Of course it’s only a coincidence that Armistice Day, the conclusion of World War I, falls (or used to) in November, that month which begins with All Hallows Eve and proceeds briskly to the Day of the Dead. It just happened that way.
Armistice Day, has evolved into Veteran’s Day, still in November and it’s possibly not a coincidence at all that the Vietnam Memorial, that other reminder of war and its heroes, was dedicated in November of 1982. Dedicated, in fact, on November 13, the date on which I am posting these comments. In another one of those, possibly not coincidental instances, November 13 is also World Kindness Day. World kindness, yes, we could use some of that.
It wasn’t an easy memorial to get finished, that memorial to a war which was not only unpopular, but also extremely unsuccessful. Many have had even worse things to say about it. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial for a good description of the trials and tribulations it took to get this important memorial finally approved.
From 1964, when it first began to 1974, when it finally ended, I was among the many who vigorously protested that war. We marched, we wrote to our congressmen, we met in loud and hopeless gatherings. Meanwhile, my slightly younger brother, who had made a career in the Navy his life goal, went to Vietnam, as a volunteer, not just once, but three times.
To say that we had some differences of opinion would be an understatement. For me, it was this incredibly stupid thing the government was doing. It was the draft, hanging over so many young men I knew. It was a horror happening on television every night and a national shame that kept getting worse and worse. For my brother it was an occasion for patriotism, bravery and accomplishment.
We never became quite estranged. There were too many other things that held our relationship together—and besides, when it was all happening, we were geographically located great distances apart. While he was training up and then volunteering for war, I was married and raising two small children in upstate New York. It was after the war that we had to talk about it.
And talk about it we did, even if as little and as tactfully as possible. We were both unwilling to break into outright antagonism. My brother never told me he thought I was a pinko collaborator and I never told him I thought he was a tool of the military-industrial complex—but the subtext was there. He had only a little to say about his experience working at the military hospital in DaNang. “We built it up during the day and the Viet Cong took it down at night” is one thing I remember him saying.
Somewhere in the late eighties or early nineties, I had occasion to visit the Vietnam Memorial and saw firsthand those lines of names that are so emotionally compelling. My brother’s name is not there. He survived his three dares with Vietnam and came back to the USA for more promotion, got married, then after his thirty years, retired to live out the rest of his life in what had been our home town.
Eventually we came to a kind of détente about Vietnam. I still thought it was stupid, but I had respect for the men who served. He still thought it was an important military campaign—and was sure to tell me so—but could see that it had failed. We didn’t venture into a discussion of why that happened.
Recently I have had the rather sad task of sorting out some photographs left after my mother’s death. Coming across some faded and mysterious snaps of military men and an Asian environment, I suddenly realized I had come across my brother’s Vietnam pictures. Nothing unusual, just brief glimpses of people and places that must have meant a great deal to him. As in the conversations we once had, his pictures have a different resonance for me—but I do see them as a kind of memorial.
Once I asked my brother if he had ever been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He shook his head and said, “Nah. I don’t have to do that.” I would have liked to know more about why he thought so, but I didn’t push it. Now I kind of wish I had.
Susan Shafarzek lives in Charlottesville, Va. Besides editing essays for Streetlight, she is a poet and photographer, blogging occasionally at Whaddyameanrosebuds.com.
Sometimes trying to write is like playing Scrabble
(old school—not virtual)
and reaching into the bag for more letters only to have your fingers come up empty-handed. In fact, I’ve been racking my brain for blog topics for so long even my Facebook page has taken to castigating me.
I’m pretty sure my disappointing search for ideas may have crossed over into Writer’s Block territory. For those who have never visited this particular geographical area, think ghost town in the middle of a super fund site—with a large population of large rodents.
Recognizing the landmarks of Writer’s Block is like discovering your passport is missing while standing in line to board the plane. First you enter an unnatural Zen state, then alarm kicks in, and then a crushing load of very serious alarm settles over you.
It’s not pretty.
Unlike prolific authors Joyce Carol Oates, Adrian McKinty, Stephen King (et al ad nauseum) who write book after book seemingly without naps or bathroom breaks, my own reserve of ideas is of the nonrenewable variety. In fact, I’m fairly sure that injudicious tweeting can drain the supply.
When I get seriously stuck I try and remember the tricks and prompts I’ve collected over the years. For my money the best how-to on the subject of writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. (The title comes from a time when her brother had to write a school report about a range of winged creatures. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the project he asked his father how he could possibly get it done. ‘Bird by bird’ was the wise response.)
Some of Lamott’s advice to just getting-it-done include:
–Accepting the fact that a “shitty first draft” is part of the process. (As a perfectionist who could spin my wheels on the same sentence indefinitely, this was pretty liberating.) Plowing forward is the only way to actually reach the finish line. You can’t edit nothing.
–Her tip to get the truth on paper first and worry about cleaning it up for libel down the road also provides a route around an obstacle of anxiety.
–The volume on radio “KFCKD” (the Trumpian station nobody else can hear that trash talks in one ear and blows smoke up your ass in the other) is adjustable.
–Writing 300 words a day on anything is really important to keep the juices flowing. (Full disclosure: I have a hard time with this one. I don’t do well with being told what to do. Even if I’m the one doing the telling.)
Anyway, I love Anne Lamott so much that when my first novel was being brought out by a small press and I was tasked with finding my own endorsements, I reached out to one of her reps. He wrote back so quickly to say that she was taking a “blurbatorium” it was like he’d been waiting for years inside my computer just to turn me down.
Writing is rough business.
Taking classes can also get you off Writer’s Block.
Not long after we moved to Charlottesville, back when I was experiencing the social state my offspring kindly refer to as When-Mom-Had-The-No-Friends, I signed up for a workshop on crafting non-fiction. I was in search of instruction. And buddies. So I was thrilled when I thought I found both in the teacher. We were roughly the same age. We seemed to have the same sensibilities. She laughed at my jokes. I invited her out for lunch.
She blew me off. (That was seventeen years ago. Like most writers I have an uncanny ability to nurse and store hurts for easy access.) But I digress and I’m economizing.
Despite my mortification I stayed in that creative non-fiction class. The (mean) teacher emphasized the importance of utilizing all senses not only for texture but also narrative. She brought in photographs of paintings and asked us to free-write memories they triggered. I held the snapshot of the gloomy greasy spoon in Edward Hopper’s Nightcrawlersand recalled going with a group of friends for 4 a.m. eggs at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring. Graduation was around the corner and we were giddy with the future. But studying Hopper’s artwork I suddenly remembered that off in my peripheral vision of that night of laughter and possibility, were a couple old men slumped at the counter, draped in a corona of futility.
Wouldn’t that have made a good framework for a story—ghosts of the future seated at the counter?
In any event, what I’ve learned is that there are a lot of different avenues away from the blighted block. Even writing about it.
ps There are almost 900 words in this piece. Which means I can take the next couple of days off.
Erika Raskin, the fiction editor of Streetlight, is the author of Close (Harvard Square Editions) and Best Intentions (St. Martin’s Press).
I wrote an entirely new Chapter 1 for the new edition of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt 2006; rev. 2016). The idea to open the biography at a low point in the her life, instead of during childhood was suggested by Garrison Keillor in a review of the first edition appearing in the New York Times ‘Sunday Book’ section: ‘If you were going to draw a movie from this book, you’d start on York Avenue in Manhattan on a cold winter night in the late 1950’s. Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window and then a young woman, weeping, picking them up out of the snow. She is an airline ticket clerk and she has been working at her typewriter late at night ever since she came to the city over her parents’ objections in 1949. She is on her own.’
I thought about recasting the action that way for months, and I liked the idea. Reordering the timeline in the book, starting with a scene built around an image of ‘Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window…’— would add more torque to the beginning by giving us Harper Lee, hopeless author in lonely, cold New York. Now, reading on, we would want to know the answer to the question, ‘How’d that happen to her?’ Suspense. And the narrative can proceed from there. In fact, Keillor sketched out how the rest would follow, by plot points, in movie treatment style.
It was excellent advice. Put the subject in a deep hole. Make reader wonder, ‘What happens next?’ Kurt Vonnegut explains that structure in his most famous chalk talk, ‘The Shape of Stories’.
In the meantime, I tried out Keillor’s advice on a completely different book. I began writing a life of of Kurt Vonnegut. And one Saturday morning, the beginning came to me. I’d start with Vonnegut in the Slough of Despair, deep in a hole. It would be a moment in his life of ‘Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window…’ I knew when it was, too. Also, I liked the irony of starting with Vonnegut in a hole like one of his characters.
Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt 2006; rev. 2016), and And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life (Holt 2012). He and his wife Guadalupe live in Charlottesville, Virginia. His website is CharlesJShields.net.
My father seemed well enough when I saw him, though he did remind me of someone who’d been woken up too quickly from a deep sleep and was trying really hard not to bump into any walls. I’m not sure how reliable my opinion was though, since I was only there for the weekend and was coming down with the flu or something by the time I got to the house. I felt feverish and sort of submerged most of the time and only felt better when I headed back to the city Sunday night.
Sometimes when I come home to New Jersey, I duck out to The Pub, which sits across from the local rec center. I look for old friends or familiar faces, some weekend visitor like me, maybe somebody I went to high school with ten years ago. But this time, because I wasn’t feeling great, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I’d be a captive audience and I could see this pleased my dad—though, obviously, he wasn’t exactly happy I was sick.
When my brother and I were kids all our plans revolved around him one way or another. My father was a great one for keeping us active—sports, hikes, random outings. (Our mother used to refer to him as The Cruise Director, not always kindly.) Even when we were surly teenagers he liked hanging around with us, even when we were silent or hostile and treated him like the designated chauffeur.
Soon after I got to the house on Friday night he had me on the sofa in front of the TV with burgers from Five Guys and all the junk food I loved when I was like 12, cherry pop tarts, sour patch kids, and triple-stuffed Oreos. All of which I was too queasy-sick to even contemplate.
It wasn’t long before he settled next to me and picked up the remote. He must have recorded everything off Turner Classic Movies for the last month. The DVR was flashing in a catastrophic way, showing that it was 98% full. I can’t imagine the tough decisions ahead when he’ll be forced to whittle down the queue. It will be a real Sophie’s Choice for him—which as far as I could tell was not one of the titles on that very long list. My dad’s always been into old movies. I figure this hobby is giving him more comfort and distraction than usual, now that my mother has announced her engagement to a guy I refer to as Dr. Fabuloso, a chiropractor with a contrived accent and the ego of a brain surgeon.
My father made a big show about how he wanted me to choose the movie we were going to watch that night, but since all the options he scrolled through were black and white and about 80 years old, it felt like asking me to decide which method of slow torture I would prefer. It was obvious which one he wanted me to pick because he kept lobbying for it as if he was getting a percentage of the gross.
So I let him have his way and that’s how we ended up watching a movie about a butcher from the Bronx who can’t get laid because he looks like a pit bull. He goes to a dance and meets an ugly duckling girl who is having similar troubles—though the actress playing her was not particularly unattractive. It’s only that she was nobody’s idea of a movie star. (They’ll probably cast Emma Stone with a fake nose if there’s a remake.) When this pair hits it off, you know just where it’s all headed, except there are all these complications first, like from the butcher’s mother, an ancient and bitter old-world type, a portrayal that would never make it past the Italian Anti-Defamation League if the movie were to be released today. And also from the guy’s best friend who probably wanted the butcher all for himself, but couldn’t come out and say so because it was the fifties and he was surrounded by morons.
There were other tribulations too, but I was fading in and out by then, since I was getting sicker, and for some reason the movie, which was less than 90 minutes long, felt like it took two years to get through. Of course my father was doing his running commentary throughout, about the actors, the director, the screenwriter. This was all more than I needed to know. He told me again about a roommate he had at NYU who is now directing for Criminal Minds or SVU or something like that. My father has always implied that if he hadn’t dropped out of film school to go the office worker route we’d all be living in Malibu and he’d be directing police procedurals, too. Luckily when he says this it’s in a cheery and amused tone and not like he wished it had really happened.
My brother Marcus knew I’d be visiting this weekend, so he asked me to bring up the house question again. He’s two years older so he’s always been comfortable giving directives, but now that he’s a California lawyer, he’s even more of a dick about it. I did raise the issue though, wedged in between movie showings and my own groggy sickness. I reminded my dad that since Marcus and I are long gone, it might be a positive thing to sell the house, especially now that it’s finally over and settled between him and our mother.
“You should downsize and find yourself a condo,” is what I told him.
My father fixed me with a stony glare, like he was an old pioneer with a shotgun on his shoulder.
“This is my home, Joshua,” he replied.
I know he’s serious when he calls me Joshua and not his usual Joshy, the embarrassing nickname he’s used my entire life. At any rate, he refused to discuss it further and changed the subject immediately.
“Why is it,” he said, “that whenever I speak to your brother on the phone he always sounds jittery and out of breath; like someone has a knife to his throat?”
“One can only hope,” I replied.
I did not tell him that when Marcus flies in for my mother’s marriage next month he’s not planning to swing by New Jersey because he has to get back to the coast right away for an important trial. My dad’s not overly impressed by my brother’s legal career. His recent divorce experience hasn’t improved his opinion of lawyers. He’s not thrilled by my fundraising job either. He finds it distasteful, the notion that I have my hat out to rich people for a living. That’s not a guess. He actually said that to me once, though earnestly and wide-eyed, as if it was constructive criticism.
After this last visit I think he’d have preferred it if Marcus and I had remained slackers (each of us dropped out of college for a while, taking some extra time to graduate and find our ways) and were sitting on the sofa next to him full time, improving our film knowledge. I imagine this is probably because of my mother leaving and how the loneliness and aftershock have knocked him sideways.
We finished watching the movie and then I went to bed. I noticed that he still hadn’t made any changes upstairs. In fact, the whole house feels shrink-wrapped or encased under a snow globe. This is something that has been creeping out my brother and me for a while. I’m surprised that after Ruckus was put down last fall (he was 18, ancient for a black lab) Dad didn’t have him stuffed and mounted, so he’d be waiting by the door for eternity. His dog dishes, however, are still right there next to the refrigerator. Jesus!
I slept late the next day and when I got up, still a bit shaky and unwell; my father fixed me his famous eggs Benedict, which I struggled through by trying to remember hungrier times. I could tell he was antsy to get us back to the living room and in front of the TV again. This time we were going to watch a Hitchcock film I’d never heard of. My father blamed my ignorance on Twitter and the Kardashians, his usual villains of the pop culture world.
The movie starred Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant and was about how Bergman becomes a spy for the government to take down a bunch of Nazis in Brazil after World War II. At the beginning of the movie she’s kind of a drunk who sleeps around because her dead father had been a Nazi and she hated him for it and so she lost her shit for a while. Cary, who is with the FBI or CIA or whatever, falls for her despite these lapses and then she’s asked to go undercover. Later, she has to actually marry the most pivotal Nazi as part of the trap, but Cary hadn’t realized this was part of the plan, so he fumes at his bosses and at Ingrid too. There’s a lot of back and forth, but you know how this one’s going to turn out, too. There’s another Old World terrible mother in this film as well, except this time, naturally, she’s German.
I’m sure the reason my father chose this film was because he wanted to think about my mother in a socially acceptable way, considering how he was always saying how much she looked like Ingrid Bergman. I can see it now, I think—a certain gleaming Nordic health. My mother was an actress too, briefly. Her good looks must have helped her land those television commercials she did, before she quit the “acting biz” and got her real estate license, which was all prior to her and my dad having Marcus and me.
At the point where Ingrid is about to be rescued from the Nazis and becomes saintly again, my father nonchalantly paused the movie and asked if I’d seen her recently—my mother, he meant. I said no as convincingly as I could because otherwise it would have led to more awkward questioning, and I wasn’t going to tell him about her new Soho loft, which she shares with that fake-ass doctor—a place so streamlined and free of clutter it looks like an airplane hangar! It’s the exact opposite of how he lives in NJ, in our old tumbledown house, surrounded by our former lives, as if we shed them like wet towels and left them lying there, piled up and forgotten.
Then before putting the movie back on, my dad started in about how they first met. I’ve heard this story before but it seemed like he needed to tell it again, like it was a seizure coming on. And I wasn’t against hearing it. After my last few Tinder dates, I could use some tales of romantic optimism. So he started in—telling me how they found each other at the very end of an extremely long line in Central Park one summer waiting for free Shakespeare in the Park tickets. My dad was still in film school then; my mother auditioning for those commercials. One of the theater geeks herding the crowd explained that the folks at the end of the queue were standing right next to a big slab of granite considered to be well past the cut off point for anyone likely to score tickets for the performance. The staff called it The Rock of Lost Hope. This term cracked my mother and father up. Laughing, they turned to each other, introduced themselves, and struck up a conversation. They waited in that line for hours, getting to know each other, despite their unlikely chances of getting into the show—and then, incredibly, they were rewarded with the last two tickets available. That’s how my father remembers it at least. They sat next to each other that night watching a production of Othello.
“But mostly we watched each other,” my father said. “When I looked at your mother, it was like electricity was running through me, like it could have been coming out my fingertips or the soles of my feet.”
When he said that, he looked over at the frozen image of Ingrid Bergman on the television screen. I wondered what my mother remembers of that night or what she’d admit to now. I love the woman but my dad is the sentimental one in the family. I’m not sure who she was back then, but these days, settled in Manhattan, she is briskly competent and glacially composed as she sells glass-walled penthouses to 20-year-old music producers. My father will still talk her up like a press agent, even after everything. He says there aren’t many people on the planet as beautiful or as accomplished as my mother. He says this a little too often, as if it’s his very own catch-phrase.
My mom has let it slip that she was always a little bored with my father, impatient with his corny charm and how quickly he took to the poky suburbs, once they moved us out there after I was born. He’d given up his film aspirations by then and was managing an employment agency for visiting nurses. This might not seem like the most glamorous job, but now she’s with someone who feels up broken strangers for a living. I don’t always understand my mother, but she doesn’t spend much time explaining herself either—which is something I’ve come to admire.
I wasn’t going to reference her specifically once my father finished his story, but I thought I might slam Dr. Fabuloso some, as a sort of gesture or offering. I could have told my father about the guy’s ridiculous bow ties or those flashy rings he wears on practically every finger (does he take them off before he rubs people down?) and how he’s always stroking that little Hitler mustache of his whenever I see him. But then I was afraid any mention of the guy would trigger ugly images of him cavorting with my mom, especially now that it’s come out that this relationship has been going on for years, ever since my mother fell down some stairs at a real estate conference and had the need for chiropractic consultation!
We got back to the movie eventually and watched Cary and Ingrid conquer the world. After it was over, my father was gearing up for lunch, his grilled cheese sandwiches this time. I sat in the kitchen at the nook and watched him going about the happy business of feeding me. I noticed his forehead is a little more creased now and his hair is seriously thinning. But the morning jogs still keep his paunchiness in check, though like shoreline erosion, you get the sense that it’s just a matter of time. He got the griddle ready, got out the bread, the cheese and the butter, like he’s done a thousand times for us. It must be muscle memory at this point.
As I sat there, I suddenly remembered something from years ago. We were driving to one of my brother’s baseball games on a Saturday afternoon. Marcus and I were in the back seat. I think it was the year my brother moved up from Little League to Babe Ruth because I remember we were going to the 60/90 field in back of Trader Joe’s. Dad was driving and my mother was in the passenger seat. By the time we got to the field, the parking lot was crazy full. My father had to double-park and drop Marcus off to join his team. We’d have to go find a space somewhere else and walk back. There was some confusion when they got out of the car and went to the trunk, about whether Marcus had packed the right bat or something. Cars were stacking up behind us now and were honking. My mother was pissed off, freaking out. They got into it as soon as my dad got back in the car. Mostly he was just trying to calm her down.
“Is this really such a big deal, Lila?” he said. “A few honked horns? A lost parking space? Look, sweetie, it’s a perfect summer day. We’re on our way to watch our boy play some ball. These are the good old days, baby!”
He was in that jokey, game-show host mode of his. He half turned around to wink at me in the back seat as he spoke. My mother was still seething. I remember thinking it was a stupid argument, like most of them were, and also that what he’d said to her was ridiculous too. I mean, it was just an ordinary day, what was so fucking great about it? I only wanted to get to my brother’s game, so they would shut up and stop fighting, as they never did this in front of the baseball crowd.
As he was putting those sandwiches together with a dopey, satisfied grin on his face, I wondered if the smile was because he was remembering some day from the past too, maybe even the same one I was. He couldn’t have known then how it was going to turn out for him, how his marriage would evaporate like rainwater off a sidewalk. My mother leaving the way she did was a great shock to him, one he might never get over. I realized he was right about the ‘good old days’ though and how ordinary happiness can’t last forever.
I wanted to ask him about this, how he saw his life now and how he saw his future, too—though I was a little worried about the answers. I even wanted to ask him about betrayal and how it felt to still be in love with my mother. But it didn’t happen. He was dishing up those sandwiches and wiping down the counters, and before long the moment got away from us. We must have talked about something else then, maybe my life in the city or the world at large, but that’s the part I honestly can’t remember.
Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His stories have appeared in Alligator Juniper, Superstition Review, Third Wednesday, Summerset Review, Word Riot, and elsewhere. Bill’s short play, Assistance, was performed at Circle Rep in New York City. His work can be found in Mudville Diaries, an anthology of baseball writing published by Avon Books and also in the upcoming anthology Hashtag: Queer. Bill was a prize-winning finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start Contest and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
The New World Order Blues is inspired by the late conspiracy researcher and radio personality Mae Brussell, updated for today’s concerns and presented in one of the greatest music styles ever created by Americans—Black Americans: The Blues.
Listening to Mae’s weekly radio show, World Watchers was like getting a re-education in history of the 20th Century. She uncovered many well-kept secrets we were not supposed to know. The Military Intelligence Industrial Complex was her turf and each week, from a radio station in Carmel, California, she took the lid off the conspiracy machine so we could peek inside and see how it worked.
Besides Mae, there was another influence and the predecessor for the NWO Blues, an artistic one: the Blues Folks series, ink drawings on paper employing a very loose, characterization style. I found a bunch of old blues performers’ photos and made liberal interpretations of them. I love wild and free drawing styles. As the years go by I make it a goal to employ more of this caricature expressionism in my work.
I used an old photo of blues-man Charlie Jordan as a model for this drawing. The characterization draws on many art styles from Pablo Picasso to Robert Crumb.
These pieces show a more somber tone. A lone fiddle plays a rendition of his heartfelt blues. The heavy black areas help bring this mood across.
Blues singer John Lee Hooker has a reflective moment and again the dark tones help anchor his mood.
For Son House, I use the dark tones, but the style is less realistic, making it more whimsical.
Here a finer line gives a more refined, studious look for this horn player.
Here I combined the fine line and deep blacks to give a strong impression of the banjo player’s prowess.
A double line technique: one fine, the other medium in thickness adds to the overall texture of the graphic. The eye registers two lines which makes it more stimulating for the viewer.
Here the fine line also works for loose characterizations.
For me, art is about feeling and what each person feels for a particular image will be different depending on their personal experience.
Allen Forrest is a writer and graphic artist for covers and illustrations in literary publications, among them The McGuffin, Cincinnati Review, Straylight, Folio, Ragazine, Perversion Magazine, Jokes Review, Under The Gum Tree, Paper Nautilis. His book covers include Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, A Very Angry Baby Anthology and Hamburgers and Berliners by Matt Potter, the 2015 winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine. His Bel Red landscape paintings are part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection in Bellevue, WA. Forrest lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Featured image above: Chicago Blues Band, 9×12,” 2015
pecking its tail clean
on a shady tenement fire escape
pause to feel, in its
twisting instinct, the fact of life
not an afterlife of mine, but of
its spawning species after my demise,
in each generation
curled and tucked toward its tail,
each making a
soft, gray, feathery circle
surrounding—as if protecting—
in my lost paradise.
The windblown side
of a tree trunk stands
drenched, its opposing side
dry, the sky—
also divided so
splitting a meadow
while a path
and floating leaves:
into a singular
Mark Belair’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Poetry East. His latest collection is Watching Ourselves (Unsolicited Press, 2017). Previous collections include Breathing Room; Night Watch; While We’re Waiting; and Walk With Me. Please visit www.markbelair.com.
Featured image: Kabutar by Akhilesh Mathur. CC license.
Follow Wayne Gipson down through the gate behind the trading post, past the concrete pad of the old amphitheater where Reba McIntire once appeared, and just behind the rusted ruins of the roller coaster and you’ll see one of the most legendary houses in America – Quanah Parker’s Star House. Schoolchildren of the southern Great Plains grow up learning the legend of Parker, son of an Anglo settler captured in a Comanche raid and the chief who took her for a wife. Quanah became a Comanche leader himself, fighting Texas Rangers and US Cavalrymen in the Red River War and, with the disappearance of the buffalo, finally leading the tribe into reservation life near Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
We parked our vehicles in the long grass by a log home built in the 1870s. A two-wheeled carriage sat on the low-slung porch. Wayne’s sister was running a riding mower around a large circle of such prairie buildings — a newspaper office, an Indian Baptist Church, a school — all brought here as architectural attractions, along with the Star House, for Eagle Park, an amusement park that closed down in 1985. The mower seemed to be fighting a losing battle with nature for control of the grounds.
We had come to see Parker’s house, which he built around 1890 as he established himself as a public figure and wealthy cattleman in the Oklahoma grasslands. Here the feared warrior became a quirky gadabout, entertaining the likes of the rancher Charles Goodnight, Geronimo, and even Teddy Roosevelt. Quanah kept tepees on the front lawn and adapted the 14-room house for his large family, which included five wives.
Wayne pointed out the original dining room table, the iron cook stove in the kitchen, the watermark line from the floods of 2015 that ran three feet up the first floor walls. The August sun slanted across the wooden floors and the quilted bed in Quanah’s room. A horse munched on grass showing through holes at the edge of the wrap-around porch.
Wayne was a good guide to Parker’s history, but as we moved back to the iron rails of the abandoned coaster he seemed to perk up as his topic turned to Eagle Park. He pointed to overgrown sites where memories lurked. The stables where people came for horseback riding before insurance concerns brought it to an end. The stage where a young Vince Gill drew crowds from Lawton and beyond. The campgrounds. And the coaster itself where his father was injured in the mid-80s signaling the end of the park.
Why had we come to Cache, Oklahoma? To touch a little bit of history. To see how legends become domesticated and enchanted places sink back into the ground. And yet to feel that something remains. In warping wood. In fraying fabric. In the ruts of a dusty road. In the long look back of the mind’s eye.
We went, we writers, we three, to know the texture of the passing world. Driving back out the gate towards the Wichita Mountains, we parted ways with Wayne. But the world beyond Eagle Park was somehow more real than it had been before
Alex Joyner lives and works on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. With 29 years of experience as a pastor, teacher, and writer living in locales as diverse as Dallas, Texas and York, England, he brings a varied perspective to his work. Formerly a radio disc jockey and news director, Joyner has also spent time coaching basketball in the inner city, leading work teams in Mexico, helping college students discover their vocation, teaching theology and history at Southern Methodist University, and serving congregations in the United Methodist Church. For fun he kayaks the bayside and seaside waters of the Eastern Shore, a place he calls “the edge of the world and the verge of heaven.” He edits the Heartlands blog at alexjoyner.com, a site devoted to exploring rural life and ministry through literature, essays, poetry, and interviews.
In addition to being the second Monday in October—a month with, yikes, five Mondays in 2017—October 9 this year (and every so often) commemorates Columbus Day. Are you planning to celebrate? Or use the time off to go shopping?
Forget the bank, the library, the Post Office and the DMV. But, if you have the day off, have a good time anyway. The airlines will be flying. The stores will be open.
October 9 wasn’t (and isn’t) always a holiday, of course. Columbus Day originally was assigned to October 12, the generally agreed-upon birthdate of Christopher Columbus and the beginning of the European incursion into what was then called The New World in, probably, 1492.
Official recognition began in 1937, although the holiday itself had been celebrated in various parts of the United States since at least the eighteenth century. It was in 1970—a time when so many holidays became occasions for that even more important American life, the long weekend—that Columbus day was fixed, as Wikipedia puts it, to the second Monday in October. Which, coincidentally, is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. Hmm, seems like everybody likes a long weekend.
But what is the full significance of these moveable feasts? Is it easier to remember second Monday in October than October 12? Well, maybe, I don’t know if it’s been tested.
What I was thinking about was the fate of all those other days that fall—that are indeed fixed—at October 9. What happens to them when they’re elbowed out by this national need for a tidier long weekend? What happens when they’re not Columbus’s birthday, but—for example—yours?
I write this as one who has such a relationship with Labor Day, another one of those long weekends. Every so often I find myself celebrating my birthday on Labor Day, which I have to admit is not nearly so de trop as it would be to have been born, say, on December 25 or January 1. Those birthdays are always a problem—or a blessing, depending of the attitude of the celebrant—but having a birthday on Labor Day is merely an occasion for somebody to make a mild little joke.
In my case, my own mother. It was a favorite little sally of hers to assure me that, yes, I had indeed been born on Labor Day and wasn’t that nice? Of course I looked it up and as it happens the exact day of my birth was not the day that official Labor Day happened that year. Which did not in any way mitigate her satisfaction in the pun. Alas.
Having been born on October 9 probably doesn’t represent quite that same risk of low humor, unless your family happens to have a relationship to Columbus upon which one can only speculate. In that case, please accept my sympathy and/or congratulations. It’s your year!
Oh, and by the way, October 9, every single year, is Leif Erikson Day—proclaimed by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925—even if nobody seems to care any more. It is is also, among other celebrations, National Chess Day and National Moldy Cheese day (yay).
Also, of course, the second Monday in October, no getting around it, is Native American Day, not yet a national holiday, but official in California and South Dakota. It is, however, celebrated widely all over this country. Let’s hope it catches on, though it probably won’t be made official this year. Felicitations anyway—to everybody. Have some moldy cheese. It’s good all year round.
I’m seven years old, and streams of people lean on the walls of the viewing room, standing in line for their turn to see my father in his coffin. I’m so close that the slippery gloss of the lacquered wood slides against my scratchy dress. The smell of lilies mixes with Mr. Clean, making the flowers seem artificial even though they’re not. The velvet lining, the shiny veneer, the bouquets, and his fancy clothes—a black suit I can’t remember ever seeing him wear—makes me wonder if the man inside is really my father.
He should have chosen a more rustic resting place. He was a man’s man, who enjoyed answering the door in his boxer shorts to shock our prim and proper next-door neighbor, Mrs. Vann. He could have worn blue jeans and a work cap, sweaty and greasy from crawling under the bellies of cars.
In the coffin, his sleeves are crossed on his chest, his missing right hand covered with more flowers. He is in costume. So am I, my fine hair slicked back, my too-tight patent leather Mary Janes pinching my toes. Are all these people waiting for me to cry on cue?
My gregarious, redheaded paternal grandmother, who was exposed to all forms of bodily unpleasantness as a nurse’s aide, pats my father’s face then says to me, “You do it.”
When I bristle and pull away, she grabs my hand and plunks it on his cheek. Even though the coroner performed his magic with make-up and chemicals to make my father look alive, one touch confirms he isn’t.
He feels like cold chicken skin.
My mother, right beside me, seems small and silent enough to disappear with my father. Her clavicle pokes out like a wishbone. If I could pull the winning half of that bone, I would wish for a cuddle in bed and the extra pillow she always fluffs under my head when I’m sick.
I withdraw my hands from the coffin as if from a lion’s mouth, then my grandmother makes my siblings, mother, and me stand together. Mourners greet us with hugs, lowered heads, and sometimes tears. I want to crouch in a corner and immerse myself in Charlotte’s Web, retreating into a story I can understand.
Eyes are on me, I’m convinced, rubberneckers at an accident. The urge to disappear, to hide from stares, absorbs me totally.
Crying would be a relief, but I can’t. All my circuits are down. I stare at my shiny shoes, at the red cushions, at a spider web in a far-off corner glistening with menace. Anything to avoid thinking about why I am there. My grandmother’s insistence that I touch my father seems ghoulish, macabre, even cruel.
Now, though, I’m grateful. If I didn’t have that visceral memory of his permanently frigid skin against the burning pulse of my thumb, his death might have become an abstraction for me. I might not have believed he was gone.
In the weeks and months that follow, my teacher, Sunday school leader, pastor, Brownies den mother, neighbors, and well-meaning relatives keep asking me if I cried. Even kids at school. I’d always been proud of being a good student, compliant and cooperative, but I keep failing to give the right answer.
I cry easily now, making up for lost time. Dinner has to come before the movie or I’ll be cutting my steak with a face covered with mascara and mucus. I cry at weddings, of course, funerals and baby showers, though I draw the line at birthday parties. I can’t finish a book in a cafe or I’ll end up blubbering in front of the barista. If someone dies in the story, you’ll hear my sobs all the way on the other side of the Atlantic.
But back then, my eyes remain dry. I worry that I’m becoming a callous kid. Thick skinned. I wish someone told me that mourning is a skill, something I could learn over time.
My first day back to church after the funeral, my Sunday school teacher asks, “How do you feel?”
“I feel bad,” I say. “I feel like I am bad” is what I mean. Bad and stubborn for not reacting the way I should.
When I finally return to school, months later, Mrs. Taylor, my second-grade teacher, turns me into an exotic specimen under a microscope. For show and tell we sit crisscross applesauce in a circle on the braided rug next to her desk. She allows everyone else to talk about their Christmas vacations. Laura got a pogo stick. Michael got a BB gun. Kim’s cat had kittens, black and white with little mitten paws. Kim holds up a picture. “We went door to door to give them away,” she says.
“Aw,” we coo collectively.
“Roy, it’s your turn,” Mrs. Taylor says. “You got a new baby sister for Christmas, right?” We all know his mother lives down the street from her.
“But that’s not what I asked for!” Roy says, and Mrs. Taylor laughs that sweet tea laugh of hers, ladylike sounds careful never to burst out of their corsets. We kids don’t laugh. We don’t want a baby sister either.
Round and round the circle we go. Maybe if I sit completely still she’ll skip me. I stare at the frilly cursive alphabet above the chalkboard, each letter with a picture, A for apple, Z for zebra. Inspirational posters, one with a kitten dangling from a tree advising us to “Hang in There.” A bulletin board with scenes of sleds and snowmen proclaiming “Winter Wonderland.” Another board with our mitten-shaped state surrounded by water, with a cut-out of the Frosted Flakes mascot. “Tony the Tiger says The Great Lakes are Gr-r-r-r-eat!” On the far wall near our coat rack hangs a poster of John Wayne saying “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
“Children, you know Sharon’s been absent several months. You know why, right? Her father went up to heaven to be with the angels. Can you tell us about that, sweetheart?”
I stare at John Wayne, dumb.
Mrs. Taylor waits. Saunters over to me, hands on hips, bracelets jangling, her heavy lilac perfume making me stifle a sneeze. “It’s your turn now. Tell us.” Her voice shines a spotlight on me.
“I got a toy piano for Christmas,” I say.
“Oh, honey. That’s not what I meant. Tell us about your daddy.”
I don’t want to. But I can’t tell her that. I can’t say anything.
“Do you feel sad?” Mrs. Taylor asks, her jeweled reading glasses dangling around her neck, her voice tinged with age and a lingering Southern accent, like so many people I know, Midwestern transplants from Appalachia.
“Yes,” I finally say, because I can tell that’s the right answer. I don’t really know how I feel, but now I would call it numb. I don’t cry, and I know this disappoints people, so I try. I owe them that. Envelopes with cards and money arrive in the mail, their charity making me feel poor.
In the story I tell myself about returning to school for the first time, my father’s premature death turns me into a tragic children’s book character. Think Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, James and the Giant Peach. My daughter Ella tells me it’s a cliché to begin a children’s book with a parent dead on the first page, it happens so much. The authors seem to be telling their readers, “Count yourself lucky. At least you’re not an orphan.”
Likely my second-grade teacher, by spotlighting me, was trying to get me to open up, to acknowledge my feelings, as part of the grieving process. I am sure she meant well. But what it felt like to me then was that she was trying to say to the rest of the class, “Stop complaining you didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas. At least you’re not her.”
The story I didn’t tell my class, about what I got for Christmas, goes like this.
My family doesn’t have enough money or space for such an extravagant gift, but I’m delusional. I want a grand piano. I don’t specify, secretly expecting an upright. On Christmas morning I unwrap a tiny instrument. Light enough to lift with one hand.
I didn’t ask for a toy.
I leave my mother and the afterschool snacks she placed on the table, then climb up on my flimsy piano bench, still near the Christmas tree. “It’s not real,” I say to no one. Then I stomp and break the leg, my breath coming quick and shallow and loud. Finally, I’m able to cry.
Sharon Harrigan’s work has appeared in the New York Times (Modern Love), Virginia Quarterly Review, and Narrative. She received the Joyce Horton Johnson Award from Key West Literary Seminar and the Kinder Award from Pleaides, as well as fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hambidge. A graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University (BA) and Pacific University (MFA), she teaches memoir writing at Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her husband and children. This essay is an excerpt from her memoir, Playing With Dynamite.
I met Sharon one Saturday morning in late September at Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia after dropping a writer off at the train station who had been at Porches writing retreat. We talked about Playing With Dynamite, a memoir about her father who died in a mysterious and bizarre accident when she was seven.
Sharon: It’s cool to be talking to you because I was at Porches when I made the final edits on the book. It was my last opportunity to make any changes so it felt like it was high stakes and I better get it right. I felt very emotional and raw and needed to feel in a safe place and not have the outside world intrude. I needed to be in a writing cocoon where I could focus and Porches was the perfect place for that.
Trudy: Thank you. Well, I have to say that Playing With Dynamite pulled me in from the very first page. And one of the things that intrigued me was that for years you were afraid to ask questions or talk about your father.
Sharon: Yes, at the beginning of the book I had lots of questions. But by the end I figured out that the most important question was why was I afraid to ask about my father and why did I think that asking about him might kill me?
It sounds irrational and ridiculous to say that as an adult but I did feel that. I hoped that after I did all the research and talked to all the people I could and fill in the blanks then maybe I would understand on an intellectual level what I was afraid of. At the beginning of the book the only thing I understood was the emotional part, the fear of that seven-year-old. I forgot what triggered that fear as I grew into an adult, but my body remembered it, the feeling of “don’t do this because something bad might happen if you do.” I didn’t know why. I had to get beyond the place where I was stuck in a seven year old’s mind.
Trudy: Was there a particular moment when you got past this feeling that if you asked about your father something bad would happen?
Sharon: A number of things happened. One was I saw my son’s parallel path, how he was dealing with his own father, my ex-husband. And I could see myself better by watching him. I saw his fears and anxieties. They allowed me to better see my own. The other thing that happened was when my daughter turned eight I saw myself as an eight year old too. When I was eight, I was dealing with my father’s death which was fresh. Both of my children allowed me to see myself better through them.
Trudy: You write, “When I went looking for my father, I found my mother instead.”
Sharon: That’s been one of the most gratifying experiences. My mother has never been someone who talked about herself very much; she was self-effacing and like a lot of women in her generation probably felt that her story wasn’t that important. The men were the ones who went off and did the exciting things. I was really grateful to get in through the back door–as she was telling me about my father, she told me about herself and I think maybe she might not have done it if I had just asked directly. That was something I didn’t expect and it was definitely a bonus. In many ways it’s become my mom’s book. And it’s important to me that she feel it’s authentic and true.
Trudy: Did it change your relationship with your mom?
Sharon: Yes, and one of my take-aways is that if we say things that make people uncomfortable or bring up stories that people don’t want to talk about, then bad things might happen. But what I hadn’t thought about is that sometimes talking about those things makes good things happen. That was certainly the case. We became closer.
Trudy: How did you balance truth and family privacy?
Sharon: I think this is hard for anyone who writes memoir. Asking about my father did turn out to be risky but it was a different kind of risk than what I had thought. I found out that I was the one playing with dynamite. As writers we all do, but especially memoir writers. We blow things up. So in that way I am my father’s daughter.
Trudy: Did you start taking risks as a young woman to feel close to your father? To identify with what you’d remembered of him?
Sharon: Maybe, though I didn’t know that at first. We all have stories we tell about ourselves and the story that was told about me was that I was cautious. That I was the nice one. If you think of “nice” as someone who is demure and does not shake anything up, does not rock the boat, that’s actually not me. I’m rocking the boat by writing this book which is not just affecting my life but so many other people’s lives. And in that way I am my father’s daughter.
Trudy: You write “the truth is a moving target.” Will you talk a little about this?
Sharon: Another thing my book became about was the fact that everybody has a different truth. I started off with this idea that I was going to find out about my father and of course everybody has a different perspective and views him from their limited knowledge of him. Sometimes people told me different things about the same story. Or sometimes a different emotional reaction to the same things. My mother knew things that I should have remembered and didn’t. My brother and I remember things differently. I hope people connect to this experience and see that the truth is a moving target in their family too. I think learning that is a way to understand each other better. Maybe the thing you’re holding a grudge about is something you’re not remembering right. Maybe if you realize your version is not the only version, you can give that grudge up.
We decide that something happened a certain way. This is our truth and we carry it with us. And we carry around these truths without questioning them. Kirkus Reviews said that my book is about how the unreliability of memory affects our understanding of family and that is definitely one of its main themes.
Trudy: The first line of your book is: “When my father took my six-year old sister on a trip to kill a deer, the deer killed him.” You create this kind of mythical quality about the deer. And the accident.
Sharon: The story about the deer became my own personal myth. For the first time in my life I live where deer run into my yard. They still seem strange and magical. They might as well be zebras.
Trudy Hale, Editor
An excerpt from Sharon Harrigan’s, Playing With Dynamite, will be published in this magazine Friday, Oct. 6th.
Sharon Harrigan’s work has appeared in the New York Times (Modern Love), Virginia Quarterly Review, and Narrative. She received the Joyce Horton Johnson Award from Key West Literary Seminar and the Kinder Award from Pleaides, as well as fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hambidge. A graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University (BA) and Pacific University (MFA), she teaches memoir writing at Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her husband and children.
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