniper let Ian win at air hockey even though she was very good. Ian didn’t realize this, and interpreted her losing as weakness. He defeated her soundly and taunted her. “I hate you,” Juniper said. This did not produce the desired result. Ian began walking away. “Wait, come back,” she said. “I’m ready for you to kiss me.” He came back and leaned in again. Again he was rebuffed. “Wait, I’m still scared,” she said. Juniper’s sister would have been very impressed. Then they went outside and waited for Juniper’s dad to pick them up at 4:30. 3. That night, Ian threw everything around in his room and drew storm clouds on his walls in black permanent marker. He had been trying to draw some herbivores, which always calmed him down, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Juniper. No one had ever seemed interesting to him before. She liked dinosaurs, which was cool. And she could appreciate a good cup of pudding. His head hurt a lot, so he went downstairs and had a glass of milk. That night Juniper laid on her big frumpy couch which was purple with floral patterns and imagined Ian protecting her from a giant tyrannosaurus rex. She was a princess in this fantasy and wore a golden tiara with rubies in it. They were in the
middle of a prehistoric jungle. Ian stood bravely in front of her and waved a golden sword at the beast. The creature lunged and he countered, leaping into mid-air. If this was an action movie the camera would have revolved 360 degrees around his body. He slashed the monster’s head off. Juniper reveled in his valiance. 4. Monday at school Ian paid attention to where he sat for the first time in his entire life. He found himself happy to be sitting close to Juniper. Juniper completely ignored him, but she wore a very pretty blue dress the color of midnight. Ian acted out all day. He punched a quiet blonde haired boy named Steve Stevenson in the arm and was sent to the principal’s office. Steve was an innocent, but Ian was indiscriminate. Juniper smiled as Ian was dragged kicking and screaming out of the classroom by the large gym teacher from down the hall. She imagined a weaker teacher being overpowered by Ian’s fury. 5. Juniper didn’t see Ian for most of the next day because he was in detention, but she walked up to him as he waited on the sidewalk for the bus after school. She didn’t ride his bus, but he didn’t know that. “Hey Ian,” she said. The weather was getting colder so she was wearing overlarge ear muffs and a bright red jacket. The day was crisp, cold, and cloudy, like the inside of a mouth after it has been introduced to a cupful of Listerine. “Hi,” Ian said. Juniper looked very pretty this day, in his opinion “Sorry I ignored you yesterday,” she said. Her sister had said that this was important, to see if the guy “really liked you.” Ian didn’t know how to respond, so he didn’t. “I got something for you,” she said. She reached into her pink knapsack and pulled out a large square object. It was a book on aquatic dinosaurs. She had skipped her lunch break and went to the library to pick it up, eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the way. Ian accepted her peace offering happily. He told her thank you. It was the first time he had thanked anyone without immediate prior provocation from his mother. The big yellow bus arrived. When they settled into a seat together, he did another thing that he had never done before. “I like you,” he said. “Me too,” said Juniper. She said it so excitedly she was bouncing up and down on the springy seat. She gave him a firm hug. Ian made a note in his memory that saying those three words resulted in a hug. “So, do you want to be boyfriend and girlfriend?” she asked. Ian thought that this was a ridiculous thing to ask. How can someone be both the boyfriend and the girlfriend? He asked Juniper as much.
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“No silly,” she said. “I’ll be your girlfriend and you can be my boyfriend.” “OK,” he said. “But why do we have to be called something different?” Ian didn’t watch a lot of television, so he was innocent in this way. Juniper was not innocent. She had an older sister, and sometimes she snuck some MTV at night while her parents were arguing upstairs, so she knew how things were supposed to work. “It’s different because we don’t do things the same anymore. Like from now on, you have to sit next to me on the bus when we go on field trips to the museum. And you have to beat up other boys if they take stuff from me. And you can’t talk to any other girls for the rest of your life. And you have to give me stuff some of the time to let me know that you care. And you have to spend all of your time with me, because we are in love.” Ian was no longer smiling. He was freaked out. Being someone’s boyfriend sounded like it involved a lot of rules. Rules for how you spent your time. Rules for who you talked to. Rules for who you sat next to on the bus on field trips to the museum. How do the grown ups do it, he wondered. Juniper watched him look at a long, jagged rip in the seat in front of him. He started pulling some of the blocky burnt orange stuffing out of the opening. This was not attractive. This was not romantic. This was not how it was supposed to go. “You know what?” she said. “Forget it.” Ian was confused. He had just been thinking about saying yes while he was pulling some stuffing out of the tear in the seatback in the front of him. Usually he ran away from rules like a wolverine, but this girl was special. She knew that he liked his vanilla pudding with chocolate swirls, not chocolate sprinkles. She got him. Maybe he could spend all of his time with her. Maybe he could get her some nice things to show that he cared. Maybe he could sit next to her on the bus every time they took a field trip to the museum. “I was just thinking about it,” Ian said. “And I think that I could be your boyfriend.” That was one thing that would have served Ian well in his adulthood. He told the truth easily. Juniper wanted to forgive him, but her sister had been firm about this. Dignity is more important than happiness, she had said. “It’s too late,” she said. “You shouldn’t have had to think about it at all. I can tell it won’t work out now.” They sat the rest of the ride in silence. Juniper stared out of the window at the rapidly freezing woods passing by and tried not to cry. She wasn’t even on the right bus. When they got to Ian’s stop, she followed him off of the bus. “Do you live around here?” he asked. She explained what had happened. Her pride was in tatters. She might never be able to forgive this boy for hurting her this bad.
They went to his house and Juniper called her dad, who came to pick her up in his sports car. She waited for him in the kitchen with Ian’s mom, who was bewildered because Ian had never had a friend before. Ian lay on his bed upstairs with his head underneath a pillow. His head was killing him. 6. That night Ian asked his mother what he should do if someone he loved was mad at him. His mother was concerned that he was already dealing with these complications, especially because before today he had never even had a friend, but she gave him some simple advice she thought could help. “Get her something nice to show that you care.” “How do I know what she likes?” “Ask her friends.” 7. The next day, Ian watched to see who Juniper sat next to in class. She sat next to a tall blonde girl of Eastern European descent named Bernadette Zipakowski. During recess, he approached her at the jungle gym. She was hanging upside down and doing crunches. Bernadette played boys sports and was very intimidating. But this was another social intricacy that Ian had never grasped. “What do you want shrimp?” she asked. Juniper had informed Bernadette earlier that day that she should be mean to Ian from now on. “What sorts of things does Juniper Jones like?” he asked. Bernadette thought that this was a sweet request. Her parents listened to NPR on the way to school, so she was a bit more mature than Juniper. She also thought it was nice that Ian talked to her like a person, and not like a terrifying sasquatch that threw too hard when they played dodge ball in P.E. “She likes things that are pink. And flowers.” 8. Later that day, Ian combined these suggestions in his front yard by spray painting some daffodils pink. They looked like strawberries. His mother decided not to correct his error because it was cute and she thought that it showed that he cared a lot. 9. The next day in the eggshell white cafeteria, Ian walked up to Juniper’s table and handed her the daffodils that had been spray painted pink and looked like strawberries. He did it in front of the entire school. “I’m sorry I had to think about whether we could be boyfriend and girlfriend,” he said. His mother had also said that this was important. Apologize, she had told him, even if you don’t really understand why.
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This was the grand romantic gesture that Juniper had been waiting for. She leapt into his arms and kissed him. It was very public. The cafeteria erupted in a hail of “oos” and “ahhs.” “I’m sorry I was mad at you,” she said. The class had a field trip to the museum that afternoon. Ian sat next to her on the bus and held her hand. 10. That night, Ian sat at his desk and drew something other than herbivores for the first time in his entire life. He drew a picture of Juniper Jones, and he filled in her beautiful oval eyes with his favorite key lime green crayon. 11. On the weekend before the Tuesday Ian Ivy’s head exploded, Juniper drove to Ft. Lauderdale with her parents to visit her grandparents. On the drive down in the family’s other car, a maroon minivan, her family listened to a book on tape and talked about things. Juniper decided it was as good a time as any to tell her family that she was involved with someone. “You are not,” said Juniper’s older sister. She had a Valley twang to her voice that was inappropriate given the actual geographic location of her home. “You’re only in fourth grade. You can’t already be that serious with someone.” Juniper told her sister that she was, so serious in fact that she and this special someone had sat together on the bus on the way to the museum for a field trip last Friday. Juniper’s older sister told her that this didn’t mean anything. “You can’t be tied down already. It’s silly.” 12. On Monday, Juniper handed a note to Ian that was shaped like a paper football. The note said that they were now broken up and that he shouldn’t try to talk her out of it. At lunch, she sat next to previously innocent Steve, who was no longer innocent. Ian didn’t stay around long enough to do anything about the break up. His head was killing him worse than ever before and he went to the doctor’s office to get a check up. The doctor didn’t find anything wrong with his head, so they sent him packing with a lollipop and a box of Advil. They suggested that he drink more orange juice to raise his vitamin C levels. Juniper missed Ian at lunch while she was talking to Steve. Steve kept on looking over his shoulder to give the thumbs up to his friends who were sitting a table away and watching them. It was creepy.
She got into a fight with her sister that night and called her a “big dummy,” but didn’t explain why. 13. The next day at school, she handed Ian another note. It said that she was wrong for breaking up with him and wanted to be in a relationship again. Ian was happy at the prospect of being with her again, but he couldn’t express it because his head hurt so much. It felt like a bullet train was roaring through his skull. Juniper watched him grimace as he read the note. It was too late, she feared. “I can’t let it end like this,” she said aloud. Everything from this point on happened in slow motion. Ian lifted his head at the sound of her voice, and their eyes met. She ran to him, pulling his head towards her in an embrace. She kissed him wildly and passionately. It was so damn dramatic some of the other students couldn’t even look at it straight on. They had to witness it in their peripheries. Juniper imagined the rest of the powder blue classroom falling away in huge chunks like an upheaval at a tectonic plate boundary. She and Ian were standing on a solitary pillar of red rock in the middle of a churning ocean. When their lips touched, walls of deep blue water surged to the heavens around them in approval. Something entirely different was happening in Ian’s head. He was one of his pie colored herbivores grazing lazily in the afternoon sunset and Juniper’s kiss was a burning meteor that crashed down with a sudden and finite fury. There was too much to say. There was too much to do. There was too much to think. There was too much to consider. It was too much for him to take in. And his head, which for days had felt like it was about to burst, finally did. It popped like a balloon and not like a melon.
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DOUBLE AT LIVORNO
Shelley washed ashore with blue fish-eyes, misting and reeking on the yellow sand: Those same eyes that he saw reflected in his self-same visage; those eyes that knew they would soon be waterlogged on a sunstroked beach; those dead eyes glaring from the familiar Otherthe last thing he thought in the water.
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FAST AND BULBOUS
CINqUAINS FOR YOUR BODY
I. At night as you breathe out— graceless even in sleep— your chest caves in as though I had pierced you. II. Last time we ate there was parsley stuck in your teeth and I tried my best not to point it out. III. Your hair when it is wet curls almost like your arm does when it encircles my waist, tangled. IV. Touching the subject of your hands: they will suffice, I guess. They could be a little softer. V. I hate your dry, rough feet scraping against my own, but they’re warm and my toes get cold at night.
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Denver Carlstrom WATER CITY EXPOSURE
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WHEN THE SWAMP DRIES UP
Job, Chapter 14 10 But man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more. 11 As water disappears from the sea or a riverbed becomes parched and dry.... In the shadow of the Great Dismal Swamp, water moccasins coiling around knotty cypress knees, frogs bellowing out their hungry hymns to clouds of flies, out there, in a squat brick house only a few miles from the swamp’s edge, lived my great-uncle Toad. There was a stumpy tree out back, almost forgotten among the rows of coppery green grapes. Vines crisscrossed rusted trellises that stood as lopsided sentinels against the incursion of the woods, and the scuppernong grapes wafted their ripe, cloying smell towards the road as my mother and I hopped out of the car. Ten years ago, I hated grapes. “Is his name really Toad?” This had been the most pressing question for my twelve-year-old self. My mother was leaning against the driver’s side of the van after the drive elongated by her frequent bathroom trips. She had a bladder the size of a butterbean, so I was sure to get at least two gas-station candy bars out of the drive east. Her back surgery hadn’t taken well, so I went around the car to assume my role as masseur. She groaned in her wrinkled sun dress, blues and yellows and greens, thanked me, then started taking bare-footed steps towards Toad’s front door before finally answering. “Benjamin, you’ve met him before. At the funeral. And you had better act right.” “Mom, he has to have some other name. Isn’t it like a nickname, or…” I scrambled up the slope of the driveway, kicking gravel and watching the dust billow around us.
My mother went over the gravel the way she marched across hot asphalt on the way back from tanning at the pool. Unfazed. “That’s his name. Toad. You can call him Uncle Toad. And don’t dig in the dirt with your new sneakers.” My mother gave me a once-over as we climbed the three steps to the storm door, which I had always assumed was meant for keeping out hurricanes. She knocked, three hard raps. She said, “Toad!” Toad answered the door with a weak smile, shuffling up in his black-faded-tobrown dress shoes. He smelled like ground-up multivitamins and pureed country steak and vinegary collards and an unsanitized bathroom. His yellow suspenders seemed to make him twist in on himself, tight and jerking him upwards, making him bend over from the effort of walking. He staggered his legs apart as if standing at the commode, and the edges of his mouth flickered with a hint of pain. His belt drooped to the side, the unfastened buckle swinging open shut, shut open, a gate that would not close. “Sorry, Martha Gail. Just caught me on the commode.” I imagined his voice would sound something like a bullfrog, but it was more like sand slipping through an hourglass, barely audible unless you put your ear right up against it. He smiled, one hand reaching down to rub my head. I moved to shake Toad’s hand once he pulled it away from my hair, his fingers lingering perhaps a bit too long as though he thought some more life might seep into his stretched-out veins. Youth by osmosis. The needle marks, the crusty residue from where the IV adhesive had been, showed through his blue dress shirt with its buttons mismatched and crooked. I tried not to back away from the alarming and unmistakable smell of an occupied coffin. I knew it fresh from my grandfather’s funeral, the stifling scent of a life finished but carried on in appearance for the sake of ceremony. Toad didn’t say much, didn’t really acknowledge why we were there spending the night, looking after him. My mother, in her nurse lingo, had tried to explain the finer points of prostate cancer to me when we were in the car, but it seemed as though it involved a lot of sitting on the toilet, peeing, and popping estrogen. “Come on in,” Toad said. His house smelled of old cheap wood. Pine wood, dried-up furniture polish. The dark book shelves loomed over a green recliner and a faded baby-blue couch, and the shelves bore knick-knacks and trinkets arranged by his long-dead wife, Myrtle. A large collection of grimy snow globes outnumbered the books. The television silently simmered, rabbit ears and tin foil twinkling on top. The lampshade had a hole burned into it; the plastic covering had melted into a miniature volcanic crater that sent light shooting up like lava, fake sunshine through a suffocating atmosphere. There was only one small window looking out towards the driveway and none facing out back towards the vines. Dust coated everything.
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I sneezed. And I sneezed. The violence of it was cartoonish; my whole face lurched forward, my teeth clattered together, snot and saliva flew and splattered against the wall like blood in a crime show. I swore snow globe flakes went flying across San Francisco and New York. My mother scrambled for tissues in her bulky bag as I sneezed again, four, five, six times in gunfire succession. I had to reach for my inhaler to stop the wheezing sound in my chest, listening to Toad’s own raspy breathing while he stood by in amazement. I looked up at him miserably. My mother was right behind me, so I dared not say a word about his nursing home of a house. As I blew my way through a wad of tissues, she said, “Toad, why don’t you take Benjamin on down to see your grapes?” He nodded. “The birds been picking at them cause I ain’t been out there. But yeah, let’s go.” I held Toad’s hand to steady him as we went down the concrete steps of the back porch. His eyes were on the earth beneath him. The ground was wet, and everything clung. The humidity made the grapes shine. Toad said nothing as we approached one of six overflowing trellises, just reached up and handed me a single glistening grape. And then the words slipped out of me. “I don’t like grapes.” He just watched me, stood there. I flushed with embarrassment, felt a wave of contagious, drowning melancholy. I was nothing more than a common brat. He kept his hand outstretched to me, and I took the grape. I ate it. Felt the skin against my tongue, shucking it aside with my teeth. The cool, sugary glide down my throat, the startlingly sweet taste. The scuppernong grape, better than candy. I held out my hand for more. And in the sticky silence, in the drying mud, I ate, I ate and ate in the shadow of the swamp and glutted myself on hospitality, on a life well-cultivated. He looked at me gorging myself, and with a regretful smile murmured almost too softly for me to hear, “Billy is coming tomorrow.” Toad sighed and did not eat a single grape. I was up all night sneezing. Ignoring my protests, my mother crammed Benadryl down my throat with water out of a Mason jar. “This water tastes like metal!” My tongue slithered along the metallic edge of the mason jar for dramatic emphasis. “Benjamin, you need to get some rest. Billy is coming tomorrow.” She hovered over me and sighed like an accordion warming up for a real cacophony if I didn’t try harder at sleeping.
I had been told already on the ride over, many times for emphasis, about Toad’s youngest son, Billy. He lived in New York, a place as mysterious to me as the moon. What I knew about New York, I knew from Home Alone 2, so I assumed that homeless women doddered about with pigeons and Macaulay Culkin ran loose on the street, slapping his face with aftershave. I really wanted to see New York. This was not the point my mother wanted to stress to me. She had already divulged, in the gossipy tones of a good Southern woman, the sordid details of Toad’s womanizing past, him slipping out those very same concrete steps and running through the grapes with Myrtle-knows-who. But on the van ride over, Celine Dion’s Falling Into You album coating the upholstery in a sugary Canadian glaze, my mother had failed to find the words to explain what she referred to as “Billy’s situation.” “Benjamin,” she said, about to try again now as she tucked me back in bed, me clutching a mason jar as if I were about to run off to the county fair with some prize preserves. “Billy, um, well…Billy.” She had a way of saying his name as if it were being pulled out of her. “Billy,” I said. “Billy is not married, and he leads a different lifestyle up there in New York. And Billy is very similar to our dead cousin, Jimmy.” “What’d Jimmy die from?” I asked. “AIDS, Benjamin, AIDS.” “Oh. Who was he sleeping with?” “Benjamin! Never mind that, we’re talking about Billy, not Jimmy. Billy…Billy.” “Billy,” I said. “Billy may do and say things differently from you and I and your father.” “Because he’s from New York?” “No, he’s from here, Benjamin. But he works on Wall Street…” “He works on Wall Street!” I jumped up in bed from sheer excitement, seeing green digital numbers flashing. I imagined that he would drive a Porsche and walk in with an Italian leather briefcase. “Benjamin! You have got to get some sleep. Anyways, no matter what Billy does, you treat him just the same as anybody. You be polite, okay? Act like you ought to. But don’t, you know, don’t…” “Don’t what, Mom?” “Don’t try to copy him.” I barely heard her as the allergy drugs hit me hard, and I fell back into the sheets. I felt her kiss on my forehead. I sneezed again, then fell asleep. “Billy!” My mother was in Toad’s front yard, arms wrapped around the cousin that I had met at the funeral, probably. I was disappointed to see a rental car, Ford,
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parked in the driveway, consoling myself with the fact that at least it was a nice shade of blue. But Billy didn’t have a briefcase. And he was only wearing a t-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, just like me. “Martha Gail, I have not seen you in forever!” His voice, almost as high and shrill as mine, rung out across the yard. He embraced her; his hands patted against my mother’s back with the force of a butterfly beating its wings against a flower. Toad lingered behind me; I heard his slow, shuffling walk long before he put his hands on my shoulders. I was standing guard in the doorway like a scientist observing a new species from the threshold of an observation station. Sure, I had been to Philadelphia for an East Carolina football game, but New York! “Billy,” Toad said in a firm, resigned whisper behind me that only I could hear. Billy headed slowly towards the sound of his father’s voice. I went out to offer my hand to Billy, too stiffly, and he shook it with a laugh. “Good to see you, Benjamin,” was all he said, utterly oblivious to the fact that he was my new idol. “And you can call me Bill; only your mother calls me Billy.” “And me,” Toad said. He stepped in front of me to hug his son; his fingers dragged slowly and unsteadily across his t-shirted back. I could smell Billy’s cologne, sweet and musky, like flowers in a locker room. I swore I saw a tear in both their eyes, but the burning late-summer sun made it hard to look at them in the doorway. I stepped out into the yard, scooting past them. “How are the grapes doing?” Billy asked. “About like me,” Toad said. Billy took his father’s hand and entered the stuffy old house, me staying outside with my mother to ward off another bout of sneezing. “Let’s give them some time alone,” she said. She took my hand before I could protest and started down the walk, nothing more than a trail beat into the grass. We were barefoot and even the grass was hot to the touch, like a green heating pad blanketing the weighted-down earth. I scrambled towards the grapes in a sprint that probably made my mother smile; I’d always run like a girl, everyone said. Soon, I came at her with a handful of grapes. She took a couple and said, “We all used to run out here as girls, you know. Barbara Jean, Nikki, Carissa. But they’re all dead.” She made an unh sound deep in her throat. The list of dead cousins went on, and I said nothing. I gazed past the vines and saw where green kudzu ran rampant, strangling the trees at the woods’ edge. My hands were sticky, so I rubbed them against my shorts. My mother shook her head disapprovingly. She said, “Billy hasn’t seen his father in five years or so. Toad hasn’t really… approved, of all his decisions.” I looked at her. “It’s good that they get to make up before Toad dies,” she said.
“Mom,” I asked. “Is Billy gay?” “Benjamin!” She tensed as if shocked by an electric current. “We don’t really talk about it.” We talked around it. She stopped and looked at me. “Do you understand?” “Yeah,” was all I dared say. I heard the back door open, and I turned, seeing Billy and Toad standing in the doorway. Billy was behind him, and Toad was staring at his grape vines, which gleamed like the wet emeralds of his eyes. He reached behind him to place a hand on Billy’s shoulder, and his fingers trembled, unsure. That night, after downing another mason jar of water and a handful of Benadryl, I inevitably had to pee. I woke up when I started having dreams about large bodies of water, swimming pools, and sleeping under a waterfall. I wore a t-shirt and nothing else, so I pulled on the pajama pants that made me sweat if I ever wore them to sleep. I tiptoed down the hall, and my hands carefully turned the glass doorknob of my bedroom closed. Rubbing my eyes, I cracked open the door to the bathroom, too groggy to notice that the light was already glowing underneath the door. I opened the door with white paint peeling off the edges. My eyes flew open when I saw Toad on the toilet, sitting down, and Billy standing over him, holding his father’s hand as he tried to pee. Toad’s eyes were bleary from the pain, and he groaned as he held onto his groin. The sides of the toilet seemed to shake from his efforts; I imagined I could hear the porcelain crack. “I can’t do it…hurts like hell!” Toad said. He looked up at Billy, afraid. “Dad,” was all he said. They were too focused, Billy silently crying, to notice me standing right there in the doorway, paralyzed by embarrassment. Billy knelt down and gripped his father’s hand, then rested his head against the vanity as he sank onto the dirty tile. Toad’s mostly-bald head was beaded with sweat, the bathroom lighting glaring against every wrinkle and grimace of pain. His mouth twisted this way and that like a thrashing, dying animal. “We need to ask the doctor to increase your morphine dose,” Billy said. “God dammit,” Toad said. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, trying to push past the cancer or tumor or whatever was keeping him from urinating. He squatted like a woman giving birth, estrogen pills knocked over on the vanity, spilled into a sink occupied by a hot compress. Billy picked it up and levied it over his father’s forehead. Toad opened his eyes and spotted me, looked at me as though I were a complete stranger. He pointed. Billy turned to the door and said, “Go to bed, Benjamin.” He slammed the door shut and bone-white paint fell onto my feet.
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I ran out the back door, down the concrete steps, bare feet flying across the dewy mud and moss. The hot cotton of my pajamas stuck to me like flypaper. I had no idea where I was headed, but soon I was at the tree, facing the rows of grapes. I could hear the swamp in the distance, the amphibian dirges that echoed of a time before and after all of this, the prodigal sons who had left before and will come home again. And there, in the shadow of the vines, I relieved myself, and swore it hurt enough to cry.
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Kay Loeven TREE FINGERS I, II, III, & IV
A LAMENT FOR MY REMOVED CYST
I asked, my Euridice, to look into the plastic jar they put you in. You seem so spongy, and unthreatening. The hardness I had felt against my spine for months and months is all forgotten. Cyst of my twentieth year, all the stitches in my neck cannot restrain the loneliness that ruptures within me, as the doctor says you surely would have.
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Amy Olsen SPANISH WOMEN
Katy Bales is a senior English major and creative writing minor from Rocky Mount, NC. Chad Barton is a senior journalism major and creative writing and English double minor from Burlington, NC. Denver Carlstrom is a junior philosophy major and creative writing minor from Wilmington, NC. Andrew Chan is a senior Chinese and English double major and creative writing minor from Charlotte, NC. Carina Cortese is a junior dramatic arts and philosophy double major and Spanish minor from Durham, NC. Andrew Dally is a senior journalism major and creative writing minor from Bethlehem, PA. Juliana Daugherty is a junior geography major and creative writing minor from Saluda, NC. Samantha Deal is a senior comparative literature major and creative writing minor from Boone, NC. Adam Edgerton is a senior English major and creative writing minor from Clayton, NC. Parfait Gasana is junior sociology and economics double major and creative writing minor from Pembroke Pines, FL. Emily Hammond is a junior English major and creative writing and women’s studies double minor from Durham, NC. Allison Harrison is a senior American studies major and creative writing and social and economic justice double minor from Burlington, NC.
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Iimay Ho is a senior sociology major and creative writing and Chinese double minor from Cary, NC. Timothy Jarman is a junior English major and playwriting minor from Wilmington, NC. Amy Jicha is a photojournalism major and French minor from Waynesville, NC. Adam Kaynan is a senior studio art major from Wilmington, NC. Griffin Kenemer is a sophomore communications and media productions double major and journalism minor from Matthews, NC. Stanton Kidd is a senior comparative literature and history major from Cullowhee, NC. Scott Kosmecki is a senior studio arts and planning double major from Durham, NC. Kay Loeven is a sophomore studio art and anthropology double major from Clayton, NC. Kate Mabe is a junior English major and creative writing minor from Raleigh, NC. David Mikush is a senior American studies major. Sam Need is a junior anthropology major and Chinese and creative writing double minor from Durham, NC. Amy Olsen is a junior Spanish and women’s studies double major from Carrboro, NC. Anna Paschal is a senior studio art major.
Ariel Rudolph is a sophomore studio art major and creative writing and graphic design double minor from Boone, NC. Roxanne Shabani is a junior graphics design major from Carrboro, NC. Travis Smith is a junior English major and creative writing minor from Chapel Hill, NC. Erin Stoneking is a sophomore dramatic arts and English double major from Greensboro, NC. Emily Jane Wall is a senior art and American history double major from WinstonSalem, NC. Detgen Wardle is a junior English major and creative writing minor from Gibsonville, NC. Brittany Wofford is a senior English major and creative writing minor from Chapel Hill, NC. Daniel Wright is a junior math and English double major and creative writing minor from Centreville, VA.
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The Blanche Armfield Fund in the Creative Writing Program The Department of English Gift Fund Henry J. Underwood Lee Pantas
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All undergraduate students are welcome to apply to join the staff of Cellar Door. Positions will be available on the Poetry, Fiction, and Art selection staffs as well as on the Business staff, which manages publicity and distribution. Applications for Spring 2008 will be available on our website,
beginning in early January. More information on the duties of staff members may be found in the staff handbook, available to download from the staff section of the URL listed above. Please note that our policy prohibits staff members from submitting to any section of Cellar Door while they serve the magazine.
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