Today, I came across a link to this list of the 10 best nonfiction pieces of the past 50 years. They are all classics, but I must confess, there are still a couple I haven’t read. If you are a fan of creative nonfiction, I highly recommend these! After a weekend away in Newport eating lobster roll after lobster hash after lobster bisque, I think it may be time for a reread of David Foster Wallace’s humorous yet thought-provoking “Consider the Lobster”. Or maybe after my trip to San Francisco, it is time to revisit Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Or maybe I’ll pick something new. All of these are great summer reads, so check them out!
You wouldn’t think that a New Yorker would ever have the problem of too much produce on hand. You go to the corner store, pick up enough zucchini for that recipe you found and cook it. Right?
There has been a recent surge in urban farming, farmers markets and CSAs throughout Brooklyn and the rest of New York. People, despite being surrounded by cement and only seeing trees surrounded by guards, want to know where there food is coming from and get back in touch with their food supply. Community gardens and rooftop farms are cropping up all over the place and the Saturday farmers’ markets here in Brooklyn are always mobbed. Since reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, my husband and I have transitioned to buying whatever we can from local farmers. This year, we took an extra step and joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The way it works is that we buy a share in a farmer’s crop and every week, go to the pick-up spot to collect whatever vegetables our farmer has harvested. We don’t know what’s coming until we show up.
That has led to some interesting weeks of meals. While we were envisioning piles of ripe red tomatoes and baskets of peaches, we weren’t quite prepared for the early summer harvest, which consisted almost entirely of greens. Kale, mustard greens, mizuna, Asian greens, greens, greens and more greens. We hadn’t even heard of mizuna and Asian greens, so we had to turn to the Internet for advice on what to do with them. We came upon some wonderful recipes and I got to get creative in the kitchen. This turned out to be extremely fun, but time-consuming. Luckily, I’m a teacher and therefore have time to spare during the summer, and since I haven’t been writing much, creating fun and delicious meals has been a great creative outlet. We tried kale and apple salad (shown above, photo courtesy of my husband), sauteed kale, kale and Asian greens in a stir-fry, halibut served over a bed of kale and even kale in a smoothie.
In thinking about recipes and writing, I was reminded of a piece I read back in college, studying creative nonfiction. If you can’t find a good recipe for your kale, try making this instead.
Dad, The Maker
My dad started I don’t know how many novels before he finished his first—when he was 52 years old. I would occasionally see printed-out sections of the novels, lying on the big cherry table that served as our family computer desk. I’d read a paragraph or two before my interest would fizzle—surely, more the fault of my buzzing teenaged mind than the engagingness of the writing. Also, I knew he was private, and superstitious, about most of his writing, so I, already halfway logged on to America Online, would happily abide what I guessed would be his preference that I not read it at all. Knowing better now, I know he wasn’t careless enough to leave writing he didn’t want anybody reading lying around on the communal cherry table and that, in fact—and I see this in myself too—he had likely very consciously left it there; either proudly, or simply as proof that he was a writer—his way of saying to us: “I’m writing a novel,” without having to go through the awkward self-back-patting embarrassment of actually having to make such an absurd, grandiose proclamation out loud. Despite his private nature, his hermity side, he did still want to be witnessed. We all do.
There were long stretches of time (years) when there seemed to be little evidence of Dad’s writing on the cherry table, nor in conversation. I guessed then, and still bet so now, that he simply wasn’t writing; that whatever he’d had going had sadly lost his favor and been left to dry and wither in the obscurity of a fistful of floppy disks labeled NOVEL. And the self-pity of that had burned him badly enough that, for his own mental health (it was fragile), he was turning away, at least for a while, from the whole writer deal. Luckily, creativity is, by definition, inexhaustible, and can always be redirected—especially so in the case of my dad, who was almost obsessively inventive and whose sense of fascination and delight was constantly sniffing in new directions. Not only a man of many creative interests, he was also a man of many creative talents—or at least whatever he might’ve lacked in learned skill for a given creative endeavor, he was intuitive and imaginative enough to overcome that lack and succeed in producing something worthwhile—even wonderful. When I was younger it seemed to me there was little he couldn’t do. He could write, he could draw, he could carve wood, he could build a table, he could build a house. Later I came to see that just about all the things he could do well were actually contained to more or less one category (but a category certainly big enough for one man to spend a lifetime working around in): aesthetics. He was all about beauty of forms—particularly constructed, made, forms, because it was that inventiveness of the human mind and hand with which he engaged most passionately. Even more than at the natural beauty of a great oak tree (his favorite), he would revel at the craftsmanship of a lovely and unique oaken desk. His was the kind of mind that can’t simply behold the beauty of a magnificent thunderstorm without being inspired to try to express it in some way—to make something of it. (This is the essential condition of the artist, isn’t it?). He was a maker. Mom wants to put that on his gravestone (the one we still haven’t gotten). Something to the effect of Maker Extraordinaire. She thinks he’d like it, thinks it’s the kind of thing he might’ve made up for himself (if ever given that eerie task). And she’s right. It’s inventive, playful, non-traditional. It has the flair that he couldn’t help but put into everything he ever made.
Writing or no writing, Dad was always making things—almost all of which he finished, quickly and efficiently. When it came to using his hands, he was more than capable, and the inspiration always seemed to be there. It was play for him. Thank god for his hands. I think they truly helped him keep his head above what could’ve been sadder waters. Recently, in going though some of his old file cabinets, I found a typewriter-typed list titled, Works in Progress: 1973. It spans six sheets of yellowed paper and consists of 35 numbered entries. Right from number one it’s clear that it’s more a list of ideas than actual works in progress. Some of them are feasible as projects: a four-poster bed, a rocking chair, a corn starch pillow, a lamp, another totem pole (he had already made one), while others were purely hypothetical: “A community which folds up into something;” “A totem pole skyscraper for Seattle;” “An autobiology” (“dealing with the organic inklings, events and urks (?) which make up one’s own life of fiction”). In a middle ground are some partway feasible, but more long-term, intellectual works, such as “An illustrated book of imaginary beings,” “A magazine of ideas,” and somehow the most heartrending, number 29: “A book of short stories, myth, and little drawings of mine.” Then there are entire homes he wished to build—“A silo house,” “A stone house,” “A house that looks like something organic.” The most poetic entry is one of these—for, “A seemingly Victorian abode.” He wrote this as explanation:
“True built, like back in the those days with the old time tools. Somehow patience is the cause of creativity, its end being the expression not only of the designer but of the craftsman, the carpenter or the mason. Just to experience this would be pure joy, work and satisfaction. With fantasy, as they say, with character, with curves and towers. Stone, I hope, and a central fireplace, (the most basic colonial design) hookin’ up the kitchen and other rooms. A house like a spindly spider, you strike one edge of the web and the whole structure shouts. A combination of many styles, so, colonial simplicity, rustic inklings from the backwoods, a barn in the Dutch tradition, and a study with books. A correct and crazy color scheme.”
1973—he was 23 years old. That he probably never completed (or even started) any of the 35 things on that list is, to me, exultantly beautiful and freeing. Ideas for the sake of ideas. Play. Even if they aren’t pursued and tangibly enacted, just having them is worthwhile, because they delight and teach and expand and give way to more ideas. To conceive is to interact with the way things are—what we already have and know—by way of imagining how you might add something. And all those concept-only ideas are the essential nutrients of the creative spirit; that fertile soil from which more tangible innovation and expression will eventually come to fruition. Dad did build houses, and we did have that central stone fireplace in the house he built for us in Wisconsin, six years after this list was made, when he was just 29—only a year older than I am now. He built us a house. A big, beautiful, awesome house, full of ideas. A few years after we moved to Amherst he built us another one. In the last few years before he died he had been making plans for the next house, that he would build on the plot of land he and Mom had bought, out in the country, a mile away from my sister’s house—which he also designed and was in the process of building when he died. In a way, he was always building the houses we lived in. In the summers would be the bigger additions: screened porch, swimming pool, landscaping, finishing-out the basement, finishing-out the space over the garage, etc.; and then in between he would make smaller additions: hand-made decorative tin fronts for the kitchen cabinets, an elaborate birdhouse, quirky bookshelves, quirky lampshades, everything always quirky, always so very him. The ideas for addition never ceased—and why should they? It wasn’t because he could never be happy with what he had, it was because he couldn’t be happy if he wasn’t in the process of making something. His creativity didn’t come in bursts and lulls, like mine sometimes does—it was perpetual. It was his life force. It was his purpose.
Writing was play and creation for him too, but something must have made it harder for him in those middle 15-20 years, post-MFA, when he wasn’t producing all that much writing, and not finishing (let alone publishing) even so much as a short story. My best guess (based now on personal, immediate experience) is that it was a matter of stakes being too high—that the expectation of him, as Writer with a capital W, to produce and publish, exerted the kind of pressure under which Dad would say forget it, then about-face and walk away. He refused to be expected to do just about anything. Expectations were too closely related to what he saw as bullshit societal norms. He refused to be expected to at least pretend to enjoy a dinner party. He refused to be expected to wear a collared shirt to go to a ritzy country club in Florida (he would wear one anyway—but, of course, not because he was willing to meet anyone’s expectation that he would, but because maybe the only thing he hated more than expectations was being conspicuous in environments that already made him uncomfortable). He refused to be expected, by friends or family or colleagues, to strive for tenure-track professorship—namely because tenure-track held too many expectations from the University. (That and he thought the tenure system was bad for the students—simple math, really: by making faculty more concerned with the publishing of their own work than with teaching; rewards for the teachers who had bigger fish to fry than measly classroom enlightenment). He was anti-expectations, anti-establishment, anti-bullshit—all little wars he fought in the name of Individuality, particularly his own. Sure, it was a belief he held for everyone, but he wasn’t out there preachifying his gospel on the corner of Main and College, tutting at the passing cars with a home-lettered sign (Honk for Your Right to Do What You Want!). No, he wasn’t a revolutionary—not as I knew him, nor do I think even back in his pony-tailed twenties—but more of a cowboy. Don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. His was a fight of self-preservation. There were many times when I rolled my eyes and shook my head, when Dad’s lone-wolfery came across as anti-social, curmudgeonly, or just a pain in the ass, but on a more general level (especially now with nostalgic distance) I’ve always respected and admired him for it. And for better or worse, I’ve inherited certain shades of it. Particularly, the desire and need to, with regularity, be left alone in the workshop of my own mind.
Because the act of writing insinuated a much larger audience than, say, a quirky birdhouse, I think he would sometimes balk at those implied but invisible expectations—and, even worse, judgments. He just wanted to be able to play around with words and storytelling, to be his quirky, colorful self, without ever having to curtail it to meet the tastes of others. If it was a road block for his thirties and forties, he finally overcame it in his fifties, and I think it’s because he started to feel less put-upon by the world and its people, less judged, less unhappy, less outcast. In the process of building out his haven of creation and quirk—the house; his teaching position, and his idiosyncratic way of teaching (which, as far as I know, was pretty universally praised by his students); his role as father and husband—along with the establishment of his sweet-spot life routine, which seemed to afford him just about all of his little joys (cumulatively, the little joys were his big joy), he had settled into a relative safe space, in which to play the way he wanted and needed to. That sense of freedom is immediately palpable in the two novels that he finished in those years—the feeling of a clever, giddy, creative mind that can barely contain itself and doesn’t think it should have to. It’s wonderful to think of him having all that fun. And maybe it’s better, more pure, that he never really had to face the response of a larger audience. Reading his second book, which I’ve just picked up again after having to put it down for awhile, I’m reminded why I had to put it down the first time: the cleverness, the self-delight in wordplay and figurative language, the incessant creativeness of it… it’s almost too much. The fanciful attention to these elements of aesthetics, and to his never-ending stream of clever little ideas, hold me at arm’s length from the more serious, deeper stuff of the narrative. It is, after all, a book about a man whose mother left and died when he was young and whose father he half-hated—in many ways a book about himself, no doubt. I read it looking for insight and new understanding of the parts of him that were always more obscured, wanting to know him better after he’s gone, wanting him to reveal to me something about his past and his sadness, but instead I am being handed, one after another, his beautiful, whimsical, well-made toys. And I hate to think of how it would have hurt him to know that this eventually grows tiresome to me—and that it probably would for most readers. But it’s especially strong for me, not only because I already know that part of him plenty well, but because it continues to distract from what I know is lurking underneath, from what I am hoping he will just, finally, tell me, without the bells and whistles.
This is what I have of him though, which is a lot—whole worlds. I would never even take a stutter-step towards complaint. I’ll keep reading his novels, the ones he wrote and the ones he didn’t write, until it’s time for me to get planted in the ground myself and someone who loves me like I love him decides what should go on my tombstone. In the gap from now to then which will compose the remainder of my many, yet limited, living days, I reckon I can train myself to be less distracted by the aesthetic flourishes and gizmos, to see into them, and in between them, and past them, to the intricate heart of their maker.
Sam Beebe lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at New York University. “Dad, The Maker” is excerpted from a non-fiction book he is writing about a dark family mystery, which explores the volatility of memory, storytelling, and secrets. In 2010 he earned his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU, where he was a New York Times Fellow.
Arya F. Jenkins
I am wrapping my un-chicken salad to take to work. Jean says, “You’re doing that wrong. Plus you need more pita.” A few minutes later, as I apply lipstick, she tells the mirror, “I just read on Yahoo, lipstick is bad for you.”
Jealous of these things because they touch my mouth, she is attempting to reclaim me. A silver pen bought at Tiffany’s last week meant to remind me of her generosity and ownership.
But I am not hers.
She is the one who said to me, “Come out here to live with me. You will never have to work a day in your life.”
I packed my small life of books and treasured belongings and moved east to be with her, hooked by her promise. Each month, when my bills came, she paid them, but not before making it plain who was to be at her elbow, assisting always, a whore without reprieve, a colorful, dangling object.
When there was work to do for her, she stood behind me while I worked on my laptop, smoothing my hair, bringing me special coffees, holding my hand until the job was done, then abandoned me for her whims—her long hours drinking with male friends, members of a boys’ club she thought she could seduce merely by doing up her magnificent hair, adding perfume and laughing, but who only provided a screen for her illusion of participating in their debauchery.
Had I been treated like someone worthy of my own volition, I might have kept twisting myself around her needs and assumptions…. Eventually, recognition quelled desire, my own urge to be there, and I began to let go, dream differently.
In those dreams, the elegant façade, her compliments to me before people, still tickled, swaying me a little, but there was my growing angst for time, and hunger for a lost self with which her lies could not compare. Even as I hung there, satchel and box in hand, she said to me, “You don’t understand, some people love by refusing. I wanted to tease you by doing the opposite of what you wanted.” As if explaining herself could turn me around at the final moment. I said, “You’re crazy,” and let the door slip shut behind me.
Arya Jenkins is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary and online journals such as Agave Magazine, Brilliant Corners, Cleaver Magazine, and The Feminist Wire. Her poetry just recently received a Pushcart nomination from the editors of Agave Magazine. Her poetry and essays have been included in three anthologies. Her poetry chapbook, JEWEL FIRE, was published by AllBook Books. Her blogs are http://writersnreaders.blogspot.com and http://beboptimes.blogspot.com.
This winter promises to be
one for the record books, like
1978 when the garage collapsed
under the snow and ice.
We’re going to suffer each time we
step out of the house and reach for
the thin newspaper in its sheer
near break our necks on the
driveway ice once a day.
Many will cross their fingers each time
they turn the ignition and hear the grind
of frozen iron;
perhaps even break a key off, like
my older brother did in the frail light
of December 1971 when the sky looked
like a brittle pane of glass
ready to break at any second
sending down white shards and
Yesterday, for example,
I found a robin on the back porch
pasted to the cement by the cold.
Its eyes, still open,
thankful for the final lessons
of deprivation and clarity.
Dan Kelty is a high school Spanish teacher in St. Louis where he lives with his two children. He has previously been published in Nimrod, Steam Ticket, Margie, Sleet and other publications.
The Lone Inhabitant of the Gratiot South-Leg Traffic-Control Island
A traffic-control island is a defined area between traffic lanes
for control of vehicle movements or for … refuge.
— Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Part IV,
“Islands” Section 4A-1 “The Functions of Islands” 1961
The form of a single body lies utterly still on a little triangle of Detroit. In between the clumps of tall grass, still green despite the summer heat, the body doesn’t move even one muscle. There’s a grimy baseball cap clutched to the body’s head by a handful of rundown fingernails. This body still belongs to the Inhabitant, but it has become momentarily disregarded. This is the Inhabitant’s habit, his eternal nature that takes him as the seasons change. Around the body waves of white noise spin out from the rush of four-lane traffic and crash over and over again upon the curbed shores of the Gratiot South-Leg Traffic Control Island. The sky is a collection of faded blues and whites, reaching down to stroke the plastic straws and cigarette butts lying out in the soupy gutter, changing them into the shape of the wind.
Years have passed unnoticed.
The Inhabitant has dreamed up many wonderful objects in his years of waiting. The Gatorade bottle kaleidoscope, the manhole cover radio receiver, the leaves of the splinted saplings as a message written in another language by a well-spoken yet indifferent Being. It was how the Inhabitant worked, using the world’s bumpy edges to whittle away at the dry wood of his hangdog mind. Life on the Island reconstructed in the image of a penitent monk transcribing the intricacy of the world onto vellum. The Inhabitant has even let his body grow a long and shaggy beard to tie his intricacies directly to the head so that they don’t fly away and leave him totally alone again, feeling simple.
Perhaps it was the shape a nameless father who had never once tried to get in touch, or the look of a mother who had fallen dead of Something We Don’t Talk About in the Emergency Room of Mercy, or the brother (what would Amos look like now, after all those years of quiet family life and mayonnaise sandwiches?). It might look like a welding torch, the very one he used to think deeply about when he had that good-paying job and the days were luminous but also full of gloom, back when he still had something worth protecting, worth living on the inside of, and yet still he let his penitent body destroy it. The Inhabitant shuddered with the sensations of having been pulled in too many directions at once, his vertebral column creaking with the weight of the years. He’d been marooned by life’s parade flotilla and he only knew to wait for the Beyond to return. Not that he ever complained. The Inhabitant was done complaining.
It’s early in baseball season with the verve of Tigers tailgating loosed in wild oranges and blacks, the air crowding around the Inhabitant’s sleeping ears. His body drinks in everything, holding that balloon of a soul high above every shriek and smell and color so as to build the perfect baseball season impression. People stretch and crack their armbones and lift up children and smile. They are grilling bratwurst. They are spitting sunflower seeds. The fat sun sits up on its king-sized cerulean sofa and passes its eye over every piece of giddy tinsel and chrome; the glare of an entire family in sunglasses, the discarded hot dog tin foil, the beer bottle caps twinkling in the sidewalk cracks. People are hugging, greeting the children of friendly families, lighting the cigarettes and slapping backs of lifelong buddies. The children try to sound out names like ‘Peralta’ and ‘Verlander’, working the strange consonants over with their wandering sing-song voices. The parking lots across the street from the Island are crowded with jerseyed bodies, orange and black and dark blue, the big gothic Detroit D. The Inhabitant draws on the stores of surplus joy, bouyed up high into the golden stratosphere. They are carrying the Inhabitant with their voices, with the sound of their deep and well-nourished love. No one sees the Inhabitant’s still-breathing body, smells the uric tang of his olive green Army jacket, the whiskey matting of his milkweed moustache, deep-rubbed bodysoil of his pits and hands and underclothes. The Inhabitant understands that his body might not be welcome. On such early spring day the Inhabitant convives with them in spirit and in essence alone.
In his chromogenic ecstasy the Inhabitant leaves the Island for good, never to return, and proudly enters the crowded hallways of the new Tiger Stadium, which is named after Comerica Bank. He used to go to games in his twenties and thirties, back when the Tigers played on the corner of Trumbull and Michigan. Back when he was still engaged to Celeste and flush with feelings of youth and luck, with money in his pocket and his future spread out in front of him. Now inside the Stadium the Inhabitant takes a seat and gazes down at home plate with an unobstructed view. His freshly washed hair gets blown by a rich wind of feelgood cheering, the air around him covered in ten thousand smiles that sparkle with immaculate dentistry. His own smile quivers, thrilling with the anticipation of a brand new baseball season. The Inhabitant leans forward, peering around at the crowd, sipping from a plastic mug of rich, foamy beer that never runs empty no matter how much he slurps, and a thick Polish sausage piled high with relish and kraut ketchup that seems to regrow to its full length after each and every bite. It fills his stomach up with spicy meat and grease and he thinks: I have never known such ecstasy and what else, what else could I ask for?
Next to the Inhabitant sits Celeste, incarnated in full bloom who laughs and blushes and stubbornly covers the Inhabitant’s cheeks with her shy kisses. Wow, thinks the Inhabitant, what an entirely perfect day for a baseball game! It’s as if some obscure force is pumping this dream directly through the roots of the Island grasses. Amidst the clamor and excited shrieks of the baseball crowds, up and down the sidewalks, the Inhabitant dreams on, the ripped olive green of his jacket rustling with the barest hint of breeze. The lustrous azure sky practically screams out with blueness, the furiously green grass cut with machine precision around the diamond and now the loudspeakers spring to life with that rumbling chorus PUH-LAY BALL!
The pitcher rubs a little dirt between his thumb and forefinger and gazes a code at the catcher before throwing a blistering fastball. STRIKE ONE! The crowd cheers and the Inhabitant takes another swig of his perfect beer, savoring its coldness and the effervescence of its carbonation. STRIKE TWO! STRIKE THREE! The crowd is deafening, peppered with whooping and chants of LET’S GO TIGERS! (clap, clap) and two rows in front of the Inhabitant two Army veterans fist-bump with enormous satisfaction. Celeste grabs the Inhabitant’s wrist and holds on tensely, chewing her glossy lower lip as Peralta comes up to bat, and loads the count before knocking another home run clean out of the park.
The entire stadium bursts into furious applause, yelling and pumping their arms and screaming and high-fiving strangers on every row. It is the most impossibly super brilliant baseball game that anyone has ever imagined. The air is filled with a Technicolor exultation, each strand oversaturated like the moments in old movies where the hero has just overcome some terrible obstacle and victory pours out of everyone’s eyes and mouths and swirls overhead in paradisal splendor. The buxom Celeste wraps her tanned arms around the strong girth of the Inhabitant’s neck and buries her marzipan face in his collarbone, whispering “I love you, Jerry.”
It is almost 7:00pm when the Inhabitant’s body finally stirs, the flutter of his eyelids interrupting a solitary ant’s blind traverse across his face. He’s disoriented and immediately finds the grass a confused mess, pushing himself up to look around and discovering where he is. The thistles by the curb sway with a tumid lode, their bright purple blossoms grasping at the horizon. The Inhabitant first perceives his impression of the blossoms as the fading fireworks of his beautiful dream, the bleary phantograms pierced by the sudden dull pain of a full day’s whiskey-soaked sleep. He can now feel the weight of his sweat-encrusted body, and taste the sour sting of his rancid breath spilling out over dry, cracked lips.
The magic of the Island is gone. Waves of afternoon traffic have now left the road empty and in the distance the Inhabitant hears a muffled roar from the I-75 expressway; people going home. He raises his face from the grass into a sitting position, pulling off the straws that have printed themselves into his leathery forehead. It’ll soon be time to get some change from the stragglers as they leave the Downtown bars, and maybe go to St. Joe’s afterwards to see about a hot meal. The dizziness of hunger hits him like a spasm, and he almost sits down before stumbling off across the road.
By the time the Inhabitant leaves the Island, he has forgotten the dream entirely. The past hours of slumber appear in his memory as simply blank, drained of any activity. No one will ever remember the best baseball game ever imagined, the best game the Tigers never played. This is a largely unexamined conundrum for those interested in the dreamery of the Gratiot South-Leg Traffic Control Island. The Inhabitants invariably leave their perfect dreams behind.
Edmund Zagorin was previously published in Voiceworks, Cafe Irreal and the anthology Writing That Risks (Redbridge Press, 2013). He occasionally mails paper stories to strangers via Stories By Mail, a quarterly broadsheet.
The Speaking Poem
Human beings continually record their individuality in the creases of the language….
Claude Hagege, The Dialogic Species
What is a poem the Zen master said
but a small breach in the blindness
of seeing as others have seen.
What is a poem but a feather
lifting and falling in an
Brothers and Sisters.
If to meet on the bridge
that is the poem.
If to let go the ligatures
that bind the language
I suggest to you:
poem is the secret agent
of our emancipation
out of the maze
out of ourselves.
Think the creases that lie
How through them water flows
bringing life to all green things,
even to our stories that cut
through the dross.
Night music opening sleeping earth
to festival even as a single cello
can rouse the walking dead.
when you read this
if you read this
leave paper behind
in its fiber rags,
Doug Bolling‘s poetry has appeared in Georgetown review, Tribeca Poetry Review, Basalt, Redactions, Connecticut River Review, BlazeVOX, and/or, Wallace Stevens Journal and many others, recently in The Missing Slate with Poet of the Month and interview. He has received five Pushcart nominations and holds the MA (with creative thesis) and PhD from Iowa. He is working on a collection and living in the greater Chicago area.
The Beetle Leopard
THE BEETLE LEOPARD was about the size of a large cocker spaniel, with a coat like the coat of a tortoiseshell cat: uneven, mostly dark, of mottled browns and blacks. The private company that kept him in his vivarium on Pigeon Street claimed he was the only beetle leopard on Earth. Under the glass, which was always smudged with fingerprints, was a plaque:
This Beetle Leopard Was Rescued by S. Barry Gibson
Co-Founder and C.E.O. of Gibson and Bree,
from Poachers on the Island of Borneo.
Please Do Not Disturb the Beetle Leopard.
He Is the Last Known Specimen of His Kind.
We went out a lot in those days to a bar called Phantom Harry’s on the corner of Pigeon and Grant, one of just two bars in a neighborhood that, halted by the economic downturn during the early phase of its gentrification, was still more or less a wasteland of functioning and abandoned warehouses. Our favorite pinball game was there, Jungle Madness. We liked it because when you got the silver ball into the lion’s den the whole thing shook as if there were a small person trapped inside, a campy animatronic voice sang “Juuuuuungle Madness!” and its green lights flashed in the dark. It was fun, but the end of the night always hung over us, with its inevitable sobering walk home past the beetle leopard. His environment was well-curated, but not particularly convincing. We were saddened by the fact that the beetle leopard lived in what was, despite its ersatz trees and ferns, despite its pool of real water and plaster cavern, essentially just a painted box, with a window onto the street where drunks like us could stop by and harass him. Nights after Harry’s we’d stop and hoot and holler and tap on the glass, and from his languid slouch on a plastic branch the beetle leopard would look up at us with black eyes.
I’d urge the others to move on. “All we’re doing is reminding him that he’s trapped,” I said.
“He knows he’s trapped,” said Jill, and Eli agreed: “How could he forget?” Eli was a bartender. Eli knew. He watched with an empty face as the beetle leopard gazed at Danny, who was always the drunkest, banging and pressing his face against the glass and waving and making loud noises.
“Don’t taunt him,” I said.
“Come on, Nancy. I’m communing with the beetle leopard.”
“Danny, let’s go,” Jill urged.
“I’m the beetle leopard’s only friend.”
When Eli spoke, Danny followed. “Come on, Danny,” he said at last.
Incidentally, I knew that glass well. I’d installed it myself, years before, with the help of two other people from Welton Glassworks. We weren’t told what the pane would be for. We simply set the glass, dusted it off, sprayed it with cleaner, and wiped it clean. Then we stepped back. The clarity of it was perfect. Windows are like that. Delicate boundaries. Barely there.
I worked at Welton nearly eight years before getting laid off. By the time I was hanging out with Eli, Danny, and Jill, it had been months, nearly a year, since I’d worked. Unemployment was a vast, tangled, overwhelming wilderness. Navigating it required tools that I didn’t have.
Jill’s a news junkie. She writes for an anarchist rag online. She was the one who told us one night about S. Barry Gibson’s bankruptcy problem. At first I didn’t know what she meant. The relevance didn’t sink in. I watched her explain the situation in a removed kind of way. Her face was flushed, and despite the cold night her hair was damp at the temples.
“S. Barry Gibson,” I repeated. “How do I know that name?”
Danny was taking his turn on Jungle Madness behind us. Jill ignored me. She was talking to Eli. “Turns out the whole company was built on imaginary money. Don’t you guys read the paper?”
“Assholes,” said Eli.
“Like sub-prime mortgages?” I asked.
“It’s a big scandal,” Jill went on. “He made it look like they had more than they had, and then they borrowed on imaginary capital. Anyway, the company is going down. The building is being repossessed. On Wednesday.”
“What are they going to do with the beetle leopard?” asked Eli. I tried not to look like I was just catching on.
“Wildlife organizations have been fighting over him,” Jill said. “They’re trying to figure out which habitat would be most like his natural home. But not a lot of America is a lot like Borneo, and he’s protected under American law. In the meantime they’ve agreed to leave him with S. Barry Gibson.” Her pale face went dark.
“Seems like the natural thing,” I said.
She glared at me, finally. “Maybe. But in the article they took care to mention his extensive collection of taxidermy.”
“Is that legal?” I asked.
“Of course not,” said Eli.
Jill shook her head. “They have zero other options.”
“They could bring him back to Borneo,” I suggested.
Jill looked as if I’d suggested we skin him. “To be poached?”
My whiskey was mostly ice. The liquid slipped down my throat. “If S. Barry Gibson is bankrupt,” I said, breaking the silence, “won’t the state seize his assets?”
Eli turned to me, disapproving. “Do you really want to wait and see what happens if the state gets its hands on that animal?”
We all turned and watched Danny for a moment, urging himself on, cursing at Jungle Madness. The game snapped and shifted, rang mechanical bells, and talked back. Eli sipped pensively. He’s a thin, broad-chested guy with a black beard and a head of thick hair that slopes down in the back. His forehead is like the prow of a ship. When he looks pensive, he looks extra pensive. If Danny or me or even Jill had said a thing like what he said next, no one would have listened. But when Eli said what he said, we listened hard. “We have to save the beetle leopard.”
We nodded seriously.
“We should,” Jill agreed. “But what would we do with it after we got it out? It can’t just roam free in the streets.”
“Prospect Park,” Danny suggested loudly, his back to us.
I laughed. “I didn’t even know he was listening,” I said to the other two.
Eli bent his thin red straw back and forth and folded it, flicking gin on my cheek accidentally. Then he put it in his mouth. “There’s a big cat preserve upstate,” he said after a moment, chewing on the straw. “I mean, a preserve for big cats. In Pisquetawnee. My uncle’s friend works security.”
“They’ll want to know where he came from,” said Jill, “how we got him.”
“Not if we drop him off when they’re not there.”
“We can’t just put him in the back seat of the car like a dog,” I said. “We can’t just bring him on MetroNorth or something.”
“We’ll get one of those big dog cages,” said Eli.
Jill was nodding. “When my dads go to Rochester to visit my sister they use one of those in the hatchback for their German shepherd.”
“Could we borrow it?”
“We could borrow it,” Jill said. “But how are we going to break in?”
Behind us the pinball game shook like an unbalanced dryer. “Juuuuuungle Madness!” it sang. We all glanced over and watched lanky Danny smack the sides of it, hooting like an ape. Then they both turned to me.
“I still have a glass cutter from when I worked at Welton,” I admitted.
They smiled. Eli said, “Nancy, this is why we keep you around!” Danny whooped and shook his fists in the air, and flashing green light filled my eyes.
We met at three the following morning at the defunct phone booth on the other side of the street. We took our cues from heist movies. Everyone brought a stocking for his or her face. Everybody wore black. As always, the florescent light was on inside the beetle leopard’s vivarium. He was pacing back and forth behind the plastic foliage—slowly, as if contemplating something, or trying to lull himself back to sleep. Eli was beside me, writing something on a small notepad, holding a baseball bat under his arm.
He looked up. “Do you have the glass cutter?” he asked.
“Great. Here’s what we’re going to do. Jill, ready?”
“Definitely,” said Jill. She was filling a dog bowl with cat food. She was placing it inside the German shepherd’s cage. A plastic bag sat by her.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Cat toys,” she said, and held it up, and gave it a shake. I heard a dull jangling sound.
“Shh,” said Eli. “Danny, you’ve got the spray paint for the security cameras, right?”
Danny nodded. He was tugging his stocking over his face clumsily, with glassy eyes.
“Danny, are you drunk?”
“No,” Danny mumbled.
“Your stocking’s on backward,” I said.
“Danny, if you’re drunk you need to leave. This is a serious felony. This is, like, several serious felonies. If you fuck it up, we all go to jail.”
“Wait, for how long?” I asked. I hadn’t really thought about what I was getting into.
“I’m not drunk,” said Danny loudly.
“Lower your voice,” hissed Jill.
“I’m not drunk,” Danny repeated, “I mean, I’ve had a couple of beers. Three. Maybe three. But that’s it. I’m not drunk. I’m just moved. I’m verklempt, okay?”
“Okay. Okay, buddy. Get it together.”
“There’s something very meaningful about all of this.” Danny’s head shook like a bobble on his long, thin neck, as if the whole thing was just too much for him. “That beetle leopard has been there a long time. I’ve visited him every night. Almost every night. Whole time I’ve lived here. Four, five years. I feel like I know him.” There was a snag in his throat when he took a strained breath. “Whole goddamn time all I’ve done is play pinball, and drink, and visit the leopard, and make sandwiches. Thousands of goddamn sandwiches. Hundreds of thousands of goddamn fucking twelve dollar sandwiches.”
Eli said, “Danny, come on. Now is not the time.”
Jill said, “You big goon.”
Danny seemed exasperated. “You know what I mean, Nancy, right?”
“I know what you mean,” I replied. Once I’d seen Danny leave our sidewalk brunch table to stand ten full minutes in front of a pet store window, watching a couple of puppies in wood chips rolling around, chewing each other’s ears. He stayed watching those puppies a long time after his cigarette went out, holding the butt with two loose fingers, scratching his neck with the other hand. When he came back to the table I knew what people meant by the expression ‘down in the mouth.’
“Why the long face?” I’d asked.
All he’d said was, “That shit should be illegal.”
“Okay, okay,” Eli was saying now. The street was dark and deserted. The only thing that moved was the beetle leopard himself. “Let’s do this. Let’s do this now.”
Jill held the large cage flush against the window while I began to cut as perfect an outline as I could around its perimeter, about two feet by two and a half. The glass cutter made a horrible sound, part ear-piercing squeal, part growling drone, and everyone looked around up and down the street to make sure no one was watching. The glass was thick, and it seemed like the process would last forever. I pushed and pushed against the surface, then through it to the other side. We all waited a horrible moment, breathless, for a security alarm to go off—but none did.
“That’s weird,” Jill breathed.
The square of glass fell inward and shattered on the beetle leopard’s floor. The beetle leopard leapt behind his false ferns and disappeared. We all waited a long, tense moment, looking around to make sure we hadn’t attracted any attention. Then Danny crouched and stepped through the hole and raised his spray paint to the security camera in the corner.
We opened the cage’s gate. I peered in to look for the beetle leopard. It could have been anywhere, almost. It blended in perfectly with the plastic leaves. Danny gave each camera a good old fuck you with his left hand before spraying it black with his right. Then he got on his hands and knees to find the beetle leopard.
“Danny,” Eli whispered through the hole in the glass. “Come back out. We’ll lure him out into the cage.”
“I’ll get him in,” Danny said. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried about him,” Eli whispered more loudly. “I’m worried about you. Get out of there and we’ll get him into the cage together.”
“I’m already in here,” said Danny, “it’s fine. Not a problem.”
“Danny, come on out,” I said, with some urgency. “That beetle leopard’s no puppy.”
All at once, there was a convulsion of movement behind the plaster cavern, and the beetle leopard sprang out like a trick snake from a gag box of nuts and latched itself onto Danny’s torso. Danny screamed an unnatural scream as he fell to the floor. Jill and I both said, “Oh my god!” Eli yelled and banged on the glass and Jill squeezed my shoulder so hard it went numb and we all watched, totally helpless, as the beetle leopard sank its sharp little teeth into the soft spot just under Danny’s skull. Danny’s expression was absolute terror, then submission, then nothing at all. The beetle leopard shook its head with precision, Danny’s neck in its teeth—once, twice, hard—and Danny’s neck broke, and we gasped and called out, and then everything was silent.
Danny’s head was slumped against his shoulder. The blood looked black in the dark as it spilled onto the vivarium floor. The beetle leopard crouched in the pool of blood, his back to us, and began to lick it up.
Jill collapsed to the pavement, holding herself. Pressed her back against a busted parking meter and began to cry. Eli puked in the gutter. His retching was the only sound I could hear. I felt as if I no longer existed, as if my feet were not touching the ground, as if the sounds that I heard and the cold that I felt and the scene I was watching were all aspects of some kind of cruel figment. I felt all I could do was not be there. I didn’t reach out to hold Jill as she shook. I didn’t help Eli stand when he lifted his head and walked to the middle of the street and stood with his back to us. I just stood there and looked, apart from it all, as I used to look when I was a kid and my sister, a belligerent babysitter, made me watch horror movies when our parents were out, holding open my eyelids as the zombies attacked or the aliens invaded or the poor possessed child’s head spun around and around.
The beetle leopard crept back behind his plaster cavern. We turned away from the gore, from Danny’s form lying in the half-licked-up pool of blood, his head staring up at the painted sky, cocked at an impossible angle, perfectly still. Eli was in the middle of the street with his hands over his head. We were all quiet a long time. Then Eli turned back to us. At full volume, he addressed Jill, who was sobbing. “Do you want to come to Pisquetawnee, or do you want to stay here?”
“Come to Pisquetawnee!” Jill repeated. She lifted her head, agonized. “You’re going through with this?”
“The hole has been cut,” Eli said. “We can’t let the beetle leopard escape.”
Somehow I began to shake off my paralysis. Jill’s hair clung to her mouth as she looked up at us both, one and then the other.
“All we have left is the plan,” I said. I felt enormously stupid. I felt like my tongue was too big for my mouth.
“You guys are crazy. You’re fucking crazy. I don’t want any more to do with this. I’m done. I’m out.”
“Can you just call an ambulance and stay with Danny until they come?” I asked. “While we head north?”
“We can’t do that,” Eli said firmly. “They’ll know who we are.”
“I don’t care if they know who I am,” Jill said with passion.
“You will after they give you a life sentence for manslaughter,” I replied quickly. Perhaps it was awful of me, but they took it in stride. With a last painful look at dead Danny, Jill left.
Luring the beetle leopard away from his cavern and out through the hole in the window and into the cage was a project of mind-numbing suspense. For what seemed like forever I jangled the little felt duck on the string that Jill had bought that afternoon. The sound of the bell inside it began to form itself into words, a curt, tuneless song: “Borrow, borrow, borrow, borrow, borrow.” I nearly peed myself with relief when the beetle leopard finally crept into the cage. His swiping, claws out, at the duck was interrupted when Eli let the door clang shut behind him. Then the beetle leopard was furious. He whipped around, snarled, and drooled, forgetting the duck for the cage door. He nearly snapped off our fingers as we lifted him into the car. My thumb was bleeding, I don’t know how, when we covered the cage with an old quilt, as my sister used to do with her parakeets. But the beetle leopard did not sleep. The yowls and whines from the hatchback were unearthly. So was the low, dreadful moan that wavered in Eli’s throat. We drove through night into morning, passing gas stations and diners, Wendy’s, White Castle, Friendly’s, and on and on. I was deeply unsettled by the unbelievable normalness of it all, the familiar signs that guided us out of the dark.
When Eli’s uncle’s friend met us at the gate, the first licks of sun were beginning to light the long twisted clouds that hung over the trees. He was a slouched little man with a face as brown and crumpled as used butcher paper, but when he saw what we had in the back of the car he looked about fifteen, and delighted.
“Don’t get too excited, Romeo,” Eli said, and I recognized something strained but performative in his voice, a hint of the cowboy, when he went on: “He’s already killed one person tonight.”
Romeo backed off. He got in a golf cart and led us to a spot about half a mile away where, mostly hidden by a glen of tall pines, there was another gate in the chain link fence. He shined his flashlight inside the gate before unlocking the thing and hurrying us in with the cage. We kept the quilt on until the last possible moment. We didn’t want to see the blood on the beetle leopard’s growling, panting mouth.
It was Eli’s idea to tie a length of twine to the door of the cage. I held one end while he and Romeo carried the unstable thing inside the fence. Then they came out through the gate to join me and close it and lock it. Finally I pulled the twine to pull up the cage door.
The beetle leopard didn’t move. He was lying on the cage floor, flicking his tail in a slow, mysterious rhythm.
“Go,” I whispered to him, still holding the twine. “Go run around or something.”
We watched him for a long time through the fence, lying there. It seemed like he was waiting. The sky turned a deep orange, then lavender, then white, then pale blue. Romeo smoked a couple of cigarettes. Eli just stared at the beetle leopard, his hands gripping the chain link fence, pale and dirty and streaked with blood, his lips moving ever so slightly, as if he were speaking to the animal, or maybe he was saying a prayer. It reminded me of nothing so much as Danny’s grunting and muttering when he played Jungle Madness, and for a moment I watched Eli without grief, without remembering that Danny was dead. Then the horrible awareness of what we had done began to unfold itself to me like bad origami coming undone, and I was filled with intense resentment. I couldn’t watch Eli any longer. I couldn’t look at him at all. I never wanted to see him again, or Jill, or Phantom Harry’s, or anything, not so long as I lived. I tried to direct my attention toward the pale vacant sky, to tune out his mumbling, but I couldn’t.
A bird behind us had begun a fugue-like song. It wavered in and out of melody. Maybe sensing an imminent private moment, or maybe just bored, Romeo wandered down the hill toward his golf cart, leaving me holding the twine. “I’ll be at the front entrance,” he told us. “Let me know when you’re heading out.”
In the cage the beetle leopard licked his loins. I was furious. I was impatient. I didn’t know what to say.
But then Eli spoke. “Nancy, you can take the cage back to Jill’s, right? You can take the car?”
Did the beetle leopard’s ears prick up? I was distracted. “You want me to drive?”
“I want you to take my car. Please, take my car.”
“How will you get home?” I asked, rolling the twine between my thumb and finger.
He might have been casting a spell. “I’ll stay here. I can’t go back to the city. I don’t ever want to go back to the city. I’ll find work here, upstate. I can’t go back to the city. I won’t. I can’t be there ever again.” Exhausted, he slumped to the ground, his back against the fence. Inside the cage, the beetle leopard stared at a noise in the trees.
“Okay,” I said. “I can take the car,” and I realized I could, that I would, that I wasn’t too lame or too weak to go back, that I could look forward to going back to the city, with its grid of streets and its jobs and its things. I hadn’t applied for a job in such a long time. Unemployment had left me feral and weird, nocturnal, drunken, and lonely. It was too much! But the city is made of business and commerce, of simple exchanges and circumscribed spaces. I could go back to the city. Go back to the city I would.
Eli took me at my word. He nodded. He kissed me on the forehead. Then he stumbled away from me, over the dew-soaked grass, down the hill, toward Romeo and some future I’d never know.
So it was that I was the only one watching when the beetle leopard finally left. It began with a yawn. He opened his mouth wide, showing all his teeth and his long pink tongue. Then he got to his feet, sniffed the cat food, turned away. Stepped out onto the soil. The moment he was outside of the cage, I could tell he sensed something threatening in the air. He pushed back his head, pressed his ears toward his skull, and eyed the sky. Then he hunched down, making himself as long and low as he could, and disappeared silently into the trees. I waited a few minutes before letting go of the twine and letting the door of the cage crash down on nothing. Straining, I tried to hear whatever he’d heard, to pick up on whatever sign he’d responded to. But all I could hear were the first birds of the day, the rustling of some small animal in the underbrush, a lost cricket whining somewhere nearby, the chain link fence shivering in the wind, and beyond that, not very far away, on the other side of the trees, car after car rushing by on the endless, thrumming highway.
Rachel Lyon received her MFA in Creative Writing at Indiana University and her BA at Princeton. She has been a teacher, a copywriter, a radio producer, the fiction editor at Indiana Review, and an editor at Sheep Meadow Press. In 2012, she was a fellow at Ledig House International Writers Colony, and in 2014 she will be a resident at The Anderson Center at Tower View. Her publications include the Portland Review, The Baltimore Review, Toad, Hobart, SmokeLong, Arts & Letters, and Works & Days. She lives in Brooklyn, her hometown.
Thursday Night in College Town
Franklin Avenue is alive
with creeping night crawlers
trolling the jaundice-washed asphalt.
Everyone wants to fuck or fight
everyone else, trying to out-do the next person
in either case. The heirs of newfound freedom
take boisterous voices and blend them
with dark shades
of parentless weekends
and loans upon loans
spent on cheap beer and plastic cups.
Ping pong balls swirl
in a whirligig night, the sky orange,
the baseball hats askew,
the leggings gripping hard, separating sex-
starved minds and bodies
from each other by thin fabric
as synthetic as the moment itself.
So vulnerable and energetic, and they do everything
to perpetuate this audible madness,
while I’m upstairs staring at a belly
at rest and thinking of all that is
to come. Trying to reconcile that those outside
were all closed up in a small space
once, and that their fathers were also once
within themselves, hoping that they were
bringing their children into a world
that is different from Franklin Avenue
and that the yelling will stop
once they can speak.
Damien Cowger’s work has appeared in various journals including The Southeast Review and The Rumpus. He is a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets nominee, and lives in Harrisburg, PA with his daughter, Amalie, and his wife, fiction writer Ashley Cowger. Damien is the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review. For more info, please visit damiencowger.com.
It’s me and Franco Franco and we’re laugh rattling in the back of chemistry class like a pair of rotten tomatoes, like two tennis shoes tied together, like telephone cord curled in on itself, like the horizontal red white and green the other boys see when we punch their socks out.
It’s me and Franco Franco and we’re crammed in his sick-ass yellow mustang, our eyes watering, our cocks growing like hot commas against our jeans as we look at all the boom-boom babies at the burger joint, all the Mary Maries, and the Angelinas, and the Monicas with their pasta nest hair and their Our Father asses, and their spaghetti strap tops.
And it’s me and Franco Franco on his Ma’s white-white couch and he’s such a cugine the way he rolls up his track pants, the way he says a Hail Mary faster than anyone, the way he’s always got another Fuck Your Mother inside him, the way he’s knee deep in the tomato pie in the middle of the night, the way he combs his hair with a knife.
It’s me and Franco Franco and we’re army crawling past midnight under his mother’s lace table cloth, breaking her crystal water glasses with our pelvic movements, we’re just trying to get out, get into something, get on top of something and we’re shaking the table the one with all the other Francos on it, their portraits: wide-eyed Nona Franco and loosey goosey Jimmy Franco, and wing tipped Geno Franco, and baby Francesca Franco who grew up a straight-up beauty bomb. The Franco chins, all moving, all wagging, all watching—they’re gonna rat on us, rat us out, we are rats Franco Franco and I—we moved so slow, I swear, I swear, we saw the holy ghost.