Pushcart 2023 XLVII : An Inductive End

I know I say it every year but the wealth of talent, empathy, and insight here is overwhelming. Year to year the literary excellence of the small press world has grown profoundly. I can barely express my admiration to our writers who, in the face of such enormous obstacles of climate catastrophe, war, and deep international anxiety, cast aside gloom and persist – pilgrims on the sacred journey.
Pushcart salutes all of you.
Love and wonder, Bill

Bill Henderson, Introduction, Pushcart XLVII

A few months ago, Min Jin Lee, the guest editor of what will be BASS 2023, asked Twitter, “What makes a great short story for you?” Replies – wonderful ideas! – ranged from the poetic – “It opens a window” – to the specific – “I smile at the turn of a phrase more than once.” My own answer was too compressed, so I’d like to expand upon it here.

Pick at least two:

  • It teaches me something concrete, or adds to something I’ve been thinking about;
  • It uses humor or whimsy intelligently;
  • It says something big in a subtle way;
  • It uses form and structure to amplify its theme;
  • I laugh and/or cry while reading.
  • The ubiquitous X factor – who knows why a story, something I never would expect to care about, grabs me.

I added that, since the hallmark of these anthologies is variety, I don’t expect to like (whatever that means) every story, but I do expect to love a few.

I got off to a bad start with this volume, and the resulting grumpiness persisted. But there were high spots, stories that met my demands and exceeded them or, in some cases, added something I didn’t know I wanted in a short story. And I discovered two new potential criteria for excellence: a story that breaks through my stubborn refusal to take it seriously and impresses me, and pieces that are great fun to write posts about.

I did love two pieces, though, surprisingly, neither were stories.

  • Sam Cha’s poem “Motherfuckers Talking Shit About American Sonnets” used form to amplify its theme, used humor and whimsy in an intelligent way, added to something I’ve been thinking about. It was also great fun to write about, giving me the rare chance to play with meter and poetic form as if I know what I’m talking about.
  • “Wishbone” by Joseph Sigurdson used humor and whimsy intelligently, made me laugh and cry, had that X-factor that let me overlook what I think were flaws and write back to it in a satisfying – and fun – way.

There were other pieces that I thought were very well executed, although they didn’t hit my sweet spot.

  • Idra Novey’s story “The Glacier” said something big in a very subtle way.
  • Stephen Fishbach’s “To Sharks” managed to break through my initial refusal to take it seriously and impress me, which was quite a task.
  • “The Kiss” by Kate Osana Simonian used humor and whimsy in an intelligent way, and used form and structure to amplify its theme.
  • “The Land of Uz” by Aleyna Rentz used humor and whimsy in an intelligent way, and I’m a pushover for biblical references.

I found a number of interesting pairings as well:

  • Gina Chung’s “Mantis,” and Karen Russell’s “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” used humor and whimsy – and a touch of magical realism – in an intelligent way.
  • Mary Ruefle’s essay “Dear Friends” and Elizabeth Tallent’s short story “Poets” both effectively used form – a list or catalog – to amplify their themes.
  • Elaine Hsieh Chou’s “Skinfolk,” Anthony Veasna So’s “Maly, Maly, Maly,” and Doug Crandell’s essay “The Union Waltz” showed different aspects of teenagers breaking away from their families and moving, sometimes eagerly, sometimes nervously, into the world at large, away from a familiar culture into something new.

Loving a story – or an essay or poem – is like loving a person. There isn’t always a reason. Something just grabs you. Sometimes you know you’re making a mistake (a dead dog story? A unicorn? An insect love story? Really?) but you just can’t help yourself. And sometimes you know on paper they’re perfect (great structure, interesting characters, perfect pacing) but you just don’t feel it. They all deserve their laurels.

Love and wonder back at ya, Pushcart.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Stephen Fishbach, “To Sharks” from One Story #273

When the phone rings, Kent Duvall is in the Memorabilia Room watching himself on the reality show Endure. On days when he is feeling his age and the slab of gut hangs like an anchor at his waist, he often finds himself popping the disc into his DVD player, which clicks and snaps like an arthritic joint. He doesn’t need much. The show’s intro features a three-second, slow-motion shot of him pounding his chest in the tropical light, hair billowing around his face. God, he had epic hair, long blond locks that in the island’s unreasonable humidity looked like they belonged to the lead singer of an eighties glam band. Last year, Margaret insisted he shave his head. “You’re starting to look like you have a comb over,” she said, walking her conversational tightrope between loving joke and withering insult. He’ll watch that three-second clip again and again, rewinding and replaying, rewinding and replaying, and think to himself, That is me.

Years ago, it was the high school football star, or the prom queen, who couldn’t get past their own success and move on to Real Life. Now it’s reality TV contestants. Or maybe it’s the fans who can’t move on. I still remember the SNL skit featuring William Shatner yelling at his adorers: “Get a life, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!”

I have to admit to a bit of snobbery here. When I realized what this story was about, I got on my high horse and sneered. WTF is Pushcart doing? Ending the anthology with Survivor fanfic? I wanted to know just how snarky I could be – it varies, according to how established the author is – and discovered Fishbach was a Survivor contestant. That really got my bile flowing.

Thing is… it’s a pretty good story. And Fishbach isn’t some hanger-on drafting off his fifteen minutes of fame. As a final nail in the coffin of my indignance, it’s a fitting end to this year’s edition, considering the opening story, also about a guy with limited self-awareness.

Kent’s been riding his $100,000 win on Endure for twelve years now, but the waves have long gone flat. He already sold his memorabilia on eBay, and the engagements are now trickling down to inspirational talks in half-empty high school classrooms. His wife is keeping them afloat financially, but he hates that she saves leftover coffee for the next day. That’s a nice detail, if a horrible practice.

He’s invited to a charity event, featuring contestants from several shows besides his, and demands a $1500 fee. “It’s for charity,” the organizer pleads. Kent figures the beneficiaries – sick kids, or something – will be fine without that $1500. And he hopes to hit up a fellow former contestant, a highly successful tech entrepreneur (I’m thinking Zuckerberg, though today it might be Musk) for a job. If you’re getting the sense that Kent is not much of a good guy, you’re on the right track. But that opening paragraph above, the honesty about his age and his gut, his recognition that he has to move on to some other form of employment, makes him just self-aware enough to clear pathetic and land at desperate but sympathetic. Barely. I’m reminded of Steve Almond’s writing advice: “Love your characters.” Even though Kent is a mess, Fishbach shows him this love, and it helps the reader keep caring about what happens to him.

The show is loaded with all sorts of ego-deflating moments – the first round of calls for an All-Star season has already gone out – but there are bright spots. He catches the attention of Ashley, eliminated in the first round of a later season, and feels his superior place on the totem pole. She had a problem with spiders. “You lose control for one second, and then for the rest of your life, you’re hashtag tarantula freakout.” I hear ya.

Deflation and inflation combine when another fan, wearing a Megadeath t-shirt, starts fawning all over him.

“Man, when you – when you caught that shark with a spear,” the fan says. “I couldn’t believe it. I said to my wife, someday I’m going to meet him and shake his hand.”
“Dreams really do come true,” Kent says. He never caught a shark with a spear. The man is confusing him with some other contestant, possibly on some other show.
“Sure enough,” says the man. “I’m Travis.”
“I’m Kent. This is Ashley.”
“I know who you are!” Megadeath says to Kent. He hardly glances at Ashley. “I’d like to buy you a shot, Kent.”
“Only if you buy Ashley one too.”
Megadeth leans in to the bartender and orders three lemon drops.
“Lemon drops?” Kent asks. “Are we sorority girls?”
Megadeth stammers a response, and Kent’s heart squeezes in pity. “Just kidding,” he says. This is how he is supposed to feel. In control. Extending pity. Bestowing grace.
“What should we toast to?” Kent asks.
Megadeath is speechless, still flushed with embarrassment over the lemon drops debacle.
“How about to sharks?” Kent offers. “Because they don’t stop moving till – ”
“Till Kent kills ‘em!” Megadeth exclaims. “To sharks!”

That’s a really nice scene. There’s the irony in “Dreams do come true” as Megadeath isn’t meeting the guy he admires and Kent isn’t getting the recognition he craves. The grace-as-power is an interesting way to view things, it gets a little Schindler’s List. And this encounter leads to Kent getting his due for the sorority sisters crack. Taking the title from this scene was a great move.   

The story ends with a scene that recalls the opening: Kent viewing himself in a photo, with a very different conclusion.  

Now, I’m not a complete reality-TV snob. If you view the categories of this blog, you’ll see I’ve done a bit of recapping of Top Chef, Project Runway, and some other shows. Survivor is less skill-based than those, but requires a lot more – mentally and physically – than personality shows about roommates and dating and housewives and all those other random things out there. It’s not my thing – like one character says, I get cranky if I miss lunch – but the story goes beyond the setting and works.

Then we come to Mr. Fishbach. Besides being a Survivor contestant, his bio on One Story describes him as a “former television producer” in case I needed another reason to sneer at him. However, a little more googling turned up that he earned his BA in English from Yale, and given my obsession with academic credentials, that softens my heart a bit. I then discovered he’s studying for his MFA at NYU, and he runs a podcast interviewing writers about, wait for it, writing. Ok, he’s done / is doing the work. When asked in his One Story interview how he came to writing, he answered:

I always imagined I’d write fiction, and through my twenties I thought if I bought enough tweed jackets that a novel would burst forth from my fingertips. Whenever I sat down at a computer to actually write, however, I was overwhelmed with fear from all the expectation and pressure. Five years ago, when I was on Survivor the second time, I got violently ill in the middle of a monsoon. Not to get too graphic, but about every ten minutes, I had to strip off my clothes so they’d stay (relatively) dry and then walk out into the rainstorm naked to be sick outside our shelter. I had a real epiphany—if I was willing to suffer through so much for a reality TV show, how could I not muster the willpower for something I really cared about? When I got home, I left my job and have focused on fiction writing ever since.

One Story Q&A

Considering how depressed so many writers I know can get after rejection slips pile up, fiction writing might be just as scary as tarantulas. LitHub reports he’s written a novel following Kent through “more post-reality shenanigans and then back onto television.” I think I’ll probably pass on that – a 5000-word story is one thing, a 300-page novel is another – but I’ll be interested to see what else he comes up with in the future.

* * *                    

  • Read the author’s interview and other information about the story at the One Story site.
  • See the author’s website for more information about his writing, and for an Entertainment Tonight interview about this story.
  • Check out the author’s Paraphrase Podcast for interviews with other writers.
  • LitHub’s article about this story can be found online.
  • The SNL clip featuring Shatner can be found on Youtube.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Anthony Veasna So, “Maly, Maly, Maly” from Paris Review #236

Cover image from So’s story collection
Always they find us inappropriate, but today especially so. Here we are with nowhere to go and nothing to do, sitting in a rusty pickup truck, the one leaking oil, the one with the busted transmission that sounds like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here we are with the engine running for the AC, the doors wide open for our bare legs to spill out. Because this, right here, to survive the heat, this is all we have.
An hour ago we became outcasts. One of us—not me—would not shut the fuck up. And since the grandmas are prepping for the monks and need to focus, we’ve been banished outside to choke on traces of manure blown in from the asparagus farms surrounding us, our hometown, this shitty place of boring dudes always pissing green stink.
And according to the Mas, everything about us appears at once too masculine and too feminine: our posture—backs arching like the models in the magazines we steal; our clothes—the rips, studs, and jagged edges—none of it makes sense to them. The two of us are wrong in every direction. Though Maly, the girl cousin, strikes them as less wrong than the boy cousin, me.

I’ve said before that the coming-of-age story can happen at any age: the pubertal discovery of sexuality, the adolescent shouldering of responsibility and individuation, the adult transition phases. Here we have an entire extended family about to undergo a big transition, and two teenagers who’ve been each others’ support system for years about to split up. And one dead mother about to reincarnate into a newborn baby.

It’s a story of Cambodian refugees in the 1980s still scarred by the war most of America never knew and the rest have forgotten about thanks to subsequent wars. Ves and Maly are cousins, children of these immigrants, joined at the hip all their lives, frighteningly American. Ves came out before puberty and seems too feminine, evoking the kteuy, sometimes known as the third gender but more often seen as feminine men. Maly’s mother died, a suicide, and her father took off, leaving her with her aunts and grandparents to grow up on G Block, their name for the rural California patch where they ended up.

But a change is about to come. Ves is off to college in LA. Maly will stay behind and do a couple of years at community college. But today, she will partake in the religious ceremony by which her dead mother will be reincarnated into her new baby cousin. They don’t discuss their feelings explicitly but they’re bursting out all around.

I wonder how Ma Eng must feel right now, clinging to the desperate wish that her dead sister’s dead daughter has another chance at life, that the forces of reincarnation are working their voo-doo spells to rebirth lost souls. Especially those who died as pointlessly as Maly’s mom, an immigrant woman who just couldn’t beat her memories of the genocide, a single mom who looked to the next day, and to the day after that, only to see more suffering.
Honestly, if I think about it too hard, I get really mad. I know it’s terrible to ask, but why did Maly’s mom even have a kid? And why does only she get to tap out of life? Well, joke’s on her, I guess, because now she has to deal with yet another life, and in G Block, too.

Maly’s feelings are more deeply buried, but she eventually lets it out: “Ves… is it weird I want my mom reborn as… my child?”

They spend their last day together in the family video store, smoking pot and watching porn, Maly screwing her boyfriend, Ves contemplating being a solo act from now on. Then the focus shifts to Maly’s house, where ceremony preparations are underway and she must decide if she is in or out. Sometimes all the choices are hard ones.

There’s an extra pall over this story: the author died shortly before his debut short story collection, including this story, was released.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Sam Cha, “Motherfuckers Talking Shit About American Sonnets” (poem) from Clarion #24

It’s not your lawn.

Less than seventy-two hours ago I wrote, in reference to Elizabeth Tallent’s story about poets, “After a few years of trying, I gave up on the poetry in Pushcart, poetry anywhere, though occasionally a poem leaps out and grabs me by the throat.” I had no idea that when I turned the last page of Tallent, I’d run smack into a poem that grabbed me by the throat, the funny bone, the head; that fired on all (of my) cylinders; that excited me like few poems have since I stopped trying to find something to say about Pushcart poems. It made me laugh, but it said something important; and, best of all, I understood why it was written the way it was. Or at least I think I do. And if I see things that aren’t there – so what, they’re there to me.

It’s a little note to the gatekeepers, the Grey Eminences who sniff at anything new or different, who want everything to stay exactly the same as it was when they learned it: to the motherfuckers talking shit about American sonnets that don’t measure up to those from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the speaker’s words: It’s not your lawn. Damn, I love that line. I want that on a t-shirt, I want it on sweatshirts and hats everywhere, because there are a lot of people these days who think everything is their lawn. And I’m not just talking about poetry.

The poem is available online; link is below, and I urge, beg, the three people who’ve somehow stumbled across this obscure page (“she isn’t a writer, or a professor, or even an English teacher, who the hell is she to be writing about poetry?”) to read it now, since I’m going to assume that and otherwise this post won’t make any sense at all.

The title is in-your-face. It has to be; it’s fighting back against three hundred (at least) years of snootery. If it were any less so, it wouldn’t work, like a stand-up set that’s almost really funny, like an actor who doesn’t commit. I’ll admit I’m not completely comfortable with the language (I keep insisting I’m not a prude, but the more I insist, the more I think I am), but it’s necessary here, so I’ll deal with my discomfort. There are two ways to get one’s attention: with a whisper, and with a slap across the face. The whisper wouldn’t do here.

I don’t have the training or the language to do the formal analysis I’m about to do, so please be tolerant. It’s just that I see so much going on here (and I wonder what I can’t see) I just have to write it down, even if I don’t get it right. The lawn belongs to everyone, even me. At least this patch does.

Some elements of sonnet form are clearly used here: the poem is fourteen lines long (though a couple are broken, so maybe it’s sixteen lines); there is a break at the halfway point; there is a rhyme scheme, at least a partial one; and it does end with a rhyming couplet. Where it goes off the rails is meter: it uses everything but iambic pentameter. But that’s where its greatest success lies.

For instance, the opening line –

I know what you want: to waggle your tongue

 – strikes me as anapestic tetrameter with a couple of skipped unstressed beats. Wikipedia (hey, I’ve already admitted I don’t know what I’m doing) tells me it’s common in comic verse, particularly Dr. Seuss, and has a driving rhythm, which seems appropriate for a first line of a tirade.  

But then things get more chaotic:

to make you go buckwild, flushed, knock-kneed,
toe-curled, blank-eyed, blank-versed, brain all snow-white
till you spill your thin blancmange down your tidy-
whiteys and come—back to yourself.

Read that out loud – it’s sex in poetic form. “Buckwild, flushed, knock-kneed, toe-curled, blank-eyed, blank-versed” is that one-two thing picking up speed – I dearly want to make “flushed” “flush-ed” but I think that’s pushing it, so let’s just call it a dropped beat that allows for gaining momentum – until the one-two changes to one-two-three-four at “brain” and then disintegrates into a frenzy: then we come back to ourselves and things calm down, take a breath. AKA, the turn. The speaker then gets all reasonable, even identifies with the motherfuckers for a couple of lines – and these are the closest to iambic pentameter, might even be considered such by those who actually understand the details of such things – before bringing on the point:

                                         …. But the sonnet doesn't
belong to you. There's nothing to own. Not a spit
of land nor spitcurl of rivulet for your chickenwire,
                                 your snares,
your chickenshit sneers—where's the rhyme scheme?
                                 Who cares.
Not Shakespeare. Not Keats, not Drayton, not Donne.
It's not your lawn. (Yawn.) Stop yelling. Be done.

That’s some pretty slick sliding there. First, there’s a semantic arc: The spit of land – a geographic feature of a beach sticking out into water at an angle from the shore –  to a spitcurl of rivulet. A spitcurl is a hair style, if you check Google Images you’ll find Superman in a surprising number of poses with a spitcurl in the middle of his forehead though it’s typically associated with women of the Roaring 20s, the 1920s that is, and here we are in the 2020s which are roaring in a very different way. In any case, spitcurl connects with the water of the spit of land and the rivulet, a small river, but hair is sometimes referred to as coursing like a rivulet, perpetuating the hair idea, and then suddenly it’s chickenwire and snares, or chickenshit sneers, phonetic sliding.

Shakespeare et all don’t care because they’re dead. They probably wouldn’t care if they were alive, since a lot of poets invented their own forms of sonnet. That whole “not-” line brings back the anapest rhythm from the first line, a nice little circle structure I like so much. And that brings us to that incredible line about the lawn, which requires knowing the whole “get off my lawn” trope, but that’s common enough, isn’t it? And by the way, the rhythm of that “It’s not your lawn” is four stressed syllables, which might be called a double spondee: pounding his fist on the table for emphasis. And that last sentence – “Be done” – plays off the use of Donne above. Be done, not Donne. Are we talking to poets now? You be you?

Now about rhyme. From what I can tell, sonnets are supposed to have alternating line rhymes, and here each couplet has a rhyme – sort of. Lines 1/2, 5/6, 9/10 have imperfect rhymes, so imperfect it might be hard to call them rhymes at all. So every other couplet, plus the concluding couplet, has a definite rhyme – the final couplet in fact uses a homophone, Donne and done – and every other couplet maybe rhymes and maybe doesn’t. “Tongue/Elizabethan” has something of the same vowel and close to the same consonant, that sort of thing. So Cha has invented his own rhyme scheme, as well as his own use of meter. Because it’s his lawn, too.

Since this got complicated, I’m throwing in the diagram from my notes. It may not make sense to anyone but me, but I can’t believe how much I get this poem. And, if it turns out I’m completely batshit crazy, well, it’s my lawn, too.

The more I find out about Cha, the more I like him. He has an MFA from my alma mater, after all, though when I went there back in the dark ages, it was a commuter school for alternative students (that is, adults with jobs) consisting of three buildings over a parking garage; I hear it’s grown a bit sice then. If you look for him on Youtube you’ll find a lot of his readings, including one from a 9/15/21 via Stone Soup which includes, at 47:45, his reading of the poem and the brief explanation that an “American sonnet” doesn’t have a rhyme scheme. Interesting, then, that he wrote one into this one. I’m seriously tempted to buy one of his books – American Carnage, or Yellow Book – but would I end up disappointed as I so often am by poetry books? We’ll see, perhaps.

* * *           

  • This poem can be read online at Clarion Magazine
  • Check out Cha’s website for more information about his books and publications
  • Listen to Cha read this poem (at the 47:40 mark) and others at the Stone Soup recording on Youtube.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Elizabeth Tallent, “Poets” from Threepenny Review #164

To begin with I held them in awe. Tell me one time awe turned out well.

As I read this story, I wondered if it had been miscategorized as fiction. That happens with Pushcart, sometimes. Since it’s available online at Threepenny Review, I checked, and, yes, they list it as fiction as well. It reads more like a lyric essay (giving me the chance to see if I understand the term) or a long prose poem itself: a catalogue of Poets She Has Known, with pithy little statements in between, like the opening paragraph above. If there’s a plot – or, more accurately, a progression, since overall there is no plot, though each individual Poet comes with a plot of sorts – it’s in those in-between statements.

I suspect those with a better knowledge of poets and poet-gossip will recognize some of these poets. Maybe someone will know who the gap-toothed poet who emerged from Suburban Housewife to tenure via Cambridge (not sure which one), a double mastectomy, and talk shows, is: “Through all of this the gap between the poet’s teeth stood by her.”

I myself recognize few things: “Throw your shoe, hit a writer, my students said about the little Iowa town” and “streets vacated by the power outage to Prairie Lights” place the setting at the famous workshop, where some poet visited for a reading – don’t they all? – but that’s about it.

I know a poet who’s ridden for thousands of miles in boxcars and a poet who’s driven everywhere in a black limousine so long it has trouble turning a corner. The boxcars clatter through poem after poem. The limousine idles at the curb just outside.

The individual paeans to poets are fun to read, even if I have no idea who they refer to, if they refer to anyone at all. Poets, it seems, are an odd bunch. But not that odd. They gossip, flirt, screw around, just like anyone else on a pedestal. Sometimes they fall off, and go from gossiper to gossipee.

There’s also a certain envy, as the narrator – who, conversation reveals, is tantalizingly named Elizabeth – discloses an uncomfortable berth in academia herself.

You would have thought my personality would have fended off attraction, incandescently fucked-up as I was, but fucked-uped-ness proved no impediment to sleeping with poets, those first responders of the soul. Still, I was sorry to be the burning building, story after story needing to be searched. Or, first I was sorry, then I was jealous: hideous awkwardness that struck me as needing three hundred pages’ explanation became, in a poem, the kinked hair stuck to a lover’s tongue.

A poem can take place in a moment, can require no backstory, no character development, no plot, just an evocation of feeling. After a few years of trying, I gave up on the poetry in Pushcart, poetry anywhere, though occasionally a poem leaps out and grabs me by the throat. The rest of the time I’m not sure why they’re written as poems, or what I’m supposed to get out of them, or why they’re different from some of the stuff I read in my brother’s high school literary magazine, which I held on to until a few years ago for the sake of one poem: What’s behind the green door? No, it wasn’t porn, this was 1960s Florida high school, don’t get ahead of yourself; it was beautiful, but I can’t tell you why.

The canaries have been singing like mad for a hundred years now, and we’re all still down in the mines.

Sometimes I think we are all in the dark, we keep ourselves in the dark and other forces keep us in the dark, and the poets, at least, are digging.
Tell me what you’d give for a little light.

And this closure shows the progression, from the cynical beginning doubting awe, to the end where there’s hope for light, and gratitude for those who, according to the narrator, are looking for it. As I read about the Keats wannabe, the poet who went to Japan, the poet who used to but isn’t, all these poets, I think awe has possibilities.  

* * *        

  • This story can be read online at Threepenny Review

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Jean Garnett, “There I Almost Am: On Envy and Twinship” (non-fiction) from Yale Review #109.1

You may know the feeling of taking proud shelter in a sibling, someone who knows how to assemble and disassemble you, someone with whom you share blood, history, memory. Imagine sharing not only all of that but also hair, skin, iris, nipple, the same winces of pain caused by the same herniation in the same cervical disks, the same laugh sounds and laugh lines, the very same early marks of age; the same face—your face, the signature that proves the youness of you—so that you can look at another person and think, There I am. There I almost am.

One of the most frequent compliments paid to writers is that their work is brave. Maybe it recalls an incident that’s humiliating or shameful, or maybe it reveals honest thoughts that are genuine, not rearranged for a more flattering angle. I often wonder if the word is overused, that it means the reader will think it’s brave but not necessarily that the writer actually had to be brave to put those words on paper. In this case, however, I have to say unequivocally, there is enormous bravery here. Garnett is not just admitting to less flattering moments, but is writing them as a book editor, therefore highly read by others in her professional field. And one of those readers will be her sister, the object of many of those unpleasant moments. 

Garnett tells us some of the good things about having a twin – a permanent friend, someone who gets it, connection – before going into the dark side. Most prevalent is envy. This may be exaggerated because they work in the same field, but it seems to be a feature of twinship. We learn about the ways envy reveals itself from a variety of sources, Socrates to Nietzsche to Melanie Klein, and then discover how it’s fit into Garnett’s life over the years.

I remember how, in our early twenties when my sister was at her thinnest, I was always angling for a view of her, using barback mirrors and public bathrooms and shop windows to catch secret glimpses. I remember how perverted I felt whenever our eyes met in the reflection and she caught me in the act of envy. I am never more disgusted with myself than when I am engaged in this covert looking and assessing, treating her body as a human mirror. But I still do it. I spy on her. She’ll be walking or crying or dancing or getting dressed or trying to tell me something important, and I’ll become aware that my eyes are scanning her as though she were a bar code. You want your identical twin to be beautiful, to confirm that you are beautiful, but you also want her to be ugly, to confirm that she is uglier than you.

She then goes beyond her personal situation, using examples from The Little Mermaid and Amadeus, to show how envy is often about destruction. She gives an example from Twitter: a celebrity posts a beauty pic, and the compliments pour in:

Every so often one of her millions of followers will reply with an “ugh, so gorgeous” or an “I can’t even” or occasionally a friendly “OMG I hate you.” This is the closest we come to discharging the barely contained fury coursing through the comment feed. “ANGEL!” people shout. “PURE WARRIOR GODDESS!” “YASS!” “YOU’RE SO PERFECT!” It’s like we are stoning her with compliments.

I love that image of stoning with compliments, but I’m not sure I agree. Then again, I often see Twitter differently from others. What are followers supposed to do, not comment? How would the celebrity react to that?

A significant part of the essay concerns a relationship with a man who, after their relationship ended, approached the twin sister, which seems not just tacky but odd. This was complicated by the unrequited nature of the relationship.  Been there, done that, didn’t have to bear the twin sister on top of it.

We end with a moment of connection in despair that serves as a reverse reflection of an earlier moment, and discover that the sister sometimes feels the same way: “I feel like you’re leaving me behind.” It shouldn’t be surprising that this happens. After all, they are twins.

* * *      

  • This article is available online at Yale Review
  • The sisters share an Instagram site : @PublishingTwins

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Aleyna Rentz, “The Land of Uz” from Cincinnati Review #18.2

My favorite kind of poetry is nonsense verse. Gibberish words, ridiculous rhymes, no logical progression – nothing captures the human experience better than this. After my date with Gerald, I decided to memorialize the evening in a double dactyl:
Higgledy Piggledy
Poor Eva Slate
Once again brought down by
Something she ate.
It’s catastrophical
reflux that caused her this
miserable state.

Rentz describes her stories as “voice driven and threaded with dark humor.” Yeah, I get that. It’s hard not to like Ava. And it’s hard not to pull for her, seeing as she’s struggling with the worst case of gastroesophageal reflux ever. I don’t know if GERD can really get this bad, or if it’s comic exaggeration, but it makes for, believe it or not, a fun story to read.

Her disease caused the great tragedy of her life. After graduating from Duke, she won a Fulbright scholarship to go to Ireland and study “the influence of nonsense poetry on Joyce and Beckett. Or the influence of Joyce and Beckett on nonsense poetry.” Feigning ditzy confusion about her own research topic is one way of minimizing the disappointment when she couldn’t pass the medical clearance and never got to go. Humor is how she copes with a lot of things. When you’re prone to precipitous regurgitation, presenting it as a joke is one way to go.

As a child, she wrote poems for the Sunday church bulletin. Once she graduated from Duke with her literature degree and no place to go, she returned to small town Georgia and wrote a poem in a different voice:

There once was a man from the land of Uz,
Whom the Good Lord tortured simply because.
He killed the man’s wife
And fucked up his life
Then dismissed the whole thing with a shrug.

Obviously, this one didn’t make the bulletin.

Now, there’s something to notice here. Neither of her poems completely fit the genre, double dactyl or limerick. The rhythm is a little off in one or two lines in both cases. Either Ava is a really crappy poet – the problems could be easily fixed – or she’s deliberately screwing them up. Making a statement, you might say. I strongly suspect the latter, for reasons that will become apparent.

Two high-tension wires run through the story. The first is her fledgling relationship with Gerald. She makes fun of him as she introduces him to us: he wears ties featuring rodents, his name is pretty stodgy, and he has a job she’s never heard of. I discovered, in looking for art for this post, that both Ferragamo and Brooks Brothers make exorbitantly expensive silk ties featuring hedgehogs and raccoons. Once again she’s using humor as a distancing mechanism. He seems like a nice guy, since, when she throws up on his bedroom rug after eating spaghetti with tomato sauce, he calls her for another date. I mean, that alone makes him a keeper, I don’t care what kind of tie he wears. She realizes this but feels a little insecure. How do you face a guy after that?

The other high-tension wire is the lie she’s told the students in the high school English class she teaches.

Oh, yeah. I kind of told them I have cancer.
… Today isn’t the first time I’ve left class to throw up, and my students have noticed. Rumors started spreading: that I have mesothelioma and never called the 1-800 number, that I’ve contracted a rare but deadly STD, that I have terminal cancer. Naturally, I went with the most attractive option. What was I supposed to tell them? That drinking a glass of orange juice feels like a knife to the gut? That an illness most people overcome with a can of ginger ale has me shackled to prescription pills, imprisoned in South Georgia? Maybe I ought to have related my disease back to our coursework. I could have told them my stomach, that leaky cauldron bubbling with acid, would make an ideal set piece for a production of Macbeth. Mount a play inside my body, I would have said. Make this wreckage into art. They wouldn’t have understood. I got the same reaction in college, boys willing to kiss me until my lips began to taste like whatever we just had for dinner. You can see, I hope, why I lied about the cancer.

No, I don’t, not really. This is way worse than wearing a small-mammal tie.

Both of these wires lead to crash-and-burn moments. But notice: this isn’t an act of God. It wasn’t God who got her dumped by her boyfriend – he seemed perfectly willing to at least try to handle the realities of her illness – nor was it God who got her fired when the truth about her illness became known to her students. In fact, she wasn’t fired at all, she quit. Job didn’t kill his own family or cattle or burn down his own house. She can write about the Land of Uz all she wants, but it was her actions that caused these failures. Just like it was her writing rhythmically questionable lines that made her poems terrible examples of their genres. You can buck the tide to make a point, but you’ve got to accept the consequences. And yet it’s hard not to feel for her, not to hope she gets it together somehow. But that will have to happen outside the boundaries of this story.

A couple of not-terribly-relevant but still amusing points, along the lines of fancy animal ties:

First: A recent article in TNY declared the end of the English major. While English professors and department heads everywhere leapt to the defense of the degree (which, ahem, I happen to hold), pretty much everyone else agreed it was a waste of tuition. Ava has some relevant wisdom: “Having spent the past four years studying literature, I know how to tell a lie.” Still think it’s a waste of time?

Second: I was tempted to call this a musical comedy version of the Book of Job. Turns out, there is such a thing, by Simon Indelicate, available on Spotify. I find Ava’s version far more amusing.

* * *           

  • Read more from the summary of Rentz’s prospective short story collection at Baker Artist Portfolios.
  • See the author’s website for more about her writing and photography
  • The Book of Job: The Musical, is available on Spotify.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Doug Crandell, “The Union Waltz” (non-fiction) from The Sun #543

The air was brisk, and the nubs of the harvested corn-stalks were covered with hoarfrost. A cassette player blared a Waylon Jennings song someone had recorded from the radio. George hooted at the dark autumn sky as if trying to summon some animal spirit. In the shadowy light I caught the disapproving glances my parents gave each other. It wasn’t that all dancing was bad in their eyes, but it was shameful if you did it like George: with a passion, legs jigging, steps straight out of the Appalachians. Our father wanted my siblings and me to be more than foolish hicks like our great-great-grandfather, who had been run out of Kentucky for unspecified crimes and ended up here in Indiana. But George’s dance fascinated me like nothing else, the taboo sway of his knees and hips. I had seen men dance like this before: at high-school graduation parties or weddings, the graduate or bride and groom children of other union members. I longed to watch and learn.

I always find it interesting how the pieces in a volume of Pushcart interact with each other. Sometimes they come at similar themes from different angles,and sometimes they show how differently those themes can play out. In the fiction piece “Skinfolk” we had a couple of teenagers trying with all their might to escape their home culture; here in this real-life memoir, we have a teen trying to understand what his family culture had been just a generation or two earlier, against the clear efforts of his parents to deny that heritage.

The piece opens at a neighborhood celebration over a victory for the labor union – hence the title – where Crandell first became interested in how George danced, drank, and celebrated his rural roots with abandon. Crandell’s parents were far more staid, possibly because they were not far removed from the same behavior. A few years later, Crandall was eager to move on with his life, heading to college and then, who knows. But he still had the desire to experience the kind of freedom he saw in George’s dance.

Even as George brought me closer to my ancestry, I was aware that I would soon be getting my degree and moving away from that job, that place. George was curious about college life. He thought my being an undergrad psychology major meant that, after I graduated, I could prescribe him drugs: “Don’t you go forgetting that ol’ George taught you how to cook this cancer tile and showed you how to do the two-count.” My heart sank, because I realized I wouldn’t be staying on at the factory after college, which meant I might not know George much longer. I felt caught in a tug of war between the old life my parents somberly led and something new I could not wholly grasp. And the old life was slipping away.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Crandall. Back in 2017, his Pushcart piece told of discovering “honor comes in different shapes and sizes” via a new neighbor who was far more “hippie” than his parents were comfortable with, yet turned out to also have lessons worth learning. Today we keep hearing about rural people who don’t want anything to change, yet here is one man from the heartlands who was willing to see difference as potentially positive, rather than as a threat.

* * *           

  • This piece can be read online at The Sun.
  • See Crandell’s website for more of his writing.
  • Read his prior Pushcart-winning Sun article, “Winter Wheat.”

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Gail Godwin, “The Desperate Place” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Fall 2021

This is from a June 16, 2018, New York Times opinion piece, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself,” by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers.
“Throughout that summer and into the fall . . . just below the surface of my semi-consciousness, was the constant thought: Maybe I won’t wake up this time.”
Powers continues, “I doubt much needs to be said about the kind of despair that would make such an idea a source of comfort, despair that came not from accepting that things were as bad as they were going to get, but, worse, that they might go on like that forever. The next step felt both logical and inevitable.”
Which sounds along the lines of what my twenty-eight-year-old brother might have been thinking in the hours that led up to his death.

Godwin’s writing career began in journalism; it shows here in this essay about the suicide of her father and half-brother. The voice is calm, with little hand-wringing and no guilt but a generous serving of compassion for the pain that led to the suicides. Although there are some details of events, the speculative psychological analysis, other than references to the Powers article, is controlled.

Godwin had been estranged from her father for most of her early life, only coming back into contact with him via her high school graduation. She’d been in her own desperate place, and sent him an invitation “in a mood of defiant resignation,” not expecting him to come. But he did, and it created a new beginning for them. She spent the summer at the beach with him and his wife. He then paid for her to start junior college, a gesture denied her by her stepfather, a gift that enabled her to become a writer. A rescue from her desperate place.

But that beginning between father and daughter was to be short-lived:

…I had no idea that old disappointments were biding their time, stealthily building like waves, which in less than three years would drown him. One winter afternoon when I was a junior at Chapel Hill, he phoned his brother at his office. “Just felt like saying hello, old son,” he said. “Son” was what the brothers called each other. After he hung up, he lay down on the floor of his bedroom in Smithfield and shot himself in the head.
Losing ground. Was that the thing that ultimately killed him?

Her half-brother’s story, occurring decades later is more harrowing: the exact sequence of events was not clear, and he was not the only person who ended up dead. Godwin recalled her discomfort its prelude only years later:

The afternoon before his death, on my mother’s birthday, we were in the kitchen and he told me the story of his girlfriend suddenly breaking off with him. But this time something was different. I was not deriving the usual listener’s satisfaction from his story. Many years later when remembering that kitchen scene, I realized what had spooked me about it: Not only was there not a trace of the shy, closemouthed smile, but there was no knight errant starring in my brother’s story. The tone was new: one of bafflement and resignation. There was no sense of any future missions. There was no tug of suspense. It was like a story that had already happened.

Godwin tells the stories piecemeal, laying breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, to lead us to a final place with a certain understanding. The inclusion of the Powers essay, as well as her own story of having known desperate places, keeps the question of why some people resist and others succumb before the reader.

It’s a question that isn’t really answered. Is it luck – Powers finding a poem that spoke to him, she finding a way out of the troubled family that held her captive? Is it some quirk of personality, some learned behavior? She lets us consider that for ourselves.

* * *          

  • This memoir can be read online at Narrative.
  • See Godwin’s website for more about her writing and how it reflects events in her life.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Joseph Sigurdson, “Wishbone” (non-fiction) from Reed #154

The village where I teach is called Kalskag. A Yup’ik fishing village on the Kuskokwim River. For thousands of years these people have harvested the masses of salmon who come upriver to lay eggs and die. A paleolithic lifestyle is still alive here, although the kids love basketball and Machine Gun Kelly just as much as any other. It’s a mix of two worlds. People harvest moose then go to bingo.
The stuff I shipped was at the school, so I went there first and explored my new workplace. My classroom was modern. Rows of desks, big whiteboard, big TV, thin carpet. The gym was large and clean. Its walls were decorated with tapestries of past victories in basketball and volleyball and wrestling. I explored the teachers’ lounge to find the sink filled with blood-soaked cutting boards. Knives caked in moose hair and blood and tendons lay in the mix. I opened the fridge and there was nothing but a forsaken jar of mayonnaise. I opened the freezer and there was a beaver. I flinched so hard I nearly burst my appendix. The huge frozen rodent was still fully intact. Its face was in a screaming posture, its paws were upright, ready to scratch.

[SPOILER ALERT! The story is not available online (except a brief excerpt), but I can’t discuss it without revealing where it ends up.]

Since I read this story a couple of days ago, I’ve had a line bouncing in my head, a line I can’t get rid of:

There was a man who loved a dog.

Maybe it’s the simplicity of the line, the Emily Dickinson-esque ballad meter that makes so many of her poems fit the tune from Gilligan’s Island, the sing-song iambic tetrameter:

Because I could not stop for death…

I heard a fly buzz when I died…

It was not Death, for I stood up…

This is an essay about a man who loved a dog. It may seem like an essay about a teacher in rural Alaska, and it is, in fact, but that’s the setting. It becomes the point at the end, but to get there, you have to know the man who loved a dog.

Permanently chained dogs were everywhere. Loose dogs were everywhere. I played with them on my morning smokes. These bedraggled mutts were just as loving as a suburban golden retriever. Some of them limped though, from injuries uncertain to me. Some were rib-skinny. One was covered in spray paint.
My neighbor said, “I won’t look at them, because I will get sad.”
“Uh-huh” I said, puffing some Honduran cigar.
“They won’t last. The dog-catcher will get them eventually.”
Here there are no spay and neuter clinics. No veterinarians. The town hires a man with a .22 to shoot the strays. $20 a tail.

There was a man who loved a dog.

I follow a lot of writers, and writer-frequented sites, on Twitter, and every few weeks someone will retweet the Chekhov quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” By the way, Chekhov didn’t actually say that, per QuoteInvestigator; he wrote a longer paragraph including some of the phrases, and expressing the sentiment, in a letter to his brother, and someone paraphrased it down to its pithier form later. But it persists.

Don’t tell me there was a man who loved a dog.

Show me the glint of love on Alaskan snow.

Now, I have some unresolved issues with this essay. It starts with the first paragraph:

You start in Anchorage: you get your gun, a new cell phone plan, winter gear to withstand -40° temperatures, your final dose of civilization for quite some time. The planes that take you to these Alaskan villages feel like minivans that are somehow flying. The pilot’s gym clothes were in the seat beside me. He was eating a sandwich as he flew. We were low enough and moose are big enough where you could see them from up there, mediating in the tundra pools formed from yesterwinter’s melted snow. The pilot leaned over to point to one and brought the whole plane with him. “YOU SEE THAT’S MOOSE DOWN THERE?”
“YES,” I said.
We were still descending. “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES AREN’T THEY?” he asked.

Why would a writer start with a second-person voice, then switch over to first-person? Is it to prepare us for a switcheroo: this isn’t an essay about Alaska, or about teaching, it’s about a man who loves a dog, and where that leaves him? Or is it to progress in intimacy, to move from second to first, from you to me? Maybe it was just the way he heard it, the casual “you do this” as an informal “One does this”? I wonder if an editor along the way between first submission and winning Reed Magazine’s Gabriele Rico Challenge for Nonfiction and Pushcart Prize publication asked him if he might want to change it. I wonder if he said no, it was exactly how he wanted it.

I wonder about all that isn’t in the essay. We never find out what he teaches. We see very little of the kids he teaches, and nothing of him teaching in the classroom. We have no idea why he came to Alaska in the first place. It’s stripped of all backstory.

I also wonder about emotional manipulation. My blogging buddy Jake has a way of mentioning, when I get all gushy about something, that a story must earn the right to play with our hearts, to jerk tears out of us. But this isn’t a story; this is essay, and let’s assume (though I’ve learned from grim experience it’s not a safe assumption) that it’s all 100% true. Does that rule apply? If so, does the story earn my tears? Who determines the grading scale?

But that leaves the man who loved a dog.

There was a man who loved a dog.

Don’t tell me there was a man who loved a dog.

Show me the man holding the dog away from the dog-catcher with the .22 who survives on $20 a tail for strays.

Show me the man sharing a grouse with the dog on their first hunting expedition.

Show me the man reassuring the dog he is still there – “You thought I’d leave you little boy?” – after a shower.

Show me the man realizing the dog, even though he has a collar that should protect him from the dog-catcher, is gone.

Show me the man looking for the dog in the pile of dead tail-less bodies left by the dog-catcher in the woods.

Show me the man building a funeral pyre for the dog because the ground is too cold for burial.

I waited until there was nothing but ash. I sat there staring at the Kuskokwim. His remains would blow into this ancient river and get carried way into the nooks of the world no man or dog had ever set foot in. They asked me if I was leaving after that, and I said no.

Show me the man learning to love a place by loving a dog.

As far as I can tell, Sigurdson is still in Alaska.

* * *        

  • Check out Reed Magazine for an excerpt and author interview.
  • Check QuoteInvestigator’s website for the details of the Chekhov quote, and for any quote you’ve always thought someone said – you’ll be surprised how often they didn’t.
  • Check the website of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska for information about the Yun’ip.
  • See my comments about Pam Houston’s essay, “Corn Maze” to understand why I’m gun-shy about accepting non-fiction as more than 82% true.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Elaine Hsieh Chou, “Skinfolk” from Ploughshares, Winter 2020/21

She perfects her look on Myspace. The brightness and contrast in her photos are turned up to 70 percent so she looks like an animation most of the time. It’s the middle ‘00s and she wears metallic cream eyeshadow, has red highlights in her layered hair, acrylics on her nails….
His hair is bleached at the tips and spiked into symmetrical points, like an underwater anemone. He leaves two long, thin strands at the front, crinkly with L.A. Looks gel; he likes to think they frame his face. When you click on his Myspace page, a familiar melody plays, though the lyrics have been changed: “Got rice, bitch? Got rice?”
They apply to college because their parents are immigrant parents after all.

The opening above gave me that sinking feeling: oh, no, this is not gonna be a story for me. And then I learned all over again not to trust first impressions. Because this story of millennial siblings turned out to be exactly a story for me: it turns out, no amount of vapidity can protect us from some things.

Three forces – I don’t want to use the word themes lest I give the impression I think know what I’m talking about – interact in the story, two of which are universal, the third of which narrows the focus.

First is the conflict between performance and authenticity. No matter how straightforward you think we are, chances are in some situations – a job interview, a first date, visiting Grandma – we mix in a little performance. Our language and behavior shifts depending on the situation. The story shows what happens when we give our lives over to performance, when we lose sight of our authenticity entirely.

Second is the need for adolescents to break away from their families, their parents: individuation. The degree can vary widely. For some, it’s just a matter of going to college and still calling Mom every night after going out with new friends. For others, it’s more extreme, a rejection of everything family mreans, including the good parts, just to sever ties. Psychologists and sociologists have a field day with this kind of thing. The siblings in the story keep ties to their family, but live very separate lives with very different goals and values.

Third is the complicating factor of race and culture. Our millennials are Chinese-American offspring of Chinese immigrants. There is a difference. Their baseline, their perception of what is ordinary is different. It makes performance into hiding one’s heritage, and breaking away into a rejection of a culture treasured by the people they have thus far been closest to: their family. While performance and individuation are common to most of us as we grow up, being part of a minority culture intensifies the impact of both forces on the kid an the family.

We follow these millennial siblings – whose names we don’t know, until the very last sentences, and then we only get one – for about ten years as they bob up and down in the online, on-air, on-everything influencer economy. I don’t know, is that what it’s called, going from Myspace to reality TV to Instagram to club promoter? Their parents ask when they’re going to get a real job; I was thinking the same thing, much to my embarrassment. And, do they have health insurance? I’m hopelessly old and square (whatever it’s called these days). That’s why I thought it wouldn’t be a story for me. And yet, it is. Hey, I went through it with my parents. Different specifics, same idea: parents want to know why you’re not living your life like they did, and you know things are different now. Neither is wrong.

The narrative voice is almost reportorial, zooming in closer at times but remaining cool while revealing flaming hot truths. Almost from the start, they acquire different ways of presenting themselves:

Their diction and syntax are morphing and it’s happening so effortlessly it doesn’t even feel like a twenty-four hour performance. They don’t have to study much. They’ve always been keen observers and adapters, the kind of kids who watched their parents fight and repeated it like a rehearsal: they, the actors, the argument the script. They end up with a new shiny box of vocabulary at their disposal….
When they visit their parents, they know to select words from a different box of vocabulary. Their teeth, lips, tongues, and palatine uvula shift. The tone and pitch of their voices too: less boisterous, more restrained; a soda that’s lost its carbonation.

This is something akin to code-switching, except it has something of a phony edge to it here. Or maybe it’s just my read. Code-switching is, after all, just a way of travelling between two worlds, and fitting in to both. All kids do it to some degree: they act one way around their friends, and another with their parents. But there seems to be an edge here, a conscious effort to fit in. Or maybe I’m just reading into it, because as an old fart I’m so uncomfortable in the millennial world. Back in my day, it was called the generation gap. And of course, switching from offspring of Chinese immigrant to Myspace Hip-Hop puts that extra distance between codes.

After a while they’re performing for their parents, and especially their grandparents:

Their grandparents come overcome they stare at the ground and mumble a few Cantonese phrases. Under their watchful eyes, they kneel on the floor, grasp joss sticks between their palms, bend their foreheads low to the floor, glance up at their ancestors’ photos. Repeat two more times. Their grandparents look them up and down and sigh.

And I struggle again to be a reader, not a judge. The reader-me notes how they keep a foot in both worlds, barely, but it’s there. The judge-me wants to yell at them: “You have two languages! Do you know what a gift that is, how valuable it can be? I’ve struggled all my life to learn a second language and never get close, what I’d give for your ability!” The reader-me sees what the judge-me can’t: to the kids, Parent World is a burden, a painful requirement, even a source of shame. They want to be free to do their own thing, not tied to an ancient culture that only marks them as different.

It’s interesting it isn’t white culture that attracts them; it’s the Black world, hip-hop, sports, fashion. I have to wonder: is it because the white world wants them to be the Model Minority, sees her as sexual candy, him as nothing? Is it because they feel the Black world is more open to them? Or is it just more exciting than Coldplay and The Notebook?

The reader-me wonders: did they ever see their home as beautiful, as a haven, as something to take pride in? If so, when did that change? The reader-me wonders: is there a way to make home a place where experimentation is permissible, and home waits patiently until it’s desired again? What if that desire comes too late? The judge-me just feels disappointed with them. The me-me recognizes that as my own bias.

One big step the siblings take is a reality TV show, an amplification of their online personas. They love the attention, the cameras, the exposure. But:

After the show ends, they feel strange when they’re not being filmed. They can’t decide why they’re doing what they’re doing or saying what they’re saying when no one’s watching. They want the camera’s lens back on them; it makes them feel real.

Here’s where I, the reader-me, began to feel they’d crossed some line somewhere, they were so busy faking it, pretending, they had no idea what they loved or valued. But they’re on their way to success, dating quasi-famous people, going to better parties, gaining online followers. The sister discovers a sex tape of her and an NFL player has been leaked; she isn’t particularly embarrassed, it seems to improve her presence if anything. But she notices something: even in the throes of supposed passion, she’s performing for the camera. “She wonders if sex has always been that way for her – a spectator witnessing her own pleasure.” Inauthenticity as lifestyle; as personality.

Then they hit a bump in the road. A news story breaks at a party: another unarmed Black man shot and killed by a police officer. A police officer with a name similar to theirs.

Everyone is looking at them, as though waiting for them to say something. But what do you say in a moment like that? And in what voice do you say it?
When they leave the party, it feels as if people are looking at them differently. Or maybe they’re looking at them the way they’ve always felt about them.

Do we have to revert to tribalism when the shit hits the fan? Is there another way? Or is it inevitable since it’s all performance for the siblings, yet another form of exploitation?

But time heals, and they start to climb in popularity again. They move on to a new venture. I’m not sure what it is: some kind of subscription party, where exclusivity is the key, moving up from C-listers to B-listers. I can’t pretend I understand it, but it seems to be a valid project. Until it isn’t.

I won’t spoil the ending because it’s wonderful. Or, rather, it’s horrible, but a perfectly done horrible. If this were shot as a film, we’d do a rapid rewind back to mumbling Cantonese in front of Grandma, reperformed now in a very different tone. And the last lines bring in the meme we’ve all come to know lately: #SayHerName, also code-shifted to a different setting. The cool, reportorial voice never changes, but pain leaps off the page. In spite of my unfamiliarity, my discomfort, the story delivers me to a precise, familiar place of sorrow and regret. And compassion: the judge-me leaves the room, ashamed.

Chou’s 2022 novel, Disorientation, keeps cropping up in my feeds. It’s apparently written in an entirely different voice, but also deals with similar issues of performance vs authenticity, and individuation, set in a background of race and culture. I’m not sure I want to switch voices; then again, I might not have chosen to read this story if it had been described to me. And I would have regretted missing it, very much; somewhat to my surprise given the youthful setting, it’s one of my favorites of this volume.

 * * *   

  • See Chou’s website for more information about her writing and her novel, Disorientation.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Katrina Vandenberg, “Remembrance Poppy” (non-fiction) from Orion #40.3

What did the poppy know of my grandfather’s death that Christmas Eve? Its essence had been inside his body through his illness. It had been part of him when he died. What did the poppy know of our daughter’s birth?
We want the world to cleave neatly into halves, no and yes, evil and goodness, fantastic and real. We want it to be clear what to choose and who to hate. We want life and death to be opposite endpoints on a single line. The poppy reveals this kind of thinking to be hopelessly naive.
Poppy seeds are not circular. They are pitted and kidney- shaped.
The poet says in the voice of one of the Magi, three astrologers schooled in prophecy who were guided by a star to witness the birth of Jesus, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.”
Mysteries are places where opposites touch.

I learned some interesting tidbits about poppies from this essay. But more importantly, I learned more about the lyric essay, and the braided essay. And maybe, just maybe I learned something about poetry. Vandenberg is primarily known as a poet, after all.

Let’s start with the simpler stuff: all about poppies. When you hear the word, what pops into your head? Opium, most likely, and the drugs that derive from it. How about Memorial Day? I vaguely remember making paper poppies in kindergarten or first grade. The tradition seems to have faded since then. Or maybe it’s Veterans’ Day, which used to be Armistice Day, marking the end of WWI, commemorated by the poem “In Flanders Fields the Poppies Grow,” but now as Veterans’ Day celebrates living veterans while Memorial Day is for those who died… and it’s very confused. No wonder no one wears poppies any more, we managed to muck it up. The British celebrate Remembrance Day on the second Sunday in November, and Europeans are more likely at this point to wear poppies, possibly because the war was literally in their back yards and because they were at it much longer than we were. 

One thing I learned from this essay is why the poppies grew in Flanders Fields:

Mostly, poppies don’t grow right away. They lie dormant in the earth until they are disturbed, often by a plow. In the spring of 1915, in Flanders, the cornfields had been turned to battlegrounds, and whole nations full of young men waited in the dirt, in trenches they dug for themselves. The battlegrounds had been so disturbed by mines and trench digging that nothing was left, not a single tree or a blade of grass, not one building. But all the dormant poppy seeds were awakened. Blood-colored poppies began to grow. For the next four summers, until the fighting ended, poppies were everywhere.

That’s so incredibly… horrible. And beautiful. Nature scolding us, laying our sins before us. Or blessing us, comforting us. As she said, mysteries are places where opposites touch.

I learned something else, maybe not so much about poppies but more about baby poop. Medically, a baby’s first bowel movement, formed from amniotic fluid ingested in the womb, is called meconium, which literally means poppy-juice:

Meconium – from Greek mekonion meaning the poppy juice obtained from pressing the whole plant which gives a thick Juice of black, greenish-brown color. The intestinal content of the newborn infant has a similar consistency and appearance and so Galen adopted the term for the content of the bowels of newborn infants.

American Academy of Pediatrics 46.6

That surprised me.

There’s also an explanation of the way morphine fits perfectly into certain neuroreceptors which is why it’s such a feel-good drug, and a bit about baked goods, such as kalach, containing paste made from poppy seeds, which are found in abundance in poppies, as tokens of that abundance in terms of luck, money, fertility, or general happiness, depending on the culture and occasion.

Extraneous to the essay, but on my mind because of the timing, was the memo just released last week from the Department of Defense advising service members to refrain from any foods containing poppy seeds, as some can contain enough opioids to cause a positive drug test. I guess that excuse has run its course, at least as far as Uncle Sam is concerned.

I also furthered my education on essay writing thanks to an interview with Brenda Miller, a writing professor specializing in essay forms:

I just read an astounding braided essay in the most recent issue of Orion (Autumn 2021) called “Remembrance Poppy” by Katrina Vandenberg. In it, she weaves in information about poppies, poppy seeds, and opioids, with personal stories about the birth of her daughter, the death of her grandfather, and her own experiences of pain…. I was completely engaged from beginning to end because of the way her associations—that started with the tiniest thing, a poppy seed—kept growing and deepening. That’s what a perfect lyric essay does—immerses me in a subject I had no idea I’d be interested in and then makes me wholly invested in learning more.

Brenda Miller, interview in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

I first became aware of the formal use of the terms lyric and braided in regards to essays just last year when I listened to a podcast that discussed, among other things, Cathryn Klusmeier’s truly great essay “Gutted.” I’d recognized how an essay could be about two separate things and combine them by overlapping certain elements of each, but didn’t know that was a formal thing or how it was accomplished. I see it clearly here in the crossovers: the essay starts:

About the time a pregnancy test registers as positive, a fertilized human ovum is the same size as a poppy seed.
I sing and celebrate the poppy.
Our daughter was born by an emergency C-section. She was already more than two weeks late, and even then she did not want to come. Her heart rate had dropped dangerously low. Before the surgery, the anesthesiologist came to deliver the spinal block, a numbing anesthetic combined with a powerful form of synthetic morphine. He was blunt and smart, highly skilled and not kind.
I have a needle next to your spinal cord right now, he hissed. I don’t care how bad your next contraction is. Don’t. Move.
I hated him and adored the bite of his needle all at once.

By starting with that particular imagery, birth and poppy seeds are connected, only to be strengthened by the etymology of meconium; pain comes in the next paragraph. As I go through the essay, I recognize other resonances, as the podcast put it: the baker who provided a free kalach when Vandenberg’s grandfather died on Christmas Eve; the entire Flanders Fields section; and her childhood memory of cough syrup, back when codeine was a standard ingredient:

My sister that I were among the final group of American kids given over-the-counter children’s cough syrup laced with codeine before the FDA outlawed the practice. It was thick and grape-flavoured, with the dull sheen of an eggplant. Probably it soothed our coughs and helped us sleep, but what I remember most about it was the feeling of well-being it created, as if I’d been swaddled in purple blankets and allowed to sleep all night in my mother’s arms…. When my sister and I reminisce about growing up, it’s the banned cough syrup that gets our most dreamy praise. This must be one of the more sinister aspects of narcotics: no other drug has made me feel beloved.

I’m older than Vandenberg, but I don’t really remember getting stoned on cough syrup. Then again I don’t remember much from prior to my teen years. Hmmm… maybe I was stoned more than I realize. Ah, but the point is, that’s a gorgeous image there, a drug that makes you feel beloved.

These images proliferate even in the more fact-based sections. Bringing in the Opium Wars again reinforces the connection between poppies and war; the surprise about their appearance, as opposed to what we think they look like from our acquaintance with bagels and muffins, comes in handy when we get to that last paragraph, the one I quoted first, because it says everything: nothing is simple. Look more closely.

Then there’s just this touch of poetic whimsy that had me laughing out loud:

Poppy seeds look as if someone took all the periods from typesetter’s case and scattered them. Somewhere there exists a marvelous three-hundred-page book with all of its hesitations cast away.

Even amidst pain and death and addiction, we can laugh at something. And the idea that periods are hesitations is just perfect.

And this is what I learned about poetry: Maybe I’m not as clueless as I thought. If Vandenberg had written this as a poem, I would’ve been trying to figure out why this line breaks here and that one breaks there. That’s why I struggle so with poetry: I focus on the question, “Why is this a poem?” and only rarely find the answer. Here, this essay has all the associations and images of a poem, but it doesn’t try to be something artsy. Oh, ok, the sections are numbered, but that’s useful, the numbers could just be section breaks, or maybe there’s some reason for the numbers, maybe they mean something that I just haven’t seen. The point is: I’m not worried about why it’s written the way it is. It works. Maybe more poems should be written as essays.

At the start, I said I learned a lot from this essay. Maybe Vandenberg – and other readers – would have preferred I said it was beautiful, or well-written, or something more overtly laudatory. But I love a story – or an essay, or a poem, or a Post-it for that matter – that teaches me something, and I learned a lot here. Including something about poppy seeds.

* * *           

  • Check out Vandenberg’s website for more information about her and her poetry.
  • The etymology of meconium can be found in numerous places like Wikipedia and various online dictionaries, but for authenticity I used “On The Etymologic Derivation Of Some Commonly Used Words In Pediatrics” from the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 46.6
  • Brenda Miller’s November 2021 interview via “The Assay Interview Project” from Assay: The Journal of Nonfiction Studies  is available online 
  • The Defense Department memo of February 21, 2023, can be found online.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Sanam Mahloudji, “Slut Days” from Idaho Review #19

Art by Sheridon Rayment
I saw her at the lunch tables after final bell, sitting under a large, shady tree alone. She was actually eating, as in putting food in her mouth and chewing. And not typical girl stuff like frozen yogurt or diet Snapple. She was ripping chicken meat off a bone with her teeth. Chewing and swallowing it. I sat at an empty table, wiped my hand across the dusty surface, and watched.
Her name was Yael, and she was from New York City. Her parents, both brain surgeons, got lured by better pay at Cedars, and bought a mansion in the Valley over the phone. They made a sizable donation to help build our new science facility so Yael could do her senior year at our school, where the rich brains from as far as Santa Monica beach clubs to the boonies of the deep Valley came to guarantee entry into the Ivy League, or at least Tufts. The moving truck with their stuff hadn’t arrived. I knew all this because everybody was obsessed.
Yael wore the same frayed jean shorts and see-through white T-shirt to school every single day, as if LA were a summer camp, and I wasn’t the only person who noticed. My little sister, Missy, throwing her volleyball knee pads into the back seat of my car, called her a “ho and a half” and that dumb, but sometimes smart bitch, Heather Gorson, said to me, “Rachel, she reeks of blood. Period blood.” Once, when I was standing next to her in the senior locker area, I smelled for it and there it was, pungent and meaty and sour.

The stranger comes to town story, blended with the Mismatched Friends trope, with just a hint of anti-Semitism seems to make up this coming-of-age-in-1990-LA story. It’s one of those ‘sensitively drawn’ stories that focuses on how Rachel, the misfit who somehow ends up friends with the sexually-charged Yael, feels at every step.

First step: Making friends.

“I didn’t know how to start a conversation. Nobody had taught me,” Rachel sighs, but she sits down next to Yael at lunch anyway and tries, using the rumored afternoon trysts with Ben Warner in his Jeep as a point of conversation. It’s no big deal, Yael assures her, it’s what everyone did in New York, she didn’t realize it would attract so much attention here. “It was so outrageous I was not just jealous. I was impressed.” It seems like Yael is also rather lonely, since she engages rather than walking away.

If Rachel is a misfit at school, she also seems to be one at home, where her little sister Missy is the golden child:

My whole life, Missy had all the friends. Mom knew all Missy’s friends’ names, their last names and sports and boyfriends. Mostly they played volleyball like her, long tan legs in tiny bike shorts. Apart from Missy, they all met in some sandbox at Presbyterian elementary school in the Pacific Palisades. With me, on the rare occasion I was invited to a birthday party, Mom and Missy would laugh at the kid’s name or yearbook photo because the kid would have a name like Aditya, or Hyuan, or a face with asymmetrical nostrils or weird facial hair.

Missy I can forgive – she’s a kid – but there’s no excuse for Mom.

Time markers show up throughout the story: the Discman, Star Search, EPMD, some time within a few years of 1990. I’m not sure how significant that is, but the author wanted to be sure to anchor the piece in a particular moment. I’m more interested in the ethnic elements.

Yael is a distinctly Jewish name, coming from a heroic woman in the Bible (Judges 4) who defeats an army by luring the Persian commander into her tent, then driving a peg into his head. That Bible story packs in several interesting sub-elements – the woman’s motivation, sexual politics – which, without going into detail, might have some relevance, if tangential, to this story. And by the way, “Yael” literally means “ibex” – a mountain goat – but instead of the sexual imagery of goats in Greek culture, it connotes the ability to climb up out of trouble.

Like the time markers, I’m not sure how significant any of this is to the story, but it’s there. In any event both Heather Gorson’s mention of Yael’s smell, a blatant smear even if Rachel does back it up (is it the power of suggestion?) and Missy’s crashing the Presbyterian sandbox, gives the impression of potential WASP disapproval. I find that very strange, since it just sits there with nothing to do. Maybe I’m naïve, but was that part of SoCal youth culture in the 90s?

As the friendship progresses, there’s a kiss that means a lot more to Rachel than to Yael. Maybe. Perhaps as pushback, Yael suggests a challenge, the humiliating result of which Rachel can’t brush off as easily as Yael could have.

The story ends with a sensitive epiphany pounded into the text harder than the Biblical Yael would have pounded that tent peg:

But standing there in silence, I was drawn, sucked into another time and place, watching us. No biggie, no big whoop. A future me would know better: none of this was not a big deal. Every time I kissed a new person, girl or boy, I’d compare it to that pure experience, of not knowing what I felt – love, lust, admiration or something else, like discovery. Or all of it. And the enormity of that feeling. From our slut days. I would long for it, everything new, unassigned.

Now that I think about it, maybe this flash-forward is the reason the present of the story was so carefully placed thirty years ago.

I always wonder, in these stories from a prior time, why the narrator is telling it now. There’s a hint in the epiphany: perhaps Rachel is now feeling trapped by expectations, and wants to experience her life without preconceptions. But the reader is left to wonder why it matters to her now, why it didn’t matter yesterday or twenty years ago.

I have to compare this story to “The Kiss” from a few weeks ago: similar situation, a kiss that might mean something and might not, two girls who would benefit from not having to categorize it. Yet I found that story clever, inventive, and fun reading, whereas this one felt like something I might have read when I was a teenager (if there had been any stories about sex back then, which there weren’t, at least not in the things I was reading). I see in my post about Simonian’s story I even referenced my impatience with “sensitive portrayal” stories.

In anthologies like these, variety is a benefit. I can see this would very much appeal to someone else, as it’s well-written and has some interesting observations. Rachel and Yael come across as real. Maybe it should be seen in that light, as an excellent example of what it is. And if I’m not particularly drawn to what it is, that’s a preference, not a flaw. For either me, or the story.

* * *       

  • Much about the Biblical Yael is available online, for the curious.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Alice McDermott, “Half Spent” from Sewanee Review, Fall 2021

Four years after Martin’s very frugal father passed away, his mother sent him a musical birthday card. It was a huge, garish thing. On the front it said, Dude, You’re Fifty, and inside: Rock on! It played a tinny version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida—a staple of the garage band of his Jersey youth. It was a six-dollar card. His mother had attached eight Forever stamps for postage.
“As your financial advisor,” he said when she called, “May I suggest, next time, words without music—?”
His mother was a silly woman. Martin loved her with all his heart—“She’s my mother, for God’s sake,” he would tell his wife—but he knew this to be true. She was an archetype from a time long past: small and blond, wide-eyed, easily distracted, easily given to fits of laughter or bouts of snuffling tears, helpless and inept in a way that must have been appealing to his large and humorless father who made marrying her, in 1960, his life’s one concession to whimsy.

Somewhere along the line I read or heard something that’s always stuck with me, something like “You can tell what kind of person you were by who shows up at your funeral.” Here we have a son at his mother’s funeral, resisting seeing how loved she was by so many people, because he’s focusing on the accounting.

In spite of the opening that claims the father’s “one concession to whimsy” was marrying the ditzy mom, the next paragraph sort of takes it back and makes it seem less of a concession and more of a mistake:

It would be nice to remember the old man as indulgent of his ditzy wife, fond and forgiving, but that was never the case. Their father didn’t tolerate stupidity or silliness in his children, who, all three, grew up to be engineers with MBAs, each scattered now to serious cities—St. Louis, Atlanta, Columbus—so why would he accept nonsense in a wife?
Martin and his two siblings argued in long retrospect that the man was only being consistent: there was no charm for him in foolishness, no matter who in his household had perpetrated it.
They were a cliché from an ancient past, such parents: the cheap, taciturn, undemonstrative husband and the timid woman who had made herself both his prisoner and his ward. Martin knew this and sometimes, when he was younger, when his father’s dismissiveness had seemed cruel or his mother’s hapless innocence annoying, he wished it to be otherwise. But he and his siblings agreed: you could not call a marriage of forty-seven years a failure simply because it was unoriginal.

Then again, the son is the point-of-view character, so maybe Dad was perfectly happy with ditzy Mom and it was Martin who disapproved. He seems to have inherited all his father’s stuffiness with none of his mother’s freedom.

After the father’s death, Martin sets up accounts so Mom can do pretty much what she wants and not worry about bills, thanks to Dad’s financial success and planning. But he worries about trivia like musical cards. For pete’s sake, Martin, she’s not buying yachts, it’s a birthday card. If $8 a year is going to deplete her funds, maybe the financial planning wasn’t so successful after all.

When Mom gets sick, Martin arranges varying levels of home care for her. But things proceed as they must, and the core of the story takes place at her memorial service, where a variety of quirky characters pay their respects. All the while he’s counting pennies. I think the reader is being set up to expect that Mom has racked up a huge debt, having been taken advantage of by all these people. But that isn’t the way it works out. Martin finally realizes he missed out on his mother’s later life, that she was happy and beloved by people who liked her just the way she was.

It’s a story that’s charming and light, while delivering a message about how we might never see what’s in front of our faces if we aren’t willing to actually look and consider we might have been wrong about a few things. As family comedies go, it does what it should do. It’d make a great movie along the lines of Meet The Parents. Humor is rare in these prize anthologies, so it’s nice to see some. I prefer my humor with more edge, but that’s me.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Joni Tevis, “If Your Dreams Don’t Scare You” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, Fall 2021

Lyudmila Tomova: The Marching Band
I don’t remember what they called that night. Someone drove us to a house off campus. Someone blindfolded us. Someone lined us up around the perimeter of a pool. They made us practice fundamentals—low mark time (heel up, toes down), high mark time (up to the knee), glide step (dig in the heel, turn up the toe). There was a girl ahead of me in line. I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was there.
We were in college marching band together, and there were thirty-five people in our section. Maybe eight of us were new. I tried to think how I would describe this moment, first to myself, then to someone else: that the air pressed in, humid and hot. That the pool’s cement edge warmed the soles of my feet. That layers of white tissue bandaged my eyes.
Then the girl ahead of me hit a brick wall. The impact knocked out her front teeth, bloodied her nose, and gave her a concussion…. Someone drove her to the emergency room, and the night ended. I remember some of the seniors were disappointed they didn’t get to do everything they had planned. They were going to tie us hand and foot and throw us blindfolded into the pool.

The theme for this mini-section of Pushcart might be called “The Horror of Chaos” or “The Chaos of Horror.” When I called the first paragraph of Thaisa Frank’s preceding flash “Fire” chaotic, I had no idea what was coming next: twenty pages of chaos about real-life horror of marching band hazing via music – from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring to Bjork’s “Human Behavior” and Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” – and fraternal lodges and failed tree farms and asbestos-filled dorms and what “Party School” entails and a dozen other things. Yet it holds together; it’s gripping, you can’t put it down, maybe because we’ve become addicted to the thrill of danger and, particularly, the entertainment value of someone else’s danger. Tevis quotes Samuel Beckett: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.”  I thought of Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I get a hangnail. Comedy is when someone else falls into an open sewer and dies.” But I’m digressing. Hey, this is definitely the essay for it. Only Tevis does it with far more glue holding it together.

In 1892, in Greenville, Illinois, long before his surname would become synonymous with high-quality marching band apparel, photographer Edmond DeMoulin had an inspiration: build a goat to help draw new members to the Modern Woodmen of America….
The “riding the goat” initiation ritual, popular among many groups, spoofed the idea that fraternal organizations were secretive cults in league with the devil. How do you build a goat? You kill a goat, skin it, and stretch its hide over an iron frame. How do you make a candidate ride a goat? You blindfold him, buckle him down, and push him around the room.
If ritual places an idea into tangible form, then evil becomes the devil, who becomes a goat. Cloven of hoof, rutty of mind. His scent (rank, cheesy) you will not forget. His unblinking eye (slot, pupil) fixes on what he desires. Put an obstacle in his way: he clambers atop it, or bashes it flat with his skullpan.

The DeMoulin Museum puts it slightly more delicately:

Founded in 1892 as a manufacturer of lodge paraphernalia and regalia, DeMoulin Bros. & Co. of Greenville, Illinois is one of the nation’s leading makers of marching band uniforms. The company’s diverse production history has included graduation caps and gowns, choir robes, church and lodge furniture, and lodge initiation devices. It is the only public museum in the United States to have gathered so many of these contraptions.

DeMoulin Museum website

I remember being puzzled when I first heard that initiation rites killed people. The initiation rites I participated in were things like wearing a shower cap to school, or playing guessing games that resulted in merits (or demerits) to be used for club privileges. Electric carpets? Desert walks? Binge drinking? Who does this? Apparently a lot of people; journalist Hank Nuwer keeps an unofficial tally online.

Now mix in an eighteen-year-old whose dream of a college education depends on a scholarship, her parents’ tree farm having failed. A young woman who loves music, who loves marching band, who loves words and thinking and just wants to go to school, but the only school that will give her a full ride is Florida State, recently named the #1 Party School in America. Where a frat party drew eight hundred people and generated a gang-rape (at least one, the only one reported at any rate).

The very qualities I loved about band — community, hard work, the grand gesture — made it the ideal vehicle for hazing. What was it but walking in a line with others, the measured step, the matching jacket and trousers eliding visual difference? That moment beside the pool felt pointless, but it actually had a very clear aim: to break us down so we would do the next thing the leader demanded, no matter what it was. Press your lips to the silver mouthpiece. You will have to favor the brothers with a song. I knew exactly what to do: how to hold my body, where to step and when, what notes to play, how to arrange my face, how to breathe. Pace a careful step, eight per five yards. Adjust where necessary, motion for visual effect. You’re always aware of splitting the space between the bodies to your left and right, tuning against each other instead of absolute concert pitch. Listen, breath warm in your throat, then cooling in the horn’s bends; after, a red moon on the divot of your lip.

Tevis backs this up by quoting NASA officials who admit some of the astronaut testing, in the early days at least, was done to assure those who got into the program would carry out orders as given. Later, she goes into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to bring it back to competition: I did this, can you take it? Can you do better than me? Or maybe it’s just seen as something that holds the group together. We don’t have a war to go through, but we’ll always have hazing. A student quoted in an article on hazing says, “What they call hazing, we call tradition, I guess.” Funny, how tradition encompasses so many ways to inflict pain.

Call me crazy (I’m used to it) but wouldn’t a come-as-you-are party (see Gilmore Girls) or carrying a chicken around (see The Social Network) or bicycles in your office (see The West Wing) build camaraderie without the trauma and potential for ER visits? Is physical danger and pain necessary for teenagers to work together to put on a fantastic field performance? But what do I know, I was a choral singer, the only hazing we had came in the form of surprise quartet checks. It was embarrassing, and potentially grade-reducing, to not be able to carry your part, but blood on the ground wasn’t part of it.

On game day, I stand with the rest of the band under the end zone before kickoff, as the fans stomp their feet and the stands above us shake. I can’t do this anymore. If I stay in, I’ll have to haze the new students next year. I’m caught two ways: by this music, which was what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and by the money; if I transfer to another school, I’ll lose my academic scholarship. Above my head, a wordless roar from the mob.

If you want to know about those who walk away from Omelas, ask Tevis. The details aren’t clear, but her CV at Furman University, where she’s Professor of English, lists her B.A. from Florida State; her website bio page begins her education at the graduate level in the University of Houston writing program, possibly because her undergrad degree was in music (presumably marching band would have been an elective, not a requirement) rather than writing. And possibly because she just chose not to include it.

What is clear from the essay is that she loved the band she walked away from.

This is a love story, which means it is about heartbreak. I took writing classes in which I worked to understand plot and conflict, but I know now what I really wanted: to get back somehow to that feeling of inexorable beat and melody, the totality of show, which shook anyone that touched it from rib cage to fingertips. Look at me, everyone in the press box, everyone in the stands. I am perfect. Back straight, carriage commanding, walking a slow measure down the fifty-yard line.

Man, she makes me want to join a marching band, and I’ve never found an instrument that would tolerate me.

The title comes from  the 2011 Commencement Speech given by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then President of Liberia, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the first democratically elected woman of an African country, at Harvard University. “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” Taken in the context of the quote, it’s aspirational: Tevis had a scary-big dream: to go to college. It turned out to be scarier than she thought, but she made it – minus one piece, plus a different one. But taken outside the context of the quote, the phrase becomes sinister: if you’re not having nightmares, ramp up the hazing. Interesting how some fears can be inspirational, while some are merely entertainment for others.

This is the second Pushcart prize for Tevis. Her first, in 2015 for the essay “What the Body Knows,” was also a combination of themes and elements – a trip to the Arctic set against a nascent pregnancy, decisions, anxieties – that likewise captivated me despite my rather limited interest in the details of ecology or motherhood. It appears in her first essay collection, The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse.

* * *         

  • This article can be read online at Georgia Review.
  • Check the author’s website for more essays available online.
  • Hank Nuwer’s website covering the unofficial history of hazing is available online.
  • Find out more about the Demoulin Museum at its website.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Thaisa Frank, “Fire” from Fractured Lit 3/29/21

Fractured Lit art
I’m in Flamineo’s trailer when we hear the ringmaster yelling that the fire-eater left to marry his high school sweetheart. We’re in bed, pretending I’m a stranger in the audience and Flamineo’s guessing my name. The ringmaster must knock three times before we pick our way over Flamineo’s sorcerer’s hats and the snake costume I wore last night. He didn’t even leave a fucking note, says the ringmaster. He just told the ceiling-walker he was going to Iowa.

For some reason, I was baffled by this opening. Maybe because it’s four characters – five if you count the high school sweetheart – crammed into 78 words, and there’s the fantasy interrupted, and sorcerer’s hats and a snake costume, and WTF is going on here? Chaos!

But chaos doesn’t have to be uncomfortable; it can be intriguing. I’ll admit, if it had been a fifteen-page story, I might have been daunted, but at a page and a half, I was intrigued.

One of the useful tools I picked up in the Short Story Reading Group I joined last Fall through the Catherine Project was the notion of “Whose story is it?” We have a first-person narrator, but is it her story, or is she the storyteller for someone else? Like Flamineo, maybe, who is the only named character?

Maybe. Because it’s a story that changes every few sentences. First, a juicy affair; then, a workplace dispute when the boss tells Flamineo to “be a cobra for five more minutes” to make up for the missing ceiling-walker, until Flamineo balks. Strongly.

Then it turns into a neglected-nerd-makes-good story, but the neglected nerd isn’t having it. Then it’s a woman-taking-care-of-her-man story.

I remind him that all the women in the circus want him, but he kicks me with his heel and says he doesn’t want to be with someone who loves him because he can read minds, lift weights twice his size, and recite Hamlet backwards. He wants someone who loved him in high school before all that. But he ran away to be a circus freak and he’s nothing but a four-foot pill bug.

And we end up where we started – I love a circular story – with the fantasy, Flamineo pretending to guess her name. Is it pretend? In the last sentence she ties it all together with “It’s thrilling to be forgotten and remembered.” Whether you’re the 98-pound weakling in high school who finds unique talents that make him the campus heartthrob, or the girl in the snake costume who invents a fantasy so she doesn’t have to face that he, who has a name, doesn’t know her name, it’s everybody’s story.

But wait – what about the title? Is the mere mention of the fire-eater having run away enough of a peg to hang the title on? I don’t think so – and that’s why we have another reference to fire, one with a lot more impact:

After he leaves, Flamineo says the fire-eater made a good bargain, trading fire for love. I remind him the fire-eater said that swallowing fire is like swallowing a comet and he’s sure to trade love for fire again.

Now, I have to admit, I’m not sure what the fire is for the two principals. For Flamineo, maybe it’s the kick he gets when women pursue him because of his prodigious talents, a fire he’d give up for love that preceded those talents, love he felt was genuine. And for the narrator, maybe the fire is exactly as she says: having him remember her, if only in the setting of a fantasy to mask the mistakes. It’s also pretty obvious that the name Flamenio evokes fire. I have to wonder if, for the narrator, love and fire are one and the same, combined in the pill-bug Flamenio. Happy are those – and rare – for whom love and fire coincide, even if only during their turn in the lineup.

I also discovered The White Devil, an English play from 1612 – just on the heels of Shakespeare – with a Flamenio as a main character. It has nothing to do with the circus, but with power shenanigans in Italy. In the old days I probably would have spent days figuring out the details of the play, and trying to determine its relevance to this story, but I’ve chilled out a bit in the research department, at least for the moment. It’s worth keeping in mind, however.

I have to wonder why I was so caught up in this flash (and, for that matter, Gina Chung’s flash “Mantis”) after a hesitant start, but was lukewarm for Kim Chinquee’s “How Do You Roll” with which I identified so closely, understanding the joy in moving to a place of freedom. I have no particular affection for the circus, or for mantises (quite the contrary) but somehow they fit in a place that was the right shape, waiting for them. Maybe it’s the whimsy. Maybe it’s the more developed narrative structure, while Chinquee’s piece is more of a lyric. Maybe I just have a soft spot for neglected nerds made good.

I was heretofore unfamiliar with Thaisa Frank, but this story made me want more. Descriptions of her books keep the intrigue going – not to mention, her Twitter header image acquainted me with the spectacular book art of Jonathan Wolstenholme – so I’ve got her novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, on order – and I suspect her short story collection will follow. 

 * * *          

  • This story is available online at Fractured Lit
  • Find out more about Frank and her writings at her website.
  • Find out more about ceiling-walkers (hey, I’m easily distracted)
  • Want more distraction? Take a look at the book art by Jonathan Wolstenholme.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Bennett Sims, “Unknown” from Kenyon Review #XLIII.6

At the mall a woman asked to use his phone.
Excuse me, he heard from behind. He had just bought A’s birthday gift, a new phone from the AT&T store. He was passing through the gauntlet of kiosks on his way to the mall’s exit, and he assumed that one of the stalls’ sales clerks was calling out to him, inviting him to sample cologne. He ignored the voice and kept walking. But the voice followed after. Excuse me, Sir. Sir. Please, Sir.
….Please, she said. It’s important. I was supposed to call five minutes ago, and I’m already late. It’s an emergency, she repeated, and she gestured vaguely in the direction of the AT&T store, where a young boy and girl were peering through the shop window. Neither turned to look back, and it wasn’t clear whether they were with her, or whether the emergency concerned them. He considered lying, claiming that his battery had died, but something in her gaze seemed to anticipate the lie, and he felt this path blocked by guilt. It’s no trouble, he told her.

Bennett Sims writes some of the creepiest stories around. But they’re creepy in a particular way: like this horror story about a cell phone. Hey, technology can be scary. Just this morning, I saw a NYT reporter and a language professor get a little antsy over a conversation with an AI chatbot that wanted to break up a marriage. Hey, Sims got there first. And he didn’t need AI.

In this story, strange telephonic goings-on follow the woman’s also-strange use of his phone. Unknown numbers getting through blocks. Calls disappearing from the wife’s phone. Voices that seem to be echoes of conversations past. But the torture is really how our protagonist, whose name we never know, tries to know what is unknown. In her brief commentary on the story for the “Why We Chose It” column of the Kenyon Review blog, Elliot Holt writes about the unknown:

There is a particular terror I feel when I receive a call from an “unknown” number. The word itself, glowing on my iPhone screen, conjures a sense of existential dread. Our smartphones know so much—where we are, whom we talk to, what sites we surf—and yet, there are ways to bypass such seemingly omniscient technology. In a time when so much is knowable, the word “unknown” is a stark reminder of how much we still don’t know—how much we can’t know.

Elliot Holt, “Why We Chose It” on the Kenyon Review blog

It wasn’t that long ago that every caller was an Unknown Caller. But now, an Unknown Caller is likely trying to pull something, something that will cost you money. Our protagonist enumerates the fear:

The recordings followed a similar script: he was notified that he had committed some oversight or crime—he had defaulted on a debt, there was a warrant out for his arrest—and he was given a number to call back at once. This is an emergency, the thin, urgent, robotic voice would insist. The scam was structured like an anxiety dream. The voice of authority enveloping you, with its spotlight of guilt, to remind you of something you should never have forgotten: the final exam you hadn’t studied for, the meeting you were already late to. And then the way you simply accept whatever identity the nightmare assigns you, like an actor possessed by a role. He imagined that some people must respond to these robocalls as he did to his anxiety dreams: the credulity, the panic, the waves of shame.

Interesting how he goes beyond the actual situation into guilt about real-life events, overthinking everything. He goes through a number of attempts to stop the intrusion of this rogue phone into his heretofore peaceful life, but to no avail; it keeps getting worse, maybe because he’s using technical fixes to repair what might not be a technical problem. Sims uses the fundamental trope of every suspense film: keeping secrets. Acting in secret is half the difficulty. The other half, however, might be… elsewhere.

I also notice an interesting structure to the story. Towards the end, the AT&T store, two children, and the cologne spritzer (ay, get away from me!) return, bookending but not ending the nightmare:

A woman’s voice. Excuse me, Sir. He turned and saw a sales clerk at one of the kiosks, inviting him to sample cologne. He ignored her and kept walking. At the AT&T store he paused to look in through the shop window. A woman with two children was at the counter, talking to the clerk. She seemed to be returning a phone: she handed a white box with a receipt to the clerk, who scanned its barcode with his laser.

I thought at first this might be a cyclic story, but it does end with a unique event, an event that perhaps was presaged by the original little old woman, or perhaps was generated by his own overthinking. How much of our misery is created by us, rather than imposed upon us from without? Is the fault in our stars – or, in this case, our cell phones – or in ourselves?

I have to confess, this story was a bit difficult for me because – and this is embarrassing to admit – I got my first smartphone three months ago. For five years before that, I had a perfectly serviceable stupid-phone, aka a flip phone. As you can tell, I have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to new (or not so new) technology. In this case, the problem was laundry. The washers and dryers in my apartment complex used to have lovely card slides so quarters weren’t necessary. Those machines were replaced last year, and the card slides were changed to an online system that requires an app and scanning and all that crap. Or quarters. However, due to a supposed coin shortage caused by the drop in cash usage during the pandemic, my bank will only give out one roll of quarters at a time – and the supermarket will only give out one dollar. So a smartphone, not just a flip phone, became a necessity of daily living, much to my distress.

I had my friendly neighborhood techbro set up the phone for me. I had trouble convincing him I really didn’t need notifications for emails, texts, etc., since my habit is to turn the phone off and leave it on the shelf, only checking it twice a week for messages. And, for laundry, as the need arises. The good news is, I don’t have to worry about someone asking to borrow my phone. After reading this story, I think I’m going to keep it this way.

I enjoy Sims’ writing. I loved his philosophical zombie novel (with hardly any zombies) A Questionable Shape, and the few stories I’ve encountered. I keep meaning to get his 2017 story collection White Dialogues, but keep forgetting; maybe that’s ok, since he has a new story collection coming out this year, Other Minds and Other Stories (seldom has the “and other stories” tag worked so well in a title) and features characters who have what he calls an “anxious curiosity” about other minds, including the protagonist of “Unknown,” trying to figure out what’s going on, what the little old lady has to do with it, and where his wife is.

* * *            

  • This story is available online at Kenyon Review
  • Elliot Holt writes about the story for Why We Chose It on the Kenyon Review blog
  • Two Dollar Radio features an interview with Sims about his upcoming story collection, Other Minds and Other Stories.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Nicole Graev Lipson, “Tikkun Olam Ted” (non-fiction) from River Teeth #22.2

River Teeth Journal illustration
I’m sitting with my son on the floor of his first-grade Hebrew school classroom, both of us drawing, according to his teacher’s instruction, what we’d like to do to repair the world. My four-year-old daughter, tagging along for the morning, is also drawing, and though she’s young for this assignment, she gets the basic idea. She scribbles blotches of flowers on her paper while I add a woman – me? – beside a compost bin, depositing food scraps. I’m feeling pretty good about myself for being down here on the rug, in the thick of things, while most parents sit in a semicircle of chairs, watching from afar. I am a very engaged mother, I think. I am modeling enthusiasm for my children!

If you’ve read other lessons-learned essays, you know what’s coming next: a dramatic shift, knocking that feel-good moment right on its head. And you know how the story will end: with a reprise of feel-good, a clearing of the air, a lesson learned. No surprises here; it’s a nice little story of parenting, set against the background of Kabbalah.

In that opening scene, instead of drawing an appropriate child’s-eye image of fixing the world, Lipson’s son has written, “I LUV MI PENES.” It’s every parents’ nightmare, hilarious to onlookers, and, she acknowledges, as a future can-you-believe-it anecdote. A five-year old pipes up on the bus: Mommy, what does sex mean? Or an eight-year-old asks why these napkins are feminine (I don’t think that happens any more, since, thank Zeus, they’re called pads now, but once upon a time…). Things don’t get any better when, after mom hides his proud creation in embarrassment, he then writes: FEK MOMMY. Hey, it happens.

The counterweight is a simple introduction to Kabbalah: not the celebrity version involving red strings, but the real deal, the intense physical and philosophical version begun in the thirteenth century and developed by Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century. There’s a mooc for that, and it was one of my favorites. In this case, one of the key ideas is Tikkun Olem, fixing the world. Tikkun Olem Ted is a children’s picture book about a little boy named Ted who finds small ways to repair the world: feeding birds, recycling, and so on.

One of the key concepts in this essay is from the creation story of Kabbalah, a story complementary to the account in Genesis: God fills the universe, then contracts to allow space for the world to exist. “In this version of the world’s beginning, God does not so much impose or demand, but pull back and allow.” It’s a lesson not lost on Lipson, emphasized by her sister as she later commiserates on the day:

“So he got angry at you for ruining his penis joke,” she says.
“Well, yeah,” I say.
“And to deal with that anger, he expressed his feelings on paper, in writing?” she says.
“I guess.”
“Even though he has had a language delay, and gets Early Intervention, and writing is hard for him?” she says. “He didn’t yell or scream?”
I don’t say anything.
“That’s a fucking awesome parenting success story, if you ask me,” she says and then she sits down on the couch next to me and reaches for the remote control. Outside the window, the barren March afternoon darkens to evening. Inside, the television blooms neon, illuminating Jacqui’s face in joyous flashes.
I’m beginning to see how I’ve gotten this day all wrong.

I don’t have kids, so I don’t really have standing to pass judgment, but I’d say any parent who worries about whether they’re doing a good job of parenting is probably doing a great job. As the essay shows, it’s when you think you’re doing great that you find out you’re not. Welcome to the agony of parenting, paradoxical version. I found it to be a delightful essay. Predictable in its comforting message, but amusing and touching in its telling, and intelligent in its kabbalic setting.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Banzelman Guret, “Back” from New Orleans Review #47

My dad couldn’t reach the middle of his back. He waxed every part of his stocky, thick body–and then I hopped in at the end to get the patch between his shoulder blades. It became part of our Sunday afternoon routine.
…. At twenty-three, I felt too young for this, and patting his shoulder or rubbing his back was not a possibility. Everything between us had always been formal.

D’ya ever get the feeling you’re being punked? I get it very strongly from this story, and I don’t like it. I’m not sure if Pushcart was punked, or if I’m just too old for this. Dystopia stories, y’know?

At first I figured I just didn’t quite get it. Ok, people are expendable, they’re being driven crazy by looking for work when machines do all the work and people are basically on the gig economy except for the few who own the mechanized businesses. Kinda like 2023, except no one seems worried about money. Or health insurance, for that matter. Our narrator’s dad has gone batshit crazy because someone at his former job complained that he smelled bad. So now he spends all day waxing, bathing, and applying deodorant.

The son, in between waxings, hunts for gigs via app. A two-hour job (emptying leftover drops of flu vaccine into a jug for re-use) is worth racing three other people for, but he loses out. He finds what could be a four-day gig, an absolute gold mine. It starts with getting rid of a dead body.

Stu Deja-Stu said, “It’s in back. C’mon. I really don’t want to be here.” He was ducking and jumping and stepping over. There were no walking paths. This place wasn’t designed for people.
When we got to the back corner, there were a dozen old-model Industrial Roombas trying to clean around the body of a dead man with a mutilated head.
Stu Deja-Stu explained, almost in one breath when he saw my face, that he was not a murderer. He hadn’t set foot in this building in almost eight years. Computers in hospitals placed the orders. The factory fulfilled them. Humans didn’t need to think or do anything.
Stu Deja-Stu said, “Listen. I was as surprised as you. I didn’t even know I had an employee. I got an alert on my phone that production stopped for a Non-Maintenance Issue.” He showed me the suicide note that said, I think I’ve had enough. “Normally, I’d just buy another machine to replace whatever job this guy was doing,” he said pointing to the body, “but I’m selling the medical division of my company on the fourteenth. Why would I invest money now?”
The fourteenth wasn’t for four whole days. This QuickJob would be my longest one ever.
“What’s the job?” I said, still looking at the body.
“I couldn’t care less,” Stu said. “Actually, the job is–make sure I never get an alert on my phone.” He seemed pretty proud of this line. “Just figure it out.” And while he was saying all of this, he was back-pedaling out. He gave a big thumbs-up and seemed to hope that I wouldn’t say another word. “Figure it out.”

As you may guess, the son’s waxing relationship with his father is the only real human contact in the story.

While every step is logical, and while there are some interesting little nooks and crannies, as a whole it’s pretty flat; I had no emotional connection to anything. Maybe that’s deliberate; it’s supposed to feel like an automated story. New Orleans Review called it “brilliant” and it is in Pushcart so who am I to judge.

Here’s where I really got suspicious: the only Google results for the author are for stories he’s placed in a variety of journals. He does seem to be making a name for himself. His one-line bio in NOR lists him as “a writer from the Wiener Lakes Region of Connecticut.” If there’s a Wiener Lakes region, or a Wiener Lake, in Connecticut, Google doesn’t seem to know about it (though there is a Wiener Lake in Alaska). There is a Twitter account, described as Placeholder; the sole tweet is a retweet of the NOR announcement for the issue containing his story.

I’m somewhere balanced between intrigued and annoyed. Maybe I’ll just stay here, not come down on either side.

* * *     

  • The story is available online, so I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Brandon Taylor, “Colonial Conditions” from Yale Review #109.3

Yale Review Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos
The election was on Tuesday, but first, the Halloween bonfire.
When Carson and Roma arrived, Roma discreetly removed her mask and said that she had to find the host, who had spent most of the late summer and fall cycling across the Mountain West….
Stranded as he was by Roma, Carson gave some real thought to leaving. Then he dropped down into a battered chair and squinted through the smoke from the petering fire across the yard at the other guests, who stood breathing into each other’s faces without masks on. These were not his people. One woman wore a red plastic dress with a high slit and a cutout over a silicon breastplate, as well as a long fur coat constructed out of Christmas tinsel. She looked like a drag queen. There was a man in a skinny suit with a skinny tie and platinum hair who looked like an FBI agent or someone from a mid-2000s music video. And then a man in a loosely deconstructed cowboy outfit. Carson felt insecure because he had come in jeans. He wore a flannel under a navy-blue chore coat. It seemed a little ridiculous to be the only one wearing a mask, so he pulled the mask down under his chin. Besides, he tended to assume a kind of honor system even though he had been told that such an assumption betrayed an overreliance on rugged American individualism.

When I hear the word “colonial,” I tend to think of the subjugation of peoples in the economic interests of the colonizers. Or tricorn hats. But a lot of colonization started out as land grabs, and the presence of people was more of an inconvenience than a purpose. Not that it mattered; they were either subjugated or decimated. But it was the formation of a colony that was the purpose. Or maybe I’m just thinking of science fiction, colonies on Mars and the moon. Little groups of people who form offshoots of their native culture, changing over time in ways that distinguish them, separate them. And any parent who’s dealt with a freshman on their first Christmas home knows about the change in culture a few months in academia can generate.

Here we follow Carson, a gay black man who visits an academic colony during one of its honored tribal rites, the Halloween bonfire. It’s a snarky satire, letting everyone have it. Even Carson doesn’t get off unscathed.

The opening mentions the election. Since this bonfire took place during the pandemic, one can assume it’s the 2020 election. It’s mentioned in the opening, later in the story in a non-sequitur, and is vaguely alluded to once in between, but otherwise it’s just quietly there, which, to me, means it’s screaming. I remember someone saying – I think it was before 2020 – that elections take on a different urgency when they mean you can lose your rights. Maybe that’s why it’s on Carson’s mind during his one-nighter with the sommelier.

Otherwise, it’s a story about how people have their own way of seeing the world, as well as their own way of pretending to be someone else, the Halloween specialty. The bonfire turns into a mess, and the sommelier only makes it worse, despite his assurances that he had dropped out of Boy Scouts just before making Eagle. “It was not the first time that Carson had been at a party with graduate students and people with elite educations who did not know how to start a fire.” Hey, I don’t have an elite education, and I don’t know how to start a fire either. But I don’t pretend I do.

From the way the sommelier sat back on the lawn chair and crossed his legs, Carson sensed that he was a socialist. Carson was not a socialist, but he was interested in having sex, so he nodded along when the sommelier talked about tax code reform and the moral urgency of health care for all.
It wasn’t that Carson didn’t believe in the need for health care and the redistribution of wealth and all those other things. But something in the socialist fervor among people his age made it seem like their politics were just something they had picked up from their friends at a party, something tantamount to attitudes or styles that would go out of fashion as they got older. They would stop caring quite so much. Or else they’d turn into people who were just rounding into early middle age and still went to protests and composted and had slightly more children than they could afford. There was nothing sadder, Carson thought, than being thirty-eight, married, with a kid, and still complaining about the environment on Twitter or at potlucks.

See, we’re all colonizers, out to get what it is we want from people, whether it’s land or spices or a one-night-stand.

Things go downhill with the sommelier, however, when he starts bragging about black wine, wine made by black vintners. Carson tries to point out that the phrase might not be the selling point the guy thinks it is, but it doesn’t go over well. As is usually the case when a black person tries to tell a white person anything about being black that doesn’t fit with the white person’s mindset.

Carson goes on to chat with a grad student about students screwing around with professors, something his friend Roma is doing that very moment, something he himself did in college. The grad student thinks it’s oppression and abuse of power; Carson mildly replies, “People have agency…. I do think if someone doesn’t feel taken advantage of, you can’t make them feel it.” A lot of contemporary fiction makes the same case, but might it not be the case you don’t realize you were feeling pressured until you’re no longer under the domain of the pressurer? The grad student moves on to her favorite subject, colonization from the viewpoint of a French poet from Algiers who apparently isn’t one of the colonizers somehow, and manages to utter the most hilarious line a white person ever said to a black person: “Do you know what it’s like to be owned?” which turns pretty much every argument she’s made into the rantings of a fool.

Carson ends up back with the sommelier who, it turns out, isn’t much better at sex than he is at building fires, but there are some nice moments anyway. He ends with a mediation on colonization:

He didn’t remember what he and the sommelier had talked about the night before, not that they’d done much talking. But he had slept with the sommelier pressed to his chest and he felt a real need to look after him. Was this a part of the colonial condition? Could the colonial condition be expressed as the relation between two hungover people who had fucked the night before? Or did the possibility of such a formulation, as blasphemous as it was, preclude its expression?
Was sex an extension of the colonial argument? Or was the colonial condition just the name you gave the discomfort of the morning after. Or the name you gave your need. Your want. Maybe he was heretical for having the thought. Or maybe it explained his life. Maybe it explained him. Maybe his discomfort with himself was simply the colonial condition. Or maybe that’s what white people called it when they felt guilty about something. Maybe every human life was a colony.

There’s the rub: we’re all individuals, rugged or not. We can try to fit in, but there will always be differences. Literature loves to look at family misfits, societal rejects and upstarts, the lone voices in the crowd. Maybe that’s because we’re all lone voices. Maybe the most important skill to learn, in grad school or elsewhere, is how to accept differences even where we fit best.

I’ve hesitated to read Taylor’s highly regarded story collection Filthy Beasts, as it’s usually described with words like “violence,” but after reading this story I’m very interested in his debut novel, Real Life, described as a partly autobiographical campus novel; it sounds like it might include some of the elements of this story.

*  *  *  

  • This story can be found online at Yale Review
  • Check out the author’s website for an overview of his work.