Summer Quarterly – Sand (Summer 2015 / 15.17)
Artist, Bernard Heise, lives near sandy shores most of the time and sometimes captures them on camera. The above photo was taken at Muriwai Beach on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
R. Jay Slais
Coming in to Being Out
I no longer need to worry
about the moon or Venus,
about a lifetime yearning tranquility.
I have no love songs for the ghost
waiting to imprison me at night.
Yours or mine, some friend’s love
always seems to be going astray.
All the impossible noises lie still here
kept in the bubble of my inner space,
I hide a million muted thoughts inside.
The exact weight my foot might take
to impress the sand is eventually erased
by the ocean and will be forgotten
only after the tide fully retreats
revealing there will be no afterthought.
R. Jay Slais lives in Washington, Michigan. His publications include poems at Boston Literary Magazine, The Pedestal Magazine, Poets/Artists, and Press 53, 53 Word Story winner. He has had two Sundresses Best of the Net nominations and is the author of a chapbook, Mice Verses Man, (2010 Big Table Publishing).
The Magic of Certainty
Orville was stretched out on a Jeep’s bonnet under a blaze of stars, aiming his M-16 at imaginary targets in the sky. His wife’s last letter fell of the bonnet and hit the desert’s sand. His chubby face wore a constant scowl that hardened into a mean grimace after he had read: “Don’t be angry now, but I’m in love with Denzel and we’re going to have a baby.”
Denzel was Orville’s cousin.
Orville’s parched, low, revengeful laugh cracked like gunshots.
“Get off that damn bonnet,” the CO finally said, after Orville’d been out there for an hour. “I said get down. God damn it, Jackson, move!”
Our base sometimes got mortared.
When Orville didn’t respond, the CO hissed: “If you don’t get off that friggin’ Jeep, I’ll friggin’ blow you off it myself.”
Orville’s head turned slowly, his body still, his plump scowl illuminated by flares-graceful, dazzling descents against night’s blackness on the other side of the wire.
“Ohhhh, don’t worry, sir,” Orville said, his whispering growl indicating how far he had gone around the Black Bend, “someone’s gettin’ their ass blown away for sure-and it sure ain’t gonna be me.”
Orville became more washed by certainty’s froth than any atheist or believer I’d ever met. I was convinced I’d seen something mystical, like the aurora borealis, surrounding his face in the glow of those flares.
Someone now gripped by the fate of blowing away The Unfaithful Old Lady couldn’t get greased in some stupid war. Orville was the Crazy, Blessed Dude maddened with gaining justice back home. And because that twisted agenda made us believe that there was no chance of him getting killed in some war, we all wanted to travel in his humvee. We started taking turns, all of us feeling Orville’s protecting magic that hit the ceiling when a vehicle travelling behind his humvee got wrecked by a roadside bomb.
“You lucky fucker,” we said, when someone got the seat beside the magic man.
The Great Mystery wasn’t going to let someone-with his destiny-get a scratch. We were convinced, like something written in stone. Special perception radiates from death’s proximity, your strobe-light senses dormant under daily life’s sameness. We could now detect what radar couldn’t. Death made us metaphysicians capable of smelling good and bad luck-and bad luck at home had smeared “good luck” all over Orville in the war.
In Ramadi, a cell-phone-detonated bomb exploded two yards from Orville just as he stepped behind a tree. The blast’s wind got split by the trunk, Orville left unscathed in a half-yard-wide, ten-yard-high rectangle of still air, killer wind shooting by him on both sides, swirling up clouds of dust.
“See,” he said. “I’m heading back to eliminate the unwanted.”
His low cackles swirled in the base’s brown dust, mixing with the desert’s aridity.
Later, when I got transferred away from that magic, I felt the shiver again of the unknown future. If you must know what’s coming next, war murders you. I was a short-timer: now even the desert’s sands could rise up and strangle me; the wind could become deadly gas. Birds could now drop bombs on me. Even the kids looked like killers hooked on retribution.
I released the mother of all exhalations on the plane as it took off to get me out. The pilot asked us if we wanted to do a quick detour over where we’d been based and everyone screamed: “No fucking way!”
One guy leapt out his seat with wild amazement, screaming: “Get the fuck outta here!”
The sand I brought back from the war sits in an hour glass on a shelf in the living room. That sand makes me love home. I sometimes turn up that hour glass, the sand’s irrepressible descent resembling death’s inevitable approach, and imagine a lunatic, with his arid-squint grin, pumping cartridges into a shotgun on a dark, dog-howling night in a Tennessee backwater. I can hear the gun being snapped shut. I can see the shooter’s bitter eyes.
Then imagination stops as the sand whispers into alleviating silence, and I stop seeing things I now don’t need to see.
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq, and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes fine wine, art, photography, and bullfighting, which probably explains why this Australian from Perth lives in Madrid, although he wouldn’t say no to living in a French château. 115 of his stories have been accepted by 76 different magazines.
Clawing wet sand,
“golden castle” in mind,
I find an old dog tag
that says Paul–
grit beneath my nails
like your skin
after the drunken night
you stole my virginity
I toss it out to sea.
Among Laurie Kolp’s publications are the 2015 Poet’s Market, Pirene’s Fountain, contemporary haibun online (cho) and Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet. Laurie’s first full-length poetry collection, Upon the Blue Couch (Winter Goose Publishing), is now available on Amazon. Learn more about Laurie here: http://lauriekolp.com.
The Summer James Brown Died
Samantha is faking a back injury. I’m pretending I don’t know she’s faking.
Beautiful days floating in the pool.
She’s collecting disability—hurt on the job— lifting a quilt.
I’m laid off from the power plant, collecting unemployment.
Checks appear in our accounts as if by sorcery.
We’re living back home with my parents. We are having the best summer.
Great ohhhhhhhm of pool filter. Lemon sun. Coconut lotion. Just watch where you step. Every time I walk onto the sand around the pool, I step in cat shit.
Dad did this strange thing: he buried an above ground pool about three quarters of the way. And around the pool he put beach sand. Must’ve been six tons of sand. Middle of a residential development, all this sand. Now the inside/outside cats for miles use it for their own litter box. “What did the quilt look like?” Mom asks.
“Purple, with bright butterflies,” Samantha says.
“How much did it weigh?”
“Gotta watch out for those ones.”
Mom pours a cup of coffee and goes to work. She’s the only willing participant left on Earth’s work force.
My father weeps whenever his pager goes off.
Got a phone call the other day.
Kyle said, “Got a job, could use a hand.”
“Doing what?” Out the window, I see Samantha do a dive off the roof of the shed into the water. “Ah never mind, I can’t do it anyway. I’m booked.”
“Thought you were laid off?”
“I am. But Samantha is faking being crippled. It’s sweet. She wants to spend time with me.”
Kyle hung up first.
We live in shadow. Basement. Damp floor, and echoey drip-drop of water falling somewhere. Their TV upstairs, a drone. We’re artists, saving the cardboard boxes from our 30 packs of beer to build an art-installment-castle. Duct tape is all we need. I have a mattress on the floor. We’re not picky.
“Sometimes I feel like a pinball just ricocheting through life.”
“Keeps the blood moving.” Samantha rests her sunburnt face on my sunburnt belly.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“By then, I hope your parents will have bought a nicer house. This one sucks.”
The detector keeps chirping.
But everyone knows that a basement cannot burn down.
An orange cat wiggles through the fence. We watch it piss in the sand.
“How do you stop that?” she says.
“You can’t stop anybody from doing what they want to do.”
“They could get a dog.”
“They already have to take care of us.”
Samantha never complains about the sand getting in her bathing suit. I think she likes it. I think she’s into light BDSM.
She says, “All the benefits of getting fucked at the beach, without the hassle of being devoured by a shark or engulfed by jellyfish.”
As I cook hamburgers on the barbecue, a letter arrives from the Disability Office.
“They want to see you for an evaluation.”
“You free tomorrow?” I ask, flipping the burgers. “It’ll be an excursion. Get us away from this soft paradise.”
“Mos def,” she says, sucking in air, flopping violently off her purple raft.
Next day, we walk the two miles to the bus station and buy a ticket and take a bus all the way from the shore to the city. She’s been working there two years. I can’t believe how long of a ride it is.
“You do this every day? Wow this sucks.”
“It’s painful,” she says, pinching me.
Out the window is a billboard for cheap flights to Iceland.
“I do it for you.”
In NYC, we take a train to Harlem and walk down 125th street and there’s this crazy line.
People on the line look real upset. There’s even a lady in a satin dress, crying. The line keeps moving.
And then I notice that we might be in the wrong line. Number on the building isn’t matching up. But the line is going so quick. Then we’re inside, and it’s a really beautiful theatre. There’s a sign: Apollo Theatre.
There’s music. I FEEL GOOD starts to play.
We’re in a line to see James Brown. He died a few days before and we didn’t even know it.
But there he is in his casket. He looks pretty good for being dead.
As good as a dead person can get, I imagine.
“Apollo Theatre and James Brown!”
“Can cross that off our list now!”
At the Disability Office, I sit in the waiting room while she goes inside an office and talks to an investigator.
In the Disability Office waiting room, I’m eying up a vending machine across the room. There’s a candy bar I want. I stand with simulated great pain that the other people don’t notice. I shuffle to the vending machine and with a series of writhing screeches and gasps of broken-bone discomfort, put my quarters in and buy my PayDay.
After the Disability Office, Samantha and I get drunk in Central Park and decide to make six babies when her back is better and she’s working again and I have a job again at a power plant somewhere. We decide that the kids are going to live in the trees around the neighborhood and clean up the cat shit by the pool.
“The first kid can live in the cardboard castle we have in the basement!”
“I’m so into that.”
“After that, children in the trees. Coming down from the branches, bringing us beers, telling us they love us, chasing off the cats.”
On the bus ride home, she reveals the investigator’s line of questioning:
Q: How did you get injured? A: Super Heavy Purple Butterfly Quilt.
Q: How much did the quilt weigh? A: It was wet. So, uh, 6 pounds.
Q: When do you expect to be able to return to work? A: When summer is over and it gets too cold to swim in the cat shit pool.
Bud Smith is the author of two novels, F250 (Piscataway House, 2015) and Tollbooth (Piscataway House, 2013), and the forthcoming novella I’m From Electric Peak (Artistically Declined, 2016). His stories and poems have appeared at Smokelong Quarterly, Word Riot, decomP, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Juked, and others. He is also the author of the poetry collection, Everything Neon (Marginalia 2014), and the short story collection, Or Something Like That (Unknown Press, 2012). He works heavy construction in New Jersey and lives in New York City. www.budsmithwrites.com
The Difference Between Restraint and Gravity
(After “Juggler” by Richard Wilbur)
Grant Hier is the recipient of the 2014 Prize Americana for Untended Garden (Forthcoming 2015) and the 2014 Nancy Dew Taylor Prize. His writing will be anthologized in Human and Inhuman Poems (Knopf/Everyman 2015) and Anthology of Los Angeles Short Fiction (Red Hen Press 2015). He is Professor and Chair of Liberal Arts at Laguna College of Art and Design.
Felicia Mitchell on Kelly Cherry’s Twelve Women in a Country Called America
Twelve Women in a Country Called America by Kelly Cherry
Press 53, 2015
12 stories, 232 pages
We all read for different reasons, I understand, but I like fiction to expand my consciousness at the same time it sends me deep inside my own psyche. Because that is what I require with fiction, something both transcendental and grounding, my palate needs tempting. If I am going to suspend my disbelief long enough to spend time with imaginary people, I want something good. With Kelly Cherry’s Twelve Women in a Country Called America (Press 53, 2015), a collection of short stories, I never wavered once. I read each story with delight.
The stories are not just about the twelve women. They are about their children, husbands, partners, mothers, lovers, jobs, loneliness, madness, glee, and exultation. They are about the houses and towns they live in and the history that casts shadows on their faces. I especially like how the women serve as catalysts for broader stories and themes. The range works well, with character types tiptoeing past stereotypes to reveal deeply complex characters. Nothing is superficial in these narratives with psychological complexities adroitly framed within various American-themed plot lines.
The stories, perfectly composed, are engaging with their appealing layers of plot and theme. As Lee Smith said in praise for this collection, Cherry is a “master storyteller who writes about people we recognize in a style so easy we’re surprised to find ourselves suddenly in deep, deep water.” This reference to deep, deep water calls to mind-layering. Layering means that we are invited into a web of meaning within an otherwise straightforward narrative. This layering makes these stories longer than they appear on the page, and it is what made them stick in mind when I set this book aside to turn to another.
One intriguing way we find women in these stories is within relationships with others, relationships in which boundaries blur and role shifting occurs. For example, Jeanne in “Au Secours” offers an ambivalent narrator inside the head of a woman handicapped by an abusive husband who returns from prison in time for her to learn another lesson about the fine line between love and hate or between self and other. The husband Lucas meets an end that seems fated as we read flashbacks from Jeanne making sense of the present in her handicap-accessible trailer, where she idealizes her husband at the same time she unleashes “an anger so purely itself that she does not see how it can be any part of herself” (73).
In “The Starveling,” there is Calista, who lives with and supports Connie, who wants to be a writer. When Calista talks to Connie about his poems that do not seem to be succeeding, along with the relationship that is not succeeding, she says that “maybe people get to have a destiny only as long as there’s a demand for it” (199). Ironically, it is Calista who moves past Connie and chooses to write after deciding that making and selling earrings is no more sustainable than a relationship with Connie. The story closes with her “wondering if life was inherently ironic” (203). This story shows that maybe it is.
Unexpected unions that change characters make for memorable stories too. Georgianna Starlington, a former beauty queen whose talent had been “field stripping the M-14” (80) intrigues us in “Famousness.” This story about Georgianna is also about Hodder, a man with PTSD whose life is touched by this woman who gives him a reason to live after attempting suicide. Georgianna, with Hodder’s faith in her, does manage to get to Hollywood, after giving up on getting out Mississippi. She moves on, remembering a love she could not exactly call a love after Hodder tries suicide again. In another ironic twist, Georgianna, because of the way shame deepens her features after Hodder’s death “gave her a hesitancy that was gentle and grave” (108), remains beguiling on the page and after we put the story down.
There are also complicated family networks in which women appear. History and its lessons reveal that history, like family, can be complicated. In “Will Fitts Finds Out,” which is the story of Will and his mother Plummy, we see Plummy coming to terms with a family secret as Will discovers it and questions what it means. This secret, which invites us to reflect on legacies, is assimilated within the family narrative via the grace of a high school teacher rather than rejected and hidden. This act of grace allows Will and Plummy to make sense of family systems that produce people who, like well-rounded characters, are always bigger than the sum of their parts, and sometimes kinder. The secret, rather than destroying her, makes Plummy a more devoted mother. She thinks of her son, wanting “him to become a happy man, without recesses of sadness, without anger or cynicism, true to himself and others” (21-22).
Just as we find characters negotiating close relationships, we see at times how isolation can wreak havoc. There are women alone, some so alone they are, as divorced June is in “Autumn Garage,” a little crazy, with a luminescent fantasy of an alien love juxtaposed with housecleaning: “FAYETTE VILLE RESIDENT ELOPES TO MARS” (214). Mrs. Womack, Edith in “The Piano Lesson,” stars in a story about a spinster who implodes one lonely Thanksgiving when her only company is a student who does not want to miss a lesson. This story touches on the repercussions of rejection, with Mrs. Womack crazed by a man who ran out of her house when he saw her post-surgery chest, as Jessie saw it, “dented, like a fender” (139). The contrast between the world-weary Edith and the naïve Jessie invites a meditation on the interplay of innocence and experience.
I loved each and every story but will resist summarizing more. At the same time I should note that others who read the stories will see other nuances of meaning, which is what happens with great stories. There are layers and layers within Twelve Women in a Country Called America, stories that can be read easily for their appealing plots or their psycho-social insights or both. With both straightforward narratives holding up complex plot lines and finely wrought figurative elements, they draw us in. These stories are wonderful, better than any potato chip I ever ate, I will admit.