Words become bunkers for soldiers. I’m not talking
about the military kind. See, if you look in a mirror
there is war paint under your eyes and shotgun shells strapped
to your nose. It is the way things are now. We have reached the peak
of human capability and our toes are rotting into the soil. We are losing
faith in things beyond us. I swear, God is a way for men to explain
away their infertility. There is nothing beyond us but empty space
with hot gases and light we lost before. There is an undetectable dot
of my sadness hidden somewhere on this globe, somewhere near the
sea monster that sleeps beside Iceland. I swear, sea monsters are a way
for men to explain away that they can’t control the weather. There is no human
error, except that we’ve evolved to be physically diminutive to our relatives.
And I swear, destroying the Earth is a way for men to explain away
that they can’t outrun a tiger, outwrestle a chimp, or outsmart a
cockroach. They say cockroaches will be here forever, but as I said earlier,
I have lost faith in all the Theys and absolute Hes. We are here
and we’re all fucked within 200 years, so, in the meantime,
let’s set every lawn ablaze with piss gone gold and let all the bunnies
out of the animal shelters. For now, let’s hop around to the sound
of vinyl being dropped from skyscrapers, giving the birds
somewhere to land.
Walking far afield from the burning-down world he knew, he dreamed not of the bomb, but of meadows of flowers of bright reds and sunlight golds. He dreamt of building a home away from machines of death.
All at once, the sparrows tumbled, the first, then another and another, a rain of feathers and bone. Oppenheimer turned and looked about him, a spiral of birds at his feet.
No longer could he see in stars anything but burning. He walked down streets, buildings tumbling, streets opening up and swallowing people, the red flash of a terrible bloom, then smoke, smoke, smoke, then the blotting out of the sun.
At night, he tells her the world is not full of monsters. He holds her and inside his closed-shut eyes he sees the cloud of red against the night. He thinks of white overshoes worn to prevent fallout sticking to him. He sees the bodies of the animal dead. He dreams of making tea from his kitchen, looking out the window to a world where the bomb has not rendered inert the voice of quiet.
One sparrow flitted on the ground. One sparrow surviving the mass sky-falling. Oppenheimer knelt and watched the bird as it jumped here and there on one good leg, a broken wing fanned out and useless slapping the ground.
I nightly am frightened by noise of this world, he wrote her. He tried to tell her of the wind-worn man he’d become, the hush of the after-explosion. The land gone blank, as if a filmstrip had cut and a screen gone dark. Kneeling at the sparrow, he whispered the words he would write her:
The world is only a memory of what it could have been. I see the wave of fire in my dreams and I place my hands inside the wall of flame. I cannot paint you a picture of a wasteland. I cannot tell you what is like to disappear.
The sparrow slowed and wound around itself. Oppenheimer scooped it up in his palms. He walked with the bird through the ring of dead.
He walked away and put his lips to the sparrow. He imagined her in the morning light, cutting a peach. He imagined her dress and hair blown about by wind. He imagined her asking if he could imagine a future without her and he knew he’d say, I don’t want to think of any place where I might not find you. Oppenheimer cupped his hands around the sparrow and waited. He walked toward home, listing in his head all the words he could think of that meant to fall down.
I’m killing a chicken. Holding its neck so, just how the sergeant says. We’re going to survive, he says. That’s what this is. It’s survival training. I weigh ninety-five pounds. I’m a sophomore in college. When I signed up for a student organization claiming fellowship and community service, I was ordered to fall into an ROTC line. To say the least, the directive shocked me. I hadn’t been ordered into a line since fourth grade. Since having to go to the bathroom as a class. Straight line. Fingers to our mouths. Straight. I’d respected authority. He was a sergeant. Handsome with hard cheeks and big brown eyes.
I said I wanted to survive. To have and behold. When he asked me to fill out a waiver form, I forgot my address. Why a waiver form? Because we will challenge you mentally and physically, he said. Because we will make you into the strong, team-oriented woman you want to be. I forgot where I lived.
I’m killing a chicken. I slam it to the ground. I do it again. I’ve killed something. White feathers among brown roots and leaves. It didn’t do anything to me. It wasn’t attacking me or stinging me or biting me. It was handed to me and I squeezed so hard I felt its heart beating in my wrist. But the beating stopped—I might get sick. That would be bad. Bad and embarrassing.
The others are enjoying this. Enjoying the survival training. Thriving. I’d fallen in line and forgot my address and scaled the wall. It was a five-story campus building, which we were asked to rappel down, and when I got to the bottom, I excused myself because something happened between my legs I’ll never discuss. Then I got in the boat with the sergeant and the others and flipped it. Rolled it. We rolled the boat in Swann Pond to challenge our emergency water skills and I handled the task “with aplomb.”
I was always comfortable in water. My grandparents had a house on Mountain Lake and we spent summers there, swimming, boating, and hunting for eggs. My sister and I and Meme and her chickens. We hunted for eggs first thing in the blue morning, walking barefoot on dewy grass, searching for Bonnie, Betty, and Beatrice. Meme loved names starting with B. “The Beautiful Bs,” she’d called them. Now I’ve killed. I wonder if they were watching.
When he said we were going into the woods to train, he handed me a chicken to kill, which I wanted to do. I wanted to ride him into a dark and dangerous place. He let me. I did what he asked. I survived. Now I want to go home.
Q: what were you wearing?
A: fear is an unmistakable scent
strong enough to float atop the water
& isn’t it funny we have other words
for that / isn’t it romantic to bottle the panic
& pretend it’s a wish
is there anything better than killing
kindness with a sidelong dagger
glance how dare you
act aware of what sinks
me I can’t put away my jaw
if you could be any animal /
Q: who would want to be misunderstood
as a bloody machine, or hunted by men
a trophy strung from steel hook?
A: women are already
if I could’ve broken the safety
glass & stepped through the plaster
set of teeth would’ve been a bedroom
on the other side
if you could be any animal /
I’m sorry you assumed
I was waiting for strangle to steal
impulse from skin, leave me thoughtless
take in the nets climb onto the deck
again we’re waiting for tide to drag
cutlass across the mermaid’s throat me
I’m sorry I couldn’t stop
enough to scream
In home economics Marianne learned how to bake cookies and was given a white plastic baby to take home for the weekend to see what it would be like if she gave birth to a plastic body that couldn’t take care of itself.
The plastic baby cried at unpredictable intervals, which Marianne understood because she cried at unpredictable intervals too. Marianne cried at unpredictable intervals because her body was rebelling against her. The plastic baby cried because it had a voice box in its belly.
At the age of fourteen, Marianne thought the cure to crying was having a boy hold her body. The plastic baby thought the cure to crying was having a key stuck in the hole in its back. One of these solutions was more unreasonable than the other.
The white plastic baby recorded how Marianne touched its body. The white plastic baby gives trusted testimony. The white plastic baby never lies. Marianne dropped the white plastic baby. Marianne neglected it while it cried tearlessly. She wasn’t doing such a bad job, she thought. The head was still attached to the body. It still wore the ill-fitting baby clothes meant for a body with skin.
Marianne got an A in cookies and a B- in plastic babies. Next she will learn to sew on buttons. They will talk about the demands of the household.
Marianne would have preferred a carton of eggs. Something she could smash on the sidewalk. Something she could roll over in bed. Something that oozed and smelled when it was left in a hot car for too long.
The recipe called for murder; I did not misread it:
6 SPRIGS FRESH DILL, as much SALT as you can stand,
and take a KNIFE to the one that failed you. 1 WHOLE POTATO,
1 WHOLE CARROT. You will not be cold this winter, you will not.
Locate the JOINT, move the BONE back and forth; it can be
hard to find the ARTICULATION POINT with the sobs still lodged
in your throat like fish bones. Chop the DILL into fine green shards;
they are the forest you bury him in. They are the fog
on the fallen leaves on the wet snow on the soil. They are
the wood frog and the arctic lamprey and the brown bear
leaving trails in the opposite direction. Use your KNIFE to TRIM
excess FAT, REMOVE the BONE with minimal damage
to the meat, turn his memory to the grounds that sit
at the bottom of your porcelain cup painted in wild strawberries:
a fortune teller’s ephemera. Use the tip of your KNIFE—not the blade,
lest he leave rings on you like an aging tree—in short
flicking motions. REMOVE the BONE with minimal damage
to the meat. As much SALT as you can stand, rubbed the way you’d rub
an ache until it gives in beneath you. Little peat bog, little бог,
little God. Ivan the Fool slept
on an oven and so will you.
For days the fireflies have been eating my darkness
but no one has gained any weight.
Disappointment is always buy-one-get-two-free
if one has the appetite.
I have avocado pits
and I lick their swollen faces before I crush them open
with the flat of the big knife.
I study the fireflies, how they turn away
when the wind smells too much of rye.
I study my anger in the bathroom mirror.
It looks like you.
Is there a recipe book for the rejected?
The way a rock looks at salt and shivers
because it doesn’t know if salt is a memory
or a promise. I need a recipe for that.
I have nothing but ribs now.
The origin of Marianne’s name is a woman who wants to consume her own woman body. This is a literary reference. Marianne’s mother liked to read. Marianne’s mother wanted her to be the sort of person who would consume her own body from the inside and like to read. Marianne will be the sort of mother who wants her daughter to consume her body from the inside and like to read. This is how we will never not be our mothers. When Marianne’s mother was pregnant, she watched the movie Alien. She became convinced that the fetus inside her womb was not a human baby at all but an alien that could burst out at any moment. Marianne was delivered by c-section. She didn’t cry when she was born, but she did eat all the attendants in the delivery room. Marianne has been hungry since she was born. Marianne needs to eat more and more so she can continue to eat herself from the inside. If there is nothing left of her to hold, there is nothing left of her to feed.
Pavlova again, or a terrine, or a pan in the oven crackling
with fat drifting far from bone. Scent like the last
safe dinner set out before the schism.
When my father died
he became a rabbit. My sisters saw him in the street. Velveteen
shuffling back from the forest into scarlet fever.
It’s not right
that skin holds us like this—thrashing through dreams
of the stove left on & vicious. We snap in the heat
like Janis’s voice
take it. I’ll give. I’ll send you. I’ll write this in fox fur.
Let it be soft & dead in your hands—the apology you won’t speak.
I know who you’ve unsewn. I know
about the wall & your hands
I know how the broken break
everything around them. This, our contest. You push people
like I push people, wanting them to spring back
to slander a friend
for telling you no. For begging stop. You can’t chase down permission
this way, with dogs. No matter how hungry.
I used to follow you when
you followed rabbits through the walls of your own house.
We were looking for our dads. Snorting lines off of plates. Hands
covered in flour. Take this, eat. No one coming to stay but food is love
nobody hungry turns down. I’m ashamed
I can’t recognize a monster
when he’s bit me. I would condemn you, but you stole that privilege
with smoke. And that smoke smelled like the neighborhood
cat lit on fire by an angry child. And weren’t you
always angry & on fire? All the windows
I remember the day we found you
stuffed full of pills like the matchbox on my dresser. I remember
the false lipstick tube with a spoon in the lid.
I remember you pressing
me with questions about who would help you to stop
breaking & entering bodies that weren’t yours.
I can’t absolve anybody.
I know who you’ve unsewn. I know what fevers kill.
The sandwich is burnt beyond repair. Squid ink, three a.m. without my glasses, that’s how black. I take a picture of the dark square on a white plate, title it Depression. I laugh at my own joke, smile to remember I can. I couldn’t go back, couldn’t fix it, short of throwing away expensive bread & starting over. Guilty, I eat the charred thing, today’s first food. It’s five now & the clouds are heavy. When I close my eyes, just desert plants, miles away from anything. Everything dulled, this hockey puck of life I’m left with, mouth full of ash. & are you surprised to know I know I’ll wake tomorrow for one moment of lightness? How it might feel to plunge my arm into a barrel of water & apples & come out grasping, full. On such a day I could save the sandwich, attuned to its browning, slide it golden from a buttered skillet. I could sit by the window with my comfort then, warmth & a face I like. The eyes would be dry, & the meal, a kind of church. I want to tell myself I’m getting closer to that. I need to see How Far Still outlined on a map.
Marianne meets a boy at a bar and sleeps at his house. While he is sleeping, she opens his cupboards and takes out all of his food. He doesn’t have much. Two sticks of butter, some shredded cheese. Eggs expired for weeks. A bag of chips with a hair tie wrapped around it like a calling card, blonde strands still entwined with the elastic. There are several bottles of Gatorade in the refrigerator. Marianne understands science the way that the Gatorade scientists do: anything can be proven to be good for you. She drinks an orange bottle of Gatorade, then a blue bottle of Gatorade, and then a white bottle of Gatorade. She took a painting class as a child and the only thing she learned was that when everything is mixed together it turns brown. Marianne eats the chips. They taste better than any chips she has ever purchased. The joy of other people’s food. She throws the eggs at the walls. For something unfertilized they carry so much stench.
There are insecurities surrounding the yolk. We all started as this, a ball of yellow. Everything else becomes a downgrade from there. What is a chicken to the gold inside a shell? Eggs as metaphorical baby. If you crack the egg ______________. To be vengeful one can break the baby. To be even more vengeful, one can throw hard enough to puncture the sun. But you cannot say you are not like this: an egg, something crackable. You cannot say that when your body is thrown up against the wall that your shell does not crack and that what comes out does not smell. Your body can melt paint. Your body as anger on the wall. When you sweat you become salty. Sunny side up.
There’s not much joy to share on a cold winter’s night spent walking past shuttered businesses, empty parkettes, and dark-windowed homes, whatever the bright lights of global culture have to say.
“Are you Buddhist?” the monk on the train asks, pointing at the red thread around my neck. We are leaving the town of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The moon was full. It was a holy night.
“I am,” I reply and wait, before adding, “I might be.” I want him to say something else, to reach out a peaceful hand or offer me a blessing, but he only smiles and nods.
We bunk down across from each other and the train rolls west.
The rains have started three weeks early. Across India, the twenty-four-hour news chatters about whether this is a good or bad thing, but no one has an answer. Crop yields will surely be up, but then the rain could also rot the fields; there may also be landslides and floods.
For now, though, there is only this: the monsoon arrives and does so in the small space of an afternoon. All of the happy, young backpackers in McLeod Ganj are variously drying their undergarments, practicing their yoga, reading their Dharma Bums, and sipping their chai in the high June sun. Big Himalayan teeth chew the sky overhead. The Tibetans bustle about their lives in the markets and the Hindus from the plains blare their horns, trying to make it back home to Delhi before Monday dawns. Over there, a bull jaws at some vegetable scraps left behind by the produce vendors. And then it all disappears. A cloud, slate-colored and hard-edged, moves up from the valley below, seemingly against nature, and everything goes quiet. The lights flicker and cut out. The air is damp and cool and soft, like a wet scarf swaddled around the head, while down below a goat whines. It’s as if we are all and everything suspended in this cloud. Is anything moving at all anymore? It’s hard to know. I wave my hand in front of my face as I stand on my balcony. The floors below are gone, the tall pine next door is gone, the pink and green and blue and yellow houses stacked up to the ridge are gone. There’s nothing but stillness and sound and when it gets like that the mind quickly plays tricks: What if, But when, Forever.
I step inside as huge drops hit the concrete and dirt and roar across the tin roofs. It’ll go on and on like this from day into night and all over again. There’s no telling how much India, or anyone inside of India, can take.
You should know this is not my first time here.
Three years ago, I walked out of an inpatient detoxification ward after being treated for alcohol withdrawal, boarded a Delhi-bound plane. That was my second visit to India in less than a year. I wound my way up into the mountains and, one night, in this same little town, I sat drinking several large bottles of Kingfisher beer, looking down on the main street below. There, a small circle of light, alternating red then blue then red again, flashed on a single spot: a metal cabinet set on four legs, a few feet off the ground, and straddling an open sewer. The left cabinet door was shut, while the other was open. Inside, I saw a pile of thick wool blankets, and inside that pile, a withered man, gray and drawn, his watery eyes reflecting back the flashing, changing lights.
I immediately told myself a thousand stories about why this dying man was here in the middle of McLeod Ganj. He’s been brought out to enjoy the warming night air. He’s the father of the shopkeeper across the way. Was his jaw slack for pain? Slack for horror at all of the noise—the backpackers carousing in and out of the nightclub just next door and the braying car horns everywhere? Or slack because he couldn’t believe it had come to this?
I went home, drunk, to bed, certain that in the morning he’d be gone.
But he was not.
On my way to find breakfast, I saw two Tibetan women in striped aprons and black smocks picking him up by the bones, wiping his sore-covered back with sponges, turning him over and working damp rags across his loose face. This cabinet—this metal box not long enough for any man—was his home. I broke out in a sweat and could no longer fathom eating. Instead, I stood there for a few moments as everyone else walked by, quickly, like there was nothing to see at all—in fact, the whole market road buzzed all around us and it was like I was the only one witnessing the scene at hand, like these three bodies were ghosts. They set the man down gently and placed each blanket back just so. Not one of them said a word to the other, but what I could hear as I drifted closer to him, were the small moans that escaped from the hollow between his lips—high, thin noises, like mosquitoes trapped in a machine.
A car horn blared. I was in the middle of the road. Immediately the world snapped back into its frantic state and I fell in with the men and the women and the cars and the trucks and moved on.
“Loss is where all of this is coming from,” she says, sweeping her arm out over the wet, black road below. We are drinking big Kingfishers on a terrace, watching the other tourists down there scatter and dash for shelter. The lining of my throat clenches, then relaxes, certain that this statement is aimed at me, unaware for a moment that she means us. All of us. This place and everywhere else, too.
I nod and mutter an agreement, my lips parted loose over ground-down teeth. I want to tell them I’ve come to McLeod Ganj this time to sit with the Dalai Lama, to meditate with him, to hear his teachings and take refuge, to circumambulate his temple. In fact, I’ve done all of that already on this trip and I want to say that everything, for me, is different now. No more losing—no vast quantities of time crashing my wasted head into toilet bowls, no nights in emergency rooms with tremors, no more loved ones tearfully gripping my hands and whispering, “You’re capable of so much more.” I want to say that I’m a quiver of arrows unleashed—I’m cutting the air fast and puncturing all well-defined targets within sight. But we are being so honest here, so I say none of that.
Next to me, a Colombian friend that I met a few days earlier pours gin into his second lime soda. We’ve only known this girl from Boston for a few hours, having met her on a hike outside of town. The three of us drank chai in a cool, precious breeze amid grassy, goat-shorn hilltops. We traded the ins and outs of various heres and theres around the globe—so easy, so free—and now these words, this indictment, spilling from her mouth. Out of all of the temple-high piles of seekers and teachers, and the stacks of books on enlightenment and the middle path, and the tomes of various lamas dead and alive, the three of us seated around this table, have each lost—family, or love, or purpose—and we are eager to show each other, and the rest of the people funneling up and down the mountains around us, that we are A-OK. We’ve got this. We are laugh, laugh, laughing right in their faces.
Another Kingfisher, kind waiter. In fact, one for me and one for my good friends here, too.
This is about to happen: You must imagine yourself at that moment in your life when you felt most powerful, Mr. Valenta. There have been studies on this sort of thing.
The career counselor pushes my résumé and sample cover letter across the table toward me. My shirt bears a large diamond of sweat across my chest and I can’t see my back but I know it’s worse. I wanted to appear professional, but I’m failing. She is Indian and there’s a moment where I think of saying that stupid thing that white Americans so often say when trying to establish a link with someone brown—“I was just in India.” It’s a way of trying to overpower what I presume to be this woman’s indifference by establishing common ground, or some deep inner knowledge that I must, by virtue of a few little travels, possess. Or maybe I’m trying to overcome her ignorance. After all, she’s just admitted that she’s never worked with alumni from the prestigious university’s arts school and so she cannot offer any specific advice. But she does have more easy solutions for me, like, “Think of yourself as any other twenty-one-year-old graduating from this very prestigious university.” The thing is, I’m thirty-three and I have too many degrees for all of that.
I want to tell her that at my most powerful I am in an office with built-in bookshelves lining the room, behind brick or flagstone wall, inside of some authoritative, serious colonial or neo-gothic building—indeed, like the ones all over this campus. At my most powerful, I am teaching an eighteen-year-old about French psychoanalytic theory and aesthetics. I want to tell this woman that I’m at my most powerful doing something I’ve never done, and so how can I really know, besides the feeling I have in my gut, that the chance to make that professorial, tenured dream happen is long gone, obliterated by time and my own failure to be admitted to a single PhD program.
Instead, I smile and shake her hand and I say, “You’ve been so helpful.” I walk out the door and go home and drink until tomorrow or the next day or whenever and I can see straight again.
There are meditation classes everywhere in India, but this one, on a hill above McLeod Ganj, is like magic, they say. The free morning drop-in sessions are led by Richard, the Dane, who has scolded the class on multiple occasions for the dull quality of our meditations. He has had realizations and Buddhism cured his chronic pain and so, mostly, we shut up when we are told about the substandard nature of our lowly yearnings.
The rain drips outside and the class is full of seekers. We are here to learn how to accept impermanence and to let go. I try to feel a sense of equanimity towards the room, but there is the girl with body odor swaddled in gauzy tapestries who insists on shutting the windows in the stuffy gompa, there is the woman who coughs through the forty minutes of silence every day, and there is the constant noise of people’s stomachs. I focus my ear on the sound of wetness outside but it feels impossible to nail down only one thing, as we have been instructed to do. I want the placid bronze idol behind Richard’s face to smile its beatific smile upon me and so I fight the tickling urge to shift and move and slap at all of the other sounds that swarm the room. When I leave the gompa to put on my hiking boots, a small chocolate bar has been placed in the left boot. I hold it in my hand because I’m unsure what else to do.
“Someone must love you,” the man next to me says.
“Or they’re trying to kill me,” I tell him.
He is a long-haired Austrian with thoughts on transcendence. Down below, in town, I’ve heard him extoll the wonders of LSD in achieving levels of enlightenment. I hate this man. I most especially hate his confidence, the assuredness that he seems to possess underneath all of his flowing clothes. He’s the kind of man certain of every step he makes in the course of his day—or he’s at least the kind of man confident that even not knowing, he is on the one true path. He stands there, one hand on his hip while the other clutches his walking staff. Spiders skitter across the rafters as large clouds of mist silently collide with the nearest mountains, slipping up and over, into the larger ranges none of us can see. The moisture is so heavy in the air that you swear it slows you down. There he is with his walking stick and his ponytail and there we are with the white light of meditation still radiating feebly off of us and here I am, this candy bar in my hand. Some stranger might love me. Or not.
I leave the candy bar on the temple’s windowsill. A girl holds her hand out from under the roof to feel for drops, as if there was any question at all about the rain.
When I come home, I’ll say things like, “I learned so much,” or, “One day at a time,” or, “Sure, I understand. Next time, then.” One month later I will drink so much that I’ll require an outpatient detoxification for alcohol withdrawal. I’ll mutter swears and write down promises to the man I live with and to best friends and to the family that cares—no more and not again. Two months later I will require an inpatient hospitalization for the same. My arm will shake so badly from withdrawal that I will not be able to hold a foam cup of water. I will hallucinate in a darkened room and be shot with tranquilizers. I will be uninsured, with a quarter-million dollars of debt looming over my head as all grace periods on loans slip away, and there will be thirty—fifty—résumés sent without responses, edit tests completed only to be told that I am good enough, but not good enough to write gossip for tabloids, and back there in some bursting closet are all of those big, expensive degrees.
Buddhists call this saṃsāra. It is a cycle of repetitions. Locked-in and buckled-up and unless the habits one is living are changed, this is life, again and again. It’s a ride and its sole purpose is to make you dizzy. The wheel starts horizontally, but as it gains momentum, the cars are drawn outward by the centripetal force. Then the whole contraption begins to tilt upward on its giant arm, until it is one massive swirl of white, white lights spinning vertically against the night. Lights flash as it whirls and shimmers against a perfect purple and orange summer night. Children scream. Mothers tap their feet or check their baby’s fingernails for dirt as they wait below. The smell of fried dough. The smell of popcorn. Ringing bells and buzzers and fat-headed, seam-busting stuffed animals. Happy, fat hands pull soft pink threads of sugar twirled around narrow paper cones. Ice cream melts. You’re not able to focus after disembarking — you see dazzling, nauseating spots and all around the world is still spinning. Left and right and wherever you look, everyone is screaming and everyone is getting sick and you’re trying to look like you’re the one having the most fun.
The mountains are falling down. Whole towns have gone missing and when I look at the weather map it is a wall of green from one side of India to the other. The rains, everywhere, won’t stop. On the news, a blunt temple spire juts out from a long field of thick brown mud. It is Kedarnath, an abode of Shiva not two-hundred miles east, but there’s nothing left to suggest that any god, million armed and eyed and tongued, could have arrived and saved any of his adherents. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had just arrived in mountain towns like Kedarnath to reap the blessings of the gods. They bedded down in fresh new concrete buildings, with balconies overlooking India’s sacred churning rivers. Or they set up humble tents a bit further afield, still as close to the currents as possible. There were tin-roofed shacks selling marigold garlands and butter lamps, and dhabas preparing huge vats of steaming lentils. There were ascetics and holy men and families and lawyers’ sons—it was the time of year to seek and find and come back renewed.
At first, the news reports just a handful of dead, but it will soon become nine hundred fatalities with five thousand missing. Those missing, after enough time, will be dead, too, and so this rainstorm will wind up killing at least six thousand people. I can only think that but for my wariness of long-haul bus trips and a bout of food poisoning in Delhi, I would have been there. I think that, then, if I survived, it would have meant something—then I’d really be a man.
Picture this: I’m a small boy sitting at a kitchen table. My mother and grandmother discuss the cardinals and nuthatches flitting to and from the feeders just outside the big picture window right next to me. We are in upstate New York. My grandmother curses a squirrel that has just upended a small feeder, having negotiated all of the traps and shields that she’d employed to prevent just such a thing from happening. It’s possible that the word “damn” slips from her lips. This battle is ongoing.
But what I’m doing is holding a black marker and staring down at the table, in fact, at the paper plate I’m holding with my other hand. I’ve flipped it over and I’m drawing a series of tightly packed radii, each beginning near the center of the plate and arcing just slightly as the line is made all the way to the plate’s edge. I repeat this motion hundreds, possibly thousands of times, until the entire surface is covered, leaving only a small white hole, about an inch wide, at the center. It is a hurricane. I’ve named her Mariel. She is not the first one I’ve conceived of, drawn, named, and imagined spinning into various densely populated coastlines up and down the eastern seaboard. They’ve all had names with several syllables and vaguely foreign accents. They are never named after boys.
And what I want more than anything, what I keep secret to myself, is for the big one to hit. I want unprecedented havoc and devastation, news anchors crying or unable to stand up straight in the wind, whole fields of palm trees stripped and snapped like bones in one giant swath of carnage, housing developments washed from their foundations leaving giant maws in odd, geometric shapes for miles in every direction. I want coastlines changed and aircraft carriers deposited inside of stadiums. I feel sorry, immediately, for thinking these things. I mutter rosaries for all of the guilt, and to counter the certainty that because I’ve merely entertained these ideas of total catastrophe, some terrible thing is coming my way.
Hurricanes aren’t the only natural disasters that inspire me at this time in my life. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and tornadoes are also a fixed source of fascination. There I was, anxiously glued to the TV set in our Virginia hotel room as Hurricane Bob churned off the coast, hoping that it might turn just slightly inland. There I am, ten years later, my head sticking out my bedroom window, waiting for the swirling clouds and freight train noises that every survivor of a tornado claims to have heard, as a line of F1s pass just over my house to land in my cousin’s yard, not even a mile up the road. If I witness any of this and survive, it means I’m something big and special and bright. It means all eyes on me. It means I win.
Then, of course, we land here. Now. The lights are flickering. The massive landslides are coming closer and closer, claiming valley after valley. The small stream I can see from my balcony has turned into a brick-colored river, crashing and swallowing boulders. I can’t sleep. My disaster envy fails when it’s presented with its own gratification, in the same way that every fantasy inevitably falls apart when it’s about to come true. Every downpour racketing on the roofs, every drop of rain and the small landslides that have deposited a few boulders and brick-red mud on the road to the meditation center—they make it look like it’s all about to come very true.
I am in the pizza shop. I am chugging large bottles of Kingfisher and staring out the window because the Colombian has gone and the Boston girl has gone and though I’ve made other backpacker friends, I don’t feel like I want to speak to them because, on some level, I just want to be alone with the ghosts and the spirits and the memories. I stare out onto the exact same spot I stared at three years ago. I think, maybe that old man is in a hospital somewhere, maybe he’s living at an ashram, maybe some aid society came to scoop him up and poured foreign dollars all over him and his sores dried up and his flesh filled out and his bones became lost inside of all of that healthy, old body.
But no. He’s dead. The doors and the metal hull of his cabinet have no doubt been recycled, or sold as scrap, or repurposed into one of the small, waist-high stands from which the women sell dumplings and shawls. He’s been replaced by others, bodies that can lurch about town, bodies dragged to the mountains from the south of India because of a boom in construction work in the mountains, bodies that thrust out their hands for coins and clean shoes and mutter incoherent prayers as their fingerless hands work a mala like a miracle. He has been outlasted by the man with two inward-turned half-feet, a wooden staff, and a crutch; survived by the woman in rags without hands and half-inch-thick glasses who sleeps on the patio of the town’s clinic; overtaken by the tall man in blue, carrying a note describing his various treatments for cancer. They are surviving and perhaps they are even doing so with a smile, the smile you’d like to think you can wear day in and day out, even when you’re far away and back home. But when one steps so widely and temporarily outside the scope of everyday life, there can be no expectation to change because the permanence of what already is hangs on the shoulders and about the brow. Instead of real life—the kind being lived by all of the people here, right before your eyes—you inhabit a postponement, a suspension within a hyper-viscous fantasy of long walks to hilltop temples, daily meditation, knowing and easy glances exchanged with the monk and the other monk traipsing down the road, and that clan of monkeys bobbing up and down on their long pine branches, the deep valley crashing away below. You must move along. This is not your world to rest inside of, after all.
Goes through the motions of normal life and gets clean: works at a restaurant, writes cover letters for jobs they say will matter, mutters lists of gratitude to himself at the behest of therapists and monks, reads books by the Dalai Lama, lights incense, buys Metrocards, takes away steaming coffee in paper cups. Thinks someone, somewhere will give him a pat on the back for all of this effort and regularity.
Says, “How are the drinks, guys? You really should try the sea bass.” Tries to put exclamation points on it and to say it with a smile and with teeth, but those words hurt the jaw. They are like a hammer working from the inside out.
Gets out of work late and can’t rise early enough to sit in coffee shops in the bright, early mornings like a real writer, a rhubarb scone crumbling in the left hand, the eyes watching the busy people all around with their own meaningful lives.
Holds onto the cold bar in the packed subway car. Does not hold onto the bar and presses his hand hard into the ceiling, body jacked from one side to another as the car jolts violently over rough seams in the steel tracks.
Keeps the mouth shut for fear of making too much noise.
Nothing happens in Iowa, so
can I change myself here? *
& Alice Notley, some people would
disagree with you, though I know
I’ve felt similarly from time to time, sighing
like an air conditioner as you did
about our shit-black soil & boiled eggs
writing your first poems. I used to say
nothing happens here, but really,
didn’t everything? At least in my life,
though I didn't really know
how to fuck or call myself a poet
until just after I left. I was born
there (here) & so was my brother & my parents
got married & the house was filled. I changed myself
here (there) in that I grew & chose
& kept doing those things. I left for the “nothing happens” reason,
but my face still burns when I read a poem
about my home full of nothing
I’ve got a rock in my hand, then,
for you, Alice Notley, busy
kicking my state in the stomach.
An icicle string of spit swings
over Iowa’s eye
from between your lips & I
* “As Good as Anything” (Mysteries of Small Houses)
Georgia Bellas, these are the charges levied against you publicly: indiscriminate dissemination of curated literature via social media platforms; possession without permit of exotic wildlife for purposes of viral entertainment; regular inebriation of aforementioned wildlife, also for purposes of viral entertainment; and a frankly wanton savagery in abetting the extirpation of Massachusetts’ population of gray wolves. Tell us, what’s life for you like outside the public record? What details—if indeed there are any—might elicit sympathy from our readers?
So, you want to get personal, eh? My life outside the public record is actually pretty well represented on Twitter. I read a lot. I get excited about literature. I care about people. I’m kind and sappy. Community is important to me. I am part-bear, part-gal, and sometimes those lines are blurred and I forget who is who. I feel safer hiding behind Mr. Bear, I think, because I’m afraid to share my vulnerability. I worry, I’m anxious, I’m sad. I want to do good and be good; I feel I never measure up, but I keep trying to fight the good fight. I keep my innermost self private, but it peeks out on occasion. I’m someone who tries to be always thoughtful and considerate and generous and wants to be seen in a positive light; I don’t want to be weak or let people down. Then I think about how much it helps me when people I admire and love admit their weaknesses and struggles. So, I’ll admit to you: I’m human. I’m part-bear but I’m so human.
How do you reconcile your fear of expressing vulnerability—of “be[ing] weak or let[ting] people down”—with your work? Even brief perusal of your more recent offerings—at Sundog Lit, at Lockjaw Magazine, for example—suggests that vulnerability is the pivot around which everything else is made possible, though we know better than to equate narrator with author.
I remember reading a poem by Sylvia Plath when I was in high school that had a line about wanting to live in the city and in the country at the exact same time and being okay with that paradox. Of course, I can’t seem to track down that poem now, so it may be a misleading memory, but I can find a quote from The Bell Jar that essentially says the same thing: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell.” That resonates with me. Paradoxes make sense to me. I don’t see a contradiction in contradiction, if that makes any sense. So, I say I’m afraid of expressing vulnerability, but I am also very at home in expressing vulnerability. Partly that is because my writing, like with Mr. Bear, offers me a protective shield; I can show weakness and explore things that scare me or make me sad—and it’s fiction, it’s a teddy bear . . . I don’t have to say this is me. I don’t have to say, I’m afraid, I’m not perfect, but I’m trying. I let my poems or characters say that.
Wow, N.G.Q. should think about going into the therapy business—interviews as psychoanalysis.
In lieu of time, we’re billing you by the word. Expect mail later in the week.
This seems understated: “It’s a teddy bear.” Mr. Bear is going into his fifth year of radio. He’s logged countless hours on-air, for which he recently won SCATV’s Boston Free Radio Best Talk Show Award. Thirteen thousand people have listened to him talk with Oprah-league writers and artists. His audience on Twitter is north of 1,200. With his résumé, this stuffed teddy bear could secure any mid-level job on the market.
Well, I certainly hope Mr. Bear starts bringing home the bacon. (Anyone out there want to offer him a job?) Actually, he does have plans in the works to hopefully partner with Joyride and raise some money for the podcast. At some point, there will be a video and a campaign and rewards for supporters, so stay tuned!
Tell us how you met.
Mr. Bear and I met on my first birthday. As you can see in the picture below, I was not all that impressed with him right away (I’m the one in front with a bow on my head, about to eat wrapping paper).
I only found out a couple years ago that my mom purchased Mr. Bear by sending in some proofs of purchase from a cereal—she doesn’t remember which one—along with a few dollars. She must have bought two back then because my little sister, who wasn’t born yet at the time, got the exact same bear at a later date. Her bear’s fur is still plush. I like to say Mr. Bear’s fur has been loved off.
How did he become such a prominent fixture in your life?
I couldn’t tell you, exactly. He was always just there. I had tons of other stuffed animals but he was the one who accompanied me to college and on trips around the world. I don’t remember when I started photographing him on those trips, but I was either flying to or from Budapest, and I remember taking a picture (with a film camera) of him buckled in my suitcase on top of my clothes, in case the airport lost my suitcase and I never saw him again.¹
Mr. Bear is your ride-or-die and you his. That is not open to debate. You two are inseparable, synonymous with one another. Lurking in the periphery of every close relationship, however, is the threat of stagnation. Both of you must grow. For humans, that task is fairly manageable. How did Mr. Bear evolve from plaything to urbane ursine?
It’s taken Mr. Bear, like myself, years to come into his own. He actually didn’t have his own voice until he started at Boston Free Radio. I met my bestie, Jenny Magee, in 2005? 2006? Neither of us can recall precisely because we can’t imagine a time when we didn’t know each other. One of the things we bonded over was our stuffed animals. She had a midget marsupial (pocket-in-the-back) tiger with his own backstory and voice. Naturally, Stumpy and Mr. Bear became fast friends, partners in crime,² and, eventually, co-hosts of The Secret Lives of Stuffed Animals. I was involved in classes at SCATV and learned that Boston Free Radio was starting up. I wanted to come up with an idea for a show we could do together, so The Secret Lives of Stuffed Animals was born. The one catch was that only Stumpy had a voice; Mr. Bear had always been silent. When we both (frequently) talked in our “stuffed animal voices,” we used the same Stumpy voice, but now Mr. Bear had to come up with his own version of it. He found his own voice just in time for that first show in February of 2011. The rest is history.
We feel that speaking about somebody when that somebody is there with you is the height of bad manners. Mr. Bear, we welcome you now to Objects of Derision, where the sky isn’t described as a matter of principle, the drinks only bottom out when you do, and the cocktail nuts—the less said about those, the better.
For more than one hundred episodes of The Secret Lives of Stuffed Animals, you partnered on-air with Stumpy. What dirt do you have on him?
The dirt on Stumpy? Oh boy, there’s not enough time or space, even on the infinite internet. The stories I could tell . . . but I won’t, in part because that’s bad manners, and in part because when you’re so close to someone for so long, close enough to get all the good stories, well, they’re close enough to have equal amounts of dirt on you. So, let’s just say—and he’s admitted all of this publicly on the show, so it’s no secret—that he’s a ladies’ tiger, a party animal fond of beer and good times. And if his pupils are always dilated? You’ll have to ask him about that . . .
When a partnership that prolific comes to an end, voluntarily or otherwise, what often follows is a sense that you’re rudderless. What convinced you to go on, solo?
In all seriousness, I was devastated when Stumpy followed his owner, who followed her husband, to New Haven. We made a big deal of our last show to celebrate our two-and-a-half years of laughs and hijinks on the air, inviting people to join us in the studio, call in, and meet for drinks after. I thought that was it. I had no real plan to move forward on my own; the magic of The Secret Lives of Stuffed Animals was Mr. Bear and Stumpy together, not just me. I knew there was no way I would continue the show on my own or find a replacement host. But during our long run, there had been a number of occasions when I had to steer the ship solo, like when Stumpy was off gallivanting in Germany or being a doula for his owner when she had a baby. Usually I ended up reading stories during those episodes to pass the hour. So, in the months after The Secret Lives ended, I started thinking, what if I did a show where I just read?
Writers work in solitude. Then, once their pieces are out in the world, they’re still often in solitude. They don’t know if their words have touched someone or made a difference in someone’s life. I’ve often been moved by something I’ve read and wanted to let the writer know, hey, this meant something to me. I felt I had an opportunity to build off the audience and following Stumpy and I had developed to create a new platform on which I could shine a tiny spotlight on writers and other artists and their work. Maybe the writers themselves would hear and know their words mattered, or maybe I’d just share these words with people who might not have come across them otherwise. It was a very scary decision for me to go on without Stumpy by my side, but I took a deep breath, said One for the penny, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go! and jumped. And Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon opened its doors February 4, 2014, and has been in business ever since.
I cannot say enough how grateful I am for the support I’ve received this entire time. It’s been tremendous. Whenever it gets hard, or I think what’s the point, this doesn’t matter, I’m wasting my time, someone reaches out and tells me it does matter. It has made a difference. And that keeps me going.
Let’s briefly discuss your owner, Georgia Bellas. You’re a bear of refined taste; you’re in-the-know. Her reputation as a literary citizen, as a reader, is enormous. Aside from that—and keep this phrasing in mind—she’s a deft writer, published in many journals. She’s also—again, consider this phrasing—the fiction editor at Atticus Review. She said earlier in this interview that she would be loath to let others down, which explains her community-first service. Those second-place words, though, aside, also . . . What do they mean to her? Is there some selfish stripe in her character that yearns to reorder the public perception of Georgia Bellas?
Are you asking if she would prefer to be known as an amazing writer rather than a reader or literary citizen? I think the answer is no, that she’s pretty happy with the public perception of her (or at least with her perception of the public’s perception of her). Of course, she’d love to be a famous writer, to be published more and more, and to have people reading and admiring her work and buying her books (that she hasn’t written yet)—who wouldn’t want that? But she loves being a reader and editor. She has real strengths in those areas. She believes she can make a difference in both promoting and refining other writers’ words; she doesn’t believe it’s second-place work to be behind the camera, so to speak. She shines best helping others shine. At the same time, she does appreciate accolades for that, so, maybe there’s her selfish stripe?
We understand that you need to tend to the Violet Hour Saloon, where, as mentioned, you often sit down with writers and artists. Before you leave us, be honest—do you think Timothy Treadwell spoiled your opportunity to ever work with Werner Herzog?
Not at all. I think my chances are exactly the same as they’ve always been. I’m sure that if Werner Herzog knew about me, he’d be pretty keen to work together, or at least come be a guest on the show. Given that his films, to quote Wikipedia, “often feature heroes with impossible dreams, people with unique talents in obscure fields, or individuals who are in conflict with nature,” I’m pretty much the perfect candidate. Impossible dream? Teddy bear with a radio show. Unique talents in obscure fields? Teddy bear with a radio show. Individuals in conflict with nature? Teddy bear living in the city (with a radio show).³
Also, I’m no stranger to the film world (or the art world: I used to be a nude model, bearing it all; see attached (NSFW) evidence).⁴
Maybe you’ve heard of Mr. Bear Gets Drunk? or the exciting sequel, Mr. Bear Googles How To Make Pancakes . . . But Gets Drunk Instead? I’ve also played a serial killer in a past production, and am currently taking a pocket filmmaking class. This bear is set to blow the lid off the internet world.
Mr. Herzog, if you’re reading this, I’m available. And you’re welcome on the Violet Hour Saloon anytime.
Georgia, your bear has corrupted our innocence. We seek neither reparation nor apology. Instead, we ask that you do what you set out to do upon agreeing to this interview: one-up Michael Schmeltzer: We think it’s time you say something nice about us. It’s this or tireless promotion of Issue 202.2.
It’s true that I had hoped to one-up Michael Schmeltzer . . . once you planted the idea in my head.⁵ Initially I was terrified to follow in his footsteps (why would you ask to interview me after him?). He’s a fabulous poet and human being and tweeter. I admire and respect him and am always learning from him. Then I decided, based upon your goading, to “crush him.”⁶ Then, as the questions began and you suddenly revealed the looming deadline, I knew there was no way I could beat Michael and the best I could hope for would be to simply make it to the end of the interview . . . oh, wait, you wanted me to say nice things about you, didn’t you?
Well, for starters, you published Michael Schmeltzer. You also put out an amazing, kick-ass first issue: the writing, the design, the art all lived up to the hype and blew my socks off (and I wear very cool socks). And now, all the time, thoughtfulness, and energy you’ve put into doing this interview with me and Mr. Bear—and the fact that you’re actually going to publish it and share our voices with the world (you are going to publish it, right? that’s what we agreed to)—is truly astounding. Any writer would be lucky to appear in your virtual pages with that level of dedication and support. I know I’m certainly honored to be your Object of Derision.
But I don’t know why I even bothered to answer this question—you know I’m going to go ahead and tirelessly promote Issue 202.2, anyway (just like I did for Issue 202.1), especially since you tricked me into reading the whole thing ahead of time and I already know exactly how stellar it is!⁷
The answer to Georgia’s question—“Why would you ask to interview me . . . ?”—is this interview. No stated rationale on our part could be clearer than this.
She is one of the most well-liked and respectable figures in the online literary community she cherishes, which you should learn without surprise. Glancing at her Twitter feed, it would be understandable if you said, Oh, she tweets a lot of writers. She excerpts a lot of publications. What she does is thread a sprawling subculture together tightly; she makes it a collective. She is the one ingredient in a recipe of disparate ingredients that makes a meal a meal. Part of that is due to her work ethic, daily—what feels like hourly at times—drawing eyes to pieces that may have gone unread or read by too few; part of that is due to her attitude, which is buoyant, in every sense of the word, congenial, and, as one of Mr. Bear’s answers suggested, nearly selfless.
Ladies and gentlemen, Georgia Bellas is a heartbeat. We rest easy knowing she beats steady in our community’s chest.
On Tuesdays, from 8–9PM EST, she and Mr. Bear and her guests chat at Boston Free Radio. Sit in with her sometime—she is tremendous company.
¹ Mr. Bear now flies only in carry-on; occasionally, he gets his own seat.
² This is not a joke. The rap sheets for Stumpy and Mr. Bear are grisly, horrifying in length and detail.
³ We can verify that Mr. Bear is, indeed, a teddy bear with a radio show. His points are valid.
⁴ We apologize for this.
⁵ This does not sound like us. We are a scrupulous publication.
⁶ So, we suggested that Ms. Bellas channel her inner Ivan Drago. “If he dies, he dies,” she agreed.
⁷ This does not sound like us. We are a scrupulous publication.
What the affair boiled down to: dry leaves. The emails have stopped. So has the dripping tap of apologies. Nobody was wrong after all. And nobody was right, either. It was just egos flaring and stubborn as a flamenco dance. She throws away the pills. On her Kindle Fire, she watches a movie in which a Japanese woman masturbates into oblivion. She’ll take up rubber stamping and grow a surfeit of petunias. Or she’ll move to the city and squash ants in a cheap efficiency apartment near East 6th and will dream of salamanders squirming in Path train stations, offering themselves to oncoming circles of light. She’ll catch up on O, Pioneers by Willa Cather sitting in a cafe; she watches out the window at all the little girls she could have been. She thinks interim and limbo are not necessarily the worst places to be stranded. At night, from her window, the city offers up its shadows. She can fill in their day faces, body types, hair colors. She’ll choose the one that looms closest, shows the best hope of sleeping with her, keeping her warm and forgetful, overnight.
I keep a little picture in my lungs
of capsized November on the Cape—not the whole
month (coop flown), but the week where the world ended
where the sand did. His mother borrowing my smokes.
I was her dearest wish. A daughter to pet & ply, to perfume
with white wine, to hide in her hope chest. I played along. Dressed up
as the small thing who’d get crass just long enough to crack
everyone’s face smiling, then quiet again in time to beat the boys
at spades. I stayed out with her son after dinner, trudged
down Commerical Street through a chowder of stars. Massachusetts’ fist
empty but for the wind & endless boilermakers. We took shots
in every bar about to shutter for the season. No one could tell
whether we were tourists. I caught my unfamiliar self
in a scratched bathroom mirror: stupid pilgrim, imposter
fiancée. Couldn’t belong on his arm though he wore me
like a flawless knock-off watch. A lie & a damn proud one.
Some endings beg you sip them for years. He said
it would be our place: nubby wall-to-wall carpet, tiny
lightless bathrooms, body sprawled on that bed with mirrored headboard
that caught his hips & the rest of our edges, best possible
portrait of what we’d stopped trying to protect. No one trying to push
our boat in any direction. I’ll never burn that moment down.
MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY broke in through a cascade of Filipino Monkey! catcalls on the emergency channel.i We took down the latitude and longitude, already turning, spinning up helicopters and additional engines. The sun was sliding lazy like a drop of molten honey toward the horizon line by the time we found her,ii drifting and heavily laden, her men safe and sequestered in the engine room, her holds full of ever more potent chemistries.
We prescribed cigarettes and soda for the crew, confident only in the twin gods of Coca-Cola and Marlboro. Their captain seemed uncertain, still. Piratesiii do that to a man. He ordered a seaman to scrub the bloody footprints from the decks, another to repair the breach in the concertina wire.
“Sail fast the violent violet seas,”iv we advised. “Employ scarecrows armed with blackened broomsticks.v Beware unknowns on the horizon.”vi Then we returned to our warship with itsvii guns and sophisticated radars and sailed away.
We would have liked to provide a more consistent, respectable service, but the ocean is, frankly, far larger than you can likely appreciate.viii
i Filipino Monkey is the most common slur heard by mariners around the world on bridge-to-bridge radio channel 16.
ii Ships are one of the few inanimate objects that take a gendered pronoun in the English language, thus her.
iii International law draws a distinction between piracy, which by definition only occurs on the high seas, and armed robbery, in which the same or similar acts take place in territorial waters. Keep in mind, too, that pirates can be hard to identify. A pirate may have started the day as a fisherman. He may end it as one. He may not know himself what he is from moment to moment.
iv Not an exact transcription. International Maritime Organization MSC. 1 Circ. 1339, Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy: “One of the most effective ways to defeat a pirate attack is by using speed to try to outrun the attackers and/or make it difficult to board . . . Ships are recommended to proceed at Full Sea Speed, or at least 18 knots where they are capable of greater speed, throughout their transit of the High Risk Area.”
v Not an exact transcription. International Maritime Organization MSC. 1 Circ. 1339, Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy: “Well constructed dummies placed at strategic locations around the vessel can give an impression of greater numbers of people on watch.”
vi Not an exact transcription. International Maritime Organization MSC. 1 Circ. 1339, Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy: “Prior to entering the High Risk Area, it is recommended that preparations are made to support the requirements for increased vigilance by: [bulleted list] Providing additional lookouts for each Watch. Additional lookouts should be fully briefed. Considering a shorter rotation of the Watch period in order to maximize alertness of the lookouts. Ensuring that there are sufficient binoculars for the enhanced Bridge team, preferably anti glare. Considering use of night vision optics. Maintaining a careful Radar Watch.”
vii I never in my dozen Navy years called one of my ships she.
viii Some of this is true. Some of this is a conflation of separate events. Some I made up entirely. And some of it comes from the May 2014 issue of CropLife Magazine: ever more potent chemistries from the sidebar entitled “Trouble in the Sprayer?” to Lisa Heacox’s multi-page article “Changing Crop Protection Landscape Demands Drift Advances”; unknowns on the horizon from Eric Sfiligoj’s editorial “Taking A Hint . . . Too Far”; a more consistent, respectable service from a miscopied phrase in the inside front cover advertisement for the GVM AgriProbe. It actually read a more consistent, repeatable service, but the damage was already done.
The last humongous doubleray has searched the ocean twice over and sent out markers of its passing and has heard no refrains again and again. There is something in the salinity of the water, its newly rising temperature.
It settles in a coral bed adorned by sea urchins and it chooses to move no more. This is the first time it has stayed still for longer than a moment. It doesn’t know anything other than forward and charging.
The humongous doubleray doesn’t feel humongous any more. The ocean is grand and all-consuming blue.
It activates a long-hibernated component of its own anatomy: an ability to create a double of itself in the opposite sex. The double looks exactly the same in the face, in the hull, in the shape of the wingspan.
You’re me, kind of, the humongous doubleray says.
The double does not speak.
We’re supposed to make the future now, I think.
The double stares in the opposite direction.
I think I love you.
The double flits toward the ocean’s surface and the humongous doubleray follows. They breach and take each other in their wingspans. They promise so many things. Feel bodies: of another and of themselves.
At least we’re each not the last any more, they say, together.
When they die—suffocated and sunbaked—they descend into the dark until their bodies collapse beneath pressure, until they are suspended in the blue deep. They are still in each other’s wings and in the ocean’s dark they are allowed to forget.
In time, the ocean crumbles their bodies, going as all things that die in water, and they are rendered into two waves that will grace a future body’s skin: the first for the memory and the second for the hope.
Maybe it’s August or maybe the birds
are still learning to see green.
Starlings and wrens, each bone a secret.
Do it in the kitchen with the dishwasher running
and bees zapping their wings against the screen.
The only way to describe something
is to say what it reminds you of.
The sky is the color of her eyes after crying.
Go slowly, right to left, the scissors with the red handles.
Her lips taste like rain like salt like
bruised pears sliced with the sharpest knife.
Let the ends fall on her hot skin.
Like twilight, like cotton straps.
What was the first thing that was only like itself?
The last hundred protenean amoebae are gracing cell walls in a patina of water atop a rock. Sunlight pours into them and they quiver. Their home shrinks in the heat.
They vote on their futures, whether to stay or go elsewhere. Whether they should grow into different bodies, try to survive.
Yeas and nays are tallied up with pseudopods. When they decide to go, there is the quietest of cheers that can’t be heard because they don’t have voices or ears. But they cheer nonetheless in cellular scales.
The protenean amoebae push to the edge of the patina of water and they push. They struggle against the edge of the water, barrier to the end of their world. They scream. They make waves against their boundaries. At a certain smallness every sound is a tidal wave but it is never enough. Sunlight pours across their rock. Sunlight takes the water and then takes their skins.
Word is that every sound ever made lingers in vignette upon the physical world.
Lingering in ripples in sand, striations in rock, patterns of far-off breezes.
Word is that if one screams, the universe has to hear, even if it never listens.
Hearing in skin of future bodies, networks of leaves in lonely trees.
Word is that the last hundred protenean amoebae are still screaming.
The steam billowed from the vents. The front doors remained closed, the entrance light unceasingly on. Nothing moved except the smoke, screening any signs of life inside.
You saw Sherman’s body, his uniform, give up flame. You saw the bark of trees come away from his touch blackened and charred. You marched among his men, yourself now free, and you heard some speak of fire and some speak of smoke and some speak of ash. You pulled up rails and heated them in order to wrap them around trees. You watched with his men as Sherman rode off alone, smoke rising from his shoulders. As you helped tear Atlanta down, you watched the man murmur to himself, his lips chapped and dry. You woke in the night to find Sherman in the tops of trees, whispering a woman’s name, and when you awoke again in the morning you found piles of ash beneath where he perched.
You ate of hogs that had eaten of the dead on the battlefields. You watched as his men strove through Atlanta, their faces blank and mechanical. You asked one man if he had seen Sherman walk into a wall of fire and the man replied, We all been down in the hellfire, and we’re all trying to climb our ways back out.
You found burned bodies of animals. You went to a river one morning and found Sherman in the water, steam rising from his body. He saw you and asked you to join him. The river was hot. Sherman placed a hand on your shoulder and your skin burned. His eyes stared off into nothing as he asked if you found in love the possibility of salvation. You walked back to the company. Listened to the crackle and snapping of leaves and twigs beneath his feet. Saw the ground come away charred.
In Savannah, you thought Sherman’s decision to spare the city was a sign you should stay. You dreamed of building a home. You thought of the vulnerability of wood, of stone. Of how everything crumbles. You thought of the men who built in the cities and the ruin left behind in your wake. You heard men and women speak of Sherman in the same breath as the names of the devil. You saw him walking streets alone at night and you followed in silence. You wondered how a man sought out desolation. You wrote in a diary only one line: The march is a funeral, the sea a coffin.
The day Savannah was given over, you rode with Sherman to the beaches. He went into the water and again asked you to join him. There, the bodies of jellyfish swarmed around you and followed you as you both swam. Walking out of the ocean, you watched as the bodies of the jellyfish washed ashore, burning.
Later, after the war, you would tell her late in the night of the bodies of those jellyfish burning on the shore. Of the man himself bathed in fire. She kissed your forehead and wished for your bad dreams to go away. She said she wanted you back in the light. You told her that light was only evidence of the reach of flame.
A phone call, some painkillers, and a bus stop. But what’s the use when everything’s closed?
timecard won’t match
watch face or hands so
we are constantly
here: capital letters / serif / bold
In the city, money shouts at me
to get off the lawn of the Public Gardens
so I don’t ruin expensive grass for the tourists.
Newbury Street is leaking & the swans know (& I know)
I’m as alien as their impossible necks.
paycheck won’t catch
& hold to me like sweat so I sweat until my clothes are sick
of me / I can’t tell when to run
or when to be an iron rail
here: the trains are only as angry
as I pretend I’m not
yolk spills down my callused fingers
& poppyseeds stick in my crooked teeth & I, middle
child, am the ugly wad of gum dogging a leather sole
stay stay stay / there’s endless evidence proving
I’m common so I say I am common
& it’s the only way to charm
a larger tip into the jar
timeloss is a word they use
for man dragged into machine
& spat out as a fifty-foot smear / my father
told me casualty is often called incident
& we’ll never be the ones to decide
which headstone grounds us
The monkey did not live for long.
He’d lost interest in the stuffed dog pretty much right away. The farther away the shuttle, the more garbled and fanciful the sign language the monkey had been taught became, his silent status reports populated with cows and moons and musical cats. Shortly after he entered orbit around Mars we noticed his vitals growing weaker. We watched on the monitor as he struggled with a banana, his paws jerking with frustration over the stubborn peel. Finally he threw it away, the lack of gravity dulling its motion as it cruised in a lazy yellow parabola. He watched it float for a moment or two, then turned back to the small triangular window that gave a view of the planet’s surface, all rust and blooming black mold. He looked into the camera—into our eyes, it almost seemed. Bringing one paw up to his face, he made a chopping motion, three times. Then he died.
The room remained silent until a throat was cleared. One of the guys had a deaf teenager at home: he said the sign meant “you bastard, you bastard, you bastard.” Someone swore aloud and then we all laughed because nobody had ever taught the monkey that.
about the dogs
being killed as if
dinner isn’t dead
on the table / scotch
is the only kindness
afforded guests / sorry
I can’t cross my ankles
properly / sorry my tongue
rolled up window shade /
there’s a hook forming
over the front porch / when the tornado
touches down we’re
nowhere near ditch
or basement / our basement
bathroom, still unfinished /
bathtub we joke full
of blood / we joke a ghost
reburied / sorry I won’t launch
any ships / sorry sitting is as hideous
a profession as / what computers are
for / a howl I might imitate
& call my father / he cut off
death’s tail & threw it down
the basement for our dogs / the ones
we weren’t allowed to have / dogs
running down the fence / un-culled
Charles Guiteau said he would build her a utopia in the woods. He needed everything to be perfect. He carted wood and stone into the forest and started building. He built first upon a cabin, lopsided and leaning. He added rooms and rooms. In each of those rooms, he wrote new letters to President Garfield and asked to be made into a god or a machine. He waited for Garfield to respond. As he waited, he looked at his wood-cut hands and asked each room why the man did not respond.
She went into the woods, a reluctant traveler, and she saw the cabin and wandered each of its rooms. She found a map of the cabin: scrawled in red in the box of each room Guiteau had written, no Garfield, no Garfield, no. She heard Guiteau’s voice somewhere outside. He chopped wood. He stopped. “Too much waiting is a prison,” he said. She went to him and placed her hand on his chest. He breathed and dropped the ax. He looked at his hands, raw and red. “I am a voice in need of an ear,” he said. “I call and he does not hear me and I am waiting.”
He built more leaning rooms and she left the forest.
He started a tower made of stone. He built it up and drew stars in ash on the stone. He asked her to go inside and wait for him when he was finished. There is no door, she said, and he nodded and swung his ax at the stone until he collapsed from fatigue. He told the trees he was an abyss. He told the river he was an angry hornet. He buzzed about the woods and called for her. He wrote to Garfield: I’ve built you a home. The name I will call you is in my throat, a nestled bird. Your name, here, here in this room I have created for you.
Within weeks he had built six falling-down structures, one with nails jutting out like porcupine quills, one he had set on fire and watched burn before he put it out, the wood all charred black. She brought him fresh meat and berries and blankets to keep him warm. Guiteau banged his head against the doorless stone tower. He asked her if she knew where the bears slept. He asked her if he could crawl inside a bear and live in its stomach. Guiteau took her fingers in his mouth and when he still breathed, he swallowed her palm until he choked and still he held her and she wept for him and she tried to leave. He hunted bears for days following. Guiteau named their mythologies and called them all Garfield.
Guiteau killed a bear and emptied it of most of its guts and wrapped the dripping carcass around him. He built wooden effigies of her and ate beetles in the dark with her likeness across from him. A young man on horseback came to him, said he had been looking for days. The man’s eyes seemed made of knives, his hands of bees. He delivered to Guiteau a letter from Garfield’s men. The letter commanded him to no longer write the president. The room he had made would go unoccupied.
He asked the young man to take a knife and open the jigsaw puzzle of his heart. He asked the young man to find in his heart a broken song. He said he could not invite in the man who would not come. He asked the young man to burn down his homes. The young man stayed and Guiteau asked him if he would come inside. He had more bear suits. He had so much to give, he said. We want to believe in a god that gives and gives and never takes away.
Charles Guiteau bought a .442 Webley British Bulldog revolver with ivory handles. In town he searched for her. He told dogs in the street, he needed her fire. He howled after them. They sniffed at his wretched bear fur and whimpered. He called her name. He wrote to the president, All I want is one place to set my boots and one other to join me.
Guiteau nailed doors shut and boarded windows. He painted the stone tower in the blood of more bears. He buried the bodies of the animals whose meat he had taken. The young man tried to convince him to go into town, to find help and a decent meal and new clothes. Guiteau buried the young man with the animals. He sang a hymn. He wrote a prayer on the wall of Garfield's room. He spun the ivory-handled revolver on the wood floor. He swallowed a bullet, hoping it would sprout a cluster of stars inside him. He asked the revolver why being alone was not always as frightening as having someone there to share in that lonesomeness. He loaded the revolver, asked it to manifest a bright-colored world.
Just burn it, the admiral says. His eyes reflect a small version of the blue-green planet.
Are you sure, sir?
I’m tired. I want to go home. This is one planet in a million. No one will remember it.
All it takes is a spark: this planet’s atmosphere is made out of methane instead of oxygen and the spark drifts down slow like it is searching for a place where it belongs, star-twinkling all the way. They watch it fall, the admiral and the spark-dropper.
Then there is fire.
Spark makes its new home: flame in slow cascade across the entire planet.
They turn their ship homeward, fire-blindness lingering in their vision.
The burning planet gets a little bit lighter.
Souls and so on.
To open a door, you must want to leave.
A here, a there. You must want.
Stuff pink hyacinths in the dictionary
between “lie” and “lightning,”
the wet stem of spring curling the pages
until it is not a flower
but just the word for it. We all die
but the hope is to die of living.
Slam it hard enough
to make the sidewalk hum
the way your blood hummed
the first time you walked into the sea.
A door is just a question you have to ask
even when you are scared of the answer.
In San Sebastián they pour the txakoli
from high up until it foams in the glass.
Sea, grapes, the word for longing.
Use both hands and don’t look back.
Georgia Bellas is the fiction editor at Atticus Review. Her work appears in Lockjaw Magazine, Synaesthesia, Sundog Lit, Cartridge Lit, Bird’s Thumb, WhiskeyPaper, The Collapsar, and [PANK], among other journals. You can follow her teddy bear, host of the award-winning internet radio show “Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon,” on Twitter at @MrBearStumpy.
Jacquelyn Bengfort grew up in a library on the prairie and formerly drove warships for a living. Her work has appeared in Storm Cellar, Luna Luna, and CHEAP POP, among other places. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Oxford, she lives in the District of Columbia and can be found online at here or on Twitter at @jacib.
Adriana Cloud has read Harry Potter in three languages and she likes the word “cinnamon.” Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Armchair/Shotgun, The Nervous Breakdown, burntdistrict, New Orleans Review, and others. She lives in Boston, where she works in book publishing and argues about commas a lot. You can find her on Twitter at @adicloud.
Tasha Coryell is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. She is currently working on a chapbook of pieces about Marianne and a novel about sorority girls. She’s recently had work at [PANK], The Collagist, and Sundog Lit. You can find more work from Tasha at her website. You can also find her tweeting at @tashaaaaaaa.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta. He is the co-founder of Jellyfish Highway Press. He manages Sundog Lit and edits for both New South Journal and Cartridge Lit, a lit mag dedicated to work inspired by video games. Recent work appears in The Rumpus, Whiskey Island, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. He’s a regular ol’ sea monster on Twitter at @jdaugherty1081.
Dominic Gualco is from Sacramento, CA. His writing has been published at Hobart, Big Lucks, and elsewhere. Scrambler Books will publish his first poetry collection in 2015.
Joel Hans is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the prose editor for Fairy Tale Review, and co-editor of Cartridge Lit. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Caketrain, West Branch, Redivider, Booth, Necessary Fiction, and others. These three pieces are an excerpt from a collection of stories about extinctions and endlings, Eat the Dreams. He has a website and tweets at @joelhans.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Elimae, Smokelong Quarterly, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Blaze Vox, Matchbook, and elsewhere. He loves 50s sci-fi movies, manga comics, and pre-punk garage bands of the 60s. He blogs here.
Anna Meister is an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in publications including Sugar House Review, BOAAT, Bodega, and Radar Poetry, where she was a finalist for the 2014 Coniston Prize. Anna edits poems for Mount Island Magazine, works with kindergarteners, and lives in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter at @arm312.
Emily O’Neill is a writer, artist, and proud Jersey girl. Her recent poems and stories can be found in Gigantic Sequins, Souvenir Lit, and Vector, among others. Her debut collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of Yes Yes Books’ Pamet River Prize. You can pick her brain at her website or on Twitter at @tabernacleteeth.
Daniel W. Thompson’s work has appeared recently or is forthcoming at publications like Bartleby Snopes, decomP, Camroc Press Review, Wyvern Lit, and Cheap Pop. He lives in downtown Richmond, VA, with his wife and daughters, cleaning up diapers and dog fur. He tweets at @dwilsonthompson.
Stuart Thursby is an art director, photographer, writer, and maker of mostly-internet things. Born and raised in Toronto, he worked in advertising for a while before spending a year wandering around Europe, before returning to Toronto to get right back at it all again. Follow him on Twitter at @sthursby.
Kyle A. Valenta received his MFA from Columbia University in 2013. His work can be seen in Sixfold, Blackbird, and THEthe Poetry. He was a finalist for the 2013 Susan Atefat Prize administered by Arts & Letters Journal, and in 2014 was both accepted to the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and featured in the Lamprophonic Emerging Writers Reading Series. He is at work on a novel and collection of short stories inspired by the lives of escorts, fat girls, femmes, illegals, Tibetan lamas, and lovers without desire. He lives in New York and you can follow his flash writing here and follow him on Twitter at @KyleValenta.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised poet and essayist. They balance their time between being active in several feminist communities and cooking elaborate five-course dinners for themselves, alone, in the dark. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy Magazine, The Hairpin, Electric Cereal, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, No Tokens Journal, and WEIRD SISTER. Follow them on Twitter at @coolniceghost.
Regardless of how many literary journals exist, regardless of how many editors pore on long queues of manuscripts, too few people get to experience—to put a hand in—the utter folly of building something like the swaying minaret of words you climbed here. I get to, thanks to the deep foundation of Noble / Gas Qtrly’s staff and our contributors’ spiring marriage of ability and discipline.
It grounds me—electrically.
Georgia Bellas, Jacquelyn Bengfort, Adriana Cloud, Tasha Coryell, Justin Lawrence Daugherty, Dominic Gualco, Joel Hans, Kyle Hemmings, Anna Meister, Emily O’Neill, Daniel W. Thompson, Stuart Thursby, Kyle Valenta, and Sonya Vatomsky: thank you.
Lindsay Branca, Christi Craig, Emma Fissenden, Joseph Spece, Emilee Wirshing, John Boucher, Sara Iacovelli, Will Kaufman, and Graham Oliver: thank you.
To those reading—and I thank you, as well—the roll call above is wholly responsible for your enjoyment, your astonishment. Direct all kudos appropriately.